Analyst Bernice Hill explores the archetypal history and contemporary relevance of Sophia and suggests new ways that we can navigate our present environmental crises.
Last Updated on Sunday, 27 October 2013 20:37
Written by Bernice H. Hill
Sophia and Sustainability
Presented March 17, 2006, at the Boulder Friends of Jung, Boulder, Colorado
Today we face a major challenge: our relationship to the earth. It requires a basic evolution of our consciousness. Pollution and global warming are occurring at a much faster rate than the scientists had predicted. We, as a species, have ignored the earth, treated it as our convenience store and now depletion and spoilage are evident.
There will be many ways in which sustainability of the earth will be considered. There is the practical: China is reported to be investing $165 billion to reduce pollution. A well-known scientist has proposed firing rockets to release sulfur into the atmosphere to slow the warming. There are also efforts by the religious community, as exemplified by the recent formation of “Creation Care” committees for prayer and social action.
A Jungian perspective, however, will look for the underlying issues; and such a view would be long term and more subtle in approach. Jungians would consider the archetypes, the worldviews, and the processes in the natural psyche that apply to our attitudes about the earth and our growing problems. A Jungian approach would be to search for a principle of psychological and spiritual transcendence, aware that we now need a higher level of integration, aware that it is now time to become “citizens of the world”.
Archetypes, of course, are those primordial, universal energy patters that form our behaviors, attitudes, and values, both individual and collective. They carry the full range of possibilities, positive and negative, for that theme. They are found in our myths, symbols, dreams, visions, and cultural stories. A prime example is Joseph Campbell’s exploration in “The Hero with the Thousand Faces.”
In considering our relationship to the earth, the archetype of Sophia rises to prominence. Jung has written that Sophia is the archetype of greatest universality. She is found throughout all cultures and all times. She carries great wisdom and an all-embracing erotic vision of life, closely tied to the earth. She is not just an abstract principle, but a path (encoded in her fundamental processes) moving us towards a goal. If we have a deeper understanding of Sophia’s principles, we will see she requires us (on many levels) to look at the quality of our living experience.
Sophia in her early form:
The earliest forms of Sophia emphasized her power and influence on earth and in the human psyche. In the ancient text of Hypostasis of the Archons, found at Nag Hammadi, it is written that Sophia preexisted and gave birth to the male godhead. She chastises his arrogance when he says there is no other god before him. She claims her spiritual authority. She says “you are wrong, Samuel” (meaning Lord of the blind) and stretches forth her finger to send light into matter. She then follows the light down into the region of “Chaos.”
This power of Sophia within the earth realm was seen in early visions: “I am nature, the universal mother, mistress of all the elements, primordial child of time, sovereign of all things spiritual, queen of the dead, queen of the immortals, My nod governs the shining heights of heaven, the wholesome sea breezes, the lamentable silences of the world below. I know the cycles of growth and decay.” (1)
Certainly, from the beginning of time Sophia has been represented by the Great Mother from whom all life arises and is sustained. She was worshipped from 25,000 to 5,000 BC, an immense period of time in human history. Her fecundity is honored in the corpulent statue of Venus of Willendorf (2).
Themes of the intertwining of nature and spirit, and the paradox of life and death are everywhere in images of the Great Feminine. In ancient Mesopotamia, she was depicted as Ishtar, with a winged headdress and holding the ring of divine authority. She was sculpted with owls at her feet representing the secrets of the underworld and death.
In pre-dynastic Egypt she was often shown as a bird goddess with her arms uplifted, again like wings. Another frequent association was with the lion: a fire symbol. This theme was evident in the statues of Sekhmet. It was said that Sekhmet, carrying the paradox of fierce feminine power, would return in times of epoch change. The New York Times reports that 17 statues of Sekhmet have been found at Luxor in March 2006.
The uniting of paradoxes is evident in Isis: the great Goddess of the two lands of light and dark of Egypt. She is the agent for the resurrection of Osiris; by conceiving Horus, she brings forth the basic symbol of transformation in the uniting of the paradoxes.
Sophia’s Power: Veiled
For a period of time Sophia was evident in the city states of Greece and Rome. Her qualities were expressed through the ancient goddess Cybele. Here, also, she was often shown with lions, thought to represent the fiery and ecstatic state associated with her worship. However, Cybele began to fade in Rome about 200 BC as did the goddesses worshipped elsewhere: Isis in Egypt, Artemis in Ephesus, and Demeter in Greece. Similarly, Athene (Minerva) goddess of wisdom; became redefined as the daughter of Zeus, now the goddess of civilization. She was occasionally portrayed with only a small reminder of her heritage: an owl in her hand. To add insult to injury, she was considered to be the inventor of the bridle to tame the horse.
With the further emergence of the Greek Culture there was a marked decline in the power of Sophia. In particular, when the work of Aristotle stressed the world of ideas, and rationality; Logos, which had been her prerogative, became defined as masculine.
Buddhism, Christianity, Islam: (530 B.C to 0 – 600 A.D) all make mention of Sophia, yet each tradition adapts her to their own cosmology; and all increasingly become critical of nature. The goal of all these spiritual traditions is to rise above the earth and achieve Nirvana. Heaven, or Paradise.
The strongest belief in Sophia was retained by Gnostics (2-3 A.D.). While some Gnostic sects saw Sophia as God’s playmate, existing before the manifest world and responsible for helping man journey back to the Source, others blamed her curiosity for the fall of the soul into matter. This, for them, was a tragedy, for the material world was seen as unworthy. Women and earthiness were judged as the cause of all man’s problems. These Gnostics held a dim view of sexuality and treated women in the patriarchal style of the times. And so Sophia became split; her more negative aspect was called the Whore of Babylon, and earth, as a valued expression of creation, was lost.
Sophia, in her new form, surfaced as the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus. She is first really noticed within the Catholic Church in 431 A.D. She became very prominent in early art where she was depicted as a vessel of rebirth and higher transformation. She was seen, usually, as a divine protector in early Renaissance times: a figure that mankind could appeal to in times of trouble. She became increasingly “elevated” through the years and in 1950 the church declared the Assumption of Mary into Heaven. Jung wrote that while it was good that the Church finally recognized the importance of the feminine, it had exalted Mary in the masculine sense and this would be injurious to the feminine principle of wholeness.
It was through the Black Madonna that Christianity retained Sophia’s connection with nature. The Black Madonna was sometimes called the lady of the caves where her statues were often hidden. The blackness there may have been related to the fact that she had been rescued by the locals after being burned as “pagan” by the church. Her darkness, however, could reflect earlier times, for Isis and Cybele were black of skin. The Black Madonna became the Mary of indigenous people and is still found in Poland, Spain, Mexico.
While Christianity basically ignored nature, or saw it as sinful, it is important to recognize that some mystics of the Christian church retained the integration of nature and spirit: Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) and Jacob Boehm (1575-1650) spoke of their love for the beauty and importance of the natural world as an expression of God. They believed our spirit’s journey was vitally intertwined with the earth. Many writers also felt that the Sophianic message went into the essential teachings of Jesus. Jung wrote in “Answer to Job” that Sophia softened the Old Testament Yahweh and helped the Old Testament God remember compassion.
The fundamental challenge of Sophia and our relationship to nature , however, resurfaces in recently discovered esoteric texts. Of particular note is the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, written in the 2nd century but not found until 1896 (with fragments published in the western world in 1996). Mary Magdalene is described here as an intimate of Christ, mentored by Him and recognized as one who supported and taught the apostles. Early tapestries illustrate this prominence and relationship. This gospel records further teachings of Christ, such as:
“All that is born, all that is created and all the elements of nature are interwoven and united with each other.” And then Christ goes on to say: “all that is composed will be decomposed.” This is the fundamental Sophianic challenge: to view ourselves as a process unfolding within nature. Such a view places us beyond religious dogma, and opens us to on-going Creation.
What wisdom awaits us here? Man’s deep fear of illness and death informs his pervasive need to control nature. Certainly, man’s innate intelligence is here to cure illness and provide palliative care for the dying. What we have not done is penetrate further into how fundamentally we are interwoven and united with nature, and how she provides the cog-wheel of our evolution.
Deep exploration of the psyche has revealed a new understanding of what we have described as the “descent journey” or “dark night of the soul”. We have not appreciated how fundamental this process is and only get a glimpse of understanding it when we consider life’s crisis, losses and depressions. Several years of research using high dosage LSD, music and therapeutic support with terminally ill cancer patients have uncovered a basic building block of this experience (Fig 1):
These patients experienced birth and death. They realized that they had died before. As a fetus, they saw that even the process of being born is a dying to an old way of knowing. These cancer patients recognized that descent journeys arose from an archetypal layer within the psyche itself and that it opened them to a new and different type of existence. They found a faith in the continuity of life and they died with much less anxiety and pain medication.
For us to mature as a species we must open to the deeper capacity of our psyches and come to reflect on its foundational aspects. Sophia, as an inclusive archetype, understands “the dark.” The wholeness she encompasses includes nature as our container and our destroyer and we need to grapple with that to find its wisdom. Henri Corbin has written: “It is not the incarnate Sophia’s role to bind or connect us to the earth, but to help us recognize that our understanding of ourselves as separate from the earth is a delusion.”
Few paintings have illustrated the integrative power of Sophia more than that of Alex Grey (Fig 2):
Here we see throughout the themes of descent and the balancing of opposites: the basic principles of soul work It is evident in the inserted circles of Demeter and Kali: the nurturing container (she who brings forth new life) and the transformer (she who demands the sacrifice that leads to truth). It is seen in the caduceus: the active equilibrium of opposing forces coming together in such a way as to create a higher form. It is evident in the earth, as child close to her heart, and in the symbols of the Kabbala whose purpose is to connect the finite world with the infinite.
Sophia is emerging now, in these times of immense change, to challenge us again with her ways of knowing. She instructs us through her basic principles: (1) the creative tension of opposites (2) descent journeys (3) transcendence to a new form. Repetitive experience with each of these principles changes the nature of our ego, our reality and our relationship to “the Other.” These principles demonstrate the dynamism embedded in an energy matrix of Nature and the direction of our soul’s evolution. Awakening to these vital underlying patterns raises intense questions for us about our relationship to nature: questions that now need to be confronted.
Our Limited World Views:
(1)Polarization around: Father God - Mother God
Our culture is unconsciously imbued with a masculine God. Philosophers have pointed out that man’s image of himself will necessarily be translated to his image of God. Human beings create the kind of God they are prepared to receive at a given historical period of time. So for 20,000 years we had Mother God, and for 2,500 years we have had Father God. Wars are now stirred between rival definitions of this male God.
Jesus taught during strong patriarchal times (as did Mohammed). These teachings were taken up by the Church, which framed them in that masculine preference and projected them on all institutions. The denigration of the feminine and of matter inherent in that worldview contributes to our lack of awareness of the earth today as a living entity.
In contrast to this patriarchal view consider the following: “Source is omnipresent, omnipotent and omniscient. There is a force-a Source of consciousness, in which we all reside (even the bad guys) and of which we are composed. The True God is beyond form. No being can ever be separate from God because all things in form manifestation take place within the Source. Some parts have forgotten their Divine identity-have no memory of the wholeness of which they are a part. They compete for power with others, and they neither acknowledge, nor comprehend the endless supply of Living Power, energy and love that eternally circulates between Source and all living things which are manifest.” (3)
Here is the integral perspective; earth is seen as a natural part of an immense living dynamic process, which, like us, arises from Source.
(2) Polarization: Life and Death
In America, we keep death hidden. It is very un-American to die. It’s a failure, for we should never lose a battle and America is a warrior culture. This fear of death gets translated into fear of nature, matter itself, and a devaluing of the earth.
Jung wrote that death becomes the most important issue to examine after mid-life. It is a question we must wrestle with, for death draws the two worlds together and we are the bridge.
Boulder, Colorado is a unique place. The Buddhist Institute of Shambhala has established a Death College. Last fall it offered a 7 week course. The text was The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. We practiced dying: we lay on our right side in fetal position; holding the right nostril closed, and imagined the process. We were introduced to how the energy withdraws from the extremities, fades through the senses of eyes, ears, taste; how “father” energy from the head area joins “mother” energy from the lower body in the heart and then moves gradually on into the Illumined Mind. Yogis train themselves to awaken at this point. This juncture is possibly the basis of ‘near death’ experiences. For most, according to Buddhist teachings, the soul is drawn back into another life.
We were also sent on field trips. The first was to the local funeral home to be instructed in the embalming and cremation process. Then to a medical lab to examine 5 well-explored cadavers; handle the organs and note the remarkable way the body systems fit together. What remains in one’s mind is the implacable coldness, the clay of our physical being, once the soul has left. The body goes on its own journey of descent and return.
Many of the world’s people, like the Buddhists, of course, believe in reincarnation. They hold that it takes more than one lifetime for the soul to mature. The theosophists would say that we all must undergo four initiations before there is sufficient soul infusion for conscious living. They would say that mankind, as a whole, is just entering the 1st initiation, where the heart begins to integrate with the intellect. The second and third initiations have been demonstrated by the lives of such people as Ghandi, Mother Theresa, and the Dalai Lama. Christ was believed to have taken the fourth initiation, which requires a profound sacrifice.
Huston Smith, after a lifetime of study of the world’s religions, has written that he believes that things are not as bad as we tend to think they are. Yes, life and death are a mystery, yet we should have more faith in the process.
Challenge of Polarity 3: Individual Responsibility and Earth
Sophia has faith in the living processes, and she comes to teach us that. Her reconciliation of dark and light, nature and spirit generates a certain detachment, a wider understanding. She asks us to be more “philosophical”(i.e. philo…sophia ) about our own life and death. In this, she offers us a living universe that is much more immense and complex than held by our present view.
How would a sense of detachment relate to the sustainability of the earth? Certainly not through the notion of “The Rapture,” where believers in Christ consider they will be instantly transported to Heaven while unbelievers will be left behind. Such a view, like fundamentalism itself, demonstrates the wrong use of will, a quick fix for the fear engendered in these changing times. Believers in the Rapture would hurry the demise of the earth to hasten this process.
Jung, again, pointed to a different function of detachment, when he wrote of the process of individuation, the way for increasing self-knowledge. The very principles of the Jungian work: the creative tension of opposites, descent journeys and the transcendent function are born on the carrying wave of the Sophia archetype. These principles move us through matter and ultimately bring greater light and a sense of union. They change our view of reality and the basis of our choices. This is Sophianic wisdom.
Our way through the present environmental crisis requires that we mature; that we free ourselves from too local, too self-serving a perspective; that we move beyond our fear of life’s cycles to become “citizens of the world.” Jung wrote “My work has proved empirically that the pattern of God exists in every man…not only the meaning of his life, but his renewal and the renewal of his institutions depend on his conscious relationship with this pattern.” Addressing the earth's issues requires a profound renewal of our institutions and an expanded perception of our own soul’s journey, intertwined with nature herself. It is time.
• (1) Visions of Apuleius (Metamorphoses II)
• (2) A rich pictorial record of Sophia can be found in the ARAS website; Sophia, the Goddess of Wisdom by Caitlin Mathews; and Light from the Darkness by Peter Birkhauser.
• (3) Voyagers.” Ashayana Deane. Wild Fire Press, Columbus, NC 2002.
• (4) Fig 1: Beyond the Brain, Stanislav Grof, State University of New York, 1982.
• (5) Fig 2: Sacred Mirrors, The Visionary Art of Alex Grey, Inner traditions International 1990