Archons are, in Gnosticism and religions closely related to it, demonic entities subordinate to the embodiment of evil in the corresponding belief-system. Among the Archontics, Ophites, Sethians and in the writings of Nag Hammadi library, the archons are rulers, each related to one of seven planets; they prevent souls from leaving the material realm. In Manichaeism, the archons are the rulers of a realm within the ‘Kingdom of Darkness’, who together make up the Prince of Darkness.
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 proceeding 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.
Evidently from works such as the Apocryphon of John, the Ophite Diagrams, On the Origin of the World and Pistis Sophia, archons play an important role in Gnostic cosmology. Probably originally referring to the Greek daimons of the planets, in Gnosticism they became the demonic rulers of the material world, each associated with a different celestial sphere. As rulers over the material world, they are called ἄρχοντες (archontes, “principalities”, or “rulers”). As with ancient astronomy, which thought of a sphere of fixed stars, above the spheres of the seven planets, beyond the spheres of the evil archons (Hebdomad), there were the supercelestial regions which a soul must reach by gnosis to escape the dominion of the archons. This place is thought of as the abode of Sophia (Wisdom) and Barbelo, also called Ogdoad.
Naming and associations
The Ophites accepted the existence of these seven archons (Origen, Contra Celsum, vi. 31; a nearly identical list is given in On the Origin of the World):
Yaldabaoth, called also Saklas and Samael
Feminine name: Pronoia (Forethought) Sambathas, “week”.
Prophets: Moses, Joshua, Amos, Habakkuk.
From Hebrew yalda bahut, “Child of Chaos”? The outermost who created the six others, and therefore the chief ruler and Demiurge par excellence. Called “the Lion-faced”, leontoeides.
Feminine name: Lordship.
Prophets: Samuel, Nathan, Jonah, Micah.
Perhaps from Yahu, Yahweh, but possibly also from the magic cry iao in the Mysteries.
Feminine name: Deity.
Prophets: Elijah, Joel, Zechariah.
The Old Testament phrase Yahweh sabaoth or ‘Jehovah of Armies’ was thought a proper name, hence Jupiter Sabbas.
Astaphanos, or Astaphaios
Feminine name: Sophia.
Prophets: Esdras, Zephaniah.
Astraphaios is beyond doubt the planet Venus, as there are gnostic gems with a female figure and the legend ASTAPHE, which name is also used in magic spells as the name of a goddess.
Feminine name: Kingship.
Prophets: Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Daniel.
From the Hebrew term for “the Lord”, used of God; Adonis of the Syrians representing the Winter sun in the cosmic tragedy of Tammuz. In the Mandaean system Adonaios represents the Sun.
Elaios, or Ailoaios, or sometimes Ailoein
Feminine name: Jealousy.
Prophets: Tobias, Haggai.
From Elohim, God (El).
Feminine name: Wealth.
Prophets: Michaiah, Nahum.
From Jaroah? or “light”? or Horus?
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 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, as among the Naassenes, 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)
The last book of the Pistis Sophia contains the myth of the capture of the rebellious archons, whose leaders here appear as five in number.
Among the Mandaeans, there is 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, who make up the Prince of Darkness. 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 that “the holy Hebdomad is the seven stars which they call planets”. 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 connection 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 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 tells us that in the primeval strife of the devil 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.
In On the Origin of the World, the archons impregnate the Biblical Eve, an idea probably deriving from the Sons of God in Genesis 6:1–4 or the Book of Enoch. In accordance with the depictions of fallen angels in the Enochian writings, the archons incite passions to humans. Further, they both teach idolatry, sacrifices and bloodshed to enslave the Gnostics and trapping them in ignorance.
The mythology of ancient Greece knew gods, daemons, and heroes. Θεοὶ ἄρχοντες (ruling gods) appear in the subsequent philosophy of Plato. However Philo never alludes to archons: in a single passage (De Mon. i. 1), ἄρχοντες is merely correlative to ὑπήκοοι.
Presently the syncretism of the later Greek philosophy found room for archons, which appear in Neoplatonism and were claimed to derive from Plato’s unwritten tradition. They are inserted by the author of the book De Mysteriis Aegyptiorum, 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