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Francis Mercury Van Helmont’s The Alaphabet of Nature

Francis Mercury Van Helmont’s The Alaphabet of Nature

Friday, September 21st, 2007

Obviously good introductory histories of esotericism are a necessary preamble to theoretical exploration of its various branches are important. However of greater importance will be the monographs that deal with the various branches of esoteric knowledge as it developed in the 19th and 20th centuries. Aspects of this history have been approached as for example in the various studies of the Hermetic Order of Golden Dawn.

But there is much more than still needs to be done.

Histories of esotericism become part of esoteric lore, though many esoteric works themselves approach their history mythically rather than critically.  Another aspect of esotericism is the deliberate cultivation of magick (the k being emblematic of the mystical and ritual aspects of the practice, rather than merely trickery and sleight-of-hand of the stage magician).The Book of Abramelin: A New Translation by Abraham Von Worms (Ibis) comes to us in a new edition, complete with some probable backstory about the true history of the famous magick manual and the amateur sleuthing by Georg Dehn that uncovered its true province.

The Book of Abramelin is the first modern translation of this magical work since Golden Dawn Meister Mathers’ original translation over 100 years ago. Not only is the language updated, but Georg Dehn, the compiler and editor, has sourced his work from all extant manuscripts, while Mathers used just one.

The result is a stunning new translation that has already set the occult world abuzz. It includes voluminous important material left out of Mathers’ work, including an entire Part 2 filled with magical recipes, important distinctions in the Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel ritual, and complete word grids that were only partially completed by Mathers. This is an essential work for any serious practicing magician or student of occult history.

The underpinnings remain the same. The ultimate goal of Abramelin’s Art is to gain direct conversation with your Holy Guardian Angel. There is also the book Abraham writes to his son, as an explanation of how the Treasure and the Art came into his hands. Anyone familiar with the Mathers version will also recognize the last book. It consists of magical squares that produce sundry effects by way of the spirits that are bound to them.

If it sounds like too much is the same to bother purchasing this book, let me counter by listing the things that are different.
There is a fourth book, in addition to the three Mathers translated from the French edition. This book deals with what Abraham calls the “mixed kabbalah”. It is in effect a formulary of folk cures, charms, and nostrums that are not to be found at all in the Mathers edition.
Instead of six months, the operation detailed here, is a much more complex 18 months.
The squares from the final book that mesmerize so many students are completely different in the original German, than they are in the manuscript Mathers had worked from. Instead of 242, mostly incomplete squares, the German manuscripts show 251 squares, and every single one of them is completely filled in. That is to say, the Mathers version gave not only an incomplete list of squares, but out of the ones that are listed, two thirds are not completely filled in. What lines in the squares are filled in, you quickly discover, are misspelled, out of order, and almost wholly in disagreement with the original sources the present author uses.
In addition to the above, the author goes to great lengths retracing the steps of Abraham, making a case for his historical reality, as well as the hermitage of Abramelin the “old father” himself.
If you are familiar with the original Mathers translation, you owe it to yourself to take a second journey with Abraham to Egypt, and look anew at the teachings of Abramelin the Mage.

This Art takes a loftier place in Western Tradition than most tomes of its time and kind. Rather than idols, pentacles, and barbarous names, the Operation draws its power from the exorcist being virtuous. That is, god-like power is granted on the condition of piety. It is important to note that there is an 18 month initiation involving fasting, prayer, study of the Holy Books, and doing good deeds, culminating in a union between the prospective Magus and the Divine, completing both in the process.

The Alphabet of Nature by Franciscus Mercurius van Helmont, translated with an introduction and annotations by Allison P. Coudert, Taylor Corse (Brill Academic) Van Helmont was the son of the famous Paracelsian chemist Jan Baptista van Helmont (1579-1644). He was born in October, 1614, shortly after his father claimed he had successfully transmuted base metal into gold. Hence the name Mercury, hardly common, but redolent with alchemical associations, for mercury was an essential agent in transmutation and brought to mind the reputed founder of alchemy, Hermes, or Mercurius, Trismegistus. Like the wandering planet, whose name he bore, the younger van Helmont appeared to follow an erratic path. Born a Catholic, he was accused in middle age of “judaizing” and of becoming a Jew, for which the Inquisition duly imprisoned him. Later he joined the Quakers, but soon left when George Fox, their founder, rejected his kabbalistic brand of Christianity. Van Helmont was a reformer who so insistently sought to foster the best in human nature and society that one cannot but have sympathy with his ideals. He tended the sick and tried to reform the medical profession; he wove his own clothes and developed weaving projects to employ German peasants left destitute by the Thirty Years’ War. He invented a chair to straighten crooked backs, and along with his good friend Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) drew up designs for a more efficient wheel barrow, better cooking pots, and even shoes with springs for “fast get-aways.” Van Helmont must have been a most attractive and engaging character. The thought of his goodness once brought tears to the eyes of his good friend Henry More (1614-1687), a key figure among England’s Cambridge Platonists. Only a pint of ale and a glass of canary wine could calm More’s “passion,” as he described it, and he excused himself by saying that as a chemist van Helmont could draw moisture from flint. Leibniz shared More’s respect and admiration. When van Helmont died, he wrote his epitaph and said in the last two lines, “If such a man had been born among the Greeks, He would now be numbered among the stars.”  

The unifying motif behind van Helmont’s activities came from his untiring effort to find a comprehensive reform of the Christian religion in an age of bitter and bloody religious controversy. He was convinced that a union of the mystical teachings of the Jewish Kabbalah and Christianity offered the foundation for a truly universal religion that would embrace Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Moslems, and pagans. This conviction is very much in evidence in his book on the natural Hebrew alphabet. 

Van Helmont was not entirely happy with his orthodox education. In the preface to the posthumous edi­tion of his father’s works, which he edited and pub­lished in 1648, he describes himself as ‘not content’, desiring “thorowly to know the whole sacred Art, or Tree of Life, and to enjoy it.” To this end he taught himself Latin and German by reading the New Testament many times in both languages and traveled throughout Europe seeking enlightenment from a variety of unortho­dox sources, which included mystics, followers of Jakob Boehme, Kabbalists, Collegiants, and Quakers. Between 1644 when he left home after his father’s death, and 1648 he became acquainted with members of the Palatine family, becoming especially close in later years to the two eldest sons, Karl Ludwig (1617-1680) and Rupert ( 1619-1682). Van Hel­mont received a patent of nobility from Emperor Leopold in 1658 in recognition of the diplomatic and practical services he performed for these mem­bers of the German aristocracy. 

Beside his father, another major influence shaping van Hel­mont’s mature thought were the teachings of the Jewish Kabbalah. How he became acquainted with the Kabbalah is unknown, although it is prob­able that he came into contact with Jewish and Christian Kabbalists in Amsterdam. By the time he published his first book, The Alphabet of Nature in 1667 his kabbalistic philosophy was formulated in a way that would never change throughout his long life. He was con­vinced that the Kabbalah represented the prisca theologia granted by God to Adam and that it consequently offered profound insights into the natural and supernatural worlds. Through the Kabbalah mankind would come to share a single religion and obtain the philosophical basis for a complete understanding of the natural world. Van Helmont collaborated with Christian Knorr von Rosenroth in the publication of the Kabbala denudata (1677, 1684), a collection and transla­tion of the largest number of kabbalistic texts (particularly Lurianic kabbalistic ones) available to the Latin-reading public until the 19th century. 

Van Helmont’s role as advisor to Prince Christ­ian August of Sulzbach led to his arrest by the Roman Inquisition on the charge of “judaizing” in 1661, which suggests that his kabbalistic phi­losophy was already in place six years before the publication of his first book. Christian August’s ardently Catholic cousin Philip Wilhelm, Duke of Neuburg, was convinced that van Helmont was undermining Christian August’s Catholic faith by encouraging him to study Hebrew and the Kabbalah and by advocating the settlement of Protestants and Jews in the Sulzbach territories. He persuaded the Inquisition to imprison van Hel­mont on the grounds that van Helmont’s judaizing had led him to reject the Sacraments, to interpret Christ’s death and resurrection allegorically, and to claim that anyone could be saved in his own faith. Van Helmont was released after a year and half probably due to the intervention of Christian August. 

While imprisoned van Helmont began work on his first book, The Alphabet of Nature. In this work, which now appears in English for the first time, van Helmont argues that Hebrew was the Ur-speech, the divine language of creation in which words exactly expressed the essential natures of things. While time and igno­rance had led to the corruption of Hebrew, van Helmont contended that he had rediscovered its original written form, which corresponded to the tongue movements made while pronouncing indi­vidual letters. In this work he argues that Hebrew was not only the original language, or Ur-speech, but that it is also a “natural” language inasmuch as Hebrew words exactly mirror things. He further argues that the very naturalness of Hebrew enabled him to construct “a method for teaching those born deaf not only to understand others speaking but to speak themselves,” Van Helmont was convinced this discovery would lead to the correct understanding of the biblical text and consequently provide the basis for an ecumenical religion rooted in the Jew­ish Kabbalah and capable of uniting Christians, Jews, and pagans. Furthermore, because it was the Ur-speech Hebrew provided access to both the divine and natural worlds. Studying it would there­fore lead to a better understanding of the natural world and to the advancement of learning in all fields, including natural science. 

Excerpt: While van Helmont’s book offers a practical method for teaching the deaf to speak, it is primarily a philosophical work arguing that Hebrew was the divine language of creation in which words exactly expressed the essential natures of things. But as we shall see, the two themes were intimately connected in van Helmont’s mind. Van Helmont contended that while time and ignorance had led to the corruption of Hebrew he had rediscovered its original form. He expected great things from this, believing it would bring an end to the religious controversies that had precipitated the Reformation and embittered its aftermath. He envi­sioned a natural Hebrew alphabet that would enable men to converse without rancor and solve disputes rationally. 

Like many philosophic works, ancient and modern, van Helmont’s The Alphabet of Nature is cast in the form of a dialogue between two speakers, who drive the argument forward by questioning and answering each other. The dialogue form was especially common in the early modern period. It was a favorite of van Helmont, and he made frequent use of it in his subsequent works. It fit well with his approach to knowledge and method of inquiry He was not didactic but preferred to make his points by leading his reader on with questions and answers.Dialogue is inherently dramatic, a literary fact that van Helmont clearly appreciated. His countryman Erasmus wrote brilliant dialogues; and his English friend and colleague, Henry More, used the same for­mat for many of his treatises. Dialogue can give the impression of an actual conversation taking place between two or more people; it can create tension and suspense, as well as convey a sense of informality and immediacy. Since van Helmont’s great theme is the power of speech, he needed effective speakers to advocate his cause: the revival of ancient Hebrew as a “living” language. 

Although the speakers in this treatise do not come to life as fully realized literary characters, van Helmont does individuate them in certain ways. For example, he designates one as H, the other as M. These, of course, are the author’s own initials, and it is likely that van Helmont intended for H and M to represent different aspects of his personality, as well as different sides of his inquiry into the origin and nature of language. Generally speaking, H plays the role of the cau­tious but curious skeptic, who poses questions (”How do infants learn to speak?”), raises objections (”I am not satisfied with these remarks”), and asks for further clarification (”Can this be more clearly explained with a more concrete example?”). M, on the other hand, supplies all the answers and explanations, as, for instance, in the long Sixth Conversa­tion which describes the various motions of the tongue and mouth in forming each and every letter, consonant, and vowel, of the Hebrew alphabet. M has other qualities: we find him praising the pioneering work of some scholars (such as Hutterus on Hebrew roots), quarreling with other authorities (such as Kircher and Walton), telling anecdotes (including the horrific story about two soldiers who copulate with a corpse), relating personal experiences (his striking success in teaching a deaf musician how to read and speak Hebrew), promoting concord between Jews and Christians, and everywhere displaying his dazzling erudition about different subjects (modern science, comparative linguistics, biblical and classical scholarship, ancient history, and so on). 

Throughout his dialogue, van Helmont employs a “vitalist” rhetoric that matches his vitalistic views on language, human society, and the natural world. No descriptive term occurs more frequently than the Latin word vis (which we render sometimes as “force,” sometimes as “power”). In one typical sentence, we are told that “the tongue, driven upwards with force, also descends with force to a lower position.” On another page, we read about the tongue rebounding “forcefully from the palate,” striking “violently in its descent,” cleaving “strongly to the palate,” and falling “swiftly back again.”‘ Speech is an energetic activ­ity that requires constant exertion and conscious vigilance; nothing about it is simply passive or receptive. Time and again, we hear about the “power” of individual letters to produce unique effects, such as the letter Jod, which gives “a living sense of the pain of childbirth,” or the letter Schin, which “carries the sound of a silent man ruling with authority” Richly figurative, van Helmont’s dialogue shows the influence of the ancient rhetorical idea of enargia, a generic name for a variety of techniques aiming at lively description. The vivid and energetic style of A Short Sketch also reflects van Helmont’s belief in a cosmos that is fully animated and interconnected. Central to this doctrine is the notion that “every man radiates from himself his entire vital power without stop.” Hence the many fascinating digressions on such topics as the secret power of the human hair, “the menstrual blood of the moon,” or the sorry fate of a transplanted nose. Nothing is irrelevant. Thus the various organs of speech (breath, tongue, lips, mouth, palate, epiglottis, and windpipe) cooperate vitally and instrumentally with every other organ and faculty of the human being, the natural world, and God. 

Van Helmont wrote The Alphabet of Nature under rather unusual circumstance, during the eighteen months he was imprisoned by the Inquisition in Rome.” His isolation and lack of books left him with nothing to do but think. Given this situation, he embarked on a train of thought that began with musing about living on an island inhabited by deaf mutes and concluded with the conviction that Hebrew is a “natural” language: 

“This, among other things, is what a plain and simple meditation suggested to me when I was in a certain place, where I was deprived of all the help necessary for an accurate elaboration of this matter [of a natural language], and the only relief left to me was thinking. For I had the opportunity to consider by meditating with myself what I would do if I had to live on an island inhabited only by people born deaf in order to lead a most pleasant life with the best conversation. So now I wish to deliver all this to the freest judgment of everyone, and I give infinite and eternal thanks to God, who has placed the mouth and tongue in man.”

From the frontispiece, we can see that the “certain place” was van Helmont’s cell. Van Helmont sits at a table in a dark, vaulted room, the stone walls and metal bars illuminated by the light of a single candle. In elegant dress and comfortable slippers, he stares into a mirror, calipers in one hand and pen in the other. Clearly his dreamy speculations about his island adventure have taken a more practical turn. He realizes that a deaf person is not mute, except in rare cases, because of any physical deformity of the speaking organs, and he knows that deaf people can learn to understand words by lip-reading. These general considerations led him to the mirror and calipers. As one of the speakers in the dia­logue reasons, if a deaf mute can learn to read words merely in the course of being spoken to, how much more quickly might he learn to understand and speak words from diagrams, especially since diagrams have been used to teach people all kinds of things from violin playing to food carving:Surely, if it is possible for someone to learn to play the violin by seeing the finger movements illustrated on the strings of a violin, the art of dancing through depictions of the order and placement of the feet, the art of flag waving through illustrations of gyrating flags, and finally, if the art of jousting, gunnery, and building and other similar things can be learned in this way, is it not possible for someone to learn and teach human speech through the various configurations of the tongue and mouth?’ 

His alter ego concurs, “I have no doubt whatsoever about these things.” In fact, he somewhat surprisingly says that he has used precisely this method with great success on a “deaf musician … suffering from weak vision and trembling limbs.”‘ What is even more surprising is that there was actually such a person at Sulzbach, the composer Peter Meyer.” 

By proving he could teach the deaf and dumb to read and speak Hebrew through pictures, van Helmont attempted to discredit the argu­ments brought against the concept of a “natural” language. Thomas Erastus (1524-1583), the Swiss doctor and forceful critic of Paracelsus, was one of many who maintained that language was wholly a matter of convention. To prove this he cited the case of deaf mutes. Erastus reasons that if language is natural, meaning that if words and things are intimately connected, then deaf mutes could speak from birth. They would automatically know the names of things and hearing would be of no importance in learning a language.’ By showing that deaf mutes could easily learn to speak Hebrew, van Helmont thought that he could demonstrate the two premises on which his theory of the natural alpha­bet was based: first, that there were such things as innate ideas in the human mind that had only to be activated to come into consciousness, and second, that the Hebrew language perfectly represented these innate ideas. Thus the case of deaf mutes was used by both those arguing for and against the conventional nature of language. The topic continued to generate endless debates in the following centuries. 

The first conversation ends with van Helmont’s contention that he could teach the deaf to speak. The second leaves the subject of the deaf and dumb and turns to van Helmont’s great interest and the main subject of the dialogues, the Hebrew language. There is, however, a continuity between the two dialogues, for the second opens with the provocative question: “does the most holy script of the Hebrews have any similarity to the motions of the human tongue?” The protagonist in the dialogue answers with a forceful affirmative: “In itself it is noth­ing other than the artificial representation of the various motions of the human tongue…. And certainly if it were not for this fundamental fact, would it not be just as arbitrary, vain, and changeable as every script of every other language without exception?”" There are two interesting points in this statement. First, it implies that there is an exact correspondence between the movements made by the tongue sounding Hebrew letters and their written form. The written symbol is thus a picture of the tongue movements, and simply by reading the picture one can make the sound. Van Helmont actually draws the Hebrew letters as concatenations of tongues. Secondly, for some reason not yet apparent, this aspect of the Hebrew language places it above all other languages, which are “vain” and “dumb” in comparison. 

Van Helmont was not a cautious man. At the very time he was in the dangerous position of a suspected heretic, he sat down to write a book reiterating the unorthodox opinions for which he was being held. Truth was more important to van Helmont than life, and the truth he thought he had discovered went something like this: if Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and Moslems agree in accepting the Hebrew Bible as the revealed word of God, why do they disagree so fundamentally and murderously about its meaning? For van Helmont the only possible explanation was that the text had been corrupted and people no longer understood it. 

Ignorance had led to disagreements, disagreements to divisions, and divisions to intolerance, persecution, war, and bloodshed. These would vanish, van Helmont believed, once the bible was understood according to the principles of his natural Hebrew alphabet. 

But this was not all that van Helmont expected from his discovery. Like many people he was convinced that Hebrew was the divine language of creation. After all, when God said, “Let there be light,” there was light. In both the Old and New Testaments speech is a powerful creative force. It “comes,” it “abides,” and as Psalm 33 clearly says, “by the word of the Lord were the heavens made; and all the host of them by the breath of his mouth.” The idea that the Hebrew language was a powerful creative force is reiterated in the prologue to the Gospel of John with the concept of Christ as the logos or “word” of God, through whom the world was created. To van Helmont these statements were the literal truth. In his opinion creation was a process that began with the thoughts in God’s mind and ended with the articulation of these thoughts. This explains why he retranslated the first sentence of Genesis to read, “In the Head Aelohim created the Heavens and the Earth,” instead of the usual “In the beginning,” on the plausible grounds that bereshit, the meaning of which has always puzzled translators, was derived from the Hebrew word rosh, which means “head.” 

Because Hebrew was the language of creation, it was also a “natural” language in which words indicated the essential nature of the things they both produced and represented. To substantiate this, van Helmont, like many other authors, referred to the passage in Genesis where Adam names the animals. He did not believe the animals existed until Adam named them; before that time they were simply ideas in his mind. By imposing names on the thoughts in his mind, he brought the animals into physical existence, “because,” as van Helmont says, “to call Things by their Names is to give them their Nature.” Thus, for example, when a horse was brought before Adam and he said sus (the Hebrew word for horse), he expressed the essence of “horseness.” 

(Some premeditate and considerate thoughts on the first four chapters of the first book of Moses, called Genesis) provides a good example of the use to which he put his natural alphabet. In this passage he discusses the Hebrew name for God (Aelohim, in van Helmont’s spelling). He was convinced that the shapes and sounds of the indi­vidual letters, when correctly understood, contributed qualities and characteristics that perfectly describe God. For example, the first letter Aleph signifies (both by its shape and sound) infiniteness or multitude; the second letter Lamed (because it is a tall letter) signifies virtue and power; He (undoubtedly because it is a spirant) signifies respiration, breath, life, vegetation, growth, and fruitfulness; Yod because it “has a Sharp or Shrill Sound” “signifies the strong Life that produces the manly Member”; the final Mem (because of its closed shape) signifies a womb, hence birth and multiplicity. Thus, the essence of God lay in the shapes and sounds of the individual letters that made up his name. What is remarkable about this passage is that it comes from a book that was actually ghosted for van Helmont by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.” Leibniz’s authorship emphasizes how much more complex early modern thought was than appears in the conventional division of thinkers into progressive rationalists and empiricists (Leibniz) versus benighted mystics and occultists (van Helmont). 

In The Alphabet of Nature van Helmont describes each Hebrew letter in terms of the significance the shape and sound have for its intrinsic meaning. He was certain that once people really understood the letters in this way, they would gain “a living” understanding of the Scriptures. Such an understanding was crucial for several reasons: not only would it lead to religious peace and unity, but it would provide a key to unlock the secret wisdom, arts, and sciences that van Helmont, like many of his contemporaries, believed were encapsulated in the biblical text. The author of the preface to van Helmont’s book, his friend and collaborator Christian Knorr von Rosenroth (1636-1689), emphasizes this point: 

If we examine the writings of the Old Testament, what do we find in them but a gold mine of all good arts and knowledge and a treasure chest in which all the gems of philosophy, all the riches of the Divine Law, and, what is most excellent, all the treasure of Divine and Holy wisdom are hidden.’ 

Like van Helmont, von Rosenroth was convinced that the key to unlock this treasure-chest lay in van Helmont’s natural alphabet. With this key Eden could be recovered and Babel restored. 

Van Helmont offers an example on the contribu­tion made by heterodox and esoteric thinkers to ideas that became the hallmark of Enlightenment thought, namely a belief in scientific progress and a commitment to religious toleration. Van Helmont’s published work advocates an ideal of toleration that makes inspiring reading to this day, especially towards the Jews. His philosemitism was unique because he accepted Jews as Jews and not simply as potential Christians converts. Through the process of tikkun anyone could and would be saved, whatever his faith. Furthermore, human beings were responsible for restoring the world to its prelapsarian perfection. Experimental science was therefore a laudable occupation and the key to progress


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