The Poetics of Grammar and the Metaphysics

of Sound and Sign
Jerusalem Studies in
Religion and Culture
Guy Stroumsa
David Shulman
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Department of Comparative Religion
The Poetics of
Grammar and the
Metaphysics of
Sound and Sign
Edited by
S. La Porta and D. Shulman

The JSRC book series aims to publish the best of scholarship on religion, on the highest
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Introduction ........................................................................................ 1
S. La Porta and D. Shulman
1. Creation through Hieroglyphs: Te Cosmic Grammatology
of Ancient Egypt ........................................................................... 17
Jan Assmann
2. KUN—the Existence-Bestowing Word in Islamic Mysticism:
A Survey of Texts on the Creative Power of Language ............ 35
Sara Sviri
3. Adam’s Naming of the Animals: Naming or Creation? ........... 69
Michael E. Stone
4. Greek Distrust of Language ......................................................... 81
Margalit Finkelberg
5. Tis is no Lotus, it is a Face: Poetics as Grammar in Danˢ dˢ in’s
Investigation of the Simile ........................................................... 91
Yigal Bronner
6. Te Performance of Writing in Western Zhou China .............. 109
Martin Kern
7. Counseling through Enigmas: Monastic Leadership and
Linguistic Techniques in Sixth-Century Gaza .......................... 177
Brouria Bitton-Ashkelony
8. Devotional, Covenantal and Yogic: Tree Episodes in the
Religious Use of Alphabet and Letter from a Millennium of
Great Vehicle Buddhism .............................................................. 201
Dan Martin
vi contents
9. Powers of Language in Kabbalah: Comparative Refections ... 233
Jonathan Garb
10. Te Poetics of Grammar in the Javano-Balinese Tradition ... 271
Thomas M. Hunter
11. How to Bring a Goddess into Being through Visible Sound 305
David Shulman
12. Translation and Transformation: Armenian Meditations
on the Metamorphic Power of Language ................................. 343
Sergio La Porta
Index .................................................................................................... 369
Trigg 1988, 213–214; Syriac text and French translation in Gignoux 1968, 570–3,
ll. 249–56.
1. A Sound Instead of Letters
A great thing for them was the voice of the Creator, which shouted out
over the earth,
And he taught them a new book, which they did not know.
As if for children, he wrote a sound instead of letters,
And he caused them to meditate upon those characters concerning the
existence of light.
Like a line he made straight the expression before their sight,
And they began crying, “Blessed is the creator who created the light!”
“Let there be light,” cried the voice which possesses no voice,
And the word issued forth to action without delay.
Tese verses are from the memrâ of Narsai of Nisibis (399–402) entitled
“On the Expression, ‘In the Beginning’ and Concerning the Existence
of God,”
one of the most powerful statements about language in the
Syriac Christian corpus. Narsai, the rabban (director) of the school at
Edessa that focused on biblical interpretation, evokes in this passage
the inherent tension between the semantic and trans-semantic modes
of language—language as Creator and created, as sound and symbol, as
model and actualization. Here language is the constructive element of
the universe, its grammar the order and wonder of cosmic operation.
According to Narsai, the creation, already formed by God but hidden
as with a cloak, does not fully come into existence until communication
between God and the intelligible universe begins. Te previous verses
of the poem tell us that God has already once exclaimed “Let there be
light”, to which the angels now respond. Although the world has come
into existence by means of God’s initial exclamation, He withholds its
full actualization until the angelic host achieves awareness. It is only
afer their acclamation of praise that He once again releases His efectual
pronouncement. Te created universe is thus an echo, a reduplicated
sound which refers to itself, but that sound is a voice that has issued
2 s. la porta and d. shulman

from no-voice, from silence, and only derives its full meaning and ef-
cacy from the angelic antiphonal.
According to Narsai, God exits from his silence into this conversa-
tion in order to teach his remzâ—symbol, sign, mystery, suggestion—to
the angels. In the work of Syriac authors of the 5th and 6th century, as
Gignoux and Alwan have demonstrated, the remzâ also encapsulates
the divine power that creates the universe, holds it together, arranges it,
and refashions it at the eschaton (i.e., the end of days).
Te remzâ is the
ultimate referent but is itself a symbol, transcending linguistic potential;
it is an inefable sign that refers to something that is beyond reference
and therefore refers only to itself.
Te understanding and efectuality of that remzâ in Narsai’s poem,
however, is related to the angelic praise—the actualization of the remzâ
awaits the recognition and praise of the angelic host. It is clear from
this emphasis on ‘praise’ that Narsai is here depicting the frst heavenly
liturgy. Trough participation in this liturgical praise the angels become
aware of the mysterious sign, the remzâ—‘more beautiful than the light
itself ’—as well as of the universe, from the creation to the end, and of
their own existence. Te impact of this sacred act is not limited to the
celestial sphere. As the refection of the heavenly liturgy, the earthly,
ecclesiastical liturgy partakes of this continuing cosmogonic revelation
of the remzâ, and through communion in this liturgy, its participants
likewise share in the knowledge of the inefable beauty of the creation
and of themselves. While God thus imparts His remzâ to the angels as a
sound that attains actualization through the angelic echo of praise, He
teaches his remzâ to humanity through scripture, whose fulfllment is
attained through the liturgical act. Te complete revelation of the remzâ
transforms both angels and men and, ultimately, the universe itself.
Narsai’s cosmogony of the remzâ exemplifes the kind of problems
with which this volume is concerned. Te remzâ is close to what we will
be calling grammar—a paradigmatic mapping or reality made accessible
to the angels as a creative sound functioning as a sign and to human
beings as written signs, actualized in the audible, spoken liturgy. One
could go much further in exploring this particular Syriac grammar; but
in fact sounds and signs are everywhere, in all civilizations, saturated
with metaphysical content. Tey always tend to be organized in ‘gram-
mars’—sets of rules regulating the relations and transitions between
Gignoux 1966; Alwan 1988/89.
introduction 3

perception and expression, that is, between primary cultural intuitions
and their articulated modes. More generally, such grammars turn
sounds into signs and defne the range of signifcation. Each such gram-
mar is itself a poetic enterprise, creating—or more accurately, refashion-
ing—the world it purports to describe.
2. Grammar as a Privileged Mode
In many civilizations, grammar, widely defned, is perceived as consti-
tuting the core of the cultural, intellectual enterprise as a whole. Prob-
ably the most striking example is that of ancient India, where grammar
in its several modes evolved very early out of the attempt to preserve
and analyze the sacred texts of the Veda. By the middle of the 1st millen-
nium bc, the great grammarian Pānˢ ini had produced a systematic and
generative system of Sanskrit articulated in its own meta-language with
explicit hermeneutic procedures and devices for ‘reality-checking’. Tis
system was so powerful that it became the paradigm for any scientifc
investigation in pre-modern India.
For the early Sanskrit grammarians, linguistic science is heavily
empirical and pragmatic. Nonetheless, its deeper metaphysical implica-
tions were never far from the grammarians’ own awareness. Patanjali,
the author of the Mahābhāshya commentary on Pānˢ ini’s sutras, ofers a
series of justifcations and rationales for studying grammar, culminat-
ing in the assertion that by studying grammar one becomes like God.

Later Sanskrit grammarians claimed that they happened upon god in
the midst of the arid materials of morphology as a man might by chance
fnd a diamond buried under a heap of chaf. In short, for classical India,
grammar ofers privileged access to the primary forces that constitute
reality. Such a view imparts a particular power and dignity to the gram-
marian. Tus for the Tamils in South India, the maverick Vedic sage,
Agastya, the author of the frst Tamil grammar, is the frst culture hero
and the creator of civilization.
Similarly in Greece, the grammatical tradition was preoccupied with
the nuts and bolts of linguistic analysis and yet served as a springboard
for theological speculation. Plutarch, himself a priest at the famous
Apollo shrine at Delphi, reveals that in the heart of the sanctuary was
Patanjali 1962.
4 s. la porta and d. shulman

an inscription with the Greek word ei—‘you exist’ or, maybe, ‘if ’. . . .
word itself is clearly a trigger to altered perception, its grammatical ambi-
guity—verb, conditional particle—instigating theosophical ambiguity.
Such efects may have been a normative component in oracular speech.
Among Christian theologians, there developed a ‘sacred’ grammar in
which the tools uncovered by their pagan predecessors unlocked the
doors to knowledge of the Bible and its Creator. For example, Origen, in
the Prologue to his Commentary on the Song of Songs, regards gram-
mar as an absolutely necessary fundament to any intellectual and spir-
itual progress; grammar permeates all levels of science:
Tere are three general disciplines by which one attains knowledge of the
universe. Te Greeks call them ethics, physics, and enoptics; and we can
give them the terms moral, natural, and contemplative. Some among the
Greeks, of course, also add logic as a fourth, which we can call reasoning.
Others say that it is not a separate discipline, but is intertwined and bound
up through the entire body with the three disciplines we have mentioned.
For this ‘logic,’ or as we have said, reasoning, which apparently includes
the rules for words and speech, is instruction in proper and improper
meanings, general and particular terms, and the infections of the difer-
ent sorts of words. For this reason it is suitable that this discipline should
not so much be separated from the others as bound in with them and
While it is true that the object of Origen’s discussion is the correct read-
ing and grasping of the biblical text, it is impossible to distinguish his
textual world from the physical one, and thus the latter is equally ame-
nable to a grammatical reading. In ninth-century Latin monasteries,
grammar was the foundation of the liberal arts, the key to understand-
ing the Bible and reality, and an instrument of salvation. Maurus Raba-
nus emphasizes the importance of grammar in the preface to his De
clericum insitutione:
Know, brethren, what the law requires
Which ftly commands us to know the Word of God.
It asks that he who has ears, should hear
What the Holy Spirit speaks in the Church.
Trough grammar the Psalmist brings this to the people,
Duly confrming their grasp on the law of God.
Plutarch 1969.
Origen 1979, 231.
introduction 5
So, brethren, we should strive always,
With eyes and ears intent, to learn the Word of God.
Such statements imply the notion of a universal grammar. It is how-
ever striking that ofen a particular linguistic paradigm retained its pri-
macy even afer its transposition to other languages. For example, the
Armenian grammatical tradition struggled to resolve the tension inher-
ent in applying Dionysius Trax’s grammar of Greek to the Armenian
language. However, the faith in a universal grammar, of which Greek
and Armenian were just resonances, ensured that this Greek grammar
in Armenian translation remained the standard grammatical text book
well into the Middle Ages. Similarly, Sanskrit grammatical categories
were projected, despite an inherent lack of suitability, onto medieval
grammars of languages such as Tamil and Tibetan.
It would be easy to adduce further examples of the privileged position
of grammar in various civilizations. What needs to be stressed is the
potential, always latent in the very notion of grammar, for applying this
paradigm to contexts that transcend the purely morphological or syn-
tactical study of speech. Grammar is magic. Let us try to explain what a
sentence like this might mean.
In a famous article from 1968, Stanley Tambiah proposed a method for
making sense of the so-called “magical power of words.” Working with
Malinowski’s Trobriand island materials—the spells and charms used in
everyday rituals—Tambiah ofers a highly rational, semiotic explanation
for the expressivity activated by these ritualized forms of language. Te
problem here is not so much a purely logical one. To restate a Trobriand
spell in terms of a metaphoric or metonymic semantics will not really
help us to understand its dynamics. Such spells work. Even a word like
metaphor used to explain such contexts seems hopelessly impoverished.
In an organic cosmos like that of the Trobriand highlands or, indeed, of
most of the cultures discussed in this volume—that is to say, in a cosmos
in which everything is interconnected—what we call metaphor is almost
always a statement about causality. Tese rituals are, of course, logical,
and this logic can be analytically restated. More than logic, however,
their grammar difers from ours. We would do better to ask ourselves
what grammar they are using, rather than whether they are logical and
rational in senses familiar to us.
Cited in Colish 1983, 64. On the importance of grammar for ninth-century Latin
monasticism, see also Leclercq 1948, 15–22.
6 s. la porta and d. shulman

Grammar in this sense ofers a wider template than discursive logic
or emotional and associative experience, both of which have served the
historians of culture as readily accessible tools. By way of contrast, gram-
mar, though selective, presents a methodology much more textured
and elastic than other conceptual models. It is, for one thing, capable
of containing both the semantic and the trans-semantic pieces of real-
ity. It retains the contours of cultural expressivity, and allows for struc-
tured transitions among disparate domains. Grammar also accounts for
iconic and symbolic efects, in which the intimacy, or indeed identity,
between sign and signed or sound and meaning has been preserved. In
an organic cosmos, the very existence of accidental efects within lan-
guage may be precluded. Grammar is thus a privileged mode for per-
ceiving or articulating such non-accidental relations.
It is thus no accident that in culture afer culture, grammar turns
out to be dependably linked with creation and restoration. Knowledge
of grammar allows access to the workings of reality, which the skilled
grammarian is capable of using efectively—to bless or to curse, to kill
or to heal, to make present or to transform. In this sense, grammar
transcends the merely descriptive or referential analysis of linguistic
systems. Such systems are perceived as subsets of a far more compre-
hensive poetics. Te world itself is grammar-ed, though not necessarily
in transparent ways.
3. What is Grammar?
It is one thing to think of God as a grammarian and the Creation as
essentially grammatical in its construction and operation, another to
use the word grammar as a pragmatic system for describing and gener-
ating linguistic practices. Modern linguists in their more circumspect
mode tend to operate on the basis of the latter perspective. Tey are not
alone. Classical Greek, Sanskrit, Armenian, and Arabic grammarians,
for example, were for the most part driven by empirical, highly ana-
lytical, and non-metaphysical concerns. Nonetheless, for these cultures,
too, the grammarian may very easily shade of into the philosopher and,
in some cases, into the healer/necromancer. Take the Armenian word
for grammarian: k‘ert‘oł, which also means poet and philosopher; in the
later grammatical tradition, the healing aspects of grammar are noted
by the commentators.
Te whole history and self-perception of the
See S. La Porta’s contribution to this volume as well as Ervine 1995, 158.
introduction 7

Sanskrit grammatical tradition—arguably the world’s most elaborate
and sophisticated form of pre-modern linguistics—seem to be balanced
somewhere between the blessing of divine omniscience [a gif of the god
Śiva to the grammarians] and the curse of human forgetfulness. More-
over, from the very heart of the grammatical enterprise there emerged
the fgure of Bhartrˢ hari (5th c.), a radical philosopher of the cosmos as
a linguistic organism.
Let us be clear. For the purposes of this book, we are using ‘grammar’
as a heuristic model that enables wide-ranging cross-cultural compari-
son. We think of the cosmos as grammaticalized—which is to say that
all the sub-grammatical domains mentioned earlier are operative and
accessible to analytic interpretation. Our usage extends and builds upon
the latent linguistic presuppositions that we fnd in culture afer cul-
ture. Tis view regards grammar not as a convention—even if specifc
intellectual traditions, and most modern linguists, think of language as
largely or partly conventional—but as an inherent blue-print for real-
ity, perhaps somewhat abstracted or generalized, but in any case, deeply
woven into the fabric of cosmic experience.
Sometimes we see a productive tension between the conventional-
ist and the naturally iconic understanding of language, with grammar
poised somewhat uncomfortably between them. Take the Cratylus, for
example. Much of Plato’s discussion revolves around the question of
whether words, and especially names, are inherently or naturally linked
to their referents. Troughout the text, Socrates, as usual, undermines
the naive and absolutist positions of his interlocutors, Hermogenes and
Cratylus, with a no-nonsense skepticism. Still, an understanding of the
operation of the basic elements of language as organic and non-ran-
dom keeps breaking through the surface of the debate, even in Socrates’s
analysis. Look, for example, at Socrates’ deconstruction of Hermogenes’
conventionalist position (426d–427a–d):
Well, the letter rho, as I was saying, appeared to be a fne instrument
expressive of motion to the name-giver who wished to immitate rapidity,
and he ofen applies it to motion. In the frst place, in the words ῥειν (fow)
and ῥοή (current) he imitates their rapidity by this letter, then in τρόμος
(trembling), and in τρέχειν (run), and also in such words as κρούειν
(strike), θραύειν (break), ἐρείκειν (rend), θρύπτειν (crush), κερματίζειν
(crumble), ῥυμβει ː ν (whirl), he expresses the action of them all chiefy by
means of the letter rho; for he observed, I suppose, that the tongue is least
at rest and most agitated in pronouncing this letter, and that is probably
the reason why he employed it for these words. Iota again, he employs for
everything subtle, which can most readily pass through all things. Tere-
fore he imitates the nature of ἰέναι (go) and ἵεσθαι (hasten) by means of
8 s. la porta and d. shulman

iota, just as he imitated all such notions as ψυχρόν (cold, shivering), ζέον
(seething), σείεσθαι (shake), and σεισμός (shock) by means of phi, psi,
and zeta, because those letters are pronounced with much breath. When-
ever he imitates that which resembles blowing, the giver of names always
appears to use for the most part such letters. And again he appears to
have thought that the compression and pressure of the tongue in the pro-
nunciation of delta and tau was naturally ftted to imitate the notion of
binding and rest. And perceiving that the tongue has a gliding movement
most in the pronunciation of lambda, he made the words λει ː α (level),
ὀλισθάνειν (glide) itself, λιπαρόν (sleek), κολλωː δες (glutinous), and the
like to conform to it. Where the gliding of the tongue is stopped by the
sound of gamma he reproduced the nature of γλισχρόν (glutinous), γλυκύ
(sweet), and γλοιωː δες (gluey). And again perceiving that nu is an internal
sound, he made the words ἔνδον (inside) and ἐντός (within), assimilat-
ing the meanings to the letters, and alpha again he assigned to greatness,
and eta to length, because the letters are large. He needed the sign O for
the expression of γόγγυλον (round), and made it the chief element of the
word. Tus the legislator seems to have applied all the rest [of the letters],
making a sign or names for each existing thing out of [these] letters and
syllables; and in like fashion [he seems] then to have formed out of these
[names and signs] everything else—by means of these same [letters and
syllables]. Tat is my view, Hermogenes, of the truth of names.
In the conclusion to his list of examples, Socrates says that God or the
divine legislator frst created the universe, including apparently its lin-
guistic constituents, then produced names that have an intrinsic relation
to the phonetic materials which constitute them. Te process includes
several stages including a fnal one compounding the coordinated pho-
netic materials to produce further names and signs and the phenomena
construed out of them. Implicit in this view is a strong notion of a gram-
maticalized universe—mostly iconic, logically and syntactically ordered,
and generative. Tis vision of a linguistically imprinted universe exerts
so powerful a fascination that even Socrates, for all his radical skepti-
cism, seems unable to escape it.
A line leads from this point in the direction of a magical or sympa-
thetic pragmatics such as we see in the Greek and Coptic magical papyri
(circa 2nd c. bc to 2nd c. ad). As Patricia Cox Miller aptly observes,
“when juxtaposed with the magical papyri, the Cratylus reads like the
manual of instructions out of which the authors of those texts worked,
Plato 1977, 145–7 (426D–427D). We have altered the last two sentences of the
introduction 9

patiently dividing language into letters, letters into vowels, and so on.”

Tere is an implicit notion of grammar as a systematic mechanics order-
ing the use of these efcacious materials. Te papyri do not ofer us a
grammar; they presuppose one.
Tere are still more far reaching possibilities to mention only a few
that are germane to the following essays: We have Abulafa’s theology of
the name as well as Kabbalistic theories of creative sounds and syllables
(as in Sefer Yezˢ ira); Bhartrˢ hari’s vision of a buzzing, humming, inherently
divine linguistic world underlying and predating words and objects; the
Christian apotheosis of grammar in God as Logos; the earlier Biblical
insistence that God is a verb (‘to be’); and Ibn al-ʚArabī’s reading of the
cosmos as an evolution from the divine imperative.
For all such con-
ceptual models, some notion of grammar, however minimal, provides a
necessary condition for the operation of a linguistic cosmos.
Yet if grammar comes to provide an authoritative paradigm for read-
ing the world, we inevitably fnd voices that reject or rebel against this
patterning. Tere are two skeptical approaches to the inherently linguis-
tic ordering of the cosmos, both of which paradoxically end up reafrm-
ing that very principle. One distrusts language as an accurate medium
for truth without denying the latent grammaticality of reality. In such a
view, ordinary language is incapable of expressing or containing the true
underlying richness of experience. Te only hope lies in repackaging
and reordering the linguistic materials, sometimes in a trans-semantic
mode. As M. Finkelberg says in her essay in this volume, “For Plato as
for many others, rather than in language, the true grammar of the uni-
verse resided in the all-embracing harmony of music and number that
represented the world order as it really is.”
A second, more radical and subversive attitude seeks to undermine
and dissolve anything that looks like authoritative syntax or semantics.
Tere is a continuing tradition of such voices from the Nag Hammadi
codices of Late Antiquity
to the Dadaist poets of the twentieth cen-
tury. W. Bohn remarks in the introduction to his anthology of Dada
poetry that “opposing discursive and nondiscursive structures to each
other, the Dadaists were among the frst to discover that words could be
used to convey information that was essentially extralinguistic.”
Miller 1989, 492.
See S. Sviri’s essay in this volume.
See, e.g., Miller 1989, 481–2.
Bohn 1993, xviii.
10 s. la porta and d. shulman

however, that this vision, too, ultimately acknowledges and uses the lin-
guistic building blocks that it fnds so repulsive.
If even conventionalist and skeptical views cannot avoid conceiving
reality grammatically, it is no wonder that grammar serves as a cultur-
ally privileged mode for cognitive mapping. As such, it is also a good
basis for the cross-cultural comparisons we are attempting here.
IV. A Typology of Temes
We have divided this volume into three relatively delimited domains,
each of which takes up one major strand of the grammatical paradigm:
issues of creation through grammaticalized language, of cultural encod-
ing as poetics, and of meta-linguistic existential transformation. Let us
take them one by one.
1. Creation
Ofen we fnd a strong notion of creativity as an inherently linguistic act.
As we saw in Narsai and as we know from other biblical and post-bibli-
cal traditions, God creates the world by speech of one kind or another—
imperative, dialogic, meditative, mantric. In India, too, language is the
creative mode par excellence, embodied in the goddess Vāc (‘voice’),
without whom no cosmos is possible.
Jan Assmann’s article uncovers a diferential typology of linguistic
creativity in ancient Egypt. Creation, whether conceived as an ‘intran-
sitive’ cosmogony or a ‘transitive’ intentional act ultimately evolves a
mythology which “shows the structure of the divine world to be pri-
marily linguistic.” In the Egyptian case, this linguistic blueprint for real-
ity materializes itself in the cosmic grammatology of the hieroglyphic
signs. Tis link between writing and speech or sound is a rich compara-
tive theme in its own right, as we see from M. Kern’s essay on Chinese
bronze inscriptions in section 2 and in S. La Porta’s essay on Armenian
theories of Logos and sign in section 3.
Sara Sviri explores the immense ramifcations of a single Arabic word
(spoken by God), namely, kun, ‘be’! Tis Qur’ānic theme exfoliates itself
in Suf theories of creation as a divine linguistic imperative, which the
human mystic assimilates and imitates in his own being. As Sviri shows,
the creative power of this single word becomes in Ibn al-ʚArabī the key
to the insoluble but generative “perplexity between the ‘yes’ and the ‘no’, ”
which lies at the heart of Ibn al-‘Arabī’s mystic anthropology.
introduction 11

Michael Stone surveys the various and complex ways Armenian
authors view the relationship between naming and creation in connec-
tion with Adam’s bestowal of names on the creatures. Stone elucidates
the intimate link between naming and creation based upon the theol-
ogy of Adam as the image of God in the Armenian exegetical tradition.
According to these authors, the very word for God (֭׶׸ױ׻ךק [Astuac])
in Armenian is derived (by Volksetymologie) from the fact that God led
(ך׶׸ ךקױ׫ [ast acoł]) the animals before Adam to be named. Tus,
Adam’s God-given ability to bestow names actually produces God’s own
name in a moment of profound mutual self-reference. As the tradition
evolved, this power became associated with the sacerdotal function of
naming at the rite of baptism.
Finally, Margalit Finkelberg shows us the inevitable negative to all the
above positives that imply an optimistic understanding of the poten-
tiality of language, either for conveying truth or for shaping reality. In
her paper, she argues that the classical Greek world was highly suspi-
cious of language, viewing it as a social convention. But here, too, the
world remains saturated with eloquent signs requiring interpretation
and organized grammatically—in our use of the term.
2. Encoding
To postulate grammar as an underlying grid or template allows the
possibility of mapping the cultural topography which is ofen deeply
encoded. As we stated earlier, visions of culture as grammaticalized
sometimes privileged non-semantic or trans-semantic efects. Language
may operate in a highly regular but non-transparent manner. In all such
cases, the culture will elaborate a set of rules of interpretation, or pro-
tocol of reading—what we would call poetics. In other words, we take
poetics as the hermeneutics of a grammaticalized universe. Since each
culture encodes its grammar diferently, distinctive confgurations stand
out clearly when we attempt to formulate or formalize such a poetic her-
meneutic in a cross-cultural comparison.
In India, for example, poetics is a natural extension of the gram-
matical sciences whose terminology and hermeneutic procedures it
adopts. Y. Bronner reveals the operation of one primary mechanism,
the simile, that becomes a building block for the logical analysis of fgu-
ration. Poetic language, for these poeticians, operates by a set of logical
relations that diverge radically from ‘normal’ speech. Such operations
require decoding and philosophical formulation. In other words, poetics
12 s. la porta and d. shulman

is the science that maps that level of language—always slightly twisted
(vakrokti) in comparison with everyday speech—in which the poet’s
visionary truth embodies itself. Such a grammar of poetic speech is
clearly privileged over standard denotative language.
Writing is perhaps one of the most deeply encoded, culturally spe-
cifc, forms of language; and the Chinese case is unique in this respect.
Martin Kern describes the cultural valency of writing during the West-
ern Zhou period (ca. 1200–ca. 1045 bce) and the formation of an of-
cial culture that the bronze inscriptions refect. In the evolution of court
ritual at this time, “writing transcended its principal functions of storing
and circulating information” and “visually displayed cultural and social
As is clear from the Chinese example, implicit in the process of encod-
ing and decoding is the question of power: who is authorized to conceal
and reveal the message? In her contribution to this volume, Brouria
Bitton-Ashkelony reveals how the sixth-century Gazan ascetic, Barsanu-
phius, both deciphered signs and employed coded language to empower
and grant authority to his teachings. In addition, Ashkelony argues,
the technique of what the ancient redactor of Barsanuphius’s writings
termed ‘counseling through enigmas’ created an intimacy between the
master and his distant pupils.
Dan Martin ofers a rich typology of uses of and attitudes to pho-
nemes and the raw stuf of Sanskrit and Tibetan syllabaries. Tere is a
cross-cultural element to this typology which takes account of Tibetan
appropriation of Sanskrit phonetic analysis. Te northern Buddhist tra-
dition rearranges its inherited linguistic materials in ways that are delib-
erately related to a theory of breath-driven metabolism, yogic innerness,
and a Buddhist epistemology. Such a theory aims ultimately at “trans-
forming our instruments of engagement with the world, not just the
body, but also speech and mind.”
Each of the articles in this section exemplifes what may turn out to be
a normative evolutionary sequence from grammar as primarily creative,
in various modes, via the elaboration of culturally sanctioned intra- and
meta-linguistic codes toward the possibility of radical transformation of
the self that inhabits this grammaticalized cosmos.
3. Self-Transformation
One of the most striking features of the diverse traditions studied here—
all presupposing a grammatical foundation culturally encoded and
introduction 13

poetically elaborated—is the ease with which they open up the possibil-
ity for existential transformation. Stated diferently, the particular poet-
ics of grammar construct a bridge between the structured metaphysical
domain and the individual self. Again and again, our texts ofer pro-
grams for potential re-formation of the person who knows the grammar
and the valence of sounds and signs. Te fnal section of this volume
presents four distinct cultural approaches to a language-based pragmat-
ics of self-transformation.
J. Garb focuses on the power of those radically non-semantic aspects
of language, such as voice and breath, in certain strands of Kabbalistic
praxis. Although these aspects have received much less attention than
the powers operative within Hebrew letters and words, they nonethe-
less possess a theurgic potential rooted in the isomorphic relationship
between human and divine breathing. Here we fnd a grammar of per-
haps the most elemental aspect of language, that is, the breath that pre-
cedes and sustains articulation. Te Kabbalist who gains access to this
level of awareness, either individually or as part of a communal voice,
impacts upon the internal composition of the deity and, in consequence,
upon his own state of being. Garb situates his discussion within a com-
parative framework drawing parallels between Kabbalistic and tantric
refections on the power and uses of non-semanticized speech.
Tom Hunter’s article begins with the theme of encoding, which in Java
takes the form of an ‘orthographic mysticism’. Te sheer graphic shape of
the syllables turns out to be pregnant with vast energies available to the
mystic. Te grapheme resonates with the sonic levels of reality defned
and contoured by poetry. Te guiding principle is one of aesthetic con-
densation of metaphysical forces that, once controlled within the highly
structured domain of kakawin poetry, are capable of revolutionizing the
listener’s self-awareness.
Te Javanese example emerges in part from the kind of transforma-
tive linguistic practices that we fnd in Hindu-Buddhist tantra. David
Shulman attempts to work out a rule-bound semiotic of mantric syl-
lables both in South Indian poetics and in a major text of the Śrīvidyā
cult. Te successful application of syllable sequences by a practitioner
who knows and understands their grammar of resonance enables him
or her to materialize the goddess—who is the world—in her full, imme-
diate presence. Readers who want to try it out for themselves should
follow the rules given in the article—carefully.
Finally, the Armenian materials discussed by S. La Porta ofer per-
haps the most complete elaboration of a grammar of sound and sign.
14 s. la porta and d. shulman

Grammatical materials proper, derived from the Greek tradition, are
recycled by the medieval Armenian theologians Grigor Narekac‘i and
Grigor Tat‘ewac‘i so as to explain the underlying order of the universe
infused by the divine Logos. In such a universe, the linguistic sign—
sonar, graphic, and mathematical—serves the self as a primary means of
divinization. Here grammar in the deepest sense becomes the preferred
channel connecting and transforming the cosmic and the mundane.
Grammar translates the divine into intelligible human language just as
it translates the human soul into the divine Word.
Alwan, K. 1988/89. “Le ‘remzō’ selon la pensée de Jacques de Saroug.” Parole de l’Orient
15: 91–106.
Bohn, W. (tr.) 1993. Te Dada Market: An Anthology of Poetry. Carbondale: Southern
Illinois University Press.
Colish, M. 1983. Te Mirror of Language: A Study in the Medieval Teory of Knowledge.
Rev. ed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Ervine, R. 1995. “Yovhannēs Erznkac‘i Pluz’s Compilation of Commentary on Grammar
as a starting point for the study of Medieval Grammars.” In New Approaches to
Medieval Armenian Language and Literature, ed. J.J.S. Weitenberg. Dutch Studies in
Armenian Language and Literature 3. Amsterdam, Atlanta: Rodopi, 149–66.
Gignoux, P. 1966. “Les doctrines eschatologiques de Narsaï.” Oriens Syrianus 11: 321–52
and 461–88.
———— 1968. Homélies de Narsaï sur la Création, Patrologia Orientalis 34.3–4. Turn-
hout: Brepols.
Leclercq, J. 1948. “Smagarde et la grammaire chrétienne.” Revue du Moyen Age Latin
4: 15–22.
Miller, P.C. 1989. “In Praise of Nonsense.” In Classical Mediterranean Spirituality, ed.
A. Hilary Armstrong, 489–505. New York: Crossroad.
Origen 1979. “Prologue” to the Commentary on the Song of Songs. In Origen: An Exhor-
tation to Martyrdom, Prayer, and Selected Works. Ed. R. Greer, Te Classics of West-
ern Spirituality, New York: Paulist Press.
Patanjali 1962. Paspaśāhnika. Poona.
Plato 1977. Plato: Cratylus, Parmenides, Greater Hippias, Lesser Hippias. Tr. H.N. Fowler.
Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Plutarch 1969. “De e apud Delphos.” In Moralia. Tr. F.C. Babbitt. Loeb Classical Library.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 384–94.
J. Trigg 1988, Biblical Interpretation. Wilmington, Del.: M. Glazier.

Jan Assmann
I. Creation and Cosmogony
Tere are two fundamental models of conceiving the origin of the
world, an intransitive and a transitive one. Te intransitive model views
the origin of the world as a spontaneous growth, developing all of itself
out of a primordial chaos or matter, mostly water. Te transitive model
takes the world to be the object of a constructive activity of a creator.
In what follows, I shall refer to the intransitive model by the term “cos-
mogony” and to the transitive one by the term “creation”. To us, creation,
the transitive model, is the more familiar one, since it is shared by the
three monotheistic religions, biblical and rabbinical Judaism, Christian-
ity, and Islam. In ancient Egypt, the two models combine and interact in
a rather complex manner. Te frst cosmogonic impulse is generally rep-
resented as a spontaneous process. Out of the primordial waters, a god
arises. His name, Atum, signifes “non-being” and “complete being”; it
is a typical example of what Sigmund Freud called “der Gegensinn der
Urworte”, the contrarious meanings of primal terms.
Te cosmogonical
moment is when Atum turns from non-being into being, adopting in
the act the shape of the sun and emitting, according to Egyptian con-
ceptions, air and fre, i.e. the god of air, Shu, and the goddess of fre,
Tefnut. From then on, the process of creation or cosmogony continues
in the “biomorphic” form of begetting and giving birth and unfolds in
four generations. Tis is the famous cosmogony of Heliopolis which,
in Egypt, holds the place of a Great Tradition, all other cosmogonies
and creation accounts (of which there are a great many) being just
variations of and commentaries on this basic conception. Shu-air and
Tefnut-fre beget Geb-earth and Nut-heaven, who in turn gives birth to
Freud 2000, 227–34, a short article published in 1910 and based upon K. Abel, Über
den Gegensinn der Urworte, 1884, which in its turn is dependent mostly upon Ancient
Egyptian examples.
18 jan assmann

fve children: Osiris, Seth, Isis, Nephthys, and Horus. Horus, however, is
also the child of Osiris and Isis, forming the fourth generation.
Atum is the only god who has no parents and came spontaneously
into being. He is therefore called kheper-djesef, “the self-generated one”,
in Greek “autogenes”. Tis idea of a self-generated primordial deity per-
sonifying the origin of the universe had an enormous infuence not only
within the three millennia of ancient Egyptian cosmo-theological spec-
ulations but far beyond. Te terms autogenes and monogenes abound
in the Hermetic, Neoplatonic and related writings. In the Heliopolitan
cosmogony, his mode of generating Shu and Tefnut is depicted as an act
of masturbation and ejaculation, or of coughing and spitting, all of
which are images for the idea of motherless procreation. Since the
Egyptians ascribed the same mode of procreation also to the scarab-
beetle scarabaeus sacer, this animal became a symbol of the “autogenic”
god. Creation through procreation is a “biomorphic” concept, which is
closer to cosmogony than to creation. Tere is no planning and no goal-
directed activity involved. Also the unfolding of a genealogy in four
generations may be seen as a form of natural growth, rather than of
technical construction.
Te gods, however, interfere with creative acts into this natural pro-
cess. Atum, having turned into the sun god Re and ruling his creation
as the frst king, decides afer rebellious intentions against his rule by
humankind to separate heaven and earth, to raise the sky high above the
earth and to withdraw thither with the gods, leaving the kingship to his
son Shu, who, being the god of the air, is perfectly ft for the task both of
separating and connecting the spheres of gods and humans. Te Egyp-
tian story of the separation of heaven and earth has many parallels in the
biblical story of the food. In both cases, humankind is nearly annihi-
lated and a new order is established which guarantees the continuation
of the world under new conditions: in the Bible under the conditions of
the Noachidic laws, in Egypt under the conditions of the state, which
serves as a kind of church, establishing communication with the divine
under the conditions of separation. Te Heliopolitan cosmogony is at
the same time what may be called a “cratogony”: a mythical account of
the emergence and development of political power. At the beginning,
be-reshit, is kingship. Kingship or rulership is conceived of in Egypt
as the continuation of creation under the conditions of existence. It is
frst exercised by the creator himself in a still state-less form of immedi-
ate rulership and passes from him to Shu, to Geb and to Osiris. With
Shu, it loses its immediate character and takes on the forms of symbolic
creation through hieroglyphs 19
representation, with Geb, the god of the earth, it becomes terrestrial
and with Osiris, the god of the netherworld, it becomes political and
historical. Te line of succession describes a downward movement: from
the sun via the air and the earth down into the netherworld. Moreover,
it describes the transition from cosmogony to history, from the dynas-
ties of the gods to the dynasties of human kings, from “deep time” to
“historical time”.
In the context of the Heliopolitan cosmogony, the central term is not
“to create”, in Egyptian jrj “to do, to create, to produce”, but kheper, “to
become, to take shape”. Kheper refers to the ideas of transformation,
emanation and evolution. Te god transforms himself into an active,
conscious being emanating air and light, from which then the other
gods evolve. Tere is a clear distinction between what emanates or
evolves from god’s own substance and what is created out of external
material. Typical of this thought are the metaphors of “secretion”: the
frst gods were spat and coughed out, while men arose from the tears of
Even when the “issuing from the mouth” is no longer understood
as secretion, but as a speech act, the names of the gods arise, as it were,
incidentally and certainly unintentionally from the conversations of the
god with himself or the primeval waters from which he emerged.
II. Creation by Speech
Te creation by speech, or the speech act as a major means of creation,
seems to be the great innovation of the New Kingdom, afer some sig-
nifcant precursors in the Cofn Texts of the Middle Kingdom.
Let’s listen to a creation account in a hymn to Amun-Re dating from
about 1400 bce:
He came forth as self-generated,
all his limbs speaking to him
He formed himself before heaven and earth came into being
the earth being in the primeval waters in the midst of the “weary food”.
CT VII 464–5; cf. also infra 1.4.
Cf. the emergence of the “Eight Heh Gods” on the occasion of a conversation
between Atum and Nun CT II 5–8; cf. Sauneron and Yoyotte 1959, 47.
Or, with Zandee 1992, 36f.: “between these” (nn = demonstrative, referring to
“heaven and earth”). Te words, jmjtw nn, occur in a similar context in pLeiden I 344v.,
i, 7.
20 jan assmann

You have started to create this land
to establish what has come from your mouth (= the gods)
You have raised heaven and kept earth down
to make this land wide enough for your image
You have taken on your frst form as Re
to illuminate the Two Lands for that what you have created.
as your heart [planned], you being alone
You created them, the gods being in your retinue
afer you came forth alone from the primeval waters
You created humans together with creatures great and small
and all that has come into existence and all that exists.
Te text starts with the motif of self-generation (kheper-djesef ). Te god
takes on bodily shape, and this body forms already the frst pantheon:
a community of limbs who start speaking with their god and master.
According to this text, this sacred conversation took place already before
the origin of the world. Tis is the frst act of cosmogony. Te second
act is described as “creation”, jr.t. Te land is “created” for the gods who
issued from the mouth of god, obviously in form of utterances. Te third
act is the separation of heaven and earth, leading to the establishment
on earth of the divine image, i.e. the replacement of real presence by a
representation. Te whole process is then traced back to an act of will-
ful planning preceding both cosmogony and creation. Before anything
originates or is created, the world is already conceived in the heart of
god. I call this idea “creation through the heart”, the heart being the
organ of planning and thinking according to Egyptian anthropology.
Tis is an idea becoming more and more prominent in the course of
time. Let me just quote a short selection of pertinent passages in order
to illustrate the idea. Queen Hatshepsut praises the god Amun-Re as “he
who devises (thinks, plans) everything that exists.”
Te same epithet
occurs in a short hymn to Re:
Re who planned everything that exists,
lord of humankind, creator of what exists.
You created the earth according to
your will, you being alone.
Zandee 1992, 99, ll. 15–16.
BM 29944 ed. Steward, JEA 53,37.
Amarna ÄHG no. 92,79.
creation through hieroglyphs 21

Te one who created the earth in the seeking (enquiring spirit) of his
Te one who initiated everything
that exists as his heart planned.
Te one who created heaven and earth with his heart.
Conspicuously frequent is this motif in hymns to Ptah, the god of
Te one who created the arts
and gave birth to the gods as a creation his heart.
Te one who created the arts
as a discovery of his heart.
Who made heaven
as the creation of his heart.
Te things that are said (or “thought”) in his heart
one sees that they come into being.
Te one who formed the earth
by the providence of his heart.
Te activity of the heart, in planning, devising and conceiving, is obvi-
ously related to the way of working characteristic of the artists and
crafsmen, whose patron is the god Ptah.
Besides planning, the most typical modes of creation are begetting,
shaping and speaking. We have already dealt with the biomorphic
model of begetting; it remains the most fundamental concept through-
out Egyptian pharaonic history. Te act of shaping or molding may be
labeled as the technomorphic model. In Egypt, it is related to the god
Khnum who is believed to form humans on a potter’s wheel. Interest-
ingly enough, in the Bible, man is also “formed” by god, whereas the
rest of creation comes into being through god’s commanding speech.
Leiden K1.
pBerlin 3049,XI,3–4 = ÄHG no. 127B,80.
Neschons, 9–10 = ÄHG no. 131,26.
Berlin 6910, Ägyptische Inschrifen 1913–1924, II:66–7.
TT 44(5) (unpubl.).
pHarris, I,44,5 = ÄHG no. 199,7.
Copenhagen A 719 = ÄHG no. 223,7.
pBerlin 3048,III,1 = ÄHG no. 143,22.
22 jan assmann

Te third mode, speaking, gains enormously in prominence during the
New Kingdom. In texts of the 15th and 14th centuries, speaking is still
exclusively related to the creation of the gods. Te gods are constantly
referred to as having issued from the mouth of god. Te concept of cre-
ative utterance does not in the frst instance interpret the relationship of
“god” to the world, but of “god” to the other gods.
To the creation of the gods by speech refers the very widespread motif
that correlates the gods with the mouth or lips of the creator, and humans
with his eyes. Te gods originate by speaking, humans by weeping:
Humans issued from his eyes
the gods emerged on his mouth.
Humans issued from his eyes,
the gods from his lips.
He secreted everybody from his eyes,
but the gods issued from his mouth.
Gods issued from his mouth
and humans from his eye.
Tere are very many variants to this motif. Te theme still plays an
important role in Greco-Roman texts
and is related, in a way that has
yet to be explained, to the particularly Orphic
and generally Greek
that the gods issued from the laughter, humans from the tears of
the primeval creator god.
Te relationship between tears and human beings in Egyptian texts is
clearly based on the homophony of the words rmt ˰ (human beings) and
rmjt (tears). But what could be the relationship between the gods and
the speaking mouth? Tese gods embody the hidden verbal order of the
world, as it were, its conception, as it was devised and uttered by “god,”
the one who, as it is expressed in a contemporary hymn,
pCairo 58038,vi,3. prr.n must be a mistake; read prrw or pr.n.
STG Text no. 188 (e).
RT 13, 163.16.
Ramses III’s hymn, Reliefs and Inscriptions at Karnak I, OIP XXV pl. xxv = ÄHG
no. 196.
Otto 1964, 58f.; Schott and Erichsen 1954, no. 2,12; Sauneron 1963, V 261 (a).
Orph. fr. 28 Abel.
Dieterich 1891, 28; Proclus on Plato, Politics 385.
Esna no. 272,2–3; cf. also Sauneron 1963, V, 142.
creation through hieroglyphs 23

creates what is created,
who speaks, and the gods come into being.
A similar formulation occurs in a longer text of fundamental import-
ance for the theology of Amun in this period, Papyrus Boulaq 17 (= Cairo
CG 58038), which contains hymns to Amun-Re.
I shall cite the formu-
lation in its context, which makes it clear that we are dealing with more
than creation theology:
Hail to you, Re, lord of Maat,
who hides his chapel, lord of the gods,
Khepri in his barque,
who commands and the gods come into existence,
Atum, creator of humankind,
who distinguishes their characteristics and creates their means of
who distinguishes their skin color, one from the other.
He who listens to the entreaty of one in distress,
gracious to one who calls to him,
who saves the timorous from the hand of the violent,
who pronounces justice between the poor and the rich.
Lord of cognition, on whose lips is creative word,
for whose sake the Nile inundation comes;
the lord of afection, the great of love,
when he (i.e., the inundation) comes, humankind lives.
Te god from whose will and commanding utterance the other deities
emerge is none other than the “lord of Maat,” the supreme judge who
“pronounces justice between the poor and the rich,” “saves the timorous
from the hand of the violent,” and “listens to the entreaty of one in dis-
tress.” Tis is clearly a god who speaks, not only as a creator who by his
words brought the gods into being, but also as the maintainer of the uni-
verse who rules it by what the Egyptians call “Sia”, cognition” and “Hu”,
authoritative and performative utterance. Hu and Sia are epithets both
of the creator and of the ruler. Sia refers to the recognizing and devising
heart, Hu to the speaking, ordaining and commanding mouth.
Cairo JE 11509; see J. Assmann 1995, 127.
See J. Assmann 1995, 120–5.
ÄHG, no. 87C; RuA, pp. 176–177.
24 jan assmann

Tat the idea of a creation through the word is originally related
to the divine world and not the world as such seems to me highly
signifcative. Te pantheon appears in this tradition as a speech act,
an act of verbal articulation. Te gods are articulations of reality, their
names, competences, and powers give shape and diferentiation to the
difuse experience of reality and makes it addressable. Tis mythology
shows the structure of the divine world to be primarily linguistic.
In the later stages of the New Kingdom and during the Late period,
however, the speaking mode of creation becomes generalized, referring
now not only to the gods but to “everything that exists”. For this idea, let
me quote just one example from the tomb of the high-priest Nebwene-
nef dating from the frst half of the 13th c.:
Who created heaven and earth and gave birth to human beings,
who brought forth all that is through the utterance of his mouth.
Who spoke and it happened, who gave birth to what exists,
Great One, creator of the gods and human beings.
Who came into being alone and gave birth to himself as millions.
It was his limbs that answered him,
it was his tongue that formed everything he created.
Te idea of verbal creation, according to a plan conceived in the heart,
emphasized the organisational aspect of the created world, its ratio-
nal character. What was conceived in the heart of god and came forth
from his mouth were not the things themselves, but the “names of all
which the Egyptians imagined to be arranged hierarchically in
the form of an onomasticon. An onomasticon does not enumerate indi-
vidual objects, but classes of objects.
It can therefore be understood
as an exhaustive inventory of the cosmos and a replica of its structure.
Te doctrine of verbal creation envisaged the well-appointed nature of
the world, its fullness and order, and attributed them to the wisdom
of the creator, the spiritual conception in the heart. Tis was an aspect
of the world especially emphasised by Amarna religion, which also
infuenced Psalms 104 and Wisdom in Hebrew literature.
STG, No. 149 p. 188f.
Memphite Teology 55; similarly pBerlin 3055 XVI 3f. = ÄHG no. 122,7.
Tis is true of entities such as “heaven”, “sun”, “moon” “king”, which have to be
understood as one-element classes.
Cf. n. 1.
creation through hieroglyphs 25

III. Creation through Hieroglyphs in the Memphite Teology
Te Memphite Teology has always been interpreted as the closest Egyp-
tian parallel to the Biblical idea of creation through the word.
Te gods that originated from Ptah/became Ptah (. . .)
originated through the heart as symbol of Atum,
originated through the tongue as symbol of Atum,
being great and powerful.
But Ptah transferred [his strength]
to the gods and their ka’s
by means of this heart through which Horus originated from Ptah,
by means of this tongue through which Toth originated from Ptah.
It came to pass that heart and tongue gained power over all other parts
on the basis of the teaching that it [the heart] is in every body and it
[the tongue] in
every mouth
of all gods, humans,
animals, insects, and all living things,
the heart thinking and the tongue commanding whatever they desire.
In the guise of tongue and heart a portion of Ptah’s original creative
power remains in all living things that have come forth from him. An
anthropological discourse now beings:
His Ennead stood before him
as teeth, that is the seed of Atum,
and as lips, that is the hands of Atum.
Verily, the Ennead of Atum originated
through his seed and through his fngers.
But the Ennead is in truth teeth and lips
in this mouth of him who thought up the names of all things,
from whom Shu and Tefnut came forth, he who created the Ennead.
Tis section of the Teology has always been interpreted as a polemical
engagement with Heliopolis. However, it seems to me much more con-
vincing to read it as a commentary, in which the ancient, supra-region-
ally valid teachings are specifcally related to Memphis. Te “seed” and
“hands” of Amun, by which in an act of self-begetting he brought forth
Shu and Tefnut, are interpreted as “teeth” and “lips,” forming the frame
for the tongue that creates everything by naming it:
Cf. Koch 1988, 61–105.
26 jan assmann

Tat the eyes see, the ears hear,
and the nose breathes air is in order to make report to the heart.
Tis it is that makes all knowledge originate.
Te tongue it is that repeats what is thought by the heart.
Te process of creation is here conceived in bodily terms. “Phallus” and
“hand”—the traditional physical symbols of creativity—are represented
as or replaced with “teeth and lips.” Te genuinely creative organs are
heart and tongue. As the Egyptians made no strict distinction between
“body” and “mind/spirit,” knowledge and language are also understood
as bodily phenomena. Knowledge originates in the heart on the basis
of the perceptions reported to it. Te knowledge formed in the heart is
communicated by the tongue.
And thus were all gods born,
that is Atum and his Ennead.
But all hieroglyphs originated
from that which was thought up by the heart and commanded by the
And thus were all ka’s created and the Hemuset determined,
which bring forth all food and all ofering meats by this word,
[the word invented by the heart and commanded by the tongue].
[And thus is ma’at given to him] who does what is loved,
[and isfet to him] who does what is hated.
And thus is life given to the peaceable
and death given to the criminal.
And thus were all trades created and all arts,
the action of the arms and the walking of the legs,
the movement of all limbs in accordance with the instruction
of these words that were thought up by the heart and uttered by the
tongue and provide for all things. (. . .)
And so Ptah was well pleased (or: rested) afer he had created all things
and all hieroglyphs,
afer he had formed the gods,
afer he had created their towns
and founded their names,
afer he had endowed their ofering cakes
and established their chapels,
afer he had created their bodies [= images of them] in their likeness, such
that they were content.
And thus the gods entered their bodies
of every kind of wood and mineral,
all kinds of clay and all other things that grow on him
from whom they originated.
And thus assembled around him all gods and their ka’s,
content and united with the lord of the two lands.
creation through hieroglyphs 27

Tis is the most elaborate Egyptian account of creation by the Word,
and it difers from the Biblical account in two ways. Te frst is the role
of the heart, i.e. the planned conception of creation—an idea absent
from the Bible. Te second is the role of script, the hieroglyphs, men-
tioned on two occasions. Tese two points are closely related. For what
the heart thinks up are not the names of things but their “concepts” and
their “forms.” Hieroglyphic script is a pictorial rendering of the forms. It
relates to the concepts by way of those forms. Te tongue vocalizes the
concepts, which were “thought up” by the heart and given outward and
visible form by hieroglyphic script:
But all hieroglyphs originated
from that which was thought up [conceived of] by the heart and com-
manded by the tongue.
Ptah is the god of artists and crafsmen, the one who endows things with
their “design,” their immutable form depicted by the written signs. Tus
Toth, the god of the “tongue,” is also the god of hieroglyphic script.
He is able to transform the thoughts of the heart into spoken and writ-
ten language. Creation is an act of articulation—conceptually, iconically,
phonetically. Te written signs originate at the same time as the things
they stand for and the names they bear:
And so Ptah was well pleased afer he had created all things
and all hieroglyphs.
Te totality of creation is encompassed in the term “all things and all
hieroglyphs.” Te Egyptian word for “hieroglyphs”, which the Greeks
translated as ta hiera grammata is zS n mdw nTr “the writing of divine
Toth, the god of writing, is called “the lord of divine speech”.

Te sacred texts which were written in hieroglyphs are called “scrolls of
divine speech”.
Tus it is quite evident that “divine speech” refers to the
signs (and not to the sounds), which Toth commands, which the sacred
books contain and which constitute the sacred script.
If the distinction between a sphere of original forms (Ideas) and a
world of infnitely reproduced copies is a principle of Plato’s philosophy,
then the Egyptian division of Creation expresses a primal, pre-theoreti-
cal Platonism. Te hieroglyphs are the forms of the things that constitute
Wb II, 181.2.
Wb II, 181.6.
Wb II, 181.1.
28 jan assmann

the totality of the real world. Egyptian “hieroglyphic” thinking presents
a relation between thing and written sign similar to that between thing
and concept in Greek philosophy. When Ptah conceives of the Ideas of
things, he at the same time invents the script that Toth has only to
read. Te act of thinking or conceptual articulation is represented in
this mythology as an act of interior writing. Te act of speaking, on the
other hand, is conceived of as an act of reading aloud, reciting the inner
script. Te speaking tongue, or Toth, recites what the thinking heart,
or Horus, writes. However, Toth appears in this mythology not only
as a reciter but also as a copyist. Toth, the god of script, only has to
fnd, not invent, what is inherent in the structure of things. He copies
the interior writing of the heart onto papyrus. Tus an onomasticon, a
list of words arranged not alphabetically but in an order refecting the
structure of reality, is titled as a catalogue of “all things that exist: what
Ptah created, what Toth copied down.”
Te collaboration between Ptah, who creates all things, and Toth,
who records them, is reminiscent of the collaboration between God
and Adam in Paradise. God creates living things and “Adam gave names
to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the feld”
(Gen. 2:20). Adam’s act of naming and Toth’s act of recording both ful-
fll the same function of linking things and words. And as this is creation
by the Word, Adam and Toth both “read” from the created things what
they then utter or record.
In his Mysteries of the Egyptians, the neo-Platonist Iamblichus per-
ceptively identifes the latent Platonism of hieroglyphic thinking in his
interpretation of Egyptian script as an imitation of divine “demiurgy”:
Te Egyptians imitate the nature of the universe (τὴν ϕύσιν τουː παντὸς)
and the divine ways of creation (τὴν δημιουργίαν τωː ν θεωː ν μιμούμενοι),
in that they also produce “icons” (εἰκονας eikonas) as symbols of mystic,
occult and invisible conceptions (τωː ν μυστικωː ν καὶ ἀποκεκρυμμένων καὶ
ἀϕανωː ν νοήσεων), in a similar manner as of Nature (the productive prin-
ciple), in her peculiar way, makes a likeness of invisible principles through
symbols in visible forms and expresses in writing (ὑπεγράφατο) the truth
of ideas by visible icons (εἰκονες).
“Nature” (φύσις) takes here the place of Ptah in the Memphite Teology.
Like Ptah, nature conceives “invisible principles” and expresses them
Gardiner 1947, I, *1.
Iamblichus, De Mysteriis, VII.1.
creation through hieroglyphs 29

through symbols in visible form. Te world as we see it is the visible
expression of an invisible conception. Te Egyptians imitate this proce-
dure in their hieroglyphic script. In using the visible forms of nature for
letters, they refer to invisible principles, i.e. to meanings. If god or nature
created the world by inventing signs, the Egyptians imitate this device
by using these signs for their script.
IV. Cosmic Grammatology
Te creation account of the Memphite Teology teaches us, therefore,
above all two things: one regarding the conception of the cosmos and
another regarding the conception of hieroglyphs. It stresses the “scrip-
tural” structure of the cosmos and the “cosmic” structure of the hiero-
glyphic signs. Let me frst explain what I mean by the scriptural structure
of the cosmos. All creation accounts that view the world as generated by
verbal articulation presuppose a structural analogy between language
and cosmos. Te late-Egyptian account, however, goes even a step fur-
ther in conceiving of the world as the result not only of an act of speech
but of writing. It presupposes an analogy between cosmos and writ-
ing and establishes a relationship not only between res and verba but
between res and signs. In the Biblical creation account, god speaks and
the world appears. In the Egyptian text, god frst conceives the signs in
his heart and only then, in a second step, expresses them in phonetic
language. In the Bible, we have the two-step procedure from verba to res,
in Egypt we have three steps: from signs via verba to res. It is only with
the rabbinic commentary on Genesis, Bereshit rabbah, that the Biblical
conception of the creation is also extended to a three step procedure.
In this text, the phrase be-reshit is interpreted not as “in the beginning”
but “by means of the beginning”, and the beginning is identifed as the
Torah. God created heaven and earth by means of the Torah: be-reshit
= be-torah. First there was Torah, a universe of signs, which God only
had to read aloud in order to create a universe of things. Te Torah here
plays the role of a preexistent script or blueprint of the universe which
God only had to read out in order to create the world.
If we consider the iconic character of hieroglyphs, the analogy between
writing and cosmos becomes obvious. It is much more evident to postu-
late a correlation between the iconic signs of the hieroglyphic script and
the things of reality than between the words of language and the things
of nature. Te relationship of hieroglyphic signs to the world seems
30 jan assmann

much more direct than the relationship of words to what they denote.
To use a term coined by Aleida Assmann, we may speak, with regard to
hieroglyphs, of “immediate signifcation”.
Te iconic sign immediately
shows what it means, without the detour of a specifc language. To be
sure, this is not the way hieroglyphs normally function, but it is a plau-
sible assumption about hieroglyphs, given their pictorial character, and
it is this assumption that underlies the creation concept of the Memphite
Teology. Te only diference between a stock of iconic signs and a stock
of existing things is the number. Te set of signs is necessarily much
smaller than the set of things. But this is exactly what the late Egyptian
priests and grammatologists strived at correcting. Tey extended the
stock of signs by approximately a factor 10, turning a well functioning
script of about 700 signs into an extremely difcult and awkward system
of about 7,000 in order to make the script correspond as closely as possi-
ble to the structure of reality: a universe of signs representing a universe
of things, and vice-versa. By approximating the number of signs to the
number of things, the late Egyptian priests stressed the cosmic structure
of their script as well as the grammatological or scriptural structure of
their universe.
However, immediate signifcation is precisely what the Bible shuns as
idolatry. Already the church fathers recognized the idolatrous character
of the hieroglyphic script and destroyed the Egyptian temple schools
because they considered them to be schools of magic. In the Renais-
sance, Giordano Bruno made the same connection but inverted the
valuation. Hieroglyphs were the superior script because of their magical
power, which derived from their principle of immediate signifcation:
. . . . the sacred letters used among the Egyptians were called hiero-
glyphs . . . which were images . . . taken from the things of nature, or their
parts. By using such writings and voices, the Egyptians used to capture
with marvellous skill the language of the gods.
A. Assmann 1980. See also Greene 1997, 255–72. In exactly the same sense as
A. Assmann, Greene distinguishes between a “conjunctive” and a “disjunctive” theory of
language. Cf. also Tambiah 1968, 175–208.
Giordano Bruno, De Magia (Opera Latina III, 411–12), quoted afer Yates 1964,
263. Te connection between hieroglyphics and magic is provided by the church his-
torian Rufnus who reports that the temple at Canopus has been destroyed by the
Christians because there existed a school of magic arts under the pretext of teaching
the “sacerdotal” characters of the Egyptians (ubi praetextu sacerdotalium litterarum (ita
etenim appellant antiquas Aegyptiorum litteras) magicae artis erat paene publica schola;
Rufnus, Hist.eccles. XI 26).
creation through hieroglyphs 31

Bruno is clearly thinking of Iamblichus and what he has to say about the
Egyptian ways of imitating in their script the demiourgia of the gods.
Still, one wonders how closely he comes to the Egyptian term designat-
ing the hieroglyphs: md.t nature, divine speech, language of the gods.
Some 150 years later, the Anglican bishop William Warburton made
the same connection between hieroglyphs and idols.
As Warburton
pointed out, the second commandment forbids not only the represen-
tation of God because he is invisible and omnipresent,
but also the
making of “any graven images, the similitude of any fgure, the likeness
of male or female, the likeness of any beast that is on the earth, the like-
ness of any winged fowl that fies in the air, the likeness of anything
that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fsh that is in the waters
beneath the earth” (Dt. 4.15–18, Warburton’s translation). Images are
idols because by virtue of ‘immediate signifcation’ they conjure up
what they represent. Hieroglyphs are idols because they are images.
Warburton’s interpretation emphasizes the anti-Egyptian meaning of
the prohibition of idolatry. It is the exact “normative inversion” of the
very fundamental principles of Egyptian writing, thinking, and speak-
ing: “Do not idolize the created world by <hieroglyphic> representation.”
Te second commandment is the rejection of hieroglyphic knowledge
because it amounts to an illicit magical idolization of the world.
Te second commandment is, at least originally, directed against all
kinds of magic, necromancy, divination and other religious practices
operating with images. Precisely this magical power is connected, in the
Late Egyptian imagination and far beyond, with the hieroglyphic script
which they call “god’s words” or “divine speech”. Teir magical power
lies in their “cosmic structure”, corresponding to the “scriptural” or
hieroglyphic structure of the cosmos. Tis magical conception of hiero-
glyphic writing, the Egyptians handed down to the Greeks who, in their
turn, handed it down to the renaissance and Enlightenment. Hiero-
glyphs were regarded as “natural signs”, a “scripture of nature,” a writ-
ing which would refer not to the sounds of language, but to the things
of nature and to the concepts of the mind. To quote Ralph Cudworth’s
defnition: “Te Egyptian hieroglyphicks were fgures not answering to
sounds or words, but immediately representing the objects and concep-
tions of the mind.”
See J. Assmann 2001, 297–311.
Cf. Halbertal and Margalit 1982, 37–66 (“Idolatry and Representation”).
Cudworth 1678, 316.
32 jan assmann

However, we may not draw too sharp a distinction between writing
and language. Te two are constantly confounded, by the Egyptians, the
Greeks and by Europeans well into the 18th century. Te Egyptian term
md.t nTr, literally meaning “divine speech”, refers not only to hieroglyphs
but also to what the Hebrews would call d’barej ha-Elohim. If there is
any Egyptian specifcity, it lies in the particularly strong association of
script and language. Md.t nTr “divine speech” means “hieroglyphs”, it is
true, but the orally spoken word of the gods is also of enormous impor-
tance. Whenever a god opens his mouth, we may be sure that some-
thing very important comes forth, an irrevocable order, an institution
which is still existing, a being, a rite, an element of reality. A divine word
becomes immediately reality, even independent of any conscious inten-
tion of the speaker, by way of pun or assonance or whatever association.
Te utterance is treated as another bodily secretion such as blood, sweat,
semen, saliva—all of them generating various things. Te divine word
appears here rather as a kind of sonoric/semantic substance containing
not just one, but all possible meanings which may be associated with its
homonyms, antonyms, its connotations and assonances without being
limited by any intention, syntax or context. Te constructive creativity
of divine words unfold under the conditions of deconstruction. Divine
speech is over-determined like the symbolism of dreams according to
In consequence of the typical non-distinction between script and
language, Iamblichus applies the characteristic of the Egyptian sacred
script, i.e. hieroglyphs, to the Egyptian sacred language. If hieroglyphs
refer “immediately”, that is iconically, to reality, the words of the sacred
language “depend on” the things they denote (τῃː φύσει συνήρτηται τωː ν
ὄντων). Tis is “the conjunctive theory of language” (T. Greene) in its
purest form. Treatise XVI of the Corpus Hermeticum forbids the trans-
lation into Greek of texts in the sacred language in rather violent terms:
Preserve this discourse untranslated in order that such mysteries may be
kept from the Greek and that their insolent, insipid and meretricious man-
ner of speech may not reduce to impotence the dignity and strength of our
language, and the cogent force of the words. For all the Greeks have . . . is
empty speech, good for showing of; and the philosophy of the Greeks is
just noisy talk. For our part, we use not words, but sounds full of energy
(φωναι ː ς μεσται ː ς τωː ν ἔργων).
Festugière and Nock 1945, II:232; Fowden 1993, 37.
creation through hieroglyphs 33

Instead of “sounds” (phonais), we may as well read “signs”. Te Egyp-
tians were convinced of the power of language, not only in spoken but
above all in written form. Tis is the reason why they never changed or
reduced the pictorial realism and the iconic character of the hieroglyphs.
Tey would rather invent, at frst a second and then a third script along-
side the hieroglyphs than adapt the hieroglyphs to everyday purposes.
In their iconity lay their cosmological character which corresponded to
the “grammatological” structure of the cosmos.
Ägyptische Inschrifen 1913–1924. Ägyptische Inschrifen aus den Königlichen Museen
zu Berlin. Herausgegeben von der Generalverwaltung. Leipzig: Hinrichs.
Assmann, A. 1980. Die Legitimität der Fiktion, Munich.
Assmann, J. 1995. Egyptian Solar Religion in the New Kingdom: Re, Amun and the crisis
of polytheism. Tr. A. Alcock, New York: Kegan Paul.
———— 2001. “Pictures versus Letters: William Warburton’s Teory of Grammatological
Iconoclasm.” in Representation in Religion: Studies in Honor of Moshe Barasch, ed.
J. Assmann and A. Baumgarten, Leiden: Brill, 297–311.
Cudworth, R. 1678. Te True Intellectual System of the Universe: the First Part, wherein
All the Reason and Philosophy of Atheism is Confuted and its Impossibility Demon-
strated. 1st ed. London: 1678; 2nd ed. London: 1743.
Dieterich, A. 1891. Abraxas: Studien zur Religionsgeschichte des späteren Altertums.
Leipzig: Tuebner.
Erichsen, W. and S. Schott 1954. Fragmente memphitischer Teologie in demotischer
Schrif (Pap. demot. Berlin 13603), Mainz: Akademie der Wissenschafen und der
Festugière, A.J. and A.D. Nock 1945. Corpus Hermeticum, Paris, Société d’édition “Les
Belles lettres”.
Fowden, G. 1993. Te Egyptian Hermes: a historical approach to the late pagan mind,
Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Freud, S. 2000. “Über den Gegensinn der Urworte,” Studienausgabe Frankfurt, vol.
Gardiner, A.H. 1947. Ancient Egyptian Onomastica, London: Oxford University Press.
Greene, T.M. 1997. “Language, Signs and Magic”, in Envisioning Magic: a Princeton Sem-
inar and Symposium, ed. P. Schäfer and H.G. Kippenberg, Leiden, New York: Brill.
Halbertal, M. and A. Margalit 1982. Idolatry, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University
Koch, K. 1988. “Wort und Einheit des Schöpfergottes in Memphis und Jerusalem. Zur
Einzigartigkeit Israels,” Studien zur alttestamentlichen und altorientalischen Reli-
gionsgeschichte: zum 60 Geburtstag von Klaus Koch, ed. E. Otto, Göttingen: Van-
denhoeck and Ruprecht.
Nelson, H.H. 1936. Reliefs and Inscriptions at Karnak I, Oriental Institute Publications
XXIV, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Otto, E. 1964. Gott und Mensch nach den ägyptischen Tempelinschrifen der griechisch-
römischen Zeit; eine Untersuchung zur Phraseologie der Tempelinschrifen, Heidel-
berg: Winter.
Sauneron, S. 1963. Le temple d’Esna, Cairo: Institut français d’archéologie orientale.
Sauneron, S. and J. Yoyotte 1959. “La Naissance du monde se lon l’Égypte ancienne.”
34 jan assmann

In La Naissance du monde; Égypte ancienne, Sumer, Akkad, Hourrites et Hittites,
Canaan, Israel, Islam, Turcs et Mongols, Iran préislamique, Inde, Siam, Laos, Tibet,
Chine. Sources Orientales I, Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 17–91.
Tambiah, S.J. 1968. “Te Magical Power of Words,” Man, n.s. 3:175–208.
Yates, F. 1964. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, Chicago: University of
Chicago Press.
Zandee, J. 1992. Der Amunshymnus des Papyrus Leiden I 344, Verso, Leiden: Rijks-
museum van Oudheden.

Sara Sviri
I. Introduction
According to the Qurʙān, the divine power to create by language mani-
fests through the command Kun! (Be!). God says: “Our command to a
thing when We will it, is to say to it kun and it is”.
Several verses attest to
this mode of creation.
Tat a prophet may also be endowed, with God’s
permission, with the miraculous power to bestow life is seen in Qurʙānic
reports concerning Abraham and Jesus: both were able, the one through
calling out (2:260) and the other through breathing (3:49, 5:110), to
bring dead and inanimate birds into life.
Ever since the “science of the
friends of God” (ʚilm al-awliyāʙ) was laid down by al-Hˢ akīm al-Tirmidhī
in the ninth century, Islamic mystics have associated empowered lan-
guage with the holy man (walī, pl. awliyāʙ).
Te creative power by kun
is an aspect of this “science.” A previous paper concerned with mystical
linguistics alluded only briefy to the possibility that man, too, may be
endowed with the creative power of kun.
I wish to devote this presen-
tation to a more detailed discussion of speculations and dicta, circu-
lating mainly in mystical literature, that arise from the claim that kun
(or an equally empowered command), whether spoken by God or by
an extraordinary human being, possesses the power to bestow life and
bring forth existence.
* Tis article is a sequel to Sviri 2002. My thanks go to Prof. Meir Bar-Asher for read-
ing a draf of this paper and for making very useful comments.
“ȅ̸̢̙̀ ̬̠ ̴̤ ȃ̸̝̭ ȅǦ ʏԷdzǵǦ ǪǴǨ Ǥ̺˻̤ ˅̸̰̤̜ ˅̫̭Ǩ”.
See 2:117, 3:47, 3:59, 6:73, 16:40, 19:35, 36:82, 40:68—translation of Qur. verses
by SS.
For the Qurʙānic foundation of the discourse on miracles, see Gril 2000; for early
discussions on prophetic and saintly miracles, see Radtke 2000.
Sviri 2002, esp. 206f.
Sviri 2002, 216, nn. 38–40.
In the context of this presentation I have only sporadically referred to Shīʚite lit-
erature; it is worth noting, however, that the Shīʚite imāms, too, were believed to be the
36 sara sviri

recipients of the power of kun; for the power of the Shīʚite imāms in general, see Amir-
Moezzi 1994, 91f; see also Amir-Moezzi 2000, 251–86.
On the Ahˢ bāsh, see Hamzeh and Dekmejian 1996, 217–229. See also Hamzeh
Te reference is to Ahˢ mad al-Rifāʚī’s al-Burhān al-muʙayyid, al-Rifāʚī 1987/88.
Te verbal form for “operating on” is sˢ arrafa (also tasˢ arrafa); ordinarily it means
“to behave, operate, employ” etc., but in Sˢ ūf terminology, especially in the infnitive
forms tasˢ rīf and tasˢ arruf, it ofen denotes the supernatural power by which the holy man
‘manipulates’, ‘operates upon’, ‘disposes of ’ beings; for an intriguing discussion concern-
ing tasˢ arruf by means of names and letters, see Ibn Khaldūn 1959, 53f; F. Meier, in his
“Introduction” to Najm al-Dīn Kubrā’s Fawāʙihˢ al-jamāl wa-fawātihˢ al-jalāl, translates
tasˢ arruf by “Verfügunskraf” = the power to dispose, Kubrā 1957, 233f. Cf. Meier 1994,
where Meier ofers other translations for tasˢ arruf: “Machtausübung” (50), “seelisch-geis-
tige Wirkungskraf” (115); see also Meier 1999, 643; also Gramlich 1987, 180–5.
̴̭Ǧ ̧̹̊ ̺̉˅̙˲̧̥ (˰̻ʼ̫̤Ǫ ȅ˅̵˲ˌ̤Ǫ) Ǭ˅˕̟ ǭǤǪ˲̜ ̧̹̊ Ƿ˅̰̤Ǫ ȅ̸˜˩̻ ː̸̧̻̃ ǮǪ̸̰̑˸̤ Ǹ˅ˍ˧қǪ ̺̝ˈ”
Ǥ˅̤̾ȇқǪ ȀȐ ˲˽ » ߷ ȅǦ ̴̲̪ . . . Ǭ˅˗̢̦Ǫ Ǫ˱̵ ̺̙ ˰̀˧̸˕̤Ǫ ̹̤Ǩ Ǫȇ˲̭̇˅̙ .˰̀˧̸˕̤Ǫ ǭ˰̝̀̉ ̣˜̫̻ ȉ˱̤Ǫ Ǭ˅˗̢̦Ǫ
.“« ȅ̸̢̙̀ ̬̠ Ǥ̺˻̧̥ ȅ̸̸̤̝̻ ̶̧̩̋ˠȇ ȅǪ̸̠қǪ ̺̙—see al-Rifāʚī 1987/88, 125 (for the full passage,
see Appendix, A).
On Shaykh Ahˢ mad al-Rifāʚī (d. 1182) and the Rifāʚīyya Sˢ ūf brotherhood, see Trim-
ingham 1971, 37–40 passim.
In the process of searching for the literary proofexts relevant for this
topic, I have come upon material that show that such a claim made,
allegedly, by Sˢ ūfs of previous generations, is even currently the target
of strong criticism by Muslim spokesmen engaged in an animated com-
bat against Sˢ ūfsm. Tus, searching for kun on the world-wide-web, a
wondrous and powerful linguistic tool in its own right, I came across a
website entitled “” Tis website, it turns out, is devoted
to the repudiation of the Ahˢ bāsh, a contemporary Sˢ ūf afliation whose
base is in Lebanon and which sees itself as a new Sˢ ūf brotherhood fol-
lowing an Ethiopian-born Sheikh, ʚAbdallāh al-Hˢ abashī.
In one of the
“pages” of this website, the following critique can be viewed:
Te Ahˢ bāsh have spent years urging people to read al-Rifāʚī’s Te Help-
ful Proof,
claiming that it represents the doctrine of Divine Unifcation
(tawhˢ īd). Look at the unifcation in this book: Among other things, it says
the following: “God enables the awliyāʙ to operate on
beings; He makes
them say to a thing Be! And it is.”
Aiming their rebuttal against the allegedly ofensive connection of
the Ahˢ bāsh with Ahˢ mad al-Rifāʚī, a twelfh-century Sˢ ūf Sheikh afer
whom the Rifāʚīyya Brotherhood is named,
the authors of this online
rebuke go on to cite various other sources that portray al-Rifāʚī as mak-
ing the same claim and basing it, misleadingly according to them, on
kun—the existence-bestowing word in islamic mysticism 37
authoritative, even divine, dicta. Tey point out, for example, that ʚAbd
al-Wahhāb al-Shaʚrānī, an infuential Sˢ ūf master in sixteenth-century
Egypt, in his hagiographical Kitāb al-t ˢ abaqāt al-kubrā (“Te Book of the
Great Generations”), ascribes to al-Rifāʚī a citation of a divine tradition
(hˢ adīth qudsī) in which God allegedly says: “O, sons of Adam, obey me
and I shall obey you; observe me, and I shall observe you, and I shall
make you say to a thing ‘Be!” and it will be.”
In fact, on inspection of
the source referred to, one fnds a passage which is even more outspoken
than the online excerpt. Te passage in Kitāb al-t ˢ abaqāt al-kubrā reads
as follows:
He [al-Rifāʚī] used to say: when the worshipper is established in the mysti-
cal states, he attains the place of God’s proximity, and then his [spiritual]
intention (himma) pierces the seven heavens; as for the [seven] earths,
they become like an anklet on his leg; he becomes an attribute of God’s
attributes, and there is nothing that he cannot do. God is then pleased
when he is pleased, and is displeased when he is displeased. He said: what
we say is corroborated by what came down in one of the divine books:
God has said: O sons of Adam! Obey me and I shall obey you, choose me
and I shall choose you, be pleased with me and I shall be pleased with you,
love me and I shall love you, observe me and I shall observe you, and I
shall make you say to a thing Be! And it will be.
Needless to say that to the pious author/s of the “Antihabashis” website
such claims are absurd, scandalous, and blasphemous; in their opinion
they should, therefore, be strongly refuted and fought.
Ǚ̢̩̋̃Ǧ ̸̺̭̋̾̃Ǧ Ȅdzǥ ̺̰ˈ Թ :ȃ˅̜ ߷ ȅǦ ː̶̤̾ҝǪ ˇ˗̢̦Ǫ ˿̋ˈ ̺̙ Ǥ˅ˡ ̴̭Ǧ ̺̭Ǫ˲̋˻̤Ǫ . . . ̩̉Ƕȇ”
.“ȅ̸̢̙̀ ̬̠ Ǥ̺˻̧̥ ȅ̸̸̤̝˒ ̢̧̩̋ˠǦȇ ̢̩ˍ̜ǪǵǦ ̸̺̭ˍ̜Ǫǵȇ
See al-Shaʚrānī 1887/88, I:141 on Ahˢ mad Abū al-Hˢ usayn al-Rifāʚī: ȅǨ :ȃ̸̝̻ ȅ˅̟ȇ”
Ǯǵ˅˽ȇ ǮǪ̸̫˸̤Ǫ ̈ˋ̑˸̧̥ ː̜ǵ˅˭ ̴˕̵̫ Ǯǵ˅˽ȇ Ǯ ߷ ̬̪ Ǭ˲̝̤Ǫ ̣˩̪ ̧̌ˈ ȃǪ̸˧қǪ ̬̪ ̢̬̫˒ ǪǴǨ ˰ˋ̤̋Ǫ
̹̀˲̽ Ǯ ̛˩̤Ǫ ǵ˅˽ȇ Ǥ̺˺ ˴ˣ̻̋ ҟ Ҡ̊ȇ ̣ˡ ̛˩̤Ǫ Ǯ˅̚˽ ̬̪ ː̚˽ ǵ˅˽ȇ ̴̧ˡ˲ˊ ȃ˅˯̧˯̤˅̟ ȅ̸̀ǵқǪ
̺̰ˈ Թ :̣ˡȇ ˴̉ ߷ ȃ̸̝̻ :ː̶̤̾ҝǪ ˇ˗̢̦Ǫ ˿̋ˈ ̺̙ dzǵȇ ˅̪ ʏ˅̧̰̜ ˅̫̤ ȃ˰̻ȇ :ȃ˅̜ .̴̄ˮ˸̤ ̂ˮ˸̼ȇ ʏ˅̀˲̤
̢̧̩̋ˠǦȇ ̢̩ˍ̜ǪǵǦ ̸̺̭ˍ̜Ǫǵȇ ̢̩ˍ˧Ǧ ̸̺̭ˍ˧Ǧȇ ̢̩̰̉ ǺǵǪ ̺̰̉ Ǫ̸̀ǵǪȇ ̩̟˲˖˭Ǫ ̺̭ȇǵ˅˗ˬǪȇ ̢̩̋̃Ǧ ̸̺̭̋̾̃Ǧ !Ȅdzǥ
“. . . ȅ̸̢̙̀ ̬̠ Ǥ̺˻̧̥ ȅ̸̸̤̝˒; note the similarity of this passage with a Rabbinic dictum
from Avot, 2, 4: “Make His will as your will so that He will make your will as His will;
annul your will in front of His will, so that He may annul the will of others in front of
your will,” see Garb 2004, 38f; I wish to thank Dr. Garb for this reference as well as for
our ongoing exchange concerning power and language in Judaism and Islam.
In the homepage of the “antihabashis” website, the al-Ahˢ bāsh are described thus:
“they are a lost group which associates itself with ʚAbdallāh al-Hˢ abashī. Tey have
recently [!] appeared in Lebanon to exploit there the ignorance and poverty in the wake
of the Lebanese civil wars. Tey propagate the call to revive the ways of the theolo-
gians, the Sˢ ūfs and the Shīʚites in order to destroy the faith and to break the unity of the
Muslims, and in order to avert Muslims from their essential problems” ˇ˸̱˒ ߦ˅̀ ː̚ʿ˅̃)
38 sara sviri

Although the Ahˢ bāsh do not necessarily claim that their Sheikh
possesses the creative power of kun, the above refutation directed at
them inadvertently exposes interesting material which indeed portray
the holy man as a possessor of this extraordinary existence-bestowing
power. It also shows that the claim for the power of kun is seen today as
an abidingly abusive issue characteristic of Sˢ ūfsm (and, one should add,
of Shīʚism too) that should be forcefully counteracted. Te follow-up to
this contemporary polemic has been, therefore, unexpectedly fruitful in
unraveling testimonies of claims of possessing the power to bring things
into existence by means of kun.
Tese testimonies appear to be mostly
ascribed to eminent Sˢ ūf fgures of the twelfh century onwards. Teir
confdent claim that the Sˢ ūf Sheikh may hold the power of creation
coincides, it would seem, with the emergence during this period of the
Sˢ ūf Brotherhoods (t ˢ uruq, sg. t ˢ arīqa).
It may be suggested, therefore,
that within Sˢ ūfsm such claims refect the attempt to build up the fgure
of the Sheikh of the t ˢ arīqa to nearly divine proportions.
˲̝̤̚Ǫȇ ̶̣ˣ̤Ǫ ̬̪ ː̭̾˅̰ˋ̧̥Ǫ ː̵̧̾қǪ Ǭȇ˲˩̤Ǫ ̴˗̧̚˭ ˅̪ ː̧̏˕̑˸̪ ȅ˅̰ˋ̤ ̺̙ ˅˜̻˰˨ Ǯ˲̶̆ Ǚ̺˻ˌ˪̤Ǫ ߷ ˰ˋ̉ ̹̤Ǩ
̧̬̫̿˸̫̤Ǫ ǭ˰˨ȇ ̢̞̀̚˒ȇ ǭ˰̝̤̀̋Ǫ dz˅˸̙Ǩ Ȁ˰̶ˈ ː̰̾̃˅ˋ̤Ǫȇ ː̸̙̀˾̤Ǫȇ ȄҠ̢̦Ǫ ̵̣Ǧ ˟̵˅̲̪ Ǥ˅̀˧Ǩ ̹̤Ǩ ǭ̸̉˰̤Ǫȇ
.(ː̾̑˷˅˷қǪ ̵̩Թ˅̜́ ̬̉ ̶̩̙˲˽ȇ
For testimonies based on the references mentioned in the “antihabashis” website,
see the Appendix.
Note, however, the early anecdote related by Sufyān ibn ʚUyayna (d. 198/813),
a renowned pietist from the town of Kufa; according to this anecdote, recorded in a
3rd/9th-century text by Ibn Abī al-Dunyā (d. 281/894), an anonymous and wondrous
fgure delivers several divine messages during the Hˢ ajj. One of these messages is the fol-
lowing: “I am God the King; when I wish a thing, I say to it Be and it is; therefore come
to Me, and I shall make you such that when you wish [a thing], you will say to it Be and
it will be”—see Ibn Abī al-Dunyā 1993, 32 (for the full text, see Appendix G); a milder,
“cleaned up” version of this anecdote appears in the 5th/11th-century compilation Hˢ ilyat
al-awliyāʙ by Abū Nuʚaym al-Isˢ fahānī (d. 430/1038–9), Abū Nuʚaym al-Isˢ fahānī 1997,
VII:354, no. 10831; the diference in the tenor of the two versions is signifcant: it indi-
cates the restraint, typical of classical Sˢ ūf literature, vis-à-vis the claim of kun for human
beings; such restraint seems to have become more relaxed in later texts; as for the early
text on hand, it seems to have somehow escaped, quite uniquely, possible censoring eyes;
in any case, it obviously shows that in the early formative phases of Islamic mysticism
such ideas were prevalent—can one detect here the echoes of Rabbinic ideas? Cf. above,
n. 13.
For a general orientation concerning the Sˢ ūf Brotherhoods, see Trimingham 1971;
also Popovic and Veinstein 1996.
kun—the existence-bestowing word in islamic mysticism 39

II. Kun and Sˢ ūf karāmāt
Tat Sˢ ūf sheikhs from early on have been endowed with the power to
perform “miracles” is well known; their marvelous and miraculous deeds
are known as karāmāt (literally: graces) or khawāriq al-ʚādāt (literally,
events that are beyond the ordinary). Tese have been discussed and
recorded in many chapters within classical Sˢ ūf compilations
and have
been collected in a special literary genre known as karāmāt al-awliyāʙ

as well as in hagiographical works in praise of a particular Sˢ ūf master
or group.
Many miracles have been known to be performed by using
“God’s greatest name” (ismullāh al-aʚzˢ am),
or by special invocations.
Te concept of the holy man as mujāb al-daʚwa, he whose call [to God]
is answered, has been, from early on, part and parcel of Sˢ ūf vocabulary
and one of the appellations by which the holy man was known.
the feat of reviving the dead is acknowledged with no apologetics and is
amply recorded in Sˢ ūf manuals and in relevant studies thereof.
But the
use of kun as a creative means employed by humans, albeit superior and
holy ones, is rather more contentious; not only is the mere thought of it
abhorred and vehemently refuted by the adversaries of Sˢ ūfsm, but Sˢ ūfs
themselves seem to shy away from broadcasting it openly as a holy man’s
Speculations as regards kun and anecdotes concerning the holy
men who have used it tend to be phrased, it seems, with circumspection,
See, for example, al-Kalābādhī 1935, ch. 26 on “Teir Doctrine of the Miracles of
Saints,” pp. 57–66; also “Discourse on the Afrmation of Miracles” in al-Hujwīrī 1911,
218–35; cf. Radtke 2000, 286–99.
See, e.g., Abū Nuʚaym al-Isˢ fahānī 1997; al-Yāfʚī 1955; also the fairly late collection,
al-Nabhānī 2001; the most comprehensive study to date concerning the miracles of the
Islamic friends of God is Gramlich 1987; also Badrān 2001.
See, e.g., Al-Afākī 1959–61 (in French: Al-Afākī 1978; in English: Al-Afākī 2002);
also al-Rakhāwī.
Te potency of the Great Name of God used by a walī is displayed, for example,
in the hagiographical accounts on Ibrāhim ibn Adham (2nd/8th century), one of the
earliest protagonists of the Sˢ ūf tradition, see al-Sulamī 1960, 15; see also Gramlich
1987,164–6; for a comparative study on “the great name of God”, see Zoran 1996, 19–62;
see also Sviri 2002, 207f.
See, e.g., al-Qushayrī n.d., 9, in the section on Maʚrūf al-Karkhī (d. ca 200/815):
“He was one of the great masters, one whose call [to God] is answered and in whose
tomb people look for healing”; see also Appendix, E.
See, e.g., Badrān 2001, 150–3; also Balivet 2000, 403; cf. also the literature men-
tioned in previous footnotes.
For Sˢ ūfī reservations concerning the use, or abuse, of kun, see Gramlich 1987,
184f.; also Sviri 2002, 216, n. 39.
40 sara sviri

and their tenor is reserved and cautious. Even Ibn al-ʚArabī, the Anda-
lusian thirteenth-century mystic-philosopher,
one of the most outspo-
ken Sˢ ūf authors, writes that the power of kun, or the fact that inherently
man is a creator (khallāq), should be approached with the reservation
demanded of good manners (hˢ usn al-adab, tazˢ arruf ) towards God.

Tus, in chapter Tree Hundred Fify Tree of his Meccan Revelations,
“On Knowing the Position of Tree Talismanic Secrets,” he writes:
Man inherently has the power of kun, but outwardly he has got only the
passive faculty [of being the object of kun]; yet in the world-to-come man
will possess the power of kun also outwardly. It may happen that some
men are given it in this world, but this is not a universal [human] fac-
ulty. Among God’s men there are those who hold on to it and there are
those who, being courteous towards God, [relinquish it] as they know that
this is not its proper abode . . .
When God’s men see that in this world
this is not a universal law, they relegate the particular law to the univer-
sal law and leave all in its proper abode. Tis is the state of the courte-
ous ones among God’s Knowers who are constantly present with Him.
In this world, therefore, the courteous [among God’s men] is a creator by
means of his [religious] deed; not by means of kun, but rather by means
of bismillāh al-rahˢ mān al-rahˢ īm (= in the name of God the Merciful the
See on him Addas 1993; also Chodkiewicz 1993.
For his prudence, see also n. 55 below; cf. also n. 16 above.
An example for an exceptional man who, according to Ibn al-ʚArabī, had relin-
quished the power to operate on existents (tasˢ arruf ), is Abū al-Suʚūd ibn al-Shibl, a dis-
ciple of ʚAbd al-Qādir al-Jīlānī (Baghdad, 12th century); see, e.g., Ibn al-ʚArabī 1994, I:
452; Ibn al-ʚArabī 1946, 128–9 (the Chapter on Lot). Ibn al-ʚArabī explains that he him-
self has relinquished the act of tasˢ arruf not out of courtesy towards God, but rather out
of his perfect mystical knowledge (kamāl al-maʚrifa), Ibn al-ʚArabī 1946, 129; through
true knowledge one knows that such an act should be employed only when one is forced
to do so by an unavoidable divine command (amr ilāhī wa-jabr), but by no means out of
personal choice; cf. also Appendix E.
̬̠ ̢̩˧ ȅ̸̢̽ ǭ˲ˬҙǪ ̺̙ȇ Ǚȃ˅̭̋̚ҟǪ ҟǨ ʏ˲̵˅̆ ̺̙ ˅̶̲̪ ̴̤ ˅̪ȇ “̬̠” ǭ̸̜ ̴̰̃Դ ̺̙ ̴̤ ȅ˅˸̮ҝǪ ȅ˅̙”
̬̪ȇ Ǚ˅̶ˈ ˱˭Ǧ ̬̪ ߷ ȃ˅ˡǵ ̬̫̙ ǙȄ̸̫̤̋Ǫ ̞̥Ǵ ˅̶̤ ˶̤̿ȇ ˅̭̾˰̤Ǫ ̺̙ Ƿ˅̰̤Ǫ ˿̋ˋ̤ ̹̻̄̋ ˰̜ȇ .˲̵˅̤̇Ǫ ̺̙ ̴̲̪
̢̩˩̤Ǫ ː̪˅̊ ˲̿̍ ߷ ȃ˅ˡǵ ˅̵ǥǵ ˅̧̫̙ . . . ˅̶̤ ̸̬̫̃ˈ ˶̤̿ Ǫ˱̵ ȅǦ ̴̧̫̤̋ ˅̶̙̀ ߷ ̪̈ Ǭdzʻ˒ ̬̪ ߷ ȃ˅ˡǵ
ǤԴdzқǪ ː̤˅˨ ʏ˱̵ȇ .̴̸̰̪̃ ̹̤Ǩ <ǣ̢̬̦Ǫ >̢̣̦Ǫ Ȃ˲˖̙ ̴̫̋˒ ˅̪ ̢̩˧ ̹̤Ǩ ̩̋˒ ҟ ˅̪ ̢̩˧ Ǫ̸̧̋ˠ ǵǪ˰̤Ǫ ʏ˱̵ ̺̙
̬̫˧˲̤Ǫ ߷ ̩˸ˌˈ ̣ˈ ̢̬ˊ ҟ ̣̫̤̋Դ ǵǪ˰̤Ǫ ʏ˱̵ ̺̙ ȁҠ˭ ˇ̻dzқ˅̙ ǙȄǪȇ˰̤Ǫ ̧̹̊ ̴̪̋ ̬̽˲̀˅˪̤Ǫ ߸Դ Ǥ˅̧̫̤̋Ǫ
“. . . ̩̀˧˲̤Ǫ, Ibn al-ʚArabī 1994, V: 459–60; cf. also Ibn al-ʚArabī’s answer to the hundred
and forty seventh question of al-Hˢ akīm al-Tirmidhī: “What is the interpretation of the
formula bismillāh”: “For the worshipper, with regard to bringing something into exis-
tence, this [formula] is like kun for God; by its means certain men bring forth what they
will into existence,” Ibn al-ʚArabī 1994, III:222 (for al-Tirmidhī’s spiritual questionnaire,
see Al-Hˢ akīm al-Tirmidhī 1992b, 28); cf. also Ibn al-ʚArabī 1994, VI:5: “no divine scrip-
ture and no prophetic tradition has come down concerning a created being who has
been given kun apart from man specifcally; this happened in the time of the Prophet
kun—the existence-bestowing word in islamic mysticism 41

Najm al-Dīn Kubrā, a twelfh-thirteenth century mystic from Central
Asia, in his Breaths of Beauty and Revelations of Majesty, seems rather
more forthright as regards the human kun. Kubrā’s book, essentially a
personal account of mystical visions and experiences, is interlaced with
insights and teachings that had emanated, according to his own state-
ment, from direct mystical experiences. Describing the characteris-
tics of holiness (or, as it is known in Sˢ ūf vocabulary, “friendship with
God”—walāya), we read the following:
Know that the wayfarer will be designated as a “friend” only when he is
given kun. Kun is God’s command in His saying: “Our command to a
thing when We will it is to say to it kun! and it is” (Qurʙān 16:40). Te walī,
however, is given [the power of] kun only when his will is annihilated in
the will of God. When his will is annihilated in the will of God and his will
is the will of God, then any thing that God wills His servant wills, while
the servant does not will anything unless God wills it. Tis is alluded to in
God’s saying: “You will not wish unless God the Lord of all Worlds wishes”
(Qurʙān 81:29, 76:30).
Kubrā insists, it appears, that possessing the extraordinary creative
power of kun is, by defnition, a proviso of being a friend of God, a walī.
He hastens, however, to clarify and qualify his statement:
Pronouncing the kāf and the nūn [that make up kun] does not transgress
the Creator’s privilege, Praise be to Him; it only relates to the speed of the
coming into being [of a thing]. Te kāf is the kāf of existence (= kawn) and
the nūn is His light (= nūr); thus we fnd among the traditions: O You who
make all things exist! O You who is hidden [in? by? from?] all things!
Kubrā may not share Ibn al-ʚArabī’s preference for deferring the power
of kun altogether to the world-to-come; both mystics, however, despite
their cautiousness, agree that to make a thing exist by means of kun
[Muhˢ ammad], peace be on him, in the battle of Tabūk (9/630): He said, “Be Abū Dharr”
and there was Abū Dharr” (for this tradition, which is well attested to in early historical
sources, see, e.g., al-Tˢ abarī 1964, IV:1700; for a discussion on the parity of bismillāh and
kun, see below 53f.
ǪǴǨ Ǥ̺˻̤ Է˲̪Ǧ ˅̫̭Ǩ” :̴̸̤̜ ̺̙ ̛˩̤Ǫ ˲̪Ǧ “̬̠“ȇ Ǚ̬̠ ̺˒ȇǦ ǪǴǨ ː̻ҟ̸̤Դ ̘˽̸̻ ˅̫̭Ǩ ǵ˅̾̑˸̤Ǫ ȅǦ ̧̩̊Ǫȇ”
ǭdzǪǵǨ ̺̙ ̴˒dzǪǵǨ ˑ̲̙̾ ǪǴʽ̙ ̛˩̤Ǫ ǭdzǪǵǨ ̺̙ ̴˒dzǪ ǵǨ ˑ̲̙̾ ǪǴǨ ̬̠ ̸̺̤̤Ǫ ̹˒ʼ̻ ˅̫̭Ǩȇ Ǚ“ȅ̸̢̙̀ ̬̠ ̴̤ ȃ̸̝̭ ȅǦ ʏԷdzǵǦ
̴̤̾Ǫȇ Ư̈̌˩̤Ǫ ʏ˰̻˲̽ ҟǨ ˅˄̿˺ ˰ˋ̤̋Ǫ ˰̻˲̽ ҟȇ ˰ˋ̤̋Ǫ ʏ˰̻˲̽ ҟǨ ˅˄̿˺ ̛˩̤Ǫ ˰̻˲̽ ˅̫̙ ̛˩̤Ǫ ǭdzǪǵǨ ̴˒dzǪǵǨ ˑ̭˅̟ȇ ̛˩̤Ǫ
“.̬̫̤̿˅̤̋Ǫ Ǭǵ ߸Ǫ Ǥ˅˻̼ ȅǪ ҟǨ ȅȇǤ˅˻˓ ˅̪ȇ” :̴̸̤̝ˈ ǭǵ˅˺ҝǪ, Kubrā 1957, 86–7; cf. above,
37, n. 13.
Ȁ˅̢̦Ǫ ˅̫̭Ǩ Ǚ̝̙̂ dz˅ˤ̻ҝǪ ː̊˲˷ ʏ˅̰̪̋ ˅̫̭Ǩ Ṷ̴̈̌˅˪ˋ̑˷ Ȉǵ˅ˋ̤Ǫ ̛˧ ̺̙ Ǫ˴ˁ˅ˡ ḛ̸̤̏Ǫȇ Ȁ˅̢̦Դ ̧̅̚˕̤Ǫ ˶̤̿ȇ”
“!Ǥ̺˺ ̣̟ ȅ̸̢̲̪ Թ !Ǥ̺˺ ̣̟ ȅ̸̢̪ Թ :˘̻dz˅˨қǪ ̺̙ Ǥ˅ˡ Ǚʏǵ̸̭ ḛ̸̤̏Ǫȇ ȅ̸̢̦Ǫ Ȁ˅̟, Kubrā 1957,
42 sara sviri

should be reckoned as a power that is within human reach. Tey also
share the understanding that the secret of the walī’s power to use kun
efcaciously lies in the alignment of his will with the divine will; when
the human and divine will are fused, creation may be executed as a
simultaneous human-divine act.
III. Language, Creation and Hermeneutics in a Historical and
Comparative Context
Speech and words play an important role in Islamic thought and culture.
Speech, kalām, and its cognate kalima, word, are laden with meanings
and ideas analogous to the numerous connotations of logos in other reli-
gious and philosophical systems. Kalām
Allāh, God’s speech, as we have
seen, is an attribute of the divine creative power by which the world
and its beings are created. Kalām
Allāh also designates the Qurʙān,
God’s ultimate, non-created and inimitable manifestation; God’s word,
or words, being inexhaustible and unchangeable, kalām
Allāh signi-
fes also Divine omniscience and immutability.
In humanity, a species
created in the image of God, it is the power of speech and reason that
singles out man of all other creatures; speech represents language as well
as the rational soul; the two are intrinsically connected. Te appellation
mutakallimūn by which the polemicists and theologians of Islam are des-
ignated, refer both to their power of reasoning and to their verbal skills
of putting forward argumentations and rejoinders in defense of creed
and faith. It is, therefore, clear that traditions and speculations concern-
ing speech and language are fundamental to Islamic discourse and are
exhibited profusely in its various literary branches: Hˢ adīth collections,
Qurʙān commentaries, grammar, literature (adab), poetics, theology,
heresiography, philosophy, and mysticism. Moreover, the metaphysics
of that compact cluster—God’s creative power, His speech, His book and
His commanding language—underlie the extraordinary interest in the
sacred text, as well as in language as such, in the quest for uncovering
the blueprint of the Divine design and wisdom. Tus we fnd that, from
a very early stage in Islamic intellectual history, Islamic mystics and
See, e.g., Qurʙān 6:115: “Te word of thy Lord fnds its fulfllment in truth and in
justice: none can change His Words for He is the One Who hears and knows all” ˑ̫˒ȇ)
.(̧̩̤̾̋Ǫ ̫̈̾˸̤Ǫ ̸̵ȇ ̴˒˅̧̢̫̦ ȃ˰ˍ̪ ҟ ҟ˰̊ȇ ˅̜˰˽ ̞ˈǵ ː̧̫̟
kun—the existence-bestowing word in islamic mysticism 43

thinkers have explored assiduously the nature, structure, and meaning
of the cosmos by means of pondering the nexus of language, text, cre-
ation, and order.
Such investigations constitute a vital component also
of the esoteric and mystical trends in the religious and philosophical
systems of Late Antiquity. Te fundamental theme of the ancient Sefer
Yetsira, for example, which views creation as bound up with the twenty-
two letters of the Hebrew language as well as with the frst ten numbers,
is echoed throughout Islamic esoteric literature with its similar claims
for the twenty-eight (or twenty-nine) letters of the Arabic language.

Language speculations are, no doubt, among the clearest examples for
the continuity and fow of these speculative currents from Late Antiq-
uity into early Islam.
A principal element that ties Islam with these pre-Islamic traditions is
the notion that behind the exoteric words and letters of sacred texts lay
deep secrets. Tese secrets, when deciphered, reveal the blueprint of cre-
ation and the design of its wise Creator. Knowledge of the techniques by
which to decipher these secrets can, and should, be gained, but only by
“specialists” who are endowed not only with a penetrating insight and
divine inspiration, but also with exemplary moral qualities and sound
beliefs. Tese specialists constitute an esoteric hierarchy of philosophers,
‘gnostics,’ mystics, saints, imāms, and holy men. By accessing, through
the sacred texts, the foundations of the divine wisdom and design, they
gain not only knowledge, but also power. Like scientists who learn how
to decipher the fundamental codes of creation they can, ultimately, make
use of their knowledge efectively. Te study of language, therefore, can
be described as the study of extraordinary human potencies, leading, no
less, to that potency by which non-existents existentiate. In Islam, the
esoteric study of creation, text, language, and power can be condensed
into the study of one word: kun (Be!)
Te earliest examples seem to be associated with Shīʚite-Ismāʚīlī circles, see, e.g.,
Kraus 1942, II: 262f.; Fahd 1960, 375–7; Lory 1996, 101–9.
For the ancient, enigmatic Sefer Yetsira (= “Te Book of Formation”), see Liebes
2000; for late antique systems in which such theories were expressed, see the papers by
J. Assman, B. Bitton-Ashkeloni, and Y. Garb in this volume.
Although Shīʚite-Ismāʚīli speculations are, in general, beyond the scope of this
paper, it is worth mentioning here the signifcance of kun for early Ismāʚīli cosmology, to
the point of aggrandizing kun to the rank of a “deifed” entity, Kūnī, a (feminine?) divine
power by which the world was created; for these early speculations, which are imbibed
with Gnostic and Neoplatonic ideas, see Stern 1983, 3–29.
44 sara sviri

See above, n. 31; see also Qur. 7:137 and 11:119.
See Al-Hˢ akīm al-Tirmidhī 1992a, 3, ll. 2–5.
Cf. [Pseudo-] al-Tustarī 1974, 368: “Te Mother of the Book is the root: it contains
all that was and that will be . . . [then] by means of His saying kun He dispersed them out
of the Hidden” ˅̶̧˾̙ ̹̤˅̋˒ ̴̸̤̜ ̸̵ ȉ˱̤Ǫ ̢̬̦Դȇ . . . ȅ̸̢̽ȇ ȅ˅̟ ˅̪ ̫̈̾ˠ ̴̙̀ȇ ̣˽қǪ ̸̵ȇ Ǭ˅˗̢̦Ǫ ȄǦ )
(ˇ̤̾̏Ǫ ̬̪; see also below, 45–46.
Consider, for example, the answers that Ibn al-ʚArabī wrote to the “spiritual ques-
tions” laid down by al-Tirmidhī; see the insertion of Ibn al-ʚArabī’s answers (in two
versions) into the fourth chapter of Khatm al-awliyāʙ, Al-Hˢ akīm al-Tirmidhī 1965, 142–
326; see also Chodkiewicz 1993, 26f.
See Ibn al-ʚArabī, 1946, 142 (the chapter on Jesus): ҟ ̺˕̤Ǫ ߸Ǫ Ǯ˅̧̫̟ ˅̶̧̟ ǮǪdz̸ˠ̸̫̤˅̙
߸Ǫ ː̧̫̟ ̬̠ȇ ̬̠ ̬̉ ˅̶̭ʽ̙ ˰̰̚˒; also Ibn al-ʚArabī 1994, IV, 35 (On Knowing the Breath—
˶̰̤̚Ǫ ː̙˲̪̋ ̺̙)”.
Al-Hˢ akīm al-Tirmidhī, a ninth century Muslim ‘gnostic’ from the north-
eastern edges of the Islamic world, builds his mystical understanding of
language, as has already been shown, on the notion of “God’s perfect
allāh al-tāmma, or, in the plural form, kalimāt
al-tāmmāt. Tis expression occurs frequently in supplication formulae;
for example: “by all the perfect words of God, I ask refuge from the evil
that He has created” (aʚūdhu bi-kalimātillāh al-tāmma kullihā min sharr

ma khalaqa). Although the expression “the perfect word” or, in the plu-
ral form, “the perfect words,” does not appear in the Qurʙān, its roots
are Qurʙānic; thus Qurʙān 6:115: “your Lord’s word has become perfect
(or fulflled) in truth and in justice; no one can change His words”.
Tirmidhī ponders the fact that in the frst part of the verse “God’s word”
appears in the singular while in the second part it comes in the plural.
Referring to this seeming discrepancy he writes:
Whether one says ‘God’s perfect word’ or ‘God’s perfect words’ both forms
stem from one single notion (maʚna
wāhˢ id). Te singular refers to the
totality [of God’s words] (al-jumla), and the plural refers to the words
into which this single ‘word,’ at diferent times, was dispersed and became
many; all, however, go back to one single word.”
Te single word, according to al-Tirmidhī, is God’s existence-bestowing
command kun, the creative logos; the multitude of things and beings
into which kun is dispersed and which come into existence by its cre-
ative potency, they, too, are God’s words—hence the plural side by side
with the singular.
Ibn al-ʚArabī, who has been inspired by al-Tirmidhī
and, in many senses, has picked up the thread from him several centu-
ries later,
sums up this powerful idea in the following statement (which
paraphrases Qur. 18:109): “All existents are God’s words which will not
be exhausted; they are from kun and kun is God’s word.”
kun—the existence-bestowing word in islamic mysticism 45

Kun is a keyword also in other speculations that can be traced back to
the ninth century. In the Kitāb al-Zīna (“Te Book of Loveliness”), for
example, a treatise on language written by Abū Hˢ ātim al-Rāzī, an emi-
nent Ismāʚīli missionary from Rayy who fourished in the third/ninth-
fourth/tenth century,
in the chapter on the Divine command (amr

-llāh), al-Rāzī makes a striking analogy between kun and the Gospel of
John’s logos:
His command is His word by which He has created things. Tus He says:
“God’s command when He wishes a thing is to say to it Be and it is.” By
this word God has created all of creation. In the Gospels, in the opening
( fātihˢ a) of the beginning of the book
[it is written]: “In the beginning
was the Word, and the Word was with God, and by this Word God has
created all things. Tis is what was before all things.” Tis is the beginning
of the Gospels and it is in accord with what is in the Qurʙān, except that
in the Qurʙān it is more condensed. Te Word that is mentioned in the
Gospels is kun, and this is God’s command.
Here, once more, one can detect the clear reverberations that arise from
the association with pre-Islamic traditions.
Another intriguing example of speculation on kun, supposedly from the
ninth century, is attributed, probably erroneously, to Sahl al-Tustarī, an
early ninth century mystic, whose followers resided mainly in the town
of Basra. In an epistle titled Risālat al-hˢ urūf (“Te Epistle on Letters”),
Sahl, or, in my opinion, pseudo-Sahl, writes:
When God says to a thing “be” such and such and it is, [what comes into
being] is, in fact, the form of the thing; [the form is] spiritual; it is com-
posed of forces and of a spirit that were dispersed from the “big kun”
which God said to the All. Tis spiritual form is the word [that issued]
On al-Rāzī (d. 322/934), see Dafary 1998, 43 passim; for the similarities between
al-Rāzī’s work and that of al-Tirmidhī’s and for al-Rāzī’s explicit reference to al-Tirmidhī,
see Sviri 2002, 214, n. 31.
By “Gospel” Al-Razi refers to the Gospel of John, but without specifying, or know-
ing of, the authorship of John; or he could have culled his proof-text from the running
Arabic translation (ca. 6th C.), which opens with John; thanks go to my colleague Dr.
Serge Ruzer.
.(82: 36) “ȅ̸̢̙̀ ̬̠ ̴̤ ȃ̸̝̻ ȅǦ ˅˄̿˺ dzǪǵǦ ǪǴǨ ʏ˲̪Ǧ ˅̫̭Ǩ” :ȃ˅̝̙ Ǥ˅̾̑˺қǪ ˅̶ˈ ȅȐ ̸̠ ̺˕̤Ǫ ̴˕̧̫̟ ʏ˲̪Ǧȇ
ː̧̢̫̦Ǫȇ Ǚː̧̢̫̦Ǫ ˑ̭˅̟ Ǥ˰ˋ̤Ǫ ̺̙” :̴˕˩˒˅̙ȇ Ǭ˅˗̢̦Ǫ ȃȇǦ ̺̙ ̣̾ˣ̭ҝǪ ̺̙ȇ .̴̧̟ ̧̛˯̤Ǫ ߸Ǫ ̧̛˭ ː̧̢̫̦Ǫ ʏ˱̶ˍ̙
̸̵ȇ Ụ̈̌̾ˣ̭ҝǪ ȃȇǦ ̸̵ Ǫ˱̵—“Ǥ̺˺ ̣̟ ̣ˍ̜ ȅ˅̟ ˅̪ Ǫ˱̵ .˅̶̧̟ Ǥ˅̾̑˺қǪ ߸Ǫ ̧̛˭ ː̧̢̫̦Դȇ Ǚ߸Ǫ ˰̰̉ ˑ̭˅̟
“̬̠” ̵̺ ̣̾ˣ̭ҝǪ ̺̙ Ǯ˲̠Ǵ ̺˕̤Ǫ ː̧̢̫̦Ǫȇ ǙǪǵ˅˾˗ˬǪ ˰˺Ǫ ȅǥ˲̝̤Ǫ ̺̙ ȉ˱̤Ǫ ȅǦ ˲̿̎ Ǚȅǥ˲̝̤Ǫ ̺̙ ˅̫̤ ̛̙Ǫ̸̪
̣ˡȇ ˴̉ ߸Ǫ ˲̪Ǧ ̵̺ȇ; the connection between God’s word and Jesus is borne out by Qur.
4:171: “Te Messiah Jesus son of Maryam is God’s messenger and His word that He had
thrown into Maryam”—(̩̻˲̪ ̹̤Ǩ ˅̵˅̝̤Ǧ ̴˕̧̫̟ȇ ߸Ǫ ȃ̸˷ǵ ̩̻˲̪ ̬ˊǪ ̹˸̿̊ ˦̾̑˸̫̤Ǫ ˅̫̭Ǩ).
46 sara sviri

from God in order that a thing may come to be. It is the truth of that
thing which comes into being; it is the [divine] Will that it should come
to be, and this is founded on the [divine] encompassing knowledge. Te
philosophers name it the nature of the thing. Some of them name it soul
(nafs). All these [names] are related [to one another in the sense] that it
is a divine command which gives forms to the bodies, watches over them,
and protects them from harm.
On the level of ideas, the spiritual “big kun” of this excerpt, out of
which all existents dispersed, is reminiscent of al-Tirmidhī’s distinc-
tion between the original divine creative “word” in the singular and the
many existential “words” which issued from it. On the level of termi-
nology, however, it is hard to tie the two pieces together. As regards al-
Tustarī himself, this is even more problematic. Such terms as “the truth
of the thing,” “the nature of the thing,” “spiritual form,” “the big kun,”
“philosophers” do not tie in with al-Tustarī’s idiomatic and thought pat-
terns as they transpire from the numerous sources in which his tradition
has been preserved.
Te linguistic, typological and thematic characteristics of the short
epistle from which this passage has been culled call for a review of its
ascription to Sahl al-Tustarī. Tis, it is hoped, will be dealt with else-
where. It is worth noting here, however, that such speculations as the
Epistle on Letters displays, formulated in a comparable vocabulary, tie in
much more feasibly with ideas and idioms that are found in the writings
of “Te Brethren of Purity,” Ikhwān al-sˢ afāʙ. Tis group of theosophists
from tenth century Basra (or earlier) was known for its Shīʚite-Ismāʚīlī
afliations and for its Neoplatonic, Pythagorean and Hermetic leanings.

In their encyclopaedic “Epistles” (rasāʙil Ikhwān al-sˢ afāʙ) numerous
examples of speculations on language and on kun can be found. In the
concluding and encompassing epistle (al-risāla al-jāmiʚa), for example,
˰̜ DZȇǵȇ Ȉ̸̜ ̬̪ ː̤̚ʺ˗̪ ː̭̾˅˨ȇǵ Ǥ̺˻̤Ǫ ǭǵ̸˽ ̸̵ ˅̫̭Ǩ ȅ̸̢̙̀ ˅̪ Ǥ̺˻̤ Ǫ˱̟ȇ Ǫ˱̟ “̬̠” Ǯ ߸Ǫ ȃ̸̜ȇ”
̵̺ȇ Ǥ̺˻̤Ǫ ȅ̸̢̦ ߸Ǫ ̬̪ ː̧̢̫̦Ǫ ̵̺ ː̭̾˅˨ȇ˲̤Ǫ ǭǵ̸˾̤Ǫ ̧̞˗̙ Ụ̢̧̥̈̌ ̴̤˅̜ ȉ˱̤Ǫ “̩̇̉қǪ ̢̬̦Ǫ” ̬̪ ˑ̧˾̭̚Ǫ
̶̩́̋ˈȇ ǙǤ̺˻̤Ǫ ː̋̾ˋ̃ ː̚˷Ҡ̤̚Ǫ ˅̶̫̾˸˓ȇ Ǚ̂̾˩̫̤Ǫ ̧̩̤̋Ǫ ̧̹̊ Ǥ˅̰ˈ ̴̸̢̭̦ ǭdzǪǵҝǪ ̵̺ȇ Ǚȅ̸̢̫̤Ǫ Ǥ̺˻̤Ǫ ː̝̝̀˧
“Ǯ˅̙ҙǪ ̫̈̾ˠ ̬̪ ̭̈˅̪ ˅̶̤ ̙̅˅˨ Ȅ˅˸ˠҜ̤ ǵ̸˾̪ ̵̺ҟǦ ˲̪Ǧ ̴̭Ǫ ȅȇ˲̝̪ ̶̧̩̟ȇ ˅˸̭̚ ˅̶̫̾˸̼, [Pseudo-]
al-Tustarī 1974, 367.
For a thorough analysis of al-Tustarī’s tradition, see Böwering 1980, 7–42; as for
the Risālat al-hˢ urūf (based on Ms. Chester Beatty 3168/3), Böwering expresses some
doubts whether this is an authentic work by al-Tustarī, but is not categorical, 18.
Te Brethren’s association with Hermetic wisdom is borne out by numerous state-
ments and references they make, see, e.g., the 52nd epistle on Magic, Talismans and
the Eye, Ikhwān al-sˢ afāʙ 1928, IV:461f.; references to Pythagoras, Hermes Trismegistos,
Aristotle and other pre-Islamic philosophers are scattered throughout their epistles; for
a general overview on the Brethren of Purity, whose provenance, identity and dating are
still debated among scholars, see Nasr 1964, 25–95; Hamdani 1996, 145–52.
kun—the existence-bestowing word in islamic mysticism 47

an intriguing passage shows the Brethren’s attempt to knit together the
Neoplatonic system of hypostatic emanations, a system they upheld,
with the Qurʙānic notion of creation by the imperative kun. Tus, in a
rather curious manner, the Brethren describe the process of creation as
a relay of kun from one ‘hypostasis’ to another. In their description they
also make an analogy between this creative process and the faculty of
speech—of human speech in general and of the prophetic discourse in
particular. Tey write:
Te Active Intellect is the face of God that does not change and does
not cease . . . it is the frst manifestation. Since this is so, it behooves that
this should be the place of God’s word by which He created things as He
wished. Its light spread and Its bounty emanated upon what was beneath it,
and thus the Universal Soul became the face of the Active Intellect . . . Ten
[appeared] the Prima Materia to which the emanated light and the power
of the word of the frst manifestation became attached . . . Ten the Uni-
versal Face appeared, and this is the highest sphere. It shone and took
its appropriate position according to the order requisite by Divine Wis-
dom . . . and by the unceasing attachment of the . . . word to the frst limit
and its successive, ceaseless, timeless emanation upon it . . .
Command and prohibition are in the same position as the heart with
regard to what descends upon it from the spiritual senses, as God has said:
“Te trustworthy spirit has brought it down upon your heart that you may
be one of the warners, in a clear Arabic tongue” (26:193–195). Te spirit
descends upon the heart, and then the power attaches itself to the tongue,
whose place is the face, and from it, by speech (nut ˢ q), commands and pro-
hibitions issue. By command (i.e., by kun) existents come into being, and
by speech sayings which report of what was and of what will be become
articulated. Te power which is attached to the heart is similar to the fre
of the word that is united by the command (= the creative kun) with the
Source of Life. When the spirit descended upon the heart by [or with?] the
First Agent (= the active, or universal, intellect), it attached itself to its face;
it then spoke out kun, and what the Creator wished was. Ten the frst face
shone and executed the command and creation appeared. Ten the sec-
ond face took its position (i.e., its rank in the emanative order) and it, too,
spoke out the command that was thrown upon it by the frst [face], and
what was below it came to be. Hence the word kun became constructed
of two letters: the kāf is connected with the upper realm within the limit
of the frst face, and the nūn descends into the lower [realm of] entities,
which issues from the frst one: this is the kāf that brings to completion
(as alluded to by kamāl = perfection, completion?) and which leads to the
best of all states . . .
ˇˠȇ ̞̥Ǵ ȅ˅̟ ˅̫̤ȇ ǙȃȇқǪ ǽǪ˰ˈҝǪȇ . . . ȃȇ˴̽ ҟȇ ȃ̸˩̻ ҟ ȉ˱̤Ǫ ̣ˡȇ ˴̉ ߸Ǫ ̴ˡȇ ̸̵ ȃ˅̤̋̚Ǫ ̣̝̤̋Ǫ . . .
ˑ̭˅̟ȇ Ṷ̴̈̌ȇdz ˅̫̙̀ ʏdz̸ˠ Ǻ˅̙Ǧȇ ʏǵ̸̭ Ȉ˲˸̙ . . . Ǥ˅˺ ˅̫̟ Ǥ˅̾̑˺қǪ ̧̛˭ ˅̶ˈ ̺˕̤Ǫ Ǯ ߸Ǫ ː̧̫̟ ̸̪̈̀ ȅ̸̢̽ ȅǦ
48 sara sviri

Te hermeneutic strategy used at the end of this passage, namely, the
breaking down of kun into its consonantal components in order to
draw out of each component the ‘meaning’ concealed within it, displays
a technique that was widely used by Islamic mystics and exegetes. Al-
Tirmidhī, as has been previously shown, used it prolifcally alongside
other techniques in developing the ‘science’ which he named ʚilm al-
awliyāʙ—the science, or knowledge, of the Friends of God. Islamic tradi-
tions in general, not necessarily mystical traditions, show that exegetes,
from early on, used this technique, or referred to it, especially in their
attempts to decipher the enigmatic letters that appear at the beginnings
of certain Qurʙānic sūras.
In Islam, this hermeneutical technique does
not seem to have acquired a specifc technical term; al-Tˢ abarī, the most
celebrated Qurʙān commentator of the ninth century, whose commen-
tary adduces much of the exegetical material accumulated up to his time,
mentions several attempts at reading these letters as acronyms and, con-
sequently, of various attempt at deciphering the message encoded in the
acronym. Al-Tˢ abarī himself (d. 310/923) does not commit himself to
accepting any one of these propositions, but refers to the letters under
consideration as “lexical letters which, in distinction to ordinary speech
where letters are combined, God lef isolated (muqat ˢ t ˢ aʚa) in order to
̩˙ . . . ȃȇқǪ ǽǪ˰ˈҝԴ ː̧̢̫̦Ǫ ǭ̸̜ȇ ʏǵ̸̭ ˿̙̀ ˅̶ˈ ̣˾˕̫̤Ǫ ̹̤ȇқǪ ̸̶̹̤̤̾Ǫ ̩˙ . . . ȃ˅̤̋̚Ǫ ̣̝̤̋Ǫ ̴ˡȇ ː̧̢̦̾Ǫ ˶̰̤̚Ǫ
ȄǪȇdzȇ . . . ː̵̾ҟҟǪ ː̢̫˩̧̥ ˇˠ̸̫̤Ǫ ̴ˈ ̛ʿҠ̤Ǫ ̴̸̪̋̀ ̺̙ ˇ˒ ˲˔ȇ ȁ˲˺ʻ̙ Ǚ̧̹̊қǪ ̧̞̤̚Ǫ ̸̵ȇ ̧̢̺̦Ǫ ̴ˡ̸̤Ǫ Ǫ˰ˈ
˅̪ȇ ˇ̧̝̤Ǫ ː̤˴̱̫ˈ ̶̺̖̰̤Ǫȇ ˲̪қǪ ȅǪȇ . . . ȅ˅̪Ƕ Ҡˈ ȄǪȇ˰̤Ǫȇ ˲˔Ǫ̸˕̤Դ ̴̧̾̊ ̴˕̀˅̙Ǩȇ ȃȇқǪ ˰˪̤Դ ː̧̢̫̦Ǫ ˰̻̾ʻ˒ ȃ˅˾˒Ǫ
̬̽ǵ˱̰̫̤Ǫ ̬̪ ȅ̸̢˕̤ ̞ˋ̧̜ ̧̹̊ ̬̪̿қǪ DZȇ˲̤Ǫ ȃ˴̯» :̣ˡȇ ˴̉ ߸Ǫ ȃ˅̜ ˅̫̟ Ǚː̭̾˅˨ȇ˲̤Ǫ ǷǪ̸˩̤Ǫ ̬̪ ̴̤̾Ǩ ̂˩̰̻
̶̺̖̰̤Ǫȇ ˲̪қǪ ̴̰̉ ǵ˰˾̻ȇ ̴ˡ̸̤Ǫ ̴̭˅̢̪ȇ ȅ˅˸̧̥Դ ǭ̸̝̤Ǫ ̣˾˕˒ ̩˙ ˇ̧̝̤Ǫ ̧̹̊ ȃ˴̱˒ DZȇ˲̤˅̙ Ǚ“̬̿ˍ̪ ̺̖ˈ˲̉ ȅ˅˸̧ˈ
ˇ̧̝̤Դ ː̧˾˕̫̤Ǫ ǭ̸̝̤Ǫȇ Ǚȅ̸̢̽ȇ ȅ˅̟ ˅̫̪ ǵ˅ˍˬҝǪ ̪̈ Ǯҟ̸̝̫̤Ǫ ̩˕˒ ̛̰̤̄Դȇ ǙǮԷ̸̢̫̤Ǫ ȅ̸̢˕˒ ˲̪қ˅ˍ̙ Ư̰̤̈̌̄Դ
ː̧̢̦̾Ǫ ˶̰̤̚Դ ̣̝̤̋Ǫ ǵԶǥ ȃ˅˾˒Ǫ ̣˜̫̟ ˅̶̧˞̪ :133 ǹ> ǭ˅̾˩̤Ǫ ǽ̸ˍ̱̻ ̹̤Ǩ ˲̪қԴ ǭ˰˪˕̫̤Ǫ ː̧̢̫̦Ǫ ǵԷ ̣˜̫̟ ˅̶̧˞̪
̛̲̙̄ ̴̶ˠ̸ˈ ˑ̧˾˒Ǫ ȃ˅̤̋̚Ǫ ȃȇқԴ ˇ̧̝̤Ǫ ̧̹̊ DZȇ˲̤Ǫ ˑ̤˴̯Ǧ ǪǴʽ̙ <̬̠ ȃ̸̝̤Դ ̛̲̙̄ ̴̶ˠ̸ˈ ˑ̧˾˒Ǫ ̩˙ Ǚː̤̾ȇқǪ
̺̭˅˜̤Ǫ ̴ˡ̸̤Ǫ ˇ˒ ˲˔ ̩˙ Ǚȅ̸̢̦Ǫ Ǫ˰ˍ̙ ˲̪қԴ Ȅ˅̜ȇ ȃȇқǪ ̴ˡ̸̤Ǫ ȁ˲˺Ǧȇ ̴̭˅˪ˋ̑˷ Ȉǵ˅ˋ̤Ǫ Ǥ˅˺ ˅̪ ȅ˅̢̙ ̬̠ ȃ̸̝̤Դ
ː̧˾˗̪ Ȁ˅̢̦˅̙ Ǚ̬̙̿˲˧ ̬̪ ː̰̾ˍ̪ ̬̠ ː̧̫̟ Ǯǵ˅˾̙ Ǚ̞̥Ǵ ȅȇdz ˅̫̪ ȅ˅̢̙ ȃȇқǪ ̬̪ ̴̤̾Ǩ ̧̹̝̫̤Ǫ ˲̪қԴ ̛̭̄ȇ
̬̉ ː̻dzԴ <̣̚˷қǪ :133 ǹ>̣̚˷Ǧ ̹̤Ǩ ː̄˩̲̪ ḛ̸̤̏Ǫȇ ȃȇқǪ ̴ˡ̸̤Ǫ ˰˪ˈ ̵̺ȇ Ǚ≮̧̤̋Դ :133 ǹ> Ȩ̸̤̏̋Դ
̣̚˸̤Ǫ ̹̤Ǩ ̸̧̤̋Ǫ ̬̉ ː˜̋ˋ̲̪ Ȁ˅̢̦Ǫ ̸̵ȇ :133 ǹ > . . . ȃǪ̸˧қǪ ̣̙́Ǧ ̹̤Ǩ ̧̌ˋ̫̤Ǫȇ ̢̣̫̫̤Ǫ Ȁ˅̢̦Ǫ ̸̵ȇ ǙȃȇқǪ
Ȁ˲̃ȇ ˰̫˕̑˸̼ Ȁ˲̃ Ǚ̬̙̿˲̃ ȇǴ ̺̭˅˜̤Ǫ ȅǨ ̣̜̀ ̞̥˱̤ȇ Ǚ̺̭˅˜̤Ǫ ̴ˡ̸̤Ǫ ̵̺ȇ ˅̵˲ˬǥ ̵̺ ː̝̰̄ˈ ː̋ˠǪǵ
<. . . ˰̫̻, Ikhwān al-sˢ afāʙ 1995, V: 357–9, cf., 132f. (note also the insertions of variant
readings, 133); for al-Tirmidhī’s breakdown of kun into its consonantal components (for
him the kāf signifes kaynūna, existence, and the nūn—nūr, light), see Sviri 2002, 216; cf.
also Kubrā’s deconstruction, above, 41.
See, e.g., Sahl al-Tustarī’s (d. 283/896) commentary to 2:1: “a-l-m—this is the name
of God the most sublime; it contains meanings and attributes which those whose under-
standing is by Him know” (. . . ̴ˈ ̶̩̤̚Ǫ ̵̣Ǧ ˅̶̙˲̻̋ Ǯ˅̚˽ȇ ȅ˅̪̋ ̴̙̀ ̣ˡȇ ˴̉ ߸Ǫ ̩˷Ǫ—̩̤Ǫ), al-
Tustarī 1991, 8; for more details, see Sviri 2002, 213f.
kun—the existence-bestowing word in islamic mysticism 49

demonstrate that each of them contains several meanings.”
Te her-
meneutic technique based on deciphering obscure consonantal clusters,
however, is much older than the Muslim third/ninth century commen-
tators. In fact, it echoes a technique which was used for encoding, as well
as for short-hand, in pre-Islamic systems. It is well-known from rabbinic
literature, which itself has borrowed it from ancient Mesopotamian
scribal and hermeneutical traditions. Te technical term for it in Jewish
sources is notariqon, and in rabbinic hermeneutic literature it is listed
among the measures by which the Torah is interpreted.
Other attempts
to decipher the enigmatic letters in the Qurʙān relied on ‘numerology,’
the science of adding up the numerical value of letter combinations in
order to infer from it encoded information. Tis science is known in the
Islamic sources as hˢ isāb al-jumal (or al-jummal) and in Jewish sources
as gematria. In early Islam this technique was known to be mastered
by Jews. According to early Islamic traditions, Jews were consulted as
experts in order to decipher the meaning encoded in the enigmatic let-
ters; or, in the context of the Jews of Medina’s polemics against nascent
Islam, Jews were said to ofer such encoding voluntarily and, in doing so,
they predicted a short-lived reign for the followers of Muhˢ ammad.
Tese observations show that the understanding of the esoteric
aspects of language in Islam may beneft from viewing it within a com-
parative and historical framework.
IV. Te Breath of the Compassionate
Te most elaborate system of thought which brings God and man
together in the context of the creative power inherent in language is
ofered by Ibn al-ʚArabī in the thirteenth century. Ibn al-ʚArabī’s bold,
ofen daring, thoughts concerning language, letter mysticism and the
creative power of speech are dispersed in many of his works; occasion-
ally they seem to have been scattered haphazardly, as it were, without
See al-Tˢ abarī 1988, I:93: Ȁȇ˲˧ ̵̺ ̺˕̤Ǫ ǵ̸˸̤Ǫ ˦˒˅̪̚ ̣̻ȇʻ˒ ̺̙ ȉ˰̰̉ ȃ̸̝̤Ǫ ̬̪ ǬǪ̸˾̤Ǫȇ”
̣˾˕̫̤Ǫ ȄҠ̢̦Ǫ ˲ˁ˅˸̠ ˅̶̧̋ˣ̙̀ ˿̋ˋˈ ˅̶́̋ˈ ̣˾̻ ̩̤ȇ ː̝̪̋̄ ˅̙ȇ˲˧ ˅̶̧̋ˠ ʏǧ˅̰˙ ̣ˡ ߸Ǫ ȅǦ ̩ˣ̫̤̋Ǫ
.“˰˨Ǫȇ ̹̰̪̋ ̧̹̊ ҟ ǭ˲̿˜̟ ȅ˅̪̋ ̧̹̊ ̴̲̪ Ȁ˲˧ ̢̣ˊ ː̤ҟ˰̤Ǫ ̴̧̇̚ˈ dzǪǵǦ ʏ˲̠Ǵ ˴̉ ̴̭қ Ȁȇ˲˩̤Ǫ
For the Mesopotamian antecedents of this rabbinic technique, see Liebermann1987,
157–225; my thanks go to Prof. Moshe Idel for this reference.
See, e.g., the traditions related by the early exegete Muqātil ibn Sulaymān (d.150/
767) in his commentary to Qur. 2:1, Muqātil ibn Sulaymān 1979, I: 83–7 and especially
85; cf. also al-Tˢ abarī 1988, 92–3; for the use of this technique by the early Shīʚites in order
to predict the termination of the Umayyad rule, see Bar-Asher 1999, 212–3.
50 sara sviri

any obvious context, almost as though their author wished to play them
down, or even make them inconspicuous, especially when they could be
understood as related to magical acts.
Nevertheless, a comprehensive
and systematic discussion on language and its creative power is ofered
in chapter One Hundred Ninety Eight of the Futūhˢ āt al-makkiyya; it is
entitled “Concerning the Knowledge of Breath.” Te breath, nafas, is a
seminal theme in Ibn al-ʚArabī’s system of thought. First and foremost,
it is a divine act; as such, Ibn al-ʚArabī names it the Breath of the Com-
passionate, Nafas al-rahˢ mān. God’s Breath is the releasing, merciful act
through which existence burst forth out of the divine Hiddenness. For
Ibn al-ʚArabī creation is seen not only as God’s word, or words, but also
as the product of God’s exhalation: existents, which were held within
God’s Hiddenness in stressful suspension and latency, are released into
existence through his exhaling attribute of rahˢ ma, Compassion. Inher-
ently, this creative breathing out is associated with the divine kun.
Human speech, in which breath is the operating mechanism, refects, or
is refected by, this divine act of breathing out. Tus, in human beings,
too, before letters and words are articulated, they exist as latent essences
within the vapor with which man’s entrails are flled before breath or
language form. Speech, therefore, is the ultimate feature by which man
bears likeness to God: inasmuch as man articulates separate sounds
by breathing them out, and, when combined, these sounds become
meaningful words and statements, so also God “breathes out” creation
through the overfow of generosity and love; hence, as we have seen, the
countless existents are all “God’s words”:
Letters issue from the breath of the human breather, who is the most perfect
of all created formations; all letters appear through him and by his breath.
He is thus on the divine form, namely, [the form of] the breath of the
Merciful. Te emergence of the ‘letters of existents’ and [the emergence]
of the ‘world of words’ is the same. He has assigned them to the human
breath as twenty-eight letters which afrm what issued from the breath of
the Merciful: the essences of the divine words are twenty eight; each word
has faces.
Tey have issued from the breath of the Merciful, which is the
ʚamāʙ, the fog in which God was before He created creation.
See, e.g., n. 59.
Te Arabic li-kull
kalima wujūh may, simply, mean “each word has aspects,” that is,
“meanings”—it can thus be understood in the context of semantics; note, however, the
use of “face,” wajh, in the cosmogonic context of the hypostatic series of emanations in
the excerpt from the Brethren of Purity cited above, 47; wajh, face, would thus signify
that each of the twenty-eight hypostatic manifestations “faces” the one above it and the
one beneath it.
̫̈̾ˠ ̴˸̰̚ˈȇ Ǯ˲̶̆ ̴ˈȇ Ǯʺ˻̱̤Ǫ ̣̫̟Ǧ ̸̵ ȉ˱̤Ǫ ̺̭˅˸̮ҝǪ ˶̰̚˕̫̤Ǫ ˶
̭ ̬̪ Ȁȇ˲˩̤Ǫ ˑˠ˲ˮ̙”
kun—the existence-bestowing word in islamic mysticism 51

Ibn al-ʚArabī goes on to enumerate the ‘twenty-eight’ divine ‘words’
which were breathed out by God from the fog (ʚamāʙ) in which, pri-
mordially, He was.
Tis for him is analogous to the humid vapor that
precedes speech. Te frst four ‘words,’ in Neoplatonic fashion, are the
Intellect (ʚaql which is also called “the Pen”, al-qalam), the Soul (nafs,
also the Tablet, al-lawhˢ ), Nature (t ˢ abīʚa) and the Primordial Matter
(habāʙ, literally, dust). From here follows a list of twenty-four other cos-
mic and earthly ‘hypostases,’ i.e., worlds, or words, although not neces-
sarily in the order in which they came into existence.
Te list includes
angels (in the twenty-ffh position), Jinns (in the twenty-sixth), humans
(in the penultimate, twenty-seventh position) and, lastly, the martaba,
the ‘degree,’ ‘level’ or ‘rank’. Tis curious idiom, which Ibn al-ʚArabī
explains as “the end goal ( ghāya) of every existent,” seems to refer to
the principle of purpose, of the telos, of each and every being, as well
as to the principle of order and hierarchy upon which existence is built.
In the parallel world of cosmic spheres and human sounds (or letters),
the frst divine “word,” the Intellect, is refected in the sound ‘h,’ which
is the frst distinct sound that comes out of the breath when it fows
out without being hindered by any articulation point; the last “word” in
the existential order, the martaba, is refected in the sound ‘w,’ which is
labial, and therefore the farthest from the source of the breath. Between
the two phonetic extremities lie the rest of the “letters”; their sounds
are determined by the articulation points (makhārij, maqāt ˢ iʚ) where
the breath is blocked before it moves on. When the frst and the last
sounds are combined, they make out the word ̸̵, huwa, “he”—the third
person singular. As the breath moves along the articulation passage, it
˅̶̧̟ȇ ǙǤǪ̸˷ Ǯ˅̧̢̫̦Ǫ ̩̤˅̊ȇ Ǯ˅̰ʿ˅̢̦Ǫ Ȁȇ˲˧ ǵ̸̶̆ȇ Ǚ̺̭˅̫˧˲̤Ǫ ˶
̚ȍ ̰̤Դ ː̶̤̾ҝǪ ǭǵ̸˾̤Ǫ ̧̹̊ ȅ˅̢̙ ǙȀȇ˲˩̤Ǫ
̬̽˲˻̉ȇ ˅̭̾˅̫˙ ː̵̾ҟҟǪ Ǯ˅̧̢̫̦Ǫ ȅ˅̾̉Ǧ ̺̭˅̫˧˲̤Ǫ ˶̰̤̚Ǫ ̬̪ ǵ˰˽ ˅̫̤ ː̝̝˩̪ ˅̙˲˧ ̬̽˲˻̉ȇ ː̭̾˅̫˙, ̺̭˅˸̮ҝǪ ˶̰̤̚Ǫ
“̧̛˯̤Ǫ ̧̛˯̻ ȅǦ ̣ˍ̜ ˅̰ˈǵ ̴̙̀ ȅ˅̟ ȉ˱̤Ǫ Ǥ˅̫̤̋Ǫ ̸̵ȇ ̬̫˧˲̤Ǫ ˶̭̚ ̬̉ ǵ˰˾̙, ʏ̸ˠȇ ː̧̫̟ ̢̣̦, ː̧̫̟, Ibn
al-ʚArabī 1994, IV:43.
For the tradition “God was in a fog” (kānallāh
fī ʚamāʙ), see Al-Tirmidhī 1934, XI:
273 (min tafsīr sūrat Hūd); also al-Tˢ abarī 1964, I:34; for Ibn al-ʚArabī, the ʚamāʙ, literally
fog, is analogous to the vapor, bukhār, which is formed from the moistness of the ele-
ments and which precedes human breath and the letters that it produces.
Ibn al-ʚArabī writes that, in the same way that one enumerates letters as a-b-g-d-h-
w-z etc., and not according to the order of their articulation points, so also his listing of
the world’s constituents simply lists their names, and is not intended as an exposition of
the order by which they came into being ̺̙ ˰˾̜ ˅̫̟ ʏdz̸ˠȇ ˇ̿˒ ˲˔ ҟ ̩̤˅̤̋Ǫ Ǥ˅̫˷Ǧ ˲̠Ǵ Ǯ˰˾̜ȇ)
(ǰǵ˅˯̫̤Ǫ ̺̙ ˅̵dz̸ˠȇ ˇ̿˒ ˲˔ ҟ Ȁȇ˲˩̤Ǫ ˲˾˧ . . . ̺̄˧ Ƕ̸̵ ˰ˤˈǦ, Ibn al-ʚArabī 1994, IV:44.
52 sara sviri

carries with it from sound to sound the characteristics and powers of
each previous sound. Ibn al-ʚArabī infers, therefore, that the word huwa
(̸̵) = he, in which the frst hāʙ (ʏ) and the last wāw (ȇ) are combined,
possesses the cumulative power of all letters. Tis, to be sure, alludes to
the huwiyya (ː̸̵̻), the divine Ipseity; which, by means of this phonetic
analogy, is shown to be both the most inclusive and the most power-
ful of all existents.
By analogy, all this alludes to the power that man
holds: since man, in Ibn al-ʚArabī’s cosmogony, is the last in the chain
of breathed-out entities (apart from the martaba, or ghāya, the principle
of telos that pertains to each and every level and entity), man, necessar-
ily, contains the cumulative power of all other existents. He is thus the
most perfect and most powerful of all entities on all levels of being; he
is, in fact, the goal and aim of existence as such.
Te wāw, too, due to
its being the most external and least subtle of all letters, is, paradoxically,
the most perfect and most powerful of all letters.
And here Ibn al-
ʚArabī inserts, casually, feetingly, one of his comments concerning the
efcacy of words and says: “For he who knows how to execute a ‘deed’
by means of letters, it is the same with regard to the ‘deed’ ”—the deed,
no doubt, is the magical, or talismanic, act; to the one who knows how
to perform such an act by means of using the correct letters, the wāw, it
would appear, carries a particular signifcance.
“Ҡ̙̋ Ǥ˅̾̑˺қǪ ̩̇̉Ǧ ː̸̶̻̤Ǫ ˑ̭˅̟ Ǫ˱̶̧̙ ǙǮ˅̧̢̫̦Ǫ ̩̤˅̊ ̺̙ Ȁȇ˲˩̤Ǫ Ȉ̸̜ ̫̈̾ˠ ˑ̫̋ˠ ̸̵ ː̧̢̫̙”;
for the esoteric signifcance of huwa in earlier Sˢ ūf lore, cf. al-Sarrāj 2001, 79: “It has been
said that the Great Name of God is Allāh, for when the letter A is removed, LLH remains
[which means “to God”]; and when the L is removed, LH remains [which means “to
Him”], so the allusion [to God] does not fall of; and when the second L is removed, the
H remains [which is the third person pronoun]—and all secrets are [contained] in the
H, as it means He . . .” ȅǪȇ ߸ ̹̝ˋ̻ ̘̤қǪ ̴̰̉ ˇ̵Ǵ ǪǴǨ ̴̭қ ̩̇̉қǪ ߸Ǫ ̩˷Ǫ ߸Ǫ ȅǨ ˅̻́Ǧ ̣̜̀ ˰̜ȇ)
Ǥ˅̶̤Ǫ ̺̙ ǵǪ˲˷қǪ ̫̈̾ˠȇ Ǥ˅̵ ̹̝ˋ̙̀ ˲ˬҙǪ ȄҠ̤Ǫ ̴̰̉ ˇ̵Ǵ ȅǪȇ ǭǵ˅˺ҝǪ ˇ̵˱˒ ̧̩̙ ̴̤ ̹̝ˋ̻ ȄҠ̤Ǫ ̴̰̉ ˇ̵Ǵ
.(̸̵ ʏ˅̰̪̋ ȅҟ
̺̙ dz̸ˠ̸̪ ̣̟ ǭ̸̜ ȅ˅˸̮ҝǪ ̺̙̚ ǙǷ˅̲ˠқǪ ̺̙ ː̶̤̾ҝǪ Ǯ˅̧̢̫̦Ǫȇ ˶̰̤̚Ǫ ː̻˅̎ ˲ˬǥ ȅ˅˸̮ҝǪ ̞̥˱̟ȇ”
“. . . ˇ˒Ǫ˲̫̤Ǫ ̫̈̾ˠ ̴̧̙ ̩̤˅̤̋Ǫ
“Ȁȇ˲˩̤Ǫ ̣̫̟Ǧ ȇǪ̸̤Ǫȇ ǮǪdz̸ˠ̸̫̤Ǫ ̣̫̟Ǧ ȅ˅˸̮ҝǪ ȅ˅̢̙”, Ibn al-ʚArabī 1994, IV:45; for
the signifcant invisibility of the wāw—the middle letter in the root k-w-n, the verb of
existence—in the imperative form kun, see IV:57; cf. al-Hˢ akīm al-Tirmidhī’s notion of
“defcient letters”, Sviri 2002, 217; cf. Ibn al-ʚArabī 1948, 5: “the wāw contains the char-
acteristics and powers of all letters because, when the air reaches its articulation point,
the wāw does not appear in its own essence only; rather, the air moves through all the
[preceding] articulation points and [the wāw] therefore receives the power of all letters.”
̞̥Ǵ ̺˻̫̻ ̹˗˧ ̴ˡ˲ˮ̪ ̺̙ ǤǪ̸̶̤Ǫ ǽ˅̝̭̄Ǫ ˰̰̉ ̴̰̾̉ ˲̶̻̇ ҟ ̴̭қ ˅̵Ǫ̸̜ȇ ˅̶̧̟ Ȁȇ˲˩̤Ǫ ǹǪ̸ˬ ȇǪ̸̤Ǫ ̺̙̚)
.(Ȁ˲˧ ̣̟ ǭ̸̜ ̬̪ ̴̙̀ ̣˾˩̙ ˅̶̧̟ ǰǵ˅˯̫̤Ǫ ̫̈̾ˠ ̧̹̊ ǤǪ̸̶̤Ǫ
“Ȁȇ˲˩̤Դ ̣̫̤̋Ǫ Ȁ˲̻̋ ̬̪ ˰̰̉ ̣̫̤̋Ǫ ̺̙ ̵̺ Ǫ˱̟ȇ”, Ibn al-ʚArabī 1994, IV:45; concerning
kun—the existence-bestowing word in islamic mysticism 53

V. Bismillāh
Chapter Hundred Ninety Eight of the Meccan Revelations “On the
Knowledge of the Breath” is a remarkable source from which to glean
esoteric speculations concerning letter mysticism in Islam in general
and in Ibn al-ʚArabī’s system in particular. Te elaborate discussion on
kun, its creative power, its connections with the Breath of the Merci-
ful, the hierarchical order of breathed-out existents and, by analogy, of
human breathed-out letters and words, is only a prelude to a long and
elaborate study by Ibn al-ʚArabī of what is the culmination of speech:
sacred formulae of praise of God as well as supplication to God and the
divine names. Before ofering a list of chapter-headings on the various
topics that he is going to discuss, Ibn al-ʚArabī refers briefy to kun again
and says:
Since mentioning His names is the quintessence of praise, we have men-
tioned in this chapter what for us is the same as the word kun for Him,
namely, the basmala (= the formula bismillāh, “in the name of God”).
God’s people say: “For us, in bringing acts into existence, the bismillāh is
in the same stance as kun is for Him.”
Further on, in the fourth section of the ensuing exposition on sacred
formulae and divine names, Ibn al-ʚArabī ofers the following insight
into the basmala:
Te basmala is your saying bismillāh (= in the name of God). For the
worshipper this is the word of the Presence of existence
and of bringing
things into existence; its stance is equivalent to the word of the Presence

when He says kun. When the worshipper acts truthfully by it, what
becomes afected by kun becomes afected by the basmala. It is as though
he is saying: In the name of God existence appears! Tis reveals the truth
of the genuine beloved’s relationship [with God]: God is his ears and his
tongue, and, hence, what comes about by kun, comes about by him (or by
the basmala).
the efcacy of the wāw, cf. the hint inserted in Risālat al-mīm wal-wāw wal-nūn, Ibn
al-ʚArabī 1948, 10: “he who fathoms the secrets of wāw [knows that, or knows how to
make] the supernal spiritual entities descend by it in a noble way” (ǵǪ˲˷Ǧ ̧̹̊ ̘̜ȇ ̬̫̙
˅̻̚˲˺ ҟ˴̱˒ ̧̹̤̋Ǫ Ǯ˅̭̾˅˨ȇ˲̤Ǫ ˅̶ˈ ȃ˴̱˒ ȇǪ̸̤Ǫ); in this interesting Epistle, Ibn al-ʚArabī explains why
he is prudent when it comes to discussing the efcacious aspects of letters, 8.
“̴̲̪ ̬̠ ː̤˴̱̫ˈ ȃ˅̙̋қǪ dz˅ˤ̻Ǩ ̺̙ ˅̲̪ ߸Ǫ ̩˸ˉ ȅǨ”. Ibn al-ʚArabī 1994, IV:47; see also above,
“Presence” translates the Arabic hˢ adˢ ra, which, in Ibn al-ʚArabī’s terminology, refers
to a “level,” “plane,” “domain” of being, see Chittick 1989, 5 passim.
When hˢ adˢ ra is introduced on its own with no qualifcation it, usually, denotes
the Presence par excellence, i.e., the Divine Presence.
Ǚ“̬̠” ̴̸̤̜ ̺̙ ǭ˲́˩̤Ǫ ː̧̫̟ ː̤˴̱̫ˈ ̸̢̬̽˕̧̥ ȅ̸̢̦Ǫ ǭ˲́˧ ː̧̫̟ ˰ˋ̧̥̋ ̸̵ȇ ߸Ǫ ̩˸ˉ ̸̞̥̜ ː̧̫˸ˌ̤Ǫ”
54 sara sviri

Te somewhat equivocal phrase “in bringing acts into existence” of the
frst passage is elucidated by the purport of the second passage: Ibn al-
ʚArabī clearly refers in both passages to the extraordinary ability, dis-
played by certain people—to wit, prophets and the Friends of God—to
bring things into existence through the power of the basmala. However,
from further amplifcation of prophets’ and holy men’s acts, it becomes
evident that all their activities, be they basic bodily functions, daily acts
of worship, or supernatural feats such as reviving the dead and bringing
inanimate objects to life—all are enacted in an extraordinary, indeed
unique manner. When such men are considered, Ibn al-ʚArabī suggests,
it is evident that all their activities are done through God’s agency. By the
phrase “God is his ears and his tongue” Ibn al-ʚArabī alludes to an extra-
Qurʙānic divine tradition (hˢ adīth qudsī), ubiquitous in Sˢ ūfī writings and
attested also in canonical literature. Tis tradition is known as hˢ adīth
al-nawāfl, the tradition concerning supererogatory acts, and it under-
scores Islamic theory of the Friends of God and their miraculous deeds;
in fact, it ofers the key to the extraordinary power displayed by proph-
ets and holy men: since they are utterly devoted to God and absorbed
in His worship, their relationship with God becomes one of reciprocal
love; in this love relationship God, as it were, acts through them in every
sense of the word, in their mundane as well as in their extraordinary
It is a mystical union that overrides mystical experiences. In
one of its most authoritative versions, this tradition runs as follows:
. . . My servant does not come close to Me by means of anything I like bet-
ter than the prescribed commandments; yet he goes on coming closer to
Me by means of supererogatory acts until I love him; and when I love him
I become his ears by which he hears, his eyes by which he sees, his hand
by which he hits, his leg by which he walks. If he asks Me for anything, I
shall surely give it to him; if he asks refuge in Me, I shall surely give him
My refuge. . . .
̸̶̙ Ǚȅ̸̢̦Ǫ ǵ̸̶̆ ȅ̸̢̽ ߸Ǫ ̩˸ˉ :ȃ̸̝̻ ̴̭ʻ̢̙ Ǚ̬̠ ̬̉ ̣̰̻̋̚ ˅̪ ˅̶ˈ ̛̝˩˒ ǪǴǨ ː̧̫˸ˌ̤Դ ˰ˋ̤̋Ǫ ̬̉ ̣̰̙̋̀̚
“̬̠ ̬̉ ȅ̸̢̽ ˅̪ ̴̰̉ ȅ̸̢̙̀ Ṷ̴̈̌˅˸̤ȇ ̴̫̋˷ ̛˩̤Ǫ ȅ˅̟ Ǭ̸ˋ˩̪ ȁ˰˽ ˅̶ˈ ȅ˲˖̜Ǫ ː̝̝̀˧ ̬̉ ǵ˅ˍˬǨ, Ibn
al-ʚArabī 1994, IV:54f.
To this unique love, cf. Ibn al-ʚArabī 1994, I:482–3.
̹˗˧ ̣̙Ǫ̸̰̤Դ ̺̤Ǩ Ǭ˲̝˕̻ ȉ˰ˋ̉ ȃǪ˴̽ ˅̪ȇ Ǚ̴̧̾̊ ˑ̀˲˖̙Ǫ ˅̫̪ ̺̤Ǩ ˇ˧Ǧ Ǥ̺˻ˉ ˰ˋ̉ ̺̤Ǩ Ǭ˲̝˒ ˅̪ȇ . . .”
̺˻̫̻ ̺˕̤Ǫ ̴̧ˡǵȇ ˅̶ˈ ˹̄ˋ̻ ̺˕̤Ǫ ʏ˰̻ȇ ̴ˈ ˲˾ˋ̻ ȉ˱̤Ǫ ʏ˲˾ˈȇ ̴ˈ ̫̈˸̼ ȉ˱̤Ǫ ̴̫̋˷ ˑ̡̰ ̴˕ˋˍ˧Ǧ ǪǴʽ̙ Ǚ̴ˍ˧Ǧ
“. . . ̴̭˱̊қ ̺̖ˈ Ǵ˅̋˕̑˷Ǫ ̬˃̤ȇ ̴̰̾̄̉қ ̺̰̤ʻ˷ ȅǪȇ Ǚ˅̶ˈ, see al-Bukhārī 1908, IV:231.
kun—the existence-bestowing word in islamic mysticism 55

Ibn al-ʚArabī now refers to one of the Qurʙānic passages that relate a
miracle of revival: Jesus’ breathing into an inanimate fgure of a bird and
bringing it to life. Verse 110 of Sūra 5 lists, in fact, a series of miracles
committed by Jesus:
Ten Allāh said: “O ʚĪsā son of Maryam! Tell of My favors to you and to
your mother: I supported you with the Holy Spirit so that you spoke to
the people in infancy and in manhood; I taught you the Book and the
Wisdom, the Torah and the Gospel; and when you made out of clay, as
it were, the fgure of a bird, by My permission, and you breathed into it,
and it became a bird, by My permission; and you healed the blind and the
lepers, by My permission; and you brought forth the dead, by My permis-
sion; and when you showed the Children of Israel clear signs, I restrained
them from [doing harm] to you, but the unbelievers among them said: It
is clear magic.
Tese undisputed miracles provide Ibn al-ʚArabī with a platform from
which to assert that the recurring Qurʙānic idiom “by My permission”
(bi-idhnī) is, in fact, equivalent to the idiom “by My command” (bi-amrī)
and, evidently, also to the formula “by the name of God (bismillāh), that
is, by “My Name”; and since God’s command, as we have seen, is to
say to a thing Be! (kun) and it is, then this command, when issued by
a tongue which is activated by God—which, in fact, is God’s—has the
same efcacy as when God speaks it directly:
“By My permission” means “by My command”; since I was your tongue
and your eyes, things came to be by you which are not within the power
of the one through whose tongue I do not say [Be!]. In both cases (i.e.,
whether it is directly through My saying or yours), the bringing into exis-
tence belongs to Me. And bism
-llāh is the quintessence of kun.
Te resurrection of the dead and the other miraculous deeds of Jesus
are pondered also in chapter ffeen of Ibn al-ʚArabī’s Fusˢ ūsˢ al-hˢ ikam
(“Te Gemstones of Wisdoms”), the chapter which is devoted to the
prophetic wisdom of Jesus. Te discourse on Jesus revolves around the
Qurʙānic account of his miracles in general, but special place is given to
the revival of the clay fgure of the bird. Jesus’ birth is in itself a miracu-
lous event. Naturally, it is associated with the fact that he is God’s Word
ȃ̸̜Ǧ ҟ ̬̫̤ ǭǵȇ˰̝̫ˈ ˑ˸̤̿ ̺˕̤Ǫ Ǥ˅̾̑˺қǪ ̞̰̉ ˑ̸̢̭˔ Ȃ˲˾ˈȇ ̞̭˅˸̤ ˑ̡̰ ˅̫̤ Ǚȉ˲̪ʻˈ ȉǦ ̺̭Ǵʽˈ”
“.̬̠ ̬̿̊ ߸Ǫ ̩˸ˌ̙ Ǚ̺̤ ̬̤̿˅˪̤Ǫ ̺̙ ̸̢̬̽˕̤˅̙ Ṷ̴̈̌˅˸̤ ̧̹̊, Ibn al-ʚArabī 1994, IV:55; it is worth
referring here to Appendix B, where Ahˢ mad al-Rifāʚī is described as reviving fried fsh
commanding them to arise “by God’s permission.”
56 sara sviri

and also with the fact that he was breathed into Mary; he is “His Word
that He threw into Maryam and a spirit from Him” (4:171). Te asso-
ciation of Jesus with “word” and “spirit” also connects him with God’s
command. “ʚĪsā,” says Ibn al-ʚArabī, “came [out into the world] to revive
the dead, for he was a divine spirit. Te revival [however] was God’s and
the breathing was Jesus’. ”
And also: “Te power to revive and heal that
ʚĪsā possessed came from the fact that Gabriel breathed him [while] in
the form of a man, therefore ʚĪsā [too] revived the dead in the form of
a man. If Gabriel had not come in the form of a man but in a diferent
form, then ʚĪsā would not have revived unless he were clothed in that
form and came out with it.”
Te point that Ibn al-ʚArabī is making
becomes apparent when we juxtapose the statement, “In both cases (i.e.,
whether it is directly through My saying or yours), the bringing into
existence belongs to Me,” with the statement “Te revival [however] was
God’s and the breathing was Jesus’.” It also transpires from the statement,
“When he revived the dead, it was said about him ‘he/not he’. ”
Te apophatic statement “he/not he” is characteristic of Ibn al-ʚArabī’s
portrayal of the aporia that arises from the quandary who, in fact, is the
actor in such miraculous deeds. Ibn al-ʚArabī ponders this aporia and
poses the following question: When the creative kun, by which existents
come into being, is performed by a prophet or by a holy man—should
the creative act be ascribed to [the unknowable] God and, therefore, its
quiddity would remain unknowable? Or is it the case that God descends
upon the ‘form’ of him who says kun, in which case saying kun is the ‘truth’
of the human ‘form’ upon which God has descended and in which it has
To put it in a simpler way: who is the one who ‘breathes out’
the existence-bestowing kun? Is it God in His essence—which is hid-
den and unknowable—or is it God in the ‘form’ of the human breather?
Some mystics, says Ibn al-ʚArabī, uphold the frst opinion; others uphold
“̹˸̤̿̋ ˫̰̤̚Ǫȇ ߸ Ǥ˅̀˧ҝǪ ȅ˅̟ȇ Ǚ̵̺ҟǦ DZȇǵ ̴̭қ ̹˒̸̫̤Ǫ ̺̖̾˩̻ ̹˸̿̊ ǰ˲ˮ̙”, Ibn al-ʚArabī
1946, 139.
̹˒̸̫̤Ǫ ̺̖̾˩̻ ̹˸̿̊ ȅ˅̟ȇ ˲˻ˌ̤Ǫ ǭǵ̸˽ ̺̙ ̣̻˲ˌˡ ˫̭̚ ː̶ˠ ̬̫̙ ǤǪ˲ˊҝǪȇ Ǥ˅̀˧ҝǪ ǭ̸̜ ̬̪ ̴̙̀ ȅ˅̟ ˅̪ȇ”
̹˗˧ ҟǨ ̺̖̾˩̻ ҟ ̹˸̿̊ ȅ˅̢̦ . . . ˅̵˲̿̎ ǭǵ̸˽ ̺̙ ̹˒Ǧȇ ˲˻ˌ̤Ǫ ǭǵ̸˽ ̺̙ ̣̻˲ˌˡ Ǯʻ̻ ̩̤ ̸̤ȇ Ǚ˲˻ˌ̤Ǫ ǭǵ̸˾ˈ
“˅̶̙̀ ˲̶̻̇ȇ ǭǵ̸˾̤Ǫ ̧̞˕ˈ ˶ˌ̧˕̻, ibid., 140.
“̸̵ ҟ ̸̵ ̹˒̸̫̤Ǫ ̴ʿ˅̀˧Ǩ ˰̰̉ ̴̙̀ ȃ˅̝̻ ȅ˅̢̙”, ibid., 141.
ˇ˸˩ˈ ̴̤̾Ǩ ː̧̢̫̦Ǫ ˇ˸̱˒ ̶̣̙ .߸Ǫ ː̧̫̟ ̬̠ȇ Ǚ̬̠ ̬̉ ˅̶̭ʽ̙ Ǚ˰̰̚˒ ҟ ̺˕̤Ǫ ߸Ǫ Ǯ˅̧̫̟ ˅̶̧̟ ǮǪdz̸ˠ̸̫̤˅̙”
ǭǵ̸˾̤Ǫ ̧̞˕̤ ː̝̝̀˧ ̬̠ ȃ̸̜ ȅ̸̢̙̀ ̬̠ ȃ̸̝̻ ̬̪ ǭǵ̸˽ ̹̤Ǩ ̹̤˅̋˒ ̸̵ ȃ˴̱̻ ȇǦ Ǚ˅̶˕̵̾˅̪ ̧̩̋˒ Ҡ̙ ̴̧̾̊ ̸̵ ˅̪
“ǣ˅̶̙̀ ˲̶̆ȇ ˅̶̤̾Ǩ ȃ˴̯ ̺˕̤Ǫ , ibid., 142; note the echoes that one can detect here of the dicta
attributed to Sahl al-Tustarī adduced earlier—cf. above, 45.
kun—the existence-bestowing word in islamic mysticism 57

the second, and still others remain perplexed and unknowing. In fact,
he says, the truth of this question can only be known and determined by
‘taste’ (dhawq, i.e., by direct mystical experience). To amplify this point,
he relates an anecdote concerning an act of “revival” performed by Abū
Yazīd [al-Bist ˢ āmī], a celebrated ninth-century mystic. Abū Yazīd, the
story goes, inadvertently killed an ant. Full of sorrow he breathed into
the ant and it came back to life. “He immediately knew,” states Ibn al-
ʚArabī, “who the breather was, so he breathed. Tus he was in the line of
Ibn al-ʚArabī’s solution here, as elsewhere, is apophatic. It is both
Abū Yazīd and not-Abū Yazīd who performed the miraculous revival.
Abū Yazīd, indeed, performed the breathing into the dead creature and
it was revived, but it was God’s breath which breathed through him. For
Ibn al-ʚArabī, such an act exhibits the ultimate and most intimate rela-
tionship between man, as the perfect man (al-insān al-kāmil), and God
as Creator. God is, indeed, the breather, and man is the vehicle through
which the divine breath operates in the world; but this does not mean
that the man who breathes is nothing more than a mechanical, instru-
mental vehicle. “He is,” as has been cited above, “on the divine form,
namely, [the form of] the breath of the Merciful.”
Te perfect man is
thus the accomplished human “form” that is “on the divine form.” His
breathing and command, too, acted out in the plane of human existence,
are creative and existentiating; without such “forms,” or, in other words,
without accomplished human beings such as prophets and the friends of
God, divine acts would not be made manifest. In the last resort, the “he/
not he,” according to Ibn al-ʚArabī’s formula, is the core of the science of
the holy men; it is also the solution, hovering in perplexity between the
“yes” and the “no,” to the quandary regarding these extraordinary deeds
performed by extraordinary men via speech and breath.
VI. Conclusion: Some Methodological Considerations
Te study of language as a creative power in Islam is exceedingly
complex and ofers many dimensions that have yet to be chartered. It
ҟȇ ˲̪қǪ ̺̙ ǵ˅˪̻ ̶̩́̋ˈȇ Ǚ˲ˬҙǪ Ȁ˲̤̄Ǫ ̹̤Ǩ ̶̩́̋ˈ Ǚ˰˨Ǫ̸̤Ǫ Ȁ˲̤̄Ǫ ̹̤Ǩ ˇ̵˱̻ ̬̙̿ǵ˅̤̋Ǫ ˿̋ˍ̙”
̞̥Ǵ ˰̰̉ ̧̩̙̋ ˑ̿̾˩̙ ˅̶̧˗̜ ̺˕̤Ǫ ː̧̫̰̤Ǫ ̺̙ ˫̭̚ ̬̿˨ ˰̻˴̽ ̺̖ˈ˅̟ ˅̜ȇǴ ҟǨ Ȁ˲̋˒ ȅǦ ̢̬̫̻ ҟ ː̤ʻ˸̪ ʏ˱̵ȇ .ȉǵ˰̻
“˰̶˻̫̤Ǫ ȉ̸˸̿̊ ȅ˅̢̙ ˫̲̙̚ ˫̰̻̚ ̬̫ˈ—see, Ibn al-ʚArabī 1946, 142; Ibn al-ʚArabī considered
himself, too, to be a walī in the line of Jesus—on the friends of God who are in the line
of Jesus, see Chodkiewicz 1993, 76f.
See above, 50f., Ibn al-ʚArabī 1994, IV:43.
58 sara sviri

brings to mind the Qurʙānic verse, 18:108, ofen quoted in association
with the immeasurable dimension of the divine words: “Say: if the sea
were ink for the words of my Lord, the sea would be exhausted before
the words of my Lord are exhausted—even if we bring another sea to its
aid.” In the attempt to chart the impact of powerful language in Islam,
especially in its esoteric context, the ink has not yet been exhausted. Te
range of speculations on the correlation of divine and human speech, and
the creative power that such a correlation implies, is vast; the dialectical
strategies employed in order to reconcile human creative power with
the rejection of any trace of theosis—especially in a comparative context
(e.g., versus the Christian saint, the Jewish Zaddik or, for that matter,
the Shīʚite imām)—this, too, is a subject that requires further research.
In this paper I have tried to pursue several key notions within the works
of a few seminal fgures who were engaged in pondering the nexus of
language, creation and power, be it divine or human. Te authors whose
speculations I have cited in this paper—Te Brethren of Purity, Abū
Hˢ ātim al-Rāzī, Ibn al-ʚArabī, as well as al-Hˢ akīm al-Tirmidhī, [Pseudo-]
Sahl al-Tustarī and Najm al-Dīn Kubrā—ofer remarkable views on lan-
guage and its mysteries; so much so that each of them would merit a
separate in-depth study. Te most exemplary, even heroic, study dedi-
cated to one Islamic personality, or to the collective literary corpus that
bears his name—a corpus that contributed immensely to linguistic eso-
tericism in both Sˢ ūfsm and Shīʚism—is, no doubt, Paul Kraus’s study of
Jābir ibn Hˢ ayyān.
For the pursuit of the multidimensional implications
of language—scientifc, magical, creative, theurgic; in particular, for its
implications and use within almost all pre-Islamic religious and philo-
sophical systems of the Near East in Late Antiquity; and, consequently,
for assessing the abiding vitality of language speculations and practices
in the esoteric scene in Islam—for all these aspects Kraus’s work, both
as exemplum and data base, is indispensable. By focusing, for this paper,
on kun and equivalent formulae of creative power, it has become evident
to me that, for the study of esoteric language in Islam, two distinct per-
spectives should be employed in tandem, as has been masterfully done
by Kraus; the one: the comparative-historical perspective on the fow
of esoteric ideas and techniques from one culture to another and the
developmental lines that these ideas then took in Islam; the other: the
thematic and terminological study of the various components of these
techniques and ideas. Both perspectives call for interdisciplinary and
See Kraus, 1942.
kun—the existence-bestowing word in islamic mysticism 59

interactive efort, built on sound philological grounds. As the material
exhibited in the Appendix indicates, interactive efort is called for also
for studying the phenomena of power, in particular the power of the
friend of God, within the history of Islam itself. From a historical, devel-
opmental aspect, the material used here suggests to me that the notion
of the human potential to use language as a tool for creation, a notion
that reverberates with ideas prevalent in late-antiquity, can still be heard
in early Islamic traditions (second/eighth—third/ninth centuries); then,
during the phase that produced the classical Sˢ ūf compilations (fourth/
tenth—ffh/eleventh centuries), such echoes become so dissonant with
the concept of the oneness and totality of the divine power, that they
are silenced out; they resurface, however, in the phase during which the
Sˢ ūf Brotherhoods emerge and with them also the growing power of
the Sheikh of the t ˢ arīqa (sixth/twelfh century onwards). Te material
collected for this paper has convinced me that in studying the emer-
gence of the Sˢ ūf Brotherhoods in the twelfh-thirteenth centuries, to
take this one historical example, the esoteric subtleties concerning prac-
tices, techniques, enigmatic dicta, speculation and terminology, which
the texts reveal, should be assessed along with the relevant historical and
sociological data culled from them. Questions concerning the grow-
ing power of the Sheikh and its impact on his followers, as well as on
Islamic society at large, would thus beneft from a multifaceted platform
of study and discussion—a platform that is wider-ranging than has been
commonly envisaged or taken up so far.
To sum up: questions concerning the creative power of the walī, to
the point of assuming the divine act of creating by kun, open up for
the researcher comparative avenues of historical, phenomenological,
anthropological, philosophical, as well as literary and philological char-
acter. Te material that has been culled here, limited by the constraints
of the presentation as well as by the limitations of the presenter, has
exposed the signifcance of such a wide-ranging research for a better
understanding of the phenomena of spiritual power in mystical Islam
and their development. As we have seen, these phenomena are not
simply antiquated pieces of information; rather, in the landscape of con-
temporary polemics within Islam, they are part and parcel of a vital and
public discourse concerning spiritual and religious power.
60 sara sviri

Proofexts concerning the power of the walī to existentiate by kun and by
its equivalents.
A. Al-Rifāʚī, Al-burhān al-muʙayyid, 1408h., pp. 124–26:
Dear men! When you seek help by means of God’s servants and friends, do not
regard this help and succor as coming from them, for this is idolatry; rather,
ask God [to grant you] what you need by His love for them; [for the tradition
says:]: “Many unkempt, dust-covered, tattered men, who are driven away at the
doors—were they to adjure God, He would grant them [their request]” (this
tradition is reported by Ahˢ mad [ibn Hˢ anbal] in his musnad, by Muslim [in his
sunan] and by others).
God gives them power to operate on existents, makes
essences transform for them, and, by His permission, makes them say to a thing
Be and it is. ʚĪsā, peace be with him, created a bird out of clay by God’s permis-
sion, revived the dead by God’s permission. Our prophet and beloved, the mas-
ter of all masters of prophets, Muhˢ ammad, may peace and the best of prayers be
with him, a trunk of a tree inclined towards him and inanimate objects greeted
him; in him God brought together all the miracles (muʚjizāt) that He had dis-
persed among the rest of the prophets and messengers. Ten the secrets of his
miracle (muʚjiza) were carried on in the friends [of God] of this people; for
them they became graces (karāmāt) that are transient, while with him, may
peace be with him, [there remains] the abiding miracle (i.e., the Qurʙān).
O, my child! O, my brother! If you say, “God, I ask you by Your Compassion,”
it is as though you say, “I ask you by the ‘friendship’ of your servant Sheikh
Mansˢ ūr” or another one of the friends; for friendship (wilāya) is a special privi-
lege (“by His compassion He privileges whom He wishes”—Qur. 2:105, 3:74);
therefore, beware of ascribing the power of the Compassionate to the one for
whom he has compassion: the deed and the power and the might are His, praise
be to Him; yet the liaison (wasīla, literally: means, medium) is His compas-
sion by which He has privileged His servant the walī. Terefore, when in need,
approach him [the walī] by God’s compassion and the love and protection with
which He has privileged the choicest from among His servants, but afrm God’s
oneness in every deed, for He is [a] jealous [God].
References to authoritative Hˢ adīth collections have been probably inserted by the
editor/s or copyist/s.
Te Qurʙān is considered the most extraordinary and inimitable of all miracles that
were vouchsafed on prophets; this is why, with regard to Muhˢ ammad, al-Rifāʚī reverts to
talking of a “miracle” (muʚjiza) in the singular; it is obviously the power of this unique
miracle, the Qurʙān, God’s word, which runs through the awliyāʙ and allows them to
commit marvelous deeds, karāmāt.
Tis double-edged theology of miracles and human power is reminiscent of Ibn
al-ʚArabī’s discussion—see above, 53f.
kun—the existence-bestowing word in islamic mysticism 61

̢̬̦ȇ ǙȂ˲˺ ̞̥Ǵ ȅ˅̙ ̶̩̲̪ ː˙˅̎ҝǪȇ ː̸̭̫̤̋Ǫ Ǫȇ˰̶˻˓ Ҡ̙ ̴ʿ˅̤̾ȇǦȇ ߸Ǫ dz˅ˋ̋ˈ ̩˕̰̋˕̑˷Ǫ ǪǴǪ !ǭdz˅˷ ȉǦ
̧̹̊ ̩˸̜Ǧ ̸̤ ǬǪ̸ˈқԴ ǽ̸̙˰̪ <̬̽˲̫̃ ȉǴ >˲ˌ̎Ǧ ˘̋˺Ǧ Ǭǵ” :̶̩̤ ̴˕ˋ˩̫ˈ ˟ʿǪ̸˩̤Ǫ ߸Ǫ ̬̪ Ǫ̸ˋ̧̃Ǫ
ʏ˲̜Ǧȇ ̩̟ˆ˪̤Ǫ ː̻Ǫȇǵ ̬̪ <̬̽˲̫̃ ȉǴ> ː̧̫̟ȇ Ǚ̧̩˸̪ȇ ʏ˰̰̑˸̪ ̺̙ ˰̫˧Ǧ Ȅ˅̪ҝǪ ʏǪȇǵ> .“ʏ˲ˊқ ߸Ǫ
.<ː̧̾˪̤Ǫ ̺̙ ̩̭̾̋ ̺̖ˈǦȇ ̺̖ˋ̵˱̤Ǫ
Ƿ ǽ ̹˸̿̊ .ȅ̸̢̙̀ ̬̠ Ǥ̺˻̧̥ ̴̭Ǵʽˈ ȅ̸̸̤̝̻ ̶̧̩̋ˠȇ ȅ˅̾̉қǪ ̶̩̤ ˇ̧̜ȇ ȅǪ̸̠қǪ ̺̙ ߸Ǫ ̶̩̙˲˽
˰̫˩̪ Ǥ˅̀ˌ̭қǪ ǮǪdz˅˷ ˰̾̑˷ Ǚ˅̲ˌ̾ˍ˧ȇ ˅̲̿ˋ̭ .߸Ǫ ȅǴʽˈ ̹˒̸̫̤Ǫ ̹̖̀˧Ǧ Ǚ߸Ǫ ȅǴʽˈ ̬̤̿̄Ǫ ̬̪ Ǫ˲̿̃ ̧̛˭
ȁ˲̚˒ ˅̪ ̴ˈ ߸Ǫ ̫̈ˠȇ . . . . ̴̧̾̊ ǮǪdz˅̫ˣ̤Ǫ ˑ̧̫˷ȇ . . . ̴̤̾Ǩ ǽ˱ˤ̤Ǫ ̬˧ ȄҠ˸̤Ǫȇ ǭҠ˾̤Ǫ ̣̙́Ǧ ̴̧̾̊
˲̫˒ Ǯ˅̪Ǫ ˲̠ Ǥ˅̤̾ȇҜ̤ ̶̺̖̙ ̴˗̪Ǧ Ǥ˅̤̾ȇǦ ̺̙ ̴˒ ˴ˣ̪̋ ǵǪ˲˷Ǧ Ǯ˲ˠȇ .ǮǪ˴ˣ̫̤̋Ǫ ̬̪ ̧̬̿˷˲̫̤Ǫȇ Ǥ˅̀ˌ̭қǪ ̺̙
.˲̫˕̑˸˓ ǭ˴ˣ̪̋ ȄҠ˸̤Ǫ ̴̧̾̊ ̴̤ȇ
Ȃ˰ˋ̉ ː̻ҟ̸ˈ ̞̥ʻ˷Ǧ :ˑ̧̜ ̞̭ʻ̢̙ ̞˕̫˧˲ˊ ̞̥ʻ˷Ǧ ̺̭Ǩ ̶̧̩̥Ǫ :ˑ̧̜ ǪǴǨ !̺ˬǦ ȈǦ !ȉ˰̤ȇ ȉǦ
,105:2) <Ǥ˅˻̼ ̬̪ ̴˕̫˧˲ˊ ˼˕ˮ̻> :ǹ˅˾˗ˬǪ ː̻ҟ̸̤Ǫ ȅқ ǙǤ˅̤̾ȇқǪ ̬̪ ʏ˲̿̎ȇ ǵ̸˾̲̪ ˫̾̑˻̤Ǫ
ː̧̾̑˷̸̤Ǫȇ Ṷ̴̈̌˅˪ˋ̑˷ ̴̤ ȃ̸˩̤Ǫȇ ǭ̸̝̤Ǫȇ ̣̤̋̚Ǫ ȅ˅̙ ǙȄ̸˧˲̫̤Ǫ ̹̤Ǩ ̩˧Ǫ˲̤Ǫ ǭǵ˰̜ Ǥ˅̄̉Ǩȇ ȂԹǨ ǙǪǴʽ̙ .(74:3
̴̤̾Ǩ ʏdz˅ˋ̉ ǹǪ̸ˬ ˅̶ˈ ˼˗ˬǪ ̺˕̤Ǫ ̴˕̻˅̰̉ȇ ̴˕ˋ˩̪ȇ ̴˕̫˧˲ˊ Ǭ˲̝˗̙ Ǚ̸̺̤̤Ǫ ʏ˰ˋ̉ ˅̶ˈ ˼˗ˬǪ ̺˕̤Ǫ ̴˕̫˧ǵ
.ǵ̸̾̍ ̸̶̙ ̣̙̋ ̣̟ ̺̙ ʏ˰˨ȇȇ Ǚ̞˗ˠ˅˨ ˰̰̉
B. Al-Sˢ ayyādī Muhˢ ammad, Qilādat al-jawāhir f dhikr al-ghawth al-Rifāʚī wa-
atbāʚihi al-akābir, Beirut 1301, p. 73:
A man asked Sheikh Ahˢ mad al-Rifāʚī: What characterizes the ‘established’ man
(i.e., the man who has reached stability in his friendship with God)?
He said: He is given the comprehensive power to operate on all existents.
He asked him: And what is its sign?
He said: He would say to the lefover of these [fried] fsh here, “Arise, by God’s
permission, and move on,” and they would arise and move on.
Ten the Sheikh pointed to the frying pan that he was holding in his hand and
said: O fsh, arise and move on, by God’s permission!
No sooner had he said these words than those lefovers jumped into the sea like
wholesome fsh.
:̴̤ ȃ˅̜ .̛ʿҠ˯̤Ǫ ̫̈̾ˠ ̺̙ Ȅ˅̤̋Ǫ ̘̻˲˾˕̤Ǫ ̹̻̄̋ ȅǦ ̸̵ :ȃ˅̜ ǣ̢̬̫˕̫̤Ǫ ̣ˡ˲̤Ǫ ː̚˽ ˅̪ :̣ˡǵ ̴̤ ȃ˅̝̙
̩˙ .̹̋˸˓ȇ Ȅ̸̝˗̙ ̺̋˷Ǫȇ ̹̤˅̋˒ ߸Ǫ ȅǴʽˈ ̸̺̪̜ Ȃ˅̫˷қǪ ʏ˱̵ Թ˅̝ˋ̤ ȃ̸̝̻ ȅǦ :ȃ˅̝̙ ǣ̞̥Ǵ ː̪Ҡ̊ ˅̪ȇ
߸Ǫ ȅǴʽˈ Ǫ̸̋˷Ǫȇ Ǫ̸̸̪̜ ̬ˠǬ̸̤Ǫ ̺̙ ̺˕̤Ǫ Ȃ˅̫˷қǪ ˅̶˕̻Ǧ :ȃ˅̜ȇ ʏ˰̾ˈ ̬ˠǬ̸̤Ǫ ̧̞˒ ̹̤Ǩ ˫̾̑˻̤Ǫ ǵ˅˺Ǧ
.ː˪̾˩˽ ˅̟ˆ̫˷Ǧ ˲˩ˋ̤Ǫ ̺̙ Թ˅̝ˋ̤Ǫ ̧̞˒ ˑˌ˙ȇ ̹˗˧ ̴̪Ҡ̟ ̩˕̻ ̧̩̙
Tis extraordinary revival story is associated, no doubt, with Qurʙān 5:110, where
Jesus’ miracles are enumerated, and where the phrase “by God’s permission” recurs sev-
eral times, see above, 55; clearly, it is also reminiscent of the miraculous revival of the
fsh in sūra 18: 61, 63; for al-Rifāʚī’s revival of a child, who was trampled to death by Sˢ ūfs
dancing in ecstasy, by saying to him: “Arise, man, sit and pray,” see al-Nabhānī 2001,
62 sara sviri

C. Ibid., p. 145:
Sheikh Ahˢ mad al-Rifāʚī said to Sheikh Shams al-Dīn Muhˢ ammad, may God
sanctify his heart: O Muhˢ ammad, the seeker will not attain that which he seeks
unless he withdraws from his lower-self, from the acquired habits of the senses,
and from all desires, permitted or otherwise. Ten God will give him the power
to operate on the existence of His existents and worlds. When he gives him
power to operate on the existence of His existents and worlds, He gives him
power to operate on absolute existence; and when He gives him power to oper-
ate on absolute existence, then his command becomes God’s command, so that
when he says to a thing Be, it is.
ʏdzǪ˲̪ ̹̤Ǩ ˰̻˲̫̤Ǫ ̣˾̻ ҟ ˰̫˩̪ ȉǦ :ʏ˲˷ Ƿ˰̜ ˰̫˩̪ ̬̽˰̤Ǫ ˶̫˺ ˫̾̑˻̧̥ ̴̰̉ ߸Ǫ ̺̀ǵ ȃ˅̜ȇ
ȅ̸̠ ̺̙ ߸Ǫ ̴̙˲˾̻ȇ ˅̵˲̿̎ȇ Ǯ˅˨˅ˋ̫̤Ǫ ǮǪ̸̶˻̤Ǫ ̫̈̾ˠ Ȃ˲˖̻ȇ ̴˸˧ Ǯ˅̸̙̤ʻ̪ȇ ̴˸̭̚ ̬̉ ǰ˲ˮ̻ ̹˗˧
ȅ̸̢̦Ǫ ̺̙ ̴̙˲˽ ǪǴǨȇ ̧̛̫̤̄Ǫ ȅ̸̢̦Ǫ ̺̙ Ǯ ̴̙˲˽ ̴̫̤Ǫ̸̉ȇ ʏdz̸ˠȇ ȅ̸̠ ̺̙ ̴̙˲˽ ǪǴǨȇ ̴̫̤Ǫ̸̉ȇ ʏdz̸ˠȇ
. . . ȅ̸̢̙̀ < !Ǫ˱̵̢> ȅ̸̠ Ǥ̺˻̧̥ ȃ˅̜ ǪǴǨ ̹̤˅̋˒ ߸Ǫ ˲̪ʻˈ ʏ˲̪Ǧ ǵ˅˽ ̧̛̫̤̄Ǫ
D. al-Shaʚrānī, ʚAbd al-Wahhāb, Kitāb al-Tˢ abaqāt al-Kubrā, Cairo 1305, vol.1,
p. 141:
He [al-Rifāʚī] used to say: when the worshipper is established in the mystical
states, he attains the place of God’s proximity, and then his [spiritual] intention
(himma) pierces the seven heavens; as for the [seven] earths, they become like
an anklet on his leg; he becomes an attribute of God’s attributes, and there is
nothing that he cannot do. God then is pleased when he is pleased and is dis-
pleased when he is displeased.
He said: what we say is corroborated by what came down in one of the divine
books: God has said: O sons of Adam! Obey me and I shall obey you, choose
me and I shall choose you, be pleased with me and I shall be pleased with you,
love me and I shall love you, observe me and I shall observe you and I shall
make you say to a thing Be! And it will be.
̈ˋ̑˸̧̥ ː̜ǵ˅˭ ̴˕̵̫ Ǯǵ˅˽ȇ ̹̤˅̋˒ ߸Ǫ ̬̪ Ǭ˲̝̤Ǫ ̣˩̪ ̧̌ˈ ȃǪ̸˧қǪ ̬̪ ̢̬̫˒ ǪǴǨ ˰ˋ̤̋Ǫ ȅǨ :ȃ̸̝̻ ȅ˅̟ȇ
Ǥ̺˺ ˴ˣ̻̋ ҟ Ҡ̊ȇ ̣ˡ ̛˩̤Ǫ Ǯ˅̚˽ ̬̪ ː̚˽ ǵ˅˽ȇ ̴̧ˡ˲ˊ ȃ˅˯̧˯̤˅̟ ȅ̸̀ǵқǪ Ǯǵ˅˽ȇ ǮǪ̸̫˸̤Ǫ
:ː̶̤̾ҝǪ ˇ˗̢̦Ǫ ˿̋ˈ ̺̙ dzǵȇ ˅̪ ʏ˅̧̰̜ ˅̫̤ ȃ˰̻ȇ :ȃ˅̜ .̴̄ˮ˸̤ ̂ˮ˸̼ȇ ʏ˅̀˲̤ ̹̀˲̽ ̹̤˅̋˒ ̛˩̤Ǫ ǵ˅˽ȇ
̸̺̭ˍ˧Ǧȇ ̢̩̰̉ ǺǵǪ ̺̰̉ Ǫ̸̀ǵǪȇ ̩̟˲˖˭Ǧ ̺̭ȇǵ˅˗ˬǪȇ ̢̩̋̃Ǧ ̸̺̭̋̾̃Ǧ !Ȅdzǥ ̺̰ˈ Թ :̣ˡȇ ˴̉ ߸Ǫ ȃ̸̝̻
. . . ȅ̸̢̙̀ ̬̠ Ǥ̺˻̧̥ ȅ̸̸̤̝˒ ̢̧̩̋ˠǦȇ ̢̩ˍ̜ǪǵǦ ̸̺̭ˍ̜Ǫǵȇ ̢̩ˍ˧Ǧ
E. Ibid., p. 102
Among them (the Sˢ ūfī Sheikhs) was Mamshādh al-Dīnawarī.
. . . He said: For
the last twenty years I have lost my heart with God; and for twenty years, due
to good manners towards God, I have relinquished saying to a thing “Be!” and
it was. . . .
Mamshādh al-Dīnawarī (d. 299/911), a Persian Sˢ ūf master of the 3rd/9th century;
see on him al-Sulamī 1960, 318–20.
kun—the existence-bestowing word in islamic mysticism 63

One of them said: Te meaning of “I have relinquished saying to a thing Be
and it was” is this: Mamshādh was mujāb al-daʚwa (namely, one whose call to
God is answered); whenever he appealed to God, his call was answered. Even-
tually he lifed all this to God and went along by God’s will not by his own will,
and he stopped therefore appealing to God.
:ȃ̸̝̻ ̴̰̉ ߸Ǫ ̺̀ǵ ȅ˅̟ȇ . . . ȉǵ̸̰̻˰̤Ǫ Ǵ˅˻̫̪ ̶̩̲̪ȇ
˅ˈdzǦ ː̰̑˷ ̬̽˲˻̉ ˱̲̪ ȅ̸̢̙̀ ̬̠ Ǥ̺˻̧̥ ̸̺̤̜ ˑ̠ ˲˔ȇ ̹̤˅̋˒ ̴̧̥Ǫ ̪̈ ː̰̑˷ ̬̽˲˻̉ ˱̲̪ ̺̖ˋ̧̜ Ǯ˰̝̙
. . . ̣ˡȇ ˴̉ ߸Ǫ ̪̈
̈̚˒ ǵǪ ̩˙ Ǚˇ̀ˠǦ ˅̊dz ˅̧̫̟ Ǚǭ̸̉˰̤Ǫ Ǭ˅ˤ̪ ȅ˅̟ ̴̭Ǧ “ȅ̸̢̙̀ ̬̠ Ǥ̺˻̧̥ ̸̺̤̜ ˑ̠˲˔” ̹̰̪̋ :̶̩́̋ˈ ȃ˅̜
.Ǥ˅̊˰̤Ǫ Ȃ˲˖̙ ʏdzǪ˲̫ˈ ҟ ߸Ǫ dzǪ˲̫ˈ ǵ˅˾̙ ̹̤˅̋˒ ߸Ǫ ̹̤Ǩ ̞̥Ǵ ̬̉
F. Ibn ʚAjība, Īqāzˢ al-himam fī sharhˢ al-hˢ ikam,
pp. 488–89:
It is written in the [books of] wisdom: “O, My servant! I have made existence
and all that it includes bow down to you. . . . By My support to you, you are I,
and by what I have conferred on you, I am you; therefore, live forever; none
shall vie for your place.
O, My servant! I have rent the veil for you and have opened the door for you;
I have shown you the most amazing command; give, therefore, [the message]
to your noble people, even if they name you “magician” or “impostor”; I have
given you all created beings—let them say “Tis is nothing but fraud” (38:7).
O, My servant! I have made you say to a thing Be! And it is. Why worry that
they name you “magician” or “madman” when you drink from the nectar of
Kawthar (= a river in Paradise) while they say, “this is nothing but magic of
old” (74:24). . . .
When, in His bounty and kindness, God chooses a servant from among His
servants, He brings him near to Him and elects him to enter the Presence of
His holiness. . . . Tere the servant becomes as one in God and for God, his
command is by God’s command until no feck [of attention] remains in him for
another, and nothing veils him from God. He whom his Lord loves, whom He
elects for the Presence of His holiness . . ., God becomes his ears and his eyes, his
helper and protector in all his circumstances and abodes. . . .
Not surprisingly, the section on Mamshādh in al-Sulamī’s Tˢ abaqāt al-sūfyya does
not record his kun feats; it does record, however, an anecdote according to which by say-
ing “lā ilāha illāllāh” (“there is no god but God”) to a barking dog, Mamshādh brought
about the dog’s death; curiously, this is an example for the destructive rather than the
creative power of language; for the topic of relinquishing kun out of courtesy towards
God, see above, 40; for the discrimination of classical Suf literature, see above n. 16.
Ibn ʚAjība (d. 1809), an 18th-century Sˢ ūfī author who wrote a popular commentary
on the Hˢ ikam (= aphorisms) of Ibn ʚAt ˢ āʙllāh al-Iskandarī, a 13th-century Sˢ ūfī of the
Shādhiliyya brotherhood; the above passage is culled from the commentary to the 9th
section of Ibn ʚAt ˢ āʙllāh’s communication with God (munājāt), which is appended to the
end of the hˢ ikam.
64 sara sviri

:Ǭ̸˗̢̪ ː̢̫˩̤Ǫ ̺̙ȇ
˰ˈҜ̤ ˹̙̋ Ǚ̞˒˰̧̜ ˅̫ˈ ˑ̭Ǧ ԷǦȇ Ǚ̞˒˰̻Ǧ ˅̫ˈ ԷǦ ˑ̭ʻ̙ . . . ̴̙̀ ˅̫ˈ ȅ̸̢̦Ǫ ̞̥ Ǯ˰ˤ˷Ǧ ˰̜ ȉ˰ˋ̉ Թ
.˰˨Ǧ ̴̙̀ ̞̫˧Ǫ˴̽ ҟ ̞̪˅̝̫̙
̸̤ȇ Ǭ˅ˋ̧̥Ǫ ̸̞̪̜ ̧̌ˈʻ̙ ǙǬ˅ˤ̤̋Ǫ ˲̪қǪ ̞̥ Ǯ˲̶̆Ǧȇ Ǭ˅ˋ̤Ǫ ̞̥ ˑ˩˗̙ȇ Ǭ˅ˤ˩̤Ǫ ̞̥ ˑ̜˲ˬ ȉ˰ˋ̉ Թ
.(7:38) “ȁҠ˗ˬǪ ҟǨ Ǫ˱̵ ȅǨ” :ȅ̸̸̤̝̻ ̶̩̉˰̙ ȁҠ˭қǪ ̞˕ˋ̵ȇ ˰̜ Էʻ̙ ǙǬǪ˱̟ ȇǦ ˲˧˅˷ Ǫ̸̤˅̜
̬̪ Ǭ˲˻˓ ˑ̭Ǧ ḛ̸̏ˣ̪ ȇǦ ˲˧˅˷ Ǫ̸̤˅̜ ȅǨ ̧̞̾̊ ˅̪ȇ ȅ̸̢̙̀ ̬̠ Ǥ̺˻̧̥ ȃ̸̝˒ ̞˕̧̋ˠ ˰̜ Ǚȉ˰ˋ̉ Թ
. . . (24:74) “˲˛ʼ̻ ˲˩˷ ҟǨ Ǫ˱̵ ȅǨ” :ȅ̸̸̤̝̻ ̵̩ȇ ˲˛̸̢̦Ǫ ̛̀˧ǵ
̞̥˅̵̰ . . . ̴˷˰̜ ǭ˲́˩̤ ʏ˅ˋ˗ˠǪȇ ̴̧́̚ˈ ̴ˈ˲̜ ʏdz˅ˋ̉ ̬̪ Ǫ˰ˋ̉ ̹̄̚˽Ǫ ǪǴǨ ̴̧̙́ȇ ʏdz̸ˣˈ ̹̤˅̋˒ ߸˅̙
.߸Ǫ ̬̉ ̴ˋˣ˩̻ Ǥ̺˺ ҟȇ ʏǪ̸˸̤ ːˋʿ˅˺ ̴̙̀ ̛ˋ̻ ̩̤ ˘̀˧ ߸Ǫ ˲̪ʻˈ ʏ˲̪Ǧ ߸ȇ ߸Դ ˰ˋ̤̋Ǫ ˲̿˾̻
̴ˋ̧̝˗̪ ̺̙ ̴̙̇˅˨ȇ ʏ˲˽Էȇ ʏ˲˾ˈȇ ̴̫̋˷ ȅ˅̢̙ . . . ̴˷˰̜ ǭ˲́˩̤ ʏ˅̄̚˽Ǫȇ ʏҟ̸̪ ̴ˍ˧Ǧ ȉ˱̤Ǫ Ǫ˱̶̙
. . . ʏǪ̸˞̪ȇ
G. Ibn Abī al-Dunyā, Kitab al-hawātif, p. 32:
Sufyān ibn ʚUyayna related:
During the circumambulation [of the Kaʚba in the Hˢ ajj] I saw a man—hand-
some, well-attired, and towering above the people. I said to myself: It behooves
that such a one will be holding knowledge. I approached him and said: “Would
you teach us something or say something?” He did not answer till he fnished
his circumambulation. Ten he stood by the Prayer Place [of Abraham], prayed
behind it performing two bowings hastily, and then turned to us and said: “Do
you know what your Lord has said?” We said, “What has our Lord said?” Te
one whose name is “the calling voice” (al-hātif ) said: “I am God the King who
does not cease; come to Me and I shall make you kings who do not cease.”
Ten he said: “Do you know what your Lord has said?” We said: “What has
our Lord said?” He said: “I am God the living who does not die; come to Me
and I shall make you the living who do not die.” Ten he said, “Do you know
what your Lord has said?” We said, “What has our Lord said?” He said, “I am
God the King who when I wish a thing, I say to it Be and it is; come to Me and
I shall make you [such that] when you wish [a thing] you will say to it Be and
it will be.”
:ȃ˅̜ .Ƿ˅̰̤Ǫ ̧̹̊ ˅̲̪̾̚ Ǭ˅̾˜̤Ǫ ̬˸˧ ̴ˡ̸̤Ǫ ̬˸˧ ȀǬ̸̤Ǫ ̺̙ Ҡˡǵ ˑ̻Ǧǵ :ː̲̿̾̉ ̬ˊ ȅ˅̀̚˷ ̬̉
̧̩̙ Ǚ˅˄̿˺ ̣̝̙ ˅˄̿˺ ˅̧̰̫̋˒ :̴̤ ˑ̧̝̙ ̴˗̿˒ʻ̙ :ȃ˅̜ .̧̩̊ Ǫ˱̵ ˰̰̉ ȅ̸̢̽ ȅǦ ̺̏ˍ̱̻ :̺˸̭̚ ̺̙ ˑ̧̝̙
:ȃ˅̝̙ ˅̧̰̾̊ ̣ˍ̜Ǧ ̩˙ Ǚ˅̶̫̙̀ ̘̚ˬ ̬̿˕̡̋ǵ ̴̧̚˭ ̧̹˾̙ Ȅ˅̝̫̤Ǫ ̹˒Ǧ ̩˙ Ǚ̴̙Ǫ̸̃ ̬̪ Ǿ˲̙ ̹˗˧ ̧̢̺̰̫̽
ҟ ȉ˱̤Ǫ ̧̞̫̤Ǫ ߸Ǫ ԷǦ” <Ǫ˱̵̢> ̴̫˷Ǫ ̘˒˅̶̤Ǫ ȃ˅̜ ǣ˅̰ˈǵ ȃ˅̜ ǪǴ˅̪ȇ :˅̧̰̜ ǣ̢̩ˊǵ ȃ˅̜ ǪǴ˅̪ ȅȇǵ˰˒Ǧ
ȃ˅̜ ǪǴ˅̪ȇ” :˅̧̰̜ “ǣ̢̩ˊǵ ȃ˅̜ ǪǴ˅̪ ȅȇǵ˰˒Ǧ” :ȃ˅̜ ̩˙ .“ȅ̸̤ȇ˴˔ ҟ ˅̸̧̟̪ ̢̧̩̋ˠǪ ̺̤Ǩ Ǫ̸̶̧̫̙ Ǚȃȇ˴̽
ǪǴ˅̪ ȅȇǵ˰˒Ǧ :ȃ˅̜ ̩˙ “.ȅ̸˒̸̫˒ ҟ Ǥ˅̀˧Ǧ ̢̧̩̋ˠǪ ̺̤Ǩ Ǫ̸̶̧̫̙ Ǯ̸̫̻ ҟ ȉ˱̤Ǫ ̺˩̤Ǫ ߸Ǫ ԷǦ” :ȃ˅̜ “ǣ˅̰ˈǵ
Ǚȅ̸̢̙̀ ̬̠ ̴̤ ȃ̸̜Ǧ Ǫ˲̪Ǧ ǮdzǵǦ ǪǴǨ ȉ˱̤Ǫ ̧̞̫̤Ǫ ߸Ǫ ԷǦ” :ȃ˅̜ “ǣ˅̰ˈǵ ȃ˅̜ ǪǴ˅̪” :˅̧̰̜ “ǣ̢̩ˊǵ ȃ˅̜
.“ȅ̸̢̙̀ ̬̠ Ǥ̺˻̧̥ Ǫ̸̸̤̝˒ ȅǦ ̩˒dzǵǦ ǪǴǪ ̢̧̩̋ˠǪ ̺̤Ǩ Ǫ̸̶̧̫̙
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Stone 1990,

183–4 and Index, s.v. Tis paper is based on research on Adam and Eve
in the Armenian tradition, funded by the Israel Science Foundation.
Teodor and Albeck 1965, §1.1 and 1.10.
Is. 11.4, Wisd. 12.9, 18.15–16, 1 Enoch 62.2, 2 Tes. 2.8 and Odes of Solomon 29.9–
10: cf. Ps. 46.6. See further Stone 1990, 273 and 385–7.
Michael E. Stone
Te aim of this article is to examine the relationship between naming
and creation, focusing particularly on Adam’s naming of the animals.
Afer presenting the biblical background and a couple of examples from
ancient Jewish thought, we shall proceed to consider some interesting
texts in the Armenian tradition
I. Te Creative Word in Genesis
Jewish thought has assigned a major role in creation to speech and lan-
guage. Tis notion fnds its scriptural underpinning in Genesis 1–2.
Tere are numerous statements in later Jewish thought about how God
creates through speech,
and equally, since the Torah is divine speech,
about how and why he created with the particular words and letters
actually used in Genesis 1.
Such statements issue from consideration
of the frst two chapters of Genesis so the history and development of
this consideration are of great interest. In Jewish literature of the Second
Temple period, the idea occurs of the active divine word that is fulflled
in being uttered.
Tings come into being because they are spoken by
God and it is divine speech that created the world. Here, however, we
shall strive to narrow our focus from speech in general or the active
word to the idea of the name and naming.
II. Creation by God’s Name: Biblical Underpinnings
In language that evokes ancient Canaanite creation myths, Prayer of
Manasseh 1.3 says, following an invocation that partly recalls the open-
ing of the Amida prayer:
70 michael e. stone

Van der Toorn, et al. 1995, 255–63 and further references there; an English transla-
tion of the main text, with interesting notes and commentary, is to be found in Gaster
1961, 114–29 and 153–71.
ὁ πεδήσας τὴν θάλασσαν τῷ λόγῳ τοῦ προστάγματος σου‚ ὁ κλείσας τὴν ἄβυσσον
καὶ σφραγισάμενος τῷ φοβεῷ καὶ ἐνδόξῳ ὀνόματί σου.
Adam’s tomb is sealed with a triangular seal (suggesting the Trinity), see Life of
Adam and Eve 42 (48):1. Compare Mt. 27.66 and Gospel of Peter 28–34 where there are
seven seals on Christ’s tomb.
Scholem 1954, 56; Schäfer 1992, 20–4, 56–8 and see further his Index, s.v.
O Lord Almighty,
God of our ancestors,
of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob
and of their righteous ofspring;
who shackled the sea by your word of command,
who confned the deep and sealed it with your terrible and glorious
Te actions described afer the initial doxology refer to creation. Te
Deity shackles the sea, just as in the Ugaritic myth Baal shackles or kills
He does this by his word of command. In the parallel and, con-
sequently, conceptually identical statement, he shackled the Abyss, the
Tehom, sealing it in with his terrible and glorious name.
Te door of
the sea’s prison cannot be opened, because of the Name’s power.
description of the act of creation draws on mythological sources, yet
it also shows how the name speculation that became so central in later
Jewish mystical thought might have developed.
God’s word imprisons
Chaos; his name is set on the prison door. Tis is not just a statement
about the active word, but that the imprinting of the Name creates cos-
mic order. We will trace the rich heritage of this formulation in a more
modest context and a later period.
To this end, we have chosen to look carefully at the way Adam’s nam-
ing of the animals was understood, particularly by the Armenian tradi-
tion. We believe that such an examination will cast light on the ideas of
word-action and of the efective divine name.
III. Adam Naming the Animals: Te Biblical Basis
Adam was created in the image of God (“And God said, “Let us make
man in our image, afer our likeness” Gen. 1:2) and so, Adam’s act of
naming refects, or perhaps exemplifes, God’s way of naming or creat-
ing, too.
adam’s naming of the animals: naming or creation? 71

It all began in Genesis: where else? Before the “documentary hypoth-
esis”, of course, Genesis chapters 1 and 2 were seen as parts of a single
In chapter 2 there is an interesting sequence of events.
Tere was dry earth and no man to work the soil (Gen. 2.5). God was
moved to create man afer the ground was watered (i.e., so that vegeta-
tion would grow—Gen. 2.6). Ten, God formed (the Greek says ἔπλασεν
“modelled”) man from dust of the earth and blew the breath of life into
his nostrils, so vivifying him (Gen. 2.7). Next, the Edenic Garden was
planted and God put man there (Gen. 2.8). God made vegetation grow,
especially fruit trees (we leave aside the tree of life and of knowledge of
good and evil Gen. 2.9) and took care of irrigation with the four riv-
ers on which there is a little excursus (Gen. 2.9–15). So far, it will be
observed, there are no animals. Adam is put into the Garden to work
it and keep it (note verse 5 above) and he is given the commandment
about the fruit (Gen. 2.15–17). Ten comes the relevant citation: Gen.
2.18 is God’s statement that it is not good for man to be alone, he needs
a partner. So God creates all the animals and the birds and brings them
to Adam to see what he will call them and “whatever the man called
every living creature, that was its name” (Gen. 2.19). Adam named all
the birds and beasts, but no partner was found for him.
As will readily be observed, this sequence of events difers in many
ways from Gen. 1–2.4a. In Genesis 2, afer the creation of Adam there
ensues God’s statement that there was no partner found for him. Only
then does the text narrate the creation of the other living creatures (Gen.
2.19) and it can readily be inferred that those creatures were created in
order to fnd a partner for Adam. By naming, Adam checks them out
for this purpose, and that naming is efective. He cannot recognize his
partner without naming her; he names the animals that have been cre-
ated and does not fnd his partner.
IV. Armenian Understanding of this Sequence
Te chief move of Armenian exegesis of this passage, and not just of
Armenian exegesis, is to connect this story with Genesis 1.26–30.
Te apparent “diferences” or “contradictions” between the two creation stories
were handled in various ways by traditional Jewish and Christian exegesis. For some
examples, see Alexandre 1988, 43–5.
Alexandre 1988, 43.
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26 And God said, “Let us make man in our image, afer our likeness.
Tey shall rule the fsh of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole
earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth.”
27 And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created
him; male and female He created them.
28 God blessed them and God said to them, “Be fertile and increase, fll
the earth and master it; and rule the fsh of the sea, the birds of the sky, and
all the living things that creep on earth.”
29 God said, “See, I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon all
the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; they shall be yours
for food.
30 And to all the animals on land, to all the birds of the sky, and to every-
thing that creeps on earth, in which there is the breath of life, I give all the
green plants for food.” And it was so. (JPS)
Tis passage introduces the ideas of the creation of Adam in the image
and likeness of God, the creation of mankind both male and female, and
the giving of dominion over all the creatures to mankind. Tis is the last
act of the scenario of creation, on the sixth day. How did the ancient exe-
gete ft the two passages, Genesis 1–2.4a and Genesis 2, together, despite
the prima facie tensions between them?
Te oldest theological treatise in Armenian is entitled Teaching of St.
Gregory, and it is embedded in a history of the conversion of Arme-
nia attributed to Agathangelos.
Tere seems no doubt that the work,
which we shall call just “Agathangelos”, was written about the middle of
the ffh century, within half a century of the invention of the Armenian
In the Teaching of St. Gregory §264, the “image of God” from
Genesis 1.27 is understood to be the breath breathed into Adam accord-
ing to Genesis 2.7. Tus Adam received the image with the following
results. First, he had “discernment, rationality, intelligence, spiritual
breath”; second, he had recognition of God; and fnally, he had author-
ity and prescient knowledge.
Focusing on the last phrase frst, Agathangelos says that his knowl-
edge is prescient because he recognized each creature and knew its
Te “authority” that Adam had derived from the prototype of
which he was the image, i.e., God, and was expressed in his authority
Tomson 2001 translates this text with introduction and annotation.
Tomson 1976, “Introduction”. For further bibliography, see Tomson 1995,
On a similar basis, Teaching §275 speaks of Adam’s recognition of Eve (Gen. 2.23–
24, cf. Mt. 19.56 and Mk. 10.78).
adam’s naming of the animals: naming or creation? 73
over vegetation and animals. God made the animals obedient to man,
and man, by his discernment, recognized the essential character of each
beast and so gave its name. Tus, in Adam’s naming and in the qualities
that make that naming possible, Adam is the image of God.
V. Adam Names God
In his next move Agathangelos moves back to the second fruit of the
spirit that was breathed into Adam, that is recognition of God. He
argues that, because Adam could name the animals, he must frst have
known and named—and so proclaimed—the Creator. Tus, and only
thus, could he have known the names of the animals. For this reason,
Scripture says that “God (i.e. the Creator) led all creatures of his cre-
ation to Adam to see what he would call them” (Gen. 2.19). Adam, it
follows, “frst named the Creator, because from whose face he received
life, Him he saw before all others; for the creatures were established to
make known to him the Creator” (§273).
Because God led the animals
to him, he must have recognized God before he recognized and named
the animals. Tat recognition of God is naming. In other words, as it
is put in §264: “For the Lord introduced knowledge and through his
knowledge recognizing His creatures, he was called similar to Him.”

So, the second of the gifs of the spirit also refects Adam’s being in the
image of God.
Here two most interesting notions are introduced. First, that the
divine breath or spirit breathed into Adam gave him discernment, ratio-
nality and knowledge and in this respect he was the image of God. It is
this discernment that enabled him to recognize the animals—not just
to make up their names, but to name them according to their essential
being. Tis point was stressed repeatedly during the following centuries.
David of Ganjak (1060?–1131), also known as David son of Alavik, says
that “Adam gave names conformable to the nature of each animal and
those were found to be their unchangeable names.”
Te name is an
Tomson 2001, 70.
Tomson 2001, 66.
Abrahamyan 1952, 52. Similarly Gregory of Narek (945?–1003), David’s predeces-
sor, in his Commentary on Song of Songs, stresses this point: “Even afer eating the fruit,
he did not totally lose the spirit”. Tis is shown, Gregory maintains, by the fact that
“he arranged names for each of them (the animals) according to its disposition and
74 michael e. stone

expression of the essence or true being of that named, an idea found
widely in human societies.
Adam recognized and knew that name
because he was created in the image and inspired by the spirit that God
breathed into his nostrils.
A commentary on Genesis is attributed to the ffh-century author
Ełišē. It is likely, but not completely certain, that he was the actual author.
In it, we fnd an additional confrontation of Genesis 1 and 2. Genesis
1.30 gives an inclusive list of creatures: “every beast of the earth, and to
every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, every-
thing that has the breath of life”. In the naming pericope, in Genesis 2.19,
only the beasts of the feld and the birds of the heaven are mentioned,
the creeping things are passed over. Ełišē asks:
And why did he add the additional ones (i.e., those added in Genesis 1
to the list in Genesis 2)? Because they were going to receive names and
those who are without names are reckoned with the uncreated, as though
the created come from the uncreated through that (i.e., through receiving
names). “And he brought them to Adam to see what he would call them,
and whatever Adam named every living thing, that was its name.”
Here the creative dimension of naming is made very explicit. Adam can
name true names, which is an act of creation, only because he bore the
image of God.
Te second intriguing idea present in the Teaching is that God could
be visible to humans and audible to humans only if he took on “a visible
likeness and a power of expression”. Otherwise they could not endure
the sight of Him and the sound of His voice. Adam named Him because
he saw His face before he saw any other creatures, “for the creatures
indeed were established to make the Creator known to him” (Teaching
§272). In the background of these statements is, of course, the idea of
the Incarnation: in Creation man was made in the image of God; in the
Incarnation God took on the form of a man.
nature” (Grigor Narekac‘i, 1840, 276–7). All translations of Armenian sources are our
own, unless otherwise specifed. Compare John Milton, Paradise Lost, 8:352–3. “I nam’d
them, as they pass’d, and understood Tir Nature, with such knowledge God endu’d”.
On the importance of naming, see Abba 1962, 500–3, Denny, 1987, 300–1.
Gen. 2.19. Xač‘ikyan 1992, 241.
adam’s naming of the animals: naming or creation? 75

VI. God’s Etymology
At frst glance, the assertion that Adam named God is strange. Of
course, we may recall Exodus 3:13–16 and 6:1–5 where God makes his
name known to Moses, and tells him to use His name in addressing the
people of Israel. But this is not the same, though the idea of God’s proper
name is present. In his Refection on the Holy Liturgy, Nersēs of Lambron
(1153–1198) remarks on the phrase from the Mass “Lord God of hosts
and Creator of all beings”,
First (is) God’s name which people found, (with which) it names him . . . Be-
cause having learned that He alone is Creator of beings, on account of this
we called the Creator of the structures of things God (Armenian: Astuac)
that is “he who brings here (ך׶׸ךקױ׫ [ast acoł]), the non-existent things
to existence and being, (both) the heavenly and earthly.
So Nersēs too says that humans gave God His name.
Now, in fact, the etymology of the Armenian word Astuac (֭׶׸ױ׻ךק)
“God” is not completely certain (one plausible view would take it from
Phrygian Σαβάζιος, etc). Nonetheless, the popular etymology (“He who
brought here”, i.e., “Creator”) referred to by Agathangelos and Nersēs of
Lambron was extremely ancient and widespread. So much so that it is
given as the meaning of Astuac in the great nineteenth-century thesau-
rus of Classical Armenian.
Agathangelos connects this popular etymology with the idea that
when God brought Adam the animals to name, Adam recognized,
i.e., named, Him as the Creator. Terefore the name of God used by
Adam means “he who brings hither”, and thus “Creator”. An interesting
footnote is that the Armenian translation of the Bible renders Exodus
3.16, ! 46 !, “I am who I am”, as « ֱ׶מ׭֭׶׸ױ׻ךקױ׹ֳׯ », I
am Astuac (Te Creator) who IS”, though the Septuagint reads for this
Te phrase is from the Liturgy, from the prayer before the Kiss of Peace: see Nero-
syan, 1984, 68.
ןױײנ׶ׯ׮נױ׻עפ׻ׯ؀פלױ׮ױ׻עפ׻ׯ؀ןמ׹ר׹ך׻ױ׹׶: Nersēs’ remarks on this name “I do
not mean the name of his nature which is glorious and incomprehensible but of his glory
and action.” See Nersēs Lambronac‘i 1842, 81 for both quotations.
In NBH 1837, s.v. it is glossed thus: פכ׹ שך׶׸ך׸פײ, רך׭ ך׶׸ח ؀ ׮ך׶׸פ׶ ךק׾׫,
ך׮׶פׯ׽ׯ׽ױ׮ך׺ױ׻׺פײ, ך׹ך׹פײ, ׶׸מ׫קפ, “like founder, or bringer here or hither, that is
to say, bringer into being, maker, creator.” Ačar֛ yan, in his etymological dictionary, in a
long, detailed article gives an excellent overview of proposed etymologies of the word
supports the Phrygian etymology given above (1971, 1.279–282).
76 michael e. stone

phrase: ἐγὼ εἴμι ὁ ὤν. Te word Astuac is introduced into the Armenian
form of the verse where it is not found in the Hebrew or Greek. Tis wit-
nesses the antiquity and dissemination of this idea.
Te same concept was very much to the fore in the thirteenth cen-
tury for, in his Book of Questions, Nersēs’ later contemporary, Vanakan
vardapet (1181–1251), has the following.
QUESTION: How did he (Adam) give the name?
ANSWER: When He (God) breathed into his face, the eyes of his mind
being opened, he saw God and the fery hosts round about, and he said,
“God!” (Astuac, i.e., bringer forth hither). Ten He (God) brought the ani-
mals forward. He (Adam) gave the name. Te animal, wondering, looked
at him.
Vanakan vardapet clearly states the relationship between Adam’s nam-
ing God and God, by or in accordance with the meaning of His name,
bringing forth the animals so that Adam could give them, to their aston-
ishment, their “true” names.
Knowledge or recognition of names, therefore, is a creative act and
the name of God that is known to humans is “Creator”. Tis name comes
from Adam’s discernment that he is the image of God and the ability to
discern this derives from the inbreathing of the spirit.
VII. Te Late Medieval Ages
In the material we have discussed there, we have ranged from the incep-
tion of Armenian literature to its foruit in the High Middle Ages. It may,
therefore, be appropriate to conclude with two passages from great fg-
ures of the late Armenian Middle Ages. Grigor Tat‘ewac‘i (1344?-1409),
Armenia’s most eminent systematic theological writer, asks in his Book
of Questions (part 53): “Why did Adam give names to all cattle and other
(animals)?” He enumerates a number of answers to this question and we
take up the discussion in the middle:
Answer. . . . Tird, because God had given Adam natural wisdom; He com-
mands (him) to give names in order to demonstrate the best ofspring of
the Word (i.e., mankind). Fourth, in order to show man to be autonomous;
wherefore he commands him to give whatever names he wishes. Fifh, he
gave these animals as help to man, as servants to the(ir) lord; he had to
R. Ervine, personal correspondence.
adam’s naming of the animals: naming or creation? 77

know them by name. Sixth, the benefcent God made Adam companion of
His creation by giving names. Seventh, since he had breathed into him the
breath of grace of various gifs, now he manifested the grace of priesthood
in him. For it is the duty of a priest to give names afer the birth in the font.
Eighth, now he manifested in Adam the grace of prudence and speech and
voice and lordship.
Tus, Grigor Tat‘ewac‘i stresses a series of Adam’s aspects which relate
to his role or status. Te issue of Adam’s autonomy is an old one and his
free will is related to his sin as early as Te Teaching of Gregory.
ship is also present, but so is the theme of creation. Adam gave names,
which means he created and because he created, he was a companion or
partner of God in creation. Consequently he was lord of the creatures he
named and had authority over them. Moreover, Adam gave names just
as a priest gives names in the baptismal font. Baptism is rebirth so here,
again, the theme of creation and recreation recurs.
In the Adam Book of Ar֛ ak‘el of Siwnik‘ (ca. mid-fourteenth century
to ca. 1421) we read:
16 Why did he create Adam later?
And not before everything.
For, if he was image and likeness,
He should have made him frst, with Himself.
17 Because, if he had not created the beings frst,
Where would the frst man have lived?
He formed the earth as a table for him,
And then He summoned and honoured the First one.
18 Ten He brought, He set before him,
A thousand sorts of living beings,
So that if he were pleased with them,
He might take a companion, whom he wished.
19 He took no companion from irrational beasts,
For they were not like him.
But he gave names to the cattle,
Tus one turned and looked at him.
20 When he gave them a name,
Te ftting one to each,
Lowering their heads to the ground to him.
Tey passed by obediently. (Recension 1, Chapter 1).
Grigor Tat‘ewac‘i 1993, 219–20.
Teaching §§277, 279.
Te text may be found in Madoyan 1989, 15; cf. Stone 2007, 87–88.
78 michael e. stone

Ar֛ ak‘el of Siwnik‘ wrote a long epic poem on Adam and Eve from which
the preceding is an extract. He was both nephew and student of the
great theologian, Grigor Tat‘ewac‘i and his uncle’s ideas about naming
infuenced him. What this passage from Ar֛ ak‘el’s Adam Book omits
is as intriguing as what it presents. Ideas about naming and creation,
prominent and developing from Agathangelos to Nersēs Lambronac‘i,
are completely absent. Ełišē’s idea that naming is required for existence,
which has many resonances in other writings, is not taken up. From the
beginning, in Agathangelos, Adam’s image had included an aspect of
authority and mastership (so already Genesis 1:28–30). It is this which
Ar֛ ak‘el of Siwnik‘ discusses almost exclusively. He passes over notions
such as Adam’s naming as the image of God’s creation, Adam’s naming
the animals as the continuation of his naming of God, naming as bring-
ing into being, and so forth. Instead, he stresses the issue of obedience:
a lord or master names and so naming demands obedience. Tis is not
a new idea, of course, and Agathangelos’ words about it bring to mind
Isaiah’s doxological cry:
Lif up your eyes on high and see:
Who created these?
He who brings out their host and numbers them,
calling them all by name;
because he is great in strength,
mighty in power,
not one is missing. (Is. 40:26)
Te biblical sources, however, are submerged in the background in
Ar֛ ak‘el’s poem as he highlights one characteristic of Adam as the image:
his lordly authority. In the search narrative in the apocryphal Peni-
tence of Adam (especially 37(10):1–38(12):3) the beasts’ obedience is
the operative theme. Eve lost it when she sinned, but Seth retained it,
because he was created in Adam’s image and likeness (Gen. 5.3) and so
he could overcome the beast.
Te Penitence of Adam, the Armenian
translation of the primary Adam book, is quite old, and might be of the
sixth or seventh century.
A fnal remark touches on Adam’s naming as a sacerdotal function.
In the seventh reason cited by Grigor Tat‘ewc‘i above, he related Adam’s
Being in Adam’s image, Seth possessed a measure of the image of God.
Anderson and Stone 1997 provide a synoptic edition and translation of the relevant
adam’s naming of the animals: naming or creation? 79

naming to his priestly role. Tis point was made earlier by Vanakan
Question: What did he give to Adam?
Answer: Priesthood in the putting of names, for priests seal the believer at
the font, by calling his name.
Priesthood relates on the one hand to the idea of the primordial high
priesthood, passed on by Adam to the subsequent generations. On the
other hand, it takes up themes related to Christ as priest and sacrifce
that are already developed in the New Testament.
Similar ideas are
expressed by Grigor Tat‘ewac‘i who says that before sinning Adam had
“three gifs: priesthood, royalty and prophecy.” Te priesthood, Grigor
says, was expressed by his naming the animals.
Te theme of naming is a rich one, both from the aspect of history
of thought and from that of the investigation of social categories. More
data could be assembled and further avenues of investigation could be
broached. Yet, what has been said here sufces to indicate certain main
lines of development.
Abba, R. 1962. “Name.” In Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon
Press, 3.500–8.
Abrahamyan, A. 1953. (ed.) “ְך׻פע֭ץך׷רךױ׹םױ׻רךׯױׯׯמ׹ס” (Canons of David Son
of Alvik). Ēj ֝ miacin March:51–63.
Ačar֛ yan, Hr. 1971. ּך׮מ׹מׯ ֭׹׭ך׸ךרךׯ ֮ך׵ך׹ךׯ (Armenian Etymological Dic-
tionary). Rpr. Erevan: Erevan University Press.
Alexandre, M. 1988. Le commencement du livre: Genèse I-V. La version grecque de la
Septante et sa réception. Paris: Beauchesne.
Denny, F.M. 1987, “Names and Naming.” In Te Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. M. Eliade,
New York: Macmillan. Vol. X, 300–7.
Ervine, R. 2000. “Antecedents and Parallels to Some Questions and Answers on Genesis
in Vanakan Vardapet’s Book of Questions.” Le Muséon 113 (3–4):417–428.
Gaster, T.H. 1961. Tespis: Ritual, Myth and Drama in the Ancient Near East. Garden
City: Doubleday.
Grigor Narekac‘i 1840. ֯׹פלױ׹ׂך׹מרך׮׊ךׯפ׺׊ךׯךרךׯפ׀ך׸מׯךל׹ױ׻עפ׻ׯ׽ (Te
Writings of Grigor, Monk of the Monastery of Narek). Venice: Mechitarist Press.
Grigor Tat‘ewac‘i 1993. ֯פ׹׽ּך׹׺׭ךׯ׺ (Book of Questions). Jerusalem: St. James Press
[repr. of Constantinople edition of 1729].
See, for example, Hebrews 2.17–18, 5.1–10.
Sermon for the Saturday before the Fast, chap. 60 in Grigor Tat‘ewac‘i 1998, 275.
Te same exact formulation is found in Yovhannēs Erznkac‘i Corcorec‘i 1825, 316.
Compare Vanakan vardapet cited in Ervine 2000, 435 n. 15.
80 michael e. stone

———— 1998. ֯פ׹׽ אך׹ױןױ׻עמךׯ ױ׹ רױײפ ֽ؃׹ךׯ שך׸ױ׹ (Book of Preaching Called
Winter Volume). Jerusalem: St. James Press [repr. of Constantinople edition of
Madoyan, A. 1989. ֭׵ך׽מץ ׉פ׻ׯמ׺פ ֭םך׭לפ׹׽ (“Adam Book” of Ar֛ ak‘el of Siwnik‘).
Yerevan: Yerevan University Press.
Milton, J. 1935. Paradise Lost. Ed. M.Y. Hughes. New York: Te Odessey Press, Inc.
NBH 1837. Awetik‘ian, G., X. Siwrmēlian and M. Awgerian, ׂױ׹֮ך׵לפ׹׽ּך׮רךןמךׯ
ָמןױ׻פ (New Dictionary of the Armenian Language). Venice: Mechitarist Press.
Nersēs Lambronac‘i 1842. ֹױ׹ש׹םךקױ׻עפ׻ׯ ׶׹כךןךׯ ׳ך׸ך׹ךלפ (Initiation to the
Holy Liturgy). Jerusalem: St. James Press.
Nersoyan, T. 1984. Te Divine Liturgy of the Armenian Apostolic Church. New York:
Delphi Press.
Schäfer, P. 1992. Te Hidden and Manifest God: Some Major Temes in Early Jewish Mys-
ticism. Albany: SUNY Press.
Scholem, G.G. 1941. Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. New York: Schocken.
Stone, M.E. 1990. Commentary on 4 Ezra. Minneapolis: Augsberg-Fortress.
———— 2007. Adamgirk‘. Te Adam Book of Ar֛ ak‘el of Siwnik‘. Oxford: OUP.
Teodor, J. and Ch. Albeck (rev.) 1965. Bereschit Rabba mit kritischem Apparat und
Kommentar. Jerusalem: Wahrmann (in Hebrew).
Tomson, R.W. 2001. Teaching of St. Gregory (rev. ed.). New York: St Nersess Armenian
———— 1995. A Bibliography of Classical Armenian Literature to 1500 AD. Turnhout:
———— 1976. Agathangelos: History of the Armenians. Albany: SUNY Press.
Toorn, K. van der, B. Becking and P. van der Horst 1995. Dictionary of Deities and
Demons in the Bible (DDD). Leiden, New York, Köln: E.J. Brill.
Xač‘ikyan, L. 1992. ֱ׫פװמפ “֭׹ך׹ךקױ׺؃רׯױ׻עפ׻ׯס” (Ełišē’s Commentary on Genesis).
Erevan,: Zvart‘noc‘.
Yovhannēs Erznkac‘i Corcorec‘i 1825. ׀מרׯױ׻עפ׻ׯ ׀ך׸ענױ׶פח ׂמ׹׶פ׶פ ׃ׯױ׹שךץ׻ױ׮
؀ ׁױ׷שךׯׯױ׻ ֱ׹ןׯרך׺׻ױ׮ (Commentary on Matthew of Nersēs Šnorhali and
Yovhannēs Erznkac‘i). Constantinople.
Nilsson 1949, 73; cf. Finkelberg 1998, 105–8.
Margalit Finkelberg
Contrary to what Derrida and others have to say on logocentrism of
the Greeks, one of the salient characteristics of ancient Greek tradition,
both popular and philosophical, was its deep distrust of the ability of
language to express the true order of things. To do justice to the charac-
teristically Greek view of verbal communication or, to be more precise,
the lack of verbal communication with the divine, we have to go as far
back as the myth of creation.
As distinct from the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Greeks saw the
cosmogonic process as proceeding in accordance with the biological
pattern or, as M.P. Nilsson put it, “automatically.”
Rather than having
been “created,” the world was conceived of as having been “born,” or
“developed,” from a limited number of primary elements in what can be
seen as a quasi-evolutionary process. None of the stages of this devel-
opment, represented as a series of births issuing from perpetual inter-
action between the male and the female principles, was accompanied
by the intervention of a transcendental force. Te Greek gods, who did
not create the universe but themselves were “born” in the process of its
development, were conceived of as immanent to the universe and thus
subject to its laws. Tis naturally rules out any idea of a creator who tran-
scends the universe and therefore is free to dictate its laws. Furthermore,
this also rules out the idea of a “divine word” that could precede the act
of creation or be involved in it. Nothing even remotedly similar to “And
God said, Let there be light; and there was light” of the Book of Genesis
can be found in Greek sources. As distinct from language, which was
conceived of as a social phenomenon, the laws of the universe were seen
as pre-social and therefore beyond language. “Necessity,” anankê, and
“Destiny,” moira, the supreme forces that ruled the universe and were
responsible for its coming into being, were mute.
82 margalit finkelberg

Pl. Symp. 188b6–c1; 202e3–203a4. Tr. B. Jowett – H. Pelliccia, with slight changes.
Cf. Plato, Phaedrus 275b: “Tere was a tradition in the temple of Zeus at Dodona
that oaks frst gave prophetic utterances. Te men of old, far less wise than you sophisti-
cated young men, deemed in their simplicity that if they heard the truth even from ‘oak
or rock,’ it was enough.” Tr. B. Jowett – H. Pelliccia.
Heraclitus B 93 DK. Tr. G.S. Kirk, J.E. Raven, M. Schofeld.
In so far as the order of things cannot be expressed in language, it
cannot be communicated either. Tis is why, rather than leading to true
knowledge, language can only represent aspects or segments of truth.
Accordingly, there is no literary meaning available, and all statements
issuing from man’s attempts at communication with the divine are met-
aphors. In view of this, it is only natural that divine messages delivered
through the medium of language are open to misconstruction and that
people’s attempts at literally following them as a rule end in disaster.
Consider for example the oracles. On the surface of it, this character-
istic Greek institution was precisely the means that made man’s commu-
nication with the divine possible. Te oracles formed part of the art of
divination (mantikê), this, as Plato termed it, “art of communion (koinô-
nia) between gods and men,” through which “all the intercourse (homi-
lia) and converse (dialektos) of God with man, whether awake or asleep,
is carried on.”
It is characteristic, however, that Greek oracular practice
did not privilege verbal communication over other ways of commu-
nication with the divine. Even more ofen than through language, the
gods’ will was revealed by the casting of lots or by the observation of
signs, such as the rustle of the leaves in Zeus’ sacred oak at the famous
oracle at Dodona. Te interpretation of verbal messages as delivered for
example at Delphi was thus not substantially diferent from the inter-
pretation of non-verbal ones, such as the rustle of leaves at Dodona.
other words, each reading of a divine message, whether verbal or not,
would amount to its decoding. Tis attitude to verbal communication
with the divine is epitomized in the following words of Heraclitus: “Te
lord whose oracle is in Delphi neither speaks out nor conceals, but gives
a sign (sêmainei).”
Te worst possible thing that could happen in the process of decoding
of verbal messages coming from gods was their literal interpretation. Let
us consider Herodotus’ account of the oracular response received by the
Athenians in the time of the Persian invasion. Te response contained,
among other things, the following phrase: “Safe shall the wooden wall
continue for thee and thy children.” What happened in the Athenian
greek distrust of language 83

assembly when the response was brought from Delphi is worth being
adduced in full:
When, however, upon their arrival, they [the envoys to Delphi] produced
it before the people, and inquiry began to be made into its true mean-
ing, many and various were the interpretations which men put on it; two,
more especially, seemed to be directly opposed to one another. Certain of
the old men were of opinion that the god meant to tell them the citadel
would escape; for this was anciently defended by palisade; and they sup-
posed that barrier to be the wooden wall of the oracle. Others maintained
that the feet was what the god pointed at; and their advice was that noth-
ing should be thought of except the ships, which had best be at once got
Te outcome of the debate was decided by the intervention of Temis-
tocles, who persuaded the Athenians that the oracle could only address
the ships, “since they were the wooden wall in which the god told them
to trust.” As a result, the Athenians spent the annual produce of the sil-
ver mines at Laurion on building a feet of 200 ships, which eventually
defeated the Persian feet at Salamis. Tose few who persisted in literal
interpretation of the oracle stayed on the acropolis afer the evacuation
of the city and perished. Herodotus comments on this: “Tey imagined
themselves to have discovered the true meaning of the oracle uttered by
the priestess, which promised ‘Te wooden wall should never be taken.’
Te wooden wall, they thought, did not mean the ships, but the place
where they had taken refuge.”
Now although the decoding of a divine message can in principle be
either correct or not, it is highly symptomatic that rather ofen than not
human attempts at understanding verbal messages coming from the
gods are treated as fundamentally inadequate and therefore as doomed
to failure. Sophocles’ Trachiniae, a tragedy whose action is focused on
the characters’ misconstruing of an oracle, is especially illuminating in
this respect. Let us throw a closer look at it.
Te oracle received by Hercules says that afer the completion of his
labours Hercules will either die at the siege of Oechalia or “live a happy
life”. When it becomes clear that Hercules, although he has survived
the siege, is nevertheless dying, the happy existence promised by the
oracle is interpreted as equivalent to death by the chorus and by Hercu-
les himself.
In fact, however, this interpretation amounts to the logical
Hdt. 7.141–44; 8. 51–53. Tr. G. Rawlinson.
Soph. Trach. 81, 168, 821–30, 1170–2.
84 margalit finkelberg

mistake of decoding the oracle’s alternative between “death” and “happy
life” as the one between “death” and “death.” Te correct alternative is,
of course, between death and immortality, bestowed on Hercules imme-
diately upon his death. Te “happy life” should thus be interpreted as
the life on Olympus. But the tragedy’s characters are totally ignorant of
the magnifcent future in store for Hercules and in their eyes he dies an
ordinary death. Small wonder, therefore, that Hercules’ son Hyllus fnds
his father’s death to be in breach with the divine justice and even blames
Zeus for Hercules’ misfortunes: “And grant me full forgiveness for this;
but mark the great cruelty of the gods in the deeds that are being done.
Tey beget children, they are hailed as fathers, and yet they can look
upon such suferings.”
It goes without saying, however, that Hercules’ becoming one of the
Olympians immediately upon his death was well known to Sophocles’
audience. In other words, the lesson that the audience was expected to
learn from the tragedy, as well as from other similar adaptations of tra-
ditional stories dealing with oracular responses, was that it is virtually
impossible for mortals adequately to understand the supreme divine
design of which their lives also form a part, simply because the refec-
tions of this design in verbal messages coming from the gods would
always be of fragmentary nature.
Let us turn now to the philosophical tradition. In her recent book on non-
discursive thinking in Neoplatonism, Sara Rappe argues convincingly
that “beyond any formal criterion shaping the tradition, Neoplatonists
shared the belief that wisdom could not be expressed or transmitted by
rational thought or language.” Tus, she writes about Plotinus: “Plotinus
suggests that in this kind of thought, genuine self-knowledge, language
arises aferward as an awkward translation of a truth whose essence is
to break free of discursive structures. It is for this reason that the texts
that seek to convey or even to inculcate self-knowledge at once fail to
accomplish this purpose.”
Ibid., 1264–9. Tr. R.C. Jebb.
Rappe 2000, xiii.
greek distrust of language 85
Rappe sees this attitude to language as peculiar to Neoplatonism.
However, the belief that true communion with the divine can only be
of a non-discursive nature had been an inseparable part of Platonic tra-
dition long before the Neoplatonists. Tus, although a philosophical
discourse was an integral part of what Pierre Hadot calls the “Socratic-
Platonic model of philosophy”, “in the last analysis, however,” he writes,
“this philosophical discourse seems incapable of expressing that which
is essential.” Te same would be true of Aristotle as well. To quote
Hadot again, “No one was more conscious than Aristotle of the limits of
philosophical discourse as an instrument of knowledge. . . . Language’s
discursivity can express only what is composite and what is divisible
successively into parts. . . . In the case of simple substances like the frst
Intellect—the principle of movement for all things—discourse cannot
express its essence but merely describe its efects. . . . It is only in rare
moments that the human intellect can rise to non-discursive, instanta-
neous intuition of this reality, insofar as it can imitate the divine Intellect
in some way.”
“Let us not believe,” Plutarch, himself a Platonist, wrote in De Pythiae
oraculis, “that the god has composed them [the oracles], but that he sup-
plies the origin of the incitement, and then the prophetic priestesses are
moved each in accordance with her natural faculties. Certainly, if it were
necessary to write the oracles, instead of delivering them orally, I do not
think that we should believe the handwriting to be the god’s. . . . As a
matter of fact, the voice is not that of a god, nor the utterance of it, nor
the diction, nor the metre, but all these are the woman’s; he puts into
her mind only the visions (phantasias), and creates a light in her soul in
regard to the future; for inspiration is precisely this.”
It would sufce to
compare Plutarch’s “I do not think that we should believe the handwrit-
ing to be the god’s” with the biblical “And he gave unto Moses, when he
had made an end of communing with him on mount Sinai, two tables
of testimony, tables of stone, written with the fnger of God” (Ex. 31.18)
to appreciate the degree to which Greek attitude to verbal utterances of
God, spoken as well as written, difered from what was characteristic
of both the Judeo-Christian tradition and of other traditions that made
provision for a myth of creation.
Hadot 2002, 76, 88.
Plut. Mor. 397 BC. Tr. F.C. Babbit.
86 margalit finkelberg

Te Phaedrus and the Seventh Letter, the two works in the Platonic
corpus that dwell at length on the shortcomings of language as a vehicle
for expressing the highest knowledge, will allow us to take this discus-
sion several steps further.
Whereas the Phaedrus invective mainly
addresses writing, the Seventh Letter, explicitly stating as it does that
“no intelligent man will ever be so bold as to put into language those
things which his reason has contemplated,” equally dismisses both the
written and the spoken word.
Furthermore, as Kenneth M. Sayre has
shown, the view that the ultimate philosophical understanding cannot
be adequately expressed in language is not restricted to the Seventh Let-
ter alone but is also found in Meno, Symposium, Republic, Teaetetus,
Sophist, Philebus, and even in the Phaedrus itself. “Although these pas-
sages range chronologically from the relatively early to the very late dia-
logues, a point advanced by each is that the logos attending knowledge
is in some fashion an intellectual grasp of being. Suppose the logos in
question were a grasp of being, that enables judgment to distinguish
correctly between what is and what is not. Such a logos is not discursive,
being instead the ‘free man’s knowledge’ by which discourse is guided.”

But it seems to me that it is the Cratylus with its passionate avowal that
under no circumstances can language be regarded as an adequate means
for expressing the true, the good, and the beautiful that is especially rel-
evant here. “How being (ta onta) is to be studied or discovered,” Socrates
says to Cratylus in the concluding part of the dialogue, “is, I suspect,
beyond you and me. But we may admit so much, it is not to be [discov-
ered] from names. No, it must be studied and investigated in itself rather
than by means of names.”
For Plato, as well as for many others, rather than in language, the
true grammar of the universe resided in the all-embracing harmony of
music and number that represented the world order as it really is. Tis
is for example how Plato describes the structure of the heavens in the
concluding book of the Republic:
For there are eight whorls in all, lying in one another with their rims show-
ing as circles from above, while from the back they form one continuous
whorl around the stem, which is driven right through the middle of the
eighth. Now the circle formed by the lip of the frst and outermost whorl
Cf. Finkelberg 1997, 255–61.
Pl. Epist. vii 343a, cf. 344c1–8.
Sayre 1988, 107.
Crat. 439b, cf. 440bc. Tr. B. Jowett, with slight changes.
greek distrust of language 87

is the broadest; that of the sixth, second; that of the fourth, third; that of
the eighth, fourth; that of the seventh, ffh; that of the ffh, sixth; that of
the third, seventh; and that of the second, eighth. . . . Te whole spindle is
turned in a circle with the same motion, but within the revolving whole
the seven inner circles revolve gently in the opposite direction from the
whole; of them, the eighth goes most quickly, second and together with
one another are the seventh, sixth and ffh. Tird in swifness, as it looked
to them, the fourth circles about; fourth, the third; and ffh, the second.
And the spindle turned in the lap of Necessity. Above, on each of its circles,
is perched a Siren, accompanying its revolution, uttering a single sound,
one note; from all eight is produced the accord of a single harmony.
Tis is of course none other than harmonia mundi, the Pythagorean
music of the spheres produced by ratios of the four primal numbers,
the Tetrad.
Yet, although closely associated with the Pythagoreans, this
visage of the underlying harmony of the world is not restricted to this
school alone. In both popular and philosophical tradition, nature, gods,
and men were generally envisaged as belonging to the same whole ruled
by the same eternal laws, which were interpreted not only in terms of
necessity and destiny but also in those of harmony and justice.
continuity between the macrocosm and the microcosm thus produced
allowed the chosen few who made this quest the purpose of their lives
to “know themselves,” that is, to know their human nature, which is the
same as the nature of the universe, to become tuned to the inner har-
mony of the universe and thus to be made one with it.
Accordingly, adequate communication with the divine could only be
obtained through noetic contemplation that transcended language. Tis
was achieved by abiding by a strict ascetic discipline, which amounted
to reducing one’s own human nature when still alive. Te institutional
framework for all activities of this kind was supplied by religious trends
and philosophical schools, each of which ofered its own distinctive ver-
sion of restoring the unity between the human and the divine.
As Wal-
ter Burkert put it in his discussion of ancient Pythagoreanism: “. . . there
is a kind of knowing which penetrates to the very core of the universe,
which ofers truth as something at once beatifc and comfortable, and
presents the human being as cradled in universal harmony.”
I know
Rep. 616d–617c.
Cf. Burkert 1972, 350–68.
Cf. Finkelberg 2002, 173–82.
Cf. Finkelberg 2002, 175–6.
Burkert 1972, 482.
88 margalit finkelberg

of no better description of this state of mind than Plato’s picture of the
culminating stage of “the greater mysteries of Love” in Diotima’s speech
in the Symposium:
Whoever has been initiated so far in the mysteries of Love and has viewed
all these aspects of the beautiful in due succession, is at last drawing near
the fnal revelation. And now, Socrates, there bursts upon him that won-
drous vision which is the very soul of the beauty he has toiled so long for.
It is an everlasting loveliness which neither comes nor goes, which neither
fowers or fades, for such beauty is the same on every hand, the same then
as now, here as there, this way as that way, the same to every worshiper as
it is to every other. Nor will his vision of the beautiful take the form of face,
or of hands, or of anything that is of the fesh. It will be neither words, nor
knowledge, nor a something that exists in something else, such as a living
creature, or the earth, or the heavens, or anything that is—but subsisting
of itself and by itself in an eternal oneness, while every lovely thing par-
takes of it in such sort that, however much the parts may wax and wane, it
will be neither more nor less, but still the same inviolable whole.
Tere are no words that can adequately express this state of man’s becom-
ing, to put it in Plato’s words again, “the friend of god.” Tis is why the
ultimate limit of man’s apprehension of true reality is silence.
Burkert, W. 1972. Lore and Science in Ancient Pythagoreanism. Cambridge, Mass.: Har-
vard University Press.
Finkelberg, M. 1997. “Plato’s Language of Love and the Female.” Harvard Teological
Review 90: 231–61.
———— 1998. Te Birth of Literary Fiction in Ancient Greece. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
———— 2002. “Religion and Biography in Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus.” In Self and
Self-Transformation in the History of Religions, eds. D. Shulman and G. Stroumsa,
173–82. Oxford-New York: Oxford University Press.
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Writings, Platonic Readings, ed. C.L. Griswold, Jr., 93–109. New York/London:
Pl. Symp. 210e–211b. Tr. M. Joyce.

Yigal Bronner
I. Introduction
Te notion that Sanskrit poetics, alamˢ kāraśāstra, functions as a kind of
grammar to the language of its accompanying literature, kāvya, should
not come as a total surprise to the students of this tradition. As Sheldon
Pollock has recently put it, the discipline’s premise is that “what makes
kāvya diferent from everything else has essentially to do with language
itself,” and that, hence, it focuses on exploring how “kāvya works as a
specifc language system.”
Still, our understanding of the precise nature
of this linguistic analysis and its internal logic is far from satisfactory,
and many basic questions remain to be addressed.
For instance, if San-
skrit poeticians are grammarians of sorts, what aspects of the poetic lan-
guage do they set out to describe? Te analysis of any language system
may expand to include anything from phonology and morphology to
syntax, semantics and pragmatics. It may also examine the way a spe-
cifc culture interprets or makes reality. What of all these phenomena is
the scope of alamˢ kāraśāstra? Moreover, the specifc language system of
poetry is defned by its ability to please the readers. How does the lin-
guistic analysis of alamˢ kāraśāstra account for poetry’s aesthetic efect?
Speaking of a grammatical analysis of poetry, one has to bear in mind
that we are dealing with a culture where grammar is a dominant intel-
lectual tradition, if not the most paradigmatic of all systems of knowl-
edge. Tis gives rise to another subset of questions. What exactly is the
relationship between alamˢ kāraśāstra and Pānˢ ini’s Grammar? Does it
Pollock 2003, 46–47.
Tus while Arjunwadker (1996, 23) claims that “no serious student of Sanskrit
poetics can deny that in the absence of the foundations the Vaiyakaranˢ as and the
Mimamsakas have laid, Sanskrit theory of poetry would not have scaled the heights it
undoubtedly has, particularly since Anandavardhana,” he hardly addresses the question
of the grammatical nature of the poetic analysis.
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form a mere extension of his project of fully describing his language to a
more recent linguistic domain, namely poetry? Did poeticians consider
Pānˢ inian categories to be beautiful in and of themselves? What is the
relationship between the tools they developed and those provided by
the grammarians?
It is these and similar questions that I intend to explore by closely
examining a single passage from alamˢ kāraśāstra’s long history—Danˢ dˢ in’s
investigation of the simile (upamā). Te choice of this case study merits
a brief explanation. Danˢ dˢ in, a scholar and a poet who worked in South
India sometime around the year 700 ad, represents a crucial moment in
the evolution of his discipline. He and his near-contemporary Bhāmaha
composed the earliest extant works on Sanskrit poetics. Previous schol-
arship did exist, but the fact that it did not survive, and that afer Danˢ dˢ in
and Bhāmaha there is no reference to it, suggests that this lost corpus
represented a relatively undeveloped stage of alamˢ kāraśāstra. Appar-
ently, there was no need to look back to such prior works once the trea-
tises of Bhāmaha and Danˢ dˢ in came to light, and the two, who may have
been in conversation with one another, came to form a shared basis for
thinkers to follow. It should thus be noted that despite the major shifs
the tradition later underwent, many of the basic concepts of Bhāmaha
and Danˢ dˢ in proved to be extremely resilient.
Danˢ dˢ in’s treatise itself, despite its falling out of favor in Kashmir—
which between the ninth and thirteenth centuries was the Mecca of San-
skrit poetics—was a highly infuential work that had a great impact on
the literary cultures of Sri Lanka, the Indonesian archipelago, Tibet, and
also on the vernacular literatures of the South Asian peninsula itself,
such as Kannada and Tamil. And indeed, as I show elsewhere, later
alamˢ kāraśāstra recognized Danˢ dˢ in’s pivotal role, and there were those
who tried to resurrect him as something of a founding father.
II. Te Simile and Danˢdˢ in’s Discussion of It
Te choice of Danˢ dˢ in’s simile section is not random. Tere is a growing
awareness among Sanskritic literary thinkers that the simile (upamā) is
On the temptation to assume direct correspondence between Danˢ dˢ in and Bhāmaha
see Gerow 1977, 228. On the resiliency of the old poetic categories see Pollock 2003,
See Bronner 2002.
this is no lotus, it is a face 93
the paradigmatic poetic ornament, or alamˢ kāra—the major analytical
category of the feld which gave it its name.
Tus Vāmana, about a cen-
tury afer Danˢ dˢ in, labeled the simile the root (mūla) of all alamˢ kāras,
and selected for discussion only those ornaments which could be
analyzed as ofshoots of this root phenomenon (upamā-prapañcahˢ ).

Te idea was further developed a few centuries later by Vidyācakravartin
(c. 1300), who set out to show in detail how the proposition “your face
is like the moon”—the stock example for similitude—stands at the basis
of a vast host of poetic devices.
Later, the great sixteenth century poly-
math Appayya Dīksˢ ita, elegantly expressed the very same notion:
Simile is the sole actress on the stage of poetry,
and yet she performs a vast variety of roles.
When she dances
she captivates the hearts
of those who know her secret.
All types of poetic language are really the simile in disguise, and it is its
capability of literary masquerading that accounts for poetic charm.
We will return below to this observation and its possible implications
to our question of poetics as grammar. For now let us note that the notion
of the simile’s centrality to poetic charm is already suggested by the ear-
liest extant works of Bhāmaha and Danˢ dˢ in. For one thing, both allot
the simile far more attention than any other fgure. Moreover, Danˢ dˢ in’s
specifc placement of this fgure in his book is particularly revealing. His
Mirror of Poetry (Kāvyādarśa) is dedicated primarily to the three tradi-
tional topics of Sanskrit poetics, namely poetic qualities (gunˢas), faults
(dosˢ as), and ornaments (alamˢ kāras). Of the three, the latter is the main
focus, which is not too surprising given Danˢ dˢ in’s unequivocal state-
ment, coming to discuss the alamˢ kāras, that these are the factors which
make poetry pretty.
Having said that, Danˢ dˢ in moves to inventorize and
analyze the alamˢ kāras. Te frst fgure he mentions is svabhāvokti, that
See also Gerow 1971, 35–7.
Kāvyālamˢ kārasūtravrˢ ttirˢ of Vāmana, 4.2.1 (introductory note to the sūtra); 4.3.1.
Alamˢ kārasarvasva of Ruyyaka, p. 36.
Citramīmāmˢ sā of Appayya Dīksˢ ita, p. 33: upamâikā śailusˢ ī samˢ ˢ prāptā citra-
bhūmikā-bhedān | rañjayati kāvya-ran֛ ge nrˢ ˢ tyantī tad-vidāmˢ cetahˢ || (All translations in
this paper are mine.) Appayya goes on to compare the relationship between the simile
and the rest of the fgures to that of the absolute (brahman) and the phenomenal reality
(ibid. p. 35). For more on his discussion see Bronner 2002.
Kāvyādarśa of Danˢ dˢ in 2.1: kāvya-śobhā-kārān dharmān alamˢ kārān.
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is, speaking of things the way they are. Such detailed observations of the
true nature of things are, as far as Sanskrit poetics is concerned, rather
marginal to poetry. As Danˢ dˢ in concludes, “such factual descriptions of
the nature of an entity—consisting of its genus, mode of action, char-
acteristics, and particular appearance—have science as their kingdom,
even though they may occur in poetry as well.”
So, having mentioned svabhāvokti as part of his catalogue of poetic
devices, but really setting it aside, Danˢ dˢ in now turns to the mainstay
of poetic ornamentalism—the description of entities the way they are
not. It is this counter-factual or “crooked” speech (vakrokti) that has
poetry as its kingdom, and all the remaining alamˢ kāras are its instances.
Danˢ dˢ in later points out that all manifestations of crooked speech are
enhanced by punning, thereby adding another distinction between
them and realistic observations.
It is this special language—counter-
factual, crooked, punned—that forms the primary focus of the Mirror.
About two-thirds of it, to be precise.
Te possibilities of describing something other than the way it is are
numerous, perhaps infnite.
Of these, the tradition of Sanskrit poetics
is particularly interested in descriptions of one entity as another, through
similarity, identifcation, and the like. Te most paradigmatic trope for
such an expression of a thing not as itself but as another is, as we by
now have come to expect, the simile. It is thus no wonder that having
done away with the topic of naturalistic description, Danˢ dˢ in immedi-
ately turns to the simile, quite possibly the “seed” (bīja) of all fgurative
phenomena to which he has earlier referred,
and his discussion of the
upamā is by far longer than that of any other fgure.
All this suggests, then, the relevance of Danˢ dˢ in’s analysis of the simile
to our question. To recapitulate: Te things which make poetry beauti-
ful are its ornamental elements, the alamˢ kāras. Tese have to do with a
Ibid., 2.13:
jāti-kriyā-gunˢa-dravya-svabhāvâkhyānam īdrˢ śam |
śāstresˢ v asyâiva sāmrājyamˢ kāvyesˢ v apy etad īpsitam ||
Ibid., 2.360:
ślesˢ ˢ ahˢ sarvāsu pusˢ nˢāti prāyo vakroktisˢ u śriyam |
bhinnamˢ dvidhā svabhāvoktir vakrotiś ceti vānˢ -mayam ||
Ibid., 2.1: kas tān kārtsyena vaksˢ yati?
Ibid., 2.3. Tis is the interpretation of all of the commentators, though other inter-
pretations are, perhaps, possible.
51 verses are dedicated to the simile. Te average for the remaining fgures is about
10 verses each. Te entire length of the Mirror is 657 verses.
this is no lotus, it is a face 95

particular type of language, consisting almost exclusively of crooked or
counter-factual statements, in particular those which connect between
one entity and another. Danˢ dˢ in seems to single out the simile—perhaps
for the frst time in the history of his tradition—as the quintessential
alamˢ kāra. Judging by both its placement and size, his treatment of this
ornament is clearly meant to be exemplar. It is thus a perfectly suited
case study to the question of the grammaticality of poetics.
Danˢ dˢ in begins by defning the simile as: “a passage in which some pal-
pable similitude is suggested in whatever manner.” Tis seems more like
an introduction into an extended discussion rather than a conclusive
defnition, and indeed, in what appears to be a direct comment on the
open-endedness of the initial formulation, Danˢ dˢ in immediately states
his intention to “demonstrate the simile’s vast phenomenology.”
may identify three distinct parts in his discussion. First, he defnes and
illustrates thirty-two subtypes of the simile. Ten he discusses possible
defects, which hinder its aesthetic efect. Finally, there is an appendix-
like list of language used for expressing similitude. Of the three sec-
tions, the frst is the longest, and seems to be the most important, as it
holds the key for what makes an expression of similitude pleasing. Afer
all, the subtypes chosen must be those which Danˢ dˢ in considered to
create a special charm. Given the importance of this section, we shall
keep our analysis of it at bay, and follow Danˢ dˢ in’s discussion from the
middle, leaving our investigation of its frst portion to the end.
III. Te Defects of the Simile
Te middle portion of Danˢ dˢ in’s discussion of the simile deals with fac-
tors that may obstruct its aesthetic efect. Danˢ dˢ in is concerned here with
comparisons between entities which disagree in gender, number, and
hierarchical status. His main thrust is to show that such a dissonance
need not necessarily hinder the aesthetic charm. Te discussion is there-
fore framed by the question of what does not amount to a fault:
Ibid., 2.14:
yathā-kathamˢ -cit sādrˢ śyamˢ yatrôdbhūtamˢ pratīyate |
upamā nāma sā tasyāhˢ prapañco ’yamˢ pradarśyate ||
Ibid., 2.51:
na lin֛ ga-vacane bhinne na hīnâdhikatâpi vā |
upamā-dūsˢ anˢāyâlamˢ yatrôdvego na dhīmatām ||
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Neither a disagreement of gender and number,
nor a relationship of an inferior with a superior,
sufce to faw the simile,
unless there is something [else] to disturb the wise.
Tere is nothing inherently wrong in comparing a male to a female,
or between entities which belong to diferent natural and social hier-
archies. On the contrary, sometimes such diferences are the sole pur-
pose of the analogy. One may wish to use the proposition of the simile
precisely to say that a male behaves in a feminine manner, that a king
follows a divine model, or that his bodily radiance resembles that of the
sun. In such examples, asserts Danˢ dˢ in, the charm of the simile is not
even slightly efected by the discrepancy in gender and status.
are perfectly pleasing similes.
Nor is there any fault in a simile such as “you (singular) are dear to
me like my life (plural).” Here, however, the underlying reason seems
to be diferent, as the commentators explain. Te word prānˢa, “breath,”
is inherently plural when used in the sense of “life,” since a person is
believed to have fve life-breaths. So this is a plural noun which refers
to a single, collective entity. Tis noun simply cannot appear in the sin-
gular when used in this sense. Likewise, the word dhanam, “wealth,” is
a collective noun and hence has a singular form even when compared
to a plural entity as in the example: “the acquisition of various knowl-
edges is like that of wealth.” In this last example there is also a gender
discrepancy, for all Sanskritic words for knowledge and intelligence are
in the feminine while wealth is in the neuter. Here, unlike in the anal-
ogy between a man and a woman or king and god, the incongruity in
number or gender seems quite incidental to the comparison. Still it is
unavoidable, given the nature of the Sanskrit lexicon, and hence per-
fectly acceptable.
Tere are, however, poetic passages where the wise would fnd incon-
gruity in gender, number, and status to be troubling (udvega), and which
are hence considered faulted. A poet is not supposed to say, for instance,
“the moon (masculine) is like the (female) goose” or “heaven is simi-
lar to lakes”. One should also avoid comparing a devoted servant to a
dog, or a frefy to the sun. Why are these formulations to be avoided?
Ibid., 2.54: saubhagyamˢ na jahāty eva jātucit.
Ibid., 2.52 and the Hrˢ dayan֛ gama commentary.
this is no lotus, it is a face 97

Danˢ dˢ in explicitly declares his reluctance to address this question. “You
have to fgure out the reason for yourselves,” he tells his readers. “Te
wise should discern between faults and faws on their own.”
Despite Danˢ dˢ in’s indisposition to spell out his criteria, we can still
make a few generalizations about them based on his positive and
negative examples. One possible conclusion is that when gender and
number are incidental to the poetic statement, the poet should avoid
discrepancy whenever an alternative is easily available. Take the case of
the moon and the female goose. We already know that there is nothing
inherently wrong in comparing a male to a female. We should also note
that it is perfectly normal, indeed conventional, to compare the moon
to the goose, based on their whiteness, despite the otherwise recogniz-
able diferences between the winged creature and earth’s satellite. Poetry,
afer all, is the kingdom of crooked speech (vakrokti), not of naturalistic
descriptions of the moon as it is (svabhāvokti). Yet the comparison of the
moon to a female goose serves no poetic purpose. It is not the gender
of the goose which gives rise to the similitude but its color. Nor does
the language determine the use of the feminine. Geese come in both
genders and the poet could have easily used a gander as his standard.
Likewise, lakes have a perfectly common singular form in Sanskrit. In
contrast to nouns such as prānˢāhˢ or dhanam, which may appear only in
the plural or singular respectively, or those words for knowledge which
are inherently feminine, there is nothing here to restrict the lexical and
morphological choice. Nonetheless, the poet sloppily introduced an
irrelevant distinction, thereby unnecessarily spoiling the pleasing efect
of the simile. All things being equal, one would like number and gender
to be equal as well.
A second possible generalization is that when the distinction is not
incidental but indeed purposeful, it is acceptable so long as it does not
ofend cultural concepts and codes. It is fne to compare a king to the
gods, for both are related and take care of similar duties, whether on
earth or in heaven. Juxtaposing a faithful servant with a dog, on the
other hand, is too downgrading, and measuring up a frefy to the sun
is simply over the top. Unlike the case of the moon and the goose, such
Ibid., 2.56:
īdrˢ śamˢ varjyate sadbhihˢ kāranˢamˢ tatra cintyatām |
gunˢa-dosˢ a-vicārāya svayam eva manīsˢ ibhihˢ ||
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comparisons are not normative. As one of the commentators points out,
comparing the servant to a close friend and the frefy to a lamp would
have better suited Sanskrit’s poetic sensibilities.
All in all, Danˢ dˢ in’s examples of the simile’s faults sufce to suggest
that his analysis of poetic tongue has its roots in grammar, and is based
on a grammatically-trained attention to categories such as number and
gender. We may also note that in his listing of simile-related faults,
social hierarchy naturally follows the grammatical. It is as if the social
and moral orders form a mere extension of the grammatical order, a
potentially more basic principal of organization of the world. Moreover,
we know from his discussion elsewhere that ungrammatical use imme-
diately qualifes as a poetic fault.
But even beyond the question of cor-
rectness, grammar continues to play a role in obstructing or allowing
poetic charm. For one has to be careful not to sloppily create a gram-
matical disharmony while in the process of creating a poetic harmoniza-
tion, as in “the moon is like a goose.”
At the same time, it is precisely examples such as these which also
allow us to realize that aesthetic judgment is not reducible to Pānˢ inian
grammar. Afer all, both the negative and the positive examples supplied
by Danˢ dˢ in are perfectly correct from the grammatical point of view.
Poetic sensitivity clearly amounts to more than a grammarian’s ear, even
if such an ear seems to be a prerequisite for making aesthetic judgments
in the Sanskrit world. Tere is thus continuity and even partial overlap
between the grammarian’s analysis and that of the poetician, but there is
also a diference between the two. Yet the discussion of simile’s defects
does not allow us to say more about this nuanced relationship, partly
because Danˢ dˢ in trusts his readers to be quite capable of making both
grammatical and aesthetic judgments and sets out, it would seem, only
to amend those fault-fnding habits which he found too sweeping.
IV. Te Language of Similitude
Te last nine verses of Danˢ dˢ in’s discussion of the simile survey the ways
in which Sanskrit expresses similarity. Te close relationship with the
grammatical tradition is at once apparent. Te observations of gram-
marians that similitude can be denoted by a specifc set of particles (iva,
Ibid., 2.56, cf. the Ratnaśrī commentary.
Ibid., 3.148: śabda-hīnam anālaksˢ ya-laksˢ ya-laksˢ anˢ ˢa-paddhatihˢ |
this is no lotus, it is a face 99

etc.), sufxes (vat, etc.), words (tulya, etc.), and compounding tech-
niques (e.g., bahuvrīhi, -kalpa, etc.), while using various syntactic struc-
tures (x is like y, x is on par with y, etc.), account for a signifcant portion
of the list. It seems clear that such grammatical categories and insights
are incorporated wholesale into the investigation of poetic tongue.
Yet we may also recognize in this last section of Danˢ dˢ in’s discus-
sion another layer of expressivity, one which is not a direct product of
Pānˢ inian analysis. Here there are words and structures which do not
directly denote similitude but hint to it. Saying that one entity rivals,
mocks, or steals the beauty of another, to give but a few examples, is to
imply that it resembles it. Even the denial of a semblance between X and
Y, argues Danˢ dˢ in, may serve to indirectly afrm its existence.
What is worthy of note is that there is a division of labor between
these two layers of expressivity, between expressions of similarity which
are in the domain of grammar proper (particles, sufxes, compounding
techniques, syntactical structures) and those which fall in the domain of
pragmatics and suggestion (such as a negation suggesting afrmation,
or rivalry hinting at similarity). For as we shall see, expressive means
belonging in the frst layer do not necessarily make for separate sim-
ile subtypes with distinct aesthetic favors (as in the initial portion of
Danˢ dˢ in’s simile discussion). One may say that a face is like the moon, or
moon-like (using a nominal ending), or speak of the moon-face (using a
compound), or describe the face as equivalent to the moon, comparable
to it, parallel to it, on a par with it, reaching its status, and being of the
same type, form, color, or kind as it (using a variety of lexical items and
syntaxes). All of these possibilities require mention in Danˢ dˢ in’s appen-
dix-like list of “words expressing similitude.” But none is worthy of men-
tion as responsible for a unique kind of simile.
Te words in the appendix’s other layer, however, are treated dif-
ferently. For instance, as soon as we say that the moon is the “rival”,
“competitor” or even the “enemy” of the face, or that the face “outdoes”,
“mocks” or “defeats” the moon, we immediately enter the domain of
distinctive simile types, wherein similitude is conjured on the basis of
the notion of rivalry or some kind of an evaluative comparison. Such
vocabulary, when properly used, amounts to a unique kind of simile-
making, with a unique aesthetic efect, and hence merits classifcation
as an independent category of this poetic ornament.
Tus, even in this innocent looking appendix to Danˢ dˢ in’s discussion,
we fnd an analytical program which is at once continuous with and dis-
tinct from the grammatical analysis proper. We still need to understand
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how both layers of expressivity get combined in Danˢ dˢ in’s vision of the
simile, if not in his analytical project at large. Te key to these questions
may be found in the frst portion of his discussion, to which we shall
now turn.
V. Simile and the Intertextual Grammar of Poetry
As mentioned above, Danˢ dˢ in lists thirty-two varieties of the simile, for
each of which he ofers a brief defnition and an example. Te illustra-
tions are highly uniform in their use of poetic materials. With only a
few exceptions all compare a small set of female body parts, the face in
particular, to a very limited list of natural objects, primarily the lotus
and the moon. Danˢ dˢ in says nothing about this choice—why the face is
worthy of being the subject of comparison, and why the lotus and moon
are chosen as its standards. Te cultural and aesthetic value of such con-
ventions is taken for granted. It is not the notion that face and moon
may be seen as similar that is of interest to him, but rather the ways
poets manipulate language to express it in a particularly charming man-
ner. What, then, characterizes his analysis of the various simile subtypes
and their distinctive aesthetic favors?
A central feature of Danˢ dˢ in’s analysis is its attention to the proposi-
tional structure of any given simile. Take the following categories as an
example. Danˢ dˢ in’s frst simile subtype is dharmôpamā, namely a simile
in which the shared characteristic (dharma) is explicitly mentioned. Te
example is: “your palm is red-hued like the lotus.”
Tis generic for-
mulation is immediately followed by its mirroring category, vastûpamā.
Here the entities (vastus) alone are explicitly mentioned whereas the
shared characteristic is implied (pratīyamāna). For instance: “your face
is like the lotus,” or “your eyes are like dark water lilies.”
Here radiance
is understood as shared by the face and the lotus, and a dark hue by the
lily and the eye. Tese are followed by the “inverted” (viparyāsa) simile,
where the order of the proposition is reversed (“Te blooming lotus is
like your face”), and the “mutual” (anyonya) simile, where the basic for-
mulation is repeated both ways (“the lotus is like your face, your face
Kāvyādarśa of Danˢ dˢ in 2.15:
ambho-ruham ivâtāmrāmˢ mugdhe kara-talamˢ tava |
iti dharmôpamā sāksˢ āt tulya-dharma-nidarśanāt ||
Ibid., 2.16.
this is no lotus, it is a face 101

is like the lotus”).
Ten there is the “aggregate” (samuccaya) simile,
where there is more than one shared characteristic (“Your face follows
the moon not just in radiance, but also in its capability of delighting”),
and the “plural” (bahu) simile, where a single tenor is compared to a
whole list of standards (“Your touch is as sof as sandal-paste, moon-
light, moonstone, and the like”).
All these subtypes are summarized
abstractly in Table 1, using X for tenor, Y for the standard of compari-
son, and Z for the shared characteristic.
Table 1: Propositional Structure of Six Simile Subtypes
Simile Subtype Propositional Structure
dharma (characteristic) X is like Y in that both are Z
vastu (entity) X is like Y (Z implied)
viparyāsa (inverted) Y is like X
anyonya (mutual) X is like Y, Y is like X
samuccaya (aggregate) X is like Y in that both are Z1+Z2
bahu (plural) X is like Y1, Y2, Y3, etc., in that all are Z
Te six abstracted formulas in the right column of Table 1 should sufce
to underscore Danˢ dˢ in’s charting of structural factors, such as the order
of the proposition (standard, reversed, or both, repeated in rotation, as
in anyonya simile) or the possible value of its variables (singular, plural,
or nil, as in the case of Z in vastu simile). Here is a formal linguistic
analysis of the poetic language of similitude, indeed a grammar. It is a
descriptive grammar, for it is based, at least partly, on observation of the
poetic practice, as the author himself elsewhere testifes.
Yet it is also
prescriptive, for as already mentioned, it lists and hence recommends
only those formulations believed to carry a unique aesthetic favor.
Danˢ dˢ in rarely specifes the distinct charm of each subtype, but occa-
sionally he does hint at it. Tus we are told that the “mutual” simile (X is
like Y, Y is like X) highlights an outstanding mutuality of the entities, a
reciprocal relationship which is particularly strong; later writers under-
stood this to imply the exclusion of any additional entity.
Similarly the
Ibid., 2.17–18.
Ibid., 2.21; 2.40.
Ibid., 1.2: pūrva-śāstrānˢ i samˢ hrˢ tya prayogān upalaksˢ ya ca |
Ibid., 2.18: anyonyôtkarsˢ a-śamˢ sinī. In later tradition this is ofen taken as an inde-
pendent alamˢ kāra called upameyôpamā, the purpose of which is the exclusion of any
third entity from the relationship of similarity.
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plurality of standards in the “plural” simile (X is like Y1, Y2, Y3, etc.)
highlights the outstanding quality of the tenor, the sofness of the lover’s
touch in Danˢ dˢ in’s example.

So here is one way of understanding Danˢ dˢ in’s poetics as grammar.
Within the confnes of literary convention, the author maps and for-
mally analyzes the various propositional varieties of expressing simili-
tude, for which, as we have seen, he later charts the necessary vocabulary
(what we identifed as the frst layer of his appended list). All subtypes
exemplifed above are variations and permutations on the basic formula
“your palm is red-hued like the lotus,” or X is like Y in that both are Z,
and it is this variation that is being meticulously demonstrated.
Danˢ dˢ in’s meditation on the simile is, however, by no means lim-
ited to purely structural factors. Many of his thirty-two subtypes con-
vey similitude quite diferently. Take, for instance, the following three

Is this a lotus inhabited by a pair of restless bees?
Or is it your face, containing a pair of playful eyes?
My mind constantly wavers.
Te luster of the lotus simply cannot shame the moon.
For, afer all, the moon has it defeated every evening.
Tis therefore must be nothing but your face.
Tis is no lotus; it is a face indeed.
Tese two are not bees but eyes.
Tese expressions bear no formal similarity to those we have seen in
Table 1 above. Tey do not contain any direct reference to similarity. X is
not said to be like Y. As their names imply, these statements follow not the
propositional structure of a simile but rather those of doubt (samˢ śaya),
conclusion (or resolution of doubt, nirnˢaya), and factual communi-
cation (tattvâkhyāna). It is only through conjecture mediated by cul-
tural and literary expectations that we realize that the speaker intends
Ibid., 2.40: atiśayamˢ prathayantī.
Ibid., 2. 26–7, 36:
kimˢ padmam antar-bhrāntâli kimˢ te lolêksˢ anˢamˢ mukham |
mama dolāyate cittam itîyamˢ samˢ śayôpamā ||
na padmasyêndu-nigrāhyasyêndu-lajjā-karī dyutihˢ |
atas tvan-mukham evêdam ity asau nirnˢayôpamā ||
na padmamˢ mukham evêdamˢ na bhrˢ n֛ gau caksˢ usˢ ī ime |
iti vispasˢ t ˢ a-sādrˢ śyāt tattvâkhyānôpamâiva sā ||
Te lotus closes as the moon rises.
this is no lotus, it is a face 103

to express the familiar and basic formula of similitude. We recognize
that it is the particularly conspicuous semblance (vispasˢ t ˢ a-sādrˢ śyāt) of
face and lotus, or eyes and bees, that leads the poet to experience doubt
about the identity of the entity he is facing, reach a correct conclusion
regarding its identity, or, in the fnal example, feel a need to spell it out.
What allows for the charm here is not merely the structure of the
proposition. Tere is nothing inherently pretty in an expression of an
epistemological doubt, or in a plain syllogism, which is what the second
example really consists of. Otherwise, the entire literature on logic too
would be considered poetry, something nobody wishes to claim. Like-
wise, there is no particular aesthetic pleasure in describing reality as it
is (tattvâkhyāna). In fact, we have seen Danˢ dˢ in argue that this kind of
expressivity is quite incidental to the main project of poetry, which is
the description of things not the way they are. Te efect lies rather in
the fact that these statements serve as various masks for the simile, each
with its distinct camoufage and unique charm. What readers cherish in
such statements is poetic language in disguise.
It may be more useful, then, to think of Danˢ dˢ in’s vision of poetic lan-
guage as richly intertextual, and of his linguistic analysis as a grammar
of intertextual relationships.
Tere is the basic, generic formula, for
instance “your palm is red-hued like the lotus.” Tis statement forms the
deep structure of the entire gamut of similitude. It is considered pretty in
and of itself, but at the same time generic, worn out and, hence, perhaps,
preferably relegated to an intertext from whence it could be activated.
Te vast majority of the possible expressions of similitude are not identi-
cal to it but refer to it. Tis is done either through structural permuta-
tions of the proposition itself, as we have seen above, or through a whole
set of diferent propositions which resort to vocabulary of rivalry (X
has Y defeated), relative evaluation (X is prettier than Y), doubt (is this
X or is this Y?), certainty (this must be X), and so forth. Each of these
colors the relationship of similitude in a slightly distinctive manner, but
all activate the same basic formula: X is like Y.
Indeed, it is typical of Danˢ dˢ in that the intertextual relations are intri-
cate, and build one upon the other in growing orders. For instance, the
assertion “Tis is no lotus; it is a face indeed,” possibly refers frst to
some logical reasoning in the intertext, such as the syllogism supplied by
the nirnˢaya example (“Te luster of the lotus simply cannot shame the
In my use of the term intertextuality I follow Culler 1981.
104 yigal bronner

moon . . .”). Tis conclusion, in turn, clearly necessitates an intertextual
doubt, supplied by the previous samˢ śaya example (“My mind constantly
wavers”). It is only the doubt that directly activates a deeper intertextual
layer, namely “your face is like a lotus.”
Take another set of three examples:
Te hundred-petaled lotus, the autumnal moon, and your face—
are a triumvirate of mutual enemies.
Never ever will the moon, dotted and frigid,
be able to overcome your face.
Your face is marked by the eyes of a doe;
the moon has the whole deer as its mark.
Even so, it only equals your face;
by no means can it surpass it.
Te frst illustration asserts a relationship or rivalry between three enti-
ties: the lotus with its hundred petals, the moon in the autumn, when
the sky is clear and the lunar view most glorious, and the face of one’s
beloved. Te example does not follow the proposition of similitude.
Nonetheless, the assertion of competition clearly implies and hence
activates the intertextual notion that the face is comparable to the moon
and the lotus, at their best.
Te second example, which states the
superiority of the face over the moon, already necessitates the previ-
ous statement of their being rivals, and through it, implies their sim-
ilarity. Finally, the last example comes a full way around. Within the
framework of rivalry, the outstanding faw of the moon-competitor, a
deer-shaped mark which spoils its otherwise splendid shape, is now dis-
guised, tongue-in-cheek, as an “advantage.” Te face, for its part, is in a
seeming state of disadvantage, as it possesses a much smaller mark of
the deer—its eyes. In essence, possessing eyes like that of a doe highly
enhances the face’s beauty, while the big spot dotting the surface of the
Kāvyādarśa of Danˢ dˢ in 2. 33–35:
śata-patramˢ śarac-candras tavânanam iti trayam |
paraspara-virodhîti sā virodhôpamā matā ||
na jātu śaktir indos te mukhena pratigarjitum |
kalan֛ kino jadˢ asyêti pratisˢ edhôpamâiva sā ||
mrˢ gêksˢ anˢân֛ kamˢ te vaktramˢ mrˢ genˢâivân֛ kitahˢ śaśī |
tathâpi sama evâsau nôtkarsˢ īti cat ˢ ûpamā ||
In fact, it possibly activates this basic intertext indirectly, through the “plural”
simile mentioned in Table 1.
this is no lotus, it is a face 105

moon is clearly a liability. So while the lover concludes that the face and
the moon are on par, he implies that the face is prettier. Te statement
is thus clever (cat ˢ u) fattery, and also a complex act of poetic disguise.
Similitude is concealed as a rivalry, in which the face clearly has the
upper hand, which in turn is concealed as similitude, wherein the two
entities are said to be level with one another. It is Danˢ dˢ in’s wording and
ordering of his examples which allow us to appreciate the full richness
and intertextual density of this last poetic expression.
Te principle object of Danˢ dˢ in’s analysis thus seems to be the process
of masking and revealing the basic notion of similitude, which in its bar-
est form rarely appears “on stage.” Each mask has its relationship with
the basic form, be it propositional or notional, direct or indirect, and
there seems to be a special favoring of complex series of disguises of the
sort we have exemplifed above. It is, perhaps, this very vision of poetic
analysis that Appayya Dīksˢ ita, almost a thousand years later, extended
to the role of simile in the entire “theater of poetic language,” as we saw
in the beginning of this paper.
VI. Concluding Remarks
Above we sampled from the discussion on just one alamˢ kāra, albeit a
particularly important one, which is analyzed at unusual length in what
appears to be a formative moment for the discourse of poetics. Obvi-
ously, there are limits to what we can generalize from this study, yet it
may throw some light on the project of the alamˢ kāra tradition, at least
at this early stage.
We have seen that alamˢ kāraśāstra is, in many ways, continuous with
the grammatical tradition. First, it requires a mastery of Pānˢ inian gram-
mar as a prerequisite for the study of both poetics and poetry, and builds
upon a great sensitivity to grammatical forms such as case, number, and
gender endings, various compounding techniques, syntactic structures,
and even diferent phonemes and their distinct qualities. More specif-
cally, this is a sensitivity to possible harmony or disharmony among and
between these various parts of speech. In short, alamˢ kāraśāstra neces-
sitates not only a grammarian’s knowledge but also a grammarian’s ear,
Tis rich intertextual structure of fguration is seen elsewhere in Danˢ dˢ in’s work.
See, for example, his set of illustrations for vyatireka (Kāvyādarśa 2.178–183); cf. Bron-
ner 1999, 280–1.
106 yigal bronner

trained to discern the elements of the human tongue and appreciate
their combinations.
Furthermore, there is some overlap between the concerns and prac-
tices of the two traditions. Like its older sibling, alamˢ kāraśāstra’s main
focus is linguistic. It charts poetic language and studies the way it works.
Tis analysis, of course, involves various evaluative judgments, such as
the idea that comparing a face to the moon or to a lotus is pleasing.
Yet the tradition, at least at this stage, rarely sets out to explore its own
aesthetic assumptions. Tese are mostly taken for granted. Te theo-
rists tend rather to survey, in a manner closely reminiscent of Pānˢ inian
grammar, the poetic vocabulary of alamˢ kāras such as the simile, or the
possible mismatch of genders, numbers, etc., between the compared
entities. In doing so, the poeticians follow the dual trajectories of the
grammarians, namely describing and prescribing the use of language.
Yet alamˢ kāraśāstra developed an independent analysis of poetic
expressivity, its own grammar. Within cultural values and rules of proper
use of language, writers like Danˢ dˢ in charted the varieties of “crooked
speech.” In our little sample of similitude we have seen this explora-
tion operating on two seemingly separate levels. One is a highly formal
analysis of the proposition of the simile (X is like Y) and its possible per-
mutations; the other a survey of various propositions which may serve
to suggest the same underlying formula. We saw that each has its own
vocabulary in Danˢ dˢ in’s appendix-like section. So it is possible to see a
tension between these two analytical levels. One could say, for instance,
that the frst is more directly infuenced by grammar, while the latter is
linked more closely to the tradition of logic (think, for instance, of the
labels of some the fgures in this category: samˢ śaya, nirnˢaya, hetu, etc.).
Alternatively, one could maintain that within a linguistic approach, the
former represents an orientation toward semantics and syntax, whereas
the latter is more concerned with pragmatics. One clear indication of
this tension in later tradition is the growing attention to the place of
suggestion in the alamˢ kāra system and the distinction, insisted on by
many later thinkers, between expressed fgures and those which are
But it may well be that in its earlier stages the theory was more holistic.
What some may view as a tension between formal and notional variet-
ies of the simile, or between explicit and suggestive subtypes, may have
On this dual trajectory in grammar see, for example, Houben 1997 and Pollock
this is no lotus, it is a face 107

emanated from a unifed analysis of poetic speech. Note that Danˢ dˢ in by
no means distinguishes between “layers” of analysis, he presents them
mixed together. Moreover, each sub-variety may necessitate both levels
of analysis. For instance, we have seen that the “mutual” (an-yonya) sim-
ile, clearly defned as a propositional variation on the basic formula of
similitude (rotation in revised order: X is like Y, Y is like X) also involves
a suggestion of a uniquely close relationship between the two entities.
At the same time, while a statement of “rivalry” (virodha) between the
lotus, moon, and face clearly suggests a semblance, it too is fully suscep-
tible to the formal analysis of the type we have seen in Table 1. X can
be said to be the rival of Y, or of Y1 and Y2 (as in the case of Danˢ dˢ in’s
example), while Z may or may not be mentioned.
So what we are perhaps looking at is a unifed vision of poetic lan-
guage as involving various formal and suggestive operations, as well as
others operations such as the bitextual (ślesˢ a),
which work hand in
hand to mask and reveal a single basic notion such as the similarity of
face and moon. For what is at the heart of this intertextual grammar
of poetry is the idea that poetic charm lies in language’s repertoire of
disguises, wherein each has its own specifc charm though there is, per-
haps, a special delight in complex disguises of growing orders (e.g.: A
disguised as B disguised as C, or A disguised as B disguised as A). Te
role of a thinker like Danˢ dˢ in is to chart the various disguises (occa-
sionally pointing to what is charming about them, and warning against
sloppiness in their crafing), and in doing so to suggest the intertextual
relations they imply.
Note that the larger object of Danˢ dˢ in’s study is the richly intercon-
nected feld of vakrokti, for which we can now suggest an unusual inter-
pretation. Tis speech is “crooked” not only in the sense of its truth value
but also in its mode of reference. It is not of direct referentiality, as in the
more scientifc-oriented svabhāvokti. Rather it refers indirectly (vakra),
or refexively, to another speech found in an intertext, or even to a series
of utterances. And it is this mode of expressivity, a whole web of indirec-
tion, that early ālamˢ kārikas like Danˢ dˢ in set out to chart.
A lot changed in the study of the simile in the centuries following
Danˢ dˢ in. Many of his simile subtypes were later seen as independent
alamˢ kāras.
And, as already noted, there developed a clear distinction
On the potential of ślesˢ a in poetic disguise see Bronner 1999, 475–6.
For instance samˢ śaya, or anyonya, later known as upameyopamā.
108 yigal bronner

in later literature between explicit similes and suggested ones. But these
may be viewed as relatively minor changes. It is possible to argue that
the basic analysis of crooked referentiality of the simile has not only
remained intact, but has also been extended to chart larger webs of
intertextuality, among the various alamˢ kāras. Indeed, this may be one
way to characterize the theoretical thrust of thinkers like Ruyyaka,
Appayya Dīksˢ ita, and others, though this remains to be proved by fur-
ther research.
Primary Texts
Alamˢ kārasarvasva of Ruyyaka with the Sañjīvanī of Vidyācakravartin. 1965. Eds. S.S.
Janaki and V. Raghavan. Delhi: Meharchand Lachmandas.
Citramīmāmˢ sā of Appayya Dīksˢ ita with the commentary of Dharānanda. 1971. Ed. J.C.
Misra. Varanasi: Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series Ofce.
Kāvyādarśa of Danˢ dˢ in with the commentaries Ratnaśrī, Prabhā, Hrˢ dayan֛ gamā, and
Vivrˢ ti. 1999. Ed. Y. Sharma. 4 vols. Delhi: NAG Publications.
Kāvyālamˢ kārasūtravrˢ tti of Vāmana with the commentary of Gopendra Tripuraha Gopal.
1995. Ed. H. Shastri. 2nd ed. Varanasi: Chaukhamba Surbharati Prakashan.
Secondary Texts
Arjunwadker, Krishna S. 1996. Linguistic Foundations of Sanskrit Poetics. Journal of the
Asiatic Society of Bombay 71: 23–6.
Bronner, Yigal 2002. What Is New and What Is Navya: Sanskrit Poetics on the Eve of
Colonialism. Journal of Indian Philosophy 30: 441–62.
———— 1999. “Poetry at its Extreme: Te Teory and Practice of Bitextuality (Ślesˢ a) in
South Asia.” Ph.D. diss. University of Chicago.
Culler, Jonathan 1981. Te Pursuit of Signs. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Gerow, Edwin 1977. Indian Poetics. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz.
———— 1971. A Glossary of Indian Figures of Speech. Te Hague: Mouton.
Houben, Jan 1997. “Sūtra and Bhāsˢ yasūtra in Bhartrˢ hari’s Mahābhāsˢ ya Dīpikā: On the
Teory and Practice of a Scientifc and Philosophical Genre.” In India and Beyond:
Aspects of Literature, Meaning, Ritual, and Tought: Essays in Honor of Frits Staal,
ed. by D. van der Meij. London: Kegan Paul International.
Pollock, Sheldon. 2003. “Sanskrit Literary Culture from the Inside Out.” In Literary
Cultures in History: Reconstructions from South Asia, ed. Sheldon Pollock, 39–130.
Berkeley: University of California Press.
———— 1985. “Te Teory of Practice and the Practice of Teory in Indian Intellectual
History.” Journal of American Oriental Society. 105.3: 499–519.
Martin Kern*
I. Te Imperial Vision of Chinese Writing
It is not difcult to fnd any number of utterances pointing to the supe-
rior cultural, social, and political status of writing in Chinese civiliza-
tion. Toward the end of the frst century bce, two centuries afer the
establishment of the Chinese imperial state, writing began to assume
a supreme status of cultural expression on various levels: it was seen as
the most reliable form to transmit and interpret the traditional canon;

it became the medium to proclaim a normative version of the canon by
carving it into large stone stelae that were then erected outside of the
imperial academy or in other prominent locations;
it served the needs
of the imperial bureaucracy and its class of court-appointed scholars
who formed and guarded the textual heritage in the newly established
imperial library,
and it became interpreted as a manifestation of pat-
terns of cosmic order.

* I am grateful to David Shulman and Sergio La Porta for inviting me to the truly
enlightening Jerusalem workshop and for the opportunity to present my work in this
inspiring cross-cultural context. I also wish to thank Wolfgang Behr, William G. Boltz,
Lothar von Falkenhausen, Robert E. Harrist, Jr., David Schaberg, and Ken’ichi Takashima
for their numerous excellent comments that helped much to improve the present essay.
Apparently, the frst to have claimed the superiority of the “ancient script” (guwen
古文) classics over their more recent “modern script” ( jinwen 今文) counterparts was
Liu Xin 劉歆 (d. 23). He considered the guwen texts more reliable than their jinwen
counterparts because they had been received in writing and were not just recently tran-
scribed from oral tradition; see Hanshu 1987, 36.1968–1971.
Te traditional (“Confucian”) canon was frst carved into stone (and erected outside
the imperial academy) in the late second century ce and then repeatedly through later
imperial dynasties; for a partial list of these occasions, see Nylan 2001, 48–49.
See Nylan 1999, 2000; Kern 2001.
In Eastern Han times (25–220), the key document expressing this idea is Xu Shen’s
許慎 (c. 55–c. 149) postface to his dictionary Shuowen jiezi 說文解字; see Shuowen jiezi
1988, chapter 15. For the development of the early mythology of the script as it culmi-
nated in Xu Shen’s text, see Boltz 1994, 129–155; Lewis 1999, 241–287. While building
especially on the “Appended Phrases” (“Xici” 繫辭), a late Warring States text associated
with the Classic of Changes (Yijing 易經) that derives the formation of the divinatory
trigrams and hexagrams from cosmic patterns, the Shuowen postface adds decidedly to
this mythology by extending it to the writing system.
110 martin kern
Moreover, ever since the Qin First Emperor’s (r. 221–210 bce) unif-
cation of the ofcial script soon afer founding the empire in 221 bce,
the Chinese writing system has been viewed as the key technology to
administer and culturally unify an empire that in its vast expansion con-
tained numerous varieties of the spoken Chinese language.
At the same
time, by virtue of the historical stability of the Chinese graphs, which in
general are not afected by phonetic change (although occasional excep-
tions are documented), the writing system has largely obscured the con-
tinuous linguistic developments in lexicon, grammar, and sound over
As a whole, the corpus of written texts has thus created an illusion of
linguistic stability that generated a formidable reality in its own right:
a continuous literary tradition of two millennia where any newly writ-
ten text could be enriched by expressions from various earlier written
texts without necessarily giving the appearance of stylistic antiquarian-
ism or phonetic incompatibility. In this vast imperial tradition of elite
literary writing, the very concept of culture (wen 文) was collapsed into
that of the written text (wen 文).
Tis concept of wen gave continu-
ous presence to the past. It generated a cultural history of the written
text together with the institutions to sustain it—frst and foremost the
imperial bureaucracy and its civil examination system—that remained
intact and in place throughout the rise and fall of succeeding imperial
dynasties and contributed forcefully to the image (such as Hegel’s) of the
Chinese empire as frozen in time and incapable of historical change.

See, e.g., Gernet 1999, 32–34. Note that the Chinese writing system was also adopted
to the languages of Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese; on these historical developments,
see Norman 1988, 74–82, and Ramsey 1987, 143–154.
See, e.g., Kern 2001.
One may note that the extreme graphocentrism of imperial China became a veri-
table impediment to Chinese interests in the Chinese language—not to mention interest
in other languages. While in medieval times (ca. 200–900 ce), Buddhism enriched the
Chinese dictionary by thousands of new words, discussion of this infuence, or of that
from other languages, remained marginal, compared to the discussion of the Chinese
writing system. As Wolfgang Behr has pointed out to me, the best survey of the lim-
ited evidence of premodern Chinese interest in Sanskrit is still Gulik 1956. Te frst
grammar of classical Chinese, that is, of the elite written koiné, appeared only in 1898
when Ma Jianzhong 馬建忠 (1845–1900) published his Ma shi wentong 馬氏文通 in an
explicit response to the Indo-European grammatical tradition. By this time, European
scholars had already produced grammars of classical Chinese for almost two centuries,
culminating in Georg von der Gabelentz’s (1840–1893) magisterial Chinesische Gram-
matik mit Ausschluss des niederen Stiles und der heutigen Umgangssprache of 1881. For
Western dictionaries and grammars of Chinese, and for traditional Chinese discussions
the performance of writing in western zhou china 111
Te written tradition constituted its own sovereign realm, parallel and
always superior to the reality of imperial rule;
and ever since the frst
century ce, the literary text was explicitly imbued with the capacity to
express not only human emotion and thought, but to refect the nature
and condition of social and cosmological order.

In addition to the use of writing in these various contexts, the very art
of writing Chinese graphs ruled supreme. Beginning in the second cen-
tury ce, calligraphy is the frst of the visual arts to have been discussed
and evaluated systematically.
Above and beyond painting, sculpture,
or architecture, calligraphy has always retained its status as “the most
venerated art form in China.”
Public inscriptions by recent political
leaders amply testify to the lingering cultural status and political author-
ity of the hand-written word—one may only think of Mao Zedong’s cal-
ligraphy for the title of People’s Daily as well as for the name of Peking
University, written on the university’s main gate, or of Deng Xiaoping’s
of language, see Harbsmeier 1998, 8–26, 46–107. For an excellent analysis of the (alto-
gether limited) premodern Chinese refections on language change, see Behr 2005a.
As Lewis 1999, 4, has noted: “[T]he culminating role of writing in the [Warring
States] period, and the key to its importance in imperial China, was the creation of par-
allel realities within texts that claimed to depict the entire world. Such worlds created in
writing provided models for the unprecedented enterprise of founding a world empire,
and they underwrote the claims of authority of those who composed, sponsored, or
interpreted them. One version of these texts ultimately became the frst state canon of
imperial China, and in this capacity it served to perpetuate the dream and the reality of
the imperial system across the centuries . . . [T]he Chinese empire, including its artistic
and religious versions, was based on an imaginary realm created within texts. Tese
texts, couched in an artifcial language above the local world of spoken dialects, created
a model of society against which actual institutions were measured.” I agree with two
qualifcations: frst, the fact that texts maintained the same form over large geographic
distances and several millennia certainly set them in contrast to the synchronic plurality
of dialects and diachronic multiplicity of language change—but this does not mean that
classical Chinese is an artifcial language. Second, Lewis’s emphasis on the written text
is to some extent appropriate for imperial China from late Western Han times onward.
However, for the earlier period—the actual focus of Lewis’s book—it exerts considerable
scholastic pressure in order to force a wide and diverse range of cultural phenomena
under the single paradigm of the written text. For extensive reviews of Lewis’s work, see
Nylan 2000 and Kern 2000. A book that pursues a thesis similar to Lewis’s is Connery
1998. Unfortunately, it lacks basic sinological competence.
For a compilation of the relevant early texts, see Guo Shaoyu 1988; cf. Liu 1975,
Owen 1992.
Remarks about calligraphy begin to surface with Cui Huan 崔瑗 (77–142), Zhao Yi
趙壹 (f. 178), and more substantially, with Cai Yong 蔡邕 (133–192); see Zheng Xiaohua
1999, 46–60; Wang Zhenyuan 1996, 9–24; Nylan 1999a, 46–53.
Bunnell and Fong 1999, 9.
112 martin kern
writing of the name of the National Library of China that was inscribed
onto the library’s newly built home in 1987. In highly charged mani-
festations of writing like these, calligraphy has always been regarded as
expressive of exemplary personality and virtuous rulership on the one
hand, and as the public display of civilization and Chinese cultural iden-
tity on the other.
In such contexts, writing transcends its two basic
functions of storing and circulating knowledge. Or more precisely, the
knowledge that is stored in the public inscription, and that is circulated
to the community in the form of public display, refers not merely to the
meaning of its words but also to the person who inscribed them and
to the cultural status and political authority of public calligraphy itself.
Such calligraphy is an emblem of both culture and sovereignty. Te sov-
ereignty extends beyond the social into the natural realm: beginning
with the Qin First Emperor’s seven stone stelae that were erected on
mountain tops during the frst decade afer the founding of the empire
in 221 bce, texts have been literally inscribed into landscapes, either on
stelae or into the natural stone itself. In these locations, public calligra-
phy transforms a natural site into a site of civilization and human his-
tory. Here, as in the political inscriptions in the capital, the calligraphic
text constitutes the site as what it now is (and has not been before) and
connects it forever to the person of the inscriber.
In the present essay, I examine such representation in the context of
the early development of Chinese writing, discussing the specifc politi-
cal, social, and religious circumstances in which its function of public
display emerged. While inscriptions of ostentatious display are already
documented among the Late Shang (ca. 1200–ca. 1045 bce) oracle
my particular focus is on the bronze inscriptions of the Western
Zhou (ca. 1045–771 bce), and here especially on those from the Middle
Western Zhou period (beginning with the reign of King Mu 穆 [r. 956–
918]) and afer. Tese inscriptions not only show an increasingly accen-
tuated use of calligraphy. Tey also, in a way the Shang oracle carvings
and the very early Western Zhou bronze inscriptions do not, mention
“Public display” is Michael Nylan’s term; see Nylan 2005.
For the stele inscriptions of the First Emperor, see Kern 2000a. Te most important
study of landscape inscription is going to be Harrist, forthcoming. See also Owen 1986,
Tis display character manifests itself in some instances of unusually large graphs, in
a sometimes careful pigmentation of the incised writing, and in the commonly observed
approximate symmetry of the text; see Keightley 1978, 46, 54, 56, 76–77, 83–84, 89.
the performance of writing in western zhou china 113
certain ofcials in charge of formalized writing, and they give account of
the presentation of written texts in contexts of social and political ritual.
In a number of bronze inscriptions, furthermore, ofcials in charge of
writing identify themselves with their titles and—implicitly or explic-
itly—display the exalted status of certain kinds of texts and their ritual
However, when referring to early writing as “public display,” we need
to keep in mind that oracle bone and bronze inscriptions were certainly
not on display in the way modern inscriptions on monumental build-
ings are. For one, not only oracle bones but also bronze vessels are rela-
tively small objects, and their inscriptions are visible only upon close
and careful inspection. In fact, as has ofen been noted, they are cast
on the inside of bronze vessels which means that during the sacrifces,
they were covered with the sacrifcial oferings and hence completely
Tey cannot have been meant to be read during the sacri-
fces, and we do not have any records suggesting that they were displayed
or read—as opposed to simply stored in the darkness of the ancestral
temple—at other times. Furthermore, there was no “public” audience in
early China as it existed, for example, in early Greece. All this, however,
does not mean that objects and texts had no “public” representation or
were devoid of any display function. Te—however limited—“public”
was the prominent lineage group of high status and its guests, in the case
of the royal house also including high-ranking ofcials as well as diplo-
mats from subordinate regions.
Tis audience was an insider audience,
but it comprised a cultural and political elite that did not need to inspect
a bronze vessel and its inscription up close in order to know about and
comprehend its representational nature. What counted, in general, was
the sheer presence of the artifact. Te same was probably still true even
for the First Emperor’s stele inscriptions on mountains—texts that were
certainly monumental but at the same time also removed. We do not
assume that large numbers of people actually climbed the mountains
See, e.g., Kane 1982–83. In Western Zhou times, the major exception to this are
inscriptions on bells, which are placed on the bells’ exterior. But even these inscrip-
tions are too small to be visible from a distance, and their texts are ofen arranged in a
rather irregular fashion—even running in diferent directions wherever there is space
not occupied by ornament—across the body of the bell, including their backside.
I leave aside here the complex question of whether or not the bronze inscriptions
were primarily directed not at the living humans (including their descendants) but at the
ancestral spirits; cf. Falkenhausen 1993, 145–152 and Venture 2002.
114 martin kern
and read the inscriptions. It was enough to know about the inscriptions,
and this knowledge certainly existed among the limited “public” of the
elite. It is in this specifc sense that I refer to early bronze writing as a
form of “public display.”
Yet in suggesting at all an early origin for the display aspect of Chi-
nese writing, I also do not wish to contribute to the ofen-encountered
sweeping claims that posit a general continuity in the nature, purposes
and signifcance of the written text across three millennia. Quite to the
contrary, I believe that in order to put the characteristic uses and spe-
cifc prestige of early Chinese writing into focus, we need to frst liberate
ourselves from a cluster of later imperial concepts. In imperial times, the
earlier ritual practice that accommodated the most exalted manifesta-
tion of the written text was but memory—indeed a memory scarcely
—eclipsed by the expansive use and theorization of writing for
a multiplicity of public purposes. Down to the present day, it has proven
difcult to imagine the pre-imperial period as fundamentally diferent
from later times in terms of the role and signifcance of writing.
example, the idea that the Zhou “were people who liked to write books,”
frst expressed almost seventy years ago, was only recently reiterated.

Te only passage explaining the rationale behind bronze inscriptions is a late pas-
sage—pre-imperial or from Han times—in the Liji 禮記 (Liji 1987, 49.378c–379a), ret-
rospectively rationalizing a practice that by the time of the composition of the Liji had
almost completely ceased to exist. According to this passage, “In an inscription (ming),
one appreciates and expounds the virtue and excellence of one’s ancestors; one displays
their achievements and brilliance, their eforts and toils, their honors and distinctions,
and their fame and name (ming) to All under Heaven; and one deliberates all these in
[inscribing] the sacrifcial vessel. In doing so, one accomplishes one’s own name (ming)
in order to sacrifce to one’s ancestors. One extols and glorifes the ancestors and by this
venerates flial piety . . . Terefore, when a gentleman looks at an inscription (ming), he
praises those who are commended there, and he praises the one who has made [the
inscription].” (銘者, 論譔其先祖之有德善, 功烈勳勞慶賞聲名列於天下, 而酌之祭
器; 自成其名焉, 以祀其先祖者也。顯揚先祖, 所以崇孝也。。。是故君子之觀於銘
也, 既美其所稱, 又美其所為。) It is not possible to date this passage even by a particu-
lar century. Terefore, one might speculate that its discussion of ming 銘 (“inscription”)
and ming 名 (“name”) was, perhaps, still a genuine refection of an early etymological
fgure, and not yet a mere paronomastic pun.
A truly splendid example of how Chinese writing is viewed entirely from the impe-
rial perspective has been given in the exhibition (and its catalogue) “L’empire du trait” at
the Bibliothèque nationale de France, March 16–June 20, 2004.
See Creel 1937, 255, as approvingly quoted by Shaughnessy 1997, 6. Shaughnessy
has repeatedly expressed his belief in the general prevalence of writing in Western Zhou
culture; see Shaughnessy 1997, 1–12; 1999, 297–299; 2003. For critiques of this approach
to Western Zhou history and its sources, see Falkenhausen 1993, 139–195 and Schaberg
2001, 477–481.
the performance of writing in western zhou china 115
However, the rhetoric about writing as the ultimate expression of cul-
ture, as we fnd it from the late frst century bce onward, is decidedly
an imperial phenomenon. Over the entire frst millennium for which
we have evidence of the Chinese script, beginning in ca. 1200 bce, such
rhetoric is virtually absent. Across the actual abundance of pre-imperial
texts, there are very few statements assigning particular signifcance to
writing. Te one text that most explicitly praises writing for its particu-
lar capacities to preserve and transmit knowledge is Mozi 墨子 (Mas-
ter Mo), a diverse compendium of multiple layers that probably extend
from the fourth through the second centuries bce and thus postdate the
Western Zhou period by several centuries.
Unsurprisingly, given the
Mozi’s strong stand of antiritualism and frugality, the text never empha-
sizes what seem to have been among writing’s most prominent func-
tions in Zhou times, namely, those of ritual display and representation
of status.
II. Who Were the Writers in the Early Period?
Tere is no single word in the early Chinese language to denote the
functionaries of writing, and none of the several terms available distin-
guishes ofcials in charge of writing clearly from other court appointees
such as ritual ofcers or high-level royal aides. Te most common term
for functionaries of writing is shi 史, but its wide occurrence throughout
Chinese history has proven resistant to any single understanding. It is
variously translated as “scribe” or “clerk,” “historian,” “historiographer,”
or “archivist,” “ritualist,” or “astrologer.” Each of these terms is appropri-
ate if used according to specifc historical circumstances, although rarely
does any of them exhaust the functions of a shi at any time in history.
Mozi 1986, 2.62, 4.111, 5.119, 7.185–186, 7.196, 8.214–215, 9.250, 9.254, 12.407–
408, 13.431.
While the present paper is concerned with the Western Zhou period, one may
also mention the display function of writing as it fgures prominently in certain Eastern
Zhou texts. One example is the Zhouli where numerous ofcers are in charge of reading
out loud various kinds of written texts on specifc occasions. Among the ofcials in the
Ministry of War (“Xia guan” 夏官), the Manager of Rewards (si xun 司勳) inscribes
the names of meritorious persons onto the king’s great standard (taichang 太常).
Among the ofcials in the Ministry of Justice (“Qiu guan” 秋官), the Chief Judge (shi shi
士師) suspends tablets inscribed with prohibitions from public gates, and the Enforcer
of Agreements (si yue 司約) inscribes legal contracts into bronze vessels for use in the
ancestral temple.
116 martin kern
Archaeological and historical evidence shows that in late War-
ring States and early imperial times, large numbers of low-level clerks
designated as shi were employed by local governments to keep legal,
administrative, economic, and other records. Teir activities match
the defnition of shi in the early character dictionary Shuowen jiezi
說文解字 of ca. 100 ce, where shi is glossed as “recorder of afairs” ( jishi
zhe 記事者).
In the late third and early second centuries bce, the posi-
tion of the shi served as an entry-level appointment to the local admin-
istration. According to excavated documents from two separate tombs,
such appointments were received at the age of sixteen and eighteen years,
An analysis of the word shi based on historical phonology
indeed shows the act of writing as rooted in administrative purposes,
with shi—like shi 士, shi 事, shi 使, li 吏, etc.—being closely related to
li 理, “to mark.”
Such an interpretation of shi may tie the term to the
actual practice of writing in its basic function (and to the late Warring
States and early imperial evidence from excavated manuscripts). It fur-
ther corresponds well to the considerable number of low-level clerks—a
total of 1095—that are mentioned in the various sections of the Zhouli
周禮 (Te ritual institutions of the Zhou), a work perhaps from the
fourth or third century bce that presents an idealized, cosmologically
charged royal bureaucracy of the Zhou.
In the Zhouli, these clerks are
unranked commoners and listed toward the bottom of the bureaucratic
hierarchy, below the “storehouse keepers” ( fu 府) and above only the
“aides” (xu 胥) and “runners” (tu 徒).

However, despite circumstantial but incontrovertible evidence of
archival and administrative writing at the Late Shang and Western
Zhou royal courts,
the low-level governmental clerks do not appear in
Shuowen jiezi 1988, 3B.20b.
Te major archaeological evidence comes from the excavated tombs Shuihudi 睡
虎地 (Yunmeng 雲夢, Hubei) tomb no. 11 (sealed 217 bce) and Zhangjiashan 張家山
(Jingzhou 荊州, Hubei 湖北) tomb no. 247 (sealed 186 bce); see Zhangjiashan 2001,
203; Brashier 2003; Xu Fuchang 1993, 8–14, 358–360, 378–382; Hulsewé 1985, 1, 39n4,
87. For detailed discussion, see Kern 2003.
See Behr 2005a, 15–18, also Kern 2003.
New scholarship on the cosmological nature of the Zhouli is long overdue; for
some concise remarks on how this text provides a comprehensive vision of “the state as
a replica or image of the cosmos,” see Lewis 1999, 42–48.
Tey are mentioned not in the actual descriptions of the various government
ofces but merely listed in the introductory summaries of the diferent ministries; see
Kern 2003.
For a treatment of these functions of early Chinese writing, see Bagley 2004.
the performance of writing in western zhou china 117
Western Zhou bronze inscriptions. Equally absent are the “historians”
or “archivists,” as the term shi was commonly used in imperial times.
While there can be no doubt that the Western Zhou and their successors
produced and kept historical records, no bronze inscription and no pas-
sage of the Odes (Shi 詩), Documents (Shu 書), or Changes (Yi 易)—our
main sources of transmitted texts that presumably date in part from
Western Zhou times—portrays a shi as “writing history” in any mean-
ingful later sense of the word, or as a person responsible for “archiving”
Instead, we see a class of ofcials in charge and in control
of the written word who ranked among the highest dignitaries at the
Zhou royal court. To distinguish these ofcers from the menial “clerks”
just mentioned, I will refer to them as “Secretaries” (with the capital “S”
denoting the title, not the function).
In Western Zhou bronze inscrip-
tions, the high-level Secretaries are involved in the ceremonial present-
ing of written texts during important court rituals. Tey are mentioned
as shi but also repeatedly as neishi 內史 (Secretary of the Interior), neishi
yin 內史尹 (Overseer of the Secretariate of the Interior), waishi 外史
(Secretary of the Exterior), yushi 御史 (Secretary in Royal Attendance),
or taishi 大史 (Grand Secretary); in addition, a number of other epithets
appear only once each before shi. Another designation for what appears
to have been the same ofce is zuoce 作冊 (Maker of Records); there
also are zuoce yin 作冊尹 (Overseer of the Makers of Records), or just
yin 尹 (Overseer [of the shi and zuoce]).
In some inscriptions, two of
these terms are combined into a single designation, as in zuoce neishi
作冊內史. According to the evidence from the bronze inscriptions, the
Maker of Records was as high a ritual ofcer as the Secretary and by no
Pace Shaughnessy 1991, 1, passim, and Cook 1995, 252–255, among others.
Te term was also proposed by Creel 1970, 110. Creel points out that in modern
use, “secretary” refers not only to menial writing but is also used “to denote ofces of
great power and responsibility, as in Secretary of State,” and that the term “originally
meant one entrusted with secrets and employed in confdential missions.” However,
since Creel’s work, the term “secretary” seems to have been largely forgotten; the com-
mon English translation is now “scribe.” I consider this a regression, even though for the
Western Zhou period, the relatively neutral “scribe” seems still better than “archivist,”
“secretarial staf,” or “historiographer,” as one fnds shi rendered in the other major Eng-
lish language outline of Western Zhou history and culture, that is, Hsu and Linduf 1988,
245–246, 254–255.
See the discussion in Zhang Yachu and Liu Yu 1986, 26–36; Chen Hanping 1986,
119–129; Wong Yin-wai 1978, 128–137; Lai Changyang and Liu Xiang 1985; Cook 1995,
250–255; and, most extensively, Xi Hanjing 1983.
118 martin kern
means confned to the clerical work that may be suggested by his desig-
nation; indeed, the two terms may have designated the same ofce.

As will be discussed in greater detail below, the available Western
Zhou bronze inscriptions show these functionaries of writing in two
separate capacities: on the one hand as donors of their own sacrifcial
vessels, on the other hand as court ofcials that are mentioned in vessels
of other donors.
Among the many hundreds of Western Zhou bronze
inscriptions documented and discussed in the monumental compila-
tion prepared by Shirakawa Shizuka 白川靜,
twenty-two show Secre-
taries or Makers of Records as donors.
Fourteen of these inscriptions
were cast with their vessels during the Early Western Zhou period end-
ing with King Zhao 昭 (r. 977/75–957 bce);
for ten of these, the donor
is a Maker of Records;
for one, it is a Grand Secretary,
and for three,
a Secretary.
Eight inscriptions with Makers of Records or Secretaries
as donors were cast during the Middle Western Zhou (956–858 bce)
and Late Western Zhou (857–771 bce) periods. Of these, only one is
a Maker of Records,
while seven are Secretaries.
Tus, two thirds of
the vessels cast for functionaries of writing come from the Early West-
ern Zhou period, mostly with a Maker of Records as donor. During the
Wang Guowei 1975, 6.5a–6a, identifes the Secretary of the Interior as a top-level
government ofcial (fully supported by the analyses of Zhang Yachu and Liu Yu 1986,
Xi Hanjing 1983, and Chen Hanping 1986, all of them based on a much larger corpus
of inscriptions). According to Wang, zuoce neishi is yet another designation of the ofce
that is otherwise called either zuoce or neishi. On the origin and function of the zuoce,
the most comprehensive study is Shirakawa 1974.
Xi Hanjing 1973, 41–112, lists a total of 129 early scribes by name, 54 of which
occuring in inscriptions, the others in much later received texts.
Shirakawa 1962–84. In the following, I cite Shirakawa in the format “Volume.Pages
(# Entry).”
In addition, Shirakawa’s collection includes three post-Western Zhou vessels with
Secretaries as donors; see 37.244–253 (# 207), 39.471–473 (# 221), and 39.523–524
(# 226).
All dates of Zhou kings afer Shaughnessy (1991).
Shirakawa 4.167–172 (# 15), 5.236–244 (# 22), 5.245–247 (# 22a), 6.255–275 (# 24),
6.276–309 (# 25), 6.319–326 (# 26), 8.440–449 (# 42), 10.589–596 (# 58), 11.628–646
(# 60c), 13.744–745 (# 64a). Note that sometimes, identical inscriptions are cast on two
or more vessels (or are repeated on the lid of a vessel). In all these cases, I count the
inscription only once.
Shirakawa 8.433–439 (# 41).
Shirakawa 2.77–83 (# 6), 7.366–372 (# 33), 9.514–518 (# 50).
Shirakawa 19.370–376 (# 105).
Shirakawa 20.383–390 (# 107), 21.474–478 (# 115e), 21.484–490 (# 117), 24.174–
186 (# 138), 24.186–187 (# 138a), 39.523–524 (# 226), 50.335–369 (hô-# 15).
the performance of writing in western zhou china 119
Middle and Late Western Zhou periods, such inscriptions are signif-
cantly less frequent (especially considering that the overall number of
inscriptions increased substantially during these periods), and they are
now mostly cast for a Secretary. Considering the accidental and frag-
mentary nature of the archaeological record, we do not know to which
extent the inscriptions compiled by Shirakawa (or those of any other
may serve as a representative cross section of the original
totality of Western Zhou bronze texts. If anything, they indicate general
tendencies; they do not lend themselves to statistically valid conclu-
sions. Only with this caveat in mind, it can be instructive to consider the
available inscriptions for what they show, and then to see how mutually
independent sets of data from both excavated and transmitted sources
converge toward a more or less coherent picture. It is in this spirit that
the following observations and suggestions are delivered.
In Shirakawa’s corpus, inscriptions of other donors where shi, nei-
shi, taishi, zuoce, or yin appear as actual functionaries of writing show
the following distribution: in Early Western Zhou times, one fnds one
zuoce, one taishi, one neishi, and three shi. In inscriptions dating from
the Middle and Late Western Zhou periods, there are one zuoce, three
taishi, seventeen shi, twenty neishi, two zuoce neishi, eight zuoce yin,
three neishi yin, and eight yin. Judging from the current archaeologi-
cal record, inscriptions for other donors that mention functionaries of
writing increase dramatically in Middle and Late Western Zhou times,
the reason being a probably new type of ritual described on bronze
vessels (see below). Furthermore, matching the survey of inscriptions
with shi or zuoce as donors, it appears that from Middle Western Zhou
times onward, occurrences of shi far outnumber those of zuoce. In par-
ticular, the title of the neishi appears in only one Early Western Zhou
but becomes the most prominent one in Middle and Late
Afer the publication of Shirakawa’s volumes, a signifcant number of inscribed
vessels have been excavated and published in various venues. Tey do not, however,
change the overall conclusions presented here.
Shirakawa 11.591–605 (# 59); for a translation of the inscription, see Dobson 1962,
194–195. Te vessel, variously known as “Zhou gong-gui” 周公 , “Zhou gong-yi”
周公彝, “Xing hou-gui” 邢侯 , “Xing hou-yi” 邢侯彝, or “Rong zuo Zhou gong-gui”
作周公 , carries an inscription that is unique in one important point: it mentions
the king addressing the vessel donor Rong together with the Secretary of the Interior. It
closes with Rong saying that he has now “used the bamboo-written royal charge to make
this sacrifcial vessel in honor of the Duke of Zhou” (yong ce wang ling zuo Zhou gong
yi 用冊王令作周公彝). I thus take it as a very early, not yet codifed representation of
the ceremony that inscriptions from the Middle Western Zhou period onward describe
120 martin kern

Western Zhou bronze texts, further suggesting a historical develop-
ment in the use of these ofcial titles.
One reason for this might be that
many of the Early Western Zhou Makers of Records seem to have been
of Eastern, that is, Shang dynasty, descent.
Both the Secretaries and
the Makers of Records appear as ofcers of divination in the Late Shang;
especially the latter seem to have been recruited to serve also under the
Western Zhou, with their hereditary title perhaps maintained from gen-
eration to generation.
Regardless of the specifc designation, the high
status of these royal ofcers of writing throughout Western Zhou times
is evident from their impressive presence as donors of ritual vessels.
Focusing on the evidence from the bronze inscriptions, the Odes, and
the Documents, numerous palaeographic interpretations of the ancient
graph 史 have been advanced to determine the meaning of the word
Building to some extent upon Wang Guowei’s 王國維 (1877–1927)
infuential analysis (which in turn is based on the work of several Qing
dynasty [1644–1912] scholars),
Shirakawa Shizuka has suggested that
the early graph 史 seems to depict the ofering of a basket of inscribed
slips upward, namely, to the ancestral spirits. From this perspective, the
function of the shi—if not the function of writing altogether—has ofen
both frequently and in a highly standardized format (see below). In the present inscrip-
tion, the Secretary of the Interior is probably not a donor but the functionary who has
presented the written royal charge to Rong.
For this development, see also Zhang Yachu and Liu Yu 1986, 29–30, 34–36.
While this is now widely assumed, Lothar von Falkenhausen has rightly reminded
me of both the beautiful pre-dynastic (that is, pre-Shang conquest) Zhou oracle bone
inscriptions and the fact that from the beginning, Western Zhou inscriptions difered
appreciably from their Shang dynasty predecessors. Evidently, the practice of Chinese
writing, and also of Shang ritual, was more broadly disseminated among the Zhou (and
perhaps other neighboring peoples?) already before the fall of the Shang, and its general
reception by the Zhou did not entirely depend on the conquest and the subsequent
inheritance of Shang functionaries.
See Shirakawa 1974; Xi Hanjing 1983, 20–29; Wong Yin-wai 1978, 100; Shaugh-
nessy 1991, 166–168; Lau 1999, 59, 88. For the appearance of Secretaries and Makers
of Records in Late Shang oracle bone inscriptions, see Chen Mengjia 1956, 517–521; Xi
Hanjing 1983, 20–29. In Chen Mengjia’s survey of Late Shang governmental ofces, he
groups the diviners together with the functionaries of writing, making it clear that both
groups were concerned with divination and sacrifce. It is noteworthy that even a full
millennium later, in a Zhangjiashan bamboo manuscript dated 186 bce, the administra-
tive clerk (shi) is discussed together with the invocator or priest (zhu 祝); see Zhangjia-
shan 2001, 203–204; Kern 2003.
For a recent example in this tradition, see Kominami Ichirô 1999. Altogether, the
literature on shi is vast; see the bibliographic information in Behr 2005a, 15, Cook 1995,
250–254, Gentz 2001, 9. A good range of graphic interpretations is included in Ma-
tsumaru and Takashima 1994, # 0004, 0024, 3371, 3425, 5881.
For discussions preceding Wang Guowei’s, see Xi Hanjing 1983, 12–17, 137–140.
the performance of writing in western zhou china 121
been seen as having originated in a religious context.
However, the
fallacy of interpreting graphs to literally “decipher” the meaning of the
words they are writing has been pointed out repeatedly.

While the above-mentioned phonological analysis of the word shi
puts into doubt (if not to rest) the speculations about the graph 史, it
does not invalidate the conclusion by Wang Guowei, Shirakawa, and
many others that the primary function of the Secretaries and Makers
of Records that appear in Late Shang and Western Zhou inscriptions
is religious, political, and ritualistic (and clerical only to the extent that
writing is used to lend particular efcacy to ritual speech). In order to
appreciate writing in this ritual context one does not need to suppose
that it actually originated from this context, that it was largely confned
to it, or that it in any way impeded the use of administrative writing.

Whatever manifestations of menial clerical writing there were in West-
ern Zhou China have long since perished and do not surface in the rep-
resentation of writing in our available sources. Tis is mainly due to the
fact that the bronze inscriptions as well as the ritual hymns and speeches
from the Odes and Documents are without exception of ritualistic nature
and purpose. As such, they are focused on the particular ceremonial
performance of the high-level Secretary, Maker of Records, and Over-
seer, exalting writing as a display of strictly codifed political and reli-
gious expresssion in the contexts of the court audience and the ancestral
sacrifce. In other words, of all its manifestations of writing during the
Western Zhou period, the Chinese tradition has chosen to preserve only
a very limited body of strictly ritualistic texts. Moreover, for writing,
the Western Zhou elites themselves restricted the use of the precious,
non-perishable material of bronze to texts that were to be presented in
ceremonial (mostly religious) contexts—a fact that speaks eloquently to
the signifcance of writing as ritual display.
Wang Guowei 1975; Shirakawa 1974a; also the earlier Chinese discussion recapitu-
lated by Xi Hanjing 1983.
Important studies debunking this approach include Boltz 1994 and Takashima
2000; see also DeFrancis 1984 and Unger 2004.
For the hypothesis that Chinese writing frst developed in religious contexts and
from there became extended to profane purposes, see also Lewis 1999, 28; for a brief
critique, see Kern 2003; for an extensive discussion of early administrative writing, see
Bagley 2004. I have changed my mind on this point, compared to Kern 1996 and 1997.
122 martin kern
III. Western Zhou Writing in Early Received Sources
A review of the representation of writing in Western Zhou texts may
begin with the small number of pertinent passages in the received lit-
erature. Te core layer of the Changes, originally a divination handbook,
does not include any references to writing. In the Odes, an anthology of
305 songs, references to writing appear only in a few ritual hymns that
were performed at court banquets. In Ode 193, “Shi yue zhi jiao” 十月
之交 (At the sun-moon conjunction in the tenth month), the Secre-
tary of the Interior is mentioned among the highest dignitaries of the
royal court.
In Ode 220, “Bin zhi chu yan” 賓之初筵 (When the guests
frst sit down on their mats), an admonition against drunkenness, a shi
serves as an assistant to an inspector who takes note of those who are
drunk at a lavish court banquet.
In Ode 168, “Chu ju” 出車 (We move
the chariots out), soldiers express their fear of the “writing on bamboo
slips” ( jianshu 簡書), that is, the royal military charge they are obliged
to fulfll.
It is impossible to historicize these poems precisely,
but the

Legge 1985a, 322; Karlgren 1950a, 139.
Legge 1985a, 399; Karlgren 1950a, 174. Here, shi might indicate a lower-level
Legge 1985a, 264; Karlgren 1950a, 112.
So far, eforts to do so have been impressionistic and methodologically defcient.
For example, no song has to be contemporaneous with the historical situation it seems
to speak about; any song—and any transmitted royal speech—can be a retrospective
creation composed in part or completely of the imagined words of the original situa-
tion. Moreover, linguistic arguments may indicate general tendencies of development
over the course of the Western Zhou period but have not been successful to determine
specifc dates of individual texts. Rhyme, for example, occurs already in the earliest
bronze inscriptions (Behr 1996, 86, pace Shaughnessy 1983, 37), and so does—if still
only to a limited extent nowhere near its frequency and regularity in the Odes (Behr
2005, 116)—the tetrasyllabic meter. Likewise, an attempt to establish the third-person
possessive pronoun use of the word qi 其 as a linguistic phenomenon emerging only
in mid-Western Zhou times—so that its occurence in individual received texts may be
taken as a terminus post quem for their composition (Shaughnessy 1997, 165–195)—is
problematic on at least three accounts: frst, the sample of texts is both too small and too
homogeneous to be statistically meaningful. Second, as recently excavated manuscripts
of ancient texts—especially the Odes—with transmitted counterparts show, grammatical
particles (xuci 虛辭) like qi were particularly prone to change during the early course of
transmission (Kern 2005). Tird, the distinction between an earlier pre-verbal “modal”
use of qi (expressing hope or expectation) and a later pronominal use is linguistically
dubious. As noted by Ken’ichi Takashima (personal communication August 1, 2004),
the two grammatical functions are “in origin the same thing. Tat is, qi as third-person
possessive pronoun is the earliest and original, and the modal function of it is only an
ofshoot of its function . . . We cannot possibly derive the possessive pronominal qi from
the modal particle.”
the performance of writing in western zhou china 123
common division of the Western Zhou dynasty into Early, Middle, and
Late periods remains useful. Te three songs that mention the practice
of writing are all in the “Minor elegantiae” (xiaoya 小雅) section of the
Odes anthology and are hence commonly placed either toward the end
of the Western Zhou or later. To phrase things the other way around:
none of the sacrifcial “Zhou eulogia” (Zhou song 周頌) that are believed
to come from Early Western Zhou times and none of the “Major elegan-
tiae” (daya 大雅) that may date from the Middle or Late period of the
dynasty contain references to writing.
In the royal speeches that comprise the early layers of the Documents,
Secretaries and writings on bamboo are mentioned in a number of
In “Jin teng” 金縢 (Te metal-bound cofer), the Secretary
initially presents the Duke of Zhou’s 周公 written prayer/invocation
(ce zhu 冊祝); when the writing is later recovered, the Secretariate is
consulted about its contents.
In “Jiu gao” 酒誥 (Te announcement
about alcohol), both the Grand Secretary and the Secretary of the Inte-
rior are mentioned among the high dignitaries, as the Grand Secretary
is mentioned in “Li zheng” 立政 (Te establishment of government)
I do not include here the self-referential statements by which several Odes point to
their own composition. Tere are altogether twelve instances of this: two in the “Airs of
the states” (guofeng 國風), the section believed to be the latest of the anthology (Odes
107, 141; Legge 1985a, 164, 210; Karlgren 1950a, 69, 89); fve in the “Minor elegantiae”
(Odes 162, 191, 199, 200, 204; Legge 1985a, 249, 314, 346, 349, 359; Karlgren 1950a,
105, 134, 150, 152, 156); and fve in the “Major elegantiae” (Odes 252, 253, 257, 259,
260; Legge 1985a, 495, 498, 527, 540, 545; Karlgren 1950a, 210, 212, 223, 228, 230). In
no case does the self-referential statement refer to the writing of a song. Te verb com-
monly used is zuo 作 (“to make”), and its object is “song” (ge 歌), “recitation” (song
誦), “ode” (shi 詩), “admonition” ( jian 諫), or “satire” (ci 刺). Of these twelve songs,
four refer to their composer by name. Two of these composers (a Jiafu 家父 in Ode 191
and a Mengzi 孟子 in Ode 200) are otherwise unknown, while Odes 259 and 260 (both
“Major elegantiae”) mention a certain Jifu 吉甫 whom some scholars identify with a
military commander of this name who served under King Xuan 宣 (827–782 bce) and
is mentioned both in Ode 177 and in several bronze inscriptions (Lau 1999, 130). As I
will argue below, the production of written texts fts well into this Late Western Zhou
reign, and it is entirely possible—but not at all certain—that the Jifu of Odes 259 and 260
is the commander mentioned elsewhere. It is worth noting, however, that in both Odes,
Jifu “has made this recitation” (zuo song 作誦) which, if anything, points to the composi-
tion-qua-performance and not—at least not explicitly—to the writing of the song.
Te Documents chapters discussed here all belong to the authentic “modern text”
version of the text, and within that version, they come from the earlier chapters.
Legge 1985, 353, 359–360; Karlgren 1950, 35–36. Here and in the following, refer-
ences to Legge and Karlgren are given for convenience; as will become clear below, I
disagree with many of their translations.
124 martin kern
and “Gu ming” 顧命 (Te testamentary charge).
In “Shao gao” 召
誥 (Te announcement of the Duke of Shao), the Duke uses a written
text (shu 書) during the court audience to give out charges.
In “Luo
gao” 洛誥 (Te announcement concerning Luo), the king frst orders a
Maker of Records to announce a written prayer/invocation and, later, a
written charge.
In “Duo shi” 多士 (Te many ofcers), the king men-
tions the bamboo documents (ce 冊) and statutes (dian 典) of the for-
mer dynasty.
In “Gu ming,” the late king’s testamentary charge is frst
recorded on bamboo slips; later, in an elaborate ceremony, the Grand
Secretary presents the recorded charge to the new king.
In “Lü xing”
呂刑 (Te punishments of Lü), the king refers to a written penal code
(xingshu 刑書).
Most of these Documents chapters are assumed to date
from Western Zhou times, with only “Te metal-bound cofer” and
“Te punishments of Lü” being considered to postdate the period by
some unspecifable measure. Another text possibly of Western Zhou
the Yi Zhou Shu 逸周書 (Remnant Zhou Documents) chapter
“Shi fu” 世俘 (Te great capture) that relates the Zhou conquest of the
Shang, notes that the victorious Zhou King Wu 武 asked the Secretary
to recite a document (shu 書—announcing the King’s military success
and establishment of the new dynasty?) to Heaven.
Te evidence for dating the written composition of any of these
texts seems thin and dubious. So far, there is no serious methodology
or compelling factual evidence to bolster the traditional belief in very
early dates of composition. Virtually no efort has been made to identify
the institutional framework for the early performance, recording, and
preservation of the royal speeches, and little has been thought about
the purpose of such recording and preservation. It is adventurous to
think of these exalted utterances as eforts to provide historical informa-
tion to be archived for future generations. Te speeches were not talk-
ing facts; delivering shared communal ideas in formulaic diction, they
were creating legitimacy both for the speakers and their successors. Te
speeches’ imposing and ritualistic rhetoric served to portray their royal
Legge 1985, 410, 515, 557; Karlgren 1950, 45, 68, 71.
Legge 1985, 424; Karlgren 1950, 48.
Legge 1985, 451–452; Karlgren 1950, 55.
Legge 1985, 460; Karlgren 1950, 56.
Legge 1985, 549–551, 558; Karlgren 1950, 70–71.
Legge 1985, 608; Karlgren 1950, 78.
As argued by Shaughnessy 1980–81.
Huang Huaixin et al. 1995, 464–465; Shaughnessy 1980–81, 59.
the performance of writing in western zhou china 125
speakers as exemplary sovereigns in their defning moments of ruler-
ship. In other words, what the speeches provided, and for what they
were preserved, was the memory of the early Western Zhou model rul-
ers speaking in their own voices. It is perhaps not necessary to call them,
in their totality, later inventions, although such an assumption would
not be any more bold and dubitable than the idea that their transmitted
texts are the authentic records of original royal statements. Assuming
that the early Zhou kings in fact delivered such statements that were
then remembered by their successors—and not merely invented in the
same fashion as so many other speeches in early China
—these words
were almost certainly adjusted to the commemorative imagination of
subsequent generations who will have perpetuated and performed them
in the prime institution of such commemoration—where else?—that
is, the ancestral sacrifce.
Below, it will be important to consider this
ritual context when thinking about how writing is represented both in
the speeches and in Western Zhou bronze inscriptions.
In virtually all passages from the Odes, the Documents, and the Rem-
nant Zhou Documents, writing appears in the context of royal court rit-
ual. It is related to matters of morality and etiquette, to legal and royal
statutes, to charges issued by the king, or to prayers/invocations ofered
upward to the ancestral spirits. Secretaries are repeatedly included in
royal speeches that address, and briefy list, the highest dignitaries at
court; in only one instance—at the banquet described in Ode 220—a shi
Tis is certainly true even for the larger number of Documents speeches that pur-
port to be early but are clearly much later compositions (to say nothing of the imagined
speeches in the inauthentic “ancient script” Documents). Moreover, the prominence of
speech, and with it the practice of retrospectively inventing speech, is at the core of early
Chinese historiography, as shown by Schaberg 2001 for the Zuo zhuan 左傳 (Zuo Tradi-
tion) and the Guoyu 國語 (Discourses of the States). Note that such invention included
not just the speeches by political sovereigns but also the arguments submitted to them
by their advisors as well as utterances by commoners, including ominous prophecies
and songs. For the latter, see Schaberg 1999 and Kern 2004a.
Pace Creel 1970, 449–455, Shaughnessy 1999, 292, passim. As argued in Kern 2004,
I hence see the performances of the royal speeches during the ancestral sacrifce in a
dialogical setting with the sacrifcial hymns and bronze inscriptions that were directed
toward the former kings. Tis conclusion implies a relatively late (not before Middle
to Late Western Zhou) date of the received speeches attributed to the Early Western
Zhou rulers. Te frst to propose that the early Documents speeches were meant for
performance was Henri Maspero who in 1927 suggested to understand the speeches as
“libretti” that accompanied and guided the dances performed during the sacrifces; see
Maspero 1978, 174–276. One may consider in this context the possible relation between
the Documents chapter “Te testamentary charge” and several of the early Odes; see
Wang Guowei 1975a, 2.15b–19a; Fu 1980, 1:204–233; Shaughnessy 1997, 165–195.
126 martin kern
seems to be subordinate to an inspector who himself is of comparably
low rank. A similar picture emerges from a survey of Warring States
(476–221 bce) period texts. Here, the fgure or ofce of the Secretary
appears overwhelmingly in the ritual compendia Zhouli (17 passages
with altogether 29 instances of the word),
Yili 儀禮 (Ceremonial Rites;
10/23), and Liji 禮記 (Records of Ritual; 26/41), and in the vast historio-
graphic narrative Zuo zhuan; 66/114).
A parallel pattern can be deter-
mined for the use of the word shu 書 (to write/writing). In sum, while
textual references to written texts and functionaries of writing multiply
in later centuries, the received literature presents us with very few pas-
sages, all of them extremely brief, that might possibly date from Western
Zhou times.
Tis conclusion—concerning not the actual existence of writing but
its representation and hence signifcance in terms of ritual display—is
not at variance with the evidence from the bronze inscriptions. Com-
pared to the received Odes, Documents, and Changes, all of which have
reached us only through multiple layers of editorial activity, the thou-
sands of Western Zhou inscriptions that are cast on the inside of bronze
vessels (or, much less frequently, on the outside of bronze bells)
particularly valuable for three reasons: they have not undergone any
later textual corruption; they contain by far the largest corpus of ref-
erences to the act of writing; and they represent writing not merely
My count of “passages” follows their distinction in the Academia Sinica database.
Te numbers for the Zhouli refer to the mentioning of shi in specifc ofces and func-
tions; they do not include the vast number of low-level clerks noted above.
For a large collection of passages involving Secretaries and other functionaries of
writing in Warring States texts, and for an analysis of their ofces and functions, see Xi
Hanjing 1983. Te case of the Zuo zhuan is explicable on account of the overall length
of the text but also, more importantly, by its very nature of scribal self-representation.
As Schaberg 2001a, 257, 267, has noted, the Zuo zhuan authors “could not have failed
to recognize what they had in common with the men whose deeds they were com-
memorating,” namely, the ministers and advisors versed in ritual propriety and textual
learning, and “history writing is a weapon of justice wielded not by the possessors of
power but by the distinct stratum that includes the scribes and the historiographers
themselves.” While the Zuo zhuan is a textual monument dedicated to ritual propriety,
it also elevates writing—and frst of all, its own writing—to be itself a superior mani-
festation of such propriety, ultimately balancing the repeated failure of ritual in history
with the perfectly appropriate historiographic account of that failure. Tis is precisely
the rationale that the early tradition attributed to Confucius’s eforts in compiling the
Spring and Autumn Annals (Chunqiu 春秋) and that is then mirrored in the catechistic
exegesis of this text in the Gongyang Tradition (Chunqiu Gongyang zhuan 春秋公羊傳);
see Gentz 2001.
Computing on the basis of several Chinese sources, Shaughnessy 2003 speaks of
more than 13,000 known Shang and Zhou bronze inscriptions, estimating that at least
half of them date from the Western Zhou.
the performance of writing in western zhou china 127
through verbal reference but in its actual material manifestation. On
the whole, they allow us to infer the implicit consciousness of the power
of writing through an inspection of the unadulterated evidence of the
original written artifacts themselves.
IV. Shi 史 (“Secretaries”) and Zuoce 作冊 (“Makers of Records”) in
Western Zhou Bronze Inscriptions
Te functionaries of writing who appear in Western Zhou bronze
inscriptions serve in the same ritual capacities as their counterparts in
the early Documents chapters. We thus recognize a consistent picture of
high-ranking ofcials across the diferent textual “genres” of early ritual
culture. Arguably, these men were “the most powerful ritualist[s] and
minister[s] in the king’s service.”
As donors of inscribed bronze ves-
sels, they ofen refer to themselves not only by their name but also —in
another indication of their elevated position—by their title.
None of
the inscriptions of a Secretary or Maker of Records, however, contains
any mention of his actual scribal service.
In its simplest form, reference to a Secretary or Maker of Records
as donor of a vessel is found in inscriptions that consist only of what
Lothar von Falkenhausen has identifed as the core of Western Zhou
bronze texts, namely, a “statement of dedication.”
Tus, the following
Early Western Zhou inscription consists of only nine characters, cast
into a yan 甗 food steamer [Ill. 1a–b]:
[I,] the Grand Secretary You have made for [my] bright lord-ancestor
[this] precious, honorable sacrifcial vessel.

In the following, more elaborate Early Western Zhou example, the donor
of a you 卣 wine vessel is a Maker of Records [Ill. 2a–b]:
Cook 1995, 250.
Tere is no question that in many other inscriptions, Secretaries or Makers of
Records do not identify themselves by their title, but the actual number of these inscrip-
tions is impossible to determine.
See Falkenhausen 1993, 152–161. Falkenhausen 2004 has further refned his struc-
tural analysis of Western Zhou bronze inscriptions.
Shirakawa 8.433–439 (# 41), “Taishi You-yan” 大史 友甗. Another possible
interpretation is to read you > 友 as 右 and thus as part of the title taishi you 大史
右, that is “Assistant to (or Associate of) the Grand Secretary.” For this interpretation of
the title neishi you 內史友 in the Documents chapter “Announcement about alcohol,”
see Sun Xingyan 1986, 382. What I have translated as “my bright lord-ancestor” has
also been interpreted as denoting the historical Duke of Shao; see the discussion in
128 martin kern
1a You-yan. Afer Rong Geng, Haiwai jijin tulu (Taipei: Tailian guofeng
chubanshe, 1978), 39, plate 12.
1b You-yan, rubbing of inscription. Afer Luo Zhenyu,
Sandai jijin wencun (N.p., 1936), 5.8b.
the performance of writing in western zhou china 129
2a Huan-you. Afer Chen Mengjia, Xi Zhou tongqi duandai
(Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 2004), 2:605, plate 31B.
2b Huan-you, rubbing of inscription. Afer Chen Mengjia, Xi Zhou tongqi
duandai (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 2004), 2:605, plate 31A.
130 martin kern
Shirakawa 5.236–244 (# 22), “Zuoce Huan-you” 作冊 卣. For an earlier transla-
tion, see Shaughnessy 1991, 174–175. Gui 癸 day is the day within the sixty-day cycle
on which the father receives sacrifces; some scholars, including Shirakawa, believe that
such a designation is characteristic of Shang descendants. My translation difers from
that by others in that I believe that Huan, as the royal representative, receives the Elders
of Yi in his audience, to which they bring gifs, and not that he goes to their (“Elder Yi’s”)
audience. Note that the situation—and the syntax of the inscription—is parallel to that
of the Shi Song-gui 史頌 inscription translated below.
Shirakawa 5.245–247 (# 22a), “Zuoce Huan-zun” 作冊 尊. According to Shi-
rakawa, the last character is an undecipherable symbol for a sacrifcial vessel known from
a number of other inscriptions. Shaughnessy 1991, 175 takes it as a family emblem.
Shirakawa 5.247 (# 22b), “Huan-gui” . If indeed by the same donor, this
inscription would be an example in which a Maker of Records does not identify himself
by his title.
It was the nineteenth year; the king was at Gan. Queen Jiang commanded
[me,] the Maker of Records, Huan, to conciliate the Elders of Yi. Te
Elders of Yi visited [me,] Huan in audience, presenting [me] with cowries
and cloth. [I, Huan] extol Queen Jiang’s blessings and on account of this
make for [my] Accomplished Deceased Father [of the] gui [day this] pre-
cious, honorable sacrifcial vessel.
In addition to being cast into the wine vessel, the inscription is also
repeated on the inside of its lid, in each location spreading the thirty-
fve characters over four orderly lines. Furthermore, a slightly shorter
inscription by the same donor commemorating the same event is cast
inside a separate vessel, a zun 尊 wine container, arranging a total of
twenty-seven characters in four lines. (Here and in the following counts,
characters accompanied by the reduplicative marker “=” are counted as
two.) Tis inscription is decidedly more personal in tone, containing
two forms of the frst-person pronoun [Ill. 3a–b]:
At Gan, the Lady commanded me, the Maker of Records Huan, to concili-
ate the Elders of Yi. Te Elders of Yi visited [me] in audience, using cow-
rie and cloth [as gifs]. On account of this, I make for my Accomplished
Deceased Father of the gui day [this] distinguished, precious X.
A third vessel, this one a gui (簋) food tureen inscribed with only
eight characters, might be by the same donor [Ill. 4]:
[I,] Huan made [this] precious tureen. May it forever be treasured and

In addition to the “statement of dedication,” the third inscription con-
tains a “statement of purpose” (Falkenhausen), another commonly
found element in Western Zhou bronze texts. It expresses the donor’s
the performance of writing in western zhou china 131
3a Huan-zun. Afer Huang Jun, Zunguzhai suojian jijintu
(Beiping: Zunguzhai, 1936), 1.36a.
3b Huan-zun, rubbing of inscription. Afer Huang Jun,
Zunguzhai suojian jijintu (Beiping: Zunguzhai, 1936), 1.36b.
132 martin kern
wishes for the future, ofen in the form of a prayer.
By contrast, the frst
two inscriptions close with the “statement of dedication” which is, how-
ever, in each case preceded by a historical account of the donor’s accom-
plishment. In this “statement of merit,” the Maker of Records presents
himself not as a writer but as a royal diplomat. What the three diferent
inscriptions share is the “statement of dedication,” that is, the self-refer-
ential formula including both the donor and his ritual object. By con-
trast, the “historical” part of the “statement of merit” is dispensable. Tis
is clear from the great number of short inscriptions in the format of the
Huan-gui and the Taishi You-yan that do not include information on the
situation that led to the casting of the vessel. Even more compellingly,
the numerous uninscribed bronze vessels suggest that the production
and possession of a vessel itself was of primary signifcance. While writ-
ing almost certainly enhanced the prestige of these ritual objects, it did
not constitute them in their meaning, purpose, and functionality.
See Xu Zhongshu 1936.
4 Huan-gui, rubbing of inscription. Afer Wu Shifen, Jungulu jinwen
(Beijing: Zhongguo shudian, 1982?), 2A.27b.
the performance of writing in western zhou china 133
Te comparison between the Zuoce Huan-you and the Zuoce Huan-
zun further intimates that whatever historical information was related
on a vessel could be put in diferent ways and signifcantly abbreviated.
Tus, what seems to be the historical anchor of the Zuoce Huan-you
inscription, namely, the initial statement “It was the nineteenth year; the
king was at Gan” is lef out in the Zuoce Huan-zun. At the same time,
the zun inscription does not contribute any additional information; its
purpose rests entirely with the existence of the inscribed vessel itself—
even though Huan’s particular choices in casting the zun vessel might be
somewhat enigmatic. Matsumaru Michio 松丸道雄 has argued that the
you vessel refects an underlying ofcial text and was probably cast in
the royal foundry (that is, under royal supervision) while the zun vessel,
which is cruder in its execution and “manifestly inferior” (Shaughnessy)
in its calligraphy, expresses a more personal view and was probably cast
on Huan’s own authority at a regional foundry.
Considering the dic-
tion of the inscription, this is plausible, although it does not explain
why Huan chose to have a more “personal” but inferior zun cast in the
frst place (while also owning the you) and why he, despite of his exalted
position as Maker of Records presumably responsible for royal writing,
accepted inferior calligraphy for this purpose. Be this as it may, the cal-
ligraphic diference between the two vessels shows that Huan was not in
charge of the calligraphy carved into the mold of the you vessel (other-
wise, he would have been able to reproduce it on his “private” vessel);
this task was apparently delegated to a subordinate specialist at the royal
court. He may not even have been in control of the calligraphy for his
own more “personal” zun vessel—or his own writing skills were rather
undistinguished. In short, the comparison of the two vessels suggests
that despite their ofcial titles, we do not fully know to which extent,
and in which specifc contexts, the high-level Secretaries and Makers of
Records were engaged in the actual clerical work.
Another example of a set of vessels all belonging to the same Sec-
retary shows how variable the expression of donorship was. Te Late
Western Zhou gui tureen by Secretary Song 頌 (“Shi Song-gui”
史頌 ) carries the longest inscription of the set—sixty-two characters
neatly arranged in six vertical columns—which is also repeated on three
more tureens (repeated in both the vessels and their lids) and two ding
鼎 tripods [Ill. 5a–b, 6a–b]:

Matsumaru 1980, 20–54; Shaughnessy 1991, 174–175. It should be noted, how-
ever, that the question of regional foundries is not sufciently clear; see Rawson 1999,
365–366, 407, 417.
134 martin kern
5a Shi Song-gui. Afer Wang Shimin et al., Xi Zhou qingtongqi
fenqi duandai yanjiu (Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1999), 90, plate 74.
5b Shi Song-gui, rubbing of inscription in the lid. Afer Guo Moruo, Liang
Zhou jinwenci daxi tulu kaoshi (Beijing: Kexue chubanshe, 1957), 2:40a.
the performance of writing in western zhou china 135
6a Shi Song-ding. Afer Chen Mengjia, Xi Zhou tongqi duandai
(Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 2004), 2:851, plate 206B.
6b Shi Song-ding, rubbing of inscription. Afer Chen Mengjia, Xi Zhou
tongqi duandai (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 2004), 2:851, plate 206A.
136 martin kern
It was [the king’s] third year, the ffh month, the day dingsi. Te king was
in [the western capital] Ancestral Zhou. He commanded [me,] Secretary
Song to inspect [the area of] Su. [I] led the [local] ofcers of [royal] rule, the
village eminences, and the noble families [from Su] to assemble and swear
[allegiance] in [the eastern capital] Chengzhou.
With [royal?] blessing,
[I] accomplished the matter. [Te representatives from] Su attended [my]
audience [and presented me with] a jade tablet, four hourses, and auspi-
cious metal. On account of this, [I] make [this] meat-ofering vessel. May
[I,] Song [enjoy] ten thousand years without limit, daily extolling the Son
of Heaven’s illustrious mandate! [May] sons of sons, grandsons of grand-
sons, forever treasure and use [this vessel]!
While this inscription tells about the Secretary’s successfully performed
duty that fnally led to the casting of a whole set of vessels, his yi 匜
water container is more laconically inscribed, containing merely four-
teen characters (including two reduplicatives) in three lines [Ill. 7a–b]:
[I,] Secretary Song have made [this] yi. May [I enjoy] ten thousand years!
[May] sons of sons, grandsons of grandsons forever treasure and use [this
Te same text, in the same arrangement, is then repeated on another pan
盤 water basin with only the vessel designation in the frst phrase changed
from yi to pan [Ill. 8].
Even shorter is, fnally, the Secretary’s inscription
on a hu 瑚 food vessel, comprising just six characters [Ill. 9a–b]:
[I,] Secretary Song have made [this] hu. [May it] forever be treasured!
Without doubt, Secretary Song, serving as the royal representative in an
important mission of inspection, was a man of great stature, and he was
richly rewarded for his services. Yet when he, like other men of his posi-
tion, had his accomplishments recognized by the king and was given
permission to have them represented in a bronze vessel, nothing but his
ofcial title as Secretary suggested anything about him being a “scribe”
or “archivist,” or in any way concerned with writing at the royal court.
Indeed, whenever a Secretary or Maker of Records presented his merits
cast in bronze, he never dwelled on his being a functionary of writing.
Tis line is dubious; my translation follows Shirakawa who also discusses alterna-
tives proposed by other scholars.
Shirakawa 24.174–184 (# 138).
Shirakawa 24.186–187 (# 138b).
Shirakawa 24.188 (# 138d).
Shirakawa 24.187–188 (# 138c). Shirakawa and others denote the vessel as a fu 簠
food container, based on a confusion that goes back to Chinese antiquarians of the Song
dynasty. For clarifcation, see Li Ling 1991, 85.
the performance of writing in western zhou china 137
7a Shi Song-yi. Afer Rong Geng, Yin Zhou qingtongqi tonglun
(Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1984), plate 260.
7b Shi Song-yi, rubbing of inscription. Afer Guo Moruo, Liang Zhou
jinwenci daxi tulu kaoshi (Beijing: Kexue chubanshe, 1957), 2:44b.
138 martin kern
8 Shi Song-pan, rubbing of inscription. Afer Guo Moruo, Liang Zhou
jinwenci daxi tulu kaoshi (Beijing: Kexue chubanshe, 1957), 2:44b.
9a Shi Song-hu. Afer Chen Baochen, Chengqiuguan jijin tu
(Taipei: Tailian guofeng chubanshe, 1976), 41.
the performance of writing in western zhou china 139
In the sequence I have listed them here (not intending to suggest their
original sequence of production), the Secretary Song inscriptions again
show us a continuous focus toward the irreducible core, that is, the
“statement of dedication.” In fact, the two possible further reductions
would have been, frst, to eliminate the fnal prayer (in the fu inscription
already shrunk to the two characters yong bao 永寶 [“forever treasure”]),
leaving the inscription as a pure statement of donorship; this could then,
second, be limited to the mere name of the donor. However, in keeping
the prayer, the three diferent inscriptions, cast into a set of at least six
diferent vessels, adhere to a set of conventions that by Late Western
Zhou times (but apparently not before) had become overwhelmingly
dominant. Note that in the yi and pan inscriptions, this prayer takes up
ten of the fourteen characters.
While Secretary Song does not refer to
his activities as a functionary of writing, his inscriptions remain strictly
within the confnes of the textual and ritual conventions that by Late
9b Shi Song-hu, rubbing of inscription. Afer Chen Baochen,
Chengqiuguan jijin tu (Taipei: Tailian guofeng chubanshe, 1976), 42.
With these numbers, I follow the convention of counting as two characters those
that are repeated in the inscription, but written out only once, followed by the marker

” to indicate their repetition.
140 martin kern
Western Zhou times were almost uniformly followed, alongside a stan-
dardized calligraphy and vessel design.
Unlike the earlier artifacts and inscriptions discussed so far, the Sec-
retary Song vessels come from the Middle Western Zhou period, begin-
ning in the mid-tenth century bce, when a series of social, political, and
ritual reforms were institutionalized.
Although our sources for West-
ern Zhou history are both tightly limited and heavily biased, evidence
from excavated bronze vessels and their inscriptions is indicative of a
number of new developments following King Zhao’s disastrous military
campaign southward that resulted in a “crushing defeat” and the death
of the king.
During the following reign of King Mu, power was no
longer as concentrated in the royal family as it had been before; instead,
large numbers of ofcial appointments were given to members of the
elite. Military reforms and land transactions were put into efect. Mean-
while, the eastern part of the realm appears to have slipped from royal
control; “inscribed vessels from the middle and late Western Zhou have
been found almost exclusively in the western Wei River capital region.”

In this time of crisis, as the administrative reforms led to a more com-
plex bureaucracy, they were at the same time represented in new, and
elaborate, forms of court ritual. It is one of these rituals, the ceremony of
royal appointment, that from now on was given prominent expression
in numerous bronze inscriptions.
V. Te Appointment Ceremony and the Representation of Writing
in Western Zhou Bronze Inscriptions
In the ceremonies of royal appointment, the king (or sometimes a high-
level aristocrat) issued a profoundly formulaic “charge” (ming 命, also
written as ling 令, “order”) or “bestowal” (ci [易>]賜) with which he
commanded the appointee to a certain position and bestowed on him
the insignia and paraphernalia appropriate to the task. Te charge or
Rawson 1990, vol. IIA, 93, 125; Rawson 1999, 438–439. As noted by Rawson, “a
strong centralized control of ritual seems to have been in place”; for bronze design, a
“static repertoire” came into being, “limited and reiterated,” and of “persistent same-
ness”—expressing an aesthetic ideology that embraced the bronze object as well as the
wording and calligraphy of the inscription.
Afer Jessica Rawson’s pioneering work on the Middle Western Zhou ritual reform,
the centrality of this period for the subsequent reception and perception of Western
Zhou civilization is becoming increasingly visible. A notable recent addition to this
important research is Falkenhausen 2004a.
Shaughnessy 1999, 322–323.
Shaughnessy, 1999, 323–328; see also Li Feng 2000.
the performance of writing in western zhou china 141
bestowal was pronounced orally and at the same time given out in writ-
ing on bamboo slips (ce ming 冊命/ce ling 冊令; ce ci 冊[易>]賜); the
written charge was then used as the basis for the inscription of a bronze
vessel or bell that was cast for the appointee.
It is this kind of vessel,
cast not for the king but for the appointee who henceforth used it in
the sacrifces to his ancestors, that furnishes the most elaborate refer-
ences to writing we now have for Western Zhou times. To be sure, royal
appointments were also made during the early reigns of the dynasty, and
sometimes their record was produced in bronze. Yet of eighty Western
Zhou appointment inscriptions noted by Chen Hanping, only three date
from the Early Western Zhou period; none of them gives account of the
elaborate ritual that we see in Middle and Late Western Zhou inscrip-
tions, and none of them involves reference to the written charge (ce).
By contrast, beginning in Middle Western Zhou times, the represen-
tation of the appointment ceremony in bronze inscriptions—and most
likely the ceremony itself—became thoroughly standardized, regard-
less of the position of the appointee or the particular circumstances of
the charge.
Tere are four Late Western Zhou inscriptions that so far
provide the most comprehensive picture of the ceremony: those of the
Song-ding 頌鼎 tripod (ca. 825 bce?; repeated on at least three ding
tripods, fve gui tureens and their lids, and two hu 壺 vases and their
lids) [Ill. 10a–b, 11a–b, 12a–b], the X-ding 鼎 (809 bce) [Ill. 13a–b],
the Huan-pan 盤 (800 bce; repeated on at least one ding tripod) [Ill.
14a–c], and the Shanfu Shan-ding 善夫山鼎 (789 bce) [Ill. 15a–b].

Te X-ding inscription comprises 97 characters:
Kane 1982–83; Chen Hanping 1986; Wong Yin-wai 1978; Falkenhausen 1993, 156–
167. As pointed out by Falkenhausen, the “statement of dedication” and the “statement
of purpose” (prayer) were not part of the initial charge but later attached to the version
of the charge that was then inscribed.
Chen Hanping 1986, 21–25. Te three Early Western Zhou vessels are the “Yi hou
Ze-gui” 宜侯 (Shirakawa 10.529–554 [# 52], translated in Lau 1999, 97–104); the
above-mentioned “Zhou gong-gui” (Shirakawa 11.591–605 [# 59], translated in Dobson
1962, 194–195); and the “Da Yu-ding” 大盂鼎 (Shirakawa 12.647–675 [# 61], translated
in Dobson 1962, 221–226, and Behr 1996, 155–159).
Chen Hanping 1986, 28–31.
Te pronunciation of the character (“X”) is unclear; for the text of the X-ding
inscription, see Chen Hanping 1986, 26, and Chen Peifen 1982:17. For the Song-ding
inscription, see Shirakawa 24.165–168 (# 137), with the translation of the gui inscription
in Shaughnessy 1999, 298–299; for the Shanfu Shan-ding inscription, see Shirakawa
26.357–361 (# 154), with the translation in Shaughnessy 1997a, 74–76. For the Huan-
pan inscription, see Shirakawa 29.590–595 (# 177). Shaughnessy 1999, 298, dates the
Song-gui (and by implication the other Song vessels) tentatively to 825 bce. Te remain-
ing three inscriptions are fully dated (year, month, day). See also Shaughnessy 1991, 285,
Table A16.
142 martin kern
10a Song -gui. Afer Wang Shimin et al., Xi Zhou qingtongqi fenqi duandai
yanjiu (Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1999), 87, plate 71.
10b Song-gui, rubbing of inscription. Afer Wang Shimin et al.,
Xi Zhou qingtongqi fenqi duandai yanjiu (Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe,
1999), 87, plate 71.
the performance of writing in western zhou china 143
11a Song-ding. Afer Chen Mengjia, Xi Zhou tongqi duandai
(Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 2004), 2:831, plate 192B.
11b Song-ding, rubbing of inscription. Afer Chen Mengjia, Xi Zhou
tongqi duandai (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 2004), 2:831, plate 192A.
144 martin kern
12a Song-hu. Afer Rong Xibai (= Rong Geng), Shang Zhou
yiqi tongkao tulu (Taipei: Wenshizhe chubanshe, 1983), 383, plate 724.
12b Song-hu, rubbing of inscription. Afer Wang Shimin et al., Xi Zhou
qingtongqi fenqi duandai yanjiu (Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1999), 137,
plate 17.
the performance of writing in western zhou china 145
13a X-ding. Afer Wang Shimin et al., Xi Zhou qingtongqi fenqi duandai
yanjiu (Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1999), 45, plate 76.
13b X-ding, rubbing of inscription. Afer Wang Shimin et al., Xi Zhou
qingtongqi fenqi duandai yanjiu (Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1999), 45,
plate 76.
146 martin kern
14a Huan-pan. Afer Wang Shimin et al., Xi Zhou qingtongqi fenqi duandai
yanjiu (Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1999), 155, plate 10.
14b Huan-pan, rubbing of inscription. Afer Wang Shimin et al., Xi Zhou
qingtongqi fenqi duandai yanjiu (Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1999), 155,
plate 10.
the performance of writing in western zhou china 147
14c Huan-pan, rubbing of vessel and inscription. Afer Guo Moruo, Liang
Zhou jinwenci daxi tulu kaoshi (Beijing: Kexue chubanshe, 1957), 1:18b,
plate 158.
15a Shanfu Shan-ding. Afer Chen Mengjia, Xi Zhou tongqi duandai
(Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 2004), 2:837, plate 198B.
148 martin kern
It was the nineteenth year, the fourth month, afer the full moon, the
day xinmao. Te king was in the Zhao [Temple] of the Kang Palace. He
arrived at the Great Chamber and assumed his position. Assisted to his
right by Intendant Xun, [I,] X entered the gate. [I] assumed [my] posi-
tion in the center of the court, facing north [toward the king]. Secretary
the king with the written order. Te king called out to the
Secretary of the Interior, Y,
to announce the written bestowal to [me,] X:
“[I bestow on you] a black jacket with embroidered hem, red kneepads,
a scarlet demi-circlet, a chime pennant, and a bridle with bit and cheek-
pieces; use [these] to perform your service!”
[I] bowed with my head
15b Shanfu Shan-ding, rubbing of inscription. Afer Chen Mengjia, Xi Zhou
tongqi duandai (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 2004), 2:837, plate 198A.
Chen Peifen 1982, 19, interprets liu 留 as zhou 籀, the name of the Secretary that
only Eastern Han sources—900 years later!—like Ban Gu 班固 (32–92) in Hanshu 1987,
30.1719, or, around 100 ce, Xu Shen in Shuowen jiezi 1988, 15A.11b–12a, ascribe to the
reign of King Xuan (r. 827–782 bce). While the reading of liu as zhou is entirely pos-
sible, and the inscription indeed dates from the King Xuan era, the understanding of liu
as reference to Secretary Zhou (whom the later sources credit with the development of a
new calligraphic style and the compilation of a character list) remains speculative.
Reading shou 受 as shou 授, as commonly suggested by Chinese and Japanese schol-
ars; see, e.g., Chen Hanping 1986, 27, on the present inscription; Shirakawa (24.159) on
the Song-hu; Wang Guowei 1975a, 1.18a, on the Song-ding and Huan-pan.
Again, the name of this Secretary of the Interior is unclear.
I provisionally follow Shaughnessy in the translation of the various paraphernalia.
the performance of writing in western zhou china 149
touching the ground. [May I] dare in response to extol the Son of Heaven’s
greatly illustrious and abundant blessings and on account of this make
for my August Deceased Father, the Elder Zheng(?), and his wife Zheng
[this] precious tripod! May [I enjoy] extended longevity for ten thousand
years! May sons of sons, grandsons of grandsons, forever treasure [this
Tis text is extremely similar, in large parts even verbatim identical, to the
other three inscriptions. Regardless of the previous status of the appoin-
tee, and despite the diferent kinds of new appointments being given, the
list of rewarded insignia, for example, is identical in three inscriptions
and only slightly extended in the Huan-pan. Tis fact alone testifes to a
written institutional memory at the Zhou royal court of King Xuan 宣
(827–782 bce), considering that the inscriptions date from 825(?), 809,
800, and 789 bce
and that their bronze carriers were in the possession
of diferent individuals. However, both the present text and the Huan-
pan are slightly shorter than their counterparts in the representation of
the award ceremony. Te Song and Shanfu Shan inscriptions contain an
important additional component immediately before the “statement of
purpose.” In the Song inscriptions, the text reads:
[I,] Song, bowed with my head touching the ground; [I] received the bam-
boo slips with the [written] order and suspended them from my girdle
before exiting. In return, [I] brought in a jade tablet.
In the Shanfu Shan-ding inscription, the corresponding passage goes:
[I,] Shan bowed with my head touching the ground; [I] received the bam-
boo slips with the [written] order and suspended them from my girdle
before exiting. In return, [I] brought in a jade tablet.
It is unclear what the jade tablet refers to. Te frst part of the passage,
however, is unambiguous: the appointee receives the written charge and
takes it with him (no doubt, a copy was kept in the royal archive). Te
Chen Peifen 1982, 17–20; Chen Hanping 1986, 26.
Tere might be a more immediate connection between the Huan-pan and the
X-ding inscriptions, namely, that both vessels might have been dedicated to the same
ancestors. In the X-ding inscription, the father’s name is written with a graph that Chen
Peifen has transcribed as and Chen Hanping as . It is not impossible—though quite
speculative—that the graph is a graphic variant of zheng 整, which might be understood
as zheng 正 (“correct”), signifying not a lineage name but a posthumous temple name
(“the Correct One”). Tis, in fact, is how the graph zheng [奠 >] 鄭 that appears in both
inscriptions as the name of the mother has been interpreted in the case of the Huan-pan
(where it also appears as the name of the father); see Shirakawa 29.594.
150 martin kern
vast majority of Middle and Late Western Zhou appointment inscrip-
tions mention neither the initially written order (lingshu 令書) nor the
appointee’s exiting with the inscribed charge appended to his body; they
simply provide the text of the royal appointment charge, ofen intro-
duced by “the king says” (wang yue 王曰).
However, it is clear that the
charge was always issued in an elaborate, strictly orchestrated and stan-
dardized court ritual, and that this ceremony—or, more precisely, that
part of the ceremony that focused on the appointment proper—is repre-
sented most extensively in the Song and Shanfu Shan inscriptions.
Te textual performance that emerges from these standardized
descriptions—note the uniformity not only of the performances but
also of their inscribed records—is a complex interplay between the oral
and the written performance of text, and it includes Secretaries or Mak-
ers of Records in both. First, prior to the appointment ceremony, a writ-
ten order was prepared at court. Afer the ritual participants formally
assumed their positions, a Secretary handed the order to the king. Te
king then called out to a second Secretary who read the written order
to the appointee. Ten, the document was given to the appointee who
attached it to his girdle. Afer the ceremony, this written charge served
as the basis for the bronze inscription that was cast in the appointee’s
name, though probably still under royal supervision. Since the appoin-
tee, now vessel donor, henceforth used the inscribed vessel in the sacri-
fces to his ancestors, the “statement of dedication” and the “statement
of purpose” (being the prayer to the ancestors) were attached to those
parts of the original written charge that were to be represented on the
vessel. Within the vessel donor’s own ceremonies, that is, the sacrifces
to his ancestors, the written word was probably again transformed into
a spoken announcement and prayer to the ancestors and integrated into
another elaborate performance that included food and wine oferings,
dance, music, song, and perhaps additional features.
Te original appointment ceremony was thus focused on the presen-
tation and handover of a written document. In an illocutionary speech
act on behalf of the king, the Secretary presented—by reading it out
For a detailed discussion of this phrase and its ceremonial implications, see
Falkenhausen 2004.
Such interaction between the written and the oral is not unusual for complex civi-
lizations where a highly developed ritual system of oral performances becomes com-
bined with writing; for early Greece, see Tomas 1992, 61–65.
the performance of writing in western zhou china 151
loud—the document, thus bringing the appointment under the full rit-
ual force and imposing dignity of the royal ceremony. In a number of
inscriptions, such as in the one on the Shanfu Shan-ding, this force is
further magnifed by the king issuing a stern imperative in conjunction
with the appointment: “Do not dare not to be good!” (wu gan bu shan
Te written document was important, but it was its ritual
performance, with the king personally present, that sealed its authority.
It is at this point where the function of the Secretary comes in. Te king
did not read to the appointee; all he did was to maintain his position.
His chief ritualist and representative read: he led the functionaries of
the written word, but he also was the master of its transformation back
into what was perceived as the original royal speech act. Te king, as far
as we can tell from the inscriptions, controlled and approved the docu-
ment—which represented his spoken voice—through his mere presence
at the ceremony when the text was recited to the appointee.
Here, we recognize the ceremony to be not only of ritual but also
of legal signifcance. Just at the time when the appointment ceremony
became a major part of Western Zhou administration and ritual, that
is, in the Middle Western Zhou period, inscriptions on legal contracts
also appeared in larger numbers.
One characteristic feature of these
inscriptions is that they meticulously list the names and titles of the
ofcials that served as witnesses at the time of the legal agreement. I
propose that in the bronze inscriptions representing appointment cer-
emonies, the same logic is in place: especially from the appointee’s per-
spective, it was important that his bronze vessel, which was sanctioned
by the court, included the names and titles of the ofcials who deliv-
ered the appointment (and hence the right to have the vessel cast). Tis
record, ceremonial as it was, thus forever related the very existence of
the bronze vessel to the ofcial, bureaucratically verifed original event
of the appointment ceremony. Tis might have been particularly impor-
tant when in later generations, the personal memory of the ceremony
and even of the appointee himself was no longer available, while the ves-
sel was still being used in the family’s ancestral sacrifces. Inscriptions
like those under discussion enlisted both the king and his chief ofcials
as witnesses of the appointment.
See also Kane 1982–83, 16–17.
Lau 1999; Schunk 1994; Skosey 1996.
152 martin kern
VI. “Recording” or “Announcing”? Te Problem of Ce 冊
Before continuing the analysis, it is perhaps necessary to address, and
then to put aside, a diferent reading of the inscriptions just discussed.
In his prominent translations and discussions of the Song and Shanfu
Shan inscriptions, Edward L. Shaughnessy has consistently interpreted
ce ming not as “to read out loud the written charge” but as “to record”
it, thus assuming not an oral performance but an act of writing.
translates the pertinent passage in the Song-gui as follows: “Yinshi (that
is, the Overseer, a functionary of writing, MK) received the king’s com-
mand document. Te king called out to Scribe Guo Sheng to record
the command to Song.” Consider the sequence of action: the Overseer
receives the writing, and then the king calls for a scribe to put it into
writing. I fnd such a sequence awkward and unlikely. First, as many Chi-
nese and Japanese commentators agree, the Overseer does not receive
the writing from the king, but the king receives it from the Overseer
(the respective graph in the original Chinese allows either choice). Tis
is most logical; so far, we have only been told that the king “assumed his
position”—afer walking in with the written charge already in hand? Is
this how kings behave in court ritual? Te opposite is far more likely: the
king assumes his position and only then is given the document, which
he passes on to the Secretary. Tis sequence is important: surely, the
king has not written the document, but it is nevertheless issued by him,
and thus has to physically pass through his hands.
Even more important than this point is the following one, that is,
the interpretation of the technical terms ce ming and ce ci. Te prob-
lem rests with ce 冊 which here I do not interpret as “recording” but as
“announcing” or “reciting” the charge or bestowal
—despite the fact
that it is normally understood as “bamboo document.” A strong force
Shaughnessy 1999, 298. Similarly, Shaughnessy 1997, 76, translates the corre-
sponding passage of the Shanfu Shan-ding inscription as “Te king called out to Scribe
Hui to record the command to Shan.” Te same reading can be found in Wong Yin-wai
1978, 95.
It should be noted that Chen Mengjia 1985, 149–160, ofered the same under-
standing fve decades ago. Likewise, Chen Hanping 1986, 12–20, 116–117, is perfectly
clear. Unfortunately, Western translators of classical Chinese texts, including James
Legge and Bernhard Karlgren, have mostly missed the point. As a result, the misun-
derstanding now even dominates the entry on ce in Schuessler’s widely used dictionary
1987, 55–56.
the performance of writing in western zhou china 153
in the common interpretation of the word ce has been the analysis of
the graph which even in its modern form appears like a pictogram of
bamboo slips held together by a chord (in the way bamboo slips were
indeed bundled).
Yet while graphic deciphering is as attractive as it is
in most cases fallacious, there is indeed sufcient Western Zhou (and
certainly later) textual evidence for ce as “bamboo document.” It does
not follow, however, that this meaning is exclusive, that it is dominant in
compounds like ce ming or ce ci, or that there exists a verbal meaning of
“to record” (as in “to record the command”).
Ce ming can be taken either as an adverb-verb phrase or as a verb-
object phrase. Te king may “command by means of ce,” or he might “ce
the command.” Tere is support for both readings, as both ming and ce
function both nominally and verbally in early texts. While the verb ming
is followed by the direct object of the person who is being “commanded,”
the verb ce takes as its direct object a certain matter like a “command” or
a “bestowal.” One might feel more inclined to read the common appoint-
ment phrase “Te king called out to Secretary X to command Person Y
by using the bamboo document” but it remains worthwhile to consider
the appearance of verbal ce in Late Shang oracle bone inscriptions. Here,
the index compiled by Matsumaru Michio 松丸道雄 and Takashima
Ken’ichi 高嶋謙—
furnishes a wide array of cases where scholars have
understood the word ce (in its various written forms including 冊, ,
and ) not just as “bamboo slips” but—perhaps altogether more ofen—
in several other meanings, in particular including (a) “to announce” or
“to announce through prayer,” (b) “to stab” or “to chop of,” and (c) “to
enclose” or “to confne.”
In most cases, Chinese and Japanese schol-
ars of the past century have identifed these acts as ritual procedures
performed in conjunction with royal sacrifces (and even ce itself has
occasionally been understood as the name of a royal sacrifce). Looking
for the common etymological core in the various proposed meanings of
ce, I am inclined toward the bi-directional notion of both “taking (the
For a faithful rehearsal of these interpretations, see Zhang Yuqiang 1994.
Matsumara and Takashima 1994, # 31, 259–262, 585.
He Jinsong 1996, 200–205, has argued with particular force that the graph ce 冊
in early oracle bone and bronze inscriptions does not represent bundled bamboo slips
but conjoined wooden palisades, and that ce 冊 is just written for zha 柵. One may not
need to be persuaded by the graphic interpretation (although it seems stronger than in
many other cases) in order to see how it matches the verbal meaning of “to enclose/to
154 martin kern

sacrifcial victims) into possession” (including by stabbing them) and
“giving (the ancestors) possession over (the victims)” (again including
by killing them). In fact, as amply illustrated by Shirakawa, ce in oracle
bone inscriptions frequently governs two objects: the direct object of
the sacrifcial victims and the indirect object of the ancestors to whom,
or for whom, the victims are “ce-ed.”
Writing may very well have been
involved to produce a record of securing and presenting the sacrifcial
victims to the spirits—in the same way as the Shang kings greatly valued
the production of their oracle records—but it was an act of secondary,
auxiliary order, compared to the actual sacrifce. By contrast, one can
easily imagine how—parallel to the appointment inscriptions on bronze
vessels discussed above—the “announcing” of the sacrifcial victims to
the spirits was the central illocutionary speech act that transformed the
procedure of merely slaughtering the victims into one of piously sacri-
fcing them.
By contrast, Creel’s proposal that ce 冊 means “book,” “to com-
municate with the spirits by means of a book,” and “to tell by means
of a book”
is based entirely on speculation about the combination of
the semantic classifers shi 示 (“spirits”) and yue 曰 (“to speak”) with the
graph ce. However, as is well documented in virtually every excavated
text, semantic classifers were not nearly as neatly employed as in much
later (post-Han) periods. In early texts, the presence or absence of a par-
ticular classifer is in no case a defnite indication of the implied word;
graphs like ce 冊, , and were readily interchangeable. Xu Shen’s
Shuowen jiezi is an energetic if at times forced attempt to respond to this
problem, and excavated manuscripts with their numerous graphic vari-
ants allow us to fnally comprehend the magnitude of his project.
Shen, who glossed ce 冊 as “documentary charge” ( fuming 符命),
a champion of the written word; but he glossed simply as gao 告 (“to
announce”), leaving it to the late imperial commentator Duan Yucai 段
玉裁 (1735–1815) to imagine the meaning that was then later put into
English by Creel.
Shirakawa 1974, 109–112.
Creel 1937a, 38.
See Kern 2005; Kern 2003a; Kern 2002.
Shuowen jiezi 1988, 2B.32b. Xu likely alludes to the use of bamboo slips as “tal-
lies” ( fu 符) inscribed with an ofcial order on two matching halves; on such tallies, see
Falkenhausen 2005.
Shuowen jiezi 1988, 5A.28a.
the performance of writing in western zhou china 155
Considering the proximity between the bronze inscriptions and the
early Documents speeches, it is imperative to examine also the latter in
order to reach a conclusion on ce ming. As noted above, there are a num-
ber of chapters from the Documents and one chapter from the Remnant
Zhou Documents that mention Secretaries, Makers of Records, or the
use of documents. Four passages pertain to our discussion of ce:

Te passage in “Te metal-bound cofer” reads as follows: shi nai ce
zhu yue 史乃冊祝曰.
Here, the phrase ce zhu 冊祝 is followed by yue
曰 (“saying”), which introduces the actual wording of the prayer given
as a direct address to the spirits. Ce zhu is parallel to ce ming in the
appointment inscriptions; as the ruler addresses his subordinates with a
“charge” or “command” (ming), he speaks to his ancestral spirits with a
“prayer/invocation” (zhu). In both cases he is represented by the Secre-
tary. Sun Xingyan 孫星衍 (1753–1818), the authoritative late imperial
commentator on the Documents, suspected that the (lost) early Han ver-
sion of the text in ancient characters ( guwen 古文) might have written
instead of 冊, thus meaning “to announce,” as the graph had been glossed
in the Shuowen jiezi.
For ce zhu, Sun thus suggests “to announce the
prayer to the spirits.” Tis is not to doubt that the text indeed implies a
written prayer; afer all, it was stored in a cofer, and the slips (ce) were
later taken out and consulted. But as Sun rightly points out, this does not
mean that the two instances of ce need to be same word. Sun’s reading
of ce zhu is hence fully compatible with both the Western Zhou bronze
inscriptions and the verbal use of ce in Late Shang oracle bone passages
(while neither set of data was available to him).
Te second relevant passage is in “Te announcement concerning
Luo.” Here, the text reads wang ming zuoce Yi zhu ce, wei gao Zhou Gong
qi hou 王命作冊逸祝冊,惟告周公其後. Commentators and translat-
ers difer about the meaning of the specifc contents of the “announce-
ment” ( gao 告)—whether the Duke of Zhou is said to stay behind, or
whether his successor is named
—but this does not concern us here.
Parallel to the bronze inscriptions, the frst fve characters read “Te
king commanded the Maker of Records, Yi”; this is then followed by the
For the sake of space, I will refrain from discussing how I difer from the earlier
Documents translations by Legge and Karlgren.
Compare Legge 1985, 353; Karlgren 1950, 35.
Sun Xingyan 1986, 13.325. Note, however, that this again confuses graphic deci-
phering with the interpretation of the word.
Compare Legge 1985, 451; Karlgren 1950, 55; Dobson 1962, 162.
156 martin kern
command “[to present] the prayer document” (zhu ce 祝冊). Te early
commentator Zheng Xuan 鄭玄 (127–200) paraphrases the sentence as
follows: “[Te king] orders Secretary Yi to read out loud (du 讀) the
written prayer and inform the spirits . . .”
Sun Xingyan fully approves,
explicating that Zheng Xuan refers to the speaking of the inscribed prayer
(yan zhu ce 言祝冊).
As in the previous passage, there is no reason
to doubt that the prayer was indeed inscribed, and that the Maker of
Records was called upon to perform the speech act of addressing it to the
spirits. In the very next— the penultimate—paragraph of the same chap-
ter, the text reads wang ming Zhou Gong hou, zuoce Yi gao 王命周公
後, 作冊逸誥.
Again leaving considerations about the Duke of Zhou
aside, we turn to the unproblematic phrase zuoce Yi gao 作冊逸誥, “the
Maker of Records, Yi, made the announcement (gao 誥),” showing the
Maker of Records in his usual role as speaking for the king.
Te third passage, “Te testamentary charge,” reads dingmao, ming
zuo ce du 丁卯, 命作冊度.
In this sentence, which stands isolated,
zuo ce may best be taken as a verb-object phrase, “to make a bamboo
Tus, two days afer the king’s death, “an order was given
to make a document [of the deceased king’s testamentary charge] and
[lay out the ritual] regulations.”
Tis charge is then mentioned again
later in the text, when the court assembly gathers for the funeral: taishi
bing shu, you bin jieji, yu wang ce ming yue 太史秉書, 由賓階隮, 御王
with the fnal verb yue (“saying”) being directly followed by
the king’s charge. Having ascended the stairs, the Grand Secretary, hold-
ing the testamentary charge of the dead king, turns toward the new king
and—in Zheng Xuan’s paraphrase—“reads out loud” (du 讀) to him the
document of his late father.
In other words, the Grand Secretary here

Sun Xingyan 1986, 19.419.
Sun Xingyan 1986, 19.420.
Compare Legge 1985, 452; Karlgren 1950, 55.
Compare Legge 1985, 549–551; Karlgren 1950, 70.
Wang Guowei 1975a, 1.10b, however, takes zuoce as the usual title and du as the
name of the Maker of Records. Tis would result in “On the day dingmao, one issued a
command to the Maker of Records, Du.”
As suggested by Sun Xingyan 1986, 25.487, who surmises that du 度 (“regula-
tions”)—which I take here as a verb “to lay out regulations”)—refers to the funerary and
mourning rites.
Compare Legge 1985, 558; Karlgren 1950, 71.
Sun Xingyan 1986, 25.501–502; Wang Guowei 1975a, 1.18a. (Wang Guowei takes
issue with Zheng Xuan only on the question where the reading takes place; see also
the performance of writing in western zhou china 157
still speaks as the representative of his king (now dead), announcing the
charge to the new ruler. Here, we see precisely the formula used in the
bronze inscriptions, that is, ce ming “to announce the written charge” (or
“to command by means of the document”). No passage could be clearer
about the function of the Grand Secretary in Western Zhou court ritual
and about the specifc meaning of the technical term of ritual language,
ce ming. With the originator of the charge already dead, and the Secre-
tary holding his written charge in hand, the idea of ce ming as “recording
the charge” gives up the ghost.
Te last pertinent passage in any received text of possibly West-
ern Zhou date is found in “Te great capture” chapter from Remnant
Zhou Documents: descending from his chariot, the victorious king lets
“Secretary Yi read out loud (繇 > 籀 = du 讀) the written document to
Again, the passage is unambiguous: the Secretary announces
the king’s written message, addressing Heaven.
Tis review of the available early evidence
should sufce to rec-
tify our understanding of an exceptionally important set of inscriptions
together with some equally important passages from the Documents.
Turning now back to the Western Zhou appointment inscriptions, we
no longer wonder how the Secretary could have been formally “record-
ing” the charge during the apparently quite brief ceremony. We also
do not struggle to reconcile two contemporaneous but entirely difer-
ent images of the Secretary: the one of Secretaries as vessel donors who
never dwell on their accomplishments of writing, and the one of Secre-
taries in appointment inscriptions who do nothing but writing. Instead,
both types of inscriptions consistently show the Secretary as the main
representative of the king. He goes on diplomatic and military missions,
he leads various kinds of rituals, and he announces the royal appoint-
ments. In the broader terms of cultural history, understanding the inter-
play of speech and writing in Western Zhou court ritual is imperative
to a better grasp of this foundational period of the Chinese cultural tra-
dition. Confusion about the single phrase ce ming easily lends itself to
precariously infated statements about the nature and use of writing.

Huang Huaixin et al. 1995, 464–465; Shaughnessy 1980–81, 59.
I have deliberately limited myself to the earliest sources. For a survey of pertinent
passages in Eastern Zhou texts, see Chen Mengjia 1985, 160–164.
Cf. the sweeping conclusions advanced in Shaughnessy 1999, 298–299.
158 martin kern
VII. Bronze Inscriptions and Literacy
Finally, in order to appreciate the actual representation of writing in West-
ern Zhou texts and artifacts, two points regarding the issue of Western
Zhou literacy need to be added. First, the large number of inscriptions
does not constitute evidence for widespread, general literacy (regardless
of however common administrative writing may have been).
we must keep in mind that the casting of vessels, inscribed or not, must
have remained under some system of royal control. Especially from
Middle Western Zhou times onward, this is evident from the uniformity
not only of the wording of the inscriptions but also of their calligraphic
execution as well as of the shape and design of the vessels themselves.
Only some kind of centralized control over the casting of bronze vessels
could have ensured this degree of standardization.
Here, it is help-
ful to recall Matsumaru Michio’s suggestion about the Huan-zun and
Huan-you vessels, namely, that the one is an ofcial product (a well-
cast vessel, an inscribed text of ofcial diction, professional calligraphy)
while the other is a private one (inferior casting, a more personal text,
comparatively poor calligraphy). If this is correct, and if the “ofcial”
vessel matches the standards of its time, then it must have come from
some centralized agency. At the same time, the various characteristics
of the “private” vessel would be evidence that even with the existence of
local foundries, the work of the central agency was not easily reproduced
elsewhere, not even by one of the highest dignitaries of the state.
Te second, related point to observe is that we do not need to assume
that the appointees (or vessel donors in general) were actually literate.
I believe it is important to separate these two functions of writing, and types of
literacy, for the pre-imperial period. Te fact that a particular clerk could create admin-
istrative records does not mean that he was able to reproduce the language employed in
bronze inscriptions, nor do bronze inscriptions presuppose such clerks as their readers.
Rawson 1999, 438; 1990, vol. IIA, 93, 125.
Li Feng 1997, 40 has argued that in a number of cases where we have inscrip-
tions of the same text appearing on multiple vessels, the diferent calligraphic styles are
evidence of diferent scribal hands. From this, he concludes “that the person who com-
posed the inscription was not the person who inscribed it.” Tis is certainly true. One
may even go a step further and note that the person in whose name the vessel was cast
(the donor) was not necessarily always the composer of the inscription—he may have
instructed someone else to do this for him, perhaps in a particular diction, on the basis
of the existing bamboo documents or earlier inscriptions. Or, as the uniformity even
of the prayer sections suggest (not to mention the ofcial appointment records), some
centralized guidance was in place.
the performance of writing in western zhou china 159
According to the by now extensive archaeological record, the case of the
Huan vessels is exceptional but not unique. Normally, a vessel donor
did not commission his additional private casting in addition to the one
that adhered to ofcial standards. While some bronze donors—certainly
the Secretaries and Makers of Records—may have been literate, this
was not a prerequisite for them to have their vessels cast by able hands
working under the supervision of the royal court. We may consider two
other cases where the text of an earlier, “ofcial” vessel was duplicated
on a clearly lower, presumably local level. For the lids of the two Shi Yun
師 gui tureens [Ill. 16a–d], Matsumaru has shown that the person
who copied the characters into the new mold was illiterate.
for the Ke-lei 克罍 and Ke-he 盉 vessels [Ill. 17a–d], Li Feng has con-
cluded that “if, as is most likely, the Ke lei inscriptions were inscribed
by a well educated and skillful scribe, the structural shortcomings and
inferior artistic features of the inscriptions of the Ke he suggest that
they must have been inscribed by a semi-literate man.”
in either case this did not stop the high-ranking donor from having his
vessel cast and from then keeping it no matter what—which suggests
either that these donors did not think of the mistakes as impairing the
integrity, functionality, and prestige of their inscriptions, or that they
themselves could not tell the diference. Anyway, a donor’s literacy was
not imperative to having a vessel cast, nor was it required for knowing
the inscribed text. In the case of an appointment inscription, he knew
the royal charge because it had been recited to him during the cere-
mony. If he ever forgot it, he did not have to fip through his bamboo
slips or peek into the depth of his vessel. A cursory glance at his “black
jacket with embroidered hem, red kneepads, scarlet demi-circlet, chime
pennant, and bridle with bit and cheekpieces” (or anything else of that
order) would have sufced.
VIII. Conclusion: Te Representation of Writing in the
Western Zhou Period
When thinking about the nature and purpose of writing at the Western
Zhou royal court (including its political extensions), the question to ask
Matsumaru 1980, 55–75. Te vessels date from the end of the Western Zhou or
somewhat thereafer.
Li Feng 1997, 12.
160 martin kern
16a Shi Yun-gui, lid of vessel 1, outside. Afer Chen Mengjia, Xi Zhou
tongqi duandai (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 2004), 2:713, plate 119B.
16b Shi Yun-gui, lid of vessel 1, inside. Afer Chen Mengjia, Xi Zhou tongqi
duandai (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 2004), 2:713, plate 119B.
the performance of writing in western zhou china 161
16c Shi Yun-gui, rubbing of inscription in lid of vessel 1. Afer Matsumaru
Michio, Seishû seidôki to sono kokka (Tokyo: Tôkyô daigaku shuppankai,
1980), 56, plate 9.
16d Shi Yun-gui, rubbing of inscription in lid of vessel 2. Afer Matsumaru
Michio, Seishû seidôki to sono kokka (Tokyo: Tôkyô daigaku shuppankai,
1980), 57, plate 10.
162 martin kern
17a Ke-lei. Afer Kaogu 1990.1, color plate 3.2.
17b Ke-he. Afer Kaogu 1990.1, color plate 3.1.
the performance of writing in western zhou china 163
17c Ke-he, inscription in lid. Afer Kaogu 1990.1, color plate 3.3.
17d Ke-he and Ke-lei. Rubbings of inscriptions in Ke-lei (lef) and Ke-he
(right). Afer Kaogu 1990.1:25, plate 4.
164 martin kern
is not about the existence of written texts but about how written texts
are part and parcel of the Western Zhou system of elaborate religious
and political court ritual. Tere is an invisible but unmistakable textual
basis for the highly ritualized manifestations and usages of bronze writ-
ing, furnished by clerks specializing in the production of administrative
and archival documents. But this writing is not representational or self-
referential. It does not explicitly draw attention to its own existence. It
becomes representational, however, as soon as it is transformed into an
item of display, connected to a material artifact of ostentatious prestige,
and integrated in the context of ritual performance. Here, the written
text is more and less than what it says. It is less because it is only one ver-
sion of a text that exists also in other, ofen even more complete versions,
and because it unfolds its full relevance only in acts of ritualized presen-
tation. On the other hand, it is more: transcending its contents, it ren-
ders visible the prestige of its donor, it assumes the force and authority
that rested with both its precious material carrier and the performance
in which the written text was presented, and it further contributes to the
overall system of Western Zhou public display and cultural memory.
For good reasons, bronze inscriptions recorded not merely the royal
charge but also the original appointment ceremony. Trough the use
of the vessel in the donor’s ancestral sacrifces, this royal ceremony
remained present for “ten thousand years” and with “sons of sons, grand-
sons of grandsons” who in later generations sacrifced to the original
donor as their ancestor. Tat from Middle Western Zhou times onward,
bronze vessels, their inscribed texts, and the calligraphy of these inscrip-
tions became increasingly standardized may be seen as more than just
a phenomenon of mass production (which it certainly also was). From
the royal perspective, it was an expression of a mature political and
ritual system (even while, or perhaps precisely because, actual political
stability was deteriorating) that claimed pious adherence to the model
established by the dynastic founders. From the perspective of the vessel
donor, it integrated his achievements and status into the overall social
and political system of the Western Zhou, representing his duties and
merits as a tangible extension of the royal court itself.
Te received Western Zhou literature leaves no doubt about the dis-
play nature of writing in important court afairs. Royal prayers and
charges like those mentioned in the Documents were prepared in writ-
ing and then recited. During the recitation, the written text did not just
serve as an aide-mémoire but was presented and accepted in an expres-
sion of dignifed demeanor, emphatically supporting and—attached to
the performance of writing in western zhou china 165
the girdle of the recipient—materially embodying the spoken word. It
also must have been signifcant that the masters of ritual, who on so
many diferent occasions spoke in the king’s voice, bore titles like “Sec-
retary” and “Maker of Records” even though they may have been pri-
marily readers and announcers—as opposed to writers—of the many
documents that, perhaps, their lower-ranked clerks regularly produced
for them. Moreover, what David N. Keightley has noted for Late Shang
oracle bone inscriptions is true for Western Zhou bronze inscriptions
as well: “I conceive of the inscriptions as a form of conspicuous cultural
capital, in which the Shang elites invested considerable labor resources
to produce artifacts whose overhwelming value was ritual.”
Unlike the
Late Shang bovine shoulder blades or turtle plastrons that were frst used
in oracle-taking and only thereafer incised with the divination record,
inscriptions on bronze vessels were cast together with their material car-
riers. Tey were an intrinsic part of elaborate artifacts that displayed
material value, technological mastership, and control over the cultural
Te inscribed text was but a secondary or tertiary version, to some
extent adapted to the religious use of the vessel, of a preexisting
In other words, the text proper did not depend on the bronze
vessel for its existence. It transcended any particular material carrier
not only because it also existed elsewhere in perishable but easily stored
and readily reproducable form. Especially from Middle Western Zhou
times onward, the same inscription was ofen also cast into a whole
series of bronze artifacts. A single inscription could be spread across
several material carriers or repeated as a whole on each artifact.
In one
instance from ca. 811 bce, Li Feng has suggested that three sets of alto-
gether twenty-seven ding tripods and gui tureens with identical inscrip-
tions were cast.
Especially for identical inscriptions repeated within a
single set of bronze artifacts that was meant to be kept together (includ-
ing inscriptions in both the body and the lid of a single vessel, as seen in
Keightley forthcoming. For a similar argument regarding certain types of tomb
manuscripts of late Warring States and early imperial times, see Kern 2005. Historically,
the case of Western Zhou inscriptions fts squarely with the earlier bone inscriptions and
later tomb manuscripts.
Falkenhausen 1993, 163–164.
For example, the Qin gong 秦公 bells dating from the early seventh century bce
show both ways. Te same text of 135 characters was inscribed fve times: three times in
full on three bo 鎛 bells and two more times spread across one set of two and one set of
four yongzhong 甬鐘 bells; see Kern 2000a, 65.
Li Feng 1997, 26.
166 martin kern
several instances above), the act of repeating the same text did not pro-
vide any additional information. In these series, the particular aesthetic
format of textual multiplication contributed to the display of repetition
of the prestigious bronze objects. It was this format—as opposed to the
text proper—that depended on the prestigious material carrier. Here,
writing transcended its principal functions of storing and circulating
information; instead of conveying a specifc account of historical detail
(which was anyway stored on perishable material), it visually displayed
cultural and social accomplishment.
Te literary form of bronze inscriptions was guided by historical
thinking. Tis is evident from its concern with past achievements as
well as from the donor’s expectation, imposed on his descendants, that
these achievements will not be forgotten by “sons of sons, grandsons
of grandsons.” But both the “writing of history” in these texts and the
bronzes’ material promise of imperishable permanence were rhetorical
gestures: as the existence of the text did not depend on its particular car-
rier, so did the memory of the past not depend on the textual format of
the inscription. Archaeology has yielded evidence that inscribed bronze
vessels were ofen kept for generations before being buried together in
a tomb or a pit.
While earlier inscriptions thus continuously retained
the representation of earlier accomplishments, the actual knowledge of
their underlying texts was archived and portable.
What the archival versions of the inscribed text could never achieve,
however, was to transform the singular, ephemeral occasion on which
a vessel was granted into the conspicuous visual display of the donor’s
prerogatives that resulted from that occasion. Te prestige of the ritual
vessel became the prestige of the person who had been granted permis-
sion to own it. Just through their material, shape, and decoration, the
elaborate bronze vessels were, “quite probably, the most accomplished,
expensive, labor-intensive, and beautiful human-made things their
owners and handlers had ever seen.”
Teir decoration denoted their
nature as ritual objects,
and thus signaled the importance of both the
object and its possessor.
Where a vessel was inscribed, for example
Hoards of vessels were buried in pits especially at a moment of crisis, for example
at the end of the Western Zhou, when the vessels had to be saved from invaders.
See, for example, the case of inscribed Qin gong bronzes discussed in Kern 2000a,
Falkenhausen 1999, 146.
Rawson 1993, 92.
Bagley 1993, 44–45.
the performance of writing in western zhou china 167
with the record of the appointment ceremony, the inscription explic-
itly represented the royal speech act.
One might well speculate that
this speech act was repeatedly performed during the donor’s periodical
ancestral sacrifces (or during the sacrifces that later generations per-
formed for him) where it recaptured the original orality of the appoint-
ment ceremony.
Unlike an uninscribed vessel, the one bearing a text was thus dou-
bly representational. In numerous examples especially from the Middle
Western Zhou period onward, one fnds that the beautiful, regularly
spaced calligraphy was itself ornamental. I shall conclude the present
essay with an appreciation of a superior example of this phenomenon:
a rather simple yet elegant bronze water basin of 47.3 cm in diameter
that either shortly before 900 bce or a generation later was cast by the
royal Secretary Qiang, the Shi Qiang-pan 史 盤 [Ill. 18a–c].
excavated from a pit in December 1975, it was accompanied by 102
other bronze vessels—74 of them bearing inscriptions—most of them
coming from four generations of the Wei 微 family of royal Secretar-
ies; the water basin is among the latest of these vessels. Its 16.2 cm high
exterior base and wall bear a bird ornament in fat, continuous ribbons
that is familiar from other bronze vessels of the Middle Western Zhou
period. Te inscription is cast, again typical of Zhou bronze vessels, on
the vessel’s otherwise unadorned interior.
In this inscription, Secretary Qiang presents himself as a member of
the Western Zhou royal court, boasting a distinguished ancestral line of
royal Secretaries. A master of the dynasty’s political and cultural mem-
ory, he outlines in panegyrical terms the genealogy of the Western Zhou
kings and then pairs them in no less eulogistic fashion with the line of
his ancestors who had, one afer the other, served the succeeding Zhou
rulers. Tis text is exceedingly interesting because it is the most pow-
erful self-representation of an early Chinese functionary of writing we
have seen so far.

Te four inscriptions discussed above are highly exceptional in giving a more or
less comprehensive account of the ceremony. By constrast, the royal speech act, intro-
duced by “the king said” (or a variation of that formula), was a standard element of these
inscriptions. For a discussion of this speech act, see Falkenhausen 2004.
Shirakawa 50.335–368 (hô-# 15); translations in Shaughnessy 1991, 3–4, 183–192;
Lau 1999, 184–204. Te date of the vessel is not settled; see Luo Tai 1997.
To my mind, Qiang did not produce an historical account (which quite likely
rested in the archives) but a display of his own achievements to be presented in the
sacrifces to his ancestors.
168 martin kern
18a Shi Qiang-pan. Afer Shaanxi sheng kaogu yanjiusuo et al.,
Shaanxi chutu Shang Zhou qingtongqi (Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1980),
2:43, plate 24.
18b Shi Qiang-pan. Afer Shaanxi sheng kaogu yanjiusuo et al., Shaanxi
chutu Shang Zhou qingtongqi (Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1980), 2:43,
plate 24.
the performance of writing in western zhou china 169
Te 275 characters (including nine ligatures [hewen 合文]) are cast
into two beautifully symmetric columns of nine vertical lines each. Each
line comprises ffeen characters that are evenly spaced apart; only in the
fnal line, the carver of the mold had to accommodate twenty characters.
Tis slight mark of imperfection testifes to two conficting goals: frst,
it suggests a pre-existing text that when inscribed could not been short-
ened by even a mere fve characters. Second, while the carver had suf-
cient space available to let these characters run into another vertical line,
he chose (or was instructed by Secretary Qiang) not to do so—clearly
in order not to distort the overall balance of the two columns. Striking
a remarkable compromise, he managed to respect both the integrity of
the text and the symmetry of its display. Compared to most other vessel
types that in their appearance are defned by shape and ornament while
more or less hiding their inscriptions on the inside, the form of the
water basin uniquely serves the form of the text. Its nearly fat, widely
open shape, with the customary bird ornament confned to its rather
unobtrusive outside, is entirely dominated by the display of the two
18c Shi Qiang-pan, rubbing of inscription. Afer Kaogu xuebao
1978.2: 140, plate 1.
170 martin kern
columns of elegant characters, promoting, above anything else, an image
of calligraphic beauty and order.
Tis image is further refected in how the text’s narrative structure
matches the two columns. In the frst half of his text, Secretary Qiang
eulogizes the lineage and achievements of the Zhou royal house, pre-
sumably concluding with his own ruler. Te second half of the text
begins with the third character from the bottom of line nine, that is,
almost precisely at the column break. Parallel to the royal geneaology,
the royal functionary now lists and praises his own ancestors and their
accomplishments, fnally ending with his own person. Te balance of
the two columns thus corresponds with the balance of the eulogistic
A third aesthetic choice concerns purely the literary form of the text.
Te inscription is composed mostly in tetrasyllabic verse, with the met-
ric form further enhanced through frequent end-rhyme. In their regu-
larity, both features betray an unusual sense of order and ornament for
their time; in general, mid-Western Zhou inscriptions rhyme less fre-
quently, and they unfold in a less strictly confned meter. But even more
exceptional is the fact that rhyme and meter are carefully applied to the
two long genealogies but not to the fnal prayer section, which is lef in
unbound prose.
Tis is exactly the opposite of what one fnds in most
other inscriptions. No doubt, the royal Secretary Qiang was aware of
this fact. He deliberately granted the weight of aesthetic emphasis not to
the prayer but to the preceding narrative—a narrative that defned both
himself and his ancestors in their intimate relation to the Zhou kings.
In its visual appearance, its intrinsic literary aesthetics, and its con-
tents, the Shi Qiang-pan is the epitome of order and regularity. It repre-
sents the ideal political order of the Zhou royal lineage, the ideal order
of the Qiang family line, and, fnally, the ideal order of the written arti-
fact. Not with a single word of his long inscription does Secretary Qiang
refer to himself or and his forebears as men of writing. He praises his
ancestors for having “assisted” and “served” their rulers, for their cor-
rectly performed sacrifces and for their personal qualities. When fnally
coming to himself, he promises to further “serve” his lord. Yet at the
same time, his combination of Zhou dynastic memory, perfected liter-
ary form, and superb visual display of text as ritual ornament reveals
an extreme degree of authorial self-consciousness. In sacrifcing to his
ancestors—despite all its idiosyncrasies still the presumed use of the
For the reconstruction of the entire rhyme scheme, see Behr 1996, 199–204.
the performance of writing in western zhou china 171
vessel—Qiang presents himself as the keeper of Zhou memory and thus
as his ancestors’ worthy successor. He is the hereditary royal Secretary
because his ancestors were hereditary royal Secretaries. With his inscrip-
tion, we fnally see a Western Zhou Secretary as the master of the writ-
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Brouria Bitton-Ashkelony
Our guide spoke to us through letters
And he gave it to us as symbols
(Les mystères des lettres Grecques)
One of the most surprising aspects of the monastic leadership in the
sixth-century ascetic community of Gaza is the obvious absence of
miracles and exorcism as means of channeling power and establishing
and maintaining the role of the holy person in his society.
the late antique ordinary strategy of bishops, abbots, and holy men to
ensure their local prominence and standing by patronizing relics and
holy shrines was not embraced by Barsanuphius and John—the lead-
ing fgures of this community.
Nevertheless, they did not neglect the
extraordinary dimension of their role: Barsanuphius and John refect
the self-consciousness of a spiritual elite; they belonged to an order of
ascetics who had attained perfection and regarded themselves, meta-
phorically, as combatants in an elite military corps, wearing the “uni-
form of the unit” and envisaging their ascetic life as following the path
of the tormented martyrs of past heroic generations.
Tis conscious-
ness of ascetic perfection indeed charged them with spiritual energy
Te Coptic text with French translation known as Te Mysteries of the Greek Let-
ters was published and translated by A. Hebbelynck, Les mystères des lettres Grecques
d’après un manuscript Copte-Arabe. Louvain, 1902, 69. Te text was frst published by
A. Hebbelynck in Le Muséon 1, 1900: 16–36, 105–36, 269–300; 2, 1901: 5–33, 369–414.
See, for example, Flusin 1983, 155–214; Brown 1971, 80–101.
On the history of this community, see Bitton-Ashkelony and Kofsky 2000, 14–62;
Bitton-Ashkelony and Kofsky (eds.) 2004; idem 2006, 6–46.
Kofsky 2004, 421–437.
178 brouria bitton-ashkelony
and charismatic authority as holy men, elevating them to the status of
mediators between their followers and God. Much has been said in the
last three decades concerning the function and portrayal of the holy
man in late antique Christian societies. However, as Philip Rousseau has
discerned, the holy man in late antiquity should be perceived as a new
kind of teacher with a new kind of paideia, thus identifying the central
expression of authority within ascetic society as the relationship between
master and disciple.
Undoubtedly, this was the case with Barsanuphius
and John, who approached their role in clear pedagogical terms. In this
paper I wish to discuss one extraordinary linguistic technique, termed
in the sources “counseling through enigmas,” by which Barsanuphius—
known also as the Great Old Man—exercised his authority. I shall argue
here that though secluded in his cell-tomb and far from the public
drama of the healing miracles that were animating all parts of the Chris-
tian empire and proving the power of the holy person, Barsanuphius’
quasi-divine standing and self-awareness became apparent through the
linguistic technique of “counseling through enigmas.”
Te historical source for this investigation is the exciting corpus of
Erotapokriseis, Questions and Answers, comprising over eight hundred
letters, the correspondence between Barsanuphius and John and their
Tis precious exchange of letters—a result of the conditions
of extreme seclusion of the spiritual fathers—provides a rare opportu-
nity to see from close up intimate moments of interaction between mas-
ter and disciple.
It is worth noting that the Questions and Answers did
not follow any protocol of classical epistolography. Rather, their style is
Rousseau 1999, 45–59, esp. 54, 57. See also Rubenson 2000, 110–39.
For a critical edition of the frst 124 letters of Barsanuphius and John’s correspon-
dence, with English translation, see D.J. Chitty, Barsanuphius and John, Questions and
Answers, PO 31/3 (Paris, 1966). For a new critical edition with French translation, see
F. Neyt, P. de Angelis-Noah and L. Regnault, Barsanuphe et Jean de Gaza: Correspon-
dance, Sources Chrétienes 426–27, 450–51, 468 (Paris, 1997–2002). For the complete
Greek text, see the edition of Nicodemus Hagiorites (Venice, 1816 [2nd. rev. ed. cor-
rected by S.N. Schoinas, Volos, 1960]). For a complete French translation of the Greek
text with additions from the Georgian translation, see Barsanuphe et Jean de Gaza, Cor-
respondance: Recueil complet traduit du grec et du géorgien par les moins de Solesmes
(Solesmes, 1993, 2nd edition). References are to the SC edition.
For the peculiar model of spiritual guidance in seclusion—maintaining contact
with the outside world only through a disciple—in Gaza and in Egypt, see Bitton-Ash-
kelony and Kofsky 2006, p. 83.
monastic leadership and linguistic techniques in 6th-c. 179
simple and informal, revealing authentic relationships, in a sense, face-
to-face conversations of the monks with their spiritual guide. Tis mode
of communication is a valuable source for the psychological dimension
of ascetic life, usually beyond the reach of the historian. Along with
depictions of the monks’ tensions, ambivalence, and personal intro-
spection, the Questions and Answers also provide a vivid portrayal of
Barsanuphius’ self-perception and notion of spiritual leadership. His
role as a pantokrator—one who exercises his authority in all domains
and touches on the deepest and most perplexing concerns of the inner
life—emerges with great clarity.
Te main concern of this article is a unique set of fve questions and
answers, described by the ancient redactor of the corpus as a way of
consulting Barsanuphius “through enigmas.”
Although the redactor
classifed this entire group of letters as counseling “through enigmas,”
two sorts of writing are distinguishable here: speculation on the letters
of the alphabet and cryptic language. Te redactor may have arranged
these letters consecutively, because the same spiritual father is men-
tioned in these letters and because both are associated with the letters
of the alphabet. From the Questions and Answers it is not possible to
determine the extent to which cryptic language was employed in the
Gaza monastic milieu as a whole. Barsanuphius was not very enthusias-
tic about such language, a fact that might explain the scarcity of letters
of this sort in the corpus. However, cryptic language was apparently a
challenge that Barsanuphius did not want to evade; according to Jerome,
the most prestigious leaders of Egyptian desert, Pachomius among
them, were granted the grace of angelic language—that is, knowledge
of a secret language, “so that they might write to each other and speak
through a spiritual alphabet, wrapping hidden meanings in certain signs
and symbols.”
Barsanuphius was well acquaintanced with the ancient
techniques of cryptic language and of speculation on the letters of the
alphabet that prevailed in the Hellenized Mediterranean world,
as well
Questions and Answers 132, 133, 136, 137, 137b.
Jerome’s preface to Te Rules of Saint Pachomius 9, Pachomian Koinonia II, 144.
Te pioneering and still classic study on the mystical and magical dimensions of
letters in ancient Greek thought, Gnosticism, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam is Dorn-
seif 1922. Dornseif frst published his inaugural lecture as a short essay (Dornseif
1916) in which he outlined his main thesis. See also, Cox-Miller 1989, 481–505.
180 brouria bitton-ashkelony
as in late antique Jewish literature,
Gnostic texts,
in the Nag Ham-
madi corpus,
and Egyptian and Palestinian monastic circles.

I shall examine, frst, Barsanuphius’ technique of speculation on the
letter ἦτα (eta) as exemplifed in Letter 137b and, second, his use of cryp-
tic language as a mode of communication that enhanced the intimacy
of the relationship between master and disciple. I seek to understand
how by using these linguistic techniques Barsanuphius was construct-
ing his quasi-divine authority and empowering his ascetic leadership. It
is worth recalling in this context that the image of a teacher as one who
masters linguistic techniques goes back to early Christianity; the author
of the Infancy Gospel of Tomas presented Jesus as a pupil challenging
his teacher about the meaning and power of the letters of the alphabet:
“If you are indeed a teacher, and if you know the letters well, tell me the
power of alpha, and I will tell you that of beta (εἰπέ μοι τουː ἄλφα τὴν
δύναμιν, κἀγώ σοι ἐρωː τὴν τουː βηː τα).”
In Letter 137b we are not deal-
ing with theoretical speculation on the letter of the alphabet, usually
marked by a mystical leaning, nor with the power of the word in the
magical sense. Indeed, the spiritual leaders in Gaza seem to have been
somewhat antipathetic to the magical arts,
and the Old Man strictly
forbade the use of incantation (ἐπιλαλία) and consulting of sorcerers.

Rather, I shall argue that through a hermeneutic process that focused
See, for instance, the treatise known as Otiot de Rabbi Akiva, 343–418; Sefer Yetsira
(long version), 251–57 (in Hebrew).
For example, the Gnostic Marcus’ interpretation of the Greek alphabet as pre-
served in Irenaeus, Against Heresies I, 14,1–5; Hippolytus, Te Refutation of all Heresies
VI, 38–45.
Wisse 1979, 101–120. Wisse was inclined to see a relationship between the wide-
spread monastic use of cryptograms in colophons and grafti in late antique Egypt and
the use of vowel series and nonsense syllables in Gnostic works. Tis, in his view, is a fur-
ther link between Pachomian monasticism and the Nag Hammadi codices. See, Wisse
1978, 438. Yet all attempts to link these two movements have so far been convincingly
rejected by Philip Rousseau in his preface to the paperback edition of Pachomius: Te
Making of a Community in Fourth-Century Egypt (Berkeley, 1999 2nd), pp. XIX–XXV.
Te Letters of Saint Pachomius, letters 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 9A, 9B, 11A, 11B, in Pachomian
Koinonia III, 51–64, 67–69, 72–74; Les mystères des lettres Grecques. Jerome (Ep. 50.3)
also refers to the use of a certain cryptic alphabet in his attack on Jovinian, criticizing
the latter’s habit of circulating among the virgins’ cells and philosophizing on the “sacred
letters” (sacris litteris).
Te Infancy Gospels of James and Tomas 14:3, 6:19, ed. R.F. Hock (Santa Rosa,
Calif., 1995), pp. 132–33. On the roots of this legendary story, see, McNeil 1976, 126–
128. Irenaeus considered this story to be a “forgery.” See Against Heresies I: 20.
Questions and Answers 418.
Ibid., 753–755.
monastic leadership and linguistic techniques in 6th-c. 181
on the letter eta, and by severing the letter eta from its linguistic afnity,
Barsanuphius was virtually creating a new religious symbol—eta—that
embodied his teachings and built up his self-image. I use the term “sym-
bol” in this context in its unsophisticated Jungian sense—that is, “a term,
a name or even a picture that may be familiar in daily life, yet that pos-
sesses specifc connotations in addition to its conventional and obvious
More precisely, the eta under Barsanuphius’ pen serves as
what Cliford Geertz has termed a “vehicle for a conception,” a tangible
formulation of notions and concrete embodiments of ideas, attitudes,
and beliefs.
Trough the eta symbol, Barsanuphius was in fact present-
ing, in miniature, his summa monastica, all the while laying bare a major
puzzlement prevalent in monastic culture—namely, how a monk knows
he has attained a certain stage of perfection.
Letter 137b stands apart; it is not a typical answer of the Old Man,
nor is it, in a strict sense, an instructive letter, as are the others; it stands
in stark contrast to the intimate tone and direct speech of the rest of
the Correspondence. Barsanuphius’ preoccupation with the inner life is
generally marked by an unsophisticated mode of thought and a simple
method of representation. But in Letter 137b we witness one of the rare
instances in which the Great Old Man treated a topic in a theoretical
and speculative manner, showing his knowledge and mastery of this
traditional lore. It should be stressed that Letter 137b contains noth-
ing new concerning Barsanuphius’ monastic teaching; major themes
that he dealt with frequently in his correspondence with the monks are
discussed here, and educative principles that infuse central aspects of
monastic culture are expressed by the symbol eta as well. Tus what has
to be explained in this article is the reason for Barsanuphius’ transmis-
sion of ascetic teaching through speculation on the letters of the alpha-
bet and the use of cryptic language.
Speculation on the Letter ἠτα
In his preface to Letter 137b the ancient redactor of the Questions and
Answers relates that Barsanuphius conveyed some advice and theologi-
cal doctrines to the fathers in alphabetic order. He sequenced certain
Jung 1964, 21.
Geertz 1966, 1–46, esp. 5.
182 brouria bitton-ashkelony
words beginning with the same letter (stoicheion), such as eta, and then
developed a detailed exhortation by speculating on each word. Yet as
we shall see, Barsanuphius himself did not strictly follow this method.
Te redactor explains that he chose Barsanuphius’ speculations (τωː ν
θεωριωː ν) on the letter eta to exemplify Barsanuphius’ interpretation of
the whole alphabet. One wonders why the redactor decided to introduce
only part of Barsanuphius’ teachings on the alphabet rather than the
whole treatise and, more importantly, why he chose this particular part
of the composition. Tis seems to me to have been a deliberate choice.
Letter 137b, which is written in the form of a prayer and in a spirit
of pedagogy, contains fve sections starting with the letter eta, each for-
mulated in a similar pattern. In the frst the writer states the subject;
in the next he moves to exhortation on it; he then gives signs (σημει ː α)
by which one can discern the specifc spiritual stage he has achieved
in his path toward perfection. By drawing a link between a set of signs
and the symbol eta, Barsanuphius was not merely envisaging a didactic
scheme and representing the harmony of his teaching; given that one
of the most important characteristics of a symbol is the power inherent
within it that distinguishes it from the mere sign, which is impotent
in itself,
it seems that the main concern of Barsanuphius’ speculation
is the divine dimension of eta. Te key to such an understanding is to
be found in the redactor’s declaration that Barsanuphius speculated on
the letters of the alphabet while applying and referring each letter to
God (ἓν ἕκαστον στοιχει ː ον εἰϚ θεὸν ἐκλαμβάνων);
By using this prin-
ciple—a principle known also from Jewish texts dealing with specula-
tion on the letters of the alphabet
—Barsanuphius imbued the symbol
eta with divine power, a major step toward divinizing his own teaching
and hence strengthening his image as a quasi-divine guide.
It is not surprising, then, that Barsanuphius began his exposition by
stressing the important role of the spiritual guide: “Eta is hegoumenos.
Hegoumenos is a guide” (᾽
Η τά ἐστιν ἡγούμενοϚ. Ὁ δὲ ἡγούμενοϚ ὁ δηγόϚ
A guide, according to him, leads one toward the light, not toward
As has been observed by Tillich 1960, 75–98, especially 76. On the distinction
between signs and symbols, see Atinga 2004, 146.
Questions and Answers 137b, SC 427, 502.
See, for example, the late antique Jewish mystical treatise Sefer Yetsira .
Te term hegoumenos can be translated here as designating specifcally the monas-
tic superior. See, ἡγούμενοϚ, in G.W.H. Lampe, A Patristic Greek Lexicon. Oxford, 1961.
monastic leadership and linguistic techniques in 6th-c. 183
an inquiry into darkness; hence Barsanuphius provided the reader with
a set of remedies against desires, an idea that dominates Letter 137b.
Tus in a series of opposites—light and darkness, truth and illusion,
peace and combat, spiritual joy and sadness, humility and pride, morti-
fcation and repose—he defnes the role of the hegoumenos, the monas-
tic superior, as well as the precise way in which he seeks to guide his
Tis is epitomized in Barsanuphius own words alluding to
Matt 25:33: “He leads you to the right; do not be among those who are
on the lef; he leads you toward the eternal life.”
It is unlikely, then,
that Barsanuphius used the verb hegoumai (ἡγουː μαι) here solely “as a
pretext for enumerating all the fundamental dispositions that the monk
has to acquire.”
Rather, Barsanuphius’ emphasis is on the guide, who
is the starting point of ascetic life; all progress had to begin with fnding
a guide, the one who provides a code of behavior. Barsanuphius’ self-
awareness is decisive here. He saw himself not only as a guide providing
an orthopraxic—correct action—according to his cumulative experi-
ence, but rather as one inspired by the Holy Spirit and speaking “from
God” (ἀπὸ θεουː λαλει);
the monk, in turn, entrusted his soul to the
Old Man and through him to God.
Barsanuphius’ deliberate choice
to start his speculation on the letter eta with the idea of guidance is in
harmony with his basic precept concerning spiritual direction—namely,
that one should do nothing without advice, “A man without an adviser
is an enemy to himself.”
Te beginning of wisdom (σοϕία), he said, is
abstention from evil things; but one cannot abstain from them simply by
not doing, without asking advice, without seeking counsel.

In what follows Barsanuphius deviated from the promised method of
speculation as introduced to the reader in the preface of Letter 137b—
that is, the words that he interpreted did not start with the letter eta.
Yet all the words are feminine and thus have eta as their defnite article.
Hence in the second section of the Letter Barsanuphius stated that eta
For a similar series of opposites, see Evagrius Ponticus, On the Vices Opposed to
the Virtues, 60–65.
Questions and Answers 137b, SC 427, 504.
As has been argue by Angelis-Noah 1983, 497.
Questions and Answers 373, 462.
Ibid., 97.
Ibid., 693. See also Perrone 2004, 144–48.
Questions and Answers 234. Barsanuphius also drew a clear distinction between
commandment (ἐντολή) and advice (γνώμη), thus in certain circumstances he permit-
ted the monk to follow his own will. See, ibid., 56, 64.
184 brouria bitton-ashkelony
is the right side of the Father (τὸ ἠ
τα ἡ δεξιά ἐστι τουː ΠατρόϚ), clearly
alluding to the place of Christ on the right side of the Father (Heb
From his discussion of the role of the Father here one can-
not but wonder who the Father is that Barsanuphius had in mind. Was
he disclosing here his self-awareness and relating his interpretation to
the monastic father, thereby further enhancing the status of the hegou-
menos presented in the frst section of the Letter? It is worth recalling
here the saying of Evagrius Ponticus (d. 399)—one of the most infuen-
tial of the desert philosophers who shaped the monastic culture of the
fathers in Gaza—that the right is the side of divine knowledge, “the one
who alone sits to the right of the Father is the only one who possesses
the knowledge ( gnosis).”
If one is to the right side of the Father, Barsa-
nuphius declared, then he will not veer to the lef and will not lose the
power that surrounds him, since “Te right hand of the Lord is exalted:
the right hand of the Lord does valiantly” (Ps. 118:16). Te power of
the right side of God is expressed in this section in Evagrian termi-
nology—namely, the generic thoughts (οἱ γενικώτατοι λογισμοί) that
demons insinuate into the monk’s mind: Tose who are vigilant, accord-
ing to Barsanuphius, do not risk falling into gluttony (γαστριμαργία),
fornication (πορνεία), avarice (φιλαργυρία), sadness (λύπη), despon-
dency (ἀκηδία),
anger (ὀργή), temper brought on by the irascible part
of the soul (θυμόϚ), detraction (καταλαλία), hatred (μίσοϚ), vainglory
(κενδοξία), or pride (ὑπερηφανία). Besides introducing the key ele-
ments threatening the monk’s integrity according to Evagrius’ classic
catalogue of eight thoughts (logismoi), Barsanuphius was expanding it
On Christ’s place of honour at the right hand of God, see W. Grundmann, “δεξιός,”
in G. Kittel, Teological Dictionary of the New Testament, Eng. trans. G.W. Bromily
(Grand Rapids, 1964), vol. 2, pp. 37–40. For the background of symbolic associations of
right and lef in ancient Greek thought, see Lloyd 1973, 167–86.
Evagrius Ponticus, Kephalaia Gnostica II.89, 96–97.
Evagrius stated that “Te demon of acedia is the one that causes the most serious
trouble of all”, Praktikos 12, 520–27. He described in detail how the demon of acedia acts.
According to him tears are a remedy against acedia (Praktikos 27,562–63). Evagrius also
advised use of the antirrhetique method, which entails repeating Psalms to expel acedia.
On the nature of the central theme of acedia and its origin, see Questions and Answers
562–64. A distinction is drawn here between two sorts of acedia: physical acedia ensuing
from fatigue and acedia engendered by demons. Te Old Men recommended invoking
of the name of God to drive away evil thoughts (Questions and Answers 565). Along
the lines of Evagrius, the Old Men instructed that during the struggle against acedia
the monk should not leave his cell (Questions and Answers 563; Evagrius, Praktikos 28,
monastic leadership and linguistic techniques in 6th-c. 185
by adding a further three:
temper (θυμόϚ),
detraction (καταλαλία),
and hatred (μίσοϚ).
With the aim of shaping the inner landscape of
the monk on the basis of simple anthropology, Barsanuphius stated that
God creates the soul and the body without passion (πάθη), but through
disobedience the soul and the body fall into it;
uprooting the passions
is possible by denying one’s will.
Te sign that a man is saved, said
Barsanuphius, is that his soul is purifed from all these logismoi and is
able to take part in the heavenly liturgy—that is, “to sing with the angels
of God.”
Tough there is nothing mystical about the eradication of the
passions in monastic culture, it is represented here as a prerequisite for
the monk’s participation in the heavenly liturgy.
Barsanuphius goes on to speculate on the letter eta as the incorrupt-
ible sacrifce (
Ἠτα ἡ ἄφθαρτοϚ θυσία ἐστίν)—namely, the divine Son
that was ofered for the life of the world. By consuming this sacrifce,
Barsanuphius says, one truly sacrifces himself and is no more subject
to spiritual corruption (τηː Ϛ νοητηː Ϛ φθοραː Ϛ), since in Jesus Christ are
destroyed all the deeds of the devil, his passions and his thoughts (logis-
moi). Beyond these basic claims, Barsanuphius concludes his interpreta-
tion with the promise of a mystical experience: if one has followed this
way, examined one’s inner self and found nothing of this evil, then “it is
clear that he has died with Jesus, lived and sat in glory with him.” Draw-
ing on John 17:21 (“Tat they all may be one; as you Father are in me,
and I in you, that they also may be one in us”), he asserts that believers
who have purifed their passions fnd themselves in the Son and in his
Father in union (ἐν τῳː Υἱῳː καὶ ἐν τῳː αὐτῳː Πατρὶ εἰς ἕν).
this is one of the spiritual cravings and ambitions of Barsanuphius—
Evagrius, Praktikos; To Eulogius: On the Confession of Toughts and Councel in their
Regard, 310–33; On the Eight Toughts, 73–90. For an analysis of Evagrius’ theory of
eight thoughts, see Guillaumont 1971, 63–93; Hausherr 1933, 164–75.
On the nature of θυμόϚ, see Questions and Answers 245. For the centrality of θυμόϚ
in Evagrius’ teaching, see Ad Monachos 30, 35, 36, 98, 100; Praktikos 11 and 15, 516,
Te Old Men regularly include hatred among the passions. See, for example, Ques-
tions and Answers 86, 97. See also, Evagrius, Praktikos 6–14, 504–35. Evagrius links
anger and hatred (Praktikos 20 and 76, 548, 664), and he also associates hatred with
wealth (Ad Monachos 16).
Questions and Answers 246.
Ibid., 462.
Ibid., 137b, 506.
Ibid., 508.
186 brouria bitton-ashkelony
not surprising for a spiritual guide who united his soul with that of his
perceiving himself in terms of Jesus Christ and once, in the
context of remitting the sins of his disciple, declared “I sacrifce myself
for your soul” (Ph 2:17).
In his next speculation on the letter eta Barsanuphius states that eta is
the joy of the Father (
Ἠτα ἡ χαρὰ τουː ΠατρόϚ ἐστιν), saying: “Te joy of
the Father is the Son” who delivered the world on the Cross.
to him, one should stay then in freedom [from sin]. Te sign that one
has reached this degree of perfection is that he adheres to his acquired
freedom until his last breath, and then, says Barsanuphius: “We are
saints, since He said ‘Be holy as I am holy’. ”
Tis interpretation char-
acterized the emotional state of the mystic as an acute sense of joy. Else-
where Barsanuphius alludes to the spiritual life as “the way to joy.” Te
Holy Spirit frst comes upon a man and teaches him everything: how
one should think about things on high, which, Barsanuphius pointed
out to the monk, to whom he was writing, he cannot now do. Guided by
this fame, the inspired one ascends to the frst heaven, then to the sec-
ond; he progresses until he reaches the seventh heaven, and there he can
contemplate inefable and terrible things (Κἀκει ː τὸ θεωρηː σαι ἄρρητα
πράγματα καὶ φοβερά), things of which those who have not reached this
stage of perfection cannot be aware. Tis stage is reached only by those
who are perfect, those whom God has found worthy. Only those who
have entirely died to the world by sufering many afictions can attain
this degree of perfection.

In his fnal speculation on the letter eta Barsanuphius chooses to link
it to the Hebrew word el (%): “eta is el; el is God” (
Ἠτα ἤλ ἐστι. Τὸ δὲ
ἤλ ὁ ΘεόϚ ἐστι). He further explains the Hebrew name Emmanuel by
means of Isa 7:14 and Matt 1:23: “God is with us,” and then he enquires
whether God is with “us” or not.
Here again Barsanuphius looks for
“the sign that someone has reached this degree” of perfection, declaring
On this notion of the union of souls, see Bitton-Ashkelony and Kofsky 2006,
Questions and Answers 111.
Ibid., 137b, 508.
Her he probably alludes to Leviticus 19:2 (You shall be holy for I the Lord your
God am holy).
Questions and Answers 186.
It is interesting to mention here the interpretation of Les mystères des lettres
Grecques, 144, on the name Emmanuel: In order to explain the Hebrew name Emmanuel
the author proclaimed that Mathieu was written in Hebrew.
monastic leadership and linguistic techniques in 6th-c. 187
that to be far from sin and alien to its master, the diabolos, means to have
God always with you.
Among the above fve interpretations Barsanuphius ofers of the letter

τα, only two discuss words whose initial letter is ἠ
τα· ἡγούμενοϚ and
ἤλ. In other words, in his speculation, the letter eta has to some extent
lost its linguistic character yet accumulated latent meanings; he deals
primarily with the essence of the letter, rather than its linguistic role.

He rendered the eta autonomous, free of any grammatical connotations.
From Barsanuphius’ technique of speculation it appears that he devoted
no attention to the graphic form and sound of the letter eta; neither
did he speculate about its numeric value (gematria),
as elaborated in
the Epistle of Barnabas (“the Ι is ten and the Η is eight, thus you have
nor is there any hint that eta is endowed with a concrete and
immediate efcacy; the letter, has no intrinsic power;
interpretation has no cosmogonic inclination such as is encountered,
for instance, in the Coptic text known as Te Mysteries of the Greek Let-
ters; the supernatural and cosmological are not issues in Letter 137b.
Nor has his interpretation of eta anything in common with the pursuit
of this technique by Jerome, who concentrated on divulging the hidden
spiritual sense of the biblical text and, by means of this scientia scriptu-
rarum, demonstrating its Christian meaning.

Barsanuphius’ technique of interpretation might be termed symbolic
rather then allegoric. While the basic assumption of allegory is that the
verse, the original text, indicates another reality, the goal of the medita-
tive process in Letter 137b aims to create a symbol, which in its essence
Questions and Answers 137b, 508–10.
For a similar approach to letters of the alphabet in late antiquity, see Sefer Yetsira,
16–17 (in Hebrew).
Te numeric value and graphic form of the Greek alphabet constitute an impor-
tant portion of Les mystères des lettres Grecques. On the midrash concerning the graphic
form in Otiot de Rabbi Akiva, 11–16. Te description of the letters of the alphabet in this
Midrash is drawn from Ezekiel’s vision of the chariot’s animals (Ezek. 1:13–14). See also,
Midrash Rabbi Akiva: Otiot ktanot, Otiot Gdolot, 478–88.
Epistle of Barnabas 8.
Such as discussed by Frankfurter 1994, 189–221.
In a letter to Paula in 384, Jerome elucidated the etymological and mystical sense of
the Hebrew alphabet. See also, Jerome, Ep. 30.7; Eusebius, Praeparatio Evangelica X, 5 on
the Greek alphabet’s origins in Hebrew. Eusebius interpreted the Greek letters according
to the Hebrew alphabet and gave their meaning in Hebrew. Tus, e.g., eta is equivalent
to the Hebrew letter and stands for “the living” (ὁ ζωː ν !), the Hebrew word for which
begins with this letter.
188 brouria bitton-ashkelony
is a dynamic world, and thus to lead the reader toward the multifaceted
meanings hidden in it. In this symbol the monastic paradigm appears
as a harmony. Yet, more importantly, eta functions as an autonomous
and dynamic symbol arousing Barsanuphius’ disciples to action, a sort
of a call for a journey to the alphabet realm. An additional support for a
functional perspective of speculation on the alphabet in monastic milieu
is provided by the declaration of the anonymous author of Te Mystery
of Greek Letters: “Our guide spoke to us through letters and he gave it to
us as symbols.”
Barsanuphius’ creation of the eta symbol is essentially
a social process; its creation is in relation to his monastic community,
which could identify itself with its values (of this symbol). Furthermore,
as the main function of a symbol in a social context is to involve an
orientation toward action, to cause people to act,
I perceived the eta
symbol as a “bridging act,” a bridge between outer existence and the
inner meaning of the ascetic life.
Tere are probably several reasons why Barsanuphius decided to pres-
ent his teaching in such mode. But my point is that Barsanuphius’ use
of the symbol eta was not simply to embellish his didactic scheme. As
mentioned above, the key to understanding Barsanuphius’ intention in
representing his monastic teaching through speculation on the letter eta
lies in the redactor’s statement that Barsanuphius wrote his composition
while “applying and referring each letter (στοιχει ː ον) to God.”
By apply-
ing each letter (στοιχει ː ον) to God, Barsanuphius was in efect divinizing
his teachings. Te term stoicheion has a long history in the literary genre
of alphabetic speculation; it means a letter and a sound as well as an
element of the universe, and since the world is composed of elements,
the stoicheia create a meaningful universe. Te letter-element idea goes
back to Greek philosophy,
Gnostic texts,
the New Testament,
Les mystères des lettres Grecques, 69.
On this role of a symbol in psychoanalysis and psychology, see May 1960, 11–49,
especially his conclusion: “In its full form the symbol rather presents an existential situ-
ation in which the patient is asking himself the question: ‘In which direction shall I
move’ ” (ibid., p. 16). According to May this orientation toward movement obviously
involves more than conscious levels of the self. See also, M. Idel’s statement that the Kab-
balic symbol invites one to act rather than to think, in Idel 1993, 236.
Questions and Answers 137b, 502.
Dornseif 1922, 14–16; G. Delling, “στοιχει ː ον,” Teological Dictionary of the New
Testament, vol. 7 (Stuttgart, 1971), pp. 670–87; Cox-Miller 1989, 496–99.
See above note 12.
Galatians 4:3; Colossians 2:8, 20.
monastic leadership and linguistic techniques in 6th-c. 189
Jewish literature.
Following this widespread tradition Barsanuphius
explored the idea of letter-element in his speculation on eta, building on
the ambiguity of the term stoicheion.
He epitomized here the universe
of monastic discipline and provided in clear language, devoid of any
enigmatic confguration, a set of signs indicating that one has encoun-
tered the divine. Tus by relating all the letters-elements to God, he was
presenting the divine dimension of his teaching. Barsanuphius brought
to light here the ancient fundamental concept that the alphabet carries
meaning in and of itself, and that each letter represents a comprehen-
sive idea. Te second or third-century Coptic Gnostic Gospel of Truth
clearly illustrates this concept: “Each letter is a complete thought, like
a complete book, since they are letters written by the Unity, the Father
having written them for the aeons in order that by means of his letters
they should know the Father.”

Te most illuminating example of the technique of alphabetic specu-
lation that drew on the ambiguity of letter-element in early literature
is Zosimos’ treatise On the Letter Omega. Zosimos, about whom we
know very little, was an Egyptian alchemist from Panopolis (Akhmim,
on the eastern bank of the Nile) active at the end of the third century
or beginning of the fourth,
“a man of little conventional scholarship,
who moved in an eclectic milieu compounded of Platonism and Gnosti-
cism together with Judaism.”
In his treatise he speculates on the name
Adam and reveals its symbolic meaning by breaking it up into its letters
Accordingly, these letters signify the elements that consti-
tute the cosmos:

So, then, the frst man among us is named Touth, and among them Adam,
a name from the language of the angels. And not only that, but with respect
to the body the name they refer to him by is symbolic (συμβολικωː Ϛ),
Te term “letters-elements” (,! 7!7) appears in Sefer Yetsira, 16–30. On the
symbolic importance of the letters of the alphabet and their connection with the cre-
ation of the world in the preface of the Zohar (1:26–36), see Oron 1986, 97–109. See
also, Wolfson 1989, 147–81; Scholem 1946, 75–78, 133–38; idem 1974, 21–30.
On the ambiguity of the term στοιχει ː ον, see, Lamberton 1989, 76–77. See also, Les
mystères des letters grecques, 140, here the author plays on the ambiguity of the term
stoicheion as element of creation and of the alphabet.
Nag Hammadi Codex I, 3 (= XII, 2). On this passage, see Frankfurter1998, 254.
On the biographical details on Zosimos, see Jackson 1978, 1–7; Fowden 1993,
Fowden 1993, 120.
Zosimos, On the Letter Omega, 29. Tis example is quoted and discussed in Cox-
Miller 1989, 495–96.
190 brouria bitton-ashkelony
composed of four elements from the whole sphere. For the letter [stoi-
cheion] A of his name signifes the ascendant east, and air; the letter D
of his name signifes the descendant west, and earth, which sinks down
because of its weight; . . . and the letter M of his name signifes the meridian
south, and the ripening fre in the midst of these bodies, the fre belonging
to the middle, fourth planetary zone. So, then, the Adam of fesh is called
Touth with respect to the visible outer mould, but the man within him,
the man of spirit, has a proper name as well as a common one.
As Patricia Cox-Miller has observed, “From this perspective, the alpha-
bet is a kind of elemental grammar within which the entire cosmos
presents itself in human, earthy terms, as the symbolic body of essential
human being. By making these associations, Zosimos has not reduced
the cosmos to the merely human but has rather divinized the human,
since for him, as for Greek antiquity generally, the cosmos was divine,
the visible body of the gods.”
Tis identifcation of the letters of the
alphabet with the elements of the cosmos, is a widespread phenomenon
in the Mediterranean world of late antiquity and beyond.
phius was familiar with this way of thought, though it cannot be argued
with certainty that he was directly infuenced by the Egyptian alchemic
corpus or by the philosophical Hermetica to which Zosimos belonged.
However, he made his own confgurations for this technique, applying
it to his immediate social framework according to its need. Unlike Zos-
imos, Barsanuphius did not use the technique to divinize the human
body; he used it to divinize his spiritual guidance.
It seems that speculation on letters of the alphabet in the monastic
milieu is a late antique refection of much older modes of thinking.

From a literary perspective, the creativity and systematization revealed
in Letter 137b recalls, for instance, the famous Midrash Otiot de Rabbi
Akiva—a late antique speculative treatise on the Hebrew letters—and
Zosimos, On the Letter Omega, 28–29.
Cox-Miller 1989, 496.
See, e.g., Dornseif 1922; idem, 1916.
Tis technique of speculation on letters of the Greek alphabet was a long-lived phe-
nomenon in monastic circles. See for example, Les mystères des lettres Grecques. Tis text
was probably composed in a Palestinian monastery no earlier than the seventh century.
For this conclusion, see Amélineau 1890, 176–294, esp. 268–76. Despite the complex-
ity of this text in which a mixture of techniques are used, the theological intent is clear:
the author (or authors) desired to present the creation of the world and its salvation by
Christ in Chalcedonian’s terms, stressing the two natures of Christ and the theotokos
(θεοτὁκοϚ). See esp. 85, 147.
monastic leadership and linguistic techniques in 6th-c. 191
Sefer Yetsira (Book of Creation). Tough these Jewish works and Letter
137b share an interest in relating every letter to God, the axis of the Jew-
ish works is cosmology, a dimension totally absent from Barsanuphius’
speculation. His principle interest was to divinize major elements of his
spiritual direction, all the while describing, with the aid of several signs,
a diferent state of consciousness defned by various aspects of encoun-
tering the divine.
Counseling through enigmas
Barsanuphius’ quasi-divine spiritual guidance and self-awareness is
further illuminated by his use of cryptic language, as recounted in the
following story: A monk in the monastery of Seridus who had three
thoughts (logismoi) wrote his question to Barsanuphius “not in a clear
manner but through enigmas” (οὐ σαφωː Ϛ, ἀλλὰ δι᾿ αἰνιγμάτων).
ing in mind the three topics on which he was seeking counsel, the monk
inscribed a few letters of the alphabet. For each thought, he imprinted
in his mind (ἐν τῃː αὐτουː διανοίᾳ ἐνετυπώσατο) the letter that seemed
suitable. Here the redactor provided a valuable piece of information—
namely, the monk’s alphabetic code. For formulating in his mind a ques-
tion concerning the subject of hesychia and total withdrawal into silence
(περί τε ἡσυχίαϚ ἀκριβουː Ϛ καὶ παντελουː Ϛ σιωπηː Ϛ τουː μηδενὶ παντελωː Ϛ
συντυχει ː ͋), the monk used the letter iota;
he used kappa for concerns
about diet, asking through this sign whether one should eat dried food
and abstain from drinking wine; and he used lambda for asking about
audacity. Te immediate incentive for using cryptic language in the
monastery was to bypass Abbot Seridus—Barsanuphius and John’s sec-
retary—whose identity is disclosed only in the later letters. Seridus—the
person who wielded direct authority in the monastery—was apparently
not highly esteemed by this monk; he may have doubted the abbot’s
wisdom concerning matters of daily life and been seeking a higher
authority and more sophisticated counseling, so he used a known code
to circumvent him.
In the next letter the same monk continued to address Barsanuphius,
but this time asked his question neither clearly nor through enigma,
Questions and Answers 132.
Ibid., 132.
192 brouria bitton-ashkelony
as previously, but only by pondering in his mind (ἀλλὰ μόνῳ τῳː νοῒ
ἐνθυμηθείϚ). Using an “alphabet of the mind,” the monk posed ques-
tions about sleeping problems, weakness of the soul, obtaining salva-
tion, and prayer.
Te next three letters of the Correspondence constitute
Barsanuphius’ responses; yet his answers too were given in riddles (such
as “the frst brings loss, the second is benefcial” and “turn not to the
right hand nor to the lef, until the two will be in agreement”), which,
according to the redactor, induced embarrassment and frustration in
the monk.
In the end, Barsanuphius wrote an explicit answer to dispel
these confusions.
Tough it leaves many questions unresolved, this let-
ter provides a glimpse into Barsanuphius’ fundamental attitude to this
way of counseling. At frst glance, his stance on the use of cryptic language
in the monastery seems somewhat positive. He declares that it seems to
him good to receive—via God—the monk’s thoughts through enigmas
and to answer him in the same way, since it produces in the rational
soul, especially among the wise, “a spiritual rumination” (μηρυκισμὸν
πνευματικόν). By delving into the enigmas, he says, we fnd abundant
advantage in them. Nonetheless, drawing on Romans 12:16 (“Mind not
high things, but condescend to men of low estate”), he strictly forbade the
monk to express his thoughts thenceforth in enigmas; instead, he should
bare his thoughts clearly through the intermediacy of another brother
or write them down. Even if the monk acknowledged that he received
charisma from God, it was not proftable, Barsanuphius maintained, to
write or speak always through enigma; one should do so only when it
was a necessity. Yet he did not indicate what in this context should be
deemed a necessity. By exercising lofy powers (διὰ ὑψηλωː ν δυναμέων),
said Barsanuphius, both he and the monk were putting their humility
at risk. He thus commanded the monk to do so only rarely. Ultimately,
Barsanuphius complied with the monk’s request and explained his ear-
lier enigmatic answers: “Te frst letter (132) relates to you and to my
son and servitor, Seridus, the two should be in agreement”;
the second
letter (133) referred to the body and soul, which should be in agreement.
Te monk responded that from then on he would write and speak only
through the intermediacy of the “lord abbot”! In other words, having at
Ibid., 133.
Ibid., 133, 134, 135.
Ibid., 136.
Ibid., 136, 498.
monastic leadership and linguistic techniques in 6th-c. 193
frst used the code to circumvent his abbot, the monk ultimately became
submissive and accepted Abba Seridus’ authority.
What is important here is not so much that a cryptic language or code
existed in monastic tradition in the sixth century, nor that such a tech-
nique was not known to everyone (in this case not even to the abbot),
but rather the basic tenet underlying this method of approaching Bar-
sanuphius—namely, the monk’s confdence that the Old Man would be
able to decipher the code he had formulated in his mind (ἐν τῃː αὐτουː
διανοία). In fact, this exchange of letters between Barsanuphius and
his disciple is one of the rare examples of communication through the
alphabet of the mind. Barsanuphius emerges here as a spiritual leader,
one who had mastered the lore of the alphabet of the mind and sought
primarily to maintain authority and hierarchy in the monastery. His
bolstering of Seridus’ status and his reluctance regarding consultation
through enigma was perfectly in line with his philosophy of guidance
grounded in obedience and humility.
Te next story discloses the same stance: John of Beersheba re -
counted to Barsanuphius that one of the monks had asked him about
his own thoughts “not clearly but through enigmas” (οὐ σαφωː Ϛ, ἀλλὰ
δι᾿ αἰνιγμάτων). John, who was hesitant about this mode of counseling,
asked Barsanuphius whether the monk had acted rightly.
rejected “interrogation through enigmas,” detecting in this case an indi-
vidualism lacking discernment (ἰδιοσκοπία ἐστὶ μὴ ἔχουσα διάκρισιν)
since, according to him, the signs (σημει ː α) are intended not for “believers
but for non-believers” (1 Cor. 14:22).
As one seeking to reduce ambi-
guity in all domains, Barsanuphius certainly could not permit himself to
endorse the use of such an “alphabet of the mind,” which might create a
mysterious atmosphere and bafement concerning monastic discipline
that could undermine authority within the monastery.
Te concept of an “alphabet of the mind” is to be found also in the
collection of sayings of the desert fathers, the Apophthegmata patrum,
One day Abba Arsenius consulted an old Egyptian monk about his own
thoughts. Someone noticed this and said to him, “Abba Arsenius, how is
it that you with such a good Latin and Greek education ask this peasant
about your thoughts?” He replied, “I have indeed been taught Latin and
Greek, but I do not know even the alphabet of this peasant.”

Ibid., 40.
Ibid., 40.
Apophthegmata, Arsenius 6, PG 65, 88d–89a.
194 brouria bitton-ashkelony
What is interesting here is that the peasant’s inner life is represented as
his alphabet. As scholars have remarked, the story provides evidence
of “a pneumatic alphabet,”
“a new alphabet of the heart.”
It is worth
recalling in this context that Barsanuphius was well acquainted with
Arsenius’ teachings.

Cryptic language was not alien to late antique monastic culture. To
take one example: Jerome pointed out that Pachomius corresponded
with the fathers of other monasteries in such language and stressed the
importance of knowing “all the elements of the spiritual alphabet.”

Jerome, who translated the Pachomian letters from Greek into Latin
in the early ffh century, characterized their medium as “a spiritual
language,” “a spiritual alphabet,” “a language given by an angel to both
correspondents, and sounds that others are not able to understand.”

Unlike the Gaza letters, whose code is revealed by the redactor, these
letters are written in an alphabetic cipher whose arcane method is not as
yet satisfactorily explained.
Henry Chadwick ventured to predict that
the cipher in Pachomius’ letters “will never be broken because its inten-
tion is not actually to communicate in the ordinary sense of the word;
it has the purpose of being obscure, and therefore of surrounding its
author with an aura of mystery and authority.”
However, in the letters
from Gaza the enigmatic language does emerge as a vehicle of expres-
sion and mode of communication, though not for everyone. Hence the
unequivocal nature of Chadwick’s prediction seems questionable.
A few generations later, John Climacus (570–649) on Mount Sinai
confrmed what every teacher knows: “Educators can distinguish
between the programs of study suitable for beginners, for the interme-
diate, and for teachers. And we ought to ensure that we do not spend
an unduly long time at the beginner’s stage, for it would be a disgrace
to have an old man going to kindergarten.”
Tus he introduced to the
Dornseif 1922, 72.
Brown 1988, 229; idem 1992, 73.
See, for example, Questions and Answers 45, 55, 119, 125, 126, 191, 256.
Pachomian Koinonia III, Letter 6, p. 67.
Pachomian Koinonia III, Letters 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 9A, 9B, 11A, 11B.
Te difculty of deciphering this method was pointed out, for example, by
H. Chadwick 1981, 24; Rousseau 1999, 38; Goehring 1999, 222–23.
Chadwick 1981, 24. (emphasis added). For a new tentative to decipher the Pacho-
mian’s letters, see Joest 2002, 241–60.
Te Ladder of Divine Ascent 26, PG 88, 1017, Eng. trans., C. Luibheid and N. Rus-
sell (London, 1982), p. 232.
monastic leadership and linguistic techniques in 6th-c. 195
readers of his Ladder of Divine Ascent what he described as “an excel-
lent alphabet” and set forth the basic monastic ideals.
Each letter of the
Greek alphabet corresponds to a central component of monastic life.
But these terms do not begin with the corresponding letter of the alpha-
bet. Tis code or set of signs, devised for beginners, epitomizes basic
monastic discipline. For the advanced monk Climacus then proceeded
to introduce the plan and signs of progress without the alphabetic code.
Te second alphabetic code, which he designated “a measure, rule and
law,” is intended for those aiming at perfection in spirit and body; this
set is characterized by its achievement of a higher monastic discipline.

Tis code virtually represents the goal of monastic spiritual exercises,
attained by those who are perfect. It depicts monastic life from the frst
steps of the beginner to his ascent to the dwelling place of mysteries (the
letter Ο), becoming a custodian of holy secrets (the letter Π), and gain-
ing control of the body and nature (letters Υ and Ψ). Te use of cryptic
language here is probably pedagogical, making it easier to memorize
the monastic ideals represented by such an alphabetic code. But it is not
simply a program for ascetic progress from the beginning to perfection;
rather, it is a set of symbols designating a new state of self-conscious-
ness, which can be defned as a mystical and spiritual reality. Te same
pedagogical approach had in fact already been emphatically outlined by
Barsanuphius in his guidance to John of Beersheba:
From Alpha to Omega, from the condition of a novice to perfection, from
the beginning of the way to its end . . ., from becoming alien to the land
perceived by the senses to becoming a citizen of heaven and an inheritor
of the Land of the Promise perceived by the mind. Ruminate on the let-
ters (τὰϚ ἐπιστολάϚ) and you will be saved. For you have in them, if you
understand, the Old and the New Testaments: and understanding them,
you have no need of any other book.
Barsanuphius’ propensity to divinize his teaching is also epitomized in
the way he perceived his spiritual authority and the status he bestowed
on his own instructions; he strove to rank them with biblical injunctions
Such as, Α—obedience (ὑπακοη); Β—fasting (νηστεία); Γ—sackcloth (σάκκοϚ).
For instance, Ε—the indwelling of Christ, Η—the outpouring of divine illumina-
tion, Κ—fight from the body, Ν—becoming a fellow worshiper with the angels, John
Climacus, Te Ladder of Divine Ascent 26, PG 88, 1017.
Questions and Answers 49.
196 brouria bitton-ashkelony
and perceived them as no less signifcant than the Bible itself. To this
end he used the spiritual exercise of meditation (μελέτη) not so much
as a craf of thinking but rather as a dialogue with oneself, an ongo-
ing endeavor to control the passions.
Tus Barsanuphius constantly
encouraged his supplicants to meditate on the letters he had writ-
ten them,
using the same verb (μελεταː ν) as that for reciting psalms
and refecting on the Scriptures.
Te things he wrote were sufcient,
he maintained, to guide the monk from the beginning to the end. He
advised meditating on them and memorizing them, since these things
“contain the whole Bible.”
Relying on Proverbs 4:4 (“He taught me
also, and said unto me, let your heart retain my words, keep my com-
mandments, and live”), for instance, Barsanuphius—in a letter to John
of Beersheba—expressed the wish that his sayings be anchored in John’s
heart and that John meditate unceasingly on the things he wrote to him.
Sharpening his claim through biblical authority, he ordered the monk to
follow his instruction “according to what God said to Moses: ‘And you
shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets
between your eyes’ (Deut. 6:8).”
In other words, Barsanuphius was here
presenting his instructions as the new meditative phylacteries (tefllin),
which the monk ought to bind to his heart.
Te persistent assurance that “if you meditate on my sayings with-
out ceasing you will not fall” transforms Barsanuphius’ teaching into an
icon, devoid of rhetorical fourishes.
Tis does not imply any neglect
of meditating on the Scriptures; rather, it testifes to the almost canonic
status of the Letters and the exalted authority of the writer. Te word of
the Old Man was like the word of God. Te Letters of Barsanuphius are
the new Holy Scriptures of those who choose the new paideia. It is in this
matter, more than in any other, that Barsanuphius reveals his perception
of himself as a supreme guide, an intimate servant of God.
He was,
afer all, speaking “from God,” deciphering the alphabet of the mind,
On the defnition of monastic meditation, see Carruthers 1998, 4.
Questions and Answers 53, 103. See also, ibid., 239: “meditate these things” (1 Tm
In Questions and Answers 47 Barsanuphius wrote to John, who was struggling with
his logismoi, to meditate unceasingly on Psalm 106.
Questions and Answers 32, “ὅλην γὰρ ἔχουσι τὴν βιβλιοθήκην.” For this expression
as denoting the Bible, see SC 426, pp. 230–31, no. 1.
Questions and Answers 11, 19.
Ibid., 236.
As has been argued in Bitton-Ashkelony and Kofsky 2006, chapter 4.
monastic leadership and linguistic techniques in 6th-c. 197
and equating his teaching with that given by God to Moses. It remains
to ask how far he could go. Did he envision himself playing a role in the
aferlife and on the Day of Judgment? In a series of letters to the monk
Andrew, who asked Barsanuphius to commend him to the Holy Trinity,
the Old man answered that he had already done just that and, allud-
ing to the eschatological passage in Matt. 25:31–34, drew a comparison
between himself and “the great mediator Jesus,” who forgives sins from
birth to the present.
Restraining himself, however, Barsanuphius dared
only to say: “Each of the saints bringing to God the sons whom he has
saved says in a clear voice with abundant and great boldness, while the
holy angels and all the heavenly powers wonder, ‘Behold I and the chil-
dren whom God has given me’ (Is. 8:18; Heb. 2:13), and commends to
God not only them but himself also. And then ‘God becomes all in all’
(1 Cor. 15:28).”
Although Barsanuphius emerges here as a quasi-divine guide who has
creative mind, he was not attempting to develop a theoretical dimension
of the technique of speculation on the alphabet. Te novelty of Letter
137b lies in its new confguration of an ancient way of thought; he was
applying an old method to create a symbol for his community and to
represent his fundamental spiritual teaching in a new way. Barsanu-
phius’ total seclusion and invisibility to his acolytes were the most obvi-
ous mis-en-scène for a successful spiritual leader who perceived himself
in such divine terms.
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Dan Martin
Tat would be like teaching the alphabet to a
—Tibetan proverb.
While it is true that teaching the alphabet to people who already know so
much more would be frivolous if not laughable, in the pages ahead the
alphabet as such will be taken very seriously, and not simply assumed.
Far from being ‘simple,’ it was clear even before beginning the frst word
of this article that the topic is far too broad, and lined with intriguing
side paths branching of in many directions. As a time span, a millen-
nium naturally resists encapsulation and invites sketchiness and gener-
alizations which we should do our best to resist, especially during the
process of succumbing. Te discussion will be divided into three parts,
roughly dividing the millennium into thirds: [1] the frst three centuries
* Although the research lasted many years, this article was put in writing while I was
a member of a research group devoted to Indian poetry, chaired by Yigal Bronner, at
the Institute for Advanced Studies, Te Hebrew University, Jerusalem. In keeping with
the academic—not specifcally Indological, Tibetological or Buddhological—setting
for which the original paper was intended, Sanskrit and Tibetan terms are kept to a
minimum, and ofen bibliographical references are supplied with persons who do not
know those particular languages in mind. An attempted synthesis of previous academic
scholarship (I hope that I have not badly misrepresented anyone’s views), there is a
correspondingly lessened emphasis on my own research into the texts in their original
languages. For Tibetan-translated canonical texts, in order to avoid bibliographical
complications, I generally make reference to numbers in the Tohoku (Toh.) catalogue
of the Derge Canon (Hakuju Ui, et al. 1934). Derge Canon (Kanjur and Tanjur) texts
are, in a number of cases, available to me in searchable digital format (thanks to the
Asian Classics Input Project), although the readings were checked against the ‘original’
Derge canon (albeit in the form of microfche supplied by the Institute for the Advanced
Study of World Religions, Stony Brook). Te entire Derge canon has recently been
made available, too, in scanned format (in the form of compact disks from the Tibetan
Buddhism Research Center, New York City).
Tis proverb (or in Tibetan, gtam-dpe, ‘pattern [for] speech’ or perhaps even ‘oral
simile’) is, in one form or another, known to every Tibetan speaker. Several variants of
it are recorded (with no translation provided) in Cüppers & Sørensen 1998, 226, nos.
202 dan martin
of the common era, [2] the next three centuries, and [3] the following
centuries ending in the vicinity of the eleventh century. Perhaps these
time spans do somehow, or at least well enough for present purposes,
correspond to the three themes of this paper: devotional, covenantal
and yogic.
For the many who in some degree or another appreciate Buddhism
as a philosophy, and dislike what they know as ‘religion,’ no ofense is
intended. Of course, Buddhism has much philosophy in any sense of
the term. But for now we will be looking at aspects of Buddhism that
are very likely to be overlooked by the philosophers. Alphabet usages
such as those considered here certainly interconnect in various interest-
ing ways with Buddhist philosophy, psychology, ethics, language science
and so forth, but for economy of time, space and ability, it will not be
possible to say very much along these lines. We will look rather more at
things that might be termed, in the broader and older (and most def-
nitely not the recent socio-political or journalistic) sense of the word,
‘cultic.’ To emphasize the cultic just means to attempt to explore the
areas surrounding religious practices, and especially practices intended
to honor whatever is most highly regarded in a particular religion. In
the beginning it should sufce to suggest that, as a general principle, the
devotional and other religious usages of letters are in every case some-
how and in some degree tied up with or inspired by the sacredness of
scriptural texts (whether orally recited or written), as well as the sacred-
ness of the fgure of the Buddha Himself. At times, like full-blown reli-
gious symbols, or even like physical relics, the letters may place believers
directly in contact with sacramental powers or blessings. But that being
admitted, my own ideas about the general picture are constantly shif-
ing, perhaps even shifing during the act of writing. Nothing is perma-
nent, and least of all, structures.
I. Devotional
In December of 2002, I visited the ruins of Kapilavastu, which have never
been properly excavated, even if some ruined buildings and gateways
have been exposed. Well, it is at least the Kapilavastu on the Nepalese
side of the border, since India also lays claims to the Buddha’s childhood
Te following story, told in the tenth chapter of His biography
Tere is a considerable literature on the identifcation of ancient Kapilavastu, much
devotional, covenantal and yogic 203
as found in the Lalitavistara Sūtra, takes place in Kapilavastu. One day
the young prince, and future Buddha, Siddhārtha set out, at the head
of a procession of ten thousand children, to visit an elementary school
headed by Viśvāmitra (‘Everybody’s Friend’).
Te future Buddha really
had no need to go to school, of course, and he immediately demon-
strated to the schoolmaster Viśvāmitra that he already knew about sixty-
four diferent scripts (the names of the scripts are listed). Te children
together recited the Sanskrit alphabet, and afer each syllable, through
the blessings of the future Buddha, a phrase rang out as if from nowhere,
one which began with that same syllable. In efect, this appears to be
very much like the well-known English Abecedarium “A is for apple. B is
for boy. C is for cat.” Only in this case the usual Sanskrit alphabet is used,
and each letter comes at the beginning of a word or phrase expressing a
basic Buddhist concept:
When they pronounced the short A, the sound of this phrase emerged:
“All compounded things are impermanent” (Anityahˢ sarvasamˢ -
skārahˢ ).
When they pronounced the long Ā, the sound of this phrase emerged:
“Nonself ” (Ātmaparahita, ‘beyond self ’ or ‘welfare of self and
When they pronounced the short I, the sound of the phrase emerged:
“Sense faculties are vast” (Indriyavaipulya).
When they pronounced the long Ī, the sound of this phrase emerged:
“Beings have many contagious diseases” (Ītibahula, ‘hosts of
calamities’) . . .
Te text continues similarly through the letters of the Sanskrit alphabet.
Te list of sixty-four (there are actually sixty-eight in the Tibetan ver-
sion) scripts is very interesting in itself, although we will not go deeply
into it.
It includes not only ordinary human scripts used in our world,
of it published in India and Nepal. For the Nepalese side, identifying it with the extensive
(and inadequately excavated) ruins of Tilaurakot, see for example, Rijal 1979.
A late ffeenth century Tibetan-authored biography of the Buddha (Sna-nam
Btsun-pa 1994, 43) gives the schoolmaster Viśvāmitra the additional name Srin-bu-
go-cha (in Sanskrit, perhaps Krˢ mivarman, or ‘Bug Armor’). Tis probably results
from combination with the Abhinisˢ kramanˢa-sūtra (Toh. no. 301, fols. 17–18), where
the Buddha’s school teacher is indeed given this other name. A charming green phylite
relief, kept in the Swat Museum in Pakistan, depicts the young Buddha and a companion
on their way to school riding on two rams, accompanied by two adult guardians, one of
them holding an umbrella above the childrens’ heads, Khan 1993, 71.
Lalitavistara Sūtra (Toh. no. 95, fol. 108). English readers will have to content
themselves with the translation (based on the French of E.P. Foucaux, which is not available
to me, but making reference to the Tibetan text) found in Bayes 1983, I 187–195.
See Lévi 1905 for a notice of this list of scripts.
204 dan martin
but scripts used in other parts of the universe, and scripts of various
non-human entities. It begins with Brāhmī and Kharosˢ t ˢ hī, two very
early Indian scripts, but also mentions scripts of south India, what may
be Greek script (Yavana), and so forth. Te Sanskrit script as we know
it today, called Devanāgarī, is not to be found among them, and it is
essential to be aware that the Sanskrit letters did not exist in their cur-
rent shapes until relatively recently, and Devanāgarī became the domi-
nant script for writing Sanskrit only in around the 18th century. It is
perhaps worth noting, too, that some very good scholars believe that
the Kharosˢ t ˢ hī script descended from an eastern Aramaic script. Like
Semitic scripts, Kharosˢ t ˢ hī was written from right to lef. Brāhmī script
is written from lef to right.
John Brough’s 1977 article clearly demonstrated that the earlier of the
two Chinese translations of the Lalitavistara Sūtra, done by Dharmaraksˢ a
in the year 308 ce, employs an entirely diferent alphabet in this passage.
It most certainly is not an ‘alphabet,’ in the sense that it represents all
the letters used to write any particular language. Of the several learned
articles written on what is now known as the Arapacana syllabary, only
the earliest ones called it, inaccurately, the Arapacana alphabet.
Incidentally, today every Tibetan knows the Arapacana primarily
as part of a mantra invoking the Bodhisattva of wisdom and learning,
Several years ago, I spent a summer in Himachal Pradesh, at
the town of Gangcan Kyishong just above Dharamsala and just below
the residence of the His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I remember several
times being awakened in the morning by the sound of a child shouting
very loudly from the roofop “Omˢ A-ra-pa-tsa-na Dhihˢ ! Dhihˢ ! Dhihˢ !
Dhihˢ ! Dhihˢ ! Dhihˢ ! Dhihˢ ! Dhihˢ !” Te syllable Dhihˢ , which was repeated
in shrill and rapid machine-gun-like bursts until the child ran out of
breath, is considered by the experts (not necessarily so by the child) as a
On Kharosˢ t ˢ hī script, see Upasak 2001. On the eastern Aramaic scripts, see Naveh
1997, 132–53. Naveh does not seem to be aware of the existence of Kharosˢ t ˢ hī as such,
although he does briefy mention Aramaic script use in India (on p. 127).
For an excellent list of references on the Arapacana, including some that will not be
mentioned here, see Gyatso 1993, 198. Note the more recent study by Verhagen 2002,
143–9, who quite interestingly tends to the conclusion that the Arapacana was a ‘real’
alphabet of Gāndhārī.
Mañjuśrī is a Bodhisattva, depicted with royal ornaments (and not monastic robes),
with a sword lifed as if ready to strike in His right hand, and a book in His lef (or
balanced on a lotus held in His lef hand). Khettry 2001 has traced images identifed
with Mañjuśrī holding the book (but without the sword) to the frst centuries of the
Common Era.
devotional, covenantal and yogic 205
‘seed-syllable’ for generating the visualized form of Mañjuśrī, the Bodhi-
sattva of wisdom and learning, although it surely derives from the San-
skrit root dhī, which means ‘to think.’ A-ra-pa-tsa-na is just a Tibetan
pronunciation for Arapacana. Tis mantra clearly means something—
well, at least one should not really think of it as made up of nonsense syl-
lables, or that it is verbalized without intentionality and purpose—and
part of that meaning is surely to be found in the history of the Arapa-
cana syllabary itself. Tat contemporary Tibetan schoolchildren, in the
morning before going to school, might be heard reciting the frst part of
an ‘alphabet’ used in a two-millennia-old story of Buddha’s school visit
is certainly in itself an impressive feat of cultural memory. We should
add that this practice is not done only by children, but by monks as
Of the other Buddhist scriptures in which the Arapacana syllabary
probably the most important of them, the 25,000 Perfection of
Insight Sūtra, was translated by Dharmaraksˢ a into Chinese in the year
286, so we may be quite sure that we are dealing with scriptures available
somewhere in the Indian subcontinent in the earliest centuries of the
Common Era. Here is the beginning of the 25,000 passage:
Te syllable [letter] A is access point of all dharmas, since they are from
the beginning unproduced (Ādyanutpannatva).
Te syllable RA is access point of all dharmas, since they are free of impu-
rity [‘dust’] (Rajo ‘pagatatva).
Te syllable PA is access point of all dharmas, because they point to the
ultimate truth (Paramārthanirdeśa).
Te syllable CA is access point of all dharmas, because of the nonapplica-
bility of death and rebirth (Cyavanopapatty-anupalabdhitva, or ‘there
is apprehension neither of decease nor of rebirth’).
But there are several indications that these sūtras, along with the Ara-
pacana syllabaries they contain, originated (or at least were redacted) in
the northwestern part of the Indian subcontinent. Not least of the pieces
of evidence we fnd among the famous stone-carved reliefs of Gandhāra
depictions of the visit to Viśvāmitra’s school. In these friezes, which have
See Dreyfus 2003, 85, with a general discussion of Tibetan monastic memorization
practices on pp. 85–97.
Te best listing so far of the many sūtras that have the Arapacana in one form or
another is the one located in Durt 1994.
Conze 1984, 160; Wayman 1975, 78–9. I used the Derge Kanjur version of the
Pañcavimˢ śatisāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā (Toh. no. 9, fol. 344).
206 dan martin

been studied by Richard Salomon, we see the young Siddhārtha seated
with a stylus in His hand ready to make letters on a slate that has a handle
extending out one side (shaped rather like a cricket bat). By the way, just
a few years ago I saw writing slates that work in the same way, with the
same basic shape, being used by young student monks in Lhasa, Tibet. At
least they work in the same way. One does not write on them with sticks
of chalk as we do on modern blackboards. Instead one must evenly coat
the surface with powdered chalk, which is then scratched away with a
stylus so that the dark background is exposed. It is an excellent way
to practice calligraphy without wasting precious writing materials. To
return to Gandhāra, when letters are depicted on these slates they are in
Kharosˢ t ˢ hī script, showing letters from the beginning of the Arapacana
syllabary in their proper sequence. Terefore, the schoolhouse narrative
of the earliest Chinese translation of the Lalitavistara Sūtra, in its use of
the Arapacana syllabary, fnds outside verifcation in stone friezes from
Gandhāra in roughly the same centuries, and these friezes contain some
part of the Arapacana syllabary in the Kharosˢ t ˢ hī script, the script that
was in wide use in Gandhāra in those times. Salomon makes a good
argument that the local Gāndhārī dialect, written in Kharosˢ t ˢ hī script,
is behind the Arapacana syllabary (but, beware; it is most defnitely not
the case that the Arapacana is an alphabet of Kharosˢ t ˢ hī). Te replace-
ment of the Arapacana by the regular Sanskrit alphabet in the story of
Siddhārtha’s day in school would be just another example of the process
of Sanskritization (making into more perfect Sanskrit) that many other
Great Vehicle (Mahāyāna) scriptures underwent during their textual
Salomon also studies another inscription carved on the back side of
a frieze with a diferent subject (perhaps the presentation of a bride to
Siddhārtha). It has not only a part of the beginning of the Arapacana
syllabary, but also an array of numbers of to one side. In this particular
case, Salomon raises the possibility that the letters and numbers might
have somehow been meant to serve the builders as a key to the arrange-
ment of scenes on the wall. Salomon does not necessarily believe this
is the correct explanation (afer all it is not at all clear how this would
have worked . . . Were other friezes actually marked with numbers and
syllables? We are not told), and other possibilities remain to be explored.
Khettry (2001) suggests that the inscription was placed on the stone for
the sake of gaining merit, and for all we know, this explanation might
supply sufcient motive. Today we will put aside the many philological
complications and leave some of the larger questions in abeyance. Even
devotional, covenantal and yogic 207
if the specifc mysteries cannot all be solved, I believe it is possible to
bring more light to the general principles involved.
Although the possibility had been raised in the 1950’s by Tomas and
Lamotte, John Brough (in 1977) was perhaps the frst to clearly articulate
the idea, recently endorsed as the most likely explanation by Salomon,
that the Arapacana syllabary originated in a list of signifcant words, or
head-words, taken from some so-far unidentifed Buddhist scripture.
Te head-syllables of these signifcant words (and phrases) were then
abstracted to form a mnemonic key for remembering the scripture (or
passage of scripture) as a whole. In other words, by memorizing the syl-
labary, the entire text can be brought to mind.
Tere are certain key terms used in these early Great Vehicle scrip-
tures that I believe need to be understood a little better. In the frst
place, however much we may insist on it, there is no necessary difer-
ence between an alphabet and a syllabary in Sanskrit. Both are called by
the name mātrikā, a word which we might translate by ‘grandmother’
(the Tibetan uses two diferent translations in diferent contexts, both
of which may also be translated as ‘grandmother’), but also when used
fguratively, as ‘source’ or ‘origin’ (very much like the English cognate
Secondly, in Sanskrit, unlike English, it is not usually nec-
essary to distinguish between (written) letter and (spoken) phoneme.
Afer all, unlike western Eurasian alphabets, the letters of the Sanskrit
alphabet are scientifcally arranged according to their phonological val-
ues and unlike English they remain consistent in their pronunciation.
Te Sanskrit word aksˢ ara, which literally means ‘imperishable’ or ‘unal-
terable,’ may refer to both ‘letter’ and ‘syllable,’
and the sense of ‘inalter-
ability’ would seem to refer to both the consistency of pronunciation as
well as the ‘irreducibility’ of the syllable as the smallest possible bearer
of meaning, and for most practical purposes indeed identical to the let-
ter. It is clear that in the Lalitavistara, the syllables were both written and
sounded out, but in other contexts we may be lef guessing whether the
visible letter or the audible sound or both might be intended.
Terefore, when the 25,000 Perfection of Insight, in introducing the
Arapacana syllabary, describes the syllables as dhāranˢ ī-mukha, I believe

Te word mātrikā (Pāli mātikā) is also used in Abhidharma texts to refer to lists
of the main elements of Buddhist psychological (and other types of) analysis. Tese are
lists of words, not of syllables. See especially Gethin 1993.
Just like the Tibetan word that was used to translate it, yi-ge. See the discussion of
this point in Hopkins 1985, 76–7.
208 dan martin
that some other translations used in the past are inadequate. Tis word
mukha may mean ‘head’ (but here ‘face’ would be more accurate) or
‘mouth,’ as others have translated it, but I follow the Tibetan in under-
standing it to mean ‘door’ or ‘gate,’ and a bit more abstractly ‘access point,’
all these translations being indeed possible for the Sanskrit mukha as
well. Meaningful translation of the word dhāranˢ ī has proven especially
difcult, so much so that it is generally lef untranslated. It shares the
same root {dhrˢ } with the word Dharma. Dharma is the usual word for
Buddhism as a whole, for scriptures [the Buddha’s Word], and for sets of
factors that go together to sustain the vicious circle of everyday sufering
called samˢ sāra, as well as sets of factors that go together to sustain the
path to the cessation of sufering called nirvānˢa. In the 19th century it
was usual to translate Dharma as ‘law.’ I think something like ‘sustaining
factor’ could make good sense in many contexts (it also avoids preju-
dicing the very basic Buddhist principle of impermanence). Similarly
dhāranˢ ī,
with the same root, also refers to a kind of ‘holding,’ but in this
case serves as a shorthand for ‘holding in memory.’ To make it simple, a
dhāranˢ ī is a string of syllables which, either individually or as a whole,
induce recollection of:
1. particular dharmas as just described,
2. groups of such dharmas as well as dharmas in their entirety,
3. a scriptural text or passage (also called Dharma),
4. a set of Buddhist concepts (which may also summarize a scriptural
text or passage).
One early Great Vehicle scripture, Te Teachings by Aksˢ ayamati—its old-
est existing Chinese translation made by Dharmaraksˢ a in 308—defnes
dhāranˢ ī as inextricably bound up with memory: “Dhāranˢ ī means that,
by virtue of recollecting the virtuous roots that have been accumulated
in the past, one holds the 84,000-dharma heap, one retains all of it, one
does not forget, and one holds it correctly in the memory. Tat’s what
dhāranˢ ī means.”
It continues by explicitly saying that the Word of Bud-
dhas and Bodhisattvas is what is entirely held in the memory (scriptures
were already indicated, in fact, by the words ‘84,000-dharma heap’).
In my estimation, the most valuable modern discussion of dhāranˢ īs to be found in
Gyatso 1993.
My translation based on Braarvig’s careful edition (1993, I 148); compare Braarvig
1985, 18; 1993, II 556–7.
devotional, covenantal and yogic 209
Te Suvarnˢaprabhāsa Sūtra (frst translated into Chinese in the early
ffh century), in its chapter on bathing rites, not only tells us what
dharanˢ īs do, but links them with the scripture reciters:
Te goddess Sarasvat[ī], covering one of her shoulders with her outer gar-
ment, and placing her right knee on the ground, with folded hands asked
the Lord’s permission to wind up the net of illusions, spread round the
chanter of the sutra (Dharmabhānˢaka), to grant him the Dhāranˢ ī, and to
show him the light of true knowledge. “I shall,” said she, “restore the words
or consonants that may have dropped from the great Sūtra. I shall grant
him the Dhāranˢ ī that his memory may not fail. I shall teach him the mode
of holy bathing which will enable the Sūtra to endure for a long time on
earth, sowing the seeds of immense good, which will enable numberless
creatures to cultivate their intellect, to learn various Śāstras, and to acquire
immense merit.”
Notice that the word dhāranˢ ī is ofen found paired with another word,
pratibhānˢa. Jens Braarvig of Oslo has done a study persuasively showing
how in its many contexts this pair corresponds quite nicely with western
ideas from Greek and Roman times on, about two of the principle parts
of rhetoric: memory and eloquence.
Te Tibetan (spobs-pa) and San-
skrit words which Braarvig translates as ‘eloquence’ are used in contexts
that suggest a sense of outstanding ability, fuency, freeness, boldness,
and in some contexts, more specifcally, the ability to keep speaking
without running out of things to say. Te Teachings by Aksˢ ayamati itself
associates ‘eloquence’ with continuity, rapidity, lack of confusion, happi-
ness, sharpness and the like. In short, the word pratibhānˢa does contain
all the elements we normally associate with our idea of eloquence. Tis
close pairing of the two concepts appears in many other Great Vehicle
scriptures, among them the 25,000 Perfection of Insight Sūtra.
Of course, beyond and apparently quite apart from these usages of
the word dhāranˢ ī, there is a particular class of Buddhist scriptures that
emerged early on, and gradually gained autonomy from about the end
of the 3rd century, called dhāranˢ ī-sūtras, on which we should spare a
few words.
Translation by Mitra 1981, 244, which might be compared to the rather diferent
translation by Emmerick 1996, 44–5.
Braarvig 1985.
Note that the Perfection of Insight sūtras come in many sizes, ranging from the
100,000 in twelve volumes (Toh. no. 8) down to the one on the letter ‘A’ in a few lines
(English translation in Conze 1973, 201).
210 dan martin
II. Covenantal
Dhāranˢ ī-sūtra titles are the most numerous among the several classes
of scriptures found in the Tibetan scriptural canon. Almost always
extremely brief, they are very ofen, but not exclusively, devoted to
worldly fears and other rather secular concerns. For example, there are
dhāranˢ īs against snakebite, against backbiting and slander, against high-
way robbers, and so forth. Tere is even one against hemorrhoids.
general, they take the form of a short story. For example, the Buddha’s
disciple Ānanda has been traveling and is terrifed of highway robbers.
Te Buddha tells him a story about how highway robbers were once
stopped by saying a string of syllables, a dhāranˢ ī.
What I believe is
going on here is, above all, the sense that the Word of the Buddha has
power and truth. Te dhāranˢ ī recalls the original incident in the life
of the Buddha, together with the Buddha’s promise that the repetition
of the words will have the required efect. As far as the believer is con-
cerned, the efectiveness is based on something we might almost call a
contract which, once made, remains binding for all time. Well, at least it
would remain binding for those who believe in the power and truth of
the Buddha’s Word.
Arśapraśamani Sūtra (Toh. no. 621). A Chinese version also exists, its contents
described by Ratna Handurukande in Malalasekera 1966, 96. We should avoid falling
into the mistaken notion that these types of dhāranˢ īs were a Great Vehicle invention.
Although called raksˢ ā (‘protection’), rather than dhāranˢ ī, Elder School (Teravāda) texts
that are very much like dhāranˢ īs do exist, and it is remarkable that some of those texts
have been preserved in the dhāranˢ ī sections of the Kanjur in Tibetan translations, as
Skilling 1992 has demonstrated. Schmithausen 1997 studies several examples including
some against snakebite, together with a good discussion of the protective as well as the
‘contractual’ (or pact of friendship) nature of these types of texts. See also Cousins 1997
for remarkable instances of letter and mantra usages in Southern Buddhism. In Tibet,
dhāranˢ ī collections called Gzungs-’dus and Mdo-mang (see Taube 1968 and Meisezahl
1968; the Bon religion also has its own versions of these collections), in one or two
volumes, were quite popular, perhaps the most likely book to be found laying on a home
altar. While many of the texts in these collections are found in the canon, some others are
not. It could be said that the dhāranˢ ī-sūtras have been relatively neglected by scholars,
but it is also true that collecting the bits and pieces published here and there would result
in a very large bibliography, which will not be attempted here.
See, for this example, Coravidhvamˢ sana Dhāranˢ ī (Toh. no. 629). In the Tibetan
form of the title, ’Phags-pa Mi-rgod Rnam-par ’Joms-pa zhes bya-ba’i Gzungs, we fnd the
word mi-rgod. While it has the literal meaning ‘wild man,’ some people enthusiastically
endorse the opinion that mi-rgod ought to be a name for the redoubtable Abominable
Snowman. In this particular text, it is clear that mi-rgod are neither hairy humanoid
beasts nor bestial humans, but something unfortunately much less arcane: highway
robbers or bandits.
devotional, covenantal and yogic 211
Other dhāranˢ īs are meant to be stamped in clay or inscribed on vari-
ous materials, and then inserted into holy objects, into stūpa-monu-
ments which may serve as tombs for holy persons, and into such things
as images—even paintings and books. Very probably, the use of dhāranˢ īs
for such purpose began as a substitute for an older practice of inserting
holy relics into the same objects, but particularly in Tibet both dhāranˢ īs
and relics are likely to be used together. Te Tibetan term used for sacred
deposits of all kinds means “dhāranˢ ī-insertion.”
Besides the ‘dhāranˢ ī doors’ already mentioned, there are, interestingly
enough, ‘door dhāranˢ īs’ made on paper or cloth and placed above door-
ways, bearing a scriptural text which may say, “Just walking under this
once can purify a thousand aeons of sins.” I suggest that all these usages
of dhāranˢ ī-sūtras employ a kind of ‘covenantal’ Buddhology, forming
part of a more general devotion toward the Buddha and His Word. Te
placement of door dhāranˢ īs might be found reminiscent of the mezuzah,
which contains a sacral deposit of the very words of scripture that justify
the practice, using scripture as ‘empowerment’ for practice just as the
door dhāranˢ īs do. Similarly, in the Jerusalem temple, the ark which in
the view of many scholars served as the footstool for the invisible throne
of the divine presence in the Holy of Holies is ofen believed to have
contained the original covenant.
Tibetans in particular would more
or less immediately recognize both this and the mezuzah as instances
of dhāranˢ ī-insertion. However, in the Buddhist case, there is not just a
single covenant, like the one made at Mt. Sinai, but as many diferent
covenants as there are dhāranˢ ī-sūtras.
By the sixth century or so, a discussion emerged about the efectiveness
of dhāranˢ īs. It may not be clear who brought up the argument (although
they were surely Buddhists), but we do have the Buddhist philosopher
Bhavya’s response. Tis passage has been studied and translated twice,

but I have also located several later passages by various Indian authors
that are rather similar, dating to the ninth through twelfh centuries.
Most of these passages, but not the one by Bhavya, make use of a four-
fold subclassifcation of dhāranˢ īs which probably has its immediate ori-
gins in a ffh-century work by AsaΧga.
Te four types of dhāranˢ ī are:
In Tibetan, gzungs-gzhug, on which, see Bentor 1995.
Haran 1985, 251, 255 understands this in terms of ancient Middle Eastern practices
connected with sacral deposits in general.
Braarvig n.d. and Kapstein 2001, 233–55.
Tis is the Bodhisattvabhūmi (Toh. no. 4037; see Braarvig 1985, 19 for the full
212 dan martin
[1] dhāranˢ ī for recollecting dharma[s], [2] for recollecting meanings,
[3] for use as mantras, and [4] for withstanding the experience of the
ultimate Buddhist teachings like nonproduction and voidness. Te pas-
sage by Bhavya starts with the argument, which basically says, ‘What
place do these unintelligible words in barbaric language, or in the Vedas
of the “other” religion, hold within the Great Vehicle? Tey do not lead
to the cessation of sin, or to the ending of even the least fault.’ Bhavya
responds by quoting several scriptural passages, and I will not go into
it further, although it is interesting that at this early date he was quite
aware of the woman Bodhisattva Tārā and Her mantra. It is evident that
the use of mantras in religious practice was already in place in Bud-
dhism by the 6th century.
In the later similar passages, frst the ninth century passage by
Damˢ sˢ t ˢ rasena, it is the Arapacana syllabary that is explicitly singled out
as being phonemes that provide access to the full knowledge of dhar-
mas. Te same connection appears in passages by Ratnākaraśānti in the
tenth and Abhayākaragupta in the early twelfh centuries. It also seems
to be implicit in a passage by Jaggadalavihāra, within a work dated to
998 ce, although he only mentions the frst letter ‘A’. He says, “Te letter
‘A’ is access point of all dharmas on account of nonproduction.”
Te passage on the four kinds of dhāranˢ īs by Gro-lung-pa is certainly
not the earliest, and difers somewhat from the others; still it is a little
more intelligibly expressed and therefore translatable:
1. One who has the Dhāranˢ ī of Words obtains the strength of insight and
the memory which can hold for a limitless time immeasurable letters/
phonemes which are composed and written, just by hearing—without
practicing and without reciting—any particular teaching they have
2. Tis one [the Dhāranˢ ī of Meaning] is like the frst, but with the fol-
lowing diference: Tey can hold without limit the meanings of those
teachings—without practicing and without mental cultivation—for an
immeasurable period of time.
citation). For an especially valuable discussion of these categories see Gyatso 1993,
Damˢ sˢ t ˢ rasena’s Śatasāhasrikā-pañcavimˢ śatisāhasrikā-asˢ t ˢ ādaśasāhasrikā-prajñāpārami-
tābrˢ hat ˢ t ˢ īkā (Toh. no. 3808, fols. 146–147); Ratnākaraśānti’s Asˢ t ˢ asāhasrikāprajñāpārami-
tā-pañjikāsārottamā (Toh. no. 3803, fols. 39–40); two works of Abhayākaragupta, the
Munˢ imatālamˢ kāra (Toh. no. 3903, fols. 230–232) and Asˢ t ˢ asāhasrikāprajñāpāramitā-vrˢ tti-
marmakaumudī (Toh. no. 3805, fol. 65); and Jaggadalavihāra’s Bhagavatyāmnāyānuśārinˢ i-
nāma-vyākhyā (Toh. no. 3811, fols. 302–303).
devotional, covenantal and yogic 213
3. [Dhāranˢ ī of Secret Mantra] means to obtain the power over the samādhi
which achieves the blessing power to pacify such things as epidemic
4. Te fourth [Dhāranˢ ī for Obtaining Forbearance] has as its cause (or, its
basis) that the one who has insight dwells in solitude and doesn’t say a
word; encounters no one, eats appropriate food thinking little about it,
and sleeps briefy during the night. Tat is what the Teacher [the Bud-
dha] means by Mantra of Obtaining Forbearance.
Before moving into the third and fnal phase under consideration here,
the yogic phase, which I consider to be quite distinct even if in some
ways interrelated (or at the very least conscious of precedent), I would
like not only to summarize, but to add some more further elements and
speculate about a more general picture. Even though the early Perfection
of Insight sūtras speak so much about ‘reading’ and ‘writing’ that we have
to think that they were written down from the very beginning, they still
frequently mention the Dharmabhānˢ aka,
the reciter of the scriptures.
Te reciter was considered a special class within the Buddhist commu-
nity, and we know from early inscriptions that women could and did
serve in this role.
It appears that a good memory was the primary job
qualifcation. Anyone who has read the book or viewed the cinematic
version of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, could imagine that his por-
trayal of the post-print culture method of preserving literature was
inspired somehow by the role of the reciter in early Buddhism before
scriptures were commonly committed to writing. I’ll state my general
speculative theory as simply as possible, in the meantime introducing a
little more evidence that may help to support it.
Te basis for this translation is an Asian Classics Input Project (www.asianclassics.
org) digital text no. SL0070–1, since the work by Gro-lung-pa has not yet been published
in any other form (only a very few woodblock prints survive, in Mongolia, St. Petersburg
and Patna). Composed in around 1100 ce, the title is: Bde-bar-gshegs-pa’i Bstan-pa Rin-
po-che-la ’Jug-pa’i Lam-gyi Rim-pa Rnam-par Bshad-pa, and the passage is located at
folios 285–286. For a brief outline and discussion of this work, see Jackson 1996, 230–1.
Gro-lung-pa’s explanation of the Dhāranˢ ī for Obtaining Forbearance is quite unique (all
the other ninth- through twelfh-century passages we have mentioned make it frst, not
last in the list, and describe it as the ability to withstand Buddhist truths). ‘Obtaining
forbearance’ in Gro-lung-pa’s passage has a technical meaning associated with Great
Vehicle ideas about stages in the Path to Enlightenment. It belongs to a higher stage
of what is known as the ‘Path of Application,’ almost immediately preceding the direct
vision of the Truth. In the Path of Application, various moderately strict disciplines
(such as those mentioned here) are recommended.
In Tibetan, Chos-kyi Smra-ba-po. I believe it is signifcant that the word bhānˢaka
shares with the word for eloquence that we have already discussed the same Sanskrit
root bhanˢ . For a general treatment on the bhānˢaka, see Goonesekere 1968.
Hirakawa 1990, 30.
214 dan martin
My theory is that there was a code for aiding the memory of the scrip-
ture reciters, that the Arapacana syllabary is an example of it, although
the passage it was meant to preserve has not been identifed; also, that
the earliest Great Vehicle scriptures not only preserve a memory of such
codes, they most probably had their own system of memory using key-
syllables. Te memory system, whatever its exact details might have
been, itself helps to explain the well-known formulaic and repetitive
nature not only of the scriptures in the Pāli canon,
but of the Perfec-
tion of Insight sūtras as well, particularly in the more lengthy versions.
Tere is a small class of Tibetan literature, that has yet to be touched by
scholarship of any kind, which explains to us how the larger Perfection of
Insight sūtras can be generated through a process they call ’gres-rkang.

Te word ’gres is employed in the Tibetan translations of works by
Damˢ sˢ t ˢ rasena and Jaggadalavihāra already mentioned, although I have
not yet determined what the corresponding Sanskrit word would have
been. ’Gres-rkang refers to a repeated piece of text, into which a long list
of items are to be inserted. Te items to be inserted are the two types
of dharmas that were mentioned earlier, the samˢ sāric dharmas and the
nirvānˢ ic dharmas.
To give a simple example, instead of saying “All dharmas lack self-
nature,” we would say, “Te sense of seeing lacks self-nature. Te sense
of hearing lacks self-nature. Te sense of smell lacks self-nature,” and
so on and so on, slotting in perhaps over a hundred terms into the
same repeated statement. Te early pre-Great Vehicle school known as
the Dharmaguptaka had its own version of the monastic code which
has been preserved in Chinese. In this text we fnd exactly this type of
repeated sentence formula, “Te sense of seeing is impermanent, the
sense of hearing is impermanent” etc. Tis occurs as part of a discussion
of chanted recitations in which the chant leader or the monks in general
may start the frst syllable of the phrase, afer which the community, or
the laypeople in particular, will join in. Furthermore, it gives the Arapa-
cana itself as an example of a group chanting event, in which monks and
laypersons would chant together, whether in unison or in response.
It may be surprising to learn that the earliest Tibetan ’gres-rkang
texts, composed in the 11th century, belong to the Tibetan Bon religion.
See especially Allon 1997 and literature cited there.
I have briefy discussed, and given bibliographical references to, several of these
works in Martin 2000, 66.
Lévi 1915, 439–40; Lamotte 1988, 497–8.
devotional, covenantal and yogic 215
Since a discussion would lead us too far astray, I will just say that Bon is
believed to be the original pre-Buddhist religion of Tibet, and it is ofen
accused (by others, not by me) of stealing its scriptures from the Bud-
dhists by changing a word here and there. I recently edited an 800-page
catalogue of the Bon scripture collections.
Several years ago in Oslo,
while working together with a committee on the catalogue, I noticed
a very interesting thing about a ten-volume scripture that everyone
agrees in some way or another corresponds to the Buddhist Perfection
of Insight Sūtras. It exists not only in the ten-volume version, but in a
one-volume version as well. Within the latter is a chapter on a dhāranˢ ī,
in which each syllable of the dhāranˢ ī corresponds to a repeated textual
passage—allowing us to expand the one-volume into the ten-volume
version—but at the same time corresponding to one of the thirty-two
major and eighty minor marks of the Buddha,
who in this case is
Lord Shenrab, the founder of Bon. (Lord Shenrab is ofen called by the
Tibetan word for Buddha.) In a rather startling way, this brings together
devotion to the physical form of the Buddha with devotion to His Word.
It reminds us of the Buddha’s own advice, “to see me in the corpus of
my teachings.”
It reminds us, too, of the episode in the Lalitavistara
Sūtra, among other places, in which the sage Asita came to see the infant
Siddhārtha and examined His bodily signs, fnding the thirty-two and
eighty major and minor marks, which indicated that He would be either
a universal monarch or an Enlightened One. Asita exclaimed, “Truly
a great wonder has appeared in the world.”
Just as, or to the degree
that, the future Buddhahood is predicted through the marks, later on
the marks would allow us to recognize the wonder that was or is the
Buddha or His image.
Seeing this principle of text/image identifcation at work in the Bon
scripture set of an alarm in my head. First of all, the chapter in the Bon
text on the major and minor marks is located in about the same position
as the chapter in the much better known Buddhist texts. In the 25,000
Perfection of Insight Sūtra, this chapter covers three subjects: major
See Martin et al. 2003. Te catalogue of the Bdal-’bum volumes, which are the ones
discussed here, may be found in the same volume, pages 253–65.
On this subject, see especially Wayman 1957.
Boucher 1991, 2, 17 n. 3, has noted a number of Pāli and Sanskrit versions of this
statement. We might add, too, a similar statement in the Vajracchedikā Sūtra (Conze
1972, 63).
See de Jong 1954. For the account in the Lalitavistara, see Bayes 1983, I 150–63.
216 dan martin
marks, minor marks, and letters. It is quite mysterious what the letters
have to do with the marks, and why they should make an appearance
immediately afer them.
And the passage on letters is itself mysterious,
recommending that one should be skilled in the forty-two letters, and
meditate on the forty-two letters as contained in one letter, and on one
letter as contained in forty-two letters.
Since in the Sanskrit alphabet
generally forty-nine or ffy letters are counted, the forty-two letters sim-
ply must mean the Arapacana syllabary. Perhaps the Arapacana is, afer
all, the secret reciters’ memory code for the Perfection of Insight Sūtras,
but if so, it has not proven possible to know the specifc way in which it
would have been applied. It seems more likely that these sūtras are play-
ing with a mnemonic system that was already well known— most likely
one in use by the Dharmaguptakas for scriptures they were in the prac-
tice of reciting, something like the Arthavarga or the Udānavarga

One of the latest among the Tibetan Dunhuang documents, probably dating not
much earlier than the early 11th century, somehow correlates the vowels and consonants
(here referred to as a-li ka-li) with the marks and signs (see Verhagen 2001, 30–6 for a long
discussion). It may be interesting to consider the following instance in which Buddha’s
bodily marks are identifed with letters. In consecration rituals intended specifcally for
scriptural books, we fnd a recent Tibetan manual suggesting that, afer visualizing the
physical book away, it is replaced by Buddha Amitābha in the form of a book. At the same
time, the major and minor marks of the Buddha transform into vowels and consonants
which are then imagined to dwell on each and every page of the scripture (Bentor 1996,
295). Among the preparatory rites that precede the consecration proper, we fnd letters
being written on a mirror (which refects the item that will be consecrated), then rinsed
with water which falls on fowers to be used later on, imbuing them with the power of
the letters; letters that have already been empowered by transferring holy words through
a dhāranˢ ī-thread (Bentor 1996, 116–7). Tis ritual power-line is, by the way, used in
Paritta ceremonies in Sri Lanka, as well as by Newar Vajrācāryas in Nepal. Diferent in
the similarity of its consecratory function is the Abecedarium rite which ofen forms a
part of Roman church dedications. In it, the Bishop writes the letters of the Greek and
Latin alphabet on the foor of the church, using his crosier to draw the letters on small
piles of ashes, creating the overall form of a [St. Andrew’s] cross (Repsher 1998, 50–2,
57, 82–4). To underline the obvious, the letters of Greek and Latin are the ones that
form the holy scriptures, the Septuagint and Vulgate (as I see it, the rite employs the
elements of sacred scripture to make something else sacred), while they also signify the
“beginnings of faith,” just as the alphabet is the beginning of learning. In the Tibetan
case, the primary source of the empowering is the repetition of the “Ye Dharmā,” which
is believed to epitomize the scriptures in a diferent way (Bentor 1996, 114).
See Conze 1984, 587, for a complete translation of this passage.
Other possibilities that ought to be investigated: Tere was a list of 42 or 44 mental
states and associated factors in the Dharmaskandha, an Abhidharma text that has been
dated to the time of Aśoka. Perhaps this or another Abhidharma list of these or other
such dharmas are behind the Arapacana. A Sūtra in Forty-two Sections survives in
Chinese translation. One problem is that texts such as the Udānavarga have been re-
arranged, and there is no guarantee, either, that the forms of the texts as we have them
would have been followed in the early recitation practices. Te Sanskrit Dharmapāda
devotional, covenantal and yogic 217
while employing a diferent system of its own. Tat there was such a
memory code or codes seems certain.
III. Yogic
Now we enter a seemingly alien world, the yogic world, in which the
alphabet occupies a diferent position. To make a difcult history simple,
elements that make up the Vajra Vehicle (Vajrayāna) emerged in around
the 4th century and slowly coalesced in various ways until emerging in
a fairly full form, with distinctive texts called ‘tantras’, in about the 8th
century (although some would push this back to somewhere in the three
preceding centuries). As such the Vajra Vehicle can only be defned as
a complex of ideas and practices. It has no single defning characteris-
tic. It employs powerful words called mantras, powerful gestures called
mudrās, and special meditation practices that involve intricate visual-
ization processes, and which always employ phonemes and visual syl-
lables for a number of purposes.
For present purposes we should try to
(itself a form of the Udānavarga) has its frst chapter entitled Anitya (‘Impermanent’),
anitya being the word for the frst letter, the letter ‘A’, in the Sanskrit Abecedarium of the
later Lalitavistara, as given above (see Bernhard 1965, 95).
Tere is a great deal of Vajra Vehicle letter usage that will not be considered here
in any detail. Te frst word of every Buddhist scripture, Evamˢ , literally meaning ‘thus’
or ‘just so’, is understood as combining the feminine ‘E’ (standing for the whole string of
vowels), symbol of Insight (prajñā) with the masculine ‘VAMˢ ’ (standing for the whole
string of consonants), symbol of Method (upāya). Kölver 1992 believes this symbolism
is based on the form of the letters as found in early inscriptions from Mathurā and
elsewhere, in which the ‘E’ is shaped like a downward pointing triangle, and the ‘VAMˢ ’
like an upward pointing triangle. I have dealt with some of this sort of letter symbolism,
the evamˢ in particular, in Martin 1987, 197–8. We might point out, well-known as it may
be, that the frst words of Buddhist scriptures (‘Just so was it heard by me at one time’)
are not spoken by the Buddha, but probably represent a ritualistic phrase used by the
Dharmabhānˢ aka before beginning each recitation (which doesn’t contradict the idea
shared by many that they are the words of Buddha’s disciple Ānanda). Seed-syllables
(bīja) are used in visualizations to generate divine forms, and it is ofen the case that
these are based on frst letters (for example, the lotus [padma] on which the divine
form is seated is ofen generated from the syllable ‘PAMˢ ’, the divine form Tārā from
the syllable ‘TAMˢ ’ etc.). In tantras of the Yoga class, such as the Mahāvairocana, there
is a great deal of speculation on the letter ‘A’, which is of cardinal importance for the
Shingon Buddhists of Japan, but also for the Bon and Rnying-ma-pa schools of Tibet.
Another interesting use of the alphabet is in the ‘Mantra Picking’ or ‘Mantra Extraction’
(Mantrodhāra) chapter that one fnds in many tantras (see for example Miller 1966,
138–40; the Vowels and Consonants Tantra discussed below also has such a chapter).
Here the alphabet is numerically encoded as part of a method for both concealing and
preserving the letters of the mantras (I believe the intent was to prevent the corruptions
that do all too commonly occur in the scribal reproduction of mantras).
218 dan martin
limit ourselves to underlining the new emphasis these yogic Buddhists
placed on the human body, and on the bodily practices of breathing
and posture which we normally associate with yoga, and the possibil-
ity of attaining Buddhist enlightenment in, as they say, ‘one body, one
lifetime.’ In the Great Vehicle, accomplishing Buddhahood generally is
said to take three incalculably long aeons (kalpa). Te Vajra Vehicle sees
itself as just a more efective way of bringing about the Great Vehicle’s
aim of Complete Enlightenment. It was and remains, and this is a point
on which Tibetans certainly insist, a part of the Great Vehicle.
To demonstrate briefy the connection of yogic physiology with
sound, phoneme, letter and alphabet, I would like to draw attention to a
particular set of fve couplets, of the type of song called dohā (‘couplet’).
Te story is told how the author, Vīnˢ āpāda, born in a royal family, soon
evinced a total disinterest in afairs of state. Tis disturbed his father the
king, who was naturally yearning for an heir and successor. Vīnˢ āpāda
was, to use an ugly modern functionalist term, ‘dysfunctional.’
All he
wanted to do was play music. Ten one day he happened to meet a spiri-
tual teacher who assigned him the task of avoiding conceptualizations
about the music, realizing the sameness of sounds he made with his vīnˢā
and his experience of those same sounds.
Tis might, and perhaps with slight reason, seem somehow similar
to the Buddha’s Parable of the Lute (vīnˢā) contained in the Samyutta
Nikāya. Te Buddha said, suppose there was a king or a minister who
had never heard the lute’s sound. One day he hears it for the frst time
and fnds it quite entrancing. He orders his aides to locate the source of
the sound, and they return with a lute. Te king (or minister) insists that
it is not the wooden instrument he wants, but only the sound. His help-
ers try to explain to him that there are a great number of parts (which
they name), which must all go together when the player makes music
with it. Ten the king, in frantic search for the sound, splits the lute
into splinters, burns the splinters in a fre, and releases the ashes to the
wind or throws them in a swif river. Of course, he does not fnd the
Tis aspect of Vinˢ āpāda, as one of several of the eighty-four Great Siddhas who
experienced one or another form of disability, has been drawn out in an article by a
specialist in ‘Disability Services’ (Cohn 2002). For the Tibetan and Apabhramˢ śa texts of
the song and Munidatta’s Sanskrit commentary on it, I have relied entirely on Kvaerne
1986, 145–50, with its very valuable philological discussions. Tis is a free and by no
means a ‘fnal’ translation. It is based sometimes on the Tibetan and sometimes on
the Apabhramˢ śa version, and benefts from consultation with Herman Tieken, for the
Apabhramˢ śa vocabulary, and Tom Hunter, for musicological aspects.
devotional, covenantal and yogic 219
sound at any of these levels of destruction. Te irony of the parable is
surely intended. Te deconstructive foolishness of the king is like the
wisdom of the Buddhist meditator when engaged in analytical medita-
tion, searching for the ‘I’ and not fnding it in one place afer another.

Te two diferent stories of Vīnˢ āpāda and the foolish king are at the very
least similar in connecting the music of the plucked string instrument
with some kind of meditation practice.
I do not think we have to take the Vīnˢ āpāda story too seriously as
history, since as ofen happens in India, it may well have been a read-
ing of the song that inspired the biographical account. It, also, may be
a parable, like that of the foolish king, only one parading as biography.
But I would especially like to draw attention to the ‘unstruck sound’ as
a well-known phenomenon in yogic meditation practice. It is a kind of
roaring—I would like to think of it as a sort of phonemic soup—some-
how prior to phonemes and inherent in the body. It is heard only afer
withdrawing the senses from their sense objects. I think it’s entirely pos-
sible to hear it without doing yoga, through sensory deprivation or sim-
ply by sitting quietly in a snow storm when all other sounds are stopped
or absorbed by the snow. It is a sonic experience of the internal body,
just as the channels described in yoga literature represent an internal
meditative experience (whether sensed through some kind of internal
sense of touch or through vision) of the body’s energetic currents, which
may then be infuenced or altered by various physical, verbal and mental
exercises. At least I think that sums up part of the main message that
ought to be heard in Vīnˢ āpāda’s song, which is both densely phrased,
so much so that it demands interpretation, and richly suggestive, even
without plunging into the thicket of footnotes that nearly every word
would seem to require from philological, musicological, Buddhological
and yogic perspectives.
Vīnˢāpāda’s Dohā Song
Te solar gourd is joined to the lunar strings,
while the unstruck sound is the [vīnˢā’s] neck, the avadhūti* the
bridge. \1/
*Te central vein/channel in yogic physiology is called the avadhūti (‘the
shaker’). Te solar and lunar in the frst line would then be the two side
For the Parable of the Lute, see Bodhi 2000, II:1253–4. For the parts of the lute, see
Coomaraswamy 1930, 1931a, 1931b, 1937. Unfortunately, Coomaraswamy’s discussions
about the Sanskrit and Pāli vocabulary for parts of the vīnˢā were not of much help for
understanding those used in the Apabhramˢ śa song which follows.
220 dan martin
channels: the rasanā (‘the taster,’ ‘the rope,’ ‘the bridle’ or ‘the tongue’) on the
right, and the lalanā (‘the tongue’ or ‘the lolling of the tongue’) on the lef. Te
terms rasanā and lalanā used by Buddhists correspond to the better known
piרgalā and idˢ ā in Hindu tantras. See the detailed discussion in Bagchi 1975.
In the most elaborate accounts, there may be as many as 72,000 channels in
the subtle body, although the three just mentioned are the main ones.
Oh friend, the vīnˢā of Heruka* sounds.
Te sounds of the strings play themselves [wail] in sympathy [in
play]. \2/
*Te Tibetan for Heruka (Khrag-’thung) is interpreted most literally as
‘Blood-drinker,’ a wrathful manifestation of Buddha, including such ‘divine
forms of high aspiration’ as Cakrasamvara and Hevajra.
Te continuous sequence [of notes] equals the vowels and consonants.
Te ‘best of elephants’* frst calculates the precise intervals [that
create] an even tone [equal favor]. \3/
*Te superior musician, perhaps, or the yogin who has overcome duality as
suggested in Munidatta’s commentary. Dasgupta (1976, 98) translates this
verse very diferently: “On hearing the tune of the Āli Kāli, the mighty ele-
phant has entered Samarasa [‘equal favor’].”
and then, when [the musician/yogin] presses the thirty-two strings* down
on the wood and frets,**
that’s when their sounds pervade the whole [instrument]. \4/
*Munidatta explicitly identifes the strings as the thirty-two principle chan-
nels in the yogic body, and the divine forms integrated in the body-manˢ dˢ ala
(compare the Hevajra Tantra; Snellgrove 1980, I 49, 73–74).
**Te early vīnˢā may have been unfretted, and the word translated as ‘fret’
literally means ‘small piece of wood’ (it could conceivably refer to the tuning
pegs, or even the plectrum, which could be made of wood).
Te king* does his dance, the goddess[es?] sings her song.
Tis Buddha dance is particularly difcult to do. \5/
*Tere are two possible readings of the Apabhramśa original, one meaning
‘king’ (adopted in the Tibetan translation) and the other meaning ‘the one
who has the Vajra.’ In either case Munidatta believes it refers to the author
Vīnˢ āpāda, who is celebrating his enlightenment through dance. It is true that the
last lines of other dohā songs usually have an explicit reference to the author.
Tere is one major scriptural text (even if not included in the Tibetan
canon) called the Vowels & Consonants Tantra,
which is the one with
Phadampa 1979, I:6–114. Tis work was undoubtedly rare in the past, and this,
rather than any doubts about its authenticity (and I know of hardly any such doubt ever
being expressed in Tibetan literature; one 15th-century scholar named Bo-dong-pa had
brief doubts, but soon realized his error . . .), would sufciently explain why it was never
included in the canonical Tanjur collection. Another copy has, however, been preserved
within the collected works of Bo-dong-pa Phyogs-las-rnam-rgyal (1375–1451), and
selections from it were published in the late nineteenth century (in the collection known
devotional, covenantal and yogic 221
which we will concern ourselves here, and another smaller scripture
especially interesting for alphabet usage.
Both were preserved in two
distinct esoteric lineages from the South Indian teacher Phadampa, who
died in Tibet in 1117 ce. Tey, like three other brief texts composed by
obscure authors preserved in translation in the Tibetan Tanjur,
the Sanskrit alphabet as the primary locus in which complex microcos-
mic-macrocosmic correspondences take place. It ought to be empha-
sized that, while it is true that the alphabet plays a role in nearly every
Buddhist tantra, while spiritual or meditational and magical uses of let-
ters inevitably show up in every single one of them, the particular texts
just mentioned grant it an exceptional centrality. I believe that these
texts belong to a general hāt ˢ ha-yoga atmosphere, such as that which was
associated with the Nāth Yogis of Hinduism as well as the Great Siddhas
of the Buddhists’ Vajra Vehicle. It has long been known that the lists of
their human teachers overlap.
Te Vowels & Consonants Tantra starts out like most Buddhist scrip-
tures with long scene-setting chapters describing the Teacher and the
audience, but it very soon betrays its phonemic approach which is sus-
tained through its twenty-two chapters.
as the Gdams-ngag Mdzod). It was not entirely unavailable, just difcult to obtain. Te
words in the title for vowels and consonants, āli and kāli, are discussed in Miller 1966.
Tey appear in the frst verse of the main Tibetan grammatical treatise believed to have
been written by Ton-mi Sambhot ˢ a in the frst half of the seventh century. Since the
same words are used by Vīnˢ āpāda and a few other Dohā songs, it would appear that
they are simply Apabhramˢ śa equivalents of Sanskrit ādi and kādi, which mean ‘A-series’
and ‘KA-series’ (so it is not the case that āli and kāli are “not known so far from Indian
sources”—Scharfe 2003, 157). As yet I know of no Indian instances of āli and kāli that
would beyond all doubt predate the tenth century or so (although they do occur in the
Hevajra Tantra, which some date to the eighth century), making their use in a seventh-
century Tibetan work rather puzzling (see Miller 1966, 138 & 146).
Te Samatāvastupradīpa (Toh. no. 2319). Te title could be translated ‘Lamp of the
Expanse of Sameness.’ It is one among nine texts known collectively as the ‘Nine Lamps’
which were transmitted to Tibetans by Phadampa in one of his earlier visits to Tibet.
Tey were translated by an obscure Kashmiri named Jñānaguhya, who is believed to
have been a pupil who accompanied Phadampa on the same visit.
Te following three brief texts are located together in the Derge Tanjur: Gandha’s
Ālikālimantrajñāna [or Ālikālimantrakrama?] (Toh. no. 2404), Dhamadhuma’s Kālimār-
gabhāvanā (Toh. no. 2405), and Sāgara’s Samvaracakrālikālimahāyogabhāvanā (Toh. no.
2406). It seems probable, given the names of the authors, that these texts are connected
to Caryā yogis who belonged to the immediate circle or later followers of the Great
Siddha Kānˢ ha, based in, but not limited to, northeastern India (Dhama and Dhuma
were two immediate disciples of his; see Templeman 1989, 53).
Tucci 1930, 138 f.
222 dan martin
Te point of departure is the sacred Volume. Te Teacher, the Bud-
dha, says, “Whoever sees the Volume, their faults are purifed, their
qualities completed.”
Te audience asks, “What is this Volume?”
Part of His answer: “It is the Volume of mind inscribed with the drawn
[letters] of memory,” and later on the Teacher declares, “All dharmas
are vowels and consonants,” and then, “Teir substance is transcendent
insight (its dawning door being the letter ‘A’), their nature is unimpeded
(the dawning door being the ‘OMˢ ’), and their identifying mark is non-
duality (the dawning door being the dhāranˢ ī).”
Ten the Teacher announces the fve aspects of the phoneme and/or
1. “Tat of shape that is drawn.” (Both visible letters and the visible
shapes in the world.)
2. “Tat of material that is amazing.” (Both the writing media and the
elements of the world).
3. “Tat of meaning that is understood/realized.” (Ordinary communi-
cation as well as the teachings on the Path to Liberation.)
4. “Tat of words that are illustrative/indicative.” (Mantras, primarily,
are at issue here.)
5. “Tat of fgures of speech (or similes) that are appropriate.”
Afer saying this, the Teacher smiled and did not say a word.
Chapter Six opens with the Teacher simply pronouncing, fully ampli-
fed “with a lion’s roar,” the ffy letters of the alphabet. Te Buddhas in
the ten directions of space respond, each echoing back a diferent string
of letters. Just to give an example, the Buddhas in the eastern direction
pronounce the letters ka, ca, t ˢ a, ta, pa, ya, śa, i, ī, and rˢ . Later on, the ten
blue letters of the air-element are correlated with, among bodily organs,
the intestines and lungs; in the external world, the birds and Asuras;
deities of the Vajra Family; the ritual goal of accomplishing peaceful
results. Still later, the air phonemes that came from the east are qualifed
as being fne and stopped up . . .

It was a paper once delivered by David Shulman (Hebrew University, Jerusalem) that
frst made me aware that some rather late South Indian theorists of poetics also had ideas
about the meanings of particular phonemes, ideas that may presume prior discussions
on the use of mantras (see, for example, Sarasvati 1963). Although once widespread in
many cultures, theories about the meaningfulness of isolated phonemes have largely
fallen into disrepute. Still, arguments occasionally surface in modern discussions about
devotional, covenantal and yogic 223
In general, to simplify a large and complex pictures the points of artic-
ulation are conceived as being spatially distributed in the mouth and
throat cavities in a kind of manˢdˢ ala pattern which, in fact, if we think
about it, might well be the case. Just like the positions of the eyes in
various yogic gazes, which have a role secondary only to the phonemes
in this text, the pronunciation of phonemes by the yogin or yoginī has
direct efect on the fows and confgurations of winds in the yogic body.
(To put it in a poetic and perhaps justifably convoluted way, the fow of
the internal motions—thinking, feeling, emotion, motivation and the
like—outward into facial or verbal expression can be made to fow back
in the opposite direction and reconfgure the yogin’s body in the form
of psychosomatic responses.
Conscious control of what would under
ordinary non-yogic circumstances be externalizing expression, includ-
ing elements of sound such as tone, musicality, repetitions of phonemes,
etc., can efect transformations, stoppages or proliferations of those
internal motions in the yogin. [Audience response] theory and theater
are both enacted on the single stage of the body, and the actor has fully
assumed the role, is completely ‘in character.’) Later, in Chapter 16, each
phoneme is correlated with a specifc yogic gaze. Afer all, to point out
something so simple and obvious that few people have ever consciously
considered it, the eyes and vocal organs are the two semi-autonomous
areas of the head that move and express things through their move-
ment . . . (expression through hand movement is not prominent in this
particular text, although nearly universal to Buddhist tantra, tantric text
and ritual alike, in the form of gestures called mudrās).
the meanings of language (for example, in English language, how many adjectives used
to qualify snakes begin with, or otherwise contain, sibilants?). Teir relevance in realms
of poetics and religion could remain regardless of what the linguists and grammarians,
with their diferent aims, might have to say (compare Padoux’s comments in Alper 1991,
305). One might with reason be reminded of the wondrous ideas of the Irish poet who
went by the name of AE (i.e., George William Russell, in his 1918 book entitled Candle
of Vision, not presently available to me), although it is quite conceivable he was inspired
or infuenced by Indian sources.
In fact, the lunar vein, the rasanā, is explicitly associated with forward or outward
fowing movements, while the solar lalanā is described as ‘taking in’ (or even ‘eating’).
See Bagchi 1975, 65. Te classic work on Indian dramatic sciences, the Nāt ˢ yaśāstra,
chapter 8, verses 38–125, has a detailed analysis of dramatic gazes and eye expressions,
enumerating thirty-six types. Bharata’s interest, as a dramatist, is in eye expressions that
convey the actor’s emotional states to the audience, while in yogic contexts the same or
similar gazes are used to control the yogin’s own mental states and subtle physiological
movements associated with them.
To my knowledge, the only work which explicitly underlines the continuities
224 dan martin
in the text is a theory of why the pronunciation of mantras by the yogin
ought to be efective both in the body and in the world outside.
We should end with a few historically structured refections, since
the very word ‘conclusion’ has a frightening ring. My own thoughts
keep going back and forth on this and that detail, simply refusing to
settle down on any pat conclusion. Te early Great Vehicle scriptures
had a basically two-pronged approach to the letters of the alphabet.
One of these makes use of that most rudimentary pedagogical device,
the Abecedarium, still used for teaching children the alphabet in many
Te beginning of learning, and particularly of the education
of an, in some sense, all-knowing Buddha, is afer all a very weighty mat-
ter that was not, and so should not be, taken lightly. Te other connects
the letters with the scriptures using a conscious mnemonic technique,
which furthermore surely was already in early times conceived of as sup-
plying mysterious meditative access points to Buddhist truths. In these
approaches we can see strong connections with the sacred biography of
the Buddha and with the preservation of Buddha’s Word for the pur-
poses of oral transmission, ritual recitation, and, fnally, the sacred Vol-
ume which formed a cult object from the very beginnings of the Great
Already at this stage we may note connections made between
the letters or syllables and the elements of the Buddhist universe called
dharmas, and at the same time a less explicit connection of letters with
the physical form of the Buddha, specifcally the sculpted image of the
Buddha as focus of cult that was emerging during the same period in
both Gandhāra and Mathurā.
Tis basically devotional use of letters,
between the classic work of Indian drama (also including dance, music and aesthetic
theory) by Bharata with the expressive elements of gesture, posture and facial expression
as found in the Buddhist Vajra Vehicle is Bhattacharyya 1987, although there are some
very signifcant observations, too, in Onians 2002. In my opinion much more thinking
ought to be done along these lines.
Mukherjee 1999, 303, gives an example from contemporary Bengal, in which
children are taught the letters by means of an Abecedarium that consists of complete
sentences (not just words) beginning in turn with each of the letters in alphabetic
On this point it would be worthwhile to recall the story of Sadāprarudita’s quest
for the Volume of the Perfecton of Insight Sūtra, which afer great hardship he fnds
enshrined and sealed with seven seals (Conze 1975, 277–99). Te text in which this
story is told is the very same text that is found in the story, sealed with the seals.
Tis ought to lead us into a consideration of the age old Buddhist practice of ‘calling
the Buddha to mind’ or ‘recollecting the Buddha’ (Buddhānusmrˢ ti), on which see
particularly Harrison 1993. Tis practice may involve everything from contemplating
the Buddha’s abstract qualities to actual techniques leading to the visualization of the
devotional, covenantal and yogic 225
I believe, led very directly and swifly into the more contractual form of
the dhāranˢ ī-sūtras where strings of syllables perform their work mainly
because of a promise of their efectiveness made by the Buddha in these
same scriptures.
Te step from the covenantal to the yogic may seem a simple one
to take, since practically every Buddhologist believes in a rough and
general way that the dhāranˢ ī was necessary precursor to the Buddhist
use of mantras.
However, I believe the crude historical picture might
be fnessed and developed in interesting new ways in the future. I do
not want to imply that Buddhists were living in a vacuum, although for
simplicity’s sake we have at times been speaking as if they were. Surely
they received from, as well as contributed to, a broader yogic movement
taking place in India in the last centuries of the frst millennium and the
frst centuries of the second. Te letter-based yogic speculations of the
Vowels & Consonants Tantra are clearly similar in kind to those found in
the Śaivite Hindu tantra called the Mālinīvijayottara, for example.
chronological uncertainties prevent us from simple conclusions about
priority. I would say that in the yogic phase of our historical picture,
we may notice some aspects of earlier alphabet usage newly encased in
a yogic context. To give examples, in the Vowels & Consonants Tantra
when the Teacher recites the Sanskrit alphabet, it probably is with good
reason that we are taken back for a moment to the story of the young
Siddhārtha’s visit to school. And when the Tantra speaks of the dawn-
ing of dhāranˢ ī access points, or states that “All dharmas are vowels and
consonants,” these seem to be conscious re-articulations of ideas from
the Perfection of Insight sūtras.
What is freshly expressed is a quite
Buddha’s physical form (including the marks and signs mentioned earlier), as well as
complexes of various such practices.
Tucci 1999, 224, for example.
Tis tantra fgures very largely in Padoux 1990, a work (originally published in
French in 1964 as a doctoral dissertation) highly recommended for those interested
in investigating or comparing Hindu tantra use of letters and phonemes, as is Muller-
Ortega 1992.
And there are a number of excellent reasons for locating Phadampa frmly within
the orbit of the Perfection of Insight sūtras. Te Vowels and Consonants Tantra is im-
mediately preceded by the Heart Sūtra (translated in Conze 1972; perhaps one the most
popular among the shorter Perfection of Insight sūtras, it is the very frst text in the fve
[originally four] volume collection in which this Tantra was preserved). Te Tantra is
sealed with seven seals, just as is the Volume in the story of Sādaprarudita’s quest. Pha-
dampa, although apparently born in the coastal part of present-day Andhra Pradesh
in southern India, did his early monastic studies at Vikramaśīla in Bihar, which had
a curriculum emphasizing the Perfection of Insight sūtras and their commentaries by
Haribhadra (late ninth century).
226 dan martin
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Jonathan Garb
To say more than human things with human voice,
Tat cannot be; to say human things with more
Tan human voice, that also, cannot be;
To speak humanly from the height or from the depth
Of human things, that is acutest speech
—Wallace Stevens, “Chocorua to its Neighbor”, Collected Poems
I. Introduction
Tis article shall describe two kinds of power
of language—sound and
breath—which are discussed in Kabbalistic writing. Te assumption that
language, and especially sacral language such as Hebrew (which is ofen
described in Jewish literature as Lashon Hakodesh—the holy tongue), is
replete with power can be found in numerous Kabbalistic texts, as well
as in many works belonging to other genres of Jewish writing.
Te latter
include Talmudic/Midrashic literature,
Halachah (Law),

Biblical exegesis,
Mussar (Ethics)
and Magic.
At the risk of generaliza-
tion, one can postulate that the belief in the power of language is a core
Stevens 1967, 300.
For the methodology of “kinds of power”, which treats power as a varied phenom-
enon, instead of attempting a single defnition of this concept, see Hillman 1995. For
“kinds of power” in Kabbalah, see Garb 2001, 45–71.
One of the earliest sources of the idea of the power of language is Sefer Yezˢ ira; on
this book, see Liebes 2001.
See Urbach 1975, II:733–40; Scholem 1972, 69–77; Holdredge 1996, 198–201,
See, e.g., the commentary of Rabbenu Nissim on BT Nedarim 2A, on the conven-
tional nature of languages besides Hebrew. [All translations from the standard Vilna
edition of the Talmud are my own]. Statements such as these underlie numerous legal
discussions relating to the laws of vows, oaths and other “speech acts”.
See, e.g., the references to the views of Maimonidies and R. Yehudah ha-Levi (author
of the Kuzari) below.
See, e.g., the opinion of Nahmanidies, discussed below.
For the modern (19th–20th centuries) Mussar movement, see, e.g., the interesting
discussions found in Bloch 1953, I:41–2.
See, e.g., Janowitz 1989; Lesses 1998; Harari 1997/98.
234 jonathan garb
component of numerous forms
of Jewish religiosity and culture. Fur-
thermore, the belief in the power of language, and its associated forms of
discourse and practice, is in no way endemic to Jewish culture. Not only
can similar ideas be found in relation to Arabic or Sanskrit, but it can be
easily shown that much of Jewish discourse on this issue was formulated
in response to, and in polemic against,
parallel beliefs found in other
Tese comparative issues will concern us in the later section
of the article, and at this point I wish to demarcate the kinds of power
which shall be explored subsequently, and distinguish them from those
which cannot be addressed here.
Firstly, I will focus on belief in the power of non-semantic aspects
of language furthest removed from the communicative and conven-
tional linguistic modes. We shall not deal with the power of text, nar-
rative, or even with the power attributed to chosen units of language,
be they phrases or names. Tese issues have been examined at some
length in modern research on Jewish mysticism,
though of course this
topic is far from exhausted. Secondly, even within the broad area of the
power of non-semantic language, I will not take up the powers sup-
posedly created by the atomization—or in contemporary parlance,
deconstruction—of language into its constitutive elements—such as
phonemes, syllables or letters.
In my view, when a Kabbalist claims
that the full power of language is accessed by the re-combination
of the letters of a divine name or some other word, this practice still
retains a certain semantic valence. Practices such as recitation of let-
ters, as opposed to entire words, or manipulations of the letters, such as
However this assumption is not shared by some philosophical writers, most nota-
bly Maimonidies, who held that even the Hebrew language is conventional, and has no
powers beyond the human facility of communication, see Maimonidies 2002, Part 3,
Chapter 8. Cf. the response of thirteenth-century Kabbalist Moses Nahmanidies (1959,
I:492 [Exodus 30, 13]).
See Alony 1980.
Of course, Jewish discourse on the power of Hebrew cannot be reduced to the
polemic with Muslim ideas of the holiness of Arabic. Te roots of the Judaic view of lan-
guage can be traced to early strata of the Bible, such as the account of creation by divine
fat. Tese Biblical roots also infuenced Christian ideas, as evidenced by the notion of
the Logos in John. However, the idea of the holiness of a particular language did not tally
with later ecumenical trends, so that (as a whole) the idea of a chosen tongue developed
in Islam and Judaism more than in Christianity. On Judeo-Christian views of the power
of language, see Stroumsa 2003.
See Scholem 1972; Idel 1992; Pedaya 2001, 73–6, 92–6.
Tese kinds of power have been addressed at length by Moshe Idel (Idel 1992; Idel
powers of language in kabbalah 235
numerology, can be seen as alternative forms of semantic meaning, or
even as attempts to recapture the semantic fullness of divine language as
opposed to ordinary human language.
Rather, I shall discuss two kinds of power attributed to radically non-
semantic dimensions of language, dimensions not to be found within
most modern understandings of the nature of signifcation. Te frst
is the power created by the voice, and by the sound produced within
speech acts. Te second is the power of breath, which naturally accom-
panies the production of this sound. Tese dimensions of the power
of language have been addressed to a relatively lesser extent in existing
research on Kabbalah. It is important to stress that the issue of breath
and language has not yet been made the focus of any research. From a
comparative point of view, and especially in terms of possible resonance
with Tantric ideas and practices, as suggested below, this lacuna is espe-
cially signifcant.
In the course of the discussion, we shall fnd that the commonality
between these two forms of power ofen lies in the underlying assump-
tion of isomorphism between the human and the divine. In other words,
human voice is seen as an isomorphic extension
of the divine voice
and human breath stands in a similar relationship to divine breath. One
should diferentiate the notion of isomorphism from the similar idea of
a continuum, as in the idea of the ‘great chain of being’.
Two entities
can be isomorphic, and thus in a reciprocal relationship, even if there is
no spatial or structural continuity between them. Te idea that an entity
can afect an isomorphic entity,
or even extend it and manifest it, can
be likened to the physical idea of action at a distance, without necessar-
ily traversing a continuum.
As a fnal introductory caveat before describing the kinds of power
themselves, I wish to stress that we are not dealing here with the his-
torical narrative of the development of these two themes in Kabbalis-
tic writing, its roots and ofshoots. Rather, this is a phenomenological
exploration of certain cultural forms, containing both discourse and
practice, which pertain to the nature and efcacy of language. Tis form
See Idel 2002, 13, 423–7.
See Lorberbaum 2004.
See Lovejoy 1960. For the Jewish context, see Blumenthal 1987; Mopsik 1993, 402,
435; Idel 2005.
See Idel 1988, 173–91, as well Garb 2004, 122–41.
236 jonathan garb
of exploration can better facilitate comparison with other cultural con-
texts than a detailed examination of the internal history of Kabbalistic
ideas of language, without in any way detracting from the importance of
historical studies. Tis being said, I shall not refrain from observations
on questions of infuence and context where it serves the thrust of the
discussion. At this point, it sufces to observe that the themes presented
here, like much of Kabbalistic discourse on the power of language, are
mostly the products of relatively later developments in Jewish mystical
thought, most markedly Hasidism.
Tese can be opposed to earlier
(more Shamanic as it were) forms of Jewish mysticism,
which tended
towards visual, rather than linguistic and auditory, kinds of power.
II. Sound
Tere is nothing in the world which does not have a sound (Zohar 1,
Our frst kind of power is that of Kol—a Hebrew word with two closely
related meanings: sound and voice. In the texts to be examined here,
and others like them, it is important to question which (or possibly
both) meaning is being employed in any given case. A second problem
related to the power of the voice concerns various ideologies crystallized
around the supposedly Jewish approach to the relationship between
sound and power. One such ideology is that of silence: I cannot here
trace the history of the notion (which is not representative in any way
of Jewish writing) that silence is in some way superior to sound.
fce it here to cite a representative modern formulation, that of Edmond
Jabes, who wrote that: “Te divine utterance is silenced as soon as it is
pronounced. But we cling to its resonant ring, our inspired words.”

I hope to develop this suggestion at greater length in a future study of power in
modern Kabbalah.
See Pedaya 2002, 49–69, 77–8, 86–9, 94–5; Pedaya 2003, 130.
See Garb 2001, 67–8. For a detailed discussion of the salience of the visual dimen-
sion in Jewish Mysticism, see Wolfson 1994.
Notable representatives of this approach are Maimonidies (see Maimonidies 2002,
Part 1, Chapter 59) and the famous twentieth-century mystic, Rabbi A.I. Kook, in his
commentary on the letters and vowels (Kook 2003, 181. See also Schwartz 2001, 190).
See also the Talmudic statement (BT Hagigah 14A) that the Torah was “given in a whis-
per”. Tis text seems to go against the general sense that the revelation of the Torah was
a “sound event”, as we shall see below.
Jabes 1991, 85.
powers of language in kabbalah 237
Here, words are an attempt to recapture what some modern poets have
described as “the sound of silence”.
However, again, this claim, which
subordinates sound to silence, is not by any means representative of
Kabbalistic writing, nor indeed of the main body of Jewish writing, in
so far as we can make any general statement with regard to the latter. A
second ideology is that which opposes the voice, or discourse in general,
to power.
As opposed to these ideologies, numerous texts echo the following
claim—powerfully expressed by Paul Valery: Te power of poetic lan-
guage (as opposed to abstract thought) is not in its sens (sense) but in
its son (sound).
Tis idea is ofen connected to the Biblical verse: “Kol
Hashem BeKoach”
—the voice of God is powerful, or literally in power.
Here, God reveals himself as voice or sound and as power. It is worth
tracing the subsequent unfolding of this idea through its roots in the
Talmudic/Midrashic literature. An of-cited Midrash,
discussing the
voice of God heard at Sinai, uses this verse in order to expound on
the plural nature of revelation: “Te voice
of God in power,
it does
not say ‘its power’ [i.e. the power of the divine voice] but ‘in power’—the
power of each and every one [. . .] each and every one according to their
Te claim here is that revelation is diferentiated according to
subjective capacity.
Te divine voice is not an impersonal power,
which overwhelms the subject
—as in Otto’s understanding of the
Te Biblical source is: I Kgs. 19.12.
See Greene 1997, 256–7.
Ps. 29.4.
Exodus Rabbah, 5, 9. See Holdredge 1996, 282–4, 309–10; Heschel 1965, 269.
According to the continuation of the Midrash (on three sounds heard throughout
the world: the sea [or sun, depending on how one reads the text], rain, and the soul
when leaving the body at the hour of death. A parallel text [BT Yomah 20B] substitutes
the sound of the masses of Rome (vox populi) as one of the three sounds) kol is under-
stood here more as pure sound than as a voice, which explains the need to modulate it
so as to protect the recipient of this sound.
According to various Midrashic texts (e.g. Mechilta De Rabbi Shimeon 19, 16) these
voices described in Psalms were the very voices heard at Sinai.
A very similar idea is expressed in visual terms: see Pesikta de Rav Kahana 12, 25,
and Holdredge 1996, 283, 310, as well as Idel 2002, pp. 19–53. Cf. also the images of light
in a parallel in BT Sanhedrin 34A.
Cf., however, the reading ofered by Gotlieb-Zorenberg 2001, p. 269. Her reading
is somewhat supported by Exodus Rabbah 29, 8, where the divine voice is described as
depleting the power of Israel. Tis notion may in turn be compared to the idea that the
study of Torah weakens one’s (physical) power, as found for example in a passage BT
Sanhedrin 26B (part of which shall be discussed below).
238 jonathan garb
—but is rather adapted to the power of each individual.
As the Midrash goes on to say: even to the limited ability of pregnant
women to absorb force. Or as the Midrash puts it, Moses according to
his power, and others according to their power. A beautiful elaboration
in the Midrash further develops the intimate nature of the experience of
the voice according to the personal power of the subject. Te Midrash
describes the taste of the Manna, which was modulated according to
the capacity of each individual: While young men indeed experienced
it as bread, suckling babes tasted it as their mothers milk, and the ill as
porridge. By means of this tactile example,
the Midrash then argues:
if the Manna could transform itself in this manner, than all the more so
that the voice of God, which was full of power (shehaya bekoach), could
change for each individual. In other words, divine power is of necessity
polyphonic. Power is manifested by its versatile capacity for modulation

and accommodation rather than by its impersonal nature.
Tis idea is echoed in another Midrash: “What is ‘the voice of God in
power’? how can one say this, for even the power of one angel cannot be
withstood by any creature [. . .] and of God of whom it is written: ‘I fll
heaven and earth’,
all the more so! So how then does He need to speak
powerfully? But rather this was a voice that Moses could bear.”
In Talmudic/Midrashic literature, the moment of sonorous individual
revelation is not regarded as a unique and transient experience. Rather,
it can be continuously recaptured in the practice of the community. For
example, in a section replete with mystical and theurgical material, the
states that:
Whoever enjoys the meal of a bridegroom and does not make him joyful
transgresses against fve voices
as it is said:
“Te voice of joy and the
voice of happiness, the voice of a bridegroom and the voice of a bride, the
voice of those who call: praise the Lord.” And if he does make him joyful,
what is his reward? Rabbi Joshua Son of Levi said: He gains the Torah
See Otto 1958, 19–23, 190–3. In many ways, Otto’s account does not refect the
approaches found in numerous Jewish texts.
Cf. Song of Songs Rabbah 5, 16, on God “sweetening” his word so that it could be
withstood by the people.
Cf. Exodus Rabbah, 4, 1.
Jer. 23.24.
Midrash Tanhuma, Yitro 11.
BT Berakhot 6B.
ncb¬n n:::p ¬n:µ. Tis can also be rendered as: “neglects fve voices”.
Jer. 33.11.
powers of language in kabbalah 239
which was given with fve voices, as it is written:
“And on the third day
[. . .] there were voices [. . .] and the voice of the Shofar
grew stronger
Moses spoke, and God answered him with his voice [bekol].”
In this text, revelation of Torah, as a plurality of voices, is re-attained
by the individual who adds his voice to a communal celebration. As the
revelation at Sinai is itself described in Talmudic/Midrashic literature as
a wedding celebration,
the wedding feast is seen as an opportunity to
recapture the moment of individual access to the voices of the Torah.
However, whilst in texts such as these the power of the divine voice
adapts itself smoothly to the capacity of the recipient, this is not always
the case. In what I term the “passive model”
of the power of voice, the
divine voice powerfully takes over the human voice, creating a posses-
sion-like experience of automatic speech. Tis model can also be traced
back to Talmudic/Midrashic literature,
and was subsequently devel-
oped and gradually altered in Kabbalah and Hasidism. A classical
ment belonging to the passive model is: “Te Shekhinah spoke from the
throat of Moses.” Here Moses, as an exemplar of the selected individual,
is a passive medium for the divine voice. Te emphasis here is on the
transparency of Moses, rather than on his personal power.
Te divine
voice does not adapt itself to the power of Moses, or to the power of oth-
ers for that matter, but rather overwhelms and possesses him.
Tis passive model of the power of the voice was especially preva-
lent in the Safedian Kabbalah of the sixteenth century. Within texts
produced by the school of the famous Isaac Luria one can fnd a rather
sophisticated development of this model. According to one statement
by R. Hayim Vital, the production of voice during study produces
Ex. 19.16–19.
In this context, I cannot address the numerous discussions of the power of the
voice of the Shofar (see, however, Garb 2004, 140).
See, e.g., BT Ta’anit 26B; Exodus Rabbah 52, 5.
For the passive model of power, see Garb 2004, 66–71. Cf. the extensive material
discussed in Goldish 2003. In many of the cases discussed in the various articles in this
collection, possession was manifested by a voice—divine or demonic—overpowering
the possessed individual.
See Naeh 1993.
Tough ofen attributed to the Sages of the Talmud (as in a text by Shneur Zalman
of Liady cited anon), this statement is not found in the Rabbinic texts known to us, and
is in fact found in the “Rayah Mehemnah” section of the Zohar (3, 232A).
Cf. Epstein 1993, 51a (another text from this work will be discussed anon), where
there is a description of the Shekhinah speaking from the throat of certain individuals
without their conscious knowledge.
240 jonathan garb
Maggidim, or possessing angelic forces.
Furthermore, Vital’s theory
is founded on the “enclothing” of the divine voice within the human
However, this should not be understood as a simple case of pos-
session, but rather as a cyclical relationship of “mutual empowerment”
between human and divine vocal power. Here the passive model is subtly
altered from an experience of possession to a more mutual relationship.
According to another text by Vital,
when the human voice is raised in
woe, it rises to the divine eyes and produces tears, and then descends
to the divine mouth and produces a sound containing consolation and
hope. Tis divine voice then descends into the human voice. In other
words, the envelopment of the human voice by the divine voice can be
the result of a prior activation of the divine by human vocal production.
Tis model establishes a more complex interaction of passive and active
modes of power.
Whilst these texts describe a charged mystical moment, numerous
Hasidic texts extend the prevalence of the experience of the Shekhinah
speaking out of one’s throat. Tis extension transformed this state from
an intense ecstatic moment to a characteristic of sacral language as such.
For example, R. Zeev Wolf of Zhitomir (18th c.), writes in his Or ha-
“Whoever has in him the knowledge of his maker and expresses
words in a perfect manner, is called Moses
and as his power was then
so is his power now as well, and the Shekhinah speaks from his throat.”
Here, the power of Moses, which includes automatic speech, is acces-
sible to “whoever has knowledge of his maker”. Any such person, when
he “expresses words in a perfect manner”, is regarded as if the Shekhi-
nah speaks from his throat. Rabbi Abraham Yehoshua Heschel of Apta
(18th–19th c.), takes this extension a step further and writes in his “Ohev
that “the Shekhinah speaks from the throats of all of Israel.”
See the texts and discussion in Meroz 1980, 43, 45 (I believe and hope that an
expanded version of this important study will be published as a book in the future).
See Fine 2003, 293, 295; Idel 2005. Cf. a statement by a contemporary and
interesting Hasidic writer, in the anonymous Sheva Enayim 1998, II:102, on
the “enclothing” of paradisical souls of the righteous in the breath of the righteous
See the text and discussion in Meroz 1980, 46–7.
Zeev Wolf of Zhitomir 1954, 141b. For a similar Hasidic move with regard to
Messianism—which is relocated from a unique fgure or historical moment to the every-
day religious experience—see Idel 1998, 286–7.
Tis idea of the extension of Moses is a classic topos: see Heschel 1995, 37.
Abraham Yehoshua Heschel 1863, 36.
powers of language in kabbalah 241
Until now, we have discussed the descent of the divine voice into human
vessels—which can be experienced either as possession or as part of
a process of mutual empowerment. Now, I wish to turn to the oppo-
site direction: the ascending efect of the human voice or sound on the
divine realm. Tis direction—which entails the production of power as
a result of human activity—appears already in the Talmudic text on the
wedding sound cited above. Tis distinction deals less with the nature
of the experience, and more with the direction of the vector of sonorous
Te Talmud
states that whoever recites the liturgical phrase (which
is part of the famous Kaddish prayer) “Amen, may his great name be
blessed for ever and ever” with “all his power” (bekol kocho), merits that
a negative judgment that has accumulated for 70 years will be annulled.
What is important here is that there is a move from the magical or theur-
gical power
of a chosen unit of language
to the power of the sound
created by its utterance. Tis plain interpretation of the text—all (kol)
his power as a loud sound (qol)—is found amongst certain Ashkenazi
medieval commentaries, which reinforce it with a Midrashic parallel.

Other commentators, most notably Rashi,
render “all his power” as
“the power of his intent”.
Tis move seeks to translate the vocal into the
mental. However, the opposite move is far more prevalent: For example,
an of-cited dictum is “hakol meorer hakavvanah”—the sound awakens
BT Shabbat 119B.
See Zohar 2, 128B; 3, 220A, where the recital of this phrase in a loud voice is
described as breaking the powers of evil as well as awakening divine power (cf. 105A).
On the Zoharic model of “awakening” power, see Garb 2004, 123–32. For more exam-
ples of agonistic conceptions of sacral sound as destroying or weakening the power of
the forces of evil, see below.
Te mystical powers attributed to this particular phrase are evidenced by the law
that even one who is engaged in studying the structure of the divine chariot must pause
when he hears this prayer recited (BT Berakhot 21B).
See Tosfot, Kol haʙoneh, ad loc. Cf. Devarim Rabbah, 11,1, where Moses (again) is
described as increasing the sound of prayer upwards. Moses is like the saliach tzibuur, or
cantor representing the praying community, who directs and enhances the communal
sound. Cf. a Gnostic parallel (cited by Idel 1988, 371, n. 147) on the powers sounding
the glory and sending it upwards.
Ad loc. See also the commentary of the Meiri, in his Beit Habechirah, ad loc, who
combines the two interpretations. It is interesting that the Lurianic Sʙaar Maamarei
Hazal (Vital 1898, 1B) rejects both the magical possibility that mere sound can annul
decrees without repentance and the possibility that mere intention can annul a decree!
Tis interpretation is also adopted by some Kabbalists, see R. Jacob Ben Sheset,
Meshiv Devarim Nechochim (Vajda 1969, 137).
242 jonathan garb
the intention.
Tis phrase
clearly subordinates the mental to the
vocal, or the sens to the son.
Furthermore, the practice discussed here, which can be observed
today in synagogues, is the communal production of sound, briefy men-
tioned above (in the context of the wedding festivity). Tis is in turn part
of a larger belief in the magical efcacy of collective prayer.
worship is efective precisely because it is vocal rather than mental. As
Moshe Idel has put it in a study devoted to this theme, communal sound
creates “sonorous communities”.
In other words, the ritual community
is constructed partly through its joint production of sound. However, it
is important to bear in mind that as a communal practice, the produc-
tion of sound at various points in prayer was the subject of extensive
debate in Halakhic (legal), as well as mystical, sources.
At this point I am concerned less with the sociological dimension
of beliefs pertaining to sound (which I shall return to anon) and more
with the place of these beliefs within a larger set of ideas and practices
concerning the power of voice and sound. As we shall see, in many texts,
prayer and study are subsumed under the unifying category of sound/
voice, as in the expression ‘the sound of Torah and prayer’.
In other
words, the particular ritual forms are less cardinal than the efect of the
ritual—the production of sound. Although study obviously includes
mental operations, its efcacy is mediated through vocal production.
An example of this highly common view relates to the power of vocal
which is believed to activate latent divine power. In his highly
See, however, the opinion of the anonymous eighteenth-century Kabbalistic ethi-
cal treatise Hemdat Yamim (2003, I, 143), that this dictum refers only to the possibility
of avoiding losing one’s place in the sequence of prayer, and that loud prayer is actually
a distraction from deeper intention. Tis is part of the anonymous author’s polemic
against loud prayer, which is part of a wider dispute in Jewish literature (see below).
It is ofen cited in Halakhic literature as reinforcing the need to recite blessings
with a loud voice (See, e.g., the discussion in Magen Avraham on Shulchan Aruch Orach
Chaim 101, 2, which utilizes theurgical argumentation).
Cf. the statement by the sixteenth-century Kabbalist Meir Ibn Gabbai in his highly
infuential Avodat Hakodesh [1954, part 2, chapter 4 to the efect that it is sound—not
intent—which is isomorphic to the divine, and can thus have theurgical impact.
See, e.g., BT Berakhot 7B–8A.
See Idel 2002b.
See, e.g., Zohar 1, 210A. See also the interesting comment of the thirtenth-century
Rabbenu Bahye (1972, III:281 [Dt. 6.7]) that the Torah should be studied loudly as it was
given in sound, but prayer should be whispered. For the debate between the Hasidim
and their opponents on this issue, see Idel 1995, 168.
As opposed to the diferentiation proposed by Rabbunu Bahye (previous foot-
See Idel 1995, 180–4.
powers of language in kabbalah 243
infuential Shnei Luhot Habrith, Yeshiah Horowitz of Prague (16th–
17th c.),
establishes a close connection between human creativity and
the power of the divine voice. Horowitz ofers the following interpreta-
tion to the Talmudic saying
to the efect that God repeats the Torah
mouthed by the sages: Te divine voice heard at Sinai is described in the
Bible itself as “ceaseless”.
Tis voice, according to Horowitz, was the
aspect of koach—both in the sense of power, as well as potentiality.

Te Sages innovate “through the power” (bekoach) of the voice, and acti-
vate the potential contained in the voice through their study. We have
here an interesting variation on the “hermeneutical model” of power.
Study requires creative power—given by the voice, as Horowitz clearly
states throughout the text—but it also activates the power latent in reve-
lation. Here, as in the Midrashic and Talmudic texts cited earlier, revela-
tion is embodied not so much by the written text, as by the oral voice.

Te cyclical relationship between human and divine voice resembles the
cycle of “mutual empowerment”
found in the Lurianic texts adduced
Te latter example should sufce to demonstrate that there is a def-
nite continuity between various Kabbalistic speculations, and that these
in turn seek to embellish classic Rabbinic statements. Until now we
have surveyed a selection of texts dealing with the power of sound per
se—whether active and passive, ascending and descending. In the fol-
lowing section, which will naturally be slightly longer, we shall examine
the combination of this power with the breathing that accompanies the
production of sound.
Shenei Luhot ha-Berith, cited and discussed in Ben Sasson 1959, 19–20; Silman
1999, 100. Cf. the recently published “Writings of R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov”
(a direct student of the nineteenth-century Kabbalist Elijah, the Gaon of Vilna), 2001,
II:218. On the need to employ power in an apotropaic manner so as to combat the pow-
ers of evil, see Garb 2004, 56–7.
See, e.g., BT Gittin 6B.
Dt. 5.19. On this theme see Silman 1999, 31–3, 99–100, 126 ; Heschel 1995, 36, as
well as Zohar 2, 81A (on the power of this ceaseless voice).
On this dual sense of power, see Hillman 1995, 97. For Kabbalistic discussions,
see Garb 2004, 55–6. Cf. Elimelekh of Lisansk N.A, 203 [Likutei Soshanah], where the
verse “the voice of God in power (bekoach)” is interpreted as follows: the voice of God is
potential and is activated by the speech of the righteous.
For revelatory experiences facilitated through the union of human and divine
voice, according to an important Hassidic text, see Idel 1995, 181. It is also important to
note that Horowitz’s discussion contains an apotropaic aspect: the “flth of the snake” or
evil power increases every generation, and thus there is a need to activate the stringency
latent in the Law.
For this term, see Yamasaki 1988, 105–6, 156, 170; Wolfson 1997, 302; Garb 2004,
34, 266.
244 jonathan garb
III. Breath
Nothing is lost, even the vapor of the mouth has a place and location, and
God makes of it what he does, and even the word spoken by a person and
even a sound is not dispersed in emptiness and all have place and location
(Zohar 2, 100B).
Te Talmud
refers to the Torah as “matters of Tohu (which one should
translate as emptiness, not chaos) that the world is founded on.” Tis is
a surprising version of the theurgical claim found in Rabbinic literature,
to the efect that the existence of the world is founded on the Torah.

Rashi’s comment on ‘matters of emptiness’ is “mere speech and reading,
and all speech has no real substance, just like this Tohu, and even so
the world is founded on them.” Tis commentary expands the Talmudic
saying, which refers to the Torah, into a profound refection on language
as such: speech is empty of substance, a matter of vapor, and yet it is the
foundation of our human world.
One of these vaporous aspects of language is the breath. According
to another Talmudic saying,
the world is sustained through the breath
created by children’s study. Here again, the world is sustained by the
Torah, but not by its mental or semantic aspect, but rather through the
breathing process involved in study. Te breath of young children (tino-
kot) sustains the world not only because it is empty of sin
(as the Tal-
mud goes on to say) but also because it is less dependent on meaning
and cognition. Te world is animated by pure breath.
According to many Kabbalistic texts, the power of speech lies in the
hevel peh, the immaterial substance created by the act of speech as a
modulation of breath.
A classical statement on the interrelationship
between breath and sound may be found in the Zohar,
which proclaims
that every deed produces a vapor (hevel) and every vapor produces a
BT Sanhedrin 26B.
See BT Nedarim 32A, as well as Idel 1988, 171.
BT Shabbat 119B.
Te theme of the efect of sin on breath recurs in some of the texts discussed
Tis is not the place to attempt to cover the extremely extensive Kabbalistic exege-
sis on the term hevel as it appears in Ecclesiastes. Similarly, I do not propose here to
discuss the history of the relationship between God and air as conceived in Kabbalah, its
sources and parallels. Finally, I do not propose to examine the role of breath in mystical
Zohar 2, 59A.
powers of language in kabbalah 245
sound, which ascends above and has theurgical impact. A general clas-
sifcatory statement on this topic may be found in a statement by the
Safedian Kabbalist, R. Hayim Vital (16th c.), the main student of the
famous R. Isaac Luria. According to Vital,
there are “three levels”—
breath, speech and sound. Tat is to say, the act of speech is associated
with two further components, one being sound and the other breath or
An extremely infuential text, found in Pardes Rimonim—the encyclo-
pedic opus of the Safedian Kabbalist, R. Moses Cordovero (16th c.)—
explains the power of breath as follows:
Te letters of the Torah are not conventional but are spiritual, and their
form relates to the internal dimension of their soul. Tis is why the sages
were careful and exact with the shape
of the letters [. . .] as they hint at a
given spirituality [ruchaniut]
of the supernal Sefrot [divine emanations],
and each letter has a spiritual form and an exalted light which emanates
from the essence of the Sefrah and descends from level to level in the
path of the descent of the Sefrot. And the letter is a chamber and dwelling
place for this spirituality. And when a person recites and moves one of the
letters, this necessarily awakens
the spirituality [ruchaniut] and sacred
forms are formed from the vapor of the mouth which go up and connect
to their root.
Shortly afer, Cordovero adds: “Also from it [the pronunciation of the
letter] will form from his breath a spirituality and reality, which is like
an angel which ascends and connects to his root to hurry and act in a
speedy and rapid way.”
In these texts, the non-conventional nature of language is explained
in the following manner: Speech and breath create a tangible real-
ity, which—through a “chain of being”
—ascends and connects to its
See the texts and discussion in Meroz 1980, 45–6. A possible earlier source is Sefer
Yezˢ ira 1, 8.
Cordovero clearly establishes a relationship between the breath and the form of the
letters as two non-semantic dimensions of language. On the latter issue, see the begin-
ning of the next section.
For the history of this term, see Idel 1995, 66–7, 156–7, and the sources cited
For the “model of awakening” see above, n. 54.
Cordovero 1962, Gate 27, Chapter 2. On these texts, see Idel 1995, 165.
On this concept in the writing of Cordovero in the context of sound, see Idel 1995,
161 (Te text cited there is not a direct quote from Cordovero but rather a citation by
his student Elijah Da Vidas, which most likely represents the opinion of Cordovero. See
Idel, 1995, 346, n. 9).
246 jonathan garb
divine source. Tis enables semi-magical efcacy. Te latter aspect of
the process is described more clearly in another text at the climax of
Cordovero’s work:
To explain the main aspect of intent [kavannah]: Te person intending
should draw spirituality down from the higher levels to the letters that he
pronounces in order to be able to give fight to these letters [so that they
may ascend] to the highest level to hasten his request. And the meaning is
that the vapor of the person’s mouth is not an empty thing [. . .] but is spiri-
tuality which forms from the breath and this spirituality requires power in
order to give fight to his request and lif the letters to the level he requires.
And this is the main aspect of intent to draw down power in order for this
power to raise the letters above and they will take on being in the “top of
the world”
and hasten his request.
Te magical efect of speech and breath is far more apparent in this text as
is the emphasis on the concept of ‘power’. However, I wish to focus here
not so much on the semi-magical idea of drawing down power (which
has already been addressed at length in Idel’s work on Hasidism,
subsequently in my own work on power)
but rather on the role of the
breath in enabling ascent and in establishing continuity between the
human and the divine realm. Tese dimensions of Cordovero’s model
were signifcantly developed in the subsequent three centuries of Kab-
balistic writing, as we shall now see.
Te seventeenth-century Kabbalist Abraham Azulai of Hevron, who
was markedly infuenced by Cordovero, wrote as follows in his Hesed Le
Explaining the matter of the words of Torah, the point is that man is the
totality of the world, that man is the world and the world is man [. . .] in this
case one can learn the hidden from the obvious that just as man’s existence
is through this breath (hevel) that enters and goes out, in a similar man-
ner the world contains the secret of a subtle spiritual vapor (hevel) which
resides in it and provides its vitality and existence.
And this is the exten-
sion of the Shekhinah below, and the divinity found amongst the lower
worlds. And just as in man breath enters and goes out so with the world
Cordovero utilizes the Rabbinic expression, o::µ :c :b:¬.
Pardes Rimonim, Gate 32, Chapter 3. See also Idel 1995, 160.
Idel 1995, 92–93, 158–168. Cf. Idel, 2005.
Garb 2004, 105–12, 205–19.
Azulai 1989, 60 [part 2, Chapter 23].
On vitality and vapor, see the later (Hassidic) texts adduced by Idel 1995, 163,
powers of language in kabbalah 247
in respect of the secret of its vitality—vapor enters, that is the supernal
spirituality (ruchaniut)
and vapor goes out [. . .] and the matter is that
through the spark of the soul
which is attached to the cords (chevlei)

of the 4 worlds, reality joins with reality [. . .] and through the cord of this
shining spark the voice of Torah ascends and breaks open the frmaments
because the words form letters and sounds and then there is no
power in the opposing forces to delay and divert it, however if one stam-
mers when studying the letters do not take form in air for they are weak.
Like Cordovero, Azulai emphasizes the connective power of the breath,
as well as the formation of ‘spirituality’ through sound. However, the
emphasis here is less on the magical operation of fulflling one’s ‘request’,
and more on the confrontation between the power of sound and breath
and the forces of evil (which will concern us more anon). Azulai’s idea of
the human breath as a model for the immanent and animating power of
cosmic breath is slightly more developed in a later text, composed by the
nineteenth-century Lithuanian Kabbalist Itzhak Haver (a third genera-
tion follower of the anti-Hasidic Kabbalist Elijah, the Gaon of Vilna):
Te main vitality of man is by means of the air that he draws in and exhales
through his mouth. In this manner, his vitality is renewed every moment,
by each and every breath. Tis is also so in the supernal mouth of the
primal anthropos (Adam Kadmon) and in all the higher worlds which are
renewed every moment by the work of the lower ones. Te work of Man
is a “returning light” from below upwards, and he causes the air of breath
to ascend from the lower mouth to the higher mouth, from which it re-
descends from above downwards, and renews creation through this work,
for the purpose of creation is Man’s work from below upwards.
One should not think that these texts merely refect a cosmological belief
in a kind of anima mundi. Rather, the isomorphism between human and
cosmic structure is but the prelude for a structure based on the idea of
a “chain of being”. However, this structure is not theoretical, but rather
centered on practice—‘the voice of Torah’ for Azulai and ‘the work of
Man’ for Haver. It is my sense that Haver’s approach (here, but not in
For the role played by this term in Cordoverian and post-Cordoverian thought, see
Idel 1995, 178–80.
For the Cordoverian and post-Cordoverian doctrine of the “divine spark” indwell-
ing in the soul, see Sack 2002, 39, 59, 179–80.
Tere is clearly a pun on vapor/breath (:nn) and cord (:n¬).
Te source for this mythic description is found in the Zohar: see, e.g., 3, 61A. Cf.
Elimelech of Lizansk N.A., 75 [Slach], on loud voice as overcoming cosmic obstacles.
Haver 1995, 56.
248 jonathan garb
another text to be discussed anon) may be closer to an ‘isomorphic
model’ of action at a distance while Azulai’s development places more
stress on continuum.
Again, these more structural issues are less cardi-
nal for our present purposes than is the role assigned to practice, and in
the case of Azulai’s text, sonorous practice.
While Haver in this text (but not in another that we shall pursue
shortly) writes in general terms of ‘Man’s work’, Azulai emphasizes the
tangible power produced by the production of sacral sound, which is the
sustaining power of the universe, and is thus able, in its full potency, to
break through the obstacles surmounted by the cosmic evil forces.
Te latter point deserves some elaboration. As I will shortly dem-
onstrate with parallel texts, the idea of breaking through the obstacles
posed by evil powers through the power of sound is not theoretical. In
other words, it is not so much part of the ‘doctrine of evil’, as a guiding
principle of hermeneutical practice. In a discussion found shortly afer

in the same voluminous work, Azulai writes:
When a person enters in a holy manner into the wonderful adhering to
God through the study of the Torah, he should think that his sins cause
him (God forbid) some obstacles through difcult questions [raised by
the study], and he should strengthen himself to oppose them and nullify
them, so that they do not separate him from his creator [. . .] and when
one revises an issue and repeats it, and examines it many times, this is
the cause of breaking the husks [kellipot] because the Torah is literally the
secret of the breath [hevel peh] of man, the letters that are set in the mouth
of man take on form in the air and they ascend [. . .] from reality to real-
ity, and through this ascent to the root, there is no doubt that those letters
ascend and break through the air and open an opening above, and connect
the person studying to divinity, and infuence him with understanding
and subtlety of intellect which was not previously within his intellectual
Azulai’s text predated (and infuenced) the Hassidic understanding of
study as a devotional activity, which afects adherence or connection
to the divine. Te assumption is that intellectual obstacles encountered
For a Hasidic development of these ideas, cf. Shneur Zalman of Liady’s famous
Tanya (1985, part 4, chapter 5) on the chain of being and the immanence of the divine
breath of God in man as well as in language as a cosmic force. Cf. Da Vidas 1875, 48
[Gate of Awe Chapter Ten], on God’s breath, animated by the letters of God’s name, as
the source of life, which creates the ethical imperative to re-dedicate each of one’s breath
to God.
Azulai 1989, 64 (part 2, chapter 28).
powers of language in kabbalah 249
during the process of study are emblematic of the interference posed by
sin, and especially by its reinforcement of the forces of evil, or husks,
which pose themselves between the devotee and the divine. Te power
of repetition lies not so much in its cognitive beneft, but rather in the
creation of tangible linguistic substance through the action of breathing
associated with speaking words of Torah. Following Cordovero, Azu-
lai describes the ascent of this substance, and adds the notion that this
ascent facilitates the dismantling of the barriers between the student of
the Torah and the divine. Trough the “opening” to the divine, which re-
establishes the connection disrupted by sin, a fow of intellectual power
descends back on the individual.
Te idea of the breath and sound in religious practice as combating the
barriers posed by the powers of evil recurs in a text by the seventeenth-
century writer, Nafali Bachrach (in his Emek ha-Melekh).
However, as
we shall now see, Bachrach gives this idea a more collective bent:
For Adam [through his sin] gave authority to the seventy masters [angelic
or demonic powers] of the nations of the world and gave them lands above
and below and made the external air impure, is it not just that it should be
amended by his sons, that is us the holy people of Israel [. . .] and we need
to amend it through the vapor of Torah and Mitzvot in our exile, in every
place to give place to his throne of glory so that the Shekhinah may reside
everywhere [. . .] and through this the external air will be amended [. . .] as
in the time of the Messiah the external air will be totally purifed.
I will address the national dimensions of this text in the conclusion, but
here I wish to emphasize the idea of the impurity of the air of the lands
outside the Land of Israel. Tis impurity—occasioned by the primal sin
of Adam—will be rectifed completely only in the Messianic era. How-
ever, the exile itself has meaning and purpose: the partial amendment
of the sin of Adam by the purifcation of the air by the breath created by
ritual activity (in this case, study and prayer which are also mentioned
in a portion not adduced here being examples of a more general proce-
dure). Tough again the text relates to the national, rather than individ-
ual dimension, the general framework is similar to what we have seen in
the case of Azulai: sin empowers the forces of evil, and this state can be
rectifed by the energy created by breathing during ritual activity.
Bacrach 1648, 1. For a discussion of this text, see also Liebes 1993, 105.
See Bachrach 1648, 1B, on weakening the powers of impurity by the breath of
prayer, which ‘conquers’ the air.
250 jonathan garb
A later and extremely important station in the intellectual history of
this theme is found in a popular and of-printed treatise, the Derech Etz
Hahayim by the eighteenth-century Italian Kabbalist, R. Moses Hayim
Luzatto (Ramhal). Luzatto’s text is more complex than those cited up till
now, and must be quoted at some length:
And this is the word of the sage: “and Torah is light”—literally
light, and
not wisdom alone, and not an imaginary simile of light, but literal light,
for this is the reality of the Torah above, and when the Torah enters the
soul it flls it with light, like the sun entering a house. And furthermore,
the image of fre was carefully and exactly chosen, for you will observe the
coal which has not been lit, and its fame remains hidden and contained,
and yet when it is blown on then the fame rises up and spreads and grows.
And in the fame are apparent several colors that were not seen at frst in
the coal, yet all come out of the coal itself.
So is it with the Torah which is before us, for all its letters and words
are like coals, which lef to themselves do not manifest but as dull coals,
but when one makes an efort to study it, then from each letter rises a
great fame, full of several colors—these being the forms of knowledge
contained in that letter. And this is no metaphor, but the matter itself,
simply and literally. For all the letters that we see in the Torah designate
22 lights found above [. . .] and from this extends the holiness of the scroll
of the Torah [. . .] and thus a scroll which has one ritual faw is totally dis-
qualifed for use, for the light does not stand upon it properly, in a manner
which would enable the holiness to be drawn down to the people through
reading from the scroll [. . .].
But the soul of he who gazes at the letters does not attain anything but
one obscure light, like the coal, but when one makes an efort to under-
stand and reads and re-reads, and strengthens himself to contemplate
the text, then these lights take fame, and come out like the fame from
the coal within the soul [. . .] and there is another matter, that the Torah
has several faces, and the earlier ones have received
that all the roots of
the souls of Israel are in the Torah, so that they are 600,000 interpreta-
tions of the Torah which are apportioned to the 600,000 souls of Israel.
And this is what is meant by the Torah exploding into several sparks [. . .]
and the intellect of man is constructed correspondingly, that it has great
power of apprehension, but when only it lights up through the power of
Cf. the discussion of a shorter quote from this text in Idel 2002, 96–98. How-
ever, the reading suggested here does not necessarily support Idel’s assumption that the
model presented in this text is one of a talismanic drawing down of power.
Te recurrence of the phrase “literally” (mamash) in this and previous texts pre-
cludes reading them as metaphorical. Rather, the stress is on the substantive and con-
crete nature of the entities and processes created by study.
See Scholem 1969, 64–5; Idel 1997/98.
powers of language in kabbalah 251
And on this it is said:
“God gives wisdom from his mouth knowledge
and insight”. For all beings were made from the speech of God [. . .] we
fnd, that this mouth is the root of all created things, and this itself sustains
them. And the vapor [hevel] which comes out of this mouth, the infuence
which extends to all things from the source [. . .] and the wisdom is already
given from God in the hearts of all men, but in order to become powerful
the mouth sustaining it needs to blow with force, and then it also becomes
like the fre, which takes fre when blown on, thus when this infuence
descends from the mouth like the breath of blowing, the wisdom takes fre
and the knowledge and insight that are already contained in it will be seen
[. . .] and all these will not act except by means of the power of the blowing
of the supernal mouth [. . .] and this is what Elihu said:
“indeed it is a
spirit in man, and the soul of the Lord of Hosts will give them understand-
ing”. Te term “soul” is [. . .] in the sense of breath [neshima] and not in
the sense of soul, that is the breath of the mouth, for it is this which gives
understanding not days or years.
Te structure and phraseology of this text clearly point to the infuence
of Azulai. Like the earlier writer, Luzatto stresses the role of repeated
study in drawing down intellectual power. He also discusses at length
the theme of vapor and breath in this process. However, there are several
profound diferences between Azulai and Luzatto in this matter: Whilst
the earlier Kabbalist emphasizes the ascent of human breath, which then
draws down divine infuence, Luzatto chose to elaborate on the role of
the divine breath, which descends and gives not only existence, but also
Tis is more than a diference in the directions taken by the powers
involved in the process: While Azulai, following Cordovero,
sizes the active role of human breath, Luzatto begins by stressing human
intellectual efort, but when he reaches the issue of breath he only men-
tions the divine breath, and not the human act of breathing. It is pos-
sible that this is due to a more intellectualistic approach on Luzatto’s
part: Azulai’s text is more mythical, and includes the agonistic theme of
breaking the obstacle of the husks—which are not mentioned at all by
Luzatto. For all of the latter’s repeated assurances as to the literal nature
of the process he describes, when it comes to human action, he only
refers to intellectual efort, but not to the quasi-magical efect of breath
Prov. 2.6.
Jb. 32.8.
On Cordovero and Luzatto on language, see Idel 2002, 361.
252 jonathan garb
itself. It is possible to relate this diference to the divergence between the
historical and cultural contexts of seventeenth-century Palestine and
eighteenth-century Italy. However, it is also possible that the diferences
are due to the concerns of each author. While Azulai writes in a more
devotional mode, Luzatto is essentially concerned with hermeneutical
issues, as evidenced by the discussion (which I only quoted in part) on
the relationship between the root
of the soul (only briefy mentioned
by Azulai) and the variant interpretations of the Torah.
Tis contextual
(as opposed to cultural/historical) explanation is reinforced by a parallel
discussion found in a text by the above-mentioned Isaac Haver,
was in all senses closer to Luzatto and was greatly infuenced by him.
Despite this, Haver shows a greater afnity to Azulai: He writes that all
vitality depends on the connection to God, but it is blocked in “the air
of the land of nations”.
However, the vapor created by the study of
scholars and Tzadikkim [righteous ones] breaks those barriers
and re-
creates the connection to God. In terms of the classifcation proposed
above, Haver’s text belongs—as do Azulai’s statements—to the model of
continuum, rather than action at a distance (which we found in a difer-
ent text by Haver, cited above).
If the distinction proposed here is correct, Azulai and also Haver,
who places scholars and saints on the same level, stress the personal
dimension of the production of ‘sacred breath’, whilst Luzatto empha-
sizes the textual dimension. Another way of phrasing this distinction is
that Azulai’s text belongs to ‘the personal model of power’ and Luzatto’s
discourse to the ‘hermeneutical model of power’. Te usefulness of these
categories can be exemplifed by applying them to one further text, writ-
ten by the Hasidic author R. Yehudah Aryeh Leib of Gur (late 19th c.),
in his Sefat Emmet.
R. Yehudah explains the Talmudic dictum that
“even the mundane speech of scholars requires study”
as follows: Even
afer the scholars conclude their study, the breath produced by their
Te term ‘root’ also appears—in a more cosmological sense—in Cordovero’s text
cited at the beginning of this section.
Cf. the comments of Horowitz on the activation of the latent power of the text
(discussed in the previous section).
Haver 2000, 427.
Ibid., 332.
At the same time it also creates a protective wall against negative forces, see ibid.,
p. 331.
Yehudah Aryeh Leib 2000, 13 [Devarim].
BT Avodah Zarah 19B.
powers of language in kabbalah 253
“Torah” remains in their mouths, and thus permeates even their mun-
dane discourse. Tis text represents a move from scholastic dimensions
of study to a far more concrete notion of a form of energy produced by
the efort of study, which then extends into the mundane. Te focus here
is not so much on the text and its explication but rather on the personal
power of the scholar.
I would like to conclude this section with an analysis of a powerful
text, by the early nineteenth-century Hasidic writer R. Qalonimus Qal-
man Epstein, in his Maor Vashemesh.
Tis text pulls together several
of the themes discussed in this section, as well as the previous one:
When a person adheres his thought in the love of his creator and he is
flled with longing and desire to worship God in Torah or prayer, then
from the power of that passion he produces a simple voice from the walls
of his heart,
and in the vapor that emits from that voice is inscribed
above all the aspect of his thought and any request that is in his heart to
ask according to the aspect of his thought, all is included in that vapor that
arises from his mouth, for the vapor includes the 32 paths of wisdom and
the 5 books of the Torah according to the level of his thought because the
letter he [= 5] of hevel [vapor] hints at the 5 books of the Torah and the bet
[= 2] and lamed [= 30] hint at the 32 paths of wisdom. And when many
of the people of Israel assemble to worship God in communal prayer or
study, then through the vapor which ascends from their mouths the super-
nal worlds are unifed. And through this action they draw down infux of
all good things on the community of Israel. And this is the meaning of the
Talmudic saying that the world exists by virtue of the vapor of the mouths
of the young children of the schools.
Rabbi Qalonimus recognizes the import of the Talmudic saying on
the breath of schoolchildren.
In this text, study and prayer are again
Epstein 1993, 31 [Genesis].
See below, n. 138.
Cf. the following passage from the Eretz Tov (late 18th–early 19th c.): “Tis is the
secret of the saying of the sages that the world is sustained by the breath of schoolchil-
dren, for when the voice is the voice of Jacob when they study Torah then their breath
sustains the world, for the breath derives from the vitality of the spirit of the mouth of
God [. . .] all creatures and the world were made and formed and created and emanated
by the power of the spirit of the mouth of God, when he pronounced the 22 letters, and
through the power of the 22 letters all was created, and this is the secret of the spirit of
God’s mouth and all depends on the spirit, and through the spirit the power of life was
extended to all creatures,” Yishayahu Jacob Halevi 2002, 20. One should note the con-
nection between spirit, breath and power in this text (in general this Kabbalist accorded
an extremely central place to the concept of power). On the relationship between spirit
and power as part of the ‘phenomenology of the spirit’ in Kabbalah, see Garb 2004,
67–8, and cf. Pedaya 2002, 74, 80, 139, 161, 201, 203.
254 jonathan garb
subsumed under the category of vocal power in which the mental
aspect—thought—and the emotive aspect—longing and desire—of
worship combine in a ‘single voice’. However, voice itself is but a means
to form the power of the breath. It is true, nevertheless, that the scope of
this power is re-determined (inscribed) by the quality of the thought and
the desire of the heart.
R. Nahum then stresses again that the Torah
and wisdom itself are included in the power of the vapor/breath. Up to
this point, the text focused on the individual, and the diferent degrees
of spiritual power created by the transition from an internal and devo-
tional process to more tangible manifestations such as sound and breath.
Te result of the process—fulfllment of the desire or request
of the
heart—is also individual. However, R. Nahum’s next move is to extend
this principle to the theurgical power of collective worship: Te com-
munal breath and sound has a theurgic impact on the supernal worlds,
and the end result of this impact is in turn collective—the descent of
infux on the community. Te basic model here, as in numerous Hasidic
discussions of language,
is Cordovereian. Language mediated through
breath emits a tangible power which ascends and impacts the supernal
worlds, which in turn emit infux which is drawn downwards. How-
ever, what is striking here is the focus on the community, as well as the
explicit focus on non-semantic aspects of language, as evidenced by the
interpretation given to the Talmudic saying on the study of children dis-
cussed above.
IV. Comparative Refections
Our perusal of Kabbalistic texts and their Talmudic/Midrashic origins
revealed two closely related cultural structures. In my opinion, both
the presence of these kinds of power in Rabbinic texts, as well as the
intensive use of these Rabbinic sayings in later texts argue for the need
to consider Rabbinic and Kabbalistic understandings of the power of
language within a common cultural framework.
While in the Rab-
binic texts the ideas discussed here are far from representative (though
On the heart, see below, n. 138.
Cf. the text cited from Cordovero at the beginning of this section, as well as the
Hasidic text by R. Jacob Joseph of Polony, cited in Idel 1995, 74.
See Idel 1995, 180–1.
For the methodological questions surrounding this move, see Idel 1991; Garb
2004, 44–9, and the sources concentrated there.
powers of language in kabbalah 255
also far from marginal) in Kabbalistic writing these preliminary notions
were extensively developed. However, one should not err in supposing
that the directions of thought and exegesis surveyed here in any way
represent the opinion of Kabbalists as such—they are totally absent in
many Kabbalistic texts. Terefore, they should be seen as part of a vast
and varied literature.
Te comparison between Rabbinic and later Kabbalistic and Hasidic
approaches can be described as a ‘vertical’, intra-cultural axis. From
here, I wish to move to an exploration of the ‘horizontal’ or inter-
cultural axis by looking at possible comparisons with similar structures
in other cultural contexts. In the following section, we shall examine
several constraints on the possibility of comparing the themes discussed
here to other cultural contexts. Tese remarks will serve to balance and
modulate the comparativist approach that will seemingly be adopted
One may fnd various points of contact between the Kabbalistic views
of sound and breath surveyed here, and similar ideas in Suf writing (to
mention but one instance of a spiritual system which had rather close
contact with the world of Kabbalah).
Of course, one can also range
further afeld, and consider comparing the non-semantic ideas of lan-
guage discussed here to those prevalent in other spiritual systems which
were in contact with the Jewish world—such as the Hellenistic culture of
Late Antiquity.
However, for reasons which will soon become appar-
ent, I wish to focus on the comparison between views on the power
of non-semantic dimension of language in Indian and Jewish culture.
Te historical contact between the Jewish world and the Indian culture
was less extensive than the extensive ties between Judaism and Islam
or Christianity.
However, on the phenomenological level, there are
Te possibility of comparison between mystical traditions belonging to diverse
cultural contexts is of course the subject of an extensive theoretical polemic. For a fairly
recent and comprehensive summary, see Hollenback 1996, 5–17.
On breath as the “vehicle” of speech, human and divine, see the views of the thir-
teenth-century master, Ibn al-ʚArabi, as discussed by Chittick 1989, 127. On the power
of words in Sufsm, see Sviri 2003.
See, e.g., Miller 1989. When examining parallels between Hellenistic non-seman-
tic ideas of language and the Indian ideas discussed below, it is worth recalling the stud-
ies of Dumezil (for all their known problems). See, e.g., Dumezil 1987, 51–9.
Tough more prevalent than one might at frst surmise. On the possibility of
Indian infuences in Sefer Yezˢ ira, see the discussion in Shulman 2002.
256 jonathan garb
fascinating parallels well deserving closer examination. One reason why
I have chosen to focus on these comparisons is that similarities with
Western mystical systems may be assigned to historical contact, while
the resemblance between Jewish and Indian ideas is more supportive of
a comparativist approach—all the while bearing in mind the method-
ological problems attendant on such an approach.
Striking similarities between Vedic (as well as post-Vedic) and
Rabbinic/Kabbalistic views of language have already been discussed at
some length by Barbara Holdredge.
However, here I wish to compare
Kabbalistic texts on the power of breath and sound to the rich mate-
rial on these topics collected by André Padoux. As Padoux himself
notes, even the later formulation of his conclusions requires further
and I might be permitted to add that this is especially
true in terms of the need for a theoretical analysis of his fndings.
need is most evident in terms of a sociological contextualization of the
more theological or cosmological texts that Padoux amasses (such as I
shall essay in my concluding remarks).
It is my hope that a comparison
Holdredge 1996, 213–23, as well as the discussions cited below. Holdredge focuses
on relatively earlier sources belonging to the mainstream theosophical-theurgical school
of Kabbalah, and diferent results are obtained from consulting a diferent selection of
texts, as suggested here. For an earlier attempt, see Fluegel 1902, 248–50. For an inter-
esting literary treatment of the resonance between Indian and Jewish mystical practices
related to language, see Goldman 2000.
See his preface to Padoux 1990.
Tis is also the case with regard to Holdredge’s book for all of its remarkable scope.
I must add that the fndings presented here lead me to take issue with some of Hold-
redge’s more general summaries. Two examples should sufce: Holdredge claims that
“the brahamanical tradition gives priority to the phonic dimension and the rabbinical
and kabbalistic traditions to the cognitive dimension” (Holdredge 1996, 18). Te texts
surveyed here show that in the latter traditions, the phonic is at par with the cognitive;
but cf. Holdredge 1996, 218–223, where auditory and visual are added as parallel dis-
tinctions to phonic and cognitive. At the same time, Holdredge (ibid., 214) compares the
composition of the body of Brahaman by 48 sounds to the composition of the body of
God by the Hebrew letters. However, as we shall see in the next section, the latter idea is
visual rather than sonic! (Te same reservation applies to the comparison suggested on
p. 215). Here it seems that Holdredge has opted for a ‘structural afnity’ which not only
contradicts her own distinction (which is in itself problematic), but also hardly tallies
with the two structures that she compares.
See Padoux 1990, 147, n. 169, where he explicitly states that religious and mystical
practice is not the main concern of his book (see, however, pp. 396, 399). A discussion of
similar (Kashmiri Shaivite Tantric) material which emphasizes questions of practice to
a greater extent may be found in Dyczkowski 1987, 195–204. Dealing with earlier mate-
rial, Holdredge has gone much farther in her discussions (Holdredge 1996, 343–93; cf.
pp. 397–403) of “Veda in Practice” and “Torah in Practice”. However, here too I might
add that Holdredge falls into the same pitfall mentioned just now when she claims (ibid.,
powers of language in kabbalah 257
between the extensive material organized by Padoux and the Jewish
sources discussed here will contribute towards more general theoretical
formulations of the power of non-semantic aspects of language.
A striking example of the need for further theoretical refection on
Padoux’s discussion relates to the role of isomorphism. Padoux ofen
refers to the correspondences between the human and divine or cos-
mic in both Tantrism and its Vedic and Upanishadic sources.
Padoux notes that in these sources, breath and sound are both human
and cosmic energies.
However, Padoux does not address the precise
nature of these correspondences: are we dealing with resonance, iso-
morphism, extension and continuity?
Furthermore, he mentions the
“constant ambivalence, a continuous shif in the descriptions from the
human to the cosmic and vice-versa, which is a distinctive feature not
only of the Tantric mind, but more generally of the Indian mind.”

At least with regard to the texts discussed here, the notions of isomor-
phism, resonance, etc. indicate complementary descriptions rather than
ambivalence. Tese texts point towards rather precise models, which
capture the interrelationship between human and divine power. In some
models, divine power descends into human vessels and empowers them,
in others, human power ascends and impacts divine power. In some
cases, the relationship between human and divine power is mutual and
cyclical. In all of these models, the process of infuence can be ascribed
to isomorphism or to a spatial continuum. Furthermore, the experience
of the human recipient of power can be overwhelming, as in possession,
387–8) that the public recitation of the Torah is primarily aimed at “communication of
content” whilst the parallel Vedic recitation is cosmic maintenance through “reproduc-
ing the primordial sounds of the mantras”. Tough Holdredge advances an interesting
proof for her claim from Halakhic literature (I cannot here go into the rebuttal of this
proof), one cannot but note that her description of the purpose of Vedic recitation could
easily ft the discussions of Bachrach and Qalonimus (as well as other texts cited above).
See also Alper 1989.
For a comparison between the Indian material on language cited in Padoux’s writ-
ings and Kabbalistic texts on language (those of Abraham Abulafa), see Idel 1989, 148,
n. 80.
For extremely interesting remarks on the relationship between Tantra and ear-
lier sources, both Vedic and post-Vedic, see Padoux 1990, 29–38. Tis issue resembles
the question of continuity between Rabbinic and Kabbalistic discussions that is raised
See, e.g., Padoux 1990, 24, 78, n. 122, 125–7, 405.
On p. 37, Padoux discusses “correlation”, “interplay”, “reenactment”, “interconnec-
tion” “identifcation” and “two movements of the same energy”, however these terms do
not assist in a conceptual analysis of the relationship of the human and the divine.
Ibid., xi. Cf. the term “ambiguity” on p. 133.
258 jonathan garb
or modulated. I am fairly confdent that similar subtle distinctions, or
diferent ones, exist within the Indian texts, however these need to be
extracted by fner analytical tools.
Tese reservations aside, Padoux’s discussion provides ample sup-
port for the possibility of comparing Kabbalistic and Tantric theories
of the power of breath and sound. One such similarity is evident in the
stress on the very unity of breath and speech,
and on the power pro-
duced by this union.
Another point of comparison lies in the remark-
able emphasis on the concept of power itself.
In addition, there are
several more particular themes—all discussed above in the context of
Kabbalah—where a comparative efort might be fruitful (though again
there is need for more detailed analysis). Tese include ascending and
descending powers of sound,
the ‘awakening’ of latent power (as in
the doctrine of Kundalini)
as well as other issues, such as engendered
conceptions, which shall be briefy addressed in the conclusion of this
At the same time, Padoux’s discussion also points towards striking
dissimilarities between Kabbalistic and Tantric views of language. I am
of course not qualifed to determine whether Padoux is correct in con-
cluding that for the cultural belief system that he surveys “the move-
ment of the Word starts from—and returns to—a point where every
word, every sound, fades out into silence,” so that “a study devoted to the
powers of the Word fnally leads to accept the preeminence of silence.”

However, if he is correct in his conclusion, then it marks a major point
of divergence from most Jewish systems, as we have seen, ideas of the
superiority of silence are by far outweighed by the stress on the impor-
tance of production of sound.
For the specifc term “vapor”, see ibid., 301.
See Padoux 1990, 26, 382; cf. especially the text by R. Qalonimus discussed at the
end of the last section.
See, e.g., Padoux 1990, 37–41. On possession, or what I might term the ‘passive
model’ of power, see ibid., p. 41. On power in speech, see ibid., p. 49. For an interest-
ing discussion of mantra in the context of the relationship between human power and
divine power, see Findly 1989.
Padoux 1990, 125–6, 139, 413–5.
Ibid., 124–5.
One might also mention the idea of the heart as the source of sound, both in sev-
eral of the texts discussed here (see, e.g., above n. 114) as well as in those analyzed by
Padoux (see, e.g., 1990, 128, n. 117, 388, 418).
Padoux 1990, 427–8; cf. 78–9, 375.
See also Hallamish 1981.
powers of language in kabbalah 259
Tis diference is closely related to the sociological question men-
tioned above. In the texts we have surveyed, the activation of the power
of language is not the provenance of ritual specialists engaged in solitary
or silent contemplation. Rather, it is accessible in the everyday life of
the community, as in the study of children or the wedding celebration.
In fact, we have proposed that the emphasis on non-semantic aspects
of language facilitates more communal access to its power, rather than
relegating this power to the realm of mystery. Tis is a further reason
for the emphasis on sound over silence. In other words, ‘human power’,
which stands in constant relationship to ‘divine power’, is that of the
community (or the nation, as we shall see in the next section), rather
than the personal power of a select individual. It is questionable if the
same could be said for Tantric practice, although one should suspend
judgment until we have more intensive studies of the sociology of the
Tantric world.
In any case, as for Kabbalah, it is probably advisable to
avoid generalized descriptions of Tantra as such, and rather address the
existence of various streams and schools of thought.
Of course there is
also the problem of difering time frames as our Jewish examples range
from late antiquity to modernity. At the same time, the fourishing of
the Tantric movement roughly parallels the rise of Kabbalistic writing
in the Middle Ages.
A similar stipulation holds for the role of the sacred text. Although we
have seen that the study of the Torah is usually subsumed under more
general categories of ritual, there is defnitely a ‘hermeneutical model’ of
power, which focuses on activation of powers latent in the text through
sound or breath. As opposed to special initiations, textual study is acces-
sible, at least in principle, to all members of the community. Again, it is
doubtful whether a similar model is elaborated on within the Tantric
V. Concluding Remarks
Tough the preceding discussion considered sound and breath as two
separate issues, each with it’s own history and context, these themes can
be seen as part of a wider cultural stance. Tis can be characterized as
See, however, the recent discussion in White 2000. White emphasizes the role of
ritual and even royal specialists in Tantric practice. See also above, n. 127.
Tis question is touched upon in the discussion by White 2000.
260 jonathan garb
a belief in the potency of radically non-semantic aspects of the speech
act. Tis potency derives from the resonance (a term especially apt for
the context of sound) between the human and the divine, whether it
is described merely in terms of isomorphism, or in terms of an actual
continuum. However, this resonance should be seen as a process rather
than a mere structural given.
Te focus of many of the texts discussed here is on manifestation,
revelation and actualization. Te concept of divinity that can be extrap-
olated from these views of language, human and divine, is far from
static. Rather, the emphasis is on dynamic processes within the divine
realm. It is my view that the focus on power is closely related to this
dynamic theology. Tis emphasis on God’s becoming, or doing, rather
than on his being is an expression of what one can regard (at some risk
of generalization) as a core element of much of Jewish religiosity—the
centrality of practice. Several of the themes raised in the article—such
as the importance of the concept of power itself—can be associated with
the role of practice as the ‘spine’ of Jewish spirituality.
Te centrality
of language, discussed at the beginning of the article, did not in any way
mitigate this stress on practice. Rather, language and practice merged in
what one might term ‘linguistic practice’.
In a similar vein, Idel
has emphasized that the Hasidic world did
not expound an ‘immanentist theology’, but rather a practice geared
towards drawing down divine power through procedures related to lan-
guage. Indeed, even when dealing with seemingly theological issues such
as revelation, most of the texts discussed here are primarily concerned
with practice. It is this practical bent which also leads into the com-
munal nature of the understandings of language found in these texts.
Linguistic practice usually tends to be communal in nature.
However, despite this reservation, one should not occlude the central-
ity of the idea of immanence in many of the texts surveyed here: Breath
For a more extensive elaboration on these arguments, see Garb 2004, 270–2.
Cf. Foucault’s concept of “discursive practices” (see Dreyfus and Rabinow 1982,
63, 77–8, 82). Cf. also Padoux 1990, 106–9, 269 on the “power of activity”. For a general
statement on the role of ritual in Tantric systems relating to language, see ibid., p. 47.
Idel 1995, 166–7.
In this sense it is interesting that less communally oriented writers, such as the
anonymous author of Hemdat Yamim (who was probably a secetarian Sabbatean), com-
bined statements such as “the beginning and foundation of all tikkun [repair] is solitude
[. . .] for the company of people is the cause of all iniquity and sin” (Hemdat Yamim 2003,
268) with opposition to loud prayer, as discussed above (n. 59).
powers of language in kabbalah 261
and sound are regarded as two paths for the extension of divine power
and presence into the human world.
Te co-habitation of breath and
sound as two modes of immanence is especially evidenced in much of
Hassidic discourse, as in the text cited above. Te possession-like expe-
riences contained within the “passive model” discussed above can be
seen as an extreme case of the descent of the divine through language. In
this context, it is worth noting a text by the founder of the Habad school,
Shneur Zalman of Liady (18th c.):
Te word of God animates and gives being to the great souls [. . .] like the
soul of Adam, about whom it is written: “and God breathed into him a
living soul” [Gen. 2.7] and like the souls of the forefathers and prophets
and so on that were literally chariots for God and literally nullifed in their
being in relation to God, as the Sages said: “Te Shekhinah spoke from the
throat of Moses”, and likewise for all the prophets and possessors of the
holy spirit, that the supernal voice and speech was literally enclothed in
their voice and speech as the Ari wrote.
Shneur Zalman utilizes the texts belonging to the passive model (dis-
cussed in the frst section of the article), such as the description of the
Shekhinah speaking from the throat of Moses, and the Lurianic idea of
the divine voice as ‘enclothed’ in human voice in an interesting manner.
Shneur Zalman’s acosmic mystical theology, which stresses the need for
self-nullifcation vis-à-vis the immanence of the divine is here framed
within a ‘personal model’, which foregrounds selected individuals and
their souls.
Te select individual here is marked by his passive stance
towards the presence of the divine voice.
However, at this point one must introduce several constraints on the
explanatory move suggested here: Firstly, one should not regard the idea
of divine immanence through sound and breath as necessarily implying
a sense of the full presence of the divine through language. For all of
their belief in the potency and plentitude of language, many Kabbal-
ists were aware that language also limits and restricts. Tere are several
statements which re-frame actual human language as a limited and
condensed mode of pure sound. Already the twelfh-century Proven-
cal Kabbalist, Isaac the Blind, described the letters as being ‘carved
out’ (hakukot), which denotes limitation, and as an extension of the
Cf. Padoux 1990, 131.
Shneur Zalman of Liady 1985, Part 4, Chapter 25.
Te close link between breath and soul surfaced in several of the texts we exam-
ined, and will also appear in some sources cited below.
262 jonathan garb
(unlimited) ‘pleasantness of sound’.
Hasidic authors such as R. Levi
Iasac of Berdichev (late 18th c.) described the letters as the ‘restriction’
(zˢ imzˢ um) of sound.
A similar statement, by R. Tzaddok Hacohen of
Lublin (19th c.) posits that the individual souls of Israel are the letters of
the Torah, while the unity of the souls, prior to their individuation, was
equivalent to the ‘great voice’ heard at Sinai.
Te latter text brings us to a second stipulation: Despite the emphasis
on ‘personal power’ and individual experience in many of the texts we
have pursued, we also encountered a strong national focus. In this vein,
following a Midrashic move,
the same writer (R. Tzaddok) wrote that
“all of the power of Jacob [here as an archetype of the Jewish nation] is
in the voice.”
We have seen the text by Bachrach, which sees the holy
people of Israel as the only true descendants of Adam, charged with
purifying the air of the lands of the nations. Tis is by no means a sin-
gular instance. One later Hasidic writer goes so far as to suggest that
the sins of the Jews result entirely from breathing the air ruined by the
impure breath of the non-Jews!
Tese statements form pat of what one
might term the “national mysticism” of the Kabbalah.
Like the national issue, the question of gender was not addressed
here, but is nonetheless present in several discussions of sound, and
actually deserves a separate study.
In some texts, the voice is described
as masculine, and speech itself as feminine.
Tis is the interpretation
ofen given to the Talmudic term for semi-prophetic revelation through
sound, bat kol, or echo of the divine voice.
According to this Kabbal-
istic interpretation, speech is the daughter of voice. A similar notion is
Commentary on Sefer Yezˢ ira, printed as the appendix to Scholem 1986, 6.
Isaac of Berdichev 1958, 2 [Genesis]. Cf. Yishayahu Jacob Halevi 2002, 22–3, who
writes that letters are in fact just breath, and that the diferentiation between letters is
the result of the restrictions imposed by the structure of the mouth during the process
of voice production.
Tzaddok Hacohen 1973, 29 [Section 7]. Cf. Padoux 1990, 99, 142–3.
Cf. the Midrashic statement in Mechilta DeRabbi Yishmael, 92 [Besalach 2].
Tzaddok Hacohen 1967, 62 [Section 36].
Borenstein 1987, 304 [Toldot].
See also Wolfson 2000.
For now see the remarks on voice, gender and power in Idel 2005, 26–30, 205–12.
In light of this it is somewhat anomalous that in the revelation experienced by
R. Joseph Karo, the speaker (Karo) was male, and the voice revealed to him—the Shekh-
inah or mishnah—was female. At the same time, the Shekhinah used the verse ‘the voice
of my beloved presses”, which refers to the male lover in the Song of Songs. On the gen-
der relations and reversals in Karo’s experience, see Werblowsky 1977, 267–8, 280–1.
See, e.g., Ibn Gabbai 1954, part 4, chapter 24.
powers of language in kabbalah 263
found in the Zohar,
which explains the sin of Eve, who separated the
fruit from the tree of knowledge, as separating sound from speech.

Te Zohar goes on to say that the exilic state is that of silence, which
disconnects speech and voice.
Te Zohar then ascribes the verse, “To
you silence is praise,”
to this exilic state.
Tis appears to be a polemic
against Maimonidies, who used this verse as a proof of the virtue of
silent contemplation.
To return to the gender issue, it is striking that
the Zohar describes the rite of circumcision as re-connecting speech
and voice and amending the primal sin.
From a comparative point of
view, it is worth recalling mythic Indian descriptions of the word as a
feminine divine fgure—Vac—as well as the descriptions of this fgure as
expressing the potency of male deities.
(On a more sociological level,
one can compare these views of sound and gender to the silencing role
played by the Halakhic prohibition on hearing a woman’s voice, which
has been extensively discussed in contemporary literature on women in
Jewish life).
A fnal reservation is that here we have focused on the oral aspect
of non-semanticized language but there are of course non-seman-
tic dimensions of written language which are visual in nature.
example is that of the graphic shape of the letters (mentioned in one
text by Cordovero discussed above). Here, too, the operating principle
is isomorphism: the shape of the letters is seen as isomorphic to the
divine form.
Te possibility of human infuence on the divine, which
Zohar 1, 36A. On this text, see the important study of the late Charles Mopsik
(1996, 409–410). For the dependence of female speech on male voice, see Zohar 1, 145
See the graphic description of the snake’s voice conjoining with the female voice
“like a dog mating with a bitch” in Zohar 2, 111A.
Cf. Zohar 2, 25B.
Ps. 65.2.
On exile and language, see the text by Bachrach 1648, discussed above in
Section III.
See above, n. 22. Cf. Maimonidies 2002, Part 3, Chapter 32.
Zohar 1, 98A. On this text, see Mopsik 1996, 405–6. On circumcision and lan-
guage, see Wolfson 1987.
See Padoux 1990, 9–11; cf. 106, 151–2.
See BT Berakhot 24A, as well as Hauptman 1998, 24.
Cf. Padoux 1990, xiv; see also 86, 110, 113.
See Idel 2002, 51–2, 54, 70–4. Te most sustained discussion of the power of the
form of the letters is found in the fourteenth-century Byzantine text, Sefer Hatemu-
nah, as well as associated works composed in the circle of the anonymous author. Te
texts composed in this circle ofen refer to the power of the graphic form (tziur) of the
264 jonathan garb
extends from this isomorphism, can be found in a Talmudic narrative
(most likely infuenced by the mystical Heikhalot literature), which
describes the ascent of Moses from Sinai to the divine realm: “When
Moses ascended above, he encountered God tying crowns to the letters.
God said: ‘Moses is there no greeting where you come from’? Moses
responded: ‘Is there a slave who greets his master.’ God answered: ‘You
should have assisted me.’ Immediately he responded: ‘May the power of
God increase’[Num. 14.17].”
It is striking that God requests Moses to empower him whilst he is
engaged in completing the crowns of the letters rather than the letters
themselves. It is possible that this text suggests that the theurgical power
of language is contained in their formal, non-semantic aspect.
is certainly the interpretation given by some Kabbalistic writers, who
identifed the crowns with the power latent in language.
However, it must again be noted that written language is ofen seen as
a limited expression of the potentials and potencies of sound: For exam-
ple, R. Itzhak Haver, whom we encountered above, writes that in the time
of Moses there was an experience of the direct presence of the divine,
as the Shekhinah spoke from his throat.
However, afer his death, we
are lef merely with the written text, without the presence of the spoken
word. Haver adds that whilst the letters denote this limited state, the
vowels denote the ‘spirit and vitality’ of direct presence. Tis description
letters (See, e.g., the texts found in manuscript and adduced by Garb 2004, 154). Sefer
Hatemunah itself (1998, 16) clearly states that the tziur or graphic form of the letters is
isomorphic to the tziur adam or the human form. Tis structure in turn draws on earlier
Kabbalistic traditions—see e.g. the claim of Rabbi Isaac the Blind that man is “built in
the letters”, Commentary on Sefer Yezˢ ira adduced by Pedaya 2001, 105. See also through-
out the Badei Haaron by R. Shem Tov ibn Gaon (14th c.).
BT Shabbat 89A.
Tis is also the opinion of Joseph Dan, Dan 1998, 113–4.
See, e.g., the ofen quoted passage found in the introduction to Ibn Gabbai 1954,
which describes the crowns as the theurgical power of language. Note also the interest-
ing commentary of R. Tzaddok Hacohen of Lublin (1999, 144 [Selach 13]) who writes
that the crowns designate the Oral Torah. Tis creative misreading leads away from
a text dealing with the power of written language to the theme of the power of voice
discussed above.
Haver 1995, 142–3. Tis understanding of voice as presence and writing as
absence is similar to a central tendency in Western culture, as critiqued by Jacques Der-
rida (1978). See especially his discussion of Judaism—in dialogue with E. Jabes—ibid.,
68–70). However see Pedaya 2003, 130, who claims that the opposite tendency prevails
in the Kabbalah of Nahmanidies. See also Handelman 1982, 175–6, and Idel 2002, 123–
8, 200.
powers of language in kabbalah 265
of the vowels rests on the classical idea that the vowels are the animating
spirit of the letters,
sometimes compared to breath.
Te possibility of comparison between Kabbalistic views of linguis-
tic power and similar ideas found in other mystical traditions was sug-
gested in the previous section. However, as suggested there, this option is
signifcantly constrained by several of the cultural tendencies discussed
here—the national character of numerous Kabbalistic statements, the
focus on ritual practice, the emphasis on textual hermeneutics related
to a given literary heritage, as well as a certain construction of gender
relations. Nonetheless, this does not in any way detract from the import
and signifcance of the fndings presented above. Rather these refec-
tions should be taken as cautions against sweeping universalizing moves
à la Eliade or Jung.
I would like to conclude our discussion with a Midrash on the Tab-
lets of the Law, according to which one third of the tablets were held by
Moses, and one third were held by God.
Te “two hands’ breadth” in
between, also one third of the span of the tablets, remained in the mid-
dle between God and Moses. One can see this image as a representation
of the nature of language as conceived of in Kabbalah. It does not belong
completely to the realm of divine presence, nor to that of human prac-
tice, but rather to the ‘liminal’
or ‘transitional’
space in between.
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Anthropologist Hildred Geertz (1994, 1995, 2004) has opened up a new under-
standing of the particular meanings that the term sakti takes in the Balinese socio-
cultural context in a series of insightful and carefully detailed works.
Tis matter is highly contested in contemporary Bali, with some factions claiming
that the entire magical lore of Bali should be opened up for examination and publication,
while others claim that this would violate the very essence of Balinese religious identity.
Te phrase “the sonic energy active in the syllable” is cited from the call for papers
of the conference leading to this volume.
Tomas M. Hunter
I. Introduction
Let us begin—perhaps unusually for a work on language—with an illus-
tration [Fig 1]. Tis is a rĕrajahan, a magical diagram from the Balinese
tradition, one among thousands, each designed with a specifc purpose in
mind. Perhaps the most common are ulapan, diagrams written on white
cloth and placed above the entryway to a dwelling place or shrine as a sign
to the multitudinous beings that inhabit the Balinese “invisible world”
(niskala) that the site has been given the rituals that allow it to be claimed
for human use. Others are used as amulets to ward of sickness, thef or
the attacks of sorcerers, to guarantee success in love, or to strengthen a
practitioner for achieving the “mystical power” (sakti) that is a central
goal of spiritual practices as framed within the Balinese tradition.
From the written material found with the rĕrajahan we know that it is
a pĕkakas, a charm in written or pictorial form that is usually worn hid-
den in a sash around the waist as a means of protection against disease,
misfortune or the attacks of sorcerers. But it is not my purpose here to
discuss the use of the rĕrajahan, or even what its meaning may have been
for its creator. In the frst place these are matters hedged round with an
ethos of prohibition, so that even were I privy to the lore that lies behind
the making and ‘activation’ of such diagrams, I would be taking serious
risks to reveal their meaning outside a strictly controlled ritual context.
My intention here is rather to invite contemplation on several ele-
ments in this rĕrajahan that suggest a particular understanding of “the
sonic energy active in the syllable” that has deep historical roots in the
pre-modern culture of the Malay-Indonesian archipelago.
Tis has led
272 thomas m. hunter
in Bali to what might be termed a system of “orthographic mysticism”,
a raising of the status of the written character as a medium of meta-
physical energies to a level of prestige that in the South Asian tradition
has generally been reserved for the enunciation of mantra.
Taking this
image from the Balinese cultural imagination of the early twentieth cen-
tury as a starting point I hope to trace some of the fgural elements that
have developed in Javano-Balinese literary and theological traditions for
a period of over a millennium.
Tese in turn should help to account for
a unique economy of “sonorous” and “orthographic” modes of express-
ing metaphysical concerns in the Javano-Balinese tradition.
Figure 1: A rĕrajahan from the Balinese tradition
Te term “alphabet mysticism” has been previously introduced by Rubenstein 2000,
29–65, to describe the types of phenomena for which I use the term “orthographic mys-
ticism”. Rubenstein’s work represents an important contribution to the study of Balinese
literary praxis in general, and to the development of a detailed understanding of the
deeply signifcant role played by orthography and related disciplines in Balinese theo-
logical and literary traditions. With the work of Zurbuchen 1987, Rubenstein’s work also
sets a high standard in what might be termed a feld of “comparative noetics”.
Te rĕrajahan illustrated in Figure 1 was originally collected in the frst quarter
of the twentieth century by the Dutch bureaucrat and researcher, V.E. Korn, it became
part of the Korn Collection of the Library of Leiden University. C. Hooykaas 1980, fg.
40 later published both the Korn collection and the Quindort collection of rĕrajahan in
the collections of the University of Leiden Libraries.
Afer Hooykaas 1980, fg. 40.
poetics of grammar in the javano-balinese tradition 273
II. Exploring a Rĕrajahan: On Orthographic Mysticism
If we focus on the pictorial elements of the rĕrajahan, we are immedi-
ately confronted with a number of striking visual images that seem to
suggest both sonorous and grammatological aspects of the experience of
language, at the same time that they present disembodied aspects of the
human form in a “reassemblage” that must surely have deep symbolic
resonances with other Balinese semiotic systems.
First let us observe
the confguration that frames the rĕrajahan, a series of four legs linking
together four identical heads, each turned slightly to the right, each with
its ear forced forward into an attitude of “hyper-acoustic sensitivity” by
one of the feet that bind the frame into a tight enclosure. Te outward
turning of the ears invites speculation on possible connections with the
importance of verbal formulae (mantra) in South Asian mystical and
ritual praxis, and indeed this is strengthened by the ulu candra symbol,
which converts ordinary syllables into mantra, worn as a crown by each
of the fgures in the rĕrajahan. However, while mantra (Balinese swalita)
do play a signifcant role in the practice of Balinese priests, a reliable
informant tells me that what a trained Balinese eye might see here is a
reference to the practice of ‘strengthening’ senses; just as one gains the
power termed “tingal” through an intensifcation of the power of vision,
so can one gain a supra-normal form of the sense of hearing. Tis rais-
ing of the power of the senses is one aspect of the general quest for sakti,
and the desire to gain control over niskala forces.
As we shall see all but one of the elements of the collocation of graphemes in the
rĕrajahan represents a dependent grapheme. Tis suggests comparison with the “reas-
semblages” of human body parts that in many cases are central to the pictorial aspect of
rĕrajahan. To pictorially reassemble parts of the human anatomy in a rĕrajahan may
parallel the redeployment of the constituent elements of writing in the production of
“sacred characters” (sastra, swalita), especially modre, whose special form makes them
essentially unpronounceable, and open to analysis only to those who have been properly
prepared and initiated Te converse of this positive form of “reassembly” is illustrated
in the use of disembodied body-parts, ofen equipped with wings or eyes, as prominent
among the demons who attack heroes who are described in various Balinese works of art
as meditating in graveyards or cremation grounds in order to acquire the power that will
ensure their ability to master their destiny. For one illustration of this kind of attack by
disembodied body-parts see the “wayang-style” paintings of the “Tale of Father Brayut”
(Gĕguritan Pan Brayut) in the “Floating Pavillion” (Bale Kambang) in Klungkung, Bali.
For purposes of this article I have chosen not to retain South Asian spelling for
words like śakti and nisˢ kala. In Balinese phonology there is no distinction between sets
like ś-sˢ -s or ñ-nˢ -n, but these distinctions are preserved in Balinese orthography, for
274 thomas m. hunter
Te fact that the four heads of the rĕrajahan are at the compass points,
and connected by a series of legs suggests circumambulation, and thus
comparison with Balinese beliefs around the idea of a circuit of spiritual
power. Tis circuit of power has macrocosmic coordinates in the idea
of pilgrimage to a series of major temples (sad kahyangan) stretched
across the physical landscape of Bali, while its microcosmic coordinates
take the form of a nyāsa-like assignment of a series of “sacred syllables”
(sastra, aksara) to the major organs of the human body.
Te consequent
‘strengthening’ of the body enables the practitioner to absorb the powers
of a series of deities and other elements of Balinese cosmogony and
become the locus of an inner “circulation of the world” (pangidĕr-idĕr
ing jagat), isomorphic with the act of pilgrimage in the exoteric world,
but presumed to be still more powerful in its efects upon the practi-
tioner. Our diagram might thus be said at this point to present a series of
potent signifers that have to do with a “rotational” gathering of esoteric
power and its confnement within a magically charged space bound on
all sides and impenetrable except by the initiated.
When we turn to the set of written signs framed by this “circuit of
power,” we encounter a series of written characters, something not
uncommon within the practice of rĕrajahan. However, contrary to com-
mon practice, these characters represent neither pronounceable “sacred
syllables” (swalita) that are closely related to the mantra systems of India,
nor the uniquely Balinese “reassemblages” of orthographic elements to
produce unpronounceable “sacred letter combinations” (modre) that are
believed to have special powers “beyond the realm of the senses”. Instead
we fnd a series of written signs that in large part represent dependent
graphemes, orthographic formants that alter a ‘consonantal’ base to
reasons reviewed in this study. For words like śakti and nisˢ kala retention of the Indic
spelling would not present a problem (although the understanding of śakti is certainly
quite diferent for India and Bali), but for words like sastra, used as a word for “sacred
syllable” the Indian spelling would (falsely) suggest another concept altogether (norma-
tive technical text pertaining to a sacred or mundane science). I have chosen, there-
fore, to use commonly found Balinese words with an Indian origin with a spelling that
refects their contemporary pronunciation, and is also found commonly in Balinese or
Indonesian works written in romanized form.
Tere are clear resonances here with the technique of nyāsa known from Indian
sources, and indeed the history of these techniques suggests a grounding in nyāsa as
conceived in the traditions of Yoga and early Tantrism. See Goudriaan & Hooykaas
1971, 59–70, for a Balinese example of the placement of a series of deities in the body
facilitated by the use of specifc mantra. See Gosh 1989, 238–9, for an explanation of
the “universal tantric rite of nyāsa” in the context of the Pañcaratra school of Vaisˢ nˢ ava
poetics of grammar in the javano-balinese tradition 275
produce pronounceable, independent syllables.
In this set of charac-
ters we fnd the following elements of orthographic convention (listed
in roughly clockwise order, beginning from center, lef):
¯ = taling, written prior to a consonantal character to indicate the
vowel /e/, or in combination with the character tĕdong (written
afer the consonantal character) to form the vowel /o/

= pĕpĕt, written above a consonantal character to indicate the cen-
tral vowel /ǘ/

= ulu candra, written above any character forming a syllable (either
vowel or consonant plus vowel) to add the nasal feature (Skt
anusvāra) that defnes the production of mantra in Indian and
Balinese convention

= ulu (“head”), written above a consonantal character to indicate
the vowel /i/
= a-kāra, the character for writing the vowel /a/ in word-initial
position; this special character is used only for writing words in
the Kawi (Old Javanese) language
= suku kembung, written below a consonantal character to repre-
sent the vowel /u/ when it follows a consonant and precedes a
vowel (u/C_V). Balinese convention, based ultimately on Sanskrit
practices, prohibits hiatus except in a few highly constrained pho-
nological environments; this has led to unique developments in
Balinese orthography
It is to some degree a misnomer to refer to any Balinese character as ‘consonantal’
as the inherent vowel -a- is assumed unless the character is altered by the addition of
one of the characters indicating another vowel. Tis means that in their unaltered form
all Balinese written characters represent syllables. A system of altered, or partial, graph-
emes is then used to allow the representation of consonant clusters or combinations of
vowel and semi-vowel. Technically speaking, the Balinese system of writing is thus a
semi-syllabary, in common with other descendants of the Brahmi script of the Ashokan
In Balinese texts like the Tutur Aji Saraswati the ulu candra is understood as com-
posed of three smaller formants (arddha-candra, windu and nāda) which respond to
familiar elements of South Asian attribution of the work of creation to the role of pri-
mordial sound (nāda) in the expansion of the cosmos from an origin-point (bindu) of
pure potentiality. In Bali the arddha-candra (“half-moon”) element is identifed with
consciousness, thus corresponding closely to South Asian associations of the moon with
soma, the essence of consciousness and the psycho-physical “fuid” that results from the
practice of yoga, especially in Tantric contexts.
Since the velar africate [h] is not found in word-initial position in Balinese pho-
nology, while the character for h is presumed to ‘contain’ the inherent vowel /a/, the
grapheme for ha- is commonly used in Balinese to represent an initial a-.
Many Balinese words do have medial vowel clusters, based on the historical reduc-
tion of intervocalic [r] and [h], and this can lead to sequences like -aa-, -uu, -ui- or
-ii-. In order to avoid the appearance of hiatus these sequences may be written with an
epenthetic -h-, -w- or -y-.
276 thomas m. hunter
= suku (“foot”), written below a consonantal character to represent
the vowel /u/
= guwung-r (or r-repha), written below a consonantal character to
indicate the semi-vowel /r/ when it directly follows another con-
sonant and precedes a vowel (r/C_V)
¸ = na-niya + suku ilut, a combination of two characters; the frst
(na-niya) is used to write the semi-vowel /y/ when it follows a
consonant and precedes a vowel; the adjoining sign (suku ilut) is
used for the vowel /u/ when it follows an occurrence of the semi-
vowel /y/ in na-niya form.
, = wisah, written afer an “open syllable” (CV) to indicate the con-
sonant /h/ in word-fnal position; closely related to the grapheme
called wignyan in the Javanese tradition, this character ultimately
originates from visargahˢ of the South Asian tradition.
= tĕdong, used singularly to form “long” or “heavy” (guru) syllables
in copying metrical works of the Kawi/Old Javanese tradition, or
in combination with taleng (see above) to form the vowel /o/

= surang, used to form the semi-vowel /r/ when it occurs afer a
vowel and before a following consonant, or a sentence boundary
(r/V_C or r/V_ # #)
Tere are several remarkable points that come out when we look closely
at this set of characters. Te frst is that 11 of the characters constitute
the full set of pĕngaŋge sastra, or pĕsandaŋan sastra. Both terms refer
to the “clothing” of written characters, the orthographic formants that
combine with consonantal characters to represent the vowels and semi-
vowels. Tis suggests that a particular importance is attached to the
dependent vowel and semi-vowel signs in the Balinese system of ortho-
graphic mysticism. We will return to this point.
Te second is that we fnd a special prominence given to the mantra-
forming character ulu candra. Considering the origins of Balinese mys-
tical practices in South Asia, and the close resemblance of the Balinese
ulu candra with the Indian cakra-bindu (which has the identical function
of converting ordinary syllables to their sacred, sonorous counterparts)
this is the least surprising element in the confguration of the rĕrajahan.
Te prominence of the ulu candra attests to the remarkable degree to
Te term guwung refers to the conical shape of baskets (guwung) used as cages for
fghting cocks, while r-repha preservers the terminology of Sanskrit texts on phonetics.
Many of the pre-modern writing systems of the Malay-Indonesian archipelago can
be traced back to the Pallava script of South India. De Casparis (1975) used the term
“Kawi” to refer to these scripts, while Kozok (2004) has more recently suggested the
more accurate term “Pallavo-Nusantaric”.
poetics of grammar in the javano-balinese tradition 277
which the Balinese have maintained Indian beliefs around the creative
role of sound in the genesis and regeneration of the cosmos.
Perhaps most remarkable is the occurrence of only one character rep-
resenting a non-dependent phoneme, that is the character used to write
initial a-. We will return shortly to a closer consideration of the charac-
ter for initial a-. First, in order to better elucidate a number of elements
of the graphemes central to the rĕrajahan, I would like to take a moment
to briefy review the more general context of Balinese orthography and
its relation to mysticism as these subjects have been outlined in recent
work by Rubenstein on what she has termed “the magic of letters and
rituals of literacy” (2000:39–65).
It is to Rubenstein’s credit that she has shifed the ground of the phil-
ological project from an earlier preoccupation with minor details of
analysis—and an ofen condescending attitude towards local knowl-
edge—to the study of the important role played by orthographic rules
in the practice of the poets of the Javano-Balinese tradition of writing
kakawin, roughly comparable to the kāvya, or “court epics” of South
Asia. In part she has based her elucidation of what she terms “alphabet
mysticism” as exemplifed in works like the Tutur Aji Saraswati (TAS)
and Swarawyañjana Tutur (ST). However, she has also enriched her
exposition of these texts by incorporating the comments of her teacher
and informant, the late Ida Pĕdanda Made Sideman of Sanur, who was
without a doubt among the foremost masters of Balinese literature in
the twentieth century. In a telling description of Ida Pĕdanda Made
Sidĕmen’s reverence for proper diction and spelling, she notes the imag-
ery of battle he ofen invoked in describing the fate of misused charac-
ters, and the links this has with Balinese beliefs around the supernatural
qualities of written characters:
His most common declaration . . . is: “many [of the letters] are dead, in great
numbers they have been defeated” . . . Te association of spelling with life
and death through the use of metaphors is more than mere convention.
It signifes a belief . . . that letters have a divine origin, are invested with
supernatural life force, and are a powerful weapon that can be employed
to infuence the course of events. (Rubinstein 2000, 194)
Beyond a few short comments I will not attempt to rehearse Ruben-
stein’s informative discussion of the prominent role played by adherence
to orthographic, euphonic and metrical conventions among the Bali-
nese literati—not coincidentally a world dominated by “high priests”
(pĕdanda) who hold the highest ritual rank in the Balinese system of
278 thomas m. hunter
social precedence. One can detect in these conventions a concerted
attempt to maintain the analytical practices and terminology of South
Asia. At times the Balinese rules closely refect Indian conventions, for
example in the discussion of syllable length under the usual Sanskritic
terms hrasva, dīrgha and pluta. In other cases it appears that the Bali-
nese analysts have focused on orthographic forms of investigation to an
astonishing degree, suggesting a massive shifing of the ground of ana-
lytical concerns from the phonological and grammatical (South Asia)
to the orthographic (Bali). For example in the ST the “yanˢ -sandhi” rule
(Pānˢ ini 6.1.77) that allows /i/ to convert to /y/ when prior to a dissimilar
vowel, is given a novel interpretation in a “back-analysis” of the Balinese
word ayam (“chicken”):
Te vowel i becomes its semivowel ya when followed by a dissimilar vowel,
for example . . . a-i-am becomes . . . ayam. (Rubenstein 2000, 205)
Tere are two areas of analysis in the TAS and ST that have a particular
relevance for the interpretation of our rĕrajahan. One is the question of
the special qualities attributed to the a-kāra, the character used to form
word-initial a-, and its “fate” when encountering consonantal charac-
ters. As Rubenstein (2000, 211) tells us, according to the ST:
Te initial vowel a . . . becomes the a innate in consonants when it adheres to
consonants. Te text describes the a as “ruling over consonants” (wyapak-
eng sastreka).
Conversely, the other vowel signs do not enjoy so positive a result when
encountering consonantal characters, being “overpowered” (kawaśa
dadya) by the consonants. So for example:
Te yanˢ -sandhi rule is given in Asˢ t ˢ ādhyāyi 6.1.77: iko yanˢ aci, where ikahˢ repre-
sents the set i-u-r-l, yan represents the set y-v-r-l, and ac the set a-i-u-r-l-e-o-ai-au. Te
genitival ending -ahˢ of ik tells us that this is the element to be changed, while the locative
ending -i of aci tells us that the process of change of the set ik to the set yan occurs in the
“lef context”, that is prior to the set ac.
It is unfortunate that Rubenstein (2000) has not provided more information on
the precise ways that Balinese orthographic conventions mirror the conventions of
Sanskrit. Te novel ways that rules of Sanskrit origin are used to reanalyze Balinese
words are one example of the many practices that demonstrate the remarkable degree
of Balinese priestly commitment to preserving literary and linguistic practices of the
“Sanskrit ecumene” long afer actual contact between the two countries had been cut of
by changes in the politico-economic circumstances of the archipelago.
Tis is slightly incorrect: wyāpaka does not mean “rule over”, but rather “pervade”.
As we shall see this is a more apt description of the role played by a in the many writing
systems of South and Southeast Asian that ultimately trace their ancestry to Brahmi.
poetics of grammar in the javano-balinese tradition 279
Te (initial) i is overpowered so that it becomes the hulu talinga [when it
adheres to a consonant] (i . . . kawaśa dadya hulu talinga . . . kunang).
Tis special treatment of the character for a in the ST brings to mind
a passage in the Mahāvairocana-sūtra (MVS). Tis is one of two semi-
nal texts of Shingon and Vajrayana Buddhism that de Jong (1974)
has shown were likely known in Java from as early as the ninth cen-
tury ce, and which infuenced the composition of the Buddhist hand-
books Sang Hyang Kamahāyanan Mantranāya (SHM) and Sang Hyang
Kamahāyanikan (SHKM). Te discussion in the MVS of the nature of
the syllable a is especially telling, in that it reminds us of the remarkable
degree of continuity that appears to exist between such ancient formu-
lations and the presuppositions of the Balinese school of orthographic
Te syllable a is the base of all the doctrines. As soon as somebody opens
his mouth, all the sounds bear the vowel a. Without the a there would be no
language. Tat is why it is called “mother of all the sounds”. Te speeches
of the three worlds all depend on the name, but the name depends on the
syllable. Tat is why the virtue (. . . siddham) of the syllable a is the mother
of all the syllables. . . . How is it that there is no dharma which is not the
efect of a cause? Tings arising from a cause all have a beginning, an ori-
gin. . . . Just as when listening to some speeches we hear the sound a, so
also when we consider the production of the dharmas we see their original
While a discussion of this type may not ring familiar to Balinese ears, it
would have been perfectly conceivable in Buddhist circles of fourteenth-
century Java that produced works like the kakawin Sutasoma. And there
can be little doubt that both the Balinese treatment of an orthographic
principle around a-, and the Buddhist thematizing of a similar principle
in philosophical discourse, hark back to an ancient attitude towards
language that has cast a long shadow over the cultural history of South
and Southeast Asia. I propose that this principle is the phonetic prin-
ciple articulated as early as the Taittīyaprātiśākhya that tells us that there
is no such thing in nature as a consonant that can be enunciated except
through combination with a vowel. By convention (since a is the frst
vowel of the ordered sets of the Sanskrit syllabary) and by analysis (that
a was presumed the simplest vowel in articulatory terms), a is then
assumed to be the inherent vowel, assumed to be present in any syllable
unless a further modifcation is introduced that will produce another
While the point seems to be rarely made in studies of the development
of Brahmi script, it would seem remarkable if the analytical conventions
280 thomas m. hunter
of the prātiśākhya were not the deciding factor in the transformation
of writing from an alphabetical system to a semi-syllabic system once
some form of Western or Southern Semitic crossed the Indus and was
adopted for Indian use. With this movement we see the transformation
of a system of separate characters for vowels and consonants (alphabet)
to a system of consonants whose default form “contains” the inherent
vowel a, and which can be modifed with a special set of dependent
vowel signs (semi-syllabary).
While the exposition of the MVS can be said to be based on a “phono-
logical fguration” of the inherent vowel a in the service of a philosophi-
cal discourse, the Balinese case clearly demonstrates that the ground
has shifed considerably in the intervening centuries between the MVS
and texts like the Swarawyañjana. With the Balinese insistence on the
precedence of the vowel a in the phonological hierarchy—its ability
to “pervade” (wyapaka) the consonants, rather than to be “overcome”
(kawaśa)—we move from a “phonological fgure” to a “grammatologi-
cal” fgure. Rubenstein (2000:40) has suggested that the reasons for this
substantial shif of the ground of philosophical and religious specula-
tion from the phonological to the orthographic may be related to the
ability of writing to “materialize speech and enable its transmission and
preservation over time” (pace Goody 1968:206) or to the ‘legitimizing’
role that religion played in “societies where writing had been associated
with the priesthood.” But there are other, more cogent, reasons why such
a shif would have taken place in the Malay-Indonesian archipelago.
It would surely be worthwhile to sketch out at length the historical
pressures that have impelled the shif from a sonorous and phonological
orientation in religious speculation (South Asia) toward the sonorous
and orthographic (Java and Bali), but this is not the place for such a
study. For the moment let us simply bear in mind the enormous internal
pressures that must have been exerted on Javano-Balinese priestly insti-
tutions to preserve an accurate representation of the Indian phonologi-
cal system that was fundamental to the most sacrosanct elements of the
ritual liturgy. Tis had to be accomplished in the context of a Western
Austronesian phonological system that lacked several of the most crucial
contrasts of the Old Indo-Aryan sound system that had been preserved
in classical Sanskrit.
I believe that this was one of the major factors in
Generally speaking AN sound systems show no contrast of unaspirated vs. aspi-
rated (or “breathy voice”) consonants, no contrast of retrofex and alveolar-dental stops,
poetics of grammar in the javano-balinese tradition 281
the shif from a phonological to an orthographic orientation in the
shared presupposition of a “sonic energy active in the syllable.”
A second aspect of works like the TAS and ST that can help us under-
stand our rĕrajahan is the complex system of correlations that is devel-
oped between elements of the physical world (buana agung) and the
psycho-physiological world of the human being (buana alit). In the
ST, for example, the vowel a is said to embody the deity Iśwara, while
its “heavy” (guru) variant ā is said to embody his consort, Bhagawatī.
Tese two vowels are then said to “procreate” (manak), giving birth to
the “fve elements” (pañcamāhabhūta), which are embodied in the series
ka—kha—ga—gha—nga, the frst category (warga) of the Balinese sylla-
bary. Te set u—ū is then said to embody Brahma and Wedawatī, and to
give birth to the fve organs of perception (pañcakarmendriya). Te debt
to Tantric formulations here is evident; but so too are ancient roots in
works like the Sang Hyang Kamahāyanikan, mentioned earlier as likely
infuenced by the Mahāvairocana-sūtra. In the SHKM the Sanskrit syl-
labary is described as a unity that is “internally the body” (ikang śarīra
i jro) and “externally a stūpa [and] stepped, temple platform” (i yawa
stūpa prāsāda). Te various elements of the syllabary are then assigned
to powers and substances of the body and/or the natural world. Te vow-
els r—rö, for example, are assigned to “the eyes and what is seen” (mata
tinon) and e—ai to “the nose and smelling.” As Rubenstein (2000:58–59),
Zurbuchen (1987:96) and Lovric (1987:71–2) have shown, the ancient
association of written characters and their sonorous equivalents with
and only a single sibilant (where Sanskrit has three). Furthermore vowel length is not
marked for quantity as it is in OIA languages, and for that matter the majority of all
South Asian tongues, at least those of the Indo-European and Dravidian families.
For a succinct statement of the essentials of the huge feld of belief and practice
around mantra in South Asia, see Padoux 1989. His comments on the overwhelmingly
“oral” nature of mantra are particularly revealing in terms of the contrast with Balinese
practice (Padoux 1989, 296–7):
. . . mantras as they exist in actual fact . . . can be properly explained and understood
only within the Indian tradition, with its metaphysical and mythical notions about
speech . . . In this context, it is worth noting that, from the outset, the sort of speech
or word considered all-powerful was not written: All speculations and practices
always concerned, and still concern, the oral feld only. Mantra is sound (śabda) or
word (vāc); it is never, at least in its nature, written.
Te degree to which this orientation of mantra as speech permeates the Indian tradition
may help to explain why Staal—who has produced articles as perceptive as his (1989)
contribution to the volume from which Padoux’s comments are drawn—is able to ana-
lyze Balinese ritual practice around mantra in terms of speech alone, despite all evidence
to the contrary, in his Rituals on Fire and Water (1987).
282 thomas m. hunter
particular aspects of the physical and human worlds has meant that they
play a special role in mediating energies that can be harnessed for heal-
ing or magical purposes. Te roots of this tradition clearly go back as
far as the SHKM and are refected in contemporary Bali, for example, in
healing rituals concerning the Kanda Mpat, or “four spiritual siblings”.
In fact, a very similar confguration of pĕngaŋge sastra, in this case com-
posed of 14 graphemes, is fairly widely known in Bali under the term
caturdasaksara. Tis set difers from that of our rĕrajahan only in that
the ulu candra is replaced by the cĕcĕk, a simple slash written above a
character that represents the velar nasal [ŋ], and the addition of the ulu
tĕlinga (or ulu ricĕm) sign used for writing ī. According to a small but
popular booklet published by Nyoka (1994) this set of characters should
be recited on the full moon and dark moon in order to “purify the inner
self ” (bathin, niskala). Furthermore, according to the author, “each of
the letters and its use is given life by a god or goddess, who purifes the
important parts of our body.”
For the moment let us return to our rĕrajahan. I believe I have shown
that there are special reasons why the character for a- is alone among
the Balinese independent phonemes that have found a place, indeed a
central place at the heart of the rĕrajahan. But what of the dependent
Te correlations of graphemes, deities and parts of the body purifed by the recita-
tion of the graphemes according to Nyota (1994:20–1) is as follows. It is clear that there
is some confusion in the list, possibly refecting either defects in the written sources used
by Nyota, or an incomplete knowledge of some nyasa-like system that is ordinarily not
shared except with students who have undertaken appropriate study and initiation:
grapheme deity place in the body purifed
taling Indra stomach
a-kara Warna crown of the head
suku kembung Ananta Bhoga —
guwung Taksaka feet
wisah Durga throat
na-niya Sang Hyang Widhi the deepest recess of the crown of the head
tedung Shiwa thoughts, the mind
suku ilut Basuki the anus
suku Sang Hyang Wisesa the mouth
ulu ricem Wisnu the chest
pĕpĕt Sambu the hair
ulu Sang HyangBanaspati the sironcala ?
cecek Sang Banaspati the neck
surang Uma the blinking of the eyes
poetics of grammar in the javano-balinese tradition 283
vowel-signs, that have been described as being “overcome” (kawaśa) by
the consonantal characters? Te TAS and ST are strangely silent on this
point, though delving deeply into correlation of the consonantal series
with various elements of the physical and human worlds. It may be that
our knowledge of the corpus of texts like TAS and ST may simply be insuf-
fcient, and that a full exposition in those works of the “powers” of the
dependent vocalic graphemes may await some enterprising researcher.
On the other hand, we may be dealing with a set of presuppositions
that is rarely committed to writing, either because of prohibition (aywa
wĕra), or simply because they represent schemata well-known among
practitioners of some branch of the “practical arts” of Bali that are most
ofen reproduced in oral form. I have in mind here the term urip (“life”)
that is found as an essential principle in the Balinese systems of tradi-
tional architecture, as well as in calendrical reckoning, in a slightly dif-
ferent form.
One of the most important aspects of the traditional building methods
of Bali is the use of a system of measurement called sikut. In this system
all measurement is based on measuring the physical proportions of the
person who will make use of the building. For example, the measure-
ment dĕpa is based on the distance between the tips of the fngers of the
outstretched arms of the person from whom the set of sikut measure-
ments is to be drawn. Te determination and application of the sikut
system is complex in itself, but it is rendered more complex by the man-
datory addition of an “increment” called the pang-urip to every mea-
surement in the system. Te purpose of this increment is to add “life”
(urip) to each measurement. If the pang-urip is not added, or is applied
incorrectly, the building is said to become ĕmbĕt, (“obstructed, unable to
breath”), with potentially dire consequences for those who will eventu-
ally inhabit the building.
A similar term is to be found in the reckoning of certain types of
weeks in the complex ritual calendar (pawukon) of Bali that is used to
determine auspicious days (dewasa ayu) for carrying out various kinds
of activities, including rituals, initiating the planting of rice, and the
like. Tere are many types of week in the pawukon system, including the
fve-day Javanese market week, the three-day Balinese market week and
the Greco-Roman seven-day week. But there are also a variety of other
For an insightful study of the practice of Balinese traditional architects (undagi),
see Howe 1981.
284 thomas m. hunter
forms of calendrical cycle that can be described as “weeks” ranging in
length from one to eleven days. In this system every day has associated
with it a number called its urip dina, “life of the day”. Tese numbers
are particularly important for determining the occurrence of weeks
of shorter duration, like the one-day and two-day weeks. Te two-day
week is composed of two days, pĕpĕt and mĕnga, which mean respec-
tively “closed” and “open”. As their names imply, the determination of
the occurrence of these two days has much to do with whether one
should initiate an activity on such-and-such a day, it being potentially
dangerous, for example, to initiate a journey on the day pĕpĕt (since it
is by nature “closed”).
But the two-day week is not a cyclical week.
Instead its occurrence or non-occurrence is determined by means of
a simple mathematical formula based on the urip numbers for days of
two other types of weeks. If the number arrived at through this calcula-
tion is even, the result is considered ĕmbĕt (exactly as in the case of an
architectural measurement devoid of its pang-urip) and the day-name
Pĕpĕt is assigned, the obverse being the case if the calculation results in
an odd number.
In my view the system of graphemes for marking vowels (and semi-
vowels) in Balinese orthography represents yet another case of a spe-
cial, “life-giving” element to a system that would otherwise be inert.
In the Balinese system the vowel a- has a special importance, since it
represents the inherent vowel that ‘gives life’ to any ‘inert’ consonantal
character. Te pĕsandaŋan sastra play a similar role, the graphemes for
vowels adding a particular aspect of the life-force, depending on their
phonetic shape and related metaphysical implications, the graphemes
for the semi-vowels facilitating the maintenance of the rule disallowing
hiatus. Let us recall that according to the Swarawyañjana Tutur every set
of vowels is likened to a pair of deities who are said to “give birth” to one
of the phonologically-determined categories of the Sanskrit-Balinese
syllabary. Tis strengthens the supposition that pĕsandaŋan sastra for
rĕrajahan can be understood as playing a ‘life-giving’ role parallel to the
pang-urip of Balinese traditional architecture, or the uirp dina of the
calendrical system.
A careful reader may note that the word pĕpĕt as a day-name is identical to the
word used to describe a the central, mid-high vowel, which is perhaps perceived as hav-
ing a ‘closed’ sound.
poetics of grammar in the javano-balinese tradition 285
Tis leaves us with only element in the rĕrajahan unexplored. Tis is
the ulu-candra symbol that I have described earlier as parallel with the
cakra-bindu of South Asia, whose special purpose is to convert ordi-
nary syllables into mantra (South Asia), or swalita (Bali). Te promi-
nent place of this symbol in the rĕrajahan suggests that its role is to
raise each of the vowel-signs to its higher metaphysical octave, thus
completing the transformation from ‘inert’ consonantal formants, to
‘living’ (urip) syllables through addition of the living element of the
vowels, then made ‘supra-mundane’ through the addition of the ulu-
candra. Our rĕrajahan is thus a potent reminder of the degree to which
the basic building blocks of Balinese orthographic convention are signi-
fers for energies that in South Asian traditions are normally reserved
for the fully-formed syllable in its sonorous aspect.
III. Writing and Literature in the Era of the “Sanskrit Ecumene”
It may be fairly said that we are still at the beginnings of an understand-
ing of the historical processes that led to the development of ortho-
graphic mysticism in the Balinese tradition. Tis is no doubt also true of
our understanding of diverse ritual, magical and healing practices that
all to some degree depend on sonic and graphemic mediation of the
ground between “visible” (sakala) and “unseen” (niskala) forces. I have
suggested that the need to preserve intact South Asian liturgical forms
in the face of a wide disparity between the phonological systems of OIA
and AN languages led in the archipelago to an incremental increase in
the attention paid to correct orthography. Te pressures this exerted
on analysis of the grapheme may be fruitfully compared to those that
stimulated powerful schools of phonological and grammatical analysis
in South Asia around the need to preserve proper enunciation of the
“seed-syllables” (bīja-mantra) and “metrical phrase-units” (chandas) of
the Vedic liturgy.
But these were not the only historical forces that acted on the world
of Javano-Balinese religious literature to produce a redistribution of
the economy of writing and speech. During the period when the poli-
ties of the Malay-Indonesian archipelago participated in what Pollock
(1996) has termed a “Sanskrit ecumene” (c. 600–1500 ce) there was
a particularly intense cultural transfer between India and Java. For our
study two of the most important results of the South-Southeast Asian
cultural interface were the spread of Indic forms of writing, and
286 thomas m. hunter
the stimulation of new forms of language and literature. Te revo-
lutionary role that the introduction of Indic forms of writing had on
the shaping of socio-political formations in the archipelago cannot be
overestimated. It is apparent from the earliest inscriptions that writing
provided a new means for recording matters of crucial socio-economic
concern. Tese included the precise recording of the boundaries of
rice felds, the recording of the nature and amount of various forms
of (royal) taxation, and the details of release from taxation when rice
feld lands were donated for the use of religious establishments. As
Schoenfelder (1998) has suggested for the case of ancient Bali, the con-
nections between these socio-economic and socio-cultural institutions
were crucial for the development of the state, the agricultural economy
that enabled it, and the religious institutions that bound state and
society together through a network of meanings that merged secular
and metaphysical claims to power. Te seismic implications of this
noetic revolution in Javano-Balinese history are recorded not only in
the inscriptional record, but in the enduring presence of shrines like the
Pĕnyarikan (“Shrine of the Inscriber”) in ‘mainstream’ Balinese villages,
and the Pura Pĕnulisan (“Temple of Writing”) of Balinese highland
villages, whose culture appears to preserve important elements of an
earlier historical level of Balinese society.
A second major impact of transculturation in the contact states of the
archipelago was the stimulation of prestige languages like Old Malay
(OM) and Old Javanese (OJ). Tese languages played a decisive role in
the mediation of cultural and literary products of South Asia, serving
as the instrument of what Braginsky (1994) has termed a “connecting
literature” that linked local religious institutions of the archipelago to
the “zone-shaping” religious literatures or South Asia. Within a few cen-
turies of its emergence OJ developed into a language uniquely suited
to the eforescence of an indigenous literature in which pride of place
was reserved for the creation of kakawin, metrical ‘court romances’ in
Indic meters whose development owed much to the kāvya. Te writ-
ing of these literary works was an important element of the prestige of
the courts and the religious establishments patronized by the courts.
As Helen Creese (p.c. 2002) has suggested; the new “literary zone” that
developed around the practice of writing kakawin created what might be
termed a “Javanese ecumene” in the archipelago. During the period of
ascendancy of the East Javanese states (c. 1016–1526), the writing of kaka-
win was central to the “aestheticization of politics” that was a defning
poetics of grammar in the javano-balinese tradition 287
feature of pre-modern states of the archipelago and continued to have
powerful efects on the literary (and political) history of the archipelago
long afer royal patronage for OJ had ceased.
With our study of the Balinese rĕrajahan we were able to observe a
cultural formation that envisions spiritual energies as achieving imma-
nence through sonorous and graphemic aspects of a heightened form of
language, with all that implies for the power—and peril—that accrues
to those who are adept in control of these forces. In the kakawin we can
observe a similar attention to the latent power of the sign, but here in
the service of a fgural transcendence that has been described by Zoet-
mulder (1974) under the term “religio poetae” or “poetic yoga”. While
this literature lies further in the past than the system of symbolic magic
developed in Bali around rĕrajahan, it has had a lasting afect on the
semiotics of later literary systems of the archipelago. It thus ofers a sec-
ond perspective on the embodiment of spiritual principles in language
that is uniquely associated with the aesthetics of pre-modern Java and
Bali (c. 900–1500 ce).
IV. Figures of Writing in Old Javanese Literature
We might wish in a study devoted to the “poetics of grammar” to seek
within the rich literary traditions of Java and Bali in to order reveal
the ways that grammar has been understood as playing a role in the
mediation of spiritual forces. However, we are immediately confronted
with the fact that the archipelago has produced no indigenous school of
grammatical analysis, despite being grounded in South Asian traditions
that have customarily placed a great emphasis on this feld of endeavor.
Te reasons for this state of afairs are too complex to allow even a
Te development of OJ as a literary language brought with it an understandable
interest in the tools of the poet’s trade as known from Indian sources. A sizable diction-
ary of Sanskrit and Old Javanese known as the Amarakośa was produced as early as the
eighth century CE, while continuing interest in South Asian handbooks on metrics,
phonetics and poetics is clear from later works like the Wrˢ ttasañcaya, Chandahˢ -karanˢa,
and Bhāsˢ āprānˢa. See Lokesh 1997 for a study of the OJ Chandahˢ -karanˢa and Amarakosa,
Rubenstein 2000 for further studies of the Chandahˢ -karanˢa and related texts, Hunter
2001 for a study of the relationship of the Javano-Balinese and South Asian traditions of
metrical analysis and Radichi 1996 for a study showing that a Javanese treatment of the
Kātantra of Katyāyana that has come down to us in fragmentary form reveals an active
interest in the Sanskrit grammatical tradition.
288 thomas m. hunter
cursory discussion here; for the moment let us say that the typical lin-
guistic form of Western AN languages presents syntactic and semantic
information in a form that lends itself to an intuitive grasp of deriva-
tional and structural principles, and that this may to some extent miti-
gate against the development of grammatical analysis as a formal branch
of scientifc analysis. In modern Malay-Indonesian, for example, once
we have internalized the relationship of a number of clearly defned
nominal and verb-forming afxes to various semantically defned
classes of lexemes, we begin to build up a network of meanings that
not only tell us much about the paradigmatic aspects of words, but also
enable us to understand the role words play in the context of structure-
giving syntactic patterns. For example, the (precategorial) word main
(play) gives us words like pemain (player), permainan (plaything) and
memainkan (play something), each of which play predictable roles in
sentence structure: pemain biola itu memainkan biolanya dengan begitu
pandai seakan-akan bagi dia hanya permainan saja, “that violin player
plays his instrument so well it’s almost as if for him it’s just a plaything”.
While it may be that there has been a relative lack of attention to
grammatical analysis in the Javano-Balinese tradition, the same cannot
be said of the development of fgural resources, especially those that
depend on a most un-Saussurean insistence on the non-arbitrariness of
the linkages between sonorous and semantic aspects of language. Te
roots of this fgural tradition lie clearly in the insistence within alamˢ kāra-
śāstra and kāvya on the unity of “sound” (śabda) and “sense” (artha), a
formulation that has informed all the traditions that were infuenced by
Sanskrit poetry and poetics, no matter that the exact nature and extent
of the relationship gave rise in South Asia to a lively tradition of discus-
sion and debate.
It is not possible here to attempt even a brief exploration of the fgural
resources of OJ that might do justice to its complexities, but it may be
possible to bring out a number of examples that illustrate the general
trajectory of the poetics of OJ. Te natural place to begin such a study
is with the “auspicious verses” (maŋgala) that became a requirement of
all well-formed kakawin from the time of composition of the Arjuna
Wiwāha (c. 1036 ce). Zoetmulder (1974) based much of his initial analy-
sis of kakawin poetics on the study of the maŋgala, frequently emphasiz-
ing the relationship of the poet’s attitude to a particular understanding
of the ways that the Absolute manifests itself—always temporarily—in
the everyday world:
poetics of grammar in the javano-balinese tradition 289
Although its immanence is all-encompassing, the divine Absolute may
nevertheless choose certain objects for its special manifestation, descend-
ing into and inhabiting them in a special way, either continuously or for
a certain limited time . . . Religious writings of ancient Java . . . are not so
much theoretical expositions as practical manuals for those who wish to
attain mystical union . . . treatises on the practice of mysticism or yoga . . .
(p. 178)
Although the goal is the same for all those who set out on the quest
for mystical unity, the roads leading to it are diferent. Te poet hopes
to attain it along the path of beauty . . . In order to prepare for union, the
yogi requires the presence of the god in visible form (sakala), so that he
can make the god the sole object of all his concentration before becoming
absorbed in him . . . Tus the form of religious worship expressed in the
maŋgalas is of a particular kind. It is the religio poetae, the poet’s religion,
and its practice takes the form of tantric yoga, that is, a kind of yoga which
seeks to fnd the deity through media in which the god is present or into
which he descends. (p. 179)
Te notion that the deity must be persuaded to make an appearance has
been a part of the Indian understanding of the nature of divinity since
at least the time of the Rˢ g Veda, with its many examples of the invoca-
tion of Agni as a deity who must be coaxed out of hiding in the frewood
of the Vedic ritual. By the time of the kakawin, ancient Java had come
under the infuence of Yoga and Tantra to such a great extent that the
locus of the search for the deity shifed from external ritual to the body
and experience of the practitioner. As we shall see, it is a special feature
of the kakawin that this internalized search is assimilated to a particular
form of the experience of aesthetic rapture, which in turn is aligned with
an exterior search for the beauties of nature and a fne-tuned explora-
tion of the nuances of emotional development.
A fne OJ example of the basic thematics of the religio poetae is to
be found in the maŋgala of the Smāradahana (Immolation of the Love
God), a work on the same theme as the Kumārasamˢ bhava of Kālidāsa.

In the frst verse of the maŋgala the poet fgures the poetic process in
See Zoetmulder 1974, 295–98, for a summary of the diferences between the SD
and the Kumārasamˢ bhava of Kālidāsa that have led past commentators to assume a
strongly ‘indigenous’ factor in the composition of the SD. Tis is especially noticeable
in the fact that it is the birth of Ganˢ eśa, not Skanda/Kārtikkeya, that is the basis for the
gods’ conspiracy aimed at drawing the ascetic god Śiva out of his eternal meditation and
implicating him in the process of procreation.
290 thomas m. hunter
terms of the basic elements of priestly ritual, many of them recognizable
today in the Sūrya-sewana ritual of the “high priests” (pĕdanda, pĕranda)
of Bali:
Te ritual worship of a poet is the collocation of all beautiful things that
bring about the long-life and health of the king,
Te place of the ritual is a blossoming lotus, sanctuary of the deity, bathed
in the mists of the fourth month,
Te sacred syllables are a beautiful poem inscribed on the writing-boards
of a poet’s pavilion,
While spreading mists are the incense, the sound of bees upon blossoms
the ringing of the priest’s bell. (SD 1.1)
In another verse from the maŋgala of the Smāradahana (SD), the poet
Dharmagunˢ a describes some of the places the deity of the poetic arts
may be found. In the process Dharmagunˢ a catalogues a number of the
central preoccupations of the kakawin, including careful attention to
human and natural beauty, their blending in emotional and erotic expe-
rience and a striking attentiveness to the media of writing themselves.
Note especially in the (c) line the rūpaka-like overlay of the writing sur-
face as object of comparison (upameya) and a sunlit expanse of mist as
subject of comparison (upamāna):
Your places of being are not single: in the fatigue of the bedchamber, the
swelling mounds of the breasts,
In the ‘ravines’ of the writing board, the incisions on a writing-beam, the
point of the writing stylus,
In the glory of the layout of the writing surface, an expanse of mist illumi-
nated by rays of the sun,
In a food of tears that wipes away the powder of a beautiful woman’s face,
and the stems of new shoots of the gadˢ ung lily. (SD 1.3)
Both the second and third verses of the maŋgala of the SD open up the
possibility of what might be termed “grammatological fgures” or “fg-
ures of writing”. Tese occur in the kakawin with a frequency unknown
elsewhere in the literatures afected by South Asian models. It may be
that this insistence on the fgural possibilities of writing and the media
of writing can be related to the revolutionary role played by imported
means of inscription into socio-economic and socio-cultural modes of
organization in the archipelago. But it may also be possible that we see
here the merging of a restricted literacy largely controlled by priestly and
noble houses with a “domestic literacy” widespread throughout the pre-
modern archipelago that was concerned with matters like the exchange
poetics of grammar in the javano-balinese tradition 291
of love letters, the documentation of magical lore, and the recording of
household and business transactions (see especially Reid 1990).
In many cases exchanges of amorous verses represent a unifying struc-
tural component of kakawin narrative, while the development of char-
acter is ofen worked out in terms of “embedded lyrics” (bhāsˢ ā-wilāpa,
bhāsˢ ā-kakawin) that give expression to amorous and erotic longing. For
our purposes one of the most striking examples of an “embedded lyric”
that highlights what might be called “fgures of writing” in the kakawin
is a verse from the kakawin Krˢ sˢ nˢāyana (KY) that fgures the stellar qual-
ities of the missing paramour in a series of images that contain two overt
references to the shape of graphemes, thus prefguring the development
of the orthographic mysticism of Bali:
Surely the upside-down character
is the place of your Soul on the writing-slate,
And when you incarnate
on the writing-board
you must be the character a-
having no body, but your head clearly distinct,
On the smooth surface of ivory-coconut
you reign continually
while in the art of makeup
you are divine illusion,
When you reside in the heart
you become its invisible essence
transforming into tears that veil the eyes.
(KY 37.3)
Te interpretation of line (b) must await more detailed paleographic
research that might clarify why the character for initial a in scripts of
the Kadˢ iri period is head-like in appearance; but there seems little doubt
that the “upside-down character” referred to line (a) may represent the
special character called oŋ-kāra suŋsaŋ in Bali. Tis character is said to
KY37.3a I have based my assumption that the phrase hañja-hañja refers to the idea
of something being “upside-down” on OJED [588] v. (h)añja-(h)añja: “a kind of ghost.
In Bali it is a ghost that walks upside-down . . . KY 37.3.”
KY37.3c Te reference to “an ivory-coconut” here may have to do with a custom
still prevalent in Bali in which the remains of the tooth-fling ceremony are buried in a
coconut of the ivory-coconut palm which has been inscribed with a magically-powerful
character (sastra), usually Om. With this understanding I have read maŋ-adĕg as “to
stand up, to reign’. However, there is more than a little chance that the phrase maŋ-adĕg
“stand up, arise, reign” may also be meant to suggest the oŋ-kāra ŋadĕg, the “standing
up” form of the character for Om, that represents the “out-fowing breath”.
292 thomas m. hunter
represent the infowing breath (am), and is ofen paired with the oŋ-
kāra ŋadĕg (“standing-up character”) that represents the out-fowing
breath (ah). Te unity of the energies represented by these two charac-
ters (especially as attained at the moment of mortal demise) is said to
lead to the state of “spiritual release” (kalĕpasan). Te preparatory pro-
cess can be represented graphemically, allowing that kalĕpasan is said to
take place only when the nāda and bindu elements of the two oŋkāra are
fully merged:
¸ (oŋkāra suŋsaŋ) + ¸ (oŋkāra adiri) = ¸ (kalĕpasan)
An image that identifes the missing paramour as a special grapheme
representing the “infowing breath” is certainly striking, and clear evi-
dence of an orientation towards writing that is a unique consequence of
the more general valorization of the sonic principle that marks “cultures
of the mantra”. However, this fgure represents only a small percentage
of fgures of this type found in the kakawin. A much larger set that plays
on the consequences of writing, or the very media of writing, reveals a
subtle development of the “play of presence and absence” that is ofen
noted as symptomatic of writing in post-structural studies. An espe-
cially subtle fgure of this type is to be found in KY 37.1, from the same
series of verses composed by Rukminˢ ī that features the overtly “gram-
matological” fgure cited above (KY 37.3):
Oh you who vanished
from my dreams
at the moment I was awakened
by sof rumbling thunder,
Now will I search out the way to every place
you may have gone
whether in blossoms of young saplings,
Or disappearing into dark, distant rain clouds
where kalangkyang hawks
call one to the other,
While if you disappear
into the grooves of the writing board
I will ask for you there
then seek you
by following the dictates of the writing stylus. (KY 37.1)
In the maŋgala of the SD we saw several cases of the fguring of the
descent of the “god of the poets” into the very media of the act of writing.
poetics of grammar in the javano-balinese tradition 293
Here, in KY 37.1c the incisions made by the writing stylus on the sof
stone surface of the writing board are fgured as a pathway in the search
for the absent beloved, for which the writing stylus itself will act as the
guide. Note the prominence of “absence” in this verse, of an unfulflled
gap between longing and consummation that is strongly reminiscent of
the tradition of South Asian writing around viraha. But in the case of
the kakawin there is an element of transformation into various aspects
of nature—or into the means of writing—that suggests that we may be
looking at a conception of self and other, or self and deity, that is unique
to the ancient Javanese tradition.
V. Traces
I propose here to begin to develop one means of access for elucidating
the development of the fgural resources of the kakawin that depends
on a model of the “economy of speech and writing”. In a sense this efort
must invoke the work of Derrida, for in no other body of critical theory
do we fnd so much attention paid to the genesis of objectivity in the
spatial and temporalizing possibilities of writing, a constant process of
difering and deferring (diférance) that denies fnal objectivity to any
particular ideal object, and instead constitutes history in terms of the
play of the signifer, a restless movement between ends and origins that
must forever pose anew the question of being.
At the same time it would be unwise to take the Derridean decon-
struction of Western metaphysics as the starting point of an examina-
tion of a cultural manifestation so entirely non-Western as the aesthetics
of the OJ kakawin, least of all to attempt a reanalysis of Javano-Bali-
nese metaphysics in search of evidence for the suppression of writing in
defense of a “transcendental signifer”. Perhaps the essential diference
is the lack in the Javano-Balinese tradition of a negative assessment of
the metaphysical implications of a conception of the speaking self as
the location of pure self-consciousness, a notion that Derrida identifes
with the suppression of writing and the valorization of speech as self-
While I will claim that “writing” in the OJ economy of speech and
writing displays some of the classical symptoms studied under the terms
of post-structuralism, its contrary is not “speech as self-presence” but
rather mantra, or related states of consciousness that can be identifed
externally through non-semantic resources like mantra, or mudra, the
closely related mode of gestural signifcation. At certain crucial moments
294 thomas m. hunter
in the narrative structure of the kakawin a heroic concentration on the
production of supra-normal states of consciousness ‘produces’ powers
capable of subduing even the most formidable opponents. Tese might
be said to represent the “sonorous” pole in the economy of speech and
writing characteristic of the kakawin, but in terms of poetic practice this
formulation begs the question of “the beyond of silence”. For as ofen as
mantra is invoked at crucial moments of struggle in the narrative struc-
tures of the kakawin, an even more profound form of power is charac-
terized as originating in a complete stilling of mental activity and the
production of silence. Tis comes out at several points in the Buddhist
kakawin Sutasoma (Sut), where the hero overcomes his mortal enemy
by producing a particular mental state associated with the bodhyagri
gesture (mudra). One example is in a passage describing Sutasoma’s vic-
tory over the elephant-headed demon Gajawaktra:
Now the entire company of gods earnestly entreated Sutasoma,
“You should recollect that sacred knowledge that destroys violence,” so
said Indra, Lord of the Gods,
Tat was why Sutasoma focused his mind, bringing it to silence and hold-
ing his hands frmly in the bodhyagri gesture,
Te fruit of clarifed being, the bhidura weapon, emerged from the mar-
velous state of his consciousness. (Sut 32.10)
Perhaps this is the point at which the traditions of the ancient archi-
pelago are at most variance with the claims of deconstruction; for it is
not self-presence that is brought out in the use of mantra, but rather a
centering on sonority—or with even more profound consequences—on
silence as the cessation of all mental states, that facilitates the emergence
of latent powers of the psyche associated with specifc gestures and/or
sacred formulae, and capable of mastery over the entire feld of phe-
nomenal existence.
When we turn to “fgures of writing” in the kakawin we fnd that in
many cases they are associated with the poignancy that we expect from
the play of presence and absence. A wondering poet, for example, may
come across a “poet’s pavilion” in a remote area of the mountainous
countryside and read there a lament inscribed on one of the “writing
boards” lodged in the overhanging eaves of the pavilion. Invariably this
will tell of some poet resigned to a lonely search for nature’s beauties,
perhaps to assuage the loss of a beloved denied by fate or social conven-
tion, perhaps to gather materials for a kakawin that might win royal
patronage, or the heart of a paramour. In every case a gap is implied,
poetics of grammar in the javano-balinese tradition 295
a separation of self and other that is played out in the poetics of the
search for beauty.
A similar element of kakawin poetics that is reminiscent of the ter-
minology of deconstruction is the frequent use of the word wĕkas in its
meaning of “traces”, and the derivations of this word that play a promi-
nent role in fgures that seem to ascribe an inscriptional role to nature,
or human emotion. Here is an example from the Sumanasāntaka (Sum)
that ascribes the “leaving of traces” to the rain through the use of the
verbal derivative amĕkasakĕn, “to leave as traces”:
Rain-bearing clouds dark as night are enchanting at the beginning of the
fourth month,
Te fall of rain leaves as its traces veiling mists in just-blossoming forests,
Kalangkyang hawks have ceased their crying drif lazily in the sky,
Happily expectant, they are forsaken lovers now at the point of a joyful
reunion. (Sum 28.18)
Tese descriptions of transformations in nature in terms suggestive of
inscription in written or pictorial modes are closely paralleled by fgures
that describe emotional modifcations in terms of emergence, transfor-
mation and the development of “emotional traces”. A good example can
be found in one of the verses composed by Prince Aja at the “bride’s
choice contest” (swayambara) of Indumatī:
Here, good lady, be seated on my lap,
I have been pining so long for you,
who come to me like a rain cloud,
You are cool mists to my burning longing,
rumbling thunder to my desire,
lightning that illuminates the darkness of my heart,
A veiling cloud of love-sickness that concedes defeat
before the power of love,
and ends in restless heat
that leaves as its traces my heart’s dejection,
You are the fne showers of my poetic rapture,
that disappear when regarded too closely,
but turn into gentle rainfall
when you allow me to take you on my lap. (Sum 103.2)
For our purposes verses like Pārthayajña (Pyn) 11.7 provide especially
telling examples. In this case the “traces” lef in the form of writing on
a writing-slate are fgured as evoking the play of presence and absence
so potently that they conjure up the specter of death. In this scene the
women of the court are pining for Prince Arjuna, who has lef for the
mountains to seek the power of victory over his enemies:
296 thomas m. hunter
More and more they imagined that the one who had caused their pain
might never return,
Some resigned themselves to die on the sleeping mat, taking his every
trace on the writing board as their winding sheet,
Others kept their silence, to await word of the return of the one who had
departed for the mountains,
Tat was why they collected fower-blossoms, to be a source of comfort in
their sleeping quarters. (Pyn 11.7)
Te poignancy of the (b) line is perhaps intentionally overstated, meant
to act as a partial foil to the more subdued reactions of the other women
of the court. At the same time it represents a fne illustration of the
sensitivity of poets of the kakawin to the enigmatic efect of writing,
simultaneously representing the presence of an idealized object, and the
immediate erasure of the signifed object in terms of its ‘real’ presence.
VI. A Poetics of Transformation
It seems to me that the sensitivity of the kakawin poets to the play of
presence and absence is perfectly consonant with—or even prefgures—
a fguring of the divine (or the absent beloved) in semiotic terms, a con-
stant shifing of the position of the elusive and subtle godhead that might
be compared within language to the play of the signifer. Nowhere does
this come out more clearly than in fgures based on the term tĕmah-an,
“transformation” and its derivatives. In these fgures it is almost as if an
acute sensitivity to the play of presence of absence has facilitated a blur-
ring of the boundaries of self, other and nature.
Take for example a verse from the Bhāsˢ ā Tanakuŋ, a work attributed
to the ffeenth century poet, Tanakuŋ, which demonstrates how an
acknowledged master of the bhāsˢ ā-wilāpa form has blended natural,
emotional and fgural elements by developing two derivations of tĕmah-
an, the frst referring to a transformation within nature, the second
superimposing a human trait (weeping) onto the natural base:
As you wander along the seashore
and among the beauties of distant mountains,
Trough dark, shrouding clouds
that change into delicate misting rain,
You may hear a sweet, rumbling thunder,
its sound faint and restless,
Tat will be the transformation of my weeping
when I have died,
exhausted from the pain of longing. (BT 7.1)
poetics of grammar in the javano-balinese tradition 297
In a verse form the kakawin Hariwaŋśa we fnd an even more complex
example of the development of fguration that is heavily laden with the
elements of trace and transformation. Here phrasing in terms of “transfor-
mation” (tĕmahan) and “traces” (sa-wĕkas-a) is combined with a specifc
fgure of writing (wacana rasa wilāpa ring tatur, “poetic words inscribed
on gold foil”) to produce a complex fgure that captures the emotional
reactions of the heroine to a written message in almost visceral terms.
A bit of context is necessary here. Keśarī, faithful maidservant of the
princess Rukminˢ ī, has agreed to carry a message in kakawin form written
by Lord Krishna on gold foil. Seeking a way to secretly convey it to the
princess she slips it into the cloth bag of her mirror-case (HW 10.15).
When the hidden message falls out of her mirror-case (HW 10.17),
Rukminˢ ī realizes what it must be and reads it in the secrecy of her bed-
chamber (HW 10.18). Krishna’s verses in kakawin form (HW 11.1–3)
have a powerful afect on the princess (HW 12.1). Keśarī secretly
observes her from a distance in order to judge her reaction (HW 12.2).
Te setting sun, too, is observing Rukminˢ ī, and out of pity for “the one
he will shortly leave behind”, he illuminates her briefy with his rays that
seem like “swif glances meant to awaken her” (HW 12.3). Te ensuing
darkness has a powerful efect on Rukminˢ ī, triggering the appearance of
a potent image of the prince in her heart (HW 12.4):
Suddenly darkness enveloped all, but the image of the prince emerged
She was shattered, fooded by an increase of longing; emotion flled her
heart to overfowing
Had it not been so, it would seem his transformation into poetic words
inscribed on gold foil,
Would result only in her imagining the traces of all things that mock one
sufering from pangs of longing. (HW 12.4)
Once again it is the power of writing to simultaneously invoke the pres-
ence and absence of the beloved that form the kernel of the fgure. Tere
are many examples where “traces” refer to visual signs found in nature
or the human environment, quite ofen evoking a sense of absence and
separation. In other cases it is the ability of these “traces” to register in
memory and to trigger intense emotional states that is the focus of the
poet’s attention. In the case of Rukminˢ ī’s emotional reaction to Krishna’s
message in HW 12.4, writing is once again the vehicle through which
experience is frst objectifed, then registers on the memory and triggers
powerful emotional efects.
Of special note here is the contrast of the expected emotional response to Krishna’s
298 thomas m. hunter
Te frequent association of acts of writing with traces, transforma-
tion and the play of presence and absence may on the one hand suggest
something like a poetics based on the play of the signifer. But it would
be unwise to push the relationship to post-structuralism too far. We
could as well turn the focus of attention in the other direction, saying
that a certain afnity of the kakawin material to the sense of play that is
developed in post-structural literary theory need not imply the possible
universal consequences of “writing before the letter”. It may be that a
history of encounters in South and Southeast Asia with the question of
duality, and numerous attempts to overcome duality through an encom-
passing of philosophical antipodes (like the Balinese rwa-bhinneda) may
prefgure the movement towards a sense of play that begins in the West
with the fröhliche Wissenschaf of Nietzsche.
It may also be useful to draw comparisons with Indian poetics and
poetic praxis. If we think of the “poetics of transformation” as a liter-
ary analog of the quest for an illusive deity whose immanence is pre-
supposed, but must be constantly reestablished, we might think of the
many fgures analyzed by the Indian alamˢ kāra-śāstra tradition in terms
of superimposition. Tese include upamā (“simile”), rūpāka (“meta-
phor”), and utpreksˢ ā (“conceit”). However, in not a few cases—espe-
cially among the “East Javanese kakawin” (c. 1016–1478 ce)—we fnd
that the fgures of superimposition are no longer treated as isolated
tropes, as they tend to be in the poetics of Danˢ dˢ in and the Old Java-
nese kakawin Rāmāyanˢa. Instead they are linked together in a series of
steps leading from the human to the natural (or vice-versa) and ulti-
mately merging one with the other in a style reminiscent of the “school
of suggestion” (dhvani) that came to prominence in India following
Ānandavardhana (ninth century ce). A good example of the delight
taken by the ancient Javanese poets in fgures that involve a series of
steps that draw natural and human attributes into an ever-tightening
lament (lines a–b, the fooding of the princess’ heart with emotion), with the negative
result (line d, mockery) that might occur had the phrasing of Krishna’s words—or the
response of the princess—failed to conform to expected standards. In the case of Krish-
na’s lament a “horizon of expectation” is formed around the question of aesthetic judg-
ment, whether his lament meets courtly standards of poetic achievement; in the case
of the princess’ response, the question turns around the more complex issue of a state
of inner receptivity presupposed of lovers who should “recall” having been lovers in a
series of past lives through the process of jātismāra, “true recollection”.
poetics of grammar in the javano-balinese tradition 299
confguration can be found in the maŋgala of the KY. Here we fnd a
carefully worked out metapoetic statement concealed in natural imag-
ery that suggests a progressive identifcation of subject and object of
comparison (upamāna, upameya):
Now what I set my attention on, what I hope for, is that I might send forth
fresh shoots of beauty (lung langö) in developing the tale,
We know the fgure (upamā) of tendrils of the gadˢ ung lily: they wait, long-
ing fervently for the mists that promise rain,
Ten the season turns—instantly they regain consciousness and send
forth fresh sprouts at the sound of thunder,
Reaching maturity they send forth new leaves and fowers that arouse
longing and joy among all who behold them.
(KY 1.2)
Tere should be no rush for those who abandon themselves to beauty
(langö), the result of ever wandering entranced by beauty,
Clearly they are bees wandering restlessly among blossoms of the asana,
darting excitedly between stamen and pistil,
Never minding the cold, though blown about by wind and fog, or oppressed
by the heat of the sun,
With the essence of a single drop of pollen their aim, they are at their most
attentive when there is honey among the blossoms. (KY 1.3)
Let us frst consider how these verses might be analyzed in the conven-
tions of the ālamˢ kārika tradition of South Asia. KY 1.2 is clearly a case
of aprastutapraśamˢ sā. Gerow (1971:111) defnes the basic fgure thus:
aprastutapraśamˢ sā . . . a fgure in which the real but implicit subject matter
is obliquely referred to by means of an explicit, but apparently irrelevant,
subject which, however, stands in a specifc relationship to the former
In (1.2) it is the tendrils of the gadˢ ung lily that are “presented” to the
perception of the reader, while the actual subject matter—the organic
development of poetic fgures in the hand of a master poet—is aprastuta,
KY 1.2b Te gadˢ ung lily, a creeper noted for its fragrant ivory-colored blossoms,
its large, attractively shaped leaves and its habit of twining around trees and shrubs, is
among the most favored subjects for comparison in the kakawin, second only to asana
in frequency of appearance.
KY 1.2c Vegetative growth is said in the kakawin tradition to be stimulated by the
rumble of thunder, a sound that is also closely linked to the arousal of erotic feelings,
or—in cases of love-in-separation—intense longing.
I am endebted to David Shulman and H.V. Nagaraja Rao for identifying the fg-
ure in KY 1.2 as a case of aprastuta-praśamˢ sā, and for their enlightening discussions of
this term.
300 thomas m. hunter
Were it not for the presence of an overt reference to the object of com-
parison in the (a) line of KY 1.3 we might think of this verse too as rep-
resenting a case of aprastutapraśamˢ sā. In this case we would think of the
bees circling restlessly among blossoms of the asana seeking “a single
drop of nectar” as “presented”, while the “unpresented” (but intended)
referent is the poetic enterprise itself, seen from the point of view of the
poets and connoisseurs who most fervently seek the innermost essence
of the aesthetic experience. Tat those who seek aesthetic rapture are
overtly mentioned in (a), however, suggests that this verse might bet-
ter be classed under the more general form of superimposition that is
described in Sanskrit poetics as rūpaka, a fgure with some similarity to
KY1.2–3 provide us with a fne illustration of the synesthetic efects
summed up in the OJ term langö: a temporary erasure of the boundaries
between natural, human and poetic beauty that can be accomplished in
the poetic arts through fguration, control of the sonorous resources of
the language, and the creative use of polyvalent terms like langö, that
stands both for beauty as an object of perception, and as the internal
state of rapture that is called forth by an experience of the beautiful.
VII. Recapitulation
At frst glance it may seem that the rĕrajahan we took as the starting
point of this discussion and the poetics of the kakawin are worlds apart.
In the frst case we found that a general South-Southeast Asian orienta-
tion towards the “sonic energy active in the syllable” has been realized
orthographically, and in instrumental form. Here the emphasis is clearly
on the control of supra-mundane forces in the quest for a particular
form of spiritual power, called sakti in the Balinese tradition (but clearly
difering markedly with the tradition of śakti in the Indian tradition).
Put somewhat diferently, orthographic mysticism is about gaining the
ability to gain control of “metaphysical” (niskala) forces, most ofen with
specifc, instrumental purposes in mind.
In the case of the poetics of the kakawin we began with an example
that illustrates the early emergence of beliefs around orthographic mys-
ticism. However, to a much greater extent, the elaboration of fgures in
the kakawin exemplifes continuing eforts to momentarily capture the
traces of an immanent, but elusive, deity in poetic form. I have suggested
a number of formulations for elucidating the particular form taken by
poetics of grammar in the javano-balinese tradition 301
the kakawin poetics. It may be, for example, that an acute sensitivity to
the play of presence and absence implicit in the act of inscription has
led to a poetics that is naturally inclined towards the elaboration of ele-
ments of play and transformation. Te frequent occurrence of fgures
based on the elusive presence of objects fgured in writing, and on the
elements of “traces” (wĕkas) and “transformations” (tĕmahan) seems to
support this view. Turning to models developed in the alamˢ kāra tradi-
tion of South Asia, I have suggested that an understanding of the the-
matics that merged nature, the human emotions, and the experience of
beauty, or of techniques of superimposition may be appropriate tools for
arriving at a more complete assessment of the poetics of the kakawin.
Whatever else it may have been, the kakawin aesthetic was a locus
for transformative praxis, a medium for poetic endeavor that was self-
consciously formulated in terms of the “translation of metaphysical per-
ceptions into the accessible realm of human reference”.
At times this
translation of metaphysical energies was fgured in terms of the search
for an inefable natural beauty certain to induce a state of aesthetic rap-
ture in the sensitive observer, at times through the subtle development
of character made visible through the exchange of lyrics saturated with
romantic and erotic longing, at times through the pathos of the play of
presence and absence signed in the act of writing itself. What each of
these cases had in common was the presupposition that aesthetic expe-
rience, either in itself, or as transmuted into poetic language, is charged
with transformative power. In this sense the poet—Sang Kawi—was
simply the Creator—Sang Parama-Kawi—writ small, performing a
function within the courtly and priestly orders that mirrored a higher
order mastery of the “power of sound and sign at the heart of the meta-
physical world”. In the world that produced the kakawin, metaphysical
energies are thus not constituted in terms of a grammatical matrix, but
of a fgural matrix.
As history has shown, the socio-cultural formula that produced the
unique aesthetic of the East Javanese kakawin was never fully recover-
able afer the decline of imperial Javanese power in the early sixteenth
century ce, though to be sure the Balinese tradition of kakawin compo-
sition remained productive well into the nineteenth century. Nor did the
fall of the Majapahit dynasty (c. 1516 ce) spell the end of a certain view
Te phrase is cited from the call for papers of the conference leading to this
302 thomas m. hunter
of the latent energy of the syllable that has lived on in diverse manifesta-
tions among the “contact cultures” of the archipelago, those that were
most profoundly afected by South Asian models of the metaphysical
dimensions of sound, symbol and letter. While the kakawin aesthetic
developed this orientation in terms of a rich feld of fguration, Bali-
nese orthographic mysticism has been inclined towards the instrumen-
tal efcacy of written and sonorous symbols of metaphysical energies.
From both these perspectives creation does not proceed from an act of
naming, but is continuous with sonic energies that do not cease playing
a role in cosmogenesis once the original impulse of creation has been
played out. It is for this reason that in the Javano-Balinese tradition the
composer of a kakawin, or designer of rĕrajahan, can hope to gain access
to the realm of metaphysical energies—and thereby to gain the power to
heal, to hurt, or simply to enchant.
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Tus Patañjali, Paśpasâhnika.
See Śabara on MīmāΥsā-sūtra–58.
MammaϏa, Kåvya-prakāśa 1.1.
David Shulman
Tat language may have more important tasks than “meaning” was axi-
omatic for Sanskrit grammarians and poeticians. A simple, widely cited
tripartite typology of texts corresponds to three distinct formalizations
of linguistic potential. First, there are texts, like the Veda, that are śabda-
pradhāna, that is, their sonar and acoustic properties are primary; such
texts, properly pronounced or performed, work change on the world.
Enormous care must be taken in articulating and preserving śabda-
pradhāna texts; to mispronounce a single syllable, even to make a mis-
take in accentuation, can have fatal consequences, as the tragic example
of the demon Triśiras makes clear.
Śabda-pradhāna texts may also have
“meaning” of one kind or another—a classic discussion in the Mīmāmˢ sā
decides in favor of the meaningfulness of the Vedic mantras
semantics matters much less, in this category, than the automatic efec-
tual and creative powers inherent in pure sound. Mammatˢ a, the twelth-
century Kashmiri poetician who ofers one version of this typology in
the introduction to his Kāvya-prakāśa, says that texts in this category
simply command, speaking as a master would to his servants.
however, is the content of such commands?
Ten there are texts that are artha-pradhāna, where meaning (artha)
predominates. Erudite śāstras may exemplify this type; or, for Mammat ˢ a,
this is the domain of history and ancient lore (purānˢâdîtihāsa). Informa-
tion matters, form much less so, if at all. Tere are many ways to state
facts or tell a traditional story. Such texts, says Mammat ˢ a, are like friends
who persuade, argue, explain.
Finally we have poetry, kāvya, in which sound and meaning are equally
dominant (śabdârtha-pradhāna). In poetry you cannot separate mean-
ing from its uniquely suited forms of expression. Tis Sassurean percep-
tion may, however, give way to another, somewhat surprising one: both
306 david shulman
“sound” and “meaning” may turn out to be subordinate to other goals
(śabdârthayor gunˢa-bhāvena)—for example the business (vyāpāra) of
experiencing cognitive and emotional liquefaction, rasa.
In any case,
Mammat ˢ a assures us, poetry works on us like a beloved (kāntā) and, as
such, is capable of transporting us beyond ourselves, beyond the every-
day world (lokottara-varnˢanā-nipunˢa-kavi-karma).
Poetry, then, has its own inherently efective mechanisms and pur-
poses. How precisely to understand them is a deep and recurrent prob-
lem which could be said to structure the entire history of Indian poetics.
A certain metaphysical drif is noticeable from very early on. Poetry
does something to its listeners. If you hear a poem and nothing happens,
the poet has failed. In this sense, categories one and three have a certain
afnity, as the tradition itself clearly recognized. Moreover, it is defnitely
possible to write a grammar of non-semanticized linguistic operations.

Grammars of poetry, which always assume that poetic utterances are at
least superfcially meaningful, are also capable of addressing what could
be call trans-semantic experiments with poetic language. Here poetry
shades of into mantra, in distinct patterns and modes.
I want to examine several cases of such trans-semantic operations
and to attempt to draw a few tentative connections, which may show us
something about the development of poetry, and of poetic science, in
medieval India.
Chāndogya Upanisˢ ad 1.13.1–4
Consider the following short text, which concludes the famous udgītha
section of the Chāndogya Upanisˢ ad:
1. ayamˢ vāva loka hau-karahˢ . vāyur hai-kāraś. candramā atha-kārahˢ .
ātmeha-kāro. ‘gnir ī-kārahˢ . 2. āditya ū-kāro. nihava e-kāro. viśvedevā au-ho-
yi-kārahˢ . prajāpatir himˢ -kārahˢ . prānˢahˢ svaro ‘nnam yā vāg virāt ˢ . 3. aniruk-
tas trayodaśahˢ stobhahˢ samˢ cāro humˢ -kārahˢ . 4. dugdhe ‘smai vāg doham.
yo vāco doho ‘nnavān annâdo bhavati ya etām evamˢ sāmnām upanisadamˢ
vedopanisˢ adamˢ veda.
Conversely, Bhartνhari devotes much attention to the question of how “language”—
the primordial, divine hum or buzz of creation—evolves into a semanticized force. See
Vākya-padīya 1.44–58, with vrˢ tti. For a grammar of mantra, see Patton 1996.
how to bring a goddess into being through visible sound 307
1. Te sound hau is this world. Te sound hai is the wind. Te word atha
is the moon. Te word iha [“here”] is the self. Te sound ī is fre. 2. Te
sound ū is the sun. Te sound e is the invocation. Au-ho-i is the All-Gods.
Te sound him is Prajāpati. Sound itself is breath. Ya is food. Language is
Virāj. 3. Ten there is the thirteenth sound hum, an interjection that var-
ies, that is what cannot be said. 4. Language milks itself of milk, the milk of
language, for him who has food, who eats food, for him who knows in this
way the Upanisˢ ad of the Sāman chants, who knows the connection.
Vedic ritual, as is well known, loves mysterious connections (bandhu;
also upanisˢ ad, brahman).
Te Vedic cosmos is woven together by relat-
ing elements from seemingly distinct levels or domains, and this strong
interweaving—the perception of one thing as another
—allows the ritu-
alist to generate actual existential transitions and transformations. He
can, for instance, go to heaven, achieve a divine body, and also return
home for a safe landing. Much depends on how much he knows, just
as in the text cited above it is the one who knows—in a certain way,
evam—who has food. And not just any food: language milks itself (actu-
ally herself, since vāc is feminine) as a direct, perhaps automatic result
of the ritualist’s esoteric knowledge. It is as if what he knows is the inner
mechanism of language, or the true, delicious meaning of sounds and
For such a person, language operates in a manner utterly remote from
ordinary reference and denotation. What we hear as phonic matter—
syllables like hau, hai, him, or the string au-ho-yi—has distinct, and
secret, meaning. A whole cosmos is reassembled through these sounds,
whose context is ritual performance with the udgītha recitation at its
center. We can assume that udgītha language is heightened, intensi-
fed, denaturalized, and efectual. It has properties that operate upon
the cosmos through the play of subtle phonic patterns, unintelligible
to our ears but perhaps all the more efective because of this. Tey do
not, however, appear to work wholly automatically; the epistemic inten-
tion of the singer or speaker makes all the diference between his eating
or going hungry. Language has a hidden core or essence—glossed as
milk—which can be produced by ritual knowledge and its associated
praxis. It also has an internal hierarchy. Some sounds are more useful
See Renou 1978.
E.g. dawn is the head of the sacrifcial horse, the sun its eye, the year its body, and
so on: Bνhad-āraΩyaka Upaniυad 1.1.1. “Seeing (X) as (Y)” is, Yigal Bronner suggests, a
possible translation for the classical trope of utprekυå.
308 david shulman
than others—especially, it would seem, those that do not “mean” in the
usual way. Tere are also elements that repeat or that embed themselves,
in whole or part, in larger segments (thus au-ho-yi, the All-Gods, con-
tains [h]au and i). Above all there is the interjection, the thirteenth ele-
ment which must comprise a totality—all of time, always 12 + 1, the year
as sequence and the year as a holistic unity—and, not too surprisingly,
this element is at the edge of silence. Tere is a need in this system for
the anirukta, the unuttered, that which cannot be said. Elsewhere in the
Veda we are told that only one quarter of language is available to us; the
rest is hidden in another world, perhaps in silence.
It is nonetheless important to note that this obscure Upanisˢ adic pas-
sage also includes what may be called semantic residues in its identifca-
tions. At least three of the sound-signs are familiar words: atha (“now”,
“from this point on”), iha (“here”) and vāc (“speech,” “language” seen in
relation to the divine transitional being, Virāj). Te temporal marker,
atha, is lunar in character; whereas the very “self ” of the reciter is pres-
ent, or made to be present, somehow actualized, in the word-token
meaning “here.” Tis usage is instructive. Actual words can transcend
their normal semantic burdens and yet refer to a second-order, perhaps
deeper meaning. Such a meaning, encrypted in everyday speech, is what
really works. We are heedless of the potential that lurks in the sounds
and syllables we utter out of habit; but there are moments when their
true force rings out and can, perhaps, be heard by an ear attuned to a
fuller listening. A dimension of ultimacy inheres in sound qua sound,
for svara, phonic or musical utterance, is prānˢa, breath; throughout this
frst section of the Upanisˢ ad, prānˢa competes with ākāśa, space, for the
privilege of ontic primacy, of being the fnal source of the udgītha and,
indeed, of reality itself.
Tere is always a temptation to allegorize these bandhu-type iden-
tifcations. Śanˆkarâcārya succumbs to it (thus him “means” Prajāpati
because Prajāpati, the Vedic creator, is “unsayable” or “indistinct” like
the syllable him, and so on),
and modern commentators ofen follow in
his wake. Analogy or resemblance is, however, a weak basis for under-
standing the kind of system in evidence here. Does hau resemble the
world? Is ī an analogue of fre? Sounds seemingly have an autonomous,
μgVeda 1.164.45.
aniruktyād dhiרkārasya câvyaktatvåt: Śaרkara on Chāndogya Upaniυad (p. 386). Cf.
his gloss on 3: anirukto ‘vyaktatvād idaΥ cedaΥ ceti nirvaktuΥ na śakyata iti.
how to bring a goddess into being through visible sound 309
non-adventitious career. As such, they may also generate meanings and,
through these meanings, specifc, designated changes in the world. At
least one aspect of this autonomy native to articulate sound and under-
lying its efcacy may turn up in section 12, immediately preceding our
text—the famous passage where a white dog joins with several others
in performing the udgītha chant (śauva udgīthahˢ ). Tey complete the
ritual by singing him (= Prajāpati?) followed by Om and requests for
food and drink. Generations of Indologists have interpreted this section
as a parody of Vedic ritual and its performers, but its strategic placement
toward the climax of the frst prapāt ˢ haka of the Chāndogya, and imme-
diately before our short text and its explicit phonic decoding, suggests
that parody is not the proper genre.
A barking dog, under optimal con-
ditions, may well set the cosmos back on course.
To sum up so far: Sounds relate to meaning in very distinct patterns.
Sometimes they mean what they are (the wind, the moon). Sometimes
they mean through indirection, an ordinary semantics concealing an
extraordinary one. Sometimes what is not audible or, for that matter,
sayable is what counts most. Sounds functioning on this level, in spe-
cialized ritual contexts, also set up internal relations on a musical level,
and it is this level which allows for the rebuilding or rearranging of a
world. If you know what to do with such phonic materials, what or how
they really mean, and how they are inter-connected (the upanisˢ ad), you
can generate states of enduring fullness. Unlike later texts, however, the
Chāndogya does not tell you what to do with the tantalizing identifca-
tions it reveals.
Citra Poetry: Making Language Visible
Upanisˢ adic-style correspondences between sound and psycho-cosmic
entities become routine in much later Yogic and Tantric texts, although,
as we shall see, the ritual uses of such correspondences are radically re-
conceived. Moreover, the mere utterance of esoteric sounds by an initi-
ate is not really sufcient to produce the kind of far-reaching results that
the texts promise. Mantras, or mantra-like poems pronounced by poets
gifed with the ability to bless or to curse (śāpânugraha-sāmarthya), are,
no doubt, highly efective transformers of reality. But when one wants,
See the recent discussion of this passage by Arbatov 2003.
310 david shulman
for example, to bring a goddess into being, or to wake her up from her
slumbers in the depths of one’s own body, something more may be
required. A graphic, visual dimension becomes integral to the intra-
linguistic, sonar process. Te complex arrangement of encoded sound
patterns in multi-sequential, modular constructs has visible conse-
quences. In this context, properly poetic considerations also come into
play. Tus historically the way to the phonic activation or actualization of
Tantric deities goes through certain prevalent features of poetic praxis in
Sanskrit (also later in the regional languages). Te most salient of these
features emerge in what is known as citra-kāvya, “picture poetry.”
Citra-kāvya is frst fully grammaticalized by Danˢ dˢ in in his Kāvyâdarśa,
a text which inspired spin-ofs in Tamil, Tibetan, and other regional
languages. Danˢ dˢ in defnes several types of citra verses based on com-
plex forms of phonetic-syllabic repetition, including regular alternation
between repeating and non-repeating syllables, palindromes, double
palindromes, rotating sequences, and other geometric patterns.
acknowledges that even the simpler types of such verses are difcult to
produce (dusˢ kara, 78). Danˢ dˢ in’s discussion very naturally moves from
citra poetry to riddles (prahelikā, 3.96), which he classes as “amuse-
ments” in learned assemblies (krīdˢ ā-gosˢ t ˢ hī-vinoda). No one who has
tried to decipher citra verses will deny this playful aspect. On the other
hand, here, as in other south Asian domains, playfulness is perhaps
an index of the truly serious. Later poeticians such as Mammatˢ a and
Vidyānātha expand the discussion of citra to include well-known dia-
grams (citra-bandha) formed by plotting the syllables of the verse onto
spatial grids so that visual images (a sword, a lotus, a drum, a wheel, the
track of a cart, and so on) emerge—once again, through various patterns
of syllabic repetition.
Such a verse, that is, both unfolds its (ofen rather
secondary) verbal-semantic burden and, graphically enacted on palm-
leaf or paper or, perhaps, in the mind’s eye, describes a concrete object
composed of patterned combinations of recurring and non-repeating
phonemes. In this latter function, the verse—both in its phonematic
progression and its tangible “meaning”—can actually be seen; very
ofen, it is visualized in movement, as if the phonetic materials one hears
Other possible translations include “fashy” or “special efects” or “virtuoso”
poetry—see Tubb forthcoming, and cf. Latin carmina fgurata.
Kāvyadarśa of DaΩͯin 3.78–83.
See examples in MammaϏa 9.85 (pp. 529–34); Pratāpa-rudrīya of Vidyānātha,
5.11–13 (pp. 249–52); also Ingalls 1989.
how to bring a goddess into being through visible sound 311
were literally sculpting or weaving a newly emergent object in three-
dimensional space.
I want to look briefy at one relatively straightforward example,
which I take from the Tamil text modelled afer Danˢ dˢ in and known as
Tanˢ t ˢ iyalanˆkāram (composed sometime between the eleventh and thir-
teenth centuries in the far south).
Te frst example of a citra verse
cited by this text is the following:
paruvam ākav ito kan˰ a-mālaiye
pŏruv’ilāv ul ˰ ai mevan˰ a kān˰ ame
maruvum ācai vit ˢ ā kan˰ a-mālaiye
vĕruval āyil ˰ ai pūv’ anˢ i kālame
We could translate, making several rather difcult choices consequent
upon intentional ambiguity and word-play en route, as follows:
Te time has come:
Depth of evening.
Dark clouds line the sky.
Deer, graceful beyond compare,
live in this forest, where
as evening turns
black, desire fails
to relent. Don’t
be afraid, delightful woman.
He’s coming now, at any moment,
to food you with fowers.
Te speaker is apparently the girlfriend and companion of the heroine in
a classical, akam-style lovers’ drama.
Te heroine has grown impatient:
her lover promised her he would come now, at the beginning of the rainy
season, to a rendezvous in the mullai region of forested hills; but he is
inexplicably delayed. Te pain of separation is always most intense—so
the Tamil poets tell us—at this moment when evening falls; and eve-
ning, drawing on toward night with no sign of the beloved, is particu-
larly excruciating during the monsoon.
Te girlfriend is doing her best
Te text is mentioned by the commentator AϏiyārkkunallār (13th century). On the
dating, see Zvelebil 1975, 192–93.
TaΩϏiyalaרkāram, 3.2.1.
In “Caרkam” poetry, akam poems, the so-called “inner” category, focus on love
Compare such well-known examples of evening love-sickness in the mullai region
as Kuρuntŏkai 66 and 234, and NammāΝvār’s reworking of this theme in Tiruviruttam 68;
also discussion in Ramanujan 1981, 158–59.
312 david shulman
to prop up the drooping heroine (who is, we may assume, as innocent
and vulnerable as the wide-eyed deer in the forest): surely the lover will
arrive at any moment and fulfl his promise. A sense of urgency informs
the entire verse and also brackets it explicitly: the opening word, paru-
vam, means “season,” “time,” and the fnal word is an emphatic kālame,
once again “time.” Within this straitjacket of remorseless temporality—
the neutral, inexorable progression of the seasons—we can easily feel,
with the heroine, the unbearable, constantly intensifying strain of wait-
ing. Yet she has clearly not given up hope: perhaps afer all he will come,
tonight, to cover her with fowers. Tis vacillating emotional state, very
economically and delicately articulated, has an iconic correlate on the
level of purely aural efects, as we shall see in a moment.
It is a strong poem, precisely because of its relative simplicity. Te
whole sadness of time is somehow contained in four short lines. One
could even leave it at that—had our text not brought it as an example of
citra-kāvya (Tam. cittira-kavi). Indeed, the citra aspect is clearly felt by
our author to dominate the poem, even to supply its true raison d’être.
Let us then turn to this domain of musicality and phono-visual pattern-
ing. If we recite or record the poem in the standard mode of reproduc-
ing Tamil verses, in which metrical units appear rather than lexemes,
we have:
paruva mākavi tokan˰ a mālaiye
pŏruvi lāvul ˰ ai mevan˰ a kān˰ ame
maruvu mācaivi t ˢ akan˰ a mālaiye
vĕruva lāyil ˰ ai pūvanˢ i kālame
Or, in standard representation of the lines (quarters):
= – / – = / – = / – = /
Notice the strong double beat at the transition between feet 1 and 2, the
rhythmic fulcrum of the line.
Already this metrico-graphic arrange-
ment takes us some distance from the simple semantic level in the direc-
tion of strongly musical or rhythmic efects. Te sentences, along with
the verbal units that inhere in them, begin to decompose, even to disap-
pear, as is usually the case when Tamil poetry is orally recited. At the
same time, the conspicuous metrical arrangement has the advantage of
opening up possibilities for ślesˢ a-paronomasia—since defamiliarization
As John Marr 1985 has shown, Tamil metrics are classically based on ictus.
how to bring a goddess into being through visible sound 313
of the linear, normative semantic unfolding of the sentences highlights
the resonant lexical potential of isolated phonic units. All such citra
verses operate through what is called yamaka, literally “twinning,”

i.e. the foregrounded repetition of sound sequences (ofen across word
boundaries), as Gary Tubb has noted. Ślesˢ a itself is, in one sense, a
superimposed or simultaneous yamaka (or yamaka is a sequentially
strung-out ślesˢ a)—though this formulation does not do justice to the
range of techniques and efects connected to these two terms. In the
present instance, we thus have kan˰ a mālaiye in quarters a and c (also
kan˰ a alone in a, b, and c); while mācai in c lends itself, at frst hearing, to
several possible decodings (< mācu, “darkness,” but also “fault,” “faw”;
[m]ācai, “desire,” etc.). Mālai, at the end of a and c, is the common word
for “evening”—and also the “line” or “garland” of rainclouds hovering
over the forest; even more powerfully, it could be read as an accusative
of māl, “passion,” “love-madness,”
so that the girl’s friend would actu-
ally be telling her, quite literally, “Don’t be afraid (veruval) of the passion
you are feeling.” In addition, *mākavi in the second foot of a [<(m) ākav
i(tu)] hides the homophonous mā-kavi, “great poet”—a boast actually
built into the opening statement, with its promise of technical virtuos-
ity. We could go on in this vein, but the general process of playing with
repeated strings of identical phonemes should by now be clear.
But this is only the beginning. Te verse in question is meant to be
graphically displayed in such a way that quarters a and b are placed
above c and d, which allows one to “read” the verse either in its natural
linear sequence—horizontally—or by “zigzagging” from one line to the
next (the frst syllable in the top line is followed by the second syllable
in the bottom line, and so on; from the halfway point, one starts with
the frst syllable in the second line and zigzags upwards to the second
syllable in the top line, etc.). Tus we obtain
pa ru va mā ka vi to ka n˰ a mā lai ye pŏ ru vi lā vu l ˰ ai me va n˰ a kā n˰ a me
ma ru vu mā cai vi t ˢ ā ka n˰ a mā lai ye vĕ ru va lā yi l ˰ ai pū va nˢ i kā la me
Te zigzag pattern is aptly named go-mūtrikā, “cow’s piss,” for reasons
perfectly obvious to anyone who has ever walked behind a urinating cow
in India. Te underlying principle is very simple, as Gerow has noted:

See Tubb 2003, 8.
See discussion of this term in Handelman and Shulman 2004, 178–79.
Gerow 1971, 181.
314 david shulman
every other syllable in corresponding quarters (a to c and b to d) must
be identical. Slightly more complicated go-mūtrikā-bandhas, such as the
example given by Danˢ dˢ in in Kāvyâdarśa 3.79,
allow the reader to start
the verse from quarter c (bottom line) and to zigzag upwards to a, then
back to c, and so on—in efect weaving the poem together by an over-
lay of two alternative, equally “correct” or precise zigzags, so that visu-
ally the same phonematic sequence is unfolding twice, simultaneously
(though to manifest the zigzag audibly requires the standard temporal
sequence of recitation and thus a particularly sensitized listener). Te
two readings, or two directions of movement, actually intersect in the
transition between every two syllables, creating a kind of purely visual
ślesˢ a. Tis sense of complex, ofen multi-directional movement through
the bandha diagram is critical. More complicated fgures such as the
devilishly ingenious magic square, sarvatobhadra, allow simultaneous
readings forwards and backwards as well as vertically and horizontally,
for example. For that matter, even the more or less clear-cut go-mūtrikā
can be doubled or quadrupled, as Ingalls has shown for a verse in
Ānandavardhana’s Devī-śataka; the result is, according to his calcula-
tion, 256 ways of reading each quarter, thus exactly 4,260,312,864 (i.e.,
256 to the fourth power) ways of putting together the complete verse—
and this is only one short poem.
Plotting this kind of go-mūtrikā geo-
metrically produces a dense net of criss-crossing lines; hence another
name for this fgure, jāla-bandha, “lattice.”
Te range of possibilities is
undeniably impressive, and for the more advanced fgures the services
of a topologist may be necessary. For lack of space and geometric skill, I
resist the temptation to explore further examples.
We have not yet exhausted even the short Tanˢ t ˢ iyalanˆkāram verse.
Afer the excursus into mathematical (i.e. strictly sonar) perspectives,
we can now allow ourselves another glimpse of the overt semantics ot
this poem. Anyone can attune his or her ear to the music of the articu-
lated sounds,
but what is most striking to someone who knows Tamil is
the way each of the lines—which can be heard, with some efort, across
the metrical divisions—has its own autonomy. Moreover, these lines are
madano madirākυīΩām apâרgâstro jayed ayam/
mad-eno yadi tat-kυīΩam anaרgāyâñjaliΥ dade//
Ingalls 1989, 571–72.
Gerow, loc. cit.
One should pay particular attention to the cumulative and contrasting efects of
the liquids and nasals—l, Ν, Ϋ, m.
how to bring a goddess into being through visible sound 315
more or less interchangeable. Even in English translation, one could
reproduce something of this efect, for instance by transposing a and b:
Deer, graceful beyond compare,
live in this forest, where
dark clouds line the sky.
Depth of evening.
Te time has come.
And so on: readers can work out the possible permutations. Contrary to
Ingalls’ rather dismissive comment on this aspect of such verses (“Any
four-line stanza in Sanskrit where the clausal boundaries coincide with
the pāda boundaries may be read in 24 ways”),
the relative, and consis-
tent, autonomization of individual lines or quarters is no trivial matter.
It reveals on the semantic level a strong parallel to what is happening
on the level of sound patterns. Put starkly, the “normal” linear sequence
that is intrinsic to all audible language is disrupted so severely that
the poem, or the sentence, reorganizes itself around individual, semi-
independent units that are capable of combining or resonating with
other such units in new, only minimally semanticized ways. A dimen-
sion of simultaneity is restored to such heightened language, which
begins to look or sound both somewhat surreal and, at the same time,
compacted and dense with an expressive fullness of an entirely diferent
order. Bhartrˢ hari, who believed that audible sequence in language was,
in a certain sense, illusory, would have approved.
“Look or sound:” the visual aspect of all this is crucial. Like the Israel-
ites in the desert, we can “see the sounds.”
We need only know where
to look or how to listen. Te mere existence of two (or more) criss-
crossing audible sequences, simultaneously intersecting and repeating in
the visual dimension, imparts a certain volume or depth to such a verse.
Informing this experimentation with depth is the unstated principle that
in the highly charged domain of poetic utterance, homophonous rep-
etition is always signifcant, expressive, non-random, and subject to an
expansive tangibility and plasticity. Homophony, we could say, induces a
perception of homology in the sense of condensed, self-replicating, also
subtly varied, musical patterns or themes. Each such repetition presents
us with its own semantic range, enriched by reference to earlier and later
Ingalls 1989, 570.
Exodus 20:14.
316 david shulman
occurrences of similar phonic sequence. Te poem also has integrity as
a whole organized vertically as well as horizontally, these vectors criss-
crossing very much in the manner of the go-mūtrikā quarters.
Let me repeat: the meaning-bearing segment of this multi-level poetic
experience is not rendered irrelevant by the sheer musicality and complex
rhythmic efects that the verse projects. Quite the contrary: “meaning”
is, if anything, enhanced, though not perhaps along the lines of our
classical interpretative habits. Moreover, a pervasive iconicity is pres-
ent on all levels. As hinted earlier, the heroine’s emotional and sensory
confguration—the ofcial “subject” of the poem—is reconfgured both
in the linear, normative semantic mode and in its mathematical or visual
correlates as conveyed by the phonemes through their combinations and
repetitions. In a way, this is the whole point. To fully internalize the con-
sequences of such play with language, one has to recognize that the pho-
nemes, once liberated from the burdens of standard semantic sequence,
take on a life of their own, setting up complex sets of relations organized
musically rather than by any overt linear semantics. Tis, in fact, is what
we see when we study the geometric diagrams that such verses trace on
paper or in our minds. Citra-bandha verses always focus attention on
selected, yamaka-driven syllables, which “repeat” themselves in patterns
that are not isomorphic with a standard, sequential, naturally meaning-
ful recitation. Tese syllables—usually at the very center of the lotus, or
the hilt of the sword, or the innermost spoke of the wheel, or at certain
neuralgic points in the coils of a serpent—re-order or re-imagine the
verse in these same, visualizable forms.
An adequate description of any such verse requires a language wait-
ing to be invented, operating with a grammar waiting to be inductively
defned. We can, perhaps, approximate such a language by thinking of
citra poetry as architectonic, in a sonar or musical sense—that is, as cre-
ating three-dimensional, spatial constructs alive with inner movement,
charged with expressive potential of an unexpectedly “symphonic”
character. Te superimposition of autonomized sounds, split or mul-
tiple verbal meanings, visual depth, and self-driven metrical or rhyth-
mic patterns creates this three-dimensionality, probably the most basic
feature of citra-kāvya. Underlying this poetic praxis is a new belief that
a syllable (aksˢ ara) or phoneme (varnˢa) has visual form. We will see how
far this belief takes the Tantrika poets. But the fact that citra verses, once
decoded, so ofen produce visible objects (or at the least visible geo-
metric patterns) should also suggest to us another important element
of such poetry, one that could be said to hypertrophy in Tantra. Tese
how to bring a goddess into being through visible sound 317
poems are anything but descriptive. Tey tend, rather, to the efectual or
efcacious and may, indeed, have originated in precisely such practical
personally useful)
Encoded Citra: What Sounds Really Mean
Sometimes we have to remind ourselves that Tantric poetry is, indeed,
poetry, worthy of attention on the aesthetic no less than the ritual or
metaphysical level. As implied in the last paragraph, all such domains
may turn out to be eminently pragmatic in usage, and poetry even
more so than the others. Perhaps our discussion of citra-kāvya has pre-
pared us to take another look at the poetics of sound in one univer-
sally acknowledged masterpiece, the Saundarya-laharī (SL) or “Wave of
Beauty” that is incorrectly attributed to Śanˆkarâcārya. We will, however,
be concerned less with the text of the SL itself than with Laksˢ mī-dhara’s
sixteenth-century commentary on two fundamentally important verses.
Te materials themselves are fairly well known, and I make no claim
to innovation or special insight; but there are more general principles,
worthy of restatement, involved in these verses and their commentary
and germane to the issues raised above.
Te SL celebrates—perhaps we would do better to say “activates”—the
goddess Tripura-sundarī, “the most beautiful in the tripartite cosmos,”
who is the main deity of the Kaula system known as Śrī-vidyā.
form of Kaulism, which became widespread in south India afer the end
of the frst millenium, amalgamated radical Śākta cultic practices with
the householder’s ethos, on the one hand, and with a well-developed
Yogic physiology based on the six cakras or subtle energy-centers, on
Gerow, 178.
Ibid., 177.
Smith 1985, 135: “Te origin of this fashion was almost certainly the writing of
verses on weapons.” Smith also notes the strong relation between citra-bandha verses
and the battle sections of mahā-kāvya—where geometric military formations are de
rigueur. But if we extend the range of our observations backward into the late-Vedic and
early-epic layers of the tradition, we will discover complex geometric patterns govern-
ing the narrative structure of major texts. Citra-kāvya makes such efects conscious and
explicit and packs them into the frame of the individual verse. See Brereton 1997.
More precisely, verses 1–41 of this text, the so-called Ānanda-laharī (see below),
derive from this Kaula system in relation to Kubjikā (of the “Western Tradition”,
paścimâmnāya): see Sanderson 2002, 1–3, especially n. 24. I am grateful to Professor
Sanderson for discussions of dating and lineage in these texts. See also Michael 1986.
318 david shulman
the other. It also integrated into a Smārta, orthoprax domain strong ele-
ments of what Sanderson calls “erotic magic.”
Te SL, a relatively late
text—perhaps twelfh or thirteenth century
—is without doubt one of
the most beloved and popular of all Śrī-vidyā literary works. Its verses,
composed in a highly distinctive Sanskrit style, are, indeed, “magical.”
Many worshippers of the goddess recite the entire set of one hundred
verses every day upon waking.
Te tradition itself, however, correctly sees this book as combining
two distinct parts—verses 1–41, the so-called Ānanda-laharī (“Wave of
Joy”) and verses 42–100, the Saundarya-laharī proper.
Te frst seg-
ment in fact builds an image of the goddess as a cosmos in her own
right and as the creator of the cosmos we inhabit, whose inner workings
are explained in terms of the well-known series of six subtle psycho-
physiological cakras or bodily centers. Tis part of the text is clearly
aimed at practices of visualization and mantric exercises, as we will see;
eventually, if properly put to use, it allows the female and male elements
within this goddess-informed cosmos to recombine, thereby reversing
the standard direction of cosmogonic deterioration (see verse 9). From
verse 42 onward we have an exquisite, lyrical description of Tripura-
sundarī, limb by limb, no doubt also aimed at visualization but lacking
the mantric, pragmatic aspect of the frst part of the poem.
Tis division is emphasized and explained in popular stories about
the composition of the text. Some, says Rāma-kavi, the author of the
Dˢ inˢdˢ ima commentary on SL, attribute the book to Śiva himself; others
claim the author was Śanˆkara, an avatar of Śiva; still others assert that
it emerged from the radiant teeth of the goddess Lalitā, the Ādi-śakti or
primeval goddess.
But even those who think Śanˆkara was the author or
direct recipient of the text describe a somewhat traumatic and truncated
process of composition and transmission. Śanˆkara, dressed in his ascetic
robe, was visiting Śiva’s home on Kailāsa; there he noticed the book of the
mantra-śāstra, which the goddess had lef lying on Śiva’s throne. All too
Sanderson 1990, 156.
Almost certainly composed in south India.
W. Norman Brown, who edited and translated the text, somewhat unconvinc-
ingly takes the fnal nine verses as a separate segment, the poet’s prayer to the goddess:
Śankarācārya 1958, 1. Tese truly astonishing verses—flled with metapoetical statements—
seem to me to emerge very naturally out of the preceding description.
ͮiΩͯima-bhāυya, opening verses 3–4. All references to the SL and its commentaries
refer to the edition by Kuppuswami 1991.
how to bring a goddess into being through visible sound 319
aware of the text’s importance, Śanˆkara picked it up and hurried toward
the exit; but he was intercepted by Śiva’s doorkeeper, Nandikeśvara. Te
two fought over the secret treasure, and Śanˆkara managed to tear of
the pages containing verses 1–41, which he brought down to earth. He
added 59 stanzas of his own to complete the work.
Note that in this
account, the frst (practical, theogonic) segment is unequivocably divine
in origin, a treasured possession of the goddess Pārvatī, and that it exists
as a written text. Writing plays an important role in other versions of
the story as well. Tus the somewhat mysterious “Tamil boy” (dravidˢ a-
śiśu) mentioned in verse 75—probably a reference to the Tevāram poet
Tiruñān˰ acampantar—is said to have composed the entire poem and to
have inscribed it on Mount Kailāsa. Śanˆkara saw the verses there and
started to memorize them even as the goddess moved the author to
erase them. Fortunately, Śanˆkara’s superb memory allowed him to retain
the frst 41.
Tis somewhat poignant account of rapid memorization
against the clock insists on the notion of oral transmission—“oral” in
the sense that the transmitter inscribes the text verbatim on or in his
Te SL is clearly important enough to merit such insistence.
Even so, this is a text that tends to disappear before our eyes; thus there
is the tragic loss of the other original 59 verses, initially graphically
recorded but then erased. So the written form of the text does have its
own necessity and integrity, in the eyes of the tradition, although it is the
oral, memorized version that endures. Writing is crucial, though not for
transmission. Tis conclusion recalls what we discovered in the domain
of citra-kavya and has somewhat similar implications, as we shall see.
By the time the Tamil poet Kavi-rāja Panˢ t ˢ itar produced a Tamil ver-
sion of the SL, in the sixteenth century, the written text was thought
to have gone through several permutations. Once Sarasvatī, the god-
dess of wisdom and arts, boasted to Śiva that she had composed the
SL, the book that ofers a distilled version of all four Vedas by express-
ing the greatness of the goddess Yamalā (yamal ˢ ai). Śiva laughed and
pointed at the slopes of the mountain, Kailāsa, where the whole text
was already inscribed. (Had Sarasvatī then re-composed or re-invented
verbatim an already existing work, like Pierre Menard?) Moreover, this
book imprinted on the mountain was copied and inscribed on another
Ibid., v; Subrahmanya Sastri and Srinivasa Ayyangar 1948, x.
Kuppuswami, vi.
I thank Jan Assmann for remarks in this vein.
320 david shulman
mountain—Meru—by the “great ascetic” Pusˢ padanta; and Gaudˢ a-pāda
read it there, learned it by heart (ul ˢ am pat ˢ ittu), and thus transmitted
it to his pupil, Śanˆkarâcārya.
With some pathos the poet includes his
own “mean composition” (pun˰ kavi) in the line of further textual pro-
ductions. But even here, where the SL exists in several written versions,
there is still room for learning it by heart and passing it on in this fash-
ion; and our text is not, apparently, a piece of pure artisty inspired by
Sarasvatī but rather antedates this poetic stage. God himself created it
and recorded it on stone.
We will be focusing on Laksˢ mī-dhara’s commentary on verse 32—in
many ways the climax of the Ānanda-laharī, the frst segment of SL.
Tis stanza is universally recognized as articulating the secret sixteen-
syllable mantra of Tripura-sundarī, thus as constituting the very heart of
the esoteric system the book reveals. Before we attempt to understand it,
we may beneft from a preview of the author’s technique and the com-
mentators’ modes of applying or revising it.
Verse 19 of SL explicitly speaks of visualization:
mukhamˢ bindumˢ krˢ tvā kuca-yugam adhas tasya tad-adho
harârdhamˢ dhyāyed yo hara-mahisˢ i te manmatha-kalām/
sa sadyahˢ sanˆksˢ obhamˢ nayati vanitā ity ati-laghu
trilokīm apy āśu bhramayati ravîndu-stana-yugām//
A man who meditates on that part of you, Hara’s
that rouses desire—making the dot into your face,
with a pair of breasts below it and, below that,
that half of Hara that is half of the sound-signs ha-ra—
will agitate women with passion in a moment. What is more,
he will drive all three worlds, that is, the Woman
with sun and moon for her breasts,
to distraction.
Tere are those who regard this verse as a statement of essence, the ulti-
mate revelation of the Śrī-vidyā cult mentioned above. Te goddess is
to be visualized, and thus fully materialized and made present, in her
form as Kāma-kalā, desire itself in all its generative and active potential.
As such, she is not only infnitely desirable, a true subject for “erotic
Ānanta-lahari, sauntarya-lahari of Vīrai Kavi-rāja PaΩϏitar, verses 3–4. yāmaΙai taΫ
pĕrum pukaΝaiy āti maρai nālin vaϏitt’ ĕϏutta nūlai/ nāmakal ˢ taΫ pāϏal it’ ĕΫρ’ araΫarkku
navila avar nakai cĕyt’ aΫρe/pāmakaΙaiy aruk’ aΝaittup paruppatattiρ pŏρitt’irunta paricu
kāϏϏuñ/cema-niti pāϏalaiy ĕΫ puΫ kaviyāρ kŏΙvat’ avaΙ tiρamaiy aΫρe//
Hara = Śiva.
how to bring a goddess into being through visible sound 321
magic,” but she also embodies the icchā-śakti or “potential for wanting”
inherent in the godhead. On the other hand, visualization of this sort
can have very immediate uses (prayoga). As the verse literally states,
a man who accomplishes the ritual meditation can make women fall
in love with him without delay. He can even make the goddess herself,
the object of his worship, who is none other than the total reality of the
cosmos, dizzy with passion for him. Modern commentators fnd such
promises embarrassing: A. Kuppaswamy, the learned and careful editor
of SL, assures us that “this verse could at best be deemed as having refer-
ence to the taming of a shrewish wife.”
Very much in keeping with what we saw in the case of citra-kāvya,
this verse expands the overt, explicit level of denotation in far-reaching
ways. Its straightforward promise, while providing an essential founda-
tion for what is being said, requires decoding from the opening phrases
of the text. Words mean much more than they seem to say. Te bindu-
dot that becomes the face of a goddess is the central, focal point, a state-
ment of infnity, of the Śrī-cakra yantra, the geometric model that serves
the Śrī-vidyā. A series of nine triangles, four with apex pointing upward
and fve pointing downward, surround the bindu and are themselves
encompassed by a series of lotus fowers, circles, and an outer square.
Beneath the bindu we are meant to fnd a pair of breasts—apparently
the two horizontal points of the frst upward-pointing triangle; but we
learn later in the verse that the breasts of the goddess are the sun and
the moon, which inhabit the Śrī-cakra, as they inhabit the cosmos, the
cosmicized body of the goddess, and the mantric sequence of sounds, in
ways that can easily be specifed (see below). Still further down, there is
the “half of Hara/ha-ra”: Laksmī-dhara, who will be our guide on this
tour, tells us that this means trikonˢa, “triangle,” and that this triangle is
the triangular yoni, the genital organ of the goddess we are busy imag-
ining and thus creating. One triangle subsumes the ramifed series of
triads and superimposed triangles so characteristic of the Śrī-vidyā. We
are thus meant to visualize the goddess from face (or mouth, mukham)
down to genitals. According to Laksˢ mī-dhara, the exercise activates the
Māra-bīja or “death-seed” (also “seed of desire,” since Māra can refer
to both these forces, which are anyway one), and the result is that the
practitioner achieves a state of total identity with this beautiful goddess
Kuppaswamy 1991, translation and notes, 41.
322 david shulman
(tayā kāntayâtmanas tādātmyam sampādayet). Not only is the goddess
manifest before our eyes as a result of our meditation and proper use of
the mantra; if we have done our work well, we are now entirely equated
with her, and thus fully intact feminized cosmoi in our own right. We
have to remember at this point that we are reading the verse through the
eyes of Laksˢ mī-dhara (1497–1539), who, we think, came from Orissa
(he was a devotee of Ekâmra-Śiva) and thus may give voice to the rather
unusual regional tradition of Tantric Yoga that crystallized there, and
further south along the coast, in medieval times.
All of this is hardly more than the surface meaning of this one verse.
Tere are, incidentally, two further readily available surface patterns to
be noted. First, one could just as correctly translate the opening phrase
(mukhamˢ bindumˢ krˢ tvā) in the reverse order from our attempt above:
“ [A man who meditates . . .] making your face into the dot.” Tere is no
particular reason to prefer the fully anthromorphized visual image to
the geometric one of the yantra (or, for that matter, to the implicit one
enacted by the phonemes). Secondly, in either reading, what the medi-
tator does is, literally, to “make this goddess revolve” (bhramayati). We
can take it as a general rule that such verses produce a goddess who is
by no means fxed in place or static but who rather turns, twists, evolves,
devolves, revolves. Mantras are highly dynamic devices (hence the dan-
ger connected to their use).
What about the somewhat mysterious “half of Hara/ha-ra?” Again,
the surface denotation is simple enough: Śiva or Hara is androgynous,
and the worshiper of the goddess naturally visualizes the female half
of him, as the commentators’ gloss—the triangular yoni down below—
confrms. But the two phonemes, ha and ra, or their graphic form as
a ligature (hra), provide several further, rather startling possibilities.
Another popular south Indian commentator on the SL, Kaivalyâśrama,
spells them out in his Saubhāgya-vardhanī. First, if you do away with the
upper half of the grapheme ha (٦), you get an image of the yoni. Tis,
says Kaivalyâśrama, is the plain or obvious meaning (prakat ˢ ârtha). Or
take ha, which is half of ha + ra: this ha actually “means,” if that is the
right word, ravi[hˢ ], the sun. Of course, when we normally pronounce
Brown insists (Śankarācārya 1958, 20–21) that the SL itself knows nothing of the
identifcation of the subtle psycho-physiology of the goddess—the six cakras—with
the practitioner’s own body along the standard lines of macro-microcosmic analogy.
In Lakυmī-dhara, such correspondences are axiomatic. For Lakυmī-dhara’s dates see
Goudriaan and Gupta 1981, 147–48.
how to bring a goddess into being through visible sound 323
the phoneme ha, we tend to forget that ravi—this one specifc term for
the sun among many—is its actual denotation. Te adept, fortunately,
is guided by the SL to the contextually appropriate meaning. But this is
only the frst step. Ravi has 4 elements—r, a, v, and i, two consonants
and two vowels. But the verse wants us to use only half of them (the
principle of “halving” is seen as generalized at this crucial point), so
naturally we erase the consonants (consonants are anyway embedded
pieces of death in this esoteric phono-metaphysics, as we see already in
Chāndogya Upanisˢ ad 2.22.3).
Tis leaves us with a + i. As Pānˢ ini tells
us, these two simple vowels coalesce into the diphthong e—which hap-
pens to be identical in its graphic shape to what we got earlier when we
shaved of the upper half of the grapheme ha, i.e., the yoni. Notice how
operations on the aural level correspond precisely, in this world, with
operations on the level of writing.
Tere is more. Kaivalyâśrama ofers us yet another reading that, not
surprisingly, leads to virtually the same result. Ha also “means” hamˢ sahˢ ,
“goose” (in the nominative singular). Removing half of hamˢ sahˢ by delet-
ing the two death-dealing consonants, we are lef with amˢ + ahˢ [in Deva-
nagari script: ٦ذ + ٥ر]. I hope you have already noticed the three bindu
dots (one nasalizing a[m], the other providing visarga aspiration to a[hˢ ]).
Now the verse really makes sense. One dot becomes the goddess’s face;
two others, placed beneath it, are her breasts. Beneath these three we are
instructed to fnd that half of ha + ra which makes e, i.e. the yoni—and
we already know how to do this. Tere is no rule in this “grammar” that
limits operations to a single application.
So, as the commentor remarks, the ha phoneme is thrice useful, each
time through cutting it in half—frst as Śivā, the goddess herself (that is,
the phoneme e); then as ravihˢ ; fnally as hamˢ sahˢ . You will be relieved to
learn that none of these phonetic identifcations is particularly mysteri-
ous; all of them, says Kaivalyâśrama, in conclusion, are prakat ˢ a, “obvi-
ous.” Te deeper meaning of the phoneme ha is, however, a secret that
can only be learned from the mouth of one’s teacher; it should defnitely
not be publicly unveiled, which is why he, Kaivalyâśrama, stops at this
level of explication (vastuto hakārârtho gupto guru-mukhād avagamyahˢ .
tat-prakāśane mahad an-isˢ t ˢ am iti na prakāśitahˢ ). Still, there is one more
way to unpack the verse: the frst bindu-dot is the sun, i.e. the face of
the goddess; moon and fre are the two lower dots, i.e. her breasts,
See Padoux 1990, 17.
324 david shulman
beneath which we, once again, fnd the yoni in the form of the syllable
In short, however we read this small piece of the verse, we end up
with a lucid cosmogram in the visible image of the delectable goddess.
Moreover, this visual image is what the various sounds actually mean,
although they have to be decoded if one is to know this consciously. “Half
of Hara/ha-ra” does mean “goddess.” In fact, it expresses this meaning
in a remarkably overdetermined way, since the goddess is iconographi-
cally half of Śiva, as we know, and since the phonemes pronounce her
into existence through the automatic operation of their internal forces,
combined according to the mechanical laws of this new science of astro-
phonetics. To understand the verse is thus not to piece together its
overt semantics, although without their existence nothing may happen.
Understanding is the actual materialization of this divine presence, its
activation as a revolving or “dancing” being
and, as Laksˢ mī-dhara has
told us, the complete transformation of the mantra-chanter or practitio-
ner into this goddess. Tat, we can conclude, is what language is for.
We have lingered over this single poem in order to attune our ears
to its way of speaking, to encounter its peculiar lexicon in a relatively
unambiguous context, and to observe inductively the primary princi-
ples of the grammar that serves its medieval commentators. Each verse
like this one becomes, in fact, a grammatical essay in its own right. I
want to stress again that such a grammar entails very powerful graphic
and visual components; we cannot begin to describe morphology and
syntax without addressing the projected images of the divinities who
are brought into being by every sentence. As for poetic efect—and the
SL is defnitely experienced by connoisseurs as great poetry—think
what it means for a poem to be able to turn its listener into a goddess
and, at the same time, to put this newly emergent goddess-self into rapid
Unwinding the Kunˢdˢ alinī
We can now turn to verse 32, where the principles outlined above come
most fully into play. Tis verse, as explicated by Laksˢ mī-dhara, assumes
awareness of the subtle physiology outlined in SL 9: the body of the
Saubhāgya-vardhanī, 194.
Cf. SL 41.
how to bring a goddess into being through visible sound 325
goddess, who is the universe, contains six cakra energy-sites, each linked
to one of the elements.
Beginning at the bottom, at the base of the spine,
we have the mūlâdhāra, connected to earth; above it is the water-bound
manˢ i-pūra; then the fery svâdisˢ t ˢ hāna;
then the heart cakra, elsewhere
referred to as anāhata (the “unstruck” sound at the edge of silence),
where there is air or wind; then viśuddhi, in the area of the throat, the
site of ākāśa, “space;” and fnally, between the eyebrows, ājñā, where the
mind, manas, dwells. Above this vertical column is a thousand-petalled
lotus, sahasrâra-padma, the place of the goddess in her holistic, lumi-
nous form, united with her consort, Sadā-śiva; here she is the ultimate
part (kalā) of herself, that complete part that is defned as awareness per
se, cit, and that is refected downward onto the lower cakras when the
cosmos begins to evolve.
However, the very bottom of the column is
no less her home (bhūmi): here she makes her own “self ” into a serpent
(bhujaga-nibham adhyusˢ t ˢ a-valayamˢ svam ātmānamˢ krˢ tvā)—called the
Kunˢ dˢ alinī, “coiled”—and here she sleeps in a hollow cavity (kula-kunˢdˢ e
kuharinˢ i, 10). In a sense, the life of this goddess is lived between these
two ends of the vertical pole that gives shape to her body—between the
upper limit of playfulness and integral awareness and the lower end of
sleep, unactivated potentiality, and dream. Tis picture of her ongo-
ing inner life also inheres in the Śrī-cakra diagram and in the mantric
sequence we are about to study, and it defnitely allows, indeed demands,
a highly active role for each person who comes to her via our text. Such
a person is called upon to decide whether to wake the goddess or to let
her sleep—or to put her back to sleep.
Verse 32 reads as follows:
śivahˢ śaktihˢ kāmahˢ ksˢ itir atha ravihˢ śīta-kiranˢahˢ
smaro hamˢ sahˢ śakras tadanu ca parā-māra-harayahˢ /
amī hrˢ l-lekhābhis tisrˢ bhir avasānesˢ u ghat ˢ itāhˢ
bhajante varnˢās te tava janani nāmâvayavatām//
We will need two translations to begin with:
Brown, Śankarācārya 1958, 13–16, reads the cakras as successive stages in the cos-
mogonic process.
Te order of these last two is reversed in SL compared to “standard” Tantric Yoga
physiology. See discussion by Brown, Śankarācārya 1958, 14.
For this refection, chāyā, see Lakυmī-dhara on SL 32, 277 (and see discussion
326 david shulman
Śiva, Śakti, the Love-God, the earth,
then sun, moon, Memory,
goose, Indra
and then the Supreme Goddess, Death,
and Hari

these phonemes, combined with the three
heart-syllables at the ends
form the elements, Mother,
of your name.
[Te words] śiva, śakti, kāma, ksˢ iti, then ravi, śītakiranˢa,
smara, hamˢ sa, śakra, followed by parā, māra, and hari—
these phonemes, combined with the three
heart-syllables at the ends form the elements, Mother,
of your name.
Version A gives us a strangely beautiful, somewhat surreal concatenation—
a universe, apparently linguistic in nature (since all its elements are
classed as phonemes), in which various deities, heavenly bodies, desire,
and one lonely goose seem scattered randomly in perceptual space. Te
last two quarters of the verse explain that this set of elements actually
makes up the parts, avayava, of the goddess herself, or of her name
(nāma). By gathering them together, we must be gathering her together,
perhaps in the classical manner of Vedic ritual, whose major goal was
to reassemble the difuse, disarticulated parts of the creator, Prajāpati.
Clearly, the name is critical to this enterprise. It is, however, also pos-
sible to read nāma as an independent exclamation or indeclinable,

so that the fnal statement could mean simply, “these phonemes . . .
constitute [or, alternatively, become] your parts.” In any case, on the level
of primary denotation, we have a statement about the phonematic for-
mation of the goddess as a recognizable, present entity. In short, a mantra
is being evoked, as is also suggested by the previous verse (31): Paśupati-
Śiva brought down the tantra-teaching of the goddess at her insistence
(tvan-nirbandhād). To know more about this teaching, encapsulated in
verse 32, or about the mantra that embodies it, we will need the help of
Laksˢ mī-dhara.
In version B, the usual referents of the various lexical items listed—
śiva, śakti, and so on—are of little interest. Tese are to be replaced
Another name for Kāma, the god of love.
Or, again, a name of Kāma.
= ViυΩu.
Of each respective group.
Tus Subrahmanya Sastri and Srinivasa Ayyangar 1948, 125.
how to bring a goddess into being through visible sound 327
with an encoded meaning, which in every case is a phoneme/syllable (a
vowel or consonant + vowel) needed to build the mantra. Tus, follow-
ing Laksˢˢ mī-dhara, the word siva
actually indicates the syllable ka. Śakti
means e, kāma = i, and ksˢ iti = la. (We could also say that each of these
words “means” in a process that has two stages: the phonic sequence
ksˢ i-ti means “earth,” and “earth,” in this system, means the syllable la.)
Te particle atha separates these frst four items from the next set, and
we learn from the second half of the verse that at the end of each such
series we have to add the “heart-grapheme” (hrˢ l-lekhā) which, says
Laksˢ mī-dhara, is hrīmˢ (note fnal nasal). Tus we have as the frst seg-
ment of the mantra:
Continuing the decoding:
ravi (sun)= ha [as we learned above in v. 19]
śītakiranˢa (moon) = sa
smara = ka
hamˢ sa = ha [as in 19]
śakra = Indra = la
Another break, marked by the particle tadanu, allows us to conclude the
second segment of the mantra:
And the fnal segment:
parā = sa
māra = ka
hari = la
So the whole mantra, so far, reads:
ka-e-i-la-hrīmˢ ha-sa-ka-ha-la hrīmˢ sa-ka-la hrīmˢ
Tis arcane series of sounds, says Laksˢ mī-dhara, presents us with a
nearly complete image (pratīkatva) of the goddess or of her name. Yet
there is still something missing—indeed the most important element
of all. Tere are 15 syllables in the mantra we have “translated” from
the verbal tokens in the verse, but the goddess Tripura-sundarī has
Or any of its synonyms—although this rule does not apply evenly throughout.
Note kāma = i but smara, normally a synonym of kāma = ka.
328 david shulman
a 16-syllable mantra (sˢ odˢ aśâksarī).
Only a guru is allowed to reveal
the last, secret syllable. It must not be imparted to anyone who is not a
student (śisˢ ya) of such a guru. Here Laksˢ mī-dhara seems to be strug-
gling with himself; he acknowledges that he should not disclose the
syllable to those who have not gone through the ritual of accepting his
authority as teacher, with their hands folded above their heads, afer
touching his feet. He fnally opts for a lenient ruling: “Tose who see my
book and learn the fnal kalā (syllable or part) are my students.” He sees
this as an act of compassion on his part to those who are hungry for true
knowledge (jijñāsu). Now he tells us (and I, with some trepidation, allow
myself to repeat the information): the ultimate kalā is ś + r + ī + bindu
(nasalization), or śrīmˢ .
Say these syllables correctly and precisely in this order and something
will happen. Laksˢ mī-dhara explains it some detail, although it is lef to
us to try to piece together the underlying logic and mechanics. We will
return to the more properly linguistic and poetic aspects of this pro-
cess in the concluding section; for the moment let me try to summa-
rize what happens on the astro-temporal plane, following the order of
Laksˢ mī-dhara’s presentation. Now that we know what the name-tokens
explicitly given in the verse actually “mean,” we can proceed to put them
together as building-blocks of the cosmos that is the goddess. Very
much as in verse 19, with its pyro-solar-lunar constellation, the three
main segments of the mantra, separated from each other by hrīmˢ , fall
into place as the domains of fre (āgneya-khanˢdˢ a), sun (saura-khanˢdˢ a),
and Soma (saumya-khanˢdˢ a) [i.e. the nectar of immortality that is stored
in the moon], respectively. Between each of the domains, where the
syllable hrīmˢ operates, we fnd one of the cosmic “knots” or “nodes”
(granthi), at once connecting the otherwise disparate parts of the cos-
mos and blocking movement among them: the so-called Rudra-knot
between segments 1 and 2, the Visˢ nˢ u-knot between 2 and 3, and the
fnal, ultimate block—the Brahma-knot adjacent to the mūlâdhāra at
the base of the cakra column—between 3 and 4.
Where, you may ask, is
segment 4? It is the almost inaudible, most secret, mono-syllabic six-
teenth element of the mantra mentioned above, the one that turns the
mantra into an efective theurgic instrument. Tis last segment is the
Te 15-syllable mantra has its own uses, however. As Śoͯaśâksarī (“the 16-
syllabled”), the goddess is also pictured as a perpetually 16-year-old girl.
On the granthis, see Gupta, Hoens and Goudriaan 1979, 175.
how to bring a goddess into being through visible sound 329
moon-part domain (candra-kalā-khanˢdˢ a), that dimension of divine exis-
tence in which the part, kalā, is truly the whole and, as such, drenched in
the lunar stuf of Soma or of complete awareness (cit or, more precisely,
parā kalā cid ekarasā).
All this may seem rather a lot to load onto a short syllabic sequence,
but in fact we have only begun the task of putting the mantric cosmos
together. Each of the frst three domains we have just defned has other
specifc aspects relating to states of consciousness (waking, dreaming,
and deep sleep), to certain intra-divine potentialities (the goddess’s abil-
ity, śakti, to know, to want, and to act), and to the various strands (gunˢa)
and modes (vrˢ tti) that together weave the universe into existence. In
efect, as one recites the mantra, the goddess—who is literally emerging
into being through this linguistic act—moves from wakefulness (in the
domain of fre) to dreaming (in the solar domain) to dreamless sleep (in
the Soma state). As we know from the Upanisˢ ads, there is also a fourth,
still deeper state (turīya); and it is not hard to guess that this ultimate
state, an awakening far beyond, indeed opposed to, our everyday wak-
ing, is triggered by the recitation of the fnal kalā-syllable. Working on
the goddess in this manner, the practitioner also recapitulates each stage
in the corresponding sphere of his own innerness. Te climax, for him
or Her, is reached when the slumbering Kunˢ dˢ alinī begins to stir.
Even on the most direct, corporeal level, the goddess inhabits the
sounds of the mantra. Her head is present in the frst segment, her
trunk (neck to waist) in the second, and the third segment manifests her
lower parts (she is thus mūla-kūt ˢ a-traya-kalevarā).
Notice the direc-
tion of movement, exactly corresponding to what we saw in verse 19.

Te unfolding of the mantra actualizes Tripura-sundarī from the head
down. Tis initial direction is reversed only when the fnal, sixteenth
syllable is pronounced. We will return to this point.
But the above description, which is fairly standard and familiar to
anyone interested in Tantra,
still fails to tell us how the system works—
why, that is, the Kunˢ dˢ alinī should stir. Te true power of Laksˢ mī-dhara’s
commentary is evident at this point. For what follows is an unusually
detailed, lucid, indeed scientifc statement of the actual mechanisms
See Ānanda-laharī-Ϗīkā, 294; Kuppuswamy, 57.
And note that this direction runs against Mallinātha’s well-known prescription (ad
Kumāra-sambhava 1.33)—that deities are to be described from the feet up.
Or, for that matter, in terms of technique, to anyone who has studied the bandhu-
correspondences in Vedic ritual, as in the Chāndogya passage cited earlier.
330 david shulman
involved, one that goes far beyond mere statements of esoteric equa-
tions and correlates. Te mantric unfolding of Tripura-sundarī requires
a highly dynamic, systemic vision. Te mantra works not through the
intentionality of its reciter, not by “knowing thus,” in the Upanisˢ adic
mode, and not by a principle of sympathetic (magical) analogy, as is
ofen thought to be the case.
Tere is nothing symbolic about this pro-
cess at any point. Similarity is not its organizing concept. Rather, in a
world composed of language, in the deepest sense—a vibrating or hum-
ming arena of musical, rhythmic energies that can be seen no less than
heard—the patterned repetition of carefully selected, scientifcally com-
pressed, modular sound-sequences activates powerfully transformative
forces. Tese sound-sequences resonate with one another, augment-
ing, enhancing, catalyzing or contrasting with one another in regularly
repeating ways, whether they are released in the mantra, by the interplay
of celestial bodies or, if we could but hear them, by the subtle buzzing
and throbbing of our own arteries and veins. Still, “resonance”
cannot explain the system.
Here is a much reduced restatement, afer Laksˢ mī-dhara, of the mech-
anisms involved. Te moon waxes and wanes, either gaining or losing
one digit (kalā) every day. More precisely, the frst kalā emerges from the
sun on the day afer new-moon day (śukla-pratipad) and rejoins the sun
on the frst day of the dark half of the month (that is, the day following
full moon). Similarly for each of the other kalās. Tere are 16 such kalās
(15 lunar days, tithis, in each half-month, plus the 16th which remains
always on Śiva’s head
or which resides, as the cit-form of the goddess,
on the thousand-petalled lotus at the top of her [and our] subtle body).
Each kalā is also a goddess in her own right, one of a set of 16 Nityās.

You will recall that our mantra has 16 syllables.
On full-moon day (paurnamāsī) the sun and the moon are most dis-
tant from one another (and the moon has absorbed the maximum of
solar energy it can hold); on new-moon day (amāvāsya), the sun and
moon are closest, actually conjoined (atyanta-samˢ yoga). Exactly the
same process is going on continuously in the subtle body: the moon
On the conceptual and logical structure of verbal magic, see the classic discussion
by Tambiah 1968.
anuraΩana, a term more at home in Abhinavagupta’s poetics than in his Tantric
My thanks to H.V. Nagaraja Rao.
On the Nityā series, see Gupta 1:13.
how to bring a goddess into being through visible sound 331
and the sun are active in the invisible channels called Idˢ ā (on the lef)
and Pinˆgal ˢ ā (on the right), respectively.
Te moon is constantly sprin-
kling the amrˢ ta-elixir (liquifed by the absorption of solar energy) into
the 72,000 subtle channels (nādˢ ī) that course through this subtle physi-
ology, and this soothing intravenous drip ultimately reaches the pit
(kunˢdˢ a) in the mūlâdhāra-cakra at the base of the spine, where the
Kunˢ dˢ alinī is sleeping. Te sun, on the other hand, soaks up and takes
away the amrˢ ta.
Tese processes, though unceasing, are asymmetrical
and dynamic, as anyone can see by looking at the changing phases of the
moon. Moreover, just as the sun and moon come into close conjunction
in the heavens on new-moon day, so they are conjoined on this same
day in their physiological trajectories. Tus, as Laksˢ mī-dhara very elo-
quently states,
When the moon and the sun come together (samāveśa) in the mūlâ-
dhāra, the amāvāsya (new-moon) day is born. Similarly, the days of the
dark half of the month are born.
At that point, through contact with the
sun’s rays,
the Kunˢ dˢ alinī is sleeping in the pit of the mūlâdhāra, which
is flled with elixir dripping from the waning moon. Her sleeping state
is what is called “the dark half of the month.” When the Yogi who has
concentrated his awareness (samāhita-citta) is able to block up the moon
in the moon channel (Idˢ ā) and the sun in the sun channel (Pinˆgal ˢ ā) by
means of his breath (literally wind, vāyu), the moon and the sun, thus
trapped, are unable to sprinkle the elixir or to suck it up, respectively. At
that moment, when the inner wind fans the fames of fre burning in the
svâdhisˢ t ˢ hāna-cakra, the pit of elixir dries up and the Kunˢ dˢ alinī, starved (of
elixir), wakes and, hissing like a serpent, breaks through the three knots
and bites the orb of the moon moving in the middle of the thousand-pet-
alled lotus (above the set of cakras). As a result, streams of elixir are set free
and food the moon-sphere above the ājñā-cakra—and then they food the
entire body.”
Tis exquisite experience, in the lunar mode, is one of full self-awareness
(tat-kalā cin-mayī ānanda-rūpā ātmeti gīyate). Indeed, it defnes the self,
ātman, as such. It is also defned as the goddess, Tripura-sundarī (saiva
tripura-sundarī), present, active, and now entirely awake.
Tese channels also divide up their activity between night and day and, on another
level of the cycle, between the 6-month southern and northern courses of the sun (pitν-
yāna and deva-yāna).
Te description fts a pervasive conceptual pattern built around giving forth and
taking away: see Handelman and Shulman 2004, 216.
On this puzzling statement, seemingly out of sequence, see below.
Which, as mentioned above, apparently melt the cool or even frozen amνta.
Lakυmī-dhara on SL 32, 278–79.
332 david shulman
Laksˢ mī-dhara’s conclusion, which he classes as yet another profound
secret (rahasya), is that Yogic masters can only wake the Kunˢ dˢ alinī
during the bright half of the month, as the moon is waxing. In fact,
however, he has already informed us that the Kaulas can and do perform
this exercise for Nityā, who subsumes all the other Nityās/kalās, every
Time collapses into embedded re-encapsulations of its natural
rhythm, identical in terms of their internal composition with the larger,
more extended temporal units. Tus all the days of the dark half of the
month are contained (antar-bhavanti) within the new-moon day, as all
the days of the light half can be called “full moon.” By the same token,
any single day, including the night, repeats the unrolling sequence of
the year with its northern and southern solar paths. Such cycles within
cycles consistently reproduce, on each level, the same brief window of
opportunity when Amāvāsya—the “day” of the new moon—arrives or is
generated by the Yogi’s holding of his breath (kumbhaka), as described
above. Tis is the moment when ongoing solar and lunar operations
are held in suspension, when the pit empties out completely and the
famished Kunˢ dˢ alinī wakes and rises up through the entire organism of
cosmos/goddess/adept, of yantra overlapping mantra. Only total meta-
bolic failure—no more amrˢ ta-drip and re-absorption—concomitant
with the coincidence of sun and moon in the lowest cakra, as in the
sky, can create this precious, feeting space for potential change. Or,
stated positively: time itself, in all its cycles, regularly conduces to that
recurrent but evanescent point at which the goddess emerges, timeless
(nityā), in her entirety, unwinding or unravelling herself from the coiled,
soporifc state that has kept her hidden deep within us—or within the
depths of her own being. Incidentally, although Laksˢ mī-dhara does not
say so in this context, this same recurrent moment is that split second
when, for every one of us, a latent, largely unconscious urge to speak
(vivaksˢ ā) is fanned into fame and, rising from within us, bursts forth
as audible speech.
Te miracle of language, which we take for granted,
is this repeated, always unexpected, literally breath-taking, unwinding
ascent of an emergent goddess.
But a critical distinction has to be made here. Time has the dynamic
structure just described built into its fow, even if we generally fail to
See also ibid., 282.
See Padoux 1990, 126. For the process of articulation as vivakυā fanned into
fame by the internal breath or wind, see PāΩinīya-śikυā 4–7; also Saרgīta-ratnâkara of
Śārרgadeva, 3.4.
how to bring a goddess into being through visible sound 333
give it our attention (and thus waste the moment). Language, in normal
use, does not. Everyday speech (vaikharī, as Bhartrˢ hari, and following
him the Śākta Tantrikas, call it) is difuse and dispersed. It also tends to
be overburdened with those distracting residues of reality that we call
“meaning,” in the more trivial sense of the word (as in our translation A
of SL 32). To stick with this level of language is to condemn ourselves,
and the Kunˢ dˢ alinī, to continuous coma. For this very reason we need
the mantra, which translates a low-level semantics into the rhythms and
cadences of the cosmos. Tus the 15 + 1 lunar days (tithi), which embody
the 15 + 1 parts (kalā) of the goddess (as 15 + 1 Nityās),
thereby unroll-
ing her before our eyes, unroll on our tongues as 15 syllables moving
precisely toward the Amāvāsya moment of awakening (syllable 16).
Tis temporal rhythm is built into the mantra and enables its efcacy.
Te primary logic is one of systemic compression and expansion, or of
miniaturization and infation, an accordian efect that preserves the vital
confguration of active forces at every level of expansion, from the most
condensed to the most extended.
It is of some interest that this sequence runs its course, if read for-
ward in its own terms, during the dark half of the month, as the moon
wanes while amrˢ ta-elixir is still dripping into the pit at the base of the
spine. One strives toward Amāvāsya, from which point on—and only
from that dark point—can the Kunˢ dˢ alinī be awakened. Te mantra itself
takes us in this direction, syllable by syllable, tithi by tithi. Tis means
that, recited backwards, as time moves toward the full moon, the same
mantra will put the goddess back to sleep. You have your choice. Te
forward recitation must thus run contrary to the actual fow of time dur-
ing the preferred period of recitation (as the moon waxes). Indeed, as we
know, Tantric praxis is classically meant to reverse the course of time.
Perhaps this explains the otherwise somewhat out-of-place statement
by Laksˢ mī-dhara that “the days of the dark half of the month are born”
afer the new moon. Tey are indeed born—through the Yogi’s reversed
recitation which brings the goddess (or the cosmos) into visible being as
a sequential descent through the cakras, from her head to the base of her
spine, from full moon to new moon, this being the necessary prelude to
waking her.
Also, elsewhere, as 16 tuϏis, “breath-moments”: Tantrâloka of Abhinavagaupta
6.63; Padoux 1990, 234.
334 david shulman
Either way, the mantra works not merely as a cosmogram—an aural
map of an unfolding cosmos, in every way identical with the Śrī-cakra
yantra, each phoneme materializing another visible, defned part of the
goddess—but also, and especially, as a chronophone, an audible repeti-
tion or reenactment of temporal process. In this sense, a work like the SL,
at least in its early, practical segment, and in contrast to the citra poems
we studied earlier, is fully four-dimensional. It has, that is, restored the
dimension of linear temporal sequence to the poem, though only afer
frst shattering any superfcial linearity or natural semanticity, just as the
citra poets seek to do.
Conclusion: Trans-semantic Poetics
I have drawn a line from a very ancient passage (Chāndogya Upanisˢ ad
1.13) through mature kāvya praxis in Sanskrit and other languages, to the
stotra- or mantra-oriented poetry of medieval Tantra.
Certain features
are common to all three instances. Phonemes and syllables have a life of
their own and, ofen, automatic efects. Poets harness these properties
to their own purposes. In the cases mentioned, these vary—the pure
musicality of the Tamil citra poem is not, afer all, as heavily pragmatic
as SL 33—but “natural” sequence precludes any of them. Te poem’s
normal progression from beginning to end is deliberately undermined
from within—and with the disruption of this progression, the semantics
of the surface are also profoundly disrupted. A new complex of rela-
tively autonomous sonar elements, strongly resonant with one another,
is produced. Tese elements invariably turn out to have graphic expres-
sions, so that one can actually see the sounds (or hear the forms). Such
combined phonic graphemes never represent or symbolize spatially real
objects. Tey generate them. Tis process is at its most dramatically
explicit in the verses we examined from the SL, which could be said to
take the methodology of citra composition to a new limit.
To understand the innovation, we need to take one more look at the
text of SL 32, now that we have decoded it with Laksˢ mī-dhara’s help.
Te linguistic procedures at work in this one verse require further
analytic restatement. First, it is worth asking ourselves if the mantra,
before or afer decoding, might not actually mean something apart from
Tere is, however, no implication that SL is in any way paradigmatic for stotra
literature, which clearly ramifes into many distinct types.
how to bring a goddess into being through visible sound 335
“goddess” or “unfolding cosmos” or the upward zoom of the Kunˢ dˢ alinī—
something more akin to everyday semantic operations. Look back at
segments 2 and 3 of the mantra in their primary, i.e. straight or pho-
nic translation: ha-sa-ka-ha-la hrīmˢ sa-ka-la hrīmˢ . Remember, too, that
these syllables are capable of metrical arrangements and that, in their
quadrapartite arrangement, they could be recited and heard as a verse
with four quarters (including, of course, the hidden, near-silent fnal
segment). If we align the two segments vertically, like in a verse, we get:
ha-sa-ka-ha-la hrīmˢ
sa-ka-la hrīmˢ
Even if one ignores the end-rhyme, it is hard to miss the yamaka efect.
Specifcally, sa, ka, and la repeat. As it happens, sakala means something
or, rather, “everything.” It is that entity that is “with all its parts” and thus
“complete” or “whole.” So our mantra can, in fact, revert to a seman-
tic level where the word sakala, at least, means what it usually means,
although no sooner does this word stand out than it is also dissected,
stretched or expanded to include two other (ha) syllables in segment 2. In
any case, a new relationship can be detected between the two segments,
with both semantic and phonic facets combining somewhat unexpect-
edly. One could say that, as in many citra verses, the horizontal (seman-
tic) and vertical (acoustic) tracks suddenly converge. I suppose this is the
moment to mention that an alternative decoding of the mantra exists—
we fnd it in Kaivalyâśrama’s commentary, the Saubhāgya-vardhanī,
which we cited earlier on verse 19—in which the entire frst segment
(which Laksˢ mī-dhara reads as ka-e-i-la) translates as ha-sa-ka-la.
we to prefer this way of reading, the yamaka repetition of sakala would
be overwhelming, to the point of constituting or reconstituting both the
mantra as a whole and the esoteric meaning of the verse.
Even if we stick with Laksˢ mī-dhara, sakala is hardly an innocent term.
Te “parts” referred to are surely the kalās of the goddess Tripura-sundarī
herself—she who is, as you may recall, the ultimate, all-containing
kalā situated at the top of the Tantric psycho-cosmos. Now look at the
mantra again:
Tis reading of verse 32, beginning with the syllable with ha, is seen as embody-
ing the hâdi-vidyā and contrasting with the kâdi-vidyā, which is then produced by
one decoding of verse 33. Tis is not the place to go into this distinction in detail, but
Kaivalyâśrama relates the kâdi-vidyā to pleasure- or power-oriented efects in the cos-
mos ruled by saΥsāra. Te hâdi-vidyā, by implication, leads to release.
336 david shulman
ka-e-i-la-hrīmˢ ha-sa-ka-ha-la hrīmˢ sa-ka-la hrīmˢ
Take the frst syllable, ka, and combine it with the fnal syllable of seg-
ment 3, la—i.e. the entire overt mantric sequence—and you get a Pānˢ ini-
style abbreviation (pratyāhāra), which is none other than this same kalâ.
In Pānˢ inian grammar, such an abbreviation includes within it, indeed
properly denotes, all the phonemes in the middle (starting with the frst);
and here, too, as Laksˢ mī-dhara tells us, the entire unwinding of the god-
dess as cosmos is compressed into this sequence.
Just as the temporal
rhythms of the cosmos can be miniaturized and precisely reproduced
at any level—year, month, day, or a single second—so language can be
made to condense into its smallest units the structural processes work-
ing in larger ones, even subsuming in this manner the most exoteric
and devolved level of all, that of referential meaning. And if this is still
not enough, Laksˢ mī-dhara goes on to explain how the four nasals in
the complete mantra quiver and hum as the faint, nearly inaudible nāda
that generates all perceptible sounds;
and how the three stages of nāda,
bindu, and kalā move through the mantra in its three parts, which are
also the three cosmic levels (fre, sun, Soma + moon) present in the Śrī-
cakra; and how eventually all the ffy phonemes of the Sanskrit lan-
guage, from a to ksˢ , are manifest in their creative or potential forms (as
mātrˢ kas) in these three cosmogonic segments, in exact mathematical
distribution. Moreover, moving downward, the 16 Nityā goddesses are
compressed into the 16 phonemes, and these 16 phonemes are rolled
into the audible and visible 15, and these 15 are the stuf of sun, moon,
and fre, as we know. All such series can be either expanded or collapsed,
like the goddess herself, into thinner or more condensed—but always
structurally and dynamically equivalent—forms. Within this range of
existential, utterly non-symbolic processes, every syllable that breaks
through to audible surface is truly afame. But perhaps it is time for us,
at any rate, to stop this endless proliferation and to ask ourselves, one
last time, what it all means.
Let me say again that packing the syllables with ever more dense and
ramifed correlations or identifcations is not the point. What matters is
the tremendous internal movement that is felt to inhere in the sounds in
their specifed vectors, movement triggered by aural experience and its
visual equivalent. All this is possible only because language does move
See Lakυmī-dhara’s rich discussion at the bottom of p. 279.
See Padoux 1990, 96–105.
how to bring a goddess into being through visible sound 337
in such patterned and repetitive ways. Precise phonic sequence, scien-
tifcally arranged, acts systemically on all levels. Such repetition inevi-
tably sets up resonances, or sets of musical relations, that cut across the
linear progression of normally semanticized speech. A poem like the SL
is conceived, among other things, to reveal and highlight such relations,
very much in the manner of citra-kāvya. Sa-ka-la thus reverberates both
horizontally and vertically in the mantra. But much more than in citra
poetry, such reverberations in mantric poetry are felt to produce imme-
diate and far-reaching efects.
In doing so, this four-dimensional poetry goes through two strik-
ingly complementary processes. First, there is a complex series of trans-
lations. One has to translate the overt meaning of words like śiva, śakti,
earth, sun, desire, memory, and so on, into the sounds that they point
to or indicate. Te terminology has its own importance. Laksˢ mī-dhara
rightly says that his entire decoding of the verse rests on the technique
of transferred meaning, laksˢ anˢā, or, more precisely (in some cases), that
variety of the latter that is called laksˢ ita-laksˢ anˢā—that is, an indirect
transfer or secondary extension of meaning, as when the word dvi-repha
(“having two r-sounds”) is used instead of the common word bhramara,
In other words, one verbal token denotes or points to another.
But behind the second such meaning in several of our mantric units lies
not a conventional object but a pure sound. Tis sound, in turn, means
something more, indeed a great deal more, as we have seen. More to the
point, each such sound also does something. Tis action or movement
is its meaning (although the frst, overt semantic level is never wholly
lost and may, as we have seen, reappear at another stage). In efect, the
mantra, afer completely denaturalizing any superfcial semantics, re-
semanticizes the verse as a series of events triggered by phonic or musi-
cal means.
Tat an action is the primary meaning of an utterance is nothing new
for the Pānˢ inians.
Nonetheless, the implicit analysis of meaningfulness
in this Tantric linguistics takes matters in a startling direction. Gener-
ally, for the grammarians, the phonic sign (vācaka) precedes its object or
meaning (vācya)—indeed, for Bhartrˢ hari, the latter derives directly from
the former. Here, however, the vācya produced from the conventional
See discussion in Kunjunni Raja 1977, 254; Lakυmī-dhara, 277.
As the grammarians say, bhāva-pradhānaΥ ākhyātam: see Kāśikā ad PāΩini 1.3.1,
following Patañjali’s discussion in Mahābhāυya on this sūtra.
338 david shulman
vācaka (“śiva,” “ksˢ iti”) is used to generate a further vācaka-phoneme
that both triggers efects in the cosmos and thereby reconstitutes or
reembodies the ultimate “object,” that vācya that is the goddess who is
also the speaker’s true self. Such a semantics gives new meaning to the
otherwise exotic notion of self-expression
—for the result is no less a
matter of meta-psychology than of ontology. Better still, we might call
it an existential phonology. Here meaning is not something described
or reported—not a referent—but something immediately and literally
efected, in the somewhat indirect procedure just described, by articu-
late speech.
Secondly, as stated earlier, and again in the wake of the initial disrup-
tion in linear progression, the mantra, once decoded, surprisingly restores
sequence as intrinsic to its action. In stark contrast to a Bhartrˢ harian
metaphysic, the SL insists on the sequentiality built into language at its
most real. Without it, nothing will happen. Te four-dimensionality of
such poetry depends on it entirely. Nonetheless, we have to remember
that the mantra may well work in several possible directions (forward,
backward, criss-crossing, zig-zagging) and that, for all its explosive
potential, there are strong elements holding it together (for example, the
pratyāhāra “kalā” that holds its two ends in suspension).
A verse like SL 32 is its own grammar, working through a set of
implicit meta-rules. One of these might be: “A word indicates not itself,
not its audible sound-sequence, not its usual meaning, not any of its
synonyms, but a certain phonic pattern.”
“Any efective phonic pat-
tern can be visually mapped and quantifed” might be another. More
abstractly, we could say that in such poems a musical semantics runs
through, or beyond, most forms of verbal denotation. Quite ofen,
though by no means always, these two currents turn out to be at odds.
In such cases, the musical vector has a tendency to overpower the other.
Tere is a historical dimension to this claim. I would argue that this
problem, if it is a problem, lies at the very heart of Sanskrit poetry, from
its beginning right through to the present day.
Hence the practical and
efectual aspect of the Sanskrit poet, which keeps breaking through the
high courtly image of the poet as professional artist.
As I remarked at
See Malamoud 2002.
Afer the model of PāΩini 1.1.68: svaΥ rūpaΥ śabdasyâśabda-saΥjñå.
For a modern expansion of citra-style poetry, see the remarkable work by the nine-
teenth-century Sanskrit poet, U. Ve. Sundapalayam Tirumalai Rāmabhadrâcāri 2000.
See Granof.
how to bring a goddess into being through visible sound 339
the outset, there is a point where the Vedic rˢ sˢ i, hearing and recording
mantras, and the classical kavi, producing kāvyas or stotras, may meet.
Tere is also, I think, a movement through the centuries toward ever
greater or deeper musicality, in the practical sense just implied. Were
we to extend the continuum as far as the complex Sanskrit songs (krˢ ti or
kīrtana), many of them Tantric in import and method, by Muttusvāmi
Dīksˢ itar (from late 18th-century and early 19th-century Tiruvārūr in
the Tamil country), we would see, as Harold Powers cogently says, that
“grammatical and syntactic continuity, semantic content, and melodic-
rhythmic continuity are carefully coordinated.”
On the other hand, we
would also certainly notice that
however much one’s attention may focus on the outward meaning of the
songs, thence on to their esoteric allusions, soon enough the semantics
begins to be overshadowed by the pure sound of the words, which take
on independent life as carriers of musical rhythms and shapes. Ten one’s
concrete perceptions of the specifc rhythms of a particular song begin
to fade too, to merge into an abstracted awareness of the general melodic
shapes that those rhythms enliven, until fnally one is absorbed in con-
templation of the ideal and unmanifested confguration, the soundless
sound. . . .
Strangely, in the case of the SL, such soundless sounds have a clearly
visible, even tangible (mostly triangular) shape. Moreover, this sound-
lessness turns out to be rather noisy. In any case, for texts such as those
we have been studying, we might want to posit a pragmatic poetics in
which to wake the Kunˢ dˢ alinī requires a semantics of an altogether dif-
ferent order—mathematical, geometric, musical, and at the same time
wholly and necessarily concrete.
Abhinavagupta 1987. Tantrâloka. Ed. R.C. Dwivedi and N. Rastogi. Delhi: Motilal
Arbatov, S. 2003. “Vedic Sacrifce in the Upanisˢ ads.” M.A. thesis, Hebrew University.
Bhartrˢ hari 1971. Vākya-padīya. Ed. K. Raghavan Pillai. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
Brereton, J.P. 1997. “ ‘Why is a Sleeping Dog Like the Vedic Sacrifce?’ Te Structure of a
Vedic Brahmodya.” In Inside the Texts, Beyond the Texts, ed. M. Witzel. Cambridge,
Mass.: Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies, 1–14.
Brˢ had-āranˢ yaka Upanisˢ ad (with commentary of Śanˆkara) 1983. Madras: Samata.
Powers 322.
Ibid., 336.
340 david shulman
Chāndogya Upanisˢ ad 1983. Madras: Samata.
Danˢ dˢ in 1890. Kāvyâdarśa. Ed. O. Böhtlingk. Leipzig: H. Haessel.
Goudriaan, T. and S. Gupta 1981. Hindu Tantric and Śākta Literature, in J. Gonda (ed.),
History of Indian Literature, II.2 Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 147–48.
Gerow, E. 1971. A Glossary of Indian Figures of Speech. Te Hague and Paris: Mouton.
Granof, Phyllis. “Sarasvatī’s Sons: Biographies of Poets in Medieval India,” Asiatische
Studien 49 (1995), 351–76.
Gupta, S. “Diksitar’s Cycle of Hymns to the Goddess Kamala.” In E. te Nijenhuis and
S. Gupta, Sacred Songs of India. Diksitar’s Cycle of Hymns to the Goddess Kamala.
Forum Ethnomusicologium 3.
Gupta, S., D.J. Hoens, and T. Goudriaan 1979. Hindu Tantrism [Handbuch der Oriental-
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Handelman, D. and D. Shulman 2004. Śiva in the Forest of Pines: An Essay on Sorcery and
Self-Knowledge. Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Ingalls, D.H.H. 1989. “Ānandavardhana’s Devīśataka,” JAOS 109. 4:565–75.
Kunjunni Raja, K. 1977. Indian Teories of Meaning. 2nd edition, Madras: Adyar Library
and Research Center.
Kur˰ untŏkai 1947. Ed. U. Ve. Cāmināt’aiyar. Madras: Kabir Press.
Malamoud, Ch. 2002. “A Body Made of Words and Poetic Meters.” In Self and Self-Trans-
formation in the History of Religions, eds. D. Shulman and G. Stroumsa. New York:
Oxford University Press, 19–28.
Mammat ˢ a 1983. Kāvya-prakāśa. Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute.
Marr, J. 1985. Te Eight Tamil Anthologies. Tiruvanmiyur: Institute of Asian Studies.
Michael, T. 1986. “Le Śrī-cakra dans la Saundarya-laharī.” In Mantras et diagrammes
rituels dans l’hindouisme. Paris: Centre National de la Recherche Scientifque,
Nammāl ˰ vār. 1971. Tiruviruttam. Madras: Te Visisthadvaita Pracharini Sabha.
Pānˢ īniya-śiksˢ ā 1991. Ed. M. Ghosh. Delhi: V.K. Publishing House.
Patañjali 1987. Mahābhāsˢ ya. Ed. G.P. Shastri and B. Shastri. Varanasi: Vani Vilas
Padoux, A. 1990. Vāc: Te Concept of the Word in Selected Hindu Tantras. Albany: SUNY
Patton, L. 1996. Myth as Argument: Te Br
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Powers, H. 1984. “Musical Art and Esoteric Teism: Muttusvāmi Dīksˢ itar’s Ānan-
dabhairavi Kīrtanams on Śiva and Śakti at Tiruvarur.” In Discourses on Śiva:
Proceedings of a Symposium on the Nature of Religious Imagery, ed. M. Meister.
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Rˢ gveda. 1957. Bombay: Svadhyaya Mandal.
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See, for example, Garsoïan 1976, Garsoïan 1982, Russell 1987.
Sergio La Porta
Te Christianization of the Eastern Mediterranean not only resulted in
a shif in the religious afliation of the region but also in an alteration
of its cultural map. As opposed to the Greek cultural hegemony of the
classical world, the Christian world of late antiquity displayed a much
more variegated and diverse cultural topography shaped by the birth of
several new alphabets and literatures. Although Greco-Roman language
and literature remained the dominant force in the center of the Chris-
tian world, towards the periphery there now existed Armenian, Coptic,
Ethiopic, Georgian, and Syriac literatures.
Te literary emergence of local tongues changed the fundamental
relationship between culture and language in those areas. No longer rel-
egated to the gossip mongering of the tavern or the chattering of the
market-place, these languages emerged as the co-bearers of the new
international Christian culture expressed in their own poetic idiom.
Indeed, the tavern and the marketplace suddenly appear alongside the
schools of rhetoric as the defners of linguistic style and meaning. Te
soliloquy of Hellenism was coming to an end. Te polite conversation
between Greek and Iranian, too, was interrupted. Te world of Late
Antiquity was a noisy, atonal, polyphony of Semitic, Indo-European,
and Caucasian tongues jostling to be heard; a cacophony of emerging
I. Te Invention of the Armenian Alphabet
and the Translation of the Bible
Armenia had for quite some time existed in between the cultural spheres
of the Greek and Iranian worlds, but had always leaned more towards the
Te conversion from Zoroastrianism to Christianity was as much
344 sergio la porta
a change in self and cultural identity as it was of faith. Many Iranian
aspects of Armenian society and belief were preserved long afer the
adoption of Christianity, and the transformation to a Christian people,
despite native tradition, was neither rapid nor without resistance.
guage played an important role in this process and its signifcance was
recognized by the early Armenian Church Fathers. Te role of language
in the conversion also lef its imprint on later speculations on the power
of the written word.
Te task of converting Armenians to Christianity began immedi-
ately afer the conversion of King Trdat at the beginning of the fourth
Violent coercion was implemented as Armenian historians
themselves admit when they praise the persecution of Zoroastrian
holdouts and the destruction of fre altars.
Te lack of an Armenian
translation of scripture, however, remained an obstacle in the Chris-
tianization of the Armenian people.
Te liturgy and the lessons were
read in Greek or Syriac while someone standing at the altar provided
a simultaneous translation into Armenian.
Tis practice endured dur-
ing the century which elapsed between the conversion of Armenia and
the invention of the Armenian alphabet. It was to remedy this situation
that Mesrop Maštoc‘ was commissioned to fashion an alphabet to ren-
der the scriptures into Armenian.
According to the tradition preserved
in Koriwn’s biography of Maštoc‘, afer trying to adapt diferent (likely
Semitic) alphabets to suit the Armenian language, Mesrop, frustrated,
entered a state of intensive lamentation and prayer, during which God
wrote the letters of alphabet with His right hand.
Subsequent to the
creation of the alphabet, the work of translation commenced. Scholars
were sent to both Edessa and Constantinople to fnd good copies of the
Bible in order to make the translation, which was then executed.
Tomson 1988/89; Russell 1987.
Ananean 1961; Tomson 1988/89.
Tomson 1988/89, 35–36.
Koriwn 1985, 40; Movsēs Xorenac‘i 1991, III:47.
Tomson 1988/89, 37.
Peeters 1929, Koriwn 1985, xxix–xxxi; Tomson 1988/89, 37, n. 36; Russell 1994,
Stone et al. 2001.
Koriwn 1985, 48; cf. Movsēs Xorenac‘i 1991, II:53. For a treatment of the mystical
elements in this efort, see Russell 1994, 322–25, 327.
Tere is a large literature on the history of the (two) Armenian translations of the
Bible; in general see Lyonnet 1935, Leloir 1960, Cox 1982, Tēr-Petrosyan 1984, Mahé
1988, Cowe 1990/91.
armenian meditations on the metamorphic power 345
Tis account reveals signifcant features about Armenian attitudes to
the role of language. First, the Armenians themselves were aware of the
import of both letters and the role of language in defning a culture.
Tis is evident from the fact that they considered the invention of the
alphabet and the translation of scripture signifcant enough events to
write about them immediately afer having accomplished these tasks.
Koriwn’s biography of Maštoc‘ is likely the frst native text written in
Armenian, and it is the work of a translator transformed into an author.

Te desire to record the invention of an alphabet and of the transla-
tion of the Bible may appear to be obvious, but it is the only instance in
Oriental Christianity where we possess such a cogent and detailed
account of the invention of an alphabet and the translation of scripture.
Second, the Armenian Fathers were conscious of the intimate rela-
tionship between translation and interpretation.
When the bands of
Armenians went to Edessa and Constantinople, they did not just return
with copies of the Bible, but also with writings of the Greek and Syriac
Fathers and the canons of the Councils of Nicaea and Ephesus.
writings helped provide an interpretative framework for the Armenian
Tird, at least the author of the Life of Mesrop Maštoc‘, Koriwn, attrib-
uted a certain metamorphic power to letters and language. According
to Koriwn, Mesrop, a former secretary in an Armenian/Parthian court,
was transformed into a Mosaic fgure through his invention of the
alphabet and delivery of the scriptures to Armenia.
Tis transforma-
tion of the fgure of Maštoc‘ from functionary of an Iranian type into a
biblical prophet symbolizes the full metamorphosis of Armenian cul-
ture from Zoroastrianism to Christianity through the revelation of the
letters. Naturally, the Armenian language, too, was transformed by the
process of inscription and translation, becoming one of the holy lan-
guages. Koriwn revels in the joy of the Armenians when suddenly the
words of Moses and of the Apostle Paul were found to be ‘Armenian
in speech’ (שך׮ךכך׹כך׵׽ [hayabarbarˆk‘]) and ‘Armenian speaking’
(שך׮מ׹נׯךצך׻׶׽ [hayerēnaxawsk‘]).
Trough the rendering of the
Bible into Armenian, the prophets and people of Israel as well as the
Tomson 1988/89, 37.
Mahé 1988, Weitenberg 1997.
Koriwn 1985, 74–6.
Koriwn 1985, 52; Tomson 1982, 140; Maksoudian 1998, 27.
Koriwn 1985, 56.
346 sergio la porta
Apostles suddenly emerged as Armenian speakers! Armenian, like
Hebrew, Greek, and Syriac, was a biblical tongue.
II. Te Grammatical Tradition and Vital Language
Afer the translation of the Bible, there began a translation movement of
Greek and Syriac texts into Armenian.
Among those included was the
text of Dionysius Trax’s Ars Grammatica.
Te Ars Grammatica became
the basis of grammatical speculation and instruction in Armenian
between the sixth and ffeenth centuries. Approximately ten commen-
taries on this work have survived in Armenian from this span of time.
I do not intend to discuss the entirety of the Armenian grammatical
tradition, but I do wish to highlight some important developments that
occurred within the tradition as it developed.
For the most part the
Armenians considered grammar at least theoretically universal. Te dif-
ferences between languages are attributed to various errors on the part
of humanity. It is the goal and task of etymology to discover the original
word having a direct relationship with its object.
Te universality of language and grammar provides one explanation
for the continued reliance upon a Greek grammar to elucidate the Arme-
nian language. While the two languages are Indo-European, marked dif-
ferences exist which presented problems for the Armenian exegetes. For
example, Armenian does not possess a dual form, nor grammatical gen-
der. Upon reaching these points in Dionysius’ grammar, the Armenian
commentators take various approaches ranging from ignoring them to
inventing dual forms for Armenian and fnding grammatical gender in
Armenian words. Needless to say, these innovations in the Armenian
language remained confned to the grammatical tradition.
To the medieval mind, however, both languages share a common
origin as declinations from the original language, whose meta-grammar
was an integral part of the structure of the created universe. Te aim
of the study of grammar was two-fold. One was to teach the student
how to read and write correctly. Te second, more esoteric function of
Manandian 1928; Mercier 1978/79; Terian 1982; Mahé 1988; Zuckermann 1996;
Weitenberg 1997.
Adontz 1970.
Ervine 1988, 53–4.
Many of the points discussed below have been explored in greater detail by Ervine
armenian meditations on the metamorphic power 347
grammatical study was to discover the correspondences between the
structure of human language and that of the creations in order to reveal
the meta-grammar of Language.
If we chart the introduction of certain themes into the commentar-
ies, we notice the gradual composition of a vital concept of grammar
and language. Language comes to be conceived of as a creative and
generative act. Te writing of a letter is understood as the embodiment
of sound and the commentators see in this composite construction a
microcosm of both humanity and the universe. Te authors attribute
power to the shapes, names, and numerical value of the letters. Finally,
the art of grammar is likened to that of medicine, emphasizing the cura-
tive powers of the grammarian. Although it is not explicitly stated in the
commentarial tradition, human written language adopts divine charac-
teristics, especially those of God the Logos.
Dawit‘ Anyałt‘ (6th c.) Grammar is art. Art is a composite instructed
by tradition concerning things useful in this
life—a composite because it is made up of
many things, by analogy with weaving.
Nouns derive from nouns like plants from the
earth, light from sun, smell from fowers.
Movsēs K‘ertoł (7th c.) Nouns derive from nouns as intelligence from
man or sensation from object.
Grigor Magistros (11th c.) Sounds are unembodied because they are
ofspring of the spirit, and it is necessary that
the ofspring of that which is incorporeal be
incorporeal as well.
Dawit‘ Anyałt‘ (6th c.) Sound and letter correspond to body and
Step‘anos Siwnec‘i (8th c.) Writing a means of embodying unembodied
In the subsequent chart, I have listed only the frst time a notion appears. Te tradi-
tion as it evolved in the middle ages was cumulative. Each notion is usually continued
and sometimes adapted in the later commentaries.
348 sergio la porta
Dawit‘ Anyałt‘ (6th c.) Consonants correspond to parts of the body.
Movsēs K‘ertoł (7th c.) Sound incorporeal and superior to physical
Vowels correspond to parts of the body.
Consonants correspond to parts of the world:
earth, animals, plants, etc.