The World’s Soul is a Woman – The Gnostic Myth of Sophia
Have you ever heard of Gnosis? Or of the Gnostics of old, often associated with early Christianity? I know you’ve heard of Mother Earth – since we’re all riding around on her all of the time – or of Mother Nature, or Gaia, whom we all love to visit on holidays. We tend to bring her all of our problems, and she can always make them go away, for a little while. So why is it that we have this understanding of the benevolent feminine nature of the world, but we don’t seem to let it shape our reality the way it could? Is it that we simply don’t know any better? I don’t think so. I think we’ve always known better.
Long ago (and even today), people knew better, and the knowledge they had (and have) was a kind of “secret knowledge,” called Gnosis, from the Greek ‘to know.’
Although it’s often conflated with early Christianity, Gnosticism isn’t a religion, but rather a way of being in the world – a path to self-realization and integration with a more profound sense of reality.
As usual, back in the old days, an understanding that couldn’t be directly expressed intellectually was passed along in the form of a myth, a story that communicates the “secret knowledge” that can only be understood through an experience of the heart, not the head; and the heart is quite literally where The Feminine Divine enters in.
The Myth of the Divine Sophia
In the Gnostic myth of how the world works, Sophia, the feminine personification of wisdom, lives happily with spirits of light (especially her twin brother), in the unified limitless potential of her Father’s radiance, created by the twin powers of Depth and Silence.
She’s so dizzy with love for the Creative Source that when she sees a brilliant shimmering light below, she flings herself down into the darkness, mistakenly following what she believes to be her Father’s radiance, fooled by a mere reflection. There, in the abysmal unrealized potential of the world, she is trapped – separated from the light, the spiritual realization of Gnosis – the knowledge of transcendent unity.
Water finds its greatest power by seeking its lowest point.
There, the powers of the underworld have their way with her, using, abusing, and exploiting her, until all she knows is sadness in the struggle to return herself up to the light she has lost, but not forgotten. She gives birth to a bunch of bad boys, demigods called archons, including the worst of them all, the demiurge who becomes the creator of this world, infecting it with pride, ignorance, fear, and his lust for power and pleasure.
But Sophia remains present, and in her resurgent power she brings great beauty and spiritual potential to the Earthly realm and its inhabitants. Witnessing the irresponsible creation of the world by her errant offspring, Sophia conceals Consciousness in the body of the demiurge’s first man, “Adam,” and then brings it into the world as “Eve.”
Finally, Sophia breaks free and ascends back up to the true light of life, raising humanity with her ever so slightly. But she refuses to abandon the sad world of humans, and so she divides herself, keeping a part below, ever present and available for the enlightenment of all.
Here, we may call that Gaia – the consciousness of the world.
Back up in the celestial realm of spiritual light, Sophia rediscovers Gnosis by joining her twin brother in a “marriage” of reunification, balancing the masculine ego of unrealized potential, and uniting it with the sacred feminine – made ever more powerful by adversity – into an androgynous whole. A complete person, full with the knowledge of the transcendent, unified light.
The Feminine Heart of the Earth
This is the sublimely sophis-ticated philo-sophy of the myth of Sophia, a path that leads not only to self-realization, but also to an understanding of the feminine heart and soul of the Earth.
For it’s only in the feminine–the channel of creation into the world–that humanity finds the power and compassion necessary to overcome the darkness of ignorance.
But it just ain’t easy getting there, as any woman struggling in “a man’s world” can tell you, although much less of a problem in the ancient Gnostic world, where, prior to the (ongoing) suppression of the Feminine Divine, women were equal to men in every intellectual and spiritual respect.
One Woman, Many Names
Sophia ends up being the giver of wisdom in so many forms: She is Shakti in Sanskrit, the powerful Hindu personification of feminine wisdom, and the personal and collective linking soul as atman, realized in the transcendent state of samadhi (Gnosis). She is the compassionate boddhisatva (Avalokiteshvara) in Buddhism, returning to light the path to nirvana (Gnosis); personified by the deity Guanyin. She is both Mother Mary, in her ascendant form, and Mary Magdalene, as the Earthly companion of the Christ potential in Christian Gnosticism. In Jungian psychology, she is the unifying power (“individuation”) of both the feminine and masculine archetypes, anima and animus, and of the lower self of the psyche with the higher spiritual self (Gnosis).
So you see, Sophia really gets around; or as my late uncle (by marriage), the great Jungian psychologist and philosopher, James Hillman put it:
She is the Sophia of wisdom, the Maria of compassion, the Persephone of destruction, compelling Necessity and Fate, and the Muse.
Modern Psychological Understanding
What may be most remarkable about the myth of Sophia, is the way it foreshadows‒and even predetermines‒what we think of as modern psychological understanding. Carl Jung recognized it as a myth of reflection that reflected collective and individual psychology – not just as the metaphor of following “God’s reflection” down into the abyss as an act of necessary self-centeredness and hubris, eventually leading to a humble redemption; Jung also recognized the myth of Sophia as the precursor of a many-layered structural pathology of both our individual search for health and wholeness, and of the cultural and spiritual potential of humankind. He saw the myth as an illuminating structure, which, when shined on the collective unconscious, could guide the realization of human spiritual evolution; and the metaphor as what Joseph Campbell called, “a psychologically affective image transparent to transcendence.”
Finding the Way Back Up
So don’t be afraid to share a dance with Sophia – she’s quite a girl, I promise. Allow her to take you to that place down across the tracks that we all must visit, where we become painfully separated from our true potential, and exiled from what we are really capable of becoming. From there, she can show you the way back up, the way to get in touch with your divinely feminine soul (the soul of the world), and unify it with the willful (but powerful and promising) masculine aspect of ego. Then, the separation becomes a matrimonial solution, where you may discover that the myth is the means to learning the whole secret – of you, of me, of us, and of a whole world.
Those favored by the grace of Sophia may devote their lives to offering active service in the public arena, or, again, they may simply bring the compassionate light of Sophia to bear upon the private human tasks of their daily lives.
-Dr. Stephan Hoeller
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Goddess Mythology Throughout the Ages
Mythological gods and goddesses have long symbolized the eternal heaven within human beings. This is how cultures connect to and move through life in a way that enables them to make sense of their surroundings and circumstances and move beyond what often is a hard physical reality.
Cultures throughout time have embraced and worshipped the image of a mother goddess for a variety of reasons. Mainly, she is looked to as a symbol for abundance, fertility, kindness, family, marriage, good harvests, and good fortune. Traits ascribed to these lovely beings, such as femininity and womanhood, have also represented hearth, home, family, fertility, compassion, strength, and loving-kindness throughout the centuries. Others, like the Norse giantess Hel and the Egyptian goddess Isis, represent the darker sides of life — the underworld, death, magic healing, and guiding the fates of men.
History of Goddess Worship
Goddess or woman worship began around the Paleolithic period (2.5 million years ago to 10,000 BCE), which is humanity’s longest recorded time on Earth. Archaeological digs unearthed artifacts dating back to this time period, the most frequent of which is Venus, believed to have been carved between 24,000 to 22,000 BCE.
The next period to follow was the Neolithic, in which more carved goddess figurines were unearthed and appear to date back 10,000 years. This era was when farming became standard practice, and figurines from this time period most likely represented fertility and offerings to ensure ample harvest.
The Egyptians were also at the forefront of goddess culture, beginning with their Nagada culture. Quite a few murals depict a goddess figure standing between two lionesses. Lionesses were a symbol of good motherhood. Earth, moon, sky, and primordial waters were also associated with the feminine and the care-giving powers therein. Egyptians worshipped many gods and goddesses, but the most prominent of the female figures in Egyptian mythology was Isis and Hathor. These traditions were then passed to other cultures.