Early 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
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. (Jane Harrison, Themis, 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.
Kathleen Damiani, Ph.D.
copyright © 2005