Satie's coining of the word "gnossienne" was one of the rare occasions when a composer used a new term to indicate a new "type" of composition. Satie had and would use many novel names for his compositions ("vexations", "croquis et agaceries" and so on). "Ogive," for example, had been the name of an architectural element until Satie used it as the name for a composition, the Ogives. "Gnossienne," however, was a word that did not exist before Satie used it as a title for a composition. The word appears to be derived from "gnosis"; Satie was involved in gnostic sects and movements at the time that he began to compose the Gnossiennes. However, some published versions claim that the word derives from Cretan "knossos" or "gnossus" and link the Gnossiennes to Theseus, Ariadne and the Minotaur myth.
The Gnossiennes were composed by Satie in the decade following the composition of the Trois Sarabandes (1887) and the Trois Gymnopédies (1888). Like these Sarabandes and Gymnopédies, the Gnossiennes are often considered dances. It is not certain that this qualification comes from Satie himself—the sarabande and the Gymnopaedia were at least historically known as dances.
The musical vocabulary of the Gnossiennes is a continuation of that of the Gymnopédies (a development that had started with the 1886 Ogives → Sarabandes → Gymnopédies → Gnossiennes) later leading to more harmonic experimentation in compositions like the Danses Gothiques. These series of compositions are all at the core of Satie's characteristic 19th century style, and in this sense differ from his early salon compositions (like the 1885 "Waltz" compositions published in 1887), his turn-of-the-century cabaret compositions (like the Je te Veux Waltz), and his post-Schola Cantorum piano solo compositions, starting with the Préludes flasques in 1912.
These Gnossiennes were first published in Le Figaro musical Nr. 24 of September 1893 (Gnossiennes Nrs. 1 and 3, the last one of these then still "Nr. 2") and in Le Cœur Nr. 6-7 of September-October 1893 (Gnossienne Nr. 2 printed as facsimile, then numbered "Nr. 6").
The first grouped publication, numbered as known henceforth, followed in 1913. By this time Satie had indicated 1890 as composition date for all three. The first Gnossienne was dedicated to Roland-Manuel in the 1913 reprint. The 1893 facsimile print of the 2nd Gnossienne contained a dedication to Antoine de La Rochefoucauld, not repeated in the 1913 print. This de La Rochefoucauld had been a co-founder of Joséphin Péladan's Ordre de la Rose-Croix Catholique et Esthetique du Temple et du Graal in 1891. By the second publication of the first set of three Gnossiennes, Satie had broken already for a long time with all Rosicrucian type of endeavours.
A sketch containing only two incomplete bars, dated around 1890, shows Satie beginning to orchestrate the 3rd Gnossienne.
A facsimile of the four manuscript pages of this composition can be seen on this page of Niclas Fogwall's Satie website
The fourth Gnossienne is often considered musically the most interesting one. Composed in A Minor, it features a bass line centred around an A Major Chord VI (F), sounding D, A, D, F, A, D, F, D, A, F, D, A, D. The bass part then transposes into a C Minor Chord I ostinato, following the pattern G, G, C, Eb, G, C, G, C, G, Eb, C, G, C. Section B, usually considered a very inspired section, uses semiquavers to contrast the Minor melody of Section A.