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Tag: White Magic

Eco: Magic Names & Kabbalistic Hebrew, 2


Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim (1486-1535), portrait B01617 at the US National Library of Medicine. 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.

“The idea that Hebrew was a language endowed with a mystical “force” had already appeared in both the ecstatic kabbala (described in ch. 2) and the Zohar, where (in 75 b, Noah) it is declared not only that the original Hebrew was the language that expressed the desires of the heart in prayer, but also that it was the only language understood by the celestial powers.

By confusing the tongues after the disaster of Babel, God had hindered the rebellious tower-builders from ever pressing their will upon heaven again. Immediately afterwards, the text goes on to observe that, after the confusion, human power was weakened, because only the words uttered in the sacred tongue reinforce the power of heaven.

The Zohar was thus describing a language that not only “said” but “did,” a language whose utterances set supernatural forces in motion.

To use this sacred tongue as an acting force, rather than as a means of communication, it was not even necessary to understand it. Some, of course, had studied Hebrew grammar in order to discover the revelations therein; for others, however, Hebrew was all the more sacred and efficacious for remaining incomprehensible.

The less it was penetrable, the brighter its aura of “mana” shone, and the more its dictates escaped human intelligences, the more they became clear and ineluctable to supernatural agents.

Such a language no longer even had to be the original Hebrew. All it needed to do was to seem like it.

And thus, during the Renaissance, the world of both black and white magic became populated with a vast array of more or less Semitic-sounding names, such as the clutch of angels’ names which Pico released into a Renaissance culture already abundantly muddled by the vagaries of both Latin transliteration and the innocence of the printers–Hasmalim, Aralis, Thesphsraim . . .

In that part of his De occulta philosophia dedicated to ceremonial magic, Agrippa also paid particular attention to the pronunciation of names, both divine and diabolic, on the principle that “although all the devils or intelligences speak the language of the countries over which they preside, they speak only Hebrew whenever they deal with someone who knows their mother tongue” (III, 23).

“The spirits can be bent to our wills only if we take care to pronounce their names properly: “These names [ . . . ] even though their sound and meaning are unknown, have, in the performance of magic [ . . . ] a greater power than meaningful names, when one, left dumbfounded by their enigma [ . . . ] firmly believing to be under divine influence, pronounces them with reverence, even if one does not understand them, to the glory of the divinity” (De occulta philosophia, III, 26).

The same could also be said of magical seals. Like Paracelsus, Agrippa made an abundant use of alphabets with pseudo-Hebraic characters. By a process of graphic abstraction, mysterious configurations were wrought from the original Hebrew letters and became the basis for talismans, pentacles and amulets bearing Hebrew sayings or versicles from the Bible. These were then put on to propitiate the benign or to terrorize the evil spirits.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 122-4.

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.

Egyptian Magic

A STUDY of the remains of the native religious literature of ancient Egypt which have come down to us has revealed the fact that the belief in magic, that is to say, in the power of magical names, and spells, and enchantments, and formulæ, and pictures, and figures, and amulets, and in the performance of ceremonies accompanied by the utterance of words of power, to produce supernatural results, formed a large and important part of the Egyptian religion.

[ … ]

The belief in magic, the word being used in its best sense, is older in Egypt than the belief in God, and it is certain that a very large number of the Egyptian religious ceremonies, which were performed in later times as an integral part of a highly spiritual worship, had their origin in superstitious customs which date from a period when God, under any name or in any form, was unconceived in the minds of the Egyptians.

[ … ]

From the religious books of ancient Egypt we learn that the power possessed by a priest or man who was skilled in the knowledge and working of magic was believed to be almost boundless. By pronouncing certain words or names of power in the proper manner and in the proper tone of voice he could heal the sick, and cast out the evil spirits which caused pain and suffering in those who were diseased, and restore the dead to life, and bestow upon the dead man the power to transform the corruptible into an incorruptible body, wherein the soul might live to all eternity.

His words enabled human beings to assume divers forms at will, and to project their souls into animals and other creatures; and in obedience to his commands, inanimate figures and pictures became living beings and things which hastened to perform his behests. The powers of nature acknowledged his might, and wind and rain, storm and tempest, river and sea, and disease and death worked evil and ruin upon his foes, and upon the enemies of those who were provided with the knowledge of the words which he had wrested from the gods of heaven, and earth, and the underworld.

Inanimate nature likewise obeyed such words of power, and even the world itself came into existence through the utterance of a word by Thoth; by their means the earth could be rent asunder, and the waters forsaking their nature could be piled up in a heap, and even the sun’s course in the heavens could be stayed by a word.

No god, or spirit, or devil, or fiend, could resist words of power, and the Egyptians invoked their aid in the smallest as well as in the greatest events of their lives. To him that was versed in the lore contained in the books of the “double house of life” the future was as well known as the past, and neither time nor distance could limit the operations of his power; the mysteries of life and death were laid bare before him, and he could draw aside the veil which hid the secrets of fate and destiny from the knowledge of ordinary mortals.

[ … ]

In the “white” and “black” magic of the Egyptians most of the magic known in the other countries of the world may be found; it is impossible yet to say exactly how much the beliefs and religious systems of other nations were influenced by them, but there is no doubt that certain views and religious ideas of many heathen and Christian sects may be traced directly to them.

[ … ]

But the fact remains that they did believe in One God Who was almighty, and eternal, and invisible, Who created the heavens, and the earth, and all beings and things therein; and in the resurrection of the body in a changed and glorified form, which would live to all eternity in the company of the spirits and souls of the righteous in a kingdom ruled by a being who was of divine origin, but who had lived upon the earth, and had suffered a cruel death at the hands of his enemies, and had risen from the dead, and had become the God and king of the world which is beyond the grave; and that, although they believed all these things and proclaimed their belief with almost passionate earnestness, they seem never to have freed themselves from a hankering after amulets and talismans, and magical names, and words of power, and seem to have trusted in these to save their souls and bodies, both living and dead, with something of the same confidence which they placed in the death and resurrection of Osiris.

E.A. Wallis Budge, Egyptian Magic, London, 1901. Pp. vii. – xiv.

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