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Tag: Apollo

Eco: Bruno: Ars Combinatoria & Infinite Worlds, 2


Ettore Ferrari (1845-1929), Giordano Bruno Burned at the Stake, a bas relief on the plinth of the monument to Bruno in Campo de’Fiori square in Rome. This photo by Giovanni Dall’Orto © 2008. The copyright holder of this photo allows anyone to use for any purpose, provided that the copyright holder is properly attributed. Redistribution, derivative work, commercial use, and all other use is permitted.  


“Thus this language claimed to be so perfect as to furnish the keys to express relations between things, not only of this world, but of any of the other infinite worlds in their mutual concordance and opposition.

Nevertheless, in its semiotic structure, it was little more than an immense lexicon, conveying vague meanings, with a very simplified syntax. It was a language that could be deciphered only by short-circuiting it, and whose decipherment was the privilege only of the exegete able to dominate all its connections, thanks to the furor of Bruno’s truly heroic style.

In any case, even if his techniques were not so different from those of other authors of arts of memory, Bruno (like Lull, Nicholas of Cusa and Postel, and like the reformist mystics of the seventeenth century–at whose dawn he was to be burnt at the stake) was inspired by a grand utopian vision.

His flaming hieroglyphical rhetoric aimed at producing, through an enlargement of human knowledge, a reform, a renovation, maybe a revolution in the consciousness, customs, and even the political order of Europe. Of this ideal, Bruno was the agent and propagandist, in his wandering from court to European court.

Here, however, our interest in Bruno is limited to seeing how he developed Lullian techniques. Certainly, his own metaphysics of infinite worlds pushed him to emphasize the formal and architectonic aspects of Lull’s endeavor.

One of his mnemonic treatises, De lampade combinatoria lulliana ad infinita propositiones et media inveniendi (1586), opens by mentioning the limitless number of propositions that the Ars is capable of generating, and then says: “The properties of the terms themselves are of scant importance; it is only important that they show an order, a texture, an architecture.” (I, ix).

In the De umbris idearum (1582) Bruno described a set of movable, concentric wheels subdivided into 150 sectors. Each wheel contained 30 letters, made up of the 23 letters of the Latin alphabet, plus 7 letters from the Greek and Hebrew alphabets to which no letter corresponded in Latin (while, for instance, A could also stand for Alpha and Alef).

To each of the single letters there corresponded a specific image, representing for each respective wheel a different series of figures, activities, situations, etc. When the wheels were rotated against each other in the manner of a combination lock, sequences of letters were produced which served to generate complex images. We can see this in Bruno’s own example (De umbris, 163):

Giordano Bruno, De umbris, 163

Reproduced from Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, James Fentress, trans., Blackwell: Oxford, 1995, p. 136, from Giordano Bruno, De umbris idearum, 1582, p. 163. 

In what Bruno called the “Prima Praxis,” the second wheel was rotated so as to obtain a combination such as CA (“Apollo in a banquet”). Turning the third wheel, he might obtain CAA (“Apollo enchained in a banquet”). We shall see in a moment why Bruno did not think it necessary to add fourth and fifth wheels as he would do for the “Secunda Praxis,” where they would represent, respectively, adstantia and circumstantias.

In his “Secunda Praxis,” by adding the five vowels to each of the 30 letters of his alphabet, Bruno describes 5 concentric wheels, each having 150 alphabetical pairs, like AA, AE, AI, AO, AU, BA, BE, BO, and so on through the entire alphabet.

These 150 pairs are repeated on each of the 5 wheels. As in the “Prima Praxis,” the significance changes with every wheel. On the first wheel, the initial letter signifies a human agent, on the second, an action, on the third, an insignia, on the fourth, a bystander, on the fifth, a set of circumstances.

By moving the wheels it is possible to obtain images such as “a woman riding on a bull, combing her hair while holding a mirror in her left hand, accompanied by an adolescent carrying a green bird in his hand” (De umbris, 212, 10).

Bruno speaks of images “ad omnes formationes possible, adaptabiles” (De umbris, 80), that is, susceptible of every possible permutation. In truth, it is almost impossible to write the number of sequences that can be generated by permutating 150 elements 5 at a time, especially as inversions are allowed (De umbris, 223).

This distinguishes the art of Bruno, which positively thirsts after infinity, from the art of Lull.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 135-7.

Mortality of the Gods

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Fear, Anxiety, Angst, and Mythology

“Fear is to be met and managed by the hero on his path to manhood, and an encounter with fear plays a major part in initiation ceremonies.”


Simply, there are two faces to panic: lived out in relation to a stimulus and called fear; held in with no known stimulus and called anxiety. Fear has an object; anxiety has none.  There can be panicky fear, a stampede, say; there can be panicky anxiety in a dream. In either condition, death can result. Psychoanalytic and psychosomatic case reports, as well as dream research and anthropological studies (for instance, on Voodoo death) provide instances of the fatal consequences of anxiety.

The anxiety dream can be distinguished from the nightmare in the classical sense. The classical nightmare is a dreadful visitation by a demon who forcibly oppresses the dreamer into paralysis, cuts off his breath, and release comes through movement. The anxiety dream is less precise, in that there is no demon, no dyspnea, but there is the same inhibition of movement. (A collection of these dreams is given by M. Weidhorn, “The Anxiety Dream in Literature from Homer to Milton,” Studies in Philology 64, pp. 65-82, Univ. of NC., 1967). A literary prototype of the anxiety dream, emphasizing an inhibited peculiarity of movement, occurs in the Iliad xxii, 199-201 (Achilles in pursuit of Hector):

“As in a dream a man is not able to follow one
who runs from him, nor can the runner escape,
nor the other pursue him, so he could not run
him down in his speed, nor the other get clear.”


Contemporary existential philosophy gives to anxiety, dread or Angst a more intentional, a more fulsome interpretation. Angst reveals man’s fundamental ontological situation, his connections with not-being, so that all fear is not just dread of death, but of the nothing on which all being is based. Fear thus becomes the reflection in consciousness of a universal reality.

Buddhism goes yet further: fear is more than a subjective, human phenomenon. All the world is in fear: trees, stones, everything. And the Buddha is the redeemer of the world from fear. Hence the significance of the mudra (hand gesture) of fear-not, which is not merely a sign of comfort but of total redemption of the world from its “fear and trembling,” its thralldom to Angst. Buddha’s perfect love, in the words of the Gospels, “driveth out fear.”

“…to further mix the contexts: let us say that the world of nature, Pan’s world, is in a continual state of subliminal panic just as it is in a continual state of subliminal sexual excitation. As the world is made by Eros, held together by that cosmogonic force and charged with the libidinal desire that is Pan, an archetypal vision most recently presented by Wilhelm Reich–so its other side, panic, recognized by the Buddha belongs to the same constellation. Again, we come back to Pan and the two extremes of instinct.

Brinkman has already pointed to the bankruptcy of all theories of panic that attempt to deal with it sociologically, psychologically or historically and not on its own terms. The right terms, Brinkman says, are mythological. We must follow the path cleared by Nietzsche whose investigation of kinds of consciousness and behavior through Apollo and Dionysos can be extended to Pan. Then panic will no longer be regarded as a physiological defense mechanism or an inadequate reaction or an abaissment du niveau mental, but will be seen as the right response to the numinous.”

–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. xxvi-xxviii. (James Hillman, “An Essay on Pan.”)

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