Gnosticism and the Abjads

The science of letters is a fairly obscure element to many contemporary folks who are interested in gnosticism, but it forms an essential aspect of it. Gnosticism is born alongside the alphabet, most specifically with the abjads, and its relationship to knowledge and understanding is shaped by it. The alphabet also anchors gnosticism in a cultural time and space, distinguishing it from a family of spiritual and linguistic practices that take other forms of writing as their point of departure.

The commitment to undertaking a spiritual relationship with the letters parallels the commitment to using specific words, even if foreign, in ritual operations. The specificity of the ritual operations forms part of their efficacy, one that plays at the boundary of meaningfulness. It is striking to me that during a time when we see a lot of people looking to the barbarous words as spoken, we see comparably fewer exploring the fundamentals of those words.

It is around this sense of foundation and emergence that I have found the work with the letters surprising. I had expected the power of the letters to derive first and foremost from their ties to words and discourse, but that was a secondary and emergent dimension of the work. Their primary force seems to derive from their relationship to forces that exceed linguistic framework in which we first encounter them. It seems, rather, that the linguistic dimension of the language proceeds from the spiritual and it is this spiritual dimension that is refreshed and encountered as we pass from discourse to poetry to letter work proper.

The work with the letters becomes a means to rediscover the birth of language and writing which is simultaneously the birth of knowledge and awareness in its ambiguous and troubled relationship to its object. The gnosis of the letters restores the letters to their place in the world outside of the networks of meaning to which we pin them in everyday speech and reveals them to be an opening into the world(s) from which those meanings have been extracted. The letters become ‘barbarous’ in the stuttering sense implied by the Greek ‘bar-bar’ and as they stutter they call forth to a world that isn’t easily collapsed into the world projected outward from our common sense.

From a gnostic perspective, then, part of what makes a sacred text sacred is that within it the letters that animate its meaning regularly form constellations with each other that face away from the meaning of the text toward this other world(s). Whether these constellations pervade the entire text or are anchors of mystery within oceans of intelligible meaning may be up for discussion, but even where the mundane exceeds the mysterious, the generative and magical words resonate and enliven the whole text.

What’s strange is some of that seems to operate across translations, in ways that I don’t entirely get. Perhaps since I am working with an English translation, some of this has to do with the roots of the Latin alphabet in the abjads, but perhaps there is something even more mysterious at work. At least some strains of sigil magic play upon this magical root, as with the early method of making sigils from words that proceeded by extracting the vowels from the words, transposing our own writing toward the abjads.

It is definitely one of the stranger parts of the gnostic work because it seems even more irrational and weird than other forms of gnostic magical work. That said, I am wondering how much it makes sense to compare the arbitrary yet real mystery of the letters to those of the astrological constellations. The same irrationality holds in the figuration of stars and it is likely the figuration of the stars that help inspire the figuration of the letters, of writing, and that at least some of the figures that we explore on the page are related to figures writ upon the heavens and grasped at specific points in time, in specific relations to the land and people.


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