More on “Council of Heresy”.
Note. One of the basic arguments in ‘Council of Heresy’ was that ignoring the background of ideas used by poets in poems was a way of reaching false understandings of the poems - the false opinions amounting to heresy. So, much of the book is an exposition of various ideas significant in this background. One area was the line of poetry (not the thickest line in the whole picture, to be sure) which was, in the wake of Blake and Yeats, involved in the teachings of Western occultism. Thus the book gives a commentary on Kathleen Raine in the light of what Raine believed. This note follows up what I said in the book.
The book Picatrix was, as Frances A.Yates has demonstrated, quite fundamental to the Western occultist tradition. Its internal attribution to the Sabians of Harran in Syria has been challenged recently. In the new version, scholars think the link to the Sabians is a mere fable, as they were legendary for their occult knowledge and their astronomy.
There is some kind of link between the academy at Harran and the theological & speculative creativity of Edessa, thirty miles away. Both partook of a sociology which was productive of intellectual creativity. Other centres were knocked out by various military disasters, and there was presumably a “Syrian moment” when this area (Edessa, Harran, Nisibis, Antioch, others?) was the most productive in the European/ Mediterranean world. This moment lay, I would suppose, between the 4th and 9th centuries AD. One may regret that the intellectual agenda at that time involved the entanglement of ideas with theology. What one has to admire is the “fissile” quality of the educated stratum in Syria, the astonishing proliferation of new ideas and heresies. The impression one comes away with is of an intellectual milieu where there is no wish to be orthodox. This was the centre of intellectual creativity at the time - a title no one would claim for Christian Europe.
By chance I acquired a book on changes of climate, from 1955. (C von Regel,Die Klimaanderung und die Gegenwart) It records “But gradually a change appeared, the forests in the vicinity were felled, the pastureland was exploited, and and after the invasion of foreign peoples, for instance the Mongols, the irrigation works decayed, until everything, towns and cultivated land, disappeared under the desert sand. [...] Northern Syria was once full of blooming cities, whose ruins are still to be seen. The doorsteps are several feet above the level of the earth - a proof that the fertile earth was blown out of the yards.”
This sheds a light on the quite different distribution of intellectual power in the first millennium AD and the last one BC. Europe rose because it was the land of thick forests, abundant rainfall, and thick humus. Of course the questions which the thinkers of those cities answered were meaningful mainly within those cultures, not to us; what reached Europe was material which was quite marginal, and this is why it acquired the fringe status of “the occult”. Astrology is the prime example of this.
There is an older theory that rhyme was the invention of Ephraim the Syrian (4th century), and reached Europe as an imitation of Ephraim. This is not quite as clear as it once appeared, the facts do not form an obvious pattern, but it remains a possibility. (Recent writers deny that he used rhyme.) Another legend is that Ephraim invented the Christian hymn. (Also, that he copied the idea from the Daisanites and borrowed their tunes.)
Ephraim came from Nisibis, one of the “university cities” along with nearby Harran and Edessa. In these towns, there were numerous Christians, also numerous Jews, Gnostics, and Manichaeans. Also Neoplatonists and pagans. In the 2nd century, >>Osrhoene [[Northern Syria]] was a religious melting pot, where the cult of Mesopotamian gods like Nabû and Bêl existed side by side with Syrian deities like Atargatis and Elagabal.<<
Nisibis was on the border with the Persian Empire, with its Zoroastrian faith. Even numerous languages were spoken there.
>>The most important of his works are his lyric, teaching hymns (madrāšê). These hymns are full of rich, poetic imagery drawn from biblical sources, folk tradition, and other religions and philosophies. Each madrāšâ had its qālâ, a traditional tune identified by its opening line. All of these qālê are now lost. It seems that Bardaisan and Mani composed madrāšê, and Ephrem felt that the medium was a suitable tool to use against their claims. << (Wikipedia) Mani invented his own world religion, Bardaisan also invented at least a cult, a heresy of local stature. So Ephraim read their works and wrote a “parody” of them, for a sophisticated audience which knew the originals. The competition and interaction are startling.
More difficult is gauging how the magical practices (of the uneducated, perhaps) related to the philosophical schools. The surviving texts show them intermingled and voices have been raised recently, forcibly suggesting that to divide them is to project 20th century ideas onto the milieu. This question is also tangled up with the issue of how ancient religions, for example the whole heritage of Mesopotamian religion, went on thriving and how these “irrational” conceptions were the raw material for philosophers. It seems likely that the academy of Harran involved magic and an old Moon religion as well as Greek philosophy. Next, the question of how huge drafts of Hellenistic culture were absorbed in areas like Syria, and whether the specific quality of Syrian culture of Late Antiquity was due to the combination of Hellenistic ideas and techniques with the ancient Mesopotamian material.
The idea that the “magical papyri” and so forth represent the uneducated part of the population is not based on more than supposition. We expect educated people to be critical and free of illusions, but there are huge exceptions to that. Just as educated people in the 17th century could be devout Christians, so also educated people in the 4th century may have devoutly believed in magic. In fact, the whole written tradition belongs to a minority, so where we have magical written texts (in large numbers) it is perverse to suppose that they were for the use of the illiterate. There may indeed have been a Belief, of date circa 1900, that magic is Low and belongs to savages whereas Religion is high and belongs to Europeans. This was a way of dealing with the non-Christian religions of the colonial empires. It is, rather obviously, Eurocentric. Perhaps it was no more than a fantasy, and we should see magic and religion as a continuum. The consequences of shedding this imperialist ideology may be far-reaching. Some of the most prominent occultists were super-intellectual. This connects also to the problem people have accepting that neo-Platonic magic comes from people who were top Platonists and of professorial rank.
It has been suggested that the whole body of texts in the Corpus Hermeticum was collected and preserved by the intellectuals of Harran, and that they had a “hermetic academy” between, say, 300 AD and 1000 AD. (The Mongols may have brought this to an end.) That this version of the god Hermes was developed in Harran (identifying him with Mercury in their planetary symbolism). That this knowledge reached the Arabs via Harran.
It is now suggested that ‘Picatrix’ is not named for ‘Hippocrates’ but for ‘Harpocrates’. (Thus, “the book of [har]Pcatrix”.) Harpocrates had a special association with talismans, which are very prominent in Picatrix. He was an Egyptian god of the Hellenistic and Roman periods.
In ‘Council’ I deal with Anthony Thwaite’s ‘Letters of Synesius’, a 4th century bishop from Cyrene, now in Libya. I discovered by chance the other day that Synesius was a neo-Platonist. He was surely a Christian, but the language he uses in his hymns seems quite alien to us. It seems less alien if you read about Neo-Platonism - which is described in other parts of the book, but not in the chapter about Thwaite.
Council offers a rather unmediated account of Nicomachus of Gerasa’s description of noises made, formally, by members of cults in his time (1st or 2nd century AD), and points out that this “pre-verbal vocalisation” resembled the acts of 20th C sound poets. I now have more information available on this, as supplied by Wolfgang Schultz in his Dokumente der Gnosis (1910). He gives examples of ‘sound poets’ who may not have been the same ones mentioned by Nicomachus. In the text known as ‘The Mithras Liturgy’, there are seven poems which recall seven stages of the creation, each one accompanied by a different pre-verbal (and pre-human) noise. In this case, the primitive sounds recall the primitive state of the universe, before words or even shapes were fixed. Similarly in the creation myth recital known as ‘Abrasax’. (See pages 79 and 84 of Schultz’s book.) This is the theory, but my guess is that sounds of this kind had a presence in various rituals of the Low Empire without the benefit of clear theoretical underpinning. Schultz offers us a breakdown into vowel chanting, non-verbal noises, and chanting of meaningless sound strings (which quite often have a numerical symbolism built into them). These types may have different histories and distributions, but they all belong together in the world of the para-verbal.
I had not seen Schultz’s collection of sources (1910, reprint 1986) when writing ‘Council’. One of its merits is that it includes the “low” magical material and gives helpful explanations of it. Theologians and intellectuals tend to leave this material out. Schultz acutely presents a theory that Gnosticism arose from people analysing the whole glittering morass of magical spells and rites and deducing a philosophical system out of it. He rapidly says that this is a wrong theory. All the same this is the source of quite fundamental insights. Either you think that magic is sunken religion or that religion is bureaucratised magic.
I am aware of two ‘Basilidian talismans’ of the Roman period found in Britain, one in Norfolk and one in Carnarvonshire. (See Wikipedia article for ‘Thetford treasure’.) These may suggest that Gnosticism had reached Britain during the Low Empire. However, it would be possible to buy talismans without understanding the difficult theology. They were very portable and very tradable. The talismans have very brief inscriptions which do include the invocation-name IAO. This is not certainly dependent on Gnostic theology describing IAO. Written amulets are a classic way for someone illiterate to acquire the 'power' of the written word.
To close, a reminder that the project of ‘Heresy’ is not to prove the doctrines of occultism right, but simply to allow readers to understand certain books of English poetry, as a step towards artistic judgement of them. Describing any single “mythical system” distracts us from the fact that a poet may have a purely personal mythology - so, five poets mean five mythologies. I am following up what GRS Mead wrote in 1913, that the modern cultural situation reproduces the situation of the Late Empire, with energy going into cults.