Abraxas – Meaning of the Sequence of Greek Letters

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A mystical word composed of Greek letters, abraxas is found inscribed in relics in Egypt, from tablets to gems and amulets. The Abraxas has a complex history, from a magical word that makes up the number 365 to being depicted as a Supreme Deity and an amulet. It’s believed to be an important figure in Gnosticism. Here’s a closer look at its origin and symbolism.

History of the Abraxas

The origin of the word is obscure, but the number 365 corresponds to the numerical value of the seven Greek letters that form the word abraxas, also spelled abrasax. However, the term can refer to many different things: a magical word, a deity of Gnostics, or an amulet.

  • As a Magical Word

Before Abraxas was a name, it was a word of mystic meaning. According to The Gnostics and Their Remains, the word is said to mean the Coptic term Holy Name and the Hebrew term Ha-Brachah that means Blessing—and was then translated into Greek. On the contrary, some say that the term is derived from the Aramaic term abba that means father, and Latin term rex that means king.

It was first recorded in papyri containing texts on magic and Gnostic texts such as the Holy Book of the Great Invisible Spirit, also known as the Gospel of the Egyptians. For Gnostics, the term is magical and represents infinite power and possibilities. Some have also argued that the magical term abracadabra is derived from the word abraxas.

  • The Supreme Deity in Gnosticism
Personified abraxas
Abraxas Personified by the Gnostics as a Supreme Deity. Source.

Gnosticism became known in the 2nd century A.D. as a philosophical and religious movement that relies on esoteric knowledge or personal experience with the divine. Some historians believe that the religion itself has its roots in the ancient Egyptian New Kingdom located at Thebes.

Abraxas as a deity was likely invented by the Alexandrian Basilides, a scholar and teacher from Egypt who founded the school of Gnosticism known as the Basilidians. In order to invent something more refined in the Gnostic philosophy, Basilides personified Abraxas as a god, and initiated a cult related to its worship as the Supreme Deity.

The Gnostic god is mostly described as having the head of a rooster—but occasionally depicted with a hawk’s or lion’s head—a body of human being, and each of his legs in serpent form. In Carl Jung’s 1916 book The Seven Sermons to the Dead, he referred to Abraxas as a God higher than the Christian God and Devil that combines all opposites into one Being.

  • The Abraxas Stones and Gems

Many believe that the utterance of the magical word abraxas, especially in Gnosticism acts as a charm, which was why it was inscribed on gems and amulets during the 2nd century until the 13th century in Europe, North Africa, and Asia Minor.

According to the Edinburgh Encyclopedia, the term Abraxas is also the name of small statues of plates of metal or stones, on which are engraved figures of Egyptian deities. Some of them feature Jewish and Zoroastrian symbols, along with Latin, Coptic, Phoenician, Hebrew, and Greek characters.

However, some still argue whether the Abraxas gems were amulets worn by Basilidians, or the figures were of Egyptian origin. According to On Superstitions Connected with the History and Practice of Medicine and Surgery, the Egyptians had used talismans to ward off evil spirits and cure diseases. Also, the Abraxas is closely associated with Mithra, the Persian deity of the sun.

Meaning and Symbolism of the Abraxas

The real meaning behind the Abraxas is still up for debate, but here is some of its symbolism in relation to historical records and scholarly interpretations:

  • A Word of Mystic Meaning – In general, the term represents the Greek letters that make up the number 365. For Gnostics, the word Abraxas is magical and represents infinite power.
  • The Supreme Deity – The numerical value of the letters in a name held importance, and the term itself corresponds to the number of days in a year, so Gnostics viewed Abraxas as the ruler of all the 365 heavens and the Supreme Deity.
  • A Representation of the Seven Known Heavenly Bodies – The Gnostics referred everything to astrology, and they believe the seven letters of the term represents the Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.
  • A Symbol of Protection – Throughout history, the deity is depicted with a whip and shield, which are believed to scare away malignant influences. The sequence of letters abraxas was commonly inscribed on amulets and talismans.
What is the abraxas

Abraxas in Modern Times

Nowadays, the motif can still be seen on jewelry pieces such as medallions and signet rings but is worn as an amulet than an ornamental piece. While the symbolism still holds great significance in Gnosticism and other religious movements in the modern times, the Abraxas is more commonly found in pop culture, as a mythical character in comics, video games, fantasy films, and television series, such as Charmed and Supernatural.

In Brief

The Abraxas has a complex history, and even today, there’s still debate surrounding its exact meaning and origins. Regardless of whether it originated in ancient Egypt or came from the philosophy of Basilidians, it is likely to remain symbolic to modern-day Gnostics and a source of inspiration as fictional character in pop culture.