Thursday, June 23, 2016
The Diabolical Curse on Knowledge by Moncure Daniel Conway 1879
The Diabolical Curse on Knowledge by Moncure Daniel Conway 1879
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In Lucas van Leyden’s picture of Satan tempting Christ, the fiend is represented in the garb of a University man of the time. From his head falls a streamer which coils on the ground to a serpent. From that serpent to the sceptical scholar demanding a miracle the evolution is fully traceable. The Serpent, of old the ‘seer,’ was in its Semitic adaptation a tempter to forbidden knowledge. This was the earliest priestly outcry against ‘godless education.’
During the Shakespere tercentenary festival at Stratford-on-Avon, the Bishop of St. Andrews declared that there is not a word in the Bible warranting homage to Intellect, and such a boast beside the grave of the most intellectual of Englishmen is in itself a survival illustrating the tremendous curse hurled by jealous Jehovah on man’s first effort to obtain knowledge. That same Serpent of knowledge has passed very far, and his curse has many times been repeated. In the Accadian poem of the fatal Seven, as we have seen, it is said, ‘In watching was their office;’ and the Assyrian version says, ‘Unto heaven that which was not seen they raised.’ On the Babylonian cylinders is inscribed the curse of the god of Intelligence (Hea) upon man—‘Wisdom and knowledge hostilely may they injure him.’1 The same Serpent twined round the staff of Æsculapius and whispered those secrets which made the gods jealous, so that Jove killed the learned Physician with a flash of lightning. Its teeth were sown when Cadmus imported the alphabet into Greece; and when these alphabetical dragon’s-teeth had turned to type, the ancient curse was renewed in legends which connected Fust with the Devil.
The Hebrews are least among races responsible for the legend which has drifted into Genesis. Nor was the Bishop’s boast about their Bible correct. The homage paid to Solomon was hardly on account of his moral character. ‘He spake of trees, from the cedar-tree that is in Lebanon, even unto the hyssop that springeth out of the wall; he spake also of beasts, and of fowl, and of creeping things, and of fishes.’ While the curse on man for eating the fruit of knowledge is never quoted in the Hebrew scriptures, there are many indications of their devotion to knowledge; and their prophets even heard Jehovah saying, ‘My people are destroyed through lack of knowledge.’ It is not wonderful, therefore, that we find among the Jews the gradual growth of a legend concerning Seth, which may be regarded as a reply to the curse on the Serpent.
The apotheosis of Seth in rabbinical and mussulman mythology represents a sort of Semitic Renaissance. As we have seen in a former chapter, the Egyptians and Greeks identified Set with Typhon, but at the same time that demon was associated with science. He is astronomically located in Capricorn, the sphere of the hierophants in the Egyptian Mysteries, and the mansion of the guardians of science. Thus he would correspond with the Serpent, who, as adapted by the Hebrews in the myth of Eden, whispers to Eve of divine knowledge. But, as detached from Typho, Seth, while leaving behind the malignancy, carried away the reputation for learning usually ascribed to devils. Thus, while we have had to record so many instances of degraded deities, we may note in Seth a converted devil. In the mussulman and rabbinical traditions Seth is a voluminous author; he receives a library from heaven; he is the originator of astronomy and of many arts; and, as an instructor in cultivation, he restores many an acre which as Set he had blighted. In the apocryphal Genesis he is represented as having been caught up to heaven and shown the future destiny of mankind. Anastasius of Sinai says that when God created Adam after his own image, he breathed into him grace and illumination, and a ray of the Holy Spirit. But when he had sinned this glory left him. Then he became the father of Cain and Abel. But afterwards it is said Adam ‘begat a son in his own likeness, after his image, and called his name ‘Seth,’ which is not said of Cain and Abel; and this means that Seth was begotten in the likeness of unfallen man in paradise—Seth meaning ‘Resurrection.’ And all those then living, when they saw how the face of Seth shone with divine light, and heard him speak with divine wisdom, said, He is God; therefore his sons were commonly called the sons of God.
That this ‘Resurrection’ of departed glory and wisdom was really, as I have said, a Renaissance—a restoration of learning from the curse put upon it in the story of the Serpent—is indicated by its evolution in the Gnostic myth wherein Seth was made to avenge Satan. He took under his special care the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and planted it in his father’s grave. Rabbins carried their homage to Seth even to the extent of vindicating Saturn, the most notorious of planets, and say that Abraham and the Prophets were inspired by it. The Dog (Jackal) was, in Egyptian symbols, emblem of the Scribe; Sirius was the Dog-star domiciled with Saturn; Seth was by them identified with Sirius, as the god of occult and infernal knowledge. He was near relative of the serpent Sesha, familiar of Æsculapius, and so easily connected with the subtlest of the beasts in Eden which had crept in from the Iranian mythology.
This reaction was instituted by scholars, who, in their necessarily timid way of fable, may be said to have recovered the Tree of Knowledge under guise of homage to Seth. It flourished to the extent of finally raising the Serpent to be a god, and lowering Jehovah who cursed him to a jealous devil!
But the terror with which Jehovah is said to have been inspired when he said, ‘The man has become as one of us, to know good and evil,’ never failed to reappear among priesthoods when anything threatened to remove the means of learning from under their control. The causes of this are too many to be fully considered here; but the main cause unquestionably was the tendency of learning to release men from the sway of the priest. The primitive man of science would speedily discover how many things existed of which his priest was ignorant, and thus the germ of Scepticism would be planted. The man who possessed the Sacred Books, in whole or in part, might become master of the ‘spells’ supposed to be contained in its words and sentences, and might use them against the priests; or, at any rate, he might feel independent of the ordinary apparatus of salvation.
The anxiety of priests to keep fast hold of the keys of learning, so that no secular son of Adam should become ‘as one of them,’ coupled with the wonderful powers they professed ability to exercise, powerfully stimulated the curiosity of intellectual men, and led them to seek after this forbidden fruit in subtle ways, which easily illustrated the story of the Serpent. The poet Shelley, who was suspected at Oxford because of his fondness for chemistry, recognised his mythological ancestry, and used to speak of ‘my cousin, the Serpent.’ The joke was born of circumstances sufficiently scandalous in the last generation to make the Oxonian of to-day blush; but the like histories of earlier ages are so tragical that, when fully known by the common people, they will change certain familiar badges into brands of shame. While the cant goes on about the Church being the protector of learning through the dark ages, the fact is that, from the burning of valuable books at Ephesus by christian fanatics (Acts xix. 19) to the present day, the Church has destroyed tenfold more important works than it ever produced, and almost suffocated the intellectual life of a thousand years. Amid the unbroken persecution of the Jews by christian cruelty, which lasted from the early eleventh century for five hundred years, untold numbers of manuscripts were destroyed, which might have now been giving the world full and clear knowledge concerning ages, for whose records archæological scholars are painfully exploring the crumbled ruins of the East. Synagogues were believed to be temples of Satan; they were plundered and razed to the ground, and their precious archives strewed the streets of many cities. On the 17th of June 1244 twenty-four cartloads of these ancient MSS. were burned in Paris alone. “And all this by our holy ‘protector of learning’ through the Middle Ages!
The Japanese have pictures of a famous magician who conjured up a demon—vast, vague, and terrible—out of his inkstand. They call it latterly ‘emblem of a licentious press,’ but, no doubt, it was originally used to terrify the country generally concerning the press. That Devil has also haunted the ecclesiastical imagination in Europe. Nearly every book written without priestly command was associated with the Devil, and there are several old books in Europe, laboriously and honestly written, which to this day are invested with popular superstitions reporting the denunciations with which they were visited. For some centuries it has been believed in Denmark and neighbouring countries that a strange and formidable book exists, by means of which you can raise or lay the Devil. It is vulgarly known as the Book of Cyprianus. The owner of it can neither sell, bury, or burn it, and if he cannot get rid of it before his death, he becomes the prey of the fiend. The only way of getting rid of it is to find somebody who will accept it as a present, well knowing what it is. Cyprianus is said to have been a clever and virtuous young student, but he studied the black art in Norway, and came under the power of the Devil, who compelled him to use his unholy learning to evil ends. This grieved him sorely, and he wrote a book, in which he shows first, how evil shall be done, and then how to counteract it. The book is probably one which really exists or existed, and professed to teach the art of sorcery, and likewise the charms against it. It consists of three parts, severally called Cyprianus, Dr. Faust, and Jacob Ramel. The two latter are written in cypher. It teaches everything appertaining to ‘signing,’ conjuring, second sight, and all the charms alluded to in Deuteronomy xviii. 10–12. The person possessing Cyprianus’ book is said never to be in need of money, and none can harm him. The only way of getting rid of it is to put it away in a secret place in a church along with a clerk’s fee of four shillings.
In Stockholm I saw the so-called Devil’s Bible, the biggest book in the world, in the Royal Library. It is literally as they describe it, ‘gigas librorum’: no single man can lift it from the floor. It was part of the booty carried off by the Swedes after the surrender of Prague, A.D. 1648. It contains three hundred parchment leaves, each one made of an ass’s hide, the cover being of oak planks, 1½ inches thick. It contains the Old and New Testaments; Josephi Flavii Antiquitates Judaicæ; Isidori Episcopi L. XX. de diversis materiis; Confessio peccatorum; and some other works. The last-named production is written on black and dark brown ground with red and yellow letters. Here and there sentences are marked ‘hæc sunt suspecta,’ ‘superstitiosa,’ ‘prohibita.’ One MS., which is headed, ‘Experimentum de furto et febribus’, is a treatise in Monkish Latin on the exorcism of ghosts and evil spirits, charms against thieves and sickness, and various prescriptions in ‘White Magic.’ The age of the book is considerably over three hundred years. The autograph of a German emperor is in it: ‘Ferdinandus Imperator Romanorum, A.D. 1577.’ The volume is known in Sweden as Fan’s Bibel (Devil’s Bible). The legend says, that a monk, suspected of black arts, who had been condemned to death, begged for life, and his judge mockingly told him that he would be pardoned only if he should produce next morning all the books here found and in this vast size. The monk invoked the Devil’s assistance, and the ponderous volume was written in a single night. This Devil must have been one who prided himself more on his literary powers than his personal appearance; for the face and form said to be his portrait, frontispiece of the volume, represent a most hideous ape, green and hairy, with horrible curled tusks. It is, no doubt, the ape Anerhahn of the Wagner legends; Burns’s ‘towzie tyke, black, grim, and large.’
I noticed particularly in this old work the recurrence of deep red letters and sentences similar to the ink which Fust used at the close of his earliest printed volumes to give his name, with the place and date of printing. Now Red is sacred in one direction as symbolising the blood of Christ, but it is also the colour of Judas, who betrayed that blood. Hence, while red letters might denote sacred days and sentences in priestly calendars, they might be supposed mimicry of such sanctities by ‘God’s Ape’ if occurring in secular works or books of magic. It is said that these red letters were especially noted in Paris as indications of the diabolical origin of the works so easily produced by Fust; and, though it is uncertain whether he suffered imprisonment, the red lines with his name appear to have been regarded as his signature in blood.
For a long time every successive discovery of science, every invention of material benefit to man, was believed by priest-ridden peoples to have been secured by compact with the devil. The fate of the artist Prometheus, fettered by jealous Jove, was repeated in each who aspired to bring light to man, and some men of genius—such as Cornelius Agrippa, and Paracelsus—appear to have been frightened away from legitimate scientific research by the first connection of their names with sorcery. They had before them the example of the greatest scientific man of the Middle Ages, Roger Bacon, and knew how easily, in the priestly whisper, the chemist’s crucible grew to a wizard’s cauldron. The time may come when Oxford University will have learned enough to build a true memorial of the grandest man who ever wrote and taught within its walls. It would show Roger Bacon—rectifier of the Julian Calendar, analyst of lenses, inventor of spectacles and achromatic lenses, probable constructor of the first telescope, demonstrator of the chemical action of air in combustion, inventor of the mode of purifying saltpetre and crystallising it into gunpowder, anticipator of the philosophical method with which his namesake is credited—looking on a pile of his books for whose researches he had paid two thousand French livres, to say nothing of a life’s labour, only to see them condemned by his University, their circulation prohibited; and his sad gaze might be from the prison to which the Council of Franciscans at Paris sentenced him whom Oxford gladly delivered into their hands. He was condemned, says their historian Wadding, ‘propter novitates quasdam suspectas.’ The suspected novelties were crucibles, retorts, and lenses that made the stars look larger. So was it with the Oxford six hundred years ago. Undeniably some progress had been made even in the last generation, for Shelley was only forbidden to study chemistry, and expelled for his metaphysics. But now that it is claimed that Oxford is no longer partaker with them that stoned investigators and thinkers from Bacon to Shelley, it would be in order to build for its own great martyr of science a memorial, that superstition may look on one whom it has pierced.
Referring to Luther’s inkstand thrown at the Devil, Dr. Zerffii, in his lecture on the Devil, says, ‘He (the devil) hates nothing so much as writing or printer’s ink.’ But the truth of this remark depends upon which of two devils be considered. It would hardly apply to the Serpent who recommended the fruit of knowledge, or to the University man in Lucas van Leyden’s picture. But if we suppose the Devil of Luther’s Bible to be the one at which the inkstand was thrown, the criticism is correct. The two pictures mentioned may be instructively compared. Luther’s Devil is the reply of the University to the Church. These are the two devils—the priest and the scholar—who glared at each other in the early sixteenth century. ‘The Devil smelled the roast,’ says Luther, ‘that if the languages revived, his kingdom would get a hole which he could not easily stop again.’ And it must be admitted that some of the monkish execrations of the time, indeed of many times since, have an undertone of Jahvistic jealousy. ‘These Knowers will become as one of us.’ It must also be admitted that the clerical instinct told true: the University man held in him that sceptical devil who is always the destroyer of the priest’s paradise. These two devils which struggled with each other through the sixteenth century still wage their war in the arena of Protestantism. Many a Lutheran now living may remember to have smiled when Hofmann’s experiments in discovering carbonic acid gas gained him repute for raising again Mephosto; but perhaps they did not recognise Luther’s devil when, at the annual assembly of Lutheran Pastors in Berlin (Sept. 1877), he reappeared as the Rev. Professor Grau, and said, ‘Not a few listen to those striving to combine Christ with Belial, to reconcile redeeming truth with modern science and culture.’ But though they who take the name of Luther in vain may thus join hands with the Devil, at whom the Reformer threw his inkstand, the combat will still go on, and the University Belial do the brave work of Bel till beneath his feet lies the dragon of Darkness whether disguised as Pope or Protestant.
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