"Samizdat: Publishing forbidden literature."

Tag: Origen

Eco: The Egyptian Alphabet, 3


Horapollo (c. 5th century CE), Hori Apollinis selecta hieroglyphica, Romae: sumtibus Iulij Francescschini, ex typographia Aloysij Zanetti, 1599, pp. 128-9. Brooklyn Museum Libraries, Wilbur Library of Egyptology, Special Collections, call number PE40 H78 F84. 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.

Alciati’s commentary refers to the passage describing the stork in the Hieroglyphica. Yet we have just seen that there is no reference either to the feeding of the young or to the transport of the parents. These features are, however, mentioned in a fourth century AD text, the Hexaemeron of Basil (VIII, 5).

In other words, the information contained in the Hieroglyphica was already at the disposal of European culture. A search for traces of the stork from the Renaissance backwards is filled with pleasant surprises.

In the Cambridge Bestiary (twelfth century CE), we read that storks nourish their young with exemplary affection, and that “they incubate the nests so tirelessly that they lose their own feathers. What is more, when they have moulted in this way, they in turn are looked after by the babies, for a time corresponding in length to the time which they themselves have spent in bringing up and cherishing their offspring.” (The Bestiary, T.H. White, ed., New York: Putnam’s Sons, 1960: pp. 117-8).

The accompanying image shows a stork that carries a frog in its beak, obviously a dainty morsel for its young.

The Cambridge Bestiary has taken this idea from Isidore of Seville, who, in the Etymologiarum (XII, vii), says more or less the same. Who then are Isidore’s sources? St. Basil we have already seen; there was St. Ambrose as well (Hexaemeron, V, 16, 53), and possibly also Celsus (cited in Origen, Contra Celsum, IV, 98) and Porphyry (De abstinentia, III, 23, 1). These, in their turn, used Pliny’s Naturalis historia (X, 32) as their source.

Pliny, of course, could have been drawing on an Egyptian tradition, if Aelian, in the second to third century AD, could claim (though without citing Pliny by name) that “Storks are venerated among the Egyptians because they nourish and honor their parents when they grow old” (De animalium natura, X, 16).

But the idea can be traced back even further. The same notion is to be found in Plutarch (De solertia animalium, 4), Cicero (De finibus bonorum et malorum, II, 110), Aristotle (Historia animalium, IX, 7, 612b, 35), Plato (Alcibiades, 135 E), Aristophanes (The Birds, 1355), and finally in Sophocles (Electra, 1058).

There is nothing to prevent us from imagining that Sophocles himself was drawing on ancient Egyptian tradition; but, even if he were, it is evident that the story of the stork has been part of occidental culture for as long as we care to trace it.

It follows that Horapollo did not reveal anything hot. Moreover, the origin of this symbol seems to have been Semitic, given that, in Hebrew, the word for stork means “the one who has filial piety.”

Read by anyone familiar with medieval and classical culture, Horapollo’s booklet seems to differ very little from the bestiaries current in the preceding centuries. It merely adds some information about specifically Egyptian animals, such as the ibis and the scarab and neglects make certain of the standard moralizing comments or biblical references.

This was clear even to the Renaissance. In his Hieroglyphica sive de sacris Aegyptorum aliarumque gentium literis of 1556, Pierio Valeriano never tired of employing his vast stock of knowledge of classical and Christian sources to note the occasions where the assertions of Horapollo might be confirmed.

Yet instead of reading Horapollo in the light of a previous tradition, he revisits this whole tradition in the light of Horapollo.

With a barrage of citations from Latin and Greek authors, Giulio Cesare Capaccio displayed, in his Delle imprese of 1592, his perfect mastery of older traditions. Yet fashion now demanded that he interpreted this tradition in a Egyptian key.

“Without hieroglyphic observation,” and without having recourse to the Monas hieroglyphicaquel Giovanni Dee da Londino,” it was impossible, he said, to endow these images (coming from centuries of western culture) with their proper recondite meanings.

We are speaking of the “rereading” of a text (or of a network of texts) which had not been changed during the centuries. So what has changed? We are here witnessing a semiotic incident which, as paradoxical as some of its effects may have been, was, in terms of its own dynamic, quite easy to explain.

Horapollo’s text (qua text) differs but little from other similar writings, which were previously known. None the less, the humanists read it as a series of unprecedented statements. The reason is simply that the readers of the fifteenth century saw is as coming from a different author.

The text had not changed, but the “voice” supposed to utter it was endowed with a different charisma. This changed the way in which the text was received and the way in which it was consequently interpreted.

Thus, as old and familiar as these images were, the moment they appeared as transmitted not by the familiar Christian and pagan sources, but by the ancient Egyptian divinities themselves, they took on a fresh, and radically different, meaning.

For the missing scriptural commentaries there were substituted allusions to vague religions mysteries. The success of the book was due to its polysemy. Hieroglyphs were regarded as initiatory symbols.

They were symbols, that is, expressions that referred to an occult, unknown and ambivalent content. In contradistinction to conjecture, in which we take a visible symptom and infer from it its cause, Kircher defined a symbol as:

“a nota significativa of mysteries, that is to say, that it is the nature of a symbol to lead our minds, by means of certain similarities, to the understanding of things vastly different from the things that are offered to our external senses, and whose property it is to appear hidden under the veil of an obscure expression. [ . . . ] Symbols cannot be translated by words, but expressed only by marks, characters, and figures. (Obeliscus Pamphilius, II, 5, 114-20).”

These symbols were initiatory, because the allure of Egyptian culture was given by the promise of a knowledge that was wrapped in an impenetrable and indecipherable enigma so as to protect it from the idle curiosity of the vulgar multitudes.

The hieroglyph, Kircher reminds us, was the symbol of a sacred truth (thus, though all hieroglyphs are symbols, it does not follow that all symbols are hieroglyphs) whose force derived from its impenetrability to the eyes of the profane.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 151-4.

(Editorial Note: I must mention Mr. William Thayer, whose LacusCurtius site at the University of Chicago links to a whopping 51 complete texts by ancient authors and more. I stumbled across Mr. Thayer’s page as I linked to classical writers, and I find it to be both indispensable and a staggering contribution to online scholarship.

Thank you for this work, Mr. Thayer. I am one of the crazy ones out here in internet-land who realizes what you have done. With my best regards.)

Eco: The Return to Hebrew


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.

The Missing Books of Hippolytus’s The Refutation of All Heresies

” … In the previous chapter we have seen that there is evidence, and abundant evidence, not merely of the existence of Mysteries connected with the worship of Adonis-Attis, but of the high importance assigned to such Mysteries; at the time of the birth of Christianity they were undoubtedly the most popular and the most influential of the foreign cults adopted by Imperial Rome.

In support of this statement I quoted certain passages from Cumont’s Religions Orientales, in which he touches on the subject: here are two other quotations which may well serve as introduction to the evidence we are about to examine.

“Researches on the doctrines and practices common to Christianity and the Oriental Mysteries almost invariably go back, beyond the limits of the Roman Empire, to the Hellenized East. It is there we must seek the key of enigmas still unsolved–The essential fact to remember is that the Eastern religions had diffused, first anterior to, then parallel with, Christianity, doctrines which acquired with this latter a universal authority in the decline of the ancient world. The preaching of Asiatic priests prepared in their own despite the triumph of the Church 1.”

But the triumph of the new Faith once assured the organizing, dominating, influence of Imperial Rome speedily came into play. Christianity, originally an Eastern, became a Western, religion, the ‘Mystery’ elements were frowned upon, kinship with pre-Christian faiths ignored, or denied; where the resemblances between the cults proved too striking for either of these methods such resemblances were boldly attributed to the invention of the Father of Lies himself, a cunning snare whereby to deceive unwary souls.

Christianity was carefully trimmed, shaped, and forced into an Orthodox mould, and anything that refused to adapt itself to this drastic process became by that very refusal anathema to the righteous.

Small wonder that, under such conditions, the early ages of the Church were marked by a fruitful crop of Heresies, and heresy-hunting became an intellectual pastime in high favour among the strictly orthodox.

Among the writers of this period whose works have been preserved Hippolytus, Bishop of Portus in the early years of the third century, was one of the most industrious. He compiled a voluminous treatise, entitled Philosophumena, or The Refutation of all Heresies, of which only one MS. and that of the fourteenth century, has descended to us.

The work was already partially known by quotations, the first Book had been attributed to Origen, and published in the editio princeps of his works. The text originally consisted of ten Books, but of these the first three, and part of the fourth, are missing from the MS. The Origen text supplies part of the lacuna, but two entire Books, and part of a third are missing.

Now these special Books, we learn from the Introduction, dealt with the doctrines and Mysteries of the Egyptians and Chaldaeans, whose most sacred secrets Hippolytus boasts that he has divulged.

Curiously enough, not only are these Books lacking but in the Epitome at the beginning of Book X the summary of their contents is also missing, a significant detail, which, as has been suggested by critics, looks like a deliberate attempt on the part of some copyist to suppress the information contained in the Books in question.”

Incidentally this would seem to suggest that the worthy bishop was not making an empty boast when he claimed to be a revealer of secrets.”

Jessie L. Weston, From Ritual to Romance, 1920, pp. 142-4.

The Secret Doctrine of Jesus

“…He said: Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.” To the common folk Christ spoke in parables, not because He was of a common mind, but because He was an initiate and so understood how fine is the division between reason and madness, and how easily can knowledge dissolve the filament which separates these two.

“… Amongst the Jews, and Christ was of that race, we find it firmly established, and it is not a mere coincidence that the Hebrew word Sod, which means “mystery” or “secrets,” has the same numerical value, namely 70, as the Hebrew word which represents “wine;” for mystery can intoxicate as well as refresh.”

“The mysteries of the early Hebrews were closely guarded by the Sons of the Doctrine, and it would appear that many of their secrets were derived from Egypt and later on from Babylonia. We are told that Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and that in the first four books of the Pentateuch he has esoterically laid down the principles of the secret doctrine. He initiated seventy elders into the mysteries, which they transmitted from mouth to ear.”

“…Though refuted by Origen, Celsus was undoubtedly right when he declared that the primitive Christian Church was possessed of a secret system, and Weishaupt, the supposed founder of the Illuminati…said:

“No one … has so cleverly concealed the high meaning of His teaching, and no one has finally so surely and easily directed men on to the path of freedom, as our great master Jesus of Nazareth. This secret meaning and natural consequence of His teaching He hid completely, for Jesus had a secret doctrine, as we see in more than one place of the Scriptures.”

“…there can be no doubt whatever that the Bible is a mystical work containing a secret doctrine which is only known to those who have been initiated into it. … Even when … Leibnitz published in the Acta Eruditorum … his scheme of differential calculus, he did so in such a way as to hide both the method and object from the uninitiated. Newton did the same with his invention of infinite series; and algebra, as far as it was understood by the Arabians, was, as a secret, known to and hidden by certain Italian mathematicians for three hundred years.”

–JFC Fuller, The Secret Wisdom of the Qabala, pp. 8-9.

%d bloggers like this: