In the sense of a divine creative principle as expressed in ergon or en-erg-y, the word was first introduced by Plato in Timaeus, 41a (ca. 360 BC). It subsequently appears in a number of different religious and philosophical systems of Late Antiquity besides Platonic realism, most notably in Neoplatonism. In Neoplatonism Plotinus identified the demiurge as nous (divine mind), the first emanation of "the One" (see monad). Neoplatonists personified the demiurge as Zeus, the high god of the Greeks.
The term also appears in Gnosticism in which the material universe is seen as evil or at least created by a lesser and or inferior creator deity. In Gnosticism, the Demiurge is a being that never should have come into existence, the result of Sophia emanating without her male counterpart.
The Gnostics attributed to the Demiurge much of the actions and laws that in the Tanach or Old Testament are attributed to the Hebrew God Yahweh (see the Sethians and Ophites). Alternative Gnostic names for the Demiurge, include Yaldabaoth, "Samael", "Saklas", and "Kosmokrator", and several other variants. He is known as Ptahil in Mandaeanism. The figures of the "Angel of YHWH" and the "Angel of Death" may have contributed to the Gnostic view of the Demiurge.
Plato has the speaker Timaeus refer to the demiurge frequently in the Socratic dialogue Timaeus circa 360 BC. The title character refers to the demiurge as the entity who “fashioned and shaped” the material world. Timaeus describes the Demiurge as unreservedly benevolent and hence desirous of a world as good as possible. The world remains allegedly imperfect, however, because the demiurge had to work on pre-existing chaotic matter.
Plato's Timaeus is a fleshing out of Hesiod's cosmology, from Hesiod's work Theogeny reconcilling Hesiod to Homer, in a dialectical discourse between Timaeus and the other guests at a gathering, in the dialog of Timaeus (see also Plato's Symposium). The concept of artist or creator and even the Platonist conflict between the poet and philosopher (see Plato's The Republic) has a link in Plato's expression of the demiurge in his works.
For Neoplatonist writers like Plotinus, however, the demiurge represents a second cause (see Dyad). The first and highest aspect of God is the One, the source or the Monad. The Monad emanated the Nous, which Plotinus referred to figuratively as the demiurge. In this he claimed to reveal Plato's true meaning, a doctrine he learned from Platonic tradition that did not appear outside the academy or in Plato's text. Plotinus also elucidates the equation of matter with nothing or non-being in his Enneads which is to express the concept of idealism in connection with the nous or contemplative faculty within man. This tradition of creator God as nous can be validated in the works of pre-Plotinus philosophers such as Numenius. As well as a connection between Hebrew cosmology and the Hellenic Platoistic one (see also Philo).
The Demiurge of Neoplatonism is the Nous (mind of God), and is one of the three ordering principles:
Before Numenius of Apamea and Plotinus' Enneads, no Platonic works ontologically clarified the Demiurge from the allegory in Plato's Timaeus. The idea of Demiurge was, however, addressed before Plotinus in the works of Christian writer Justin Martyr who built his understanding of the demiurge on the works of Numenius.
The figure of the Demiurge also emerges in the theoretic of Iamblichus (a Neoplatonist), in which it acts as a conjunction between the transcendent, incommunicable “One”. The One or Source that resides at the summit of his system, and the material realm. Through the Neoplatonic theurgy of Iamblichus one unites with the demiurge and therefore the monad, this process and end result of return, is called henosis (see Theurgy, Iamblichus and henosis). Iamblichus' description consists of the One, a monad whose first principle or emanation is intellect (nous); between this monad and "the many" that follow it. Iamblichus posited a second, superexistent "One" that is the producer of intellect or soul ("psyche"), completing the dyad mentioned above. The former and superior "One" is further distinguished by Iamblichus as the spheres of the intelligible and the intellective; the latter sphere is the domain of thought, while the former comprises the objects of thought. Thus, a triad#Noun is formed of the intelligible nous, the intellective nous, and the psyche.
Of this intellectual triad Iamblichus assigned the third rank to the Demiurge. The figure is thus identified with the perfected or Divine nous, the intellectual triad being increased to a hebdomad. As in the theoretic of Plotinus, nous produces nature by the mediation of the intellect, so here the intelligible gods are followed by a triad of psychic gods.
Gnosticism also presents a distinction between the highest, unknowable “alien God” and the demiurgic “creator” of the material. In contrast to Plato, several systems of Gnostic thought present the demiurge as antagonistic to the will of the Supreme Being: his act of creation occurs in unconscious imitation of the divine model, and thus is fundamentally flawed, or else is formed with the malevolent intention of entrapping aspects of the divine in materiality. Thus, in such systems, the demiurge acts as a solution to the problem of evil. In the Apocryphon of John circa 200 AD, the demiurge has the name “Yaldabaoth,” and proclaims himself as God:
"Now the archon (ruler) who is weak has three names. The first name is Yaltabaoth, the second is Saklas (“fool”), and the third is Samael. And he is impious in his arrogance which is in him. For he said, ‘I am God and there is no other God beside me,’ for he is ignorant of his strength, the place from which he had come.
Gnostic myth recounts that Sophia (Greek, literally meaning "wisdom"), the Demiurge’s mother and a partial aspect of the divine Pleroma or “Fullness,” desired to create something apart from the divine totality, and without the receipt of divine assent. In this abortive act of separate creation, she gave birth to the monstrous Demiurge and, being ashamed of her deed, she wrapped him in a cloud and created a throne for him within it. The Demiurge, isolated, did not behold his mother, nor anyone else, and thus concluded that only he himself existed, being ignorant of the superior levels of reality that were his birth-place.
The Gnostic myths describing these events are full of intricate nuances portraying the declination of aspects of the divine into human form; this process occurs through the agency of the Demiurge who, having stolen a portion of power from his mother, sets about a work of creation in unconscious imitation of the superior Pleromatic realm. Thus Sophia’s power becomes enclosed within the material forms of humanity, themselves entrapped within the material universe: the goal of Gnostic movements was typically the awakening of this spark, which permitted a return by the subject to the superior, non-material realities which were its primal source. (See Sethian Gnosticism.)
Under the name of Nebro (rebel), Yaldabaoth is called an angel in the apocryphal Gospel of Judas. He is first mentioned in "The Cosmos, Chaos, and the Underworld" as one of the twelve angels to come "into being [to] rule over chaos and the [underworld]". He comes from heaven, his "face flashed with fire and whose appearance was defiled with blood". Nebro creates six angels in addition to the angel Saklas to be his assistants. These six in turn create another twelve angels “with each one receiving a portion in the heavens.”
“Samael” literally means “Blind God” or “God of the Blind” in Aramaic (Syriac sæmʕa-ʔel). This being is considered not only blind, or ignorant of its own origins, but may in addition be evil; its name is also found in Judaica as the Angel of Death and in Christian demonology. This leads to a further comparison with Satan.
Another alternative title for the Demiurge, “Saklas,” is Aramaic for “fool” (Syriac sækla “the foolish one”).
Some Gnostic teachers (notably Marcion of Sinope and the Sethians) seem to have identified the evil Demiurge with Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament, in opposition and contrast to the God of the New Testament. Still others equated the being with Satan. Catharism apparently inherited their idea of Satan as the creator of the evil world directly or indirectly from Gnosticism. However, "YHWH" is generally not used as a name of the demiurge in Gnostic texts. Yaldabaoth isn't likely from "YHWH Sabaoth" since Yaldabaoth has an "L" at the end of "ya", suggesting the name of an angel is the origin of the term as the names of most angels of Jewish origin end with the syllable "el". On the other hand, some angels were called by some YHWH because they represented God's power and authority. This was especially true of the supreme angel that represented God, who was sometimes called the "lesser YHWH", in the Rabbinic tradition called Metatron. A Jewish sect of first century B.C., called the Maghariyyah, held that angels organized the world and ordained the Law. Such views may have been part of the origin of Gnostic Christian belief in the Demiurge and his archons.
Nowhere in the Old Testament, or New Testament canon, is the creator of the world or the universe identified as Satan. Nor in the Old (see the Septuagint) or New Testament is the cosmos, nature or earth created by the creator referred to as evil. Rather than presenting Satan as the creator of the world as we know it, orthodox Christianity holds that the New Testament presents the view that creation has been subjected to his rule through mankind's defection from the creator Yahweh. As a result, Satan is called "the god of this world" at (2 Cor. 4:4), and John states that "the whole world lies in the grip of the Wicked One." (1 John 5:19) The vilification of the Creator of the material world is to both traditions orthodox Christian and Jewish movements, foreign and not documented as a traditional perspective.
This, in fact, is a crucial doctrine often overlooked by those who have difficulty harmonizing the goodness of Yahweh the Creator with the evil that is evident in the world (see the problem of evil).
While concepts such as syzygies (see Valentinus) and the soul and spiritual as good and the body and the material universe as evil would indeed reflect a very distinct and clear duality as it is expressed within the Sethian and other gnostic traditions (also see Mind-body dichotomy).
An example of vilifying the Creator would be to attribute the term “Kosmokrator” (found in the New Testament) to the Old Testament creator as the fallen Gnostic demiurge (see Marcion and the Cathars). If one sees the attribute of organizor of the cosmos as inherent in the concept of God, then the title “The God of this Aeon”, becomes a powerful indicator that Satan is indeed the creator. Modern-day Cathars see the epithet κοσμοκράτορας (Kosmokrator) (Koine Greek kosmokratoras (lit. "world ruler", κόσμο cosmos + κράτορας ("kratia"), which is applied to Satan in Ephesians 6:12, as a possible further indication of the creatorship of Satan and his identity with the Demiurge.
Some people think St. Paul's passage was referring to men of power falling under the influence of evil as in the world-rulers (since the word Kosmokrators in Ephesians is plural meaning many rulers not one ruler) of the darkness of the age this then meaning many evil rulers not just one. The Gnostics held there were several archons under the supreme archon of the cosmos, the Demiurge, but none of the archons are referred to as kosmokrators within gnostic text.
Gnosticism attributed falsehood, fallen or evil, to the concept of a Creator in at least the Judeo-Christian and Hellenic paganism traditions (see Zeus and Prometheus), though sometimes the creator is from a fallen, ignorant or lesser rather than evil perspective in some Gnosticism traditions such as that of Valentinius. The Neoplatonic philosopher Plotinus addressed within his works what he saw as un-Hellenic and blasphemous to the demiurge or creator of Plato.
Gnosticism's conception of the Demiurge was criticised by the Neoplatonist philosopher Plotinus. Plotinus is noted as the founder of Neoplatonism (along with his teacher Ammonius Saccas), His criticism is contained in the ninth tractate of the second of the Enneads. Therein, Plotinus criticizes his opponents for their appropriation of ideas from Plato:
- From Plato come their punishments, their rivers of the underworld and the changing from body to body; as for the plurality they assert in the Intellectual Realm—the Authentic Existent, the Intellectual-Principle, the Second Creator and the Soul—all this is taken over from the Timaeus. (Ennead 2.9.vi; emphasis added from A. H. Armstrong's introduction to Ennead 2.9)
Of note here is the remark concerning the second Creator and Soul. Plotinus criticizes his opponents for “all the novelties through which they seek to establish a philosophy of their own” which, he declares, “have been picked up outside of the truth”; they attempt to conceal rather than admit their indebtedness to ancient philosophy, which they have corrupted by their extraneous and misguided embellishments. Thus their understanding of the Demiurge is similarly flawed in comparison to Plato’s original intentions.
Whereas Plato's demiurge is good wishing good on his creation, gnosticism contends that the demiurge is not only the originator of evil but is evil as well. Hence the title of Plotinus' refutation "Enneads" The Second Ennead, Ninth Tractate - Against Those That Affirm the Creator of the Kosmos and the Kosmos Itself to be Evil: [Generally Quoted as "Against the Gnostics"]. Plotinus marks his arguments with the disconnect or great barrier that is created between the nous or mind's noumenon (see Heraclitus) and the material world (phenomenon) by believing the material world is evil.
The majority view tends to understand Plotinus’ opponents as being a Gnostic sect—certainly, (specifically Sethian) several such groups were present in Alexandria and elsewhere about the Mediterranean during Plotinus’ lifetime, and several of his criticisms bear specific similarity to Gnostic doctrine (Plotinus pointing to the gnostic doctrine of Sophia and her emission of the Demiurge is most notable among these similarities).
However, other scholars such as Christos Evangeliou have contended that Plotinus’ opponents might be better described as simply “Christian Gnostics,” since several of Plotinus’ criticisms are as applicable to orthodox Christian doctrine as they are to Gnosticism. Also, considering the evidence from the time, Evangeliou felt the definition of the term “Gnostics” was unclear. Thus, though the former understanding certainly enjoys the greatest popularity, the identification of Plotinus’ opponents as Gnostic is not without some contention.
A. H. Armstrong identified the “Gnostics” that Plotinus was attacking as Jewish and Pagan in his introduction to the tract in his translation of the Enneads. Armstrong alluding to Gnosticism being a sort of Hellenic philosophical heresy of sorts, which later engaged Christianity and Neoplatonism.
John D. Turner professor of religious studies at the University of Nebraska and famed translator and editor of the Nag Hammadi library stated that the text Plotinus and his students read was Sethian gnosticism which predates Christianity. It appears that Plotinus attempted to clarify how the philosophers of the academy had not arrived at the same erroneous conclusions (such as Dystheism or misotheism for the creator God as an answer to the problem of evil) as the targets of his criticism.
According to the heresy of Cerinthus (who shows Ebionite influence), the ancient Hebrew term Elohim, the “uni-plural name,” a name of God throughout Genesis 1, can be interpreted as indicating that a hierarchy of ancient spirits (angels or gods) were co-creators with a Supreme Being, and were partially responsible for creation within the context of a “master plan” exemplified theologically by the Greek word Logos. Psalm 82.1 describes a plurality of gods (ʔelōhim), which an older version in the Septuagint calls the “assembly of the gods”; however, it does not indicate that these gods were co-actors in creation.
Also, an abstract similarity can be found between the Logos (as applied to Jesus in the Gospel according to St John) and Plato’s Demiurge, as in John 1:1, which reads: “in the beginning was the Word (Logos), and the Word was with God and the Word was God”. However, typical Christian theology identifies Jesus as the second person in the holy and undivided Trinity, thus rejecting the notion that the world was created by an ignorant or even malevolent demiurge in co-action with a separate, higher and unknowable god.
A figure which closely appears to resemble the Platonic Demiurge in Hinduism inasmuch as the Demiurge is the creator, is Brahma, a member of the Hindu Trinity (Trimurti), who figures as the creator god of the universe in all of Hindu mythology. The Demiurge Brahma is a mortal with a lifespan of over 300 trillion years in comparison to the eternal, transcendent, immanent, and ineffable Brahman. Ishvara is Brahman as a personal God and supreme controller of the cosmos.
In the Matsya Purana of Hindu mythology, the actual act of creating the current material universe is performed by Manu after its last version is destroyed in pralaya while he is rescued by Vishnu. Manu then sings/chants the universe into existence and creates the various gods along the way.
Among the Pirahã of Amazonas, Brazil, the demiurge Igagai recreated the world after its destruction in a cataclysm that came about when the moon was destroyed. In the cataclysm, all the animals died and all light disappeared from the world, and the higher levels of the cosmos almost fell on top of the earth. Igagai restored the structure of the cosmos, and created the animals that the Pirahã know today.