In spring of the same year Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa was born - 1486 - a mysterious scholar, forgotten by the Western Magical tradition and remembered only by academic history, explained the key concepts of Jewish Kabbala to a young Italian philosopher and squire. The latter was called Pico della Mirandola and became world-renowned as the founding father of Christian Kabbala and remembered until today as a pivotal force in the emergence of Renaissance philosophy and Hermetic magic. The former, however, vanished with little traces into the mists of our Western occult memory. To be more precise: he had to vanish; as his memory would have been a tarnish on the glorious occult aura of his benefactor, Pico.
The consequence of these two men meeting and working together for a short period of time during the late 15th century cannot be underestimated: In essence it was their work and philosophical conclusions that elevated Christian topoi to the status of salvation-knowledge (Erlösungswissen) and transformed Christian scholarship from an academic profession to an active way of partaking in the divine Logos. It were the premises of Jewish Kabbala - introduced into the corpus of Christian speculation and philosophy - that turned the spoken and written word from a distant memory of divine power into its active mean. Suddenly the search for the Adamic language seemed to have ended; the gates of the sacred scriptures had been opened.
"Mithridates translated texts at the rate of 40 folio pages a day, and through this small but selective library, Pico came to know major works by such important authors as Recanati, Joseph Gicatilla, and Abraham Axelrad, and Abraham Abulafia as well as standard classic works such as the Liber Combinationem, Liber de Radicibtis and the Book of Bahir. The result, for Wirszubski, was that 'Pico is the first Christian by birth who is known to have read an impressive amount of genuine Jewish Kabbalah.'" (Friedman, p.481)
Pico marked this turning point in history with the rushed publication of his 900 thesis and a call for the world’s most renowned scholars to meet him in Rome and to publicly discuss them. — What happened thereafter is history, as they say.
A short sketch of Flavius Mithridates’ biography and work.
"The certainly strange character of the man, who in the second half of the 15th century developed an active role as a teacher of Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic as well as a well-versed translator in these and other languages, has always remained enigmatic." (Cassuto, p.230)
The name of the man who introduced Pico to Jewish Kabbala is ambiguous. Today he is most often given as ‘Flavius Mithridates’. Yet this is just one of the many names the man chose over the course of his eventful life. Mostly he seemed to change names regularly for two reasons: (1) to be able to start afresh whenever his bad reputation overhauled him and (2) to foster "a kind of aura of classicism" around his personality (Cassuto).
The raw outline of his biography looks somewhat like this: He was born between 1440 and 1450 into a Jewish family in Sicily, possibly under the name of Samuel ben Nissim Abul’Faradsch. In 1466 he converted to the Christian faith and took the name of Guglielmo Raimondo Moncada. Through files that were found we know that he lived for a while in Agrigento, had mastered the ancient languages of Hebrew, Chaldaic, Arab and Latin and was often disputing against the Jewish and confuted their faith based on their own codes and scripts. It was through this missionary agitation that he quickly gained the grudge of the Jewish communities as well as the recognition of the Church. At the same time he accumulated relative wealth by ruthlessly acquiring the money of several Jewish legates. Since 1477 he was living in Rome in the entourage of the Giovanni Battista Cibo, bishop of Molfetta, later Pope Innocent VIII. It seems he easily gained the trust of the Vatican as on Good Friday 1481 he held the sermon ‘De passion Domini’ in front of the Pope. It was during this lecture that he explained the sufferings of Christ through the lens of Jewish Kabbala. The speech marks a turning point in his life as it increased his reputation significantly and opened many doors. Records indicate that since that day he is also known under the name of Flavius.
However, things took a turn for the worse when in 1483 Mithridates suddenly had to leave Rome. The nature of the alleged crime is unknown yet it must have been considerable. It is not unlikely that it is related to his preference of pederasty. From Rome he escaped to Germany where he taught in several cities such as Cologne and Tübingen and continued to spread his take on Jewish Kabbala as a prophetic orthodox means to prove the superiority of the Christian faith. It was during these German years that also Johan Reuchlin got in contact with Mithridates through attending his Hebrew lectures. About a decade later the former would become the official spiritual heir of Pico della Mirandola and publish the first dedicated book on Christian Kabbala.
When exactly Mithridates returned to Florence and thus Italy hasn’t been recorded; however, his intense collaboration with Pico della Mirandola certainly lasted from 1486 until 1489. This relationship seems to have been one of mutual dependency as well as guilt on Pico’s part: While the latter depended on Mithridates Hebrew language capabilities he hated himself for promising and helping the former to find another catamite. One of the last traces we find of Mithridates is a record that in 1489 ‘Guilelmo Mithridates upon order of our Lord’ had been imprisoned in Viterbo.
"In such tragic ways and in the shadows of a prison cell disappears the eventful life of the man whose ambitious dreams had driven him out the Jewish quarter in Agrigento." (Cassuto, p.236, transl. by Fra.Acher)
Mithridates’ main role in the collaboration with Pico was to translate the ancient Kabbalistic source works into Latin and to thus make them accessible for the study of his mentor. To the present day Mithridates’ translations are a crucial element in answering the question which parts of the Kabbalistic body of scriptures actually had been accessible for Renaissance scholars outside of closed Jewish Kabbalistic circles. However, when Pico published his kabbalistic conclusions - and thus introduced a large Latin-speaking audience to kabbalistic concepts and key ideas for the first time - it was questionable how many of these the audience actually was able to understand? Pico chose not to provide much context; and the enigmatic kabbalistic thesis he presented remained mostly unaccessible to most Christian philosophers for years...
So far so good. More serious problems emerge, however, when we turn to the fact that at the time when Mithridates began to introduce the Pope and later on Pico to his ‘translations’ nobody within his Christian audience was actually able to verify what he had translated - and more importantly where from? Unfortunately it seems Mithridates had been very aware of this fact - and perceived it as a welcome opportunity.
This becomes especially obvious when we take a closer look at the sources of the sermon he held to the Pope: Mithridates refers to an ‘old talmud’ that had been completed 370 years before the birth of Christ and contained many prophetic hints at the advent of Christ. Some of the secret Jewish doctrines Mithridates quoted in his sermon were outright forgeries, fabricated from rephrasings of rabbinical sayings. However, his main uncredited source are the works of Raimundus Martini - a 13th-century Catalan Dominican friar and theologian who formed another link in the long chain of polemic Christian attempts to censor Jewish source works that seemed at odds with Christian teachings and to show the falsity of the Jewish religion.
"One of the characteristics of fifteenth-century humanism in Italy was its at tempt to embrace as broad a spectrum of sources as possible in order to demonstrate the inherent truth of the Christian religion. This movement, which sought to interpret the texts of antiquity, also recovered tracts that seemed to impart ancient teachings concerning philosophical and metaphysical matters. These ancient texts, some of which were considered to predate Plato and Aristotle, were utilized to show how, long before the birth of Jesus, Christian truths and the Christian world-view were already prevalent. Even if the dating of these works was mistaken, it is significant that this so-called ancient wisdom was incorporated into a Christian frame of reference." (Hames, p.283)
Wether this old talmud existed or not, today we know it certainly didn’t contain any of the flaring hints to the advent of Christ Mithridates hawked. The fact that despite his significant knowledge of the Kabbalistic and Jewish source works Mithridates still referred to the flawed works of Martini without giving credit to them shine a very dubious and hypocritical light on his personality.
This light is further emphasised by the fact that while Mithridates was happy to offer his service and be paid for it, he refused to share his actual skills and knowledge with others. Pico had to sign a written contract with him stating that he would not pass on the knowledge of the Hebrew language he had gained through Mithridates. The latter refrained from teaching him the even more ancient Chaldaic altogether (Vogelstein-Rieger, p.76).
Well, what do we take from this episode? During the time the Orient came to Rome one of its central pillars of transmission was a deeply gifted linguist, kabbalist and translator who unfortunately also was one clever charlatan. Despite his significant talent that allowed him to first introduce the West to e.g. the works of Abraham Abulafia, the impression cannot be avoided that MIthridates main goal was his own advancement and privilege. For this he was ready to compromise not only his tradition and work but also his own integrity.
"(Mithridates) was not above making interpolations and emendations in the works he translated, generally for the purpose of supporting a Christian reading and interpretation." (Hames, p.291)
Strangely we seem to come across a topos of our Western occult tradition here: A rich benefactor discovers an underprivileged, talented young man and both of them quickly become ensnarled in a complicated relationship of interdependency and guilt. Over the course of their difficult partnership they are able to open gates to seemingly new knowledge and discover mystical sources that had remained blocked for the eyes of the West for centuries. However, there is a flaw in their work - introduced by the thriving ego of the young medium and the desperate hunger for forbidden knowledge of his benefactor. It is the combination of both of their talents with their explosive desires - a desire to enter the privileged ranks of society by the former, and a desire to force a new work to come through by the latter - that ultimately make them compromise the integrity of their Great Work.
The parallels to the biographies of John Dee and Edward Kelly seem striking? While Kelly was looking into the black stone to bring through angelic knowledge, Mithridates was looking into ancient scrolls. Both of them seemed to have access to genuine sources of new knowledge to the West and both of them did a significant service to the tradition they themselves became a critical part of. However, both of them also evoke questions over exactly this contribution.
While it might be a far jump here is what I take from it...
In a tradition that relies on the subtle and often encrypted it simply might be a foolish idea to give up first hand knowledge? Delegating the experience of the occult - may it be in the form of relying on an occult medium or on a mystically-gifted translator - always bears the risk that whatever comes through will be as much shaped by its source as distorted by the character who brought it through.
Knowledge is a sword; as long as it is derived from direct experience. Second-hand knowledge, however, much more resembles a club. While anyone can handle the latter, acquiring the former is an art. What this means to any serious practitioner of magic is a very simple fact: 'Never delegate experience'. May that be in practice or in studies.
Now, should you want to hear another episode illustrating this pattern in our tradition let me know. There are many more out there in the dark hallways that lead into our past... For example, we could take a look at the story of an almost forgotten Austrian Jew in 18th century - and how he single-handedly got to shape the entire occult system of the famous order of the Asiatic Brethren.
- Wilhelm Schmidt-Biggemann, 'Geschichte der christlichen Kabbala, CP 10,1: 15. und 16. Jahrhundert', frommann-holzboog 2013
- Umberto Cassuto, 'Wer war der Orientalist Mithridates?', Zeitschrift für die Geschichte der Juden in Deutschland (1887 - 1937) Iss. 4, p. 230-236
- Herman Vogelstein, Paul Rieger, 'Geschichte der Juden in Rom, II', Berlin 1895, p.75-77
- Harvey J. Hames, Jewish Magic with a Christian Text: A Hebrew Translation of Ramon Llull's 'Ars Brevis', Traditio, Vol. 54 (1999), pp. 283-300
- Jerome Friedman, 'Pico della Mirandola's Encounter with Jewish Mysticism. by Chaim Wirszubski, review by: Jerome Friedman', The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 21, No. 3 (Autumn, 1990), pp. 481-482