“The Torment of Saint Anthony” by Michelangelo

In Gnosticism, the archons (from Greek arkhon, “ruler”[1]) were malevolent, sadistic beings who controlled the earth, as well as many of the thoughts, feelings, and actions of humans. They assisted their master, the demiurge, with the creation of the world, and continued to help him administer his oppressive rule.

According to a Gnostic text called the Reality of the Archons, the archons “have bodies that are both female and male, and faces that are the faces of beasts.”[2] Thus, they’re not truly male nor female, nor human nor animal. The ancients found this kind of boundary-crossing to be deeply threatening, and this description of the archons implied that they were forces of chaos, so “mixed up” as to be “the farthest that a created being could be from God.”[3]

The Reality of the Archons presents the archons as bumbling, conceited oafs. They issue sanctimonious commands that they themselves don’t understand,[4] huff and puff “like storm winds” into the inanimate Adam’s face in a failed attempt to bring him to life,[5] think they’re raping Eve when they’re really raping an empty image of her,[6] and have to call out to Adam and Eve to find them after Adam and Eve have hidden from them.[7]

Despite their sometimes lacking in competence, the archons were extremely powerful beings whom the Gnostics dreaded. The Reality of the Archons quotes Ephesians 6:12 (“Our contest is not against flesh and blood; rather, the authorities of the world and the spiritual hosts of wickedness”) to make the point that the archons were what stood between mankind and salvation.[8] It was they whom Christ had been sent to earth to overcome.

In the ancient world, the self wasn’t seen as being as autonomous as we today think of it as being. It was a playing field where various forces intermingled and battled, ultimately giving rise to our thoughts and actions. For the Gnostics, the archons were among the most powerful and ubiquitous of these forces. They were the ones who were ultimately responsible for all of the evil thoughts and actions of mankind.[9]

But it gets worse: since the archons had created humans in the first place, they had created humans to be extremely susceptible to their influence, and to be almost unable to resist it. Only the divine spark from Heaven, which had slipped into creation despite the archons’ intentions, gave people any kind of a chance of resisting the archons’ temptations. But only a few people – the Gnostics – were even aware of that divine presence within themselves, and even for them it was a tremendous ordeal to act in accordance with that presence rather than the wishes of the archons. Most people were just the puppets of the archons. Thus, the normal, default state of humans was literal demonic possession.[10]

It’s fitting that the Gnostics identified the archons with the entities that were worshiped as pagan gods.[11] How could you fail to worship a god that already possesses and controls you?

The number of archons varies across the Gnostic texts, but there are commonly said to be seven archons (whose identities and names vary as well). These seven corresponded to the seven planets that had been identified in antiquity, whose movements were credited with producing astrological fate. Astrological fate was the main means through which the archons controlled people’s lives.[12]

After giving a list of the seven archons, the Secret Book of John adds, “This is the sevenfold nature of the week.”[13] The seven archons also corresponded to the seven days of the week, which could be expected since the days of the week were already named after pagan gods and the planets to which they corresponded.[14]

Through this string of connections, the archons also corresponded to the seven days of creation in the book of Genesis. The Gnostics interpreted the plural “us” in Genesis 1:26 – “Let us make man in our image” – as referring to the archons.[15] (In its original historical context, that “us” almost certainly referred to the divine council in ancient polytheistic Near Eastern mythology, a concept that Judaism hadn’t fully left behind when the text that’s now the first chapter of Genesis was written.[16])

There’s one further correspondence to note here. In ancient thinking, each planet occupied one of seven celestial “spheres” or layers of the sky. Each of the seven archons therefore ruled over his own celestial sphere.[17] This provided the archons with a further way to inhibit people’s spiritual progress.

For the Gnostics, when someone tried to gain salvation – which they called “gnosis” and characterized as mystical insight rather than intellectual belief or moral action – his or her spirit ascended up through the celestial spheres toward Heaven. The spirit of the Gnostic made this journey both during the Gnostic’s life in moments of ecstatic enlightenment and after death to reach its final resting place. But as the spirit ascended to each sphere, the archon who presided over that sphere would detain the spirit and ask it a series of questions. If the spirit didn’t know how to answer those questions properly – if its gnosis wasn’t yet fully realized – then the archon would be able to prevent it from ascending any higher. It would be trapped by the archons and still subject to their tyranny.[18]

But the mature Gnostic was able to overcome all of the archons and ascend all the way to Heaven, which made him or her superior to the very creators and rulers of the world.

Precedents for Gnosticism’s Archons in Christianity

As bizarre and un-Christian as Gnosticism’s archons may seem, the concept probably came from the Gnostics’ good-faith interpretation of the scriptures and mythical traditions they shared with other Christians of the late first and early second centuries AD.

This process seems to be encapsulated in the first paragraph of the Reality of the Archons. That text begins by quoting the Apostle Paul’s aforementioned statement in Ephesians 6:12: “Our contest is not against flesh and blood; rather, the authorities of the world and the spiritual hosts of wickedness.” The text then promises to inform the curious reader about the nature of these “authorities,” after which begins a description of, and commentary on, the archons’ role in the creation of the world.[19] The entire text is essentially an exegesis (interpretation) of Paul.

Much the same can be said for the idea of the existence of the archons in and of itself, which makes it highly probable that the Gnostics received their inspiration for the idea from Paul.

In almost all of the books attributed to Paul that would later come to be included in the New Testament (something that didn’t exist in any formal capacity when Gnosticism arose), the world is said to be ruled by mysterious “powers” or “authorities.” The words used to denote these beings differ from passage to passage. They can be “principalities” (archai), “dominions” or “authorities” (exousiai), “powers” (dynameis), or “lordships” (kyriotetes).[20] Most of these passages specify that these powers are evil, the enemies of Christ and Christians.[21]

In some cases, these passages could simply refer to human political authorities. But in other passages, this is clearly not the case. Ephesians (3:10 and 6:12), for example, specifies that they dwell in the sky.[22] And Colossians (2:8 and 2:20) refers to them as “elemental spirits of the universe.”[23]

Paul never develops this doctrine directly or systematically. Instead, his letters (including the letters written by others in his name) seem to just take it for granted that the world is ruled by evil spiritual powers of some sort. Much the same can be said for some of the other texts that would later come to be included in the New Testament. The Gospel of Matthew (4:8), the Gospel of Luke (4:6), the Gospel of John (12:31, 14:30, and 16:11) and 1 John (5:19) all say that Satan or a similar being (whom the Gnostics equated with the demiurge, the chief of the archons) is in control of the world. The Gospel of John even specifically calls this being “the archon of this world.”[24]

The New Testament writers therefore presupposed that the world is ruled by villainous spiritual beings of one sort or another. This has long been recognized by scholars of the New Testament, who have usually attributed it to the fact that it was taken for granted back then that spiritual beings – pagan gods – controlled the elements and often directed events on earth. Rather than deny the existence of pagan gods altogether, the New Testament authors simply demoted them to demons.[25] They also drew from the apocalyptic Judaism out of which Christianity arose, which posited that, for obscure reasons, God had allowed Satan to gain control of the world at some point in the past.

Jews of the period and early Christians also believed that good angels in the service of God presided over the elements and various facets of life. These angels were pagan gods who, instead of being demonized, had been de-paganized and placed in the service of God.[26] The leaders of this troop of angels were commonly said to be seven in number, with countless lesser angels under their command.[27] Each of these seven angels dwelt in his own celestial sphere. Even Irenaeus, a second-century Christian bishop who wrote extensively and passionately against the Gnostics, believed in this notion.[28] Since the Gnostics believed that the creator god of the Old Testament was really the evil demiurge, it would have made perfect sense for them to demonize his seven commanding angels and identify them with the malevolent rulers of the world described by Paul. After all, as we’ve already seen, the Gnostics explicitly identified the archons with the pagan gods whom Paul had in mind in at least some of the aforementioned passages.

As I argue in The Origins of Gnosticism, Gnosticism seems to have arisen from within Christianity rather than from outside of it. If that’s correct, then the process by which the idea of the archons came about is a particularly interesting instantiation of that wider process.

References:

[1] Meyer, Marvin, and Elaine Pagels. 2008. “Introduction.” In The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. Edited by Marvin Meyer. HarperOne. p. 11.

[2] Meyer, Marvin. 2008. “The Nature of the Rulers.” In The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. Edited by Marvin Meyer. HarperOne. p. 192.

[3] Lewis, Nicola Denzey. 2013. Introduction to “Gnosticism:” Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds. Oxford University Press. p. 135.

[4] Meyer, Marvin. 2008. “The Nature of the Rulers.” In The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. Edited by Marvin Meyer. HarperOne. p. 192.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid. p. 193.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Lewis, Nicola Denzey. 2013. Introduction to “Gnosticism:” Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds. Oxford University Press. p. 135.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Jonas, Hans. 2001. The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God and the Beginnings of Christianity. Beacon Press. p. 282.

[11] Brakke, David. 2010. The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity. Harvard University Press. p. 70.

[12] Jonas, Hans. 2001. The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God and the Beginnings of Christianity. Beacon Press. p. 43.

[13] Turner, John D., and Marvin Meyer. 2008. “The Secret Book of John.” In The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. Edited by Marvin Meyer. HarperOne. p. 116.

[14] Pétrement, Simone. 1990. A Separate God: The Origins and Teachings of Gnosticism. Translated by Carol Harrison. Harper San Francisco. p. 20-21.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Coogan, Michael D. 2006. The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures. Oxford University Press. p. 9.

[17] Jonas, Hans. 2001. The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God and the Beginnings of Christianity. Beacon Press. p. 43.

[18] Funk, Wolf-Peter. 2008. “The First Revelation of James.” In The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. Edited by Marvin Meyer. HarperOne. p. 321-330.

[19] Meyer, Marvin. 2008. “The Nature of the Rulers.” In The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. Edited by Marvin Meyer. HarperOne. p. 191.

[20] Pétrement, Simone. 1990. A Separate God: The Origins and Teachings of Gnosticism. Translated by Carol Harrison. Harper San Francisco. p. 52.

[21] Ibid. p. 52-54.

[22] Ibid. p. 53.

[23] Colossians 2, NRSV. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=colossians+2&version=NRSV Accessed on 2-13-2020.

[24] Pétrement, Simone. 1990. A Separate God: The Origins and Teachings of Gnosticism. Translated by Carol Harrison. Harper San Francisco. p. 53.

[25] Ibid. p. 54.

[26] Ibid. p. 55-56.

[27] Ibid. p. 64-65.

[28] Ibid. p. 70.