Unlocking the Observatory: Dramatis Personae and the Great Cabala

Where were we? We’re in the middle of discussing the obscure Telescope of Zoroaster (ZT), a manual of divination and spirituality originally published in French in 1796 (FZT) at the close of the French Revolution, which was later translated into German in 1797 (GZT) and then again in an abridged form as part of Johann Scheible’s 1846 Das Kloster (vol. 3, part II, chapter VII) (KZT), with Scheible’s work then translated into English in 2013 as released by Ouroboros Press (OZT).  Although OZT is how most people nowadays tend to encounter this system, I put out my own English translation of FZT out a bit ago as part of my research, and while that translation was just part of the work I’ve been up to, there’s so much more to review, consider, and discover when it comes to this fascinating form of divination.  Last time, we talked about  why ZT gets attributed to the French erotica writer André-Robert Andréa de Nerciat. If you need a refresher on what we talked about last time, go read the last post!

※ For those following along with their own copy of ZT (get yours here!), this post does not touch on any specific chapter of the text.

In the last post, I mentioned that there’s no explicit authorship of ZT to anyone; the closest we get is an obscure signature of “Baron de N……” at the end of the introductory Epistle.  While an attribution of ZT to Nerciat does make sense (at least to an extent), the text itself still remains anonymous on its own terms.  Putting aside the historical identity (if any) of such a Baron, let’s take a step back and consider the dramatis personae of ZT as a whole.  Because FZT provides the most complete version of the text as a whole, we’ll use that as the basis for this and all subsequent discussions unless a particular example from another version is necessary.

  • The Epilogue (properly titled “Epilogue from the Editors”) suggests that the publisher of the book is not the author.
  • The Epilogue mentions that the editors were in contact with the Redactor, who provided the actual text of ZT for the Editors to publish.
  • In some of the footnotes and paragraphs in the Supplement chapters (especially the First and Second Supplements), the Redactor notes that he was taught by other initiates and teachers, who entrusted him with the primary sources in manuscript form.  Notably, such a text was:

    …a confused collection of orations, invocations, and quotations from pagan philosophers or Fathers of the Church, as well as a series of descriptive reports of operations, where such-and-such a state of the Great Mirror had announced events which had been verified in such-and-such a manner. We would have been given permission to copy this cabalistic journal in vain, for we would never have taken care of it like that. If ever this Key should become public, we would be ungrateful for having given it away in the hodgepodge from which we had great difficulty in extracting it.

  • The Epistle, on the other hand, is written by the “Baron de N……” and addressed to “One Privileged to be Placed at the Highest Rank in the Social Order”, an anonymous (presumably French) nobleman addressed as “My Lord” or “Your Lordship” (Seigneur, which, properly speaking, was a title of respect for a landlord but not always a sure indication of being a noble in the formal sense). Abbé Barruel’s Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire du Jacobinisme (part I, chapter XI “New Proofs of the System and Mysteries of the Occult Masons”) says that ZT (according to the English translation, and which the 2008 Alexandre de Danánn book goes on at length about):

    …was adopted by certain Lodges of Rosicrucians in France a few years before the Revolution, and particularly at Bordeaux.  To prevent, however, all possibility of being mistaken, whatever we shall say on this subject shall be grounded on the Cabalistic lectures lately printed under the title of Telescope de Zoroastre.  They are dedicated to one of those Princes whom the author does not name, but whose zealous pursuits in these mysteries are sufficiently known by public report.

  • A handful of oblique references to unnamed “cabalistic initiates” who were also practitioners of ZT who used it for various purposes in various ways.
  • A mythic origin story, particularly established in the Epistle but also touched upon in the Third Step and Fifth Step, that establishes the origin of ZT with the eponymous Iranian prophet Zoroaster and the caste of the Magi (i.e. priests in Zoroastrianism and related earlier religions in ancient Iran).
  • A small cast of divinities, spirits, and angels (that we’ll get around to covering later on).
  • The Candidate or Aspirant, i.e. anyone who would study ZT, including the reader themselves who is addressed repeatedly throughout the book.

Based on the above, with the mythic exception of Zoroaster and the Magi and the possible exception of the Baron, it is not clear who, if anyone in particular, many of these personae are supposed to be or represent. As with countless other occult texts, it may well be that all these characters are just fictions made as character in the writing of a play (which may well be in line with an attribution of FZT to Nerciat), and thus meant to evoke a romantic notion of ancient wisdom passed down in secret, forming secret societies and arcane brotherhoods meant to preserve long-lost techniques of divinity and divinization—in other words, omitting the sinister connotations of the word, a cabal, the word itself being tied to the related notion of “cabala”.

On that note, let’s talk about ZT’s repeated use of the phrase “the Great Cabala” and how it teaches ZT as a “cabalistic art”, because we see this phrase all the dang time throughout ZT.  Here are just a few disconnected examples plucked from throughout (my translation of) FZT:

The Great Cabala, from which I shall lift one of its veils, has nothing in common with the spirituality of the relationships which may exist between the celestial intelligences and humanity. Nothing has been able to define these relationships or prove them, but, on the assumption that it would be possible for God to permit them, nothing could demonstrate it any more than believing in it would be a chimera.

On these grounds, the Cabala indicates a formula (traced back at least to Zoroaster) by means of which it is in the power of the privileged either to seek out superhuman intelligences when one needs to consult them or to easily understand their language when, of themselves, they have the kindness to apprise the vow of confidence placed in them.

But let us return to what concerns the Great Cabala more particularly as a method and vehicle for arriving at the result of divination. By means of the booklet through which I dare to pay you respectful homage, my Lord, we shall know how one might establish for oneself, so to speak, a place of rendezvous, where the advocate enjoys the favor of being in the presence with superhuman beings and can there receive their benefit.

…before taking the first step in the path of a science infinitely more intellectual than rhetoric or music, one must learn the language of the immense land which one sets out to travel. The Great Cabala, which we are setting out to treat upon, is this science; the country where we set out to travel is the future. The Great Cabala, so as to make itself understood, has an equivalent of an alphabet, exclusively its own. From the combination of what here takes the place of letters also result words, periods, speeches, and ultimately precise fragments by which, in taking all they can from it, one can take what they can from the immeasurable record of the future. At first one will find it quite easy to read and trace our cabalistic characters, but one would still not be able to hear the language; even upon hearing it, one would still not yet possess it. Even after much reading and much writing, one might still remain ignorant of the Great Cabala for a long time, perhaps even forever.

The Great Cabala only gives us to hold what is human within it, i.e. its physical forms or conventions, more narrowly restricted than those of the most futile forms of divination and much less doubtful, for example, than the practical principles of judicial astrology. As to what is superhuman (which does not mean “supernatural”) in the Cabala, the mere idea contained in the word “superhuman” establishes in proof that we cannot lay hold onto what it expresses, and therefore we cannot give it away. It is a definition that can make its own existence felt.

Of the two Principles, Sisamoro is infinitely good, while Senamira is infinitely wicked. These names prove that our Cabala comes to us from the Persians: “Sisamoro” is the reverse of “Oromasis” and “Senamira” of “Arimanes”, both so powerful against each other according to the religion of this ancient race. All doubts about the origin and antiquity of our divinatory masterpiece are dispelled by this respectful tradition which transmits to us, under a fine veil, names so authentically indicative of its origin, although so many sects have since applied themselves to the same notions, which we Christians call “God” and “Satan”.

Judicial astrology, at first, took part in a great deal of the Great Cabala. It was the astrologers who, imperceptibly but inevitably, disfigured an ingenious convention and stole a source of pure truth in all the abuses that charlatanry needed to successfully cast mystifying nets. This is the same use that profane people would try to make of our Great Cabala, those who would try to seize an inanimate doll without being in good shape, without even worrying about looking for the spark that gives life to such an immense automaton. Some would seek in its alleged arithmetic patterns a way to fall upon the lucky chances of a lottery; others would want to know use the same uselessness that card-shooters know so well of teasing out magical emblems from a game of spades. Others would have the good sense to see in our Cabala only a formless (or deformed) supplement to mathematical recreations. Some especially (who affect a profound admiration for the Great Cabala) will employ it to flatter the passions of their patrons, to distill into a credulous and naïve sex the poison of licentiousness, to instill fear into a few weak souls, and ultimately to make dupes of them all. Good God! Let not this Key fall into the hands of such cheats!

And on and on and on and on.  (And yes, ZT has some hilariously caustic language against Tarot/cartomancy, geomancy, palmistry, and all other forms of divination, but it saves its sharpest barbs for “judicial/divinatory astrology”, even saying that “modern astronomy” is more useful and true, which I find deliciously ironic.)

So, the Hebrew word ‫—קבלח‬transliterated as qabālā, kabbalah, cabala, qabalah, or any other number of variations thereof—literally means “reception” or “tradition”, in the sense of something handed down from one generation to the next generation, received by one generation from the one preceding it. Of course, to most people even slightly aware of religion or spirituality in the West, this word refers more specifically to a set of esoteric methods, disciplines, and schools of thought in Jewish mysticism. Although various strains of mysticism and mystic practices have come and gone throughout the millennia in the long history of Judaism such as those evinced by hekhalot or merkabah literature from the classical to early medieval periods, it can be argued that kabbalah as such arose only starting in the medieval period properly with the development of texts like the Zohar. Although plenty can be said regarding the development and reception of such a tradition, this would easily dominate and sidetrack any discussion I’d want to have currently, and is way outside the scope of a discussion on ZT. Suffice it to say that the development of Jewish kabbalah was a watershed moment that permanently changed Western esoteric traditions through the present day, and will likely continue to be a permanent fixture in the future for a long time to come.

Although so much can be said regarding the similarities and differences between Jewish kabbalah, Christian cabala, and Hermetic qabalah, as well as who might or might not have the right to study or engage with any such disciplines of mysticism and how such a thing should be done, none of that would adequately explain the “Great Cabala of the Magi”, “Great Divinatory Cabala” or (most commonly) just “Great Cabala” as ZT talks about it.  I mean, beyond a few scant superficial similarities involving a general astrological flair and some sort of importance attached to numerology, anyone’d be hard-pressed to detect in ZT’s “Great Cabala” anything that would instead be found more commonly found in the aforementioned historical traditions. In that light, what exactly does ZT refer to by “Great Cabala”, and how does it conceive of such a thing?

To answer the first question, let’s consider the history of the term “Hermeticism” (some of you can already see where this is going, I’m sure). Since its inception in classical Egypt some 2000 years ago (give or take a century or two), this word has been used to refer to a vast assortment of esoteric phenomena, disciplines, practices, and studies. In the strictest sense of the word, “Hermeticism” refers to the classical quasi-movement of Greco-Egyptian mysticism whose teachings on philosophy, theology, theosophy, and the ascent of the soul are attributed to Hermēs Trismegistos, a sort of heroified syncretism of the Hellenic Hermēs and Egyptian Thōth, and even today, many still use this term in this sense (myself especially, though I find “Hermetism” to be a nice alternative at times). However, over the ages, especially after the classical period when the philosophical Hermetic texts were no longer being produced but other texts (more alchemical, magical, and technical in nature) were being more commonly associated with Hermēs Trismegistos, “Hermeticism” began to be broadened and reoriented to the point where it referred to most aspects of Western esotericism that focus on attaining some measure of divinity or divinization, and then after that to most Western esoteric stuff in general whether or not it had anything to do with divinity or divinization. However, as more and more such texts began to be produced, another usage was coming into play: that of calling things “Hermetic” in the sense of it being not simply esoteric knowledge but specifically knowledge claimed to be passed down from one initiate to another in a quasi-secret manner; in other words (as Dan Attrell over at The Modern Hermeticist has pointed out), “Hermetic” is a descriptor less of what is said and more of how it is said. In this lattermost light, the Kybalion can claim to be Hermetic, despite its utter lack of anything resembling Hermeticism proper, as it states in its own first chapter:

Even to this day, we use the term “hermetic” in the sense of “secret”; “sealed so that nothing can escape”; etc., and this by reason of the fact that the followers of Hermes always observed the principle of secrecy in their teachings. They did not believe in “casting pearls before swine, but rather held to the teaching “milk for babes; meat for strong men,” both of which maxims are familiar to readers of the Christian scriptures, but both of which had been used by the Egyptians for centuries before the Christian era.

In much the same way, the term “kabbalah” does refer specifically to a particular brand and systematization of Jewish mysticism, but as time went on and it became more popular and influenced other aspects of mysticism and esotericism, the term became broadened in use. Over the course of its development, kabbalah was at times divested or appropriated from its original Jewish context and reapplied in Christian contexts or in even more broadly Western esoteric (i.e. “Hermetic”) ones, at some times as a means to use the same models of mysticism for the same goal without having to undergo conversion to Judaism, at other times as means to apply the same framework of mystification to one’s own non-Jewish religion. Over time, the notion of what kabbalah was became even more broad, leading to terms like “cabal” in the sense of “a secret group meeting privately”. As with “Hermeticism”, the term was at times used to refer not to the what, but the how.

It’s in this light that ZT uses the term kabbalah, spelled in a Latinate manner as “cabala”, to refer to an ancient system of mystic wisdom passed down from one generation to the next, availing itself of the word’s literal definition in the process as referring to its popular conception apart from any meaningful content. ZT never actually defines clearly what its Great Cabala actually is or consists of except in broad strokes and vague references, and that it has something to do with the divinatory method of ZT as well as some cosmological content dealing with celestial intelligences and anthroposophical musings on life and living. Except for what’s strictly necessary to impart as instructions to learn the divinatory method of ZT, ZT never gives us the fundamental tenets of the system of the Great Cabala, nor meaningful advice on living a spiritual life so as to better approach God except through means of practicing this divinatory method (and, as part of that, learning to restrict one’s diet and sex drive). Considering how the text often refers to this same thing as (specifically) the “Great Divinatory Cabala”, it may well be that the divinatory method is the sum total of the whole thing, or at least its crowning achievement and its fundamental groundwork. At any rate, it’s clear that ZT’s Great Cabala has nothing substantial in common with kabbalah as the latter is generally understood and considered; we’re dealing with something else entirely, and should not think that ZT seeks to engage with or support such a tradition on its own terms.  This is where a lot of modern occultists go wrong, I think, when they begin to get into ZT and see all these references to “Cabala”—it is talking about a cabala, just not the one people assume it would be.

Despite the idiosyncrasies of ZT, both in how it considers its astrological content as well as its own divinatory method that sets it apart from nearly all other esoteric works of its genre and context, ZT still participates in a blend of perennialism and orientalism common to many such texts all the same, which combine together to form the “Great Cabala”, the teachings of which are what ZT claims for itself (and, for that matter, so many other esoteric practices and mystical systems) to derive from. Although these claims are delightfully quaint to a modern reader, especially given how many assertions of antiquity are no more than a tired cliché that’re as old as the asserted antiquity itself, we do have to wonder how compelling such a system might have been to someone several centuries ago. It’s true that ZT never seems to have caught on particularly popularly, perhaps justifying its own warnings regarding how few people there are to properly receive its Great Cabala or how many there are who would rather stick to the childish games of reading cards or points or palms. Then again, what better way to preserve the esoteric quality of something esoteric than to remain obscure, a single gold thread hidden amongst all the many fibers of jute in a sheet of burlap?

So, in that light, where exactly does this “Great Cabala” come from?  ZT itself speaks very little regarding the origin of the Great Cabala and its accompanying systems and practices, only claiming its unsurpassed antiquity, that it is somehow tied to ancient Persia by means of some nominal references to a small handful of Zoroastrian religious concepts and figures, and that it is the source of so much else of esotericism (however debased such esoteric practices may have become in the process of their falling away from the Great Cabala). In order to go beyond this, however, we can turn to the Epistle, which gives a brief history of the origins of the Great Cabala:

  1. In times long past, there existed in ancient Persia the Magi, holy priests devoted to spiritual pursuits and the accumulation of knowledge and wisdom, and one of these number (if not their leader) was the famous Zoroaster himself.
  2. Over time, the association of Magi and their temples became assailed with disaster and collapse, leading to their destruction and the pillaging of whatever secrets they had.
  3. Those who were able to steal and plunder (or scavenge and preserve) such secrets were able to engage in similar work, albeit with less purity and perfection than their Magian forebears.
  4. Over generations, such secrets continued to be debased and corrupted even further, leading to the present-day illusory and false practices that misused and abused the true teachings of the ancient Magi.

Against this trend, however, the author of the Epistle falls back on the spiritual equivalent of the law of conservation of mass: because nothing can ever be truly lost, then neither have the mysteries of the Magi been lost, and therefore they can be reclaimed in all their glory, if only one knows where to seek and how to make use of it, as inspired by the “Pure Spirit” and guided by celestial and spiritual intelligences so far as is proper for such a person engaged in such restoration. One need not have a direct tie or lineage to the Magi in order to participate in their Great Cabala, though what ZT presents would be a sure way of attaining such a thing by means of a spiritual reconnection, at least for those who are able to engage with it. This can hardly be said to be a tradition (a word itself derived from the Latin word for “to give over”, representative of the core of kabbalah itself); even ZT’s own introduction says, because the Great Cabala deals with things that are beyond humanity, “we cannot lay hold onto what it expresses, and therefore we cannot give it away”. Rather, while ZT could be described as a discovery or even recovery of the Great Cabala, were it merely a system of human invention, ZT would be more inclined to describe it as a spiritual blessing, grace, or even a charism.

Of course, it goes without saying that there’s nothing historical regarding the origins of this system; the story above can only be understood as occurring in mythic terms, given the glaring lack of evidence that any such system as ZT existed prior to the French Revolution (much less in any stage of antiquity), that the Magi were given to such practices as described in ZT, or even the strangeness of incorporating the primary deity and their enemy of a whole religion as little more than game pieces in a process of sortilege. Then again, as the author of the Epistle writes, a fable is “only a history of ancient truth diluted in an allegorical mess, the primitive meaning of which is unfortunately lost to us”—perhaps (but only perhaps) the divinatory method of ZT is not just the creation of a single person or small cabal at the end of the 18th century after all. Even then, even if the specific method of arranging tiles into compositions and determining futures by them is unique to the development ZT in early modern France, ZT still relies on a long tradition of astrology and numerology that ties it into the broader tradition (however defined) of Western esotericism.

Although it would be a fool’s errand to attempt to make a historical foundation out of ZT’s own orientalizing pseudohistory, we should definitely remember that ZT itself recalls a variety of biblical events and stories as being “cabalistic symbols”, worthy of contemplation and philosophical consideration. In that light, understanding the myth for what it implies and suggests rather than what it states and declares, we can start to grasp the grander religious and spiritual goals that ZT impels the reader towards. It’s not that we should think of there being literal ancient temples in Persia dedicated to the Great Cabala, pillaged and looted by later invaders, the loot and booty of which was degraded and debased by unscrupulous charlatans—rather, ZT encourages us to look towards the pristine knowledge of a purer and simpler state of humanity before our present fallen state, to gather together the scraps of esoteric knowledge and wisdom that can still be salvaged from low-grade pop-occult texts and streetside “teachers”, and to cultivate what we can into a system of accessing truth facilitated by the guidance of helpful and directing spirits. This is the legacy of Zoroaster that is promised by ZT: not a philosopher’s stone by which one can attain to physical immortality or worldly wealth, not a ring to command the many demons and spirits of the world, but a telescope by which one may pierce the most profound heavenly mysteries, the heart of which is a mirror that itself provides the visions we seek.