Alfred Gutiérrez-Kavanagh – Professor of  RRII (Oriente Medio), UPC – Madrid

SummaryCoinciding with our seventh Iranology congress, I have considered that it would be an appropriate forum to reflect on the concept of “seven” in the cultures of the Middle East, not so much from a merely numerological or symbolic perspective, but more rooted in the Archaeology of knowledge that Foucault advocated. Septenary structures as matrices that allow knowledge to be conveyed.

KeywordsHeptadic – theatre of memory – gnoseology – mnemonics.

At the dawn of civilization, the Sumerians used to refer to the seven heavens and the seven earths – “an imin-bi ki-imin-bi”. Let us remember that Anu was the supreme god of the heavens in the Sumerian pantheon and Enki or Ea the god of the earth and the primordial waters. The fact outside of time that sets up the first theological reflections is the separation of earth and sky, the primordial fissure that initiates a theophanic unfolding structured around septenary cycles.

In the Avestan religion and particularly in Zoroastrianism, which, as the Archbishop of Vienna, Frank König, pointed out in a work on the origins of monotheistic religions, constitutes the foundation of the soteriological conceptions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, the supreme divinity is intelligible across the Amesha Spenta, the seven beneficent emanations of Ahura Mazda. Among the oldest and most sacred liturgical texts of the Avestan canon we find the Yashna Haptanhaiti, the worship of the seven creations.

Herodotus echoes this tradition in numerous passages of his Histories, “when a Mede usurped power, he was overthrown by seven Persians of high lineage” (Herodotus, 3.70-83), after an omen constituted by the flight of seven eagles. The Persian king of kings is always advised by six magnates who ensure the integrity of the kingdom. The historian and hierophant Eunapio de Sardes points out that there were seven altogether with Darius who rebelled against the tyranny of the magicians. This phenomenon is repeated centuries later, Arsaces rebelled against the Macedonians with a group of seven paladins, as is the case with the story of the flight of Kavad I to the court of the Hephtali Huns with haft-mard. In one of the first projects of utopian socialism in Iranian history, Mazdak was assisted by seven viziers. The Safavis who were skillful builders of the theologic-political power symbolism of a Shiite empire in the Middle East, were accompanied by seven Sufis in the great state ceremonies, and seven prudent men guarded the crown of Shah Ismail I when he passed away so that the kingdom did not fall into the hands of a traitor and seven were the traitors who assassinated Soltân-Mohammad Khodâ-bandeh, plunging the Safavid empire into chaos.

The Judeo-Christian and Islamic tradition is structured around the seven, (six days of creation and one of rest), seven pillars of wisdom, the secrets guarded under seven seals, the seven skies of the Kabbalah, the seven archangels who are permanently in the service of God, the seven sleepers of Ephesus, the seven verses of the Al Fātiha, the first azora of the Qur’an, the mi’raj or journey of the prophet to the seventh heaven where the lotus of the limit is found (sidrat al-muntihah), seven pilgrim turns around the Kaaba, the seven heavens of spiritual ascension for the Shiites, and the seventy-year cycles

  1. Rafi ‘(رفیع)
  2. Qaydum (قیدوم)
  3. Marum (ماروم)
  4. Arfalun (أرفلون)
  5. Hay’oun (هيعون)
  6. Arous (عروس)
  7. Ajma ‘(عجماء)

Although in the vast Indo-European cultural arc, the number seven also has considerable importance in Vedic rituals, it will be in Iran, and especially from the period of the Medes onwards, when the political-religious structure is organized around a septenary system . The capital of the Medes, Ecbatana was protected by seven walls, each one painted in a different colour, – white – black – violet – blue – orange – silver and gold, the last one next to the centre of power. At that time the powerful geographical notion of haft-aqlim or haft keshvar had already been developed whose powerful symbolism in terms of colours, climates, personality and states of consciousness displays all of its effectiveness in the work of Nezami Ganjavi, Haft Peykar whose argument is the visit by the Persian sovereign Bahrām, known as Bahrām Gur, to the pavilion of each of the seven princesses within the royal complex. In Persian the term Peykār has the meaning of portrait, figuration or form and that is precisely the esoteric argument of the work; initially he discovers seven painted portraits of each one of them in a closed room and his desire to know them in the biblical sense leads him to transcend forms and there is in Nezami a great theory of correspondences around number seven that runs parallel and is possibly influenced by Khorasan Sufism, I bear in mind Najm al Dīn Kobra’s treatises on the seven colours of the heart as guides for progress in mystical initiation.

In the foundational epic of Persian literature, the Shāh Nameh, Rostam fights Afrasiab with his haft-gord, seven companions, although they are really ten, thus reflecting that seven had a deep ritual meaning in Iranian thought, because they can be eight, nine or ten the champions. In the Abbasid caliphate, the most persianized of all, the caliphs were enthroned with the oath of allegiance from royal officials who swore allegiance seven times. Diogenes of Laertius mentions that there was no consensus on the seven sages of Greece, but there were always seven, regardless of whether some were replaced by others. As seven were the speakers of the Spanish constitution, because seven expresses the sum of three and four, the polarity in the totality, the aspiration of the perfect man that constitutes the axis of the work of ‘Aziz al-Dīn Nasafī, in his treatise Al Insān al Kāmil.

As Prof. Ignacio Ferrando points out in an interesting article on the grammarian Sibawayhi and the jamu al-qilla, or the plural of parquedad  or paucal plural, in Semitic languages, it is presented as common and known by the Arabic grammatical tradition. “These are the plurals of objects or animated beings whose number is between three and ten. The concept is perfectly natural (ten are the fingers of the hands) and can be understood without difficulty as the one and only true “plural”, which presents beings conceived as different; hence the syntactic relation or idâfa that rules between the number, which will go in the case that corresponds due to its syntactic function, and the numbered, in the genitive plural. That is what can be described as the plural individuali. From ten onwards, the syntactic relationship is less tight, and is analysed by the Arabic grammatical tradition as tamyíz or specification (that what is numbered goes in the accusative singular, eg: “arba’una milan”), which implies, or, being more precise, that is the consequence of the conception of this plural as a group of objects conceived as equals, that is, a collectivized plural ”. [1]

Seven are the great periods into which Iranian civilization is divided and of the vitality of this conception as an example of its reception in the West and its validity, I point out the universal theatre of knowledge structured around the number seven by Giulio Camillo Delminio (1480-1544) , formulated in a small treatise entitled in Italian L’Idea del Teatro, a physically and mentally executable structure whose uniqueness lies in the fact that the spectator becomes an actor, standing on the stage from where he observes a succession of images arranged in seven tiers, each of which is divided into seven windows or images of the soul.

The novelty of Camillo’s theatre lies in his interest in drawing a genealogy of images that would correspond, in the field of words, with the attempt to arrive at a ur-alphabet, the primordial moment in which the word and the image are indissoluble, [2] expression of the deep structure of things. Interest also, as we will examine, in going beyond an artificial organization of knowledge offered by Porfirio’s trees or mnemonic wheels, using a rhizomatic model, more adapted to our own sensorial perception.

He lived in a hinge period between the first Renaissance and the irruption of the Baroque, a period that, as Ernst Cassirer has pointed out, reveals the influence of men like Marsilio Ficino or Pico della Mirandola who go beyond simple astrological criticism and clearly establish the limit that separates the magical signs of astrology from mathematics and the exact sciences of nature. So, the way to be able to decipher the hieroglyph of nature by means of physical-mathematical symbols: symbols present in the spirit of men, not by the work of foreign external powers, but devised by himself ”. [3]

As the semiologist Stefano Seminara has rightly pointed out, [4] a large number of symbols that surrounds us today, traditionally ascribed to Judeo-Christian iconography, actually come from Mesopotamia. Over the centuries, mainly during the Middle Ages, an adaptation of this symbolic universe to Christian traditions takes place. One of the great contributions of Renaissance humanism was to rethink our symbolic universe and revisit not only Greco-Latin paganism, but also influences from Asia Minor and Egypt on our culture.

Therefore, Camillo’s theatre is a theatre of totality in which every spectator must undertake a path of ascension, or purification, to achieve unity from diversity. Each spectator becomes a magician, because it is not enough to contemplate the beautiful images on the stands or read the texts placed under the seats; it is a must an impulse described in a precious letter “Lettera di Giulio Camillo del Rivolgimento dell’Uomo a Dio” in these terms “And considering that no person can resist the persuasion of beauty, [5] particularly if the currencies of love have seized his heart.” [6]. In that same treatise, Giulio Camillo explains that the three operations of the soul consubstantial with its triple nature are: 1) to produce, 2) to transcend and 3) to reach perfection.

The septenary system adopted by Camillo for his theatre was not a casual choice, because the number seven allowed to express astrological correspondences (the seven planets), of the microcosm (the seven doors of the individual), of the macrocosm (the seven firmaments according to the Kabbalah):

Shamayim or Wilom: heaven

Spine: firmament

Shehaqim: the ether

Zevol: the temple or the lofty house

Ma’on: the foundation or abode

Ma’kon: the interior of the dwelling, andarooni.

Araboth: expansion or land.

Investigations by Scaramuzza, Bolzoni or Vasoli, among others, have revealed Camillo’s relationships with Francesco Zorzi. The latter had a notable role in the dissemination of the Christian Kabbalah as did Francesco Giorgio Veneto, author of the well-known treatise of strong Neoplatonic inspiration, De Harmonia Mundi. In short, the circle of Venice as a crossroads between East and West.

One of the greatest specialists in the art of memory, Frances Yates, who carried out a meticulous investigation of Giulio Camillo’s life trajectory, describes it this way: “in Giulio Camillo’s theatre, the normal function of the theatre has been reversed; there is no audience sitting in the stands watching the drama unfolding on the scene. There is a single spectator in Theatre located on the stage facing the auditorium where he contemplates the images arranged in seven doors and seven ascending tiers. ”

Giulio Camillo’s interactive conception of theatre as one of the antecedents of the computer, literally a digital theatre, also offers interesting parallels with the basic ASCII computer code used by all current computers. In the 1960s, when the foundations of the new discipline known as cybernetics were laid, some companies such as IBM used an eight-digit code, the EBCDIC, for their operating system. The ASCII code, like the basic structure, Camillo’s theatre grid, has seven characters (bits). We could say that at the most basic, archetypal level, the conditions that have allowed the development of hypertextuality are based on the number seven. [7]

We know that this theatre really existed and was financed by a lavish sum of money by the King of France, who showered Giulio Camillo with honours. In one of Viglio’s letters to Erasmus of Rotterdam, he states that “This is a work in wood in which he has placed numerous images arranged everywhere in small boxes located in different orders and degrees. Each figure has a specific place in this theatre and each figure has its own ornamentation (…) ”.

The model, to which only Viglio, Erasmus’s confidant, had access, would function as a pole of knowledge. We do not find in Camillo’s writings not a single consideration about the capacity of the theatre, the length of the tour or its location. Furthermore, if we consider that according to its combinatorial logic, the basic structure of universal knowledge would be a 7 x 7 grid, susceptible to successive sub-divisions into 7 parts, in order to reach the maximum breakdown of any discipline, the theatre’s journey through time would coincide with the life of the viewer. Second, the theatre project is linked to a project of personal significance. The starting point of each viewer on the grid is irrelevant because the output of the system is the knowledge of the One obtained through the recognition of unity in diversity. During his period as a teacher in Bologna (around 1528), he began to outline his project of a compilation of universal knowledge that would take into account the harmony of the human body. “The human body has to be conceived as a microcosm through which it is possible to analogically reach all the elements of the macrocosm, channeling all our thought towards the wonderful fabric of the human body. Process already anticipated in the Heptaplus of Pico della Mirandola.

The French researcher Sylvie Deswarte-Rosa [8] was surprised by the large number of paintings, sketches without a doubt, that Titian had executed for the Theatre project, considering that “il n’y a que quarante-neuf panneaux dans le théâtre de Giulio Camillo, sept fois sept sept étant le numéro de base de tous les calculs de Camillo”. [There are no more than forty-nine panels in Giulio Camillo’s theatre since the basis for all Camillo’s calculations is the product of 7 x 7]. However, we must not forget that each panel can contain more than one image, for example “in Mercury there will be six images: the golden fleece, the atoms, the pyramid, the tied Gordian knot, the same knot undone and, Juno, made out of clouds. ”[9]

During my research at the Marciana library, I was able to access several unpublished manuscripts by Giulio Camillo, where one can appreciate his deep conviction in the correspondence of universal knowledge. It is the permanent rediscovery of the East in the West and vice versa that justifies the existence of international congresses on Iranology studies what allow us to account for this interaction and follow the percussive symbols of our culture in its numerous migrations and transformations to unmask the false historical and ideological discourses on civilizing achievements.


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