Encoded Ambiguities, Embodied Ontologies: The Transformative Speech of Transgressive Female Figures in Gnosticism and Tantra

Linda Ceriello


   Gnosticism and Tantra are groupings of esoteric traditions that each posed challenges to the philosophical or theological doctrines of the religious systems coeval to them by introducing beliefs and practices that were in shocking contrast to existing purity codes. In both Gnostic and Tantric traditions, female figures play two crucial roles in fostering religious practitioner’s spiritual realization or gnosis: Figures such as the Gnostic Sophia and the Goddess or ḍākinī in Tantra both define a stable and fixed reality for the practitioner to transcend, and facilitate the symbolic fracturing of that reality. Her most surprisingly transgressive role, however, may be when she acts as an overarching ontological principle. In some texts she is given the role of generating, even embodying, speech itself.

   With reflection on how the discourses of orthodoxy and heresy and gender shape and define the identities of both Gnosticism and Tantra, I consider how the female—both the feminine-gendered symbolic, and also, in some instances, the human woman acting as a metaphor for the Divine—is encoded in these traditions with a purposive ambiguity and multivalent symbology. In Gnosticism, Sophia, Mary, and theBarbelo or First Thought are discussed. Sophia’s condition--her will and her generative power-- has been called by Buckley one of “simultaneous deficiency and an excess of power” (132). In a number of the Gnostic myths, her presence is a liminal one: neither here nor there, she exists to delineate a newly formed otherness or ambiguity. In South Asian Tantra, the female symbolizes and plays the role of the Goddess, in the form of a yogini or ḍākinī, a being also between two realms. Close to the human world and divine (similar to the figure of the Sophia), the yogini’s liminality is evoked as power.

   Where Gnostic and Tantric females and their bodies symbolically embody or perform their multivalence, they are by turns the fullness of creation, the most pure and most sought, and the most impure, problematic and othered. Biernacki argues that this very multiplicity of shifting forms does profound work, and can “...explode[ ] the binary logic that founds the idea of an ‘other.’” (126-7). “When the goddess speaks in the Brhannila Tantra, Biernacki writes, hers are “not just words, they are the bodying of sound into female forms. This feminine anthropomorphized speech fuses the notion of sign and thing, giving us a word that is...the presence of being, the goddesses themselves” (119). To show how the female in select Gnostic texts also performs this engagement of speech-as-gnosis, I discuss Mary as a character in the narrative of the Pistis Sophia who can be seen as the human counterpart to the Sophia. Speech takes on an ontological quality in this text as Mary alone among the disciples succeeds in repeating back the Savior’s teachings. Ultimately, she undergoes a spiritual transformation: “When Mary had finished saying these words...she had become pure spirit entirely” (1896, 199). Mary’s unique acumen will also be explored as potentially noteworthy in terms of the status and capabilities attributed to women by the Gnostics.

   This comparative essay will attempt to carve theoretical space for addressing similarities and differences between these two traditions that respects the multivalent nature of the content at hand. Rather than relying on a single methodology, and rather than using historical or geographic developments as the chief points of comparison, which could circumscribe what can and cannot be said about her (risking the erasure of her most salient quality—her ambiguity), I engage an interdisciplinary, gnostic, methodological approach that may more lucidly allow the female symbolic to speak herself into being.



Abstract Citations:


Anon. 1896. Pistis Sophia. New York: Theosophical Publishing Society.


Biernacki, Lorillai. 2007. Renowned Goddess of Desire. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Buckley, Jorunn. 1986. Female Fault and Fulfillment in Gnosticism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

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