The Pagan Origins of the Gnostic Sophia
One of the central myths in most Gnostic teachings is the Fall and Redemption of Sophia—the embodied wisdom of God who, for various reasons, transgresses against the Eternal Realm, gives birth to the World of Forms, and along with humanity sets out to redeem Creation. The saga of Sophia is the story of the soul’s adventure across infinity, as well as the perennial symbol of the triumphant return of the Divine Feminine. Scholars and theologians widely agree that the Gnostics discovered Sophia in the Jewish Wisdom Literature, where a godlike being either assists God in the formation of the universe or is exiled in matter along with struggling mortals. Yet little is written concerning her Pagan origins beyond Platonic dependency.
However, all religious currents are composed of multiple streams of mythology, regardless of their claims of originality, and Gnosticism certainly drew from the waters of Pagan lore.
The Divine Stream of Wisdom
The most prominent Pagan similarity of Sophia is the Hellenistic goddess of the same name. Sophia means “wisdom” in Greek. The Gnostic Sophia, however, earned her name from a Greek translation of the Old Testament, known as the Septuagint, widely used by Jews and Christians during the Greco-Roman period. Her Hebrew name was Chokmah (also meaning “wisdom”), although she was also referred to as the Shekinah—the presence or manifestation of the Divine on Earth. Unlike the Greek goddess Sophia, who epitomized the virtuous search for all truths, Chokmah/Sophia represented the entombment of spiritual energies in the illusionary world. The central truths the Gnostics championed were those granting cosmic liberation from temporal states of being.
This passage from the Nag Hammadi library’s Secret Book of John underscores the ultimate essence of the Gnostic Sophia:
And our sister Sophia is she who came down in innocence in order to rectify her deficiency. Therefore, she was called Life, which is the mother of the living, by the foreknowledge of the sovereignty of heaven. And through her they have tasted the perfect Knowledge.
More appropriate parallels to Sophia in ancient faiths are found in the figures of Innana, Isis, Lilith or Metis—savior and often trickster deities engaged in adventures into the chthonic regions of reality (and whose movements were known to endure vilification under patriarchal systems). Wisdom deities of varying degrees were universal in Pagan traditions, making mythical cross-pollination almost a standard.
The Goddess Athena
A wisdom goddess with a stronger mythic resonance to the Gnostic Sophia is Athena. On the surface, Sophia and Athena seem to have no strong analogies, as the latter is ascribed other attributes beyond wisdom, such as war, law, civilization, and justice. On a deeper level, though, there are striking correspondences, the main one being their titular function. In Gnosticism, Sophia regularly takes on the role of the “first thought” of the Godhead, exemplified in the Simon Magus myth. In the Gnostic scripture, Trimorphic Protennoia, the Sophia avatar declares that she is “the Thought that dwells in the Light.” The name Athena, according to Plato in Cratylus, means “the mind of God.” (407B)
The stories of Athena and Sophia entering the realm of matter are equivalent. In many Gnostic scriptures, the perfect mind of the Divine is represented as a domain known as the Pleroma or Eternal Realm. The modes of thought are referred to as Aeons, Sophia being the quality of wisdom, who at some point is ejected from the mind of the Divine. In many Greek myths, Athena comes into being by literally sprouting from the head of Zeus, after a headache grips him. Both myths illustrate the thought process of the Supreme God in distress, with personified wisdom divorcing it and becoming a fierce champion for humanity.
In the second century, the church father, Justin Martyr, recognized Athena as both the personification of wisdom and an element of the mind of the Divine. He writes:
They said that Athena was the daughter of Zeus not from intercourse, but when the god had in mind the making of a world through a Word, his first thought was Athena” (Apology 64.5).
The Lost Female Logos
Justin Marty’s usage of “Word” (Logos in Greek) is in the Hellenistic context of the creative reasoning of the Godhead. In my book, Voices of Gnosticism, scholar David Fideler states that in the Greco-Roman period “one of the few things that Logos actually doesn’t mean is Word.” The Logos was “a natural harmony, an intelligence that orders things” and “a cosmic organizing principle.” The Logos is principally divine reason, the part of the mind of a ruling deity that orchestrates all material creation. Thus, in the Gospel of John, Jesus is the Logos or intelligence of Yahweh—a godly hypostasis responsible for creating and sustaining the universe.
The Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria, pioneered the concept of the Logos in a Jewish Platonic framework, later adopted by Christianity and Gnosticism. He associated the Logos with Wisdom incarnate. In the Old Testament, Wisdom as the Logos is involved with Yahweh in making the World of Forms, as seen in Proverbs 8:22-25:
The Lord brought me forth as the first of his works, before his deeds of old; I was formed long ages ago, at the very beginning, when the world came to be. When there were no watery depths, I was given birth, when there were no springs overflowing with water; before the mountains were settled in place, before the hills, I was given birth. (New International Version)
Her identity and purpose are solidified later in the metaphorical Proverbs 9:1-4:
Wisdom has built her house; she has hewn her seven pillars. She has slaughtered her beasts; she has mixed her wine; she has also set her table. She has sent out her young women to call from the highest places in the town, ‘Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!’” (New International Version)
Beyond the connection between Athena and Sophia (and the Jewish Logos), creative reasoning can be found in various wisdom deities of Pagan times (Thoth, Hekate, Prometheus). Again, many streams of mythology enter a religion’s current, and Sophia is no exception in Gnosticism, a powerful synthesis of Pagan and Jewish mysticism.
The Primordial Sophia
The original blueprint for the Gnostic Sophia is located in one of the earliest creation stories (older even than Genesis): The Pelasgian Creation Myth.
In this narrative, a divine being named Eurynome descends from the void and fashions the cosmos from the chaos. Creation is ushered by her dance upon the primordial waters, resulting in the formation of the planets, stars and elements into actuality. She also conceives a godlike serpent named Ophion. Eurynome and Ophion engage in a second, more seductive dance that ends in copulation. She then transforms into a dove and hovers over the sea, eventually laying a massive egg. Ophion coils around the egg seven times until it is hatched and all living creatures come forth. Eurynome sets a male and female Titan to overlook each heaven. Eurynome and Ophion rule over creation in harmony, until the serpent claims he is the sole supreme being of the universe. This causes Eurynome to wage war against Ophion and ultimately banish him into the depths of the earth. In the end, she finds herself alone atop of the cosmos, yearning for another like her to keep her company.
At first glance, the Pelasgian Creation Myth appears like another dramatic, Greek account of how reality came to be. However, a deeper look reveals a proto-Sophia in the character of Eurynome:
- Sophia is cast into the chaos from an undivided nothingness (The Secret Book of John, On the Origin of the World). The Gnostic Valentinians referred to the fundamental principles of consciousness, the primeval Father and Mother, as Bythos and Sege (Abyss and Silence in Greek). They represented a state of ultimate, undivided existence, similar to where Eurynome originated from.
- Sophia is responsible for the conception of matter (The Valentinian Cosmology, The Secret Book of John). Like Eurynome, she moves back and forth over the primordial waters, as well as gives birth to a serpent-like monster (Sophia’s offspring was called Yaldabaoth, often associated with the Old Testament God).
- Sophia is symbolized as a dove in Gnosticism. The Acts of Thomas proclaims, “Come, she that manifests the hidden things and makes the unspeakable things plain, the holy dove.” As her aspect of Wisdom/Shekinah in the Old Testament, Sophia is referred to as a dove (Song of Solomon 1:15, Song of Solomon 5:2). The symbol would be later adopted by Christianity in the form of the Holy Spirit, although both the Shekinah and Sophia were also recognized as the Holy Spirit.
- Sophia’s offspring rebels against her, claiming to be the only Supreme Being (The Secret Book of John, The Hypostasis of the Archons). The Hypostasis of the Archons relates how Yaldabaoth “because of his power and his ignorance and is arrogance he said, with his power, ‘It is I who am God; there is none apart from me.’ When he said this, he sinned against the entirety.” In The Pelasgian Creation Myth, the serpent Ophion “vexed Eurynome by claiming to be the author of the Universe.”
- In her higher avatar of Barbelo, Sophia assigns a male and female pair of Aeons to each of the layers of the mind of God (The Secret Book of John). Eurynome does the same, albeit with Titans ruling over the planetary spheres.
- In virtually all Gnostic texts, Sophia finds herself yearning for another like her once she lingers in the manifest Unlike the open-ended story of Eurynome, Jesus Christ comes to her like a saving knight or lost friend.
It should be noted that The Pelasgian Creation Myth is also a foundation for the Book of Genesis. Eurynome is responsible for naming all the creatures of Earth, as was Adam. The serpent in both myths plays the antagonist role (however, the serpent is often associated with wisdom goddesses in Paganism, and is frequently a positive figure in Gnosticism). During the conflict between Eurynome and Ophion, she “bruised his head with her heel.” In Genesis 3:15, the seed of Eve is prophesized to bruise the head the serpent with her heel, which has been taken as the coming of Jesus Christ to redeem the world from Satan.
Conclusion and the Purpose of Wisdom
In the end, all religious myths are interdependent, whether in cultural history or a Jungian, collective unconscious sense. And all have unique characteristics, like Sophia being responsible for Creation yet paradoxically having to destroy it finally to complete herself (or the intriguing, Gnostic koan on why the wisdom of God could ever fail). When dealing with the richness of mythology, terms like Paganism, Gnosticism or Christianity can be ultimately unhelpful.
Wisdom goes where she must and is found everywhere. Yet Wisdom is often in exile, waiting for humans to recognize her as the manifest mind of God, as well as the manifest mind of God in every person. Until that happens, Wisdom can be seen adventuring in pathless lands, perhaps dancing back and forth on the waters of the human imagination, waiting for a lost friend. That lost friend is each one of us, always part Serpent and part Christ.
Research and Resources:
The Cosmic Shekinah by Sorita d’Este and David Rankine
The Pelasgian Creation Myth adapted by Robert Graves
Gnosticism: New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowing by Stephan Hoeller