Hermeticism FAQ: Part IV, Practice

Continuing our Hermeticism FAQ series (see part I, part II, and part III here), let’s continue today with (the final) Part IV, on the various practices of Hermeticism!

What practices are part of Hermeticism?

Although the “philosophical Hermetica” are great for teaching doctrine, they offer very little in the way of actual practice, whether day-to-day routine practice or things for non-routine ritual.  However, we do know that prayer to God is something Hermēs Trismegistos encourages, especially at sunrise (preferably outdoors facing east) and at sunset (again preferably outdoors facing south), along with at nighttime immediately before going to bed.  Practices of purity and asceticism are also encouraged, both for their training of the body as well for the work of engaging divinity without being polluted by the passions of base matter.  In tandem with study of the discourses and other arts, frequent meditation should be engaged with, both for the purposes of delving deeper into the meanings of the teachings as well as to gain insight regarding one’s own nature and the nature of the cosmos generally.  For those who are building shrines for the gods, calling the gods down into statues for more immediate contact and worship of them is recommended, by the means of filling the statues with sacred substances, burning incense before them, bathing them in sacred liquids, and the singing of hymns to seat them in their terrestrial bodies; rather than just statues or other images, bodily possession by the gods may also be attempted.  When ready, works of spiritual elevation and divine ascent should be undertaken, which can be considered among the crowning acts (though far from a one-time effort) a Hermeticist should endeavor towards.  Besides these, many other practices as described in the “technical Hermetica” or which are borrowed from any number of other magical and spiritual traditions may also be incorporated.

Are there any particular gods I should worship?

The only divinity one is strictly required to worship and venerate in Hermeticism is God, and that in a way that is often distinct from other gods; rather than burning incense or making material sacrifices, the true worship of God consists of a sacrifice of speech and the singing of hymns in sacred silence, adoring the Creator by means of their Creation.  Beyond that, whatever other gods one worships (if one worships other gods at all) is entirely up to the student.  For those who are willing, Hermēs Trismegistos himself is an excellent candidate to receive worship for those who follow the Way of Hermēs, whether as a divinity in his own right or as a deified hero-prophet; the same goes for the students of Hermēs Trismegistos, like Asklēpios (the Egyptian Imhotep), Tat (another instance of Thōth), and Ammōn (the Egyptian Amun).  While Greek and Egyptian religion offers many such deities to worship, to say nothing of the many syncretic religious entities present in texts like the Greek Magical Papyri, there is no limit nor rule as to which gods one should worship, so long as one (also) worships God.

Did the classical Hermeticists practice magic, and should we continue to practice magic today?

Although the “philosophical Hermetica” is silent on the subject, and although Zosimus of Panopolis suggests that Hermēs Trismegistos disavowed magic, it is a fact that Hermeticism has long been associated with magical works of many types, and indeed, ancient Egyptian religion saw little distinction between religious works and magical works, to the point where the very concept of magic itself (Heka) in Egypt was venerated as a deity in its own right in addition to the view that the gods had such supernatural power at their disposal to accomplish all manner of works.  Magic is simply the operational use of subtle forces or spiritual entities in addition to or instead of physical or bodily ones to achieve particular ends, and as such, the study of such forces and entities is part and parcel of the study of the cosmos as much as the study of any material or physical force or entity.  This being the case, classical Hermeticists (along with Egyptian priests themselves, and in company with many other wandering magicians of the day) certainly practiced magic, as this was a valid way to engage with the various powers of the cosmos, and thus we are both enabled and encouraged to today.  Of course, such works should be held to a high moral and ethical standard—but so should any other work, whether or not it can be considered “magical”.

What about astrology or alchemy?

These two arts have long been held to be Hermetic, and there’s good reason for saying so; even in the core classical Hermetic texts themselves, there is much astrological symbolism and even directives to engage in the study and practice of astrology to better understand the nature of the cosmos and of divinity.  Alchemy is somewhat more complicated of a subject, becoming more popular and well-studied in the late classical and post-classical periods, but is also tied to Hermetic practices of the creation of medicine, ink, oils, and talismans.  Different texts from different time periods will focus on these arts to various degrees, but they are certainly important for the practical side of Hermeticism, and those who are interested in Hermeticism are encouraged to study and engage with them.  Remember that the study of astrology is what helps us understand more about the processes of Fate; if astrology is the “as above”, then alchemy provides the “so below”, since it helps us understand the processes of change in the cosmos, learning how the activities and energies of the cosmos play out at a low level.  The power and potentiality of Fate can be learned through astrology, and the activity and actuality of Fate can be learned through alchemy.  Even if neither are strictly required, by learning both, one has a strong footing to engage in the work of theurgy.

What about theurgy?

Theurgy (from Greek theourgia, “divine work” or “god-work”) is the ritual mystical practice of participating in the presence of the divine, whether individual gods or God itself.  On the one hand, this can be considered the work of lifting oneself up to the level of the gods through spiritual elevation and divine ascent; on the other, it can also be considered the work of bringing the gods down to our level, either by having them inhabit sacred statues or other idols or by possessing their devotees for the gods to perform work down in our world.  In either case, the ultimate goal of theurgy is to unite ourselves with the divine, fulfilled through rites of purification of the body and soul along with communion with the gods.  It should be noted that this is not a kind of “coercion of the gods” where the gods are “forced” down (as if such a thing were possible in Hermetic terms), nor is it the case that we “trap” the gods in statues for our own bidding.  This is an act of communion, such as inviting someone to live in your home and share your table, and similar acts can be seen in the tradition of “living statues” of Hinduism and in many other pagan traditions across the world.  In a smaller sense, although not always done with theurgical goals in mind, the work of ensoulment and enlivening images can also be seen in the consecration of talismans, where one “brings to life” a particular object for it to confer some benefit, either by having a “shard” of the power of some force (like a planet) empower an object or by having a spirit come to inhabit the object.

What about thaumaturgy, and how is it different from theurgy?

Thaumaturgy (from Greek thaumatourgia “wonder-working”) is a way to describe magic in general, especially magic that is intended to create change or other paranormal phenomena in our world.  In other words, thaumaturgy is another word for most magic most people do and have done the whole world over since time immemorial.  Although some people consider theurgy to be “high magic” and thaumaturgy to be “low magic”, it should be noted that the difference between theurgy and thaumaturgy consists primarily in ends or goals, not in the means or methods; the same method one might use to raise a shade of the dead to learn where buried treasure lies may well be the same method one calls upon the presence of a god to bask in their glory in unity with them.

Are initiations involved or required in practicing Hermeticism?

“Initiation” in its literal sense indicates the beginning of something new, but in a religious context, it refers to the formal induction into a mystery, something secret that bestows some sacred or mystical power, license, experience, or knowledge, generally one protected as secret by a group dedicated to that mystery.  Importantly, an initiation is conferred upon an initiate by someone who is already initiated; it is something given, not merely taken.  In that light, although individual groups that profess Hermeticism may have their own mysteries may require initiations to access such mysteries, Hermeticism as a whole does not require them, and the very notion seems to be unknown according to the Hermetic texts.  That beings said, there are mysteries in Hermeticism, and are described as such in terms of being acts of spiritual elevation or divine ascent in order to behold divine visions.  Engaging in this work may be considered an initiation of sorts, whether or not there is one there to guide a student in such an endeavor.  It is perhaps better to consider this an initiation only when one who has already undertaken such a feat guides another in undertaking that same feat; beyond that, when one undertakes it on their own without such guidance, it might better be said to not be an initiation in the technical sense, even if it does acquaint one with a mystery of the Divine apart and away from any such group.  It’s a complicated topic to discuss, but suffice it here to say that there are often initiatory experiences involved in the higher works one undertakes in Hermeticism, whether or not one is initiated into a group by other human beings.

Is divination okay in Hermeticism?

Absolutely!  Divination is more than just “telling the future”, although it also does that, too; it is the act of approaching the gods to come to know them and what they have to say.  Not only does this fall in line with ancient practices that span the entire world, upholding old traditions of the oracles of the many gods, but it also is explicitly justified in the Hermetic texts as something legitimate we can do, so that we can know what has been, what is, and what will be.  Plus, so many forms of divination have been assigned to Hermēs Trismegistos, or even just Hermēs in the purely Greek sense, not least of which is astrology, that it’s hard to not separate out the work and study of divination from Hermeticism.

Do I need to be a vegetarian or vegan to be a Hermeticist?

At the end of the Perfect Sermon, there is a direction given by Hermēs Trismegistos to his students where they are to eat a “meal that includes no living thing” or “holy food which has no blood in it” following a prayer of thanksgiving to God.  Some interpet that this is an injunction for students of Hermēs Trismegistos to be vegetarian (or even vegan) in general, while others hold to a more limited opinion that only certain ritual meals need to be vegetarian.  It’s a good question, but there’s no one right answer.  It is known that those initiated into the Orphic and Pythagorean mystery cults were famously vegetarian as a constant ascetic practice (and also excluded certain kinds of beans due to their textural similarity to flesh), and it is also known that Egyptian priestly purity practices involved many abstinences from any number of animal products, both the eating of meat and otherwise (like the wearing of wool).  For our purposes today, while maintaining a vegetarian (or vegan, if one so chooses) diet is an excellent ascetic choice one can make, it can be agreed upon as important to abstain from consuming animal products prior to engaging in ritual and to only consume vegetarian (or vegan) food as part of ritual where ritual meals are called for, regardless whether sacrifices to the gods or spirits require meat or other animal products.

What about qabbala/kabbalah/cabala?

This term (all really the same word, just different transliterations from the Hebrew) refers to the overall mystical tradition of Judaism, which builds upon earlier Jewish traditions of hekaloth literature and merkaba mysticism along with Bablyonian and Hellenistic influence.  Although its origins ultimately lie in much earlier Jewish practices, qabbala as its own discipline only arose in the medieval period around 1200 CE.  Due to the complicated and messy history of Judaism in Europe, qabbala became integrated with non-Jewish systems of magic and mysticism, and earned central importance to magical systems like those of the Golden Dawn and Thelema.  While the study of qabbala, in its various forms and approaches, may be useful to some modern Hermeticists of various styles, it is not in and of itself Hermetic in the same sense that the Corpus Hermeticum is Hermetic, though due to the Neoplatonic and broadly Hellenistic influences upon the development of qabbala, it may be integrated with Hermetic practices.

Can I incorporate modern or non-Hermetic practices into Hermeticism?

By all means, feel free!  Considering the difficulty we have in reconstructing the practices of classical Hermeticists, to say nothing of the variety between their practices as well as the practices of various Hermeticists throughout the past 2000 years, there is plenty that can be done by us today in service to the Way of Hermēs. Just bear in mind that just because you might use a practice within a Hermetic context does not automatically make it “Hermetic”, and it is also worthy to remember the context in which such a practice arose and what its design and purpose is for.  Some things can be adapted or adopted for Hermetic ends quite neatly and nicely, other things less so, and some practices are best kept separate from Hermeticism entirely depending on their nature and purpose.

Will Hermeticism make me powerful, give me spells to get laid, etc.?

Sigh.  Technically yes, and I won’t deny that a fundamental drive for magic is the drive to get laid and get paid, but we’re also here to recognize that there’s more to life than just power, sex, money, and the like.  There’s magic, and then there’s magic for Hermetic ends, and while the same spell can be used for a Hermetic end as well as a non-Hermetic end, there’s a reason greed and lust are outlined as “irrational torments of matter” that we’re meant to purge ourselves from.  Let’s try to be a little more mature in the future, yes?

Tetractys and Magic

Alright, alright, I can hear some of my readers mutter in the distance.  “Yes, polyphanes, we know you like the Tetractys.  We get it.  You’re on a huge Pythagorean kick lately.  You’ve been on this kick for over a month and a half now.  Yes, it’s awesome.  But what about magic?  What about conjurations and talismans and shit?  When are you going to talk about those things again?”  Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten.  Yes, I admit I’ve been taken with the Tetractys and this new field of occult mathesis as of late, but to be fair, it’s a huge new thing for me that I didn’t expect to develop.  I honestly feel like I should be spending more time on it, more meditation, more scrying, since it’s all so new and, thus, unexplored.  And, to make proper use of it, I feel like more exploration is definitely needed.  Otherwise I’d just be stumbling around with a wand in the dark, and I like to do my research before jumping into anything.

Though, I also have to wonder: what substantially changes if I use the Tetractys of Life instead of the Tree of Life as my core magical framework?  The best answer I have for that is, well, not terribly much.  I mean, the only real kabbalistic thing I use in my work is the use of particular godnames to conjure the planetary and elemental angels under; maybe I rap several times on the altar to open up a ritual, the number corresponding to the spirit’s sephirah; I might occasionally use a number square to charge something upon.  But, really, that’s about it.  The planets, stars, and elements would exist regardless whether I used the Tree, the Tetractys, or neither, as they have for countless other cultures and magicians before me.

celestial_spheres

The heavens still remain in their usual order, which is probably one thing that neither the Tetractys nor the Tree of Life really affect.  I mean, Saturn is still the next heaven in line under that of the stars, and Jupiter is the next one under Saturn.  In this scheme, there are still ten heavens, with the first one being that of God (Monad) and the last one being that of the Earth (Decad).  Thus, the sphere of the fixed stars is still recognized as the Dyad (2), that of Saturn as the Triad (3), that of Jupiter as the Tetrad (4), and so forth until that of the Moon as the Ennead (9).  The sephiroth are not the planets, and the planets are not the sephiroth; the Tree of Life assimilated the planets into its structure as a later development of the Tree itself, corresponding to the planets without identifying with them.  The planets are still a representation of number, and numeric representations of the planets are still important tools independent of whether they’re placed on the Tetractys or the Tree.  In that light, the magic number squares of the planets can still be used as important tools, and the use of numbers to associate with the planets as well.

In this view, perhaps my idea-in-passing from a ways ago about using a Greek version of the magic number squares could still be used.  After all, the planets are a different realization of number and are associated with the sephiroth, but are not themselves the sephiroth; the number squares are also representations of number in the same way as the planets are.  The magic squares are not kabbalistic in and of themselves in the same way we’d reckon kabbalah; they’re a tool used to understand the kabbalah, but they are not themselves kabbalah.  The only real change to be made here would be to create a set of Greek number squares and find a new set of spirit names to make sigils with; that idea is one I’ll have to pursue for sure.  The hangup I had with that, to be honest, was the fact that I couldn’t easily assign a simple 1-to-10 numbering to each of the dots in the Tetractys.  It’s easier to see the planets or other forces as distinct groups working in tandem with each other on different levels in a conceptual way apart from the nested-spheres view.  The planets are number, too, and with a bit of clever rearrangement can be put into a tetractys of their own.  While I like my arrangement of the planets onto the Tetractys, it’s surely not the only way to do so, though I have good reasons for going with the model I have.

Say some reader says “well, I think the number squares should stick to kabbalah, so we should use another model of numerical mediation”.  Okay, good!  I like making new models and tools.  However, what could be used in their stead?  The regular polygons of a particular number, say?  Well, if you exclude the Monad (which is a simple point) and the Dyad (which is an infinite line or a circle, neither of which are polygons), we run into an issue.  The “true” Greek way of developing a polygon is to use a compass and straightedge, neither of which are marked for degree or length.  While the triangle, square, pentagon, hexagon, octagon, and decagon can be constructed by a compass and straightedge, the heptagon and enneagon cannot.  They can be approximated, sure, but these numbers cannot be made into regular polygons by compass and straightedge alone, similar to the ancient Greek geometrical problems of squaring the circle or doubling the cube.  It’d be like trying to make a magic number square of rank 2, which cannot be done.  While their ideal forms might be good for meditation, it’d be hard to apply those forms in reality or construction of forms.  This itself can be considered a mystery worthy of meditation, but in terms of applying or constructing numbers, I’d prefer number squares myself if the rank of the square is going to be the same as the number of sides of the polygon.

Beyond numbers, what else might have to change?  Colors?  I’ve gotten good enough results with the colors as used in the Golden Dawn Queen and King scales, so I may as well stick to those (though seeing what else the spheres themselves can show me is useful).  Names of spirits?  Obviously, since Greek names and spelling follow radically different rules than Hebrew, but again, those would just have to be obtained through scrying and numerological research.  The associations of other tools, symbols, and the like with the planets is pretty firmly established and I see no reason to change all those.  So, if by and large the major tools of my work aren’t going to change by switching over to the Tetractys from the Tree, what really changes?

alchemical_planetary_tetractys_paths

The set of paths I have on the Tetractys really don’t work for the Tree of Life; if you try to take the standard ten sephiroth and apply the same paths I have on here, you end up with something resembling metaphysical spaghetti.  While the paths on the Tetractys make sense to me, they cannot be separated from the Tetractys.  The Tetractys offers a radically new meditation and theurgic model of manifestation and understanding how the Divine interacts with all that exists.  That’s the big thing that the mathetic Tetractys provides: a modern Neoplatonic/Neopythagorean model of emanation and divine flow from high to low and back up again.  Unlike the Tree of Life with its neatly-defined start and end points that are so diametrically opposed to each other (due to the Jewish conception of the mortal world being so far removed from the divine), the Tetractys shows how everything is involved in a balanced way in the evolution of everything.  The Monad exists as much as it does down here as it does up there, after all; there’s no need of a God to “recede” from itself to allow for creation within-yet-apart from the rest of its own infinity.  There’s no clean start point for us to use the Tetractys, because not only are we composed of all the forces in the Tetractys, but all of the Tetractys is within us equally and directly.  It might make good sense for us to start with the four elements that compose our bodies and senses of self, but we could easily start with ourselves as a unified whole, or a Monad unto ourselves, and see how we quickly devolve/evolve into a Dyad between ourselves and the rest of the cosmos.

What does the Tetractys really represent?  If the Tetractys is fully present within each of ourselves, then that means we can start anywhere and go anywhere on our personal Tetractyes; we can start at Earth and work our way up through the elements, then the reagents, then the principles, all the way up to the Monad and back down to Earth; we can start at Fire and sublimate ourselves to Nothingness and back down to pure matter once more.  The Tetractys of Life is less about state than it is about process, less about what we are and more about how we come to be in every passing moment.  It’s the connections that we should study, I claim, since that’s where the real beauty and action happens.  Once we understand how we work internally, then we can start expanding outwards and relating ourselves to the rest of the cosmos.  I mean, if each of us is an individual Tetractys in the world, then we’re each our own monads, each taking part in an even larger Tetractys that connects and binds us all together.  Once we can understand the grander connections, we can scale back down and back up in a neverending Tetractys fractal, understanding how the cosmos as a whole is based on the same principles we are, and how we can use the same processes with different materia at different levels.  After all, ten monads does not a decad make; it’s the connections and processes between them that link them together into an ordering, a kosmos of its own.

While the Tree of Life in Jewish kabbalah was originally intended to be used as a mediation model to indicate the interaction of the Creator with Creation, and eventually picked up associations and correspondences to further those meditations, Hermeticists and occultists generally took qabbalah into their own hands as a model of magic and system of correspondences as a cosmological framework.  I don’t consider this an abuse of kabbalah, but I do consider it (at worst) a misuse of the system generally, especially when many people don’t have the required background to fully explore kabbalah as it’s meant to be studied and used.  In the same way, I don’t intend for this Tetractys of Life to be used as a system of correspondences but, again, as a meditative and theurgic blueprint for understanding how things come to be.  Tables of correspondence exist aplenty; good meditative models are harder to come by.

Magically, the use of the letters on the Tetractys’ paths deserves exploration.  For instance, the path between Venus/Water and Jupiter/Air is connected by Nu/Scorpio.  And, while the exact correspondences between the signs of the Zodiac and alchemy differ from tradition to tradition, the most common association I’ve seen with Scorpio is the process of Separation, where a mixture of two or more substances into distinct groups, usually with one of the components of the original mixture enriched in one of its resulting groups.  Air and Water are closely related, both being moist and easily blended with other substances, but it’s by their separation that we can see warm air rising and cool water falling, as in the Poemander’s description of the creation of the world.  Alchemically, we can understand separation in this sense of refining a particular lump of mass within a mixture, but we can also see it in other occult ways, too, such as whittling down extraneous forces to get to the heart of a particular matter or spirit.  We know that the path of Nu is a “lower register” in the Tetrad as the single path is directly above it in the Dyad is, or the path of Nu compared with the path of Xi, which we know is associated with Water, that which permits change and flow.  While Air connects and diffuses itself, Water flows and changes things, cutting certain areas off from others or whisking things away from one place to another.  Water is a form of separation, as separation is a representation of Water.

So now that I’ve thought about the place of the Tetractys of Life in magic a bit more, it doesn’t really have as big an effect on my magical practice as I thought it might have (or worried it might have).  Kabbalah was famous for crossing religions and traditions and incorporating more and more tools into its own toolbox; why not let mathesis do the same a bit, especially from those parts that themselves came from Neoplatonism or Pythagoreanism?  My day to day magical practice and religious offerings are going to be maintained, and the colors and materials of my talismans won’t change much if at all.  I will need to make versions of the magic squares using Greek letters and go through the planets and start getting new spirit names (as well as to figure out why there’s a “spirit of spirits” and “intelligence of intelligences” for the Moon and the like from the spirits themselves), but that’s something that we could all make do with, after all.

Oh, and names of God?  I haven’t forgotten about those, either.  Making use of my names of God from my first foray into making a Greek kabbalah, let’s see what we have.  First, recall that the Tetractys is composed of four ranks: a Monad, Dyad, Triad, and Tetrad.  I temporarily propose these names of God for these ranks, all based on Revelation 1:8, which contains all these names of God (attributes, really, but eh):

  1. ho Kyrios, “the Lord”
  2. hē Arkhē kai to Telos, “the First and the Last”
  3. ho Ēn kai ho Ōn kai ho Erkhomenos, “He who Was and Is and Is to Come”.
  4. ho Pantokratōr, “the All-Ruler”

All are God, of course, and the overall monadic name could easily be God (ho Theos), the Aeon (ho Aiōn), the Whole (to Holon), and so forth.  Personally, I’m getting into the habit of using Aiōn or Iaō as my primary go-to names of God, though my old Stoic inclinations always keeps the Whole nearby in my mind.  So, in conjurations, I’ll test how the use of these specific names work, though I’ll also shoot for other names to see whether other appellations or descriptors of God work better, or whether there are more secret names of God to be used.  Who knows?  As this Tetractys model of magic develops, maybe these names’ll be obsoleted in favor of others, or another method can be used entirely.

Towards a Greek Kabbalah: First Swirlings

A few weeks ago, I made a post about an idea about working with a Greek style of Hermetic qabbalah, tentatively calling it kambala (Greek way to write out qabbalah from Hebrew) or to Paradedomenon (lit. “that which is handed down”).  The idea, I claim, is an interesting one: in the absence of Hebrew kabbalah, is it possible to make a Hellenic style of emanationist cosmological magic and theology that works with the Greek letters as magical units and entities in their own right?  Asked another way, could there conceivably be such a thing as a Greek qabbalah?  So I started thinking about it, and I first went and looked up translations of the names of the sephiroth and the like from Hebrew into Greek, and started translating other names into Greek as well, and also rewriting the magic number squares of the planets using Greek letter-numerals to develop new planetary spirit names.

Now I’m thinking I was going down the wrong path and need to start fresh without using the Tree of Life, or even using Jewish kabbalah at all.

I mean, what is Jewish kabbalah?  It is a deep, powerful, multifaceted, beautiful system of Jewish mysticism that can deliver one great, perhaps infinite, knowledge and power through the proper use of its system, but it’s still at its heart a Jewish system.  Thus, it is Jewish, and geared towards those who are Jewish: not only by blood (as tradition would have it), but also by culture (having the means and faculties available to a proper Jew) and definitely by religion and religious studies.  Kabbalah is really only meant for those who are prepared to study it, which requires a deep and thorough study of the Tanakh, Talmud, Midrash, Mishnah, and so many other aspects of Jewish religion and how it ties into Jewish life.  For all intents and purposes, to get the most out of kabbalah, you have to be Jewish.  You don’t necessarily have to be a Jew (unless you’re so hard-core traditionalist that only the first-born son of a kabbalist can learn it from his rabbi father), but you definitely have to be Jewish in order to properly study kabbalah.  Anything less, and you’re not going to be able to use it as much as it can or ought to be.

As for me?  Sure, I can claim descent as a Jew, but I’m about as Jewish as an Olive Garden is Italian, which is to say “hahaha not really”.  Sure, I can say the berakhah for Chanukah, and that’s about it.  I’ve never had my bar mitzvah (even though my father has idly wondered that we should probably get ours done eventually at the same time), and it’s more likely that I’ll be baptized into Christianity before having a bar mitzvah.  I’ve only read the Old Testament in English, not even in the proper order of the books that the Tanakh would have; I don’t maintain kosher standards of purity or cleanliness (especially not with the occasional use of blood rum), and I can’t even read or speak Hebrew.  In all honesty, for me to properly study kabbalah, I’d need to learn Hebrew, get bar mitzvah’d, and undergo what’s likely to be many years of studying before I even read properly about the sephiroth.  Which is why I’m not, nor will I ever, learn about Jewish kabbalah outside a few books by Aryeh Kaplan.

But of course, that’s not the only way to study the Tradition.  What about Hermetic qabbalah (this time with a Q)?  I’ve been making good use of that, to be sure, as have many others in the Golden Dawn, Thelemite, and other modern Hermetic movements, and heck, even in a good number of neopagan movements I’ve seen that are influenced by Gardnerian Wicca and the Golden Dawn.  While I’d argue that the heart of Hermetic qabbalah and Jewish kabbalah is the same (it provides a means to understand the source of an emanationist panentheist cosmos by means of a cosmological Abrahamic structure), the study of the two nearly couldn’t be further apart.  And, to be honest, after mulling it over some, I’m not sure Hermetic qabbalah is even recognizably able to achieve the same goal as Jewish kabbalah.  My good friend the Rev. Michael Strojan has compared Jewish kabbalah to a beautiful rose garden maze leading to a unique spiritual experience of the mind of God in creation, while Hermetic qabbalah is a far more rational, utilitarian cosmological mapping.

In fact, when a Hermeticist tends to refer to “qabbalah”, they’re usually referring to the specific teaching of the Tree of Life, the linking of the ten sephiroth with 22 paths in a particular geometric array.  In Hebrew, this is known as the upright arrangement of the sephiroth, or “yosher”, which is one way to view the sephiroth; the other is “iggulim”, or “circles”, viewing the cosmos as a series of nested circles with God on the outside and Malkuth in the innermost circle.  I’ve seen a similar way to represent the sephiroth before in Hermetic qabbalah, but only as an introduction to emanationist principles and never for serious magic or prolonged study.  While the paths of the Tree of Life are important, they’re usually grossly understudied in favor of the sephiroth themselves; I’ve seen plenty of people talking about scrying the spheres but next to nobody about scrying the paths, and I admit that I’m guilty of this, too!  It’s nearly all about corresponding things to the ten spheres, and that’s about it.  Consider Yesod, the ninth sephirah: Yesod is associated with the first heaven, which coincides with the sphere of the Moon, so anything lunar can be corresponded to Yesod.  That’s nearly about it in Hermetic qabbalistic framework, it’d seem, unless I’m missing a large amount of the cultural movement and study of the thing.  I’m aware that many Hermeticists have gone in much deeper study of the sephiroth and the paths, but I wouldn’t call them a majority.  To most magicians who use Hermetic qabbalah, they only use it as a system of correspondences.

More than that, however, for a non-Jew, even a learned Neoplatonic theosopher and magician, to attempt their own study of kabbalah can come off as something insincere.  I mean, as non-Jews (and I’m including myself de facto in that group), we’re not raised Jewish, we celebrate different holidays, we’re not studied in the traditions and text that Jewish kabbalah builds upon.  While it’s certainly possible to get a lot out of the system, we won’t be able to fully plumb the depths of the system without having all those other things under our belt.  And while it’s certainly allowed to study any and all knowledge and teachings out there on the subject, it’s still a subject that’s pretty much not meant for most of us.  Even in traditional kabbalistic teachings, many Jews couldn’t learn it, which is why we have the Sacred Magic of Abramelin, since (chapter 9, my emphasis):

This wisdom hath its foundation in the high and holy Qabalah which is not granted unto any other than unto the first-born, even as God hath ordained, and as it was observed by our predecessors. Thence arose the difference, and the truck or exchange between Jacob and Esau; the primogeniture being the Qabalah, which is much nobler and greater than the Sacred Magic. And by the Qabalah we can arrive at the Sacred Magic, but by the latter we cannot have the Qabalah. Unto the child of a servant, or of an adulterer, the Qabalah is not granted, but only unto a legitimate child; as occurred in the case of Isaac and Ishmael; but the sacred wisdom through the mercy of God all can acquire, provided that they walk in the right path; and each one should content himself with the gift and grace of the Lord. And this must not be done out of curiosity, and with extravagant and ridiculous scruples, wishing to know and understand more than is right; seeing that temerity is certainly punished by God, who then permitteth him who is presumptuous not only to be turned aside out of the true way by the Second Causes, but also the demon hath power over him, and he ruineth and exterminateth him in such a manner, that we can only say that he himself is the sole cause of his own ruin and misery. It is certain that the Old Serpent will attempt to contaminate the present book with his venom, and even to destroy and lose it utterly, but O Lamech! as a faithful father I entreat thee by the true God who hath created thee and all things, and I entreat every other person who by thy means shall receive this method of operating, not to be induced or persuaded to have any other sentiment or opinion, or to believe the contrary. Pray unto God and ask him for his assistance, and place all thy confidence in him alone. And although thou canst not have the understanding of the Qabalah, nevertheless the holy guardian angels at the end of the six Moons or months will manifest unto thee that which is sufficient for the possession of this Sacred Magic.

Is there a means for us to study divinity and obtain power and knowledge thereby?  Of course!  The Word of God is something all humans with ears can hear (as much of my 49 Days of Definitions project indicated), but not every word is meant for us.  There are many words out there for us to understand the Word; they are all the Word, but not using the same words.  In a Hermetic sense, kabbalah is a form of Logos for the Jews who are able and allowed to study it.  So, while a Hermetic qabbalah with roots and liberal borrowing from the Hebrew kabbalah is not improper, strictly speaking, it does seem like trying to borrow a prayer in another language to another divinity and speaking it aloud with a bad accent to your own.  To be terse, the more I look at it, the more Hermetic qabbalah looks like cultural appropriation, and knowing how rife much of the Golden Dawn material was with culturally appropriated techniques and technology, this isn’t too surprising.

Besides, while Jewish kabbalah is definitely Jewish, it’s not entirely Jewish.  It’s apparent that there was much cross-pollination between Jewish and Neoplatonic thought back in the days of the Roman Empire, especially after the Jewish Diaspora after the destruction of the Second Temple, and it was only then did the Hebrew alphabet begin to be used as numbers in addition to letters, a notably Greek practice that had already been in place for centuries, along with the Greek practice of isopsephic exegesis in interpreting words as numerical strings and linking them to numerological concepts and other words by means of isopsephy.  Heck, even the Hebrew word “gematria” has its origins in Greek “geometria”.  It might reasonably be said that what is today Jewish kabbalah is a combination of Greek Neoplatonist philosophy and isopsephic techniques combined with the native Jewish Merkava and Hekhalot mystic techniques.  This was used, then merged again with other European thought as the centuries passed, so that kabbalah borrowed and reborrowed other philosophies just as it was borrowed and reborrowed from.  As a magician in the vein of Neoplatonism, I can definitely see much that I resonate with in kabbalistic thought and practice, but the system takes place in a context that is sufficiently different from my own that it’s difficult for me to penetrate it without my entering into that context itself.

In that light, recontextualizing kabbalah into Hermetic qabbalah wholesale just isn’t the best way to go about it, and to develop an even further-detached system as a Hellenic or Greek kabbalah based on the Hermetic qabbalah would be even less effective.  While such a Greek kabbalah would be great for my own practice and context, being much more familiar with Neoplatonic, Stoic, and even some Pythagorean philosophy (which is really the root of much of this, anyway), trying to base it on the already “debased” (to exaggerate the sense) Hermetic qabbalah would be like a game of Translation Party.  And, just like with proper English-to-Japanese translation, you need to have a good sense of the language, structure, and system you’re trying to build things into based on the ideas and thoughts you already have instead of trying to go through a predetermined middleman system with its own rules already in place.  In order to create a Greek kabbalah, I’d need to start fresh from first principles.  Scrying the Tree of Life in a Greek framework isn’t the only work that has to be done, but the creation of a new map of the cosmos and new paths, developing an understanding more fitting to my own context instead of that of a different religion and tradition, is all necessary.

In other words, I hope you stay tuned as I work towards a Greek kabbalah.  This will be a series of posts over the coming month exploring all the aspects I consider necessary to build such a system, so I hope you follow along.