Fragments of a Faith Forgotten

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Fragments of a Faith Forgotten

By G.R.S. Mead

The Naasseni

PRIOR to the section on Justinus, Hippolytus treats of three schools under the names Naasseni, Peratæ, and Sethians or Sithians. All three schools apparently belong to the same cycle, and the first two present features so identical as to make it highly probable that the Naassene work and the two Peratic treatises from which Hippolytus quotes, pertain to the same Gnostic circle.

Although the name Naassene is derived from the Hebrew Nachash, a serpent, Hippolytus does not call the Naassenes Ophites, but Gnostics; in fact, he reserves the name Ophite for a small body to which he also gives (viii. 20) the names Cainites and Nochaïtæ (? Nachaïtæ from Nachash), and considers them of not sufficient importance for further mention.

Their Literature.The Naassenes possessed many books, and also regarded as authoritative the following scriptures: The Gospel of Perfection, The Gospel of Eve, The Questions of Mary, Concerning the Offspring of Mary, The Gospel of Philip, The Gospel according to Thomas, and The Gospel according to the Egyptians. One of their MSS. had fallen into the hands of Hippolytus. It was a treatise of a mystical, psychological, devotional, and exegetical character, rather than a cosmological exposition, and therefore the system is somewhat difficult to make out from Hippolytus’ quotations. Indeed, the Naassene Document, when analysed into its sources, is found to be the Christian overworking of the Jewish overworking of a Pagan commentary on a Hymn of the Mysteries. The date of the Christian overwriter may be placed about the middle of the second century, and the document is especially valuable as pointing out the identity of the inner teachings of Gnostic Christianity with the tenets of the Mysteries--Phrygian, Eleusinian, Dionysian, Samothracian, Egyptian, Assyrian, etc.

The Christian writer claimed that his tradition was handed down from James to a certain Mariamne. This Miriam, or Mary, is somewhat of a puzzle to scholarship; it seems, however, probable that the treatise belonged to the same cycle of tradition as The Greater and Lesser Questions of Mary, The Gospel of Mary, etc., in the frame of which the Pistis Sophia treatise is also set.

The main features of the system are that the cosmos is symbolized as the (Heavenly) Man, male-female, of three natures, spiritual (or intelligible), psychic and material; that these three natures found themselves in perfection in Jesus, who was therefore truly the Son of Man. Mankind is divided into three classes, assemblies, or churches: the elect, the called, and the bound (or in other words, the spiritual or angelic, the psychic, and the choïc or material), according as one or other of these natures predominates.

After this brief outline, Hippolytus proceeds to plunge into the mystical exegesis of the writer and Their Mystical Exegesis.overwriters (whom he of course regards as one person) and their interpretation of the Mysteries, which is mixed up here and there with specimens of the pseudo-philological word-play so dear to the heart of Plato's Cratylus, as remarked above. The system is supposed to underlie all mythologies, Pagan, Jewish and Christian. It is the old teaching of macrocosm and microcosm, and the Self hidden in the heart of all.

The technical character of this exegesis and the nature of our essay compel us to give only a brief summary of the main ideas; but the subject is important enough to demand a special study in itself.

The spirit or mind of man is imprisoned in the soul, his animal nature, and the soul in the body. The nature and evolution of this soul were set forth in The Gospel according to the Egyptians, a work which is unfortunately lost.

The Assyrian Mysteries.Now the Assyrians (following the Chaldæans, who, together with the Egyptians, were regarded by antiquity as the sacred nation par excellence) first taught that man was threefold and yet a unity. The soul is the desire-principle, and all things have souls, even stones, for they increase and decrease.

The real "man" is male-female, devoid of sex; therefore he strives to abandon the animal nature and return to the eternal essence above, where there is neither male nor female but a new creature.

Baptism was not the mere symbolical washing with physical water, but the bathing of the spirit or mind in the "living water above," the eternal world, beyond the ocean of generation and destruction; and the anointing with oil was the introduction of the candidate into unfading bliss, thus becoming a Christ.

The kingdom of heaven is to be sought for within a man; it is the "blessed nature of all things which were, and are, and are still to be," spoken of in the Phrygian Mysteries. It is of the nature of the spirit or mind, for, as it is written in The Gospel according to Thomas: "He who seeks me shall find me in children from the age of seven years"; and this is the representative of the Logos in man.

Among the Egyptians, Osiris is the Water of Life, the Spirit or Mind, while Isis is "seven-robed nature, surrounded by and robed in seven æthereal mantles," the spheres of ever-changing generation, which metamorphose the ineffable, unimaginable, incomprehensible mother-substance; while the Mind, the Self, makes all things but remains unchanged, according to the saying: "I become what I will, and I am what I am; wherefore, say I, immovable is the over of all. For He remains what He is, making things, and is naught of the things which are." This also is called The Good, hence the saying: "Why callest thou Me Good? One only is Good, My Father in the heavens."

Among the Greeks, Hermes is the Logos. He is the conductor and reconductor (the psychagogue and The Greek.psychopomp), and originator of souls. They are brought down from the Heavenly Man above into the plasm of clay, the body, and thus made slaves to the demiurge of the world, the fiery or passionate god of creation. Therefore Hermes "holds a rod in his hands, beautiful, golden, wherewith he spell-binds the eyes of men whomsoever he would, and wakes them again from sleep." Therefore the saying: "Wake thou that sleepest, and rise, and Christ shall give thee light." This is the Christ, the Son of the Man, in all who are born; and this was set forth in the Eleusinian rites. This is also Ocean, "the generation of gods and the generation of men," the Great Jordan, as explained in the Myth of the Going-forth, given above.

The Samothracian.The Samothracians also taught the same truth; and in the temple of their Mysteries were two statues, representing the Heavenly Man, and the regenerate or spiritual man, in all things co-essential with that Man. Such a one was the Christ, but His disciples had not yet reached to perfection. Hence the saying: "If ye drink not My blood and eat not My flesh, ye shall by no means enter into the Kingdom of the Heavens; but even if ye drink of the cup which I drink of, whither I go ye cannot come." And the Gnostic writer adds: "For He knew of what nature each of His disciples was, and that it needs must be that each of them should go to his own nature. For from the twelve 'tribes' He chose twelve disciples, and through them He spake to every 'tribe.' Wherefore (also) neither have all men hearkened to the preaching of the twelve disciples, nor if they hearken can they receive it."

The Phrygian.The mysteries of the Thracians and Phrygians are then referred to, and the same ideas further explained from the Old Testament documents. The vision of Jacob is explained as referring to the descent of spirit into matter, down the ladder of evolution, the Stream of the Logos flowing downward, and then again upward, through the Gate of the Lord. Wherefore the saying: "I am the true gate." The Phrygians also called the spirit in man the "dead," because it was buried in the tomb and sepulchre of the body. Wherefore the saying; "Ye are whitened sepulchres, filled within with the bones of the dead,"--"for the living man is not in you." And again: "The dead shall leap forth from the tombs"; that is to say, "from their material bodies, regenerated spiritual men, not carnal." For "this is the resurrection which takes place through the gate of the heavens, and they who pass not through it, all remain dead."

Many other interpretations of a similar nature are given, and it is shown that the Lesser Mysteries pertained to "fleshly generation," whereas the Greater dealt with the new birth. "For this is the Gate of Heaven, and this is the House of God, where the Good God dwells alone, into which no impure man shall come, no psychic, no fleshly man; but it is kept under watch for the spiritual alone, where they must come, and, casting away their garments, all become bridegrooms made virgin by the Virginal Spirit. For such a man is the virgin with child, who conceives and brings forth a son, which is neither psychic, animal, nor fleshly, but a blessed æon of æons."

This is the Kingdom of the Heavens, the "grain of mustard seed, the indivisible point, which is the primeval spark in the body, and which no man knoweth save only the spiritual."

The school of the Naasseni, it is said, were all initiated into the Mysteries of the Great Mother, The Mysteries of the Great Mother.because they found that the whole mystery of rebirth was taught in these rites; they were also rigid ascetics. The name Naasseni was given them because they represented the "Moist Essence" of the universe--without which nothing that exists, "whether immortal or mortal, whether animate or inanimate, could hold together"--by the symbol of a serpent. This is the cosmic Akasha of the Upani?hads, and the Ku??alini, or serpentine force in man, which when following animal impulse is the force of generation, but when applied to spiritual things makes of a man a god. It is the Waters of Great Jordan flowing downwards (the generation of men) and upwards (the generation of gods); the Akasha-ganga or Heavenly Ganges of the Pura?as, the Heavenly Nile of mystic Egypt.

"He distributes beauty and bloom to all who are, just as the [river] 'proceeding forth out of Eden and dividing itself into four streams.'" In man, they said, Eden is the brain "compressed in surrounding ventures like heavens," and Paradise the man as far as the head only. These four streams are sight, hearing, smell, and taste. The river is the "water above the firmament [of the body]."

Thus, to use another set of symbolic terms, "the spiritual choose for themselves from the living waters of the Euphrates [the subtle world], which flows through the midst of Babylon [the gross world or body], what is fit, passing through the gate of truth, which is Jesus, the blessed," i.e., the "gate of the heavens," or the sun, cosmically; and microcosmically the passing out of the body consciously through the highest centre in the head, which Hindu mystics cal the Brahmarandhra. Thus these Gnostics claimed to be the true Christians because they were anointed with the "ineffable chrism," poured out by the serpentine "horn of plenty," another symbol for the spiritual power of enlightenment.

We will conclude this brief sketch of these most interesting mystics by quoting one of their hymns. The Fragment of a Hymn.The text is unfortunately so corrupt that parts of it are hopeless, nevertheless sufficient remains to "sense" the thought. It tells of the World-Mind, the Father, of Chaos, the Cosmic Mother, and of the third member of the primordial trinity, the World-Soul. Thence the individual soul, the pilgrim, and its sorrows and rebirth. Finally the descent of the Saviour, the firstborn of the Great Mind, and the regeneration of all. Behind all is the Ineffable, then comes first the First-born, the Logos:

"Mind was the first, the generative law of all;
Second was Chaos diffused, [spouse] of the first-born;
Thirdly, the toiling Soul received the law;
Wherefore surrounded with a watery form
It weary grows, subdued by death. . . .
Now holding sway, it sees the light;
Anon, cast into piteous plight, it weeps.
Whiles it weeps, it rejoices;
Now wails and is judged;
And now is judged and dies.
And now it cannot pass . . . .
Into the labyrinth [of rebirth] it has wandered.
[Jesus] said: Father
A searching after evil on the earth

Makes [man] to wander from thy Spirit.
He seeks to shun the bitter Chaos,
But knows not how to flee.
Wherefore, send me, O Father!
Seals in my hands, I will descend;
Through every æon I will tread my way;
All mysteries will I reveal,
And show the shapes of gods;
The hidden secrets of the Holy Path
Shall take the name of Gnosis,
And I will hand them on."



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