Thursday, July 31, 2008


Have you ever been mesmerized while waiting for the sunrise? As you watch the horizon for that first burst of light, you get swept up in the eternal present moment. With baited breath, your sense of time is suspended, and you’re primed for a miracle. This is the “liminal zone,” the threshold between night and day, between here and there, between this and that. It’s the crossroads where anything is possible. And then the dawn breaks through, like a sudden burst of inspiration, like an act of creation: “Let there be light.” That is the magic of Abraxas, an enigmatic name that has perhaps always been closely associated with the power of the sun. This “strange, mysterious name”[1] captures that magical, suspended, timeless moment: “all of time as an eternal instant.”[2] Abraxas is the power of infinity—the promise of endless possibilities, the “cosmos” itself.[3] In mythology, Abraxas is the name of a celestial horse that draws the dawn goddess Aurora across the sky.[4] The name suggests a power that is not properly ours but rather a gift from another world.

But what of the name’s origin? It is likely, as an etymologist posited in 1891, that Abraxas belongs “to no known speech” but rather some “mystic dialect,” perhaps taking its origin “from some supposed divine inspiration.”[5] Yet scholars, of course, search for a root. There are speculatory shreds of evidence which suggest that Abraxas is a combination of two Egyptian words, abrak and sax, meaning “the honorable and hallowed word” or “the word is adorable.”[6] Abrak is “found in the Bible as a salutation to Joseph by the Egyptians upon his accession to royal power.”[7] Abraxas appears in “an Egyptian invocation to the Godhead, meaning ‘hurt me not.’”[8] Other scholars suggest a Hebrew origin of the word, positing “a Grecized form of ha-berakhah, ‘the blessing,’” while still others speculate a derivation from the Greek habros and sac, “the beautiful, the glorious Savior.”[9] The name has appeared in the ancient Hebrew/Aramaic mystical treatises The Book of Raziel and The Sword of Moses, and in post-Talmudic Jewish incantation texts,[10] as well as in Persian mythology.[11]

An interesting occurrence of Abraxas is found in a papyrus from late antiquity (perhaps from Hellenized Egypt, though its exact origin is unknown). The papyrus contains “magical recipes, invocations, and incantations,” and tells of a baboon disembarking the Sun boat and proclaiming: “Thou art the number of the year ABRAXAS.” This statement causes God to laugh seven times, and with the first laugh the “splendor [of light] shone through the whole universe.”[12]

The Basilideans, a Gnostic sect founded in the 2nd century CE by Basilides of Alexandria, worshipped Abraxas as the “supreme and primordial creator” deity, “with all the infinite emanations.”[13] The god Abraxas unites the opposites, including good and evil,[14] the one and the many.[15] He is “symbolized as a composite creature, with the body of a human being and the head of a rooster, and with each of his legs ending in a serpent.”[16] His name is actually a mathematical formula: in Greek, the letters add up to 365, the days of the year[17] and the number of eons[18] (cycles of creation).

“That a name so sacredly guarded, so potent in its influence, should be preserved by mystic societies through the many ages . . . is significant,”[19] notes Moses W. Redding, a scholar of secret societies. Redding suggests that only in Freemasonry has this “Divine Word” been “held in due reverence.”[21]

[1] Annemarie Schimmel, The Mystery of Numbers (1993)
[2] Gene Wolfe, Shadow and Claw (1994)
[3] Carl Jung, the third sermon of the Seven Sermons to the Dead (1917)
[4] Anna Franklin, Midsummer: Magical Celebrations of the Summer Solstice (2002)
[5] Harnaek, Ueber dal gnostische Buch Pistil-Sophia, quoted in Philip Schaff, The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Vol. I
[6] Philip Schaff, The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Vol. I
[7] Moses W. Redding, The Illustrated History of Freemasonry (2004)
[8] Philip Schaff, The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Vol. I
[9] Ibid.
[10] Moshe Idel, Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion (2004)
[11] Constance Victoria Briggs, The Encyclopedia of God (2003)
[12] Marie-Louise Von Franz, Creation Myths (1972)
[13] Zecharia Sitchin, The Cosmic Code (1998)
[14] Gustave Flaubert, The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1874), translated by Lafcadio Hearn
[15] Tracy R. Twyman, The Merovingian Mythos and the Mystery of Rennes-le-Chateau (2004)
[16] Marc Ian Barasch, Healing Dreams (2001)
[17] Manly Palmer Hall, The Secret Teachings of All Ages (1928)
[18] John Michael Greer, The New Encyclopedia of the Occult (2003)
[19] Carl Lindahl, Medieval Folklore: A Guide to Myths, Legends, Tales, Beliefs, and Customs (2002)
[20] The Illustrated History of Freemasonry (2004)
[21] Ibid.

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