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Tag: Eber

Eco: The First Gift to Adam


Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516), Paradise and Hell, circa 1510. These two panels were based on the left and right wings of a triptych called The Hay Wagon or The Haywain. After 1907 the entire triptych was held in the Museo del Prado, Madrid, under accession number 2052. 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.

“In the pages which follow, Dante affirms that, in Genesis, it is written that the first to speak was Eve (“mulierem invenitur ante omnes fuisse locutam”) when she talked with the serpent. It seemed to him “troublesome not to imagine that an act so noble for the human race did not come from the lips of a man but rather from those of a woman.”

If anything, of course, we know that it was God that first spoke in Genesis: he spoke to create the world. After that, when God made Adam give names to the animals, Adam presumably emitted sounds as well, though, curiously, the whole episode of the naming of things in Genesis 2:19 is ignored by Dante.

Finally, Adam speaks to show his satisfaction at the appearance of Eve. Mengaldo (1979: 42) has suggested that, since, for Dante, speaking means to externalize the thoughts of our mind, speaking implies spoken dialogue. Thus, since the encounter of Eve and the serpent is the first instance of dialogue, it is, therefore, for Dante, the first instance of linguistic behavior.

This is an argument that accords well with Dante’s choice here of the word locutio, whose ambiguous status we have just discussed. We are thus led to imagine that, for Dante, Adam’s satisfaction with the creation of Eve would have been expressed in his heart, and that, in naming the animals, rather than speaking (in the usual sense of the word), Adam was laying down the rules of language, and thus performing a metalinguistic act.

In whatever case, Dante mentions Eve only to remark that it seemed to him more reasonable to suppose that Adam had really spoken first. While the first sound that humans let forth is the wail of pain at their birth, Dante thought that the first sound emitted by Adam could only have been an exclamation of joy which, at the same time, was an act of homage towards his creator.

The first word that Adam uttered must therefore have been the name of God, El (attested in patristic tradition as the first Hebrew name of God). The argument here implies that Adam spoke to God before he named the animals, and that, consequently, God had already provided Adam with some sort of linguistic faculty before he had even constructed a language.

When Adam spoke to God, it was in response. Consequently, God must have spoken first. To speak, however, the Lord did not necessarily have to use a language. Dante is here appealing to the traditional reading of Psalm 148, in which the verses where “Fire, and hail; snow, and vapor; stormy wind” all “praise the name of the Lord,” thus “fulfilling his word,” are taken to mean that God expresses himself naturally through creation.

Dante, however, contours this passage in a very singular way, suggesting that God was able to move the air in such a way that it resonated to form true words. Why did Dante find it necessary to propose such a cumbersome and seemingly gratuitous reading?

The answer seems to be that, as the first member of the only species that uses speech, Adam could only conceive ideas through hearing linguistic sounds. Moreover, as Dante also makes clear (I, v, 2), God wanted Adam to speak so that he might use the gift to glorify God’s name.

Dante must then ask in what idiom Adam spoke. He criticizes those (the Florentines in particular) who always believe their native language to be the best. There are a many great native languages, Dante comments, and many of these are better than the Italian vernaculars.

He then (I, vi, 4) affirms that, along with the first soul, God created a certam formam locutionis. Mengaldo wishes to translate this as “a determined form of language” (Mengaldo 1979: 55). Such a translation, however, would not explain why Dante, shortly thereafter, states that “It was therefore the Hebrew language [ydioma] that the lips of the first speaker forged [fabricarunt]” (I, vi, 7).

It is true that Dante specifies that he is speaking here of a form “in regard to the expressions which indicated things, as well as to the construction of these expressions and their grammatical endings,” allowing the inference that, by forma locutionis, he wishes to refer to a lexicon and a morphology and, consequently, to a determined language.

Nevertheless, translating forma locutionis as “language” would render the next passage difficult to understand:

qua quidem forma omnis lingua loquentium uterertur, nisi culpa presumptionis humanae dissipata fuisset, ut inferius ostenderentur. Hac forma locutionis locutus est Adam: hac forma locutionis locuti sunt homines posteri ejus usque ad edificationem turris Babel, quae “turris confusionis” interpretatur: hanc formam locutionis hereditati sunt filii Heber, qui ab eo sunt dicti Hebrei. Hiis solis post confusionem remansit, ut Redemptor noster, qui ex illis oratus erat secundum humanitatem, non lingua confusionis sed gratie frueretur. Fuit ergo hebraicum ydioma illud quod primi locuentis labia fabricarunt.” (I, vi, 5).

On the one hand, if Dante wanted to use forma locutionis here to refer to a given tongue, why, in observing that Jesus spoke Hebrew, does he once use lingua and once ydioma (and in recounting the story of the confusion–I,vii–he uses the term loquela) while forma locutionis is only used apropos of the divine gift?

On the other hand, if we understand forma locutionis as a faculty of language innate in all humans, it is difficult to explain why the sinners of Babel are said to have lost it, since DVE repeatedly acknowledges the existence of languages born after Babel.

In light of this, let me try to give the translation of the passage:

“and it is precisely this form that all speakers would make use of in their language had it not been dismembered through the fault of human presumption, as I shall demonstrate below. By this linguistic form Adam spoke: by this linguistic form spoke all his descendants until the construction of the Tower of Babel–which is interpreted as the “tower of confusion:” This was the linguistic form that the sons of Eber, called Hebrews after him, inherited. It remained to them alone after the confusion, so that our Savior, who because of the human side of his nature had to be born of them, could use a language not of confusion but of grace. It was thus the Hebrew tongue that was constructed by the first being endowed with speech.”

In this way, the forma locutionis was neither the Hebrew language nor the general faculty of language, but a particular gift from God to Adam that was lost after Babel. It is the lost gift that Dante sought to recover through his theory of an illustrious vernacular.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 40-3.

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.

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