Gnosticism—a heretical branch of early Christianity—faded almost entirely from view after its founders were edged out of the Church by what would become orthodoxy. With most of their works lost or destroyed, their ideas survived only in the denunciations from the likes of Tertullian and Irenaeus. The Gnostic focus on secrecy didn’t ensure a broad legacy, either—early leaders such as Valentinius and Marcion privileged access to the deeper nature of the universe for initiates and other worthies. Modern Gnostics avoid the secrecy, and as with many aspects of Gnosticism which may seem troubling, the marginalization of Gnosticism limited our understanding to unfriendly characterizations by their orthodox contemporaries.
But in the 20th century, a treasure trove of Gnostic texts was discovered by a couple of Egyptian farmers at Nag Hammadi in a sealed jar. Ever since, their ideas—which seem stunningly modern in some ways—have started to permeate back into the world, gaining influence well beyond what would be expected from their obscurity, particularly since the texts themselves are rarely read by anyone besides scholars.
Still, the ideas in these texts are starting to make their way into pop culture, directly or indirectly, and Gnostic ideas are fascinating enough to be talked about far away from their original sources. They feature prominently in the His Dark Materials series, and some concepts pop up in such unexpected places as Young Avengers, Final Fantasy, and even Futurama.
Among the most daring of the Gnostic beliefs is, quite simply, that God isn’t God. The entity identified in the Bible as God—the creator in Genesis, the God of Abraham, and protector of Israel, is a minor deity at best, whose claims of omnipotence are laughable. Gnosticism generically identifies this entity as “the demiurge”, as one who may have fashioned the world as we know it, but as a private domain in a much larger universe.
In the Secret Book of John, one of the Gnostic texts discovered at Nag Hammadi and purportedly authored by the apostle John, the demiurge is given the name Yaltabaoth, and is identified as the son of the mother-goddess Wisdom (usually called by Sophia, the Greek equivalent). Sophia creates him by herself, without a father, which leaves him incomplete and flawed. As in Exodus, Yaltabaoth proclaims “I am a jealous God, and there is no other God beside me.” But the Secret Book questions the statement: “by announcing this he indicated to the angels who attended him that there exists another God. For if there were no other one, of whom would he be jealous?”
This idea is central to the question of godhood in His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman. Pullman refers to the demiurge as an arrogant angel called “the Authority”, and while the character has a slightly different creation story than Yaltabaoth, both proclaim themselves to be the One True God without support other than their own strength. The Authority is frail in Pullman’s series, his influence usurped by another angelic villain, Metatron.
Pullman is an outspoken atheist, and his work is largely a specific critique of Christianity. But his focus on including supernatural elements leads to something that very distinctively echoes Gnosticism.
Pullman focuses on the Authority’s weakness, and like the Gnostics, celebrates humanity’s ability to rise to that level, but he stops there, while the Gnostics focus their practice on the true, higher deities including Sophia, greater than humanity or the demiurge. In particular contrast to Pullman, Gnostics retained the idea of Christ, who does not feature directly or symbolically in the series. The greater creative force in his universe, called “Dust”, remains mysterious, although it seems to have both consciousness and creation powers. Death brings reunion with Dust, however, an idea similar to Gnostic ideas of ascending toward God, although Pullman depersonalizes it altogether.
He avoids the complex cosmogony in Gnostic texts, which leaves the Authority humbled, but not quite as scorned as Yaltabaoth. His mother Sophia has particularly little regard for the would-be god. She is embarrassed by his delusions and mocks his blindness to the nature of the universe, eventually sending the serpent into the Garden of Eden to undermine him. Only Futurama, of all things, quite captures the Gnostic idea of a would-be god facing stern discipline from his mommy, when the crew faces off against the powerful god-like being Melllvar, who is forty-six years old and lives in his mother’s basement. The episode parodies an old Star Trek episode where the crew meets a being in deep space who also claims to be God: in both cases, the characters are required to contemplate the possibility that simply being more powerful than humankind (or Vulcan/mutant/etc.) is not the same as omnipotence.
On the other hand, some of the Gnostic apprehension around the demiurge is reflected in the recent exploits of Billy Kaplan, the half-mutant magical superhero who normally goes by “Wiccan”, but takes on the name “Demiurge” from time to time.
Billy first takes up the Demiurge title in Young Avengers, during a struggle against a malevolent entity called, appropriately enough, “the Mother”. Unlike Yaltabaoth, Billy is a hero, but he still struggles when considering his entitlement to such power. Billy is by no means the creator of the Multiverse, but his power to bend reality to his will means that it starts to feel that way, with Billy literally stepping out of the panels at some points. Billy ultimately is able to put those powers aside, but the Demiurge alter-ego remains a threat to his humanity into his New Avengers run.
Gnostic cosmology also finds a home in various ways in the Final Fantasy series, occasionally in a meaningful way, but it often feels more scattershot than deliberate. In Final Fantasy VII, Sephiroth’s creation from Jenova seems to echo Yaltaboath’s fatherless creation, particularly their essential brokenness. Other villains aspire to godhood, such as FF6’s Kefka, and seem about as successful as Yaltaboath, demanding unearned worship, and the games often speak of hidden knowledge about the works of the universe, a very Gnostic idea.
But it goes downhill from there. The series’ summoned beasts are referred to as Eidolons in a couple games, but the Gnostic term refers to something more like human souls, an idea not easily applied to Bahamut. They’re called Aeons in Final Fantasy X, a closer match to the Gnostic homonym, which describes the higher beings like Sophia. In both cases, though, it appears that the games’ creators were choosing Gnostic terminology for the mystical feel of the words, rather than pursuing a particular conceptual link.
Ultimately, the inexact invocation of Gnostic ideas, in Final Fantasy or elsewhere, may simply be an effect of its continued obscurity. With its primary texts only discovered in 1945, and available in translation still more recently, most knowledge of their beliefs is second or third hand. Ideas spread faster than text, and so Gnostic concepts will pop up without the authors even knowing the source.
In large part, the current revival of Gnostic ideas reflects conditions not entirely different from those during the initial wave. Gnosticism flourished before the orthodox strand of Christianity became entrenched, either in terms of broad belief or the endorsement of the Roman emperors. Contemporary Christianity is similarly heterodox: the Catholic Church has less legal authority in the world than ever, and individual believers worship in an ever-increasing number of denominations, with varying beliefs.
Moreover, the Gnostics flourished at a time when not only Christianity itself was particularly heterogeneous, but Christians were also likely familiar with individuals of many other religions, including Roman state religion, Judaism, mystery cults to Isis or other deities, and Buddhism from India, the last of which is thought to have had particular influence on Gnosticism. All were openly practiced by speakers of common languages and in a common economy, a pattern not really repeated until the 20th century, where again individual practitioners of all faiths are able to communicate with each other and study their beliefs. Mutual influence is inevitable, and as such, Gnosticism’s syncretic history is naturally appealing, as evidenced in the diverse settings for the above examples.
As popular familiarity grows, the common thread of Gnosticism becomes more obvious, and writers will get to the source material and explore it more thoroughly. The second Gnostic age is only beginning.