(c. 100 – c. 139 e.v.)
by T. Apiryon
Syrian or Egyptian founder of the Basilidean sect of Christian Gnostics in Alexandria during the reigns of the Roman Emperors Hadrian and Antonius Pius. What we know of Basilides and of his system we know by virtue of the reports of his enemies, primarily Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 100 – c. 203 e.v.) and Hippolytus. Only a few fragments of his writings remain, these are primarily preserved in the Elenchos of Hippolytus.
Basilides was probably the first major Gnostic who viewed himself as a Christian theologian; but unlike his predecessor Simon Magus, he rejected the Old Testament. His system was probably an attempt to reconcile the Pauline Christianity, Egyptian Gnosticism, and popular Alexandrian Platonist philosophy of his day with his own mystical experiences. He claimed, by some accounts, to have been vested with secret revelations from Paul through his “interpreter” named Glaucius; by others from the disciple Matthias; by others from the now unknown and possibly fictitious prophets Barcoph and Barcabbas. He wrote 24 commentaries, called Exegetica, on the Gospels, only fragments of which now remain. He also wrote hymns and odes for his congregation, none of which have been discovered to date.
According to preserved fragments of his writings, the doctrines of Basilides apparently included those of reincarnation and of “karma,” but there is no convincing evidence that he was directly influenced by Eastern systems. Like most other Gnostics, Basilides believed that matter and spirit were of opposing natures, but were mixed together in the sensible world. To Basilides, the passions were unnatural accretions which encrusted the spiritual essence due to its entanglement in matter. Sin consisted of preoccupation with materiality, of which everyone is, by nature, guilty. Salvation involved the disentanglement of spirit from matter, and was to be accomplished through ascetism and faith. Suffering was not considered as something to be escaped, but was considered instead as a blessing, the purpose of which was to turn the spiritual essence away from its entanglement in matter. Faith was an assent of the soul to a proposition that is not evident to the senses– it cannot, therefore, be achieved by instruction, conviction or judgement, it must be inborn. Basilides, therefore, shared with Calvin the idea of predestined salvation. To Basilides, there were those who had the capacity for faith, the elect, who were characterized by a sense that they are somehow aliens in this world, and by a sort of “nostalgia” and longing for the transcendent. There are also those who are incapable of faith, who feel perfectly at home in the world and are, indeed, entirely a part of it; these Basilides labels “pigs and dogs.” Basilides also rejected the orthodox Christian idea of the ressurection of the flesh; Basilides taught that only souls are saved, bodies are worth nothing. This last doctrine may be the source of Irenaeus’s accusation that the Basilideans were characterized by libertinism, even though Basilides himself taught ascetism. Some of the later Basilideans may have developed a libertine morality based on the idea that the sins of the flesh are irrelevant, and may be viewed with indifference.
There are two distinct accounts of the cosmological system of Basilides, that presented by Irenaeus and that presented by Hippolytus. Irenaeus presents a dualistic system stressing emanation, whereas Hippolytus presents a monistic system stressing evolution.
According to Irenaeus, Basilides taught that the universe began when five Aeons (or Aions, literally “eternities”) emanated in succession from the Unbegotten Father. These were: Mind (Nous) or Christ, Word (Logos), Intelligence or Prudence (Phronêsis), Wisdom (Sophia) and Strength or Power (Dynamis). These five Aeons constitute the Plêrôma (“Fullness”).
From the last two Aeons, Sophia and Dynamis, issued 365 spirit-realms or “heavens” in an unbroken descending sequence, each with its own set of angelic rulers. These 365 “heavens” or “Aethyrs” are constituted under the name Abrasax. By Greek Gematria, ABRASAX = 365. The God of the Hebrews, who created this illusory world and is its ruler (Archon) was not the supreme Deity, but merely the leader of the angels ruling the lowest “heaven.”
Ignorant of the existence of the Supreme Deity, this Dêmiourgos, or Demiurge (“people-worker”), accomplished his pseudo-creation through the activities of his six sons, the planetary genii, and demanded the worship of those he had created. But since the Demiurge is not capable of true creation, he could not have created Humanity from nothing. Humanity is actually of the essence of the Supreme Deity, but clothed about with the illusion of the Demiurge.
When the Supreme Deity perceived the corruption of the world of illusion and the suffering of humanity, he sent his firstborn, Nous or Christ, into the world to bring them to salvation from illusion through the transcendent Knowledge (Gnôsis) of their Divine Nature. Nous incarnated as Jesus, but was supposedly known to the Basilideans by a secret name, Kavlakav. Since Nous was a divine power, and not corporeal, He could not die– Jesus, therefore, did not die on the cross, as assumed by those in the bonds of illusion. He was instead replaced thereon by a substitute, Simon of Cyrene, and ascended again to the Father.
In the system of Basilides as presented by Hippolytus, the Supreme Ineffable God consists of absolute transcendent Nothingness, utterly beyond all human conception. As an act of Pure Will, this transcendent God generated the Panspermia, or “cosmic seed.” The cosmic seed was chaotic, confused and disorderly in nature, but contained within itself the complete and perfect Plan of the supreme God. Everything in the universe manifested as part of a predetermined process of evolution from this cosmic seed, according to an ordered sequence which proceeded “upward” toward God. This evolution included that of three “Sonships” or “Filialities,” which were of the same transcendent nature as the Supreme God. The First Sonship was utterly pure and ascended directly from the cosmic seed up to God. The Second Sonship, or “world spirit,” being coarser, escaped the cosmic seed only with difficulty and by the aid of the “Intermediate Spirit” (which Basilides identified with the Christian Holy Spirit) which emerged from the cosmic Seed with the Second Sonship. The Second Sonship ascended to a position immediately below the First Sonship, but the Intermediate Spirit, being of a non-transcendent nature, remained behind and became established as the firmament (stereôma) which divides the transcendent realm from the sensible realm. The Third Sonship was immersed in the entanglements and confusion of gross matter and did not escape the cosmic seed, but remained as the highest of Beings below the firmament, yearning for liberation and transcendence. The Third Sonship represented the Chosen People, the Elect, those who were worthy of salvation. Next in rank to the Third Sonship was the Great Archon (Ruler), who ascended from the cosmic seed to the firmament, establishing Himself in the region of the fixed stars. Thinking Himself to be the Highest God, and therefore alone, the Great Archon brought forth from the Panspermia a Son for Himself, who was greater than Himself, and the Great Archon bade His Son to sit at His right hand. At the Son’s suggestion, the Great Archon created the sphere of the seven planets. A second Archon then emerged from the cosmic seed, brought forth His own Son, and created the sublunar world, the space between the Moon and the Earth. Whereas the Great Archon and his Son constitute the Ogdoad, the godhead that is never named, the Second Archon and his Son constitute the Hebdomad, the godhead that is known to mankind by various names. The Earth then emerged from the cosmic seed according to the original Plan, without a special Archon or Creator.
The process of Salvation began when the Gnosis, the Gospel, descended like a beam of light, or a letter, or a bird, through the intermediate spheres and worlds, the First and Second Sonships, the Great Archon and His Son of the Ogdoad, and the Second Archon and His Son of the Hebdomad, informing and humbling them all with the transcendent Truth, and ultimately illuminating the soul of the mortal man Jesus at the very moment of his baptism. By his gnostic illumination, Jesus was made aware that his true will was to fulfill the process of salvation and the “restoration of all things” (apokatastasis) by separating out the spiritual essence of the Third Sonship from its entanglement in gross matter, and leading it back beyond the Firmament.
The system of Basilides also included a well-developed, and quite unique, eschatology. According to Basilides (via Hippolytus), once the process of the restoration of the spirit to its natural place beyond the Firmament has been accomplished, the Great Primeval Ignorance will spread over all creation. The knowledge of the transcendent realm will be withdrawn forever. All things below the Firmament, including the Ogdoad and the Hebdomad, will be established in their proper places in the Universe, and will continue to exist; but will act in perfect harmony, free from all desire for anything which is contrary to their natures.
Despite his advocacy of ascetism, Basilides had at least one son (perhaps a “spiritual son” rather than a genetic son), named Isidorus, who succeeded him in his office as religious teacher.
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Original Publication Date: 5/9/95
Originally published in Red Flame No. 2 – Mystery of Mystery: A Primer of Thelemic Ecclesiastical Gnosticism by Tau Apiryon and Helena; Berkeley, CA 1995 e.v.