Harran: Last Refuge of Classical Paganism (Version 2.0 – April 2014)
For many years, I have been researching and writing a book on the subject of the origins of the modern Witchcraft movement. I now believe that a direct line of transmission can be traced from the Hermetic and Neoplatonic theurgy of late antiquity to the beginnings of the modern Craft movement in the 1930s. Of course, any such transmission must be embedded within the wider context of the transmission of Hermeticism in general from the Classical world to the European Renaissance and the beginnings of the Enlightenment.
Anyone looking into this history cannot help but be struck by a glaring gap. At the end of the Pagan world in the latter days of the Roman Empire, so the sources tell us, several Hermetic and Neoplatonic scholars left the Empire to go “to the East”. At the beginning of the revival and rediscovery of Classical knowledge in Europe, Classical texts in Arabic translations, including the Hermetica (the revealed teachings of Hermes Trismegistus), came back to Europe “from the East”. What happened during the 500 or so years in-between? And where “in the East” did classical Graeco-Roman knowledge (and possibly classical Greco-Roman Paganism) survive?
One name comes up over and over again: Harran. Even so, there is relatively little information about this ancient city in Western sources. As more and more of my sources pointed to Harran, and in the face of an almost total lack (in the 1990s) of available information about the city and its people, I resolved to go and see for myself, talk to the local authorities and scholars, and find what I could. Anna Korn and I visited the area in January of 1998. This article incorporates many of our findings.
Harran before the Neoplatonists
The city of Harran was founded c. 2000 BCE as a merchant outpost of Ur, situated on the major trade route across northern Mesopotamia (Green 1992: 19). The name comes from the Sumerian and Akkadian “Harran-U”, meaning “journey”, “caravan”, or “crossroad” (Kurkcuoglu 1996: 11). For centuries it was a prominent Assyrian city, known for its Temple of “Sin”, the Moon God (Green 1992: 23). Harran is in the middle of a flat, dry plain that was described as a “barren wasteland” even in antiquity, nourished only by its many wells (another possible meaning of “Harran-U” is “broiling heat”). In this baking, desolate landscape, the Sun was an enemy and the Night a comforter. The Moon, the ruler of the Night, must therefore be the supreme deity and therefore, to a patriarchal culture, male. Sin was the giver of fertility and of oracles. In this latter capacity, he also served as kingmaker. Many rulers sought his blessings and confirmation of their reign, endowing the city of Harran and its temples with riches in the process.
As early as the middle of the 2nd millennium BCE, the Harranians established a pilgrimage site at the Giza Plateau in Egypt (Hassan 1946: 34). In later centuries, they would say that the Pyramids were the tombs of their gods, Idris (Hermes) and Seth (Agathodaimon) (Green 1992: 110, 174, 212). Beginning in the 6th century BCE, after the fall of Nabonidus, Harran was ruled by the Persians until the coming of Alexander the Great. In the 4th century BCE, Alexander conquered the area. After him, Harran was part of the Hellenistic Seleucid Kingdom until the 2nd century BCE, when the Parthians conquered the Seleucids. In the 1st century BCE, the Romans arrived. During this time, Harran passed through many hands, usually at least nominally under foreign authority, but in practice independent. It was during this period that a Roman army led by Crassus was defeated by the Parthians near Harran (called Carrhae by the Romans) in May of 53 BCE. It was one of the worst military defeats in Roman history; one the Romans would never forget (Stark 1966: 114-23).
In the 4th century, 363 CE, the last Pagan Emperor Julian stopped at Harran at the beginning of his Persian campaign. He consulted the oracles at the Temple of the Moon (called either “Selene” or “Luna” in the Roman histories, reflecting Roman ideas of the Moon’s gender). The oracles warned of disaster. Julian ignored the warnings and was killed during the campaign; some say by a Christian in his own ranks (Smith 1976: 114). His body was brought back by way of Harran, and Harran was the only city in the Empire to declare citywide mourning after his death.
This complex history of Harran is important in order to understand the city’s eventual fate. For much of its history, Harran welcomed any would-be conqueror that came along, switching allegiances at the drop of a hat, and so went peacefully on about its own business.
The Coming of the Neoplatonists
By the 6th century CE, Paganism in the Roman Empire was fighting a losing battle for survival. Pagans had been forbidden to teach, and finally, to sacrifice. Temples were being closed – if not destroyed – all over the Empire. In 529 CE, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian ordered the closing of the Academy at Athens, the last true bastion of Pagan learning in the Empire. In response, the last teachers of the Academy, including the Neoplatonists Damascius and Simplicius, invited by a Persian monarch who knew the value of philosophers, fled “to the East”, specifically, to Harran (Chuvin 1990: 137). There, they founded a Neoplatonic academy that survived at Harran up into the 11th century (Chuvin 1990: 139, 149).
Neoplatonism began as a school of philosophic & spiritual thought in the 3rd century CE with the works of the Roman philosopher Plotinus (b. 205 CE). Educated in Alexandria, he travelled to Persia and eventually settled in Rome to teach. Beginning with the Middle Platonic concept of the Divine Creator of the universe, or Demiurge, Plotinus introduced three radical concepts.
First, he postulated the existence of a divine, ineffable unity more fundamental than the Demiurge. This he called “the One”, although it was also sometimes called “the Good”, “the True”, and “the Beautiful” (akin to “the Dryghton” of some contemporary Craft traditions).
Second, Plotinus argued that all Being emanates from the One through a hierarchy of realities consisting of: the One Mind (the Gods & the Demiurge) Soul (the Daimons) Matter, and at the same time returns to the One. The Natural World, as we experience it, is the interaction of the organizing properties of Soul with the chaotic properties of Matter.
Third, Plotinus explained that while this hierarchy is ontologically true, emanation (prohodos) and return (epistrophe) are neither temporal nor spatial. In other words, all things are always both emanating from and returning to the One and exist simultaneously at all levels of the hierarchy. (An excellent, simple introduction to the concepts of Neoplatonism can be found in David Fideler’s Introduction to Porphyry’s Letter to His Wife Marcella (Zimmern 1986: 7-35). For a more in-depth presentation, I recommend R.T. Wallis’ Neoplatonism, (Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1972) or Pauliina Remes’ Neoplatonism (Univ. of California Press, Berkeley 2008).
Plotinus focused on a contemplative, ascetic approach to union with the One, as did his student Porphyry (b. 233 CE), who is responsible for organizing Plotinus’ teachings into the text known as The Enneads. However, Porphyry’s student, Iamblichus of Chalcis (b. 250 CE), favoured an approach to the One that was known as “theurgy” or “god-making”. If the One is immanent in all of the Natural World, reasoned Iamblichus, then not only is the Natural World inherently good, but all things in the Natural World are paths to the One.
Iamblichus also introduced a concept now called “the law of mean terms”. This stated that for there to be any communication between any two things or concepts there had to be a third thing in between that partakes of both. Since this idea can be applied ad infinitum, it meant that there could be no gaps between the levels of reality. The spiritual universe of the Neoplatonists, therefore, became fluid and continuous, without defined boundaries between its many constituent parts and levels. As a result, the Neoplatonists were polytheistic monists, understanding and relating to the many Gods & Goddesses as multiple faces or manifestations of a singular, all-encompassing Divine – the One.
Neoplatonic theurgy used techniques that we would recognize as “natural magick” in rituals designed to facilitate union with the One. Its source material consisted of the writings of Plotinus, Porphyry, and Iamblichus (as well as earlier Platonists), the Egyptian writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus (the Hermetica), the texts collected as the Greek Magical Papyri (PGM), and collected teachings (the Chaldean Oracles) “channeled” from Hekate and other deities by two 2nd century Roman theurgists (the Julianii). With these texts as guides, Neoplatonic theurgy focused on two forms of “god-making”: deity possession and the creation of animated statues. The former was very similar, if not identical, to the practice modern Witches know as “Drawing Down the Moon”, and indeed this phrase was used in antiquity to describe this practice. The latter involved techniques that we have all but lost, but vestiges of which remain in certain contemporary Craft traditions.
Neo-Pythagoreanism was a 1st century CE revival of the number mysticism of Pythagoras. Incorporating elements of astrology and Eastern magical lore, it was very popular with Iamblichus and was eventually subsumed into Neoplatonism.
Proclus of Athens (b. 412 CE) was the last major Neoplatonic writer before the closing of the School at Athens and the flight of the surviving Neoplatonic theurgists to safety in the Persian Empire.
In addition to its emphasis on philosophy and theurgy, the later Neoplatonists also stressed the importance of traditional Pagan popular religion (Athanassiadi 1993: 7-8; Shaw 1995: 148-152). The continued performance of time-honored rites formed a necessary foundation to the more intellectual pursuits of Neoplatonic philosophy. The Neoplatonists sought to incorporate and synthesize the practices of all Pagans known to them, believing that all were divinely inspired. In this, they were in tune with the syncretic nature of their age, in which composite, cross-cultural deities such as Serapis and Jupiter-Ammon came to predominate. Accordingly, most Neoplatonists not only continued to practice traditional popular Paganism, but were also initiates of the Mysteries of Mithras, Isis, and others. The 4th century Neoplatonist, Macrobius (writing in Saturnalia), reconciled the mythologies of the many Pagan traditions by asserting that all Gods were actually aspects of a single Sun God, and all Goddesses aspects of a single Moon Goddess, and that really there was just the God and the Goddess – and beyond them, of course, the One. (discussed in Godwin 1993: 142-143).
When Julian attempted his revival of traditional Paganism in the 4th century, he asked his friend Sallustius to write a sort of “catechism” of Paganism from a Neoplatonic point of view. This text, On the Gods and the World, survives (best published version is Nock 1926). It is not insignificant, I think, that Gerald Gardner – often called the founder of the modern Witchcraft movement – refers to this text in The Meaning of Witchcraft (Aquarian Press, 1959):
Now, the thing that will, I think, strike most the consciousness of the reader who is well versed in the teaching of the higher types of spiritualist and occult circles generally is not the antiquity of this teaching of Sallustius, but its startling modernity. It might have been spoken yesterday. Further, it might have been spoken at a witch meeting, at any time, as a general statement of their creed … the spirit of his [Sallustius’] teaching, the spirit of the Mysteries of his day, which is also the spirit of the beliefs of the witch cult, is timeless (Gardner 1959: 188-189).
Gardner specifically states that this Neoplatonic text from the ancient world may be understood as explaining the theology of the Craft as he understood it. This statement alone should engender interest in Neoplatonism on the part of contemporary Witches.
In the 8th century CE, the Neoplatonic academy at Harran – the last bearers of the teachings of Plato’s Academy – were joined by other illustrious scholars…
Harran under Islam
In 717 CE, the Muslim caliph Umar II founded the first Muslim university in the world at Harran. To give this university a good start, Umar brought many of the last remaining scholars (including Hermeticists) from Alexandria and installed them at Harran. A later Harranian author, Ibn Wahshiya, would write about these Hermeticists in the mid-9th century CE:
The Hermesians let nobody into the secrets of their knowledge but their disciples, lest the arts and sciences should be debased by being common amongst the vulgar. They hid therefore their secrets and treasures from them by the means of this alphabet, and by inscriptions, which could be read by nobody except the sons of wisdom and learning.
These initiated scholars were divided into four classes. The first Class comprehended the sect Hara’misah Alhawmiyah, who were all descendants of Hermes the Great. … No man in the world was acquainted with any of their secrets: they alone possessed them. They were the authors of the books commonly called the books of Edris (Enoch) [Hermes – DHF]. They constructed temples dedicated to spirits, and buildings of magical wisdom. …
The second class of the Hermesians, called Hara’misah Alpina’walu’ziyah, the sons of the brother of Hermes, whose name was Asclibianos. … They never communicated their secrets, and Hermetic treasures to any body, but they preserved them from generation to generation, till our days. …
The third class was called Ashra’kiyu’n (Eastern) or children of the sister of Hermes, who is known amongst the Greek by the name of Trismegistos Thoosdios. … Their sciences and knowledge are come down to us.
The fourth class, denominated Masha’wun (walkers, or peripatetic philosophers), was formed by the strangers, who found means to mingle with the children and family of Hermes. They were the first who introduced the worship of the stars and constellations, … From hence came their divisions, and everything that has been handed down to us, proceeds originally from these two sects, the Ashra’kiyu’n, eastern, and Masha’wun, peripatetic philosophers (Hammer-Purgstall 1806: pp 23-30).In the mid-8th century, the Caliph Marwan made Harran his home and temporarily moved the capital of the Umayyad Empire from Damascus to Harran.
Later in the 8th century, Harun al-Rashid (the Caliph of Arabian Nights fame) founded the Bayt al-Hikmah (“House of Wisdom”) at Baghdad to be a centre for the translation of Greek and Latin texts into Arabic. Scholars from Harran would later be brought there.
In the 9th century, 830 CE, the Caliph Abdallah al-Mamun (son of al-Rashid) arrived at Harran at the head of a conquering army and the question of how the Harranians responded has dominated both scholarship on Harran and the potential for archaeological excavation ever since.
The “Con-job story” and the “Sabians” of Harran
Al-Mamun was outside the gates of Harran, intent upon razing the city. He demanded to know if the inhabitants were Muslims. No, they said. Were they Christians or Jews? No. Well, al-Mamun said, if they were not ahl al-kitab (“People of the Book”), they were not protected from violence by the Qur’an and he would sack their city. What happened next depends on whom (or really, what) you believe (Green 1992: 4 -6, 100-123; Gunduz 1994: 15-52).
Some accounts say that the Harranians immediately replied, “We are Sabians!”
But one account, that of the writer Abu Yusuf Isha’ al-Qatiy’i, a Christian historian of the time who tended to make both Pagans and Muslims look bad in his histories, says that al-Mamun gave the Harranians a week to come up with an answer. The Harranians then consulted a lawyer knowledgeable in Islamic law who told them, “Tell him you’re Sabians. No one knows what they are, but they’re protected!” Either way, the Harranians claimed to be Sabians, produced a copy of the Hermetica as their version of “the “Book” and claimed as their prophet Hermes. Hermes – under the name “Idrīs” or “Enoch” – was recognized by Muslims of the time as one of the prophets sent by God before Muhammed (PBUH) (Nasr 1981: 57, 105; Islam 1999: 30-35).
The question hinged (and still hinges) around three verses in the Qur’an (Ali 1405 AH: 26-27, 308-309, 953-954):
Those who believe (in the Qur’an).
And those who follow the Jewish (scriptures),
And the Christians and the Sabians,
Any who believe in Allah
And the Last Day,
And work righteousness,
Shall have their reward
With their Lord on them
Shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.
Those who believe (in the Qur’an).
Those who follow the Jewish (scriptures),
And the Sabians and the Christians
Any who believe in Allah
And the Last Day,
And work righteousness,
On them shall be no fear,
Nor shall they grieve.
… and a third passage that is a paraphrase of these:
Those who believe (in the Qur’an),
Those who follow the Jewish (scriptures),
And the Sabians, Christians,
Magians, and Polytheists,
Allah will judge between them
On the Day of Judgment:
For Allah is witness
Of all things.
At this point, history becomes a matter of doctrine, with one’s preference being determined by one’s interpretation of and beliefs about the Qur’an.
In the days of al-Mamun, the dominant interpretation of Islam was known as Mu’tazilism (Green 1992: 130-135). Mu’tazilism relied upon an approach called kalam (“rationalist theology”) and argued that revelation was an ongoing process in which scripture guided and informed direct mystical experience of the Divine, to which one then applied reason in analysis and understanding. Mu’tazilism was the view of the Abbasid caliphs (including both al-Rashid and al-Mamun) and led to a valuing of the philosophical writings of the Greeks and Romans. Most of the writings available to them were those of the Neoplatonists and the Hermeticists. (While most Islamic scholars of the time thought they were reading Plato and Aristotle, more often than not they were actually reading Neoplatonic commentators on Plato and Aristotle.) The logical and philosophical arguments of the Neoplatonists in support of theurgy could be used to support the Mu’tazilite reliance on kalam. After the Abbasids, in a period of religious upheaval, Mu’tazilism was replaced by a new dominant interpretation of Islam, Ash’arism. Ash’arism was and is much more devotional in approach, focused primarily on the Qur’an and Hadith (recorded sayings of the Prophet). It is much more conservative than Mu’tazilism, downplays mysticism (although there is a certain grudging acceptance of Sufism), and definitely wants nothing to do with Paganism. (Interestingly enough, under Ash’arism the followers of Shi’ite Islam, who also believe in a form of continuing revelation, would rely on the arguments of the Harranians for support, protecting them where possible from oppression. The idea of Shi’ite Muslims protecting Pagans from oppression will no doubt surprise many modern Pagans.)
An Ash’arite interpretation of the Qur’an favors the “con-job story”, assuming that the would never have protected any kind of Paganism. Ash’arism remains the dominant interpretation of Islam to this day.
Accordingly, most books by modern Muslim scholars (e.g. Şinasi Gunduz) tend to endorse the “con-job story”, while most books by modern non-Muslim scholars (e.g. Tamara Green) tend to point out the following problems with the story:
1) The primary source for the “con-job story”, the Christian Abu Yusuf, had a vested interest in making both the Harranians and the Muslims look bad, the former as con-men and the latter as their dupes.
2) The people of Harran, clearly identified as “Sabians” and Pagans”, had paid the poll tax as non-Muslim “People of the Book” to the caliphate for many years prior to the arrival of al-Mamun. Tamara Green notes that:
… the jurist Abu Hanifa (d. 767 C.E.) and two of his disciples has discussed the legal status of the Sabians of Harran in the century before al’Ma’mun’s visit [c. 830 C.E.] … it is indisputable that the Harranians were the representatives of the ancient pagan religion (Green 1992: 112).
In other words – and this is crucial – the Sabians of Harran were recognized as both “Pagans” and “People of the Book” long before al-Mamun’s arrival.
3) Harran was an extremely well known centre of learning at the time. Having been the capital of Marwan’s Umayyad Empire only 80 years earlier, there is no way that al-Mamun or his administrators could not have known about the religion of the Harranians.
4) The Harranians are called “Sabians” in Islamic documents at least 75 years before al-Mamun’s visit.
The most reasonable conclusion is that the Harranians were indeed the Sabians of the Qur’an. If so, what could the Lord have meant when he directed the Prophet to include these “Pagans” among the protected people?
Paganism in the Qur’an
Mecca at the time of Muhammed (PBUH) was steeped in traditions of the earlier prophet Abraham. Abraham came to Mecca from Harran (the Well of Abraham, mentioned in the Old Testament, is outside Harran’s walls). It is entirely possible that the Prophet was aware of the Neoplatonic / Hermetic religion of some of the Harranians and distinguished its philosophical / theurgical approach from the practices of the Pagans of Mecca, perceived as mired in superstition, “idolatry”, and priestly corruption.
The surviving textual evidence supports the conclusion that Muslim scholars of the time (as opposed to today) distinguished between the Sabians of Harran (i.e. philosophical, Hermetic / Neoplatonic “Pagans” who believed in the One and possessed a revealed text – the Hermetica – given by a prophet recognized by Islam) and “idolaters” (i.e. followers of popular “Paganism” as understood at the time).
One such contemporary Muslim author was al-Masudi, who visited Harran in 943 C.E. Summarizing Michael Tardieu’s comments at the 6th International Congress on Gnosticism (U. of Oklahoma, 1984), Ilsetraut Hadot reports:
The ‘Sabians of Harran’ who explained to al-Masudi the Syriac inscription engraved on the knocker of their front door [“Who knows his own essence becomes divine.”] and who considered themselves to be ‘Greek Sabians’, are nothing other than ‘Platonists’ in the strict sense, or rather Neoplatonists. … al-Masudi grouped the Harranians into two categories: [those] ‘of a low and vulgar level’, partisans of the pagan religions of the city and the ‘sages in the strict sense’, the heirs of the Greek philosophers. … al-Masudi therefore distinguishes perfectly between the ordinary pagans of Harran and the Harranian philosophers (Hadot 1990: 282-283).
Qur’anic scholar D. Gimaret notes in the Encyclopaedia of Islam that the Muslim term for “polytheism” is shirk, literally “associationism”, as in “the giving of partners to God” or “accepting the presence at His side of other divinities”. Indeed, both the Qur’an and Hadith condemn this on many occasions. But most importantly for the point under consideration here, Gimaret notes that:
It would normally be anticipated that they [Muslims] would include all those who, in one way or another, accept the existence of gods other than the one God. It would therefore be logical to expect to find the Christians described as such, seeing that, according to the Kur’an, the Christians make of God “the third of three” (V, 73), they deify Christ (V, 72), and “take for two gods beside God …” Jesus and his mother (V, 116). However, this is not the case. The Christians belong to the “People of the Book” …, and the Kur’an takes care to distinguish — even if they are considered comparable to disbelievers … – between “associators” and the People of the Book (or “those to whom the Book has been given”) … In other words, the Kur’anic term mushrikun [those who practice shirk or polytheism – DHF] does not in fact denote all those who, in some manner, practice a form of associationism, but only a minority among them – those among whom this associationism is most flagrant – i.e. the worshippers of idols … (Gimaret 1999: 484b-485b)
Gimaret goes on to say:
“For the Kur’an, in any case, it is evident, in view of the clear distinction indicated above, that the “associators” represent a category of disbelievers other than that of the “People of the Book”, i.e. the category of committed polytheists, these polytheists being identified at the time with idolators.”
It should be clear from this that the Sabians of Harran could be both monistic polytheists, in the same sense Christians were, and at the same time be “People of the Book” as described in the Qur’an. There appears to be no a priori contradiction here.
Such a monistic polytheism, the dominant view among Pagan intellectuals in late antiquity (Athanassiadi 1999), is also at the core of the Craft tradition passed to Gerald Gardner, as he explained in Witchcraft Today:
They [the Witches] quite realize that there must be some great “Prime Mover”, some Supreme Deity; but they think that if It gives them no means of knowing It, it is because It does not want to be known; also, possibly, at our present stage of evolution we are incapable of understanding It. So It has appointed what might be called various Under-Gods, who manifest as the tribal gods of different peoples; as the Elohim of the Jews, for instance, … Isis, Osiris, and Horus of the Egyptians; … [etc.] … and the Horned God and the Goddess of the witches (Gardner 1959: 26-27).
This monistic polytheistic cosmology of the early Craft is preserved and expressed in “the Dryghton Prayer”, recited in almost every Gardnerian circle:
In the name of Dryghtyn, the Ancient Providence, which was from the beginning, and is for eternity,
male and female, the original source of all things; all-knowing, all-pervading, all-powerful, changeless, eternal. [à the One]
In the name of the Lady of the Moon, and the Horned Lord of Death and Resurrection; [à Mind]
in the name of the Mighty Ones of the Four Quarters, [à Soul]
the Kings of the Elements, [à Matter]
Bless this place, and this time and they who are with us.
(Crowther 1974: 39-40).
However, from the time of al-Mamun forward, in common usage “Sabian” became virtually synonymous with “Harranian”. And as the writings of Arabic scholars about the planetary religion of the Harranian Sabians became more widespread, “Sabian” became synonymous with “astrologer” and sometimes “sorcerer” (as had the word “Chaldean” among the Romans). However, the continuing controversy around the identification of Harranians as Sabians means that in modern discourse one must always refer to “Harranian Sabians” to distinguish them from the many other attempts to identify the Sabians as another group (most often the Mandaeans or “marsh Arabs” of southern Iraq, followers of John the Baptist who deny Jesus as an usurper and perverter of John’s message).
(An etymological aside … The very early connection between Harran and Egypt mentioned above, while noted by Egyptologists, has been largely ignored by those studying Harran. As a result, a possible source for the name “Sabian” has also been ignored. Most have focused either on the Arabic verb saba’a, ”to convert”, the Hebrew word saba, meaning “troops”, the Ethiopic word sbh, meaning “dispensing alms”, or the Syriac verb sb’, ”to baptize”. I lean towards the Egyptian root sba, meaning “star”, “star-god”, and “teacher”. As both followers of what has been called “astral” religion and renowned teachers and scholars, this would seem to be appropriate and fitting.)