Abraxas, the Gnostic Teachings, and the Origins of Freemasonry
The hypothesis which seeks to trace a connection between Gnosticism and Freemasonry, and perhaps even an origin of the latter from the former, has been repeatedly advanced, and is therefore worthy of consideration. The latest instance is in a work of Mr. C. W. King, published in 1864 under the title The Gnostics and their Remains, Ancient and Medieval.
Very justly has Mr. Hughan called this work of King's, so far as its Masonic theories are concerned, one of an "un-Masonic and un-historic character." But King, it must be admitted, was not the first writer who sought to trace Freemasonry to a Gnostic origin.
In a pamphlet published in 1725, a copy of which has been preserved in the Bodleian Library, among the manuscripts of Dr. Rawlinson, and which bears the title of Two Letters to a Friend.
The First concerning the Society of Free-masons. The Second giving an Account of the Most Ancient Order of Gormogons, etc.
We find, in the first letter, on the Freemasons, the following passage:
But now, Sir, to draw towards a conclusion; and to give my opinion seriously, concerning these prodigious Virtuosi; My belief is, that if they fall under any denomination at all, or belong to any sect of men, which has hitherto appeared in the world, they may be ranked among the Gnostics, who took their original from Simon Magus; these were a set of men, which ridiculed not only Christianity, but even rational morality; teaching that they should be saved by their capacious knowledge and understanding of no mortal man could tell what.
They babbled of an amazing intelligence they had, from nobody knows whence. They amused and puzzled the hair-brained, unwary crowd with superstitious interpretations of extravagant talismanic characters and abstruse significations of uncommon Cabalistic words; which exactly agrees with the proceedings of our modern Freemasons.
Although the intrinsic value of this pamphlet was not such as to have preserved it from the literary tomb which would have consigned it to oblivion, had not the zeal of an antiquary preserved a single copy as a relic, yet the notion of some relation of Freemasonry to Gnosticism was not in later years altogether abandoned. Hutchinson says that:
… under our present profession of Masonry, we allege our morality was originally deduced from the school of Pythagoras, and that the Basilidian system of religion furnished us with some tenets, principles, and hieroglyphics.[i]
Basilides, the founder of the sect which bears his name, was the most eminent of the Egyptian Gnostics. About the time of the fabrication of the High Degrees on the continent of Europe, a variety of opinions of the origin of Masonry - many of them absurd-sprang up among Masonic scholars. Among these theorists, there were not a few who traced the Order to the early Christians, because they found it, as they supposed, among the Gnostics, and especially its most important sect, the Basilidians.
Some German and French writers have also maintained the hypothesis of a connection, more or less intimate, between the Gnostics and the Masons. I do not know that any German writer has positively asserted the existence of this connection. But the doctrine has, at times, been alluded to without any absolute disclaimer of a belief in its truth.
Thus, Carl Michaeler, the author of a Treatise on the Phoenician Mysteries, has written some observations on the subject in an article published by him in 1784, in the Vienna Journale fur Freimaurer, on the analogy between the Christianity of the early times and Freemasonry. In this essay, he adverts to the theory of the Gnostic origin of Freemasonry.
He is, however, very guarded in his deductions, and says conditionally that, if there is any connection between the two, it must be traced to the Gnosticism of Clement of Alexandria, and on which simply as a school of philosophy and history it may have been founded, while the differences between the two now existing must be attributed to changes of human conception in the intervening centuries. But, in fact, the Gnosticism of Clement was something entirely different from that of Basilides, to whom Hutchinson and King attribute the origin of our symbols, and whom Clement vigorously opposed in his works.
It was what he himself calls it, "a true Gnostic or Christian philosophy on the basis of faith." It was that higher knowledge, or more perfect state of Christian faith, to which St. Paul is supposed to allude when he says, in his First Epistle to the Corinthians, that he made known to those who were perfect a higher wisdom. Reghellini speaks more positively, and says that the symbols and doctrines of the Ophites, who were a Gnostic sect, passed over into Europe, having been adapted by the Crusaders, the Rosicrucians, and the Templars, and finally reached the Masons.[ii]
Finally, I may refer to the Leland MS., the author of which distinctly brought this doctrine to the public view, by asserting that the Masons were acquainted with the "facultys of Abrac," by which expression he alludes to the most prominent and distinctive of the Gnostic symbols.
But, before we can enter into a proper discussion of this important question, it will be expedient for the sake of the general reader that something should be said of the Gnostics and of the philosophical and religious system which they professed. I propose, therefore, very briefly to reply to the questions: What is Gnosticism? Who were the Gnostics?
Scarcely had the light of Christianity dawned upon the world before a multitude of heresies sprang up to disturb the new religion.
Among these Gnosticism holds the most important position the title of the sect is derived from the Greek word Gnosis, "wisdom or knowledge," and - was adopted in a spirit of ostentation, to intimate that the disciples of the sect were in possession of a higher degree of spiritual wisdom than was attainable by those who had not been initiated into their mysteries.
At so early a period did the heresy of Gnosticism arise in the Christian Church, that we find the Apostle Paul warning the converts to the new faith of the innovations on the pure doctrine of Christ, and telling his disciple Timothy to avoid "profane and vain babblings, and oppositions of science, falsely so called."
The translators of the authorized version have so rendered the passage. But, in view of the greater light that has since their day been thrown upon the religious history and spirit of the apostolic age, and the real nature of the Gnostic element which disturbed it, we may better preserve the true sense of the original Greek by rendering it "oppositions of the false gnosis."
There were then two kinds of Gnosis, or Gnosticism - the true and the false, a distinction which St. Paul himself makes in a passage in his Epistle to the Corinthians, in which he speaks of the wisdom which he communicated to the perfect, in contradistinction to the wisdom of the world.
The false Gnosis to which the Apostle refers is the Gnosticism which is the subject of our present inquiry.
When John the Baptist was preaching in the Wilderness, and for some time before, there were many old philosophical and religious systems which, emanating from the East, all partook of the mystical character peculiar to the Oriental mind. These various systems were, then, in consequence of the increased communication of different nations which followed the conquests of Alexander of Macedon, beginning to approximate each other. The disciples of Plato were acquiring some of the doctrines of the Eastern Magi, and these in turn were becoming more or less imbued with the philosophy of Greece.
The traditions of India, Persia, Egypt, Chaldea, Judea, Greece, and Rome were commingling in one mass, and forming out of the conglomeration a mystical philosophy and religion which partook of the elements of all the ingredients out of which it was composed and yet contained within its bosom a mysticism which was peculiar to itself.
This new system was Gnosticism, which derived its leading doctrines from Plato, from the Zend-Avesta, the Cabala, the Vedas, and the hieroglyphs of Egypt. It taught as articles of faith the existence of a Supreme Being, invisible, inaccessible, and incomprehensible, who was the creator of a spiritual world consisting of divine intelligences called aeons, emanating from him, and of matter which was eternal, the source of evil and the antagonist of the Supreme Being. One of these aeons, the lowest of all called the Demiurge, created the world out of matter, which, though eternal, was inert and formless.
The Supreme Father, or First Principle of all things, had dwelt from all eternity in a pleroma or fullness of inaccessible light, and hence he was called Bythos, or the Abyss, to denote the unfathomable nature of his perfections. Dr. Burton, in his able exposition of the Gnostic System in the Bampton Lectures, states:
This Being by an operation purely mental, or by acting upon himself, produced two other beings of different sexes, from whom by a series of descents, more or less numerous according to different schemes, several pairs of beings were formed, who were called Aeons, from the periods of their existence before time was, or emanations from the mode of their production. These successive Aeons or emanations appear to have been inferior each to the preceding; and their existence was indispensable to the Gnostic scheme, that they might account for the creation of the world, without making God the author of evil.
These Aeons lived through countless ages with their first Father. But the system of emanations seems to have resembled that of concentric circles, and they gradually deteriorated as they approached nearer and nearer to the extremity of the Pleroma.
Beyond this Pleroma was matter, inert and powerless, though co-eternal with the Supreme God, and like him without beginning. At length one of the Aeons (the Demiurge) passed the limits of the Pleroma, and, meeting with matter, created the world after the form and model of an ideal world, which existed in the Pleroma or the mind of the Supreme God.
It is not necessary to enter into a minute recapitulation of the other points of doctrine which were evolved out of these three. It is sufficient to say that the old Gnosticism was not an original system, but was really a cosmogony, a religion and a philosophy which was made up of portions of the older Grecian and Oriental systems, including the Platonism of the Greeks, the Parsism of the Persians, and the Cabala of the Jews.
The advent of Christianity found this old Gnosticism prevailing in Asia and in Egypt. Some of its disciples became converts to the new religion, but brought with them into its fold many of the mystical views of their Gnostic philosophy and sought to apply them to the pure and simple doctrines of the Gospel.
Thus, it happened that the name of Gnosticism was applied to a great variety of schools, differing from each other in their interpretations of the Christian faith, and yet having one common principle of unity-that they placed themselves in opposition to the conceptions of Christianity as it was generally received by its disciples. And this was because they deemed it insufficient to afford any germs of absolute truth, and therefore they claimed for themselves the possession of an amount of knowledge higher than that of ordinary believers.
The Rev. Dr. Wing states:
They seldom pretended to demonstrate the principles on which their systems were founded by historical evidence or logical reasonings, since they rather boasted that these were discovered by the intuitional powers of more highly endowed minds, and that the materials thus obtained, whether through faith or divine revelation, were then worked up into a scientific form, according to each one's natural power and culture. Their aim was to construct, not merely a theory of redemption, but of the universe - a cosmogony.
No subject was beyond their investigations. Whatever God could reveal to the finite intellect they looked upon as within their range. What to others seemed only speculative ideas were by them hypostatized or personified into real beings or historical facts. It was in this way that they constructed systems of speculation on subjects entirely beyond the range of human knowledge, which startle us by their boldness and their apparent consciousness of reality.[iii]
Such was the Gnosticism whose various sects intruded with their mystical notions and their allegorical interpretations into the Church, before Christianity had been well established. Although denounced by St. Paul as "vain babblers," they increased in strength and gave rise to many heresies which lasted until the 4th century.
The most important of these sects, and the one from which the moderns have derived most of their views of what Christian Gnosticism is, was established in the Second Century by Basilides, the chief of the Egyptian Gnostics. The doctrine of Basilides and the Basilidians was a further development of the original Gnostic system. It was more particularly distinguished by its adoption from Pythagoras of the doctrine of numbers and its use and interpretation of the word “Abraxas” - that word the meaning of which, according to the Leland MS., so greatly puzzled the learned Mr. Locke.
In the system of Basilides, the Supreme God was incomprehensible, non-existent, and ineffable. Unfolded from his perfection were seven attributes or personified powers, namely:
6. Holiness, and
Seven was a sacred number, and these seven powers referred to the seven days of the week. Basilides also supposed that there were seven similar beings in every stage or region of the spiritual world, and that these regions were three hundred and sixty-five in number, thus corresponding to the days in the solar year. These three hundred and sixty-five regions were so many heavenly mansions between the Earth and the Empyrean, and be supposed the existence of an equal number of angels.
The number three hundred and sixty-five was in the Basilidian system one of sacred import. Hence, he fabricated the word “A B R A X A S,” because the Greek letters of which it is composed have the numerical value, when added together, of exactly three hundred and sixty-five.
The learned German theologian, Bellerman thinks that he has found the derivation in the Captu, or old Egyptian language, where the words “Abrah,” signifying "word," and “Sadsch,” signifying "blessed," "holy," or "adorable."
Therefore, “Abrahsadsch” Hellenized into “Abraxas,” would denote "the holy, blessed, or adorable Word," thus approximating to the spirit of the Jewish Cabalists in their similar use of a Holy Name. Whether the word was thus derived, or was invented by Basilides on account of the numerical value of its letters, is uncertain.
He, however, applied it in his system as the name of the Supreme God. This word Abraxas, like the Tetragrammaton of the Jews, became one of great importance to the sect of Basilidians. Their reverence for it gave origin to what are called "abraxas gems." These are gems, plates, or tablets of metal, which have been discovered principally in Egypt, but have also been found in France and Spain. They are inscribed with the word Abraxas and an image supposed to designate the Basilidian god. Some of them have on them Jewish words, such as Jehovah or Adonai, and others contain Persian, Egyptian, or Grecian symbols.
Montfaucon, who has treated the subject of "Abraxas Gems" elaborately, divides them into seven classes.
1. Those inscribed with the head of a cock as a symbol of the sun.
2. Those having the head of a lion, to denote the heat of the sun, and the word Mithras.
3. Those having the image of the Egyptian god Serapis.
4. Those having the images of sphinxes, apes, and other animals.
5. Those having human figures with the words Iao, Sabaoth, Adonai, etc.
6. Those having inscriptions without figures.
7. Those having monstrous forms.
From these Gems, we have derived our knowledge of the Gnostic or Basilidian symbols, which are said to have furnished ideas to the builders of the Middle Ages in their decorative art. Mr. King and some other writers have supposed to have been transmitted to the Freemasons. The principal of these Gnostic symbols is that of the Supreme God, Abraxas. This is represented as a human figure with the head of a cock, the legs being two serpents. He brandishes a sword in one hand, sometimes a whip, and a shield in the other.
The serpent is also a very common symbol, having sometimes the head of a cock and sometimes that of a lion or of a hawk.
Other symbols, known to be of a purely Gnostic or rather Basilidian origin, from the accompanying inscription, Abraxas, or Iao, or both, are Horus, or the Sun, seated on a lotus flower, which is supported by a double lamp, composed of two phallic images conjoined at their bases. The dog, the raven, and the tancross surmounted by a human head.
The Egyptian god, Anubis, and Father Nilus, in a bending posture and holding in his hand the double, phallic lamp of Horus. This last symbol is curious because the word Heilos, like Mithras, which is also a Gnostic symbol, and Abraxas, expresses, in the value of the Greek letters of which it is composed, the number three hundred and sixty-five.
All these symbols, it will be seen, make some reference to the sun, ether as the representative of the Supreme God or as the Source of Light. It might lead to the supposition that in the later Gnosticism, as in the Mithraic Mysteries, there was an allusion to sun-worship, which was one of the earliest and most extensively diffused of the primitive religions.
Evidently, in both the Gnostic and the Mithraic symbolism, the sun plays a very important part. While the architects or builders of the Middle Ages may have borrowed and probably did borrow, some suggestions from the Gnostics in carrying out the symbolism of their art, it is not probable, from their ecclesiastical organization and their religious character, that they would be more than mere suggestions. Certainly, they would not have been accepted by these orthodox Christians with anything of their real Gnostic interpretation.
We may apply to the use of Gnostic symbols by the Medieval architects the remarks made by Mr. Paley on the subject of the adoption of certain Pagan symbols by the same builders. Their Gnostic origin was a mere accident. They were employed not as the symbolism of any Gnostic doctrine, but in the spirit of Christianity, and "the Church, in perfecting their development, stamped them with a purer and Sublimer character."[iv]
That the Masons at a very early period exhibited a tendency to the doctrine of sacred numbers, which has since been largely developed in the Masonry of the modern High Degrees, is true, but this symbolism was derived directly from the teachings of Pythagoras, with which the founders of the primitive rituals were familiar. That the sun and the moon are briefly referred to in our rituals and may be deemed in some sort Masonic symbols, is also true, but the use made of this symbolism, and the interpretation of it, very clearly prove that it has not been derived from a Gnostic source.
- BROTHER ISAAC NEWTON
P.O. BOX 70
Larkspur CO 80118
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