Female Fault and Fulfilment in Gnosticism

Female Fault and Fulfilment in Gnosticism

Female Fault and Fulfilment in Gnosticism

Female Fault and Fulfilment in Gnosticism


Buckley challenges scholarly, stereotypical views of females in Gnosticism, which tend either toward idealization or outright devaluation. Examining six Gnostic texts or traditions that illuminate female figures, she analyzes a variety of females within their contexts. She makes no attempt to classify Gnostic females according to simplifying formulae; rather she treats them individually, allowing them to make sense within their own contexts.

Originally published in 1986.


As suggested by Eve's ambiguous role in the Creation, the female has been deeply problematic in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. the Gnostic sources of late antiquity illuminate this problem: the majority of Gnostic texts portray female entities as worldly yet transcendent beings, fertility figures as well as virgins. Frequently, contradictory characteristics are attributed to a single female; thus, paradoxes occur and categories clash. the present work examines selected Gnostic female figures that epitomize such dissonance.

More than ten years ago, the female figure Ruha ("Spirit") in Mandaean Gnosticism caught my interest. More recently, I became intrigued by entities called "female" in other forms of Gnosticism; ranging from mythological females to constituent elements designated "female," such entities have no common denominator other than their attributed femaleness. Contrary to some scholarly assumptions (both traditional and current), the females in Gnosticism cannot be lumped together in a large, single, and negative camp. the abundant and routine depreciations of Gnostic female figures seem to me to rest on the tendency of many scholars to assume a common Gnostic devaluation of earth, married life, sexuality, and propagation—and thus, by implication, of all females. Granted, these pejorative views are found in Gnostic mythologies, but they fail to appear according to any single set of standards or formulae. Indeed, the surface depreciation of females frequently masks a profound concern with these figures because they are ambiguous, possessing outrightly positive—and therefore surprising—qualities.

Gnostic traditions that do not devalue femaleness as such may, as one might expect, refrain from advocating the stringently ascetic practices that are often assumed to be part and parcel of Gnosticism. a number of the females discussed in the present work are characterized by sexual power and by both dangerous and laudable creative autonomy. Female power to act and to create—whether legitimate or not, whether the female is alone or in partnership with a male—is a recurring motif in Gnostic texts. Acknowledgment of such female capacities may lead to the elevation of the female to divine levels: Gnostic females can be portrayed as the One, personified, primary, transcendental principle. in these cases, philosophically sophisticated forms of Gnosticism may describe the female embodiment of ultimate reality in paradoxical terms. a female figure then represents both positive and negative concepts . . .

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