We got into dualism and gender a bit when talking about the Hermetica, but what about Gnostic portrayals of gender? After all Gnosticism is seen as being highly dualistic (Sorry, Michael Allen Williams, I disagree with you). And some of its myths certainly reinforce dualistic gender constructs. I want to discuss one example, that of Baruch. This work is attributed to Justin the Gnostic and comes to us by way of Hippolytus, a heresiologist.
This story tells the tale of two angels in love: Eden and Elohim, of which the material Adam and Eve (and thus earthy human creation) are reflections of. According to Williams, when Eden and Elohim get together:
Eden brings all of her power, as a sort of estate, and gives it to Elohim in the marriage arrangement. ‘Whence,’ according to Justin, ‘in imitation of their first marriage wives offer a dowry to husbands to this very day, obeying a divine an ancestral law that originated with the dowry to Elohim from Eden.’ This the myth conveys the notion that the creation in which humans dwell was originally a benign and bright affair, resulting from what originally was a completely proper and presumably happy marriage. (Williams 19-20)
To summarize, this portion of the Eden and Elohim myth suggests:
- The dowry system is institutionalized for humans through tradition as a re-enactment of divinity.
- This dowry originally consisted of a woman’s power.
- Ergo, if a woman wants a happy marriage (and to maintain tradition!) she should give her power to her husband.
I don’t think we need to discuss the gender issues which surround women giving their husbands a dowry (or their power). A blind man can see who benefits from this arrangement. We also don’t need to discuss it because it doesn’t matter: Elohim up and leaves Eden, anyway. He goes to hang out with The Good. But The Good is a bit possessive, and basically tells Elohim that he has to stay in heaven. For forever. Also, he can’t go back to earth and tell Eden. But this is OK, because, you know, The Good.
“The Good invites Elohim to ‘sit at my right hand’…Beholding the majesty of this transcendent realm, Elohim’s first instinct is to destroy the world he had created below and retrieve his spirit that abides in humans. However, The Good will not permit this since it would be an act of evil, ‘For you and Eden created the world from mutual satisfaction. Therefore allow Eden to possess the creation as long as she wishes, but you remain with me.” (Williams 20)
So Elohim stays in heaven and, to put it kindly, Eden loses her shit. She doesn’t know where he is, and basically unleashes evil all over the place. But before we get to that, let’s talk about the dualism and gender issues going on in this passage!
First, The Good is portrayed as living in a place distinctly better than the material world. It is so much better that, upon seeing the divine realm, Elohim’s first reaction is to destroy the material world because it pales in comparison and traps what is transcendent about humans. This is dualism, plain and simple: A distinction between the transcendent spiritual world and that of the lesser material world.
Second, it’s not Eden who gets to see, let alone dwell in this upper spiritual world, it is Elohim—the husband. In fact, Eden isn’t allowed to even come close to the spiritual world. Forced to stay on earth, she doesn’t even know where Elohim is! So, not only do we have a specific male identification with the transcendent, spiritual world, we have the identification of the female with the material world (“allow Eden to possess creation”), and we also have the insinuation that women can’t even come close to knowing this transcendent realm.
And then there’s the evil.
Elohim, despite abandoning his wife, lives the good life. In fact, Williams observes that Elohim is portrayed as completely ambivalent about the whole thing. But Eden, without a man around, goes crazy, creating evil angels which cause unhappiness and multifarious kinds of sin among humans. It is only when Elohim’s angel Baruch convinces Jesus to save humanity that things rectify themselves. Also, one of Eden’s angels made the crucifixion happen. But the crucifixion leads to a redeeming act: Eden’s body and soul are left on earth, but Jesus rescues her divine spirit and takes it back upstairs (20-22). Here is yet another dichotomy between the body and spirit, man and woman. Eden/the body is left on earth, whereas Jesus/the spirit ascends to the realm of the Good. Also, she killed Jesus. That’s pretty bad.
This text almost goes overboard in its gendered dualism: There’s the dowry; the wife giving her power to her husband; the man who is able to see the spiritual world while the woman isn’t; the woman portrayed as the reason for all kind of evil; and the necessity of a male savior figure to set everything right. Not to mention a sharp distinction between the spiritual and material worlds.
Of course, this text is just one of dozens of Gnostic texts (it’s not even in the Nag Hammadi library, so we can question whether it can even be considered such). This is not to say that all Gnostic texts share this worldview. Readers will immediately rebut with the divine female persona of Thunder Perfect Mind, no doubt. But Baruch does not portray the female or the material world as a holy thing. In all cases, it is something to be subdued by masculine power and separated from higher, transcendent principles. When the female does have power, it is corrupt, evil, embodied and uncontrollable. It’s hard not to see the dualism and its implications on gender at work in this text.
Williams, Michael Allen. Rethinking Gnosticism. Princeton University Press. 1999.
Elohim Creating Adam by William Blake via Wikimedia Commons.