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Tag: Universe

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.

Plato on the Creation

“Now the creation took up the whole of each of the four elements; for the Creator compounded the world out of all the fire and all the water and all the air and all the earth, leaving no part of any of them nor any power of them outside.

His intention was, in the first place, that the animal should be as far as possible a perfect whole and of perfect parts: secondly, that it should be one, leaving no remnants out of which another such world might be created: and also that it should be free from old age and unaffected by disease.

Considering that if heat and cold and other powerful forces which unite bodies surround and attack them from without when they are unprepared, they decompose them, and by bringing diseases and old age upon them, make them waste away–for this cause and on these grounds he made the world one whole, having every part entire, and being therefore perfect and not liable to old age and disease.

And he gave to the world the figure which was suitable and also natural.

Now to the animal which was to comprehend all animals, that figure was suitable which comprehends within itself all other figures. Wherefore he made the world in the form of a globe, round as from a lathe, having its extremes in every direction equidistant from the centre, the most perfect and the most like itself of all figures; for he considered that the like is infinitely fairer than the unlike.

This he finished off, making the surface smooth all around for many reasons; in the first place, because the living being had no need of eyes when there was nothing remaining outside him to be seen; nor of ears when there was nothing to be heard; and there was no surrounding atmosphere to be breathed; nor would there have been any use of organs by the help of which he might receive his food or get rid of what he had already digested, since there was nothing which went from him or came into him: for there was nothing beside him.

Of design he was created thus, his own waste providing his own food, and all that he did or suffered taking place in and by himself.

For the Creator conceived that a being which was self-sufficient would be far more excellent than one which lacked anything; and, as he had no need to take anything or defend himself against any one, the Creator did not think it necessary to bestow upon him hands: nor had he any need of feet, nor of the whole apparatus of walking; but the movement suited to his spherical form was assigned to him, being of all the seven that which is most appropriate to mind and intelligence; and he was made to move in the same manner and on the same spot, within his own limits revolving in a circle.

All the other six motions were taken away from him, and he was made not to partake of their deviations. And as this circular movement required no feet, the universe was created without legs and without feet.

Such was the whole plan of the eternal God about the god that was to be, to whom for this reason he gave a body, smooth and even, having a surface in every direction equidistant from the centre, a body entire and perfect, and formed out of perfect bodies.

And in the centre he put the soul, which he diffused throughout the body, making it also to be the exterior environment of it; and he made the universe a circle moving in a circle, one and solitary, yet by reason of its excellence able to converse with itself, and needing no other friendship or acquaintance. Having these purposes in view he created the world a blessed god.”

Plato, Timaeus, 360 BCE. (Translated by Benjamin Jowett).

Is the Universe Infinite?

“…one of the continuing debates among astrophysicists regards whether or not the universe is closed i.e. will not expand forever.

On the one hand, the model of a closed universe holds that there is sufficient mass in the universe so that the Big Bang explosion will gradually slow down and reverse due to the pull of gravity. In this model, all the mass of the universe involutes back into its unimaginably small and dense original condition until another quantum shift precipitates another explosion.

On the other hand, there are those who contend that the supernova data on distant galaxies confirms that there is insufficient mass for the reversal to occur, and that the negative expansion energy of space is causing our universe to expand forever.”

–Daniel Feldman, Qabala: The Mystical Heritage of the Children of Abraham, 2001, pg.  131.

The Gods of Ancient Egypt are Personifications of the Names of Ra

“Again, in the story of Râ and Isis, given in the preceding chapter, we have seen that although Isis was able to make a serpent and to cause it to bite Râ, and to make him very ill, she was powerless to do as she wished in heaven and upon earth until she had persuaded the god to reveal to her his name by which he ruled the universe.

In yielding up his name to the goddess he placed himself in her power, and in this example we have a striking instance of the belief that the knowledge of the name of god, or devil, or human being, implied dominion over that being.

We have seen elsewhere that Râ, the type and symbol of God, is described as the god of “many names,” and in that wonderful composition the XVIIth Chapter of the Book of the Dead, (see Chapters of Coming Forth by Day, p. 49) we have the following statement:—

“I am the great god Nu, who gave birth unto himself, and who made his name to become the company of the gods.”

Then the question, “What does this mean?” or “Who is this?” is asked. And this is the answer:

“It is Râ, the creator of the name[s] of his limbs, which came into being in the form of the gods who are in the following of Râ.”

From this we see that all the “gods” of Egypt were merely personifications of the NAMES Of Râ, and that each god was one of his members, and that a name of a god was the god himself.”

E.A. Wallis Budge, Egyptian Magic, London, 1901. P. 162.

Thoth and Words of Power at the Creation

“On the amulet of the Buckle we have inscribed the words, “May the blood of Isis, and the powers of Isis, and the words of power of Isis be mighty to protect this mighty one,” etc., and in the address which Thoth makes to Osiris he says, “I am Thoth, the favoured one of Râ, the lord of might, who bringeth to a prosperous end that which he doeth, the mighty one of words of power, who is in the boat of millions of years, the lord of laws, the subduer of the two lands,” etc. (See Chapters of Coming forth by Day, p. 340 f).

From the above passages we not only learn how great was the confidence which the deceased placed in his words of power, but also that the sources from which they sprang were the gods Thoth and Isis.

It will be remembered that Thoth is called the “scribe of the gods,” the “lord of writing,” the “master of papyrus,” the “maker of the palette and the ink-jar,” the “lord of divine words,” i.e., the holy writings or scriptures, and as he was the lord of books and master of the power of speech, he was considered to be the possessor of all knowledge both human and divine.

At the creation of the world it was he who reduced to words the will of the unseen and unknown creative Power, and who uttered them in such wise that the universe came into being, and it was he who proved himself by the exercise of his knowledge to be the protector and friend of Osiris, and of Isis, and of their son Horus.

From the evidence of the texts we know that it was not by physical might that Thoth helped these three gods, but by giving them words of power and instructing them how to use them.

We know that Osiris vanquished his foes, and that he reconstituted his body, and became the king of the underworld and god of the dead, but he was only able to do these things by means of the words of power which Thoth had given to him, and which he had taught him to pronounce properly and in a proper tone of voice.

It is this belief which makes the deceased cry out, “Hail, Thoth, who madest Osiris victorious over his enemies, make thou Ani to be victorious over his enemies in the presence of the great and sovereign princes who are in Tattu,” or in any other place.

Without the words of power given to him by Thoth, Osiris would have been powerless under the attacks of his foes, and similarly the dead man, who was always identified with Osiris, would have passed out of existence at his death but for the words of power provided by the writings that were buried with him.

In the Judgment Scene it is Thoth who reports to the gods the result of the weighing of the heart in the balance, and who has supplied its owner with the words which he has uttered in his supplications, and whatever can be said in favour of the deceased he says to the gods, and whatever can be done for him he does.”

E.A. Wallis Budge, Egyptian Magic, London, 1901. Pp. 127-9.


“Gematria is one of the rules for interpreting the Torah, and is partially a high-level system of numerology.

It is defined by Scholem as, “explaining a word or group of words according to the numerical value of the letters, or of substituting other letters of the alphabet for them in accordance with a set system. All Hebrew letters are equally values and words, so for example the letter Aleph, signifying “A,” also means “one,” as well as being a word meaning ‘ox.'” The table given lists the major values and meanings of the twenty-two letters. This allows the letters to be taken as symbols expressing differing aspects of the Universe, either as separate entities, or when combined together in words.”


“Although some Kabbalists denied the use of Gematria as relevant, other workers such as Abulafia dealt with Gematria so deeply that their works need “decoding” rather than reading. It is said that the Torah is likewise written, and that “mistakes” in the original Greek and Hebrew texts are not mistakes, but rather spellings and variations necessary to ensure the numbers underlying them were correct.”

–Frater FP, The Magician’s Kabbalah, pg. 81.

Kabbalah as Metasystem

“The prime source for the precursors of the occult revival were without question Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), a German Jesuit whose Oedipus Aegyptiacus (1652) detailed Kabbalah amongst its study of Egyptian mysteries and hieroglyphics, and Cornelius Agrippa’s De Occulta Philosophia (1533).

Other works, such as those from alchemists including Khunrath, Fludd and Vaughan indicated that the Kabbalah had become the convenient metamap for early hermetic thinkers. Christian mystics began to utilise its structure for an explanation of their revelations, the most notable being Jacob Boeheme (1575-1624). However, the most notable event in terms of our line of examination is undoubtedly the publication of Christian Knorr von Rosenroth’s (1636-89) Kabbalah Denudata in Latin in 1677 and 1684, which provided translations from the Zohar and extracts from the works of Isaac Luria.”

“Another stream stemming from Rosenroth’s work came through Eliphas Levi (1810-75), who … ascribed to the Tarot an ancient Egyptian origin. From de Gebelin and Rosenroth, Levi synthesized a scheme of attribution of the Tarot cards to the twenty-two paths of the Tree of Life, a significant development in that it provided a synthetic model of processes to be later modified and used by the Golden Dawn as mapping the initiation system of psychological, occult, and spiritual development. Levi wrote, “Qabalah … might be called the mathematics of human thought.”

“It is said by traditional Kabbalists and Kabbalistic scholars that the occultist has an imperfect knowledge of the Tree, and hence the work of such is corrupt. It appears to me that the Kabbalah is a basic device whose keys are infinite, and that any serious approach to its basic metasystem will reveal some relevance if tested in the world about us, no matter how it may be phrased.

The first Kabbalists cannot be said to have had an imperfect knowledge because they did not understand or utilise information systems theory or understand modern cosmology. Indeed, their examination of themselves and the Universe revealed such knowledge many hundreds of years before science formalised it, in the same way that current occult thinking may be rediscovered in some new science a hundred or thousand years hence.”

–Frater FP, The Magician’s Kabbalah, pp.  5-7.

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