SACRAL MARRIAGE

The metaphor of marriage and the bridal chamber in Gnostic usage can refer both to the experience of spiritual reunification as well as to overtly sexual union. In either case, the underlying myth is that of the recreation of the primal androgyne through the union of male and female, whether that be taken as man and woman, intellect and soul, or the earthly seed and its angelic counterpart. As enlightened beings, the Gnostics generally considered themselves alone capable of understanding the true significance of sexual union, considering the non-Gnostic as worldly and animalistic, experiencing not love, but only lust: “A bridal chamber is not for the animals, nor is it for the slaves, nor for defiled women; but it is for free men and virgins” (Gospel of Philip 69,1-3; cf. Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses I 6.3; Excerpta ex Theodoto 68). While the question of Gnostic sexual practices will be discussed under the heading of sexual sacramentalism, here I want to comment on its use as a metaphor for spiritual unification.[35]
    The application of the concept of human marriage to the achievement of unity with a transcendent reality is frequent in classical Judaism, where God is the husband of his bride Israel; the metaphor of marriage also appears in the New Testament, not only where Jesus refers to himself as the bridegroom, but especially in the Pauline corpus (1 Cor 6:15-17, 2 Cor 11:1-2; Eph 5:22-23) as a symbol for the relation of Christ and the Church. Although Christian Gnostics likewise draw on these biblical concepts, uppermost in their minds as well as those of Jewish Gnostics was the notion of the primordial unity of humankind as expressed in Gen 1:26-27, according to which Adam was created as a single masculofeminine being in the image of God.
The primordial sin or fault underlying human existence that had to be overcome was the creator’s ignorant act of separating this originally androgynous into separate male and female persons. In the act of physical union, the offspring was thought to receive the human form from the male, while its physical and emotional essence was provided by the female. The same held for the spiritual world as well; spiritual perfection lay in androgyny, so when a spiritual being such as Sophia undertakes to produce offspring without a male consort, the result is defective, a formless abortion lacking the male element of form. This being the character of her offspring, both her son, creator of the natural world, and his cosmic product are likewise defective. The rectification of the creation depends on introducing into it a potential source of its reunification.
    The Sethian myth conceives this to be accomplished when the image of God (Adamas), the original human androgyne, is primordially projected as the archetype upon which the creator unwittingly bases his own human copy. Once he realizes that his androgynous copy is superior to him, he splits it into male and female, but it is too late. In spite of the creator’s attempts to subvert the primal couple, by reuniting themselves they can now recreate their original androgyny, which they do in the birth of Seth, the “other seed.” Like the divine Adamas, he is a true (“triple,” i.e., androgynous) male Child, as is the “immovable race” he engenders.
While a few Gnostic groups such as the late Sethian Borborites sought to replicate this primeval union through non-reproductive sexual union, most, like the earlier Sethians eschewed sexual union, which the they considered to typify the adulterous race of Cain. One might therefore effect a symbolic union on the transcendent plane through ritual means, the Sethians through baptismal ascension, and the Valentinians by an eschatological sacred marriage, the bridal chamber.[36] In the latter act, recourse was had not only to the myth of the primal androgyne and the NT notions of the marriage of Christ and the church, but also to Neo-Pythagorean speculation on the properties of unity.[37]
    In the Valentinian view, having abandoned her male consort, Sophia’s ultimate human offspring from Adam and Eve onward, both males and females, were regarded as weak female seed lacking the element of form which could only be restored by an ascent to the Pleroma and marriage with the male angels which the savior had prepared for them. In this way they could eternally enjoy the harmonious syzygetic union experienced by all the undescended aeons there. As in the metaphysics of the Platonic psychology of the individual, every human was a split personality. One’s higher rational, active–and thus masculine–aspect of the self, had been primordially sundered from one’s emotional, passional, receptive, and thus essentially feminine aspect of the self. The natural link with the divine world, the intellect or highest part of the soul was still resident in the transcendent world, although cut off from the soul and body now that formed one’s link with the everyday physical world. The goal of life was therefore to recover this lost unity, which would involve detaching a soul overly enamored of its bodily vehicle from the body, or detaching the rational part of the soul from its irrational and impassioned psychic vehicle, so as to effect its reunion with the higher intelligence.
    For the Gnostics who appropriated such views, the reunion of the psyche with one’s intellect was thus tantamount to coming together in an act of marriage, whether enacted through contemplative union, symbolic rites, or actual physical union. The following Valentinian citations make the point clear:

As long as we were children of the female only, as of a dishonorable union, we were incomplete, childish, without understanding, weak, and without form, brought forth like abortions, in short, we were children of the woman. But having been given form by the Savior, we are the children of the man (husband) and of the bride-chamber (Excerpta ex Theodoto 68). If the woman had not separated from the man, she would not die with the man. His separation became the beginning of death. Because of this Christ came to repair the separation which was from the beginning and again unite the two, and to give life to those who died as a result of the separation and unite them. But the woman is united to her husband in the bridal chamber. Indeed those who have united in the bridal chamber will no longer be separated. Thus Eve separated from Adam because it was not in the bridal chamber that she united with him (Gospel of Philip 70,9-22).

In the Exegesis on the Soul (NHC II,6: 132,2-133,9), which seems to have certain Simonian affinities, the restoration of the helpless female soul wallowing apart from her spiritual home in the brothels of materiality is effected by the advent of the marriage of the female soul with her intellectual masculine counterpart, her true husband. The reunification of the irrational, passionate aspect of the soul with her celestial, intellectual component as her true husband and master, from whom physical embodiment has separated her, is interpreted as a reversal of the primordial separation of Eve from Adam in the Garden of Eden: “They will become a single flesh” (Gen 2:24, 3:16; cf. 1 Cor 6:15, 11:1; Eph 5:23). The Testimony of Truth (NHC IX,3: 31,24-32,16; 34,32-35,23), which also seems to have certain Simonian affinities, likewise uses the imagery of the soul as the bride who strips off this world and learns from the evangelists about the inscrutable One, adorning herself for this her true shepherd with her bridal clothing “in beauty of mind,” whereupon:

She found her rising. She came to rest in him who is at rest. She reclined in the bride-chamber. She ate of the banquet for which she had hungered. She partook of the immortal food. She found what she had sought after. She received rest from her labors (NHC IX,3: 35,8-16).

The image of entrance into the bridal chamber and receipt of the new, imperishable wedding robe occurs also in the Second Treatise of the Great Seth (NHC VII,2: 57,7-58,4) as a metaphor for the soul’s receipt of Intellect and entry into the heavens. It is called a “mystery” effected by the revealer’s incognito descent (changing his likeness at each cosmic level), his “third baptism in a revealed image,” to defeat the cosmic powers through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.

 

–extract from “Ritual in Gnosticism

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