In "The Cygnus Mystery" Andrew Collins briefly discusses the possibility of an early Christian identification of the constellation Cygnus with the cross of Christ (2006:32-34). Collins has found a positive reference to Cygnus as the cross from 592 C.E. in "De cursu stellarum" of Gregory of Tours, who also identifies stars from Delphinus and Lyra either side of Cygnus as the Greek letters Alpha and Omega. Much later than this there are planispheres from the seventeenth-century that show Cygnus as the cross, and Plate 12 in the book shows a detail from the astronomical map of William Schickhard which curiously depicts Cygnus as a swan bearing the crucifix. Other than this there is some interesting speculation that Christians borrowed from the iconography of the hero Orpheus (referencing the crucified "Orpheus Bakkikos" on a third-century magical gem), who was translated to heaven as a swan and identified as Cygnus.
I believe that there are very early texts which suggest that some Christians were looking at the Milky Way and Cygnus in much the way that Collins suggests.
I will focus on the Apocryphon of John. Also known as the Secret Book of John, it was written by the mid-second century C.E. and appears to have been an important Gnostic text. There are three copies in the Nag Hammadi library, whereas no other text appears more than twice. Each copy appears as the first text in the codex in which which it is found. There is also a fourth copy of the text preserved in the Berlin Gnostic Codex, discovered in Cairo in 1896 though not generally available until the 1950s. The text is very well preserved, relatively easy to understand, and provides a full account of the classic Gnostic myth.
The book takes the form of a narrative discourse delivered by Christ to the apostle John. It begins by describing the detailed emanation of the aeons of the Pleroma from the One, organised in a trinitarian structure of Father, Mother and Son. The final aeon in this structure is Sophia, who mistakenly attempts to emanate her own image apart from the rest of the Pleroma; she thus gives birth to a deficient being called Yaldabaoth, who has a portion of Sophia's divine power but is ignorant of the Pleroma. Thanks to Sophia's power in him, Yaldabaoth is able to produce beings called the archons, of whom he is chief, and create the universe in the image of the divine aeons. Sophia repents of what she has done and the Pleroma acts to restore the power of Sophia that is held by Yaldabaoth. The Pleroma reveals itself to the archons in the form of a human being and the archons set about creating a copy of what they have seen, but it is inanimate. Five lights from the Pleroma deceive Yaldabaoth into blowing the power of Sophia into the man, Adam, thus liberating Sophia's power from Yaldabaoth. Seeing that Adam is now superior to themselves the archons overpower him and first cast him into matter, then entomb him in a body - 'the bond of forgetfullness'. Although Adam has the divine power of Sophia within him it is dormant, and so the Mother-Father sends 'luminous Epinoia' to reside in Adam and awaken him to his origin and the way of ascent. Yaldabaoth attempts to remove from Adam the luminous Epinoia, but instead creates Eve in her image. They are awakened by Epinoia, but Yaldabaoth and the archons succeed in making their descendents forgetfull. The book closes with a hymn in which Christ as the Pronoia describes three descents in order to bring salvation.
Within this myth I believe that there are passages that suggest the presence of a divine Mother represented as the Milky Way. These mostly concern references to 'light-waters', the first appearing in the description of the first emanation from the One. The One is surrounded by light, which is also the water of life, and in this light-water the One sees his image, who is named as Barbelo:
"...it is he who looks at him[self] in his light which surrounds [him], namely the spring [of the] water of life...and she came forth [namely] she who had [appeared] before him [in the shine of] his light...The first power, the glory of Barbelo..This is the the first thought, his image; she became the womb of everything...the Mother-Father, the first man, the holy Spirit, the thrice-male, the thrice-powerful, the thrice-named androgynous one..." (NHL II,1,4,19 - 5,9; Robinson, 1988:107).
Barbelo is the Mother, also called the Mother-Father, the first man, and the more familiar Holy Spirit. The light-water appears to be a mixed-metaphor or perhaps a combination of different mythological materials. However, could it be that Barbelo was conceived as a divine mother in the form of the Milky Way, or that Barbelo was a Gnostic carry-over of some other Milky Way mother-goddess?
That the light-waters in which Barbelo resides is the Milky Way is perhaps supported by the brief description of the Mother at the beginning of the Gospel of the Egyptians, also known from the Nag Hammadi texts. We don't find any descriptions of light-water, but it does speak of Barbelon - clearly the same figure - presiding over the heaven:
"the Mother, the virginal Barbelon epititioch[...] ai, memeneaimen[...who] presides over the heaven..." (NHL III,2, 42,12-15; Robinson, 1988:209).
Placing these two descriptions side-by-side, Barbelo in the light-water and Barbelon over heaven, it doesn't seem that incredible that Barbelo was seen as connected in some way with the Milky Way.
Later in the Apocryphon this imagery appears once again when the Pleroma reveals itself to the archons in the illuminated waters above matter:
"And of the waters which are above matter, the underside was illuminated by the appearance of his image which had been revealed. And when all the authorities and the chief archon looked, they saw the whole region of the underside which was illuminated. And through the light they saw the form of the image in the water." (NHL II,1, 14,26-34; Robinson, 1988:113).
Although these waters do not at first glance appear to be the same as the light-waters of Barbelo, there are correspondences. The waters are above matter; they are not part of Yaldabaoth's creation, seeming to separate the archons' realm from the realm of the Pleroma. There is the combination of light and water. Most of all, there is the parallel between the One seeing its own image in the light-water, and the archons seeing the divine image in the waters above matter.
The light-water makes its final appearance near the end of the text. Christ, as the Pronoia (providence) describes descending three times into the world. On the third occasion he descends into the depths of the body and proclaims:
"And I raised him up and sealed him in the light of the water with five seals, in order that death might not have power over him from this time on." (NHL II,1, 31,22-25; Robinson, 1988:122).
Here the risen one (presumably a reference to Jesus but probably also including all of humanity) ascends to the light-water. In the light of Gregory of Tours' identification of Cygnus as the cross, it is tempting to see this passage as describing the ascent to Cygnus in the Milky Way. There is a last passage in the Apocryphon of John that may make this a distinct possibility, appearing shortly after the creation of Eve:
"I appeared in the form of an eagle on the tree of knowledge, which is the Epinoia from the foreknowledge of the pure light, that I might teach them and awaken them out of the depth of sleep. For they were both in a fallen state, and they recognized their nakedness. The Epinoia appeared to them as a light; she awakened their thinking." (NHL II,1, 23,26-35; Robinson, 1988:118).
Remember that the narrator, the 'I' in this passage, is Christ. The motif of a bird atop the world-tree is one that Collins discusses in "The Cygnus Mystery". It occurs in mythologies world-wide, and Collins argues for the identity of the world-tree and the Milky Way, and for the constellation Cygnus as the bird sitting at its top. This passage is a clear use of the motif, with Christ taking the role of the bird. If Collins is right then it strongly supports the idea that Christ was connected with Cygnus by some Gnostic groups at least as early as the middle of the second-century.
The tree of knowledge itself (another text from Nag Hammadi called "On the Origins of the World" states that the tree of life and the tree of gnosis are situated "to the north of Paradise" (NHL II,5, 110,2-29; Robinson, 1988:178,179)) is identified as Epinoia. According to Davies (2005:108) the Greek name Epinoia carries the meaning of 'reflection', 'conceptualization', 'intuition', 'understanding through creative consciousness'. She is sent to dwell within Adam, her role being to give him consciousness of his divine origins and the way to return to the Pleroma. Epinoia is sent by the Mother-Father (i.e. Barbelo), and there are correspondences between the figure of Epinoia and the figure of Barbelo. In the account of Barbelo's emanation from the One she can be seen as being the awakening of the divine self-consciousness of the One (Davies, 2005:xiii, 20), while later on Epinoia is the awakening of the divine self-consciousness in humanity. Adam's reception of Epinoia is in my opinion identical to the orthodox Christian reception of the Holy Spirit, who Barbelo was identified with in a pasage quoted earlier. The impression I have is that Barbelo is the cosmic aspect and Epinoia is the inner aspect of the same deity.
This apparent identity between Epinoia and Barbelo also supports the connection of Barbelo with the Milky Way. The tree of knowledge is explicitly said to be Epinoia. If the world-tree is the Milky Way, and if Epinoia and Barbelo are related aspects of deity, then Barbelo is also associated with the Milky Way as I believe the imagery of light-water indicates.
A common element of the various mystery religions, hermetic and gnostic groups that existed in the early centuries C.E. was the ascension of the initiate through the planetary spheres to reach the realm of light. For example, in the cult of Mithra (which was popular in the same period that the Gnostic Christians flourished), Mithra was able to clear a way through these spheres to put his followers in touch with the god of light (Churton, 2005:22-3). There are several Gnostic texts (such as the Dialogue of the Saviour, The Second Book of Jeu, Zostrianos, Apocalypse of Paul) which contain 'spells' that aim to help the initiate in a similar ascent through the aeons (Meyer, Smith, 1999:59-76). Following my arguments above I speculate that some of these Gnostics saw their own ascent through the spheres as culminating in joining with the Milky Way, as in the quotation above "I raised him up and sealed him in the light of the water with five seals".
If this was the case then perhaps the ascent was specifically to the region of Cygnus itself. There is a curious passage in the non-canonical Gospel of Peter in which the cross itself ascends into heaven at the resurrection of Jesus:
"they saw three men emerge from the tomb, two of them supporting the other, with a cross following behind them. The heads of the two reached up to the sky, but the head of the one they were leading went up above the skies. And they heard a voice from the skies, 'Have you preached to those who are asleep?' And a reply came from the cross, 'Yes.'" (Ehrman,2004:126).
The Gospel of Peter, like the Apocryphon of John, was also written by the mid-second century and maybe earlier. There are actually more early manuscript fragments of this gospel than there are of the canonical Gospel of Mark, which seems to imply that it was more popular (Ehrman, 2003:23). Despite this, all we have of the Gospel of Peter is a passion narrative and description of the ressurection. It is rather an interesting idea that the cross itself took its place in the heavens, and one wonders whether the readers of this gospel did see it in the cruciform stars of Cygnus. Although the cross is obviously an instrument of death, it is also interesting that in this passage it is specifically associated with the abode of the dead, replying 'Yes' to the question about preaching to 'those who are asleep' (i.e. the dead).
Following this line of thought, the canonical Gospel of John (often referred to simply as the Fourth Gospel) refers to the crucifixion of Jesus as his being 'lifted up' to return to his place of origin:
"No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up" (John 3:13-14).
"Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." (John 12:31-32).
Picturing Cygnus in the sky at the head of the Great Rift where the Milky Way divides into two streams that flow down, perhaps there is some stellar significance to a detail of the crucifixion which the author of the Fourth Gospel is especially keen to emphasise:
"one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out. (He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.)" (John 19:34-35).
The Fourth Gospel is well known to have been a favourite of Gnostic groups, and the earliest commentaries were written by them. Sadly we only know of excepts from these commentaries that survive in the writings of the anti-Gnostic proto-orthdox.
Obviously the evidence is not absolutly conclusive; I regard this as very much open to discussion. Nevertheless, I believe that texts such as the Apocryphon of John hint that the Gnostic figure of Barbelo was a Milky Way star-goddess seen as the 'womb of everything', and the origin of a divine faculty in human beings that seeks to return us to this source. Christ may indeed have been associated with Cygnus from at least the second-century; the image of Christ as the eagle on the tree of knowledge is good evidence of this if we accept what Collins has to say about this motif in other cultures.
Churton, Tobias (2005). Gnostic Philosophy: From Ancient Persia to Modern Times. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions.
Collins, Andrew (2006). The Cygnus Mystery: Unlocking the Ancient Secret of Life's Origins in the Cosmos. London: Watkins Publishing.
Davies, Stevan (2005). The Secret Book of John: The Gnostic Gospel Annotated and Explained. Woodstock, Vermont: Skylight Paths Publishing.
Ehrman, Bart D. (1998, 2004). The New Testament and Other Early Christian Writings: A Reader. 2nd edition. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc.
Ehrman, Bart D.(2003). Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc.
Meyer, Marvin W., Smith, Richard (1994,1999). Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Robinson, James M. (1978,1988) The Nag Hammadi Library in English. 3rd edition. San Fransisco: HarperCollins.