|Empress Theodora by J-J Benjamin-Constant|
The “Bridal Chamber” in the Gospel of Philip, a second or third century Gnostic text found among the Nag Hammadi codices in 1945, describes an initiation into the Mysteries akin to the purpose of the cult of Persephone at Eleusis and Syracuse. This is true for the form of the Bridal Chamber as a sacramental event, such as the Greater Mysteries celebrated in the Telesterion at Eleusis, and also for the function of the rite, which is the liberation of the soul. Regardless of their many points of departure, both the Gnostic and Hellenic stories share common elements and objectives, which I believe are worthy of our contemplation today.
The two myths begin their dramatic procession by the descent of the goddesses into the darkness. For Persephone, her abduction by Hades to the underworld is echoed not only in the fall of Sophia, but also in the Gnostic myth of Edem being abducted and raped by Elohim in Justin’s Baruch, and Yaldabaoth’s defilement of Eve in the Secret Book of John. The theme of the daughters of wisdom being seized and oppressed by the lords of the earth emerges.
Although the Eleusinian Mysteries were strictly secret, we know a little about what they focused on by way of initiates like Plato, who described the function but not the actual rituals themselves. He refers to this in Phaedo:
The true moral ideal, whether self-control or integrity or courage, is really a kind of purgation from all these emotions, and wisdom itself is a sort of purification. Perhaps these people who direct the religious initiations are not so far from the mark, and all the time there has been an allegorical meaning beneath their doctrine that he who enters the next world uninitiated and unenlightened shall lie in the mire, but he who arrives there purified and enlightened shall dwell among the gods. You know how the initiation practitioners say, 'Many bear the emblems, but the devotees are few'?
Wisdom being a kind of purification is an important point in both myths, so too is the descent of the Divine Feminine into the darkness of the material realm, where she is transformed through metanoia; a change of mind or repentance, into an even stronger deity. For the Gnostics, Sophia becomes the Queen of Heaven, and for the cult of the Two Goddesses, Demeter and Persephone, there is a similar development in Persephone’s stature after her marriage to Hades. Among other advancements, Persephone morphs from her appearance as Kore, the maiden, into the queen of the underworld, goddess of water and the spring, “all-ruling virgin” and mother to the dying and rising Dionysus as Eubouleus and Zagreus. These epithets are perhaps suggestive of the cult of the Virgin Mary. This is not to say that Christianity and the cult of Mary is nothing but an imitation of the polytheistic past, but to celebrate the continuity and veracity of this spiritual impulse which surmounts culture and epoch, and smolders in that sacred and eternal space which the human heart inhabits from time to time.
The beginning of September is the time when the cycle of Persephone’s story begins, and it is precisely the same time that we prepare for the great feast which celebrates the Descent of Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia) into the material world, and the birth of Virgin Mary. As the Gospel of Philip reflects,
Adam came into being from two virgins, from the Spirit and from the virgin earth. Christ therefore, was born from a virgin to rectify the Fall which occurred in the beginning.
This primordial symbolism leads us to contemplate the microcosmic significance of being born twice. The idea of dying and rising again is contained in both the Eleusinian Mysteries and in the rite prescribed in Philip. In lieu of beginning the gospel with the life of the young Jesus, Philip shows that Jesus, who I believe symbolizes the initiate, must enter the Bridal Chamber. It says further that a glorious change took place on the day of his baptism by John in the river Jordan. “He who was once anointed, was anointed anew.”
This anointing appears to signify the death of his old self and his union with the angelic self, which emanates from the Pleroma. Sex and death play pivotal roles in both myths. Philip treats this as the “Sophia of death.”
Echamoth is one thing and Echmoth, another. Echamoth is Wisdom simply, but Echmoth is the Wisdom of death, which is the one who knows death, which is called ‘the little Wisdom’.
This little death and spiritual wedding (hieros gamos) gives birth to a new body which supplants Adam’s animal and exists in the eternal fullness. This, I contend, is not to be read as mythos or cosmology, but what we must do. This is the Opus Magnum of the alchemists and the reason why Jesus is called the Logos Incarnate and the Exemplar by the Gnostics. He has replaced his will with the larger will of the Logos; the force which orders the universe and gives means to every expression.
The hieros gamos of Hades and Persephone at the beginning of her myth leads the maiden to greatness among the gods; so great that according to the Orphic Hymns, she attracts the attention of Zeus himself, who impregnates her with Dionysus, lord of resurrection and the vine. Later we will see that in addition to being the virgin, sister and bride, Persephone participates in a divine economy of three emanations in her Orphic Triad. Likewise, Philip provides us with three women of special import, bearing the same name:
“There were three who walked with the Lord at all times, Mary his mother and her sister and Magdalene, whom they called his consort. For Mary was his mother and his sister and his consort.”
In the Hellenistic Jewish Wisdom of Solomon, wisdom is personified as a trinity. Similarly, in the Gospel of Philip, the first in the Sophianic-Marian hierarchy is the Virgin Mother. Philip describes her this way:
Indeed, one must utter a mystery. The Father of everything united with the virgin who came down, and a fire shone for him on that day. He appeared in the great bridal chamber. Therefore his body came into being on that very day. It left the bridal chamber as one who came into being from the bridegroom and the bride.
Mary Magdalen was called the companion or consort of Jesus, whom he loved more than all his other followers. In this gospel, she is mentioned in the context of Sophia, Holy Wisdom, which according to Wisdom,
[R]eaches from one end of the world to the other; mightily and sweetly does she order all things. In that she is conversant with God, she has magnified her nobility; yea, the Lord of all things Himself loved her.
In Philip, Jesus opens the door to the eternal moment and shows the light to his disciples. Mary Magdalen fulfills the job description of being “conversant with God.” In other words, Mary is not merely a model disciple, but part of the sacred economy necessary for the Bridal Chamber to work. Philip shows this by assigning Mary the quality of seeing the light when others were blind to see it. She has been in the Bridal Chamber. Back in Wisdom, we see her role more clearly:
By means of her I shall obtain immortality, for she is the mother of fair love, and of patience and perseverance, and of holy hope. Thou shalt put her on as a robe of honor, and shalt put her about thee as a crown of joy.
In wisdom we can appreciate our goal as Gnostics. We seek the knowledge and experience of the Divine here and now; this is a self-realization as much as an epiphany from some external force. It is as much about opening ourselves up to the Mysteries as it is about receiving them. However, none of our seeking or discipleship will amount to anything unless we willingly enter the Bridal Chamber.
This is not a place, but a state of spiritual preparedness. It is no doubt aided by ritual and environment, but the essence of the Bridal Chamber is a willingness to yield to the transforming power of the Divine. We celebrate this very act in the Eucharist. The dove of the Holy Spirit drops down into this dark world and becomes the flesh and blood of the Logos. Our intentions during this most sacred act must again be willing to yield to the Beloved; we must join physically and spiritually with that Higher Self, the angelic counterpart of our own souls who awaits us in the Bridal Chamber.
As we saw before, in Philip there are three Marys, not just two. Beyond the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalen, there is the sister of the Virgin, Mary Jacobe, wife of Clopas. Many scholars believe her to be the mother of James the Less, thus her Latin cognomen “Jacobe” or “Iacobi”, although it is also possible that this Mary was actually a sister to Jesus. Either way, the role of this Mary mentioned in Philip could be to fulfill the three representative Marys who counterbalance the three Valentinian Christ figures. But our purpose here is not to study these spiritual realities in a purely analytical way; we must also be open to the reception of this knowledge through experience. One such experience was that of St. Francis’s spiritual sister, St. Clare of Assisi, who wrote:
See now. You are held tightly in His embrace. Now, you are His beloved, His mother, His sister. For He is your Lover, Your Son, Your Brother.
In the Gnostic conception of God as taught by Valentinus, among others, there is the aeon Christ, the co-eternal Logos whose consort is the Pneuma Hagion—the Holy Spirit. Second in line is the Christ the Savior (Christos Sother), who was matched with Sophia. Finally, in the flesh, the Gospel of Philip seems to indicate that Jesus and Mary Magdalen complete this trinity of syzygies. This trinity of couples reflects some fascinating equivalents in the Greek Ouranic (heaven) and Chthonic (underworld) gods mirroring each other, and the specifically Eleusinian Orphic triads of Rhea—Demeter—Persephone (as Kore); and Kronos—Zeus—Dionysus.
Although there is much more to discover in this immensely ancient drama of the Virgin Queens, this great Marian and Sophianic feast of ours which we celebrate on September 8th must forever persuade our limited faculties to emulate her procession from descent to her search, and finally her ascent to the light above. To pay homage to this well worn path, let this time of year be a moment in which we can see ourselves as we truly are: the children of the Bridal Chamber, “who need take no other form, because we have contemplation.”
My special thanks to my friend and parishioner, Clark Aitkins of Harvard Divinity School, for his part in inspiring this research into the parallels to be found between Eleusinian Mysteries and the Gospel of Philip. My hope is that he will carry this research into academia.
 Willis Barnstone and Marvin Meyer, The Gnostic Bible, (Boston: Shambhala, 2003) 125 and 159
 Orphic Hymn 29. Hymn to Persephone
 Hieros gamos or Hierogamy (Greek ἱερὸς γάμος, ἱερογαμία "holy marriage")
 From the Gospel of Philip: “When a blind man and one who sees are both together in darkness, they are no different from one another. When the light comes, then he who sees will see the light, and he who is blind will remain in darkness.”
 Saint Clare of Assisi: Her Prayers, Poor Clares of Arundel.
 Melitta Benu, ed., Queen of the Sacred Way. (Middletown, DE: Bibliotheca Alexandrina, 2012) 211