Sophia, personification of wisdom, presents very different aspects depending on where you look. In the Old Testament she is “the first of God’s works”, and the books of Proverbs and Wisdom portray her as an active, independent figure who gives instruction to all who heed her. Later the Gnostics would see her as an emanation of Divine Light, often paired with the Christ, although in Greek myth Sophia was an abstract personification with no myth.
Later Western Christian theology merged her with Mary, while the Russian and Orthodox churches saw Wisdom as part of Christ. Her apotheosis came in modern times, beginning with Theosophy and culminating in the Goddess and feminist spirituality movements, who consider Sophia a Goddess with a capital G.
In the ancient world, the figure of Sophia can be found in four very different places: Greek myth, Platonic philosophy, the Hebrew Bible, and the Judeo-Christian offshoot called Gnosticism.
Sophia in Greek Myth and Platonism
Our first source is disappointing for seekers after wisdom: in Greek myth Sophia is merely an abstract figure representing Wisdom, with no myths or cult. Athena was the goddess of wisdom, having inherited her mother Metis’ own ability. (The word Metis means “wisdom, skill or craft”.)
In Roman times wisdom was considered one of the cardinal virtues, and they liked to depict these as women. This concept carried over into Christian theology, although the virtues changed: the Celsus Library at Ephesus has statues of wisdom, intelligence, knowledge and valour instead of prudence, temperance, courage and justice.
The four virtues derives from Plato’s philosophy. He listed different ones in different places, but in The Republic he gives the Christian four, but wisdom makes the list in his Protagoras.
It was Plato who first named philosophy, φιλοσοφία (philo-sophia, “love of wisdom”) and the search for wisdom defined both his work and his mentor Socrates’. Up until that time, sophia was defined as practical skill, unlike phronesis, intelligence. Plato changed that, putting sophia in the place of phronesis in the Protagoras.
While Plato’s Wisdom remained an abstract virtue, but Philo of Alexander tried to bring together the Hebrew scripture he was raised on and the Platonist philosophy he had embraced. Philo mainly talks about the Logos, a masculine personfication of the Word of God, but he couldn’t avoid the fact that sophia is a feminine noun, as is the Hebrew Chokhmah, or the fact that the scriptures personify wisdom as female. His work-around is not one to delight the hearts of feminists:
Indeed all the virtues have women’s designations, but powers and activities of truly perfect men. For that which comes after God, even if it were the most venerable of all other things, holds second place, and was called feminine in contrast to the Creator of the universe, who is masculine, and in accordance with its resemblance to everything else. For the feminine always falls short and is inferior to the masculine, which has priority. Let us then pay no attention to the discrepancy in the terms, and say that the daughter of God, Wisdom, is both masculine and the father, inseminating and engendering in souls a desire to learn discipline, knowledge, practical insight, notable and laudable actions (Fug. 50-52).
He saw this Logos as an intermediator between God and humans, which is why John’s Gospel identified it with Christ.
It’s not all negative, however. His essay On Drunkenness says:
Accordingly wisdom is represented by some one of the beings of the divine company as speaking of herself in this manner: “God created me as the first of his works, and before the beginning of time did he establish me.” For it was necessary that all the things which came under the head of the creation must be younger than the mother and nurse of the whole universe.
(Philo Judeus On Drunkenness VIII.31)
Chokhmah in the Old Testament
Philo’s other influence was the Old Testament, which seems to personify wisdom (Chokhmah in Hebrew) as a female and views her with great favour. The first chapter of the Book of Proverbs has Wisdom calling out in the streets, and the text goes on to emphasize her status as God’s first creation (8:22 quoted by Philo, above) and her closeness to God:
I was there when he set the heavens in place,
when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep,
when he established the clouds above
and fixed securely the fountains of the deep,
when he gave the sea its boundary
so the waters would not overstep his command,
and when he marked out the foundations of the earth.
Then I was constantly at his side.
I was filled with delight day after day,
rejoicing always in his presence,
rejoicing in his whole world
and delighting in mankind.
(Proverbs VIII: 27-31)
John’s Gospel, whose Logos was with God in the beginning, is a Hellenistic variant on this passage. The apocryphal Book of Wisdom, especially the first and sixth chapters, are in the same vein, and also emphasizes Wisdom’s status:
She is a breath of the power of God, pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty; so nothing impure can find its way into her.
For she is a reflection of the eternal light, untarnished mirror of God’s active power, and image of his goodness.
Although she is alone, she can do everything; herself unchanging, she renews the world, and, generation after generation, passing into holy souls, she makes them into God’s friends and prophets;
for God loves only those who dwell with Wisdom.
(Wisdom VII: 25-8)
Both texts emphasize that Chokhmah/Sophia is God’s creation, which makes sense for a monotheistic religion. You could read it as an account of how God is the source of wisdom, and does nothing without it, or you could see Wisdom as an active agent at God’s side.
Sophia and Gnosticism
Thinking about Gnosticism makes my head hurt, but I’m going to try to keep it simple for my own sanity’s sake. The Gnostics took Judeo-Christian belief and mixed it with Neo-Platonism to produce systems of thought that valued gnosis (“arcane knowledge”) above all else. The Gnostics, like modern Pagans, were very decentralized and tended to form small groups with different beliefs.
Their emphasis on special knowledge also made for very complicated theology, but essentially they rejected the material world as the construction of a flawed demiurge, and saw their task as reuniting themselves with the true divinity and transcending this imperfect earth.
Sophia’s role in this theology was to fall, like Eve, but her fall can be seen as an allegory for all Gnostic seekers, and has a happy ending. Through some fault or sin she (or a duplicate she called into being) falls into this world, where she wanders and suffers until the Christos (Redeemer) finds and saves her. She then returns to the Pleroma (Fullness) where she and the Christos marry. Their marriage, and that of other spirits, restore the Pleroma.
Sophia’s tribulations are similar to those of Psyche and Demeter, both of whom suffer greatly and through their own triumph over that suffering offer hope of a better life and afterlife.
Theosophy and the Goddess Movement
I’m not going to get into the Russian and Greek Orthodox views on Sophia, although I’ve included some links below if you want to follow it up. In Western Christianity Sophia’s qualities were usually attributed to Mary, since she was the female closest to Jesus. The poverty of Biblical sources to use as inspiration for the Marian cult led to a ransacking of the Old Testament for images and ideas about the feminine that could be used for Mary. (See Marina Warner’s Alone of All Her Sex for more on this.)
The 19th-century occult movement Theosophy, founded by Helena Blavatsky, sought occult wisdom and tried to find the original wisdom behind the world’s religions and philosophical traditions. In her essay “What is Theosophy?“, Blavatsky wrote:
Theosophy is, then, the archaic Wisdom-Religion, the esoteric doctrine once known in every ancient country having claims to civilization. This “Wisdom” all the old writings show us as an emanation of the divine Principle; and the clear comprehension of it is typified in such names as the Indian Buddh, the Babylonian Nebo, the Thoth of Memphis, the Hermes of Greece, in the appellations, also, of some goddesses — Metis, Neitha, Athena, the Gnostic Sophia, and finally –the Vedas, from the word “to know.” Under this designation, all the ancient philosophers of the East and West, the Hierophants of old Egypt, the Rishis of Aryavart, the Theodidaktoi of Greece, included all knowledge of things occult and essentially divine.
Among the fruits of Theosophy were Rudolf Steiner’s Anthrosophy. He saw Sophia as a goddess, titling one of his book Isis Mary Sophia.
For many spiritual feminists and pagans, there is no doubt that Sophia is a goddess. For myself, this is modern mythology. There were goddesses of wisdom in the ancient world, such as Isis, Neith, Metis, and her daughter Athena, as well as the Irish Brigid, but I’m not sure that we can count Sophia among them. Even for the Gnostics Sophia is a divine emanation, not an independent being, so for me she fails that test. Others may not see it that way, but whatever our disagreements, it seems that Sophia is a goddess now.
References and Links
Ken Dowden’s summary of Gnosticism
Desperately Seeking Sophia a Christian feminist view
In Search of Sophia a good overview of Sophia in Western religious traditions
Sophia in the Old Testament sees Sophia as an independent, enlivening force within Biblical tradition
In The Name of Sophia is behind a paywall, but the intro is worth reading
Khokhmah and Sophia sees Sophia as a goddess, linked to other Middle Eastern goddesses
Sophiology, the philosophical study of wisdom, identified with the Holy Spirit.
Articles on the icon traditons of Russia: one on the Kiev Sophia and another on Wisdom in Russian Orthodoxy.
Sophia and her three daughters (Faith, Hope and Love) in Greek Orthodox tradition