When the Mysteries
The thirteen codices discovered in Upper Egypt in December, 1945, have come to be known as the Nag Hammadi Library (NHL), after a village on the west bank of the Nile River. On the same side of the river, about 20 miles south, is the Temple of Hatshepsut, scene of the terrorist massacre of tourists in November, 1997. It is believed that the perpetrators came from the desolate hill country where the rare codices were found. When I visited the region in February 1999 on tour with the Marion Foundation, intense security measures were in effect. I proceeded from Luxor up the river to Dendera, site of the ancient temple of Hathor, in an armed convoy, accompanied by two dozen soldiers with sub-machine guns at the ready.
Strangely, scholars do not refer to the Ptolemaic temple of Hathor at Dendera, located a mere stone's throw from Nag Hammadi. From the roof of the temple you can look over the dramatic bend of the Nile and see right across to the cliffs of Jabal al-Tarif where the codices were hidden. The nearest town to the cave, Hamra Dun, is too small to merit notice, otherwise these long-lost texts would be called the Hamra Dun library. Hamra Dun is the Arabic place name for the older Coptic name Chenoboskian, "refuge of wild geese," and behind that name is another, the Egyptian place name, Sheniset, “the acacias of Seth,” indicating an association with the Gnostic sect calling themselves Sethians.
The proximity of Dendera to Hamra Dun is remarkable, but as far as I know no scholar has noted it. According to the current consensus, the Nag Hammadi "library" is supposed to have come from the monastery of Pachomius, a retreat of Coptic Christian monks that was located at Tabinnisi on the East bank, as shown on the map. "Its pioneering founder, Pachomius, had set up a rule to unite disparate and solitary people within a community whose practice of strenuous labor involved a strict, almost military discipline." (Tobias Churton, The Gnostics, p. 3. Map also from Churton.) It is presumed that someone from this motley crew threw together the thirteen leather-bound packets, stuffed then in a red clay jar, and hid them in a cave in the hillside. Based on examination of the “cartonnage,” dated letters and accounts contained in the bindings of the codices, experts have determined that the scrolls must have been concealed in the cave between 345 and 348 CE. The date is nicely precise and, perhaps by coincidence, corresponds within a year to the death of the master monk, Pachomius.
Hidden in 345 CE. By whom? Why? For what future purpose? No one knows.
Scholars who propose the Coptic monastery theory to explain the origin of the texts fail to mention that the settlement of Pachomius, established around 300 CE, was a meagre affair compared to the Dendera complex, constructed 500 years older on foundations that date back to 5200 BCE. The Temple of Hathor was a late Ptolemaic construction on an ancient sacred site, Tentyrs, regarded as the birthplace of Isis. If Isis may be considered the equivalent to the Virgin Mary of Christianity, Hathor was the Egyptian Eve. Her rites were prehistoric and indigenous to the lost Sudanese cultures that long predated the Hollywood-style cult of Osiris. Hathor was a wisdom goddess, like the Sophia of the Gnostics. Her cult celebrated ecstasy, healing, and mystical communion with the cosmos.
Perhaps among the "disparate and solitary people" who took refuge at the Pachomian monastery were some Gnostics fleeing persecution or worse. I think it is equally likely, however, that the Coptic codices came from Dendera, or they may have arrived among the monks through some association with diehards of the cult of Hathor and Horus celebrated there.
Every temple in Egypt had its own library, and Dendera was no exception. Sacred texts were kept in special rooms at the inside of the entrance, so that priests could select a text and then proceed to the appropriate part of the temple complex to read or (more likely) recite it. True, there is no explicit indications of Hathor-related material in the NHL, but there are clear astronomical allusions. Dendera was known for its sacred Zodiac, one of the most spectacular artifacts of ancient wisdom to survive intact. Star lore was important to the cult of Hathor, and Gnostics were reputed from the earliest times to have been skilled star-gazers. The 1st century historian Josephus (Jewish Antiquities I, 2.3) reports the long-standing tradition that "the children of Seth were looked upon as being the first teachers of astronomical science." (Plunkett, Calenders and Constellations of the Ancient World, p. 20) Jacques Lacarriere (The Gnostics, p. 31ff.) considers sky-lore to be the original matrix of their knowledge system.
I cannot read Coptic, but with help from some world-class Gnostic scholars at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, I have gotten to the point where I can grope through it. It is an awkward, compounded language with little scope for lofty or complex expression. After a few years with my nose buried in the codices, rather like a pig rooting for truffles, I had the vivid impression that I was looking at a kind of shorthand. Coptic was initially invented by Egyptian priests (Pagans) to preserve the pronounciation of spells written on amulets they sold. It uses a modified version of Greek letters and characters borrowed from Demotic to denote sounds that occur in ancient Egyptian but not in Greek. The result is a stilted idiom that does not lend itself to philosophical expression. It seems to resemble the stenographic shorthand used to record court proceedings.
Not the best medium for preserving the lofty teachings of Gnostic initiates in the sunset moment of Egyptian civilization.
My impression of the the Coptic codices of Nag Hammadi is that they are translations from hurried notes, and, to a large degree, incompetent notes, taken down in Greek by students of the Mysteries — perhaps students attached to the Mystery School complex at Dendera. Greeks had been coming to Egypt to learn science and metaphysics since the days of Pythagoras, around 600 BCE. With the decline and dispersion of Egyptian civilization in the Hellenistic Age, the capacities of the student body may have been less than desirable. Yet the ages-old dissemination of Egyptian wisdom into the Greek mind might also have reached a fever pitch in the first centuries of the Common Era.
Being as it is a work of the Ptolemaic era (323 - 30 BCE), Dendera is often dismissed as too late to enshrine the pure and ancient wisdom of the Egyptians, but who is to say that the end of something cannot be as profound as its beginning? Dendera and other Ptolemaic temples such as the one at Edfu are inscribed with hieroglyphics in an astounding density, as if the last priests who could read and write the arcane texts were intent on getting down everything they could for posterity. In this atmosphere, Greek students could well have been scrambling for every last morsel of knowledge they could get, and writing some pretty scrappy notes on what the professor-priests were telling them.
If the presumed "Greek originals" were classroom notes, not terribly clear in the first place, and then were translated from Greek into Coptic by scribes who hardly understood what they were reading, it would explain the alarmingly chaotic and contradictory nature of these texts. The Nag Hammadi Library is a spiritual treasure of humanity, and it is also a muddled, mangled mess.
Here a different revelation of the Dynastic dead rises from the earth.
Within a perimeter of twenty miles lies the Valley of the Kings, the site of Tutankhamen’s tomb and others, about forty in number according to Strabo, a Greek historian of the Augustan Era (25 BCE). Half a dozen are accessible to visitors today, and there is much more to enchant the eye and entrance the mind: the magnificent temple of Hatshepsut at Deir al-Bahari, the Ramasseum with its colossus shattered like a Titan who fell to earth, the long mortuary shrines of Seti I and Ramses III, IV, IX, the tombs of many Nobles, the late temple of Ptolemy V at Deir el-Medina, the twin colossi of Memnon. All this lies on the West Bank, while on the East Bank sprawl the majestic grounds of Karnak and the temple of Luxor, called the Book of Genesis in stone by renegade Egyptologist, Schwaller de Lubicz.
Further north on the west bank lies Dendera, site of the temple
of Hathor, the Egyptian Eve. The massive sandstone structure
nestles in the crook of the Nile where the river slides eastward
before turning back at Qena, then flows due west past the southern
extremity of a huge out-cropping of rock known as Gebel-al-Tarif.
On its eastern slope, the white cliffs are pockmarked by 150
caves used as hideaways by desert mystics for centuries before
the Advent. Some caves give access to galleries where pharaonic
princes of the Sixth Dynasty (2500 BC) were entombed, but most
of them are crude grottoes littered perhaps with a few potsherds.
Steep and forbidding, the barren slopes offer no clues or lures.
The site lies in a region controlled by the Islamic partisans responsible for the massacre of fifty-four tourists at Hatshepsut’s temple in 1997. No tourist ventures to this desolate hamlet on the usual agenda, or without a strong imagination for a guide. There is nothing to be seen now of the ancient wonder that must have crowned this place, and only the snaking whisper of the desert wind hints at its mystery. Here the secret passageways to be discovered are hidden within the seeker, not the site. Here lies the troubled vortex of invisible ruins.
Ladâmes obviously intended to whet the appetites of seekers
after tangible treasures, booty that could be hauled away and
sold. When he wrote, around 1200 AD, the intangible treasure
of Nag Hammadi had been lost for 800 years. He could have had
no inkling of its existence, nor would it have tempted him. It
consisted neither of embalmed princes nor their glittering jewels.
It comprised no grandiose sanctuaries laid out on sacred proportions
and aligned to the circling stars. It was never the object of
tomb-raiders in search of quick riches. It was finally discovered,
after another 800 years, by a couple of Bedouin peasants looking
for a natural manure called sebakh. The find occurred
in the first week of December, 1945, but the thirteen codices
of flaking papyrus did not come to the attention of scholars
who were capable of assessing their significance until summer,
They died not for their sins, but for what they knew.
And so uniting in their doctrine of fear and slavery, mundane needs, and abandoning reverence, being petty and ignorant, they cannot embrace the nobility of truth, for they hate what they are, and love what they are not.
Nevertheless the persecutors will prevail, the teacher predicts, because they use war and violence to achieve their aims. Significantly, they foment “jealous division and wrath.” In Gnostic idiom, this language refers to the attitude of Jehovah, the wrathful deity, identified by Gnostics as the overlord of the Archons, the alien or ET species that attempts to deviate humanity from its proper course of evolution. Gnostics saw the power of the Archons behind Christian ideology and politics. Although “their doctrine of fear and slavery” is ludicrous, it is effective, because the Archons can exert an insinuating effect on our minds — a kind of malicious, interspecies telepathy, one could say. Compelled by a thinking process distorted by the Archons, early Christian ideologues imitated the Mysteries of the sons of light and passed off lies for truth. The Christian redeemer complex imposes “the doctrine of a dead man” in place of eternal living Gnosis.
In the views of the last generation of Gnostics, converts to
Christianity were human beings turned inside out, hating what
they are and loving what they are not. To the Gnostic mind, the
ultimate hypocrisy is betrayal of the divine intelligence in
humanity by adopting an ideology based on error.
Gnostics concerned with detecting the influence of the Archons could have conversed openly about magic spells and planetary zones with visiting sages from the far ends of the continent or India. Geographic distances cannot be viewed as divisive, for travel in ancient times was far more common and widespread than has been assumed. Until very recently, it was impossible to infer from historical narrative how the network of the Mystery Schools could have provided the context for cross-cultural dissemination. Gnosticism can no longer be exclusively identified with a few scattered cults in Egypt and Asia Minor. The end of the Mysteries was effectuated far beyond the barren slopes of Nag Hammadi. It involved the collapse of a huge loose-knit organization dedicated to the spiritual guidance of humanity.
This passage shows the other side of the situation described in the Second Treatise of the Great Seth, cited above. Here is history viewed through the eyes of the prevailing party. In a clever twist, Augustine sanctions the act of plundering but absolves those who perpetrate it from any hint of selfish motive, such as envy, jealousy or lust for power. He asserts that “the spoils of these places” are meant to serve God, just as those who created them would do when converted to “the true religion.” To secure the monopoly on God, it was necessary to legitimate the overthrow and appropriation of the pagan wisdom.
To defeat truth, it has to be diabolised. What is “other” must
be defeated by co-optation. In this sense, Christianity may be
designated an adversarial or diabolic religion — from dia-bolos,
thrown (bolos) against (dia) something else. It does not
prevail by what it offers, rather by what it overcomes. Christianity
is unique in this respect, although this is certainly not the
way it would have its uniqueness appreciated by the world at
large. From its inception, Christianity exhibited a special capacity
for overcoming everything that is other than itself. It defines
itself by what it opposes. Unable to tolerate co-existence, it
must consume. The history of the Church demonstrates this pattern
of totalitarian usurpation. In the Gnostic view typified by the
author of the Second Treatise, wrath, divisiveness, imitation
(co-optation), and enslavement of the human spirit—obvious
features of Christian imperialism— are symptoms of the
nefarious effects of the Archons. Of course, humans are capable
of this kind of behavior on their own. But they can also realize
what they are doing and correct it, thus desisting from harm.
When action goes overboard, and extrapolates beyond correction,
it is due to Archontic influence. So the Gnostics thought.
This argument achieves two things at once: it establishes the co-optation of Mithraic sacraments in Christian services, and it covers up the deed by asserting that the Devil (often identified as the author of Gnostic teachings) was mimicking Christian rites when he introduced the Mithraic liturgy. Christianity is not hijacking Mithraic religion, as so evidently appears to be the case, it is merely taking back what originally belonged to it! The expropriation identified with high specificity in the case of Mithraism was a general policy applied to the Mystery Schools and even to certain Gnostic teachings, to the extent that Christians had access to them. Armed with Tertullian’s logic, Christianity stole extensively and shamelessly from pagan religions.
The ineffable light of Gnosis feeds every
candle ever lit in
A Curse on Learning
Converts to Christianity in
the first five centuries CE were engaged in a campaign of “intellectual
cleansing.” Their general target was the pagan intellectuals
of that era, many of whom were prominent Gnostics, teachers and
trainers linked to the Mystery Schools. Because
knowledge and learning
were sacred in Gnosticism, books and libraries attached to the
Mystery Schools were prime targets for the intellectual holocaust.
In the words "even concerning the elements of this world of ours," Augustine certainly alludes to Gnostic teachings about the deviated world-system. By his time, the suggestion that the Creator God could be a monstrous alien had been buried behind a potent taboo.
As the Mystery Schools closed down, Gnostics no longer had a safe environment where they could write, teach, and confer initiation. The preparatory learning and transmission (paradosis) that took place in the Mysteries, as well as the careful and exact knowledge required for continuation of the ages-old training, was disrupted, never again to be restored. (A comparable situation might be the break-up of monastic initiatory learning with the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950.) With the suppression of Gnosis, detection of the Archontic powers operating within Christian mentality became more and more difficult.
What better way to assure the triumph of the Archon-influenced ideology of salvation than to eliminate the accomplished seers who were uniquely capable of detecting and exposing it?
Non-ordinary knowledge, the special brief for Gnostic expertise, has become extremely difficult to acquire since the Mysteries died. Even ordinary knowledge guttered out in the Middle Ages. The open forum of the Mystery Schools had provided ethical and cultural inspiration to the entire surrounding world in antiquity. The Roman orator Cicero attested that “in actual fact we have learned from them the fundamentals of life.” No wonder that their destruction took such a toll on the human spirit. As Christianity rose to power, the classical world turned into a spiritual wasteland. Millennia of learning died on the vine. Wholesale demolition of pagan literature was already well underway in Augustine’s time. A century or two later, when there were no more libraries left to destroy, Europe plunged into the Dark Ages, taking the luminous world of the Mysteries down with it into oblivion.
jll March 2005
Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2018 by John L. Lash.