- Andreas Inderwildi
The Gnostic Horror of The Excavation of Hob's Barrow
This is the 2nd article in the Video Game Cosmology series. Read the first piece on Elden Ring here, and the intro here. If you like my work, consider supporting me on Patreon! Spoiler warning for The Excavation of Hob's Barrow.
There’s something strange lurking at the heart of The Excavation of Hob’s Barrow; strange even by the standards of the genre. Set in Victorian England, the point’n’click adventure game revolves around the intrepid amateur archeologist Thomasina Bateman and her quest to excavate a strange burial mound called Hob’s barrow in the remote rural town of Bewlay. There, we grapple with local folklore and dark superstitions, strange religious traditions, and locals eying outsiders with suspicion and hostility. As the story progresses, there are hints that the protagonist’s own family history may be tied up in all this, and that her role is part of some intricate and sinister plot.
It’s a classic set-up for a folk horror story. And for a while, it dutifully and meticulously hits all the expected beats. The game is full of allusions to England’s pagan past and the ways it remains alive in folklore. We learn of the Saxon god Saxnot, the strangeness of pagan burial customs, and legends about a hobgoblin.
We dig in the soil – sometimes literally – to uncover the past of the land and its people only to discover that the past is still alive, hidden just beneath the surface: the disowned seed from which the modern world has grown. The potency of folk horror lies in recognising our deep roots in a murky and troubling past, far away from, but still entangled with, our pretensions of a rational and enlightened world full of self-determined individuals.
So far, so typical.
The first hints at deeper strata come in the guise first of allusions to the Greco-Roman world of classical antiquity, later of strange amulets depicting animal hybrids alongside enigmatic Greek letters. If read in the correct order, these letters spell IAW ABPACAZ. Translated: “The god Abraxas.”
But what is this Abraxas doing in Bewlay of all places? What is his business in a folk horror game? While it is true that England was part of the Roman empire for several centuries and thus existed at the very fringe of the Greco-Roman world, this Abraxas still sticks out like a sore thumb. Folk horror is about things that patiently and stubbornly persist, beliefs and customs that are continuous and deeply rooted to a specific place. What the hell is Abraxas, an entity neither local nor rural, having visited only briefly from a far more cosmopolitan and urban world, doing in this stew of provincial Germanic folklore?
To answer this question, we must take a closer look at what Abraxas is and where he came from. Abraxas, originally known as Abrasax, was a supreme power in the cosmology of a Gnostic sect called the Basilideans, founded in Egypt by Basilides of Alexandria in the 2nd century CE. If this sounds like paganism to you, you’d be wrong: The Basilideans, like many but not all Gnostic sects, were in fact Christian, even though they were far removed from the doctrines of orthodox Christianity.
What, then, is Gnosticism? I will not be able to do this incredibly obtuse and multifaceted subject justice here, but we have arrived at the heart of Hob’s Barrow’s strangeness, so hunker down and bear with me.
Gnosticism is an umbrella term which refers to a wide and disparate range of extremely eclectic religious movements and trends which flourished in northern Africa, the Near East and the Mediterranean during the first few centuries CE. Gnosticism never was a separate religion, but more a system of thought that could find a foothold in many religious traditions. As a result, there were Jewish, Christian and Muslim forms of Gnosticism, as well as separate religions like Manichaeism and Mandaeism (the only Gnostic religion still practiced to this day). The most important thing all these different strands had in common is in the name itself: Gnosis means knowledge in Greek. For Gnostics, knowledge was paramount: knowledge of esoteric secrets supplanted all other factors such as faith or ritual or atonement for sins. Salvation is found in knowledge, and knowledge alone.
The hidden and terrible secret was this: Our world was not created by a benevolent and all-powerful god, but by an inferior deity often called the Demiurge (meaning “craftsman” or “creator”). The Demiurge was, depending on the account, a jealous, proud, ignorant, or even malevolent being. His very existence was a faux-pas in the spiritual order of things, and as a result, the material world he created is a corrupt and hopeless place. What’s worse, being born into this world is the same as being imprisoned. Our bodies and everything else in this world was designed to blind us from the truth and keep our souls from enlightenment and escape. Celestial beings called Archons (meaning “rulers”) acted as jailers of the soul and tried to ensure that no soul escaped after death.
The only hope was to learn this forbidden knowledge and with it, trick the Archons and leave the material world. Beyond it, there was supposed to lie our true spiritual home, the domain of the distant and estranged, but benevolent and real god.
Gnostic Christianity not only often came with incredibly complex and multilayered cosmologies that had little to do with mainstream Catholicism, it also turned many readings of the Bible on their head: the Ophites (from the Greek word for “snake”) for example saw the snake in Genesis as a symbol of wisdom or Gnosis and Eve as the true hero of the story of the Fall. By giving Adam the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, she provided him with the tools to realise that their supposed Paradise was just a prison created not by god, but a jealous impersonator. The Gnostic text “On the Origin of the World” says:
She took some of its fruit and ate, and she gave to her husband also, and he ate too. Then their minds opened. For when they ate, the light of knowledge shone for them. When they put on shame, they knew that they were naked with regard to knowledge. […] When they saw that their makers had beastly forms, they loathed them. They understood a great deal. (Translation from “The Gnostic Bible”)
Ophitic cosmology is also referenced in Hob’s Barrow in the form of an allusion to the Seven Archontics and a puzzle involving seven animal heads. Each head represents one of the seven archons, the evil cosmic rulers of the Ophitic cosmology. The writer Celsus writes about them: “Of the Seven archontic demons, the first is lion-shaped; the second is a bull; the third is amphibious and hisses horribly; the fourth is in the form of an eagle; the fifth has the appearance of a bear, the sixth, that of a dog; and the seventh, that of an ass named Thaphabaoth or Onoel.” (Translated by Frederick Crombie)
Until the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library in 1945 which contained a treasure trove of Gnostic texts, Gnostic beliefs were known almost exclusively through the unfavourable lens of the writings of orthodox heresiologists. In the case of the Basilideans, that is still true today. What’s more, the texts we have are contradictory and unclear. We know that Abraxas was central to their beliefs, but how exactly does he fit into their cosmology? Some texts suggest that Abraxas was the “Great Archon” and chief of the 365 heavens and their minor Archons. Others claim that Abraxas was the name of the true and supreme god that exists beyond the material world. The text “Adversus omnes haereses” (“Against all Heresies”) says:
Afterwards broke out the heretic Basilides. He affirms that there is a supreme Deity, by name Abraxas, by whom was created Mind, which in Greek he calls Νοῦς; that thence sprang the Word; that of Him issued Providence, Virtue, and Wisdom; that out of these subsequently were made Principalities, powers, and Angels; that there ensued infinite issues and processions of angels; that by these angels 365 heavens were formed, and the world, in honour of Abraxas, whose name, if computed, has in itself this number. Now, among the last of the angels, those who made this world, he places the God of the Jews latest, that is, the God of the Law and of the Prophets, whom he denies to be a God, but affirms to be an angel. (Translated by S. Thelwall)
The Excavation of Hob’s Barrow retains many question marks around Abraxas, but the game does suggest that he is a) venerated by some as their supreme god, b) opposed to Christianity, and c) most importantly, a malignant and manipulative entity. While it would be wrong to say that Hob’s Barrow adopts a Christian perspective, its point of view is framed by a larger cultural backdrop that has long ago assimilated mainstream Christianity’s horror towards “heretics” and “pagans”. Christian demonology is rooted in the practice of demoting pagan gods and spirits to demons and thus incorporating them into a Christian cosmos. It’s no surprise, then, that the Abraxas we encounter at the end of the game is not a benevolent or glorious deity, but a demonic force invading our world.
So what is the relation between folk horror and this “Gnostic horror”? Folk horror often pits modern Christianity against the pagan, usually Germanic or Celtic beliefs and practices it supplanted; the narrative is one of Christian rationality and morality against pagan barbarity. In this dichotomy, the former has its sight towards the heavens and lofty concepts such as redemption and eternity, while the latter can’t see beyond the soil and the flesh and the cycle of the seasons.
At first glance, Gnostic beliefs are completely at odds with this stereotypical view of paganism. If anything, Gnosticism is more abstract and spiritual than other brands of Christianity. And yet, the Gnostic horror of realising that our world is a prison shares one central point with the anxieties of folk horror: the fear of being bound and beholden to ancient, cruel and hidden powers. One facet of folk horror draws its strength from the relationship between ourselves and the soil, from the feeling of being subject to the demands of the natural world around us, including our own bodies: the need to toil, to eat, to procreate. The bloodthirsty pagan deities of our imagination are an apt metaphor for the need to enter into an uneasy relationship with the material world around us if we want to survive and prosper. If it takes a bloody sacrifice to ensure a good harvest, so be it.
In other words, folk horror and Gnosticism share a deep distrust towards the material world and a feeling of being trapped within it. Both agree that existing in this world means being subject to tyrannical powers. So while Gnosticism is very different from the earthy paganism usually found in folk horror, some of its concerns do mesh well with folk horror’s own preoccupations. By focusing its linear story on the bleak inevitability of Thomasina’s fate and her role as an unwitting pawn to ancient forces, Hob’s Barrow creates a space for Gnosticism within its folk horror framework.
But the two don’t coexist without friction. One important difference between them lies in the possibility of escape: In folk horror, the only options are either death or coming to terms with this world and embracing both its cruelty and beauty.
Gnosticism imagines another way out, namely through knowledge. The thirst for knowledge is what drives most of our protagonist’s actions in Hob’s Barrow. Thomasina seeks clarity and meaning in her attempt to uncover the secrets of both Hob’s barrow and those of her father’s strange past. Ironically, it is precisely this urge to free herself by digging deeper that locks her in on a road to certain ruin. In the world of Hob’s Barrow, knowledge doesn’t lead to freedom or escape. At best, it means getting a better view of the bars and shackles that bind us.
The horror and danger of knowledge; it’s a trope we know all too well from H.P. Lovecraft’s cosmic horror and the countless horror games it inspired. It’s no surprise, then, that the ending of The Excavation of Hob’s Barrow veers away from folk horror towards something more Lovecraftian, with primordial ruins buried deep beneath the ground and cosmic monsters biding their time at the edges of our world.
As the promise of Gnosis turns to ashes, it also burns away the haystack of folk horror beneath which the cosmic nightmares have been lying in wait. Gnosticism’s presence in the game is subtle and never fully explained, but it still plays a big part in the narrative’s trajectory and symbolism and provides the central theme of salvation through secret knowledge. Even though it turns out to be a lie in the end, The Excavation of Hob’s Barrow still stays faithful to other, more pessimistic core tenets of Gnostic thought: that we are trapped in a hopeless world built on deception and ruled over by malicious gods.