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The Cosmic Shekinah: A Historical Study of the Goddess of the Old Testament and Kabbalah
Book Review: The Cosmic Shekinah: A Historical Study of the Goddess
of the Old Testament and Kabbalah by Sorita d’Este and David Rankine (Avalonia
These authors do great research and this book was very
insightful and readable. They trace the varied but recognizable development of
wisdom goddess traditions from Sumerian, Egyptian, Hebrew, Canaanite, Hellenistic,
Gnostic, and medieval Kabbalistic movements, tying together certain features. They
show that the Gnostic Sophia and Hekate as World Soul from the Chaldean Oracles
of Zoroaster are clearly closely related to the Hebrew Shekinah.
What or Who is the Shekinah? In the authors’ words:
“The Shekinah is the primordial light of creation, the
heavenly glory of divine wisdom and the inspiration for prophecy. She is also
the world soul, manifest through the divine sparks of her light which comprise
human souls and thus unites us all. With roots in the wisdom goddesses of the
ancient world, the Shekinah is the manifestation of feminine divinity from the
unnamed Wisdom Goddess of the Old
Testament found in the Jewish mystical systems known as the Kabbalah and
The name Shekinah first appeared in writing in the
first-second century C.E. The Merkavah texts of the third to ninth centuries
C.E. contain the most detailed descriptions of the Shekinah. Merkavah, or
chariot mysticism, involved a scenario of the soul of the initiate as a chariot
rider ascending the seven places. It is derived from the prophet Ezekiel who
lived in exile in Babylon and is possibly influenced by Babylonian mysticism.
The authors provide a nice detailed timeline of wisdom goddess traditions of
the Near East from Sumerian times to modern times.
The Shekinah as well as Eve, Canaanite goddess Asherah,
Egyptian goddess Qudshu (Qadesh), Sophia (as Edem), and Hekate are all
associated with serpent symbolism. Edem, a form of Sophia, depicted with body
of a serpent and the head of a woman, is likely derived from the mythical Greek
Echidna and the Egyptian goddess Isis-Hermouthis. The dove is also very often
associated with the Shekinah as in the previous love goddesses, Canaanite
Asherah and Phoenician Astarte. Sophia and the Holy Spirit of the Christians is
also likened to a dove and these three – Shekinah, Sophia, and Holy Spirit, are
related and share many attributes in their lores. As the source of prophecy and
mystical experience, the Shekinah is said to be the appearance and voice of the
burning bush that appeared to Moses. The Kabbalistic Tree of Life as a whole is
associated with the Shekinah as Asherah was associated with trees and poles
(asherim). The Shekinah is invoked with incense smoke, again like Asherah.
Other correspondences of the Shekinah include the precious jewel and the lily.
The Shekinah is also “she who sits on the throne of glory” which refers to
Merkavah mysticism but is thought to have been influenced by the Egyptian Isis,
whose name and symbol are “throne.” The Shekinah is also said to dwell in both
the Arc of the Covenant and in the Temple of Solomon – both considered dwelling
places for wisdom. The Shekinah is associated with divine light and divine
glory. She is also the bride and/or daughter of the father – the bride of
Yahweh (Asherah), and in other wisdom goddess traditions: Ra and Isis-Maat,
Enki and Inanna, God and Sophia, and Zeus and Hekate (Chaldean Oracles). In
each of these modes the wisdom goddess is associated with salvation.
The earliest known wisdom goddesses were the Sumerian Inanna
and the Egyptian Maat. Inanna was associated with the development of culture
and Maat is the principal of cosmic harmony, balance, justice, and truth. These
two goddesses, Inanna and Isis-Maat, influenced the Canaanites and their
Asherah. The Shekinah manifests in two forms: the divine fire that embraces God
in the creation – the Greater or Heavenly Shekinah, and the world soul as the
Lesser or Earthly Shekinah. Plato describes the concept of the feminine world
soul in his Timaeus. This Platonic
influence as well as the Babylonian as in the myth of the world being made by
the female sea monster Tiamat, are conjectured to be influences. This Lesser
Shekinah is then the world itself, identical to Malkuth of the Kabbalah.
The authors discuss the origin of the Kabbalah and cite
influences from Babylonia, Greece, and Egypt, including Gnosticism and
Neo-Platonism. Although the word Kabbalah and much of the philosophy did not
come about till medieval times there were early texts such as the 2nd
century CE Sepher Yetzira that are
“The Kabbalah is essentially a philosophy and cosmology
which explains human life and the universe through the ordering of chaos
expressed as manifestations of the creative divine impulse at different
In Jewish tales the Shekinah descends to earth and ascends
to heaven at different times. The Greater Shekinah is associated with the
Sephira Binah (understanding) while the Lesser Shekinah is associated with the
Sephira Malkuth (earth). German Kabbalists of the tenth century CE described
the Shekinah as a flame that circled God and their union created the universe.
Heavenly Shekinah was mother, Yahweh was father, Earthly Shekinah was daughter
and the Sun (Tiphareth) was the son – completing the Tetragrammaton – Yod-He-Vav-He,
fourfold name of god as the holy family.
Elephantine Jews of Egypt missed the early monotheism
movements of Deuteronomy as evidenced by the 419 BCE text Passover Papyrus where the goddess Anat was worshipped with Yahweh
as Anatyahu. The Book of Deuteronomy from the 7th and 6th
centuries BCE removed Asherah from being venerable of worship and Yahweh alone was
worshipped, although the attributes of Canaanite El or Elohim (plural) became
merged with Yahweh. Prophet Isiah and King Hesekiah furthered the monotheistic
movement in the Book of Kings. Asherah was a high Canaanite goddess who came to
influence the Shekinah. She was likely developed from the Babylonian goddess
Asratum since they were equated directly in an Ugaritic text around 1400 BCE.
Asratum is also referenced in cuneiform texts as early as 1900 BCE. She was
called the “bride of the king of heaven,” similar to Inanna and later the
Shekinah. Asherah was also known as ‘lady of the serpent’ and may have been
related to the Minoan serpent goddess by Phoenicians who traveled and likely
lived there – in fact a few researchers think the early Phoenicians actually
built the Minoan palaces, joining with the local peoples. The 12th
century Kabbalistic text the Zohar, directly
connects Asherah to the Shekinah as He.
Influences from Egypt included Qudshu, Maat, and Hellenic Isis-Maat
(Isis took on attributes of Maat in Hellenic times. Qudshu was associated with
the cow goddess Hathor but also directly to Asherah. Qudshu and her consort Reshef
as well as the phallic fertility god Min were depicted together and it is
thought there was a sacred marriage (hieros gamos) fertility cult of them.
Qudshu’s posture was very similar to that of the Minoan serpent goddess. Maat
was the very ancient Egyptian goddess and principal of wisdom, truth, cosmic order,
balance, harmony, and justice. Apparently, there were early manuals of
so-called wisdom literature where virtuous behavior was taught – often to
children – and morality was referred to as “upholding Maat.” The oldest known
one is called Instruction to Merikara
from between 2000 and 1700 BCE. Maat and later the Shekinah were associated
with judges. The authors think that the conceptual ideas of Maat were
incorporated by the Hebrews. In Hellenic times it was Isis that assumed the
functions of Maat so that her attributes had a great influence on the Gnostic
Sophia and the wisdom traditions of the Jews.
Astarte, Ishtar, and previously Inanna, were all known as
the Queen of Heaven and are likely precursors to Asherah. Inanna is associated
with wisdom and with Enki, the god of wisdom, early in the literature in the
story of the Huluppu Tree where she brings civilizing qualities to the people.
Like Inanna, Asherah and the Shekinah were strongly associated with the Tree of
Life. Researchers have noted strong similarities of the Book of Proverbs with
the Babylonian Enuma Elish.
The figure of Lilith likely comes from the Sumerian demon
Lilitu. Her demonic form contains lion and serpent symbolism but she appears as
a bird (the Lil birds of Assyria). In Judaism she has also always had a negative connotation
although later on as a woman who refused the sexual advances of Adam she became
identified somewhat with the liberated woman idea. There was said to be a
lesser Lilith and a greater Lilith, thus mirroring the Shekinah. The authors
“The Zohar is explicit about there being a connection
between Lilith and the Shekinah, indicating Lilith is the result of the ‘uncovered’
Shekinah, created by the sins of the biblical Jews.”
Specifically, her ‘unchastity’ is implicated in these sins.
The Zohar was not published until 1290 CE so it is not known if such ideas were
much older or not.
Among the Canaanites the goddess Anat was considered a
wisdom goddess and a warrior goddess. She was said to be much like Athena in
the lost writings of the Phoenician priest Sakkunyaton which are lost but said to
be dated between 11th and 8th century BCE. His writings,
thought to be preserved in fragments from later writers, also equate Astarte
with Aphrodite. Astarte was also syncretized with Isis-Hathor in Phoenicia as
the Lady of Byblos.
The cults and writings mainly from the early centuries CE
referred to as Gnosticism share several ideas: dualism of good and evil, a
negative view of the material world, a true high God and a false lower god, and
a fall and redemption myth of a female divinity, usually called Sophia
(Wisdom), but sometimes Edem, Achamaoth, or Barbelo. Sethian and Ophite
Gnostics used the name Barbelo for the wisdom goddess. Some have suggested Barbelo
may refer to the Tetragrammaton as “in four is God.” In the Valentinian strand
of Gnosticism it is Jesus rather than Sophia who redeems. Some have suggested that
the descent of Sophia into matter parallels the descent of Inanna into the
underworld equating the seven archons of Sophia and the descent of the Shekinah
through the seven planetary spheres as equivalent to Inanna’s descent through
the seven gates. The fall of Sophia also suggests the fall of Eve. Sophia as
Edem recalls the Hellenistic Isis-Hermouthis with her serpent symbolism.
Clearly Sophia and the Shekinah are closely paralleled.
“Rather than one coming from the other, it seems more likely
that the Shekinah and Sophia are different embodiments of the Wisdom Goddess
arising from the same sources acted upon by different influences. In the case
of the Shekinah these influences include the Canaanite, Egyptian, and
Sumerian/Babylonian cultures, with Sophia being more heavily influenced by
Hellenic, Jewish, and Christian cultures.”
Attributes of the Holy Spirit by early Christian writers and
later Kabbalists clearly resemble those of the Shekinah. Light, glory, and
wisdom are some of those as well as grace in the writings of Hildegard von
Bingen in the 11th century CE. Attributes of the Virgin Mary as the
main divine feminine form in Christianity are also similar which, is no
surprise. She is both the principle of wisdom and the bride of God. The Islamic
Sakina was obviously derived from the Shekinah and the word means ‘peace’ or ‘tranquility.’
It was Sakina who guided Abraham to found the city of Mecca. The described and
illustrated radiance of Sufi mystics and the halos of Christian saints derive
The Chaldean Oracles (of Zoroaster) and the Greek Magical
Papyri describe a new form of the Hesiodic goddess Hekate as the world soul and
a wisdom goddess. However, the Gnostics tended to demonize her as a ruler of
archons. Her rulership of angels, fiery nature, and voice of fire in the
Chaldean Oracles identify her with the Shekinah.
From Hesiod, the Titan wisdom goddess Metis was the first
wife of Zeus. Apparently Faraone and Teeter (2004) convincingly show that Metis
was derived from Maat as both are associated with wisdom, truth, and kingship.
Zeus eventually consumes Metis then gives birth to Athena. Hera, being jealous,
mimics Zeus’s genesis and births the great serpent-giant Typhon. Similarly,
Sophia is jealous of God’s ability to create and births a son, Ialdabaoth.
Next, the authors go through a history of the Kabbala and
its central glyph, the Tree of Life. Manifestation (down the tree) and
realization, including understanding and wisdom (up the tree) are described as
well as the four worlds, or levels, through which the tree appears. Each of the
Sephira (spheres) of the Tree of Life are described. Some lesser known Kabbalistic
ideas and creation mythos are given. The Kabbalistic union of the Lesser
Shekinah with God is seen as the union of Sun and earth (Tiphareth and Malkuth)
as the sun shines on the earth each morning. In Judaism the Shekinah is the
Sabbath bride who unites with God every Friday evening in the Shabbat ceremony.
Jewish ideas of light almost always relate to the Shekinah from God’s
declaration of manifestation “Let there be light” to the Menorah. Sophia is the
Mother of Aeons and the Shekinah is called the Mother of Angels. These come
from the union of God and the Shekinah. The highest archangel Metatron is
particularly associated with the Shekinah.
The Shekinah is much associated with the soul, seen as
feminine in many of the cultures influencing her development. In terms of
Kabbalistic psychology the soul is divided into three components: Neshamah
(higher soul), Ruach (middle soul), and Nephesh (lower soul). One goal is to
unite and harmonize the higher and lower aspects of the soul.
“The Heavenly Shekinah is the cosmic soul of all and this is
made clear in the Zohar…”
Uniting the soul is referred to as ‘returning the Shekinah
from exile.’ The Shekinah is said to abide in holy beings as she abides in the
sanctuary. The Neshema, or higher soul, is equivalent to the Shekinah. It is
thought that women have better access to it in general and that it also appears
at the moment of death. This comes from Jewish folklore but is also recounted
in the Adeptus Major initiation of the Order of the Rosy Cross.
The authors compare the Kabbalistic soul model to both the
Platonic and Egyptian soul models. Plato’s model was also of three parts: nous/logos (reason/intellect), thymos (breath/soul), and eros/epithumia (passion/appetites). This
corresponds favorably to the Kabbalistic version. It is noted that the development
of the Kabbalah in the Middle Ages and Renaissance coincided with re-translation
of Neo-Platonic texts from philosophers such as Proclus and Plotinus. The eight
parts of the Egyptian soul model show some correspondences and likely
influenced both the Greek and Hebrew models, possibly the Greek first, then the
Hebrew. The authors suggest the Egyptian Ka
(life force) corresponding to Nephesh, the Ba
(impression/personality) corresponding to the Ruach, and Ab (heart/center of morality) corresponding to Neshamah. The Gilgul, or Qabalistic doctrine of
transmigration of souls or reincarnation was possibly developed from the
Platonic model. The Nepesh sinks into the earth, the Ruach stays with the body,
and the Neshamah ascends to the Throne of God. This idea is similar to many
indigenous soul transmigration ideas.
describes how the Neshamah is clothed in a bodily garment to exist in the
world, and in a garment of light to exist in heaven, mirroring the Earthly
Shekinah and the Heavenly Shekinah.”
The Chaldean Oracles of Zoroaster, like the Greeks and
Platonists describe forms of reincarnation but the Egyptians apparently did not
– favoring either ascension to the gods or annihilation, mainly according to
one’s moral conduct.
The Shekinah is tied to the power of prophecy. The story of
the famed prophetess Deborah is given. This comes from the 8th
century BCE Song of Deborah. Researchers
have noted the similarity of this text to Ugaritic literature from several
centuries earlier and think it is one of the oldest sections of the Old
Testament. In particular, Deborah shows parallels to the Canaanite goddess
Anat. Prophecy was seen as a reward of a holy life where access to the Holy
Spirit was given or attained. Here the Holy Spirit, or rather Spirit of
Holiness is called Ruach HaQadosh, or
the Shekinah, as bestower of prophecy. The mystical means for developing
prophecy is suggested in the Torah as a type of ‘void meditation’ where awareness
of the body fades away. It is said in Biblical and Islamic contexts that
prophecy stopped with the last of their prophets or in the case of the Jews
with the destruction of the temple of Solomon, but this view is apparently not
shared among the Kabbalists.
The authors clearly demonstrate that the idea of the power
of the Shekinah was revived by the medieval Kabbalists and they also trace the
idea into the magical grimoires and medieval alchemical texts.
The book concludes with a nice poetic Hymn to the Shekinah for the Feast of the Sabbath by the famed
medieval Kabbalist Isaac Luria from the 1500’s.
This is a very well written and informative book with a rich
array of information coming from many ancient texts.