The Spiritual Meaning Behind the Story of Sophia
A kind of light spread out from her. And everything changed color. And the world opened out. And a day was good to awaken to. And there were no limits to anything. And the people of the world were good and handsome. And I was not afraid any more.
John Steinbeck, East of Eden
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.
The Secret Book of John
The first time I read the Nag Hammadi library I was immediately drawn to the saga of the heroine and anti-heroine that is the character of Sophia. Every story she appeared in was different but oddly familiar. I felt I had come home when I found Sophia, but that home was surrounded by a pathless labyrinth with her and her lessons at the end.
Years later, I am still fascinated by the Fall and Redemption of Sophia, variations found in such texts as The Secret Book of John, The Reality of the Rulers, and the Pistis Sophia, as well as the sundry Valentinian cosmologies.
But what do the accounts of Sophia all mean? What do they teach of about spirituality?
Let me share some interpretations in this pathless labyrinth I often call Gnosis. I won’t delve into plotlines of the many stories on Sophia, but you can find her foundations in my article The Pagan Origins of the Gnostic Sophia.
I will mention some shared keynotes, though. We do know that the Gnostic Sophia:
• Is the personification/hypostasis of the wisdom of the idealized Mind of God (one of the many Aeons in a realm referred to as the Pleroma, the Treasury of Light, or the Eternal Realm).
• Rebels or commits some infraction that causes her to be expelled into the void.
• Undergoes certain passions in her banishment that results in the very creation of matter and even the ruling divine entities of the cosmos.
• Must restore herself and the universe by gathering parts of her divine essence scattered in the material world.
This all may sound a bit uncanny, but the myth of the Divine Feminine fallen and lost in chthonic domains is shared with other, more prominent traditions of old. Some examples would be the stories of Inana, Persephone, and even Isis (in her quest to procure the body parts of Osiris).
With that in mind, here are some of the possible meanings to the Fall and Redemption of Sophia:
• Sophia represents the adventures of the soul across the universes. Like the fallen goddesses previously mentioned, this is also not an uncommon motif in ancient religions—with the soul represented as a female protagonist. Some instances would be Helen of Troy in the Homeric accounts and the lost Shekinah of God in Jewish wisdom literature. This trope is the root to the damsel in distress story, and certainly exemplified in Alice in Wonderland.
• Sophia represents the high cost of wisdom. Humans throughout history have sought the gifts of wisdom, attempting to couple it with knowledge. Yet the reality is that wisdom takes a heavy toll on human existence, rarely becoming purified before an individual’s personal universe is about to end.
• Sophia is that dangerous nexus between the spiritual and the material. In Gnostic accounts, Sophia is often depicted as hysterical, neurotic, or even schizophrenic—yet at the same the sage mediator between heaven and earth. This indicates what many mystics have known: when mortals contact higher planes of reality, the mind is going to be bend and even break. To be wise is to be sane, but to also to never forget those epochs of insanity that paradoxically paved the way.
• Sophia is a sort of Hellenistic Koan. A Koan, utilized mainly by Zen Buddhists, is a paradox to be meditated upon in order to abandon conventional reason and attain intuitive enlightenment. The saga of Sophia offers this by asking these “sound-of-one-hand-clapping” questions: How could the wisdom of God fail? Is wisdom without experience wisdom at all? Can perfection fail or is failing just part of perfection?
• Sophia represents that disastrous state of knowledge without wisdom. In Gnostic cosmology, once the divine realms lose wisdom, an unfortunate chain of events occurs. Wisdom may not be perfect in her attempt to teach us that there is no perfection, but casting her aside usually leads to the grimmer aspects of human history.
• Sophia represents the essence of comfort. Despite her mistakes and ambitions, Sophia finds a way to instill serenity within herself and her children (humanity). Not truly worshiped in any of the Gnostic writings, Sophia is a literary illustration teaching that peace is attainable through the hardest of times. Her characteristics of complex femininity, curiosity, and the ultimate ability to be humble enough to ask for help makes her the great companion in any dark night of the soul.
Certainly, let me know if you have your own interpretations of the Gnostic Sophia. The Gnostics, as with any myth, utilized Sophia in different attempts to explain existentialist truths concerning reality and suffering. They viewed her passion narrative as perhaps more important than the one by her often-consort, Jesus. Perhaps so because they saw themselves as Sophia: the ultimate exiles.
Being exiled is one chief reason I relate to the Gnostic Sophia. I am sure her many depictions grant an even greater lesson: that a return home is possible if we just dare that pathless labyrinth.
Perhaps she will be standing to comfort us at the end…even if it is East of Eden.