De Verbo Mirifico: Johannes Reuchlin and the Royal Arch

Bro. P. G. Maxwell-Stuart

AT THE CENTRE OF the RA lies an extraordinary and potent fact: the Divine Name. During the course of the ceremony of exaltation, the candidate is informed that he must not pronounce this word in toto by himself, but must divide it into syllables, shared with two other Companions qualified to exchange it with him. This process of division and redevision is further illustrated during the second half of the Mystical Lecture when the Hebrew letters resting upon the altar are combined in a variety of ways to make manifest some of the titles of God. Here, in the manipulation of those Hebrew characters to produce words of power, is the heart, the intention, the very purpose of the RA. Abolish that play with words and you abolish the whole raison d'etre of the Degree.

I am moved to make such a categorical statement by two considerations. They are these: first, that both the speculative Craft and the RA had their origins in a system of magico-religious philosophy peculiar to certain university and Court circles in Europe between the late fifteenth and late sixteenth centuries; and secondly, as a consequence of the first, that neither the speculative Craft nor the RA has any connection whatever with operative Masonry.

The point about the RA which I want to discuss involves manipulation of the Divine Name in its Hebrew form, and although it may seem as though I am not talking about Freemasonry at all, I think you will find that, as I proceed, your attention will be seized by the similarities between what I am writing about and the intentions of those who compiled the RA ritual. In addition, I hope what I say will illustrate my contention about the rise speculative Freemasonry and the RA.

In 1494 Johannes Reuchlin, a graduate of several European universities including Paris, Orleans, Poitiers, and Tubingen, published his first major work, De Verbo Mirifico, 'On the Wonder-Working Word'. At the very beginning of the book, in his prefatory letter to Johannes Dalberg, Bishop of Worms and Chancellor of the University of Heidelberg, Reuchlin indicates that the task to which his work is dedicated expresses a vital response to some of the contemporary interests and issues which were coming to the fore of intellectual debate in the final decades of the fifteenth century.

'Certain diligent explorers of arcane matters', he writes, 'whom the recondite powers of words, the abstruse energies of utterances, and the divine characters of secret names excite have been detected in our age to draw away considerably from the most ancient tracks of the first philosophers and to err, often and gravely, concerning the operations of mysteries, most full of wonderful effects'.

They have done so, he says, because copies of ancient works have been badly preserved or faultily transcribed, and in consequence later scholars have been unable to read them properly. Unlike all others who, tired and frustrated, have fled from the task a decipherment, however, Reuchlin has dared enter such great darknesses and obscurities of sacred matters, the hiding places of secret words; and, as if from the most hidden inner depths of oracles and most ancient philosophy, explain to our age almost all the names which in former times wise men, endowed with miraculous operations, used in sacred works — whether these be Pythagorian sacraments of most ancient philosophers, the primitive memorials of the Hebrews and Chaldeans, or the devout prayers of Christians. Accept, therefore, my Lord Bishop disputation concerning the wonder-working word by three philosophers, whom I have represented as arguing among themselves, the better to elucidate the occult property of names.

The thrust and direction of the work is thus made clear. It is to examine the occult property of names and the secret power of words used by men in ancient times in performance of sacred rites, to correct misconceptions, and to choose that name which is supreme and most powerful in the performance of wonders. The verbum mirificum of the title turns out to be IHSUH, the Pentagrammaton, which is not only the instrument which man performs external miraculous activities in the world, but also the means whereby an internal mystical union between God and man is effected — that one name in which is located the strength and power of all others.

Such a concern with the operative power of words and names immediately places Reuchlin's work within the context of philosophical discussion and diatribe concerning the powers of magic in which the late fifteenth century took a deep and emotional interest, but which created the setting for a debate in which the disputants stood in danger of being accused of heresy and which had already led some of them to the stake. The subject, therefore, was not only enthralling but dangerous.

In Book One of his work, Reuchlin seeks to establish the philosophical possibility of performing marvellous deeds beyond the scope of man's nature through the power of words by having recourse to the illimitable power of God, and he discusses the ritualistic and essentially religious nature of methods which reveal that mysterious power. His debaters inveigh against 'triflers in the magical art', and one of them expresses doubts about the existence of such a power. But Reuchlin, through his spokesman Sidonius, gradually begins to define the power of words. He does so first in a negative fashion, by complaining that none of the commonly quoted Mediaeval magical authorities, Robert of York, Roger Bacon, Pietro d'Abano, and the anonymous treatise entitled Picatrix, have been able to achieve anything because of their ignorance of Chaldean and Hebrew; and then, positively, by insisting that a knowledge of Hebrew is essential for operations in magic. These operations are more like semi-religious rites, designed to reveal the wonder-working word to those who have predisposed themselves to receive it, light, seclusion, and faith being necessary preconditions. Constantly, Reuchlin stresses the need for philosophical discourse to be transformed into religious activity through ceremony and faith, if it is to achieve power over Nature.

In Book One, then, the possibility of union between man and God through the power of names has been established; the performance by man of works which surpass Nature has been asserted; and the claim of Mediaeval magical operators to be able to perform such wonders has been rejected. In Book Two, Reuchlin's intention is to define the area of the power of words, their relation to other sciences of wonders such as magic and astrology, and then to survey the use of pre-Christian and especially Hebraic names, in particular the Tetragrammaton IHVH. This leads to a number of excursions into Kabbalistic and grammatical areas which are clearly meant to clarify the historical, theological, or theosophical substructure, by means of and through which the names attain power.

Magic, which we have mentioned more than once, was recognised as a potent, though dangerous, means of harnessing divine powers. Reuchlin has one if his disputants discuss the subject, emphasising as he does so the uncertainty and danger involved in its practice. The wonder-working word will, he hopes, supplant the danger and uncertainty by articulating a divine magic dependant only upon God and his ministers, the angels. Thus, the art of the wonder-working word differs from magic in terms of its object, its effect, and its technique.

The discussion turns to the power of Hebrew words and names. There follows a long discourse concerning the multifarious sacred names in use among the Hebrews — their particular components, their relation to names used by other societies, and their use by Christians — and an attempt to explain the very special relationship which exists between the wonder-working word and the Jewish Tetragrammaton. Reuchlin is aware that miraculous operations have been achieved through ancient names in languages other than Hebrew, and he cites evidence in Plato, Eudoxos, Brahminical, Egyptian, and Druidic ceremonies. But he points out that miraculous deeds done in these languages were achieved through pacts with demons, as was the case with magicians before Pharaoh. The difference between the words of the Hebrews and those of idolaters is the same as that between signs of God and signs of demon-magic. Therefore, even in the past, pagans mixed Hebrew words with their own arcane prayers and secret operations in order to obtain what they hoped for with more certainty.

Now comes a crucial question. Did God bestow upon words, that is Hebrew words in particular, the power of performing wonders? Reuchlin points out that God spoke to Abraham, Moses, and Joshua, and showed them the powers of divine words, which they used with marvellous effects, and handed down to their posterity. The most important of these names given to men was the Tetragrammaton IHVH. This name was first known by Seth, and then by the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but it was to Moses that God revealed the fullness of energy and the wonder-working power of that name. To know this Tetragrammaton was to know not only the characters and the word, but also its pronunciation, which was occult and hidden, and Reuchlin claims that God has spoken his own name and endowed it with marvellous powers. These powers are dependent upon the occult virtue within the name, and man, by making use of the divine Tetragrammaton, is both imitating God's own pronunciation and, by so doing, releasing the power inherent in the sounds.

The rest of Book Two is devoted to an enumeration of the divine names. The different names are said to refer to different aspects of the divinity, his essence, his power, his operation. For example, Ehieh, the 'I Am' form, derived from Exodus 3.14, equivalent to the Platonic To óv, designates the divine essence, withdrawn and separate from all things. Another name is Hu, the Hebrew demonstrative signifying 'he' or 'this'. Ehieh is the fundamental cause, the principle and measure, the Creator, and means the simplest essence in which all is contained, the endower of all substance. Hu, on the other hand, is a negative designation of the superessentially eternal, the unchangeable God who remains within and according to Himself. A third name is Esh (ignis), the fire in which Moses saw God and the angel, the fire of Ezekiel's divine vision. It was also known to many of the ancients, and is venerated by Christians as a quality of the Holy Spirit. These three names, says Reuchlin, are equivalent to the Christian Trinity, and the same as the Orphic and Homeric 'triads'.

But Reuchlin returns again to the Tetragrammaton — and it may be of interest at this point to remind you that his arguments are taking place in the form of a conversation between three people. Each time they talk of the Tetragramrnaton, they lock the door, lest some profane ear catch what they are saying; or else they check once more that the door is truly locked and that no one is lurking outside. This name, the Tetragrammaton, is revealed and made intelligible to men by being broken down into its component parts, the syllables and letters, and exposition handed down, says Reuchlin, from ancient Hebrew practice.

Each of the components of the Tetragrammaton, that is, consonants, has its mystical significance and connotation explained. The Yod (I or Y), with the form of a point and the numerical value of 10, expresses the originally undivided unity and principle of extension of all things. It signifies, therefore, the beginning, communication, and end of all things. The He (H), with the numerical value 5, expresses the combination of binary and ternary (the trinity of God and the duality of the world), and so signifies procession rather than essence. The Waw (U or V), with the numerical equivalent of 6, a total made up of unity, binary, and ternary, signifies the perfecting element. It is the perfection of the emanation process, the sign of the whole corporeal world which has progressed from the original unity. The second He (H), as a 5 halfway between 1 and 10, expresses the human soul as medium between the higher and the lower, and indirectly thereby, the return of all to its beginning.

This section, very dense in its thought and expression, is filled with Kabbalistic, Pythagorean, and general neo-Platonic speculation. The conception of the divine name which it describes, however, is not one of pure, unrelated theosophy. The revelation of this name to Moses endowed man with the possibility of a divine nature, with the presage of ultimate return to, and unity with, the divine source, and the use of the Tetragrammaton indicates quite clearly not only revelation of momentous truths about the nature of God himself, but also about the condition and hope of humanity. Deification, which is the end and goal of man, is to be achieved through the wonder-working word.

Book Three finally reveals the wonder-working word IHSVH, the reality and name of the ineffable Father made known through the incarnate Son. For as the revelation of the Tetragrammaton had been linked to the covenant at the time of Moses, so with the new covenant, the powers and promises of the tetragrammaton are to be transferred to the Name of the new covenant; and as the Word took on flesh and so revealed the unknown Father, so does the Tetragrammaton take on an extra letter, and thereby become the pronounceable Pentagrammaton.

With this assertion, Reuchlin's thought passes into an area which one might perhaps term 'mystical philology', akin to some Kabbalistic speculation. 'When the Word descended into flesh, then the letters passed into voice', he says. As we know from the Old Testament God is formless spirit, and so it is appropriate that He be expressed by four vowels. But with the incarnation of that spirit a consonant (sin or shin = s) is added, forming the Pentagrammaton IHSVH and making these vowels pronounceable. Therefore the name of the incarnate Son of God, IHSVH, is none other than the name of the Lord, the Tetragrammaton, but for the assumption of one letter, 's'.

The Pentagrammaton is the means by which man achieves all knowledge and shares in the life of the divinity; and in that sharing, wonderful powers are conferred on him, so that he can carry out extraordinary deeds. This name has brought back to life, cured them of sickness, and freed them of evil demons, over whom the divine name has especially great powers. It has changed rivers to wine, brought food to the hungry, made waters recede at times of earthquake and flood, repulsed pirates, and even tamed camels. It protected Paul from snakes on Malta, gave Sylvester and Philip power over dragons, and, in the struggle between St. John and Kynops, the leader of the Magi, on the island of Patmos, enabled John to prevail over wicked spirits and demonstrated the superior power of the Name over all demonic magic.

The wonder-working word, however, must be employed together with the cross, a combination whose secrets are said to have been revealed by God to Moses, but whose secrets remain unspoken, at least aloud. One of the disputants whispers the word into the ears of the other two, and swears them to utmost secrecy. He then breathes upon them and again demands their silence by means of six different imperatives. Both agree to keep the secret inviolate.

Whether this conclusion to the work alludes to some kind of ritual is not altogether clear, but emphasis upon secrecy and the necessity of silence for mysteries is, of course, intrinsic to the whole esoteric tradition.

Such, then, is Reuchlin's book on the wonder-working word. Some of its points will, I am sure, have set up echoes in your minds of parts of the RA, and especially of the second half of the Mystical Lecture. Not for one moment am I saying that there is any direct link between the two — the differences are too many and too obvious — but I am saying that the peculiar features of some of the things we do come out of a similar cast of mind, were born in the same stable, if you like, and that this points to a certain period and a certain milieu for the origin of the RA. Preservation of the Tetragrammaton, insistence that it be communicated by syllables during the ritual, manipulation of Hebrew letters to form other aspects of God, the presence of another divine title, also communicated by syllables only, and consisting of Hebrew, Chaldee, and Egyptian terms for God — Hebrew, Chaldee, and Egyptian being the languages par excellence of ancient and Mediaeval magic — these essential components of RA ritual must have had their origin at some point in history and issued from some mind or minds steeped in the circumambient notions of the day. What I am suggesting is that the peculiar interest of certain university and Court circles during the Renaissance provide just such an ambience out of which ritual such as ours might be expected to come.

Ars Quatuor Coronati Vol. 99, 1986.