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The Gnostic World View:
A Brief Summary of Gnosticism


GNOSTICISM IS THE TEACHING based on Gnosis, the knowledge of transcendence arrived at by way of interior, intuitive means. Although Gnosticism thus rests on personal religious experience, it is a mistake to assume all such experience results in Gnostic recognitions. It is nearer the truth to say that Gnosticism expresses a specific religious experience, an experience that does not lend itself to the language of theology or philosophy, but which is instead closely affinitized to, and expresses itself through, the medium of myth. Indeed, one finds that most Gnostic scriptures take the forms of myths. The term “myth” should not here be taken to mean “stories that are not true”, but rather, that the truths embodied in these myths are of a different order from the dogmas of theology or the statements of philosophy.

In the following summary, we will attempt to encapsulate in prose what the Gnostic myths express in their distinctively poetic and imaginative language.

The Cosmos

All religious traditions acknowledge that the world is imperfect. Where they differ is in the explanations which they offer to account for this imperfection and in what they suggest might be done about it. Gnostics have their own -- perhaps quite startling -- view of these matters: they hold that the world is flawed because it was created in a flawed manner.

Like Buddhism, Gnosticism begins with the fundamental recognition that earthly life is filled with suffering. In order to nourish themselves, all forms of life consume each other, thereby visiting pain, fear, and death upon one another (even herbivorous animals live by destroying the life of plants). In addition, so-called natural catastrophes -- earthquakes, floods, fires, drought, volcanic eruptions -- bring further suffering and death in their wake. Human beings, with their complex physiology and psychology, are aware not only of these painful features of earthly existence. They also suffer from the frequent recognition that they are strangers living in a world that is flawed and absurd.

Many religions advocate that humans are to be blamed for the imperfections of the world. Supporting this view, they interpret the Genesis myth as declaring that transgressions committed by the first human pair brought about a “fall” of creation resulting in the present corrupt state of the world. Gnostics respond that this interpretation of the myth is false. The blame for the world’s failings lies not with humans, but with the creator. Since -- especially in the monotheistic religions -- the creator is God, this Gnostic position appears blasphemous, and is often viewed with dismay even by non-believers.

Ways of evading the recognition of the flawed creation and its flawed creator have been devised over and over, but none of these arguments have impressed Gnostics. The ancient Greeks, especially the Platonists, advised people to look to the harmony of the universe, so that by venerating its grandeur they might forget their immediate afflictions. But since this harmony still contains the cruel flaws, forlornness and alienation of existence, this advice is considered of little value by Gnostics. Nor is the Eastern idea of Karma regarded by Gnostics as an adequate explanation of creation’s imperfection and suffering. Karma at best can only explain how the chain of suffering and imperfection works. It does not inform us in the first place why such a sorrowful and malign system should exist.

Once the initial shock of the “unusual” or “blasphemous” nature of the Gnostic explanation for suffering and imperfection of the world wears off, one may begin to recognize that it is in fact the most sensible of all explanations. To appreciate it fully, however, a familiarity with the Gnostic conception of the Godhead is required, both in its original essence as the True God and in its debased manifestation as the false or creator God.


The Gnostic God concept is more subtle than that of most religions. In its way, it unites and reconciles the recognitions of Monotheism and Polytheism, as well as of Theism, Deism and Pantheism.

In the Gnostic view, there is a true, ultimate and transcendent God, who is beyond all created universes and who never created anything in the sense in which the word “create” is ordinarily understood. While this True God did not fashion or create anything, He (or, It) “emanated” or brought forth from within Himself the substance of all there is in all the worlds, visible and invisible. In a certain sense, it may therefore be true to say that all is God, for all consists of the substance of God. By the same token, it must also be recognized that many portions of the original divine essence have been projected so far from their source that they underwent unwholesome changes in the process. To worship the cosmos, or nature, or embodied creatures is thus tantamount to worshipping alienated and corrupt portions of the emanated divine essence.

The basic Gnostic myth has many variations, but all of these refer to Aeons, intermediate deific beings who exist between the ultimate, True God and ourselves. They, together with the True God, comprise the realm of Fullness (Pleroma) wherein the potency of divinity operates fully. The Fullness stands in contrast to our existential state, which in comparison may be called emptiness.

One of the aeonial beings who bears the name Sophia (“Wisdom”) is of great importance to the Gnostic world view. In the course of her journeyings, Sophia came to emanate from her own being a flawed consciousness, a being who became the creator of the material and psychic cosmos, all of which he created in the image of his own flaw. This being, unaware of his origins, imagined himself to be the ultimate and absolute God. Since he took the already existing divine essence and fashioned it into various forms, he is also called the Demiurgos or “half-maker” There is an authentic half, a true deific component within creation, but it is not recognized by the half-maker and by his cosmic minions, the Archons or “rulers”.

The Human Being

Human nature mirrors the duality found in the world: in part it was made by the false creator God and in part it consists of the light of the True God. Humankind contains a perishable physical and psychic component, as well as a spiritual component which is a fragment of the divine essence. This latter part is often symbolically referred to as the “divine spark”. The recognition of this dual nature of the world and of the human being has earned the Gnostic tradition the epithet of “dualist”.

Humans are generally ignorant of the divine spark resident within them. This ignorance is fostered in human nature by the influence of the false creator and his Archons, who together are intent upon keeping men and women ignorant of their true nature and destiny. Anything that causes us to remain attached to earthly things serves to keep us in enslavement to these lower cosmic rulers. Death releases the divine spark from its lowly prison, but if there has not been a substantial work of Gnosis undertaken by the soul prior to death, it becomes likely that the divine spark will be hurled back into, and then re-embodied within, the pangs and slavery of the physical world.

Not all humans are spiritual (pneumatics) and thus ready for Gnosis and liberation. Some are earthbound and materialistic beings (hyletics), who recognize only the physical reality. Others live largely in their psyche (psychics). Such people usually mistake the Demiurge for the True God and have little or no awareness of the spiritual world beyond matter and mind.

In the course of history, humans progress from materialistic sensate slavery, by way of ethical religiosity, to spiritual freedom and liberating Gnosis. As the scholar G. Quispel wrote: “The world-spirit in exile must go through the Inferno of matter and the Purgatory of morals to arrive at the spiritual Paradise.” This kind of evolution of consciousness was envisioned by the Gnostics, long before the concept of evolution was known.


Evolutionary forces alone are insufficient, however, to bring about spiritual freedom. Humans are caught in a predicament consisting of physical existence combined with ignorance of their true origins, their essential nature and their ultimate destiny. To be liberated from this predicament, human beings require help, although they must also contribute their own efforts.

From earliest times Messengers of the Light have come forth from the True God in order to assist humans in their quest for Gnosis. Only a few of these salvific figures are mentioned in Gnostic scripture; some of the most important are Seth (the third Son of Adam), Jesus, and the Prophet Mani. The majority of Gnostics always looked to Jesus as the principal savior figure (the Soter).

Gnostics do not look to salvation from sin (original or other), but rather from the ignorance of which sin is a consequence. Ignorance -- whereby is meant ignorance of spiritual realities -- is dispelled only by Gnosis, and the decisive revelation of Gnosis is brought by the Messengers of Light, especially by Christ, the Logos of the True God. It is not by His suffering and death but by His life of teaching and His establishing of mysteries that Christ has performed His work of salvation.

The Gnostic concept of salvation, like other Gnostic concepts, is a subtle one. On the one hand, Gnostic salvation may easily be mistaken for an unmediated individual experience, a sort of spiritual do-it-yourself project. Gnostics hold that the potential for Gnosis, and thus, of salvation is present in every man and woman, and that salvation is not vicarious but individual. At the same time, they also acknowledge that Gnosis and salvation can be, indeed must be, stimulated and facilitated in order to effectively arise within consciousness. This stimulation is supplied by Messengers of Light who, in addition to their teachings, establish salvific mysteries (sacraments) which can be administered by apostles of the Messengers and their successors.

One needs also remember that knowledge of our true nature -- as well as other associated realizations -- are withheld from us by our very condition of earthly existence. The True God of transcendence is unknown in this world, in fact He is often called the Unknown Father. It is thus obvious that revelation from on High is needed to bring about salvation. The indwelling spark must be awakened from its terrestrial slumber by the saving knowledge that comes “from without”.


If the words “ethics” or “morality” are taken to mean a system of rules, then Gnosticism is opposed to them both. Such systems usually originate with the Demiurge and are covertly designed to serve his purposes. If, on the other hand, morality is said to consist of an inner integrity arising from the illumination of the indwelling spark, then the Gnostic will embrace this spiritually informed existential ethic as ideal.

To the Gnostic, commandments and rules are not salvific; they are not substantially conducive to salvation. Rules of conduct may serve numerous ends, including the structuring of an ordered and peaceful society, and the maintenance of harmonious relations within social groups. Rules, however, are not relevant to salvation; that is brought about only by Gnosis. Morality therefore needs to be viewed primarily in temporal and secular terms; it is ever subject to changes and modifications in accordance with the spiritual development of the individual.

As noted in the discussion above, “hyletic materialists” usually have little interest in morality, while “psychic disciplinarians” often grant to it a great importance. In contrast, “Pneumatic spiritual” persons are generally more concerned with other, higher matters. Different historical periods also require variant attitudes regarding human conduct. Thus both the Manichaean and Cathar Gnostic movements, which functioned in times where purity of conduct was regarded as an issue of high import, responded in kind. The present period of Western culture perhaps resembles in more ways that of second and third century Alexandria. It seems therefore appropriate that Gnostics in our age adopt the attitudes of classical Alexandrian Gnosticism, wherein matters of conduct were largely left to the insight of the individual.

Gnosticism embraces numerous general attitudes toward life: it encourages non-attachment and non-conformity to the world, a “being in the world, but not of the world”; a lack of egotism; and a respect for the freedom and dignity of other beings. Nonetheless, it appertains to the intuition and wisdom of every individual “Gnostic” to distill from these principles individual guidelines for their personal application.


When Confucius was asked about death, he replied: “Why do you ask me about death when you do not know how to live?” This answer might easily have been given by a Gnostic. To a similar question posed in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, Jesus answered that human beings must come by Gnosis to know the ineffable, divine reality from whence they have originated, and whither they will return. This transcendental knowledge must come to them while they are still embodied on earth.

Death does not automatically bring about liberation from bondage in the realms of the Demiurge. Those who have not attained to a liberating Gnosis while they were in embodiment may become trapped in existence once more. It is quite likely that this might occur by way of the cycle of rebirths. Gnosticism does not emphasize the doctrine of reincarnation prominently, but it is implicitly understood in most Gnostic teachings that those who have not made effective contact with their transcendental origins while they were in embodiment would have to return into the sorrowful condition of earthly life.

In regard to salvation, or the fate of the spirit and soul after death, one needs to be aware that help is available. Valentinus, the greatest of Gnostic teachers, taught that Christ and Sophia await the spiritual man -- the pneumatic Gnostic -- at the entrance of the Pleroma, and help him to enter the bridechamber of final reunion. Ptolemaeus, disciple of Valentinus, taught that even those not of pneumatic status, the psychics, could be redeemed and live in a heavenworld at the entrance of the Pleroma. In the fullness of time, every spiritual being will receive Gnosis and will be united with its higher Self -- the angelic Twin -- thus becoming qualified to enter the Pleroma. None of this is possible, however, without earnest striving for Gnosis.

Gnosis and Psyche: The Depth Psychological Connection

Throughout the twentieth Century the new scientific discipline of depth psychology has gained much prominence. Among the depth psychologists who have shown a pronounced and informed interest in Gnosticism, a place of signal distinction belongs to C. G. Jung. Jung was instrumental in calling attention to the Nag Hammadi library of Gnostic writings in the 1950's because he perceived the outstanding psychological relevance of Gnostic insights.

The noted scholar of Gnosticism, G. Filoramo, wrote: "Jung's reflections had long been immersed in the thought of the ancient Gnostics to such an extent that he considered them the virtual discoverers of 'depth psychology' . . . ancient Gnosis, albeit in its form of universal religion, in a certain sense prefigured, and at the same time helped to clarify, the nature of Jungian spiritual therapy." In the light of such recognitions one may ask: "Is Gnosticism a religion or a psychology?" The answer is that it may very-well be both. Most mythologems found in Gnostic scriptures possess psychological relevance and applicability. For instance the blind and arrogant creator-demiurge bears a close resemblance to the alienated human ego that has lost contact with the ontological Self. Also, the myth of Sophia resembles closely the story of the human psyche that loses its connection with the collective unconscious and needs to be rescued by the Self. Analogies of this sort exist in great profusion.

Many esoteric teachings have proclaimed, "As it is above, so it is below." Our psychological nature (the microcosm) mirrors metaphysical nature (the macrocosm), thus Gnosticism may possess both a psychological and a religious authenticity. Gnostic psychology and Gnostic religion need not be exclusive of one another but may complement each other within an implicit order of wholeness. Gnostics have always held that divinity is immanent within the human spirit, although it is not limited to it. The convergence of Gnostic religious teaching with psychological insight is thus quite understandable in terms of time-honored Gnostic principles.


Some writers make a distinction between “Gnosis” and “Gnosticism”. Such distinctions are both helpful and misleading. Gnosis is undoubtedly an experience based not in concepts and precepts, but in the sensibility of the heart. Gnosticism, on the other hand, is the world-view based on the experience of Gnosis. For this reason, in languages other than English, the word Gnosis is often used to denote both the experience and the world view (die Gnosis in German, la Gnose in French).

In a sense, there is no Gnosis without Gnosticism, for the experience of Gnosis inevitably calls forth a world view wherein it finds its place. The Gnostic world view is experiential, it is based on a certain kind of spiritual experience of Gnosis. Therefore, it will not do to omit, or to dilute, various parts of the Gnostic world view, for were one to do this, the world view would no longer conform to experience.

Theology has been called an intellectual wrapping around the spiritual kernel of a religion. If this is true, then it is also true that most religions are being strangled and stifled by their wrappings. Gnosticism does not run this danger, because its world view is stated in myth rather than in theology. Myths, including the Gnostic myths, may be interpreted in diverse ways. Transcendence, numinosity, as well as psychological archetypes along with other elements, play a role in such interpretation. Still, such mythic statements tell of profound truths that will not be denied.

Gnosticism can bring us such truths with a high authority, for it speaks with the voice of the highest part of the human -- the spirit. Of this spirit, it has been said, “it bloweth where it listeth”. This then is the reason why the Gnostic world view could not be extirpated in spite of many centuries of persecution.

The Gnostic world view has always been timely, for it always responded best to the “knowledge of the heart” that is true Gnosis. Yet today, its timeliness is increasing, for the end of the second millennium has seen the radical deterioration of many ideologies which evaded the great questions and answers addressed by Gnosticism. The clarity, frankness, and authenticity of the Gnostic answer to the questions of the human predicament cannot fail to impress and (in time) to convince. If your reactions to this summary have been of a similarly positive order, then perhaps you are a Gnostic yourself!

+ Stephan A. Hoeller (Tau Stephanus, Gnostic Bishop)


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DUALISM, feature peculiar to Iranian religion in ancient and medieval times. There is general agreement on this point, though some scholars have minimized the importance of dualistic elements in Zoroastrian doctrine and even denied their existence, in order to emphasize monotheistic or crypto-monotheistic aspects (e.g., Shroff; Moulton, pp. 125-26; Gray, 1929, p. 3), perceived as incompatible with any form of dualism (cf. Duchesne-Guillemin, 1958, pp. 1 ff.; idem, 1962, pp. 385 ff.; Herrenschmidt, pp. 217 ff.). From a strictly religious-historical perspective, however, dualism should not be conceived as opposed to monotheism (as polytheism must be); on the contrary, it can be viewed as “monotheism itself in two opposite and contrary aspects” (Pettazzoni, pp. 96, 112 n. 109). Although this definition cannot be applied to every dualistic religious conception (cf. Bianchi, 1986, p. 109), it fits Zoroastrianism, in which a monotheistic tendency and a strong dualism coexisted. The problem is complicated by the fact that Iranian dualism was not unitary and static but a developing concept (Gnoli, 1984). Heterogeneity within the Iranian religious world must also be taken into account; in fact, the fundamentally ethical and philosophical dualism of Zoroaster (as found in the Gathas and in part of Zoroastrian tradition) must be distinguished from a metaphysical and ontological dualism in which two coexisting entities are opposed by their intrinsic natures, rather than by choice (see below). This distinction is rejected by those who maintain the ontological nature of dualism in the Gathas and argue that reference to the two mainiius “spirits” (Y. 30.5) is at most a “statement regarding their essence” (Bianchi, 1978, p. 376). Nevertheless, the pivotal role of choice in Zoroastrianism has been established by Herman Lommel (pp. 156-65) and others, and Ilya Gershevitch has argued effectively for the ethical character of the gathic opposition between the two spirits (1964, pp. 12-14; cf. Gnoli, 1984, p. 118).

The most lucid evaluation of dualism as a fundamental element of the Gathas is that of W. B. Henning: “Any claim that the world was created by a good and benevolent god must provoke the question why the world, in the outcome, is so very far from good. Zoroaster’s answer, that the world had been created by a good and an evil spirit of equal power, who set up to spoil the good work, is a complete answer: it is a logical answer, more satisfying to the thinking mind than the one given by the author of the Book of Job, who withdrew to the claim that it did not behove man to inquire into the ways of Omnipotence” (1951, p. 46). According to Henning, Zoroaster came to formulate his dualistic conception “only by thinking” and “by very clear thinking.” Whether he was correct that it was a protest against monotheism or whether it was an integral part of gathic monotheism is unclear. It can reasonably be concluded, however, that dualism lay at the heart of Zoroaster’s message and that gathic dualism cannot be dismissed on grounds that Ahura Mazdā stood above the two opposed spirits or that an eschatological expectation of the triumph of good pervades the Gathas. These elements are, in fact, common to other dualistic conceptions in which the final triumph of good is implicit.

The following passage from the Gathas (Y. 30.3-4) is fundamental to understanding Iranian dualism: “The two primeval Spirits (mainiiū pauruiiē) who are twins (yə̄mā) were revealed [to me] in sleep. Their () ways of thinking, speaking, and behaving are two: the good and the evil (vahiiō akəmčā). And between these two [ways] the wise men (hudåŋhō) have rightly chosen, and not the foolish ones (duždåŋhō). And when these two Spirits met, they established at the origin (paouirīm) life and non-life (gaēmcā ajiiāitīmcā) and that at the end (apə̄məm) the worst existence (aŋhuš acištō) will be for the followers of Falsehood (drəguuatąm) and for the follower of Truth (aṧāunē) the Best Thinking (vahištəm manō).” Although the interpretation of this passage is uncertain (for a different translation, see Kellens and Pirart, p. 111), its dualistic content is beyond doubt. Equally clear is the paradigmatic character of the choice between two spirits, the prototype of the choice that man must make between the paths of truth and falsehood (Gershevitch, 1964, pp. 13, 32). Among the many other gathic texts in which dualism is emphasized are Yasna 45.2, in which the two spirits are juxtaposed in several modes of expression, and Yasna 47.3, in which the twinship of the two spirits is implicitly clarified by affirmation that Ahura Mazdā is the “father” of the beneficent spirit: Both are, in a certain sense, sons of the same father (Gershevitch, 1964, pp. 13, 33). Interpretation of “twins” as a metaphor for “the equality in state of the two unrelated beings, and their coevity” (Boyce, Zoroastrianism I, p. 194) is unconvincing. Instead, the fundamental role of choice in Zoroastrian dualism should be kept in mind; the relationship between God and the devil did not involve direct dependence, because the notion of “childbirth” implicit in the concept of twin spirits refers to derivation from God of an undifferentiated spirit, which splits into twin spirits of opposite allegiance once human free will has emerged (Gershevitch, 1964, p. 13).

Zoroaster’s dualism was therefore a wholly transcendent or “spiritual” dualism, not based on the opposition mēnōg versus gētīg, which can be very approximately translated as “spiritual” and “material” respectively. The latter duality recurs particularly in 9th-century Pahlavi texts, reflecting a complex theoretical systematization (Shaked, 1971). It has clear Avestan antecedents in the Gathas, in the idea of two states of being (uba-ahu-), ahu- manaŋhō (or manahiia-) and ahu- astuuaṇt (lit., “bony,” i.e., “corporeal”; cf. Pahl. axw ī astōmand) or sti- “existence,” mainiiauua- and gaēiθiia-. In this context gētīg is negative not by nature but because it is the place where the two spirits intermingle, in which God’s creation is contaminated by the assault (Pahl. ēbgat) by Ahriman. In 9th-century Zoroastrian theology Ahriman was not considered the author of a gētīg creation, as Ohrmazd was (Bundahišn, chap. 1; tr. Anklesaria, pp. 17-21): “Of Ahriman it is said that he has no gētīg”; “The creation of Ohrmazd is both mēnōg and gētīg, while that of the demon has no gētīg” (Dādistān ī dēnīg, pt. 1, 18.2, 36.51). In the Dēnkard it is said that “Ahriman never existed and does not exist” and that “the gods exist while the demons do not” (Dēnkard 6.278, 6.98; tr. Shaked, 1979, pp. 39, 109). It may therefore be concluded that “Ahriman’s presence in the world is not an ontological fact, but merely an anthropological and psychological phenomenon. This does not deny the reality of Ahriman as such: it merely marks his totally negative, hence also non-material, character” (Shaked, 1967, p. 232). This doctrine, too, has Avestan antecedents: Avestan gaēiθiia- (> Pahl. gētīg) may refer to the yazatas but not to the daēuuas (Gnoli, 1963, pp. 182-83 n. 61; see *DAIVA; DĒW). The existence of evil forces is only “spiritual” or “mental”; Iranian dualism is a dualism not between spirit and matter but between two spirits, who choose between truth (aṧa; gathic ašåuuan-) and falsehood (drug; gathic drəguuaṇt- or Younger Av. druuaṇt-; see DRUJ-) in the same way that men do (Gnoli, 1963, pp. 180-90; idem, 1971, pp. 77-78, 97-98).

There is no doubt that Aŋra Mainiiu, like Ahura Mazdā, was a “creating divinity,” an idea that occurs in the Avesta (e.g., Yt. 13.76 = Y. 57.17, with an explicit reference to creation by the two spirits; cf. Kreyenbroek, pp. 44, 45, 85-86; Vd. 1, with a list of “countries” created by Ahura Mazdā and the countercreations of Aŋra Mainiiu; cf. Christensen, 1943, pp. 50 ff.). The crucial element is the fundamental difference between the two kinds of creation (Y. 44.7; for references, see Gray, 1929, p. 176). Aŋra Mainiiu’s creation has a negative character because it begins in opposition to that of Ahura Mazdā (or, in the gathic formulation, of Spəṇta Mainiiu). The gētīg state is the creation of Ohrmazd; Ahriman can only attack, contaminate, and corrupt it. The mēnōg nature of Ahriman’s creation is amply documented in Pahlavi literature (Dēnkard III, sec, 10; Dādistān ī dēnīg, pt. 1, 18, 30; cf. de Menasce, 1968; idem, 1973, pp. 107, 393). From this perspective the preeminently “mental” or “spiritual” character of the demons can be explained: The daēuuas are false gods or chimeras without real existence (Gershevitch, 1975, pp. 79-80; Zaehner, 1961, p. 216), an idea traceable to the gathic notion (Y. 30.4) that Spəṇta Mainiiu and Aŋra Mainiiu are related to life and to nonlife (gaēmčā ajiiāitīmcā) respectively. Pahlavi gētīg “worldly” corresponds to Avestan gaēiθiia- “having corporeal life, material” (AirWb., col. 479) and is therefore connected to jī- (juua-) “to live,” gaiia- “life.” Zoroastrian “pandemonium” (Gray, 1929, pp. 175 ff.; cf. Christensen, 1941), with its classes of demonic beings symmetrically opposed to the angelic ones, results from an elaborate analysis of the superhuman world divided between good and evil, virtues and vices, opposed forces that, like man, may belong to the world of truth or of falsehood. All things are divided into two categories, even language itself, in order to distinguish between activities proper to beings that conform to truth and those who choose falsehood (Frachtenberg; Güntert; Gray, 1927; Burrow, pp. 128-33; Boyce, Zoroastrianism I, p. 298).

Zoroastrian dualism was based on the idea of choice, and the argument that one who chooses evil follows his own nature (Bianchi, 1978, pp. 361-62) does not affect that principle. In the Bundahišn (1.20-22; tr. Anklesaria, pp. 6-9) Ohrmazd offers peace to the evil spirit (ganāg mēnōg), who may thus become “deathless and unaging, unfeeling, incorruptible,” but the evil spirit rejects the offer and threatens to take over the entire universe. From this passage it appears that Ahriman freely chooses his own destiny: Dualism is thus characterized by “choice,” not by the essence or nature of the protagonists. Further confirmation comes from the Armenian Christian writer Eznik Kołbacʿi, in whose work Ahriman says: “‘It is not that I cannot create anything good, but that I will not.’ . . . Do you see? He is evil through his own wish, not from the fact of his birth” (Zaehner, 1955, p. 438). Abnormal aspects suggesting that Ahriman is capable of creativity comparable to that of Ohrmazd are debatable or absolutely secondary in Zoroastrian dualism, the ethical nature of which is a constant element from the Gathas to Pahlavi literature. Yet Zoroastrian and Iranian dualism generally did undergo historical transformations, impelled by inner tendencies and contacts with other religions (Shaked, 1994).

The transformation of Zoroaster’s original dualism was determined by the progressive assimilation of Ahura Mazdā and Spəṇta Mainiiu, a process favored by the idea that God created everything through the beneficent spirit (Y. 44.7), defined in the Younger Avesta (Yt. 10.143) as a “creator” (daδuuå spəṇtō mainiiuš) not unlike Ahura Mazdā himself (Gershevitch, 1964, p. 14); there is no real evidence in the Avesta that the opposition between Spəṇta Mainiiu and Aŋra Mainiiu was transferred to Ahura Mazdā and Aŋra Mainiiu, however. As Gershevitch (1964, p. 15) has noted, such a transformation was documented in the Greek sources as early as the 4th century B.C.E. and in Zoroastrian texts of the 9th century C.E.: “In the place of Falsehood now stands the Fiendish Spirit, in the place of Truth, God himself. Zoroaster’s religion has become an uncompromising dualism, in which two aboriginal deities, Ohrmazd and Ahriman, God and the Devil, face each other and contend for ultimate victory.” Aristotle, in a fragment of the Perì philosophías (apud Diogenes Laertius, 1.8), explained the teaching of the Magi as presupposing the existence of two principles, Zeus or Oromasdes and Hades or Areimanios. In the Metaphysics, too, he cited the Magi in Asia, because of their dualism, as forerunners of Plato immediately after Pherecydes in Greece (cf. Benveniste, p. 17; Bidez and Cumont, I, p. 102). A similar notion was expressed by his disciple Eudemus of Rhodes (apud Damascius, p. 322; cf. Gnoli, 1988). In De Iside et Osiride Plutarch attributed such a dualistic formula to Zoroastres the Magus (Bidez and Cumont, II, p. 71).

In the 9th-century Pahlavi literature the dualism between Ohrmazd and Ahriman is omnipresent. In the first chapter of the Bundahišn there is a powerful representation of Ohrmazd as omniscient and good, residing on high in the infinite light (asar rōšnīh), which is also its own space (gāh) and place (gyāg). Ahriman, endowed with “knowledge after the fact” (pas-dānišnīh, knowledge of effects, rather than causes, as only Ohrmazd is able to foresee) and a desire for destruction (zadār-kāmīh), resides in the abyss (zofr-pāyag) in infinite darkness (asar tārīgīh), which is its own place. Between them is the void (tuhīgīh), or atmosphere (way), where the mingling (gumēzišn) of the two spirits (mēnōg) takes place (Bundahišn 1.1-5; tr. Anklesaria, pp. 4-5).

It should be noted, however, that this new formulation of Zoroastrian dualism, in which God is degraded to the level of devil’s antagonist, was part of a unitary body of doctrine that remained essentially unchanged for centuries. Within certain limits a historical development can be partially reconstructed from the heterogeneous sources. It can be assumed that the gathic formulation (of Ahura Mazdā and opposed twin spirits) was succeeded by a formulation in which Ahura Mazdā was directly opposed to the evil spirit, with the addition in some instances of another entity, time (Zurwān), conceived as the father of the twins Ohrmazd and Ahriman. The supremacy of time in some sources, both Iranian and non-Iranian, related to the religion of the Magi or even in the 9th-century Zoroastrian religious literature, has been interpreted as attesting to Zurvanism, defined either as the continuation of an Iranian religion parallel to Mazdaism, a Mazdean heresy, or simply a theological trend peripheral to orthodoxy (Nyberg, 1929; idem, 1931; Zaehner, 1955; for further references, cf. Gnoli, 1980, pp. 211-12; Boyce, 1990; idem, Zoroastrianism III, pp. 412, 423-24, 463-64). It seems that Zurvanism, “with its speculation on Time, its apparatus of numbers, and the idea of the world-year, is the outcome of contact between Zoroastrianism and the Babylonian civilization” in the 5th-4th centuries B.C. (Henning, 1951, p. 49; see BABYLONIA ii). The various references to the opposition between Oromasdes and Areimanios in Greek and Latin sources, particularly the passage from Eudemus, can be interpreted as evidence that Zurvanism already existed in the latter half of the Achaemenid period. The historical development of Iranian dualism can therefore be viewed as having taken place in three principal stages: gathic dualism (Ahura Mazdā + Spəṇta Mainiiu and Aŋra Mainiiu), Zurvanite dualism (Zruuan + Ahura Mazdā and Aŋra Mainiiu), and the simplified dualism of the Pahlavi texts (Ohrmazd and Ahriman), in which the two principles are represented in almost symmetrical opposition (pace Bianchi, 1958; Molé).

In the Zurvanite myth as transmitted by hostile and foreign sources, chiefly Syrian and Armenian Christian writers (cf. Schaeder, 1941), Zurwān, or time, fathered the twins Ohrmazd and Ahriman; having promised the scepter to the firstborn, he made Ahriman, who came to light first, king for 9,000 years, a “limited time,” after which kingship was to be bestowed on Ohrmazd for “endless time.” This myth attests a religious and philosophical mentality quite different from that of original Zoroastrianism. The historical development of Iranian dualism under the influence of Babylonian astronomy and astrology and the astral religion of Mesopotamia, far from preserving Zoroastrian moral values and belief in the dignity and freedom of man, caused a radical subversion of those values. In gathic dualism Ahura Mazdā and man, his earthly and corporeal symbol, stood above and in the center of everything, with the two opposing spirits offering free choice. Syncretistic Iranian-Mesopotamian dualism reduced Ahura Mazdā to the level of Aŋra Mainiiu and raised time above everything. Whereas in the Gathas the role and value of God and man’s moral freedom were exalted above all, in the syncretistic version the role and value of the creator God were debased and man subjugated to the omnipotence of time (zamān), from which the soul cannot release itself: “Time is more powerful than the two creations, the creation of Ohrmazd and the creation of the Evil Spirit” (Bundahišn 1.43; tr. Anklesaria, pp. 12-15; cf. Nyberg, 1929, pp. 214-15; Henning, 1935, p. 11; Zaehner, 1955, pp. 281, 297 ff., 315-16). In these conceptions lie the foundations of a religious fatalism that deeply influenced medieval Persia (cf. Ringgren, 1952, pp. 72 ff.).

The transformation of gathic dualism into Zurvanite dualism was not simply a theological development without consequences for the Zoroastrian religious life and world view, as has been suggested (Boyce, 1990, p. 25). In fact, the Zurvanite conception of the world-year and exaltation of time above the protagonists in the cosmic drama represented adaptation of the Zoroastrian tradition to the religious, philosophical, and scientific tendencies prevailing in the Near East during the Achaemenid and Hellenistic periods, when the notions of a universal law regulating the eternal movement of the orbs and of the celestial vault were widely accepted (on these aspects of Babylonian religion, see, e.g., Meissner, chap. xviii; Bottéro, pp. 142-43). It is certainly paradoxical to consider dualism as a monistic attempt to subjugate dualism to Zurwān (Pétrement, 1947, pp. 323 ff.).

It was during this period, too, that Iranian dualism influenced Judaism (Bousset, 1926; Colpe; Duchesne-Guillemin, 1958, pp. 86 ff.; Hultgård; Shaked, 1984), as is especially clear from the Qumran texts (Wilderberger; Michaud; Duchesne-Guillemin, 1957; Winston; Widengren, 1966; Ringgren, 1967; see DEAD SEA SCROLLS); early Christianity (Clemen; Duchesne-Guillemin, 1962, pp. 264 ff.; Widengren, 1975); and Gnosticism (Bousset, 1907; Widengren, 1952; idem, 1967). Research in these different fields is particularly rich and complex, and opinions often differ widely. It is nevertheless difficult to deny an influence of Iranian dualism on the religions of the Near East from the Achaemenid period to the early centuries of the present era (for a recent discussion see Boyce, Zoroastrianism III, pp. 361-490; cf. Gnoli, 1984; see also BIBLE ii).

Even clearer is the influence of Iranian dualism on Manicheism, despite the present tendency to consider the origins of Manicheism within the general framework of Judaism and Christianity (see, e.g., Boyce, Zoroastrianism III, p. 460-65). In formulating his version of dualism Mani abided by one of the fundamental tenets of Mazdaism, that creation is the work of a good, wise, and omniscient God (Puech, p. 142), but in Manicheism there is particular emphasis on an omnipresent evil, which man must fight with all his force during his earthly life. This dualism is based on the opposition of light and darkness, God and matter, conceived as principles preceding and transcending the drama of human existence in the mediating moment of their “intermingling” (Pahl. gumēzišn), as in the 9th-century Zoroastrian texts. In Mani’s dualism man was again at the center; Ohrmazd was redeemed from the degradation into which he had fallen in Zurvanite theology and identified as primordial man, who, in Manichean Gnosticism was the true divine savior (Gnoli, 1984, pp. 134-35). Manichean and Turkish documents from Central Asia demonstrate that Manicheans reacted against Zurvanite dualism by attacking those who affirmed that Ohrmazd and Ahriman were brothers or that God had created both good and evil, referred to in the Manichean Middle Persian text M 28 (Henning, 1951, p. 50) and the Uighur confession text Xwāstwānīft I.C.3-4 (Asmussen, p. 194; cf. the texts collected in Zaehner 1955, pp. 431 ff.; Puech, pp. 140-41). The occurrence of such a condemnation in a 9th-century Zoroastrian text undoubtedly reflects the influence of polemics between Manicheans and Christians (Dēnkard 9.30.4: “Ohrmazd and Ahriman were two brothers in one womb”; Junker, p. 144; Schaeder, 1930, pp. 288-91; Benveniste, 1932-33, pp. 209-11; Zaehner, 1955, pp. 429-31; Molé, pp. 464-65). Any trace of Zurvanite dualism was to be eradicated and replaced by the new Zoroastrian orthodoxy, in which the dualism between Ohrmazd and Ahriman was preeminent.

Islamic hostility to dualism also influenced the Zoroastrian communities in Persia. In fact, condemnation of dualists (ṯanawīya, ahl al-iṯnayn) was almost a topos in Muslim refutations of Manichean, Mazdakite, and even Mazdean doctrines; the last was, however, given special attention by such authors as Abū Bakr Moḥammad Bāqellānī (Monnot, 1977), ʿAbd-al-Jabbār b. Aḥmad (Monnot, 1974), and Abu’l-Fatḥ Moḥammad Šahrestānī (Gimaret and Monnot, pp. 635-54; cf. Monnot, 1986, pp. 119, 38, 41, 86, 124, 141 ff., 157 ff.). After the Muslim conquest of Persia and the exodus of many Zoroastrians to India and after having been exposed to both Muslim and Christian propaganda, the Zoroastrians, especially the Parsis in India, went so far as to deny dualism and to view themselves as outright monotheists (Dhalla, pp. 46-53, 156-73, 247-68, 337 ff.; Duchesne-Guillemin, 1953, pp. 161 ff.; idem, 1962, pp. 373-74; Boyce, 1979, pp. 197, 207, 213, 220). After several transformations and developments one of the defining features of the Zoroastrian religion thus gradually faded and has almost disappeared from modern Zoroastrianism.

Nevertheless, Iranian dualism spread widely east and west of the Iranian world, especially through Manicheism. Traces can still be found in Central Asian and particularly Tibetan cosmogonies (Klimkeit, 1986, pp. 46, 48; Tucci, 1949, pp. 730-31; idem, 1980, pp. 214, 271 n. 5; Gnoli, 1962, pp. 127-28; Hoffmann, pp. 102 ff.; Blondeau, p. 313; cf. Uray; Kværne). In the West, although the connections are uncertain and the historical development difficult to reconstruct, religious dualism can be identified in the beliefs of Priscillianus and his followers in the late Roman empire, the Paulicians in the Byzantine empire, and later the Bogomils (see, e.g., Söderberg; Runciman; Loos; for a sound survey of the history and problems, see Manselli; for further references, see Couliano, pp. 223-81; Rudolph, pp. 402 ff., 423 n. 191).


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(Gherardo Gnoli)

Originally Published: December 15, 1996

Last Updated: December 1, 2011

This article is available in print.
Vol. VII, Fac. 6, pp. 576-582

Cite this entry:

Gherardo Gnoli, “DUALISM,” Encyclopædia Iranica, VII/6, pp. 576-582; available online at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/dualism (accessed on 14 May 2014).

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