The Eternal

Depictions of Sophia

Gabriele Dessin

In Faust‘s Chorus Mysticus (Act V), Goethe writes: “All of the transient, / Is parable, only: / The insufficient, / Here, grows to reality: / The indescribable, / Here, is done: / Feminine, eternal, [das Ewigweibliche] / Beckons us on”.[1] To begin to understand these words is a task that requires more than the writer can give; but what we propose here is to manifest some figures of that eternal feminine that appears as the last subject.

The feminine is, above all, twice a psychopomp. In relation to matter, during childbirth, she embodies souls; whereas with regards to thought, in Sophia, she raises spirits. ‘Sophia‘ is an ancient word, which means wisdom and knowledge beyond episteme, it is elevation of the intellect and transfiguration of the spirit – it is the goal and delight of the human being. In ‘Philo-Sophia‘, it is joined with love; this is the lover’s gaze for what he craves, it is both achievement and fulfilment. Sophia is active passiveness; it is the object of love that transfigures love itself.

However, the depictions of feminine appear in the world of duality and, for each of them who walks in light, another walks in darkness.

     Sophia is also tradition, the door and threshold, jamb and knocker. In the Major Arcana,[2] the path leading from the Magician (I) to the Fool ( ) splits with two feminine figures.

     The first is the High Priestess (II): she is seated on a throne, wearing a red and blue cloak and a double crown. In her right hand she is holding a closed book, a book of secrets. On the book’s cover is a Tao symbol, the two that is four and the four that becomes one: the duality of the things, the world, light and darkness, good and evil, male and female. In order to open the book, one needs the keys that she has in her left hand: a golden key, representing the Sun (Reason, Lògos, and the Word), and a silver one representing the Moon (imagination, and the clarity of mind). Behind her are two columns, red and blue, resembling her cloak. They circumscrib a door covered by a veil, like the Veil of Maya or the veil in Solomon’s Temple. The left-hand column is red, it symbolises fire, hence essential passion, and is the sulphur of alchemists (in mankind “it is the heart, the fervent and centrifugal essential point of their being”[3]). The right-hand column is blue, it symbolises air, the breath of life, and is the Mercury of the wisemen (it is “the external and central part of man, a double spiral of liquid streams that are also drenched in the fire of that internal sulphur”[4]). The High Priestess opens the way to a deep and true understanding of reality, she grants the decryption of dualism, she is the imagination that overcomes instrumental rationality, she is Wisdom that overcomes knowledge; she is the priestess of mystery, she personifies the goddess Isis.

     The second is the Empress (III): also seated but without a throne. She has a red dress and a blue cloak. She is holding a shield in her right hand, and on that shield is a silver eagle on a purple background; this represents the soul that is sublimated in the spirit. In her left hand she is holding a sceptre – emblem of her sovereignty, but reigns over what? Her left foot is placed on a downturned waxing moon; thus she reigns over the sublunar world, beyond material duality, the becoming, temporality and corruptible. Her white wings carry her into the waters above, the twelve stars around her head. She reigns over the ideal world – Plato’s Hyperuranion. There are pure ideas, archetypes, ideal forms; all this does not change, does not deteriorate, remaining eternally identical to itself. The Empress paves the way to understanding the ideal that informs reality; she protects the structure that adjusts the stars’ motions, she portrays Ishtar.

     All of the above is what is submitted to us by tradition; all of this is the Sophia of the Sages and the Wise Men – the first philosopher, Thales of Miletus, is one of the Seven Sages of Greece. However, the depictions of feminine appear in the world of duality and, for each of them who walks in light, another walks in darkness. Feminine is ‘thauma‘: wonderful and terrible. The three Graces, the three Fates; the three Muses (for in the beginning there were three and then three times three), the three Erinyes; and then Our Ladies of Sorrows.

     In Oxford, a young student is fast asleep, while dreaming he sees Levana, the ancient Roman goddess, who officiates the first gesture of love towards a new-born child. Despite being from the realms of silence, three sisters converse with her. They are the ‘sorrows’, “the mighty abstractions that incarnate themselves in all individual sufferings of man’s heart”.[5] As aforementioned, they are three sisters, and this is their nature.

     The first-born is Mater Lachrimarum – Our Lady of Tears. Her realm is vast, it is diurnal and nocturnal, and her weeping are tears for those who are no more. A diadem encircles her head, her feet travel on the winds, and on her belt, she bears the keys to all the gates of the world. She approaches with slow but somewhat regal steps and sits beside those who mourn a mournful absence. She sits beside a father who has lost his daughter, a son who mourns his mother, a brother who has lost his sister, or a beloved who has buried her lover. Her cries and her sobs embitter these unhappy people who hear them, and she often turns her wrath toward heaven, claiming those who do not return.   

     The second-born is Mater Suspiriorum – Our Lady of Sighs. Her reign, though less extensive, is still great. She wears no tiara, walks with an unsteady stride, and flees from light to live in the shadows. Her eyes are “filled with perishing dreams, and with wrecks of forgotten delirium”,[6] and always looking downward at the ground, covered by the shadow of a wearing turban. She accompanies the listless despair of the vanquished, defeated and hopeless. She sits beside the prisoner, the outcast, the unacknowledged. When living is nothing more than surviving oneself, one can hear her whispers, her quiet agonies, her sighs.

     The youngest is Mater Tenebrarum, she is Our Lady of Darkness. Her kingdom is the least broad, and if it were not so, there would be no life for human beings. She is the most terrible, the most frightening, an alchemical condensation of darkness. Her head is crowned with towers and her gaze, covered by three dark veils, soars above all human vision. She is mighty, imposing and defies God. She is the lady of madness, of delirium and the prompter of suicides. Her kingdom is small because “she can approach only those in whom a profound nature has been upheaved by central convulsions; in whom the heart trembles and the brain rocks under conspiracies of tempest from without and tempest from within”.[7] One can only whisper of her quietly, under one’s breath.

     These three Mothers accompany the ruin, but they are also Mistresses, gateways to the realm of Sophia. Mater Lachrimarum speaks to her sisters, and explains why all three sit there, around our dreamer’s bed in Oxford:

So shall he be accomplished in the furnace, so shall he see the things that ought not to be seen, sights that are abominable, and secrets that are unutterable. So shall he read elder truths, sad truths, grand truths, fearful truths. So shall he rise again before he dies. And so shall our commission be accomplished which from God we had, − to plague his heart until we had unfolded the capacities of his spirit. [8]

     All this may or may not make sense. However, it once was true, it may still be true, and one, it might be true again. This is all Sophia, and when the evolution of humanity runs on the electric wire of our dreams of cybernetic progress, it runs in the opposite direction – on the road to oblivion. Yet even if we forget, mock and try to annihilate her, the eternal feminine remains, forever safe, to uplift and soothe our human existence.

[1] Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust, A. S. Kline 2003, The Mystic Choir, 12104-12111.

[2]  Oswald Wirth,The Tarot of the magicians, translated by Samuel Weiser, Samuel Weiser Inc, York Beach Maine 1990.

[3] Translated from Elémire Zolla, Le meraviglie della natura. Introduzione all’alchimia [The wonders of nature. Introduction to alchemy], Marsilio, Venezia 2017, p. 103. 

[4] Ibidem.

[5] Thomas de Quincey, Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow, in Suspiria de Profundis.

[6] Ivi.

[7] Ivi.

[7] Ivi.

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