Gnostic and Tantric Practices of Sacred Sexuality
The exploration of Gnosticism may be one of the more revealing pursuits of our time, and it is certainly one of the more difficult. Since Gnostics were suppressed in the 4th Century, disinformation about them has run amok. There is no clear and consistent presentation of Gnostic views, either in the slim surviving materials or in modern scholarship. To add to the confusion, Gnostics were initiates in the Mystery schools, and initiates were bound by a vow of silence about many things they experienced — although not, fortunately, about all things.
One of the stickiest subjects in Gnostic studies is the question of sexual practices: Did they do it, or didn’t they? By some accounts, Gnostics were ascetics who rejected the world as the fabrication of a pseudo-creator, Jehovah, identified by them as an alien deity or Archon. It is now widely recognized that the accusation of world-denial cannot fairly be laid on Gnostics, and more properly ought to be directed to Christian ideologues who falsely imputed hatred of the body to the “heretics,” thereby cleverly diverting attention from their own disgust for nature and human embodiment.
One Gnostic scholar, M. A. Williams, has dedicated an entire book to refuting and sometimes reversing the disinformation about Gnostics, their views, and practices. In Rethinking ‘Gnosticism’, he states that, far from despising the body, it is far more likely that Gnostics believed that “precisely in the human body is to be found the best visible trace of the divine in the material world.” (p. 117. His emphasis.) From meticulous analysis of textual references, and line by line examination of the polemic writings of the Church Fathers against Gnosticism, Williams concludes that “the familiar cliches about ‘gnostic hatred of,’ ‘contempt for,’ ‘hostility to,’ the body fail completely as interpretations of what these sources overall have to say about the question.” (p. 137) Williams argues that Gnostics were deeply commited to healing themselves and others, and “far more optimistic about what actually could be done to transform somatic experience,” than their opponents. (p. 137. His emphasis.)
In the sacred art of Tibet, mating divinities are called Yab-Yum, “mother-father,” identical to the coupled Aeons in Gnostic cosmology. In rites of sacramental sex, the partners imitate mating divinities, but they do not become gods. The purpose of the rite is to heighten pleasure to the level where it becomes the medium of “cosmic consciousness.” (Vajraghanta, Mural painting, Gyantse, 15th C. In Philip Rawson, Sacred Tibet, p. 51)
By some accounts, which are usually condemnatory, Gnostics engaged in ritual orgies that involved the ingestion of sexual fluids as sacramental substances. By far the most scandalous account of this kind comes from Epiphanius (376 – 403 CE), a heresy-hunter who infiltrated the Ophite cult of “Snake-worshippers.” He reported that the Ophites
venerate the Serpent because God has made it the cause of Gnosis for mankind. Ialdabaoth [Gnostic name for Jehovah, the false creator god] did not wish humankind to have any recollection of the Generators (Aeons), the Cosmic Mothers and Cosmic Fathers on high. It was the serpent who, by tempting them, brought Gnosis to our parents; who taught the first people of our kind the complete knowledge of the Mysteries from on high.
(Cited in Jean Doresse, The Secret Books of the Egyptian Gnostics).
Here, typically, Gnostic myth reverses Judeo-Christian tradition: the serpent in Eden is a benefactor, not a malefactor. How does such a passage stand against the Gnostics’ description of sinister aliens, the reptilian Archons, who intrude on humanity? Are the predatory reptilians merely the shadow-side of another snake-like force that acts for our good? A twisty issue, here. The answer would seem to lie in the true nature of sexual practices of the Gnostics.
There is no doubt that some Gnostic sects were ascetic and practiced total abstention from sexual intercourse. For example, there is the sect that produced the channelled material known as Books of Ieou (non Nag Hammadi), a patchy collection of teachings on the afterlife. This Gnostic group believed themselves to have a sacred responsibility to preserve esoteric knowledge regarding the “Treasuries of the Light,” and the “Receivers,” benevolent spiritual entities and guides we encounter when we die. The arcane material in the Books of Ieou includes a brief condemnatory outburst against other sects who practice sexual magic. Apparently, continence was necessary for the keepers of Ieou to know what they knew. This outburst of one Gnostic sect against another is unique in all surviving Gnostic materials.
Apart from Williams’ meticulous deconstruction of the world-denial (“anti-cosmic dualism”) attributed to Gnostics, I have argued in more elementary terms that the Gnostic vision of life, being as it was centered on Sophia, the divinity embodied in the Earth, could not have fostered or supported contempt for the material world, the realm of the senses, and the human body. Everything Gnostics thought and taught depended on direct communion with the Goddess Sophia, whose name means wisdom. This was true for the Mysteries in general, and for the Gnostic adepts in particular. Sophia was a cosmic version of the Magna Mater, the Great Mother worshipped in many ancient religions. Even the Church Fathers, who condemned Gnostics as world-haters, affirmed that the Mysteries in all their diversity were unanimous in the consecration of the initiates to the Great Mother.
Historians of religion agree that Pagan spirituality involved sacramental sexuality, orgies, rites of empowerment through sexual yoga. (On the figure of Mary Magdalene as an adept of sacramental sex, see She Who Anoints.) The Tantric sects in India present a close parallel to the Ophites — so close in fact, that the report of Epiphanius could be applied to Tantrics as well. Tantrics (or Tantrikas, as they are more properly called) are experimental mystics who arouse the “Serpent power,” Kundalini, a force concealed in the human body, in order to achieve cosmic consciousness and awaken siddhis, occult powers. It is more than likely that Gnostics in their sexual orgies had the same aim.
Clearly, then, the mythical serpent worshipped by the Ophites cannot be equated with the reptilian predators described in Gnostic texts and the Dead Sea Scrolls. More likely, the Ophite serpent is not entirely a mythical version of the serpent of Eden, but is identical with Kundalini, the serpent power that resides at the base of the spine in human anatomy. This being so, sexual orgies among the Gnostics would not have been merely for the pleasure and indulgence (although they would not have excluded that, either!). They worshipped the supernatural force that resided in their own bodies. In fact, the word “orgy,” Greek orgia, means simply, “working, activation.” The orgia of the serpent power was a rite for activation of Kundalini in Tantric and Gnostic practices alike.
The Gospel of Philip contains the scandalous passage that describes Jesus french-kissing Mary Magdalene. It is also the one text from Nag Hammadi that gives the most explicit description of the sexual orgia, but in symbolic language, or insider jargon, if you will. The text asserts that all harm on earth is due to the conflict between the sexes, but this problem can be overcome by a corporal rite of re-union.(See commentary by the translator, Wesley W. Isenberg, in The Nag Hammadi Library in English, 1990, p. 139ff.) The act of sacramental coupling occurs in a “bridal chamber” called the nymphion, or perhaps it produces the nymphion. The ritual involves light, and Kundalini is also associated with a soft blaze of milk-white light that produces an electrical surge of ecstasy up the spine. The text explicitly says that the light veils and protects the partners joined in sacred sexual union:
The alien powers do not see those who are clothed in the perfect light, and so they are not able to restrain them. By the rite of sacramental union, one is ensheathed in this light.” (Gospel of Philip, passage 70)
Nymphion was a code term for the cell-of-light or protective aura generated by ritual intercourse. Within the cell, the initiates overcome the influence of the Archons who produce error in our minds, and threaten to take over our bodies — although it must be added that Gnostics insisted that threat of intrusion at the bodily level is exaggerated by the Archons themselves, to make us believe they possess more power over us than they actually have! One such error concerns resurrection:
Those who say they will die first and then rise are in error. If they do not first receive the resurrection while they live, when they die they will receive nothing. (Passage 72)
This is core Gnostic teaching, stated in such a way as to refute Judeo-Christian beliefs on survival after death, beliefs held precious to millions of people today, but considered by Gnostics as delusional notions insinuated in our minds by the alien force, the Archons. It also sends a clear message about our ability to enter deeply into the biological mysteries of nature, for it claims that we can experience resurrection before we die. This assertion has many parallels in Asian Tantric teachings, of course. In both Hindu and Tibetan traditions, yogis of high attainment are said to achieve complete regeneration of the body and resurrect themselves; hence, when they die, they did not die in a normal way. (See, for instance, the legendary accounts in Masters of Meditation and Miracles by Tulku Thondup.)
The more one considers Gnosticism in parallel to Shaivism, Hindu Tantra, Tantric Buddhism, and Dzogchen, the more likely it seems that some Gnostics were mahasiddhis, yogis of high attainment, due to their mastery of the serpent power. The technique of psychosomatic illumination by raising Kundalini was not unique to Gnosticism, but it was certainly central to its practices. In Shiva and Dionysos, Alain Danielou draws close parallels between the Greek cults of ecstasy dedicated to Dionysos, and the Dravidian cults of Shiva worship indigenous to Southern India. Citing Epiphanius’ eye-witness account of Gnostic orgies, Danielou remarks that Gnostic teachings on sexual magic “are very close to the idea of Shaivism.” (p. 223) Likewise, Sir John Woodruffe, the great exponent of Hindu Tantra to the West, directly compares the Gnostic worship of the Magna Mater to Tantric adoration of the Devi Shakti, the “Mother Power.” He says that in the ancient Mysteries, just as in the Tantric cults of India, the aim of sexual rites was to awaken the divine forces in the body:
An ancient feature of this faith [Tantricism] and one belonging to the ancient Mysteries is the distinction which it draws between the initiate whose Shakti is awake (PreBuddha) and the Pashu, the unillumined or “animal” person, or, as the Gnostics called them, “materialists.” The Natural, which is the manifestation of the Mother of Nature, and the Spiritual, or the Mother as She is in and by Herself, are one, but the initiate alone truly recognizes this unity.(Shiva and Shakti, p. 88)
In this passage, Woodruffe clarifies how the Aeon Sophia, identical to the “Mother of Nature,” is both embodied in the natural world and not so embodied, remaining “as She is in and by Herself,” because Sophia remains an Aeon of the Pleroma even though She has morphed into the planet Earth. Such statements do not come from intellectual speculation, but from direct experience of the very cosmic powers being described.
Sex and Death
In his account of Gnostic-Shivaite parallels, Danielou describes the faculties of higher perception acquired by activation of the serpent power. These are called siddhis (sounds like cities), “attainments,” and those who attain them are siddhas, or mahasiddhas. The Asian siddha is the exact counterpart of the “adept” in the Mystery Schools. Adept comes from the Latin root, adipisci-, “touch, gain, attain.” Adept is closely related to aptitude; hence the adepts (AD-epts) were men and women with special aptitudes. In the meeting of Mary Magalene and Jesus in the Garden on Easter morning, the Gospel writer has Jesus say to her, Me mou aptou, usually translated as, “Do not touch me.” But in a Gnostic reworking of that incident, he could as well have said. “You can see me, but cannot reach me, until you to have attained this state for yourself,” if he were indeed a Gnostic master appearing in the docetic body, or phantom body, as some Gnostic teachers claimed. The phantom body of the Gnostics is called in Buddhism the Nirmanakaya.
Describing the yogic attainments of the Shivaite mahasiddhas, Danielou cites a Tantric text, the Samkhya-Karika: The yogi who has perfected the Siddhis thus acquires powers like those which belong to the gods. These are essentially the power of vision and the power of knowledge, that is to say, omniscience, as well as the actional or facultative siddhis (kriyashaktis), which are nine in number. (p. 94-5)
Among the siddhis listed are the ability to see on the microscopic or molecular level, the power to transport oneself at a distance, and the power to read minds. The adepts of the Mysteries would have attained these powers, and applied them to their work in teaching and training neophytes. Due to their specialist insight on the intrusion of the Archons, it is likely that Gnostics would have developed the powers required not only to detect the alien force, but to resist it. To prevent the “archontic pirates” from capturing the body (ibid., Williams, p. 137), they would have developed a whole range of defensive and immunological tactics. Modern studies of Kundalini emphasize its effects in boosting the immune system, or “strengthening the human aura,” in New Age terms.
In Gnostic practices an ecstatic encounter with Divinity occurred in a kind of hermetic cell or sacred aura, called the “bridal chamber” or nymphion. The Greek writer Pausanius, who was extremely cautious about disclosing any secrets relative to the Mysteries, uses the word nymphion, so it does not appear isolated in Gnostic sources. Despite the elimination of countless documents, especially those that may have described sexual rites, there is ample textual evidence that Gnostic practices leading to “divinization” of the participants involved an act of sacramental sexual coupling in the nymphion. “Now the light is the chrism (the anointing fluid.” (Passage 69) In Tibetan teachings, the ultimate mystical experience of “White Light” occurs uniquely when we die, and only for a fleeting instant for those who have not previously attained the capacity to hold the Light in their attention. But from Gnostic reports it appears that this experience could be achieved in more ways than one. Through sex and in death, alike.
The Gospel of Philip celebrates the mystico-erotic union in the bridal chamber as the most holy of rites by which the initiates are “begotten by Christos in the two.” This act is rigorously distinguished from ordinary carnal intercourse:
Whereas in this world the union is one of husband with wife… in the aeon the form of the union is different. [This is possible because] Christos came to repair the separation which was from the beginning, and unite again the two, and give life to those who died as a result of the separation.
The “Christos” in this passage is not Christ of the Pauline and Johannine doctrines, not the incarnate Son of God. In Gnostic jargon, Christos is the Aeon coupled with Sophia, her male cosmic counterpart. In Christian faith, the blood of the God-man, Jesus, gives life to humanity and heals our separation from the Father God, but to Gnostics these were delusional notions that imitate and distort the truth. In the Gnostic sexual sacrament, the bliss of the man and woman joined in sacred union is what repairs our separation from God, for the Gods (Aeons), who are eternally blissful, are the source of body bliss as well. The rapture of the Gods makes the blood stream in our veins. Uniting in sacramental sex “gives life to those who died.”
The Alien Force
If Kundalini is a biological force, as is widely attested in the writings of Western investigators such as Lee Sanella and Arnold Mindell, the other kind of serpent power may be distinctly anti-biological. The Archons are said to envy humanity, for a number of reasons, but primarily because we live in the body of their Mother!! According to Gnostic creation myth, the Archons are a species of inorganic beings produced anomalously by the impact of the Aeon Sophia upon atomic matter, before the Sophia herself became transformed into the Earth. They are called Archons, from archai, “prior, from the beginning,” because they arose before the Earth and the solar system were evolved, but they did not emerge directly from the Pleroma, as humanity did. (On the emanation of Atu Kadmon, the Anthropos template, see The Promise of a Lonely Planet, part three, and the Gaia Mythos, Episode 10.)
In their attempt to intrude upon humanity, which has been ongoing for millennia, the Archons use a lot of bluff and bravado. They affect our minds to get us to believe they can do far more than they can actually do, but in so believing, we unwittingly surrender our power to them — the result is, they get their way with us, because we have betrayed our own capacities. Hence the Archons claim to rule over humanity, and even pretend to have been our creators, as is recounted in the Sumerian cunieform record of the Annunaki, accepted as true by Zecharia Sitchin and many other sincere investigators. The Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered in 1947 at the very moment the Nag Hammadi texts were initially recognized to be rare Gnostic materials, contain explicit accounts of direct threats posed by reptilians. For instance, the Testament of Amram:
I saw Watchers in my vision, the dream-vision. Two of them were fighting over me, saying… and holding a great contest over me. I asked them, “Who are you, that you are thus empowered over me?” They answered me, “We have been empowered and rule over mankind.” And they said to me, “Which one of us [will have you]?” And I lifted my eyes, and looked at one of them directly. His appearance was dreadfully frightening, and his skin was multicolored, darkly glittering scales. (4Q542)
(Note: The “Watchers” are consistently identified with the Annunaki in modern ET/Alien speculation.)
As I have explained elsewhere in this site, a Gnostic sect called the Archontics was stationed on the Dead Sea south of Qumran. Gifted with powers of paranormal perception, such as remote viewing, Gnostic seers who had met and repelled Archons observed the persisting presence of reptilians among the Dead Sea cult of the Zaddikim. The First Apocalypse of James (NHL V, 3), which contains descriptions of face-to-face encounters with the reptilian aliens, warns that “Jerusalem is a dwelling place of many Archons.” But the Gnostic teacher adds,a crucial insight, typical of the highly nuanced knowledge of the Mystery School adepts, “These powers are not armed against you specifically, but they are armed against each other.” (Passage 27) This line not only corroborates contemporary scenarios that describe conflict between the aliens who are among us, it also indicates that their powers are more engaged in battling each other than in overcoming us.
Nevertheless, they have overcome us, in certain ways. Due to their subtle tactic of intimidation via false beliefs, the Archons can get us to surrender our power. To betray ourselves to them in the deepest way, in a terminal act of self-effacement, we would have to give up our bodies and surrender the hidden powers within our bodies. Gnostic initiatory practices were directed toward strengthening our embodiment by the arousal of Kundalini, which grounds us in the Earth. Kundalini means the small (“ini”) Kundala, “serpentine or spiralling power.” The big Kundala is the serpent power of the Earth itself, the swirling Erotic currents of Gaia. She, the Earth Mother, is the supreme ambient force that holds DNA configured in its spiralling chains of nucleic acid. When Kundalini is awakened in sacred sexual rites or otherwise, it grounds the human body consciously into the planetary body. This is the ultimate aim of Kundalini yoga: not escape from the body, not deification of the participants, but grounding into Gaia, the Godhead of Nature.
In the nymphion, Gnostics bathed in ecstatic luminosity which they considered to radiate from the Godhead, the Pleroma of Aeons, via the Aeon Sophia who is embodied in the Earth. The absorption of these emanations effectuates sexual healing and repairs the split or rupture between the sexes (“gender rift”) that arose on the cosmological level when Sophia fell, shearing the Anthropos template.
The cosmos is healed through what has been most deeply wounded, human sexuality.
The Gnostic Succotash: Orphic ceremonial bowl showing sixteen naked adepts, eight men and eight women, in a circle with their feet touching. (“The Sanctum of the Winged Serpent,” Orphic bowl, 200-300 CE. In Joseph Campbell, Creative Mythology, p. 96.)
The Aeon Sophia, acting without a consort, plunged from the Pleroma, but it is also Sophia, now “grounded” on Earth, who connects humanity to the cosmic Source. The most direct and dynamic form of connection was effectuated in the ecstatic streaming of Kundalini during the sacred orgia. These rites were practiced to protect the circle of adepts (the Gnostic cell of sixteen mystai, shown above) from the meddlesome pranks of the Archons. High Archontic immunity (HAI?) is perhaps what we need today, facing as we do the ravages of HIV on the planet, not to mention sexual mores gone to wrack and ruin. With unusual candor, Tobias Churton asserts that Gnostics thought “intercourse is good for your spiritual development.” (The Gnostics, p. 59)
For it is by a kiss that the perfected hearts, the adepts, conceive and give birth. For this reason we also kiss one another. We receive a conception of our humanity from the grace found in each other….
Spiritual love is all wine and fragrance.” (The Gospel of Philip)
In the Gnostic version of the Fall from Paradise, there is no sin on the part of our ancestral parents. It is not humanity who falls, but Sophia, the Wisdom Goddess. The Serpent in Eden is Kundalini, a sublime ally to humanity, not a tempter. In some Gnostic texts, the serpent power is called “the instructor.” Eve, the ancestral representative of the human species, acquires from the serpent ally the secret knowledge for the Mysteries.
“It was the Serpent who, by tempting Eve, brought Gnosis to our parents.”