Tag Archives: sophia

Gnostic name wordcloud

I’ve been working on an index of the named figures in Gnostic myth, focusing especially on the Barbelo-Sethian texts – Pistis Sophia, Books of Ieou, the Untitled Apocalypse, and related works in the Nag Hammadi Library.  I was surprised to see how prominent were some of the lesser-known figures of Gnostic myth – such as Youel, “she who belongs to the glories,” and Esephech, “the Child of the Child.”  Both of them are described in several texts (notably Zostrianos) as spirit-instructors.

Sophia is a bit under-represented (I didn’t index every single occurrence of her name) – and the list isn’t necessarily comprehensive – ‘representative’ is probably a more accurate description.

Using Wordle I constructed a word cloud; click the image to see the full-size version.

wordcloud of Gnostic god-names

The Merging of Opposites in Thunder: Perfect Mind

Thunder: Perfect Mind is not like any other text in the Gnostic corpus.  It was written in the first person, and consists of a seemingly endless list of contradictory self-descriptions:

I am the first and the last.
I am the honored one and the scorned one.
I am the whore and the holy one.
I am the wife and the virgin.
I am the mother and the daughter.

The narrator is female, but she moves beyond female-centric imagery into the abstract:

I am the silence that is incomprehensible
and the idea whose remembrance is frequent.
I am the voice whose sound is manifold
and the word whose appearance is multiple.
I am the utterance of my name.

Some, including Douglas M. Parrott, one of the principal translators, have compared it to the Isis aretalogies used in Egyptian worship.  An aretalogy is a list or catalog of characteristics used to identify a deity.  For example, the most famous of the Isis aretalogies is this one, which seems to be the work of an Isis mystery cult in Thrace.  It doesn’t bear much resemblance to Thunder: Perfect Mind.  The Isis aretalogy addresses Isis in the second person, and it doesn’t have a similar rhythm at all. But the parallels may provide a clue.

Thunder: Perfect Mind does bear a bit more resemblance to the Sophia aretalogy in Proverbs 8:22-36:

Ages ago I was set up,
at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no springs abounding with water.
Before the mountains had been shaped,
before the hills, I was brought forth—
when he had not yet made earth and fields,
or the world’s first bits of soil. (Proverbs 8:23-26)

The Sophia monologue was written during the Hellenistic period and exemplifies the Wisdom scripture of the Jewish community in Alexandria.  But even this work is very different.  It is essentially a creation story praising Wisdom, telling a coherent narrative, whereas Thunder: Perfect Mind is simply a mind-boggling array of contradictory assertions.

Merging of opposites is a prominent theme in Gnostic scripture.  Consider this famous passage from the Gospel of Thomas:

Jesus said to them, “When you make the two one, and when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside, and the above like the below, and when you make the male and the female one and the same, so that the male not be male nor the female female; and when you fashion eyes in the place of an eye, and a hand in place of a hand, and a foot in place of a foot, and a likeness in place of a likeness; then will you enter the kingdom” (Gospel of Thomas 22)

This in turn can be compared to the Emerald Tablet of Hermes, considered one of the foundational writings of alchemy.  Some alchemical writings appear to have been deeply crypto-Gnostic (cf. for example the work of Silberer and Jung), and the alchemical endeavor possibly provided one avenue by which Gnostic ideas were preserved in secret during the years when being in possession of Gnostic writings was a grave offense.

But what purpose could this have served?  Is it simply meant to sound profound while being, simply, nonsense?  Nanna Olsen gave a clue in her conclusion to this essay about Thunder: Perfect Mind:

The text … works to convey meaning not in an informative way, but in a performative one by perpetually deferring, defying, disrupting and destructing meaning, and forcing the reader into insoluble dilemmas, it becomes obvious how the text makes sense.

The key word there is ‘performative.’  The most obvious use of the text is as a ritual script.  Perhaps the goal was invocation, or the literal drawing of divine presence into oneself by prayer and ritual.

Andrew Newberg and Eugene D’Aquilli, in their book Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief, describe an interesting theory based on taking brain images of people having religious experiences.  Ritual, they suggested, induces a state of mystical awe by stimulating both the sympathetic and the parasympathetic faculties in the nervous system.  The sympathetic nervous system prepares the body for “fight or flight” by responding to potential threats; speeding the heart and and exciting the amygdala.  The parasympathetic nervous system responds to calming stimuli by slowing the heartbeat and allowing the body to enter a restful state.  Normally either one or the other is active at a time; only an unsual circumstance can trigger both to be active at the same time. Religious ritual accomplishes this, though. Ritual performance involves rhythm and repetition, which tend to calm one down; but they also present the mind with imagery or mysteries that evoke fear or surprise.  The result is that both nervous systems are triggered at the same time and the result can be a profoundly emotional experience.

Even the title of the text alone suggests this juxtaposition: “thunder” alongside “perfect mind.”  The text is intended to be performed, and gives us great insight into what it must have been like to participate in Gnostic worship.