Monday, June 25, 2007

The Golden Orchard

Combinatorial Wheel of Ramón Llull, 13th century

Liam has an interesting post right now on Ramón Llull, the 13th-century Spanish mystic, poet and philosopher. While reading about Llull's Ars, his system of mystic contemplation, and looking at the fascinating images of his combinatorial wheels, I was instantly struck by similarities to other systems developed by Jewish and Islamic mystics on the Iberian Peninsula around the same time period. I started digging around for information and, suddenly, Liam's post had revived my own interest in the history of mysticism in medieval Spain, which I began investigating about 10 years ago while living in Madrid.

Without overstating the case, I would argue that the world has rarely seen a more spiritually charged atmosphere than the one on the Iberian Peninsula in the 13th century. The most important work in Jewish mysticism, the Sefer Ha-Zohar [Book of Splendor], also known as the Zohar, was composed by Moses de Leon in Castile around 1280. Abraham Abulafia, creator of "ecstatic kabbalah," and one of the key figures in Jewish mysticism [Gershom Scholem dedicates an entire chapter to him in his landmark study Major Trends in Jewish Msyticsm], was born in Zaragoza in 1240. Abulafia had his first visions and started studying the kabbalah around 1270 in Barcelona, which was one of the major centers of kabbalah, along with Girona, just to the north. Other important kabbalists were scattered throughout Catalunya and Castile. Meanwhile, in Al-Andalus, the Moorish kingdom in the south of the peninsula, Ibn Arabi was born (Murcia, 1165) and spent the first part of his life. Arabi is one of the principle figures in the history of Islamic mysticism, and his magnum opus Futuhat is considered by some to be the major text of Sufism. Other important Sufis also thrived in Al-Andalus during that time, as Ibn Arabi discusses in his Sufis of Andalusia. Thus, some of the most important mystics in the history of Christianity, Judaism and Islam were composing some of the most important mystical texts of all time during a one-hundred year period in an area roughly the size of California.

Title page of the Zohar, Mantua edition, 1558.

(Just for good measure, this was also the time when the Knights Templar were active in Spain, and when St. Francis was walking across the country on his pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella. Both the Templars and Francis had their own interesting interactions with Jews and Muslims of the time.)

But how did this Golden Age of Mysticism blossom in Spain? What brought about the Golden Orchard?

Christians probably arrived in Spain not long after the time of Christ, but there doesn't seem to have developed a tradition of mystical writing until after the conquest of the Moors. Saint Isidore did write a treatise on the allegorical meaning of numbers (Allegorise scripturae sacrae et liber numerorum), but he seems to have been an exception. Perhaps the dearth of Christian mysticism before the conquest was due to what Miguel Asín Palacios, an important scholar of Moorish Spain, called the "philosophical poverty of the Visigoths in the midst of their material plenty. Their culture, basically Biblical, had as its sources the works of some of the Holy Fathers, and did not include metaphysics." [The Mystical Philosophy of Ibn Masarra and His Followers. (E.J. Brill, 1978). A translation of the original Spanish work published in Madrid in 1914.] Early Moorish writers also commented on the apparent lack of science and philosophy in the peninsula before the conquest in 711. This is an interesting observation, as medieval mysticism was so interrelated with science, philosophy and poetry.

There are legends of Jews arriving in Spain during Biblical times (Tarshish is thought by some to have been in southern Spain), and some Jews probably came after Rome defeated Carthage in the Second Punic War, around 250 BC, but a large-scale immigration of the Jewish community to the peninsula didn't begin until after Titus' destruction of Judea in 135 AD, what we know as the Diaspora. Again, though, there seems to have been no real flowering of mysticism before the arrival of the Moors, probably for the same reasons that Christian mysticism didn't develop - the intellectual culture of the Visigoths. In addition, the Jews were often persecuted by the Visigoths and were probably just trying to survive. This persecution reached such a pitch that the Jews welcomed the Moors upon their arrival in 711.

The seeds of what I call the Golden Orchard, this time-space realm of tremendous mystical activity within the Iberian Peninsula, seem to have been planted in the 800s, with the arrival of Sufi mystics in Al-Andalus from the eastern parts of the Islamic empire. As the Moors consolidated their power on the peninsula and began to thrive economically, the fields of science, philosophy and especially poetry began to flourish throughout the kingdom.

The Jewish community, no longer persecuted as they were under the Visigoths, experienced an intellectual and cultural revival as well. A key factor was their learning of Arabic. The Moors placed great value on poetry and philosophy, and a great number of high-quality works were published, including most Greek classics which were translated into Arabic as part of an official program after the conquest. According to Jane Gerber in The Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience (Free Press 1994), "[F]or the first time, Jews were exposed fully to the conceptual world of classical antiquity. . . . In this way, Arabization introduced them to an entire philosophical literature, originally written in Greek and Syriac, and to a new theological language capable of expressing new concepts. . . . Muslims and Jews both began to contemplate religious questions in a new way, thanks to the Arabic translations of Greek thought."

In addition to this Greek influence by way of translation, the Jews were also influenced by the Arabic language itself. As they wrote more and more in Arabic, it was only natural to incorporate terminology and phrasing from the Arabic culture around them. Religious terms and concepts from Sufism began to find their way into Jewish mystical works. Diana Lobel discusses this religious cross-fertilization in A Sufi-Jewish Dialogue: Philosophy and Mysticism in Bahya Ibn Paquda's Duties of the Heart (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007). "Muslim Spain of the tenth through twelfth century, known as the 'Golden Age' of Hispano-Jewish poetry and letters, is a time of great convergence and cutltural creativity. Jewish courtiers such as Samuel Hanagrid are writing wine poetry; erotic Arabic poetry finds its way into the synagogue liturgy, even on the holiest days. Jewish philosophers are reading and writing philosophy in Arabic; Jews are studying with Sufi masters, integrating aesthetic practices and mystical thought into their own spiritual creativity."

Unfortunately, this "Golden Age" in Al-Andalus came to a close with the conquest of the kingdom in 1147 by the religiously intolerant Almohads, who once again began persecuting the Jews. This led to a Jewish migration to the northern Christian kingdoms. The tremendous sprouting of philosophical and mystical thought that began in the south not only survived the transition but began to blossom even more as kabbalistic centers sprang up in Barcelona, Girona and across Castile. Meanwhile, in Al-Andalus, Sufis such as Ibn Arabi continued to explore and write about their mystical paths.

Ramón Llull

These two threads, the Sufi and Kabbalistic, come together in the work of the Christian mystic Ramón Llull. Hebrew and Arabic both have numeric values for each letter of the alphabet, and Kabbalah and Sufism both have very developed mathematical-mystical systems. Gematria is the Jewish version. Abraham Abulafia, who I mentioned earlier, was the principle exponent of Gematria, and his system seems to have influenced Llull, particularly in the combinatorial wheels. Abulafia was active in the Kabbalistic circles of Gerona and Barcelona, where his system made its first appearance in 1270, not long before Llull's work. Moshe Idel, in his article "Ramon Lull and Ecstatic Kabbalah: A Preliminary Observation" (Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 51. (1988), pp. 170-174.), says that "Lull was in contact with important Jewish figures living in Barcelona, as the incipit of a lost work of his demonstrates." Llull scholars Pring-Mill and Hillgarth encouraged Idel to "pursue the line" on the "probability of the historical relationship between [Lull's theory of ars combinatoria] and the ecstatic Kabbalah," particularly the work of Abulafia.

Llull was also influenced by the work of Ibn Arabi. As Liam points out in his Llull post, the Ars was "a vast systemization of the world that had as an aim the demonstration of the relationship of all of reality to a certain number of God’s attributes or “dignities:” goodness, greatness, power, wisdom, etc. Llull's dignities are very similar to the Sufi concept of Hadras, or the one hundred names of Allah. I mentioned earlier Miguel Asín Palacios and his book The Mystical Philosophy of Ibn Masarra and His Followers (Brill 1978). Appendix VI is entitled “The Theory of the Hadras of Ibn Arabi and of the Dignities of Raymond Lull and other Analogies of the Two Systems.” Palacios says: “The terminology of the divine Dignities (Dignitates) is one of the indisputable keys of the relationship of Lull to Sufism. . . . This became completely confirmed when later the theory of Ibn Arabi about the divine names was compared with the development by Lull in his book Els cent noms de Deus and in the rest of his works. . . . Thus a comparative study of these one hundred Hadras with the Dignities of Lull leads to the full conviction that they are intimately related. First of all, one must note that Lull in his Els cent noms de Deus confesses to have written it in imitation of those [works] of the Muslims that revolve about the identical theme. . . . And if by chance there still should be a shade of doubt, Lull himself dissipates it in his Disputatio Raymundi christiani et Hamar sarraceni by putting in the mouth of the latter an enumeration of the ‘dignitates,’ almost identical in number and names with his. . . . The evidence of this imitation of the Hadras by the Dignities of Lull is reinforced when it is considered not singly but as one more case of the many which the system of Lull offers when compared with that of Ibn Arabi.”

The principle of the universe is movement... If it stops moving, it will return to non-existence. Ibn 'Arabi.

(The calligraphy is a property of Marsam Gallery Rabat - Editions Marsam, 15 avenue des Nations Unies, Rabat, Maroc)

It's not that Llull's work was not his own. As Palacios goes on to say, "Lull did not wish to be a Muslim but a sincere and very fervent Christian. For that reason the number and designation of hadras and Dignities cannot coincide. Lull chose those that do not conflict with the Christian and Catholic concept of God." Nor did Llull want to be a Jew. He simply incorporated aspects of other systems into his work, as the Jewish mystics had done in Al-Andalus. Going back even further, one can point to the influence of Christian monasticism and Gnosticism on the Sufis before they even arrived in Spain. Abraham Abulafia incoporated breathing exercises from Yoga into his own mystical technique. So the influences come and go like pollen carried by the honeybee from one field to another.

There are different kinds of trees in the Golden Orchard. But they all sway and are moved by the same wind, all watered by the same rain, and, in the end, they all reach up their branches to the same magnificent sun.

UPDATE: Liam has pointed out that today, June 26, is the Feast Day of Ramón Llull. (Some give the date as June 30.) He has, therefore, declared this Ramón Llull Week. Glad to participate. While I appreciate this sudden Llull-mania, however, I fear what will happen when the excitement passes. We will then be faced with the dreaded Llull lull.


Liam said...

Excellent post, Batman. I'm not really a scholar of the Visigoths, but I don't think the culture of pre-Islamic Spain was that poor. I think that it did suffer from a cultural division between the more learned Catholic Romans and the ruling Arian Visigoths which was only resolved with the Visigothic conversion to Catholicism in 589. From 589 to 711 there was quite the cultural flourishing, and even one of the kings (Sisebut) was penning verse. Isidore's encyclopedia contain a bit of everything, including what science there was at the time. St Ildephonsus composed a work on the Virginity of Mary that was an important early work of Marian devotion/mysticism.

In fact, the addition of "filioque" to the creed, a theological time bomb that still creates tensions between the Catholics and the Orthodox, originated in Visigothic Spain.

At the same time, the more intense, speculative mysticism that also expressed itself in Islamic and Jewish mysticism had a good part of its roots in Greek neo-platonic philosophy that really didn't hit any part of the West until the wonderfully strange and brilliant Irish scholar John Scotus Erigena translated the works of Pseudo-Dionysus into Latin in the ninth century.

The Irish, Cowboy, are always involved somehow.

cowboyangel said...

Thanks for the comments. I was cowering in fear in my closet, terrified that I had said something amazingly stupid about medieval history. It's probably just as well that I took out that line on bad Visigothic television programming.

I want to go further with this, and I'm going to need your help. At some point, I'd like to sit down with you and discuss.

I meant to preface the post by saying I'm not a scholar by any means, and there is much, much more research that needs to be done on many aspects of what I've written. The period before 711 being one essential project. I need to know about the overall culture before the Moors arrived, for both the Christians and the Jews.

I didn't mean, and I don't think Asin Palacios implies, that the Visigoths didn't have any culture. It's more what kind of culture did they have, what did they emphasize, and how did that affect the development of mystical pursuits? There's also the Roman collapse to consider. From everything I've read, it seems like the economic and political stability previously known under the Romans began to break down towards the end of the empire, as it did elsewhere. How much that changed under the Visigoths, I need to discover. It doesn't sound like there was a lot of political stability - many rulers within a short time, a good number of them murdered by rival families. Nor does the economy seem to have been thriving, at least in comparison with the economy uinder the Romans or what came about under the Moors. I will say that the V's aren't coming off very well in any of the books I've read. And we are dealing with the fun-loving guys who sacked Rome. But I hear you. It's an easy theme, and I definitely need to investigate more. I'm sure some Visigothic scholars will explain why their boys have been misunderstood all this time. Part of the problem is that they follow the Romans and precede Al-Andalus - two pretty amazing cultures.

Yeah, the Neo-Platonic thing is crucial, obviously. What's also interesting is how strong the Aristotelian influence was - both Maimonides and Averroes trying to graft it onto Jewish and Muslim thought. The mystics were doing the same. And, eventually, I think the mystics move beyond both to a degree and create something new. But it was definitely key to prime the pump, it seems.

Another thing I need help on is figuring out which other Christians on the Peninsula were pursuing a mystical line. So thanks for the info on Ildephonsus.

Finally, after such a fervent period of mystical experience in the late 1200's and early 1300s, why does there seem to be so little in the hundred plus years BEFORE 1492?

crystal said...

Interesting post! Doubtless your fixation on the Visigoths was sparked by my tattoo post.

The Templars and Francis in Spain ... :-)

One of my favorite links is who's who in the history of mysticism - it has a list of Jewish and Islamic mystics as well as catholic and non-catholic christians.

Liam said...

I'd love to discuss it with you. I think the Visigothic kingdom was very interesting. There was a lot of political instability, but then again there was that also in Rome, al-Andalus, and the northern kingdoms. The economy had shrunk, but a few scholars now are saying it wasn't as bad as once thought.

I don't know a whole lot about 15th century Spain, but there was a fair amount of political turmoil, including a civil war. The Church was having problems all through Europe -- at one point there were three separate popes (one of them Spanish). There were a number of mystical groups throughout Europe at this time, including in Spain, where they were called the Alumbrados and ran into problems with the Inquisition.

How would you define mysticism?

Crytsal -- IPAO and I are thinking of getting tattoos for each other as wedding presents.

cowboyangel said...


Thanks for the Who's Who link! I missed your tattoo post and can't find it. Do you have a link?

cowboyangel said...


Defining mysticism. Yes, I've realized that's essential, and I don't have a good answer yet. There are some good definitions out there, and Scholem devotes an entire section of one his books on the subject. I need to re-read that and some other things. The problem is how mixed up the "genres" were at that time. Was such-and-suc a mystical work, a theological work, poetry, philosophy, etc.? Perhaps we can discuss this at that most mystical of places, Grassroots Tavern. Such a conversation seems to beg for such a setting.

Aren't the Alumbrados post-1492? Or did they start earlier?

cowboyangel said...

Liam, Catholic Encyclopedia says the Alulbrados were sixteenth century. Do you think otherwise? I never made the connection between "Alumbrados" and Illuminati! Alumbrar! Claro!

I need to do some reading about the Cathars. A lot of them came down into the peninsula after they were destroyed in southern France. There may be connections to Abulafia's work, though Idel pretty much dismisses this idea in one of his books. Still, they were around in northern Spain from the late 1100s and especially in the 1200s. I'm guessing the Cathars hooked up with the Templars to establish the Illuminati, which, as we know, eventually leads - via the Rosicrucians and Tom Hanks - to Mark Cuban.

Liam said...

I had to go back to my orals notes to check about the Alumbrados. Yes, they really are a 16th-century group, but they came out of a 15th-century phenomenon known as the "Beatas" that were something like the Beguines in northern Europe (a lay woman's group), and were very influenced by Italian mystic women like Catherine of Siena or Angelina of Foligno (both of whom are very intense). There was also the movement of the Jeronimite order (you know the church above the Prado, right?) that came out of the very active hermit movement in late 14th and 15th-century Spain.

I do want to here you define "mysticism." And damnit, we do need to get back to the Grassroots.

There was a very small penetration of Catherism into Spain, and the inquisition was very effective with them. Their main thing was a world-hating dualism -- do you find that in Abulafia's work?

crystal said...

The tattoo post was deleted.

Ignatius of Loyola - best Spanish mystic :-)

The Illuminati! The Cathars! You guys discuss the most fun stuff. I saw a recent review of a book on the Cathars at History House - The Yellow Cross - the history of the last Cathars