SOPHIA (HOKHMAH) AND WHERE SHE CAME FROM

by contemplativeinquiry

In my understanding, Sophia has walked with us on a long cultural journey. We first discover her paradoxically placed within monotheist and patriarchal Judaism. She is named Hokhmah, which like the Greek Sophia translates into English as Wisdom. Her subsequent journey has often been through difficult and dangerous territory in the apparent world. It always marks a drive to awaken from toxic and delusional ‘realities’ and it has sometimes had a markedly pessimistic tone. This journey continues into our own times, and with it Sophia’s gift for what the old Gnostics called ‘continuous revelation’: “I will again make instruction shine forth like the dawn, and I will make it clear from far away. I will again pour out teaching like prophecy, and leave it to all future generations. Observe that I have not laboured for myself alone, but for all who seek wisdom”. (1)

Anne Baring and Jules Cashford point out (2) that although Wisdom in Jewish sacred literature was technically an abstract and transcendent quality, associated with the divine, it was always referred to as ‘she’, though without any image to support the personification. However the poetry of Hokhmah reveals her emergence from the earlier Great Mother. Wisdom speaks as Inanna and Isis spoke before her, powerfully, authoritatively and sensuously, making abundant use of natural imagery to come into full presence.

I grew tall like a cedar in Lebanon,

And like a cypress on the heights of Hermon.

I grew tall like a palm tree in Engedi.

And like rose bushes in Jericho;

Like a fair olive tree in the field,

And like a plane tree beside water I grew tall.

Like cassia and camel’s thorn I gave forth perfume,

And like choice myrrh I spread my fragrance,

Like galbanum, onycha, and stacte,

And like the odour of incense in the tent.

Like a terebinth I spread out my branches,

And my branches are glorious and graceful.

Like the vine I bud forth delights,

And my blossoms become glorious and abundant fruit.

Come to me, you who desire me

And eat your fill of my fruits.

For the memory of me is sweeter than honey,

And the possession of me sweeter than the honeycomb.

Those who eat of me will hunger for more,

And those who drink of me will thirst for more,

Whoever obeys me will not be put to shame,

And those who work with me will not sin. (1)

Baring and Cashford suggest that the greatest legacy of the goddess culture in the eastern Mediterranean is “the idea that the earthly, visible order of creation participates in the invisible source of being”. This is the foundation of the Wisdom traditions of Mesopotamia and Egypt, some 2,000 years older than Greek or Hebrew civilisation. “In Greece, whose great philosophers visited Egypt, it is the foundation of Plato’s Great Chain of Being. Israel’s own ‘Wisdom Teaching’ is woven with the thread of these older traditions, although the name, person and representation of the goddess could find no place” (2).

I am drawn to Sophia because for me she is fully in and of nature yet not locked in to the role of earth mother. She stands for every part of Plato’s chain: matter, life, mind – soul and spirit too if you want to make further distinctions.  She doesn’t stand for a dream of bliss within the womb, or in an over-managed garden. Reading the old Jewish myths through a Gnostic lens she, under the name of Eve, puts a stop to all that. She will not accept a reign of ignorance and false consciousness. Sophia stands for awareness, which includes a willingness to see the world as clearly as possible and a capacity to hold and manage a measure of self-aware suffering. In my universe Sophia is pneuma, the very breath and spirit of awakened and relational life, and as such she represents the energies of creativity and love as well as of wisdom. For none of these fully blooms without the others.

  1. Ecclesiasticus, or the Wisdom of Jesus Son of Sirach 24, 13-32,The Apocrypha: the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books of the Old Testament, New Revised Standard Version Cambridge, England: The University Press, 1992
  2. Baring Anne and Cashford Jules The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image London, England: Penguin, Arkana Books, 1993
Advertisements