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Tag: Neoplatonism

Eco: The Perfect Language of Images


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, 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: Bruno: Ars Combinatoria and Infinite Worlds


Ettore Ferrari (1845-1929), The Trial of Giordano Bruno by the Roman Inquisition, bronze relief, Campo de’Fiori, Rome. This bas relief graces the pedestal of the statue of Bruno at Campo de’Fiori in Rome. The collected works of Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) are in the Bibliotheca Bruniana Electronica at the Warburg Institute, with others at the Esoteric Archives. This photo dated 2006 by Jastrow is in the public domain. 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.    

Giordano Bruno’s cosmological vision presented a world without ends, whose circumference, as Nicholas of Cusa had already argued, was nowhere to be found, and whose center was everywhere, at whatever point the observer chose to contemplate the universe in its infinity and substantial unity.

The panpsychism of Bruno had a Neoplatonic foundation: there was but a single divine breath, one principle of motion pervading the whole of the infinite universe, determining it in its infinite variety of forms.

The master idea of an infinite number of worlds was compounded with the notion that every earthly object can also serve as the Platonic shade of other ideal aspects of the universe. Thus every object exists not only in itself, but as a possible sign, deferral, image, emblem, hieroglyph of something else.

This worked also by contrast: an image can lead us back to the unity of the infinite even through its opposite. As Bruno wrote in his Eroici furori, “To contemplate divine things we need to open our eyes by using figures, similitudes, or any of the other images that the Peripatetics knew under the name of phantasms” (Dialoghi italiani, Florence: Sansei, 1958: 1158).

Where they did not emerge directly from his own inflamed imagination, Bruno chose images found in the Hermetic repertoire. These served as storehouses of revelations because of a naturally symbolic relationship that held between them and reality.

Their function was no longer, as in previous arts of memory, that of merely helping to order information for ease of recall, or this was, at least, by now a minor aspect: their function was rather that of helping to understand. Bruno’s images permitted the mind to discover the essence of things and their relations to each other.

The power of revelation stored inside these images was founded on their origin in far-off Egypt. Our distant progenitors worshipped cats and crocodiles because “a simple divinity found in all things, a fecund nature, a mother watching over the universe, expressed in many different ways and forms, shines through different subjects and takes different names” (Lo spaccio della bestia trionfante, Dialoghi italiani, 780-2).

But these images possess more than the simple capacity to reawaken our dormant imagination: they possess an authentic power to effect magical operations on their own, and functioned, in other words, in exactly the same way as the talismans of Ficino.

It is possible, of course, to take many of Bruno’s magical claims in a metaphorical sense, as if he was merely describing, according to the sensibility of his age, intellectual operations. It is also possible to infer that these images had the power to pull Bruno, after prolonged concentration, into a state of mystic ecstasy (cf. Yates 1964: 296).

Still, it is difficult to ignore the fact that some of Bruno’s strongest claims about the theurgic potential of seals appeared in a text that bore the significant title of De Magia:

“nor even are all writings of the same utility as these characters which, by their very configuration, seem to indicated things themselves. For example, there are signs that are mutually inclined to one another, that regard each other and embrace one another; these constrain us to love.

Then there are the opposite signs, signs which repel each other so violently that we are induced to hatred and to separation, becoming so hardened, incomplete, and broken as to produce in us ruin. There are knots which bind, and there are separated characters which release. [ . . . ]

These signs do not have a fixed and determined form. Anyone who, obeying his own furor, or the dictates of his soul, naturally creates his own images, be these of things desired or things to hold in contempt, cannot help but represent these images to himself and to his spirit as if the imagined things were really present.

Thus he experiences his own images with a power that he would not feel were he to represent these things to himself in the form of words, either in elegant oration, or in writing.

Such were the well-defined letters of the ancient Egyptians, which they called hieroglyphs or sacred characters. [ . . . ] by which they were able to enter into colloquies with the gods and to accomplish remarkable feats with them. [ . . . ]

And so, just as, where there lacks a common tongue, men of one race are unable to have colloquies with those of another, but must resort instead to gestures, so relations of any sort between ourselves and certain powers would be impossible were we to lack the medium of definite signs, seals, figures, characters, gestures, and other ceremonies.”

(Opera latine conscripta, Naples-Florence, 1879-1891, vol. III: 39-45).

Concerning the specific iconological material that Bruno employs, we find figures deriving directly from the Hermetic tradition, such as the Thirty-six Decans of the Zodiac, others drawn from mythology, necromantic diagrams that recall Agrippa or John Dee, Lullian suggestions, animals, plants and allegorical figures deriving from the repertoire of emblems and devices.

This is a repertoire with an extraordinary importance in the history of iconology, where the ways in which a certain seal, for example, refers back to a specific idea are largely governed by rhetorical criteria: phonetic similarities (a horse, equus, can correspond to an honest, aequus, man); the concrete for the abstract (a Roman soldier for Rome); antecedent for the consequent; accident for subject (or vice versa); and so on.

Sometimes the analogy  is based upon the similarity of the initial syllable (asinus for asyllum); and certainly Bruno did not know that this procedure, as we shall see in chapter 7, was followed by the Egyptians themselves when using their hieroglyphs.

At other times the relations might be based on kabbalistic techniques such as anagrams or paronomasias (like palatio standing for Latio: cf. Vasoli 1958: 285-6).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 132-5.

Eco: Magic Names & Kabbalistic Hebrew, 3


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: Kabbalism and Lullism in Modern Culture


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

Ibn Wahshiyya in Historical Context

“The magic as displayed in Filāha coincides with the common Near Eastern patterns and is in this sense genuine: whether the exact procedures were used by the pagan population —either in the tenth century or earlier, if we agree with Fahd—is another question.

The Aramaic prayers would perhaps seem genuine, but when strongly Neoplatonic formulae occur in the invocations, one may doubt whether the peasants indeed used these prayers. It may be that the material is partly descriptive, describing the religious practices of the rural population, partly prescriptive, i.e. composed by the author, following pre-existing patterns, to invent new formulae.

It may strike many as surprising that there could have been rites like burnt offerings to Zuhal in the countryside, sqwād, of Iraq until the tenth century —if we accept a late date for the Nabatean corpus— but the evidence from Harrān makes this not unprecedented, and the magical procedures throughout history have always retained archaic religious material.

Likewise, the mere existence of Mandaeans shows the tolerance of Islam towards ultimately pagan religions. Had someone translated the Mandaean books into Arabic in the tenth century and circulated them outside the community, the texts would have been just as incongruent with the surrounding Islamic society as the books of the Nabatean corpus.

As the main texts of the Nabatean corpus purport to be translations of old manuscripts, the dating of the religious material in them, if it mirrors real procedures, is of course problematic. But in some cases, like when speaking about the lamentations over Tammūz, Ibn Wahshiyya speaks as himself, adding a translator’s note to the main text.

Thus, at least the pagan rites described in these passages were being performed in the early tenth century.

Although ignored by compilers of biographical dictionaries, Ibn Wahshiyya was much respected by those interested in magic, esoterica and the Nabatean or Sabian inheritance.

Not only was his main work, Filāha, excerpted by persons such as the author of the Arabic Picatrix (Ghāyat al-hakīm) ([pseudo]-al-Majrītī) and later writers of agricultural works —the latter, though, usually showed little interest for the religious and magical material in the work— but he was also profusely used by Maimonides in his Dalāla, from which source, together with Picatrix, the magic of the Nabateans and the Chaldaeans was transmitted into European languages.

Thus, through Ibn Wahshiyya, the magic of the Nabateans diffused throughout the civilized world, and Ibn Wahshiyya became an important link in the world history of magic and esoterica.”

Jaakko Hāmeem-Anttila, “Ibn Wahshiyya and Magic,” Anaquel de Estudios Árabes X, 1999, pp. 47-8.

Ibn Wahshiyya and Black Magic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Ibn Wahshiyya

“However, it is not my intention to focus on the authenticity of the material in the present context, but to draw attention to the character of Ibn Wahshiyya himself. Even the authorship and existence of Ibn Wahshiyya have been doubted, but with little evidence other than the fact that he is not mentioned in the standard biographical dictionaries.

Yet he is mentioned as the translator of the works of the Nabatean corpus in an-Nadim’s Fihrist—albeit as a little known person—and there are no cogent arguments for claiming him to be a pseudonym for Ibn az-Zayyāt, his student, as has been done by, among others, Theodor Nöldeke (see below). —

The biographical dictionaries are very much Islamic and urban in character, and thus it is no wonder that a parochial author of works of pagan lore is absent from all major compilations.

More fruitful than joining the discussion concerning the authenticity of the íexts and the identity of lbn Wahshiyya would be to start by studying the stand of this person, «Ibn Wahshiyya» (in the following without quotation marks), and his attitude towards the material he is transmitting.

As the date of lbn Wahshiyya can be rather firmly fixed to the early tenth century, we may start with a comment on the general atmosphere of the period. When it comes to the interest of Ibn Wahshiyya in the occult sciences and ancient lore, one might draw attention to the many pseudepigraphical texts which we know from the same period and which also purport to be either translations or transcripts of long-forgotten texts, such as the highly interesting Daniel Apocalypse or the Prophecies of Bābā.

We might also mention the Ismaili movement which was born at about the same time (discounting the traditional narrative of its origin, I find more probable to date it to the time after the minor occultation). The early Ismailis were very much interested in esoteric lore, as can be seen in the collection of the Letters (Rasā’il) of the Brethren of Purity who, if not Ismailis themselves, had close relations with them.

The interest in Sabian, the last remnants of pagans in Harrān and elsewhere, was also growing in the times of Ibn Wahshiyya; in fact, the community he describes might well be labelled as «Babylonian Sabians», in contrast to both Harrānian Sabians and Mandaeans (the Sabians of al-Batā’ih), although the term Sabian is not often used in the works of Ibn Wahshiyya.

The doctrines of the Sabians of Harrān have received some attention both recently and in Mediaeval times: an-Nadim wrote profusely on them in his Fihrist and was able to quote from several, later lost works.

Their later offshoot in Baghdad, it might be mentioned in passing, is a problematic source for any real, living religious practices, as the Baghdadian Sabians were heavily influenced by Neoplatonic philosophy and seem to have freely developed the Harranian religion in the light of philosophical speculation.

This is the background against which we must consider the activities of Ibn Wahshiyya. Early tenth-century Iraq lived through an intensive period of wide interest in different religious phenomena, and especially in Neoplatonic speculations, and Muslim scholars with an indigenous background were eager to dig up the past legacy of their ancestors.

Ibn Wahshiyya himself often disavows ‘asabiyya «national pride» (see e.g. Filāha, p. 358; Sumūm, fols. 6b-7a) but his very refusal to see himself as a Nabatean nationalist shows the tenor of his work, which is remarkably pro-Nabatean.

Ibn Wahshiyya’s works remain unpublished with the exception of the recently edited al-Filāha an-Nabatiyya. Among his works which do not purport to be translations and which thus fall outside the Nabatean corpus, there are tractates on astrology and alchemy, but the Kitāb at-Tilismāt attributed to him is hardly genuine.”

Jaakko Hāmeem-Anttila, “Ibn Wahshiyya and Magic,” Anaquel de Estudios Árabes X, 1999, pp. 41-3.

Not All Human Souls Are Blessed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mystery of ben Belimah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Luminous Mirrors of the Deity

“Thus the sefiroth are here conceived as worlds but also as seals, as minting stamps of all reality—just as the Platonists speak of the ideas as seals—but they are also the ”luminous mirrors” of the deity through which its light is reflected in all reality.

Some texts specify, much as does the “Book of the Five Substances,” a distinct “world of life,” which is distinguished from the world of the intellect and from that of the soul in the hierarchy of being.

‘En-sof as a name of the hidden God in his transcendence is still unknown in these texts, suggesting that they preceded the writings of the Gerona circle. But they also readily make use of adverbial phrases of the kind we have already discussed with regard to the Infinite and often speak of the “light whose sublimity has no end.”

The fact that the name Araritha was used for the primordial and transcendent being, as we have mentioned, proves that the writers felt the need to find some name for the absolute unity, which is above all these “worlds,” the “One where everything originates, where everything has its existence and to which everything returns.”

The absence of the name ‘en-sof can therefore be no accident.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, p. 330.

The Four Principle Sefiroth

“We thus encounter pell-mell the names of sefiroth, a new light-mysticism, notions of the Merkabah, and cosmological powers. Moses of Burgos had before him a later redaction of this list, which exhibited significant variants and which apparently strove to identify the first ten potencies with the ten sefiroth of the tradition that had meanwhile become canonical.

In these potencies the unknowable God gives the appearance of assuming a body, and his kabhod is, just as in the old Shi’ur Qomah, the “body of the Shekhinah.” God Himself is, in a Neoplatonic image (which likewise must have come from ibn Gabirol’s poem “The Royal Crown”) “the soul of souls.”

Below the kabhod there extend, in the form of the primordial man, the four “camps of the Shekhinah,” which are also the four primordial elements and the four realms of the archangels. Here the “body of the Shekhinah” is inexplicably separated from the primordial man.

In an equally inexplicable manner the elements are correlated with four of the aforementioned thirteen potencies, which apparently also correspond to the four principal sefiroth.

These are the hashmal (corresponding to hesed), the cloud (corresponding to Stern Judgment), the Throne of Splendor (corresponding to tif’ereth), as well as the ‘ofan of greatness (corresponding to malkhuth). This is not directly stated but implicitly understood.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, p. 317.

The Supreme Mystery

“Whereas one of these names thus illustrates the way from magic to Neoplatonic mysticism, the other marks the way from the theory of language of the grammarians to the magic of names, that is, in the opposite direction. Both currents meet in an impressive manner in the Book ‘Iyyun and related writings.

The sequel no longer makes any direct reference to the primordial darkness. First, an “order of the master of the world” is expounded, then an “order of Metatron,” the second part obviously being conceived as some sort of explanation of the Shi’ur Qomah.

The two parts describe, in their own fashion and constantly confusing Merkabah gnosis with Neoplatonic images, the potencies by means of which God acts at Creation as well as the supreme hierarchies of essences emanating from him, the hawwayoth.

The exposition quotes other, presumably also fictitious, writings. At the end of the text it suddenly seems as if R. Ishmael had read all the foregoing aloud to Nehunya ben Haqqanah, as if everything had come from the aforementioned book of Hekhaloth.

The framework of the old Merkabah literature clearly serves here as a receptacle for contents that are alien to it. There is scarcely any relationship between these ideas (in which the doctrine of the sefiroth is mentioned only very incidentally) and the world of the Book Bahir.

The thirteen potencies manifested from the supreme mystery, setherelyon ha-ne ‘elam—no doubt the aforementioned primordial darkness—are enumerated by name. They are:

  1. The primordial hokhmah;
  2. The wondrous or hidden light, ‘or mufla;
  3. Hashmal;
  4. The cloud, ‘arafel;
  5. The throne of splendor;
  6. The ‘ofan of greatness;
  7. The cherub;
  8. The wheels of the Merkabah;
  9. The surrounding ether;
  10. The curtain;
  11. The Throne of Glory;
  12. The place of the souls, also called “chambers of greatness”;
  13. The outer Holy Temple.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, p. 316.

The Magical Name Araritha

“But here the magical name by means of which heaven is sealed is Araritha, and the corresponding name for the earth is ‘EHWY. The latter name, which in the writings of this group frequently serves as an object of mystical speculation, is obviously not a secret name belonging to the theurgic tradition but an artificial product composed of the four consonants employed in Hebrew as matres lectionis.

Abraham ibn Ezra and Yehudah Halevi were the first to propose interpretations of these four letters as the most spiritual elements among the consonants, and hence best suited to form the symbols of the divine spirit in the body of the world and the elements of the two most important divine names in the Torah: ‘Ehyeh and YHWH.

In due course a magical primordial Tetragrammaton was formed, designating the unity of these two names and said to precede them. However, the name Araritha can be found in very old magical texts of the German Hasidim as the secret name of the hashmal in the vision of Ezekiel 1:4.

The same name also appears in a magical piece from the Gaonic period, the “Prayer of Rab Hamnunah the Elder.” In the Book ‘Iyyun, these names are interpreted in the spirit of a Neoplatonic concept of God: they indicate his static as well as his dynamic unity, which also maintains its identity in its oppositions.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 315-6.

The Sound of the Alef

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the Lost Book of the Speculation

“What is surprising in this text is that it constitutes an irruption of Neoplatonic language and concepts into older cosmological and Merkabah teachings, as far removed from the language of the Bahir as it is from that of Isaac the Blind.

The few extant pages appear to have been carelessly thrown together without any sense of structure, and the exposition is in part erratic and opaque. The book is written in a pure Hebrew and in a curiously enthusiastic style. The long superscription says:

“ … The “Book of the Speculation” of the great master Rab Hammai, chief of those who speak of the subject of the inner [hidden] sefiroth, and he unveiled in it the essence of the whole reality of the hidden glory, whose reality and nature no creature can comprehend, [and of all that] in a truthful manner, such as it [the hidden kabhod?] is in the indistinct unity, in the perfection of which the higher and the lower are united, and it [this kabhod] is the foundation of all that is hidden and manifest, and from it goes forth all that is emanated from the wondrous unity. And Rab Hammai has interpreted these subjects according to the method of the doctrine of the Merkabah—’al derekh ma- ‘aseh merkabah—and commented upon the prophecy of Ezekiel.”

The language used in this superscription, as well as in the beginning of the work, is purely speculative. The notion of indistinct unity (‘ahduth shawah) is unknown in prekabbalistic Hebrew texts. The term, as becomes quite clear in the writings of Azriel of Gerona, refers to that unity in which all oppositions become “equal,” that is, identical.

This concept, and the idea of a coincidentia oppositorum in God and the highest sefiroth—which subsequently plays such an important role, particularly in Azriel—seems to appear here for the first time. According to Azriel, God is …

“ … the One who is united in all of His powers, as the fire’s flame is united in its colors, and His powers emanate from His unity as the light of the eyes proceeds from the black of the eye, and they are all emanated from one another like perfume from perfume and light from light, for one emanates from the other, and the power of the emanator is in the emanated, without the emanator suffering any loss.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, p. 312.

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.

The Unknowable

“To this correspond two statements of Isaac that refer to the hidden subject of the third person, past tense, which Hebrew does not mark by a specific termination. In his comment on Genesis 1, he says: “In every place [in the Scriptures] where you find simply bam’, ‘asa, ‘he created, he made,’ know that it [the subject] is above the pure thought.”

But in his commentary on Yesirah 1:1 he explains the hidden subject of the verb haqaq, as “that which thought cannot attain.” Since for Isaac (who knows nothing of a definition of the Will as the first emanated being) the mahshabah itself is the first sefirah, then that which it cannot attain would therefore be nothing other than ‘en-sof, which is itself transcendent and hidden in relation to thinking.

The pure thought would be the supreme creative sphere of being, while ‘en-sof, as the Unknowable, already existed before all thought. Quite possibly this was in fact Isaac’s opinion, and I find nothing in his own statements to contradict this supposition. The difficulty, however, lies in the fact that all his disciples, Ezra ben Solomon, Azriel, Jacob ben Shesheth, and above all his own nephew, Asher ben David, who was closest to him, identify the Unknowable, at times explicitly, at times implicitly, with the first sefirah.

The rules of simple logic would lead to the conclusion that Isaac is the common source of this identification. The divine Thought would then be that which cannot be attained by human thought, and Isaac would therefore employ the word mahshabah in different senses: in one context it would designate the Thought of God, but in the expression “that which cannot be attained by thought,” the reference would be to human thought.

However, in the fragment of his commentary on Genesis, he even speaks, as we saw, of that which is above the “pure Thought,” that is, above the divine Thought. I cannot resolve this difficulty without doing violence to the texts. The unknowable in God is identified by the Christian Neoplatonist, Scotus Erigena, with the Nothing from which all creation proceeds.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 270-2.

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.

Eschatological Elevation of the Soul After Death

“The Bahir’s idea of the sefiroth appears in Isaac’s writings in a fully crystallized form. In his commentary on the Yesirah 4:3, the verse 1 Chronicles 29:11 is used for the first time as a biblical reference for the names and the sequence of the seven lower sefiroth, especially the first five among them: “Yours, Lord, are the greatness (gedullah), might (geburah), splendor (tif’ereth), triumph (nesah), and majesty (hod)—yes all (kol) that is in heaven and on earth; to You, Lord, belong kingship (mamlakhah) and preeminence above all.”

From here come the designations not yet used in the Bahir, of gedullah for hesed, tif’ereth for ‘emeth, and hod. Isaac himself for the most part uses the names hesed and pahad (as in the Bahir) instead of gedullah and geburah. The name tif’ereth, however, is already familiar to him.

Whereas the word kol, occurring in the aforementioned verse, already served in the Bahir as an epithet designating the “Righteous,” Isaac uses for this sefirah the noun “Righteous” and the epithet “Foundation of the world.” For the last sefirah, on the other hand, he employs almost exclusively an epithet still not familiar to the Bahir, although it is undoubtedly alluded to there.

This epithet is ‘atarah, a synonym for kether, which designates the lowest of the ten “crowns.” Like the Bahir, he names the first three sefiroth kether or mahshabah, hokhmah and binah.

In his commentary on Yesirah, Isaac mentions many of these sefiroth in the framework of fixed schemata, but this does not always enable us to comprehend the sequence of the sefiroth within them. What is strange is that in point of fact the structure of the sefiroth beyond the supreme three only interests him in detail when it is a question of prayer mysticism, or the interpretation of certain ritual commandments. They have their importance as stages of the contemplative ascent or of the eschatological elevation of the soul, after death, to even higher spheres.

But never are any coherent thoughts presented concerning their function and structure. This is particularly the case for the potencies of tif’ereth, yesod and ‘atarah, which play an especially important role in the evolution of the doctrine of the sefiroth. In contrast to this lack of interest in detail, one discerns in Isaac a more pronounced interest in the totality of the spiritual potencies expressed in language and, in a more general manner, in spiritual entities.

Having said that, the terminological differences between concepts like sefiroth, middoth, letters (of the alphabet) and hawwayoth (literally: essences) are by no means always clear, and their interpretation is often fraught with difficulties.

However, these difficulties are closely related to what is truly new in Isaac’s Kabbalah. Indeed, from the historical point of view their interest lies in the combination of the world of ideas of the Bahir and the entirely new elements that erupt, inspired by gnostic ideas, into the oldest form of the Kabbalah as represented by the Bahir.

This combination reflects speculative interests whose origin is no longer essentially determined by Gnosticism but rather by Neoplatonism and a language mysticism generated by the latter. Isaac is visibly struggling with new thoughts for which he is as yet unable to find clear and definitive expression. The awkwardness of his new terminology militates against the supposition that this lack of clarity, which often makes it so difficult to penetrate his meaning, is intentional.

His new terminology seems to be derived from philosophy, although we cannot identify its philosophical sources in the Hebrew tradition. The special importance of Isaac’s commentary on the Yesirah lies in the attempt to read into the old texts the new, speculative thoughts of a contemplative mystic. But we are no less surprised by the boldness with which he presents far-reaching ideas in his other cosmological fragments and in his remarks concerning the mystical theory of sacrifice. The particular manner in which Isaac applies his ideas to the task of man, to the connection between the terrestrial and the celestial worlds, and to eschatological matters merits closer consideration.

The path of the mystic, described by Isaac at the beginning of his commentary on the Yesirah, is (as Isaac of Acre already recognized in his paraphrase of several of these passages in his own commentary) that of systematically uncovering the divine—by means of reflective contemplation and within the innermost depths of such contemplation. Isaac postulates three stages in the mystery of the deity and its unfolding in creation and revelation.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 263-5.

On Metempsychosis, or Reincarnation

“Indian contact with the Greeks can be traced back to Alexander the Great, establishing trade and exchange between the eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East (Persian), and India. The classic narrative of this relationship is found in the Life of Apollonius of Tyana (recorded by Philostratus, c. 220 CE). Apollonius journeyed to India to study at the sacred hill of the Indian “wise men marked with a crescent on their foreheads”. When Apollonius (d. 98 CE) was asked about why he came on such a long journey, he replied “Your ways are wiser and much more godly”, clearly indicating a classic Greek respect for Indian thought at the time of Roman Philostratus (36).

Another example, far more significant, is that of the teachings of the Persian religious leader, Mani (c. 245 CE). According to Mani’s teachings, the Apostles of Light sent by Jesus to redeem humanity included the Buddha and Manichaeism is distinctively influenced by Buddhist ideas, such as Mani representing himself as the Buddha to come, Maitreya (37). In esoteric circles, Iranian syncretic religions (such as those of Kushan) came to be regarded as influenced by both Greco-Roman and Indo-Iranian ideas, ideas that have carried over into the history of various forms of Western Esotericism but are little studied (38).

One of the significant esoteric teachings contained in the Life of Apollonius, recorded as a teaching of the Indian sages, is that on reincarnation. When Apollonius asks about the nature of the soul, he is told that, like Pythagoras and Plato, human beings live many lives in diverse bodies based on past actions. Further, the Indian sages claim that this teaching which was taught to the Greek philosophers in Egypt was transmitted to the Egyptians by ancient Rishis’ of India who migrated to north Africa (Ethiopia) from the Ganges River basin (39).

The belief in reincarnation or metempsychosis has very ancient roots in India and is the probable source of that belief in the classical period of formative Gnosticism (40). Gnostic teachers such as Basilides propagated the idea along with other groups such as the Carpocratians and Ophites, and it was popular among various Neoplatonists such as Alcinous, as well as taught by the archetypal magician, Simon Magus. It was also taught by Mani as the fate of the “Hearers” who did not attain perfection (41). Gnostic texts such as the ZostrianosThe Treatise on Resurrection, and the later Pistis Sophia further propagated ideas of reincarnation for the “inpenitent soul” that it might try again to attain the goal of liberation from worldly life (42). Thus a very early Indian influence in Western Esotericism may have roots in the spread and popularity of ideas of reincarnation, also found in early elements of Christianity but later repressed.”

–Lee Irwin, “Western Esotericism, Eastern Spirituality, and the Global Future.”

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.

The Divine Transmission of the World’s Pattern Through Angelic Minds.

“Indeed there are many features of neo-Platonic cosmology which would have appeared transparent in the structure of the Ars notoria ritual to its late medieval operators.

In a most basic way, the idea of an intrinsic congruence and similitude between the human mind and divine archetype of the world is a recurrent feature of twelfth-century neo-Platonic thought. Thus, Thierry of Chartres notes that »the soul is proportioned to the nature of the universe«; and in a similar vein, Hugh of St Victor, another prominent twelfth-century writer in the same neo-Platonic tradition, says at the beginning of his Didascalicon that »similars are comprehended by similars; […] in a word, the rational soul could by no means comprehend all things unless it were also composed of all of them[…] the soul grasps the similitude in and of itself, out of a certain native capacity and proper power of its own«.

But this is a similitude which traverses the spiritual cosmos as well as the human mind. Hugh explains in an appendix to the Didascalicon that knowledge emanates from God in such a way that ideas subsist in themselves only after they are created in the minds of the angels:

“What exists in actuality is an image of what exists in the mind of man, and what exists in the mind of man is an image of what exists in the divine Mind […] For the angelic nature first existed in the divine Idea as a plan, and then afterwards it began to subsist in itself through creation. The other creatures however, first existed in the Idea of God; next they were made in the knowledge of the angels; and finally they began to subsist in themselves.”

“In other words, all created things necessarily proceed, from highest to lowest, through the subsistence of creatures who have the capacity for ideas. The divine transmission of the world’s pattern through angelic minds of which Hugh speaks here is rendered visible in the presence of angels mingled with the liberal arts on the Chartres archivolt and rendered functional in the association of the angelic orders and liberal arts in the Ars notoria prayers.”

–Claire Fanger, “Sacred and Secular Knowledge Systems in the Ars Notoria and the Flowers of Heavenly Teaching of John of Morigny.” Pg. 165.

Quoted by Peter Dronke: >>Thierry of Chartres«, in: A History of Twelfth-Century Western Philosophy, ed. by Peter Dronke, Cambridge 1988, p. 372.

Hugh of St Victor: The Didascalicon of Hugh of St Victor, translated with an introduction and notes by Jerome Taylor, New York 1961, l.i, pp. 46-47.

Haslmayr and the Paracelsian Theophrastia Sancta.

“Likewise, the unitarian Neoplatonic position is seemingly upheld by Paracelsus’s doctrine of the soul: “Man has two bodies: one from the earth, the second from the stars, and thus they are easily distinguishable. The elemental, material body goes to the grave along with its essence; the sidereal, subtle body dissolves gradually and goes back to its source, but the spirit of God in us, which is like His image, returns to Him whose image it is.

Throughout the Astronomia Magna one sees that Paracelsus is using a threefold hierarchical view of the world: mundane, celestial, and eternal corresponding to the body, soul, and spirit. The spirit is divine and will, as in the emanationist Neoplatonic philosophy of Plotinus which was Ficino’s great inspiration, return to the godhead. This was the threefold hierarchical world of Neoplatonic cosmology, which came through Ficino and Pico to Trithemius and Agrippa, still present in John Dee’s rigid theurgy and Robert Fludd’s wonderful engravings.” […]

“The spirit instructs man in supernatural and eternal things, and after the separation of matter from spirit it returns to the Lord.”26 […]

“The Spanish scholar Carlos Gilly sees Paracelsus’s large but only recently edited theological writings as providing the basis of a new supradenominational religious current in central Europe in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Paracelsus rejected the Mauerkirche (the church of stone) in De septem puncti idolatriae christianae (1525). He did not want to found a new sect, but strove instead for a church of the spirit, subject only to God and nature.

Paracelsus’s “religion of the two lights,” namely the light of grace, and the light of nature, was taken up by Adam Haslmayr (ca. 1560–1630), the first commentator on the Rosicrucian manifestos, which invoked the example of Paracelsus. Haslmayr called the revelation of Paracelsus the Theophrastia Sancta, and this term became emblematic among followers of Valentin Weigel and others as a new gospel for a second, truly radical reformation.” […]

“Like the seventeenth-century Paracelsians, Jung celebrated Paracelsus for his source of knowledge in the twin “lights” of nature and revelation and believed Paracelsus’s work to be an early intimation of the role of the unconscious. Arguing that alchemy is “the forerunner of our modern psychology of the unconscious,” he claimed Paracelsus as a pioneer of “empirical psychology and psychotherapy.”

–Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, The Western Esoteric Traditions: A Historical Introduction, 2008, pg. 82-4.