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Mysticism from Iraq: ancient wisdom of the Nabateans


Book review: The Last Pagans of Iraq: Ibn Wahshiyya and his Nabatean Agriculture

Jaakko Hämeen-Anttila, Brill, 2006, 396 blz, isbn 9789004150102

My interest in this book was aroused by two things: H.P. Blavatsky’s references to the manuscript Nabatean Agriculture, and the famous city of Petra in Jordan, which was largely hewn out of the rock by the Nabateans.

There is a great deal of confusion among historians about the term ‘Nabateans’ because, in different contexts and at different times, it has referred to different groups of people. According to Hämeen-Anttila, Nabatean Agriculture is not connected with the Nabateans who built Petra. H.P. Blavatsky says that ‘Nabateans’ was

the mystic name of the caste devoted to Nebo (god of secret wisdom), which shows on its face that the Nabatheans were an occult Brotherhood. The Nabatheans who, according to the Persian Yezidi, originally came to Syria from Busrah, were the degenerate members of that fraternity; still their religion, even at that late day, was purely Kabalistic. Nebo is the deity of the planet Mercury, and Mercury is the god of Wisdom or Hermes, and Budha, which the Jews called נְבוֹ ‘the Lord on high, the aspiring,’ . . . and the Greeks Nabo, Ναβώ, hence Nabatheans. SD 2:455

Nabatean Agriculture makes clear that ‘Nabateans’ was seen as a noble term and was used for ancient Chaldean sages and their followers. They lived in ancient Chaldea or Babylonia, i.e. present-day Iraq. It is not inconceivable that they had a branch in Petra, since various sculpted motifs in Petra correspond to those of ancient Chaldea or Babylonia. But we will restrict ourselves here to the manuscript and its contents.

In The Secret Doctrine H.P. Blavatsky repeatedly refers to Nabatean Agriculture, saying that it is an extremely old compilation.

[I]t is no apocrypha, but the repetition of the tenets of the Secret Doctrine under the exoteric Chaldean form of national symbols, for the purpose of ‘cloaking’ the tenets, just as the Books of Hermes and the Puranas are Egyptian and Hindu attempts at the same. The work was as well known in antiquity as it was during the Middle Ages. SD 2:455

Nabatean Agriculture is a translation of an Arabic manuscript from the 10th century AD. The Arabic manuscript is a translation of an ancient Syrian manuscript made by Ibn Wahshiyya (born in Qusayn, Iraq) in the 10th century. The ancient Syrian manuscript – whose age is uncertain – is unfortunately not available, but Ibn Wahshiyya says it was compiled by three Chaldean sages and comes from Mesopotamia, now largely Iraq. The book was begun by Saghrith, and was later added to by Yanbushad and Quthama. A period of 21,000 years is said to have elapsed between Saghrith and Quthama.

Nabatean Agriculture was brought to scholarly attention by Étienne Quatremère in a journal in 1835, but it was only after passages from the manuscript had been translated into German by Daniel Chwolsohn in 1856 (the translation to which Blavatsky refers) that a heated discussion arose. Chwolsohn was fiercely attacked by contemporary scholars, the text was labelled a ‘fairytale’, and because an English translation never appeared, Nabatean Agriculture remained virtually inaccessible to the public. Jaakko Hämeen-Anttila has changed this. Although he has only translated part of the text, he has made it available to all. But if we only read his translation of the texts from Nabatean Agriculture we obtain a limited picture of its philosophical and religious content. Only after reading his explanatory introductions to the translated texts does it become clear how much more it contains, as he translates or summarizes additional parts of the manuscript. This gives a broader picture, and it is a pity that he has not translated the entire text.

In Hämeen-Anttila’s explanatory section on the world and the gods, we are given an impression of the Nabateans’ cosmogony. Everything arose and arises eternally from motion. The world is divided into a supernal and a lower world. The supernal world consists of the spheres of the seven celestial bodies with above them the fixed stars. This is the classical system of Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, sun, Venus, Mercury and the moon. The lower world is that of the earth, extending as far as the lowest limit of the lunar sphere. The planets, sun and moon are seen as gods, who each have a specific relationship with the earth (climate) and its inhabitants. What takes place in the lower world is the result of the joint effects of all celestial bodies (p. 111). The sun is called the soul of both the supernal and lower worlds. The different elements (earth, water, air and fire) are discussed in relation to the celestial bodies, and the constellations are also dealt with.

According to Hämeen-Anttila, Nabatean Agriculture contains a long text about the soul. Unfortunately he has not included a translation of this part. He explains several points from this text, e.g. the fact that specific souls in us are connected with the universal soul – also known as the sun – and that they follow the movements of the sun and come from the sun. Elsewhere, the different origins of the souls are mentioned: some come from Jupiter, some from the moon and some from the sun. The connection between the different souls and our bodily organs is also dealt with. Finally, the text briefly mentions the transmigration of souls from one body to another.

The spirit of altruism shines through the book in places, and gives a picture of the essence of the ancient Chaldean tradition:

The prophets have ordered us to care for the world and to help (others) against the miseries we have there. If we do not help one another, we will perish. That we should have pity on one another and feel compassion for one another and help one another in the trials into which we have been pushed brings us closer to God . . . p. 243

Also, if all people were just to each other and no one would do injury to anyone, their troubles would fade away and their bodies would be healthy. They would not fall ill but they would prosper, there would be no famine and their crops would be sound. But as they are unjust to each other, not just in their transactions, their evil causes all these afflictions of famine, poverty and illness. p. 263

The book is clearly made up of different parts. Some seem very ancient while others seem more recent. The oldest parts contain the most philosophy. Less old parts deal with subjects that the writer sometimes mentions reluctantly, such as the making of talismans and other forms of magic; he points out that this knowledge is dangerous because it may be misused. The text shows great respect for the oldest stories and oldest sages, and indicates that unanimity once prevailed and only later did people become divided.

You know that the most ancient stories about any man among the Nabateans which people know are the stories about Dawanay, who was the first man among us to (receive) wisdom. We have learned from his knowledge and he has opened for us the doors of wisdom. The people of his age were unanimous that he was given revelation in sleep through dreams and that he was inspired in a waking state through notions which occurred to him: what came through occurring notions they called inspiration. . . . You know that most of the Nabateans, from among the progeny of Adam and those not from among his progeny but from the progeny of others, agree that Dawanay was the most excellent of all people and they have called him for this reason the Lord of Mankind . . . p. 275

In Nabatean Agriculture Dawanay is mentioned before Adam in a series of sages and is probably identical with Adon, since Adon is sometimes written as ’DWN’. The title of Lord of Mankind also seems to point to this. Some writers compare Dawanay to Hermes (cf pp. 169-70fn).

Another sage who is often referred to is Adam. Blavatsky writes:

‘Adam-Adami’* is a generic compound name as old as languages are. The Secret Doctrine teaches that Ad-i was the name given to the first speaking race of mankind — in this Round — by the Aryans. Hence the Adonim and Adonai (the ancient plural form of the word Adon), which the Jews applied to their Jehovah and angels, who were simply the first spiritual and ethereal sons of the earth; and the god Adonis, who in his many variations stood for the ‘First Lord.’ Adam is the Sanskrit Ada-Nath, also meaning first Lord, as Ad-Iswara, or any Ad (the first) followed by any adjective or substantive. The reason for this is that such truths were a common inheritance. It was a revelation received by the first mankind before that time which, in Biblical phraseology, is called ‘the period of one lip and word,’ or speech; knowledge expanded by man’s own intuition later on, but still later hidden from profanation under an adequate symbology. SD 2:452

*Written as Adam or Adama in Hämeen-Anttila’s translation.

Another interesting part of the text deals with the difference between soothsayers, prophets and sages – which broadly corresponds to the distinction made in theosophical literature.

It was known to all ancients that the revelation comes from gods to human beings only in the two ways which we have mentioned, namely dream visions or inspiration by notions which occur in a waking state. . . . Masa and some other Kasdanian sages have held that these two ways, or one of them, are open only to those whose nature has been appropriately prepared, making them receptive to revelation and that those who receive revelation through these two ways are to be called prophets, while the station of soothsayers is below this station . . .

They also held that the prophets have sound intelligence and discernment, they are good in instruction and they know the benefits and the harms (of each thing) in a perceptive way, whereas soothsayers are mostly stupid, of little discipline and have only some knowledge and they use and follow to a great extent their (own) sense perceptions . . . The way of the prophet is truer and more correct than that of the soothsayer. . . .

Know also that there is yet a third group of people who may be described as neither prophets (nor soothsayers). They are the sages, trained in wisdom and knowledge and skilled in the fields of intricate sciences. They are called philosophers. The philosophers attain wisdom and knowledge on their own accord and by training, not through revelation or soothsaying. p. 277-8

Here and there Nabatean Agriculture therefore contains interesting sections, which clearly echo the ancient wisdom, with an esoteric side that was kept secret (cf p. 92), but it also contains sections on all kinds of crops, food, burial rituals and other less edifying subjects that distract attention.

We still know very little about the Nabateans, and Nabatean Agriculture refers to many more writings that they possessed (p. 93). Nevertheless, it is clear that the Nabateans concerned themselves with the great problems of life and that there were great sages among them who had solved these mysteries.

– Coen Vonk

Translated from Impuls (Newsletter of the Dutch Section of the Theosophical Society), september 2010, No. 52.

© 2010 Theosophical University Press Agency