I am named after a character in the biblical apocrypha.
From the Greek word apókruphos, meaning hidden and esoteric, apocrypha is also the root of the word cryptic. The apocrypha are a collection of ancient stories found in some editions of the bible that were banned for being too subversive or heretical. They contain stories of powerful women, great sorceries, rebels and revelations, and it isn’t difficult to see why they were gradually dispensed with over time. Back to my name. I have four, in fact. The first, in its full scriptural glory, is scarcely uttered by anyone who knows me. My second name is the generic shortened version of the first, and is used by my family, colleagues and a smattering of friends. The third is an even shorter version of the second and is used by most of my friends. The fourth is a literary alias, and no one calls me that offline. Then I have a gazillion nicknames.
I have always had an uneasy relationship with my name. In my teens I changed my name to that of a legendary dead rock star and went by that name for the next 10 years. Mercifully, I realised how stupid it sounded and discarded it in my mid-20s around the time I quit the music business, which felt like a double death. But I’d never felt more liberated.
Yesterday I found myself in a strange predicament. I had to introduce myself, and wasn’t quite sure what name to use. My full apocryphal namesake is a no-go; I may as well introduce myself as Wilhelmina, it holds the same resonance. The second version is my least favourite of the lot, which goes some way in explaining how the third came into being. So I defaulted to the third and was immediately filled with such pitiless self-reproach that it chilled me. I am convinced that the depth of alienation I often experience is directly linked to this. And indeed, in many mystical traditions, a person’s name holds formidable magics and is often the key to one’s fate.
So I can’t help but wonder, has my dislike for own my name resulted in bad vibes?
From thoughts of the seductive apocryphal heroine, after whom I am named, my thoughts turned to other books of the apocrypha. It is entirely possible that I have studied these stories with far greater relish and tenacity than the main canonical texts. My favourite is the Testament of Solomon. King of the United Kingdom of Israel and Judah, master magician and wise law-giver. One of the great patriarchs of the Western Mystery Tradition, it is no coincidence that Solomon’s legendary magical prowess inaugurated an aeon of scholarship and renaissance in esoteric thought.
As the story goes, around 30 AD, a crowd gathered in a small village in the Roman province of Judea. They witnessed a miracle. But as the story is told in the Gospel of Luke, some of the people watching were frightened. They accused the healer of casting out demons in the name of Beelzebub. They demanded a sign, some proof that this work was done in the name of God, and not the devil. Their suspicion provoked a rebuke from the healer, Jesus of Nazareth. Then Jesus made a startling claim; he compared his own power to that of King Solomon. But what did the king of the Old Testament have to do with the expulsion of demons? It is possible that Jesus was referring to a story that is not told in the bible, but appears in a different text, the Testament of Solomon. In this, Solomon was characterised as not only the wisest of men, but as a master of demons. Jesus was making an oblique reference to a story that was already well-known in ancient Judea and which apparently people accepted as truth.
The Testament of Solomon was written in the first person; in it the king relates his vision of an army of demons. “There came before me 36 spirits with faces of asses, faces of oxen, and faces of birds. I wondered, and I asked them: ‘Who are you?’” (Testament of Solomon, 72). Could Jesus, who was said to have argued scripture with the temple rabbis at the age of twelve, have had access to different sacred stories other than those we read in the Old Testament today? The Hebrew Bible, which Christians call the Old Testament, is divided into three distinct parts. Though two parts were already well-established by the time of Jesus, the third was still in flux. Writings, considered sacred but less integral than the other two sections, changed most over the years and would not be judged final until long after the Crucifixion. So while there were not “alternative bibles” there were most certainly bibles with alternative versions of Writings. We know this from Greek remnants that have come down to us, sections that were translated in late antiquity as part of the bible but did not make the final cut, and from the Dead Sea Scrolls. These were stories that people once accepted as part of the biblical canon. So what did they know about Solomon whom Jesus enigmatically alluded to during the exorcism in Luke’s gospel?
Solomon was a man of immense wisdom. His wisdom was said to contain and eclipse that of the people of the East, the Chaldeans, and the wisdom of the Egyptians. His acumen included languages, sciences, magic, alchemy and necromancy. Copies of the Testament of Solomon, written in Aramaic and Greek, and preserved by the Greek Orthodox Church, have been found in archives in France, England, Greece and Israel. The fact that they all date from the 15th and 16th centuries led some to assume that they were of that time, but scholars working on the texts in the early 20th century suspected they were much older. Their suspicions were confirmed in 1945, when an Egyptian farmer made an astonishing discovery near the Dead Sea. Buried in the earth, he found manuscripts stored in clay jars, unseen for over 1600 years. The Dead Sea Scrolls (below) date from the 2nd century AD and contain passages outlined in the Testament of Solomon. The text gives a very different account of Solomon than the one found in the bible. Critically, it describes his other great accomplishment, the building of the Temple in Jerusalem.
Solomon is not only the archetypal wise man but a magician and conjurer, and the Temple is built through supernatural agency. Solomon explains that he was given a ring of great power by the archangel Michael; “With it thou shalt lock up all demons of the earth, and with their help thou shalt build up Jerusalem” (Testament of Solomon, 5). The Tolkien imagery is obvious (“One ring to rule them all…”). Using the ring, Solomon summons up Beelzebub himself in order to enslave a host of demons. The idea is that one can tap into dark forces and use them for the greater good, even to petition evil to work for you. Hardly revolutionary thought to our minds, but the Testament of Solomon is the first narrative in existence to introduce this philosophy. It certainly explains where Marlowe, Goethe and Tolkien got their inspiration from. And indeed, how does Jesus heal the possessed demoniac? By placing a ring upon his forehead, after which he drew out the demon. The tradition described in the Testament of Solomon was part of an established ancient Jewish rite of exorcism; does that explain why Jesus mentioned Solomon’s name as he cast out demons? If the Testament of Solomon was once part of Jewish tradition, those texts have since been lost. But in the Middle Ages, this saga of sorcery was popular with Christians.
There is a tension within Judaism between the rationalistic elements of the tradition, those which follow law, reason and common sense, and the more fantastic elements. Not just angels and demons but the supernatural powers of prayer. Perhaps this is the explanation for why the Testament of Solomon was discarded by mainstream Judaic scripture, and eventually by Christians. As for my own apocrypha, for now I oath to continue growing and be honest with myself.