Monday, November 20, 2006

The story of Sophia, the Divine Feminine

(This is an expanded version of a talk I gave at the August 2005 "Sophia Festival" sponsored by the Queen of Heaven Gnostic Church in Portland, Oregon. A companion piece is "Sophia Source Material," which has excerpts from the Hebrew Bible, paraphrases by the anti-Gnostic polemicists of ancient times, and original source material taken from papyrus codices that survived to modern times. The talk is based mostly on these selections.)

"Sophia" is Greek for Wisdom, or in Hebrew Hochmah. Before the Gnostics adopted her, she appears as personified Wisdom in the Hebrew Bible. She is also in Greek sacred texts of the time, deriving from Athena, archaic Greek goddess of Wisdom. I do not know much about that Sophia; more important, I htink, is the Judaic tradition. In Proverbs she says, “The Lord possessed me from the beginning of his way, before his works of old…When he prepared the heavens I was there.” She is described as the helper that never fails. Sometimes she is even a warrior, helping God’s people against their enemies when God has had a fit of temper and deserted his own. And sometimes, as Job and others complain, she does leave humanity for a time when it does not listen to her. (For some examples in the Hebrew Bible of texts about Sophia, see Part A of "Sophia source material.)

The ancient Gnostics took the Hebrew Bible’s comments about Sophia further, as I shall try to show. Starting out in Alexandria, Egypt, of the 2nd and 3rd centuries c.e., they combined Greek, Jewish, and early Christian thought. They wrote in the tradition of Plato, who wrote visionary myths such as the Myth of Er in the Republic, the chariot of the Phaedrus, and above all the cosmological myth of the Timaeus, to say what could not be said in rational discourse. Their stories were not meant to be literal truth; they were succession of images that got at the truth obliquely through metaphor. They are basically poems. So are the Jewish writings about Sophia in the Hebrew Bible. In that way different writers could write myths that contradicted other writers in the same tradition, without the need for disputations about which was right. It was more a question of which was more helpful to others in their own spiritual quests. The most helpful ones were copied out by others. In another chapter of this blog, "Sophia Source Material," I have copied out and edited (by the method of "cut and paste" from the "Gnosis" website) some of the accounts, both in the Hebrew Bible and in the Gnostic collections. I am describing these accounts, and a few more, in my comments here.

Who is Sophia? What is her nature? Let me give some analogous questions, which apply to most proper names. I am writing this in Oregon, whose capital city is Salem. What is Salem? What is its nature? Well, that’s easy. It’s the capital of Oregon. But hold on. The town was named for another Salem, in Massachusetts. If I am to understand Salem, I can’t leave out its namesake, which probably inspired other Salems as well. That one was named for another one in England. And that one was named for Jerusalem, in the Holy Land. To understand a proper name, we have to understand its history, in naming things or persons before it. And we have to realize that it applies to many things, not just one, even when it applies to just one in a particular conversation.

With Sophia, there is another complexity. Unlike Salem, she is not locatable in space and time. She exists in people's descriptions and worship of her. Asking who she is, in this dimension, is like asking about Mt. Olympus, which perhaps which besides being a mountain in Greece, in the state of Washington, and in other places, is also the home of the Greek gods and perhaps other people's before them.

With that preamble, I will turn to the Gnostics. Who are they? Once again, we are dealing with a proper name, not a precisely defined concept. The term, from the Greek gnosis, experiential knowledge, was first used by the 2nd century Church polemicist Irenaeus in labeling some groups that called themselves Christian but which he considered heretical. That will be my starting point, too--but not just the groups he labeled, but also groups that shared important similarities with them. Gnostics are the people he grouped together and others that are similar in important ways, as scholars have applied the term in the 20th century. Specifically, Gnostics are characterized by the stories they tell, and the story of Sophia, in Irenaeus and elsewhere, is one of the most important.

In some of these writings, such as the “Three Stele of Seth” (see Part B of "Sophia sources material"), Sophia is simply the feminine aspect of the highest God, as in the Jewish tradition. The “Stele” and many other texts call her Barbelo. In other texts, such as "The Thunder, Perfect Mind" (also in Part B of "Sophia sources material,") she paradoxically encompasses a wide variety of contradictory roles, encompassing numerous different roles and stories It is as though the different manifestations of "Salem" were same spiritual entity in different places. When it is spiritual entities that one is talking about, that becomes less absurd.

In other texts, she is an emanation of an emanation, or even further removed. In the Pistis Sophia she is in "the 13th aeon." In Irenaeus's paraphrase of Ptolemy; she is the 30th emanation, the furthest removed from the divine source, the First Parent, among all the beings in the Pleroma, or Fullness. (Both texts in "Gnostic source materials" Part C).

It is no accident that she is the last; as the furthest removed, she has the greatest desire to get closer. And after her, there is no need for more. An emanation has finally done what needed to be done to get to the next stage of the unfolding creation.

As the myth by Ptolemy relates, all the emanations after the fist were given by the will of the Father/Mother a longing to comprehend the Parent's greatness; all, by this same will, have been kept ignorant that to do so is impossible. But Sophia has the audacity to act, moving out of her place to unite with him, and thereby separating from her consort. She has given birth to her desire, a birth accomplished without her masculine consort; but her child is a formless substance, which Ptolemy and other Gnostics compare to an aborted fetus, without the form which, Aristotle had taught, comes from the male parent alone. Her desire propels her upward, and she would have perished in the immeasurable sweetness of the First Parent except that a power called Limit prevents her.

In one variant, the Pistis Sophia, her journey is downward, toward what she thinks is a reflection of the Father’s light. But it was cunningly put there by an evil power called Self-Willed, which traps her in the chaos.

In some versions of the myth, such as the Apocryphon of John, she falls downward in the very act of conceiving, and her emanation, the formless abortion, becomes the demiurge, the god who made the world, the god of Genesis. In Irenaeus's summary of a group that he or a later editor called the "Ophites," it is the Most High himself who impregnates Sophia, and while giving birth to the Christ above, her vessel cannot contain all his light, and what spills out into the chaos is the Lower Sophia; her son there, Ialdabaoth, the "child of chaos," is the demiurge. And even in the Apocryphon of John, while there is no actual impregnation by the Father, Sophia "conceived a thought from herself and the conception of the invisible Spirit and foreknowledge...And because of the invincible power which is in her, her thought did not remain idle." She becomes pregnant. What she gives birth to corresponds to the idea she had conceived from, either of no definite form at all or of only the vague idea of creator or demiurge.

In all these cases, there is a fall owing to weakness of one sort or another, often having to do with the desire of a female emanation to "know" its parent---sometimes in an explicitly sexual sense, sometimes not, sometimes with its approval, sometimes not. Even when it conceives merely through a desire to emulate the parent's ability to conceive without a partner, such conception is still "from herself and the conception of the parent," and thus in a way through the parent's unwitting participation.

In the version by Ptolemy, Limit separates Sophia’s desire from her and casts it into the chaos, a kind of formless abortion, known thereafter as Sophia Prunicos, the desire of Sophia, or the lustful Sophia. She herself is persuaded to return to her own place. Now there are two Sophias, one above in the Pleroma, one below in the Chaos. And above them there is also the original feminine deity, the Barbelo, which Ptolemy calls the Silence. (There was a similar situation in Greek thought: Plato in the Symposium talks about the celestial Aphrodite, born of the foam, and the mundane Aphrodite, born of Zeus, each personifying a different type of desire. More ancient than either is Gaia, the earth goddess, wife of Uranos.)

But the lower Sophia does not stay totally formless. In Ptolemy’s account, she is visited briefly by the Christ, extending to her from his Light-Cross, and accompanied by his consort Holy Spirit. Christ gives her no knowledge but only a fragrance to remind her of him. She feels grief, fear and perplexity, and turns back in supplication to the Christ who has left her. Sometimes she even laughs. As the text poetically puts it, “Sometimes she cried and grieved because of being left alone in the darkness and the void; sometimes she reached a thought of the light that had left her and she cheered and laughed; sometimes she was afraid; and other times she became uncertain and distraught. From her tears come all humid substances; from her laughter bodies of light, and from her grief the corporeal substance of the universe.” In answer to her prayer, a new Aeon, the Savior, comes and separates her passions from her; they, along with her act of turning back, become the substances of our universe.
As Irenaeus relates, from Sophia's act of turning back is created the demiurge, or Craftsman, who shapes these substances, secretly directed by Sophia and the Savior, into the entities of our world. And in humanity there three kinds of souls: the so-called hylic, or material humans, whose souls come from Sophia’s fear; the psychics, who belong to the demiurge and whose souls come from Sophia’s fear and her turning back; and finally the pneumatics, whose souls also come from fear and turning back, but in which may be found the light-seed from her laughter, inspired by that which is beyond the demiurge.

Gnostic texts make Sophia a continuing force of good against the arrogant demiurge. Here they are anticipated by the Hebrew Bible’s Wisdom of Solomon. Wisdom 10:1 says of Wisdom, “She preserved the first formed father of the world, that was created alone, and brought him out of his fall.” In context, the "first formed father" is Adam. The interpretation could be simply that Sophia helped Adam to use his mind to prosper in an alien world. But other meanings of a more spiritual nature are possible, which the Gnostic texts make clear. For example, for the group Irenaeus calls the "Ophites," after Adam and Eve are thrown out of Paradise, Sophia shows them compassion and gives them some of her light, which she had earlier taken away so as to protect it from the demiurge. The ancient texts buried at Nag Hammadi say similar things. The Apocryphon of John tells how Adam, given Sophia’s spirit after first being unable even to rise off the ground, reveals himself as more intelligent than the archons who ineptly made him. In a fit of envy, they throw him down to the lowest part of matter. There Sophia goes as well, enlightening him and later Eve as well.

In other texts, notably the Gospel of Philip and the Hypostasis of the Archons, Adam's fall is Sophia’s separation from him. The Hypostasis of the Archons relates that the archons, or authorities, lust after her and try to possess her while Adam sleeps. She escapes and turns into a tree, the tree of gnosis. There she is also the serpent, who teaches Adam and the spiritless Eve knowledge of higher things. Eating the fruit is partaking of Sophia's light. Again, Sophia saves the first parents after their fall into the demiurge’s lair.

In Hypostasis of the Archons, the spiritless Eve is then violated by the demiurge and his helpers, and she gives birth to Cain, son of the lesser archons, who slays Abel, son of the demiurge and whom in Genesis Yahweh favors. Sophia has no influence over Cain, but she does give Adam and Eve Seth and Norea, who are the light-children of Sophia as well as of Adam and Eve. Then later the lesser archons want to wipe out their creation in a flood. The chief archon cannot stop the flood, but he does warn Noah and instruct him to build an ark. Norea, the representative of Sophia, is refused entrance and burns down Noah's first ark. The archons then lust after Norea but are repulsed.

A different account of the flood is told by Irenaeus's Ophites. The demiurge himself sends a flood to destroy ungrateful humanity. Sophia subverts his plans by instructing the spiritual Noah to build an ark. The Apocryphon of John says the same, except that it isn't an ark that is Noah's refuge, but a luminous cloud provided by Sophia.

Believe it or not, the Ophite account is also in the Hebrew Bible, at Wisdom 10:2: “When the unrighteous one"-—meaning Cain--"went away from her"--Sophia--"in his anger, he perished also in the fury wherewith he murdered his brother. For whose cause"—unrighteousness, that is--"the earth being drowned with the flood, wisdom again preserved it, and directed the course of the righteous in a piece of wood of small value.” This same chapter then goes on to give other ways in which Wisdom, i.e. Sophia, interceded against the harm wrought by Yahweh. She rescues Lot and his family from Sodom, and she saves Joseph from his brothers, whom a rabbinic tradition held had been incited to their jealousy by Yahweh. Later she rescues the Israelites from the wrath of Pharaoh, whose heart, as we know, had been hardened by Yahweh, and saves them from the Amorites and Canaanites, whose hearts had also, according to Deuteronomy, been hardened by Yahweh. Like the Greek Athena, she is a warrior goddess for her people.

Some Gnostic texts tell another part of the Sophia story. Here the Old Testament original is the Song of Songs. Sophia is here the desirous one, longing for a forbidden spouse, and a prototype of the soul longing for God. In some texts, she is neither faithful nor wise. In The Exegesis of the Soul, she has forgotten her origin and takes lover after lover but is always abused by them. At last she recognizes her true bridegroom, the Christ, and prepares a bridal chamber for him. She is thus the Virgin Mary, whose womb is that bridal chamber.

In the Gospel of Philip, Sophia is also the Holy Spirit, who unites with the Christ at the baptism. The Holy Spirit is explicitly identified with Wisdom several places in the Hebrew Bible. Moreover, in the Gospel of John, John the Baptist calls himself the friend of the bridegroom, who in Jewish custom brings the groom to the bride’s house. That is exactly what John does in his baptism of Jesus, uniting him with the Holy Spirit in her watery abode.

Sophia is also in Mary Magdalene, whom several texts (Gospel of Philip, Gospel of Mary) identify as the earthly consort of Jesus, another form of the bride of the bridegroom, the feminine half of the sacred marriage. After Jesus’s own Ascension, he returns to help the Magdalene in her own ascent, where she must confront seven planetary powers of wrath in seven heavens. This journeyt is described as Mary’s vision in the Gospel of Mary and presented as Sophia’s ascent in the Pistis Sophia, where the powers reappear as a seven-headed basilisk.

In other versions of the story, such as Ptolemy’s, Sophia’s faithfulness and wisdom also come late. In Ptolemy, the first Sophia chases after her great-great-grandfather, and only when confronted by Limit does she return to her appointed husband. Her daughter, the lower Sophia, after being thrown out into the Chaos, gets a visit from the pair Christ and Holy Spirit. She immediately becomes enamored of the husband, Christ, and goes so far as to take the same name as his consort Holy Spirit. Understandably the couple beats a hasty retreat. Finally a single guy, the Savior, comes and captures her heart, although he is too busy creating the universe out of her passions to pay her much attention. He leaves when she becomes pregnant, and the offspring, the seeds of light in matter, turn out to resemble not the Savior but the angels who came down with him as his bodyguard. Let us not be judgmental. Perhaps the angels merely cheered her, and her laughter was enough to produce the spirit-seeds resembling them. In any case, the embryo passes through Mary into Jesus to bring the message of salvation to humanity. Then when the Savior ascends again to the Pleroma, Sophia remains in our world just below the Pleroma, to gather up all the seeds of light, mixed in among the lesser seeds. When her task is complete, she joins the Savior above.

Before leaving ancient Gnosticism, let me do some further reflecting on the myths from a psychological point of view. Myths about the pre-history of humanity and of the world, inaccessible to scientific investigation, reflect the fact that we do not remember our individual beginnings--I mean our beginnings on this earth as infants and small children; yet it is only by resolving the emotions of that time lost to memory that we may regain our own divine peace and joy. It is actually a series of times, which for us are “aeons,” epochs stretching behind us, as the Gnostics called the symbolic representatives of unremembered time. As modern psychology has confirmed, these times are ones of yearning for a restored merger with the powerful parent, and of jealousies toward any that would threaten that yearning. Then that very parent throws us out of whatever vestigial merger we might have! This parent may be male or female: the lost merger was with the mother, but the identification with power and the hope for restoration can be with either. We have goddess religions and god religions, sometimes even both in one. We have father-centered children and mother-centered ones, even children balanced evenly between them.

Orthodoxy and Gnosticism then reflect different attitudes toward personal development. In orthodoxy, humans at the beginning are literally dirt, think they are equal to their parents, and deserve to have that belief knocked out of them by hard work and tight rules that are irregularly enforced, depending on the parent’s mood, by punishments far in excess of the infractions.. The only spiritually safe attitude is one of perpetual humility and self-abasement, in which all advances are due to God, all setbacks due to oneself.

In contrast, the Gnostic attitude, at least judging from the myths, is that children are divine by nature, their feelings of superiority natural but needing to be subject to limits in order to keep them from harming themselves. In fact once they discover their superiority they inevitably spill out of the nursery world in which freedom is exchanged for security. They no longer belong in that world. They must plunge into a world whose order and rules are regular if unknown and unexpected, resulting in great insecurity unless they also act as if they had divine origins and destinations, with access to divine help—-not to relieve their insecurity in the chaos, but to face their devils, rise spiritually above the chaos, and so attain both the independence and interdependence of beings which only the highest divinity can possess.

It goes without saying that the second attitude, in which infantile narcissism goes fundamentally unchallenged, produces a more unruly and less ordered populace, of people of many different opinions, all of whom think they are divinely inspired. For that reason alone such an attitude would be discouraged by most governments and large organizations. But part of spiritual advancement, in our own day as well as in ancient times, is putting one’s own specialness in the context of that of others, restraining one's divine impulsivity in the context of the interdependency of different divine beings, out of which the One can be discerned and attained.

After the Gnostics, Sophia continued to be written about under other names. Archetypally, she is the heroine of many folk tales, such as the Greeks’ Eros and Psyche, related by the Latin author Apuleius. Psyche is that same spirit of gnosis whom we have seen in Sophia. In watered-down form, she appears in the Northern European Cinderella, as told by the Grimm Brothers. This tale, as well as that of Cupid and Psyche, has a seed-separating heroine who get supernatural assistance in doing impossible tasks, so as to win their other-worldly bridegroom.

Sophia gets help from the Christ above, her mother in secret, and the Savior who descends below. Psyche gets help from a reed, Jupiter’s eagle, a talking tower, and finally Cupid himself. Cinderella, in the Grimms’ version, has white birds from her mother's grave who help her and give her things, and in the end, of course, her Prince.

In Kabbalah, which had an upsurge from the 1100's to the 1800's, Sophia is in Hochmah and the other feminine figures of the Tree of Life. She is also the Shekinah, or Presence of God.

Sophia also appears in classic Western literature. Many of Shakespeare’s heroines, in my opinion, embody the Gnostic Sophia. (See the essay, "The divine feminine in Shakespeare's Pericles", elsewhere in this blog, for an example.) Then there is Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. There she appears as the prostitute who becomes the savior of the protagonist Raskolnikov. In Russian her name, Sonya, is a diminutive form of the name Sophia.

Most recently there is a beautiful American film, available in video stores, called “A Price above Rubies,” in the Hebrew Bible an epithet of Sophia. In the film, Sophia appears as three separate characters in a Hassidic community of modern day New York. One is the main protagonist, a recently married young woman who is alienated and abused in her husband’s Hassidic family. She is the suffering, abused spirit in exile, who goes from lover to lover. The second manifestation of Sophia is the widow of a revered Rabbi, who intercedes on the young wife’s behalf. This is God’s powerful presence in a world from which he himself is absent. The third Sophia is a bag-lady on the streets of New York. She is the one who puts the young woman’s plight into a cosmic and Gnostic perspective. This is the humbler Sophia who secretly works for human liberation through knowledge.


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