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Sunday 27 March 2011

Magic Words

There is a tendency in some circles to give words (when spelled out in one alphabet or another) a significance beyond their obvious meaning and etymology. A well-known example of this is gematria, or numerology, which originated at least two thousand years ago... and is still going strong among the New Age fraternity. A more interesting New Age habit (though equally unsound, from an etymological point of view) is the finding of parallels between similar-looking words that come from completely different language families and time periods -- for example Mary Caine's assertion, in connection with the purported "Earth Mystery" of the Glastonbury Zodiac, that the English county of Somerset derives its name from the ancient Middle-Eastern civilization of Sumeria!

As far back as the early nineteenth century, a man named Godfrey Higgins wrote a book called Anacalypsis: An Inquiry into the Origin of Languages, Nations and Religions, in which he asserted (on the basis of the similarity of the names when written in modern English) that Abraham, the Biblical patriarch, was one and the same as Brahma, the supreme divinity of the Hindu pantheon. However unlikely linguistically, the suggestion is interesting because it potentially unites a large proportion of the world's religions. Brahma is recognized (though not necessarily worshipped) by Buddhists as well as Hindus, while Abraham is the "most recent common ancestor" of all three monotheistic traditions (Islam, Judaism and Christianity).

Now for a couple of other words that "sound a bit like Abraham" (the pictures on the left are taken from a series of cigarette cards published in the 1920s). Abracadabra, of course, is the archetypal magic word used by stage conjurors... but it was also employed as a mystic formula by the early Christian Gnostics, who would write it in the triangular form shown here as a talisman against plague and other diseases. Later, the twentieth century occultist Aleister Crowley used the even more Abrahamic variant "Abrahadabra" in his magical incantations!

Abraxas was one of the names of the supreme deity in the Gnostic tradition of Basilides -- the God of the 7 planets and 365 heavens (the word "Abraxas" has 7 letters and a numerological value of 365). The bizarre form taken by this god, with the head of a bird and a pair of snakes for legs, can be seen from the Abraxas ring depicted on the cigarette card. A Masonic scholar named George Oliver (roughly a contemporary of Godfrey Higgins, who was mentioned earlier) put forward the theory that Abraxas and Abraham were one and the same... and that Abraxas was effectively the same deity as the Hindu Brahma!


PoissonPete said...

Abraham=Bhagavan ?!

Andrew May said...

I've actually seen Abraham = Ahriman mentioned once or twice, and we all know that Ahriman = Harriman!