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Eco: Esperanto


L.L. Zamenhof (1859-1917), creator of the IAL Esperanto. This photo from the Congressional Book of the 4th World Esperanto Congress in Dresden, 1908. 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. 

Esperanto was first proposed in 1887 in a book, written in Russian and published in Warsaw at the Kelter Press, entitled The International Language. Preface and Complete Manual (for Russians). The author’s name was Dr. Ledger Ludwik Zamenhof; yet he wrote the book under the pseudonym Dr. Esperanto (Dr. Hopeful), and this was soon adopted as the name of his language.

Zamenhof, born in 1859, had been fascinated with the idea of an international language since adolescence. When his uncle Josef asked him what was the non-Hebrew name he had, according to custom, chosen for his contacts with Gentiles, the seventeen year old Zamenhof replied that he had chosen Ludwik because he had found a reference to Lodwick (also spelled Lodowick) in a work by Comenius (letter of 31 March 1876; see Lamberti 1990: 49).

Zamenhof’s origins and personality helped shape both his conception of the new language and its eventual success. Born of a Jewish family in Bialystok, an area of Polish Lithuania then part of the Tsarist empire, Zamenhof passed his childhood in a crucible of races and languages continually shaken by nationalist ferment and lasting waves of anti-Semitism.

The experience of oppression, followed by the persecution of intellectuals, especially Jewish, at the hands of the Tsarist government, ensured that Zamenhof’s particular fascination with international languages would become mixed with a desire for peace between peoples.

Besides, although Zamenhof felt solidarity towards his fellow Jews and forecast their return to Palestine, his form of secular religiosity prevented him from fully supporting Zionist ideas; instead of thinking of the end of the Diaspora as a return to Hebrew, Zamenhof hoped that all the Jews could be, one day, reunited in an entirely new language.

In the same years in which, starting in the Slavic-speaking lands, Esperanto began its spread throughout Europe–while philanthropists, linguists and learned societies followed its progress with interest, devoting international conferences to the phenomenon–Zamenhof had also published an anonymous pamphlet, which extolled a doctrine of international brotherhood, homaranism.

Some of his followers successfully insisted on keeping the Esperanto movement independent of ideological commitments, arguing that if Esperanto were to succeed, it would do so only by attracting to its cause men and women of different religious, political and philosophical opinions.

They even sought to avoid any public reference to Zamenhof’s own Jewish origins, given that–it must be remembered–just at that historical moment there was growing up the theory of a great “Jewish conspiracy.”

Even so, despite the movement’s insistence on its absolute neutrality, the philanthropic impulse and the non-confessional religious spirit that animated it could not fail to influence the followers of the new language–or samideani, that is, participating in the same ideal.

In the years immediately following its emergence, moreover, the language and its supporters were almost banned by the Tsarist government, congenitally suspicious towards idealism of any sort, especially after Esperanto had had the fortune / misfortune to obtain the passionate support of Tolstoy, whose brand of humanist pacifism the government regarded as a dangerous form of revolutionary ideology.

Even the Nazis followed suit, persecuting Esperanto speakers in the various lands under their occupation (cf. Lins 1988). Persecution, however, only reinforces an idea: the majority of international languages represented themselves as nothing more than instruments of practical utility; Esperanto, by contrast, came increasingly to gather in its folds those religious and pacifist tensions which had been characteristics of many quests for a perfect language, at least until the end of the seventeenth century.

Esperanto came to enjoy the support and sympathy of many illustrious figures–linguists such as Baudoin de Courtenay and Otto Jespersen, scientists such as Peano, or philosophers such as Russell. Rudolf Carnap‘s comments are particularly revealing; in his Autobiography (in Schilpp 1963: 70) he described feeling moved by a sense of solidarity when he found himself able to converse with people of other countries in a common tongue.

He noted the quality of this living language which managed to unify a surprising degree of flexibility in its means of expression with a great structural simplicity. Simplest perhaps was the lapidary formulation of Antoine Meillet: “Toute discussion théoretique est vaine: l’Esperanto fonctionne” (Meillet 1918: 268).

Today the existence of the Universala Esperanto-Asocio in all of the principal cities of the world still testifies to the success of Zamenhof’s invention. Over one hundred periodicals are currently published in Esperanto, there is an original production of poetry and narrative, and most of the world literature has been translated into this language, from the Bible to the tales of Hans Christian Andersen.

Like Volapük, however, especially in the first decades, the Esperanto movement was nearly torn apart by battles raging over proposed lexical and grammatical reforms. In 1907, Couturat, as the founder and secretary of the Delégation pour l’adoption d’une langue auxiliaire internationale, attempted what Zamenhof considered a coup de main: he judged Esperanto to be the best IAL, but only in its approved version, that is, only in the version that had been reformed by the French Esperanto enthusiast, Louis De Beaufront, and renamed Ido.

The majority of the movement resisted the proposed modifications, according to a principle stated by Zamenhof: Esperanto might accept enrichments and lexical improvements, but it must always remain firmly attached to what we might call the “hard core” as set down by its founder in Fundamento de Esperanto (1905).

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 324-6.

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 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.

Babylonian Origins of Jewish Purim

We have already questioned whether the Scripture story of Esther is in some manner connected with the goddess Ishtar. Writing of the Jewish feast of Purim, Sir James Frazer says (Golden Bough, vol. iii, p. 153):

“ From the absence of all notice of Purim in the older books of the Bible, we may fairly conclude that the festival was instituted or imported at a comparatively late date among the Jews. The same conclusion is supported by the Book of Esther itself, which was manifestly written to explain the origin of the feast and to suggest motives for its observance.

For, according to the author of the book, the festival was established to commemorate the deliverance of the Jews from a great danger which threatened them in Persia under the reign of King Xerxes. Thus the opinion of modern scholars that the feast of Purim, as celebrated by the Jews, was of late date and Oriental origin, is borne out by the tradition of the Jews themselves.

An examination of that tradition and of the mode of celebrating the feast renders it probable that Purim is nothing but a more or less disguised form of the Babylonian festival of the Sacaea or Zakmuk. . . .

But further, when we examine the narrative which professes to account for the institution of Purim, we discover in it not only the strongest traces of Babylonian origin, but also certain singular analogies to those very features of the Sacaean festival with which we are here more immediately concerned.

The Book of Esther turns upon the fortunes of two men, the vizier Haman and the despised Jew Mordecai, at the court of a Persian king. Mordecai, we are told, had given mortal offence to the vizier, who accordingly prepares a tall gallows on which he hopes to see his enemy hanged, while he himself expects to receive the highest mark of the King’s favour by being allowed to wear the royal crown and the royal robes, and thus attired to parade the streets, mounted on the King’s own horse and attended by one of the noblest princes, who should proclaim to the multitude his temporary exaltation and glory.

But the artful intrigues of the wicked vizier miscarried and resulted in precisely the opposite of what he had hoped and expected; for the royal honours which he had looked for fell to his rival Mordecai, and he himself was hanged on the gallows which he had made ready for his foe.

In this story we seem to detect a reminiscence, more or less confused, of the Zoganes of the Sacaea, in other words, of the custom of investing a private man with the insignia of royalty for a few days, and then putting him to death on the gallows or the cross. . . .

“A strong confirmation of this view is furnished by a philological analysis of the names of the four personages. It seems to be now generally recognised by Biblical scholars that the name Mordecai, which has no meaning in Hebrew, is nothing but a slightly altered form of Marduk or Merodach, the name of the chief god of Babylon, whose great festival was the Zakmuk; and further, it is generally admitted that Esther in like manner is equivalent to Ishtar, the great Babylonian goddess whom the Greeks called Astarte, and who is more familiar to English readers as Ashtaroth.

The derivation of the names of Haman and Vashti is less certain, but some high authorities are disposed to accept the view of Jensen that Haman is identical with Humman or Homman, the national god of the Elamites, and that Vashti is in like manner an Elamite deity, probably a goddess whose name appears in inscriptions.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 140-2.

The Etymology of the Name “Moses”

“Josephos has preserved an extract from the Egyptian historian Manetho, which relates the Egyptian version of the story of the Exodus as it was told in the second century before our era. In this it is stated that the earlier name of Moses was Osarsiph, and that he had been priest of Heliopolis or On.

Here it is evident that Moses and Joseph have been confounded together. The name of Joseph, who married the daughter of the priest of On, has been decomposed into two elements, the first of which is the divine name Jeho, and this has been changed into its supposed Egyptian equivalent Osar or Osiris.

It is clear that, whatever might have been his opinion about the name of Joseph, Manetho had no doubt that that of Moses was purely Israelitish. It was not until he had become the Israelitish lawgiver and had ceased to be an Egyptian priest that Osarsiph took the name of Moses.

But Moses finds no satisfactory etymology in the pages of the Hebrew lexicon. It stands alone among Hebrew proper names, like Aaron and David. We do not hear of any other persons who have borne the name. If, therefore, it is Semitic, it must belong to an older stratum of Semitic nomenclature than that preserved to us in the Old Testament. We must look to other branches of the Semitic stock for its explanation.

There is only one other branch of the Semitic family whose records are earlier than those of the Hebrews. Arabic literature begins long after the Christian era, when Jewish and Greek and even Christian names and ideas had penetrated into the heart of the Arabian peninsula.

The Arabic language, moreover, belongs to a different division of the Semitic family of speech from that to which Hebrew belongs. To compare Arabic and Hebrew together is like comparing Latin with modern German. There is, however, one Semitic language which has the closest affinities to Hebrew, and this is also the language of which we possess records older than those of the Hebrew Scriptures. I need hardly say that I am referring to Assyrian.

Now the Assyrian equivalent of the Hebrew Mosheh, “Moses,” would be mâsu, and, as it happens, mâsu is a word which occurs not unfrequently in the inscriptions. It was a word of Accadian origin, but since the days of Sargon of Accad had made itself so thoroughly at home in the language of the Semitic Babylonians as to count henceforth as a genuinely Semitic term.

Mâsu signified as nearly as possible all that we mean by the word “hero.” As such, it was an epithet applied to more than one divinity; there was one god more especially for whom it became a name.

This god was the deity sometimes called Adar by Assyrian scholars, sometimes Nin-ip, but whose ordinary name among the Assyrians is still a matter of uncertainty. He was a form of the Sun-god, originally denoting the scorching sun of mid-day. He thus became invested with the sterner attributes of the great luminary of day, and was known to his worshippers as “the warrior of the gods.”

The title of Mâsu, however, was not confined to Adar. It was given also to another solar deity, Merodach, the tutelar god of Babylon and the antagonist of the dragon of chaos, and was shared by him with Nergal, whose special function it was to guard and defend the world of the dead.

But Nergal himself was but the sun of night, the solar deity, that is to say, after he had accomplished his daily work in the bright world above and had descended to illuminate for a time the world below.”

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. 45-7.

Nimrod, Abram, and Idolatry

“Many Jewish legends bring Abram into relationship with Nimrod, the mythical King of Babylon. According to legend Abram was originally an idolater, and many stories are preserved respecting his conversion. Jewish legend states that the Father of the Faithful originally followed his father Terah’s occupation, which was that of making and selling images of clay; and that, when very young, he advised his father

“to leave his pernicious trade of idolatry by which he imposed on the world.”

The Jewish Rabbins relate that on one occasion, his father Terah having undertaken a considerable journey, the sale of the images devolved on him, and it happened that a man who pretended to be a purchaser asked him how old he was.

“Fifty years,” answered the Patriarch.

“Wretch that thou art,” said the man, “for adoring at that age a thing which is only one day old!”

Abram was astonished; and the exclamation of the old man had such an effect upon him, that when a woman soon after brought some flour, as an offering to one of the idols, he took an axe and broke them to pieces, preserving only the largest one, into the hand of which he put the axe. Terah returned home and inquired what this havoc meant.

Abram replied that the deities had quarrelled about an offering which a woman had brought, upon which the larger one had seized an axe and destroyed the others. Terah replied that he must be in jest, as it was impossible that inanimate statues could so act; and Abram immediately retorted on his father his own words, showing him the absurdity of worshipping false deities. But Terah, who does not appear to have been convinced, delivered Abram to Nimrod, who then dwelt in the Plain of Shinar, where Babylon was built.

Nimrod, having in vain exhorted Abram to worship fire, ordered him to be thrown into a burning furnace, exclaiming—

“Let your God come and take you out.”

As soon as Haran, Abram’s youngest brother, saw the fate of the Patriarch, he resolved to conform to Nimrod’s religion; but when he saw his brother come out of the fire unhurt, he declared for the “God of Abram,” which caused him to be thrown in turn into the furnace, and he was consumed.

A certain writer, however, narrates a different version of Haran’s death. He says that he endeavoured to snatch Terah’s idols from the flames, into which they had been thrown by Abram, and was burnt to death in consequence.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 51-2.

Abrasax, the Invincible Name of Power

“The last class of documents undoubtedly contains a very large proportion of the magical ideas, beliefs, formulæ, etc., which were current in Egypt from the time of the Ptolemies to the end of the Roman Period, but from about B.C. 150 to A.D. 200 the papyri exhibit traces of the influence of Greek, Hebrew, and Syrian philosophers and magicians, and from a passage like the following (see Goodwin, Fragment of a Græco-Egyptian Work upon Magic, p. 7) we may get a proof of this:—

“I call thee, the headless one, that didst create earth and heaven, that didst create night and day, thee the creator of light and darkness. Thou art Osoronnophris, whom no man hath seen at any time; thou art Iabas, thou art Iapôs, thou hast distinguished the just and the unjust, thou didst make female and male, thou didst produce seeds and fruits, thou didst make men to love one another and to hate one another.”

“I am Moses thy prophet, to whom thou didst commit thy mysteries, the ceremonies of Israel; thou didst produce the moist and the dry and all manner of food.”

“Listen to me: I am an angel of Phapro Osoronnophris; this is thy true name, handed down to the prophets of Israel. Listen to me. (Here follow a number of names of which Reibet, Athelebersthe, Blatha, Abeu, Ebenphi, are examples) . . .”

In this passage the name Osoronnophris is clearly a corruption of the old Egyptian names of the great god of the dead “Ausar Unnefer,” and Phapro seems to represent the Egyptian Per-âa (literally, “great house”) or “Pharaoh,” with the article pa “the” prefixed.

It is interesting to note that Moses is mentioned, a fact which seems to indicate Jewish influence.

In another magical formula we read, (Goodwin, op. cit., p. 21) “I call upon thee that didst create the earth and bones, and all flesh and all spirit, that didst establish the sea and that shakest the heavens, that didst divide the light from the darkness, the great regulative mind, that disposest everything, eye of the world, spirit of spirits, god of gods, the lord of spirits, the immoveable Aeon, IAOOUÊI, hear my voice.”

“I call upon thee, the ruler of the gods, high-thundering Zeus, Zeus, king, Adonai, lord, Iaoouêe. I am he that invokes thee in the Syrian tongue, the great god, Zaalaêr, Iphphou, do thou not disregard the Hebrew appellation Ablanathanalb, Abrasilôa.”

“For I am Silthakhôoukh, Lailam, Blasalôth, Iaô, Ieô, Nebouth, Sabiothar, Bôth, Arbathiaô, Iaoth, Sabaôth, Patoure, Zagourê, Baroukh Adonai, Elôai, Iabraam, Barbarauô, Nau, Siph,” etc.

The spell ends with the statement that it “loosens chains, blinds, brings dreams, creates favour; it may be used in common for whatever purpose you will.”

In the above we notice at once the use of the seven vowels which form “a name wherein be contained all Names, and all Lights, and all Powers” (see Kenyon, Greek Papyri in the British Museum, London, 1893, p. 63). The seven vowels have, of course, reference to the three vowels “Iaô” (for Iaoouêi we should probably read Iaô ouêi) which were intended to represent one of the Hebrew names for Almighty God, “Jâh.”

The names “Adonai, Elôai,” are also derived through the Hebrew from the Bible, and Sabaôth is another well-known Hebrew word meaning “hosts”; some of the remaining names could be explained, if space permitted, by Hebrew and Syriac words.

On papyri and amulets the vowels are written in magical combinations in such a manner as to form triangles and other shapes; with them are often found the names of the seven archangels of God; the following are examples:–

 (British Museum, Gnostic gem, No. G. 33). (Kenyon, Greek Papyri, p. 123). (Ibid., p. 123. These names read Michael, Raphael, Gabriel, Souriel, Zaziel, Badakiel, and Suliel).

(British Museum, Gnostic gem, No. G. 33).
(Kenyon, Greek Papyri, p. 123).
(Ibid., p. 123. These names read Michael, Raphael, Gabriel, Souriel, Zaziel, Badakiel, and Suliel)

In combination with a number of signs which owe their origin to the Gnostics the seven vowels were sometimes engraved upon plaques, or written upon papyri, with the view of giving the possessor power over gods or demons or his fellow creatures.

The example printed below is found on a papyrus in the British Museum and accompanies a spell written for the purpose of overcoming the malice of enemies, and for giving security against alarms and nocturnal visions. (Kenyon, op. cit., P. 121).

Amulet inscribed with signs and letters of magical power for overcoming the malice of enemies. (From Brit. Mus., Greek Papyrus, Nu. CXXIV.--4th or 5th century.) (Kenyon, Greek Papyri, p. 123).

Amulet inscribed with signs and letters of magical power for overcoming the malice of enemies. (From Brit. Mus., Greek Papyrus, Nu. CXXIV.–4th or 5th century.) (Kenyon, Greek Papyri, p. 123).

But of all the names found upon Gnostic gems two, i.e., Khnoubis (or Khnoumis), and Abrasax (or Abraxas), are of the most frequent occurrence. The first is usually represented as a huge serpent having the head of a lion surrounded by seven or twelve rays.

Over the seven rays, one on the point of each, are the seven vowels of the Greek alphabet, which some suppose to refer to the seven heavens; and on the back of the amulet, on which the figure of Khnoumis occurs, is usually found the sign of the triple S and bar.

Khnoumis is, of course, a form of the ancient Egyptian god Khnemu, or “Fashioner” of man and beast, the god to whom many of the attributes of the Creator of the universe were ascribed.

Khnemu is, however, often depicted with the head of a ram, and in the later times, as the “beautiful ram of Râ,” he has four heads; in the Egyptian monuments he has at times the head of a hawk, but never that of a lion.

The god Abrasax is represented in a form which has a human body, the bead of a hawk or cock, and legs terminating in serpents; in one hand he holds a knife or dagger, and in the other a shield upon which is inscribed the great name ΙΑΩ {Greek IAW}, or JÂH.

Considerable difference of opinion exists as to the meaning and derivation of the name Abrasax, but there is no doubt that the god who bore it was a form of the Sun-god, and that he was intended to represent some aspect of the Creator of the world.

The name was believed to possess magical powers of the highest class, and Basileides, (he of Alexandria, who lived about A.D. 120. He was a disciple of Menander, and declared that he had received the esoteric doctrine of Saint Peter from Glaucias, a disciple of the Apostle) who gave it currency in the second century, seems to have regarded it as an invincible name.

It is probable, however, that its exact meaning was lost at an early date, and that it soon degenerated into a mere magical symbol, for it is often found inscribed on amulets side by side with scenes and figures with which, seemingly, it cannot have any connexion whatever.

Judging from certain Gnostic gems in the British Museum, Abrasax is to be identified with the polytheistic figure that stands in the upper part of the Metternich stele depicted on p. 153 and below.

Metternich Stele.

Metternich Stele.

This figure has two bodies, one being that of a man, and the other that of a bird; from these extend four wings, and from each of his knees projects a serpent.

He has two pairs of hands and arms; one pair is extended along the wings, each hand holding the symbols of “life,” “stability,” and “power,” and two knives and two serpents; the other pair is pendent, the right hand grasping the sign of life, and the other a sceptre.

His face is grotesque, and probably represents that of Bes, or the sun as an old man; on his head is a pylon-shaped object with figures of various animals, and above it a pair of horns which support eight knives and the figure of a god with raised hands and arms, which typifies “millions of years.”

The god stands upon an oval wherein are depicted figures of various “typhonic” animals, and from each side of his crown proceed several symbols of fire.

Whether in the Gnostic system Abraxas absorbed all the names and attributes of this god of many forms cannot be said with certainty.”

E.A. Wallis Budge, Egyptian Magic, London, 1901. P. 177-80.

The Ein Sof

“The concept of an infinite, perfect supreme being that cannot change, a concept absent from Jewish thought in antiquity, is dominant in both philosophy and kabbalah. This concept, which was expressed in the most powerful terms by Aristotelian thinkers when they discussed the primal cause or the unmoved mover, was accepted wholeheartedly by Jewish medieval thinkers. Kabbalistic terminology often used the term “ein sof,” no end, infinite, to designate this supreme entity.”

“The process of emanation that brought forth the system of the sefirot was the kabbalistic answer to the question, “How can anything different emerge from the unchanging and eternal divinity?”

“Many kabbalists insisted that the ein sof is not indicated by any biblical phrase, because its perfection and unchanging character put it beyond language, even divine language … The realm of ein sof in the kabbalah is therefore beyond language, beyond any kind of description, and essentially it is not different from the rationalistic designations of the infinite supreme eternal entity.”

“This and other such systems attempt to build a bridge between the timelessness of the ein sof and the sefirot, which exist in time … The most important aspect of ein sof in kabbalistic thought is as the ultimate source of the flow of the purest divine light (shefa) that constantly provides the power to exist in both divine and earthly realms. Emanation is not a one-time event, but an ongoing vital process that maintains the existence of all beings.

“The kabbalists differed from the neo-Platonists in the intense dynamism and mythological elements that they introduced into their system, especially in the lower realms of existence, and in their belief in the capacity of human deeds and behavior to influence processes in the divine world.”

As above, so below, and vice versa.

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, 2006, pp. 39-41.

Divine Language Influencing Reality

“The Christian kabbalists were most impressed by the Jewish nonsemantic treatment of language…the various names of God and the celestial powers were for them a new revelation. The various transmutations of the Hebrew alphabet, as well as the numerological methodologies, which are essentially midrashic rather than kabbalistic, became the center of their speculations. The Hebrew concept of language as an expression of infinite divine wisdom contrasted….with the Christian attitude towards scriptures.”

He then cites Cornelius Agrippa of Nettesheim, secretary to Emperor Charles V, and his De Occulta Philosophia (1531).

“The meeting with the Jewish conception of divine language enabled the Christian kabbalists to adopt the belief in the ability of language–especially names, and in particular divine names–to influence reality.”

He then cites, “Venetian scholar Francesco Giorgio (1460-1541), especially in his well-known De Harmonia Mundi (1525).”

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, pg. 64-6.

Swiss Army Kabbalah

Joseph Dan claims that kabbalah transformed from a uniquely Jewish religious tradition into a European concept, “integrated with Christian theology, philosophy, science and magic, at the end of the fifteenth century.”

He stresses that there is no unanimity about the definition of the term “kabbalah,” that it is used differently, to refer to different things, by Christian cabalists, Jewish orthodox thinkers and others. “The confusion is increased by the fact that there is no unanimity in the usage of the term either within Judaism or outside of it, so that various, different and conflicting conceptions of what the kabbalah is prevail in both cultures.”

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, pg. 61.

You Say Kabbalah, I Say Cabala

Christian kabbalah can be traced to the “school of Marsilio Ficino in Florence, in the second half of the fifteenth century.”

“Ficino is best known for his translations of Plato’s writings from Greek to Latin, but of much importance was his translation to Latin of the corpus of esoteric, mysterious old treatises known as the Hermetica. These works, probably originating from Egypt in late antiquity, are attributed to a mysterious ancient philosopher, Hermes Trismegistus (The Thrice-Great Hermes), and they deal with magic, astrology, and esoteric theology.”

Ficino and his followers considered magic as “an ancient scientific doctrine, the source of all religious and natural truth.”

Dan mentions Count Giovani Pico de la Mirandola, a “great thinker, young scholar and theologian, who died at age thirty-three in 1496.”

He also observes that Pico’s interest in Hebrew was facilitated by the Latin translations of the Jewish Christian convert, Flavius Methredates.”

Pico’s most famous work, the Nine Hundred Theses, proclaims that Christianity’s truth is best demonstrated by the disciplines of magic and kabbalah.” In Pico’s work, magic and kabbalah are often indistinguishable. He interpreted kabbalistic texts as “ancient esoteric lore, conserved by Jews, at the heart of which was the Christian message.”

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, pg. 62-3.

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