[NB] Demonic Mimesis

Yesterday was a good day in numerous small ways and one of them was following a little nudge to wander by the library. I walk by the new books shelf and the first thing I see is Divine Scapegoats: Demonic Mimesis in Early Jewish Mysticism by Andrei A. Orlov. After having just had a lengthy post about mimesis, it feels like someone dropping an anonymous note through my mail slot, so I picked it right up.

I have only read about a fifth of it straight through, with some flipping back and forth to see what lies ahead, but it’s useful material to think with (less useful to work with, methinks, but thinking is what I do here). I don’t know much about the material (Slavonic Pseudepigrapha), but the author’s basic case seems clear. Looking at some early Jewish texts that have been preserved only in Slavonic languages, there is evidence for an early Judaic cosmology that strictly parallels the heavenly and infernal orders such that for every angel there is a corresponding demon/fallen angel.

Orlov returns frequently to the Yom Kippur ritual of the scapegoat, in which there are two goats, one of which sanctifies and the other of which carries away the pollution from the sanctified temple. The texts he looks at frequently see the demons and fallen angels treated as if they were the scapegoat, including the language of hurling the angels onto the jagged rocks.

Orlov argues that this material likely forms the basis of the Zohar‘s discussion of a complementary system of Sefirot occupied by infernal powers as well as its rich deployment of left/right symmetry. While it is not part of Orlov’s study, it has transparent enough implications for our understanding of many of the grimoire traditions and their hierarchies. Having been reading over at Hermetic Lessons, I also have to wonder after the privileged place Prague might occupy in this dynamic, serving as one of the axis points between which Slavonic and Latin Europe interacted (and lets not forget the Jewish community’s roots there).

Reading this, it strengthens my sense that most of what we call the “Western Magical Tradition” is best understood as one of the margins of a network of magical practices historically anchored in the Middle East.

(Yes, totally a notebook post—look at me ramble.)

Let me get back to the text, share a few interesting bits. He spends some time talking about the Fall of the angels provided in 1 Enoch, noting that the text describes them as binding themselves to each other with curses, suggesting that there is a dimension to ‘cursing’ that goes beyond mere harm doing. Orlov proposes

“the oath uttered by the fallen angels bearing peculiar demiurgic names act as a curious parallel to the oath of the Creator. While the demiurgic powers of the divine Names [often executed by angels] bring the world into existence, and sustain its harmony, the Watchers’ oath [described in Enoch as curses] creates chaos and allows them to unlock the boundaries of the created order to refashion it. It also demonstrates their extraordinary access to the deepest mysteries of the universe, the faculties that enable them to replicate and mimic the creative faculties of the Deity.”—Andrei Orlov, Divine Scapegoats (33-34)

Also of interest, especially in the parallelism of angel and demon and the specificity with which many grimoires assign spirits forms of knowledge:

“…the names of the fallen angels indicate their illicit revelatory functions, including the type of instruction they offered.“—Ibid. (34; emphasis mine)

Finally, though Orlov does not address the triplicity that I have found at the center of this material, a triplicity that seems to lie at the heart of the later Jewish mystical traditions like the Zohar that he points out, some of his textual evidence nonetheless suggests a triplicate order:

The Midrash of Shemhazai and Azael 3-5, for instance, depicts the fallen angel teaching a girl named Esterah the Ineffable Name….Later Muslim accounts of the fallen angels found in the Tafsirs attest to a similar cluster of traditions portraying Shemihazah (‘Aza) and Asael (Azazil) as the culprits responsible for the illicit revelation of the divine Name to a woman named Zuhra.”—Ibid.

Orlov quotes the story in brief and in it we see the woman compelling the angel to reveal the Name so that they will “Listen to the angel’s request.”

That is especially suggestive on several fronts. First, it has a sexual subtext (aside: it looks like that subtext will be explored more fully later in Orlov’s book), which parallels that which appears between the Serpent and Eve. Second, it suggests that the angel is carrying out its archetyping mission in some way (‘listen to my request,’ i.e., listen to the message from God), but that the substance that receives the request has some independence from that process.  Third, the name seems to have ties to the word for ‘star,’ which suggests a connection to Asteroth.

In other words, there seems to be a distinction drawn in these stories between an archetypal heavenly force of the holy word, the catalytic force of the fallen of the fallen angels and the receptive, matrical force of the female figure (the substance of creation) to which they descend. Moreover, that figure seems to have ties to a network of female figures and magical practices.

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