The souls of peoples are revealed by what they collectively « forget », much more than by what they remember, what they dwell on and what they seemingly proclaim to the world.
Proof of this is the word oblivion itself, which in several languages seems to indicate in one stroke a vibrant part of the collective unconscious, emerging as if by accident, an indication of obscure depths…
The Latins use the word oblivio for ‘oblivion‘. It is a metaphor borrowed from writing over what has been erased: in the ‘palimpsests’ (from the Greek: « what one scratches to write again »), the copyists erased (or ‘obliterated’) theold text to write a new one.
The Greeks use the word λαθέσθαι, lathesthai, ‘to forget’, and λήθη, lethe, ‘forgetting’ , hence the famous Lethe, the river of the Underworld, which is known to make souls forgetful. These words derive from λανθάνω, lanthanô, whose first meaning is ‘to be hidden’. Greek ‘oblivion’ is therefore not a fatal erasure, but only a kind of withdrawal, of putting under the bushel, under a veil. Words with a priori positive connotations: ἀληθής, alethes, « true » or ἀλήθεια, aletheia, « truth, reality », are constructed with the privative alpha ἀ-, thus as negations. Truth or reality are not understood in ancient Greek as a dazzling evidence, but as a « not-hidden » or a « not-forgotten », then requiring a kind of work of extraction.
Arabic has the word نَسِيَ nassiya, whose first meaning is « to abandon, to neglect » and by derivation « to forget ». Nomadism cannot be encumbered, and on the long road of travel, many things are left behind, become negligible, and without regret, ‘forgotten’.
Sanskrit expresses the verb ‘to forget’ in many ways. One of them uses the pre-verb vi-: विस्मरति , vismarati, literally meaning « to come out of memory ». Another verb मृष्यते , mrisyate is built using the root मृष mṛṣ , whose primary meaning is ‘to forgive’. Forgetting is a grace given to the other, and even to the enemy…
The English and German languages use very similar words, to forget and vergessen, which are also built with preverbs (for and ver) connoting omission or failure, and comparable in this respect to Vi- Sanskrit. The English to get derives from the old Nordic geta and the Gothic bigitan, (‘to find’). German ver-gessen derives from the same root: *ghed-, ‘to take, to seize’. In both languages, ‘to forget’ therefore originally means ‘to divest oneself of’, ‘to throw away’, in an active sense, rather than just ‘lose’ or ‘misplace’. There is a kind of violence here.
In Hebrew, ‘to forget’ is שָׁכַח shakhah, as in « He will not forget the covenant of your fathers » (Deut. 4:31) or « And you forget me, declares the Lord God » (Ez. 22:12). But it is quite surprising that, with a slightly different vocalization, the verb שְׁכַח shekhah, has an almost exactly opposite meaning. Indeed, if שָׁכַח means « to forget », שְׁכַח means « to find » as in « I found a man » (Dan. 2,25) or « They were no longer found » (Dan. 2,35).
The fact of forgetting seems to carry in germ the possibility of ‘finding’, or conversely, the fact of ‘finding’ implies, in the word itself, the imminence of forgetting…
« To forget »…
What does this word really mean?
To erase (Latin) ? To hide (Greek) ? To abandon (Arabic) ? To forgive (Sanskrit) ? To throw away (Anglo-German)? To find (Hebrew) ?
Peoples are like diamonds, reflecting clean and changing shards… Their languages express much less what they think they feel, than what they are in fact blind to, what they remain astonishingly mute about, and forgetful deep down inside…
Pherecyde of Syros, the uncle and tutor of Pythagoras, active in the 6th century B.C., was the first to affirm that the souls of men are eternal, according to Ciceroi . However I presume that he must have been preceded by many shamans of ancient times, for whom eternity of souls was obvious, because they had personally experienced that human souls can travel between worlds, those of the living and those of the dead, under certain conditions.
Pherecyde wrote of a dead hero: « His soul was sometimes in Hades and sometimes in the places above the earth »ii . Did he have first-hand experience of these strange phenomena? Or was he just repeating stories he had heard from elsewhere ?
According to Suidas, Pherecyde had been influenced by the secret cults of Phoenicia. Many other Greeks, for their part, fell under the spell of the Chaldean rites, as reported by Diodorus of Sicily, or those of Ethiopia, described by Diogenes Laertius, or were fascinated by the depth of the ancient traditions of Egypt, reported by Herodotus with great detail. Many peoples have cultivated religious mysteries. The Magi of Persia loved the dark caves for their sacred celebrations; the Hebrews practiced the mysteries of the Kabbalah, probably long before their late medieval development; Caesar, in his Gallic Wars, describes those of the Druids.
Benjamin Constant devotes part of his book on « Religion, considered in its source, its forms and its development », to this transnational, multicultural, and several thousand year old phenomenon. « The mysteries of Eleusis were brought by Eumolpe, from Egypt or Thrace. Those of Samothrace, which served as a model for almost all those of Greece, were founded by an Egyptian Amazon (Diodorus of Sicily 3.55). The daughters of Danaus established the Thesmophoria (Herodotus 2:171; 4:172) and the Dionysians were taught to the Greeks by Phoenicians (Herodotus 2:49) or Lydians (Euripides, The Bacchaeans, 460-490). The mysteries of Adonis penetrated from Assyria through the island of Cyprus into the Peloponnese. The dance of the Athenian women to the Thesmophoria was not a Greek dance (Pollux, Onomast. 4) and the name of the Sabarian rites brings us back to Phrygia.» iii
Benjamin Constant notes that the names Ceres and Proserpine in the language of the Cabirs are identical to those of the Queen of the Underworld and her daughter among the Indians, Ceres deriving from Axieros and Asyoruca, and Proserpine from Axiocersa and Asyotursha. He quotes Creutzer who asserts, in his Mithraics (III,486), that the formulas with which the Greek initiates were consecrated (« Konx, Om, Pax ») are in reality Sanskrit words. Konx (κονξ) comes from Kansha (the object of desire), Om is the famous Vedic monosyllable, and Pax (παξ) comes from Pasha (Fortune).
Other similarities are worth noting, such as the role of the (stylized) representation of the sexual organs in Vedic and Greek cults. Constant indicates that the Pelagi in Samothrace worshipped the phallus, as reported by Herodotusiv, and that in the Thesmophoria a representation of the cteisv was staged. The Dionysian Canephores, young virgins chosen from the best families, carried the sacred phallus on their heads in baskets and brought it close to the lips of the candidates for initiation. »vi It was through the Lernéan mysteries that were celebrated in Argolide in honor of Bacchus, that the practice of planting phallus on the tombs was introduced »vii, symbols of genetic power, but also of the immortality of the soul and metempsychosis. Cicero speaks of the infamy of the Sabarian mysteriesviii, Ovid and Juvenal describe the obscene ceremonies of the feasts of Adonisix. Tertullian condemns: « What the mysteries of Eleusis have of more holy, what is carefully hidden, what one is admitted to know only very late, it is the simulacrum of the Phallus. » x
Eusebius of Caesarea is also interested in these ancient orgies and quotes Clement of Alexandria, a well-informed source, who does not hide his indignation: « Do you want to see the orgies of the Corybantes? You will see only assassinations, tombs, laments of priests, the natural parts of Bacchus with his throat cut, carried in a box and presented for adoration. But don’t be surprised if the barbaric Tuscans have such a shameful cult. What shall I say of the Athenians and the other Greeks, with their mysteries of Demeter? »» xi.
Both sexes are publicly displayed in the sacred cults of the Dioscuri in Samothrace and Bacchus in the Dionysies. It is a « feast of raw flesh, » the interpretation of which can vary considerably. One may decide to see it as a simple allusion to the wine harvest: the torn body of Bacchus is the body of the grape pulled from the vine and crushed under the press. Ceres is the Earth, the Titans are the grape-pickers, Rhea gathers the members of the God torn to pieces, who is incarnated in the wine made from the juice of the grapes.
But the metaphor can be completely overturned, and one can read in it the profound message of a theophany of God’s death and sacrifice, of his dismembered body shared in communion, in a strange prefiguration of Christ’s death, and then of the communion of his flesh and blood by his faithful, even today, at the crucial moment of the Mass.
Always in a kind of pagan prefiguration of Christian beliefs, more than half a millennium ahead of time, we witness the death and resurrection of God: Attys, Adonis, Bacchus and Cadmille die and rise again, following the example of Osiris and Zagreus, avatar of the mystic Dionysus.
We can see that the mystery religions of the Greeks owe almost everything to much older cults, coming from Egypt, Phoenicia, Chaldea, Mesopotamia, and further east still.
This raises a question which is not without merit: to what extent was Christian worship, which appeared some seven or eight centuries later, influenced by those ancient pagan cults revering a God who died in sacrifice for men, and whose body and blood are shared in communion by them? « The Logos as son of God and mediator is clearly designated in all the mysteries. » Benjamin Constant affirms in this regard. xii
The protagonists of the initiation ceremonies, composed of many degrees, certainly did not ask themselves such questions at the time. The initiates to the small mysteries (μύσται, the « mystes ») remained confined to the vestibules of the temples, only the initiates to the great mysteries (ἐπόπται, the « epoptes », a name that later applied to Christian « bishops ») could enter the sanctuary.
But what was their motivation? What was this secret that was so difficult to obtain? What justified to stoically endure eighty degrees of trials (hunger, whip, stay in the mud, in the ice water, and other torments…) to be initiated, for example, to the mysteries of Mithra?
What is certain is that these systems of initiation were subversive, they ruined the bases of the established order, of public religions, making too many gods proliferate, too visible. Part of this last revelation, which it took so long to discover, was the idea of the non-existence of these Homeric gods, popular, multiplied, covering the peristyles of the cities, encouraged by the government of the plebeians. The radical negation of the existence of the national gods, was part of the truths finally revealed to only a very small number of chosen ones.
« The secret did not lie in traditions, fables, allegories, opinions, or the substitution of a purer doctrine: all these things were known. What was secret, then, was not the things that were revealed, but that these things were thus revealed, that they were revealed as the dogmas and practices of an occult religion, that they were revealed gradually. » xiii
The initiation was, well before the time of the modern Enlightenment, a conditioning, a training of the mind, an asceticism of the soul, an exercise in radical doubt, an absolute « mise en abîme ». It was a revelation of the inanity of all revelation. At the end of this long journey, there were no other established doctrines than the absence of any doctrine, only an absolute negation of all known assertions, those which the uneducated people were being fed with. There were no more dogmas, but only signs of recognition, symbols, rallying words that allowed the initiated to allusively share the feeling of their election to penetrate the ultimate ends.
But what were these? If we had to free ourselves from all known gods and dogmas, what was left to believe?
That men go to heaven, and that the Gods have gone to earth.
Cicero testifies to this, in an exchange with an initiate: « In a word, and to avoid a longer detail, was it not men who populated the heaven? If I were to delve into antiquity, and take it upon myself to delve deeper into the stories of the Greeks, we would find that even those of the Gods, who are given the first rank, lived on earth, before going to heaven. Find out which of these Gods, whose tombs are shown in Greece. Since you are initiated into the mysteries, remember the traditions. » xiv
Cicero encourages us to recognize that the greatest of mysteries is that of our soul, and that the most sacred sanctuary is therefore not so inaccessible, since it is so close, though buried in the depths of our intimacy, in the center of our very soul.
« And truly there is nothing so great as to see with the eyes of the soul, the soul itself. This is the meaning of the oracle, which wants everyone to know each other. No doubt Apollo did not pretend to tell us to know our body, our size, our figure. For he who speaks of us does not speak of our body; and when I speak to you, it is not to your body that I speak. When therefore the oracle says to us, ‘Know thyself,’ he hears, ‘Know thy soul. Your body is, so to speak, only the vessel, only the home of your soul. » xv
Cicero, at the peak of his art, is modest. He knows that he owes everything he believes to Plato. This can be summed up in a few incisive phrases, in precise, surgical logic: « The soul feels that she is moving: she feels that she is not dependent on a foreign cause, but that she is by herself, and by her own virtue; it can never happen that she misses herself, so she is immortal.» xvi
If one finds the elliptic reasoning, one can read the more elaborate version, as developed by Plato in the Phaedra, as cited by Cicero in his Tusculanes:
« A being that always moves, will always exist. But he who gives movement to another, and who receives it himself from another, necessarily ceases to exist, when he loses his movement. There is therefore only the being moved by his own virtue, who never loses his movement, because he never misses himself. And moreover he is for all other things that have movement, the source and principle of the movement they have. Now, who says principle, says what has no origin. For it is from the principle that everything comes, and the principle cannot come from anything else. It would not be a principle if it came from elsewhere. And since it has no origin, it will therefore have no end. For, being destroyed, it could neither be itself reproduced by another principle, nor produce another, since a principle presupposes nothing anterior. Thus the principle of movement is in the being moved by its own virtue. A principle that can be neither produced nor destroyed. Otherwise it is necessary that heaven and earth be turned upside down, and that they fall into eternal rest, without ever being able to recover a force, which, as before, makes them move. It is obvious, therefore, that that which is moved by its own virtue, will always exist. And can it be denied that the ability to move in this way is not an attribute of the soul? For everything that is moved only by a foreign cause is inanimate. But that which is animated is moved by its own virtue, by its inner action. Such is the nature of the soul, such is its property. Therefore, the soul being, of all that exists, the only thing that always moves itself, let us conclude from this that it is not born, and that it will never die ». xvii
Are we satisfied enough? Do we need more? We are still far from the Gods, or perhaps much closer than we think. « Immortality, wisdom, intelligence, memory. Since our soul gathers these perfections, it is therefore divine, as I say. Or even a God, as Euripides dared to say. » xviii
The soul is a sun. Cicero reports these last words of Socrates, a few moments before drinking the hemlock: « The whole life of philosophers is a continual meditation of death ». This was his swan song. The swans, by the way, were dedicated to Apollo, because they seem to hold from him the art of knowing the future. Foreseeing the benefits of following death, the swans die voluptuously, while singing. Likewise Socrates, who took the time to recall this metaphor in front of his assembled disciples, sang an unforgettable song, and pondered his ultimate doubt, in the face of imminent death, with the smile of a wise man: « When one looks too fixedly at the setting sun. One comes to see no more. And in the same way, when our soul looks at herself, her intelligence sometimes becomes blurred, so that our thoughts become blurred. We no longer know what to fix ourselves on, we fall from one doubt to another, and our reasoning has as little consistency as a ship beaten by the waves. »
This very doubt, this blindness, this ultimate blurring, when we approach revelation, comes only from the too great strength of this inner sun, which the weak eyes of the mind cannot bear.
To detach the mind from the body is to learn how to die. Let us separate ourselves from our bodies by the power of the soul, and thus become accustomed to dying. By this means, our life will already hold a heavenly life, and we will be better prepared to take off when our chains break.
i« According to the written documents, Pherecyde of Syros was the first to have said that the souls of men are eternal. « Cicero, Tusculanes, I, 16, 38.
iiPherecyde of Syros, fragment B 22, trans. G. Colli, La sagesse grecque, t. 2, p. 103: scholies of Apollonius of Rhodes, I, 643-648.
iiiBenjamin Constant. Of religion considered in its source, its forms and its developments. 1831. Book 13, ch.12
ivHerodotus, Story 2:51: « The Greeks, then, hold these and many other rites among the Egyptians, of which I will speak later; but it is not according to these peoples that they give the statues of Mercury an indecent attitude. The Athenians were the first to take this custom from the Pelasians; the rest of Greece followed their example. The Pelasges remained in fact in the same canton as the Athenians, who, from that time, were among the Hellenes; and it is for this reason that they then began to be reputed as Hellenes themselves. Whoever is initiated into the mysteries of the Cabires, which the Samothracians celebrate, understands what I am saying; for these Pelasges who came to dwell with the Athenians used to inhabit Samothrace, and it is from them that the peoples of this island took their mysteries. The Athenians are thus the first of the Hellenes who learned from the Pelagiuses to make statues of Mercury in the state we have just represented. The Pelasges give a sacred reason for this, which is explained in the mysteries of Samothrace. « Pierre-Henri Larcher. Paris, Lefevre and Charpentier 1842.
vSee Theodoret, Serm. 7 and 12. The cteis is a Greek word which literally means « tooth comb » but which also figuratively designates the pubis of the woman, and also means « cup, chalice ».
viTheodoret, Therapeut. Disput. 1, cited by B. Constant in op.cit. Book 13, ch.2
Some words are like solitary gems, waiting to be re-discovered, in order to reveal some strange resonances. They sometimes indicate constants of the human nature, which travel through passed millennia, vanished empires, linguistic basins, linking together distant cultures and old civilizations.
For example, in English, the words: « medecine, meditate, mediation, moderate, modest, mode », all actually originate from the same Indo-European root MED-, in Sanskrit : मद्. It is a very rich root, which is also reflected in Latin (medicus, meditor, modus) and Greek ( μἠδομαι, medomai: ‘to meditate, think, imagine’ ; μῆδος, mêdos: ‘thought, design’).
What is more surprising is that in its plural form, this latter word reveals a latent, but significant ambiguity. The plural of μῆδος is μἡδεα, médéa, which means « thoughts » but may also mean « human genitals », establishing thereby an unexpected link between two different aspects of human experience.
There is something even more surprising! The ambivalence between « thought » and « genitals » embedded in this Greek word is found almost identically in Arabic and Hebrew, even though these two semitic languages do not belong to the same linguistic and cultural Indo-European sphere as Greek. How can this happen ? Pure coincidence ? Or symptom of a deeper constant of the human mind ?
The primary meaning of the Arabic verb ذَكَرَ , dzakara, is : « to touch, hit or hurt someone in the virile member », and its secondary meanings are : « to remember, to tell », and « to pray, to say one’s prayers ». We also find a similar ambivalence in the nouns that derive from it. For example, ذِكْرً , dzikr, means « reminiscence, remembrance, recollection » and also « invocation, prayer, reading the Koran ». The same root with different vowels,ذَكَرً , dzakar, means « male », and its plural ذُكُورً, dzoukour, is the « male organ ».
In Hebrew, the verb זָכַר, zakhar, means « to think, to remember, to mention », but also, in a derived sense, « to be born male ». The name of the prophet Zechariah takes his name from this verbal root, and means : « The one God remembers ». The noun זַכֶר , zakher, means « remembrance, name » and זָכָר, zakhar, « that which is male, masculine ».
The word zakhar is, for example, used very crudely by Maimonides in the Guide for the Perplexed(Part I, Chapter 6), which deals with « man and woman » (ish and ishâ)i: « The term zakhar v-nekebah was afterwards applied to anything designed and prepared for union with another object » ii Note that the Hebrew word nekebah literally means « hole », and that zakhar v-nekebah thus literally means « the member and the hole ».
I find it extremely astonishing that languages as different as Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic should share such analogies, by creating direct verbal links between the male organ, mind, memory, and even the sacred.
Even more surprisingly, similar analogies and links can be found in Sanskrit !…
The Sanskrit root MED-, मद् is associated with the idea of strength, vigor, energy. It gave words like medas, « fat, marrow, lymph », medin, « vigor, energy », medini, « fertility, earth, soil », medah, « fat-tailed sheep », or medaka « spirituous liquor ».
As for the root MEDH-, मेध् , it gave words such as: medha: « juice, sauce, marrow, sap; essence; sacrificial victim; sacrifice, oblation »; medhā: « intellectual vigor, intelligence; prudence, wisdom »; medhas: « sacrifice »; medhya: « full of sap, vigorous; strong, powerful; fit for sacrifice; pure; intelligent, wise ».
We see in all these meanings the same kind of metonymic thinking at work. Marrow and sacrifice, sap and power, physical strength and mental energy, intelligence and wisdom draw semantic orbs where the vital energy (sap, fat, seed) is, by its abundance, conducive to sacrifice, and rises to signify man’s higher functions.
If we dig deeper the relationship between fat, sex and mind, we find some amazing leads. In fact, the sanskrit root MED- is a strong form of MID-, « getting fat » or MITH- « understanding » and « killing ».
How can « understanding » and « killing » have the same root, the same etymology? MITH- has as first meaning « to unite, to couple » and as derived meanings « to meet, to alternate », and also « to provoke an altercation ».
It seems that the idea of « meeting » is fundamentally twofold: one can meet as a friend or as an enemy, as a couple or as an antagonist, hence the two meanings derived from this very deep, very primeval intuition: that of « understanding » and that of « killing ».
One can go back even further to more originary sources with the root MI- , « to fix in the ground, to found, to build, to plant pillars ». Hence the derived meanings: « to measure, judge, observe » and « to perceive, know, understand ». Thus the word mit means: « pillar, column », and more generally « any erected object ». It is close to mita, « measured, metered; known ».
Let’s summarize. Every « erection » is a « foundation », and a preparation for future « knowledge »; to « erect » is to prepare oneself to « know ». Memory is rooted in the very foundation of one’s being.
For these ancient languages, « to be manly » is to be pegged to one’s own body, and thus rooted in the entire memory of the species, but it also means projecting oneself entirely into the future.
iCuriously enough, the French edition of the Guide des égarés published by Editions Verdier (1979) left entirely over the sentenceAs can be seen on page 39 of the 1979 edition, but it is indeed present in the English translation dating from 1919.
iiMoses Maimonides. The Guide for the Perplexed. Translated by M. Friedländer. Ed. George Routledge & Sons, London, 1919, p.19
To the sound of cymbals and flutes, to the light of torches, disheveled women dance. They are the bacchae. Dressed in fox skins, wearing horns on their heads, holding snakes in their hands, seized by a « sacred madness, » they rush on animals chosen for sacrifice, tear them to pieces, tear them to pieces, and devour the bloody flesh raw.
These bacchanals — or Dionysian feasts, have fascinated the ancients for centuries.
« The bacchanals celebrate the mystery of angry Dionysus, leading the sacred madness to the ingestion of raw flesh, and they perform the absorption of the flesh of the massacres, crowned with snakes, and crying out ‘Evoha !’»i.
What did it mean? The myth reports that Dionysus Zagreus, son of Zeus and Persephone, had taken the form of a young bull to try to escape his pursuers. But he was caught, torn and devoured by the Titans, enemies of Zeus.
In Thrace, this god is called Sabos or Sabazios, and in Phrygia it is called Cybele.
It is in Thrace that initially, between the 8th and 7th centuries BC, these cults of divine madness and ecstatic dancing, culminating in the dismemberment of living flesh, and its bloody devotion, arose.
Historians of religion are inclined to detect in them, not a local phenomenon, but the symptom of a more universal movement originating in human nature, in its desire to establish a relationship with the divine.
« This Thracian orgiastic cult was merely the manifestation of a religious impulse which is emerging at all times and in all places throughout the earth, at all levels of civilization, and which, therefore, must derive from a deep need of man’s physical and psychic nature (…) And in every part of the earth, There are peoples who consider these exaltations as the true religious process, as the only way to establish a relationship between man and the spirit world, and who, for this reason, base their worship above all on the uses that experience has shown them to be most suitable for producing ecstasies and visions.”ii
Many peoples, on all continents, have had similar practices aimed at achieving ecstasy. The Ostiaks, the Dakotas, the Winnebagos, in North America, the Angeloks in Greenland, the Butios in the West Indies, the Piajes in the Caribbean, and many other peoples followed shamanic rites.
In Islam, the Sufis and the Whirling Dervishes know the power of ecstatic dance. Jalâl al-Dîn Rûmî testified: « He who knows the power of dance dwells in God, for he knows how Love kills. Allahu !”iii
The cult of « divine madness » and frenetic exaltation has also been recorded in « Christian bacchanals » in Russia, in the sect of « Christi », founded by a « holy man », named Philippoff, « in whose body God came one day to dwell and who from then on spoke and gave his laws as the living God.”iv
The Dionysian cult of drunkenness and divine ecstasy is closely related to the belief in the immortality of the soul, for many peoples, in all periods of short human history.
This belief is based not on dogmas or prophecies, but on an intimate experience, really and personally felt, by all those who actively participated in those nights of madness and ecstasy.
The link between the belief in the immortality of the soul and the devouring of pieces of the torn body probably appeared in the most ancient times.
As early as a remote era, going back more than eight hundred thousand years (if we take into account the dating of the remains found in the Chou-Kou-Tien caves), the cutting up of corpses was probably a way of definitively ensuring the death of the dead, a way of making them harmless forever, unable to return to earth to threaten the living.
But it was also, ipso facto, an indication of an ancient and diffuse belief in the survival of the soul, despite the evidence of the death of the body.
We will probably never know what Homo Sinanthropus thought of the spirit world. On the other hand, we do have myths of dismemberment attested throughout antiquity and throughout the world.
Orpheus, a divine hero, died torn apart and dismembered alive by mad Thracian women.
Agamemnon, murdered by his wife Clytemnestra, complains in the other world of the atrocious outrages she inflicted on him after killing him: « After my shameful death, she subjected me, out of malice, to maschalism.”v
Maschalism consists in symbolically mimicking the treatment of animal victims during sacrifices. The priests would cut off or tear off the animal’s limbs and offer them as first-fruits to the gods in the form of raw flesh.
The astonishing thing is that the murderers used this method for their own purification, to inflect the anger of the victims, and especially to make the dead person powerless to punish the murderer.
Consequently, they cut up the corpse of the victims, amputating or tearing off the arms and legs at their joints, and then forming a chain that they hung around the shoulders and armpits of the corpse.
There is a certain logic at work here. The dead man’s arms and legs are amputated so that his soul cannot grasp the weapons placed in front of his grave and come back to fight.
In Egypt, Osiris is killed and then cut into fourteen pieces by his brother Set. The body parts are thrown into the Nile and scattered throughout the country.
Let us note that the Osirian myth is replayed for all the deceased, at the time of embalming.
It is in Egypt that the cutting up of corpses took the most ritualized and elaborate form, using a battery of surgical, chemical, and magical methods, including dismemberment, maceration, mummification, cremation, and exposure of various body parts. The embalming ritual lasts seventy days.
« The brain is extracted through the nose, the viscera are removed through an incision made in the side; only the heart, swaddled, is put back in its place, while the organs are placed in « canopies », vases with lids in the shape of human or animal heads. The remaining soft parts and body fluids are dissolved by a solution of natron and resin and evacuated from the body rectally. This first phase takes place under the sign of purification. Everything that is « bad » is removed from the body, in other words everything that is perishable and can compromise the form of eternity that is the goal.”vi
In the ancient Egyptian religion, all these violent interventions around the dead and dislocated body were intended to make the dead person die, as it were, permanently. But they also facilitate the passage from death to eternal life after the embalming of the body and mummification, which is an essentially « magical » operation.
« Then begins the drying phase (dehydration and salting), which lasts about forty days. Reduced to skin and bones, the corpse will then be put back in shape during the mummification ritual; It is then that the skin is anointed with balsamic oils to restore its suppleness, stuffed with resins, gum arabic, fabrics, sawdust, straw and other materials, inlaid with fake eyes, cosmetics and wigs, and finally swaddled with strips of fine linen, partly inscribed with magical formulas and between which amulets are slipped. The result of all these operations is the mummy. The mummy is much more than a corpse: it is the figure of the god Osiris and a hieroglyphic representation of the whole human being, « full of magic, » as the Egyptians say.”vii
Then comes the time for words, prayers and invocations. « In Egyptian, this mortuary therapy by speech is expressed by a word that is fundamentally untranslatable, but which it is customary in Egyptology to render by « glorification » or « transfiguration ». The dead person is invoked by an uninterrupted stream of words (…) The dead person thus becomes a spirit endowed with power capable of surviving in many forms (…) Through the recitation of glorifications, the scattered limbs of the body are somehow brought together in a text that describes them as a new unity. »
The « glorification » and the « transfiguration » of the dead are reminiscent of those of Osiris. « It is the rites, images and texts that awaken Osiris and bring him back to life; it is with the help of symbolic forms that the dislocated dead is recomposed and that the border separating life and death, here below and beyond, is crossed. The mystery of this connectivity capable of triumphing over death, however, lies not in the symbolic forms, but in the love that puts them to work. Who performs the rites, pronounces the words and appears in images is anything but indifferent. It is first and foremost the affair of the goddess Isis, wife and twin sister of Osiris. On this point, the myth of Osiris and Isis corresponds moreover to that of Orpheus and Eurydice (…) For Isis, it is love which confers on her magical rites and recitations a force of cohesion able to supplement the inertia of the heart of Osiris and to bring the god back to life. The combination of love and speech is the strongest cohesive force known to Egyptians and at the same time the most powerful elixir of life.”viii
« Death of the god ». « Glorification ». « Transfiguration ». « Resurrection ». « Power of love. » It is difficult not to find in these themes possible parallels with the death and resurrection of Christ, even in certain details.
Christ’s last moments are described as follows: « As it was the Preparation, the Jews, in order to prevent the bodies from remaining on the cross during the Sabbath – for that Sabbath was a great day – asked Pilate to break their legs and take them away. So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first, and then of the other who had been crucified with him. When they came to Jesus, when they saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs, but one of the soldiers pierced his side with his spear, and immediately blood and water came out of him. He who has seen bears witness, – his witness is true, and he knows that he speaks the truth – so that you too may believe. For this happened so that the Scripture might be fulfilled:
This word of Scripture is indeed found in the text of Exodus :
« YHVH said to Moses and Aaron, ‘This is the Passover ritual: no stranger shall eat of it. But any slave who has been bought for money, when you have circumcised him, may eat it. The resident and the hired servant shall not eat it. It will be eaten in one house, and you will not take any piece of meat out of that house. You shall not break any bones.”x
It must be hypothesized that the precept given to Moses by YHVH « not to break any bones » is a radical reversal of the « idolatrous » practices that were to be entirely abandoned. If the « pagan » priests were tearing off the limbs of animals, breaking bones and joints, one can think that Moses considered it useful to advocate a practice strictly contrary to this, in order to differentiate himself from it.
In contrast to the Egyptian cutting up of bodies, Dionysian dismemberment, or Greek maschalism, the members of Jesus’ body were left intact, so that the Scripture might be fulfilled.
On the eve of his death, however, Jesus symbolically shared his body and blood with his disciples at the Last Supper.
« As they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to the disciples, saying, ‘Take and eat, this is my body. Then taking a cup, he gave thanks and gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood, the blood of the covenant, which is to be poured out for many for the remission of sins.”xi
Pagan practices consist in breaking the limbs of the victims who have been sacrificed and drinking their blood. Jesus breaks bread and drinks wine. This sacrifice is symbolic. But it is also a prefiguration of the real sacrifice that will take place, the very next day, on the cross.
The ancient shamanic sacrifices, the dismemberment of Osiris, the dilaceration of the body of Dionysus, the broken bread and the shared wine by Christ belong to very different cultures and spanning over several millennia.
But there is one thing in common: in all these cases, a God dies in sacrifice, and his remains are ‘shared’, ‘distributed’. Then the God is resurrected by the power of love and the word.
Given the striking analogy in these narrative patterns, we are led to make a hypothesis.
The hunting meal of the first hominids has been the beginning of religion since the dawn of time. It was during the chewing and eating of animal flesh that the idea of the permanence and transmission of the spirit attached to the bloody flesh insidiously came to haunt human consciences.
But then a conceptual leap, an incredible leap took place. It was imagined that the sacrificial victims were themselves only a distant image of the Supreme Sacrifice, that of God, the Lord of all creatures.
More than 6,000 years ago, in the great tradition of Veda, it was affirmed: « The Lord of creatures gives Himself to the gods as a sacrifice.”xii
What was it that Empedocles did refuse to reveal? Why didn’t he tell what he was « forbidden to say »? What was he afraid of, – this famous sage from Agrigento, this statesman, this gyrovague shaman and prophet? Why this pusillanimity on the part of someone who, according to legend, was not afraid to end up throwing himself alive into the furnace of Etna?
« I ask only what ephemeral humans are allowed to hear. Take over the reins of the chariot under the auspices of Piety. The desire for the brilliant flowers of glory, which I could gather from mortals, will not make me say what is forbidden… Have courage and climb the summits of science; consider with all your strength the manifest side of everything, but do not believe in your eyes more than in your ears.”i
Empedocles encourages us to « climb the summits of science » …
The Greek original text says: καὶ τὸτε δὴ σοφίης ἐπ’ ἄίκροισι θοάζειν, that translates literally: « to impetuously climb to the summits (ἐπ’ ἄίκροισι, ep’aikroisi) of wisdom (σοφίης sophias) ».
But what are really these « summits of wisdom »? Why this plural form? Shouldn’t there be just one and only one « summit of wisdom », in the proximity of the highest divinity?
In another fragment, Empedocles speaks again of « summits », using another Greek word, κορυφή, koruphe, which also means « summit, top »:
John Burnet and Auguste Reymond translated (in French):
« Marchant de sommet en sommet,
ne pas parcourir un sentier seulement jusqu’à la fin… »iv i.e.:
« Walking from summit to summit,
not to walk a path only to the end…”
Paul Tannery adopted another interpretation, translating Κορυφὰς as « beginnings »:
« Rattachant toujours différemment de nouveaux débuts de mes paroles,
et ne suivant pas dans mon discours une route unique… »v
« Always attaching new and different beginnings to my words,
and not following in my speech a single road…”
I wonder: does the apparent obscurity of this fragment justify so wide differences in its interpretation?
We are indeed invited to consider, to dig, to deepen the matter.
According to the Bailly Greek dictionary, κορυφή (koruphe), means « summit« , figuratively, the « zenith » (speaking of the sun), and metaphorically: « crowning« , or « completion« .
Chantraine’s etymological dictionary notes other, more abstract nuances of meaning for κορυφή : « the sum, the essential, the best« . The related verb, κορυφῶ koruphô, somewhat clarifies the range of meanings: « to complete, to accomplish; to rise, to lift, to inflate« .
The Liddell-Scott dictionary gives a quite complete review of possible meanings of κορυφή: « head, top; crown, top of the head [of a man or god], peak of a mountain, summit, top, the zenith; apex of a cone,extremity, tip; and metaphorically: the sum [of all his words], the true sense [of legends]; height, excellence of .., i.e. the choicest, best. »
Liddell-Scott also proposes this rather down-to earth and matter-of-fact interpretation of the fragment 24: « springing from peak to peak« , i.e. « treating a subject disconnectedly ».
But as we see, the word κορυφή may apply to human, geological, tectonic, solar or rhetorical issues…
What is be the right interpretation of κορυφή and the ‘movement’ it implies, for the fragment 24 of Empedocles?
Etymologically and originally, the word κορυφή relates to κόρυς, « helmet« . Chantraine notes incidentally that the toponym « Corinth » (Κόρινθος) also relates to this same etymology.
The primary meaning of κορυφή, therefore, has nothing to do with mountains or peaks. It refers etymologically to the « summit » of the body, the « head ». More precisely, it refers to the head when « helmeted », – the head of a man or a woman (or a God) equipped as a warrior. This etymology is well in accordance with the long, mythological memory of the Greeks. Pythagorasvi famously said that Athena was « begotten », all-armed, with her helmet, « from the head » of Zeus, in Greek: κορυφἆ-γενής (korupha-genes).
If we admit that the wise and deep Empedocles did not use metaphors lightly, in one of his most celebrated fragments, we may infer that the « summits », here, are not just mineral mountains that one would jump over, or subjects of conversation, which one would want to spring from.
In a Greek, philosophical context, the « summit » may well be understood as a metaphor for the « head of Zeus », the head of the Most High God. Since a plural is used (Κορυφὰς, ‘summits’), one may also assume that it is an allusion to another Godhead, that of the divine « Wisdom » (a.k.a. Athena), who was born from Zeus’ « head ».
Another important word in fragment 24 is the verb προσάπτω, prosapto.
Bollack translates this verb as « to join, » Burnet as « to walk, » Tannery as « to attach”, Liddell-Scott as « to spring »…
How diverse these scholars’ interpretations!… Joining the summits one to the other… Walking from summit to summit… Attaching new beginnings to a narration… Springing from peak to peak, as for changing subjects…
In my view, all these learned translations are either too literal or too metaphorical. And unsatisfactory.
It seems to me necessary to seek something else, more related to the crux of the philosophical matter, something related to a figurative « God Head », or a « Godhead »… The word koruphe refers metaphorically to something ‘extreme’, — also deemed the ‘best’ and the ‘essential’. The Heads (koruphas) could well allude to the two main Greek Godheads, — the Most High God (Zeus) and his divine Wisdom (Athena).
More precisely, I think the fragment may point to the decisive moment when Zeus begets his own Wisdom, springing from his head, all armed….
The verb προσάπτω has several meanings, which can guide our search: « to procure, to give; to attach oneself to; to join; to touch, to graze » (Bailly).
Based on these meanings, I propose this translation of the first line of fragment 24:
« Joining the [God] Heads, one to the other ».
The second verb used in fragment 24 (line 2) is τελέειν, teleein: « To accomplish, to perform, to realize; to cause, to produce, to procure; to complete, to finish; to pay; (and, in a religious context) to bring to perfection, to perform the ceremony of initiation, to initiate into the mysteries (of Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom) » (Bailly).
Could the great Empedocles have been satisfied with just a banal idea such as « not following a single road », or « not following a path to the end », or even, in a more contorted way, something about « not saying a single path of words »?
I don’t think so. Neither Bollack, Burnet, nor Tannery seem, in their translations, to have imagined and even less captured a potential mystical or transcendent meaning.
I think, though, that there might lie the gist of this Fragment.
Let’s remember that Empedocles was a very original, very devout and quite deviant Pythagorean. He was also influenced by the Orphism then in full bloom in Agrigento .
This is why I prefer to believe that neither the ‘road’, nor the ‘path’ quoted in the Fragment 24, are thought to be ‘unique’.
For a thinker like Empedocles, there must be undoubtedly otherways, not just a ‘single path’…
The verb τελέειν also has, in fact, meanings oriented towards the mystical heights, such as: « to attain perfection, to accomplish initiation, to initiate to the mysteries (of divine Wisdom) ».
As for the word μύθων (the genitive of mythos), used in line 2 of Fragment 24, , it may mean « word, speech », but originally it meant: « legend, fable, myth ».
Hence this alternative translation of μύθων μὴ τελέειν ἀτραπὸν μίαν (mython mè teleein atrapon mian) :
« Not to be initiated in the one way of the myths »…
Here, it is quite ironic to recall that there was precisely no shortage of myths and legends about Empedocles… He was said to have been taken up directly to heaven by the Gods (his « ascension »), shortly after he had successfully called back to life a dead woman named Panthea (incidentally, this name means « All God »), as Diogenes of Laërtius reportedvii.
Five centuries B.C., Empedocles resurrected “Panthea” (« All God »), and shortly afterwards he ‘ascended’ to Heaven.
One can then assume that the Fragment 24 was in fact quite premonitory, revealing in advance the nature of Empedocles’ vision, the essence of his personal wisdom.
The Fragment 24 announces an alternative to the traditional « way of initiation » by the myths:
« Joining the [God] Heads, one to the other,
Not to be initiated in the only way of the myths. »
Empedocles did not seem to believe that the myths of his time implied a unique way to initiation. There was maybe another « way » to initiation: « joining the Most High Godhead and his Wisdom …
According to Genesis, taken literally, man was created twice.
Genesis, in chapter 1, describes a first creation of « man » called ha-adam. The word ha-adam includes the definite article ha and literally means « the earth », metaphorically « the red » (for the earth is red), and by extension « man ».
In Chapter 2, Genesis describes a second creation of man (ish), accompanied by a creation of woman (isha). These two words are not preceded by the article ha.
The most immediately noticeable differences between the two creations are as follows.
First of all, the names given to the man differ, as we have just seen: ha-adam on the one hand, ish and isha on the other.
Secondly, the verbs used to describe the act of creation are not the same. In the first chapter of Genesis we read: « God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness' » (Gen. 1:26). The Hebrew word for ‘let us make’ is נַעֲשֶׂה from the verb עֲשֶׂה, ‘asah, to do, to act, to work. In the second chapter of Genesis we read: « And the Eternal God planted a garden in Eden toward the east, and there he placed the man whom he had fashioned. « (Gen. 2:8) The Hebrew word for ‘fashioning’ is יָצָר , yatsara, to make, to form, to create.
Thirdly, in Genesis 1, God created man « male and female » (zakhar and nqebah). Man is apparently united in a kind of bi-sexual indifferentiation or created with « two faces », according to Rashi.
In contrast, in Genesis 2, the creation of woman is clearly differentiated. She is created in a specific way and receives the name ‘isha‘, which is given to her by the man. The man, ‘ha-adam‘, then calls himself ‘ish‘, and he calls his wife ‘isha‘, « because she was taken from ‘ish‘ ».
Rashi comments on this verse: « She shall be called isha, because she was taken from ish. Isha (‘woman’) is derived from ish (‘man’). From here we learn that the world was created with the holy language, [since only the Hebrew language connects the words ‘man’ and ‘woman’ with a common root]. (Berechith raba 18, 4).”
I don’t know if it can be said with impunity that only the Hebrew language connects the words « man » and « woman » to a common root. English, for example, displays such a link with « man » and « woman ». In Latin, « femina » (woman) would be the feminine counterpart of « homo » (« hemna« ).
But this is a secondary issue. However, it shows that Rashi’s interest is certainly not exercised here on the problem of double creation and on the triple difference between the stories of Genesis 1 and Genesis 2: two nouns (adam/ish), two verbs to describe creation (‘asah/yatsara), and two ways of evoking the difference between genders, in the form ‘male and female’ (zakhar/nqebah) and in the form ‘man and woman’ (ish/isha).
The double narrative of the creation of man and woman could be interpreted as the result of writing by independent authors at different times. These various versions were later collated to form the text of Genesis, which we have at our disposal, and which is traditionally attributed to Moses.
What is important here is not so much the identity of the writers as the possible interpretation of the differences between the two stories.
The two ‘ways’ of creating man are rendered, as has been said, by two Hebrew words, עֲשֶׂה ‘to make’ and יָצָר ‘to form’. What does this difference in vocabulary indicate?
The verb עֲשֶׂה ‘asah (to do) has a range of meanings that help to characterize it more precisely: to prepare, to arrange, to take care of, to establish, to institute, to accomplish, to practice, to observe. These verbs evoke a general idea of realization, accomplishment, with a nuance of perfection.
The verb יָצָר yatsara (to shape, to form) has a second, intransitive meaning: to be narrow, tight, embarrassed, afraid, tormented. It evokes an idea of constraint, that which could be imposed by a form applied to a malleable material.
By relying on lexicon and semantics, one can attempt a symbolic explanation. The first verb (עֲשֶׂה , to do) seems to translate God’s point of view when he created man. He « makes » man, as if he was in his mind a finished, perfect, accomplished idea. The second verb (יָצָר , to form) rather translates, by contrast, the point of view of man receiving the « form » given to him, with all that this implies in terms of constraints, constrictions and limits.
If we venture into a more philosophical terrain, chapter 1 of Genesis seems to present the creation of man as ‘essence’, or in a ‘latent’ form, still ‘hidden’ to some extent in the secret of nature.
Later, when the time came, man also appears to have been created as an existential, natural, visible, and clearly sexually differentiated reality, as chapter 2 reports.
S. Augustine devoted Part VI of his book, Genesisin the literal sense, to this difficult question. He proposes to consider that God first created all things ‘simultaneously’, as it is written: ‘He who lives for eternity created everything at the same time. « (Ecclesiasticus, 18,1) The Vulgate version says: « inaeternum, creavit omnia simul« . This word ‘simul‘ seems to mean a ‘simultaneous’ creation of all things.
It should be noted in passing that neither Jews nor Protestants consider this book of Ecclesiasticus (also called Sirach) to belong to the biblical canon.
For its part, the Septuagint translates from Hebrew into Greek this verse from Ecclesiasticus: » o zon eis ton aiôna ektisen ta panta koinè « . (« He who lives for eternity has created everything together. »)
This is another interpretation.
So shall we retain ‘together’ (as the Greek koinè says) or ‘simultaneously’ (according to the Latin simul)? It could be said that it amounts to the same thing. However it follows from this difference that Augustine’s quotation from Sirach 18:1 is debatable, especially when it is used to distinguish between the creation of man in chapter 1 of Genesis and his second creation in chapter 2.
According to Augustine, God in the beginning created all things ‘in their causes’, or ‘in potency’. In other words, God in chapter 1 creates the idea, essence or principle of all things and everything in nature, including man. « If I say that man in that first creation where God created all things simultaneously, not only was he not a man in the perfection of adulthood, but was not even a child, – not only was he not a child, but was not even an embryo in his mother’s womb, but was not even the visible seed of man, it will be believed that he was nothing at all.”
Augustine then asks: what were Adam and Eve like at the time of the first creation? « I will answer: invisibly, potentially, in their causes, as future things are made that are not yet.”
Augustine takes the side of the thesis of the double creation of man, firstly in his ‘causal reason’, ‘in potency’, and secondly, ‘in act’, in an effective ‘existence’ which is prolonged throughout history.
This is also true of the soul of every man. The soul is not created before the body, but after it. It does not pre-exist it. When it is created, it is created as a ‘living soul’. It is only in a second stage that this ‘living soul’ may (or may not) become ‘life-giving spirit’.
Augustine quotes Paul on this subject: « If there is an animal body, there is also a spiritual body. It is in this sense that it is written: The first man, Adam, was made a living soul, the last Adam, the ‘newest Adam’ (novissimusAdam), was a life-giving spirit. But it is not what is spiritual that was made first, it is what is animal; what is spiritual comes next. The first man, who came from the earth, is earthly; the second man, who came from heaven, is heavenly. Such is the earthly, such are also the earthly; and such is the heavenly, such are also the heavenly. And just as we have put on the image of the earthly, so shall we also put on the image of him who is of heaven.”
And Augustine adds: « What more can I say? We therefore bear the image of the heavenly man from now on by faith, sure that we will obtain in the resurrection what we believe: as for the image of the earthly man, we have clothed it from the origin of the human race. »
This basically amounts to suggesting the hypothesis of a third ‘creation’ that could affect man: after adam, ish or isha, there is the ‘last Adam‘, man as ‘life-giving spirit’.
From all of this, we will retain a real intuition of the possible metamorphoses of man, certainly not reduced to a fixed form, but called upon to considerably surpass himself.
It is interesting, at this point, to note that Philo of Alexandria offers a very different explanation of the double creation.
Philo explains that in the beginning God « places » (וַיָּשֶׂם שָׁם ) in the Garden of Eden a « fashioned » man (‘The Eternal God planted a garden in Eden towards the east and placed the man he had fashioned in it’). Gen. 2:8). A little later he ‘established’ (וַיַּנִּח ) a man to be the worker and the guardian (‘The Eternal-God therefore took the man and established him in the Garden of Eden to cultivate and care for it’. Gen. 2:15).
According to Philo, the man who cultivates the garden and cares for it is not the « fashioned » man, but « the man [that God] has made« . And Philo says: « [God] receives this one, but drives out the other.”i
Philo had already made a distinction between the heavenly man and the earthly man, by the same verbal means. « The heavenly man was not fashioned, but made in the image of God, and the earthly man is a being fashioned, but not begotten by the Maker.”ii
If we follow Philo, we must understand that God drove the ‘fashioned‘ man out of the garden, after having placed him there, and then established the ‘made‘ man there. The man whom God ‘fashioned‘ was ‘placed‘ in the garden, but it seems that he was not considered worthy to cultivate and keep it.
Moreover, in the text of Genesis there is no evidence to support Philo’s thesis of a cross between a ‘fashioned’ man and a ‘made’ man.
Philo specifies: « The man whom God made differs, as I have said, from the man who was fashioned: the fashioned man is the earthly intelligence; the made man is the immaterial intelligence.”iii
Philo’s interpretation, as we can see, is metaphorical. It must be understood that there are not two kinds of men, but that there are rather two kinds of intelligence in man.
« Adam is the earthly and corruptible intelligence, for the man in the image is not earthly but heavenly. We must seek why, giving all other things their names, he did not give himself his own (…) The intelligence that is in each one of us can understand other beings, but it is incapable of knowing itself, as the eye sees without seeing itself »iv.
The ‘earthly’ intelligence can think of all beings, but it cannot understand itself.
God has therefore also ‘made‘ a man of ‘heavenly’ intelligence, but he does not seem to have had a happier hand, since he disobeyed the command not to eat of the fruit of the ‘tree of the knowledge of good and evil’.
But was this tree of ‘the knowledge of good and evil’ really in the Garden of Eden? Philo doubts it. For if God says, « But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat of it », then « this tree was not in the garden »v.
« You shall not eat of it.” This should not be interpreted as a prohibition, but as a simple prediction of an all-knowing God.
This can be explained by the nature of things, Philo argues. The tree could have been present in « substance », but not in « potency »…
The man ‘in the image’ could have eaten the substance of a fruit of this tree. But he did not digest all its latent potency, and therefore he did not benefit from it in any real way.
There is yet another possible interpretation. Knowledge is not found in life. It is found only in potency, not in life, but in death.
The day in which one eats from the fruit of the tree of knowledge is also the day of death, the day in which the prediction is fulfilled: « Thou shalt die of death » מוֹת תָּמוּת (Gen. 2:17).
In this strange verse the word « death » is used twice. Why is this?
« There is a double death, that of man, and the death proper to the soul; that of man is the separation of soul and body; that of the soul is the loss of virtue and the acquisition of vice. (…) And perhaps this second death is opposed to the first: this one is a division of the compound of body and soul; the other, on the contrary, is a meeting of the two where the inferior, the body, dominates and the superior, the soul, is dominated.”vi
Philo quotes fragment 62 of Heraclitus: « We live by their death, we are dead to their life.”vii He believes that Heraclitus was « right to follow the doctrine of Moses in this ». As a good Neoplatonist, Philo also takes up Plato’s famous thesis of the body as the ‘tomb of the soul’.
« That is to say that at present, when we live, the soul is dead and buried in the body as in a tomb, but by our death, the soul lives from the life that is proper to it, and is delivered from evil and the corpse that was bound to it, the body.”viii
There is nevertheless a notable difference between the vision of Genesis and that of the Greek philosophers.
Genesis says: « You shall die of death! «
Heraclitus has a very different formula: « The life of some is the death of others, the death of some, the life of others.”
The word “plagiarism originally meant « the act of selling or buying a free person as a slave ». The word comes from the Latin plagiarius or plagiator, « thief of man ». This meaning is unused today. The word is now only used in a literary, artistic or scientific context. Plagiarism is the act of appropriating someone else’s ideas or words by passing them off as one’s own.
The Latin plagiator and plagiarists have one thing in common, and that is that they attack the very being of man. To steal a man’s ideas is to steal him as a being, to steal his substance.
« Plagiarising » means enslaving a man’s thought, putting it under the control of another man, making it a « slave ».
A Palestinian bishop, Eusebius of Caesarea (265-339), recognised as the « Father of the Church », brought a severe charge against the many plagiarisms and borrowings made by the Greeks at the expense of the many peoples who had preceded them in the history (of ideas).
Eusebius’ intention was apologetic. It was intended to diminish the prestige of Greek philosophy at a time when the development of the Christian religion needed to be reinforced.
« The Greeks took from the Barbarians the belief in multiple gods, mysteries, initiations, and furthermore the historical relations and mythical accounts of the gods, the allegorising physiologies of the myths and all idolatrous error ».i
Pillage is permanent, universal. The Greeks steal from everyone and steal from each other.
« The Greeks monopolised Hebrew opinions and plundered the rest of the sciences from the Egyptians and Chaldeans as well as from the other barbarian nations, and now they are caught stealing each other’s reputation as writers. Each of them, for example, stole from his neighbor passions, ideas, entire developments and adorned himself with them as his own personal labor.”ii
Eusebius quotes the testimony of Clement of Alexandria: « We have proved that the manifestation of Greek thought has been illuminated by the truth given to us by the Scriptures (…) and that the flight of truth has passed to them; well! Let us set the Greeks against each other as witnesses to this theft.»iii
The most prestigious names in Greek thought are put on the pillory of dishonor.
Clement of Alexandria quotes « the expressions of Orpheus, Heraclitus, Plato, Pythagoras, Herodotus, Theopompus, Thucydides, Demosthenes, Eschina, Lysias, Isocrates and a hundred others that it would be superfluous to enumerate.”iv
Porphyrus, too, accuses Plato of being a plagiarist in his Protagoras.
The accusation is clear, precise and devastating. « All the famous philosophical culture of the Greeks, their first sciences, their proud logic were borrowed by them from the Barbarians.”v
The famous Pythagoras himself went to Babylon, Egypt and Persia. He learned everything from the Magi and the priests. He even went to learn from the Brahmins of India, it is said. From some he was able to learn astrology, from others geometry and from others arithmetic and music.vi
Even the Greek alphabet was invented in Phoenicia, and was introduced to Greece by Cadmos, a Phoenician by birth.
As for Orpheus, he borrowed from the Egyptians his rites, his « initiations into the mysteries », and his « affabulations » about Hades. The cult of Dionysus is entirely modelled on that of Osiris, and the cult of Demeter on that of Isis. The figure of Hermes Psychopompe, the conductor of the dead, is obviously inspired by Egyptian myths.
It must be concluded, says Eusebius, that Hebrew theology must be preferred to the philosophy of the Greeks, which must be given second place, since it is nothing but a bunch of plagiarism.
The Greek gods form a cohort of second-hand gods, of eclectic borrowings, from Egypt to Mesopotamia and from India to Persia. Moses predates the capture of Troy and thus precedes the appearance of the majority of the gods of the Greeks and their sages.
Eusebius aims to magnify the Hebrew heritage by completely discrediting « Greek wisdom » and the pantheon of its imported gods.
So, Greek thought, — a plagiary thought?
First of all, the ideas of the Persian magi, the Egyptian priests and the Brahmins of India were not copied as such. Pythagoras or Plato digested them, transformed, even transmuted them into something entirely original.
Greek thought also added a level of freedom of thought by copying, augmenting, criticizing.
Then the so- called « Greek loans » represent a very long chain, which goes back to the dawn of time. And everyone was doing that. It is not at all certain, for example, that Moses himself was entirely free of plagiarism. Raised at the court of Pharaoh Amosis, – according to Tatian and Clement of Alexandria, it is very likely that Moses benefited from many Egyptian ideas about the hidden God (Ammon) and the one God (Aten).
Ammon, the ‘hidden’ God, had been worshipped in Egypt for more than two millennia before Moses. As for the « one » God Aten, he was celebrated by Amenophis IV, who took the name of Akhenaten in his honour several centuries before the Exodus. Several religious rites established by Moses seem to have been copied from the Egyptian rites, by means of a deliberate « inversion », taking the direct opposite side, which is, it is true, an original form of plagiarism. Thus the biblical sacrifice of sheep or cattle was instituted by Moses, as it were, as a reaction against the Egyptian cult which banned precisely blood sacrifices. It is not by chance that Moses had adopted as a « sacred » rite what seemed most « sacrilegious » to the Egyptians — since they accorded the bull Apis the status of a sacred, and even « divine » figure, and for whom it was therefore out of the question to slaughter cows, oxen or bulls on altars.
It is interesting to recall that this prohibition of bloody sacrifices had also been respected for several millennia by the Vedic cult in the Indus basin.
What can we conclude from this? That the essential ideas circulate, either in their positive expressions, or by provoking negative reactions, direct opposition.
As far as ideas are concerned, let us say provocatively, nothing is more profitable than plagiarism, in the long term. And as far as religion is concerned, the more we plagiarize, the closer we come, in fact, to a common awareness, and to a larval consensus, but one can hope for a slowly growing one, on the most difficult subjects.
World religion began more than 800,000 or a million years ago, as evidenced by the traces of religious activity found at Chou Kou Tien, near Beijing, which show that Homo sapiens already had an idea of the afterlife, of life after death, and therefore of the divine.
Moses and Plato are milestones in the long history of world religion. The shamans who officiated 40,000 years ago in the cave of Pont d’Arc, those who later took over in Altamira or Lascaux, were already human in the full sense of the word.
From the depths of the centuries, they have been announcing the coming of the prophets of the future, who will emerge, it is obvious, in the heart of an overpopulated planet, threatened by madness, death and despair.
iEusebius of Caesarea. Praeparatio Evangelica, X, 1,3
Epicurus said: « We must laugh and philosophize at the same time »i.
In ancient Greek, the words « laugh » and « laughter » are rendered by γέλᾶν, from which derives the noun γαλήνη, which metaphorically denotes « the calm of the sunny sea », and more generally an aura of quiet brilliance.
It also denotes, by metonymic shift, the « silvery galena » (lead sulphide), but also the « serenity of the soul ».
It seems significant that the Greek language has a precise word, to remind the men that the sea laughs in the sun, calmly, and that the serene soul then resembles it.
By consulting Chantraine’s Greek Dictionary of Etymology, we also learn that γέλᾶν, « laugh », has its origin in the notion of brightness.
In ancient Greek when the earth « shakes », one also says that it « laughs », that it « bursts » (out of laughing ).
The word γέλᾶν, therefore, is ambivalent. It can evoke the calm of the sea, or the fury of the earth, the peaceful smile of the waves, and the chthonian forces that are unleashed.
The ancient Greek name of the earth, chtonos, had no relation to the nourishing land, a cultivable expanse. It was used in a religious sense, to refer to what was felt to be the outer shell of the world of the dead and the underground powers. When the earth trembles, the underworld, the world of the dead “laughs”.
These forgotten words depict a vision of the world. They remind us that when they were spoken, they also were summoning the trace and the deeds of the gods, and they were making them glimmer.
« The gods exist, the knowledge we have of them is clear evidence.”ii
The Epicureans really believed in the gods, and banished all fear of Hadesiii. So did the Stoics, who lived in accordance with the cosmic God.
As for the Skeptics, such as Pyrrho of Elis, Timo of Phlius or Aenesidemus, they believed in nothing. They doubted everything. Indifference, apathy, ataraxy. Detachment. That were their words.
Pyrrho said: « The generations of men are like the ephemeral leaves of the woods.”
Menander said: « Do you want to know who you are? Cast your eyes on the tombs that line the path. There are the bones and light ashes of kings, tyrants, wise men and all those men, who were swollen with the pride of their nobility, their fortune, their reputation or their beauty. This is the last term to which all mortals end. When you see this, you will know what you are. »
Timo of Phlius used the epicurean metaphor of the « smiling calm of the sea » (γαλήνη) to depict the peace of the wise Skeptic.
But Timo’s « smiling » or « sunny calm » was not really similar to Epicurus’ laughing wisdom…
For Epicurus believed in the gods. Timo believed in nothing.
« The end, according to the Skeptics, is the suspension of judgment, which is followed like a shadow by ataraxy, according to Timo and Aenesidemus.”iv
Diogenes Laërtius explained that Pyrrho had gone to India, and that, influenced by Indian gymnophists and Persian magi, he had brought back to Greece this philosophy of ataraxy, acatalepsy and « suspension of judgement ».
He also relates this anecdote:
One day a dog attacked Pyrrho.
He could not help but move backward to protect himself. He was reproached for this inconsistency, – in relation to his stated philosophy of ataraxy. He replied that it was difficult to completely strip oneself of one’s humanity, but that every effort should be made to bring one’s behavior into harmony with the world.
It is better to laugh about that rather tepid answer.
Quite early in history, the idea of a « universal religion » appeared in various civilisations – despite the usual obstacles posed by tradition and the vested interests of priests and princes.
This idea did not fit easily into the old frames of thought, nor into the representations of the world built by tribal, national religions, or, a fortiori, by exclusive, elitist sects, reserved for privileged initiates or a chosen few.
But, for example, five centuries before the Prophet Muhammad, the Persian prophet Mani already affirmed out of the blues that he was the « seal of the prophets ». It was therefore up to him to found and preach a new, universal religion. Manichaeism then had its hour of glory. Augustine, who embraced it for a time, testifies to its expansion and success in the territories controlled by Rome at the time, and to its lasting hold on the spirits.
Manichaeism promoted a dualist system of thought, centred on the eternal struggle between Good and Evil; it is not certain that these ideas have disappeared today.
Before Mani, the first Christians also saw themselves as bearers of a really universal message. They no longer saw themselves as Jews — or Gentiles. They thought of themselves as a third kind of man (« triton genos« , « tertium genus« ), « trans-humans » ahead of the times. They saw themselves as the promoters of a new wisdom, « barbaric » from the Greek point of view, « scandalous » for the Jews, – transcending the power of the Law and of Reason.
Christians were not to be a nation among nations, but « a nation built out of nations » according to the formula of Aphrahat, a Persian sage of the 4th century.
Contrary to the usual dichotomies, that of the Greeks against the Barbarians, or that of the Jews against the Goyim, the Christians thus thought that they embodied a new type of « nation », a « nation » that was not « national », but purely spiritual, a « nation » that would be like a soul in the body of the world (or according to another image, the « salt of the earth »i).
The idea of a really « universal » religion then rubbed shoulders, it is important to say, with positions that were absolutely contrary, exclusive, and even antagonistic to the last degree, like those of the Essenes.
A text found in Qumran, near the Dead Sea, advocates hatred against all those who are not members of the sect, while insisting on the importance that this « hatred » must remain secret. The member of the Essene sect « must hide the teaching of the Law from men of falsity (anshei ha-‘arel), but must announce true knowledge and right judgment to those who have chosen the way. (…) Eternal hatred in a spirit of secrecy for men of perdition! (sin’at ‘olam ‘im anshei shahat be-ruah hasher!)ii « .
G. Stroumsa comments: « The peaceful conduct of the Essenes towards the surrounding world now appears to have been nothing more than a mask hiding a bellicose theology. »
This attitude is still found today in the « taqqiya » of the Shi’ites, for example.
It should be added that the idea of « holy war » was also part of Essene eschatology, as can be seen in the « War Scroll » (War Scroll, 1QM), preserved in Jerusalem, which is also known as the scroll of « The War of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness ».
Philo of Alexandria, steeped in Greek culture, considered that the Essenes had a « barbaric philosophy », and « that they were in a sense, the Brahmins of the Jews, an elite among the elite. »
Clearch of Soles, a peripatetic philosopher of the 4th century BC, a disciple of Aristotle, had also seriously considered that the Jews were descended from Brahmins, and that their wisdom was a « legitimate inheritance » from India. This idea spread widely, and was apparently accepted by the Jews of that time, as evidenced by the fact that Philo of Alexandriaiii and Flavius Josephusiv naturally referred to it.
The « barbaric philosophy » of the Essenes and the « barbaric wisdom » of the early Christians have one thing in common: they both point to ideas emanating from a more distant East, that of Persia, Oxus and even, ultimately, the Indus.
Among oriental ideas, one is particularly powerful. That of the double of the soul, or the double soul, depending on the point of view.
The text of the Rule of the Community, found in Qumran, gives an indication: « He created man to rule the world, and assigned to him two spirits with which he must walk until the time when He will return: the spirit of truth and the spirit of lie (ruah ha-emet ve ruah ha-avel).”v
There is broad agreement among researchers to detect an Iranian influence in this anthropology. Shaul Shaked writes: « It is conceivable that contacts between Jews and Iranians led to the formulation of a Jewish theology, which, while following traditional Jewish motifs, came to resemble closely the Iranian worldview. »
G. Stroumsa further notes that such duality in the soul is found in the rabbinic idea of the two basic instincts of good and evil present in the human soul (yetser ha-ra’, yetser ha-tov)vi.
This conception has been widely disseminated since ancient times. Far from being reserved for the Gnostics and Manicheans, who seem to have found their most ancient sources in ancient Persia, it had, as we can see, penetrated Jewish thought in several ways.
But it also aroused strong opposition. Christians, in particular, held different views.
Augustine asserts that there can be no « spirit of evil », since all souls come from God.vii In his Counter Faustus, he argues: « As they say that every living being has two souls, one from the light, the other from the darkness, is it not clear that the good soul leaves at the moment of death, while the evil soul remains?”viii
Origen has yet another interpretation: every soul is assisted by two angels, an angel of righteousness and an angel of iniquityix. There are not two opposing souls, but rather a higher soul and another in a lower position.
Manichaeism itself varied on this delicate issue. It presented two different conceptions of the dualism inherent in the soul. The horizontal conception put the two souls, one good and one bad, in conflict. The other conception, vertical, put the soul in relation to its celestial counterpart, its ‘guardian angel’. The guardian angel of Mani, the Paraclete (« the intercessor angel »), the Holy Spirit are all possible figures of this twin, divine soul.
This conception of a celestial Spirit forming a « couple » (suzugia) with each soul was theorised by Tatian the Syrian in the 2nd century AD, as Erik Peterson notes.
Stroumsa points out that « this conception, which was already widespread in Iran, clearly reflects shamanistic forms of thought, according to which the soul can come and go outside the individual under certain conditions.”x
The idea of the soul of Osiris or Horus floating above the body of the dead God, the angels of the Jewish tradition, the Greek « daimon », the split souls of the Gnostics, the Manicheans, or the Iranians, or, even more ancient, the experiences of the shamans, by their profound analogies, testify to the existence of « anthropological constants », of which the comparative study of ancient religions gives a glimpse.
All these traditions converge in this: the soul is not only a principle of life, attached to an earthly body, which would be destined to disappear after death.
It is also attached to a higher, spiritual principle that guards and guides it.
Science has recently taken a step in this direction, foreseen for several millennia, by demonstrating that man’s « spirit » is not only located in the brain itself, but that it is also « diffused » all around him, in the emotional, symbolic, imaginary and social spheres.
Perhaps one day we will be able to objectify in a tangible way this intuition, so ancient, and so « universal ». In the meantime, let us conclude that it is difficult to be satisfied with a narrowly materialistic, mechanical description of the world.
In a short dialogue, Hermes addresses his son Tati to summarize some ancient, and quite essential ideas. We learn that man is made up of separate envelopes, body, mind, soul, reason, intelligence. As he gradually emerges from these envelopes, man is called upon to « know » better and better. His final vocation is « apotheosis », a word that must be taken literally i.e. to go « above the gods ».
– The energy of God is in His will. And God wants the universe to be. As Father, as Good, He wants the existence of that which is not yet. This existence of beings, there is God, there is the Father, there is the Good, it is no other thing. The world, the sun, the stars participate in the existence of beings. But they are not, however, for the living the cause of their life, or the origin of the Good. Their action is the necessary effect of the will of the Good, without which nothing could exist or become.
[My comment: Hermes does not believe in the immanence of the divine in the world. The divine is absolutely transcendent, and only His Will, whose effect can be observed through the existence of His creation, bears witness to this transcendent remoteness.]
It must be recognized that the vision of the Good is above our strength. The eyes of our intelligence cannot yet contemplate its incorruptible and incomprehensible beauty. You will see it a little, perhaps, when you at least know that you can say nothing about it. For true knowledge is found in the silence and rest of every sensation. Whoever achieves it can no longer think of anything else, nor look at anything, nor hear anything, nor even move his body. There is no more sensation or movement for him.
[My comment: There are two kinds of spirits. Those who have « seen » the Good, but cannot say anything about it, and those who have not « seen » it, but who will perhaps one day see it, under certain conditions. Hermes belongs to the first group. He can only express himself by allusion. He cannot say anything about it, which is already a lot …].
– The splendor that inundates all his thought and his soul tears man from the bonds of the body and transforms him entirely into divine essence. The human soul reaches the apotheosis when he has contemplated this beauty of Good.
– What do you mean by « apotheosis », Father?
[My comment: Tat’s question is not a lexicographical one. He is waiting for a full description of the phenomenon. The word « apotheosis » is not a neologism, a word invented by Hermes. The word was used, for example, previously by Strabo to describe the death of Diomedes, which he also describes as « apotheosis », but in a sense that seems to transcend the reality of his « death ». « Some authors add to the subject of Diomedes that here he had begun to dig a canal leading to the sea, but having been called back to his homeland he was surprised by death and left this and many other useful undertakings unfinished. This is a first version about his death; another makes him stay until the end and die in Daunie; a third, purely fabulous, and which I have already had occasion to recall, speaks of his mysterious disappearance in one of the islands that bear his name; finally, one can look at this claim of the Henetians to place in their country, if not death, at least the apotheosis of the hero, as a fourth version…. « (Strabo, Geogr. VI, 3,9)].
– Every unfulfilled soul, my son, is subject to successive changes. The blinded soul, knowing nothing of beings, neither their nature nor the Good, is enveloped in bodily passions. The unfortunate soul, unaware of herself, is enslaved to foreign and abject bodies. She carries the burden of the body. Instead of commanding, she obeys. This is the evil of the soul. On the contrary, the good of the soul is knowledge. He who knows is good, and already divine.
[My comment: The body is a veil whose envelope prevents access to knowledge. In the body, the soul is enslaved. Not only can she not ‘see’, but she cannot ‘know’. She can only know her slavery, her enslavement. Which is already a lot, because it is the beginning of her liberation].
– Beings have sensations because they cannot exist without them; but knowledge is very different from sensation. Sensation is an influence that one undergoes. Knowledge is the end of a search, and the desire to search is a divine gift. For all knowledge is incorporeal.
[My comment: The sensation is imposed from the outside. Knowledge is first and foremost a desire for knowledge. To know is first of all a desire to know. But where does this desire come from, if one has no knowledge of what one can desire? « The desire to seek is a divine gift ». But isn’t it unfair to those who are deprived of the grace of this desire? No, this desire is in everyone, in latent form. The desire to know only asks to be born. It only needs to be set in motion, and it grows stronger with every step].
– All knowledge is a form, which grasps the intelligence, just as the intelligence uses the body. Thus both use a body, either intellectual or material. Everything comes down to this combination of opposites, form and matter, and it cannot be otherwise.
[My comment: Form and matter can be considered, as Hermes does, as a « combination of opposites ». One could also say « alliance of opposites », to mean that their whole is more than the sum of their parts. There is also the idea that intellectual representations can be described as having a « body », which itself is endowed with a spirit and perhaps a soul. This leads us to imagine a whole ascending hierarchy, of souls and spirits, up to a supreme root, of all souls and spirits. Two thousand years after these ideas began to be formulated, the Jewish Kabbalah of the European Middle Ages took up exactly the same ideas ].
– What is this material God?
– The world is beautiful but it is not good, because it is material and passive. It is the first of the ‘passive’, but the second of the beings, and is not self-sufficient. It is born, though it is always, but it is in birth, and it becomes perpetual. Becoming is a change in quality and quantity – like any material movement.
[My comment: Here the influence of Gnosis is revealed. The world is beautiful, but it is not good. The assertions of Genesis are therefore contradicted head-on: ‘And God saw that it was good.’ (Cf. Gen. 1:4, Gen. 1:10, Gen. 1:12, Gen. 1:25). The first chapter of Genesis even concludes as follows: ‘And God saw everything that He had made, and it was very good.’ (Gen. 1:31). But this Gnosis can be interpreted. The world is not « good », admittedly, but it does not necessarily mean that it is « bad » either. If it is not « good » it is because it is always « becoming », it is always being « born ». Besides, one can argue that ‘Only God is good’, as Jesus said. This Gnosticism is therefore not incompatible with an interpretation of Creation as a living process, as an eschatological aim].
– The world is the first of the living. Man is second only to the world, and first among mortals. Not only is man not good, but he is evil, being mortal. Nor is the world not good, since it is mobile; but being immortal, it is not evil. Man, being both mobile and mortal, is evil. »
[My comment: Here, the vision of Gnosis becomes even more precise. The world is not evil, but Man is. The difference between the world and Man is that the world is always born, it is always alive and reborn, whereas Man is mortal. The only possibility, however, of escaping this fundamental evil is resurrection. If it is possible, then Man is also reborn, again, he escapes death, – and evil].
– It is necessary to understand how man’s soul is constituted: intelligence is in reason, reason in the soul, the soul in the mind, the mind in the body. The spirit, penetrating through veins, arteries and blood, moves the animal and carries it, so to speak. The soul infuses the spirit. Reason is at the bottom of the soul. And it is Intelligence that makes reason live.
[My comment: Man is a kind of metaphysical onion, containing deep down within him, in his inner core, a divine principle, – Intelligence, which is another name for Divine Wisdom.]
– God does not ignore man; on the contrary, He knows him and wants to be known by him. The only salvation of man is in the knowledge of God; this is the way of ascent to Olympus; only by this alone does the soul become good, not sometimes good, sometimes bad, but necessarily good.
[My comment: The ascent to Olympus is another metaphor for apotheosis].
“Contemplate, my son, the soul of the child; the separation is not yet complete; the body is small and has not yet received full development. It is beautiful to see the child, not yet sullied by the passions of the body, still almost attached to the soul of the world. But when the body has developed and holds her [the soul] in its mass, separation is accomplished, oblivion occurs in her, she ceases to participate in the beautiful and the good.”
[My comment: the loss of innocence of the soul begins from the first days of her apprenticeship in the body she has inherited. This loss of innocence can also be interpreted as the first steps in the long « ascent » that still awaits her].
« The same thing happens to those who come out of their body. The soul enters into herself, the spirit withdraws into the blood, the soul into the spirit. But the Intelligence, purified and freed from its envelopes, divine by nature, takes a body of fire and travels through space, abandoning the soul to its tribulations. »
[My comment: These words are a striking summary of the highest wisdom attained over tens of thousands of years by shamans, visionaries, prophets, poets, all over the world. They must be taken for what they are: a naked revelation, destined only to those souls predisposed, by their abysmal and primordial desire, to understand what it is all about].
– What do you mean, O Father? Does intelligence separate from the soul and the soul from the spirit, since you said that the soul is the envelope of intelligence and the spirit is the envelope of the soul?
[My comment: Tat listens to his father very well, and he remains faithful to logic itself. His question is a request for clarification. The difference between the spirit and the soul and the difference between the soul and the intelligence may need to be explained more clearly. But how to explain “intelligence” to those who cannot imagine the power of its infinite possibilities? Hermes knows this difficulty well. He will try another way of explanation].
– It is necessary, my son, that the listener follow the thought of the speaker and associate himself with it; the ear must be finer than the voice. This system of envelopes exists in the earthly body. The naked intelligence could not be established in a material body, and that body could not contain such immortality or carry such virtue. The intelligence takes the soul as its envelope; the soul, which is divine itself, is enveloped in spirit, and the spirit is poured into the animal. »
[My comment: The key expression here is « naked intelligence ». What is revealed in these words is that even intelligence, in its highest, most divine form, can still remain « veiled ». Nothing can be said about this here, for the moment. We are only alluding to the fact that the process of ascension, of apotheosis, is certainly not finished, but that it is itself susceptible to other, even more radical forms of spiritual nakedness, unclothing].
– When the intelligence leaves the earthly body, it immediately takes its tunic of fire, which it could not keep when it inhabited this earthly body; for the earth cannot withstand fire, of which a single spark would be enough to burn it. This is why water surrounds the earth and forms a rampart that protects it from the flame of fire. But intelligence, the most subtle of divine thoughts, has the most subtle of elements, fire, as its body. It takes it as an instrument of its creative action.
[My comment: One of the garments of intelligence, described here under the metaphor of the « tunic of fire », is a way of describing one of its essential attributes: creative ability. But there are certainly many others. Other metaphors, other « garments » would be needed to try to account for them].
– The universal intelligence uses all the elements, that of man only the earthly elements. Deprived of fire, it cannot build divine works, subject as it is to the conditions of humanity. Human souls, not all of them, but pious souls, are « demonic » and « divine ».
[My comment: The idea that the soul is « demonic » is an idea that Plato communicated to us through the speech of Diotima in the Symposium. There can be found also another fundamental idea, to which I have been attached all my life – the idea of metaxu].
– Once separated from the body, and after having sustained the struggle of piety, which consists in knowing God and harming no one, such a soul becomes all intelligence. But the unholy soul remains in its own essence and punishes herself by seeking to enter into an earthly body, a human body, for another body cannot receive a human soul, it cannot fall into the body of an animal without reason; a divine law preserves the human soul from such a fall.
[My comment: Here we find the idea of metempsychosis. Since ages, these ideas circulated from the Far East to Greece].
– The punishment of the soul is quite different. When the intelligence has become a « daimon », and by God’s command has taken on a body of fire, she [the intelligence] enters the ungodly soul and is scourged with the whip of its sins. The unholy soul then rushes into murder, insults, blasphemy, violence of all kinds and all human wickedness. But by entering the pious soul, the intelligence leads her to the light of knowledge. Such a soul is never satiated with hymns and blessings for all men.
[My comment: A distinction must therefore be made between light, knowledge and the « light of knowledge ». The latter form of consciousness is the possible source of a meta-apotheosis, – for the moment, this word is a neologism, which I propose, because here it is very necessary].
– This is the universal order, the consequence of unity. Intelligence penetrates all the elements. For nothing is more divine and more powerful than intelligence. She unites Gods with men and men with Gods. It is the intelligence that is the good « daimon« ; the blessed soul is full of her, the unhappy soul is empty of her.
[My comment: intelligence is the « metaxu » par excellence. The Hebrews gave it the name neshamah. But what a name is, it is its essence that we must try to understand].
– The soul without intelligence could neither speak nor act. Often intelligence leaves the soul, and in this state the soul sees nothing, hears nothing, and looks like an animal without reason. Such is the power of intelligence. But it does not support the vicious soul and leaves it attached to the body, which drags it down. Such a soul, my son, has no intelligence, and in this condition a man can no longer be called a man. For man is a divine animal which must be compared, not to other terrestrial animals, but to those in heaven, who are called Gods.
[My comment: Aristotle said that « man is an animal who has reason (logos) ». We can see that Hermes rises several notches above Aristotle in his intuition of what man is, in essence. Aristotle is the first of the moderns. Plato is the last of the Ancients. But in these difficult matters, the Ancients have infinitely more to teach us, with their million years of experience, than the Moderns, really out of their depths in these matters].
– Or rather, let’s not be afraid to tell the truth, the real man is above them, or at least equal to them. For none of the heavenly Gods leaves his sphere to come to earth, while man ascends into heaven and measures it. He knows what is above and what is below; he knows everything accurately, and what is better is that he does not need to leave the earth in order to ascend. Such is the greatness of his condition. Thus, dare we say that man is a mortal God and that a heavenly God is an immortal man. All things will be governed by the world and by man, and above all is the One.
My comment : There is a strikingly equivalent intuition in the Veda. In the Veda, Puruṣa, devanāgarī : पुरुष, means « man, person, hero, vital principle, spirit » but also and foremost : « the Soul of the Universe »…
Towards the end of the 15th century, Marsilius Ficinus summed up the whole of « ancient theology » in six emblematic names: Hermes Trismegistus, Orpheus, Aglaophemus, Pythagoras, Philolaos, and Plato. In his mind, these characters formed one and the same ‘sect of initiates’, transmitting knowledge, wisdom and secrets to each other.
The first link in this long chain of initiation was Hermes Trismegistus, « three times very great », of whom Plato himself is only a distant disciple.
Well after Plato, in the 2nd century AD, the Corpus Hermeticum appeared, supposedly bringing back the essence of this ancient knowledge. The first Book of the Corpus is called after Poimandres, a Greek name meaning « the shepherd of man ».
In this Book, Hermes tells of his encounter with Poimandres:
« Who are you then?
– I am Poimandres (the « shepherd of man »), the Sovereign Intelligence. I know what you desire, and I am with you everywhere.”
Poimandres then enlightens the mind of Hermes, who expresses himself in the first person to recount his vision: « I am living an indefinable spectacle. Everything became a soft and pleasant light that charmed my sight. Soon afterwards, a frightful and horrible darkness descended in a sinuous form; it seemed to me as if this darkness was changing into some kind of damp and troubled nature, exhaling a smoke like fire and a kind of gloomy noise. Then there came out an inarticulate cry which seemed to be the voice of light.”
« Have you understood what this vision means? » asks Poimandres. « This light is me, the Intelligence, – your God, who precedes the wet nature out of darkness. The luminous Word that emanates from Intelligence is the Son of God.
– What do you mean, I replied.
– Learn this: what you see and hear in you is the Word, the word of the Lord; intelligence is the Father God. They are not separated from one another, for the union is their life.
– I thank you, I replied.
– Understand the light, he said, and know it. »
We can deduce from the words of Poimandres that « vision » is only a glimpse of the mystery, not its end. Understanding is not knowing, and knowing is not understanding. This is an essential principle of Gnosis.
At the time when the Corpus Hermeticum was composed, the Roman Empire reached its apogee. The Pax romana reigned from Brittany (England) to Egypt, from Tingitan Mauritania to Mesopotamia. The emperor was considered a god. Marcus Aurelius had to fight against the Barbarians on the Danube front, but the invasions and serious crises of the 3rd century had not begun.
Christianity was still only a ‘superstition’ (superstitio illicita) among many others. The cult of Mithra dominated in the Roman armies, and the influence of the Eastern and Gnostic cults was significant. Hermeticism took its place in this effervescence.
Hermetic formulas undoubtedly originated several centuries earlier, and thus well before the Gospel of John, written at the end of the 1st century AD.
But as transcribed in the Poimandres, these formulas are striking in the simplicity and ease with which they seem to prefigure (or repeat?) some of the formulas of the Gospel of John. According to John, Christ is the Word of God, His Logos. Christ is the Son of God, and he is also « One » with Him. Would John have been sensitive to any hermetic influence? Or was it the opposite, the hermeticism of Poimandres mimicking Christian ideas?
Hermetic formulas do not copy the Johannine metaphors, nor do they duplicate them in any way. Under the apparent analogy, significant discrepancies emerge.
Hermeticism, however heraldable it may be to certain aspects of Christian theology, is certainly distinguished from it by other features, which belong only to it, and which clearly refer to Gnosis – from which Christianity very early wanted to distance itself, without, moreover, totally escaping its philosophical attraction.
Poïmandres says, for example, that the Sovereign of the world shows the image of his divinity to the « inferior nature ». Nature falls in love with this image, an image that is none other than man. Man too, seeing in the water the reflection of his own form, falls in love with his own nature (or with himself?) and wants to possess it. Nature and man are therefore closely united by mutual love.
Poïmandres explains: « This is why man, alone among all the beings living on earth, is double, mortal in body and immortal in essence. Immortal and sovereign of all things, he is subject to the destiny that governs what is mortal; superior to the harmony of the world, he is captive in his bonds; male and female like his father, and superior to sleep he is dominated by sleep.”
Then comes man’s ascent among the powers and towards God. By uniting with man, nature successively generates seven « men » (male and female), who receive their soul and intelligence from « life » and « light », in the form of air and fire.
This succession of « men » is an allegory of the necessary evolution of human nature. Various human natures must succeed one another through the historical ages.
Man must finally reach the stage where he/she strips him/herself of all the harmonies and beauties of the world. With only his/her own power left, he/she reaches an « eighth nature ».
In this eighth stage the « powers » reign, « ascending » towards God, to be reborn in Him.
Poimandres concluded his speech to Hermes with the following words: « This is the final good of those who possess Gnosis, – to become God. What are you waiting for now? You have learned everything, you only have to show the way to men, so that through you God may save the human race.”
Then began the mission of Hermes among Humankind: « And I began to preach to men the beauty of religion and Gnosis: peoples, men born of the earth, immersed in the drunkenness, sleep and ignorance of God, shake off your sensual torpor, wake up from your foolishness! Why, O men born of the earth, do you surrender yourselves to death, when you are allowed to obtain immortality? Come back to yourselves, you who walk in error, who languish in ignorance; depart from the dark light, take part in immortality by renouncing corruption ».
Who was Hermes Trismegistus really? A syncretic entity? A Ptolemaic myth? A pagan Christ? A Gnostic philosopher? A theological-political creation?
Through his ideas, Hermes Trismegistus embodied the fusion of two cultures, Greek and Egyptian. He is both the god Hermes of the Greeks, messenger of the gods and conductor of souls (psychopompos), and the god Thoth of ancient Egypt, who invented hieroglyphics and helped Isis to gather the scattered members of Osiris.
I stand by the interpretation of Marsilius Ficinus. Hermes is the first of the « ancient theologians ».
One lends only to the rich. In the 4th century B.C., Hecateus of Abatea had written that Thot-Hermes was the inventor of writing, astronomy and the lyre.
Artapan, in the 2nd century BC, even saw in him a figure of Moses.
Hermes in fact spoke, like Moses, with God. He too was given the mission of guiding mankind towards the Promised Land, the land that has a name: the knowledge of immortality.
The intuition of mystery has touched humanity from the earliest ages. Eight hundred thousand years ago, men carried out religious rites accompanying the death of their loved ones, in a cave near Beijing, at Chou Kou Tien. Skulls were found there, placed in a circle and painted in red ochre. They bear witness to the fact that almost a million years ago, men believed that death was a passage.
Fascination with other worlds, a sense of mystery, confrontation with the weakness of life and the rigor of death, seem to be part of the human genetic heritage, since the dawn of time, inhabiting the unconscious, sculpting cultures, knotting myths, informing languages.
The idea of the power of the divine is an extremely ancient idea, as old as humanity itself. It is equally obvious that the minds of men all over the world have, since extremely ancient times, turned towards forms of animism, religions of immanence or even religions of ecstasy and transcendent trance, long before being able to speculate and refine « theological » questions such as the formal opposition between « polytheism » and « monotheism ».
Brains and cultures, minds and languages, were not yet mature.
Animism, shamanism, polytheism, monotheism, and the religions of the immanence try to designate what cannot be said. In the high period, the time of human dawn, all these religions in -isms obviously came together in a single intuition, a single vision: the absolute weakness of man, the irremediable fleetingness of his life, and the infinite greatness and power of the unknown.
Feeling, guessing, fearing, worshipping, revering, this power was one and multiple. Innumerable names throughout the world have tried to express this power, without ever reaching its intrinsic unity.
This is why the assertion of the monotheisms that « God is One » is both a door that has been open for millions of years and at the same time, in a certain way, is also a saying that closes our understanding of the very nature of the « mystery », our understanding of how this « mystery » has taken root in the heart of the human soul, since Homo knew himself to be a sapiens…
In the 17th century, Ralph Cudworth was already tackling the « great prejudice » that all primitive and ancient religions had been polytheistic, and that only « a small, insignificant handful of Jews »i had developed the idea of a single God.
A « small insignificant handful of Jews »? Compared to the Nations, number is not always the best indicator. Another way to put the question is: was the idea of the One God invented by the Jews? If so, when and why? If not, who invented it, and for how long was it there around the world?
If we analyse the available sources, it would seem that this idea appeared very early among the nations, perhaps even before the so-called « historical » times. But it must be recognized that the Jews brought the idea to its incandescence, and above all that they « published » it, and « democratized » it, making it the essential idea of their people. Elsewhere, and for millennia, the idea was present, but reserved in a way to an elite.
Greek polytheism, the Sibylline oracles, Zoroastrianism, the Chaldean religion, Orphism, all these « ancient » religions distinguished a radical difference between multiple born and mortal gods, and a Single God, not created and existing by Himself. The Orphic cabal had a great secret, a mystery reserved for the initiated, namely: « God is the Whole ».
Cudworth deduced from the testimonies of Clement of Alexandria, Plutarch, Iamblichus, Horapollo, or Damascius, that it was indisputably clear that Orpheus and all the other Greek pagans knew a single universal deity who was « the One », and « the Whole ». But this knowledge was secret, reserved for the initiated.
Clement of Alexandria wrote that « All the barbarian and Greek theologians had kept the principles of reality secret and had only transmitted the truth in the form of enigmas, symbols, allegories, metaphors and other tropes and similar figures. « ii And Clement made a comparison between the Egyptians and the Hebrews in this respect: « The Egyptians represented the truly secret Logos, which they kept deep in the sanctuary of truth, by what they called ‘Adyta’, and the Hebrews by the curtain in the Temple. As far as concealment is concerned, the secrets of the Hebrews and those of the Egyptians are very similar.”iii
Hieroglyphics (as sacred writing) and allegories (the meaning of symbols and images) were used to transmit the secret arcana of the Egyptian religion to those who were worthy of it, to the most qualified priests and to those chosen to succeed the king.
The « hieroglyphic science » was entirely responsible for expressing the mysteries of theology and religion in such a way that they remained hidden from the profane crowd. The highest of these mysteries was that of the revelation of « the One and Universal Divinity, the Creator of the whole world, » Cudworth added.
Plutarch noted several times in his famous work, On Isis and Osiris, that the Egyptians called their supreme God « the First God » and considered him a « dark and hidden God ».
Cudworth points out that Horapollo tells us that the Egyptians knew a Pantokrator (Universal Sovereign) and a Kosmokrator (Cosmic Sovereign), and that the Egyptian notion of ‘God’ referred to a « spirit that spreads throughout the world, and penetrates into all things to the deepest depths.
The « divine Iamblichus » made similar analyses in his De Mysteriis Aegyptiorum.
Finally, Damascius, in his Treatise on First Principles, wrote that the Egyptian philosophers said that there is a single principle of all things, which is revered under the name of ‘invisible darkness’. This « invisible darkness » is an allegory of this supreme deity, namely that it is inconceivable.
This supreme deity has the name « Ammon », which means « that which is hidden », as explained by Manetho of Sebennytos.
Cudworth, to whom we owe this compilation of quotations, deduced that « among the Egyptians, Ammon was not only the name of the supreme Deity, but also the name of the hidden, invisible and corporeal Deity ».
Cudworth concludes that long before Moses, himself of Egyptian culture, and brought up in the knowledge of ‘Egyptian wisdom’, the Egyptians were already worshipping a Supreme God, conceived as invisible, hidden, outside the world and independent of it.
The One (to Hen, in Greek) is the invisible origin of all things and he manifests himself, or rather « hides » himself in the Whole (to Pan, in Greek).
The same anthropological descent towards the mysterious depths of belief can be undertaken systematically, notably with the oldest texts we have, those of Zend Avesta, the Vedas and their commentaries on Upaniṣad.
« Beyond the senses is the mind, higher than the mind is the essence, above the essence is the great Self, higher than the great [Self] is the unmanifested.
But beyond the unmanifested is Man, the Puruṣa, passing through all and without sign in truth. By knowing Him, the human being is liberated and attains immortality.
His form does not exist to be seen, no one can see it through the eye. Through the heart, through the intelligence, through the mind He is apprehended – those who know Him become immortal. (…)
Not even by speech, not even by the mind can He be reached, not even by the eye. How can He be perceived other than by saying: « He is »?
And by saying « He is » (in Sanskrit asti), He can be perceived in two ways according to His true nature. And by saying « He is », for the one who perceives Him, His true nature is established.
When all the desires established in one’s heart are liberated, then the mortal becomes immortal, he reaches here the Brahman.”iv
The Zohar also affirms: « The Holy One blessed be He has a hidden aspect and a revealed aspect. »
Aren’t these not « two ways » of perceiving the true nature of « He is »? Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhyn affirms: « The essence of the En-Sof (Infinite) is hidden more than any secret; it must not be named by any name, not even the Tetragrammaton, not even the end of the smallest letter, the Yod.” v
So what do all these names of God mean in the purest monotheism?
« R. ‘Abba bar Mamel says: The Holy One blessed be He says to Moshe: Do you want to know my Name? I name Myself after my deeds. Sometimes my name is El Shadday, Tsebaoth, Elohim, YHVY. When I judge creatures my name is Elohim, when I fight the wicked I am called Tsebaoth, when I suspend the faults of men I am El Shadday and when I take pity on the worlds I am YHVH. This Name is the attribute of mercy, as it is said: « YHVY, YHVH, merciful and compassionate God » (Ex. 34:6). Likewise: ‘Ehyeh, asher ‘Ehyeh (I am who I am) (Ex. 3:14) – I name myself after my deeds.”vi
These are very wise words, which invite us to ask ourselves what was the name of YHVH, 800,000 years ago, at Chou Kou Tien, when He saw the sorrow of these men and women, a small group of Homo sapiens in affliction and grief, assembled at the bottom of a cave.
iRalph Cudworth, True Intellectual System of the Universe (1678), quoted in Jan Assmann, Moïse l’Égyptien, 2001, p.138
Every language has its genius, their words have their power, their potency. One speaks them without really knowing them. One grazes their abysses, fly over their peaks, ignoring their heaps of secrets.
Our languages tell us that we are enigmas to ourselves.
Perhaps two examples will shed some light on the far-reaching implications of this unconscious of languages.
The Hebrew verb נָהַר (nāhar) means ‘to shine, to radiate with joy’, as in Is 60:5 (“Then you will look and be radiant”i). A derived word נָהָר (nāhār) means « stream, river ». In feminine form, this word becomes נָהָרָה (nāhārā) and means « light ». And in a different vocalization, attested in Chaldean, נָהִירוּ (nāhiru) means « wisdom ».
This word, therefore, may incarnate unto itself light, joy, a river – and wisdom!
Curiously, the Greek language also has words that bring together the meaning of light, the idea of joy and the brilliance of water. A verse from Aeschylus in the Prometheus in chains sings « the countless smile of the sea waves » (ποντίων τε κυμάτων άνήριθμον γέλασμα).
Another example highlights the intrinsic capacity of a word to bear witness to the dream of the whole language, and of those who speak it. Thus the verb עָלַם (‘alam) means « to hide, to be ignored ». As a noun, the same word עָלַם means ‘eternity’. One would like to ask: does this word incite to think that eternity is ‘hidden’? Or that ignorance is ‘eternal’?
In another vocalization, the same word means ‘world’. But perhaps even most beautifully, the word , in yet another vocalization (‘elem), means ‘child’.
Again the mind wanders… Is the world a veiled child? Does a child hide his eternity? Does eternity veil and hidden childhood? Is the veil the eternal childhood of the world?
A thousand possible thoughts arise from just one word. Languages, all of them, abound with simple surprises, disconcerting shifts, and forgotten nuggets. Yet they bear witness to a dream, they testify that the smallest word is linked to untold mysteries.
Originally, the Greek word Logos had two rather simple, distinct meanings: ‘word’ and ‘reason’.
With Plato, the concept of Logos began its extraordinary destiny. The Logos became a Principle. By extension, it was also to represent the whole of intelligible things and ideas, as well as the link that connects all the divine powers, and what founds their unity. Finally, it was to become the Intermediary between man and God.
The Neo-Platonists took up the concept and its rich harvest.
Philo of Alexandria, for example, several centuries after Plato, made the Logos an essential attribute of the God of Israel. In God, the Logos was to incarnate the divine Intelligence, the eternal Thought, the Thought in its eternal potency, the Thought that always thinks, the Thought that can think everything, anything, forever.
For Philo, the Logos could also take a second form, which resided not in God, but in the real world. The Logos was then the Thought in act, the Thought which is realized outside God.
Shortly after Philo, John in turn gave his vision of the Logos, in its Christian interpretation. The Gospel of John says that “in the beginning” the Logos was with God and the Logos was God. And the Logos became “flesh”.
Does this mean that there are three instances of the Logos? The Logos who is God, the Logos who is with Him and the Logos who becomes flesh? Are these verbal nuances, poetic metaphors, or metaphysical realities?
In Philo’s theology, the Logos is double: Intelligence in potency, and also Intelligence in act.
In Christian theology, one may say that there are three kind of Logos, who personify themselves respectively as Father, Son, Spirit.
For the philosopher who always seeks for structures, it is possible to discern a general outline in these various interpretations.
The Logos comes out in three ways, according to what it “is”, to what it “thinks” and to what it “says”.
In theory, Being, Thinking and Saying do converge. But who knows?
These three states are also fundamental states of the human being. And Philo goes quite far in his ternary theory of the Logos, in spite of the putative difficulty that monotheism opposes when one wants to reconcile the unity of God and the multiplication of His appearances.
One way of overcoming this difficulty is to posit that the Logos is the set of all ideas which are ‘living’ in God. All the things that exist in the universe are deemed to derive from an original “idea”, from a « seal ». The Logos is the general seal whose imprint is on the whole universe.i
Divine ideas “act like seals, which when they are brought close to the wax, produce countless imprints without themselves being affected in any way, always remaining the same.”ii
Unlike the Logos of John, the Logos of Philo is not a divine person. It is only the ‘Organ’ of God. It is both His Reason and His Word, — which are manifested in His Creation.
Philo multiplies metaphors, analogies, images, applying them to the divine, human and natural realms. The Logos is creation, word, conception, flow, radiation, dilatation. According to yet another image, the Logos governs, as God reigns.
Philo’s thought about the Logos is quite complex. A 19th century commentatoriii judged that a tremendous confusion was in fact at the basis of Philo’s system, because he indiscriminately mixed up Logos (Word), Pneuma (Spirit), Sophia (Wisdom) and Episteme (Knowledge).
All the difficulty comes down to a simple question: what can one really infer a priori from the nature of the divine Spirit?
Difficult to stay.
Maybe one could start by saying that, in the divine Spirit, no distinction can really be made between what « contains » and what is « contained ».
Consequently, for instance for Philo, the Logos is at the same time the Author of the Law and the Law itself, the Spirit and the Letter.iv
The Logos is the Law, and is also the One who announces it, who reveals it.
The Wisdom of God is the source of the Logos, and it is also the Logos itself. In the same way, the Spirit of God is the source of all the intelligible beings, and it is also their total sum.
Everything which constitutes the Logos is divine, and everything which is divine, apart from the essence of God, is the Logos.
The Logos is, in all the universe, the image of the divine brought to unity. He is also the intermediary between this unity and God.
These difficult ideas have in fact been described by some hasty commentators as a « philosophical hodgepodge », adding that they showed a « lack of rigor »v on Philo’s part.
But, in my opinion, other conclusions may emerge.
On the one hand, Philo and John, independently of each other, and at about the same time in History, about two thousand years ago, just before the destruction of the Second Temple, clarified the contours of a “theophany” of the Logos, with some clear differences but also deep common structures.
On the other hand, what is still striking today is the extraordinary resilience of the concept of Logos, throughout history.
The Logos of the Stoics, the Platonic Noos, the Angel of the Eternal, the Word of YHVH, the Judeo-Alexandrine Logos, the Word made flesh, the Messiah of the first Christian Church, all these noetic figures are more similar in their absolute analogies than in their relative differences.
For the various sectarians of monotheism, however, the main difficulty lies in reconciling the idea of the unity of God with the reality of his multiple emanations, such as the Law (the Torah), or His Wisdom (Ḥokhma).
On a more philosophical level, the real difficulty is to think a Thought that exists as an absolute Being, but which also unfolds as a living, free, creative Being, in the Universe, and which finally reveals itself as the revealed Word, in the world.
Today, the « moderns » willingly deny the existence of the Logos, or of the Noos.
The Spirit, as it manifests itself in each one of us, is said by the “moderns” to arise only from biochemical mechanisms, synaptic connections, epigenetic processes, in the midst of glial cells.
The brain would multiply cellular and neuronal networks, and even « viral » ones. By their proliferation, the mechanical miracle of the Spirit coming to consciousness would appear.
But it is only a relative miracle, since we are assured that the “singularity” is close. And tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, it is affirmed, we will pass from deep learning AI to the synthesis of artificial consciousness…
However, another line of research seems possible, in theory.
It is a hypothesis that Kant already put forward, in a slightly provocative way.
“Our body is only the fundamental phenomenon to which, in its present state (in life), the entire power of sensibility and thus all thought is related. Separation from the body is the end of this sensitive use of one’s faculty of knowledge and the beginning of intellectual use. The body would therefore not be the cause of thought, but a merely restrictive condition of thought, and, consequently, it should be considered, without doubt, as an instrument of the sensible and animal end, but, by that very fact, as an obstacle to pure and spiritual life.”vi
Pursuing this line of research, purely intuitive it is true, one could conjecture that the brain, the human body, but also all peoples and Humanity as a whole could figure, in their own way, as immense metaphysical antennas, singular or collective, whose primary mission would be to capture the minute and diffuse signs of a supra-worldly Wisdom, of a creative Intelligence.
The greatest human geniuses would not find their ideas simply by the grace of unexpected crossings of some of their synapses, assisted by ionic exchanges. They would also be somehow « inspired » by the emanations of immense clouds of thinking thoughts, in which all living things are mysteriously immersed from the beginning.
In this hypothesis, who is really thinking then? Just synapses? Or the infinite, eternal choir of wise beings? Who will tell?
Who will say who really thinks, when I think, and when I think that I am?
I am thinking a thought that is born, that lives, and that becomes. I am thinking that thought, which never ceases to let itself think, – and from there, intuitively, I pass to the thought of a thought that would immediately precede and dispense with all thoughts; a thought that would never dispense with thinking, eternally.
Who will say why I pass to this very thought, immediate, eternal? Another shot of ionised synapses, by chance excited, finding their way among a hundred billion neurons (approximately), and twice as many glial cells?
Man is an “intermediate being”, said Plato, “between the mortal and the immortal”i. This obscure expression can be understood in several senses.
Man is constantly on the move. He goes up and down. He ascends towards ideas he doesn’t quite understand, and he descends towards the matter he has forgotten and which reminds him of her. Systole and diastole of the soul. Breathing of the body, inhalation, exhalation of the spirit.
The ancients had formed words that can help to understand these opposite movements. The Greek word ἒκστασις (extasis), means « coming out of oneself ». In « ecstasy », the spirit « comes out » of the body, it is caught in a movement that carries it away. Ecstasy has nothing to do with what is called « contemplation », which is immobile, stable, and which Aristotle called θεωρία (theoria).
The meaning of the word θεωρία as « contemplation, consideration » is rather late, since it only appears with Plato and Aristotle. Later, in Hellenistic Greek, the word took on the meaning of « theory, speculation », as opposed to « practice ».
But originally, θεωρία meant « sending delegates to a religious festival, religious embassy, being a theorist ». The « theorist » was the person going on a trip to consult the oracle, or to attend a religious ceremony. A « theory » was a religious delegation going to a holy place.
Ecstasy is an exit from the body. The theoria is a journey out of the homeland, to visit the oracle of Delphi. These words therefore have one thing in common, that of a certain movement towards the divine.
They are images of the possible movement of the soul, vertically or horizontally, as ascent or approach. Unlike the theoria, which denotes a journey of the body in the literal sense, ecstasy takes the form of a thought in movement outside the body, traversed by lightning and dazzle, always aware of its weakness, its powerlessness, in an experience which is beyond it, and which it knows it has little chance of really grasping, little means of fixing it in order to share it on its return.
The word ecstasy is the minimal trace of a kind of experience that is difficult to understand for those who have not lived it. It is not simply a matter of « ascending » to higher or even divine realities. When the soul moves into these generally inaccessible regions, she encounters phenomena that are absolutely dissimilar to anything she has ever observed on earth, in her usual life. She runs an infinitely fast race, in pursuit of something that is always ahead of her, and which draws her further and further away, into an ever-changing elsewhere, and which projects her to an infinite distance of what she has ever experienced.
Human life cannot know the end of this incredible race. The soul, which is given the experience of ecstasy, understands by experience the possibility of such a search. She will always remain marked by her ‘election’, by the gift given to her of a striking flight towards a reality that is forever elusive.
It is interesting to question the texts that report ecstasies that have had the effect of changing the course of history, and to analyze their differences.
In his comments on the experience of ecstasyii, Philo considers that Moses, despite the fame and the power of his visioniii, did not have access to the full understanding of the divine powers.
Philo then sought in the vision of Jeremiah, with more success, the traces of a greater penetration of these powers.
Moving forward in these fields is a random and delicate undertaking. The texts are difficult, they resist interpretation.
“This is how the word of God was addressed to Jeremiah”iv.
This is a restrained way of giving an account of what was, one might think, originally an ecstasy. Reading these lines, one can guess at its hold.
Other prophets expressed the marks of their ecstasy in other metaphors. Ezekiel says that « the hand of God came »vi upon him, or that the spirit « prevailed ».vii
When ecstasy is at its height, the hand of God weighs more than usual:
“And the spirit lifted me up and carried me away, and I went away sorrowful in the exaltation of my spirit, and the hand of the Lord weighed heavily on me.”viii
The definition of ‘ecstasy’ according to the National Center for Textual and Lexical Resource (CNRTL) is as follows:
“A particular state in which a person, as if transported out of himself, is removed from the modalities of the sensible world by discovering through a kind of illumination certain revelations of the intelligible world, or by participating in the experience of an identification, of a union with a transcendent, essential reality.”
This definition speaks of enlightenment, identification or union with transcendental realities. But what do these words really cover?
According to other testimonies, ecstasy, of mystical essence, seems infinitely more dynamic, more transforming. It draws its principle and its energy from the intuition of the divine infinite and from participation in its movement.
Ecstasy is more a race than a stasis, more a dazzle than an illumination.
Bergson, the philosopher of movement, paradoxically gives a rather static, ‘arrested’ image of ecstasy: “The soul ceases to turn on herself (…). She stops, as if she were listening to a voice calling out to her. (…) Then comes an immensity of joy, an ecstasy in which she is absorbed or a rapture which she undergoes: God is there, and it is in her. No more mystery. Problems fade away, obscurities dissipate; it is an illumination.”ix
It is not known whether Bergson knows from real personal experience what he is talking about.
One only has to pay attention to the testimonies of Blaise Pascal or S. John of the Cross, to guess that ecstasy cannot be so luminously static. Taken to such an elevation, ecstasy has a fiery power that carries away all certainty, all security, and even all illumination.
Ecstasy dazzles like a primal dive into the center of Light. And the worlds, all the worlds, are then only like tiny quantum hairs emanating from a divine Black Hole.
It is difficult to explain in audible words, in palpable images, the infinite rapture of the soul, when she is given to see her own, eternal, birth.
« If a lion could speak we could not understand him », wrote Ludwig Wittgenstein in his Philosophical Investigations.
This remark is worthy of consideration… and of generalization. What if it were a tuna, — or a rattlesnake nest, or a flight of starlings? Or a pile of dust, a block of granite, a cluster of galaxies? Or a prion, a plasmid, a proton? An angel, a seraphim, — or even God?
If God would speak, now, could we understand Him, more than a virus?
Is there any serious chance, after all, that we could just figure out, or somewhat understand, in any way, what is not human?
To start with, do we even understand what it really means to be human?
Pessimism usually prevails in this sort of metaphysical questioning. Leonine grammar is probably simpler than the Greek or the Sanskrit ones.
But these are probably much simpler than a seraphic one.
What is the worldview of the lion ? The crushing of the jaws ? The raw smell of blood, the subtle scent of the steppe?
What about the unfulfilled dreams of the fly, or the vulture, over the corpses? What about the ontological worries of the photon, lost in (relativist) translations?
What about the angel’s sorrow? And what about cherubinic rejoicing?
Isn’t all this, irremediably, out of syntax, out of any human lexicon?
If a million future Champollions tried to decipher, during one million years, the roar of the feline, or to decrypt the vibrato of the lizard, would there be any hope of breaking new grounds? Could we not, one day, find some Rosetta Stone translating equivalences among all the living entities, here on earth, and beyond?
Perhaps one day, we will find such powerful, universal, paradigmatic Babelian stones. Who knows? Who can tell?
Let’s make it simple. We should start by simply trying to understand men and women when they speak, or when they keep silent.
If we could really understand their silence, then perhaps we would better understand things that we still do not understand in the universe, — and perhaps we would get an unhinged glimpse at its core, silent, meaning?
Human speech is continuously made of virtual palimpsests. But these are ignored, — and they stay buried, hidden, impotent, powerless.
Human words have dark or shiny reflections, shimmering with a latent, interior, fire, — sometimes striken by an unexpected, unhoped-for, light of meaning, yet vigorously smouldering under the ashes.
The « Hidden Jew » is an ancient figure. Joseph and Esther first hid their Jewishness. Esther’s name in Hebrew means « I will hide ». Esther belonged to the harem of King Ahasuerus. She revealed to him that she was a Jew and thus saved her people.
Closer in time, the Marrano Jews also « hid ». Shmuel Trigano affirms that they were « adventurers » and « pioneers who can be counted among the first modern men »i. They were the ferment of Jewish modernity, and thus they were the origin and foundation of modernity itself. Far from betraying their people, they saved them, as it were, by surreptitiously facilitating their acculturation, if we are to believe Trigano’s thesis.
It is a stimulating hypothesis, with broad perspectives. Marranism would not be an escape, a treason, a » decay « , but would in fact embody the courage and resilience of the Jews, and would pose a larger question, inherent in Judaism from its very origins:
« The Marran experience reveals the existence in Judaism of a potentiality of Marranism, a predisposition to Marranism, unrelated to the fact that it also represents a decay of Judaism. The ambivalence is greater: imposed by force, it also constitutes a high fact of the courage and perseverance of the Jews. The real question is this: is Marranism structurally inherent in Judaism, was it inscribed from the beginning in Judaism? (…) How could Jews have thought that they were becoming even more Jewish by becoming Christians (in fact this is what Jewish Christians have thought since Paul)? »ii
This question undoubtedly has a Judeo-Christian component, but its scope goes beyond the historical framework of Judeo-Christian relations. It goes much further back in time. Above all, it sheds light on a fundamental component of Judaism, its latent tendency towards universalism, as perhaps the Psalmist testifies. « But of Zion, it will be said, every man was born there » (Ps. 87:5).
Philo, a Jew and philosopher who lived in Alexandria and died about 50 A.D., offers an interesting figure to study in this regard.
Philo had no connection with Christianity, the birth of which he was a contemporary. Of Greek and Jewish culture, he was well acquainted with the Greek philosophers and had a perfect knowledge of the texts of Judaism, which he interpreted in an original way. He was also interested in the religions of the Magi, the Chaldeans and the Zoroastrians.
He sought higher syntheses, new ways, more adapted to the forms of » globalization » whose progress he observed in his time.
Philo was certainly not a hidden Jew. But what kind of Judaism was he representing? What kind of profound thought, of irrepressible aspiration, was he the bearer?
Philo, two thousand years ago, like the Spanish and Portuguese marranes five centuries ago, represented a paradoxical Judaism. They seem to be moving away from it somewhat, or temporarily , but only to return to it later, in a deeper way. They seem to betray it on the surface, but it is by the effect of a fidelity of their own, perhaps more essential to its true spirit. By taking some distance, by linking themselves to the world, they build bridges, establish links with nations, with non-Jews, and open up the possibility of other syntheses.
Ignored by the Synagogue, Philo professed opinions that might seem unorthodox. It was, moreover, the Christian philosophers and theologians of the first centuries who preserved Philo’s writings, and who found a posteriori in his thought enough to nourish their own reflections.
What was the real state of Judaism just before the destruction of the Second Temple? There were many varieties of Judaism at that time: Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, etc., not to mention the diasporas, more or less Hellenized.
There was undoubtedly a difference in perspective between the Jews of Jerusalem, who prayed every day in the Temple, not knowing that its end was imminent, and the Jews of the Diaspora, whose freedom of thought and belief, if we take Philo as a reference, was undoubtedly greater than in Jerusalem.
Let us judge by this text:
« God and Wisdom are the father and mother of the world, » Philo wrote in De Ebrietate, « but the spirit cannot bear such parents whose graces are far greater than those it can receive; therefore it will have as its father the right Logos and as its mother the education more appropriate to its weakness. »
Philo clarifies the scope of the metaphor: « The Logos is image and eldest son. Sophia is the spouse of God, whom God makes fruitful and who generates the world. »
It is not difficult to imagine the reaction of the Doctors of the Law to these remarks. It is also easy to understand why the Judeo-Christians found in Philo a valuable ally.
In a passage from his Cherubim (43-53), Philo evokes Sophia or Wisdom, the bride of God, and at the same time a Virgin, or Nature without defilement, and « Virginity » itself. Union with God makes the soul a virgin. The Logos is both father and husband of the soul.
This idea of a “virgin-mother-wife” is found almost everywhere in various traditions of antiquity, especially among the Orphics. The symbolic fusion between the wife and the daughter of God corresponds to the assimilation between Artemis and Athena among the latter. Korah, a virgin, daughter of Zeus and Demeter, unites with Zeus, and is the life-giving source of the world. She is the object of the mysteries of Eleusis. In the Osirid tradition, Osiris is the ‘principle’, Isis the ‘receptacle’ and Horus the ‘product’, which is translated philosophically by the triad: ‘Intelligible, matter, sensible’.
Was Philo an orthodox Jew? It is doubtful. Then who was he? One could say that he was, in anticipation, a sort of « Marrano » Jew, mutatis mutandis, converted by force of circumstance to spiritual globalization…
Schmuel Trigano writes in the conclusion of his work: « The double identity of the modern Jew could well be akin to the Marrano score. »
He generalized « Marranism » and made it a general model of the identity of modern man. « Marranism was the laboratory of Jewish modernity, even among those Jews who escaped Marranism. Let us go further: Marranism was the very model of all political modernity. »iii
What does Marranism testify to? The deep ambivalence of a worldview based on messianic consciousness. « Messianic consciousness encourages the Jew to live the life of this world while waiting for the world to come and thus to develop a cantilevered attitude towards this world. »
This feeling of strangeness in the world is particularly acute for anyone with an acute awareness of the implications of the coming of the Messiah.
But, paradoxically, it is in no way specific to Judaism.
Buddhism views this world as an appearance. This has also been the feeling of the shamans since the dawn of time. The feeling of strangeness in the world is so universal, that it must be taken as a fundamental trait of the most original religious feeling .
Man’s heart is hidden. It is for itself a mystery, that the world and its wonders come close without ever reaching it.
The « Marrano » man, doubly torn between his interior and exterior, as a man and as a persecuted person, discovered that modernity, through the State, could strive to systematically break down the interior of the self. But he also learned over time the means to resist alienation, the necessary wiles, the ability to thwart the games of political power, over very long periods of time.
We must not forget this lesson. At a time when the most « democratic » nations are actively preparing the means of mass surveillance, intrusive to the last degree, at a time when the prodromes of new barbarities are rising on a planetary scale, we will need this ancient lesson of duplicity in order to survive.
In order to prepare a better, universal, wise, humane world, we must follow the lesson of Philo: navigate among religions and nations, thoughts and languages, not as if we belonged to them, but as if they belonged to us.
iShmuel Trigano. « Le Juif caché. Marranisme et modernité », Pardès, 2000
Ancient ideas will still live on for a long time to come. For centuries, for millennia. But the daily traffic of billions of Internet users, what will remain of it in four thousand years?
People have always been eager to communicate their myths, to transmit their dreams, to share their intuitions. These ideas, these forces, are not those of empires and kingdoms. But they have made it possible to build worlds, to bring movements to life, capable of traversing the history of the centuries.
For a long time to come, ideas will still connect people, as they once did.
Megasthenes went to India in the 4th century B.C. to represent King Seleucus I Nicator, – successor of Alexander the Great. In the third book of his Indica, the Greek ambassador stated: “Really all that our ancients have said about nature is also said by philosophers foreign to Greece, either in India by the Brahmans or in Syria by those called the Jews.”i
Wasn’t that already a ‘globalization’ going on? The obvious recognition of a world wide community of concern? Far from suffering from distance, it was religious and philosophical ideas that traveled the farthest, across borders and languages, systems and prejudices, in these times of openness to all sides.
Eusebius also recalls Numenius of Apamea, who wrote: “After quoting Plato’s testimonies, it will be necessary to go back further and link them to the teachings of Pythagoras, and then appeal to the peoples of renown, conferring their initiations, their dogmas, the religious foundations which they accomplish in agreement with Plato, and all that the Brahmins, the Jews, the Magi and the Egyptians have established.”ii
It is a testimony that India, Persia, Mesopotamia, Israel, and Egypt, together with Greece, were then a fertile arc of thoughts and dreams, an immense, luminous, flow of genius at work.
Megasthenes and Numenius testified to the natural possibility of human minds to correspond, to provide each other with signals, ladders, guides and relays.
The 21st century therefore has no real lesson to teach in this matter. It has electrified and digitalized globalization, making it quasi-immediate, but at the same time quite superficial. We know « in real time » the stock market prices in Shanghai, Frankfurt and New York, as well as the number of corpses found after terrorist attacks and earthquakes. But we know less about the initiation of peoples, their way of evolution, their cultural foundations. Torrents of superfluous details abound. But where are the great visions, the profound prophecies staged?
Porphyry, a good analyst, is quite critical of the capacity of peoples in general. Some of them discover, some other just stray. « The oracle of Apollo has said: Chained with a bronze chain is the steep and arduous road that leads to the Gods; the Barbarians have discovered many paths, but the Greeks went astray; those who barely had it lost it; and the God gave the honor of discoveries to the Egyptians, the Phoenicians, the Chaldeans, the Assyrians, the Lydians, and the Hebrews.”iii
Porphyry, a neo-Platonic philosopher of the 3rd century AD, recognized the intellectual and spiritual brotherhood of the peoples who lived in these lands, today called Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran. They shared a common march on the « steep and arduous road that leads to the Gods ».
But the Greeks got lost along the way.
Porphyry adds: « Furthermore, Apollo said in another oracle: To the Chaldeans alone is wisdom, and also to the Hebrews, who are holy worshippers of the God-King born of Himself.»iv
Religion is not enough to successfully take the steep and arduous road that leads to the Gods. It must also be done with « wisdom ». The Chaldeans and the Hebrews were the custodians of it, then.
But today, where are the peoples who speak « wisely » in the name of the « God-King born of Himself »?
iQuoted by par Eusebius of Caesarea. Prep. Ev., Book XI
The spirits of the people have each their own truth, said Hegel. Each people has its role to play, at a given moment in history, and precisely at that moment. After that, they experience decadence and fall, preparing « the passage of the spirit into a new principle, and of universal history into another people.”i.
Hegel distinguishes four epochs, which present various degrees of the incarnation of the spirit of the world, various states of its self-awarenessii.
The first period corresponds to the apogee of the Eastern Empire. The government is a theocracy, the ruler is a supreme priest or a God, legislation comes from religion, and « the individual personality disappears without rights. In this context, the spirit is known as « substance », as « identity », in which individualities are lost. Individuals have no justification as such.
The second epoch corresponds to the Greek Empire, where « a mysterious basis, repressed in a dark reminiscence, in the dark depth of tradition » and an individual spirituality coexist, which « arises in the light of knowledge, becomes measure and clarity through beauty and through free and cheerful morality ». The spirit acquires knowledge of itself, a positive content, which allows the birth of a moral, objective individuality.
The third moment is that of the Roman Empire, where « the separation of private personal consciousness from abstract universality” is accomplished to the point of tearing it apart. t is the moment of the cold and greedy violence of the aristocracy, the corruption of the plebs, the dissolution of society, the universal misfortune and the death of moral life.
Consciousness deepens to an abstract universality, and then contradicts the objectivity of the world deserted by the spirit.
The last epoch is that of the Germanic Empire, where the principle of the unity of the divine and human natures is realized. It is the Nordic principle of the Germanic peoples that has the task of achieving this unity. The contradiction between consciousness and objectivity is resolved. Consciousness is ready to « receive within itself its concrete truth », and to « reconcile itself with objectivity and settle into it ». The mind returns to its primary substance, it knows itself as truth, as thought and as legal reality.
The mission of the German Empire is to overthrow previous empires. It must bring the spirit out of the loss of self, out of the infinite suffering that results from it, « suffering to serve as a support to which the Israelite people were kept ready. »
With the hindsight of history, which judges it differently from philosophy, we can see that Hegel was mistaken about the mission of the « Germanic empire ». This empire did not put an end to the suffering of the universe, nor to that of the « Israelite people ».
We also know that other empires than the Germanic one have settled down today in history. The Soviet and American empires may have believed their time had come at different times in the 20th century. Ephemeral victories, in battles à la Pyrrhus.
What will the next empire be able to meet the Hegelian challenges?
What empire will tomorrow be able to unify the divine and human natures, to put an end to the loss of oneself, to put an end to infinite suffering?
Perhaps it is in fact Hegel’s moment that has passed? Perhaps the dream of uniting the divine and the human, or of putting an end to suffering, has no chance of coming true?
If we bet on Hegel’s prophetic genius, we can try to imagine a thousand-year-old über-empire that will be able to meet these challenges.
The über-empire will be globalized, decentralized, self-organized, self-regulated. Capable of imposing a global über-tax, a system of über-social protection and a guaranteed über-income for all, this new empire will allow freedom of movement and living anywhere on earth. No borders, no passports (replaced by facial recognition). End of all wars (guaranteed by a global security force with all the necessary means). Global labour regime, based on a principle of strict equality across the planet. A system of über-political elections at all levels (local, regional, global), which will elect the « wise men » responsible for guaranteeing the forms of self-regulation necessary in the long term.
The über-empire is undoubtedly a utopia, but not so much more than Hegel’s « German Empire ».
I would even say that it is much less utopian, because one day, as is obvious, in a hundred, a thousand or ten thousand years, it will make itself, in a shrunken planet, asphyxiated by the untenable egoisms of dysfunctional nations.
The European experience shows what does not work in dreams of federal integration. It also shows what needs to be corrected in the institutions. And one day über-Europe will extend to über-Eurasia, when Russia has been civilised and China decentralised … Then the other hemisphere will come around…
There will still be a long way to go before the union of the divine and human natures is achieved. But if we take even one single step to reduce the « infinite suffering » of the peoples of the world, will we not have made a giant leap toward an über-utopia?
Philo of Alexandria attempted a synthesis of the Greek, Jewish, Egyptian and Babylonian worlds. He navigated freely between these heterogeneous, trenchant, distinct, cultures, religions and philosophies. He took advantage of their strengths, their originality. He is one of the first to have succeeded in overcoming and transcending their idiosyncrasies. It was a premonitory effort, two thousand years ago, to think globally.
Philo was also a master of contradictions. In this, he can be a model for the troubled, contracted, stifling, reactionary periods we have entered.
On the one hand, Philo can be characterized as a neo-Platonic philosopher. He takes up and develops the concept of Logos as the « axis » of the world (ἔξίς). « It is a Logos, the Logos of the eternal God, who is the most resistant and solid support of the universe. « (De Plantat. 10).
Founding axis, ground of being, the Logos is at the same time principle of change, the divine word, an intelligible being, and the immemorial Wisdom. Neither begotten like men, nor un-begotten like God, the Logos is the « intermediate being » par excellence.
On the other hand, Philo affirms that God remains superior to any idea that might be formulated about Him. He declares that God is « better than virtue, better than science, better than good in itself » (De Opifico, m.8). Nothing is like God and God is like nothing (De Somn. I, 73). In this he takes up the point of view formulated by Deutero-Isaiah (Is 48:18-25, 46:5-9, 44,7).
God has nothing in common with the world, He has withdrawn totally from it, and yet His presence still penetrates it, and even fills it completely, in spite of this absence.
So, is God the Logos or a silentand absent God? Or both?
One could seek an answer by thinking over the variations of the nature of the created world, and over the various combinations of divine presence and absence.
Philo distinguishes two kinds of creation: the ideal man – which God « made » (ἐποίήσεν), and the earthly man – which God “fashioned” (ἒπλασεν). What is the difference? The ideal man is a pure creation, a divine, immaterial form. The earthly man is ‘fashioned’ plastically (it is the same etymological root) from matter (the raw mud).
The mud, the matter, are only intermediaries. Terrestrial man is therefore a mixture of presence and absence, of matter and intelligence. « The best part of the soul that is called intelligence and reason (νοῦς καί λόγος) is a breath (pneuma), a divine character imprint, an image of God. « (Quod. Det. Pot. Ins. 82-84)
Through these puns and ad hoc mixes of concepts, Philo postulates the existence of various degrees of creation. Not everything has been created by God ex nihilo, in one go: there are second or third creations, delegated to a gradation of intermediate beings.
On the one hand, God, and on the other hand, various levels of reality, such as the Logos, the ideal Man, the Adamic, earthly, Man.
Only the best beings are born both of God and through him. The other beings are born not of and through him, but through intermediaries who belong to a level of reality inferior to the divine reality.
Such a world, mixed, complex, a mixture of mud and soul, divine and earthly, is the most universal religious and philosophical idea possible in a time of transition.
This idea was widely spread in Philo’s time through mystery cults.
Mystery has always been part of the very essence of the religious phenomenon, in all traditions, in all cultures. In Egypt, Greece, Rome, Chaldea, mystery cults were observed in Egypt, Greece, Rome, Chaldea, which had sacred, hidden words. Initiation allowed progressive access to this secret knowledge, which was supposed to contain divine truths.
The mystery was spread everywhere, emphatic, putative.
For Philo, the Torah itself was a deep « mystery ». This is why he begged Moses to help and guide him, to initiate him: « O Hierophant, speak to me, guide me, and do not cease anointing until, leading us to the brilliance of the hidden words, you show us its invisible beauties. « (De Somn. II, 164).
The « hidden words » are the « shadow » of God (Leg Alleg. III, 96). They are His Logos. They come from an impalpable world, an intermediary between the sensible and the divine.
The Logos is also a means of approaching God, a vehicle of supplication. The Logos is the great Advocate, the Paraclete. He is the High Priest who prays for the whole world, of which he is clothed as of a garment (Vita Mos. 134).
The idea of an « intermediary » Logos, a divine Word and an intercessor of men before God, was already expressed, I would like to emphasize, in the RigVeda, in the plains of the Ganges more than two thousand years before the time of Moses. In the Veda, the Word, Vāc (वाच्), is the divine revelation, and it is also the Intermediary that changes our ears into eyes.
This ancient and timeless idea is also found in Egypt and Greece. « Hermes is the Logos whom the gods sent down to us from heaven (…) Hermes is an angel because we know the will of the gods according to the ideas given to us in the Logos, » explains Lucius Annaeus Cornutus in his Abstract of the Traditions of Greek Theology, written in the 1st century A.D.
Hermes was begotten by Zeus called Cornutus. Similarly, in Philo, the Logos is « the elder son of God », while the world is « the younger son of God ». In this respect Philo bases himself on the distinction made in the Egyptian myth of the two Horuses, the two sons of the supreme God Osiris, the elder Horus who symbolizes the world of ideas, the world of the intelligible, and the younger Horus who symbolically embodies the sensible world, the created world.
Plutarch writes in his De Isis et Osiris: « Osiris is the Logos of Heaven and Hades ». Under the name of Anubis, he is the Logos of things above. Under the name of Hermanoubis, he refers partly to the things above and partly to the things below. This Logos is also the mysterious « sacred word » that the Goddess Isis transmits to the Initiates.
Osiris, Hermes and the Logos belong to different traditions but point to a common intuition. Between the Most High and the Most Low there is an intermediate domain, the world of the Word, the Spirit, the Breath.
In the Vedas, this intermediate and divine realm is also that of sacrifice. Likewise, in Christianity, Jesus is both the Logos and the sacrificed God.
What can we conclude today from these resemblances, these analogies?
Obviously, the religious phenomenon is an essential, structuring component of the human spirit. But what is striking is that quite precise ideas, « technical », if I may say so, like that of a world « in between » God and man, have flourished in many forms, in all latitudes, and for several millennia.
One of the most promising avenues of « dialogue among cultures » would be to explore the similarities, analogies and resemblances between religions.
Since the resounding irruption of modernity on the world stage, a central disconnection has occurred between rationalists, sceptics and materialists on the one hand, and religious, mystical and idealist minds on the other.
This global, worldwide split is in itself a fundamental anthropological fact. Why is this? Because it threatens the anthropological idea itself. The idea of Man is being attacked in the heart, and as a result it is Man himself who is dying. Philosophers like Michel Foucault have even announced that this Man is already dead.
Man may not be quite dead yet, but he is dying, because he no longer understands who he is. He lies there, seriously wounded, almost decapitated by the axe of schizophrenia.
The modern era is indeed ultra-materialistic, and at the same time religious feeling remains deep in the human psyche.
Lay people, agnostics, indifferent people populate the real world today, and at the same time, religious, mystics and fundamentalists occupy seemingly irreconcilable ideal worlds.
Religious extremism, in its very excesses, nevertheless bears witness to a search for meaning, which cannot be reduced to the death drive or hatred of the other.
Is a meta-religion, a meta-philosophy, of worldwide scope and value, possible today? That is a vain wish, a crazy idea, a void dream, one might answer.
Yet, two thousand years ago, two Jews, Philo and Jesus, independently and separately testified to possible solutions, and built grandiose bridges between opposing abysses.
And, without knowing it, no doubt, they were thus reviving, in their own way, very old ideas that had already irrigated the minds of great predecessors several millennia before.
Today, two thousand years after these two seers, who carries this powerful heritage in the modern world?
No one. We have entered a time of narrowedness of mind, a very provincial time indeed, for a very skimpy planet.
Rationalist, materialist minds generally consider the sacred texts of Egypt, China, India, Mesopotamia, Persia, Israel, Chaldea, as esoteric reveries, compiled by counterfeiters to mislead the common public.
For them, treasures such as the Book of the Dead, the texts of the Pyramids, the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Zend Avesta, the Tao Te King, the Torah, the Gospels, the Apocalypse, are only vast mystifications, settling down over the centuries, across the continents.
They are the expression of tribal or clan practices, or a desire for temporal and spiritual power. The social illusion they encourage would be fostered by the staging of artificially composed « secrets » that leave a lasting impression on the minds of peoples, generation after generation.
But broader, more open minds, may see all these ancient testimonies, so diverse, but tainted by the same central intuition, as a whole, – coming from the human soul, and not as a collection of heterogeneous attempts, all of them unsuccessful.
History has recorded the failure of some of them, after a few millennia of local supremacy, and the apparent success of some others, for a time more sustainable, seemingly better placed in the universal march.
With a little hindsight and detachment, the total sum of these testimonies seems to be nestled in a common drive, a dark energy, a specific genius.
This drive, this energy, this genius, are not very easy to distinguish today, in a sceptical environment, where miracles are rare, crowds cold, passions exacerbated.
Not easy but not impossible.
One can always walk between the flowers of human thought, smelling their unique scent, sensitive to the continuous rise of sap in their flexible stems.
The word « esotericism » has become malignant. Whoever is interested is considered a marginal in rational society.
But this word also has several divergent, and even contradictory, meanings that may enlighten us, for that matter.
For example, the Jewish Kabbalah is intended to be a revelation or explanation of the « esoteric » meaning of Moses’ Books. It is even doubly esoteric.
It is esoteric in a first sense in so far as it opposes exotericism. In this sense, esotericism is a search for protection. There are ideas, secrets, that must not be disclosed to the crowd.
It would deeply distort its meaning, or project mud, contempt, lazzis, spit, hatred against them.
It is also esoteric in that it deepens the secret. The text is said to contain profound meanings, which only initiation, prepared under strict conditions, can reveal to hand-picked entrants after long trials. Esotericism is not there prudence or protection, but a conscious, characterized method, elite aspiration.
There is yet another form of esotericism.
R.A. Schwaller de Lubicz defines it as follows: « Esoteric teaching is therefore only an « Evocation » and can only be that. Initiation does not reside in the text, whatever it may be, but in the culture of the Intelligence of the Heart. Then nothing is more « occult » or « secret », because the intention of the « Enlightened », the « Prophets » and the « Envoys from Heaven » is never to hide, on the contrary. »i
In this sense, esotericism has nothing in common with a desire for secrecy. On the contrary, it is a question of revealing and publishing what several minds can, through a common, sincere effort, discover about the nature of the Spirit.
The Spirit is discovered through the Spirit. It seems to be a flat tautology. But no. Matter is incapable of understanding the mind. The mind is probably better equipped, however, to understand matter. And if matter can merge with itself, only the spirit can take the measure of the infinite depth and understand the height of the Spirit without merging with it, undoubtedly relying on analogies with what it knows about itself.
Mind is, at the very least, a metaphor of Spirit, while matter is never a metaphor of Matter. The material, at most, is only an image, invisible to itself, drowned in the shadows, in its own immanence.
Jewish Kabbalah developed in the European Middle Ages, assuming obvious filiation links with the former Egyptian « Kabbalah », which also has links with the Brahmanic « Kabbalah ». I hasten to concede that the nature of the Jewish mission reflects its specificity in the Jewish Kabbalah. Nevertheless, the links of filiation with older “Kabbalahs” appear to be valuable subjects of reflection for the comparativist.
The various « Kabbalahs » of the world, developed in different climates, at times unrelated to each other, are esoteric according to the three meanings proposed above. The most interesting of these meanings is the last. It expresses in action the sincere Intelligence, the Intelligence of the heart, the intuition of the causes, the over-consciousness, the metamorphosis, the ex-stasis, the radial vision of the mythical nucleus, the intelligence of the beginnings and the perception of the ends.
Other metaphors are needed to express what needs to be expressed here.
Pharaonic Egypt is no more. But the Book of the Dead still speaks to a few living people. The end of ancient Egypt was only the end of a cycle, not the end of a world.
Osiris and Isis were taken out of their graves and put into museum display cases.
But Osiris, Isis, their son Horus, still produce strange scents, subtle emanations, for the poet, the traveller and the metaphysician.
There are always dreamers in the world to think of the birth of a Child God, a Child of the Spirit. The Spirit never ceases to be born. The fall of the Word into matter is a transparent metaphor.
Where does the thought that assails and fertilizes us come from? From a neural imbroglio? From a synaptic chaos?
The deep rotation of the worlds is not finished, other Egypts will still give birth, new Jerusalems too. In the future other countries and cities will appear, made not of land and streets, but of spirit.
The Spirit has not said his last word, for the Word is endless.
In the meantime, it is better to open one’s ears, and to have them circumcised, as once was said.
iR. Schwaller de Lubicz. Propos sur ésotérisme et symbole. Ed. Poche. 1990
The Mazdayasna religion appeared in Persia several centuries before Christ. Its followers, worshippers of Mithra, multiplied in Rome under the Caesars, but they failed to make Mazdeism a dominant, significant, world religion. Why is that so?
The Roman armies had strongly helped to spread the cult of Mithra throughout Europe. Mithra was worshipped in Germany in the 2nd century AD. The soldiers of the 15th Legion, the Apollinaris, celebrated its mysteries at Carnuntum on the Danube at the beginning of Vespasian’s reign.
Remains of temples dedicated to Mithra, the Mithraea, have been found in North Africa, in Rome (in the crypt of the Basilica of St. Clement of the Lateran), in Romania, in France (Angers, Nuits-Saint-Georges and other places), in England (London and along Hadrian’s wall).
But Christianity finally prevailed over Mazdeism, though only from the 4th century onwards, when it became the official religion of the Empire under Theodosius.
The origins of the Mithra cult go back to the earliest times. The epic of Gilgamesh (2500 BC) refers to the sacrifice of the Primordial Bull, which is also depicted in the cult of Mithra with the Tauroctonus Mithra. A scene in the British Museum shows that three ears of wheat come out of the bull’s slit throat, – not streams of blood. At the same time, a crayfish grabs the Taurus’ testicles.
These metaphors may now be obscure. It is the nature of sacred symbols to demand the light of initiation.
The name of the God Mithra is of Chaldeo-Iranian origin, and clearly has links with that of the God Mitra, celebrated in the Vedic religion, and who is the god of Light and Truth.
Mithraism is a very ancient religion, with distant roots, but eventually died out in Rome, at the time of the decline of the Empire, and was replaced by a more recent religion. Why?
Mithraism had reached its peak in the 3rd century AD, but the barbaric invasions in 275 caused the loss of Dacia, between the Carpathians and the Danube, and the temples of Mazdeism were destroyed.
Destruction and defeat were not good publicity for a cult celebrating the Invincible Sun (Sol Invictus) that Aurelian had just added (in the year 273) to the divinities of the Mithraic rites. The Sun was still shining, but now its bright light reminded everyone that it had allowed the Barbarians to win, without taking sides with its worshippers.
When Constantine converted to Christianity in 312, the ‘sun’ had such bad press that no one dared to observe it at dawn or dusk. Sailors were even reluctant to look up at the stars, it is reported.
Another explanation, according to Franz Cumont (The mysteries of Mithra, 1903), is that the priests of Mithra, the Magi, formed a very exclusive caste, very jealous of its hereditary secrets, and concerned to keep them carefully hidden, away from the eyes of the profane. The secret knowledge of the mysteries of their religion gave them a high awareness of their moral superiority. They considered themselves to be the representatives of the chosen nation, destined to ensure the final victory of the religion of the invincible God.
The complete revelation of sacred beliefs was reserved for a few privileged and hand-picked individuals. The small fry was allowed to pass through a few degrees of initiation, but never went very far in penetrating the ultimate secrets.
Of course, all this could impress simple people. The occult lives on the prestige of the mystery, but dissolves in the public light. When the mystery no longer fascinates, everything quickly falls into disinheritance.
Ideas that have fascinated people for millennia can collapse in a few years, – but there may still be gestures, symbols, truly immemorial.
In the Mazdean cult, the officiant consecrated the bread and juice of Haoma (this intoxicating drink similar to Vedic Soma), and consumed them during the sacrifice. The Mithraic cult did the same, replacing Haoma with wine. This is naturally reminiscent of the actions followed during the Jewish Sabbath ritual and Christian communion.
In fact, there are many symbolic analogies between Mithraism and the religion that was to supplant it, Christianity. Let it be judged:
The cult of Mithra is a monotheism. The initiation includes a « baptism » by immersion. The faithful are called « Brothers ». There is a « communion » with bread and wine. Sunday, the day of the Sun, is the sacred day. The « birth » of the Sun is celebrated on December 25. Moral rules advocate abstinence, asceticism, continence. There is a Heaven, populated by beatified souls, and a Hell with its demons. Good is opposed to evil. The initial source of religion comes from a primordial revelation, preserved from age to age. One remembers an ancient, major, Flood. The soul is immortal. There will be a final judgment, after the resurrection of the dead, followed by a final conflagration of the Universe.
Mithra is the « Mediator », the intermediary between the heavenly Father (the God Ahura Mazda of Avestic Persia) and men. Mithra is a Sun of Justice, just as Christ is the Light of the world.
All these striking analogies point to a promising avenue of research. The great religions that still dominate the world today are new compositions, nourished by images, ideas and symbols several thousand years old, and constantly crushed, reused and revisited. There is no pure religion. They are all mixed, crossed by reminiscences, trans-pollinated by layers of cultures and multi-directional imports.
This observation should encourage humility, distance and criticism. It invites to broaden one’s mind.
Nowadays, the fanaticism, the blindness, the tensions abound among the vociferous supporters of religions A, B, C, or D.
But one may desire to dive into the depths of ancient souls, into the abysses of time, and feel the slow pulsations of vital, rich, immemorial blood beating through human veins.
By listening to these hidden rhythms, one may then conjecture that the religion of the future will, though not without some contradictions, be humble, close, warm, distanced, critical, broad, elevated and profound.
N. is no one in particular. N. is everyone. He/she is the peasant of the Nile, the builder of pyramids, the daughter of Pharaoh, the soldier of his army. Or Pharaoh himself.
Everyone must go through this: the door of death.
N. just died. He/she is placed in the presence of God. He/she speaks and addresses Him.
« Tribute to you who has come, God Atum, creator of the gods. Tribute to you, King of the Gods, who makes your ‘tuau’ shine with your beauty.
Tribute to you who come in your splendors, around your disc. »
At the same time, the prayer of the officiants accompanying the ceremony rises:
« O Sun, Lord of light, emerged from the East, shines on the face of the deceased N.!
May the soul of the deceased N. be at your side in your boat as you cross Heaven (…)
Your perfume is not known. And incomparable is your splendor. »i
The « Great Egyptian Papyrus » of the Vatican Library gives an idea of how the dead are introduced before God, to plead their cause and be admitted to divine transformation.
The funeral ritual of the ancient Egyptians was highly sophisticated. Traces of the prayers accompanying each phase of the « manifestation to day », and of the « luminous transformation of the soul » have been kept.
Emmanuel de Rougé translated in 1864 an Egyptian Funeral Ritual that includes more than a hundred chapters. Each one corresponds to a prayer adapted to a particular action in favour of the soul of the deceased. Together they form a subtle gradation, reflecting the stages of the soul’s journey into death:
« Take the form of the divine sparrowhawk » (Ch. 78), « Take the form of God » (Ch. 80), « Open the place where Thoth is and become a luminous spirit in Ker-Neter » (Ch. 96), « Sit among the great gods » (Ch. 104), « Receiving happiness in the dwelling of Ptah » (Ch. 106), « Advancing into the manifestation of the gate of the gods of the West, among the servants of Ra, knowing the spirits of the West » (Ch. 107), « Knowing the spirits of the East » (Ch. 109).
Ker-Neter is the Sheol, Atum or Tem is the Sun of the Night, Ra is the Sun of the Day.
Egyptology, an evolutionary science, has proposed guiding ideas for finding one’s way in this ancient world:
1) Every soul is admitted before the supreme God, and can plead his/her cause.
2) The deceased N. is called to be admitted to « cross Heaven » in the company of the God Atum himself.
3) The deceased N. can undertake a long spiritual journey involving more than a hundred distinct and successive stages.
4) Achieving the « happiness of Ptah’s dwelling place » is only one of these many steps, and it is not the highest. The final stages include the knowledge of the spirits of the West, then the knowledge of the spirits of the East.
In essence, the religion of ancient Egypt is generous, open to all. It promises after death a great journey of the soul, described with great detail in advance, for the benefit of the living.
In contrast, subsequent religions, which appeared more than two or three thousand years later, such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam, have really little to say about what awaits the soul after death.
In contrast, and in the face of this void, poets from different periods, such as Homer, Virgil or Dante, wanted to fill the latent demand.
Today, « modernity » has no use for these old aspirations, these pictorial descriptions. Death is no longer a dream.
But fifty-five centuries ago, the future dead dreamed of « knowing the spirits of the West and the East ».
iIl grande papiro egizio della Biblioteca Vaticana, édité par Orazio Marucchi, Rome 1888
In Judaism, the idea that God is ‘hidden’ is deeply embedded. God transcends all conception. The Holy of Holies is empty.
The prophets repeat:
« Truly You are a God who hides Himself, O God of Israel, the Savior. » (Is. 45,15)
« Why do You hide Your Face? » (Ps. 44,24)
But in reality, this notion of a ‘hidden God’ was not specific to Judaism. The ancient Egyptian civilization had had, long before Judaism, a similar conception of a ‘hidden’ Supreme God.
Ra hides Himself in His own appearance. The solar disk is not the God Ra, and it does not even represent the God. The solar disk is only the mysterious veil that hides the God.
This is also true of the other Gods of the Egyptian pantheon, who are in reality only multiple appearances of the one God. « The outer forms which the Egyptians gave to the divinity were only conventional veils, behind which were hidden the splendors of the one God. « , analyses F. Chabas, in his presentation of the Harris Magical Papyrus (1860).
In the language of hieroglyphics, the word « hidden » (occultatus) is rendered by the term ammon . This word derives from amen, « to hide ». In the Harris Papyrus an address to the God Ammon-Râ sums up the mystery: « You are hidden in the great Ammon ».
Ra is ‘hidden’ in Ammon (the ‘hidden’), he is ‘hidden’ in the mystery of his (shining) appearance.
Ra is not the sun, nor is he the Sun-God, as it has been often misinterpreted. The solar disk is only a symbol, a sign. The God hides behind it, behind this abstraction, this pure « disc ».
By reading the prayer of adoration of Ammon-fa-Harmachis (Harris Papyrus IV 1-5), one grows convinced of the abstract, grandiose and transcendent conception that Egyptians had of the God Ammon-Râ.
This elevated conception is very far from the supposed ‘idolatry’ that was later attached to their ancient faith. The Papyrus Harris gives a vivid description of the essence of the Ancient Egyptian faith, flourishing in Upper Egypt, more than two millennia before Abraham’s departure from the city of Ur in Chaldea.
Here are the invocations of a prayer of adoration:
« Hail to you, the One who has been formed.
Vast is His width, it has no limits.
Divine leader with the ability to give birth to Himself.
Uraeus! Great flaming ones!
Supreme virtuous, mysterious of forms.
Mysterious soul, which has made His terrible power.
King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Ammon Ra, Healthy and strong life, created by Himself.
You roll around in your transformations into a solar disk.
God Tot-nen, larger than the gods, rejuvenated old man, traveler of the centuries.
Ammon – permanent in all things.
This God began the worlds with His plans. »
The name Uraeus, which is found in this text as an epithet of the God Ra, is a Latinized transposition of the Egyptian original Aarar, which designates the sacred aspic, the royal serpent Uraeus, and whose second meaning is « flames ».
These invocations testify to a very high conception of the divine mystery, more than two thousand years before Abraham. It is important to stress this point, because it leads us to the conclusion that the mysterious, hidden, secret, God is a kind of ‘universal’ paradigm.
Since the depths of time, men of all origins have spent millennia meditating on the mystery, confronting the hidden permanence of the secret divinity, inventing metaphors to evoke an unspeakable, ineffable God.
These initial intuitions, these primeval faiths, may have prepared the later efflorescence of the so-called « monotheism », in its strict sense.
But it is worth trying to go back, ever further, to the origins. The prayers of ancient times, where did they come from? Who designed them? Who was the first to cry:
« Ammon hiding in His place!
Soul that shines in His eye, His holy transformations are not known.
Brilliant are His shapes. His radiance is a veil of light.
Mystery of mysteries! His mystery is not known.
Hail to You, in Goddess Nout!
You really gave birth to the gods.
The breaths of truth are in Your mysterious sanctuary.»
What strikes in these short prayers is their « biblical » simplicity. Humble, simple words to confront with high and deep mysteries…
Premonitions, images, burst forth. The « brightness » of God is only « a veil of light ». This image, of course, leads us to evoke other mystic visions, that of the burning bush by Moses, for example, or that of the shamans, all over the world, since Paleolithic…
Moses, raised at the court of the Pharaohs, may well have borrowed one metaphor or two from the Egyptian culture. No one can claim having a monopoly of access to the mystery. Many years before the time of Moses, and according to the Book of Genesis, Agar, an Egyptian woman, met four times with either God or His Angels, – said Rachi, the great Jewish commentator. Sara, Abraham’s wife and Isaac’s mother, was not endowed with such a feat…
What really matters is that from age to age, exceptional men and women have seen ‘visions’, and that these ‘visions’ have transformed in a deep way their lives and the lives of those who followed them.
For thousands of years, humanity has accumulated a rich intuition of what is hidden beyond all appearances, it has perceived the probable existence of incredible depths beyond the shallowness of reality. Some men and women have at times been able to lift a corner of the veil, and to see, as if through a dream, the unbearable brilliance of an ineffable light.
It is necessary to consider the essence of what was ‘seen’ by these chosen pioneers, the depths of their experience, in the interest of Humankind as a whole. Their collective knowledge constitutes a general, universal, massive, plurimillennial, anthropological fact, anchored (then and now) in a number of living human souls, at the very bottom of the cortex.
But these fundamental experiences have not really succeeded in connecting all men of faith around the Earth. Why? Why, today, such a spectacle of religious hatred, the continuing desolation of endless violence, the proliferation of despair?
Jews pythagorized a lot in Alexandria, several centuries before the Christian era. Philo and Josephus are excellent examples of Hellenizing Jews, belonging to the high class of this city, and sensitive to ideas flowing from elsewhere. Pharisaism and Essenism, which flourished at the time, can be interpreted as effective outcomes of Pythagorean and Alexandrian Judaism.
The Pharisees, the « Separated », indeed constituted a « separate band », they wanted to distinguish themselves from traditional Jews, and even to innovate with regard to the Law. Josephus says that the Pharisees imposed rules on the people that were not enshrined in the Law of Moses.
Death and resurrection occupied the minds a lot, then.
The Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the dead. So did share this belief Rabbi Joshua ben Youssef, better known as Jesus, while still finding Pharisees « hypocrites », and « bleached graves ».
By contrast, the Sadducees, faithful to the letter of the Law, were « Old Believers » and they denied the resurrection.
The core idea of the resurrection was indeed not Jewish. It was widespread in Hellenism, pythagorism, with palingenesis and metempsychosis. All this originated in a more distant East. Iran. India. The vast world had many different views on these difficult subjects.
But the Pharisaic belief in the resurrection was undoubtedly « a decisive innovation, which made Pharisaic and Talmudic Judaism a religion quite different from that of the Law and the Prophets, » wrote Isidore Lévyi.
Pharisaic Judaism has adapted and modified the concepts of resurrection and palingenesis: the resurrection is not as a recurring opportunity offered to migrant souls, but a singular, unique event, which occurs once and for all on the day of Revelation.
As for the Essenes, another sect of Judaism, they are called Hassa’im, the « silent » ones. Josephus describes them as follows: « No scream, no tumult ever defiles the house; everyone in turn is given the floor. To people outside, the silence inside gives the impression of a frightening mystery.»ii
They are also fanatics, » adds Josephus. « They swear not to reveal anything about the members of the cult to strangers, even if they were to be tortured to death.»iii
It was already, let us remember, Pythagoras’ oath: « Rather die than speak », as reported by Diogenes Laertius (VIII, 39). And it also reminds us of Jesus’ obstinate silence before Pilate.
Flavius Josephus summarizes the belief of the Essene sect: « The soul is eternal. Freed from its carnal chain, the soul, as if liberated from a long servitude, joyfully takes off towards the heights.» iv
Other sects still competed with them in this troubled period: the Zadoqites, the Nazarenes, the Dositheans, the disciples of Johanan Ben Zakkai, those of Hillel…
In this world open to the influences of many heterodox cultures, the parallel between the birth of Jesus and that of Pythagoras is worth to be underlined.
There is more. Pythagoras in Crotone refused to be called a son of Apollo, just as Jesus in Capernaum does not want to be known as the son of God. Another similarity: Pythagoras and Jesus knew how to talk to women. Jesus had several of them as unconditional followers, three of whom are named: Mary Magdalene, Mary Mother of James, and Salome. This sole fact is in itself extremely remarkable, if we take into account the context and the time. Only Pythagoras has had a similar behaviour in the past.
Pharisaism, born in Alexandria in the midst of a maelstrom of cultures, religions, political, economic and migratory movements, tried to reconcile the ideas of Moses and Pythagoras. The time aspired to forms of syncretism, to conjunctions of points of view.
If Judaism was then influenced by Pythagorism, how can we not see that Christianity too was influenced by its aura? Long before Jesus, Pythagoras had been known as the God-Man of Samos, while being the son of Mesarch and Parthenis. He embodied on earth the manifestation of Apollo. Through him, shone in Crotone, the torch that saved happiness and wisdom.
I. Levy interprets what he calls « the enigmatic fact of the triumph of Christianity » in this way: « Of the religion which under the Caesars left Palestine, the essential had only been introduced to Jerusalem a century earlier. The Gospel conceals under an oriental garment the belief system which, as we know from the writings of Virgil, Plutarch and many others, from the careers of Apollonius of Tyana and Alexander of Abonutikhos, captured the most diverse spirits on the Greek and Latin shores of the Mediterranean. It seduced the ancient world because it brought it, imbued with the most penetrating exotic charm, a product of Greek thought, heir to an Indo-European past. »v
All this sounds curious in the 21st century, used to the strangest extrapolations, and sensitive to the most improbable reinterpretations, never without putative provocations.
Jesus, a slandered rabbi, condemned as « king of the Jews », now may reappear in the collective consciousness as an « oriental », « exotic » product, an heir to « Greek thought » and to an « Indo-European past ».
In the Jewish world, trying to survive after the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 AD, it was probably not desirable to allow the seeds of heresy to develop. It was necessary to gather minds, after the political, symbolic and moral disaster. Yet Jesus was Jewish, as were the Pharisees, Sadducees or Essenes who occupied the field of Jewish thought at that time. More Jewish than Indo-European, we might say.
It is certainly not indifferent, today, to want to see in Christianity only an « oriental », « exotic », « Greek » and « Indo-European » non-Jewish heresy, rather than the sucker of the Jesse trunk, – that Judaeo-Christians celebrated then.
It might be more significant, from a very long-term perpective, to consider Christianity being, at the same time, and without contradiction, an interesting innovation: a Jewish-Greek-Indo-European and exotic religion, – transcending in its unique way cultures, borders, classes, sects, centuries.
i in La Légende de Pythagore de Grèce en Palestine, 1927
Pythagoras, Enoch, Moses, Orpheus, Siosiri, Mithrobarzan, Aeneas, Jesus do have something in common: they all went down to the Underworld, and then came back from it.
Admittedly, they were not very talkative about what they saw there. They were probably required to keep a certain discretion about what they had discovered in the Other World.
But by collating their testimonies, we can draw some general lessons.
All those who have visited the depths of Time share common features. Their birth was miraculous, their intelligence lively and early. One day, they go down to the underworld, make discoveries, return to the world, in an apotheosis, realize very significant achievements, and then they disappear again.
It is tempting to assume that they are conforming, in doing so, to a type, a paradigm. In their apparent diversity, their infernal journeys are essentially similar. All you have to do is mention one, to find them all.
However, perhaps the most poetic of these descents into Hell was that of Aeneas, narrated by Virgil.
It all begins with a visit from Aeneas to Cumae, in the cave of the Sibyl. This high priestess of Phoebes and Hecate exclaimed: « It is time to question the destinies. The God, this is the God!”. Aeneas begins a prayer, while the prophetess still resists the embrace of God: “She struggles in her den like a wild bacchanal, and seeks to shake the Almighty God out of her chest. »
Aeneas insists. He wants to go down to the underworld. He wants to see his father there again. It is indeed an exorbitant privilege, but he has the ability to do so. « I too am of the race of the sovereign Jupiter », he says.
The Sibyl replies that it is in fact easy to descend to the Avern. It is to retrace one’s steps, to go back up to the light from above which is difficult, which is the hard test. There are the mud of the Acheron, the black waters of the Cocyte, the waves of the Styx, the dark Tartarus, the silent night of the Phlegeton with its torrents of flame. These obstacles must be overcome twice, on the way to and on the way back.
Aeneas and Sibyl then sink into the depths of the earth. « They went like shadows by the deserted night, through the darkness and the vast dwellings of Pluto and his kingdom of simulacra. »
After many adventures, Aeneas meets his father Anchises. Contact is not easy. « Three times he tried to surround his neck with his arms; three times, in vain, the shadow ran down his hands like a light breath, like a dream that flies away. »
Aeneas asks him a question. He wants to know why there are so many souls « who yearn again to enter into the thick bonds of the body ». Anchises then starts to explain « all these beautiful secrets » to him.
« And first of all, the sky, the earth, the liquid plains, the luminous globe of the moon, the Titanic star of the sun, are penetrated and enlivened by a spiritual principle: spread in all parts of the world, the spirit makes the whole mass move, and transforms it by mixing with this vast body.”
It is from this principle that men, animals, birds, and monsters of the Ocean are born. All the germs of life owe their vigour to their celestial origin. Despite this, souls know fears, desires, pains, joys, and they remain trapped in their darkness and blind jails, when life leaves them.
It takes thousands of years of suffering and punishment for the soul to, one day, recover its purity, the initial spark of the fire that has been granted to it.
Anchises accurately describes the fate that awaits the descendants of Aeneas and what Rome will become. That’s all said and done.
Without transition, the return to light is almost instantaneous. Anchises led Aeneas and Sibyl back to the « bright ivory » gate, which Manes only use to send « illusory ghosts » to the World from above.
It is through this door that Aeneas passes, « cutting as short as possible ».
Aeneas had just succeeded to come back to the World. Then he founded Rome.
Who can claim to have had a similar experience? As I said earlier: Pythagoras, Enoch, Moses, Orpheus, Siosiri, Mithrobarzan, Jesus, all did go to the Underworld, they came back, and then they founded “Romes” of their liking, kingdoms of their kind.
The angels « trembled » when Moses ascended into heaven, writes Baruch Ben Neriah in his Book of Apocalypse. « Those who are near the throne of the Most High trembled when He took Moses near him. He taught him the letters of the Law, showed him the measures of fire, the depths of the abyss and the weight of the winds, the number of raindrops, the end of anger, the multitude of great sufferings and the truth of judgment, the root of wisdom, the treasures of intelligence, the fountain of knowledge, the height of the air, the greatness of Paradise, the consumption of time, the beginning of the day of judgment, the number of offerings, the lands that have not yet come, and the mouth of Gehenna, the place of vengeance, the region of faith and the land of hope. »
The Jewish Encyclopaedia (1906) states that Baruch Ben Neriah was a Jew who mastered Haggadah, Greek mythology and Eastern wisdom. The Apocalypse of Baruch also shows influences from India. This is evidenced by the reference to the Phoenix bird, companion of the sun, an image similar to the role of the Garuda bird, companion of the god Vishnu.
In chapters 11 to 16, the Archangel Michael has a role as mediator between God and men, similar to that of Jesus.
Baruch was undoubtedly exposed to the Gnostic and « oriental » teachings.
In the first centuries of our era, times were indeed favourable for research and the fusion of ideas and contributions from diverse cultures and countries.
Judaism did not escape these influences from elsewhere.
The elements of Moses’ life, which are recorded in the Apocalypse of Baruch, are attested to by other Jewish authors, Philo and Josephus, and before them by the Alexandrian Jew Artanapas.
These elements do not correspond to the biblical model.
They are inspired by the Life of Pythagoras, as reported by the Alexandrian tradition. There is a description of the descent of Moses to the Underworld, which is based on the descent of Pythagoras to Hades. Isidore Lévy makes the following diagnosis in this regard: « These borrowings from the Judaism of Egypt to the successive Romans of Pythagoras do not constitute a superficial fact of transmission of wonderful tales, but reveal a profound influence of the religious system of the Pythagoricians: Alexandrian Judaism, Pharisaism (whose first manifestation does not appear before Herod’s entry on the scene) and Essenism, offer, compared to biblical mosaicism, new characters, signs of the conquest of the Jewish world by the conceptions whose legend of Pythagoras was the narrative expression and the vehicle.»i
The multi-cultural fusion of these kinds of themes is manifested by the strong similarities and analogies between the legends of Pythagoras and Zoroaster, and the legends attached by Jewish literature to Moses, to the « journeys in the Other World » and to the « infernal visions » that were brought back.
These legends and stories are obviously borrowed in all their details from the « pythagorean katabase » whose adventures Luciano and Virgil described.
Isidore Lévy reviewed it. Moses is led through Eden and Hell. Isaiah is instructed by the Spirit of God on the five regions of Gehenna. Elijah is led by the Angel. The Anonymous of the Darké Teschuba is led by Elijah. Joshua son of Levi is accompanied by the Angels or by Elijah, which reproduces the theme of the Visitor of the Katabase of Pythagoras.
These cross-cultural similarities extend to divine visions and the deep nature of the soul.
In the language of Zend Avesta, which corresponds to the sacred text of the ancient religion of ancient Iran, the « Divine Glory », the very one that Moses saw from behind, is called Hravenô.
James Darmesteter, a specialist in Zend Avesta, reports in detail how the Zoroastrians described the coming of their prophet. This story is not without evoking other virgin births, reported for example in the Christian tradition:
« A ray of Divine Glory, destined through Zoroaster to enlighten the world, descends from near Ormuzd, into the bosom of the young Dughdo, who later married Pourushaspo. Zoroaster’s genius (Frohar) is trapped in a Haoma plant that the Amshaspand carry up a tree that rises on the banks of the Daitya River on Ismuwidjar Mountain. The Haoma picked by Pourushaspo is mixed by himself and Dughdo with milk of miraculous origin, and the liquid is absorbed by Pourushaspo. From the union of the depositary of Divine Glory with the holder of the Frohar, who descended into Haoma, the Prophet was born. The Frohar contained in the Haoma absorbed by Pourushaspo corresponds to the soul entered into the schoenante assimilated by Khamoïs (=Mnésarque, father of Pythagoras), and the Hravenô corresponds to the mysterious Apollonian element »ii.
The spiritual being of Zoroaster has two distinct elements, the Hravenô, which is the most sublime, and even properly divine, part, and the Frohar, an immanent principle contained in the Haoma.
It can be inferred that Hravenô and Frohar correspond respectively to the Greek concepts of Noos and Psychè. « Intelligence » and « Soul ». The Hebrew equivalents would be Nephesh and Ruah.
What do these comparisons show?
It shows the persistence of a continuous intuition, spanning several thousands years and covering a geographical area from the Indus basin to the Nile valley. This intuition seems common to the religions of India, Iran, Israel and Egypt.
What common intuition? That of the « descent » to Earth of a being, « sent » by a God, – differently named according to different languages and different cultures.
i Isidore Lévy. La légende de Pythagore de Grèce en Palestine, 1927
Drunk, the Bacchae rushed to the victims, skinning them with their bare hands, ripping their limbs off, and searching their internal organs. Their hands sticky with blood, they behead the unfortunate one who fell under the blows of sacred madness.
The Bacchanalians indeed represent, in the ancient Dionysian religion, a wild, extreme phenomenon. It is about getting drunk, taking part in nature’s orgy, and fully engaging in delirium and all its consequences.
It is in delirium that the metamorphosis can take place. There are several kinds of them.
The one of Harmony and Cadmos is spectacular. Snake scales gradually cover the body. First the feet, then the legs, then the hips, then the sex metamorphoses into sizzling, hideous snakes. Finally, the whole rest of the body is affected by this monstrous mutation.
The Dionysian religion is not a quiet one. Its followers are not immune to some degree of terror, of psychological or physical shock. But it is this metamorphosis that is the essential moment, after the wine of intoxication and the sharing of the members of the sacrificed victim.
Philostratus the Elder describes it this way: « Here are the choirs of the Bacchae, the stones dripping with wine, the grapes distilling the nectar, the clods of earth all shining with the brilliance of milk, here is the ivy with its creeping stem, the snakes raising their heads, the thyrsuses and the trees from which honey escapes drop by drop.
Behold this fir tree lying on the ground, its fall is the work of women violently agitated by Dionysus; by shaking it, the Bacchae made it fall with Pentheus whom they take for a lion; behold, they tear their prey, the aunts detach their hands, the mother drags her son by the hair (…)
Harmony and Cadmos are present. Already the lower extremities, from the thighs, are transformed into snakes, everything disappears under the scales from the feet to the hips; the metamorphosis spreads to the upper parts. Harmony and Cadmos are struck with horror; they kiss each other, as if, by this embrace, they had to stop their bodies in its flight and save at least what they still have left of the human form. »
From the point of view of comparative anthropology, it is tempting to consider possible analogies with other religions.
There are undoubtedly in the depths of human memory some ancient and indelible memories of ancient sacrifices, that will not be easily wiped away.
We could see for instance in the Bacchanals a distant analogy or an obscure link with the sacrifice of Christ, and the consumption of his blood and flesh shared among the faithful.
Of course, the sacrifice of Christ as celebrated by the Church is not an evolved, intellectualized version of an eminently wilder, more barbaric sacrificial paradigm, once celebrated in the name of the God Dionysus, in memory of his bloody and burning birth.
But it is nevertheless possible to see in it elements of analogy, and anthropological similarities, if only in the consumption of Christ’s « flesh » and « blood » by his disciples, at the height of communion.
The human mind, from age to age, has shown itself capable of designing paradigms that open universes, that play on all values, not to abolish them, but to guarantee the possibility of their continuing metamorphosis.
The Dionysian religion once incarnated one of these paradigms, and secretly continues to do so, metaphorically speaking, in the unconscious depths of humankind.
It is tempting to reflect on how Dionysian ideas may be embodied today in the excesses of contemporary humanity, and how they continue their secret life in our blind and thoughtless »modernity ».
Bloody human body parts scattered all over political crime scenes (resulting from targeted assassinations or downed civilian airplanes) continue to be regularly presented – in prime time – to worldwide audiences…
The birth of Dionysus is worth telling. There is a precise description of it in the Imagines of Philostratus the Elder.
“A cloud of fire, after enveloping the city of Thebes, tears on the palace of Cadmos where Zeus leads a happy life with Semele. Semele dies, and Dionysus is really born under the action of the flame.
We can see the erased image of Semele rising towards the sky, where the Muses will celebrate his arrival with songs. As for Dionysus, he starts from the mother’s womb, thus torn, and shining like a star, he makes the brilliance of the fire pale with his own. The flame opens, sketching around Dionysus the shape of a cave[which is covered with consecrated plants].
The propellers, the berries of ivy, the vines already strong, the stems of which we make the thyrsus cover their contours, and all this vegetation comes out of the ground so willingly, that it grows partly in the middle of the fire. And let us not be surprised that the earth lays on the flames like a crown of plants.”
Philostratus ignores the fact that Semele had wanted to see the face of Zeus, her lover, and that this was the cause of her death. Zeus, kept by a promise he had made to her to fulfill all her desires, was forced to show his face of light and fire when she made the request, knowing that by doing so he would kill her, in spite of himself.
But he didn’t want to let the child she was carrying die, which was also his. Zeus took Dionysus out of his mother’s womb and put him in the great light, in a cloud of fire. However, Dionysus himself was already a being of fire and light. Philostratus describes how Dionysus’ own fire « makes Zeus’ own fire pale ».
It should be noted above all that the divine fire of Dionysus does not consume the sacred bushes that envelop his body at the time of his birth.
In a different context, Moses sees a burning bush, which is not consumed either. The Bible gives little detail on how the bush behaves in flames.
Philostratus, on the other hand, is a little more precise: a « crown of plants » floats above the fire. The metaphor of the crown is reminiscent of an aura, a halo, or the laurels surrounding the hero’s head. Except Dionysus is not a hero, but a God.
The idea of plants burning without burning in a « fire » of divine origin is counter-intuitive.
It is possible that this idea is a hidden metaphor. The inner fire of some plants, such as Cannabis, or other psychotropic plants, is a kind of fire that affects the mind, burns it indeed, but does not (usually) consume it. This inner fire, caused by plants capable of inducing shamanic visions and even divine ecstasies, is one of the oldest ways to contemplate mysteries.
This is one of the most valuable lessons from the experiences reported by shamans in Asia, Africa, or America.
What explains the powerful affinity between psychotropic plants, human brain neurochemistry and these ecstatic, divine visions?
Why is brain chemistry capable of generating a ‘vision’ of God from psychotropic stimuli?
Why is the active ingredient of cannabis, THC (Δ9 – tetrahydrocannabinol), capable, by binding to the CB1 and CB2 receptors, of delivering man to ecstasy, and to the vision of the divine, under certain conditions?
New ways of investigating the brain should be able to be used to detect the brain regions activated during these visions.
There are two main categories of assumptions.
Either the psychotropic mechanism is entirely internal to the brain, depending only on neurobiological processes, which can get out of hand when they are somehow looped around themselves.
Either these neurobiological processes are in reality only a façade, more or less shaped throughout the evolution of the human brain. They hide or reveal, depending on the case, our direct perception of a world that is still mysterious, a parallel world, generally inaccessible to sensitivity and consciousness.
The neurochemical processes disinhibited by THC release the brain, and during ecstasy give it the opportunity to access a meta-world, usually veiled, but very real, existing independently of human consciousness.
In that assumption, the neurochemistry of cannabis does not then generate « visions » by itself; it is only a key that opens the consciousness to a world that is inaccessible, most of the time, to weak human capacities.
Orpheus descended to the Underworld and was initiated into the Mysteries of Isis and Osiris (those Gods called Demeter and Dionysus among the Greeks, Ceres and Bacchus, among the Romans). He established in Greece the cult of Hecate in Aegina, and that of Isis-Demeter in Sparta. His disciples, the Orphics, were at once marginal, individualistic, mystical, and loving life.
In contrast, the Pythagoreans, though also influenced by orphism, were « communist and austere », to use H. Lizeray’s formula. Socrates had said: « Everything is common, – between friends. »
If Pythagoras had a tendency towards « communism », and Orpheus towards « individualism”, what does it teach us, today, in terms of the fundamental aspirations of mankind?