Sunday, January 08, 2006

Poetry Break: Samael, The Imaginary One

All this recent talk about "the deep things of Satan," the olam ha-tohu, and Jewish Kabbalah brought to mind a 'gnostic' poem that I wrote about 20 years ago when I was preparing myself for doctoral work on parallels and differences between Johannine and Gnostic thought.

I had been reading the Apocryphon of John, a Gnostic text found in the Nag Hammadi Library, and had discovered that one of the three names of the evil demiurge was "Samael," which the text defines as "the blind god."

However, according to Wikipedia's discussion of the this character as he occurs in the Jewish tradition, the name means "venom of God." I suppose that Wikipedia must have this point correct since the online Jewish Encyclopedia confirms it:

His name is etymologized as . . . [sam-el] = "the venom of God," since he is identical with the angel of death (Targ. Yer. to Gen. iii. 6 . . .). (i.e., Jerusalem Targum to Genesis 3.6)
I didn't know much about Jewish tradition at the time (1986), and thus had no knowledge of Samael's appearance in the Jewish Kabbalah, but the figure of Samael described there generally coheres with the description of this figure in Gnosticism.

Thus, it also fits with my poem:

Samael, The Imaginary One
When Samael reigned,
great cracks broke deep into the crusted earth;
cool springs ran inconceivably dry;
dulled ground drummed hollow under hooves.

When Samael spoke, his acrid tongue curled
and slipped among his teeth and cloven lips;
his coiled words traced spirals through the air
and of himself impersonally declaimed:
"This is smoke that was his eyes;
of his lips are greyed coals made:
the world around him suffers change
into something cruel, and strange."
When Samael was gone,
I remember waiting only for the rain.

(Horace Jeffery Hodges, 1986)

Lest anyone misunderstand, I am neither a Gnostic, a gnostic, nor a Kabbalist. Just a wordsmith.


At 10:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The Jewish Encyclopedia," although invaluable, is basically a monument of nineteenth-century scholarship, published 1901-1906. It is particularly weak on Kabbalah, since the bulk of worthwhile scholarship appeared after it was in print; although it is somewhat better on Rabbinic aggadah (legends, narrative exegesis), its relative and absolute dates aren't very reliable either

The dating of key texts for mysticism and magic was then pretty much a matter of guesswork governed by general theories. Gershom Scholem changed that situation, almost alone, starting in the 1920s.

Much better than the JE, although getting dated rather fast, is "Encyclopedia Judaica," reflecting work through the 1960s. Most of Gershom Scholem's contributions to it on Kabbalah (and a few others) were extracted to form "Kabbalah" (1974) in the Library of Jewish Knowledge series. Scholem, the outstanding twentieth-century scholar in the field, accepts that the original form was certainly Samiel, from sami-, blind; but Greek forms such as Sammane and Semiel indicate early corruptions. The venom motif is, in his view, later, and secondary; related to death imagery, and a re-etymologizing of the name.

This article ("Samael") might be accessible to you in one form or the other, although perhaps not easily.

More recent are Joseph Dan's "The Desert in Jewish Mysticism: The Kingdom of Samael" (1976) and "Samael and the Problem of Jewish Gnosticism" (1998), both collected in his, "Jewish Mysticism: The Modern Period" (Volume III of a series, Aronson, 1999); but this may not do you much good, unless there is an unexpectedly good Judaica collection available. There is certain to be later work; not necessarily in English.

Dan was Scholem's student, and leading, although critical, disciple. Moshe Idel has systematically rejected some of Scholem's major conclusions, for reasons I find insufficient, but his work is always interesting, too. Daniel Matt and Lawrence Fine, among others, are also trustworthy; too many to mention are not.

By the way, Samael is both identified with and distinguished from Satan; and sometimes appears as a defender of Israel (particularly at the parting of the Red Sea), but often is regarded as its bitter enemy. Fairly typical of Jewish demonology and angelology, actually.

At 3:29 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Ian. It seems that I'll always be able to rely upon you for fruitful suggestions.

I'll try to look into some of these.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 4:21 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Hmmm . . . none of the articles appear to be online. Perhaps I should try Sogang University here in Seoul:

Sogang University

It's a Jesuit university and seems to have a pretty good library.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 4:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I haven't found them on line either; although bits and pieces of these and other studies by Joseph Dan do get quoted.

I missed mentioning another article in the same volume, "Samael, Lilith, and the Concept of Evil in Early Kabbalah," originally in AJS Volume 5 (1980) -- that is the joural of the Association for Jewish Studies, and as far as I can recall it only has initials(!).

"The Desert..." came from "Ariel" Number 40, published by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Jerusalem, 1976. And "Samael and ... Jewish Gnosticism" appeared in "Perspectives on Jewish Thought and Mysticism," A.L. Ivery, editor, Amsterdam, 1998.

All fairly obscure, and perhaps not terribly like to be included in library acquisitions programs in Korea. (For that matter, UCLA had two of the three, I think.) The Jesuits might indeed be an exception.

The four-volume "Jewish Mysticism" set of Dan's articles is still probably the most likely source. (They were rather badly edited in one respect -- the lists of original appearances were so jumbled I did my own, accurate, version, resorted by volume, for convenience!)

And Scholem's "Kabbalah" is valuable, if understandably more than a little "encyclopedish" in style. But at least much easier than his "Origins of the Kabbalah" or "On the Mystical Shape of the Godhead."

At 5:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Alas, that should have been "AJS Review" -- I seem to have deleted both appearances of a repetition.

At 5:38 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks again, Ian. Much obliged, as the old cowhands used to say.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i'm wondering if i could get a CONCISE 20+- list of Medieval Literature --good English translations, editions of Icelandic, Germanic, Anglo-Saxon etc. to cut my teeth on. thanks.

At 5:52 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous, you're asking the wrong guy in the wrong place ... but I can direct you to the right guy at the right place, and you can get there from here:

Unlocked Wordhoard

Professor Nokes is far more knowledgeable than I.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 9:12 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

thanks so much!

At 1:58 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous, you're welcome. I'm always happy to help.

Jeffery Hodges

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