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:
Thou art a Sophia. Thou art a Gnosis. Thou art truth. Because of thee, there is life. Life is from thee. Because of thee, there is mind... Thou art a cosmos of truth. Thou art a triple power... [Arthur, 166]
The Sethian Gnostics said that this trinity was made up of Light, Breath, and Darkness. The Peratae had it as Father, Son and Matter, with the Son mediating between the exalted Father and a passive female principle. [Philosophumena, in Doresse, 52, 50]
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:
I am the first and the last
I am the honored one and the scorned one
I am the whore and the holy one
I am the wife and the virgin
I am the mother and the daughter
I am the members of my mother
I am the barren one, and many are her sons....
I am the silence that is incomprehensible
And the idea whose remembrance is frequent
And the word whose appearance is multiple
I am the utterance of my name.
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 reedited 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 reassertation 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. Thei 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; there 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:
I am that supreme and fiery force that sends forth all living sparks. Death hath no part in me, yet I bestow death, wherefore I am girt about with Wisdom as with wings. I am that living and fiery essence of the divine substance that glows in the beauty of the fields, and in the shining water, and in the burning sun and the moon and the stars, and in the force of the invisible wind, the breath of all living things, I breathe in the green grass and the flowers, and in the living waters...
[Book of Divine Works, circa 1167, in Partnow, The Quotable Woman, 48]
By Max Dashu
Posted with permission from Suppressed Histories
Painting by Elisabeth Slettnes