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520 ASCENSION

to the otherworld. Here Virāz first sees the souls of righteous trines. Zoroaster’s katabasis was so well known that Plato
people performing good deeds and observing religious pre- identified him with Er, son of Armenios, in the tenth book
cepts; then hell is revealed, with its terrible chastisements that of his Republic, as well as with Aristeas. The ancient Greeks
conformably correspond to the faults of the souls found appear to have been interested in such themes as ecstasy or
there. The text ends with the glorious and radiant vision of enthousiasmos (divine possession), and they were especially
Ohrmadz (chap. 101 ff.). A similar narrative of a vision fol- interested in the immortality of the soul and doctrines con-
lowed by conversion is attributed to Vishtasp, the prince who cerning its status after death, already professed by the Magi,
protected Zarathushtra, and is contained in a late collection as recorded by Eudemos of Rhodes (fourth century BCE),
of texts (Dēnkard 7, 4, 85). who also offers accounts on Zalmoxis or Abaris.
Many motifs in these accounts are already attested in ANCIENT GREECE. In Greece, belief and practice concerning
Zoroastrian literature: for example, the bridge, which could catalepsy and the flight of the soul were widespread, and ex-
be large or narrow depending on the protagonist’s behavior isted apart from the belief in Dionysos, the ecstatic divinity
during life; the encounter with the daēna (Pahlavi, dēn), a par excellence. Karl Meuli, Eric R. Dodds, and others have
sort of “double” soul depicted as a wonderful girl; and the argued that Mediterranean religions exhibit a pattern of
three heavens—consisting of humata (“fair thoughts,” the prophecy and heavenly ascension that has much in common
stars), hūkhta (“fair words,” the moon); and hvarshta (“fair with shamanism. Such features are shared by the so-called
deeds,” the sun)—to which the anagra raoca, the layer of the iatromanteis (from iatros [healer], and mantis [seer]), Greek
“lights without beginning,” must be adjoined. The three medicine men and oracles connected with a divinity (inter-
heavens reflect the old Avestan order, mythical rather than preted as Apollo) who dwelled in Hyperborea, the mysteri-
astronomical, linked to a sort of religious gradation of fiery ous land of the north. To the category of iatromanteis be-
purity and brightness as one ascends from earth to heaven. longed such notable personalities as Empedocles and
The origin of later schemes comprising six or seven spheres Pythagoras and, perhaps less influential but no less typical
is connected with the six Amesha Spentas, or with the plane- for this religious complex, Abaris, Aristeas of Proconnesus,
tary order of Greek origin (the five known planets plus the Bakis, Epimenides of Crete, and Hermotimos of Clazo-
sun and the moon). It is worth noting that in Greece the menae. Some of these were reported either to fly or to free
planetary order was liable to vary; therefore we speak of a their souls and leave their bodies in a state of catalepsy. It
Chaldaean or an Egyptian order. would be brash to say that their catalepsy was induced by hal-
lucinogenic substances, even if a plant called alimos (literally,
More ancient (third century) and more conservative in “hungerless”), which probably contained an alkaloid, is men-
their description are the four inscriptions drawn up by the tioned in their biographies. The soul of Aristeas, taking the
famous fanatical high priest Kirdı̄r (or Kērdēr or Kartı̄r, ac- form of a raven, was said to travel as far as Hyperborea; the
cording to different transliterations), the grey eminence of soul of Epimenides, to converse with the gods; and the soul
King Shāpūr and his successors. Although they are preserved of Hermotimos, to visit faraway places and record local
in slightly different versions, they all refer to Kirdı̄r’s experi- events. A similar account reports the loss of Hermotimos’s
ence and should be seen as more than a literary device or an soul from the body after his death, which permitted him to
“initiatory myth.” Kirdı̄r’s experience is deeply rooted in the condemn his wicked wife and his enemies.
culture of the Magi and in Mazdaism. Eschatological motifs
also recur in these inscriptions: the daēna, the bridge, the bal- Although the pre-Socratic philosophers and the poet
ance where the soul is judged, the throne, and a probable vi- Pindar were acquainted with beliefs concerning the immor-
sion of hell. Moreover, the complex anthropology described tality of the soul and its consequent elevation to heaven, the
in these texts resembles shamanistic culture in its description cataleptic separation between body and soul, during which
of the state of apparent death, otherworldly journeys, such the soul was supposed to have supernatural experiences, was
expressions as “bony body” and “bony soul,” and such resumed by Plato in the apocalypse of Er in the tenth book
themes as the duplication of the soul or demons who are at of The Republic. Er, son of Armenios of Pamphylia (Asia
the head of limbs. As a result, scholars have inferred that sha- Minor), was wounded in a battle and appeared to be dead.
manistic practices existed in ancient Iran. It should be noted His catalepsy lasted twelve days, until the very moment his
that Ossetic mythology shares similar patterns, which may body was going to be burned. Er then came back to life and
be explained by cultural contacts with Persia. reported all the secrets of the afterlife that had been revealed
to his soul.
Even though scholars possess only late documents con-
cerning Iranian eschatology, and even though the resolute— Plato’s pupil Heracleides Ponticus (fourth century BCE)
and sometimes disputed—position held by the representa- took direct inspiration from the iatromanteis. In his lost dia-
tives of the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule must in some cases logues he was concerned with catalepsy and its treatment,
be qualified (e.g., in considering Mesopotamian borrow- and in one of these (Abaris, or “On things in hell”), Heracl-
ings), it is nevertheless true that in the second half of the first eides introduced a fictitious character, Empedotimos (de-
millennium BCE the Greeks were acquainted with the initia- rived from Empedocles and Hermotimos). Some scholars have
tory and mystical-ecstatic aspects of Iranian religious doc- attributed to Heracleides an important innovation in Greek

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ASCENSION 521

eschatology, namely the complete suppression of any subter- trine of Basilides, who was active in Alexandria around 120
restrial place for punishment of the dead. Other scholars CE, and of his son Isidorus, according to whom the transcen-
have claimed that the spread of celestial eschatology was due dental spirit of human beings is temporarily attached to a
to the influence of Pythagoreanism and Stoicism, and in- soul. During its descent, the planetary vices attack the soul
deed, Stoicism might have played an important role in the and stick to it in the form of concretions of “appendages”
transformation of Hellenistic eschatology. It is worth noting (prosartēmata).
that the Latin writer Cicero (first century BCE) ends his Pla-
The technical expression antimimon pneuma, or “coun-
tonic work, titled Republic, with an account of Scipio’s
terfeit spirit” (sometimes antikeimenon, or “evil spirit”), oc-
dream, wherein the hero was granted an ascent throughout
curs for the first time in the Apocryphon of John, one of the
the heavens and a vision of the Blesseds. This well-known
oldest surviving Gnostic treatises, extant in Coptic transla-
account became the object of allegorical interpretation dur-
tions. Some scholars claim that the Apocryphon of John pre-
ing late antiquity, and the Neoplatonist Macrobius wrote an
dates even Basilides, whose theory of the prosartēmata is
extensive commentary on it at the end of the fourth century.
based on the antimimon pneuma doctrine. In fact, the an-
HELLENISTIC WORLD. By the end of the first century CE, the timimon pneuma is an appended spirit, an intermediary be-
idea of an underground Hades was no longer fashionable, so tween the soul and the material body. The soul itself is a cre-
in rearranging the great eschatological Platonic myths, Plu- ation of the evil heavenly archons (i.e., the seven “planets”)
tarch’s ambition was to give a “modern” version of them in or, to be more precise, of the seven attributes forming con-
order to meet the intellectual exigencies of the time. Plutarch junctions (syzygies) together with the archons.
offers interesting details about catalepsy and incubation in
his dialogue On Socrates’ Daemon, based on traditions con- The formation of the antimimon pneuma is more explic-
cerning the famous oracular cave of Trophonius at Lebadea, itly stated in the Pistis Sophia, also preserved in Coptic. The
near Chaeronea. If Lamprias, Plutarch’s brother, was a priest “counterfeit spirit” derives directly from the archons of the
of that sanctuary, Plutarch may have had access to the wood- heimarmenē, or astral destiny, which are the seven “planets.”
en tablets on which those consulting the oracle were sup- The antimimon pneuma follows the soul in all its reincarna-
posed to write down their experiences. The hero of this apoc- tions (metabolai) and is itself a cause of reincarnation. The
alypse is Timarch, whose soul leaves his body and visits the goal of Gnostic mysteries is to free the soul from bondage
heavenly Hades, remaining below the sphere of the moon, to the antimimon pneuma. On the basis of the planetary
which is only the first among the seven planetary spheres. order in chapter 136 of Pistis Sophia and in other texts of late
Here, as well as in the dialogue On the Face in the Moon, the antiquity, it seems likely that this doctrine derives from the
moon is the receptacle of souls that are freed of their bodies, Hermetic astrological treatise Panaretos, which includes a
with the exception of those that fall again into the circle of discussion of the degrees (klēroi) or positions (loci) of the
transmigration (metensōmatōsis). The earth represents the planets; that is, the coordinates within the horoscope of na-
lowest and meanest point of the universe. Another important tivity, where each planet is supposed to confer its principal
myth is contained in the dialogue On the Delayed Revenge of qualities upon the subject. However, Gnostics mention only
the God, which resumes many elements of the apocalypse of the negative qualities or vices derived from the planetary in-
Er. The dishonest Aridaeus of Soloi, after having experienced fluence.
a cataleptic state and after his soul has watched the judgment The doctrine of antimimon pneuma became influential
of the dead and witnessed the painful lot of the sinners, in Hermetism, where it merged with the idea of the soul’s
changes his attitude, becomes a pious man, and begins call- descent into the world and its return to heaven. During its
ing himself Thespesius (“godly”). descent through the planetary spheres, the soul acquired
Late Hellenism was dominated by an obsession with from each planet the dominant vice ascribed to it in astrolo-
human liberation from the world and out of the world, in, gy, while during its ascent, those concretions were put off
or beyond, the heavenly spheres. This is reflected, for exam- (Poimandres 25–26). The ascent of the soul in Gnosticism
ple, in the Gnostic systems of the second and third centuries could be much more complicated, and the ritual perfor-
CE and in their polemic against astrology. The seven “plan- mances or “mysteries” intended to assure the soul an easy
ets” themselves, the signs, the decans, and the degrees of the passage through the archons differed widely, although they
zodiac are often represented as evil archons, or heavenly rul- presented some fixed patterns, such as learning by heart mag-
ers. These are extremely important for the embodiment and ical names or invocations. Some Sethian treatises from Nag-
disembodiment of the individual soul. The heavenly ascent Hammadi (Zostrianos, Allogenes, The Three Steles of Seth),
of the soul through the spheres is therefore considered a cen- where the path of ascent shows Platonic nuances, prelude the
tral tenet of Gnosticism. The techniques that are intended life-intellect-being triad later developed by Plotinus.
to assure the Gnostic’s soul a safe passage through the spheres It should also be noted that the same motif of secret
of the hostile archons up to the plērōma (fullness) of the god- names or watchwords and seals indispensable for passing
head actually form the most important part of gnosis. through the heavenly customs is also described in magic liter-
One of the first testimonies for the Gnostic theory of ature and in the Jewish mysticism of the merkavah. An im-
the embodiment and disembodiment of the soul is the doc- portant example is the famous Mithrasliturgie (Papyri Grae-

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522 ASCENSION

cae Magicae VI, 475–824), which describes how to gain chology. Through the works of Marsilio Ficino (1433–
immortality by an elevation process. 1499), it became one of the most widespread doctrines from
the time of the Renaissance down to the end of the sixteenth
The second-century Platonic writer Celsus (attested by century and even into the seventeenth.
Origen, Contra Celsum 6, 22 ff.) ascribed to the Persian god
Mithra, whose veneration increased during late antiquity and Another interesting Latin document preserving a de-
who was reshaped to suit the changed religious attitude of scription of an initiatory ascension is De Nuptiis, written in
Hellenism, a ritual object consisting of a ladder with seven the fifth century by Martianus Capella. Despite the far-
steps or “gates” (klimax heptapylos), representing the planets. fetched and heterogeneous material collected in De Nuptiis
Similar objects are also depicted in Mithraic temples. Ac- (the author aimed at offering an encyclopedia of the seven
cording to Celsus, this object symbolized the passage of the liberal arts), its allegorical stamp emerges from the first two
adept’s soul through the planetary spheres, which could be books and is testified by commentaries written during the
accomplished in concomitance of the magnus annus of Middle Ages. The hierogamy between Philology, allegory of
Plato’s doctrine (Timaeus 39d). This interpretation raises human knowledge, and Mercury is prepared by a complicat-
some difficulties, however, since the steps are arranged ac- ed ritual and by Philology’s ascent throughout the seven
cording to the order of the days of the planetary week, which spheres in order to purify herself from earthly filth. Chal-
is explained by Celsus in accordance with the musical theory daean and Neoplatonic borrowings are palpable.
of the tetrachordon. Celsus linked this doctrine to a related JUDAISM AND EARLY CHRISTIAN LITERATURE. The heavenly
diagram ascribed to the Gnostic sect of the Ophites. Some journey is a constant pattern in Jewish and, later, Christian
interpreters have argued that these steps and their associated apocalypses. Apart from the Scriptural references (Gen. 5:24;
rituals represent a meditative technique to obtain inner 2 Kgs. 2:11; Sir. 44:16; 48:9; Ez. 1; and Dn. 7:13, important
knowledge of the self, and the steps are thus structured as an for later interpretations), among the Old Testament Pseud-
interior journey. epigrapha there are numerous texts describing both an elec-
tive ascension of patriarchs (Abraham, Enoch, Isaac, Jacob,
In Hellenistic culture a relationship was established be-
Levi, Moses, and Shem) or prophets (Baruch, Esdra, Isaiah,
tween the seven “planets” and the levels that the soul had to
Elijah, and Ezekiel), and the granting of a vision.
transverse in its heavenly ascent. It can thus be maintained
that, as far as the mysteries of late antiquity are concerned, Extensive and detailed accounts of ascensions begin
their divinities, in some cases traditionally connected with with 1 Enoch, the oldest parts of which were completed at
the earth and the underworld Hades, are transported entirely the end of the third century BCE. Enoch’s adventures are re-
to heaven, where they are supposed to receive the souls of counted in this text in much more detail than in the Bible.
their adepts after death. Moreover, Gnostic polemics against Written originally in Aramaic (fragments were discovered
astrology gave rise to the formation of the influential theory among the Dead Sea Scrolls), 1 Enoch is fully preserved only
of the passage of the soul through the spheres, fashionable in an Ethiopian translation that is based on a Greek version.
among Neoplatonists from the third to the sixteenth century No less than five works, written over a period of centuries,
CE. It is impossible to state whether Neoplatonists (e.g., Por- are included in this collection. The book of 2 Enoch, which
phyry, Proclus, and Macrobius) took this theory from Nu- seems originally to have been written in Greek, survives only
menius of Apamea or from the Gnostic-Hermetic tradition. in a translation into Old Church Slavonic. Much of the ma-
It should also be noted that the Christian writer Arnobius, terial in it probably dates back to the early centuries CE, al-
at the beginning of the fourth century, directed his polemic though its final form appears to be the result of a long process
against a group of Neoplatonic mystics who maintained the of transmission. According to this work, Enoch ascended to
doctrines of the Chaldaean Oracles, attributing to them heaven and was given a tour of the celestial realm, where he
formulas and other means for transporting their clients to was transformed into an angelic being when he came before
heaven. the throne of God. This is the background of the story nar-
rated in 3 Enoch, which begins with the ascent of R. Ishmael
The embodiment (ensōmatōsis) of the soul entails a de-
to the seventh heaven and his encounter with God and the
scent from the top of the cosmos to the bottom, through the
angels. One of them, Metatron, reveals that he was once the
planetary spheres that confer certain characteristic features
man Enoch, but he was taken to heaven in a fiery chariot as
upon the soul. Disembodiment is the reverse of this process.
a witness to the generation of the flood. After having been
In late Neoplatonism, which borrowed this doctrine from
challenged by the angels, he was finally enthroned by God.
Chaldaean theurgy, the ethereal body that enveloped the soul
and that was formed by planetary qualities was its “vehicle” The voyage through seven or three heavens became a
(ochēma). Sometimes this “vehicle” was distinguished from commonplace of Jewish apocalyptic literature with the Testa-
others that were meant to serve as intermediaries between the ments of the Twelve Patriarchs (second century BCE). Seven
soul and the material body, according to a theory of Aristotle is the prevailing number in the mystical tradition related to
that was influential in Greco-Roman and Arabic medicine. the merkavah, the chariot carrying God’s throne in the fa-
The theory of the passage of the soul through the spheres was mous vision of Ezekiel. Under the name ma’aseh merkavah
taken over from Macrobius by medieval medicine and psy- (“work of the chariot”), this form of speculation goes back

ENCYCLOPEDIA OF RELIGION, SECOND EDITION


ASCENSION 523

to the Pharisees of the Second Temple. From the second or Nevertheless, all scholars have emphasized how Christ’s as-
third to the sixth century CE, merkavah mysticism is mainly cension sums up the tradition of biblical heavenly ascensions,
expressed through hekhalotic literature (from hekhal, “heav- explaining his role as both redeemer and mediator between
enly palace”), represented by various groups of testimonies God and humans.
of different dates. Jewish magic, as recorded in, for example,
The early tradition that Luke makes use of is otherwise
the Sefer ha-razim (sixth or seventh century CE), was also
expressed in terms of Jesus’ “exaltation” (e.g., in the pre-
concerned with the vision of seven heavens, which was fun-
Pauline formulation echoed in Philippians 2:9). However
damental to merkavah mysticism and hekhalotic literature.
this belief is partly an attempt to define more clearly the rela-
The related writings contain the revelation of seven “heaven-
tion between the living Jesus who died on the cross and the
ly palaces,” which the adept was supposed to attain after
risen Lord who appeared to the apostles by explaining, for
strenuous preparation. In Jewish mysticism, the seven heav-
example, where the “life” of Jesus had been during the three
ens are never associated with the seven planets. Some scholars
days following his death. While Paul shows no awareness of
have argued that both the Second Temple apocalypses and
the problem, the question was bound to arise eventually, and
hekhalot literature are fictitious or clearly literary events,
the answer depended on the view taken about the relation
while others have underlined patterns kindred to shamanism.
between soul and body. According to the Pauline view, the
The same basic ecstatic experience is reflected in Chris- resurrection was the passage from earth to heaven, or it was
tian accounts of celestial elevation, including Paul’s and the identical to the ascension, but the views of Luke and John,
enigmatic and indirect autobiographical account in 2 Corin- which the early church adopted, held that the resurrection
thians (12:2 ff.). This reference to visions and revelations of was a temporary restoration of Jesus’ intercourse with the
the Lord may suggest either that Paul’s opponents, against disciples on earth, which ended with the ascension.
whom the epistle is directed, boasted of such experiences, or ISLAM. The most famous example of an ascension in Islamic
that they decried his apostolic title because it was based on culture is the Mi Erāj, or ascent of the prophet Muh: ammad,
a “vision.” It is interesting to note that the Hellenic writer developed and expanded from an enigmatic hint in the
Lucian (second century CE) caricatured Christianity by de- QurDān (17:1). This account is preserved in various Arabic
scribing “the Galilean. . .who went by air into the third texts from the eighth and ninth centuries CE, as well as in
heaven” (Philopatris 12). medieval Latin versions. Accompanied by the archangel Ga-
briel, the Prophet is transported to Jerusalem and then to
A long section of the early Christian apocryphal text As-
heaven either on Burāq (a sort of winged horse with a pea-
censio Isaiae (dating back to the second century CE, probably
cock’s tail) or in a tree growing with vertiginous speed up to
to Syrian ambit, and preserved in different fragmentary ver-
the sky.
sions of varying length and chronology) contains an apoca-
lyptic account. In this text, the prophet Isaiah, helped by an Other accounts of heavenly journeys are recorded in Ar-
angel, rises to the seventh heaven, where he can contemplate abic literature (in turn influenced by Persia), some of them
the preexistent Christ together with the Holy Spirit, and the equally characterized by the common denominator of Gnos-
coming of Christ in the world. Ascensio Isaiae puts into evi- tic trends and by a mythic and symbolic geography (what
dence not only eschatological themes, but also attempts at Henry Corbin called the mundus imaginalis). A precursor of
enucleating a complex Christology, sometimes pervaded the grail legend is recognizable in the account of the visionary
with Gnostic or dualistic features. The link between ascen- Kay Khosraw in Firdawsı̄’s Book of the Kings from the late
sion and the manifestation of God’s glory (kavod) was inher- tenth century. In addition, the Si Murg describes the journey
ited by many other apocryphal Christian texts, including, for of thirty birds toward their king, the Phoenix (Simurgh),
example, the Gnosticizing Gospel of Thomas. through seven dreadful valleys. At the end they realize that
the Phoenix is nothing more than themselves, with a word-
Any inquiry concerning heavenly journeys in ancient
play on the title, expressing at the same time one of the prin-
Christianity cannot omit consideration of the ascension of
cipal Gnostic tenets—that divinity dwells in the inner self.
Christ, considered dogma from the earliest times and the ear-
Furthermore, the allegorical works by the Gnostic philoso-
liest credo formulas. Its account is recorded by Luke both in
pher Suhrawardı̄ Maqtūl (d. 1191), written in a style similar
the Gospel and in the proemial section of the Acts; only the
to Avicenna’s tales, feature the leitmotiv of the soul’s re-
Markan appendix contains something parallel (16:19). This
demption from its corporeal bonds and the laud to its true
double reference—which can be considered a climax to the
homeland, na-kaja-abad (place without space).
latter part of the Gospel of Luke, from chapter 9 (the transfig-
uration)—makes it clear that one has to reckon with this as- Also important is the Seir al- DIbad ilà El-Ma Dad (Journey
cension account as the crucial marker that distinguishes the of the servants of God toward the reign of the goals), a poem
period of the church from that of Jesus. The term ascension written in the twelfth century by SanāD ı̄. The purpose of the
has a different meaning in this case, since it does not simply journey that is described in this poem is to reach the “Su-
refer to a motion upward through the “heavens” but also in- preme Goal” through a progressive divinization, which is de-
volves the notion that the ascended Christ joins his heavenly scribed in the introductory section, with the exhortation to
Father in “glory,” and the disciples behold Jesus in this state. forsake the “bony body.” The spiritual guide is represented

ENCYCLOPEDIA OF RELIGION, SECOND EDITION


524 ASCENSION

by the Intellect ( EAql), disguised as an old man. The traveler above, even though these were radically different in their
ascends through the four elements first, a place ruled by the purpose: Whereas the latter were deeply influenced by Gnos-
passions and death, then it reaches a hell in which the sover- tic ideas and praised the role of intellect, Dante’s guide in
eign is represented as a whale. Finally, after passing through his pilgrimage is Beatrice, who symbolizes Christian love
eternal Time’s crystal gate, the traveler rises to the planets, after the defeat of human reason (represented by Vergil). It
symbolizing the vices (an inheritance from the Mazdean tra- should be noted that Gnostic interpretations of Beatrice have
dition), as far as the ninth sphere. The ninth sphere repre- been put forward, but these are not convincing.
sents the World Soul, in conformity with the strong emana- Such a majestic text has been the object of manifold in-
tionism pervading the poem. Although the narrator is terpretations due to its difficulty and its elaborate literary
inclined to stop his ascent at this point, the Intellect per- frame. In the final part (cantica) of The Divine Comedy, the
suades him to continue. The final section is the most gnostic- narrator, after having passed through hell and purgatory with
ly marked, since there is an overlap or identification between Beatrice, rises to the heavenly spheres, where he is granted
the storyteller and his Intellect, in order to accomplish divin- a vision of the Virgin Mary and God. In his description of
ization. the universe Dante follows Ptolemaic astronomical concep-
MEDIEVAL CHRISTIANITY AND DANTE. Late Hellenistic tions in which the earth is stationary and central, with the
Christian apocalypses continued to play an important role seven planets revolving around it at various speeds. Beyond
during the Middle Ages. The Latin Vision of Esdra, transmit- these are the spheres of the fixed stars and the material heav-
ted in a tenth-century manuscript, was extremely influential. ens, the last of which is called the Crystalline, or the Primum
From the twelfth century, which was particularly productive Mobile, because the other heavens derive their slower mo-
of revelations, three works are most important: the Vision of tions from its infinite speed. In Dante’s universe, the grace
Alberic (1127), written by a monk of Montecassino, possibly of God increases as one moves into the higher and higher
influenced by the MiErāj legends, transmitted by Constantine heavens. Nine angelic orders rule and control the heavenly
the African (1020–1087), a translator from Arabic who spent spheres, which influence human life and character. The vari-
the last years of his life in that monastery; the Vision of Tun- ous souls are described according to the corresponding pre-
dal (1149); and the Purgatory of Saint Patrick (1189), which dominant character of their earthly lives. When the Blesseds
is similar to ancient Irish models and to the Latin legend of crowd, they vary their voices and sounds into a sweet and ex-
Saint Brendan’s life (ninth century). ultant harmony.
The most important account of a heavenly ascension in Dante and Beatrice reach the heaven of the Moon first,
Western culture is considered to be Dante Alighieri’s epic they then travel to the heaven of Mercury, and then the third
poem The Divine Comedy, written in the early 1300s. The heaven (ruled by Venus), where lovers dwell. A whirling light
Divine Comedy is not only a literary masterpiece, it is also a glows in the heaven of the Sun, whose inhabitants are philos-
summation of medieval philosophical and religious ideas, in ophers and theologians, such as Thomas Aquinas and Bona-
which different sources seem to flow together. For example, venture, as well as Siger de Brabant. The heaven of Mars is
the Christian apocalyptic tradition involving Paul’s experi- trimmed with a white gleaming cross, while in the heaven
ence (2 Cor. 12:2–4) is explicitly asserted in the Inferno (2:28 of Jupiter the spirits (rulers and sovereigns) form a gigantic
ff.) and Paradiso (1:74 ff.). Classical reminiscences also ap- eagle, symbolizing imperial power. In the next heaven, that
pear, including Aeneas’s catabasis, which derives from the of Saturn, Dante is faced with a great golden ladder upon
sixth book of Vergil’s Aeneid. The poet uses these two models whose steps manifold splendid lights (the contemplative spir-
to insert himself into a line of exemplary people who are wor- its) ascend and descend. From here Dante can look back to-
thy of seeing the celestial realms, even if he always remarks ward the earth, which appears to him in all its paltriness. As
that providential action operated by divine grace in offering soon as he arrives in the heaven of the fixed stars, Dante is
to a human the possibility of ascending to supernatural presented with a procession of the triumph of Christ, while
spheres. Moreover, after Miguel Asín Palacios’s seminal sug- at the same time he is examined by the saints in order to rise
gestions (partly questioned), scholars have begun looking for toward the ninth heaven and finally to the Empyrean, which
traces of Islamic descriptions from the MiErāj in the Com- exists outside of time and space, pervaded by eternal intellec-
media. This hypothesis is highly probable, since translated tual light and holy love, and where angels and saints live,
versions of the so-called Liber scalae circulated in Europe their blessedness consisting of an eternal vision of God. The
during the thirteenth century, and one of them had been ar- thrones of the saints and the biblical figures (Eve, Rachel,
ranged by a Tuscan dignitary, Bonaventura da Siena, as Enri- Sarah, Rebecca, Judith, Adam, Moses, Saint Peter, Saint
co Cerulli has demonstrated. If Dante employed such hetero- John, Saint Francis, Saint Augustine, Saint Lucy, as well as
geneous sources, this may be considered the clearest—and Beatrice) sit there in ranked order, with the Virgin sitting at
the most important—example of an osmotic interaction their radiant peak. In the end, Saint Bernard begins a prayer
(sometimes not free from polemic) between Arabic and Eu- to the Virgin so that the poet can preserve the blessedness
ropean culture in the Middle Ages, an interaction that lasted he saw. She deigns to look down at him and the light of God
until the sixteenth century. Dante may also have been in- shines down on Dante, granting him the beatific vision and
spired by the Arabic philosophical apocalypses described the ultimate salvation.

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ASCENSION 525

SEE ALSO Afterlife, overview article; Apotheosis; Flight; ern Folklore (Berkeley, 1989). For Iranian apocalypticism,
Gnosticism; MiErāj; Shamanism, overview article. Philippe Gignoux has translated and written a commentary
on the Ardā Wirāz Nāmag in Le livre d’Ardā Vı̄rāz (Paris,
1984), as has Fereydun Vahman in Ardā Wirāz Nāmag: The
BIBLIOGRAPHY
Iranian “Divina Commedia” (London, 1986). On Kirdı̄r’s
The classic study devoted to the ascension of the soul is Wilhelm
inscriptions, see Philippe Gignoux, Les quatre inscriptions du
Bousset, “Die Himmelsreise der Seele” in Archiv für Religion-
Mage Kirdı̄r, Texte et Concordances (Paris, 1991), as well as
swissenschaft 4 (1901): 136–169; the same view is shared by
Gignoux’s many contributions on Iranian eschatology and
Karl Hönn, Studien zur Geschichte der Himmelfahrt im klas-
shamanistic features. On the same theme there is also an im-
sischen Altertum (Mannheim, Germany, 1910). Among the
portant paper by Gherardo Gnoli, “Asšavan: Contributo allo
scholarly production influenced by this critical trend, it is
studio del Libro di Arda Viraz” in Iranica (Naples, 1979),
worth mentioning Eduard Norden’s impressive commentary
pp. 387–452. Antonio Panaino’s “Uranographia Iranica I:
on the sixth book of the Aeneid (P. Vergilius Maro, Aeneis
The Three Heavens in the Zoroastrian Tradition and the
Buch VI, Leipzig and Berlin, 1903; 3d ed., 1934), which, es-
Mesopotamian Background” in Au carrefour des religions:
pecially in the introductory section, deals with apocalyptic
Mélanges offerts à Philippe Gignoux, edited by Rika Gyselen
and eschatological literature from Empedocles to the Middle
(Bures sur Yvette, France, 1995), pp. 205–225, deals with
Ages. Important methodological remarks on the subject are
the threefold division of universe and planetary order.
provided by Carsten Colpe, “Die ‘Himmelsreise der Seele’
ausserhalb und innerhalb der Gnosis” in Le Origini dello On the Greek iatromanteis and their relationships to shamanism
Gnosticismo, edited by Ugo Bianchi (Leiden, 1967), see Karl Meuli, “Scythica,” in Hermes 70 (1935): 121–176;
pp. 429–445; see also Colpe’s “Die ‘Himmelsreise der Seele’ as well as chapter 5 of Eric R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Ir-
als philosophie- und religionsgeschichtliche Problem” in rational (Berkeley, 1951). On Shamanic features in Greek
Festschrift für Joseph Klein, edited by Erich Fries (Göttingen, oracular practice, see Pierre Bonnechere, Trophonios de Lé-
1967), pp. 85–104. badée: cultes et mythes d’une cité béotienne au miroir de la men-
Two books by Ioan Petru Culianu, Psychanodia: A Survey of the talité antique (Leiden, 2003).
Evidence concerning the Ascension of the Soul and Its Relevance, The magnificient book by Franz Cumont, Lux Perpetua (Paris,
vol. 1 (Leiden, 1983), and Expériences de l’extase: Extase, as- 1949), deals with eschatology and the otherworld in the Hel-
cension, et récit visionnaire de l’hellénisme au Moyen Age (Paris, lenistic age. Plutarch’s eschatology is investigated by Freder-
1984), offer detailed commentary on Judaic, Christian, and ick Brenk, In Mist Apparelled: Religious Themes in Plutarch’s
Islamic literature from ancient Greece through the Middle Moralia and Lives (Leiden, 1977). On the mysteries of
Ages, as well as a scholarly history marked by a strong criti- Mithra and their relationship to the ascent of the soul, see
cism of the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule view. Fascinating, Robert Turcan, Mithras platonicus: Recherches sur
but not strictly scientific, is Elémire Zolla, Lo stupore infantile l’hellénisation philosophique de Mithra (Leiden, 1975), and
(Milan, 1994), pp. 77–91 and 111–120. See also Ioan Petru Bernd Witte, Das Ophitendiagramm nach Origens’ Contra
Culianu, Out of this World. Otherwordly Journeys from Gil- Celsum 6: 22–38 (Altenberge, Germany, 1993). On Macro-
gamesh to Albert Einstein (Boston and London, 1991, 2001). bius and the passage of the soul through the spheres, a good
Among the manifold contributions on apocalyptic literature and survey is Jacques Flamant’s Macrobe et le néo-platonisme latin,
its distinctive patterns and purposes, see David Hellholm, à la fin du quatrième siècle (Leiden, 1977). The survival of
ed., Apocalypticism in the Mediterranean World and the Near- this doctrine during the Renaissance is investigated by Dan-
East: Proceedings of the International Colloquium on Apocalyp- iel P. Walker, Spiritual and Demonic Magic: From Ficino to
ticism, Uppsala, Aug. 12–17, 1979, 2d ed. (Tübingen, 1989), Campanella (London, 1958), and Ioan Petru Culianu,
and Claire Kappler, ed., Apocalypses et voyages dans l’au-delà “Magia spirituale e magia demonica nel Rinascimento” in
(Paris, 1987). See also the synthesis by John J. Collins, The Rivista di storia e letteratura religiosa 17 (1981): 360–408.
Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to the Jewish Matrix The classic book on magic literature is Albrecht Dieterich, Eine
of Christianity (New York, 1984). Mithrasliturgie, 3d ed. (Leipzig, 1923), which must be sup-
The best single book on shamanism and related ecstatic phenome- plemented by Hans-Dieter Betz, Gottesbegegnung und Men-
na in different religious contexts remains Mircea Eliade’s schwerdung: Zur religionsgeschichtlichen und theologischen
Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, translated by Wil- Bedeutung der Mithrasliturgie (PGM IV, 475–820) (Berlin
lard R. Trask (New York, 1964); on yoga techniques viewed and New York, 2001). See also Betz’s English translation and
in a broad historico-religious scope see Eliade’s Yoga: Immor- commentary, The Mithras Liturgy (Tübingen, 2003).
tality and Freedom, 2d ed., translated by Willard R. Trask Good surveys of the Jewish mysticism of the merkavah are Ger-
(Princeton, 1969). On related themes see Alexander Golitz- shom Scholem, Jewish Gnosticism, Merkavah Mysticism, and
in, “‘Earthly Angels and Heavenly Men’: Nicetas Stethatos, Talmudic Tradition (New York, 1960; 2d ed., 1965), and
the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, and the Tradition of Ithamar Gruenwald, Apocalyptic and Merkavah Mysticism
‘Interiorized Apocalyptic’ in Eastern Christian Ascetical and (Leiden, 1980). See also Peter Schäfer, The Hidden and Man-
Mystical Literature” in Dumbarton Oak Papers 55 (2001): ifest God: Some Major Themes in Early Jewish Mysticism,
125–153. translated by Aubrey Pomerance (Albany, N.Y., 1992); Mar-
On ecstasis induced by hallucinogens in ancient Iran see David S. tha Himmelfarb, Ascent to Heaven in Jewish and Christian
Flattery and Martin Schwartz, Haoma and Harmaline: The Apocalypses (Oxford, 1993); and James R. Davila, “Shamanic
Botanical Identity of the Indo-Iranian Sacred Hallucinogen Initiatory Death and Resurrection in the Hekhalot Litera-
“Soma” and Its Legacy in Religion, Language, and Middle East- ture” in Paul Mirecki and Marvin Meyer, eds., Magic and

ENCYCLOPEDIA OF RELIGION, SECOND EDITION


526 ASCETICISM

Ritual in the Ancient World (Leiden, 2002), pp. 283–302, to- The Greek athlete, for example, subjected himself to system-
gether with his monograph Descenders to the Chariot: The atic exercise or training in order to attain a goal of physical
People behind the Hekhalot Literature (Leiden 2001). See also fitness. In time, however, the word began to assume philo-
James H. Charlesworth, ed., Old Testament Pseudepigrapha sophical, spiritual, and ethical implications: one could “exer-
(Garden City, N.Y., 1983). cise” and “train” not only the body in the pursuit of a physi-
Contributions on how Christianity developed the ascension cal goal but also—systematically and rigorously—the will,
theme are offered by Alan F. Segal, “Heavenly Ascent in Hel- the mind, and the soul so as to attain a more virtuous life
lenistic Judaism, Early Christianity and Their Environment” or a higher spiritual state.
in Aufstieg und Niedergand der Römischen Welt II, 23, 2 (Ber-
lin and New York, 1980), pp. 1333–1394; and James D. Although the modern word asceticism has eluded any
Tabor, Things Unutterable: Paul’s Ascent to Paradise in its universally accepted definition, the term, when used in a reli-
Graeco-Roman, Judaic, and Early Christian Context (New gious context, may be defined as a voluntary, sustained, and
York, 1986). Further bibliographical references can be found at least partially systematic program of self-discipline and
in Joseph A. Fitzmeyer, The Gospel According to Luke (An-
self-denial in which immediate, sensual, or profane gratifica-
chor Bible 28–28A; New York, 1981); and Karin Wilcke,
Christi Himmelfahrt. Ihre Darstellung in der Europäische Li-
tions are renounced in order to attain a higher spiritual state
teratur von der Spätantike bis zum ausgehenden Mittelalter or a more thorough absorption in the sacred. Because reli-
(Heidelberg, 1991). A critical edition and commentary of the gious man (homo religiosus) seeks a transcendent state, asceti-
Ascensio Isaiae is provided by Paolo Bettiolo, Alda Kossova, cism—in either rudimentary or developed form—is virtually
Claudio Leonardi, Enrico Norelli, and Lorenzo Perrone universal in world religion.
(Turnhout, Belgium, 1995; CCSA 7–8). See also Enrico No-
relli, L’Ascensione di Isaia: Studi su un apocrifo al crocevia dei ORIGINS OF ASCETICISM. The origins of asceticism are found
cristianesimi (Bologna, 1994), and April De Conick, Seek to in primitive or archaic society, that is, in prehistory. Many
See Him: Ascent and Vision Mysticism in the Gospel of Thomas of the major ascetic forms such as fasting, sexual continence,
(Leiden, 1996). and seclusion appear universally among present-day primi-
The relationships between Persian and Arabic religious literature tives or nonliterate peoples. The purpose of such prohibi-
are investigated by Henry Corbin, Corps spirituel et terre cél- tions or taboos is very frequently to escape or avoid the influ-
este: De l’Iran mazdéen à l’Iran shi’ite, 2d ed. (Paris, 1979); ence of demonic powers. There is, for example, a prevalent
on the same subject see also Alessandro Bausani, Persia re- belief in primitive societies that evil forces may enter the
ligiosa: Da Zaratustra a Bahā Du Dllāh, 2d ed. (Cosenza, Italy, body while one is eating. To avoid this, one fasts for certain
1999), available in English as Religion in Iran: From Zoroaster periods or abstains from certain foods altogether. The objec-
to Baha’ullah, translated by J. M. Marchesi (New York, tive of primitive prohibitions may also be purification. In
2000). On the MiDrāj see Geo Widengren, Muhammad: The preparation for ritual activities of a particularly sacred nature,
Apostle of God and His Ascension (Uppsala, Sweden, 1955).
such as initiation, marriage, or sacrifice, participants rid
A good survey of the most important medieval visions and apoca- themselves of impurity by engaging in often austere acts of
lypses is given in Sir John D. Seymour, Irish Visions of the self-denial. Such purity is particularly necessary if one is to
Other-World (London, 1930), and Jacques Le Goff, La nais- approach the gods. To a lesser degree, one may also use aus-
sance du Purgatoire (Paris, 1981), available in English as The
terities as a form of penance to atone for transgressions, thus
Birth of Purgatory, translated by Arthur Goldhammer (Lon-
don, 1984). On Dante’s Commedia see Charles S. Singleton, averting the wrath of a deity. Certain practices, particularly
Journey to Beatrice (Dante Studies 2; Cambridge, Mass., fasting and seclusion, are also employed to induce visions or
1958). A detailed commentary is offered by Anna Maria vivid dreams. Among American Indians, for example, such
Chiavacci Leonardi in a new edition of the Commedia techniques are used during puberty initiations to evoke a rev-
(Milan, 1997). In English see Charles Singleton’s commen- elation in dream or a vision of the youth’s guardian spirit.
tary in the Princeton translation (1970–1975). Dante’s
knowledge of Islamic sources is discussed in Miguel Asín Although the origins of asceticism may be found in
Palacios, La escatologia musulmana en la Divina comedia, primitive society, it is often argued that asceticism per se ex-
seguida de la historia y crítica de una polémica, 2d ed. (Madrid, ists there only in rudimentary form or not at all. One’s posi-
1943)—the first edition of this work was translated by Har- tion on this issue depends almost entirely upon how one de-
old Sunderland as Islam and the Divine Comedy (London, fines asceticism, thus making the issue less soluble but also
1926). Asín Palacios’s views were reconsidered and corrected less critical. It should be observed, however, that such ascetic
by Enrico Cerulli, Il “Libro della Scala” e la questione delle forms as fasting, seclusion, infliction of pain, and even bodily
fonti arabo-spagnole della Divina Commedia (Vatican City, mutilation have a far more compulsory, less voluntary char-
1949), and Nuove ricerche sul “Libro della Scala” e la conoscen-
acter in preliterate than in literate societies. The ordeals asso-
za dell’Islam in Occidente (Vatican City, 1972).
ciated with puberty rites, for example, are more or less im-
CHIARA OMBRETTA TOMMASI (2005) posed. Further, the austerities to which the primitive submits
rarely demonstrate a systematic and sustained program of as-
cetic behavior, when compared with comprehensive systems
ASCETICISM. The word asceticism is derived from the such as yoga or monastic life. Also, a preponderant number
Greek noun askēsis, meaning “exercise, practice, training.” of primitive austerities, acts of self-denial, and taboos have

ENCYCLOPEDIA OF RELIGION, SECOND EDITION


ASCETICISM 527

as their sole intent the avoidance of evil, so it is questionable the state of apparent union with the deity is only momentary
whether they should even be labeled asceticism. But since in and, at best, a foretaste of that salvation yet to come. The
almost all societies asceticism is elitist, being meant for the S: ūfı̄, like many mystics in theism, does not claim to be equal
few, a developed asceticism in primitive society should be to God, but rather to be extinguished or lost in him.
sought among such sacral specialists as the shaman. Although
In nontheistic traditions this thirst for the ultimate
the shaman is often “compelled” by higher powers to assume
through mystical experience takes on varied forms. It is fre-
his role, the rigors of shamanic life are hardly imposed from
quently a quest for the true or essential self, which is per-
without in the usual sense. Seclusion, fasting, sexual conti-
ceived to be identical with the ground or foundation of all
nence, and endless vigils are part of a sustained self-discipline
creation. The Hindu yogin employs the sophisticated tech-
calculated to generate visions, bring communion with spirits,
niques of Yoga to realize that his ātman, or permanent self,
and penetrate sacred realms.
is one with brahman, the unchanging foundation of all. The
FORMS AND OBJECTIVES OF ASCETICISM. Viewed cross- Yoga Sūtra of Patañjali (first century CE) describes breathing
culturally, the variety of ascetic forms is limited. Virtually and meditative techniques, which, when coupled with sexual
universal are (1) fasting, (2) sexual continence, (3) poverty, continence, fasting, bodily postures, and other disciplines,
under which may be included begging, (4) seclusion or isola- permit the individual to move “inward and downward” until
tion, and (5) self-inflicted pain, either physical (through such his true essence is “perceived.” Similarly, the meditative tech-
means as whipping, burning, or lacerating) or mental (e.g., niques of Zen Buddhism permit the practitioner to realize
contemplation of a judgment day, of existence in hell, or of the Buddha nature within himself.
the horrors associated with transmigration). More difficult Experiential knowledge of the true self in nontheistic
to define, but perhaps also more significant, is what may be traditions is frequently related to the liberation of the self
termed an “inner asceticism,” consisting essentially of spiri- from the sorrows and illusions of this phenomenal world. Ac-
tual rather than physical discipline. Such asceticism involves cording to the Hindu philosopher Śan: kara (788–820 CE),
not detachment from or renunciation of any specific worldly the body and personality with which we habitually identify
pleasure but rather detachment from or renunciation of the ourselves are revealed to be no more than māyā, or illusion.
world per se. It is reflected in the biblical attitude of being Our suffering and bondage are rooted in ignorance, which
“in the world, but not of it,” or in the Bhagavadgı̄tā’s “renun- ascetic-meditative effort gradually dispels through the mysti-
ciation in action, rather than renunciation of action.” It ap- cal knowledge that it produces. The Jain monk, through the
pears in almost every major religion yet has no equivalent in most rigorous of ascetic techniques involving total passivity
primitive thought. In addition to the universal forms indicat- and detachment from the world, seeks to purify and eventu-
ed, specific note must also be made of that set of practices ally liberate his true self (jı̄va) from the material defilements
or techniques (e.g., specific postures, chanting, breathing that most actions produce. Although Theravāda Buddhism
techniques) that make up the yogic and meditative complex denies the existence of any permanent self, its objective is,
indigenous to the Indian subcontinent. Yoga, although an like that of the Indian traditions, liberation from the round
asceticism of the body, is an inner asceticism as well. of worldly suffering. An ascetic life of monastic simplicity
Asceticism in classical and modern religion is generally and celibacy, an ascetic program of detachment, and a medi-
rooted in a developed and well-articulated philosophical or tative effort to cultivate a selfless state lead the Theravāda
theological system. Such a system provides the rationale or monk to realization of nirvān: a—“extinction” or “liberation.”
justification for ascetic activity. It is helpful to consider the Unlike the theistic systems, in which a mystical experi-
objectives of asceticism from the perspective of these systems, ence generated through ascetic activity can never grant salva-
whether theistic or nontheistic. tion, nontheistic systems frequently equate such an experi-
ence or realization with salvation itself. Awareness of one’s
Virtually all theistic traditions develop a mystical move-
ātman in Hinduism or of one’s purus: a in Sām: khya (i.e., a
ment wherein the individual, through an ascetic program,
philosophical system associated with traditional Yoga) or of
seeks a personal union with the deity. This desire for personal
one’s Buddha nature in Zen is enlightenment or salvation.
experience of the deity may be seen as a reaction against doc-
Unlike the theistic religions, nontheistic systems frequently
trinal abstraction or ethical formalism. Even theistic tradi-
affirm that salvation is attainable here on earth. One becomes
tions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, in which the
“liberated in life” as in Tantrism, or one realizes, as in Zen,
gap between creator and creature is perceived to be unbridge-
that one was never bound.
able, have produced ascetics in pursuit of such mystic union:
the eleventh-century Jewish mystic Bah: ye ibn Paquda; Jo- In both theistic and nontheistic systems asceticism may
hannes Eckhart (d. 1327 CE) and Johannes Tauler (d. 1361 be seen as a meritorious form of behavior, a good work, or
CE) in medieval Christianity; and the entire S: ūfı̄ movement a laudable course of action felt to ensure or facilitate a pre-
in Islam. Because the mystic seeks to bridge the gap between ferred condition after death. Self-denial is considered to be
man and God, the effort has often been perceived as auda- a way of earning posthumous reward. In theistic traditions
cious from the perspective of theistic orthodoxy. Virtually all such as Catholicism, Śaivism, and Vais: n: avism, such activity
mystics in a theistic tradition, therefore, make it clear that has often been thought to ensure or facilitate salvation in a

ENCYCLOPEDIA OF RELIGION, SECOND EDITION


528 ASCETICISM

way that mysticism cannot. A monastic life of self-denial, for was intended to produce pain, thereby bringing the ascetic
example, in which one is secluded from the temptations of into mystical union with the suffering Christ. Likewise, fast-
the flesh, could be esteemed as a more perfect life than one ing in Christianity often has sought to produce pain, either
lived in the world. Despite its prevalence, however, this effort as penance or, again, as a way of identifying with the suffer-
to earn one’s own salvation has frequently appeared prob- ing deity.
lematic and even pretentious in theistic traditions, given
In Yoga, however, the purpose of fasting is quite differ-
their emphasis upon salvation as a gift of the deity. In non-
ent. The objective is not to cause but to alleviate discomfort.
theistic traditions ascetic works are logically more appropri-
By fasting, the yogin conditions his body so he can go for
ate. Through self-denial, for example, one can burn out bad
prolonged periods not only without food but, more impor-
karman (the effect of past deeds) and improve one’s future
tant, without the thought of food. Fasting is therefore a tech-
state in the ongoing round of transmigration. In nontheistic
nique through which the yogin becomes oblivious of his
systems, however, ascetic works divorced from knowledge or
body and is thus able to direct all his mental energies toward
realization can never generate salvation itself, but only some
meditation. Similarly, the many other forms of self-discipline
lesser objecive.
found in Yoga—the postures and sexual continence, for in-
In both theistic and nontheistic systems, acts of self- stance—are to be seen less as privation than as techniques to
denial—particularly self-inflicted pain—may serve as a form redirect energies toward a meditative end.
of penance for previous misdeeds. Hindu law books such as
Yoga itself, however, as an ascetic form, has different ob-
the Mānava Dharmaśāstra (composed between 200 BCE and
jectives. In most of Upanisadic Hinduism its purpose is to
100 CE) detail numerous activities of this kind to atone for
realize the unity of one’s permanent self, or ātman, with the
transgressions, so that the penitent can avoid torment in ei-
unchanging foundation of the universe, or brahman. In
ther the next life or an intermediate hell. In the theistic tradi-
Theravāda Buddhism its goal is to realize that there is no per-
tions of Islam and medieval Christianity, activities such as
manent self, while in the Sām: khya system it seeks to realize
self-flagellation were often employed. In nontheistic systems
that the true self is ideally in a state of total isolation from
these practices function mechanistically to overcome the
the phenomenal world of flux.
negative consequences of evil deeds, whereas in theistic tradi-
tions they are performed in order to warrant the forgiveness In virtually every religious tradition, meditation or con-
of a personal god. Because its objective is merely forgiveness, templation takes place in some degree of seclusion. Anthony
in theistic systems asceticism as a form of penance has en- (d. 356 CE) and other Christian saints lived for prolonged
joyed a less problematic rationale than has asceticism as a way periods alone in the African desert. The early Buddhists lik-
of achieving salvation itself. This is particularly true when as- ened themselves to rhinos who wandered alone, far from the
cetic acts are seen as an expression of repentance rather than haunts of men, and Daoist recluses sought to commune with
as a means of earning it. nature beyond the reach of civilization and its distractions.
But again, the goals of such secluded exercises are varied. The
Most evident in Catholicism, but confined neither to
Daoist seeks harmony with nature and therewith serenity
it nor to theistic traditions in general, is the use of asceticism,
and joy. The Theravāda Buddhist seeks to realize that nature
particularly self-inflicted pain, as a means of experiencing or
is transient and thus a source of sorrow. Saint Anthony,
reexperiencing the sufferings of either a deity or a human
somewhat like a Tibetan Buddhist, went forth to confront
paradigm (i.e., a model individual). Nontheistic Jainism pro-
demonic powers in their own ominous haunts.
duced ascetics whose acts of self-denial took as their model
the activities of Jain saints (tı̄rthaṅkaras) such as Pārśva or CROSS-CULTURAL ISSUES. Although universal, asceticism is
Mahāvı̄ra. The Hindu hero Bhı̄s: ma was so pierced by arrows far more prevalent in certain traditions than in others. Classi-
during the great battle described in the Bhagavdgı̄tā that, cal Jainism, early and Tibetan Buddhism, early Christianity,
supported by their shafts, he lay parallel to the ground. This and various branches of Hinduism are heavily ascetic, where-
event forms the model for the well-known bed of nails em- as Confucianism, Shinto, Zoroatrianism, and Israelite reli-
ployed by some Indian holy men. In Catholic Christianity gion are not.
the imitation of Christ’s suffering is raised to a level of mysti-
cal significance. Suffering not only as Christ suffered but World-rejection. Although it is narrow to suggest that
with him has become a means of mystical union with the only traditions that postulate an evident dualism between
deity. In this regard, suffering became virtually an end in it- soul and body or God and world or matter and spirit pro-
self, taking on soteriological significance. duce ascetic activity, it is nonetheless fair to suggest that du-
alistic philosophies are inclined both to justify and generate
Viewed cross-culturally, a given ascetic form may have a dramatic and developed asceticism. Jain asceticism, for ex-
different, even opposite objectives. In primitive society, for ample, is rooted in the dualism between spirit and matter
example, self-flagellation or scourging is intended primarily and the need for purging the former of the latter. Much Hel-
to drive away demonic powers that have attached themselves lenistic Christian asceticism, particularly self-inflicted pain,
to the individual. In Christianity, however, the same activi- was rooted in a dualism between spirit and flesh in which
ty—once prevalent in Italy, the Rhineland, and Mexico— the body was perceived as evil. The ascetic efforts of the

ENCYCLOPEDIA OF RELIGION, SECOND EDITION


ASCETICISM 529

Theravāda Buddhist are rooted in the dualism between countless ways. The ascetic may overcome the human norm
sam: sāra, bondage in the round of transmigration, and either by abstaining from sex or by making sex a significant
nirvān: a, or liberation. part of his ascetic routine. In “left-handed” Tantrism, for ex-
ample, sexual intercourse affords a ritual procedure—indeed,
Although dualistic traditions, with the exception of Zo-
a technique, which, when coupled with meditation, is used
roastrianism, lend themselves well to ascetic activity, it would
to alter consciousness. The activity is dramatically ascetic, as
be wrong to conclude that asceticism necessarily involves a
no ejaculation is permitted; the semen is withheld or “re-
denigration of this world, the material realm, or the body.
turned” at the last moment. By so returning his semen, the
Although some ascetic traditions are otherworldly, many
Tantric too “goes against the current,” transcending normal
others are not. The Tantric tradition of Hinduism and its
or profane activity.
Buddhist equivalent, the Vajrayāna, are clearly ascetic, em-
ploying various yogic and meditative techniques. Yet the According to almost every religious tradition, ascetics,
worldly realm, including the body and its passions, is not because of their activity, develop magical powers or miracu-
denigrated by them. The body, in fact, is seen as a means to- lous abilities. Although often recognized as an obstacle to
ward salvation, a servant of the spirit requiring nurture, even higher spiritual goals, such reported powers play an impor-
praise. Similarly, those in a Zen or Daoist monastery exhibit tant role at the popular level. Muslim fakirs who walk un-
many ascetic traits, yet are far more inclined to rejoice in and harmed on burning coals, Indian yogins who levitate, Chris-
affirm this world than to reject it. tian saints who miraculously heal, Tibetan lamas who read
minds, Buddhist monks who remember past lives, Chinese
The most complete repudiation of world-rejection may
Daoists who live forever, and primitive shamans who fly—
be found in what the German sociologist Max Weber (1864–
these are but a few examples.
1920) termed “inner-worldly asceticism,” which abandons
specific ascetic activities as well as monastic life to attain sal- The psychology of asceticism. Despite the fact that all
vation in the midst of worldly activity. Although it exists to religions condemn extreme forms of asceticism, pathological
a limited degree in various religions, the most thoroughgoing excesses have appeared in every tradition. Examples are mul-
expression of inner-worldly asceticism appears in the re- tiple, from the recluses who avoid all human contact to the
formed traditions of Protestantism. A disciplined, methodi- individuals who receive ecstatic pleasure from the most aber-
cal, controlled—in short, ascetic—pursuit of one’s vocation rant forms of self-inflicted pain. But despite these aberra-
in the world came to be seen as both service to God and con- tions, it would be misguided to seek the heart of asceticism
firmation of one’s salvation. or its primary psychological impetus in neuroses or psy-
choses. Yogic meditation, Christian monasticism, and Zen
Asceticism and normal behavior. Although the ascetic
technique exemplify the major advances made by asceticism,
need not renounce the world per se, he desires the sacred and
both Eastern and Western, in self-understanding and the ef-
therefore rarely accepts life as it is given. Seeking to transcend
fort to lift repression and make the unconscious conscious.
the normal or the natural, he rejects the given in favor of the
The psychological heart of asceticism seems to lie in a reac-
possible. For this reason the ascetic frequently does the oppo-
tion against the purely theoretical, the doctrinal, or the
site of what human nature or social custom may dictate. In
abstract. Above all, the ascetic wishes to know through
Yoga this practice is explicitly referred to as “going against
experience.
the current.” The yogin does not sit as natural man sits,
breathe as natural man breathes, eat as natural man eats. As- SEE ALSO Fasting; Meditation; Monasticism, article on
cetic behavior not only deviates from the norm, it very fre- Christian Monasticism; Mortification; Mystical Union in
quently seeks an extreme. Viewed cross-culturally, however, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; Ordeal; Samnyasa; Spiritu-
these extremes may be diametrically opposed. The ascetic, al Discipline; Tapas.
for example, may shave his head completely, as do most Bud-
dhist monks; or he may never cut his hair at all, as is the case BIBLIOGRAPHY
with many Hindu holy men. The ascetic may wear very dis- Few works provide a detailed overview of the subject. “Asceti-
tinctive clothing, as does the Roman Catholic priest, or he cism,” an extensive entry in volume 2 of the Encyclopedia of
may wear no clothing at all, as do the “sky-clad” (Digam- Religion and Ethics, edited by James Hastings (Edinburgh,
bara) monks of Jainism. 1909), contains thirteen articles. Although still useful, this
survey is dated, particularly in its methodological approach.
Some ascetics constantly wander, as did Mahavira, the A more readable overview, although also dated and written
founder-reformer of Jainism, who to avoid permanent ties from a clearly Christian perspective, is Oscar Hardman’s The
remained no more than one night in any village. Other ascet- Ideals of Asceticism: An Essay in the Comparative Study of Reli-
ics, however, restrict their movement dramatically, living, as gion (New York, 1924).
did many Christians, in cells so small that they could hardly Many works deal with asceticism in specific religious traditions.
move. The ascetic may also differentiate himself either by re- Outstanding is Mircea Eliade’s Yoga: Immortality and Free-
maining perpetually silent or by chanting and reciting con- dom, 2d ed. (Princeton, 1969), which discusses a wide range
tinually. The ascetic may nurture, cleanse, or purify his body of ascetic practices in India and Tibet. A classic collection of
inordinately, or not only neglect his body but abuse it in information and observation, readable if not always credible,

ENCYCLOPEDIA OF RELIGION, SECOND EDITION


530 ASCLEPIUS

is John Campbell Oman’s The Mystics, Ascetics, and Saints of ASCLEPIUS SEE ASKLEPIOS
India: A Study of Sadhvism (London, 1903). Sukumar Dutt’s
Buddhist Monks and Monasteries of India: Their History and
Their Contribution to Indian Culture (London, 1962) is ex-
cellent, though only one of several related works by the au- ASHEARĪ, AL- (AH 260–324/874–935 CE), more fully
thor. D. T. Suzuki’s The Training of a Zen Buddhist Monk Abū al- H: asan EAlı̄ ibn IsmāE ı̄l ibn Abı̄ Bishr Ish: āq; Muslim
(Kyoto, 1934) is a classic by Zen’s most famous representa- theologian and founder of the tradition of Muslim theology
tive in the West. For the Christian tradition, Walter Nigg’s known as AshEarı̄yah. He is commonly referred to by his fol-
Vom Geheimnis der Mönche (Zurich, 1953), translated by
lowers as the Master, Abū al-H: asan, and he is sometimes re-
Mary Ilford as Warriors of God (New York, 1959), is a very
readable, often insightful account of the ascetic saints, partic- ferred to by his opponents as Ibn Abı̄ Bishr.
ularly those who founded religious orders. Owen Chadwick, LIFE AND WORKS. Very little is known concerning
in Western Asceticism (London, 1958), has selected and ed- al-AshEarı̄’s life. He was for some time an adherent of the
ited a collection of very useful primary source materials also MuEtazilı̄ school and a disciple of al-JubbāD ı̄ (d. 915), but at
representative of the Roman Catholic tradition. The various some point, probably prior to 909, he rejected the teachings
essays by Max Weber on the social psychology of asceticism, of the MuEtazilah in favor of the more conservative dogma
translated and edited by Hans H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills of the traditionalists (ahl al-h: adı̄th). He renounced the
in From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (Oxford, 1958), are
MuEtazilah publicly during the Friday prayer service in the
pioneering and perceptive. J. Moussaieff Masson’s “The Psy-
chology of the Ascetic,” Journal of Asian Studies 35 (August congregational mosque of Basra and thereafter wrote exten-
1976): 611–625, is a one-sided but interesting article that sively against the doctrines of his erstwhile fellows and in de-
sees the ascetic as essentially psychotic. fense of his new position, for which he had become quite well
known by 912/3. Sometime later he moved to Baghdad,
New Sources
where he remained until the end of his life.
Bianchi, Ugo. “Askese. 1. Religionsgeschichtlich.” In Lexikon für
Theologie und Kirche, vol. 1. Freiburg, Germany, 1994, Some hundred works are attributed to al-AshEarı̄ in the
pp. 1074–1077. medieval sources (see McCarthy, 1953, pp. 211–230), of
Bianchi, Ugo (ed.). La tradizione dell’enkrateia. Motivazioni on- which no more than the following six seem to have survived:
tologiche e protologiche. Rome, 1985. A collection of seminal
studies on ascetic doctrines and practices in Early Christiani-
(1) Maqālāt al-Islāmı̄yı̄n (Theological Opinions of the
ty and its environment, including an introduction important Muslims) is a lengthy work setting forth the diverse
from the methodological point of view. opinions of Muslim religious thinkers; its two separate
(and largely repetitious) parts likely represent two origi-
Brown, Peter. The Body and Society. Men, Women, and Sexual Re-
nunciation in Early Christianity. New York, 1988. An im-
nally distinct works, the first of which may have been
mensely learned book ranging over six centuries of Mediter- substantially complete prior to al-AshEarı̄’s conversion.
ranean history and based on a clear anthropological vision. (2) His Risālah ilā ahl al-thaghr bi-Bāb al-Abwāb (Epistle
Very full bibliography of primary and secondary sources. to the People of the Frontier at Bāb al-Abwāb [Dar-
Bynum, Caroline Walker. Holy Feast and Holy Fast. The Religious band]) is a brief compendium of his teachings, com-
Significance of Food to Medieval Women. Berkeley and Los posed shortly after his conversion.
Angeles, 1987. Innovative.
(3) Al-luma E (The Concise Remarks) is a short, general
Cantalamessa, Raniero, ed. Etica sessuale e matrimonio nel crist-
ianesimo delle origini. Milano, 1976.
compendium or summa that was evidently the most
popular, if not the most important, of al-AshEarı̄’s theo-
Clark, Elisabeth A. Ascetic Piety and Women’s Faith. Essays on Late logical writings; commentaries were written on the
Ancient Christianity. New York and Toronto, 1986. A collec-
Luma E by al-Bāqillānı̄ (d. 1013) and Ibn Fūrak
tion of ground-breaking essays by a prominent scholar of
Christian asceticism. (d. 1015) and a refutation of it, Naqd al-Luma E (Cri-
tique of the Concise Remarks), by the MuEtazili qād: i
Fischer, Klaus. Erotik und Askese. Cologne, Germany, 1979. Erot- (“judge”) Abd al-Jabbār al-Hamadānı̄ (d. 1024). The
ic scenarios in Indian religious art as forms of asceticism.
evidence of direct citations of the Luma E made by
Rousselle, Aline. Porneia. De la maîtrise du corps à la privation sen- al-AshEarı̄’s followers seems to indicate that there were
sorielle. Paris, 1983. A pioneering research. originally two recensions of the work, of which the one
Verardi, Giovanni. “The Buddhists, the Gnostics and the Anti- available at present is the shorter.
nomistic Society, or the Arabian Sea in the First-Second
Century AD.” Annali Istituto Orientale Napoli 57 (1997): (4) Al-ı̄mān (Belief) is a short work on the nature of belief.
323–346. A very stimulating comparison between Gnostic (5) Al-ibānah Ean us: ūl al-diyānah (The Clear Statement on
and Buddhist ascetic models. the Fundamental Elements of the Faith) is a polemical
Vööbus, Arthur. A History of Asceticism in the Syrian Orient. Lou- and apologetic exposition of basic dogma, ostensibly
vain, 1958. The basic reference work. written against the MuEtazilah and the followers of Jahm
WALTER O. KAELBER (1987) ibn S: afwān (d. 745), but its formally traditionalist style
Revised Bibliography suggests that this work was composed as a kind of apolo-

ENCYCLOPEDIA OF RELIGION, SECOND EDITION