Three Steles of Seth

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The Three Steles of Seth is a 3rd-century Sethian Gnostic text from the New Testament apocrypha.

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History

The main surviving copies come from the Nag Hammadi library, and were translated and explained by Paul Claude, member of the Nag Hammadi Research Group of the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, Université Laval (Quebec).

The text concerns a revelation to Dositheos about three steles (text written into specially created stones). Many scholars think that they are designed as liturgy.

The text is thought to be from the Sethian sect of Gnostics (the sect that viewed the biblical Seth as their hero, who was reincarnated as Jesus). Their other texts include the Apocalypse of Adam, Apocryphon of John, the Trimorphic Protennoia, and the Coptic Gospel of the Egyptians.

The text is thought to be a 3rd-century development of the Sethian Gnostics, as they became more separated from Christianity, and closer to Platonism.


The Three Steles (or Tablets) of Seth are in essence, three hymns written in adoration for the more abstract being, Barbelo, from the perspective of the archetype of Seth (“Emmakha Seth”) and his father Adam (or “Geradamas”)1. The Steles themselves were allegedly written by Emmakha Seth, a spiritual archetype of Seth, the son of Adam and Eve and founder of the gnostic race (Immovable race, Seed of Seth), and thus are considered pseudepigraphic. The famous historian of first century, Josephus mentions in his Antiquities 1, a story where Seth, Son of Adam, leaves some stone tablets inscribed with esoteric information for his future offspring high in the mountains. A very similar story is repeated in The Egyptian Gospel, and again in The Revelation of Adam. The Three Steles of Seth then, may possibly be an attempt of some unknown author to honor or verify this tradition. Whatever their author and origin might be, the originals no longer exist. The existing copy in the Cairo Coptic Museum was translated from Greek to Coptic sometime before A.D. 352.

The hymns themselves presuppose familiarity with the generally accepted Sethian Gnostic mythical structure as presented in Zostrianos and The Apocryphon of John. The Steles contain a total of seven hymns followed by directions for use of the hymns. The first Stele begins with a report of Dositheus explaining how he saw the tablets in a vision he had. It continues on to introduce the first hymn.

Stele 1


Stele one assumes the voice of Seth, and then of Seth together with Geradamas praising their respective creators. It is not entirely clear whether Hymn two is referring directly to the Barbelo or the “One”, though the title points to the Barbelo.

Hymn 1: Emmakha Seth’s Praise of the Geradamas is, as the title indicates a hymn dedicating to the glorifying of Seth’s father, Geradamas, better known as Adamas, or Adam. The Hymn is from the perspective of Emmakha Seth, his spiritual archetype, and when he refers to Geradamas he is likewise referring to Adam’s spiritual archetype which resides in the lowest realm within Barbelo. He praises Geradams for creating him (Seth) and praises “god” for creating Geradamas. He praises the great self-originated aeon, Barbelo, for “staying in rest”, which is philosophical jargon for non-changing, stable being, as opposed to instability and the to-become. He continues on to refer to the Barbelo as engendered, existent, and glorified through intellect. There is a rather confusing excerpt from Verse 120:3 until the end of the first hymn:


“ And you derive from a foreign thing: and it presides over a foreign thing. But now, you derive from a foreign thing: and it presides over a foreign thing. You derive from a foreign thing: for you are [dissimilar].”


The “foreign thing” here refers to the Invisible Parent, that is, the highest being in the gnostic mythology that the Barbelo was created from. A Sethian of the gnostic race would consider themselves a foreigner, born of foreigners (those within Seth’s immovable race). The actual lineage the author is likely referring to is that Adam, was derived from Barbelo, who resides over Adam, Seth, and the rest of the lower realms, while Barbelo itself was derived from the Invisible Parent. The word dissimilar was only partially preserved.

Hymn 2: Praise of the Barbelo takes on the voice of both Geradamas and Seth who are jointly praising Barbelo since this is ultimately where they derive from and where they reside in their spiritual archetype forms. Up until this point the Barbelo aeon is spoken of as being constructed of three distinctive realms, but in line 19 the author refers to the Barbelo as having been divided into “The quintet”, referring to The Apocryphon of John model of Barbelo. The following line even mentions that Barbelo has been given to them in “Triple powerfulness”, indicating the two structures given are not necessarily mutually exclusive. The hymn continues to praise Barbelo as emanating from the superior realm and for the sake of the inferior realm in which we live, Barbelo resides in between our realm and the Invisible Parent. The rest of the hymn continues the trend of praising the Barbelo as perfect and immanent.

Stele 2


Stele 2 assumes the collective voices of Seth and Geradams in praise of the Barbelo.

Hymn 3: Praise of the Barbelo begins on the Second Stele and continues to praise Barbelo as both Seth and Geradamas, beginning with “Masculine, Virgin, first aeon…” Verse 121:20 This hymn tends to focus more on the Barbelo and its prominent role being a self-reflection of the One.


“You are One belonging to the One: and you derive from its shadow” Verse 122:12


The hymn focuses on the authority that the Barbelo has as well as its qualities including, vitality, goodness, blessedness, and understanding.

Hymn 4: Petition to Barbelo to the parent praises the Barbelo as the parent to the knowable universe, wisdom (Sophia), and truth. Here again, the threefold structure is referenced numerous times, as is its eternal nature. The Hymn seems to be concerned with knowing the Barbelo better, as the authors seem to be yearning to better know the Barbelo.

Hymn 5: Thanksgiving to the Barbelo is easily the shortest of the Hymns and is the final Hymn on the Second Stele. It roughly reads, “You have heard!… You have Saved!...We give thanks! We praise Always! We will glorify you!” As the title indicates, this section serves as a thanks to the Barbelo for acquainting itself with the Immovable Race.

Stele 3


Stele 3 assumes the collective voice of the immovable race of the Gnostics, offspring of Seth.

Hymn 6: Collective thanksgiving and petition to Barbelo the parent Begins the third Stele and begins with a rhythm that is very reminiscent of the fifth Hymn. This Hymn, while continuing the trend of praise for the great parent Barbelo is also much more contemplative than the previous Hymns. It attempts to make more claims about the Barbelo and how only it knows itself, through itself. This hymn also takes on the voice of more than just Seth and Adam (“We all Praise you”)


Hymn 7: Collective Thanksgiving to the Barbelo adopts the same plurality of voice as the sixth hymn and this time discusses their salvation through means of intellect bestowed by the Barbelo. The trends of the Barbelo being contained within itself, being before and after itself, and generally a superior glorified being continue in this final hymn. The nature of the actual wording of the final two Hymns couples with the plural voice seems to indicate that these Hymns are specifically suited for use within a large congregation of gnostics in order to thank the Barbelo for salvation through knowledge.


Dositheus’s Directions for Use of the Hymns: The Mystical Ascent

This final section refers to the mystical ascent of the soul back to the Pleroma within Barbelo described in Zostrianos. The Silence referred to is the climax moment of contemplation in ascension, where the soul resides in the third and highest realm within Barbelo, at which point the descension back to the first realm where Adam and Seth reside begins, blessing the other realms on the way down. The text indicates that those who remember and recite the tablets and always glorifies the Barbelo will ascend to the Pleroma, where they rightly should be.

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