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Tag: Hebrews

Eco: Dee’s Magic Language


Florence Estienne Méric Casaubon (1599-1671), A True and Faithful Relation of what Passed for Many Yeers between Dr. John Dee [ . . . ] and Some Spirits, London, 1659. 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 his Apologia compendiaria (1615) Fludd noted that the Rosicrucian brothers practiced that type of kabbalistic magic that enabled them to summon angels. This is reminiscent of the steganography of Trithemius. Yet it is no less reminiscent of the necromancy of John Dee, a man whom many authors considered the true inspirer of Rosicrucian spirituality.

In the course of one of the angelic colloquies recorded in A True and Faithful Relation of what Passed for Many Yeers between Dr. John Dee [ . . . ] and Some Spirits (1659: 92), Dee found himself in the presence of the Archangel Gabriel, who wished to reveal to him something about the nature of holy language.

When questioned, however, Gabriel simply repeated the information that the Hebrew of Adam, the language in which “every word signifieth the quiddity of the substance,” was also the primal language–a notion which, in the Renaissance, was hardly a revelation.

After this, in fact, the text continues, for page after page, to expatiate on the relations between the names of angels, numbers and secrets of the universe–to provide, in short, another example of the pseudo-Hebraic formulae which were the stock in trade of the Renaissance magus.

Yet it is perhaps significant that the 1659 Relation was published by Meric Casaubon, who was later accused of partially retrieving and editing Dee’s documents with the intention of discrediting him.

There is nothing, of course, surprising in the notion that a Renaissance magus invoked spirits; yet, in the case of John Dee, when he gave us an instance of cipher, or mystic language, he used other means.

In 1564, John Dee wrote the work upon which his contemporary fame rested–Monas hieroglyphica, where he speaks of a geometrical alphabet with no connection to Hebrew. It should be remembered that Dee, in his extraordinary library, had many of Lull’s manuscripts, and that many of his kabbalistic experiments with Hebrew characters in fact recall Lull’s use of letters in his art of combination (French 1972: 49ff).

Dee’s Monas is commonly considered a work of alchemy. Despite this, the network of alchemical references with which the book is filled seems rather intended to fulfill a larger purpose–that of explicating the cosmic implications deriving from Dee’s fundamental symbol, the Monad, based upon circles and straight lines, all generated from a single point.


John Dee (1527-1609), Monas hieroglyphica, 1564, held in the Bibliothèque nationale de France. The Monad is the symbol at the heart of the illustration labeled Figure 8.1 in Eco’s  The Search for the Perfect Language, Oxford, 1995, p. 186.

In this symbol (see figure 8.1), the main circle represented the sun that revolves around its central point, the earth, and in its upper part was intersected by a semi-circle representing the moon.

Both sun and moon were supported on an inverted cross which represented both the ternary principle–two straight lines which intersect plus their point of intersection–and the quaternary principle–the four right angles formed at the intersections of the two lines.

The sum of the ternary and quaternary principles constituted a further seven-fold principle, and Dee goes even on to squeeze an eight-fold principle from the diagram.

By adding the first four integers together, he also derives a ten-fold principle. By such a manipulatory vertigo Dee then derives the four composite elements (heat and cold, wet and dry) as well as other astrological revelations.

From here, through 24 theorems, Dee makes his image undergo a variety of rotations, decompositions, inversions and permutations, as if it were drawing anagrams from a series of Hebrew letters.

Sometimes he considers only the initial aspects of his figure, sometimes the final one, sometimes making numerological analyses, submitting his symbol to the kabbalistic techniques of notariqon, gematria, and temurah.

As a consequence, the Monas should permit–as happens with every numerological speculation–the revelation of the whole of the cosmic mysteries.

However, the Monad also generates alphabetic letters. Dee was emphatic about this in the letter of dedication with which he introduced his book. Here he asked all “grammarians” to recognize that his work “would explain the form of the letters, their position and place in the alphabetical order, and the relations between them, along with their numerological values, and many other things concerning the primary Alphabet of the three languages.”

This final reference to “the three languages” reminds us of Postel (whom Dee met personally) and of the Collège des Trois Langues at which Postel was professor. In fact, Postel, to prove that Hebrew was the primal language in his 1553 De originibus, had observed that every “demonstration of the world” comes from point, line and triangle, and that sounds themselves could be reduced to geometry.

In his De Foenicum literis, he further argued that the invention of the alphabet was almost contemporary with the spread of language (on this point see many later kabbalistic speculations over the origins of language, such as Thomas Bang, Caelum orientis, 1657: 10).

What Dee seems to have done is to take the geometrical argument to its logical conclusion. He announced in his dedicatory letter that “this alphabetic literature contains great mysteries,” continuing that “the first Mystic letters of Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans were formed by God and transmitted to mortals [ . . . ] so that all the signs used to represent them were produced by points, straight lines, and circumferences of circles arranged by an art most marvelous and wise.”

When he writes a eulogy of the geometrical properties of the Hebrew Yod, one is tempted to think of the Dantesque I; when he attempts to discover a generative matrix from which language could be derived, one thinks of the Lullian Ars.

Dee celebrates his procedure for generating letters as a “true Kabbalah [ . . . ] more divine than grammar itself.”

These points have been recently developed by Clulee (1988: 77-116), who argues that the Monas should be seen as presenting a system of writing, governed by strict rules, in which each character is associated with a thing.

In this sense, the language of Monas is superior to the kabbala, for the kabbala aims at the interpretation of things only as they are said (or written) in language, whereas the Monas aims directly at the interpretation of things as they are in themselves. Thanks to its universality, moreover, Dee can claim that his language invents or restores the language of Adam.

According to Clulee, Dee’s graphic analysis of the alphabet was suggested by the practice of Renaissance artists of designing alphabetical letters using the compass and set-square.

Thus Dee could have thought of a unique and simple device for generating both concepts and all the alphabets of the world.

Neither traditional grammarians nor kabbalists were able to explain the form of letters and their position within the alphabet; they were unable to discover the origins of signs and characters, and for this reason they were uncapable (sic) to retrieve that universal grammar that stood at the bases of Hebrew, Greek and Latin.

According to Clulee, what Dee seems to have discovered was an idea of language “as a vast, symbolic system through which meanings might be generated by the manipulation of symbols” (1988: 95).

Such an interpretation seems to be confirmed by an author absent from all the bibliographies (appearing, to the best of my knowledge, only in Leibniz’s Epistolica de historia etymologica dissertatio of 1717, which discusses him in some depth).

This author is Johannes Petrus Ericus, who, 1697, published his Anthropoglottogonia sive linguae humanae genesis, in which he tried to demonstrate that all languages, Hebrew included, were derived from Greek.

In 1686, however, he had also published a Principium philologicum in quo vocum, signorum et punctorum tum et literarum massime ac numerorum origo. Here he specifically cited Dee’s Monas Hieroglyphica to derive from that matrix the letters of all alphabets (still giving precedence to Greek) as well as all number systems.

Through a set of extremely complex procedures, Ericus broke down the first signs of the Zodiac to reconstruct them into Dee’s Monad; he assumed that Adam had named each animal by a name that reproduced the sounds that that each emitted; then he elaborated a rather credible phonological theory identifying classes of letters such as “per sibilatione per dentes,” “per tremulatione labrorum,” “per compressione labrorum,” “per contractione palati,” “per respiratione per nares.”

Ericus concluded that Adam used vowels for the names of the beasts of the fields, and mutes for the fish. This rather elementary phonetics also enabled Ericus to deduce the seven notes of the musical scale as well as the seven letters which designate them–these letters being the basic elements of the Monas.

Finally, he demonstrated how by rotating this figure, forming, as it were, visual anagrams, the letters of all other alphabets could be derived.

Thus the magic language of the Rosicrucians (if they existed, and if they were influenced by Dee) could have been a matrix able to generate–at least alphabetically–all languages, and, therefore, all the wisdom of the world.

Such a language would have been more than a universal grammar: it would have been a grammar without syntactic structures, or, as Demonet (1992: 404) suggests, a “grammar without words,” a silent communication, close to the language of angels, or similar to Kircher’s conception of hieroglyphs.

Thus, once again, this perfect language would be based upon a sort of communicative short-circuit, capable of revealing everything, but only if it remained initiatically secret.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 185-90.

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 First Gift to Adam


Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516), Paradise and Hell, circa 1510. These two panels were based on the left and right wings of a triptych called The Hay Wagon or The Haywain. After 1907 the entire triptych was held in the Museo del Prado, Madrid, under accession number 2052. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Dagon, alluded to in the Scriptures, was, like Oannes, a fish-god. Besides being worshipped in Erech and its neighbourhood, he was adored in Palestine and on occasion among the Hebrews themselves. But it was in the extreme south of Palestine that his worship attained its chief importance.

He had temples at Ashdod and Gaza, and perhaps his worship travelled westward along with that of Ishtar. Both were worshipped at Erech, and where the cult of the one penetrated it is likely that there would be found the rites of the other.

Dagon his name; sea-monster, upward man
And downward fish,

as Milton expresses it, affords one of the most dramatic instances in the Old Testament of the downfall of a usurping idol.

“And the Philistines took the ark of God, and brought it from Eben-ezer unto Ashdod.

“When the Philistines took the ark of God, they brought it into the house of Dagon, and set it by Dagon.

“And when they of Ashdod arose early on the morrow, behold, Dagon was fallen upon his face to the earth before the ark of the Lord. And they took Dagon, and set him in his place again.

“And when they arose early on the morrow morning, behold, Dagon was fallen upon his face to the ground before the ark of the Lord ; and the head of Dagon and both the palms of his hands were cut off upon the threshold ; only the stump of Dagon was left to him.

“Therefore neither the priests of Dagon, nor any that come into Dagon’s house, tread on the threshold of Dagon in Ashdod unto this day.

“But the hand of the Lord was heavy upon them of Ashdod, and he destroyed them, and smote them with emerods (ed. note: hemorrhoids), even Ashdod and the coasts thereof.

“And when the men of Ashdod saw that it was so, they said, The ark of the God of Israel shall not abide with us: for his hand is sore upon us and upon Dagon our god.”

Thus in the Bible story only the ‘stump’ or fish’s tail of Dagon was left to him.

In some of the Ninevite sculptures of this deity, the head of the fish forms a kind of mitre on the head of the man, while the body of the fish appears as a cloak or cape over his shoulders and back.

This is a sure sign to the mythological student that a god so adorned is in process of quitting the animal for the human form.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 151-2.

On the Tower of Babel and the Confusion of Tongues

“Many attempts have been made to attach the legend of the confusion of tongues to certain ruined towers in Babylonia, especially to that of E-Sagila, the great temple of Merodach, and some remarks upon this most interesting tale may not be out of place at this point. The myth is not found in Babylonia itself, and in its best form may be discovered in Scripture. In the Bible story we are told that every region was of one tongue and mode of speech.

As men journeyed westward from their original home in the East, they encountered a plain in the land of Shinar where they settled. In this region they commenced building operations, constructed a city, and laid the foundations of a tower, the summit of which they hoped would reach to heaven itself.

It would appear that this edifice was constructed with the object of serving as a great landmark to the people so that they should not be scattered over the face of the earth, and the Lord came down to view the city and the tower, and he considered that as they were all of one language this gave them undue power, and that what they imagined to themselves under such conditions they would be able to achieve.

So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence over the face of every region, and the building of the tower ceased and the name of it was called ‘Babel,’ because at that place the single language of the people was confounded.

Of course it is merely the native name of Babylon, which translated means ‘gate of the god,’ and has no such etymology as the Scriptures pretend,—the Hebrews confusing their verb balal, ‘to confuse or confound,’ with the word babel.

The story was no doubt suggested by one of the temple towers of Babylon. Over and over again we find in connexion with the Jewish religion that anything which savours of presumption or unnatural aspiration is strongly condemned. The ambitious effort of the Tower of Babel would thus seem abhorrent to the Hebrews of old.

The strange thing is that these ancient towers or zikkurats, as the Babylonians called them, were intended to serve as a link between heaven and earth, just as does the minaret of the Mahommedan mosque.

The legend of the confusion of tongues is to be traced in other folk-lores than that of Babylon. It is found in Central America, where the story runs that Xelhua, one of the seven giants rescued from the deluge, built the great pyramid of Cholula in order to besiege heaven.

The structure was, however, destroyed by the gods, who cast down fire upon it and confounded the language of its builders. Livingstone found some such myth among the African tribes around Lake Ngami, and certain Australian and Mongolian peoples possess a similar tradition.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 47-9.

Chaldean Astronomy and Magic

“For more than two thousand years the records of Babylonian and Assyrian astronomy lay buried and forgotten under the ruins of Assyrian palaces, and all that was known of the subject came from a few passages in the Bible and in the works of Greek and Roman writers.

To the Hebrews the sorceries of Babylon were an accursed thing, and the prophet Isaiah scoffs at them in these words:

“Stand now with thine enchantments, and with the multitude of thy sorceries, wherein thou hast laboured from thy youth; if so be thou shalt be able to profit, if so be thou mayest prevail.

Thou art wearied in the multitude of thy counsels. Let now the astrologers, the stargazers, the monthly prognosticators, stand up, and save thee from these things that shall come upon thee.” (Isaiah 47:12).

Among Greek writers Strabo (died a.d. 24) asserted that the Chaldeans were skilled in astronomy and the casting of horoscopes, and Aelian (3rd century a.d.) mentions the fact that both the Babylonians and Chaldeans enjoyed a reputation for possessing a knowledge of astronomy.

Achilles Tatius  (6th century) reports the existence of a tradition to the effect that the Egyptians mapped the heavens, and that they inscribed their knowledge on their pillars; the same tradition declared that the Chaldeans claimed the glory of this science, the foundation of which they attributed to the god Bel.

For this last belief there seems to be some evidence in a statement of Berosus, to the effect that the god Bel created the stars and sun and moon, and the five planets. Diodorus Siculus, a contemporary of Augustus, tells us that the Babylonian priests observed the position of certain stars in order to cast horoscopes, and that they interpreted dreams and derived omens from the movement of birds and from eclipses and earthquakes.

The general evidence of serious writers leads us to believe that astrology formed part of the religious system of the Babylonians, and it certainly exercised considerable influence over the minds of the dwellers between the Tigris and the Euphrates.

In any case, the reputation of the Chaldeans, i.e., the Babylonians and Assyrians, for possessing magical powers was so widespread, that the very name Chaldean at a comparatively early date became synonymous with magician.”

Reginald Campbell Thompson, The Reports of the Magicians and Astrologers of Nineveh and Babylon, Vol. II, London, 1900. pp. xiii-xiv.

Mesopotamian Religion is Undefinable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Schism Between Biblical and Mesopotamian Studies

“Some scholars of Mesopotamia sought to declare independence from biblical studies in the 1930s, insisting that Mesopotamia be studied on its own terms, even in isolation, but for most people the main interest of Mesopotamian religions lies in their historical interest and comparison with ancient Greece and the Bible.

Studies regularly appear on the Near Eastern background of Greek mythology and culture. Some, such as the work of Cyrus Gordon, are strongly critical of a perceived tendency of Classicists to assume that Greece stood alone in the eastern Mediterranean and was not significantly influenced by Near Eastern (or ‘Semitic’) peoples (Gordon 1965).

With respect to the Bible, the ‘contextual approach,’ advocated by scholars such as William W. Hallo, makes both comparisons and contrasts, recognizing the autonomy and interdependence of ancient Israel and Mesopotamia (Hallo 1997).

This steers a middle course between the extremism of the Pan-Babylonianists and of those who would build a fence around the Bible and claim that Israel was somehow exempt from the dynamic influences of Mesopotamia, the greatest cultural centre in Western Asia during the first millennium BCE.

No serious student of the Bible can ignore Mesopotamian civilization, but the religious experiences of both Mesopotamia and the Hebrews have to be understood in their own terms before they can be profitably compared or contrasted.”

Benjamin R. Foster, “Mesopotamian Religion and the Bible,” John R. Hinnells, ed., A Handbook of Ancient Religions, 2007, pp. 209.

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 Sumerians Considered the Deluge an Historic Event

” … It is, at all events, well known that the Sumerians regarded the Deluge as an historic event, which they were, practically, able to date, for some of their records contain lists of kings who reigned before the Deluge, though it must be confessed that the lengths assigned to their reigns are incredible. After their rule it is expressly noted that the Flood occurred, and that, when it passed away, kingship came down again from on high.

It is not too much to assume that the original event commemorated in the Legend of the Deluge was a serious and prolonged inundation or flood in Lower Babylonia, which was accompanied by great loss of life and destruction of property.

The Babylonian versions state that this inundation or flood was caused by rain, but passages in some of them suggest that the effects of the rainstorm were intensified bv other physical happenings connected with the earth, of a most destructive character.

The Hebrews also, as we may see from the Bible, had alternative views as to the cause of the Deluge. According to one, rain fell upon the earth for forty days and forty nights (Gen. vii, 12), and according to the other the Deluge came because “all the fountains of the great deep” were broken up, and “the flood-gates of heaven were opened” (Gen. vii, ii).

The latter view suggests that the rain flood was joined by the waters of the sea. Later tradition, derived partly from Babylonian and partly from Hebrew sources, asserts, e.g., in the Cave of Treasures, a Syriac treatise composed probably at Edessa about the fifth or sixth century A.D., that when Noah had entered the Ark and the door was shut …

“… the floodgates of the heavens were opened it and the foundations of the earth were rent asunder,” and that “the ocean, that great sea which surroundeth the whole world, poured forth its floods. And whilst the floodgates of heaven were open, and the foundations of the earth were rent asunder, the storehouses of the winds burst their bolts, and storms and whirlwinds swept forth, and ocean roared and hurled its floods upon the earth.”

The ark was steered over the waters by an angel who acted as pilot, and when that had come to rest on the mountains of Kardô (Ararat),

“God commanded the waters and they became separated from each other. The celestial waters were taken up and ascended to their own place above the heavens whence they came. The waters which had risen up from the earth returned to the lowermost abyss, and those which belonged to the ocean returned to the innermost part thereof.”

Many authorities seeking to find a foundation of fact for the Legend of the Deluge in Mesopotamia have assumed that the rain-flood was accompanied either by an earthquake or a tidal-wave, or by both. There is no doubt that the cities of Lower Babylonia were nearer the sea in the Sumerian Period than they are at present, and it is a generally accepted view that the head of the Persian Gulf lay farther to the north at that time. A cyclone coupled with a tidal wave is a sufficient base for any of the forms of the Legend now known.

A comparison of the contents of the various Sumerian and Babylonian versions of the Deluge that have come down to us shows us that they are incomplete. And as none of them tells so connected and full a narrative of the prehistoric shipbuilder as Berosus, a priest of Bêl, the great god of Babylon, it seems that the Mesopotamian scribes were content to copy the Legend in an abbreviated form.”

E.A. Wallis Budge, The Babylonian Story of the Deluge and the Epic of Gilgamish1929, pp. 27-8.

The Fifty Names of Marduk

” … it is clear that a dispute broke out between Marduk and the gods after he had created them, and the tradition of it has made its way into the religious literatures of the Hebrews, Syrians, Arabs, Copts and Abyssinians.

The cuneiform texts tell us nothing about the cause of the dispute, but tradition generally ascribes it to the creation of man by the supreme God; and it is probable that all the apocryphal stories which describe the expulsion from heaven of the angels who contended against God under the leadership of Satan, or Satnael, or Iblîs, are derived from a Babylonian original which has not yet been found.

The “Fifty Names,” or laudatory epithets mentioned above, find parallels in Seventy-five Praises of Rā, sung by the Egyptians under the XIXth dynasty, 15 and in the Ninety-nine Beautiful Names of Allâh, which are held in such great esteem by the Muḥammadans. 16

The respect in which the Fifty Names were held by the Babylonians is well shown by the work of the Epilogue on the Seventh Tablet, where it is said, “Let them be held in remembrance, let the first-comer (i.e., any and every man) proclaim them; let the wise and the understanding consider them together. Let the father repeat them and teach them to his son. Let them be in the ears of the herdsman and the shepherd.”

The object of the writer of the Fifty Names was to show that Marduk was the “Lord of the gods,” that the power, qualities and attributes of every god were enshrined in him, and that they all were merely forms of him.

This fact is proved by the tablet (No. 47,406), 17 which contains a long list of gods who are equated with Marduk in his various forms. 18

The tendency in the later Babylonian religion to make Marduk the god above all gods has led many to think that monotheistic conceptions were already in existence among the Babylonians as early as the period of the First Dynasty, about 2000 B.C. It is indisputable that Marduk obtained his pre-eminence in the Babylonian Pantheon at this early period.

But some authorities deny the existence of monotheistic conceptions among the Babylonians at that time, and attribute Marduk’s kingship of the gods to the influence of the political situation of the time, when Babylon first became the capital of the country, and mistress of the greater part of the known world.

Material for deciding this question is wanting, but it may be safely said that whatever monotheistic conceptions existed at that time, their acceptance was confined entirely to the priests and scribes. They certainly find no expression in the popular religious texts.”

E.A. Wallis Budge, The Babylonian Legends of the Creation and the Fight Between Bel and the Dragon, 1921.


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

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down;

Yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.

We hanged our harps upon the willows….

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

Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen,

And is become the habitation of devils,

And the hold of every foul spirit,

And a cage of every unclean and hateful bird….

For her sins have reached unto heaven

And God hath remembered her iniquities….

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

For no man buyeth their merchandise any more.

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

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

shall be heard no more at all in thee;

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

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

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

For thy merchants were the great men of the earth;

For by thy sorceries were all nations deceived.

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

And of all that were slain upon the earth.

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

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

The Most Religious Nation of Antiquity

“Now the Egyptians believed that as the souls of the departed could assume the form of any living thing or plant, so the “gods,” who in many respects closely resembled them, could and did take upon themselves the forms of birds and beasts; this was the fundamental idea of the so-called “Egyptian animal worship,” which provoked the merriment of the cultured Greek, and drew down upon the Egyptians the ridicule and abuse of the early Christian writers.

But if the matter be examined closely its apparent stupidity disappears. The Egyptians paid honour to certain birds, and animals, and reptiles, because they considered that they possessed certain of the characteristics of the gods to whom they made them sacred.

The bull was a type of the strength and procreative power of the god of reproduction in nature, and the cow was the type of his female counterpart; every sacred animal and living thing possessed some quality or attribute which was ascribed to some god, and as each god was only a form of Râ, the quality or attribute ascribed to him was that of the Sun-god himself.

The educated Egyptian never worshipped an animal as an animal, but only as an incarnation of a god, and the reverence paid to animals in Egypt was in no way different from that paid to the king, who was regarded as “divine” and as an incarnation of Râ the Sun-god, who was the visible symbol of the Creator.

The relation of the king to Râ was identical with that of Râ to God. The Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans never understood the logical conception which underlay the reverence with which the Egyptians regarded certain animals, and as a result they grossly misrepresented their religion.

The ignorant people, no doubt, often mistook the symbol for what it symbolized, but it is wrong to say that the Egyptians worshipped animals in the ordinary sense of the word, and this fact cannot be too strongly insisted on.

Holding the views he did about transformations there was nothing absurd in the reverence which the Egyptian paid to animals. When a sacred animal died the god whom it represented sought out another animal of the same species in which to renew his incarnation, and the dead body of the animal, inasmuch as it had once been the dwelling-place of a god, was mummified and treated in much the same way as a human body after death, in order that it might enjoy immortality.

These views seem strange, no doubt, to us when judged by modern ideas, but they formed an integral part of the religious beliefs of the Egyptians, from the earliest to the latest times.

What is remarkable, however, is the fact that, in spite of invasions, and foreign wars, and internal dissensions, and external influences of all kinds, the Egyptians clung to their gods and the sometimes childish and illogical methods which they adopted in serving them with a conservatism and zeal which have earned for them the reputation of being at once the most religious and most superstitious nation of antiquity.

Whatever literary treasures may be brought to light in the future as the result of excavations in Egypt, it is most improbable that we shall ever receive from that country any ancient Egyptian work which can properly be classed among the literature of atheism or freethought; the Egyptian might be more or less religious according to his nature and temperament, but, judging, from the writings of his priests and teachers which are now in our hands, the man who was without religion and God in some form or other was most rare, if not unknown.”

E.A. Wallis Budge, Egyptian Magic, London, 1901. Pp. 232-4.

The Net of Manifestation

“Appropriate symbols of this state of understanding are the lattice, or net, indeed anything representing the concepts of linking, organisation, symmetry and complexity. Binah is also the Sephirah from which Maya issues, the net of manifestation that is ultimately illusion.

In the psyche, this relates to the archetypes that are “hard wired” into our brain so that we perceive the universe as we do. The transcending of this biological programming is part of the “crossing of the Abyss,” in a sense. Note that there is a scientific and philosophical argument which parallels the magical argument of whether such a feat is possible. The Magicians argue whether it is possible to cross the Abyss whilst alive (it is difficult to know where the disproof of this argument could be), whilst the scientific philosophers argue whether it is possible for a system to escape itself.”

“Another of the concepts associated with Binah is faith. The idea of faith is often taken to be merely a “strong belief,” but true faith is more than that. As defined by Paul, faith is “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11.1). Faith is that aspect of our psyche that “understands” aspects of the universe that cannot be translated into rational thought (i.e. Hod). and remain above the “Abyss.”

“Thus faith rests on transcendent experience, not on belief or hope–substance and evidence must be experienced first, and hence with faith “we understand [i.e. Binhah] that the worlds were framed by the word of God [i.e. Chockmah], so that things which are seen were made of things which do not appear” (Hebrews 11.3).

–Frater FP, The Magician’s Kabbalah, pp.  44.