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Tag: El

Eco: Dante and Abulafia


Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516), The Haywain or The Hay Wagon Triptych (1516), held after 1907 as accession number P02052 in The Prado Museum, Madrid. Bosch signed this work “Jheronimus Bosch” in the lower right corner of the central panel. 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. 

“If we turn from DVE to Paradise, xxxvi (several years having passed in the meantime), we find that Dante has changed his mind. In the earlier work, Dante unambiguously states that it was from the forma locutionis given by God that the perfect language of Hebrew was born, and that it was in this perfect language that Adam addressed God, calling him El. In Paradise, xxxvi, 124-38, however, Adam says:

La lingua ch’io parlai fu tutta spenta

innanzi che all’ovra incomsummabile

fosse le gente di Nembròt attenta:

ché nullo effetto mai razïonabile,

per lo piacer uman che rinovella

seguendo il cielo, sempre fu durabile. 

Opera naturale è ch’uom favella,

ma, così o così, natura lascia,

poi fare a voi, secondo che v’abbella.

Pria ch’i’ pscendessi all’infernale ambascia 

I s’appellava in terra il sommo bene,

onde vien letizia che mi fascia; 

e EL si chiamò poi: e ciò convene,

ché l’uso dei mortali è come fronda

in ramo, che sen va e altra vene.

“The language that I spoke was entirely extinguished before the uncompletable work [the tower of Babel] of the people of Nembrot was even conceived: because no product of the human reason, from the human taste for always having something new, following the influence of the stars, is ever stable. It is natural that man speaks; but whether this way or that, nature lets you yourselves do as it pleases you. Before I descended into the pains of Hell, on earth the Highest Good was called I–from whence comes the light of joy that enfolds me; the name then became EL: and this change was proper, because the customs of mortals are like the leaves on a branch, one goes and another comes.”

Born of humanity’s natural disposition towards speech, languages may split, grow and change through human intervention. According to Adam, the Hebrew spoken before the building of the tower, when God was named El, was not the same as the Hebrew spoken in the earthly paradise, when Adam called him I.

Dante seems here to oscillate between Genesis 10 and Genesis 11. He must always have known these two texts; what could have induced him to modify his earlier views? An intriguing clue is the strange idea that God had once been called I, a term that not one of Dante’s legion of commentators has ever been able to explain satisfactorily.

Returning for a moment to the last chapter, we remember that for Abulafia, the atomic elements of any text–the letters–had individual meanings of their own. Thus, in the divine name YHWH, the letter Yod was itself a divine name.

Dante would have transliterated Yod as I, and this gives one possible source for his change of opinion. If this is so, it would not be the only idea that Dante seems to have had in common with Abulafia.

We saw in the last chapter that for Abulafia the Torah had to be equated with the active intellect, and the scheme from which God created the world was the same as the gift which he gave to Adam–a linguistic matrix, not yet Hebrew, yet capable of generating all other languages.

There were Averroist sympathies in Dante, too, especially in his version of the Avicennist and Augustinian concept of the active intellect (equated with divine wisdom) which offers the forms to possible intellect (cf. in particular, Nardi 1942: v). Nor were the Modistae and the others who supported the idea of universal grammar exempt from Averroist influence.

Thus there existed a common philosophical ground which, even without positing direct links, would have inclined both Dante and Abulafia to regard the gift of language as the bestowal of a forma locutionis, defined as a generative linguistic matrix with affinities to the active intellect.

There are further parallels as well. For Abulafia, Hebrew was the historic proto-language. It was a proto-language, however, that during their exile, the chosen people had forgotten. By the time of the confusion of Babel, therefore, the language of Adam was, as Dante puts it, “tutta spenta” (entirely extinguished).

Idel (1989: 17) cites an unedited manuscript by a disciple of Abulafia which says:

“Anyone who believes in the creation of the world, if he believes that languages are conventional he must also believe that they are of two types: the first is Divine, i.e. agreement between God and Adam, Eve and their children.

The second is derived from the first, and the first was known only to Adam and was not passed on to any of his offspring except for Seth, [ . . . ] And so, the traditions reached Noah. And the confusion of the tongues during the generation of the dispersion [at the tower of Babel] occurred only to the second type of language, i.e., to natural language.”

If we remember that, in such a context, the term “tradition” can refer to the kabbala itself, it seems evident that the above passage alludes, once again, to a linguistic wisdom, a forma locutionis, regarded as a set of rules for constructing the differing languages.

If, in its original form, this wisdom was not a language, but rather a universal matrix for all languages, we can not only explain the mutation of Hebrew between Eden and Babel, but also understand the hope that this original wisdom might somehow be recuperated and (in different ways, obviously, for Abulafia and Dante) even be made to bloom again.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 46-9.

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.

Asherah, Astarte, Anat, Athirat in Ancient Ugarit

“Some scholars have suggested that El’s two wives in The Birth of the Gracious Gods (Manfred Dietrich, Oswald Loretz, and Joaquín Sanmartín, Cuneiform Alphabetic Texts from Ugarit, Ras Ibn Hani and Other Places (CAT), KTU 2d enlarged edition. Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 1995, p. 1.23) are mortal women, since they are referred to as ‘attm, “two women.” But it is just as likely that they are goddesses–perhaps Asherah and Rahmay, mentioned prominently earlier in the myth.

British Museum EA 191, upper register of limestone stele of chief craftsman Qeh.  Naked goddess identified as 'Ke(d)eshet, lady of heaven' flanked by the ithyphallic Egyptian god Min and Syro-Palestinian god Reshep.  Deir el-Medina (Dynasty 19).  Photograph © Trustees of the British Museum. Her name Qdš(-t) simply means 'holy'.  As such, it can be attached to almost any goddess, including the whole of the A-team: Anat, Astarte, Asherah and Athirat.  The question is: did there exist an independent goddess named Qedeshet at all?  She is not known from any Canaanite or Ugaritic texts or inscriptions.  Rather, she only appears as a named goddess in Egypt.  There, she is honoured with such typical titles as 'Lady of heaven' and 'Mistress of all the gods' -- which are not specific to her but could equally apply to any goddess in Egypt. What seems to have happened is this.  From the late Middle Bronze Age (ca. 1600 BCE) onwards, Canaan was under Egyptian rule.   Gods and goddesses moved with the armies back and forth in both directions.  Canaanites were envious (I would imagine) of the power of Egyptian deities and freely borrowed their attributes -- in our case, all those Hathor curls and lily-lotus flowers.  In return, Canaanite gods travelled to Egypt on the backs of soldiers, POW's and slaves. Once installed there, some became very popular with native Egyptians as well and were integrated with interesting local deities (as above, the Canaanite naked goddess with Egyptian Min on her left).  So, when we see a picture of the naked goddess in Egypt inscribed with words such as Qedeshet, lady of heaven, great of magic, mistress of the stars, we wonder if the artists were illustrating the Canaanite Q-lady, or a generic Canaanite naked goddess that had been taken over and developed in Egypt itself.  In other words, when the Egyptians borrowed the naked-female, did they mistake 'holy' for her own name?  In which case, the goddess may have been baptized in Egypt and not in her original Canaanite home.

British Museum EA 191, upper register of limestone stele of chief craftsman Qeh. Naked goddess identified as ‘Ke(d)eshet, lady of heaven’ flanked by the ithyphallic Egyptian god Min and Syro-Palestinian god Reshep. Deir el-Medina (Dynasty 19). Photograph © Trustees of the British Museum.
“Her name Qdš(-t) simply means ‘holy’. As such, it can be attached to almost any goddess, including the whole of the A-team: Anat, Astarte, Asherah and Athirat. The question is: did there exist an independent goddess named Qedeshet at all? She is not known from any Canaanite or Ugaritic texts or inscriptions. Rather, she only appears as a named goddess in Egypt. There, she is honoured with such typical titles as ‘Lady of heaven’ and ‘Mistress of all the gods’ — which are not specific to her but could equally apply to any goddess in Egypt.”

In any case, these women become “El’s wives, El’s wives forever” (CAT 1.23.48-9) and give birth to two gods, Dawn and Dusk. There is much about this myth that is obscure, and nothing substantial that sheds light on Genesis 6:1-4.

In later West Semitic texts, the term “Children of El” (bn ‘ilm) is occasionally used, as at Ugarit, to refer to the main group of gods under the high gods. The Phoenician inscription of King Azitawadda (8th Century BCE) invokes a local sequence of gods: “Baal of heaven, and El the creator of earth, and the eternal Sun, and the whole council of the Children of El (bn ‘lm) (KAI 26. A.iii.19).

A Phoenician inscription from Arslan Tash (7th Century BCE) invokes the “Eternal One” and probably “Asherah,” followed by “All the Children of El (bn ‘lm) and the great of the council of all the Holy Ones” (KAI 27.11-2). An Ammonite inscription from the Amman Citadel (8th Century BCE) exhorts: “[Be]hold, you should trust(?) the Children of El (bn ‘lm).” These brief notices indicate that the term “Sons / Children of El” continued in use in the first millennium with the same general sense as in the second millennium texts.

Some Hellenistic era Phoenician traditions preserved in the writings of Philo of Byblos have been adduced as comparable to the themes and characters in Genesis 6: 1-4 (A.I. Baumgarten, The Phoenician History of Philos of Byblos (Leiden, 1981), pp. 156-7), but their relevance is dubious. In a portion of Philo’s Phoenician History (as quoted by the church father Eusebius), an interesting sequence of primeval history is related:

“From Genos, the son of Aion and Protogonos, there again were born mortal children whose names were Phos, Pur, and Phlox. These–he says–by rubbing sticks together discovered fire, and they taught its use.

And they begot sons who in size and eminence were greater [than their fathers] and whose names were given to the mountain ranges over which they ruled, so that they Kassios, the Lebanon, the Anti-Lebanon, and the Brathys were called after them.

From these–he says–were born Samemroumos who is also [called] Hypsouranios and Ousoos. And–he says–they called themselves after their mothers, since the women of that time united freely with anyone upon whom they chanced.” (Eusebius, Praeparatio evangelica 1.10.9)

These are probably authentic Phoenician traditions, but they have been filtered through Philo’s Hellenistic hermeneutics. If these traditions were about primeval humanity, as the text suggests, then the comparison with Genesis 6:1-4 would be warranted, particularly the birth of giants and perhaps the sexual adventures of women in primeval times. But it has long been clear that the characterization of these figures as human is due to Philo’s Euhemeristic technique, in which the stories of the gods have been transposed into stories about humans.

The clues that this is a sequence of divine figures include the following: Aion (“Eternity”) is identifiable as the well-known Canaanite / Phoenician god ‘Olam (“Eternal One”), as in the Arslan Tash inscription above; the children who discover fire are named “Light,” “Fire,” and “Flame,” also identifiable as Canaanite / Phoenician gods; their sons whose names are given to mountains are identifiable as local BaalsBaal of Kassios (= Mount Zaphon), called Zeus Kassios in Hellenistic times, Baal of Lebanon, and Baal of Anti-Lebanon (= Mount Hermon); Samemroumos means in Phoenician “High Heaven” (= Greek Hypsouranios), perhaps related to Baal of Heaven in the Phoenician inscription of Azitawadda above, or to the temple precinct in Sidon called “high heaven.”

Gold pendant, possibly Astarte. Ugarit. 1500-1200/1150 BCE. Drawing © Stéphane Beaulieu, after Toorn 1998:86, #31

Gold pendant, possibly Astarte. Ugarit. 1500-1200/1150 BCE.
Drawing © Stéphane Beaulieu, after Toorn 1998:86, #31

The “mothers,” champions of free sex in Philo’s text, are likely to be goddesses, though their identities are unclear. Astarte and Anat (called in a Ugaritic text “Lady of High Heaven”) are good candidates.

Phoenician traditions about gods of mountains and about goddesses who have sex and bear divine offspring are interesting of themselves, but do not bear directly on the story or characters of Genesis 6:1-4. The same lack of connection pertains to stories about open conflict or rebellions among the generations of the gods (related in Philo’s Phoenician History among other sources), since this theme is not perceptible in Genesis 6:1-4.

Nonetheless, the long duration of the “Sons / Children of El” in West Semitic lore indicates that the story in Genesis 6:1-4 is rooted in widespread cultural traditions. But, perhaps because our textual evidence is so sparse, we lack other West Semitic narratives that are clearly related to Genesis 6:1-4.”

Ronald Hendel, “The Nephilim Were on the Earth: Genesis 6:1-4 and its Ancient Near Eastern Context,” in Christoph Auffarth and Loren T. Stuckenbruck, eds., The Fall of the Angels, Brill, 2004, pp. 24-7.

Boaz and Jachin, and Pillars of Emerald and Gold in the Temple of Melkarth in Herodotus

“Within the last few years, bas-reliefs have been found in Sicily and Tunisia representing persons in the act of adoration before a small triad of stone. We are here on Phoenician territory, and it is not strange therefore that classical writers should speak of the βαίτυλοι or Beth-els, the meteoric stones which had fallen from heaven like “the image” of Artemis at Ephesos, and were accordingly honoured by the Phoenicians.

In the mythology of Byblos, Heaven and Earth were said to have had four sons, Ilos or ElBêtylos or Beth-elDagon and Atlas; and the god of heaven was further declared to have invented the Baityli, making of them living stones (Eusebius of Caesarea: Praeparatio Evangelica (Preparation for the Gospel), Tr. E.H. Gifford (1903) — Book 1, Chapter 10).

Bethuel is connected with Aram in the Old Testament (Genesis xxii, 21, 22); and we all remember how, on his way to Haran, Jacob awakened out of sleep, saying, “Surely the Lord is in this place,” and “took the stone that he had put for his pillows, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it, and called the name of that place Beth-el.”

In Palestine, however, the Beth-els were arranged in a circle or Gilgal, rather than singly; the isolated monuments were the cones of stone or the bare tree-trunks which symbolised Ashêrah, the goddess of fertility, and Baal the Sun-god. The sun-pillars and the ashêrim meet with frequent mention in the Biblical records; and we may gain some idea as to what the latter were like from the pictures we have on coins and gems of the famous conical stone that stood within the holy of holies in the temple of the Paphian Aphroditê, as well as from the description given of it by Tacitus.

On a gem in the British Museum, Sin, “the god of Harran,” is represented by a stone of the same shape surmounted by a star. The “pillars of the Sun” were also stones of a like form. When the Phoenician temple in the island of Gozo, whose ruins are known as the Temple of the Giants, was excavated, two such columns of stone were found, planted in the ground, one of which still remains in situ.

We cannot forget that even in Solomon’s temple, built as it was by Phoenician workmen, there were two columns of stone, Boaz and Yakin, set on either side of the porch (1 Kings vii. 21), like the two columns of gold and emerald glass which Herodotos saw in the temple of Melkarth at Tyre (Herodotus, The Histories, ii, 44).

The sacred stones which were thus worshipped in Arabia, in Phoenicia and in Syria, were worshipped also among the Semites of Babylonia. There is a curious reference to the consecration of a Beth-el in the Epic of Gisdhubar.

When the hero had been dismissed by the Chaldean Noah, and his sickness had been carried away by the waters of the sea, we are told that “he bound together heavy stones,” and after taking an animal for sacrifice, “poured over it a homer” in libation.

He then commenced his homeward voyage up the Euphrates, having thus secured the goodwill of heaven for his undertaking.”

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. 408-10.

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