BMCR 2020.03.04

Langage des dieux, langage des démons, langage des hommes dans l’Antiquité

, , Langage des dieux, langage des démons, langage des hommes dans l'Antiquité. Recherches sur les rhétoriques religieuses (RRR) ; 26. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2017. 421 pages : ill.. ISBN 9782503578972 €80.

[Authors and titles are listed below.]

“Barbarian names” are unmeaning written words formerly considered as mere voces magicae, found in diverse contexts: on defixiones and in the so-called “Magical Papyri,” on “magical gems” as well as in gnostic texts. They are discussed by pagan as well as Christian philosophers. Recent scholarship on this matter made a great step in considering these puzzling onomata firstly as divine names, that is, a way of manifesting the divine through names which are specifically conceived as foreign, and secondly as performative utterances to be considered as powerful enactments of the divine through a technical construction, manipulation, and ritualization of written words and sounds. These conclusions have been drawn thanks to the collective work surrounding the CENOB database (Corpus des ÉNOncés Barbares) since 2008. Collective thoughts published in a seminal book—Michel Tardieu, Anna Van den Kerchove, Michela Zago (eds.), Noms barbares I: Formes et contextes d’une pratique magique (BMCR review here)—have paved the way to an understanding of these “barbarian names” that goes beyond a simple, etymological, interrogation towards an approach closer to speech-act and relevance theories of the ritual naming of superhuman powers.

The present book is the result of a meeting held in Paris in November 2010, the objective of which was to bring new lights in the philosophical perspectives opened by the CENOB project. The “Preface” by Gérard Freyburger and Laurent Pernot, the “Avant-propos” by Jean-Daniel Dubois—leading member of the CENOB project—and the “Introduction” by Philippe Hoffmann and Luciana Gabriela Soares Santoprete, trace the lines and connections between the topic of the divine naming and philosophical questions. The overall problematic pertains to the philosophy of language, from Platon’s Cratylus and Aristotle’s Peri hermeneias onwards, through Stoic and Neo-Platonic theorizations of language. Language is both a vector of knowledge and a means of action. It takes part in different ways of communication: from gods (or demons) to mortals, from mortals to gods, and mortals within themselves when they communicate about the gods. Several themes can be explored, among which are the meaning—or, the reverse: the semantic opacity of language –, the power of speech, the community of language between humans and non-human powers or, on the contrary, the limits of language in speaking with or talking about the divine, the plurality of language among people and its impact on the theological and ritual communications.

Sixteen papers treat different aspects of the question mostly in the Neo-Platonic documentation. All the contributions are in French. Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review. The book is not divided into parts or chapters but the indices of sources, nouns, themes, and Greek words can help draw lines between the diversity of themes and documents treated here. Several main lines can be distinguished while cross-reading the different contributions.

One is a problem of intellection: how to say what is beyond words? A hierarchical treatment of the divine, as expressed as well by the title of the book—gods, demons, mortals—raises questions of theology, demonology, and theory of the Soul, that, in the perspective of language, rely on the problem of intellection, of the limits of language and communication—then the question of silence. François Lortie explores the conception of the souls and their ability to share intellection with the upper Being, particularly in Proclus’ writings. Marilena Vlad finds the reversal of language in Damascius’ theory about nothingness: to talk about nothing is to experience nothingness and therefore nothing becomes something one can think with. Moreover, Ghislain Casas and Daniel Cohen approach the rationale of the negative theology in Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite: here, language is something to overcome, while silence becomes the best expression of divine knowledge. But the negative theology does produce a real theory of language, as the very discursive support to be overpassed.

A second main line relies on the speech act and problems of utterance: sound, voice and speech. The orality, inside the vertical perspective of communication, induces the question of what is the form of the different languages used between mortals and superhuman powers. Michel Tardieu sets out, behind the dichotomy between barbarian names and Greek speech, the background structural separation between two kinds of sonority: respectively wind instruments and cords instruments. Claudine Besset-Lamoine lays out the results of an interesting experience of ritual language, namely the reconstruction of possible utterance of prayers from the Nag Hammadi corpus. The dramaturgy is based on a strict analysis of the ritual structure, linguistic features and liturgical context of the gnostic texts in order to reveal the musicality of the utterance in gnostic religious knowledge. In the vertical communication, a hierarchy between sound, voice and unspoken language is revealed by the discussions around Socrates’ demon, explained by Claudio Moreschini, while Andrei Timotin discusses the theories of the voice of the demons in Middle- and Neo-Platonism, in which we can distinguish between actual divinatory voices and the non-sounding but illuminating “voice” of a demonic nature. Sophie Van der Meeren shows the ancient exegesis of the performativity of the very form of dialogic discourse in Socratic philosophy.

A third aspect of the question is the process of naming the gods, that is to say the designation of the deities by mortals in different forms: theonyms, epithets and barbarian names. What theory or exegesis does the naming of the gods motivate? A first glimpse on this matter is offered by Pierre Chiron on the gods in Homer’s epic. While raising the question of the naming processes in Homer, the author tries to give a panoramic view of the theological discourse in Homer, a contribution to be consolidated now by the reading of several recent works on the gods in Homer.[1] Helmut Seng offers preliminary remarks about the barbarian names and divine epithets in the Chaldean oracles, which open the question of a shared language between mortals and gods—both authors of the oracles. The analysis of the barbarian names in the Pistis Sophia by Mariano Troiano takes a good profit of the notion of a performative “énoncé” that depends on the context and the articulation between the different components of the barbarian chains of words, as developed by the CENOB project. The contribution by Luciana Gabriela Soares Santoprete is an essay on the influence of Plato’s Cratylus over the etymological exegesis of divine names by Plotinus, which is part of the theoretic of the relation between the language of the soul and the language of the Intellect. Etymology is again an issue in the contribution of Cynthia Jean about the name “Adad” in Neo-Platonic works: the Assyriologist offers a possible explanation of the circulation of the divine name between Near Eastern languages and late Greek philosophy. The etymology of the divine name became one of the functions of the theurgist, in Iamblichus, where a theology of the (barbarian and common) names of the gods is a political as well as religious issue, as shown by Adrien Lecerf: the theurgist sets in the diversity of human languages a universalistic theology. Late but not least, the Hymn to the Sun written by Martianus Capella in the first part of the 5th c. CE, builds on another universalism through the naming of the pagan gods, or, in the words of Chiara Ombretta Tommasi, a “syncretism” of multiple doctrines.

The book furnishes an overview of the philosophical treatment of language as a religious question in late Antiquity. Several papers give new insights to the question of the barbarian names. Anthropological questions about speech act and ritual performativity can use several contributions to enhance the account of language in the making of a theology, with the cautious remark that what is offered here is mostly addressed to the study of ancient philosophical theology. The varied exegesis on the communicative language as a multiform vector between mortals and superhuman powers or entities shows an attempt, already in Antiquity, to get hold of the problem of human agency in talking to and about the gods.[2]

Table of Contents

Préface, Gérard Freyburger, Laurent Pernot
Avant-Propos, Jean-Daniel Dubois
Introduction, Luciana Gabriela Soares Santoprete, Philippe Hoffmann
“Langage des dieux, musiques des hommes”, Michel Tardieu
“Le nom des dieux, la langue des dieux chez Homère”, Pierre Chiron
“Langage des dieux et langage des hommes dans les Oracles chaldaïques”, Helmut Seng
“Rituels et énoncés barbares dans la Pistis Sophia, Mariano Troiano
“Le dire à haute voix : une nouvelle approche des textes de Nag Hammadi”, Claudine Besset-Lamoine
“Le démon de Socrate et son langage dans la philosophie médio-platonicienne”, Claudio Moreschini
“La voix des démons dans la tradition médio- et néoplatonicienne”, Andrei Timotin
“L’étymologie dans la procession de l’Étant à partir de l’Un et dans la remontée de l’âme jusqu’à l’Un selon Plotin”, Luciana Gabriela Soares Santoprete
“Jamblique : universalisme et noms barbares”, Adrien Lecerf
“Intellection humaine, inspiration démonique et enthousiasme divin selon Proclus”, François Lortie
“Adad chez les néoplatoniciens : une lecture assyriologique”, Cyntia Jean
“L’“entretien” philosophique d’après le commentaire de Proclus au Premier Alcibiade de Platon”, Sophie Van der Meeren
“Parler de rien. Damascius sur le principe au-delà de l’Un”, Marilena Vlad
“Silence divin et pouvoir sacré : la théologie négative, de Plotin au Pseudo-Denys l’Aréopagite”, Ghislain Casas
“Les fondements néoplatoniciens du logos théologique chez le Pseudo-Denys l’Aréopagite”, Daniel Cohen
“L’Hymne au soleil de Martianus Capella : une synthèse entre philosophie grecque et théosophie barbare”, Chiara Ombretta Tommasi
Bibliographie générale
Index des sources anciennes
Index nominum
Index des thèmes
Index des termes grecs

[1] Pironti, Gabriella and Bonnet, Corinne (dir.), Les dieux d’Homère. Polythéisme et poésie en Grèce ancienne. Liège: Presses Universitaires de Liège, 2017. This book is the result of a conference held in 2015, followed by a second one in 2016, to be published by the same editor. A conference on “Euryopa. Embrasser du regard les épithètes divines et leur circulation” in the South of France, September 2018 (organized by the center AnHiMA and the ERC project MAP), embraced the question of the naming process of the gods in Homer. On the so-called “language of the gods,” see also Manon Brouillet, “Que disent les mots des dieux”, Mètis N.S. 11, 2013, pp. 147-181.

[2] This question is central both to the study of barbarian names in the path opened by the CENOB project, and to the study of the naming processes of the gods in Antique Greek and Western Semitic religions currently held by the MAP project (Mapping Ancient Polytheisms. Cult Epithets as an Interface between Religious Systems and Human Agency, ERC Advanced Grant 741182, Corinne Bonnet, Toulouse).