Jihad, Beheading and Castration.

Can post-modern philosophy say anything of substance about the religious passions of societies?

I don’t think so. Since Western philosophy decreed the death of metaphysics, it has put itself out of shape to think about the state of the real world.

It has de facto become incapable of thinking of a world in which endless and merciless wars are waged in the name of the God(s), a world in which religious sects slit men’s throats, reduce women to slavery and enlist children to become murderers.

Philosophy is unable to contribute to the intellectual, theological-political battle against fanaticism.

It deserted the fight without even trying to fight. It convinced itself that reason has nothing to say about faith, nor legitimacy to express itself on this subject. Scepticism and pyrrhonism stand in sharp contrast to the assurance of the enemies of reason.

Fanaticism has gone wild. No thought police is able to stop it. Philosophical critics have in advance acknowledged their inability to say anything reasonable about belief.

In this philosophical desert, there remains the anthropological path. It encourages us to revisit ancient religious beliefs, in search of a possible link between what people living in the valleys of the Indus or the Nile, the Tiger or the Jordan, believed thirty or fifty centuries ago, and what other peoples believe today, in these same regions.

How can we fail to see, for example, the anthropological link between the voluntary castration of the priests of Cybele, the dogmas of the religion of Osiris, and the faith of the jihadist fanatics, their taste for decapitation and slaughter?

Castration is one of the anthropological constants, translated throughout the ages into religious, perennial figures. In its link with « enthusiasm », castration projects its radical de-linking with common sense, and displays its paradoxical and unhealthy link with the divine.

On « Blood Day », the priests of Atys and Cybele voluntarily emasculate themselves and throw their virile organs at the foot of the statue of Cybele. Neophytes and initiates, taken by divine madness, fall into the fury of « enthusiasm », and imitate them, emasculating themselves in their turn.

What is the nature of this « enthusiasm »? What does it tell us about human reason and folly?

Iamblichus writes in this regard: « We must seek the causes of divine madness; it is lights that come from the gods, the breaths sent by them, their total power that seize us, completely banishes our own consciousness and movement, and makes speeches, but not with the clear thought of those who speak; on the contrary, it is when they « profess them with a delirious mouth »i and are at their service to yield to the only activity of those who possess them. That is the enthusiasm. »ii

This description of « divine madness », of « enthusiasm », by a contemporary of these orgiastic scenes, of these visions of religious excessiveness, strikes me by its empathy. Iamblichus evokes this « total power that seizes us » and « banishes our conscience » as if he had experienced this feeling himself.

It can be hypothesized that this madness and delirium are structurally and anthropologically analogous to the madness and fanatical delirium that have occupied the media scene and the world for some time now.

In the face of madness, there is wisdom. In the same text, Iamblichus evokes the master of wisdom, Osiris. « The demiurgic spirit, master of truth and wisdom, when he comes to become one and brings to light the invisible force of hidden words, is called Amoun in Egyptian, but when he unerringly and artistically executes everything in all truth, he is called Ptah (name that the Greeks translate Hephaistos, applying it only to his activity as an artisan); as a producer of the good, he is called Osiris.»iii

What is the link between Osiris and castration? Plutarch reports in great detail the myth of Osiris and Isis. It does not fail to establish a direct link between the Greek religion and the ancient Egyptian religion. Zeus’ proper name is Amoun [derived from the root amn, to be hidden], an altered word in Ammon. Manetho the Sebennyte believes that this term means ‘an hidden thing’, or ‘the act of hiding’.

It is to affirm a link between Zeus, Amoun/Ammon, Ptah and Osiris.

But the most interesting is the narrative of the Osirian myth.

We remember that Seth (recognized by the Greeks as ‘Typhon’ ), Osiris’ brother, killed him and cut his body into pieces. Isis goes in search of Osiris members scattered all over Egypt. Plutarch specifies: « The only part of Osiris’ body that Isis could not find was the manly limb. As soon as it was torn off, Typhon (Seth) had indeed thrown it into the river, and the lepidot, the caddis and the oxyrrinch had eaten it: hence the sacred horror inspired by these fish. To replace this member, Isis made an imitation of it and the Goddess thus consecrated the Phallos whose feast is still celebrated by the Egyptians today.  » (Plutarch, Isis and Osiris)

A little later, Seth-Typhon beheaded Isis. It seems that there is a link, at least metonymic, between Osiris’ murder, Seth’s tearing off of his virile limb and the beheading of the goddess Isis by the same man. A relentless effort to tear, to section, to cut.

Seth-Typhon didn’t do so well. The Book of the Dead tells us that Horus in turn emasculated him, then skinned him.iv Plutarch also reports that Hermes, the inventor of music, took Seth’s nerves and made them the strings of his lyre.

We can see it well: decapitation, emasculation, dismemberment are ancient figures, always reactivated. They are signals of a form of anthropological constancy. Applying to the ancient gods, but also to the men of today, the reduction of the body to its parts, the removal of « all that exceeds » is a human figure reduced to the inhuman.

In this context, and in a structurally comparable way, the swallowing of the divine penis by the Nile fish is also a figure dedicated to continuous reinterpretation, and its metaphorical transformation.

The prophet Jonah, יוֹנָה (yônah) in Hebrew, was also swallowed by a fish, as was Osiris’ penis before him. Just as Osiris resurrected, Jonah was spit out by the fish three days later. Christians also saw in Jonah a prefiguration of the risen Christ three days after his burial.

The belly of the fish is like a temporary tomb (or is it a womb?), from which it is always possible for devoured gods and swallowed prophets to rise again.

Beheading, dismemberment, castration, weapons of psychological warfare, have been part of anthropological equipment for thousands of years. Resurrection, metamorphosis and salvation too. For the Egyptians, everyone has a vocation to become Osiris N., once dismembered, castrated, resurrected, this Osiris whom, in their sacred hymns, the Egyptians call « He who hides in the arms of the Sun ».

Western modernity, forgetting the roots of its own world, cut off from its own heritage, emptied of its founding myths, now without any meta-narrative, is suddenly confronted with their unexpected re-emergence in the context of a barbarism that it is no longer able to analyse, let alone understand.

iHeraclitus DK. fr. 92

ii Iamblichus, The Mysteries of Egypt, III, 8

iii Ibid. VIII, 3

iv Cf. Ch. 17, 30, 112-113

The Ink in the Sand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have the tiny traces of ink finally disappeared?

iMysteries of Egypt, I,3.

ii Ibid. I,3

iii Ibid. VII, 2

iv Ibid. VII, 4

vIbid. VII, 4

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