Marcel Conche writes somewhere, with a kind of cheerful irony: « I like medlar very much. There is nothing to eat. It is the most metaphysical fruit. For metaphysics comes down to the fact that, in any case, we know nothing about anything. » i
For my part I prefer peach, as a fruit. It is very juicy, with tender and tasty flesh. Some have smooth skin, others are fluffy, but all of them have an inviting slit, and a hard core, mobile or adherent. It is, in my humble opinion, a much more metaphysical fruit than the medlar: at the end of the endings, we know that we are going to take some more without getting tired of it, so much the flavor is not forgotten, and so much the mystery of this closed slit and this hard core can only mystify the spirits less able to grasp the immanent transcendence of the peach tree, from its flower to its fruit…
It really is a great mystery that human brains, at least some of them, can open up to metaphysics, that of medlar, or that that flies over the worlds, and reflects on what was before nothing was …
One of the oldest myths in the world dates back at least six thousand years, four thousand years before our era, and three thousand years before Moses. It is the Vedic myth of Prajāpati, a name that means « Father, or Lord of creatures ». Prajāpati was then thought as the supreme God, the One who created the world. But, unlike the biblical God, the creation of the Universe and all creatures, according to the Veda, could only be done through the sacrifice of Prajāpati.
In the beginning, having nothing from which to create the world, since everything was nothingness, Prajāpati had to resort to Himself, dismembering, offering Himself as a sacrifice, and dividing Himself so that from Him could flow the Universe and Life.
The Veda explains the creation of the universe as the Creator’s self-immolation, and designates this sacrifice as « the navel of the Universeii.
« Now the Lord of creatures, after having begotten the living creatures, felt as if He had been emptied. The creatures departed from Him; they did not stay with Him for His joy and sustenance. « iii
The supreme God gives Himself completely, and He suffers the torments of death: « After He begat all that exists, He felt emptied and was afraid of death. » iv
Why this Sacrifice of the Supreme God?
Perhaps because a « greater good » can be expected from it?
Does God (Theos) sacrifice Himself to make possible not only the existence of the Cosmos and Anthropos but also their future « divinization »?
TheTheos sacrifices Himself to extend modes of divinization to other beings than Himself. Thus one sees that the essence of the Sacrifice is entirely in the general becoming. The God sacrifices Himself so that the future can come to be. The God sacrifices Himself entirely, He takes this supreme risk, so that the « Future » and the « Other » can also be?
But then, does that mean that God is not eternal?
He sacrifices His solitary eternity so that He can become a shared, common « becoming ». To eternity, of which He was the sole custodian, He adds Time, the Future, the Process… and therefore Freedom.
He transforms His stable, immobile essence from a being a « First Engine » into a risky, unstable, uncertain process. He voluntarily gives a freedom proper to the Cosmos, as well as to the Anthropos.
God creates the universe with great precision (cf. the incredible finesse with which the « constants » of the Universe have been shaped). However, the universe is not a deterministic mechanics. There is « chance » in it. Let us simply say that there is « freedom ». God threw, whether Einstein likes it or not, an anthropo-cosmic die…
Hence this special mystery, unique to the human brain: how can we presume to know what Prajāpati has concocted before the dawn of time? How do we know that He sacrificed Himself, that He felt emptied, that He was afraid of death? How could the brains of the Veda visionaries conceive of this divine sacrifice and appreciate all its consequences?
There are two possible answers.
Either the Theos allowed this mystery to be « revealed » directly to the souls of certain representatives of Anthropos (such as biblical prophets).
Either there is, more immanently, and more anthropologically, a congruence, a sympathy, an obviousness, which seems to imbue the human brain.
The brains of the Vedic prophets felt internally, intuitively, through a kind of analogy and anagogy, the divine drama at stake. This intuition was undoubtedly based on the observation of phenomena that appeared in the human environment, and which are among the noblest, most striking, most counter-intuitive that can be conceived: sacrifice for love, the gift of one’s life for the survival of those one loves…
In any case, let us conclude that the human brain, through its antennas, its pistils, its « oospheres », is capable of navigating freely in the eternal « noosphere », and that it is given, sometimes, to penetrate its essence…
Is the sea conscious of her shores? Does she feel that, stung with sunlight, clouds are born from her womb?
Does she now that her waves travel a long way, but always break and end up as light foam ?
Seas, waves, clouds, foam form a whole, of which the spirit of man sometimes becomes aware. But is man also aware that his own consciousness is at the same time like foam and like a cloud? Consciousness depends entirely on the evaporation and distillation of the ocean’s amplitude, before spreading out in beneficial or destructive rains, and its foam is the proof of the final fold of its inner waves.
Clouds, waves, foam are good metaphors of consciousness confronted with what is infinitely larger than itself, the ocean, the earth and the sky.
Consciousness only feels « consciousness » at the borders, at the interfaces.
The roll of the wave feels the sand under the blade, and at the end it comes to lick the heat of the sun, offered by the slow sand, which it penetrates by the bubbling foam.
The immemorial meeting of sea, land and sky is done on the beach or the rock. It is a three-phase place, where water, sand and bubble briefly unite. Mythical place! From here emerged long ago forms of marine life that had decided to try the land adventure! Metaphor still of our soul, charged with sleepy consciousness, and waking up abruptly in contact with the hard (the rock, or the shore) so that the impalpable (the air and the bubbles) emerges…
Man too is a sea shore. Man too is multi-phase. He represents the meeting point of several worlds, that of life (bios), that of the word (logos) and that of the spirit (noos). The metaphor of these three phases can be explained as follows. The immense sea, the deep sea, is Life. The tumultuous wave that faces the rock, or flows languidly on the shore, is the Logos, the word striking the world, splashing it with foam. As for the cloud bathing in its vapors, it proves that molecules previously buried in the darkness of the sea chasms were allowed to ‘ascend to heaven’, sucked up by heat of which they had no idea, before realizing that they were indeed ascending to inconceivable altitudes and crossing infinite horizons for a long, seemingly endless journey. These molecules chosen for the great journey most of them will go to irrigate the mountains and the plains, and some of them will moisten thirsty gullets and will inhabit for a time bodies made of water first, and of some other molecules too, and will come to feed human brains… Metaphors! Where are you taking us?
To a new metaphor, that of panspermia.
The brain, I wrote in a previous post, is a kind of antenna. But we could also use a more floral image, that of the pistil, for example.
The pistil, from the Latin pistillum, pestle, is the female organ of flower reproduction. It stands up like a small antenna waiting for flying pollen.
The brain-pistil is in multiple communication with the world, and it receives clouds of pollen at all times, invisible or visible, unconscious or, on the contrary, destined to impose itself on the consciousness. The brain is bathed in this ocean of pollen waves, which can be described as panspermic. There are sperm of life and sperm of consciousness. There are sperm of knowledge and sperm of revelation. All pistils are not equal. Some prefer to be content with transmitting life, others do better and fertilize new oospheres. i
Let us move here, through the miracle of metaphor, from the oosphere to the noosphere.
The panspermia whose « world » is saturated continually reaches our numb brains, and titillates our pistils. Many things result from this global titillation. Not all flowers are given the joy of true, pure, limitless enjoyment.
For those among the human flowers that lend themselves and open themselves entirely to these « visitations », the panspermic waves come to fertilize in their interior the birth of new noospheric embryos..
iThe oosphere is the name given to the female gamete in plants and algae. It is the homologue of the ovum in animals.
Etymology goes back further to the dawn of thought, much further than archaeology or paleography.
The root of the oldest words is all that remains of time that no memory can imagine. These roots are the minute, ineffaceable traces of what was once pure intuition, radiant knowledge, sudden revelation, for singular men and moving crowds.
The ancient roots, still alive, like verbal souls, speak to us of a vanished world.
Among the most powerful roots are those that inform the names of the Gods.
In the Veda, Agni is said to be « Fire ».
But the truly original, etymological meaning of the word « agni » is not « fire », it is « alive », and « agile ».
The idea of « fire » is only a derivation from this primeval sense. The oldest intuitions associated with the word « agni » then are « life » and « movement », as opposed to « rest » and « death ».
The divine Agni, had indeed many other names, to tell of his other qualities: Atithi, Anala, Dahana, Vasu, Bharata, Mātariśvā, Vaiśvānara, Śoṣaṇa, Havyavah, Hutabhuk…
Agni’s names all have a distinct, specific meaning. Atithi is « Host », Anala is « Longevity », Dahana is « Burning », Tanūnapāt : « Self-Generated », Apāṃnapāt : « from the waters ».
So many attributes for such a hidden God!
« Two mothers of a different color and walking quickly, each giving birth to an infant. From the breast of one is born Hari [yet another name of Agni], honored by libations; from the breast of the other is born Soucra (the Sun), with a bright flame ». i
Agni is indeed « visible », He was born as a child, – but very clever, very wise is whoever can really « see » Him !
« Which of you has seen Him, when He is hiding? As an infant just now, there He is who, by the virtue of sacrifice, now gives birth to His own mothers. Thus Agni, great and wise, honored by our libations, generates the rain of the cloud, and is reborn in the bosom of deeds.» ii
Agni is everywhere. Agni is not only « alive », « agile », He is not only « Fire », not only « God ».
He is also the flickering glow, the sparkling lightning, the blazing forest, the fatal lightning, the evening sun, the pink dawn, the inflexible flint, the warmth of the body, the embers of love…
To understand the Veda, it helps to be a poet, to expand one´s mind to the universe, and even farther away.
« All men are either Jews or Hellenes; either they are driven by ascetic impulses which lead them to reject all pictorial representation and to sacrifice to sublimation, or they are distinguished by their serenity, their expansive naturalness and their realistic spirit, » wrote Heinrich Heinei.
The over-schematic and somewhat outrageous nature of this statement may surprise in the mouth of the « last of the Romantic poets ».
But, according to Jan Assmann, Heine here would only symbolize the opposition between two human types, each of them holding on to two world visions, one valuing the spirit, without seeking a direct relationship with material reality, and the other valuing above all the senses and the concrete world.
In any case, when Heinrich Heine wrote these words at the beginning of the 19th century, this clear-cut opposition between « Hebraism » and « Hellenism » could be seen as a kind of commonplace “cliché” in the Weltanschauung then active in Germany.
Other considerations fueled this polarization. A kind of fresh wind seemed to be blowing on the European intellectual scene following the recent discovery of Sanskrit, followed by the realization of the historical depth of the Vedic heritage, and the exhumation of evidence of a linguistic filiation between the ‘Indo-European’ languages.
All this supported the thesis of the existence of multi-millennia migrations covering vast territories, notably from Northern Europe to Central Asia, India and Iran.
There was a passionate search for a common European origin, described in Germany as ‘Indo-Germanic’ and in France or Britain as ‘Indo-European’, taking advantage as much as possible of the lessons of comparative linguistics, the psychology of peoples and various mythical, religious and cultural sources.
Heine considered the opposition between « Semitic » and « Aryan » culture as essential. For him, it was a question not only of opposing « Aryans » and « Semites », but of perceiving « a more general opposition that concerned ‘all men’, the opposition between the mind, which is not directly related to the world or distant from it, and the senses, which are linked to the world. The first inclination, says Heine (rather simplistically, I must say), men get it from the Jews, the second, they inherited it from the Greeks, so that henceforth two souls live in the same bosom, a Jewish soul and a Greek soul, one taking precedence over the other depending on the case.» ii
A century later, Freud thought something comparable, according to Jan Assmann. « For him, too, the specifically Jewish contribution to human history lay in the drive toward what he called « progress in the life of the spirit. This progress is to the psychic history of humanity what Freud calls ‘sublimation’ in the individual psychic life.”iii
For Freud, the monotheistic invention consisted « in a refusal of magic and mysticism, in encouraging progress in the life of the spirit, and in encouraging sublimation ». It was a process by which « the people, animated by the possession of truth, penetrated by the consciousness of election, came to set great store by intellectual things and to emphasize ethics »iv.
This would be the great contribution of « Judaism » to the history of the world.
At the same time, however, Freud developed a particularly daring and provocative thesis about the « invention » of monotheism. According to him, Moses was not a Hebrew, he was Egyptian; moreover, and most importantly, he did not die in the land of Moab, as the Bible reports, but was in fact murdered by his own people.
Freud’s argument is based on the unmistakably Egyptian name ‘Moses’, the legend of his childhood, and Moses’ « difficult speech, » an indication that he was not proficient in Hebrew. Indeed, he could communicate only through Aaron. In addition, there are some revealing quotations, according to Freud: « What will I do for this people? A little more and they will stone me! « (Ex. 17:4) and : « The whole community was talking about [Moses and Aaron] stoning them. » (Numbers 14:10).
There is also that chapter of Isaiah in which Freud distinguishes the « repressed » trace of the fate actually reserved for Moses: « An object of contempt, abandoned by men, a man of sorrow, familiar with suffering, like one before whom one hides his face, despised, we took no notice of him. But it was our sufferings that he bore and our pains that he was burdened with. And we saw him as punished, struck by God and humiliated. But he was pierced because of our crimes, crushed because of our faults. « (Is. 53:3-5)
Freud infers from all these clues that Moses was in fact murdered by the Jews after they revolted against the unbearable demands of the Mosaic religion. He adds that the killing of Moses by the Jews marked the end of the system of the primitive horde and polytheism, and thus resulted in the effective and lasting foundation of monotheism.
The murder of the « father », which was – deeply – repressed in Jewish consciousness, became part of an « archaic heritage », which « encompasses not only provisions but also contents, mnemonic traces relating to the life of previous generations. (…) If we admit the preservation of such mnemonic traces in the archaic heritage, we have bridged the gap between individual psychology and the psychology of the masses, we can treat people as the neurotic individual.”v
The repression is not simply cultural or psychological, it affects the long memory of peoples, through « mnemonic traces » that are inscribed in the depths of souls, and perhaps even in the biology of bodies, in their DNA.
The important thing is that it is from this repression that a « decisive progress in the life of the spirit » has been able to emerge, according to Freud. This « decisive progress », triggered by the murder of Moses, was also encouraged by the ban on mosaic images.
« Among the prescriptions of the religion of Moses, there is one that is more meaningful than is at first thought. It is the prohibition to make an image of God, and therefore the obligation to worship a God who cannot be seen. We suppose that on this point Moses surpassed in rigor the religion of Aten; perhaps he only wanted to be consistent – his God had neither name nor face -; perhaps it was a new measure against the illicit practices of magic. But if one admitted this prohibition, it necessarily had to have an in-depth action. It meant, in fact, a withdrawal of the sensory perception in favor of a representation that should be called abstract, a triumph of the life of the mind over the sensory life, strictly speaking a renunciation of impulses with its necessary consequences on the psychological level.”vi
If Judaism represents a « decisive progress » in the life of the spirit, what can we think of the specific contribution of Christianity in this regard?
Further progress in the march of the spirit? Or, on the contrary, regression?
Freud’s judgment of the Christian religion is very negative.
« We have already said that the Christian ceremony of Holy Communion, in which the believer incorporates the Saviour’s flesh and blood, repeats in its content the ancient totemic meal, certainly only in its sense of tenderness, which expresses veneration, not in its aggressive sense ».vii
For him, « this religion constitutes a clear regression in the life of the spirit, since it is marked by a return to magical images and rites, and in particular to the sacrificial rite of the totemic meal during which God himself is consumed by the community of believers.”viii
Freud’s blunt condemnation of Christianity is accompanied by a kind of contempt for the « lower human masses » who have adopted this religion.
« In many respects, the new religion constituted a cultural regression in relation to the old, Jewish religion, as is regularly the case when new, lower-level human masses enter or are admitted somewhere. The Christian religion did not maintain the degree of spiritualization to which Judaism had risen. It was no longer strictly monotheistic, it adopted many of the symbolic rites of the surrounding peoples, it restored the great mother goddess and found room for a large number of polytheistic deities, recognizable under their veils, albeit reduced to a subordinate position. Above all it did not close itself, like the religion of Aten and the Mosaic religion which followed it, to the intrusion of superstitious magic and mystical elements, which were to represent a serious inhibition for the spiritual development of the next two millennia.”ix
If one adopts a viewpoint internal to Christianity, however hurtful Freud’s attacks may be, they do not stand up to analysis. In spite of all the folklore from which popular religiosity is not exempt, Christian theology is clear: there is only one God. The Trinity, difficult to understand, one can admit, for non-Christians as well as for Christians, does not imply « three Gods », but only one God, who gives Himself to be seen and understood in three « Persons ».
To take a cross-comparison, one could infer that Judaism is not « strictly monotheistic » either, if one recalls that the Scriptures attest that « three men » (who were YHVH) appeared to Abraham under the oak tree of Mamre (Gen 18:1-3), or that the Word of God was « incarnated » in the six hundred thousand signs of the Torah, or that God left in the world His own « Shekhinah » .
From the point of view of Christianity, everything happens as if Isaiah chapter 53, which Freud applied to Moses, could also be applied to the figure of Jesus.
It is the absolutely paradoxical and scandalous idea (from the point of view of Judaism) that the Messiah could appear not as a triumphant man, crushing the Romans, but as « an object of contempt, abandoned by men, a man of sorrow, familiar with suffering, like someone before whom one hides one’s face, despised. »
But what is, now, the most scandalous thing for the Jewish conscience?
Is it Freud’s hypothesis that Isaiah’s words about a « man of sorrow », « despised », indicate that the Jews murdered Moses?
Or is it that these same Isaiah’s words announce the Christian thesis that the Messiah had to die like a slave, under the lazzis and spittle?
If Freud is wrong and Moses was not murdered by the Jews, it cannot be denied that a certain Jesus was indeed put to death under Pontius Pilate. And then one may be struck by the resonance of these words uttered by Isaiah seven centuries before: « Now it is our sufferings that he bore and our sorrows that he was burdened with. And we considered him punished, struck by God and humiliated. But he was pierced because of our crimes, crushed because of our faults. « (Is. 53:4-5)
There is obviously no proof, from the Jewish point of view, that these words of Isaiah apply to Jesus, — or to Moses.
If Isaiah’s words do not apply to Moses (in retrospect) nor to Jesus (prophetically), who do they apply to? Are they only general, abstract formulas, without historical content? Or do they refer to some future Messiah? Then, how many more millennia must Isaiah’s voice wait before it reaches its truth?
History, we know, has only just begun.
Human phylum, if it does not throw itself unexpectedly into nothingness, taking with it its planet of origin, still has (roughly) a few tens of millions of years of phylogenetic « development » ahead of it.
To accomplish what?
One may answer: to rise ever more in consciousness.
Or to accomplish still unimaginable « decisive progress »…
With time, the millennia will pass.
Will Isaiah’s words pass?
What is mankind already capable of?
What will be the nature of the « decisive progress » of the human spirit, which has yet to be accomplished, and which still holds itself in the potency to become?
It is necessary to prepare for it. We must always set to work, in the dark, in what seems like a desert of stone, salt and sand.
For example, it would be, it seems to me, a kind of « decisive » progress to “see” in the figure of Moses « put to death » by his own people, and in that of Christ « put on the cross », the very figure of the Sacrifice.
The original Sacrifice, granted from before the creation of the world by the Creator God, the « Lord of Creatures » (that One and Supreme God whom the Veda already called « Prajāpati » six thousand years ago).
It would also, it seems to me, be another kind of « decisive » progress to begin to sense some of the anthropological consequences of the original « Sacrifice » of the supreme God, the « Lord of Creatures ».
Among them, the future of the « religions » on the surface of such a small, negligible planet (Earth): their necessary movement of convergence towards a religion of Humanity and of the World, a religion of the conscience of the Sacrifice of God, a religion of the conscience of Man, in the emptiness of the Cosmos.
iHeinrich Heine. Ludwig Börne. Le Cerf. Paris, 1993
iiJan Assmann. Le prix du monothéisme. Flammarion, Paris 2007, p. 142
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
One chisel stroke, and the thread ends. The bobbin unwinds endlessly; but always, one day, there is a cut. The thread, however white it is, knows nothing of the cut to come.
The thread only knows that it is spinning, that it is following its thread. Cotton or chitin, it spins. For what? It does not know.
It spins, and as long as it spins, it is only thread.
What can a thread of wool or silk understand about a blade of steel ? Or to the soul of a knife? Or to the spirit of the razor?
Thread is thread. Infinitely thread. The length is on its side, he believes. What can an horizontal thread comprehend about a perpendicular blade?
Even a very long thread has an end. Comes the cut, the stroke. The end of the continuous, the condition of appearance.
Thought follows her thread; straight, sinuous, zigzagging, she follows this thread, or that other, she weaves her web. Does the blade think about the end? Made of various threads, how would she think what is not made of thread? Can the thread think about the thickness of the carpet, its surface, its pattern, or the cat that sleeps on it?
The thought following her thread is quite assured, from premises to inductions. She does not yet think about what is expecting her, maybe, what is beyond her, – the cut, or the knot.
The birth of the cut, at the end of the thread.
And the cut is also of a wire, of steel. Sharp wire, destined to cut, not to bind. Carrot, or carotid, the wire cuts. The blade cuts the soul’s core.
The Spinner, Clotho, weaves the thread of life. Lachesis unwinds it. Atropos cuts it. O fates cut short!
« Modern atheism is dying a beautiful death » and « modern nihilism » will soon, too, « lose the game », Philippe Nemoi wants to believe. The good news, he prophesies, is that as a consequence, a period of glory will open up for new ideals, with infinite possibilities for the development of the human adventure, on the way to the highest destinies…
Quite a radiant perspective…
But « modern atheism » and « modern nihilism » actually do resist very much. They have occupied the front stage in the West during the last two centuries.
Only two centuries, one may ask? …. Is atheism a « modern » specialty?
When it comes to anthropology, nothing beats the measure of millenia.
Traces of religious practices dating from 800,000 years ago have been found in the excavations at Chou-Kou-Tien (Zhoukoudian 周口店 ). Eight thousand centuries ago, then, so-called « Peking Man, » or « Sinanthrope, » painted red carefully prepared human skulls and placed them in a composed circle for ceremonial purposes. To evoke what? For what purpose? For what sort of Deity?
Almost a million years ago, hominids in the Beijing area could probably answer these questions in their own way, and not necessarily confusedly, but we actually know next to nothing of their understanding of the world.
We only can infer from the clues left behind that death was certainly a profound mystery to them.
Analogous questions will no doubt still arise for future anthropologists, who will analyze the few remains of our own “civilization”, that may still be accessible in a million years from now, preserved in a some deep geological layers… Future anthropology, assuming that such a discipline will then still make sense, will perhaps try to infer from the traces of many future, successively « modern » civilizations yet to appear, the role of « atheism », « nihilism » and religious « creeds », throughout millenia?
I find it is a stimulating thought experience. It is necessary to try to project oneself into the distant future, while at the same time connecting through a reflexive and memorial line to the still accessible depths of the paleontological past. In order to test our capacity to represent the ‘human phenomenon’, we can try to draw a perspective on the history of religious feeling (or absence thereof), to gauge its essence, to understand its nature and foundation.
Some provisional lessons can already be drawn. Let us listen to Benjamin Constant: « The time when religious feeling disappears from the souls of men is always close to that of their enslavement. Religious peoples may have been slaves; but no irreligious people remained free.”ii
Benjamin Constant was without illusion about human nature. « India, Ethiopia, Egypt, show us the humankind enslaved, decimated, and, so to speak, confined by priests.”iii The priests of antiquity were « condemned to imposture », by their very functions, which involved constant communication with the gods, with oracles to be rendered, – the correctness of which could be easily checked afterwards, not to mention the wonders, miracles and other revelations. Fraud must have been, one can imagine, a permanent temptation, if not a vital necessity.
Regardless of past and future (religious) frauds and impostures, the most significant question that men of all times have asked themselves and will ask themselves remains that of the meaning of life, for a man confronted with the mystery of an assured death, after a rather short life.
Hence this quite logical (and cynical) statement:
« To defend freedom, one must know how to immolate one’s life, and what is there more than life for those who see beyond it only nothingness? Also when despotism meets with the absence of religious sentiment, the human species prostrates itself in dust, wherever force is deployed.”iv
Absurd, useless, inessential lives and deaths, crushed by despotism, pose a question to which neither atheism nor nihilism can provide the slightest answer.
Perhaps « atheism » is already « dying its beautiful death », if we are to believe Nemo.
This does not mean that from this death will arise some « theism » ready to live a new life.
The mystery cannot be solved by such elementary, simplified qualifiers.
In a million years, it is a good bet that all our « philosophies », all our « religions », will appear only just as some sort of red skulls, arranged in forgotten circles.
iPhilippe Nemo. La belle mort de l’athéisme moderne. 2012
iiBenjamin Constant. De la religion considérée dans sa source, ses formes et ses développements. 1831
Ernst Haeckel was the biologist and philosopher who made Darwin known in Germany. He was one of the first to apply Darwinian ideas to human ‘races’. Nazi ideologues used his writings to support their racist theories and social Darwinism. Haeckel is also the author of the « recapitulation » theory, according to which ontogenesis « recapitulates » phylogenesis.
Haeckel had a monistic view of the world, an acute perception of divine immanence and proposed a quasi-deification of the « laws of nature ». « God is found in the law of nature itself. God’s will acts according to laws, both in the raindrop that falls and in the crystal that grows, as well as in the scent of the rose and in the minds of men. »i
This immanence can be found in the « cell memory » (« Zellgedächtnis ») and in the « soul of crystals » (« Kristallseelen »).
From such a interpenetration of « Nature » and « God », Haeckel deduced the end of « the belief in a personal God, in the personal immortality of the soul and in the freedom of human will.”
The whole metaphysics was to be called into question.
« Alongside the law of evolution and closely related to it, one can consider as the supreme triumph of modern science the almighty law of substance, the law of conservation of matter (Lavoisier, 1789) and of conservation of energy (Robert von Mayer, 1842). These two great laws are in manifest contradiction with the three great central dogmas of metaphysics, which most cultured people still today consider to be the most precious treasures: belief in a personal God, in the personal immortality of the soul, and in the freedom of the human will. (…) These three precious objects of faith will only be removed, as truths, from the realm of pure science. On the other hand they will remain, as a precious product of fantasy, in the realm of poetry. »ii
There are two points to consider, here. On the one hand the question of the validity of the « supreme laws » of modern science, the law of evolution and the law of conservation, and on the other hand the question of the « manifest contradiction » between these laws and the « three central dogmas of metaphysics ».
On the first point, it should be recalled that the purely scientific vision of the conservation and evolution of the world cannot alone account for singular phenomena such as the Big Bang. Where does the initial energy of the universe come from? « It has always been there, by the law of conservation », answer the believers in pure science.
But this very thesis is in itself undemonstrable, and therefore unscientific.
« Pure science » is apparently based on an unprovable axiom. Hence « pure science » does not seem quite scientific.
The second point is the question of the « manifest contradiction », according to Haeckel, between the two laws of conservation and the central dogmas of metaphysics such as freedom of the will or the immortality of the soul.
In 1907, only one year after the publication of Haeckel’s quoted work, the American physician Duncan MacDougall measured the weight of six patients just before and after their death. He found a decrease of 21 grams, which he deduced could be the weight of the soul escaping from the human bodyiii. A heated controversy ensued. The experiment was deemed to be flawed, for many commentators.
In any case, obviously, if an immaterial soul « exists », it cannot have mass. Or, if it has a « mass », then it is a SISO, a Soul In Name Only…
However, assuming the validity of D. MacDougall’s experimental results, one may infer that the 21-gram loss of mass, supposedly observed in some individuals after death, may come from causes other than the alleged soul’s exit from the body.
It would be possible to imagine, for example, a « sublimation », in the chemical sense, of certain components of the human body, which would thus pass directly from the solid state to the gaseous state, without passing through a liquid state. In fact, this « sublimation » would result in an exhalation or evaporation of the matter transformed into a gaseous mass.
The « last sigh » would thus not only consist of the air contained in the lungs of the dying body, but also of a mass of body matter « sublimated » by the metabolic transformations accompanying death itself. Among these transformations, those affecting the brain would be particularly crucial, considering that the brain consumes about a quarter of the body’s metabolic energy.
Death would have a physico-chemical effect on the brain in the form of a « sublimation » of part of its substance.
The « soul » may not have any mass and any weight. But the biological « structure » of a living brain, its « organization », this specific seal of a singular person, could prove to have a weight of several grams. At the time of death, this « structure » would rapidly decompose and « exhale » out of the body.
The « structure » of the brain, or its « systemic » organization, constitutes – from a materialistic point of view – the very essence of the individual. It can also be defined as the very condition of its « freedom », or « spirit », to use metaphysical concepts.
What is certain is that whether one has a materialistic point of view or not, death obviously produces a systemic loss, which also translates into a loss of matter.
How can the laws of « conservation » of substance and energy account for such a « loss »?
Just as every birth adds something to the unique and unheard of in this world, so every death subtracts something unique and unspeakable.
Whether we call this unique, unspeakable something: « soul », « breath », « structure » or « 21-gram mass », has no real importance, from the point of view that interests us here.
In any case, death results in a net, absolute loss, which the scientific laws of « conservation » cannot explain.
The soul, or freedom of the will for that matter, really have no « mass ». When they are « lost », the laws of conservation do not find them in their balance sheets.
It is an important lesson.
The « supreme triumph of modern science, the almighty law of substance » just cannot grasp a spiritual « essence ».
Not just any essence. Particularly the essence of our own personal soul. Once this is well understood, the implications are immense.
iii MacDougall, Duncan. “The Soul: Hypothesis Concerning Soul Substance Together with Experimental Evidence of The Existence of Such Substance.” American Medicine. April 1907. Here is a significant excerpt : « The patient’s comfort was looked after in every way, although he was practically moribund when placed upon the bed. He lost weight slowly at the rate of one ounce per hour due to evaporation of moisture in respiration and evaporation of sweat. During all three hours and forty minutes I kept the beam end slightly above balance near the upper limiting bar in order to make the test more decisive if it should come. This loss of weight could not be due to evaporation of respiratory moisture and sweat, because that had already been determined to go on, in his case, at the rate of one sixtieth of an ounce per minute, whereas this loss was sudden and large, three-fourths of an ounce in a few seconds. The bowels did not move; if they had moved the weight would still have remained upon the bed except for a slow loss by the evaporation of moisture depending, of course, upon the fluidity of the feces. The bladder evacuated one or two drams of urine. This remained upon the bed and could only have influenced the weight by slow gradual evaporation and therefore in no way could account for the sudden loss. There remained but one more channel of loss to explore, the expiration of all but the residual air in the lungs. Getting upon the bed myself, my colleague put the beam at actual balance. Inspiration and expiration of air as forcibly as possible by me had no effect upon the beam. My colleague got upon the bed and I placed the beam at balance. Forcible inspiration and expiration of air on his part had no effect. In this case we certainly have an inexplicable loss of weight of three-fourths of an ounce. Is it the soul substance? How other shall we explain it? »
Prophetic projections or disenchanted salvos, the blows come from all sides. « Decadence » (Nietzsche). « Malaise in civilization » (Freud). « Decline of the West » (Spengler). « Mechanical petrifaction » (Max Weber). « Crisis of the mind » (Paul Valéry). « Spiritual sickness of humanity » (C.-G. Jung). « Absence of meaning » (Hannah Arendt). « Crisis of meaning » (John Paul II).
These judgments, recent on the scale of history, testify to the acceleration of a massive phenomenon, but we must go back further to understand its deepest sources.
One of the first signs of decomposition appeared more than a thousand years ago. The via moderna (the « modern way ») inaugurated the deconstruction of metaphysics in the Middle Ages. A few monks, tired of the scholastics, began to scatter to the wind the « chimeras » and « empty abstractions » of classical philosophies. « Truth » or the « universal » were now just empty words, fallacies. Only in facts was truth to be found. The only universals were now the singularities.
With nominalism was thus founded the first basis for modern ideas. It took several centuries to broaden and deepen it. Empiricism, relativism and positivism subsequently accompanied the progress of science and technology. At the same time, the nominalist lesson, coming out of philosophical circles, was adapted to politics, for the benefit of the Prince and the advantage of Leviathan.
We had finished with metaphysics, and with the classical age, but certainly not with religion. Shortly after the fall of Constantinople, the invention of printing, the discovery of America and the Copernican revolution, markers of the entry into « modern » times, a part of the West became religiously and lastingly infatuated with a core of ruthless and pessimistic ideas: universal reign of sin, absolute decay of man, assured perdition of the whole of humanity, – with the inexplicable exception of a few « saints ».
These singular, self-proclaimed « saints », imbued with an exceptional ethos, did not remain inert. Assuming their « manifest destiny, » they began to preach relentlessly, century after century, a corrosive despair, contempt for the weak, abandonment of the poor, while the « war of each against each » raged.
Nominalism and the Reformation had attacked, from two different angles, the old « Good News » that had once been offered to all. The Enlightenment came, also dominated by nominalism, in a resolutely more materialistic version. It was then possible to assert without detours that humanity is in reality only an « abstraction », and that there are only « concrete men » (Goethe). The idea made its mark, and just before the First World War it was declared that « natural law » and the idea of « humanity » had become « almost incomprehensible in Germany » (E. Troeltsch). The death of the word heralded the death of the thing. This misunderstood « abstraction » was soon to be given an appallingly concrete meaning.
After two world wars and several genocides, nominalism still occupies the top of the pavement. The philosophers who claim to be its advocates still seem incapable of defining the essence of « good, » « true » and « just ».
And now the end of the « great narratives » (les « grands récits »), announced by Foucault and Lyotard, adds a final touch to this millennial deconstruction.
From now on, the Dasein, alone and naked, without Idea and without Narrative, can be delivered to the games, without why and without hindrance, of the political and social forces, in the economic and technological immanence, and in the continuous confrontation with the resurgence, providential and reactionary, of tribalisms and identities.
Special groups, special interests, selfishness are exalted. The idea of a common world is moving further and further away.
The cleavages are getting worse and settling over time. Globalized capitalism produces an oligarchy of super-dominants and an infinite number of proletarians, enslaved in circles concentric to the Empire. On one side, a few masters of the world, on the other, all the « rest ». The future promises to be sectarian, oligarchic and mafia-like.
Clear, irrevocable signs of decay, poverty, weakness, servitude are, generation after generation, devolved to the immense mass of losers, condemned on earth and « reproved » in heaven.
In this planetary division of destinies, the faith of the « saints » of the day guides and energizes them beyond measure. Their religion is not opium for them, it is their cocaine.
They went to school. Metaphysical egoism and hatred of the common have been transposed far beyond the religious sphere, into a world that is already no longer common, but divided. Inclusion is reserved there to the few, general exclusion is for all the rest, and dissociation is universal.
The ancient battle of the Calvinist « saints » during the Wars of Religion and the Hobbesian War of All Against All in 17th century England has spread and extended beyond all expectations.
The Christian fundamentalists and the born again who today wage war on the « axis of evil » are the heirs of the Puritans who approached the shores of New England, to appropriate in blood a land that was « manifestly » intended for them.
Untouchable ideas (Manichaeism of good and evil, of the chosen and the fallen, of friend and foe) adapt to all times, all religions, all latitudes. Formerly Gnostic, yesterday Calvinistic, they can be summarized as follows: « After me, the Flood ».
In more formal style: God’s grace is reserved for the chosen few and nothingness is promised to the rest of the world.
These ideas have provoked countless wars over the centuries. Today, they serve as mantras in the worldwide « war of civilizations ». They are translated into all languages: « In God we trust », « Gott mit uns », « Dieu avec nous », « Allahu-akbar ».
It’s not that there is no alternative.
Famous thinkers have long been engaged in other or contrary utopias.
Leibniz proposed to build the « republic of the minds ». Rousseau believed in the expression of the « general will ». Kant philosophized about the « general interest of humanity ».
But have the peoples, crammed into the world’s jungle, heard them? The law of the powerful is always stronger than the law of the weak. What can « paper and words » do before « the sword and the hand of men »? i
The religion of global dissociation and disenchantment continues to grow. The once religious and moral schism has become secularized and trivialized. A ferocious schizophrenia gnaws at the global unconscious, psychically cracked, torn, mutilated.
It is necessary to analyze and anamnesis it, to understand the decomposition of the modern mind and the programmed end of the common. It is necessary to delve into the early days of the era, to find its Manichean and Gnostic preliminaries, to reveal its initial wounds, and their innumerable after-effects.
The ancient past also tells of a possible future. The « knowledge societies » take up the ancient Gnostic utopia in another way.
The new believers believe in other immanent gods: knowledge, technique, science, indefinite progress.
They love a new law, « convergence ».
They compose a neo-Genesis, where there is no longer evening or morning, no abyss or firmament, no divine wind, but the demiurgic fusion of nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, neurosciences and artificial intelligence. Immanence emerges at the nanoscale, and universally spreads its Gospel, through the globalization of materials, materials and capital. Bits, atoms, neurons, and genes will be the unsuspecting heroes of the new Global Narrative.
A new Promised Land can be hoped for. Immense « free lands », with indefinite, putative borders, have already been appropriated by the pioneers of invention, the pilgrim fathers of appropriation.
A trans-humanity with « augmented » genes ii will tomorrow take exclusive possession of it. Homo Sapiens 2.0 will leave behind them an obsolete « remnant », humanity 1.0.
iiA report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) expressed alarm about this in the following terms: « In the long term, nanomedicine could lead to a radical transformation of the human species. Humanity’s efforts to change itself as and when it wants to could lead to a situation where it would no longer be possible to speak of a « human being » at all « . Cf. Bert Gordjin, « Les questions éthiques en nanomédecine« , in Nanotechnologies, éthique et politique, UNESCO Editions, Paris, 2008.
Wittgenstein famously wrote in his Philosophical Investigations that if a lion could speak we could not understand him.
Why only a lion? Isn’t it also true of the tuna, the dragonfly or a rattlesnake’s nest? Or even of a pile of dust, a block of granite or a cluster of galaxies? Or a prion, a plasmid, a boson? Or an angel, a seraphim, and even God himself?
The living, the non-living or the beyond-living speak languages that cannot be translated into each other. They live or non-live in their own worlds, – while living or non-living side by side in the common world. The lion smells the blood of the impala, hears its terror, feeds on its scent, and the whole surrounding savanna learns an immemorial lesson from this feast.
God fills the world with His subtle grammar, but a single boson, too, fills the universe, in its own very tenuous way.
It is an ancient dream to speak all languages, past, present and all those yet to come.
But it is an unspeakable dream to desire to speak the language of all the aeons, all the universes.
One might say: but a stone doesn’t speak, nor a proton or a star! Only beings endowed with reason do speak.
This is, of course, a short view. Can we conceive what we are not?
The Leonine language seems closer to the Human language than to a mineral language, because there is no lack of animal metaphors, that could bind the two worldviews.
Isn’t the crushing of bones in the jaws a kind of sentence? Isn’t the agony of the victim, the smell of fear and death part of the universal volapük?
The lion « leonises ». The snake « snakes ». Man « anthropomorphizes ».
What about the aborted dream of the fly? What about the photon’s fatigue? The angel’s grief?
All these lives, these feelings, — outside of all syntax, all lexicon, but not totally out of all intuition.
If we put a million Champollions on the spot, to finally decipher the roar of the panther, the cry of the whale or the vibrato of the lizard, wouldn’t we be able to determine non-thought of structures, shapes, meaning? Wouldn’t there be some hope of establishing correspondences between languages eminently « other » than, say, Greek, Hebrew or Sanskrit? Is it certain that we will never find a new Rosetta Stone one day revealing that the languages of the living are living their own lives?
And life is not reserved for the living, by the way. The non-living, or at least what the living call it, also lives a life that is undoubtedly more secret and more fundamental, initiated at the borders of time and space…
All languages have one thing in common. They survive those who speak them. They form a world apart, which also lives its own life.
How can we understand ourselves if we cannot even understand the nature of the language we think we speak?
If we could really understand ourselves, and our language itself, would we understand better all the infinite otherness in the silent worlds, all that is obscure (to us) in the universe?
There is talking and talking. There is speaking without saying anything, and there is speaking without looking like it; there is speaking with covered words, or between the lines.
There is the music of words and there are tones. The high tone, the firm tone, the beautiful tone, the warm tone, the acid tone, the fat tone. So many tones! You need the ear, you need sensitivity.
In the slightest breath, there are ignored palimpsests, impassive, waiting for their time. And the stars also breathe.
‘Words’ are also the dark and shiny reflections, the muffled flashes of a latent fire, a fire of meaning, inaudible, unhoped for, smouldering under the ashes of appearances.
Claude Lévi-Strauss is a good representative of contemporary thought. He displays its salient characteristics: despair of thought, insignificance of being, erection of non-knowledge as the ultimate « knowledge », universal doubt (doubt of meaning and doubt of doubt itself), all this in a sardonic and cheerful tone. « Let humanity disappear and the earth disappear, nothing will be changed in the march of the cosmos. Hence a final paradox: we are not even sure that this knowledge that reveals our insignificance has any validity. We know that we are nothing or not much, and, knowing this, we no longer even know if this knowledge is one. To think of the universe as immeasurable to thought forces us to question thought itself. We don’t get out of it.”i
What will be the thought of the universe in a thousand or two thousand years from now, who can claim to know it today? And who can think in the languages of the day what will be thought here and there, in the universe, in eight hundred thousand years or in a hundred million centuries? These ages seem distant only because of a lack of imagination.
We are really tired of the old marquis who are tired of dreaming. Post-modern doubt is a paper origami. We yearn for fresh and lively intuitions, for other universes, for horizons with naked orients, for stars without north, and the worn-out metaphors of extra-galactic confines or exo-biological chimeras already bore us with their brash roundness and frank blandness.
To think far away, however, little is enough. We need to change the signs, to swap the senses, and to dream of hurricanes. Everything quickly becomes different then. The thoughts of the day seem like slow caterpillars, far from the butterfly that is sensed, and very unworthy of the pensive eagle, high in the cloud.
It is tempting to believe that thought is immeasurable to the universe, and, diagonally agonistic, line of fire, that it transcends it easily. The humblest thought goes further than the white dwarves stars, and it pierces the fabric of the world with a hole blacker than the whole dark matter.
Any thought that is a little audacious obliges us to question the universe itself, its meaning and its essence. Every thought then cries out: « We are getting out of it immediately », – and not: « we are not getting out of it ».
The whole universe is in itself « insignificant ». By contrast, thought “means”, it has “meaning”, and it gives “meaning”.
If the entire universe ever receives one day some meaning, that meaning will not come from cosmic background noise, the shape of nebulae, or the sanctification of the boson (the so-called « God’s particle »).
If a demiurge created the world, the cosmos has no meaning of its own. Its meaning is obviously to be found elsewhere than in it.
And if the world created itself, by some kind of automatism, how could it give itself its own meaning, suck its own blood? Does the baby child at the breast suck herself?
The cognitive and ontological pessimism of post-modernism is equivalent to its opposite, from the point of view of the free play of radical hypotheses. The pessimism of insignificance has no logical weight of its own.
The existence of human consciousness, the irrefutable manifestation of being, must be placed far above the imperfect dreams of putative multiverse.
Universe, multiverse, it doesn’t matter what they are or how many they are, because in reality « you can’t get out of it ».
Consciousness, in essence, its deepest mystery, is that the deeper you get into it, the more you « come out », — as from an eternal Egypt.
iClaude Lévi-Strauss, De près et de loin. Ed. O. Jacob, Paris, 1988
The « Hidden Jew » is an ancient figure. Joseph and Esther hid for a time. Esther’s name (אֶסְתֵּר) means « I will hide ». But, somewhat paradoxically, it is because she revealed her secret to Ahasuerus, that she saved her people.
Forced to hide under the Inquisition, and again paradoxically, the Marranos were « adventurers », « pioneers who can be counted among the first modern men », according to Shmuel Triganoi. They were the ferment of Jewish modernity. They are even said to be at the origin and the foundations of modernity in general.
« The Marrano experience reveals the existence in Judaism of a potentiality of Marranism, of a predisposition to Marranism, which has nothing to do with the fact that it also represents a decay of Judaism. The ambivalence is greater: imposed by force, it is also a high fact of the courage and perseverance of the Jews. The real question is this: is Marranism structurally inherent to Judaism, was it inscribed in Judaism from the beginning? (…) How could Jews have thought that they were becoming even more Jewish by becoming Christians (basically this is what Jewish-Christians have thought since Paul)?”ii
This question goes beyond the scope of Jewish-Christian relations alone. It goes further back to the origins. Did not Moses live for a time in ambivalence at the court of the Pharaoh?
Philo of Alexandria died around 50 AD. He had no connection with Christianity, of which he was a contemporary. Of Greek and Jewish culture, he knew the Greek philosophers and was well-learned in 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.
A man of crossroads, he sought higher syntheses, new ways, adapted to the mingling of peoples, whose progress he observed.
Philo was certainly not a « hidden Jew ». But he pushed the analysis of tradition and its interpretation to the point of incandescence. Neither a Pharisee, a Sadducee nor an Essene, what kind of Judaism was he then representing?
Philo, two thousand years ago, and the Spanish and Portuguese marranos, five centuries ago, represent two unorthodox ways of claiming Judaism among the Gentiles. They seem to be moving away from it, but only to better return to it, by another kind of fidelity, more faithful perhaps to its spirit than to its letter. In this way they serve as bridges, as links, with the world of nations, offering broad perspectives.
Royaly ignored by the Synagogue, living in a troubled period, just before the destruction of the Second Temple, Philo professed advanced opinions, which could shock the orthodox traditionalists, and which bordered on heresy. Moreover, it was the Christian philosophers and theologians of the first centuries who preserved Philo’s writings, finding a posteriori in his synthetic thinking enough to feed their own reflections.
There was clearly then a difference in perspective between the Jews of Jerusalem, who prayed every day in the Temple, unaware of its imminent destruction, and the Jews of the Diaspora, whose freedom of thought was great.
Let us find an indication of such freedom of research by this line of Philo, typical of his style :
« God and Wisdom are the father and mother of the world, but the spirit cannot bear such parents whose graces are far greater than those it can receive; it will therefore have as its father the right Logos and as its mother the education more appropriate to its weakness.”iii
Philo clarifies the scope of the metaphor: « The Logos is image and eldest son. Sophia is the bride of God, whom God makes fruitful and who generates the world.”
The Logos, « image and eldest son of God »? This was written by a Jew from Alexandria, a few years after the death on a cross of an obscure rabbi from Nazareth, a self-called Messiah? It is not difficult to imagine the reaction of the Doctors of Jewish Law to these stirring words. It is also easy to understand why the Judeo-Christians of the 1st and 2nd centuries decided that Philo would be a precious ally for them, because of his audacity and philosophical interpersonal skills.
In another writing, Philo evokes Wisdom, both a « spouse of God »iv, and a « virgin », of an undefiled nature. How is it possible? It is precisely because the union with God gives the Soul its virginity. Other metaphors abound: the Logos is father and husband of the Soul.
The idea of a mother-virgin wife was not so new. It can be found in various spiritual traditions of Antiquity, especially among the Orphics. The symbolic fusion between the wife and 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 Osiriac tradition, Osiris is the « principle », Isis the « receptacle » and Horus the « product », which is translated philosophically by the triad of the intelligible, the material and the sensible.
Tempted by daring syntheses, Philo was certainly not an orthodox Jew. So what was he then the symbol, the prefiguration of? Of the eternal vigour of Marranism? Of the temptation of an effluence of the spirit? Of an avid search for universals?
Is Marranism so absolutely modern, that it becomes universal? Shmuel Trigano writes: « The dual identity of the modern Jew may well be akin to the Marrano score.”v
But the « Marrano score » is not reserved for « hidden Jews ». It is much more general. It touches on the very identity of modern man. « Marranism was the laboratory of Jewish modernity, even among the Jews who escaped Marranism. Let us go further: Marranism was the very model of all political modernity. »v
A political Marranism? But why not go further, and postulate the possibility of an anthropological attitude fundamentally « Marrano« , potentially touching everyone, and hiding in the heart of all human groups?
What, in fact, does Marranism bear witness to? It testifies to the profound ambivalence of the worldview of messianic belief. « 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.”vi
This feeling of strangeness in the world, of being put off, is not specific to Judaism, it seems to me.
Hinduism and Buddhism, for example, see this world as an illusion, as Māyā. This has also been the feeling of shamans since the dawn of time. The feeling of strangeness to the world is so universal, that it can be considered as a foundation of human consciousness. Man’s heart remains hidden from himself, and from this concealment he has a restless and troubled conscience. Man is for himself a mystery, that the magnificence of this world and its wonders verges on it without really reaching it, and certainly without ever filling it.
Man, shall we say, is fundamentally, anthropologically a « marrano« , torn between his inner and outer selves, his ego and his id, his soul and his abyss. Here is man, apparently complete, in « working order », and he is also aware confusely of all what he is lacking of. A Dasein pursued by doubt.
He discovers, again and again, that the world denies him, that the immense, eternal cosmos welcomes him, one day, we don’t know why or how, and makes a fleeting consciousness emerge from nowhere, which will end up broken, humiliated, by the tumult of unanswered questions. But over time, he also discovers the means to resist alienation, the necessary tricks, and acquires the ability to thwart the game of illusions.
This is a political lesson and a philosophical lesson.
Politics, first of all. 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 totalitarianism are rising on a planetary scale, we will always need this very ancient lesson of duplicity to survive, simply to remain human.
Philosophical, too. In order to prepare a better, more universal world, we will have to follow Philo’s example, navigate freely among religions and nations, thoughts and languages, as if they all belonged to us and were our own.
iShmuel Trigano. Le Juif caché. Marranisme et modernité, In Press Eds, 2000
In the Fayan (« Master Words ») of Yang Xiong, written two thousand years ago, the chapter entitled « Questions about the divine » begins laconically:
« The question is about the divine.
– The heart.
– What do you mean by this?
– Immersing itself in the sky, it becomes heaven. Immersed in the earth, it becomes earth. Heaven and earth are divine clarity, unfathomable, and yet the heart plunges into them as if it were going to fathom them.”i
The divine is indefinable, unintelligible. However, the heart does not care. It tries to form an idea of it, by its impetuous and passionate way of searching for it. It knows that it has no chance of grasping it in its essence or in its existence, in heaven or on earth. Yet he does not hesitate, he throws himself into the bottomless abyss, as if he could reach the bottom.
The heart knows that it cannot reach a bottom that is bottomless. But it rushes into the abyss. It drowns in the immensity, and by guessing the immensity, it becomes immense. It immerses itself in the sky and grasps the sky in itself, it enters the earth and everything in it becomes earth, it jumps into mystery, and mysteriously metamorphoses into mystery.
Only by plunging into the abyss does it discover that it becomes an abyss, and that it has always been an abyss, that it is still an abyss, and will be even more so.
All knowledge of the divine begins with the as if it were possible to know this knowledge. The as if carries the faith of the heart forward or backward. The as if carries the heart beyond what it is and beyond what it knows.
Why does the heart bet on the as if?
Yang Xiong explains it in a commentary on the Tài Xuán Jīng (« The canon of the supreme mystery »):
« The heart hidden in the depths, beauty of the sacred root. Divination: the heart hidden in the depths, the divine is not elsewhere.”ii
Compact, unmistakable style.
In Chinese, « divine » is shen, 神. This ambiguous word also means soul, spirit, mystery, alive, and even God.
« Heart » is xīn 心. Three tears around a blade. Three moons on the mountain. Three gods near a tree.
Shen is xīn. Xīn is shen. The heart drowns in the divine. The divine drowns in the heart.
This idea is classical in Confucianism. It is found in the Mengzi, which quotes Confucius, and Yang Xiong takes it up again in this form:
« The divine in the heart of man! Summon it, it exists. Abandon it, it disappears.”iii
It is the idea, therefore, that the holy man makes the divine exist in the world through his action. He stands on the border between heaven and man. Participating in both worlds, he fills the gap between them.
Yet another image:
« The dragon is writhing in the mud. The lizard basks there. Lizard, lizard, how could you understand the dragon’s aspiration?
– Must the dragon have this desire to rise into the sky?
– When it’s time to rise, it rises. When it is time to dive, it dives. There is both rising and diving at the same time.”iv
When it comes to research, no time form basking in the sun. Or in the mud.
The most remote historical traces of the appearance of monotheistic feeling date back to the time of Amenophis IV, born around 1364 BC. This Egyptian pharaoh, worshipper of the unique God Aten, took the name of Akhenaten, as a sign of the religious revolution he initiated in the Nile valley. The abbreviated fate of his monotheistic « heresy » is known.
Around two centuries later, monotheism reappeared in history with the strange figure of Melchisedech (in Hebrew מַלְכֵּי־צֶדֶק ), high priest of El-Elyon (‘God the Most High’) and king of Salem. It was Melchisedech who gave his blessing to Abram (Abraham), when Abram came to pay him homage and tribute.i
Coming long after Akhenaten, neither Melchisedech nor Abraham obviously « invented » monotheism. The monotheistic idea had already penetrated the consciousness of peoples for several centuries. But they can be credited with having embodied the first « archived » trace of it in the biblical text.
The pure, hard, monotheistic idea has an austere beauty, a shimmering, icy or burning one, depending on the point of view. Taken philosophically, it is the intuition of the One mingled with the idea of the Whole. This simplicity of conception and abstraction reduced to the essential have something restful and consoling about them. Without doubt, the mineral lines of the deserts helped to overshadow the confused and abundant vegetal multiplicity of animism or polytheism, which had blossomed in less severe, greener, landscapes.
A simple idea, monotheism has a revolutionary power. The idea of a single God inevitably leads to the idea of a universal God, which can disturb acquired habits, hinder power interests. In principle, the idea of the « universal » may also have as an unintended consequence the crush of more « local » cultures and traditions.
But Abraham and Moses were able to combine the idea of a single, transcendent, « universal » God with the idea of a « tribal », « national » God, committed to a “chosen” people as « Lord of Hosts », Yahweh Tsabaoth.
The covenant of a “universal” God with a particular, « chosen » people may seem a priori an oxymoron. The election of Israel seems to contradict the universal vocation of a God who transcends human divisions. There is one possible explanation, however. This seemingly contradictory idea was, according to all appearances, the very condition for its deployment and epigenesis, as witnessed in history. It was necessary for a specific people – rather than any particular people – to embody and defend the idea, before it was finally accepted and defended in the rest of the nations.
The monotheistic idea also leads, by an almost natural derivation, to the idea of a personal God, a God to whom man may speak and say « you », a God who also speaks, hears and answers, who may appear or remain silent, present all His glory, or remain desperately absent. The idea of a “personal” God, through its anthropomorphism, is opposed to that of an abstract God, an inconceivable, perpendicular, inalienable principle, transcending everything that the human mind can conceive. What could be more anthropomorphic, in fact, than the concept of « person »? Isn’t this concept, therefore, fundamentally at odds with the essence of a God who is absolutely « Other »?
When, within Judaism, a young village carpenter and rabbi, a good orator and versed in the Scriptures, appeared in Galilee two thousand years ago, Abrahamic monotheism took a seemingly new direction. The One God could also, according to Rabbi Yehoshua of Nazareth, become incarnate freely, « otherwise », through a new understanding of His revelation, His Essence, His Spirit.
But to be fair, from ancient times, other people of different lore had already been thinking about the idea of a Deity with multiple manifestations – without contradiction.
The Indian grammarian Yāska reports in his Nirukta, which is the oldest treatise on the language of the Veda, that according to the original Vedic authors, the deity could be represented by three gods, Savitri, Agni and Vâyu. Savitri means « producer » or « Father ». His symbol is the Sun. Agni, his « Son », has the Fire as his symbol. Vâyu is the Spirit, with Wind as its symbol.
The oldest historically recorded form in which the idea of the divine trinity appears is therefore based on an analogy, term by term, between the material world (the Sun, Fire and Wind) and the metaphysical world (the Father, Son and Spirit).
The Sanskritist Émile Burnouf reports that when the Vedic priest pours clarified butter on Fire (Agni), “Agni” then takes the name of « Anointed One » (in Sanskrit: akta).
Note that « Anointed » is translated in Hebrew as mashia’h, meaning « messiah ».
Agni, the Fire who became the Anointed One, becomes, at the moment of the « anointing », the very mediator of the sacrifice, the one who embodies its ultimate meaning.
Burnouf noted the structural analogy of the Vedic sacrifice with the figure of the Christic sacrifice. « The center from which all the great religions of the earth have radiated is therefore the theory of Agni, of which Christ Jesus was the most perfect incarnation.”ii
Agni, – universal paradigm, « mother idea »? Agni is for the Aryas the principle of all life. All the movements of inanimate things proceed from heat, and heat proceeds from the Sun, which is the « Universal Engine », but also the « Celestial Traveller ». During the Vedic sacrifice, a sacred fire is lit which is the image of the universal agent of Life, and by extension, the image of Thought, the symbol of the Spirit.
Long after the first Vedic prayers had been chanted to Savitri, Agni, Vâyu, some (Judeo-)Christians believers said in their turn and in their own way, even before the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem had occurred: « I believe in the Father, the Son and the Spirit ».
However this Trinitarian formula was admittedly not “Jewish”, since Judaism presented itself as fiercely monotheistic.
But from the point of view of its formal structure, we can say with some level of credibility that it was partly the result of Zoroastrian, Avestic and, more originally, Vedic influences.
In yet another cultural area, the Chinese, the ancient Trinitarian intuition of the divine is also proven. The highest gods of the Tao form a trinity, the « Three Pure Ones » (Sān Qīng , 三清 ).
The first member of the supreme triad is called the Celestial Venerable of the Original Beginning (元始天尊 Yuanshi Tianzun). This God has other names that it is interesting to list: Supreme God Emperor of Jade (玉皇上帝 Yuhuang Shangdi), Great God Emperor of Jade (玉皇大帝 Yuhuang Dadi), or Celestial Treasure (天寶 Tianbao) and finally God of Mystery (玄帝 Xuandi), which is an abbreviation of Supreme God Celestial Mystery (玄天上帝 Xuantian Shangdi).
From these various names it can be deduced that this God is at the « beginning », that He is at the « origin », that He is « supreme », that He is « mystery ».
By analogy with the Christian trinitarian system, this first God of the Taoist trinity could appear as the « Father » God.
The second member of the supreme triad, the Venerable Heavenly One of the Spiritual Treasure (靈寶天尊 Lingbao Tianzun), is also called Lord of the Way (道君 Daojun).
In Christianity, God the « Son » said of Himself that He is « the Way, the Truth, the Life ». The analogy of the « Son » with the « Lord of the Way » is obvious.
The third God of the supreme triad is the Venerated Heavenly One of the Divine Treasure (神寶天尊 Shenbao Tianzun). He is also called the Most High Patriarch Prince or the Old Lord of Supreme Height (太上老君 Taishang Laojun), better known as the Old Child (老子 Laozi).
In Christian symbolism, the Holy Spirit is represented by a dove, flying through the air. The analogy allows for a certain approximation of the Holy Spirit with the Lord of Supreme Height.
Vedism, Taoism and Christianity share, as can be seen, the intuition of a supreme and unique divine entity which diffracts into three representationsiii.
iii In my opinion, it may be possible to also find a possible equivalent to this trinitarian intuition in Judaism, with the Eternal (YHVH), the Torah and the Shekhinah. The Torah is « divine ». It is said that the Torah existed before the world was even created. And the Torah was also able to « incarnate » itself in some specific way. The Zohar ‘Hadach (Shir haShirim 74b) teaches that there are 600,000 letters in the Torah. If we do an exact count, we find that the Torah actually contains 304,805 letters. In any case, it is certain that the divine Torah has allowed itself to « incarnate » in a « certain number » of Hebrew letters… The Shekhinah also incarnates the divine « presence ». A single divine entity, therefore, and three representations.
There are cultures that value prose, argument, dialectics and rhetoric in the search for clear truths. Others prefer hymns, psalms, symbols, enigma, and seek first of all to praise and honor mystery.
Some peoples have pushed reason, wisdom and philosophy as far as possible – as maieutic powers.
Other peoples have preferred revelation, prophecy and mystery, subordinating the work of the spirit to transcendence, to its criticism and interpretation.
The paths of truth are multiple.
Perhaps one day one will describe how favorable climates, comfortable summers, open landscapes may help change worldviews. Scattered archipelagos, alluvial plains, secret deserts, wide and ample valleys, have respective affinities for different ways of thinking. Do the plains of the Indus have the same light than the islands of Greece? Does the Nile valley compare with the Jordan valley?
The tribes of Noah, Shem, Cham or Japhet each had their own way of seeing the sea and the stars, the sun, the mountains, the cow, the lamb and the night, fire, milk and sacrifice. These are only facts and images for some, but metaphors, intuitions, for others. The arid desert fits in with a mineral religion. The linear, naked horizon leads geometrically to monotheism. The smiling myriads of sea waves and the profusion of scattered islands probably may evoke more easily polytheistic thoughts – the solar unit diffracts into billions of labile splinters, and the earth crumbles into the sea.
The idea of a single God does not belong to the mind alone; the climate also exudes it, the landscape shapes it, and a suitable language is needed to exalt it.
The Semitic religions did not recognize the divine essence of variety; they did not admire the plurality of the divine within them. The names El, Eloh, YHVH, Adonai, Baal, Elion, El Shaddai, or Allah concentrate all the intuition, all the meaning, in the One.
But the multiple names of the One proclaim it, they repeat it in all tones: their number bears witness to this: – all these names of the One are not themselves one.
All these names of the One are as many multiple veils.
The Elohim, a plural noun of the One – proclaimed this in the language itself.
Of pure and clear monotheism, one can undoubtedly say that it requires, to put it bluntly, intransigence. One, only one, not two, three, twelve, a thousand or billions. How could one be the two? Or the three? Or infinity?
But is God only One? Isn’t He also Infinite? If He is One and Infinite, then He is also Two, at least conceptually-wise. And One, and Two and Infinite make Three. Etc.
The world is wider than flat deserts, deeper than open seas. Over there, towards the Indus, or near the banks of the Oxus, people have for millennia seen the divine wherever they looked, wherever the spirit set its wing.
The complexity of grammar, the richness of words, the spirit of research, the freedom of thought, the critical capacity, were not an obstacle, but other wings still, making the divine glimmer through many other prisms.
Finesse is not useless in these matters. The mind must become tolerant when one becomes aware of human destiny, of its variegated unity.
Only the north makes the south possible. East and west stand together at both ends of the day. The one and the multiple find their complement, their inner duality in each other.
The infinity of possibilities is said to be found in the unity of being.
If God is really One, why is humanity not yet One? For what reason? For what purpose?
Renan said in his provoking style: “Who will dare to say that by revealing the divine unity and definitively suppressing local religions, the Semitic race has not laid the fundamental stone for the unity and progress of humanity?”i
In the Semitic system, God, in essence, is far from mankind, immensely far. But God chose a Nabi, a prophet, an anointed one, and revealed Himself to him, and through the Nabi to mankind. The Semites see in the world, always, everywhere, only the fulfillment of this unique revelation, the revealed will of a unique Being infinitely transcendent to those multiple beings to whom the revelation of unity is made.
The One revealed the “Oneness”.
And yet, by essence, the multiple, the diverse, the far, the near, are not « one ». They are here and now, or there and far. And the here and there are essentially multiple. Only the One is not “multiple”.
Fundamental contrast. One must then recognize a double state of being, the multiple here or there, and the One elsewhere.
Mankind in the future will no doubt try again to « unify » by some transcendental intuition, this double state of being, the One and the Multiple, the far and the near, transcendence and immanence.
The earth and the stars, the desert and the seas, the mountain and the plain – are all multiple metaphors of this unique intuition, – the universe is also a multi-verse, i.e. it hides its essence.
By analogy, we may infer that a unique and diverse humanity is bound to be, in essence, trans-human.
iErnest Renan. Histoire générale et système comparé des langues sémitiques. (1863)
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
In the ancient Umbrian language, the word « man » is expressed in two ways: ner– and veiro-, which denote the place occupied in society and the social role. This differentiation is entirely consistent with that observed in the ancient languages of India and Iran: nar– and vīrā.
In Rome, traces of these ancient names can also be found in the vocabulary used in relation to the Gods Mars (Nerio) and Quirinus (Quirites, Viriles), as noted by G. Dumézili.
If there are two distinct words for « man » in these various languages, or to differentiate the god of war (Mars) and the god of peace (Quirinus, – whose name, derived from *covirino– or *co-uirio-, means « the god of all men »), it is perhaps because man is fundamentally double, or dual, and the Gods he gives himself translate this duality?
If man is double, the Gods are triple. The pre-capitoline triad, or « archaic triad » – Jupiter, Mars, Quirinus -, in fact proposes a third God, Jupiter, who dominates the first two.
What does the name Jupiter tell us?
This name is very close, phonetically and semantically, to that of the Vedic God Dyaus Pitar, literally « God the Father », in Sanskrit द्यौष् पिता / Dyauṣ Pitā or द्यौष्पितृ / Dyauṣpitṛ.
The Sanskrit root of Dyaus (« God ») is दिव् div-, « heaven ». The God Dyau is the personified « Heaven-Light ».
The Latin Jupiter therefore means « Father-God ». The short form in Latin is Jove, (genitive Jovis).
The linguistic closeness between Latin, Avestic and Vedic – which is extended in cultural analogies between Rome, Iran and India – is confirmed when referring to the three words « law », « faith » and « divination », – respectively, in Latin: iūs, credo, augur. In the Vedic language, the similarity of these words is striking: yōḥ, ṡṛad-dhā, ōjas. In Avestic (ancient Iranian), the first two terms are yaoš and zraz-dā, also quite similar.
Dumézil states that iūs is a contraction of *ioves-, close to Jove /Jovis. and he adds that this word etymologically refers to Vedic yōḥ (or yos) and Avestic yaoš.
The three words yaoš, yōḥ (or yos) and iūs have the same etymological origin, therefore, but their meanings have subsequently varied significantly.
In Avestic, the word yaoš has three uses, according to Dumézil :
-To sanctify an invisible entity or a mythical state. Thus this verse attributed to Zoroaster: « The religious conscience that I must sanctify [yaoš-dā].”ii
-To consecrate, to perform a ritual act, as in the expression: « The consecrated liquor » [yaoš-dātam zaotram].iii
-To purify what has been soiled.
These concepts (« sanctification », « consecration », « purification ») refer to the three forms of medicine that prevailed at the time: herbal medicine, knife medicine and incantations.
Incidentally, these three forms of medicine are based respectively on the vitality of the plant world and its power of regeneration, on the life forces associated with the blood shed during the « sacrifice », and on the mystical power of prayers and orations.
In the Vedic language, yōḥ (or yos) is associated with prosperity, health, happiness, fortune, but also with the mystical, ritual universe, as the Sanskrit root yaj testifies, « to offer the sacrifice, to honor the divinity, to sanctify a place ».
But in Latin, iūs takes on a more concrete, legal and « verbal » rather than religious meaning. Iūs can be ´said´: « iū-dic« , – hence the word iūdex, justice.
The Romans socialised, personalised, legalised and ‘secularised’ iūs in a way. They make iūs an attribute of everyone. One person’s iūs is equivalent to another person’s iūs, hence the possible confrontations, but also the search for balance and equilibrium, – war or peace.
The idea of « right » (jus) thus comes from a conception of iūs, founded in the original Rome, but itself inherited from a mystical and religious tradition, much older, and coming from a more distant (Indo-Aryan) East. But in Rome it was the juridical spirit of justice that finally prevailed over the mystical and religious spirit.
The idea of justice reached modern times, but what about the spirit carried in three Indo-Aryan languages by the words iūs, yaoš-dā, yōs, originally associated with the root *ioves– ?
One last thing. We will notice that the words yōḥ and Jove, seem to be phonetically and poetically close to two Hebrew names of God: Yah and YHVH (Yahweh).
The ancient Greeks were not content with their twelve principal gods and a host of minor gods. They also worshipped an « Unknown God » (Agnostos Theos, Ἄγνωστος Θεός ).
Paul of Tarsus, in his efforts to evangelise, was aware of this and decided to take advantage of it. He made a speech on the Agora of Athens:
« Athenians, in every respect you are, I see, the most religious of men. Walking through your city and considering your sacred monuments, I found an altar with the inscription: « To the unknown god ». Well, what you worship without knowing it, I have come to tell you. »i
He had little success, however, with the Athenians. Perhaps his rhetoric was not sufficiently sharp. The tradition of the « unknown God » was, it is true, already very old, and known far beyond Greece. For example, in India, in the texts of the Vedas, some two thousand years before Paul discovered it in Athens.
The Vedic priests prayed to a God whom they called « Which? », which was a very grammatical solution to signifying their ignorance, and a subtle way of opening wide the doors of the possible.
The God « Which » alone represented all the known and unknown gods with a single interrogative pronoun. Remarkable economy of means. Strong evocative power, subsuming all possible gods, real or imaginary, gods of all ages, peoples, cultures.
The Vedic priests used to repeat as a refrain: « To which God shall we offer the holocaust? », which may be in a way equivalent to saying: « To the God ‘Which’, we shall we offer the holocaust…”ii
The Vedas made of this « question » a repeated invocation, and a litany simultaneously addressed to the one God, the only Sovereign of the universe, the only life-giving God, the only God above all gods, and indeed « blessed » by them all.
« In the beginning appears the golden seed of light.
He alone was the sovereign-born of the world.
He fills the earth and the sky.
– To which God shall we offer the holocaust?
He who gives life and strength,
him whose blessing all the gods themselves invoke,
immortality and death are only its shadow!
– To which God shall we offer the holocaust?
He whose powerful gaze stretched out over these waters,
There are several monotheistic religions that claim to know and state the name of the God they claim as their God. But if this God is indeed the one, supreme God, then is not His Name also essentially One? And this Name must be far above all the names given by men, it obviously transcends them. But many religions, too self-assured, do not hesitate to multiply the names « revealed », and to this unique God they give not one name, but three, ten, thirteen, ninety-nine or a thousand.
A God whose « reign », « power » and « glory » fill heaven and earth, no doubt the epithets and attributes can be multiplied, giving rise to the multiplicity of His putative names.
It seems to me that in the Veda, the idea of God, the idea of a God as being too elusive in the nets of language, perhaps comes closest to its essence when named as a question.
We will say again, no doubt, long into the distant future, and beyond the millennia, with the Vedas: Which God?
Aristotle says that happiness lies in contemplationi. Contemplation is for man the highest possible activity. It allows him to reach an otherwise unreachable level of consciousness, by fully mobilizing the resources of his own « noos ».
Greek philosophy places the « noos » or “noûs” (νοῦς ) well above the « logos » (λόγος), just as it privileges intuition over reason.
The νοῦς represents the faculty of vision, contemplation, – of the mind.
The word contemplation comes from the Latin templum, which originally means « the square space delimited by the augur in the sky and on earth, within which he collects and interprets omens ».ii
By extension, the templum can mean the entire sky (templa caeli, literally: « the temples of the sky »), but also the infernal regions, or the plains of the sea.
« To contemplate » initially means, therefore, « to look at the sky », — in order to watch for signs of the divine will.
Christianity has not hesitated to value the idea of contemplation, even though it is borrowed from Greek and Latin « paganism ». S. Augustine proposed a classification of the degrees of growth and consciousness of the soul. In a scale of seven levels, he places contemplation at the pinnacleiii.
Degree 1: The soul « animates » (plants).
Degree 2 : The soul « feels and perceives » (animals).
Degree 3 : The soul produces « knowledge, reason and the arts » (men).
Degree 4: The soul gains access to the « Virtus » (virtue, moral sense).
Degree 5: The soul obtains « Tranquillitas » (a state of consciousness in which death is no longer feared).
Degree 6: The soul reaches the « Ingressio » (« the approach »).
Degree 7 : The soul surrenders to the « Contemplatio » (the final « vision »).
Ingressio implies an appetite for knowledge and understanding of higher realities. The soul directs its gaze upwards, and from then on, nothing agitates it or distracts it from this search. It is taken by an appetite to understand what is true and sublime (Appetitio intellegendi ea quae vere summeque sunt).
At the very top of this ladder of consciousness is « contemplation », that is, the « vision of the divine ».
Modern thought is rather incapable of accounting for this « contemplation » or « vision ». But this does not prevent some “modern” thinkers from being somewhat titillated by the general idea of contemplation.
For example, Gilles Deleuze said a few words about contemplation in one of his courses, -though in a rather clumsy style, which I am rendering here as faithfully as possible: « This is exactly what Plotinus tells us: everything rejoices, everything rejoices in itself, and it rejoices in itself because it contemplates the other. You see, – not because it rejoices in itself. Everything rejoices because it contemplates the other. Everything is a contemplation, and that is what makes everything happy. That is to say, joy is full contemplation. Joy rejoices in itself as its contemplation is filled. And of course it is not itself that joy contemplates. As joy contemplates the other thing, it fills itself up. The thing fills with itself as it contemplates the other thing. And he [Plotinus] says: and not only animals, not only souls, but you and I, we are self-filled contemplations. We are small joys.”iv
“Self-filled contemplations »? Small joys »? Is that it?
Deleuze is far more modest in his ambition than any past auguries, or Augustine! Quite shy of ever contemplating the divine!
From this, I infer that ´modernity´ is not well equipped, no doubt, to take up the thread of a meditation that has continuously obsessed seers since the dawn of humanity.
The shamans of the Palaeolithic, in the cave of the Pont d’Arc, known as the Chauvet cave, painted inspired metaphors by the glow of trembling torches. From which imagined vision, from which cervical lobe, did their inspiration come from?
The prophets of the Aurignacian « contemplated » under their fingers the appearance of « ideas » with a life of their own… They also saw the power that they had received, – to create worlds, and to share them, beyond tenths of millennia.
These ideas, these worlds, come now to move us, forty thousand years later.
How many “images” our own “modernity”, how many contemporary “ideas”, I ask, will still « move » humanity in forty thousand years from now?
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.
« Scientific revolutions are in fact metaphorical revolutions. »i
I´d like to reverse this assertion and to generalize it. Any metaphorical revolution opens the door to scientific, philosophical and political revolutions.
Any truly new and powerful metaphor bears a vision, a projected, imaginary view of the world, and therefore, in favorable circumstances, can engender new changes in the real world, or even new worlds.
A good metaphor carries the seeds of a new « narrative », of which it is only the first image, the initial élan. Any truly revolutionary vision is the first sign of an archipelago of new concepts in the making, with their potentially disruptive power.
For example, the idea of a « noosphere »ii, coined by Teilhard de Chardin, reveals an « envelope » of thoughts, bathing humanity with its flows and energies, and will have unimaginable implications on the social and political level.
The metaphor of the « transhuman » (trasumanar), first used by Dante in the Divine Comedy, is perhaps even more brilliant, since it points to the actual existence of a « meta-sphere » of consciousness and life.
“Trans-humanity » is in perpetual transhumance. It has a vocation to reach unheard of worlds.
Dantesque « transhuman » and modern « transhumanism » should not be confused. “Transhumanism », a recent word, embedding a new ideology, has nothing to do with the metaphor initially proposed by Dante more than seven centuries ago.
There is nothing metaphysical about “transhumanism”. It only contains the idea that technical and scientific evolution will, it is assumed, favor the appearance of a « singularity ». Vernor Vinge and Ray Kurzweil are its prophets. This « singularity » will embody a tipping point towards an intellectually and physically « augmented » humanity.
This « transhumanism », it seems to me, is flatly reductive. Science and technology are the bearers of considerable openings, but it is naïve to believe that they alone will determine the conditions for a transformation of humanity, its leap, its passage towards transhumanity.
More than forty thousand years ago, the caves of the Palaeolithic were already secret, deep sanctuaries, frequented by shamans, some of whom were also artists.
The Palaeolithic religion, to which the cave paintings bear witness, still escapes the best informed analyses today (the enlightening work of Alain Testart show the intrinsic limits of the modern approach of paleo-anthropology).
All of these paintings, whose execution is spread out without discontinuity over a period of many thousands years, testify to an assumed perception of a ´transcendence´ by men in the Palaeolithic. Cro-Magnon Man, already a Homo Sapiens, was perhaps wiser than modern man, in this regard, — wiser by a wisdom of which the world today has no idea.
The former President of the French Republic, François Hollande, was not known to be a specialist in transcendence. But, in a speech delivered before a Freemasonic Lodge, he ventured into a few considerations on the future of humanity.
He declared in particular :
« You also wanted to think about the incredible mutations that the new technologies of the living allow us to guess: this is what is called transhumanism or augmented man. This is a formidable question: how far to allow progress, because progress must not be suspected, we must encourage it. How can we master these serious ethical questions? What is at stake is the very idea of humanity, of choice, of freedom. So in the face of these upheavals that some people hope for, that others fear, the vision of Freemasonry is a very precious compass in these times, and a light that helps to grasp the issues and to respond to them. »
When it comes to metaphors, there is a great deal of freedom allowed, of course, but it is important to maintain a minimum of coherence.
Comparing the « vision » to a « compass » and a « light » seems to be a somewhat twisted trope.
The « gaze » of the pilot is guided in the direction indicated by the « compass ».
But the compass depends on the law of magnetism, not optics.
It is then strange, baroque, to suggest that a « gaze » or a « vision » may be a « compass », as if it could create an imaginary North, at will, and as if it could moreover and ipso facto generate an illuminating light.
Throwing metaphors around without care, just brings more disorder in the great circus of the world.
iMichaël Arbib, Mary Hesse. The Constructions of Reality. 1986
A famous « mystic », possessed by « transcendence », – Ludwig Wittgenstein – , once wrote: « The meaning of the world must be outside it. In the world everything is as it is, and everything happens as it happens; there is no value in it – and if there were, it would be worthless. If there is a value that has value, it must be outside everything that happens, and outside any particular state. For everything that happens and every particular state is accidental.
What makes it non-accidental cannot be in the world, because it would be accidental again.
It has to be out of the world.
That is why there can be no ethical proposals. Proposals cannot express anything superior.
It is clear that ethics cannot be expressed. Ethics is transcendental. (Ethics and aesthetics are one and the same thing).
How the world is, this is for the Superior perfectly indifferent. God does not reveal Himself in the world.(…)
There is certainly something unspeakable. It shows itself, it is the Mystic.”i
Starting from these radical phrases, I come to aspire to a kind of exit, an exodus of thought from the world, a rush to the elsewhere – not a suspension of belief, like Husserl and the phenomenologists, but a sudden plunge upwards, an incredible angelic leap, a Pascal-like flight (« Fire! Fire! »).
The Unspeakable interests me, like a higher point. Of the Unspeakable, nothing can be said about it. But one can at least say that it cannot be silenced. We can at least say this: « It shows itself ».
It’s meager, but it’s a beginning, tiny, and somewhat tangible.
You have to hold on to this hold, start climbing, initiate the climb, without a guide or a rope.
All religions, all of them, are based in their origin on something that, one day, « showed » itself.
It is useless to prioritize today the ancient outpourings of meaning, which made them so confident in their destiny. It is even more useless to use them, these same outpourings, to justify long afterwards the hatred and the self-stated difference that their followers « show » to “others”.
However, in order to show what was « shown » then, and what is still « shown » now, words are not completely useless.
But words are not enough. To attempt an anthropology of the sacred, which would cover a vast space of time, we must also rely on the clues found in the caves of the Palaeolithic, add to them the concomitant revelations of Akhenaten, Zoroaster, Hermes Trismegistus, Moses, Buddha or Jesus, and integrate in addition the dreams of a universal religion, the intuition of the emergence of a “Noos-scene”ii.
If nothing unspeakable is indeed to be found in the world, humanity as a whole has, however, for at least a million years now, been welcoming in its bosom continuous evidence of the subtle monstration of who cannot be designated otherwise than by this epithet.
Reality is therefore not « nothing », it is not « empty », without any « value ». It is, to be sure, very short of its own meaning. But it is also capable, fertile breast, warm belly, of welcoming what is decidedly not speakable. Reality is easily pierced by the presence of an absence, or only its signs.
Karl Barth once had this rather arrogant formula:
« I hold the analogia entis for an invention of the Antichrist.”iii
To refuse the « analogy of being » is to refuse the essential principle of medieval theology, that of believing that an « analogy » between nature and the supernatural, the lower and the higher, is possible.
Karl Barth thus reveals the essence of his own soul: he is a « Gnostic », – like so many other so-called « modern » thinkers, moreover.
A brief reminder: for « Gnosis », the world is separated, divided. The « good », the « evil ». The « chosen ones » who know, and the « rest », blind and doomed to nothingness. No links, no possible analogies. Relentless cut, a metaphysical wall.
I, myself, am not a Gnostic. I don’t believe in Gnosis.
On the other hand, it seems to me as clear as a thousand Milky Ways, as luminous as a million Orions, that if the world does not contain any meaning in it, and does not seem to have any, it nevertheless incarnates, in spite of itself, by its existence and its entirety, a hidden evidence.
i Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus logico-philosophicus (6.41, 6.42, 6.432, 6.522)
There are five elements (Earth, Water, Fire, Air, Ether), and the human body has five parts that correspond to them. Between the feet and the knees is the level of the Earth. Between the knees and the anus is the level of Water. Between the anus and the heart, that of Fire. Between the heart and the eyebrows, that of Air. Between the eyebrows and the top of the skull, the Ether reigns.
That is not all. These five elements and these five parts of the body have divine correspondences.
Brahman rules the Earth, Viṣṇu Water, Rudra the Fire, Iṥvara Air and Ṥiva Ether.
What does this tight network of disparate relationships imply about the mutual relationships of these five Gods?
Iṥvara is the « Supreme Lord », but it is only one of Brahman‘s manifestations. If Brahman is the ultimate cosmic reality, why is it found between the feet and the knees, rather than at the top of the skull?
These questions are interesting, but they do not touch the essence of the problem. Symbolic systems have their own logic, which is an overall logic. It aims to grasp a Whole, to grasp a meaning of a higher order. What is important is to understand the general movement of symbolic thought, to catch its essential aim.
For example, let us consider the symbolism of the number 3 in the Vedic texts, – the symbolism of the triad.
« Three are the worlds, three are the Vedas, three are the functions of the Rite, all three are ‘three’. Three are the Fires of Sacrifice, three are the natural qualities. And all these triads are based on the three phonemes of the syllable AUṀ. Whoever knows this triad, to which we must add the nasal resonance, knows that on which the entire universe is woven. That which is truth and supreme reality.”i
The idea of the triad, which may appear a priori as nothing more than a systemic tic, refers in the Veda to a deeper idea, that of trinity.
The most apparent divine trinity in the Veda is that of Brahman, the Creator, Viṣṇu, the Protector and Ṥiva, the Destroyer.
Here is a brief theological-poetical interpretation, in which we will note the symphonic interpenetration of multiple levels of interpretation:
« Those who desire deliverance meditate on the Whole, the Brahman, the syllable AUṀ. In phoneme A, the first part of the syllable, Earth, Fire, Rig Veda, the exclamation « Bhūr » and Brahman, the creator, are born and will dissolve. In phoneme U, second part of the syllable, Space, Air, Yajur-Veda, the exclamation « Bhuvaḥ » and Viṣṇu, the Protector, are born and will dissolve. In the phoneme Ṁ are born and will dissolve Heaven, Light, Sama-Veda, the exclamation « Suvar » and Ṥiva, the Lord.”ii
In a unique, single syllable, the Word, the Vedas, the Worlds, the Gods are woven from the same knots, three times knotted.
Why three, and not two, four, five or six?
Two would be too simple, a metaphor for combat or the couple. Four forms two couples. Five is a false complexity and is only the addition of a couple and a triad. Six represents a couple of triads.
The idea of Three is the first simple idea, which comes after the idea of One, – the One from which everything comes, but about which nothing can be said. Three, in its complex simplicity, constitutes a kind of fundamental paradigm, combining the idea of unity and that of duality in a higher unity.
Long after the Vedas, Christianity also proposed a Trinity, that of the Creator God, the Word and the Spirit. It might be stimulating to try to see possible analogies between the Word and Viṣṇu, or between the Spirit and Ṥiva, but where would this ultimately lead us? To the conclusion that all religions come together?
It also seems very interesting to turn to the uncompromising monotheism(s), which apparently refuse any « association » with the idea of the One. Judaism, as we know, proclaims that God is One. But rabbinism and Kabbalah have not hesitated to multiply divine attributes or emanations.
The God of Genesis is a creator, in a way analogous to the Brahman. But the Bible also announces a God of Mercy, which recalls Viṣṇu, and it also proclaims the name of Yahweh Sabbaoth, the Lord of Hosts, which could well correspond to Ṥiva, the Lord Destroyer.
One could multiply comparable examples and use them to make the hypothesis that rather recent religions, such as Judaism or Christianity, owe much to the experience of previous millennia. Anyone concerned with paleo-anthropology knows that the depths of humanity’s times possess even greater secrets.
But the important point I would like to stress here is not, as such, the symbol of the triad or the Trinitarian image.
They are, in the end, in the face of the mystery itself, only images, metaphors.
The important thing is not the metaphor, but what it leads us to seek.
Perhaps another triadic metaphor will help us to understand the very nature of this search:
« AUṀ is the bow, the mind is the arrow, and the Brahman is the target.”iii
More than two millennia B.C., in the middle of the Bronze Age, so-called « Indo-Aryan » peoples were settled in Bactria, between present-day Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. They left traces of a civilisation known as the Oxus civilisation (-2200, -1700). Then they migrated southwards, branching off to the left, towards the Indus plains, or to the right, towards the high plateau of Iran.
These migrant peoples, who had long shared a common culture, then began to differentiate themselves, linguistically and religiously, without losing their fundamental intuitions. This is evidenced by the analogies and differences between their respective languages, Sanskrit and Zend, and their religions, the religion of the Vedas and that of Zend-Avesta.
In the Vedic cult, the sacrifice of the Soma, composed of clarified butter, fermented juice and decoctions of hallucinogenic plants, plays an essential role. The Vedic Soma has its close equivalent in Haoma, in Zend-Avesta. The two words are in fact the same, if we take into account that the Zend language of the ancient Persians puts an aspirated h where the Sanskrit puts an s.
Soma and Haoma have a deep meaning. These liquids are transformed by fire during the sacrifice, and then rise towards the sky. Water, milk, clarified butter are symbols of the cosmic cycles. At the same time, the juice of hallucinogenic plants and their emanations contribute to ecstasy, trance and divination, revealing an intimate link between the chemistry of nature, the powers of the brain and the insight into divine realities.
The divine names are very close, in the Avesta and the Veda. For example, the solar God is called Mitra in Sanskrit and Mithra in Avesta. The symbolism linked to Mitra/Mithra is not limited to identification with the sun. It is the whole cosmic cycle that is targeted.
An Avestic prayer says: « In Mithra, in the rich pastures, I want to sacrifice through Haoma.”i
Mithra, the divine « Sun », reigns over the « pastures » that designate all the expanses of Heaven, and the entire Cosmos. In the celestial « pastures », the clouds are the « cows of the Sun ». They provide the milk of Heaven, the water that makes plants grow and that waters all life on earth. Water, milk and Soma, all liquid, have their common origin in the solar, celestial cows.
The Soma and Haoma cults are inspired by this cycle. The components of the sacred liquid (water, clarified butter, vegetable juices) are carefully mixed in a sacred vase, the samoudra. But the contents of the vase only take on their full meaning through the divine word, the sacred hymn.
« Mortar, vase, Haoma, as well as the words coming out of Ahura-Mazda‘s mouth, these are my best weapons.”ii
Soma and Haoma are destined for the Altar Fire. Fire gives a life of its own to everything it burns. It reveals the nature of things, illuminates them from within by its light, its incandescence.
« Listen to the soul of the earth; contemplate the rays of Fire with devotion.”iii
Fire originally comes from the earth, and its role is to make the link with Heaven, as says the Yaçna.iv
« The earth has won the victory, because it has lit the flame that repels evil.”v
Nothing naturalistic in these images. These ancient religions were not idolatrous, as they were made to believe, with a myopia mixed with profound ignorance. They were penetrated by a cosmic spirituality.
« In the midst of those who honor your flame, I will stand in the way of Truth « vi said the officiant during the sacrifice.
The Fire is stirred by the Wind (which is called Vāyou in Avestic as in Sanskrit). Vāyou is not a simple breath, a breeze, it is the Holy Spirit, the treasure of wisdom.
» Vāyou raises up pure light and directs it against the dark ones.”vii
Water, Fire, Wind are means of mediation, means to link up with the one God, the « Living » God that the Avesta calls Ahura Mazda.
« In the pure light of Heaven, Ahura Mazda exists. »viii
The name of Ahura (the « Living »), calls the supreme Lord. This name is identical to the Sanskrit Asura (we have already seen the equivalence h/s). The root of Asura is asu, “life”.
The Avestic word mazda means « wise ».
« It is you, Ahura Mazda (« the Living Wise One »), whom I have recognized as the primordial principle, the father of the Good Spirit, the source of truth, the author of existence, living eternally in your works.”ix
Clearly, the « Living » is infinitely above all its creatures.
« All luminous bodies, the stars and the Sun, messenger of the day, move in your honor, O Wise One, living and true. »x
I call attention to the alliance of the three words, « wise », « living » and « true », to define the supreme God.
The Vedic priest as well as the Avestic priest addressed God in this way more than four thousand years ago: « To you, O Living and True One, we consecrate this living flame, pure and powerful, the support of the world.”xi
I like to think that the use of these three attributes (« Wise », « Living » and « True »), already defining the essence of the supreme God more than four thousand years ago, is the oldest proven trace of an original theology of monotheism.
It is important to stress that this theology of Life, Wisdom and Truth of a supreme God, unique in His supremacy, precedes the tradition of Abrahamic monotheism by more than a thousand years.
Four millennia later, at the beginning of the 21st century, the world landscape of religions offers us at least three monotheisms, particularly assertorical: Judaism, Christianity, Islam…
« Monotheisms! Monotheisms! », – I would wish wish to apostrophe them, – « A little modesty! Consider with attention and respect the depth of the times that preceded the late emergence of your own dogmas!”
The hidden roots and ancient visions of primeval and deep humanity still show to whoever will see them, our essential, unfailing unity and our unique origin…
Soma is a flammable liquid, composed of clarified butter and various hallucinogenic plant juices. On a symbolic level, Soma is both a representation of the living God, the embodiment of the essence of the cosmos, and the sacrifice par excellence to the supreme God.
Vedic hymns, composed to accompany the sacrifice of the Soma, abound in metaphors, attributes and epithets of the divinity. Verbs such as to pour, to flow, to come, to abide, to embrace, to beget are used to describe the action of God.
Many hymns evoke, in a raw or subliminal way, the dizziness of (divine) love. Words such as lover, woman, womb, ardour, pleasure. But here again, they are metaphors, with hidden meanings, which must be carefully interpreted.
The sacrifice of the divine Soma can be summed up as follows: a mixture of oil, butter and milk flows in flames towards the « matrix » (the crucible where the fire blazes with all its strength), then rises in smoke and fragrance towards Heaven, where it participates in the generation of the divine.
The 9th Mandala of the Rig Veda, entirely dedicated to the sacrifice of the Soma, considered as a God, explains the profound meaning of what is at stake and its cosmic effects. Here are a few quotes, which, I believe, capture the essence of what’s at stake:
« The poured Soma flows for the Ardent, for the Wind, for that which envelops, for the Spirits, for the Active.»i
« This golden light, support, flows into that which ignites it; that which crackles flows into the matrix.”ii
« He who is here [the Soma] has come like an eagle to take up his abode, like the lover to the woman.”iii
« This gold that one drinks, and which flows rumbling towards the matrix, towards pleasure.”iv
« That which flows from desire, comes from that which moves away and from that which comes near, – the sweetness poured out for the Ardent.”v
« Those who go together shouted. They made the gold flow with the stone. Take up residence in the matrix where it flows.”vi
« The sound of the burning Ardent, like the sound of rain; lightning goes into the sky.”vii
« Bringing forth the lights of the sky, generating the sun in the waters, gold envelops milk and waters.”viii
« Coming from the original milk, He flows into the hearth, embracing it, and by crying He generates the Gods.”ix
« Soma, as He lights up, flows towards all the treasures, towards the Gods who grow through the oblation.”x
Other mystical traditions, the Jewish for example, share with the Vedic language comparable semantic elements, similar metaphors (oil, honey, milk, entrails, bosom, matrix, water, wine or liquor, pouring out, flowing into, ).
Particularly interesting in this respect is the Song of Songs, composed between six and eight centuries after the Rig Veda.
We can see that the Rig Veda and the Song of Songs, centuries apart, share, despite their distance, a comparable atmosphere of loving fusion with the divine.
This should come as no surprise. There is no doubt that this is an indication of the existence of an extremely profound anthropological constant.
The traces left in the Palaeolithic by prehistoric religions, which show comparable metaphors, bear witness to this.
The Venus of Laussel is 25,000 years old. Naked, she brandishes a horn to drink it. This gesture, always young, reminds us that in the oldest ages of humanity, the divine was already perceived in the guise of love, – and (infinite) drunkenness, a spiritual one of course, but in a strange sort of way, associated to a more mundane one.
iRig Veda. Mandala9.Hymn 34,.2. For reference, the translation of Ralph T.H. Griffith (1889) gives : « Poured forth to Indra, Varuṇa, to Vāyu and the Marut host, to Viṣṇu, flows the Soma juice. »
iiIbid. Hymn 37,2. For reference, the translation of Ralph T.H. Griffith (1889) gives : « Far-sighted, tawny-coloured, he flows to the sieve, intelligent, bellowing, to his place of rest. »
iiiIbid. Hymn 38,4. For reference, the translation of Ralph T.H. Griffith (1889) gives : « He like a falcon settles down amid the families of men. Speeding like lover to his love. »
ivIbid. Hymn 38,6. For reference, the translation of Ralph T.H. Griffith (1889) gives : « Poured for the draught, this tawny juice flows forth, intelligent, crying out, unto the well-beloved place. »
vIbid. Hymn 39,5. For reference, the translation of Ralph T.H. Griffith (1889) gives : « Inviting him from far away, and even from near at hand, the juice for Indra is poured forth as meath. »
viIbid. Hymne 39,6. Ralph T.H. Griffith (1889) translates: « In union they have sung the hymn ; with stones they urge the Tawny One. Sit in the place of sacrifice. »
viiIbid. Hymn 41,3. Ralph T.H. Griffith (1889) translates: « The mighty Pavamāna’s roar is heard as ‘twere the rush of rain. Lightnings are flashing to the sky. »
viiiIbid. Hymn 42,1. Ralph T.H. Griffith (1889) translates: « Engendering the Sun in floods, engendering heaven’s lights, green-hued, robed in the waters and the milk. »
ixIbid. Hymn 42,4. Ralph T.H. Griffith (1889) translates: « Shedding the ancient fluid He is poured into the cleansing sieve ; He, thundering, hath produces the Gods. »
xIbid. Hymn 42,5. Ralph T.H. Griffith (1889) translates: « Soma, while purifying, sends hither all things to be desired, He sends the Gods who strenghten Law. »
The world would have been created about 6000 years ago, according to Jewish tradition. However, modern science estimates that the Big Bang took place 13.8 billion years ago. These both claims seem contradictory. But it is easy to retort that the biblical years could just be metaphors. Moreover, the alleged age of the Big Bang is itself questionable. Our universe may have had earlier forms of existence, impossible to observe from our present position in space-time, because the cosmological horizon forms an impenetrable barrier.
Science has its own intrinsic limits. It can definitely not go beyond the walls of the small cosmological jar in which we are enclosed, apparently. What about the meta-cosmic oceans which undoubtedly exist beyond the horizons perceived by current science?
For those who nevertheless seek to contemplate the possibility of origins, there are other ways of meditation and reflection. Among these is the exploration of the depth of the human soul, which in a sense goes beyond the dimensions of the cosmological field.
When Abraham decided to emigrate from Ur in Chaldea, around the 12th century BC, it was already more than two thousand years that Egypt observed a religion turned towards the hope of life after death. Ancient Egyptians worshiped a unique God, Sovereign of the Universe, Creator of the world, Guardian of all creation. Archaeological traces of funerary rites testify to this, which have been discovered in Upper Egypt, and which date from the 4th millennium BC.
But can we go even further back into the past of mankind?
Can we question the traces of prehistoric religions in order to excavate what is meta-historical, and even meta-cosmic?
In the caves of Chou-Kou-Tien, or Zhoukoudian according to the Pinyin transcription, 42km from Beijing, archaeologists (including Pierre Teilhard de Chardin) discovered the remains of hominids in 1926. They were given the name Sinanthropus pekinensis, then Homo erectus pekinensis. Dating is estimated at 780,000 years. These hominids mastered hunting, tool making and fire. They managed to live for hundreds of thousands of years and to face successive periods of glaciation and warming. The successive geological strata that contain their remains and those of animals from those distant times bear witness to this.
The geological earth is like a memorial and trans-generational Noah’s Ark.
Skulls have been found at the Chou-Kou-Tien site, but none of the other bones of the human skeleton. According to some interpretations, these are therefore the remains of cannibal feasts, carried out for religious purposes.
“The bodies had been decapitated after death, buried until they had decomposed, and the heads were then carefully preserved for ritual purposes, doubtless, as in Borneo today, because in them it was supposed that soul’substance resided having the properties of a vitalizing agent. As the skulls show signs of injuries they may have been those of victims who had been killed and their crania broken open in order to extract the brain for sacramental consumption. If this were so, probably they represent the remains of cannibal feasts, organized cannibalism in that case having been an established feature of the cult of the dead in the Mid-Pleistocene in North China in which the cutting off and preservation of the head, skull or scalp was a prominent feature during or after the sacred meal, either to extract its soul substance or as a trophy.”i
This theory takes on more weight if we consider a number of other discoveries in other parts of the world.
In the caves of Ofnet in Bavaria, 33 prehistoric skulls have been discovered, arranged « like eggs in a basket », as one of the discoverers put it. Of these skulls, 27 of them were covered in red ochre and facing west. It has been established that the skulls were detached from the bodies with the help of carved flints.
The manner in which the skulls were detached from the skeleton and the traces of trepanation suggest that the brains were ritually extracted and probably consumed during funeral meals, as a sign of « communion » with the dead.
This cannibalism would therefore not be directed against enemy hordes. Moreover, on the same site, 20 children’s skeletons adorned with snail shells, 9 women’s skeletons with deer tooth necklaces, and 4 adult men’s skeletons were found. This reinforces the idea of funeral ceremonies.
In Jericho, 7 skulls were found whose features had been cast in plaster and then carefully decorated with shells (cowries and bivalves representing the eyelids, vertical slits simulating the pupil of the eye).ii
In Switzerland, in the Musterian Caves of Drachenloch, a set of bear heads looking to the east has been found, and in Styria, in Drachenhöhle, a Musterian pit with 50 bear femurs also looking to the east.
Similar traces of ritual burial have been found in Moustier (Dordogne), La Chapelle-aux-Saints (Corrèze) and La Ferrassie (Dordogne).iii
It can be deduced from these and many other similar facts, that in the Palaeolithic, for probably a million years, and perhaps more, the cult of the dead was observed according to ritual forms, involving forms of religious belief. Certain revealing details (presence of tools and food near the buried bodies) allow us to infer that hominids in the Palaeolithic believed in survival after death.
In these caves and caverns, in China or Europe, Palaeolithic men buried their dead with a mixture of veneration, respect, but also fear and anxiety for their passage into another world.
From this we can deduce that, for at least a million years, humanity has been addressing an essential question: what does death mean for the living? How can man live with the thought of death?
For a thousand times a thousand years these questions have been stirring the minds of men. Today’s religions, which appeared very late, what sort of answers do they bring ?
From a little distanced point of view, they bring among other things divisions and reciprocal hatreds, among peoples packed into the narrow anthropological space that constitutes our cosmic vessel.
None of today’s religions can reasonably claim the monopoly of truth, the unveiling of mystery. It is time to return to a deeper, more original intuition.
All religions should take as their sacred duty the will to ally themselves together, to face in common the mystery that surpasses them entirely, encompasses them, and transcends them.
iE.O. James, Prehistoric Religion, (1873), Barnes and Nobles, New York, 1957, p.18
iiKinyar. Antiquity, vol 27, 1953, quoted by E.O. James, Prehistoric Religion, (1873), Barnes and Nobles, New York, 1957
iiiE.O. James, Prehistoric Religion, (1873), Barnes and Nobles, New York, 1957
The high antiquity of the Zend language, contemporary to the language of the Vedas, is well established. Eugène Burnoufi even considers that it presents certain characteristics of anteriority, which the vocal system testifies to. But this thesis remains controversial. Avestic science was still in its infancy in the 19th century. It was necessary to use conjectures. For example, Burnouf tried to explain the supposed meaning of the name Zarathustra, not without taking risks. According to him, zarath means « yellow » in zend, and uchtra, « camel ». The name of Zarathustra, the founder of Zoroastrianism, would thus mean: « He who has yellow camels »?
Burnouf, with all his young science, thus contradicts Aristotle who, in his Treatise on Magic, says that the word Ζωροάστρην (Zoroaster) means « who sacrifices to the stars ».
It seems that Aristotle was right. Indeed, the old Persian word Uchtra can be related to the Indo-European word ashtar, which gave « astre » in French and « star » in English. And zarath can mean « golden ». Zarathustra would then mean « golden star », which is perhaps more appropriate to the founder of a thriving religion.
These questions of names are not so essential. Whether he is the happy owner of yellow camels, or the incarnation of a star shining like gold, Zoroaster is above all the mythical author of the Zend Avesta, of which the Vendidad and the Yaçna are part.
The name Vendidad is a contraction of Vîdaêvo dâta, « given against demons (dêvas) ».
The Yaçna (« sacrifice with prayers ») is a collection of Avestic prayers.
Here is an extract, quite significant.
« As a worshipper of Mazda [Wisdom], a sectarian of Zoroaster, an enemy of the devils [demons], an observer of the precepts of Ahura [the « Lord »], I pay homage to him who is given here, given against the devils, and to Zoroaster, pure, master of purity, and to the yazna [sacrifice], and to the prayer that makes favorable, and to the blessing of the masters, and to the days, and the hours, and the months, and the seasons, and the years, and to the yazna, and to the prayer that makes favorable, and to the blessing!”
This prayer is addressed to the Lord, Ahura. But it is also addressed to the prayer itself.
In a repetitive, self-referential way, it is a prayer to the yaçna, a ‘prayer praying the prayer’, an invocation to the invocation, a blessing of the blessing. A homage from mediation to mediation.
This stylistic formula, « prayer to prayer », is interesting to analyze.
Let us note from the outset that the Zend Avesta clearly recognises the existence of a supreme God, to whom every prayer is addressed.
« I pray and invoke the great Ormuzd [= Ahura Mazda, the « Lord of Wisdom »], brilliant, radiant with light, very perfect, very excellent, very pure, very strong, very intelligent, who is purest, above all that which is holy, who thinks only of the good, who is a source of pleasure, who gives gifts, who is strong and active, who nourishes, who is sovereignly absorbed in excellence.”ii
But Avestic prayer can also be addressed not only to the supreme God, but also to the mediation that make it possible to reach Him, like the sacred Book itself: « I pray and invoke the Vendidad given to Zoroaster, holy, pure and great.”iii
The prayer is addressed to God and all his manifestations, of which the Book (the Vendidad) is a part.
« I invoke and celebrate you Fire, son of Ormuzd, with all the fires.
I invoke and celebrate the excellent, pure and perfect Word that the Vendidad gave to Zoroaster, the sublime, pure and ancient Law of the Mazdeans.”
It is important to note that it is the Sacred Book (the Vendidad) that gives the divine Word to Zoroaster, and not the other way round. The Zend Avesta sees this Book as sacred and divine, and recognizes it as an actor of divine revelation.
It is tempting to compare this divine status of the Book in the Zend Avesta with the divine status of the Torah in Judaism and the Koran in Islam.
The divine status of sacred texts (Zend Avesta, Torah, Koran) in these monotheisms incites to consider a link between the affirmation of the absolute transcendence of a supreme God and the need for mediation between the divine and the human, – a mediation which must itself be « divine ».
It is interesting to underline, by contrast, the human origin of evangelical testimonies in Christianity. The Gospels were written by men, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John. The Gospels are not divine emanations, but human testimonies. They are therefore not of the same essence as the Torah (« revealed » to Moses), or the Koran (« dictated » to Muhammad, who was otherwise illiterate) or the Zend Avesta (« given » to Zoroaster).
In Christianity, on the other hand, it is Christ himself who embodies divine mediation in his person. He, the Anointed One, Christ, the Messiah, incarnates the divine Word, the Verb.
Following this line of thought, one would have to conclude that Christianity is not a « religion of the Book », as the oversimplified formula that usually encompasses the three monotheisms under the same expression would suggest.
This formula certainly suits Judaism and Islam, as it does Zend Avesta. But Christianity is not a religion of the « Book », it is a religion of the « Word ».
iEugène Burnouf, Commentaire sur le Yaçna, l’un des livres religieux des Parses. Ouvrage contenant le texte zend. 1833
« The earth was tohu and bohu, darkness covered the abyss, a wind of God (וְרוּחַ אֱלֹהִים , ruah Elohim) was moving over the waters.”i
Tohu means « astonishment, amazement » and bohu means « emptiness, loneliness », explains Rashi, who adds: « Man is seized with amazement and horror in the presence of emptiness.”
Man was amazed and horrified? But how could this be done? Man was only created on the 6th day, when the emptiness had already been partly filled by light, the firmament, the land and the seas, the light fixtures and a multitude of living beings. But this is not necessarily contradictory. It is inferred that Rashi is referring to the « astonishment and horror » that man felt long after the tohu and bohu were created, when man began to reflect on the origins.
However, this reflection has not ceased and is still relevant today.
So there are two kinds of men, if we follow the path indicated by Rashi. Those who feel « amazement and horror » when they think about the hustle and bustle of the origins, and those who are in no way moved by this kind of thinking.
Above the emptiness, above the abyss, above the bohu, « a wind of God » was moving. The word רוּחַ, ruah, is very ambivalent and can mean wind, breath, spirit, soul, depending on the context. Translating here as « a wind » as the Jerusalem Bible does seems to favour a more meteorological or geo-physical approach to these original times. This translation uses the indefinite article (« a wind ») which indicates a certain non-differentiation, a possible multiplicity of other « winds » that God would not have put into action.
The Bible of the French Rabbinate translates ruah Elohim as « the breath of God ». Rashi comments: « The throne of the Divine Majesty stood in the air and hovered on the surface of the waters by the sole force of the breath of the word of the Holy One, and by His order. Like a dove hovering over its nest.”
This comment by Rashi calls for another comment, – from my modest part.
To explain just one word, ruah, Rashi uses four more words. First an expression of three words: « the strength of the breath of the word » of the Holy One, blessed be He, and a fourth word that clarifies its meaning: « by His order ». To this are added two more images, that of the « Throne of the Divine Majesty », and a comparison of the ruah with « the dove hovering over its nest ». The « wind of God » hovering in front of the loneliness of the bohu is thus well surrounded.
It is generally one of the roles of the commentator to multiply the possible outbursts of meaning, and to make promises glimmer. It is apparent from Rashi’s commentary that not only was the ruah not alone in the beginning, but that it bore, so to speak, the Throne of God, in His Majesty, and that it was accompanied by His Word and His Order (i.e. His Power). A curious trinity, for a monotheism that claims to be pure of all kind of trinitarian idolatry.
Now let us change era, and air. Let’s go East.
The same idea of « original breath » is expressed in Chinese by the two caractères元气 , yuánqì. The two ideograms used are: 元 , yuán, origin and 气 , qì, breath.
The qì is the vital breath. It is the fundamental principle of life, which animates all beings. After death, the qì continues to live in the afterlife. The qì embodies the essence of a universe that is constantly changing. It constantly circulates and connects things and beings.
Qì takes different forms. We can distinguish the original qì ( yuánqì,元气), the primordial qì (yuánqì 元氣), the prenatal qì (jīng 精), the qì of the mind and the qì of the soul (shén 神), etc.
Archaeological traces of the qì character have been found, engraved on turtle shells. It was originally represented by three horizontal bars, supposed to evoke steam or mist. The qì also appears on a jade jewel dating from the period of the Fighting Kingdoms (-403 to -256), in the form of the sinogram 炁 , composed of the radical 灬, which refers to fire (huǒ 火). During the Han Dynasty (from -206 to 220), qì is represented by a sinogram combining steam 气 and fire 火.
In the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279) the qì is represented by the sinogram 氣 which refers to the steam emanating from the cooking of rice. It is still used today, and illustrates the material and immaterial nature of the concept. Its key is the pictogram 气 (qì) which represents a cloud.
The lower part of the sinogram is the pictogram 米 (mǐ), which represents grains of rice and means « rice ». The character 氣 expresses the idea of rice boiling in the pot.
The sinogram writes qì as a mixture, immaterial and ethereal (steam), dense and material (rice).
In Genesis, the movement of the divine breath precedes the separation of heaven and earth, and then the creation of living beings; in Chinese cosmology, too, the breath (qì 气) precedes the separation of yin and yang, which is itself the origin of the « ten thousand beings » (wànwù 万物), that is to say all beings and indirectly the things that make up the world.
In Chinese thought, qì is at work in the reign of the living and in the mineral reign. For example, the veins of jade are considered to be organized by qì just like the veins of the human body. Chinese painting depicts the geological strata of mountains, which are one of the macro-cosmic manifestations of qì, and the aesthetics of a canvas depends on the capture of this breath.
Qì nourishes thought and spiritual life and has a certain relationship with the divine shén 神, whose deep meaning is etymologically linked to the characters « to say » and « to show, to reveal ». The divine is not in the qì , that is to say, but the qì can be used by the divine.
The qì is ‘breath, wind’, the divine (shén) is ‘word, revelation’.
The divine is not in the ‘wind’ or the ‘breath’, it is in the ‘word’, – far from any materialism of cloudy emanations, or cooking vapors.
Throughout the ages, cultures and languages, the ancient metaphors of wind and breath still inspire us.
Energy comes from the world and brings it to life. But for the Hebrews and the Chinese, the divine is not of the world. The divine is not in the wind.
The Divine, or the Word, may be in the world, but they are not of the world…
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.