Sunday, March 31, 2024

Gnosticism, Numerology, and Gods with Snakes for Legs

Here is a peculiar object, a carved gem (intaglio) depicting a being with snake legs and a rooster's head. It is one of hundreds such stones that survive from the Roman world. Some depict only this being, but others combine the snake-legged one with other strange beings, Jewish symbols, Egyptian symbols, images of Mithra, or text. The most common text is the word ABRAXAS. Somtimes this is rendered ABRASAX, and sometimes one finds both.

What, if anything does it mean?

So far as I can tell, most authorities agree that Abraxas began as a magical nonsense word like Abracadabra. Likewise, the image of the snake-legged, rooster-headed being was just one of many such monstrous images that people used in their magical symbolism; fearsome and strange, but not necessarily referencing any particular being or even particular cosmology. So it meant nothing at all, on purpose.

Later, though, this nonsense word and nonsensical being acquired quite a lot of meaning, which I find fascinating. If you look up these intaglios online, at least half the sites will say that they are Gnostic. Which most of them are not. 

But there is a connection. Around the year 180 AD an orthodox Christian bishop named Irenaeus wrote a book called Against Heresies. One of the heresies he fulminated against was Gnosticism, and it is from this account that we learn much of what we know about that movement. Historians have long argued over how seriously to take the accounts of heretical beliefs given by orthodox writers in such books. Why would we assume that they accurately portray the ideas of those they are attacking? But this is by far the best source we know of, and it generally agrees with the Gnostic sources recovered from the Nag Hammadi Library, so we go with what we have.

One of the writers Irenaeus attacked was the Gnostic Basilides, who wrote what may have been some of the first philosophical commentaries on the Gospels before he died around 130. The Jewish Encyclopedia tells us:

According to Irenæus ("Adversus Hæreses," i. 24, 3-7), the Gnostic Basilides gave the name of Abraxas to the highest Being, who presides over the 364 kingdoms of spirits (52 x 7 = 364), because the numerical value of the letters of this name is equivalent to 365 (a = 1, b = 2, r = 100, a =1, x = 60, a = 1, s = 200)—i.e., the 364 spirits + the Highest Being Himself. . . . In a magic papyrus it is expressly stated that Abraxas is equivalent to 365, the number of days in the year 

Which is interesting, and the numerology may explain how ABRAXAS came to have magical assocations in the first place. According to Irenaeus, Basilides imagined the cosmos in Neoplatonic terms, with lots of emanations:

In the system described by Irenaeus, "the Unbegotten Father" is the progenitor of Nous "Discerning Mind"; Nous produced Logos "Word, Reason"; Logos produced Phronesis "Mindfulness"; Phronesis produced Sophia "Wisdom" and Dynamis "Potentiality"; Sophia and Dynamis produced the principalities, powers, and angels, the last of whom create "the first heaven". They, in turn, originate a second series, who create a second heaven. The process continues in like manner until 365 heavens are in existence, the angels of the last or visible heaven being the authors of our world. "The ruler" [principem, i.e., probably ton archonta] of the 365 heavens "is Abraxas, and for this reason he contains within himself 365 numbers".

I've always found this kind of cosmic speculation absurd, and not just because it is weird. Even if you accept all this, what then? A birthed B from which emanated C, D, and E, which created F, which transformed into G, and – what are we supposed to do about it? With Gods, one is supposed to worship them, but there is no evidence that anyone ever worshipped Abraxas. Who would worship an emanation? I suppose this is part of what we mean by Gnosticism; the main point was to know, not to worship or be good. 

One of the things orthodox Christians hated about Basilides was that he considered the material world stupid and irrelevant, and therefore denied that Jesus could have suffered and died. Suffering and dying are stupid things of the irrelevant material world, and Jesus was, to Basilides, beyond all that. But the business of all those Principalities and Powers ruling the world was very widely believed among early Christians; St. Paul seems to tell us that Jesus came to earth to overthrow their rule.

But I can get weirder than that. The author of wikipedia's article on Abraxas, which comes with a lot of warnings about the citing of questionable sources, seems to be an adept of some kind of strange lore. He or she tells us,

The Holy Book of the Great Invisible Spirit, for instance, refers to Abrasax as an Aeon dwelling with Sophia and other Aeons of the Pleroma in the light of the luminary Eleleth. In several texts, the luminary Eleleth is the last of the luminaries (Spiritual Lights) that come forward, and it is the Aeon Sophia, associated with Eleleth, who encounters darkness and becomes involved in the chain of events that leads to the Demiurge's rule of this world, and the salvage effort that ensues. As such, the role of Aeons of Eleleth, including Abraxas, Sophia, and others, pertains to this outer border of the Pleroma that encounters the ignorance of the world of Lack and interacts to rectify the error of ignorance in the world of materiality.
Got that?

As I have written here several times, one of the most striking things about classical magic is how much of it seems to be based on no theory of or even consistent attitude toward the non-material world. You just take symbols from old traditions mix them up with words that sound impressive when chanted and maybe some lighting effects, throw in the most expensive ingredients you can afford, and presto, you can invoke magical powers. If you have no idea what the name ABRAXAS means or where the snake-legged beings comes from, so much the better, that must mean it is truly arcane.

I have the same feeling about the kind of theology we see in Basilides. I find this stuff about the unbegotten father producing mind which produces mindfulness which produces Logos, or the Aeons of the Pleuroma, to be just a more intellectual version of Abracadabra Alakazam.

I do understand that Gnosticism has a serious theological point to make, which is that things are so bad in this world that a good and omnipotent creator cannot possibly be in charge. Perhaps people found (and still find) that thinking of the universe in this way gives them hope. If this world is under the power of the evil demiurge but might be saved by the intervention of the Uncreated Father, maybe that is a way to remain theologically optimistic without wishing away the horrors of earthly life.

But, really, 365 heavens, one for each day; what happened to the quarter heaven for the quarter day that Caesar put in the calendar 150 years before any of this stuff was written? Why does Nous produce Logos, rather than the other way around? Why are there principalities, powers, and angels? And why not a fourth or fifth or 365th category of immortal being?

I'm sorry, I find all of this Baroque multiplication of spritual beings and creative events absurd. There is not, in the Gnostic tradition, even any clear idea about where this supposed knowledge came from: no tablets handed to Joseph Smith by an angel, no revelation in the desert. Basilides, so far as I can tell, offers no justification at all for his statements about things I regard as unknowable. (The Apocryphon of John comes 200 years later).

I find it spectacularly apt that the centerpiece of this crazy theology is a being that, so far as we can tell, is just a made-up name attached to a made-up image. ABRAXAS went from a nonsense word carved on stones to the name of the supreme creator of the universe. Why not? To me, this Gnostic theology adds nothing to the strange face staring from the stone. To me, it just piles words and names that sound magical and cool on top of one another until the reader is either bedazzled into some kind of meditative state or throws the scroll into the fire in disgust. 

Whatever these stones depicting ABRAXAS mean, theological works like those of Basilides seem to mean exactly the same thing. I suspect it amounts to little more than a belief or feeling that there is more to the world than we can see, and more happening in the cosmos than the general run of petty human events.

Saturday, March 30, 2024

Today's Place to Daydream about: Snowdonia

Snowdonia, Eryri in Welsh, is mountainous region in North Wales. Most of it is now within Snowdonia National Park, which has an area of 823 square miles (2,130 km2). 

The park contains a diversity of landscapes, including protected glens where rare plants thrive, vast sheep meadows, steep bare hills, 

wooded valleys, lakes, and towns.

It rains a lot in Wales, so there are many lovely waterfalls.

It is a famous spot for hiking, and you can choose from hundreds of trails, some of which have been used by tourists since the 1600s.

It also a remarkable historic record, including Bronze Age burial cairns

and a Roman Fort called Tomen y Mur – Mound and Wall, I think – within which is a Norman motte about which absolutely nothing is known, since there isn't any historical record of Normans in this area.

Hidden in a valley on the west side of Mount Snowdon is Dinas Emrys. This is a steep hill on top of which stood an Iron Age hillfort. Not much to see, but the spot looms large in British legend. It was here, we read, that the boy Merlin first revealed his prophetic gifts. I'm using this 18th-century rendering because modern pictures aren't nearly so impressive, I suspect because the area is now too heavily wooded for clear views from this distance.

Anyway King Vortigern was trying to build a castle on the hill, but the walls kept falling down. Merlin explained that this was because two dragons were fighting in the earth. A hole was dug and the dragons were revealed. Merlin said that the white dragon, which represented the Saxons, was winning for now, but the red dragon of Wales would stage a comeback.

In the 1200s Snowdonia was the stronghold of Llewellyn the Great, the last important native ruler of Wales. He built or improved, a series of castles, including Dolbadarn

Castell y Berre

and Dolwyddelan.

In the nineteenth century there was mining here for slate, copper, and gold, and there are historic mine sites one can visit.

There is wildlife, including otters, ravens, and feral goats.

A wonderful place to imagine on this rainy Maryland evening.

Friday, March 29, 2024

New Genetic Findings from India

From Elise Kerndocuff of Berkeley and a bunch of others. All of this is based on modern populations, with a sample of more than 2,700 genomes from across the subcontinent:

  1. As with previous studies, the authors find that people in India divide roughly into two groups, known as North Indian and South Indian.
  2. People in India derive 1-2% of their genes from Neanderthals or Denisovans.
  3. Most people in India descend mainly from a single migration out of Africa that took place roughly 55,000 years ago; only 0-3% of genes might descend from an earlier migration of Homo sapiens sapiens out of Africa that the authors date to about 74,000 years ago. (This is important for other debates but not so important about the population of India; basically, there is an archaeological problem because genetic studies keep finding that Europeans and Asians mostly descent from people who left African 55,000 to 60,000 years ago, but there were Homo sapiens sapiens in Eurasia a lot earlier than that.)
  4. Essentially all people in India have genes that descend from Iranian farmers who migrated to India in the Neolithic; to get a sample of south Asian hunter-gatherers without Iranian mixture the authors used Andaman Islanders. Look at the graph at the top and you see that in North India, Iranian farmer (Sarazm) is the largest component, at about 47%. This is what you would expect; farmers had larger populations than hunter-gatherers and genetically dominated wherever they went. The dominance is less extreme in India than in Europe because hunter-gatherer populations were denser in the tropics, and maybe because Indian hunter-gatherers took up farming faster.
  5. Most (but not all) people in India have genes from Bronze Age Steppes invaders. As you would expect, this ancestry is stronger in the north, but it is also present in the south. Most archaeologists think these people brought Indo-European languages and the civilization of the ancient Vedas to India.

The authors, as is proper, present their percentages vaguely, with error bars, and in fact they don't print any numbers at all. But squinting at their graph, I come up with these numbers for the mean points in their ranges.

Like everyone else, modern Indians are a mixture of many different ancient populations, which were in turn mixtures of populations who came before them. There are no pure races, or pure civilizations.

Links 29 March 2024

Attic black figure vase, c. 550 BC

Accusations of plagiarism have gotten stupid; the latest involves a scholar who repeated the biolerplate description of a major dataset. Commentator says, "We need to clarify that datasets in common usage ought to be described exactly the same way every time." More from Alex Tabarrok.

David French in the NY Times on what he says is actually America's most important political divide: "Only a minority of Americans are truly active in political debates, and they’re exhausting and alienating the rest of the country." Says about 1/3 of Americans describe themselves as thinking and caring a lot about politics, and they are much more radical than the rest; also, the vast majority of these partisans are white.

Some weird, whimsical art by Marcel Dzama.

For the past decade, real medical costs in America have been *falling.* (That is, the rate of increase in medical costs has been lower than overall inflation.) I remember when ever-rising medical costs seemed to present us with an unsolvable future crisis.

Another Italian town tries selling its vacant houses for one Euro but finds few takers. Incidentally Baltimore has been trying to sell vacant houses for one dollar, but it turns out there are a whole lot of conditions (designed to deter speculators and other undesirables) that make this tricky.

Restoring the Hallaton Helmet, a Roman find in Britain.

Personality traits and income; according to this study, people who overestimate their own competence earn 23.5% more than those who estimate accurately.

Ben Pentreath, early spring in Scotland. And a January visit to Sydney.

Excavation of a building site in Pompeii shows how Roman builders went about renovations.

And at Must Farm, British archaeologists find a bucket full of scrap bronze pieces probably destined to be remelted and recast.

New twist on the Hungarian corruption scandal; why are right-wing populists so corrupt?

Right-wing X/Twitter has gotten so bad that even conservative pit bull Cristopher Ruffo says it is "insane"; Ruffo particularly cites antisemitism and conspiracy mongering.

When the rest of suburban America was going to single family zoning, Palisades Park, NJ – for reasons no one remembers – decided to allow two dwellings per lot. For decades that didn't matter, but now hundreds of houses in the town have been replaced with duplexes, the population has risen, tax rates are down, and maybe this is a model for providing America with more housing. Increased density doesn't have to mean big apartment buildings. (NY Times)

Georgia Republican Party official Brian Pritchard, who has spent the past four years loudly arguing that the Democrats stole the 2020 election through fraud, has been found guilty of illegally voting nine times while on probation for felony convictions.

CERN’s Super Proton Synchrotron has long been troubled by a "ghost", a mysterious phenomenon that sometimes led it to generate bad results. Now the ghost has been isolated and modeled, and it turns out to be a strange resonance effect.

A judge finally gets tired of "judge shopping," that is, filing lawsuits in the jurisdiction where the plaintiffs hope to get the most favorable judge.

Greek funerary sculpture featuring twin babies.

Short video showing a long-range Ukrainian drone precisely striking a tower in a Russian oil refinery.

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

The Internet and the Bridge Collapse

In Baltimore yesterday the news was all bridge collapse, all day long, the biggest thing to happen here since the Ravens won the Super Bowl. 

Meanwhile, on the Internet, the entirely predictable conspiracy theory explosion was under way. This incident is a paradigmatic case because it is so obviously an accident; if the crew intended to ram the bridge as a terrorist attack, why would they warn authorities so that they successfully shut the bridge down and got the traffic off? I suppose Alex Jones' cyberattack is remotely possible, but that seems to me like a very crude way to proceed; how could you predict which way the ship would drift after it lost power? Quite likely it would just end up on a mudflat.

World War III isn't so bad, is it?

This guy doesn't seem to know that 1) in our world there are security cameras trained at every key piece of infrastructure 24/7, and 2) the news channels all say the same thing because they just parrot statements from government officials.

One of my sons follows conspiracy accounts for fun, and he says everyone is claming the attack was a "false flag." But surely for there to be a false flag, there has to be a flag? A false flag operation is when you blame one entity but another really did it. In this case, our government hasn't blamed anyone.

Apparently Barack and Michele Obama once made a documentary that included a scene of a huge ship running onto a beach, which somehow proves they were behind this attack.

Meanwhile in MAGA land, it's all the fault of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. I mean, the shipping company is based in India and the whole crew is Indian, but they somehow promoted the wrong people for ethnic reasons anyway?

All the people I follow passed this stuff along with the tag, "predictable response." And it was predictable. 

What does that mean?

What, if anything, do the people who post this stuff really believe? Are a lot of them doing it for fun and profit?

But let's assume a lot of people really believe this stuff, or at least believe it is plausible. Why? How did we come to have this reservoir of distrust so vast and deep that even perfectly obvious accidents appear to people as sinister acts by evil cabals? Is this just hangover from Vietnam, the Cold War, and the Invasion of Iraq? If our government tried harder to be more honest, would that help? Or does this distrust spring from a deeper place?

The other day I was talking to my conspiracy-enjoying son about the fake moon landing thing, and he said, "To some of these people, everything the government says is a lie, and since all we know about the moon landing comes from the government, it has to be fake." But the people who say things like that constantly rely on "the government" to tell the truth – about the weather forecast, upcoming road closures, when the first day of school will be. How do they know which statements are just from the government, and which are from "the government"?

How much does any of this matter?

Monday, March 25, 2024

E.T.A. Hoffmann's Fantastic "Tales"

E.T.A. Hoffmann, the artist and his cat
confront the Prussian Bureaucracy

A few weeks ago I stumbled across the comment that E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776-1822) was “the first master of modern fantasy.” This made me curious, since honestly I did not know anything about him beyond “The Nutcracker” and his general reputation for the uncanny. Since I needed something to listen to during upcoming fieldwork, I got an audiobook of one of the many collestions of his “Tales.”

Hoffmann was 13 years old when the French Revolution began and 39 when Napoleon was defeated, so he came of age with the era of revolution and continental war. He earned his living as a bureaucrat for the Prussian state but was in his heart a Romantic in the most profound sense. Which is an interesting fact about human nature. He had his first really good job as a legal official in Prussian-ruled Poland, which meant that he was in Warsaw in 1806 when Napoleon's army marched in. (Wikipedia says “The Prussian bureaucrats lost their jobs. . . they divided the contents of the treasury between them and fled.” Which is just the kind of thing that might happen in a Hoffmann story.) Hoffmann later ended up stuck in the middle of the Battle of Dresden, bullets whistling through the house where he was taking shelter. And when the war finally ended and he got another good job, he fell ill with syphillis, which, among other things, killed him at the age of 46.

After reading or listening to eight Hoffmann tales, some of novella length, I have formed my own idea of where to place him in literary history. I think what it means to call Hoffmann's works “modern fantasy” is that they are set in a world of unbelief. In a Hoffmann story, people sometimes get a glimpse of the fairy world, but if they dare to mention it their friends tell them to stop working so hard, cut back on the drink and get some rest. After beholding the battle between the toys, led by the Nutcracker, and the minions of the Mouse King, Clara wants to tell her family but then thinks, “Of course none of them would believe me. They would only laugh at me.” 

On the other hand the stories themselves are for the most part quite traditional, firmly rooted in the fairytale universe. Hoffmann's world is full of princes and princesses, sometimes recognized and sometimes in hiding or under spells that make them forget who they really are. There are wizards, witches, talking animals, faraway kingdoms with outlandish names. One of his tricks is to take a character who has magical or sinister associations in folklore – an apple-selling crone, a natural philosopher, a wandering poet, a scholar of ancient languages – and, after introducing these people in a naturalistic way, show that they have magical powers after all. 

In Hoffmann's stories, as in fairy tales, the magical other world is always close by; but for Hoffmann the gate can only be opened by special people under special circumstances. Hoffmann was a Romantic, and for him the person able to cross into other lands is above all the poet. In one of the most famous stories, “The Golden Pot,” the hero eventually does marry a fairy princess and go to live in Atlantis. Dear reader, he says, you may well be jealous, but you should not be, because you can also live in the fairy realms whenever you like, through poetry. Others who manage to cross include a grown man who still acts in many ways like a child, a pair of lovers, and an overwrought man haunted by a tragic past.

Hoffmann had a fascination with doubles. He shared this with the German literati of his time; Goethe swore that he had seen his own doppelganger on the street in Bonn. In one of Hoffmann's stories two regular citizens of Rome dress up as the prince and princess of an exotic kingdom, who just happen to be in Rome visiting for the carnival, and great confusion ensues. The two ordinary Romans end up believing for a time that they are the real prince and princess, and this somehow, in a very Romantic way, makes them into better, nobler souls.

Hoffmann also had a thing for stories within stories. The written version of “The Nutcracker” devotes half its words to a story the toymaker Drosselmeyer tells Clara about how a prince came to be transformed into the Nutcracker. In general, if things ever are explained in a Hoffmann story, they are explained by a long and often rather tedious mythical tale; but just as often the relevance of the mythical tale is not at all obvious, and one wishes it had been left out.

Longwindedness is, I found, one of Hoffmann's two biggest faults. I don't think he was being paid by the word, but he certainly wrote like he was. The other weakness is the problem he had making the fairy world wonderful. When the Other Lands are only hinted at, they can seem marvelous, but when they are described they become pages of purple prose about Suessian flowers and buildings carved from gem stones. In “The Golden Pot” the hero is presented with a choice between marriage to an earth girl who is pretty and charming in an ordinary way and the magical daughter of the King of the Salamanders, and despite the vast weight of adjectives lavished on the Salamander's daughter (beautiful, wondrous, gleaming, etc.) I thought the ordinary girl seemed like the more tempting choice.

Making things wonderful is just hard. Consider all the trouble Christian writers have making heaven appealing. In The Lord of the Rings the hints we get about the ancient cities of the elves make them seem amazing, but when you read about them in The Silmarillion they are pretty drab. Like Hoffmann, H.P. Lovecraft devoted pages of overwrought prose to the gemstone cities of the Other Lands (he must have read Hoffmann, I think) but the effect is to make me think my suburb is a nicer place to live.

The same goes for horror, of course; in very few horror stories does the final reveal live up to the dark hints one gets at the beginning. Hoffmann has a dark reputation but at least in the stories I read, there wasn't much to be afraid of. Sometimes things are weird and confusing, but not at all scary.

Illustration to “The Golden Pot” by Alexander Pavlenko

What did magic mean to Hoffmann? 

I don't want to be too simplistic, because a lot happens in these stories, written across 20 years, and the atmosphere in them varies a great deal. But to me the core is that magic is gnosis; magic is the secret knolwedge that allows us to make sense of our chaotic world. In “The Golden Pot” the narrator tells us straight out that in Atlantis, as in poetry, “the sacred harmony of all being is revealed as the deepest secret of nature.” Through their crazy Roman carnival, our two young lovers reach some kind of understanding that makes them love each other more deeply and face the future with more confidence. When other characters learn that they are actually princes or princesses under a magic spell, mist falls from their eyes and they finally see things clearly. 

This is a major part of what we mean, I think, by Romanticism; a belief in a kind of knowledge one cannot study but may reach through art, love, and experience, a knowledge that lifts us up above the sordidness of human life and makes us, for a while, the princes and princes of Trebizond or Atlantis. Hoffmann rewrote fairytales in the light of this understanding. Sometimes the results are marvelous, but more often the flood of words gets in the way.

The Codices of San Andrés Tetepilco

Three new Aztec codices have been discovered! They were kept by a family who considered themselves the stewards of traditional knowledge in Culhuacan and Iztapalapa, formerly a distinct region that is now within the Mexico City megalopolis. They have now been donated to National Institute of Anthropology and History of Mexico. The whole press conference at which this was announced is on YouTube; English summary here.

The first is called Map of the Founding of Tetepilco, and is a pictographic map which contains information regarding the foundation of San Andrés Tetepilco, as well as lists of toponyms to be found within Culhuacan, Tetepilco, Tepanohuayan, Cohuatlinchan, Xaltocan and Azcapotzalco. The second, the Inventory of the Church of San Andrés Tetepilco, is unique, as Oudijk remarks, since it is a pictographic inventory of the church of San Andrés Tetepilco, comprising two pages. Sadly, it is very damaged.

Finally, the third document, now baptised as the Tira of San Andrés Tetepilco, is a pictographic history in the vein of the Boturini and the Aubin codices, comprising historical information regarding the Tenochtitlan polity from its foundation to the year 1603. 

I think the above is the map; all of these are screen caps from the press conference.

And this is the inventory. All of the images below come from the chronicle. More on these documents here.