Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/Abrasax
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Abrasax.—The study of Abrasax is, at first sight, as discouraging as it is possible to imagine. The name has been given to a class of ancient stone articles, of small dimensions, inscribed with outlandish figures and formulas, sometimes wholly indecipherable, specimens of which are to be found in almost every museum and private collection. These, for the most part, have hitherto resisted all attempts at interpretation, though it would be rash to conclude that a fuller knowledge may not solve enigmas which remain closed to us. The true name, moreover, is Abrasax, and not, as incorrectly written, Abraxas, a reading due to the confusion made by the Latins between Σ and Ξ. Among the early Gnostics, Abrasax appears to have had various meanings. Basilides gave this title to Almighty God, and claimed that the numerical value of its letters gave the sum of 365, because the Abrasax is enclosed in the solar cycle. Sometimes the number 365 signifies the series of the heavens. In view of such imaginings, it is easy to guess at the course taken by an untrammelled Gnostic fancy, whereby its adherents strove to discover the meaning of the mysterious word. It is, however, an error to give the name Abrasax to all stones of Gnostic origin, as has been done up to the present day. It is not the name which applies to talismans, any more than the names of Jupiter and Venus apply to all ancient statues indiscriminately. Abrasax is the name given by the Gnostics to the Supreme Deity, and it is quite possible that we shall find a clue to its etymological meaning in the influences of numbers. The subject is one which has exercised the ingenuity of many savants, but it may be said that all the engraved stones to which the name is commonly given fall into three classes: (1) Abrasax, or stones of Basilidian origin; (2) Abrasaxtes, or stones originating in ancient forms of worship, and adapted by the Gnostics to their peculiar opinions; (3) Abraxoïdes, or stones absolutely unconnected with the doctrine of Basilides. Bellermann, following Montfaucon, made a tentative classification of Gnostic stones, which, however, is nowadays looked upon as wholly inadequate. His mistake consisted in wishing, as it were, to make a frontal attack on Gnosticism. Kopp, endowed with greater skill and patience, seems to have realized in some measure how wide the problem actually is. Ad. Franck and, quite lately, Moses Schwab have made diligent researches in the direction of the Cabbala. "The demonology devised by the Cabbalists"; according to the former writer, "was nothing more than a carefully thought out personification of the different degrees of life and intelligence which they perceived in external nature. All natural growths, forces, and phenomena are thus typified." The outline here furnished needs only to be extended indefinitely in order to take in quite easily the countless generations of Gnosticism. The whole moral and physical world, analyzed and classified with an inconceivable minuteness, will find place in it. Thence, also, will issue the bewildering catalogues of Gnostic personalities. The chief difficulty, however, arises from the nomenclature of Gnosticism, and here the "Sepher Raziel" supplies a first and valuable hint.
"To succeed in the operations of divination", it says, "it is necessary to pronounce the mystic names of the planets or of the earth." In fact, stones of Gnostic origin often show designs made up out of the initial letters of the planets. Another parallel is still more suggestive. The Jews, as is well known, would never pronounce the Ineffable Name, Jehovah, but substituted either another name or a paraphrase; a rule which applied, not only to the Ineffable Name and its derivatives, but to others as well, ending, in order to evade the difficulty which arose, in a series of fantastic sounds which at first seem simply the outcome of a hopeless confusion. It became necessary to resort to permutations, to the use of other letters, to numerical and formal equivalents. The result was an outlandish vocabulary, only partially accounted for, yet one which nevertheless reveals in Gnosticism the existence of something more than mere incoherences. Very many secrets of Gnosticism remain unexplained, but it may be hoped that they will not always be shrouded in mystery.
Abrasax, From the collection in the National Museum, Paris
King, The Gnostics and their Remains (London, 1887); Bellermann, Versuch über die Gemmen der Alten mit dem Abraxas-Bilde (Berlin, 1817–19); Dieterich, Die Abraxas (Leipzig, 1892); Leclercq, in Dict. d'archéol. chrét. et de liturgie, I, 127 sq.; Matter, Hist. du gnosticisme (Paris, 1843); Montfaucon, L'antiquité expliquée (Paris, 1722), II, 2, 353.