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Tag: Paganism

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.)

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.

More on Ibn Wahshiyyah and Magic

“The magic of Ibn Washiyya consists of invocations to astral deities, magical recipes and forms of action. Most of the invocations are given only in Arabic, but a minority is also provided with the supposed Aramaic original.

The text of these is heavily corrupted, as far as the manuscripts are concerned, but in the original the Aramaic may well have been flawless; in any case, several Aramaic words and expressions may still be recognized.

The Arabic script and the inability of the later copyists to understand the foreign words make a mess of the text, as we know also happened to the romance kharjas, which were definitely originally composed by poets who knew, at least to some extent, the language they used.

The Nabatean corpus contains very many invocations to astral deities, often in connection with magical preparations. The Filāha provides a very forceful invocation to Zuhal, Saturn, in the beginning of the text (pp. 10-11).

One may draw attention to the association between Zuhal and black objects, animals, stones and plants (Filāha, p. 12), which is typical of chthonic deities, the planet Zuhal retaining his older chthonic connotations; throughout the book he is considered the god of agriculture.

The burning of fourteen black bats and an equal amount of rats —black ones I suppose— before praying to Zuhal over their ashes is to be seen as a magical preparation for an invocation for apotropaic reasons, to avoid the destructive and nefarious power of the deity.

As a Muslim, Ibn Wahshiyya naturally has to keep his distance from this prayer, but as he claims to be translating an old text, the discrepancy between his Islamic religion and the text’s paganism does not surface. On the other hand, he, as himself, the translator, vouches for the efficacy of similar prayers in many cases.

In Sumūm, fol. 22a, he comments on the language of a prayer, Aramaic in the original, and says that the prayer may also be read in his Arabic translation. In this case, one can hardly avoid the conclusion that Ibn Wahshiyya himself believes in the power of the prayer, thus actually compromising himself.

Yet in the tenth-century Būyid Iraq this was not an issue. This leads us to the question of the religious worldview of the author. In some earlier studies, the supposed piety of Ibn Wahshiyya, called a Sufi in, e.g., his Kitāb Asrār al-falak, fol. 87b, has been contrasted with the paganism of Filāha.

In a sense, the question has been wrongly posed: Ibn Wahshiyya is definitely not an orthodox Sunni scholar, but a narrow definition of Islam as Sunni orthodoxy certainly distorts the picture.

The tenth century was full of esoteric speculation, syncretism and doctrines far from the hadīth-oriented religion of the ‘ulamā’, and much of this took an Islamic garb and often especially a Sufi cloak; we are speaking of the time when al-Hallāj was executed (309/922), either for his wild utterances or, perhaps more probably, for some court intrigues.

Being a Sufi did not automatically certify orthodox beliefs. — In fact, the topic should be properly studied; in some passages of Filāha (esp. pp. 256-262), both the  supposed author and Ibn Wahshiyya, the translator, are very outspoken in their verdict against ascetism and Sufism.”

Jaakko Hāmeem-Anttila, “Ibn Wahshiyya and Magic,” Anaquel de Estudios Árabes X, 1999, pp. 44-6.

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.

The Weeping of the Infant Christ and the Lament for Adonis

” … When we reflect how often the Church has skilfully contrived to plant the seeds of the new faith on the old stock of paganism, we may surmise that the Easter celebration of the dead and risen Christ was grafted upon a similar celebration of the dead and risen Adonis, which, as we have seen reason to believe, was celebrated in Syria at the same season.

The type, created by Greek artists, of the sorrowful goddess with her dying lover in her arms, resembles and may have been the model of the Pietà of Christian art, the Virgin with the dead body of her divine Son in her lap, of which the most celebrated example is the one by Michael Angelo in St. Peters. That noble group, in which the living sorrow of the mother contrasts so wonderfully with the languor of death in the son, is one of the finest compositions in marble. Ancient Greek art has bequeathed to us few works so beautiful, and none so pathetic.

In this connexion a well-known statement of Jerome may not be without significance. He tells us that Bethlehem, the traditionary birthplace of the Lord, was shaded by a grove of that still older Syrian Lord, Adonis, and that where the infant Jesus had wept, the lover of Venus was bewailed.

Though he does not expressly say so, Jerome seems to have thought that the grove of Adonis had been planted by the heathen after the birth of Christ for the purpose of defiling the sacred spot. In this he may have been mistaken. If Adonis was indeed, as I have argued, the spirit of the corn, a more suitable name for his dwelling-place could hardly be found than Bethlehem, “the House of Bread,” and he may well have been worshipped there at his House of Bread long ages before the birth of Him who said, “I am the bread of life.”

Even on the hypothesis that Adonis followed rather than preceded Christ at Bethlehem, the choice of his sad figure to divert the allegiance of Christians from their Lord cannot but strike us as eminently appropriate when we remember the similarity of the rites which commemorated the death and resurrection of the two.

One of the earliest seats of the worship of the new god was Antioch, and at Antioch, as we have seen, the death of the old god was annually celebrated with great solemnity. A circumstance which attended the entrance of Julian into the city at the time of the Adonis festival may perhaps throw some light on the date of its celebration. When the emperor drew near to the city he was received with public prayers as if he had been a god, and he marvelled at the voices of a great multitude who cried that the Star of Salvation had dawned upon them in the East.

This may doubtless have been no more than a fulsome compliment paid by an obsequious Oriental crowd to the Roman emperor. But it is also possible that the rising of a bright star regularly gave the signal for the festival, and that as chance would have it the star emerged above the rim of the eastern horizon at the very moment of the emperor’s approach. The coincidence, if it happened, could hardly fail to strike the imagination of a superstitious and excited multitude, who might thereupon hail the great man as the deity whose coming was announced by the sign in the heavens.

Or the emperor may have mistaken for a greeting to himself the shouts which were addressed to the star. Now Astarte, the divine mistress of Adonis, was identified with the planet Venus, and her changes from a morning to an evening star were carefully noted by the Babylonian astronomers, who drew omens from her alternate appearance and disappearance.

Hence we may conjecture that the festival of Adonis was regularly timed to coincide with the appearance of Venus as the Morning or Evening Star. But the star which the people of Antioch saluted at the festival was seen in the East; therefore, if it was indeed Venus, it can only have been the Morning Star.

At Aphaca in Syria, where there was a famous temple of Astarte, the signal for the celebration of the rites was apparently given by the flashing of a meteor, which on a certain day fell like a star from the top of Mount Lebanon into the river Adonis. The meteor was thought to be Astarte herself, and its flight through the air might naturally be interpreted as the descent of the amorous goddess to the arms of her lover.

At Antioch and elsewhere the appearance of the Morning Star on the day of the festival may in like manner have been hailed as the coming of the goddess of love to wake her dead leman from his earthy bed. If that were so, we may surmise that it was the Morning Star which guided the wise men of the East to Bethlehem, the hallowed spot which heard, in the language of Jerome, the weeping of the infant Christ and the lament for Adonis.”

James George Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion  (1922)
Chapter 33:: The Gardens of Adonis, np. 

At the Nexus of Pagan Mystery and Christian Ceremony

“Finally, a casual reference, in Anrich’s work on the Mysteries, to the Naassene Document, caused me to apply to Mr G. R. S. Mead, of whose knowledge of the mysterious border-land between Christianity and Paganism, and willingness to place that knowledge at the disposal of others, I had, for some years past, had pleasant experience.

Mr Mead referred me to his own translation and analysis of the text in question, and there, to my satisfaction, I found, not only the final link that completed the chain of evolution from Pagan Mystery to Christian Ceremonial, but also proof of that wider significance I was beginning to apprehend. The problem involved was not one of Folk-lore, not even one of Literature, but of Comparative Religion in its widest sense.”

Jessie L. Weston, From Ritual to Romance, 1920. P. vii.

Passing the Gates of the Seven Celestial Palaces

“… precisely these ideas were affirmed in the heart of an esoteric discipline within the Jewish tradition, and not only among Jewish heretics, even though the role of the pagan planet-angels is here assumed by other archons.

These archons threaten the ecstatic visionary at the gates of the seven celestial palaces, and—entirely in keeping with the doctrines of various gnostic writings of the same period—can only be overcome and compelled to permit him to pass by the display of a magic “seal,” through the recitation of hymns, prayers, etc.

One can still discern plainly the relation to late Jewish apocalyptic writings, whose ideas evidently form a plausible transition to both Jewish monotheistic Gnosticism and the heretical Gnosticism that tended toward dualism.”

–Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 1987, p. 22.

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