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Tag: Sicily

Eco: Limits and Effability of an IAL


Domenico di Michelino (1417-1491), La Divina Commedia di Dante, 1465, on display in the Florence Cathedral. Photo by Jastrow, who kindly releases this photo into the public domain as the copyright holder, granting anyone the right to use this work for any purpose without any conditions. 

“If one considers the efforts made by many IALs in order to translate all the masterpieces of world literature, one wonders whether, by using an IAL originally, it is possible to achieve artistic results.

One is tempted to cite a celebrated (if misunderstood) boutade attributed to Leo Longanesi: “You can’t be a great Bulgarian poet.” The boutade is not a nasty comment about Bulgaria: Longanesi wanted to say that one cannot be a great poet if one writes in a language spoken only by a few million people in a country which (whatever else it is) has remained for centuries on the margins of history.

I do not think Longanesi meant that one cannot be a great poet if one writes in a language unknown to the rest of the world.

This seems reductive, for poetic greatness is surely not dependent on diffusion. It seems more likely that Longanesi wanted to say that a language is the sum and consequence of a variety of social factors which, over the course of history, have enriched and strengthened it.

Many of these factors are extra-linguistic: these include provocative contacts with other cultures, new social needs to communicate new experiences, conflicts and renewals within the speaking community.

If that community, however, were a people on the margins of history, a people whose customs and whose knowledge have remained unchanged for centuries; it it were a people whose language has remained unchanged as well, nothing more than the medium of worn-out memories and rituals ossified over centuries; how could we ever expect it to be a vehicle for a great new poet?

But this is not an objection that one could make against an IAL. An IAL is not limited in space, it exists in symbiosis with other languages. The possible risk is rather that the institutional control from above (which seems an essential prerequisite for a successful IAL) will become too tight, and the auxiliary language will lose its capacity to express new everyday experiences.

One could object that even medieval Latin, ossified though it was in the grammatical forms of which Dante spoke, was still capable of producing liturgical poetry, such as the Stabat Mater or the Pange Lingua, not to mention poetry as joyful and irreverent as the Carmina Burana. Nevertheless, it is still true that the Carmina Burana is not the Divine Comedy.

An IAL would certainly lack a historic tradition behind it, with all the intertextual richness that this implies. But when the poets of medieval Sicilian courts wrote in a vernacular, when the Slavic bards sang The Song of Prince Igor and the Anglo-Saxon scop improvised Beowulf, their languages were just as young–yet still, in their own way, capable of absorbing the entire history of the preceding languages.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 335-6.

Eco: Dante and Abulafia, 2


Bartolomeu Velho (d.1568), Figure of the Heavenly Bodies, an illuminated illustration of the Ptolemaic geocentric conception of the Universe, from Cosmographia, 1568. Held in the Bibliotèque Nationale de France, Paris. 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.  

“Yet could Dante have known the theories of Abulafia?

Abulafia visited Italy on several occasions: he was in Rome in 1260; he remained on the peninsula until 1271, when he returned to Barcelona; he returned to Rome in 1280 with the project of converting the pope.

He journeyed afterwards to Sicily, where we lose trace of him somewhere near the end of the 1290s. His ideas incontestably exercised an influence on contemporary Italian Jewish thought. We have a record of a debate in 1290 between Hillel of Verona (who had probably met Abulafia twenty years earlier) and Zerakhya of Barcelona, who arrived in Italy at the beginning of the 1270s (cf. Genot-Bismuth 1988: II).

Hillel, who had contacts in the world of Bologna intellectuals, had written to Zerakhya to ask him the question first posed by Herodotus: in what language would a child speak if it were brought up with no linguistic stimuli?

Hillel maintained that such a child would naturally speak Hebrew, because Hebrew was humanity’s original natural language. Hillel either did not know, or else disregarded, the fact that Abulafia was of a different opinion. Not so with Zerakhya.

He sarcastically remarked that Hillel had been taken in by the siren song of the “uncircumcised” of Bologna. The first sounds emitted by a child without linguistic education, he asserted, would resemble the barking of dogs. It was madness to maintain that the sacred language could be naturally bestowed on human beings.

Humanity possessed a linguistic potential, but it was a potential that could be activated only through education of the vocal organs. This, however, required instruction.

At this point, Zerakhya brought forward a proof that we shall find in a number of post-Renaissance Christian authors (for example, in the In Biblia polyglotta prolegomena by Walton in 1673, or the De sacra philosophia of 1652 by Vallesio): had there been the primordial gift of an original sacred language, then all human beings, regardless of their native tongue, would have the innate ability to speak it.

The existence of such a debate is enough to show, without needing to invent a meeting between Dante and Abulafia, that Abulafia’s ideas were subject to discussion in Italy, especially in the Bolognese intellectual circles which influenced Dante, and from which, according to Maria Corti, he absorbed his notion of the forma locutionis.

Nor does the Bologna debate constitute the only point of encounter between Dante and Jewish thought.

Genot-Bismuth has given us a vivid picture of the close of the thirteenth century in which we will later find a Yehuda Romano giving a series of lectures on the Divine Comedy for his co-religionists, a Lionello di Ser Daniele who did likewise using a Divine Comedy transliterated into Hebrew script, not to mention the surprising personage of Immanuel da Roma, who, in his own poetic compositions, seemed to launch an attack on Dante’s ideals almost aspiring to produce a sort of counter-Comedy in Hebrew.

Naturally this only establishes the influence of Dante on Italian Jewish culture, not the other way around. Yet Genot-Bismuth is able to show opposing influences as well, even to the point of suggesting that Dante’s theory of the four senses of scripture, found in his Epistula, XIII (cf. Eco 1985), had a Jewish origin.

Such a hypothesis may be too bold: there were any number of Christian sources from which Dante might have drawn this doctrine. What seems less daring, and, in fact, entirely plausible, is the suggestion that, in Bologna, Dante would have heard echoes of the debate between Hillel and Zerakhya.

One could say that in DVE he appears still close to the position of the former (or of his Christian inspirers, as Zerakhya reproaches him), while in Paradise he turns towards the positions of the latter, that is, the position of Abulafia (even though, when writing DVE, he already had the opportunity to know both theses).

However, it is not necessary to document direct links (even though Genot-Bismuth finds the presence of Jewish influences in certain passages of the De regimine principium of Giles of Rome), but rather to demonstrate the existence of a cultural climate in which ideas could circulate and within which a formal and informal debate between the church and the synagogue might ensue (cf. Calimani 1987: viii).

We should remember that, before the Renaissance, a Christian thinker would scarcely wish to admit publicly that he drew on Hebrew doctrine.

Like heretics, the Jewish community belonged to a category of outcasts that–as Le Goff shrewdly observes–the Middle Ages officially despised but at the same time admired; regarding them with an admixture of attraction and fear, keeping them at a distance, but making sure that the distance was fixed near enough so they would always remain close at hand.

“What was termed charity in their regard more resembled the game that cats play with mice” (Le Goff 1964:373).

Before the kabbala was rehabilitated by humanist culture, Christianity knew little of it. It was often simply regarded as a branch of the black arts. Even so, as Gorni has pointed out (1990: vii), in the Divine Comedy, Dante seems to share a great deal of knowledge about magic and divinatory practices (astrology, chiromancy, physiognomy, geomancy, pyromancy, hydromancy and, not least, the black arts of magic themselves).

In one way or another, Dante seems to have been informed about an excluded and underground culture in which, at least according to vulgar opinion, the kabbala somehow belonged.

In this way, it becomes ever more plausible that, even if it does not derive directly from the theories of the Modistae, Dante’s forma locutionis is not a language but the universal matrix for all language.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 49-52.

Boaz and Jachin, and Pillars of Emerald and Gold in the Temple of Melkarth in Herodotus

“Within the last few years, bas-reliefs have been found in Sicily and Tunisia representing persons in the act of adoration before a small triad of stone. We are here on Phoenician territory, and it is not strange therefore that classical writers should speak of the βαίτυλοι or Beth-els, the meteoric stones which had fallen from heaven like “the image” of Artemis at Ephesos, and were accordingly honoured by the Phoenicians.

In the mythology of Byblos, Heaven and Earth were said to have had four sons, Ilos or ElBêtylos or Beth-elDagon and Atlas; and the god of heaven was further declared to have invented the Baityli, making of them living stones (Eusebius of Caesarea: Praeparatio Evangelica (Preparation for the Gospel), Tr. E.H. Gifford (1903) — Book 1, Chapter 10).

Bethuel is connected with Aram in the Old Testament (Genesis xxii, 21, 22); and we all remember how, on his way to Haran, Jacob awakened out of sleep, saying, “Surely the Lord is in this place,” and “took the stone that he had put for his pillows, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it, and called the name of that place Beth-el.”

In Palestine, however, the Beth-els were arranged in a circle or Gilgal, rather than singly; the isolated monuments were the cones of stone or the bare tree-trunks which symbolised Ashêrah, the goddess of fertility, and Baal the Sun-god. The sun-pillars and the ashêrim meet with frequent mention in the Biblical records; and we may gain some idea as to what the latter were like from the pictures we have on coins and gems of the famous conical stone that stood within the holy of holies in the temple of the Paphian Aphroditê, as well as from the description given of it by Tacitus.

On a gem in the British Museum, Sin, “the god of Harran,” is represented by a stone of the same shape surmounted by a star. The “pillars of the Sun” were also stones of a like form. When the Phoenician temple in the island of Gozo, whose ruins are known as the Temple of the Giants, was excavated, two such columns of stone were found, planted in the ground, one of which still remains in situ.

We cannot forget that even in Solomon’s temple, built as it was by Phoenician workmen, there were two columns of stone, Boaz and Yakin, set on either side of the porch (1 Kings vii. 21), like the two columns of gold and emerald glass which Herodotos saw in the temple of Melkarth at Tyre (Herodotus, The Histories, ii, 44).

The sacred stones which were thus worshipped in Arabia, in Phoenicia and in Syria, were worshipped also among the Semites of Babylonia. There is a curious reference to the consecration of a Beth-el in the Epic of Gisdhubar.

When the hero had been dismissed by the Chaldean Noah, and his sickness had been carried away by the waters of the sea, we are told that “he bound together heavy stones,” and after taking an animal for sacrifice, “poured over it a homer” in libation.

He then commenced his homeward voyage up the Euphrates, having thus secured the goodwill of heaven for his undertaking.”

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. 408-10.

Rituals of Human Sacrifice and Moloch

” … Without being unduly rash we may surmise that the tribute of seven youths and seven maidens whom the Athenians were bound to send to Minos every eight years had some connexion with the renewal of the king’s power for another octennial cycle.

Traditions varied as to the fate which awaited the lads and damsels on their arrival in Crete; but the common view appears to have been that they were shut up in the labyrinth, there to be devoured by the Minotaur, or at least to be imprisoned for life.

Perhaps they were sacrificed by being roasted alive in a bronze image of a bull, or of a bull-headed man, in order to renew the strength of the king and of the sun, whom he personated. This at all events is suggested by the legend of Talos, a bronze man who clutched people to his breast and leaped with them into the fire, so that they were roasted alive. He is said to have been given by Zeus to Europa, or by Hephaestus to Minos, to guard the island of Crete, which he patrolled thrice daily. According to one account he was a bull, according to another he was the sun.

Probably he was identical with the Minotaur, and stripped of his mythical features was nothing but a bronze image of the sun represented as a man with a bull’s head. In order to renew the solar fires, human victims may have been sacrificed to the idol by being roasted in its hollow body or placed on its sloping hands and allowed to roll into a pit of fire. It was in the latter fashion that the Carthaginians sacrificed their offspring to Moloch.

The children were laid on the hands of a calf-headed image of bronze, from which they slid into a fiery oven, while the people danced to the music of flutes and timbrels to drown the shrieks of the burning victims. The resemblance which the Cretan traditions bear to the Carthaginian practice suggests that the worship associated with the names of Minos and the Minotaur may have been powerfully influenced by that of a Semitic Baal.

In the tradition of Phalaris, tyrant of Agrigentum, and his brazen bull we may have an echo of similar rites in Sicily, where the Carthaginian power struck deep roots.”

James George Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, 1922, The Killing of the Divine King, np.

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