Sophia, Mother of the All
GODDESSES OF WISDOM
~~ Asphodel P. Long
“Though she is but One, she can do all things,
And while remaining in herself, she renews all things….
She reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other
And orders all things well…” (BWS 7:27; 8:1)
This is a description of a divine female being called Wisdom, and it appears in the Book of the Wisdom of Solomon, written at about 100 – 50 BCE in Alexandria, Egypt. It is included today in the Roman Catholic bible and in the Apocrypha to the Protestant and the Hebrew bibles. In Hebrew, Wisdom is called Hochmah, and in Greek, Sophia. The above lines quoted were written in Greek, echoing an earlier description of Wisdom which occurs in the Book of Proverbs, (8:22/23 f) where she is described as being “there from the beginning, ages ago I was set up, before the beginning of the earth”.
Wisdom is always female. She has been called the “last of a long line of ancient near eastern goddesses”, which include Isis, Ma’at, Astarte, Tiamat; on the Hellenistic side she shares her sisterhood with Demeter, Rhea, and the older, pre-Hellenic Athene, the ancient earth-mother creatrix, attended by her owls of wisdom.
Wisdom bears with her the characteristics of all other goddesses associated with the idea of Wisdom – she is the creatrix of the universe, its maintainer and sustainer; at the same time, she is in every part of it, and in ourselves as human beings. Her Wisdom nature in us enables us to take part in the life of the universe. One scholar has described this exactly when discussing the Mesopotamian goddess Nisaba who was worshipped about 3000 BCE. She was called Goddess of the reeds, and became goddess of music and of writing.
This scholar writes: “It is quite clear that… in themselves they (the reeds) were never divine. Any individual reed counted merely as a plant… and so did all the reeds… however it had wonderful properties. It was capable of amazing things such as the music that could come out of a shepherd’s pipe or signs which would take form under the scribe’s reed and make a story or a poem… these Powers combined into a divine personality, that of the Goddess Nisaba. If she were not near, the shepherd could not soothe the heart with music from his/her reed pipe. To her the scribe would give praise when a difficult piece of writing was achieved. The goddess was thus the power in all reeds, …she was one with every reed in the sense that she permeated it as an animising and characterising agent; but she did not lose her identity… and was not limited by any or even all existing reeds… She is shown in human form as a venerable matron; but the reeds also are there. They sprout from her shoulders, are bodily one with her and seem to derive directly from her” l.
In the same way, the ancients saw the Wisdom goddess as enabling us to understand the world and work in harmony with it – she was the creatrix of the world, she was the world, and we are part of her in it. In particular, she, the Wisdom Goddess, linked the creation and our understanding of it with her need to teach us about the world and our need to learn.
This is made clear by the aretalogy (hymn of self-praise) of the goddess Isis of Egypt, dating from about the 2nd century CE (that is, well within the Christian era). She lists her own nature and qualities. Among the many wonderful lines are these:
I am Isis, I am she who is called goddess by women
I gave and ordained laws for humans which no-one is able to change,
I divided the earth from the heavens
I ordered the course of the sun and the moon
I appointed to women to bring their infants to birth in the tenth month
I made the beautiful and the shameful to be distinguished by nature
I established punishment for those who practise injustice
I am Queen of rivers and winds and sea
I am in the rays of the sun
Fate hearkens to me
Hail Egypt that nourishes me. 2
Here we see the goddess who is divine and creatrix, queen of nature, who also points out the best ways of living and takes part in the world of human beings, and indeed is nourished by her own country, Egypt. In fact, she was also called The Nile river, and the mud of the Nile on which the soil fertility of Egypt depended was worshipped as the goddess Isis.
Wisdom goddesses thus are transcendent and immanent; they are divine and within us all. Ma’at, a sister Egyptian goddess, is Lady of Truth and Right and Goddess of the underworld and the dead. Her name derives from the word used for a measure of land; she is the aspect of Wisdom that measures, sets standards, indicates right from wrong, and in the end, judges the dead as they enter the underworld. Her symbol is a feather; many Egyptian wall paintings show the scene of such a judgement: Ma’at’s feather lies on one scale, balanced by the heart of the dead person on the other; she knows all, nothing is hidden from her. From this aspect she is a personified goddess; yet in another aspect Ma’at and a feather itself are symbols of justice and the right way of life, a way that is in harmony with truth and cannot wriggle out of obligations whether to nature itself or to people within it.
Other Wisdom goddesses are healers (as is Isis, Mistress of Magic); in the Celtic tradition Brigid is a three-fold Wisdom goddess – of healing, of metalwork (she is a smith) and of poetry. Brigid is welcomed with fire which is a transformer of matter, while her healing is always associated with living water-springs, fountains, rivers. She has the knowledge to use these elements to share this wisdom with us.
It may come as a surprise that most of these goddesses’ attributes occur in the biblical tradition of Judaism and in non-mainstream Christianity. The paean of praise for Wisdom already quoted from the Book of Wisdom of Solomon continues with a description of her work among humans: she teaches us
“to know the structure of the world and the activity of the elements,
the beginning and end and middle of times,
the alteration of the solstices and the changes of the seasons,
the cycles of the year and the constellations of the stars
the nature of animals and the tempers of wild beasts, the powers of spirits and the reasonings of humans” (BWS 7:17-20)
After that she is praised with a large number of adjectives – “unique, all-powerful, overseeing all, intelligent, steadfast, sure, free from anxiety” among them.
I want to stress most particularly that the above verses come from the Judaic tradition, and are found in the near-biblical literature that in general has been used for two thousand years and is still used today. Yet, such verses within it are never referred to, the praise of the female divine figure is ignored, and the idea of such female deity or deity-figure is utterly lost, and forgotten, indeed would be called an “abomination” by the traditionally minded. Yet it is there, a strong loving description of a female divinity. Certainly within that piece of literature there are other references to Wisdom becoming a child of god, or created by him, or later, becoming merely the written Law or Torah. Yet, we have in front of us a certain piece of historical writing that tells us that at one time the Jewish people, or at least some of them, worshipped a goddess of creation who also was to be welcomed as teaching them all that was necessary to know about the world. In other passages it is made clear that she also dwells in human beings and is part of our own spirit.
In mainstream Christianity, which immediately followed the period of the Bock of Wisdom, this figure was still immensely powerful. So much so, that the Christian Fathers of the early church decreed that Wisdom was to be taken to be Jesus Christ, since Wisdom must be masculine, and the author of the prologue to the fourth gospel (John 1:1-18) makes this very clear. Other gospel writers (Matthew and Luke particularly) specifically state that Wisdom is Jesus Christ, and Paul in his various letters identified Christ as the Wisdom of God. 3
A corollary of the shift of gender, and the demotion of the female deity, was the demotion of women (Paul is an expert at this). Many feminist writers 4 have shown how nature was made to be considered inferior to ‘culture’ which was male-orientated; that ‘inferior’ women were identified with nature, and man was held to be created to ‘dominate’ both.
This contrasts bitterly with Wisdom’s vision of harmony within nature and of humans working with her. Further, where Wisdom called upon people to study ‘the cycles of the years and constellations of the Stars’ and so on, the Church moved man to the centre of the universe, and made the care of ‘his’ soul within the rule of the Church the only way to wisdom. Nature existed only to be ‘tortured for her secrets’ as a later Christian writer so tellingly put it 5. Hundreds of years passed this way, with nature being treated as a downtrodden servant; by the Renaissance, Galileo still was coerced by the Church to withdraw his observations on the nature of the universe since he demonstrated that ‘man’ was not its centre or pivot.
But Wisdom herself was not entirely lost and she inspired many women through the ages not to accept the prevailing oppression. An alternative strand ran behind the fabric of mainstream Christianity. This was Gnosticism in one form or another, sometimes called Hermeticism or the Hermetic Mysteries.
Frances Yates has given us much wonderful background material on this magical progression of alternative culture that goes right back to the Egypt of Pre-Christianity. 6
Today we can reclaim Wisdom, or Sophia, through study of the Gnostic documents that have been recovered from their long burial in Egypt’s sands. It is possible to see in the large number of documents, called the Nag Hammadi Library, a whole network, even tangle of beliefs that ran side by side with Judaism and Christianity over a very long period. Crucial to all types of Gnosticism was the acceptance of and belief in a female power, or the goddess named Sophia. Elaine Pagels 7 has discussed in detail the kind of Gnosticism of the Christian era that was attacked by the Christian fathers. She recalls that some of the material they objected to asked “Could Wisdom be the feminine power in which God’s creation was conceived?” or even “Wisdom was called the first universal creator”.
Pagels brings before us texts celebrating “the feminine powers of thought, intelligence, foresight” and quotes: “I am Protennoia, the Thought that dwells in the light; She who exists before All… I move in every creature…. I am the Invisible One before the All”. I want to draw attention to the phrase “I move in every creature”. This is central to the Wisdom Goddess, who is not separate as is God the creator, but part of us. Further, Protennoia says “I am the Voice, I speak within every creature. I am the real voice, I cry out in everyone and they know that a seed dwells therein”.
Further Pagels quotes from the documents to show that Sophia created herself: “She came to a high mountain and spent time seated there, so that she desired herself alone… she fulfilled her desire and became pregnant from her desire”.
In all these documents Wisdom (thought, knowledge) is female, is the creatrix, yet dwells with humans, is the source of their voice and the seed of their knowledge. When I first read this I was extremely moved because it was about the time a woman’s group I was in was bringing out a booklet of poetry based on the theme of woman’s silence, and asked “If women could speak, what language would they choose?”. We so long had been silent, the Voice within us has been cut off, the seeds of Her knowledge frustrated and withered. Today we can cry out in a new frenzy of creation.
Yet also within Gnosticism we see the seeds of Sophia’s takeover and downfall. Another scholar, Rose Arthur 8 analyses the Gnostic documents dealing with Wisdom and refers to the ‘varied roles’ of Sophia. She points out that “in some passages she is in a fallen state”. Indeed she became a “harlot”. Rose Arthur contrasts the differing material on Sophia, and it becomes obvious that the takeover by male supremacy was at work within Gnosticism.
Yet it is also said of her “through reflection without words her universal majesty was perfected”, giving her the tribute of creation through her own unuttered words (in contrast to the male god, who both in the Old and the New Testaments, created the world through his “word”).
There is much more that could be brought forward about the Wisdom Goddesses. But what I want to say refers to them all, and particularly becomes clear from the biblical quotations. Wisdom is the source of knowledge of all kinds – cosmic, magical, mysterious, poetic, healing, intuitive – all these: but also straight ‘out there’ knowledge, about the functioning of matter, medicine, astronomy, astrology, botany, meteorology and so on. This is knowledge that has been raped from women. Men have made it their Own, to such an extent that many women today will have nothing to do with it. So frustrated are they by the male takeover of knowledge and what men have done with it, that they return to what has been termed ‘women’s knowledge’ and have done with the intellectual. But as I have tried to show, all knowledge is woman’s knowledge; if we give away the objective and analytical part of our brains because male supremacy has convinced us there is nothing there for us, we have given away some of our Wisdom, our Sophia, our Hochmah. She is within us, as is Isis and Ma’at, Nisaba and Tiamat. We need to reclaim Wisdom, and Knowledge, not to shun it. We need to combine it with intuition, magic and inspiration as our foremothers did.
Alongside such a reclaiming, we reclaim the nature of harmony with the goddess of nature, and with the universe. Instead of the male domination of an ‘inferior’ element, we look again to our Mother Nature for guidance and we hope to serve her and live in harmony with Her. I see the reclamation of Wisdom/ Hochmah/ Sophia as the Thirteenth Hour, women’s time. If we can reclaim her and her wisdom and knowledge which includes how to live, like Ma’at in truth and harmony, then we shall avert the disaster brought about by male domination theories and practice. The Voice that cries out within us is Her Voice, and it is our Voice.
Isis says “I overcame Fate”. Our strength, our Wisdom can overcome the fate that stupid and evil men’s actions have prepared for us.
Notes and References
1) Frankfort H et al. The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man, (Chicago 1946 pp 132-133)
2) From 2nd century CE Hymn quoted in:
The Feminine Dimension of the Divine, Joan C Enqelsman (Philadelphia 1970, pp 64-65)
3) Matthew 11:19.& 23:24
Luke 7:35 & 11:49
1 Corinthians 1:24
4) Susan Griffin; Made from this earth (Womens Press, 1982)
5) Francis Bacon 1521-1626
6) Frances Yates; a variety of books
7) Elaine Pagels: The Gnostic Gospels (New York 1979, pp 54ff)
8) Rose H Arthur: The Wisdom Goddess (New York 1984)
A number of these books are available in English editions.
© Asphodel P. Long (Arachne 6, 1987)