(If you want to skip the introduction and just read the text itself, the full text of the Reality of the Rulers is below.)
The Reality of the Rulers is a Gnostic text whose title is also sometimes translated as the Nature of the Rulers or the Hypostasis of the Archons. “Hypostasis,” a word that occurs in the original Greek title of the text, is an ancient philosophical word that refers to the inner essence of something. In order to make the title of the text easier to understand for modern readers, “hypostasis” is often translated as “nature” or, as here, “reality.”
In any of its variations, the title of this text is supposed to indicate that it provides its readers with knowledge about the true character of the “archons” or “rulers,” demonic beings who rule the world from the skies and try to keep the souls of humankind imprisoned in the world. It does this through story – specifically, a series of episodes that are elaborations of parts of the Gnostic creation myth that illustrate the personalities, motivations, and goals of these half-witted, lecherous, sadistic beings whom the Gnostics identified with other people’s gods.
The Reality of the Rulers assumes prior knowledge of the Gnostic creation story as told in, for example, the Secret Book of John, so it’s extremely helpful to have read that text or at least a summary of its creation narrative before reading the Reality of the Rulers.
The Reality of the Rulers was written and used by the group of Gnostics that modern scholars call the “classic Gnostics” or “Sethians.” It was originally composed in Greek sometime in the second or third century AD/CE. It was probably written in either Alexandria, Egypt – an ancient cosmopolitan hub of learning where the anonymous author could have encountered and studied the various religious and philosophical traditions he or she drew from – or in Syria, since the text features a number of Syriac wordplays. Today, only one copy of the text survives, a Coptic translation from the Nag Hammadi Library. In the form in which it’s come down to us, the text seems somewhat disjointed and may be an amalgamation of pieces from two or more different sources.
Scholarly opinion has been divided over whether the Reality of the Rulers was always a Christian text or originally a “Jewish Gnostic” text that was later “Christianized.” In my view, at least, this matter was definitively settled by Elaine Pagels in her incisive paper “Exegesis and Exposition of the Genesis Creation Accounts in Selected Texts from Nag Hammadi,” in which she demonstrates that the Reality of the Rulers is steeped in the theology of the apostle Paul in such fundamental ways that the entire text is effectively an exegesis (interpretation) of writings attributed to Paul. In addition to stating at the outset that it aims to explain the meaning of the words ascribed to Paul in Ephesians 6:12 (“For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places”), the Reality of the Rulers also draws heavily from Ephesians 3-5, 1 Corinthians 2, and especially 1 Corinthians 15. The text is therefore thoroughly Christian at its core. (Besides, as I argue in The Origins of Gnosticism, there was never such a thing as “Jewish Gnosticism” in the first place.)
Thus, the “perfect man” or “true man” whose coming is foretold in the text by the angel Eleleth can be none other than Jesus, who had already long since lived and died by the time the Reality of the Rulers was written. (Such retrospective literary “prophecies” of Jesus are a common feature in Gnostic texts.)
Indeed, the Reality of the Rulers is closer to the Christian “mainstream” of its day than many other Gnostic scriptures are. The original meaning of the Gnostic creation myth, as exemplified by the Secret Book of John and many other classic Gnostic texts, was that the creation of the material world by the evil demiurge Yaldabaoth and the other rulers was a catastrophe that was contrary to the will of God. But the Reality of the Rulers holds that God was secretly guiding the activities of the rulers so that, without their knowing it, they were making possible the salvation of the sparks of divinity that had been lost when Yaldabaoth was born and cast out of Heaven (which the Gnostics called the “Pleroma” or “Fullness”). The world may appear to be a disaster, but despite all appearances, God still has ultimate control and he’s surreptitiously involved in the world at every turn. This stands the original meaning of the Gnostic creation myth on its head in some ways and brings it closer to proto-orthodox Christianity.
Just as the Reality of the Rulers tries to have it both ways with regard to the worth of the material world, it also tries to have it both ways with regard to the identity of the god of the Hebrew scriptures. Most Christians of the second and third centuries believed that the creator god of Genesis was the same god from whom Jesus had come, but the Gnostics (and certain other types of early Christianity such as the Marcionites) believed that these were two different, and even opposed, entities. For the Gnostics, these were the demiurge and the true God. The Reality of the Rulers sometimes identifies the Jewish god with the demiurge, but at other times it identifies him with Sabaoth, a “good” ruler who repents and joins the side of the true God. Thus, Sabaoth is described using imagery drawn from depictions of the Jewish god in the first chapter of Ezekiel, one of the books of the Hebrew Bible.
The following version of the Reality of the Rulers is my own rendering of the text based on the translations of Bentley Layton and Marvin Meyer. My aim has been to produce a version of the text that’s clearer and more readable than the available academic translations, while still being closely based on them to ensure accuracy. I hope you find it useful. For more on my methods and goals, see A Note on My Renderings of the Gnostic Texts.
The Reality of the Rulers
With regard to the reality of the rulers (archons), the apostle Paul said of these dark powers that “We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers of this world and the multitude of demons.” The Father of truth inspired the great apostle to write those words. Since you asked about what these rulers really are, I have sent you this letter.
The Demiurge and His Children
Their master (the demiurge Yaldabaoth) is blind. Out of conceit and lack of gnosis he declared with power, “I am the only god; there is no other god but me.” By saying this, he sinned against the Fullness (Pleroma). When his words reached that incorruptible realm, a voice rang out from it that said, “You are wrong, Samael” – a name that means “Blind God.”
Samael’s thoughts, too, were blind. He expressed his power through blasphemy. Wisdom (Sophia) guided him down to chaos and the abyss, his mother, so that his power could be enacted there. And Wisdom established each of his children according to his or her particular traits, based on the model of the eternal realm above. For the visible realm was made after the model of the invisible realm.
Incorruptibility gazed down from the Fullness into the waters, and her image was reflected in the waters. The rulers became infatuated with it. But although they badly wanted to seize for themselves the image they had seen in the waters, they were too weak, for their minds could not grasp the ways of truly spiritual beings. For the rulers were from below, but Incorruptibility was from above.
And why had Incorruptibility gazed down into that place? She had done so by the will of the Father in order to unite everything with his light.
The Creation of Adam
The rulers, whose bodies are both male and female, and whose heads are those of beasts, began scheming. They said, “Come, let us create a human being out of earthly soil,” so that their new creation would be a completely earthly being. They molded the soil into a shape that in some ways resembled their own bodies, yet in other ways resembled the image of God that they had glimpsed in the waters.
They said, “Come, let us seize the image we saw in the waters by the body we have made for it.” Since they were powerless, they did not comprehend the power of God. Their master breathed into the body’s face, and it came alive. Yet it lay on the ground for several days, because they were powerless to give it the ability to stand up. They stood over it huffing and puffing like storm winds in the hope of catching the image they had seen in the waters. But they did not know the source of the power of that image.
All of this happened by the will of the Father of the Fullness.
The Spirit saw the human being lying on the ground and came down from the Fullness to take up residence within him, so that he became a living soul. And the Spirit named him “Adam,” because he had been found lying on the ground. A voice from Incorruptibility came down to support Adam.
The rulers brought to Adam all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the sky so that he could name each of them. They placed Adam in their garden for him to tend it. And they gave him an order: “Eat from every tree in the garden except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Do not even touch that one. For the day you eat from it will be the day of your death.” But they did not realize what they had done. By the will of the Father, they said this in a manner that made Adam want to eat from that tree, which would enable him to see the rulers differently than a solely fleshly being could see them.
The Creation of Eve
The rulers consulted with each other and said, “Come, let us make a deep sleep fall over Adam.” And he slept. Now this deep sleep was a lack of gnosis. They cut his side open and extracted from it a living woman, his spirit. Then they patched him up with flesh where she had been, and in place of a spirit he had only a mind.
The spiritual woman came to him and told him, “Arise, Adam.” When he opened his eyes and saw her, he said, “I am alive because of you, so I name you ‘Mother of the Living.’ You are my mother and my midwife, the woman through whom I was born.”
The rulers approached Adam and saw him talking to his partner. They became greatly agitated with lust for her, and they said, “Come, let us mate with her.” They ran after her as she laughed at them for their stupidity and blindness. When they caught her, she transformed into the tree of life, leaving behind only a shadow that looked like her physical form. The rulers befouled the shadow. By defiling the body they had molded in their own image, they condemned themselves.
The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil
The female spirit went into a snake, and it became a teacher. It began to teach Adam and Eve by saying to them, “What did the rulers tell you? That you were to eat from every tree except the tree of knowledge of good and evil?”
Eve – the earthly Eve, for the spiritual Eve was now in the snake – replied, “Not only did they tell us to not eat from that tree, but to not even touch it. For, they said, the day we eat from it will be the day of our deaths.”
The snake, the teacher, said, “You will not die that way. They said that to you out of envy. Instead, your eyes will be opened and you will come to be like gods, recognizing good and evil.” And with that, the female spiritual teacher left the snake, and it became a merely earthly thing once more.
The fleshly woman plucked one of the fruits of the tree and ate it. She gave some to her husband, and both of those fleshly beings ate. They realized that they lacked gnosis and were gravely flawed. When they saw that they were denuded of spirit, they gathered fig leaves and tied them around their private parts.
The chief ruler came and cried, “Adam, where are you?” For he was unaware of what had happened.
Adam answered, “I heard your voice, and because I was naked I was afraid. So I hid.”
The chief ruler said, “Why were you hiding? You would only have done that if you had eaten from the single tree from which I told you not to eat. You have eaten from it!”
Adam said, “The woman you made for me gave me fruit from that tree, and I ate it.” The conceited ruler cursed the woman.
But the woman said, “I ate because the snake lied to me.” The rulers turned to the snake and cursed it. They did not realize that they themselves had made the snake. The rulers’ curse lay upon the snake from that day until the day when the perfect man was to come.
The rulers then turned to Adam and his wife and banished them from the garden. They, too, lay under the rulers’ curse. The rulers plunged them into a life of toil and distraction, so that they would be consumed with earthly tasks and unable to concern themselves with the matters of the Holy Spirit.
The Children of Eve
After this, Eve bore a son by the rulers: Cain, who tilled the soil. Adam slept with his wife, and she conceived again and bore Abel, who looked after flocks of sheep. Cain made a sacrifice to God from the crops of his fields, but Abel made a sacrifice from his lambs. God welcomed Abel’s sacrifice, but he did not accept Cain’s. Cain, fleshly man that he was, went after his brother Abel.
And God asked Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”
Cain replied, “What am I, my brother’s keeper?”
God said to Cain, “Listen! The voice of your brother’s blood is crying out to me. You have sinned with your mouth, and your sin will come back upon you. You will be reduced to a life of moaning and quivering on the ground, and anyone who puts you out of your misery will have seven vengeances unleashed upon them.”
Adam slept with his partner Eve. She conceived again, and bore Seth. She said, “God has given me another son to make up for Abel.”
Eve became pregnant once more and bore Norea. Eve said, “He has given me a virgin to be a helper for many generations of humankind.” Norea is the virgin whom the rulers were unable to violate.
And humankind was fruitful and multiplied.
The Great Flood
The rulers consulted with each other and said, “Come, let our hands send forth a flood that will annihilate all flesh, both human and animal.”
But the ruler Sabaoth had misgivings about their plan. He went to Noah and said, “Build for yourself an ark from wood that does not rot. Take your children and the beasts and the birds – both small and large – inside the ark, set it on Mount Sir, and hide in it.”
Norea went to Noah and asked to board the ark. But Noah refused, so she blew on the ark, and it was consumed by fire. So Noah built a second ark.
The Rulers’ Attempt to Rape Norea
The rulers went to Norea to seduce her. Their master said to her, “Your mother Eve submitted to us.”
But Norea turned to face them and replied, “You are the accursed rulers of darkness. You did not mate with my mother, but with a female from among yourselves. I did not descend from you. I descended from the world above.”
The conceited ruler turned to her with a face like a black fire, and he snarled, “You must submit to us just like your mother Eve did, for I have been given [text missing].”
Norea turned away and cried out with the power of spirit to the holy God of the Fullness, “Save me from the clutches of these depraved rulers, and do it now!”
A great angel came down from the Fullness and said to her, “Why are you crying out to God? Why are you so brash toward the Holy Spirit?”
Norea asked, “Who are you?”
The depraved rulers had fled. The angel said, “I am Eleleth, Intelligence, the great angel who dwells with the Holy Spirit. I have been sent to talk to you and to save you from brutal hands. I will teach you about your root.”
I, Norea, cannot articulate how powerful that angel is. It looks like gold clothed in snow. My mouth becomes silent when I think of its power and the sight of its face.
The great angel Eleleth said to me, “I am Intelligence. I am one of the Four Luminaries who dwell with the Great Invisible Spirit. Do you think you are vulnerable to any of the rulers? None of them has any power against the root of truth, for in the end someone will arrive on its behalf, and he will vanquish the rulers. The rulers cannot violate you or the unshakeable race, for your home is where Incorruptibility and the Virgin Spirit dwell, a place that cannot be assailed by the rulers of chaos or their world.”
Eleleth’s Speech to Norea
I said, “Lord, tell me about the power of these rulers. Where did they come from? What is their nature? What are they made out of? Who created them and their power?”
The great angel Eleleth, who is Intelligence, replied, “Incorruptibility dwells in infinite eternal realms. Wisdom, who is called Faith (Pistis), wanted to have a child by herself, without the involvement of her partner, and she gave birth to something in the heavens.
“A veil lies between the world above and the world below. A solitary shadow was cast beneath that veil, and that shadow became matter. What Sophia had given birth to took shape in matter, like an aborted fetus. He took his form from the shadow, and became a conceited beast like a lion. And because he was a material thing, he was a hermaphrodite.
“When he opened his eyes, he saw such a great heap of matter that it stretched beyond the horizon. He was filled with conceit, and he proclaimed, ‘I am the only god; there is no other god but me.’
“By saying this, he sinned against the Fullness. A voice came from above the tyrant’s realm and said, ‘You are wrong, Samael’ – a name that means ‘Blind God.’
“The blind god said, ‘If anything other than me exists, show it to me!’
“So Wisdom stretched forth her hand and made light shine upon matter, even into that place of chaos. Then she withdrew her light, and darkness fell upon matter once again.
“Since the ruler was a hermaphrodite, he was able to create an immense realm by himself. He gave birth to seven children who were hermaphrodites like their father. And he said to them, ‘I am the God of all.’
“Life (Zoe), the daughter of Wisdom, exclaimed to him, ‘You are wrong, Fool (Sakla)’ – who is also called Yaldabaoth. She breathed into his face, and her breath became an angel of fire. The angel bound Yaldabaoth and threw him down into Tartarus, the lowest part of the abyss.
“When Yaldabaoth’s son Sabaoth saw just how powerful that angel was, he repented. He came to loathe his father and matter, his mother, and he disowned them. He sang hymns of worship up to Wisdom and her daughter Life. Wisdom and Life carried him up to the seventh heaven, just below the veil between the world above and the world below, and established him there. Since he is above the forces of chaos, he is called ‘Sabaoth, lord of the forces.’
“After this had come to pass, Sabaoth made for himself a great four-sided chariot of cherubim and countless angels to assist him and regale him with music. Wisdom put her daughter Life at his right hand to teach him about the things of the eighth heaven, and the angel of fury at his left hand. Ever since, Sabaoth’s right has been called “life,” while his left has become a symbol of the oppression of the tyrant’s realm.
“When Yaldabaoth looked up and saw Sabaoth seated in glory high above him, he was jealous of him. Thus jealousy was born. Jealousy was a hermaphrodite like its father, and it gave birth to death. Death spawned children of its own and put each of them in charge of a region of the heavens until all the heavens teemed with their multitudes.
“But all of this came to pass by the will of the Father of the Fullness, after the model of the world above, for chaos was unknowingly planting the seeds of its own undoing.
“Now I have taught you about the reality of the rulers, of matter, of their father, and of their world.”
The Children of Norea
I, Norea, wondered, “Lord, am I a thing of matter like they are?”
Eleleth answered, “You and your children are from the original Father. Their souls come from above, from pristine light. Because of the spirit of truth within them, the rulers cannot come near them. All who know the ways of truth are deathless as others die all around them.
“But your descendants will remain hidden for now. After three ages, they will reveal who they truly are and liberate others from the chains of the rulers’ errors.”
I asked, “Lord, how long will it be until that happens?”
He replied, “It will not happen until the true man from above comes in an earthly body and reveals the spirit of truth that the Father has placed within them.
“Then that true man will teach them everything, and will anoint them with eternity’s oil, which was given to him by the unbowed race.
“Then their thoughts will be freed from blindness. They will trample death, which the rulers imposed upon them, under their feet. And they will ascend to the place of infinite light where they belong.
“Then the rulers will surrender their domain. Their angels will wail over their downfall, and their demons will grieve over their death.
“Then all the children of light will truly know their root, the Father of the Fullness, and the Holy Spirit. With one voice, they will say, ‘The truth of the Father is just. The Son is the true ruler.’ And all will exclaim through eternal ages, ‘Holy, holy, holy! Amen.’”
 Lewis, Nicola Denzey. 2013. Introduction to “Gnosticism:” Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds. Oxford University Press. p. 134-135.
 Meyer, Marvin (trans.). 2008. “The Nature of the Rulers.” In The Nag Hammadi Library. Edited by Marvin Meyer. p. 187.
 Lewis, Nicola Denzey. 2013. Introduction to “Gnosticism:” Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds. Oxford University Press. p. 132-133.
 Meyer, Marvin (trans.). 2008. “The Nature of the Rulers.” In The Nag Hammadi Library. Edited by Marvin Meyer. p. 190.
 Lewis, Nicola Denzey. 2013. Introduction to “Gnosticism:” Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds. Oxford University Press. p. 132-133.
 Ibid. p. 135-138.
 Ephesians 6:12, NRSV. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=ephesians+6%3A12&version=NRSV Accessed on 4-16-2021.
 Pagels, Elaine. 1986. “Exegesis and Exposition of the Genesis Creation Accounts in Selected Texts from Nag Hammadi.” In Nag Hammadi, Gnosticism, and Early Christianity. Edited by Charles W. Hedrick and Robert Hodgson. Hendrickson Publishers. p. 266-269.
 Layton, Bentley. 1987. “The Reality of the Rulers.” In The Gnostic Scriptures. Doubleday. p. 65.
 Lewis, Nicola Denzey. 2013. Introduction to “Gnosticism:” Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds. Oxford University Press. p. 146.
 Layton, Bentley. 1987. “The Reality of the Rulers.” In The Gnostic Scriptures. Doubleday. p. 68-76.
 Meyer, Marvin (trans.). 2008. “The Nature of the Rulers.” In The Nag Hammadi Library. Edited by Marvin Meyer. p. 191-198.