In transcribing the following material from The Reader, an interesting, unfortunately short-lived intellectual magazine of the 1860s, I have used the Hathi Digital Library Trust web version of a copy in the Princeton University Library. The full-text version is generally accurate, and the most common OCR error here takes the form of turning the letter “e” as “o.” I corrected the scanning errors, and for ease of reading I have added a few paragraph breaks. If you come upon any errors I have missed, please do not hesitate to inform the editors of this site. — George P. Landow

Decorated initial T

he name Gnostic has been used with vagueness both in ancient and modern times. It was applied generally to a variety of religionists who, in the first ages of Christianity, endeavoured to bend the doctrines and traditions of the new religion to their own philosophical views. The word "gnosis," or science, had been introduced, it is said, by Pythagoras, who is reported to have termed the transcendental portion of his doctrine [Greek words], the knowledge of essences. At a later period the Oriental schemes for explaining the origin and constitution of the universe were designated simply [Greek word], a term corresponding to our word science, with this immense difference, that we mean by science the knowledge of the creation derived from observation and induction, while the gnosis meant knowledge based on the arbitrary and visionary explanations of certain ancient teachers. There seems to have been several such schemes in vogue — one, for instance, of Egyptian origin, another of Persian, and another of Indian. The propagators of those speculative views in the Roman world, witnessing the phenomena of the rising Christianity which was ever gaining strength and importance around them, endeavoured to find a niche in their systems for the highly concrete doctrine of the Jewish Messiah. They reduced the venerated personalities of the Jewish and Christian religions to subordinate beings in their comprehensive hierarchies. From the Christian point of view this procedure was heresy — a perversion of Christian doctrines by unworthy disciples, who, having received a Divine revelation, now endeavoured to modify it according to their own ambitious fancies. Modern divines like Beausobre and Walsh have treated the Gnostics in a similar way — that is, as Christian heretics — and upon this view no intelligible explanation of their ideas was possible.

The so-called Gnostic systems must be treated as independent schemes of religion and philosophy prior to and apart from Christianity, and their origin must be sought in the old religions of Egypt, Persia, and India. The true relation of Christianity to these so-called heresies will then become apparent. The apostolic and earlier Christian writers retorted upon the religionists of the day the treatment to which these endeavoured to subject Christianity. They sought to make it appear that the Messianic history was the reality, to which the visionary schemes of the followers of Zoroaster, Plato, and Buddha, were subordinate. In doing this they adopted much of the terminology of the several schools; and the affair ended in popular or patristic Christianity becoming a compound of the plain and intelligible doctrine of a universal Jewish monarchy with the philosophical and hierarchical systems of Egypt, India, Persia, and Greece.

The excellent treatise of the learned Frenchman Matter ("Histoire Critique du Gnosticisme"), published a quarter of a century ago, first treated the subject in a luminous manner; but the progress of philological and antiquarian research has since afforded the means of obtaining far more extensive and accurate information upon many points than was then possible. Mr. King has taken, as the foundation of his work, the materials collected by M. Matter, but dissents from that learned writer in certain of his conclusions. The plan proposed by Mr. King was, he tells us, first to review the grand religious systems of the East flourishing at the time of the establishment of Christianity in those regions, and their necessary influence on the modes of thought and expression both of its missionaries and of its first converts; next, by the testimony of the apostle to the Gentiles himself, to establish the existence of all the germs of the gnosis in those cities which were the scenes of his most important labours. This admirable design is, we regret to say, but very imperfectly carried out, and Mr. King's work is little more than a collection of materials for such a treatise as that which he contemplated, and which, he tells us, unfortunate circumstances have prevented him from executing according to his intention.

Mr. King considers that M. Matter is in error in representing the systems of the various heresiarchs of the first centuries as novel developments of ideas borrowed from the Persian Zend-avesta and the Jewish Cabala. He maintains that the doctrines of Valentinus, the most notable Gnostic heresiarch, but Buddhism, and that, in the history of the first four centuries of the Church, everything that was denounced as heretical may be traced up to Indian speculative philosophy as its genuine fountainhead.

Next in importance to India as a source of Gnostic opinion Mr. King places Egypt, which, locally, was unquestionably the region where these ideas found their chief nidus. The Persian or Mithraic element comes next. Valuable as are the materials which Mr. King has brought together, much remains to be done before the subject can be considered as properly elucidated. The Egyptian religion, which entered much more largely into the Gnostic system than Mr. King seems to suppose, is here only superficially treated; and the section on Egyptian deities is one of the most unsatisfactory in the whole book. Mr. King devotes a considerable space to the Abraxas gems or talismans, of which he gives a number of valuable drawings; and, in fact, we suspect that the possession of an unusually rich cabinet of those curiosities has been the main cause of tho production before us. In the explication of the symbolic figures of the Gnostics and of the legends which accompany them Mr. King does not throw any additional light, and the whole of this subject deserves and requires fresh investigation. A Gorman scholar — Bellermann — many years ago attempted the interpretation of several of the most common legends, which he explained partly from the Coptic, partly from the Hebrew or Syriac. Few of these explanations appear to us at all probable. The interpretation of the word "Abraxas " is an example of superficial etymology. Bellermann explains this from the Coptic Ab or Af, let it be, Rak, adore, and Sax for sadshi, name. Now Rak does not mean "to adore," and sadshi does not mean "name;" and, besides this, the real word of which the etymology was to be sought is not "Abraxas," but " Abrasax." It is so spelt on every gem that we have ever seen and in ancient manuscripts, and how the spelling "Abraxas" got vogue is not very clear. It ought, at any rate, now to be banished out of any scientific treatise upon this subject; and to found an etymology upon a well-known misspelling is absurd in the highest degree, even if the derivation were not defective on other grounds. The old remark that the letters of the word " Abrasax" make up, according to the numeral values affixed to them by the Greeks, the number 365, is more likely to point at the true origin of this mystic name. It may be merely an Alexandrian — that is, Greek — invention after all. It is found, indeed, in Egyptian papyri of late date hieroglyphically written; but this is hardly enough to prove that the word is of Egyptian origin. It must be admitted, "however, that, if it be merely a numerical combination of letters of the Greek alphabet, it loses its significance entirely when written in the Egyptian characters. On the whole, we consider the derivation and meaning of this mystical word to be completely unknown. The names of the Aeons of Valentinus are said to be Syriac. Mr. King gives a list of them, taken from Epiphanius. The spelling is very corrupt, and it is difficult to recognise the words for which they are meant; nor does Mr. King afford us any assistance. The Gnostic baptismal formula given by Irenaeus is corrupted in a similar way. A little trouble would have reduced these formulas into intelligible Hebrew. Many of the common words on the gems are systematically misread by Mr. King — as, for instance, the formula Ablanathanabla, which reads backwards and forwards the same, but which Mr. King always metamorphoses to Ablanathanabla—thus destroying the symmetrical arrangement of the letters. Bellermann has explained this from the Hebrew Ah lanu atha, thou art our father; and we have the authority of a magical papyrus preserved in the British Museum for the word being a Hebrew one. The word [Greek word] which very frequently occurs, and which, from a passage in the Pistis Sophia, appears to bo the name given in the Ophite theology to the genius of the planet Mercury, is written defectively [Greek word] by Mr. King, who adopts Bellermann's explanation from the Coptic. According to this the word means a secret prize, and denotes a symbol given to the neophyte upon his admission into the fraternity. This is quite wide of the mark. Whatever be its derivation, there can be no doubt that it is a proper name of an Aeon or spiritual power. Alexander Trallianus gives a charm for the cure of the gout in which this power is invoked. A critical list of the legends and magical names occurring on the Gnostic gems, expurgated from false readings, is still a desideratum, and is indispensable before any sound conclusion can be drawn as to their derivations. The Pistis Sophia throws some light upon several of the names of spiritual powers, and, as almost the only existing original work belonging to the Gnostic systems, ought to have been consulted.

Gnosticism of some kind or other has always survived, and lives even to the present time. Freemasonry, though not exactly the lineal descendant of any Gnostic sect, has yet borrowed mauy of the ideas and symbols of these ancient religionists. "At first sight," says Mr. King, "it is altogether startling to recognise so many Gnostic and primitively Indian symbols, retaining apparently their original sense, amongst the insignia and illustrated formulas of our Freemasons; and in itself it gives a colour to their claims to the most venerable antiquity. But the pleasing illusion vanishes when we investigate the mode of their descent; and the order, though claiming them as its legitimate inheritance, turns out at the last “a mere daw in borrowed plumes.” Mr. King adopts the view, for which we know no earlier voucher than Lessing, that Sir Christopher Wren was the real founder of modern Freemasonry, and that the name of masons assumed by this secret society rests upon the accidental circumstance of their first meetings being held in the common hall of the London guild of Freemasons, to which body Wren belonged. The real object of the society was political — the restoration of the monarchy, whence the secrecy enjoined on the members. The pretence of promoting architecture, and the choice of the place where to hold their meetings, suggested by the profession of their president, were no more than blinds to deceive the government. Into this society some devotees of the old Rosicrucian doctrines and students of the mystical lore of alchemy and astrology crept; and their doctrines, which had really descended from antiquity, were adopted by the Freemasons, and received a new life.

"The best supported history of the rise of Rosicrucianism," says Mr. King, "points out for its founder a Lutheran mystic divine, J. V. Andrea;, Almoner to the Duke of Würtcmberg, early in the seventeenth century. His writings, wherein the Rosy Cross prominently figures, were beyond all doubt the first indications making known the existence of the society to the general public. But he appears to have merely borrowed the symbols and occult meaDs of communication existing already from time immemorial amongst the antique community of alchemists and astrologers (or, in other words,, all the philosophers and magnates of his day) in order to direct them towards a visionary scheme of his own—the union of all Christian secto in one universal brotherhood—and so commenced his apostleship by attempting the conversion of the most eminent of the mass. The well-meaning enthusiast had disregarded the observation of the sagacious Julian, recorded by Ammian, and confirmed by the experience of every succeeding century (ours as much as any), 'Nullas infestaa hominibus bestias ut sunt sibi ferales plerique Christianorum expertus.' Naturally enough, his scheme of universal brotherhood dissolved in air as soon as established ; but the older philosophy bloomed with renewed vigour under the fresh organization and euphonious name."

The Rosy Cross adopted by Pastor Andrere as the symbol of his new order was the well-known badge of the ancient Knights Templars, whose order had been suppressed in 1307 on account of charges of heathenish belief and practices which have a strong affinity with those of the Oriental Gnostics. Now, considering the immense influence that this order had once had throughout Europe, it is probable enough that many of their ideas survived long after the dissolution of the body. On the whole, there is nothing improbable in the view that the old Gnostic traditions preserved in the East should have been imbibed by the Templars during the Crusades; that, after thoir suppression, their doctrines should have been secretly cherished by isolated devotees; that, on the promulgation of the Rosicrucian scheme, the depositaries of the old ideas should have flocked to the new society, which, after a brief career of existence, itself became merged in a London club, founded for a political purpose, but which has continued to hold together long after that purpose has disappeared.

The reader will find in Mr. King's book an abundant collection of interesting and valuable materials, and, putting etymology apart, we believe his views to be generally sound. The grand problem, the exact influence of Buddhism upon the Western religions, is, after all, left very insufficiently explained, and the derivation of the names of ancient Egyptian deities, such as Isis, from Indian roots, requires to be supported by some stronger argument than the mere resemblance of sound. We will not positively affirm that "Isa," a name occurring in Indian mythology, cannot be the source of the name Isis; but, if it be, we must attribute to that mythology an antiquity far beyond that for which any evidence at present exists.


“Literature: The Gnostics.” The Reader: A Journal of Literature, Science, and Art. (December 1864): 696-97. London: “Published at 112, Fleet Street.” Hathi Digital Library Trust web version of a copy in the Princeton University Library. 25 July 2016.

Last modified 26 July 2016