Heathen Gnosis: A Not Quite So Brief Basic ExplanationPosted by VI
NOTE: This was originally written on my Tumblr as a response to a question on there. As such the html may come out funny, but this is here for larger linkage and archiving
I mentioned this a bit in a conversation with theheadlesshashasheen, catvincent and bearofthesouth which emerged from a picture of Aion. You can find that discussion here – have a read for a basic run-through.
Now, a bit of background here to provide context. I am, amongst other things someone who’s been mucking about with at first, and then seriously studying magic for around 18 years. I was always fascinated about how the universe worked – I was originally going to to go to university to study physics, but the prospect of 4 years of crunching numbers put me off, so instead I looked for something that asked Important Questions and got a degree and did postgrad study in Philosophy.
(Philosophy is important. We’ll come back to it, but perhaps not for the reasons you might think.)
I mention this, because for me, Magic(k) was not only about getting the cool stuff, but about seeking the Mystery of existence. Makes me sound like a ponce, but I’m a curious little bugger. I did some work with the lwa who very kindly helped me out but after a bit told me I should go find my ancestors and that’d be best.
Long story short, I ended up Heathen (Norse flavour hard polytheist), with Odin, Freyja and Loki taking an interest. Which is to say, I work for them, but my relationship with the Old Man is such that while I eschew standard Heathen terms such as fulltrui, or [gods]man, you could use Odin’s Man as a descriptor.
I say this because I make no claims to speak for the Old Grey Wolf. I do not claim to be One Eye’s representative. I am no priest of the Hanged God. But I am one of his, whatever that means.
(“Learn every trick you can.” he says with a flash of bone-white smile, and turns to keep walking over all the worlds.)
Draugrdrottin is he, lord of the Restless Dead. Grimnir, the Masked One. Burden of Gunnlod’s arms. Drinker from Mimir’s Well, as tears of blood burn down that ancient face, welling up from his raw, empty eyesocket. Sacrificer of self to Self.
All this we know, we who hear the old tales, and listen with our hearts. All this we know, the greed for knowing, the roaring fury of Being, here and now.
God of Wisdom. Fetterer and Loosener. Master of Fury.
So I am asked, why Gnosis? Why seek-after-knowing? So I am asked, why raise my head, hoary with the rime of questions?
Simple. There is no alternative.
These then, are interesting because they equate soul with breath. While at first glance this may seem merely metaphorical, let’s remember something here:
17. Then from the throng | did three come forth,
From the home of the gods, | the mighty and gracious;
Two without fate | on the land they found,
Ask and Embla, | empty of might.
18. Soul they had not, | sense they had not,
Heat nor motion, | nor goodly hue;
Soul gave Othin, | sense gave Hönir,
Heat gave Lothur | and goodly hue. – Voluspa, Adams transThen from the host three came,Great, merciful, from the God’s home:Ash and Elm on earth they found,Faint, feeble, with no fate assigned themBreath they had not, nor blood nor senses,Nor language possessed, nor life−hue:Odhinn gave them breath, Haenir senses,Blood and life hue Lothur gave. – Voluspa, Taylor & Auden trans.
So, it’s obvious that the breath-as-soul is a common concept. Who else, but the Father of Inspiration (which itself is a modern synonym, for life, breath and creativity) would poke me in this direction?
Classical Gnosticism, of which there were many schools, also had a very important point regarding gnosis:
The distinction between faith (pistis) and knowledge (gnosis) is a very important one in Valentinianism. Pistis, the Greek word for faith denotes intellectual and emotional acceptance of a proposition. To the Valentinians, faith is primarily intellectual/emotional in character and consists accepting a body of teaching as true.
Knowledge (gnosis) is a somewhat more complex concept. Here is the definition of gnosis given by Elaine Pagels in her book The Gnostic Gospels: “…gnosis is not primarily rational knowledge. The Greek language distinguishes between scientific or reflective knowledge (‘He knows mathematics’) and knowing through observation or experience (‘He knows me’). As the gnostics use the term, we could translate it as ‘insight’, for gnosis involves an intuitive process of knowing oneself…
Yet to know oneself, at the deepest level is to know God; this is the secret of gnosis.”(The Gnostic Gospels, p xviii-xix) Bentley Layton provides a similar definition in The Gnostic Scriptures: “The ancient Greek language could easily differentiate between two kinds of knowledge... One kind is propositional knowing – the knowledge that something is the case (‘I know Athens is in Greece’). Greek has several words for this kind of knowing-for example, eidenai. The other kind of knowing is personal aquaintance with an object, often a person. (‘I know Athens well’; ‘I have known Susan for many years’). In Greek the word for this is gignoskein…The corresponding Greek noun is gnosis. If for example two people have been introduced to one another, each can claim to have gnosis or aquaintance of one another. If one is introduced to God, one has gnosis of God. The ancient gnostics described salvation as a kind of gnosis or aquaintance, and the ultimate object of that aquaintance was nothing less than God” (The Gnostic Scriptures, p 9).
Faith corresponds to the intellectual/emotional aspect of religion while gnosis corresponds to the spiritual/experiential aspect. Valentinians linked the distinction between pistis and gnosis to the distinction they made between psyche and pneuma. The psyche (soul) was identified by them with cognitive/emotional aspect of the personality (the ego consciousness). The pneuma (spirit) was identified by them with the intuitive/unconscious level. The psyche was seen as consubstantial with the Demiurge while the pneuma was consubstantial with Sophia (and hence with God). Both the psyche and pneuma were capable of salvation. Psyche was saved through pistis while pneuma was saved through gnosis. Hence they distinguished two levels of salvation: psychic and pneumatic.
The psychic level of salvation was characterized by conversion (metanoia) and faith (pistis). This corresponds to receiving oral and written teachings since the psyche “requires perceptible instruction”. (Irenaeus Against Heresies 1:6:1). Herakleon describes the psychic level of salvation as “believing from human testimony” (Herakleon Fragment 39). Through pistis and psychic salvation, one attained to the level of the Demiurge. In order to be saved the person had to freely chose to believe and to do good works (Irenaeus Against Heresies 1:6:2). The psychic level of salvation was decisive in that it opened the person to the possibility of attaining the pneumatic level. – Source, emphasis mine
“[W]anting for someone what one thinks good, for his sake and not for one’s own, and being inclined, so far as one can, to do such things for him” – Rhetoric.
So Philosophy is a love for Wisdom, a kind of love as exists between soldiers, bands of friends and other such. In certain theology of some Gnostic schools, it is Sophia who actually makes the mistake which creates the Demiurge, who creates the Archons while believing himself to be the Creator of All. Without getting into the ins and outs of the various schools, it is Sophia who also indirectly inmplants in humans the knowledge of their true Nature so that they can rise beyond the restrictions of the Demiurge. For the Christian Gnostics, Sophia was in a sense the ‘bride’ of the Christ, who rather than being the son of God-as-Demiurge, was sent directly from the One-Which-is-All.
It should be noted that the One was not describable, nor was it precisely God as the Abrahamic faiths would have it. Indeed some schools equated the Abrahamic God as the deluded or blind Demiurge.
Now for the Christian Gnostics, the appearance of Christ meant literally that he would bring about the Kingdom of Heaven. As to what that means, suffice to say that for them by following the teachings of the Gnostic schools, which were supposedly transmitted by Jesus, they would achieve a change in consciousness which enabled them to be free from the Demiurge and the Archons. This has, to a certain extent, a similarity to Hindu Moksha and Buddhist Nirvana/Enlightenment.
It’s also interesting to note that Christ is Greek for ‘the annointed’ raising the prospect of multiple Christs of which Jesus was simply one. This may sound odd, until one recalls that the antecedents of Gnosticism did not spring out a solely Christian milieu, but were borne of a cross-pollination of pagan and magical technologies going back to Neoplatonic, Platonic, and pre-Socratic ideas.
And here’s where we turn to a particular Pre-Socratic philosopher – Heraclitus.
ποταμοῖσι τοῖσιν αὐτοῖσιν ἐμϐαίνουσιν, ἕτερα καὶ ἕτερα ὕδατα ἐπιρρεῖ.
Potamoisi toisin autoisin embainousin, hetera kai hetera hudata epirrei
“Ever-newer waters flow on those who step into the same rivers.”
Or, as Plato writes it:
“πάντα χωρεῖ καὶ οὐδὲν μένει” καὶ “δὶς ἐς τὸν αὐτὸν ποταμὸν οὐκ ἂν ἐμβαίης”
Panta chōrei kai ouden menei kai dis es ton auton potamon ouk an embaies
“Everything changes and nothing remains still … and … you cannot step twice into the same stream”
From what I’ll call for ease, an Odinic perspective – and indeed a general Heathen one, we are reminded of the fury of which the Old Man is master. From another, we are presented with a world of flux and change which despite our best efforts and attempts at control, ends in our doom, that is our fated meeting with death. Yet the Old One whispers in the ears of corpses, and summons up the souls of long-dead volvas to learn the secrets of the kosmos.
From the Havamal, Auden translation:
Cattle die, kindred die,
Every man is mortal:
But the good name never dies
Of one who has done well
Cattle die, kindred die,
Every man is mortal:
But I know one thing that never dies,
The glory of the great dead
In my experience, it is this mortality which causes much fear – much accquisitiveness, and indeed the blind denial of death by modern society is, in a sense, an echo of the classical Gnostic Demiurge which claims total authority in spite of such a thing being a lie.
Our Heathen forebears knew the world was full of many types of beings, and that change and mortality came even to gods. In the study of magick unification of opposites is an important signpost.
Classical Gnosticism, as written of by its detractors (which comprised much of what was known about Gnosticism until the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Codices in 1945) seems to present a dualistic perspective – that of a spiritual/soul realm which is apart from the world which serves as a prison or fallen realm. This has much in common with, and may be influenced by the dualism of Manicheism and Zoroastrianism.
However, when we consider this dualism with a Herclitan-Odinic perspective, we can start to realise that the dynamic tension between two apparent opposites is the important thing. It leads to creatitivity, inspiration, and to a certain extent liberation from the things that restrict us in life. I’ve often said that the Old Man is a god of non-duality. He’ll switch ‘sides’ as it suits him – what matters is the battle, the struggle, the furious change. The dynamic creative principle.
As Heraclitus says:
There is a harmony in the bending back (παλίντροπος palintropos) as in the case of the bow and the lyre.
From my perspective, there is a primordial gnosis, a way of knowing-as-active-principle which can only be described through the awareness that we live in a kosmos of roaring daimonic flux. In this kosmos, there is a tension between what one might term Geist and Seele (my initiator is a German native speaker influenced by amongst others, Ludwig Klages, who’s deeply interesting if you can get past the endemic 19th-early 20th Century antisemitism).
Broadly speaking, Geist (translated as Spirit) is the principle of separation and negative intellectualism which has humanity hold itself apart from the kosmos. It is also present in the tendency towards logocentrism – the need to define, reduce and render experience into a discrete particular form. Is that which maintains description is absolute. That which cannot be described or categorised is regarded as irrelevant. It leaves little room for liminality and actively seeks to control and regulate change. It is fond of hierarchy and imposition of structure. One might envisage it as the presiding principle of the Outer Church in the Invisibles, or the constructor of the Black Iron Prison or Palmer Eldritch in the work of Philip K Dick.
Seele (translated as Soul) is thusly the creative-vital principle, equated by me here with the breath given to mankind by Odin. It is thusly that which flows, in distinction to Geist’s discrete particulate preference. It is once again interesting to note the etymology of Soul here:
soul (n.1) “A substantial entity believed to be that in each person which lives, feels, thinks and wills” [Century Dictionary], Old English sawol “spiritual and emotional part of a person, animate existence; life, living being,” from Proto-Germanic *saiwalo (cognates: Old Saxon seola, Old Norse sala, Old Frisian sele, Middle Dutch siele, Dutch ziel, Old High German seula, German Seele, Gothic saiwala), of uncertain origin.
Sometimes said to mean originally “coming from or belonging to the sea,” because that was supposed to be the stopping place of the soul before birth or after death [Barnhart]; if so, it would be from Proto-Germanic *saiwaz (see sea). Klein explains this as “from the lake,” as a dwelling-place of souls in ancient northern Europe.
sea (n.) Old English sæ “sheet of water, sea, lake, pool,” from Proto-Germanic *saiwaz (cognates: Old Saxon seo, Old Frisian se, Middle Dutch see, Swedish sjö), of unknown origin, outside connections “wholly doubtful” [Buck]. Meaning “large quantity” (of anything) is from c.1200. Meaning “dark area of the moon’s surface” is attested from 1660s (see mare (n.2)).
Germanic languages also use the general Indo-European word (represented by English mere (n.)), but have no firm distinction between “sea” and “lake,” either by size, by inland or open, or by salt vs. fresh. This may reflect the Baltic geography where the languages are thought to have originated. The two words are used more or less interchangeably in Germanic, and exist in opposite senses (such as Gothic saiws “lake,” marei “sea;” but Dutch zee “sea,” meer “lake”). Compare also Old Norse sær “sea,” but Danish sø, usually “lake” but “sea” in phrases. German See is “sea” (fem.) or “lake” (masc.). The single Old English word sæ glosses Latin mare, aequor, pontus, pelagus, and marmor.
So, in Norse lore we have Ask and Embla emerging from the sea as driftwood, to be given their faculties by the three gods, suggesting to me a link between sea, breath and soul.
Since the sea itself, both mythologically and literally (in the context of the womb and evolution of life on earth) is the source of existence of all living things, we can also notice that water flows. So we may argue that the soul itself is the mirror of the kosmos – something which is found in the magical doctrine of the microkosmos and the macrokosmos. Therefore, to perhaps echo Klages, the soul is the life-principle, and also the root of ancestral existence. This can be seen in the salt in blood, on a symbolic level. It is also not bound by the same stricture, it will assume a shape, and when no longer restricted will return to itself as water poured from a jug.
In this way we can say that the path of the Soul enables us to make an ancestral connection to the kosmos, surrounded also by the souls of our ancestors, and also contributing to them. It is also for this reason that I work heavily with the dead and landwights – since while they are not identical to my form of current existence, they still possess kind of-Soul-vitality which connects us. It is also why I believe the Well and the Tree to be recurring motifs in Norse lore – the three wells, and in particular Urd’s well being heavily associated with wyrd, which itself implies a level of connectivity and entanglement which seems alien to modern eyes.
Yet for all that, the “battle” betwixt Soul and Spirit is not one of annhilation. Rather, if one is able to infuse Spirit and its acts within our lives and spheres of influence with Soul, one achieves a creative potency which means that the Spirit becomes, rather than a feared stranger, a welcome guest at the feast of existence.
But, as with the Old Man in general, it’s not a path for everyone – to rediscover one’s Soul is to walk a path which ultimately leads to lonely wonderings and wandering in the dark, no matter the spiritual weather.
It requires recognition that the uninfused, unrefined Spirit dwells everywhere about us and within us – implanted in us from day one, and reinforced by society. It requires a dedication to gnosis which can only be described as hungry and fierce. Yet for all that, as with Odin, it must be undertaken with awareness of love and sacrifice – for the gnosis sought by the Hanged God also brought awareness of his own death, as well as enabling survival for others. For while the Terrible One is fierce in in his fury, he is also fierce in kindness, and in his role as a healer – one who makes whole.
I hope that answered some questions. I am of course, happy to answer more.