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The Gnostic's pessimistic astrology

In keeping with the rest of late Antiquity, the Gnostics held to a very pessimistic astrology.  From the first century onwards, Jew and Christian, Gnostic and Pagan alike, acknowledged the existence of Fate as a cosmological principle, whose agents are the planetary demons or Keepers of the Seven Gates, who cut the world off from God or the Divine.  This would seem to be based ultimately on an oriental doctrine, the Babylonian cult of planetary gods, which have been transformed into malevolent demons.  Hence the archontes of the Gnostics, the cosmocraters of the Christians (e.g. Epistle to the Ephesians), and even the Seven Governors of the Hermeticists, "whose government is called Destiny" [E.R.Dodds, external link Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety, pp.13-15].

Fighting against this widespread belief, Plotinus argued that while through universal sympatheia the stars may indicate the future, they cannot determine it.  And although the Alexandrian Christian Origen admitted that the stars could function as signs (a reference to Genesis - "Let there be lights in the firmament...and let them be for signs" [Gen. 1: 14]) he denied they had any actual causative power [Ibid, p.15].

The Gnostics on the contrary took the other direction, and magnified the reality and influence of the planetary Archons, so that they became the jailers who through their determination of Destiny kept the Divine Spark imprisoned in the world of matter.

Considering the importance astrology had for the ancient world, it is not surprising to find this doctrine enshrined in the Gnostic cosmology.  But as with the rest of their world-view, we must be careful not to "psychologise" it or water it down, to make it acceptable to the modern mind.  The Gnostics, like the Platonists, Chaldeans, and Hermetists, believed in the literal, almost material, existence of a succession of heavenly or celestial spheres, each pertaining to a particular planet or god or angel.  These were the factors that determined destiny or fate.  Just as today someone may read their daily horoscope and, if they are superstitious, believe what it says will come about, so in the ancient Mediterranean world it was believed that the outcome of things on earth was determined by the stars, or rather, the gods whose visible embodiments were the stars.  The Gnostics, just as they made the Old Testament God into an evil or negative figure, did the same with these astrological gods or - as they termed them - archons or "rulers".  They saw these beings as part of the prison that traps the divine Spark, and the goal as to get past them and return to the pleroma.

And just as the God or Jesus of the modern-day fundamentalists is very much an oppressive figure - believe in me or go to hell - so the modern person consulting his or her daily horoscope does have an oppressive fatalism - this will happen, that will happen.  So the Gnostic perspective is actually very close to the modern "religious" (whether Christian or astrological) one, rather than the modern "psychological" or "existential" quasi-materialism.  The only difference, and is an important difference, is that for the Gnostics there is a spiritual reality beyond the fatalistic one.  Just as the Buddha taught the escape from the wheel of rebirth, the cyclic chain of karma and necessity, and the modern teacher Gurdjieff taught the transcendence of the ordinary "mechanical" state of consciousness, so the Gnostics taught the transcendence of a world of events determined by an astrological fatalism.

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content by M.Alan Kazlev
page uploaded 20 June 1999, last modified 6 June 2004