The Pistis Sophia: An Introduction

Originally printed in the Fall 2011 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Branco, Raul. "The Pistis Sophia: An Introduction." Quest 99.4 (FALL 2011):144-151

by Raul Branco

For over two centuries the third-century Gnostic text known as the Pistis Sophia has eluded students and scholars of the esoteric tradition, who have struggled to apprehend the important message that this text veils. Over the years scholars have either expressed their frustration at its impenetrable language or just advanced broad descriptions of the text, without venturing analytical or hermeneutic comments. This has happened even with some of the most respected scholars in the field, such as Jean Doresse, author of The Secret Books of the Egyptian Gnostics; Kurt Rudolph, author of Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism; and Wilhelm Schneemelcher, editor of the standard edition of the New Testament Apocrypha.

In recent years some authors have attempted to interpret the text, such as Jan van Rijckenborgh, with his book Les mystères gnostiques de la Pistis Sophia; J.J. Hurtak and his wife Desiree Hurtak; and Samael Aun Weor, a self-proclaimed Gnostic master and supposed member of the Great White Fraternity, who wrote Pistis Sophia develada ("Pistis Sophia Unveiled"), explaining all of the text's mysteries in terms of sexual magic.

In Brazil in 1997, the author of this article published a version of the Pistis Sophia with suggested interpretations of the text and a summary of the cosmology of the work, with the help of some little-known notes of Blavatsky (Blavatsky, "Pistis Sophia"). This article attempts to describe the text in terms of the expansion of consciousness attained by Jesus as part of his supreme initiation.

The Manuscript

The original text of the Pistis Sophia, written in Greek, has been lost; the earliest version we have is an ancient translation into Coptic. The codex containing it was brought to England around 1772 and was later sold to the British Museum. The complete text was translated into Latin in the mid-nineteenth century by M. G. Schwartze, but it was only half a century later that it was translated into modern European languages, such as French (É. Amélineau, 1895), German (Carl Schmidt, 1905) and English (G. R. S. Mead, 1921). A much more recent translation was made by Violet MacDermot and published in 1978.

The text is divided into three major parts. In the first, Jesus is with his disciples for eleven symbolic years (perhaps eleven months) after his return from the dead, at the Mount of Olives. (According to this and other Gnostic texts, the resurrected Jesus spent some time instructing his disciples before making his final ascension to heaven.) Suddenly, in the midst of thunder and lightning, he is elevated to the heights of heaven in the midst of intense, blinding light. After thirty hours, Jesus returns, surrounded by three robes of light, with a brighter glow than when he had ascended. Henceforth he starts to instruct his disciples about his experiences and other occult matters.

The other two components of the text are the narrative of the story of Pistis Sophia and additional instructions to the disciples in the form of a dialogue. This article will endeavor to provide the main features of the Sophia myth, which, like the parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke's Gospel and the Hymn of the Pearl in the Gnostic Acts of Thomas, is a profound revelation of the pilgrimage of the soul.

A Summary of the Sophia Myth

Upon his return from his ascent, Jesus describes to the disciples the hierarchies of the various planes that he has passed through on his way up. This long enumeration of entities is at first quite confusing, since nowhere in the text is there any explanation of this terminology or of the cosmological system into which those entities fit. Nevertheless, it is possible to set out a picture of the cosmic hierarchy of the text (see diagram below).

After several incidents with the entities of the lower planes, Jesus finds Pistis Sophia (whose name means "Faith Wisdom") below the Thirteenth Aeon, her original home. (Aeons, from the Greek aion or "age," are, in this text, entities governing zones of existence, or planes of consciousness, between heaven and earth.) She was alone, without her consort or her brothers, sorrowful and grieving on account of the torments that an entity known as the Authades, the Self-Centered One, had inflicted on her with the help of his emanations and the Twelve Aeons.

It happened that while in the Thirteenth Aeon, Pistis Sophia saw the Light of the Height on the veil of the Treasury of the Light, and started singing praises to that Light. From then on the Self-Centered One started to hate her, as did the Twelve Aeons below him. The Self-Centered One conceived a ruse to trick her. Pistis Sophia was led to look below and there she saw the light of another entity called the Lion-Faced Power. Not knowing that it was an emanation of the Self-Centered One, she decided to go after it, without her consort, to take its light, thinking that it would enable her to go to the Light of the Height. Once she descended from her place of origin, she was dragged further and further down into chaos, with the emanations of the Self-Centered One and the Twelve Aeons constantly chasing after her, trying to take her light away. When she finally saw Jesus surrounded by light, she cried to the Light of Lights and uttered a series of metanoias, often translated as "repentances."

The Symbolism

In all esoteric traditions the most important inner instructions are always transmitted in symbolic language (Hodson, 85-99), thus veiling the sacred from the eyes of the profane. At the same time the unveiling of the instructions offers a method for training the disciple's understanding.

In Theosophical terms, Pistis Sophia represents the soul, or more specifically, the part of the soul that incarnates; namely, the monad of consciousness in the concrete mind. Her name is a key to her role: Pistis is the Greek word for "faith." Not blind faith, but faith arising from total conviction of inner knowledge. Sophia is Greek for "wisdom." Thus her compound name indicates the fundamental principle (faith in the Light—an aspect of God) that enables her to undertake her mission, namely, the development of wisdom in both worlds. Her consort is Jesus, the aspect of the soul that unfolds the triple-natured higher Self in line with Pistis Sophia's progress in the material world. Jesus remained behind in the higher planes when she descended into chaos. This separation expresses the split in consciousness between the higher and lower nature of man. Although man is really one with his divine Self, the usual level of his consciousness cannot reach the spiritual planes; thus in the myth Pistis Sophia and Jesus are presented as separate entities.

The villain of the story is the Self-Centered One, standing for the ego, an appropriate name for the vain and egotistic "I," which always demands to be the center of attention and strives for the gratification of the senses, thus causing great affliction for the soul. The regents or archons of the Aeons are the main allies of the Self-Centered One, and they stand for the emotions and passions of man. Leading them is the Lion-Faced Power, an emanation of the Self-Centered One, standing for egotism, the strongest force driving man away from God and into chaos. These evil and dark powers are not so much outer demons as they are inner aspects of man. Their role is to seize and fix the consciousness onto the strong, heavy vibrations of emotions, passions, and fantasies associated with sense gratification and mental delusions such as attachment, pride, and ambition. Thus they are described as actively engaged in trying to pull man down, or in the language of the text, in taking away Pistis Sophia's light. This goes on unremittingly until Pistis Sophia's final liberation from chaos.

While chaos, in the system of this text, is a region of the underworld, the term is mostly used to convey the image of a psychological state of disorder. Since Pistis Sophia is the monad of consciousness, when it is said that she falls into chaos, it means that she becomes prey to mental disorders resulting from emotions, desires, and passions. She becomes conditioned by names and forms, by cultural values and mores, by a whole gamut of conditions that represent a virtual prison to the incarnated soul—in short, the delusion of separateness. Thus Pistis Sophia's descent into chaos is a symbolic description of man's entrance into the cycle of incarnation, where he will remain until his mission is accomplished.

The Cosmology

The cosmological system of the Pistis Sophia is presented in summary form in the diagram. It should be kept in mind that an entity can be active in its own plane as well as in the regions below it. Thus Pistis Sophia and the Self-Centered One, whose region of origin is the Thirteenth Aeon (left of the Psychic Plane), are seen quite active in the Hylic Plane (the Astral Plane) just below. The same can be said of Jesus acting as the First Mystery Looking Without (buddhi), who is active all the way along the three planes below its original region.

One novel feature of the Pistis Sophia's cosmology is that each plane is divided into three regions: right, middle and left. The right is superior and the left is inferior. The entities of the right have the function of establishing ideals or archetypes; those of the middle, of sustaining or ensuring proper conditions; and those of the left, in implementing the functions set for that plane. Their roles could be seen as that of father, mother, and son, or alternatively, as the seed, the earth, and the fruit. Moreover, each plane is a reflection of the planes above it. Thus the entities of the right in every plane act as delegates of the Logos, unfolding the fundamental model or archetype for its own plane. From this model the process of manifestation takes place, from ideation to creation, at every ensuing plane.

The unmanifest Godhead is not called God, but simply the Ineffable, the One about whom nothing is known and who is infinitely beyond any characterization by man.

The highest entity on the Divine Plane is called the Mystery of the Ineffable or the Logos. He is the source of all that exists, visible and invisible, having established the archetype of the whole plan of manifestation. Immediately below him is found the First Mystery, in its double aspects as Looking Within and Looking Without. The First Mystery is the mystery of unity, and its aspect as First Mystery Looking Within is atma or spirit, which encompasses and interpenetrates all that exists, providing the divine characteristic of immanence. The First Mystery Looking Without is the vehicle of atma, namely buddhi, also known in the Western tradition as the Christ.

The plane below is the Spiritual Plane, the Pleroma (from the Greek word for "fullness") or Treasury of the Light, which corresponds to the plane of abstract or superior mind. It corresponds also to the orthodox concept of heaven, where souls finally liberated from the world find their bliss. The supreme entity of this plane is Ieu, referred to by the titles of Supervisor of the Light and First Man. Also in the right of the spiritual plane is Melchizedek, the Great Receiver of Light, the Manu of the fifth, present Root Race.


The myth is a highly esoteric account of the soul's pilgrimage to the distant land—the material world—and its eventual return to the Father's house. But it is far more. It reveals the process involved in the supreme initiation that turns a man into a Master of wisdom.

In the text, after Jesus returns from the height "shining most exceedingly," the disciples ask him to "withdraw his light-glory" and then ask, "Rabbi, where didst thou go, or what was thy ministry in which thou didst go?" And Jesus replies, "Rejoice and exult from this hour on, for I have gone to the regions from whence I came forth."

Jesus then recounts his entire journey, from region to region, starting from the moment that he saw Mary, his mother "according to the material body" and then going through the Firmament, the Sphere, the Providence, and the Twelve Aeons. He narrates that all the archons and the powers therein were agitated and afraid because of his exceeding light. And he went on bringing order into their regions until he came to the Thirteenth Aeon. At that point he finds Pistis Sophia alone, below her place of origin, without her brothers. And he describes how the Pistis Sophia worked her way out of chaos with his help. The narrative is, of course, atemporal. Present, past, and future unfold as the eternal now in which Jesus spins his tale.

While this story looks like a myth, Jesus actually seems to be recounting one aspect of his experience at the Great Initiation, which probably took place during the thirty hours that he remained at the height. His recollection of the incidents on his way up has a surprising parallel with the life review that takes place in the dying process of every human being. We learn that this rapid but thorough process at the end of each incarnation teaches us the implications of our actions in this world. If we recall that the law of correspondence tells us, "What is above is like that which is below and that which is below is like what is above," we can infer that the Pistis Sophia tale seems like a monumental review of the actions of the soul throughout its long journey in this world. This process is mentioned in the Mahatma Letters: "The full remembrance of our lives will return back at the end of all the seven Rounds" (Barker, 171). But it seems also to take place when the evolutionary process is speeded up, as in the case of adepts that reach the Fifth Initiation in advance of the majority of the race.

Jesus seems to be revealing to his disciples his own journey in consciousness throughout his many lives in this world until his final process of "death" as a human being. He tells us that he will make a revelation at the very point when he finds Pistis Sophia below her place of origin: "I will tell you the mystery of how these things happened."

Thus the Pistis Sophia myth is the story of the passage of Jesus's soul through the world from time immemorial until his final triumph. Jesus and Pistis Sophia are presented as a pair, the two aspects of the soul, just like the two sides of a coin. Each has its role in the mystery of life. The progressive expansion of consciousness that eventually turns Jesus into a Master of Wisdom was in fact a reflection, on a higher level, of Pistis Sophia's slow and relentless battle in this world against all agents of matter that have constantly strived to take away her light. No mention is made of the great number of incarnations that Jesus must have gone through until that historical one in Palestine. During all those lives, regardless of the names by which he may have been known, Pistis Sophia, his soul, was the loyal heroine doing battle in this world.

We can now return to the myth. Pistis Sophia "falls" from her original region, pursuing a mirage, a reflection of the Light of the Height seen down below in the region of the Aeons, which represents the power of matter. This fall, due to ignorance, was her "original sin," but later on the text says that Pistis Sophia fell at the command of the First Mystery, that is, following an inner urge to comply with the divine plan. This would require her to incarnate in order to fulfill the final objective of having Spirit manifest fully through matter.

As Pistis Sophia descends into chaos, she takes upon herself the necessary vehicles for manifestation in the material world. Thus both on the astral and the physical planes the soul is "wrapped" with appropriate bodies to function in those planes. It will be remembered that the entities of the middle region of each plane have the motherly role of providing appropriate conditions and giving sustenance. Thus, on the astral plane, Providence (in Greek, heimarmene, also translated as "fate") bestows all the tendencies from past lives that provide recurrent opportunities for the individual to learn the lessons that remain to be learned. On the physical plane, the middle region provides a physical body for the individual that is adequate for the type of life that karma has in store for him.

The story expresses the reality as seen from the Height, that is, from a spiritual vantage point. Thus when Pistis Sophia complains that the archons of the Aeons are oppressing her, trying to take her light away, this might mean that the personality has experienced a heavy, aggressive, or unpleasant vibration, such as a feeling of hatred, or has told a lie. But the "oppression of the archons" can also mean experiences of immoderate sense gratification that to a worldly individual mean "to enjoy life" and "to have fun," but to the soul, seeing reality from the vantage point of the inner light, are seen as an affliction for which she will pay dearly.

Here is enacted the classical struggle of the forces of darkness against those of the Light. Pistis Sophia, the soul, strives to go to the Height but has to fight every inch of the way against evil and darkness. These forces are entrenched within her own castle—her emotions, desires, and passions under the command of the self-serving personality.

In her process of ascent, Pistis Sophia experiences thirteen metanoias, followed by eleven songs of praise to the Light. The word metanoia, generally translated as "repentance," is central to the Christian tradition. But its original Greek meaning was much broader than "repentance," indicating a change in one's mental state. Thus each metanoia actually indicates that the individual is undertaking an inner change—of attitude, values, and behavior. Since Pistis Sophia's region is the Thirteenth Aeon, she must symbolically effect thirteen changes of consciousness or metanoias, one for each region or aspect of herself. The much-heralded Way or Path in all esoteric traditions in fact entails this very process of inner change. This is made clear in The Voice of the Silence in the statement "Thou canst not travel on the Path before thou hast become that Path itself" (The Voice of the Silence, 12).

Nowhere in the Pistis Sophia do we see Jesus preaching any moral code of behavior. What is made clear is that man must renounce the world and transform his mind if he hopes to receive the mysteries that will open for him the inheritance of the Light.

While Jesus's parables and other public teachings often castigate conventional wisdom as expressed by compliance with the Mosaic Law (Borg, 97–116), the Pistis Sophia clearly links Jesus's teachings with the prophetic tradition. This is done ingeniously by means of interpretations advanced by the disciples after each metanoia uttered by Pistis Sophia, which in fact are quotations from the biblical Psalms and the apocryphal Odes of Solomon.

The metanoias and invocations uttered by Pistis Sophia suggest the protracted process of transformation needed to turn a worldly individual into "a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ" (Eph. 4:13). On closer examination of these metanoias and songs of praise, we notice some turning points and fundamental changes in her situation as she is slowly freed from chaos. These turning points have a parallel with the five major initiations of the esoteric tradition.

The first turning point occurs when her insistent pleas for assistance from the Light of the Height are finally heard. These pleas have a parallel with the surrender of the mystic, implicit in Jesus's utterance "Thy will be done, Lord, not mine." In time a channel is opened up in the seeker's consciousness where the Light starts to be seen, or the Christ is born.

After Pistis Sophia's sixth metanoia, her sin of going down into chaos alone without her consort is forgiven, and Jesus leads Pistis Sophia "into a somewhat spacious region in the chaos." This more spacious "region" is actually an expansion of consciousness. Here the aspirant's interests in the coarser things of the outer world, with their heavy vibrations, begins to diminish. This relative respite from the oppressions of the archons, that is, of emotions and passions, expressed as an elevation into a more "spacious region in the chaos," seems to indicate what Theosophy calls the First Initiation.

Once the archons notice that Pistis Sophia has not been taken entirely away from chaos, they return with redoubled efforts to afflict her and she continues to utter her metanoias, thus continuing her inner transformation. After the ninth metanoia, her plea for help from the Light is partially accepted, and Jesus is sent by the First Mystery (the pure mind reinforced by the power of the inner Christ) to help her to secretly escape from chaos. From then on, Pistis Sophia, man's consciousness, perceives Jesus as a Light shining brightly, probably an indication of the opening of her spiritual vision, or of an expansion of consciousness arising from the Second Initiation. From then on, the man in the outer world has his mind progressively illumined by the Light of the Height, enabling him to carry out his work in the world as a light bearer, as Jesus did after his baptism in the Jordan, which represents the Second Initiation.

But the desires and emotions elicited by material things are still felt as the emanations of the Self-Centered One (the egotistic personality), and the powers of the archons (desires and passions) change form as the seeker conquers the grosser vibrations. After the thirteenth metanoia, Jesus sends a light-power to assist Pistis Sophia and to take her to higher regions of chaos. The initiation process continues with the fourteenth invocation, when a light-power is sent by the First Mystery (the power of Divine Spirit). These two powers meet together and become a great stream of light, forming a protecting crown over the head of Pistis Sophia. This seems to reflect the stage of illumination reached with the Third Initiation, in which periods of consciousness of unity with God and with all beings alternate with the usual dualistic consciousness of the world.

Now the joy of Pistis Sophia becomes the central theme of her songs of praise, in which she reiterates her determination to remain firm and never stray from the Light again. But the powers of darkness do not relent, and new and stronger emanations of the Self-Centered One are sent to join the others so as to oppress Pistis Sophia and take her back to chaos. After her sixteenth invocation, pleading for the help that had been promised, she is saved once again by the stream of Light, with the help of the Archangels Michael and Gabriel. Jesus also goes down into chaos to help Pistis Sophia. He enables her to step over the principal evil emanation of the Self-Centered One, a serpent with seven heads. This symbolizes the killing of the seeds of evil within man, namely the illusion of separateness.

Once the illusion of separateness is overcome, the initiate is entitled to enter nirvana. Thus, at this point, Jesus takes Pistis Sophia to a region just below the Thirteenth Aeon, her original station (probably a reference to the Fourth Initiation, which turns the seeker into an Arhat or enlightened one). The Initiate is very close to the other shore, his final destination.

Nevertheless, in spite of her high accomplishments, the soul is still subject to the affliction of the subtle material powers, and Pistis Sophia continues her invocations. Jesus warns her that the Self-Centered One is furious with her and will try a last attack by means of two dark and violent emanations in order to take her back into chaos. She is left alone, but Jesus promises to come back to help her if she feels oppressed and invokes his help. As indicated, the two dark and chaotic emanations (probably depression and despair) attack in earnest. This seems to refer to the period sometimes called as the Dark Night of the Soul (Underhill, 380–412), when the individual feels alone and abandoned by all and sundry, sinking into a period of depression that might lead to despair, until he is able to renounce his last remaining attachments to the world—namely, his feeling of being a separate "I"—prior to final and permanent union with God or the Light.

With the twenty-fourth invocation finally arrives the moment to take Pistis Sophia permanently out of chaos and into the Thirteenth Aeon. This might look like an anticlimax, a mere return to her original region. But at this point a touching surprise awaits the reader. It is said that Pistis Sophia reaches her final liberation at the exact moment that Jesus is at the Mount of Olives with his disciples in the process of being elevated to the Height in the midst of the Light. Thus we have an indication of the Fifth Initiation, both from the point of view of the glorified individuality, Jesus or the Higher Self, and of the soul, which is finally freed from the prison of the world. At that moment Pistis Sophia is finally reunited with her consort, Jesus, a parallel with the sacrament of the wedding chamber mentioned in the Gnostic Gospel of Philip and with the experience of the great mystics at the last stage of theosis—"deification" or union with God.

This mysterious initiation, which is said to be conferred by the initiate upon himself, is the end of the soul's pilgrimage. The man has learned all there is to be learned as a man, and embarks on another journey beyond the realm of humanity in the endless spiral of eternal evolution. The symbolic image of being elevated to the Height conveys the idea of a monumental expansion of consciousness to the adept, encompassing all planes from "earth" to "heaven."

Notice that at each of the five major turning points in the story of Pistis Sophia, her consort, Jesus, goes down into chaos to help her. This seems an indication that an integration of the two aspects of the soul, Jesus and the Pistis Sophia, occurs as part of the initiation process. The first four such integrations are partial or perhaps temporary. It is only with the final initiation that total and permanent integration of the higher and lower natures of man is finally accomplished.

We could conclude that the Pistis Sophia, like all sacred scriptures, is an encoded map to a precious treasure hoard. If we are able to interpret its symbols, we will be able to tread the Path and find the precious pearl of gnosis, the key that admits us to the kingdom of heaven.


The cosmology of the Pistis Sophia is extremely intricate. Although the diagram may seem complicated, it is actually a simplified version of the system presented in the text. Not all of the entities listed in the diagram are discussed in the article. 

The Cosmology of the Pistis Sophia

The Ineffable (Unmanifest)
The Interior of the Interiors (Adi and Anupadaka)

The Mysteries of the Ineffable (Divine Plane)
The Mystery of the Ineffable (Logos)
First Space of the First Mystery (Atma), First Mystery Looking Within
Second Space of the First Mystery (Buddhi), or the First Mystery Looking Without
       The First Statute
The Great Light of Lights

Treasury of the Light, Pleroma (Higher Manas)
              Jeu, Supervisor of the Light, the First Man
                     Seven Amens or Voices
                     Five Trees
                     Three Amens
             Twin Saviors (Child of the Child)
                     Twelve Saviors with Twelve Powers

Psychic Plane or Mixture (Lower Manas)
       Sabaoth, the Good
       Five Planetary Regents with 360 Powers
                    Virgin of Light
       The Great Invisible Forefather and his consort Barbelo
       The Two Great Triple Powers
       Twenty-Four Invisibles (including Pistis Sophia and her consort)
       The Third Great Triple Power, The Self-Centered One

Hylic (Astral) Plane
The Twelve Aeons
       The First Six Sons or Emanations of the Self-Centered One
       Sabaoth-Adamas (The Great Tyrant, Ialdabaoth, the Lion-Faced Power)
       The Second Group of Six Sons, the Archons of the Inferior Aeons
Providence (Heimarmene)
The Sphere

Material (Physical) Plane
Firmament (Etheric)
World of Men (Cosmos)
Underworld: Amente, Chaos, and Outer Darkness



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Raul Branco, an economist, has taught at the University of Texas, City College of New York, and Columbia University and has worked for the United Nations and the Brazilian government. Now retired, he lives in Brasília, Brazil, where he dedicates himself to the study of comparative religion, the Christian tradition, and Gnosticism. He published a version of Pistis Sophia in Portuguese (Rio de Janeiro: Bertrand Brasil, 1997); and a second enlarged edition (Brasília, Editora Teosófica, 2009). He has published two books in Portuguese: their English titles are The Teachings of Jesus and the Esoteric Christian Tradition, (São Paulo: Pensamento, 1999) and The Transforming Power of Early Christianity (Editora Teosófica, 2004). His e-mail address is