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The host of heaven and archons (1)

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01 Religious and ideological doctrines and imagery

01 Religious and ideological doctrines and imagery

01 Religious and ideological doctrines and imagery

01 Religious and ideological doctrines and imagery

03 Religious festivals, cults, rituals and practices

01 Religious and ideological doctrines and imagery

01 Religious and ideological doctrines and imagery

Neo-Assyrian Empire
Hellenistic Empires
Roman Empire
Gnostic texts
Jewish philosophers and scholars
Old Testament

The Mesopotamian gods who formed an assembly to determine heavenly and mundane affairs were regarded as planets, and decisions on the fate of the affairs were read from the night sky by the learned men. The assembly of Mesopotamian gods was thought to rule over the society and to be represented by the state council. The biblical “host of heaven” was borrowed from the Mesopotamian notion of the divine assembly. The ‘Host of heaven’ or ‘Host of Yahweh’ were either warriors helping the God in his wars or the divine assembly gathered around the heavenly king Yahweh. The king Yahweh carries the title ‘Lord of hosts’ (1 Kings 22:19; Isaiah 6). In accordance with developments in Mesopotamian religion, the Biblical ‘host of heaven’ was astralized, and became to be understood as sun, moon and stars (see Deut. 4:19; Psalm 148:2-3). In the Jewish post-exilic texts the ‘host of heaven’ denotes stars or celestial beings, as well as Yahweh’s divine council. In addition, the ‘host of heaven’ became to be understood as a group of angels under the service of God. Already in Second Temple Judaism, the angels were grouped into a hierarchy, manifesting the powers of God. The seven angels were equated with the seven classical planets, the heavenly host. This was a borrowing of the Mesopotamian concept: the metaphor of the divine assembly or ‘host’ consisting of the seven great gods underlined the unity of the divine powers and their organic interaction (Parpola 1997: xxi).

Deities or angels as planets or planetary spheres were considered in late antiquity as the divine powers who rule the physical universe and as such they corresponded to gnostic archons and to sefirotic powers (Parpola 1997: lxxxv). In gnostic texts the former Mesopotamian gods are transformed into evil archons, governing the physical universe under the service of the evil creator god. The archontic exegesis of the Scriptures originates in the Hellenistic milieu, as part of exegesis of Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. The number of archons was seven like the number of angels. Their names are strikingly Hebraic and archons’ Jewish origin seems highly likely. The angels of the first millennium CE Judaism in turn correspond in every respect to Mesopotamian gods (see Parpola 1997: lxxxiv n. 41). Seven planetary deities were considered as archons and were involved in astral fatalism. This is a legacy of Mesopotamian notion of the divine assembly consisting of seven destiny-decreeing gods and their irrevocable decisions. The Hellenistic religion witnessed a high point of astrological determinism, astrology was an element of general education in that period, and astronomy as a science was more developed than ever before - it was not until the beginning of Seleucid era that there had developed a mathematical astronomy of sufficient sophistication to allow the calculation of the elaborate horoscopes which formed the basis of Hellenistic astrology. It was during this same relatively late period as well that that astrological staple, the zodiac, was “invented” (Green 1992: 41-42.)

As a well developped science, astrology had a new great impact on the contemporary religion. Stars as gods or stars instead of gods formed the divine assembly governing over the events of the cosmos. While for large masses of people this was a welcome explanation for understanding of the world, still for the other part consisting of the limited number of devotees in redemptory religions, this acknowledged truth was regarded as a necessary disaster. For these people the religion of astral fatalism became a prison of this-worldly powers. Therefore the previous powerful forces of the monotheistic god were demonised as wicked angels or archons of an impotent and witless demiurge. It was not denied that these powers govern the universe, but this was regarded as a disaster. The notion of redemption became much more important on the basis of these presumptions. The idea of redemption was present already in Mesopotamian religion, in the cult of Ištar, and in the royal cult of Dumuzi/ Tammuz or Ninurta. The consistent belief both in harmonious heavenly powers and in redemption was split into controversial belief in the inconsistency of these two traditional aspects. The current world order was marked as negative, redemption being emphasised instead. This controversy resulted in gnostic dualism, which probably originated in pre-Christian Jewish gnosticism. Dualism was an obvious way out of the determinism, because it posited the second important counter principle in addition to the dominating one. The term kosmokratores was frequently used for planets in the Greek magical papyri, personified as rulers of the heavenly spheres, sometimes regarded as evil.

It means that from the point of view of gnostic authors, Mesopotamian gods were demonised and regarded as evil beings, and Mesopotamian traditions were inverted against their original intention. These archons were sometimes regarded as fallen angels reported in Genesis 6:1-4, who taught wicked things to mankind. Archons as the rulers of this world hold the gnostic spirit in captivity, only through a spark of divinity in one’s soul he can find salvation from these forces. The seven planetary spheres were controlled by supernatural beings designated by various terms including archontes. Seven archons are usually presided over by a chief archon, who is also the demiurge who created the world, and resides in Ogdoad, the eighth region above the seven planetary spheres. Since the attainment of salvation is linked with attaining to the sphere of the unknown God, passage through the concentric ranks of hostile archons is necessary. One specific form of this myth is presented in the Coptic Gnostic treatise The Hypostasis of the Archons, where the archons are said to guard the gates of the seven planetary spheres, impeding the upward movement of souls.

The discourse of soul’s salvation in gnosticism was heavily indebted to corresponding Mesopotamian notions. The seven gates of ascent correspond to the seven gates of the underworld through which the goddess Ištar descends to those who need salvation. The gnostic saviour is depicted as fighting against these demonic forces imprisoning the souls in quite the same way as Ninurta battled with forces of sin and death. Sometimes the saviour is reported to have disguised himself in order not to be recognized by the archons. It seems clear that gnostic inversion of the Mesopotamian astral fatalism was a reaction to the deterministic world view dominating in the Hellenistic period. Astral determinism or fatalism in the contemporary mainstream religion was regarded as “sin” by Gnostics and some Christians, and this should be regarded as a major intellectual advance. By negating the previous religious traditions and polarizing the concepts, the gnostics still remained dependent on the very same traditions.

Sources (list of abbreviations) (source links will open in a new browser window)
Deuteronomy 4:19
Genesis 6:1-4
1 Kings 22:19
Isaiah 6
Psalm 148:2-3


Annus 2002, 197-200Annus, Amar. The God Ninurta in the Mythology and Royal Ideology of Ancient Mesopotamia. State Archives of Assyria Studies 14. Helsinki: The Neo-Assyrian Text Coprus Project 2002.
Green 1992Green, Tamara. The City of the Moon God, Religious Traditions of Harran. Religions in the Graeco-Roman World 114. Leiden, New York, Cologne: E. J. Brill 1992.
Parpola 1997Parpola, Simo. Assyrian Prophecies. State Archive of Assyria 9. Helsinki: Helsinki University Press 1997.

Amar Annus

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