The Gnostic term Barbēlō (Greek Βαρβηλώ Iren., Epiph., Philast., Pist. Soph., Hier.; -ρώ Epiph. as an alternative, 92 A, and similarly the Epitome, p. 354 Dind.; -λ, Epit. l. c. bis; -λώθ Theodoret) refers to the first emanation of God in several forms of Sethian Gnostic cosmogony. Barbēlō is often depicted as a supreme female principle, the single passive antecedent of creation in its manifoldness. This figure is also variously referred to as 'Mother-Father' (hinting at her apparent androgyny), 'First Human Being', 'The Triple Androgynous Name', or 'Eternal Aeon'. So prominent was her place amongst some Gnostics that some schools were designated as Barbeliotae, Barbēlō worshippers or Barbēlōgnostics.
The nature of Barbēlō
In Coptic texts
In the Apocryphon of John, a tractate in the Nag Hammadi Library containing the most extensive recounting of the Sethian creation myth, the Barbēlō is described as "The first power, the glory, Barbēlō, the perfect glory in the aeons, the glory of the revelation." All subsequent acts of creation within the divine sphere (save, crucially, that of the lowest aeon Sophia) occurs through her co-action with God. The text describes her thus:
- "This is the first thought, his image; she became the womb of everything, for it is she who is prior to them all, the Mother-Father, the first man (Anthropos), the holy Spirit, the thrice-male, the thrice-powerful, the thrice-named androgynous one, and the eternal aeon among the invisible ones, and the first to come forth."
In the Pistis Sophia Barbēlō is named often, but her place is not clearly defined. She is one of the gods, "a great power of the Invisible God" (373), joined with Him and the three "Thrice-powerful deities" (379), the mother of Pistis Sophia (361) and of other beings (49); from her Jesus received His "garment of light" or heavenly body (13, 128; cf. 116, 121); the earth apparently is the "matter of Barbēlō" (128) or the "place of Barbēlō" (373).
In patristic texts
She is obscurely described by Irenaeus as "a never-aging aeon in a virginal spirit," to whom, according to certain "Gnostici," the Innominable Father wished to manifest Himself, and who, when four successive beings, whose names express thought and life, had come forth from Him, was quickened with joy at the sight, and herself gave birth to three (or four) other like beings.
She is noticed in several neighbouring passages of Epiphanius, who in part must be following the Compendium of Hippolytus, as is shown by comparison with Philaster (c. 33), but also speaks from personal knowledge of the Ophitic sects specially called "Gnostici" (i. 100 f.). The first passage is in the article on the Nicolaitans (i. 77 f.), but is apparently an anticipatory reference to their alleged descendants the "Gnostici" (77 A; Philast.). According to their view Barbēlō lives "above in the eighth heaven;" she had been 'put forth' (προβεβλῆσθαι) "of the Father;" she was mother of Yaldabaoth (some said, of Sabaoth), who insolently took possession of the seventh heaven, and proclaimed himself to be the only God; and when she heard this word she lamented. She was always appearing to the Archons in a beautiful form, that by beguiling them she might gather up her own scattered power.
Others, Epiphanius further seems to say (78 f.), told a similar tale of Prunikos, substituting Caulacau for Yaldabaoth. In his next article, on the "Gnostici" (83 C D), the idea of the recovery of the scattered powers of Barbēlō, "the Mother above," stolen from her by "the Archon who made the world, and the other gods and angels and daemons who were along with him," recurs as set forth in an apocryphal Book of Norea, Noah's legendary wife. In both places Epiphanius represents the doctrine as giving rise to the ritual consumption of sexual fluids.
In a third passage (91 f.), enumerating the Archons said to have their seat in each heaven, he mentions as the inhabitants of the eighth or highest heaven "her who is called Barbēlō," and the self-gendered Father and Lord of all things, and the virgin-born (αὐτολόχευτον) Christ (evidently as her son, for according to Irenaeus her first progeny, "the Light," was called Christ); and similarly he tells how the ascent of souls through the different heavens terminated in the upper region, "where Barbēro or Barbēlō is, the Mother of the Living" (Genesis 3:20).
Theodoret (H. F. f. 13) merely paraphrases Irenaeus, with a few words from Epiphanius. Jerome several times includes Barbēlō in lists of portentous names current in Spanish heresy, that is, among Priscillianists; Balsamus and Leusibora being three times associated with it (Ep. 75 c. 3, p. 453 c. Vall.; c. Vigil. p. 393 A; in Esai. lxvi. 4 p. 361 c; in Amos iii. 9 p. 257 E).
In Gnostic accounts of God, the notions of impenetrability, stasis and ineffability are of central importance. The emanation of Barbēlō may be said to function as an intermediary generative aspect of the Divine, or as an abstraction of the generative aspect of the Divine through its Fullness. The most transcendent hidden invisible Spirit is not depicted as actively participating in creation. This significance is reflected both in her apparent androgyny (reinforced by several of her given epithets), and in the name Barbēlō itself.
Several plausible etymologies of the name (Βαρβηλώ, Βαρβηρώ, Βαρβηλ, Βαρβηλώθ) have been proposed. It may be an ad hoc Coptic construction signifying both 'Great Emission' (according to Bentley Layton's The Gnostic Scriptures) and 'Seed' according to F.C. Burkitt (in Church and Gnosis). William Wigan Harvey (on Irenaeus), and Richard Adelbert Lipsius (Gnosticismus, p. 115; Ophit. Syst. in Hilgenfeld's Zeitschrift for 1863, p. 445) have previously proposed Barba-Elo, 'The Deity-in Four,' with reference to the tetrad, which by the report of Irenaeus proceeds from her. Her relation to this tetrad bears however no true analogy to the Col-Arba of Marcus; it forms only the earliest group of her progeny; and it is mentioned but once.
The root balbel much used in the Targums (Buxtorf, Lex, Rabb. 309), in biblical Hebrew balal, signifying mixture or confusion, suggests a better derivation for Barbēlō, as denoting the chaotic germ of various and discrete existence: the change from ל to ר is common enough, and may be seen in the alternative form Βαρβηρώ. If the Babel of Justinus (Hipp. Haer. v. 26; x. 15) is identical with Barbēlō, as is at least possible, this derivation becomes still more probable.
Mircea Eliade has compared the Phibionite beliefs and practices involving Barbēlō to Tantric rituals and beliefs, noting that both systems have a common goal of attaining primordial spiritual unity through erotic bliss and the consumption of menses and semen.