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Tag: 3d Century AD

Eco: Kabbalism and Lullism in Modern Culture


Marsilio Ficino (1433-99), a bust published in “Marsilio Ficino and Renaissance Neoplatonism,” by Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, on This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“Hebrew was not the only beneficiary of the passion for archaic wisdom that gripped scholars from the end of the Middle Ages onwards. The dawn of the modern era also saw a revival of interest in Greek thought and in the Greek’s fascination with Egypt and its mysterious hieroglyphic script (see ch. 7).

Greek texts were rediscovered and enthusiastically assigned an antiquity they did not, in fact, possess. They included the Orphic Hymns, attributed to Orpheus, but, in fact, written probably between the second and third centuries AD; the Chaldean Oracles, also written in the second century, but attributed to Zoroaster; and, above all, the Corpus Hermeticum.

This was a compilation acquired in 1460 for Cosimo de’ Medici in Florence, and immediately rushed to Marsilio Ficino so that he might translate it.

This last compilation, as was later shown, was the least archaic of all. In 1614, by using stylistic evidence and by comparing the innumerable contradictions among the documents, Isaac Casaubon, in his De rebus sacris et ecclesiasticis, showed that it was a collection of texts by different authors, all writing in late Hellenistic times under the influences of Egyptian spirituality.

None of this was apparent in 1460, however. Ficino took the texts to be archaic, directly written by the mythical Hermes or Mercurius Trismegistus.

Ficino was struck to discover that his account of the creation of the universe resembled that of Genesis, yet–he said–we should not be amazed, because Mercurius could be none other than Moses himself (Theologica platonica, 8, 1).

This enormous historical error, as Yates says, was destined to have surprising results (1964: 18-9).

The Hermetic tradition provided a magico-astrological  account of the cosmos. Celestial bodies exercise their power and influence over earthly things, and by knowing the planetary laws one can not only predict these influences, but also manipulate them.

There exists a relation of sympathy between the universal macrocosm and the human microcosm, a latticework of forces which it is possible to harness through astral magic.

Astral magic was practiced through words and other signs, because there is a language by which human beings can command the stars. Such miracles can be performed through “talismans,” that is, images which might guarantee safe recovery, health or physical prowess.

In his De vita coelitus comparanda, Ficino provided a wealth of details concerning how such talismans were to be worn; how certain plants linked by sympathy to certain stars were to be consumed; how magical ceremonies were to be celebrated with the proper perfumes, garments and songs.

Talismanic magic works because the bond which unites the occult virtues of earthly things and the celestial bodies which instilled them is expressed by signatures, that is, formal aspects of material things that recall certain features (properties or powers) of the corresponding heavenly bodies.

God himself has rendered the sympathies between macrocosm and microcosm perceptible by stamping a mark, a sort of seal, onto each object of this world (cf. Thorndike 1923-58; Foucault 1966; Couliano 1984; Bianchi 1987).

In a text that can stand as the foundation for such a doctrine of signatures, Paracelsus declared that:

“The ars signata teaches the way in which the true and genuine names must be assigned to all things, the same names that Adam, the Protoplastus, knew in the complete and perfect way [ . . . ] which show, at the same time, the virtue, the power, and the property of this or that thing. [ . . . ]

This is the signator who signs the horns of the stag with branches so that his age may be known: the stag having as many years as his horns have branches. [ . . . ] This is the signator who covers the tongue of a sick sow with excrescences, so that her impurity may be known; if the tongue is impure so the whole body is impure.

This is the signator who tints the clouds with divers colors, whereby it is possible to forecast the changes of the heavens. (De natura rerum, I, 10, “De signatura rerum“).”

Even the Middle Ages were aware that “habent corpora omnia ad invisibilia bona simulitudinem” (Richard of Saint Victor, Benjamin Major, PL, 196, 90): all bodies possess qualities which give them similarities with invisible goods.

In consequence, every creature of the universe was an image, a mirror reflecting our terrestrial and supernatural destinies. Nevertheless, it did not occur to the Middle Ages that these images might speak in a perfect language.

They required interpretation, explication and comment; they needed to be enclosed in a rational didactic framework where they could be elucidated, deciphered, in order to make clear the mystical affinities between a symbol and its content.

For Renaissance Platonism, by contrast, the relation between the images and the ideas to which they referred was considered so intuitively direct that the very distinction between a symbol and its meaning disappeared (see Gombrich 1972: “Icones Symbolicae,” v).

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 117-9.

Chaldean Astronomy and Magic

“For more than two thousand years the records of Babylonian and Assyrian astronomy lay buried and forgotten under the ruins of Assyrian palaces, and all that was known of the subject came from a few passages in the Bible and in the works of Greek and Roman writers.

To the Hebrews the sorceries of Babylon were an accursed thing, and the prophet Isaiah scoffs at them in these words:

“Stand now with thine enchantments, and with the multitude of thy sorceries, wherein thou hast laboured from thy youth; if so be thou shalt be able to profit, if so be thou mayest prevail.

Thou art wearied in the multitude of thy counsels. Let now the astrologers, the stargazers, the monthly prognosticators, stand up, and save thee from these things that shall come upon thee.” (Isaiah 47:12).

Among Greek writers Strabo (died a.d. 24) asserted that the Chaldeans were skilled in astronomy and the casting of horoscopes, and Aelian (3rd century a.d.) mentions the fact that both the Babylonians and Chaldeans enjoyed a reputation for possessing a knowledge of astronomy.

Achilles Tatius  (6th century) reports the existence of a tradition to the effect that the Egyptians mapped the heavens, and that they inscribed their knowledge on their pillars; the same tradition declared that the Chaldeans claimed the glory of this science, the foundation of which they attributed to the god Bel.

For this last belief there seems to be some evidence in a statement of Berosus, to the effect that the god Bel created the stars and sun and moon, and the five planets. Diodorus Siculus, a contemporary of Augustus, tells us that the Babylonian priests observed the position of certain stars in order to cast horoscopes, and that they interpreted dreams and derived omens from the movement of birds and from eclipses and earthquakes.

The general evidence of serious writers leads us to believe that astrology formed part of the religious system of the Babylonians, and it certainly exercised considerable influence over the minds of the dwellers between the Tigris and the Euphrates.

In any case, the reputation of the Chaldeans, i.e., the Babylonians and Assyrians, for possessing magical powers was so widespread, that the very name Chaldean at a comparatively early date became synonymous with magician.”

Reginald Campbell Thompson, The Reports of the Magicians and Astrologers of Nineveh and Babylon, Vol. II, London, 1900. pp. xiii-xiv.

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