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Month: December, 2014

Sacred Harlotry

” … They worshipped Baal of the Lebanon, who may well have been Adonis, and at Amathus on the south coast they instituted the rites of Adonis and Aphrodite, or rather Astarte. Here, as at Byblus, these rites resembled the Egyptian worship of Osiris so closely that some people even identified the Adonis of Amathus with Osiris.

[ … ]

” … it is possible that a native goddess of fertility was worshipped on the spot before the arrival of the Phoenicians, and that the newcomers identified her with their own Baalath or Astarte, whom she may have closely resembled.

If two deities were thus fused in one, we may suppose that they were both varieties of that great goddess of motherhood and fertility whose worship appears to have been spread all over Western Asia from a very early time. The supposition is confirmed as well by the archaic shape of her image as by the licentious character of her rites; for both that shape and those rites were shared by her with other Asiatic deities.

Her image was simply a white cone or pyramid. In like manner, a cone was the emblem of Astarte at Byblus, of the native goddess whom the Greeks called Artemis at Perga in Pamphylia, and of the sun-god Heliogabalus at Emesa in Syria. Conical stones, which apparently served as idols, have also been found at Golgi in Cyprus, and in the Phoenician temples of Malta; and cones of sandstone came to light at the shrine of the “Mistress of Torquoise” among the barren hills and frowning precipices of Sinai.

In Cyprus it appears that before marriage all women were formerly obliged by custom to prostitute themselves to strangers at the sanctuary of the goddess, whether she went by the name of Aphrodite, Astarte, or what not. Similar customs prevailed in many parts of Western Asia. Whatever its motive, the practice was clearly regarded, not as an orgy of lust, but as a solemn religious duty performed in the service of that great Mother Goddess of Western Asia whose name varied, while her type remained constant, from place to place.

Thus at Babylon every woman, whether rich or poor, had once in her life to submit to the embraces of a stranger at the temple of Mylitta, that is, of Ishtar or Astarte, and to dedicate to the goddess the wages earned by this sanctified harlotry. The sacred precinct was crowded with women waiting to observe the custom. Some of them had to wait there for years.

At Heliopolis or Baalbec in Syria, famous for the imposing grandeur of its ruined temples, the custom of the country required that every maiden should prostitute herself to a stranger at the temple of Astarte, and matrons as well as maids testified their devotion to the goddess in the same manner.

The emperor Constantine abolished the custom, destroyed the temple, and built a church in its stead.

In Phoenician temples women prostituted themselves for hire in the service of religion, believing that by this conduct they propitiated the goddess and won her favour. “It was a law of the Amorites, that she who was about to marry should sit in fornication seven days by the gate.” At Byblus the people shaved their heads in the annual mourning for Adonis. Women who refused to sacrifice their hair had to give themselves up to strangers on a certain day of the festival, and the money which they thus earned was devoted to the goddess.

A Greek inscription found at Tralles in Lydia proves that the practice of religious prostitution survived in that country as late as the second century of our era. It records of a certain woman, Aurelia Aemilia by name, not only that she herself served the god in the capacity of a harlot at his express command, but that her mother and other female ancestors had done the same before her; and the publicity of the record, engraved on a marble column which supported a votive offering, shows that no stain attached to such a life and such a parentage.

In Armenia the noblest families dedicated their daughters to the service of the goddess Anaitis in her temple of Acilisena, where the damsels acted as prostitutes for a long time before they were given in marriage. Nobody scrupled to take one of these girls to wife when her period of service was over. Again, the goddess Ma was served by a multitude of sacred harlots at Comana in Pontus, and crowds of men and women flocked to her sanctuary from the neighbouring cities and country to attend the biennial festivals or to pay their vows to the goddess.

If we survey the whole of the evidence on this subject, some of which has still to be laid before the reader, we may conclude that a great Mother Goddess, the personification of all the reproductive energies of nature, was worshipped under different names but with a substantial similarity of myth and ritual by many peoples of Western Asia; that associated with her was a lover, or rather series of lovers, divine yet mortal, with whom she mated year by year, their commerce being deemed essential to the propagation of animals and plants, each in their several kind; and further, that the fabulous union of the divine pair was simulated and, as it were, multiplied on earth by the real, though temporary, union of the human sexes at the sanctuary of the goddess for the sake of thereby ensuring the fruitfulness of the ground and the increase of man and beast.

At Paphos the custom of religious prostitution is said to have been instituted by King Cinyras, and to have been practised by his daughters, the sisters of Adonis, who, having incurred the wrath of Aphrodite, mated with strangers and ended their days in Egypt. In this form of the tradition the wrath of Aphrodite is probably a feature added by a later authority, who could only regard conduct which shocked his own moral sense as a punishment inflicted by the goddess instead of as a sacrifice regularly enjoined by her on all her devotees. At all events the story indicates that the princesses of Paphos had to conform to the custom as well as women of humble birth.”

James George Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, 1922, Adonis in Cyprus, np.

Osiris, Tammuz, Adonis, Attis

“Under the names of Osiris, Tammuz, Adonis, and Attis, the peoples of Egypt and Western Asia represented the yearly decay and revival of life, especially of vegetable life, which they personified as a god who annually died and rose again from the dead. In name and detail the rites varied from place to place: in substance they were the same. The supposed death and resurrection of this oriental deity, a god of many names but of essentially one nature, is now to be examined. We begin with Tammuz or Adonis.

The worship of Adonis was practised by the Semitic peoples of Babylonia and Syria, and the Greeks borrowed it from them as early as the seventh century before Christ. The true name of the deity was Tammuz: the appellation of Adonis is merely the Semitic Adon, “lord,” a title of honour by which his worshippers addressed him. But the Greeks through a misunderstanding converted the title of honour into a proper name.

In the religious literature of Babylonia Tammuz appears as the youthful spouse or lover of Ishtar, the great mother goddess, the embodiment of the reproductive energies of nature. The references to their connexion with each other in myth and ritual are both fragmentary and obscure, but we gather from them that every year Tammuz was believed to die, passing away from the cheerful earth to the gloomy subterranean world, and that every year his divine mistress journeyed in quest of him “to the land from which there is no returning, to the house of darkness, where dust lies on door and bolt.”

During her absence the passion of love ceased to operate: men and beasts alike forgot to reproduce their kinds: all life was threatened with extinction. So intimately bound up with the goddess were the sexual functions of the whole animal kingdom that without her presence they could not be discharged.

A messenger of the great god Ea was accordingly despatched to rescue the goddess on whom so much depended. The stern queen of the infernal regions, Allatu or Eresh-Kigal by name, reluctantly allowed Ishtar to be sprinkled with the Water of Life and to depart, in company probably with her lover Tammuz, that the two might return together to the upper world, and that with their return all nature might revive.

[ … ]

The tragical story and the melancholy rites of Adonis are better known to us from the descriptions of Greek writers than from the fragments of Babylonian literature or the brief reference of the prophet Ezekiel, who saw the women of Jerusalem weeping for Tammuz at the north gate of the temple.

Mirrored in the glass of Greek mythology, the oriental deity appears as a comely youth beloved by Aphrodite. In his infancy the goddess hid him in a chest, which she gave in charge to Persephone, queen of the nether world. But when Persephone opened the chest and beheld the beauty of the babe, she refused to give him back to Aphrodite, though the goddess of love went down herself to hell to ransom her dear one from the power of the grave.

The dispute between the two goddesses of love and death was settled by Zeus, who decreed that Adonis should abide with Persephone in the under world for one part of the year, and with Aphrodite in the upper world for another part.

At last the fair youth was killed in hunting by a wild boar, or by the jealous Ares, who turned himself into the likeness of a boar in order to compass the death of his rival. Bitterly did Aphrodite lament her loved and lost Adonis.

In this form of the myth, the contest between Aphrodite and Persephone for the possession of Adonis clearly reflects the struggle between Ishtar and Allatu in the land of the dead, while the decision of Zeus that Adonis is to spend one part of the year under ground and another part above ground is merely a Greek version of the annual disappearance and reappearance of Tammuz.”

James George Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, 1922, The Myth of Adonis, np.

Killing the Divine King

“At Babylon, within historical times, the tenure of the kingly office was in practice lifelong, yet in theory it would seem to have been merely annual. For every year at the festival of Zagmuk the king had to renew his power by seizing the hands of the image of Marduk in his great temple of Esagil at Babylon.

Even when Babylon passed under the power of Assyria, the monarchs of that country were expected to legalise their claim to the throne every year by coming to Babylon and performing the ancient ceremony at the New Year festival, and some of them found the obligation so burdensome that rather than discharge it they renounced the title of king altogether and contented themselves with the humbler one of Governor.

Further, it would appear that in remote times, though not within the historical period, the kings of Babylon or their barbarous predecessors forfeited not merely their crown but their life at the end of a year’s tenure of office. At least this is the conclusion to which the following evidence seems to point.

According to the historian Berosus, who as a Babylonian priest spoke with ample knowledge, there was annually celebrated in Babylon a festival called the Sacaea. It began on the sixteenth day of the month Lous, and lasted for five days, during which masters and servants changed places, the servants giving orders and the masters obeying them.

A prisoner condemned to death was dressed in the king’s robes, seated on the king’s throne, allowed to issue whatever commands he pleased, to eat, drink, and enjoy himself, and to lie with the king’s concubines. But at the end of the five days he was stripped of his royal robes, scourged, and hanged or impaled. During his brief term of office he bore the title of Zoganes.

This custom might perhaps have been explained as merely a grim jest perpetrated in a season of jollity at the expense of an unhappy criminal. But one circumstance–the leave given to the mock king to enjoy the king’s concubines–is decisive against this interpretation. Considering the jealous seclusion of an oriental despot’s harem we may be quite certain that permission to invade it would never have been granted by the despot, least of all to a condemned criminal, except for the very gravest cause.

This cause could hardly be other than that the condemned man was about to die in the king’s stead, and that to make the substitution perfect it was necessary he should enjoy the full rights of royalty during his brief reign. There is nothing surprising in this substitution. The rule that the king must be put to death either on the appearance of any symptom of bodily decay or at the end of a fixed period is certainly one which, sooner or later, the kings would seek to abolish or modify.

We have seen that in Ethiopia, Sofala, and Eyeo the rule was boldly set aside by enlightened monarchs; and that in Calicut the old custom of killing the king at the end of twelve years was changed into a permission granted to any one at the end of the twelve years’ period to attack the king, and, in the event of killing him, to reign in his stead; though, as the king took care at these times to be surrounded by his guards, the permission was little more than a form.

Another way of modifying the stern old rule is seen in the Babylonian custom just described. When the time drew near for the king to be put to death (in Babylon this appears to have been at the end of a single year’s reign) he abdicated for a few days, during which a temporary king reigned and suffered in his stead. At first the temporary king may have been an innocent person, possibly a member of the king’s own family; but with the growth of civilisation the sacrifice of an innocent person would be revolting to the public sentiment, and accordingly a condemned criminal would be invested with the brief and fatal sovereignty.

In the sequel we shall find other examples of a dying criminal representing a dying god. For we must not forget that, as the case of the Shilluk kings clearly shows, the king is slain in his character of a god or a demigod, his death and resurrection, as the only means of perpetuating the divine life unimpaired, being deemed necessary for the salvation of his people and the world.”

James George Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, 1922, The Killing of the Divine King, np.

Rituals of Human Sacrifice and Moloch

” … Without being unduly rash we may surmise that the tribute of seven youths and seven maidens whom the Athenians were bound to send to Minos every eight years had some connexion with the renewal of the king’s power for another octennial cycle.

Traditions varied as to the fate which awaited the lads and damsels on their arrival in Crete; but the common view appears to have been that they were shut up in the labyrinth, there to be devoured by the Minotaur, or at least to be imprisoned for life.

Perhaps they were sacrificed by being roasted alive in a bronze image of a bull, or of a bull-headed man, in order to renew the strength of the king and of the sun, whom he personated. This at all events is suggested by the legend of Talos, a bronze man who clutched people to his breast and leaped with them into the fire, so that they were roasted alive. He is said to have been given by Zeus to Europa, or by Hephaestus to Minos, to guard the island of Crete, which he patrolled thrice daily. According to one account he was a bull, according to another he was the sun.

Probably he was identical with the Minotaur, and stripped of his mythical features was nothing but a bronze image of the sun represented as a man with a bull’s head. In order to renew the solar fires, human victims may have been sacrificed to the idol by being roasted in its hollow body or placed on its sloping hands and allowed to roll into a pit of fire. It was in the latter fashion that the Carthaginians sacrificed their offspring to Moloch.

The children were laid on the hands of a calf-headed image of bronze, from which they slid into a fiery oven, while the people danced to the music of flutes and timbrels to drown the shrieks of the burning victims. The resemblance which the Cretan traditions bear to the Carthaginian practice suggests that the worship associated with the names of Minos and the Minotaur may have been powerfully influenced by that of a Semitic Baal.

In the tradition of Phalaris, tyrant of Agrigentum, and his brazen bull we may have an echo of similar rites in Sicily, where the Carthaginian power struck deep roots.”

James George Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, 1922, The Killing of the Divine King, np.

Mortality of the Gods

“The grave of Zeus, the great god of Greece, was shown to visitors in Crete as late as about the beginning of our era. The body of Dionysus was buried at Delphi beside the golden statue of Apollo, and his tomb bore the inscription, “Here lies Dionysus dead, the son of Semele.”

According to one account, Apollo himself was buried at Delphi; for Pythagoras is said to have carved an inscription on his tomb, setting forth how the god had been killed by the python and buried under the tripod.

The great gods of Egypt themselves were not exempt from the common lot. They too grew old and died. But when at a later time the discovery of the art of embalming gave a new lease of life to the souls of the dead by preserving their bodies for an indefinite time from corruption, the deities were permitted to share the benefit of an invention which held out to gods as well as to men a reasonable hope of immortality.

Every province then had the tomb and mummy of its dead god. The mummy of Osiris was to be seen at Mendes; Thinis boasted of the mummy of Anhouri; and Heliopolis rejoiced in the possession of that of Toumou.

The high gods of Babylon also, though they appeared to their worshippers only in dreams and visions, were conceived to be human in their bodily shape, human in their passions, and human in their fate; for like men they were born into the world, and like men they loved and fought and died.”

James George Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, 1922, The Mortality of the Gods, np.

Name Magic

” … In Egypt attempts like that of Isis to appropriate the power of a high god by possessing herself of his name were not mere legends told of the mythical beings of a remote past; every Egyptian magician aspired to wield like powers by similar means.

For it was believed that he who possessed the true name possessed the very being of god or man, and could force even a deity to obey him as a slave obeys his master. Thus the art of the magician consisted in obtaining from the gods a revelation of their sacred names, and he left no stone unturned to accomplish his end. When once a god in a moment of weakness or forgetfulness had imparted to the wizard the wondrous lore, the deity had no choice but to submit humbly to the man or pay the penalty of his contumacy.

The belief in the magic virtue of divine names was shared by the Romans. When they sat down before a city, the priests addressed the guardian deity of the place in a set form of prayer or incantation, inviting him to abandon the beleaguered city and come over to the Romans, who would treat him as well as or better than he had ever been treated in his old home.

Hence the name of the guardian deity of Rome was kept a profound secret, lest the enemies of the republic might lure him away, even as the Romans themselves had induced many gods to desert, like rats, the falling fortunes of cities that had sheltered them in happier days.

Nay, the real name, not merely of its guardian deity, but of the city itself, was wrapt in mystery and might never be uttered, not even in the sacred rites. A certain Valerius Soranus, who dared to divulge the priceless secret, was put to death or came to a bad end.

In like manner, it seems, the ancient Assyrians were forbidden to mention the mystic names of their cities; and down to modern times the Cheremiss of the Caucasus keep the names of their communal villages secret from motives of superstition.”

James George Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, 1922, Tabooed Words, np.

The Castration of the Galli, Priests of the Goddess

” … On certain days a multitude flocks into the temple, and the Galli in great numbers, sacred as they are, perform the ceremonies of the men and gash their arms and turn their backs to be lashed. 61 Many bystanders play on the pipes the while many beat drums; others sing divine and sacred songs. All this performance takes place outside the temple, and those engaged in the ceremony enter not into the temple.

During these days they are made Galli. As the Galli sing and celebrate their orgies, frenzy falls on many of them and many who had come as mere spectators afterwards are found to have committed the great act. I will narrate what they do.

Any young man who has resolved on this action, strips off his clothes, and with a loud shout bursts into the midst of the crowd, and picks up a sword from a number of swords which I suppose have been kept ready for many years for this purpose. He takes it and castrates himself 62 and then runs wild through the city, bearing in his hands what he has cut off. He casts it into any house at will, and from this house he receives women’s raiment and ornaments. 63 Thus they act during their ceremonies of castration.”

Herbert A. Strong and John Garstang, trans., The Syrian Goddess, by Lucian, 1913, pp. 84-5.

What was the Third Image?

” … In this shrine are placed the statues, one of which is Hera, the other Zeus, though they call him by another name. Both of these are golden, both are sitting; Hera is supported by lions, Zeus is sitting on bulls. The effigy of Zeus recalls Zeus in all its details—his head, his robes, his throne; nor even if you wished it could you take him for another deity. 43

Hera, however, as you look at her will recall to you a variety of forms. Speaking generally she is undoubtedly Hera, but she has something of the attributes of Athene, and of Aphrodite, and of Selene, and of Rhea, and of Artemis, and of Nemesis, and of The Fates.

In one of her hands she holds a sceptre, in the other a distaff; on her head she bears rays and a tower and she has a girdle wherewith they adorn none but Aphrodite of the sky. 44 And without she is gilt with gold, and gems of great price adorn her, some white, some sea-green, others wine-dark, others flashing like fire. Besides these there are many onyxes from Sardinia and the jacinth and emeralds, the offerings of the Egyptians and of the Indians, Ethiopians, Medes, Armenians, and Babylonians.

But the greatest wonder of all I will proceed to tell: she bears a gem on her head called a Lychnis; it takes its name from its attribute. From this stone flashes a great light in the night-time, so that the whole temple gleams brightly as by the light of myriads of candles, but in the day-time the brightness grows faint; the gem has the likeness of a bright fire. There is also another marvel in this image: if you stand over against it, it looks you in the face, and as you pass it the gaze still follows you, and if another approaching from a different quarter looks at it, he is similarly affected.

Between the two there stands another image of gold, no part of it resembling the others. This possesses no special form of its own, but recalls the characteristics of other gods. The Assyrians themselves speak of it as a symbol, but they have assigned to it no definite name. They have nothing to tell us about its origin, nor its form: some refer it to Dionysus; others to Deukalion; others to Semiramis; for its summit is crowned by a golden pigeon, 45 and this is why they allege that it is the effigy of Semiramis. It is taken down to the sea twice in every year to bring up the water of which I have spoken. 46

In the body of the temple, as you enter, there stands on the left hand side, a throne for the Sun god; but there is no image upon it, for the effigies of the Sun and Moon are not exhibited. I have learnt, however, the reasons of this practice. They say that religion does not forbid making effigies of the other deities, for the outward form of these deities is known to all; but the Sun and Moon are plain for all to see, and all men behold them. What boots it, therefore, to make effigies of those deities who offer themselves for all to gaze on?”

Herbert A. Strong and John Garstang, trans., The Syrian Goddess, by Lucian, 1913, pp. 70-4.

Sacred Castration

” … And even to the present day this brazen statue is seen standing in the temple, the work of Hermocles of Rhodes. Its form is that of a woman, but the garments are those of a man. 36 It is said, too, that his most intimate friends, as a proof of their sympathy, castrated themselves like him, and chose the same manner of life. Others there are who bring gods into the story and affirm that Combabus was beloved by Hera; and that it was she who inspired many with the idea of castrating themselves, so that her lover should not be the only one to lament the loss of his virility.

Meantime the custom once adopted remains even to-day, and many persons every year castrate themselves and lose their virile powers: whether it be out of sympathy with Combabus, or to find favour with Hera. They certainly castrate themselves, and then cease to wear man’s garb; they don women’s raiment and perform women’s tasks. 37

I have heard the origin of this ascribed to Combabus as well, for the following event occurred to him. A certain foreign woman who had joined a sacred assembly, beholding a human form of extreme beauty and dressed in man’s attire, became violently enamoured of him: after discovering that he was unsexed, she took away her life.

Combabus accordingly in despair at his incapacity for love, donned woman’s attire, that no woman in future might be deceived in the same way. This is the reason of the female attire of the Galli.”

Herbert A. Strong and John Garstang, trans., The Syrian Goddess, by Lucian, 1913, pp. 65-6.

Phallic Features of the Dionysus Cult

” … There is, however, another sacred story which I had from the lips of a wise man—that the goddess was Rhea, and the shrine the work of Attes. Now this Attes was by nation a Lydian, and he first taught the sacred mysteries of Rhea. 30 The ritual of the Phrygians and the Lydians and the Samothracians was entirely learnt from Attes.

For when Rhea deprived him of his powers, he put off his manly garb and assumed the appearance of a woman and her dress, 31 and roaming over the whole earth he performed his mysterious rites, narrating his sufferings and chanting the praises of Rhea.

In the course of his wanderings he passed also into Syria. Now, when the men from beyond Euphrates would neither receive him nor his mysteries, 32 he reared a temple to himself on this very spot. The tokens of this fact are as follows: She is drawn by lions, she holds a drum in her hand and carries a tower on her head, just as the Lydians make Rhea to do. 33 He also affirmed that the Galli who are in the temple in no case castrate themselves in honour of Juno, but of Rhea, and this in imitation of Attes. All this seems to me more specious than true, for I have heard a different and more credible reason given for their castration.

I approve of the remarks about the temple made by those who in the main accept the theories of the Greeks: according to these the goddess is Hera, but the work was carried out by Dionysus, 34 the son of Semele: Dionysus visited Syria on his journey to Aethiopia.

There are in the temple many tokens that Dionysus was its actual founder: for instance, barbaric raiment, Indian precious stones, and elephants’ tusks brought by Dionysus from the Aethiopians. Further, a pair of phalli of great size are seen standing in the vestibule, bearing the inscription, “I, Dionysus, dedicated these phalli to Hera my stepmother.” This proof satisfies me.

And I will describe another curiosity to be found in this temple, a sacred symbol of Dionysus. The Greeks erect phalli in honour of Dionysus, and on these they carry, singular to say, mannikins made of wood, with enormous pudenda; they call these puppets. There is this further curiosity in the temple: as you enter, on the right hand, a small brazen statue meets your eye of a man in a sitting posture, with parts of monstrous size.

These are the legends concerning the founders of the temple.”

Herbert A. Strong and John Garstang, trans., The Syrian Goddess, by Lucian, 1913, pp. 55-8.

Deukalion and the Deluge

” … The people, then, allege that it was Deukalion or Sisythus who founded the temple; I mean the Deukalion in whose time the great flood occurred.

I have heard the story about Deukalion as the Greeks narrate it from the Greeks themselves. The story runs as follows: The present race of men was not the first to be created. The first generation perished to a man; the present is a second creation.

This generation became a vast multitude, owing to Deukalion. Of the men of the original creation they tell this tale: they were rebellious, and wilful, and performed unholy deeds, disregarding the sanctity of oaths and hospitality, and behaving cruelly to suppliants; and it was for these misdeeds that the great destruction fell upon them.

Straightway the earth discharged a vast volume of water, and the rivers of heaven came down in streams and the sea mounted high. Thus everything became water, and all men perished; Deukalion alone was saved for another generation, on the score of his wisdom and piety.

The manner of his salvation was as follows: He placed his children and his wives in an ark of vast size, and he himself also entered in. Now, when he had embarked, there came to him wild boars and horses, and generations of lions and serpents, and all the other beasts which roam the earth, all in couples. He welcomed them all. Nor did they harm him; and friendship remained amongst them as Zeus himself ordained. These, one and all, floated in this ark as long as the flood remained. This is the legend of Deukalion as told by the Greeks.” 22

Herbert A. Strong and John Garstang, trans., The Syrian Goddess, by Lucian, 1913, pp. 50-1.

Dead Men, Hollow Ghosts

” … But profoundly as I also feel the value of the religious impulse, so keenly do I feel the danger and almost necessary disaster of each and every creed and dogma.

For the material of religion is essentially the uncharted, the ungrasped, as Herbert Spencer would say, though with a somewhat different connotation, the ‘unknowable.’

Further, every religious dogma errs in two ways. First, it is a confident statement about something unknown and therefore practically always untrustworthy; secondly, if it were right and based on real knowledge, then its subject-matter would no longer belong to the realm of religion; it would belong to science or philosophy.

To win new realms for knowledge out of the unknown is part of the normal current of human effort; but to force intellectual dogma upon material which belongs only to the realm of dim aspiration is to steer for a backwater of death.

In that backwater lies stranded many an ancient galley, haunted by fair figures of serene Olympians, and even, it must be said, by the phantom of Him—the Desire of all nations—who is the same yesterday, to-day and for ever.

The stream of life flows on, a saecular mystery; but these, the eidola of man’s market-place, are dead men, hollow ghosts.”

Jane Ellen Harrison, Themis–A Study of the Social Origins of Greek Religion, 1912, p. xix.

Attis = Christ

” … The Grail story is not du fond en comble the product of imagination, literary or popular.

At its root lies the record, more or less distorted, of an ancient Ritual, having for its ultimate object the initiation into the secret of the sources of Life, physical and spiritual.

This ritual, in its lower, exoteric, form, as affecting the processes of Nature, and physical life, survives to-day, and can be traced all over the world, in Folk ceremonies, which, however widely separated the countries in which they are found, show a surprising identity of detail and intention.

In its esoteric ‘Mystery’ form it was freely utilized for the imparting of high spiritual teaching concerning the relation of Man to the Divine Source of his being, and the possibility of a sensible union between Man, and God.

The recognition of the cosmic activities of the Logos appears to have been a characteristic feature of this teaching, and when Christianity came upon the scene it did not hesitate to utilize the already existing medium of instruction, but boldly identified the Deity of Vegetation, regarded as Life Principle, with the God of the Christian Faith.

Thus, to certain of the early Christians, Attis was but an earlier manifestation of the Logos, Whom they held identical with Christ.

The evidence of the Naassene document places this beyond any shadow of doubt, and is of inestimable value as establishing a link between pre-Christian, and Christian, Mystery tradition.

This curious synthetic belief, united as it was with the highly popular cult of Mithra, travelled with the foreign legionaries, adherents of that cult, to the furthest bounds of the Roman Empire, and when the struggle between Mithraism and Christianity ended in the definite triumph of the latter, by virtue of that dual synthetic nature, the higher ritual still survived, and was celebrated in sites removed from the centres of population–in caves, and mountain fastnesses; in islands, and on desolate sea-coasts.”

Jessie L. Weston, From Ritual to Romance, 1920, pp. 191-2.

The Mystery of the Third Gate

” … But what is of special interest to us is the treatment meted out to the Christian Mystics, whom Hippolytus stigmatizes as heretics, and whose teaching he deliberately asserts to be simply that of the Pagan Mysteries.

He had come into possession of a secret document belonging to one of these sects, whom he calls the Naassenes; this document he gives in full, and it certainly throws a most extraordinary light upon the relation which this early Christian sect held to exist between the New, and the Old, Faith.

Mr G. R. S. Mead, in his translation of the Hermetic writings entitled Thrice-Greatest Hermes, has given a careful translation and detailed analysis of this most important text … [ … ]  edited by Hippolytus, in the Refutation, about 222 A. D. Thus the ground covered is roughly from 50 B. C. to 220 A. D. 1 [ … ] Mr Mead, in his introductory remarks, summarizes the evidence as follows:

“The claim of these Gnostics was practically that Christianity, or rather the Good News of The Christ, was precisely the consummation of the inner doctrine of the Mystery-institutions of all the nations: the end of them all was the revelation of the Mystery of Man.” 1

[ … ]

In other words the teaching of these Naassenes was practically a synthesis of all the Mystery-religions, and although Hippolytus regards them as nothing more than devotees of the cult of the Magna Mater, we shall see that, while their doctrine and teaching were undoubtedly based mainly upon the doctrine and practices of the Phrygian Mysteries, they practically identified the deity therein worshipped, i.e., Attis, with the presiding deity of all the other Mysteries.

Mr Mead draws attention to the fact that Hippolytus places these Naassenes in the fore-front of his Refutation; they are the first group of Heretics with whom he deals, and we may therefore conclude that he considered them, if not the most important, at least the oldest, of such sectaries. 2

[ … ]

At the outset it will be well to understand that the central doctrine of all these Mysteries is what Reitzenstein sums up as “the doctrine of the Man, the Heavenly Man, the Son of God, who descends and becomes a slave of the Fate Sphere: the Man who, though originally endowed with all power, descends into weakness and bondage, and has to win his own freedom, and regain his original state.

This doctrine is not Egyptian, but seems to have been in its origin part and parcel of the Chaldean Mystery-tradition and was widely spread in Hellenistic circles. 1

Thus, in the introductory remarks prefixed by Hippolytus to the document he is quoting he asserts that the Naassenes honour as the Logos of all universals Man, and Son of Man–“and they divide him into three, for they say he has a mental, psychic, and choïc aspect; and they think that the Gnosis of this Man is the beginning of the possibility of knowing God, saying, ‘The beginning of Perfection is the Gnosis of Man, but the Gnosis of God is perfected Perfection.’

All these, mental, psychic, and earthy, descended together into one Man, Jesus, the Son of Mary.” 2

Thus the Myth of Man, the Mystery of Generation, is the subject matter of the document in question, and this myth is set forth with reference to all the Mysteries, beginning with the Assyrian.

Paragraph 5 runs: “Now the Assyrians call this Mystery Adonis, and whenever it is called Adonis it is Aphrodite who is in love with and desires Soul so-called, and Aphrodite is Genesis according to them.” 3

But in the next section the writer jumps from the Assyrian to the Phrygian Mysteries, saying, “But if the Mother of the Gods emasculates Attis, she too regarding him as the object of her love, it is the Blessed Nature above of the super-Cosmic, and Aeonian spaces which calls back the masculine power of Soul to herself.” 4

In a note to this Mr Mead quotes from The Life of Isidorus: “I fell asleep and in a vision Attis seemed to appear to me, and on behalf of the Mother of gods to initiate me into the feast called Hilario, a mystery which discloses the way of our salvation from Hades.”

Throughout the document reference is continually made to the Phrygians and their doctrine of Man. The Eleusinian Mysteries are then treated of as subsequent to the Phrygian, “after the Phrygians, the Athenians,” but the teaching is represented as being essentially identical.

We have then a passage of great interest for our investigation, in which the Mysteries are sharply divided into two classes, and their separate content clearly defined.

There are–“the little Mysteries, those of the Fleshly Generation, and after men have been initiated into them they should cease for a while and become initiated in the Great, Heavenly, Mysteries–for this is the Gate of Heaven, and this is the House of God, where the Good God dwells alone, into which House no impure man shall come.” 1

Hippolytus remarks that “these Naassenes say that the performers in theatres, they too, neither say nor do anything without design–for example, when the people assemble in the theatre, and a man comes on the stage clad in a robe different from all others, with lute in hand on which he plays, and thus chants the Great Mysteries, not knowing what he says:

‘Whether blest Child of Kronos, or of Zeus, or of Great Rhea,

Hail Attis, thou mournful song of Rhea!

Assyrians call thee thrice-longed-for Adonis;

All Egypt calls thee Osiris;

The Wisdom of Hellas names thee Men’s Heavenly Horn;

The Samothracians call thee august Adama;

The Haemonians, Korybas;

The Phrygians name thee Papa sometimes;

At times again Dead, or God, or Unfruitful, or Aipolos;

Or Green Reaped Wheat-ear;

Or the Fruitful that Amygdalas brought forth,

Man, Piper–Attis!’

This is the Attis of many forms, of whom they sing as follows:

‘Of Attis will I sing, of Rhea’s Beloved,

Not with the booming of bells,

Nor with the deep-toned pipe of Idaean Kuretes;

But I will blend my song with Phoebus’ music of the lyre;

Evoi, Evan,

–for thou art Pan, thou Bacchus art, and Shepherd of bright stars!'” 1

On this Hippolytus comments:

“For these and suchlike reasons these Naassenes frequent what are called the Mysteries of the Great Mother, believing that they obtain the clearest view of the universal Mystery from the things done in them.”

And after all this evidence of elaborate syncretism, this practical identification of all the Mystery-gods with the Vegetation deity Adonis-Attis, we are confronted in the concluding paragraph, after stating that “the True Gate is Jesus the Blessed,” with this astounding claim, from the pen of the latest redactor, “And of all men we alone are Christians, accomplishing the Mystery at the Third Gate.” 2

Jessie L. Weston, From Ritual to Romance, 1920, pp. 144-8.

Mirrors Reflect the Soul

” … We can now understand why it was a maxim both in ancient India and ancient Greece not to look at one’s reflection in water, and why the Greeks regarded it as an omen of death if a man dreamed of seeing himself so reflected. They feared that the water-spirits would drag the person’s reflection or soul under water, leaving him soulless to perish. This was probably the origin of the classical story of the beautiful Narcissus, who languished and died through seeing his reflection in the water.

Further, we can now explain the widespread custom of covering up mirrors or turning them to the wall after a death has taken place in the house. It is feared that the soul, projected out of the person in the shape of his reflection in the mirror, may be carried off by the ghost of the departed, which is commonly supposed to linger about the house till the burial. The custom is thus exactly parallel to the Aru custom of not sleeping in a house after a death for fear that the soul, projected out of the body in a dream, may meet the ghost and be carried off by it.

The reason why sick people should not see themselves in a mirror, and why the mirror in a sick-room is therefore covered up, is also plain; in time of sickness, when the soul might take flight so easily, it is particularly dangerous to project it out of the body by means of the reflection in a mirror. The rule is therefore precisely parallel to the rule observed by some peoples of not allowing sick people to sleep; for in sleep the soul is projected out of the body, and there is always a risk that it may not return.”

James George Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, 1922, The Soul as a Shadow and Reflection, np.

The Missing Books of Hippolytus’s The Refutation of All Heresies

” … In the previous chapter we have seen that there is evidence, and abundant evidence, not merely of the existence of Mysteries connected with the worship of Adonis-Attis, but of the high importance assigned to such Mysteries; at the time of the birth of Christianity they were undoubtedly the most popular and the most influential of the foreign cults adopted by Imperial Rome.

In support of this statement I quoted certain passages from Cumont’s Religions Orientales, in which he touches on the subject: here are two other quotations which may well serve as introduction to the evidence we are about to examine.

“Researches on the doctrines and practices common to Christianity and the Oriental Mysteries almost invariably go back, beyond the limits of the Roman Empire, to the Hellenized East. It is there we must seek the key of enigmas still unsolved–The essential fact to remember is that the Eastern religions had diffused, first anterior to, then parallel with, Christianity, doctrines which acquired with this latter a universal authority in the decline of the ancient world. The preaching of Asiatic priests prepared in their own despite the triumph of the Church 1.”

But the triumph of the new Faith once assured the organizing, dominating, influence of Imperial Rome speedily came into play. Christianity, originally an Eastern, became a Western, religion, the ‘Mystery’ elements were frowned upon, kinship with pre-Christian faiths ignored, or denied; where the resemblances between the cults proved too striking for either of these methods such resemblances were boldly attributed to the invention of the Father of Lies himself, a cunning snare whereby to deceive unwary souls.

Christianity was carefully trimmed, shaped, and forced into an Orthodox mould, and anything that refused to adapt itself to this drastic process became by that very refusal anathema to the righteous.

Small wonder that, under such conditions, the early ages of the Church were marked by a fruitful crop of Heresies, and heresy-hunting became an intellectual pastime in high favour among the strictly orthodox.

Among the writers of this period whose works have been preserved Hippolytus, Bishop of Portus in the early years of the third century, was one of the most industrious. He compiled a voluminous treatise, entitled Philosophumena, or The Refutation of all Heresies, of which only one MS. and that of the fourteenth century, has descended to us.

The work was already partially known by quotations, the first Book had been attributed to Origen, and published in the editio princeps of his works. The text originally consisted of ten Books, but of these the first three, and part of the fourth, are missing from the MS. The Origen text supplies part of the lacuna, but two entire Books, and part of a third are missing.

Now these special Books, we learn from the Introduction, dealt with the doctrines and Mysteries of the Egyptians and Chaldaeans, whose most sacred secrets Hippolytus boasts that he has divulged.

Curiously enough, not only are these Books lacking but in the Epitome at the beginning of Book X the summary of their contents is also missing, a significant detail, which, as has been suggested by critics, looks like a deliberate attempt on the part of some copyist to suppress the information contained in the Books in question.”

Incidentally this would seem to suggest that the worthy bishop was not making an empty boast when he claimed to be a revealer of secrets.”

Jessie L. Weston, From Ritual to Romance, 1920, pp. 142-4.

No New Thing

“We have now seen that the Ritual which, as we have postulated, lies, in a fragmentary and distorted condition, at the root of our existing Grail romances, possessed elements capable of assimilation with a religious system which the great bulk of its modern adherents would unhesitatingly declare to be its very antithesis.

That Christianity might have borrowed from previously existing cults certain outward signs and symbols, might have accommodated itself to already existing Fasts and Feasts, may be, perforce has had to be, more or less grudgingly admitted; that such a rapprochement should have gone further, that it should even have been inherent in the very nature of the Faith, that, to some of the deepest thinkers of old, Christianity should have been held for no new thing but a fulfilment of the promise enshrined in the Mysteries from the beginning of the world, will to many be a strange and startling thought.

Yet so it was, and I firmly believe that it is only in the recognition of this one-time claim of essential kinship between Christianity and the Pagan Mysteries that we shall find the key to the Secret of the Grail.

And here at the outset I would ask those readers who are inclined to turn with feelings of contemptuous impatience from what they deem an unprofitable discussion of idle speculations which have little or nothing to do with a problem they hold to be one of purely literary interest, to be solved by literary comparison and criticism, and by no other method, to withhold their verdict till they have carefully examined the evidence I am about to bring forward, evidence which has never so far been examined in this connection, but which if I am not greatly mistaken provides us with clear and unmistakable proof of the actual existence of a ritual in all points analogous to that indicated by the Grail romances.”

Jessie L. Weston, From Ritual to Romance, 1920, pp. 141-2.

A Human Head Carried on a River of Blood

” … The first men on earth to receive knowledge of the gods, and to build temples and shrines and to summon meetings for religious observances are said to have been the Egyptians. 5 They were the first, too, to take cognizance of holy names, and to repeat sacred traditions. Not long after them the Assyrians heard from the Egyptians their doctrines as to the gods, and they reared temples and shrines: in these they placed statues and images.

Originally the temples of the Egyptians possessed no images. And there exist in Syria temples of a date not much later than those of Egypt, many of which I have seen myself, for instance, the temple of Hercules in Tyre. 6 This is not the Hercules of Greek legend; but a Tyrian hero of much greater antiquity than he.

There is likewise in Phœnicia a temple of great size owned by the Sidonians. They call it the temple of Astarte. 7 I hold this Astarte to be no other than the moon-goddess. But according to the story of one of the priests this temple is sacred to Europa, the sister of Cadmus. She was the daughter of Agenor, and on her disappearance from Earth the Phœnicians honoured her with a temple and told a sacred legend about her; how that Zeus was enamoured of her for her beauty, and changing his form into that of a bull carried her off into Crete. 8 This legend I heard from other Phœnicians as well; and the coinage current among the Sidonians bears upon it the effigy of Europa sitting upon a bull, none other than Zeus. 9 Thus they do not agree that the temple in question is sacred to Europa.

The Phœnicians have also another sacred custom, derived from Egypt, not from Assyria: it came, they say, from Heliopolis into Phœnicia. I never witnessed this myself, but it is important, and of great antiquity.

I saw too at Byblos a large temple, 10 sacred to the Byblian Aphrodite 11: this is the scene of the secret rites of Adonis: I mastered these. They assert that the legend about Adonis and the wild boar is true, 12 and that the facts occurred in their country, and in memory of this calamity they beat their breasts and wail every year, and perform their secret ritual amid signs of mourning through the whole countryside.

When they have finished their mourning and wailing, they sacrifice in the first place to Adonis, as to one who has departed this life: after this they allege that he is alive again, and exhibit his effigy to the sky. They proceed to shave their heads, 13 too, like the Egyptians on the loss of their Apis. The women who refuse to be shaved have to submit to the following penalty, viz., to stand for the space of an entire day in readiness to expose their persons for hire. The place of hire is open to none but foreigners, and out of the proceeds of the traffic of these women a sacrifice to Aphrodite is paid. 14

Some of the inhabitants of Byblos maintain that the Egyptian Osiris is buried in their town, and that the public mourning and secret rites are performed in memory not of Adonis, but of Osiris. 15 I will tell you why this story seems worthy of credence. A human head comes every year from Egypt to Byblos, 16 floating on its seven days’ journey thence: the winds, by some divine instinct, waft it on its way: it never varies from its course but goes straight to Byblos. The whole occurrence is miraculous. It occurs every year, and it came to pass while I was myself in Byblos, and I saw the head in that city.

There is, too, another marvellous portent in the region of the Byblians. A river, flowing from Mount Libanus, discharges itself into the sea: this river bears the name of Adonis. 17 Every year regularly it is tinged with blood, and loses its proper colour before it falls into the sea: it dyes the sea, to a large space, red: 18 and thus announces their time of mourning to the Byblians.

Their story is that during these days Adonis is wounded, and that the river’s nature is changed by the blood which flows into its waters; and that it takes its name from this blood. Such is the legend vulgarly accepted: but a man of Byblos, who seemed to me to be telling the truth, told me another reason for this marvellous change.

He spoke as follows: “This river, my friend and guest, passes through the Libanus: now this Libanus abounds in red earth. The violent winds which blow regularly on those days bring down into the river a quantity of earth resembling vermilion. It is this earth that turns the river to red. And thus the change in the river’s colour is due, not to blood as they affirm, but to the nature of the soil.” 19

This was the story of the Byblian. But even assuming that he spoke the truth, yet there certainly seems to me something supernatural in the regular coincidence of the wind and the colouring of the river.”

Herbert A. Strong and John Garstang, trans., The Syrian Goddess, by Lucian, 1913, pp. 42-8.

The New Mystery

” … Lucian has heard of Christianity, but seems to have regarded it as an ordinary Oriental cult. He refers to it twice; the first passage is in the memoirs of Alexander, in which the false prophet is alleged to have proclaimed: “If any atheist, Christian, or Epicurean has come to spy out the sacred rites, let him flee”; and in the same tract (§ 25) he couples Christians and atheists.

The second passage is in the treatise on the death of Peregrinus the impostor, who, according to Lucian, was a renegade from Christianity and indeed had occupied an important post among that community. The translation is Sir Richard Jebb’s.

“He had thoroughly learnt,” says Lucian, “the wondrous philosophy of the Christians, having consorted in Palestine with their priests and scribes. What would you expect? He speedily showed that they were mere children in his hands: he was their prophet, the chief of their religious fraternity (θιασιάρχης), the convener of their meetings (συναγωγεύς) —in short, everything to them. Some of their books he interpreted and elucidated; many of them he wrote himself. They regarded him as a god, made him their law-giver, and adopted him as their champion (προστάτην ἐπεγράφοντο).”

Concerning their tenets he says, “They still reverence that great one (τὸν μέγαν ἐκεῖνον), the man who was crucified in Palestine because he brought this new mystery into the world. The poor creatures have persuaded themselves that they will be altogether immortal and live for ever; wherefore they despise death and in many cases give themselves to it voluntarily.

Then their first Law-giver (i.e., Christ) persuaded them that they were all brethren, when they should have taken the step of renouncing all the Hellenic gods, and worshipping that crucified one, their sophist, and living after his laws.

So they despise all things alike (i.e., all dangers and sufferings) and hold their goods in common: though they have received such traditions without any certain warrant. If then an artful impostor comes among them, an adroit man of the world, he very soon enriches himself by making these simple folk his dupes.”

Herbert A. Strong and John Garstang, trans., The Syrian Goddess, by Lucian, 1913, pp. 35-7.

Persistence of the Cult of the Great Mother

“But the Great Mother lived on, being the goddess of the land. Her cult, modified, in some cases profoundly, by time and changed political circumstances, was found surviving at the dawn of Greek history in several places in the interior. Prominent among these sites is Pessinus in Phrygia, a sacred city, with which the legend of Kybele and Attis is chiefly associated.

Other districts developed remarkable and even abnormal tendencies in myth and worship. At Comana, in the Taurus, where the Assyrian armies were resisted to the last, and the ancient martial spirit still survives, she became, like Isthar, a goddess of war, identified by the Romans with Bellona: 50 In Syria, again, a different temper and climate emphasized the sensuous tendency of human passions.

In all these cases, however, there survived some uniformity of ceremonial and custom. At each shrine numerous priests, called Galli, numbering at Comana as many as 5,000, took part in the worship. Women dedicated their persons as an honourable custom, which in some cases was not even optional, to the service of the goddess. The great festivals were celebrated at regular seasons with revelry, music, and dancing, as they had been of old, coupled with customs which tended to become, in the course of time, more and more orgiastic.

These are, however, matters of common knowledge and may be studied in the classical writings. Lucian himself adds considerably to our understanding of these institutions; indeed his tract has been long one of the standard sources of information, supplying details which have been applied, perhaps too freely, to the character of the general cult.

Religion in the East is a real part of life, not tending so much as in the West to become stereotyped or conventionalized, but changing with changes of conditions, adapted to the circumstances and needs of the community. 51 So, wherever the goddess was worshipped there would be variety of detail. It is, however, remarkable in this case, that throughout the Hittite period, though wedded and in a sense subordinate to a dominant male deity, and subsequently down to the age at which Lucian wrote, she maintained, none the less, her individuality and comprehensive character.

Thus, while Lucian is concerned in his treatise with the cult of an apparently local goddess of northern Syria, we recognize her as a localised aspect of the Mother-goddess, whose worship in remoter times had already been spread wide, and so explain at once the points of clear resemblance in character and in worship to other nature-goddesses of Syria and Asia Minor.”

Herbert A. Strong and John Garstang, trans., The Syrian Goddess, by Lucian, 1913, pp. 17-20.

The Diabolical Mass of Saint Sécaire

” … Again, Gascon peasants believe that to revenge themselves on their enemies bad men will sometimes induce a priest to say a mass called the Mass of Saint Sécaire. Very few priests know this mass, and three-fourths of those who do know it would not say it for love or money. None but wicked priests dare to perform the gruesome ceremony, and you may be quite sure that they will have a very heavy account to render for it at the last day. No curate or bishop, not even the archbishop of Auch, can pardon them; that right belongs to the pope of Rome alone.

The Mass of Saint Sécaire may be said only in a ruined or deserted church, where owls mope and hoot, where bats flit in the gloaming, where gypsies lodge of nights, and where toads squat under the desecrated altar. Thither the bad priest comes by night with his light o’ love, and at the first stroke of eleven he begins to mumble the mass backwards, and ends just as the clocks are knelling the midnight hour. His leman acts as clerk. The host he blesses is black and has three points; he consecrates no wine, but instead he drinks the water of a well into which the body of an unbaptized infant has been flung. He makes the sign of the cross, but it is on the ground and with his left foot.

And many other things he does which no good Christian could look upon without being struck blind and deaf and dumb for the rest of his life. But the man for whom the mass is said withers away little by little, and nobody can say what is the matter with him; even the doctors can make nothing of it. They do not know that he is slowly dying of the Mass of Saint Sécaire.”

James George Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, Magic and Religion, 1922, np.

The Mystical Meal

“But now what do we know of the actual details of the Attis mysteries? The first and most important point was a Mystic Meal, at which the food partaken of was served in the sacred vessels, the tympanum, and the cymbals. The formula of an Attis initiate was “I have eaten from the tympanum, I have drunk from the cymbals.” As I have remarked above, the food thus partaken of was a Food of Life–“Die Attis-Diener in der Tat eine magische Speise des Lebens aus ihren Kult-Geräten zu essen meinten.” 1

Dieterich in his interesting study entitled Eine Mithras-liturgie refers to this meal as the centre of the whole religious action.

Further, in some mysterious manner, the fate of the initiate was connected with, and dependent upon, the death and resurrection of the god. The Christian writer Firmicius Maternus, at one time himself an initiate, has left an account of the ceremony, without, however, specifying whether the deity in question was Attis or Adonis–as Dieterich remarks “Was er erzählt kann sich auf Attis-gemeinden, und auf Adonis-gemeinden beziehen.”

This is what he says: “Nocte quadam simulacrum in lectica supinum ponitur, et per numeros digestis fletibus plangitur: deinde cum se ficta lamentatione satiaverint lumen infertur: tunc a sacerdote omnium qui flebant fauces unguentur, quibus perunctis sacerdos hoc lento murmure susurrit:

Θάρρετε μύϲται τοῦ θεοῦ ϲεϲωϲμένου·

Ἕϲται γα’ρ ἡμῖν ἐκ πόνων ϲωτηρία–

on which Dieterich remarks: “Das Heil der Mysten hängt an der Rettung des Gottes.” 2

Hepding holds that in some cases there was an actual burial, and awakening with the god to a new life. 3 In any case it is clear that the successful issue of the test of initiation was dependent upon the resurrection and revival of the god.

Now is it not clear that we have here a close parallel with the Grail romances? In each case we have a common, and mystic, meal, in which the food partaken of stands in close connection with the holy vessels.

In the Attis feast the initiates actually ate and drank from these vessels; in the romances the Grail community never actually eat from the Grail itself, but the food is, in some mysterious and unexplained manner, supplied by it.

In both cases it is a Lebens-Speise, a Food of Life. This point is especially insisted upon in the Parzival, where the Grail community never become any older than they were on the day they first beheld the Talisman. 1

In the Attis initiation the proof that the candidate has successfully passed the test is afforded by the revival of the god–in the Grail romances the proof lies in the healing of the Fisher King.

Thus, while deferring for a moment any insistence on the obvious points of parallelism with the Sacrament of the Eucharist, and the possibilities of Spiritual teaching inherent in the ceremonies, necessary links in our chain of argument, we are, I think, entitled to hold that, even when we pass beyond the outward mise-en-scène of the story–the march of incident, the character of the King, his title, his disability, and relation to his land and folk–to the inner and deeper significance of the tale, the Nature Cults still remain reliable guides; it is their inner, their esoteric, ritual which will enable us to bridge the gulf between what appears at first sight the wholly irreconcilable elements of Folk-tale and high Spiritual mystery.”

Jessie L. Weston, From Ritual to Romance, 1920, pp. 139-40.

Mithra and Attis Syncretism: Death and Resurrection Classic Rituals of the Adonis Cult

” … Fortunately, however, so far as our present research is concerned, we have more than probability to rely upon; not only did these Nature Cults with which we are dealing express themselves in Mystery terms, but as regards these special Mysteries we possess clear and definite information, and we know, moreover, that in the Western world they were, of all the Mystery faiths, the most widely spread, and the most influential.

As Sir J. G. Frazer has before now pointed out, there are parallel and over-lapping forms of this cult, the name of the god, and certain details of the ritual, may differ in different countries, but whether he hails from Babylon, Phrygia, or Phoenicia, whether he be called Tammuz, Attis, or Adonis, the main lines of the story are fixed, and invariable.

Always he is young and beautiful, always the beloved of a great goddess; always he is the victim of a tragic and untimely death, a death which entails bitter loss and misfortune upon a mourning world, and which, for the salvation of that world, is followed by a resurrection.

Death and Resurrection, mourning and rejoicing, present themselves in sharp antithesis in each and all of the forms.

We know the god best as Adonis, for it was under that name that, though not originally Greek, he became known to the Greek world, was adopted by them with ardour, carried by them to Alexandria, where his feast assumed the character of a State solemnity; under that name his story has been enshrined in Art, and as Adonis he is loved and lamented to this day. The Adonis ritual may be held to be the classic form of the cult.

But in Rome, the centre of Western civilization, it was otherwise: there it was the Phrygian god who was in possession; the dominating position held by the cult of Attis and the Magna Mater, and the profound influence exercised by that cult over better known, but subsequently introduced, forms of worship, have not, so far, been sufficiently realized.

The first of the Oriental cults to gain a footing in the Imperial city, the worship of the Magna Mater of Pessinonte was, for a time, rigidly confined within the limits of her sanctuary.

The orgiastic ritual of the priests of Kybele made at first little appeal to the more disciplined temperament of the Roman population. By degrees, however, it won its way, and by the reign of Claudius had become so popular that the emperor instituted public feasts in honour of Kybele and Attis, feasts which were celebrated at the Spring solstice, March 15th-27th. 1

As the public feast increased in popularity, so did the Mystery feast, of which the initiated alone were privileged to partake, acquire a symbolic significance: the foods partaken of became “un aliment de vie spirituelle, et doivent soutenir dans les épreuves de la vie l’initié.”

Philosophers boldly utilized the framework of the Attis cult as the vehicle for imparting their own doctrines, “Lorsque le Nèoplatonisme triomphera la fable Phrygienne deviendra le moule traditionnel dans lequel des exégètes subtils verseront hardiment leurs spéculations philosophiques sur les forces créatrices fécondantes, principes de toutes les formes matérielles, et sur la délivrance de l’âme divine plongée dans la corruption de ce monde terrestre.” 2

Certain of the Gnostic sects, both pre- and post-Christian, appear to have been enthusiastic participants in the Attis mysteries; 3 Hepding, in his Attis study, goes so far as to refer to Bishop Aberkios, to whose enigmatic epitaph our attention was directed in the last chapter, as “der Attis-Preister.” 4

Another element aided in the diffusion of the ritual. Of all the Oriental cults which journeyed Westward under the aegis of Rome none was so deeply rooted or so widely spread as the originally Persian cult of Mithra–the popular religion of the Roman legionary.

But between the cults of Mithra and of Attis there was a close and intimate alliance. In parts of Asia Minor the Persian god had early taken over features of the Phrygian deity. “Aussitôt que nous pouvons constater la présence du culte Persique en Italie nous le trouvons étroitement uni à celui de la Grande Mére de Pessinonte.” 1

The union between Mithra and the goddess Anâhita was held to be the equivalent of that subsisting between the two great Phrygian deities Attis-Kybele.”

Jessie L. Weston, From Ritual to Romance, 1920, pp. 136-8.

The Names of the Great Mother

“THE dawn of history in all parts of Western Asia discloses the established worship of a nature-goddess in whom the productive powers of the earth were personified. 1 She is our Mother Earth, known otherwise as the Mother Goddess or Great Mother. Among the Babylonians 2 and northern Semites she was called Ishtar: she is the Ashtoreth of the Bible, and the Astarte of Phœnicia. In Syria her name was ‘Athar, and in Cilicia it had the form of ‘Ate (‘Atheh). At Hierapolis, with which we are primarily concerned, it appears in later Aramaic as Atargatis, a compound of the Syrian and Cilician forms.

In Asia Minor, where the influence of the Semitic language did not prevail, her various names have not survived, though it is recorded by a later Greek writer as “Ma” at one of her mountain shrines, and as Agdistis amongst one tribe of the Phrygians and probably at Pessinus. These differences, however, are partly questions of local tongue; for in one way and another there was still a prevailing similarity between the essential attributes and worship of the nature-goddess throughout Western Asia.

The “origins” of this worship and its ultimate development are not directly relevant to our present enquiry; but we must make passing allusion to a point of special interest and wide significance. As regards Asia Minor, at least, a theory that explains certain abnormal tendencies in worship and in legend would attribute to the goddess, in the primitive conception of her, the power of self-reproduction, complete in herself, a hypothesis justified by the analogy of beliefs current among certain states of primitive society.

However that may be, a male companion is none the less generally associated with her in mythology, even from the earliest historical vision of Ishtar in Babylonia, where he was known as Tammuz. While evidence is wanting to define clearly the original position of this deity in relation to the goddess, the general tendency of myth and legend in the lands of Syria and Asia Minor, with which we are specially concerned, reveals him as her offspring, the fruits of the earth.

The basis of the myth was human experience of nature, particularly the death of plant life with the approach of winter and its revival with the spring. In one version accordingly “Adonis” descends for the six winter months to the underworld, until brought back to life through the divine influence of the goddess. The idea that the youth was the favoured lover of the goddess belongs to a different strain of thought, if indeed it was current in these lands at all in early times. In Asia Minor at any rate the sanctity of the goddess’s traditional powers was safeguarded in popular legend by the emasculation of “Attis,” and in worship by the actual emasculation of her priesthood, perhaps the most striking feature of her cult.

The abnormal and impassioned tendencies of her developed worship would be derived, according to this theory, from the efforts of her worshippers to assist her to bring forth notwithstanding her singleness. However that may be, the mourning for the death of the youthful god, and rejoicing at his return, were invariable features of this worship of nature. It is reasonable to believe that long before the curtain of history was raised over Asia Minor the worship of this goddess and her son had become deep-rooted.”

Herbert A. Strong and John Garstang, Lucian’s the Syrian Goddess, A Translation of De Dea Syria  with a Life of Lucian, 1913, pp. 1-4.

The Weeping of the Infant Christ and the Lament for Adonis

” … When we reflect how often the Church has skilfully contrived to plant the seeds of the new faith on the old stock of paganism, we may surmise that the Easter celebration of the dead and risen Christ was grafted upon a similar celebration of the dead and risen Adonis, which, as we have seen reason to believe, was celebrated in Syria at the same season.

The type, created by Greek artists, of the sorrowful goddess with her dying lover in her arms, resembles and may have been the model of the Pietà of Christian art, the Virgin with the dead body of her divine Son in her lap, of which the most celebrated example is the one by Michael Angelo in St. Peters. That noble group, in which the living sorrow of the mother contrasts so wonderfully with the languor of death in the son, is one of the finest compositions in marble. Ancient Greek art has bequeathed to us few works so beautiful, and none so pathetic.

In this connexion a well-known statement of Jerome may not be without significance. He tells us that Bethlehem, the traditionary birthplace of the Lord, was shaded by a grove of that still older Syrian Lord, Adonis, and that where the infant Jesus had wept, the lover of Venus was bewailed.

Though he does not expressly say so, Jerome seems to have thought that the grove of Adonis had been planted by the heathen after the birth of Christ for the purpose of defiling the sacred spot. In this he may have been mistaken. If Adonis was indeed, as I have argued, the spirit of the corn, a more suitable name for his dwelling-place could hardly be found than Bethlehem, “the House of Bread,” and he may well have been worshipped there at his House of Bread long ages before the birth of Him who said, “I am the bread of life.”

Even on the hypothesis that Adonis followed rather than preceded Christ at Bethlehem, the choice of his sad figure to divert the allegiance of Christians from their Lord cannot but strike us as eminently appropriate when we remember the similarity of the rites which commemorated the death and resurrection of the two.

One of the earliest seats of the worship of the new god was Antioch, and at Antioch, as we have seen, the death of the old god was annually celebrated with great solemnity. A circumstance which attended the entrance of Julian into the city at the time of the Adonis festival may perhaps throw some light on the date of its celebration. When the emperor drew near to the city he was received with public prayers as if he had been a god, and he marvelled at the voices of a great multitude who cried that the Star of Salvation had dawned upon them in the East.

This may doubtless have been no more than a fulsome compliment paid by an obsequious Oriental crowd to the Roman emperor. But it is also possible that the rising of a bright star regularly gave the signal for the festival, and that as chance would have it the star emerged above the rim of the eastern horizon at the very moment of the emperor’s approach. The coincidence, if it happened, could hardly fail to strike the imagination of a superstitious and excited multitude, who might thereupon hail the great man as the deity whose coming was announced by the sign in the heavens.

Or the emperor may have mistaken for a greeting to himself the shouts which were addressed to the star. Now Astarte, the divine mistress of Adonis, was identified with the planet Venus, and her changes from a morning to an evening star were carefully noted by the Babylonian astronomers, who drew omens from her alternate appearance and disappearance.

Hence we may conjecture that the festival of Adonis was regularly timed to coincide with the appearance of Venus as the Morning or Evening Star. But the star which the people of Antioch saluted at the festival was seen in the East; therefore, if it was indeed Venus, it can only have been the Morning Star.

At Aphaca in Syria, where there was a famous temple of Astarte, the signal for the celebration of the rites was apparently given by the flashing of a meteor, which on a certain day fell like a star from the top of Mount Lebanon into the river Adonis. The meteor was thought to be Astarte herself, and its flight through the air might naturally be interpreted as the descent of the amorous goddess to the arms of her lover.

At Antioch and elsewhere the appearance of the Morning Star on the day of the festival may in like manner have been hailed as the coming of the goddess of love to wake her dead leman from his earthy bed. If that were so, we may surmise that it was the Morning Star which guided the wise men of the East to Bethlehem, the hallowed spot which heard, in the language of Jerome, the weeping of the infant Christ and the lament for Adonis.”

James George Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion  (1922)
Chapter 33:: The Gardens of Adonis, np. 

A Baptism in Blood

” … Such, then, appears to have been the annual solemnisation of the death and resurrection of Attis in spring.

But besides these public rites, his worship is known to have comprised certain secret or mystic ceremonies, which probably aimed at bringing the worshipper, and especially the novice, into closer communication with his god. Our information as to the nature of these mysteries and the date of their celebration is unfortunately very scanty, but they seem to have included a sacramental meal and a baptism of blood.

In the sacrament the novice became a partaker of the mysteries by eating out of a drum and drinking out of a cymbal, two instruments of music which figured prominently in the thrilling orchestra of Attis. The fast which accompanied the mourning for the dead god may perhaps have been designed to prepare the body of the communicant for the reception of the blessed sacrament by purging it of all that could defile by contact the sacred elements.

In the baptism the devotee, crowned with gold and wreathed with fillets, descended into a pit, the mouth of which was covered with a wooden grating. A bull, adorned with garlands of flowers, its forehead glittering with gold leaf, was then driven on to the grating and there stabbed to death with a consecrated spear. Its hot reeking blood poured in torrents through the apertures, and was received with devout eagerness by the worshipper on every part of his person and garments, till he emerged from the pit, drenched, dripping, and scarlet from head to foot, to receive the homage, nay the adoration, of his fellows as one who had been born again to eternal life and had washed away his sins in the blood of the bull.

For some time afterwards the fiction of a new birth was kept up by dieting him on milk like a new-born babe. The regeneration of the worshipper took place at the same time as the regeneration of his god, namely at the vernal equinox. At Rome the new birth and the remission of sins by the shedding of bull’s blood appear to have been carried out above all at the sanctuary of the Phrygian goddess on the Vatican Hill, at or near the spot where the great basilica of St. Peter’s now stands; for many inscriptions relating to the rites were found when the church was being enlarged in 1608 or 1609.

From the Vatican as a centre this barbarous system of superstition seems to have spread to other parts of the Roman empire. Inscriptions found in Gaul and Germany prove that provincial sanctuaries modelled their ritual on that of the Vatican. From the same source we learn that the testicles as well as the blood of the bull played an important part in the ceremonies. Probably they were regarded as a powerful charm to promote fertility and hasten the new birth.”

James George Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion  (1922)
Chapter 34:: The Myth and Ritual of Attis, np.

A Missing or Defective Letter, a 23 Character Alphabet, and Seven Books of the Torah

“Hence the author of the Book Temunah transfers his interest from the redemption at the end of the current shemittah (about which he has little to say anyway) to the vision of the following one. The vision of the end of the present shemittah, of the gradual extinction of humanity, and of the slowing down of the rhythm of life in the entire creation—of which older Jewish messianism knew nothing—already forms part of this newly erupting sense of utopia.

In this  conception of redemption, the Messiah himself no longer plays a visible role; interest is completely focused on the cosmic processes.

For the historian of religion, the most striking aspect of the doctrine of shemittoth resides in the close link between a rigorous Jewish piety that maintains the revelatory character of the Torah and the vision of a change in the manifestation of the Torah in the other shemittoth. We have a clear case of Utopian antinomianism.

The assertion of the Temunah that “what is forbidden below is permitted above” (fol. 62a) entails the logical inference that what is forbidden according to the reading of the Torah in our present aeon might be permitted and even required in other aeons, when some other divine quality—Mercy, for example, instead of Stern Judgment—governs the world.

In fact, in both the Book Temunah itself and writings that follow in its footsteps we find astonishing statements regarding the Torah that imply a virtual antinomianism.

Two ideas should be stressed at this point. Several passages suggest that in the current shemittah one of the letters of the Torah is missing. This lack can be understood in two ways. It could signify that one of the letters has a defective form, contrary to its past perfection, that would of course be restored in a future shemittah.

However, as the book indefatigably asserts, since each letter represents a divine potency, the imperfection of its form could mean that the sefirah of Stern Judgment that predominates today effectively restricts the efficacy of the divine lights, which are therefore unable to reveal themselves perfectly.

According to this view, one such “defective” or incomplete letter of the alphabet is shin, which in its perfect form should have four heads, but which is written at present with three: Shin But the statement also could signify that today one of the letters of the alphabet is missing completely: it has become invisible in our aeon but will reappear and become legible once again in the future aeon.

Such a view evidently implies a thoroughly changed attitude toward the received Torah. In fact, it can (and did) lead to the supposition that all the prohibitions we read in the present text of the Torah are due to this absent letter.

The alphabet, and with it the complete Torah, are actually based upon a series of twenty-three letters; if we find in the Torah positive and negative commandments, it is only because this letter has dropped out of the present text. Everything negative is connected with the missing letter of the original alphabet.

According to another and no less audacious idea, the complete Torah contained in reality seven books, corresponding to the seven sefiroth and shemittoth. It is only in the current shemittah that, through the restrictive power of Stern Judgment, two of these books have shrunk to the point that only a bare hint of their existence remains.

The proof text of this assertion was a passage in the Talmud (Shabbath 116a), according to which the book of Numbers actually consists of three books. A tradition from the school of Nahmanides specifies that the power inherent in the Torah will manifest itself in the future aeon in such manner that we shall again perceive seven books.

The Book Temunah itself (fol. 31a) avers that the first chapter of Genesis is merely the vestige of a fuller Torah revealed to the shemittah of Grace, but which has become invisible in our shemittah, as the light of this earlier book has disappeared.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 1962, pp. 471-3.

The Name of God is Woven Throughout the Torah

“This also explains the particular character of the Torah, which is designed to show the way to the worship of God under the specific conditions of this aeon. The present aeon is ruled by the evil inclination that stems from the power of Stern Judgment and that seduces man to idolatry, which had no place during the preceding period.

At present, the Torah aims to conquer the power of evil, and that is why it contains commandments and prohibitions, things permitted, things forbidden, the pure and the impure. Only a few souls, originating in the preceding aeon, return in order to preserve the world through the power of grace and to temper the destructive sternness of judgment.

Among them are Enoch, Abraham, and Moses. At present, even the perfectly righteous must enter into the bodies of animals; this is the secret reason for the special prescriptions relating to ritual slaughter.

The doctrine of the passage of the souls into the bodies of animals appears here for the first time in kabbalistic literature; it may reflect a direct contact with Cathar ideas (as suggested on p. 238) and serve to support the argument for the Provençal origin of the Temunah.

But among the Cathars as also in India this doctrine led to vegetarianism whereas here, on the contrary, it led to a more meticulous observance of the prescriptions concerning the consumption of meat; the slaughtering of an animal and the eating of its flesh are related to the elevation of the soul confined there from an animal to a human existence.

A distinct concept of hell, which would compete with the notion of the transmigration of souls, seems to be outside the purview of our author. For the rest, the book deals with this doctrine only with great reserve, in spite of its almost unlimited validity; the old commentary, printed together with the editions of the text, was to be much less discreet.

The author even knew that in the present aeon the letters of the Torah had refused to assemble themselves into the particular combinations that would compose the form in which it was to be given to Israel at Sinai.

They saw the law of Stern Judgment and how this shemittah is entangled and ensnared in evil, and they did not wish to descend into the filth upon which the palace of this aeon was erected. But “God arranged with them that the great and glorious name would be combined with them and would be contained in the Torah.”243

Apparently this signifies more than the direct mention of the name of God in the Torah. Rather, the name of God is contained everywhere in the Torah, in a mystical mode; as ibn Gikatilla put it: “It is woven into” the Torah.

All the laws and mysteries of this aeon are inscribed in secret language in this Torah, which embraces all ten sefiroth, and all this is indicated by the particular form of the letters. “No angel can understand them, but only God Himself, who explained them to Moses and communicated to him their entire mystery” (fol. 30a).

On the basis of these instructions, Moses wrote the Torah in his own language, organizing it, however, in a mystical spirit that conformed to these secret causalities. The present aeon must obey this law of Stern Judgment and the Torah that corresponds to it, and only at its end will all things return to their original state.

The author proceeds from the assumption that there also exists within the shemittah an internal cyclical system. The human race, born from the one Adam, developed into millions of individuals. After the redemption, which will take place in the sixth millenium, humanity will perish in the same rhythm in which it began. “In the manner in which everything came, everything passes away.” “The doors to the street are shut” (Eccles. 12:4), and everything returns home to its origin, even the angels of the Merkabah corresponding to this aeon, the heavenly spheres, and the stars.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 1962, pp. 468-9.

Shemittah Without Limit

“In this state, the Torah is not “legible” for human beings. At the Sinaitic revelation, God taught Moses how to read the Torah by a division into letters and words, in such manner that it yielded a meaning in the Hebrew language. These considerations also opened the door to the possibility of alternative mystical readings, and it is precisely this notion that the Book Temunah presents in such a radical fashion.

In fact, according to this book, the world in which we live and which we know as the creation that began so and so many thousand years ago is not the first. It was preceded by another shemittah: the aeon of Grace, in the course of which all the sefiroth acted under the determining regime of this principal sefirah.

The world “built by Grace” at that time—according to the interpretation given by the kabbalists to Psalms 89:3—bears some resemblance to the Golden Age of Greek mythology. This shemittah was entirely bathed in light. The spheres of the heavens were simple and not composed of four elements; men stood at the highest spiritual pinnacle and possessed a pure body.

Even the cattle and other animals stood as high then as the animals that bear the Merkabah in our shemittah. The cult practiced by the creatures resembled the adoration of God by the angels in the present aeon. There was neither an exile of the body, as that of Israel, nor an exile of the souls, which is the transmigration of souls.

Man looked like the celestial man whom Ezekiel saw upon the throne. The manifestation of the primordial Torah as beheld by the creatures of that shemittah came exclusively from the side of Grace. Since there existed no evil inclination and no tempting serpent, the Torah of this shemittah (that is, the manner in which the mystical letters were combined) contained nothing concerning impurities or prohibitions. Even those letters had a simple form and were not in large measure composite, as at present.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 1962, p. 467.

Opening and Closing of the Cosmic Book

“The historical origins of this doctrine remain to be examined. It is entirely conceivable that it came from the Orient to Provence, where it became associated at a later date with the doctrine of the sefiroth. The penchant for great numbers in the cosmic cycles, which quickly led beyond the 50,000 years of a cosmic jubilee, corresponds to similar tendencies in India and the Ismailite gnosis.

As early as the thirteenth century (as Bahya ben Asher attests), the single yobhel had become 18,000 and the seven shemittoth had mushroomed to thousands. The view that the slowing down of the revolutions of the stars at the end of every period of creation took place in geometric progression led to an extension of the 7,000 years of every single shemittah, reaching prodigious numbers.

On the other hand these ideas may also have roots, however tenuous, in the Aggadah. Several old rabbinic dicta were quoted by the kabbalists in this context for example, the epigram of R. Qatina in Sanhédrin 97a: “Six millennia shall the world exist, and in the following one it shall be desolate,” deduced, paradoxically enough from Isaiah 2:11.

Apparently the idea of such cosmic weeks arose independently of any scriptural foundation. Similarly, the same talmudic text declares: “As the land lies fallow once in seven years, the world too lies fallow one thousand years in seven thousand,” and only later, in the eighth millennium, the new aeon, which is the “world to come,” will begin.

The midrashic text known as Pirqe Rabbi Eliezer speaks in chapter 51 of a periodic opening and closing of the cosmic book or, to be more exact, of an unrolling of the celestial scroll, indicating a similar notion of continual creation.

Another motif that later attained great importance among the kabbalists was provided by the dictum of R. Abbahu (third century) in Bereshith Rabba, section 9 (and the parallel paraphrase in Shemoth Rabba), who deduced from Ecclesiastes 3:11 that “God created and destroyed worlds before creating this one; He said, these please me, those do not please me.”

Here the motif of the worlds that succeed our creation is combined with that of previous worlds, a motif that also plays a role in the doctrine of the shemittah. The destruction of the world is explained by the kabbalists of Gerona as the interruption of the current of the emanation, which no longer flows toward the lower worlds, toward heaven and earth, but remains closed in on itself. Creation, then, remains in a chaotic state, and only when the current is once again renewed is new life formed.

In the Book Temunah the doctrine of the shemittoth is elaborated in great detail and closely linked, above all, with the mystical conception of the nature of the Torah. There exists a supreme Torah, which we have already encountered on page 287 as torah qedumah. This primordial Torah is none other than the divine Sophia, containing within itself in pure spirituality, the traces of all being and all becoming.

Its letters are “very subtle and hidden, without figure, form, or limit.” But when the lower sefiroth emanate, they act in every shemittah in a different manner, according to the particular law of each one. No shemittah is by itself capable of manifesting all the power of God, expressed in the Sophia and in the primordial Torah.

Rather, the timeless and self-enclosed content of this primordial Torah is distributed at the time of the cosmic and historical creation in such a way that each shemittah unveils a particular aspect of the divine revelation, and with that, the intention pursued by God in this particular unit of creation.

This means, in effect, that the specific causality of each shemittah is expressed in a corresponding revelation of the Torah. The spiritual engrams hidden in the primordial Torah certainly do not undergo any change in their essence, but they are manifested in various permutations and forms as constituted by the letters of the Torah, and as combined in different manners in accordance with the changing shemittoth.

The presupposition of the one Torah that is at the same time the highest and most all-embracing mystical essence thus serves as a justification of the existence of the most diverse manifestations in the changing shemittoth. The fundamental principle of the absolute divine character of the Torah is thus maintained, but it receives an interpretation that renders possible a completely new conception.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 1962, pp. 465-6.

The Cosmic Jubilee of 50,000 Years

“Seven of these shemittoth exhaust the productive power hidden in the seven “sefiroth of construction.” After 49,000 years, in the “great jubilee year,” the entire creation returns to its origin in the womb of binah, the “mother of the world,” just as according to the biblical ordinance concerning the jubilee year, after fifty years “liberty is proclaimed throughout the land,” and all things return to their original owner.

The cosmic jubilee of 50,000 years is therefore the most comprehensive cosmic unit; in it the power of the Creator takes full effect in the sequence of the seven fundamental units of shemittoth, which together constitute the yobhel, the cosmic jubilee.

In a broader framework, this doctrine displays a certain structural similarity to the ideas of Joachim of Fiore, who at the end of the twelfth century gave an historico-metaphysical twist to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity that attained considerable historical importance.

The fundamental idea was that the deity expresses itself not only in the three persons of the Trinity, but that its hidden power also acts in external creation and in the history of the world according to a sequence of three periods, each of which receives its character from one of the persons of the Trinity.

The hidden plenitude of the deity manifests itself therefore in the totality of the successive historical periods or states (status). In every status, the divine revelation assumes a different form. The period of the Father was characterized by the revelation of the Old Testament and the reign of the Mosaic law.

In the period of the Son, there began the reign of Grace, as expressed in the Catholic Church and its institutions. In the third period, on the other hand, whose advent he considered imminent, the Holy Spirit would reign alone; the mystical content of the Gospel would be completely revealed and either penetrate the external institutions of the Church or render them redundant.

This doctrine played a considerable role in the history of the Franciscan order and the sects of “spirituals.” It is not our purpose here to discuss in detail the historical implications of this doctrine, to which much scholarly attention has been devoted in recent decades, but merely to draw attention to an interesting kabbalistic analogy to Joachite doctrine with its strong Utopian elements and explosive power.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 1962, pp. 463-4.

A Perpetual Process of the Re-Creation of the World

“As a matter of fact, doctrines relating to cosmic cycles in the evolution of the world were also known in Jewish medieval literature outside the Kabbalah. Through the intermediary of Indian and Arabic sources, rather than under the influence of Platonic thoughts, ideas of this type slipped into astrological writings in particular. Abraham bar Hiyya in Aragon was familiar with them around 1125 as the “teachings of certain philosophers,” for he informs us that some of them say:

“ … After all the creatures have passed from potentiality to actuality, God once again returns them to potentiality as in the beginning and then brings them back to actuality a second and a third time, and thus without end. . . . Others again say that the days of the world are 49,000 years and that each of the seven planets reigns 7,000 years in the world. When at the end of 49,000 years they have completed their reign, God destroys His world, leaves it for 1,000 years in a state of tohu, and at the end of the fiftieth millennium He renews it as in the beginning.”

This is an astrological cosmic theory also known from Arabic sources, and the author adds that we are not permitted to accept such ideas, which are nothing more than mere suppositions. Ideas of this kind must have been known to other scholars also and no doubt circulated in other Jewish groups as is proved by the testimony of Mutahhar al-Maqdisi. Writing in the tenth century, he reports that a Jewish scholar—evidently in the Orient—assured him that certain of his coreligionists believed in a perpetual process of the re-creation of the world.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 1962, p. 462.


“Occasionally even the mystical illumination produced by the effluence of the divine power from one sefirah to another is designated as sod ha-‘ibbur. In general, the kabbalists of Gerona restricted the transmigration of souls, on the basis of Job 33:29, to three rebirths following the first entry of the soul into the human body, though they admitted the existence of exceptional cases.

An important detail has been transmitted from the school of Nahmanides. In the famous disputation with the ex-Jew Paulus Christiani, the monk invokes the well-known aggadah according to which the Messiah was born at the hour of the destruction of the Temple.

To this Nahmanides replied: “Either this aggadah is not true, or else it has another explanation according to the mysteries of the sages.” Although the wording of this reply clearly points to kabbalistic teaching, it has not been understood until now.

Nahmanides does indeed give a plausible—literal and exoteric—explanation of the aggadah, to the effect that the Messiah was currently biding his time in the terrestrial paradise, but his true opinion can be gleaned from the questions of his disciple Shesheth des Mercadell concerning metempsychosis, where this aggadah figures as a proof text for this doctrine.

What the aggadah means to say is, therefore, that since the destruction of the Temple the soul of the Messiah is in the process of ‘ibbur. On this point, Nahmanides and his school depart from the older idea of the Bahir section 126, according to which the soul of the Messiah does not inhabit a human body before.

On the other hand, this text already exhibits the transition to the doctrine, first attested shortly after Nahmanides, to the effect that the name of Adam is an abbreviation (ADaM) of the three forms of existence of this soul in Adam, David, and the Messiah.

This would imply that the Messiah has to pass through various stages of incarnation so that his essence “always lives among us” in one form or another. The idea that also arose shortly after Nahmanides and according to which “soul sparks” can fly off from a central soul and thus pass simultaneously through many bodies is not yet attested in Gerona.

This doctrine was also used in the school of Solomon ibn Adreth in order to eliminate the difficulty that would arise at the resurrection of the dead for the different bodies through which one single soul had passed. The different bodies of the resurrected would be inhabited by sparks of the same soul, thus providing a solution to the problem.

According to Azriel there also exist souls of such exalted rank that they do not return to the world of bodies, but remain in the “world of life” and thus do not participate at all, or only in a purely spiritual sense, in the resurrection.

In this manner the kabbalists seem to move, at least as regards a privileged category of superior souls, in the direction of a denial of bodily resurrection—precisely the view for which the radical Maimonideans were so bitterly rebuked. It should be added, however, that this idea appears only in strictly esoteric contexts describing the eschatological progress of the souls after their departure from the terrestrial world and was never formulated in a dogmatic manner.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 459-60.

Not All Human Souls Are Blessed

“The human soul is essentially different from the animal soul; Nahmanides adopts, along with other kabbalists of the earliest period, the Platonic view of the soul, according to which there exist different souls in man and not only different faculties of a unitary soul.

According to Nahmanides, man’s anima rationalis unites the rational and the mystical-intuitive, and hence he sees no need for further distinctions. Nevertheless, the weight shifts imperceptibly to the second side: the highest soul, neshamah, which comes from binah and yesod, is the mediator of prophecy, and through it man, in the state of debhequth, attains communion with the deity as a result of the longing for its origin implanted in it.

Enoch and the three Patriarchs, Moses, and Elijah had achieved this supreme state already on earth; however, it is not a full unio mystica with the deity but rather a communio, as we have argued at length in our discussion of the subject of kawwanah.

In the prophetic vision, during which the soul is united with the objects of its contemplation, it is in this state of debhequth, that it obtains a ”knowledge of God face to face.” In this longing for its origin, the highest soul of man becomes capable of penetrating all the intermediary spheres and rising up to God by means of its acts—which, strangely enough, are united here with contemplation.

The eclectic manner in which the kabbalists adopted philosophical doctrines concerning the soul is also apparent in the fact that Azriel, for example, accepts the Aristotelian definition of the soul as the form of the body, seemingly unaware of the contradiction between this idea and important kabbalistic doctrines.

The contradiction results from the adoption and further development of the doctrine of metempsychosis. While this doctrine is rather openly propounded in the Book Bahir, as we saw on p. 188ff., it is treated, strangely enough, as a great mystery in Provence and in Gerona.

The authors without exception speak of it only in hints and in veiled allusions. They make no attempt to account for this idea but presuppose it as a truth handed down by esoteric tradition.

The term gilgul, generally used at a later date for the transmigration of souls, seems to be as yet unknown among these early authors. Instead, they prefer to speak of sod ha-‘ibbur. This term, literally “secret of impregnation,” is used in the Talmud for the methods of computing the calendar, handed down only orally for a long time, the idea being that the leap years were impregnated, as it were, by the addition of an extra month.

But ‘ibbur can, if necessary, also be understood as “transition,” and it is doubtless in this sense that the term was picked up by the kabbalists. The “secret of the ‘ibbur” is that of the passage of the soul from one body to another and not, as among the later kabbalists, a real phenomenon of impregnation through which, after birth an additional soul sometimes enters into the one originally born with a person.

We still do not know what led the kabbalists of the first generation to treat this doctrine in such a strictly esoteric manner and what danger they saw in exposing it to the public. It is most unlikely that fear of the Catholic Church, which had officially condemned this doctrine, was a factor.

Where no christological elements were involved, Jewish theology generally had no inhibitions. The polemics directed by the philosophers against this doctrine should likewise have stimulated controversy rather than secrecy. Nahmanides had no lack of opportunity to denounce the philosophic criticism of this doctrine. Instead, he retreated into extremely prudent, and for the uninitiated, often impenetrable statements in his commentary on the book of Job, the key to which, according to the kabbalists of Gerona, lay precisely in the doctrine of metempsychosis.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 456-7.


“We shall forgo a closer analysis of the views of this circle on the constitution of creation but shall nevertheless mention the important contribution made by Nahmanides, in marked opposition to Maimonides, with his doctrine of “hidden miracles.”

This doctrine, repeatedly expounded by him as the foundation of the whole Torah, sees the natural law in certain respects as mere appearance behind which is concealed, in reality, a continuum of secret miracles. Hidden miracles are those that give the impression of being nothing more than the effects of the natural course of events, although they are not.

In relation to man, the world is not “nature” at all but a perpetually renewed miracle. In fact, the blessedness of man depends upon his acceptance of this doctrine! Nahmanides may thus well be described as an occasionalist of the purest stripe—at least as regards Israel’s relationship to nature. The opinion of most authorities, including Maimonides, that God does not always act by means of miracles and that the world in general takes its natural course is, according to Nahmanides, a major error, the refutation of which is the purpose and meaning of the revelation of the Torah.

It is true that Maimonides himself in his Treatise on the Resurrection had already explained the coincidence of the promises in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 33 on the one hand and the natural law on the other as a “permanent miracle,” and as a “miraculous sign greater than all the others.”

Bahya ibn Paquda, too, and above all Yehudah Halevi, discussed this subject at length. They too teach that events appear to occur in an order conforming to the natural law whereas in truth they follow the religious order that regulates them in consonance with the Torah’s promises of reward and punishment for Israel in accordance with its conduct.

But the notion of hidden miracles is not yet formulated by these authors; Nahmanides took it from the astrological theory of Abraham ibn Ezra and reinterpreted it in a kabbalistic spirit. God acts in nature in secret ways and introduces into its course a supernatural causal chain that is linked to the moral order of the world and to its system of rewards and punishments.

The hidden miracles are not historical, local, or individual events that are directly recognizable as miracles; they represent the action of individual providence within the natural order.

As YHWH, who suspends the natural order from outside, God brings about manifest miracles; as ‘El Shaddai, he causes the hidden miracles for the Patriarchs and for all Israel through the power of the Shekhinah, the sefirah malkhuth, his “royal dominion,” thanks to which Israel is removed from the causality of natural law and placed in a higher causal order of permanent miracles.

Divine intervention, in the form of rewards and punishments, occurs at every instant; rain and sunshine do not come from the hidden harmony of creation but are, in this sense, hidden miracles.

Since they are by no means inherent in the inner necessity of the course of nature, these hidden miracles must be announced explicitly in the Torah, whereas doctrines such as the immortality of the soul or retribution in the beyond after death necessarily follow, according to Nahmanides, from the natural course of things and therefore need not be explicitly mentioned in the Torah. This doctrine may well be expressed in the words of the eighteenth-century German poet and thinker G. E. Lessing: “The greatest miracle is that the true, the genuine miracles can and should become so ordinary to us.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 453-4.

There are 18,000 Worlds

“The creative power of God, however, not only in the one world that we know, but all nine sefiroth—with the exception of the first, in which no contraries exist since it is the Nought—unfold in their double action toward the sides of Stern Judgment and of Mercy, and each produces a thousand worlds in each direction.

The universe would thus contain a total of 18,000 worlds, a figure that once again takes up an old talmudic aggadah but that also has its counterpart in certain Muslim speculations, in Ismailite gnosis.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, p. 452.

The Torah is the Name

“In a more mystical sense, it is true, the ‘asiluth represents the name or the names of God, as has been shown in the preceding chapter. This theosophic conception was preserved in Gerona. Creation can subsist only to the extent that the name of God is engraved in it.

The revelation of the name is the actual revelation, and the Torah is not merely a conglomeration of the names of God, but, in its very essence, nothing but this one name itself. This doctrine, which transmuted an originally magical tradition into a strictly mystical one, was clearly expressed for the first time in Gerona, and from there reached the author of the Zohar.

Light-mysticism for the emanation and language-mysticism for the divine name remain the two principal means by which the world of the sefiroth could be described.

For Nahmanides, the ten sefiroth are the “inwardness” of the letters. The beginning and the end of the Torah together form, according to a mystical pun, the “heart,” heart of creation of creation; in terms of gematria, the traditional mysticism of numbers the numerical value of the word (thirty-two) also indicates the thirty-two paths of wisdom active in it.

This “heart” is nothing other than the “will” of God itself, which maintains the creation as long as it acts in it. For it becomes the Nothing, the Nothing (the inversion of the same two letters), as soon as the will reverses its direction and brings all things back to their original essentiality, “like someone who draws in his breath.”

But this return of all things to their proprietor is also their return to the mystical pure Nothingness. The primordial beginning of creation consisted in the emergence of hokhmah from the infinite plenitude of the “supreme crown” or the will, in an act of limitation, simsum, in which the all-embracing divine kabhod was restricted.

This restriction of the light at first produced a darkness, into which there flowed the clear light of hokhmah. We thus find in Nahmanides the oldest form of the doctrine of a self-contraction of God at creation, which, however, is not a contraction of the ‘en-sof itself, as taught by later kabbalists, but of the first sefirah.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 448-9.

The Pure Spirituality of the Future World

“But there are various attitudes with regard to prayer itself corresponding to the three principles of all reality, which Azriel borrowed from the metaphysics of Aristotle while giving them a mystical twist. These three principles are matter, form, and sieresis; this last notion is, however, influenced by the Hebrew translation and replaced by the principle of Nought.

The change of matter into ever-new forms takes place by means of this Nought, which can be made to refer on the one hand—and entirely in the sense of the genuine Aristotelian doctrine—to the privation of that which, in the transformations, is new each time, and, on the other hand—in the sense of the kabbalists—to the influence of the sefirotic principle of Stern Judgment. In either case this notion can link up with that of the mystical Nought, from which everything creative proceeds.

For Azriel, these principles present themselves essentially as follows: the Nought is that which is present in everything that arises as the medium of its transformation. The sefirah of Stern Judgment and delimitation is at the same time the power of transformation inherent in things.

Matter, on the other hand, persists in itself and is renewed without being transformed, like the living stream whose waters are renewed every minute but nevertheless are always the same. This power comes, according to Azriel, from the sefirah of Mercy, by means of which God renews and preserves at the same time, every day, his Creation.

However, according to him, form is a potency inherent in matter, by virtue of which matter receives an influx of ever-new forms. It is similar to the source from which the pool expands.

Accordingly there exist three degrees of prayer in which these three principles are reflected. The lowest is prayer without spirituality, the prayer that is not pervaded by the life of the soul flowing from the source of binah. This, according to Azriel, is the “fixed prayer” mentioned in and rejected by the Mishnah (Berakhoth 14:2), because it is like the stagnant water of a pool into which no life flows from any source.

Above it, there is the prayer that the Mishnah defines as the “imploring of grace,” tahanunim, in which the vitality of the source gushes forth with great force. This is the prayer of the “form.”

The highest prayer, however, is that of the devotee who casts off everything that impedes him and who leads the word whose origin is in the Nought back to its Nought. Here, we can easily follow the transformation of the concept of the Nought or Nothing into a mystical category.

This prayer is named tefillah, in the proper sense of the Hebrew term, which the author derives from pillul, “judgment.” So too must the prayer rise from the petition for the fulfillment of bodily needs to that of the needs of the soul, and from there to the pure spirituality of the life of the future world.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 420-1.

Mysticism of Prophecy

“In this manner the ancients used to spend some time in meditation, before prayer, and to divert all other thoughts and to determine the paths of their kawwanah [during the subsequent prayer] and the power that was to be applied to its direction.

And similarly [also] some time during prayer, in order to realize the kawwanah in the articulated speech. And similarly some time after prayer, in order to meditate on how they could also direct the power of the kawwanah, which came to its conclusion in the speech, in the paths of visible action.

And since they were truly pious men, Hasidim, their Torah became action and their work was blessed. And this is the path among the paths of prophecy, upon which he who makes himself familiar with it will be capable of rising to the rank of prophecy.”

“The true kawwanah described in this text is therefore identical with the path of prophecy, which passes through the realization of the perfect debhequth with God, that is, the cleaving of human thought and will to the thought and will of God.

To this corresponds Azriel’s analysis of prayer in his commentary on the aggadoth, where the dietim of the Mishnah on the subject of the old Hasidim and their habits of prayer is interpreted in a similar manner, and a parallel is established with prophecy.

The illumination, which is to be obtained through debhequth, can therefore be distinguished from prophecy only by its degree and not by its nature. The prophet is here, as so often in medieval thought, none other than the perfect mystic.

Azriel’s views on mystical prayer, remarkable for their conciseness, are then applied to the statutory prayers, the prayer of the eighteen benedictions (the ‘Amidah), and the profession of unity (the Shema‘).

According to him the ‘Amidah contains three kinds of petitions: those that concern the well-being and needs of the body, those relating to the well-being and needs of the soul, and those dealing with the needs of the life of the soul, which is nothing other than the spiritual life of the future world itself. It is, of course, in this last stratum that the mystical meaning of the prayers is disclosed.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, p. 419.

Magical Conformity of the Will in the Kawwanah

“This brief text gives a very precise and valuable description of what takes place in the kawwanah. The completeness and precision of expression are unrivaled in the literature of the Kabbalah; we doubtless owe these qualities to the fact that the author wished to describe the magic of the kawwanah—but at the same time also described, to a great extent, its mystical nature.

The relationship between these two attitudes of prayer emerges here, in fact, with a rare clarity and penetration. The mystical conformity of the will is visibly transformed into a magical one, the roots of which, it must not be forgotten, reach back further than the Kabbalah.

The magical nuance in the conformity of the will is already adumbrated in the famous dictum in the Mishnah tractate known as The Sayings of the Fathers. Rabban Gamaliel, the son of Yehudah ha-Nasi, used to say: “Make His will as your will in order that He make your will as His will. Abolish your will before His will, in order that He abolish the will of others before your will.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, p. 416.

Mysteries Not to be Discussed

He made no secret of the fact that the Kabbalah was the positive ground on which he stood in his struggle against rationalist enlightenment. He derided the Maimonideans in witty verses in which he sought to expose the weaknesses of their position. But the kabbalistic doctrines themselves, which he manifestly opposes to them, are only for initiates who weigh their words and know how to keep silent. He had studied the secret science with Ezra and Azriel:

Yes, my supports are Ezra and Azriel, who pour kabbaloth onto my hands.”

In a panegyric to the members of his circle he bemoans the death of the two “whose shields hang upon my walls.” He stands on solid ground:

The ‘ephod is in our midst; and why should we conjure the dead; in our hands the tablets are intact. The son of Nahman is a firm refuge, his discourses are measured and do not gallop away recklessly. Ezra and Azriel and my other friends, who taught me knowledge without lying—they are my priests, the luminous stars of my night. They know number and measure for their Creator, but they guard themselves from speaking publicly of God’s glory and they mind their words with a view to the heretics.

His masters in mysticism taught him to keep silent; nevertheless, he mentions the mystical kawwanah of the prayers, the meditation in the profession of unity, the mystical reasons for precisely those commandments that were emphasized by the kabbalists of Gerona, and he alludes to the doctrine of the sefiroth.

Like Jacob ben Shesheth, he reproaches the rationalists for no longer knowing how to pray, and he defends the mystical character of those aggadoth that embarrassed them the most:

Softly—you who find fault with the aggadoth! Perhaps they are mysteries, not to be discussed.

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, p. 409.

The Mysteries

“From this evidence there is no doubt that to the romance writers the Grail was something secret, mysterious and awful, the exact knowledge of which was reserved to a select few, and which was only to be spoken of with bated breath, and a careful regard to strict accuracy.

But how does this agree with the evidence set forth in our preceding chapters? There we have been led rather to emphasize the close parallels existing between the characters and incidents of the Grail story, and a certain well-marked group of popular beliefs and observances, now very generally recognized as fragments of a once widespread Nature Cult.

These beliefs and observances, while dating from remotest antiquity, have, in their modern survivals, of recent years, attracted the attention of scholars by their persistent and pervasive character, and their enduring vitality.

Yet, so far as we have hitherto dealt with them, these practices were, and are, popular in character, openly performed, and devoid of the special element of mystery which is so characteristic a feature of the Grail.

Nor, in these public Folk-ceremonies, these Spring festivals, Dances, and Plays, is there anything which, on the face of it, appears to bring them into touch with the central mystery of the Christian Faith.

Yet the men who wrote these romances saw no incongruity in identifying the mysterious Food-providing Vessel of the Bleheris-Gawain version with the Chalice of the Eucharist, and in ascribing the power of bestowing Spiritual Life to that which certain modern scholars have identified as a Wunsch-Ding, a Folk-tale Vessel of Plenty.

If there be a mystery of the Grail surely the mystery lies here, in the possibility of identifying two objects which, apparently, lie at the very opposite poles of intellectual conception.

What brought them together? Where shall we seek a connecting link? By what road did the romancers reach so strangely unexpected a goal?

It is, of course, very generally recognized that in the case of most of the pre-Christian religions, upon the nature and character of whose rites we possess reliable information, such rites possessed a two-fold character–exoteric; in celebrations openly and publicly performed, in which all adherents of that particular cult could join freely, the object of such public rites being to obtain some external and material benefit, whether for the individual worshipper, or for the community as a whole–esoteric; rites open only to a favoured few, the initiates, the object of which appears, as a rule, to have been individual rather than social, and non-material.

In some cases, certainly, the object aimed at was the attainment of a conscious, ecstatic, union with the god, and the definite assurance of a future life. In other words there was the public worship, and there were the Mysteries.”

Jessie L. Weston, From Ritual to Romance, 1920, pp. 131-3.

Fish Symbolism Spanning Cultures and Eras

“For those who hold that the Grail story is essentially, and fundamentally, Christian, finding its root in Eucharistic symbolism, the title is naturally connected with the use of the Fish symbol in early Christianity: the Icthys anagram, as applied to Christ, the title ‘Fishers of Men,’ bestowed upon the Apostles, the Papal ring of the Fisherman–though it must be noted that no manipulation of the Christian symbolism avails satisfactorily to account for the lamentable condition into which the bearer of the title has fallen.” 2

[ … ]

So far as the present state of our knowledge goes we can affirm with certainty that the Fish is a Life symbol of immemorial antiquity, and that the title of Fisher has, from the earliest ages, been associated with Deities who were held to be specially connected with the origin and preservation of Life.

In Indian cosmogony Manu finds a little fish in the water in which he would wash his hands; it asks, and receives, his protection, asserting that when grown to full size it will save Manu from the universal deluge. This is Jhasa, the greatest of all fish. 1

The first Avatar of Vishnu the Creator is a Fish. At the great feast in honour of this god, held on the twelfth day of the first month of the Indian year, Vishnu is represented under the form of a golden Fish, and addressed in the following terms:

“Wie Du, O Gott, in Gestalt eines Fisches die in der Unterwelt befindlichen Veden gerettet hast, so rette auch mich 2.”

The Fish Avatar was afterwards transferred to Buddha.

In Buddhist religion the symbols of the Fish and Fisher are freely employed. Thus in Buddhist monasteries we find drums and gongs in the shape of a fish, but the true meaning of the symbol, while still regarded as sacred, has been lost, and the explanations, like the explanations of the Grail romances, are often fantastic afterthoughts.

In the Māhāyana scriptures Buddha is referred to as the Fisherman who draws fish from the ocean of Samsara to the light of Salvation. There are figures and pictures which represent Buddha in the act of fishing, an attitude which, unless interpreted in a symbolic sense, would be utterly at variance with the tenets of the Buddhist religion. 1

This also holds good for Chinese Buddhism. The goddess Kwanyin (= Avalokiteśvara), the female Deity of Mercy and Salvation, is depicted either on, or holding, a Fish.

In the Han palace of Kun-Ming-Ch’ih there was a Fish carved in jade to which in time of drought sacrifices were offered, the prayers being always answered.

Both in India and China the Fish is employed in funeral rites. In India a crystal bowl with Fish handles was found in a reputed tomb of Buddha.

In China the symbol is found on stone slabs enclosing the coffin, on bronze urns, vases, etc. Even as the Babylonians had the Fish, or Fisher, god, Oannes who revealed to them the arts of Writing, Agriculture, etc., and was, as Eisler puts it, ‘teacher and lord of all wisdom,’ so the Chinese Fu-Hi, who is pictured with the mystic tablets containing the mysteries of Heaven and Earth, is, with his consort and retinue, represented as having a fish’s tail 2.

The writer of the article in The Open Court asserts that “the Fish was sacred to those deities who were supposed to lead men back from the shadows of death to life 3.”

If this be really the case we can understand the connection of the symbol first with Orpheus, later with Christ, as Eisler remarks:

“Orpheus is connected with nearly all the mystery, and a great many of the ordinary chthonic, cults in Greece and Italy. Christianity took its first tentative steps into the reluctant world of Graeco-Roman Paganism under the benevolent patronage of Orpheus.” 1

There is thus little reason to doubt that, if we regard the Fish as a Divine Life symbol, of immemorial antiquity, we shall not go very far astray.

We may note here that there was a fish known to the Semites by the name of Adonis, although as the title signifies ‘Lord,’ and is generic rather than specific, too much stress cannot be laid upon it.

It is more interesting to know that in Babylonian cosmology Adapa the Wise, the son of Ea, is represented as a Fisher. 2

In the ancient Sumerian laments for Tammuz, previously referred to, that god is frequently addressed as Divine Lamgar, Lord of the Net, the nearest equivalent I have so far found to our ‘Fisher King.’ 3

Whether the phrase is here used in an actual or a symbolic sense the connection of idea is sufficiently striking.

In the opinion of the most recent writers on the subject the Christian Fish symbolism derives directly from the Jewish, the Jews, on their side having borrowed freely from Syrian belief and practice. 4

What may be regarded as the central point of Jewish Fish symbolism is the tradition that, at the end of the world, Messias will catch the great Fish Leviathan, and divide its flesh as food among the faithful.

As a foreshadowing of this Messianic Feast the Jews were in the habit of eating fish upon the Sabbath. During the Captivity, under the influence of the worship of the goddess Atargatis, they transferred the ceremony to the Friday, the eve of the Sabbath, a position which it has retained to the present day.

Eisler remarks that “in Galicia one can see Israelite families in spite of their being reduced to the extremest misery, procuring on Fridays a single gudgeon, to eat, divided into fragments, at night-fall.

In the 16th century Rabbi Solomon Luria protested strongly against this practice. Fish, he declared, should be eaten on the Sabbath itself, not on the Eve.” 1

This Jewish custom appears to have been adopted by the primitive Church, and early Christians, on their side, celebrated a Sacramental Fish-meal. The Catacombs supply us with numerous illustrations, fully described by the two writers referred to.

The elements of this mystic meal were Fish, Bread, and Wine, the last being represented in the Messianic tradition: “At the end of the meal God will give to the most worthy, i.e., to King David, the Cup of Blessing–one of fabulous dimensions.” 2

Fish play an important part in Mystery Cults, as being the ‘holy’ food. Upon a tablet dedicated to the Phrygian Mater Magna we find Fish and Cup; and Dölger, speaking of a votive tablet discovered in the Balkans, says, “Hier ist der Fisch immer und immer wieder allzu deutlich als die heilige Speise eines Mysterien-Kultes hervorgehoben.” 3

Now I would submit that here, and not in Celtic Folk-lore, is to be found the source of Borron’s Fish-meal. Let us consider the circumstances. Joseph and his followers, in the course of their wanderings, find themselves in danger of famine. The position is somewhat curious, as apparently the leaders have no idea of the condition of their followers till the latter appeal to Brons. 1

Brons informs Joseph, who prays for aid and counsel from the Grail. A Voice from Heaven bids him send his brother-in-law, Brons, to catch a fish.

Meanwhile he, Joseph, is to prepare a table, set the Grail, covered with a cloth, in the centre opposite his own seat, and the fish which Brons shall catch, on the other side.

He does this, and the seats are filled–“Si s’i asieent une grant partie et plus i ot de cels qui n’i sistrent mie, que de cels qui sistrent.”

Those who are seated at the table are conscious of a great “douceur,” and “l’accomplissement de lor cuers,” the rest feel nothing.

Now compare this with the Irish story of the Salmon of Wisdom 2.

Finn Mac Cumhail enters the service of his namesake, Finn Eger, who for seven years had remained by the Boyne watching the Salmon of Lynn Feic, which it had been foretold Finn should catch.

The younger lad, who conceals his name, catches the fish. He is set to watch it while it roasts but is warned not to eat it. Touching it with his thumb he is burned, and puts his thumb in his mouth to cool it.

Immediately he becomes possessed of all knowledge, and thereafter has only to chew his thumb to obtain wisdom.

Mr Nutt remarks: “The incident in Borron’s poem has been recast in the mould of mediaeval Christian Symbolism, but I think the older myth can still be clearly discerned, and is wholly responsible for the incident as found in the Conte du Graal.”

But when these words were written we were in ignorance of the Sacramental Fish-meal, common alike to Jewish, Christian, and Mystery Cults, a meal which offers a far closer parallel to Borron’s romance than does the Finn story, in which, beyond the catching of a fish, there is absolutely no point of contact with our romance, neither Joseph nor Brons derives wisdom from the eating thereof; it is not they who detect the sinners, the severance between the good and the evil is brought about automatically.

The Finn story has no common meal, and no idea of spiritual blessings such as are connected therewith.

In the case of the Messianic Fish-meal, on the other hand, the parallel is striking; in both cases it is a communal meal, in both cases the privilege of sharing it is the reward of the faithful, in both cases it is a foretaste of the bliss of Paradise.

Furthermore, as remarked above, the practice was at one time of very widespread prevalence.

Now whence did Borron derive his knowledge, from Jewish, Christian or Mystery sources?

This is a question not very easy to decide. In view of the pronounced Christian tone of Borron’s romance I should feel inclined to exclude the first, also the Jewish Fish-meal seems to have been of a more open, general and less symbolic character than the Christian; it was frankly an anticipation of a promised future bliss, obtainable by all.

Orthodox Christianity, on the other hand, knows nothing of the Sacred Fish-meal, so far as I am aware it forms no part of any Apocalyptic expectation, and where this special symbolism does occur it is often under conditions which place its interpretation outside the recognized category of Christian belief.

A noted instance in point is the famous epitaph of Bishop Aberkios, over the correct interpretation of which scholars have spent much time and ingenuity. 1 In this curious text Aberkios, after mentioning his journeys, says:

“Paul I had as my guide,

Faith however always went ahead and set before me as food a Fish from a Fountain, a huge one, a clean one,

Which a Holy Virgin has caught.

This she gave to the friends ever to eat as food,

Having good Wine, and offering it watered together with Bread.”

Aberkios had this engraved when 72 years of age in truth.

Whoever can understand this let him pray for Aberkios.”

Eisler (I am here quoting from the Quest article) remarks, “As the last line of our quotation gives us quite plainly to understand, a number of words which we have italicized are obviously used in an unusual, metaphorical, sense, that is to say as terms of the Christian Mystery language.”

While Harnack, admitting that the Christian character of the text is indisputable, adds significantly: “aber das Christentum der Grosskirche ist es nicht.”

Thus it is possible that, to the various points of doubtful orthodoxy which scholars have noted as characteristic of the Grail romances, Borron’s Fish-meal should also be added.

Should it be objected that the dependence of a medieval romance upon a Jewish tradition of such antiquity is scarcely probable, I would draw attention to the Voyage of Saint Brandan, where the monks, during their prolonged wanderings, annually ‘kept their Resurrection,’ i.e., celebrate their Easter Mass, on the back of a great Fish. 1

On their first meeting with this monster Saint Brandan tells them it is the greatest of all fishes, and is named Jastoni, a name which bears a curious resemblance to the Jhasa of the Indian tradition cited above. 2

In this last instance the connection of the Fish with life, renewed and sustained, is undeniable.

The original source of such a symbol is most probably to be found in the belief, referred to in a previous chapter, 1 that all life comes from the water, but that a more sensual and less abstract idea was also operative appears from the close connection of the Fish with the goddess Astarte or Atargatis, a connection here shared by the Dove.

Cumont, in his Les Religions Orientales dans le Paganisme Romain, says:

“Two animals were held in general reverence, namely, Dove and Fish.

Countless flocks of Doves greeted the traveller when he stepped on shore at Askalon, and in the outer courts of all the temples of Astarte one might see the flutter of their white wings.

The Fish were preserved in ponds near to the Temple, and superstitious dread forbade their capture, for the goddess punished such sacrilege, smiting the offender with ulcers and tumours.” 2

But at certain mystic banquets priests and initiates partook of this otherwise forbidden food, in the belief that they thus partook of the flesh of the goddess. “

Jessie L. Weston, From Ritual to Romance, 1920, pp. 118-26.

November is the Month of the Dead

“Professor von Schroeder points out that their father was the god Rudra, later known as Çiva, the god of departed souls, and of fruitfulness, i.e., a Chthonian deity, and suggests that the Maruts represent the “in Wind und Sturm dahinjagende Seelenschar.” 1

He points out that the belief in a troop of departed souls is an integral part of Aryan tradition, and classifies such belief under four main headings.

1. Under the form of a spectral Hunt, the Wild Huntsman well known in European Folk-lore. He equates this with Dionysus Zagreus, and the Hunt of Artemis-Hekate.

2. That of a spectral Army, the souls of warriors slain in fight. The Northern Einherier belong to this class, and the many traditions of spectral combats, and ghostly battles, heard, but not seen.

3. The conception of a host of women in a condition of ecstatic exaltation bordering on madness, who appear girdled with snakes, or hissing like snakes, tear living animals to pieces, and devour the flesh. The classic examples here are the Greek Maenads, and the Indian Senâs, who accompany Rudra.

4. The conception of a train of theriomorphic, phallic, demons of fertility, with their companion group of fair women. Such are the Satyrs and Nymphs of Greek, the Gandharvas and Apsaras of Indian, Mythology.

To these four main groups may be added the belief among Germanic peoples, also among the Letts, in a troop of Child Souls.

These four groups, in more or less modified forms, appear closely connected with the dominant Spirit of Vegetation, by whatever name that spirit may be known.

According to von Schroeder there was, among the Aryan peoples generally, a tendency to regard the dead as assuming the character of daimons of fertility. This view the learned Professor considers to be at the root of the annual celebrations in honour of the Departed, the ‘Feast of Souls,’ which characterized the commencement of the winter season, and is retained in the Catholic conception of November as the month of the Dead. 1

In any case we may safely conclude that the Maruts, represented as armed youths, were worshipped as deities of fruitfulness; that their dances were of a ceremonial character; and that they were, by nature and origin, closely connected with spirits of fertility of a lower order, such as the Gandharvas.

It also appears probable that, if the Dramas of which traces have been preserved in the Rig-Veda, were, as scholars are now of opinion, once actually represented, the mythological conception of the Maruts must have found its embodiment in youths, most probably of the priestly caste, who played their rôle, and actually danced the ceremonial Sword Dance.”

Jessie L. Weston, From Ritual to Romance, 1920, pp. 80-1.

The Mystery of ben Belimah

“In the history of Jewish literature, Nahmanides is often considered to exemplify the “most Jewish” spirit; he was the one among Spanish Jews who expressed the deepest convictions regarding the Judaism of his time and embodied what was best and highest in it. From the point of view of a “refined” Judaism or the pure halakhah, it must indeed appear as an aberration that so clear a mind, one that easily penetrated the most complicated halakhic problems, should have become involved with the Kabbalah.

But it is precisely this dimension of his personality that must be grasped if we wish to understand the phenomenon. Without the Kabbalah and its contemplative mysticism Nahmanides, would be as little understood in his Jewish context as would, in the Christian context, a man like Ramón Lull (who was active in Catalonia a generation later and whose teaching exhibited structurally many analogies with the doctrine of the sefiroth) if one ignored his Ars contemplativa, in which his Christianity reached its culmination, and judged him solely on the basis of his wide-ranging activities in all other possible domains.

From this point of view, Nahmanides’ commentary on Yesirah, which develops his conception of God, is of particular importance. The gnostic doctrine of the aeons and the Neoplatonic doctrine of the emanation are combined, and we see how well they harmonize with a Jewish consciousness.

The monotheism of Nahmanides, the Jewish coloration of which is certainly beyond question, is unaware of any contradiction between the unity of God and its manifestation in the different sefiroth, each of which represents one of the aspects by which the kabhod of God reveals itself to the Shekhinah.

In his commentary on the Torah, in which he had to deal only with God’s activity in His creation, making use of the symbols of theosophy, Nahmanides could avoid touching upon this crucial point; he only discussed it in this document intended for kabbalists.

From whom Nahmanides actually received the esoteric tradition is an open question. He does mention, in his commentary on Yesirah, the Hasid Isaac the Blind, but not as his master. Nor does the letter that Isaac sent to him and to his cousin Jonah Gerondi, of whom we shall have occasion to speak later, indicate any direct discipleship.

Nahmanides refers to Yehudah ben Yaqar as his master, especially in the halakhic writings. Contrariwise, in a series of undoubtedly genuine traditions going back to Nahmanides’ most important disciple, Solomon ibn Adreth, there emerges the thoroughly enigmatic figure of a kabbalist by the name of ben Belimah—the personal first name is never mentioned—who is said to have been the connecting link between him and Isaac the Blind.

Meir ibn Sahula, in his commentaries on the traditions of Nahmanides (fol. 29a), contrasts those he had received from ben Belimah with those deriving from Isaac. In very old marginal notes emanating from the circle of Gerona and preserved in Ms. Parma, de Rossi 68, mention is made of a debate between Nahmanides and ben Belimah over the fate of Naboth’s spirit (1 Kings 22); the debate suggests that ben Belimah posited some kind of transmigration of souls or metamorphosis also for the higher spirits, even within the world of the sefiroth up to binah.

The existence of such a kabbalist therefore seems established beyond doubt, no matter how enigmatic his name. It is neither a family name nor a patronymic. Belimah is not known to me as a woman’s name, and it is extremely unlikely that Solomon ibn Adreth would have transmitted the name in a corrupted form to his disciples.

There remains the hypothesis of a pseudonym deliberately substituted for another name that was kept secret for reasons unknown to us and in a manner completely contrary to the habit of this circle. The pseudonym seems to be derived from B. Hullin 89a, where Job 26:7 is applied to Moses and Aaron who, when assailed by the Israelites, changed themselves into nothing!

The kabbalist in question thus may possibly have been a [ . . . ] ben Moses (rather than [ . . . ] ben Aaron). B. Dinur’s suggestion that the pseudonym refers to R. Jonah ben Abraham Gerondi (because of his attitude in the Maimonidean controversy) seems improbable. Perhaps new manuscript discoveries will one day clarify matters.

In any case, this name, whose literal translation would be “son of the Nought” or “son of seclusion,” provokes the historian’s curiosity. It remains uncertain whether ben Belimah should be located in Gerona, which is quite possible, or in Provence, where Nahmanides could have met with him during his youth.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 389-91.

The Angel Sandalfon

“The theory of the intelligible points is connected with the reinterpretation discussed previously (p. 259) of the ideas as spiritual atoms and their application to the sefiroth. From these and similar Provençal sources, this theory then made its way to the kabbalists in Castile, above all to Isaac Cohen and Todros Abulafia, and from there to the author of the Zohar.

The same hierarchical structure is expounded regarding the origin and still more the place of the supreme beatitude of the prophets, the hagiographers, and the mystical scholars in the description of the seven palaces of the lowest heaven, which comes immediately after the aforementioned account of the ritual for the conjuration of the Prince of the Torah.

The sefirotic symbolism is here presupposed as self-evident. The palaces begin with the lowest and ascend in rank, just as do the archons in charge of them. The highest rank is held not by Metatron, who rules over the sixth palace, but by Sandalfon, whose name is associated with the secret of the conquest of matter by form. This is the oldest source of this mystical etymology of Sandalfon, and it was in use later among many Spanish kabbalists.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 361-2.

Jesus and the Disciples Were Great Magicians and Kabbalists

“That the kabbalists were not unaware of a possible connection between these ideas and the Christian Trinity is proved by the testimony of the Spanish scholar Profiat Duran. In his anti-Christian work “Ignominy of the Christians,” composed in 1397, he relates having heard in his youth many adepts of the Kabbalah voicing the opinion that the Christian dogmas of the Trinity and the Incarnation grew out of an erroneous interpretation of kabbalistic theses that were true in themselves.

Jesus and his disciples were not only great magicians—an opinion that was widespread in medieval Judaism—but real kabbalists, ”only their Kabbalah was full of mistakes.” The doctrine of the trinity, which they erroneously attributed to the deity, arose among them as a result of their missteps in this science [the Kabbalah] which established the primordial light, the radiant light and the transparent light.”

There was as well, already in the second half of the thirteenth century, no lack of philosophical opponents of the Kabbalah who, knowing nothing of this thesis of the three lights, nonetheless affirmed that the doctrine of the ten sefiroth was of Christian origin.

This thesis is, as our account of the true history of the idea of the sefiroth has shown, just as false as the historically unfounded suppositions of the kabbalists concerning the origins of the Christian dogmas. It is, incidentally, striking that the doctrine of Pseudo-Hai remained initially unknown to the first so-called “Christian kabbalists,” who only took it up after the middle of the sixteenth century and reinterpreted it in Christian terms for their own purposes.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, p. 354.

The Angel Anafiel

“In older parts of the genuine Hekhaloth literature the rank reserved for this angel is even higher than that of Metatron. His position is now combined with speculations concerning the first sefirah, not in the strict kabbalistic conception but in the spirit of the Book Yesirah’s definition of the first sefirah as the pneuma of the living God, which could be understood metaphorically as a “branch of God”—in fact the literal meaning of ‘Anafiel.

In the fragment under consideration, various determinations intersect. The first sefirah is unexplorable because it is without limits. But it is, at the same time, also the consonant taw, an intelligible potency that becomes an angel even higher than the hashmal, higher, therefore, than the potency of the Merkabah, to which such great importance was attributed by the ‘Iyyun circle.

The supreme angel of the Merkabah, ‘Anafiel is therefore at the same time the first sefirah, and he stands in the place usually occupied in the writings of this group by the primordial ether. But this sefirah is also a secret primordial image, temunah, in the figure of Man; in other words, it is the ‘adam qadmon whom we met in a very different context in other writings of this circle.

This conforms perfectly with the cherub-mysticism of the German Hasidim. Ezekiel 1:26 is related to ‘Anafiel. Indeed, he is at the same time the indivisible, indifferent will, rason shaweh, which produces all the creatures; as such he also is the pneuma that directs, in the spirit of Ezekiel’s vision of the Merkabah, the inner movement of the spiritual beings emerging from him in the process of differentiation. This movement is born when the will turns toward its origin in the “marvelous and nameless light” above it.

In accordance with this idea, the “Book of the True Unity” explains ‘Anafiel as the seraph and the angel posted over the unity, whose power is ramified in seven lights that “stand before the place of the unity as a burning fire” and that are identical with the seven seraphim enumerated in chapter 7 of the “Tractate of the Hekhaloth.”

Perhaps this decomposition of the supreme luminous power into seven seraphim or lights ought to be approximated to certain notions of the Cathars, for whom the Paraclete was sevenfold and who spoke of the seven animae principales.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 345-6.

The Source of Wisdom

“The Book ‘Iyyun itself makes no mention at all of primordial ether, unless the latter is concealed in the concept of the primordial darkness.

It does, however, play an important role in the “Source of Wisdom.” This small book was always regarded by the kabbalists as one of the most enigmatic works of their literature. Baer of Mezritsch still boasted to his disciple Solomon of Luzk of having studied this book with the founder of Hasidism, Israel Baal-shem who, Baer said, explained it to him word by word.

It consists of two parts. The first is concerned largely with the divine name YHWH, the manner in which it was engendered by the processes of language-mysticism, its wondrous power, and the role of the primordial ether at the origin of all movement of language.

Here it seems that the idea of the spoken word becoming “inscribed” in the air, issuing from the mouth of the person uttering it, was applied to the primordial processes of the creative divine speech. In the second part successive attempts are made to develop a cosmogony.

The name of God—so the book begins—is the unity of the movement of language branching out from the primordial root. This movement grows out of the primordial ether, in the form of the thirteen pairs of opposites that are at the same time the thirteen middoth of divine government.”

Gershom Scholem, The Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 331-2.

The Tarot

“I have already referred to the fact, first pointed out by the late Mr Alfred Nutt, 1 that the four treasures of the Tuatha de Danann correspond generally with the group of symbols found in the Grail romances; this correspondence becomes the more interesting in view of the fact that these mysterious Beings are now recognized as alike Demons of Fertility and Lords of Life.

As Mr Nutt subsequently pointed out, the ‘Treasures’ may well be, Sword and Cauldron certainly are, ‘Life’ symbols.

Of direct connection between these Celtic objects and the Grail story there is no trace; as remarked above, we have no Irish Folk or Hero tale at all corresponding to the Legend; the relation must, therefore, go back beyond the date of formation of these tales, i.e., it must be considered as one of origin rather than of dependence.

But we have further evidence that these four objects do, in fact, form a special group entirely independent of any appearance in Folk-lore or Romance. They exist to-day as the four suits of the Tarot.

Students of the Grail texts, whose attention is mainly occupied with Medieval Literature, may not be familiar with the word Tarot, or aware of its meaning. It is the name given to a pack of cards, seventy-eight in number, of which twenty-two are designated as the ‘Keys.’

These cards are divided into four suits, which correspond with those of the ordinary cards; they are:

Cup (Chalice, or Goblet)–Hearts.

Lance (Wand, or Sceptre)–Diamonds.


Dish (Circles, or Pentangles, the form varies)–Clubs.

To-day the Tarot has fallen somewhat into disrepute, being principally used for purposes of divination, but its origin, and precise relation to our present playing-cards, are questions of considerable antiquarian interest.

Were these cards the direct parents of our modern pack, or are they entirely distinct therefrom? 1

Some writers are disposed to assign a very high antiquity to the Tarot. Traditionally, it is said to have been brought from Egypt; there is no doubt that parallel designs and combinations are to be found in the surviving decorations of Egyptian temples, notably in the astronomic designs on the ceiling of one of the halls of the palace of Medinet Abou, which is supported on twenty-two columns (a number corresponding to the ‘keys’ of the Tarot), and also repeated in a calendar sculptured on the southern façade of the same building, under a sovereign of the XXIII dynasty.

This calendar is supposed to have been connected with the periodic rise and fall of the waters of the Nile.” 2

Jessie L. Weston, From Ritual to Romance, 1920. Pp. 73-4.

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