Unlocking the Observatory: The Spiritual Cosmology of Zoroaster’s Telescope

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 how ZT understands the human lifespan and how a human life flows. 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.

Something I touched on briefly in the last post is that, nestled amidst all the interpretations and significations of the tiles as given in ZT’s “First Supplement”, there’s a weird trend specifically with the Intelligence tiles.  These tiles have meanings just like all the others, but there’s a few I want to specifically highlight:

  • Genhelia ☉: Physical soul, home country.
  • Seleno ☾: Earth.
  • Erosia ♀︎: Universal magnet (“love”).
  • Panurgio ☿: Sea.
  • Lethophoro ♄: Darkness (literally “night”), water.
  • Aglaé ♃: Air.
  • Adamasto ♂︎: Fire.
  • Psykomena ☽: Foreign country.
  • Psykelia ◎: Heavenly soul, light (perhaps metaphorically “day”).

Unlike many of the tiles, these seem to be connoting things less about omens or matters of future, and indicate more cosmological aspects.  It’s kind of a neat trend, and it emphasizes how important the nine Intelligences are to the well-ordering of the world around us.  Unlike in astrology proper (which, of course, ZT says is basically just charlatanry) where the planets themselves effect their influences in our world, ZT establishes that the things that happen in the world are effected by the Intelligences of the planets, not the planets themselves.  This reaches not just into the vagaries of emotion and action between humans (as influenced through their natal angels and natal stars which have planetary rulerships themselves), but even into the very world around us, where e.g. fire is an expression of the activity of Adamasto/Mars, the winds of Aglaé/Jupiter, and so forth.  In classical grimoiric (or at least Agrippan) terms, ZT’s Intelligences might be thought of either as grimoiric planetary intelligences or as planetary spirits, being either the tools that shape creation or the raw material that forms it, all in the hands of the Creator (or the two Principles).

What’s so fascinating about this is that this is just one small aspect of a much grander vision of the Great Cabala that ZT proclaims.  True, ZT is a divination manual, a short introductory handbook laying out the fundamental principles of a cute sort of divination, and most people would be inclined to pick it up, read it, and put it down as being nothing more than that.  But, as much as ZT talks about a divination process, ZT also talks about so much more at the same time, spending at least as many words on spirituality, cosmology, and even (dare we say it) religion as it does on divination.  It’s not that it’s hiding this, either; it’s rather up-front and blunt about it, but it doesn’t lay it out as clearly as it does its divinatory content.  By that same token, it’s something that’s more obscured in KZT/OZT because, again, KZT took the original ZT content and abridged it, cutting out a lot of the religious and spiritual flavor and content we see in FZT/GZT for the sake of presenting a more condensed divinatory manual.  If we turn to the older texts like FZT/GZT, however, we find a lot more of this sort of thing, especially in the Epistle.

Like, consider how ZT talks about itself at the start of the “Second Supplement”:

Hence, for once, the gaze of the being to whom the Pure Spirit will have given the eyes such a being needs in order to discover certain sublime objects—by these, we say, and by means of this second supplement—the gaze of the Elect will be able to soar to the highest point of the cabalistic Pyramid, of which the seven Steps earlier described are only its base and first layers. As these approved eyes look upward along the faces of this mysterious edifice, it will happen—should the Pure Spirit allow it—that the clouds, at first reaching down to the ground to hide everything from the profane eye, will rise so slowly as to barely be noticed at once. Stone is succeeded by marble, marble by crystal, crystal by diamond, and diamond finally by a heavenly brilliance—but the Elect are not like to be dazzled with damage. This brilliance, which shows that the Pure Spirit is within this whirlwind of light, retains a final shroud, the only one that the human condition is not allowed to penetrate.

What ZT teaches may well be just a divination system, but what it gives us is far more than just a means to predict the future.  The whole of ZT, both the divinatory system specifically as well as the Great Cabala more generally, is intended to access that which is superhuman by familiarizing the reader with those selfsame superhuman intelligences. The “Key” that ZT provides is not just a key to a particular practice of divination but rather “the key to the superhuman riches of which the Great Cabala is the inexhaustible store”, one that is even “a master key which will open not just the main doors but all the side doors, all the cupboards, all the drawers, and even the smallest secrets”.

To understand what ZT means by “superhuman”, let’s first talk about the word “occult”, literally meaning “hidden”.  This word can be understood in two ways: the secret or hidden virtues in things that confer surprising or powerful benefits to those who know how to tap them, or to teachings and disciplines kept secret and occluded from public dissemination for the education of and use by the few. Anything that cannot be seen or otherwise perceived by the physical senses of the body are, in one sense or another, “occult”, and have historically been bound up in the various traditions and teachings of any number of religions, mysticisms, and spiritualities. To modern sensibilities, many of the activities and interests of such systems deal with what is termed the “supernatural”, which is to say things that are not wholly within the physical and material realm of nature. However, not all such systems would agree that these things are necessarily “supernatural” if all things already belong to a more pervasive view of nature.  In that light, ZT says in its introduction that the Great Cabala has nothing “supernatural”, but rather has things in it that are “superhuman”, things that are technically beyond our reach as human beings. Rather than drawing a distinction between that which is of nature (“natural”) and that which is beyond it (“supernatural”), ZT draws a distinction between what is human and what is superhuman, seeing both as ultimately belonging to the one and same nature of Creation. Although the word “superhuman” is occasionally used throughout ZT, the bulk of the understanding and use of this word comes from the Epistle—and, for that matter, the Epistle provides much of the spiritual contextualization for ZT as a whole, being an apologia of sorts for engaging with the spirituality of ZT.  (This just compounds how much of a shame it is that this compelling essay only appears in the earlier versions of ZT and not in the more condensed versions as in KZT.) The Epistle uses the word “superhuman” a number of times to refer not only to entities as spirits or intelligences, but also to the work of divination, divine inspiration, and holy obligation. At the same time, the Epistle does not classify all spiritual or occult things as superhuman, as it denies that “black or diabolical” magic can rightly be called “superhuman”.

Rather than thinking of “superhuman” to mean “spiritual” or “occult”. it may be better to consider this word in the mind of the author of Epistle (and ZT more generally) to mean “holy”. This then suggests that the word “human” as the antonym of “superhuman” should be interpreted to mean “profane”, but this is not borne out by the Epistle. There are references to “purely human sciences” or that most humans are content with mere reason, but the Epistle also refers in equal measure to humans of genius or otherwise pious humans who admit and seek after divine things with the respect due to them. However, by definition, humans on their own cannot enter into or attain to the superhuman; to do so requires the active participation of the superhuman to grant humanity such access.  As the introduction of ZT itself says:

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.

The most common use of the word “superhuman” in the Epistle is to refer to “superhuman intelligences”, referring to immaterial entities with their own agency and capacity for communication, action, and interaction. The term “intelligence” has been used to refer to such immaterial or spiritual entities throughout much of European magical and grimoiric literature, even affecting later spiritual traditions such as Spiritism, so finding it used here should be no surprise especially as a more refined approach to other words such as “spirit”, (although GZT merely refers to them as übermenschliche/himmlischen Wesen “superhuman/heavenly beings”).

As that first passage I quoted above above says, so much is dependent upon not just the dedication and studies of the one who studies ZT, but on the permission and presence of the “Pure Spirit”, because ZT is not purely a thing of humanity and thus requires the superhuman in order to delve into it properly.  So what exactly is the “Pure Spirit”?  Basically, it’s the ZT’s equivalent of the Christian notion of the Holy Ghost, but we need to unpack this idea a bit more to get at what ZT considers this to be, along with ZT’s notions of divinity generally.

Although we can’t truly say that ZT is a Christian work in a technical sense, it is abundantly clear that its author has had a Christian education and upbringing, because the author uses a number of quotes and stories from the Old Testament and New Testament alike, and the author counts themselves as a Christian writing for an assumedly Christian audience. It is certainly true that, as OZT notes in its introduction, “the 18th century was an active time for occultism”, both across the whole of the Western world as a whole in general but especially in France in its transitionary period between the ancien régime and the République. However—even in the face of such infamous occultist circles as La Voisin and the Affair of the Poisons, even given the relative freedom of exploration for heterodox religious beliefs—there were still limits as to what was deemed acceptable or pious for public consumption. It should be no surprise, then, that at least some Christian, or otherwise broadly Judeo-Christian, influence is evident in the spirituality of ZT. Although there is little of Christ or any salvific figure involved in ZT, one would reasonably find ZT’s notions of the Supreme Being and the Pure Spirit to be its analogues for God the Father and the Holy Spirit.

Although there is no specific discussion of the Supreme Being (also called the “Eternal One”, “Almighty”, or “Creator”) or Pure Spirit in the ZT, they are referenced throughout it all the same, as well as in Epistle and the Epilogue. The “Second Supplement” explicitly states that it was the Supreme Being that Moses saw in the burning bush, and that Gabriel announced to Mary the birth of Jesus on behalf of the Supreme Being. However, despite the explicit identification of ZT’s Supreme Being with the God of Abraham, absent are the latter’s jealous or even judgmental aspects. Rather, ZT speaks of the Supreme Being as a pious mystic would: worthy of our reverence and devotion and connection, having in mind our best interests and loftiest aims in mind, and wanting to develop us to the point where we might reach them either through their merciful loving-kindness or through their castigating “tough love”. All things are possible for the Supreme Being, and likewise, all things are determined and allotted by the Supreme Being.

Historically, it should be noted that, while “Supreme Being” is a reasonable moniker for the Godhead in many Christian contexts, it should be noted that there was also the Culte de l’Être suprême “Cult of the Supreme Being”, a form of deism pioneered by Maximilien Robespierre and established in France as a state religion during the French Revolution in the early 1790s. This new civic religion was intended to maintain a pious theism as well as social order without descending into the anthropocentric atheism of the Cult of Reason (which appalled Robespierre) nor permit the excesses of Catholicism to continue in the newly-established Republic. In the Decree Establishing the Cult of the Supreme Being on 18 Floréal II (7 May 1794) at the National Convention, it was declared that:

  • The French people recognize the existence of the Supreme Being and the immortality of the soul.
  • They recognize that the worship worthy of the Supreme Being is the practice of the duties of man.
  • They place in the first rank of these duties to detest bad faith and tyranny, to punish tyrants and traitors, to rescue the unfortunate, to respect the weak, to defend the oppressed, to do to others all the good that one can and not to be unjust toward anyone.

Given the publication date of 1796 for FZT, even in spite of the Epistle’s sympathies for the then-deposed aristocracy and nobility, it is impossible to ignore the possibility of Revolutionary religious influence in ZT, at least to some small degree. In a historical and social context where much of the old established order was being upturned so as to build a new one, and considering how much animosity the author of ZT has towards a variety of traditional occult disciplines such as astrology or geomancy, it may be that the author of ZT was (in their mind) trying to recover some long-lost pristine spiritual practice, much as the French Revolution attempted to reclaim the democratic heritage of ancient Greece and Rome. This tendency may be evident in ZT’s encouragement of astronomy and discouragement of astrology, seeing the former as essentially useful and the latter as essentially corrupt, much as revolutionary tendencies in a wide array of cultural arenas elsewhere would have sought to do away with the old and fixate upon the new, or at least newly-recovered. In that light, ZT may well be avoiding an explicitly Christian spirituality and instead tapping into the revolutionary current of its time so as to develop its own revolutionary understanding of divinity.  Of course, given the blatant aristocratic and royalist leanings of the author of ZT (and especially pronounced in the Epistle), maybe this is reading too much into it, putting the cart before the horse: it may be relying on an overall French spirituality that ties as much to Catholicism as it does to revolutionary deistic cults.

Far more commonly mentioned in ZT than the Supreme Being, however, is the Pure Spirit, also occasionally called the “Pure Mind”. Mentioned only twice in Epistle but mentioned at least once (and often many times) in the majority of the chapters of ZT including the Epilogue, the Pure Spirit is a nebulously-defined numinous presence that facilitates the divinity of the Supreme Being in our world. It is the Pure Spirit that is itself the source of all truth; it was the Pure Spirit to whom the ancient Magi dedicated their temples, and it is the Pure Spirit to whom the Cabalists of ZT direct themselves for succor in their cabalistic and divinatory works. ZT is clear on this last point: it is only through the Pure Spirit’s inspiration that the reader might actually perform works of divination, guiding them to speak truth even (or especially) when the diviner runs up against the limit of the methods of ZT. However, the Pure Spirit is not some passive matrix of spiritual presence; ZT describes the Pure Spirit as having an agency and will of its own, deigning to work at some times but not at others, allowing some humans to perform certain works but not other humans or other works.

In many ways, even if one were to discount any Christian involvement in the development of ZT, it is clear that the Supreme Being and Pure Spirit would be close analogues to the Catholic notions of God the Father and God the Holy Spirit, though there is no notion of salvation in the ZT, precluding the necessity for an analogue of God the Son. It may better be said that, although both the Supreme Being and the Pure Spirit are God for the author of ZT, the Supreme Being is more distant than the Pure Spirit is, and it is the Pure Spirit who acts as both the presence of God as well as the gateway to God, giving primacy to the Pure Spirit only insofar as is necessary to participate in divinity. It may be said, then, that the Pure Spirit functions as an analogue both to the Catholic Holy Spirit as well as Christ, as it is the breath of the Pure Spirit in ZT that allows one to be truly and divinely inspired.

And, of course, we shouldn’t confuse the Supreme Being or Pure Spirit with the two Principles of Sisamoro and Senamira, either.  If the Supreme Being is the Creator of all Creation, then the two Principles, Sisamoro and Senamira, can roughly be considered as rival demiurges or underlying actors within the dynamic system of the cosmos. In this light, when ZT says that Sisamoro is “inifinite goodness” and Senamira is “infinite wickedness”, the descriptions of Sisamoro and Senamira come into greater clarity, especially with the footnotes noted above. Sisamoro is the encosmic principle and source of all goodness, purity, light, and bliss, while Senamira is the same but for all wickedness, depravity, darkness, and suffering. It is because of this that ZT states that Christians have interpreted the former to be “God” and the latter “Satan”, employing a sort of antagonistic dualism already known to the reader as asserted by the author.  It has to be said that the Principles form one of the few links from ZT to the actual Zoroaster and Zoroastrianism: ZT points out that, because these names are present in the divinatory system, the system must therefore come from that ancient religion.

Sure, the religion of Mazdayasna (“the worship of wisdom”) was founded on the teachings of Zarathustra in the 6th century BCE worships one universal, supreme, transcendent, all-good, and uncreated creator Ahura Mazda (“Lord of Wisdom” or “Wise Lord”) who dwells above, from which emanates asha, the spiritual force of cosmic order and the antithesis of druj, falsehood and disorder, which itself emanates from Angra Mainyu (“destructive spirit”), also known as Ahriman, who dwells below. These two forces are in constant conflict throughout all creation, especially pronounced upon humanity, although Ahura Mazda wins out in the end times, at which point a savior known as the Saoshyant will come forth to resurrect the dead, all of creation will be purified and renovated, and all humanity will be judged twice: once for their spiritual being and once for their physical being. While there are similarities between the above Zoroastrian notions and ZT’s notions of Sisamoro and Senamira, the similarities end there. While the tiles given in the Urn foldout all have a distinct flame motif on each of the Intelligence and Numeral tiles, hearkening to the notion of Zoroastrian fire worship, this is all little more than a superficial appropriation of Zoroastrian symbols and concepts to offer an exotic orientalizing flavor to a relatively modern form of divination. The whole of the rest of the system displays the usual European Christian frameworks and sensibilities which, although at times parallel with Zoroastrian ones, is less an indication of ZT’s ultimate Persian antiquity and more one of cultural resonance.

Especially intriguing on this point, however, is a note from the Epistle. Towards the end, in describing the mythic history of the Great Cabala, the author of the Epistle states that “the Good Principle and the Bad Principle, having become rivals in the opinion of these impious fools, shared equally a desecrated incense”. It is true in Zoroastrianism that Ahura Mazda is the supreme creator, and though they are at war until the end times, their conjoined conflict can be said to provide for the constant creation of the current world which will end when Ahura Mazda eventually and inevitably conquers Ahriman; in this, Ahura Mazda and Ahriman cannot be said to be rivals or equals. Yet, in the divinatory and cosmological system of ZT, Sisamoro and Senamira do appear to fulfill that role, being equal though opposite in power, with the Supreme Being beyond both of them taking on the role in ZT that Ahura Mazda himself has in Zoroastrianism. It may be that the Epistle here is referring to the religious understanding of Ahura Mazda and Ahriman in Zoroastrianism proper than the cosmological signification of Sisamoro and Senamira in ZT, maybe showing at least some awareness beyond the merely superficial of the religion itself.

While Sisamoro and Senamira work on a cosmic scale, the two spirits Sallak and Sokak act on a human scale, almost as their respective emissaries. ZT notes that these are not divinities in their own right as Sisamoro or Senamira might be, but are “only Creatures of the First Order”. Similarly, the implications of a statement like “the two Principles and the two Spirits do not overlap each other in the Great Cabala” and the similar though diminutive designs of the Sallak and Sokak tiles derived from those of Sisamoro and Senamira emphasize the different roles these pairs of entities have. This is further indicated by how their tiles are treated in a divinatory session employing the Great Mirror: the Principle tiles are not used in the Great Mirror itself but are placed beyond it in a way that affects the mirror as a whole, while the Spirit tiles are used just as any other. The suggestion is that Sisamoro and Senamira work on a grander or cosmic (or at least transpersonal) level, while Sallak and Sokak work on a smaller, individual scale.

As a symbol in the divinatory system of ZT, Sallak represents good fortune in general; Sallak is explicitly identified as the Catholic notion of a guardian angel. According to the Catholic Catechism (I.2.1.I.5.I.336):

From its beginning until death, human life is surrounded by their watchful care and intercession. “Beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading him to life.” Already here on earth the Christian life shares by faith in the blessed company of angels and men united in God.

On the contrary, Sokak is labeled as “the evil genius of the Ancients…the evil Angel”. Like Sallak, Sokak is a constant companion of each individual human; unlike Sallak who guides and helps each human to their most beneficial end, Sokak lays traps to afflict and waylay each individual human. To that end, in the divinatory system of ZT, Sokak represents ill fortune, but this is more of a concession to the system of divination rather than merely saying that Sallak is merely Eutychē and Sokak Distychē.  These are about our fates, where we encounter things that are good for us so long as we stick to the path of our fate, and encounter things bad for us if we fall off that path.

I’m sure there’s much more that one can extrapolate from ZT about its view of cosmology and spirituality in general, but I’m not sure how much more I could offer beyond mere conjecture; after all, I’m no expert in the history of French religion and occulture, and trying to get into the research of that is a daunting prospect far beyond my capabilities right now.  What I can offer, at least, is what ZT itself says about how it thinks about and constructs notions of divinity and the cosmos—but all this still leaves open the question of “so what?”.  I mean, okay, sure, we have all this notion of a grand cosmos filled with spirits and the Pure Spirit and everything, but where does that leave us, what is our goal, what do we do with all this information?  We’ll save the best for last, dear reader, and get to that next time.

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.