Gnostic Sexuality in early Christianity

The Gnostic term Barbēlorefers to the first emanation of God in several forms of Sethian[i] Gnostic cosmogony. Barbēlo is often depicted as a supreme female principle, the single passive antecedent of creation in its manifoldness. This figure is also variously referred to as ‘Mother-Father’ (hinting at her apparent androgyny), ‘First Human Being’, ‘The Triple Androgynous Name’, or ‘Eternal Aeon’. So prominent was her place amongst some Gnostics that some schools were designated as Barbeliotae, Barbēlo worshippers or Barbēlognostics. The Apocryphon of John, a tractate in the Nag Hammadi Library containing the most extensive recounting of the Sethian creation myth, the Barbēlo is described as “The first power, the glory, Barbēlo, the perfect glory in the aeons, the glory of the revelation.” All subsequent acts of creation within the divine sphere (save, crucially, that of the lowest aeon Sophia) occur through her co-action with God [this is the place in which Shi’ites have placed Fatimah] The text describes her thus:

This is the first thought, his image; she became the womb of everything, for it is she who is prior to them all, the Mother-Father, the first man (Anthropos), the holy Spirit, the thrice-male, the thrice-powerful, the thrice-named androgynous one, and the eternal aeon among the invisible ones, and the first to come forth.

In the Pistis Sophia Barbēlo is named often, but her place is not clearly defined. She is one of the gods, “a great power of the Invisible God,” joined with Him and the three “Thrice-powerful deities,” the mother of Pistis Sophia and of other beings; from her, Jesus received His “garment of light” or heavenly body; the earth apparently is the “matter of Barbēlo”  or the “place of Barbēlo.” She is obscurely described by Irenaeus as “a never-aging aeon in a virginal spirit,” She is noticed in several neighboring passages of Epiphanius, who in part must be following the Compendium of Hippolytus, as is shown by comparison with Philaster, but also speaks from personal knowledge of the Ophitic sects specially called “Gnostici”…  Epiphanius represents the doctrine as giving rise to sexual immorality… the self-gendered Father and Lord of all things, and the virgin-born (αὐτολόχευτον) Christ (evidently as her son, for according to Irenaeus her first progeny, “the Light,” was called Christ); and similarly he tells how the ascent of souls through the different heavens terminated in the upper region, “where Barbēro or Barbēlo is, the Mother of the Living” (Genesis 2:20)… Jerome several times includes Barbēlo in lists of portentous names current in Spanish heresy, that is, among Priscillianists; Balsamus and Leusibora being three times associated with it (Ep. 75 c. 3, p. 453 c. Vall.; c. Vigil. p. 393 A; in Esai. lxvi. 4 p. 361 c; in Amos iii. 9 p. 257 E).

In Gnostic accounts of God, the notions of impenetrability, stasis and ineffability are of central importance. The emanation of Barbēlo may be said to function as an intermediary generative aspect of the Divine, or as an abstraction of the generative aspect of the Divine through its Fullness. The most transcendent hidden invisible Spirit is not depicted as actively participating in creation. This significance is reflected both in her apparent androgyny (reinforced by several of her given epithets), and in the name Barbēlo itself.

Several plausible etymologies of the name (Βαρβηλώ, Βαρβηρώ, Βαρβηλ, Βαρβηλώθ) have been proposed. It may be an ad hoc Coptic construction signifying both ‘Great Emission’ (according to Bentley Layton’s The Gnostic Scriptures) and ‘Seed’ according to F.C. Burkitt (in Church and Gnosis). William Wigan Harvey (on Irenaeus), and Richard Adelbert Lipsius (Gnosticismus, p. 115; Ophit. Syst. in Hilgenfeld’s Zeitschrift for 1863, p. 445) have previously proposed Barba-Elo, ‘The Deity-in Four,’ with reference to the tetrad, which by the report of Irenaeus proceeds from her.

The root balbel much used in the Targums (Buxtorf, Lex, Rabb. 309), in biblical Hebrew balal, signifying mixture or confusion [the Greek chaos = full of potential], suggests a better derivation for Barbēlo, as denoting the chaotic germ of various and discrete existence: the change from ל to ר is common enough, and may be seen in the alternative form Βαρβηρώ. If the Babel of Justinus (Hipp. Haer. v. 26; x. 15) is identical with Barbēlo, as is at least possible, this derivation becomes still more probable.

Mircea Eliade has compared the Phibionite beliefs and practices involving Barbēlo to Tantric rituals and beliefs, noting that both systems have a common goal of attaining primordial spiritual unity through erotic bliss and the consumption of menses and semen. [ii]

[i]               Sethian Theogony:

This original God went through a series of emanations, during which its essence is seen as spontaneously expanding into many successive ‘generations’ of paired male and female beings, called ‘aeons’. The first of these is the Barbelo, a figure common throughout Sethianism, who is coactor in the emanations that follow. The aeons that result can be seen as representative of the various attributes of God, themselves indiscernible when not abstracted from their origin. In this sense, the Barbelo and the emanations may be seen as poetic devices allowing an otherwise utterly unknowable God to be discussed in a meaningful way amongst initiates. Collectively, God and the aeons comprise the sum total of the spiritual universe, known as the Pleroma.

At this point the myth is still only dealing with a spiritual, non-material universe. In some versions of the myth, the Spiritual Aeon Sophia imitates God’s actions in performing an emanation of her own, without the prior approval of the other aeons in the Pleroma. This results in a crisis within the Pleroma, leading to the appearance of the Yaldabaoth, a ‘serpent with a lion’s head’. This figure is commonly known as the demiurge, after the figure in Plato’s Timaeus. (Gr. δημιουργός dēmiourgós, Latinized demiurgus, meaning “artisan” or “craftsman”, lit. “public or skilled worker” (from δήμιος demios (belonging to the public) + έργον ergon (work)[2] This being is at first hidden by Sophia but subsequently escapes, stealing a portion of divine power from her in the process.


The creation of matter

Using this stolen power, Yaldabaoth creates a material world in imitation of the divine Pleroma. To complete this task, he spawns a group of entities known collectively as Archons, ‘petty rulers’ and craftsmen of the physical world. Like him, they are commonly depicted as theriomorphic, having the heads of animals. Some texts explicitly identify the Archons with the fallen angels described in the Enoch tradition in Judaic apocrypha. At this point the events of the Sethian narrative begin to cohere with the events of Genesis, with the demiurge and his archontic cohorts fulfilling the role of the creator. As in Genesis, the demiurge declares himself to be the only god, and that none exist superior to him; however, the audience’s knowledge of what has gone before casts this statement, and the nature of the creator itself, in a radically different light.

The demiurge creates Adam, during the process unwittingly transferring the portion of power stolen from Sophia into the first physical human body. He then creates Eve from Adam’s rib, in an attempt to isolate and regain the power he has lost. By way of this he attempts to rape Eve who now contains Sophia’s divine power; several texts depict him as failing when Sophia’s spirit transplants itself into the Tree of Knowledge; thereafter, the pair are ‘tempted’ by the serpent, and eat of the forbidden fruit, thereby once more regaining the power that the demiurge had stolen.

As is evident, the addition of the prologue radically alters the significance of events in Eden; rather than emphasizing a fall of human weakness in breaking God’s command, Sethians (and their inheritors) emphasize a crisis of the Divine Fullness as it encounters the ignorance of matter, as depicted in stories about Sophia. Adam and Eve’s removal from the Archon’s paradise is seen as a step towards freedom from the Archons, and the serpent in the Garden of Eden in some cases becomes a heroic, salvific figure rather than an adversary of humanity or a ‘proto-Satan’. Eating the fruit of Knowledge is the first act of human salvation from cruel, oppressive powers. See:

Studies in Neoplatonism: Ancient and Modern, Volume 6, Wallis & Bregman (Editors), SUNY Press, (1991), Chapter: Negative Theology in Gnosticism and Neoplatonism by Curtis L. Hancock p. 167 ISBN 0-7914-1337-3

Gnosticism and Platonism: The Platonizing Sethian texts from Nag Hammadi in their Relation to Later Platonic Literature, John D Turner, ISBN 0-7914-1338-1.

[ii]              Bibliography Gnostic Sexuality (Esoteric Christianity)

  • Daniélou, Alain (1984). Shiva and Dionysos: The Religion of Nature and Eros. Inner Traditions. ISBN 0-89281-057-2.
  • Free Encyclopedia of Thelema. Barbēlo. Retrieved March 5, 2005.
  • Hoeller, Stephan A. (1989). Jung and the Lost Gospels. Quest Books. ISBN 0-8356-0646-5.
  • Jonas, Hans (2001). The Gnostic Religion (3rd edition ed.). Beacon Press. ISBN 0-8070-5801-7.
  • Layton, Bentley (1987). The Gnostic Scriptures. SCM Press. ISBN 0-334-02022-0.
  • The Nag Hammadi Library. The Apocryphon of John Retrieved Oct. 21, 2004.
  • Rudolph, Kurt (1987). Gnosis: The Nature & History of Gnosticism. Harper & Row. ISBN 0-06-067018-5.
  • Woodroffe, Sir John (1929). Shakti and Shakta. Ganesh & Co..
  • This article uses text from A Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century A.D., with an Account of the Principal Sects and Heresies by Henry Wace.
  • This article incorporates text from the public-domain Catholic Encyclopedia of 1913.
  • The Nag Hammadi Library, James M. Robinson, Harper Collins, 1990