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Eco: The Egyptian vs. The Chinese Way, 2

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Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), origins of the Chinese characters, China 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.

“On the subject of signatures, Della Porta said that spotted plants which imitated the spots of animals also shared their virtues (Phytognomonica, 1583, III, 6): the bark of a birch tree, for example, imitated the plumage of a starling and is therefore good against impetigo, while plants that have snake-like scales protect against reptiles (III, 7).

Thus in one case, morphological similarity is a sign for alliance between a plant and an animal, while in the next it is a sign for hostility.

Taddeus Hageck (Metoscopicorum libellus unus, 1584: 20) praises among the plants that cure lung diseases two types of lichen: however, one bears the form of a healthy lung, while the other bears the stained and shaggy shape of an ulcerated one.

The fact that another plant is covered with little holes is enough to suggest that this plant is capable of opening the pores. We are thus witnessing three very distinct principles of relation by similarity: resemblance to a healthy organ, resemblance to a diseased organ, and an analogy between the form of a plant and the therapeutic result that it supposedly produced.

This indifference as to the nature of the connection between signatures and signatum holds in the arts of memory as well. In his Thesaurus atificiosae memoriae (1579), Cosma Roselli endeavored to explain how, once of a system of loci and images had been established, it might actually  function to recall the res memoranda.

He thought it necessary to explain “quomodo multis modis, aliqua res alteri sit similis” (Thesaurus, 107), how, that is, one thing could be similar to another. In the ninth chapter of the second part he tried to construct systematically a set of criteria whereby images might correspond to things:

“according to similarity, which, in its turn, can be divided into similarity of substance (such as man as the microcosmic image of the macrocosm), similarity in quantity (the ten fingers for the Ten Commandments), according to metonymy or antonomasia (Atlas for astronomers or for astronomy, a bear for a wrathful man, a lion for pride, Cicero for rhetoric):

by homonyms: a real dog for the dog constellation;

by irony and opposition: the fatuous for the wise;

by trace: the footprint for the wolf, the mirror in which Titus admired himself for Titus;

by the name differently pronounced: sanum for sane;

by similarity of name: Arista [awn] for Aristotle;

by genus and species: leopard for animal;

by pagan symbol: the eagle for Jove;

by peoples: Parthians for arrows, Scythians for horses, Phoenicians for the alphabet;

by signs of the zodiac: the sign for the constellation;

by the relation between organ and function;

by common accident: the crow for Ethiopia;

by hieroglyph: the ant for providence.”

The Idea del teatro by Giulio Camillo (1550) has been interpreted as a project for a perfect mechanism for the generation of rhetorical sentences.

Yet Camillo speaks casually of similarity by morphological traits (a centaur for a horse), by action (two serpents in combat for the art of war), by mythological contiguity (Vulcan for the art of fire), by causation (silk worms for couture), by effects (Marsyas with his skin flayed off for butchery), by relation of ruler to ruled (Neptune for navigation), by relation between agent and action (Paris for civil courts), by antonomasia (Prometheus for man the maker), by iconism (Hercules drawing his bow towards the heavens for the sciences regarding celestial matters), by inference (Mercury with a cock for bargaining).

It is plain to see that these are all rhetorical connections, and there is nothing more conventional that a rhetorical figure. Neither the arts of memory nor the doctrine of signatures is dealing, in any degree whatsoever, with a “natural” language of images.

Yet a mere appearance of naturalness has always fascinated those who searched for a perfect language of images.

The study of gesture as the vehicle of interaction with exotic people, united with a belief in a universal language of images, could hardly fail to influence the large number of studies which begin to appear in the seventeenth century on the education of deaf-mutes (cf. Salmon 1972: 68-71).

In 1620, Juan Pablo Bonet wrote a Reducción de las letras y arte para enseñar a hablar los mudos. Fifteen years later, Mersenne (Harmonie, 2) connected this question to that of a universal language. John Bulwer suggested (Chirologia, 1644) that only by a gestural language can one escape from the confusion of Babel, because it was the first language of humanity.

Dalgarno (see ch. 11) assured his reader that his project would provide an easy means of educating deaf-mutes, and he again took up this argument in his Didascalocophus (1680). In 1662, the Royal Society devoted several debates to Wallis’s proposals on the same topic.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 171-3.

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.

Asherah, Astarte, Anat, Athirat in Ancient Ugarit

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

British Museum EA 191, upper register of limestone stele of chief craftsman Qeh.  Naked goddess identified as 'Ke(d)eshet, lady of heaven' flanked by the ithyphallic Egyptian god Min and Syro-Palestinian god Reshep.  Deir el-Medina (Dynasty 19).  Photograph © Trustees of the British Museum. Her name Qdš(-t) simply means 'holy'.  As such, it can be attached to almost any goddess, including the whole of the A-team: Anat, Astarte, Asherah and Athirat.  The question is: did there exist an independent goddess named Qedeshet at all?  She is not known from any Canaanite or Ugaritic texts or inscriptions.  Rather, she only appears as a named goddess in Egypt.  There, she is honoured with such typical titles as 'Lady of heaven' and 'Mistress of all the gods' -- which are not specific to her but could equally apply to any goddess in Egypt. What seems to have happened is this.  From the late Middle Bronze Age (ca. 1600 BCE) onwards, Canaan was under Egyptian rule.   Gods and goddesses moved with the armies back and forth in both directions.  Canaanites were envious (I would imagine) of the power of Egyptian deities and freely borrowed their attributes -- in our case, all those Hathor curls and lily-lotus flowers.  In return, Canaanite gods travelled to Egypt on the backs of soldiers, POW's and slaves. Once installed there, some became very popular with native Egyptians as well and were integrated with interesting local deities (as above, the Canaanite naked goddess with Egyptian Min on her left).  So, when we see a picture of the naked goddess in Egypt inscribed with words such as Qedeshet, lady of heaven, great of magic, mistress of the stars, we wonder if the artists were illustrating the Canaanite Q-lady, or a generic Canaanite naked goddess that had been taken over and developed in Egypt itself.  In other words, when the Egyptians borrowed the naked-female, did they mistake 'holy' for her own name?  In which case, the goddess may have been baptized in Egypt and not in her original Canaanite home. http://judithweingarten.blogspot.com/2014_01_01_archive.html

British Museum EA 191, upper register of limestone stele of chief craftsman Qeh. Naked goddess identified as ‘Ke(d)eshet, lady of heaven’ flanked by the ithyphallic Egyptian god Min and Syro-Palestinian god Reshep. Deir el-Medina (Dynasty 19). Photograph © Trustees of the British Museum.
“Her name Qdš(-t) simply means ‘holy’. As such, it can be attached to almost any goddess, including the whole of the A-team: Anat, Astarte, Asherah and Athirat. The question is: did there exist an independent goddess named Qedeshet at all? She is not known from any Canaanite or Ugaritic texts or inscriptions. Rather, she only appears as a named goddess in Egypt. There, she is honoured with such typical titles as ‘Lady of heaven’ and ‘Mistress of all the gods’ — which are not specific to her but could equally apply to any goddess in Egypt.”
http://judithweingarten.blogspot.com/2014_01_01_archive.html

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gold pendant, possibly Astarte. Ugarit. 1500-1200/1150 BCE. Drawing © Stéphane Beaulieu, after Toorn 1998:86, #31  http://www.matrifocus.com/IMB04/spotlight.htm

Gold pendant, possibly Astarte. Ugarit. 1500-1200/1150 BCE.
Drawing © Stéphane Beaulieu, after Toorn 1998:86, #31
http://www.matrifocus.com/IMB04/spotlight.htm

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

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

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

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

Plato on the Creation

“Now the creation took up the whole of each of the four elements; for the Creator compounded the world out of all the fire and all the water and all the air and all the earth, leaving no part of any of them nor any power of them outside.

His intention was, in the first place, that the animal should be as far as possible a perfect whole and of perfect parts: secondly, that it should be one, leaving no remnants out of which another such world might be created: and also that it should be free from old age and unaffected by disease.

Considering that if heat and cold and other powerful forces which unite bodies surround and attack them from without when they are unprepared, they decompose them, and by bringing diseases and old age upon them, make them waste away–for this cause and on these grounds he made the world one whole, having every part entire, and being therefore perfect and not liable to old age and disease.

And he gave to the world the figure which was suitable and also natural.

Now to the animal which was to comprehend all animals, that figure was suitable which comprehends within itself all other figures. Wherefore he made the world in the form of a globe, round as from a lathe, having its extremes in every direction equidistant from the centre, the most perfect and the most like itself of all figures; for he considered that the like is infinitely fairer than the unlike.

This he finished off, making the surface smooth all around for many reasons; in the first place, because the living being had no need of eyes when there was nothing remaining outside him to be seen; nor of ears when there was nothing to be heard; and there was no surrounding atmosphere to be breathed; nor would there have been any use of organs by the help of which he might receive his food or get rid of what he had already digested, since there was nothing which went from him or came into him: for there was nothing beside him.

Of design he was created thus, his own waste providing his own food, and all that he did or suffered taking place in and by himself.

For the Creator conceived that a being which was self-sufficient would be far more excellent than one which lacked anything; and, as he had no need to take anything or defend himself against any one, the Creator did not think it necessary to bestow upon him hands: nor had he any need of feet, nor of the whole apparatus of walking; but the movement suited to his spherical form was assigned to him, being of all the seven that which is most appropriate to mind and intelligence; and he was made to move in the same manner and on the same spot, within his own limits revolving in a circle.

All the other six motions were taken away from him, and he was made not to partake of their deviations. And as this circular movement required no feet, the universe was created without legs and without feet.

Such was the whole plan of the eternal God about the god that was to be, to whom for this reason he gave a body, smooth and even, having a surface in every direction equidistant from the centre, a body entire and perfect, and formed out of perfect bodies.

And in the centre he put the soul, which he diffused throughout the body, making it also to be the exterior environment of it; and he made the universe a circle moving in a circle, one and solitary, yet by reason of its excellence able to converse with itself, and needing no other friendship or acquaintance. Having these purposes in view he created the world a blessed god.”

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

The Names of Apep

“But among the beings whom the deceased wished to avoid in the underworld were the beings who “lay snares, and who work the nets, and who are fishers,” and who would draw him into their nets.

It seems as if it were absolutely necessary that he should fall in with these beings and their nets, for a whole chapter of the Book of the Dead was written with the view of enabling him to escape from them unharmed; the god their leader is called “the god whose face is behind him,” and “the god who hath gained the mastery over his heart.”

To escape from the net which was worked by “the fishers who lay snares with their nets and who go round about in the chambers of the waters,” the deceased had to know the names of the net, and of the ropes, and of the pole, and of the hooks, and of each and every part of it; without this knowledge nothing could save him from calamity.

We unfortunately understand very few of the allusions to mythological events which are contained in the names of the various parts of the machinery which work the net, but it is quite certain that they have reference to certain events in the lives of the gods who are mentioned, and that these were well known to the writers and readers of religious texts.

From the above descriptions of the means whereby the deceased made his way through the gates and the halls of the underworld and escaped from the fowler and his net, it will be readily understood that the knowledge of the name alone was, in some cases, sufficient to help him out of his difficulties; but in others it was necessary to have the name which was possessed of magical power inscribed upon some object, amulet or otherwise.

Moreover, some gods and devils were thought to have the power to assume different forms, and as each form carried with it its own name, to have absolute power over a god of many forms it was necessary to know all his names.

Thus in the “Book of Overthrowing Âpep” (Papyrus of Nesi-Amsu, col. xxiii. 1. 6. (Archæologia, vol. LII)) we are told not only to make a wax figure of the monster, but also to write his name upon it, so that when the figure is destroyed by being burnt in the fire his name also may be destroyed; this is a striking example of the belief that the name was an integral part of the economy of a living creature.

But Âpep possessed many forms and therefore many names, and unless he could be invoked by these names he still had the power to do evil; the above-mentioned book (ibid., col. xxxii. 1. 13 f) therefore supplies us with a list of his names, among which occur the following:—

“Tutu (i.e., “Doubly evil one”), Hau-hra (i.e., “Backward Face”), Hemhemti (i.e., “Roarer”), Qetu (i.e., “Evil-doer”), Âmam (i.e., “Devourer”), Saatet-ta (i.e., “Darkener of earth”), Iubani, Khermuti, Unti, Karauememti, Khesef-hra, Sekhem-hra, Khak-ab, Nâi, Uai, Beteshu, Kharebutu “the fourfold fiend,” etc.

All these names represent, as may be seen from the few of which translations are given, various aspects of Âpep, the devil of thunder, lightning, cloud, rain, mist, storm, and the like, and the anxiety to personify these so that the personifications might be attacked by means of magical ceremonies and words of power seems positively childish.”

E.A. Wallis Budge, Egyptian Magic, London, 1901. P. 170-2.

Gershom Scholem on Correspondences

“All reality is constituted in the three levels of the cosmos—the world, time, and the human body, which are the fundamental realm of all being—and comes into existence through the combination of the twenty-two consonants, and especially by way of the “231 gates,” that is, the combinations of the letters into groups of two (the author apparently held the view that the roots of Hebrew words were based not on three but on two consonants).

Among the three realms there exist precise correlations, which no doubt also expresses relations of sympathy. The twenty-two consonants are divided into three groups, in accordance with the author’s peculiar phonetic system. The first contains the three “matrices,” ‘alef, mem, and shin. These in turn correspond to the three elements deduced in the first chapter in connection with the sefiroth—ether, water, fire—and from these all the rest came into being. These three letters also have their parallel in the three seasons of the year (again an ancient Greek division!) and the three parts of the body: the head, the torso, and the stomach.

The second group consists of the seven “double consonants” that in the Hebrew phonology of the author have two different sounds. They correspond, above all, to the seven planets, the seven heavens, the seven days of the week, and the seven orifices of the body. At the same time, they also represent the seven fundamental opposites in man’s life: life and death, peace and disaster, wisdom and folly, wealth and poverty, charm and ugliness, sowing and devastation, domination and servitude. To these correspond, in addition, the six directions of heaven and the Temple in the center of the world, which supports all of them (4:1-4).

The twelve remaining “simple” consonants correspond to man’s twelve principal activities, the signs of the zodiac, the twelve months, and the twelve chief limbs of the human body (the “leaders”). The combinations of all of these elements contain the root of all things, and good and evil, “pleasure and sorrow” (‘oneg and nega‘, which have the same consonants) have their origin in the same process, only according to a different arrangement of the elements (2:4).

This cosmogony and cosmology, based on language-mysticism, betray their relationship with astrological ideas. From them, direct paths lead to the magical conception of the creative and miraculous power of letters and words. It is by no means absurd to imagine that our text not only pursued theoretical aims, but was intended for thaumaturgical use as well. That is how the tradition of the early Middle Ages understood it, at least in part, and it would not have been wrong, in this case, to establish a connection between our text (or its prototype) and the story of the two masters of the Talmud, Rabbi Hanina and Rabbi Oshayah, who every Friday studied the “halakhoth concerning Creation” and by means of it created a calf that they then proceeded to eat.”

–Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 1987, pp. 29-31.

Scholem on the Kabbalistic Elements

“The ten primordial numbers are called sefiroth—a Hebrew noun, newly formed here, that bears no relation to the Greek word sphaira, but is derived from a Hebrew verb meaning “to count.”

Steinschneider’s contention (Mathematik bei den Juden [Hildesheim, 1965], p. 148) that the original term acquired its specific kabbalistic meaning as a result of the similarity to the Greek word is not borne out by an analysis of the oldest kabbalistic texts. By introducing a new term, sefirah, in place of the usual mispar, the author seems to indicate that it is not simply a question of ordinary numbers, but of metaphysical principles of the universe or stages in the creation of the world.

The possibility that the term refers to emanations from God himself can be excluded in view of both the wording and the context; it could only be read into the text by later reinterpretation. Each of these primordial numbers is associated with a particular category of creation, the first four sefiroth undoubtedly emanating from each other.

The first one is the pneuma of the living God, ruah ‘elohim hayyim (the book continues to use the word ruah in its triple meaning of breath, air, and spirit). From the ruah comes forth, by way of condensation, as it were, the “breath of breath,” that is, the primordial element of the air, identified in later chapters with the ether, which is divided into material and immaterial either (SIC, should probably be ether).

The idea of an “immaterial ether,” ‘awir she’eno nithpas, like the other Hebrew neologisms in the book, seems to correspond to Greek conceptions. From the primordial air come forth the water and the fire, the third and the fourth sefiroth. Out of the primordial air God created the twenty-two letters; out of the primordial fire, the Throne of Glory and the hosts of angels.

The nature of this secondary creation is not sufficiently clear, for the precise terminological meaning that the author gave to the verbs haqaq and hasab, which belong to the vocabulary of architecture, can be interpreted in different ways. He does not utilize the Hebrew word for “create,” but words that mean “engrave” (is this to designate the contours or the form?) and “hew,” as one hews a stone out of the rock. The Aristotelian element of the earth is not known to the author as a primordial element.”

–Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 1987, pp. 26-7.

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