CLOSELY connected with the Gnostics above described are the Sethians, to whom Hippolytus next devotes Seth. his attention. He speaks of their "innumerable commentaries," and refers his readers especially to a certain treatise, called The Paraphrase of Seth, for a digest of their doctrines. But whether or not Hippolytus quotes from this document himself, or from some other treatise or treatises, is not apparent. The title, Paraphrase of Seth, is exceedingly puzzling; it is difficult to say what is the exact meaning of the term "paraphrasis," and the doctrines set forth by Hippolytus have no connection with the Seth-legend.
The term Sethians, as used by Hippolytus, is not only puzzling on this account, but also because his summary differs entirely from the scraps of information on the system of the Sethites supposed to have been mentioned in his lost Syntagma, and allied to the doctrine of the Nicolaïtans by the epitomizers. In the latter fragments the hero Seth was chosen as the type of the good man, the perfect, the prototype of Christ.
Can it possibly be that there is a connection between the name "Seth" and the mysterious "Setheus" of the Codex Brucianus? And further, are we to look for the origin of the Sethians along the Egyptian line of tradition of the Hyksōs-cult, the Semitic background of which made Seth the Mystery-God?
An Outline of their System.The Sethians of whom we are treating begin with a trinity; Light, Spirit and Darkness. The Spirit is not, however, to be thought of as a breath or wind, but as it were a subtle odour spreading everywhere. All three principles then are intermingled one with another. And the Darkness strives to retain the Light and the Spirit, and imprison the light-sparks in matter; while the Light and the Spirit, on their side, strive to raise their powers aloft and rescue them from the Darkness.
All genera and species and individuals, nay the heaven and earth itself, are images of "seals"; they are produced according to certain pre-existent types. It was from the first concourse of the three original principles or powers that the first great form was produced, the impression of the great seal, namely, heaven and earth. This is symbolized by the world-egg in the womb of the universe, and the rest of creation is worked out on the same analogy. The egg is in the waters, which are thrown into waves by the creative power, and it depends on the nature of the waves as to what the various creatures will be. Here we have the whole theory of vibrations and the germ-cell idea in full activity.
Into the bodies thus brought into existence by the waves of the waters (the vehicles of subtle matter) the light-spark and the fragrance of the Spirit descend, and thus "mind or man" is "moulded into various species."
"And this [light-spark] is a perfect god, who from the ingenerable Light from above, and from the Spirit, is borne down into the natural man, as into a
shrine, by the tide of nature and the motion of the wind [the creative power which causes the waves]. . . . Thus a minute spark, a divided splinter from above, like the ray of a star, has been mingled in the much compounded waters [bodies of various kinds of subtle matter] of many (existences). . . . Every thought, then, and solicitude actuating the Light from above is as to how and in what manner mind may be set free from death--the evil and dark body--from the 'father' below, the [generative impulse] wind, which with agitation and tumult raised up the waves, and [finally] produced a perfect mind, his own son, and yet not his own in essence. For he [the mind] was a ray from above, from that perfect Light, overpowered in the dark and fearsome, and bitter, and blood-stained water; he also is a light-spirit floating on the water."
The generative power is called not only "wind," but also "beast," and "serpent," the latter because of the hissing sound it produces, just like the whirling wind. Now the impure womb, or sphere of generation, can only produce mortal men, but the virgin or pure womb, the Sphere of Light, can produce men immortal or gods. It is the descent of the Perfect Man or Logos into the pure man that alone can still the birth-pangs of the carnal man.
This natural and spiritual process is shown forth in the Mysteries; after passing through the Lesser The Mysteries. Mysteries, which pertain to the cycle of generation, the candidate is washed or baptised, and stripping off the dress of a servant, puts on a heavenly garment, and drinks of the cup
of life-giving water. That is to say, he leaves his servile form, the body which is subjected to the necessity of generation and is thus a slave, and ascends in his spiritual body to the state where is the ocean of immortality.
The Sethian school supported their theosophic tenets by analogies drawn from natural philosophy, and by the allegorical interpretation of the Old Testament; but, says Hippolytus, their system is nothing else than the tenets of the Orphic Mysteries, which were celebrated in Achæa at Phlium, long before the Eleusinian. No doubt the Sethians based their theories on one or more of the traditions of the Mystery-cult, but we need not follow Hippolytus in his selection of only one tradition, and that too in its grossest and most ignorant phase of vulgar phallicism.
The school seems also to have had affinities with the Hermetic tradition, and used the analogy of natural and "alchemical" processes for the explanation of spiritual matters. For instance, after citing the example of the magnet, one of their books continues: "Thus the light-ray [human soul], mingled with the water [animal soul], having obtained through discipline and instruction its own proper region, hastens towards the Logos [divine soul] that comes down from above in servile form [body]; and along with the Logos becomes Logos there where the Logos has His being, more speedily than iron [hastens] to the magnet."