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Sunday, October 7, 2012

Wisdom and the "Heavenly Goddess/Mother" Legends

As anyone who is bilingual/multilingual will tell you, the work of translating from one language to another can, at times, be a bit of a mess.  For example:

 

Fortunately for America, this simple and innocent faux pas on the part of Secretary Clinton ended with little more than a chuckle for both parties.  Other translation errors, however, have had much more serious repercussions. 

When translating the Bible into English, for example, a number of mistakes were made in the process.  Whether confusing the words "camel" with "rope" or "eunuch" with "believer," it is clear that at least some honest mistakes could not be entirely avoided.  And while some translation errors resulted in incorrect words or phrases being published to the world, there were other errors which proved to be more subtle but every bit as critical to capturing the original meanings behind these ancient texts. 

One possible example of this fact rests with the word "wisdom," or in Hebrew, חוכמה (not that I have any clue what that means but it looks cool). According to Webster's Dictionary, wisdom is: "the quality of being wise; knowledgeable, and the capacity to make due use of it; knowledge of the best ends and the best means."  This seems to be as solid a definition as any for the word, "wisdom."

The Bible is literally saturated with beautiful references to wisdom and the importance that God places on our obtaining and cultivating this all-important attribute.  For it was by wisdom that God created the earth and established the heavens (Prov. 3: 19).  Wisdom was the gift that Solomon wanted more than any other (1 Kings 4: 29).  It was with the temptation of greater wisdom that the serpent was able to get Eve to partake of the forbidden fruit (Gen. 3: 5).  And as every good Mormon knows, it was the quest for greater wisdom that compelled a young Joseph Smith to seek God in prayer (James 1: 5).  And it was an appeal to God's natural wisdom that inspired Poet William Wordsworth to write:
Books! ’tis a dull and endless strife:
Come, hear the woodland linnet,
How sweet his music! on my life,
There’s more of wisdom in it
Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.
Yes, it is safe to say that wisdom is one of humanity's basic instinctual cravings. 

But is there more to the word "wisdom" than meets the eye?  As mentioned above, translation errors can, at times, distort the original meanings to certain words, or even negate what was originally an important concept that ancient writers wanted to convey. How does this all apply to the word "wisdom?"

In the Hebrew language, the word "wisdom" is feminine, as is the case in many other languages.  Of course, this isn't particularly noteworthy for us today, since most nouns are, at least in most languages, assigned masculine or feminine pronouns.  But wisdom was unique to the ancients because it not only served as an embodiment of special knowledge but also because it embodied deity itself.

Throughout the ancient tradition, wisdom was regularly personified as an exalted female figure, crying out to her lost children with loving petitions to correct their wayward behavior:
Wisdom crieth without; SHE uttereth HER voice in the streets: SHE crieth in the chief place of concourse, in the openings of the gates: in the city SHE uttereth HER words, saying: how long, ye simple ones, will ye love simplicity? and the scorners delight in their scorning, and fools hate knowledge? (Proverbs 1: 20-22).
Whether in Hebrew, Aramaic or other ancient languages, the personification of wisdom with feminine deity was an important and common practice.  Many of the earliest Goddesses of the ancient world were exalted primarily for their wisdom and loving kindness towards mankind.  In the Celtic world, the Goddess Danu was known as the "Beloved wise one" and "Mother of heroes."  For earlier Egyptians, the Goddess Hathor was one of the most important and popular deities throughout the history of Ancient Egypt.  It was her "wise guidance and counsel" to other gods within the Egyptian pantheon that earned her the title "Mother Goddess."  And then there's the case of the other "Mother Goddess" of the Semitic world, Asherah, whose wisdom and kindness to mankind earned her the title of "Queen of Heaven" and "Goddess and consort of Yahweh who is worshipped in Heaven." 

This union between wisdom and female deity may seem like little more than simple polytheism to most, but such a label oversimplifies and downplays the importance that the ancients placed on this wisdom/Mother Goddess dichotomy.  For most ancients, wisdom WAS the Mother Goddess. As historian William Denver makes clear in his work, Did God Have a Wife?: Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel:
The rediscovery of the Goddess and of women's popular cults in ancient Israel redresses the balance. It helps to correct the andocentric bias of the biblical writers. It "fleshes out" the concept of God, brings the divine mystery closer to the heart of human experience, and yes, to the mystery of human sexual love. We humans are engendered; if we are to think and speak about God at all, it must be in a way that combines all that is best in males and all that is best in females. Even the androcentric biblical writers sometimes employed female imagery. Yahweh "gave birth" to Israel (Deut. 32:18); he has a "womb" (Job 32:29).
Whether or not we of the modern world esteem this ancient folk tradition of wisdom and the Mother Goddess as nonsense is irrelevant, for its presence can be found throughout ancient scripture.  For example:
Happy is the man that findeth WISDOM, and the man that getteth understanding.  SHE is more precious than rubies: and all the things thou canst desire are not to be compared unto HER. Length of days is in HER right hand; and in HER left hand ariches and honour. HER ways are ways of pleasantness, and all HER paths are peace. SHE is a tree of alife to them that lay hold upon HER: and happy is every one that retaineth HER.
And here's the really cool final verse:
The Lord BY WISDOM HATH FOUNDED THE EARTH; by understanding hath he established the heavens (Proverbs 3: 13, 15-19).
Was a "Mother Goddess" (a.k.a. "Wisdom") involved with the creation? 

But that's not all:
The Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, Behold a man gluttonous, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners. But WISDOM is justified of HER children (Matthew 11: 19).
For wisdom is better than rubies; and all the things that may be desired are not to be compared to it. I WISDOM dwell with prudence, and find out knowledge of witty inventions (Proverbs 8: 11-12).  [Interesting to note the first person reference here!]
From the Book of Wisdom:
Now with you is WISDOM, who knows your works and was present when you made the world; Who understands what is pleasing in your eyes and what is conformable with your commands. Send HER forth from your holy heavens and from your glorious throne dispatch HER that she may be with me and work with me, that I may know what is your pleasure (NAB Wis 9: 1,6,9-10 ). [Note that Wisdom is female, and with God at creation. She is coeternal with the Father.]
And from, of all places, The Book of Mormon:
O how marvelous are the works of the Lord, and how long doth he suffer with his people; yea, and how blind and impenetrable are the understandings of the children of men; for they will not seek WISDOM, neither do they desire that SHE should rule over them! (Mosiah 8: 20).
Now, by no means am I suggesting that every single reference to wisdom in scripture is somehow referring to a female goddess.  I wouldn't feel comfortable making the claim that any of the aforementioned verses prove such an assertion.  However, I do think it is abundantly clear that the ancients esteemed wisdom and the "Mother Goddess" tradition as being one in the same.  As the great Hebrew scholar Raphael Patai points out in his excellent book, The Hebrew Goddess:
In the Book of Job, Wisdom is described as a personage whose way is understood and place is known only by God himself, while the Book of Proverbs asserts that Wisdom was the earliest of God's creations and that ever since the primeval days she (Wisdom) has been God's playmate.

In the Apocrypha, this role of Wisdom is even more emphasized. A passage in the Wisdom of Solomon states that "She [Wisdom] proclaims her noble birth in that it is given to her to live with God and the Sovereign Lord of all loved her."  It was observed by Gershom Scholem that the term appears again in the same chapter in the sense of marital connubium, and that it is therefore clear that Wisdom here is regarded as God's wife. Philo states quite unequivically that God is the husband of Wisdom.

Wisdom played a particularly important role among the Jewish Gnostics. References to the role of Wisdom in the primodial days of the world seem to indicate the existance of a Gnostic Hokhma-myth which originated in Jewish circles and was hypothetically reconstructed as follows:

Out of the primeval chaos, God created the seven archons through the intermediacy of his Wisdom, which was identical with the "dew of light."  Wisdom now cast her eidolon, or shadow-image upon the primeval waters of the Tohu wa-Bohu, whereupon the archons formed the world and the body of man.  Man crawled about upon the earth like a worm, until Wisdom endowed him with spirit. Satan, in the shape of a serpant, had intercourse with Eve who thereupon bore Cain and Abel.  Thus sexuality became the original sin. After the fall, the sons of Seth fought the sons of Cain.  When the daughters of Cain seduced the sons of Seth, Wisdom brought the flood upon the earth (Pp. 97-98).
There is perhaps no better example of this wisdom/Mother Goddess relationship than that of Sophia.  For the Hellenized Greek world, Sophia (which in Greek actually means "wisdom") was the literal philosophical personification of wisdom.  In later Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christianity, Sophia was an expression of understanding of the Holy Spirit. It was (for many of these early Greek Christians) Sophia who caused Mary to become pregnant with Jesus.  In addition, it was Sophia who descended upon Jesus as a dove at his baptism. 

One important thing to remember here is that Sophia was never a member of the traditional gods of Greek mythology.  She was a later and separate goddess who came to embody wisdom itself.  For Plato, Sophia was best understood as philo-Sophia, literally meaning the love of wisdom (or what we call philosophy today).  In fact, it was Socrates, who, when standing before the Oracle of Delphi and questioned, "Of all the Greeks who is the wisest?" responded, "Why none more so than the Mother Sophia."  Socrates then went on to make his famous declaration, "I know one thing: that I know nothing," but then went on to explain that true wisdom came from accepting this all-important fact of life.   Is it any wonder why the earliest Christians chose to name the most magnificent architectural achievement of the Medieval era the "Hagia Sophia?" (which means "Holy Wisdom").

With this concept of wisdom/Mother Goddess fully infused into much of the ancient world, we of the modern day can gain a different and newer perspective on what these ancient writers were trying to say.  There can be little doubt that the wisdom/Mother Goddess dichotomy was, for many ancients, as real as the Trinity is for many orthodox Christians.  To separate the two words from what appears to be, at least in some cases, a duel meaning would be like separating peanut butter from jelly.  Why on earth would anyone want to separate that which seems meant for the other?  And if there is to be a "Mother Goddess" theology, I can think of no better attribute for her to possess than that of wisdom.  Wisdom rules heaven together with God, and the two are peanut butter and jelly!  Or as the Muslim proverb put it, "Heaven rests at the feet of wisdom."

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Wow! This post was AMAZING! Thanks for sharing this information. After reading your post, the word 'wisdom' has become very meaningful and even sacred to me.

Joe Winpisinger said...

Hey Brad... I do not have your email... I would like to change my email that I post from at AC, use my Google+ Profile, and change the blog that you have listed for me to my current one... How you been BTW... you can email me at joewinpisinger@gmail.com


Joe Winpisinger