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Tag: Polytheism

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.

Babylon: Imperial Polytheism

“As long, however, as these multitudinous deities were believed to exist, so long was it also believed that they could injure or assist. Hence come such expressions as those which meet us in the Penitential Psalms, “To the god that is known and that is unknown, to the goddess that is known and that is unknown, do I lift my prayer.”

Hence, too, the care with which the supreme Baal was invoked as “lord of the hosts of heaven and earth,” since homage paid to the master was paid to the subjects as well.

Hence, finally, the fact that the temples of the higher gods, like the Capitol at Rome, became gathering places for the inferior divinities, and counterparts on the earth of “the assembly of the gods” in heaven.

That curious product of Mandaite imagination, the Book of Nabathean Agriculture, which was translated into Arabic by Ibn Wahshiya in the 10th century, sets before us a curious picture of the temple of Tammuz in Babylon.

“The images (of the gods),” it tells us,

“congregated from all parts of the world to the temple of el-Askûl (Ê-Sagil) in Babylon, and betook themselves to the temple (haikal) of the Sun, to the great golden image that is suspended between heaven and earth in particular.

The image of the sun stood, they say, in the midst of the temple, surrounded by all the images of the world. Next to it stood the images of the sun in all countries; then those of the moon; next those of Mars; after them the images of Mercury; then those of Jupiter; next of Venus; and last of all, of Saturn.

Thereupon the image of the sun began to bewail Tammuz and the idols to weep; and the image of the sun uttered a lament over Tammuz and narrated his history, whilst the idols all wept from the setting of the sun till its rising at the end of that night. Then the idols flew away, returning to their own countries.”

The details are probably borrowed from the great temple of pre-Mohammedan Mecca, but they correspond very faithfully with what we now know the interior of one of the chief temples of Babylonia and Assyria to have been like.

Fragments have been preserved to us of a tablet which enumerated the names of the minor deities whose images stood in the principal temples of Assyria, attending like servants upon the supreme god.

Among them are the names of foreign divinities, to whom the catholic spirit of Babylonian religion granted a place in the national pantheon when once the conquest of the towns and countries over which they presided had proved their submission to the Babylonian and Assyrian gods; even Khaldis, the god of Ararat, figures among those who dwelt in one of the chief temples of Assyria, and whose names were invoked by the visitor to the shrine.

Ḫaldi was the chief deity of the Ararat (Urartu) pantheon. His shrine at Ardini (likely from Armenian Artin), was in Akkadian Muṣaṣir (Exit of the Serpent/Snake).  Of all the gods of the Ararat (Urartu) pantheon, most inscriptions are dedicated to Khaldi or Hayk (Armenian: Հայկ) or Hayg, also known as Haik Nahapet (Հայկ Նահապետ, Hayk the Tribal Chief), the legendary patriarch of the Armenian nation.  He is portrayed as a man standing on a lion. The kings of Urartu prayed to Khaldi for victory in battle. Temples dedicated to Khaldi were adorned with weapons.

Ḫaldi was the chief deity of the Ararat (Urartu) pantheon. His shrine at Ardini (likely from Armenian Artin), was in Akkadian Muṣaṣir (Exit of the Serpent/Snake).
Of all the gods of the Ararat (Urartu) pantheon, most inscriptions are dedicated to Khaldi or Hayk (Armenian: Հայկ) or Hayg, also known as Haik Nahapet (Հայկ Նահապետ, Hayk the Tribal Chief), the legendary patriarch of the Armenian nation.
He is portrayed as a man standing on a lion.
The kings of Urartu prayed to Khaldi for victory in battle. Temples dedicated to Khaldi were adorned with weapons.

The spectacle of such a temple, with the statue or symbol of the supreme Baal rising majestically in the innermost cell, and delivering his oracles from within the hidden chamber of that holy of holies, while the shrines of his wife and offspring were grouped around him, and the statues of ministering deities stood slave-like in front, was a fitting image of Babylonian religion.

“The gods many and lords many” of an older creed still survived, but they had become the jealously-defined officials of an autocratic court. The democratic polytheism of an earlier day had become imperial.

Bel was the counterpart of his vicegerent the Babylonian king, with this difference, that whereas Babylonia had been fused into an united monarchy, the hierarchy of the gods still acknowledged more than one head.

How long Anu and Ea, or Samas and Sin, would have continued to share with Merodach the highest honours of the official cult, we cannot say; the process of degradation had already begun when Babylonia ceased to be an independent kingdom and Babylon the capital of an empire.

Merodach remained a supreme Baal–the cylinder inscription of Cyrus proves so much–but he never became the one supreme god.”

A.H. Sayce, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by the Religion of the Ancient Babylonians, 5th ed., London, 1898, pp. 217-20.

Heresy in the Bahir

“It is in this sense, above all, that the raising of the hands in Aaron’s blessing (Lev. 9:22) and during the battle against Amaleq (Exod. 17:11) is explained. The raising of the hands in the priestly blessing, at the end of the ‘Amidah prayer, corresponds to the raising of the hands after the sacrifice (section 87): it is a gesture marking the union of the sefiroth, which are specifically mentioned here as being contained in one another.

The victory of Israel over Amaleq when Moses raised his hands is on the same level. Moses directed the “concentration of the heart,” kawwanath ha-leb, to that middah that is named Israel and that contains the Torah of Truth.

“He indicated with the ten fingers of his hands, that [this middah] gave permanence to the ten [logoi], so that if it [this middah] would not assist Israel, the ten logoi would no longer be sanctified every day—and then Israel was victorious.”

The expression kawwanath ha-leb is taken from the Targum and the Midrash and means concentration of the spirit; from the Book Bahir on it was used by the kabbalists in the sense of “mystical meditation” on the sefiroth. It serves as the fundamental concept of their mysticism of prayer. The Midrash already states that Israel’s prayer is not heard now, for it does not know the full, explicit name of God, shem ha-meforash. If, therefore, someone knows this secret, his prayer will be heard. The same idea is very boldly developed in an interpretation of Habakkuk 3:10 in section 95:

“If there are in Israel enlightened men and such as know the secret of the venerable name and raise their hands, they will be heard immediately, for it says [Isa. 58:9]: “Then, when you call, the Lord will answer.” [This is to be understood as follows:] If you invoke [that which is indicated by the word] ‘az, God answers. And what does this ‘az [composed of ‘alef and zayin] signify? This teaches that it is not permitted to invoke the ‘alef alone or to pray to it, but only together with the two letters that are connected with it and that sit highest in the royal dominion. And together with the ‘alef, they are three. Seven of the logoi [still] remain, and that is signified by [the letter] zayin [whose numerical value is seven] and of this it is also said [Exod. 15:1]: “Then sang,” ‘az yashir, [that is, the ‘az praised] “Moses and the Israelites.”

This reinterpretation of the Hebrew word ‘az utilizes an old nonmystical midrash in which this word in Exodus 15:1 is interpreted according to the numerical value of the two consonants, as if Moses had said: “Let us praise the one who thrones above the seven heavens.”

The new idea is: if you invoke (in your kawwanah ) the ten logoi that represent the secret of the true name of God, then God answers! It is understandable that this passage, which speaks so clearly of a prayer addressed to the logoi and sefiroth, would have been considered offensive.

It evidently was one of the many heretical utterances that, according to Meir ben Simon of Narbonne, filled the Bahir. He specifically taxed the kabbalists with praying to the sefiroth as intermediaries instead of to God, thus making themselves guilty of polytheism.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 194-6.

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