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Tag: Arab

Eco: The Gift to Adam

Ibn Hazm, Tawq al-hamama fi al-ulfa

Ibn Hazm (994-1064), The Ring of the Dove (Tawq al-Hanamah), circa 1022, held in the University Library Leiden, Oriental Collections. 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. 

“What was the exact nature of the gift of tongues received by the apostles? Reading St. Paul (Corinthians 1:12-13) it seems that the gift was that of glossolalia–that is, the ability to express oneself in an ecstatic language that all could understand as if it were their own native speech.

Reading the Acts of the Apostles 2, however, we discover that at the Pentecost a loud roar was heard from the skies, and that upon each of the apostles a tongue of flame descended, and they started to speak in other languages.

In this case, the gift was not glossolalia but xenoglossia, that is, polyglottism–or, failing that, at least a sort of mystic service of simultaneous translation. The question of which interpretation to accept is not really a joking matter: there is a major difference between the two accounts.

In the first hypothesis, the apostles would have been restored to the conditions before Babel, when all humanity spoke but a single holy dialect.

In the second hypothesis, the apostles would have been granted the gift of momentarily reversing the defeat of Babel and finding in the multiplicity of tongues no longer a wound that must, at whatever cost, be healed, but rather the key to the possibility of a new alliance and of a new concord.

So many of the protagonists in our story have brazenly bent the Sacred Scriptures to suit their purposes that we should refrain ourselves from doing likewise. Ours has been the story of a myth and of a wish. But for every myth there exists a counter-myth which marks the presence of an alternative wish.

If we had not limited ourselves from the outset to Europe, we might have branched out into other civilizations, and found other myths–like the one located in the tenth-eleventh century, at the very confines of European civilization, and recounted by the Arab writer Ibn Hazm (cf. Arnaldez 1981: Khassaf 1992a, 1992b).

In the beginning there existed a single language given by God, a language thanks to which Adam was able to understand the quiddity of things. It was a language that provided a name for every thing, be it substance or accident, and a thing for each name.

But it seems that at a certain point the account of Ibn Hazm contradicts itself, when saying that–if the presence of homonyms can produce equivocation–an abundance of synonyms would not jeopardize the perfection of a language: it is possible to name the same thing in different ways, provided we do so in an adequate way.

For Ibn Hazm the different languages could not be born from convention: if so, people would have to have had a prior language in which they could agree about conventions.

But if such a prior language existed, why should people have undergone the wearisome and unprofitable task of inventing other tongues? The only explanation is that there was an original language which included all others.

The confusio (which the Koran already regarded not as a curse but as a natural event–cf. Borst 1957-63: I, 325) depended not on the invention of new languages, but on the fragmentation of a unique tongue that existed ab initio and in which all the others were already contained.

It is for this reason that all people are still able to understand the revelation of the Koran, in whatever language it is expressed. God made the Koranic verses in Arabic in order that they might be understood by his chosen people, not because the Arabic language enjoyed any particular privilege. In whatever language, people may discover the spirit, the breath, the perfume, the traces of the original polylinguism (sic).

Let us accept the suggestion that comes from afar. Our mother tongue was not a single language but rather a complex of all languages. Perhaps Adam never received such a gift in full; it was promised to him, yet before his long period of linguistic apprenticeship was through, original sin severed the link.

Thus the legacy that he has left to all his sons and daughters is the task of winning for themselves the full and reconciled mastery of the Tower of Babel.”


Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 351-3.

Eco: The Egyptian vs. The Chinese Way


Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), frontispiece depicting Adam Schall and Matteo Ricci holding a map of China, China Illustrata, 1667, courtesy of Stanford University. 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.

“Although today many are still of the opinion that images provide a means of communication that can overcome language barriers, the explanation of the way in which images can accomplish this by now takes one of two forms: the Egyptian and the Chinese way.

The Egyptian way today belongs only to art history. We believe that visual media such as paintings, sequences in films, etc. are “texts” which convey emotions and feelings that could not be expressed verbally: we cannot represent by mere words Mona Lisa to a blind person.

The meanings that such texts can express are multiple, because there is no universal code: the rules of representation (and of recognizability) for an Egyptian mural, an Arab miniature, a painting by Turner or a comic strip are simply not the same in each case.

It is true that some ideograms have been used as characters of a universal code, for instances many road signals; in the same vein we are using more or less universal pictograms (think of the schematic crossed knives and forks which signal a restaurant in an airport, or of the stylized “ladies” and “gentlemen” on public lavatory doors).

Sometimes visual signs are merely substituting alphabetical letters, as happens with semaphores or flag signals; sometimes a yellow flag meaning “contagious disease on board” simply stands for a verbal sentence (cf. Prieto 1966).

Likewise, the gestural languages of Trappist monks, Indian merchants, gypsies or thieves, as well as the drummed and whistled languages of certain tribes (cf. Le Barre 1964), are equally dependent on the model of natural languages.

As useful, convenient and ingenious as some of these systems of communication may be, they make no claims to being “perfect” languages in which philosophers might one day wish to compose a treatise.

Any language of images is based on the alleged fact that images exhibit some properties of the represented things. Yet in any representable thing there will always be a multitude of properties, and there are infinite points of view under which an image can be judged similar to something else. Moreover, “that a picture looks like nature often means only that it looks the way nature is usually painted” (Goodman 1968: 39).

We can see this by looking at the various versions of a semiotic apparatus (if not a true language) which remained alive for centuries and which flowered in the same period when the western culture was looking for perfect visual languages: the arts of memory (cf. Rossi 1960; Yates 1966).

An art of memory establishes at its expression-plane a system of loci (that is, of places in the literal sense of the word) which may be imagined as the rooms of a building or palace, or as an urban street or square.

This system of loci is destined to house a set of images, drawn from the same iconographical field, which will play the role of lexical units. The content-plane is given by a system of res memoranda, in other words, of things to be remembered, usually belonging to the same conceptual framework. In this way, an art of memory is a semiotic system.

For instance, in mnemonic systems like those presented by the Congestorius artificiosae memoriae by Romberch (1520), the Dialogo del modo di accrescerce e conservare la memoria by Dolce (1575), or the Artificiosae memoriae fundamenta by Paepp (1619), the system of grammatical cases is expressed (and thus recalled) by the different parts of the human body.

Not only is this a case of one system expressing another system; it is also a case where the two planes are (in Hjelmslev‘s sense) conformal. It is not arbitrary that the head stands for nominative, the chest, which can receive blows, stands for accusative, and the hands, which possess and offer, stand for genitive and dative, and so on.

This shows that a mnemonic image, in order to express its content easily, should evoke it by similarity. But no mnemonic system was ever able to find a univocal criterion of resemblance.

The criteria are the same as those that linked the signature to its signatum. If we look back and see (ch. 6) what Paracelsus had to say about the language of Adam, the Protoplastus, we see that he represented him as naming one animal on the basis of a morphological similarity (from which a virtue derived), while, in another case, the name derived directly from a virtue not manifested by the form of the object.

In other cases, the name that Adam gave reflected neither morphology nor causal relations, but was inferred symptomatically: for instance, the horn of the stag permitted us to infer the age of the animal from the complexity of its branching.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 168-71.

Eco: The Concordia Universalis of Nicholas of Cusa


Meister des Marienlebens, Kreuzigung, Passionsalter aus Bernkastel-Kues, 1460. 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. 

“The seductive potentiality of Lull’s appeal to the principle of universal concord is revealed by the resumption of his project, two centuries later, by Nicholas of Cusa. Nicholas is famous as the figure who revived Plato during the years between the crisis of scholasticism and the beginning of the Renaissance.

Nicholas also propounded the idea of an infinitely open universe, whose centre was everywhere and whose circumference nowhere. As an infinite being, God transcended all limits and overcame every opposition.

As the diameter of a circle increased, its curvature diminished; so at its limit its circumference became a straight line of infinite length.

Likewise, in God all opposites coincide. If the universe had a centre, it would be limited by another universe. But in the universe, God is both centre and circumference. Thus the earth could not be the centre of the universe.

This was the starting point for a vision of the plurality of worlds, of a reality founded on mathematical principles, which can be submitted to continuous investigation, where the world, if not infinite in a strict sense, was at least capable of assuming an infinite number of guises.

The thought of Nicholas is rich in cosmological metaphors (or models) founded upon the image of the circle and the wheel (De docta ignorantia, II, 11), in which the names of the divine attributes (explicitly borrowed from Lull) form a circle where each supports and confirms the others (I, 21).

The influence of Lull is even more explicitly revealed when Nicholas notes that the names by which the Greeks, Latins, Germans, Turks and Saracens designate the divinity are either all in fundamental accord, or derive from the Hebrew tetragrammaton (see the sermon Dies sanctificatus).

The ideas of Lull had spread to the Veneto towards the close of the fourteenth century. Nicholas probably came into contact with them in Padua. Their diffusion was, in part, a reaction against a scholastic Aristotelianism now in crisis; yet the diffusion also reflected the feverish cultural atmosphere generated by close contacts with the East.

Just as Catalonia and Majorca had been frontier territories in contact with the Muslim and Jewish worlds at the time of Lull, so the Venetian Republic had opened itself to the world of Byzantium and of the Arab countries two centuries later. The emerging currents of Venetian humanism were inspired by a new curiosity and respect for other cultures (cf. Lohr 1988).

It was thus appropriate that in this atmosphere there should have reemerged the thought of a figure whose preaching, whose theological speculations, and whose research on universal language were all conceived with the aim of building an intellectual and religious bridge between the European West and the East.

Lull believed that true authority could not be based on a rigid unity, but rather on the tension between various centers. It was the laws of Moses, the revelations of Christ and the preaching of Mohammed that, taken together, might produce a unified result.

Lull’s doctrine acted as a mystical and philosophical stimulus and seemed an imaginative and poetic alternative to the encyclopedia of Aristotelian scholasticism, but it provided a political inspiration as well.

The works of a writer who had dared to put his doctrine into the vernacular proved congenial to humanists who, on the one hand, had begun to celebrate the dignity of their own native tongues, but, on the other hand, wondered how it was possible to establish a rational discussion which broke the boundaries of national traditions, a philosophy which could reanimate the body of encyclopedic scholasticism by injecting the leaven of exotic new doctrines, expressed in languages still entirely unknown.

In his De pace fidei, Nicholas opened a polemical dialogue with the Muslims. He asked himself Lull’s question: how might the truth of Christian revelation be demonstrated to followers of the two other monotheistic religions?

Perhaps, Nicholas mused, it was a mistake to translate the persons of the Trinity as “Father,” “Son” and “Holy Ghost.” Perhaps they should have been given more philosophical names (better understandable by other cultures).

In his ecumenical fervor, Nicholas even went so far as to propose to the Jews and the Muslims that, if they would accept the Gospels, he would see that all Christians received circumcision. It was a proposal, as he confessed at the end, whose practical realization might present certain difficulties. (De pace fidei, XVI, 60).

Nicholas retained from Lull the spirit of universal peace as well as his metaphysical vision. Yet before the thrilling potential of Nicholas’s own vision of an infinity of worlds could be translated into a new and different version of the art of combination, new ideas would have to fertilize the humanist and Renaissance world.

The rediscovery of the art of combination would have to wait for the rediscovery of Hebrew, for Christian kabbalism, for the spread of Hermeticism, and for a new and positive reassessment of magic.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 69-72.


Eco: The Ars Magna of Raymond Lull

Raymond Lull, Tabula Generalis, pg. 57, Eco, Search for a Perfect Language, 1995

Raymond Lull (1232-1316), Tabula Generalis, figure 4.1, Lull’s Alphabet, from Umberto Eco, The Search for a Perfect Language, Blackwell, Oxford, 1995, pg. 57. 

“A near contemporary of Dante, Ramòn Llull (Latinized as Lullus and Anglicized as Lull–and sometimes as Lully) was a Catalan, born in Majorca, who lived probably between 1232 (or 1235) and 1316.

Majorca during this period was a crossroads, an island where Christian, Jewish and Arab cultures all met; each was to play a role in Lull’s development. Most of his 280 known works were written initially in Arabic or Catalan (cf. Ottaviano 1930).

Lull led a carefree early life which ended when he suffered a mystic crisis. As a result, he entered the order of Tertian friars.

It was among the Franciscans that all of the earlier strands converged in his Ars magna, which Lull conceived as a system for a perfect language with which to convert the infidels. The language was to be a universal; it was to be articulated at the level of expression in a universal mathematics of combination; its level of content was to consist of a network of universal ideas, held by all peoples, which Lull himself would devise.

St. Francis had already sought to convert the sultan of Babylonia, and the dream of establishing universal concordance between differing races was becoming a recurrent theme in Franciscan thought. Another of Lull’s contemporaries, the Franciscan Roger Bacon, foresaw that contact with the infidels (not merely Arabs, but also Tartars) would require study of foreign languages.

The problem for him, however, was not that of inventing a new, perfect language, but of learning the languages that the infidels already spoke in order to convert them, or, failing that, at least to enrich Christian culture with a wisdom that the infidels had wrongfully appropriated (“tamquam ab iniustis possessoribus“).

The aims and methods of Lull and Bacon were different; yet both were inspired by ideals of universality and of a new universal crusade based on peaceful dialogue rather than on arms.

In this utopia the question of language played a crucial role (cf. Alessio 1957). According to legend, Lull was to die martyred at the hands of the Saracens, to whom he had appeared, armed with his art, believing it to be an infallible means of persuasion.

Lull was the first European philosopher to write doctrinal works in the vulgar tongue. Some are even in popular verses, so as to reach readers who knew neither Latin nor Arabic: “per tal che hom puscha mostrar / logicar e philosophar / a cels que win saben lati / ni arabichi” (Compendium, 6-9).

His art was universal not merely in that it was designed to serve all peoples, but also in that it used letters and figures in a way (allegedly) comprehensible even to illiterates of any language.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 53-4.

Eco: Cosmic Permutability and the Kabbala of Names, 2

Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), The Bembine Table of Isis, Oedipus Aegypticiacus

Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), The Bembine Table of Isis, Oedipus Aegypticiacus, or Mensa Isiaca, N. Inv. C. 7155, Museo Egizio, photo by Fuzzypeg from Manly Palmer Hall, The Secret Teachings of All Ages (1928), all rights released. The Bembine Table was acquired by Cardinal Bembo after the sack of Rome in 1527, then purchased by the Savoy King Carlo Emanuele I in 1630 in Turin. A Roman interpretation of a bronze and silver altar table in an Egyptian style, early scholars surmised that the table pertained to an Isis cult. Kircher relied upon it for the third volume of his masterwork. It was ultimately determined to be an antique forgery, and not a work of ancient Egypt. This image is in the public domain. The author died over 70 years ago.   


“What justified  this process of textual dissolution was that, for Abulafia, each letter, each atomic element, already had a meaning of its own, independent of the meaning of the syntagms in which it occurred.

Each letter was already a divine name: “Since, in the letters of the Name, each letter is already a Name itself, know that Yod is a name, and YH is a name” (Perush Havdalah de-Rabbi ‘Akivà).

This practice of reading by permutation tended to produce ecstatic effects:

“And begin by combining this name, namely, YHWH, at the beginning alone, and examining all its combinations and move it, turn it about like a wheel, returning around, front and back, like a scroll, and do not let it rest, but when you see its matter strengthened because of the great motion, because of the fear of confusion of your imagination, and rolling about of your thoughts, and when you let it rest, return to it and ask [it] until there shall come to your hand a word of wisdom from it, do not abandon it.

Afterwards go on to the second one from it, Adonay, and ask of it its foundation [yesodo] and it will reveal to you its secret [sodo]. And then you will apprehend its matter in the truth of its language. Then join and combine the two of them [YHWH and Adonay] and study them and ask them, and they will reveal to you the secrets of wisdom . . .

Afterwards combine Elohim, and it will also grant you wisdom, and then combine the four of them, and find the miracles of the Perfect One [i.e. God], which are miracles of wisdom.” (Hayyê ha-Nefes, in Idel 1988c:21).

If we add that the recitation of the names was accompanied by special techniques of breathing, we begin to see how from recitation the adept might pass into ecstasy, and from ecstasy to the acquisition of magic powers; for the letters that the mystic combined were the same sounds with which God created the world.

This latter aspect came especially into prominence during the fifteenth century. For Yohanan Alemanno, friend and inspirer of Pico della Mirandola, “the symbolic cargo of language was transformed into a kind of quasi-mathematical command. Kabbalistic symbolism thus turned into–or perhaps returned to–a magical language of incantation” (Idel 1988b: 204-5).

For the ecstatic kabbala, language was a self-contained universe in which the structure of language represented the structure of reality itself. Already in the writings of Philo of Alexandria there had been an attempt to compare the intimate essence of the Torah with the Logos as the world of ideas.

Such Platonic conceptions had even penetrated into the Haggidic and Midrashic literature in which the Torah was conceived as providing the scheme according to which God created the world.

The eternal Torah was identified with wisdom and, in many passages, with the world of forms or universe of archetypes. In the thirteenth century, taking up a decidedly Averroist line, Abulafia equated the Torah with the active intellect, “the form of all the forms of separate intellects” (Sefer Mafteakh ha-Tokhahot).

In contrast, therefore, with the main philosophical tradition (from Aristotle to the Stoics and to the Middle Ages, as well as to Arab and Judaic philosophers), language, in the kabbala, did not represent the world merely by referring to it.

It did not, that is, stand to the world in the relation of signifier to signified or sign to its referent. If God created the world by uttering sounds or by combining written letters, it must follow that these semiotic elements were not representations of pre-existing things, but the very forms by which the elements of the universe are moulded.

The significance of this argument in our own story must be plain: the language of creation was perfect not because it merely happened to reflect the structure of the universe in some exemplary fashion; it created the universe.

Consequently it stands to the universe as the cast stands to the object cast from it.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 30-2.

The Etymology of the Name “Moses”

“Josephos has preserved an extract from the Egyptian historian Manetho, which relates the Egyptian version of the story of the Exodus as it was told in the second century before our era. In this it is stated that the earlier name of Moses was Osarsiph, and that he had been priest of Heliopolis or On.

Here it is evident that Moses and Joseph have been confounded together. The name of Joseph, who married the daughter of the priest of On, has been decomposed into two elements, the first of which is the divine name Jeho, and this has been changed into its supposed Egyptian equivalent Osar or Osiris.

It is clear that, whatever might have been his opinion about the name of Joseph, Manetho had no doubt that that of Moses was purely Israelitish. It was not until he had become the Israelitish lawgiver and had ceased to be an Egyptian priest that Osarsiph took the name of Moses.

But Moses finds no satisfactory etymology in the pages of the Hebrew lexicon. It stands alone among Hebrew proper names, like Aaron and David. We do not hear of any other persons who have borne the name. If, therefore, it is Semitic, it must belong to an older stratum of Semitic nomenclature than that preserved to us in the Old Testament. We must look to other branches of the Semitic stock for its explanation.

There is only one other branch of the Semitic family whose records are earlier than those of the Hebrews. Arabic literature begins long after the Christian era, when Jewish and Greek and even Christian names and ideas had penetrated into the heart of the Arabian peninsula.

The Arabic language, moreover, belongs to a different division of the Semitic family of speech from that to which Hebrew belongs. To compare Arabic and Hebrew together is like comparing Latin with modern German. There is, however, one Semitic language which has the closest affinities to Hebrew, and this is also the language of which we possess records older than those of the Hebrew Scriptures. I need hardly say that I am referring to Assyrian.

Now the Assyrian equivalent of the Hebrew Mosheh, “Moses,” would be mâsu, and, as it happens, mâsu is a word which occurs not unfrequently in the inscriptions. It was a word of Accadian origin, but since the days of Sargon of Accad had made itself so thoroughly at home in the language of the Semitic Babylonians as to count henceforth as a genuinely Semitic term.

Mâsu signified as nearly as possible all that we mean by the word “hero.” As such, it was an epithet applied to more than one divinity; there was one god more especially for whom it became a name.

This god was the deity sometimes called Adar by Assyrian scholars, sometimes Nin-ip, but whose ordinary name among the Assyrians is still a matter of uncertainty. He was a form of the Sun-god, originally denoting the scorching sun of mid-day. He thus became invested with the sterner attributes of the great luminary of day, and was known to his worshippers as “the warrior of the gods.”

The title of Mâsu, however, was not confined to Adar. It was given also to another solar deity, Merodach, the tutelar god of Babylon and the antagonist of the dragon of chaos, and was shared by him with Nergal, whose special function it was to guard and defend the world of the dead.

But Nergal himself was but the sun of night, the solar deity, that is to say, after he had accomplished his daily work in the bright world above and had descended to illuminate for a time the world below.”

A.H. Sayce, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by the Religion of the Ancient Babylonians, 5th ed., London, 1898, pp. 45-7.

Ishtar and Tammuz are Composite Deities

“If it be granted, then, that Ishtar and Tammuz are deities of vegetation, it is possible still further to narrow their sphere by associating them particularly with the corn. Adonis and Aphrodite are connected with the growth of the crops. Ceres, who forbids the corn to spring while her daughter is in the realm of Pluto, is undoubtedly a corn-mother, and Proserpine evidently partakes of the same nature.

Osiris was the culture-deity who introduced corn into Egypt. A representation of him in the temple of Isis at Philas depicts corn-stalks growing out of his dead body—the body of Osiris (the grain) is torn to pieces, scattered through the land, and the pieces buried (or planted) in the earth, when the corn sprouts from it.

Moreover, Tammuz himself was cruelly disposed of by his lord, who “ground his bones in a mill, and then scattered them to the wind”—plainly a type of the treatment meted out to the corn. An Arabic writer relates that Tammuz was cruelly killed several times, but that he always came to life again, a story which recalls Robert Burns’ John Barleycorn, itself perhaps based on mythical matter.

May not these examples suggest an elucidation on animistic lines? Deities of the Tammuz type appear to symbolize the corn-grain and nothing more— cut down, bruised and beaten, buried in the earth, and finally springing to renewed life.

Who, then, are the goddesses, likewise identified with the corn, who seek in the underworld for lover or child, endeavouring with tears to ransom the corn from the dark earth? Are they not the primitive corn-spirits, the indwelling animistic spirits of the standing grain, doomed at the harvest to wander disconsolately through the earth till the sprouting of the corn once more gives them an opportunity to materialize?

The stories of the mutilation and dispersion of the bodies of Tammuz and Osiris, and of the many deaths of the former god, furnish a basis for yet another explanation of the Tammuz myth. Sir James Frazer brings forward the theory that the ‘Lamentations’ of the ancient Babylonians were intended not for mourning for the decay of vegetation, but to bewail the cruel treatment of the grain at harvest-time, and cites in this connexion the ballad of John Barleycorn, which, we are told, was based on an early English poem, probably itself of mythological origin.

It is, however, most likely that the myth of Tammuz and Ishtar is of a composite nature, as has already been indicated. Possibly a myth of the sun-god and earth-goddess has been superimposed on the early groundwork of the corn-spirit seeking the corn.

It would certainly seem that Ishtar in her descent into Aralu typified the earth, shorn of her covering of vegetation. Then in time she might come to symbolize the vegetation itself, or the fertility which produced it, and so would gain new attributes, and new elements would enter into the myths concerning her. Only by regarding her as a composite deity is it possible to reach an understanding of the principles underlying these myths.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 138-40.

Tammuz and Ishtar, Adonis and Aphrodite, Attis and Cybele, Isis and Osiris

As has been indicated already, the myth of Tammuz and Ishtar furnished the groundwork for certain myths of classic Greece and Rome.

The Phoenician Astarte (Ashtoreth), a development of Ishtar, became in time the Aphrodite of the Greeks, a deity who plays a part in the Adonis legend analogous to that of Ishtar in the Tammuz story. The name Adonis itself is derived from Adoni (‘my lord’), the word with which the Phoenician worshippers of Tammuz hailed the setting sun.

The myth of Adonis is perhaps the most nearly related of any to that of Tammuz, since its chief characters are acknowledged counterparts of those in the Babylonian legend, while the tale of Ishtar’s descent into Hades may be regarded as a sequel to the Greek story, or rather to an early Babylonian variant thereof.

Briefly outlined, the story runs as follows: Adonis was the fruit of an unnatural union between the Syrian king Theias and his daughter Smyrna (Myrrha). Theias pursued the princess, intending to take her life for the crime, but the pity of the gods turned her into a tree from which, at the end of ten months, Adonis was born. It is said that a boar rent open the tree-trunk with its tusk, and thus enabled the divine infant to see the light.

Aphrodite, charmed with the beauty of the child, gave him into the care of Persephone, who was so enamoured of her charge that she afterwards refused to give him up. The goddesses appealed to Zeus, who decreed that Adonis should spend six months of each year with Aphrodite and six with Persephone in the underworld; or, according to another version, four months were to be passed with Aphrodite and four with Persephone, while the remaining four were to be at his own disposal.

He was afterwards slain by a boar sent against him by Artemis (herself, by the way, a development of Ishtar). It may be remarked that Aphrodite, who figures, like Ishtar, as the goddess of love and beauty, is also closely associated with the nether regions, perhaps because she was identified with the Babylonian goddess in her journey to Hades in search of her spouse.

Akin to Adonis is the god Attis, who likewise, according to one version of his myth, is slain by a boar. After his death he becomes a pine-tree, and from his blood violets spring. He is beloved of Cybele, the mother-goddess, who laments his untimely end.

In the Adonis legend there is evidence of some overlapping. Persephone, or Proserpine, who here corresponds to the Allatu of the Babylonian variant, figures in another well-known myth as the prototype of Tammuz. When she is carried off to the nether-world by Pluto, her mother, Ceres, will not suffer the corn to grow while her daughter remains a prisoner. Like Ishtar in search of her spouse, the mother-goddess seeks her child with weeping and lamentation. Through the eating of a pomegranate seed, Proserpine is finally obliged to pass four (or six) months of every year with her dark captor, as his consort.

Another myth which has affinities with the tale of Tammuz and Ishtar is the Egyptian one which deals with the quest of Isis. The god Osiris is slain through the machinations of his brother Set (who, being identified elsewhere with a black hog, recalls the boar which slew Adonis and Attis), and his body, enclosed in a chest, is cast into the Nile.

Afterwards the chest is thrown up by the waves, and round it springs miraculously a tamarisk tree. Meanwhile Isis, wife and sister to Osiris, travels hither and thither in search of his remains, which in due time she finds. However, the chest is stolen from her by Set, who, taking therefrom the body of Osiris, tears the corpse into fourteen pieces, which he scatters through the land. Isis still pursues her quest, till she has found all the portions and buried them.

These tales were the mythical correlates of certain ritualistic practices designed to bring about the change of seasons, and other natural phenomena, by means of sympathetic magic. The burden of a great duty falls upon the shoulders of primitive man; with his rites and spells and magic arts he must assist the universe in its course.

His esoteric plays, typifying the mysterious fact of growth, are necessary to ensure the sprouting of the corn; his charms and incantations are essential even for the rising of the sun; lacking the guarantee of science that one season shall follow another in its proper order, he goes through an elaborate performance symbolizing the decay and revival of vegetation, believing that only thus can the natural order be maintained. Through the force of sympathetic magic he sees his puny efforts related to the mighty results which follow them.

This, then, is the origin of the ritual of the Tammuz festival, which may conceivably have had an existence prior to that of the myth itself. The representation of the death and resurrection of the god, whether in myth or ritual, had undoubtedly a seasonal significance, wherefore the date of his festival varied in the different localities.

In Babylonia it was celebrated in June, thus showing that the deity was slain by the fierce heat of the sun, burning up all the springtide vegetation. Ishtar’s sojourn in Hades would thus occupy the arid months of summer.

In other and more temperate climes winter would be regarded as the enemy of Tammuz. An interesting account of the Tammuz festival is that given by an Arabic author writing in the tenth century, and quoted by Sir James Frazer in his Golden Bough.

Tammuz (July). In the middle of this month is the festival of el-Būgāt, that is, of the weeping women, and this is the Ta-uz festival, which is celebrated in honour of the god Ta-uz. The women bewail him, because his lord slew him so cruelly, ground his bones in a mill, and then scattered them to the wind. The women (during this festival) eat nothing which has been ground in a mill, but limit their diet to steeped wheat, sweet vetches, dates, raisins, and the like.”

The material for this description was furnished by the Syrians of Harran. Of the curious legend attaching to the mourning rites more will be said later.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 131-5.

Submarine of Alexander the Great

“The Arab historian Mas’ûdî has preserved (see Les Prairies d’Or, ed. B. de Meynard and Pavet de Courteille, Paris, 1861, tom. ii. p. 425 ff) a curious legend of the talismans which were employed by Alexander the Great to protect the city of Alexandria whilst it was being built, and as the legend is of Egyptian origin, and dates from a period not greatly removed from that in which the Metternich stele was made, it is worthy of mention.

When the foundations of the city had been laid, and the walls had begun to rise up, certain savage animals came up each night from the sea, and threw down everything which had been built during the day; watchmen were appointed to drive them away, but in spite of this each morning saw the work done during the previous day destroyed.

After much thought Alexander devised a plan whereby he might thwart the sea monsters, and he proceeded to carry it into effect.

He made a box ten cubits long and five cubits wide with sides made of sheets of glass fastened into frames by means of pitch, resin, etc.

Metternich Stele.

Metternich Stele.

In this box Alexander placed himself, together with two skilful draughtsmen, and having been closed it was towed out to sea by two vessels; and when weights of iron, lead, and stone had been attached to the under part of it, it began to sink, being guided to the place which Alexander wished it to reach by means of cords which were worked from the ships.

When the box touched the bottom of the sea, thanks to the clearness of the glass sides and the water of the sea, Alexander and his two companions were able to watch the various marine monsters which passed by, and he saw that although they had human bodies they had the heads of beasts; some had axes, some had saws, and some had hammers, and they all closely resembled workmen.

As they passed in front of the box Alexander and his two draughtsmen copied their forms upon paper with great exactness, and depicted their hideous countenances, and stature, and shape; this done, a signal was made, and the box was drawn up to the surface.

As soon as Alexander reached the land he ordered his stone and metal workers to make reproductions of the sea monsters according to the drawings which he and his friends had made, and when they were finished he caused them to be set up on pedestals along the sea-shore, and continued his work of building the city.

When the night came, the sea monsters appeared as usual, but as soon as they saw that figures of themselves had been put up on the shore they returned at once to the water and did not shew themselves again.

When, however, the city had been built and was inhabited, the sea monsters made their appearance again, and each morning a considerable number of people were found to be missing; to prevent this Alexander placed talismans upon the pillars which, according to Mas’ûdî, were there in his day.

Each pillar was in the shape of an arrow and was eighty cubits in height, and rested upon a plinth of brass; the talismans were placed at their bases, and were in the form of figures or statues of certain beings with suitable inscriptions, and as they were put in position after careful astronomical calculations had been made for the purpose we may assume that they produced the effect desired by the king.”

E.A. Wallis Budge, Egyptian Magic, London, 1901. Pp. 147-56

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