Sophia: Gnostic Archetype of Feminine Wisdom
The phenomenon of exile has become tragically familiar in our era of history. In the course of the second half of the twentieth century, millions upon millions of people were herded from or forced to flee from their ancestral homelands to spend their lives in places and among persons who are alien to their race, their traditions, their very souls. Deportations, ethnic cleansings, refugee camps, and enclaves of exiles desperately trying to preserve vestiges of their ancient cultures are familiar and ever-reappearing realities at the outset of the twenty-first century. The legacy and horror of exile are ever with us.
The Gnostics recognized the condition of exile as more than an event in history. They saw it as having a profound cosmic and even transcosmic dimension. The human spirit, they held, is quite literally a stranger in a strange land. "Sometimes I feel like a motherless child," laments the American spiritual. The Gnostics would have agreed and might have been tempted to replace "sometimes" with "always".
In the Gnostic view, recognition of our alieness in this world is not an occasion for sorrow or a reason for psychological chaos, as might be the response in today's secular society. The forlorness of exile is not an enemy, said the Gnostics. Alienation and forlorness are our friends, for they point to a necessary truth that demands our awareness. The exile may indeed find himself in a dark land, but his very awareness of the darkness can also reveal a light on the path to freedom. So also, the awareness of our alieness and recognition of our place of exile for what it is are the first great steps on the path of return. We begin to rise as soon as we realize that we have fallen.
Sophia: Greatest of Exiles
The predicament of exile and alienation is not confined to humanity nor does it originate at the human level. Long before there was a cosmos as we know it, a great drama of exile and return was played out in the story of the divine feminine being named Sophia. Having resided in the lofty height of eternal Fullness (Pleroma) in the embrace of her aeonial spouse, she leaves her original habitat and descends into realms of chaos and desperate alienation. From the Gnostic scriptures, we learn that Sophia is the youngest of the great beings who populate the Fullness. As such, she is far removed from the primal light of the Father, who is the central and essential source of all. Sophia had seen a light in the distance that she thought might be the Father, but it was only that Light reflected in the depths of the Abyss. Seeking the Light, she journeys farther and farther into the deceptive depths, until she is at last stopped by a power known as the Limit (Horos).
At this point, a strange division occurs within Sophia's nature. Her higher self, her essential core, becomes enlightened and mystically ascends back to the Fullness, while her lower self remains in alienation. In virtually all Gnostic myths, an intimate relationship exists between the nature and condition of the human soul, or spirit, on the one hand, and the transcosmic archetype on the other. Thus we understand that our own consciousness has emerged from a primordial wholeness and proceeded into alienation and chaos. Yet even in our confused state we still sense a connection, no matter how tenuous, with a higher transcended self. Thus, like Sophia we are split in two: our human personality abides in confusion and alienation, while our eternal self partakes of wholeness and wisdom.
Return of the Exile
The fall and exile of Sophia do not remain unnoticed. The divine inhabitants of the Fullness, as well as the Fullness itself, are distraught in her exile. Together they appeal to the ultimate Godhead, and he gives them a warrant for her redemption. A number of the High Aeons of the Fullness, including the Holy Spirit, the Christos, and Jesus (destined to become the outer manisfestation of the Christos), join forces in a mission of rescue. The powers of the Fullness also pool their strengths and fill the rescuers with invincible light and perspicacity.
The Christos appears to Sophia in the shape of a form stretched out on the transcosmic tau cross. The vision of this cross blazing and radiating through the aeonial regions revitalizes Sophia and infuses into her a tremendous longing for her celestial home and her divine bridegroom. Metaphysical and intrapsychic elements conjoin powerfully in this portion of the myth. The disturbance of the Fullness and the unhappiness of the divine beings over Sophia's plight reveal the Gnostic awareness of a mystery -- not only does the exiled soul long for the Fullness, but the divine beings also long for the return of the soul. Heaven is not complete until the exile has returned from the far country; until then, the Fullness is not truly full, the Wholeness is not truly whole.
It is no doubt psychologically significant that Sophia's first awakening from unconsciousness occurs through the archetypal symbol of the cross. In the process of individuation, the psyche is often prepared for the coming interior liberation by experiences of numinous symbols, mandala designs, and the like. Perhaps the conjunction of the horizontal and vertical bars of the cross even reminds the psyche/Sophia of the needed conjunction of the opposites.
All archetypal myths possess a timeless quality that makes them applicable to the concerns of any place and time. The story of Sophia, in particular, fixes in comprehensible forms the universal elements that join psychic and transcendental experiences. Insights into the development (individuation) of the individual psyche, into sociological issues (including the elevation and emancipation of women in society), and into theological and metaphysical ideas can all be derived from the Sophianic myth.
The predicament of the loss of wholeness, symbolized by Sophia's departure from the Fullness, is the ever-present predicament of all beings, most particularly humans. All of us are in desperate need of our restoration of wholeness through union with our inmost self, the glory dwelling, though hidden, within us. Like Sophia we wander over the face of the earth, our glory degraded and prostituted, while through the aeonic regions descends to meet us the "ever-coming One" our divine bridgegroom, the Logos of the most high God. Thus the theophania, the divine resolution of the great drama is ever here.
The Gnostics did not confine their vision to images of intrapsychic principles, as many contemporary depth psychologists do. For them, the inner drama always mirrored the cosmic and indeed the transcosmic drama; as the story unfolded on high, so it is reflected and duplicated in the human soul. They regarded the Christ in us and the Sophia in us as our twin hopes of glory, seeking each other in holy longing and divine desire. The celestial pair, bearing these same names, were the supernal prototypes whose actions are repeated within the souls and spirits of men and women.
I came out of the mouth of the most High and covered the earth as a cloud.
I dwelt in high places, and my throne is a cloudy pillar. I alone compassed
the circuit of the sky and walked in the bottom of the deep; in the waves of
the sea and in all the earth and in every people and nation . . . He created
me from the beginning, before the world and I shall never fail.
Ecclesiasticus (24.5, 7-10, 14)
Stephan A. Hoeller