Khokhmah and Sophia
The ancient Hebrew name for Wisdom is Khokhmah, a feminine noun. In Jewish scripture, it was Khokhmah who personified the female Divine. She is understood as an emanation of God, yet she resonates with the Hebrew Goddess who is otherwise assailed in the Bible, especially Asherah, she of the sacred Tree. Proverbs 3:18 calls up an image of Khokhmah that originates in the oldest core of Jewish culture: “She is a Tree of Life to all who lay hold of her.”
In the same book, Khokhmah sings, “The one who finds me, finds life.” Like the goddess Asherah, regarded as the partner of Yahweh by the ancient Hebrews, Khokhmah is linked to the pillar. “My throne was in the pillar of cloud,” she declares in Ben Sirach (24:4). In Proverbs 9:1 she builds a house of seven pillars.
Asphodel Long’s book A Chariot Drawn by Lions offers profound insights into the survival of the Hebrew Goddess. She points out that Wisdom is another form of the Shekhinah, the divine Presence. Both are “expressed in light and glory,” both involved in creation, enthroned in heaven, intermediaries between god and the world, ascending and descending, and winged.
The Book of Wisdom of Solomon, written by Alexandrian Jews in the Hellenistic era, renames Khokhmah as Sophia, the Greek word for Wisdom. In this text, as Long points out, Sophia “takes over the powers and function of God” and the creation story is told using the word “she.” The ancient author is careful to qualify this audacity by describing Wisdom as God’s breath and emanation, but still praises her at length in her own right as “holy” and “all-powerful”:
Another beautiful passage likens Wisdom to “a flame of stars through the night.” [Allegro, 171] The praise-names in the Book of Wisdom of Solomon resonate deeply with those in the goddess litanies of India. The most celebrated of these is the Sri Lalitaa Sahasranama, an invocation of Goddess under a thousand names, including Intelligence, Holy, Unique, Multiformed, Subtle, Pure, Beyond All Danger, Loving the Good, Beneficence, Steady, Without Anxiety, Great Power, and All-Pervasive.
Long’s illuminating exegesis of the Alexandrian Wisdom litany brings forward the little-known fact that the Greek name monogenes (“unique, singly born”) began as a title of female divinities. It originates in a Kemetic title of Neit, Hathor and Isis: “self-born, self-produced,” and later appears in Orphic hymns to Demeter, Persephone and Athena. Christians subsequently applied it to Yeshua of Nazareth who was cast as the “only-begotten son” of god. [Long, 49]
In late antiquity other titles arose in the Judaic tradition: Shekhinah (Divine Presence) and Matronit (the Mother). Kabbalists redefined Khokhmah as a masculine power, and assigned Binah (Understanding) to the feminine sphere. Torah became to some extent a personification of Wisdom, and Jews in many countries invited Shabbat to enter their homes as the bride of god and the essence of peace and joy.
There is not room here to enter the Egyptian Stream of Wisdom, but what follows can only be understood in the light of the veneration of Auset, known in Hellenistic culture as Isis. This goddess had come to be worshipped beyond the borders of Egypt, first in west Asia and north Africa, then in Europe. Isis aretalogies (praise-songs based on the affirmation “I am”) emphasize creative Wisdom as one of her divine qualities:
The pagan priest Plutarch agreed that Isis was the same as Sophia, creator of all. [Allegro, 157] Pagan mystery religions equated Isis with Demeter, Kybele, Juno Caelestis, Bona Dea, Tyche and other Mediterranean goddesses, mixing their attributes and titles. Isis was sculptured wearing the mural crown of the Asian goddess Tyche and holding the cornucopia of the Italian Fortuna and Terra Mater. (These statuettes have been found in distant Kazakhstan and Pakistan.) Multitudes of molded figurines of Isis seated on the basket of the Eleusinian Mysteries were mass-produced for home altars within Egypt itself.
Most of these Hellenized terracotta statuettes shrink the horned solar crown of the ancient Kemetic goddess and flank it with ears of wheat, assimilating her to Demeter in a historical double rebound. The Knot of Isis that was for millennia tied around her belly moves up to her breast in a tied Grecian shawl. Other terracottas show Isis Baubo with skirts pulled up around her hips and legs opened wide. Still others look to the headwaters of the Nile, as the goddess Besit, linked to the BaTwa peoples, socalled “pygmies,” or perhaps to other little people (“dwarves”).
In the midst of this syncretism, many Isis terracottas retain the Egyptian convention showing her suckling her son (now represented as a sketchy afterthought). She also appears as Isis Bubastis — Ermouthis to the Greeks — with the lower part of her body in the form of a snake. This form of Isis has turned up as far east as Iraq.
Some Egyptian Jews engaged in ecstatic forms of worship. Philo wrote that the Therapeutae (“healers”) became “transported by divine enthusiasm.” They danced and sang hymns in harmonies and antiphonies, women with women and men with men. Then, says Philo, they feasted and drank wine, and at last all joined together in one assembly:
The Gnostic Goddess
The syncretism of Judaic, Egyptian, Hellenistic and Persian traditions gave rise to Gnosticism, a name which arose directly from an emphasis on inner knowing. Until the discovery of the Nag Hammadi scrolls, what was known of the Gnostics came mostly from their sworn enemies, the institutional clergy. When church patriarchs selected the books that became the canonical christian bible, they rejected some of the earliest texts, Gnostic scriptures. Among these excluded scriptures were writings that pictured Wisdom as a divine, creative female presence.
The Goddess was still well-loved in Egypt, whose ancient religion exerted a tremendous influence on early Gnostic philosophy. The Gospel of Thomas retains an invocation from ancient litanies of Auset: “Come, lady revealing hidden secrets…” Aretalogies of Isis made their way into several Gnostic scriptures, as Great Isis continued to be syncretized with Judaic wisdom traditions of Khokhmah under Hellenistic names.
The Gnostic scripture Eugnostos the Blessed hails “the all-wise Sophia, Genetrix.” It was she, says the Origin of the World, who “created great luminaries and all of the stars and placed them in the heaven so that they should shine upon the earth.” This Gnostic passage echoes the Isis Aretalogy of Cyme: “I divided earth from heaven, I created the ways of the stars…”
Other Egyptian Gnostic texts name the Divine Female as Ennoia (Thought), Pronoia (Forethought) or Protennoia (Primal Thought), Pistis (Faith), Sige (Silence), Eidea (Image, Idea), or Charis (Grace). These titles are often used interchangeably with Sophia. Several texts address the goddess as Arche (“beginning”), following the Hebraic representation of Wisdom as Reshiit in the Palestinian Targum and the Samaritan Liturgy. [Arthur, 65, 55, 61; Long, 87ff]
The early Egyptian Gnostics embraced the Wisdom goddess as a power higher than the god who created the world. A Greek-Coptic text named Origin of the World reworks Genesis to show the Goddess taking part in creation, and restores Eve to her primordial sacred status as the Mother of All Living. In a section known as the “Eve intrusion,” Sophia creates “the Living-Eva, that is, the Instructress of Life.” This androgynous being takes form according to the image of the Mother, and proclaims her identity with her. She assumes titles of Isis, such as “consoler of the labor pains.” [Arthur, 99, 117, 131]
This book calls Eve “the mother of the living,” a title that goes back to the earliest Hebrew roots, and even further, to the Sumerian goddess Ninti. In this telling, it is Eve who gives life to Adam. The archons beheld Eve and compared her to Sophia, “the likeness which appeared to us in the light.” They plotted to rape and “pollute” Eve, and to cast Adam into a sleep, teaching him that she came into being from his rib “so that the woman will serve and he will rule over her.” But Life/Eve laughed at their scheming, darkened their eyes and left her likeness beside Adam. “She entered the tree of knowledge, and remained there. She revealed to them that she had entered the tree and become tree.” The archons ran away in fear, but later came back and defiled Eve’s likeness. “And they were deceived, not knowing that they had defiled their own bodies.” [Young, 54; Arthur, 207]
A Nag Hammadi scroll called the Testimony of Truth deifies the wise Serpent who counsels Eve to eat the fruit of knowledge: “On the day when you eat from the tree which is in the midst of Paradise, the eyes of your mind will be opened.” The scroll’s author points out that god’s threat of immediate death didn’t come true, but the Serpent’s promise of knowledge did. He calls the god of Genesis “a malicious envier” who begrudged humans the power of knowing. This theme of an imperfect creator god recurs in other Gnostic texts. Sophia rebukes this god as a liar and fool when he, unaware of her role in creation, claims sole divinity.
Another form of the syncretic Egyptian Gnostic goddess is the mysterious Barbelo. Presented as an emanation of god, she resembles Khokhmah. But christian Egyptian texts refer to Mother Barbelo as part of a trinity, along with the Father and Son. The Barbelo literature’s attempts to reconcile conflicting traditions result in contradictions. The Gospel of the Egyptians says that Barbelo originated from herself, as the ancients had said of Neit, Mother of the Gods. But the Three Stelas of Seth present her as “the first shadow of the holy Father,” who had existed before her. It addresses her with feminine pronouns, but paradoxically praises her as “the male virginal Barbelo.”[Arthur, 165-6] A later passage reverts to goddess imagery:
However, the Trimorphic Protennoia exalts “Barbelo, the perfect glory,” from whose thought originated the trinity of Father, Mother, Son. This scroll contains an aretalogy that unambiguously praises the goddess Protennoia as the origin: “I am Primal Thought that dwells in the Light… she who exists before the All… I move in every creature… I am the Invisible One within the All.”[Pagels, 55; Long, 92-3] Her divinity is immeasurable, ineffable and radiant. [Arthur, 168]
The Apochryphon of John contains another aretalogy of “the perfect Pronoia (forethought) of the universe,” who was “the first.” She wandered in the great darkness, “into the midst of the prison,” even into the depths of the underworld. She represents “the light which exists in light.” But this christian text compared “sister Sophia” unfavorably to Barbelo. A splintering of Gnostic goddess images was underway. They were being subordinated to “the Father,” and those not firmly partnered to a male god disparaged. The derivative Gnostic aretalogies reflect an emerging concept of the “fallen” goddess.
The longest Gnostic aretalogy appears in Thunder, Perfect Mind (originally titled The Divine Barbelo). It follows the form of the old Isis litanies: “I am the wisdom of the Greeks / And the knowledge of the barbarians / I am one whose image is great in Egypt…” Unlike the aretalogies, however, Thunder is marked by dualism, pairing negatives—“ignorance… shame… fear”—with Barbelo’s divine qualities. [Arthur, 164, 175] Still, it contains verse of remarkable beauty and profundity:
Though Sophia is prominent in the Gnostic creation accounts, she was being stripped of the radiant holiness the Egyptians attributed to Isis and the Hebrews to Khokhmah. In her ground-breaking and all-too-little-known study The Wisdom Goddess, Rose Arthur shows how the positive view of Sophia in the early, pre-Christian scriptures was gradually broken down and degraded by a masculinizing, Christianizing movement that emphasized a “fallen Sophia.”
Arthur demonstrates that the older texts were consistently re-edited to reduce and subordinate female divinity, while exalting the male god. The Hypostasis of the Archons is no more than “a Christianized, patriarchalized and defeminized summary of On the Origin of the World.” It blatantly substitutes the christian god for the Gnostic goddess. For example, the line “But all this came to pass according to the Pronoia of Pistis” becomes “But all these things came to pass in the Will of the Father of the All.”
The pre-Christian scripture Eugnostos the Blessed was revamped as the Sophia Jesu Christi, in which Sophia rebels against the “Father of the Universe,” repents of her fault, and is saved by her male partner, Jesus Christ. The revisionist text repeatedly refers to the “fault of the woman.” The same process was at work in the Pistis Sophia, where the fallen Sophia is made to sing thirteen hymns of repentence before Jesus helps her to regain the spiritual heights.
These new patriarchal discourses still had to contend with a deep-rooted conviction in the Goddess as the ultimate source of life. Even hostile writers acknowledge that Sophia gives the breath of life to Adam, though they show this happening indirectly. But they view the material creation as evil, imprisoning the souls who live in it. Often Sophia herself is shown falling into bondage.
In one Gnostic myth, Sophia was made prisoner by the seven archons. The essence of Wisdom made flesh in female form was subjected to every indignity, including being forced into whoredom. In one version, Simon Magus rescues “Helena” from a brothel in Tyre. But in actuality she is the creator of the angels who made the world. She is called Kyria, Lady, a Greek term corresponding to the christian god’s title Kyrios. [Allegro, 141-5] These stories don’t refer to idealized notions of sacred harlots making love in freedom, but to female degradation in the prison-brothels of the Roman empire. While they may be taken as an affirmation of the presence of the sacred within the enslaved women, they also demark a clear demotion of the Wisdom goddess, who has lost her original sovereign power.
The earlier view of Goddess as the supreme Source, or alternatively as a male god’s perfect partner, now gave way to the idea that she was a lower being in need of pardon and salvation. New authors developed themes of a deluded and foolish Sophia (contradicting the very meaning of her name, “Wisdom”). They accuse of her of breaking cosmic law by creating without a male partner and describe her creation as defective. [Couliano, 78-9]
While these writers blamed Sophia for conceiving alone, they praise the male god for creating without a partner. In their tellings, Sophia he is cast down and made to suffer and repent until a superior male god deigns to “correct her deficiency.” As Sophia is mythically overthrown, other female figures pick up aspects of her power, but the force of the Gnostic Wisdom goddess is almost spent.
Under the oppressive climate of the Roman empire, with its heavy taxation, displaced populations, urban crowding, plagues, slave economy, and arena executions, to say nothing of pervasive violence against women, a profound negativity had seeped into religious consciousness. People felt like prisoners in the world, and a conviction arose that creation itself was flawed. The taint reached back to the Goddess herself, since she manifested herself in matter, in birth, in bodies.
This new doctrine identifying the female with bondage, weakness, inferiority and fault was the final means of overthrowing the Goddess Mysteries in the Mediterranean. The process was erratic. Judaic Wisdom mysticism, so influential in early Gnosticism, exalted the creative power of Khokhmah, and held that creation was good, even though the female is formally subordinated to the male throughout the Bible. But increasingly Gnostics gravitated toward an “value-inversion,” not only revolting against the Biblical god, but rejecting all creation as well.
Although Gnostics were strongly influenced by Judaism, which features Wisdom as a co-creator, many of their writings evince a strong animus against it. Some emphasize the female creative principle, while others, especially the later texts, demote her. Much of Gnostic scripture reinterprets the biblical creation story, making Yahweh (cast as Ialdabaoth or Saklas or Authades) junior to the creating Wisdom goddess, unaware of her presence but working with her light. Possibly this theme originated as a re-assertation of the Goddess (especially she of ten-thousand-names in Egypt) whose scattered signatures are visible in the Gnostic amalgam of Hellenistic, Judaic and Persian cosmologies. Some of these accounts can be read as a defense of her divinity and creative power as against the increasingly influential concept of a masculine god as sole creator.
But the syncretic Goddess of late antiquity was gradually subjected to heavy-handed reinterpretation as Gnostics embraced a heavily polarized doctrine of dualism. Their rejection of the “lower” world ended up dragging down the Goddess in the midst of its attack on Judaism. It demanded rejection of the body, of lovemaking and the ancient birth mysteries: of Earth and Nature herself. New christian doctrines stripped Sophia of her divine qualities, dramatically subordinating her to the Father and to Christ as her male partner and savior. Later writers dropped the name Sophia altogether. Some introduce new names, but the visible trend is away from myths exalting a creatrix.
The variant picture of the Gnostic scriptures reflects an intense campaign to beat down goddess veneration and to split body and spirit. The tension is more open in the Gnostic gospels precisely because the female divinity is still powerful, in contrast to the Christian canon. It was in Egypt and other centers of the Mysteries that the last stand for open Goddess worship was fought — and ultimately lost — on the battleground of Gnosticism.
Eradicating the Goddess proved to be an impossible task. She survived in myriads of forms in popular belief, veiled as Mary or Christian saints. The Virgin Mary occupied a much less powerful position in church doctrine and scriptures than the old pagan Goddess. Folk tradition is another story; their devotion shifted to Mary from the old goddesses and persisted over centuries as new ethnicities entered Christendom. Due to this popular pressure and the role it played in the clergy’s conversion strategy, Mary escaped the degradation that Gnostic christians ended up heaping on Sophia, and the stigma that theologians cast over Eve. Catholicism ended up absorbing goddess traditions over the centuries, through progressive engorgements, while Gnosticism gradually shed them.
But the story of Sophia does not end there. Her Greek worshippers succeeded in assimilating her to Orthodox Christianity, as Hagia Sophia. The greatest cathedral of the Byzantines was raised in honor of this “Holy Wisdom,” supported by the great porphyry pillars taken from the Ephesian temple of Artemis. The early Orthodox Greeks regarded Hagia Sophia as a female member of the Trinity, the “Holy Spirit.” This strand persisted in Orthodox Christian mysticism, and is still a force in Russian spirituality. Western Christian feminists have also reclaimed it in recent decades.
This title of “Holy Spirit” also belonged to Ruha d’Qudsha, the goddess of the Iraqi Mandaeans. She had been demonized by the Christian era, but she is an Aramaean analogue to the Hebrew Shekhinah: compare Biblical ruach, “spirit” and qadoshah, “holy,” and remember, too, the ancient Canaanite-Egyptian goddess QDSU or Qudsha. The Aramaean goddess undergoes the same debasement in Syria and northern Iraq as Sophia had in the eastern Mediterranean. Ruha d’Qudsha, as mother of the “evil” planets and zodiac spirits, is another fallen, or rather toppled, goddess. She is called deficient and defective, and must be uplifted and guided by the Father.
The Torah uses the word “hovering,” as with beating wings, to describe the divine Presence that Talmudic writers had begun to call the Shekhinah. Her image resonates with the ancient veneration of doves as sacred to Canaanite, Syrian, and Cypriot goddesses. Christians adopted this imagery, picturing the Holy Spirit as a winged radiance and a hovering dove. She flutters above Mary in innumerable scenes of the Annunciation, and above the consecrated chalice and bread.
As for Khokhmah, she remained a presence within the Hebrew Scriptures. Thousands of years after her praises were embedded in the Book of Proverbs, medieval Christian mystics were attracted to this female image of Wisdom. Hildegarde of Bingen knew her as Sophia, Scientia Dei, and Sapientia of the seven pillars. One of her manuscripts even shows her wearing the mural crown of the ancient goddess of Asia Minor. Hildegarde’s profoundly animistic poetry sings the praises of Life endowed with Wisdom, as a goddess in all but name:
Copyright 2000 Max Dashu.
This article was originally published as chapter III of Streams of Wisdom