This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Hokhmah


“The Holy Spirit of Wisdom as the guiding archetype of human evolution is one of the great images of universality. Transcending the limitations of any one religious belief, it is an image that embraces all human experience, inspiring trust in the capacity of the soul to find its way back to the source.  … To discover the root of the idea of Wisdom we have to go back once again to the Neolithic era, when the goddess was the image of the Whole, when life emerged from and was returned to her, and she was conceived as the door or gateway to a hidden dimension of being that was her womb, the eternal source and regenerator of life … the idea of Wisdom was always related in the pre-Christian world to the image of the goddess; Nammu and Inanna in Sumeria, Maat and Isis in Egypt, and Athena and Demeter in Greece. Even the passages in the Old Testament that describe Hokhmah, the Holy Spirit of Wisdom, powerfully evoke her lost image, though here the image is dissociated from the world.

“But as we move into the Christian era there is a profound shift in archetypal imagery as Wisdom becomes associated with Christ as Logos, the Word of God, and the whole relationship between Wisdom and the Goddess is lost. Now, the archetypal feminine is finally deleted from the divine, and the Christian image of the deity as a trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit becomes wholly identified with the masculine archetype. … This theological development effectively erased the ancient relationship between Wisdom and the image of the goddess. Gnostic Christianity, however, retained the older tradition and the image of Sophia as the embodiment of Wisdom survived. Here she was the Great Mother, the consort and counterpart of the God head. When the Gnostic sects were repressed by the edicts of the Emperor Constantine in AD 326 and 333, the image of Sophia as the embodiment of Wisdom was again lost. However, after an interlude of several hundred years, it reappeared in the Middle Ages, in the great surge of devotion to the Virgin Mary and the pilgrimages to the shrines of the Black Virgin … then, in the sudden manifestation of the Order of the Knights Templar, the Grail legends, alchemy, the troubadours and the Cathar Church of the Holy Spirit, Sophia, or Sapientia, as the image of Wisdom, became the inspiration, guide and goal of a spiritual quest of overwhelming numinosity.” (1)

I am committed to a Sophian Way. My view and practice are largely settled. I have worked, studied and sometimes simply surrendered over a long period, exploring methods and movements and gaining insights from them. That phase is done. On several occasions now, the phrase ‘it’s over’ has flashed into my mind, imprinting itself with the force of command. A quest is fulfilled. I know how best to maintain (to use my own language) a sense of At-Homeness, a living ‘not-I-not-other-than-I’ interconnectedness with the Divine. With this, my contemplative inquiry has reached the high-water mark of ‘contemplative’. It is therefore set to become a contemplation-and-action inquiry, in which I will, among other things, look at my understanding of ‘action’ at this time in my life.

One concern, given this confirmation of personal path, is the question of affiliation, and of social identity in the spiritual domain. How do I place myself in culture and community? Merely to name a ‘Sophian Way’ is an invocation of sorts, yet I am neither a Christian nor a Gnostic in the sense of the old movements. My valuing of a wisdom text like the Gospel of Thomas is on a par with my valuation of texts from other traditions – the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra, the Tao Te Ching, or Rumi’s poetry. I don’t have a category called ‘scripture’. I value the concept of gnosis, especially as defined by Baring and Cashford: “knowledge in the sense of insight or understanding, which requires participation not merely of the intellect but of the whole being. It is knowledge discovered with the intuition – the eye of the heart – which has no need of the intermediary of a priesthood”. But people in many spiritual movements would stand by this definition, and I have limited resonance with the specific frameworks of the ancient and medieval movements that we call Gnostic.

I have talked recently about being ‘spiritual but not religious’, but this now feels somehow weak and lacking in content. My sense is that both words have lost precise definition in the English language. Thinking of my commitment, and conscious of the Baring and Cashford passage above, I feel Pagan, and still held within modern Paganism. Baring and Cashford describe a twelfth century image of Mary in her Sophia aspect at an Oxfordshire church. It is in a Christian setting but for me works most powerfully with a Pagan understanding. She is “seated on a lion throne, as were all the goddesses before her. The divine child is held on her lap and her right hand holds the root of the flower, which blossoms as the lily, disclosing that she is the root of all things. The dove, for so many thousand years the principal emblem of the goddess, rests on the lily, and a stylized meander frames the right-hand side of the scene. All these images relate the medieval figure of Sophia to the older images of the goddess, which reach back into the Neolithic past. But in her the goddess is given a specific emphasis, which offers an image of wisdom as the highest quality of the soul, and suggests that, evolving from root to flower, the soul can ultimately blossom as the lily and, understanding all things, soar like a bird between the dimensions of earth and heaven. Nor is this Christian image unrelated to that of the shaman lying in trance in the cave of Lascaux, for there, also, the bird mask he wears and the bird resting on his staff symbolize the flight his flight into another dimension of consciousness”.

From about the twelfth century, people in the West have increasingly made themselves creators of their own mythology (2), at an increasing rate. As a modern Pagan I know this and respond to the challenge. As a modern Pagan I can honour the tree of life, which is also the tree of knowledge, one tree, the Goddess’s tree, from root to crown. I can be At Home.

(1) Anne Baring & Jules Cashford Sophia, Mother, Daughter and Bride, Chapter 15 in The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image London” Arkana Penguin Books, 1993

(1) Joseph Campbell The Masks of God: Creative Mythology Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976 (First edition published 1968 in New York by the Viking Press. Creative Mythology is fourth in a series of The Mask of God)


Who is Sophia for me, here and now? To do the question full justice, I want to back up and look again at her presence in Eurasian culture.

In the old cosmologies, she is ‘Wisdom’ in three spiritually influential languages – Sophia (Greek), Hokhmah (Hebrew) and Prajna (Sanskrit). She has attracted titles like Goddess, Mother of Angels, Saint, and Mother of Buddhas. In the Mahayana Buddhist world, she is related to bodhisattvas such as Tara and Kuan Yin. She has resonances with the Shakti power of Kashmiri Shaivism and with ‘spirit of the valley’ and water imagery in the Tao Te Ching.

In the Hellenistic culture of the Roman orient, especially Alexandria with its large Greek and Jewish communities, she has clear resemblances to Isis (already somewhat remodelled by the Greeks from an indigenous original) and to Asherah, the lost goddess of Israel, and her continuing half-recognition as Shekinah. Sophia is also a key figure in certain iterations of Christian Gnosticism, in some of which Mary of Magdala has been understood as her human incarnation. She is sometimes a cosmic mother, but never exclusively an earth mother, though that aspect can be included. Her main role  is to complete our spiritual knowledge and understanding by imbuing us with compassion. The result is wisdom.

I am inspired by these ancient traditions. But I am not directly guided by them. I look more to my own experiences and sense-making, together with input from contemporary teachers. As I write, I sense Sophia as a body-feelings-mind wisdom, a systemic presence greater than my linguistic/narrative identity. It is as if she nudges me from all sorts directions. I might call some of these intuition; others, synchronicity.  Embarking on a Way of Sophia was part of a plan. Discovering the Headless Way, and finding that its methods worked, was not. It came at me in a very odd, sideways manner, that I had not thought of at all, and I just went for it.

In the past I have sometimes thought of Sophia as a cosmic mother, representing the whole world of form. I no longer have this sense. For me she operates at a more personal and human level. To name the world of form, and its relationship to empty awareness, I would rather work with the old Gaelic term Oran Mor (Great Song). Here – adopting auditory language – I am personally an ephemeral note, perhaps a brief tune, in the Great Song. Yet ultimately I, like you, am the timeless aware silence that contains the whole song, and which the song so beautifully fills.

And what is the The Way of Sophia? It is learning to live from the eternal silent centre, and lovingly offering my unique if passing note to the Oran Mor.


In the Thoth Tarot (1), the Fool has both feet planted unfirmly in the air – falling, or perhaps rather leaping, into manifestation. In conventional packs the Fool generally retains one foot on the earth, the other poised to take the fateful leap into the abyss. In this as in other respects, artist Frieda Harris and author Aleister Crowley took a different approach. According to Lon Milo DuQuette (2) Crowley thought of the Fool as “the Nothing we refer to when we say ‘Nothing created God. Nothing is beyond God. Nothing is greater than God … In essence, there are not really 22 trumps, there is only one – the Fool. All the other trumps live inside (and issue from) the Fool.” That’s why the Fool is 0 rather than 1. Crowley himself wrote (2) that “the Fool is the negative issuing into manifestation, its purpose accomplished, ready to return”.

I use Tarot images as contemplative tools and the Kabbalist schema as a valuable map. But it is not the territory and I treat the system as a suggestive and inspiring means of furthering my contemplative inquiry. Only timelessness is timeless, and whilst Kabbalah may point to the timeless, it is itself the product of a complex history, just like alchemy and the other ingredients of the Thoth Tarot.

What attracts me to this Fool is his world-enabling negative capability. As a cosmic creation myth, I like the idea of Emptiness finding a pathway to Wisdom (Hokhmah) as the first act of descent down the Tree of Life. In my universe both Hokhmah and Binah (Understanding) are aspects of Sophia, who is both our cosmic mother and the guiding archetype of human evolution, drawing us beyond the perils of mere knowledge.

Beyond the card itself I am left with a reflection on the relation between Wisdom and Emptiness. If we are climbing up the tree, then the Fool offers a path from Wisdom to Emptiness. The Goddess willingly points us even beyond herself, perhaps reminding us of a true nature in which we are both everything and nothing. Fools, one and all.

(1)Aleister Crowley & Frieda Harris (1983) Thoth Tarot Deck Stamford, CT, USA: U.S. Games Systems Inc.

(2) Lon Milo DuQuette (2003) Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot San Francisco, CA, USA: Red Wheel/Weiser LLC




In my understanding, Sophia has walked with us on a long cultural journey. We first discover her paradoxically placed within monotheist and patriarchal Judaism. She is named Hokhmah, which like the Greek Sophia translates into English as Wisdom. Her subsequent journey has often been through difficult and dangerous territory in the apparent world. It always marks a drive to awaken from toxic and delusional ‘realities’ and it has sometimes had a markedly pessimistic tone. This journey continues into our own times, and with it Sophia’s gift for what the old Gnostics called ‘continuous revelation’: “I will again make instruction shine forth like the dawn, and I will make it clear from far away. I will again pour out teaching like prophecy, and leave it to all future generations. Observe that I have not laboured for myself alone, but for all who seek wisdom”. (1)

Anne Baring and Jules Cashford point out (2) that although Wisdom in Jewish sacred literature was technically an abstract and transcendent quality, associated with the divine, it was always referred to as ‘she’, though without any image to support the personification. However the poetry of Hokhmah reveals her emergence from the earlier Great Mother. Wisdom speaks as Inanna and Isis spoke before her, powerfully, authoritatively and sensuously, making abundant use of natural imagery to come into full presence.

I grew tall like a cedar in Lebanon,

And like a cypress on the heights of Hermon.

I grew tall like a palm tree in Engedi.

And like rose bushes in Jericho;

Like a fair olive tree in the field,

And like a plane tree beside water I grew tall.

Like cassia and camel’s thorn I gave forth perfume,

And like choice myrrh I spread my fragrance,

Like galbanum, onycha, and stacte,

And like the odour of incense in the tent.

Like a terebinth I spread out my branches,

And my branches are glorious and graceful.

Like the vine I bud forth delights,

And my blossoms become glorious and abundant fruit.

Come to me, you who desire me

And eat your fill of my fruits.

For the memory of me is sweeter than honey,

And the possession of me sweeter than the honeycomb.

Those who eat of me will hunger for more,

And those who drink of me will thirst for more,

Whoever obeys me will not be put to shame,

And those who work with me will not sin. (1)

Baring and Cashford suggest that the greatest legacy of the goddess culture in the eastern Mediterranean is “the idea that the earthly, visible order of creation participates in the invisible source of being”. This is the foundation of the Wisdom traditions of Mesopotamia and Egypt, some 2,000 years older than Greek or Hebrew civilisation. “In Greece, whose great philosophers visited Egypt, it is the foundation of Plato’s Great Chain of Being. Israel’s own ‘Wisdom Teaching’ is woven with the thread of these older traditions, although the name, person and representation of the goddess could find no place” (2).

I am drawn to Sophia because for me she is fully in and of nature yet not locked in to the role of earth mother. She stands for every part of Plato’s chain: matter, life, mind – soul and spirit too if you want to make further distinctions.  She doesn’t stand for a dream of bliss within the womb, or in an over-managed garden. Reading the old Jewish myths through a Gnostic lens she, under the name of Eve, puts a stop to all that. She will not accept a reign of ignorance and false consciousness. Sophia stands for awareness, which includes a willingness to see the world as clearly as possible and a capacity to hold and manage a measure of self-aware suffering. In my universe Sophia is pneuma, the very breath and spirit of awakened and relational life, and as such she represents the energies of creativity and love as well as of wisdom. For none of these fully blooms without the others.

  1. Ecclesiasticus, or the Wisdom of Jesus Son of Sirach 24, 13-32,The Apocrypha: the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books of the Old Testament, New Revised Standard Version Cambridge, England: The University Press, 1992
  2. Baring Anne and Cashford Jules The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image London, England: Penguin, Arkana Books, 1993

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