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Tag: Europe

Eco: The Gift to Adam

Ibn Hazm, Tawq al-hamama fi al-ulfa

Ibn Hazm (994-1064), The Ring of the Dove (Tawq al-Hanamah), circa 1022, held in the University Library Leiden, Oriental Collections. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Eco: Translation

Diego de Torres Rubio de la Copania de Jesus, 1616

Diego de Torres Rubio (1547-1638), Arte de la lengua aymara, Lima, Francisco del Canto, 1616. Digitized courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library. 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.

“Today more than ever before, at the end of its long search, European culture is in urgent need of a common language that might heal its linguistic fractures.

Yet, at the same time, Europe needs to remain true to its historic vocation as the continent of different languages, each of which, even the most peripheral, remains the medium through which the genius of a particular ethnic group expresses itself, witness and vehicle of a millennial tradition.

Is it possible to reconcile the need for a common language and the need to defend linguistic heritages?

Both of these needs reflect the same theoretical contradictions as well as the same practical possibilities. The limits of any possible international common language are the same as those of the natural languages on which these languages are modeled: all presuppose a principle of translatability.

If a universal common language claims for itself the capacity to re-express a text written in any other language, it necessarily presumes that, despite the individual genius of any single language, and despite the fact that each language constitutes its own rigid and unique way of seeing, organizing and interpreting the world, it is still always possible to translate from one language to another.

However, if this is a prerequisite inherent to any universal language, it is at the same time a prerequisite inherent to any natural language. It is possible to translate from a natural language into a universal and artificial one for the same reasons that justify and guarantee the translation from a natural language into another.

The intuition that the problem of translation itself presupposed a perfect language is already present in Walter Benjamin: since it is impossible to reproduce all the linguistic meanings of the source language into a target language, one is forced to place one’s faith in the convergence of all languages.

In each language “taken as a whole, there is a self-identical thing that is meant, a thing which, nevertheless, is accessible to none of these languages taken individually, but only to that totality of all of their intentions taken as reciprocal and complementary, a totality that we call Pure Language [reine Sprache].” (Benjamin 1923).

This reine Sprache is not a real language. If we think of the mystic and Kabbalistic sources which were the inspiration for Benjamin’s thinking, we begin to sense the impending ghost of sacred languages, of something more akin to the secret genius of Pentecostal languages and of the language of birds than to the ideal of the a priori languages.

“Even the desire for translation is unthinkable without this correspondence with the thought of God (Derrida 1980: 217; cf. also Steiner 1975: 64).

In many of the most notable projects for mechanical translation, there exists a notion of a parameter language, which does share many of the characteristics of the a priori languages.

There must, it is argued, exist a tertium comparationis which might allow us to shift from an expression in language A to an expression in language B by deciding that both are equivalent to an expression of a metalanguage C.

If such a tertium really existed, it would be a perfect language; if it did not exist, it would remain a mere postulate on which every translation ought to depend.

The only alternative is to discover a natural language which is so “perfect” (so flexible and powerful) as to serve as a tertium comparationis. In 1603, the Jesuit Ludovico Bertonio published his Arte de lengua Aymara (which he supplemented in 1612 with a Vocabulario de la lengua Aymara).

Aymara is a language still partially spoken by Indians living between Bolivia and Peru, and Bertonio discovered that it displayed an immense flexibility and capability of accommodating neologisms, particularly adapted to the expression of abstract concepts, so much so as to raise a suspicion that it was an artificial invention.

Two centuries later, Emeterio Villamil de Rada described it as the language of Adam, the expression of “an idea anterior to the formation of language,” founded upon “necessary and immutable ideas” and, therefore, a philosophic language if ever there were one (La Lengua de Adan, 1860). After this, it was only a matter of time before the Semitic roots of the Aymara language were “discovered” as well.

Recent studies have established that unlike western thought, based on a two-valued logic (either true or false), Aymara thought is based on a three-valued logic, and is, therefore, capable of expressing modal subtleties which other languages can only capture through complex circumlocutions.

Thus, to conclude, there have been proposals to use Aymara to resolve all problems of computer translation (see Guzmán de Rosas n.d., which includes a vast bibliography). Unfortunately, “due to its algorithmic nature, the syntax of Aymara would greatly facilitate the translation of any other idiom into its own terms (though not the other way around)” (L. Ramiro Beltran, in Guzmán de Rosas n.d.: III).

Thus, because of its perfection, Aymara can render every thought expressed in other mutually untranslatable languages, but the price of this is that once the perfect language has resolved these thoughts into its own terms, they cannot be translated back into our natural native idioms.

One way out of this dilemma is to assume, as certain authors have recently done, that translation is a matter to be resolved entirely within the destination (or target) language, according to the context.

This means that it is within the framework of the target language that all the semantic and syntactic problems posed by the source text must be resolved.

This is a solution that takes us outside of the problem of perfect languages, or of a tertium comparationis, for it implies that we need to understand expressions formed according to the genius of the source language and to invent a “satisfying” paraphrase according to the genius of the target language.

Yet how are we to establish what the criteria of “satisfaction” could be?

These were theoretical difficulties that Humboldt had already foreseen. If no word in a language exactly corresponds to a word in another one, translation is impossible. At most, translation is an activity, in no way regulated, through which we are able to understand what our own language was unable to say.

Yet if translation implied no more than this it would be subject to a curious contradiction: the possibility of a relation between two languages, A and B, would only occur when A was closed in a full realization of itself, assuming to had understood B, of which nothing could any longer be said, for all that B had to say would by now have been said by A.

Still, what is not excluded is the possibility that, rather than a parameter language, we might elaborate a comparative tool, not itself a language, which might (if only approximately) be expressed in any language, and which might, furthermore, allow us to compare any two linguistic structures that seemed, in themselves, incommensurable.

This instrument or procedure would be able to function in the same way and for the same reason that any natural language is able to translate its own terms into one another by an interpretive principle: according to Peirce, any natural language can serve as a metalanguage to itself, by a process of unlimited semiosis (cf. Eco 1979: 2).

See for instance a table proposed by Nida (1975: 75) that displays the semantic differences in a number of verbs of motion (figure 17.1).

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 17.1, p. 348.png

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, 1995, Figure 17.1, p. 348.

We can regard this table as an example of an attempt to illustrate, in English–as well as by other semiotic means, such as mathematical signs–what a certain class of English terms mean.

Naturally, the interpretative principle demands that the English speaker also interpret the meaning of limb, and indeed any other terms appearing in the interpretation of the verbal expression.

One is reminded here of Degérando’s observations concerning the infinite regress that may arise from any attempt to analyze fully an apparently primitive term such as to walk.

In reality, however, a language always, as it were, expects to define difficult terms with terms that are easier and less controversial, though by conjectures, guesses and approximations.

Translation proceeds according to the same principle. If one were to wish, for example, to translate Nida’s table from English into Italian, one would probably start by substituting for the English verbs Italian terms that are practically synonymous: correre for run, camminare for walk, danzare for dance, and strisciare for crawl.

As soon as we got to the verb to hop, we would have to pause; there is no direct synonym in Italian for an activity that the Italian-English dictionary might define as “jumping on one leg only.”

Nor is there an adequate Italian synonym for the verb to skip: Italian has various terms, like saltellare, ballonzolare and salterellare; these can approximately render to skip, but they can also translate to frisk, to hop or to trip, and thus do not uniquely specify the sort of alternate hop-shuffle-step movement specified by the English to skip.

Even though Italian lacks a term which adequately conveys the meaning of to skip, the rest of the terms in the table–limb, order of contact, number of limbs–are all definable, if not necessarily by Italian synonyms, at least by means of references to contexts and circumstances.

Even in English, we have to conjecture that, in this table, the term contact must be understood as “contact with the surface the movement takes place upon” rather than as “contact with another limb.”

Either to define or to translate, we thus do not need a full fledged parametric language at our disposition. We assume that all languages have some notion that corresponds to the term limb, because all humans have a similar anatomy.

Furthermore, all cultures probably have ways to distinguish hands from arms, palms from fingers, and, on fingers, the first joint from the second, and the second from the third; and this assumption would be no less true even in a culture, such as Father Mersenne imagined, in which every individual pore, every convolute of a thumb-print had its own individual name.

Thus, by starting from terms whose meanings are known and working to interpret by various means (perhaps including gestures) terms whose meanings are not, proceeding by successive adjustments, an English speaker would be able to convey to an Italian speaker what the phrase John hops is all about.

These are possibilities for more than just the practice of translation; they are the possibilities for coexistence on a continent with a multilingual vocation. Generalized polyglottism is certainly not the solution to Europe’s cultural problems; like Funes “el memorioso” in the story by Borges, a global polyglot would have his or her mind constantly filled by too many images.

The solution for the future is more likely to be in a community of peoples with an increased ability to receive the spirit, to taste or savor the aroma of different dialects.

Polyglot Europe will not be a continent where individuals converse fluently in all the other languages; in the best of cases, it could be a continent where differences of language are no longer barriers to communication, where people can meet each other and speak together, each in his or her own tongue, understanding, as best they can, the speech of others.

In this way, even those who never learn to speak another language fluently could still participate in its particular genius, catching a glimpse of the particular cultural universe that every individual expresses each time he or she speaks the language of his or her ancestors and his or her own tradition.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 344-51.

Eco: Conclusion


Gustav Doré (1832-1883), The Confusion of Tongues, 1865-68, currently held privately. 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. 

Plures linguas scire gloriosum esset, patet exemplo Catonis, Mithridates, Apostolorum.”

Comenius, Linguarum methodus novissima

“This story is a gesture of propaganda, in so far as it provided a particular explanation of the origin and variety of languages, by presenting it only as a punishment and a curse [ . . . ] Since the variety of tongues renders a universal communication among men, to say the least, difficult, that was certainly a punishment.

However, it also meant an improvement of the original creative powers of Adam, a proliferation of that force which allowed the production of names by virtue of a divine inspiration.”

J. Trabant, Apeliotes, oder der Sinn der Sprache

“Citizens of a multiform Earth, Europeans cannot but listen to the polyphonic cry of human languages. To pay attention to the others who speak their own language is the first step in order to establish a solidarity more concrete than many propaganda discourses.”

Claude Hagège, Le souffle de la langue

“Each language constitutes a certain model of the universe, a semiotic system of understanding the world, and if we have 4,000 different ways to describe the world, this makes us rich. We should be concerned about preserving languages just as we are about ecology.”

V.V. Ivanov, Reconstructing the Past

“I said at the beginning that it was the account in Genesis 11, not Genesis 10, that had prevailed in the collective imagination and, more specifically, in the minds of those who pondered over the plurality of languages.

Despite this, as Demonet has shown (1992), already by the time of the Renaissance, a reconsideration of Genesis 10 was under way, provoking, as we saw, a rethinking of the place of Hebrew as the unchanging language, immutable from the time of Babel.

We can take it that, by then, the multiplicity of tongues was probably accepted as a positive fact both in Hebrew culture and in Christian Kabbalistic circles (Jacquemier 1992). Still, we have to wait until the eighteenth century before the rethinking of Genesis 10 provokes a revaluation of the legend of Babel itself.

In the same years that witnessed the appearance of the first volumes of the Encyclopédie, the abbé Pluche noted in his La méchanique des langues et l’art de les einsegner (1751) that, already by the time of Noah, the first differentiation, if not in the lexicon at least in inflections, between one family of languages and another had occurred.

This historical observation led Pluche on to reflect that the multiplication of languages (no longer, we note, the confusion of languages) was more than a mere natural event: it was socially providential. Naturally, Pluche imagined, people were at first troubled to discover that tribes and families no longer understood each other so easily. In the end, however,

“those who spoke a mutually intelligible language formed a single body and went to live together in the same corner of the world. Thus it was the diversity of languages which provided each country with its own inhabitants and kept them there. It should be noted that the profits of this miraculous and extraordinary mutation have extended to all successive epochs.

From this point on, the more people have mixed, the more they have produced mixtures and novelties in their languages; and the more these languages have multiplied, the harder it becomes to change countries. In this way, the confusion of tongues has fortified that sentiment of attachment upon which love of country is based; the confusion has made men more sedentary.” (pp. 17-8).

This is more than the celebration of the particular “genius” of each single language: the very sense of the myth of Babel has been turned upside down. The natural differentiation of languages has become a positive phenomenon underlying the allocation of peoples to their respective territories, the birth of nations, and the emergence of the sense of national identity.

It is a reversal of meaning that reflects the patriotic pride of an eighteenth century French author: the confusio linguarum was the historically necessary point of departure for the birth of a new sense of the state. Pluche, in effect, seems to be paraphrasing Louis XIV: “L’état c’est la langue.”

In the light of this reinterpretation it is also interesting to read the objections to an international language made by another French writer, one who lived before the great flood of a posteriori projects in the late nineteenth century–Joseph-Marie Degérando, in his work, Des signes. Degérando observed that travelers, scientists and merchants (those who needed a common language) were always a minority in respect of the mass of common citizens who were content to remain at home peaceably speaking their native tongues.

Just because this minority of travelers needed a common language, it did not follow that the majority of sedentary citizens needed one as well. It was the traveler that needed to understand the natives; the natives had no particular need to understand a traveler, who, indeed, had an advantage over them in being able to conceal his thoughts from the peoples he visited (III, 562).

With regard to scientific contact, any common language for science would grow distant from the language of letters, but we know that the language of science and the language of letters influence and fortify each other (III, 570). An international language of purely scientific communication, moreover, would soon become an instrument of secrecy, from which the humble speakers of their native dialects would be excluded (III, 572).

And as to possible literary uses (and we leave Degérando the responsibility for such a vulgar sociological argument), if the authors were obliged to write in a common tongue, they would be exposed to international rivalries, fearing invidious comparisons with the works of foreign writers.

Thus it seems that for Degérando circumspection was a disadvantage for science and an advantage for literature–as it was for the astute and cultivated traveler, more learned than his native and naive interlocutors.

We are, of course, at the end of the century which produced de Rivarol‘s eulogy to the French language. Thus, although Degérando recognized that the world was divided into zones of influence, and that it was normal to speak German in areas under German political influence just as it was normal to speak English in the British Isles, he could still maintain, were it possible to impose an auxiliary language, Europe could do no better than to choose French for self-evident reasons of political power (III, 578-9).

In any case, according to Degérando, the narrow mindedness of most governments made every international project unthinkable: “Should we suppose that the governments wish to come to an agreement over a set of uniform laws for the alteration of national languages? How many times have seen governments arrive at an effective agreement over matters that concern the general interest of society?” (III, 554).

In the background is a prejudice of the eighteenth century–and eighteenth century Frenchmen in particular–that people simply did not wish to learn other tongues, be they universal or foreign. There existed a sort of cultural deafness when faced with polyglottism, a deafness that continues on throughout the nineteenth century to leave visible traces in our own; the only peoples exempt were, remarked Degérando, those of northern Europe, for reasons of pure necessity.

So diffuse was this cultural deafness that he even felt compelled to suggest provocatively (III, 587) that the study of foreign languages was not really the sterile and mechanical exercise that most people thought.

Thus Degérando had no choice but to conduce his extremely skeptical review with an eulogy to the diversity of tongues: diversity placed obstacles in the way of foreign conquerers, prevented undue mixing between different peoples, and helped each people to preserve their national character and the habits which protected the purity of their folkways.

A national language linked a people to their state, stimulated patriotism and the cult of tradition. Degérando admitted that these considerations were hardly compatible with the ideals of universal brotherhood; still, he commented, “in this age of corruption, hearts must, above all else, be turned towards patriotic sentiments; the more egotism progresses, the more dangerous it is to become a cosmopolitan” (IV, 589).

If we wish to find historical precedents for this vigorous affirmation of the profound unity between a people and their language (as a gift due to the Babelic event), we need look no farther than Luther (Declamationes in Genesim, 1527).

It is this tradition, perhaps, that also stands behind Hegel’s decisive revaluation of Babel. For him the construction of the tower is not only a metaphor for the social structures linking a people to their state, but also occasions a celebration of the almost sacred character of collective human labor.

“What is holy?” Goethe asks once in a distich, and answers: “What links many souls together.” . . . In the wide plains of the Euphrates an enormous architectural work was erected; it was built in common, and the aim and content of the work was at the same time the community of those who constructed it.

And the foundation of this social bond does not remain merely a unification on patriarchal lines; on the contrary, the purely family unity has already been superseded, and the building, rising into the clouds, makes objective to itself this earlier and dissolved unity and the realization of a new and wider one.

The ensemble of all the peoples at that period worked at this task and since they all came together to complete an immense work like this, the product of their labor was to be a bond which was to link them together (as we are linked by manners, customs, and the legal constitution of the state) by means of the excavated site and ground, the assembled blocks of stone, and the as it were architectural cultivation of the country.”

(G.W.F. Hegel, trans. T.M. Knox: 638).

In this vision, in which the tower serves as a prefiguration of the ethical state, the theme of the confusion of languages can only be interpreted as meaning that the unity of the state is not a universal, but a unity that gives life to different nations (“this tradition tells us that the peoples, after being assembled in this one center of union for the construction of such a work, were once again dispersed and separated from each other”).

Nevertheless, the undertaking of Babel was still a precondition, the event necessary to set social, political and scientific history in motion, the first glimmerings of the Age of Progress and Reason. This is a dramatic intuition: to the sound of an almost Jacobin roll of muffled drums, the old Adam mounts to the scaffold, his linguistic ancien régime at an end.

And yet Hegel’s sentence did not lead to a capital punishment. The myth of the tower as a failure and as a drama still lives today: “the Tower of Babel […] exhibits an incompleteness, even an impossibility of completing, of totalizing, of saturating, of accomplishing anything which is in the order of building, of architectural construction” (Derrida 1980: 203).

One should remark that Dante (DVE, I, vii) provided a “technological” version of the confusio linguarum. His was the story not so much of the birth of the languages of different ethnic groups as of the proliferation of technical jargons: the architects had their language while the stone bearers had theirs (as if Dante were thinking of the jargons of the corporations of his time).

One is almost tempted to find here a formulation, ante litteram to say the least, of the idea of the social division of labor in terms of a division of linguistic labor.

Somehow Dante’s hint seems to have journeyed through the centuries: in his Histoire critique du Vieux Testament (1678), Richard Simon wondered whether the confusion of Babel might not have arisen from the fact that, when the workmen came to give names to their tools, each named them in his own way.

The suspicion that these hints reveal a long buried strand in the popular understanding of the story is reinforced by the history of iconography (cf. Minkowski 1983).

From the Middle Ages onwards, in fact, in the pictorial representations of Babel we find so many direct or indirect allusions to human labor–stonemasons, pulleys, squared building stones, block and tackles, plumb lines, compasses, T-squares, winches, plastering equipment, etc.–that these representations have become an important source of our knowledge of medieval building techniques.

And how are we to know whether Dante’s own suggestion might not have arisen from the poet’s acquaintance with the iconography of his times?

Towards the end of the sixteenth century, the theme of Babel entered into the repertoire of Dutch artists, who reworked it in innumerable ways (one thinks, of course, of Bruegel), until, in the multiplicity of the number of tools and construction techniques depicted, the Tower of Babel, in its robust solidity, seemed to embody a secular statement of faith in human progress.

By the seventeenth century, artists naturally began to include references to the latest technical innovations, depicting the “marvelous machines” described in a growing number of treatises on mechanical devices.

Even Kircher, who could hardly by accused of secularism, was fascinated by the image of Babel as a prodigious feat of technology; thus, when Father Athanasius wrote his Turris Babel, he concentrated on its engineering, as if he were describing a tower that had once been a finished object.

In the nineteenth century, the theme of Babel began to fall from use, because of a lesser interest in the theological and linguistic aspects of the confusio: in exchange, in the few representations of the event, “the close up gave way to the “group,” representing “humanity,” whose inclination, reaction, or destiny was represented against the background of the “Tower of Babel.”

In these dramatic scenes the focus of the representation is thus given by human masses” (Minkowski 1983: 69). The example that readily springs to mind is in Doré’s illustrated Bible.

By now we are in the century of progress, the century in which the Italian poet, Carducci, celebrated the steam engine in a poem entitled, significantly, Hymn to Satan.

Hegel had taught the century to take pride in the works of Lucifer. Thus the gesture of the gigantic figure that dominates Doré’s engraving is ambiguous. While the tower projects dark shadows on the workmen bearing the immense blocks of marble, a nude turns his face and extends his arm towards a cloud-filled sky.

Is it defiant pride, a curse directed towards a God who has defeated human endeavors? Whatever it is, the gesture certainly does not signify humble resignation in the face of destiny.

Genette has observed (1976: 161) how much the idea of confusio linguarum appears as a felix culpa in romantic authors such as Nodier: natural languages are perfect in so far as they are many, for the truth is many-sided and falsity consists in reducing this plurality into a single definite unity.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 337-44.


Eco: The “Political” Possibilities of an IAL


Bernard le Bouvier de Fontenelle (1657-1757), Histoire des Oracles, La Haye: Gosse et Néalme, 1728. 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. 

“Up to now, vehicular languages have been imposed by tradition (Latin as the language of politics, learning and the church in the Middle Ages), by political and economical hegemony (English after World War II), or by other imponderable reasons (Swahili, a natural language spoken on the coast of east Africa, gradually and spontaneously penetrated the interior and, in the wake of commercial and, later, colonial contacts, was simplified and standardized, becoming the common language for a vast African area).

Would it be possible for some international body (the UN or the European Parliament) to impose a particular IAL as a lingua franca (or, perhaps, sanction the actual diffusion of one)? It would be a totally unprecedented historical event.

No one could deny, however, that today many things have changed: that continuous and curious exchanges among different peoples–not just at the higher social levels, but at the level of mass tourism–are phenomena that did not exist in previous eras.

The mass media have proved to be capable of spreading comparatively homogeneous patterns of behavior throughout the entire globe–and in fact, in the international acceptance of English as a common language, the mass media have played no small part.

Thus, were a political decision to be accompanied by a media campaign, the chances of success for an IAL would be greatly improved.

Today, Albanians and Tunisians have learned Italian only because they can receive Italian TV. All the more reason, it seems, to get people acquainted with an IAL, provided it would be regularly used by many television programs, by international assemblies, by the pope for his addresses, by the instruction booklets for electronic gadgets, by the control towers in the airports.

If no political initiative on this matter has emerged up till now, if, indeed, it seems difficult to bring about, this does not mean that a political initiative of this sort will never be made in the future.

During the last four centuries we have witnessed in Europe a process of national state formation, which required (together with a customs policy, the constitution of regular armies, and the vigorous imposition of symbols of identity) the imposition of single national languages.

Schools, academies and the press have been encouraged to standardize and spread knowledge of these languages. Speakers of marginal languages suffered neglect, or, in various political circumstances, even direct persecution, in order to ensure national homogeneity.

Today, however, the trend has reversed itself: politically, customs barriers are coming down, national armies are giving way to international peace-keeping forces, and national borders have become “welcome to” signs on the motorway.

In the last decades, European policy towards minority languages has changed as well. Indeed, in the last few years, a much more dramatic change has taken place, of which the crumbling of the Soviet empire is the most potent manifestation: linguistic fragmentation is no longer felt as an unfortunate accident but rather as a sign of national identity and as  a political right–at the cost even of civil wars.

For two centuries, America was an international melting pot with one common language–WASP English: today, in states like California, Spanish has begun to claim an equal right; New York City is not far behind.

The process is probably by now unstoppable. If the growth in European unity now proceeds in step with linguistic fragmentation, the only possible solution lies in the full adoption of a vehicular language for Europe.

Among all the objections, one still remains valid: it was originally formulated by Fontenelle and echoed by d’Alembert in his introduction to the Encyclopédie: governments are naturally egotistical; they enact laws for their own benefit, but never for the benefit of all humanity.

Even if we were all to agree on the necessity of an IAL, it is hard to imagine the international bodies, which are still striving to arrive at some agreement over the means to save our planet from an ecological catastrophe, being capable of imposing a painless remedy for the open wound of Babel.

Yet in this century we have become used to a constantly accelerating pace of events, and this should make would-be prophets pause. National pride is a two-edged sword; faced with the prospect that in a future European union the language of a single national might prevail, those states with scant prospects of imposing their own language and which are afraid of the predominance of another one (and thus all states except one) might band together to support the adoption of an IAL.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 332-5.

Eco: The Babel of A Posteriori Languages


Giuseppe Peano (1858-1932), Italian mathematician, circa 1910. Photographer unknown. 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. 

“Among the international artificial languages, the project that was presented in 1734 under the pseudonym of Carpophorophilus probably takes the prize for seniority; the next was Faiguet’s Langue Nouvelle; after this, in 1839, was the Communicationssprache of Schipfer. After these, there came a tide of IALs in the nineteenth century.

If one takes samples from a number of systems, a set of family resemblances soon appears. There is usually a prevalence of Latin roots plus a fair distribution of roots derived from other European languages.

In this way, the speakers of any one of the major European languages will always have the impression of being in, at least partially, familiar territory:

“Me senior, I sende evos un grammatik e un verb-bibel de un nuov glot nomed universal glot. (Universal sprache, 1868).

Ta pasilingua era una idioma per tos populos findita, una lingua qua autoris de to spirito divino, informando tos hominos zu parlir, er creita. (Pasilingua, 1885).

Mesiur, me recipi-tum tuo epistola hic mane gratissime. (Lingua, 1888).

Con grand satisfaction mi ha lect tei letter [ . . . ] Le possibilità de un universal lingue pro la civilisat nations ne esse dubitabil. (Mondolingue, 1888).

Me pen the liberté to ecriv to you in Anglo-Franca. Me have the honneur to soumett to yoùs inspection the prospectus of mès object manufactured. (Anglo-Franca, 1889).

Le nov latin non requirer pro la sui adoption aliq congress. (Nov Latin, 1890).

Scribasion in idiom neutral don profiti sekuant in komparision ko kelkun lingu nasional. (Idiom Neutral, 1902).”

In 1893 there even appeared an Antivolapük which was really an anti-IAL: it consisted of nothing but a skeletal universal grammar which users were invited to complete by adding lexical items from their own language; for example:

French-international: IO NO savoir U ES TU cousin . . .

English-international: IO NO AVER lose TSCHE book KE IO AVER find IN LE street.

Italian-international: IO AVER vedere TSCHA ragazzo e TSCHA ragazza IN UN strada.

Russian-international: LI dom DE MI atijez E DE MI djadja ES A LE ugol DE TSCHE ulitza.

Of like perversity was Tutonisch (1902), an international language only comprehensible to German speakers (or, at most, to speakers of Germanic languages like English).

Thus the opening of the Lord’s Prayer sounds like this: “vio fadr hu be in hevn, holirn bi dauo nam.” The author was later merciful enough to provide Romance-language speakers with a version of their own, so that they too might pray in Tutonisch: “nuo opadr, ki in siel, sanktirn bi tuo nom.”

If our story seems to be taking a turn for the ridiculous, it is due less to the languages themselves (which taken one by one are frequently well done) than to an inescapable “Babel effect.”

Interesting on account of its elementary grammar, the Latino Sine Flexione of the great mathematician and logician Giuseppe Peano (1903) was wittily designed. Peano had no intention of creating a new language; he only wanted to recommend his simplified Latin as a written lingua franca for international scientific communication, reminiscent of the “laconic” grammars of the Encyclopédie.

Peano stripped Latin of its declensions, with, in his own words, the result that: “Con reductione qui praecede, nomen et verbo fie inflexible; toto grammatica latino evanesce.”

Thus, no grammar (or almost no grammar) and a lexicon from a well-known language. Yet this result tended perhaps to encourage pidgin Latin. When an English contributor wished to write for one of the mathematical journals which, under the influence of Peano, accepted articles in Latino Sine Flexione, he naturally retained the modal future; thus he translated, “I will publish” as me vol publica.

The episode is not only amusing: it illustrates the possibility of an uncontrolled development. As with other international languages, Latino Sine Flexione depended less upon its structural merits than on establishing a consensus in its favor. Failing to achieve this, it became another historical curiosity.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 321-4.

Eco: The International Auxiliary Languages

Couturat & Leau, Histoire de la Langue Universelle, 1903

Louis Couturat (1868-1914) & Léopold Leau (1868-1943), Histoire de la langue universelle, Hachette, Paris, 1903, held in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, and 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 dawn of the twentieth century witnessed a revolution in transport and communications. In 1903 Couturat and Leau noted that it was now possible to voyage around the world in just forty days; exactly one half of the fateful limit set by Jules Verne just thirty years before.

Now the telephone and the wireless knitted Europe together and as communication became faster, economic relations increased. The major European nations had acquired colonies even in the far-flung antipodes, and so the European market could extend to cover the entire earth.

For these and other reasons, governments felt as never before the need for international forums where they might meet to resolve an infinite series of common problems, and our authors cite the Brussels convention on sugar production and international accord on white-slave trade.

As for scientific research, there were supranational bodies such as the Bureau des poides et  mesures (sixteen states) or the International Geodesic Association (eighteen states), while in 1900 the International Association of Scientific Academies was founded.

Couturat and Leau wrote that such a growing of scientific information needed to be organized “sous peine de revenir à la tour de Babel.”

What could the remedy be? Couturat and Leau dismissed the idea of choosing a living language as an international medium as utopian, and found difficulties in returning to a dead language like Latin.

Besides, Latin displays too many homonyms (liber means both “book” and “free”), its flexions create equivocations (avi might represent the dative and ablative of avis or the nominative plural of avus), it makes it difficult to distinguish between nouns and verbs (amor means both love and I am loved), it lacks a definite article and its syntax is largely irregular . . . The obvious solution seemed to be the invention of an artificial language, formed on the model of natural ones, but which might seem neutral to all its users.

The criteria for this language should be above all a simple and rational grammar (as extolled by the a priori languages, but with a closer analogy with existing tongues), and a lexicon whose terms recalled as closely as possible words in the natural languages.

In this sense, an international auxiliary language (henceforth IAL) would no longer be a priori but a posteriori; it would emerge from a comparison with and a balanced synthesis of naturally existing languages.

Couturat and Leau were realistic enough to understand that it was impossible to arrive at a preconceived scientific formula to judge which of the a posteriori IAL projects was the best and most flexible. It would have been the same as deciding on allegedly objective grounds whether Portuguese was superior to Spanish as a language for poetry or for commercial exchange.

They realized that, furthermore, an IAL project would not succeed unless an international body adopted and promoted it. Success, in other words, could only follow from a display of international political will.

What Couturat and Leau were facing in 1903, however, was a new Babel of international languages invented in the course of the nineteenth century; as a matter of fact they record and analyze 38 projects–and more of them are considered in their further book, Les nouvelles langues internationales, published in 1907.

The followers of each project had tried, with greater or lesser cohesive power, to realize an international forum. But what authority had the competence to adjudicate between them?

In 1901 Couturat and Leau had founded a Delégation pour l’adoption d’une langue auxiliaire internationale, which aimed at resolving the problem by delegating a decision to the international Association of Scientific Academies.

Evidently Couturat and Leau were writing in an epoch when it still seemed realistic to believe that an international body such as this would be capable of coming to a fair and ecumenical conclusion and imposing it on every nation.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 317-9.

Eco: Space Languages


Hans Freudenthal (1905-1990). This photograph is assumed to be copyrighted and unlicensed, but qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law to illustrate the subject in question where no free equivalent is available, as Professor Freudenthal is deceased and no free replacement can be made. 

“Almost at the bounds of science fiction, though still with an undoubted scientific interest, is the project of the Dutch mathematician Hans A. Freudenthal (Lincos, 1960) for a language in which eventual encounters with the inhabitants of other galaxies may be conducted (see Bassi 1992).

Lincos is not designed as a language to be spoken; it is rather a model for inventing a language and at the same time teaching it to alien beings that have presumably traditions and biological structure different from ours.

Freudenthal starts off by supposing that we can beam into space signals, which we might picture as radio waves of varying length and duration. The significance of these waves derives not from their expression-substance, but rather from their expression-form and content-form.

By endeavoring to understand the logic that determines the expression-form being transmitted to them, the space aliens are supposed to extrapolate a content-form that will not be alien to them.

During the first phase, the messages consist of regular sequences of pulses. These are intended to be interpreted quantitatively–four pulses standing for the number 4, etc. As soon as it is assumed that the aliens have correctly interpreted these first signals, the transmission passes to the second phase, in which it introduces simple arithmetic operators:

* * * < * * * *

* * * * = * * * *

* * * * + * * = * * * * * *

In the next phase, the aliens are taught to substitute for the pulses a system of binary numbers (in which * * * * = 100, * * * * * = 101, * * * * * * = 110); this makes it possible, using only ostension and repetition, to communicate some of the principle operations in mathematics.

The transmission of temporal concepts presents a more complex problem. Freudenthal, however, presumes that by constantly receiving a signal of the same duration, constantly associated to the same number of pulses, the aliens will begin to compute a certain duration in seconds. Lincos also teaches conversational rules, training the aliens to understand sequences such as “Ha says to Hb: what is that x such that 2x = 5?”

In one sense, we are treating the space aliens like circus animals; we subject them to a repeated stimulus, giving them positive reinforcement whenever they exhibit the desired response. In the case of animals, however, the reinforcement is immediate–we give them food; in the case of aliens, the reinforcement cannot but be a broadcast signal that they should interpret as “OK.”

By this means, the aliens are meant to learn to recognize not only mathematical operations but also concepts such as “because,” “as,” “if,” “to know,” “to want,” and even “to play.”

The project presupposes that the alines have the technological capability to receive and decode wave-length signals, and that they follow logical and mathematical criteria akin to our own.

They should share with us not only the elementary principles of identity and non-contradiction, but also the habit of inferring a constant rule through induction from many similar cases.

Lincos can only be taught to those who, having guessed that for the mysterious sender 2 x 2 = 4, will assume that this rule will remain constant in the future. This is, in fact, a big assumption; there is no way of ruling out that there exist alien cultures who “think” according to rules which vary according to time and circumstances.

What Freudenthal is aiming for is, explicitly, a true characteristica universalis; in Lincos, however, only a handful of original syntactic rules are formulated in the beginning. As to the rest (as to, for example, the rules governing questions and answers), the model implicitly assumes that the interlocutors will use the rules, and even the pragmatics, of a natural language.

We can, for example, imagine a community of angels, each of whom either reads the thoughts of the others or learns truths directly through beholding them in the mind of God: for such beings, the set of interactional rules governing questions and answers would make no sense at all.

The problem with Lincos is that, although provided with a formal structure, it is conceived as an instrument for “natural” communication, and thus it is inherently uncertain and imprecise. In other words, it cannot possess the tautological structure of a formalized language.

Lincos is probably more interesting from a pedagogical point of view: can one teach a language without ostension?

If the answer is positive, Lincos would allow a situation different from that imagined by philosophers of language, when they skeptically imagine a scene in which a European explorer interacts with a native, each party tries to communicate with the other by pointing at bits of space-time and uttering a given sound, and there is no way for the explorer to be certain whether the native is denoting a given object located in that space-time portion, or the fact that something is happening there, or is expressing his or her refusal to answer (see Quine 1960).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 308-10.

Eco:Eighteenth Century Projects


François Fénelon (1651-1715), Telemachus, or the first page of the first book of Les Aventures de Télémaque, first published anonymously in 1699, and translated into English in London in 1715. 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.  

“Even under the weight of the Enlightenment critique, the dream of the perfect language refused to die. In 1720 there appeared a “Dialogue sur la facilité qu’il y auroit d’établir un Caractère Universel qui seroit commun à toutes les Langues de l’Europe, et intelligible à différens Peuples, qui le liroient chacun dans la propre Langue” (in the Journal littéraire de l’anné 1720).

As the title itself suggests, the project was for a polygraphy, in the sense we saw in Kircher, and, at most, it is worthy of note in that its attempt to include a contracted grammar points the way to future developments.

In any case, the proposal is distinguished by including an appeal, by the anonymous author, for a commission which would develop the project and for a prince who would impose its adoption.

Such an appeal “cannot help but remind us of a possibility, which must have seemed evident in the year 1720, that a phase of stability for Europe was about to open, and that, consequently, sovereigns might be expected to be more willing to patronize linguistic and intellectual experiments” (cf. Pellerey 1992a: 11).

In his article on “Langue” in the Encyclopédie, even a rationalist like Beauzée had to concede that, since it would be difficult to come to an agreement over a new language, and an international language still seemed to him to be necessary, Latin had to remain the most reasonable candidate.

For their part, the empiricists among the encyclopedists felt duty-bound to consider the idea of a universal language, too. As a sort of coda to the article on “Langue,” Joachim Faiguet wrote four pages on a project for a langue nouvelle. Couturat and Leau (1903: 237) consider this as representing a first attempt at overcoming the problems inherent in the a priori languages and at sketching out an example of the a posteriori languages we will be discussing in the next chapter.

As his model, Faiguet took a natural language–French. He formed his lexicon on French roots, and concentrated on the delineation of a simplified and regularized grammar, or a “laconic” grammar.

Following the authors in the previous century, Faiguet eliminated those grammatical categories that seemed to him redundant: he suppressed the articles, substituted flexions with prepositions (bi for the genitive, bu for the dative, and de and po for the ablative), transformed adjectives (indeclinable) into adverbial forms, standardized all plurals (always expressed by an s); he simplified verb conjugations, making them invariable in number and person, adding endings that designated tenses and modes (I give, you give, he gives became Jo dona, To dona, Lo dona); the subjunctive was formed by adding an r to the stem, the passive by the indicative plus sas (meaning to be: thus to be given became sas dona).

Faiguet’s language appears as wholly regular and without exceptions; every letter or syllable used as endings had a precise and unique grammatical significance. Still, it is parasitic on French in a double sense: not only is it a “laconicized” French at the expression-level; it is French that supplies the content-level as well. Thus Faiguet’s was little less than a sort of easy-to-manage Morse code (Bernadelli 1992).

The most important projects for a priori languages in the eighteenth century were those of Jean Delormel (Projet d’une langue universelle, 1795), of Zalkind Hourwitz (Polygraphie, ou l’art de correspondre à l’aide d’un dictionaire dans toutes les langues, même celles dont on ne possède pas seulement les lettres alphabétiques, 1800), and of Joseph de Maimieux (Pasigraphie, 1797).

As can be seen, De Maimieux’s project was a pasigraphy–that is, a universal written language. Since, however, in 1799 this same author had also formulated a pasilalie–adding rules for pronouncing his language–his project can be considered as an a priori language.

For its part, Hourwitz’s project was for a polygraphy, too–even though he seemed unaware that his was by no means the first project of this type. Still, in its structure, Hourwitz’s polygraphy was an a priori language.

Although all three projects still followed the principles laid down in the seventeenth century tradition, they were different in three fundamental ways: their purposes, the identification of their primitives, and their grammars.

Delormel presented his scheme to the Convention; De Maimieux published his Pasigraphie under the Directory; Hourwitz wrote under the Consulate: every religious motivation had disappeared.

De Maimieux spoke of communication between European nations, between Europeans and Africans, of providing a means of checking the accuracy of translations, of speeding up diplomacy and civil and military undertakings, of a new source of income for teachers, writers and publishers who should “pasigraphize” books written in other languages.

Hourwitz added to this list other purely practical considerations, such as the advantages in the relations between doctors and patients or in courtroom procedures. As one symptom of a new political and cultural atmosphere, instead of using the Lord’s Prayer as a sample translation, Hourwitz chose the opening of Fénelon’s Aventures de Télemaque–a work which, despite its moralizing bent, was still a piece of secular literature portraying pagan gods and heroes.

The revolutionary atmosphere imposed, or at least encouraged, considerations of fraternité. Thus Delormel could claim that:

“in this revolutionary moment, when the human spirit, regenerating itself among the French people, leaps forward with renewed energy, is it too much to hope that perhaps [ . . . ] we might offer to the public a new language as well, a language that facilitates new discoveries by bringing students of various nations together, a language that serves as a common term for all languages, a language easy to grasp even for men with but a slight aptitude for instruction, a language, in short, which will soon make out of all the people of mankind a single, grand family? [ . . . ] The Light of Reason brings men together and thus reconciles them; this language, by facilitating its communication, will help to propagate that Light.” (pp. 48-50).

Each of the authors was aware of the objections made by the authors of the Encyclopédie; thus the a priori languages which they proposed were all ordered according to an encyclopedia-like structure, easy to understand and designed upon the model of the eighteenth century system of knowledge.

Gone was the grandiose pansophist afflatus that animated baroque encyclopedias; the criterion of selection was rather that of Leibniz: the inventors of the languages behaved as if they were conscientious librarians hoping to make consultation as easy as possible, without worrying whether or not their ordering corresponded to the theater of the world.

Absent as well was the search for “absolute” primitives; the fundamental categories were the large-scale divisions of knowledge; under these were listed dependent notions attached as sub-headings.

Delormel, for example, assigned different letters of the alphabet to several encyclopedic classes in a way reminiscent not so much of Wilkins as of the anonymous Spaniard–grammar, art of speech, states of things, correlatives, useful, pleasurable, moral, sensations, perception and judgement, passions, mathematics, geography, chronology, physics, astronomy, minerals, etc.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 293-6.

Eco: Comenius


Jan Amos Comenius (1592-1670), Labyrinth of the World and Paradise of the Heart, the initial version was completed in 1623, while the first edition was published in 1631. The entire work is posted in an electronic edition. 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 British quest was also influenced by the presence of Comenius (Jan Amos Komensky). In fact Comenius was a member of the Bohemian Brotherhood, a mystic branch of Hussite reformers, and he played a role–albeit a polemical one–in the Rosicrucian story (cf. his Labyrinth of the World, 1623, in Czech).

Thus he was inspired by religious ideals which were alien to the scientific purposes of the English milieu. On this complex cultural geography see Yates (1972, 1979): one is really facing a web of different projects, at once similar and antithetical, in which the search for a perfect language was but a single aspect (see Rossi 1960; Bonerba 1992; Pellerey 1992a: 41-9).

Comenius‘ aspirations must be seen in the framework of the tradition of pansophia, yet his pansophic aims were influenced by educational preoccupations. In his Didactica magna of 1657, he proposed a scheme for reforming teaching methods; for, as he observed, a reform in the education of the young formed the basis upon which any subsequent political, social and religious reform must be built.

It was essential that the teacher furnish the learners with a set of images that would stamp themselves indelibly on their imaginations. This meant placing what is visible before the eyes, what is audible before the ears, what is olfactory before the nose, gustatory before the tongue, and tactical before the touch.

In an earlier manual for the teaching of Latin, Janua linguarum, written in 1631, Comenius was first of all concerned that the learner should have an immediate visual apprehension of what was being spoken of.

Equally he was concerned that the images and notions that the learner was studying in the Latin lexicon be arranged in a certain logical order.

Thus lessons progressed from the creation of the world to the elements, to the mineral, vegetable and animal kingdoms, etc.

By the time of the Didactica magna Comenius had begun to rearrange his notions according to the suggestions of Bacon. In 1658 there appeared the Orbis sensualium pictus quadrilinguis, which represented his attempt to present a figured nomenclature which would include the fundamental things of the world together with human actions.

So important were the images that Comenius delayed publication until he was able to obtain satisfactory engravings that were not mere ornaments, but bore an iconic relation with the things represented, for which the verbal names appeared as nothing but titles, explanations and complements.

This manual was prefaced by an alphabet in which every letter was associated with the image of a particular animal whose voice recalled the sound of the letter–so that the result resembles Harsdörffer’s onomatopoetic fantasies concerning the sounds of German.

Therefore the image of a crow is commented by “Die Krähe krächzet, cornix cornicatur, la cornacchia gracchia, la corneille gazoüille,” or, for a snake, “Die Schlange zischtet, Serpens sibilat, il Serpe fsschia [sic], le Serpent siffle.”

Comenius was a severe critic of the defects of natural languages. In his Pansophiae Christianae liber III (1639-40), he advocated a reform that would eliminate the rhetorical and figurative use of words, which he regarded as a source of ambiguity.

The meaning of words should be fixed, he demanded, with one name for each thing, thus restoring words to their original meanings.

In 1668, in the Via lucis, Comenius offered prescriptions for the creation of an artificial universal language. By now, pansophy was more than an educational method; it was a utopian vision in which a world council was supposed to create the perfect state along with its perfect philosophical language, the Panglossia.

It is interesting to consider that Comenius had in fact written this work before 1641, when, after wandering through the whole of Europe in the course of the Thirty Years War, he had taken refuge in London.

Via lucis certainly circulated, in manuscript form, in the English milieu at that time (see, for example, Cram 1989).

Although Comenius was never to construct his new language in extenso, he had broached the idea of a universal tongue which had to overcome the political and structural limitations of Latin.

The lexicon of the new language would reflect the composition of reality and in it every word should have a definite and univocal meaning, every content should be represented by one and only one expression, and the contents were not supposed to be products of fancy, but should represent only every really existing thing, no more and no less (see Pellerey 1992a: 48).

Thus, on one side we have a utopian thinker, inspired by Rosicrucian ideals, whose goal was to discover a pansophy which aimed at picturing the unmoving and harmonical connection of every element of the creation, so as to lead the human mind to an unceasing quest for God; on the other side, rejecting the possibility of rediscovering the original perfect language, and looking, for educational purposes, for an easy artificial method, Comenius became the forerunner of that search for an a priori philosophical language that would later be implemented by English utopian thinkers whose inspiration was more scientific than theological or mystical.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 214-6.

Eco: Hypotheses


Jakob Böhme (1575-1624), Representation through a drawing of his Cosmogony, in Vierzig Fragen von der Seele, or Forty Questions of the Soul, 1620. 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. 

“By the term “Rosicrucian linguistics” Ormsby-Lennon (1988) indicates a current of thought prevalent in Germany and England in the seventeenth century, whose influences could still be traced in the proposals for the invention of scientific languages by Dalgarno and Wilkins.

According to Ormsby-Lennon the Rosicrucians derived their notion of magic language from Jacob Böhme‘s theory of signatures.

Böhme, a mystic whose ideas had a great influence on later European culture, was well known in Rosicrucian circles in Germany.

From here, through a series of translations that continued into the eighteenth century, his influence passed into English theosophist culture. Webster, in his Academiarum examen of 1654, observed that the ideas of Böhme were recognized and adopted by the most enlightened confraternity of the Rosy Cross (pp. 26-7).

Böhme drew, in his turn, on Paracelsus‘ conviction that every natural element bore a sign that revealed its special occult powers, which in its turn recalls the tradition of physiognomics: powers were “signed” or marked in the forms and figures of all material things in the same way as the qualities of a man were revealed by the form of his face.

Nature had created nothing that failed to manifest its internal qualities through external signs, because the external forms of objects were, so to speak, nothing more than the result of the working of these same internal qualities.

Knowing this, humanity was on the way to discovering the essence of essences, that is to say, “the Language of Nature, in which each thing speaks of its particular properties,” (Signatura rerum, 1662, I).

In the writings of Böhme, however, the idea of signatures did not follow the previous magical tradition, but rather evolved as a mystical metaphor expressing the ideal of an unending search for the traces of the divine force which pervades the whole creation.

For Böhme, the mystic way started with a contemplation of simple, material objects which, at a certain point, might, as it were, burst into flames in an epiphany which revealed the true nature of the invisible.

His own vocation had been decided when, being still a young man, gazing at a tin pot struck by the rays of the sun, he was suddenly vouchsafed a vision that became, like Borge’s Alef, a privileged moment in which the light of God present in all things suddenly disclosed itself.

Böhme spoke of the speech of nature, or Natursprache, in his Mysterium Magnum of 1623; he described it as a “sensual speech” (“sensualische Sprache“) which was both “natural” and “essential.” It was the speech of all creation, the speech which Adam had used to name material things:

“During the time when all peoples spoke the same language, everyone naturally understood each other. When they no longer wished to use the sensual speech, however, they lost this proper understanding because they transferred the spirit of sensual speech into a crudely external form. [ . . . ]

Today, while the birds of the air and the beasts of the forests may still, each according to their own qualities, understand each other, not one of us understands the sensual speech any longer.

Let man therefore be aware of that from which he has excluded himself and that with which, moreover, one day, he will once again be born again, though no longer here on earth, but in another, spiritual world.

Spirits speak only to each other in sensual speech, and have no need for any other form of speech, because this is the Speech of Nature.” (Sämmtliche werke, Leipzig, 1922: V, 261-2).

In this passage, it is evident that, for Böhme, such Natursprache was no longer simply the language of signatures. When the spirits of the other world hold converse with one another, it is obvious that they use something more than natural signs.

It seems that the sensual speech was the same in which Adam named the animals and the same as the language given the apostles at Pentecost, an “open sensual speech” that comprehended all other languages.

Although this gift was lost in the confusion of Babel, it will, one day, return to us when the time is ripe, and we will be ready to converse with God. It seems evident that what Böhme is here describing is the language of glossolalic enthusiasm, or the so-called language of tongues.

Böhme’s notion of sensual speech seems very similar to Reuchlin‘s notion of the language of Adam alluded to in his De verbo mirifico (II, 6); this was a language manifested as a “simplex sermo purus, incorruptus, sanctus, brevis et constans [ . . . ] in quo Deus cum homine, et homines cum angelis locuti perhibentur coram, et non per interpretem, facie ad facie [ . . . ] sicut solet amicus cum amico” (“a simple and pure speech, uncorrupted, holy, brief, and constant, in which God and men, and men and angels could talk in each other’s presence, not through interpretation, but face to face, just as is usual between friends.”)

Or perhaps it was the same as the language of the birds, in which Adam during his sojourn in Eden could converse with (as well as name) every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air. After the Fall, the speech of birds was, once more, revealed to King Solomon, who taught it to the Queen of Sheba. It was a form of speech revealed  as well to Apollonius of Tyana (see Ormsby-Lennon 1988: 322-3).

We find a reference to this language of the birds in the chapter entitled “Histoire des oiseaux” in the Empires du Soleil of Cyrano de Bergerac (on Cyrano and language see Erba 1959: 23-5).

In this chapter, the traveller meets a marvelous bird whose tail is green, whose stomach is of an enamel blue, and whose purple head is surmounted by a golden crown. The bird addresses the traveler in a “singing speech” and he, to his amazement, finds that he is able to understand all that the bird has to say.

Nothing the perplexity on the traveler’s face, the bird explains:

“Among you humans there have been those able to speak and understand our Language. There was Apollonius of Tyana, Anaximander, and Aesop, and many others whose names I will not mention as you would not recognize them. Just so, there are to be found among the birds those who can speak and understand your own language. Thus, just as you will encounter birds that do not say a word, others that merely twitter, and others still that can speak, so you may even encounter one of the most perfect birds of all–those who can use all idioms.”

Was it then the practice of speaking in tongues that the Rosicrucians had in mind in their manifestos to the learned of Europe? Yet, if this is so, how are we to understand the allusions to a “secret writing . . . . expressed symbolically by numbers and designs?”

Why did they use the terms “characters and letters” when, in this period, these were notions associated with the search for the alphabetic characters capable of expressing the nature of things?

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 182-5.

Eco: Magic Language

speculum 01

Teophilus Schweighardt Constantiens, aka Daniel Mögling (1596-1635), Speculum Sophicum Rhodostauroticum (The Mirror of the Wisdom of the Rosy Cross), 1618. 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 a climate of extraordinary spiritual tension, the seventeenth century awaited change–a general reform of knowledge and morals, a reawakening of religions sensibility.

The period was dominated by a belief that a new, golden century was dawning; Postel had already used the term “golden century” in the title of one of his works. This was, moreover, an expectation shared by Catholics and Protestants alike, though each in different forms.

Authors from Campanella to Andreae had drawn up projects for an ideal republic. Not only Postel but other thinkers in different countries had designed schemes for a universal monarchy.

The Thirty Years War acted as a catalyst: conflict had flared in one region after another, creating, on the one hand, confessional hatreds and nationalist rivalries, engendering the modern notion of the raison d’état, on the other producing a pleiad of mystic spirits dreaming of universal peace (cf. De Mas 1982).

It was in this climate, then, that in 1614, there appeared an anonymous tract written in German: Allgemeine und general Reformation der gantzen weiten Welt. Though this was only discovered later, the first part was largely a re-elaboration of a satire written by Traiano Boccalini and published in 1612-3, called Ragguagli di Parnaso.

The second part, however, took the form of a manifesto, entitled Fama fraternitatis R.C. In this, the mysterious confraternity of the Rosicrucians openly declared its existence, supplying details concerning its own history as well as that of its mythical founder, Christian Rosencreutz.

In the following year, 1615, the German manifesto was republished together with a second manifesto, written this time in Latin, with the title Confessio fraternitatis Roseae crucis. Ad eruditos Europae (we shall use the first English translation, The Fame and the Confession of the Fraternity of R.C., London, 1652).

The first manifesto proclaimed its wish that there should be “a Society in Europe [ . . . ] with which such as be Governors might be brought up, for to learn all that which God hath suffered Man to know” (p. 9).

Both the manifestos emphasized the secret character of the confraternity and the fact that their members were not permitted to reveal its true aims and nature. It was a call, addressed to the learned of Europe, beseeching them to make contact with the writers of the manifesto; this made the final appeal of the Fama even more ambiguous:

“And although at this time we make no mention either of our names, or meetings, yet nevertheless every ones opinion shal assuredly come to our hands, in what language so ever it be, nor any body shal fail. who so gives but his name to speak with some of us, either by word of mouth, or else if there be some lett in writing [ . . . ] Also our building (although one hundred thousand people had very near seen and beheld the same) shal for ever remain untouched, undestroyed, and hidden to the wicked world.” (pp. 31-2).

Immediately, from almost every corner of Europe, responses to the Rosicrucian appeal were written. No one claimed to be a Rosicrucian. Almost no one claimed even to know who the Rosicrucians were. Yet almost everyone tried to claim that his own programme was synonymous with that of the Rosicrucian brotherhood.

Some authors professed an extreme humility. In his Themis aurea (1618), for example, Michael Maier insisted that though the brotherhood really existed, he was too humble an individual to be admitted as a member.

Yet, as Yates observed, this was typical of the behavior of Rosicrucian authors: not only did they deny being Rosicrucians, they claimed never to have encountered a single member of the confraternity.

Thus when, in 1623, a set of –naturally anonymous–manifestos appeared in Paris, announcing the arrival of the Rosicrucians, a furious polemic ensued in which the common opinion emerged that the Rosicrucians were worshippers of Satan.

It was said of Descartes that, in the course of a trip to Germany, he had tried (unsuccessfully of course) to make contact with the brotherhood. On his return to Paris, he even fell under suspicion of being a member.

He readily found a logical argument to exculpate himself, however; since it was well known that the Rosicrucians were invisible, Descartes showed up (making himself visible) in public places and on public occasions (see A. Baillet, Vie de Monsieur Descartes, 1693).

In 1623, a certain Neuhaus published, first in German and then in French, an Advertissiment pieux et utile des frères de la Rosee-Croix, in which he asked whether or not they existed, and if so, who they were and what was the origin of their name.

Neuhaus proved their existence by means of a rather startling argument: “By the very fact that they change and alter their name and that they mask their age, and that, by their own confession, they come and go without making themselves known, there is no Logician that could deny the necessity that they exist” (p. 5).

It would be tedious to recount here the entire story of books and tracts contradicting each other in an endeavor to reveal the truth about the Rosicrucians (it has sometimes been claimed, for instance, that the same author, using two different pseudonyms, was responsible for two or more tracts pro- and anti-Rosicrucians: see Arnold 1955; Edighoffer 1982).

It means that, when conditions are ripe, it takes but one spark–be it an obscure and ambiguous appeal for the spiritual reform of all humanity–to set off unexpected reactions. It almost seemed that everyone had been waiting for the Rosicrucian manifesto to appear as the missing piece in a polemic in which all sides–Catholic and Protestant–were waiting to join.

Thus, although the Jesuits were soon in the forefront of the battle against the Rosicrucians, there were not lacking those who insinuated that behind the Rosicrucians was the Society of Jesus itself, seeking to smuggle Catholic dogma into the Protestant world (see Rosa jesuitica, 1620).

The most intriguing aspect of the whole story was that the people immediately suspected of being the authors of the manifestos–Johann Valentin Andreae and his circle of friends in Tubingen–spent the rest of their lives either denying their involvement, or minimizing it as nothing more than a literary exercise.

As one might expect, given the spirit of the time, it was impossible to offer to the people of all lands a new philosophy without also offering them a perfect language in which to express it.

The manifestos, of course, spoke of this language; yet its perfection was mirrored by its secrecy (Fama, 287). According to the Confessio, the four founders of the brotherhood had “created the magic language and writing:”

“…and thenceforth our Trumpet shall publiquely sound with a loud sound, and great noise, when namely the fame (which at this present is shewed by few, and is secretly, as thing to come, declared in Figures and Pictures) shall be free, and publiquely proclaimed, and the whole World be filled withall [ . . . ]

So, the secret hid Writings and Characters are most necessary for all such things which are found out by Men: Although that great Book of Nature stand open to all Men, yet there are but few that can read and understand the same [ . . . ]

The Characters and Letters, as God hath here and there incorporated them in the Holy Scripture the Bible, so hath he imprinted them most apparently into the wonderful Creation of Heaven and Earth, yea in all Beasts [ . . . ]

From the which Characters and Letters we have borrowed our Magick writing, and have found out, and made a new Language for our selves, in the which withall is expressed and declared the Nature of all Things; so that it is no wonder that we are not so eloquent in other Languages, the which we know that they are altogether disagreeing to the Language of our forefathers, Adam and Enoch, and were through the Babylonical Confusion wholly hidden.” (pp. 43, 47, 48).

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 178-82.

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: Kircher’s Chinese


Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), schema of the Egyptian cosmos, Oedipus Aegyptiacus, tom. 2, vol. 1, p. 418. 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 an earlier chapter, we saw the suggestion made that Chinese might be the language of Adam. Kircher lived in a period of exciting discoveries in the Orient. The Spanish, Portuguese, English, Dutch, and, later, French conquered the route to the Indies, the Sunda seas, the way to China and to Japan.

But even more than by merchants, these pathways were traversed by Jesuits, following in the footsteps of Matteo Ricci who, a century before, had brought European culture to the Chinese, and returned to give Europe a deeper understanding of China.

With the publication of the Historia de las cosas más notables, ritos y costumbres del gran reino de la China by Juan Gonzales de Mendoza in 1585, there appeared in print in Europe characters in Chinese script.

In 1615 there finally appeared Ricci’s De christiana expeditione apud Sinas ab Societate Ieus suscepta, in which he explained that in Chinese, there existed as many characters as there were words. He insisted as well on the international character of the Chinese script, which, he wrote, was readily understood not only by the Chinese, but also by the Japanese, the Koreans, the Cochin-Chinese and by the Formosans.

We shall see that this was a discovery that would initiate the search for a real character from Bacon onwards. Already in 1627, in France, Jean Douet published a Proposition présentée au roy, d’une escriture universelle, admirable pour ses effects, très-utile à tous les hommes de la terre, in which Chinese was offered as a model for an international language.

At the same time, there had begun to appear information about the pictographic writings of Amerindians. Attempts at interpretation had yielded contradictory results; and this was discussed in works such as the Historia natural y moral de las Indias by José de Acosta in 1570, and the Relaciòn de las cosas de Yucatàn by Diego de Landa, written in the sixteenth century, although appearing only in the eighteenth; in 1609 there also appeared the Comentarios reales que tratan del origine de los Yncas by Garcilaso de la Vega.

An observation often repeated by these early observers was that contact with the indigenous natives was at first carried out by means of gestures. This awoke an interest in gesture’s potential as a universal language.

The universality of gestures and the universality of images turned out to be related themes (the first treatise on this subject was Giovanni Bonifacio‘s L’arte de’ cenni of 1616; on this topic in general, see Knox 1990).

The reports of his Jesuit brothers gave Kircher an incomparable source of ethnographic and linguistic information (see Simone 1990 on “Jesuit or Vatican linguistics”).

In his Oedipus, Kircher was especially interested in the diffusion of Chinese. He took up the same arguments, in a more elliptical form, in his China monumentis quà sacris quà profanis, nec non variis naturae et artis spectaculis, aliarum rerum memorabilis argumentis illustrata of 1667.

This latter work was more in the nature of a treatise in ethnography and cultural anthropology which, with its splendid and sometimes documented illustrations, collected all the reports that arrived from the missionaries of the Company, and described every aspect of Chinese life, culture and nature.

Only the sixth and last part of the work was dedicated to the alphabet.

Kircher presumed that the mysteries of hieroglyphic writing had been introduced to the Chinese by Noah’s son Ham. In the Arca Noe of 1675 (pp. 210ff) he identified Ham with Zoroaster, the inventor of magic.

But, unlike Egyptian hieroglyphs, Chinese characters were not for Kircher a puzzle. Chinese was a writing system still in use, and the key to its understanding had already been revealed. How could such a comprehensible language be sacred and a vehicle for occult mysteries?

Kircher realized that Chinese characters were originally iconic and only later had grown extremely stylized over time, so as to lose their original similarity with things. He reconstructed after  his own fancy what he took to be the designs of fish and birds that had formed the starting points for current ideograms.

Kircher also realized that these ideograms did not express either letters or syllables, but referred to concepts. He noted that in order to translate our dictionary into their idiom we would need as many different characters as we had words (Oedipus, III, 11).

This led him to reflect on the amount of memory that was necessary for a Chinese scholar to know and remember all these characters.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 158-60.

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: 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 Indo-European Hypothesis, 2


Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), sympathies between the microcosm and the megacosm, from Mundus subterraneus, 1665, vol. 2, p.406. Courtesy of Stanford University and the University of Oklahoma Libraries. 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. 

“But are we really able to say that with the birth of the modern science of linguistics the ghost of Hebrew as the holy language had finally been laid to rest? Unfortunately not. The ghost simply reconstituted itself into a different, and wholly disturbing, Other.

As Olender (1989, 1993) has described it, during the nineteenth century, one myth died only to be replaced by another.

With the demise of the myth of linguistic primacy, there arose the myth of the primacy of a culture–or of a race. When the Hebrew language and civilization was torn down, the myth of the Aryan races rose up to take its place.

The reality of Indo-European was only virtual; yet it was still intrusive. Placed face to face with such a reality, Hebrew receded to the level of metahistory. It became a symbol.

At the symbolic level, Hebrew ranged from the linguistic pluralism of Herder, who celebrated it as a language that was fundamentally poetic (thus opposing an intuitive to a rationalistic culture), to the ambiguous apology of Renan, who–by contrasting Hebrew as the tongue of monotheism and of the desert to Indo-European languages (with their polytheistic vocation)–ends up with oppositions which, without our sense of hindsight, might even seem comic: the Semitic languages are incapable of thinking in terms of multiplicity, are unwilling to countenance abstraction; for this reason the Semitic culture would remain closed to scientific thinking and devoid of a sense of humor.

Unfortunately, this is not just a story of the gullibility of scientists. We know only too well that the Aryan myth had political consequences that were profoundly tragic. I have no wish to saddle the honest students of Indo-European with blame for the extermination camps, especially as–at the level of linguistic science–they were right.

It is rather that, throughout this book, we have been sensitive to side effects. And it is hard not to think of these side effects when we read in Olender the following passage from the great linguist, Adolphe Pictet, singing this hymn to Aryan culture:

“In an epoch prior to that of any historical witnesses, an epoch lost in the night of time, a race, destined by providence to one day rule the entire world, slowly grew in its primitive birthplace, a prelude to its brilliant future.

Privileged over all others by the beauty of their blood, by their gifts of intelligence, in the bosom of a great and severe nature that would not easily yield up its treasures, this race was summoned from the very beginning to conquer. [ . . . ]

Is it not perhaps curious to see the Aryas of Europe, after a separation of four or five thousand years, close the circle once again, reach their unknown brothers in India, dominate them, bring to them the elements of a superior civilization, and then to find ancient evidence of a common origin?”

(Les origines indo-européennes ou les Aryas primitifs, 1859-63: III, 537, cited in Olender 1989: 130-9).

At the end of a thousand year long ideal voyage to the East in search of roots, Europe had at last found some ideal reasons to turn that virtual voyage into a real one–for the purposes not of intellectual discovery, however, but of conquest.

It was the idea of the “white man’s burden.” With that, there was no longer any need to discover a perfect language to convert old or new brothers. It was enough to convince them to speak an Indo-European language, in the name of a common origin.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 105-6.

Eco: The Nationalistic Hypothesis, 2


Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), Combinations of the nine universal symbols, from Ars Magna Sciendi Sive Combinatoria, 1669, p. 171. Courtesy of Stanford University.  This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.


“Despite its improbability, the so-called “Flemish thesis” proved remarkably long-lasting. It survived even into the nineteenth century. It did so, however, less on its scientific merits than because it was part of a larger nationalistic polemic.

In his La province de Liège . . . Le flamand langue primordiale, mère de toutes les langues of 1868, the baron de Ryckholt proclaimed that “Flemish is the only language spoken in the cradle of humanity” and that “it alone is a language, while all the rest, dead or living, are but mere dialects or debased forms more or less disguised” (cf. Droixhe 1990: for linguistic follies de grandeur in general, Poliakov 1990).

With such a persistent and ebullient Flemish claim, it can hardly be surprising that there should be a Swedish candidacy as well. In 1671, Georg Stiernhielm wrote his De linguarum origine praefatio.

In 1688, his fellow countryman, Andreas Kempe, wrote Die Sprachen des Paradises; this included a scene in which God and Adam conversed with one another, God speaking in Swedish while Adam spoke in Danish; while they were talking, however, Eve was busy being seduced by a French-speaking serpent (cf. Borst 1957-63: III, 1, 1338; Olender 1989, 1993).

We are, by now, close to parody; yet we should not overlook the fact that these claims were made precisely in Sweden’s period as a major power on the European chessboard.

Olaus Rudbeck, in his Atlantica sive Mannheim vera Japheti posterorum sedes ac patria of 1675, demonstrated that Sweden was the home of Japheth and his line, and that from this racial and linguistic stock all the Gothic idioms were born.

Rudbeck identified Sweden, in fact, as the mythical Atlantis, describing it as the ideal land, the land of the Hesperides, from which civilization had spread to the entire world.

This was an argument that Isidore himself had already used. In his Etymologiarum, IX, ii, 26-7, he had suggested that the progenitor of the Goths was another of Japheth’s sons–Magog. Vico was later to comment acidly on all such claims (Scienza nuova seconda, 1744: II, 2.4, 430):

“Having now to enter upon a discussion of this matter, we shall give a brief sample of the opinions that have been held respecting it–opinions so numerous, inept, frivolous, pretentious or ridiculous, and so numerous, that we need not relate them.

By way of sample then: because in the returned barbarian times Scandinavia by the conceit of the nations was called vagina gentium and was believed to be the mother of all other nations of the world, therefore by the conceit of the scholars Johannes and Olaus Magnus were of the opinion that their Goths had preserved them from the beginning of the world the letters divinely inspired by Adam.

This dream was laughed at by all the scholars, but this did not keep Johannes van Gorp from following suit and going one better by claiming his own Dutch language, which is not much different from Saxon, has come down from the Earthly Paradise and is the mother of all other languages. [ . . . ]

And yet this conceit swelled to bursting point in the Atlantica of Olaus Rudbeck, who will have it that the Greek letters came from the runes; that the Phoenician letters, to which Cadmus gave the order and values those of the Hebrew, were inverted runes; and that the Greeks finally straightened them here and rounded them there by rule and compass.

And because the inventor is Merkurssman among the Scandinavians, he will have it that the Mercury who invented letters for the Egyptians was a Goth.”

Already by the fourteenth century, the idea of a German linguistic primacy was shaking the German-speaking world. The idea later appeared in Luther, for whom German was the language closest to God.

In 1533 Konrad Pelicanus (Commentaria bibliorum) set out the analogies between German and Hebrew, without, however, coming to a final judgement over which of the two was truly the Ursprache (cf. Borst 1957-63: III/1, 2).

In the baroque period, Georg Philipp Harsdörffer (Frauenzimmer Gesprächspiele, 1641, Niemayer Tübingen, ed., 1968: 335ff) claimed that the German language:

“speaks in the languages of nature, quite perceptibly expressing all its sounds. [ . . . ]

It thunders with the heavens, flashes lightening with the quick moving clouds, radiates with the hail, whispers with the winds, foams with the waves, creaks with the locks, sounds with the air, explodes with the cannons; it roars like the lion, lows like the oxen, snarls like the bear, bells like the stag, bleats like the sheep, grunts like the pig, barks like the dog, whinnies like the horse, hisses like the snake, meows like the cat, honks like the goose, quacks like the duck, buzzes like the bumble bee, clucks like the hen, strikes its beak like the stork, caws like the crow, coos like the swallow, chirps like the sparrow. [ . . . ]

On all those occasions in which nature gives things their own sound, nature speaks in our own German tongue. For this, many have wished to assert that the first man, Adam, would not have been able to name the birds and all the other beasts of the fields in anything but our words, since he expressed, in a manner conforming to their nature, each and every innate property and inherent sound; and thus it is not surprising that the roots of the larger part of our words coincide with the sacred language.”

German had remained in a state of perfection because Germany had never been subjected to the yoke of a foreign ruler. Lands that had been subjected had inevitably adapted their customs and language to fit those of the victor.

This was also the opinion of Kircher. French, for example, was a mix of Celtic, Greek and Latin. The German language, by contrast, was richer in terms than Hebrew, more docile than Greek, mightier than Latin, more magnificent in its pronunciations than Spanish, more gracious than French, and more correct than Italian.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 97-9.

Eco: The Pre-Hebraic Language


Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), Origins of the Chinese Characters, China Illustrata, or China monumentis, qua sacris qua profanis, nec non variis naturae & artis spectaculis, aliarumque rerum memorabilium argumentis illustrata (1667), p. 229. Courtesy of Stanford University. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“Alongside these philosophical discussions, other inspired glottogonists (for whom the defeat of the Hebraic hypothesis was a consummated fact) were breaking new theoretical ground.

The explorers and missionaries of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had discovered civilizations, older than the Hebrews, which had their own cultural and linguistic traditions.

In 1699, John Webb (An Historical Essay endeavoring the Probability that the Language of the Empire of China is the Primitive Language) advanced the idea that, after the Flood, Noah had landed his Ark and gone to live in China.

Consequently, it was the Chinese language which held primacy. Furthermore, since the Chinese had not participated in the construction of the Tower of Babel, their language had remained immune from the effects of the confusio; Chinese had survived intact for centuries, protected from foreign invasion. Chinese thus conserved the original linguistic patrimony.

Ours is a story that proceeds through many strange anachronisms. Near the end of the eighteenth century, just at the moment when, quite unconnected with any form of the monogenetic hypothesis, a comparative methodology was about to emerge, there appeared the most gigantic attempt to date to rediscover the primitive language.

In 1765, Charles de Brosses wrote a Traité de la formation méchanique des langues. The treatise propounded a theory of language that was both naturalistic (the articulation of terms reflects the nature of things–sweet sounds designate sweet objects) and materialistic (language is reduced to physical operations, supernatural entities are seen as the result of linguistic play: cf. Droixhe 1978).

As part of this theory, however, de Brosses could not resist indulging in a series of speculations about the nature of the primitive language, “organic, physical, and necessary, that not one of the world’s peoples either knows or practices in its simplicity, but which, none the less, was spoken by all men, and constitutes the basis of language in every land” (“Discours préliminaire,” xiv-xv).

“The linguist must analyze the mechanisms of different languages, discovering which of those features arise through natural necessity. From this he may, moving through a chain of natural inferences, work his way back from each of the known languages to the original, unknown matrix.

It is only a matter of locating a small set of primitive roots that might yield a universal nomenclature for all languages, European and oriental.

Radically Cratylian and mimologist as it was (cf. Ginette 1976: 85-118), the comparative approach of de Brosses took the vowels to constitute the raw material in a continuum of sound upon which the consonants acted to sculpt out the intonations and the caesurae.

Their effect, often more visible to the eye than to the ear (remember the persistent failure to distinguish between sounds and letters), is to render consonantal identity the key criterion of comparative analysis.

Like Vico, de Brosses considered that the invention of articulated sounds had proceeded in step with the invention of writing. Fano (1962: 231; English tr., p. 147) sums up his theory very well:

“De Brosses imagines this process as follows: like the good school teacher who takes chalk in hand to make his lesson clearer from a didactic viewpoint, the cave man intermingled his discourses with little explicative figures.

If, for example, he wanted to say “a raven flew away and rested on the top of a tree,” he would first imitate the croaking of the bird, then he would express the flight with a “frrr! frrr!” and eventually take a piece of coal and draw a tree with a raven on top.”

Another Herculean effort in the cause of mimological hypothesis was that of Antoine Court de Gébelin, who, between 1773 and 1782, published nine quarto volumes, totaling over five thousand pages, giving to this opus–multiple, creaking, though not utterly devoid of interest–the title Le monde primitif analysé et comparé avec le monde moderne (cf. Genette 1976: 119-48).

Court de Gébelin knew the results of previous comparativist research. He also knew that the human linguistic faculty was exercised through a specific phonatory apparatus; and he was acquainted with its anatomy and physiology.

He followed, moreover, the doctrines of the Physiocrats, and when he sought to explain the origin of language, he did so through a re-reading of ancient myths, interpreting them as allegories describing the relation of man the farmer to the land (vol. I).

Writing, too, was susceptible to this sort of explanation. Although it was born before the separation of peoples, writing could be interpreted as having evolved in the time of the agrarian states, which needed to develop an instrument that would keep track of landed property and foster commerce and law (vol. III, p. xi) . . .

Yet there still shines Court de Gébelin‘s dream of uncovering the original language of the primitive world, the language which served as the origin and basis of a universal grammar through which all existing languages might be explained.

In the preliminary discourse to volume III, dedicated to the natural history of speech or the origins of language, Court de Gébelin affirmed that words were not born by chance: “each word has its own rationale deriving from Nature” (p. ix). He developed a strongly mimological theory of language accompanied by an ideographic theory of writing, according to which the alphabet itself is nothing but the primitive hieroglyphic script reduced to a small set of radical characters or “keys” (III, xii).

As a faculty based upon a determined anatomical structure, language might certainly be considered as God’s gift, but the elaboration of a primitive tongue was a human endeavor. It followed that when God spoke first to human beings, he had to use a language that they could understand, because it was a product of their own (III, 69).

To uncover this primitive language, Court de Gébelin undertook an impressive etymological analysis of Greek, Latin and French. Nor did he neglect coats of arms, coins, games, the voyages of the Phoenicians around the world, American Indian languages, medallions, and civil and religious history as manifested in calendars and almanacs.

As a basis for this original language he set out to reconstruct a universal grammar, founded on necessary principles, valid in all times and in all places, so that the moment that one of these principles was discovered lying immanent in any one language it could be projected into all the others.

Court de Gébelin seems, in the end, to have wanted too much. He wanted a universal grammar; he wanted the mother tongue; he wanted the biological and social origins of language.

He ended up, as Yaguello observes (1984: 19), by muddling them all together in a confused mass. To top it all off, he fell victim in the end to the siren call of the Celto-nationalist hypothesis which I shall be describing in the next section.

Celtic (being similar to oriental languages from which it originated) was the tongue of Europe’s first inhabitants. From Celtic had derived Greek, Latin, Etruscan, Thracian, German, the Cantabrian of the ancient Spaniards, and the Runic of the Norsemen (vol. V).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 91-5.

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, 2

Ramon Llull, Arbor Scientiae, Rome, 1295

Ramon Llull, Arbor Scientiae, Rome, 1295. 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.  

“Between the first and last versions of his art, Lull’s thought underwent a long process of evolution (described by Carreras y Artau 1939: I, 394), in order to render his art able to deal not only with theology and metaphysics, but also with cosmology, law, medicine, astronomy, geometry and psychology.

Increasingly, the art became a means of treating the entire range of knowledge, drawing suggestions from the numerous medieval encyclopedias, and anticipating the encyclopedic dreams of the Renaissance and the baroque.

All this knowledge, however, needed to be ordered hierarchically. Because they were determinations of the first cause, the dignities could be defined circularly, in reference to themselves; beyond the dignities, however, began the ladder of being. The art was designed to permit a process of reasoning at every step.

The roots of the Tree of Science were the nine dignities and the nine relations. From here, the tree then spread out into sixteen branches, each of which had its own, separate tree. Each one of the sixteen trees, to which there was dedicated a particular representation, was divided into seven parts–roots, trunk, major branches, lesser branches, leaves, fruits and flowers.

Eight of the trees clearly corresponded to eight of the subjects of the tabula generalis: these are the Arbor elementalis, which represents the elementata, that is, objects of the sublunary world, stones, trees and animals composed of the four elements; the Arbor vegetalis;  the Arbor sensualis; the Arbor imaginalis, which represents images that replicate in the mind whatever is represented on the other trees; the Arbor humanalis et moralis (memory, intellect and will, but also the various sciences and arts); the Arbor coelestialis (astronomy and astrology); the Arbor angelicalis; and the Arbor divinalis, which includes the divine dignities.

To this list are added another eight: the Arbor mortalis (virtues and vices); the Arbor eviternalis (life after death); the Arbor maternalis (Mariology); the Arbor Christianalis (Christology); the Arbor imperialis (government); the Arbor apostolicalis (church); the Arbor exemplificalis (the contents of knowledge); and the Arbor quaestionalis, which contains four thousand questions on the various arts.

To understand the structure of these trees, it is enough to look at only one–the Arbor elementalis. Its roots are the nine dignities and nine relations. Its trunk represents the conjoining of these principles, out of which emerges the confused body of primordial chaos which occupies space.

In this are the species of things and their dispositions. The principle branches represent the four elements (earth, air, fire and water) which stretch out into the four masses which are made from them (the seas and the lands).

The leaves are the accidents. The flowers are the instruments, such as hands, feet and eyes. The fruits represent individual things, such as stone, gold, apple, bird.

Calling this a “forest” of trees would be an improper metaphor: the trees overlay one another to rise hierarchically like the peaked roof of a pagoda. The trees at the lower levels participate in those higher up.

The vegetable tree, for example, participates in the tree of elements; the sensual tree participates in the first two; the tree of imagination is built up out of the first three, and it forms the base from which the next tree, the human one, will arise (Llinares 1963: 211-2).

The system of trees reflects the organization of reality itself; it represents the great chain of being the way that it is, and must metaphysically be. This is why the hierarchy constitutes a system of “true” knowledge.

The priority of metaphysical truth over logical validity in Lull’s system also explains why he laid out his art the way he did: he wished his system to produce, for any possible argument, a middle term that would render that argument amenable to syllogistic treatment; having structured the system for this end, however, he proceeded to discard a number of well-formed syllogisms which, though logically valid, did not support the arguments he regarded as metaphysically true.

For Lull, the significance of the middle term of the syllogism was thus not that of scholastic logic. Its middle term served to bind the elements of the chain of being: it was a substantial, not a formal, link.

If the art is a perfect language, it is so only to the extent to which it can speak of a metaphysical reality, of a structure of being which exists independently of it. The art was not a mechanism designed to chart unknown universes.

In the Catalan version of his Logica Algazelis, Lull writes, “De la logic parlam tot breau–car a parlor avem Deu.” (“About logic we will be brief, for it is to talk about God”).

Much has been written about the analogy between Lull’s art and the kabbala. What distinguishes kabbalistic thought from Lull’s is that, in the kabbala, the combination of the letters of the Torah had created the universe rather than merely reflected it.

The reality that the kabbalistic mystic sought behind these letters had not yet been revealed; it could be discovered only through whispering the syllables as the letters whirled.

Lull’s ars combinatoria, by contrast, was a rhetorical instrument; it was designed to demonstrate what was already known, and lock it for ever in the steely cage of the system of trees.

Despite all this, the art might still qualify as a perfect language if those elementary principles, common to all humanity, that it purported to expound really were universal and common to all peoples.

As it was, despite his effort to assimilate ideas from non-Christian and non-European religions, Lull’s desperate endeavor failed through its unconscious ethnocentrism. The content plane, the universe which his art expounded, was the product of the western Christian tradition.

It could not change even though Lull translated it into Arabic or Hebrew. The legend of Lull’s own agony and death is but the emblem of that failure.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 67-9.

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: Side-Effects


Lucas van Valckenborch (1535-97), The Tower of Babel (1595), held in the Mittelrhein-Museum in Koblenz as Accession Number M31. 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 story of the search for the perfect language is the story of a dream and of a series of failures. Yet that is not to say that a story of failures must itself be a failure. Though our story be nothing but the tale of the obstinate pursuit of an impossible dream, it is still of some interest to know how this dream originated, as well as uncovering the hopes that sustained the pursuers throughout their secular course.

Put in this light, our story represents a chapter in the history of European culture. It is a chapter, moreover, with a particular interest today when the peoples of Europe–as they discuss the whys and wherefores of a possible commercial and political union–not only continue to speak different languages, but speak them in greater number than ten years ago, and even, in certain places, arm against one another for the sake of their ethno-linguistic differences.

We shall see that the dream of a perfect language has always been invoked as a solution to religious or political strife. It has even been invoked as the way to overcome simple difficulties in commercial exchange. The history of the reasons why Europe thought that it needed a perfect language can thus tell us a good deal about the cultural history of that continent.

Besides, even if our story is nothing but a series of failures, we shall see that each failure produced its own side-effects. Punctually failing to come to fruition, each of the projects left a train of beneficial consequences in its wake.

Each might thus be viewed as a sort of serendipitous felix culpa: many of today’s theories, as well as many of the practices which we theorize (from taxonomy in the natural sciences to comparative linguistics, from formal languages to artificial intelligence and to the cognitive sciences), were born as side-effects of the search for a perfect language.

It is only fair, then, that we acknowledge these pioneers: they have given us a lot, even if it was not what they promised.

Finally, through examining the defects of the perfect languages, conceived in order to eliminate the defects of the natural ones, we shall end up by discovering that these natural languages of ours contain some unexpected virtues. This can finally serve us as consolation for the curse of Babel.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 19-20.

Editorial Note

This concludes my coverage of Chapter 1, From Adam to Confusio Linguarum, omitting in its entirety a section that Eco titled A Semiotic Model for Natural Language, pages 20-4.

I omit this section because it is Eco getting into the weeds of his semiotic method, and while he explains himself clearly, I find it boring. Should you need these pages, just ask. I have screenshots of them, and I can either post them as illustrations or attach them to an email. I am not in the mood to rekey these pages as text. Please accept my apologies.

Besides, Eco’s next chapter is titled The Kabbalistic Pansemioticism, and it is fascinating. With no further ado, I will resume there, with his Chapter 2.

Eco: Before and After Europe, 3


Francisco of Holland, 1543-73, De aetatibus mundi imagines, Creation of Man, Biblioteca Nacional de España. 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.

 “There is one sense in which St. Augustine did have a clear idea of a perfect language, common to all people. But this was not a language of words; it was, rather, a language made out of things themselves.

He viewed the world, as it was later to be put, as a vast book written with God’s own finger. Those who knew how to read the book were able to understand the allegories hidden in the scriptures, where, beneath references to simple earthly things (plants, stones, animals), symbolic meanings lay.

This Language of the World, instituted by its creator, could not be read, however, without a key; it was the need to provide such a key that provoked a rapid outflowing of bestiaries, lapidaries, encyclopedias and imagines mundi throughout the Middle Ages.

This represents a tradition that will resurface in our own story as well: European culture will sometimes seize upon hieroglyphs and other esoteric ideograms, believing that truth can only be expressed in emblems or symbols.

Still, St. Augustine’s symbolic interests were not combined with the longing to recover a lost tongue that someone might, or ought to, speak once again.

For Augustine, as for nearly all the early Fathers, Hebrew certainly was the primordial language. It was the language spoken before Babel. After the confusion, it still remained the tongue of the elected people.

Nevertheless, Augustine gave no sign of wanting to recover its use. He was at home in Latin, by now the language of the church and of theology.

Several centuries later, Isidore of Seville found it easy to assume that, in any case, there were three sacred languages–Hebrew, Greek and Latin–because these were the three languages that appeared written above the cross (Etymologiarum, ix, 1).

With this conclusion, the task of determining the language in which the Lord said “fiat lux” became more arduous.

If anything, the Fathers were concerned about another linguistic puzzle: the Bible clearly states that God brought before Adam all the beasts of the field and all the fowl of the air. What about the fish? Did Adam name the fish? Maybe it seemed inconvenient dragging them all up from the briny deep to parade them in the garden of Eden.

We may think this a slight matter; yet the question, whose last trace is to be found in Massey’s Origins and Progress of Letters published in 1763 (cf. White 1917: II, 196), was never satisfactorily resolved, despite Augustine’s helpful suggestion that the fish were named one at a time, as they were discovered (De Genesi ad litteram libri duodecim, XII, 20).

Between the fall of the Roman Empire and the early Middle Ages, when Europe had still to emerge, premonitions of its linguistic future lurked unrecorded. New languages came slowly into being. It has been calculated that, towards the end of the fifth century, people no longer spoke Latin, but Gallo-Romanic, Italico-Romanic or Hispano-Romanic.

While intellectuals continued to write in Latin, bastardizing it ever further, they heard around them local dialects in which survivals of languages spoken before Roman civilization crossed with new roots arriving with the barbarian invaders.

It is in the seventh century, before any known document written in Romance or Germanic languages, that the first allusion to our theme appears. it is contained in an attempt, on the part of Irish grammarians, to defend spoken Gaelic over learned Latin.

In a work entitled Auracepit na n-Éces (“the precepts of the poets”), the Irish grammarians refer to the structural material of the tower of Babel as follows:

“Others affirm that in the tower there were only nine materials, and that these were clay and water, wool and blood, wood and lime, pitch, linen, and bitumen. . . . These represent noun, pronoun, verb, adverb, participle, conjunction, preposition, interjection.”

Ignoring the anomaly of the nine parts of the tower and only eight parts of speech, we are meant to understand that the structure of language and the construction of the tower are analogous. This is part of an argument that the Gaelic language constituted the first and only instance of a language that overcame the confusion of tongues.

It was the first, programmed language, constructed after the confusion of tongues, and created by the seventy-two wise men of the school of Fenius. The canonic account in the Precepts

“shows the action of the founding of this language . . . as a “cut and paste” operation on other languages that the 72 disciples undertook after the dispersion. . . . It was then that the rules of this language were constructed. All that was best in each language, all there was that was grand or beautiful, was cut out and retained in Irish. . . . Wherever there was something that had no name in any other language, a name for it was made up in Irish. (Poli 1989: 187-9).”

This first-born and, consequently, supernatural language retained traces of its original isomorphism with the created world. As long as the proper order of its elements was respected, this ensured a sort of iconic bond between grammatical items and referents, or states of things in the real world.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 14-7.

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.

Spence on Babylonian Religion and Magic

“LIKE other primitive races the peoples of Chaldea scarcely discriminated at all between religion and magic. One difference between the priest and the sorcerer was that the one employed magic for religious purposes whilst the other used it for his own ends.

The literature of Chaldea—especially its religious literature—teems with references to magic, and in its spells and incantations we see the prototypes of those employed by the magicians of medieval Europe.

Indeed so closely do some of the Assyrian incantations and magical practices resemble those of the European sorcerers of the Middle Ages and of primitive peoples of the present day that it is difficult to convince oneself that they are of independent origin.

In Chaldea as in ancient Egypt the crude and vague magical practices of primeval times received form and developed into accepted ritual, just as early religious ideas evolved into dogmas under the stress of theological controversy and opinion.

As there were men who would dispute upon religious questions, so were there persons who would discuss matters magical. This is not to say that the terms ‘religion’ and ‘magic’ possessed any well-defined boundaries for them.

Nor is it at all clear that they do for us in this twentieth century. They overlap; and it has long been the belief of the writer that their relations are but represented by two circles which intersect one another and the areas of which partially coincide.

The writer has outlined his opinions regarding the origin of magic in an earlier volume of this series, and has little to add to what he then wrote, except that he desires to lay stress upon the identification of early religion and magic.

It is only when they begin to evolve, to branch out, that the two systems present differences. If there is any one circumstance which accentuates the difference more than another it is that the ethical element does not enter into magic in the same manner as it does into religion.

That Chaldean magic was the precursor of European mediaeval magic as apart from popular sorcery and witchcraft is instanced not only by the similarity between the systems but by the introduction into mediaeval magic of the names of Babylonian and Assyrian gods and magicians.

Again and again is Babylon appealed to even more frequently than Egypt, and we meet constantly with the names of Beelzebub, Ishtar (as Astarte), Baal, and Moloch, whilst the names of demons, obviously of Babylonian origin, are encountered in almost every work on the subject.

Frequent allusions are also made to the ‘wise men’ and necromancers of Babylon, and to the ‘star-gazers’ of Chaldea. The conclusion is irresistible that ceremonial magic, as practised in the Middle Ages, owed much to that of Babylon.

Our information regarding Chaldean magic is much more complete than that which we possess concerning the magic of ancient Egypt.

Hundreds of spells, incantations, and omen-inscriptions have been recovered, and these not only enlighten us regarding the class of priests who practised magic, but they tell us of the several varieties of demons, ghosts, and evil spirits; they minutely describe the Babylonian witch and wizard, and they picture for us many magical ceremonies, besides informing us of the names of scores of plants and flowers possessing magical properties, of magical substances, jewels, amulets, and the like.

Also they speak of sortilege or the divination of the future, of the drawing of magical circles, of the exorcism of evil spirits, and the casting out of demons.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 257-9.

The World Tree of Eridu

“But the primitive home of Tammuz had been in that “garden” of Edin, or Eden, which Babylonian tradition placed in the immediate vicinity of Eridu. The fragment of an old bilingual hymn has been preserved, which begins in the following way :

1. “(In) Eridu a stalk grew over-shadowing; in a holy place did it become green;

2. its root ([sur]sum) was of white crystal which stretched towards the deep;

3. (before) Ea was its course in Eridu, teeming with fertility;

4. its seat was the (central) place of the earth;

5. its foliage was the couch of Zikum (the primeval) mother.

6. Into the heart of its holy house which spread its shade like a forest hath no man entered.

7. (There is the home) of the mighty mother who passes across the sky.

8. (In) the midst of it was Tammuz.

10. (There is the shrine) of the two (gods).”

The description reminds us of the famous Ygg-drasil of Norse mythology, the world-tree whose roots descend into the world of death, while its branches rise into Asgard, the heaven of the gods.

The Babylonian poet evidently imagined his tree also to be a world-tree, whose roots stretched downwards into the abysmal deep, where Ea presided, nourishing the earth with the springs and streams that forced their way upwards from it to the surface of the ground.

Its seat was the earth itself, which stood midway between the deep below and Zikum, the primordial heavens, above, who rested as it were upon the overshadowing branches of the mighty “stem.” Within it, it would seem, was the holy house of Dav-kina, “the great mother,” and of Tammuz her son, a temple too sacred and far hidden in the recesses of the earth for mortal man to enter.

It is perhaps a reminiscence of this mystic temple that we find in the curious work on Nabathean Agriculture, composed in the fourth or fifth century by a Mandaite of Chaldea, where we are told of the temple of the sun in Babylon, in which the images of the gods from all the countries of the world gathered themselves together to weep for Tammuz.

What the tree or “stalk” was which sprang up like the bean-stalk of our old nursery tale, is indicated in the magical text to which the fragment about it has been appended. In this, Ea describes to Merodach the means whereby he is to cure a man who is possessed of the seven evil spirits.

He is first to go to “the cedar-tree, the tree that shatters the power of the incubus, upon whose core the name of Ea is recorded,” and then, with the help of “a good masal” or phylactery which is placed on the sick man’s head as he lies in bed at night, to invoke the aid of the Fire-god to expel the demons.

It is the cedar, therefore, which played the same part in Babylonian magic as the rowan ash of northern Europe, and which was believed to be under the special protection of Ea; and the parallel, therefore, between the ash Ygg-drasil of Norse mythology and the world-tree of the poet of Eridu becomes even closer than before.”

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. 237-40.

Ibn Wayshiyya and Magic

“Magic has always had a role to play in Islamic society. Its use has often been condemned by religious scholars, yet the efficacy of magic has never been contested; the early tenth-century religious scholar al-Ash’arī (d. 324/936), to take but one example, wrote in his dogmatical work Ibána (p. 19): «(…) and we belíeve that there are magicians and magic in this world, and that magic is an existing entity in this world».

During the Middle Ages magic always kept this role not only among common people but also among the learned. In the tenth century the Brethren of Purity wrote extensively on magic in their Rasā’il (esp. IV:283- 335) and magical elements can easily be detected from a variety of sources, including the biography of the prophet Muhammad.

One of the learned authors who was very much interested in magic and esoterica was the early tenth-century Abū Bakr Ibn Wahshiyya (alive in 318/930), the author or translator of many «Nabatean» books, among them the famous al-Filāha an-Nabatiyya, «the Nabatean Agriculture>.

The Nabatean books (also called the Nabatean corpus in the following) of Ibn Wahshiyya claim to be translations from «ancient Syriac». Both the author and his book, mainly Filāha, have been controversial since the nineteenth century, when the corpus was first enthusiatically received in Europe as deriving from the ancient Babylonians, though subsequently exposed as a forgery.

There is no need to cover once again the history of the controversy, and it is enough to draw attention to the present situation. The majority of scholars have more or less ignored both Ibn Wahshiyya and his works, whereas a few, especially Toufic Fahd, have courageously but not always coherently defended the authenticity of Filāha, not as a remnant of ancient Babylonian literature but as an authentic Arabic translation of a fourth/fifth century AD pseudepigraphic Aramic text.

The other works of Ibn Wahshiyya have received extremely scant attention, despite their obvious importance as a source for the almost unknown rural and parochial life in Iraq.

Hiéroglyphe reproduits par Ibn Wahshiyyah, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS Arabe 6805 folios 92b. ff

Hiéroglyphe reproduits par Ibn Wahshiyyah, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS Arabe 6805 folios 92b. ff

In the final analysis the question of the texts’ exact provenence must still be left open, though the lack of any signs of translation in the texts as well as the absence of similar genuine texts in Aramaic argues against their authenticity.

Nevertheless, we must make a difference between the works and their material. Whether the works of the Nabatean corpus are authentic or not, that is whether they indeed derive from complete books written in Syriac or some other form of Aramaic or not, there are features that speak in favour of the authenticity of (some of) the material in these books.

First, there are several prayers in Aramaic, in Arabic script, in, eg., Sumūm, which clearly sound Aramaic; their present corruption is most probably due to later copyists. Ibn Wahshiyya himself could hardly have composed these prayers, so they must have come to him in either written or oral form.

Second, the local setting is given accurately, which proves that Ibn Wahshiyya did know the area he was speaking about and thus there is nothing ínherently improbable in presuming that he had access to local traditions.

Third, and most importantly, much of the material has to be genuine as parallels can be found in Babylonian and Assyrian sources—I am referring to the Tammūz/Dumuzi description in particular—which proves that it cannot be a product of Muslim fiction but a report of practices in semipagan rural areas.

Some of these descriptions are more detailed and accurate in the works of Ibn Wahshiyya than in any of the other extant Muslim sources, which makes it improbable that Ibn Wahshiyya could have found them in the Arabic literature at his disposal.

Thus they must stem from a living tradition—although obviously an already dying one.”

Jaakko Hāmeem-Anttila, “Ibn Wahshiyya and Magic,” Anaquel de Estudios Árabes X, 1999, pp. 39-41.

Nascence of the Babylonian Zodiac

“ANCIENT Chaldea was undoubtedly the birth place of that mysterious science of astrology which was destined to exert such influence upon the European mind during the Middle Ages, and which indeed has not yet ceased to amuse the curious and flatter the hopes of the credulous.

Whether any people more primitive than the Akkadians had studied the movements of the stars it would indeed be extremely difficult to say. This the Akkadians or Babylonians were probably the first to attempt. The plain of Mesopotamia is peculiarly suited to the study of the movements of the stars. It is level for the most part, and there are few mountains around which moisture can collect to obscure the sky. Moreover the climate greatly assists such observations.

Like most primitive people the Babylonians originally believed the stars to be pictures drawn on the heavens. At a later epoch they were described as the “writing of heaven;” the sky was supposed to be a great vault, and the movements observed by these ancient astronomers were thought to be on the part of the stars alone.

Of course it would be noticed at an early stage that some of the stars seemed fixed while others moved about. Lines were drawn between the various stars and planets, and the figures which resulted from these were regarded as omens.

Assyrian star planisphere found in the library of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal (Aššur-bāni-apli – reigned 668-627 BCE) at Nineveh.  The function of this unique 13-cm diameter clay tablet, in which the principal constellations are positioned in eight sectors, is disputed. The texts and drawings appear to be astro-magical in nature.  Kuyunjik Collection, British Museum, K 8538 [= CT 33, 10]. London.

Assyrian star planisphere found in the library of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal (Aššur-bāni-apli – reigned 668-627 BCE) at Nineveh.
The function of this unique 13-cm diameter clay tablet, in which the principal constellations are positioned in eight sectors, is disputed. The texts and drawings appear to be astro-magical in nature.
Kuyunjik Collection, British Museum, K 8538 [= CT 33, 10]. London.

Again, certain groups or constellations were connected with such lines which led them to be identified with various animals, and in this we may observe the influence of animism. The Babylonian zodiac was, with the exception of the sign of Merodach, identified with the eleven monsters forming the host of Tiawath.

The first complete reconstruction of the Babylonian heavens in the modern era. For more information the reader is referred to ‘Babylonian Star-lore, An Illustrated Guide to the Star-lore and Constellations of Ancient Babylonia’ by Gavin White.  © 2007, Gavin White.

The first complete reconstruction of the Babylonian heavens in the modern era.
For more information the reader is referred to Babylonian Star-lore, An Illustrated Guide to the Star-lore and Constellations of Ancient Babylonia, by Gavin White.
© 2007, Gavin White.

Thus it would seem that the zodiacal system as a whole originated in Babylonia. The knowledge of the Chaldean astronomers appears to have been considerable, and it is likely that they were familiar with most of the constellations known to the later Greeks.

The following legend is told regarding the origin of astrology by Maimonides, the famous Jewish rabbi and friend of Averroes, in his commentary on the Mischnah :

“ In the days of Enos, the son of Seth, the sons of Adam erred with great error: and the council of the wise men of that age became brutish; and Enos himself was of them that erred. And their error was this: they said,—

Forasmuch as God hath created these stars and spheres to govern the world, and hath set them on high, and hath imparted honour unto them, and they are ministers that minister before Him, it is meet that men should laud and glorify and give them honour.

For this is the will of God that we laud and magnify whomsoever He magnifieth and honoureth, even as a king would honour them that stand before him. And this is the honour of the king himself.

When this thing was come up into their hearts they began to build temples unto the stars, and to offer sacrifice unto them, and to laud and magnify them with words, and to worship before them, that they might, in their evil opinion, obtain favour of their Creator.

And this was the root of idolatry; for in process of time there stood up false prophets among the sons of Adam, which said, that God had commanded them and said unto them,—

Worship such a star, or all the stars, and do sacrifice unto them thus and thus; and build a temple for it, and make an image of it, that all the people, women and children, may worship it.

And the false prophet showed them the image which he had feigned out of his own heart, and said that it was the image of that star which was made known to him by prophecy.

And they began after this manner to make images in temples, and under trees, and on the tops of mountains and hills, and assembled together and worshipped them; and this thing was spread through all the world to serve images, with services different one from another, and to sacrifice unto and worship them.

So, in process of time, the glorious and fearful Name was forgotten out of the mouth of all living, and out of their knowledge, and they acknowledged Him not.

And there was found on earth no people that knew aught, save images of wood and stone, and temples of stone which they had been trained up from their childhood to worship and serve, and to swear by their names; and the wise men that were among them, the priests and such like, thought that there was no God save the stars and spheres, for whose sake, and in whose likeness, they had made these images; but as for the Rock Everlasting, there was no man that did acknowledge Him or know Him save a few persons in the world, as Enoch, Methusaleh, Noah, Shem, and Heber.

And in this way did the world work and converse, till that pillar of the world, Abram our father, was born.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 231-3.


“Many great and wonderful deeds are recorded of your state in our histories. But one of them exceeds all the rest in greatness and valour. For these histories tell of a mighty power which unprovoked made an expedition against the whole of Europe and Asia, and to which your city put an end.

This power came forth out of the Atlantic Ocean, for in those days the Atlantic was navigable; and there was an island situated in front of the straits which are by you called the Pillars of Heracles; the island was larger than Libya and Asia put together, and was the way to other islands, and from these you might pass to the whole of the opposite continent which surrounded the true ocean; for this sea which is within the Straits of Heracles is only a harbour, having a narrow entrance, but that other is a real sea, and the surrounding land may be most truly called a boundless continent.

Now in this island of Atlantis there was a great and wonderful empire which had rule over the whole island and several others, and over parts of the continent, and, furthermore, the men of Atlantis had subjected the parts of Libya within the columns of Heracles as far as Egypt, and of Europe as far as Tyrrhenia.

This vast power, gathered into one, endeavoured to subdue at a blow our country and yours and the whole of the region within the straits; and then, Solon, your country shone forth, in the excellence of her virtue and strength, among all mankind.

She was pre-eminent in courage and military skill, and was the leader of the Hellenes. And when the rest fell off from her, being compelled to stand alone, after having undergone the very extremity of danger, she defeated and triumphed over the invaders, and preserved from slavery those who were not yet subjugated, and generously liberated all the rest of us who dwell within the pillars.

But afterwards there occurred violent earthquakes and floods; and in a single day and night of misfortune all your warlike men in a body sank into the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner disappeared in the depths of the sea.

For which reason the sea in those parts is impassable and impenetrable, because there is a shoal of mud in the way; and this was caused by the subsidence of the island.”

Plato, Timaeus, 360 BCE. (Translated by Benjamin Jowett).

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.

Sumerian Archeology

“Arriving in 1878, Rassam went to work with a will. Over a period of four years he opened excavations not only at Nineveh but at sites ranging from eastern Anatolia to southern Iraq, leaving the day-to-day excavation to his assistants and rarely visiting the sites.

Bronze band from the Palace Gates of Shalmaneser III in the British Museum.  The scenes show in the upper tier the king receiving tribute from Tyre and Sidon in Lebanon and in the lower tier the conquest of the town of Hazuzu in Syria.

Bronze band from the Palace Gates of Shalmaneser III in the British Museum.
The scenes show in the upper tier the king receiving tribute from Tyre and Sidon in Lebanon and in the lower tier the conquest of the town of Hazuzu in Syria.

His discoveries included panels of embossed bronze sheeting that had originally covered the great gates erected by Shalmaneser III at Balawat near Nimrud, and around 50,000 cuneiform cylinders and tablets in the Shamash temple at Sippar near Babylon. But times had changed since the cavalier days of the 1850s.

Relief image on the Tablet of Shamash, British Library room 55. Found in Sippar (Tell Abu Habbah), in Ancient Babylonia; it dates from the 9th century BC and shows the sun god Shamash on the throne, in front of the Babylonian king Nabu-apla-iddina (888-855 BC) between two interceding deities. The text tells how the king made a new cultic statue for the god and gave privileges to his temple.

Relief image on the Tablet of Shamash, British Library room 55. Found in Sippar (Tell Abu Habbah), in Ancient Babylonia; it dates from the 9th century BC and shows the sun god Shamash on the throne, in front of the Babylonian king Nabu-apla-iddina (888-855 BC) between two interceding deities. The text tells how the king made a new cultic statue for the god and gave privileges to his temple.

Considerable advances had been made in excavation techniques and recording methods. It was no longer enough to plunder sites for antiquities; buildings and other contexts had to be carefully investigated and recorded, and objects had to be recovered with care, without allowing them to “crumble to dust.”

Rassam was seriously criticized by other scholars in the field, and his departure largely saw the end of crude excavation methods in Mesopotamia—until the wanton destruction by bandits with bulldozers following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which threatens utterly to obliterate a huge number of sites.

As a native of the region, Rassam was very aware of the threat to the ancient cities from treasure hunters and brick robbers. When he left for Britain, therefore, he hired guardians to prevent future plundering in the important sites, including Kuyunjik and Sippar. Over the following decade, however, antiquities, and particularly tablets, that seemed likely to have come from these sites appeared in some numbers on the international market. The British Museum sent out Wallis Budge to investigate.

Budge arrived in Baghdad in 1888, armed with a permit to excavate Kuyunjik as a cover for his detective work. Within days, he purchased many tablets from local dealers, most of whom he found to be the very people appointed to guard the ancient sites, and skillfully foiled a plan to prevent him from exporting them.

Later in the year he reopened excavations at Kuyunjik, recovering some 200 tablets from the spoil of previous excavations. His luck turned the following year, however, when he excavated at ed-Der, part of ancient Sippar. The procedures involved in obtaining an excavation permit were long-winded and public: By the time Budge could start work, ed-Der had been thoroughly “examined” by the Vali of Baghdad, with the result that 10,000 tablets had found their way into the hands of dealers.

A similar fate befell the Frenchman Ernest de Sarzec, who excavated Telloh (ancient Girsu) in 1877–1881 and 1888–1900. This was the first serious investigation of a site belonging to Mesopotamia’s original Sumerian civilization, and the objects found here created great excitement in Europe, where they were displayed in the 1880s Paris exhibition.

     Stele of Vultures detail 01-transparent.png One fragment of the victory stele of the king Eannatum of Lagash over Umma, Sumerian archaic dynasties.

Stele of Vultures detail 01-transparent.png
One fragment of the victory stele of the king Eannatum of Lagash over Umma, Sumerian archaic dynasties.

The powerful and austere art style typified by the diorite statues strongly impressed European art critics, and a sculptured slab, dubbed the “Stele of the Vultures,” sparked great interest, because it showed for the first time in history an organized army going to war.

Telloh also yielded numerous tablets, some relating to border disputes with neighboring Umma, the fascinating first contemporary account of warfare—but most of them were not recovered by de Sarzec. During de Sarzec’s frequent absences, local people, often sponsored by Baghdad dealers, abstracted around 40,000 tablets from one of the mounds. These provided the first substantial body of works in the Sumerian language, whose very existence had been doubted in earlier decades.

The first U.S. expedition to work in Mesopotamia experienced an even more dramatic mixture of success and failure. Sponsored by Pennsylvania University, a team headed by John Peters arrived in 1887 to excavate Nippur, the holy city of ancient Sumer.

Hopelessly out of their depth in the complexities of dealing with the local villagers and authorities, their first season ended in an all-out attack in which their camp was set on fire, half their horses perished, and they lost $1,000 in gold—although they saved their antiquities.

Work resumed in 1890, under more auspicious circumstances, and continued intermittently until 1900. Among the 30,000 tablets recovered from Nippur were around 2,100 whose subject matter was literature, in contrast to the ubiquitous economic texts: These opened a window onto the fascinating world of the Sumerians and to this day form the bulk of known Sumerian literature.”

Jane R. McIntosh, Ancient Mesopotamia, 2005, pp. 30-2.

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.

Origins of the Jews?

“Babylonia, on the other hand, continued the even tenor of her way. More successful at the end of her independent political career than her northern rival had been, she retained her faith, and remained the unswerving worshipper of Merodach, the great god of Babylon, to whom her priests attributed yet greater powers, and with whom all the other gods were to all appearance identified.

This tendency to monotheism, however, never reached the culminating point–never became absolute–except, naturally, in the minds of those who, dissociating themselves, for philosophical reasons, from the superstitious teaching of the priests of Babylonia, decided for themselves that there was but one God, and worshipped Him.

That orthodox Jews at that period may have found, in consequence of this monotheistic tendency, converts, is not by any means improbable–indeed, the names met with during the later period imply that converts to Judaism were made.

Thus we see, from the various inscriptions, both Babylonian and Assyrian–the former of an extremely early period–the growth and development, with at least one branching off, of one of the most important religious systems of the ancient world.

It is not so important for modern religion as the development of the beliefs of the Hebrews, but as the creed of the people from which the Hebrew nation sprang, and from which, therefore, it had its beginnings, both corporeal and spiritual, it is such as no student of modern religious systems can afford to neglect.

Its legends, and therefore its teachings, as will be seen in these pages, ultimately permeated the Semitic West, and may in some cases even had penetrated Europe, not only through heathen Greece, but also through the early Christians, who, being so many centuries nearer the time of the Assyro-Babylonians, and also nearer the territory which they anciently occupied, than we are, were far better acquainted than the people of the present day with the legends and ideas which they possessed.”

Theophilus G. Pinches, The Religion of Babylonia and Assyria, London, 1906, pp. 7-9.

The Legends of Queen Semiramis

The legends of Semiramis indicate that Sammu-rammat was associated like Queen Tiy with the revival of mother worship.

As we have said, she went down to tradition as the daughter of the fish goddess, Derceto. Pliny identified that deity with Atargatis of Hierapolis.

In Babylonia the fish goddess was Nina, a developed form of Damkina, spouse of Ea of Eridu. In the inscription on the Nebo statue, that god is referred to as the “son of Nudimmud” (Ea). Nina was the goddess who gave her name to Nineveh, and it is possible that Nebo may have been regarded as her son during the Semiramis period.

The story of Semiramis’s birth is evidently of great antiquity. It seems to survive throughout Europe in the nursery tale of the “Babes in the Wood.” A striking Indian parallel is afforded by the legend of Shakuntala, which may be first referred to for the purpose of comparative study.

Shakuntala was the daughter of the rishi, Viswamitra, and Menaka, the Apsara (celestial fairy). Menaka gave birth to her child beside the sacred river Malini.

“And she cast the new-born infant on the bank of that river and went away. And beholding the newborn infant lying in that forest destitute of human beings but abounding with lions and tigers, a number of vultures sat around to protect it from harm.”

A sage discovered the child and adopted her. “Because,” he said, “she was surrounded by Shakuntas (birds), therefore hath she been named by me Shakuntala (bird protected).”

Semiramis was similarly deserted at birth by her Celestial mother. She was protected by doves, and her Assyrian name, Sammu-rammat, is believed to be derived from “Summat“–“dove,” and to signify “the dove goddess loveth her.”

Simmas, the chief of royal shepherds, found the child and adopted her. She was of great beauty like Shakuntala, the maiden of “perfect symmetry,” “sweet smiles,” and “faultless features,” with whom King Dushyanta fell in love and married in Gandharva fashion.

Semiramis became the wife of Onnes, governor of Nineveh, and one of the generals of its alleged founder, King Ninus. She accompanied her husband to Bactria on a military campaign, and is said to have instructed the king how that city should be taken.

Ninus fell in love with Semiramis, and Onnes, who refused to give her up, went and hanged himself. The fair courtesan then became the wife of the king.

The story proceeds that Semiramis exercised so great an influence over the impressionable King Ninus, that she persuaded him to proclaim her Queen of Assyria for five days. She then ascended the throne decked in royal robes. On the first day she gave a great banquet, and on the second thrust Ninus into prison, or had him put to death. In this manner she secured the empire for herself. She reigned for over forty years.

Professor Frazer inclines to the view that the legend is a reminiscence of the custom of appointing a mock king and queen to whom the kingdom was yielded up for five days. Semiramis played the part of the mother goddess, and the priestly king died a violent death in the character of her divine lover.

“The mounds of Semiramis which were pointed out all over Western Asia were said to have been the graves of her lovers whom she buried alive…. This tradition is one of the surest indications of the identity of the mythical Semiramis with the Babylonian goddess Ishtar or Astarte.”

As we have seen, Ishtar and other mother goddesses had many lovers whom they deserted like La Belle Dame sans Merci (pp. 174-175).

As Queen of Assyria, Semiramis was said to have cut roads through mountainous districts and erected many buildings. According to one version of the legend she founded the city of Babylon. Herodotus, however, says in this connection:

“Semiramis held the throne for five generations before the later princess (Nitocris)…. She raised certain embankments, well worthy of inspection, in the plain near Babylon, to control the river (Euphrates), which, till then, used to overflow and flood the whole country round about.”

Lucian, who associates the famous queen with “mighty works in Asia,” states that she was reputed by some to be the builder of the ancient temple of Aphrodite in the Libanus, although others credited it to Cinyras, or Deukalion.

Several Median places bear her name, and according to ancient Armenian tradition she was the founder of Van, which was formerly called “Shamiramagerd.” Strabo tells that unidentified mountains in Western Asia were named after Semiramis.

Indeed, many of the great works in the Tigro-Euphrates valley, not excepting the famous inscription of Darius, were credited to the legendary queen of Babylonia and Assyria. She was the rival in tradition of the famous Sesostris of Egypt as a ruler, builder, and conqueror.

All the military expeditions of Semiramis were attended with success, except her invasion of India. She was supposed to have been defeated in the Punjab. After suffering this disaster she died, or abdicated the throne in favour of her son Ninyas.

The most archaic form of the legend appears to be that she was turned into a dove and took flight to heaven in that form. After her death she was worshipped as a dove goddess like “Our Lady of Trees and Doves” in Cyprus, whose shrine at old Paphos was founded, Herodotus says, by Phoenician colonists from Askalon.

Fish and doves were sacred to Derceto (Attar), who had a mermaid form. “I have beheld”, says Lucian, “the image of Derceto in Phoenicia. A marvellous spectacle it is. One half is a woman, but the part which extends from thighs to feet terminates with the tail of a fish.”

Donald A. Mackenzie, Myths of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915, pp. 423-6.

Human Sacrifice in Ancient Babylon

” … All the younger gods, who displaced the elder gods as one year displaces another, were deities of fertility, battle, lightning, fire, and the sun; it is possible, therefore, that Ashur was like Merodach, son of Ea, god of the deep, a form of Tammuz in origin.

His spirit was in the solar wheel which revolved at times of seasonal change. In Scotland it was believed that on the morning of May Day (Beltaine) the rising sun revolved three times. The younger god was a spring sun god and fire god. Great bonfires were lit to strengthen him, or as a ceremony of riddance; the old year was burned out.

Indeed the god himself might be burned (that is, the old god), so that he might renew his youth. Melkarth was burned at Tyre. Hercules burned himself on a mountain top, and his soul ascended to heaven as an eagle.

These fiery rites were evidently not unknown in Babylonia and Assyria. When, according to Biblical narrative, Nebuchadnezzar “made an image of gold” which he set up “in the plain of Dura, in the province of Babylon,” he commanded:

“O people, nations, and languages… at the time ye hear the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, dulcimer, and all kinds of musick… fall down and worship the golden image.”

Certain Jews who had been “set over the affairs of the province of Babylonia,” namely, “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego,” refused to adore the idol.

They were punished by being thrown into “a burning fiery furnace”, which was heated “seven times more than it was wont to be heated.” They came forth uninjured.

In the Koran it is related that Abraham destroyed the images of Chaldean gods; he “brake them all in pieces except the biggest of them; that they might lay the blame on that.” According to the commentators the Chaldaeans were at the time “abroad in the fields, celebrating a great festival.”

To punish the offender Nimrod had a great pyre erected at Cuthah.

“Then they bound Abraham, and putting him into an engine, shot him into the midst of the fire, from which he was preserved by the angel Gabriel, who was sent to his assistance.”

Eastern Christians were wont to set apart in the Syrian calendar the 25th of January to commemorate Abraham’s escape from Nimrod’s pyre.

It is evident that the Babylonian fire ceremony was observed in the spring season, and that human beings were sacrificed to the sun god. A mock king may have been burned to perpetuate the ancient sacrifice of real kings, who were incarnations of the god.

Isaiah makes reference to the sacrificial burning of kings in Assyria:

“For through the voice of the Lord shall the Assyrian be beaten down, which smote with a rod. And in every place where the grounded staff shall pass, which the Lord shall lay upon him, it shall be with tabrets and harps: and in battles of shaking will he fight with it.

For Tophet is ordained of old; yea, for the king it is prepared: he hath made it deep and large: the pile thereof is fire and much wood: the breath of the Lord, like a stream of brimstone, doth kindle it.”

When Nineveh was about to fall, and with it the Assyrian Empire, the legendary king, Sardanapalus, who was reputed to have founded Tarsus, burned himself, with his wives, concubines, and eunuchs, on a pyre in his palace. Zimri, who reigned over Israel for seven days, “burnt the king’s house over him with fire.”

Saul, another fallen king, was burned after death, and his bones were buried “under the oak in Jabesh”.

In Europe the oak was associated with gods of fertility and lightning, including Jupiter and Thor. The ceremony of burning Saul is of special interest. Asa, the orthodox king of Judah, was, after death, “laid in the bed which was filled with sweet odours and divers kinds of spices prepared by the apothecaries’ art: and they made a very great burning for him” (2 Chronicles, xvi, 14).

Jehoram, the heretic king of Judah, who “walked in the way of the kings of Israel,” died of “an incurable disease. And his people made no burning for him like the burning of his fathers” (2 Chronicles, xxi, 18, 19).

The conclusion suggested by the comparative study of the beliefs of neighbouring peoples, and the evidence afforded by Assyrian sculptures, is that Ashur was a highly developed form of the god of fertility, who was sustained, or aided in his conflicts with demons, by the fires and sacrifices of his worshippers.”

Donald A. Mackenzie, Myths of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915, pp. 348-51.

An Underworld Love Story

“The Persephone of the Babylonian Underworld was Eresh-ki-gal, who was also called Allatu. A myth, which was found among the Egyptian Tel-el-Amarna Letters, sets forth that on one occasion the Babylonian gods held a feast.

All the deities attended it, except Eresh-ki-gal. She was unable to leave her gloomy Underworld, and sent her messenger, the plague demon Namtar, to obtain her share.

The various deities honoured Namtar, except Nergal, by standing up to receive him. When Eresh-ki-gal was informed of this slight she became very angry, and demanded that Nergal should be delivered up to her so that he might be put to death.

The storm god at once hastened to the Underworld, accompanied by his own group of fierce demons, whom he placed as guardians at the various doors so as to prevent the escape of Eresh-ki-gal.

Then he went boldly towards the goddess, clutched her by the hair, and dragged her from her throne.

After a brief struggle, she found herself overpowered. Nergal made ready to cut off her head, but she cried for mercy and said: “Do not kill me, my brother! Let me speak to thee.”

This appeal indicated that she desired to ransom her life–like the hags in the European folk tales–so Nergal unloosed his hold.

Then Eresh-ki-gal continued: “Be thou my husband and I will be thy wife. On thee I confer sovereignty over the wide earth, giving thee the tablet of wisdom. Thou shalt be my lord and I will be thy lady.”

Nergal accepted these terms by kissing the goddess. Affectionately drying her tears, he spoke, saying: “Thou shalt now have from me what thou hast demanded during these past months.”

In other words, Nergal promises to honour her as she desired, after becoming her husband and equal.”

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


“Some of the supernatural beings resemble our elves and fairies and the Indian Rakshasas. Occasionally they appear in comely human guise; at other times they are vaguely monstrous. The best known of this class is Lilith, who, according to Hebrew tradition, preserved in the Talmud, was the demon lover of Adam. She has been immortalized by Dante Gabriel Rossetti:

Of Adam’s first wife Lilith, it is told

(The witch he loved before the gift of Eve)

That, ere the snake’s, her sweet tongue could deceive,

And her enchanted hair was the first gold.

And still she sits, young while the earth is old,

And, subtly of herself contemplative,

Draws men to watch the bright web she can weave,

heart and body and life are in its hold.

The rose and poppy are her flowers; for where

Is he not found, O Lilith, whom shed scent

And soft shed kisses and soft sleep shall snare?

Lo! as that youth’s eyes burned at thine, so went

Thy spell through him, and left his straight neck bent

And round his heart one strangling golden hair.

Lilith is the Babylonian Lilithu, a feminine form of Lilu, the Sumerian Lila. She resembles Surpanakha of the Ramayana, who made love to Rama and Lakshmana, and the sister of the demon Hidimva, who became enamoured of Bhima, one of the heroes of the Mahabharata, and the various fairy lovers of Europe who lured men to eternal imprisonment inside mountains, or vanished for ever when they were completely under their influence, leaving them demented.

The elfin Lilu similarly wooed young women, like the Germanic Laurin of the “Wonderful Rose Garden,” who carried away the fair lady Kunhild to his underground dwelling amidst the Tyrolese mountains, or left them haunting the place of their meetings, searching for him in vain:

A savage place! as holy and enchanted

As ere beneath the waning moon was haunted

By woman wailing for her demon lover…

His flashing eyes, his floating hair!

Weave a circle round him thrice,

And close your eyes with holy dread,

For he on honey dew hath fed

And drunk the milk of Paradise.

Coleridge’s Kubla Khan.

Another materializing spirit of this class was Ardat Lili, who appears to have wedded human beings like the swan maidens, the mermaids, and Nereids of the European folk tales, and the goddess Ganga, who for a time was the wife of King Shantanu of the Mahabharata.

The Labartu, to whom we have referred, was a female who haunted mountains and marshes; like the fairies and hags of Europe, she stole or afflicted children, who accordingly had to wear charms round their necks for protection. Seven of these supernatural beings were reputed to be daughters of Anu, the sky god.

The Alu, a storm deity, was also a spirit which caused nightmare. It endeavoured to smother sleepers like the Scandinavian hag Mara, and similarly deprived them of power to move. In Babylonia this evil spirit might also cause sleeplessness or death by hovering near a bed. In shape it might be as horrible and repulsive as the Egyptian ghosts which caused children to die from fright or by sucking out the breath of life.”

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

The Lance of Longinus and the Chalice of Christian Liturgy Represent Pagan Antecedents

“Reference to some recent studies in the Legend will make my meaning clear. A reviewer of my small Quest of the Holy Grail volume remarked that I appeared to be ignorant of Miss Peebles’s study The Legend of Longinus “which materially strengthens the evidence for the Christian origin.” 1

Now this is precisely what, in my view, the study in question, which I knew and possessed, does not do. As evidence for the fact that the Grail legend has taken over certain features derived from the popular ‘Longinus’ story (which, incidentally, no one disputed), the essay is, I hold, sound, and valuable; as affording material for determining the source of the Grail story, it is, on the other hand, entirely without value.

On the principle laid down above no theory which purports to be explanatory of the source of one symbol can be held satisfactory in a case where that symbol does not stand alone. We cannot accept for the Grail story a theory of origin which concerns itself with the Lance, as independent of the Grail. In the study referred to the author has been at immense pains to examine the different versions of the ‘Longinus’ legend, and to trace its development in literature; in no single instance do we find Longinus and his Lance associated with a Cup or Vase, receptacle of the Sacred Blood.

The plain fact is that in Christian art and tradition Lance and Cup are not associated symbols. The Lance or Spear, as an instrument of the Passion, is found in conjunction with the Cross, Nails, Sponge, and Crown of Thorns, (anyone familiar with the wayside Crosses of Catholic Europe will recognize this), not with the Chalice of the Mass 1.

This latter is associated with the Host, or Agnus Dei. Still less is the Spear to be found in connection with the Grail in its Food-providing form of a Dish.

No doubt to this, critics who share the views of Golther and Burdach will object, “but what of the Byzantine Mass? Do we not there find a Spear connected with the Chalice 2?”

I very much doubt whether we do–the so-called ‘Holy Spear’ of the Byzantine, and present Greek, liturgy is simply a small silver spear-shaped knife, nor can I discover that it was ever anything else. I have made careful enquiries of liturgical scholars, and consulted editions of Oriental liturgies, but I can find no evidence that the knife (the use of which is to divide the Loaf which, in the Oriental rite, corresponds to the Wafer of the Occidental, in a manner symbolically corresponding to the Wounds actually inflicted on the Divine Victim) was ever other than what it is to-day.”

Jessie L. Weston, From Ritual to Romance, 1920. Pp. 66-7.