Hamann, Essay of a Sibyl on MarriageIn the first of a two-part series, I will discuss Johann Georg Hamann’s Essay of a Sibyl on Marriage (1775) and his theology of sexual holiness.

Wedding gifts run the gamut from fine china to kitchen appliances, from cheese domes to French presses. I am not sure what one gets someone in eighteenth–century Prussia, but what Johann Georg Hamann gifted Johann Friedrich Hartknoch is as good as any. In the early hours of August 26, 1774 Hamann was awaken by Hartknoch and his bride, Albertine Toussaint. Overjoyed by their visit and recent good news, Hamann welcomed his guests with a promise of an essay to commemorate their nuptials.

Such a gesture was fitting for Hartknoch. Not only were the pair good friends, but Hartknoch was Hamann’s long serving publisher. Hamann spent the following months writing his wedding gift. Completing the project by Christmas, Hamann sent his Essay of a Sibyl on Marriage (1775) to Hartknoch for publication.

Using contemporary works on marriage, such as Theodoer Gottlieb von Hippel’s Über die Ehe” (1774; On Marriage), Hamann penned his essay from the perspective of a sibyl. The sibyl addresses Hartknoch and Toussaint, but the reader is given access to her speech. She encourages the “blissful bridal pair” to “open for the magical crafts of harmony,” for she brings a prophetic word that the “teaching be wondrous, as love, and mysterious, as marriage.”[1]

Behind the voice of the sibyl lies an exegesis of Genesis 1 and 2. Being the main text for his essay, Hamann draws on the creation narrative of man and woman to counter both moralism and sexual liberation. Against the cultural moralism that marginalizes sexuality for the sake of holiness, Hamann argues that holiness is awakened by sexuality or Eros. However, Eros is not sexual liberation. Rather, Eros is defined by three aspects: divine love, being created in God’s image, and the institution of marriage.

God and Eros

Whether one believers that Valentine’s Day best serves holiday card companies or not, it is quite common in early February to be inundated with images of a pensive Cupid looking on a pair of lovebirds or with a drawn bow ready to strike his next victim of love. Depictions vary from cartoon illustrations to classical Greek regality and most commonly as the Hellenized portly boy. Modern representations aside, it is this “little pensive god of love” which serves as the entry point to Hamann’s discussion of God and sexual holiness.[2]

The sibyl proudly identifies the presence of cupid in the tender moments of the bridal pair. The god of love, representative of Eros, is the esteemed guest. While others may treat Eros as the weird uncle, or merely tolerate its presence out of family obligation, Hamann addresses Eros as patron. Opposed to moralism’s marginalization, Eros is restored to the table of honor. At the head of the table, Eros is no longer treated as an inferior love.

Not only is Eros properly revered but also seated in the correct section. Walking into the chapel one is asked “bride or groom.” We answer “bride” and are ushered to the left, or, “groom” and are invited to sit on the right. The inattentive usher will lead the guest to an arbitrary side regardless of his or her affiliation. For Hamann, the mistaken seating of Eros is not a question of bride or groom, but of the world or of God. Eros does not belong to the world. Nor does Eros originate in the postlapsarian world. Eros belongs to God.

In Hamann’s taking back of Eros for God, he combines the pensive god of love and the God who “took counsel with himself over the masterpiece of his work.”[3] Gwen Griffith Dickson states that Hamann is, “integrating the two notions of love, or concepts of the ‘god of love’ – introducing the overtly erotic and sexual aspect governed by Eros into the concept of the Christian God of love.”[4] Dickson seems to have reversed the natural order. Hamann is not stating that Eros is brought into divine love or that Eros originates with humanity. According to Hamann, the love between the bridal pair is not exclusive to the two. Rather, this love “always belongs to it from before.”[5]

The love from before is not the early stages of love or the stereotypical “honeymoon period” when everything pales in comparison to being with the one you love. Rather, the love from the beginning is the original love of God. The Trinity serves as the original love from which all subsequent love, such as Eros, should be defined by. In other words, the origin of Eros is not the coming together of two; it is the togetherness or the unity of the Three. Before creation, love existed within the Trinity and this love serves as the root of all love. Hence, sexual love or sexual holiness is contingent upon a greater love, a divine love.

Hamann is not claiming that God partakes in Eros. Such a notion would be flagrant anthropomorphism. His point is that Eros becomes distorted when we separate it from God. True understanding, appreciation, and execution of Eros is only possible when maintaining the organic relationship between sexuality and sexual holiness with the God of love. The defining factor in Eros is not the bridal pair or human sexuality, or even sexual purity; it is the original love of the Trinity.

Not only does Eros find its origin in divine love, but it is the same love which created the world. The seemingly “world of trifles” occupy the love-struck pair.[6] Days are spent in what others can only smile upon as the nature of newfound love. However, it is only those in the midst of this love who can truly see the merit of these cherished moments. This world of trifles is quite literal for God. Hence, God, in love for humanity, spends a week of trifles in creation of the world.

The majesty of creation may obscure its true nature. According to Hamann, creation is mere trifles for the omnipotent God. We see the heights of the mountains and the depth of the sea and immediately think of how powerful God is. However, for Hamann, creation is not a demonstration of might but of humility. Elsewhere he writes of a Trinitarian understanding of divine condescension.

How has God the Father humbled himself when he not only formed a lump of clay, but even enlivened it with His breath? How has God the Son humbled himself! He became a man, the most humble of men, He took the form of a servant, He became the most unfortunate of men, He was made sin for us. In the eyes of God He was the sinner of the all men. How has God the Holy Spirit humbled himself when He became a historian of the smallest, the contemptible, and most insignificant events on earth in order to reveal to men in their own language, in their own history, in their own ways the counsels, the mysteries, and the ways of the Godhead?[7]

The omnipotent wholly Other stooped to the creation of a material world. What God accomplished in a week he could just as easily done an infinite times over with a snap of the fingers. So, why would God involve himself in such trifles as creation? In a word, love. The extent of God’s condescension is matched by the depth of his love, which contains a creative element. Only those in love appreciate such trifles.


[1] Johann Georg Hamann, Sämtliche Werke, 6 vols., ed. Josef Nadler (Vienna: Herder, 1949-57), III, 199. Henceforth N. All translations from N are of my own. A translation can be found in Gwen Griffith Dickson, Johann Georg Hamann’s Relational Metacriticism (Berlin: W. de Gruyter, 1995).

[2] N III, 199.

[3] N III, 199.

[4] Gwen Griffith Dickson, Johann Georg Hamann’s Relational Metacriticism (Berlin: W. de Gruyter, 1995), 251.

[5] N III, 199.

[6] N III, 199.

[7] N I, 91.

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