"Samizdat: Publishing the Forbidden."

Tag: Pythagorus

Eco: Before and After Europe, 2


MC Escher, Tower of Babel, 1928. This image of a drawing is copyrighted by the artist, who died in 1972. Low-resolution images of works of art for purposes of critical commentary qualify for fair use under United States copyright law.

“Despite this, by the second century AD, there had begun to form the suspicion that Latin and Greek might not be the only languages which expressed harmoniously the totality of experience.

Slowly spreading across the Greco-Roman world, obscure revelations appeared; some were attributed to Persian magi, others to an Egyptian divinity called Thoth-Hermes, to Chaldean oracles, and even to the very Pythagorean and Orphic traditions which, though born on Greek soil, had long been smothered under the weight of the great rationalist philosophy.

By now, the classical rationalism, elaborated and re-elaborated over centuries, had begun to show signs of age. With this, traditional religion entered a period of crisis as well. The imperial pagan religion had become a purely formal affair, no more than a simple expression of loyalty.

Each people had been allowed to keep its own gods. These were accommodated to the Latin pantheon, no one bothering over contradictions, synonyms or homonyms. The term characterizing this leveling toleration for any type of religion (and for any type of philosophy or knowledge as well) is syncretism.

An unintended result of this syncretism, however, was that a diffused sort of religiosity began to grow in the souls of the most sensitive. It was manifested by a belief in the universal World Soul; a soul which subsisted in stars and in earthly objects alike.

Our own, individual, souls were but small particles of the great World Soul. Since the reason of philosophers proved unable to supply truths about important matters such as these, men and women sought revelations beyond reason, through visions, and through communications with the godhead itself.

It was in this climate that Pythagoreanism was reborn. From its beginnings, Pythagoreans had regarded themselves as the keepers of a mystic form of knowledge, and practiced initiatory rites.

Their understanding of the laws of music and mathematics was presented as the fruit of revelation obtained from the Egyptians. By the time of Pythagoreanism’s second appearance, however, Egyptian civilization had been eradicated by the Greek and Latin conquerors.

Egypt itself had now become an enigma, no more than an incomprehensible hieroglyph. Yet there is nothing more fascinating than secret wisdom: one is sure that it exists, but one does not know what it is. In the imagination, therefore, it shines as something unutterably profound.

That such wisdom could exist while still remaining unknown, however, could only be accounted for by the fact that the language in which this wisdom was expressed had remained unknown as well.

This was the reasoning of Diogenes Laertius, who wrote in his Lives of the Philosophers in the third century AD:

“There are those who assert that philosophy started among the Barbarians: there were, they claim, Magi among the Persians, the Chaldeans, the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Gymnosophists of India, the Druids among the Celts and Galatians” (I).

The classical Greeks had identified barbarians as those who could not even articulate their speech. It now seemed that these very mumblings were of a sacred language, filled with the promise of tacit revelations (Festugière 1944-54:I).

I have given a summary of the cultural atmosphere at this time because, albeit in a delayed fashion, it was destined to have a deep influence on our story. Although no one at the time proposed the reconstruction of the perfect language, the need for one was, by now, vaguely felt.

We shall see that the suggestions, first planted during these years, flowered more than twelve centuries later in humanistic and Renaissance culture (and beyond); this will constitute a central thread in the story I am about to tell.

In the meantime, Christianity had become a state religion, expressed in the Greek of the patristic East and in the Latin still spoken in the West. After St. Jerome translated the Old Testament in the fourth century, the need to know Hebrew as a sacred language grew weaker. This happened to Greek as well.

A typical example of this cultural lack is given by St. Augustine, a man of vast culture, and the most important exponent of Christian thought at the end of the empire.

The Christian revelation is founded on an Old Testament written in Hebrew and a New Testament written, for the most part, in Greek. St. Augustine, however, knew no Hebrew; and his knowledge of Greek was, to say the least, patchy (cf. Marrou 1958).

This amounts to a somewhat paradoxical situation: the man who set himself the task of interpreting scripture in order to discover the true meaning of the divine word could read it only in a Latin translation.

The notion that he ought to consult the Hebrew original never really seems to have entered Augustine’s mind. He did not entirely trust the Jews, nurturing a suspicion that, in their versions, they might have erased all references to the coming of Christ.

The only critical procedure he would allow was that of comparing translations in order to find the most likely version. In this way, St. Augustine, though the father of hermeneutics, was certainly not destined to become the father of philology.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 12-4.


On the Neo-Platonic Forgeries

IN giving to the public a new edition of Cory’s Ancient Fragments I have endeavoured to respond to the wishes of numerous literary friends by furnishing a brief account of the several authors to whom we are indebted for these extracts, and, at the same time, some information respecting the decipherment of the hieroglyphic texts of Egypt, and the cuneiform records of Nineveh and Babylon.

The first edition of this work appeared in 1828, the second in 1832; therefore, at a time when Egyptian scholarship was still in its infancy, while cuneiform research had not yet seen the light. The discoveries of Champollion, Young, Birch, Bunsen, Brugsch, Chabas, Le Page Renouf, Godwin, and a host of other scholars in the former field of research, and of Layard, Botta, Rawlinson, Norris, Oppert, Menant, George Smith, Sayce, Fox Talbot, and Schrader in the latter, have furnished so much valuable information respecting the ancient empires of Egypt and Assyria, that we can no longer rest satisfied with the meagre accounts transmitted to us by the classic writers concerning times and people with which they were themselves but imperfectly acquainted.

At a time, therefore, when, thanks to the labours of the distinguished scholars above named, we can read with considerable facility and astonishing certainty the papyri of Egypt and the clay-tablets of Babylon, it behoves us to pause for a moment, and consider how this wonderful mine of ancient treasures was discovered, and the means by which it has been worked.

Cory’s Fragments constitute a fitting supplement to the fragments which have been exhumed from the mounds of Nineveh, and rescued from the tombs and mummy-pits of Egypt. Considered in this light they will be found to explain and complete one another; for, in the one we have Assyrians and Egyptians speaking for themselves each in his own tongue; in the other the information is supplied through a Greek channel, and reaches us, no doubt, more or less coloured by the media through which it has passed.

It is only when we place the two accounts side by side that we are in a position to estimate their respective values, and reproduce the half obliterated lines. “The contents of this volume,” says Cory, in his preface, “are fragments, which have been translated from foreign languages into Greek, or have been quoted, or transcribed, by Greeks from foreign authors; or, have been written in the Greek language by foreigners who have had access to the archives of their own countries.”

[ … ]

I have also referred the student to authorised translations of cuneiform and hieroglyphic texts, whenever I thought that any additional light was thrown by them upon the statements contained in these Fragments. Lastly, it remains only for me to say in this place that I have omitted Cory’s preface entirely, as resting chiefly upon the long-exploded learning of Jacob Bryant, Faber, and Parkhurst; and have dispensed altogether with the Neo-Platonic forgeries which Cory had placed at the end, bearing the titles respectively of, Oracles of Zoroaster, the Hermetic Creed, the Orphic, Pythagorean, and other fragments, of doubtful authenticity and of little value.

We now possess, thanks to the labours of MM. Anquetil Duperron, Spiegel, and Haug, all the remains of the so-called Zend-Avesta, of which only a small portion the Gathas are regarded by competent scholars as genuine. Comparing these so-called Oracles of Zoroaster with the genuine fragments, we have every reason to reject them as spurious.

Such as they are, however, they will be found, translated into English, in Stanley’s Lives of the Philosophers. I have preferred, therefore, in the present edition, to omit this farrago of metaphysico-philosophical nonsense, and have added several fragments of other ancient authors containing matter of greater importance.”

E. Richmond Hodges, Cory’s Ancient Fragments of the Phoenician, Carthaginian, Babylonian, Egyptian and Other Authors, London: Reeves & Turner, 1876, pp. vii-xiii.

The Fall and the Mysteries

“Socrates, in the Phaedo, speaks of “the ancient doctrine that souls pass out of this world to the other, and there exist, and then come back hither from the dead, and are born again.”

In Hesiod’s Works and Days there is the image of the Wheel of Life. In the mystical tradition there was prominent the wide-spread notion of a fall of higher forms of life into the human sphere of limitation and misery. The Orphics definitely taught that the soul of man fell from the stars into the prison of this earthly body, sinking from the upper regions of fire and light into the misty darkness of this dismal vale. The fall is ascribed to some original sin, which entailed expulsion from the purity and perfection of divine existence and had to be expiated by life on earth and by purgation in the nether world.”

Both Plato and Empedocles were expelled from a Pythagorean society or school, for revealing the secret teachings to the profane.

(R.D. Hicks: “The Platonic myths afford ample evidence that Plato was perfectly familiar with all the leading features of this strange creed. The divine origin of the soul, its fall from bliss and the society of the gods, its long pilgrimage of penance through hundreds of generations, its task of purification from earthly pollution, its reincarnation in successive bodies, its upward and downward progress, and the law of retribution for all offenses.”)

“There is evidence pointing to the fact that Plato was quite familiar with the Mystery teachings, if not actually an initiate. In the Phaedrus he says:

“….being initiated into those Mysteries which it is lawful to call the most blessed of all Mysteries….we were free from the molestation of evils which otherwise await us in a future period of time. Likewise in consequence of this divine initiation, we become spectators of entire, simple, immovable and blessed visions resident in the pure light.”

–Alvin Boyd Kuhn,  A Modern Revival of Ancient Wisdom, pg. 8.

Alchemical Implications of Dee’s Monas

“As with Dee’s Pythagorean speculations, here, too, we find instances of later writers either directly referring to Dee or at least making use of similar techniques. Petrus Bungus’s Numerorum Mysteria (1618), for instance, refers the reader to Dee’s Monas Hieroglyphica in a discussion of the letter X and the significance of the point at the intersection of the four radiating lines, with unity denoting God and a good intellect, and duality a demon and bad intellect.

Dorn, in another of his scholia to the Tractatus Aureus, this time commenting on Hermes’ ruminations on the symbolism of a hen’s egg, takes Dee’s Roman numeral speculations in Theorem 16 a stage further.

He argues that the two letter Vs which mirror one another represent, as it were, the “As above, so below” maxim of the Emerald Tablet, with the upper V being incorporeal, and the lower corporeal. When these two are brought together, they form the letter X, i.e. the denarius or number of perfection, represented otherwise by the letters IO, as if one were saying “one circle,” or one revolution of a circle, this denary number being the Mercury of the Philosophers.

In addition, the Roman letter M equals the number 1,000, which is the ultimate perfection of all other numbers, and for Dorn denotes sulfur, which (containing fire, the fifth essence, and spirit) makes all things bear fruit.

If you join all these letters together, you get the word OVUM; the letter O signifies earth, for philosophical earth should be round and circular like the motion of the heavens; the letters VU represent water and air, and the final letter M represents fire (possibly because it resembles the astrological glyph for Aries ) — all combining to make the word “EGG.”

–Peter J. Forshaw, “The Early Alchemical Reception of John Dee’s Monas Hieroglyphica,” AMBIX, November, 2005, pg. 253.

%d bloggers like this: