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Tag: Judaism

Eco: Postel’s Universalistic Utopia, 2


An unattributed and undated portrait of Guillaume Postel (1510-84), published by George Saliba. 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. 

“After various peregrinations, Postel found himself in Venice, where, in 1547, he was appointed chaplain of the Hospital of Sts. John and Paul (called the Ospedaletto), and censor of books published in the Hebrew language in that city.

While in the Ospedaletto, he was appointed confessor to its founder, the fifty year old Johanna, or Mother Zuana, a woman who had dedicated her life to helping the poor. Gradually, the conviction grew on Postel that in meeting Johanna, he had come into contact with a great prophetic spirit.

He conceived for her a mystic passion in which he saw her as the mother of the world, destined to redeem humanity from its original sin.

After rereading the kabbalist text, the Zohar, Postel identified Johanna as Shekinah as well as with the angelical pope whose coming had been foretold in the prophecies of Joachim a Fiore.

Finally, he identified her as the second Messiah. According to Postel, the feminine component of humanity, guilty of the sin of Eve, had not been saved by Christ. The salvation of the daughters of Eve would only occur with the coming of a second Messiah (on Postel’s “feminism” cf. Sottile 1984).

The question whether Johanna was truly a mystic with extraordinary capacities or whether these were just qualities that Postel projected into her is hardly an important issue for us.

What is important rather is that there was now established an intense spiritual communion: Johanna, the kabbala, universal peace, the last age foretold by Joachim, were all thrown into a single crucible; what emerged was Johanna in the role formerly held by Ignatius Loyola in Postel’s utopian schemes.

What is more, “Johanna’s “immaculate conception” produces her “little son,” Postel, the new Elias” (Kuntz 1981: 91).

Rumors of singular goings on at the Ospedaletto soon spread, however, and in 1549, Postel was forced to leave Venice. He resumed his wanderings in the Orient, returning to Venice the following year only to learn of the death of Johanna.

According to tradition, on hearing the news he fell into a state of prostration mixed with ecstasy in which he claimed to be able to stare into the sun for an hour. He felt the spirit of Johanna gradually invading his body (Kuntz: 1981: 104). He began to proclaim his belief in metempsychosis.

Postel next returned to Paris where, with great public acclaim, he resumed his teaching. Yet soon he was announcing the advent of the era of Restitution, a golden century under the sign of Johanna.

Once again, he found himself at the center of a philosophical and religious turmoil. When the king forced him to abandon teaching, he set off on a new journey through various cities, ending up again in Venice, arriving just in time to prevent his books from being placed on the Index.

He was questioned by the Inquisition, which tried to induce him to recant. In 1555, in recognition of his services to science and politics, he was declared “non malus sed amens,” not guilty but insane.

His life was spared, but he was imprisoned, first in Ravenna and afterwards in Rome.

At the request of the French religious authorities, Postel was later transferred to Paris, in 1564. He retired to the monastery of Saint-Martin-des-Champs where he lived until his death in 1587. During this period, he wrote a repudiation of his heretical doctrines concerning Mother Johanna.

Apart from this final capitulation, Postel seems to have been a relentless defender of ideas which, for this period, were quite unconventional. His particular vision of utopia must be regarded within the cultural context of his time.

Demonet (1992: 337ff) underlines that his idea of the “restitution” of Hebrew as the language of universal concord also required that infidels recognize their error and accept the Christian revelation.

None the less, as Kuntz notes (1981: 49), Postel was neither an orthodox Catholic nor an orthodox Protestant; his moderate and pacifist positions infuriated, in fact, extremists of both persuasions.

Some of his doctrines were theologically ambiguous: he claimed that Christianity was the only religion that verified the message of Judaism, but–at the same time–that to be a good Christian it was not necessary to belong to a sect (Catholic church included), but rather to feel the presence of the divine within.

It followed that a true Christian could, and even should, observe Jewish law, and that the Muslims could be considered half-Christians.

More than once, Postel condemned the persecution of the Jews. He spoke of the Jewishness of all men, talking of Christian-Jews instead of Jewish Christians (Kuntz 1981: 130).

He claimed that the true tradition of Christianity was Judaism with its name changed, and lamented that Christianity had lost its Judaic roots.

Such positions could only be seen as extremely provocative by a church still clinging to the pre-Renaissance doctrine that Christianity represented both the correction and the cancellation of Judaism.

In order to affirm, as Postel did in his De orbis, the existence of a harmony between the faiths, it was necessary to exercise a tolerance on a number of theological issues. Postel’s doctrine has thus been described as a universalistic theism (Radetti 1936).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 77-80.

Eco: The Arbor Scientarium

Ramon Llull, Liber de ascensu et decensu intellectus, 1304, first published 1512

Ramon Llull, Liber de ascensu et decensu intellectus, 1304, first published 1512. 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 Lullian art was destined to seduce later generations who imagined that they had found in it a mechanism to explore the numberless possible connections between dignities and principles, principles and questions, questions and virtues or vices.

Why not even construct a blasphemous combination stating that goodness implies an evil God, or eternity a different envy? Such a free and uncontrolled working of combinations and permutations would be able to produce any theology whatsoever.

Yet the principles of faith, and the belief in a well-ordered cosmos, demanded that such forms of combinatorial incontinence be kept repressed.

Lull’s logic is a logic of first, rather than second, intentions; that is, it is a logic of our immediate apprehension of things rather than of our conceptions of them. Lull repeats in various places that if metaphysics considers things as they exist outside our minds, and if logic treats them in their mental being, the art can treat them from both points of view.

Consequently, the art could lead to more secure conclusions than logic alone, “and for this reason the artist of this art can learn more in a month than a logician can in a year.” (Ars magna, X, 101).

What this audacious claim reveals, however, is that, contrary to what some later supposed, Lull’s art is not really a formal method.

The art must reflect the natural movement of reality; it is therefore based on a notion of truth that is neither defined in the terms of the art itself, nor derived from it logically. It must be a conception that simply reflects things as they actually are.

Lull was a realist, believing in the existence of universals outside the mind. Not only did he accept the real existence of genera and species, he believed in the objective existence of accidental forms as well.

Thus Lull could manipulate not only genera and species, but also virtues, vices and every other sort of differentia as well; at the same time, however, all those substances and accidents could not be freely combined because their connections were determined by a rigid hierarchy of beings (cf. Rossi 1960: 68).

In his Dissertatio de arte combinatoria of 1666, Leibniz wondered why Lull had limited himself to a restricted number of elements. In many of his works, Lull had, in truth, also proposed systems based on 10, 16, 12 or 20 elements, finally settling on 9. But the real question ought to be not why Lull fixed upon this or that number, but why the number of elements should be fixed at all.

In respect of Lull’s own intentions, however, the question is beside the point; Lull never considered his to be an art where the combination of the elements of expression was free rather than precisely bound in content.

Had it not been so, the art would not have appeared to Lull as a perfect language, capable of illustrating a divine reality which he assumed from the outset as self-evident and revealed.

The art was the instrument to convert the infidels, and Lull had devoted years to the study of the doctrines of the Jews and Arabs. In his Compendium artis demonstrativa (“De fine hujus libri“) Lull was quite explicit: he had borrowed his terms from the Arabs.

Lull was searching for a set of elementary and primary notions that Christians held in common with the infidels. This explains, incidentally, why the number of absolute principles is reduced to nine (the tenth principle, the missing letter A, being excluded from the system, as it represented perfection or divine unity).

One is tempted to see in Lull’s series the ten Sefirot of the kabbala, but Plazteck observes (1953-4: 583) that a similar list of dignities is to be found in the Koran. Yates (1960) identified the thought of John Scot Erigene as a direct source, but Lull might have discovered analogous lists in various other medieval Neo-Platonic texts–the commentaries of pseudo-Dionysius, the Augustinian tradition, or the medieval doctrine of the transcendental properties of being (cf. Eco 1956).

The elements of the art are nine (plus one) because Lull thought that the transcendental entities recognized by every monotheistic theology were ten.

Lull took these elementary principles and inserted them into a system which was already closed and defined, a system, in fact, which was rigidly hierarchical–the system of the Tree of Science.

To put this in other terms, according to the rules of Aristotelian logic, the syllogism “all flowers are vegetables, X is a flower, therefore X is a vegetable” is valid as a piece of formal reasoning independent of the actual nature of X.

For Lull, it mattered very much whether X was a rose or a horse. If X were a horse, the argument must be rejected, since it is not true that a horse is a vegetable. The example is perhaps a bit crude; nevertheless, it captures very well the idea of the great chain of being (cf. Lovejoy 1936) upon which Lull based his Arbor scientiae (1296).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 64-7.

Eco: Dante and Abulafia, 2


Bartolomeu Velho (d.1568), Figure of the Heavenly Bodies, an illuminated illustration of the Ptolemaic geocentric conception of the Universe, from Cosmographia, 1568. Held in the Bibliotèque Nationale de France, Paris. 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.  

“Yet could Dante have known the theories of Abulafia?

Abulafia visited Italy on several occasions: he was in Rome in 1260; he remained on the peninsula until 1271, when he returned to Barcelona; he returned to Rome in 1280 with the project of converting the pope.

He journeyed afterwards to Sicily, where we lose trace of him somewhere near the end of the 1290s. His ideas incontestably exercised an influence on contemporary Italian Jewish thought. We have a record of a debate in 1290 between Hillel of Verona (who had probably met Abulafia twenty years earlier) and Zerakhya of Barcelona, who arrived in Italy at the beginning of the 1270s (cf. Genot-Bismuth 1988: II).

Hillel, who had contacts in the world of Bologna intellectuals, had written to Zerakhya to ask him the question first posed by Herodotus: in what language would a child speak if it were brought up with no linguistic stimuli?

Hillel maintained that such a child would naturally speak Hebrew, because Hebrew was humanity’s original natural language. Hillel either did not know, or else disregarded, the fact that Abulafia was of a different opinion. Not so with Zerakhya.

He sarcastically remarked that Hillel had been taken in by the siren song of the “uncircumcised” of Bologna. The first sounds emitted by a child without linguistic education, he asserted, would resemble the barking of dogs. It was madness to maintain that the sacred language could be naturally bestowed on human beings.

Humanity possessed a linguistic potential, but it was a potential that could be activated only through education of the vocal organs. This, however, required instruction.

At this point, Zerakhya brought forward a proof that we shall find in a number of post-Renaissance Christian authors (for example, in the In Biblia polyglotta prolegomena by Walton in 1673, or the De sacra philosophia of 1652 by Vallesio): had there been the primordial gift of an original sacred language, then all human beings, regardless of their native tongue, would have the innate ability to speak it.

The existence of such a debate is enough to show, without needing to invent a meeting between Dante and Abulafia, that Abulafia’s ideas were subject to discussion in Italy, especially in the Bolognese intellectual circles which influenced Dante, and from which, according to Maria Corti, he absorbed his notion of the forma locutionis.

Nor does the Bologna debate constitute the only point of encounter between Dante and Jewish thought.

Genot-Bismuth has given us a vivid picture of the close of the thirteenth century in which we will later find a Yehuda Romano giving a series of lectures on the Divine Comedy for his co-religionists, a Lionello di Ser Daniele who did likewise using a Divine Comedy transliterated into Hebrew script, not to mention the surprising personage of Immanuel da Roma, who, in his own poetic compositions, seemed to launch an attack on Dante’s ideals almost aspiring to produce a sort of counter-Comedy in Hebrew.

Naturally this only establishes the influence of Dante on Italian Jewish culture, not the other way around. Yet Genot-Bismuth is able to show opposing influences as well, even to the point of suggesting that Dante’s theory of the four senses of scripture, found in his Epistula, XIII (cf. Eco 1985), had a Jewish origin.

Such a hypothesis may be too bold: there were any number of Christian sources from which Dante might have drawn this doctrine. What seems less daring, and, in fact, entirely plausible, is the suggestion that, in Bologna, Dante would have heard echoes of the debate between Hillel and Zerakhya.

One could say that in DVE he appears still close to the position of the former (or of his Christian inspirers, as Zerakhya reproaches him), while in Paradise he turns towards the positions of the latter, that is, the position of Abulafia (even though, when writing DVE, he already had the opportunity to know both theses).

However, it is not necessary to document direct links (even though Genot-Bismuth finds the presence of Jewish influences in certain passages of the De regimine principium of Giles of Rome), but rather to demonstrate the existence of a cultural climate in which ideas could circulate and within which a formal and informal debate between the church and the synagogue might ensue (cf. Calimani 1987: viii).

We should remember that, before the Renaissance, a Christian thinker would scarcely wish to admit publicly that he drew on Hebrew doctrine.

Like heretics, the Jewish community belonged to a category of outcasts that–as Le Goff shrewdly observes–the Middle Ages officially despised but at the same time admired; regarding them with an admixture of attraction and fear, keeping them at a distance, but making sure that the distance was fixed near enough so they would always remain close at hand.

“What was termed charity in their regard more resembled the game that cats play with mice” (Le Goff 1964:373).

Before the kabbala was rehabilitated by humanist culture, Christianity knew little of it. It was often simply regarded as a branch of the black arts. Even so, as Gorni has pointed out (1990: vii), in the Divine Comedy, Dante seems to share a great deal of knowledge about magic and divinatory practices (astrology, chiromancy, physiognomy, geomancy, pyromancy, hydromancy and, not least, the black arts of magic themselves).

In one way or another, Dante seems to have been informed about an excluded and underground culture in which, at least according to vulgar opinion, the kabbala somehow belonged.

In this way, it becomes ever more plausible that, even if it does not derive directly from the theories of the Modistae, Dante’s forma locutionis is not a language but the universal matrix for all language.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 49-52.

Eco: The Mother Tongue


The Hebrew alphabet. Compiled and posted by Assyrio on Wikipedia. The copyright holder releases this work into the public domain, granting anyone the right to use this work for any purpose without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.  

Humiliter dedicata a amico miles Georgius Hand IV, polyglottis et πολυμαθής.

“Despite this, Abulafia did not think that this matrix of all languages (which coincides with the eternal, but not with the written, Torah) corresponded yet to Hebrew. Here Abulafia made a distinction between the twenty-two letters as a linguistic matrix, and Hebrew as the mother tongue of humanity.

The twenty-two Hebrew letters represented the ideal sounds which had presided over the creation of the seventy existing languages. The fact that other languages had more vowels depended on the variations in pronouncing the twenty-two letters. In modern terminology, the new foreign sounds would be called allophones of the fundamental Hebrew phonemes.

Other kabbalists had observed that the Christians lacked the letter Kheth, while the Arabs lacked Peh. In the Renaissance, Yohanan Alemanno argued that the origins of these phonetic deviations in non-Hebrew languages were the noises of beasts; some were like the grunting of pigs, others were like the croaking of frogs, still others were like the sound of a crane.

The assimilation of bestial sounds showed that these were the languages of peoples who had abandoned the right path and true conduct of their lives. In this sense, another result of the confusion of Babel was the multiplication of letters.

Alemanno was aware that there were also other peoples who considered their languages as superior to all others. He cited Galen, who claimed that Greek was the most pleasing of all languages and the one that most conformed to the laws of reason.

Not daring to contradict him, he attributed this fact to affinities he saw as existing between Greek, Hebrew, Arabic and Assyrian.

For Abulafia, the twenty-two Hebrew letters represented the entire gamut of sounds naturally produced by the human vocal organs. It was the different ways of combining these letters that had given rise to the different languages.

The word zeruf (combination) and the word lashon (language) had the same numerical value (386): it followed that the rules of combination provided the explanation to the formation of each separate language.

Abulafia admitted that the decision to represent these sounds according to certain graphic signs was a matter of convention; it was, however, a convention established between God and the prophets.

Being aware that there existed other theories which claimed that the sounds which expressed ideas or things were conventional (he could have encountered such an Aristotelian and Stoic notion in Jewish authors like Maimonides), Abulafia, nevertheless, invoked a rather modern distinction between conventionality and arbitrariness.

Hebrew was a conventional but not an arbitrary language. Abulafia rejected the claim, maintained, among others, by certain Christian authors, that, left entirely to itself, a child would automatically begin to speak Hebrew: the child would be unaware of the convention.

Yet Hebrew remained the sacred mother tongue, because the names given by Adam, though conventional, were in accordance with nature. In this sense, Hebrew was the proto-language.

Its existence was a precondition for all the rest, “For if such a language did not precede it, there couldn’t have been mutual agreement to call a given object by a different name from what it was previously called, for how would the second person understand the second name if he doesn’t know the original name, in order to be able to agree to the changes.” (Sefer or ha-Sekhel; cf. Idel 1989: 14).

Abulafia lamented that his people in the course of their exile had forgotten their original language. He looked on the kabbalist as a laborer working to rediscover the original matrix of all the seventy languages of the world.

Still, he knew that it would not be until the coming of the Messiah that all the secrets of the kabbala would be definitively revealed. Only then, at the end of time, would all linguistic differences cease, and languages be reabsorbed back into the original sacred tongue.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 32-3.

Eco: Cosmic Permutability and the Kabbala of Names, 2

Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), The Bembine Table of Isis, Oedipus Aegypticiacus

Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), The Bembine Table of Isis, Oedipus Aegypticiacus, or Mensa Isiaca, N. Inv. C. 7155, Museo Egizio, photo by Fuzzypeg from Manly Palmer Hall, The Secret Teachings of All Ages (1928), all rights released. The Bembine Table was acquired by Cardinal Bembo after the sack of Rome in 1527, then purchased by the Savoy King Carlo Emanuele I in 1630 in Turin. A Roman interpretation of a bronze and silver altar table in an Egyptian style, early scholars surmised that the table pertained to an Isis cult. Kircher relied upon it for the third volume of his masterwork. It was ultimately determined to be an antique forgery, and not a work of ancient Egypt. This image is in the public domain. The author died over 70 years ago.   


“What justified  this process of textual dissolution was that, for Abulafia, each letter, each atomic element, already had a meaning of its own, independent of the meaning of the syntagms in which it occurred.

Each letter was already a divine name: “Since, in the letters of the Name, each letter is already a Name itself, know that Yod is a name, and YH is a name” (Perush Havdalah de-Rabbi ‘Akivà).

This practice of reading by permutation tended to produce ecstatic effects:

“And begin by combining this name, namely, YHWH, at the beginning alone, and examining all its combinations and move it, turn it about like a wheel, returning around, front and back, like a scroll, and do not let it rest, but when you see its matter strengthened because of the great motion, because of the fear of confusion of your imagination, and rolling about of your thoughts, and when you let it rest, return to it and ask [it] until there shall come to your hand a word of wisdom from it, do not abandon it.

Afterwards go on to the second one from it, Adonay, and ask of it its foundation [yesodo] and it will reveal to you its secret [sodo]. And then you will apprehend its matter in the truth of its language. Then join and combine the two of them [YHWH and Adonay] and study them and ask them, and they will reveal to you the secrets of wisdom . . .

Afterwards combine Elohim, and it will also grant you wisdom, and then combine the four of them, and find the miracles of the Perfect One [i.e. God], which are miracles of wisdom.” (Hayyê ha-Nefes, in Idel 1988c:21).

If we add that the recitation of the names was accompanied by special techniques of breathing, we begin to see how from recitation the adept might pass into ecstasy, and from ecstasy to the acquisition of magic powers; for the letters that the mystic combined were the same sounds with which God created the world.

This latter aspect came especially into prominence during the fifteenth century. For Yohanan Alemanno, friend and inspirer of Pico della Mirandola, “the symbolic cargo of language was transformed into a kind of quasi-mathematical command. Kabbalistic symbolism thus turned into–or perhaps returned to–a magical language of incantation” (Idel 1988b: 204-5).

For the ecstatic kabbala, language was a self-contained universe in which the structure of language represented the structure of reality itself. Already in the writings of Philo of Alexandria there had been an attempt to compare the intimate essence of the Torah with the Logos as the world of ideas.

Such Platonic conceptions had even penetrated into the Haggidic and Midrashic literature in which the Torah was conceived as providing the scheme according to which God created the world.

The eternal Torah was identified with wisdom and, in many passages, with the world of forms or universe of archetypes. In the thirteenth century, taking up a decidedly Averroist line, Abulafia equated the Torah with the active intellect, “the form of all the forms of separate intellects” (Sefer Mafteakh ha-Tokhahot).

In contrast, therefore, with the main philosophical tradition (from Aristotle to the Stoics and to the Middle Ages, as well as to Arab and Judaic philosophers), language, in the kabbala, did not represent the world merely by referring to it.

It did not, that is, stand to the world in the relation of signifier to signified or sign to its referent. If God created the world by uttering sounds or by combining written letters, it must follow that these semiotic elements were not representations of pre-existing things, but the very forms by which the elements of the universe are moulded.

The significance of this argument in our own story must be plain: the language of creation was perfect not because it merely happened to reflect the structure of the universe in some exemplary fashion; it created the universe.

Consequently it stands to the universe as the cast stands to the object cast from it.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 30-2.

Eco: The Kabbalistic Pansemioticism, 2

Ilan Sefirot - Kabbalistic Divinity map. Amsterdam, 18th century, NLI

Ilan Sefirot. Kabbalistic Divinity Map. Amsterdam, 18th century, NLI. 

“In Christian tradition, the four levels are excavated through a labour of interpretation which brings surplus meaning to the surface. Yet it is a labour performed without altering the expression-plane, that is, the surface of the text.

The commentator tries in many ways to correct scribal errors, so as to re-establish the only and original version according to the alleged intention of the original author. For some kabbalistic currents, by contrast, to read means to anatomize, as it were, the very expression-substance, by three fundamental techniques: notariqon, gematria and temurah.

Notariqon was the technique of using acrostics to cipher and decipher a hidden message. The initial (or final) letters of a series of words generate new words. Such a technique was already a familiar artifice in poetry during the late antique and Middle Ages, when it was used for magic purposes under the name of ars notoria.

Kabbalists typically used acrostics to discover mystic relations. Mosé de Leon, for example, took the initial letters of the four senses of scripture (Peshat, Remez, Derash and Sod) and formed out of them PRDS.

Since Hebrew is not vocalized, it was possible to read this as Pardes or Paradise. The initial letters of Moses’s question in Deuteronomy 30:12, “Who shall go up for us to heaven?,” as they appear in the Torah form MYLH, or “circumcision,” while the final letters give YHWH, Jahveh.

The answer is therefore: “the circumcised will go up to God.” Abulafia discovered that the final letters of MVH (“brain”) and LB (“heart”) recall the initial letters of two Sefirot, Hokmah (wisdom) and Binah (intelligence).

Gematria was based on the fact that, in Hebrew, numbers are indicated by letters; this means that each Hebrew word can be given a numerical value, calculated by summing the numbers represented by its letters.

This allows mystic relations to be established between words having different meanings through identical numerical values. It is these relations that the kabbalist seeks to discover and elucidate.

The serpent of Moses, for example, is a prefiguration of the Messiah because the value of both words is 358. Adding up the letters in YHWH, we get 72, and kabbalistic tradition constantly searched for the seventy-two names of God.

Temurah is the art of anagrams. In a language in which vowels must be interpolated, anagrams are more exciting than in other idioms. Mosé Cordovero wondered why there appeared in Deuteronomy a prohibition against wearing garments of mixed wool and linen.

He found the answer when he discovered that the letters of that passage could be recombined to produce another text which warned Adam not to take off his original garment of light and put on the skin of the serpent, which symbolized demonic power.

Abraham Abulafia (thirteenth century) systematically combined the letter Alef with each of the four letters of the tetragrammaton YHWH; then he vocalized each of the resulting units by every possible permutation of five vowels, thus obtaining four tables with fifty entries each.

Eleazar ben Yudah of Worms went on to vocalize every unit using twice each of the five vowels, and the total number of combinations increased geometrically (cf. Idel 1988b: 22-3).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 27-8.


Selz: The Dream of Gudea

“Whereas the giants sent Mahway to Enoch for an interpretation of their dreams, in earliest parallels from Mesopotamia the deities undertake this task:

(“Thereupon] all the giants [and monsters! grew afraid 15 and called Mahway to them and the giants pleaded with him and sent him to Enoch 16 [the noted scribe]” (Q II:). Translation taken from the Book of Giants edition of The Gnostic Society Library.)

Cylinders of the Sumerian ruler Gudea with cuneiform texts, now in the Louvre.  Dated to 2125 BCE, they recount the Building of Ningursu’s temple in Sumerian. The cylinders were made by Gudea, ruler of Lagash, and excavated in 1877 during digs by Ernest de Sarzec beneath the Eninnu temple complex at Telloh (ancient Girsu).  The complete name of the temple complex was “E-Ninnu-Imdugud-babbara,” meaning “House Ninnu, the Flashing Thunderbird,” a reference to a thunderbird in the second dream that compelled Gudea to build the temple.  They are now in the permanent collection of the Louvre Museum. They are the largest cuneiform cylinders to-date, and they contain the longest known text written in the Sumerian language.  Labelled cylinders A and B, the cuneiform was intended to be read with the cylinders in a horizontal position with a perforation in the middle for mounting.  The text has been translated by Jeremy Black, G. Cunningham, E. Robson and G. Zólyomi, available from The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, Oxford, 1998. Accession numbers MNB 1511 and MNB 1512.  Photo by Ramessos.  I, the copyright holder of this work, release this work into the public domain. This applies worldwide. In some countries this may not be legally possible; if so: I grant anyone the right to use this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.

Cuneiform cylinders of the Sumerian ruler Gudea. Dated to 2125 BCE, they recount the Building of Ningursu’s temple. Made by Gudea, ruler of Lagash, and excavated in 1877 during digs by Ernest de Sarzec beneath the Eninnu temple complex at Telloh (ancient Girsu), the complete name of the temple complex was “E-Ninnu-Imdugud-babbara,” meaning “House Ninnu, the Flashing Thunderbird,” a reference to a thunderbird in the second dream that compelled Gudea to build the temple.
Now in the permanent collection of the Louvre Museum, the pair are the largest cuneiform cylinders ever recovered, and they contain the longest known Sumerian text. Anomalous shards recovered on the same site indicate that a third cylinder did not survive the ravages of time. Labelled Cylinders A and B, the cuneiform was intended to be read with the cylinders in a horizontal position with a perforation in the middle for mounting.
The text has been translated by Jeremy Black, G. Cunningham, E. Robson and G. Zólyomi, available from The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, Oxford, 1998.
Accession numbers MNB 1511 and MNB 1512.
Photo by Ramessos.
I, the copyright holder of this work, release this work into the public domain. This applies worldwide.

The Sumerian ruler Gudea had difficulties to understand the precise meaning of his dream and addresses the goddess Nanshe, firstly describing his visions:

“(4:8) Nanshe, mighty queen, lustration priestess, protecting genius, cherished goddess of mine, . . . You are the interpreter of dreams among the gods, you are the queen of all the lands, O mother, my matter today is a dream.

There was someone in my dream, enormous as the skies, enormous as the earth was he.

That one was a god as regards his head, he was the Thunderbird as regards his wings, and a floodstorm as regards his lower body. There was a lion lying on both his left and right side . . . (but) I did not understand what (exactly) he intended. Daylight rose for me on the horizon.

(4:23) (Then) there was a woman—whoever she might have been—she (the goddess Nissaba[k]) held in her hand a stylus of shining metal, on her knees there was a tablet (with) stars of heaven, and she was consulting it.

(5:2) Furthermore, there was a warrior who bent (his) arm holding a lapis lazuli plate on which he was setting the ground-plan of a house. He set before me a brand-new basket, a brand-new brick-mould was adjusted and he let the auspicious brick be in the mould for me.”

(The translation from Cylinder A follows D.O. Edzard, ed., Gudea and his Dynasty (RIME 3:1, Toronto: University of Toronto Press,1997), pp. 71-2. Emphases are mine, G.J.S.).

Using much the same words the goddess explains the dream:

“(5:12) My shepherd, I will interpret your dream for you from beginning to end: The person who you said was as enormous as the skies, enormous as the earth, who was a god as regards his head, who, as you said, was the Thunderbird as regards his wings, and who, as you said, was a floodstorm as regards his lower parts, at whose left and right a lion was lying—he was in fact my brother Ningirsu-k; he talked to you about the building of his shrine Eninnu.

The daylight that had risen for you on the horizon—that was your (personal) god Ningishzida-k: like daylight he will be able to rise for you from there.

The young woman coming forward, who did something with sheaves, who was holding a stylus of shining metal, had on her knees a tablet (with) stars, which she was consulting was in fact my sister Nissaba-k—she announced to you the bright star (auguring) the building of the House.

Furthermore, as for the warrior who bent his arm holding a lapis lazuli plate—he was Ninduba: he was engraving thereon in all details the ground-plan of the House.”

Certainly, the setting of this dream is very different from those of the Enoch tradition. We note, however, that the dreams in the Book of Giants also show a clear connection with the scribal art, especially the “Tablets of Heavens,” to the dreams as a message of God and also to the flood.

Black stone amulet against plague.  A quotation from the Akkadian Epic of Erra.  BM 118998, British Museum, Room 55.  Registration: 1928,0116.1.  Photo by Fae. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. You are free: to share – to copy, distribute and transmit the work to remix – to adapt the work Under the following conditions: attribution – You must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work). share alike – If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under the same or similar license to this one.

Black stone amulet against plague.
A quotation from the Akkadian Epic of Erra.
BM 118998, British Museum, Room 55.
Registration: 1928,0116.1.
Photo by Fae.
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

The latter motif as found in the Book of Giants shows a clear connection to the story of the Erra Epic, where to Marduk’s horror, the deity of pestilence and destruction, Erra, decides to annihilate mankind and its foremost sanctuaries.

The reason for the annihilation of the world and the expression of a certain degree of hope looks very similar indeed. It is important to note that this text from the eight century BCE had a considerable audience as can be deduced from the over 35 tablets unearthed so far.

In many respects, the wording of the text and its attitude ask for elaborate comparison with the Jewish apocalyptical tradition, but this would be another article.”

(For an overview of Mesopotamian “apocalyptic motifs” see C. Wilcke, “Weltuntergang als Anfang: Theologische, anthropologische, politisch-historische und ästhetische Ebenen der Interpretation der Sintflutgeschichte im babylonischen Atram-hasīs-Epos,” in Weltende: Beiträge zur Kultur-und Religionswissenschaft (ed. A. Jones; Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1999), pp. 63-112.)

Gebhard J. Selz, “Of Heroes and Sages–Considerations of the Early Mesopotamian Background of Some Enochic Traditions,” in Armin Lange, et alThe Dead Sea Scrolls in Context, v. 2, Brill, 2011, pp. 797-9.

Selz: The Debate Over Mesopotamian Influence on Jewish Pre-History is 2000 Years Old

“The reports further continue with the famous account of the downfall of the Persian empire in the same year, after the battle at Gaugamela, north of Mosul (331 BCE).

“On the 11th of that month, panic occurred in the camp before the king. The Macedonians encamped in front of the king. On the 24th [1 October], in the morning, the king of the world [Alexander] erected his standard and attacked.

Opposite each other they fought and a heavy defeat of the troops of the king [Darius] he [Alexander] incited. The king [Darius], his troops deserted him and to their cities they went. They fled to the east.”

As I have learnt from the Swiss philosopher and historian of science, Gerd Graßhoff, these collections of data were systematically made in order to obtain knowledge about the possible connections of various events, and more specifically in order to get information of how one could interfere and prevent an otherwise probable future event.

The Fall of Babylon, John Martin, 1831 CE.,_the_fall_of_babyl.aspx John Martin (1789-1854 CE) first exhibited his painting The Fall of Babylon at the British Institution in 1819. He later supervised mezzotint reproductions, hence the date 1831 CE for this print.  Held by the British Museum.  This image is included under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license.

The Fall of Babylon, John Martin, 1831 CE.,_the_fall_of_babyl.aspx
John Martin (1789-1854 CE) first exhibited his painting The Fall of Babylon at the British Institution in 1819. He later supervised mezzotint reproductions, hence the date 1831 CE for this print.
Held by the British Museum.
This image is included under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license.

(I refer to Graßhoff, “Diffusion”; see also idem, “Babylonian Metrological Observations and the Empirical Basis of Ancient Science,” in The Empirical Dimension of Ancient Near Eastern Studies—Die empirische Dimension altorientalischer Forschungen (ed. G.J. Selz with the assistance of K. Wagensonner; Wiener Offene Orientalistik 6, Wien: Lit, 2011), pp. 25-40.)

The Astronomical Diaries are certainly a latecomer within the cuneiform tradition; there is, however no reason to postulate a fundamental change in the methodological attitude of Mesopotamian scholars, at least after the Old Babylonian period.

In comparison to our approaches, “there is no methodological difference for Babylonian scholarship compared to causal reasoning to obtain knowledge about causal regularities with causes indicated by signs. This counts for all sorts of domains of knowledge—from medical, over meteorological, economic to astronomical knowledge.”

(Graßhoff, “Diffusion.”)

Numerous articles and books deal with Enoch and “Enochic literature.” From the viewpoint of a cuneiform scholar, Helge Kvanvig’s book Roots of Apocalyptic: The Mesopotamian Background of the Enoch Figure and the Son of Man must be considered a major contribution.

The Babylonian surroundings of the forefathers of apocalyptic literature, Ezekiel and Deutero-Isaiah, led to the hypothesis that other apocalyptic texts may have their roots in the Babylonian exile.

Be that as it may, the great impact the Babylonian mantic and astronomical tradition had on the growing Hebrew apocalyptic texts remains beyond dispute.

(VanderKam, Enoch and the Growth, pp. 6-15; Robinson, “Origins,” pp. 38-51.)

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, The Earthly Paradise (Garden of Eden). Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516 CE) painted The Garden of Earthly Delights with oil on panel between 1480 and 1505 CE. This is the leftmost panel of three. It was acquired by the Museo del Prado, Madrid, in 1939. This work is in the public domain in the United States and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 100 years or less.

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, The Earthly Paradise (Garden of Eden).
Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516 CE) painted The Garden of Earthly Delights with oil on panel between 1480 and 1505 CE. This is the leftmost panel of three. It was acquired by the Museo del Prado, Madrid, in 1939.
This work is in the public domain in the United States and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 100 years or less.

Since the times of Flavius Josephus, the first century Jewish historian who also recorded the Roman destruction of the second temple on 4 August 70 CE, the relationship of the Jewish prehistory to the similar traditions of the neighbouring cultures became a pivotal point for all sorts of discussions.

While not very widely distributed initially, the Babyloniaca of Berossos gained increasing influence on the picture of the earlier Mesopotamian history in antiquity, despite the fact that the primary source for all Hellenistic scholarship remained Ctesias of Cnidos (in Caria) from the fifth century BCE.

The interest in Berossos’ work was mainly provoked by his account of Babylonian astronomy, and, in the Christian era, by his record of the Babylonian flood lore.

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, 1480-1505 CE, the complete triptych. It is in the collection of the Museo del Prado, Madrid. This work is in the public domain in the United States and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 100 years or less.

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, 1480-1505 CE, the complete triptych.
It is in the collection of the Museo del Prado, Madrid.
This work is in the public domain in the United States and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 100 years or less.

(A Hellenistic priest from Babylon, living during Alexander’s reign over the capital (330-323 BCE), that is less than 200 years before the alleged earliest Qumran manuscripts!)

His report of the ten antediluvian kings was paralleled apologetically to traditions from the Hebrew Bible. In this way Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea (circa 260-340 BCE), used the Babyloniaca in order to harmonize the biblical and the pagan traditions, whereas Flavius Josephus used it for Jewish apologetics.

Therefore, the controversial debate over the reliability of biblical stories about the patriarchs and their relation to the mytho-historical accounts of Mesopotamian prehistory have persisted for two millennia.”

Gebhard J. Selz, “Of Heroes and Sages–Considerations of the Early Mesopotamian Background of Some Enochic Traditions,” in Armin Lange, et alThe Dead Sea Scrolls in Context, v. 2, Brill, 2011, pp. 787-9.

Selz: On the Astronomical Diaries of Babylon

“I cannot discuss here the philological evidence that anchors the biblical tradition in the historical charts. This is a different, albeit very important field which may support my arguments: I just mention one recent example: Jeremiah 39:3 may go back to an eye witness’s account of Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest of Jerusalem in 589 BCE.

Tablet VAT 4956 in the Berlin Museum details the positions of the moon and the planets during the year 37 of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, 567 BCE. This tablet is famous for confirming the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE.

Tablet VAT 4956 in the Berlin Museum details the positions of the moon and the planets during the year 37 of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, 567 BCE. This tablet is famous for confirming the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE.

This is indicated by my colleague Michael Jursa’s identification of the chief-eunuch Nabu-sharrussu-ukin, the biblical נכו שרםכים רכםרים or Nebu-Sarsekim, in an economic document from the sun-god temple in Sippar, dated to the “Month XI, day 18, year 10 Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon.”

(M. Jursa, Nabû-šarrūssu-ukīn, rab ša-rēši, und ‘Nebusarsekim’ (Jeremiah 39:3),” NABU 5 (2008). Jursa’s translation of the document runs as follows:

“Regarding] 1.5 minas (0.75 kg) of gold, the property of Nabû-šarrūssu-ukīn, the chief eunuch, which he sent via Arad-Bānītu the eunuch to [the temple] Esangila: Arad-Bānītu has delivered [it] to Esangila.

In the presence of Bēl-usāti, son of Alpāya, the royal bodyguard, [and of] Nādin, son of Marduk-zēru-ibni. Month XI, day 18, year 10  [of] Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon.”

We may note here that the evaluation of this document provoked a broad discussion in scholarly literature and in the Internet.)

The Babylonian exile had a major impact on the development of Judaism, possibly even on the moulding of the apocalyptic traditions.

(Jeremiah 39:3 gives account of Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest of Jerusalem and his victory over the Judean King Zedekiah: The passage reports that all of the officers of the king of Babylon made their entry, and occupied the middle gate.)

(Kvanvig, Roots, writes: “The emergence of the apocalyptic traditions and literature presupposes both a direct contact with Mesopotamian culture in the Babylonian diaspora, and the syncretistic tendencies in Palestine in the post-exilic centuries.” See also Sarah Robinson, “The Origins of Jewish Apocalyptic Literature: Prophecy, Babylon, and 1 Enoch,” MS Thesis, University of South Florida, 2005.)

The background of this “knowledge transfer,” however, is the scholarly situation as just described. I say this not to deny the contribution of mere story-telling and fantastic lore to the growth of the corpus of apocalyptic literature, but we cannot neglect the scholarly and even empirical background of the underlying world-view.

Indeed, this may provide the best explanation for why so many different topics and stylistic features are fused in the extant Enochic traditions.

The Venus Tablet of Ammisaduqa, which is tablet 63 in the Enuma Anu Enlil sequence, preserves the astronomical observations of Venus during the 1st Millennium BCE. This tablet is dated back to the mid-7th Century BCE, during the reign of King Ammisaduqa.

The Venus Tablet of Ammisaduqa, which is tablet 63 in the Enuma Anu Enlil sequence, preserves the astronomical observations of Venus during the 1st Millennium BCE.
This tablet is dated back to the mid-7th Century BCE, during the reign of King Ammisaduqa.

What concerns us here is the heuristic attitude of Mesopotamian scholarship. Even in the late Seleucid period this scholarship remains basically “holistic” or “monistic” in the way that it links all sorts of empiricism, as may be demonstrated with examples from the famous “Astronomical Diaries.”

(We follow here the unpublished manuscript of G. Graßhoff, “The Diffusion of Knowledge: From Babylonian Regularities to Science in the Antiquity” (paper presented at the 97th Dahlem Workshop on Globalization of Knowledge and its Consequences at the Dahlem Konferenzen, Berlin, 18-23 November 2007).

In the fifth year of Darius III (331 BCE) we find a series of astronomical observations:

“Day 13 [20 September]: Sunset to moonrise 8. There was a lunar eclipse. Its totality was covered at the moment when Jupiter set and Saturn rose. During totality the west wind blew, during clearing the east wind. During the eclipse, deaths and plague occurred.

Day 14: All day clouds were in the sky …”

The reports then continue with observations from the “Burse of Babylon”; commodity prizes are given together with the positions of the planets in the zodiacal signs.

“That month, the equivalent for 1 shekel of silver was: barley . . . at that time, Jupiter was in Scorpio; Venus was in Leo, at the end of the month in Virgo; Saturn was in Pisces; Mercury and Mars, which had set, were not visible.”

The reports further continue with the famous account of the downfall of the Persian empire in the same year, after the battle at Gaugamela, north of Mosul (331 BCE).”

(H. Hunger, ed., Astronomical Diaries and Related Texts from Babylonia, vol. 2: Diaries from 261 BCE to 165 BCE (Denkschriften der philosophisch-historischen Klasse 210; Wien: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1989), pp. 175-6.)

Gebhard J. Selz, “Of Heroes and Sages–Considerations of the Early Mesopotamian Background of Some Enochic Traditions,” in Armin Lange, et alThe Dead Sea Scrolls in Context, v. 2, Brill, 2011, pp. 786-7.

Selz: Enoch Derives from 3d Millennium BCE Mesopotamia

” … [He who saw the deep, the] foundation of the country, who knew [the secrets], was wise in everything! …

he saw the secret and uncovered the hidden,

he brought back a message from the antediluvian age.”

From the introduction to the Gilgamesh Epic, A.R. George, The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic: Introduction, Critical Edition and Cuneiform Texts (2 vols.; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 1:539.

“The general framework of the “Mesopotamian Background of the Enoch Figure” is quite well established.

Since the initial comparison of Berossos’ account of Mesopotamian antediluvian kings and heroes to the biblical patriarchs a vast literature has evolved that discusses the possible transfer and adaptation of such Mesopotamian topics as ascent to heaven, the flood story, primeval wisdom, dream-vision, divination and astronomy.

I argue in this paper that the respective traditions reach back to a third millennium “origin.”

Enoch, described in Genesis 5:22-25 as great-grandson of Adam, father of Methuselah and great-grand-father of Noah, lived 365 years and “he walked with God: and he was not, for God took him.”

William Blake, Enoch, lithograph, 1807 (four known copies). William Blake's only known lithograph illustrating Genesis 5:24,

William Blake, Enoch, lithograph, 1807 (four known copies).
William Blake’s only known lithograph illustrating Genesis 5:24, “Enoch walked with God; then was no more, because God took him away.”
This work is in the public domain in the United States, and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 100 years or less.

Enoch became a central figure in early Jewish mystical speculations; Enoch, or the Ethiopic Enoch, is one of the earliest non-biblical texts from the Second Temple period and, at least in part, was originally written in Aramaic as demonstrated by the fragments found among the Dead Sea Scrolls.

(See H.S. Kvanvig, Roots of Apocalyptic: The Mesopotamian Background of the Enoch Figure and the Son of Man (WMANT 61, Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchner, 1988), p. 35: “Astronomy, cosmology, mythical geography, divination . . . are subjects which in a Jewish setting appear for the first time in the Enochic sources, at least in a so extensive form.”)

(J.C. VanderKam, An Introduction to Early Judaism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), pp. 88-94; see also J.J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature (New York: Crossroad, 1992), esp. the chapter on “The Early Enoch Literature,”pp. 43-84.)

(On 1 Enoch see J.T. Milik, The Books of Enoch: Aramaic Fragments of Qumrân Cave 4 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1976) and cf. the review by J.C. Greenfield and M.E. Stone, “The Books of Enoch and the Traditions of Enoch,” Numen 26 (1979): pp. 89-103.

A modern translation of the text is now published by G.W.E. Nickelsburg and J.C. VanderKam, Enoch: A New Translation (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2004).

For the religious-historical framework of the book see J.C. VanderKam and P. Flint, The Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls: Their Significance for Understanding the Bible, Judaism, Jesus, and Christianity (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2002); cf. also VanderKam, Introduction.

William Blake, Jacob's Dream, c. 1805 AD. Currently held at the British Museum, London. Commissioned and acquired from William Blake by Thomas Butts. Also available at the William Blake Archive. This work is in the public domain in the United States, and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 100 years or less.

William Blake, Jacob’s Dream, c. 1805 CE. Currently held at the British Museum, London. Commissioned and acquired from William Blake by Thomas Butts.
Also available at the William Blake Archive.
This work is in the public domain in the United States, and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 100 years or less.

A thorough study of the Enochic literature should, of course, also take into consideration the many references to Enoch in the so-called apocryphal literature. There are presently two recommendable translations: OTP and AOT.)

They prove that the Astronomical Enoch and the Book of the Watchers are among the earliest texts collected in Enoch.

Enoch belongs to the Old Slavonic biblical tradition—a tradition that is still very much alive in the popular religion of the Balkans.

(At the time when I finished this article I was not yet able to check The Old Testament Apocrypha in the Slavonic Tradition: Continuity and Diversity (ed. L. DiTommaso and C. Böttrich with the assistance of M. Swoboda; TSAJ 140; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, forthcoming 2011).

Indeed, as F. Badalanova Geller was able to demonstrate, there is an oral tradition still alive in contemporary Bulgaria, incorporating various pieces from the Jewish and apocryphal traditions, which has also considerable impact on orthodox iconography.

(F. Badalanova Geller, “Cultural Transfer and Text Transmission: The Case of the Enoch Apocryphic Tradition” (lecture delivered at the Conference “Multilingualism in Central Asia, Near and Middle East from Antiquity to Early Modern Times” at the Center for Studies in Asian Cultures and Social Anthropology at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, Vienna, 2 March 2010). I wish to express my gratitude to Dr. Badalanova Geller for fruitful discussions and additional references.)

She further calls the underlying (oral) stories “the Epic of Enoch,” arguing methodologically along the lines of V. Propp’s Morphology of the Folk Tale.

(V. Propp, Morphology of the Folk Tale (trans. L. Scott; 2nd ed.; Austin: University of Texas Press, 1968).

This “epic” was certainly also related to the tradition of the kabbalistic-rabbinic Enoch which, like other hermetic literature, describes Enoch as Metatron, featuring him as the “Great Scribe” (safra rabba: Tg. Yer.).

(Tg. Yer. to Genesis 5:24; see also b. Hag. 15a; see further A.A. Orlov, The Enoch-Metatron Tradition (TSAJ 107; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2005), pp. 50-9, esp. 51.)

It cannot be the purpose of this paper to take the entire Enochic tradition into consideration; the references to Enoch are manifold in the so-called apocryphal tradition.

(Concerning the book of Jubilees, Kvanvig, Roots, p. 146, writes e.g.: “Jubilees deals with a tradition about the origin of Babylonian science. This science was revealed to men in primordial time. The revelators were angels who descended from heaven and acted as sages among men. Enoch as the first sage is found in Pseudo-Eupolemus.”)

We only mention here that “the instructor” Enoch, Idris in Arabic, is attested in the Qur’an (19:56–57; 21:85–86) as a prophet, and that in Muslim lore, like in Judaism, he is also connected with the invention of astronomy.

We may further mention persisting traditions in Classical Antiquity, especially Claudius Aelianus, who mentions the miraculous birth of Gilgamesh.”

(Claudius Aelianus, De Natura Animalium 12.21: “At any rate an Eagle fostered a baby. And I want to tell the whole story, so that I may have evidence of my proposition. When Seuechoros was king of Babylon the Chaldeans foretold that the son born of his daughter would wrest the kingdom from his grandfather.

Frontispiece of Claudius Aelianus, dated 1556. Born circa 175 CE and died circa 235 CE, he was born at Praeneste. A Roman author and teacher of rhetoric, his two chief works are cherished for their quotations from earlier authors, whose works are lost to history. He wrote De Natura Animalium and Varia Historia, though significant fragments of other works, On Providence and Divine Manifestations, are also preserved in the early medieval encyclopedia, The Suda.

Frontispiece of Claudius Aelianus, dated 1556 CE. Born circa 175 CE and died circa 235 CE, he was born at Praeneste. A Roman author and teacher of rhetoric, his two chief works are cherished for their quotations from earlier authors, whose works are lost to history. He wrote De Natura Animalium and Varia Historia, though significant fragments of other works, On Providence and Divine Manifestations, are also preserved in the early medieval encyclopedia, The Suda.

This made him afraid and (if I may be allowed the small jest) he played Acrisius to his daughter: he put the strictest of watches upon her. For all that, since fate was cleverer than the king of Babylon, the girl became a mother, being pregnant by some obscure man.

So the guards from fear of the king hurled the infant from the citadel, for that was where the aforesaid girl was imprisoned. Now an Eagle which saw with its piercing eye the child while still falling, before it was dashed on the earth, flew beneath it, flung its back under it, and conveyed it to some garden and set it down with the utmost care.

But when the keeper of the place saw the pretty baby he fell in love with it and nursed it; and it was called Gilgamos and became king of Babylon.”)

(Claudius Aelianus, On the Characteristics of Animals [trans. A.F. Schofield; 3 vols.; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958-1959], 3:39–41). We may further note that in the subsequent text Aelianus explicitly refers to Achaemenes, the legendary founder of the first Persian dynasty, who is also said “to be raised by an eagle.”)

Gebhard J. Selz, “Of Heroes and Sages–Considerations of the Early Mesopotamian Background of Some Enochic Traditions,” in Armin Lange, et alThe Dead Sea Scrolls in Context, v. 2, Brill, 2011, pp. 779-781.

Melvin: Divine or Semi-Divine Intermediaries

The Divine Source of Civilization in Mesopotamian Myths

“The motif of the divine origin of civilization is common in the ancient Near East, especially in Mesopotamia, and it stands in stark contrast to the portrayal of the rise of civilization in Genesis 1– 11.

(Although many of my observations with regard to the view of the rise of civilization presented in Mesopotamian mythology could also be made within the mythic traditions of other ancient cultures (e.g., Egypt, Greece, Canaan), Bernard Batto notes, “[f]or reasons not entirely clear to us the opening chapters of Genesis are typologically and content-wise more akin to the mythic traditions of Mesopotamia than of territorially closer Canaan—the reverse of the normal situation in the Hebrew Bible.”

(Bernard Batto, “Creation Theology in Genesis,” R. J. Clifford and J. J. Collins [eds.], Creation in the Biblical Traditions [CBQMS, 24; Washington, D.C.: The Catholic Biblical Association of America, 1992], 16).

For this reason, as well as the general consensus that the compilation of Genesis 1–11 occurred in the exilic or early post-exilic period, in large measure as a polemic against the Babylonian cosmological worldview in which the Jewish community found itself immersed, I have limited my comparisons of the biblical material to a number of Mesopotamian myths.)

In a number of mythological texts, civilization is portrayed as a gift bestowed upon humanity by the gods, and human advancement is generally a positive development. Often the arts of civilization come to humanity through divine or semi-divine intermediaries, such as the apkallus or heroes who are either semi-divine (e.g., Gilgamesh) or divinized humans (e.g., Lugalbanda, Utnapishtim).

This depiction of a fish-apkallū of the purādu-fish type guarded the entrance to the temple of Ninurta at Nimrud.  A fish's head can be seen on the Apkallu's head, and its skin hangs down over the back of his body.  It is important to recall that the so-called Seven Sages of Sumeria were apkallū of this type. Neo-Assyrian era, 865-860 BCE.  From the Temple of Ninurta, Nimrud (ancient Kalhu; Biblical Calah), northern Mesopotamia, Iraq. (The British Museum, London). Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP (Glasg)

This depiction of a fish-apkallū of the purādu-fish type guarded the entrance to the temple of Ninurta at Nimrud.
A fish’s head can be seen on the Apkallu’s head, and its skin hangs down over the back of his body.
It is important to recall that the so-called Seven Sages of Sumeria were apkallū of this type.
Neo-Assyrian era, 865-860 BCE.
From the Temple of Ninurta, Nimrud (ancient Kalhu; Biblical Calah), northern Mesopotamia, Iraq. (The British Museum, London).
Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP (Glasg)

According to the apkallu tradition, which comes to us from a wide array of sources ranging from the bilingual (Sumerian-Akkadian), “Etiological Myth of the Seven Sages” in the Bīt Mēseri 􏰀􏰁􏰂􏰃􏰄􏰅􏰆􏰇􏰈texts to the much later writings of Berossus (4th century BCE) and the Uruk Sage List (c. 165 BCE), as well as the Adapa myth and the epic myth􏰔􏰈􏰈􏰎􏰃􏰎􏰋􏰐􏰃􏰓􏰆 Erra and Ishum, semi-divine beings sent by Enki / Ea instructed antediluvian humans in the arts of civilization. The apkallus were teachers of early humanity whom Ea had endowed with “broad understanding” (uzna rapašta).

(Erica Reiner, “The Etiological Myth of the ‘Seven Sages,’” Orientalia 30 (1960), 4. See also Alan Lenzi, Secrecy and the Gods: Secret Knowledge in Ancient Mesopotamia and Biblical Israel (SAAS, 19; Helsinki: The Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project, 2008), 106–20. A similar description of the apkallus appears in the myth Erra and Ishum (COS 1.113:408).

(See the detailed description of the apkallus in Jean Bottéro, Mesopotamia: Writing, Reasoning, and the Gods (trans. Zainab Bahrani and Marc Van De Mieroop; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 246–49. For a discussion of the Uruk Sage List, see Lenzi, Secrecy and the Gods, 106–09.)

(See Helge S. Kvanvig, Roots of Apocalyptic: The Mesopotamian Background of the Enoch Figure and the Son of Man (WMANT, 61; Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag), 295–318; Paul D. Hanson, “Rebellion in Heaven, Azazel, and Euhemeristic Heroes in 1 Enoch 6–11,” JBL 96 (1977), 226– 29.)

According to Berossus, they taught the people of Sumer “writing, science, and technology of all types, the foundation of cities, the building of temples, jurisprudence and geometry,” as well as such necessities as agriculture. In lists, they usually appear paired with the king whom they purportedly advised as a sort of vizier.”

David P. Melvin, “Divine Mediation and the Rise of Civilization in Mesopotamian Literature and in Genesis 1-11,” Journal of Hebrew Scriptures, 2010, pp. 3-4.

Kvanvig: Introducing Ahiqar

“The figures in the next list of ten are generally designated ummanu, which is the common designation for a scholar of high reputation. There are one or perhaps two exceptions.

The first figure of the second list, Nungalpiriggal, is designated apkallu. This might be a reflection of a tradition, since this figure is also designated apkallu in Bīt Mēseri.

The second case is trickier. I.L. Finkel claims to see the Sumerian signs, equivalent to Akkadian apkallu, also connected to Sinliqunninni, the next figure, who operated during the reign of Gilgamesh.

It might be that this is also a reflection of tradition, since the next two figures in Bīt Mēseri are designated apkallu as well. The reason for this inconsistency could be that there existed a tradition where the number seven was fixed to the apkallus, while the different authors could not deny that there had been other apkallus beside these.

Library of Ashurbanipal / The Flood Tablet / The Gilgamesh Tablet<br /> Date 15 July 2010<br /> Current location: British Museum wikidata:Q6373<br /> Source/Photographer Fæ (Own work)<br /> Other versions File:British Museum Flood Tablet 1.jpg<br /> British Museum reference K.3375<br /> Detailed description:<br /> Part of a clay tablet, upper right corner, 2 columns of inscription on either side, 49 and 51 lines + 45 and 49 lines, Neo-Assyrian, Epic of Gilgamesh, tablet 11, story of the Flood. ~ Description extract from BM record.<br /> Location Room 55

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Library of Ashurbanipal / The Flood Tablet / The Gilgamesh Tablet
Date 15 July 2010
Current location: British Museum wikidata:Q6373
Source/Photographer Fæ (Own work)
Other versions File:British Museum Flood Tablet 1.jpg
British Museum reference K.3375
Detailed description:
Part of a clay tablet, upper right corner, 2 columns of inscription on either side, 49 and 51 lines + 45 and 49 lines, Neo-Assyrian, Epic of Gilgamesh, tablet 11, story of the Flood. ~ Description extract from BM record.
Location Room 55

Sinliqunninni is a famous scholar; in the Catalogue of Texts and Authors he is listed as the author of the Epic of Gilgamesh (VI, 10).

(Cf. W.G. Lambert, “A Catalogue of Texts and Authors,” JCS 16 (1962): 59-77, 67.)

The names of most postdiluvian scholars are well-known from incipits, colophons, and in the Catalogue of Texts and Authors. They are regarded as famous scholars responsible for “scientific” works.

The name of the first, however, Nungalpiriggal, seems to be pure fiction. Previously the sign pirig was understood as a word for “lion,” thus indicating the figure’s monstrous appearance. In a commentary to diagnostic omens, however, the sign is explained as Akkadian nūru, “light.” The name would thus mean “great prince, great light.”

The figure at the tenth place in the Uruk text is of special significance. Therefore the text devotes a special commentary to him: at the time of the king Aššurahiddina, Aba’enlidari was ummânū, [šá lū] ah-la-MI-muú i-qab-bu-ú a-hu-‘u-qa-a-ri, “whom the Arameans call Ahiqar” (rev. line 20).

Aba’enlidari is known as the ancestor of the wisdom tradition in Nippur. In the Uruk tablet he is made the same person as one of Sennacherib’s counselors. The author of the Uruk tablet obviously knew that there existed Aramaic traditions about a great wise man at Sennacherib’s court and made the connection to Aba’enlidari.

A novel about Ahiqar, written in Aramaic, together with a series of his proverbs, was found in Upper Egypt, in Elephantine.

Prior to this discovery, extracts from this book were known. Ahiqar is also known in the Jewish book of Tobit (1:22; 14:10).

(For a thorough analysis of both the proverbs and the novel of Ahiqar, cf. I. Kottsieper, “The Aramaic Tradition: Ahiqar,” in Scribes, Sages, and Seers: The Sage in the Eastern Mediterranean World, ed. L.G. Perdue. Göttingen 2008, 109-24.)

In the Elephantine Ahiqar story he is described in the following way:

“Are you] the wise scribe and the lord of good counsel,

who [was a righteous] man [and b]y whose counsel all of Assyria was guided?

(Elephantine Ahiqar story iii, 42-3).

He is also described as “the great Ahiqar” (iii, 60).

(Text in A. Cowley, Aramaic Papyri of the Fifth Century B.C. Oxford 1923, 204f., 213f.)

Helge Kvanvig, Primeval History: Babylonian, Biblical, and Enochic: An Intertextual Reading, Brill, 2011, pp. 111-3.

An Excerpt from The Fall of the Angels

“How did the story about the fall of the angels relate to biblical tradition? Why is it only hinted at there, and not incorporated into the canon in more complete form? Two general points may be offered in response to these questions.

First, the story presupposes, rather than lies behind, the Hebrew Bible and, thus, is to be regarded as a development, indeed interpretation, of what later came to be recognized as canonical. Second, the communities which produced the story did so by transforming the biblical tradition through the dual filters of apocalyptic dualism and their own social contexts.

These points have to be taken into account when considering how it was that “the day of the Lord” of the exilic and post-exilic prophets could be absorbed into the notion of a final apocalyptic battle in later early Jewish literature. Was this shift from prophetic to apocalyptic eschatology the result of an attempt to reject the foreign domination by Hellenistic rulers—such as the Ptolemies in Egypt and the Seleucids in Syria—in the wake of Alexander the Great’s conquests?

Or was this growing dualism a reflection of the breach between urban and rural culture? Or, by contrast, did the apocalyptic religious tradition re-present knowledge gleaned from the “foreign” sciences of its day as divine revelation, doing so long before the Greeks came on the scene?

There were yet other stories in the Ancient Near East that had been told long time and retold in the Greek world. Those stories were adapted to the current social situation and to the clash of civilizations. (sic).

The famous passage from Genesis 6:1-4 played a central role in the development of apocalyptic traditions. The biblical tradition itself is ambiguous; it conveys a story about ancient “heroes”, on the one hand, and the “sons of the gods”, on the other. What these figures have to do with the destruction brought about through the Great Flood in the following narrative (Genesis 6:5ff.) constitutes the first question to be examined in this volume.

The contribution by Ronald Hendel does so by exploring possible parallels to the biblical story in the Ancient Near East. One of the most significant traditions to throw light on the biblical account is shown to be the Atrahasis Epic. If read alongside this epic, the ruptures and ambiguities within the Genesis narrative, which involves the insertion of a polytheistic conflict between deities into a monotheistic narrative about God and creation, do not appear so conspicuous or unexpected.

This is further illustrated by the common motif that has the lower world flooded by the heavenly world in order to prevent the superhuman inhabitants of the lower world from becoming too powerful. The attempt by the gods above to destroy the younger and smaller ones reaches a truce in the form of a treaty or alliance. This is how Genesis chapters 6-9 may be comprehended as a complete narrative and, in addition, came to include the passage in 6:1-4.

A tradition about a revolt in a heavenly palace is preserved in the Babylonian Atrahasis Epic, also known through the Baal-Cycle from Ugarit and the Hethitic Kumarbi Epic, has also influenced Greek mythology which tells of the conflict between Zeus, on the one hand, and his tyrannical murderer-father and the Titans his helpers, on the other. In this volume, Jan Bremmer argues impressively that the “Titans” of the story are actually not destroyed. The fear of their possible return persists and remains an irrepressible potential and threat.

How astronomic observation, the interpretation of stars as deities living in a distant world, and scientific knowledge are coalesced into the traditional image of God is shown by Matthias Albani in his analysis of Isaiah 14.

The Fall of the Rebel Angels is an oil-on-panel by Flemish renaissance artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder, painted in 1562. It is currently held and exhibited at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels. Bruegel's depiction of this subject is taken from a passage from the Book of Revelation (12, 2-9) and reveals the artist's profound debt to Hieronymous Bosch, especially in the grotesque figures of the fallen angels, shown as half-human, half-animal monsters.  Together with Dulle Griet and The Triumph of Death, which have similar dimensions, it was probably painted for the same collector and destined to become part of a series.

The Fall of the Rebel Angels is an oil-on-panel by Flemish renaissance artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder, painted in 1562. It is currently held and exhibited at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels.
Bruegel’s depiction of this subject is taken from a passage from the Book of Revelation (12, 2-9) and reveals the artist’s profound debt to Hieronymous Bosch, especially in the grotesque figures of the fallen angels, shown as half-human, half-animal monsters.
Together with Dulle Griet and The Triumph of Death, which have similar dimensions, it was probably painted for the same collector and destined to become part of a series.

For Albani, the myth of the morning star that rises at night only to be driven away and dissolved by the light of the sun is discernible in a story about the power of God who, though rivaled by the smaller stars, is never surpassed by them.

The fact that the Isaiah account may be dated to the exilic period—and so is similar to expulsion of the throne pretender mentioned in Ezekiel 28—strengthens the likelihood that it functioned as a story of consolation. The image of the rise and fall of Helel was later translated into “Lucifer” in Latin tradition. The interpretation is depicted in Figure No. 2.

No direct line can be drawn from the Isaiah narrative to the Enochic apocalyptic literature and its Gnostic adaptation. The apocalyptic and cosmological dualisms of the latter fundamentally changed the religious tradition into something cosmic, super-historical, and superhuman.”

Christoph Auffarth & Loren T. Stuckenbruck, eds., “The Centre for Power for Evil: Its Origins and Development,” in The Fall of the Angels, Brill, 2004.

The Three Books of the Babyloniaca

“Jewish and Christian users even manipulated Berossos’ account in order to accommodate it to Biblical history.

Josephus claims that a Babylonian mentioned by Berossos could be identified with Abraham (BNJ 680 F 6), which is obviously a Jewish misinterpretation.

Eusebius adduces an alleged synchronism between the Babylonian and Judean kings in the account of Polyhistor in order to settle Old Testament chronology (BNJ 680 F 7c).

It is, however, certain that this synchronism was a later Jewish or Christian creation. The parallel number of ten Babylonian antediluvian kings and Biblical patriarchs is very probably a Jewish or Christian forgery too.

In Mesopotamian tradition there were no more than nine antediluvian kings, as e.g. in the Dynastic Chronicles, which was very likely an important source of Berossos. Moreover, the name of one of the kings is in fact that of a postdiluvian ruler (Ammenon = Enmenunna). This suggests that a later user inserted a tenth name in Berossos’ list in order to create the correspondence with the Old Testament tradition.

Apart from links with Biblical tradition, several fragments contain references to stories in classical literature. Sennacherib’s erection of a monument in Cilicia and the foundation of Tarsus (BNJ 680 F 7c // 685 F 5) recalls the classical story of the epitaph of the Assyrian king Sardanapallos, who boasted to have built Tarsus and Anchiale in one day (Strabo 14.5.9).

The fall of Nineveh and the death by fire of the Assyrian king Sarakos (BNJ 680 F 7d // 685 F 5) parallels the end of Sardanapallos in Ctesianic tradition (BNJ 688 F lb and lq). Berossos also gives a version of the construction of the ‘Hanging Gardens’ in Babylon (BNJ 680 F 8a), in classical tradition one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The close connections to classical tales very probably explain why these stories survived in the fragments.

It must be emphasised, then, that due to the particular interests of our main sources — Josephus and the Christian apologists — we only have a partial and biased view of Berossos’ original composition. A few fragments clearly show that Berossos’ work was broader in scope than may appear at face value.

Athenaeus describes a Saturnalia-like festival celebrat­ed in Babylon (BNJ680 F2), which demonstrates that Berossos also wrote about Babylonian customs. Clement of Alexandria informs us that Artaxerxes II introduced the cult of the Persian goddess Anaitis in Babylon (BNJ 680 F 11).

This shows that Berossos treated the Achaemenid period in some detail and did not confine himself to the brief summary in BNJ 680 F 10. The lexicographer Hesychius notes that Sarachero was the female adorner of the spouse of Bel (BNJ 680 F 13), but we do not know in which context Sarachero had been mentioned.

Antiochus Cylinder BM36277

The Cylinder of Antiochus I Soter from the Ezida Temple in Borsippa (the Antiochus Cylinder) is an historiographical text from ancient Babylonia. It describes how the Seleucid crown prince Antiochus, the son of king Seleucus Nicator, rebuilt the Ezida Temple and prays for divine protection. The cuneiform text itself (BM 36277) is now in the British Museum.
The Antiochus cylinder is the latest such cylinder extant. Another late example is the Cyrus Cylinder, commemorating Cyrus’ capture of Babylon in 539 BCE (Schaudig 2001: 550-6). This cylinder, however, was written in normal Neo-Babylonian script.
The document is a barrel-shaped clay cylinder, which was buried in the foundations of the Ezida temple in Borsippa. This form of foundation document is common since the second millennium. The script of this cylinder is deliberately archaic, using a ceremonial Babylonian cuneiform script that was also used in the Codex of Hammurabi and adopted in a number of royal inscriptions of Neo-Babylonian kings like Nabopolassar, Nebuchadnezzar and Nabonidus (cf. Berger 1973). The script varies from the cuneiform that was used for chronicles, diaries, rituals, scientific and administrative texts.
The Antiochus Cylinder was recovered by Hormuzd Rassam in 1880 in Ezida, the temple of the god Nabu in Borsippa, from its original position “encased in some kiln-burnt bricks covered over with bitumen,” in the “doorway” of Koldewey’s Room A1. Rassam (1897: 270) mistakenly records this as a cylinder of Nebuchadnezzar II (Reade 1986: 109). The cylinder is now in the British Museum in London.

Let us now turn to the Babyloniaca itself. Tatian states that the work consists of three books (BNJ 680 T2). Fragments from each book have been preserved. As far as we can judge, the contents of the books can be outlined as follows:

Book 1 opens with a prologue, in which Berossos presents himself and his sources. In this prologue he probably also explained his dedication to Antiochus I. After the prologue he describes the geography of Babylonia, the country’s fauna and flora and its multiethnic popu­lation.

Berossos then proceeds to primeval history: the ‘fish-man’ Oannes, in Mesopotamian tradition Uan(na), the first antediluvian and most important sage, brings civilisation to hu­mankind in Babylonia in the very first year of kingship. Thereupon, the sage narrates how the universe was created by Belos and how this god formed man (BNJ 680 F la-b and 685 F la-b).

Athenaeus’ testimony that Berossos describes the celebration of a festival in his first book (BNJ 680 F2) is the only indication that this book also dealt with Babylonian customs. Although I concluded that the astronomical / astrological fragments preserved under the name of Berossos are not genuine, this does not exclude the possibility that Berossos wrote in his work on this Babylonian science par excellence.

As a rule, a Greek ethnographical work, the genre Berossos followed, presents the intellectual achievements of the people treated. If Berossos wrote on Babylonian astronomy / astrology, Book 1 — and more specifi­cally in the section of Babylonian customs — was the most likely part of his work to do it.

Book 2 gives an overview of Babylonian rulers, starting with the antediluvian kings (BNJ 680 F 3a-b – F 6 and 685 F 2-3; Aelian records the tale of King Euchoros, or Enmerkar in the cuneiform, whose guards hurled the infant Gilgamesh (Gilgamos) from the height of the citadel in the History of Animals, 12.21).

The book probably ends with the reign of Nabonassar (747-734). For the most part, this section of Berossos’ work was very likely an enumeration of kings, dynasties and year numbers and did not provide elaborate information — at least for the early periods.

This can be deduced from Eusebius’ remark that Berossos gave hardly any information on the kings’ deeds or even omitted them (BNJ 680 F 3a). This very likely reflects the dearth of sources Berossos could rely on: many of the early rulers were no more than names in long king lists. The overview of kings and dynasties is interrupted by the story of the Flood and its aftermath (BNJ 680 F 4a-c and 685 F 3a-b).

Book 3 relates the history of Babylonia from Nabonassar to Alexander the Great (BNJ 680 F7-11 and 685 F5-7). From this book more narrative episodes have been preserved and although Berossos’ treatment of the Achaemenid period is almost completely lost, the notice that Artaxerxes II introduced the cult of Anaitis demonstrates that Berossos elaborated on this period too.”

Geert de Breucker, “Berossos: His Life and Work,” from Johannes Haubold, Giovanni B. Lanfranchi, Robert Rollinger, John Steele (eds.), The World of Berossos, Proceedings of the 4th International Colloquium on the Ancient Near East Between Classical and Ancient Oriental Traditions, Harrassowitz Verlag, Wiesbaden, 2013, pp. 22-3.

The Chaldaica and the Babyloniaca

“Before I focus on the work itself, I first discuss the text as it has come down to us, because this is essential for our understanding of the work. Berossos’ history of Babylonia has only been preserved in fragments. Two titles have been transmitted: Chaldaica and Babyloniaca.

It is almost certain that the latter is authentic, as this is the title used in antiquarian and lexi­cographical literature and is more in tune with Berossos’ subject, the history of Babylonia. The extant fragments have come down to us by a very complex process of transmission. Most of them derive from Jewish and Christian authors.

In this process the pagan polymath Alexander Polyhistor played a pivotal role, as the bulk of the fragments derives from the epitome he made of Berossos’ work in Rome between 80 and 40 BC. This ‘summary’, how­ever, also survives in fragments.

Flavius Josephus (2nd half 1st c. AD) almost certainly used it in his Jewish Antiquities and Contra Apionem. The Church Father Eusebius of Caesarea (ca. 265-340 AD) excerpted Polyhistor’s epitome for the first book of his Chronicle.

This first book being lost too, the excerpts are known by an Armenian translation of the Chronicle (after 6th c.) and by the Byzantine monk Syncellus, who inserted them in his own chronographical work (around 810). A comparison of the Armenian translation and Syncellus shows that the Armenian text contains quite a number of corruptions and mistranslations. In gen­eral, Syncellus’ text is more reliable.

To these excerpts we can add the fragments transmitted under the name of Abydenus, an obscure historian, probably living in the 2nd or 3rd c. AD (BNJ 685). Although he mentions neither Berossos nor Alexander Polyhistor, it is clear that Abydenus did no more than rework Polyhistor’s epitome of the Babyloniaca and give it an Ionic veneer.

The fragments ascribed to Abydenus have come down to us through Eusebius, either directly — in his Praeparatio Evangelica — or indirectly — by the aforementioned Armenian translation and Syncellus, each using Eusebius’ Chronicle in this case too.

Another set of fragments survived through Greek learned literature: Athenaeus (BNJ 680 F2), Hesychius (BNJ 680 F 13) and the Oxyrhynchus Glossary (BNJ 680 F23a-b).

Josephus and the Christian authors were mainly interested in Berossos’ work for apologetic rea­sons. They aimed to prove the veracity of the Biblical account and Old Testament chro­nology. It is, therefore, no surprise that most fragments have a link with Biblical history, such as the Flood, the important period of the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar II and the beginning of its reconstruction under Cyrus.

Other fragments deal with Assyrian and Babylonian kings mentioned in the Old Testament: apart from Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus, Tiglath-pileser III (Pulu), Merodach-Baladan II, Sennacherib, Esarhaddon and Amel-Marduk.

Even the long excerpt on Babylonian primeval history (BNJ680 F la-b), which has appar­ently no connection to Biblical history, has been transmitted for apologetic reasons — but in another sense. Eusebius used this fabulous story in order to refute Berossos’ chronology of the antediluvian period.

On the one hand, Berossos’ number of ten antediluvian kings agreed with that of the Biblical generations and patriarchs before the Flood — and thus confirmed Genesis. On the other hand, Berossos’ chronology of 432,000 years for the antediluvian period completely disagreed with the Old Testament and was thus problematic.

In his refutation, Eusebius discredits the Babylonian chronology by pointing to Berossos’ account of the primeval period, which was evidently fabulous. Those who accepted the Babylonian antediluvian chronology, Eusebius pointedly suggested, should also accept this nonsense as truth.

This refutation also explains why Eusebius treats the antediluvian kings first and then gives the excerpt on primeval times.”

Geert de Breucker, “Berossos: His Life and Work,” from Johannes Haubold, Giovanni B. Lanfranchi, Robert Rollinger, John Steele (eds.), The World of Berossos, Proceedings of the 4th International Colloquium on the Ancient Near East Between Classical and Ancient Oriental Traditions, Harrassowitz Verlag, Wiesbaden, 2013, pp. 20-2.

Ibn Wahshiyya and Black Magic

“Magic has a prominent role in the Nabatean corpus, especially in Filāha and Sumūm. Following the theme of the present conference, I would like to make some comments on the relation of Ibn Wahshiyya to magic.

First of all, it should be clear that there was no ban against such material in the early tenth century. Magic, and especially its practice, was not perhaps looked on benevolently by Ihe ‘ulamā’, but in the Shiite Iraq governed by the Būyids there was not much possibility for the Sunni ‘ulamā’ to react against those interested in magic, occult sciences and esoterica.

On the other hand, the open paganism and polytheism of much of Ihe material in Filāha and the other Nabatean books would make it necessary for the author to keep his distance from the material. In Ibn Wahshiyyas’ case this presented no great problem, since he purported only to translate, not to compose the material, and the open paganism of the text could always be labelled as merely vestiges of ancient paganism.

In fact, the translator often adds clearly and strongly monotheistic notes to the text (see esp. Filāha, pp. 405-406), thus safeguarding himself from any accusations of an over close identification with the polytheistic, Nabatean system.

Ibn Wahshiyya is also very careful, especially in Filāha, to keep his distance from black magic. In his toxicological work Sumūm, a more controversial book by its very nature, he is not so prudent. He also often refuses to speak of harmful uses of a plant (e.g. Filāha, p. 184, II. 6-7) and apologizes for speaking about poisons in Sumūm, fol. 5a. This recurrent motif shows that Ibn Wahshiyya was aware of the negative response his works might attract.

For Ibn Wahshiyya, magic is a real operative force in the universe. His world view is, generally speaking, Neoplatonic, and the cult he is describing is astral, which brings with it the idea of a correspondence between macrocosm and microcosm as well as other correspondences between different phenomena.

The thoroughly magical worldview of Ibn Wahshiyya is seen in the strong magical element in Filāha, a work dealing with agriculture. In this, Filāha resembles, and has perhaps been influenced by, similar Greek works, especially the book of Bōlos Dēmokritos, where magic, agriculture and folklore are found side by side—On the other hand, one should not forget the sober and often experimental attitude of Ibn Wahshiyya towards agriculture in general: he is not an obscurantist trading with talismans and amulets, but a learned and perspicacious observer.

The Nabatean books make a clear difference between black and white magic; the former harmed people, the latter protected them. In Filāha, lbn Wahshiyya constantly avoids black magic (see e.g. pp. 383-384), although he does refer, in the words of the purported authors of the Aramaic original, to passages in the original sources which belonged to black magic (e.g. p. 477, by Sughrīth). The same prudence may also be seen in his other texts, although he does give some examples of black magic, especially in Sumūm.

In Filāha, the supposed Aramaic author claims ignorance of magic (p. 147: wa- ‘ilmu s-sihri ‘ilmun lam a ‘rid lahu wa-lā uhibbu an atakallama bimā lā ‘ilma lī bihi). In Sumūm, black magic is somewhat more prominent. Some of the poisons described in the work belong to the sphere of black magic more than to toxicology. One of these magical operations is the grotesque recipe for creating an animal, whose sight kills. Much abbreviated the recipe goes as follows:

One takes a young, monocoloured cow, sprinkles it with human blood, has sexual intercourse with it and inserts a special dough into its vagina. Finally one anoints its vagina with ox blood. The cow is kept in a dark stall and fed with a spec¡al diet. When it gives birth, the born monster, which is described in detail, is sprinkled with another powder. Seven days after its birth, it is ready to kill by sight when it smells a wad of cotton soaked with wine and becomes upset.

The creation of a calf, although in not so colourful a fashion, is well known from early Jewish mysticism. In Filāha, p. 1318, there is also a mention of ‘Ankabūthā, the chief magician, creating an anthropoid which reminds one of the Golem tradition in Kabbalistic literature.”

Jaakko Hāmeem-Anttila, “Ibn Wahshiyya and Magic,” Anaquel de Estudios Árabes X, 1999, pp. 43-4.

Nascence of the Babylonian Zodiac

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Civil Centralization = Religious Centralization

“Up to the last, Babylonian religion remained local. It was this local character that gives us the key to its origin and history, and explains much that would otherwise seem inconsistent and obscure.

The endeavour of Nabonidos to undermine its local character and to create a universal religion for a centralised Babylonia, was deeply resented by both priests and people, and ushered in the fall of the Babylonian empire. The fundamental religious idea which had underlain the empire had been the supremacy of Merodach, the god of Babylon, over all other gods, not the absorption of the deities of the subject nations into a common cult.

The policy of Nabonidos, therefore, which aimed at making Merodach, not primus inter pares, but absolute lord of captive or vassal deities, shocked the prejudices of the Babylonian people, and eventually proved fatal to its author.

In Cyrus, accordingly, the politic restorer of the captive populations and their gods to their old homes, the priests and worshippers of the local divinities saw the pious adherent of the ancient forms of faith, and the real favourite of Merodach himself.

Merodach had not consented to the revolutionary policy of Nabonidos; he had, on the contrary, sympathised with the wrongs of his brother gods in Babylonia and throughout the world, and had thus deserted his own city and the renegade monarch who ruled over it.

In all this there is a sharp contrast to the main religious conception which subsequently held sway over the Persian empire, as well as to that which was proclaimed by the prophets of Judah, and in the reforms of Hezekiah and Josiah was carried out practically by the Jewish kings. The Ahura-mazda whom Dareios invokes on the rock of Behistun is not only the lord of the gods, he is a lord who will not brook another god by his side.

A penciled illustration of the Behistun Inscription.

A penciled illustration of the Behistun Inscription.

The supreme god of the Persian monarch is as absolute as the Persian monarch himself. In the Persian empire which was organised by Dareios, centralisation became for the first time a recognised and undisputed fact, and political centralisation went hand-in-hand with religious centralisation as well.

In Judah, a theocracy was established on the ruins of the old beliefs which had connected certain localities with certain forms of divinity, and which found such naive expression in the words of David to Saul (1 Samuel xxvi. 19): “They have driven me out this day from abiding in the inheritance of the Lord, saying, Go, serve other gods.”

The destruction of the high-places and the concentration of the worship of Yahveh in Jerusalem, was followed by the ever-increasing conviction that Yahveh was not only a jealous God who would allow none other gods besides Himself; He was also a God who claimed dominion over the whole world.”

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. 89-90.

The Influence of Babylonian Religion on Judaism

“But, it will be asked, what interest can the religions of Babylonia and Assyria have for us, much more an inquiry into their nature and origin? They have long since perished, like the people who professed them, and have left no apparent traces of their influence upon the nations about whom we know and care most.

The Greeks and Romans concerned themselves so little with these Eastern barbarians as neither to read nor to preserve the only Greek history of Chaldaea (ed. note: referring to Berossus) which was written by a native and professed to be derived from native accounts; we owe the fragments we have of it to the apologetic zeal of Christian controversialists.

Still less would it appear that these old people of Babylonia and Assyria can have had any influence upon the world of to-day, or have served to mould the ideas and the society of modern Europe. Such questions may be asked, and until lately it would have been hard to answer them.

And yet a moment’s consideration might have shown that there was one nation at all events which has exercised, and still exercises, a considerable intluence upon our own thought and life, and which had been brought into close contact with the religion and culture of Babylonia at a critical epoch in its history.

The influence of Jewish religion upon Christianity, and consequently upon the races that have been moulded by Christianity, has been lasting and profound. Now Jewish religion was intimately bound up with Jewish history, more intimately perhaps than has been the case with any other great religion of the world.

It took its colouring from the events that marked the political life of the Hebrew people; it developed in unison with their struggles and successes, their trials and disappointments. Its great devotional utterance, the Book of Psalms, is national, not individual; the individual in it has merged his own aspirations and sufferings into those of the whole community.

The course of Jewish prophecy is equally stamped with the impress of the national fortunes. It grows clearer and more catholic as the intercourse of the Jewish people with those around them becomes wider; and the lesson is taught at last that the God of the Jews is the God also of the whole world.

Now the chosen instruments for enforcing this lesson, as we are expressly told, were the Assyrian and the Babylonian. The Assyrian was the rod of God’s anger, while the Babylonish exile was the bitter punishment meted out to Judah for its sins.

The captives who returned again to their own land came back with changed hearts and purified minds; from henceforward Jerusalem was to be the unrivalled dwelling-place of “the righteous nation which keepeth the truth.”

Apart, therefore, from any influence which the old religious beliefs of Babylonia may have had upon the Greeks, and which, as we shall see, was not so wholly wanting as was formerly imagined, their contact with the religious conceptions of the Jewish exiles must, to say the least, have produced an effect which it is well worth our while to study.

Hitherto, the traditional view has been that this effect exhibited itself wholly on the antagonistic side; the Jews carried nothing away from the land of their captivity except an intense hatred of idolatry, more especially Babylonian, as well as of the beliefs and practices associated therewith.

Now and then, it is true, some bold spirit, like Bishop Warburton, may have ventured to propound the paradox that the doctrine of the resurrection was first learnt by the Jews in Babylonia, but it was treated generally as a paradox, and of late years, if admitted at all, was considered a proof of the influence not of the Babylonians but of their Persian conquerors.”

A.H. Sayce, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by the Religion of the Ancient Babylonians, 5th ed., London, 1898, pp. 38-40.

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.

Semites vs. Sumerians

“Each new discovery of cuneiform tablets elicits a wave of publications asserting biblical ‘parallels,’ many of them uncertain and farfetched, even when a millennium or more may have elapsed between the tablets and the relevant portion of the Bible.

The biblical scholar M. Dahood, for example, saw parallels betwen the Bible and cuneiform tablets from Ebla in northern Syria, which date to approximately 1300 years before the kingdom of David. E. A. Speiser insisted that the ‘patriarchal age’ of the Bible was reflected in tablets from Nuzi in northern Mesopotamia (early fourteenth century BCE), although most of his analogies have been discarded in recent years.

The discovery of prophetic documents at Mari (eighteenth century BCE) attracted much discussion, as did comparison of ancient treaties with the biblical covenant.

A subtler interconnection between the worlds of the Hebrews and of the Babylonians was provided by what might be called ‘Pan-Semitism,’ the idea that the Semitic peoples had certain innate mental and emotional characteristics and limitations in common that conditioned their religious values.

A concise statement of this view, which is traceable, for example, to the works of the influential French thinker Ernest Renan, will be found in S. A. Cook’s contribution ‘The Semites, Temperament and Thought’ in the Cambridge Ancient History (1924), chapter V.

Cook held that Semitic thought was verbal rather than visual, emotional rather than systematic or speculative, and so could not have created such a grand astral system of beliefs as the Pan-Babylonianists had imagined underlay modern Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

To Pan-Semitists, Greece, with its alleged superior visual and speculative thought, albeit comparatively shallow religion, was as essential to understanding Christianity as was Judaism.

Scholars wrote of the ‘Hebrew’ and the ‘Greek’ element in Christianity and European culture. The Pan-Semitists bracketed Judaism, Islam and Babylonia as ‘Semitic’ in type, but not Christianity. This left the place of the Sumerians in the equation Babylonian = Semitic difficult to define.

The early twentieth-century historian Eduard Meyer, for example, therefore argued that the Semites were the original inhabitants of Mesopotamia and the Sumerians were later invaders, thereby maintaining the originally ‘Semitic’ character of Mesopotamian civilization.

In the period after World War I, some scholars tried to distinguish ‘Sumerian’ from ‘Semitic’ thought in Mesopotamian culture. Thus discussion of the relations between Babylonia and the Bible proceeded in an atmosphere charged with faith, scepticism and anti-Semitism.”

Benjamin R. Foster, “Mesopotamian Religion and the Bible,” John R. Hinnells, ed., A Handbook of Ancient Religions, 2007, pp. 208-9.

Origins of the Jews?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Pillars of Seth


“All these (the sons of Seth), being naturally of a good disposition, lived happily in the land without apostatising, and free from any evils whatsoever: and they studiously turned their attention to the knowledge of the heavenly bodies and their configurations.

And lest their science should at any time be lost among men, and what they had previously acquired should perish, (inasmuch as Adam had acquainted them that a universal aphanism, or destruction of all things, would take place alternately by the force of fire and the overwhelming powers of water), they erected two columns, the one of brick and the other of stone, and engraved upon each of them their discoveries; so that, in case the brick pillar should be dissolved by the waters, the stone one might survive to teach men the things engraved upon it, and at the same time inform them that a brick one had formerly been also erected by them.

It remains even to the present day in the land of Siriad.”158 ―Extracted from Josephus Antiquities of the Jews Book i. ch. 2.

NOTE BY THE EDITOR. “We do not here propose to renew the inquiry concerning the celebrated antediluvian columns, or stelae, on which the lore of this primaeval world, with all its wisdom, was said to be transmitted.

Plato, it is well-known, speaks of these columns in the opening of the Timaeus. We shall examine, in the 5th book, whether this be anything more than a figurative description, and how far we may be justified in assuming any connection between the Egyptian legend and the two pillars of Seth mentioned by Josephus. (Antiq. i., ch. 2).

These pillars, it is obvious, have reference to the Book of Enoch 159; perhaps also to the pillars of Akikarus, or Akicharus, the Prophet of Babylon, (or the Bosphorus), whose wisdom Democritus is said to have stolen, and on which Theophrastus composed a treatise.

In the Egyptian traditions that have come down to us, these primaeval stelae do not make their appearance until the third and fourth centuries. They are first mentioned in the so-called Fragments of Hermes, in Stobaeus; afterwards, in Zosimus of Panopolis, evidently in the colouring of Judaising-Christian writers; but, in their worst shape, in the fourth century, in the work of an impostor who assumed the name of Manetho.

That in this latter instance, at least, they were connected with the narrative of Josephus, is shown by their allusion to the ‘Syriadic Country.'”―Extracted from Bunsen’s Egypt’s Place in History, vol. 1., p. 7, 8.

E. Edmond Hodges, Cory’s Ancient Fragments, 3d ed., 1876, pp. 151-2.

The True Pronunciation of the Ineffable Name, From an Assyrian Inscription

” … And not only names of Biblical places, but of Biblical persons are to be found there; as Hezekiah and Jehoahaz, Ahab and Jehu, and Hazael, Sennacherib, Esarhaddon, and Nebuchadnezzar.

Under this head of scriptural illustration will come the deeply interesting fact, that we now obtain evidence of the true pronunciation of the sacred and incommunicable name of God. It is, we believe, generally admitted among Hebrew scholars, that the name Jehovah, as the designation of the supreme God, is incorrect.

The Jews never pronounce this name.8

You never meet with it in the New Testament; showing that even at that time either the true pronunciation was lost, or it was considered unlawful to pronounce it, which is the statement of Philo Judaeus, confirmed by Josephus.

Some Hebraists contend for Yahveh as the correct pronunciation, but with little proof. We learn, however, from an Assyrian inscription of Sargon’s that the correct pronunciation of the most sacred name of God amongst the Semitic people was Ya-u, or Yahu.

In the Cyprus Inscription of Sargon we read of a certain Ya-hu-bidi, king of Hamath. Now as this king’s name is preceded by the sign indicating a god, it is evident that his name is a compound of some divine name, such as Yahu’s servant, in which it resembles the Hebrew name Jehoahaz, more correctly Yeho-ahaz “one who holds to Yeho,” or Jehovah. In the book of Psalms, too, we are told to praise God by his name Yah, which is an abbreviated form of Yahu.

Lastly. That this was the most sacred name of God as taught in the mysteries we learn from Macrobius and Plutarch. We may assume, therefore, from the very accurate mode of Assyrian vocalization, that we have here the correct pronunciation of a Semitic name as found in an Assyrian inscription, and that Ya-hu, or Ya-ho, and not Jehovah, is the correct pronunciation of what has been called “the ineffable name” of the Most High.”

E. Edmond Hodges, Cory’s Ancient Fragments, 3d ed., 1876,

The Ten Lost Tribes

” … Shalmaneser died before Samaria was captured, and may have been assassinated. The next Assyrian monarch, Sargon II (722-705 B.C.), was not related to either of his two predecessors. He is referred to by Isaiah, and is the Arkeanos of Ptolemy. He was the Assyrian monarch who deported the “Lost Ten Tribes.”

“In the ninth year of Hoshea” (and the first of Sargon) “the king of Assyria took Samaria, and carried Israel away into Assyria, and placed them in Halah and in Habor by the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes.”

In all, according to Sargon’s record, “27,290 people dwelling in the midst of it (Samaria) I carried off.”

They (the Israelites) left all the commandments of the Lord their God, and made them molten images, even two calves, and made a grove, and worshipped all the host of heaven (the stars), and served Baal.

And they caused their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire, and used divination and enchantments, and sold themselves to do evil in the sight of the Lord, to provoke him to anger. Therefore the Lord was very angry with Israel, and removed them out of his sight: there was none left but the tribe of Judah only.

And the king of Assyria brought men from Babylon, and from Cuthah, and from Ava, and from Hamath, and from Sepharvaim, and placed them in the cities of Samaria instead of the children of Israel: and they possessed Samaria, and dwelt in the cities thereof….

And the men of Babylon made Succoth-benoth, and the men of Cuth (Cuthah) made Nergal, and the men of Hamath made Ashima, and the Avites made Nibhaz and Tartak, and the Sepharites burnt their children in fire to Adram-melech and Anam-melech, the gods of Sepharvaim.

A number of the new settlers were slain by lions, and the king of Assyria ordered that a Samaritan priest should be sent to “teach them the manner of the God of the land.” This man was evidently an orthodox Hebrew, for he taught them “how they should fear the Lord…. So they feared the Lord,” but also “served their own gods … their graven images.”

There is no evidence to suggest that the “Ten Lost Tribes,” “regarding whom so many nonsensical theories have been formed,” were not ultimately absorbed by the peoples among whom they settled between Mesopotamia and the Median Highlands.

The various sections must have soon lost touch with one another. They were not united like the Jews (the people of Judah), who were transported to Babylonia a century and a half later, by a common religious bond, for although a few remained faithful to Abraham’s God, the majority of the Israelites worshipped either the Baal or the Queen of Heaven.”

Donald A. Mackenzie, Myths of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915, pp. 455-6.

Human Sacrifice in Ancient Babylon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Missing or Defective Letter, a 23 Character Alphabet, and Seven Books of the Torah

“Hence the author of the Book Temunah transfers his interest from the redemption at the end of the current shemittah (about which he has little to say anyway) to the vision of the following one. The vision of the end of the present shemittah, of the gradual extinction of humanity, and of the slowing down of the rhythm of life in the entire creation—of which older Jewish messianism knew nothing—already forms part of this newly erupting sense of utopia.

In this  conception of redemption, the Messiah himself no longer plays a visible role; interest is completely focused on the cosmic processes.

For the historian of religion, the most striking aspect of the doctrine of shemittoth resides in the close link between a rigorous Jewish piety that maintains the revelatory character of the Torah and the vision of a change in the manifestation of the Torah in the other shemittoth. We have a clear case of Utopian antinomianism.

The assertion of the Temunah that “what is forbidden below is permitted above” (fol. 62a) entails the logical inference that what is forbidden according to the reading of the Torah in our present aeon might be permitted and even required in other aeons, when some other divine quality—Mercy, for example, instead of Stern Judgment—governs the world.

In fact, in both the Book Temunah itself and writings that follow in its footsteps we find astonishing statements regarding the Torah that imply a virtual antinomianism.

Two ideas should be stressed at this point. Several passages suggest that in the current shemittah one of the letters of the Torah is missing. This lack can be understood in two ways. It could signify that one of the letters has a defective form, contrary to its past perfection, that would of course be restored in a future shemittah.

However, as the book indefatigably asserts, since each letter represents a divine potency, the imperfection of its form could mean that the sefirah of Stern Judgment that predominates today effectively restricts the efficacy of the divine lights, which are therefore unable to reveal themselves perfectly.

According to this view, one such “defective” or incomplete letter of the alphabet is shin, which in its perfect form should have four heads, but which is written at present with three: Shin But the statement also could signify that today one of the letters of the alphabet is missing completely: it has become invisible in our aeon but will reappear and become legible once again in the future aeon.

Such a view evidently implies a thoroughly changed attitude toward the received Torah. In fact, it can (and did) lead to the supposition that all the prohibitions we read in the present text of the Torah are due to this absent letter.

The alphabet, and with it the complete Torah, are actually based upon a series of twenty-three letters; if we find in the Torah positive and negative commandments, it is only because this letter has dropped out of the present text. Everything negative is connected with the missing letter of the original alphabet.

According to another and no less audacious idea, the complete Torah contained in reality seven books, corresponding to the seven sefiroth and shemittoth. It is only in the current shemittah that, through the restrictive power of Stern Judgment, two of these books have shrunk to the point that only a bare hint of their existence remains.

The proof text of this assertion was a passage in the Talmud (Shabbath 116a), according to which the book of Numbers actually consists of three books. A tradition from the school of Nahmanides specifies that the power inherent in the Torah will manifest itself in the future aeon in such manner that we shall again perceive seven books.

The Book Temunah itself (fol. 31a) avers that the first chapter of Genesis is merely the vestige of a fuller Torah revealed to the shemittah of Grace, but which has become invisible in our shemittah, as the light of this earlier book has disappeared.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 1962, pp. 471-3.

A Perpetual Process of the Re-Creation of the World

“As a matter of fact, doctrines relating to cosmic cycles in the evolution of the world were also known in Jewish medieval literature outside the Kabbalah. Through the intermediary of Indian and Arabic sources, rather than under the influence of Platonic thoughts, ideas of this type slipped into astrological writings in particular. Abraham bar Hiyya in Aragon was familiar with them around 1125 as the “teachings of certain philosophers,” for he informs us that some of them say:

“ … After all the creatures have passed from potentiality to actuality, God once again returns them to potentiality as in the beginning and then brings them back to actuality a second and a third time, and thus without end. . . . Others again say that the days of the world are 49,000 years and that each of the seven planets reigns 7,000 years in the world. When at the end of 49,000 years they have completed their reign, God destroys His world, leaves it for 1,000 years in a state of tohu, and at the end of the fiftieth millennium He renews it as in the beginning.”

This is an astrological cosmic theory also known from Arabic sources, and the author adds that we are not permitted to accept such ideas, which are nothing more than mere suppositions. Ideas of this kind must have been known to other scholars also and no doubt circulated in other Jewish groups as is proved by the testimony of Mutahhar al-Maqdisi. Writing in the tenth century, he reports that a Jewish scholar—evidently in the Orient—assured him that certain of his coreligionists believed in a perpetual process of the re-creation of the world.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 1962, p. 462.

Not All Human Souls Are Blessed

“The human soul is essentially different from the animal soul; Nahmanides adopts, along with other kabbalists of the earliest period, the Platonic view of the soul, according to which there exist different souls in man and not only different faculties of a unitary soul.

According to Nahmanides, man’s anima rationalis unites the rational and the mystical-intuitive, and hence he sees no need for further distinctions. Nevertheless, the weight shifts imperceptibly to the second side: the highest soul, neshamah, which comes from binah and yesod, is the mediator of prophecy, and through it man, in the state of debhequth, attains communion with the deity as a result of the longing for its origin implanted in it.

Enoch and the three Patriarchs, Moses, and Elijah had achieved this supreme state already on earth; however, it is not a full unio mystica with the deity but rather a communio, as we have argued at length in our discussion of the subject of kawwanah.

In the prophetic vision, during which the soul is united with the objects of its contemplation, it is in this state of debhequth, that it obtains a ”knowledge of God face to face.” In this longing for its origin, the highest soul of man becomes capable of penetrating all the intermediary spheres and rising up to God by means of its acts—which, strangely enough, are united here with contemplation.

The eclectic manner in which the kabbalists adopted philosophical doctrines concerning the soul is also apparent in the fact that Azriel, for example, accepts the Aristotelian definition of the soul as the form of the body, seemingly unaware of the contradiction between this idea and important kabbalistic doctrines.

The contradiction results from the adoption and further development of the doctrine of metempsychosis. While this doctrine is rather openly propounded in the Book Bahir, as we saw on p. 188ff., it is treated, strangely enough, as a great mystery in Provence and in Gerona.

The authors without exception speak of it only in hints and in veiled allusions. They make no attempt to account for this idea but presuppose it as a truth handed down by esoteric tradition.

The term gilgul, generally used at a later date for the transmigration of souls, seems to be as yet unknown among these early authors. Instead, they prefer to speak of sod ha-‘ibbur. This term, literally “secret of impregnation,” is used in the Talmud for the methods of computing the calendar, handed down only orally for a long time, the idea being that the leap years were impregnated, as it were, by the addition of an extra month.

But ‘ibbur can, if necessary, also be understood as “transition,” and it is doubtless in this sense that the term was picked up by the kabbalists. The “secret of the ‘ibbur” is that of the passage of the soul from one body to another and not, as among the later kabbalists, a real phenomenon of impregnation through which, after birth an additional soul sometimes enters into the one originally born with a person.

We still do not know what led the kabbalists of the first generation to treat this doctrine in such a strictly esoteric manner and what danger they saw in exposing it to the public. It is most unlikely that fear of the Catholic Church, which had officially condemned this doctrine, was a factor.

Where no christological elements were involved, Jewish theology generally had no inhibitions. The polemics directed by the philosophers against this doctrine should likewise have stimulated controversy rather than secrecy. Nahmanides had no lack of opportunity to denounce the philosophic criticism of this doctrine. Instead, he retreated into extremely prudent, and for the uninitiated, often impenetrable statements in his commentary on the book of Job, the key to which, according to the kabbalists of Gerona, lay precisely in the doctrine of metempsychosis.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 456-7.

Fish Symbolism Spanning Cultures and Eras

“For those who hold that the Grail story is essentially, and fundamentally, Christian, finding its root in Eucharistic symbolism, the title is naturally connected with the use of the Fish symbol in early Christianity: the Icthys anagram, as applied to Christ, the title ‘Fishers of Men,’ bestowed upon the Apostles, the Papal ring of the Fisherman–though it must be noted that no manipulation of the Christian symbolism avails satisfactorily to account for the lamentable condition into which the bearer of the title has fallen.” 2

[ … ]

So far as the present state of our knowledge goes we can affirm with certainty that the Fish is a Life symbol of immemorial antiquity, and that the title of Fisher has, from the earliest ages, been associated with Deities who were held to be specially connected with the origin and preservation of Life.

In Indian cosmogony Manu finds a little fish in the water in which he would wash his hands; it asks, and receives, his protection, asserting that when grown to full size it will save Manu from the universal deluge. This is Jhasa, the greatest of all fish. 1

The first Avatar of Vishnu the Creator is a Fish. At the great feast in honour of this god, held on the twelfth day of the first month of the Indian year, Vishnu is represented under the form of a golden Fish, and addressed in the following terms:

“Wie Du, O Gott, in Gestalt eines Fisches die in der Unterwelt befindlichen Veden gerettet hast, so rette auch mich 2.”

The Fish Avatar was afterwards transferred to Buddha.

In Buddhist religion the symbols of the Fish and Fisher are freely employed. Thus in Buddhist monasteries we find drums and gongs in the shape of a fish, but the true meaning of the symbol, while still regarded as sacred, has been lost, and the explanations, like the explanations of the Grail romances, are often fantastic afterthoughts.

In the Māhāyana scriptures Buddha is referred to as the Fisherman who draws fish from the ocean of Samsara to the light of Salvation. There are figures and pictures which represent Buddha in the act of fishing, an attitude which, unless interpreted in a symbolic sense, would be utterly at variance with the tenets of the Buddhist religion. 1

This also holds good for Chinese Buddhism. The goddess Kwanyin (= Avalokiteśvara), the female Deity of Mercy and Salvation, is depicted either on, or holding, a Fish.

In the Han palace of Kun-Ming-Ch’ih there was a Fish carved in jade to which in time of drought sacrifices were offered, the prayers being always answered.

Both in India and China the Fish is employed in funeral rites. In India a crystal bowl with Fish handles was found in a reputed tomb of Buddha.

In China the symbol is found on stone slabs enclosing the coffin, on bronze urns, vases, etc. Even as the Babylonians had the Fish, or Fisher, god, Oannes who revealed to them the arts of Writing, Agriculture, etc., and was, as Eisler puts it, ‘teacher and lord of all wisdom,’ so the Chinese Fu-Hi, who is pictured with the mystic tablets containing the mysteries of Heaven and Earth, is, with his consort and retinue, represented as having a fish’s tail 2.

The writer of the article in The Open Court asserts that “the Fish was sacred to those deities who were supposed to lead men back from the shadows of death to life 3.”

If this be really the case we can understand the connection of the symbol first with Orpheus, later with Christ, as Eisler remarks:

“Orpheus is connected with nearly all the mystery, and a great many of the ordinary chthonic, cults in Greece and Italy. Christianity took its first tentative steps into the reluctant world of Graeco-Roman Paganism under the benevolent patronage of Orpheus.” 1

There is thus little reason to doubt that, if we regard the Fish as a Divine Life symbol, of immemorial antiquity, we shall not go very far astray.

We may note here that there was a fish known to the Semites by the name of Adonis, although as the title signifies ‘Lord,’ and is generic rather than specific, too much stress cannot be laid upon it.

It is more interesting to know that in Babylonian cosmology Adapa the Wise, the son of Ea, is represented as a Fisher. 2

In the ancient Sumerian laments for Tammuz, previously referred to, that god is frequently addressed as Divine Lamgar, Lord of the Net, the nearest equivalent I have so far found to our ‘Fisher King.’ 3

Whether the phrase is here used in an actual or a symbolic sense the connection of idea is sufficiently striking.

In the opinion of the most recent writers on the subject the Christian Fish symbolism derives directly from the Jewish, the Jews, on their side having borrowed freely from Syrian belief and practice. 4

What may be regarded as the central point of Jewish Fish symbolism is the tradition that, at the end of the world, Messias will catch the great Fish Leviathan, and divide its flesh as food among the faithful.

As a foreshadowing of this Messianic Feast the Jews were in the habit of eating fish upon the Sabbath. During the Captivity, under the influence of the worship of the goddess Atargatis, they transferred the ceremony to the Friday, the eve of the Sabbath, a position which it has retained to the present day.

Eisler remarks that “in Galicia one can see Israelite families in spite of their being reduced to the extremest misery, procuring on Fridays a single gudgeon, to eat, divided into fragments, at night-fall.

In the 16th century Rabbi Solomon Luria protested strongly against this practice. Fish, he declared, should be eaten on the Sabbath itself, not on the Eve.” 1

This Jewish custom appears to have been adopted by the primitive Church, and early Christians, on their side, celebrated a Sacramental Fish-meal. The Catacombs supply us with numerous illustrations, fully described by the two writers referred to.

The elements of this mystic meal were Fish, Bread, and Wine, the last being represented in the Messianic tradition: “At the end of the meal God will give to the most worthy, i.e., to King David, the Cup of Blessing–one of fabulous dimensions.” 2

Fish play an important part in Mystery Cults, as being the ‘holy’ food. Upon a tablet dedicated to the Phrygian Mater Magna we find Fish and Cup; and Dölger, speaking of a votive tablet discovered in the Balkans, says, “Hier ist der Fisch immer und immer wieder allzu deutlich als die heilige Speise eines Mysterien-Kultes hervorgehoben.” 3

Now I would submit that here, and not in Celtic Folk-lore, is to be found the source of Borron’s Fish-meal. Let us consider the circumstances. Joseph and his followers, in the course of their wanderings, find themselves in danger of famine. The position is somewhat curious, as apparently the leaders have no idea of the condition of their followers till the latter appeal to Brons. 1

Brons informs Joseph, who prays for aid and counsel from the Grail. A Voice from Heaven bids him send his brother-in-law, Brons, to catch a fish.

Meanwhile he, Joseph, is to prepare a table, set the Grail, covered with a cloth, in the centre opposite his own seat, and the fish which Brons shall catch, on the other side.

He does this, and the seats are filled–“Si s’i asieent une grant partie et plus i ot de cels qui n’i sistrent mie, que de cels qui sistrent.”

Those who are seated at the table are conscious of a great “douceur,” and “l’accomplissement de lor cuers,” the rest feel nothing.

Now compare this with the Irish story of the Salmon of Wisdom 2.

Finn Mac Cumhail enters the service of his namesake, Finn Eger, who for seven years had remained by the Boyne watching the Salmon of Lynn Feic, which it had been foretold Finn should catch.

The younger lad, who conceals his name, catches the fish. He is set to watch it while it roasts but is warned not to eat it. Touching it with his thumb he is burned, and puts his thumb in his mouth to cool it.

Immediately he becomes possessed of all knowledge, and thereafter has only to chew his thumb to obtain wisdom.

Mr Nutt remarks: “The incident in Borron’s poem has been recast in the mould of mediaeval Christian Symbolism, but I think the older myth can still be clearly discerned, and is wholly responsible for the incident as found in the Conte du Graal.”

But when these words were written we were in ignorance of the Sacramental Fish-meal, common alike to Jewish, Christian, and Mystery Cults, a meal which offers a far closer parallel to Borron’s romance than does the Finn story, in which, beyond the catching of a fish, there is absolutely no point of contact with our romance, neither Joseph nor Brons derives wisdom from the eating thereof; it is not they who detect the sinners, the severance between the good and the evil is brought about automatically.

The Finn story has no common meal, and no idea of spiritual blessings such as are connected therewith.

In the case of the Messianic Fish-meal, on the other hand, the parallel is striking; in both cases it is a communal meal, in both cases the privilege of sharing it is the reward of the faithful, in both cases it is a foretaste of the bliss of Paradise.

Furthermore, as remarked above, the practice was at one time of very widespread prevalence.

Now whence did Borron derive his knowledge, from Jewish, Christian or Mystery sources?

This is a question not very easy to decide. In view of the pronounced Christian tone of Borron’s romance I should feel inclined to exclude the first, also the Jewish Fish-meal seems to have been of a more open, general and less symbolic character than the Christian; it was frankly an anticipation of a promised future bliss, obtainable by all.

Orthodox Christianity, on the other hand, knows nothing of the Sacred Fish-meal, so far as I am aware it forms no part of any Apocalyptic expectation, and where this special symbolism does occur it is often under conditions which place its interpretation outside the recognized category of Christian belief.

A noted instance in point is the famous epitaph of Bishop Aberkios, over the correct interpretation of which scholars have spent much time and ingenuity. 1 In this curious text Aberkios, after mentioning his journeys, says:

“Paul I had as my guide,

Faith however always went ahead and set before me as food a Fish from a Fountain, a huge one, a clean one,

Which a Holy Virgin has caught.

This she gave to the friends ever to eat as food,

Having good Wine, and offering it watered together with Bread.”

Aberkios had this engraved when 72 years of age in truth.

Whoever can understand this let him pray for Aberkios.”

Eisler (I am here quoting from the Quest article) remarks, “As the last line of our quotation gives us quite plainly to understand, a number of words which we have italicized are obviously used in an unusual, metaphorical, sense, that is to say as terms of the Christian Mystery language.”

While Harnack, admitting that the Christian character of the text is indisputable, adds significantly: “aber das Christentum der Grosskirche ist es nicht.”

Thus it is possible that, to the various points of doubtful orthodoxy which scholars have noted as characteristic of the Grail romances, Borron’s Fish-meal should also be added.

Should it be objected that the dependence of a medieval romance upon a Jewish tradition of such antiquity is scarcely probable, I would draw attention to the Voyage of Saint Brandan, where the monks, during their prolonged wanderings, annually ‘kept their Resurrection,’ i.e., celebrate their Easter Mass, on the back of a great Fish. 1

On their first meeting with this monster Saint Brandan tells them it is the greatest of all fishes, and is named Jastoni, a name which bears a curious resemblance to the Jhasa of the Indian tradition cited above. 2

In this last instance the connection of the Fish with life, renewed and sustained, is undeniable.

The original source of such a symbol is most probably to be found in the belief, referred to in a previous chapter, 1 that all life comes from the water, but that a more sensual and less abstract idea was also operative appears from the close connection of the Fish with the goddess Astarte or Atargatis, a connection here shared by the Dove.

Cumont, in his Les Religions Orientales dans le Paganisme Romain, says:

“Two animals were held in general reverence, namely, Dove and Fish.

Countless flocks of Doves greeted the traveller when he stepped on shore at Askalon, and in the outer courts of all the temples of Astarte one might see the flutter of their white wings.

The Fish were preserved in ponds near to the Temple, and superstitious dread forbade their capture, for the goddess punished such sacrilege, smiting the offender with ulcers and tumours.” 2

But at certain mystic banquets priests and initiates partook of this otherwise forbidden food, in the belief that they thus partook of the flesh of the goddess. “

Jessie L. Weston, From Ritual to Romance, 1920, pp. 118-26.

The Mystery of ben Belimah

“In the history of Jewish literature, Nahmanides is often considered to exemplify the “most Jewish” spirit; he was the one among Spanish Jews who expressed the deepest convictions regarding the Judaism of his time and embodied what was best and highest in it. From the point of view of a “refined” Judaism or the pure halakhah, it must indeed appear as an aberration that so clear a mind, one that easily penetrated the most complicated halakhic problems, should have become involved with the Kabbalah.

But it is precisely this dimension of his personality that must be grasped if we wish to understand the phenomenon. Without the Kabbalah and its contemplative mysticism Nahmanides, would be as little understood in his Jewish context as would, in the Christian context, a man like Ramón Lull (who was active in Catalonia a generation later and whose teaching exhibited structurally many analogies with the doctrine of the sefiroth) if one ignored his Ars contemplativa, in which his Christianity reached its culmination, and judged him solely on the basis of his wide-ranging activities in all other possible domains.

From this point of view, Nahmanides’ commentary on Yesirah, which develops his conception of God, is of particular importance. The gnostic doctrine of the aeons and the Neoplatonic doctrine of the emanation are combined, and we see how well they harmonize with a Jewish consciousness.

The monotheism of Nahmanides, the Jewish coloration of which is certainly beyond question, is unaware of any contradiction between the unity of God and its manifestation in the different sefiroth, each of which represents one of the aspects by which the kabhod of God reveals itself to the Shekhinah.

In his commentary on the Torah, in which he had to deal only with God’s activity in His creation, making use of the symbols of theosophy, Nahmanides could avoid touching upon this crucial point; he only discussed it in this document intended for kabbalists.

From whom Nahmanides actually received the esoteric tradition is an open question. He does mention, in his commentary on Yesirah, the Hasid Isaac the Blind, but not as his master. Nor does the letter that Isaac sent to him and to his cousin Jonah Gerondi, of whom we shall have occasion to speak later, indicate any direct discipleship.

Nahmanides refers to Yehudah ben Yaqar as his master, especially in the halakhic writings. Contrariwise, in a series of undoubtedly genuine traditions going back to Nahmanides’ most important disciple, Solomon ibn Adreth, there emerges the thoroughly enigmatic figure of a kabbalist by the name of ben Belimah—the personal first name is never mentioned—who is said to have been the connecting link between him and Isaac the Blind.

Meir ibn Sahula, in his commentaries on the traditions of Nahmanides (fol. 29a), contrasts those he had received from ben Belimah with those deriving from Isaac. In very old marginal notes emanating from the circle of Gerona and preserved in Ms. Parma, de Rossi 68, mention is made of a debate between Nahmanides and ben Belimah over the fate of Naboth’s spirit (1 Kings 22); the debate suggests that ben Belimah posited some kind of transmigration of souls or metamorphosis also for the higher spirits, even within the world of the sefiroth up to binah.

The existence of such a kabbalist therefore seems established beyond doubt, no matter how enigmatic his name. It is neither a family name nor a patronymic. Belimah is not known to me as a woman’s name, and it is extremely unlikely that Solomon ibn Adreth would have transmitted the name in a corrupted form to his disciples.

There remains the hypothesis of a pseudonym deliberately substituted for another name that was kept secret for reasons unknown to us and in a manner completely contrary to the habit of this circle. The pseudonym seems to be derived from B. Hullin 89a, where Job 26:7 is applied to Moses and Aaron who, when assailed by the Israelites, changed themselves into nothing!

The kabbalist in question thus may possibly have been a [ . . . ] ben Moses (rather than [ . . . ] ben Aaron). B. Dinur’s suggestion that the pseudonym refers to R. Jonah ben Abraham Gerondi (because of his attitude in the Maimonidean controversy) seems improbable. Perhaps new manuscript discoveries will one day clarify matters.

In any case, this name, whose literal translation would be “son of the Nought” or “son of seclusion,” provokes the historian’s curiosity. It remains uncertain whether ben Belimah should be located in Gerona, which is quite possible, or in Provence, where Nahmanides could have met with him during his youth.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 389-91.

Jesus and the Disciples Were Great Magicians and Kabbalists

“That the kabbalists were not unaware of a possible connection between these ideas and the Christian Trinity is proved by the testimony of the Spanish scholar Profiat Duran. In his anti-Christian work “Ignominy of the Christians,” composed in 1397, he relates having heard in his youth many adepts of the Kabbalah voicing the opinion that the Christian dogmas of the Trinity and the Incarnation grew out of an erroneous interpretation of kabbalistic theses that were true in themselves.

Jesus and his disciples were not only great magicians—an opinion that was widespread in medieval Judaism—but real kabbalists, ”only their Kabbalah was full of mistakes.” The doctrine of the trinity, which they erroneously attributed to the deity, arose among them as a result of their missteps in this science [the Kabbalah] which established the primordial light, the radiant light and the transparent light.”

There was as well, already in the second half of the thirteenth century, no lack of philosophical opponents of the Kabbalah who, knowing nothing of this thesis of the three lights, nonetheless affirmed that the doctrine of the ten sefiroth was of Christian origin.

This thesis is, as our account of the true history of the idea of the sefiroth has shown, just as false as the historically unfounded suppositions of the kabbalists concerning the origins of the Christian dogmas. It is, incidentally, striking that the doctrine of Pseudo-Hai remained initially unknown to the first so-called “Christian kabbalists,” who only took it up after the middle of the sixteenth century and reinterpreted it in Christian terms for their own purposes.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, p. 354.

Excerpts from the Naassene Fragment

” … In the following analysis H. stands for Hippolytus; C. for the Christian Gnostic final overwriter, the “Naassene” whose MS. lay before H.; J. for the Naassene Jewish mystic who preceded C. and overworked the original; S. for the original Heathen Hellenistic Source. …”

“(1) S. “Earth (say the Greeks 3) first brought forth Man—bearing a fair gift, desiring to be mother not of plants without feeling, nor of brutes without reason, but of a tamed God-loving life.

“Difficult is it (H. he says 4) to discover whether it was among the Bœotians that Alalkomeneus rose from the Kephisian Lake as first of men; or whether it was the Idæan Kurētes, race divine, or the Phrygian Korybantes, whom Helios saw first sprouting forth tree-like; or whether Arkadia brought forth Pelasgos [first], older than the Moon; or Eleusis Diaulos, dweller in Raria; or Lēmnos Kabeiros, fair child of ineffable orgies; 1 or whether Pallēnē Phlegræan Alkyoneus, eldest of Giants.

“The Libyans say that Garamas, 2 rising from parched plains, first picked sweet date of Zeus; while Neilos, making fat the mud of Egypt to this day (H. he says), breeds living things, and renders from damp heat things clothed in flesh.” 3

The Assyrians say it was with them Ōannēs, the Fish-eater; while the Chaldæans [say that it was] Adam.

(2) J. And this Adam they [the Chaldæans] say was the man that Earth produced—a body only, and that he lay breathless, motionless, immovable, like a statue, being an image of that Man Above—

H. —of whom they sing, and brought into existence by the many Powers, 1 concerning which there is much detailed teaching.

J. In order, then, that the Great Man from Above—

C. From whom, as is said, every fatherhood has its name on earth or in the heavens. 2

J. —might be completely brought low, there was given unto him 3 Soul also, in order that through the Soul the enclosed plasm of the Great, Most-fair, and Perfect Man might suffer and be chastened.

H. For thus they call Him. They seek to discover then further what is the Soul, and whence, and of what nature, that by entering into man and moving him, it should enslave and chasten the plasm of the Perfect Man; but they seek this also not from the Scriptures, but from the Mysteries.

(3) S. And they 4 say that Soul is very difficult to discover, and hard to understand; for it never remains of the same appearance, or form, or in the same state, so that one can describe it by a general type, 5 or comprehend it by an essential quality.

H. These variegated metamorphoses they 6 have laid down in the Gospel, superscribed “According to the Egyptians.” 7

S. They are accordingly in doubt—

H. —like all the rest of the Gentiles—

J. —whether it [sc. the Soul] is from the Pre-existing [One], or from the Self-begotten, or from the Streaming Chaos. 8

H. And first of all, in considering the triple division of Man, they fly for help to the Initiations of the Assyrians; for the Assyrians were the first to consider the Soul triple and [yet] one. …”

 G.R.S.Mead, Thrice-Greatest Hermes, Vol. 1, 1906, pp. 148-51.

From Hippolytus, Philosophumena; or, Refutation of all Heresies.

Mystical Spelling of the Divine Name

“In the writings of the ‘Iyyun circle, the sefiroth undergo a transformation: each one, indeed even each of the thirty-two paths of the Sophia, becomes an autonomous world in which the theosophist immerses himself.

In fact, even the mystical spelling of the divine name with twenty-four points, which Pseudo-Hai transmits here and which no doubt goes back to Oriental sources of Jewish magic, is interpreted in this manner.

The spelling obviously imitates the magical alphabet and characters as they are frequently found in amulets and that, in Jewish magic, are encountered, for example, in the old “alphabets of the angels.”

They appear below:


The twenty-four points or stars of this script correspond, according to the author, to the twenty-four books of the biblical canon, which are perhaps woven from this “hidden name.”

The author instructs the initiate that each of these points in and of itself represents an entire world. This use of the term “worlds” for different levels of being is undoubtedly Neoplatonic. It first penetrated into kabbalistic literature in the ‘Iyyun circle.

As we have seen, Isaac the Blind speaks of the “world of separation” below the sefiroth, but it seems he still did not take the step of considering the sefiroth themselves as just so many worlds. The upper world is henceforth no longer that of the separate intelligences, as it was for the philosophers and in Isaac’s fragments on cosmogony, but the world of the divine emanations itself. In the “Book of the Unity” of Pseudo-Hammai it is said that before Creation all the powers were intertwined and hidden in God,

“ … until there came the time of the will of the first Acting One, and they emerged from potentiality to spiritual reality, and the emanation of the upper world emanated to that of the tenth fundamental stone which is called, in the language of the sages of the mysteries, the “condensed light,” ‘or ‘abh. On account of its condensation they also name it “mixed darkness,” for all the powers of the flames are mixed in it, but are also differentiated in it, and it is the foundation of all the spiritual and corporeal worlds . . . and the last seal of all the [other] seals [emanated in the higher sefiroth].”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 328-30.

The Sound of the Alef

“Before all Creation he rested, transcendent, in himself, hidden in the power of his own reality. But at the beginning of Creation, “His kabhod became manifest, and the explication of his knowledge consisted in five things.” The author in fact names, but does not explain, these five things, which lead to gnosis. They obviously belong to the sphere of language mysticism and are called tiqqun, ma ‘ amar, seruf, mikhlal, heshbon.

It appears that they constitute the processes by which the letters are placed in harmony (tiqqun), assembled into words (ma’ amar), permutated (seruf), collected together in all their combinations (mikhlal), and calculated according to their numerical value (heshbon). Here, too, the process of emanation coincides with the process of language, but the details do not become clear.

These five events are, as the author says in a curious image, “united in the ramifications of the root of movement [probably meaning the root of the movement of language], which is strengthened in the root of the thirteen pairs of opposites” and unfolds from a thin breath, the sound of the ‘alef, into the name of God (if I understand this difficult text correctly).

These thirteen pairs of opposites are, at the same time, the thirteen middoth derived from Exodus 34:6, which play such a great role in Jewish theology as the modes of God’s action. God acts in the middoth positively as well as negatively, which enables us to perceive a connection with the kabbalistic notion of middah that we found in Isaac.

Here, however, not the sefiroth are meant but the powers or modes of action that are enclosed in the first sefirah and erupt from it. It is in these five modes of the movement of language that everything is realized “like a source for the flame and a flame for the source” prolonged “up to the unfathomable and infinite light, which is concealed in the excess of the hidden darkness. And the knowledge of the unity and of its principle refers to this darkness.”

The divine unity acts therefore out of the effusive darkness from which come all the lights, which are connected to it as the flame to its source. This world of images does not appear to me far removed from that of John Scotus Erigena and Pseudo-Denys the Areopagite; it is more closely related to them than to the world of the Bahir.

Among the Hebrew Neoplatonists such language is not used to express the divine unity, and we touch here upon a possible connection that will emerge more often in the course of this investigation. It seems that the kabbalists of Provence combined the doctrine of the aeons, as found among the gnostics and in the Bahir, with Erigena’s doctrine of the causae primordiales, which in all their multiplicity are nevertheless the unity of the divine sapientia.

Such a relationship is historically plausible. It is not difficult to suppose that the first kabbalists of Provence and Aragon, around 1180-1220, had direct or indirect knowledge of Scotus Erigena, whose influence reached its high point at that time, just before the condemnation of 1210. Many Cathars too seem to have made use of Erigena’s work as is suggested by two extant testimonies. Writings of Erigena were no rarity in the cities where the first kabbalists lived, before Honorius III ordained the destruction of all copies found in France.

But from this speculative and novel introduction, the Book ‘Iyyun proceeds to an explanation of the primordial darkness and the potencies issuing from it. This explanation claims to be a kind of commentary on a Hekhaloth text by Nehunya ben Haqqanah that however, is not identical with any of the Hekhaloth writings known to us. It is apparently against this commentary and, by the same token, against the Book ‘Iyyun in general (along with the Bahir and other writings) that the antikabbalistic attack in Meir ben Simon’s epistle is directed.

Around 1245, therefore, the existence of such a commentary on the Hekhaloth, “where one finds things in the spirit of their [namely, the kabbalists’] heresy” was known in Provence. This text names the signet rings sealing heaven and earth much as we also find them in the Wertheimer version of the “Greater Hekhaloth” (chap. 23).

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 313-5.

Debhequth is Communio

“It is this contact, connection, or communio with God that is designated by the Hebrew term debhequth. This kabbalistic concept has its origins in the terminology of the medieval Jewish theologians, especially Bahya ibn Paquda and Abraham ibn Ezra, who employed the biblical verb dabhaq (“adhere, cleave to,”) to express the contact of the soul with God or the divine light. The biblical injunction Deuteronomy 13:5 is cited by Isaac’s pupils as their master’s cue for this doctrine:

“ … Our master the Hasid said: The essential thing in the divine service of the mystics [maskilim] and those who meditate on His name, lies in this [verse]: “and cleave to Him.” And this is a cardinal principle of Torah and of prayer, that one make one’s thought conform with one’s faith, as though it were cleaving to what is above, in order to conjoin the name [of God] in its letters and to link the ten sefiroth to Him as a flame is joined to the coal. With his mouth he must express it according to its paraphrase, but in his heart, he must conjoin it in its true structure.”

Debhequth is therefore not unio but communio. In the sense the term acquired in kabbalistic usage it always contains an element of distance despite its character of intimacy. Debhequth is not becoming one with God but entering into an infinitely close liaison with him, roughly corresponding to that called adhaeresis by medieval Christian mystics.

In Hebrew, debhequth can denote the process as well as the state attained through it. The instrument of this process is the kawwanah. Isaac and his disciples do not speak of ecstasy, of a unique act of stepping outside oneself in which human consciousness abolishes itself.

Debhequth does not consist in tempestuously rushing toward God and becoming absorbed in him; it is a constant state, nurtured and renewed through meditation. In contrast to some later schools, the old kabbalists did not go any further, and in this remained true to their Jewish-theistic character. For them, debhequth or the mystical communio is not, as for many non-Jewish mystics, a transitional stage leading to still higher regions.

Any pantheistic overstepping of the limits they fixed for themselves in their interpretation of the mystical path is far from their thoughts.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 302-3

On the Apocatastasis

“Only in the messianic era will the position of Sammael be restored; the Throne of God, which for the present is damaged, will then be repaired.

It thus appears that Isaac the Blind was a follower of the doctrine of the ultimate “restoration of Satan,” the apocatastasis.

Since, as is well known, Judaism recognized no official dogmatic authority that was entitled to determine the content of the faith, this question too, which played such an important role in the history of the Christian churches, remained open and a subject of dispassionate discussion.

Opinions were divided, and many mystics adhered to the “restoration” doctrine. Later kabbalistic theories exhibiting the same tendency, such as Joseph ibn Gikatilla’s Mystery of the Serpent, probably owe their inspiration to Isaac the Blind.

What is curious in the case of Isaac is that Sammael did not fall from his exalted rank, as one would expect, at the time of Adam’s sin—for which the Aggadah holds him responsible—but only at the time of the battle against Amaleq.

In this detail he was not followed by later kabbalists; even when they defended the doctrine of apocatastasis they placed it in relation to the reestablishment of the harmony of all things, which had been disturbed by Adam’s original sin.

However, also for ibn Gikatilla (as for Isaac), the serpent drew his original power directly from the sacred domain of the emanations, standing outside its “walls” and acting as the genius of the entire sublunar world. There, too, the rebellion of the serpent introduces disorder into the harmonious union of the worlds and isolates Sammael as genius of evil.

Isaac’s view that the supreme angelic powers draw their influx directly from the tenth sefirah is also found in Ezra, who attests to having received “from the lips of the son of the master,” that is, from Isaac the Blind, the doctrine “that Metatron is only a messenger, and not a specific thing bearing that name.

Rather, every messenger is called in Greek metator, and perhaps the messengers received the influx of the [tenth sefirah] named ‘atarah to fulfill their mission.”

Metatron is therefore not a proper name at all but a designation for the whole category of celestial powers performing a mission. This conception is far more prosaic than that taught by his father, the Rabad (cf. the passage quoted, p. 212), in his commentary on the Talmud.

Is this the whole truth about Isaac’s view, or merely an occasional remark? No other kabbalist ever denied the existence of a specific angelic being called Metatron, even if he adopted Isaac’s etymology.

The etymology itself is apparently taken from the old talmudic dictionary ‘Arukh of Nathan ben Yehiel of Rome, which was well known in Provence (as metator). Isaac obviously did not think of identifying Metatron with the last sefirah, the Shekhinah, although the identification is found later, among the first generation of Catalan kabbalists.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 298-9.

Sammael and Lilith, Adam and Eve

“In Provence, Aramaic texts appeared that could in fact have arrived there, at least in part, directly from the Orient in the twelfth century, even if they did not necessarily reach the circle of Rabad and his family. It seems, however, that in some of the earliest circles of kabbalists further variations were composed in an obviously artificial Aramaic on these same themes of the demonological hierarchies.

Remnants of these compositions still exist, for example, the pseudo-gaonic responsum on the conjuration of the prince of the demons, which incidentally also speaks of the revelation of the prophet Elijah during the night of the Day of Atonement. Already the earliest stratum of these texts distinguished between an old and a young Lilith and is familiar with strange names for the demonic rulers of the three realms of the ether and for their spouses, the Jewish names being combined with those of an obviously foreign provenance.

“The old Lilith is the wife of Sammael; both of them were born at the same hour in the image of Adam and Eve, and they embrace one another. Ashmedai, the great king of the demons, took as his wife the young Lilith, daughter of the king; his name is Qafsafuni and the name of his wife is Mehetabel, daughter of Hatred [from Gen. 36:39], and her daughter Lilitha.”

The fact that the spouse of the last king of Edom (in the list given in Genesis 36) figures as a demon suggests a reinterpretation of the list of these kings that turned them into the archons of darkness. Sammael too appears in these sources as the ruler of Edom—a Jewish code word, since the early Middle Ages, for Christianity, which was regarded as originating from the realm of darkness.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 295-6.

Sammael and Lilith and the Hierarchy of Darkness

“On the other hand, what might very well be of Oriental origin are purely mythical statements regarding the realm of demons, in which kabbalistic ideas like the doctrine of the sefiroth or the idea of emanation in general play no role.

These doctrines are mentioned by Isaac Cohen as coming from theurgic texts, which he connects with the “Lesser Hekhaloth” and a Sefer Malbush which, however, bear no relation to the old theurgic texts known by these names.

In these sources, Sammael and Lilith appear for the first time as the demonic couple placed at the head of the hierarchy of darkness. The connection between this strange mythic construction and the properly kabbalistic theories was only established later by the editors, the brothers Isaac and Jacob Cohen or their teachers.

The great antiquity of these ideas, the details of which I do not wish to discuss here, is also attested by the fact that the very old etymology, borrowed by the Gnostics of the second century from Jewish circles, of the name of the devil Sammael—a name that arose concurrently with that of Beliar—is still preserved here: the “blind archon,” sar summa.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, p. 294.

Two Angels at the Feast of Tabernacles

“The relatively simple content of that tradition also corresponds to Jacob’s other angelological statements, with which we have already become acquainted on page 208. Jacob is said to have received from a certain R. Nehorai in Jerusalem the tradition that the ritual of libations of water and wine on the Feast of Tabernacles was practiced in the Temple of Jerusalem because “at this ritual two angels were present, whose function it was to bring the fruits to ripeness and to lend them flavor.”

One of these angels is certainly Gabriel, whose function (according to B. Sanhedrin 95b) is to cause the fruit to ripen. The other is probably Michael. Water and wine seem to symbolize the qualities of Grace (water) and Sternness (wine), much as in the Book Bahir. Whether this symbolism came from the Orient—together with the angelological tradition —or whether it belongs exclusively to the Provençal stratum of the Bahir cannot be established with certainty.

We know nothing else about this R. Nehorai, and the doctrine of the sefiroth is implied in no other twelfth-century text that can definitely be said to have been composed in the Orient. This pilgrimage of “Rabbenu Jacob Hasid,” which I see no reason to doubt, must have taken place at the earliest not long after the conquest of Jerusalem by Saladin, after 1187; before that, under the rule of the Crusaders, access to the city was generally forbidden to Jews.

It cannot be fixed at a date prior to the time Jacob the Nazirite commenced his esoteric studies; it was on the contrary, occasioned by those studies. According to the preceding argument, we have in fact every reason to suppose that such studies were already in vogue before 1187 in the circle of Posquières and of Lunel.

Later legends of the Spanish kabbalists related the visit of the old kabbalist of Lunel to the Orient to the interest in the Kabbalah allegedly displayed by Maimonides toward the end of his life. Our R. Jacob is supposed to have gone to Egypt, where he initiated Maimonides in the esoteric science. This legend, whose origin around 1300 I have examined elsewhere, has no historical value. Even the writings of Abraham, the son of Maimonides, whose penchant for mystical religiosity is quite obvious, draw their inspiration from Sufi sources and do not evince the slightest familiarity with kabbalistic ideas, as has already been mentioned on page 12.

Our discussion of the groups of Jewish ascetics in France devoting themselves to a contemplative life gives added urgency to the question of a possible relationship between the emergence of the Kabbalah and Catharism in the middle of the twelfth century. The only scholar who, to my knowledge, has raised the problem—albeit in a rather aphoristic style—was Moses Gaster in his programmatic The Origin of the Kabbalah (Ramsgate, 1894). It is doubtful, however, whether such a relationship can be deduced with certainty from an analysis of the oldest kabbalistic traditions.

The information regarding the beliefs of Cathar groups or individuals contained in Cathar sources or in the acts of the Inquisition reveal few if any elements parallel to kabbalistic doctrine. There is, no doubt, a general similarity in the fundamental assumption common to both groups regarding the reality of a separate higher world belonging entirely to God himself and in which there occur certain dramatic events that have their counterpart in the lower world.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 233-4.

Men with Mystical Tendencies

“The similarities between this phenomenon and Christian monasticism on the one hand and the condition of the perfecti or bonshommes among the Cathars on the other, are especially striking, despite the clear divergences resulting from the different attitudes of Judaism and Christianity toward celibacy. The Nazirites are not simply hasidim in the well-defined sense of the Book of the Pious and German Hasidism.

But it is evident that we are dealing with a parallel stratum in the Jewish communities, many of whose members undoubtedly also inclined toward the more radical demands of German Hasidism. At the end of his halakhic work Rabad himself picked out of his talmudic material precisely that definition of hasiduth that most closely approximated the mentality of the German Hasidim.

R. Ezra of Gerona, in his commentary on the aggadoth, also calls Jacob the Nazirite by the name Jacob the Hasid. What is important for us is the existence of a stratum with society that by its very definition and vocation had the leisure for a contemplative life. It goes without saying that such a stratum could give rise to men with mystical tendencies.

Members of this group are also mentioned in the earliest kabbalistic sources after Jacob the Nazirite as representatives of a mystical tradition; the names may as well be those of historical personalities as of fictitious figures appearing in pseudepigraphic documents. Indeed, it is precisely the fictitious character of these names of perushim and nezirim that seems so characteristic of the mood prevailing in these kabbalistic circles.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 229-31.

Echoes of the Nezirim

“In this generation in France and especially in its southern part we hear with increasing frequency of scholars called by the epithet ha-parush, the ascetic, or ha-nazir, the Nazirite. The exact definition of these terms is provided by a regulation that was undoubtedly composed in this region at the beginning of the thirteenth century, or at best a short time earlier. There it is said that …

“ … one should appoint scholars whose vocation it is to occupy themselves incessantly with the Torah, so that the community might fulfill the duty of the study of the Torah, and in order that the reign of heaven sustain no loss. Perushim [literally: those who are separated, detached] is the name given to scholars who devote themselves exclusively to the study of the Torah; they are called in the language of the Mishnah perushim and in the language of the Bible nezirim—and this detachment [from worldly affairs] leads to purity.”

From this definition it is evident that this institution in France has nothing in common with the ascetic movement of the “Mourners of Zion,” ‘abele siyon, that several centuries earlier had been widespread in the Near East, and above all in Palestine. The traveler Benjamin of Tudela still found remnants of it in Jerusalem in the twelfth century.

The origin of the perushim is, rather, connected with the religious enthusiasm that gripped France in the twelfth century, finding expression in the Jewish milieu as well as in the surrounding Christian world, including the reform movements and their religious heresies.

Naturally, the very choice of words already reflects the spirit of asceticism that characterized the period. These perushim took upon themselves the “yoke of the Torah” and completely detached their thoughts from the affairs of this world. They did not engage in commerce and sought to attain purity.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, p. 229.

Metaphysical Anti-Semitism

“The coupling of masculine and feminine potencies in the upper world, which subsequently came to play such a significant role in the doctrines of the Spanish kabbalists, seems also to have been known in Cathar circles. Here too we should assume a common source in the ancient gnosis rather than immediate influences. However, it is plausible that some details were taken over by the Cathars from Jewish mystics as, for example, the idea, well known to us from the Hekhaloth texts, that Israel was the name of a celestial angel.

Such ideas may also have been introduced into the movement by Jews who attached themselves to the Cathars. Thus, we learn for example that at the end of the twelfth century, a weaver named Johannes Judaeus stood at the head of the Italian Cathars as their bishop. The name would suggest, though it by no means proves, Jewish origin. The surname Judaeus does not always signify Jewish lineage in the Middle Ages.

Another angelological doctrine to be found only among the Cathars and in the kabbalistic traditions of Moses de Leon and the Zohar asserts that the prophet Elijah was an angel descended from heaven. The ideas of the two groups resembled one another, here and there, on the subject of the soul’s fate in the terrestrial paradise and its entry into the celestial paradise after the last judgment, and regarding the garments worn by the souls before their birth that are then preserved in heaven during their earthly existence. But all of these are disparate, and unconnected details, and they concern points of secondary interest only.

As regards the fundamental conceptions, there could of course be no real agreement between the two movements, since in their rejection of the world as the creation of Satan and of the Torah as the law of Satan, the Cathars go much further in their metaphysical anti-Semitism than does the Catholic Church. Besides, the Jewish scholars of Provence were thoroughly conscious of the gulf separating the Jewish conception of the world from that of the Cathars.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 236-7.

The Brides of Satan

“We may also detect a certain resemblance between the doctrine in the Bahir of Satan as the seducer of souls, as the prince of tohu and the material world fashioned from it, and the conceptions of the Cathars with regard to the role of Satan. To be sure, the texts of the Bahir are formulated in a thoroughly Jewish manner, and from the standpoint of the history of religions might also be rooted in other traditions of an earlier period.

One detail found in the older scholarly literature on the Cathars would certainly seem to provide an unexpected parallel to certain sources of kabbalistic demonology. This is the idea of the two wives of Satan, which is preserved in various statements on the diabolical hierarchy collected by the brothers Jacob and Isaac Cohen of Soria, who brought them back from their travels in Provence around the middle of the thirteenth century.

It would conform to a surprising extent with the same idea, inferred by C. Schmidt from a remark of the generally exceedingly well informed Cistercian Peter de Vaux-Cernay, to the effect that the two biblical figures Ahalah and Ahalibah (Ezek. 23:4) were regarded by certain Cathars as the two wives of Satan.

In reality, however, the source in question refers to the two wives of the supreme deity, of whom one was the mother of Christ while the other was that of Satan. The analogy with the demonological speculations of the Kabbalah is therefore spurious; besides, these speculations have no direct relation to the doctrine of the aeons and the sefiroth, with which they must have become linked at a later date. Most probably the sources of the demonological systems that emerged in Provence, go back to the Orient, although the statements on this subject in the texts available to Isaac Cohen were pseudepigraphic in character.

Incidentally, the idea of Lilith as one of the wives, or even as the true wife, of Satan originated in these sources and subsequently passed into the Zohar. Earlier Oriental sources of Jewish magic mention no such marriage and seem to know nothing about a bride or wife of Satan.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, p. 235.

The Double Hokhmah

“In fact, they occasionally seem to force this hypothesis upon us. In that case it is not too much to assume that the gnostic material of Oriental origin in the Book Bahir, once it was received and adopted by a circle of religiously agitated and productive men, amply suffices to explain the inner development of the Kabbalah up to, and including, the Zohar. But how are we to understand the development that led to that ferment, the evidence of which we have before us in the Book Bahir itself? On this point we are forced to assume the existence of some kind of connection, whether in literary or oral form, with older, premedieval materials.

Certain details, as far as I can see, can have no other explanation and above all cannot be attributed to fortuitous coincidences. They prove that the gnostic symbolisms that occupied a meaningful and comprehensible position within their own framework—as for example in the system of the Valentinian gnosis—found their way into Jewish sources, largely detaching themselves, of course, from their organic connection with gnostic mythology.

Today we can no longer (or not yet?) say anything about the nature of these sources, or whether, perhaps, there once existed entire systems of a Jewish character parallel to the classic systems of Gnosticism or to the later gnostic ramifications of the kind that survived in the Aramaic-Syrian linguistic area, such as, for example, the Mandaean gnosis. Only obscure traces of these sources, not a system but merely fragments of symbols, seem to have come into the hands of the redactors of the Bahir. Nevertheless, their attraction was still strong enough to stimulate the combination of old material with new associations of ideas and, thus, to give it a new content.

A surprising detail of this kind is the doctrine of the double Sophia or hokhmah that among the first kabbalists and as early as the Book Bahir, served as a model for similar symbols occupying a double position within the framework of the divine world, the pleroma.

Thus we have a double “Fear of God” (sections 97, 129, 131), a double “Justice” (sedeq, sections 50, 133), a double he in the Tetragrammaton YHWH (section 20), and also, without a doubt, a double Shekhinah (section 11). The region and position of these power symbols (“the lower he; the lower Justice”) are always, in this case, close to the margin and termination of the world of the aeons, and are connected with the symbolism of the Shekhinah.

But these expositions in the Bahir are most precise in just those instances where they are related to the double hokhmah. That should give us cause for thought. The Gnostics, especially those of the Valentinian school, developed the idea of two aeons that are both called Sophia. One, the “upper Sophia,” is high above, in the world of the pleroma; the other, however, which is also related to the symbolism of the “virgin of light,” is found at its lower end.

The gnostic myth of the cosmic drama told of the fall of the lower Sophia, which succumbed to the temptation of the hyle and fell from the pleroma into the lower worlds, where it is either wholly, or at least in certain parts of its luminous being, “in exile.” Even so, this lower, fallen Sophia remains related to the pneuma, the highest constitutive part of the human soul, the contact between these two entities being described by means of different symbols in different systems. This divine spark in man is connected with the drama of the exile of the “lower Sophia.”

It is precisely in the corresponding levels of the structure of the divine middoth that we find, in different passages of the Bahir, the two hypostases or aeons named hokhmah, as the second and the tenth sefirah. Wisdom simply is, in section 96 for example, the upper Wisdom, the “beginning of the paths of God” in the midst of creation.

When God placed this Wisdom in the heart of Solomon he adapted the upper Wisdom to the form of the lower Wisdom, which he was able to grasp. In the form of the lower Wisdom, which is the “daughter” whom God, as it were, gave in marriage to Solomon, “the thirty-two paths of the Sophia,” all the powers and ways of the pleroma are united (sections 43, 62, 67).”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 91-2.

The Revelations of the Prophet Elijah and the Celestial Academy

” … Their accounts emphasize the mystical inspiration, namely, the “appearance of the Holy Spirit,” in one of the most distinguished families representing the rabbinic culture of Provençal Jewry. These sources name several historical personalities to whom the prophet Elijah is said to have revealed himself (gilluy Eliyahu)-, that is, they were the recipients of celestial mysteries of which earlier tradition knew nothing until then, and which came to them as revelations from above.

These revelations may have been of a purely visionary character, or they may have been experiences of illumination sustained while in a state of contemplation. I have expressed my opinion elsewhere on the meaning of this category of gilluy Eliyahu, which is of considerable importance for an understanding of the relationship between religious authority and mysticism in Judaism.

The prophet Elijah is for rabbinic Judaism the guardian of the sacred tradition. In the end, with the arrival of the Messiah, he will bring the divergent opinions of the teachers of the Torah into harmony. To the pious, he now reveals himself on diverse occasions in the marketplace, on the road, and at home. Important religious traditions of the Talmud and even an entire midrashic work are attributed to his instruction. He is present every time a child is admitted into the Covenant of Abraham—that is, at the establishment of the sacral connection between the generations by means of circumcision. It is by no means the mystics alone who encounter him; he may just as well reveal himself to the simple Jew in distress as to one perfect in saintliness and learning.

As the zealot of God in the Bible, he is the guarantor of the tradition. He is, as I have written, “not the kind of figure of whom it could be supposed that he would communicate or reveal anything whatsoever which stood in fundamental contradiction to such a tradition.” A tradition that was acknowledged to have come from the prophet Elijah therefore became part, in the consciousness of the faithful, of the main body of Jewish tradition, even if it brought something new; and it stood above any possible suspicion of foreign influence or heretical attitude.

It is no wonder, then, that at important turning points in the history of Jewish mysticism—precisely at those times when something new appeared—constant reference was made to revelations of the prophet Elijah. Understood in this sense, “tradition” included not only that which was transmitted on earth and in history, but also that which was received from the “celestial academy” above.”

–Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 1987, pp. 35-6.

Footnote 55 on the Use of the Name Iao

“On the use of the name Iao in the magic of the age of syncretism there is an abundance of material. Most of the older examples have been collected by W. von Baudissin, Studien zur Semitischen Religionsgeschichte, vol. 1 (Leipzig, 1876), 179-254. The passage from Yesirah is not referred to by Baudissin, nor did R. Reitzenstein make use of it in his treatment of the Book Yesirah, for which he assumes an ultimately Hellenistic origin reaching back to the second century; his arguments are based on a comparative study of letter-mysticism in late antiquity; see Reitzenstein, Poimandres (Leipzig, 1904), 291.

As an historian with a broad perspective, Reitzenstein perhaps had a clearer view than many other Jewish scholars, who often regarded the Book Yesirah as if it were suspended in a vacuum in the midst of the history of religions. It should also be noted, in this connection, that in the Coptic Pistis Sophia, chap. 136, Iao appears in a similar context: Jesus calls out his name as he turns toward the four corners of the world.

The sealing of the six directions of space by means of the permutations of Iao corresponds to the idea that this name is the master of the four directions of the world, that is, the master of the cosmos. Cf. the material assembled by Erik Peterson, Heis Theos (Göttingen, 1926), 306-307. Peterson’s interpretation of the magical name Arbathiao as “the four Iao” is, however, utterly unconvincing. The magical name is nothing other than a syncretistic transcription of the Tetragrammaton as “the tetrad [of the four letters of the name YHWH upon which is based the name] of Iao.”

This is proven by the corresponding form Tetrasya, which we find in the Hebrew writings of the Hekhaloth and which was still unknown to Peterson; cf. my Major Trends, 56, 363. The terminology employed in the Yesirah for these three directions of space is also very ancient: the phrase “above and below, in front and behind, right and left” is used in exactly the same manner in Akkadian, and is evidently also behind the wording of the Mishnah Hagigah 2:1 (first century), where “in front” and “behind” are to be understood spatially.

This usage was no longer understood by the amoraim, and was in any case transferred from the spatial to the temporal, as S. E. Löwenstamm, “On an Alleged Gnostic Element in Mishnah Hagiga II, 1″ (in Hebrew) in M. Haram (ed.), Yehezkel Kaufmann Jubilee Volume (Jerusalem, 1960), 112-121, has shown, drawing upon Akkadian material. His explanations furnished additional linguistic evidence in support of the antiquity of the Book Yesirah, although precisely the passage under consideration here escaped his attention.”

–Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 1987, pp. 33-4

Kabbalistic Foundations of Magic

I have briefly developed here some of the fundamental concepts of the Book Yesirah because they are of essential importance for the understanding of what follows and because this book was later read and interpreted by the kabbalists as a vade mecum for the Kabbalah. In contrast to later interpretations, the special charm of this text consists in the frequently felicitous and in any event ever-vivid imagery and fullness of meaning it lends to most of the concepts newly created in order to express abstractions. The author finds concrete and appropriate designations for notions that, until then, Hebrew did not know how to render in adequate terms.

That he failed on certain points and that his images sometimes remain obscure for us—which only encouraged their subsequent reinterpretation—is a clear sign of the difficulty of his efforts and of the energy with which he undertook them. The book’s solemn and enigmatic manner of speaking made it possible for the Jewish philosophers as well as the kabbalists of the Middle Ages to appeal to its authority.

Saadya, in the earliest extant (although certainly not the oldest) commentary interpreted it around 933 in accordance with his philosophic conception of the doctrine of Creation and his Jewish theology in general. Since then, a complete series of more or less detailed Hebrew and Arabic commentaries continued to be written down to the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

Everyone found in the book more or less what he was looking for, and the fact that Yehudah Halevi devoted extensive attention to it, almost a complete commentary, in the fourth tractate of his principal work of philosophy and theology, Sefer ha-Kuzari (around 1130), may serve as an indication of the great authority the book enjoyed.

But at the same time, this text also remained influential in entirely different circles, those who saw in its theory of language some sort of a foundation of magic, or those for whom the doctrine of the book included authentic elements of the Merkabah gnosis and of cosmogony.

The Book Yesirah was studied in the schools of the sages of Narbonne as well as among the French rabbis of the school of the tosafists and among the German Hasidim of the same period, and many commentaries have come down to us from these circles, which were generally averse to philosophic speculation.

It offers remarkable parallels, to say the least, to the turn which the Kabbalists gave to the doctrine of the sefiroth. It is no longer possible to say with certainty to what extent the study of the Book Yesirah was regarded in these circles as an esoteric discipline in the strict sense of the term. Perhaps one could view the text as situated at the limits of esotericism, partly within it, but partly already beyond it.

–Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 1987, pp. 33-5.

Letters by Means of Which Heaven and Earth Were Created

The last six sefiroth are defined in an entirely different way; they represent the six dimensions of space, though it is not expressly stated that they emanated from the earlier elements. Nevertheless, it is said of the totality of these sefiroth that their beginning and their end were connected with each other and merged one into the other.

The primal decade thus constitutes a unity—although its nature is not sufficiently defined—but is by no means identical with the deity. The author, no doubt intentionally, employs expressions borrowed from the description of the hayyoth, the animals bearing the Throne in Ezekiel’s vision of the Merkabah. Hayyoth means literally “living beings,” and it can be said of the sefiroth that they are the “living numerical beings,” but nonetheless creatures:

“Their appearance is like that of a flash of lightning and their goal is without end. His word is in them when they come forth [from Him] and when they return. At His bidding do they speed swiftly as a whirlwind, and before His throne they prostrate themselves” (1:6).

They are the “depths” of all things:

“The depth of the beginning and the depth of the end, the depth of good and the depth of evil, the depth of above and the depth of below—and a single Master, God, the faithful king, rules over all of them from His holy abode” (1:5).

The fact that the theory of the significance of the twenty-two consonants as the fundamental elements of all creatures in the second chapter partly conflicts with the first chapter has caused some scholars (for example, Louis Ginzberg) to attribute to the author the conception of a kind of double creation: the one ideal and pure brought about by means of the sefiroth, which are conceived in a wholly ideal and abstract manner; the other one effected by the interconnection of the elements of speech. According to some views, the obscure word belimah, which always accompanies the word sefiroth, is simply a composite of beli mah—without anything, without actuality, ideal.

However, judging from the literal meaning, it would seem that it should be understood as signifying “closed,” that is, closed within itself. I am inclined to believe that here, too, an as yet unidentified Greek term underlies the expression.

The text offers no more detailed statement of the relationship between the sefiroth and the letters, and the sefiroth are not referred to again. While the numerical-mystical speculation on the sefiroth probably has its origin in neo-Pythagorean sources—Nikomachos of Gerasa, the celebrated author of a mystical arithmology who lived around 140 C.E., came from Palestine east of the Jordan—the idea of “letters by means of which heaven and earth were created” may well come from within Judaism itself.

In the first half of the third century it is encountered in a statement of the Babylonian amora, Rab, originally of Palestine. It is perfectly conceivable that two originally different theories were fused or juxtaposed in the author’s doctrine concerning the thirty-two paths. This range of ideas would fit well in the second or third century in Palestine or its immediate environs.”

–Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 1987, pp. 27-9.