"Samizdat: Publishing the Forbidden."

Category: Gnosticism

An Excerpt from The Fall of the Angels

“How did the story about the fall of the angels relate to biblical tradition? Why is it only hinted at there, and not incorporated into the canon in more complete form? Two general points may be offered in response to these questions.

First, the story presupposes, rather than lies behind, the Hebrew Bible and, thus, is to be regarded as a development, indeed interpretation, of what later came to be recognized as canonical. Second, the communities which produced the story did so by transforming the biblical tradition through the dual filters of apocalyptic dualism and their own social contexts.

These points have to be taken into account when considering how it was that “the day of the Lord” of the exilic and post-exilic prophets could be absorbed into the notion of a final apocalyptic battle in later early Jewish literature. Was this shift from prophetic to apocalyptic eschatology the result of an attempt to reject the foreign domination by Hellenistic rulers—such as the Ptolemies in Egypt and the Seleucids in Syria—in the wake of Alexander the Great’s conquests?

Or was this growing dualism a reflection of the breach between urban and rural culture? Or, by contrast, did the apocalyptic religious tradition re-present knowledge gleaned from the “foreign” sciences of its day as divine revelation, doing so long before the Greeks came on the scene?

There were yet other stories in the Ancient Near East that had been told long time and retold in the Greek world. Those stories were adapted to the current social situation and to the clash of civilizations. (sic).

The famous passage from Genesis 6:1-4 played a central role in the development of apocalyptic traditions. The biblical tradition itself is ambiguous; it conveys a story about ancient “heroes”, on the one hand, and the “sons of the gods”, on the other. What these figures have to do with the destruction brought about through the Great Flood in the following narrative (Genesis 6:5ff.) constitutes the first question to be examined in this volume.

The contribution by Ronald Hendel does so by exploring possible parallels to the biblical story in the Ancient Near East. One of the most significant traditions to throw light on the biblical account is shown to be the Atrahasis Epic. If read alongside this epic, the ruptures and ambiguities within the Genesis narrative, which involves the insertion of a polytheistic conflict between deities into a monotheistic narrative about God and creation, do not appear so conspicuous or unexpected.

This is further illustrated by the common motif that has the lower world flooded by the heavenly world in order to prevent the superhuman inhabitants of the lower world from becoming too powerful. The attempt by the gods above to destroy the younger and smaller ones reaches a truce in the form of a treaty or alliance. This is how Genesis chapters 6-9 may be comprehended as a complete narrative and, in addition, came to include the passage in 6:1-4.

A tradition about a revolt in a heavenly palace is preserved in the Babylonian Atrahasis Epic, also known through the Baal-Cycle from Ugarit and the Hethitic Kumarbi Epic, has also influenced Greek mythology which tells of the conflict between Zeus, on the one hand, and his tyrannical murderer-father and the Titans his helpers, on the other. In this volume, Jan Bremmer argues impressively that the “Titans” of the story are actually not destroyed. The fear of their possible return persists and remains an irrepressible potential and threat.

How astronomic observation, the interpretation of stars as deities living in a distant world, and scientific knowledge are coalesced into the traditional image of God is shown by Matthias Albani in his analysis of Isaiah 14.

The Fall of the Rebel Angels is an oil-on-panel by Flemish renaissance artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder, painted in 1562. It is currently held and exhibited at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels. Bruegel's depiction of this subject is taken from a passage from the Book of Revelation (12, 2-9) and reveals the artist's profound debt to Hieronymous Bosch, especially in the grotesque figures of the fallen angels, shown as half-human, half-animal monsters.  Together with Dulle Griet and The Triumph of Death, which have similar dimensions, it was probably painted for the same collector and destined to become part of a series.

The Fall of the Rebel Angels is an oil-on-panel by Flemish renaissance artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder, painted in 1562. It is currently held and exhibited at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels.
Bruegel’s depiction of this subject is taken from a passage from the Book of Revelation (12, 2-9) and reveals the artist’s profound debt to Hieronymous Bosch, especially in the grotesque figures of the fallen angels, shown as half-human, half-animal monsters.
Together with Dulle Griet and The Triumph of Death, which have similar dimensions, it was probably painted for the same collector and destined to become part of a series.

For Albani, the myth of the morning star that rises at night only to be driven away and dissolved by the light of the sun is discernible in a story about the power of God who, though rivaled by the smaller stars, is never surpassed by them.

The fact that the Isaiah account may be dated to the exilic period—and so is similar to expulsion of the throne pretender mentioned in Ezekiel 28—strengthens the likelihood that it functioned as a story of consolation. The image of the rise and fall of Helel was later translated into “Lucifer” in Latin tradition. The interpretation is depicted in Figure No. 2.

No direct line can be drawn from the Isaiah narrative to the Enochic apocalyptic literature and its Gnostic adaptation. The apocalyptic and cosmological dualisms of the latter fundamentally changed the religious tradition into something cosmic, super-historical, and superhuman.”

Christoph Auffarth & Loren T. Stuckenbruck, eds., “The Centre for Power for Evil: Its Origins and Development,” in The Fall of the Angels, Brill, 2004.

An Excerpt from the Prophecies of Baba

“As Rahmani pointed out, some quotations of the Baba text are found in Dionysius Bar Salibi’s work Against the Muslims. They are very brief and restricted to the most suitable sentences (see p. 229, n. 7, and p. 230, n. 1, below); there can be no doubt that they do not go back to a complete text of Baba’s work but are derived from the same collection in which we find them today.

Bar Salibi wrote his work Against the Muslims before his work Against the Jews, which was written in 1477 Sel./l 165-6. Thus, we know for certain that his source for the Baba quotations must have been written before that date, but how long before remains an open question, except that being addressed to unbelievers it is likely to antedate the twelfth century by, at least, a few centuries.

It seems that little attention has been paid to Baba’s prophecies since their publication, and the edition is not easily available. Therefore, a modest attempt to translate the text into English has been appended here:

The Prophecy of Baba, the God of Harran.

Listen to the statements of Baba who also lived in Harran, whose book is being read attentively by the pagans, who is called by them a prophet, whom they esteem more than all the philosophers, and in whom they take refuge. With the divine power’s approval of his prophecy, he announced and spoke openly about the Messiah, as did Balaam, the soothsayer. He made the following statement in his first book, which is called ‘Revelation‘ (Gelydnd).

I did not want to say these things, but I was required against my will to write about these things that are going to be, while there will be tears and lamentation when they are going to happen. For the light that is prior to the world came to earth and appeared in the body of the earth without mankind knowing it.

Thereafter, it returned again and went up to its place on high by the side of that glory that is concealed from everybody. And while it is there in its place, so-called (?) inhabitants of Harran will come, and the inhabitants of the city of Sin will say that it is Baba’s insanity, <not> wisdom coming from the sons of heaven.

Shaking ‘Azzfiz in which all exaltation (?) is, they will expel those who dwell in it, and it will become a house of martyrs, and all the rest a place of shame.

From the same book:

For the gnosis of light that is immortal, imperishable sacrifices, and incorruptible splendor (will) appear on earth, having its dwelling in heaven and controlling heaven and earth.

Life is in it for all who take refuge in it. The inhabitants of Harran were liars. <It is> all that was and is, and it is prior to everything.

Wisdom takes up residence and dwells in it. Beside this splendor, nothing has subsistence.

Earth, earth! Do not drink error, but know the light that has appeared and subsists and does not perish, ascending on high and serving on earth for years! Shortly, evil will come because of their sin, and their foot will not be steady until they see the light that has appeared and worship it rightly.

From the same book:

And they will say the sweet word: ‘Come, let us fall upon the ground and worship God, the Creator of the earth!’ And there shall be a great and holy temple on earth, and the entire people will bring a sacrifice to God in perfect love.

From the second book:

They will behold the ray that sprang from where they did not expect it. It will be visible from their place.

It will appear with all its appropriate fittings in great, incomprehensible splendor, and all those who dwell on earth will notice the glory of the brilliance that was concealed and became revealed.

I saw in the mind as if I was spoken to as follows: The progeny of splendor and light was born from the earth for gain and loss, for subsistence and fall.

Woe, woe! For after a while, no stone of the house of the gods in your midst that is glorious and exalted like the Capitol in Rome, will be left upon the other. Do not tremble, for if you know the splendor of the ray, many things that (seem) important will be like nought.

The ray of the Lord will openly descend upon the earth, and they will be without signs until the ascent of the radiance. The inhabitants of Persia will come bringing gifts for the ray. Glorious is the divine guidance, and marvelous the miracle that will appear upon earth. It is above words and understanding; it is incomprehensible and unaccountable. Thereafter, the world will dwell in peace for a while.

The kingdom of the east will be aroused. It will go up and destroy the city of Judah. ‘Abor (Eber) will descend into captivity, and Babil will serve in servitude, because of the miraculous progeny, concerning <whom> I (she ?) said …. (?).

Thereafter, the kings of the west will be roused, and they will come up to our place. They will slaughter sacrifices and bring offerings in the midst of ‘Azzuz.

They will seek to abolish the religion, while unable to say so because others after them will believe and rule.

Baba then said that after a long time, a big name from the south will come and sit down in the midst of ‘Azzuz. He will honor its initiates, but over all those who do not heed his words, the sword will rule.

Baba then spoke about the apostles: His apostles, that is, his runners, are contemptible.

He indicated openly that the Apostles of the Messiah are contemptible and simple people (Qiedyote). He sent them out, and they ran over the whole world. With the help of the divine power that was clinging to them, they were able to catch all mankind (and bring them) to Life, doing great and miraculous deeds.

The soothsayer spoke again further about the progeny of splendor on earth, as follows: <Above> all and dwelling in everything —that miracle that was done.”

The Syriac and the Arabic texts have identical remarks concerning the reluctance of the seer, and there is some similarity in the statements concerning the big name from the south and his powerful rule in the one text, and the Abyssinian ruler and the power gained by the good Harranians in the other.

The “sons of heaven” who play an important role in the Syriac text certainly are identical with the “people of heaven” in the Arabic. All these agreements may, however, be credited to the literary type to which both texts belong.

The assumption that the Syriac text is an outright Christian forgery finds support in the fact that the Baba passages appear in the context of clearly supposititious statements attributed to various famous figures. The difference is that Baba was not famous or internationally known but of strictly local interest which at best extended to, say, Edessa and Antioch.

There are the Christian concepts of the ray springing from the glory in heaven and other ideas best explained as Christian in origin. However, if one reads the Syriac text carefully, one cannot help being struck by the tenuousness of the Christian allusions and the fact that practically all of them could have been easily superimposed upon a text that might have spoken about a gnostically transformed Christ in a kind of Biblical phraseology or, rather, about the gnostic light in general.

Concepts such as the light coming down to earth, the gnosis of light, the incorruptible splendor (nuhrd), or the progeny of light and splendor, can be read as gnostic. With regard to the pagan cult in Harran, the text lacks clarity and seems to contain contradictory statements, but expressions of hope for its preservation and renewed glory in the fact of violent attacks upon it by hostile elements (which may have been Christians or Muslims) seem to be prevalent.

The remark about the Apostles must have been originally intended as a slur upon them, branding them as evil characters. Above all, if there really existed a book ascribed to Baba, of which our text has preserved only excerpts, the comparative irrelevance of the excerpts chosen leaves little room for doubt that that book cannot have had much to do with Christianity (which, if it were a Christian falsification, would be its only reason for existence).

There is a good possibility that the Syriac text has, in fact, preserved remnants of Harranian gnostic literature that were only slightly adapted to the purpose which the Christian author had in mind when using them.

For the Arabic text, considerably less doubt seems indicated.

The author obviously hopes for the persistence and flourishing of paganism. It would be far-fetched to assume that a Christian or a member of an heretical Christian sect that had remained at least basically Christian would have gone that far in his mystification in order to provide local color and the appearance of authenticity. We cannot be fully certain, but in all likelihood, the Arabic text is a rare survival of Harranian “Sabian” literature, translated from an Aramaic original presumably dating from the Umayyad period.”

F. Rosenthal, “The Prophecies of Baba the Harranian,” in S.H. Taqizadeh, A Locust’s Leg: Studies in Honor of S.H. Taqizadeh, 1962, pp. 220-32.

Elder and Younger Bel

The Bel of this legend, who has settled the places of the Sun and the Moon in the sky, is not the Babylonian Bel, but the older Bel of Nipur, from whom Merodach, the Bel of Babylon, had afterwards to be distinguished.

The Accadian original of the poem belongs to a very early epoch, before the rise of Babylon, when the supreme Bel of the Semitic inhabitants of Babylonia was still the god whom the Accadians called Mul-lilla, “the lord of the lower world.”

This Bel or Mul-lilla fades into the background as the Semitic element in Babylonian religion became stronger and the influence of Babylon greater, though the part that he played in astronomical and cosmological lore, as well as his local cult at Nipur, kept his memory alive; while the dreaded visitants of night, the demoniac lilu and lilat or lilith, from the lower world, preserved a faint memory of the spirits of which he had once been the chief.

Burney Relief, Babylon (1800-1750 BCE). The figure in the relief was sometimes identified with Lilith, based on a misreading of an outdated translation of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Modern research has identified the figure as either Ishtar or Ereshkigal.

Burney Relief, Babylon (1800-1750 BCE). The figure in the relief was sometimes identified with Lilith, based on a misreading of an outdated translation of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Modern research has identified the figure as either Ishtar or Ereshkigal.

 One by one, however, the attributes that had formerly attached to the older Bel were absorbed by the younger Bel of Babylon.

It was almost as it was in Greece, where the older gods were dethroned by their own offspring; in the Babylonia of Nebuchadnezzar and Nabonidos, it was the younger gods–Merodach, Sin and Samas–to whom vows were the most often made and prayer the most often ascended.

Such was the latest result of the local character of Babylonian worship: the younger gods were the gods of the younger Babylonian cities, and the god of Babylon, though he might be termed “the first-born of the gods,” was in one sense the youngest of them all.

The title, however, “first-born of the gods” was of the same nature as the other title, “prince of the world,” bestowed upon him by his grateful worshippers. It meant little else than that Babylon stood at the head of the world, and that its god must therefore be the first-born, not of one primeval deity, but of all the primeval deities acknowledged in Chaldea.

According to the earlier faith, he was the first-born of Ea only. Ea was god of the deep, both of the atmospheric deep upon which the world floats, and of that watery deep, the Okeanos of Homer, which surrounds the earth like a coiled serpent.

All streams and rivers were subject to his sway, for they flowed into that Persian Gulf which the ignorance of the primitive Chaldean imagined to be the ocean-stream itself. It was from the Persian Gulf that tradition conceived the culture and civilisation of Babylonia to have come, and Ea was therefore lord of wisdom as well as lord of the deep.

His son Merodach was the minister of his counsels, by whom the commands of wisdom were carried into practice. Merodach was thus the active side of his father Ea; to use the language of Gnosticism, he was the practical activity that emanates from wisdom.”

A.H. Sayce, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by the Religion of the Ancient Babylonians, 5th ed., London, 1898, p. 103-4.

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.

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 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.

More from the Naassene Fragment, the Great Ineffable Mystery of the Samothracians

” … H. Following after these and such like [follies], these most wonderful “Gnostics,” discoverers of a new grammatical art, imagine that their prophet Homer showed forth these things arcanely; and, introducing those who are not initiated into the Sacred Scriptures into such notions, they make a mock of them.

And they say that he who says that all things are from One, is in error, [but] he who says they are from Three is right, and will furnish proof of the first principles [of things]. 2

J. For one (H. he says) is the Blessed Nature of the Blessed Man Above, Adamas; and one is the [Nature] Below, which is subject to Death; and one is the Race without a king 3 which is born Above—where (H. he says) is Mariam the sought-for, and Jothōr the great sage, and Sepphōra the seeing, and Moses whose begetting is not in Egypt—for sons were born to him in Madiam. 4

S. And this (H. he says) also did not escape the notice of the poets:

“All things were threefold divided, and each received his share of honour.” 1

C. For the Greatnesses (H. he says) needs must be spoken, but so spoken by all everywhere, “that hearing they may not hear, and seeing they may not see.” 2

J. For unless (H. he says) the Greatnesses 3 were spoken, the cosmos would not be able to hold together. These are the Three More-than-mighty Words (Logoi): Kaulakau, Saulasau, Zeēsar;—Kaulakau, the [Logos] Above, Adamas; Saulasau, the [Logos] Below; Zeēsar, the Jordan flowing upwards. 4

(17 5) S. He (H. he says) is the male-female Man

in all, whom the ignorant call three-bodied Gēryonēs—Earth-flow-er, as though flowing from the earth; 1 while the Greek [theologi] generally call Him the “Heavenly Horn of Mēn,” 2 because He has mixed and mingled 3 all things with all.

C. For “all things (H. he says) were made through Him, and without Him no one thing was made that was made. In Him is Life.” 4

This (H. he says) is “Life,” the ineffable Race of perfect men, which was unknown to former generations.

And the “nothing” 5 which hath been made “without Him,” is the special cosmos; 6 for the latter hath been made without Him by the third and fourth [? Ruler]. 7

J. This 1 (H. he says) is the drinking-vessel—the Cup in which “the King drinketh and divineth.” 2

This (H. he says) was found hidden in the “fair seed” of Benjamin.

(18) S. The Greeks also speak of it (H. he says) with inspired tongue, as follows:

“Bring water, bring [me] wine, boy!

Give me to drink, and sink me in slumber! 3

My Cup tells me of what race I must be born,

[Speaking with silence unspeaking].” 4

C. This (H. he says) would be sufficient alone if men would understand—the Cup of Anacreon speaking forth speechlessly the Ineffable Mystery.

J. For (H. he says) Anacreon’s Cup is speechless—in as much as it tells him (says Anacreon) with speechless sound of what Race he must be born—

C. —that is, spiritual, not carnal—

J. —if he hear the Hidden Mystery in Silence.

C. And this is the Water at those Fair Nuptials which Jesus turned and made Wine.

“This (H. he says) is the great and true beginning of the signs which Jesus wrought in Cana of Galilee, and made manifest His Kingship [or Kingdom] of the Heavens.” 5

This (H. he says) is the Kingship [or Kingdom] of the Heavens within us, 6 stored up as a Treasure, 7 as “Leaven hid in three measures of Flour.” 8

(19 1) S. This is (H. he says) the Great Ineffable Mystery of the Samothracians,—

C. —which it is lawful for the perfect alone to know—[that is] (H. he says) for us.

J. For the Samothracians, in the Mysteries which are solemnised among them, explicitly hand on the tradition that this Adam is the Man Original.

S. Moreover, 2 in the initiation temple of the Samothracians stand two statues of naked men, with both hands raised to heaven and ithyphallic, like the statue of Hermes in Cyllene. 3

J. The statues aforesaid are images of the Man Original. 4

C. And [also] of the regenerated 5 spiritual [man], in all things of like substance with that Man.

This (H. he says) is what was spoken by the Saviour:

“If ye do not drink My Blood and eat My Flesh, ye shall not enter into the Kingdom of the Heavens. 6

“But even if ye drink (H. he says) the Cup which I drink, 7 where I go, there ye cannot come.” 8

For He knew (H. he says) of which nature each of His disciples is, and that it needs must be that each of them should go to his own nature.

For from the twelve tribes (H. he says) He chose twelve disciples, and through them He spake to every tribe. 1

On this account (H. he says) all have not heard the preachings of the twelve disciples; and even if they hear, they cannot receive them. For the [preachings] which are not according to their nature are contrary to it.”

G.R.S. Mead, Thrice-Greatest HermesVol. 1, 1906, pp. 164-8.

From Hippolytus, Philosophumena; or, Refutation of all Heresies.

Excerpts from the Naassene Fragment

” … In the following analysis H. stands for Hippolytus; C. for the Christian Gnostic final overwriter, the “Naassene” whose MS. lay before H.; J. for the Naassene Jewish mystic who preceded C. and overworked the original; S. for the original Heathen Hellenistic Source. …”

“(1) S. “Earth (say the Greeks 3) first brought forth Man—bearing a fair gift, desiring to be mother not of plants without feeling, nor of brutes without reason, but of a tamed God-loving life.

“Difficult is it (H. he says 4) to discover whether it was among the Bœotians that Alalkomeneus rose from the Kephisian Lake as first of men; or whether it was the Idæan Kurētes, race divine, or the Phrygian Korybantes, whom Helios saw first sprouting forth tree-like; or whether Arkadia brought forth Pelasgos [first], older than the Moon; or Eleusis Diaulos, dweller in Raria; or Lēmnos Kabeiros, fair child of ineffable orgies; 1 or whether Pallēnē Phlegræan Alkyoneus, eldest of Giants.

“The Libyans say that Garamas, 2 rising from parched plains, first picked sweet date of Zeus; while Neilos, making fat the mud of Egypt to this day (H. he says), breeds living things, and renders from damp heat things clothed in flesh.” 3

The Assyrians say it was with them Ōannēs, the Fish-eater; while the Chaldæans [say that it was] Adam.

(2) J. And this Adam they [the Chaldæans] say was the man that Earth produced—a body only, and that he lay breathless, motionless, immovable, like a statue, being an image of that Man Above—

H. —of whom they sing, and brought into existence by the many Powers, 1 concerning which there is much detailed teaching.

J. In order, then, that the Great Man from Above—

C. From whom, as is said, every fatherhood has its name on earth or in the heavens. 2

J. —might be completely brought low, there was given unto him 3 Soul also, in order that through the Soul the enclosed plasm of the Great, Most-fair, and Perfect Man might suffer and be chastened.

H. For thus they call Him. They seek to discover then further what is the Soul, and whence, and of what nature, that by entering into man and moving him, it should enslave and chasten the plasm of the Perfect Man; but they seek this also not from the Scriptures, but from the Mysteries.

(3) S. And they 4 say that Soul is very difficult to discover, and hard to understand; for it never remains of the same appearance, or form, or in the same state, so that one can describe it by a general type, 5 or comprehend it by an essential quality.

H. These variegated metamorphoses they 6 have laid down in the Gospel, superscribed “According to the Egyptians.” 7

S. They are accordingly in doubt—

H. —like all the rest of the Gentiles—

J. —whether it [sc. the Soul] is from the Pre-existing [One], or from the Self-begotten, or from the Streaming Chaos. 8

H. And first of all, in considering the triple division of Man, they fly for help to the Initiations of the Assyrians; for the Assyrians were the first to consider the Soul triple and [yet] one. …”

 G.R.S.Mead, Thrice-Greatest Hermes, Vol. 1, 1906, pp. 148-51.

From Hippolytus, Philosophumena; or, Refutation of all Heresies.

The Sound of the Alef

“Before all Creation he rested, transcendent, in himself, hidden in the power of his own reality. But at the beginning of Creation, “His kabhod became manifest, and the explication of his knowledge consisted in five things.” The author in fact names, but does not explain, these five things, which lead to gnosis. They obviously belong to the sphere of language mysticism and are called tiqqun, ma ‘ amar, seruf, mikhlal, heshbon.

It appears that they constitute the processes by which the letters are placed in harmony (tiqqun), assembled into words (ma’ amar), permutated (seruf), collected together in all their combinations (mikhlal), and calculated according to their numerical value (heshbon). Here, too, the process of emanation coincides with the process of language, but the details do not become clear.

These five events are, as the author says in a curious image, “united in the ramifications of the root of movement [probably meaning the root of the movement of language], which is strengthened in the root of the thirteen pairs of opposites” and unfolds from a thin breath, the sound of the ‘alef, into the name of God (if I understand this difficult text correctly).

These thirteen pairs of opposites are, at the same time, the thirteen middoth derived from Exodus 34:6, which play such a great role in Jewish theology as the modes of God’s action. God acts in the middoth positively as well as negatively, which enables us to perceive a connection with the kabbalistic notion of middah that we found in Isaac.

Here, however, not the sefiroth are meant but the powers or modes of action that are enclosed in the first sefirah and erupt from it. It is in these five modes of the movement of language that everything is realized “like a source for the flame and a flame for the source” prolonged “up to the unfathomable and infinite light, which is concealed in the excess of the hidden darkness. And the knowledge of the unity and of its principle refers to this darkness.”

The divine unity acts therefore out of the effusive darkness from which come all the lights, which are connected to it as the flame to its source. This world of images does not appear to me far removed from that of John Scotus Erigena and Pseudo-Denys the Areopagite; it is more closely related to them than to the world of the Bahir.

Among the Hebrew Neoplatonists such language is not used to express the divine unity, and we touch here upon a possible connection that will emerge more often in the course of this investigation. It seems that the kabbalists of Provence combined the doctrine of the aeons, as found among the gnostics and in the Bahir, with Erigena’s doctrine of the causae primordiales, which in all their multiplicity are nevertheless the unity of the divine sapientia.

Such a relationship is historically plausible. It is not difficult to suppose that the first kabbalists of Provence and Aragon, around 1180-1220, had direct or indirect knowledge of Scotus Erigena, whose influence reached its high point at that time, just before the condemnation of 1210. Many Cathars too seem to have made use of Erigena’s work as is suggested by two extant testimonies. Writings of Erigena were no rarity in the cities where the first kabbalists lived, before Honorius III ordained the destruction of all copies found in France.

But from this speculative and novel introduction, the Book ‘Iyyun proceeds to an explanation of the primordial darkness and the potencies issuing from it. This explanation claims to be a kind of commentary on a Hekhaloth text by Nehunya ben Haqqanah that however, is not identical with any of the Hekhaloth writings known to us. It is apparently against this commentary and, by the same token, against the Book ‘Iyyun in general (along with the Bahir and other writings) that the antikabbalistic attack in Meir ben Simon’s epistle is directed.

Around 1245, therefore, the existence of such a commentary on the Hekhaloth, “where one finds things in the spirit of their [namely, the kabbalists’] heresy” was known in Provence. This text names the signet rings sealing heaven and earth much as we also find them in the Wertheimer version of the “Greater Hekhaloth” (chap. 23).

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 313-5.

The Lost Book of Rab Hammai

“The tendency of these writings to enumerate celestial beings and their names is sometimes reminiscent of the catalogues to be found in the Pistis Sophia and other gnostic (Mandaean) texts of a later period. Isaac Cohen, who preserved for us many such lists and enumerations, attributed them to a particular group of kabbalists who had not walked the “royal road” followed by the others.

The source of these lists (as distinct from the demonological speculations discussed previously) is said to be a source he called the Book of Rab Hammai, which he claims to have found in Provence in three copies: one in Narbonne, in the possession of the aforementioned anonymous Hasid, and two in Aries.

Here we find ourselves in a very curious situation. The Book of Hammai is lost; Moses of Burgos, Isaac’s disciple, still quoted further catalogues of archons of a gnostic character; the name appears in several other writings that in all probability also originated in Provence.

But no historical personage by this name is known. Whether the Amora Hamma ben Hanina has been transformed into a pseudepigraphic author, or the name Rahmai, rahmai, known to us from the Bahir has perhaps become a Rab Hammai, rab_hammai  or whether we are simply dealing with a new fiction, can no longer be determined.

In the most important of the extant texts, Hammai appears as a speculative author of the eleventh or twelfth century who already relied upon pseudepigraphic kabbalistic writings circulating in the name of Hai Gaon (d.1040). In addition to a “Book of the Unity,” Sefer ha-Yihud, from which only some quotations remain, we have a small tract entitled Sefer ha-‘Iyyun, “Book of the Speculation” (or “Contemplation”), preserved in numerous manuscripts.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 310-1.

Sammael and Lilith and the Hierarchy of Darkness

“On the other hand, what might very well be of Oriental origin are purely mythical statements regarding the realm of demons, in which kabbalistic ideas like the doctrine of the sefiroth or the idea of emanation in general play no role.

These doctrines are mentioned by Isaac Cohen as coming from theurgic texts, which he connects with the “Lesser Hekhaloth” and a Sefer Malbush which, however, bear no relation to the old theurgic texts known by these names.

In these sources, Sammael and Lilith appear for the first time as the demonic couple placed at the head of the hierarchy of darkness. The connection between this strange mythic construction and the properly kabbalistic theories was only established later by the editors, the brothers Isaac and Jacob Cohen or their teachers.

The great antiquity of these ideas, the details of which I do not wish to discuss here, is also attested by the fact that the very old etymology, borrowed by the Gnostics of the second century from Jewish circles, of the name of the devil Sammael—a name that arose concurrently with that of Beliar—is still preserved here: the “blind archon,” sar summa.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, p. 294.

Eschatological Elevation of the Soul After Death

“The Bahir’s idea of the sefiroth appears in Isaac’s writings in a fully crystallized form. In his commentary on the Yesirah 4:3, the verse 1 Chronicles 29:11 is used for the first time as a biblical reference for the names and the sequence of the seven lower sefiroth, especially the first five among them: “Yours, Lord, are the greatness (gedullah), might (geburah), splendor (tif’ereth), triumph (nesah), and majesty (hod)—yes all (kol) that is in heaven and on earth; to You, Lord, belong kingship (mamlakhah) and preeminence above all.”

From here come the designations not yet used in the Bahir, of gedullah for hesed, tif’ereth for ‘emeth, and hod. Isaac himself for the most part uses the names hesed and pahad (as in the Bahir) instead of gedullah and geburah. The name tif’ereth, however, is already familiar to him.

Whereas the word kol, occurring in the aforementioned verse, already served in the Bahir as an epithet designating the “Righteous,” Isaac uses for this sefirah the noun “Righteous” and the epithet “Foundation of the world.” For the last sefirah, on the other hand, he employs almost exclusively an epithet still not familiar to the Bahir, although it is undoubtedly alluded to there.

This epithet is ‘atarah, a synonym for kether, which designates the lowest of the ten “crowns.” Like the Bahir, he names the first three sefiroth kether or mahshabah, hokhmah and binah.

In his commentary on Yesirah, Isaac mentions many of these sefiroth in the framework of fixed schemata, but this does not always enable us to comprehend the sequence of the sefiroth within them. What is strange is that in point of fact the structure of the sefiroth beyond the supreme three only interests him in detail when it is a question of prayer mysticism, or the interpretation of certain ritual commandments. They have their importance as stages of the contemplative ascent or of the eschatological elevation of the soul, after death, to even higher spheres.

But never are any coherent thoughts presented concerning their function and structure. This is particularly the case for the potencies of tif’ereth, yesod and ‘atarah, which play an especially important role in the evolution of the doctrine of the sefiroth. In contrast to this lack of interest in detail, one discerns in Isaac a more pronounced interest in the totality of the spiritual potencies expressed in language and, in a more general manner, in spiritual entities.

Having said that, the terminological differences between concepts like sefiroth, middoth, letters (of the alphabet) and hawwayoth (literally: essences) are by no means always clear, and their interpretation is often fraught with difficulties.

However, these difficulties are closely related to what is truly new in Isaac’s Kabbalah. Indeed, from the historical point of view their interest lies in the combination of the world of ideas of the Bahir and the entirely new elements that erupt, inspired by gnostic ideas, into the oldest form of the Kabbalah as represented by the Bahir.

This combination reflects speculative interests whose origin is no longer essentially determined by Gnosticism but rather by Neoplatonism and a language mysticism generated by the latter. Isaac is visibly struggling with new thoughts for which he is as yet unable to find clear and definitive expression. The awkwardness of his new terminology militates against the supposition that this lack of clarity, which often makes it so difficult to penetrate his meaning, is intentional.

His new terminology seems to be derived from philosophy, although we cannot identify its philosophical sources in the Hebrew tradition. The special importance of Isaac’s commentary on the Yesirah lies in the attempt to read into the old texts the new, speculative thoughts of a contemplative mystic. But we are no less surprised by the boldness with which he presents far-reaching ideas in his other cosmological fragments and in his remarks concerning the mystical theory of sacrifice. The particular manner in which Isaac applies his ideas to the task of man, to the connection between the terrestrial and the celestial worlds, and to eschatological matters merits closer consideration.

The path of the mystic, described by Isaac at the beginning of his commentary on the Yesirah, is (as Isaac of Acre already recognized in his paraphrase of several of these passages in his own commentary) that of systematically uncovering the divine—by means of reflective contemplation and within the innermost depths of such contemplation. Isaac postulates three stages in the mystery of the deity and its unfolding in creation and revelation.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 263-5.

Yoser Bereshith

“In its initial stage of development in the circle of the Rabad, the doctrine of kawwanah differed in at least one important and instructive point from the form in which it was to become familiar to his successors. As soon as the kabbalists grasped the fundamental difference between the Emanator and the emanated, between the hidden God, subsequently to be called by them ‘en-sof, and the attributes or sefiroth by which he manifested himself and through which he acts, they immediately emphasized the thesis that there can be no kawwanoth addressed directly to ‘en-sof.

The nature of the hidden God excludes any such possibility. If we could meet him in kawwanah he would no longer be that hidden God, whose concealment and transcendence cannot be sufficiently emphasized. It would therefore only be logical for the kabbalists to argue that kawwanah could be related only to his middoth, the being and reality of which affect us, whereas kawwanah directed toward ‘en-sof is impossible.

When the kabbalists’ propaganda in favor of mystical prayer reached wider circles, this thesis, with its far from innocent implications, must have incensed a good number of people. In the circle of the Rabad, however, we still find kawwanoth directed without the least scruple toward the “Cause of causes,” which is but a philosophical expression for the Lord of the attributes and of the other causes that depend upon him.

We find here certain prayers directed to the Creator of the world, yoser bereshith, but also others in which the kawwanah is addressed directly to the Cause of causes. The difference between the latter and the Creator of the world has already been discussed previously. Kawwanoth of this kind had already disappeared by the time of Rabad’s son.

It is precisely this difference in the conception of the kawwanah that proves the genuineness of these traditions, which at least partially contradict the communis opinio of later generations. One may suppose that the doctrine of the kawwanah initially represented a sort of compromise between different tendencies.

Some of the oldest kabbalists still considered the direct orientation toward the Cause of causes to be possible, although the pleroma of middoth, potencies or forms whose nature was not yet speculatively defined, already absorbed their interest. Their gnostic way of seeing things likewise penetrated their prayer mysticism, without being able to overcome it entirely.

In sum, we can in fact say that this oldest Kabbalah was nourished by two sources: the elaboration of ancient traditional literary sources that served as a kind of raw material and the illuminations experienced by certain individuals for whom “at the beginning a door was opened to the science of the Kabbalah.”

These illuminations no longer occur, as in the time of the Merkabah mystics, by way of an ecstatic ascent to the divine Throne. The transmission of celestial mysteries concerning cosmogony and the Merkabah no longer takes place, either, in the ways indicated in the Hekhaloth literature.

The difference is considerable. Instead of rapture and ecstasy we now have meditation, absorption in oneself, and the pious, inward communion, debhequth, with the divine. The doctrine of the mystical kawwanah in prayer is about to supplant the doctrine of the ascent of the soul. The objective elements, so to speak, of the Hekhaloth literature (that is, the descriptions of the world of the Merkabah) serve as the foundation for a reinterpretation that conceives of everything that had existed there in terms of mystical symbols.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 246-7.

Revelation of Elijah

“Already in the case of the first Spanish kabbalists, among the disciples of Isaac the Blind, the magical elements in their doctrine of the kawwanah occasionally come to the fore, as we have seen. Similar elements are discernible in the “mysteries of the prayer” of the German Hasidim, in that he who prays must think of the various names of angels as they relate—in respect to the mysticism of words and numbers—to the words of the traditional prayer. But in the earliest kabbalist circles, as far as our information extends, this magical element is missing; at least it does not manifest itself openly.

The teaching of the mystical kawwanah in prayer corresponds perfectly, it seems to me, to the objective and psychological conditions surrounding a doctrine born into an exclusive circle of men who possess the gift of meditation. With it, a new layer is added to the old gnostic elements that were contained in the tradition of the Bahir, elements that these men continued to develop in greater detail.

The creation of this doctrine bears the seal of the vita contemplativa. No element of the old Kabbalah better corresponds to the tradition of a revelation of Elijah, and we may regard this tradition as testimony that in this circle something really new had burst forth from the depths. An indication, if not an absolute proof, of this connection may be found in the fact that the remarks concerning the revelation Elijah is supposed to have vouchsafed to Isaac the Blind or his teachers are found precisely in texts in which the kawwanoth of prayer were collected by the Spanish kabbalists at the end of the thirteenth century.

No other specific doctrine among the kabbalists expressly relates to this revelation and this, perhaps, provides us with a key to our problem. A notion analogous to that of gilluy ‘Eliyahu can be found in Sufi mysticism in the accounts of revelations of Khidr (the Muslim metamorphosis of Elijah). Reports or testimonies concerning such revelations exist with regard to Muhi al-din ibn Arabi (1165-1240) of Andalusia, who shortly before 1200 —the time of Rabad and Isaac the Blind—was still wandering about in Spain (cf. G. Husaini, The Pantheism of Ibn Arabi, 28.).”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 245-6.

Metaphysical Anti-Semitism

“The coupling of masculine and feminine potencies in the upper world, which subsequently came to play such a significant role in the doctrines of the Spanish kabbalists, seems also to have been known in Cathar circles. Here too we should assume a common source in the ancient gnosis rather than immediate influences. However, it is plausible that some details were taken over by the Cathars from Jewish mystics as, for example, the idea, well known to us from the Hekhaloth texts, that Israel was the name of a celestial angel.

Such ideas may also have been introduced into the movement by Jews who attached themselves to the Cathars. Thus, we learn for example that at the end of the twelfth century, a weaver named Johannes Judaeus stood at the head of the Italian Cathars as their bishop. The name would suggest, though it by no means proves, Jewish origin. The surname Judaeus does not always signify Jewish lineage in the Middle Ages.

Another angelological doctrine to be found only among the Cathars and in the kabbalistic traditions of Moses de Leon and the Zohar asserts that the prophet Elijah was an angel descended from heaven. The ideas of the two groups resembled one another, here and there, on the subject of the soul’s fate in the terrestrial paradise and its entry into the celestial paradise after the last judgment, and regarding the garments worn by the souls before their birth that are then preserved in heaven during their earthly existence. But all of these are disparate, and unconnected details, and they concern points of secondary interest only.

As regards the fundamental conceptions, there could of course be no real agreement between the two movements, since in their rejection of the world as the creation of Satan and of the Torah as the law of Satan, the Cathars go much further in their metaphysical anti-Semitism than does the Catholic Church. Besides, the Jewish scholars of Provence were thoroughly conscious of the gulf separating the Jewish conception of the world from that of the Cathars.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 236-7.

Fallen Spirits

“The same symbolism occurs in the Bahir, but without any antinomian overtones. The souls finally return home to the “house of the father,” whence the king’s son had taken them in order to bring them to his bride. This is reminiscent of the interpretation suggested by many earlier researchers for the gnostic “Hymn of the Soul,” an interpretation that evinces a tendency similar to that with which kabbalists—whether they were historically correct or not— read the symbolism of their sources. In fact, the “house of the father” appears there in a similar context.

The further exposition of this theme in sections 126-127 is rather curious. Once again reinterpreting a talmudic dictum, this text explains that the Messiah can come only when all the souls “in the body of the man” are exhausted and have ended their migration.

“Only then may the ‘new [souls]’ come out, and only then is the son of David allowed to be born. How is that? Because his soul comes forth new among the others.”

The soul of the Messiah is therefore not subject to migration. Here the kabbalistic doctrine evinces a characteristic note of its own. We are not dealing with a reminiscence from earlier doctrines of reincarnation such as are known to us in certain Judéo-Christian doctrines concerning the true prophet, as in the Pseudo-Clementines, which also exercised considerable influence upon corresponding idea among Shiite sects in Islam. There the soul of Adam, the true prophet, traverses the aeon, this world, in many shapes until it finally finds repose in the appearance of the Messiah.

Later on, the kabbalists themselves developed this idea independently, in their assumed chain of reincarnations— Adam-David-Messiah; this doctrine, however, is not known before the end of the thirteenth century. Could this thesis of the Bahir have come into being in the Orient, perhaps even in conscious opposition to certain current ideas? Did it develop completely independent of them? It is difficult to answer these questions.

The German Hasidim know nothing at all of the transmigration of souls and the ideas associated with it, as is shown by the detailed work of Eleazar of Worms on the soul, Hokhmath ha-Nefesh. According to the pessimistic view of the Cathars, all the souls in this world are nothing but fallen spirits. Here, too, there is a distinct contrast to the doctrine of the Bahir, which considers the descent of “new” souls, at any rate, as possible and determined by the good deeds of Israel.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 190-1.

The Realm of Mixture

“According to the Aggadah, the Torah was given twenty-six generations after the creation of the world. But according to the rabbinic interpretation of Psalm 105, God gave His “word” (that is, the Torah) after 1,000 generations had passed. The contradiction is resolved by the talmudic Aggadah by saying that God had dispersed 974 generations of impious men among all the future generations where, in fact, they are the evildoers.

In the Bahir, these evil ones are therefore the bad grapevines, which, however, are not denied the opportunity to submit to a new test and to emerge as righteous. Section 39 says the same thing when it speaks of all the souls flying “up to 1,000 generations” from the mystical region of the Sabbath. The idea that the generation that goes is, according to the number of existing souls, the same as that which returns (section 86), points in the same direction. Here, too, the justification, as we have seen, resulted from the revision of an aggadic parable in the Talmud.

Only if Israel is worthy will it receive the new souls coming from the Sabbath or the east—from the seventh logos (section 104). The majority of the souls must wander until they are redeemed and can return from the world of mixture. The collection of the semen that is dispersed in the cosmos, the realm of mixture, is an old gnostic symbol that acquired great significance in the mystery rites of certain antinomian gnostic sects.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 189-90.

Ioel, Yahoel, Metatron

“This no doubt explains the special connection between most of the commandments and the particular interpretation of the mystery of the Shekhinah, already discussed at the end of section 8 (p. 178, herein). In fulfilling a commandment, man brings into view some of the hidden reflection that rests upon the entire world and upon each of its particulars as well as upon every action; in this manner he thus unites himself with the historical totality of the ecclesia of Israel and with the Shekhinah, which is its innermost part and its mystical reality.

The sefiroth were thus conceived as the interior side of this Shekhinah, as powers that only manifest themselves outwardly in her and through her agency. But even if in this way we can shed some light on the relationship of the oldest kabbalists to the world of their symbols, the historical formation of these symbols themselves can only be adequately explained through their connection with the remnants of the gnostic doctrine of the aeons.

The quotation from Eleazar of Worms shows, moreover, that here the “daughter,” whether gnostic or aggadic, can also be easily identified with the figure of Metatron, the angel or envoy whom God sends before Israel according to Exodus 23:20. This identification is frequently found in Hasidic writings as well as in old kabbalistic documents.

This is clearly a promotion of Metatron, who in the Merkabah gnosis also bears the name Yahoel. The angel himself becomes a figure of the kabhod. An analogous case is presented by the Manichees; according to Theodoret, the light virgin is named loel, which is nothing other than the Hebrew Yahoel, though I would consider this as hardly more than a coincidence. The Book Bahir itself, as I have already stressed, has preserved no speculations concerning Metatron.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, p. 187.

The Double Hokhmah

“In fact, they occasionally seem to force this hypothesis upon us. In that case it is not too much to assume that the gnostic material of Oriental origin in the Book Bahir, once it was received and adopted by a circle of religiously agitated and productive men, amply suffices to explain the inner development of the Kabbalah up to, and including, the Zohar. But how are we to understand the development that led to that ferment, the evidence of which we have before us in the Book Bahir itself? On this point we are forced to assume the existence of some kind of connection, whether in literary or oral form, with older, premedieval materials.

Certain details, as far as I can see, can have no other explanation and above all cannot be attributed to fortuitous coincidences. They prove that the gnostic symbolisms that occupied a meaningful and comprehensible position within their own framework—as for example in the system of the Valentinian gnosis—found their way into Jewish sources, largely detaching themselves, of course, from their organic connection with gnostic mythology.

Today we can no longer (or not yet?) say anything about the nature of these sources, or whether, perhaps, there once existed entire systems of a Jewish character parallel to the classic systems of Gnosticism or to the later gnostic ramifications of the kind that survived in the Aramaic-Syrian linguistic area, such as, for example, the Mandaean gnosis. Only obscure traces of these sources, not a system but merely fragments of symbols, seem to have come into the hands of the redactors of the Bahir. Nevertheless, their attraction was still strong enough to stimulate the combination of old material with new associations of ideas and, thus, to give it a new content.

A surprising detail of this kind is the doctrine of the double Sophia or hokhmah that among the first kabbalists and as early as the Book Bahir, served as a model for similar symbols occupying a double position within the framework of the divine world, the pleroma.

Thus we have a double “Fear of God” (sections 97, 129, 131), a double “Justice” (sedeq, sections 50, 133), a double he in the Tetragrammaton YHWH (section 20), and also, without a doubt, a double Shekhinah (section 11). The region and position of these power symbols (“the lower he; the lower Justice”) are always, in this case, close to the margin and termination of the world of the aeons, and are connected with the symbolism of the Shekhinah.

But these expositions in the Bahir are most precise in just those instances where they are related to the double hokhmah. That should give us cause for thought. The Gnostics, especially those of the Valentinian school, developed the idea of two aeons that are both called Sophia. One, the “upper Sophia,” is high above, in the world of the pleroma; the other, however, which is also related to the symbolism of the “virgin of light,” is found at its lower end.

The gnostic myth of the cosmic drama told of the fall of the lower Sophia, which succumbed to the temptation of the hyle and fell from the pleroma into the lower worlds, where it is either wholly, or at least in certain parts of its luminous being, “in exile.” Even so, this lower, fallen Sophia remains related to the pneuma, the highest constitutive part of the human soul, the contact between these two entities being described by means of different symbols in different systems. This divine spark in man is connected with the drama of the exile of the “lower Sophia.”

It is precisely in the corresponding levels of the structure of the divine middoth that we find, in different passages of the Bahir, the two hypostases or aeons named hokhmah, as the second and the tenth sefirah. Wisdom simply is, in section 96 for example, the upper Wisdom, the “beginning of the paths of God” in the midst of creation.

When God placed this Wisdom in the heart of Solomon he adapted the upper Wisdom to the form of the lower Wisdom, which he was able to grasp. In the form of the lower Wisdom, which is the “daughter” whom God, as it were, gave in marriage to Solomon, “the thirty-two paths of the Sophia,” all the powers and ways of the pleroma are united (sections 43, 62, 67).”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 91-2.

Bakol = Shekhinah

“But what about the oldest text, the Book Bahir itself? Here, too, many passages show that we are dealing with a later exegesis, which reinterprets, on the basis of a medieval mentality, older material that had already become authoritative and confers upon it a symbolic character.

Assuredly, biblical verses could already be interpreted in the talmudic era as symbolic of events taking place on a higher plane of being. The psychological distance between the gnostic exegetes, Jewish or not, and the biblical canon is evident. The elaboration of pagan mythology in terms of gnostic exegesis, as, for example, in the “Naassene sermon” preserved by Hippolytus, indicates a similar psychological distance between ancient myth and its new interpretation.

The Bahir already presents this type of interpretation of the talmudic Aggadah. This can be seen not only in the many passages in which parables drawn from aggadic literature in the Talmud and the Midrash, where they have a perfectly exoteric significance, are transposed to a mystical plane, the new parable often becoming, in the process, much more strange and problematic than the one upon which it is based; we can observe it above all when talmudic quotations themselves are treated as old materials of this kind.

Only during a period when, for the pious consciousness of broad sections of the Jewish population, the Aggadah itself could already claim the authority of a sacred text, and at a time when for other circles its very extravagance became a problem—from the eighth century onward, after the emergence of Karaism—is a passage like section 52 of the Bahir possible. The Talmud, Baba Bathra 16b, transmits various opinions with regard to the value of the birth of daughters.

In this connection, a discussion is reported between mishnaic teachers (second century) concerning Genesis 24:1: “And the Lord had blessed Abraham in all things.” “What is meant by ‘in all things?’ R. Meir explained: it means that he had no daughter. R. Yehudah said: Abraham had a daughter whose name was Bakol [literally: with all things].”

The Bahir made this last remark the object of a mystical exegesis, which elevated the strange statement concerning the daughter Bakol to an allegorical plane. Bakol thus becomes a designation for the Shekhinah, the last of the divine powers, which is mentioned at the end of section 51 and to the symbolism of which I shall return. Abraham is there designated as the father of this Shekhinah. Section 52 then continues:

“And whence did Abraham have a daughter? [we learn that] from the verse [Gen. 24:1] the Lord had blessed Abraham with “all things” and [Scripture also] says [Isa. 43:7] “every one” will be called by my Name, etc. Was this “blessing” his daughter or not? [another version: Or was it rather his mother?] Yes, she was his daughter. It is like a king who had a perfect servant . . . Then the king said: What should I give to this servant or what should I do for him? There is nothing left for me to do but to recommend him to my brother, so that he may counsel, protect, and honor him. The servant went home with the king’s great brother and learned his ways. The brother grew very fond of him and called him his friend, as it is said [Isa. 41:8]: Abraham, my friend. He said: What shall I give him or what shall I do for him? Lo, I have made a beautiful vessel, and inside it are beautiful gems to which none can be compared, and they are the jewels of kings. I shall give them to him, and he may partake of them instead of me. That is what is written: God blessed Abraham with “all things.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 87-8,

Jewish Gnosticism

“The decisive step beyond the other gnostic systems consists in the fixing of the number of these powers or aeons at ten, according to the ten sefiroth of the Book of Creation and the ten words of creation through which, according to the ancient Aggadah, God called the world into existence.

Once the number of these “qualities” or middoth of God was fixed they came to be associated with a large number of symbolic names, since each of the epithets by which God could be presented or named was necessarily related to one or another of the middoth. In the Bahir we can still recognize quite clearly the efforts that were made to introduce a more or less consistent terminology in the use of these symbols in relation to specific sefiroth, though it took some time until this process of the definitive crystallization of the symbolism of the old Kabbalah came to its final conclusion.

The different attempts often contradict one another. While the commentators of the Kabbalah strove to bring the symbols into accord or to unify them, the historian naturally has no interest in a harmonistic exegesis of this kind. We shall see several examples that suggest conflicting traditions that were simply juxtaposed in the Bahir. Here, too, the choice of symbols and appellations for this or that sefirah duplicates the process by which the Gnostics designated their aeons. They liked to adopt as names of aeons abstract terms such as thought, wisdom, penitence, truth, grace, greatness, silence, or images such as father, mother, abyss, etc.

These designations, some of which are identical with those found in the ancient documents while others were newly created in accordance with the methods of gnostic exegesis, fill the pages of the Bahir. There, however, they are derived from biblical verses or even the aggadic dicta of the rabbis.

Once again the question is posed: should we admit, at least for one of the strata of the book, the existence of vestiges of an ancient Jewish gnosis, of fragments that antedate the Middle Ages and in which anonymous Jewish Gnostics sought to express their mystical conception of the divinity without impairing their Jewish monotheism?

Or are we dealing with attempts by medieval men, who felt themselves newly stimulated for one reason or another, to view traditions that were intrinsically and purely Jewish from a gnostic perspective? Is our material essentially nothing but the well-known and straightforward Jewish tradition, the adaptation and transformation of which into symbols proves just how great was the psychological and temporal distance between these later authors and the period when the aggadic sayings originally crystallized?

This is the fundamental question that imposes itself upon the reader of the Bahir. It is a question that cannot be answered on the basis of general considerations; only a careful examination of the details can help us here. I do not hesitate, for my part, to affirm that the literature of the Spanish Kabbalah, especially that imbedded in the Zohar, clearly reveals a psychological attitude that, in the Middle Ages, led men to recast ancient talmudic and midrashic material according to an entirely new spirit by means of an exegetical and homiletical method that in its structure was gnostic, but that reached its full development only under the influence of the Bahir.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 85-6.

Gnostic Magical Names From the Metternich Stele and the Harris Magical Papyrus

“The examples of the use of names possessing magical powers described above illustrate the semi-religious views on the subject of names which the Egyptians held, and we have now to consider briefly the manner in which the knowledge of a name was employed in uses less important than those which had for their object the attainment of life and happiness in the world to come.

In the famous magical papyrus (British Museum, No. 10,042) which Chabas published (Le Papyrus Magique Harris, Chalon-sur-Saône, 1860) we find a series of interesting charms and magical formulæ which were written to preserve its possessor from the attacks of sea and river monsters of every kind, of which the following is an example.

“Hail, lord of the gods! Drive away from me the lions of the country of Meru (Meroë?), and the crocodiles which come forth from the river, and the bite of all poisonous reptiles which crawl forth from their holes. Get thee back, O crocodile Mâk, thou son of Set! Move not by means of thy tail! Work not thy legs and feet! Open not thy mouth! Let the water which is before thee turn into a consuming fire, O thou whom the thirty-seven gods did make, and whom the serpent of Râ did put in chains, O thou who wast fettered with links of iron before the boat of Râ! Get thee back, O crocodile Mâk, thou son of Set!”

These words were to be said over a figure of the god Amen painted on clay; the rod was to have four rams’ heads upon one neck, under his feet was to be a figure of the crocodile Mâk, and to the right and left of him were to be the dog headed apes, i.e., the transformed spirits of the dawn, who sang hymns of praise to Râ when he rose daily. (See the scene in the rounded portion of the Metternichstele illustrated on p. 149, reproduced below).

Detail, Metternich stele. (Clippus of Horus, Metternichestele, ed. Golenischeff, plate 1.) Reproduced from E.A. Wallis Budge, Egyptian Magic, p. 149.

Detail, Metternich stele. (Clippus of Horus, Metternichestele, ed. Golenischeff, plate 1.)
Reproduced from E.A. Wallis Budge, Egyptian Magic, p. 149.

Again, let us suppose that some water monster wished to attack a man in a boat. To avoid this the man stood before the cabin of the boat and, taking a hard egg in his hand, he said, “O egg of the water which hath been spread over the earth, essence of the divine apes, the great one in the heaven above and in the earth beneath, who dost dwell in the nests which are in the waters, I have come forth with thee from the water, I have been with thee in thy nest, I am Amsu of Coptos, I am Amsu, lord of Kebu.”

When he had said these words he would appear to the animal in the water in the form of the god Amsu, with whom he had identified himself, and it would be afraid and flee.

At the end of the papyrus in which the above extracts occur we find a series of magical names which may be read thus:–Atir-Atisa, Atirkaha-Atisa, Samumatnatmu-Atisa, Samuanemui-Atisa, Samutekaari-Atisa, Samutekabaiu-Atisa, Samutchakaretcha-Atisa, Tâuuarehasa, Qina, Hama, Senentuta-Batetsataiu, Anrehakatha-sataiu, Haubailra-Haari.

From these and similar magical names it is quite certain that the Gnostics and other sects which held views akin to theirs obtained the names which they were so fond of inscribing upon their amulets and upon the so-called magical papyri.”

E.A. Wallis Budge, Egyptian Magic, London, 1901. P. 173-6.

Footnote 55 on the Use of the Name Iao

“On the use of the name Iao in the magic of the age of syncretism there is an abundance of material. Most of the older examples have been collected by W. von Baudissin, Studien zur Semitischen Religionsgeschichte, vol. 1 (Leipzig, 1876), 179-254. The passage from Yesirah is not referred to by Baudissin, nor did R. Reitzenstein make use of it in his treatment of the Book Yesirah, for which he assumes an ultimately Hellenistic origin reaching back to the second century; his arguments are based on a comparative study of letter-mysticism in late antiquity; see Reitzenstein, Poimandres (Leipzig, 1904), 291.

As an historian with a broad perspective, Reitzenstein perhaps had a clearer view than many other Jewish scholars, who often regarded the Book Yesirah as if it were suspended in a vacuum in the midst of the history of religions. It should also be noted, in this connection, that in the Coptic Pistis Sophia, chap. 136, Iao appears in a similar context: Jesus calls out his name as he turns toward the four corners of the world.

The sealing of the six directions of space by means of the permutations of Iao corresponds to the idea that this name is the master of the four directions of the world, that is, the master of the cosmos. Cf. the material assembled by Erik Peterson, Heis Theos (Göttingen, 1926), 306-307. Peterson’s interpretation of the magical name Arbathiao as “the four Iao” is, however, utterly unconvincing. The magical name is nothing other than a syncretistic transcription of the Tetragrammaton as “the tetrad [of the four letters of the name YHWH upon which is based the name] of Iao.”

This is proven by the corresponding form Tetrasya, which we find in the Hebrew writings of the Hekhaloth and which was still unknown to Peterson; cf. my Major Trends, 56, 363. The terminology employed in the Yesirah for these three directions of space is also very ancient: the phrase “above and below, in front and behind, right and left” is used in exactly the same manner in Akkadian, and is evidently also behind the wording of the Mishnah Hagigah 2:1 (first century), where “in front” and “behind” are to be understood spatially.

This usage was no longer understood by the amoraim, and was in any case transferred from the spatial to the temporal, as S. E. Löwenstamm, “On an Alleged Gnostic Element in Mishnah Hagiga II, 1″ (in Hebrew) in M. Haram (ed.), Yehezkel Kaufmann Jubilee Volume (Jerusalem, 1960), 112-121, has shown, drawing upon Akkadian material. His explanations furnished additional linguistic evidence in support of the antiquity of the Book Yesirah, although precisely the passage under consideration here escaped his attention.”

–Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 1987, pp. 33-4

Kabbalistic Foundations of Magic

I have briefly developed here some of the fundamental concepts of the Book Yesirah because they are of essential importance for the understanding of what follows and because this book was later read and interpreted by the kabbalists as a vade mecum for the Kabbalah. In contrast to later interpretations, the special charm of this text consists in the frequently felicitous and in any event ever-vivid imagery and fullness of meaning it lends to most of the concepts newly created in order to express abstractions. The author finds concrete and appropriate designations for notions that, until then, Hebrew did not know how to render in adequate terms.

That he failed on certain points and that his images sometimes remain obscure for us—which only encouraged their subsequent reinterpretation—is a clear sign of the difficulty of his efforts and of the energy with which he undertook them. The book’s solemn and enigmatic manner of speaking made it possible for the Jewish philosophers as well as the kabbalists of the Middle Ages to appeal to its authority.

Saadya, in the earliest extant (although certainly not the oldest) commentary interpreted it around 933 in accordance with his philosophic conception of the doctrine of Creation and his Jewish theology in general. Since then, a complete series of more or less detailed Hebrew and Arabic commentaries continued to be written down to the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

Everyone found in the book more or less what he was looking for, and the fact that Yehudah Halevi devoted extensive attention to it, almost a complete commentary, in the fourth tractate of his principal work of philosophy and theology, Sefer ha-Kuzari (around 1130), may serve as an indication of the great authority the book enjoyed.

But at the same time, this text also remained influential in entirely different circles, those who saw in its theory of language some sort of a foundation of magic, or those for whom the doctrine of the book included authentic elements of the Merkabah gnosis and of cosmogony.

The Book Yesirah was studied in the schools of the sages of Narbonne as well as among the French rabbis of the school of the tosafists and among the German Hasidim of the same period, and many commentaries have come down to us from these circles, which were generally averse to philosophic speculation.

It offers remarkable parallels, to say the least, to the turn which the Kabbalists gave to the doctrine of the sefiroth. It is no longer possible to say with certainty to what extent the study of the Book Yesirah was regarded in these circles as an esoteric discipline in the strict sense of the term. Perhaps one could view the text as situated at the limits of esotericism, partly within it, but partly already beyond it.

–Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 1987, pp. 33-5.

The Great Name of God

“Also related to the magic of language mysticism is the author’s view that the six dimensions of heaven are “sealed” (1:13) by the six permutations of “His great name Yaho” (Hebrew YHW). These three consonants, utilized in Hebrew as matres lectionis for the vowels ia, and o, which are not written, make up the divine name Yaho, which contains the three consonants of the four-letter name of God, YHWH, as well as the form Yao, which penetrated into the documents of Hellenistic syncretism where its permutations likewise play a role. The signs that were subsequently developed to designate vowels were still unknown to the author.

This idea concerning the function of the name Yaho or Yao suggests important parallels. In the system of the Gnostic Valentinus, Iao is the secret name with which the Horos (literally: the limit, the limitation!) frightens away from the world of the pleroma the Sophia-Akhamoth who is in pursuit of Christ.

Does not the cosmos (as distinct from the pleroma), sealed by means of the six permutations of Yao in the Book Yesirah, constitute a sort of monotheistic parallel, perhaps even inspired by polemical intentions, to this Valentinian myth? In another text of a manifestly Jewish-syncretistic character, we similarly find the name Iao, as an invocation that consolidates the world in its limits, a perfect analogy to the sealing in Yesirah: in the cosmogony of the Leiden magical papyrus the earth writhed when the Pythian serpent appeared “and reared up powerfully. But the pole of heaven remained firm, even though it risked being struck by her. Then the god spoke: Iao! And everything was established and a great god appeared, the greatest, who arranged that which was formerly in the world and that which will be, and nothing in the realm of the Height was without order any more.”

The name Iao appears again among the secret names of this greatest god himself. It is difficult not to suspect a relation here between Jewish conceptions and those of Gnosticism and syncretism. This “sealing” of the Creation by means of the divine name belongs to the old stock of ideas of the Merkabah gnosis; it is attested in chapter 9 of the “Greater Hekhaloth.” What is said in the “Book of Creation” of the “six directions” of space is here said of the “orders of the Creation,” therefore, of the cosmos in general, whose preservation within its established arrangements, sidre bereshith, is due to its “sealing” by the great name of God.”

–Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 1987, pp. 31-3.

The 32 Paths of the Sophia

“Besides these literary monuments of the Merkabah gnosis, there was another, extremely curious text which circulated widely during the Middle Ages, excercising a great influence in many lands and in diverse circles: the “Book of Creation,” Sefer Yesirah. Concerning the origin and spiritual home of this work, which numbers only a few pages, divergent opinions have been voiced, although to date it has been impossible to come to any reliable and definitive conclusions.

This uncertainty is also reflected in the various estimates of the date of its composition, which fluctuate between the second and the sixth centuries. This slender work is also designated in the oldest manuscripts as a collection of “halakhoth on the Creation,” and it is not at all impossible that it is referred to by this name in the Talmud. In the two different versions that have come down to us, it is divided into chapters whose individual paragraphs were likewise regarded by medieval tradition as mishnaic.

[ … ]

The book’s strong link with Jewish speculations concerning divine wisdom, hokhmah or Sophia, is evident from the first sentence:

“In thirty-two wondrous paths of wisdom God . . . [there follows a series of biblical epithets for God] engraved and created His world.”

These thirty-two paths of the Sophia are the ten primordial numbers, which are discussed in the first chapter, and the twenty-two consonants of the Hebrew alphabet, which are described in a general way in chapter 2 and more particularly in the following chapters as elements and building blocks of the cosmos.

The “paths of the Sophia” are thus fundamental forces that emanate from her or in which she manifests herself. They are, as in the old conception of the Sophia herself, the instruments of creation. In her or through her—the Hebrew preposition permits both translations—God, the master of the Sophia, “engraved” Creation. The symbolism of the number thirty-two reappears also in some Christian gnostic documents, but it is in this text that it seems to be established for the first time and in the most natural manner.

Mention should, however, be made of Agrippa von Nettesheim, who informs us (De occulta philosophia 2:15) that thirty-two was considered by the Pythagoreans as the number of righteousness because of its well-nigh unlimited divisibility. More recently Nicholas Sed has discussed in a remarkable essay the relationship of the symbolism of the Book Yesirah with the Samaritan Memar of Marqah.

–Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 1987, pp. 24-6.


Halakhoth Concerning the Hekhaloth

” … We have no reason to believe that this gnostic theosophy still possessed any creative impulses of a decisive character after the third century. The productive development of these ideas evidently occurred on Palestinian soil, as the analysis of the Hekhaloth texts proves. At a later date in Palestine as well as in Babylonia, we still encounter literary elaborations of this old material, some of which underwent metamorphosis into edifying tracts. But we no longer find any new ideas.

The practical realization of these heavenly voyages of the soul and the “vision of the merkabah,” sefiyyath merkabah, maintained itself also in the post-talmudic period, and some scattered reports concerning practices of this kind, which are by no means to be regarded as mere legends, have come down to us from as late as the twelfth and the thirteenth centuries from France and Germany.

These old texts, augmented by all kinds of later additions, were known to the Middle Ages in the form given to them in the late talmudic and early post-talmudic periods as “Greater Hekhaloth,” “Lesser Hekhaloth,” Shi’ur Qomah, Book of the Merkabah and under other titles as well as in different versions. These texts were considered to be ancient, esoteric paragraphs of the Mishnah, and in the superscriptions of the oldest manuscripts they are here and there designated as “halakhoth concerning the Hekhaloth.”

They enjoyed great authority and were in no way suspected of heresy. Manuscripts of these texts and the related theurgical literature were known in the Orient, as is proven by many fragments in the Cairo Grenizah, but also in Italy, in Spain, in France, and in Germany. In the twelfth century, texts of this kind circulated precisely in learned circles, where they were considered authentic documents of the old esoteric doctrines. It was therefore only to be expected that the earliest kabbalists would seek to establish a relationship with the traditions that enjoyed such high esteem.”

–Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 1987, pp. 23-4.

Merkabah Gnosticism and Syncretistic Magical Papyri

” … But this representation of the demiurge proceeds from a thoroughly monotheistic conception and completely lacks the heretical and antinomian character it assumed when the Creator God had been opposed to the true God.

Here the throne of God is, in Jewish terminology, the home of the soul; it is there that the ascent of the ecstatic is completed. The world of the Merkabah into which he “descends” is closely related to the world of the pleroma of the Greek gnostic texts. However, in place of abstract concepts personified as aeons, we find the entities of the throne-world as they have entered into this tradition from the book of Ezekiel.

At the same time, there are direct contacts between these texts of Merkabah Gnosticism and the syncretistic world of the magical papyri. We possess Hebrew Merkabah texts that read as if they belonged to the literature of magical papyri. The boundaries, at least regarding Judaism, were not as well defined as those drawn by many recent authors writing on Gnosticism who were bent on differentiating between Christian Gnosticism and the syncretistic magic under discussion.”

–Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 1987, pp. 22-3.

Passing the Gates of the Seven Celestial Palaces

“… precisely these ideas were affirmed in the heart of an esoteric discipline within the Jewish tradition, and not only among Jewish heretics, even though the role of the pagan planet-angels is here assumed by other archons.

These archons threaten the ecstatic visionary at the gates of the seven celestial palaces, and—entirely in keeping with the doctrines of various gnostic writings of the same period—can only be overcome and compelled to permit him to pass by the display of a magic “seal,” through the recitation of hymns, prayers, etc.

One can still discern plainly the relation to late Jewish apocalyptic writings, whose ideas evidently form a plausible transition to both Jewish monotheistic Gnosticism and the heretical Gnosticism that tended toward dualism.”

–Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 1987, p. 22.

Revelation and Mystical Illumination

“The historian of religion is entitled to consider the mysticism of the Merkabah to be one of the Jewish branches of Gnosticism. However rare the references in the extant texts to gnostic myths, or abstract speculations on the aeons and their mutual relations, certain fundamental characteristics of Gnosticism are nevertheless fully congruent with the kind of mysticism we find in the Merkabah writings: the possession of a knowledge that cannot be acquired by ordinary intellectual means but only by way of a revelation and mystical illumination; the possession of a secret doctrine concerning the order of the celestial worlds and the liturgical and magical-theurgical means that provide access to it.”

–Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 1987, pp. 21-2.

On Metempsychosis, or Reincarnation

“Indian contact with the Greeks can be traced back to Alexander the Great, establishing trade and exchange between the eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East (Persian), and India. The classic narrative of this relationship is found in the Life of Apollonius of Tyana (recorded by Philostratus, c. 220 CE). Apollonius journeyed to India to study at the sacred hill of the Indian “wise men marked with a crescent on their foreheads”. When Apollonius (d. 98 CE) was asked about why he came on such a long journey, he replied “Your ways are wiser and much more godly”, clearly indicating a classic Greek respect for Indian thought at the time of Roman Philostratus (36).

Another example, far more significant, is that of the teachings of the Persian religious leader, Mani (c. 245 CE). According to Mani’s teachings, the Apostles of Light sent by Jesus to redeem humanity included the Buddha and Manichaeism is distinctively influenced by Buddhist ideas, such as Mani representing himself as the Buddha to come, Maitreya (37). In esoteric circles, Iranian syncretic religions (such as those of Kushan) came to be regarded as influenced by both Greco-Roman and Indo-Iranian ideas, ideas that have carried over into the history of various forms of Western Esotericism but are little studied (38).

One of the significant esoteric teachings contained in the Life of Apollonius, recorded as a teaching of the Indian sages, is that on reincarnation. When Apollonius asks about the nature of the soul, he is told that, like Pythagoras and Plato, human beings live many lives in diverse bodies based on past actions. Further, the Indian sages claim that this teaching which was taught to the Greek philosophers in Egypt was transmitted to the Egyptians by ancient Rishis’ of India who migrated to north Africa (Ethiopia) from the Ganges River basin (39).

The belief in reincarnation or metempsychosis has very ancient roots in India and is the probable source of that belief in the classical period of formative Gnosticism (40). Gnostic teachers such as Basilides propagated the idea along with other groups such as the Carpocratians and Ophites, and it was popular among various Neoplatonists such as Alcinous, as well as taught by the archetypal magician, Simon Magus. It was also taught by Mani as the fate of the “Hearers” who did not attain perfection (41). Gnostic texts such as the ZostrianosThe Treatise on Resurrection, and the later Pistis Sophia further propagated ideas of reincarnation for the “inpenitent soul” that it might try again to attain the goal of liberation from worldly life (42). Thus a very early Indian influence in Western Esotericism may have roots in the spread and popularity of ideas of reincarnation, also found in early elements of Christianity but later repressed.”

–Lee Irwin, “Western Esotericism, Eastern Spirituality, and the Global Future.”

Kabbalah as Revealed Wisdom vs. Gnostic or Neoplatonic Invention

“They rated the Kabbalah highly, not (or not only) as an original Jewish doctrine but as a supposed basis of every religious or esoteric tradition.” […] Thus the Kabbalah was considered by Masonic authors to be ancient wisdom, received by the Jews directly from God and retained in some ancient esoteric schools but primarily in the secret doctrine of the Jews. … Moreover, the very idea of a secret wisdom transmitted from time immemorial through many generations of an elect would be expected to have an effect on the Masonic notion of tradition. It seems that the Russian brothers basically shared the conception of the Kabbalah commonly accepted by the Jews as ancient knowledge granted to the chosen people through revelation. Of course, they were acquainted with the opinion of European scholars, including some Hebraists of the eighteenth century, that the Kabbalah is either an invention emerging in the late Middle Ages or an adaptation of some Gnostic and/or Neoplatonic ideas within Jewish theology.”

–From Konstantin Burmistrov, “The Kabbalah as Primordial Tradition in Russian Secret Societies,” in Andreas Kilcher, Constructing Tradition, Means and Myths of Transmission in Western Esotericism, 2010, pg. 330.

The Noble Virgin of Sophia in Boehme

“Boehme extended his theosophy with the figure of the Noble Virgin of Sophia, a figure based on the allegory in the Book of Wisdom and Proverbs. She animates the second world of “eternal nature” as a serene and reflective aspect of God. Both the terms “abyss” and “Sophia” recall mythic aspects in the Gnostic aeonology of Valentinus (second century), a remarkable example of Protestant esotericism naively invoking Hellenistic heterodoxy.”

–Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, The Western Esoteric Traditions: An Historical Introduction, 2008. Pg. 96.

Numbers 7, 9 and 40, and the Omphalos.

“Later he became fascinated with more abstract topics: numbers in Greek medicine, the numbers seven, nine and forty, and the concept of an imaginary middle point, the omphalos or world-navel, a recurrent theme in Greek, Roman and Semitic mythology.”

–W.H. Roscher, Pan and the Nightmare: Ephialtes–A Pathological-Mythological Treatise on the Nightmare in Classical Antiquity, & An Essay on Pan by James Hillman, 1972. Pp., pg. v.

Mystical Traditions and Secrecy.

“Significantly, it is in mystical traditions that secrecy is used most extensively.

Mystic traditions ranging from the Hindu and Buddhist guarded Tantric texts, the supposed secret teachings of Sakyamuni, the poetry of the Sufis, to the teachings of kabbalists and Christian mystics all have in common that their doctrines are restricted to initiates, and that their discourses are veiled in a symbolic language, which for uninitiated is often difficult to fully comprehend.

In the gnosticism of late antiquity the very notion of gnosis itself was regarded as a closely guarded secret.”

—-Henrik Bogdan, Western Esotericism and Rituals of Initiation, 2007, pp. 45-6.

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