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Tag: Ars notoria

Eco: The Kabbalistic Pansemioticism, 2

Ilan Sefirot - Kabbalistic Divinity map. Amsterdam, 18th century, NLI

Ilan Sefirot. Kabbalistic Divinity Map. Amsterdam, 18th century, NLI. 

“In Christian tradition, the four levels are excavated through a labour of interpretation which brings surplus meaning to the surface. Yet it is a labour performed without altering the expression-plane, that is, the surface of the text.

The commentator tries in many ways to correct scribal errors, so as to re-establish the only and original version according to the alleged intention of the original author. For some kabbalistic currents, by contrast, to read means to anatomize, as it were, the very expression-substance, by three fundamental techniques: notariqon, gematria and temurah.

Notariqon was the technique of using acrostics to cipher and decipher a hidden message. The initial (or final) letters of a series of words generate new words. Such a technique was already a familiar artifice in poetry during the late antique and Middle Ages, when it was used for magic purposes under the name of ars notoria.

Kabbalists typically used acrostics to discover mystic relations. Mosé de Leon, for example, took the initial letters of the four senses of scripture (Peshat, Remez, Derash and Sod) and formed out of them PRDS.

Since Hebrew is not vocalized, it was possible to read this as Pardes or Paradise. The initial letters of Moses’s question in Deuteronomy 30:12, “Who shall go up for us to heaven?,” as they appear in the Torah form MYLH, or “circumcision,” while the final letters give YHWH, Jahveh.

The answer is therefore: “the circumcised will go up to God.” Abulafia discovered that the final letters of MVH (“brain”) and LB (“heart”) recall the initial letters of two Sefirot, Hokmah (wisdom) and Binah (intelligence).

Gematria was based on the fact that, in Hebrew, numbers are indicated by letters; this means that each Hebrew word can be given a numerical value, calculated by summing the numbers represented by its letters.

This allows mystic relations to be established between words having different meanings through identical numerical values. It is these relations that the kabbalist seeks to discover and elucidate.

The serpent of Moses, for example, is a prefiguration of the Messiah because the value of both words is 358. Adding up the letters in YHWH, we get 72, and kabbalistic tradition constantly searched for the seventy-two names of God.

Temurah is the art of anagrams. In a language in which vowels must be interpolated, anagrams are more exciting than in other idioms. Mosé Cordovero wondered why there appeared in Deuteronomy a prohibition against wearing garments of mixed wool and linen.

He found the answer when he discovered that the letters of that passage could be recombined to produce another text which warned Adam not to take off his original garment of light and put on the skin of the serpent, which symbolized demonic power.

Abraham Abulafia (thirteenth century) systematically combined the letter Alef with each of the four letters of the tetragrammaton YHWH; then he vocalized each of the resulting units by every possible permutation of five vowels, thus obtaining four tables with fifty entries each.

Eleazar ben Yudah of Worms went on to vocalize every unit using twice each of the five vowels, and the total number of combinations increased geometrically (cf. Idel 1988b: 22-3).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 27-8.


The Divine Transmission of the World’s Pattern Through Angelic Minds.

“Indeed there are many features of neo-Platonic cosmology which would have appeared transparent in the structure of the Ars notoria ritual to its late medieval operators.

In a most basic way, the idea of an intrinsic congruence and similitude between the human mind and divine archetype of the world is a recurrent feature of twelfth-century neo-Platonic thought. Thus, Thierry of Chartres notes that »the soul is proportioned to the nature of the universe«; and in a similar vein, Hugh of St Victor, another prominent twelfth-century writer in the same neo-Platonic tradition, says at the beginning of his Didascalicon that »similars are comprehended by similars; […] in a word, the rational soul could by no means comprehend all things unless it were also composed of all of them[…] the soul grasps the similitude in and of itself, out of a certain native capacity and proper power of its own«.

But this is a similitude which traverses the spiritual cosmos as well as the human mind. Hugh explains in an appendix to the Didascalicon that knowledge emanates from God in such a way that ideas subsist in themselves only after they are created in the minds of the angels:

“What exists in actuality is an image of what exists in the mind of man, and what exists in the mind of man is an image of what exists in the divine Mind […] For the angelic nature first existed in the divine Idea as a plan, and then afterwards it began to subsist in itself through creation. The other creatures however, first existed in the Idea of God; next they were made in the knowledge of the angels; and finally they began to subsist in themselves.”

“In other words, all created things necessarily proceed, from highest to lowest, through the subsistence of creatures who have the capacity for ideas. The divine transmission of the world’s pattern through angelic minds of which Hugh speaks here is rendered visible in the presence of angels mingled with the liberal arts on the Chartres archivolt and rendered functional in the association of the angelic orders and liberal arts in the Ars notoria prayers.”

–Claire Fanger, “Sacred and Secular Knowledge Systems in the Ars Notoria and the Flowers of Heavenly Teaching of John of Morigny.” Pg. 165.

Quoted by Peter Dronke: >>Thierry of Chartres«, in: A History of Twelfth-Century Western Philosophy, ed. by Peter Dronke, Cambridge 1988, p. 372.

Hugh of St Victor: The Didascalicon of Hugh of St Victor, translated with an introduction and notes by Jerome Taylor, New York 1961, l.i, pp. 46-47.

On the Ars Notoria of Solomon and Apollonius.

“The Ars notoria, which is ascribed to Solomon and his “friend and successor” Apollonius, is a fairly widespread work of medieval ritual magic and theurgy. If we are not trained in the field of learned magic, we will easily mistake it at first glance for an innocent religious text, because the ritual of the Ars notoria is nothing other than an elaborated liturgical program composed of prayers and orations addressed to transcendent agents.

Only a closer look reveals that the text, by means of its large variety of prayers, invocations of divine and angelic names, and numerous rituals, actually promises intellectual perfection, learning, the acquisition of memory, and the ability to understand difficult books.

To use its procedures one must first practice a course of confession, fasting, chastity, penitence, and the cultivation of physical and psychological purity lasting several months.

However pious this text may seem, its emphasis on the efficacy of words and names of God to help the user attain power, and the purposes for which a user might turn to it— the acquisition of absolute knowledge, moral perfection, and unlimited memory— bring it close to other magical arts.”

–Benedek Lang, Unlocked Books: Manuscripts of Learned Magic in the Medieval Libraries of Central Europe, 2008. Pg. 165.

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