The Study of Magic – The Amoebic Cabala
Earlier, I said that every single modern, western magician is responding, in one way or another, to Plato. We are all either Neoplatonists, or reacting against Neoplatonism. The strange thing is, in most of our daily lives, we are not Neoplatonists at all — in fact, in most other contemporary intellectual fields, Neoplatonism has been set aside so firmly that one doesn’t even have to react against it anymore. Most scientists embrace material monism, which denies even the possibility of a nonphysical existence. In many of the humanities, scholars embrace postmodernism, which denies the possibility of an ideal or original meaning. And even in popular music and art, we have thrown away the mathematical harmonies thought to be fundamental in ancient times; if you doubt it, just listen to a Metallica song.
So how is it that we magicians are still acting like Neoplatonism is the Thing? It’d be as if scientists still included disclaimers against the existence of Aether in their papers, or if Metallica thought they were clever because they avoided the complex mathematical counterpoint of Bach. Yet we either embrace Neoplatonism (perhaps not knowing that’s what we’re doing) or we reject it explicitly (again, perhaps not by name, but Chaos magicians argue against its ideas). The reason comes down to a particularly influential, and particularly useful, formulation of Neoplatonism that arose in the Middle Ages, although its roots stretch back long: This is the mystical, religious, and magical system of the Cabala.
Briefly, the Cabala is a system of number and word mysticism that grew out of the medieval Jewish study of the Talmud. In its original formulation, if an oral tradition can be said to have such a thing, it concerned chiefly the relationship between and meaning hidden within words. But it also taught a system of emanations from deity, probably borrowed from Greek Neoplatonism. There are ten such emanations, the sephiroth, corresponding to the ten numerals, and each is given a correspondence to a direction, a body part, and so forth. Finally, the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet are seen as a sort of intermediate between these emanations.
Every single modern magician in America and England, whether Wiccan or Hoodoo root doctor, Chaos magician or Brit Trade Witch, has made some use of the Cabala, knowingly or not. Catherine Yrenwode points out that Hoodoo, for example, borrowed from European grimoires such as the The Key of Solomon which themselves borrowed from the Cabala. Even the “Charge of the Goddess,” which reads in part:
Upon Earth I give the knowledge of the Spirit Eternal, and beyond death I give peace and freedom, and reunion with those who have gone before. Nor do I demand aught in sacrifice, for behold, I am the Mother of all things, and my love is poured out upon earth1.
is a borrowing from Crowley’s The Book of the Law, a book filled with Cabalistic and Neoplatonic ideas:
I:58 I give unimaginable joys on earth: certainty, not faith, while in life, upon death; peace unutterable, rest, ecstasy; nor do I demand aught in sacrifice2.
While this sentence may not, out of context, seem particularly cabalistic, it is surrounded by a suggestion that the Hebrew letter tzaddai should not be associated with the tarot card The Star, as well as bits of complex numerical mysticism.
So how did this system become so popular, while similar systems did not? After all, we could all be practicing some system based on Sufi mysticism, or even Merkabah rather than Cabala. So what is it that made Cabala so ubiquitous? We could explore historical accidents of all kinds, from the invasion of the Mongols to the fall of the Temple, but ultimately, it comes down to utility. The Cabala is a Neoplatonic formulation of the universe with an eye toward use, and later developments and refinements of the cabala, such as Hermetic Cabala, emphasized and built on those uses.
The primary utility of the Cabala is as a system of classification, which might sounds rather lame — a Dewey decimal system for magic? — but is in reality foundational. The Cabala offers a system of symbols that interlock coherently. Obviously, any system of symbols could work, but just as one individual might find it hard to invent his or her own language (not impossible, mind you, but hard), so an individual might find it hard to invent a symbol system of such richness. If I take any two symbols from any two domains, I can relate them together in the cabala and figure out which shape in Plato’s cave they ultimately point to.
Think about the implications of that. Take a planet, a big gassy one with rings, orbiting out there at about the limit of our ability to see it. Take an herb, bitter, astringent — a gum actually, used as an embalming agent. Take a metal, dark, heavy, often used to seal containers in ancient times because of its low melting point. Take a grave. Take a womb. The Cabala tells us that all of these things are connected, that they all are reflections of the same shadowy shape in Plato’s cave of images: specifically, one named Binah. These are things that mark limits: the limit of our sight, the boundaries of life and death, the inside and outside of containers. Binah is about limits and boundaries. This Binah manifests in the world in numerous ways, but each shares some of that essence of limiting, and each is touching all the others in the world of ideas.
This system acts as a calculus of leverage. I know that to push this thing here — a poppet made of lead and anointed with myrrh — might push that thing there — an enemy. Of course, you can use this same leverage for good. I can gather things associated with Hesed and create an expansion of power or wealth, or I can call up the powers of Tifareth and manipulate the shining light in the center of everything that gives it the impetus to be what it is.
So everyone should run out and study the Cabala. Or perhaps not. After all, we often use it without knowing that we’re using it, and other systems can do the same thing. It’s just that the Cabala is an example of a system that’s so well-developed and carefully defined, it’s hard to ignore. It’s also hard to keep away from: if you study magic in the west, you will at some point or another study the Cabala, whether you like it or not. And sometimes whether you know it or not, because the Cabala is an amoeba.
What I wrote about above, the connections between Saturn, lead, and myrrh, actually wasn’t originally Cabalistic. The Cabala incorporated those associations like an amoeba eating a paramecium. And there’s no reason not to imagine that the Cabala won’t absorb anything else set near it. There are Cabalistic associations with tarot cards, musical notes and genres, and the characters of the The Rocky Horror Picture Show. This amoebic nature of the Cabala means two things: First, there are thousands of doorways in. Second, everything is a tool.
There are a thousand doorways into the Cabala. A lot of tarot readers, for example, begin studying it because the cards’ associations with the sephiroth and the paths can lead to illuminating connections during readings. And the cards can even be used in the opposite direction: Donald Tyson has a splendid little book about using the tarot as an entire temple, and while he doesn’t make a big complicated deal out of it (one of the things I like about his books), it’s all quietly and calmly Cabalistic. Whatever you’re into, whether it’s herbalism or epic poetry, you can find a way into the Cabala from there.
Second, as I suggested above, everything is a tool. You can use the tarot as a set of magical tools once you understand their Cabalistic associations. But in a pinch, you can use anything. Once you see what idea an object reflects, you can use that object to represent that idea. This notion sounds counterrational, and I suppose to some degree it is. But you can literally do magic with some pocket lint and a few spare coins, if you realize the ways in which those things connect to the platonic ideal reality. And the Cabala is a handy heuristic for figuring that out.
Now let’s interrupt this paean to the Cabala to say that, in fact, it’s more complicated than this. For example, while most Hermetic Cabalists place Saturn in the path of Tav, others place the Moon there. While most place the sun in Tifareth, some place Mercury. It seems, indeed, that they get results. So which is it? Who’s wrong?
Well, they are. Not because their associations are wrong, but insofar as they insist that they’re the right and true associations. Because the Cabala is, at its most basic level, a language for describing ultimate reality. It’s not a map of that reality, or an image of it, or even an abstraction of it. It’s just a set of symbols set into relation to describe it. And ultimate reality can be described in multiple ways, some useful, some useless. Putting Mercury in Tifareth has some negative side effects (it screws up the order of the Neoplatonic crystal spheres which the order of the planets in the sephiroth is based on, for example) and some benefits (it creates a balanced tree in terms of binary oppositions). We can imagine hundreds of useful organizations of the sephiroth, and in fact we should remember that the current popular diagram is only one of many historical diagrams of them, and one of the oldest simply places the sephiroth as rays from a central point.
To say that the Cabala points to an ultimate reality implies that reality exists, of course. But it doesn’t say how it exists. Some people pretend that there’s a “true” cabala pointing to a “true” reality, but “absolute” doesn’t mean “objective.” It doesn’t even mean that our symbols are anything but arbitrary. We could imagine a useless Cabala, probably, but that doesn’t mean that there’s one better than all others: we can imagine a useless language, but that doesn’t mean that one language is better than another.
It’s not so much a matter, then, of unlocking ourselves from the chains in Plato’s cave and walking back, grabbing the shadow images, and saying, “Oh, look, it’s really a paper swan!” Instead, it’s more like walking back and saying, “it appears to be the sound the color blue makes when it’s cast out of tin and struck with a hammer at the speed of joy.” We don’t have eyes to see that ultimate reality. All we have are crude sketches that show some links between them, and no guarantee that what you see is what I will see. And yet, if we’re Neoplatonists, even for a few moments when we’re practicing magic, we have faith that these absolutes exist — even if we can’t know them.
©2010 by Patrick Dunn.
Edited by Sheta Kaey.
Patrick Dunn has written two books on the occult, Postmodern Magic: The Art of Magic in the Information Age and Magic Power Language Symbol: A Magician’s Exploration of Linguistics. He lives near Chicago, where he teaches and writes. You can find his blog here.