Mishkan ha-Echad

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

The Purpose of the Order

"For, if one may speak of the Order as having a specific purpose, then that sublime motive is to bring each man to the perfection is his own Kether, to the glory of his own higher Genius, to the splendour of the Golden Dawn arising within the heart of his soul. And its technique is always encompassed through the uplifting of the heart and mind by a therugic invocation to Isis-Urania, the symbolic personification of the Sephiroth of the Supernal Light."

- The Three Chiefs, by Frater A.M.A.G. (Israel Regardie)

Monday, 16 February 2009

Book Review: The Gnostics

Gnosticism has become increasingly popular over recent years, with the publication of the Nag Hammadi library, the even more recent Gospel of Judas, the blockbuster Matrix films, and, of course, the infamous Da Vinci Code book and film, not to mention countless others that slip under the radar of all but those who have “eyes to see”. However, all this popularity has led to a very skewed understanding of what Gnosticism is all about – some people think it was invented by Aleister Crowley, that it was all about Jesus' relationship with Mary Magdalene, or that it was a single obscure heretical group that didn't last very long. The Gnostics, by Andrew Phillip Smith, is an accessible book that dispels these erroneous views with a thorough introduction to the history, tradition, scriptures, and influence of Gnosticism in all its facets.

The book, numbering just under 250 pages, is broad in scope, dealing with nearly all of the Gnostic groups of note from its inception two millenia ago to its revival in modern days in both an occult and ecclesiastical form. Entire chapters are devoted to the Sethians and Valentinians, the Manichaens, the Cathars, and the Mandaens, with brief mention of other smaller groups (which we sadly lack information on) in between. Other chapters deal with Gnostic mythology, psychology, praxis, and, of course, that illusive concept of Gnosis itself. Smith includes a rather sizeable chapter on the modern Gnostic revival which “brings it home”, as it were, in a way that people can relate to; works from Blake, Philip Pullman, Philip K. Dick, and other modern works are mentioned, allowing the reader to see how the transmission of Gnosis never truly died out. References, a good bibliography, and an index are also supplied, which will please anyone looking at this from an academic perspective.

It is evident that Smith is not merely a scholar in this field, but immensely interested in the traditions and texts which he studies. His enthusiasm is apparent in nearly every page of the book, and his sympathy for Gnosticism is a welcome change for Gnostics like myself, who all too often have to contend with the cruel eye of heresiological bias. However, in stating this, Smith never abandons historical accuracy or conventional scholarly practice in presenting his views. His arguments are generally solid and widely accepted throughout the academic world. One such argument is “Gnosticism is dualist”, which frequently raises the ire of modern Gnostics who vehemently disagree with the notion. Initially a Gnostic reader might bite their lip when reading this same argument coming from Smith, but it quickly becomes apparent that he has found a balance between the conventional view and the modern Gnostic one: “...classical Gnostic dualism was a dualism within unity.” Smith also takes care not to lump every Gnostic group into the same “dualistic” heading: “There is a clear distinction between absolute or radical dualism [...] and mitigated or moderate dualism, which posits a good God or good force at the beginning and culmination, at the highest point of the universe, but which acknowledges that an independent evil force or lower God has as much, or more, influence on our present world. The Sethians and Valentinians were mitigated dualists, the Manichaens absolute dualists.” While many modern (Valentinian) Gnostics might still grind their teeth at the word “dualist” being used here at all, this explict distinction between absolute and mitigated forms, so well described by Smith, goes a long way to ammending the somewhat negative usage of the word.

The Gnostics is one of the few introductory texts that covers almost the entire scope of Gnosticism, providing a true and accurate portrayal of the variety and uniqueness that comes with Gnosis through the ages. In these days when people are questioning the orthodox Christian viewpoint, hungry now for a tradition that utilises the mythology they are used to in a radically different and positive way, it is important that they educate themselves on these alternate traditions that have remained a secret for too long in this world. In light of this, this book is one of the few I would recommend to those who know little or nothing about Gnosticism, and yet even for those who actively engage in the Gnostic path, for, as Smith puts it, “the opportunities for Gnosis are greater now than they may have been for several centuries.”

The Gnostics, by Andrew Phillip Smith; Watkins Publishing (2008)

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Hermeticism & Other Paths - Is Older Better?

I'm sure many of you are familiar with the "argument" that Hermeticism is the oldest thing in existence, stemming from Ancient Egypt (or possible Atlantis before it, as some argue). Now, while I appreciate that there was more than likely a system of philosophy and practice that was dedicated to Thoth (I'm not sure about the Greaco-Egyptian hybrid of Thoth-Hermes at this time, as this seems to me to stem from Greek Alexandria, and thus would not come into play in Ancient Egypt before Greece took control), I prefer to use the Academic distinction for this as Hermetism, because we're taking a big leap of faith in saying that one (Hermeticism) is the other (Hermetism). The fact of the matter is that we simply don't know if the Ancient Egyptian Thoth cult believed the things we accept as Hermeticism today, so we can say "I personally believe they did" but not "they did", as there's no textual evidence for it. Lack of evidence is not evidence of lack is a good phrase to bring in here before anyone thinks I'm dismissing the potential that Hermeticism teaches the same tradition of the Ancient Egyptians - but I'm reluctant to make these excessively wild claims.

The Rosicrucians claim to be directly descended from Atlantis (their teachings, at least), which is a pretty mystical and far-fetched claim (where my own personal conviction is that John Dee may have been the founder of Rosicrucianism, either directly or indirectly, but more than likely influenced it if he was not). Some people argue Enochian is the language that was used in Atlantis. As far as I'm aware, Atlantis was an invention of Plato, but feel free to correct me on that. Likewise the Golden Dawn claimed to be a continuation of the old Rosicrucian movement in Germany and had Cipher Manuscripts and letters from Anna Sprengel to "prove" it - the Ciphers turn out to be real (albeit not as old as they were claimed to be), but the letters are an obvious, if understandable, forgery. Qabalah claims that its texts, predominantly from the Middle Ages, originated a good 1,000 years before that (and I would argue that there is a strong oral tradition in Judaism and thus it's likely the teachings are older than the texts, but that's it. It's "likely", not fact). Then there's the Christian and Gnostic gospels - all written way after the apostles would have died, yet predominantly claiming to be written by them. And these happens with Hermetic texts also, claiming to be written by or taught by Hermes Trismegistus, who is at the end of the day a mythical figure.

The point I'm trying to get at here is that nearly every tradition makes up an older origin to give it credence. If a prophet of Dublin was to get crucified and I was to claim to have been given a book written by one of his disciples, there'd be a stir. If I admitted that I wrote it myself no one would read it, even if it contained the actual teachings of this prophet, even if it's in the same style and tradition. People seem to think that "older" equals "more true". Is that necessarily the case?

I once argued this with someone who claimed that Hermeticism was the oldest thing in existence (I love Hermeticism, but come on). I pointed out Gnostic links in the Corpus Hermeticum and he said that he taught the Corpus Hermeticum wasn't very Hermetic. For anyone who's even vaguely familiar with this topic, I think the Hermetic nature of the Corpus Hermeticum is fairly evident. Indeed, that's where the term comes from, and that's one of the oldest sources we base our knowledge of Hermeticism on (stemming from the same time and place as the height of Gnosticism, which is probably why the Gnostics of Nag Hammadi had Hermetic texts in their library). Instead this guy argued that the Kybalion is what he saw as more Hermetic. I pointed out that it was roughly 100 years old and he tried to backtrack.

Ancient Alexandria was a hot-spot for many different traditions. It was the centre of a deep philosophical and esoteric "mingling", where ideas were given and absorbed, and this is the place where Gnosticism saw its peak. Indeed, this is also the place where we get the Hermetic Corpus from. And, let's not forget that the name "Hermes" is a Greek name. Hellenistic Greece was a mixture of Greek and Egyptian (and Jewish, for that matter), and Hermes Trismegistus is a mixture of Hermes (the Greek god) and Thoth (the Egyptian god). Even the language of Coptic, which so many of these texts were written in, was Egyptian written in Greek. It was, in my opinion, almost inevitable that new traditions representing bits and pieces from other ones would arise from this meeting and merging of paths. The two dominant ones I can see from this era are Gnosticism and Hermeticism.

Thus, I propose that these are actually sister traditions, and come from a common stream, which is why it's so easy to inter-relate the two, why both seem to espouse and support each other's teachings. In a sense, the Hermeticists did exactly what the Gnostics did, but decided to do it devoid of Judaeo-Christian mythology (in much the same way as the Jewish Gnostics tried to omit any reference to Christian mythology).

This kind of "everything started in Ancient Egypt" argument is, I believe, sorely lacking, yet more and more people seem to use it without understanding much about it or where it came from. There are many who claim Christ was taught by a priest of Osiris, for example, and various other "it goes back to Egypt" claims. While some of these might be true, we need to make the necessary distinction between what may be and what is. The Hermeticism/Hermetism of Ancient Egypt might have been. The Hermeticism we know today is, and just because it's only 2,000 years old doesn't make it any less beautiful and valuable and true.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

For Those Who Are Thus Negligent

"As the Oracle therefore saith: God is never so turned away from man, and never so much sendeth him new paths, as when he maketh ascent to divine speculations or works in a confused or disordered manners, and as it adds, with unhallowed lips, or unwashed feet. For of those who are thus negligent, the process is imperfect, the impulses are vain, and the paths are dark."

- The Chaldean Oracles, translated by W.W. Westcott

Sunday, 1 February 2009