Tolkien was not a fan of putting overt religious references into his work. Nonetheless, when I first read The Lord of the Rings (many more years ago than I care to remember now!) it struck me that the most obviously divine figure in the work was female – Elbereth Gilthoniel, also known as Varda Elentari, the Star Maker.
I thought at the time that there were obvious parallels between Varda and the Great Goddesses of pagan mythology, such as Inanna, Isis, Nuit and Hera. Given Tolkien’s love for pagan mythology this is possible, but it has often been suggested that as a Catholic, he was probably more influenced by the figure of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
This is plausible, but there are certain difficulties with this identification. Mary is not a goddess, and has no power of her own, other than to intercede with God. However, Varda is the most powerful being in creation after The One. Maker of the stars – you can’t beat that! So, who is Varda? Is there another figure, with pre-Christian origins, but acceptable to Christianity, who might give us an insight into the character?
Actually, there is. By the time of Plato, Greek Philosophy had developed the concept of a First Cause (or the One), and in Hellenistic philosophy certain principles of creation were held to emanate From this One. One of these principles was Sophia, or Wisdom, regarded as the divine reason that upheld order and structure in the universe. Sophia was eventually absorbed into Christianity and at one point was identified with the Holy Spirit. The first account of the trinity, from Justin Martyr in the second century, describes it as the First Cause, the Logos and Sophia (sometimes the Logos and Sophia were seen as interchangeable).
Still earlier, Sophia became part of Hellenistic Judaism. In the famous Wisdom of Solomon, a work from about 100BC, Sophia is referred to as “radiant and unfading”, “the artificer of all things” who “reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other, and orders all things well”. She is “an initiate in the knowledge of God and an associate in his works.” It was Sophia who played the biggest role in the creation. Wisdom, we are told, is “a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness”, recalling the light of lIúvatar that lives still in the face of Varda. In fact, Sophia is constantly associated with light, as is Varda. She is “more beautiful than the sun, and excels every constellation of the stars. Compared with the Iight, she is found to be superior, for it is succeeded by the night, but against Wisdom evil does not prevail.” This recalls Varda’s power over darkness, and how Melkor feared her more than any other of the Valar. It often seems as though merely calling on Varda causes the darkness to disappear and light to prevail – consider the scene in The Choices of Master Samwise in The Lord of the Rings, where the phial of Galadriel suddenly bursts into Iight when Varda is invoked.
ln the Wisdom of Solomon the dwelling place of Sophia is the “holy heavens” and she is constantly associated with the stars in both pagan and judeo-Christian thought. In a Greek hymn to Isis-Sophia the goddess says “I divided the earth from the heavens, I made manifest the paths of the stars, I prescribed the course of the sun and moon”. In other Greek texts, we meet “the allwise Sophia, Genetrix”, who “created great luminaries and all of the stars and placed them in the heavens so that they should shine upon the earth.” The 12th century mystic St Hildegard of Bingen described the stars as “the innumerable words of Wisdom.” ln a remarkable passage, she describes Sophia in words that Tolkien could well have used about Varda:
She is Divine Wisdom. She watches over all people and all things in heaven and on earth, being of such radiance and brightness that, for the measureless splendor that shines in Her, you cannot gaze on Her face or on the garments She wears. For She is awesome in terror as the Thunderer’s lightning, and gentle in goodness as the sunshine. Hence, in Her terror and Her gentleness, She is incomprehensible to mortals, because of the dread radiance of divinity in Her face and the brightness that dwells in Her as the robe of Her beauty. She is like the Sun, which none can contemplate in its blazing face or in the glorious garment of its rays. For She is with all and in all, and of beauty so great in Her mystery that no one could know how sweetly She bears with people, and with what unfathomable mercy She spares them.
The similarities between Varda and Sophia seem very striking. I don’t know how far Tolkien was associated with the Wisdom tradition, but it would be interesting to find out if he knew about it, and whether he was ever influenced by it.
from Amon Hen, issue #245 (see French version).