A Heresy for the 21st Century: Nobodaddy

The_Ancient_of_Days-William Blake 1794
The_Ancient_of_Days-William Blake 1794

The strange, visionary genius of the English poet and painter William Blake, one of the touchstones here and the feature of a number of posts including The Marriage of Heaven & Hell, Proverbs of Hell, Auguries of Innocence and Tyger Tyger, is of such depth and complexity that it has invited any number of interpretations, including, somewhat improbably in my opinion, becoming a standard bearer for atheistic humanism. That Blake espoused an idiosyncratic, Hermetic form of humanism is beyond dispute, however Blake was deeply religious, albeit in a unorthodox and heretical fashion, and was vehemently opposed to the materialistic atheism that was beginning to emerge during the Enlightenment, a period where quantity began to supplant quality.

Suggestions for possible sources of Blake’s dense and highly personal mythology have ranged from Neo-Platonism to Buddhism and although Gnosticism is mentioned in the melange, it has been sidelined to a degree. However I believe that Gnosticism (of a libertine variety) and Hermeticism are the two major components that formed the basis of Blake’s belief system.

The most notable element of Gnosticism within Blake’s art and thought is the idea of the Demiurge. In a conversation with Crabb Robinson Blake noted concerning the poems of his fellow Romantic William Wordsworth, “The eloquent descriptions of Nature…were conclusive proof of Atheism, for whoever believes in nature, disbelieves in God – for Nature is the work of the devil.” In the magnificent poem Tyger Tyger, the creator of the Tyger is memorably presented as a craftsman and the original meaning of the word Demiurge in Greek is craftsman or artisan.

In Blake’s art and poetry, the Creator, the Ancient of Days, is named Urizen (either Your Reason and/or To Limit from the Greek) or Nobodaddy (Nobody’s Daddy and/ or possibly an anagrammatized riff on Abaddon, the angel of the bottomless pit). Urizen is the representation of abstraction and reason who creates the universe with architectural tools and ensnares humanity in a web of conventional law and morality.  He constrains us in the ‘prison of the senses five‘ and is quite clearly identified with the Old Testament Jehovah and is definitely Satanic. Hence Blake’s anti-clericalism, priests are literally devil worshippers. Prophets, on the other hand, can ignite the divine spark within us, which Blake identifies as Imagination. Imagination allows us to escape from this cage of matter created by Nobodaddy, the Father of Jealousy who farts and belches in darkness and obscurity while enjoying a spot of ‘hanging & drawing & quartering/ Every bit as well as war & slaughtering’.

I sincerely hope that in the preceding posts in the series that I have presented the basic outline of Gnostic thought, though admittedly in my own eccentric way, with many regrettable gaps, omissions and lacuna. So with this information in mind we can proceed to the 20th & 21st Centuries, a time when new discoveries into the origins of Gnosticism and the rapidly changing nature of reality itself saw a remarkable resurgence of the oldest of heresies.

A Heresy for the 21st Century: The Kabbalah

The Tree of Life
The Tree of Life

Although Gnosticism is, on the whole, treated as a phenomenon intimately connected with Christianity, there is evidence that it predates the birth of Jesus in certain heretical Jewish circles. This is unsurprising as Judaism would have been in contact with Babylonian/Persian religious traditions, as well as Hellenic Platonic speculation. Gnosticism certainly gained its first adherents from within the Hellenized Jewish and Jewish-Christian communities, however these would eventually become part of the sphere of Christianity (whether orthodox or heterodox).

Indeed it seems paradoxical, if not downright perverse, to make mention of a Judaic Gnosticism. Gnosticism with its Dualism, distant God in the pleroma, not to mention the Demiurge who creates matter and the habit of turning scripture on its head, seems to be entirely inimical to Judaism with its monotheism and a God who is omnipotent, omnipresent and omnibenevolent. In many respects it is; yet within the mystical system of the Kabbalah there can be seen an attempt to combine strands of Neo-Platonism and Gnosticism with Judaism, albeit with a heavy qualified Dualism.

Theories abound regarding the origins of the Kabbalah. Common to the ancient and medieval world contemporary texts were stated to be of the greatest antiquary, all the better to suggest that it was of divine or prophetic origins. These claims are subject to dispute, though oral transmission undoubtedly has a role to play. Unfortunately such conjecture is unverifiable. What we can be sure of though is that the first great flowering of Kabbalistic literature was in Spain during the 12th Century and 13th Centuries. The political situation of the Iberian peninsula from the time of the Muslim conquest in the 8th Century to the reconquista of 1492 was a time of great flux, however for long period the Jewish population of Spain and Portugal enjoyed prosperity and freedom from persecution by tolerant Muslim and Christian rulers. It was also a time that the Kingdom of Al-Andalus was the centre of the learned world.

The Kabbalah is one of the world’s most complex and richest mystical systems (none-withstanding such recent bastardisations as The Kabbalah Centre) and I couldn’t possibly do its justice in a short post. Instead I will concentrate on a few points that appear to have a significant Gnostic component.

  • The two concepts of God: the essence of God is infinite, transcendent, unknowable, known as Ein Sof (No End).  In contrast there is God that manifests itself to humanity through a series of emanations.
  • The Sephirot-the ten emanations are attributes of God in which he reveals himself and sustains existence (see the header image showing the Sephirot as the Tree of Life).
  • Shekhinah-the feminine divine presence, comparable to Sophia in Gnosticism. Often the last of the Sephirot (nearest to matter), referred to as the daughter of God. Shekhinah dwells among the holy but is exiled from her own source. According to the great scholar of Jewish Mysticism, Gershom Scholem, Shekhinah is ‘like the moon reflecting the divine light into the world’.
  • Sitra Achra-the Other Side, a demonic world of illusion
  • The Qliphot-the impure metaphorical shells surrounding holiness. To be found in the Sitra Achra, the Qliphot can lead to an self-awareness that is entirely illusory.
  • The radical notion (but only by some commentators) that evil is the result of an imbalance within the Sephirot.
  • The importance placed on the esoteric meaning of scripture  as opposed to their overt, exoteric meaning.

Life became increasingly difficult for the large Jewish population in Spain by the mid 14th century and when Ferdinard and Isabella completed the reconquista, they announced the Expulsion of all Muslims and Jews. A majority left to Palestine, Italy, Poland and Germany with their books and knowledge. The Kabbalah become known to the learned of Europe who had recently re-discovered Plato and Hermes Tristemegistus (see my post As Above, So Below) and helped advance the Renaissance, though the philosopher-magus interpreted the system in a syncretic fashion, commonly known as Cabala to differentiate it from the Jewish Kabbalah. In Palestine the Kabbalah became of increasing importance within Judaism, but that is beyond the scope of this post.

 

 

As Above, So Below

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Tabula Smaragdina-Matthew Merian 1612
In her post on Hermes (► “Hermes & Writing in Ancient Greece”: “Collaboration with Alan Severs”✍️.-,) the wonderful Aquileana mentions the syncretic figure of Hermes Trismegistus (Hermes the Thrice Great, on account of being the greatest priest, the greatest philosopher and the greatest king). This figure who at various periods has been considered divine, semi-divine or legendary is nowadays shrouded in obscurity yet it once was a name to conjure with. As Aquileana has outlined the Greek-Egyptian deity in her post I will dealing exclusively with the Hermes Trismegistus who was the purported author of the Corpus Hermeticum and the Emerald Tablet.

In 1463 the great Florentine banker, power broker and patron of the arts Cosimo de Medici heard from his agent Leonardo de Pistoia that he had recently acquired the Corpus Hermeticum, part of the treasures rescued before the sack of Constantinople (previously Byzantium and now Istanbul). At 74 Cosimo was an elderly man for the time and he didn’t hesitate in instructing his brilliant scribe Marsilio Ficino to stop translating the Complete Works of Plato and start work on the Corpus immediately so that he could read it before his death. Ficino immediately agreed and only returned to Plato after he had completed translating the Corpus. It may seem amazing to ourselves that such cultivated  and learned men as de Medici and Ficino sidelined Plato, the philosopher whose immeasurable influence upon Western thought has led to the suggestion that the entire history of Western philosophy is merely a footnote to his works, but they were believers in the prisca theologia. Hermes Trismegistus was believed to be of immense antiquary, a contemporary of Moses and was therefore closer to the source of divine inspiration than Plato.

The effect of Ficino’s translation galvanised the nascent humanist Renaissance movement. Hermeticism and Gnosticism share many similarities, however Hermeticism’s emphasis on the inherent divinity of mankind and its descriptions of the soul’s ascent through the heavens make it a fundamentally more optimistic and positive philosophy than the rather austere and ascetic doctrines of Gnosticism and would have held a particular appeal in the hothouse atmosphere of the Renaissance. One of the high watermarks of that giddy epoch,  Pico Della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man, is clearly indebted to Hermetic thought.

The Corpus, was well as influencing astrology, alchemy and magic also spurred the developing field of the natural sciences as has been shown in a series of books by the truly exceptional Renaissance scholar Dame Frances Yates, including Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, The Art of Memory and The Rosicrucian Enlightenment. This spirit of scientific empiricism that Hermeticism had in part engendered caused the eventual demise of the Hermetic Revival. In 1614 the distinguished Swiss philologist Isaac Casaubon published his philological study of the text. The Corpus was not the product of a single author of an antiquary predating Plato and Christ but was actually written by multiple differing authors from Alexandria in the 3rd or 4th Century AD. This revelation would weaken the intellectual appeal of Hermeticism during the 17th Century, although certain esotericists, notably Robert Fludd and Athanasius Kircher kept the faith in the historical veracity of Hermes Trismegistus.

Below is The Emerald Tablet attributed to Hermes Trismegistus in a translation by the scientist and the discoverer of gravity, Sir Isaac Newton. A key text in alchemy it also contains the doctrine of as above, so below, the central tenet of Western Esotericism. I have chosen the Newton translation as it shows how magic and science were once closely allied and not mortal enemies.

The Emerald Tablet

1.) Tis true without error, certain & most true.
2.) That which is below is like that which is above & that which is above is like that which is below to do the miracles of one only thing
3.) And as all things have been & arose from one by the [meditation] of one: so all things have their birth from this one thing by adaptation.
4.) The Sun is its father, the moon its mother, the wind hath carried it in its belly, the earth is its nurse.
5.) The father of all perfection in the whole world is here.
6.) Its force or power is entire if it be converted into earth.
7.) Separate thou the earth from the fire, the subtle from the gross sweetly with great industry.
8.) It ascends from the earth to the heaven & again it descends to the earth & receives the force of things superior & inferior.
9.) By this means you shall have the glory of the whole world
10.) & thereby all obscurity shall fly from you.
11.) Its force is above all force. For it vanquishes every subtle thing & penetrates every solid thing.
12.) So was the world created.
13.) From this are & do come admirable adaptations whereof the means (or process) is here in this. Hence I am called Hermes Trismegist, having the three parts of the philosophy of the whole world
14.) That which I have said of the operation of the Sun is accomplished & ended.