Sophia and the Dragon

Sophia, Soul of the World

Mindscape, Nick Gonzalez-Goad
Mindscape, Nick Gonzalez-Goad

"But where shall understanding be found?"

I move with roaring, howling, and radiant might.
I move with the infinite and nature's powers.
I hold the love of the Lord of Lords. I hold
The fire of the soul. I hold life and healing.
--Vak speaking of herself, Rg Veda

Who is this fierce immensity that is female, cosmic, who holds life love and healing? She speaks of herself through ancient poets and visionaries as Perfect Nature, as the Soul of the World, as the ancient goddesses of justice and natural law, and as Sophia, guardian angel of philosophy and teacher of men in the Wisdom literature of the Bible.

The word philosophy was coined by Pythagoras and comes from the Greek word philein (brotherly love) and sophia, wisdom. He was the first person to call himself a philosopher, which he defined as one who is attempting to find out. Before Pythagoras (6th c. BCE), wise men called themselves sages, meaning those who know. (Manly P. Hall, An Encyclopedic Outline of Masonic Hermetic Qabbalistic and Rosicrucian Philosophy, LXV).

Philosophers, poets and visionaries personified wisdom as a powerful female who nourished their spiritual imagination and philosophical insight: The heavenly Sophia is the philosopher's Angel, "his initiator and tutor, the object and secret of all philosophy, the dominant figure in the Sage's personal religion." She is the form of light, "conjoined with his star, which rules him and opens the doors of wisdom for him, teaches him what is difficult, reveals to him what is right, in sleeping as in waking." Socrates declared Perfect Nature to be the sun of the philosopher, the "original root of his being and at the same time the branch springing from him." (Majriti, "Goal of the Sage," quoted in Henry Corbin, The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism, 17)

Sophia personifies wisdom, the subject of ancient traditions concerned with integrity in the marketplace, politics, and the royal court. In the Biblical Wisdom literature, she teaches men that clear perception and discernment are more important than gold. Because the teachings were rooted in life instead of doctrine and spoken by a divine female, Sophia became problematical and excluded from the religious formulations of monotheism. Sophia's exile from mainstream religion mirrors the alienation suffered by modern individuals who experience betrayal, abandonment, scapegoating, exclusion, and loss--of homeland or loved one.

Sophia, the "person" in the word "philosophy," was named Sophia after the Greek word for wisdom. She was described in the five Biblical books classified as wisdom literature, written in the postexilic period, from 500 B.C.E. on. Sophia is not only a teacher of men in these texts, but also co-creator of the world. Sophia speaks about her identity, power and function and her mysterious presence with God at creation in passages reminiscent of earlier speeches of wisdom goddesses found in sacred texts in India, Egypt, and Sumeria.

Sophia eventually disappeared from the development of mainstream theological tradition in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam because she was problematical. Being a "she" did not fit into the increasingly male-dominated religions that excluded the feminine in favor of an all-male god that creates everything. Such a concept would be ludicrous for the earlier matrifocal societies who were well aware that the source, bearer, and protector of newborn life is the woman, not the man.

For centuries, the frequent presence of Sophia in the Wisdom literature was a difficult issue for Biblical scholars attempting to account for her apparent divinity and role in creation:

  1. Her divine status, evident from her speeches, does not easily fit into monotheism.

  2. Her teachings are rooted in life, not in obedience to rules, gods or priests; these teachings demand individual integrity and justice in the marketplace and royal court, and are achieved through clear perception and devotion to her, wisdom, and by abandoning "marketplace consciousness"--giving up the quest for gold & possessions.

  3. She is associated with the natural order and meaning of creation, rather than the revelation and salvation of monotheistic religions. Sophia had many of the characteristics of earlier wisdom goddesses who carry the banner of the supremacy, primacy, and justice of the natural order of the cosmos rather than the capricious brutal rule of man whose focus is on profit and domination.

  4. Her gender is unacceptable in religions that deify only the male. The strenuous effort of Hebrew prophets to turn their people away from the worship of popular local deities to an ever-stricter monotheism admitted no divine reality save one demanding wifeless male god.

Sophia was so problematical for the translators and interpreters of the texts composing the New Testament that her development as a divine figure gradually disappeared from the main stage of Christianity, except in Russia.

She remained, however, a vital force in religious visions, esoteric traditions, and schools of philosophy. She appeared as two Sophias in gnosticism: the world soul and the embodied soul. In medieval alchemy, as Sapientia she was the goal of the transformation process. In Persian Sufism, Sophia inspired mystical devotion and poetry. Sophia is shown suckling two philosophers on a 12th century manuscript. She is depicted as the Queen of the Liberal Arts, which correspond to the seven planets and are divided into the trivium and quadrivium. The basis of Western academic education was based upon this organization until the 16th century.

Sophia was the central figure in the visionary philosophies of Jacob Boehme, Mother Anne Lee of the Shakers, Rudolph Steiner's Anthroposophical movement, and the 19th century Russian school of Sophiology represented by Vladimir Soloviev, Pavel Florensky, and Sergei Bulgakov.

Here is a selection of titles and interpretations of Sophia:

  • the philosopher's angel, the object and secret of all philosophy in Iranian Sufism
  • the wisdom principle in the human being, the intellectual aspect of the soul which redeems itself by renouncing error (philosophy)
  • the World Soul, anima mundi
  • divine feminine (also God's co-creator, female half)
  • Holy Ghost
  • Virgin Mary
  • equated with Jesus by St. Paul
  • Perfect Nature
  • the visionary organ of the soul in Iranian Sufism
  • the meaning implanted by God in creation, the divine mystery of creation
  • the wisdom handed down from generation to generation by sages
  • the goal of the individual transformation process within the esoteric interpretations of the three main religions of the West: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam
  • the highest stage of the anima in male psychology (Jung)

Sophia is especially intriguing for women, who, like Sophia, have been marginalized and excluded from leadership roles in Western society for thousands of years. She serves, therefore, as a metaphor for our own exile. The image of Sophia provides modern women with an image of female power that is not derived solely from reproduction, mothering, or the role of consort to a male god. It is focused rather on another aspect of the feminine archetype which is rarely if ever honored or even noticed today: the intelligence, guidance, direction, and cosmic power of the life force whose sparkling residue of treasures can be discerned in our own lives. This "path of crumbs" encourages women to direct their own life through recognition of the guidance present in circumstances. "Crumbs" does not mean insignificant; rather, they refer to the quiet messages that come to us, especially in times of upheaval and disintegration of relationships, that lead us home to the treasure of our own power and wisdom.

Kathleen Damiani, Ph.D.
copyright © 2005


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