SOPHIA, SOUL OF
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"But where shall understanding be found?"
I move with roaring, howling, and radiant might.
I move with the infinite and nature's powers.
I hold the love of the Lord of Lords. I hold
The fire of the soul. I hold life and healing.
- -Vak speaking of herself, Rg Veda
Who is this fierce immensity that is female, cosmic, who holds life love and healing? She speaks of herself through ancient poets and visionaries as Perfect Nature, as the Soul of the World, as the ancient goddesses of justice and natural law, and as Sophia, guardian angel of philosophy and teacher of men in the Wisdom literature of the Bible.
The word philosophy was coined by Pythagoras and comes from the Greek word philein (brotherly love) and sophia, wisdom. He was the first person to call himself a philosopher, which he defined as one who is attempting to find out. Before Pythagoras (6th c. BCE), wise men called themselves sages, meaning those who know. (Manly P. Hall, An Encyclopedic Outline of Masonic Hermetic Qabbalistic and Rosicrucian Philosophy, LXV).
Philosophers, poets and visionaries personified wisdom as a powerful female who nourished their spiritual imagination and philosophical insight: The heavenly Sophia is the philosopher's Angel, "his initiator and tutor, the object and secret of all philosophy, the dominant figure in the Sage's personal religion." She is the form of light, "conjoined with his star, which rules him and opens the doors of wisdom for him, teaches him what is difficult, reveals to him what is right, in sleeping as in waking." Socrates declared Perfect Nature to be the sun of the philosopher, the "original root of his being and at the same time the branch springing from him." (Majriti, "Goal of the Sage," quoted in Henry Corbin, The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism, 17)
Sophia personifies wisdom, the subject of ancient traditions concerned
with integrity in the marketplace, politics, and the royal court. In the Biblical
Wisdom literature, she teaches men that clear perception and discernment are more
important than gold. Because the teachings were rooted in life instead of doctrine
and spoken by a divine female, Sophia became problematical and excluded from the religious formulations
of monotheism. Sophia's exile from mainstream religion mirrors the alienation suffered by modern individuals who experience betrayal, abandonment, scapegoating, exclusion, and loss--of homeland or loved one.
the "person" in the word "philosophy," was named Sophia after the Greek word for
She was described in the five Biblical books classified as wisdom literature, written in the postexilic
period, from 500 B.C.E. on. Sophia is not only a teacher of men in these texts, but also co-creator of
the world. Sophia speaks about her identity, power and function and her mysterious presence with
God at creation in passages reminiscent of earlier speeches of wisdom goddesses found in sacred
texts in India, Egypt, and Sumeria.
eventually disappeared from the development of mainstream theological tradition
in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam because she was problematical. Being a "she"
did not fit into the increasingly
male-dominated religions that excluded the feminine in favor of an all-male god that creates everything.
Such a concept would be ludicrous for the earlier matrifocal societies who were well aware that the
source, bearer, and protector of newborn life is the woman, not the man.
For centuries, the frequent presence of Sophia in the Wisdom literature was a difficult issue for Biblical scholars attempting to account for her apparent divinity and role in creation:
Sophia was so
problematical for the translators and interpreters of the texts composing the
Testament that her development as a divine figure gradually disappeared from the main stage of Christianity, except in Russia.
She remained, however,
a vital force in religious visions, esoteric traditions, and schools of philosophy.
She appeared as two Sophias in gnosticism: the world soul and the embodied soul.
alchemy, as Sapientia she was the goal of the transformation process. In Persian Sufism, Sophia
inspired mystical devotion and poetry. Sophia is shown suckling two philosophers on a 12th century manuscript. She is depicted as the Queen of the Liberal Arts, which correspond to the seven planets
and are divided into the trivium and quadrivium. The basis of Western academic education was
based upon this organization until the 16th century.
Sophia was the central figure in the visionary philosophies of Jacob Boehme, Mother Anne Lee of the Shakers, Rudolph Steiner's Anthroposophical movement, and the 19th century Russian school of Sophiology represented by Vladimir Soloviev, Pavel Florensky, and Sergei Bulgakov.
Here is a selection of titles and interpretations of Sophia:
Sophia is especially intriguing for women, who, like Sophia, have been marginalized and excluded from leadership roles in Western society for thousands of years. She serves, therefore, as a metaphor for our own exile. The image of Sophia provides modern women with an image of female power that is not derived solely from reproduction, mothering, or the role of consort to a male god. It is focused rather on another aspect of the feminine archetype which is rarely if ever honored or even noticed today: the intelligence, guidance, direction, and cosmic power of the life force whose sparkling residue of treasures can be discerned in our own lives. This "path of crumbs" encourages women to direct their own life through recognition of the guidance present in circumstances. "Crumbs" does not mean insignificant; rather, they refer to the quiet messages that come to us, especially in times of upheaval and disintegration of relationships, that lead us home to the treasure of our own power and wisdom.
Sophia's path of understanding will resonate with all those women and men who perceive the danger and sterility of knowledge without wisdom; to those whose circumstances have left them in exile; and to modern women as they enter their rage against a world poisoned with greed, aggression, and exploitation of nature.
Dr. Damiani has written more about
Sophia in Sophia: Exile and Return, which is available from UMI.
Go to: www.umi.com
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go to "dissertation services" then to "dissertation express":
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You can search under the title Sophia: Exile and Return; or under Damiani, Kathleen; or under product
About the author:
Kathleen lives with her 2 sons near Ithaca, New York. She has an M.A. from Old Dominion University in Humanities and a Ph.D. in Humanities with a Specialization in Philosophy from Union Institute. She studied with Anthony Damiani (Astronoesis, Living Wisdom, Looking Into Mind, Standing in Your Own Way) at Wisdom's Goldenrod, Center for Philosophic Studies in Hector, NY, from 1971 to 1984. Kathleen says that her husband Paul, "shared my interest in observing subtle phenomena and in researching questions we generated about the mysteries of life and the shadow side of human groups." Over a decade of research into Sophia began with images that arose following Paul's death by fire in 1985. She has witnessed how the power of authentic questions about the meaning and purpose of life can radically transform an individual's life and that of society by disturbing the inertia of cultural conditioning.
You may contact Kathleen at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Essays by Kathleen Granville Damiani, Ph.D.
Sophia was present with God at the creation of the world:
Yahweh created me when his purpose first unfolded,
Before the oldest of his works.
From everlasting I was firmly set,
From the beginning, before earth came into being.
. . . When he fixed the heavens firm, I was there,
when he drew a ring on the surface of the deep,
when he thickened the clouds above,
when he fixed fast the springs of the deep,
when he assigned the sea its boundaries
--and the waters will not invade the shore--
when he laid down the foundations of the earth,
I was by his side, a master architect/counselor/ builder,
delighting him day after day,
ever at play in his presence,
at play everywhere in his world. . .
With you is Wisdom,
she who knows your works,
she who was present when you made the world; . . .
Some of Sophia's speeches are nearly identical to those of earlier wisdom goddesses found in Egypt, India, Greece, and Syria.
Alone I encircled the vault of the sky,
And I walked on the bottom of the deeps.
Over the waves of the sea and over the whole earth,
And over every people and nation I have held sway.
In the beginning I bring forth the Father.
My source is in the waters’ ocean deep.
From there I move out toward every creature.
And with my stature I reach the sky above.
--Vak, Rg Veda
I give and ordained laws for men, which no one is able to change. . .
I divided the earth from the heaven. . .
I order the course of the sun and the moon. . .
I made strong the right. . .
I assigned to Greeks and barbarians their language. . .
I established penalties for those who practice injustice.
--Isis, Praises of Isis
The Thunder Perfect Mind
For 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 silence that is incomprehensible
And the idea whose remembrance is frequent.
I am the voice whose sound is manifold
And the word whose appearance is multiple.
I am the utterance of my name. . . .
I am the hearing that is attainable to everything;
I am the speech that cannot be grasped.
I am the name of the sound
And the sound of the name.
I am the sign of the letter
and the designation of the division. . . .
--Gnostic Sophia, Nag Hammadi Library
The Biblical Sophia teaches men to seek wisdom instead of money. The wisdom that she personifies is not about facts and figures and concepts, but rather, refers to a standard of justice and use of power that lies outside the manipulations and agendas of men.
Take my instruction instead of silver,
and knowledge rather than choice gold;
For wisdom is better than jewels,
and all that you may desire cannot compare with her.
I, wisdom, dwell in prudence,
and I find knowledge and discretion.
. . . By me kings reign,
and rulers decree what is just,
by me princes rule,
and nobles govern the earth.
I love those who love me,
and those who seek me diligently find me."
The wisdom literature does not threaten us with rules, dogma, and institutional agendas. The teachings encourage us to cultivate our own inner discernment, or clear perception; and we are guaranteed the ultimate security--Sophia's protection:
Listen my children, to a father's instruction:
Pay attention, and learn what clear perception is. . .
Acquire Sophia, acquire perception;
Never forget her, . . . do not desert her, she will keep you safe,
Love her, she will watch over you.
Sophia does not restrict her teaching to a temple, religious group, or to the intellectual or priestly/rabbinic class. Her teaching occurs in the street, at the city gate and marketplace, where politics and commerce take place, where integrity and wisdom are most needed to insure justice and the future well-being of the people:
Wisdom cries aloud in the street;
In the markets she raises her voice;
On the top of the walls she cries out;
At the entrance of the city gates she speaks.
"How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?
Ho long will scoffers delight in their scoffing
And fools hate knowledge?"
Essays by Kathleen Granville Damiani, Ph.D.
Earlier Wisdom Goddesses
Sophia is similar to the great goddesses of the ancient Near East: Maat, Themis, Isis, Demeter-Persephone, Athena. At one time, long before the priesthood inserted itself as indispensable for individual access to the sacred, the Great Goddess during the Neolithic era served the human psyche as an image of the Whole. Wisdom was one aspect of the Great Goddess. Various goddesses personified wisdom centuries before Sophia entered the religious literature of Judaism: Nammu and Inanna in Sumeria, Maat and Isis in Egypt, and Athena and Demeter in Greece.
Maat was the central figure of the Egyptian wisdom teachings. Maat is usually translated as justice, law, or primeval order. It was more important to "keep" Maat than to worship her. Like Sophia in Proverbs, she was created before the world and it was through her that creation came about. She "came down to men at 'the beginning of time.' When a person died, her soul went to the Hall of Judgment where it would plead its case before the jurors--Isis, Osiris, and Maat, goddess of justice, blindfolded. If the soul had failed to "keep Maat" it was thrown to a horrid crocodile-hog called Typhon, symbolizing rebirth into the material world. The wisdom teachings which Maat personified focused on the value, significance, and beauty of all of life--not just sacred texts and temple worship. The following passage, called a "sboyet," or instruction, is an example of a wisdom teaching from a sage to his son. It was composed by a vizier of King Issi around 2400 B.C.E.
Thou canst learn something from every one. Be not arrogant because of thy knowledge, and have no confidence in that thou art a learned man. Take counsel with the ignorant as with the wise, for the limits of art cannot be reached, and no artist fully possesseth his skill. A good discourse is more hidden than the precious green stone, and yet it is found with slave-girls over the mill-stones. (Erman's note about slave-girls: meaning the poorest of the poor). (Adolph Erman, The Ancient Egyptians, 56)
Similar to Maat, the Greek Themis also represented order and conscience, but now it was social conscience, not natural order. Themis was the mother of Dike, who was natural order. But Jane Harrison, in her masterpiece of original insight into the origin of religion, Themis, makes the point that social structure in no way could give birth to the natural order, unless it was human conception of that natural order. She goes on to say that in totemistic and animistic societies, natural and social order are not distinguished at all. Plants and animals are a necessary part of human social structure. A person believes that by following certain rites that crops will grow or that one's totem animal or plant will cause the family group to thrive. There is an interdependence and reciprocity between the natural world and the social world. (Harrison 1966, 533-4) In Homer, Themis has two functions: she both convenes and dissolves the assembly; in this, she is above even Zeus. Harrison says of Themis: "Here the social fact is trembling on the very verge of godhead. She is the force that brings and binds men together, she is 'herd instinct,' the collective conscience, the social sanction. She is fas, the social imperative. . . . Themis . . . is not religion, but she is the stuff of which religion is made. It is the emphasis and representation of herd instinct, of the collective conscience, that constitutes religion." (Harrison, Themis, 485, emphasis mine) What Harrison is saying is simple, but chilling: Themis personifies whatever values the society has; she is social mores and conventions that eventually become binding as the law of the land. Harrison also notes that at Trozen, there was an altar to the Themides; out of many themistes arose one Themis. The plural refers to the fact that there are many public opinions, many judgments. The Greek word Themis and the English word Doom are one and the same. Doom is whatever is fixed and settled. "Your private doom is your private opinion, but that is weak and ineffective. It is the collective doom, public opinion, that, for man's common convenience, crystallizes into Law. Themis like Doom begins on earth and ends in heaven." (Harrison, Themis, 483)
Isis was considered to be the greatest goddess in Egypt, worshipped from before 3000 B.C.E. to the second century of the common era. Her cult spread to Greece, Europe, and Great Britain. She is depicted with her brother-husband Osiris in hieroglyphs on very ancient tombs. Isis is associated with the dog star Sirius. She is the eye of Re, the sun god, and rules over the deepest mysteries of life--fate and death. She took on many of the attributes of Maat after the third century B.C.E. In one of her speeches, she says of herself:
"I am Isis, mistress of the whole land: I was instructed by Hermes, and with Hermes I invented the writings of the nations, in order that not all should write with the same letters. I gave mankind their laws, and ordained what no one can alter. I am the eldest daughter of Kronos. I am the wife and sister of the king Osiris. I am she who rises in the dog star. I am she who is called the goddess of women. I am she who separated the heaven from the earth. I have pointed out their paths to the stars. I have invented seamanship. I have brought together men and women. . . . I have made justice more powerful than silver and gold. I have caused truth to be considered beautiful. . . . I divided the earth from the heaven . . . I order the course of the sun and the moon . . . I made strong the right . . . I assigned to Greeks and barbarians their language . . . I established penalties for those who practice injustice. ("Praises of Isis")
Isis personifies the life force and the living mystery of Nature. She is the essence of the four elements, from which all things come into being. She circulates the elements and carries with her the "sacred fire" which perfects, digests, and revitalizes bodies. She steers the bark of life, full of trouble and misery, on the stormy ocean of Time. According to Plutarch, Isis both "spins and cuts the thread of Life."
She is called "Lady of Life" and is portrayed holding the sacred ankh, symbol of life. Several of her titles refer to her powers of healing. She also holds a sistrum. According to Plutarch, the sistrum is a symbol of nature's agitation that restores vitality to life that has become stale or frozen. The sistrum:
is designed to represent to us, that every thing must be kept in continual agitation, and never cease from motion; that they ought to be roused and well-shaken, whenever they begin to grow drowsy as it were, and to droop in their motion. For say they, the sound of these sistra averts and drives away Typho; meaning hereby, that as corruption clogs and puts a stop to the regular course of nature; so generation, by the means of motion, loosens it again, and restores it to its former vigour. (Manly P. Hall, The Secret Teachings of All Ages, XLVI)
Isis' wisdom was not abstract, but had to do with magic. A legend tells about her power to gain the knowledge of the secret name of Re, the sun god and creator. According to the myth, Re grew very old. His mouth would shake and he drooled. His spit fell on the ground. Isis gathered the spit and mixed it with some earth and formed it into a snake. Then she placed the snake on the path where Re walked. The snake bit Re and he fell ill. All the gods and goddesses came to pity him, including Isis. She offered to cure him with her wisdom and magic art if he would reveal his secret name. He gave her a long list of phony names, but she wasn't fooled. Finally, to keep from dying, Re had to whisper his real name in her ear so only she could hear. Then she cured him, restoring his vitality.
Isis was called the "Black One" because of her association with fate and the mysteries of death. The ancient name for Egypt was "Kemi," which translates "Black Earth." The Arabs called Egypt "Al-Kemi" and the ancient art of alchemy practiced in the ancient Near East and medieval Europe was probably derived from this name. Carl Jung describes the blackness of Isis and in this passage, relates her identity to Sophia:
The cognomen of Isis was . . .the Black One. Apuleius stresses the blackness of her robe . . . and since ancient times she was reputed to possess the elixir of life as well as being adept in sundry magical arts. She was also called the Old One, and she was rated a pupil of Hermes, or even his daughter. She appears as a teacher of alchemy . . . She signifies earth, according to Firmicus Maternus, and was equated with Sophia . . . She is . . . the vessel and the matter of good and evil. She is the moon . . ."the One, who art All." (Carl Jung, Collected Works Vol.14, 14-15)
The wisdom of Isis contains the creator god in the sense that the gods come into power, wane, and die. Isis is the knowledge that the god doesn't know: that his source is his own people and ancestors that projected him into existence as the symbol of the creative power of life. Without the life of nature that flows as the life force within the individuals of his kingdom, he would not be. When he loses power, the Queen of life has to remind him whom he serves and from whence he derives his power: the human, natural world. Isis' wisdom is natural magic. She performs her tricks much like a shaman or witch doctor, who heal but also concoct poisons. Isis makes the poison and she holds the cure.
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Essays by Kathleen Granville Damiani, Ph.D.