The collection of texts known today as the Nag Hammadi Library are thought to have been buried by members of a desert community when the orthodox Church began its suppression of what we call Gnosticism.
The deserts of Egypt were favoured by the hermits and monastics known as the Desert Fathers and Mothers, their lives characterized by simple labour, arduous prayer, and chanting the psalms from memory.
People seeking out their wisdom regarded them as saints. They flourished in the days before the codifying of the New Testament, and certainly knew of books that were not included within the canon of Christian scripture. The Nag Hammadi Library bears witness to this.
The tradition of the Desert Fathers and Mothers were the beginnings of Christian monasticism, and influenced Greek and Byzantine Christianity. It was the Greek and Byzantine Christians who took the faith to Russia, Saints Cyril and Methodius having translated the Bible into the Slavic language.
It is not entirely implausible to think that something of the Gnostic beliefs were absorbed into monastic life, as the Orthodox churches have a deep and rich mystical tradition that, at times, can appear to venture beyond the bounds of orthodoxy, in the strictest sense of the word.
It was the churches of the East, the churches of Greece and Byzantium, which perfected the art of Christian iconography, while the Latin Church of Rome preferred the use of statues.
If Gnostic elements were preserved within the mystical traditions of this branch of Christianity, then something of these ideas may have permeated the art produced by the monks themselves.
It was some time in the fifteenth century that an Orthodox monk named Andre Rublev, living in the Monastery of St Sergius, Moscow, wrote what is considered by a number of art historians to be one of the highest achievements of Russian art: an icon titled “The Trinity”.
The icon depicts a scene from Genesis 18: 1 – 15, a scene known as “the hospitality of Abraham”:
The LORD appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, “My lord, if I find favour with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on – since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of flour, knead it, and make cakes.” Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.
They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.” Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the entrance of the tent behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have the pleasure?”
The LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too wonderful for the LORD? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.”
But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”
Rublev’s “Trinity” depicts the three heavenly visitors seated around a table, upon which is a cup or dish, and in the background can be seen a house, a tree, and a mountain. Given that the “Christian Trinity” cannot truly be depicted, Rublev has shown the Trinity in “disguise”, and another name for the icon is “The Old Testament Trinity”.
I offer you here a basic key to the accepted symbolism of the icon, as well as my reading of it in the light of the Craft, sprung from my own reflections and devotions.
Examining the three figures, we find that, given the inclination of their heads, wings and the pedestals on which their feet rest, they can be enclosed in a circle. The seating arrangement is such that the viewer of the icon takes the fourth place at the table. The circle, of course, is the primary symbol of unity, having neither beginning nor end.
This arrangement gives expression to the Christian belief of Trinity as “One God, Three Persons.” I see in this circle the ONE, in which all live, move and have their being, from which all proceed and to which all must return.
I also see the Witches’ Compass, the “wheel of Fate, the holy mandala drawing all into a space of becoming, the Merkavah: the mystical vehicle facilitating a noumenal connection.” Of course, we ourselves are the centre of the Compass; we are part of it, and it is part of us – the Compass has meaning and value only when we “take our seat at the table.”
Further examination of the three figures shows that their faces, wings and halos and staves are identical, and each wears a blue garment (blue, the colour of the heavens and divinity) – but each also wears something that indicates their own identity.
Starting from left, the blue garment of the figure at rest within himself is hidden by a robe, shimmering and ethereal. In this figure, we see the Father. The Creator-Father cannot, may not, be seen by creatures. Both hands hold the staff, showing that all authority in heaven and on earth belong to him.
The Father created the Sun and the Moon “for signs and for seasons and for days and years” – The Old Horn King, “the Father of Time and Death and their cycles.”
Behind this figure is Abraham’s dwelling, depicted as a turreted house, not as a tent. We are reminded of the words of Christ, “In my Father’s house are many mansions, and I am going to prepare a place for you.”
For the Carmelite mystic St Teresa of Jesus (Avila), the many mansions formed the basic symbolism of her great work on prayer, The Interior Castle. The Carmelite Order began in 12th Century Israel, on the slopes of Mount Carmel, when hermits (possibly pilgrims and crusaders) opted to live lives of solitude and prayer near the spring of Elijah on the holy mountain. Early works by Carmelite authors claim that the charism of the Order was influenced by the Desert Fathers, and indeed the mythology of the Order claims that the hermits were the successors of the “sons of the prophet”, being an unbroken line stretching back to the days of Elijah himself. It is interesting to note that the Russian church professes great veneration for the prophet Elijah, who is said to have the power to calm storms!
In The Interior Castle, Teresa writes that the indwelling presence of God is found in the very centre of a castle of the clearest crystal. Within this castle are many rooms that the soul passes through on the prayer-journey to sacred marriage – mystical union with the Godhead.
This is not unlike the rosy Grail Castle!
The central figure wears garments of blue and reddish-brown, the latter bearing a gold band. The reddish-brown calls to mind earth and blood, symbolizing humanity, while the gold band indicates kingship. The dress is identical to that shown in the icons of Christos Pantokrator, Christ the Ruler of All, and is modeled after the court dress of Byzantine emperors. The blue and reddish-brown garments together symbolize the two natures of Christ, human and divine, together in hypostatic union; the wedding of earth and heaven, man and God.
His right hand rests on the mensa, in the traditional gesture of blessing, and pointing toward the cup on the table. In some versions of the icon, the cup contains wine; in others it contains either a calf or lamb. Whatever the contents, it is symbolic of both the meal prepared at Abraham’s orders and the sacrifice of Christ – the offering of himself at the last supper (Eucharist) and on the Cross at Calvary. He inclines his head toward the figure on the left, showing obedience to the will of the Father.
Behind the central figure is a tree, being the oaks of Mamre, under which the three visitors enjoyed the hospitality of Abraham and Sarah, and where they gave their word that Sarah would conceive and bear a son. The placing of the tree behind the Christ figure also points to the Cross as the Tree of Life (cf. 1 Peter 2:24: He himself carried up our sins in his body to the tree, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness…).
Jesus represents one face of the Sacred King who is sacrificed on the Kerm Oak, on the Tau Cross, for the sake of the People and the Land. He is the mystic who embraces the Ordeal of hanging upon the world tree and cosmic pillar in the Quest for Wisdom/Gnosis/the Mysteries of the Runes.
Robert Cochrane wrote in a letter to William Gray that “the teachings of Jesus are very near to my own perception about ‘morality’. The crucifixion is a much older story of hundreds, if not thousands, of divine kings who died upon the Tau Cross of the kerm oak and the supernatural is a commonplace legend surrounding such events. It is well-known to the ancients that if man draws power, he must sooner or later replace it with something that is better if the social continuity is to survive. Sacrifice is the keynote of survival, and the ancients thought to sacrifice their very best in order to replace the energy loss. Jesus, if I read the legends rightly, literally did die to ‘save us all’ since he, as a developed man, created with his own solitary sacrifice a ‘field’ that many have drawn upon and added to since. The fault with Christianity lies in the churches and the apostles, not in the founder. The basic law behind the techniques of magic and fate is that nature abhors a vacuum, and it is with this in mind that mystics and magicians alike attempt to lift the world fate. They replace that which is empty or negative with that which is positive. The trouble lies in the interpretation many casual ‘mystics’ or divines put upon the word ‘love’. Love is the most divine force, but it is only gained through pain and insight.”
The figure of Jesus resonates with that of Hermes/Mercury. Both are revered as Lords of Wisdom and magic (although Christians would never call the miracles of Jesus “magic”!). The church sees Jesus as the Logos, the creative principle of the Godhead, the “means” by which the Father created (and redeemed) the world. Both Hermes and Jesus are the Solar Child – Christ is referred to as “the Sun of Justice” or “the Sun of Righteousness”, and is seen as the fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy that “for you who revere My name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.” (Malachi 4:2)
These words are echoed by the priest Zechariah in Luke’s Gospel, “...the lovingkindness of the heart of our God who visits us like the dawn from on high…” (Luke 1:78).
The Craft sees Hermes, the Young Horn King, as Lux Mundi, the Light of the World. Jesus says of himself, “Ego sum Lux Mundi” – “I am the light of the world” - in John’s Gospel (John 8:12). It is also worth noting here that in chapter 10 of the same gospel, he proclaims of himself, “Ego sum Pastor Bonum” – “I am the Good Shepherd.” (John 10:11)
The earliest depictions of Christ in Christian art are as a beardless youth carrying a lamb across his shoulders. It is no coincidence that Hermes was worshipped by the Greeks as Hermes Kriophoros (Hermes the Ram-Bearer), who was shown in art as a beardless youth carrying a ram across his shoulders! Of course, the early Christians’ art had to be ambiguous due to persecution, but there are a number of images that could have been used. Is it possible that those early members of the faithful felt the resonance between Christ and Hermes, and used that image for more than just its pastoral symbolism?
Dwelling briefly on the Kriophoros, I found it interesting that the myth of Hermes Kriophoros is concerned with healing. Pausinias wrote that Hermes saved the city of Tanagra from plague by carrying a ram on his shoulders as he circuited the city walls:
There are sanctuaries of Hermes Kriophoros and of Hermes called Promachos. They account for the former surname by a story that Hermes averted a pestilence from the city by carrying a ram round the walls; to commemorate this, Calamis made an image of Hermes carrying ram upon his shoulders. Whichever of the youths is judged to be the most handsome goes round the walls at the feast of Hermes, carrying a lamb on his shoulders.
I can’t help but wonder if the ram or lamb had a similar function to that of the Levitical scapegoat.
On the theme of healing, I found the following understanding of the term ‘Saviour’ to be of interest:
According to Valentinus, Jesus is indeed Saviour, but the term needs to be understood in the meaning of the original Greek word, used by orthodox and Gnostic Christian alike. This word is ‘soter’, meaning ‘healer’ or ‘bestower of health’. From this is derived the word today translated as ‘salvation’, i.e. ‘soteria’, which originally meant ‘healthiness’, ‘deliverance from imperfection’, ‘becoming whole’, and ‘preserving one’s wholeness’.
On the symbolism of the ram within the masked rites, Evan John Jones wrote “Ram is nothing more or less than another substitute for the Divine King sacrifice which segued into the Witch concept of the old substitute blood price paid by the magister of the coven every seven years… [T]he Goddess and the old Gods still had to have their dues in the form of a blood sacrifice, a life in exchange for the blessing of life and prosperity for the clan. What better way to pay than with the ram, symbolic of the Horned God and living a life that was in accord with the magico-religious thinking of the ancient society? The ram served a twofold purpose: on the one hand, a recognizable life form that symbolized and outward and visible manifestation of the God. As such, the ram could be dedicated to the Gods as a substitute for the still-strong leader.”
Moving our gaze now to the figure on the right of the icon, we again find the blue garment of divinity, but partially covered this time with green clothing, representing (new) life. This figure, of course, represents the Holy Spirit, called by some Shekinah, the Bride of God, Holy Wisdom, the Anima Mundi.
In Orthodox theology, the Spirit proceeds from the Father, enlivening all. The Holy Spirit has been expressed as the bond of love between Father and Son, a love so ineffable that it is the third Person of the Blessed Trinity.
The Spirit sanctifies, and in the icon, we find that the third Angel touches the mensa, “earthing” the divine life of God.
Rublev has given here a deceptively simple portrayal of the epiclesis of the Mass: before the consecration, the priest holds his hands, palm down, over the bread and wine, and prays, “Make holy, therefore, these gifts, we pray, by sending down your Spirit upon them like the dewfall, so that they may become for us the Body and Blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ.”
It is through the action of the Holy Spirit that the consecration of the bread and wine occurs, transubstantiating them into the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus the Christ.
Through the reception of Holy Communion, the faithful hope to receive this divine life of God, slowly being transformed themselves by the action of that same Spirit to ever-increasing degrees of glory.
The book of Genesis describes the Holy Spirit as ‘moving over the face of the deep’, right at the beginning of creation. The place or role of Wisdom in creation is described in Proverbs and the Book of Wisdom, in such terms as to equate Her with the Holy Spirit in that brief mention in Genesis.
The Holy Spirit animates and orders all of creation – the Anima Mundi. This resonates with the Gnostic idea of Sophia, one that has carried through into certain branches of Traditional Craft. Each human being bears within them a ‘spark’ of Sophia’s divine power. Various cosmogonies acknowledge the True Creatrix, birthing all, sustaining all, devouring all. She is force empowering form.
The sacrament of Confirmation (known in the Eastern churches as ‘chrismation’) is conferred through the laying on of hands and the anointing with blessed oil, the sacred chrism. Through intent, word and sign, the Holy Spirit is gifted to the recipient, confirming them in their faith, bestowing the seven gifts, empowering the person to live out the faith to which they have committed themselves. Force enlivening form.
Behind this third figure, we see a mountain, the summit of which almost seems to be bowing to the Three Angels, the central figure in particular.
The mountain in the Judeo-Christian Bible (and in numerous ancient mythologies) is often the place of Divine encounter.
In Abraham’s story, Sarah does give birth to the son promised by the Three Visitors. The son is named Isaac (laughter), and the Lord tests Abraham’s faith by telling him to sacrifice Isaac on mount Moriah. Of course, the Lord intervenes at the last minute, staying the hand of Abraham and providing a ram as a substitute for the boy. The Christian church has interpreted this as a foreshadowing of the death of the Son of God on Mount Calvary, with Christ as the substitute for sinful man.
The mountain as place of encounter and sacrifice in this icon is further highlighted by the tree mentioned earlier.
Other examples of mountains as places of Divine encounter in the Bible are numerous: We find Moses receiving a vision of the glory of God and then receiving the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. The Jerusalem Temple was built on Mount Moriah. Elijah had his famous theophany on a mountain, finding God not within the earthquake, fire or great wind, but in the still small voice. The summit of Mount Carmel was the site of the showdown between the prophet and the priests of Baal. In the New Testament, we read of Jesus praying in solitude in the mountains. God giving Moses the law on Sinai is echoed by Christ handing on the new law to his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount. The Transfiguration of Christ takes place on “the holy mountain”, where Peter, James and John saw and heard a revelation of divine glory. Also, the Temptation of Christ took place on a high mountain in the wilderness , and the crucifixion took place on the hill of Golgotha/mount Calvary .
The mountain in this icon, then, would symbolize both the place of sacrifice and the place of encountering the divine – perhaps further emphasizing Abraham’s encountering the Divine Persons in Their guise as travelers.
Old tales about Witches often portray them meeting on (or within) mountains. Nigel Jackson writes, “The Dark Hill of the Sabbat represents a profound inner locus of traditional Wicce-Craeft. The beacon-fire burning upon its summit shines through the many dimensions and summons the faithful across the night of power to celebrate its Mysterium. The Hill, Mound, or Mountain is central to Witch-symbolism because it embodies the body or womb of the All-Mother within which the ultimate transformations are sought, beneath the roots of the cosmic tree.
The German knight Tannhauser followed this path into the Hurselberg, the Mountain of Venus. Pendle Hill possesses a similar function in the cosmography of Lancashire Witchcraft. The Swedish Witches of the Auldearne Coven entered into the Downie Hills and German Witches flew to the Brocken on Walpurgisnacht. Basque Sabbats took place within the caverns of certain mountains in the Pyrenees. Everywhere the symbolism of the Dark Hill of the Sabbat endures – descending the passageway into this mound entails a return to the earth-womb of Dame Herodias, the primeval source of all being which exists beyond time and space. This is the dream-state of Ur-consciousness in which all ordinary limits are dissolved – the divine chaos from which time and being are regenerated again and again through great cosmic cycles.”
Here, too, seems to be the theme of dissolution/sacrifice and encounter.
The table at which the Three figures are seated and on which is placed the gold chalice/dish appears more like an altar than it does a dining table. Visible in the front of the table is a small opening, reminiscent of the niche in which saints’ relics were placed during the consecration of a church altar. This opening has also been described as a “window to heaven”, a symbol of the reality awaiting the faithful, a foretaste of which is the Eucharist – union with the divine Presence.
Shani Oates writes in The Arcane Veil that altars symbolize “divine presence and the point of transformation and renewal through integration. For Hebrews, ‘the Altar of Perfumes’ is the operation of Grace for the elements. An altar is also the place of re-union with deity by means of sacrifice… The altar is regarded by Catholic priests as the Cross, that point of Sacrifice or manifestation…”
Here again is the theme of offering/sacrifice and re-union with Deity, echoing the tree behind the central Figure and the chalice upon the mensa.
One interpretation of the icon as a whole in terms of Christian theology then, is ‘simply’ that the believer is invited to take his or her place at the table, offering self to the Father in union with Christ in the Mass, the central act of Christian worship. The bread and wine is transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ through the action of the Holy Spirit, and the believer then receives in the sacred fellowship meal a portion of Grace, strengthening the divine life of God within the believer so that they may one day be received into the fullness of the Divine Presence. The icon portrays the relationship of the Persons of the Trinity to One another, the relationship of the believer to the Trinity, how that relationship is achieved and strengthened, and the ultimate destiny of the believer.
I am of the opinion that the Traditional Crafter may see in Rublev’s icon of the Trinity a summary of the orientation and movement of the Craft. Here we have “the boat, the ferryman and the destination” , the Compass and that which takes place within it, in the movement toward re-memberance of and with Deity, the realization that we are, in fact, seated at that table.
Cf. Tubelo’s Green Fire, Shani Oates, pg 38 ff.
Tubelo’s Green Fire, pg 48.
The Robert Cochrane Letters, pg 87.
Description of Greece, Pausanias, quoted in www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kriophoros
Valentinus – A Gnostic for All Seasons, www.gnosis.org/valentinus.htm
Sacred Mask, Sacred Dance, Evan John Jones, Pg 52 ff.
Eucharist Prayer II, Roman Missal.
Cf. Genesis 1:2, Proverbs 8:22-13, Wisdom of Solomon 7:22 -8:1, Sirach 24:1-22.
2 Chronicles 3:1. Also referred to as Mount Zion, cf. Isaiah 60:14, 1 Maccabees 5:54.
Matthew 17:1-13, 2 Peter 1:16-18.
Calvary/Golgotha has been referred to as a small hill since the 4th Century, cf. The Catholic Encyclopedia, “Golgotha”.
Call of the Horned Piper, Nigel A. Jackson, Pg 114.
The Arcane Veil, Shani Oates, Pg 232 ff.
Tubelo’s Green Fire, Pg 40 ff.