Friday, November 09, 2012
Many years ago, when I wrote A Practical Guide to Qabalistic Symbolism the sources for my material were my immediate predecessors, that is to say Dion Fortune and senior members of the Society of the Inner Light over the years. Back beyond them was published work by Israel Regardie and the pioneers of the Golden Dawn tradition since its inception in 1888, such as MacGregor Mathers, A.E.Waite, Dr Wynn Westcott, and the notorious if knowledgeable Aleister Crowley.
It was not until I showed a copy of my book to a clerical friend, the Rev. Anthony Duncan, that I was somewhat disconcerted when, fired with enthusiasm, he went back to earlier sources as expressed in Professor Gershom Scholem’s classic work Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism.
This did not augur too well in light of Professor Scholem’s views on modern occultism, as expressed right from the start: “From the brilliant misunderstandings and misrepresentations of Alphonse Louis Constant, who has won fame under the pseudonym of Eliphas Levi, to the highly coloured humbug of Aleister Crowley and his followers, the most eccentric and fantastic statements have been produced purporting to be legitimate interpretations of Kabbalism. The time has come to reclaim this derelict area and to apply to it the strict standards of historical research.”
He did however have grudging appreciation for A.E.Waite whose The Secret Doctrine in Israel (later incorporated into his The Holy Kabbalah) he conceded did represent a serious attempt to analyse the symbolism of the Zohar – although marred by a sloppy grasp on facts of history and philology and, through being ignorant of Hebrew and Aramaic, unable to study the texts in the original.
The Zohar, or Book of Splendour, is the medieval book from which our familiar diagram of the Tree of Life springs. Written by a Spanish Jew, Moses de Leon, between about 1275 and 1305, it is extremely long, about 2400 pages in the original, only half of which are included in the standard five volume English translation.
It is a rambling story about an ancient holy man, Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai, wandering about Palestine in the 1st and 2nd centuries, conversing with his relations, friends and disciples about holy things – seeking direct knowledge of God through the holy books of the Torah – the first five books of our Old Testament.
As they considered the Torah to be, not only the word of God, but written in the language which God spoke, they were happy to take any sentence, phrase or even word as a starting point to weave the most bizarre sounding mystical speculations. Several pages are devoted simply to the first word of the holy text: Berashith – usually translated in our Bible as “in the beginning”. As Professor Scholem states, under the touch of Moses de Leon the most unpretentious verses of Scripture could acquire a most unexpected meaning.
But whatever may have seemed divine revelation to Moses de Leon I must confess has been impenetrable to me. Largely because there is a fundamental difference between the aims and assumptions of medieval Jewish Qabalists and those of modern Gentile occultists.
Yet despite Professor Scholem’s disapproval we should not be browbeaten into thinking that our Qabalistic house has been built on shifting sand. It is simply a case of having been built on a different part of the beach! And is solid enough in its own right. One man’s chalk is another man’s cheese – and vice versa.
Most occultists are not mystics, if we define the word mystic to mean one who seeks direct experience of, even divine identification with, God. As my mystical friend Anthony Duncan observed, most occultists are not seeking direct experience of the Creator, but rather knowledge and experience of what He has created. What we like to call the Inner Planes, the psychic and intuitive “nuts and bolts”of Creation, which is not far away from what some psychologists call the Collective Unconscious, or some occultists the Astral Light.
We prefer to seek how best to live and work in the City of God rather than take tea with the Architect. As characters on a Universal Stage we are seeking to learn our lines and play our parts as best we can, rather than interview the Playwright. (Even if the Playwright did, in Christian belief, provide a role for Himself – and a somewhat unpleasant if charitable one – in the event of the Divine Incarnation.)
From this closer definition of terms it could be argued that Dion Fortune’s “Mystical Qabalah” might have been better named. For it is Moses de Leon and his friends who are exponents of the Mystical Qabalah. Dion Fortune’s line of expertise might more accurately be termed the Philosophical, Psychological or even Magical Qabalah.
So it appears that Qabalistic mystics and occultists are playing a different game on the same pitch, marked out with the lines of the Tree of Life. And as far as Professor Scholem’s views are concerned, there is no reason to concede that we don’t know the rules. We are simply playing to different ones.
But it may be worth taking a brief look back through history to see just how and when the pitch was marked out. In which case three big names come to mind Abraham Abulafia, Moses de Leon and Isaac Luria. Not that, as in our own day, there were not umpteen small groups, each with their own agenda, doing their own thing. There are different facets to ancient Jewish Mystical Tradition as there are to the modern Western Mystery Tradition.
If we trace Qabalistic tradition back far enough back we find ourselves in Old Testament territory with visions such as that of Ezekiel. From such, Merkabah mysticism was derived, that is to say visions of the Throne of God, which, if regarded as mobile, could also become the Chariot of God. We have reflections of that today, at some considerable cultural remove, in the Tarot Trump of the Chariot and of a selection of other throned figures – Emperor, Empress, Hierophant, High Priestess, and the balancing figure of Justice.
Later the Qabalistic mystics turned to old esoteric literature, such as the Book of Enoch and descriptions of the hekhaloth (palaces or heavenly halls) through which the mystic must pass on the way to the Throne of Divine Glory. One interesting aspect of this that gels with modern esoteric experience, after the manner of R J Stewart’s UnderWorld Initiation, is that in almost all the later writings the visionary journey is called a “descent” rather than an ascent. But whatever the direction of journey, there is a parallel between this Jewish vision and the beliefs of the early Gnostics. The idea of the seven heavens through which the soul returns to its original home, either after death or in a state of ecstasy, is certainly very old and possibly universal.
After about 1200 A.D. Qabalists began to emerge as a distinct group in Jewish culture with considerable prominence in parts of Spain and southern France. An important figure to emerge was Abraham Abalufia (a kind of proto Christian Rosencreutz) born in Saragossa in 1240, who left home at the age of 20 and travelled through Syria and Palestine until, then as now, warlike disturbances drove him back to Europe to spend a wandering life expounding his doctrines. He was so convinced of the truth of these, that like Pico della Mirandola, a Christian Qabalist of a later age, he sought an audience with the Pope. As with Pico this almost cost him his life but he survived to continue wandering and writing prophetic works until disappearing from the scene in about 1291.
According to Abraham Abalufia, the only reliable guide was to be found in the Sepher Yetzirah, or Book of Formation, into the secrets of which he claimed to have been initiated. This is probably the oldest book of Qabalah, from the 1st or 2nd century A.D., thus pre-dating the Zohar and Abulafia himself by about a thousand years. Modern students of the Qabalah will be familiar with it through the Yetziratic Texts which are assigned to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and thence to the Paths and Spheres of the Tree of Life. They are considerably obscure, rather of the nature of works such as The Cosmic Doctrine that claim “to train the mind rather than to inform it”. And things not terribly helped by the existence of different translations, some of them via Latin on the way.
But if Hebrew is the language of God, then the Hebrew alphabet can, according to the Sepher Yetzirah, be seen to delineate symbolically the world of His creation. The 22 letters divide up into three types, 3 Mother letters, 7 Double letters, and 12 Single letters, which even on the most superficial reading provides us with the traditional Triune God, 7 planetary spheres, and the 12 zodiacal signs. However, rather than venturing into celestial spherical geometry after the fashion of The Cosmic Doctrine, the symbolic structure of the Sepher Yetzirah or Book of Formation is based upon the Cube of Space.
A cube is a figure with six faces, windows upon the four cardinal directions, plus the above and the below – and a point in the very centre – to which system the seven Double letters can be allocated. (A cube also happens to have twelve edges, to which can be allocated the twelve Single letters, a zodiacal framework to the planetary planes, but we will not over-complicate at this stage).
It is better at first to conceive the Cube floating in space. A space that can be described as an infinite sphere separated out from the Body of God, in order for creation to take place. (This formation of a Cosmic Space in which Creation could be formed, was a conception of a later Jewish Qabalist, Isaac Luria, in a doctrine known as the tsim-tsum, which is theologically important to bear in mind as it prevents us from falling into pantheism, and assuming that God and the Universe are one and the same.)
The sphere has what R.J.Stewart, in a slightly different set-up, has described as two “sensitive points”, one above and one below, which in our system link the Sphere to its Creator. In the Hebrew alphabet these two sensitive points are allocated to Aleph above, and Shin below, with Mem making up the space within the sphere.
In Qabalistic letter symbolism Aleph corresponds to Air, Mem to Water, and Shin to Fire. These are Cosmic rather than Elemental elements. Air (Aleph) relates to the breath of the Holy Spirit upon the waters (Mem) of creation, with the whole thing sustained by cosmic fire (Shin).
I do not propose to enter into any detailed description of the Cube, apart from the six sides and the seventh central point. Relevant diagrams can be found in the Upper Room chapter of my book Experience of the Inner Worlds. Suffice to say that if we regard our Upper Room, or magical Temple, or Dr Who-type Tardis vehicle, in Hebrew alphabetic terms, we will have Daleth in the East, Resh in the South, Kaph in the West, Peh in the North, Beth above and Gimel below, with Tau in the centre.
Now the Jews had their own names and images for each of the letters, but in the interests of modern magical practice and speculation I propose to take a leaf from Eliphas Levi’s book, and provide Tarot Trump images for each of them – with the exception that I shall use the Golden Dawn system rather than the one that Levi proposed in his published works.
So if we look up our tables of correspondence we can see ourselves going into a temple in which we find facing us in the East the fruitful life giving figure of the Empress, with to the South the beneficent figure of the Sun, in the West the figure of Fortuna turning her wheel of fate and destiny, and in the North the Lightning Struck Tower. Above us looking down is the figure of the Magician, overseeing all, and beneath us the powers of the High Priestess, while in the centre point is the dancing hermaphroditic figure of the Universe.
I have found this a structure well worth visualising and meditating upon, and I welcome others to try the same, if they have the time and inclination. To my mind, sitting in the West places you with the background of life in the world, (Fortuna), with the bright powers of nature before you in the East, (Empress), with warmth and light to the South (Sun) and darkness and wisdom to the North (the Tower, which I like to see illustrating divine light, power and wisdom striking down to break up old forms against a dark background of the night sky, with stars). You need to feel fairly free to create your own realisations and realities in this kind of temple work.
This is simply a beginning. The whole thing can be further fine tuned by taking account of the images allocated to the four edges that surround each directional face. But this is by no means essential, and it is best to start with the simple structure, and then see where it leads you. Using such a method as this should instruct you and give practice in formulating your own more cosmic interpretation of the archetypal Tarot images and Temple directions and power points.
Extending the method to the Cosmic Sphere that encompasses the Cube (a question of “sphere-ing the cube” rather than the traditional two-dimensional “squaring the circle”) in the Cosmic Above we have the Fool – as the representative of God Transcendent contemplating the work of creation – and below, the Last Judgement which speaks of the Last Days when God ends the creation in time and space as we know it and draws it back into the Uncreate Limitless Light – whilst within the Sphere is the principle of God Immanent (as opposed to Transcendent) in the archetype of the Hanged Man.
Within the Cosmic Sphere is our Magical Temple which has its own traditional dynamics of time and directions in space. The proof of any pudding is in the eating rather than recipe, and a lot depends upon the individual who is doing the cooking, so I will say now more, but leave it to individuals to try their own orientation in the Cube along the lines of traditional Tarot Trump images
East – Empress
South - Sun
West - Fortuna
North - Tower
Above - Magician
Below - Priestess
Centre - Universe
South-East – Hierophant
South-West - Justice
North-West - Death
North-East - Emperor
East-Above - Lovers
East-Below - Chariot
South-Above - Star
South-Below - Moon
West-Above – Temperance
West-Below – Devil
North-Above – Strength
North-Below – Hermit
Sphere Upper Divine Point – Fool
Sphere Lower Divine Point - Last Judgment
Sphere Inner Creative Space - Hanged Man
[This article appeared in LYRA - Avalon Group Journal - Samhain 2012
Posted by Gareth Knight at 12:29 am