Reflections on Teaching Gnosticism Week 8: Rituals and the Divine Feminine

Classes at my university (York in Toronto) have been suspended for the past week due to a strike by the teaching assistants and part-time instructors. Undaunted, I put together a Youtube video of my lecture so that the class could continue with relatively little disruption. The assigned readings from the textbook covered three topics: rituals relating to the Five Seals and death, martyrdom, and the Divine Feminine.

Ritual practices can be difficult to retrieve from texts. Consider, for example, Christian practices. A typical liturgy today contains various readings, prayers, responsories, and credal formulas derived from the New Testament (and sometimes the OT) but they were not intended to be used liturgically, so we could read these texts and not expect them to necessarily reflect early Christian practices. The Lord’s Prayer and the Eucharist are exceptions; both of these show signs that they were used in liturgy; so they have a liturgical existence both before and after the texts. What do we have in Gnosticism?

The Gospel of the Egyptians may be a handbook to Gnostic liturgy, specifically to the Five Seals ceremony. We have two other witnesses to this ceremony: the Trimorphic Protennoia and Irenaeus’ description of Valentinian (Marcosian) practice. My original goal of the class was to re-enact these three descriptions of the ceremony. We weren’t able to do that, so my Youtube video guided the students through the texts and considered what they may or may not tell us about the ceremony.

A hypothetical reconstruction of the complete ceremony of the Five Seals from Gos. Eg. is presented in the textbook, but I simplified it into a few basic movements: 1. introduction of the three heavenly powers (40,12–43,8), 2. five emanations and doxologies (IV, 58,23–59,29; IV 60,30–III 50,17; 50,17–54,11; 54,11–56,22; 60,2–62,12), 3. Seth establishes baptism (63,23–66,8), 4. baptismal hymn (66,8–68,1). After each of these stories of the emanations, presumably told by an officiant, the doxology would be sung by the initiates or the congregation. The ceremony culminates in the baptism. We get the reading of Seth establishing baptism and a listing of “those who are brought in and go out.” This may be the actual baptism ceremony, perhaps again recited, which begins: “There appeared to them the great attendant Yesseus Mazareus Yessedekeus, the living water.” Water is mentioned here and we would expect it in baptism, but the Five Seals ceremony may not have literally involved water. The recitation ends with the Baptismal Hymn. Halfway through it we get a note “in another voice,” providing a hint to how this hymn is meant to be delivered. Is the first section to be spoken by one reader, and the second by another?

There is still a lot we do not know about the liturgy. Where would it have taken place? In a house-church? Outside? How many people would be involved in the ceremony? Is everything read out by one officiant, or do one or more people sing out each of the hymns? Did the ceremony involve water? Or could other materials be involved? Was there music? We simply do not know.

Other Sethian texts may preserve other aspects of the Five Seals ceremony, including portions of the Secret Book of John, Zostrianos, and the Trimorphic Protennoia. It was my intention to have the students work with a portion of the Trimorphic Protennoia (45,2–48,25) which appears, again, to be liturgical. And we were going to look at one other witness to the ceremony: Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1:21.3, which describes the practices of a Valentianin group known to him: the Marcosians. Irenaeus needs to be used with care, but he does provide more information about the Five Seals ritual than we find in the primary texts. He reports that water is involved after all, and it appears that the ceremony takes place out doors (“a place where water is”). Jesus is invoked much more than in the Sethian texts, which may have been secondarily Christianized and thus may reflect better the rituals in their pre-Christian forms than Irenaeus does, and we get a sense of how the ceremony involves the initiates and the congregation: the one initiated says “I am established, and I am redeemed; etc.” and the congregation say “Peace be to all on whom this name rests.” Finally, the initiate is anointed with balsam.

Another ritual reflected in the gnostic texts is the death ritual known as “redemption.” The textbook goes into considerable detail about views on death, martyrdom, and resurrection. The Treatise on the Resurrection, in particular is mentioned because of its teaching that the “resurrection has already happened”—that is, symbolically, upon achieving gnosis, one is reborn. We already read a lot about martyrdom in Pagels’ The Gnostic Gospels, so I did not plan on discussing that topic further.

The redemption ritual, however, is new. The ritual is mentioned explicitly in only a few texts, mostly Valentinian. But it may have been practiced more widely, though not specifically referred to as “redemption.” What happens is that once the gnostic Christian experiences death, he or she will ascend up to the heavens and join the true God and the other luminaries. But his path is blocked by a host of demonic entities that seek to keep him from reaching his goal. The redemption ritual arms the Gnostic with the requisite passwords to move past each of these demons. In my Youtube lecture I brought attention to the Tripartite Tractate’s mention of the ritual (124, 3–25) and how it seems to be portrayed in 1 Apoc James, where the Risen Jesus appears to James and comforts him about his coming martyrdom and instructs him on how to ascend to the heavens (30,16–32,28). The textbook brought my attention also to Gospel of Thomas 50, which seems also to be a witness to the process of ascent. Finally, I noted once again, what Irenaeus tells us about the death rituals of the Marcosians (Against Heresies, 1.20.5).

The last topic discussed in the lecture was the text Thunder: Perfect Mind, about which the students had to write a short paper. I provided an overview of where this very popular text appears in popular culture—including music (Current 93, Nurse with Wound, Tulku), film (Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, 1991), and novels (by Umberto Eco, Toni Morrison, and Leslie Marmon Silko). I then added to the video the six-minute short film made in 2005 by Jordan Scott (daughter of Ridley Scott) to promote the launch of Prada’s first perfume.

In form, Thunder: Perfect Mind is very much like the Greek identity riddles—a well-known form in the ancient Mediterranean world. In this type of riddle, a person or personified object describes itself paradoxically; the solution of the riddle is the speaker’s identity. I provided a few examples of such riddles:

What goes on four legs in the morning, on two legs at noon, and on three legs in the evening? Answer: humans.

No one seeing me sees me, but one who does not see beholds me.
One who does not speak speaks; one who does not run runs.
And I am a liar, yet say all things true.
Answer: a dream.

A human being begot me, and my father is supernatural.
He calls me Life, and I bring him death.
Answer: Eve.

This last of these examples is most appropriate for Thunder since the solution to its long riddle also is Eve. This is apparent in parallels to portions of Thunder in On the Origin of the World (114, 4–24) and the Hypostasis of the Archons (89, 16–17), both of which use the material to refer to Eve, and also in Epiphanius, Panarion 26.3.1, which attributes a portion of the text to a “Gospel of Eve.”

The remainder of the class was to be a discussion of their papers on Thunder, and perhaps the students will feel inspired to add some comments about the text here. I finished the video lecture with a modern take on a similar juxtaposition of roles from Thunder: Perfect Mind in the 1997 song “Bitch” by Meredith Brooks (she sings, I’m a bitch, I’m a lover/ I’m a child, I’m a mother/ I’m a sinner, I’m a saint”).

Hopefully classes will resume Monday and we will get back to business as usual. If not, I’ll be spending a lot of time on iMovie again this weekend.

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