"Samizdat: Publishing forbidden literature."

Tag: Christianity

Revelation: A Screed on Dreams and Worlds Without End

miniature monas 2

revelation hafftka cover treatment

Revelation cover treatment including Kālī Yuga, 1977 by Michael Hafftka.

It occurs to me that I forgot to announce publication of my third book, Revelation, on Samizdat. So those of you who follow me here but not on my other site, Magic Kingdom Dispatch, may not know that I published this work.

Revelation is a metaphysik, a revelation on metaphysics, cosmogony, quantum physics, Hinduism, Buddhism, Tantra, the Apocrypha, Kabbalah, the Western Mystery Tradition, dreams within dreams and multiverses without end. Revelation includes art by the figurative expressionist painter Michael Hafftka: Kālī Yuga, 1977.

Revelation is now on sale at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, GooglePlay and Apple iBooks. The full text is available free on Academia, ResearchGate, and GoogleBooks. I made Revelation freely available as Revelation differs from my first book, A Tale of the Grenada Raiders: it steps outside that narrative. Indeed, it explains it.

I did not want readers who expected a continuation of that work of military history to wonder “what the fuck, Doc?” when they read Revelation. I feel better knowing that they can preview it and verify that it is something that they wish to read.

Information needs to be free. This website, Samizdat, is predicated on that ideal. That is why I rekeyed every word of Umberto Eco’s The Search for the Perfect Language and published it here in 2016. I do not regret it. Like medieval monks laboriously copying MSS, I know no better way to internalize a work than to duplicate it letter by letter. As a side effect of that exercise, The Search for the Perfect Language is now available in an electronic format–and anybody with access to the internet can read it at no cost.

I do not own the rights to that work. I may fold all those posts into a critical edition and offer it to the copyright holder. I will not demand compensation. If they choose not to release it, I will not be surprised if a stray copy escapes and ends up freely circulating on the net. Information wants to be free. And that work by Eco should be universally available. Professor Eco died in 2016. His estate is wealthy.

I originally wrote Revelation as the preface for The Rosetta Stone of Memories. It was not until Amazon priced the paperback at $88 that I realized that it was too long (490 pages). At 3lbs in my preferred 8.5×11-inch format, Rosetta Stone weighs as much as a phone book.

I could not in good conscience accept my readers paying $88 for a book from me, so I pulled Rosetta Stone. It took me a couple of days to split off the preface into Revelation, and the narrative into Metamorphosis. I fixed continuity errors. Inevitably I missed a couple, requiring corrected uploads to overwrite incorrect manuscripts. A pain in the ass.

There are still some errors in the .mobi Kindle and the B&N .ePub Nook versions, but they are not invalidating. Just annoying to me as a perfectionist. I am a writer. Not a designer, not a publisher. I know just enough technology to publish my books and to cobble together a cover treatment. I resorted to programmers to convert the original MS into Nook and Kindle formats, costing me $89, sapping earnings from sales, but they saved me massive time and grief.

Those 15 readers who purchased Rosetta Stone in paperback now own a rare artifact. I intend to publish a corrected version of Rosetta Stone in coming weeks. It will be an anthology containing the two books. Rosetta Stone remains on sale exclusively with Apple iBooks–and not out of any marketing motive: I am too stupid to figure out how to pull it. I will overwrite the MS there with the revised version, I know how to do that, and publish a notice to readers to delete their copies and download the fixed revision at no cost.

That fix will move the 35 literary citations at the beginning into an appendix at the end of the preface, as they are positioned now in Revelation, and fold in the corrected texts of Revelation and Metamorphosis. It will still cost $88 on Amazon, unless I publish it in black and white. I do not yet know what it will cost on Barnes & Noble. Every other physical book that I published on B&N costs $34.99 in paperback. Electronic editions: Kindle, Nook, Google, iBooks, will all be cheaper by several orders of magnitude.

I marvel at folks who prefer to purchase physical books. Yes, there is tactile gratification in holding my books, reviewers mentioned this many times. I get it. I publish in large format 8.5×11-inches because I prefer to lay out an entire page for readers. It makes it easier to grok the meaning of a page. The larger page also makes it possible to publish better photos, and most of my books are prolifically illustrated. With the exception of Revelation, which contains a mere five illustrations, my books are, in fact, picture books.

I write history. None of my books are fictional. They are history, I recount events as I experienced them and I recount them as they transpired. I knew when I wrote A Tale of the Grenada Raiders that readers would be skeptical at times. When a reader finishes a chapter in that work, they see photos illustrating the incident and the protagonists.

This is my point: with electronic formats, it is possible to search and to keep MSS in the cloud, accessible from any iDevice. My gargantuan library resides in my iCloud account. Siri can download any work, or search particular sentences. It is simple and fast to share, or to cite. I long ago lost  patience flipping through physical books, looking for text. Indexes are last century. It is much faster to search. When I read, and I read all the time, I read on an iPad. I use a giant iPad Pro, because I can put an entire page of a text on the screen.

Still, many prefer physical books. Half of my readers purchase print editions.

Those who seek to purchase Rosetta Stone on Amazon now see that it is listed but not available. Inevitably, I just today encountered the first pirated Samizdat version of one of my works on the net. Somebody extracted a copy of Rosetta Stone from GoogleBooks and set it free. I am not angry. I am honored.

As I say, Revelation was the preface to Rosetta Stone. It just kept growing as the Big Ranger in the Sky pointed me at articles and books and ideas. I am not that smart. But I know when to listen to my Muse, when to go into receive mode, and when to record revelation. Revelation is not perfect, as the messenger is flawed. But the arguments are internally coherent and I find them fascinating.

I made Revelation free as I cannot in good conscience profit from a work of revelation. Those who can benefit from it, my fellow pilgrims on a particular path, will find no obstacles in their way. If you are interested in metaphysics, cosmogony, quantum physics, Hinduism, Buddhism, Tantra, the Apocrypha, Kabbalah and the Western Mystery Tradition, you will love Revelation.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Revelation is available from Amazon.

Revelation is available from Barnes & Noble.

Revelation is available from GoogleBooks and GooglePlay.

Revelation is available from Apple iBooks. (This is its native format, as I write my books using iBooks Author. The iBooks app on Mac and iDevices offers the best reading experience, in my opinion, though the Kindle app offers better features and integration with GoodReads.)

Revelation is available from Academia and ResearchGate.

After you read Revelation, please review it. Review it anywhere, make any comments that you like, positive, negative, whatever. I will be delighted to see your feedback.

Thank you for reading! Share Revelation far and wide!

Doc T sends.

Bangkok, Updated January 15, 2019.


Eco: Perfection and Secrecy

Kircher Athanasius, 1667 Magneticum naturae regnum, Frontispiece

Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), frontispiece, Magneticum naturae regnum, Rome, Ignati de Lazaris, 1667, held by the Linda Hall Library, LHL Digital Collections, call number Q155.K58 1667. This engraving is often referred to with the expression, “the world is bound in secret knots.” 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. 

“We might think it is a pity that the search for a language that was as perfect as it was universal should lead to such a conception of a tongue reserved for the “happy few.” But it is perhaps nothing more than our “democratic” illusion to imagine that perfection must imply universality.

In order to understand the cultural framework of both Kircher’s Egyptology and Rosicrucian holy languages, it must be remembered that for the Hermetic tradition truth was not usually regarded as accessible to the many. Indeed, there existed a marked tendency to believe that what is true is unknown and hardly knowable, if not to a restricted elite (cf. Eco 1990).

There is a radical difference between the gnostic and Neo-Platonist ideas of late antiquity (as well as their Renaissance versions–which survived in the Counter-Reformation Catholicism of Kircher) and the Christian message, as it was proclaimed throughout most of the Middle Ages.

For medieval Christianity, salvation was promised to the meek and humble in spirit, and did not require any special knowledge: everyone can understand what is required in order to deserve the kingdom of heaven.

Medieval teaching reduced the aura of mystery that accompanied the revelation–which was explained by formulae, parables and images that even the uneducated might grasp: truth was considered effable, therefore public.

For Hermetic thought, instead, the cosmic drama could only be understood by an aristocracy of wisdom, able to decipher the hieroglyphs of the universe; the main characteristic of truth was its ineffability: it could not be expressed in simple words, was ambiguous by nature, was to be found through the coincidence of opposites, and could be expressed only by initiatic revelations.

Within this tradition, public accessibility was simply not a criterion by which a perfect language was judged. If one does not understand this point, one cannot understand why the cryptographers of this period dedicated their ciphers to grand-dukes deep in military campaigns and political machinations, presenting them as arcane suggestions.

Perhaps this is all merely another manifestation of the natural hypocrisy of a century fascinated by dissimulation, a feature that constitutes the continuing charm of baroque civilization.

It remains uncertain if that celebrated book Breviarium politicorum secundum rubricas Mazarinicas (1684) really collects Mazarin’s political thoughts or is a libel invented to defame him: in whatever case, it certainly reflects the image of a man of politics in the 1600’s.

It is notable that in the chapter entitled “Reading and writing” it recommends that, if one needs to write in a public place, it is convenient to place upon a lectern several already written pages as if one intended to copy them out, letting them be visible and concealing under them the paper upon which one is really writing, guarded in such a way that no one who approaches you will be able to read it.

Resorting to ciphers is suggested, but in such a way that at first glance the message looks understandable and provides irrelevant information (the canonical reference is to Trithemius).

Not only must the message be translated in a secret writing, but this writing must also conceal its own secrecy, because a cipher that blatantly appears as such can arouse suspicion and encourage decipherment.

Thus on the one hand the mystic who writes about perfect and holy languages winks his eye at the politician who will use this language as his secret code; on the other hand the cryptographer sells to the politician a cipher (that is, an instrument of power and dominion) that for him, the Hermetic initiate, is also a key to supernatural truths.

Such a man was Johann Valentin Andreae, whom many have considered (and many still do consider) to be, if not the author, at least the inspirer of the Rosicrucian manifestos. Andreae was a Lutheran mystic and writer of utopian works, like the Christianopolis of 1619, similar in spirit to those of Bacon and Campanella.

Edighoffer (1982: 175ff) has noted that many of his authentic works, like the Chemical Weddings, abound with ciphered expressions, according to the expressed principle that “Arcana publicata vilescunt” and that one ought not to cast pearls before swine.

In the same vein Andreae used ciphered messages in his correspondence with Augustus, Duke of Brunswick. Edighoffer remarks that there is nothing surprising in this: it was a correspondence filled with political observations, one, moreover, that took place during the Thirty Years War, when the difference between political and religious comments was minimal and the risks in both were the same.

In the light of these, as it were, “private” practices of the Rosicrucians, their public appeals concerning the need to use a secret language to inaugurate a universal reform must seem even more ambiguous.

They are so to such an extent as to make credible what not only modern historians but even the supposed authors of the manifestos themselves had always claimed: the manifestos were nothing but a joke, a sophomoric game, an exercise in literary pastiche made up of all the buzz-topics of the day: the search for the language of Adam, the dream of a sensual language, glossolalic illusions, cryptography, kabbala . . . And since everything went into this pot au feu, anything could be fished out again.

Thus, as will always happen when the specter of mystery is raised, there were those who read the Rosicrucian manifestos “paranoiacally,” discovering in them what they wanted to believe anyway, and needed to rediscover continually.

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 190-3.

Eco: The Kircherian Ideology


Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), Egyptian pyramids by Gioseffo Petrucci, Prodromo apologetico alli studi chiercheriani, Amsterdam, 1677, reprinted from Sphinx Mystagoga, a selection of images related to Athanasius Kircher in the Stanford University Archives, curated by Michael John Gorman, 2001. 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.

“It would be idle to hold Kircher responsible for his inability to understand the nature of hieroglyphic writing, for which in his time nobody had the key. Yet his ideology magnified his errors.

“Nothing can explain the duplicity of the research of Kircher better than the engraving which opens the Obeliscus Pamphilius: in this cohabit both the illuminated image of Philomatià to whom Hermes explains every mystery and the disquieting gesture of Harpocrates who turns away the profane, hidden by the shadow of the cartouche.” (Rivosecchi 1982: 57).

The hieroglyphic configurations had become a sort of machine for the inducing of hallucinations which then could be interpreted in any possible way.

Rivosecchi (1982: 52) suggests that Kircher exploited this very possibility in order to discuss freely a large number of potentially dangerous themes–from astrology to alchemy and magic–disguising his own opinions as those of an immemorial tradition, one in which, moreover, Kircher treated prefigurations of Christianity.

In the midst of this hermeneutic bulimia, however, there glimmers the exquisitely baroque temperament of Kircher at play, delighting in his taste for the great theater of mirrors and lights, for the surprising museographic collection (and one has only to think of that extraordinary Wunderkammer which was the museum of the Jesuit Collegio Romano).

Only his sensitivity to the incredible and the monstrous can explain the dedication to the Emperor Ferdinand III that opens the third volume of Oedipus:

“I unfold before your eyes, O Most Sacred Caesar, the polymorphous reign of Morpheus Hieroglyphicus. I tell of a theater in which an immense variety of monsters are disposed, and not the nude monsters of nature, but adorned by the enigmatic Chimeras of the most ancient of wisdoms so that here I trust sagacious wits will draw out immeasurable treasures for the sciences as well as no small advantage for letters.

Here there is the Dog of Bubasti, the Lion Saiticus, the Goat Mendesius, here there is the Crocodile, horrible in the yawning of its jaws, yet from whose uncovered gullet there emerges the occult meanings of divinity, of nature, and of the spirit of Ancient Wisdom espied through the vaporous play of images.

Here there are the Dipsodes thirsting for blood, the virulent Asp, the astute Icneumon, the cruel Hippopotami, the monstrous Dragons, the toad of swollen belly, the snail of twisted shell, the hairy caterpillar and the innumerable other specters which all show the admirably ordered chain which extends itself into the depths of nature’s sanctuaries.

Here is presented a thousand species of exotic things in many and varied images, transformed by metamorphosis, converted into human figures, and restored once more to themselves again in a dance of the human and the savage intertwined, and all in accordance with the artifices of the divine; and finally, there appears the divinity itself which, to say with Porphyry, scours the entire universe, ordering it with all things in a monstrous connubium; where now, sublime in its variegated face, it raises its canine cervix to reveal itself as Cenocephalus, now as the wicked Ibis, now as the Sparrow-hawk wrapped in a beaky mask.

[ . . . ] now, delighting in its virgin aspect, under the shell of the Scarab it lies concealed as the sting of the Scorpion [these descriptions carry on for four more pages] in this pantomorphic theater of nature  unfolded before our gaze, under the allegorical veil of occult meanings.”

This is the same spirit which informed the medieval taste for encyclopedias and for libri monstruorum, a genre which reappears from the Renaissance onwards under the “scientific” guise of the medical studies of Ambroise Paré, the naturalist works of Ulisse Aldrovandi, the collection of monsters of Fortunio Liceti, the Physica curiosa of Gaspar Schott.

Here it is combined, with a quality of frenzied dissymmetry that is almost Borrominian, recalling the aesthetic ideals presiding over the construction of the hydraulic grottos and mythological rocailles in the gardens of the period.

Beyond this, however, Rivosecchi has put his finger on another facet of the Kircherian ideology. In a universe placed under the sign of an ancient and powerful solar deity, the myth of Osiris had become an allegory of the troubled search for stability in the world still emerging from the aftermath of the Thirty Years War, in which Kircher was directly involved.

In this sense, we might read the dedications to Ferdinand III, which stand out at the beginning of each volume of the Oedipus, in the same light as the appeals of Postel to the French monarchy to restore harmony a century before, or as the analogous appeals of Bruno, or as Campanella’s celebration of a solar monarchy, prelude to the reign of Louis XIV, or as the calls for a golden century which we will discuss in the chapter on the Rosicrucians.

Like all the utopian visionaries of his age, the Jesuit Kircher dreamed of the recomposition of a lacerated Europe under a stable monarchy. As a good German, moreover, he repeated the gesture of Dante and turned to the Germanic, Holy Roman emperor.

Once again, as in the case of Lull, though in ways so different as to void the analogy, it was the search for a perfect language that became the instrument whereby a new harmony, not only in Europe, but across the entire planet, was to be established.

The knowledge of exotic languages, aimed not so much at recovering their original perfection, but rather at showing to the Jesuit missionaries “the method of bearing the doctrine of Christ to those cut off from it by diabolic malice” (preface to China, but also Oedipus, I, I, 396-8).

In the last of Kircher’s works, the Turris Babel, the story of the confusion of tongues is once again evoked, this time in an attempt to compose “a grandiose universal history, embracing all diversities, in a unified project of assimilation to Christian doctrine. [ . . . ]

The peoples of all the world, dispersed after the confusion, are to be called back together from the Tower of the Jesuits for a new linguistic and ideological reunification.” (Scolari 1983: 6).

In fact, hungry for mystery and fascinated by exotic languages though he was, Kircher felt no real need to discover a perfect language to reunite the world in harmony; his own Latin, spoken with the clear accents of the Counter-Reformation, seemed a vehicle perfectly adequate to transport as much gospel truth as was required in order to bring the various peoples together.

Kircher never entertained the thought that any of the languages he considered, not even the sacred languages of hieroglyphics and kabbalistic permutations, should ever again be spoken. He found in the ruins of these antique and venerated languages a garden of private delight; but he never conceived of them as living anew.

At most he toyed with the idea of preserving these languages as sacred emblems, accessible only to the elect, and in order to show their fecund impenetrability he needed elephantine commentaries.

In every one of his books, he showed himself as a baroque scholar in a baroque world; he troubled more over the execution of his tables of illustrations than over the writing (which is often wooden and repetitive).

Kircher was, in fact, incapable of thinking other than in images (cf. Rivosecchi 1982: 114). Perhaps his most lasting achievement, and certainly his most popular book, was the Ars magna lucis et umbrae of 1646.

Here he explored the visible in all its nooks and crannies, drawing from his exploration a series of scientifically valid intuitions which even faintly anticipate the invention of the techniques of photography and the cinema.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 162-5.

Eco: Kircher’s Chinese, 2


Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), Transcription of the Sino-Syriac Monument from China Illustrata, 1667, p. 12. 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.

“Why did the problem of memory arise only here, and not in regard to Egyptian hieroglyphs? The reason was that hieroglyphs discharged their allegorical and metaphorical force immediately, in virtue of what Kircher held to be their inherent power of revelation, since they “integros conceptos ideales involvebant.”

By using the verb involvere (to wind or wrap up), however, Kircher meant the exact opposite of what we might, today, suppose when we think of the natural and intuitive similarity between a given image and a thing. Hieroglyphs do not make clear but rather conceal something,

This is the reason for which Kircher speaks of the inferiority of Amerindian characters (Oedipus, III, 13-4). They seemed to Kircher inferior because they were immediately pictographic, as they were representing only individuals and events; thus they looked like mere mnemonic notes unable to bear arcane revelations (Oedipus, IV, 28; on the inferiority of Amerindian characters see also Brian Walcott (ed. note: Eco has “Brian Walcott” on p. 160, when the actual name should be Brian Walton), In biblia polyglotta prolegomena, 2.23).

Chinese ideography was undoubtedly superior to Amerindian “pictography because it was capable of expressing abstract concepts. Yet, despite the fact that it also permitted witty combinations (cf. Oedipus, III, 13-4), its decipherment remained too univocal.

The Egyptians, Kircher argued, saw in the sign of the scarab not a mere scarab, but the sun–and not the material sun that warms our world of our senses, but the sun as archetype of the intelligible world. (Ed. Note: Eco has a bracket ” next to pictography but does not close it. I include it, repeating the error, as Eco published it.)

We shall see (ch. 10) that in seventeenth-century England, Chinese writing was considered perfect in so far as with ideograms every element on the expression-plane corresponded to a semantic unit on the content-plane. It was precisely these one-to-one correspondences that, for Kircher, deprived Chinese writing of its potential for mystery.

A Chinese character was monogamously bound to the concept it represented; that was its limitation: an Egyptian hieroglyph showed its superiority by its ability to summon up entire “texts,” and to express complex chunks of infinitely interpretable content.

Kircher repeated this argument in his China. There was nothing hieratic about the Chinese character; there was nothing that veiled it from profane eyes, hiding unfathomable depths of truth; it was a prosaic instrument of everyday communication.

Knowledge of Chinese could, of course, be motivated on ethnological grounds, especially as the Jesuits had acquired so many interests in China. Still, Chinese could not qualify for inclusion in the list of holy languages.

As to the Amerindian signs, not only were they patently denotative, but they revealed the diabolic nature of a people who had lost the last vestige of archaic wisdom.

As a civilization, Egypt no longer existed, and for the Europeans it was not yet a land for future conquest. Ignored in its geopolitical inconsistency, it became a Hermetical phantom. In this role it could be identified as the spiritual ancestor of the Christian West, the progenitor of the occident’s patrimony of mystic wisdom.

China, by contrast, was no phantom but a tangible Other. It was concretely there, still a political force of respectable dimensions, still a culture alternative to that of the West. The Jesuits themselves had revealed the deep roots of Chinese culture.

“The Chinese, moral and virtuous though pagan, when forgetting the truth revealed in the structure of hieroglyphs, converted their ideography into a neutral and abstract instrument of communication, and this led to the belief that their conversion would be easy to achieve.” (Pellerey 1992b: 521).

The Americas, by contrast, were designated as the land of conquest; here there would be no compromise with idolators and their low-grade species of writing: the idolators were to be converted, and every trace of their original culture, irredeemably polluted with diabolic influences, was to be wiped away.

“The demonization of the native American cultures found here a linguistic and theoretical justification.” (ibid.: 521).

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 160-2.

Eco: The Egyptian Alphabet, 3


Horapollo (c. 5th century CE), Hori Apollinis selecta hieroglyphica, Romae: sumtibus Iulij Francescschini, ex typographia Aloysij Zanetti, 1599, pp. 128-9. Brooklyn Museum Libraries, Wilbur Library of Egyptology, Special Collections, call number PE40 H78 F84. 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.

Alciati’s commentary refers to the passage describing the stork in the Hieroglyphica. Yet we have just seen that there is no reference either to the feeding of the young or to the transport of the parents. These features are, however, mentioned in a fourth century AD text, the Hexaemeron of Basil (VIII, 5).

In other words, the information contained in the Hieroglyphica was already at the disposal of European culture. A search for traces of the stork from the Renaissance backwards is filled with pleasant surprises.

In the Cambridge Bestiary (twelfth century CE), we read that storks nourish their young with exemplary affection, and that “they incubate the nests so tirelessly that they lose their own feathers. What is more, when they have moulted in this way, they in turn are looked after by the babies, for a time corresponding in length to the time which they themselves have spent in bringing up and cherishing their offspring.” (The Bestiary, T.H. White, ed., New York: Putnam’s Sons, 1960: pp. 117-8).

The accompanying image shows a stork that carries a frog in its beak, obviously a dainty morsel for its young.

The Cambridge Bestiary has taken this idea from Isidore of Seville, who, in the Etymologiarum (XII, vii), says more or less the same. Who then are Isidore’s sources? St. Basil we have already seen; there was St. Ambrose as well (Hexaemeron, V, 16, 53), and possibly also Celsus (cited in Origen, Contra Celsum, IV, 98) and Porphyry (De abstinentia, III, 23, 1). These, in their turn, used Pliny’s Naturalis historia (X, 32) as their source.

Pliny, of course, could have been drawing on an Egyptian tradition, if Aelian, in the second to third century AD, could claim (though without citing Pliny by name) that “Storks are venerated among the Egyptians because they nourish and honor their parents when they grow old” (De animalium natura, X, 16).

But the idea can be traced back even further. The same notion is to be found in Plutarch (De solertia animalium, 4), Cicero (De finibus bonorum et malorum, II, 110), Aristotle (Historia animalium, IX, 7, 612b, 35), Plato (Alcibiades, 135 E), Aristophanes (The Birds, 1355), and finally in Sophocles (Electra, 1058).

There is nothing to prevent us from imagining that Sophocles himself was drawing on ancient Egyptian tradition; but, even if he were, it is evident that the story of the stork has been part of occidental culture for as long as we care to trace it.

It follows that Horapollo did not reveal anything hot. Moreover, the origin of this symbol seems to have been Semitic, given that, in Hebrew, the word for stork means “the one who has filial piety.”

Read by anyone familiar with medieval and classical culture, Horapollo’s booklet seems to differ very little from the bestiaries current in the preceding centuries. It merely adds some information about specifically Egyptian animals, such as the ibis and the scarab and neglects make certain of the standard moralizing comments or biblical references.

This was clear even to the Renaissance. In his Hieroglyphica sive de sacris Aegyptorum aliarumque gentium literis of 1556, Pierio Valeriano never tired of employing his vast stock of knowledge of classical and Christian sources to note the occasions where the assertions of Horapollo might be confirmed.

Yet instead of reading Horapollo in the light of a previous tradition, he revisits this whole tradition in the light of Horapollo.

With a barrage of citations from Latin and Greek authors, Giulio Cesare Capaccio displayed, in his Delle imprese of 1592, his perfect mastery of older traditions. Yet fashion now demanded that he interpreted this tradition in a Egyptian key.

“Without hieroglyphic observation,” and without having recourse to the Monas hieroglyphicaquel Giovanni Dee da Londino,” it was impossible, he said, to endow these images (coming from centuries of western culture) with their proper recondite meanings.

We are speaking of the “rereading” of a text (or of a network of texts) which had not been changed during the centuries. So what has changed? We are here witnessing a semiotic incident which, as paradoxical as some of its effects may have been, was, in terms of its own dynamic, quite easy to explain.

Horapollo’s text (qua text) differs but little from other similar writings, which were previously known. None the less, the humanists read it as a series of unprecedented statements. The reason is simply that the readers of the fifteenth century saw is as coming from a different author.

The text had not changed, but the “voice” supposed to utter it was endowed with a different charisma. This changed the way in which the text was received and the way in which it was consequently interpreted.

Thus, as old and familiar as these images were, the moment they appeared as transmitted not by the familiar Christian and pagan sources, but by the ancient Egyptian divinities themselves, they took on a fresh, and radically different, meaning.

For the missing scriptural commentaries there were substituted allusions to vague religions mysteries. The success of the book was due to its polysemy. Hieroglyphs were regarded as initiatory symbols.

They were symbols, that is, expressions that referred to an occult, unknown and ambivalent content. In contradistinction to conjecture, in which we take a visible symptom and infer from it its cause, Kircher defined a symbol as:

“a nota significativa of mysteries, that is to say, that it is the nature of a symbol to lead our minds, by means of certain similarities, to the understanding of things vastly different from the things that are offered to our external senses, and whose property it is to appear hidden under the veil of an obscure expression. [ . . . ] Symbols cannot be translated by words, but expressed only by marks, characters, and figures. (Obeliscus Pamphilius, II, 5, 114-20).”

These symbols were initiatory, because the allure of Egyptian culture was given by the promise of a knowledge that was wrapped in an impenetrable and indecipherable enigma so as to protect it from the idle curiosity of the vulgar multitudes.

The hieroglyph, Kircher reminds us, was the symbol of a sacred truth (thus, though all hieroglyphs are symbols, it does not follow that all symbols are hieroglyphs) whose force derived from its impenetrability to the eyes of the profane.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 151-4.

(Editorial Note: I must mention Mr. William Thayer, whose LacusCurtius site at the University of Chicago links to a whopping 51 complete texts by ancient authors and more. I stumbled across Mr. Thayer’s page as I linked to classical writers, and I find it to be both indispensable and a staggering contribution to online scholarship.

Thank you for this work, Mr. Thayer. I am one of the crazy ones out here in internet-land who realizes what you have done. With my best regards.)

Eco: The Egyptian Alphabet


The Rosetta Stone, inscribed with a decree by Pharaoh Ptolemy V at Memphis, is dated to 196 BCE. Featuring three scripts, ancient Egyptian, Demotic and ancient Greek, the stele was discovered in 1799 by French soldier Pierre-Françoise Bouchard of the Napoleonic expedition to Egypt. Transferred to British control after the Capitulation of Alexandria in 1801, the stele has been on continual exhibition at the British Museum since 1802. The script was finally transliterated by Jean-Françoise Champollion in 1822, decrypting the mysteries of the Egyptian hieroglyphs. This photo © Hans Hillewaert in 2007, and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. 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 hieroglyphic script is undoubtedly composed, in part, of iconic signs: some are easily recognizable–vulture, owl, bull, snake, eye, foot, man seated with a cup in hand; others are stylized–the hoisted sail, the almond-like shape for a mouth, the serrated line for water.

Some other signs, at least to the untrained eye, seem to bear only the remotest resemblance to the things that they are supposed to represent–the little square that stands for a seat, the sign of folded cloth, or the semicircle that represents bread.

All these signs are not icons (representing a thing by direct similarity) but rather ideograms, which work by a sort of rhetorical substitution. Thus an inflated sail serves to represent the wind; a man seated with a cup means to drink; a cow’s ear means to understand; the head of a cynocephalus stands for the god Thoth and for all his various attributes, such as writing and counting.

Not everything, however, can be represented ideographically. One way that the ancient Egyptians had found to circumvent this difficult was to turn their ideograms into simple phonograms.

In order to represent a certain sound they put the image of a thing whose name sounded similar. To take an example from Jean-Françoise Champollion‘s first decipherment (Lettre à Dacier, 17 September 1822, 11-12), the mouth, in Egyptian ro, was chosen to represent the Greek consonant P (rho).

It is ironic to think that while, for Renaissance Hermeticists, sounds had to represent the nature of things, for the Egyptians, things (or their corresponding images) were representing sounds (see, for a similar procedure, my remarks in chapter 6 on Bruno’s mnemonics).

By the time interest in Egyptian hieroglyphics had revived in Europe, however, knowledge of the hieroglyphic alphabet had been lost for over a thousand years. The necessary premise for the decipherment of hieroglyphs was a stroke of pure fortune, like the discovery of a bilingual dictionary.

In  fact, as is well known, decipherment was made possible by the discovery not of a dictionary, but of a trilingual text, the famous Rosetta Stone, named after the city of Rashid where it was found by a French soldier in 1799, and, as a result of Napoleon’s defeat at the hands of Nelson, soon transferred to London.

The stone bore an inscription in hieroglyphic, in demotic (a cursive, administrative script elaborated about 1,000 BCE), and in Greek.

Working from reproductions, Champollion, in his Lettre à Dacier, laid the foundation for the decipherment of hieroglyphs. He compared two cartouches which, from their position in the text, he guessed must refer to the names of Ptolemy (ΠΤΟΛΟΜΑΙΟΣ) and Cleopatra (ΚΛΟΠΑΤΡΑ).

He identified the five letters that both names have in common (Π, Τ, Ο, Λ, Α), and found that the two cartouches had five hieroglyphs in common as well. By supposing that each other instance of the same sign represented the same sound, Champollion could easily infer the phonetic value of the remaining text.

Champollion’s decipherment does not, however, explain a series of phenomena which can justify the interpretation of Horapollo. Greek and Roman colonizers had imposed on Egypt their commerce, their technology and their gods.

By the time of the spread of Christianity, Egypt had already abandoned many of its ancient traditions. Knowledge of sacred writing was still preserved and practiced only by priests living within the sacred enclosures of the ancient temples.

These were a dwindling breed: in those last repositories of a lost knowledge, cut off from the rest of the world, they cultivated the monuments of their ancient culture.

Since the sacred writing no longer served any practical use, but only initiatory purposes, these last priests began to introduce complexities into it, playing with the ambiguities inherent in a form of writing that could be differently read either phonetically or ideographically.

To write the name of the god Ptah, for example, the P was expressed phonetically and placed at the top of the name with the ideogram for sky (p[t]), the H was placed in the middle and represented by the image of the god Heh with his arms raised, and the T was expressed by the ideogram for the earth (ta).

It was an image that not only expressed Ptah phonetically, but also carried the visual suggestion that the god Ptah had originally separated the earth from the sky.

The discovery that, by combining different hieroglyphs, evocative visual emblems might be created inspired these last scribes to experiment with increasingly complicated and abstruse combinations.

In short, these scribes began to formulate a sort of kabbalistic play, based, however, on images rather than on letters.

Around the term represented by a sign (which was given an initial phonetic reading) there formed a halo of visual connotations and secondary senses, a sort of chord of associated meanings which served to amplify the original semantic range of the term.

The more the sacred text was enhanced by its exegetes, the more the conviction grew that they expressed buried truths and lost secrets (Sauneron 1957: 123-7).

Thus, to the last priests of a civilization sinking into oblivion, hieroglyphs appeared as a perfect language. Yet their perfection could only be understood by visually reading them; if by chance still pronounced, they would have lost any magic (Sauneron 1982: 55-6).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 146-9.

Eco: The Perfect Language of Images


Iamblicus (250-325 CE), De Mysteriis Aegyptiorum, Chaldoaerum, AssyriorumOn the Mysteries of the Egyptians, Chaldeans and Assyrians, Lyon: Joannis Tornaesium, 1577. In 2000, Joseph Peterson published a translation from the Greek by Alexander Wilder dated 1911 on the Esoteric Archives. A Latin edition published by Marsilio Ficino in Venice in 1497 is on, with several exemplars on Google Books. 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. 

“Already in Plato, as in Pythagoras before him, there appeared a veneration for the ancient wisdom of the Egyptians. Aristotle was more skeptical, and when he came to recount the history of philosophy in the first book of the Metaphysics, he started directly with the Greeks.

Influenced by Aristotle, the Christian authors of the Middle Ages showed relatively little curiosity about ancient Egypt. References to this tradition can be found only in marginal alchemical texts like Picatrix.

Isidore of Seville shortly mentioned the Egyptians as the inventors of geometry and astronomy, and said that the original Hebrew letters became the basis for the Greek alphabet when Isis, queen of the Egyptians, found them and brought them back to her own country (Etymologiarum, I, iii, 5).

By contrast, one could put the Renaissance under the standard of what Baltrušaitis (1967) has called the “search for Isis.” Isis became thus the symbol for an Egypt regarded as the wellspring of original knowledge, and the inventor of a sacred scripture, capable of expressing the unfathomable reality of the divine.

The Neoplatonic revival, in which Ficino played the role of high priest, restored to Egypt its ancient primacy.

In the Enneads (V, 8, 5-6) Plotinus wrote:

“The wise sages of Egypt [ . . . ] in order to designate things with wisdom do not use designs of letters, which develop into discourses and propositions, and which represent sounds and words; instead they use designs of images, each of which stands for a distinct thing; and it is these that they sculpt onto their temples. [ . . . ] Every incised sign is thus, at once, knowledge, wisdom, a real entity captured in one stroke.”

Iamblicus, in his De mysteriis aegyptiorum, said that the Egyptians, when they invented their symbols, imitating the nature of the universe and the creation of the gods, revealed occult intuitions by symbols.

The translation of the Corpus Hermeticum (which Ficino published alongside his translations of Iamblicus and other Neoplatonic texts) was under the sign of Egypt, because, for Ficino, the ancient Egyptian wisdom came from Hermes Trismegistus.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 144-5.

Eco: Lullian Kabbalism


Unknown artist, Roma 1493, depicting the city of Rome as it appeared in that year. This woodcut was published in Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514), Schedelsche Weltchronik, Nürnberg, 1493, on folio lvii verso and lviii recto. Known in English as the Nuremberg Chronicle, or Schedel’s World Chronicle, the work commissioned by Sebald Schreyer (1446-1520) and Sebastian Kammermeister (1446-1503) was lushly illustrated with the first depictions of many cities. 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. 

“We have now reached a point where we must collect what seem the various membra disiecta of the traditions we have been examining and see how they combined to produce a Lullian revival.

We can begin with Pico della Mirandola: he cited Lull in his Apologia of 1487. Pico, of course, would have been aware that there existed analogies between the permutational techniques of Lull and the temurah (which he called “revolutio alphabetaria“).

He was acute enough, however, to realize that they were two different things. In the Quaestio Sexta of the Apologia, where Pico proved that no science demonstrates the divinity of Christ better than magic and the kabbala, he distinguished two doctrines which might be termed kabbalist only in a figurative (transumptive) sense: one was the supreme natural magic; the other was the hokmat ha-zeruf of Abulafia that Pico termed an “ars combinandi,” adding that “apud nostros dicitur ars Raymundi licet forte diverso modo procedat” (“it is commonly designated as the art of Raymond, although it proceeds by a different method”).

Despite Pico’s scruples, a confusion between Lull and the kabbala was, by now, inevitable. It is from this time that the pathetic attempts of the Christian kabbalists to give Lull a kabbalistic reading begin.

In the 1598 edition of Lull’s works there appeared, under Lull’s name, a short text entitled De auditu kabbalistico: this was nothing other than Lull’s Ars brevis into which had been inserted a number of kabbalistic references.

It was supposedly first published in Venice in 1518 as an opusculum Raimundicum. Thorndike (1923-58: v, 325) has discovered the text, however, in manuscript form, in the Vatican Library, with a different title and with an attribution to Petrus de Maynardis.

The manuscript is undated, but, according to Thorndike, its calligraphy dates it to the fifteenth century. The most likely supposition is that it is a composition from the end of that century in which the suggestions first made by Pico were taken up and mechanically applied (Scholem et al. 1979: 40-1).

In the following century, the eccentric though sharp-witted Tommaso Garzoni di Bagnacavallo saw through the imposture. In his Piazza universale du tutte le arti (1589: 253), he wrote:

“The science of Raymond, known to very few, might be described with the term, very improper in itself, of Cabbala. About this, there is a notion common to all scholars, indeed, to the whole world, that in the Cabbala can be found teachings concerning everything [ . . . ] and for this reason one finds in print a little booklet ascribed to him [Lull] (though on this matter people beyond the Alps write many lies) bearing the title De Auditu Cabalistico. This is nothing but a brief summary of the Arte Magna as abbreviated, doubtlessly by Lull himself, into the Arte Breve.”

Still, the association persisted. Among various examples, we might cite Pierre Morestel, who published an Artis kabbalisticae, sive sapientiae diviniae academia in 1621, no more than a modest compilation from the De auditu.

Except for the title, and the initial identification of the Ars of Lull with the kabbala, there was nothing kabbalistic in it. Yet Morestel still thought it appropriate to include the preposterous etymology for the word kabbala taken from De auditu: “cum sit nomen compositum ex duabus dictionibus, videlicet abba et ala. Abba enim arabice idem quod pater latine, et ala arabice idem est quod Deus meus” (“as this name is composed of two terms, that is abba and ala. Abba is an Arabic word meaning Latin pater; ala is also Arabic, and means Deus meus“).

For this reason, kabbala means “Jesus Christ.”

The cliché of Lull the kabbalist reappears with only minimum variation throughout the writings of the Christian kabbalists. Gabriel Naudé, in his Apologie pour tous les grands hommes qui ont esté accuséz de magie (1625), energetically rebutted the charge that the poor Catalan mystic engaged in the black arts.

None the less, French (1972: 49) has observed that by the late Renaissance, the letters from B to K, used by Lull, had become associated with Hebrew letters, which for the kabbalists were names of angels or of divine attributes.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 128-30.

(Editorial Note: wallowing in the bibliography of Raimon Llull is not for the meek. I encountered many culs-de-sac and could not find digital versions of many of the works mentioned by Eco in this segment. If you have URLs to works which are not linked in this excerpt from Eco, please share them using the comment feature. Thank you.)

Eco: Magic Names & Kabbalistic Hebrew, 3


Henry Gillard Glindoni (1852-1913), John Dee Performing an Experiment Before Elizabeth I, purchased from Mr. Henry S. Wellcome circa 1900-36 as Accession Number 47369i, courtesy of Wellcome Library. The painting portrays Dr. John Dee conjuring for Queen Elizabeth I at Dr. Dee’s home in Mortlake. On the Queen’s left are her adviser William Cecil and Sir Walter Raleigh. Dr. Dee’s notorious scryer, Edward Kelley, is seated behind Dr. Dee, wearing a skullcap that conceals his cropped ears. This work caused a stir when an x-ray scan of the painting revealed that Dr. Dee originally stood in a magical circle comprised of human skulls. The skulls were presumably removed by the artist at the request of the original buyer. An extensive collection of works by Dr. Dee is available on the Esoteric Archives site. 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. 

“John Dee–not only magus and astrologer to Queen Elizabeth I, but profound érudit and sharp politician as well–summoned angels of dubious celestial provenance by invoking names like Zizop, Zchis, Esiasch, Od and Iaod, provoking the admiring comment, “He seemeth to read as Hebrew is read” (cf. A True and Faithful Relation of 1659).

There exists, however, a curious passage in the Arabic Hermetic treatise, known in the Middle Ages through a Latin translation, called the Picatrix (III, I, 2: cf. Pingree 1986), in which the Hebrew and Chaldean idioms are associated with the saturnine spirit, and, hence with melancholy.

Saturn, on the one hand, was the sign of the knowledge of deep and secret things and of eloquence. On the other, however, it carried a set of negative connotations inherited from Judaic law, and was associated with black cloths, obscure streams, deep wells and lonely spots, as well as with metals like lead, iron and all that is black and fetid, with thick-leafed plants and, among animals, with “camelos nigros, porcos, simias, ursos, canes et gatos [sic]” (“black camels, pigs, moneys, bears, dogs and cats”).

This is a very interesting passage; if the saturnine spirit, much in vogue during the Renaissance, was associated with sacred languages, it was also associated with things, places and animals whose common property was their aura of black magic.

Thus, in a period in which Europe was becoming receptive to new sciences that would eventually alter the known face of the universe, royal palaces and the elegant villas in the Tuscan hills around Florence were humming with the faint burr of Semitic-sounding incantations–often on the lips of the scientists themselves–manifesting the fervid determination to win a mastery of both the natural and the supernatural worlds.

Naturally, things could not long remain in such a simple state. Enthusiasm for kabbalist mysticism fostered the emergence of a Hebrew hermeneutics that could hardly fail to influence the subsequent development of Semitic philology.

From the De verbo mirifico and the De arte kabbalistica by Reuchelin, to the De harmonia mundi of Francesco Giorgi or the Opus de arcanis catholicae veritatis by Galatinus, all the way to the monumental Kabbala denudata by Knorr von Rosenroth (passing through the works of Jesuit authors whose fervor at the thought of new discoveries allowed them to overcome their scruples at handling such suspect material), there crystallized traditions for reading Hebrew texts.

This is a story filled with exciting exegetical adventures, numerological fabulizing, mixtures of Pythagoreanism, Neoplatonism and kabbalism. Little of it has any bearing on the search for a perfect language. Yet the perfect language was already there: it was the Hebrew of the kabbalists, a language that revealed by concealing, obscuring and allegorizing.

To return to the linguistic model outlined in our first chapter, the kabbalists were fascinated by an expression-substance–the Hebrew texts–of which they sought to retrieve the expression-form (the grammar), always remaining rather confused apropos of the corresponding content-form.

In reality, their search aimed at rediscovering, by combining new expression-substances, a content-continuum as yet unknown, formless, though seemingly dense with possibility. Although the Christian kabbalists continually discovered new methods of segmenting an infinite continuum of content, its nature continued to elude them.

In principle, expression and content ought to be conformal, but the expression-form appeared as the iconic image of something shrouded in mystery, thus leaving the process of interpretation totally adrift (cf. Eco 1990).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 124-6.

Eco: Magic Names and Kabbalistic Hebrew


Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim (1486-1535), man inscribed within a Pentagram with an astrological symbol at each pointDe occulta philosophia, 1533 edition, p. 163, digitized as call number Z1f9 by the Historical Medical Library of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. 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 date 1492 is an important one for Europe: it marks not only the discovery of America, but also the fall of Granada, through which Spain (and thus all Europe) severed its last link with Islamic culture.

As a consequence of Granada, moreover, their Christian majesties expelled the Jews from Spain, setting them off on a journey that carried them across the face of Europe. Among them there were the kabbalists, who spread their influence across the whole continent.

The kabbala of the names suggested that the same sympathetic links holding between sublunar objects and celestial bodies also apply to names.

According to Agrippa, Adam took both the properties of things and the influence of the stars into account when he devised his names; thus “these names contain within them all the remarkable powers of the things that they indicate” (De occulta philosophia, I, 70).

In this respect, Hebrew writing must be considered as particularly sacred; it exhibits perfect correspondence between letters, things and numbers (I, 74).

Giovanni Pico della Mirandola attended the Platonic academy of Marsilio Ficino where he had, in the spirit of the times, begun his study of the languages of ancient wisdom whose knowledge had gone into eclipse during the Middle Ages; Greek, Hebrew, Arabic and Chaldean.

Pico rejected astrology as a means of divination (Disputatio adversos astrologicos divinatores), but accepted astral magic as a legitimate technique for avoiding control by the stars, replacing it with the illuminated will of the magus.

If it were true that the universe was constructed from letters and numbers, it would follow that whoever knew the mathematical rules behind this construction might act directly on the universe.

According to Garin (1937: 162), such a will to penetrate the secrets of nature in order to dominate it presaged the ideal of Galileo.

In 1486 Pico made the acquaintance of the singular figure of a converted Jew, Flavius Mithridates, with whom he began an intense period of collaboration (for Mithridates see Secret 1964: 25ff).

Although Pico could boast a certain familiarity with Hebrew, he needed the help of the translations that Mithridates prepared for him to plumb the depths of the texts he wished to study.

Among Pico’s sources we find many of the works of Abulafia (Wirszubski 1989). Mithridates‘ translations certainly helped Pico; at the same time, however, they misled him–misleading all succeeding Christian kabbalists in his wake.

In order for a reader to use properly the kabbalist techniques of notariqon, gematria and temurah, it is obvious that the texts must remain in Hebrew: as soon as they are translated, most of the kabbalistic wordplays become unintelligible or, at least, lose their flavor.

In the translations he provided for Pico, Mithridates did often insert original Hebrew terms into his text; yet Pico (in part because typesetters of this period lacked Hebrew characters) often translated them into Latin, so augmenting the ambiguity and the obscurity of the text itself.

Beyond this, Mithridates, in common with many of the first Christian kabbalists, also had the vice of interpolating into the Hebrew texts references supposedly demonstrating that the original author had recognized the divinity of Christ. As a consequence, Pico was able to claim: “In any controversy between us and the Jews we can confute their arguments on the basis of the kabbalistic books.”

In the course of his celebrated nine hundred Conclusiones philosophicae, cabalisticae et theologicae, among which are included twenty-six Conclusiones magicae (1486), Pico demonstrated that the tetragrammaton, the sacred name of God, Yahweh, turned into the name of Jesus with the simple insertion of the letter sin.

This proof was used by all successive Christian kabbalists. In this way, Hebrew, a language susceptible to all the combinatory manipulations of the kabbalist tradition, was raised, once again, to the rank of a perfect language.

For example, in the last chapter of the Heptaplus (1489) Pico, taking off with an interpretation of the first word of Genesis (Bereshit, “In the beginning”), launches himself on a series of death-defying permutational and anagrammatical leaps.

To understand the logic of Pico’s reading, notice that in the following quotation the Hebrew characters have been substituted with the current name of the letters, Pico’s transliterations have been respected, and he is working upon the Hebrew form of the word: Bet, Resh, Alef, Shin, Yod, Tau.

“I say something marvelous, unparalleled, incredible . . . If we take the third letter and unite it with the first, we get [Alef Bet] ab. If we take the first, double it, and unite it with the second, we get [Bet Bet Resh] bebar. If we read all except the fourth with the first and the last, we get [Shin Bet Tau] sciabat.

If we place the first three in the order in which they appear, we get [Bet Resh Alef] bara. If we leave the first and take the next three, we get [Resh Alef Shin] rosc. If we leave the first two and take the two that follow, we get [Alef Shin] es.

If, leaving the first three, we unite the fourth with the last, we get [Shin Tau] seth. Once again, if we unite the second with the first, we get [Resh Bet] rab. If we put after the third, the fifth and the fourth, we get [Alef Yod Shin] hisc.

If we unite the first two letters with the last two, we get [Bet Resh Yod Tau] berith. If we unite the last to the first, we obtain the twelfth and last letter, which is [Tau Bet] thob, turning the thau into the letter theth, an extremely common procedure in Hebrew . . .

Ab means the father; bebar in the son and through the son (in fact, the beth put before means both things); resith indicates the beginning; sciabath means rest and end; bara means he created; rosc is head; es is fire; seth is fundament; rab means of the great; hisc of the man; berith with a pact; tob with goodness.

Thus taking the phrase all together and in order, it becomes: “The father in the son and for the son, beginning and end, that is, rest, created the head, the fire, and the fundament of the great man with a good pact.”

When Pico (in his “Magic Conclusion” 22) declared that “Nulla nomina ut significativa, et in quantum nomina sunt, singula et per se sumpta, in Magico opere virtutem habere possunt, nisi sint Hebraica, vel inde proxima derivata” (“No name, in so far as it has a meaning, and in so far as it is a name, singular and self-sufficient, can have a virtue in Magic, unless that name be in Hebrew or directly derived from it”), he meant to say that, on the basis of the supposed correspondence between the language of Adam and the structure of the world, words in Hebrew appeared as forces, as sound which, as soon as they are unleashed, are able to influence the course of events.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 119-22.

Eco: The Etymological Furor


Conrad Gesner (1516-65), Conradi Gesneri Historia plantarum Walderbeere, Zurich: Botanical Garden zur Katz, published in 1750. Photographed by Roland zh, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. 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. 

“Postel’s was a clear and unambiguous demand for the restoration of Hebrew as the universal language. Few, however, made this demand in so radical a fashion. For others, it was usually enough to demonstrate that Hebrew was superior because it was the first language from which all others had derived.

One example is the Mithridates of Conrad Gessner. Published in 1555, the Mithridates is a book that draws parallels between fifty-five different languages.

Having dwelt briefly on the happy condition of some legendary beings with two tongues, one for human speech and the other to speak the language of the birds, Gessner immediately passed to the claim that “all existing languages had retained words of a Hebrew origin, though in a corrupt state” (1610 edn: 3).

Other authors–in order to demonstrate such a parenthood–started a mad etymological chase.

This etymological furor was not a new condition. Between the sixth and seventh centuries, by a fanciful account of the seventy-two existing languages, Isidore of Seville (Etymologiarum) elaborated a series of etymologies that has made him the laughing stock of scholars ever since: our corpus (body) comes from corruptus perit as our body goes to corruption; homo (man) derives from humus or mud from which he is born; iumenta (mare) comes from iuvat because horses help men; agnus is a lamb because it recognizes its own mother . . . These are examples of hyper-Cratylian mimological hypothesis, and we shall see that they were taken up by the supporters of Hebrew.

In 1613 Claude Duret published his monumental Thrésor de l’histoire des langues de cet univers. Using the Christian kabbala as his starting point, Duret set forth a vast panorama that swept from the origins of language, to an examination of all known tongues, including those of the New World, to a final chapter on the language of animals.

Duret started from the premise that Hebrew was the universal language of the human race; it thus appeared to him as self-evident that each animal name in Hebrew should include an encapsulated “natural history” of that animal.

Thus we are told that, in Hebrew:

the Eagle is called Nescher, a word formed by the combination of Schor and Isachar, the first meaning to look and the second to be straight because, above all others, the eagle is a bird of firm sight whose gaze is always directed towards the sun [ . . . ]

The Lion has three names, that is Aryeh, Labi, and Layisch. The first name comes from another which means tear or lacerate; the second is related to the word leb which means heart, and laab, which means to live in solitude.

The third name usually means a great and furious lion, and bears an analogy with the verb yosh, which means trample. [ . . . ] because this animal tramples and damages its prey. (p. 40).

Hebrew had managed to retain this proximity to the world of things because it never permitted itself to be polluted by other languages (ch. x). This presumption of Hebrew’s natural affinity to the world of things is also demonstrated by its magic potential.

Duret recalled that Eusebius and St. Jerome had ridiculed the Greeks because they had exalted their own language but were unable to find any mystic significance of their alphabet.

Only ask a Hebrew child the significance of the letter Alef, and he will respond “discipline,” and so on for all the other letters and for their combinations (p. 194).

Duret is an example of retrospective etymologizing, aiming at showing how the mother tongue was harmoniously related to the nature of things. Other authors engaged in prospective etymologizing, projecting Hebrew words forwards to show how they transmuted themselves into the words of all other languages.

In 1606, Estienne Guichard wrote his L’harmonie étymologique des langues, where he showed that all existing languages might be derived from Hebrew roots. He started from the premise that Hebrew was the simplest language because in it “all words are simple, and their substance consists of but three radicals.”

Manipulating these radicals through inversion, anagrams and permutations in the best kabbalistic tradition, Guichard provided his etymologies.

In Hebrew, the verb batar means to divide. How can we prove that Latin dividere comes from batar? Simple: by inversion, batar produces tarab; tarab then becomes the Latin tribus and, from there, turns into distribuo and dividere (p. 147). Zacen means old. Rearranging the radicals, we get zanec from which derives Latin senex. 

A further rearrangement and we have cazen, from which derives the Oscan word casnar, which is the root of the Latin canus, elder (p. 247). By this method we might equally prove that the English head comes from the late Latin testa, since the anagram of testa gives eatts.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 80-2.

Eco: Postel’s Universalistic Utopia, 2


An unattributed and undated portrait of Guillaume Postel (1510-84), published by George Saliba. 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. 

“After various peregrinations, Postel found himself in Venice, where, in 1547, he was appointed chaplain of the Hospital of Sts. John and Paul (called the Ospedaletto), and censor of books published in the Hebrew language in that city.

While in the Ospedaletto, he was appointed confessor to its founder, the fifty year old Johanna, or Mother Zuana, a woman who had dedicated her life to helping the poor. Gradually, the conviction grew on Postel that in meeting Johanna, he had come into contact with a great prophetic spirit.

He conceived for her a mystic passion in which he saw her as the mother of the world, destined to redeem humanity from its original sin.

After rereading the kabbalist text, the Zohar, Postel identified Johanna as Shekinah as well as with the angelical pope whose coming had been foretold in the prophecies of Joachim a Fiore.

Finally, he identified her as the second Messiah. According to Postel, the feminine component of humanity, guilty of the sin of Eve, had not been saved by Christ. The salvation of the daughters of Eve would only occur with the coming of a second Messiah (on Postel’s “feminism” cf. Sottile 1984).

The question whether Johanna was truly a mystic with extraordinary capacities or whether these were just qualities that Postel projected into her is hardly an important issue for us.

What is important rather is that there was now established an intense spiritual communion: Johanna, the kabbala, universal peace, the last age foretold by Joachim, were all thrown into a single crucible; what emerged was Johanna in the role formerly held by Ignatius Loyola in Postel’s utopian schemes.

What is more, “Johanna’s “immaculate conception” produces her “little son,” Postel, the new Elias” (Kuntz 1981: 91).

Rumors of singular goings on at the Ospedaletto soon spread, however, and in 1549, Postel was forced to leave Venice. He resumed his wanderings in the Orient, returning to Venice the following year only to learn of the death of Johanna.

According to tradition, on hearing the news he fell into a state of prostration mixed with ecstasy in which he claimed to be able to stare into the sun for an hour. He felt the spirit of Johanna gradually invading his body (Kuntz: 1981: 104). He began to proclaim his belief in metempsychosis.

Postel next returned to Paris where, with great public acclaim, he resumed his teaching. Yet soon he was announcing the advent of the era of Restitution, a golden century under the sign of Johanna.

Once again, he found himself at the center of a philosophical and religious turmoil. When the king forced him to abandon teaching, he set off on a new journey through various cities, ending up again in Venice, arriving just in time to prevent his books from being placed on the Index.

He was questioned by the Inquisition, which tried to induce him to recant. In 1555, in recognition of his services to science and politics, he was declared “non malus sed amens,” not guilty but insane.

His life was spared, but he was imprisoned, first in Ravenna and afterwards in Rome.

At the request of the French religious authorities, Postel was later transferred to Paris, in 1564. He retired to the monastery of Saint-Martin-des-Champs where he lived until his death in 1587. During this period, he wrote a repudiation of his heretical doctrines concerning Mother Johanna.

Apart from this final capitulation, Postel seems to have been a relentless defender of ideas which, for this period, were quite unconventional. His particular vision of utopia must be regarded within the cultural context of his time.

Demonet (1992: 337ff) underlines that his idea of the “restitution” of Hebrew as the language of universal concord also required that infidels recognize their error and accept the Christian revelation.

None the less, as Kuntz notes (1981: 49), Postel was neither an orthodox Catholic nor an orthodox Protestant; his moderate and pacifist positions infuriated, in fact, extremists of both persuasions.

Some of his doctrines were theologically ambiguous: he claimed that Christianity was the only religion that verified the message of Judaism, but–at the same time–that to be a good Christian it was not necessary to belong to a sect (Catholic church included), but rather to feel the presence of the divine within.

It followed that a true Christian could, and even should, observe Jewish law, and that the Muslims could be considered half-Christians.

More than once, Postel condemned the persecution of the Jews. He spoke of the Jewishness of all men, talking of Christian-Jews instead of Jewish Christians (Kuntz 1981: 130).

He claimed that the true tradition of Christianity was Judaism with its name changed, and lamented that Christianity had lost its Judaic roots.

Such positions could only be seen as extremely provocative by a church still clinging to the pre-Renaissance doctrine that Christianity represented both the correction and the cancellation of Judaism.

In order to affirm, as Postel did in his De orbis, the existence of a harmony between the faiths, it was necessary to exercise a tolerance on a number of theological issues. Postel’s doctrine has thus been described as a universalistic theism (Radetti 1936).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 77-80.

Eco: Postel’s Universalistic Utopia

Guillaume Postel, The Great Key, Eliphas Levi, The Key of the Great Mysteries, 1861

Guillaume Postel (1510-81), The Great Key, in Eliphas Levi (1810-75), La Clef des Grands MystèresThe Key of the Great Mysteries, 1861.

“A special place in the story of the renewal of Hebrew studies belongs to the French utopian thinker and érudit, Guillaume Postel (1510-81). Councillor to the kings of France, close to the major religious, political and scientific personalities of his epoch, Postel returned from a series of diplomatic missions to the Orient, voyages which enabled him to study Arabic and Hebrew as well as to learn of the wisdom of the kabbala, a changed and marked man.

Already renowned as a Greek philologist, around 1539, Postel was appointed to the post of “mathematicorum et peregrinarum linguarum regius interpretes” in that Collège des Trois Langues which eventually became the Collège de France.

In his De originibus seu de Hebraicae linguae et gentis antiquitate (1538), Postel argued that Hebrew came directly from the sons of Noah, and that, from it, Arabic, Chaldean, Hindi and, indirectly, Greek had all descended as well.

In Linguarum duodecem characteribus differentium alphabetum, introductio (1538), by studying twelve different alphabets he proved the common derivation of every language. From here, he went on to advance the project of a return to Hebrew as the instrument for the peaceable fusion of the peoples of differing races.

To support his argument that Hebrew was the proto-language, Postel developed the criterion of divine economy. As there was but one human race, one world and one God, there could be but one language; this was a “sacred language, divinely inspired into the first man” (De Foenicum litteris, 1550).

God had educated Adam by breathing into him the capacity to call things by their appropriate names (De originibus, seu, de varia et potissimum orbit Latino ad hanc diem incognita aut inconsyderata historia, 1553).

Although Postel does not seem to have thought either of an innate faculty for languages or of a universal grammar, as Dante had done, there still appears in many of his writings the notion of an Averroist active intellect as the repository of the forms common to all humanity, in which the roots of our linguistic faculty must be sought (Les très merveilleuses victoires des femmes du nouveau monde together with La doctrine du siècle doré, both from 1553).

Postel’s linguistic studies were connected to his particular vision of a religious utopia: he foresaw the reign of universal peace.

In his De orbis terrae concordia (1544:I) he clearly states that his studies in language would help to lay the foundations upon which a universal concord could be created. He envisioned the creation of a linguistic commonwealth that would serve as living proof to those of other faiths that not only was the message of Christianity true, but equally it verified their own religious beliefs: there are some principles of a natural religion, or sets of innate ideas held by all peoples (De orbis, III).

Here was the spirit that had inspired Lull and Nicholas of Cusa. Yet Postel was convinced that universal peace could only be realized under the protection of the king of France: among the world’s rulers the king of France alone held a legitimate claim to the title of king of the world.

He was the direct descendent of Noah, through Gomer, son of Japheth, founder of the Gallic and Celtic races (cf. particularly Les raisons de la monarchie, c. 1551). Postel (Trésor des propheties de l’univers, 1556) supported this contention with a traditional etymology (see, for example, Jean Lemaire de Belges, Illustration de Gaule et singularitez de Troye, 1512-3, fol. 64r): in Hebrew, the term gallus meant “he who overcame the waves;” thus the Gauls were the people who had survived the waters of the Flood (cf. Stephens 1989:4).

Postel first attempted to convert Francis I to his cause. The king, however, judged him a fanatic, and he lost favor at court. He went to Rome, hoping to win over to his utopian schemes Ignatius of Loyola, whose reformist ideals seemed kindred to his own.

It did not take Ignatius long, however, to realize that Postel’s ambitions were not identical to those of the Jesuits. Accepting Postel’s project might have placed their vow of obedience to the pope at risk.

Besides, Ignatius was a Spaniard, and the idea of turning the king of France into the king of the world would hardly have appealed to him. Although Postel continued long afterwards to look upon the Jesuits as the divine instrument for the creation of universal peace, he himself was forced to leave the company after a mere year and a half.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 75-7.

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 Arbor Scientarium

Ramon Llull, Liber de ascensu et decensu intellectus, 1304, first published 1512

Ramon Llull, Liber de ascensu et decensu intellectus, 1304, first published 1512. 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 Lullian art was destined to seduce later generations who imagined that they had found in it a mechanism to explore the numberless possible connections between dignities and principles, principles and questions, questions and virtues or vices.

Why not even construct a blasphemous combination stating that goodness implies an evil God, or eternity a different envy? Such a free and uncontrolled working of combinations and permutations would be able to produce any theology whatsoever.

Yet the principles of faith, and the belief in a well-ordered cosmos, demanded that such forms of combinatorial incontinence be kept repressed.

Lull’s logic is a logic of first, rather than second, intentions; that is, it is a logic of our immediate apprehension of things rather than of our conceptions of them. Lull repeats in various places that if metaphysics considers things as they exist outside our minds, and if logic treats them in their mental being, the art can treat them from both points of view.

Consequently, the art could lead to more secure conclusions than logic alone, “and for this reason the artist of this art can learn more in a month than a logician can in a year.” (Ars magna, X, 101).

What this audacious claim reveals, however, is that, contrary to what some later supposed, Lull’s art is not really a formal method.

The art must reflect the natural movement of reality; it is therefore based on a notion of truth that is neither defined in the terms of the art itself, nor derived from it logically. It must be a conception that simply reflects things as they actually are.

Lull was a realist, believing in the existence of universals outside the mind. Not only did he accept the real existence of genera and species, he believed in the objective existence of accidental forms as well.

Thus Lull could manipulate not only genera and species, but also virtues, vices and every other sort of differentia as well; at the same time, however, all those substances and accidents could not be freely combined because their connections were determined by a rigid hierarchy of beings (cf. Rossi 1960: 68).

In his Dissertatio de arte combinatoria of 1666, Leibniz wondered why Lull had limited himself to a restricted number of elements. In many of his works, Lull had, in truth, also proposed systems based on 10, 16, 12 or 20 elements, finally settling on 9. But the real question ought to be not why Lull fixed upon this or that number, but why the number of elements should be fixed at all.

In respect of Lull’s own intentions, however, the question is beside the point; Lull never considered his to be an art where the combination of the elements of expression was free rather than precisely bound in content.

Had it not been so, the art would not have appeared to Lull as a perfect language, capable of illustrating a divine reality which he assumed from the outset as self-evident and revealed.

The art was the instrument to convert the infidels, and Lull had devoted years to the study of the doctrines of the Jews and Arabs. In his Compendium artis demonstrativa (“De fine hujus libri“) Lull was quite explicit: he had borrowed his terms from the Arabs.

Lull was searching for a set of elementary and primary notions that Christians held in common with the infidels. This explains, incidentally, why the number of absolute principles is reduced to nine (the tenth principle, the missing letter A, being excluded from the system, as it represented perfection or divine unity).

One is tempted to see in Lull’s series the ten Sefirot of the kabbala, but Plazteck observes (1953-4: 583) that a similar list of dignities is to be found in the Koran. Yates (1960) identified the thought of John Scot Erigene as a direct source, but Lull might have discovered analogous lists in various other medieval Neo-Platonic texts–the commentaries of pseudo-Dionysius, the Augustinian tradition, or the medieval doctrine of the transcendental properties of being (cf. Eco 1956).

The elements of the art are nine (plus one) because Lull thought that the transcendental entities recognized by every monotheistic theology were ten.

Lull took these elementary principles and inserted them into a system which was already closed and defined, a system, in fact, which was rigidly hierarchical–the system of the Tree of Science.

To put this in other terms, according to the rules of Aristotelian logic, the syllogism “all flowers are vegetables, X is a flower, therefore X is a vegetable” is valid as a piece of formal reasoning independent of the actual nature of X.

For Lull, it mattered very much whether X was a rose or a horse. If X were a horse, the argument must be rejected, since it is not true that a horse is a vegetable. The example is perhaps a bit crude; nevertheless, it captures very well the idea of the great chain of being (cf. Lovejoy 1936) upon which Lull based his Arbor scientiae (1296).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 64-7.

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: Dante and Abulafia, 2


Bartolomeu Velho (d.1568), Figure of the Heavenly Bodies, an illuminated illustration of the Ptolemaic geocentric conception of the Universe, from Cosmographia, 1568. Held in the Bibliotèque Nationale de France, Paris. 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.  

“Yet could Dante have known the theories of Abulafia?

Abulafia visited Italy on several occasions: he was in Rome in 1260; he remained on the peninsula until 1271, when he returned to Barcelona; he returned to Rome in 1280 with the project of converting the pope.

He journeyed afterwards to Sicily, where we lose trace of him somewhere near the end of the 1290s. His ideas incontestably exercised an influence on contemporary Italian Jewish thought. We have a record of a debate in 1290 between Hillel of Verona (who had probably met Abulafia twenty years earlier) and Zerakhya of Barcelona, who arrived in Italy at the beginning of the 1270s (cf. Genot-Bismuth 1988: II).

Hillel, who had contacts in the world of Bologna intellectuals, had written to Zerakhya to ask him the question first posed by Herodotus: in what language would a child speak if it were brought up with no linguistic stimuli?

Hillel maintained that such a child would naturally speak Hebrew, because Hebrew was humanity’s original natural language. Hillel either did not know, or else disregarded, the fact that Abulafia was of a different opinion. Not so with Zerakhya.

He sarcastically remarked that Hillel had been taken in by the siren song of the “uncircumcised” of Bologna. The first sounds emitted by a child without linguistic education, he asserted, would resemble the barking of dogs. It was madness to maintain that the sacred language could be naturally bestowed on human beings.

Humanity possessed a linguistic potential, but it was a potential that could be activated only through education of the vocal organs. This, however, required instruction.

At this point, Zerakhya brought forward a proof that we shall find in a number of post-Renaissance Christian authors (for example, in the In Biblia polyglotta prolegomena by Walton in 1673, or the De sacra philosophia of 1652 by Vallesio): had there been the primordial gift of an original sacred language, then all human beings, regardless of their native tongue, would have the innate ability to speak it.

The existence of such a debate is enough to show, without needing to invent a meeting between Dante and Abulafia, that Abulafia’s ideas were subject to discussion in Italy, especially in the Bolognese intellectual circles which influenced Dante, and from which, according to Maria Corti, he absorbed his notion of the forma locutionis.

Nor does the Bologna debate constitute the only point of encounter between Dante and Jewish thought.

Genot-Bismuth has given us a vivid picture of the close of the thirteenth century in which we will later find a Yehuda Romano giving a series of lectures on the Divine Comedy for his co-religionists, a Lionello di Ser Daniele who did likewise using a Divine Comedy transliterated into Hebrew script, not to mention the surprising personage of Immanuel da Roma, who, in his own poetic compositions, seemed to launch an attack on Dante’s ideals almost aspiring to produce a sort of counter-Comedy in Hebrew.

Naturally this only establishes the influence of Dante on Italian Jewish culture, not the other way around. Yet Genot-Bismuth is able to show opposing influences as well, even to the point of suggesting that Dante’s theory of the four senses of scripture, found in his Epistula, XIII (cf. Eco 1985), had a Jewish origin.

Such a hypothesis may be too bold: there were any number of Christian sources from which Dante might have drawn this doctrine. What seems less daring, and, in fact, entirely plausible, is the suggestion that, in Bologna, Dante would have heard echoes of the debate between Hillel and Zerakhya.

One could say that in DVE he appears still close to the position of the former (or of his Christian inspirers, as Zerakhya reproaches him), while in Paradise he turns towards the positions of the latter, that is, the position of Abulafia (even though, when writing DVE, he already had the opportunity to know both theses).

However, it is not necessary to document direct links (even though Genot-Bismuth finds the presence of Jewish influences in certain passages of the De regimine principium of Giles of Rome), but rather to demonstrate the existence of a cultural climate in which ideas could circulate and within which a formal and informal debate between the church and the synagogue might ensue (cf. Calimani 1987: viii).

We should remember that, before the Renaissance, a Christian thinker would scarcely wish to admit publicly that he drew on Hebrew doctrine.

Like heretics, the Jewish community belonged to a category of outcasts that–as Le Goff shrewdly observes–the Middle Ages officially despised but at the same time admired; regarding them with an admixture of attraction and fear, keeping them at a distance, but making sure that the distance was fixed near enough so they would always remain close at hand.

“What was termed charity in their regard more resembled the game that cats play with mice” (Le Goff 1964:373).

Before the kabbala was rehabilitated by humanist culture, Christianity knew little of it. It was often simply regarded as a branch of the black arts. Even so, as Gorni has pointed out (1990: vii), in the Divine Comedy, Dante seems to share a great deal of knowledge about magic and divinatory practices (astrology, chiromancy, physiognomy, geomancy, pyromancy, hydromancy and, not least, the black arts of magic themselves).

In one way or another, Dante seems to have been informed about an excluded and underground culture in which, at least according to vulgar opinion, the kabbala somehow belonged.

In this way, it becomes ever more plausible that, even if it does not derive directly from the theories of the Modistae, Dante’s forma locutionis is not a language but the universal matrix for all language.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 49-52.

Eco: The Mother Tongue


The Hebrew alphabet. Compiled and posted by Assyrio on Wikipedia. The copyright holder releases this work into the public domain, granting anyone the right to use this work for any purpose without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.  

Humiliter dedicata a amico miles Georgius Hand IV, polyglottis et πολυμαθής.

“Despite this, Abulafia did not think that this matrix of all languages (which coincides with the eternal, but not with the written, Torah) corresponded yet to Hebrew. Here Abulafia made a distinction between the twenty-two letters as a linguistic matrix, and Hebrew as the mother tongue of humanity.

The twenty-two Hebrew letters represented the ideal sounds which had presided over the creation of the seventy existing languages. The fact that other languages had more vowels depended on the variations in pronouncing the twenty-two letters. In modern terminology, the new foreign sounds would be called allophones of the fundamental Hebrew phonemes.

Other kabbalists had observed that the Christians lacked the letter Kheth, while the Arabs lacked Peh. In the Renaissance, Yohanan Alemanno argued that the origins of these phonetic deviations in non-Hebrew languages were the noises of beasts; some were like the grunting of pigs, others were like the croaking of frogs, still others were like the sound of a crane.

The assimilation of bestial sounds showed that these were the languages of peoples who had abandoned the right path and true conduct of their lives. In this sense, another result of the confusion of Babel was the multiplication of letters.

Alemanno was aware that there were also other peoples who considered their languages as superior to all others. He cited Galen, who claimed that Greek was the most pleasing of all languages and the one that most conformed to the laws of reason.

Not daring to contradict him, he attributed this fact to affinities he saw as existing between Greek, Hebrew, Arabic and Assyrian.

For Abulafia, the twenty-two Hebrew letters represented the entire gamut of sounds naturally produced by the human vocal organs. It was the different ways of combining these letters that had given rise to the different languages.

The word zeruf (combination) and the word lashon (language) had the same numerical value (386): it followed that the rules of combination provided the explanation to the formation of each separate language.

Abulafia admitted that the decision to represent these sounds according to certain graphic signs was a matter of convention; it was, however, a convention established between God and the prophets.

Being aware that there existed other theories which claimed that the sounds which expressed ideas or things were conventional (he could have encountered such an Aristotelian and Stoic notion in Jewish authors like Maimonides), Abulafia, nevertheless, invoked a rather modern distinction between conventionality and arbitrariness.

Hebrew was a conventional but not an arbitrary language. Abulafia rejected the claim, maintained, among others, by certain Christian authors, that, left entirely to itself, a child would automatically begin to speak Hebrew: the child would be unaware of the convention.

Yet Hebrew remained the sacred mother tongue, because the names given by Adam, though conventional, were in accordance with nature. In this sense, Hebrew was the proto-language.

Its existence was a precondition for all the rest, “For if such a language did not precede it, there couldn’t have been mutual agreement to call a given object by a different name from what it was previously called, for how would the second person understand the second name if he doesn’t know the original name, in order to be able to agree to the changes.” (Sefer or ha-Sekhel; cf. Idel 1989: 14).

Abulafia lamented that his people in the course of their exile had forgotten their original language. He looked on the kabbalist as a laborer working to rediscover the original matrix of all the seventy languages of the world.

Still, he knew that it would not be until the coming of the Messiah that all the secrets of the kabbala would be definitively revealed. Only then, at the end of time, would all linguistic differences cease, and languages be reabsorbed back into the original sacred tongue.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 32-3.

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.


Eco: Before and After Europe, 2


MC Escher, Tower of Babel, 1928. This image of a drawing is copyrighted by the artist, who died in 1972. Low-resolution images of works of art for purposes of critical commentary qualify for fair use under United States copyright law.

“Despite this, by the second century AD, there had begun to form the suspicion that Latin and Greek might not be the only languages which expressed harmoniously the totality of experience.

Slowly spreading across the Greco-Roman world, obscure revelations appeared; some were attributed to Persian magi, others to an Egyptian divinity called Thoth-Hermes, to Chaldean oracles, and even to the very Pythagorean and Orphic traditions which, though born on Greek soil, had long been smothered under the weight of the great rationalist philosophy.

By now, the classical rationalism, elaborated and re-elaborated over centuries, had begun to show signs of age. With this, traditional religion entered a period of crisis as well. The imperial pagan religion had become a purely formal affair, no more than a simple expression of loyalty.

Each people had been allowed to keep its own gods. These were accommodated to the Latin pantheon, no one bothering over contradictions, synonyms or homonyms. The term characterizing this leveling toleration for any type of religion (and for any type of philosophy or knowledge as well) is syncretism.

An unintended result of this syncretism, however, was that a diffused sort of religiosity began to grow in the souls of the most sensitive. It was manifested by a belief in the universal World Soul; a soul which subsisted in stars and in earthly objects alike.

Our own, individual, souls were but small particles of the great World Soul. Since the reason of philosophers proved unable to supply truths about important matters such as these, men and women sought revelations beyond reason, through visions, and through communications with the godhead itself.

It was in this climate that Pythagoreanism was reborn. From its beginnings, Pythagoreans had regarded themselves as the keepers of a mystic form of knowledge, and practiced initiatory rites.

Their understanding of the laws of music and mathematics was presented as the fruit of revelation obtained from the Egyptians. By the time of Pythagoreanism’s second appearance, however, Egyptian civilization had been eradicated by the Greek and Latin conquerors.

Egypt itself had now become an enigma, no more than an incomprehensible hieroglyph. Yet there is nothing more fascinating than secret wisdom: one is sure that it exists, but one does not know what it is. In the imagination, therefore, it shines as something unutterably profound.

That such wisdom could exist while still remaining unknown, however, could only be accounted for by the fact that the language in which this wisdom was expressed had remained unknown as well.

This was the reasoning of Diogenes Laertius, who wrote in his Lives of the Philosophers in the third century AD:

“There are those who assert that philosophy started among the Barbarians: there were, they claim, Magi among the Persians, the Chaldeans, the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Gymnosophists of India, the Druids among the Celts and Galatians” (I).

The classical Greeks had identified barbarians as those who could not even articulate their speech. It now seemed that these very mumblings were of a sacred language, filled with the promise of tacit revelations (Festugière 1944-54:I).

I have given a summary of the cultural atmosphere at this time because, albeit in a delayed fashion, it was destined to have a deep influence on our story. Although no one at the time proposed the reconstruction of the perfect language, the need for one was, by now, vaguely felt.

We shall see that the suggestions, first planted during these years, flowered more than twelve centuries later in humanistic and Renaissance culture (and beyond); this will constitute a central thread in the story I am about to tell.

In the meantime, Christianity had become a state religion, expressed in the Greek of the patristic East and in the Latin still spoken in the West. After St. Jerome translated the Old Testament in the fourth century, the need to know Hebrew as a sacred language grew weaker. This happened to Greek as well.

A typical example of this cultural lack is given by St. Augustine, a man of vast culture, and the most important exponent of Christian thought at the end of the empire.

The Christian revelation is founded on an Old Testament written in Hebrew and a New Testament written, for the most part, in Greek. St. Augustine, however, knew no Hebrew; and his knowledge of Greek was, to say the least, patchy (cf. Marrou 1958).

This amounts to a somewhat paradoxical situation: the man who set himself the task of interpreting scripture in order to discover the true meaning of the divine word could read it only in a Latin translation.

The notion that he ought to consult the Hebrew original never really seems to have entered Augustine’s mind. He did not entirely trust the Jews, nurturing a suspicion that, in their versions, they might have erased all references to the coming of Christ.

The only critical procedure he would allow was that of comparing translations in order to find the most likely version. In this way, St. Augustine, though the father of hermeneutics, was certainly not destined to become the father of philology.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 12-4.


Eco: Before and After Europe


Hendrick van Cleve III (1525-89), The Tower of Babel, 16th Century, Kröller-Müller Museum. 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. 

“Stories accounting for the multiplicity of tongues appear in divers mythologies and theogonies (Borst 1957-63: I, 1). None the less, it is one thing to know why many languages exist; it is quite another to decide that this multiplicity is a wound that must be healed by the quest for a perfect language.

Before one decides to seek a perfect language, one needs, at the very least, to be persuaded that one’s own is not so.

Keeping, as we decided, strictly to Europe–the classical Greeks knew of peoples speaking languages other than theirs: they called these peoples barbaroi, beings who mumble in an incomprehensible speech.

The Stoics, with their more articulated notion of semiotics, knew perfectly well that the ideas to which certain sounds in Greek corresponded were also present in the minds of barbarians.

However, not knowing Greek, barbarians had no notion of the connection between the Greek sound and the particular idea. Linguistically and culturally speaking, they were unworthy of any attention.

For the Greek philosophers, Greek was the language of reason. Aristotle’s list of categories is squarely based on the categories of Greek grammar. This did not explicitly entail a claim that the Greek language was primary: it was simply a case of the identification of thought with its natural vehicle.

Logos was thought, and Logos was speech. About the speech of barbarians little was known; hence, little was known about what it would be like to think in the language of barbarians.

Although the Greeks were willing to admit that the Egyptians, for example, possessed a rich and venerable store of wisdom, they only knew this because someone had explained it to them in Greek.

As Greek civilization expanded, the status of Greek as a language evolved as well. At first, there existed almost as many varieties of Greek as there were Greek texts (Meillet 1930:4). In the period following the conquests of Alexander the Great, however, there arose and spread a common Greek–the koiné.

This was the language of Polybius, Strabo, Plutarch and Aristotle; it was the language taught in the schools of grammar. Gradually it became the official language of the entire area of the Mediterranean bounded by Alexander’s conquests.

Spoken by patricians and intellectuals, Greek still survived here under Roman domination as well, as the language of commerce and trade, of diplomacy, and of scientific and philosophical debate.

It was finally the language in which the first Christian texts were transmitted (the Gospels and the Septuagint translation of the Bible in the third century BCE), and the language of the early church fathers.

A civilization with an international language does not need to worry about the multiplicity of tongues. Nevertheless such a civilization can worry about the “rightness” of its own.

In the Cratylus, Plato asks the same question that a reader of the Genesis story might: did the nomothete choose the sounds with which to name objects according to the object’s nature (physis)?

This is the thesis of Cratylus, while Ermogene maintains that they were assigned by law or human convention (nomos). Socrates moves among these theses with apparent ambiguity.

Finally, having subjected both to ironical comment, inventing etymologies that neither he (nor Plato) is eager to accept, Socrates brings forward his own hypothesis: knowledge is founded not on our relation to the names of things, but on our relation to the things themselves–or, better, to the ideas of those things.

Later, even by these cultures that ignored Cratylus, every discussion on the nature of a perfect language has revolved around the three possibilities first set out in this dialogue.

None the less, the Cratylus is not itself a project for a perfect language: Plato discusses the preconditions for semantic adequacy within a given language without posing the problem of a perfect one.

While the Greek koiné continued to dominate the Mediterranean basin, Latin was becoming the language of the empire, and thus the universal language for all parts of Europe reached by Roman legions.

Later it became the language of the Roman church. Once again, a civilization with a common language was not troubled by the plurality of tongues.

Learned men might still discourse in Greek, but, for the rest of the world, speaking with barbarians was, once again, the job of a few translators, and this only until these same barbarians began to speak their Latin.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 10-2.

Selz: The Debate Over Mesopotamian Influence on Jewish Pre-History is 2000 Years Old

“The reports further continue with the famous account of the downfall of the Persian empire in the same year, after the battle at Gaugamela, north of Mosul (331 BCE).

“On the 11th of that month, panic occurred in the camp before the king. The Macedonians encamped in front of the king. On the 24th [1 October], in the morning, the king of the world [Alexander] erected his standard and attacked.

Opposite each other they fought and a heavy defeat of the troops of the king [Darius] he [Alexander] incited. The king [Darius], his troops deserted him and to their cities they went. They fled to the east.”

As I have learnt from the Swiss philosopher and historian of science, Gerd Graßhoff, these collections of data were systematically made in order to obtain knowledge about the possible connections of various events, and more specifically in order to get information of how one could interfere and prevent an otherwise probable future event.

The Fall of Babylon, John Martin, 1831 CE.,_the_fall_of_babyl.aspx John Martin (1789-1854 CE) first exhibited his painting The Fall of Babylon at the British Institution in 1819. He later supervised mezzotint reproductions, hence the date 1831 CE for this print.  Held by the British Museum.  This image is included under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license.

The Fall of Babylon, John Martin, 1831 CE.,_the_fall_of_babyl.aspx
John Martin (1789-1854 CE) first exhibited his painting The Fall of Babylon at the British Institution in 1819. He later supervised mezzotint reproductions, hence the date 1831 CE for this print.
Held by the British Museum.
This image is included under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license.

(I refer to Graßhoff, “Diffusion”; see also idem, “Babylonian Metrological Observations and the Empirical Basis of Ancient Science,” in The Empirical Dimension of Ancient Near Eastern Studies—Die empirische Dimension altorientalischer Forschungen (ed. G.J. Selz with the assistance of K. Wagensonner; Wiener Offene Orientalistik 6, Wien: Lit, 2011), pp. 25-40.)

The Astronomical Diaries are certainly a latecomer within the cuneiform tradition; there is, however no reason to postulate a fundamental change in the methodological attitude of Mesopotamian scholars, at least after the Old Babylonian period.

In comparison to our approaches, “there is no methodological difference for Babylonian scholarship compared to causal reasoning to obtain knowledge about causal regularities with causes indicated by signs. This counts for all sorts of domains of knowledge—from medical, over meteorological, economic to astronomical knowledge.”

(Graßhoff, “Diffusion.”)

Numerous articles and books deal with Enoch and “Enochic literature.” From the viewpoint of a cuneiform scholar, Helge Kvanvig’s book Roots of Apocalyptic: The Mesopotamian Background of the Enoch Figure and the Son of Man must be considered a major contribution.

The Babylonian surroundings of the forefathers of apocalyptic literature, Ezekiel and Deutero-Isaiah, led to the hypothesis that other apocalyptic texts may have their roots in the Babylonian exile.

Be that as it may, the great impact the Babylonian mantic and astronomical tradition had on the growing Hebrew apocalyptic texts remains beyond dispute.

(VanderKam, Enoch and the Growth, pp. 6-15; Robinson, “Origins,” pp. 38-51.)

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, The Earthly Paradise (Garden of Eden). Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516 CE) painted The Garden of Earthly Delights with oil on panel between 1480 and 1505 CE. This is the leftmost panel of three. It was acquired by the Museo del Prado, Madrid, in 1939. This work is in the public domain in the United States and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 100 years or less.

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, The Earthly Paradise (Garden of Eden).
Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516 CE) painted The Garden of Earthly Delights with oil on panel between 1480 and 1505 CE. This is the leftmost panel of three. It was acquired by the Museo del Prado, Madrid, in 1939.
This work is in the public domain in the United States and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 100 years or less.

Since the times of Flavius Josephus, the first century Jewish historian who also recorded the Roman destruction of the second temple on 4 August 70 CE, the relationship of the Jewish prehistory to the similar traditions of the neighbouring cultures became a pivotal point for all sorts of discussions.

While not very widely distributed initially, the Babyloniaca of Berossos gained increasing influence on the picture of the earlier Mesopotamian history in antiquity, despite the fact that the primary source for all Hellenistic scholarship remained Ctesias of Cnidos (in Caria) from the fifth century BCE.

The interest in Berossos’ work was mainly provoked by his account of Babylonian astronomy, and, in the Christian era, by his record of the Babylonian flood lore.

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, 1480-1505 CE, the complete triptych. It is in the collection of the Museo del Prado, Madrid. This work is in the public domain in the United States and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 100 years or less.

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, 1480-1505 CE, the complete triptych.
It is in the collection of the Museo del Prado, Madrid.
This work is in the public domain in the United States and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 100 years or less.

(A Hellenistic priest from Babylon, living during Alexander’s reign over the capital (330-323 BCE), that is less than 200 years before the alleged earliest Qumran manuscripts!)

His report of the ten antediluvian kings was paralleled apologetically to traditions from the Hebrew Bible. In this way Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea (circa 260-340 BCE), used the Babyloniaca in order to harmonize the biblical and the pagan traditions, whereas Flavius Josephus used it for Jewish apologetics.

Therefore, the controversial debate over the reliability of biblical stories about the patriarchs and their relation to the mytho-historical accounts of Mesopotamian prehistory have persisted for two millennia.”

Gebhard J. Selz, “Of Heroes and Sages–Considerations of the Early Mesopotamian Background of Some Enochic Traditions,” in Armin Lange, et alThe Dead Sea Scrolls in Context, v. 2, Brill, 2011, pp. 787-9.

The Three Books of the Babyloniaca

“Jewish and Christian users even manipulated Berossos’ account in order to accommodate it to Biblical history.

Josephus claims that a Babylonian mentioned by Berossos could be identified with Abraham (BNJ 680 F 6), which is obviously a Jewish misinterpretation.

Eusebius adduces an alleged synchronism between the Babylonian and Judean kings in the account of Polyhistor in order to settle Old Testament chronology (BNJ 680 F 7c).

It is, however, certain that this synchronism was a later Jewish or Christian creation. The parallel number of ten Babylonian antediluvian kings and Biblical patriarchs is very probably a Jewish or Christian forgery too.

In Mesopotamian tradition there were no more than nine antediluvian kings, as e.g. in the Dynastic Chronicles, which was very likely an important source of Berossos. Moreover, the name of one of the kings is in fact that of a postdiluvian ruler (Ammenon = Enmenunna). This suggests that a later user inserted a tenth name in Berossos’ list in order to create the correspondence with the Old Testament tradition.

Apart from links with Biblical tradition, several fragments contain references to stories in classical literature. Sennacherib’s erection of a monument in Cilicia and the foundation of Tarsus (BNJ 680 F 7c // 685 F 5) recalls the classical story of the epitaph of the Assyrian king Sardanapallos, who boasted to have built Tarsus and Anchiale in one day (Strabo 14.5.9).

The fall of Nineveh and the death by fire of the Assyrian king Sarakos (BNJ 680 F 7d // 685 F 5) parallels the end of Sardanapallos in Ctesianic tradition (BNJ 688 F lb and lq). Berossos also gives a version of the construction of the ‘Hanging Gardens’ in Babylon (BNJ 680 F 8a), in classical tradition one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The close connections to classical tales very probably explain why these stories survived in the fragments.

It must be emphasised, then, that due to the particular interests of our main sources — Josephus and the Christian apologists — we only have a partial and biased view of Berossos’ original composition. A few fragments clearly show that Berossos’ work was broader in scope than may appear at face value.

Athenaeus describes a Saturnalia-like festival celebrat­ed in Babylon (BNJ680 F2), which demonstrates that Berossos also wrote about Babylonian customs. Clement of Alexandria informs us that Artaxerxes II introduced the cult of the Persian goddess Anaitis in Babylon (BNJ 680 F 11).

This shows that Berossos treated the Achaemenid period in some detail and did not confine himself to the brief summary in BNJ 680 F 10. The lexicographer Hesychius notes that Sarachero was the female adorner of the spouse of Bel (BNJ 680 F 13), but we do not know in which context Sarachero had been mentioned.

Antiochus Cylinder BM36277

The Cylinder of Antiochus I Soter from the Ezida Temple in Borsippa (the Antiochus Cylinder) is an historiographical text from ancient Babylonia. It describes how the Seleucid crown prince Antiochus, the son of king Seleucus Nicator, rebuilt the Ezida Temple and prays for divine protection. The cuneiform text itself (BM 36277) is now in the British Museum.
The Antiochus cylinder is the latest such cylinder extant. Another late example is the Cyrus Cylinder, commemorating Cyrus’ capture of Babylon in 539 BCE (Schaudig 2001: 550-6). This cylinder, however, was written in normal Neo-Babylonian script.
The document is a barrel-shaped clay cylinder, which was buried in the foundations of the Ezida temple in Borsippa. This form of foundation document is common since the second millennium. The script of this cylinder is deliberately archaic, using a ceremonial Babylonian cuneiform script that was also used in the Codex of Hammurabi and adopted in a number of royal inscriptions of Neo-Babylonian kings like Nabopolassar, Nebuchadnezzar and Nabonidus (cf. Berger 1973). The script varies from the cuneiform that was used for chronicles, diaries, rituals, scientific and administrative texts.
The Antiochus Cylinder was recovered by Hormuzd Rassam in 1880 in Ezida, the temple of the god Nabu in Borsippa, from its original position “encased in some kiln-burnt bricks covered over with bitumen,” in the “doorway” of Koldewey’s Room A1. Rassam (1897: 270) mistakenly records this as a cylinder of Nebuchadnezzar II (Reade 1986: 109). The cylinder is now in the British Museum in London.

Let us now turn to the Babyloniaca itself. Tatian states that the work consists of three books (BNJ 680 T2). Fragments from each book have been preserved. As far as we can judge, the contents of the books can be outlined as follows:

Book 1 opens with a prologue, in which Berossos presents himself and his sources. In this prologue he probably also explained his dedication to Antiochus I. After the prologue he describes the geography of Babylonia, the country’s fauna and flora and its multiethnic popu­lation.

Berossos then proceeds to primeval history: the ‘fish-man’ Oannes, in Mesopotamian tradition Uan(na), the first antediluvian and most important sage, brings civilisation to hu­mankind in Babylonia in the very first year of kingship. Thereupon, the sage narrates how the universe was created by Belos and how this god formed man (BNJ 680 F la-b and 685 F la-b).

Athenaeus’ testimony that Berossos describes the celebration of a festival in his first book (BNJ 680 F2) is the only indication that this book also dealt with Babylonian customs. Although I concluded that the astronomical / astrological fragments preserved under the name of Berossos are not genuine, this does not exclude the possibility that Berossos wrote in his work on this Babylonian science par excellence.

As a rule, a Greek ethnographical work, the genre Berossos followed, presents the intellectual achievements of the people treated. If Berossos wrote on Babylonian astronomy / astrology, Book 1 — and more specifi­cally in the section of Babylonian customs — was the most likely part of his work to do it.

Book 2 gives an overview of Babylonian rulers, starting with the antediluvian kings (BNJ 680 F 3a-b – F 6 and 685 F 2-3; Aelian records the tale of King Euchoros, or Enmerkar in the cuneiform, whose guards hurled the infant Gilgamesh (Gilgamos) from the height of the citadel in the History of Animals, 12.21).

The book probably ends with the reign of Nabonassar (747-734). For the most part, this section of Berossos’ work was very likely an enumeration of kings, dynasties and year numbers and did not provide elaborate information — at least for the early periods.

This can be deduced from Eusebius’ remark that Berossos gave hardly any information on the kings’ deeds or even omitted them (BNJ 680 F 3a). This very likely reflects the dearth of sources Berossos could rely on: many of the early rulers were no more than names in long king lists. The overview of kings and dynasties is interrupted by the story of the Flood and its aftermath (BNJ 680 F 4a-c and 685 F 3a-b).

Book 3 relates the history of Babylonia from Nabonassar to Alexander the Great (BNJ 680 F7-11 and 685 F5-7). From this book more narrative episodes have been preserved and although Berossos’ treatment of the Achaemenid period is almost completely lost, the notice that Artaxerxes II introduced the cult of Anaitis demonstrates that Berossos elaborated on this period too.”

Geert de Breucker, “Berossos: His Life and Work,” from Johannes Haubold, Giovanni B. Lanfranchi, Robert Rollinger, John Steele (eds.), The World of Berossos, Proceedings of the 4th International Colloquium on the Ancient Near East Between Classical and Ancient Oriental Traditions, Harrassowitz Verlag, Wiesbaden, 2013, pp. 22-3.

The Chaldaica and the Babyloniaca

“Before I focus on the work itself, I first discuss the text as it has come down to us, because this is essential for our understanding of the work. Berossos’ history of Babylonia has only been preserved in fragments. Two titles have been transmitted: Chaldaica and Babyloniaca.

It is almost certain that the latter is authentic, as this is the title used in antiquarian and lexi­cographical literature and is more in tune with Berossos’ subject, the history of Babylonia. The extant fragments have come down to us by a very complex process of transmission. Most of them derive from Jewish and Christian authors.

In this process the pagan polymath Alexander Polyhistor played a pivotal role, as the bulk of the fragments derives from the epitome he made of Berossos’ work in Rome between 80 and 40 BC. This ‘summary’, how­ever, also survives in fragments.

Flavius Josephus (2nd half 1st c. AD) almost certainly used it in his Jewish Antiquities and Contra Apionem. The Church Father Eusebius of Caesarea (ca. 265-340 AD) excerpted Polyhistor’s epitome for the first book of his Chronicle.

This first book being lost too, the excerpts are known by an Armenian translation of the Chronicle (after 6th c.) and by the Byzantine monk Syncellus, who inserted them in his own chronographical work (around 810). A comparison of the Armenian translation and Syncellus shows that the Armenian text contains quite a number of corruptions and mistranslations. In gen­eral, Syncellus’ text is more reliable.

To these excerpts we can add the fragments transmitted under the name of Abydenus, an obscure historian, probably living in the 2nd or 3rd c. AD (BNJ 685). Although he mentions neither Berossos nor Alexander Polyhistor, it is clear that Abydenus did no more than rework Polyhistor’s epitome of the Babyloniaca and give it an Ionic veneer.

The fragments ascribed to Abydenus have come down to us through Eusebius, either directly — in his Praeparatio Evangelica — or indirectly — by the aforementioned Armenian translation and Syncellus, each using Eusebius’ Chronicle in this case too.

Another set of fragments survived through Greek learned literature: Athenaeus (BNJ 680 F2), Hesychius (BNJ 680 F 13) and the Oxyrhynchus Glossary (BNJ 680 F23a-b).

Josephus and the Christian authors were mainly interested in Berossos’ work for apologetic rea­sons. They aimed to prove the veracity of the Biblical account and Old Testament chro­nology. It is, therefore, no surprise that most fragments have a link with Biblical history, such as the Flood, the important period of the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar II and the beginning of its reconstruction under Cyrus.

Other fragments deal with Assyrian and Babylonian kings mentioned in the Old Testament: apart from Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus, Tiglath-pileser III (Pulu), Merodach-Baladan II, Sennacherib, Esarhaddon and Amel-Marduk.

Even the long excerpt on Babylonian primeval history (BNJ680 F la-b), which has appar­ently no connection to Biblical history, has been transmitted for apologetic reasons — but in another sense. Eusebius used this fabulous story in order to refute Berossos’ chronology of the antediluvian period.

On the one hand, Berossos’ number of ten antediluvian kings agreed with that of the Biblical generations and patriarchs before the Flood — and thus confirmed Genesis. On the other hand, Berossos’ chronology of 432,000 years for the antediluvian period completely disagreed with the Old Testament and was thus problematic.

In his refutation, Eusebius discredits the Babylonian chronology by pointing to Berossos’ account of the primeval period, which was evidently fabulous. Those who accepted the Babylonian antediluvian chronology, Eusebius pointedly suggested, should also accept this nonsense as truth.

This refutation also explains why Eusebius treats the antediluvian kings first and then gives the excerpt on primeval times.”

Geert de Breucker, “Berossos: His Life and Work,” from Johannes Haubold, Giovanni B. Lanfranchi, Robert Rollinger, John Steele (eds.), The World of Berossos, Proceedings of the 4th International Colloquium on the Ancient Near East Between Classical and Ancient Oriental Traditions, Harrassowitz Verlag, Wiesbaden, 2013, pp. 20-2.

End of the Digression on Berossus and the Babyloniaca

“Can the Babyloniaca tell us anything about the chronicles? It is the one work which demonstrably made use of them. We have Berossus‘ own word that he transcribed “the records which had been kept with great care by the priests in Babylon for a long time, embracing more than 2,150,000 (var. 150,000) years, and that these records contain the history of the sky and sea, and the first creation, and of the kings, and of the deeds done under them”.

That the chronicles were among these records cannot be doubted …

Surely the chronicles were not compiled to be published in a work like the Babyloniaca. In fact, Berossus‘ publication may have been looked upon with disfavour by his fellow-scholars, and it may be that Berossus did indeed end his days on the island of Cos.

But Berossus‘ presentation of their contents in the Babyloniaca increases rather than diminishes the probability that they were drawn up in the service of astrology.

Both the chronicles and the Babyloniaca, I would suggest, were based on the presupposition that since what had happened in the past would happen again, it would be useful to have compiled a record of the past.”

This illustration is cited as appearing as Figure 446 in “Cook (1964 Vol. 1 p.576-7),” which I take to refer to Cook H. J., “Pekah," Vetus Testamentum 14 1964, figure 446, "Ramman the Bellowing One,” pp. 576-7. I have not been able to confirm this.  It allegedly portrays Ramman, “The Bellowing One,”or Adad, who is “commonly represented on the cylinders as standing on the back of a bull (Figure 446) or as planting one foot on a bull.”  To my eye, this illustration portrays the Moon God, Sin, whose inverted crescent appears above his head. The Assyrian national god Ashur appears in his winged conveyance, next to the seven celestial bodies of Babylonian cosmogony.  The goddess Ishtar appears at far right, her eight-pointed star at her head, and her typical warlike regalia on her back. Before her is a tree of life, or a tree of knowledge. I do not know who the figure at the center of this illustration portrays.

This illustration is cited as appearing as Figure 446 in “Cook (1964 Vol. 1 p.576-7),” which I take to refer to Cook H. J., “Pekah,” Vetus Testamentum 14 1964, figure 446, “Ramman the Bellowing One,” pp. 576-7. I have not been able to confirm this.
It allegedly portrays Ramman, “The Bellowing One,”or Adad, who is “commonly represented on the cylinders as standing on the back of a bull (Figure 446) or as planting one foot on a bull.”
To my eye, this illustration portrays the Moon God, Sin, whose inverted crescent appears above his head. The Assyrian national god Ashur appears in his winged conveyance, next to the seven celestial bodies of Babylonian cosmogony.
The goddess Ishtar appears at far right, her eight-pointed star at her head, and her typical warlike regalia on her back. Before her is a tree of life, or a tree of knowledge. I do not know who the figure at the center of this illustration portrays. I note that she stands on the ground, she is not elevated as the deities are, and she has no regalia or insignia of divinity. She is not a goddess. 

(Editorial Note: Here is a long footnote, with which Robert Drews ends his article. I include it for obvious reasons).

“W. G. Lambert, whose insights I have long admired, and on whose Assyriological expertise I have so often depended in this article, recently wrote (Orientalia 39 (1970), 175, n. 7): “The reviewer would like to take this opportunity to say that he does not and has never accepted the idea that the Babylonians conceived history cyclically.”

In making this statement Lambert relied on Jacoby’s well-founded authority on historiographical fragments. For on p. 177 he writes, “The only evidence for any Babylonian concept to an end to history occurs in a quotation ascribed to Berossus by Seneca, where it was taught that the world would end in a cosmic cataclysm when the stars all converged on Cancer.

Jacoby attributed this to Pseudo-Berossus, and certainly there were faked versions of Berossus in the ancient world.”

To these statements I would offer three objections:

(1) Frag. 21 does not, strictly speaking, teach that the “world would end” in a cosmic conflagration, but only that cosmic conflagrations and deluges do occur; the world, the passage assumes, went on.

(2) There is evidence only for interpolations (by a Jew or a Christian, in Berossus‘ account of creation) and not for “faked versions” in the sense that Jacoby implies with his “Pseudo-Berossus“. And, of course, a Jewish or Christian interpolator was not the source of Seneca’s quotation.

(3) If by “cyclical” one means what the fourth-century Greek, Eudoxus, attributed to the Pythagoreans (a belief that in the Eternal Return of things I will once again be writing this article, and you–God help us all–will again be reading it), then the Babylonians did not have a “cyclical” view of history.

If, on the other hand, the term means only that what happened to x under such and such celestial circumstances will happen to y when those circumstances again obtain, and that those circumstances will obtain in regular periods, then I would not consider “cyclical” a misleading description of the Babylonian scholars’ view of history.”

Robert Drews, “The Babylonian Chronicles and Berossus,” Iraq, Vol. 37, No. 1 (Spring, 1975), pp. 54-5.

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.

The Zodiacal Organization of the Gilgamesh Epic

“The doctrine of the necessity for ministering to the dead is here enunciated in no uncertain fashion.

Unless their bodies are decently buried and offerings of food and drink made at their graves, their lives in the otherworld must be abjectly miserable. The manner in which they meet their end is likewise taken into account, and warriors who have fallen on the field of battle are pre-eminently fortunate.

Eabani is evidently one of the ‘happy’ spirits; his ghost is designated utukku, a name applied not only to the fortunate dead, but likewise to a class of beneficent supernatural beings.

The term edimmu, on the other hand, designates a species of malevolent being as well as the errant and even vampirish spirits of the unhappy dead. The due observance of funeral and commemorative rites is thus a matter which touches the interests not only of the deceased but also of his relatives and friends.

We have seen from the foregoing that the epic of Gilgamesh is partly historical, partly mythological. Around the figure of a great national hero myths have grown and twined with the passing of the generations, and these have in time become woven into a connected narrative, setting forth a myth which corresponds to the daily or annual course of the sun.

Within this may be discerned other myths and fragments of myths—solar, seasonal, and diluvian.

But there is in the epic another important element which has already been referred to—the astro-theological. The zodiacal significance of the division of the epic into twelve tablets may be set aside, since, as has been indicated, the significance is in all probability a superficial one merely, added to the poem by the scribes of Assur-bani-pal, and not forming an integral part of it.

At the same time it is not hard to divide the epic naturally into twelve episodes, thus:

  1. Gilgamesh’s oppression of Erech;
  2. the seduction of Eabani;
  3. the slaying of the monster Khumbaba;
  4. the wooing of Ishtar;
  5. the fight with the sacred bull;
  6. Eabani’s death;
  7. Gilgamesh’s journey to the Mountain of the Sunset;
  8. his wanderings in the region of thick darkness;
  9. the crossing of the waters of death;
  10. the deluge-story;
  11. the plant of life;
  12. the return of Eabani’s spirit.

Throughout the epic there are indications of a correspondence between the exploits of the hero and the movements of heavenly bodies.

It is possible, for instance, that Gilgamesh and his friend Eabani had some relation to the sign Gemini, also associated in ancient Chaldean mythology with two forms of the solar deity, even as were the hero and his friend.

The sign Leo recalls the slaying of Khumbaba, the allegorical victory of light over darkness, represented on monuments by the figure of a lion (symbol of fire) fighting with a bull.

Following the sign of Leo, the wooing of the hero by the goddess Ishtar falls naturally into the sign of Virgo, the virgin. The sign of Taurus is represented by the slaying of the celestial bull, Alu, by Gilgamesh.

The journey of the hero to Mashu and his encounter with the scorpion-men at the gate of the sunset are, of course, mythological representations of the sign of Scorpio, as are also his wanderings in the region of thick darkness.

It is noticeable in this respect that Babylonian astrology often doubled the eighth sign (Scorpio) to provide a seventh; it is therefore not unlikely that this sign should correspond with two distinct episodes in the poem.

The first of these episodes is associated with Scorpio by virtue of the introduction of scorpion-men; and the second, on the assumption that the scorpion is symbolical of darkness.

Perhaps the sea-goddess Sabitu is associated astrologically with the fish-tailed goat which is the conventional representation of Capricornus.

Then the placing of the deluge-story in the XIth tablet, corresponding with the eleventh sign of the zodiac, Aquarius, the water-bearer, is evidently in keeping with the astrological aspect of the epic.

Chaldean mythology connected the rainy eleventh month with the deluge, just as the first month of spring was associated mythologically with the creation.

The healing of Gilgamesh’s sickness by Ut-Napishtim may possibly symbolise the revival of the sun after leaving the winter solstice.

Lastly, the sign of Pisces, the twelfth sign of the zodiac, corresponding to the return of Eabani from the underworld, and perhaps also to the restoration of Gilgamesh to Erech, is emblematic of life after death, and of the resumption of ordinary conditions after the deluge.

It has been suggested, though without any very definite basis, that the epic was first put together before the zodiac was divided into twelve—that is, more than two thousand years before the Christian era.

Its antiquity, however, rests on other grounds than these. In later times the Babylonian astrological system became very complicated and important, and so lent its colour to the epic that, whatever the original plan of that work may have been, its astral significance became at length its most popular aspect.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 181-3.

Origins of the Sacred Marriage Rite

“In the Old Babylonian period, the daughters of kings and rulers were appointed as high priestesses of the Moon-God or of the Goddess Ishtar.

The en or entu priestesses were the counterparts of male high priests. They wore distinctive clothing, a cap with raised rim, a folded garment, jewelry, and a staff, the same insignia and garments worn by the ruler.

They lived inside the sacred shrine, had charge of temple management and affairs, performed ritual and ceremonial functions, and were usually unmarried. The nin-dingir priestess in ancient Sumer had a similar role.

Assyriologists believe that it is this class of women who annually participated in the Sacred Marriage, impersonating or representing the goddess. The basis for the ritual of the Sacred Marriage was the belief that fertility of the land and of people depended on the celebration of the sexual power of the fertility goddess.

It is likely that this rite originated in the Sumerian city of Uruk, which was dedicated to the Goddess Inanna, earlier than 3000 B.C.

The Sacred Marriage was that of the Goddess Inanna and either the high priest, representing the god, or the king, identified with the God Dumuzi. In one typical poem, the encounter is initiated by the goddess, who expresses her eagerness for union with her lover. After their union, the land blossoms forth:

“Plants rose high by his side,

Grains rose high by his side… .”

The goddess, happy and satisfied, promises to bless the house of her husband, the shepherd / king:

“My husband, the goodly store house, the holy stall,

I Inanna, will preserve you for,

I will watch over your house of life.”

The annual symbolic reenactment of this mythical union was a public celebration considered essential to the well-being of the community. It was the occasion of a joyous celebration, which may have involved sexual activity on the part of the worshipers in and around the temple grounds.

It is important for us to understand that contemporaries regarded this occasion as sacred, as mythically significant for the well-being of the community, and that they regarded the king and the priestess with reverence and honored them for performing this “sacred” service.

The Sacred Marriage was performed in the temples of various fertility goddesses for nearly two thousand years. The young God-lover or son of the goddess was known as Tammuz, Attis, Adonis, Baal, and Osiris in various languages.

In some of these rituals, the sacred union was preceded by the death of the young god, symbolizing a season of drought or infertility which ended only by his resurrection through his union with the goddess. It was she who could make him alive, who could make him king, and who could empower him to make the land fertile.

Rich sexual imagery with its joyous worship of sexuality and fertility permeated poetry and myth and found expression in statuary and sculpture. Rites similar to the Sacred Marriage also flourished in classical Greece and pre-Christian Rome.”

Gerda Lerner, “The Origin of Prostitution in Ancient Mesopotamia,” Signs, 1986, pp. 239-40.

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.

The Influence of Babylonian Religion on Judaism

“But, it will be asked, what interest can the religions of Babylonia and Assyria have for us, much more an inquiry into their nature and origin? They have long since perished, like the people who professed them, and have left no apparent traces of their influence upon the nations about whom we know and care most.

The Greeks and Romans concerned themselves so little with these Eastern barbarians as neither to read nor to preserve the only Greek history of Chaldaea (ed. note: referring to Berossus) which was written by a native and professed to be derived from native accounts; we owe the fragments we have of it to the apologetic zeal of Christian controversialists.

Still less would it appear that these old people of Babylonia and Assyria can have had any influence upon the world of to-day, or have served to mould the ideas and the society of modern Europe. Such questions may be asked, and until lately it would have been hard to answer them.

And yet a moment’s consideration might have shown that there was one nation at all events which has exercised, and still exercises, a considerable intluence upon our own thought and life, and which had been brought into close contact with the religion and culture of Babylonia at a critical epoch in its history.

The influence of Jewish religion upon Christianity, and consequently upon the races that have been moulded by Christianity, has been lasting and profound. Now Jewish religion was intimately bound up with Jewish history, more intimately perhaps than has been the case with any other great religion of the world.

It took its colouring from the events that marked the political life of the Hebrew people; it developed in unison with their struggles and successes, their trials and disappointments. Its great devotional utterance, the Book of Psalms, is national, not individual; the individual in it has merged his own aspirations and sufferings into those of the whole community.

The course of Jewish prophecy is equally stamped with the impress of the national fortunes. It grows clearer and more catholic as the intercourse of the Jewish people with those around them becomes wider; and the lesson is taught at last that the God of the Jews is the God also of the whole world.

Now the chosen instruments for enforcing this lesson, as we are expressly told, were the Assyrian and the Babylonian. The Assyrian was the rod of God’s anger, while the Babylonish exile was the bitter punishment meted out to Judah for its sins.

The captives who returned again to their own land came back with changed hearts and purified minds; from henceforward Jerusalem was to be the unrivalled dwelling-place of “the righteous nation which keepeth the truth.”

Apart, therefore, from any influence which the old religious beliefs of Babylonia may have had upon the Greeks, and which, as we shall see, was not so wholly wanting as was formerly imagined, their contact with the religious conceptions of the Jewish exiles must, to say the least, have produced an effect which it is well worth our while to study.

Hitherto, the traditional view has been that this effect exhibited itself wholly on the antagonistic side; the Jews carried nothing away from the land of their captivity except an intense hatred of idolatry, more especially Babylonian, as well as of the beliefs and practices associated therewith.

Now and then, it is true, some bold spirit, like Bishop Warburton, may have ventured to propound the paradox that the doctrine of the resurrection was first learnt by the Jews in Babylonia, but it was treated generally as a paradox, and of late years, if admitted at all, was considered a proof of the influence not of the Babylonians but of their Persian conquerors.”

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. 38-40.

Diorite Statues

“The land of Magána was already known to the inhabitants of Babylonia. The earliest Chaldaean monuments yet discovered are those which have been excavated at Tel-loh in southern Chaldaea by a Frenchman, M. de Sarzec, and are now deposited in the Louvre.

Some of them go back almost to the very beginnings of Chaldaean art and cuneiform writing. Indeed, the writing is hardly yet cuneiform; the primitive pictorial forms of many of the characters are but thinly disguised, and the vertical direction they originally followed, like Chinese, is still preserved.

The language and art alike are Proto-Chaldaean: there is as yet no sign that the Semite was in the land. Among the monuments are seated figures carved out of stone. The stone in several instances is diorite, a stone so hard that even the modern workman may well despair of chiselling it into the lineaments of the human form.

Seated diorite statue of Gudea, prince of Lagash, dedicated to the god Ningishzida, neo-Sumerian period. Marie-Lan Nguyen (2011)

Seated diorite statue of Gudea, prince of Lagash, dedicated to the god Ningishzida, neo-Sumerian period.
Marie-Lan Nguyen (2011)

Now an inscription traced upon one of the figures tells us that the stone was brought from the land of Magan. Already, therefore, before the time of Sargon and the rise of Semitic supremacy and civilisation, the peninsula of Sinai was not only known to the inhabitants of Chaldaea, but blocks of stone were transported from it to the stoneless plain of Babylonia, and there made plastic under the hand of the sculptor.

I have already alluded to the fact that the quarries of Sinai had been known to the Egyptians and worked by them as early as the epoch of the Third Dynasty, some 6000 years ago. Is it more than a coincidence that one of the most marvellous statues in the world, and the chief ornament of the Museum of Bulâq, is a seated figure of king Khephrên of the Fourth Dynasty, carved out of green diorite, like the statues of Tel-loh, and representing the monarch in almost the same attitude?

 Statue of Khafre in diorite. Valley Temple of Khafra, Giza. Egyptian Museum, Cairo.  Main floor - room 42. Diorite: height 168 cm, width 57 cm, depth 96 cm. JE 10062 - CG 14. Jon Bodsworth -

Statue of Khafre in diorite. Valley Temple of Khafra, Giza. Egyptian Museum, Cairo.
Main floor – room 42. Diorite: height 168 cm, width 57 cm, depth 96 cm. JE 10062 – CG 14.
Jon Bodsworth –

The Babylonian work is ruder than the Egyptian work, it is true; but if we place them side by side, it is hard to resist the conviction that both belong to the same school of sculpture, and that the one is but a less skilful imitation of the other.

The conviction grows upon us when we find that diorite is as foreign to the soil of Egypt as it is to that of Babylonia, and that the standard of measurement marked upon the plan of the city, which one of the figures of Tel-loh holds upon his lap, is the same as the standard of measurement of the Egyptian pyramid-builders–the kings of the fourth and two following dynasties.

 Egyptian research has independently arrived at the conclusion that the pyramid-builders were at least as old as the fourth millennium before the Christian era. Thc great pyramids of Gizeh were in course of erection, the hieroglyphic system of writing was already fully developed, Egypt itself was thoroughly organised and in the enjoyment of a high culture and civilisation, at a time when, according to Archbishop Usher’s chronology, the world was being created.

The discoveries at Tel-loh have revealed to us a corresponding period in the history of Babylonia, earlier considerably than the age of Sargon of Accad, in which we seem to find traces of contact between Babylonia and the Egyptians of the Old Empire.

It would even seem as if the conquests of Naram-Sin in Sinai were due to the fall of the Sixth Dynasty and the overthrow of the power of the old Egyptian empire. For some centuries after that event Egypt is lost to history, and its garrisons and miners in the Sinai peninsula must have been recalled to serve against enemies nearer home.”

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. 31-4.

Mesopotamian Religion is Undefinable

“Mesopotamian religion includes certain beliefs and practices of the Sumerians, Akkadians, Assyrians, Babylonians and other peoples who lived at various times in different parts of ancient Mesopotamia, the region corresponding roughly to modern Iraq, from the fourth through the first millennia BCE.

The history and cultures of these peoples were mostly forgotten during the early Christian era, save for brief historical narratives of famous kings and cities in the Hebrew Bible, in classical authors such as Herodotus, Diodorus and Josephus, and in scattered excerpts from a lost book by Berossus, a Babylonian writing in Greek in the third century BCE.

Beginning in the nineteenth century CE, with the discovery and excavation of ancient Mesopotamian sites and decipherment of Mesopotamian languages such as Sumerian and Akkadian, European and American scholars identified texts, objects and architecture as religious in nature. They used these to reconstruct ancient Mesopotamian religious beliefs and practices in the absence of any continuous or living tradition from ancient times to the present.

Inevitably the intellectual concerns of successive generations of scholars, their personal religious commitments and their individual stances, such as piety, scepticism or anticlericalism, had their effect on agendas of research and modes of presentation of Mesopotamian religion in modern studies. Many scholars of an earlier generation took for granted, for example, a higher degree of religious preoccupation and expression among ‘ancient Oriental’ or ‘Semitic peoples’ than among other ancient peoples such as the Greeks and Romans, but generalizations on this order are no longer the basis for serious research.

Some scholars imagined, for example, that the priesthood was primarily responsible for preserving culture, while others claimed that priests resisted change and development, suppressed writings unacceptable to them, and generally stood in the way of progress.

Pioneering studies of Mesopotamian religion tended to be comprehensive, such as that by M. Jastrow (1898, partially revised German edition 1912, with a volume of illustrations, 1912). Its fundamental thesis was that ancient Mesopotamian religion derived from local animistic cults that grew and merged into a larger, more complex interlocking set of religious practices and beliefs.

Similar views were set forth by R. W. Rogers (1908) in a volume that treated Mesopotamian religion as a sort of prelude to Judaism, itself a prelude to Christianity. E. Dhorme (1945, not available in English) wrote a concise and well-documented descriptive study.

The most influential writer in English on Mesopotamian religion was Thorkild Jacobsen. He developed a view that ancient Mesopotamian religion derived from a person’s sense of the ‘other’ in the natural world around him, leading to feelings of fear and awe. People perceived active will in natural events, processes and phenomena. This sense of the other was expressed, using metaphorical terms, in myth and theology and was acted upon in cult and ritual.

We have a comprehensive presentation of his views (Jacobsen 1976) and a later summary statement of his work (Jacobsen 1987). Bottéro (2001) stressed spiritual values and a phenomenological rather than a schematic, theoretical approach; for a summary of its main theses see Bottéro (1992: 201–31).

Economic and ritual aspects of Mesopotamian religion are presented by Oppenheim (1977), professing disdain for a historical approach to the subject. He contributed a brief but suggestive essay to a collection edited by Ferm (1950: 65–79). A more detailed, primarily bibliographical survey was offered by Römer (1969). There are numerous technical studies of aspects of Mesopotamian religion in the scientific literature of Assyriology, but few of them are in English.

Many presentations of Mesopotamian religion rely on retellings of ancient literary works that modern scholars classify as mythology. Authoritative presentations of Mesopotamian and other ancient Near Eastern mythologies were made in Kramer (1961 and 1969), as well as in a major treatment of Mesopotamian mythological texts jointly with Bottéro (1989, not available in English). Recent English translations of Akkadian mythology are found in Dalley (1989) and Foster (1996). Important Sumerian myths and other religious texts are translated in Jacobsen (1987).

No ancient Mesopotamian term corresponds to the modern concept of ‘religion,’ nor is there any ancient scripture, systematic treatise or general description of religious belief or activity from any period of Mesopotamian history. This means that definition of Mesopotamian religion can at best be only a modern mode of selecting and interpreting ancient writings and material culture using modern humanistic categories for which there may not have been ancient counterparts. Although the Mesopotamians recognized certain matters as ‘pertaining to the gods’, a distinction between religious and secular matters may not have been always fully comprehensible in the context of Mesopotamian culture.”

Benjamin R. Foster, “Sources,” John R. Hinnells, ed., A Handbook of Ancient Religions, 2007, pp. 161-5.

Semites vs. Sumerians

“Each new discovery of cuneiform tablets elicits a wave of publications asserting biblical ‘parallels,’ many of them uncertain and farfetched, even when a millennium or more may have elapsed between the tablets and the relevant portion of the Bible.

The biblical scholar M. Dahood, for example, saw parallels betwen the Bible and cuneiform tablets from Ebla in northern Syria, which date to approximately 1300 years before the kingdom of David. E. A. Speiser insisted that the ‘patriarchal age’ of the Bible was reflected in tablets from Nuzi in northern Mesopotamia (early fourteenth century BCE), although most of his analogies have been discarded in recent years.

The discovery of prophetic documents at Mari (eighteenth century BCE) attracted much discussion, as did comparison of ancient treaties with the biblical covenant.

A subtler interconnection between the worlds of the Hebrews and of the Babylonians was provided by what might be called ‘Pan-Semitism,’ the idea that the Semitic peoples had certain innate mental and emotional characteristics and limitations in common that conditioned their religious values.

A concise statement of this view, which is traceable, for example, to the works of the influential French thinker Ernest Renan, will be found in S. A. Cook’s contribution ‘The Semites, Temperament and Thought’ in the Cambridge Ancient History (1924), chapter V.

Cook held that Semitic thought was verbal rather than visual, emotional rather than systematic or speculative, and so could not have created such a grand astral system of beliefs as the Pan-Babylonianists had imagined underlay modern Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

To Pan-Semitists, Greece, with its alleged superior visual and speculative thought, albeit comparatively shallow religion, was as essential to understanding Christianity as was Judaism.

Scholars wrote of the ‘Hebrew’ and the ‘Greek’ element in Christianity and European culture. The Pan-Semitists bracketed Judaism, Islam and Babylonia as ‘Semitic’ in type, but not Christianity. This left the place of the Sumerians in the equation Babylonian = Semitic difficult to define.

The early twentieth-century historian Eduard Meyer, for example, therefore argued that the Semites were the original inhabitants of Mesopotamia and the Sumerians were later invaders, thereby maintaining the originally ‘Semitic’ character of Mesopotamian civilization.

In the period after World War I, some scholars tried to distinguish ‘Sumerian’ from ‘Semitic’ thought in Mesopotamian culture. Thus discussion of the relations between Babylonia and the Bible proceeded in an atmosphere charged with faith, scepticism and anti-Semitism.”

Benjamin R. Foster, “Mesopotamian Religion and the Bible,” John R. Hinnells, ed., A Handbook of Ancient Religions, 2007, pp. 208-9.

Babylonian Religion

” … Outside the inscriptions of Babylonia and Assyria, there is but little bearing upon the religion of those countries, the most important fragment being the extracts from Berosus and Damascius referred to above.

Among the Babylonian and Assyrian remains, however, we have an extensive and valuable mass of material, dating from the fourth or fifth millennium before Christ until the disappearance of the Babylonian system of writing about the beginning of the Christian era.

The earlier inscriptions are mostly of the nature of records, and give information about the deities and the religion of the people in the course of descriptions of the building and rebuilding of temples, the making of offerings, the performance of ceremonies, etc.

Purely religious inscriptions are found near the end of the third millennium before Christ, and occur in considerable numbers, either in the original Sumerian text, or in translations, or both, until about the third century before Christ.

Among the more recent inscriptions–those from the library of the Assyrian king Aššur-bani-âpli and the later Babylonian temple archives–there are many lists of deities, with numerous identifications with each other and with the heavenly bodies, and explanations of their natures.

It is needless to say that all this material is of enormous value for the study of the religion of the Babylonians and Assyrians, and enables us to reconstruct at first hand their mythological system, and note the changes which took place in the course of their long national existence.”

Theophilus G. Pinches, The Religion of Babylonia and Assyria, London, 1906, pp. 2-4.

The Pillars of Seth


“All these (the sons of Seth), being naturally of a good disposition, lived happily in the land without apostatising, and free from any evils whatsoever: and they studiously turned their attention to the knowledge of the heavenly bodies and their configurations.

And lest their science should at any time be lost among men, and what they had previously acquired should perish, (inasmuch as Adam had acquainted them that a universal aphanism, or destruction of all things, would take place alternately by the force of fire and the overwhelming powers of water), they erected two columns, the one of brick and the other of stone, and engraved upon each of them their discoveries; so that, in case the brick pillar should be dissolved by the waters, the stone one might survive to teach men the things engraved upon it, and at the same time inform them that a brick one had formerly been also erected by them.

It remains even to the present day in the land of Siriad.”158 ―Extracted from Josephus Antiquities of the Jews Book i. ch. 2.

NOTE BY THE EDITOR. “We do not here propose to renew the inquiry concerning the celebrated antediluvian columns, or stelae, on which the lore of this primaeval world, with all its wisdom, was said to be transmitted.

Plato, it is well-known, speaks of these columns in the opening of the Timaeus. We shall examine, in the 5th book, whether this be anything more than a figurative description, and how far we may be justified in assuming any connection between the Egyptian legend and the two pillars of Seth mentioned by Josephus. (Antiq. i., ch. 2).

These pillars, it is obvious, have reference to the Book of Enoch 159; perhaps also to the pillars of Akikarus, or Akicharus, the Prophet of Babylon, (or the Bosphorus), whose wisdom Democritus is said to have stolen, and on which Theophrastus composed a treatise.

In the Egyptian traditions that have come down to us, these primaeval stelae do not make their appearance until the third and fourth centuries. They are first mentioned in the so-called Fragments of Hermes, in Stobaeus; afterwards, in Zosimus of Panopolis, evidently in the colouring of Judaising-Christian writers; but, in their worst shape, in the fourth century, in the work of an impostor who assumed the name of Manetho.

That in this latter instance, at least, they were connected with the narrative of Josephus, is shown by their allusion to the ‘Syriadic Country.'”―Extracted from Bunsen’s Egypt’s Place in History, vol. 1., p. 7, 8.

E. Edmond Hodges, Cory’s Ancient Fragments, 3d ed., 1876, pp. 151-2.

I.P. Cory on Paganism

” … But the internal heresies of the Church were not the only ill effects which the misguided zeal of the fathers, in forcing upon Plato the doctrine of the Trinity, brought about.

Though it is possible, that by pointing out some crude similarity of doctrine, they might have obtajned some converts by rendering Christianity less unpalatable to the philosophical world of that day, yet the weapon was skilfully turned against them, and with unerring effect, when the Pagans took upon them to assert that nothing new had been revealed in Christianity; since, by the confessions of its very advocates, the system was previously contained in the writings of Plato.

In the third century, Ammonius Saccas, universally acknowledged to have been a man of consummate ability, taught that every sect, Christian, Heretic or Pagan, had received the truth, and retained it in their varied legends. He undertook, therefore, to unfold it from them all, and to reconcile every creed.

And from his exertions sprung the celebrated Eclectic school of the later Platonists. Plotinus, Amelius, Olympius, Porphyrius, Jamblichus, Syrianus, and Proclus, were among the celebrated professors who succeeded Ammonius in the Platonic chair, and revived and kept alive the spirit of Paganism, with a bitter enmity to the Gospel, for near three hundred years.

The Platonic schools were at length closed by the edict of Justinian; and seven wise men, the last lights of Platonism, Diogenes, Hermias, Eulalius, Priscianus, Damascius, Isidorus and Simplicius retired indignantly from the persecutions of Justinian, to realize the shadowy dreams of the republic of Plato, under the Persian despotism of Chosroes.16

From the writings of these philosophers is collected the bulk of the Oracles of Zoroaster. A few of them were first published by Ludovicus Tiletanus at Paris, with the commentaries of Pletho, to which were subsequently added those of Psellus. Chief part of them, however, were collected by Franciscus Patricius, and published with the Hermetic books at the end of his Nova Philosophia.

To the labours of Mr. Taylor we are indebted for the addition of about fifty more, and for the references to the works from whence all were extracted. I have arranged them according to the subjects, which are said to be occultly discussed in the Parmenides of Plato, viz.: Cause or God, the Ideal Intelligible or Intellectual world, Particular Souls, and the Material world.

And I have placed under a separate head the Magical and Philosophical precepts and directions. There can be no question but that many of these Oracles are spurious; all those, for instance, which relate to the Intelligible and Intellectual orders, which were confessedly obtained in answers given by dæmons, raised for that purpose by the Theurgists;17 who, as well as all the later Platonists, made pretensions to magic, not only in its refinements, which they were pleased to designate Theurgy, but also in that debased form which we should call common witchcraft.

Nevertheless, several of the Oracles seem to be derived from more authentic sources, and, like the spurious Hermetic books which have come down to us, probably contain much of the pure Sabiasm of Persia, and the doctrines of the Oriental philosophy.”

I.P. Cory, Ancient Fragments, 1832, Introduction.


“Ancient Babylonia has made stronger appeal to the imagination of Christendom than even Ancient Egypt, because of its association with the captivity of the Hebrews, whose sorrows are enshrined in the familiar psalm:

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down;

Yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.

We hanged our harps upon the willows….

In sacred literature proud Babylon became the city of the anti-Christ, the symbol of wickedness and cruelty and human vanity. Early Christians who suffered persecution compared their worldly state to that of the oppressed and disconsolate Hebrews, and, like them, they sighed for Jerusalem–the new Jerusalem. When St. John the Divine had visions of the ultimate triumph of Christianity, he referred to its enemies–the unbelievers and persecutors–as the citizens of the earthly Babylon, the doom of which he pronounced in stately and memorable phrases:

Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen,

And is become the habitation of devils,

And the hold of every foul spirit,

And a cage of every unclean and hateful bird….

For her sins have reached unto heaven

And God hath remembered her iniquities….

The merchants of the earth shall weep and mourn over her,

For no man buyeth their merchandise any more.

“At the noise of the taking of Babylon,” cried Jeremiah, referring to the original Babylon, “the earth is moved, and the cry is heard among the nations…. It shall be no more inhabited forever; neither shall it be dwelt in from generation to generation.” The Christian Saint rendered more profound the brooding silence of the desolated city of his vision by voicing memories of its beauty and gaiety and bustling trade:

The voice of harpers, and musicians, and of pipers and trumpeters

shall be heard no more at all in thee;

And no craftsman, of whatsoever craft he be, shall be found any more in thee;

And the light of a candle shall shine no more at all in thee;

And the voice of the bridegroom and of the bride shall be heard no more at all in thee:

For thy merchants were the great men of the earth;

For by thy sorceries were all nations deceived.

And in her was found the blood of prophets, and of saints,

And of all that were slain upon the earth.

So for nearly two thousand years has the haunting memory of the once-powerful city pervaded Christian literature, while its broken walls and ruined temples and palaces lay buried deep in desert sand. The history of the ancient land of which it was the capital survived in but meagre and fragmentary form, mingled with accumulated myths and legends. A slim volume contained all that could be derived from references in the Old Testament and the compilations of classical writers.”

Donald A. Mackenzie, Myths of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915.

Attis = Christ

” … The Grail story is not du fond en comble the product of imagination, literary or popular.

At its root lies the record, more or less distorted, of an ancient Ritual, having for its ultimate object the initiation into the secret of the sources of Life, physical and spiritual.

This ritual, in its lower, exoteric, form, as affecting the processes of Nature, and physical life, survives to-day, and can be traced all over the world, in Folk ceremonies, which, however widely separated the countries in which they are found, show a surprising identity of detail and intention.

In its esoteric ‘Mystery’ form it was freely utilized for the imparting of high spiritual teaching concerning the relation of Man to the Divine Source of his being, and the possibility of a sensible union between Man, and God.

The recognition of the cosmic activities of the Logos appears to have been a characteristic feature of this teaching, and when Christianity came upon the scene it did not hesitate to utilize the already existing medium of instruction, but boldly identified the Deity of Vegetation, regarded as Life Principle, with the God of the Christian Faith.

Thus, to certain of the early Christians, Attis was but an earlier manifestation of the Logos, Whom they held identical with Christ.

The evidence of the Naassene document places this beyond any shadow of doubt, and is of inestimable value as establishing a link between pre-Christian, and Christian, Mystery tradition.

This curious synthetic belief, united as it was with the highly popular cult of Mithra, travelled with the foreign legionaries, adherents of that cult, to the furthest bounds of the Roman Empire, and when the struggle between Mithraism and Christianity ended in the definite triumph of the latter, by virtue of that dual synthetic nature, the higher ritual still survived, and was celebrated in sites removed from the centres of population–in caves, and mountain fastnesses; in islands, and on desolate sea-coasts.”

Jessie L. Weston, From Ritual to Romance, 1920, pp. 191-2.

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.

The Missing Books of Hippolytus’s The Refutation of All Heresies

” … In the previous chapter we have seen that there is evidence, and abundant evidence, not merely of the existence of Mysteries connected with the worship of Adonis-Attis, but of the high importance assigned to such Mysteries; at the time of the birth of Christianity they were undoubtedly the most popular and the most influential of the foreign cults adopted by Imperial Rome.

In support of this statement I quoted certain passages from Cumont’s Religions Orientales, in which he touches on the subject: here are two other quotations which may well serve as introduction to the evidence we are about to examine.

“Researches on the doctrines and practices common to Christianity and the Oriental Mysteries almost invariably go back, beyond the limits of the Roman Empire, to the Hellenized East. It is there we must seek the key of enigmas still unsolved–The essential fact to remember is that the Eastern religions had diffused, first anterior to, then parallel with, Christianity, doctrines which acquired with this latter a universal authority in the decline of the ancient world. The preaching of Asiatic priests prepared in their own despite the triumph of the Church 1.”

But the triumph of the new Faith once assured the organizing, dominating, influence of Imperial Rome speedily came into play. Christianity, originally an Eastern, became a Western, religion, the ‘Mystery’ elements were frowned upon, kinship with pre-Christian faiths ignored, or denied; where the resemblances between the cults proved too striking for either of these methods such resemblances were boldly attributed to the invention of the Father of Lies himself, a cunning snare whereby to deceive unwary souls.

Christianity was carefully trimmed, shaped, and forced into an Orthodox mould, and anything that refused to adapt itself to this drastic process became by that very refusal anathema to the righteous.

Small wonder that, under such conditions, the early ages of the Church were marked by a fruitful crop of Heresies, and heresy-hunting became an intellectual pastime in high favour among the strictly orthodox.

Among the writers of this period whose works have been preserved Hippolytus, Bishop of Portus in the early years of the third century, was one of the most industrious. He compiled a voluminous treatise, entitled Philosophumena, or The Refutation of all Heresies, of which only one MS. and that of the fourteenth century, has descended to us.

The work was already partially known by quotations, the first Book had been attributed to Origen, and published in the editio princeps of his works. The text originally consisted of ten Books, but of these the first three, and part of the fourth, are missing from the MS. The Origen text supplies part of the lacuna, but two entire Books, and part of a third are missing.

Now these special Books, we learn from the Introduction, dealt with the doctrines and Mysteries of the Egyptians and Chaldaeans, whose most sacred secrets Hippolytus boasts that he has divulged.

Curiously enough, not only are these Books lacking but in the Epitome at the beginning of Book X the summary of their contents is also missing, a significant detail, which, as has been suggested by critics, looks like a deliberate attempt on the part of some copyist to suppress the information contained in the Books in question.”

Incidentally this would seem to suggest that the worthy bishop was not making an empty boast when he claimed to be a revealer of secrets.”

Jessie L. Weston, From Ritual to Romance, 1920, pp. 142-4.

No New Thing

“We have now seen that the Ritual which, as we have postulated, lies, in a fragmentary and distorted condition, at the root of our existing Grail romances, possessed elements capable of assimilation with a religious system which the great bulk of its modern adherents would unhesitatingly declare to be its very antithesis.

That Christianity might have borrowed from previously existing cults certain outward signs and symbols, might have accommodated itself to already existing Fasts and Feasts, may be, perforce has had to be, more or less grudgingly admitted; that such a rapprochement should have gone further, that it should even have been inherent in the very nature of the Faith, that, to some of the deepest thinkers of old, Christianity should have been held for no new thing but a fulfilment of the promise enshrined in the Mysteries from the beginning of the world, will to many be a strange and startling thought.

Yet so it was, and I firmly believe that it is only in the recognition of this one-time claim of essential kinship between Christianity and the Pagan Mysteries that we shall find the key to the Secret of the Grail.

And here at the outset I would ask those readers who are inclined to turn with feelings of contemptuous impatience from what they deem an unprofitable discussion of idle speculations which have little or nothing to do with a problem they hold to be one of purely literary interest, to be solved by literary comparison and criticism, and by no other method, to withhold their verdict till they have carefully examined the evidence I am about to bring forward, evidence which has never so far been examined in this connection, but which if I am not greatly mistaken provides us with clear and unmistakable proof of the actual existence of a ritual in all points analogous to that indicated by the Grail romances.”

Jessie L. Weston, From Ritual to Romance, 1920, pp. 141-2.

The New Mystery

” … Lucian has heard of Christianity, but seems to have regarded it as an ordinary Oriental cult. He refers to it twice; the first passage is in the memoirs of Alexander, in which the false prophet is alleged to have proclaimed: “If any atheist, Christian, or Epicurean has come to spy out the sacred rites, let him flee”; and in the same tract (§ 25) he couples Christians and atheists.

The second passage is in the treatise on the death of Peregrinus the impostor, who, according to Lucian, was a renegade from Christianity and indeed had occupied an important post among that community. The translation is Sir Richard Jebb’s.

“He had thoroughly learnt,” says Lucian, “the wondrous philosophy of the Christians, having consorted in Palestine with their priests and scribes. What would you expect? He speedily showed that they were mere children in his hands: he was their prophet, the chief of their religious fraternity (θιασιάρχης), the convener of their meetings (συναγωγεύς) —in short, everything to them. Some of their books he interpreted and elucidated; many of them he wrote himself. They regarded him as a god, made him their law-giver, and adopted him as their champion (προστάτην ἐπεγράφοντο).”

Concerning their tenets he says, “They still reverence that great one (τὸν μέγαν ἐκεῖνον), the man who was crucified in Palestine because he brought this new mystery into the world. The poor creatures have persuaded themselves that they will be altogether immortal and live for ever; wherefore they despise death and in many cases give themselves to it voluntarily.

Then their first Law-giver (i.e., Christ) persuaded them that they were all brethren, when they should have taken the step of renouncing all the Hellenic gods, and worshipping that crucified one, their sophist, and living after his laws.

So they despise all things alike (i.e., all dangers and sufferings) and hold their goods in common: though they have received such traditions without any certain warrant. If then an artful impostor comes among them, an adroit man of the world, he very soon enriches himself by making these simple folk his dupes.”

Herbert A. Strong and John Garstang, trans., The Syrian Goddess, by Lucian, 1913, pp. 35-7.

The Mystical Meal

“But now what do we know of the actual details of the Attis mysteries? The first and most important point was a Mystic Meal, at which the food partaken of was served in the sacred vessels, the tympanum, and the cymbals. The formula of an Attis initiate was “I have eaten from the tympanum, I have drunk from the cymbals.” As I have remarked above, the food thus partaken of was a Food of Life–“Die Attis-Diener in der Tat eine magische Speise des Lebens aus ihren Kult-Geräten zu essen meinten.” 1

Dieterich in his interesting study entitled Eine Mithras-liturgie refers to this meal as the centre of the whole religious action.

Further, in some mysterious manner, the fate of the initiate was connected with, and dependent upon, the death and resurrection of the god. The Christian writer Firmicius Maternus, at one time himself an initiate, has left an account of the ceremony, without, however, specifying whether the deity in question was Attis or Adonis–as Dieterich remarks “Was er erzählt kann sich auf Attis-gemeinden, und auf Adonis-gemeinden beziehen.”

This is what he says: “Nocte quadam simulacrum in lectica supinum ponitur, et per numeros digestis fletibus plangitur: deinde cum se ficta lamentatione satiaverint lumen infertur: tunc a sacerdote omnium qui flebant fauces unguentur, quibus perunctis sacerdos hoc lento murmure susurrit:

Θάρρετε μύϲται τοῦ θεοῦ ϲεϲωϲμένου·

Ἕϲται γα’ρ ἡμῖν ἐκ πόνων ϲωτηρία–

on which Dieterich remarks: “Das Heil der Mysten hängt an der Rettung des Gottes.” 2

Hepding holds that in some cases there was an actual burial, and awakening with the god to a new life. 3 In any case it is clear that the successful issue of the test of initiation was dependent upon the resurrection and revival of the god.

Now is it not clear that we have here a close parallel with the Grail romances? In each case we have a common, and mystic, meal, in which the food partaken of stands in close connection with the holy vessels.

In the Attis feast the initiates actually ate and drank from these vessels; in the romances the Grail community never actually eat from the Grail itself, but the food is, in some mysterious and unexplained manner, supplied by it.

In both cases it is a Lebens-Speise, a Food of Life. This point is especially insisted upon in the Parzival, where the Grail community never become any older than they were on the day they first beheld the Talisman. 1

In the Attis initiation the proof that the candidate has successfully passed the test is afforded by the revival of the god–in the Grail romances the proof lies in the healing of the Fisher King.

Thus, while deferring for a moment any insistence on the obvious points of parallelism with the Sacrament of the Eucharist, and the possibilities of Spiritual teaching inherent in the ceremonies, necessary links in our chain of argument, we are, I think, entitled to hold that, even when we pass beyond the outward mise-en-scène of the story–the march of incident, the character of the King, his title, his disability, and relation to his land and folk–to the inner and deeper significance of the tale, the Nature Cults still remain reliable guides; it is their inner, their esoteric, ritual which will enable us to bridge the gulf between what appears at first sight the wholly irreconcilable elements of Folk-tale and high Spiritual mystery.”

Jessie L. Weston, From Ritual to Romance, 1920, pp. 139-40.

The Weeping of the Infant Christ and the Lament for Adonis

” … When we reflect how often the Church has skilfully contrived to plant the seeds of the new faith on the old stock of paganism, we may surmise that the Easter celebration of the dead and risen Christ was grafted upon a similar celebration of the dead and risen Adonis, which, as we have seen reason to believe, was celebrated in Syria at the same season.

The type, created by Greek artists, of the sorrowful goddess with her dying lover in her arms, resembles and may have been the model of the Pietà of Christian art, the Virgin with the dead body of her divine Son in her lap, of which the most celebrated example is the one by Michael Angelo in St. Peters. That noble group, in which the living sorrow of the mother contrasts so wonderfully with the languor of death in the son, is one of the finest compositions in marble. Ancient Greek art has bequeathed to us few works so beautiful, and none so pathetic.

In this connexion a well-known statement of Jerome may not be without significance. He tells us that Bethlehem, the traditionary birthplace of the Lord, was shaded by a grove of that still older Syrian Lord, Adonis, and that where the infant Jesus had wept, the lover of Venus was bewailed.

Though he does not expressly say so, Jerome seems to have thought that the grove of Adonis had been planted by the heathen after the birth of Christ for the purpose of defiling the sacred spot. In this he may have been mistaken. If Adonis was indeed, as I have argued, the spirit of the corn, a more suitable name for his dwelling-place could hardly be found than Bethlehem, “the House of Bread,” and he may well have been worshipped there at his House of Bread long ages before the birth of Him who said, “I am the bread of life.”

Even on the hypothesis that Adonis followed rather than preceded Christ at Bethlehem, the choice of his sad figure to divert the allegiance of Christians from their Lord cannot but strike us as eminently appropriate when we remember the similarity of the rites which commemorated the death and resurrection of the two.

One of the earliest seats of the worship of the new god was Antioch, and at Antioch, as we have seen, the death of the old god was annually celebrated with great solemnity. A circumstance which attended the entrance of Julian into the city at the time of the Adonis festival may perhaps throw some light on the date of its celebration. When the emperor drew near to the city he was received with public prayers as if he had been a god, and he marvelled at the voices of a great multitude who cried that the Star of Salvation had dawned upon them in the East.

This may doubtless have been no more than a fulsome compliment paid by an obsequious Oriental crowd to the Roman emperor. But it is also possible that the rising of a bright star regularly gave the signal for the festival, and that as chance would have it the star emerged above the rim of the eastern horizon at the very moment of the emperor’s approach. The coincidence, if it happened, could hardly fail to strike the imagination of a superstitious and excited multitude, who might thereupon hail the great man as the deity whose coming was announced by the sign in the heavens.

Or the emperor may have mistaken for a greeting to himself the shouts which were addressed to the star. Now Astarte, the divine mistress of Adonis, was identified with the planet Venus, and her changes from a morning to an evening star were carefully noted by the Babylonian astronomers, who drew omens from her alternate appearance and disappearance.

Hence we may conjecture that the festival of Adonis was regularly timed to coincide with the appearance of Venus as the Morning or Evening Star. But the star which the people of Antioch saluted at the festival was seen in the East; therefore, if it was indeed Venus, it can only have been the Morning Star.

At Aphaca in Syria, where there was a famous temple of Astarte, the signal for the celebration of the rites was apparently given by the flashing of a meteor, which on a certain day fell like a star from the top of Mount Lebanon into the river Adonis. The meteor was thought to be Astarte herself, and its flight through the air might naturally be interpreted as the descent of the amorous goddess to the arms of her lover.

At Antioch and elsewhere the appearance of the Morning Star on the day of the festival may in like manner have been hailed as the coming of the goddess of love to wake her dead leman from his earthy bed. If that were so, we may surmise that it was the Morning Star which guided the wise men of the East to Bethlehem, the hallowed spot which heard, in the language of Jerome, the weeping of the infant Christ and the lament for Adonis.”

James George Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion  (1922)
Chapter 33:: The Gardens of Adonis, np. 

The Cosmic Jubilee of 50,000 Years

“Seven of these shemittoth exhaust the productive power hidden in the seven “sefiroth of construction.” After 49,000 years, in the “great jubilee year,” the entire creation returns to its origin in the womb of binah, the “mother of the world,” just as according to the biblical ordinance concerning the jubilee year, after fifty years “liberty is proclaimed throughout the land,” and all things return to their original owner.

The cosmic jubilee of 50,000 years is therefore the most comprehensive cosmic unit; in it the power of the Creator takes full effect in the sequence of the seven fundamental units of shemittoth, which together constitute the yobhel, the cosmic jubilee.

In a broader framework, this doctrine displays a certain structural similarity to the ideas of Joachim of Fiore, who at the end of the twelfth century gave an historico-metaphysical twist to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity that attained considerable historical importance.

The fundamental idea was that the deity expresses itself not only in the three persons of the Trinity, but that its hidden power also acts in external creation and in the history of the world according to a sequence of three periods, each of which receives its character from one of the persons of the Trinity.

The hidden plenitude of the deity manifests itself therefore in the totality of the successive historical periods or states (status). In every status, the divine revelation assumes a different form. The period of the Father was characterized by the revelation of the Old Testament and the reign of the Mosaic law.

In the period of the Son, there began the reign of Grace, as expressed in the Catholic Church and its institutions. In the third period, on the other hand, whose advent he considered imminent, the Holy Spirit would reign alone; the mystical content of the Gospel would be completely revealed and either penetrate the external institutions of the Church or render them redundant.

This doctrine played a considerable role in the history of the Franciscan order and the sects of “spirituals.” It is not our purpose here to discuss in detail the historical implications of this doctrine, to which much scholarly attention has been devoted in recent decades, but merely to draw attention to an interesting kabbalistic analogy to Joachite doctrine with its strong Utopian elements and explosive power.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 1962, pp. 463-4.

Not All Human Souls Are Blessed

“The human soul is essentially different from the animal soul; Nahmanides adopts, along with other kabbalists of the earliest period, the Platonic view of the soul, according to which there exist different souls in man and not only different faculties of a unitary soul.

According to Nahmanides, man’s anima rationalis unites the rational and the mystical-intuitive, and hence he sees no need for further distinctions. Nevertheless, the weight shifts imperceptibly to the second side: the highest soul, neshamah, which comes from binah and yesod, is the mediator of prophecy, and through it man, in the state of debhequth, attains communion with the deity as a result of the longing for its origin implanted in it.

Enoch and the three Patriarchs, Moses, and Elijah had achieved this supreme state already on earth; however, it is not a full unio mystica with the deity but rather a communio, as we have argued at length in our discussion of the subject of kawwanah.

In the prophetic vision, during which the soul is united with the objects of its contemplation, it is in this state of debhequth, that it obtains a ”knowledge of God face to face.” In this longing for its origin, the highest soul of man becomes capable of penetrating all the intermediary spheres and rising up to God by means of its acts—which, strangely enough, are united here with contemplation.

The eclectic manner in which the kabbalists adopted philosophical doctrines concerning the soul is also apparent in the fact that Azriel, for example, accepts the Aristotelian definition of the soul as the form of the body, seemingly unaware of the contradiction between this idea and important kabbalistic doctrines.

The contradiction results from the adoption and further development of the doctrine of metempsychosis. While this doctrine is rather openly propounded in the Book Bahir, as we saw on p. 188ff., it is treated, strangely enough, as a great mystery in Provence and in Gerona.

The authors without exception speak of it only in hints and in veiled allusions. They make no attempt to account for this idea but presuppose it as a truth handed down by esoteric tradition.

The term gilgul, generally used at a later date for the transmigration of souls, seems to be as yet unknown among these early authors. Instead, they prefer to speak of sod ha-‘ibbur. This term, literally “secret of impregnation,” is used in the Talmud for the methods of computing the calendar, handed down only orally for a long time, the idea being that the leap years were impregnated, as it were, by the addition of an extra month.

But ‘ibbur can, if necessary, also be understood as “transition,” and it is doubtless in this sense that the term was picked up by the kabbalists. The “secret of the ‘ibbur” is that of the passage of the soul from one body to another and not, as among the later kabbalists, a real phenomenon of impregnation through which, after birth an additional soul sometimes enters into the one originally born with a person.

We still do not know what led the kabbalists of the first generation to treat this doctrine in such a strictly esoteric manner and what danger they saw in exposing it to the public. It is most unlikely that fear of the Catholic Church, which had officially condemned this doctrine, was a factor.

Where no christological elements were involved, Jewish theology generally had no inhibitions. The polemics directed by the philosophers against this doctrine should likewise have stimulated controversy rather than secrecy. Nahmanides had no lack of opportunity to denounce the philosophic criticism of this doctrine. Instead, he retreated into extremely prudent, and for the uninitiated, often impenetrable statements in his commentary on the book of Job, the key to which, according to the kabbalists of Gerona, lay precisely in the doctrine of metempsychosis.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 456-7.

The Mysteries

“From this evidence there is no doubt that to the romance writers the Grail was something secret, mysterious and awful, the exact knowledge of which was reserved to a select few, and which was only to be spoken of with bated breath, and a careful regard to strict accuracy.

But how does this agree with the evidence set forth in our preceding chapters? There we have been led rather to emphasize the close parallels existing between the characters and incidents of the Grail story, and a certain well-marked group of popular beliefs and observances, now very generally recognized as fragments of a once widespread Nature Cult.

These beliefs and observances, while dating from remotest antiquity, have, in their modern survivals, of recent years, attracted the attention of scholars by their persistent and pervasive character, and their enduring vitality.

Yet, so far as we have hitherto dealt with them, these practices were, and are, popular in character, openly performed, and devoid of the special element of mystery which is so characteristic a feature of the Grail.

Nor, in these public Folk-ceremonies, these Spring festivals, Dances, and Plays, is there anything which, on the face of it, appears to bring them into touch with the central mystery of the Christian Faith.

Yet the men who wrote these romances saw no incongruity in identifying the mysterious Food-providing Vessel of the Bleheris-Gawain version with the Chalice of the Eucharist, and in ascribing the power of bestowing Spiritual Life to that which certain modern scholars have identified as a Wunsch-Ding, a Folk-tale Vessel of Plenty.

If there be a mystery of the Grail surely the mystery lies here, in the possibility of identifying two objects which, apparently, lie at the very opposite poles of intellectual conception.

What brought them together? Where shall we seek a connecting link? By what road did the romancers reach so strangely unexpected a goal?

It is, of course, very generally recognized that in the case of most of the pre-Christian religions, upon the nature and character of whose rites we possess reliable information, such rites possessed a two-fold character–exoteric; in celebrations openly and publicly performed, in which all adherents of that particular cult could join freely, the object of such public rites being to obtain some external and material benefit, whether for the individual worshipper, or for the community as a whole–esoteric; rites open only to a favoured few, the initiates, the object of which appears, as a rule, to have been individual rather than social, and non-material.

In some cases, certainly, the object aimed at was the attainment of a conscious, ecstatic, union with the god, and the definite assurance of a future life. In other words there was the public worship, and there were the Mysteries.”

Jessie L. Weston, From Ritual to Romance, 1920, pp. 131-3.

Fish Symbolism Spanning Cultures and Eras

“For those who hold that the Grail story is essentially, and fundamentally, Christian, finding its root in Eucharistic symbolism, the title is naturally connected with the use of the Fish symbol in early Christianity: the Icthys anagram, as applied to Christ, the title ‘Fishers of Men,’ bestowed upon the Apostles, the Papal ring of the Fisherman–though it must be noted that no manipulation of the Christian symbolism avails satisfactorily to account for the lamentable condition into which the bearer of the title has fallen.” 2

[ … ]

So far as the present state of our knowledge goes we can affirm with certainty that the Fish is a Life symbol of immemorial antiquity, and that the title of Fisher has, from the earliest ages, been associated with Deities who were held to be specially connected with the origin and preservation of Life.

In Indian cosmogony Manu finds a little fish in the water in which he would wash his hands; it asks, and receives, his protection, asserting that when grown to full size it will save Manu from the universal deluge. This is Jhasa, the greatest of all fish. 1

The first Avatar of Vishnu the Creator is a Fish. At the great feast in honour of this god, held on the twelfth day of the first month of the Indian year, Vishnu is represented under the form of a golden Fish, and addressed in the following terms:

“Wie Du, O Gott, in Gestalt eines Fisches die in der Unterwelt befindlichen Veden gerettet hast, so rette auch mich 2.”

The Fish Avatar was afterwards transferred to Buddha.

In Buddhist religion the symbols of the Fish and Fisher are freely employed. Thus in Buddhist monasteries we find drums and gongs in the shape of a fish, but the true meaning of the symbol, while still regarded as sacred, has been lost, and the explanations, like the explanations of the Grail romances, are often fantastic afterthoughts.

In the Māhāyana scriptures Buddha is referred to as the Fisherman who draws fish from the ocean of Samsara to the light of Salvation. There are figures and pictures which represent Buddha in the act of fishing, an attitude which, unless interpreted in a symbolic sense, would be utterly at variance with the tenets of the Buddhist religion. 1

This also holds good for Chinese Buddhism. The goddess Kwanyin (= Avalokiteśvara), the female Deity of Mercy and Salvation, is depicted either on, or holding, a Fish.

In the Han palace of Kun-Ming-Ch’ih there was a Fish carved in jade to which in time of drought sacrifices were offered, the prayers being always answered.

Both in India and China the Fish is employed in funeral rites. In India a crystal bowl with Fish handles was found in a reputed tomb of Buddha.

In China the symbol is found on stone slabs enclosing the coffin, on bronze urns, vases, etc. Even as the Babylonians had the Fish, or Fisher, god, Oannes who revealed to them the arts of Writing, Agriculture, etc., and was, as Eisler puts it, ‘teacher and lord of all wisdom,’ so the Chinese Fu-Hi, who is pictured with the mystic tablets containing the mysteries of Heaven and Earth, is, with his consort and retinue, represented as having a fish’s tail 2.

The writer of the article in The Open Court asserts that “the Fish was sacred to those deities who were supposed to lead men back from the shadows of death to life 3.”

If this be really the case we can understand the connection of the symbol first with Orpheus, later with Christ, as Eisler remarks:

“Orpheus is connected with nearly all the mystery, and a great many of the ordinary chthonic, cults in Greece and Italy. Christianity took its first tentative steps into the reluctant world of Graeco-Roman Paganism under the benevolent patronage of Orpheus.” 1

There is thus little reason to doubt that, if we regard the Fish as a Divine Life symbol, of immemorial antiquity, we shall not go very far astray.

We may note here that there was a fish known to the Semites by the name of Adonis, although as the title signifies ‘Lord,’ and is generic rather than specific, too much stress cannot be laid upon it.

It is more interesting to know that in Babylonian cosmology Adapa the Wise, the son of Ea, is represented as a Fisher. 2

In the ancient Sumerian laments for Tammuz, previously referred to, that god is frequently addressed as Divine Lamgar, Lord of the Net, the nearest equivalent I have so far found to our ‘Fisher King.’ 3

Whether the phrase is here used in an actual or a symbolic sense the connection of idea is sufficiently striking.

In the opinion of the most recent writers on the subject the Christian Fish symbolism derives directly from the Jewish, the Jews, on their side having borrowed freely from Syrian belief and practice. 4

What may be regarded as the central point of Jewish Fish symbolism is the tradition that, at the end of the world, Messias will catch the great Fish Leviathan, and divide its flesh as food among the faithful.

As a foreshadowing of this Messianic Feast the Jews were in the habit of eating fish upon the Sabbath. During the Captivity, under the influence of the worship of the goddess Atargatis, they transferred the ceremony to the Friday, the eve of the Sabbath, a position which it has retained to the present day.

Eisler remarks that “in Galicia one can see Israelite families in spite of their being reduced to the extremest misery, procuring on Fridays a single gudgeon, to eat, divided into fragments, at night-fall.

In the 16th century Rabbi Solomon Luria protested strongly against this practice. Fish, he declared, should be eaten on the Sabbath itself, not on the Eve.” 1

This Jewish custom appears to have been adopted by the primitive Church, and early Christians, on their side, celebrated a Sacramental Fish-meal. The Catacombs supply us with numerous illustrations, fully described by the two writers referred to.

The elements of this mystic meal were Fish, Bread, and Wine, the last being represented in the Messianic tradition: “At the end of the meal God will give to the most worthy, i.e., to King David, the Cup of Blessing–one of fabulous dimensions.” 2

Fish play an important part in Mystery Cults, as being the ‘holy’ food. Upon a tablet dedicated to the Phrygian Mater Magna we find Fish and Cup; and Dölger, speaking of a votive tablet discovered in the Balkans, says, “Hier ist der Fisch immer und immer wieder allzu deutlich als die heilige Speise eines Mysterien-Kultes hervorgehoben.” 3

Now I would submit that here, and not in Celtic Folk-lore, is to be found the source of Borron’s Fish-meal. Let us consider the circumstances. Joseph and his followers, in the course of their wanderings, find themselves in danger of famine. The position is somewhat curious, as apparently the leaders have no idea of the condition of their followers till the latter appeal to Brons. 1

Brons informs Joseph, who prays for aid and counsel from the Grail. A Voice from Heaven bids him send his brother-in-law, Brons, to catch a fish.

Meanwhile he, Joseph, is to prepare a table, set the Grail, covered with a cloth, in the centre opposite his own seat, and the fish which Brons shall catch, on the other side.

He does this, and the seats are filled–“Si s’i asieent une grant partie et plus i ot de cels qui n’i sistrent mie, que de cels qui sistrent.”

Those who are seated at the table are conscious of a great “douceur,” and “l’accomplissement de lor cuers,” the rest feel nothing.

Now compare this with the Irish story of the Salmon of Wisdom 2.

Finn Mac Cumhail enters the service of his namesake, Finn Eger, who for seven years had remained by the Boyne watching the Salmon of Lynn Feic, which it had been foretold Finn should catch.

The younger lad, who conceals his name, catches the fish. He is set to watch it while it roasts but is warned not to eat it. Touching it with his thumb he is burned, and puts his thumb in his mouth to cool it.

Immediately he becomes possessed of all knowledge, and thereafter has only to chew his thumb to obtain wisdom.

Mr Nutt remarks: “The incident in Borron’s poem has been recast in the mould of mediaeval Christian Symbolism, but I think the older myth can still be clearly discerned, and is wholly responsible for the incident as found in the Conte du Graal.”

But when these words were written we were in ignorance of the Sacramental Fish-meal, common alike to Jewish, Christian, and Mystery Cults, a meal which offers a far closer parallel to Borron’s romance than does the Finn story, in which, beyond the catching of a fish, there is absolutely no point of contact with our romance, neither Joseph nor Brons derives wisdom from the eating thereof; it is not they who detect the sinners, the severance between the good and the evil is brought about automatically.

The Finn story has no common meal, and no idea of spiritual blessings such as are connected therewith.

In the case of the Messianic Fish-meal, on the other hand, the parallel is striking; in both cases it is a communal meal, in both cases the privilege of sharing it is the reward of the faithful, in both cases it is a foretaste of the bliss of Paradise.

Furthermore, as remarked above, the practice was at one time of very widespread prevalence.

Now whence did Borron derive his knowledge, from Jewish, Christian or Mystery sources?

This is a question not very easy to decide. In view of the pronounced Christian tone of Borron’s romance I should feel inclined to exclude the first, also the Jewish Fish-meal seems to have been of a more open, general and less symbolic character than the Christian; it was frankly an anticipation of a promised future bliss, obtainable by all.

Orthodox Christianity, on the other hand, knows nothing of the Sacred Fish-meal, so far as I am aware it forms no part of any Apocalyptic expectation, and where this special symbolism does occur it is often under conditions which place its interpretation outside the recognized category of Christian belief.

A noted instance in point is the famous epitaph of Bishop Aberkios, over the correct interpretation of which scholars have spent much time and ingenuity. 1 In this curious text Aberkios, after mentioning his journeys, says:

“Paul I had as my guide,

Faith however always went ahead and set before me as food a Fish from a Fountain, a huge one, a clean one,

Which a Holy Virgin has caught.

This she gave to the friends ever to eat as food,

Having good Wine, and offering it watered together with Bread.”

Aberkios had this engraved when 72 years of age in truth.

Whoever can understand this let him pray for Aberkios.”

Eisler (I am here quoting from the Quest article) remarks, “As the last line of our quotation gives us quite plainly to understand, a number of words which we have italicized are obviously used in an unusual, metaphorical, sense, that is to say as terms of the Christian Mystery language.”

While Harnack, admitting that the Christian character of the text is indisputable, adds significantly: “aber das Christentum der Grosskirche ist es nicht.”

Thus it is possible that, to the various points of doubtful orthodoxy which scholars have noted as characteristic of the Grail romances, Borron’s Fish-meal should also be added.

Should it be objected that the dependence of a medieval romance upon a Jewish tradition of such antiquity is scarcely probable, I would draw attention to the Voyage of Saint Brandan, where the monks, during their prolonged wanderings, annually ‘kept their Resurrection,’ i.e., celebrate their Easter Mass, on the back of a great Fish. 1

On their first meeting with this monster Saint Brandan tells them it is the greatest of all fishes, and is named Jastoni, a name which bears a curious resemblance to the Jhasa of the Indian tradition cited above. 2

In this last instance the connection of the Fish with life, renewed and sustained, is undeniable.

The original source of such a symbol is most probably to be found in the belief, referred to in a previous chapter, 1 that all life comes from the water, but that a more sensual and less abstract idea was also operative appears from the close connection of the Fish with the goddess Astarte or Atargatis, a connection here shared by the Dove.

Cumont, in his Les Religions Orientales dans le Paganisme Romain, says:

“Two animals were held in general reverence, namely, Dove and Fish.

Countless flocks of Doves greeted the traveller when he stepped on shore at Askalon, and in the outer courts of all the temples of Astarte one might see the flutter of their white wings.

The Fish were preserved in ponds near to the Temple, and superstitious dread forbade their capture, for the goddess punished such sacrilege, smiting the offender with ulcers and tumours.” 2

But at certain mystic banquets priests and initiates partook of this otherwise forbidden food, in the belief that they thus partook of the flesh of the goddess. “

Jessie L. Weston, From Ritual to Romance, 1920, pp. 118-26.

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.

Jesus and the Disciples Were Great Magicians and Kabbalists

“That the kabbalists were not unaware of a possible connection between these ideas and the Christian Trinity is proved by the testimony of the Spanish scholar Profiat Duran. In his anti-Christian work “Ignominy of the Christians,” composed in 1397, he relates having heard in his youth many adepts of the Kabbalah voicing the opinion that the Christian dogmas of the Trinity and the Incarnation grew out of an erroneous interpretation of kabbalistic theses that were true in themselves.

Jesus and his disciples were not only great magicians—an opinion that was widespread in medieval Judaism—but real kabbalists, ”only their Kabbalah was full of mistakes.” The doctrine of the trinity, which they erroneously attributed to the deity, arose among them as a result of their missteps in this science [the Kabbalah] which established the primordial light, the radiant light and the transparent light.”

There was as well, already in the second half of the thirteenth century, no lack of philosophical opponents of the Kabbalah who, knowing nothing of this thesis of the three lights, nonetheless affirmed that the doctrine of the ten sefiroth was of Christian origin.

This thesis is, as our account of the true history of the idea of the sefiroth has shown, just as false as the historically unfounded suppositions of the kabbalists concerning the origins of the Christian dogmas. It is, incidentally, striking that the doctrine of Pseudo-Hai remained initially unknown to the first so-called “Christian kabbalists,” who only took it up after the middle of the sixteenth century and reinterpreted it in Christian terms for their own purposes.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, p. 354.