Saturday, November 8, 2014

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 2010 Kindle)

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 Merkavah mysticism.”

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 clear forerunners.

“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 levels.”

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 note that:

“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 from Sakina/Shekinah.

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.

“The Zohar 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.





1 comment:

  1. Excellent! I'm fascinated with learning about the origins and variations of my birth name.