Gnosis and the Unknowable

by Christopher Penczak, edited by Tina Whittle

A small blond-haired child in a red sweater, seen from behind, stands at the threshold of a dark passage through green hedge

Photo by Ksenia Chernaya via Pexels

Gnosis is one of the major points of a Mystery Tradition. One need not call themselves a gnostic—considering some of the dualistic baggage that term often implies—to seek this insight. Gnosis is the direct intuitive knowledge from experience of a different order of reality, in contrast to episteme, logical and reasoned knowing from experience of the empirical order of everyday reality.

Both knowledges use different criteria and context. Judging gnosis by the criteria of episteme makes it look like madness. Using nonrational techniques does not make one irrational. Judging episteme by the context of gnosis makes it look stunted. Both have their use and purpose, and for many of us, require one another. They can be considered an expression of the macrocosm and microcosm. One can evaluate how helpful or creative an idea originating in nonrational methods is by using reason for later examination, but reason should not be the sole criteria for evaluation. Likewise, nonrational information will not necessarily oppose—and can even expand—the rational worldview.

Magickal training in the mysteries should lead to moments of gnosis. I would argue even training in operative, results-driven sorcery should also result in forms of gnosis. I think some of my moments of greatest understanding have come from stirring potions under the full Moon.

The challenge of gnosis returning from a peak state of cosmic consciousness and being able to transmit what occurred back to the conscious mind and possibly to other humans. By its very nature, the insights of gnosis are nonlinear, interdependent, interconnected, and information rich. We often resort to art, music, and poetry to convey the experience. From the magician’s gnosis is born new maps of cosmology and different expressions of entities into the world.

Part of the path of attainment for an adept is to be able to add to the stream of “contacted” wisdom and art that then helps propel the next generation further. Often a teaching magician will introduce students to these cosmologies and entities, and new traditions are formed and old ones extended.

One troubling concept that has arisen in the magickal world—often stressed in Heathen communities, but later adopted by many hard polytheistic and reconstructionist groups—is of unverified personal gnosis, or UPG. In this, one’s gnosis must be corroborated, often by newly uncovered archeology or history or by another practitioner’s independent gnosis, to become part of a group’s rituals. Occultists find this ridiculous as the function of one person’s higher genius is not to confirm another. The corroboration of gnosis is that it is gnosis. You can’t apply epistemic criteria to gnostic transmission. If you always did, none of our treasured traditions would have occurred. As author Ivo Dominguez Jr. said in a workshop I attended, any real gnosis is personal and unverifiable by its very nature. I agree.

What one can do is introduce mystically inspired ideas—theology, art, technique, ritual, poetry—into a magickal current and the egregore of a community. Like planting seeds, some will sprout immediately. Some will grow and some will wither and die, depending on how they are attended to and what fruits and medicines they bear. If they are out of harmony with the basic ethos of the group, then the soil is not right and they never grow, though at times the whole community may amend the soil of consciousness, either intuitively or through conflict, to make it more receptive to these new and strange ideas. Just like a garden, the soil of consciousness in a community shifts over time with certain aspects depleting and others being drawn in and fixed, like nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and iron. Some change, and others grow infertile due to poor tending. Managing the egregore of a community is a type of gardening. Some new teachings will speak to the soul of the community, and others will not. Some will go dormant and sprout years later. Some will grow fast and die out quickly and many will gather at the edges, like the wild weeds. To the orthodox, the weeds of folk practices and mysticism mar the regimented beauty of the garden. To the magician and Witch, what grows at the edge holds the most potent Magick and is often then purposely cultivated.

While not all practitioners will gain a gnosis to share with others, having direct and personal experience on some level of this cosmic consciousness is the goal. Indirect knowledge will not do. That is why the techniques of reaching these states are so important. I often say that the most important aspect of the Temple of Witchcraft is the shared pattern of techniques bringing us together. The mythic theological concepts of Paganism, the aesthetics of the Witch, and the ethos of the occultist all contribute to “set and setting” of our cosmic consciousness “trip” to relate our experience to previous maps, rather than be entirely out of any past human context. In the ancient mysteries there was great preparation, song, and play, inherent symbolism in the mystery school setting to give context, and there still is today.

Paradox is often the currency, the means of exchange, in such sublime settings. It is in paradox the mystery is revealed. Today we ask if it is a particle or a wave? What is the nature of reality? Yes. Both. Neither. It’s just a variation of the age-old questions. Are we separate or are we all one? Yes. Both. Neither. We are many things simultaneously. We can look at the surface and the depths. We can look at the macrocosm and the microcosm.

I’m reminded of the work of controversial Egyptologist R.A. Schwaller de Lubicz, and his thoughts on Egyptian consciousness. He often writes of the Egyptian concepts of the intelligence of the heart, and how the true meaning of such a complex and esoteric society can only be found in other modes of cognition. When looked at from an outside perspective, such as today’s modern perspective, things can be nonsensical. The linear meaning might not be all that is being transmitted. Symbols contain the implications of their opposites and are designated with a base sound and meaning, but also evoke deeper levels of meaning, often by determinate characters that shift the contextual meaning. The meaning of anything is always in the greater context and only revealed when we engage with it on all levels. Otherwise we get only the literal, surface meaning of what is being depicted. Mystical contemplation, gnostic techniques, lead to that greater engagement and understanding.

While the entirety of the cosmos is in our grasp gnostically, it’s beyond us to express it by episteme, seemingly unknowable, yet each attempt to express its majesty simultaneously widens our consciousness and closes the gap of understanding between us and the divine source. This is true service in the name of the Great Work.

Special thanks to Gary Lachman and his book The Quest for Hermes Trismegistus for inspiration.