The goddess of wisdom has appeared in nearly every society in a variety of different manifestations, including Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom and military victory; Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom and war; Tara, the Buddhist goddess of compassion who teaches the wisdom of non-attachment; and Inanna, an early Sumerian Goddess. Sophia, whose name in Greek means “wisdom,” is connected to the different incarnations of sacred female knowledge and to those goddesses listed above.
Sophia is one of the central figures of Gnosticism, a Christian philosophical movement with uncertain origins that most likely originated in ancient Rome and Persia. Gnosticism emphasizes individual knowledge and wisdom as the path to salvation and oneness with God. Its followers worship Sophia as both divine female creator and counterpart to Jesus Christ. According to Gnostic beliefs, Christ was conceived of as having two aspects: a male half, identified as the son of God, and a female half, called Sophia, who was venerated as the mother of the universe.
According to The Apocryphon of John, one of the main texts of Gnosticism dating to circa 180, Sophia represented divine wisdom and the female spirit. In the Gnostic creation story Sophia, seeing God’s creations, desired to make something of her own. The being she formed was her son, Ialdabaoth, who had the face of a lion and the body of a serpent. Ialdabaoth later used Sophia’s power to create the material world. Because of her relationship to Ialdabaoth’s creation, Sophia became known and worshipped as the mother of the universe.
Sophia appears in many passages of the Bible as the female personification of wisdom, though her roles and popularity in Judeo-Christian traditions have changed throughout time. She is also celebrated in Kabbalah, a form of Jewish mysticism, as the female expression of God. Sophia has been venerated by various religious figures throughout history including Hildegarde of Bingen, another woman represented at The Dinner Party, whose theological writings addressed Sophia and the concept of divine female wisdom. In nearly all representations of sacred wisdom some aspect of Sophia can be found; she, like many other goddesses, even became integrated into the worship of the Virgin Mary in the Middle Ages.
Since the emergence of the modern feminist movement in the 1970s, Sophia has gained popularity as a figure for goddess worship. There has also been a scholarly effort to locate Sophia historically as the goddess of wisdom within the context of Christian religious practices, texts, and images. One of the most interesting theories relates to Michelangelo’s paintings on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Some scholars and art historians believe that the female figure under God’s left arm in the Creation of Adam is, in fact, Sophia, acting out her role as the female being in the creation of life and man.
Sophia at The Dinner Party
Sophia appears at The Dinner Party in the form of a single flower, echoed in both her plate and runner. According to Chicago, Sophia’s presence at the table represents the downfall of female power, particularly religious power. It is also meant to convey Sophia’s historical transformation in society from a goddess of wisdom and female strength, to a purely spiritual image that plays a secondary role to the male figures of Christianity (Chicago, Embroidering Our Heritage, 51). At one time, Sophia was worshipped as the female aspect of God and as a creative force in the universe, but like many other goddesses, her original identity has either been lost or merged into other religious traditions. The place setting depicts one of the many incarnations of the goddess of wisdom and her transformation in popular culture throughout history.
Compared to the changing colors of the petals, the white center of the flower on Sophia’s plate is a stable and central focal point. It represents the original nature of the goddess of wisdom and her strength as a creative force in the universe. The center of the flower may also represent the Pleroma, the spiritual world of Gnosticism that contains the fullness of the powers of God, where Sophia originated.
On the runner, the petals’ vibrancy fades from the edges toward the center, which signifies the waning of female power that followed the development of Christianity. The chiffon netting that veils the flower petals on the runner is intended to make the vibrant fabric underneath look pale, suggesting how life has paled for women since the downfall of the goddess in popular society (Chicago, The Dinner Party, 38).The netting is the wedding veil of Karen Valentine, one of the women who worked on The Dinner Party. The veil is a symbolic reference to marriage, and one interpretation of its presence suggests that marriage is an institution that can be seen as contributing to the decline of women’s societal power.
The Pistis Sophia or Books of the Savior in the Askew Codex. MS Add. 5114. Archived at the British Museum, London, UK.
Translations, Editions, and Secondary Sources
Bamford, Christopher, ed. Isis Mary Sophia: Her Mission and Ours: Selected Lectures and Writings by Rudolf Steiner. Great Barrington, Mass.: SteinerBooks, 2003.
Bruce, R. H., trans. Christ and Sophia: Anthroposophic Meditations on the Old Testament, New Testament, and Apocalypse by Valentin Tomberg. Introduction by Christopher Bamford. Great Barrington, Mass.: SteinerBooks, 2006.
King, Karen L., ed. Images of the Feminine in Gnosticism. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988.
MacDermot, Violet. The Fall of Sophia: A Gnostic Text on the Redemption of Universal Consciousness. 1978; reprint ed., Great Barrington, Mass.: Lindisfarne Books, 2001.
Matthews, Caitlin. Sophia, Goddess of Wisdom: The Divine Feminine from Black Goddess to World-Soul. London: Mandala, 1991.
—-. Sophia: Goddess of Wisdom, Bride of God. Wheaton, Ill.: The Theosophical Publishing House, 2001.
Mead, G. R. S. Pistis Sophia: The Gnostic Tradition of Mary Magdalene, Jesus, and His Disciples. 1906; reprint ed., Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications, 2005.
—-, ed. and trans. Pistis Sophia: A Gnostic Miscellany: being for the most part extracts from the books of the Saviour, to which are added excerpts from a cognate literature; englished. 1921; reprint ed., London: John M. Watkins, 1947.
Pagels, Elaine. The Gnostic Gospels. New York: Random House, 1979.
Schüssler Fiorenza, Elisabeth, with Shelly Matthews. Searching the Scriptures. 2 vols. New York: Crossroad, 1993–1994.
Place Setting Images
Related Heritage Floor Entries
The Gnostic Society Library : A Gnostic Reading List
Gnostic Scriptures and Fragments—Pistis Sophia : The Books of the Savior
Sacred Texts : Pistis Sophia, tr. by G. R. S. Mead