Sundays with Uncle God-Momma: Sophia and the Tyrant Angels

During the 11th century, in what is today southern France but was then called Languedoc, a Christian sect called the Cathars rose to prominence.  The name suggests catharsis in the Aristotelian usage, that is, cleansing or purification, and some German texts refer to them as Katharoi, the pure ones.  The Cathars, however, did not call themselves by this name; they preferred to use the phrase “Good men and women.”  For more than a century they were a force in southern France.  Some scholars have suggested that they were well on their way to creating a Renaissance long before the Italian version.  Standard history tells us little of them except that they provoked the wrath of the Catholic Church.  Several attempts to remove their influence through “soft power” failed to dislodge the Cathars, and in 1208-9 the Albigensian Crusade was launched.

Twenty years of death and destruction in southern France followed.  Blood ran as rivers through the streets of medieval towns; the killing was wholesale, against both Cathars and Papists.  The famous phrase, “Kill them all and let God sort them out,” was first uttered as, “Kill them all, God will know his own,” during the Albigensian Crusade.  At this point the tale gets complicated and may lead one down the path of modern conspiracies.  The Knights Templar had made their home in Languedoc as well, and they were accused of aiding the Cathars.  Some have gone so far as to suggest that both groups fled to Scotland and became the founders of classical Freemasonry.  But that is beyond the scope of this work.  We know quite well what provoked the wrath of the Catholic Church: the Cathars were clear and vocal in their disdain for orthodox Catholicism.  They referred to the Catholic Church as “The Church of Satan”.  By all accounts, the Cathars lived non-violent, exemplary Christian lives, so where did they get such heretical ideas?  As we only have the writings of their enemies, we will never know for certain, but their ideals share strong similarities with the Gnostic traditions of the first few centuries A.D.  This is particularly evident in their view of the Church.

What follows is a retelling of a retelling of the Gnostic myth of “the tyrant angels”, or a near total upending of orthodox, Christian mythology.

Sophia gave birth to the ruler and fashioner of the system of creation.  She repented for her desire to bring forth a being that might ease her loneliness when she saw that the great anguish and sorrow, which she had conceived him in, had molded him.  She wept and lamented over her offspring, and named him Yaldabaoth, Child-Lord.  Yaldabaoth went forth into the chaos and fashioned a creation of his own desire.  He created twelve authorities known, along with their children, as the rulers.  The rulers had a great appetite for power and authority.  Yaldaboath and his host then mingled light and darkness so that the darkness might appear radiant and deceive the eye, but the mixture made the world imperfect and weak.

Yaldabaoth stood amid the world he had fashioned and with arrogant pride proclaimed, “I am God and there is no other God but me!”  Thus had he demonstrated his own ignorance by denying his own mother.  It was with this that Sophia named him Samael, the blind lord of death, and later Saklas in affirmation of his foolishness.  Knowing that her offspring had fashioned a creation in his own, flawed image, Sophia came secretly to the aid of the light that was present in the world.  She came close to the earth, moving to and fro over it, and thereby conferring her wisdom and love on creation.  It was her spirit that moved the face of the waters.  Sophia’s light was secretly embedded in the world the rulers thought was of their creation alone.

Then the form of a man appeared in the heavens, majestic and glorious to behold.  A voice exclaimed, “The Man exists and the Son of Man.”  The creator and his host trembled, unable to bear his radiance.  They averted their eyes, lest they go blind, and studied Man by his reflection.  All the rulers and their servants gathered their powers and fashioned a replica of man, but it was feeble and faulty because the force of Sophia was not in the creation.  Sophia’s secret messengers entered the mind of Yaldabaoth, causing him to breathe life into the pitiful creature, thus bestowing life upon him.  The fashioner was deceived, thinking that he had given life to man who now stood and walked, surrounded by an unearthly light.

But Yaldabaoth came to recognize that man possessed spiritual power and intelligence that surpassed their own.  They cast Adam, for that was the man’s name, into the darkest regions of matter in order to satisfy their rage and envy.  Sophia intervened again, and with cooperation from all the powers of the fullness sent a helper to instruct and assist him.  The helper came to be known as Eve but her true name is Zoe, meaning life.  She concealed herself in Adam so that the rulers would not recognize her.

The rulers realized that they would be unable to rule man directly, and so devised a plan whereby man could be deceived and kept captive to their designs.  They fashioned a garden of beauty and delight, placing Adam at its center and provided him with any pleasant object he might desire.  They forbade Adam only one thing, the tree at the center of the garden, for it contained their life.

When the woman came forth from Eve, the light of Sophia shone from her.  Yaldabaoth recognized the light and realized that it was Sophia who instructed Adam to eat the fruit of the tree of life.  He pursued Eve across the garden, subdued her, and raped her.  Her living spirit, Zoe, escaped the body of Eve during the ravishment, but two sons were conceived in the womb of the earthly Eve.  Their names were Eloim and Yave, who became known as Cain and Abel.  Eloim inclined toward matter; whereas Yave valued soul and mind.  Adam fathered a child with Eve as well, but theirs was a union of choice and so Zoe was present.  Their son was named Seth, and he was inclined toward spirit.

Man went on his way, no longer deceived by the designs of the rulers.  Eve gave birth to a daughter, Norea, who shone with the radiance of the fullness.  Humans multiplied under the angry watch of Yaldabaoth, who was particularly engraged with Eve.  He cursed the mother of humankind and made the lot of her and her daughters a particularly difficult one ever since.

The rulers gathered and decided to destroy every human who was not subservient to them by causing a great deluge upon the earth.  Yaldabaoth appeared to Noah, a man still beholden to the rulers, and instructed him to build an ark.  Norea learned of the deluge and the ark.  She attempted to dissuade Noah, and when that failed, she burned the ark.  But Noah was a stubborn man and built a second ark.  The rulers tried to rape Norea as Yaldabaoth had raped Eve, but she was saved by an emanation from the fullness.  She hid a small group of humans in a luminous cloud atop a mountain and saved them from the deluge.

Ever since that time, humans have lived in conflict because the chief ruler had divided them in wrath.  Though true knowledge became rare and the children of men learned of dead, useless things, the human race was never left alone.  Not only did Sophia watch over them but also some of the tyrant angels who turned away from Yaldabaoth and came to serve the light.  Chief among them was Sabaoth (sometimes called Abraxas), the brother of Yaldabaoth.  Conflict arose between those humans who served the tyrant angels and those who served Sophia.  The followers of Yaldabaoth betrayed the knowers, and the rulers rained fire and brimstone down upon them.  This became known as the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, but Sabaoth saved some of the people.

Time and again, the rulers rallied and schemed to destroy all the humans who would not serve them.  And they are truly tyrants.  Their deepest desire is to subjugate and rule the children of men because they distrust and despise them.  Thus the rulers are ever at work, devising laws and commandments that they might constrain the children of men.  They masquerade as messengers of light, or even the true God himself, and demand obedience and worship.  They thus deceive many well intentioned prophets and seers.

Jesus came from the high aeons to advance the defeat of the tyrant angels by teaching humans how they might become free and revealing the mysteries of the fullness.  The chief ruler did not recognize the divine nature of Jesus, and so he incited the priests and Pharisees to condemn the troublesome human to death.  Jesus, being other than human, did not die although he permitted the allusion of his physical death.  He returned in glory and completed his plans for the redemption of man.  The spiritual freedom brought by Jesus only prevailed for a brief period in history before the rulers began to corrupt the message of the Good News.  The battle of the forces of light against the tyrant angels continues, but the outcome is not in question.  The forces of redemption are destined to prevail, bringing Gnosis and liberation to the sparks of light hidden in humanity.*

It is not difficult to see why the Church fathers at Nicea neglected to include this version of the creation story in their canonization.  But it is clear that such ideas were common during the first few centuries of Christianity, particularly in Alexandria where Hellenistic philosophy and Christian theology mingled.

Some further explanation of portions of this myth are in order.  How Sophia came to give birth to Yaldabaoth is explained in The Myth of Sophia.  It posits a higher order of creation populated by beings called aeons.  Sophia, wisdom, was one of these, and all were paired with a cohort.  Sophia’s cohort was Christ, or perfection, and he was unable to restrain her from her descent in pursuit of their father, called Depth.  She was confused and realized her directional error (having mistaken a reflection of the light below for the true light above) too late.  The introduction of Jesus is also dealt with in The Myth of Sophia.  Much as she created Yaldabaoth and his host, she also created Jesus, but he was able to escape to the fullness above where he merged with Christ and then descended to free humanity.

I will leave the reader to compare what they know of Christianity with the alternate version above, and i will also leave the Cathars and their possible connection to Gnosticism. (Though i might add that it is said that even today in southern France one may find locals who will tell you with a wink that their tradition was never destroyed, only forced into quietness.)  It is, however, quite interesting that this myth does an excellent job of explaining one of Christianities great contradictions: how a God of love could allow evil to persist within his creation.  The much different treatment of the feminine principle is another facet of this myth that stands out from and against orthodox theology.  And it should be noted that some of the ideas expressed in this myth are not wholly Christian, but have a lineage stretching back to heterodox Judaism.

To the student of comparative myth and religion there are engaging facets of this myth.  The concept of “the fullness” is very suggestive of the Buddhist idea of “suchness”/”thusness”.  It is a state outside the human experience but attainable to humans at the same time.  The Buddha is generally called Tatagatha, or one who resides in thusness.  He is not a divine being, i.e. not a god, but a human who cultivated what the Gnostics would call the spark of Sophia.  He journeyed inward and came to realize that the fullness was within, rather than without…or, more precisely, both within and without.  His gnosis was self-knowledge, and the Gnostic myth is very suggestive of a similar Christian path.  Whether the Church deemed Gnosticism a danger because it suggested that the Church was a tool of “evil” or because it suggested that the true, Christian path was an individual one is debatable.  The latter would be as a great a danger to the Church as the former, because individuals walking in the path of Christ/Sophia would have little use for an organized church.

The “spark of Sophia” is also reflected in Indian tradition.  Mahayana doctrine includes the concept of Tatagathagarbha, Buddha/suchness-embryo/essence.  The doctrine states that every sentient being contains the essential essence of Buddha nature, but that it is almost always obscured by defilements that are a product of life in the field of matter…in Buddhism, samsara or the cycle of birth and death.  To attain enlightenment is then a process of cleansing the tatagathagarbha of the defilements so that a being’s true, fundamental nature is all that is left.  It is not hard to see a similar idea being developed from the Gnostic myth, where our true nature is the spark of Sophia imprisoned by the imperfect creation of Yaldabaoth and matter.  To cleanse ourselves of the imperfect matter leaves only our divine nature, wisdom, and produces at-one-ment with the fullness.

The same idea is displayed in Hinduism, and the Buddhist concept is most likely an outgrowth of it.  There are two selves for each individual in Hindu cosmology. The self that we see in others and inhabit for our daily lives is best described as ego.  The Self, Atman, is actually the divine spark of light.  Alan Watts put the combination of the two eloquently when he described it as, “God playing hide and seek with himself.”  When two Hindus meet, they place their palms together as in prayer and bow.  They are not bowing to the ego of the other, they are recognizing the Atman within the other.  It is a reminder that the spark of Sophia is everywhere, only waiting to be realized.

We do know that Gnostic communities were founded in India, and we do know that Indian thinkers had traveled to the Semitic Holy Land.  But this does not mean that Gnosticism is a Christian version of Indian religion.  It is more likely that this way of walking a spiritual path was shared by the two after being developed independently.  Of course, when the two paths crossed they would be likely to borrow from each other, and it should come as no surprise that Gnostic Christians would find a welcome home in India where their ideas were not at all heretical.

In conclusion, we are missing out on a great thread of thought that comes from within our own religious tradition.  After nearly two millenia of persecution and destruction there is precious little left of the Gnostic tradition, but what remains still threatens the Church.  What we have comes mostly from those writers who argued that Gnosticism was heretical and the texts known as The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi library.  Much of the latter has not yet been released.  There was great fear when it was found that it would be capable of shaking the foundations of the Church, and some anecdotal evidence suggests that this may be true.  One monk who was tasked with translating some of the texts subsequently left the Catholic Church and has refused to release his work.  But perhaps the knowledge within these texts is capable of enlightening much of humankind and opening a Christian path long closed to believers.  Perhaps it is capable of turning the brothers and sisters of creation towards each other rather than against each other by kindling the spark of wisdom that Gnosticism says resides within all of us.  I am not a Christian, but i hear many Christians who approach their faith in a way that suggests them to be receptive, if not yearning for, the ideas of Christian Gnosticism.  They battle the forces of modern, evangelical Christianity in ways that indicate a truth within the Gnostic myths.  Yet the forces of enlightened Christianity are handicapped by working from texts that were compiled to be overtly anti-Gnostic.  Enough of Gnostic texts exist, and the deserve to be read by believers who might be comforted by the idea of a dancing savior who very clearly promotes peace, love, and the light without qualification or submission.

*This telling of the myth comes from the fine telling offered by Stephan A. Hoeller in Jung and the Lost Gospels (Quest Books, 1989, pps 141-147).  Some of the words are his and some are paraphrasings or rearrangements. I halved his word count for space/attention considerations and readability, but i believe that it deserves a block quote to honor his work.

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~ by Lex on November 9, 2008.

3 Responses to “Sundays with Uncle God-Momma: Sophia and the Tyrant Angels”

  1. An interesting piece.

    Languedoc is a region of France next to the Spanish border on the east coast of the Mediterranean and a wonderful area to explore.

    You say the book you use as your source is from Quest Publishing while it is from Quest Books.
    http://questbooks.net/title.cfm?bookid=403

    Quest Publishing is another company.
    http://www.questpublishing.ca

  2. Marilyn,

    My apologies and thank you for the correction, it will be edited to reflect the correction.

  3. Yes. Indeed an interesting article.

    Thank you for your time.

    Brad Hoffstetter
    Communications Division
    Assembly of good Christians
    http://www.cathar.net

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