When the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan decided to convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque, there was a huge outcry in Greece and internationally. Hagia Sophia, completed in 537CE by the Emperor Justinian, was the most famous church of the Byzantine Empire, as well as an architectural masterpiece admired through the ages. When Istanbul (called Constantinople at the time) was conquered by the Ottomans, the building was turned into a mosque.
In 1935 Hagia Sophia was made into a museum and in 1985 it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. Interestingly, the original church on the site was probably built by Constantine I in 325 on the foundations of a Pagan temple. The Greek chronicler Hesychius of Miletus wrote that Constantine built Hagia Sophia after removing 427 (mostly Pagan) statues that had been placed in that location.1
The name of Hagia Sophia is Greek and can be translated as Holy Wisdom. Sophia, also spelled Sofia, is a common female name both in Greece and in many other countries. It is well worth asking how this word became associated with one of the most famous churches of Christianity. Let us begin by examining some interesting passages from the Old Testament.
It would certainly be hard to believe that a feminine divine figure might be praised in the Bible. God is consistently presented as a “He,” a masculine deity, and a celibate one, save for metaphors which portray him as the Bridegroom of Israel. Yet a close reading of the Book of Proverbs reveals another sacred being intimately connected to him:
When God set the heavens in place, I was present,
When God drew a ring on the surface of the deep,
When God fixed the clouds above,
When God fixed fast the wells of the deep,
when God assigned the sea its limits
and the waters will not invade the land,
when God established the foundations of the earth,
I was by God’s side, a master craftswoman,
delighting God day after day,
ever at play by God’s side,
at play everywhere in God’s domain,
delighting to be with the children of humanity.2
Who could possibly be this person who was there in the beginning of all Creation? Who is this playful entity who delights God and rejoices in the presence of human beings? In the book of Proverbs, she is presented as a female figure standing on high places, at the gates of the city, shouting:
I, Wisdom, dwell with prudence, and find out knowledge of devices. (…)
Counsel is mine, and sound wisdom; I am understanding, power is mine.
By me kings reign, and princes decree justice.
By me princes rule, and nobles, even all the judges of the earth.
I love them that love me, and those that seek me earnestly shall find me.
Riches and honor are with me, enduring riches and righteousness.
My fruit is better than fine gold; and my produce than choice silver.
I walk in the way of righteousness, in the midst of the paths of justice.3
This powerful person, who combines so many different attributes, seems truly impressive. Her name in Hebrew is Hochmah, a feminine word meaning “wisdom.” In Greek it is rendered as Sophia. Still, it is hard to grasp who this mysterious, primordial being really is.
One might be tempted to say that she is not a female figure at all but a simple metaphor, a personification for God’s wisdom. Yet she appears again and again in the Bible and beyond. She is praised in the Wisdom of Sirach and, above all, in the Wisdom of Solomon. These two books, written by Hebrews, are considered apocryphal in the rabbinic tradition but are canonical in the Greek Orthodox Church.
The Wisdom of Solomon is attributed to Solomon, the king of Israel who was renowned for his good judgment. However, this book was written in Alexandria of Egypt, the city founded by the Macedonian King Alexander, which became the center of Greek civilization in Hellenistic times. The Jewish community there had obviously been influenced by the Hellenic culture, hence the author wrote this book in Greek. Even though he strongly criticizes “idolatry,” scholars have detected traces of Plato’s philosophy in some of his ideas.
In Plato’s Symposium, the priestess Diotima uses the symbolic language of myth to explain why erotic feelings can motivate people to become better and wiser: Eros, the God of Love, adores beauty and pursues wisdom since it is “one of the most beautiful things.”4 The connection between love, beauty, wisdom (Sophia) and the Divine is echoed in the book attributed to Solomon:
Sophia reaches from one end to another mightily and sweetly does she order all things. I loved her, and sought her out from my youth, I desired to make her my spouse, and I was a lover of her beauty. She magnifies her nobility because she lives with God; the Lord of all things himself loved her. For she is privy to the mysteries of the knowledge of God, and she determines his works.5
It may sound far-fetched to associate Eros with Sophia. Yet surprisingly these two concepts were identified in Orphic mythology. There Eros, also called Phanes, combined both sexes; his feminine name was Metis, which means “counsel” or “wisdom.”6 Metis was the name of a goddess, too, who was swallowed by Zeus. Athena, the Greek Goddess of Wisdom, was born from this paradoxical union.7 The Orphic Eros is also portrayed as a Creator God. Similarly, in the Wisdom of Solomon, Sophia is credited with the vast powers of creation:
I have known everything that is hidden or manifest; for I was taught by Sophia, the maker of all. (7: 21)
If wealth is a desirable possession in life, what is more precious than Sophia, who creates everything? If the human mind is creative, who is a greater creator than her, the maker of all beings? (8: 5-6)
It seems that these different authors may be communicating in essence the same message: God, whether he is named Yahweh, Eros or Zeus, cannot create without the Feminine—just as human men cannot give birth to new life without women. Behind the enigmatic figure of Sophia one can discern a much older female deity: Nature, the primordial Great Goddess, regarded as the Mother of all living creatures. Like Sophia, she is “all wise,” “the creator of many”, as the Orphic hymn in her honor states.8
It is not surprising then that Sophia, as an embodiment of the Divine Feminine, enjoyed great popularity in later times. She was especially honored by Gnostic Christians and traces of her worship survived through the centuries. This would explain why the church of Hagia Sophia, the most famous monument of the Byzantine Empire carries her name. Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, was also named after her. She has a special position in the Russian Orthodox Church, as well.9
Even in Judaism Wisdom was not entirely forgotten. An epitaph from the Greek island of Crete, dating from the 4th or 5th century CE, talks about “Sophia of Gortyn, elder and head of the synagogue of Kissamos.”10 This Jewish woman was obviously named after Sophia. Furthermore, as certain scholars have pointed out, she also appeared among the Kabbalists under the guise of the Shekinah, “the Glory of God,” his feminine spirit. According to Asphodel P. Long, the Shekinah “was understood to be, like Wisdom, not only the alter ego of God, a personage in Her own right, but even God Herself.”11
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1 Patria of Constantinople.
2 Proverbs 8:27-31. A significant difference among various translations: the words “master craftswoman” are elsewhere rendered as “nursling.” “Master craftswoman” comes close to the Greek word harmozousa used in the Septuagint. It is the feminine participle of the verb harmozo: to fit together, to compose in harmony, to put in order.
3 Proverbs 8:12-20.
4 Plato, Symposium 204b.
5 Wisdom of Solomon 8:1-4.
6 Orphic Argonautica 12; Orphic Fragments 168; W.K.C. Guthrie, Orpheus and Greek Religion (Princeton, NJ: Mythos, Princeton University Press, 1952/1993), 80, 97.
7 Hesiod, Theogony 886-900.
8 Orphic hymn 10, 2, 16, 20. Asphodel P. Long examines extensively the similarities between Sophia and the Orphic Nature in her book In a Chariot Drawn by Lions: The Search for the Female in Deity (Freedom, CA: The Crossing Press, 1993), 67-70.
9 Caitlin Matthews, Sophia: Goddess of Wisdom (London: The Aquarian Press, HarperCollins,1991-1992); Harita Meenee, The Sacred Feminine and Mary Magdalene (Athens: Eleusis Press, 2005), 86-114.
10 “Epitaph of Sophia of Gortyn, Head of the Synagogue” in Ross Shepard Kraemer (ed.), Women’s Religions in the Greco-Roman World: A Sourcebook (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 251-2.
11 Long, In a Chariot Drawn by Lions, 177.