Samizdat

"Samizdat: Publishing forbidden literature."

Tag: Middle Ages

Eco: Conclusion

the-confusion-of-tongues-by-gustave-dorecc81-1865

Gustav Doré (1832-1883), The Confusion of Tongues, 1865-68, currently held privately. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

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

Comenius, Linguarum methodus novissima

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

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

J. Trabant, Apeliotes, oder der Sinn der Sprache

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

Claude Hagège, Le souffle de la langue

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

V.V. Ivanov, Reconstructing the Past

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Eco: Primitives and Organization of Content, 2

Ramon Llull, Arbor naturalis et logicalis, Liber de logica nova, Valencia, Alonso de Proaza, 1512

Ramon Llull (1232-1315), Arbor naturalis et logicalis, Liber de logica nova, Valencia, 1512. A Porphyrian Tree of logical relations, original c. 1305, logica nova edition 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. 

“Nevertheless, such a dictionary-like structure would not allow us to define the difference between a cat and a tiger, or even between a canine and a feline animal. To do this, it is necessary to insert differences into the classification.

Aristotle, in his studies of definition, said that, in order to define the essence of a thing, we should select such attributes which “although each of them has a wider extension than the subject, all together they have not” (Posterior Analytics II, 96a, 35).

Such a structured representation was known in the Middle Ages as Porphyry’s Tree (because it was derived from the Isagoge of the Neo-Platonic philosopher Porphyry, living in the second-third century AD), and was still taken as a definitional model by the English searchers for a real character.

In a Porphyrian Tree each genus is divided by two differences which constitute a pair of opposites. Each genus, with the addition of one of its divisive differences, produces an underlying species, which is so defined by its genus and its constitutive difference.

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 10.2, p. 225

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 10.2, p. 225. 

In figure 10.2, there is an example of how a Porphyrian Tree establishes the difference between human beings and gods (understood as natural forces) and between human beings and beasts.

The terms in upper-case refer to genera and species while those in lower-case refer to differences, that is, to particular accidents which occur only in a given species. We see that the diagram defines a human being as a “rational and mortal animal,” which, in classical terms, is considered a satisfactory definition because there cannot be a rational and mortal animal which is not a human being, and only human beings are so.

Unfortunately this diagram does not tell us anything about the differences between dogs and cats, or horses and wolves, or cats and tigers. In order to obtain new definitions, new differences need to be inserted into the diagram.

Besides this, we can see that, although differences occur in one species, in this tree there are differences, such as “mortal/immortal,” which occur in two different species.

This makes it difficult to know whether or not the same differences will be reproduced at some further point in the tree when it becomes necessary to specify the difference not just between dogs and cats, but also between violets and roses, diamonds and sapphires, and angels and demons.

Even taxonomy as practiced by modern zoology defines through dichotomies. Dogs are distinguished from wolves, and cats from tigers, on the basis of a dichotomy by taxonomic entities known as taxa (figure 10.3).

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 10.3, p. 226

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 10.3, p. 226. 

Yet modern zoologists are well aware that a system of classification is not the same as a system of definitions.

Classification does not capture the essence of the thing itself; it simply embeds things in a system of increasingly inclusive classes, where the lower nodes are linked by entailment to the upper ones: if something is a Canis familiaris, it cannot but be, by entailment, a Canis, a canid and a fissiped.

But Canidae and Fissipeda are taken as primitives only in the framework of the classification and are not considered as semantic primitives.

Zoologists know that, within their classification, at the node Canidae they must presuppose a set of properties common to the whole family, and that at the node Carnivora there is a set of properties common to the whole order: in the same vein, “mammal” is not a semantic primitive but a technical name which stands for (more or less) “viviparous animal which nourishes its young by the secretion of milk through its mammary glands.”

The name of a substance can be either designative (thus indicating the genus to which that substance belongs) or diagnostic, that is, transparent and self-definatory.

In Species plantarum by Linnaeus (1753), given the two species, Arundo calamogrostis and Arundo arenaria, their designative names show that they belong to the same genus and establish their difference; however, their properties are then made clearer by a diagnostic description which specifies that the Arundo calamogrostis is “calycibus unifloris, cumulo ramoso,” while the Arundo arenaria is “calycibus unifloris, foliis involutiis, mucronato pungentibus” (see Slaughter 1982: 80).

However, the terms used for this description are no longer pseudo-primitives–like those of the metalanguage of taxas; they are terms of the common natural language used for diagnostic purposes.

By contrast, for the authors of a priori languages, each expression had to express all the properties of the designated thing. We shall see how such a difficulty will affect all the projects discussed in the following chapters.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 225-7.

Eco: Perfection and Secrecy

Kircher Athanasius, 1667 Magneticum naturae regnum, Frontispiece

Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), frontispiece, Magneticum naturae regnum, Rome, Ignati de Lazaris, 1667, held by the Linda Hall Library, LHL Digital Collections, call number Q155.K58 1667. This engraving is often referred to with the expression, “the world is bound in secret knots.” 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. 

“We might think it is a pity that the search for a language that was as perfect as it was universal should lead to such a conception of a tongue reserved for the “happy few.” But it is perhaps nothing more than our “democratic” illusion to imagine that perfection must imply universality.

In order to understand the cultural framework of both Kircher’s Egyptology and Rosicrucian holy languages, it must be remembered that for the Hermetic tradition truth was not usually regarded as accessible to the many. Indeed, there existed a marked tendency to believe that what is true is unknown and hardly knowable, if not to a restricted elite (cf. Eco 1990).

There is a radical difference between the gnostic and Neo-Platonist ideas of late antiquity (as well as their Renaissance versions–which survived in the Counter-Reformation Catholicism of Kircher) and the Christian message, as it was proclaimed throughout most of the Middle Ages.

For medieval Christianity, salvation was promised to the meek and humble in spirit, and did not require any special knowledge: everyone can understand what is required in order to deserve the kingdom of heaven.

Medieval teaching reduced the aura of mystery that accompanied the revelation–which was explained by formulae, parables and images that even the uneducated might grasp: truth was considered effable, therefore public.

For Hermetic thought, instead, the cosmic drama could only be understood by an aristocracy of wisdom, able to decipher the hieroglyphs of the universe; the main characteristic of truth was its ineffability: it could not be expressed in simple words, was ambiguous by nature, was to be found through the coincidence of opposites, and could be expressed only by initiatic revelations.

Within this tradition, public accessibility was simply not a criterion by which a perfect language was judged. If one does not understand this point, one cannot understand why the cryptographers of this period dedicated their ciphers to grand-dukes deep in military campaigns and political machinations, presenting them as arcane suggestions.

Perhaps this is all merely another manifestation of the natural hypocrisy of a century fascinated by dissimulation, a feature that constitutes the continuing charm of baroque civilization.

It remains uncertain if that celebrated book Breviarium politicorum secundum rubricas Mazarinicas (1684) really collects Mazarin’s political thoughts or is a libel invented to defame him: in whatever case, it certainly reflects the image of a man of politics in the 1600’s.

It is notable that in the chapter entitled “Reading and writing” it recommends that, if one needs to write in a public place, it is convenient to place upon a lectern several already written pages as if one intended to copy them out, letting them be visible and concealing under them the paper upon which one is really writing, guarded in such a way that no one who approaches you will be able to read it.

Resorting to ciphers is suggested, but in such a way that at first glance the message looks understandable and provides irrelevant information (the canonical reference is to Trithemius).

Not only must the message be translated in a secret writing, but this writing must also conceal its own secrecy, because a cipher that blatantly appears as such can arouse suspicion and encourage decipherment.

Thus on the one hand the mystic who writes about perfect and holy languages winks his eye at the politician who will use this language as his secret code; on the other hand the cryptographer sells to the politician a cipher (that is, an instrument of power and dominion) that for him, the Hermetic initiate, is also a key to supernatural truths.

Such a man was Johann Valentin Andreae, whom many have considered (and many still do consider) to be, if not the author, at least the inspirer of the Rosicrucian manifestos. Andreae was a Lutheran mystic and writer of utopian works, like the Christianopolis of 1619, similar in spirit to those of Bacon and Campanella.

Edighoffer (1982: 175ff) has noted that many of his authentic works, like the Chemical Weddings, abound with ciphered expressions, according to the expressed principle that “Arcana publicata vilescunt” and that one ought not to cast pearls before swine.

In the same vein Andreae used ciphered messages in his correspondence with Augustus, Duke of Brunswick. Edighoffer remarks that there is nothing surprising in this: it was a correspondence filled with political observations, one, moreover, that took place during the Thirty Years War, when the difference between political and religious comments was minimal and the risks in both were the same.

In the light of these, as it were, “private” practices of the Rosicrucians, their public appeals concerning the need to use a secret language to inaugurate a universal reform must seem even more ambiguous.

They are so to such an extent as to make credible what not only modern historians but even the supposed authors of the manifestos themselves had always claimed: the manifestos were nothing but a joke, a sophomoric game, an exercise in literary pastiche made up of all the buzz-topics of the day: the search for the language of Adam, the dream of a sensual language, glossolalic illusions, cryptography, kabbala . . . And since everything went into this pot au feu, anything could be fished out again.

Thus, as will always happen when the specter of mystery is raised, there were those who read the Rosicrucian manifestos “paranoiacally,” discovering in them what they wanted to believe anyway, and needed to rediscover continually.

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 190-3.

Eco: The Perfect Language of Images

original

Iamblicus (250-325 CE), De Mysteriis Aegyptiorum, Chaldoaerum, AssyriorumOn the Mysteries of the Egyptians, Chaldeans and Assyrians, Lyon: Joannis Tornaesium, 1577. In 2000, Joseph Peterson published a translation from the Greek by Alexander Wilder dated 1911 on the Esoteric Archives. A Latin edition published by Marsilio Ficino in Venice in 1497 is on AussagenLogic.org, with several exemplars on Google Books. 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. 

“Already in Plato, as in Pythagoras before him, there appeared a veneration for the ancient wisdom of the Egyptians. Aristotle was more skeptical, and when he came to recount the history of philosophy in the first book of the Metaphysics, he started directly with the Greeks.

Influenced by Aristotle, the Christian authors of the Middle Ages showed relatively little curiosity about ancient Egypt. References to this tradition can be found only in marginal alchemical texts like Picatrix.

Isidore of Seville shortly mentioned the Egyptians as the inventors of geometry and astronomy, and said that the original Hebrew letters became the basis for the Greek alphabet when Isis, queen of the Egyptians, found them and brought them back to her own country (Etymologiarum, I, iii, 5).

By contrast, one could put the Renaissance under the standard of what Baltrušaitis (1967) has called the “search for Isis.” Isis became thus the symbol for an Egypt regarded as the wellspring of original knowledge, and the inventor of a sacred scripture, capable of expressing the unfathomable reality of the divine.

The Neoplatonic revival, in which Ficino played the role of high priest, restored to Egypt its ancient primacy.

In the Enneads (V, 8, 5-6) Plotinus wrote:

“The wise sages of Egypt [ . . . ] in order to designate things with wisdom do not use designs of letters, which develop into discourses and propositions, and which represent sounds and words; instead they use designs of images, each of which stands for a distinct thing; and it is these that they sculpt onto their temples. [ . . . ] Every incised sign is thus, at once, knowledge, wisdom, a real entity captured in one stroke.”

Iamblicus, in his De mysteriis aegyptiorum, said that the Egyptians, when they invented their symbols, imitating the nature of the universe and the creation of the gods, revealed occult intuitions by symbols.

The translation of the Corpus Hermeticum (which Ficino published alongside his translations of Iamblicus and other Neoplatonic texts) was under the sign of Egypt, because, for Ficino, the ancient Egyptian wisdom came from Hermes Trismegistus.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 144-5.

Eco: Magic Names & Kabbalistic Hebrew, 3

John-Dee-painting-originally-had-circle-of-Human-Skulls-X-Rays-Show

Henry Gillard Glindoni (1852-1913), John Dee Performing an Experiment Before Elizabeth I, purchased from Mr. Henry S. Wellcome circa 1900-36 as Accession Number 47369i, courtesy of Wellcome Library. The painting portrays Dr. John Dee conjuring for Queen Elizabeth I at Dr. Dee’s home in Mortlake. On the Queen’s left are her adviser William Cecil and Sir Walter Raleigh. Dr. Dee’s notorious scryer, Edward Kelley, is seated behind Dr. Dee, wearing a skullcap that conceals his cropped ears. This work caused a stir when an x-ray scan of the painting revealed that Dr. Dee originally stood in a magical circle comprised of human skulls. The skulls were presumably removed by the artist at the request of the original buyer. An extensive collection of works by Dr. Dee is available on the Esoteric Archives site. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“John Dee–not only magus and astrologer to Queen Elizabeth I, but profound érudit and sharp politician as well–summoned angels of dubious celestial provenance by invoking names like Zizop, Zchis, Esiasch, Od and Iaod, provoking the admiring comment, “He seemeth to read as Hebrew is read” (cf. A True and Faithful Relation of 1659).

There exists, however, a curious passage in the Arabic Hermetic treatise, known in the Middle Ages through a Latin translation, called the Picatrix (III, I, 2: cf. Pingree 1986), in which the Hebrew and Chaldean idioms are associated with the saturnine spirit, and, hence with melancholy.

Saturn, on the one hand, was the sign of the knowledge of deep and secret things and of eloquence. On the other, however, it carried a set of negative connotations inherited from Judaic law, and was associated with black cloths, obscure streams, deep wells and lonely spots, as well as with metals like lead, iron and all that is black and fetid, with thick-leafed plants and, among animals, with “camelos nigros, porcos, simias, ursos, canes et gatos [sic]” (“black camels, pigs, moneys, bears, dogs and cats”).

This is a very interesting passage; if the saturnine spirit, much in vogue during the Renaissance, was associated with sacred languages, it was also associated with things, places and animals whose common property was their aura of black magic.

Thus, in a period in which Europe was becoming receptive to new sciences that would eventually alter the known face of the universe, royal palaces and the elegant villas in the Tuscan hills around Florence were humming with the faint burr of Semitic-sounding incantations–often on the lips of the scientists themselves–manifesting the fervid determination to win a mastery of both the natural and the supernatural worlds.

Naturally, things could not long remain in such a simple state. Enthusiasm for kabbalist mysticism fostered the emergence of a Hebrew hermeneutics that could hardly fail to influence the subsequent development of Semitic philology.

From the De verbo mirifico and the De arte kabbalistica by Reuchelin, to the De harmonia mundi of Francesco Giorgi or the Opus de arcanis catholicae veritatis by Galatinus, all the way to the monumental Kabbala denudata by Knorr von Rosenroth (passing through the works of Jesuit authors whose fervor at the thought of new discoveries allowed them to overcome their scruples at handling such suspect material), there crystallized traditions for reading Hebrew texts.

This is a story filled with exciting exegetical adventures, numerological fabulizing, mixtures of Pythagoreanism, Neoplatonism and kabbalism. Little of it has any bearing on the search for a perfect language. Yet the perfect language was already there: it was the Hebrew of the kabbalists, a language that revealed by concealing, obscuring and allegorizing.

To return to the linguistic model outlined in our first chapter, the kabbalists were fascinated by an expression-substance–the Hebrew texts–of which they sought to retrieve the expression-form (the grammar), always remaining rather confused apropos of the corresponding content-form.

In reality, their search aimed at rediscovering, by combining new expression-substances, a content-continuum as yet unknown, formless, though seemingly dense with possibility. Although the Christian kabbalists continually discovered new methods of segmenting an infinite continuum of content, its nature continued to elude them.

In principle, expression and content ought to be conformal, but the expression-form appeared as the iconic image of something shrouded in mystery, thus leaving the process of interpretation totally adrift (cf. Eco 1990).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 124-6.

Eco: Magic Names and Kabbalistic Hebrew

c681ae646961f196b2a03b422d05f00c

Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim (1486-1535), man inscribed within a Pentagram with an astrological symbol at each pointDe occulta philosophia, 1533 edition, p. 163, digitized as call number Z1f9 by the Historical Medical Library of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.  

“The date 1492 is an important one for Europe: it marks not only the discovery of America, but also the fall of Granada, through which Spain (and thus all Europe) severed its last link with Islamic culture.

As a consequence of Granada, moreover, their Christian majesties expelled the Jews from Spain, setting them off on a journey that carried them across the face of Europe. Among them there were the kabbalists, who spread their influence across the whole continent.

The kabbala of the names suggested that the same sympathetic links holding between sublunar objects and celestial bodies also apply to names.

According to Agrippa, Adam took both the properties of things and the influence of the stars into account when he devised his names; thus “these names contain within them all the remarkable powers of the things that they indicate” (De occulta philosophia, I, 70).

In this respect, Hebrew writing must be considered as particularly sacred; it exhibits perfect correspondence between letters, things and numbers (I, 74).

Giovanni Pico della Mirandola attended the Platonic academy of Marsilio Ficino where he had, in the spirit of the times, begun his study of the languages of ancient wisdom whose knowledge had gone into eclipse during the Middle Ages; Greek, Hebrew, Arabic and Chaldean.

Pico rejected astrology as a means of divination (Disputatio adversos astrologicos divinatores), but accepted astral magic as a legitimate technique for avoiding control by the stars, replacing it with the illuminated will of the magus.

If it were true that the universe was constructed from letters and numbers, it would follow that whoever knew the mathematical rules behind this construction might act directly on the universe.

According to Garin (1937: 162), such a will to penetrate the secrets of nature in order to dominate it presaged the ideal of Galileo.

In 1486 Pico made the acquaintance of the singular figure of a converted Jew, Flavius Mithridates, with whom he began an intense period of collaboration (for Mithridates see Secret 1964: 25ff).

Although Pico could boast a certain familiarity with Hebrew, he needed the help of the translations that Mithridates prepared for him to plumb the depths of the texts he wished to study.

Among Pico’s sources we find many of the works of Abulafia (Wirszubski 1989). Mithridates‘ translations certainly helped Pico; at the same time, however, they misled him–misleading all succeeding Christian kabbalists in his wake.

In order for a reader to use properly the kabbalist techniques of notariqon, gematria and temurah, it is obvious that the texts must remain in Hebrew: as soon as they are translated, most of the kabbalistic wordplays become unintelligible or, at least, lose their flavor.

In the translations he provided for Pico, Mithridates did often insert original Hebrew terms into his text; yet Pico (in part because typesetters of this period lacked Hebrew characters) often translated them into Latin, so augmenting the ambiguity and the obscurity of the text itself.

Beyond this, Mithridates, in common with many of the first Christian kabbalists, also had the vice of interpolating into the Hebrew texts references supposedly demonstrating that the original author had recognized the divinity of Christ. As a consequence, Pico was able to claim: “In any controversy between us and the Jews we can confute their arguments on the basis of the kabbalistic books.”

In the course of his celebrated nine hundred Conclusiones philosophicae, cabalisticae et theologicae, among which are included twenty-six Conclusiones magicae (1486), Pico demonstrated that the tetragrammaton, the sacred name of God, Yahweh, turned into the name of Jesus with the simple insertion of the letter sin.

This proof was used by all successive Christian kabbalists. In this way, Hebrew, a language susceptible to all the combinatory manipulations of the kabbalist tradition, was raised, once again, to the rank of a perfect language.

For example, in the last chapter of the Heptaplus (1489) Pico, taking off with an interpretation of the first word of Genesis (Bereshit, “In the beginning”), launches himself on a series of death-defying permutational and anagrammatical leaps.

To understand the logic of Pico’s reading, notice that in the following quotation the Hebrew characters have been substituted with the current name of the letters, Pico’s transliterations have been respected, and he is working upon the Hebrew form of the word: Bet, Resh, Alef, Shin, Yod, Tau.

“I say something marvelous, unparalleled, incredible . . . If we take the third letter and unite it with the first, we get [Alef Bet] ab. If we take the first, double it, and unite it with the second, we get [Bet Bet Resh] bebar. If we read all except the fourth with the first and the last, we get [Shin Bet Tau] sciabat.

If we place the first three in the order in which they appear, we get [Bet Resh Alef] bara. If we leave the first and take the next three, we get [Resh Alef Shin] rosc. If we leave the first two and take the two that follow, we get [Alef Shin] es.

If, leaving the first three, we unite the fourth with the last, we get [Shin Tau] seth. Once again, if we unite the second with the first, we get [Resh Bet] rab. If we put after the third, the fifth and the fourth, we get [Alef Yod Shin] hisc.

If we unite the first two letters with the last two, we get [Bet Resh Yod Tau] berith. If we unite the last to the first, we obtain the twelfth and last letter, which is [Tau Bet] thob, turning the thau into the letter theth, an extremely common procedure in Hebrew . . .

Ab means the father; bebar in the son and through the son (in fact, the beth put before means both things); resith indicates the beginning; sciabath means rest and end; bara means he created; rosc is head; es is fire; seth is fundament; rab means of the great; hisc of the man; berith with a pact; tob with goodness.

Thus taking the phrase all together and in order, it becomes: “The father in the son and for the son, beginning and end, that is, rest, created the head, the fire, and the fundament of the great man with a good pact.”

When Pico (in his “Magic Conclusion” 22) declared that “Nulla nomina ut significativa, et in quantum nomina sunt, singula et per se sumpta, in Magico opere virtutem habere possunt, nisi sint Hebraica, vel inde proxima derivata” (“No name, in so far as it has a meaning, and in so far as it is a name, singular and self-sufficient, can have a virtue in Magic, unless that name be in Hebrew or directly derived from it”), he meant to say that, on the basis of the supposed correspondence between the language of Adam and the structure of the world, words in Hebrew appeared as forces, as sound which, as soon as they are unleashed, are able to influence the course of events.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 119-22.

Eco: Kabbalism and Lullism in Modern Culture

Marsilio_Ficino

Marsilio Ficino (1433-99), a bust published in “Marsilio Ficino and Renaissance Neoplatonism,” by Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, on Rosicrucian.org. 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. 

“Hebrew was not the only beneficiary of the passion for archaic wisdom that gripped scholars from the end of the Middle Ages onwards. The dawn of the modern era also saw a revival of interest in Greek thought and in the Greek’s fascination with Egypt and its mysterious hieroglyphic script (see ch. 7).

Greek texts were rediscovered and enthusiastically assigned an antiquity they did not, in fact, possess. They included the Orphic Hymns, attributed to Orpheus, but, in fact, written probably between the second and third centuries AD; the Chaldean Oracles, also written in the second century, but attributed to Zoroaster; and, above all, the Corpus Hermeticum.

This was a compilation acquired in 1460 for Cosimo de’ Medici in Florence, and immediately rushed to Marsilio Ficino so that he might translate it.

This last compilation, as was later shown, was the least archaic of all. In 1614, by using stylistic evidence and by comparing the innumerable contradictions among the documents, Isaac Casaubon, in his De rebus sacris et ecclesiasticis, showed that it was a collection of texts by different authors, all writing in late Hellenistic times under the influences of Egyptian spirituality.

None of this was apparent in 1460, however. Ficino took the texts to be archaic, directly written by the mythical Hermes or Mercurius Trismegistus.

Ficino was struck to discover that his account of the creation of the universe resembled that of Genesis, yet–he said–we should not be amazed, because Mercurius could be none other than Moses himself (Theologica platonica, 8, 1).

This enormous historical error, as Yates says, was destined to have surprising results (1964: 18-9).

The Hermetic tradition provided a magico-astrological  account of the cosmos. Celestial bodies exercise their power and influence over earthly things, and by knowing the planetary laws one can not only predict these influences, but also manipulate them.

There exists a relation of sympathy between the universal macrocosm and the human microcosm, a latticework of forces which it is possible to harness through astral magic.

Astral magic was practiced through words and other signs, because there is a language by which human beings can command the stars. Such miracles can be performed through “talismans,” that is, images which might guarantee safe recovery, health or physical prowess.

In his De vita coelitus comparanda, Ficino provided a wealth of details concerning how such talismans were to be worn; how certain plants linked by sympathy to certain stars were to be consumed; how magical ceremonies were to be celebrated with the proper perfumes, garments and songs.

Talismanic magic works because the bond which unites the occult virtues of earthly things and the celestial bodies which instilled them is expressed by signatures, that is, formal aspects of material things that recall certain features (properties or powers) of the corresponding heavenly bodies.

God himself has rendered the sympathies between macrocosm and microcosm perceptible by stamping a mark, a sort of seal, onto each object of this world (cf. Thorndike 1923-58; Foucault 1966; Couliano 1984; Bianchi 1987).

In a text that can stand as the foundation for such a doctrine of signatures, Paracelsus declared that:

“The ars signata teaches the way in which the true and genuine names must be assigned to all things, the same names that Adam, the Protoplastus, knew in the complete and perfect way [ . . . ] which show, at the same time, the virtue, the power, and the property of this or that thing. [ . . . ]

This is the signator who signs the horns of the stag with branches so that his age may be known: the stag having as many years as his horns have branches. [ . . . ] This is the signator who covers the tongue of a sick sow with excrescences, so that her impurity may be known; if the tongue is impure so the whole body is impure.

This is the signator who tints the clouds with divers colors, whereby it is possible to forecast the changes of the heavens. (De natura rerum, I, 10, “De signatura rerum“).”

Even the Middle Ages were aware that “habent corpora omnia ad invisibilia bona simulitudinem” (Richard of Saint Victor, Benjamin Major, PL, 196, 90): all bodies possess qualities which give them similarities with invisible goods.

In consequence, every creature of the universe was an image, a mirror reflecting our terrestrial and supernatural destinies. Nevertheless, it did not occur to the Middle Ages that these images might speak in a perfect language.

They required interpretation, explication and comment; they needed to be enclosed in a rational didactic framework where they could be elucidated, deciphered, in order to make clear the mystical affinities between a symbol and its content.

For Renaissance Platonism, by contrast, the relation between the images and the ideas to which they referred was considered so intuitively direct that the very distinction between a symbol and its meaning disappeared (see Gombrich 1972: “Icones Symbolicae,” v).

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 117-9.

Eco: The Return to Hebrew

Hildegard_von_Bingen_Liber_Divinorum_Operum

Hildegard von Bingen, Universal Man, Liber Divinorum Operum, or Book of Divine Works, 1165. 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.   

“From Origen to Augustine, almost all of the church Fathers assumed, as a matter of incontrovertible fact, that, before the confusion, humanity’s primordial language was Hebrew.

The most notable dissenting voice was Gregory of Nyssa (Contra Eunomium). God, he thought, could not have spoken Hebrew; were we to imagine, he said ironically, a schoolmaster God drilling our forefathers in the Hebrew alphabet (cf. Borst 1957-63: I, 2, and II/1, 3.1)?

Despite this, the image of Hebrew as the divine language survived through the Middle Ages (cf. De Lubac 1959: II, 3.3).

By the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, however, it no longer seemed enough simply to maintain that Hebrew was the photo-language (little being known thereof): it was deemed necessary to promote its study, and, if possible, its diffusion.

By now we are in a climate very different from that of St. Augustine: not only do the interpreters wish to go back to the text in its original version, but they do it with the conviction that the original and holy language of scripture was the only one capable of expressing its sacred truth.

What has happened in the meantime is, of course, the Reformation. Protestants refused to accept the claim of the Catholic church to be the sole mediator and interpreter, placing itself, with its canonic Latin translations, between the believer and the Holy Writ.

Out of this refusal to accept the church’s traditional interpretation of scripture arose the stimulus to study the languages in which the sacred texts had first been formulated.

The contemporary debate over this was varied and complex. The most comprehensive treatment is contained perhaps in Brian Walton’s In biblia polyglotta prolegomena (1673: especially 1-3).

However, the story of this debate during the Renaissance is so complex (see Demonet 1992) that we shall limit ourselves to a gallery of exemplary portraits.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 73-5.

Eco: Dante and Abulafia, 2

1280px-Bartolomeu_Velho_1568

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: 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.

 

Eco: Before and After Europe, 3

Francisco_de_holanda-de_aetatibus

Francisco of Holland, 1543-73, De aetatibus mundi imagines, Creation of Man, Biblioteca Nacional de España. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Uz to Baphomet

“The gazelle or antelope was a mythological animal in Babylonia so far as it represented Ea, who is entitled ‘the princely gazelle ’ and ‘the gazelle who gives the earth.’ But this animal was also appropriated to Mul-lil, the god of Nippur, who was specially called the ‘gazelle god.’

It is likely, therefore, that this animal had been worshipped totemically at Nippur. Scores of early cylinders represent it being offered in sacrifice to a god, and bas-reliefs and other carvings show it reposing in the arms of various deities.

Limestone tablet depicting king Nabu-aplu-iddina being led into the presence of Šamaš, the sun god; 860 BCE-850 BCE.  Šamaš sits in the E-babbar shrine and holds the rod and ring symbols of kingship (BM 91000). © The British Museum. http://oracc.museum.upenn.edu/amgg/listofdeities/utu/ Alternative interpretation, from Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, London, 1917, p. 292.  "A god called Uz has for his name the Akkadian word for goat. Mr Hormuzd Rassam found a sculptured stone tablet in a temple of the sun-god at Sippara on which was an inscription to Sin, Shamash, and Ishtar, as being “set as companions at the approach to the deep in sight of the god Uz.”  This god Uz is depicted as sitting on a throne watching the revolution of the solar disc, which is placed upon a table and made to revolve by means of a rope or string. He is clad in a robe of goat-skin." http://www.wisdomlib.org/mesopotamian/book/myths-and-legends-of-babylonia-and-assyria/d/doc7171.html

Limestone tablet depicting king Nabu-aplu-iddina being led into the presence of Šamaš, the sun god; 860 BCE-850 BCE.
Šamaš sits in the E-babbar shrine and holds the rod and ring symbols of kingship (BM 91000). © The British Museum.
http://oracc.museum.upenn.edu/amgg/listofdeities/utu/
Alternative interpretation, from Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, London, 1917, p. 292.
“A god called Uz has for his name the Akkadian word for goat. Mr Hormuzd Rassam found a sculptured stone tablet in a temple of the sun-god at Sippara on which was an inscription to Sin, Shamash, and Ishtar, as being “set as companions at the approach to the deep in sight of the god Uz.”
This god Uz is depicted as sitting on a throne watching the revolution of the solar disc, which is placed upon a table and made to revolve by means of a rope or string. He is clad in a robe of goat-skin.”
http://www.wisdomlib.org/mesopotamian/book/myths-and-legends-of-babylonia-and-assyria/d/doc7171.html

The goat, too, seems to have been peculiarly sacred, and formed one of the signs of the zodiac. A god called Uz has for his name the Akkadian word for goat. Mr Hormuzd Rassam found a sculptured stone tablet in a temple of the sun-god at Sippara on which was an inscription to Sin, Shamash, and Ishtar, as being “set as companions at the approach to the deep in sight of the god Uz.”

This god Uz is depicted as sitting on a throne watching the revolution of the solar disc, which is placed upon a table and made to revolve by means of a rope or string. He is clad in a robe of goat-skin.

This cult of the goat appears to be of very ancient origin, and the strange thing is that it seems to have found its way into mediaeval and even into modern magic and pseudo-religion. There is very little doubt that it is the Baphomet of the knights-templar and the Sabbatic goat of the witchcraft of the Middle Ages.

It seems almost certain that when the Crusaders sojourned in Asia-Minor they came into contact with the remains of the old Babylonian cult.

When Philip the Fair of France arraigned them on a charge of heresy a great deal of curious evidence was extorted from them regarding the worship of an idol that they kept in their lodges.

The real character of this they seemed unable to explain. It was said which the image was made in the likeness of ‘Baphomet,’ which name was said to be a corruption of Mahomet, the general Christian name at that period for a pagan idol, although others give a Greek derivation for the word.

This figure was often described as possessing a goat’s head and horns. That, too, the Sabbatic goat of the Middle Ages was of Eastern and probably Babylonian origin is scarcely to be doubted. At the witch orgies in France and elsewhere those who were afterwards brought to book for their sorceries declared that Satan appeared to them in the shape of a goat and that they worshipped him in this form.

A depiction of Baphomet by Eliphas Levi, Transcendental Magic, (Figure IX), p. 296.

A depiction of Baphomet by Eliphas Levi, Transcendental Magic, (Figure IX), p. 296.

The Sabbatic meetings during the fifteenth century in the wood of Moffiaines, near Arras, had as their centre a goat-demon with a human countenance, and a like fiend was adored in Germany and in Scotland. From all this it is clear that the Sabbatic goat must have had some connexion with the East.

Eliphas Levi drew a picture of the Baphomet or Sabbatic goat to accompany one of his occult works, and strangely enough the symbols that he adorns it with are peculiarly Oriental—moreover the sun-disc figures in the drawing.

Now Levi knew nothing of Babylonian mythology, although he was moderately versed in the mythology of modern occultism, and it would seem that if he drew his information from modern or mediaeval sources that these must have been in direct line from Babylonian lore.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 292-4.

Spence on Babylonian Religion and Magic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conflation of Languages

“The beliefs which produced the magical texts must still have been active, although the hymn belongs to a late period of Babylonian history; the old doctrine of an inexorable fate, even if degraded into a belief in the witch’s art, still existed along with the worship of a god who restored the dead to life and was supreme in mercy to those that were in trouble.

We have only to turn to our modern newspapers to discover how slowly such primeval beliefs die out, and how long they may linger among the uneducated and superstitious by the side of the most exalted faiths and the mightiest triumphs of inductive science.

The fact that one text is magical, while another contains a hymn to the deity, does not of itself prove the relative ages of the two documents. Then, thirdly, it has become increasingly manifest that a good many of the so-called Accadian texts are not Accadian in their origin.

As I pointed out several years ago, the old Accado-Sumerian language was learned by the Semitic Babylonians as Latin was learned by the mediaeval monks, and for much the same reasons. It was the language of the oldest sacred texts; it was also the early language of law; and both priests and lawyers were accordingly interested in its preservation and use.

What happened to Latin in the Middle Ages had already happened to Accadian in Babylonia. The monks spoke and wrote in a language which was Latin indeed, but which had lost its classical purity; monkish Latin was full of modern words and idioms, and its grammar was not always scrupulously accurate.

On the other hand, it contributed multitudes of words, and even forms of expression, to the languages of every-day life that were spoken around it, and the words were frequently modified to suit the pronunciation and genius of the languages that borrowed them, just as the modern words which monkish Latin had itself adopted were furnished with classical terminations and construed in a classical fashion.

The case was precisely the same in ancient Chaldea. Here, too, there was a monkish Accadian, both spoken and written, some of which would have shocked the Accadian speakers of an earlier age. The literati of the court of Sargon of Accad had been partly Accadian, partly Semitic; the Accadian scribes wrote and spoke Semitic, the Semitic scribes wrote and spoke Accadian.

The result was necessarily a large amount of lending and borrowing upon both sides, and the growth of an artificial literary language which maintained its ground for centuries. The way for the rise of this artificial dialect had already been prepared by the long contact there had been between the two chief languages of primitive Chaldea.

When two languages thus exist side by side–like Welsh, for example, by the side of English–they will borrow one from another, the language of superior culture and organisation being that which exerts the greatest influence.

The pupils will imitate the speech of their masters in art and science even if, as in the case of Greece and Rome, the masters in art and science are the subjects in political power.”

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. 322-3.

On Assyrian Curses

“Closely connected with the mystical importance thus assigned to names was the awe and dread with which the curse or excommunication was regarded. Once uttered with the appropriate ceremonies, the binding of knots and the invocation of divine names, it was a spell which even the gods were powerless to resist.

In Assyrian it was called the mamit, in Accadian the śabba, and was naturally considered to be divine. In Accadian, Mami had been a goddess; the borrowed Assyrian deity, therefore, assumed the Semitic feminine termination.

In the tenth book of the Epic of Gisdhubar (Epic of Gilgamesh), the goddess Mam-metu, as her name is there spelt, is called “the maker of fate” who “has fixed the destinies” of mankind, “along with” the spirits of the earth; “she has established death and life, but the days of death are unknown.”

Mamit thus bore a striking resemblance to the Fate of the Romans and the Atê of the Greeks. Like Atê, her operations were usually conceived of as evil. Just as Namtar, the plague-demon, was also the personification of doom and destiny, so too Mamit was emphatically the concrete curse.

If she established life as well as death, it was only because the term of life is fixed by death; death, and not life, was the real sphere of her work. Hence the mamit was known among the Accadians as the (nam)-eríma or “hostile doom;” and though Anu, as we have seen, might as the pole-star be called “the mamit of heaven,” it is in no friendly guise that the mamit is presented to us in the magical texts.

It was, in fact, like the power of excommunication in the Middle Ages, the most terrible weapon that could be used by the priestly exorcist. For the power of invoking the aid of the goddess Mamit by pronouncing the curse was completely in his hands.

All that was needed was the performance of certain rites and the repetition of certain words. Armed with the magic wand, he could lay the terrible excommunication on the head of his enemy, and cause it to issue forth from the body of his friend.

“Let the mamit come forth that I may see the light,” is one of the petitions we meet with in the tablets; and Tiglath-Pileser I states that after his conquest of the kings of Nahri he “freed them, prisoners and bound as they were, in the presence of the Sun-god (his) lord, and made them swear to be his servants from henceforth and for ever, under pain of the curse (mamit) of (his) great gods.”

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. 305-7.

Ibn Wayshiyya and Magic

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hiéroglyphe reproduits par Ibn Wahshiyyah, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS Arabe 6805 folios 92b. ff http://www.esoblogs.net/6946/ibn-wahshiyya-et-la-magie-2/

Hiéroglyphe reproduits par Ibn Wahshiyyah, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS Arabe 6805 folios 92b. ff
http://www.esoblogs.net/6946/ibn-wahshiyya-et-la-magie-2/

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nascence of the Babylonian Zodiac

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

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

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

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

Assyrian star planisphere found in the library of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal (Aššur-bāni-apli – reigned 668-627 BCE) at Nineveh.  The function of this unique 13-cm diameter clay tablet, in which the principal constellations are positioned in eight sectors, is disputed. The texts and drawings appear to be astro-magical in nature.  Kuyunjik Collection, British Museum, K 8538 [= CT 33, 10]. London. http://www.staff.science.uu.nl/~gent0113/babylon/babybibl.htm

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.
http://www.staff.science.uu.nl/~gent0113/babylon/babybibl.htm

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. http://solariapublications.com/2011/10/25/map-2-full-reconstruction-of-the-babylonian-star-map/

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.
http://solariapublications.com/2011/10/25/map-2-full-reconstruction-of-the-babylonian-star-map/

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.

Semiramis was Legendary, Mythical, and Real

“It was through the researches of Professor Lehmann-Haupt of Berlin that the true personal significance of Semiramis was recovered. Until the year 1910 the legends of Diodorus and others were held to have been completely disproved and Semiramis was regarded as a purely mythical figure. Old Bryant in his Antient Mythology, published at the beginning of last century, proves the legendary status of Semiramis to his own satisfaction.

He says :

“It must be confessed that the generality of historians have represented Semiramis as a woman, and they describe her as a great princess who reigned in Babylon; but there are writers who from their situation had opportunities of better intelligence, and by those she is mentioned as a deity. The Syrians, says Athenagoras, worshipped Semiramis, and adds that she was esteemed the daughter of Dercatus and the same as the Suria Dea. . .

Semiramis was said to have been born at Ascalon because Atargatus was there worshipped under the name of Dagon, and the same memorials were preserved there as at Hierapolis and Babylon. These memorials related to a history of which the dove was the principal type. It was upon the same account that she was said to have been changed to a dove because they found her always depicted and worshipped under that form. . . .

From the above I think it is plain that Semiramis was an emblem and that the name was a compound of Sama-ramas, or ramis, and it signified ‘the divine token,’ a type of providence, and as a military ensign, (for as such it was used) it may with some latitude be interpreted ‘the standard of the most High.’ It consisted of the figure of a dove, which was probably encircled with the iris, as those two emblems were often represented together. All who went under that standard, or who paid any deference to that emblem, were styled Semarim or Samorim. It was a title conferred upon all who had this device for their national insigne.”

There is much more of this sort of thing, typical of the mythic science of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It is easy to see how myth became busy with the name of the Assyrian Queen, whose exploits undoubtedly aroused the enthusiasm not only of the Assyrians themselves but of the peoples surrounding them. Just as any great work in ancient Britain was ascribed to the agency of Merlin or Arthur, so such monuments as could not otherwise be accounted for were attributed to Semiramis. Western Asia is monumentally eloquent of her name, and even the Behistun inscriptions of Darius have been placed to her credit. Herodotus states that one of the gates of Babylon was called after her, and that she raised the artificial banks that confined the river Euphrates. Her fame lasted until well into the Middle Ages’, and the Armenians called the district round Lake Van, Shamiramagerd.

There is very little doubt that her fame became mingled with that of the goddess Ishtar: she possesses the same Venus-like attributes, the dove is her emblem, and her story became so inextricably intertwined with that of the Babylonian goddess that she ultimately became a variant of her. The story of Semiramis is a triumphant vindication of the manner in which by certain mythical processes a human being can attain the rank of a god or goddess, for Semiramis was originally very real indeed. A column discovered in 1909 describes her as “a woman of the palace of Samsi-rammon, King of the World, King of Assyria, King of the Four Quarters of the World.”

This dedication indicates that Semiramis, or, to give her her Assyrian title, Sammuramat, evidently possessed an immense influence over her husband, Samsi-rammon, and that perhaps as queen-mother that influence lasted for more than one reign, so that the legend that after a regency of forty-two years she delivered up the kingdom to her son, Ninyas, may have some foundation in fact. She seems to have made war against the Medes and Chaldeans. The story that on relinquishing her power she turned into a dove and disappeared may mean that her name, Sammuramat, was easily connected with the Assyrian summat, the word for “dove;” and for a person of her subsequent legendary fame the mythical connexion with Ishtar is easily accounted for.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 27-9.

Sumerian Sacred Stories, c. 3500 BCE

” … it is quite as obvious that for the history of the progress of our civilization as we see and know it today, it is the tone and temper, the word and spirit of the ancient mythologies, those of the Greeks and Hebrews, of the Hindus and Iranians, of the Babylonians and Egyptians, which are of prime significance. It is the spiritual and religious concepts revealed in these ancient literatures which permeate the modern civilized world.

Still almost entirely unknown to this very moment is Sumerian mythology, the sacred stories of the non-Semitic, non-Indo-European people which in historical times, from approximately 3500 to 2000 B.C., inhabited Sumer, the relatively small land situated between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and stretching from the Persian Gulf northward approximately as far as modern Bagdad; a land that may be aptly described as the culture cradle of the entire Near East.

Should the reader turn, for example, to Hastings’ Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics29 and examine the very long article on the cosmogonic or creation myths of the world, he will find a large and relatively exhaustive list of peoples, ancient and modern, cultured and primitive, whose cosmogonic concepts are described and analyzed. But he will look in vain for Sumerian cosmogony.

Similarly, the collection entitled Mythology of All the Races 30 devotes thirteen volumes to an analysis of the more important mythologies in the world; here, too, however, there will be found few traces of Sumerian mythology. Whatever little is known of Sumerian mythology is largely surmised from the modified, redacted, and in a sense, garbled versions of the Babylonians who conquered the Sumerians toward the very end of the third millennium B.C., and who used the Sumerian stories and legends as a basis and nucleus for the development of their own myths.

But it is a known fact that in the long stretch of time between approximately 3500 and 2000 B.C. it was the Sumerians who represented the dominant cultural group of the entire Near East. It was the Sumerians who developed and probably invented the cuneiform system of writing; who developed a well integrated pantheon together with spiritual and religious concepts which influenced profoundly all the peoples of the Near East; who, finally, created and developed a literature rich in content and effective in form.

Moreover, the following significant fact must be borne in mind. By the end of the third millennium B.C. Sumer had already ceased to exist as a political entity and Sumerian had already become a dead language, for by that time Sumer had been overrun and conquered by the Semites, and it is the Semitic Accadian language which gradually became the living, spoken tongue of the land.

Nevertheless Sumerian continued to be used as the literary and religious language of the Semitic conquerors for many centuries to come, like Greek in the Roman period and like Latin in the Middle Ages. Indeed for many centuries the study of the Sumerian language and literature remained the basic pursuit of the scribal schools and intellectual and spiritual centers not only of the Babylonians and Assyrians, but also of the many surrounding peoples such as the Elamites, Hurrians, Hittites, and Canaanites.

Obviously, then, both because of their content as well as because of their age, the Sumerian mythological tales and concepts must have penetrated and permeated those of the entire Near East. A knowledge of the Sumerian myths and legends is therefore a prime and basic essential for a proper approach to a scientific study of the mythologies current in the ancient Near East, for it illuminates and clarifies to no small extent the background behind their origin and development.” i

Samuel Noah Kramer, Sumerian Mythology, 1944, pp. 27-9.

The Secret Signature of the Letters

“Isaac’s picture of the universe rests, therefore, on the idea that the different realms of Creation, each according to its rank in the hierarchy of things, are in communication with the roots of all being as given in the world of the sefiroth.

The limited powers proceed from the unlimited powers, and the secret signature of the letters acts in everything, but nowhere more clearly than in man. But to the current that flows downward there corresponds another, upward movement.

When Isaac says in his commentary on Yesirah (end of chapter 3) that “all things return to the root of their true being,” he means, in this context, that a thing can act only in that which is related to its principle.

But his disciples already understood expressions of this kind in the sense of a return of all things to God. “Everything issues from the first Cause, and everything returns to the first Cause.”

Such a return can have both an ontological and an eschatological aspect. Even before the end of all things all being seeks to return, in accordance with its nature, to its origin, in the spirit of the ancient philosophical thesis of the appetitus naturalis, which the Neoplatonists above all rendered popular in the Middle Ages.

But also, the eschatological nuance of a “restoration of all things to their original being,” hashabath kol ha-debharim le-haw-wayatham, is not absent among Isaac’s pupils, who probably derived it from him.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 299-300.

On the Evil Status of Goats

“Nevertheless, many extant fragments prove that Isaac had a certain interest in questions relating to the nature of Sammael, whose name had become for the Jews of the Middle Ages, the principal one associated with the devil and his dominion. The following dictum of Isaac makes good sense when viewed against the background of the large number of shepherds populating the western Languedoc:

He who lives with herds of sheep, even if it is in the high mountains and in the desert wastes, which are uninhabited, has no need to fear Satan and the evil powers, for no evil spirit rules among them. But he who lives among goats [of him it can be said] that even when he is surrounded by ten houses and a hundred men, an evil spirit rules over them.

In another fragment, we learn that Sammael’s origins lie in the power of the sefirah pahad, channeled to him through the last sefirah “without any other intermediary.” He has, therefore, a legitimate position in the sacred totality of Creation.

It was only when he pitted himself in the war of Amaleq against Israel and the sacred order it represents—a war that has always been interpreted in Jewish tradition as a metaphysical event of enormous significance—that he lost this legitimate place. Since then he receives his power only indirectly, from planetary spirits, and “no longer by the path of the primordial order of Creation.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, p. 297.

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.

The En-Sof

“They are called in his works the Infinite (‘en-sof), Thought, and Speech. The principle of Speech, dibbur, is divided into the plurality of speeches and words, by which he often means the seven lower sefiroth, called not only dibburim but also debharim. In Hebrew dabhar means “word” as well as “thing,” and this coincidence was obviously decisive for the formation of Isaac’s thought.

The sefiroth, above all the seven lower ones, are the words or things “which shape reality.” They take the place of the ma’amaroth, the logoi of the Bahir. The “Thought,” too, already comes from this text, as we saw in the previous chapter. But what is entirely new is the emphasis laid on a domain of the divine that is above all reflective contemplation, indeed above the divine Thought itself, a domain called by Isaac “the cause of Thought” and designated by a new term: ‘en-sof.

The birth of this concept is of great interest for the history of the Kabbalah. This designation is usually explained as a borrowing from Neoplatonism. Christian Ginsburg, whose essay on the Kabbalah has been appropriated by many authors (who do not always bother to acknowledge their source), says:

“ … Any doubt upon this subject must be relinquished when the two systems are compared. The very expression En Sof which the Kabbalah uses to designate the Incomprehensible One, is foreign, and is evidently an imitation of the Greek Apeiros. The speculations about the En Sof, that he is superior to actual being, thinking and knowing, are thoroughly Neo-Platonic.”

Ginsburg, however, proceeded on the completely erroneous assumption that the oldest document of the authentic Kabbalah was the Neoplatonic catechism on the sefiroth composed by Azriel, Isaac’s disciple. There the notion is in fact explained in a manner that comes particularly close to Neoplatonic thought. But this says nothing about the origin of the concept. Indeed, the expression is strange, by virtue of its very grammatical formation.

It certainly is not a rendering of a fixed philosophical idiom, whether it be from the Greek or from the corresponding Arabic (la-nihaya)—in spite of the readiness with which some scholars have adopted this view.

The form ‘en-sof corresponds in no way to the translations of privative notions in medieval Hebrew literature: in these the conjunction Ulti always precedes the negated notion; the negation ayin is never employed for this purpose. Thus “inconceivable” is rendered by bil-ti-mussag and not by ‘en hassagah, and “infinite” is Ulti ba’al-takh-lith and not ‘en-sof.

The form ‘en-sof is altogether unusual, and Graetz had good reason to see it in a proof of the late origin of the term. However, he should have added that in the Hebrew literature of the Middle Ages, too, it represents a completely isolated phenomenon. It is only in biblical literature that we find forms such as ‘en ‘onim or ‘en ‘eyyal, for powerless. Subsequently, locutions of this kind disappear completely.

How, then, are we to understand the origin of the term ‘en-sof? It did not result from a deliberate translation, but from a mystical interpretation of texts that contain the composite term ‘en-sof in a perfectly correct adverbial sense, and not as a specific concept. The doctrine of Saadya Gaon, in particular, abounds with affirmations of the infinity of God—in fact, it is asserted at the very beginning of his well-known “Supplication” (Siddur R. Saadia [1941], 47), and in the old Hebrew paraphrase, known among the Provençal Kabbalists as well as the German Hasidim, it is reiterated incessantly.

Tobias ben Eliezer, who wrote around 1097, also stressed precisely this quality of God, in the context of a reference to the mystical Hekhaloth writings. For him God is “the first up to the unfathomable, the primordial beginning up to the infinite (‘ad ‘en-takhlith), among the last up to infinity (‘ad ‘en-sof). ” The adverbial construction is perfectly correct.

“Up to infinity” results from a combination of “up to there, where there is no end.” Expressions of this kind, in which ‘en-sof has the function of an adverbial complement, are found with particular frequency in the writings of Eleazar of Worms. We find the same usage in the Bahir (cf. p. 130 preceding). Thus, Eleazar writes, for example: “When he thinks of that which is above, he should not set any limit to this thought, but thus [should he think of God]:

” … high, higher up to the Boundless [‘ad ‘en-qes]; down deep, who can find him; and the same above in the expanse of all the heavens . . . and outside the heavens up to the infinite [le’en- sof].” Or: “in the Throne of Glory are engraved holy names, which are not transmitted to any mortal, and which sing hymns unto infinity [meshorerim shiroth le’en-sof].”

The transition here from the innumerable hymns sung by holy names and angels to a hypostasis that, as a mystical reader might perhaps conceive it, “sings hymns to ‘en-sof” seems easy enough. The term ‘en-sof came into being when one of the Provençal kabbalists read this combination of words that actually represents a phrase as a noun, possibly influenced by the aforementioned kind of adverbial composites and perhaps also by some expressions in the Bahir.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 265-7.

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.

Jewish Gnosticism

“The decisive step beyond the other gnostic systems consists in the fixing of the number of these powers or aeons at ten, according to the ten sefiroth of the Book of Creation and the ten words of creation through which, according to the ancient Aggadah, God called the world into existence.

Once the number of these “qualities” or middoth of God was fixed they came to be associated with a large number of symbolic names, since each of the epithets by which God could be presented or named was necessarily related to one or another of the middoth. In the Bahir we can still recognize quite clearly the efforts that were made to introduce a more or less consistent terminology in the use of these symbols in relation to specific sefiroth, though it took some time until this process of the definitive crystallization of the symbolism of the old Kabbalah came to its final conclusion.

The different attempts often contradict one another. While the commentators of the Kabbalah strove to bring the symbols into accord or to unify them, the historian naturally has no interest in a harmonistic exegesis of this kind. We shall see several examples that suggest conflicting traditions that were simply juxtaposed in the Bahir. Here, too, the choice of symbols and appellations for this or that sefirah duplicates the process by which the Gnostics designated their aeons. They liked to adopt as names of aeons abstract terms such as thought, wisdom, penitence, truth, grace, greatness, silence, or images such as father, mother, abyss, etc.

These designations, some of which are identical with those found in the ancient documents while others were newly created in accordance with the methods of gnostic exegesis, fill the pages of the Bahir. There, however, they are derived from biblical verses or even the aggadic dicta of the rabbis.

Once again the question is posed: should we admit, at least for one of the strata of the book, the existence of vestiges of an ancient Jewish gnosis, of fragments that antedate the Middle Ages and in which anonymous Jewish Gnostics sought to express their mystical conception of the divinity without impairing their Jewish monotheism?

Or are we dealing with attempts by medieval men, who felt themselves newly stimulated for one reason or another, to view traditions that were intrinsically and purely Jewish from a gnostic perspective? Is our material essentially nothing but the well-known and straightforward Jewish tradition, the adaptation and transformation of which into symbols proves just how great was the psychological and temporal distance between these later authors and the period when the aggadic sayings originally crystallized?

This is the fundamental question that imposes itself upon the reader of the Bahir. It is a question that cannot be answered on the basis of general considerations; only a careful examination of the details can help us here. I do not hesitate, for my part, to affirm that the literature of the Spanish Kabbalah, especially that imbedded in the Zohar, clearly reveals a psychological attitude that, in the Middle Ages, led men to recast ancient talmudic and midrashic material according to an entirely new spirit by means of an exegetical and homiletical method that in its structure was gnostic, but that reached its full development only under the influence of the Bahir.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 85-6.

On the Black Arts

“From Egypt, by way of Greece and Rome, the use of wax figures passed into Western Europe and England, and in the Middle Ages it found great favour with those who interested themselves in the working of the “black art,” or who wished to do their neighbour or enemy an injury.

Many stories are current of how in Italy and England ignorant or wicked minded people made models of their enemies in wax and hung them up in the chimney, not too close to the fire, so that they might melt away slowly, and of how the people that were represented by such figures gradually lost the power over their limbs, and could not sleep, and slowly sickened and died.

If pins and needles were stuck into the wax figures at stated times the sufferings of the living were made more agonizing, and their death much more painful.

Sharpe relates (see C. K. Sharpe, Witchcraft in Scotland, London, 1884, p. 21) that about the end of the VIIth century king Duffus was so unpopular that “a company of hags roasted his image made of wax upon a wooden spit, reciting certain words of enchantment, and basting the figure with a poisonous liquor.

These women when apprehended declared that as the wax melted, the body of the king should decay, and the words of enchantment prevented him from the refreshment of sleep.”

The two following extracts from Thomas Middleton’s The Witch (London, 1778) illustrate the views held about wax figures in England in the time of this writer. (Born about 1570, died about 1626).

I.
Heccat. Is the heart of wax
Stuck full of magique needles?”
Stadlin. ‘Tis done Heccat.

Heccat. And is the Farmer’s picture, and his wives, Lay’d downe to th’ fire yet?
Stadlin. They are a roasting both too.
Heccat. Good:
Then their marrowes are a melting subtelly
And three monethes sicknes sucks up life in ’em.”
(Act i., scene 2.)

II.
Heccat. What death is’t you desire for Almachildes?
Duchesse. A sodaine and a subtle.
Heccat. Then I have fitted you.
Here lye the guifts of both; sodaine and subtle:
His picture made in wax, and gently molten
By a blew fire kindled with dead mens’ eyes
Will waste him by degrees.”
(Act v., scene 2)

Mr. Elworthy in his very interesting book The Evil Eye (London, 1895, pp. 53, 56) relates some striking examples of the burning of hearts stuck full of pins for magical purposes in recent years.

Thus an old woman at Mendip had a pig that fell ill, and she at once made up her mind that the animal had been “overlooked”; in her trouble she consulted a “white witch,” i.e. a “wise” man, and by his orders she acted thus.

She obtained a sheep’s heart, and having stuck it full of pins (in the Worth Riding of Yorkshire evil influences were averted by means of a living black cock which “was pierced with pins and roasted alive at dead of night, with every door, window, and cranny and crevice stuffed up” (see Blakeborough, Wit, Character, Folk-lore and Customs of the North Riding of Yorkshire, London, 1898, p. 205)) set it to roast before a fire, whilst her friends and neighbours sang:–

“It is not this heart I mean to burn.
But the person’s heart I wish to turn,
Wishing them neither rest nor peace
Till they are dead and gone.”

At intervals her son George sprinkled salt on the fire which added greatly to the weirdness of the scene, and at length, when the roasting had been continued until far into the night, a black cat jumped out from somewhere and was, of course, instantly declared to be the demon which had been exorcised.

Again, in October, 1882, a heart stuck full of pins was found in a recess of a chimney in an old house in the village of Ashbrittle; and in 1890 another was found nailed up inside the “clavel” in the chimney of an old house at Staplegrove.”

E.A. Wallis Budge, Egyptian Magic, London, 1901. Pp. 97-100.

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.

The 32 Paths of the Sophia

“Besides these literary monuments of the Merkabah gnosis, there was another, extremely curious text which circulated widely during the Middle Ages, excercising a great influence in many lands and in diverse circles: the “Book of Creation,” Sefer Yesirah. Concerning the origin and spiritual home of this work, which numbers only a few pages, divergent opinions have been voiced, although to date it has been impossible to come to any reliable and definitive conclusions.

This uncertainty is also reflected in the various estimates of the date of its composition, which fluctuate between the second and the sixth centuries. This slender work is also designated in the oldest manuscripts as a collection of “halakhoth on the Creation,” and it is not at all impossible that it is referred to by this name in the Talmud. In the two different versions that have come down to us, it is divided into chapters whose individual paragraphs were likewise regarded by medieval tradition as mishnaic.

[ … ]

The book’s strong link with Jewish speculations concerning divine wisdom, hokhmah or Sophia, is evident from the first sentence:

“In thirty-two wondrous paths of wisdom God . . . [there follows a series of biblical epithets for God] engraved and created His world.”

These thirty-two paths of the Sophia are the ten primordial numbers, which are discussed in the first chapter, and the twenty-two consonants of the Hebrew alphabet, which are described in a general way in chapter 2 and more particularly in the following chapters as elements and building blocks of the cosmos.

The “paths of the Sophia” are thus fundamental forces that emanate from her or in which she manifests herself. They are, as in the old conception of the Sophia herself, the instruments of creation. In her or through her—the Hebrew preposition permits both translations—God, the master of the Sophia, “engraved” Creation. The symbolism of the number thirty-two reappears also in some Christian gnostic documents, but it is in this text that it seems to be established for the first time and in the most natural manner.

Mention should, however, be made of Agrippa von Nettesheim, who informs us (De occulta philosophia 2:15) that thirty-two was considered by the Pythagoreans as the number of righteousness because of its well-nigh unlimited divisibility. More recently Nicholas Sed has discussed in a remarkable essay the relationship of the symbolism of the Book Yesirah with the Samaritan Memar of Marqah.

–Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 1987, pp. 24-6.

 

Halakhoth Concerning the Hekhaloth

” … We have no reason to believe that this gnostic theosophy still possessed any creative impulses of a decisive character after the third century. The productive development of these ideas evidently occurred on Palestinian soil, as the analysis of the Hekhaloth texts proves. At a later date in Palestine as well as in Babylonia, we still encounter literary elaborations of this old material, some of which underwent metamorphosis into edifying tracts. But we no longer find any new ideas.

The practical realization of these heavenly voyages of the soul and the “vision of the merkabah,” sefiyyath merkabah, maintained itself also in the post-talmudic period, and some scattered reports concerning practices of this kind, which are by no means to be regarded as mere legends, have come down to us from as late as the twelfth and the thirteenth centuries from France and Germany.

These old texts, augmented by all kinds of later additions, were known to the Middle Ages in the form given to them in the late talmudic and early post-talmudic periods as “Greater Hekhaloth,” “Lesser Hekhaloth,” Shi’ur Qomah, Book of the Merkabah and under other titles as well as in different versions. These texts were considered to be ancient, esoteric paragraphs of the Mishnah, and in the superscriptions of the oldest manuscripts they are here and there designated as “halakhoth concerning the Hekhaloth.”

They enjoyed great authority and were in no way suspected of heresy. Manuscripts of these texts and the related theurgical literature were known in the Orient, as is proven by many fragments in the Cairo Grenizah, but also in Italy, in Spain, in France, and in Germany. In the twelfth century, texts of this kind circulated precisely in learned circles, where they were considered authentic documents of the old esoteric doctrines. It was therefore only to be expected that the earliest kabbalists would seek to establish a relationship with the traditions that enjoyed such high esteem.”

–Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 1987, pp. 23-4.

On the Femininity of the Shekhinah

“The Book Bahir, the first work of the kabbalah, is the earliest source we have that might imagine the shekhinah as a feminine power … She is described as wife, bride, and daughter of the masculine power … The Zohar, and other kabbalistic works from the end of the thirteenth century and the beginning of the fourteenth, made the myth of the feminine shekhinah a central element in their descriptions of the divine world, made her the purpose of rituals and religious experiences, and established this as one of the most prominent components of the kabbalistic worldview.”

“Gershom Scholem regarded the concept of the feminine shekhinah in the Book Bahir as the appearance of a gnostic concept within the early kabbalah. It could be regarded as an ancient Jewish gnostic concept that surfaced in the kabbalah in the Middle Ages after being transmitted in secret for many centuries, or the result of the influence of Christian Gnosticism, which emphasized the role of feminine powers in the divine world.

“… The femininity of the shekhinah is the result of the influence of the intense Christian worship of the Madonna, the Mother of Christ, that peaked in the twelfth century.”

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, 2006, pp. 48.

Legendary Histories

“The claim had to be substantiated through the construct of a history stretching back to Adam and the very beginning of mankind through a chain of transmitters of the art of geometry, or the Royal Art as it was called by Anderson. This chain of initiates included not only Biblical figures such as Noah and his three sons Japhet, Shem and Ham, Moses (called General Master-Mason and Grand Master), and King Solomon; but also persons like Pythagoras, Euclid, Archimedes, Vitruvius, and Augustus, a history leading from antediluvian times, through antiquity and the middle ages all the way to the eighteenth century. The similarity with philosophia perennis is striking: the legendary history of Freemasonry shares the discourse found in philosophia perennis that the transmitted knowledge represents a continuity of true wisdom through history.”

–Henrik Bogdan, “The Sociology of the Construct of Tradition and Import of Legitimacy in Freemasonry,”  in Andreas Kilcher, Constructing Tradition, Means and Myths of Transmission in Western Esotericism, 2010, pg. 227.

http://books.google.co.th/books/about/Constructing_Tradition.html?id=rs0GkfXNqmwC&redir_esc=y

Kabbalah as Revealed Wisdom vs. Gnostic or Neoplatonic Invention

“They rated the Kabbalah highly, not (or not only) as an original Jewish doctrine but as a supposed basis of every religious or esoteric tradition.” […] Thus the Kabbalah was considered by Masonic authors to be ancient wisdom, received by the Jews directly from God and retained in some ancient esoteric schools but primarily in the secret doctrine of the Jews. … Moreover, the very idea of a secret wisdom transmitted from time immemorial through many generations of an elect would be expected to have an effect on the Masonic notion of tradition. It seems that the Russian brothers basically shared the conception of the Kabbalah commonly accepted by the Jews as ancient knowledge granted to the chosen people through revelation. Of course, they were acquainted with the opinion of European scholars, including some Hebraists of the eighteenth century, that the Kabbalah is either an invention emerging in the late Middle Ages or an adaptation of some Gnostic and/or Neoplatonic ideas within Jewish theology.”

–From Konstantin Burmistrov, “The Kabbalah as Primordial Tradition in Russian Secret Societies,” in Andreas Kilcher, Constructing Tradition, Means and Myths of Transmission in Western Esotericism, 2010, pg. 330.