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Abrasax

ABRASAX, ab´rɑ-sax (ABRAXAS, ab-rax´as).

Various Explanations (§ 1).

The Abrasax Gems (§ 2).

Abrasax (which is far commoner in the sources than the variant form Abraxas) is a word of mystic meaning in the system of the Gnostic Basilides, being there applied to the “Great 17 Archon” (Gk., megas archōn), the princeps, of the 365 spheres (Gk., ouranoi; cf. Hippolytus, Refutatio, vii. 14; Irenæus, Adversus hæreses, I. xxiv. 7). Renan considers it a designation of the most high, unspeakable God lost in the greatness of his majesty; but he has probably been misled by erroneous statements of the Fathers, such as Jerome on Amos iii. (“Basilides, who calls the omnipotent God by the portentous name ‘abraxas’”), and pseudo-Tertullian (Adversus omnes hæreses, iv.: “he [Basilides] affirms that there is a supreme God by the name ‘Abraxas’”).

1. Various Explanations.

Much labor has been spent in seeking an explanation for and the etymology of the name. Salmasius thought it Egyptian, but never gave the proofs which he promised. Münter separates it into two Coptic words signifying “new fangled title.” Bellermann thinks it a compound of the Egyptian words abrak and sax, meaning “the honorable and hallowed word,” or “the word is adorable.” Sharpe finds in it an Egyptian invocation to the Godhead, meaning “hurt me not.” Others have endeavored to find a Hebrew origin. Geiger sees in it a Grecized form of ha-berakhah, “the blessing,” a meaning which King declares philologically untenable. Passerius derives it from abh, “father,” bara, “to create,” and a- negative—“the uncreated Father.” Wendelin discovers a compound of the initial letters, amounting to 365 in numerical value, of four Hebrew and three Greek words, all written with Greek characters: ab, ben, rouach, hakadōs; sōtēria apo xylou (“Father, Son, Spirit, holy; salvation from the cross”). According to a note of De Beausobre’s, Hardouin accepted the first three of these, taking the four others for the initials of the Greek anthrōpoussōzōn hagiōi xylōi, “saving mankind by the holy cross.” Barzilai goes back for explanation to the first verse of the prayer attributed to Rabbi Nehunya ban ha-Kanah, the literal rendering of which is “O [God], with thy mighty right hand deliver the unhappy [people],” forming from the initial and final letters of the words the word Abrakd (pronounced Abrakad), with the meaning “the host of the winged ones,” i.e., angels. But this extremely ingenious theory would at most explain only the mystic word Abracadabra, whose connection with Abrasax is by no means certain. De Beausobre derives Abrasax from the Greek habros and saō, “the beautiful, the glorious Savior.” It is scarcely necessary to remark upon the lack of probability for all these interpretations; and perhaps the word may be included among those mysterious expressions discussed by Harnack (Ueber das gnostische Buch Pistis-Sophia, TU, vii. 2, 1891, 86-89), “which belong to no known speech, and by their singular collocation of vowels and consonants give evidence that they belong to some mystic dialect, or take their origin from some supposed divine inspiration.” That the numerical value of the letters amounts to 365, the number of the heavens of Basilides and of the days of the year, was remarked by the early Fathers (Irenæus, Hippolytus, the pseudo-Tertullian, and others); but this does not explain the name any more than it explains Meithras and Neilos, of which the same is true. And the number 365 is made use of not only by Basilides, but by other Gnostics as well.

2. The Abrasax Gems.

The Gnostic sect which comes into light in Spain and southern Gaul at the end of the fourth century and at the beginning of the fifth, which Jerome connects with Basilides, and which (according to his Epist., lxxv.) used the name Abrasax, is considered by recent scholars to have nothing to do with Basilides. Moreover, the word is of frequent occurrence in the magic papyri; it is found on the Greek metal tesseræ among other mystic words, and still more often on carved gems. The fact that the name occurs on these gems in connection with representations of figures with the head of a cock, a lion, or an ass, and the tail of a serpent was formerly taken in the light of what Irenæus says (Adversus hæreses, I. xxiv. 5) about the followers of Basilides: “These men, moreover, practise magic, and use images, incantations, invocations, and every other kind of curious art. Coining also certain names as if they were those of the angels, they proclaim some of these as belonging to the first, and others to the second heaven; and then they strive to set forth the names, principles, angels, and powers of the 365 imagined heavens.” From this an attempt was made to explain first the gems which bore the name and the figures described above, and then all gems with unintelligible inscriptions and figures not in accord with pure Greco-Roman art, as Abrasax-stones, Basilidian or Gnostic gems. Some scholars, especially Bellermann and Matter, took great pains to classify the different representations. But a protest was soon raised against this interpretation of these stones. De Beausobre, Passerius, and Caylus decisively declared them to be pagan; and Harnack has gone so far as to say that it is doubtful whether a single Abrasax-gem is Basilidian. Having due regard to the magic papyri, in which many of the unintelligible names of the Abrasax-gems reappear, besides directions for making and using gems with similar figures and formulas for magical purposes, it can scarcely be doubted that these stones are pagan amulets and instruments of magic.

(W. Drexler.)

Bibliography: C. Salmasius, De armis climactericis, p. 572, Leyden, 1648; Wendelin, in a letter in J. Macarii Abraxas . . . accedit Abraxas Proteus, seu multiformis gemmæ Basilidainæ portentosa varietas, exhibita . . . a J. Chifletio, pp. 112-115. Antwerp, 1657; I. de Beausobre, Histoire critique de Manichée et du Manichéisme, ii. 50-69, Amsterdam, 1739; J. B. Passerius, De gemmis Basilidianis diatriba, in Gori, Thesaurus gemmarum antiquarum astriferarum, ii. 221-286, Florence, 1750; Tubières de Grimvard, Count de Caylus, Recueil d’antiquités, vi. 65-66, Paris, 1764; F. Münter, Versuch über die kirchlichen Alterthümer der Gnostiker, pp. 203-214, Anspach, 1790; J. J. Bellermann, Versuch über die Gemmen der Alten mit dem Abraxas-Bilde, 3 parts, Berlin, 1818-19; J. Matter, Histoire critique du Gnosticisme, i., Paris, 1828, and Strasburg, 1843; idem, Abraxas in Herzog, RE, 2d ed., 1877; S. Sharpe, Egyptian Mythology, p. 252, note, London, 1863; Geiger, Abraxas und Elxai, in ZDMG, xviii. (1864) 824-825; G. Barzilai, Gli Abraxas, studio archeologico, Triest, 1873; idem, Appendice alla dissertazione sugli Abraxas, ib. 1874; E. Renan, Histoire des origines du Christianisme, vi. 160, Paris, 1879; C. W. King, The Gnostics and their Remains, London, 1887; Harnack, Geschichte, i. 161. The older material is listed by Matter, ut sup., and Wessely, Ephesia grammata, 18 vol. ii., Vienna, 1886. Worth consulting are B. de Monfaucon, L’Antiquité expliquée, ii. 356, Paris 1719-24, Eng. transl., 10 vols., London, 1721-25; R,. E. Raspe, Descriptive catalogue of . . . engraved Gems . . . cast . . . by J. Tassie . . . 2 vols., London, 1791; J. M. A. Chabouillet, Catalogue général et raisonné des camées et pierres gravées de la Bibliothèque Impériale, Paris, 1858; DACL, i. 127-155. Plates of the so-called Abraxas-gems are to be found in the works of Count de Caylus, Matter, King, and in the DACL.

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