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IRANIAN RELIGIONS: ZOROASTRIAN

Zoroaster at Nag-Hammadi


 

By: Ezio Albrile

 

 

The central idea of Gnosticism, as of all the mystery religions, is that of salvation; a gnîsij or inner knowledge was offered to the elect, through which the soul might be delivered from its condition of bondage. Salvation, as understood by Christianity is fundamentally ethical or «religious» in its meaning, but in Gnosticism the ethical aspect of redemption falls almost completely into the background of a ritual praxis.

In December 1945, Egyptian peasants found a pottery jar with Coptic manuscripts in a cave near Nag-Hammadi, Upper Egypt.  The jar contained at least 12 codices and eight leaves of another one that were inside the front cover of what was later called Codex VI. So, the thirteen codices of Nag-Hammadi contain at least 52 texts and 46 different works, of which 40 were previously unknown (Robinson 1984). Most of the texts belong to Gnostic sects of the first centuries: probably the same tractates utilized by the heresiologists to fight the  «Gnostic Hydra» (cf. Ir. Adv. haer. I, 30, 15), a complex  phenomenon  involving  manifold  ideological and  cultic influences.

The focus of   Gnosticism is on an absolute dualism between Light and Darkness, pneàma  and matter, a dualism that mainly serves to explain evil and mistake in this world by tracing it back to an accident that was not intentionally provoked by the true transcendent and ineffable God. The body of Adam is the prison where the divine spark of light, the pneàma lives in exile: for Gnosticism, salvation consist primarily in liberation from the body and the world, in order   to regain the primordial condition in  the  pl»rwma as a   part   of the shining God (Rudolph 2000; Couliano 1989: 77 ff. ).

The contribution of   Mazdaean Zoroastrianism to the evolution of Gnostic   doctrine was decisive, as is shown by dualism among    Light and Darkness, the identity of divine and human spiritual forces or virtues, the idea of the Soul’s journey   and that of the end of the world and the last judgment. These traditions passed in to Gnostic texts not directly from the Iranian lore, but were already accepted and assimilated in the Judaeo-Aramaean world since the pre-Christian times (Albrile 2001: 27-54).  And a few examples of this syncretistic process are to be found in the Nag-Hammadi texts.

 First to be considered is the Apocalypse of Adam, the fifth tractate in Codex V of the Nag-Hammadi library. It purports to be a revelation given by Adam to his son Seth, «in the 700th year», that is, just prior to Adam’s death (Gen. 5,3-5). This feature gives the document the character of a «last testament» and associates it with other testamentary literature in antiquity. Adam describes his fall in the Garden of Eden as a lapse into ignorance.

Three heavenly figures then appear to Adam, and their revelation to him be­comes the subject of Adam’s last testament to Seth. He describes to Seth the origin of a special race of men and their struggle against the Creator god called Sakla, the Almighty (69, 5). Three attempts are made by the creator to destroy this race of men who possess the knowledge of the eternal God. Two of these threats are drawn from well-known Jewish traditions, but here they are given a new interpreta­tion. For example, the biblical flood narrative is interpreted as the attempt of a wicked creator god to destroy the pure race of men that possess the special knowledge of the eternal God (67, 22 - 76, 7).

Adam describes the descent of a heavenly figure, the Illuminator of knowledge, the fwst»r. His appearance shakes the cosmos of the Creator god and his evil host through thirteen «kingdoms». They persecute him, yet he succeeds in reveal­ing his knowledge to the special race of men. The narrative ends with an apocalyptic scene in which those who oppose the Illuminator fall under the condemnation of death but those who receive his knowledge «will live for­ever» (83, 15).

The narrative breaks down into two sections that appear to be two sources harmonized by an ancient editor with appropriate redactional comments at the point of literary seams (Hedrick 1980). One source can be described as standing near the border between Jewish Apocalypticism and Gnosticism. The second source on the other hand, contains few refer­ences to Jewish traditions and reflects a developed Gnostic mythology (77, 26 ff.). The most interesting feature of this material is its close parallel with Iranian tra­ditions (Böhlig 1968: 149-161) about Saošyant - (>Pahlavi SŸš…ns), the Future Redeemer, or Helper (Messina 1932: 149-176; Messina 1935: 275-276; Cereti 1995a: 33-81). The Illuminator reveals himself  and comes up  the water ( 77, 30 ff. ). This  conception has a strictly  resemblance   to  the Iranian Saošyant -  born from  the  shining and igneous seed of Zarathuštra concealed in the water of  Kąsaoya lake (Welburn 1988: 4756 ff.). Also, the origin of  fwst»r  like the Saošyant - is from virgin birth (78,27-79,19). In Yašt 19,92 and in Widēwdād 19,5 there are references to the birth of the Saošyant- Astvat~.rta from his waters, where, according to a certain tradition, the seed of Zoroaster was preserved in order to impregnate the three virgins mentioned in Yašt 13, 142, mothers of the three Saošyant s (Yašt 13, 28; 62; Dnkard VII, 8, 1 ff.; Boyce 1975: 285).

Another text, the Apocalypse of Paul, also in Codex V (NHC V, 2), is the account of a heavenly journey made by the Apostle, from the third sphere to the pleromatic circles of the Ogdoad, the Ennead, and the Decad. Paul begins his journey on the mountain of Jericho with the aim of reaching Jerusalem, that is, the heavenly Jerusalem, where the twelve apostles are gathered. On his way, Paul is accompanied by a small child, the Holy Spirit (for the Valentinian connection see Casadio 1989: 123; Rosenstiehl-Kaler 2005: 70-80), shows him the direction and suggests how he should conduct himself when confronted with the obstacles of the spheres. The aim of the journey is the acquisition of knowledge: «Let your mind awaken, Paul, and see that this mountain upon which you are standing is the mountain of Jericho so that you may know the hidden things in those that are visible» (19, 10-15).

In the course of this journey to heaven, which at times takes on the appearance of a descent to hell, Paul glimpses the organization of the heavenly hosts, angelic and demonic, the interlocking of the spheres with their doors and their keepers, and the punishment of a wicked soul. Arriving at the sev­enth heaven, Paul faces a demiurgic power who questions him before allowing him to pass on to the Ogdoad. When Paul reaches the eighth heaven, he joins the twelve apostles, his spiritual companions, and with them goes to the tenth and last heaven (22, 24-24, 4).

The framework of the heavenly journey, as it is briefly sketched by the author of the Apocalypse of Paul, is of a literary genre common in many Jewish writings (Rosenstiehl-Kaler  2005: 34 ff.) and even more in an Iranian setting (Widengren 1955). The Gnostics frequently took up this schema to illustrate the  rescue   of  the  Soul  from  time and space. In Mazdaean Zoroastrianism this theme appears in  a   famous  work   called  Ard Wirz nmag, the «Book  of Ard Wirz», the book that narrates the  visions  in heaven and hell of  the   pious priest Ard Wirz, who is said to have gone, with his living body, from this world  to the realm of the dead,   in order to inquire  about the fate of our Souls after death  (Gignoux 1984). The  narrative of the journey begins when  in the first night Wirz was  received by  Sraoša and the  angel of the fire Ādur-yazd  who acted as  his guide during the whole journey. With  the  assistance  of  these two  «angels» Wirz  passed the Činwad puhl, the gate of the underworld. His guides declared themselves  ready to  show him the pleasures of  Paradise and  the terrors of Hell. The first place he came to  is  the  abode of  the  Hamstagn,  the  intermediate place where  good and evil  works are equal,  a sort  of  Purgatory (Gignoux 2003: 637b-638a).  Afterwards  Wirz arrives at four different Paradises.  The first  is called Humat «Good thought» and is in the  Stars track; the second  called  H¢xt  «Good speech»  is situated in the Moon  track and  the third called Huwaršt «Good deed» in the atmosphere of the Sun. These are the so-called  «three steps». At last Wirz  arrives in  the  fourth step  called  GarŸdmn the  «House  of  singing».  The  Souls which Wirz met in  the  first  three  paradises  are  respectively sitting on thrones and shining with the radiance of the Stars, the Moon and the Sun.

The elements characterising Paul’s ascent in this apocalypse are common to all heavenly journeys: viz. the passage from sphere to sphere, interrogatories by the appointed toll-collectors at the gates, passwords and signals that the soul must give in order to ad­vance, and finally the presence of an escorting an­gel who helps the soul in its wanderings (Scholem 1960: 14-19).

          We should note, too, that the punishment adjudged to the soul in the Apocalypse of Paul consists of casting it into a body prepared for her. Here we have the idea of metempsychosis, expressed also in the phrase: «the whole race of demons, the one that reveals bodies to a soul-seed». It is the demons, then, who are responsible for the new incarnation of the wicked soul. Furthermore, Tartarus, the infernal place of punishment, is situated not under the earth nor in the sublunar part of the heavens but on earth; an earth which the author does not hesitate to define as «land of the dead» or «world of the dead» (Cumont 1949: 196 ff.). So, in the otherworldly  journey  of Wirz  still  exist  an  infernal  opponent to the four Paradises:  Duš-humat  the  place  of  evil  thought, Duš-h¢xt  that  of   evil word  and Duš-huwaršt that  evil  deeds. At last, the Hell by the fourth step:  a  dark and gloomy  place,  cold  and hot,  full of stench and noxious creatures.  After having witnessed  the severe  punishments  which were  inflicted in Hell, Wirz  is  carried back to the mountain Čagd dadg, «right peak» below which the Činwad puhl is situated, into a desert and shown Hell  in the earth: a topographical perspective that we find in our Nag-Hammadi apocalypse.  The  usual criticism against the  Iranian hypothesis is the late  dating of the Ard Wirz nmag, but this  text  goes back  to a most ancient visionary tradition. A  proof is to be found in  the  ecstatic accounts  of  Zoroaster in the Gq (Yasna 30, 3; Piras 1998: 163-185)  in the Bahman Yašt (Cereti 1995b) and  in  the trance of   Wištsp  in the  seventh book of  Dnkard  (VII, 3 [4], 83-87 = Sanjana 1915: 31-33; with  relative Rivyat).

           Various form of Gnostic mythology have found concrete shape in a number of  Nag-Hammadi tractates. One of these basic texts of  mythological Gnosis, to which modern scholars often attach the  label  «Sethian» is the Apokryphon Johannis, an apocryphal work dealing with the risen Christ. A Coptic version of this «secret book» appeared in Berlin Papyrus 8502, a small collection of Gnostic texts known before  Nag-Hammadi discoveries (Mantovani 1990: 227a-231b; Waldstein-Wisse 1995). It was then noted that Irenaeus may have used a Greek version in his treatise Against All the Heresies (I,29,1-4 = Barbelognostics) written before A.D. 180. Notably, the Nag-Hammadi library contains no less than three other versions (NHC II, 1,1,1-32,9; III, 1, 1, 1-40,11; IV, 1, 1,1-49,28) each placed at the beginning of a Codex,  a fact which demonstrates the importance of this work .

The work purports to be a revelation from the risen Savior to John son of Zebedee. The Revealer pronounces terrible curses upon anyone who dares to divulge the mysteries, a customary feature of Gnostic apocalypses. The sub­ject of the revelation is the creation both of the world and of man, as well as the origin of evil and the saving power of  gnîsij.

To summa­rize the contents (Colpe 1976: 120-129), we note that from the Invisible Spirit there emanated twelve Aeons of light of whom the last, Sophia,  wished to produce by her­self a copy of the Adam of Light without the interventions of her heavenly consort. She produced only an abortion,  a Demiurge named Ialdabaoth.  An  rgon, a monster with face of a lion and body of serpent (II, 10, 8-10). Guarding jealously the power that he had derived from his mother, he created the world of darkness, including Archons, powers of evil, and so forth. Thinking to produce an image of the Father, the Archons fashioned a human body. But this, being purely psychic,  was incapable of mov­ing until Ialdabaoth was led by a ruse to breathe a particle of Light into it (II, 20, 5-30).

The man immediately showed himself superior to the frustrated Demiurge, who with his Archons then fashioned a purely mate­rial body, in which he imprisoned the man, as in a grave and covered his senses with a veil to make him forget his divine nature (Van den Broek 1981: 38-57). A long struggle then ensued between the Holy Spirit and the powers of evil, until the Savior was to come to convince men of their divine origin. We note also that the Reveal­er declared himself to be at once the Father, the Mother, and the Son, a typically Gnostic triad.

In the text there are some references to Iran. For instance, the Demiurge Ialdabaoth, «darkness of ignorance», may be modelled on Ahriman, the principle of evil in Mazdaean Zoroastrianism, of whom Plutarch wrote that he was like «darkness of ignorance» (Isid. et Osir. 46). The former says that Zoroaster  taught the  Persians to sacrifice to Areimanios «offerings  for  averting ill, and things of gloom.  For,  pounding in a mortar a herb called omomi (< Avestan haoma) they invoke  Hades and Darkness (Benveniste 1929: 288-291); then, having mingled it  with  the blood of a slaughtered wolf,  they bear it forth into a  sunless place and cast it away». In like manner speaks a passage of Dnkard (182, 6).  Such a cult must have passed to the Mithraic mysteries,  where dedications  are found  Deo  Arimanio: the idea of  interpreting as  Ahriman the lion-headed statues in the Mithraic cave is on debate  (Duchesne Guillemin 1955: 190-195; Duchesne Guillemin 1958-1960: 1-8; Hinnells 1975: 333-369).  Most probable that  this simulacra are representation of  the Iranian  god of time Zurwn: in the age of the Persian renascence, under   the  Sassanids, flourished a most ancient religious thought, the Zurvanism, that taught as the  two antagonistic principles  are submitted to a supreme being, the  «Endless Time» (Gnoli 1984: 115-138), the AiŸn of  the Mithraic mysteries (Pettazzoni 1949a: 275-299; Pettazzoni 1949b: 245-256; Pettazzoni 1954: 180-192; see also Albrile 2005: 7-8).

Further, at the very beginning of the text, a Pharisee named Arimanios insidiously suggests to John that the «Nazorean» has deceived them (II, 1, 10-15). Notably, in Greek litera­ture the name Arimanios appears only in connection with Zoroaster. Hence it might well be symbolic in our text. Additionally, there is even explicit reference to a «Book of Zoroaster» which is said to give precise information about the role of the Angels (II, 19, 10). So, on the whole, the Apokryphon Johannis is a very important source both for the study of gnîsij and the Iranian influences on primitive Gnostic mythology.

On the same «Sethian» cosmological tune is the Hypostasis of the Archons . This, the fourth tractate of Codex II of the Nag-Hammadi library, is a Gnostic exposition of the origin, na­ture, and function of angelic powers (Gilhus 1985).

In the cosmology of the docu­ment, the universe is divided by a veil (kataptasma) into two mutually exclusive realms (94, 10). The primary, incorrupti­ble, and invisible realm above the dividing veil is contrasted with its shadow, the corruptible and visi­ble realm of physical matter and of ignorance be­neath the veil. At the instigation of a heavenly and incorruptible being called Pistis Sophia («Faith in Wis­dom»), the ignorant, inferior, and malevolent god of the lower realm, Ialdabaoth, organizes his offspring into a hierarchy corresponding to that found in the upper world (87, 7-11). So organized, this angelic offspring of Ialdabaoth constitutes the Archons or Rulers. Thus, the cor­ruptible Archons of the lower realm correspond to the incorruptible Angels or Aeons of the upper.

When the Archons of the lower world see the image of the incorruptibility that dwells above the veil reflected in the waters of their lower realm, they lust after the beautiful image and attempt to capture it by creating a copy of it out of physical matter to act as a decoy. This physical decoy is Adam (87, 12-88, 24).

At first, Adam is unable to rise from the ground out of which he was created, for while the Archons can give him somatic life, mere animation, they cannot give him what is found only in the upper world, an incorruptible soul. However, when the incorruptible Spirit above sees Adam below, it descends to the lower realm and inhabits his physi­cal body .

The Archons then put Adam into the Garden, and while he sleeps, they take Eve from his side. In this division, the Incorruptible Spirit that dwelt in Adam remains with the part that becomes Eve. The Ar­chons, in their lust for this spiritual entity, rape Eve and beget Cain, but before they do it, the Spirit passes from Eve into a serpent and so remains undaunted (91, 6-92, 27). It is this spiritual serpent that then teaches Adam and Eve to defy the evil Archons, to partake of the fruit of the Garden, and to gain knowledge. The Spirit then passes from the serpent into Norea, the daughter of Adam and Eve. When the Archons at­tempt to rape Norea, as they had done with her mother Eve, she resists and calls upon the god of the upper realm, who sends the angel Eleleth to rescue her (93, 9-13).

There are references to the primordial  sexuality  also in Iranian myth. The  third  era of   Zoroastrian cosmology that began with  the   millennium of  Saturnus-Kwn (Panaino 1996: 235-250;  see Lact. Div. inst. IV, 4, 10) is characterized by the  abominable  «mixture», the  gumzišn: Jeh, the primeval whore, wake  up  Ahriman to have him fighting the good creation of Ohrmazd and kill the first man Gayomart. A part of  his seed purified fell upon the earth, where it remained for  forty years. From the Gayomart’s seed slowly grew the rhubarb plant,  the stem  of which developed into the first human couple Mašya e Mašynag, the  Iranian Adam and Eve. These  protoplasti  become  Ahriman  worshippers  and devote  themselves to indiscriminate sexual practice and cannibalism. A myth  that will  reformulated  by  the Manichaean Gnosis. Further and, many centuries later, we find Gayomart inhabiting the  Purgatories  of  a Provençal version of  the  Tindal’s Vision  in the personage of the  suffering king  Cocomart (17, 2040-2054 [Jeanroy-Vignaux 1903: 101]).

Eleleth teaches Norea how the first Archon, Ialda­baoth, was created out of the incorruptible Sophia, and how Ialdabaoth subsequently created the physi­cal universe and begot the other Archons. For blas­phemy against the upper realm, Ialdabaoth is finally consigned to Tartarus, and one of his offspring, the repentant Archon Sabaoth, is installed in his father’s place over all the lower realms (95, 10-13). Eleleth finally re­veals to Norea that she and her offspring, who pos­sess Spirit, rightly belong to the upper realm and will be saved from the lower world and its Archons when the true Man will come into the world at a future time (96, 33-35). The treatise ends with an eschatological hymn describing the salvation of the spiritual beings and the final destruction of the Archons (97, 1-22).

The cosmogonic myth of the Hypostasis of the Archons is presented in an abbreviated form and must be fleshed out by comparison with other instances of the same myth, particularly with that in the fifth tractate of Codex II, On the Origin of the World, with which has many close parallels. On the Origin of the World a.k.a. Scriptum sine titulo is a Gnostic tractate handed down in several copies (NHC II, 5, 97,24-127,17; NHC XIII, 2, 50, 25-34 [frag.]; British Library, Or. 4926 [1] [frag.]) and by comparison with other texts quite well preserved.

On the Origin of the World opens with a philo­sophical discussion about primordial Chaos, but moves at once to a description of primeval events, reviewing at first the establishment of the boundary between the upper and lower world, as well as the formation by Pistis Sophia of Ialdabaoth, the first created and the main protagonist of the upper world. The cosmogony, and later the anthropogony, seems partly inspired by the first chapters of Genesis, but also by ideas known from several writings of the pseudepigraphic literature of Judaism. Indeed, Jewish influences and back­ground also surface in the author’s angelology, demonology, and eschatology, as well as in his etymologies. However, the Gnostic interpretation of the materials at hand is different in that it ranges from a complete reassessment of the arrogance of the Demiurge and events of  Genesis,  to a relatively unbroken integration of existing Jewish thoughts and  motifs,  as found  in the description of  Paradise .

The high point of primeval events is the creation of earthly man, which must be seen in connection with the doctrine of the primeval man in On the Origin of the World. This teaching is difficult to understand because it utilizes different motifs and heterogeneous ideas. A primordial man is said to be created by the Archons or Rulers according to the image from high, in the likeness of the Light-Adam . This man is called «Man-of-shining-blood» (108, 22; Mantovani 1981: 143), a nickname playing on the numerous meanings linked to the Hebrew words adm = «man», dm = «blood», dŸm = «red» e admh = «earth» (Painchaud 1995: 352-353).

A heavenly primeval man who corresponds in a cer­tain way to the Third Messenger in Manichaeism or to the AnthrŸpos of Poimandres, apparently goes back  to  a the most ancient Iranian  motif  of the primordial man  GayŸmart, a myth  interpreted in various ways. One of  these  narratives, registered by the  Pahlavi Rivyat accompanying the Ddestn   dng (46 = Williams 1985: 683-697),  tells us that Ohrmazd placed all the creations into a sort of human body, where they gestated. The perfected creations were  then brought forth from the different parts of   this body. This myth has been connected with the Indian Puruña  motif (Zaehner 1955: 136-137). A comparable link between macrocosm and microcosm may be  found in the Bundahišn,   where the earth is said to have been created «in the semblance of a Man» and in  Zdspram (30, 1), where the human  body is likened to the firmament. It is probable  this Gnostic idea  of  AnthrŸpos  derived  certain elements  from the development of  Iranian conceptions. The same  development, mediated through  the  Gnostics, will originate the  Islamic notion  of   al-insn al-kmil ,  the  «Perfect man».

 In a counter-campaign in the Light world, the Sophia (Zoe), who functions in our document as Savior and who also completes the Archons’ unfinished creation of man, fashions a «spiritual» man manifested in different ways as the bringer of the gnîsij: as the spiritual wife of Adam, as the serpent, «the beast», and as the instructor in paradise who is viewed favorably. Fundamentally, all of these beings are the Sophia (Zoe) herself (115, 11 ff.).

In many respects, On the Origin of the World is a significant Gnostic work. Through this rather exten­sive writing, we gain insight into an educated au­thor’s thinking, working methods, and logic regard­ing a fundamental theme (Tardieu 1974).

Another  «Sethian» text  with cosmogonical aims is the Paraphrasis of Sem (NHC VII, l), one of the longer and best preserved tractates of the Nag-Hammadi library. This text is part of a small, selec­tive group of Gnostic texts that seem of  pre-Christian origins. The Paraphrasis of Sem is a reve­lation delivered by the Gnostic redeemer Derdekeas (= Aramaic for «child, boy») to Sem.

The revelation begins with Sem being elevated «to the top of the world close to the Light» that is, to the Supreme Being (1,10-11). Sem’s mind is separated from his body, and he learns about cos­mogony, soteriology, and eschatology. Three princi­ples, «Light, Darkness and Pneàma between them» are introduced (1,26-29). It is to be noted  that  the  cosmology  of Paraphrasis of Sem  closely recall the   «Paraphrasis of  Seth», a Gnostic treatise  refuted by  Hippolytus (Bertrand 1975: 146-157; contra Krause 1977: 101-110) . In both texts  the Pneàma play a role of mediating  element  between  Light and  Darkness. Indeed,  a triadic situation  that  is paralleled in  Iranian  cosmogony (Colpe 1973: 106-115): according the  first  chapter  of   Bundahišn  (and other texts) in the beginning Ohrmazd (< Ahura Mazd)  dwelt on high, in pure Light, and Ahriman (< Aŋra Mainyu) dwelt in the depths, in Darkness (Kreyenbroek 1993: 303a-304a). Between them  was a space called Wy (< Vayu) the  «Void», our Pneàma (Bousset 1907: 116; contra Casadio 1997a: 42). However, according to  a  number  of  sources, there is  another  mediating figure watched over the  two spirits. Plutarch attributed this function to Miqra, Eznik of  Kołb to the  Sun, and Šahrestnto the   «Angels»  (Zaehner 1955: 448. 443. 433). The  accounts of Eznik and Šahrestnare essentially Zurvanite, but in the Avesta a  similar function is  attributed to  Sraoša (> Pahlavi  SrŸš).

The Light knows of «the abasement of the Darkness» (2,11-13), but the Darkness is ignorant of the Light (2,16-18). So begins the cosmic drama. Darkness frightens Spirit (2,21) and becomes aware that «his likeness is dark compared with the Spirit» (3,6-7). Ignorant of the Light, Darkness directs his attention to Spirit to claim equality. From the mind of Darkness, evil is born; and from «the likeness of the Light» a son, Derdekeas, appears, whose task it is to carry up to the Light, the Light of the Spirit shut up in Darkness (3,35-4,19).

The bulk of the tractate hereafter describes a cos­mogony involving the struggle among the different powers, Derdekeas’ effort to liberate Light, and the events leading up to the time of consummation when «the forms of Nature will be destroyed» (45,16-17). Similar to other Gnostic eschatological writings, world history and evolution terminate with a final consummation, and the particles of light will return to the Supreme Being and no longer possess a material form. Derdekeas ends the Paraphrasis of Sem by telling Sem of his role; he also tells him that salvation will only be given «to worthy ones» (49,6; Wisse 1970: 130-140).

The use of the term  «apocalyptic»  to define a particular  type of prophetic utterance is a development of  Judaeo-Christian studies,  in which a need was felt to  mark a distinction between the ancient  prophets and the pseudonymous ones who flourished mainly in the intertestamental  period. In  Mazdaean  Zoroastrianism this distinction between early prophecy and later apocalyptic does not apply.  There  the prophet looks back to an eternity past, at the beginning of this world,  and towards the end of Time and the  eternity  to  come, the new Aeon. This «reality» is perceived  through  a «dream» (xvafn= Yasna 30, 3; Bartholomae 1904-1905: 1863; see also Gnoli 1994: 60), a vision  open  on   another world, as in the tractate Zostrianus  from  Nag-Hammadi.

              Zostrianus is the first and major tractate  in Codex VIII of the Nag-Hammadi library. The name is linked with the Iranian prophet Zoroaster by means of a second colophon to the tractate (cf. Arnobius, Adv. nat. I, 52). The work is likely to be the apocalypse of Zostrian­us referred to by Porphyry (Vit. Plot. 16, 4-7). The text of Zostrianus is poorly preserved. Since only the open­ing and closing sections are relatively intact, a lucid translation is difficult.

The book recounts a heavenly journey by Zostri­anus. He is called from this world, ascends into the heavens, and learns from various revealers a secret gnîsij. The content of that knowledge consists largely of the names of the mythological beings in the heavens and of their interrelationships. Atten­tion centres on an intermediate realm called the Barbelo Aeon (Sieber 1981: 788-795). This Aeon in turn contains three con­stituent Aeons (Kalyptos or Hidden, Protophanes or First-Visible, and Autogenes or Self-Begotten), each of which possesses four Illuminators or Lights (14, 6 ff.). Knowledge of these heavenly beings provides the key for escape from the physical world. When the journey is over and the revelations are complete, Zostrianus is pictured as descending to this world, where he writes down his gnîsij and exhorts his readers to escape from their bondage to matter  (131, 1-10).

Zostrianus is  an apocalyptic heavenly journey format (Rosenstiehl-Kaler 2005: 179) similar to  Ard Wirz nmag, but the con­tents of the revelation are totally dissimilar. It intends to show that its mythological gnîsij  are at the crossroads of  Iranian, Jewish and Platonic doctrines (Colpe 1977: 149-159).

The  visionary  experience of  Zostrianus finds a real accomplishment in another Nag-Hammadi Gnostic prophet called  Marsanes. His name is also the title of a long but very fragmentary Gnostic apocalypse that forms Codex X of the Nag-Hammadi library.

The Gnostic prophet Marsanes,  is also a figure acclaimed in the Untitled Tractate from the Bruce Codex on Marsanes and Nicotheos (chap. 7) and in Epiphanius Pan.haer. 40, 7, 6, on Martiades and Marsianos as experiencing an ecstatic trip to the heavens and receiving glory from the heavenly powers. Such a description of Marsanes fits the present tractate as well , since here the author, in the first person, lays claim to visionary revelations and writes a «revela­tion», or apocalypse, which may resemble not only the apocalypse of Nicotheos alluded to in the Bruce Codex but also the apocalypses of Zoroaster, Zostrianos, Nicotheos, Allogenes, Messos, and others mentioned in Porphyry’s Life of Plotinus 16 (Albrile 2002: 35-36).

Marsanes on the heavenly ascent describes the thirteen seals, or levels of existence, from the first and lowest «worldly» levels to the last and highest level of the supreme God, the «Silent One who has not been known» (4, 20-23). The author claims that he – Marsanes – has true knowledge. Through his ascent beyond the limits of this world, he has attained to knowledge of the «entire place» and has reached the conclusion (so striking in a Gnostic context) that «in every way the sense-perceptible cosmos is [worthy] of being completely saved» (5,  24-26). The topic of salvation leads Marsanes to introduce the descent, work, and as­cent of the Savior Autogenes, the «Self-begotten One» who «descended from the Unbegotten One» and «saved a multitude» (6, 2-17). While raising several ba­sic questions about the nature of existence and probing their implications, Marsanes himself rises to an awareness of the « supremacy of the silence of the Silent One» and offers praise (7, 20-22). Further revela­tory disclosures follow, and it is shown that as the «invisible Spirit» ascends back up to heaven, so also the Gnostics achieve bliss by ascending with him to glory.

After several very fragmentary pages, the tractate preserves portions of a fascinating section on the nature and function of letters, sounds, and num­bers, which are linked to the powers and capacities of angels, deities, and souls. Reflecting con­temporary astrological, magical, and grammatical themes, this long section seeks to instruct the read­er in the proper way of calling upon or conjuring the angels, so that the soul might eventually reach the divine. In the words of Marsanes, such a knowl­edge of the alphabet will help Gnostics to «be sepa­rated from the angels» and to «seek and find [who] they [themselves] are».

The Trimorphic Protennoia   (NHC XIII, 1) is one of the most representative «Sethian» Gnostic texts in which is formulate the triadic doctrine (Turner 1986: 63-69; Casadio 1997a: 29) . This short Coptic text (sixteen pages of papyrus) forms a small booklet,  clearly detached from a larger-whole and slipped inside the leather cover of Codex II. The triadic process is the foundation of the Mazdaean cosmogony  developing through four  ages  of   3000  years  each,  three  times (bundahišn, gumzišn,  wizrišn) that  begin  from the second age,  and  three  Saošyant s  that  shall come at the  end   of  the  fourth  age (Panaino 2004: 17-26).

The Trimorphic Protennoia is a kind of hymn of revelation, and its tripartite division broadly corresponds to the three modes of the manifesta­tion of Protennoia, although the latter are not so sharply distinguished (in fact, the first section al­ready introduces the threefold aspect of Protenno­ia). Like the Revealer in the Apokryphon Johannis, Protennoia is at once the Father, the Mother, and the Son. She descends on three occasions from the World of Light, each time in a form corresponding to the sphere that she comes to save: «Among the angels I manifested myself in their likeness, and among the powers as one among them, and among the sons of men as a son of man» (49,15-20). She is life, has produced the All, and lives in all. Her second coming had as its aim to put an end to fate (43,4-27). Accordingly, she put breath into those who were her own but ascended back to heaven without her «branch» (45,29-34). In the final seg­ment, the Logos comes to enlighten those who are in darkness (46,30-33) and to teach the decrees of the Father to the Sons of Light. Protennoia puts Jesus on the cross, then takes him down from the cross and establishes him in the dwelling places of his Father. Finally, as she declares,  her «seed» shall be established  in the Holy Light, in an inaccessible Silence (Evans 1980-1981: 395-401).

The work is much more complex than this sum­mary might induce to believe, apparently having undergone several reworkings. Related not only to the Apokryphon Johannis but also to other Coptic Gnostic texts now rediscovered, it presents addi­tionally literary contacts with other «Sethian» materials such as the Three Stelae of Seth (NHC VII,5). This text  recalls the  Iranian  tradition of the  three  Saošyant s  that  are  Uxšyat~.rta, Uxšyat~.nmah, and Astvat~.rta (Yašt 13, 128-129; Boyce 1987: 872a-873a); the  Pahlavi writings  speaks of Uš‡dar, Uš‡darmh  and SŸš…ns, threefold eschatological time  as stages of terrestial salvation history or threefold advent of the Saviour (Colpe 1981: 540-552). They are the offspring of Zoroaster, miraculously conceived from the  seed  preserved in water, at the  end of  each millennium before the end of the  world, the ultimate event of universal eschatology.

The Three Stelae of Seth is a series of hymnic prayers and blessings, each of which is addressed to a person of the Gnostic divine triad (Father, Mother, and Son) in conjunction with a communal liturgical practice. A short prologue (118,10-24) introduces Dositheos, the revealer of the three stelae. Whether or not this Dositheos is the disciple of John the Baptist, a Samaritan sect founder (Isser 1976), and a kind of forefather of the Gnostic schools, is unclear (Pseudo-Clement, Rec. 1,54-63 and 2.8; Hom. 2,15-25; Origen, Comm. in Ioh. 13,27).

The short tractate is subdivided into three sec­tions consciously structured to parallel each other . The subdivi­sions also correspond to the «Sethian» threefold na­ture of God and the stages of visionary ascent and descent. The tractate concludes with a description of the practice: «from the third they bless the sec­ond; after these the first. The way of ascent is the way of descent» (127,18-22). The background of this descent-ascent may reflect aspects of the bap­tismal rite, spiritualised (Turner 1986: 83-84). The trans­mission of these three didactic hymns to the com­munity serves to provide a vision of the heavenly world to the Gnostic community and to support the individual believer in elevating himself to the pl»rwma through prayer. The tractate ends with a scribal note, a colophon, in all likelihood intended to apply to the whole codex (127, 29-33).

The importance of Seth to Gnosticism  as well as Seth’s relationship to religious and philosophical currents of the day make the Three Stelae of Seth most appealing (see also Casadio 1997a: 25-32). Here, we  find a  syncretistic reinterpretation of  Aggadic myths  where the   identity  Seth = Saošyant  gives  a  new  meaning  to the  development of  religious history of the  world.

The  Nag-Hammadi text entitled Mel­chizedek (NHC IX, 1) deals with the  mysterious priest Mel­chizedek who is mentioned in the Old Testament (Gen. 14, 18-20; Ps. 110, 4) as well  as in  the New  (Hebr. 5,10-7,28). This tractate may be described as a Gnostic apocalypse  which contains  revelations given  to Mel­chizedek  by a heavenly messenger (Pearson  1975: 200-208; Gianotto 1984: 224-228).

The first revelation (1, 1-14,15) concerns Jesus Christ and the future high-priestly role to be played by Mel­chizedek. The second revelation (18,7-27,10) then depicts Mel­chizedek transported  into the future: here Mel­chizedek is also called  «Man-of-Light» = Anqrwpoj fwteinÒj, a «saoshyantic» feature  that  resembles  the  epithet  of   Paral»mptwr «Light-bearer»  or more exactly «Light-collector» (Albrile 2000: 491), applied  to Mel­chizedek  in  the  Pistis Sophia (I, 25 [Schmidt-MacDermot  1978: 34, 13-21; 35, 10-24]; II, 86 [Schmidt-MacDermot  1978: 194, 24-195,20]; III, 112 [Schmidt-MacDermot 1978: 291, 14-23]).

Traces of Iranian influences we find also in another little Nag-Hammadi  text  called Hypsiphrone , «She of  High Mind». It occupies the final four pages of Codex XI (69,21-72,33). Hypsiphrone  is described in the company of her brothers, and she proceeds to deliver a revelatory discourse concerning her katabasis from the place of her virginity into the world (70,20-21) and her conversations with Phainops, the «Bright-eyed one».  The name  of  this  personage recalls the  teachings of  the Zoroastrian  Magi about the gyn wnišn, the «Eye of the soul», the  illuminatio matutina, that is the «Inner vision» of Pahlavi texts (Gnoli 1979: 419 n. 162).  This concept,   according   to the  Proemium of Diogenes Laertius,  evokes the doctrine  of the ei[dwla, typical of the  Democritean-Epicurean mentality (Brillante 1986: 30 ff.)

To be mentioned at last Noma or The Concept of our Great Power (NHC VI, 4) , an apocalyptic tractate dating from the mid-fourth cen­tury or shortly thereafter and influenced by Jewish speculations, biblical or apocryphal, slightly tinged with Gnosticism. The aim of the text is to describe the history of the world in its fundamental stages: creation, the flood, the origin of evil, the coming of a Savior who descends into Hades to humiliate the Archons, the appearance of an Antichrist who rules over the world, and finally the apokatastasis or «sec­ond coming» and the salvation of the Elect Souls. This history is presented according to a scheme of three Aeons: the Aeon of the flesh, the psychic Aeon, and the indestructible Aeon (on the Alexandrian roots see Reitzenstein 1921: 188-192). The Great Power takes the role of speaker, and communicates to his hearers a number of revelations and teachings.

The Aeon of the flesh comes into being in the «great bodies» (38,1). During its reign the vengeance of the father of the flesh, the water, takes place. He sends the flood upon men, sparing only Noah (38,17-39,15). Then follows the reign of the psychic Aeon (39,16): «It is a small one, which is mixed with bodies, begetting in the souls and being de­filed». In fact during this aeon the pollution, which had already made its appearance under the aeon of the flesh, now increases, and gives birth to all kinds of evils, «many works of wrath, anger, envy, malice, hatred, slander, contempt and war, lying and evil counsels, sorrows and pleasures, baseness  and de­filements, falsehoods and diseases, evil judgments» (39,20-31).

A man who knows the Great Power is going to be born under the dominion of the psychic Aeon (40,24-27). He will drink from the milk of the mother, he will speak in parables, he will proclaim the aeon that is to come (40,28-32). This man «spoke in 72 tongues, opened the gates of the heav­ens with his words, put to shame the ruler of Hades, raised the dead» (41,6-11). His coming pro­vokes reaction from the Archons. This man is Christ. By the treachery of Judas, the text tells us, the archons laid hold of him and brought him be­fore the governor of Hades (41, 26-42, 2).

        The Redeemer katabasis depends on the  payment  to the darkly ruler Sasabek of  nine bronze coins.  But  the name Sasabek reveals an Iranian influence. In fact it is possible  to explain  the name as a Middle-Persian  nominal compound formed from ss, «bug, coleoptera» (MacKenzie 1971: 74) with  the addition of the adjective bg, «aqueous»; this adjective is often found in  Pahlavi  literature in order to appoint the zodiacal sign of Cancer, Karzang, according to the Greek  astrological tradition which  considered the Cancer an aqueous sign (Raffaelli 2001: 87 n. 9).  Therefore ss-bg = Sasabek, would be the aqueous bug,  a kind of abominable beetle, a Gnostic Charon  flowing in the waters of  hell-river.

 The coming of Christ is followed by a series of signs that mark the end of the psychic Aeon: «The sun set during the day; the day became dark; the evil spirits were troubled, the aeons will dissolve. But those who would know these things… will become blessed, since they will come to know the truth» (42,15-43,29). The signs of the end are brought on by the dissolution of the Archons: the destruction of cities, the shaking of the moun­tains, a trembling of the earth, the death of animals (43,32-44,13) mark the transition from the realm of the Archons to the kingdom of the Logos. These signs are typical of eschatological times, and are found in similar form in the Jewish pseudepigrapha and more in Zoroastrian apocalyptic tradition. An imitating spirit is sent by the Archons to combat a divine child come to his maturity (44,31-45,4). His coming will also be marked by signs of the end (45,31-46,5). Positive signs on the contrary will ac­company the coming of the Great Power who will protect the elect, who are clothed in holy garments (46, 8-24). These will return to an «immeasurable light» (46, 8-9),  the asar rŸšnh of the Pahlavi  texts. The treatise ends with the redemp­tion of the souls, and the fact that the elect have come to be in the unchangeable Aeon.

So, the Gnostic ideas display such an enormous variety that is impossible to reduce them to one coherent system (Hellenic, Jewish, Syro-Mesopotamian, Iranian  and more). Therefore  the  heritage  of   Mazdaean  Zoroastrianism represents   one  of  the  explanations  and  hypotheses:  in the  Gospel  of  Truth  the   Aeons are often called  «space», which  are  emanations  of the Father (NHC I, 27, 11),  these two meanings are an  original  feature  of  the  Pahlavi  word gh  «Place» and «Time» (Boyce 2001: 253a-254a) . The Aeons are  aspects of the  Ineffable God, but at  the same time they  are also forms  of  Time  and Space (Casadio 1997b: 45-62) . Also, there  is a  Gnostic  reception of  the Iranian   Zurwn akanrag (< Avestan  Zrvan akarana), the «Endless Time» (Gnoli 1984: 115-138) from which the opposed  god  Ohrmazd  and  no-god  Ahriman have come forth. According to  Eudemos of  Rhodes (a  source  of  4th century B.C.)  this  first   principle  was  called both  «Place» and «Time» (Frg. 150  Wehrli VIII, 71; see also Gnoli 1988: 283-288). Another clue towards  a  definition  of  a  more  complex  Iranian-Gnostic crossroad.

  

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"History is the Light on the Path to Future"

 

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Encyclopaedia Iranica


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The British Institute of Persian Studies


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Persepolis3D


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The Royal

Asiatic Society


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The Persian Gulf

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