Sammael in the “Gnostic” Nag Hammadi Literature
In this section we will examine Sammael in some of the Nag Hammadi literature. We will do this in order to get a typological view of how he is used in some of these works, and to get a base line for the “intertexual” criticism in the final section of this paper. At some points, we will outline some key differences between the PRE use of Sammael and his role and place in the Nag Hammadi works. These differences will become crucial to the intertextual analysis of the next section.
Sammael appears in some of the Nag Hammadi literature. He is explicitly named in several works, and in many others, his name and that of other characters are mixed or used interchangeably. In the The Secret Book of John Sammael is one of the three names of the “dim ruler,” “the first name is Ialtabaoth, the second, Saklas, and the third, Samael.” [Layton,36]. Behind the three names is a common thread: “… the ruler is impious, in its madness that is with it. For it said. It is I who am god, and no other god exists apart from me,” [Layton,37]. In the Reality of the Rulers we get an etymology of Sammael’s name:
Their chief is blind; [because of its] power and its lack of acquaintance [and its] arrogance it said, with its [power] “It is I who am god, there is none apart from me.”
When it was said it sinned against [the entirety]. And this utterance got up to incorruptibility; then there was a voice that came forth from incorruptibility, saying “You are mistaken, Samael” – which is, “god of the blind.” [Layton,68].
These Nag Hammadi works explicit about the origin of Sammael’s name than the PRE. They are also less concerned with Sammael’s name in a specific sense; he is known by many names, and in at least these three examples, Sammael is the name conferred on him by a higher being. Other rabbinical works also interchange Sammael for other names, including Asmodeous, Satan, and Saklas, to name a few . In Nag Hammadi, Sammael is called Saklas, Yaldaboath (variously spelled) and more commonly, the First Ruler or First Archon.
Unlike the PRE, the Nag Hammadi texts that we are examining are extremely interested in Sammael’s paternity. In the Secret Book of to John the conception of Sammael begins with an act of divine hubris. Here wisdom decides “to show forth an image, without the spirit’s [will]; and her consort did not consent.” Wisdom creates an offspring that is an “imperfect product,” and “compared to the image of its mother it was misshapen, having a different form” [L,35].
The First Thought in Three Forms contains yet another variation on this story. Here, Sakla/Ialtabaoth/Sammael springs forth from a “verbal expression” coming from the great luminary Eleleth [L93]. There then “shown forth a great demon that rules over the bottom of Hades and chaos, and which is misshapen and imperfect.” This being is called “Sakla”, i.e. Sammael-Ialtabaoth. This creature, called a “great demon,” from its ignorance and hubris began to order the “eternal realms (aeons) in the manner of the eternal realms that exist.” [Layton,93]. Sammael starts to create the material world.
These myths of the birth of Sammael/Iadltaboth/Sakla have points of similarity. One of the chief correspondences is that Sammael’s creation is an error. The next is that Sammael wrongly identifies himself as the only God that exists, an error that is exposed in different ways in each text. But overall The Secret Book According to John, The Reality of the Rulers, and the First Thought in Three Forms can be identified with some of the conceptions of Sammael we saw in the PRE. He is a divine creature that revolts against God. He tampers with a higher power’s prerogatives by attempting to usurp them.
We may ask, at this point, why the birth narrative of Sammael is important to these three Nag Hammadi works but not the PRE? The first answer is that in these “Gnostic” works the laying out of the birth of Sammael seems vital to the overall mythological narrative. Sammael’s illegitimate birth and usurpation of power are key to the unfolding of the demiurgical drama, whereas in PRE, they are not a concern at all.
Sammael in the Nag Hammadi works under discussion is an usurper, presumptive and jealous of power, and in many ways, blind to the true nature of the cosmos and its real ruler. Yet Ialadoboth/Sakla/Sammael shows his greatest promise in the section of these Nag Hammadi works that deal with the Adam, Eve, and the Garden. In the Secret Book of John the mother of Sammael tries to recover some of her spirit that she inadvertently left in her creation. She tricks Sammael into blowing life into the man that the powers have created for “[i]t did not understand, and the mother’s power left Altabaoth and entered the animate body which they had labored at after the image of the aboriginal existent.” [Layton,44]. Ialadaboth/Salka/Sammael is tricked into passing on his divine spirit into the earthy man. The human being surpassed Sammael because of the “light’s shadow” that existed within him, his “thinking surpassed all those who had made him.” [Layton,44]. A little later, the First Ruler extracted a portion from the first man to “perform another act of modelling in the form of a female.” [Layton,44] At this point an entity known as the “luminous forethought” removed the veil from around Adam’s eyes, and Adam sees the female creature beside him, which the Secret Book of John calls Zoe, and takes its cue from Genesis calling her Eve “the mother of the living.” Thanks to Eve Adam tasted “perfect acquaintance,” [Layton,46] seemingly the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and realized that they both “dwelled in a corpse, and they knew that they were naked.”
After this episode, Aldabaoth curses the earth, and casts the man and woman from the garden. He then sees “the female virgin” standing with Adam and the “living, luminous afterthought had been shown forth within her,” and Aldabaoth became filled with ignorance, and the forethought “caught life (Zoe) up out of Eve,” [Layton,47]. Here, the forethought seems to take the vital or divine element out of Eve, but this does not stop the First Ruler, Ialdaboath/Sakla/Sammael from defiling her. This rape of Eve by the first ruler produces two sons:
…the first and the second, Eloim and Iaue. Eloim has the face of a bear; Iaue, the face of a cat. One is just, the other is unjust: Iaue is just, Eloim is unjust. It established Iaue in charge of fire and wind, and established Eloim in charge of water and earth. And it called them by the names Cain and Abel, with trickery in mind [Layton, 47]
After the bearing of these two children by Ialdaboath and Eve, we are told that “after Adam had known the image of his prior acquaintance, he begot the image of the human being, and called him Seth, after the race in eternal realms.” [Layton,47]. After this episode, Adam and Eve were given “water of forgetfulness” by the first ruler, so they might “not know where they came from.” [Layton,47]
Here the Secret Book of John takes a detour, and deals with the destiny of the human soul for several paragraphs before taking up the Genesis story line again. There is a flood narrative here, and we are told that Noah and some other members of the “immovable race” were hid, not in an ark, as Moses claims, but “went into a certain place and hid within a luminous cloud” [Layton,50]
Finally, the Secret Book of John tells a version of the fallen angel’s tale. Here “the ruler brought darkness upon the earth” and “it sent angels to the daughters of humankind to take some of them unto themselves” [L,50]. At first, this plan did not succeed. The angels then assembled together and made another: the angels “changed their image, after the image of their spouses, filling them with the spirit of darkness.” These counterfeit spouses brought “gold, silver, gifts, copper, iron, metal, and all kinds of raw material,” to the earth. But most important of all, they “married women and begot children out of the darkness, after the image of their spirit.” This class of humans closed their hearts and “hardened with the hardness of the counterfeit spirit,” and rather ominously, they exist “to the present time,” .
There is a surprising uniformity in the portrayal of the Sammael character in the The Secret Book of John, The Reality of the Rulers, and the First Thought in Three Forms. Sammael, also known as Iadlaboath/Sakla, or in some cases, the “First Ruler,” and is born in an act of illegitimacy. This is further compounded by a further act: Sammael’s mistaken apprehension that he is the sole god. The Secret Book of John fleshes out the full implications of this: Sammael expels Adam and Eve from the Garden, attempts to rape Eve (whose spiritual portion, Zoe, is rescued before she is assaulted) giving birth to Cain and Abel, who are also associated with Eloim and Iaue, most likely the two divine names of God found in the Bible, Elohim אלהים and Yahweh יהוה. This Eloim and Iaue are represented theriomorphically, as animals. The Secret Book of John contains a flood story, but interestingly before the race of “giants” sired by the angels and human women. The flood story is not about Noah surviving in an ark, but many people escaping in some remote area and in a cloud, away from the first archon’s realm of control. Finally, the Secret Book of John contains the story of the fallen angels: the archons descend to earth and try to seduce its women. They are not successfully, so they retreat to form a new plan. They disguise themselves as the women’s husbands and have sex with them. They also introduce all manner of “luxuries” into the world, which the narrator seems to regard negatively. But most important, the race of half human – half achonic beings continue to live to the present age – and spread darkness on the earth as their forefathers did.
The Sammael character in the “Gnostic” texts consistently maintains his revolt against the true God, and against the principal being in creation, human beings. This is done primarily through reproductive strategies: the human race is literally stained with archonic blood. Some members of humanity are heir to Sammael, while other are not and therefore pure.