Friday, April 6, 2012

Vendredi: Chthonian Histories

Easter Sunday, according to the Western calendar established by Pope Gregory, falls two days from today on the 8th.  Of course other Christian religions slate different days for the big event, including the Eastern Orthodox and Coptic churches.  For some reason, because of this variation in days and dates, I tend to think of the very early Christian church at this time of year.  Such thoughts always wander to the highly thoughtful, highly heretical Gnostic faith and the wonderful story of their Pistis Sophia, the greatest of God’s angels.  Or perhaps the very progenitor of God.

The story of Pistis Sophia (which is translated from the Greek as “Faith-Wisdom”) begins with the Old Testament.  In the Books of Proverbs and Wisdom she is mentioned as Yahweh’s companion, created with or just after him and constantly at his side.  At first, she is no more than a balancing metaphor but gradually in the popular faith she, like Shekhina with whom she is often confused, takes on an actual personality.  She is written of in Kabalistic literature as gently contentious, interceding for man with Yahweh in the same way that Christians imagine the Virgin Mary halting her Son’s righteous hand.

Gnosticism picked this template up and ran with it.  In their Dark vs. Light gospel that was so influenced by Persian Zoroastrianism, Sophia became the female originating force.  She was born of Silence and in turn gave birth to God the Son who she then took as lover.  The two created the Angels (known as Aeons) who, in their turn, became the lovers of Sophia.  It is she who led these Angel lovers away from God the Son – the Light – toward Yahweh/Satan – the Dark.  In Gnostic belief, all things physical were created by evil ergo anything that existed prior to God the Son was evil.  In an overarching religious embrace of the new vs. the old, the Gnostic prophets threw out the “old God” and associated him with Satan.

This rejection of the Light, along with an insatiable curiosity, caused Sophia to fall from grace.  She became a physical being in the Gnostic Hell, which is our tangible world.  Perhaps not surprisingly she became debased, offering her new physical body to anyone who would pay.  She experienced all the worst parts of life on Earth and is therefore sometimes called “our sister” in Gnostic prayers.

All this degradation taught Sophia wisdom and a new appreciation for the Light.  She returned to the presence of God the Son and was installed beside him as Pistis Sophia, the angel who will champion man.

Despite the eventual rejection of Gnostic teaching as heretical, the Roman Catholic Church retained some vestige of respect for Sophia as a metaphor not only for divine wisdom, but for the outcast returned to the fold.  She reappears in Revelations as the apocryphal Bride of Christ, and icons of Pistis Sophia are not uncommon in the Russian and Greek Orthodox Churches.

Perhaps the best end note to the unusual and contentious history of “our sister” Sophia is a passage from the Dead Sea scrolls of Nag Hammaddi, discovered in the 20th century.  The script paraphrases the much more ancient words of the Egyptian goddess Au-set/Isis and puts them into the mouth of Sophia:

I am the first and the last, the honored and the despised, the whore and the holy one, wife and virgin, barren and fertile.  

Happy Easter/Joyeuses Pâques

Header:  Pistis Sophia icon from the wonderful (G)Nostic Nunnery where you can find this lovely prayer to Sophia


Timmy! said...

Very interesting, Pauline.

Happy Easter!

Pauline said...

It is, too... and Hoppy Ostera :)