ROBERT W. BROCKWAYTHE ROOTS OF NEW AGE
body. The story tells of his descent, his trials, and of his eventual ascent back to his original heavenly state. It was therefore a soterial tale, symbolic of the salvation of the soul. It was also a story which implied that there are two divine states, one a lower form that, through a process of emanations, becomes ever more entangled in the phenomenal world of time/space. Beyond, however, there is a transcendent sublime divinity which is pure light and truth. The story is a metaphor of the process of initiation and enlightenment, the overcoming of “ignorance,” by which Gnostics meant mental and spiritual involvement in transient materialism. Enlightenment is realization of the spark of the divine within the soul.
Whether or not the Hermetic Texts are properly classified as Gnostic in origin is open to debate because they differ somewhat from the standard Gnostic writings. However, if distinct, they are very similar in theme. There were many Gnostic sects and circles, essentially small groups of mystics or priests, and the Corpus Hermeticum may have been authored by one such circle. It is chiefly significant to historians of religion because it is one of the few collections of Hellenistic writings which have survived.
Many adherents of New Age have been influenced by Gnosticism. The latter is a theological approach which emerged in Alexandria, Egypt and elsewhere in the Near East during the first centuries of the Christian Era. The term gnosis (γυόσισ) meaning “knowledge” or “wisdom” is akin to the Sanskrit jñaña, one of six Hindu philosophical schools. By “wisdom” and “knowledge” is meant revelation, and not knowledge or wisdom in the intellectual or humanistic sense. Gnosticism is a revealed religion.
Gnostics held that the material world of time/space is of an inferior order created by a Demi-Urge or inferior deity. Beyond the Demi-Urge is a transcendent, supreme being who, however, has become trapped in the fallen world. There is a spark of this divinity in every human being, possibly in all forms of life. Gnosticism is a religion of salvation based on the attainment of light and purity, and liberation from the world. There were Jewish, Christian, and Pagan Gnostics in the Ancient Near East. The movement was repudiated by rabbinical Jews and suppressed by Christian bishops such as Irenaeus. However, the Pagan forms of Gnosticism persisted marginally in some places. There is a surviving Gnostic religious community called the Mandean in northern Iraq which still preserves some of the archaic traditions.
Certain aspects of Gnosticism flourished in Manichaeanism, a syncretic religion which had adherents from North Africa to China during the fourth and fifth centuries C. E., but which died out completely. There were also Gnostic elements in the beliefs of the Bogomils of Bosnia, the Cathari of Northern Italy, and the Albigensians of Provence in southern France during medieval times. These movements were suppressed by the Moslems in the case of the first, and by Christians in the case of the Cathari and Albigensians. According to C. G. Jung, certain aspects of Gnosticism also persisted in medieval and renaissance