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Gnostic groups have often seen magic as a tool for spiritual transformation and illumination; a means of connecting with the divine and accessing higher levels of consciousness. While the forms of magic employed by these groups may vary widely, they all share a deep reverence for the mysteries of the universe and an unwavering commitment to the pursuit of spiritual truth. It’s worth noting that in addition to placing a strong emphasis on intellectual and spiritual development, the ancient Hermeticists were known to practice magic as part of their spiritual and philosophical tradition, and saw magic as a means of achieving higher states of consciousness and understanding rather than merely as a way to manipulate the physical world for personal gain. As a result, the Hermeticists viewed magic as a part of a broader spiritual path rather than an end in itself.

The Sethians were also believed to practice magic as part of their spiritual practices. They had a complex cosmology that included a world of spirits, and they sought to master this spiritual realm through arcane knowledge and rituals. They also believed in using various substances, such as herbs and oils, for their magical properties. Some scholars have suggested that the Sethians employed other practices, including ritual magic, divination, and the use of names of power, to achieve their spiritual goals. However, it is important to note that much of the knowledge about the Sethians comes primarily from early Christian polemical texts, so it is difficult to discern the precise nature and extent of their magical practices. The “Three Steles of Seth” is one of the most significant texts from the Sethian tradition that describes the rise of Seth to become the savior of humanity. The book hints at Sethian magical practices, but the exact details are not explicit. Overall, the Sethians’ magical practices remain somewhat of a mystery due to the fragmentary nature of their writings.

How Ancient Magical Texts can Inform Sethian Magical Practice

The study of Gnostic magical practices has been a topic of interest among scholars for some time, and some argue that magical texts, such as the Greek Magical Papyri (PGM) and the Coptic Magical Papyri, can provide useful insight into Gnostic magical practices. For instance, the PGM is a collection of magical texts dating from about the 2nd century B.C.E. to the 5th century C.E., and contain spells and invocations aimed at communicating with gods and spirits. The texts in the collection have been strongly associated with Gnostic, Hermetic, and related mystical traditions. In the introduction to The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, Betz states:

“It is known that philosophers of the Neopythagorcan and Neoplatonic schools, as well as Gnostic and Hermetic groups, used magical books and hence must have possessed copies. But most of their material vanished and what we have left are their quotations.”

Betz, H. D. (1992). The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, including the Demotic Spells. University of Chicago Press.

The spells themselves are often designed to help individuals achieve specific goals, such as healing, protection, or love. Many scholars have demonstrated a link between the kind of magic practiced by the Sethians and the Greek Magical Papyri. Both sets of literature share similarities in terms of their use of invocations, spells, and the summoning of spirits and gods to aid in their magical workings. The Sethians believed in a complex system of divine Aeons and emanations. They used mystical rituals and techniques to communicate with these divine entities and to obtain spiritual knowledge and power. Both the Sethians and the PGM rely heavily on the use of symbols, such as names of spirits, gods, and angels, as well as magical formulas and incantations. They also shared a belief in the power of words and intentions to effect change in the physical world.

It is not entirely clear how they may have used the spells in the PGM, as we don’t have direct evidence of their practices. However, given their syncretic approach to religion and their interest in esoteric knowledge, it’s possible that they may have incorporated some of the spells into their ritual practices. One possibility is that they may have used the spells to invoke various divine or demonic entities as part of their cosmological framework. The PGM contains numerous invocations of gods and spirits, along with instructions on how to perform offerings and sacrifices to them. The Sethians may have seen these entities as aspects of the divine realm that they sought to connect with through ritual magic. Another possibility is that they may have used the spells for protection and healing. Many of the spells in the PGM are aimed at warding off evil spirits, curing diseases, or bringing good luck. The Sethians may have believed that these spells could help them overcome the material world and achieve spiritual liberation.

In The Gnostic World (Trompf, 2014), Malcolm Choat discusses the relationship between the two traditions by examining Gnostic texts that reveal magical features. The correspondences between these texts and magical texts can be more broadly traced to the magical texts themselves. The overlap between the worlds that brought forth the magical papyri and the Nag Hammadi codices is frequently noted, and Choat suggests that this overlap provides a useful avenue for exploring Gnostic magical practices through the lens of magical texts. For example, in some magical texts, figures such as the “four great lights” are invoked, which are also found in Gnostic texts such as the Gospel of the Egyptians. Choat highlights that the appearance of deities, divine figures, or cosmogonical narratives associated with Gnostic traditions can also be found in works traditionally classified as “magical.”

Hermetic Magic = Sethian Magic?

The association of Seth with Agathodemon and Enoch with Hermes, as explored in Gedaliahu A. G. Stroumsa’s “Another Seed,” demonstrates a potential connection between Hermetic magic and Sethian magic. This association can be traced back to the original Hermetic literature of Egypt. Islamic historiographers believed that the Sabaeans of Harran identified Enoch with Hermes and Seth with Agathodemon. However, the real Sabaeans believed they were the offspring of Enoch, the son of Seth. This connection suggests that studying the PGM, as it is often associated with Hermetic magic, may be useful for modern scholars and practitioners to approach Gnostic and Sethian traditions.

Syncellus, quoting the ancient historian Manetho the Sebennyte, mentioned that Thoth, also known as “the first Hermes,” inscribed steles (in hieroglyphs). These steles, of unspecified number, were found in Egypt in the “Seriadic land.” After the flood, these inscriptions were translated into Greek and recorded in books by Agathodemon, known as “the son of the second Hermes.” For the Byzantine chroniclers, Hermes was connected with Seth. According to Tzetzes, Hermes Trismegistus discovered the Egyptian alphabet, but according to the Hebrews, it was Seth who discovered the letters.

The connection between Seth and Hermes goes beyond the identification of their names or the similarity of certain themes. The land of Hermes’s steles was merely the translation into an Egyptian context of the Sethites’ land, where Seth becomes Hermes and Seir(is), Seirias. The similarities between Gnostic mythology and some Hermetic conceptions, commonly referred to as the “pessimistic” trend, prompted scholars to explore possible relationships between the two. The Nag Hammadi discovery revealed that at least three of the texts found in what was originally described as a “Sethian library” are clearly Hermetic works.

The association of Seth with Agathodemon and Enoch with Hermes presents a potential connection between Hermetic magic and Sethian magic. Thus, by carefully examining Hermetic texts and their relationship to Sethian and Gnostic traditions, modern scholars and practitioners may gain a deeper understanding of these ancient magical practices.

Jewish Deities in the PGM: Insights from Dr. Skinner’s Techniques of Graeco-Egyptian Magic

There is one interesting phenomenon in that the PGM often makes use of the Hellenized names of the Hebrew God, along with other Jewish figures, including Isaac, Jacob, Abraham, Moses, and the names of archangels, such as Michael and Gabriel. Assuming that the Sethians identified the evil Demiurge as the God of the Jews, it’s difficult to say for certain how the Sethians would have viewed invocations to the God of the Jews when reciting spells from the PGM. However, based on what we know about their beliefs, it seems likely that they would have approached such invocations with caution and skepticism. It’s possible that the Sethians might have seen invocations to the God of the Jews as potentially problematic, since they could be interpreted as seeking assistance from a false or malevolent deity. However, it’s also possible that they saw value in certain magical practices as a means of attaining spiritual insight or overcoming the limitations of the material world, even if they did not necessarily view these practices as inherently good or compatible with their broader theological framework.

Dr. Stephen Skinner, PhD is a British author and scholar specializing in ancient and modern magic, esotericism, and Western Enlightenment. He is known for his work on the history and philosophy of Western magic, Gnosticism, and Hermeticism. Skinner has translated and edited numerous grimoires including the Key of Solomon, the Lesser Key of Solomon, and the Goetia. Skinner’s contributions to the study of magic have helped shed new light on these esoteric subjects—including Gnosticism—and have opened up new avenues for understanding the role of magic and spirituality in Western culture. In his book, Techniques of Graeco-Egyptian Magic, Skinner provides a comprehensive and scholarly examination of the magical practices and beliefs that developed in the Hellenic world of Alexandria and the surrounding regions of Egypt during the late Hellenistic period. The book explores the fusion of Greek and Egyptian magical traditions that arose in this time and place, and provides in-depth analyses of the texts and artifacts of the ancient magical procedures. It also provides practical instructions on reproducing some of the spells and rituals of Graeco-Egyptian magical practice. The book is helpful for understanding how Gnostic groups like the Sethians may have approached magical practice from their unique worldview.

Theory of Spiritual Hierarchy

The idea of using higher deities to coerce lower entities is a common theme in many magical traditions, and is based on the belief that there is a hierarchy of power and influence within the spiritual realm that can be tapped into through ritual practice. It is reasonable to assume that if the Sethians were exposed the kind of magic being practiced in the same time and place that the PGM was produced, then this theory of a hierarchy of spiritual creatures could have informed their magical practice as well.

In Techniques of Graeco-Egyptian Magic, Skinner describes a hierarchy of spiritual creatures that was believed to exist in ancient magical traditions. This hierarchy consists of several different categories of beings, each with their own unique characteristics and powers. At the top of the hierarchy are the gods and goddesses, who are considered to be the most powerful and influential spiritual beings. Below them are a variety of other entities, including angels, demons, elementals, and spirits of the dead.

Each of these categories is further subdivided into specific groups, with each group having its own particular attributes and abilities. For example, within the category of demons, there are various types of malevolent spirits who can cause harm to humans, while within the category of angels, there are benevolent spirits who can offer guidance and protection. Skinner emphasizes that in order to work effectively with these spiritual creatures, it is important to understand their nature and characteristics. This involves studying their names, symbols, and correspondences, as well as learning how to properly invoke and communicate with them through ritual practices.

Theory in Practice

Skinner’s theory involves the idea of invoking higher deities to coerce lower entities into performing the will of the magician. According to Skinner, the gods and goddesses at the top of the hierarchy are considered to be the most powerful and influential spiritual beings. By invoking their names and symbols, a magician can gain access to their power and use it to influence or control the lower entities on the hierarchy. For example, if a magician wanted to work with a particular demon or spirit, they might first invoke the name and power of a higher deity as a way of coercing the lower entity to comply with their wishes. This could involve using specific rituals, symbols, and incantations that are associated with the higher deity in question, in order to establish a connection and gain their favor. Depending on the particular operation in question, the higher deity might also be invoked as a form of protection for the magician, in order to discourage the lesser spirit from taking action that might harm the magician.

When taking into consideration Dr. Skinner’s ideas, it is reasonable to infer that the Sethians could have viewed Yahweh as a lower spiritual being that could be invoked or manipulated for their own purposes, but it is also likely that their approach to magic and spirituality would have been more nuanced and complex than a simple “fighting fire with fire” mentality. Since the Sethians had their own cosmology, they could either have equated their own mythological deities with those of other belief systems, including those found in the PGM, or placed them in a hierarchy below the upper deities of their cosmology. For example, the Hellenized form of Yahweh, “Iao,” is often invoked in the PGM as a powerful God to coerce lesser beings. Iao, in turn, is sometimes coereced by higher beings. Some scholars, such as Willis Barnstone, have suggested that there were Sethian groups who saw Yahweh as a benevolent figure who could be invoked for spiritual purposes (Barnstone, 2003). Alternatively, Birger Pearson has argued that some Sethians viewed Yahweh as a powerful and necessary figure in the divine hierarchy, despite his association with the material world (Pearson, 1981).

Thus it would not be unreasonable to assume the Sethians saw this magical hierarchical system as compatible with their worldview, and utilize it to assist their daily lives, and as an aid in spiritual practice—e.g., some of the mystery initiations found in the PGM are similar to Sethian rituals of gnostic ascent and so forth. In fact, the very notion of coercing spiritual creatures to bend to one’s own will, instead of being a victim of fate, seems very compatible indeed with the Sethian worldview.


Betz, H. D. (1992). The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, including the Demotic Spells. University of Chicago Press.

Pearson, B. A. (1981). Gnosticism and Christianity in Roman and Coptic Egypt. Continuum International Publishing Group.

Skinner, S. (2014). Techniques of Graeco-Egyptian Magic. Llewellyn Worldwide.

Stroumsa, G. A. G. (2002). Another Seed: Studies in Gnostic Mythology. Brill.

Trompf, G. W. (Ed.). (2014). The Gnostic World. Routledge.

Wilhelm, J. (2019). “Gnosticism and Hermeticism in the Nag Hammadi Library,” in The Oxford Handbook of Gnosticism, eds. Christian H. Bull and April D. DeConick. Oxford University Press.

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