The ‘God of the Gods’ and the’ Idolaters’

Secrets are to be kept untold, and to remain so. But what about their very existence? The owners of essential (or even divine) secrets, though not allowed to reveal any of their content, sometimes give in to the temptation to allude to the fact that they are the custodians of them.

They cannot and will not reveal anything, of course, but they maybe inclined to leak that they know ‘something’, that could be revealed some day, though it has to remain secret, for the time being.

Of course, this attitude is childish, and dangerous.

Exciting the curiosity of outsiders brings problems, and can turn sour.

If a secret is a secret, then it has to be absolutely kept secret, and its very existence has also to be kept hidden.

Voltaire points out the problem that those claiming big, ‘magical’ secrets may encounter: « Let us see some secret of your art, or agree to be burned with good grace, » he writes in the article « Magic » of his Philosophical Dictionary.

Secrecy, magic and religion have had, over the centuries, chaotic, contradictory and confrontational relationships. Those who openly claimed knowledge of higher levels of understanding, but who refused to share them, were exposed to jealousy, anger, hatred and ultimately violence. They could be accused of fraud or heresy, so much the vaunted knowledge of ultimate secrets could be a source of cleavage, of suspicion.

The famous Magi kings came from Mesopotamia, or present-day Iran, to pay tribute to a newborn child, in Bethlehem, bringing gold, incense and myrrh in their luggage. Undoubtedly, they were also carriers of deep secrets. As Magi, they must have known the mysteries of Mithra, the achievements of the Zoroastrian tradition and maybe some other teachings from further East.

In those days, ideas, mystical traditions and mysteries were traveling fast.

There is no doubt for instance that the Latin word ‘deus’ (god) came all the way from the vedic ‘deva’, which is a Sanskrit word.

According to Franz Cumont, a ‘deva’, in the Veda, is first and foremost, a « being of light », and by a metaphorical extension a « god ». One also finds, in Avestic texts of Zend-Avesta, attributed to Zoroaster, the very similar term of ‘daêva’, but with a very different meaning.

« Daêvas » are not « gods », they are « devils », evil spirits, hostile to the beneficial power of Ahura Mazda, the Good and Almighty God of Zoroastrianism. This inversion of meaning, « gods » (deva) being turned into « devils » (daêva), is striking.

The peoples of ancient Iran borrowed their gods and much of their religion from the neighboring people in the Indus basin, but reversed the meaning of some key words, probably to better distinguish themselves from their original tribes.

Why this need to stand out, to differentiate oneself?

Jan Assman in his book, Moses the Egyptian, points to the fact that the Hebrews reportedly borrowed a number of major ideas from the ancient Egyptian religion, such as monotheism, as well as the practice of sacrifice, but then « inverted » the meaning of some of these fundamental ideas.

Assmann calls this borrowing followed by an inversion, the « Mosaic distinction ».

For example, the ‘Bull’ stands for a sacred representation of the God Apis among Egyptians, and the bull is thus a ‘sacred’ animal, just as in India cows are.

But, following the « Mosaic distinction’, the Hebrews sacrificed without restraint cattle and sheep, which were considered sacred in Egypt.

The Veda and the Zend Avesta keep track of the genesis and decadence of almost forgotten beliefs. These texts form an essential milestone for the understanding of religions that were later developed further west, in the Chaldea, Babylon, Judea-Samaria. The clues are fragile, but there are many avenues for reflection.

For example, the Avestic god Mithra is a « God of the Hosts », which reminds us of the Elohim Tsabaoth of the Hebrews. He is the Husband and Son of a Virgin and Immaculate Mother. Mithra is a Mediator, close to the Logos, the word by which Philo of Alexandria, Jewish and Hellenophone, translates Wisdom (Hokhmah), celebrated by the Hebrew religion, and also close to the Evangelical Logos.

As such, Mithra is the Intermediary between the Almighty Divine Power and the created world. This idea has been taken up by Christianity and Jewish Kabbalah. In the cult of Mithra, sacraments are used, where wine, water and bread are the occasion for a mystical banquet. This is close to the rites of the Jewish Sabbath or Christian Communion.

These few observations indicate that there is no lack of continuity in the wide geographical area from Indus to Oxus, Tigris, Euphrates, Jordan and Nile to Greece and Rome. On this immense arc, fundamental beliefs, first intuitions, sowing seeds among peoples, intersect and meet.

The Vedic Mitra, the Avestic Mithra are figures that announce Orpheus and Dionysus. According to an etymology that borrows its sources from the language of Avesta, Dionysus must be understood as an Avestic name : div-an-aosha, that is: « the God of the drink of immortality ».

The Jews themselves, guardians of the tradition of the one God, bear witness to the antiquity of the belief, common to all the peoples of this vast region, in the God of the Gods. « As our masters note, the Name of the God of the Gods has always been a common tradition among idolaters.»i

The prophet Malachi also said: « For from sunrise to sunset, my Name is great among the nations. »ii

One can assume that ‘monotheism’, whatever the exact meaning given to this relatively recent concept, therefore has a very long history, and extremely old roots.

The intuition of a God of the gods has undoubtedly occupied the minds of men for thousands of years, long before it took on the monotheistic form that we know today.

iRabbi Hayyim de Volozhin. L’âme de la vie

iiMalachie 1, 11

Music and Religion

Music plays a special role in all religions. Part of the Vedic ceremonies consisted of songs from the Sâma-Veda. David’s psalms sang the praise of the Lord and the signs of cantilation guided how they should be sung during prayer. The deliberately dissonant music of flutes and tambourines accompanied the Dionysian thiases.

Plato presented a theory of music in its relationship with philosophy and religion, based on Egyptian ideas, introduced in Greece by Orpheus and developed by Pythagoras.

This musical science was subject to secrecy. Pythagoras openly explains the theoretical part of the system to be used, but he remains silent about the fundamental meaning of sacred music, reserving that knowledge for the initiated.

The initiates had access to these mysteries only after painful trials, and after swearing silence about them. Aeschylus was suspected of having publicly unveiled a subject supposed to be covered by the Mysteries in one of his plays. He only narrowly escaped the fury of the people who wanted him dead for committing this blasphemy. Antoine Fabre d’Oliveti writes that, according to Aristotle, Aeschylus denied having revealed the Mysteries by saying that he did not know that these things should not be said. He could only be absolved of this crime by proving that he had not been initiated himself.

But according to Clement of Alexandria, Aeschylus in fact admitted to having been initiated, but this gave him, unlike his accusers, the ability to disentangle precisely what could be said about the Mysteries and what should be kept quiet.

Fabre d’Olivet also reports that Diagoras’ head was put at a price for the same reason as those of Andocides and Alcibiade. Diagoras de Melos, nicknamed « the atheist », discredited the Mysteries by disclosing them, explaining them, and went so far as to mimic them to make fun of them. He recited in public the Orphic Logos, and told the Mysteries of Eleusis and the Cabires.

Times were not conducive to freedom of criticism and analysis of religion. Aristotle escaped the prosecution of the hierophant Eurymedon with great difficulty. Long before Galileo, Philolaos of Crotone and Aristarchus of Samos were publicly accused and dragged before the court, one for saying and the other for writing that the Earth was not at the centre of the universe.

Philolaos was himself an initiate.

It was through him that Plato was able to read the books of Pythagoras, and to acquire the foundations of his own initiation to the « Pythagorean Gospel ». If this initiation included teachings denying geocentrism, as early as the 5th century BC, their relevance can only be underlined, confirmed by the patronage of such eminent minds as Pythagoras and Plato.

The initiation was supposed to provide a deep understanding of the mechanisms governing the universe. Music was one of the elements of this initiation. It was exoteric (by its public manifestation) but esoteric (by its true meaning, which had to remain hidden).

There are still some traces of this cult of mystery in the solfeggio today.

The musical notes (Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Si, i.e. C, D, E, F, G, A, B) were named after Guy d’Arezzo, who used the first syllables of a sacred hymn to Saint John to name them:

Ut queant laxis

Resonare fibris

Mira gestorum

Famuli tuorum

Polluted Solve

Labli reatum

Iohannes Sancte

It should be noted that the B (SI) is made up of the initials of Sancte and Iohannes (S.I.).

This hymn is translated as follows:

« So that your servants

can sing with their throats extended

the wonderful deeds,

dissolves the stain

of their sinful lips,

Saint John! »

The fact that the initial Ut replaced Do does not change much in terms of substance. Do is the first syllable of Dominus, the « Lord ».

Whatever the sound of music, it sounds the praise of Lord…

iAntoine Fabre d’Olivet (1767-1825) in La musique expliquée comme science et comme art et considérée dans ses rapports analogiques avec les mystères religieux, la mythologie ancienne et l’histoire de la terre.

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.

Devouring the dead God


Orpheus, who went down to the underworld, has an amazing resumé. He invented poetry, which is no small thing. He called Apollo « the living eye of Heaven », and « the one who shapes everything in the world ». He also saw with his own eyes the primordial Chaos dominated by Love.

The main sources on Orpheus are two poets, Virgil and Ovid. Referring to some Christian and Neoplatonist authors, he was also recruited to embody a kind of pagan image of the Word.

The name Orpheus, has no recognized etymology but Chantraine believes that it can be linked to the Indo-European *orbho, « separate, remove », hence the Latin orbus, « deprived of ». This refers, of course, to Eurydice.

The myth of Orpheus dates back to before the 6th century BC since a statue of Orpheus playing the lyre was found dating back to 560 BC.

Orpheus gave his name to a mystical current, orphism, known by hymns, and various texts and archaeological inscriptions including the Golden Lamellae. The general idea is that the soul, soiled from the beginning, must undergo a cycle of reincarnations from which only initiation into the mysteries of Orpheus can bring it out. Then she is allowed to join the Gods.

Orphism has never been a socially organized religion. On the contrary, orphism challenged the established order, rejected the values of the Greek cities and their cults. One became orphic by personal choice, after initiation.

Onomacrite was responsible for the writing of the first compilation of poems and orphic hymns. This singular character had been commissioned by Pisistrate, around 525 BC, to prepare the first complete edition of Homer’s poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey. He was also a diviner, an initiate in mysteries, who traded in oracles. Herodotus tells us that Greek tyrants, dethroned and refugees at the court of Persia, the Pisistratids, called upon his talents to invent oracles in order to incite Xerxes I to start the second medieval war in 481 B.C.

Religion and politics were in close alliance. The city of Delphi and its Pythia, oracle of Apollo, had also taken the side of the Persians. The battle of Salamis proved them wrong. After the Greek victory, Delphi claimed to have been protected by divine intervention. Herodotus attests it: « As the Barbarians approached the temple of Minerva Pronaea, lightning fell on them; rocky quarters, detaching themselves from the top of the Parnassus and rolling with a horrible noise, crushed a great number of them. At the same time, voices and war cries were heard coming out of the temple of Minerva Pronaea. » i

Aristophanes makes fun of Orphic sects in The Birds. He denounces its charlatanism. Plato and Theophrastus present them as gyrovagal priests, selling cheap purifications to a gullible public.


However, the Orphic ideas were conscientiously taken up by neo-Pythagoreans and Neo-Platonists.

The main myth of orphism is the killing of Dionysus by the Titans, who cut him into pieces and then devoured him. Furious, Zeus struck down the latter, and from their ashes were born humans.

Men therefore have a double ancestry. They descend from the Titans, but also from the Gods, through the flesh of devoured Dionysus, also being part of the ashes from which humans are derived. There is an analogy, if not obvious at all, with Christian communion.

Christ was put to death, and his followers share his flesh and blood in memory of him.

Let’s go back to the Dionysian myth.

Persephone, Dionysus-Zagreus’ mother, never forgave the murder and devouring of her son. She then condemned man to wander unceasingly, from incarnation to incarnation. How could offspring from the ashes, from the corpses of the Titans, these eaters of God, be allowed to enter the divine world?

The gold or bone slides found in various tombs indicate that the Orphic and Pythagorean sects gave the initiates hope of deliverance upon their arrival in the afterlife. But on one condition, not to go the wrong way. If one turns left, it’s the fatal mistake. One falls into the spring of Lethe, which plunges the soul into oblivion. If you turn right, it’s the right choice. You find the source of the goddess Mnemosyne who reminds souls of their memory and reminds them of their divine origin.

The golden slice that the deceased initiate takes with him to his grave is a kind of reminder:

« You will find a spring to the left of Hades’ house,

and near her, standing up, a white cypress tree:

from this source, stay away from it.

You will find a second source, the cold water that flows

of Lake Mnemosyne; in front of them stand guards.

Say: « I am the son of the Earth and the Starry Sky;

my race is heavenly, and you know that too…

I am dried up from thirst and I will perish: give me therefore

quickly the cold water that flows from Lake Memory.

And they themselves will give you something to drink from the divine source;

and from that moment on, among the other heroes, you will rule.

And from that moment on, with the other heroes, you will be sovereign. » ii

iHérodotus, VIII, 35-38

iiLamelles d’or orphiques. Instructions pour le voyage d’outre-tombe des initiés grecs, lamelle de Pétélia ( 5th century BC), Ed. by Giovanni Pugliese Carratelli, Les Belles Lettres, 2003, p. 61.