The Gnostic Goddess, Female Power, and the Fallen Sophia

© 2014 Max Dashú



Secret History of the Witches (forthcoming)

Serpent of Eden as a Goddess. Michaelangelo, Sistine Chapel

Below is more background on the Judaic and Kemetic forms of Wisdom (openly revered as a goddess in Egypt, more symbolically female in Judaea) that contributed so much to the syncretic Gnostic cosmologies discussed in the excerpt above.

Khokhmah, Isis, 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”:

For in her there is a spirit that is intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, subtle;
mobile, clear, unpolluted, distinct, invulnerable, loving the good, keen, irresistible,
Beneficent, human, steadfast, sure, free from anxiety, all-powerful,
overseeing all and penetrating through all spirits that are intelligent and pure and most subtle.
For wisdom is more mobile than any motion; because of her pureness she pervades and penetrates all things
. [Long, 46-7]

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:

I am Isis, mistress of every land
I laid down laws for humanity and ordained things that no one may change...
I divided the earth from the heavens
I made manifest the paths of the stars
I prescribed the course of the sun and moon
I found out the labors of the sea
I made justice mighty...

Aretalogy of Isis from Cyme, circa 200 CE [Drinker, 114]

A syncretic ferment of Egyptian, Greek and Hebrew traditions occurred in Alexandria and the eastern Mediterranean during the Roman empire. Jewish writers appear to have initiated a Greek series of Oracula Sibillina which begin to appear around 150 BCE. Philo Judaeus of Alexandria identified Sophia as Mother of the divine Logos and as Isis, mother of Horus. But Philo followed Biblical tradition in according primacy to the father-god as creator, treating the divine mother—Sophia — as his attribute or emanation. Nevertheless, he described this god as the husband of Wisdom. [Long, 46, 162; Patai, 98]

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:

Perfectly beautiful are their motions, perfectly beautiful their discourse; grave and solemn are these carollers; and the final aim of their motions, their discourse, and their choral dances is piety. [Drinker, 159-160]

The Therapeutae were among the Jewish sects in which women “conducted the Sabbath services and provided influential commentaries on the scriptures.” [Long, 38] Philo described their practice as a form of spiritual healing, which in fact gave this community its name:

Inasmuch as they profess to the art of healing better than that current in towns, which cures only the bodies, they treat also souls oppressed by grievous and well-nigh intolerable diseases. [Contemplative Life, in Allegro, 109]

The biggest community of Therapeutae lived near the Mareotic lake in northern Egypt. Their huts had little prayer alcoves, and they gathered in a central building for communal meals. Like Philo, they seem to have syncretized Isis with Wisdom and called upon her for healing: “She was reckoned to cure the sick and to bring the dead to life, and she bore the title 'Mother of God.'“ This was an ancient name of Neit, Isis, and other Kemetic goddesses.

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]



Copyright 2000 Max Dashu.

This article was originally published as chapter III of Streams of Wisdom
(Oakland CA: The Suppressed Histories Archives, 2000).
An early serialized version appeared in Goddessing Regenerated,
a journal edited by Willow LaMonte, Malta, 1998.


Allegro, John, The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Christian Myth, Prometheus, Buffalo, 1984

Arthur, Rose, The Wisdom Goddess: Motifs in Eight Nag Hammadi Documents, University of America Press, New York, 1984

Buckley, Jorunn Jacobsen, Female Fault and Fulfilment in Gnosticism, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel, 1986

Couliano, Ioan, The Tree of Gnosis: Gnostic Mythology from Early Christianity to Modern Nihilism, Harper, San Francisco, 1992

Doresse, Jean, The Secret Books of the Egyptian Gnostics, Viking Press, NY, 1960

Drinker, Sophie, Music and Women, Coward-McCann, New York, about 1948

Long, Asphodel P, In a Chariot Drawn by Lions: The Search for the Female in Deity, Crossing Press, Freedom CA, 1993

Pagels, Elaine, The Gnostic Gospels, Weidenfield and Nicholson, London, 1979

Patai, Raphael, The Hebrew Goddess, Wayne State U Press, Detroit, 1990 (The third edition is updated and contains a new chapter on the Kabbalah.)

Young, Serinity, An Anthology of Sacred Texts by and about Women