Towards a Greek Kabbalah: Why the Alexandrian Tree Isn’t Really a Thing

So, let’s clear up some naming terminology before we continue this thread of thought.  Because there are different traditions of qabbalah depending on religion, I’m going to differentiate between them all using the following spellings:

  • Kabbalah (with “k”): Jewish
  • Qabbalah (with “q”): Hermetic
  • Cabala (with “c”): Christian
  • Kampala (with “k” but “mp” instead of “b”): my new Greek framework

Alright.  If I want to end up with what’s effectively a Greek kabbalah, the system of kampala is going to need to fulfill several requirements:

  1. Provide a cosmological framework that allows for the ten spheres of the cosmos (Earth, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Fixed Stars, Divinity)
  2. Provide a cosmological map that allows for traversing the spheres of the cosmos with paths that connect them together
  3. Provide a mapping between the paths of the map with the 24 letters of the Greek alphabet
  4. Provide a means of starting from awareness on the Earth sphere (where the majority of us live and operate on a day-to-day basis) and reaching any other sphere by means of the paths, especially that of Divinity
  5. Provide a description of the creation of the cosmos by means of the cosmological framework and mapping
  6. Provide a means of correspondence to link other forces, concepts, objects, etc. to the paths and spheres on the framework and map
  7. Be rooted primarily in Neoplatonic and Pythagorean thought, referencing Hermeticism as necessary without relying on explicitly Jewish principles that are not also present in Hermeticism

I’m sure there will be other requirements as we come along, but so far, so good.

The whole business with wanting to work with a Greek kabbalah started when I found the Rosicrucian Archives site, which contains a series of posts describing a Greek kabbalah with a Tree of Life with 24 paths.  The spheres themselves are the same as those of the sephiroth on the Jewish Tree, just with their names in Greek.  Most of the paths are the same as on the standard Hermetic qabbalah tree, except that two paths were removed (between spheres 2/6 and 3/6) and four paths were added (between spheres 3/4, 2/5, 1/5, and 1/4).  The paths were numbered in a different way than the Golden Dawn did with their Kircher tree, with the first letter of the Greek alphabet Alpha being assigned to the path between spheres 9/10 and working upward from there.  The picture they use is highly similar to the one given in Stephen Flowers’ Hermetic Magic: The Postmodern Papyrus of Abaris, where he gives the image as “the form of the Kabbalistic ‘Tree of Life’ as it might have been framed by the Hellenistic cosmologists” when giving an overview of Neoplatonic cosmology.  Both trees are presented below; the paths are the same, as far as I can tell, while the names differ slightly for the spheres.

It’s an interesting Tree, and the analysis the Rosicrucian Archives gives to describe the internal logic of the Tree is a fascinating read, though with a sometimes purposely obtuse and obnoxiously mysterious style.  They also use the same stoicheic associations I do when assigning the Greek letters to the planets, elements, and Zodiac signs, which is a nice addition, and make use of those distinctions an important part in their analysis.  As might be expected from a Rosicrucian organization, the analysis is steeped in Christian theology, which is appropriate and not that much a stretch; after all, if Hebrew is the language of the Jews, Greek can arguably be said to be the language of the early Christians, especially since that’s the original script of the New Testament.  Stephen Flowers, on the other hand, leaves much more wanting when it comes to describing the Tree and kabbalah generally; he claims that “it has long been suspected that the cosmology of the Hebrew Kabbalah—as outlined in the Sefer Yetzirah and the Zohar—was based on a now lost Greek original”.  Mentally, I’m just throwing in [citation needed] tags all over his book nowadays, though it was useful to get started with as a basic, though fanciful, primer.  He claims that the “restored [Neoplatonic kabbalah] is based on simple principles using the classic cosmological pattern inherited by the Hebrew Kabbalah together with what we know of the Hellenistic philosophical tradition”.

If anything in this world is simple, the cosmology and patterns present in Jewish kabbalah aren’t it.

At any rate, I liked this schema, since it already fit nicely with what I already do and simply changed a few of the paths near the top of the Tree around.  Nothing big, right?  Well, as my ponderings from last time indicated, the more I thought about it, the less I wanted to work with this system.  What was substantially different?  Different numbering of the paths?  Big deal, plenty of Trees have been used by different traditions with different success.  Different associations of stoicheia on the paths?  Crowley himself changed the Star and Emperor, and thus their stoicheia, around on the Golden Dawn Tree.  Different paths towards the top?  Even the Golden Dawn had the use of several Trees, as did the Jewish kabbalists before them.  Even with the different coating of Greek bark, the Tree was still kabbalah, and relies on connections and culture that don’t fit quite right for me.  Even though it’s used by most modern Western magicians nowadays, what (maybe) works for them doesn’t dictate what will work for me.

Besides, even as a matter of correctness, there’s no real evidence to show that this Alexandrian Tree of Life is anything more than a fanciful mental exercise in what I was going to get myself engaged with.  Kieren Barry in his “The Greek Qabalah” describes many uses of the Greek letters in understanding the forces of the cosmos, but (chapter 6):

On the evidence we have seen, it is plainly incorrect to state that there are only a few correspondences to the letters of the Greek alphabet along the lines of those found much later in the Hebrew Qabalah.*  It is also anachronistic, as well as completely pointless, to attempt to project Hebrew Qabalistic symbolism onto the Greek alphabet, or to imagine anything so historically impossible as an “Alexandrian Tree of Life,” as has been done.**  It is hoped that the extensive Greek letter symbolism examined above is enough to put an end to any perceived need for this unnecessary practice by those with a background in Hebrew Qabalah.

* (47) See for example, D. Godwin, Light in Extension—Greek Magic from Modern to Homeric Times (St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 1992), pp. 197-198.  Through historical error, Godwin also unfortunately alleges that the Milesian system “which seems to have originated around 400 B.C., more or less copies the Hebrew/Phoenician system”; all of which is quite wrong.
** (48) See for example, S. Flowers, Hermetic Magic (York Beach, ME: Samuel Weiser, 1995), a forgettable mixture of historical fact and personal fantasy.

In other words, Barry is of the opinion that the Greek letters are alive and well with their own internal symbolism and meaning, as well as those of the stoicheia behind them linking them to the elements and astrology, but nothing in the classical world along the lines of today’s kabbalah with the Hebrew script.  Like Greek letters, Hebrew letters have their own symbolism and biographies, with whole personalities and worlds within each letter.  Greek letters have the same, tailored just for themselves and not borrowed from another script.  To borrow the meanings of Hebrew kabbalistic practice, though, into Greek wholesale is folly.

Barry says that “the extensive Greek letter symbolism examined above is enough to put an end to any perceived need for this unnecessary practice [of making an Alexandrian Tree] by those with a background in Hebrew Qabalah”, and I agree with him.  However, where we may diverge (he’s not explicit with this) is that I think a method of understanding a creation of the world by letters, which are numbers, in a systematic and coherent way is worthy of our attention.  Thus, if the Alexandrian Tree of Life won’t do, something else needs to be made in its place that not only achieves the same ends but in a way more faithful to the Greek philosophic tradition.