IT IS DIFFICULT TO IMAGINE TWO GROUPS WHOSE ORIGINS and interests are in sharper contrast with each other than Druids and Gnostics. One was born in Celtic mysticism, the other in Judeo-Christian theology. One is rooted in naturalism, the other in spiritualism. One sought perfection in this world to match the perfection of the next world, the other saw this world as hopelessly lost and evil.

They are united by misunderstanding and oppression, two qualities that drive individuals and organizations alike into secrecy. They are also, need it be said, shadowy in their origins and activities, and when the shadows are deep enough and the passage of time is long enough, even the most benign groups acquire a veil of suspicion. Especially if they tend to dance in the woods, or are viewed askance by organized religion. Indulging in a little magic, as both Druids and Gnostics tended to do, doesn't help their reputation either.

Each year, approaching the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere, men and women in many Christian nations delight in performing a custom rooted in Druidism. The practice, with its clearly sexual implications, is performed in the presence of a poisonous and parasitic life form, suggesting the Druids were a society of subversive deviates who conducted pagan rituals within open-air temples such as Stonehenge, a classic misconception of this shadowy society.


Druids were in many ways soulful precursors to 1960s hippies.


This late-nineteenth-century artist's depiction of a “druidress” holds mistletoe in one hand and a golden sickle in the other.

The ritual involves couples kissing beneath mistletoe during the Christmas season, a custom that has no known connection with Druidism beyond the sacred status accorded the plant by its members, and the oak trees that support it. Nor does any confirmed association exist between the Druids and Stonehenge, except for speculation among some contemporary fringe groups.

Admittedly, we know little about Druids because they kept no written records, and because they existed less as an organization and more as a position of status among royalty, especially in Celtic communities of Western Europe. All of our understanding of Druidism is obtained third-hand, filtered through both time and social bias; even their ritualistic use of mistletoe is known to us primarily through the writings of the first-century Roman Pliny the Elder. According to Pliny, and Maxim of Tyre, Druids considered the oak tree a visible representation of the deity, the result of Druids living in intimacy with the natural world. “They hold nothing more sacred than the mistletoe,” Pliny wrote, “and the oak tree on which it grows.” Druids misread the true behavior of mistletoe. The plant is a parasite, drawing nourishment from the tree's sap; Druids, whose specialty after all was spiritual studies and not botany, believed that mistletoe gave life to the oak. This idea became strengthened in winter when the oak lost its leaves and grew dormant, yet the mistletoe retained its foliage.

“Anything growing on the [oak] trees,” Pliny continued, “is regarded as life sent from heaven, a sign that the tree has been chosen by the gods themselves. When [the mistletoe] is found, it is gathered with great ceremony on the sixth day of the moon.” According to Pliny, first a feast was held beneath the tree bearing the mistletoe. At the completion of the feast, a Druid priest in white vestments climbed the tree carrying a golden sickle or pruning hook, and gathered the plant in a white cloth. When he returned to the ground with the sacred plant, two white bulls were sacrificed to the gods in exchange for the mistletoe.

The Druids, incidentally, were not the only people to hold mistletoe in such high regard. The Japanese treated it with similar veneration, although they favored a variety that grew on willow trees. Swiss, Slavs, and others considered mistletoe an exceptional plant representing many mystical qualities, most associated with fertility. The fertility connection spawned the custom of couples kissing beneath the mistletoe's fruit during the winter solstice, in hopes of the woman becoming pregnant and bearing a healthy child during the coming year.

Mistletoe, and its winter solstice/Christmas ritual, remains the only tangible link most people maintain with Druidism, yet the movement is considered by some to comprise a secret society working towards shadowy ends.

“Druid” refers not to the member of a religious sect, but to the priestly class of Celtic and Gallic societies, especially in the British Isles. The true origin of the word has been lost in the mists of time. Several theories abound, including one that combines the Greek word drus, meaning an oak tree, with the Sanskrit vid, meaning knowledge (and the Sanskrit word for timber is dru). The Greek word identifying forest gods and tree deities was Dryades, another clue. Celtic scholars categorize Drui as a term for “the men of the oak trees,” and the Gaelic Druidh identifies a wise man or a sorcerer. Other clues point to Teutonic and Welsh sources. Whatever the etymology of the word, tracking its origin leads to an endless and unanswerable chicken-or-egg discussion. It is enough, perhaps, to accept that the word suggests one meaning above all: priestly.

While “priestly” implies that Druids performed a religious function, their role extended well beyond that purpose, encompassing philosophy, science, traditions, teaching, judgments, and fulfilling the duties of royal counselor. Perhaps the best way to describe them in today's vernacular is religious intelligentsia, with the understanding that “religious” implies a wider meaning than normally assigned to it. The Celts lived as close to nature as any ancient people, and closer than most. Their myths, beliefs and practices reflected their deep woodland environment, a world that simultaneously supported, frightened, and spiritually uplifted them.

Those seeking to become Druids at the height of the movement's influence, generally considered to be between 100 bc and ad 1000, qualified according to three levels of ability. The initial level of Ovates (Ovydd) consisted of neophytes needing no special purification or preparation. Dressed in green, they were welcomed into the order according to their naturally acquired knowledge of medicine, astronomy, poetry and music. Ovates wishing to advance in recognition and power studied to become Bards (Beirdd). To qualify for this level they were assigned to memorize at least some portion of a reported twenty thousand verses of Druidic poetry. Bards were often portrayed strumming a primitive harp holding as many strings as there are ribs on one side of the body, the strings composed of human hair. Candidates to become Bards wore striped robes of blue, green and white, the three colors identified with the Druids. When they had achieved full status, they changed to a sky blue garment.

The third level marked the highest rank, the Derwyddon, distinguished by white robes symbolizing purity. Druids ministered to the religious needs of their people, and within this group were six ascending levels or degrees of wisdom and power, each degree marked by a different color of sash worn over the white robe. In the uppermost position were Arch-Druids, elected by their peers according to their virtue and integrity. There were never more than two Arch-Druids at any one time, the men identified by golden scepters carried in their hands and wreaths of oak leaves crowning their heads.

The training period required for an individual to qualify as a full Druid was apparently extensive, some historians claiming it took twenty years to absorb and understand the teachings. Such a level of acquired wisdom qualified Druids for special privileges, and during royal festivities a Druid always sat to the immediate right of the king, filling the role of the king's conscience. As one prominent Celtic historian puts it, “The Druid counsels and the king acts.” Perhaps the best modern analogy is of a corporation's ceo and its legal adviser; the ceo may deliver bad news to the shareholders, but the phraseology originated with the lawyer.

Incidentally, studies suggest that many Druids were women, fully in keeping with the dominant culture of the time. Celtic women enjoyed more freedom than other females of their time, including the right to join in battle and the right to divorce their husbands. In Ireland and Scotland, at least, it's realistic to believe they played a substantial role in the practice of Druidism. And extending the earlier analogy, it's highly likely that the Celtic world experienced more female Druid priests than our current world contains female ceos.

Male Druids lived in strict abstinence and celibacy, dedicating their lives to the study of nature, the accumulation of wisdom, the assessment of nominees to the order, and the maintenance of the order's secrets. Many found that a life of solitude best suited their philosophical needs, and while some resided in monastery-like residences, most lived in rough-hewn shacks deep in the forest, entering villages and towns only to perform their religious duties.

Even during the Dark Ages this was considered somewhat eccentric behavior, and unusual qualities began to be attributed to Druids. They became associated with magic and divine events, including an ability to defend their land from invaders by causing great clouds of fog and mist to appear on command. They may also represent the earliest form of peace activism; the Greek historian Diodorus, who considered Druids as intermediaries between Man and the gods, described the practice of Druids throwing themselves between threatening armies as a means of avoiding war.

For centuries, Druidism was the dominant influence on spiritual beliefs in Europe until diluted and pushed westward by the arrival of the Roman Empire, followed by the spreading influence of Christianity. In fact, this paralleled the decline of Celtic influence generally. From the dominant social structure of pre-Roman Europe the Celts gave way first to the Romans and later to the Saxons, reduced to pockets in Wales and Scotland. Only in Ireland did Celts retain their identity through centuries.

Caesar, as talented at observing and recording social structures as he was at commanding armies, found Druids especially interesting. He noted that Gallic and Celtic societies maintained three levels of class: plebeians, who were little more than slaves; equites, the nobility; and Druids, who provided guidance on holy matters and wisdom. “A great number of young people search them out for instruction,” Caesar wrote, “and [the Druids] are treated with much respect and veneration. It is they who judge all public and personal disputes; when a crime is committed or a murder takes place, or when an inheritance or land boundary is contested, the Druids determine who is at fault and who has been harmed, and decide the damages and penalties…. All Druids are under the command of a single Druid who exercises ultimate authority upon them.” Caesar also noted wryly, considering his reputation and primary occupation, that Druids did not go to war (they were exempted from military service of any kind), and did not pay taxes.

The Druids were a remarkably forgiving and supple society who welcomed into their ranks anyone who successfully pursued a defined course of study focused on the natural world and the manner in which it represented the deity. This openness towards new members seeking leadership may not appear impressive, given our familiarity with contemporary organized religion, but the prospect of gaining access to a privileged class solely on the basis of education and vocation was almost revolutionary. Their practice of accepting all who qualified by dint of study and dedication influenced Christianity. Instead of demanding that its leaders be selected according to bloodline or some mysterious deity-operated lottery, as previous religions had, Christians agreed with Druidic tenets that anyone who absorbed sufficient knowledge and demonstrated high levels of commitment could fulfill the role, whatever their social origins. This was new, and enormously beneficial. It also followed a Christian tradition—some might prefer “strategy”—of adapting characteristics of the pagan model it sought to displace. And it worked: from about ad 500 forward, Druids and Christians were riding opposite ends of the same teeter-totter; the higher Christianity rose in power, the lower the Druids sank.

So who was most responsible for the decline of the Druids—Romans or Christians? It depends on where you stand, literally and figuratively. In continental Europe, where Roman influence was paramount, the Galls adapted Roman law and customs as a prudent means of self-preservation. Under Roman law, Druidism became so compromised that it essentially ceased to exist until resurrected later, in a highly modified state, as part of Christianity's operative machinery, with Druid high priests replaced by bishops and abbots. In the British Isles, the impact of Romanization proved not nearly as dominant. Here, Druidism managed to survive the onslaught, finally yielding to the Saxons. Ireland avoided invasion by both the Romans and the Saxons, and as a result much of our knowledge of Druidism retains a decidedly Irish flavor. With this awareness in hand, Druidism may well have been broader in scope and more complex in structure than we know.

After the Irish Celts adopted Christianity and became among its most fervent missionaries, Druidism fought a near-hopeless rear-guard battle. Prominent Druids withdrew to remote regions where they secretly spread their doctrine and oral traditions to the few stubborn adherents who sought them out. As time passed, however, the power and influence of Druids dwindled until they were viewed by common folk as little more than fortunetellers and prophets, descendants of the apocryphal Merlin and his ilk, cursing and conjuring but achieving little beyond a measure of entertainment.

With so little recorded history and such limited achievement, why do Druids occupy any position at all among our grasp of secret societies? The answer lies within the movement's romantic association with installations such as Stonehenge, and the assumption that Druidism encompassed long-forgotten mystical practices and secret occult knowledge. There is, after all, nothing like the scent of lost knowledge to boost a society's status.

The idea that Druids knew something the rest of us do not grew out of an eighteenth-century fascination in England and Scotland with mysticism, often embraced in a playful manner to relieve the tedious restrictions of Calvinism, Lutherism and other movements that assumed anything fun was a sin—or should be. During this period, Freemasonry crystalized as a secret fraternal society, adapting as it did certain elements of the public's erroneous perception of Druid mystical practices. The Masonic use of exotic headwear, among other rites and costumes, was derived from Druidism and various ancient cultures.


Modern Druids bless the rising sun at Stonehenge, which has no connection with Druidism.

There is more mysticism than fact in the common association of the Druids with Stonehenge. Druids may have conducted some sort of ceremony at Stonehenge from time to time, but they were people of the forest, not prancers and dancers on the windswept Salisbury Plain. Besides, historians have pegged the date of the site's origins around 2000 bc, long before any indication of the Druids’ existence. Stonehenge may have functioned as a temple, an observatory, a monument or any of a dozen other purposes. We do not know for certain what it was; we do know that it was surely not Druidic.

Irish culture assimilated many Druid beliefs and values, and their echoes and influences can be found in the poems of William Butler Yeats and the novels and short stories of James Joyce. Several mystical elements of Druidism may indeed represent the stylistic core that distinguishes Irish authors, and mark the reason for their unique impact on English literature. The demise of the sweet-natured Druids at the hands of Romans and Saxons, philistine in comparison, may also represent the wistful root of Celtic literature. Yeats made use of it several times in his poetry, including these lines from “To the Rose Upon the Rood of Time” that sum up all the gentle Celtic sadness as effectively as several choruses of “Danny Boy”:

Red Rose, proud Rose, sad Rose of all my days!
Come near me, while I sing the ancient ways:
Cuchulain battling with the bitter tide;
The Druid, grey, wood-nurtured, quiet-eyed,
Who cast round Fergus dreams, and ruin untold;
And thine own sadness, where of stars, grown old
In dancing silver-sandaled on the sea,
Sing in their high and lonely melody.

Druids appear several times in Joyce's Ulysses, although with less reverence and more boisterousness than Yeats's melancholy references. When Stephen Dedalus tells Buck Mulligan he had just been paid, Mulligan rejoices.

Four shining sovereigns, Buck Mulligan cried with delight. We'll have a glorious drunk to astonish the Druidy Druids. Four omnipotent sovereigns. He flung up his hands and tramped down the stone stairs, singing out of tune with a Cockney accent….

These and many other references to Druids in Irish literature and folklore help fuel speculation that Druidic influence extends down through the ages, perhaps even to today. Like the Masons encouraging the concept of a link with the Templars, many of those who claim a connection with Druid beliefs encourage the idea that the ancient movement continues to operate in secrecy, with a vague aura of conspiratorial activities. Their efforts serve to provide a patina of mystique to a faction that has had more influence than substance, and been composed of more fable than fact.

To appreciate the breadth of Gnosticism, imagine a private club whose rules and activities are equally attractive to both Hugh Hefner and Mother Teresa. If you are able to grasp the concept of such an organization, you can begin to plumb the deeper teachings and contradictions of the ancient Gnostics, if not their contemporary supporters.

Their name derived from the Greek gnosis, meaning knowledge. (The “G” is silent: NO-sis.) In this context, the definition is inadequate; insight or enlightenment are perhaps more accurate. Knowledge suggests a factual, intellectual aspect rejected by adherents of Gnosticism, who believe that our true spiritual nature can be found only by looking within ourselves. Both our bodies and the material world in which we live are evil because they were created by the malicious God of the Old Testament. Our pure inner spirits, in contrast, are the product of a higher and more abstract God, as revealed by Christ. Thus the goal of Gnosticism can be described as a means of freeing our pure spirits from the enclosure of our evil bodies.

Beyond this central core of their conviction, little about the Gnostics can be easily established, including their origins. Some sources claim they pre-date Christ, some claim they were contemporary with the first Christians, and some identify Gnosticism as a reaction against many of Christianity's firmly established tenets. A number of clues and a handful of facts exist to define the group's beliefs, structure and influence over the past 2000 years.

Gnostics, like followers of all religions, believe the world is imperfect; Gnostics go further by insisting it is also evil. Like Buddhism, Gnosticism acknowledges that life is filled with suffering. In fact, suffering is inescapable. All life on earth survives by consuming other life, and mankind consumes more than its share. Beyond its basic needs for survival, mankind inflicts multiple layers of suffering on a grand scale via wars, and on an individual scale through insults and betrayals. Along with suffering come injury and death as a result of natural catastrophes like earthquakes, floods, fires, drought, pestilence and disease.

Yet the human spirit, according to Gnostic teachings, is pure. Only the matter that surrounds it, including the body it occupies, is flawed. By that measure, life is absurd and only by fleeing this imperfect world can the spirit find true contentment.

The concept of pure spirits residing within an evil world represents an about-face from traditional Christian principles, especially as articulated in Genesis. The Old Testament's initial tale describes a perfect paradise in which two near-perfect people dwell in bliss until the arrival of the serpent persuades them to contaminate it and themselves with sin. Gnostics would argue that the world was already evil before the arrival of the serpent, an issue that did not endear them to Christians.

This core concept of an evil world launched a remarkable schism in Gnostic beliefs and practices, producing extremes of both ascetic and licentious sects, leading to that opening analogy of Hugh Hefner and Mother Teresa under the same philosophical umbrella. Surprisingly, a rationale exists for both points of view.

Ascetic Gnostics, which included followers of Saturninus and the Manicheans, considered the human body as evil matter and tried to divorce themselves—or more correctly their pure spirits—from its actions as much as possible. Separating soul from body, in their view, was the first stage in elevating the spirit to ultimate salvation. They believed matter, as exemplified by the body, was sinful, and distancing themselves from all matter strengthened and purified their spirit. As a result, these Gnostics avoided foods that provided anything beyond mere sustenance. Marriage was sanctioned because it united two pure spirits, but nuptial intercourse was forbidden, a decision that no doubt produced much frustration and no offspring, since children were considered merely the reproduction of yet more evil matter.

This same philosophical foundation pointed licentious Gnostics, such as the Ophites and Carpocratians, in the opposite direction. If pure spirits or souls are alien to this evil world, these sects believed, then it didn't matter what they did here on earth. To these Gnostics, the concepts of sin and immorality were rarely addressed; by definition, everything the soul did was pure and everything the body did was evil. Since both were separate entities, why worry about the ramifications?

This led to a few startling tales of Gnostic activities, many of them challenging credulity, and some reminiscent of the scandalous lies spread about early Christians. In the case of the Gnostics, the Christians themselves may have been the instigators instead of the recipients.

Promiscuous intercourse was attributed to this group of Gnostics who, having sanctified each other and been redeemed, were now above the law. “All the earth is earth,” they were taught, “and it matters not where one sows, as long as one sows.” About 2000 years later this was paraphrased into “If it feels good, do it.”

The Ophites, a group of Gnostics whose name honored serpents, based their entire communion service on the presence and activities of a snake. The service began by attracting the reptile from the safety of its cista mystica and encouraging it to slither among loaves of bread, which were later eaten. Members were required to kiss the snake, which was either very tame or well drugged, on the mouth before falling to their knees and worshipping the animal.

Followers of the Gnostic sect led by Carpocrates were granted even more license and encouragement. Carpocratians believed that the purity of the soul could not be contaminated and made evil, any more than a pearl could be debased by dropping it in the mud; at its center, the pearl would always remain a pearl. Based on this libertine view, the soul ought to experience everything available to it in this world. Carpocratians shared their sexual partners and took part in massive orgies, although males were instructed to practicecoitus interruptus not as a method of birth control but as a means of collecting semen to be consumed as the body of Christ, as was menstrual blood. Recruitment methods of the Carpocratians were basic and no doubt successful in attracting male followers. The most beautiful female members were encouraged to offer themselves as bait to draw adherents, and a related group formed a male elite called Levites who practiced open homosexuality.

Should a woman become pregnant as a result of these activities, the fetus would be aborted, pounded to jelly in a mortar, mixed with honey and spices, and eaten by sect members, a practice chillingly reminiscent of the most lurid fables associated with early Christians.

This kind of practice represented an extreme, perhaps even mad, branch of Gnostic belief. Larger and more respectable was the sect led by Simon Magus, a charismatic scholar who fills an interesting role in at least one biblical tale that provided an eponymous definition in English.

Born in the Samarian town of Gitta, Magus was raised in Alexandria, the great intellectual center of the civilized world in its time, where he received a first-rate Greek education and was baptized by Phillip. He also reportedly acquired enough skill in Arabic-Jewish magical medicine to make himself invisible, levitate himself at will, and metamorphose into an animal, or at least persuade his audience that he had.

A follower of John the Baptist, Simon gathered his own disciples around him and was viewed, not surprisingly, as a potential competitor to early Christian leaders. He appears in the New Testament (Acts 8: 9–24) in a less than favorable light when he encounters the apostles Peter and John and attempts to purchase spiritual powers from them, providing the source of our word simony, the practice of trafficking in spiritual powers or items.

Peter's rebuke (“Your money will perish with you, because you have thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money. You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right in the sight of God.”) may have motivated Simon to launch Gnosticism, as some followers claim. If he didn't actually initiate the religion, he is acknowledged as the inspiration for a faction whose members were labeled, not surprisingly, Simonians. In Simon's view, shared by most Gnostics, the true God possessed a female aspect, a Mother God sometimes referred to as “Sophia” in recognition of Her wisdom.

This attitude angered early Christians, but it was not quite as revolutionary as it appears today. The Hebrew version of the Old Testament actually identifies the Spirit of God as Ruwach, a feminine gender. Simon would have been aware of this reference, and perhaps used it as a stepping stone towards new interpretations of the nature of God. As often occurs when freethinkers challenge a dominant authority, it wasn't what Simon proposed as much as the way he proposed it.


Gnostic Simon Magus, who gave his name to an unpopular act, fell to the Roman Forum while attempting to ascend to heaven.

He later personified his vision of God's femininity in Helen, a woman from Tyre who some Christians claimed was a prostitute and others described as “a shameless slut” lured by Simon away from the bed of Dositheos, Simon's former mentor. Whatever carnal attraction Helen may have represented to Simon, she apparently inspired him at a somewhat higher level because he claimed to see the Spirit of God within her. While this supported many Gnostic beliefs, including the idea that the Spirit of God existed in all matter, Simon's claim that it took a fallen woman to reveal the deity to him outraged Christians.

Christians may have become his enemies, but Simon had friends as well. One of them was the Roman emperor, Nero, who appointed him court magician and was amused by Simon's skill at causing furniture to move without being touched, and walking through a wall of fire to emerge unscathed on the other side.

Simon's magical skill, according to legend, had its limits, and he met his end in one of two ways, depending upon the source. One account claims that Simon boasted he would be buried alive as Christ had been and after three days he would rise from his grave hale and hearty. The burial took place; the resurrection did not.

In the other account, Simon bragged that he would rise into heaven from the Forum, with the apostles Peter and Paul observing the event as witnesses. Employing his levitation skills, he began to soar into the sky while Peter and Paul fell on their knees, praying fervently for Simon to fall. Their prayers were answered and Simon dropped to the Forum, dashed to pieces near the Via Sacra. Adherents of this version delight in visiting the Church of Santa Francesca Romana in the Roman Forum, where the stone on which Peter and Paul knelt to pray remains on display, the mark of their knees pressed into the marble surface.


This stone in the Church of Santa Francesca Romana bears the knee marks of Peter and Paul, who knelt to pray for Simon's fall.

The death of Simon Magus and other Gnostic sect leaders produced neither the collapse of the religion nor its elevation, as occurred with Christianity. The Gnostic core belief continued to evolve, spurred on by new leaders, and while the creed did not want for constant renewal over several centuries, the result was an often bewildering range of variations when it came to values and practices.

In fact, along with the concept of a true, ultimate and transcendent God and a faulty world in which humans dwell, the only constant factor among Gnostic sects was the notion of Aeons, intermediate beings filling the void between humans and God. Aeons and God comprise the realm of Pleroma, or Fullness, because they enjoy the full potency of divinity. Simon Magus's Helen, renamed Sophia in honor of her wisdom, was an Aeon in Gnostic teachings. Humans, as long as the spirit remains trapped within its flawed and evil body, are merely existential according to Gnostics. Instead of the Fullness we are promised, we live in Emptiness.

The spirit's most valuable ingredient is a Divine Spark, the element that separates us from other forms of life and remains trapped within the prison of the body. Unless the required degree of Gnosis is gathered during life, the spark will be re-embodied upon death in another flawed and evil form of earthly life.

Not every human is capable of achieving the goal of retaining the spiritual element beyond earthly existence. Those whose spirituality is strong enough to make the transformation are called pneumatics; they will achieve Gnosis and liberation. A second group, identified as psychics, have little awareness of the spiritual world beyond matter and mind; they may, through sufficient effort and insight, rise to the level of pneumatics. Most people, labeled hyletics, are earthbound and materialistic. Their dedication to physical reality, and their inability to achieve gnosis, dooms them to remain forever in a flawed and evil existence.

As Christianity grew in strength it became less tolerant of Gnosticism. In the Christian view, Gnostics were basically Christians who had wandered so far from the path that their beliefs became heretical. Whether or not Gnostics suffered abuse at the hands of Christians, their numbers shrank and they began to exhibit classic behavior associated with secret societies, including the use of initiations, passwords, secret handshakes and communication via codes and symbols. By the end of the third century ad, Gnosticism ceased to be an influential movement, although segments of its central teachings can be found among the dualist religion Manichaeism as well as medieval religious groups like the Albigenses, Bogomils and Paulicians. Students of the Kabbalah perceive kernels of Gnosticism within that philosophy, and a small non-Christian sect, the Mandaeans, reportedly exist in some corners of Iraq and Iran. Otherwise, for almost 1700 years, Gnosticism became something of a shadowy footnote to the rise and domination of Christianity in the Western world, its near-anonymity broken only by efforts by people such as Jakob Boehme (1575–1624) to revive the movement, and echoes of its philosophy in the writings of William Blake.

Gnosticism received two injections of renewed interest during the twentieth century. The first occurred in 1945 near the Egyptian village of Nag Hammadi when twelve codices containing over fifty writings on Gnosticism were discovered by a peasant digging an irrigation ditch, their origins traced back to the fourth century ad. Likely prepared by monks at the nearby monastery of St. Pachomius, and hidden to escape destruction by the emerging Orthodox Church, the scriptures provided a wealth of information on Gnostic teachings and values.


The Gnostic texts, retrieved in 1945 from their desert hiding place near Nag Hammadi in Egypt.

Meanwhile, psychologist Carl Jung was evaluating Gnosticism as a source of inspiration for his ground-breaking experiments and writings on the workings of the mind. On that subject, he found traditional Christianity lacking in insight compared with Gnosticism. “In the ancient world,” Jung wrote, “the Gnostics, whose arguments were very much influenced by psychic experience, tackled the problem of evil on a broader basis than the Church Fathers.”

These events, plus the drug-induced frenzy to explore mystical practices and beliefs that swept North America during the 1960s, restored another wave of interest in Gnosticism. For the most part, however, the Gnostics represent bit players in an ecclesiastical drama extending over 2000 years, their secrecy more a means of protection from attacks from Christians than a means of carrying out acts against society.

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