views updated May 17 2018


SOPHIA is a Greek word that means "wisdom." In the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures (Old Testament), the name Sophia is given as a translation of okhmah (also meaning "wisdom"), the name of a figure with feminine features. In the Greek version of the apocryphal book the Wisdom of Solomon (written in Alexandria at the beginning of the common era), Sophia is said to be the emanation of God's glory, the Holy Spirit, the immaculate mirror of his energy, nay, even the spouse of the Lord (Septuagint 8:3). In the Greek rendering of Ben Sira, or Sirach, she is depicted as a woman: To the wise man she is both a tender mother, who spoils him as if he were her favorite child, and his young mistress, who surprises him with unexpected wildness (15:2). In Proverbs (c. 300), Wisdom "standeth at the top of high places and cries at the gates" (8:23; what Oriental woman would thus expose herself?) to proclaim that the Lord had brought her forth (not "created") before he began the creation. After he had created the world, she stood before him as his daily delight (8:30). This image was inspired by the pagan belief, represented on many excavated objects, that a goddess (either the Egyptian Maat or a Canaanite figure) stands before the godhead to please and entertain him.

In The Thunder, Whole Mind, one of the writings found at Nag Hammadi in 1945 and written probably during the first pre-Christian century by an Alexandrian Jew, Sophia manifests herself through a series of impressive paradoxes: as both the wisdom of the Greeks and the gnōsis of the barbarians, as both the saint and the whore, as the "All-Mother."

The ideas that God is female or that he has a feminine spouse lie further back still. Recently, in the Israeli Negev and near Hebron, Hebrew inscriptions have been found dating back to the eighth century that speak about "the Lord and his Asherah" (Asherah, or Athirat, was a Canaanite goddess of love, war, and fertility). On one jar bearing such an inscription, YHVH seems to be represented by the Egyptian god Bes (possessing an enormous phallus) together with a feminine figure (Athirat?). In Elephantine (near Aswan, Egypt) the Jews venerated Anat Jahu, another Canaanite deity, possibly as the spouse of the Lord. okhmah (Sophia) is the positive offprint of this photographic negative, the great goddess of the pre-Greek and pre-Hebrew Mediterranean, who, variously called Anat, Athirat, or Astarte (comparable to the later Greek Aphrodite), was considered to be a sacred prostitute, as were her devotees, and was still venerated as dea meretrix (goddess/whore) during classical times in the Near East.

Gnosticism integrated this Jewish myth. Simon the Magician, a first-century Samaritan (i. e., heterodox Jew), taught that the spouse of the Lord, called Sophia or the Holy Spirit, was actually "the first Idea of God" and had descended in order to produce the angels and powers that created the world. These tyrannical powers then overwhelmed her and forced her reincarnation again and again. (A contemporary version of this story is She by Rider Haggard.) At last she became one Helena, a prostitute in a brothel at Tyre (Phoenicia), whence Simon redeemed her. Here the cosmogonic Sophia of Hebrew lore has been combined with the Neo-Pythagorean concept of Helena as a symbol of the fallen and reascending heavenly soul.

In another Gnostic text, the Apocryphon of John (Alexandria, first century), Sophia is the last of the spiritual entities to come into existence. She falls into the cosmos because of her wantonness, but there she fights against the demiurge in her struggle to make man spiritually conscious. The same theme is Christianized by the greatest Gnostic, Valentinus, according to whom Sophia desires to penetrate the mystery of ultimate being, then falls through hubris (tolma ) but is saved by Christ.

In the modern gnōsis, initiated around 1600 by Jakob Boehme, a similar mythology has developed. In addition to Christ, the German pietists discern the feminine Sophia, a goddess (the Holy Spirit?) and bride to the wise man. To become like Adam before the birth of Eve from his side, man must unite with his inner Sophia and become androgynous. English representatives of this tradition were John Pordage (16071681) and Jane Leade (16231704). Franz von Baader (17641841), a Bohemian philosopher, regarded androgyny and Sophianology as the aim and purpose of marriage. At the time of the Holy Alliance, these ideas were exported to Russia, where they were accepted by the Freemasons and such brilliant Orthodox theologians as Vladimir Solovʾev and Sergei Bulgakov.

See Also

Gnosticism; Hierodouleia; okhmah.


Benz, Ernst. Der Mythus vom Urmenschen. Munich, 1955.

Bulgakov, Sergei. The Wisdom of God. New York, 1937.

Winter, Urs. Frau und Göttin. Fribourg, 1982.

New Sources

Casadio, Giovanni. "Donna e simboli femminili nella gnosi del secondo secolo." In La donna nel pensiero cristiano antico, pp. 305329. Genoa, 1992.

Orbe, Antonio S.J., "Sophia Soror: apuntes para la teología del Espíritu Santo." In Mélanges d'histoire des religions offerts à Henri-Charles Puech, pp. 355363. Paris, 1974.

Stead, G. C. "The Valentinian Myth of Sophia." Journal of Theological Studies 20 (1969): 75104 (reprinted in Substance and Illusion in the Christian Fathers, London 1985).

Sfameni Gasparro, Giulia. "Il personaggio di Sophia nel Vangelo secondo Filippo." Vigiliae Christianae 31 (1977): 244281 (reprinted in Gnostica et Hermetica. Saggi sullo gnosticismo e sull'ermetismo, Rome, 1982, pp. 73119).

Tommasi Moreschini, Chiara O. "L'androginia di Cristo-Logos: Mario Vittorino tra platonismo e gnosi." Cassiodorus 4 (1998): 1146.

Zandee, Jan. "Die Person der Sophia in der Vierten Schrift des Codex Jung." In Le Origini dello, Gnosticismo, edited by Ugo Bianchi, pp. 203214. Leiden, 1967.

Gilles Quispel (1987)

Revised Bibliography


views updated May 11 2018


The Greek word sophia properly refers to cleverness or skill in handicraft and the productive arts, such as carpentry, music, singing, poetry, chariot driving, medicine, and even divination. In short it tends to pick out the sort of excellence in a particular domain that derives from experience and expertise. In early applications of the term to "wise men," for example the Seven Sages, the term referred primarily to the sorts of skills that would make for expertise in matters of common life and so was virtually synonymous with practical wisdom or prudence (phronêsis ). By the late fifth century BCE, however, the term was coming to have a more specialized meaning having to do with technical skill and the expertise derived from expert training and experience; that is, it encompassed both a knowledge base and an intimate familiarity with the applications of that knowledge base. The Sophists in particular claimed to have this sort of knowledgeable expertise in many different areas, from medicine to mathematics, oratory, and political science. Indeed, the name "sophistēs" simply means someone who makes a profession of the practice and teaching of such sorts of knowledge.

In Plato, "sophia" clearly has more philosophical connotations. Already in the early, Socratic dialogues we find an attempt to draw a distinction between the kinds of "expertise" that Sophists had and the sort of genuine reflective wisdom modeled by Socrates. For Plato, the former is clearly mere logical chicanery used to generate linguistic puzzles for the purpose of winning debates (see, for example, Socrates' line of reasoning in the Gorgias 464b465e). By the time Plato wrote the Theaetetus, he had clearly settled on an antisophistic conception of knowledge and expertise that takes the life and methodology of Socrates as its model, though even in that arguably late dialogue there is no clear line of demarcation drawn between sophia and epistēmē (knowledge). Since, for Plato, all knowledge, whether of mathematical objects or normative concepts such as the virtues, involves cognitive grasp of purely formal entities, there is less demand in his epistemology for a clear and concise differentiation between the two types of mental states and their proper objects.

Aristotle, by contrast, drew rather sharp distinctions not only between epistēmē and sophia, but also among those rational faculties and phronêsis (practical wisdom), technē (art, skill), and nous (intelligence, understanding). Yet the relation of sophia to the other rational faculties is somewhat specialized. In the Nicomachean Ethics (VI.7, 1141a9b3), Aristotle began by noting the traditional use of the word "sophia" to denote those who have mastered their craft (technē ) in a most exacting way, but added that it was also used to denote those who are "wise in general and not in one department," and he gave this as his reason for thinking that sophia is the "most perfect of the modes of knowledge." Thus sophia is associated with both technē and epistēmē, but it marks off a superlative kind of knowledge in which the knower not only fully understands the consequences of the principles of his craft but also fully understands the natures of the principles themselves. There is thus a sense in which sophia encompasses both the necessary truths that follow from demonstrations (the domain of epistēmē ) and the necessary truths that are the first principles of the demonstrative sciences (the domain of nous ). In the Metaphysics (981b28), this controlling wisdom is said to have the causes and first principles of all the other intellectual faculties as its proper objects, and so it is the highest form of wisdom.

The Stoics likewise took sophia as the perfection of human understanding (Seneca, Epistulae 89.4), and as consisting in a fully comprehensive and systematic grasp of the rational order in the universe. They characterized sophia as "knowledge of the divine and the human," with some adding "and their causes" (von Arnim, 2.35; Seneca, Epistulae 89.5). They also regarded this understanding as the crucial underpinning for the goal of leading a moral life and hence considered it a virtue.

In later antiquity, sophia held an even more elevated place. In the early Christian theologies of Philo Judaeus and Origen, it is associated with logos (word) and thus with the daughter or son of God, respectively. A central feature of the various Gnostic movements was the personification of sophia as a salvation figure. In some systems there were two sorts of sophia, Wisdom from above and Wisdom from below, representing the female, or noumenal, world and the male, or material, world, respectively. This dualism of sophia came in varying degrees. In Marcionism, a heretical doctrine of the second through fifth centuries and the most dualistic system of all, salvation consisted of accepting the wisdom that comes from the Good God and rejecting whatever comes from the Demiurge.

See also Aristotle; Gnosticism; Origen; Philo Judaeus; Phronêsis; Plato; Sophists; Stoicism.


Aristotle. The Complete Works of Aristotle, edited by Jonathan Barnes. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984.

Gigon, Olof. "Phronesis und Sophia in der Nikomachischen Ethik des Aristoteles." In Kephalaion: Studies in Greek Philosophy and Its Continuation Offered to Professor C. J. de Vogel, edited by J. Mansfeld and L. M. de Rijk, 91104. Assen, Netherlands: Van Gorcum, 1975.

Gladigow, Burkhard. Sophia und Kosmos: Untersuchungen zur Frühgeschichte von Sophos und Sophia. Hildesheim, Germany: Olms, 1964.

Hankinson, R. J. "Natural Criteria and the Transparency of Judgment: Philo, Antiochus, and Galen on Epistemological Justification." In Assent and Argument: Studies in Cicero's Academic Books, edited by Brad Inwood and Jaap Mansfeld, 161216. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1997.

Menn, Stephen. "Physics as a Virtue." Proceedings of the Boston Area Colloquium in Ancient Philosophy 11 (1997): 134.

Motte, André. "Cicerón et Aristote: A propos de la distinction entre la sophia et la phronèsis." In Aristotelica: Mélanges offerts à Marcel de Corte, edited by André Motte and Christian Rutten, 263303. Brussels: Éditions Ousia, 1985.

Plato. The Collected Dialogues of Plato. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963.

Seneca. Letters from a Stoic. Epistulae morales ad Lucilium [by] Seneca. Selected and translated by Robin Campbell. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969.

Von Arnim, Hans. Stoicorum veterum fragmenta. Leipzig, Germany: B. G. Teubneri, 19031924.

Woodruff, Paul. "Plato's Early Theory of Knowledge." In Epistemology, edited by Stephen Everson, 6084. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Scott Carson (2005)


views updated May 21 2018


(16571704); regent to Tsars Ivan V and Peter I, 16821689.

The fifth daughter of Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich and his first wife Maria Miloslavskaya, Sophia spent her youth in the terem, where her freedom was restricted, but she also came into contact with the new cultural trends of Tsar Alexei's later years. Many historians describe her as a pupil of Simeon Polotsky, but, although she was literate, there is no hard evidence that she studied with him. Those who regard Sophia as ambitious believe that she prepared for power during the reign of her brother Tsar Fyodor (r. 16761682) by attending his sick-bed and making political alliances, notably with Prince Vasily Golitsyn, whose lover she is said to have became. However, evidence of an intimate relationship, which would have seriously breached Muscovite moral codes, rests mainly on hearsay and rumor, as do Sophia's early political ambitions.

Following Fyodor's death in 1682, in the absence of mature males of royal blood, Sophia entered the political arena, as Muscovite conventions allowed royal women to do. She was motivated by the decision to make her half-brother Peter (b. 1672) sole ruler in preference to the elder, but physically and mentally handicapped, Tsarevich Ivan (b. 1666). Exploiting the Moscow militia's (musketeers') action to air grievances and take revenge on unpopular officers and officials in Peter's government, in May 1682 Sophia and her party were able to secure Ivan's accession as joint tsar with Peter. Most historians refer to Sophia as regent to her brothers, although she was never formally appointed as such. Even so, she was widely regarded as ruler and consolidated her authority by successfully quelling the continuation of musketeer unrest in 1682 during the period known as the Khovanshchina. She began to add her name to those of her brothers in royal edicts and to take part in public ceremonies and receptions, discarding some of the restrictions of the terem.

The dual monarchy required a new configuration of power at court in order to defuse tensions and achieve a consensus. Many additional men were promoted to boyar status. The ascendancy of the Miloslavsky clan was marginal, and by the late 1680s they lost ground to Peter's maternal relatives the Naryshkins and their clients. Sophia relied on Prince Vasily Golitsyn to spearhead both her foreign and her domestic policy, although later the

secretary Fyodor Shaklovity rose to prominence. The regime's crowning achievement was the 1686 treaty with Poland, which ratified the Treaty of Andrusovo (1667) in return for Russia's agreement to sever relations with the Ottoman empire and enter the Holy League, a stepping-stone toward Russia's ascendancy over Poland, achieved later in Peter I's reign. At home, efforts continued to maximize the fulfillment of service requirements and the payment of tax liabilities and to maintain law and order. Mildness in some areas, for example banning the cruel practice of burying alive women who murdered their husbands, was offset by savage penalties against Old Believers (edict of 1685). At the same time, developments in foreign policy forced the regime to relax restrictions on non-Orthodox foreigners, which annoyed conservatives. Russia offered sanctuary from persecution to French Protestants and made concessions to foreign merchants and industrialists to encourage them to set up businesses. In 1689 commercial treaties were signed with Prussia. Russia's first institute of higher education, the Slavo-Greco-Latin Academy, founded in 1685, also relied on foreign teachers.

Like many powerful women, Sophia has been accused of Machiavellian tendencies. Although there is no evidence that she intended Peter harm, she did adopt a highly visible rulership profile and began to use the feminine form of the title "autocrat" (samoderzhitsa ). She sponsored an impressive building program in the fashionable Moscow Baroque style and had her portrait with crown, orb, and scepter painted and reproduced in prints. Poets praised her, playing on the associations of her name (Sophia the Holy Wisdom). All this fueled fears that she planned to be crowned and spawned rumors of plots against Peter and his mother. Ultimately, her regime was undermined by the failure of two military campaigns against the Crimea in 1687 and 1689, leading to a standoff provoked by Peter's supporters. This time the musketeers' support for Sophia was lukewarm and did not quell her opponents. Some of her supporters were executed, and Sophia herself was banished to a convent. In 1698 the musketeers rebelled again. Rumors circulated that Sophia was the instigator, but the evidence was inconclusive. Nevertheless, Peter forced her to take the veil under the name Susannah. She died in the Novodevichy convent in Moscow in 1704.

See also: fyodor alexeyevich; golitsyn, vasily vasilievich; ivan v; peter i; streltsy


Hughes, Lindsey. (1988). "'Ambitious and Daring Above her Sex': Tsarevna Sophia Alekseevna (16571704) in Foreigners' Accounts." Oxford Slavonic Papers 21: 6589.

Hughes, Lindsey. (1990). Sophia: Regent of Russia, 16571704. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Thyret, Isolde. (2000). Between God and Tsar. Religious Symbolism and Royal Women of Muscovite Russia. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press.

Lindsey Hughes


views updated May 29 2018


"Sophia" is the Greek word of feminine grammatical gender for the English term "wisdom" (Hebrew, chokmah; Latin, sapientia). Divine Sophia-Wisdom, seen variously as the feminine side of God, as the Holy Spirit, as the Goddess, or as God's spouse, reached her peak of power in the Hellenistic era; was limited in her divine status by Jewish monotheism; was replaced in Christianity by the Holy Spirit, Jesus, and Mary; and was erased from Christological tradition by the church fathers. Recent feminist research has recovered Sophia-Wisdom in the Hebrew scriptures and Apocrypha (The Wisdom of Solomon and Ben Sira), and rediscovered her great influence in Hellenistic-Jewish, early Christian, and Gnostic circles.

Jewish wisdom theology presents God as the divine woman Wisdom, who appears as God's own being in creative and saving involvement with the world. As Sophia-Wisdom (or Wisdom-Sophia) God is present to the chosen people Israel. The woman Wisdom is a hidden treasure known only to God and the only one who knows God ( Job 28); she is a street preacher and prophet (Proverbs 1:8) who is with God during creation (Proverbs 8:22–31) and identifies her own words, actions, and gifts with those of God (Proverbs 1:23; 8:6–9). She is a giver of life (Proverbs 4:13), architect of her home, hostess and liturgist at her festive table (Proverbs 9:1–6), the glory of God (Wisdom 7:25–26), and the mediator of creation (Wisdom 8:5–6), and she shares the throne of God (Wisdom 9:3). She creates everything, makes all things new again, and permeates the universe (Wisdom 7:23, 27; 8:1, 5). She appears on earth, lives among creation (Baruch 3:37), and works in history to save her chosen people. She is called sister, spouse, mother, beloved, hostess, liberator, justice-maker, and teacher. In her, the wisdom of women and the image of the divine are united.

Scholarly opinion suggests that Hellenistic Jews in Egypt conceived of divine Wisdom as prefigured in the Canaanite, Mesopotamian, and Egyptian goddesses Astarte, Ishtar, Maat, and Isis. Egyptian Judaism incorporated the mythology and theology of Isis into the figure of Sophia to lend power to its own integrating forces through the use of a female divinity. Like Isis, Sophia is a religious symbol with an unusual capacity to create unity, a divine savior using the "I am" style to proclaim her message of universal salvation.

In early Christian writings Sophia seems to disappear, yet a deeper reading shows that a submerged theology of Wisdom-Sophia permeates the Christian scriptures. Early Christian communities had access to and used early Jewish discoveries of divine wisdom to elaborate on the significance of the Holy Spirit, Jesus, and Mary. The complete unity between Sophia and the Spirit is expressed in Wisdom 7:22–23, 27, where Sophia assumes the functions of the Spirit. Spirit-Sophia's universal presence is analogous to God's Spirit (Wisdom 7:24). These texts strengthen the fittingness of speaking about the Spirit in female imagery.

Early Jesus traditions interpreted the mission of Jesus as that of divine Sophia: proclaiming Sophia-God as the God of the poor, the excluded, and all who suffer injustice. What Judaism said of Sophia, Christian writers came to say of Jesus. Just as Wisdom received everything from God, so Jesus received everything from God (Matthew 11:27a). Just as Wisdom-Sophia is known only by God and is the only one who knows God, so Jesus has all wisdom (Matthew 11:27b, c). Just as divine Sophia gives her wisdom as gift, so also Jesus reveals wisdom to his chosen (Matthew 11:27d). Like Sophia-Isis, Jesus speaks in the "I am" style, and with the symbolism of bread, wine, and water invites people to eat and drink. Like Sophia-Wisdom, Jesus proclaims his message in the public square, is light and life of the world, calls people, and makes them children and friends. Paul describes Jesus as "the Sophia of God" (1 Corinthians 1:23–25; 2:6–8). Though she/he is the child and messenger of Sophia-God, Jesus-Sophia's woman Wisdom presence is pushed aside partly by John's Logos-Son-male theology, by resistance to the Gnostic version of Christianity that embraced Sophia, by the rejection of female leadership in the churches, and by the growth of sexism and patriarchy in Christian communities. Female wisdom imagery passed to the figure of Mary of Nazareth, the mother of Jesus, who became known as the Throne of Wisdom.

Sophia has reemerged in contemporary American feminist theology and spirituality. As proposed by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza and adopted by many feminist theologians, Sophia as the divine woman Wisdom continues her call for the liberation of all women, children, and men from the patriarchal, kyriarchal (male-priesthood-dominated) power in society and in religious communities. She invites all to rearticulate the symbols, images, and names of divine Sophia so that masculine-oriented God and Christ language is radically changed and the Western cultural sex/gender system is radically reconstructed.

See alsoBible; Divinity; Eastern Orthodoxy; Feminist Spirituality; Feminist Theology; Gnosticism; God; Goddess; Judaism; Matriarchy; Roman Catholicism; Spirit; Wisdom Literature; Womanist Theology.


Cady, Susan, Marian Ronan, and Hal Taussig. Sophia:The Future of Feminist Spirituality. 1986.

Camp, Claudia V. "Sophia/Wisdom." In DictionaryofFeminist Theologies, edited by Letty M. Russell and J. Shannon Clarkson. 1996.

Johnson, Elizabeth A. She Who Is. 1992.

Schussler Fiorenza, Elisabeth. Jesus: Miriam'sChild, Sophia's Prophet. 1994.

Diann L. Neu


views updated May 23 2018


Sophia is the preeminent female spiritual being in Gnostic mythology. Her character is complex and contradictory, encompassing ambivalence toward the feminine that simultaneously casts women as cherished helpmates and evil sexual predators.

Sophia is the Greek translation of the Hebrew term Hokhmah, both of which mean "wisdom." Sophia is the feminine personification of wisdom. She first appears in Hebrew literature from the first centuries before and after the common era. Sophia appears most prominently in the apocryphal (noncanonical) books but also is found in the poetic writings of the Hebrew Bible such as Proverbs. Archaeological evidence suggests that the Jewish Sophia is a remnant of a pre-Hebraic Mediterranean great mother goddess. She often appears as a companion to the Jewish god. A notable noncanonical writing, The Thunder, Perfect Intellect, describes Sophia as a series of positive and negative paradoxes. It claims that she is the harlot and the holy, the mother and the virgin, the root of sin and free from sin. This poem reveals a classical ambivalence about the good and evil nature of the feminine.

The image of Sophia as a powerful but contradictory being is integrated into the Gnostic traditions that involve her. In the Gnostic Apocryphon of John, Sophia appears as the last in a series of paired spiritual beings. She disrupts the idyllic spiritual realm by defying tradition and creating without the help of her male partner. In addition to breaking with the normal pattern of creation, Sophia is described as being motivated by excessive feelings of lust and sexual desire. Her transgressions lead to the creation of the monstrously imperfect Ialdabaoth, the evil false god of Gnosticism. Ialdabaoth then produces the human realm, which is hideously flawed because of the taint of Sophia's unnatural act of creation. Her contravention of tradition has the further negative consequence of casting Sophia and Ialdabaoth out of the spiritual realm as fallen beings. Sophia, however, is redeemed in later Gnostic myths and becomes a paradigm for human salvation.

The lessons encoded in Gnostic depictions of Sophia seem to include a warning about the dire consequences of the creative power of the feminine. Sophia's independent act of creation mirrors the solo creation of the unknown god, except that her lust-based creation results in error and corruption. The myth suggests that when attempted alone, the feminine power to create only achieves imperfection. The myth also sets up a normative model for gender relations, implying that in the ideal setting of the spiritual realm the masculine and feminine always work in pairs and that deviation from that pattern produces disaster.

In modern times practitioners of New Age religions and some feminist theologians have pointed to Sophia as evidence of a powerful but suppressed feminine aspect of the divine.

see also Christianity, Early and Medieval; Gnosticism; Hokhma.


Layton, Bentley. 1995. The Gnostic Scriptures: A New Translation with Annotations and Introductions. London: SCM Press.

                                               Jennifer Hart


views updated Jun 08 2018

Sophia female name. St Sophia was the legendary mother of three virgin martyrs, Faith, Hope, and Charity; she supposedly died three days after their death, while praying at their tomb. The legend originated in the Eastern Church, and can be understood as an allegory of Divine Wisdom (Hagia Sophia, see also St Sophia at saint) from whom proceed the virtues of faith, hope, and charity. Her feast day is 30 September.


views updated Jun 08 2018

Sophia (1630–1714) Electress of Hanover, granddaughter of James I and widow of the Elector of Hanover. Sophia was recognized as heir to the English throne by the Act of Settlement (1701), to ensure a Protestant succession and prevent the return of the Catholic Stuarts. When she died, her son, the current Elector, became king as George I.