I’ve talked about the snake thing before. It’s a through line for me and I continue to marvel at its vivacity. Refutation of All Heresies* devotes the entirety of Book 5 to different expressions of serpentine gnosis. It’s not a small section of the Refutation, coming to some 80 pages of translated material. The text is divided between four main sects identified as Naassenes, Peratai, Sethians (not the same gnostic group identified by many contemporary scholars as Sethian), and the followers of Justin.
These heresies are unified by more than their serpentine imagery. The author of the Refutation gives an account that makes clear that they are also joined by:
- their use of astrological lore
- the frequent use of seed and tree imagery
- employing anatomical knowledge to expand upon mystical and/or cosmological claims
- frequent borrowings from other mythologies, especially Greek, to elaborate upon Christian mysteries (my favorite may be Justin’s elaboration of Herakles to the status of a prophet, borrowing from the legends of Sampson)
Moses makes more than a few appearances, too. While many gnostic sects assign to Moses a position of low esteem as the prophet of the Artificer/Demiurge, in many of these sects his position is higher. The Peratai identify him as the one who “exhibited the true Snake,” who protects those who believe in him from the “the snakes of the desert (that is…the gods of generation)….this [true] Snake…is the power that followed close to Moses.” (301)
While these movements don’t share a common set of myths or doctrines, they do all draw from common symbolic well, one that is refreshingly familiar to my own. There is a modality or style to this way of experiencing the divine, and I have to wonder of the diversity in doctrine and cosmology occurs more at the level of interpretation and explication than at the level of gnosis. Obviously, I can’t speak for the mystical experiences of the long-dead, but the coherence of symbolic ethos leaves me to wonder.
“The town may be changed, but the well cannot be changed”
(I Ching, Hexagram 48)
*Litwa goes to some lengths to point out that the traditional attribution of the Refutation to Hippolytus doesn’t hold up close examination. What joins Hippolytus to the text is having lived in the same place and time it was composed, Rome ca. 225CE, and the scantest of speculative hypotheses on the part of modern scholars. So, since I don’t have a name to join to the text, I will just refer to their author as ‘author.’