The Ink in the Sand

Iamblichus thought that humanity is composed mainly of fallen souls, but that the gods have sent some wise men like Orpheus, Pythagoras, Plato, or Hermes here to help them. Iamblichus also boasted being knowledgeable about theurgy.

What is theurgy? It is the idea that the human can unite with the divine through special practices. The soul is called, by means of intense religious gestures, initiation rites, sacrifices, invocations aimed at ecstasy, to unite degree by degree with beings of a higher nature, heroes, « demons », angels and archangels, and ultimately with the One, the ineffable God.

In the Mysteries of Egypt, a book devoted to Chaldeo-Egyptian wisdom, Iamblichus evokes the idea of a progressive « degradation » of man, of his fall from the divine plan. The hierarchy of this fall includes divine beings, archangels, angels, demons, heroes, archons. Human souls are at the end.

Iamblichus also describes two kinds of ecstasy, analyses the causes of evil, the theurgic power of sacrifice and presents the symbolic mystagogy of the Egyptians as well as hermetic theology and astrology. Every soul is guarded by a « demon » who helps it to reach its goal, happiness, union with the divine.

Unity is possible, but not through knowledge. « Actually, it is not even a knowledge that contact with the divinity is. Because knowledge is separated by a kind of otherness. »i

The contact with the divine is difficult to explain. « We are rather wrapped in the divine presence; it is it that makes our fullness, and we take our very being from the science of the gods. « ii

Iamblichus uses well-documented Egyptian metaphors and symbols, such as silt, lotus, solar boat. These are effective images to explain the background of the case. « Conceive as silt all the body, the material, the nourishing and generating element or all the material species of nature carried by the agitated waves of matter, all that receives the river of becoming and falls with it (…) Sitting on a lotus means a superiority over the silt that excludes any contact with it and indicates an intellectual kingdom in the heavens (…) As for the one who sails on a boat, he suggests the sovereignty that rules the world. » iii

Through the magic of images, the silt, the lotus, the boat, the whole order of the universe is revealed. Why go looking elsewhere for distant and confused explanations? Just look at the Nile.

Where does the anaphoric, anagogic power of these images come from? They are the equivalent of divine names. « We keep in our souls a mystical and unspeakable copy of the gods, and it is by the names that we lift our souls to the gods. »iv

Names have this magical, mystical and theurgic power because they have the ability to touch the gods, even if only in a tiny way, in a language that is their own, and that cannot leave them indifferent. « As the entire language of sacred peoples, such as the Assyrians and Egyptians, is suitable for sacred rites, we believe we must address to the gods in the language known to them, the formulas left to our choice. »v

All the religions of the region, from the Nile to the Indus, the religion of ancient Egypt, the Chaldean religions, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Vedism, have multiplied the names of God.

Each of these names represents a unique, irreplaceable way of knowing an aspect of the divine.

Men use multiple invocations, prayers, formulas. Religions give free rein to their imagination. What really matters is not the letter of prayer. The important thing is to place yourself on the field of language, the language « connatural to the gods ». We don’t know this language, of course. We only have a few traces of it, such as names, attributes, images, symbols.

Of these minute traces, we must be satisfied. In the early 1970s, an archaeologist, Paul Bernard, headed the French Archaeological Delegation in Afghanistan, and conducted research in Ai Khanoun, at the eastern end of the Bactria River, near the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

This city, located at the confluence of the Amu Darya River (the former Oxus) and the Kokcha River, had been nicknamed « Alexandria of the Oxus » by Ptolemy. The archaeological team uncovered the ancient Greek city, its theatre and gymnasium.

In a room of the great Greco-Indian palace of Ai Khanoun, invaded by the sands, Paul Bernard found « the traces of a papyrus that had rotten, leaving on the sand, without any other material support, the traces of ink of the letters. Wonderful surprise! The traces of papyrus fragments were barely visible in the corners, but the text in Greek could still be read: it was the unpublished text of a Greek philosopher, Aristotle’s disciple, who had accompanied Alexander on his expedition! »vi

The communist coup d’état, supported by the Soviet army, ended the archaeological work in 1978. The result of the excavations, deposited in the Kabul Museum, was heavily damaged by successive bombings, and a little later was vandalized by the Taliban.

Have the tiny traces of ink finally disappeared?

iMysteries of Egypt, I,3.

ii Ibid. I,3

iii Ibid. VII, 2

iv Ibid. VII, 4

vIbid. VII, 4

viCf. P. Bernard, Fouilles d’Ai Khanoun I, Paris, 1973. Qoted by Jacqueline de Romilly. Petites leçons sur le grec ancien.

The Transhumance of Humankind

At the last song of Purgatory, Beatrice said to Dante: « Do not speak like a man who dreams anymore ».i If Dante complies with this injunction, the rest of the Divine Comedy can be interpreted as a reference document, as far from the dream as from fiction.

In the immediately following song, which happens to be the first song of Paradise, Dante makes this revelation:

« In the heavens that take most of the light I was, and I saw things that neither knows nor can say again who comes down from above; for when approaching its desire our intellect goes so deep that the memory can no longer follow it there ».ii

Dante didn’t dream, one might think. He really saw what he said he saw « in the heavens », he didn’t make up his visions at all, and he was able to tell us about them after coming down « from up there ».

His memory has kept the memory of light, depth and desire, even if the memory is always behind the spirit that goes, and if it cannot follow it in all conscience, in exceptional, unheard of, unspeakable moments.

Without preparation, the spirit suddenly rises into heavens, sees the light, desires it, sinks into the depths, goes into the abyss.

On the way back, stunned, blinded, without memory, the intelligence begins to doubt what it has seen. Was it only a dream?

In the same song, Dante elliptically explains the true nature of his experience:

« In his contemplation I made myself like Glaucus when he tasted the grass that did it in the sea, the parent of the gods. To go beyond the human cannot be meant by words; that example is enough for those to whom grace reserves experience »iii.

To say « going beyond the human », Dante uses the word trasumanar.

Glaucus’ herb, what was it? Hashish? One of those herbs that are used in shamanic concoctions? Sôma? Haoma?

« Going beyond » implies a disruption. « Overcoming the human being » means leaving humankind behind, leaving it in its supposed state of relative helplessness.

Translated more literally, and playing on the common origin of homo and humus, the word trasumanar could be translated as a sort of ontological, metaphysical « transhumance« .

Like a transhumance out of human nature, an exodus out of inner Egypt, forged by millennia.

This is also the recent dream of « transhumanism ». The accession to a supernatural, a trans-natural, trans-human other state of nature.

The body or soul reaches an extreme point, and with a single pulse they are driven out of themselves, to reach an « Other » state.

Which « Other » state? There are many answers, according to various traditions.

Teilhard de Chardin described this leap towards the Other as a noogenesis.

Akhenaten, Moses, Zoroaster, Hermes, Jesus, Cicero, Nero, Plato, had a brain similar to ours. What did they see that we don’t?

Materialists and skeptics do not believe in visions. Nothing has really changed for thousands of years. But materialism, skepticism, « realism », lack explanatory power, and do not take into account the deep past nor the infinite futures.

Life has evolved since the oyster, the mussel and the sea urchin, and it continues to rise. Where is it going?

The question becomes: when will the next mutation occur? In a few million years? In a few centuries? What will be its form: biological, genetic, psychological? Or all this together? A tiny but decisive genetic mutation, accompanied by a biological transformation and a mental rise, a psychological surge?

The planetary compression is already turning to incandescence. The anthropocene crisis has only just begun. Environmental, societal, political, the crisis is brewing. It remains to mobilize the deep layers of the collective unconscious. There are many warning signs, such as the death drive claimed as such.

The growing forms of an immanent neo-fascism that can already be diagnosed in our times represent a warning.

They indicate the birth of the death drive, the need to bypass the humankind, to leave it behind, perplexed by fears, blinded by false ideas.

Glaucus’s grass, Dante’s trasumanar, will take on other forms from the 21st century onwards. Which ones?

Poetry, the one that reveals, always gives lively leads.

« As the fire that escapes from the cloud, expanding so hard that it no longer holds within itself, and falls to the ground against its nature, so my spirit in this banquet, becoming greater, came out of itself and no longer knows how to remember what it did. »iv

Lightning falls to the ground, and Dante’s spirit rises to heaven. Dante no longer remembers what he does there, but Beatrice guides him in his self-forgetfulness. « Open your eyes, » she said, « look how I am: you have seen things that have given you the power to bear my laughter. »

Dante adds: « I was like a person who feels like a forgotten vision and who strives in vain to remember it. »

I would like to highlight here a crucial relationship between vision, laughter and forgetting. Beatrice’s laughter is difficult to bear. Why? Because this laughter sums up everything Dante has forgotten, and evokes everything he should have seen. This happy laugh of the beloved woman is all she has left. This laughter is also what is necessary to find the thread. Not all the poetry in the world would reach « a thousandth of the truth » of what that « holy laugh » was, Dante adds.

Dense, Dantean laughter. Opaque, obscure. This laughter reopens the eyes and memory.

There are other examples of the power of laughter in history. Homer speaks of the « unquenchable laughter of the gods »v. Nietzsche glosses over Zarathustra’s laughter. There are probably analogies between all these laughter. They burst like lightning without cause.

Dante says, in his own way: « Thus I saw superabundant light, dazzled from above by fiery rays, without seeing the source of the lightning. »

He sees the lightning bolt, but not its source. He sees the laughter, but he has forgotten the reason. He sees the effects, but not the cause.

There is a lesson in this thread: see, forget, laugh. The transhuman must go through this path, and continue beyond it. Laughter is the doorway between memory and the future.

Since his Middle Ages, Dante has warned modernity: « We now preach with jokes and jests, and as long as we laugh well, the hood swells and asks for nothing ».vi

The hood was that of the preachers of the time, the Capuchins.

Nowadays hoods have other forms, and preachers have other ideas. But the jokes and jests continue to fly. And we laugh a lot these days, don’t we?

The transhuman hides away, probably far beyond all these laughter.

i Dante, Purgatory, XXXIII

ii Dante, Paradise, I


iv Dante, Paradise, XXIII

v Iliad I, 599, et Odyssey VIII, 326

vi Dante, Paradise, XXIX

Luther, Resurrection and Black Holes

In his History of Hermetic Philosophy, Father Lenglet Dufrennois described the genesis of Hermetic ideas in a remote, fragmented and diverse Orient. He traces their origin back to Noah, and follows their trace to the Egyptians (with Thoth, son of Osiris, and Siphoas, the « second Thoth », known as « Hermes Trismegistus »), then to Moses, the Greeks, the Arabs (Avicenna), the Persians (Geber, who is considered to have been the first « chemist » in history).

In Europe, from the Middle Ages to modern times, many scholars, philosophers and theologians have dealt with these same questions: Morien, Roger Bacon, Albert le Grand, Arnaud de Villeneuve, Thomas d’Aquin, Alain de Lisle, Raymond Lulle, Pope John XXII, Jean de Meun, Jean de Rupescissa, Nicolas Flamel, Jean Cremer, Basile Valentin, Jacques Cœur, Bernard Trevisan, Thomas Northon, Cardinal Cusa, Tritme.

From the 16th century onwards, the hermetic tradition continued with Jean Aurelio Augurelli, Henri Corneille Agrippa, Paracelse, Georges Agricola, Denis Zacaïre, Edouard Felley, Jean-Baptiste Nazari, Thomas Erastus, Blaise de Vigenère, Michel Sendivogius.

This litany of names, eclectic and far from being exhaustive, has a kind of phatic, incantatory poetry.

Some of them are famous, and rightly so.

Albert the Great (1193-1280) was called a « magician ». Above all, he was a great philosopher and an even greater theologian: « Albertus fled Magnus in Magia, Major in Philosophia and Maximus in Theologia. »

But most of these names smell like library dust, and don’t mean much anymore.

Hermeticism has fallen, if not into complete oblivion, at least into discredit.

In 1854, Louis Figuier could write: « Was Alchemy the most insignia of the madness of men, his study would not yet be to be neglected. It is good to follow the activity of thought down to its strangest aberrations. »

At the beginning of the 3rd millennium, hermeticism remains a fertile ground for the anthropological study of the « secret » and its quest.

Seekers of occult truth used to carefully maintain the darkness of their science and intentions. It was necessary to remain impenetrable to the uninitiated. It was no secret that we wanted to keep the mystery alive. The light was suspicious, the shadow propitious.

« When philosophers speak frankly, I distrust their words; when they explained themselves in riddles, I think, » says Guy de Schroeder.

Arnaud de Villeneuve has much harsher words: « Hide this book in your womb, and do not put it in the hands of the ungodly, for it contains the secret of the secrets of all philosophers. This pearl should not be thrown to the swine, because it is a gift from God. »

The famous Roger Bacon had as a principle « that all the secrets of nature and art that we discovered should be kept hidden, without ever revealing them, because those to whom they would be communicated could abuse them, or for their own loss, or even to the detriment of society. »

Basile Valentin, in his Char de triomphe de l’antimoine, confides: « I have now spoken enough, I have taught our secret in such a clear and precise way, that to say a little more would be to want to sink into hell ».

The fundamental idea, the unique intuition, which has brought together for centuries all these shadow researchers, whether chemists, alchemists, philosophers, theologians, poets, is that there is a « wisdom of the world », which remains to be discovered.

This is a belief still shared by many « modern » people, even those who are most reluctant to think metaphysically.

It is the idea that there is a hidden, deep, difficult to understand, or even unspeakable order that keeps everything together.

If the world « holds together », it is because it has an inner « glue ».

What is this « glue »? What is this hidden « order »? Einstein also believed in the existence of an immanent order. God doesn’t play dice.

This internal order « holds together » the infinitely small and the largest cosmic units. Without this order, the world would not last a billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a second. It would disintegrate from the very first moments of the Big Bang, physicists say.

Long before Einstein and modern physicists, Hermeticism said something similar, with the language and forms of another age: « Hermetic Philosophy is nothing other than the Knowledge of the General Soul of the World determinable in its generality and universality »i..

Alchemists have long searched, without apparent success, for the famous « philosopher’s stone ». This « stone » was only a metaphor, or a mirror in which one hoped to see the « wisdom of the world », its « General Soul », which is perhaps another name for the « glue » of the universe.

The philosopher’s stone is a metaphor for the laws of the world. « The stone of philosophers brings help to everyone in need; it strikes man of vain glory, hope and fear; it removes ambition, violence and excess desire; it softens the most severe adversityii « , writes the English alchemist Thomas Norton, towards the end of the 15th century.

Humanist program if ever there was one!

Shortly afterwards, Martin Luther himself gave his approval to « hermetic science » because it offered, he said, magnificent comparisons with the resurrection of the dead on the last day.

In any image, we can find the trace of a desire. To better speak to the people, Luther thought it would be useful to compare the resurrection to an alchemical operation. Hermeticism was still at that time, in all minds, the science of fundamental transmutations, and a vast reservoir of spiritual metaphors.

Today, alchemy is derided, as is the resurrection.

Did our times lose all intuition of the mystery, and the taste of the ultimate secrets?

The anthropology of the secret and the mysteries is linked by a thousand fibers to the litany of the millennia, it is linked to the history of terror and the hopes of the human soul.

We are living in a curious era, which has almost lost the intuition of the last ends, the desire for vision, the sense of excess, even hope.

Would Luther today look for a metaphor of the resurrection in black holes, in dark matter or in dark energy?

i M.I. Collesson. L’idée parfaite de la philosophie hermétique (Paris, 1631)

ii Thomas Norton. Crede mihi