An archon, in the Gnosticism of late antiquity, was any of several servants of the Demiurge, the "creator god" that stood between the human race and a transcendent God that could only be reached through gnosis. In this context they have the role of the angels and demons of the Old Testament. They give their name to the sect called Archontics. They were thus called from the Greek word ἄρχοντες, "principalities", or "rulers", by reason that they held the world to have been created and ruled by malevolent Archons. The term was taken from the ancient Greek position of office "archon".
A characteristic feature of the Gnostic concept of the universe is the role played in almost all Gnostic systems by the seven world-creating archons, known as the Hebdomad (ἑβδομάς). These Seven are in most systems semi-hostile powers, and are reckoned as the last and lowest emanations of the Godhead; below them—and frequently considered as derived from them—comes the world of the actually devilish powers. There are indeed certain exceptions; Basilides taught the existence of a "great archon" called Abraxas who presided over 365 archons (Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, i. 24).
The ancient astronomy taught that above the seven planetary spheres was an eighth, the sphere of the fixed stars. In the eighth sphere, these Gnostics taught, dwelt the mother to whom all these archons owed their origin, Sophia (Wisdom) or Barbelo. In the language of these sects the word Hebdomad not only denotes the seven archons, but is also a name of place, denoting the heavenly regions over which the seven archons presided; while Ogdoad denotes the supercelestial regions which lay above their control.
- Yaldabaoth, called also Saklas and Samael
- Astaphanos, or Astaphaios
- Elaios, or Ailoaios, or sometimes Ailoein
In the hellenized form of Gnosticism either all or some of these names are replaced by personified vices. Authadia (Authades), or Audacity, is the obvious description of Yaldabaoth, the presumptuous Demiurge, who is lion-faced as the Archon Authadia. Of the Archons Kakia, Zelos, Phthonos, Errinnys, Epithymia, the last obviously represents Venus. The number seven is obtained by placing a proarchon or chief archon at the head. That these names are only a disguise for the Sancta Hebdomas is clear, for Sophia, the mother of them, retains the name of Ogdoad, Octonatio. Occasionally one meets with the Archon Esaldaios, which is evidently the El Shaddai of the Bible, and he is described as the Archon "number four" (harithmo tetartos).
In the system of the Gnostics mentioned by Epiphanius we find, as the Seven Archons,
- Saklas (the chief demon of Manichaeism)
- Elilaios (probably connected with En-lil, the Bel of Nippur, the ancient god of Babylonia)
- Yaldabaoth (or no. 6 Yaldaboath, no. 7 Sabaoth)
Among the Mandaeans, we find a different and perhaps more primitive conception of the Seven, according to which they, together with their mother Namrus (Ruha) and their father (Ur), belong entirely to the world of darkness. They and their family are looked upon as captives of the god of light (Manda-d'hayye, Hibil-Ziva), who pardons them, sets them on chariots of light, and appoints them as rulers of the world.
The Manicheans readily adopted the Gnostic usage, and their archons are invariably evil beings. It is related how the helper of the Primal Man, the spirit of life, captured the evil archons, and fastened them to the firmament, or according to another account, flayed them, and formed the firmament from their skin, and this conception is closely related to the other, though in this tradition the number (seven) of the archons is lost.
Irenaeus tells us: "the holy Hebdomad is the seven stars which they call planets" (i. 30). It is safe, therefore, to take the above seven Gnostic names as designating the seven planetary divinities, the sun, moon and five planets. In the Mandaean system the Seven are introduced with the Babylonian names of the planets. The connexion of the Seven with the planets is also clearly established by the expositions of Celsus and Origen (Contra Celsum, vi. 2 2 seq.) and similarly by the above-cited passage in the Pistis Sophia, where the archons, who are here mentioned as five, are identified with the five planets (excluding the sun and moon).
In this, as in several other systems, the traces of the planetary seven have been obscured, but hardly in any have they become totally effaced. What tended most to obliterate the sevenfold distinction was the identification of the God of the Jews, the Lawgiver, with Yaldabaoth and his designation as World-creator, whereas formerly the seven planets together ruled the world. This confusion, however, was suggested by the very fact that at least five of the seven archons bore Old-Testament names for God—El Shaddai, Adonai, Elohim, Jehovah, Sabaoth.
Wilhelm Anz (Ursprung des Gnosticismus, 1897) has also pointed out that Gnostic eschatology, consisting in the soul's struggle with hostile archons in its attempt to reach the Pleroma, is a close parallel of the soul's ascent, in Babylonian astrology, through the realms of the seven planets to Anu. The late Babylonian religion can definitely be indicated as the home of these ideas.
The Bundahishn (iii. 25, v. z) is able to inform us that in the primeval strife of Satan against the light-world, seven hostile powers were captured and set as constellations in the heavens, where they are guarded by good star-powers and prevented from doing harm. Five of the evil powers are the planets, while here the sun and moon are of course not reckoned among the evil powers—for the obvious reason that in the Persian official religion they invariably appear as good divinities. It must be also noted that the Mithras mysteries, so closely connected with the Persian religion, are acquainted with this doctrine of the ascent of the soul through the planetary spheres (Origen, Contra Celsum, vi. 22).
Judaism and Christianity
The N. T. several times mentions the "prince (ἄρχων) of the devils" (δαιμονίων), or "of the (this) world," or "of the power of the air;" but never uses the word absolutely in any cognate sense. In Leviticus (LXX.) Αρχων (once οἱ Ἄρχοντες, Leviticus 20:5) represents, or rather translates, Molech. The true biblical source of the usage however is Daniel 10:13-21 (six times Theodotion; once indistinctly LXX.), where the archon (שַׂ֣ר, "prince" A. V.) is the patron angel of a nation, Persia, Greece, or Israel; a name (Michael) being given in the last case only.
The Book of Enoch (vi. 3, 7; viii. 1) names 20 "archons of the" 200 "watcher" angels who sinned with the "daughters of men," as appears from one of the Greek fragments. The title is not indeed used absolutely (τ. ἀρχόντων αὺτῶν, Σεμιαζᾶς, ὁ ἄρχων αὐτῶν, bis: cf. ἱ πρώταρχος αὐτῶν Σ.), except perhaps once (πρῶτος Ἀζαὴλ ὁ δέκατος τῶν ἀρχόντων), where the Ethiopic has no corresponding words: but it has evidently almost become a true name, and may account for St. Jude's peculiar use of ἀρχή (Jude 1:6).
Christians soon followed the Jewish precedent. In the 2nd century the term appears in several writers alien to Gnosticism. The Epistle to Diognetus (7) speaks of God sending to men "a minister or angel or archon," etc. Justin (Dial. 36) understands the command in Psalms 24:7-9 (ἄρατε πύλας οἱ ἄρχοντες ὑμῶν LXX.) to open the heavenly gates as addressed to "the archons appointed by God in the heavens." The first spurious set of Ignatian epistles enumerates "the heavenly beings and the glory of the angels and the archons visible and invisible" (Ad Smyrn. 6), and again "the heavenly beings and the angelic collocations and the archontic constitutions" (i. e. order of provinces and of functions), "things both visible and invisible" (Ad Trall. 5); the meaning being lost by the time of the interpolator, who in one case drops the word out, and in the other gives it a political sense. The Clementine Homilies adopt and extend (xi. 10, ἐν ᾅδῃ . . . ὁ ἐκεῖ καθεστὼς ἄρχων) the N. T. usage; and further call the two good and evil ("right and left") "powers," which control the destiny of each man, "rulers" (archons, vii. 3), though more commonly "leaders" (ἡγεμόνες).
The mythology of ancient Greece knew gods, daemons, and heroes. Θεοὶ ἄρχοντες (ruling gods) appear in the subsequent philosophy of Plato (Phaedr. 247 A). However Philo never alludes to archons: in a single passage (De Mon. i. 1) ἄρχοντες is merely correlative to ὑπήκοοι.
Presently the syncreticism of the later Greek philosophy found room for archons, which appear in Neoplatonism and claimed Plato's unwritten tradition. They are inserted by the author of the book De Mysteriis Aegyptiorum (ii. 3-9), and even it would seem by his questioner Porphyry, below gods, daemons, angels, and archangels, and above heroes (omitted by Porphyry) and departed "souls," in the scale of invisible beings whose presence may become manifest. It may be only an accidental coincidence that about the end of the 2nd century "Archon" was one of the names given by the Platonist Harpocration to the "Second God" of Numenius (Proclus in Tim. 93 C).
For all the series of the ruling Gods (θεοὶ ἄρχοντες), are collected into the intellectual fabrication as into a summit, and subsist about it. And as all the fountains are the progeny of the intelligible father, and are filled from him with intelligible union, thus likewise, all the orders of the principles or rulers, are suspended according to nature from the demiurgus, and participate from thence of an intellectual life.— Proclus, The Theology of Plato
- Clem. Alex. Stromata, iv. 25, xxv. p. 636: see also his quotation, v. 11, p. 692, of a mention of the fifth heaven in apocryphal writings ascribed to Zepbaniah
- For "feminine names," see Robinson, James M. (1990), "On the Origin of the World, translated by Hans-Gebhard Bethge and Bentley Layton", The Nag Hammadi Library, revised edition, San Francisco: HarperCollins. For planets, see Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Gnosticism". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
- "Moreover, they distribute the prophets in the following manner.... Each one of these, then, glorifies his own father and God, and they maintain that Sophia, herself has also spoken many things through them regarding the first Anthropos (man), and concerning that Christ who is above, thus admonishing and reminding men of the incorruptible light, the first Anthropos, and of the descent of Christ." (Irenaeus i. 30)
- Schmidt, Koptisch-gnostische Schriften, p. 234 seq. These ideas may possibly be traced still further back, and perhaps even underlie St Paul's exposition in Colossians 2:15.
- Cf. chiefly Genza, in Tractat 6 and 8; W. Brandt, Mandäische Schriften, 125 seq. and 137 seq.; Mandäische Religion, 34 seq., &c.
- F. C. Baur, Das manichäische Religionssystem, v. 65
- Zimmern, Keilinschriften in dem alien Testament, ii. p. 620 seq.; cf. particularly Diodorus ii. 30.
- Cf. similar ideas in the Arabic treatise on Persian religion Ulema-i-Islam, Vullers, Fragmente über die Religion Zoroasters, p. 49, and in other later sources for Persian religion, put together in Spiegel, Eranische Altertumskunde, Bd. ii. p. 180.
- De Mon. i. 1, p. 213; cited by Hilgenfeld, Apost. Vater, 252 q. v.
- The Six Books of Proclus, the Platonic Successor, on the Theology of Plato, translated by Thomas Taylor.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Hort, Fenton John Anthony (1877). "Archon". In Smith, William; Wace, Henry. A Dictionary of Christian Biography, Literature, Sects and Doctrines. Volume I. London: John Murray. p. 153.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Gnosticism". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Gnosticism". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton.