Skulls, Ethiopia, Islam, Christianity, children’s books, and an elizabethan genius

I feel obliged to point out yet again how intriguingly disgusting lots of tantric rituals are:

thod tshal is a skull cup which differs from the usual one (thod pa) in having the scalp with hair still attached

The usual skull cup?! You mean, the one that Aldi sells in ten-packs?

And yes, ‘cup’ does mean they drink things out of it. ‘Things’ tends to mean semen, which, by some convoluted logic, represents the Buddha. Why you want to drink the Buddha out of a skull still escapes me, but I’m sure there’s a reason for it somewhere.

In other news, I’m feeling terribly cosmopolitan at the moment. Lots of interesting and obscure non-Indian languages keep turning up – Mongolian, Uighur, Tibetan Chinese. I can’t actually read any of them, of course, but it’s nice to know that someone once cared about things I read enough to have pan-Asian debates over what it meant. And some of the scripts look very, very pretty.
Then there’s the growing fascination of Ge’ez. Ge’ez is a fascinating, undervalued and under-studied ancient language of Ethiopia. It has no connection whatsoever to my course, but it does seem to be connected to just about everything else.

So…Ge’ez. Mainly, it’s the language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, both now and in the past. Ethiopia was one of the first countries to convert to Christianity. And over the past millennium-and-a-half they’ve accumulated a pretty impressive assortement of religious writing, most of which has been completely ignored by everyone outside Ethiopia. The Ethiopian Church was independent from, and isolated from, Rome, which means their approach to the bible hasn’t been constrained by Italians in silly costumes. So, for example, when the bible was being codified, the Vatican (was it the vatican then?) excluded some books, and went as far as banning others.

One particularly fascinating thing they banned – and which therefore only really survived in Ethipia – was the Book of Enoch, which some of you will know as a wonderfully trippy assortment of angels, mountains of fire, and visions of the apocalypse. It even turns up in the Philip Pullman ‘His Dark Materials’ books: the world of Cittagazze is one of Enoch’s visions come true, and Enoch himself makes a cameo as God’s scheming vizier.

The problem with banning Enoch is that other parts of the bible, and also the writings of the Church Fathers, refer to Enoch. That meant lots of perplexed theologians, especially come the Renaissance. Which is where John Dee comes in, as somebody who got obsessed with trying to rediscover Enoch, and went fairly crazy as a result.

Dee was a very impressive polymath in the late 16th century (think Elizabeth I). He started off as a mathematician. He wrote a preface to the first English edition of Euclid, which was a wonderfuly inspiring explanation of how every branch of science is interlinked, and how they all depend on maths. He was also probably the country’s leading geographer – bear in mind this is the time when Europeans are exploring the world, so geography was the cutting edge of science. He was a friend of Mercator (as in ‘mercator’s projection’), and also hung around with Christopher Marlowe. He trained Frobisher and other explorers in navigation, he was involved in Arctic exploration (they failed to find a North-Eastern route to China, but did discover Novaya Zembla, establish a trading-post in Archangel, and found an easier route to Moscow). He almost ended up owning Canada (I think there might be a ‘Dee bay’ named after him), because he told the sailors how to find it. He also, incidentally, gets a passing mention in one of the Philip Pullman books.

So: Dee was a pretty incredible guy. He was also depressingly attracted to magic and alchemy. He acted as a semi-official court magician to Elizabeth I. When he described the geography of Greenland to sailors, he did so on the basis of a description left by a 15th century mathematician, who had sailed there and then floated up to the North Pole ‘by means of his magical powers’. When he went abroad, the locals burnt down his library on the grounds that he was a wizard. This is particularly sad because it was one of the largest private libraries in Europe, and Dee wanted to use it as the kernel for a British Library.

Anyway, Dee’s interest in magic was basically under control until Enoch pushed him off the deep end. A certain Edward Kelley turned up at his door, and persuaded Dee he was a medium. When Kelley conjured up angels, Dee got them to dictate the book of Enoch to him. They responded with a stream of semi-ordered gibberish, which Dee fitted into bizarre acrostics and interpreted as being the ‘Enochian’ or ‘angelic’ language, the language spoken in the Garden of Eden.

Which goes to show the fascination with the Book of Enoch, and the fact that nobody had any idea what it really was. The Book of Enoch was a magnet for the odd theories of people like Dee until the late 18th Century, when a somebody ‘found’ (read:stole) a manuscript from Ethiopia, in the Ge’ez language. [in fact, it is slightly more complicated: nobody could read Ge’ez any more than they could read Dee’s angelic acrostics, so they grabbed all the likely-looking manuscripts, and passed them off as Enoch regardless of the actual contents]. Then it got translated, and brought a good deal of angel mythology into the Western world. I’m not sure if it was the cause of the Victorian obsession with angels, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that Ge’ez should be a fairly important language for Christians, given that a biblical-type book only survived in that language. There are also lots and lots of commentaries, which should also be interesting since they are a completely separate tradition of biblical interpretation. [really, they’re in amharic rather than ge’ez, but that’s a fiddly little detail]

Then last week, I found yet another piece of Ge’ez trivia: the prophet Muhammed was a fluent ge’ez speaker. According to this website

tradition tells us that his first nurse was an Abyssinian [i.e Ethiopian] woman, Umm Aiman, that the man he chose as first Muezzin in Islam was Bilal al-Habashi [an Ethiopian], and the tradition already noted that the Prophet was particularly skilled in the Ethiopic [i.e. Ge’ez] language.

Another page claims that Muhammed listened to Ethipian Orthodox preachers as a child, while a third points out that several words in the Qur’an are of Ge’ez origin.

In other words Mohammed grew up with Ethiopians, spoke Ge’ez fluently, and had contact with Ethipian Christians. So you wonder where he got his understanding of Christianity (which is presumably a fairly crucial question in interpreting the relation of the Qur’an to the bible). I think the general assumption is that he knew the Syrian tradition. That may be true, but I still think somebody should spend a phd comparing the Qur’an to the Ethiopian biblical commentaries.

Suddenly studying Sanskrit seems so….mainstream.

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