Introductory Notes and Glossary of Technical Terms

The Reality of the Rulers

(Nag Hammadi Codex II.97.22-23)

Anne McGuire


The Reality of the Rulers (RR) exists in only one manuscript, a Coptic translation of a Greek original, discovered in Egypt as part of the Nag Hammadi library (1945). The original Greek version was most likely composed in the second century C.E., but the Coptic manuscript dates from ca. 350 C.E. We know very little of its original social context, but its present form reflects a combination of Platonist philosophy (especially evident in its Spirit-Matter dualism), Hellenistic cosmology, and elements of Jewish and Christian tradition (Genesis 1-6; the “great apostle” = the apostle Paul, etc.).

In its surviving form, RR is a composite of three literary genres, drawn perhaps from distinct layers of composition and authorship:

The Mythic System of RR

My analysis of the mythic system of RR starts from a reading of the text as a story of confrontation and subversion. At the center of the drama is the conflict between two modes of power: between the Rulers of this world and various manifestations of the divine Spirit. In the narrative portions of the text, revelations from the realm of the divine Spirit appear in various forms as:

         In its representation of the struggle between the Rulers of this world and these various manifestations of divine Spirit, RR creates a mythic system in which issues of power are directly linked to images of sex and gender. The two modes of power encounter each other in a series of confrontations in which the Rulers attempt to grasp, control, dominate, or contain the divine, most often depicted as female manifestations of the divine Spirit. Twice their efforts take the form of attempted rape. In the first case, they attempt to rape the Spiritual Eve, but manage only to rape the fleshly woman that remains after the Spirit leaves her body and goes into a tree. In the second case, their attempt to rape Eve’s spiritual daughter Norea is foiled as Norea resists their advances, subverts their claims, and cries out for help from above.

         In the opening mythic narrative (86,27-93,2), RR offers its account of the creation of the visible cosmos and the first human beings. The narrative begins with the arrogant claim of the chief Ruler to be the only God and extends through the confrontation between Norea, the virginal daughter of Eve, and the Rulers at the site of the ark. Throughout, this account is presented as a story of conflict between the Authorities, or Rulers, and the divine Spirit in its various manifestations. Caught between these opposing sides are the first human beings, composite creatures formed by the Rulers from dust of the earth, from soul (psyche), and after both their own bodies and according to the image or reflection of the divine Voice from Incorruptibility that had appeared in the waters.

         This narrative is heavily dependent on the creation accounts of Genesis 1-11, but with some dramatic and surprising twists:

1) In RR, the Creator of the cosmos is not the true God, but the “Chief Ruler” Ialdabaoth, a blind and arrogant Archon (Ruler) who falsely claims to be the only God.
2) the first humans are composite beings, created not only by the Creator from the dust of the ground, but with the crucial assistance and enlivening spark of the Spirit from the Adamantine Land.
3) The Archon’s command not to eat from the tree of Knowing Good and Evil is presented as an effort to control and dominate humankind and to prevent them from knowing their true spiritual nature.
4) The story of creation and redemption is told, in large part, as a story of conflict between the cosmic Authorities and the forces of the divine Spirit (the Father of the Entirety, the Voice from Incorruptibility, Pistis Sophia and her daughter Zoe, the Spirit from the Adamantine Land, the Spirit-endowed (pneumatike) Woman, the Serpent Instructor, the Illuminator Eleleth, and the Perfect Human Being).

         Throughout the narrative, the Rulers display their “character” (hypostasis) and “power” in efforts to dominate and defile. The Spiritual forces, by contrast, display their “character” and “power” in their abilities to resist, subvert, and rename those who would falsely claim to rule or dominate them. They manifest these abilities in various forms of speech, especially in naming and expressing verbal rebuke, in undetected movements and transformations, and in the ability to recognize and cry out to the spiritual powers in the realms above.

Caught between these two opposing axes of the Authorities of darkness and the divine Spirit are human beings: Adam and Eve, their offspring Cain, Abel, Seth, and Norea, and the rest of humankind. Adam is depicted in RR, as in Genesis 2:7, as the first human creation formed from the dust of the earth and endowed with the breath of soul (psyche) from his Creator/s. In addition, however, the Adam of RR is formed “after their body,” that is, the body of the Rulers, and “after the image of the God that had appeared to them in the waters” (87,29-33), that is, after the image of the divine voice from Incorruptibility that rebuked the Chief Ruler and then appeared in the waters below (87,1-4; 87,12-15) in response to the Ruler’s claim to be the only God. But it is only when the Spirit from the Adamantine Land enters into the soul-endowed (psychikos) Adam that he is empowered to rise up (88,13-16) and only when a “Voice from Incorruptibility” comes for his assistance that he is able to speak and to name (88,15-24). In this, the astute reader comes to see that the spiritual powers of movement, life, and speech are transferred from the divine Spirit to those human beings whom they inhabit.

The mythic narrative of Adam and Eve and their offspring is marked by constant challenge and struggle. These struggles culminate with the confrontation between the Rulers and Norea, virginal daughter of Eve, who cries out for help when the Chief Ruler demands that she “render service to us, as did your mother Eve” (92,29-32). Norea’s cry for help to be rescued from the Rulers of Unrighteousness and saved from their clutches (92,32-93,2) brings her a revelation from Eleleth, “the Great Angel who stands in the presence of the Holy Spirit” (93,9-10). In the closing sections of the text (93,18-97,21), RR presents a revelation dialogue between Norea and Eleleth. Their dialogue is organized around four questions posed by Norea, to which Eleleth responds. It concludes with Eleleth’s account of a future redemption in which the “True Human Being” will bring the rule of the authorities to an end and “all the children of the light” will gain gnosis of “the truth and their root in truth and the Father of the entirety and the Holy Spirit.”

         From the beginning of the mythic narrative, but especially in this dialogue between Norea and Eleleth, RR claims to disclose the true nature or reality (hypostasis)of the Archons that created the first humans and continue to govern the cosmos. At the same time, it reveals the power of all the forces of Spirit, including Norea herself, to struggle against the Archontic powers that would dominate them. Even more important, I would argue, this narrative and revelation dialogue serve both to disclose and impart to Norea’s descendants, including the present readers of the text, the ability to engage in and to win the struggle against the Authorities of the cosmos and the spiritual hosts of wickedness (Eph 6:12; RR 86,20-27).     

         RR can thus be read as a myth of creation and redemption, but even more important, it can be read as a story of subversion and promise. The narrative portions of the text depict the creation of the cosmos and the first human beings (Adam, Eve, and their children Cain, Abel, Seth, and Norea) by the Chief Ruler Ialdabaoth and his offspring, the Rulers or Forces that govern the cosmos. These narrative portions depict the “reality” or “nature” of the Rulers, especially their desire to control and dominate the divine Spirit, as well as humankind, and their ultimate subversion by the divine Spirit and the promise of a future redemption of those who come to know the true “reality” or “nature” of the Archons and the true Self, when the “spiritual seed” in Norea and her children becomes known.  

         This promise of a future redemption for Norea’s children carries important implications for the readers of the text. As the mythic narrative of RR invites its readers to enter its mythic world, so it offers them the opportunity to identify themselves as Norea’s children and so to hear and receive the promise to Norea’s children as a promise directed not only to Norea in primordial times, but as a promise delivered directly to them through the reading of the text. The present-day readers of the text becomes the “future” descendants of Norea within the primordial narrative and eschatological promise, when the mythic narrative is received and understood as a “true” account, or “mythos,” of the ways things are. In inviting the readers of the text to claim their identity as Norea’s children, the mythic narrative of RR challenges its readers to discover the Virginal Spiritual power that subverts the Archons’ power within the mythic narrative, and, moving from that narrative to their own worlds, to exercise that same power of critique, subversion, and redemption in their own worlds.


Central to the mythic world of the Reality of the Rulers is the threefold distinction of spirit, soul, flesh: pneuma, psyche, and sarx, and the related adjectives: pneumatikos, psychikos, and sarkikos. Each of these relates to a different realm or reality, and, at the same time, to a distinct part of the human being.

In the Hypostasis of the Archons, these terms appear frequently, often in the form of adjectives and of substantive nouns formed from the adjectives, which are gendered as masculine singular, feminine singular, or plural.

Grammatical Gender in Greek and Coptic. In Greek, nouns and adjectives are classified into three genders: masculine; feminine; and neuter. In Coptic, there are only two genders: masculine and feminine. The gender of a noun, substantive, or adjective in Coptic is indicated by its definite article and/or by its ending (usually borrowed from the Greek). These often provide the reader with an important clue to the gendered identity of the characters. The gender of a noun is usually indicated by the definite article or by the ending of an adjective borrowed from Greek. In Coptic, the definite articles are gendered as follows: Masculine = p-; Feminine = t-; plural = n.

m-pneumatikos - of spirit; the spiritual one (masc.)

ti-pneumatike - the spiritual one [Layton: the female spiritual principle] (fem.)

p-psychikos - of soul (with masc. article and ending -os)

t-sarkike - of flesh, carnal (with fem. article and ending -e)

p-rome - human being (equivalent to Greek anthropos) (m., generic sense) t-shime - woman (fem.) p-hoyt - man, male human being (masc.; equivalent to Greek aner)

p-teleios n-rome - the perfect human being (m., generic sense) (equivalent to the Gospel of Mary's notion of putting on the "perfect human being," but in this text linked especially to the Savior figure who comes at the End).

t-shime - woman, female human being (f.; equivalent to Greek gyne)

oy-hoyt-chime - androgynous//male-female, or man-woman

t-shime m-pneumatike - the spiritual woman (fem.)

t-shime esonh - the living woman (f.)

t-shime m-sarkike - the fleshly/carnal woman (f.)

sperma - seed, generation (n in Greek; masc. in Coptic)

t-parthenos - virgin, young woman (f.)

p-pneuma m-parthenikon - the Virginal Spirit (with masc. article)


Return to The Hypostasis of the Archons, trans. by A. McGuire

This page is maintained by, Last updated 10/28/14