Abraxas

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Abraxas (Gk. ΑΒΡΑΣΑΞ, which is far more common in the sources than the variant form Abraxas, ΑΒΡΑΞΑΣ)[citation needed] was a word of mystic meaning in the system of the Gnostic Basilides, being there applied to the “Great Archon” (Gk., megas archōn), the princeps of the 365 spheres (Gk., ouranoi).[1] The 7 letters spelling its name may represent each of the 7 classic planets—Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.[2]

The word is found in Gnostic texts such as the Holy Book of the Great Invisible Spirit, and also appears in the Greek Magical Papyri. It was engraved on certain antique gemstones, called on that account Abraxas stones, which were used as amulets or charms. As the initial spelling on stones was 'Abrasax' (Αβρασαξ), the spelling of 'Abraxas' seen today probably originates in the confusion made between the Greek letters Sigma and Xi in the Latin transliteration. The word may be related to Abracadabra, although other explanations exist.

There are similarities and differences between such figures in reports about Basilides' teaching, ancient Gnostic texts, the larger Greco-Roman magical traditions, and modern magical and esoteric writings. Opinions abound on Abraxas, who in recent centuries has been claimed to be both an Egyptian god and a demon.[3] The Swiss Psychologist Carl Jung wrote a short Gnostic treatise in 1916 called The Seven Sermons to the Dead, which called Abraxas a God higher than the Christian God and Devil, that combines all opposites into one Being.

Sources[edit]

It is uncertain what the actual role and function of Abraxas was in the Basilidian system, as our authorities (see below) often show no direct acquaintance with the doctrines of Basilides himself.

As an Archon[edit]

Gemstone carved with Abraxas, obverse and reverse.

In the system described by Irenaeus, "the Unbegotten Father" is the progenitor of Nous, and from Nous Logos, from Logos Phronesis, from Phronesis Sophia and Dynamis, from Sophia and Dynamis 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."

The name occurs in the Refutation of all Heresies (vii. 26) by Hippolytus, who appears in these chapters to have followed the Exegetica of Basilides. After describing the manifestation of the Gospel in the Ogdoad and Hebdomad, he adds that the Basilidians have a long account of the innumerable creations and powers in the several 'stages' of the upper world (diastemata), in which they speak of 365 heavens and say that "their great archon" is Abrasax, because his name contains the number 365, the number of the days in the year; i.e. the sum of the numbers denoted by the Greek letters in ΑΒΡΑΣΑΞ according to the rules of isopsephy is 365:

Α = 1, Β = 2, Ρ = 100, Α = 1, Σ = 200, Α = 1, Ξ = 60

As a god[edit]

Epiphanius (Haer. 69, 73 f.) appears to follow partly Irenaeus, partly the lost Compendium of Hippolytus.[4] He designates Abrasax more distinctly as "the power above all, and First Principle," "the cause and first archetype" of all things; and mentions that the Basilidians referred to 365 as the number of parts (mele) in the human body, as well as of days in the year.

The author of the appendix to Tertullian De Praescr. Haer. (c. 4), who likewise follows Hippolytus's Compendium,[5] adds some further particulars; that 'Abraxas' gave birth to Mind (nous), the first in the series of primary powers enumerated likewise by Irenaeus and Epiphanius; that the world, as well as the 365 heavens, was created in honour of 'Abraxas;' and that Christ was sent not by the Maker of the world but by 'Abraxas.'

Nothing can be built on the vague allusions of Jerome, according to whom 'Abraxas' meant for Basilides "the greatest God" (De vir. ill. 21), "the highest God" (Dial. adv. Lucif. 23), "the Almighty God" (Comm. in Amos iii. 9), and "the Lord the Creator" (Comm. in Nah. i. 11). The notices in Theodoret (Haer. fab. i. 4), Augustine (Haer. 4), and 'Praedestinatus' (i. 3), have no independent value.

It is evident from these particulars that Abrasax was the name of the first of the 365 Archons, and accordingly stood below Sophia and Dynamis and their progenitors; but his position is not expressly stated, so that the writer of the supplement to Tertullian had some excuse for confusing him with "the Supreme God."

As an Aeon[edit]

With the availability of primary sources, such as the those in Nag Hammadi library, the identity of Abrasax remains unclear. 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 Abrasax, 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.

Abrasax stones[edit]

A vast number of engraved stones are in existence, to which the name "Abrasax-stones" has long been given. One particularly fine example was included as part of the Thetford treasure from fourth century Norfolk, UK. The subjects are mythological, and chiefly grotesque, with various inscriptions, in which ΑΒΡΑΣΑΞ often occurs, alone or with other words. Sometimes the whole space is taken up with the inscription. In certain obscure magical writings of Egyptian origin ἀβραξάς or ἀβρασάξ is found associated with other names which frequently accompany it on gems;[6] it is also found on the Greek metal tesseræ among other mystic words. The meaning of the legends is seldom intelligible: but some of the gems are amulets; and the same may be the case with nearly all.

A print from Bernard de Montfaucon's L'antiquité expliquée et représentée en figures (Band 2,2 page 358 ff plaque 144) with different images of Abraxas.

Gallery[edit]

Anguipede[edit]

Engraving from an Abrasax stone.

In a great majority of instances the name Abrasax is associated with a singular composite figure, having a Chimera-like appearance somewhat resembling a basilisk or the Greek primordial god Chronos (not to be confused with the Greek titan Cronus). According to E. A. Wallis Budge, "as a Pantheus, i.e. All-God, he appears on the amulets with the head of a cock (Phœbus) or of a lion (Ra or Mithras), the body of a man, and his legs are serpents which terminate in scorpions, types of the Agathodaimon. In his right hand he grasps a club, or a flail, and in his left is a round or oval shield." This form was also referred to as the Anguipede. Budge surmised that Abrasax was "a form of the Adam Kadmon of the Kabbalists and the Primal Man whom God made in His own image."[9]

Some parts at least of the figure mentioned above are solar symbols, and the Basilidian Abrasax is manifestly connected with the sun. J. J. Bellermann has speculated that "the whole represents the Supreme Being, with his Five great Emanations, each one pointed out by means of an expressive emblem. Thus, from the human body, the usual form assigned to the Deity, forasmuch as it is written that God created man in his own image, issue the two supporters, Nous and Logos, symbols of the inner sense and the quickening understanding, as typified by the serpents, for the same reason that had induced the old Greeks to assign this reptile for an attribute to Pallas. His head—a cock's—represents Phronesis, the fowl being emblematical of foresight and vigilance. His two hands bear the badges of Sophia and Dynamis, the shield of Wisdom, and the scourge of Power."[10]

Origin[edit]

In the absence of other evidence to show the origin of these curious relics of antiquity the occurrence of a name known as Basilidian on patristic authority has not unnaturally been taken as a sufficient mark of origin, and the early collectors and critics assumed this whole group to be the work of Gnostics. During the last three centuries attempts have been made to sift away successively those gems which had no claim to be considered in any sense Gnostic, or specially Basilidian, or connected with Abrasax. The subject is one which has exercised the ingenuity of many savants, but it may be said that all the engraved stones fall into three classes:

While it would be rash to assert positively that no existing gems were the work of Gnostics, there is no valid reason for attributing all of them to such an origin. The fact that the name occurs on these gems in connection with representations of figures with the head of a cock, a lion, or an ass, and the tail of a serpent was formerly taken in the light of what Irenaeus says about the followers of Basilides:

These men, moreover, practise magic, and use images, incantations, invocations, and every other kind of curious art. Coining also certain names as if they were those of the angels, they proclaim some of these as belonging to the first, and others to the second heaven; and then they strive to set forth the names, principles, angels, and powers of the 365 imagined heavens.

Adversus hæreses, I. xxiv. 5; cf. Epiph. Haer. 69 D; Philastr. Suer. 32

Incantations by mystic names were characteristic of the hybrid Gnosticism planted in Spain and southern Gaul at the end of the fourth century and at the beginning of the fifth, which Jerome connects with Basilides, and which (according to his Epist., lxxv.) used the name Abrasax.

It is therefore not unlikely that some Gnostics used amulets, though the confident assertions of modern writers to this effect rest on no authority. Isaac de Beausobre properly calls attention to the significant silence of Clement in the two passages in which he instructs the Christians of Alexandria on the right use of rings and gems, and the figures which may legitimately be engraved on them (Paed. 241 ff.; 287 ff.). But no attempt to identify the figures on existing gems with the personages of Gnostic mythology has had any success, and Abrasax is the only Gnostic term found in the accompanying legends which is not known to belong to other religions or mythologies. The present state of the evidence therefore suggests that their engravers and the Basilidians received the mystic name from a common source now unknown.

Magical papyri[edit]

Having due regard to the magic papyri, in which many of the unintelligible names of the Abrasax-stones reappear, besides directions for making and using gems with similar figures and formulas for magical purposes, it can scarcely be doubted that many of these stones are pagan amulets and instruments of magic.

The magic papyri reflect the same ideas as the Abrasax-gems and often bear Hebraic names of God. The following example will suffice: "Iao Sabaoth, Adonai . . . Abrasax".[11] The patriarchs are sometimes addressed as deities; for which fact many instances may be adduced. In the group "Iakoubia, Iaosabaoth Adonai Abrasax,"[12] the first name seems to be composed of Jacob and Ya.

The Leyden papyrus recommends that this invocation be pronounced to the moon:

[24] Ho! Sax, Amun, Sax, Abrasax; for thou art the moon, (25) the chief of the stars, he that did form them, listen to the things that I have(?) said, follow the (words) of my mouth, reveal thyself to me, Than, (26) Thana, Thanatha, otherwise Thei, this is my correct name.[13]

The magic word "Ablanathanalba," which reads in Greek the same backward as forward, also occurs in the Abrasax-stones as well as in the magic papyri. This word is usually conceded to be derived from the Hebrew (Aramaic), meaning "Thou art our father" (אב לן את), and also occurs in connection with Abrasax; the following inscription is found upon a metal plate in the Carlsruhe Museum:

АВРАΣАΞ

ΑΒΛΑΝΑΘ

ΑΝΑΛΒΑ

Etymology[edit]

Gaius Julius Hyginus (Fab. 183) gives Abrax Aslo Therbeeo as names of horses of the sun mentioned by 'Homerus.' The passage is miserably corrupt: but it may not be accidental that the first three syllables make Abraxas.

The proper form of the name is evidently Abrasax, as with the Greek writers, Hippolytus, Epiphanias, Didymus (De Trin. iii. 42), and Theodoret; also Augustine and 'Praedestinatus'; and in nearly all the legends on gems. By a probably euphonic inversion the translator of Irenaeus and the other Latin authors have Abraxas, which is found in the magical papyri, and even, though most sparingly, on engraved stones.

The attempts to discover a derivation for the name, Greek, Hebrew, Coptic, or other, have not been entirely successful:

Egyptian[edit]

Hebrew[edit]

Greek[edit]

Perhaps the word may be included among those mysterious expressions discussed by Adolf von Harnack,[14] “which belong to no known speech, and by their singular collocation of vowels and consonants give evidence that they belong to some mystic dialect, or take their origin from some supposed divine inspiration.”

Yet we may with better reason suppose that it came originally from a foreign mythology, and that the accident of its numerical value in Greek merely caused it to be singled out at Alexandria for religious use. It is worth notice that ΜΕΙΘΡΑΣ and ΝΕΙΛΟΣ have the same value. The Egyptian author of the book De Mysteriis in reply to Porphyry (vii. 4) admits a preference of 'barbarous' to vernacular names in sacred things, urging a peculiar sanctity in the languages of certain nations, as the Egyptians and Assyrians; and Origen (Contra Cels. i. 24) refers to the 'potent names' used by Egyptian sages, Persian Magi, and Indian Brahmins, signifying deities in the several languages.

In literature[edit]

Medieval Seal representing Abraxas.[15]
Thomas More, Utopia

In the 1516 novel Utopia by Thomas More, the island called Utopia once had the name "Abraxa", which scholars have suggested is a related use.[16]

Aleister Crowley, "The Gnostic Mass"

Abrasax is invoked in Aleister Crowley's 1913 work, "The Gnostic Mass" of Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica:

IO IO IO IAO SABAO KURIE ABRASAX KURIE MEITHRAS KURIE PHALLE. IO PAN, IO PAN PAN IO ISCHUROS, IO ATHANATOS IO ABROTOS IO IAO. KAIRE PHALLE KAIRE PAMPHAGE KAIRE PANGENETOR. HAGIOS, HAGIOS, HAGIOS IAO.[17]

As a piece of mystical and religious syncretism, the work reflects more the personal preferences of the modern magician than it holds historical veracity.

Carl Jung, Seven Sermons to the Dead

Abraxas is an important figure in Carl Jung's 1916 book Seven Sermons to the Dead, a representation of the driving force of individuation (synthesis, maturity, oneness), referred with the figures for the driving forces of differentiation (emergence of consciousness and opposites), Helios God-the-Sun, and the Devil.[18]

There is a God about whom you know nothing, because men have forgotten him. We call him by his name: Abraxas. He is less definite than God or Devil.... Abraxas is activity: nothing can resist him but the unreal ... Abraxas stands above the sun[-god] and above the devil  If the Pleroma were capable of having a being, Abraxas would be its manifestation.

That which is spoken by God-the-Sun is life; that which is spoken by the Devil is death; Abraxas speaketh that hallowed and accursed word, which is life and death at the same time. Abraxas begetteth truth and lying, good and evil, light and darkness in the same word and in the same act. Wherefore is Abraxas terrible.

Herman Hesse, Demian

Several references to the god Abraxas appear in Hermann Hesse's 1919 novel Demian, such as:

The bird fights its way out of the egg. The egg is the world. Who would be born must destroy a world. The bird flies to God. That God's name is Abraxas.

—Max Demian[citation needed]

... it appears that Abraxas has much deeper significance. We may conceive of the name as that of the godhead whose symbolic task is the uniting of godly and devilish elements.

—Dr. Follens[citation needed]

Abraxas doesn't take exception to any of your thoughts or any of your dreams. Never forget that. But he will leave you once you become blameless and normal.

—Pistorius[citation needed]
Salman Rushdie, Midnight's Children

Salman Rushdie's novel Midnight's Children (1981) contains a reference to Abraxas in the chapter 'Abracadabra':

Abracadabra: not an Indian word at all, a cabbalistic formula derived from the name of the supreme god of the Basilidan gnostics, containing the number 365, the number of the days of the year, and of the heavens, and of the spirits emanating from the god Abraxas.

—Saleem Sinai


References[edit]

  1. ^ Cf. Hippolytus, Refutatio, vii. 14; Irenaeus, Adversus hæreses, I. xxiv. 7
  2. ^ “He who has His seat within the Seven Poles—ΑΕΗΙΟΥΩ,” in the Magical Papyri. Mead, G.R.S. (1906). "XI. Concerning the Æon-Doctrine". Thrice-Greatest Hermes 1. London and Benares: The Theosophical Publishing Society. p. 402. 
  3. ^ "Demonographers have made him a demon, who has the head of a king and serpents for feet." Collin de Plancy, Jacques Auguste Simon (1818). "Abracax or Abraxas". Dictionnaire Infernal. 
  4. ^ Lipsius, R. A., Zur Quellenkritik d. Epiphanios 99 f.
  5. ^ Lipsius 33 f. &c.
  6. ^ Reuvens (1830). Lett, à M. Letronne s. I. Pap. bilingues, etc., Leyden
  7. ^ Bellermann, Versuch, iii., No. 10.
  8. ^ Baudissin, Studien zur Semitischen Religionsgeschichte, i. 189 et seq.
  9. ^ Budge, E. A. Wallis (1930). Amulets and Superstitions. pp. 209–210. 
  10. ^ Paraphrased by King, Charles William (1887). The Gnostics and Their Remains. p. 246. 
  11. ^ Wessely, Neue Zauberpapyri, p. 27, No. 229.
  12. ^ Ibid. p. 44, No. 715
  13. ^ Griffith, F. Ll. and Thompson, Herbert (1904). "Col. XXIII". The Demotic Magical Papyrus of London and Leiden (The Leyden Papyrus). 
  14. ^ Harnack, Adolf von (1891). "Über das gnostische Buch Pistis-Sophia". TU. vii. 2: 86–89. 
  15. ^ Ralls, Karen (2007). Knights Templar Encyclopedia: The Essential Guide to the People, Places, Events, and Symbols of the Order of the Temple. Career Press. pp. 184–5. ISBN 9781564149268. 
  16. ^ [1]
  17. ^ Gnostic Mass, Liber XV, Ecclesiæ Gnosticæ Catholicæ Canon Missæ, hosted by the Scarlet Woman Lodge of Ordo Templi Orientis in Austin, Texas.
  18. ^ Hoeller S. A., The Gnostic Jung and The Seven Sermons to the Dead, Quest Books, Wheaton, 2006, ISBN 978-0-8356-0568-7

Bibliography[edit]

Attribution

External links[edit]