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While it began as a mystical interpretation of Jewish scriptural texts, today Qabalah is much more. As John Bonner writes in his introduction, "Qabalah is a metaphysical philosophy, or rather a theosophy, that sets out to answer a series of vital questions regarding the nature of God, His creation, and the place of man in His divine plan." It is a ...
While it began as a mystical interpretation of Jewish scriptural texts, today Qabalah is much more. As John Bonner writes in his introduction, "Qabalah is a metaphysical philosophy, or rather a theosophy, that sets out to answer a series of vital questions regarding the nature of God, His creation, and the place of man in His divine plan." It is a living, growing system of personal development. In addition, much of contemporary Western magick is founded on the work of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which based its ritual and teachings firmly in Qabalah.
This scholarly introduction explores the mysteries of Qabalah through the symbolism of the Tree of Life and its four distinct elements: the three Pillars of Manifestation, the ten Holy Sephiroth, the Paths that run to and from the Sephiroth, and the Veils. For each Sephirah, Bonner provides detailed information on magical, astrological, and tarot correspondences - as well as how different religious traditions relate to the concepts contained in each.
Otz ChIIM The Tree of Life
In this chapter we will attempt to gain an "overview" of the glyph which lies at the very heart of Qabalistic teaching. The Tree of Life is composed of four distinct elements. These are: the three Pillars of Manifestation; the ten Holy Sephiroth; the "Paths" which run to and from the Sephiroth; and the "Veils," which includes the great abyss below the Supernal Triad. (See illustration, page 6.)
What we have described is the traditional Tree in its simplest configuration. It is possible to extend the glyph to illustrate such concepts as the four worlds and their multitudinous correspondences, but here we shall restrict ourselves to the most commonly seen form. As the various models of the extended Tree were developed to deal with some of the more arcane Qabalistic speculations they are hardly suitable for inclusion in a "primer" such as this. However, armed with a thorough understanding of the structure and dynamics of the basic glyph, plus a good general knowledge of Qabalistic philosophy, even the more outlandish outcroppings of Qabalah become accessible, for they are all ultimately founded upon this one simple design.
It will be noticed that we have referred to the Tree as having but ten Sephiroth, and not the commonly seen eleven. This is because we are viewing the Tree in its original version before the concept of the "pseudo-Sephirah," Daath, was introduced. One of the earliest of Qabalistic documents, the Sepher Yetzirah, or "Book of Formation," is quite specific about the number of Sephiroth to be assigned, for it says:
Ten is the number of the ineffable Sephiroth, ten and not nine, ten and not eleven. Understand this Wisdom, and be wise in the perception.
(Wm. Wynn Westcott, trans., Rittangelius edition, 1642.)
This message is reiterated throughout the first chapter of the book. However, Daath is now fully established in mainstream Qabalah as a legitimate, if somewhat enigmatic, Sephirah and in many ways it is possible to argue that this "invisible" sphere is of particular importance to us in this new aeon. We shall deal with Daath throughout this work as a proper and accepted emanation, while taking care to recognize both its unique character and its relative modernity as a fully-fledged Sephirah.
Even the most superficial of glances at the diagram of the Tree of Life will be sufficient to suggest that it contains a number of repeating patterns, the most obvious being that of the triangle. Apart from the arrangements of Sephirothic "Triads" on the Tree, the other noticeable feature is that the design is based around three vertical columns, which contain the Sephiroth. These columns, or Pillars as they are more often termed, are of the greatest importance to the functioning of the Tree and to our understanding of it (see facing page illustration).
The Pillars of Manifestation
Before discussing the pillars as such it might be wise to explain briefly the "handedness" of the Tree as it is usually drawn. In most cases the glyph will be found with the positive or masculine column to the viewer's right, and the negative column to his left. This representation is that of the macrocosmic Tree. The microcosmic Tree, as we would apply it to our own bodies, is the exact reverse, rather as though we have backed on to the diagram. The columns, and the Sephiroth they contain, would therefore read as the masculine or positive pillar on our left, and the feminine or negative pillar on our right. The matter assumes its greatest importance when it comes to tracing the outline of the Tree on the body, as for example, during the Qabalistic Cross, which opens and closes the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram.
All that has existed, exists, or will exist, arises from the union of the masculine and feminine principles.
All that which exists, all that which has been formed by the Ancient, whose Name is holy, can only exist through a male and female.
The combined potencies of the masculine and feminine in nature results in a new state, which is one of balance. The conditions of force and form which these potencies represent come to their final equilibrium in the product of their union.
As all created things derive from an interaction and combination of polarities it is natural that one of the first patterns to be discerned on the Holy Tree is the one that best demonstrates this eternal truth, the three "Pillars of Manifestation." The three columns or pillars on the glyph represent the positive and negative potencies and a central state of equilibrium.
It is important that it is understood from the beginning that terms such as "positive" and "negative" are used to distinguish states or modalities of "being" or "doing," and do not carry the judgmental connotations that they might possess in everyday speech. The usage of these terms in the context of this work is purely technical, somewhat after the manner of the definitions of electrical science, and has no other implications.
The positive or masculine pillar is termed "The Pillar of Mercy," while the negative or feminine side is called "The Pillar of Severity." The middle pillar is usually called just that, "The Middle Pillar," but is more formally referred to as the "Pillar of Mildness" or "of Equilibrium."
The first objection which newcomers to the system of Qabalah raise is in regard to the titles of these pillars, and in particular that of the feminine potency. How can it be, they ask, that the column that represents all the attributes of the female principle is called the "Pillar of Severity" while the masculine column is called (of all things!) the "Pillar of Mercy"? Actually these attributions are entirely in keeping with the function of each column and the nature of the principles that each expresses. It is not intended that we should spend overmuch time dealing with this matter now, as the appropriateness of the titles will become much clearer as we progress down through the Sephiroth on the Tree and see there the different aspects of each principle in action. But, briefly, the feminine column represents restriction and containment. It "captures" and "incorporates" the dynamic kinetic energies of the masculine potency, and in so doing condemns them to a period of "imprisonment" in the bonds of form. This process is one that Qabalists call "severity"—the imposition of discipline and structure upon unrestrained force. These two conditions are absolutely essential to one another for form cannot exist other than as patterns of interlocked energy, and energy itself is ephemeral unless conditioned by the principles expressed by the negative pillar.
The following table, detailing the principal characteristics of each column, may provide a starting point for understanding their qualities and the manner in which they must therefore interact.
This table should amply demonstrate that the outer columns represent not merely opposed but complementary principles. They are, as it were, two sides to the one coin. This then is the first triplicity of the Tree, the pattern of which will be seen repeated again and again as we progress further into the teachings of the Qabalah.
The negative column or "Pillar of Severity" bears three Sephiroth: Binah, the third Supernal; Geburah, the fifth Sephirah, and Hod, the eighth. All these spheres are essentially feminine in function, although two of them, the fifth and the eighth, may superficially present themselves as male. In order to understand why this should be it is necessary to remember that polarity is determined by function and not presentation. These are the receptive Sephiroth of the Tree, which accept the energetic impulse from their opposite numbers on the Pillar of Mercy and add to them the extra dimension of form.
Form in any tangible sense does not appear until Malkuth, the last emanation, although the concept is inherent in each of the Spheres of Severity. In Binah, at the head of the negative pillar, the concept of form is first developed as a necessary response to the dynamism of Chokmah. In Geburah, the central Sephirah of the column, stringent discipline is imposed on the energies emanating from its opposite, Chesed, while in the pillar's basal sphere the concept of form is further concretized and brought into the area of human cognition.
It must be remembered that all the spheres are in a sense bipolar and bi-sexual. Each responds in a different manner according to the position of the sphere with which it is interacting. For example, Binah, the archetypal feminine Sephirah, is negative or female to Chokmah, the sphere preceding it in the descent of power, but is positive or masculine in its relationship to Chesed, which is the subsequent Sephirah in the order of emanation. The potency of each sphere is, to a degree, variable according to its position relative to other Sephiroth, but nevertheless each retains a primary polarity.
The God-names of the Sephiroth of Severity give us an indication of how they might best be considered in the light of this bi-polarity. Each of the spheres on this column contain, as part of its name, the word "Elohim," which in Hebrew means God. This name is composed of two elements and as a feminine noun with an attached masculine plural encompasses both polarities This is the God who says, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness," and therefore; "male and female created He them" (Gen. 1:26–27).
The name itself will be explored in the appropriate Sephirothic chapters, but its mention here should be sufficient to illustrate how important an understanding of the Qabalistic interpretation of gender is to our present study.
Another factor to be kept in mind is that each Sephirah contains the "seed" or "imprint" of the one which follows after it. Therefore, until we arrive at Malkuth, every Sephirah necessarily holds within itself the potency of the sphere which will eventually emanate from it, and which is always the opposite of its own presenting polarity.
The Pillar of Mercy, the positive and constructive column of the Tree, also bears three Sephiroth. These are: the second Supernal, Chokmah; the fourth Sephirah, Chesed; and the seventh, Netzach. The triplicity of Sephiroth which constitute this column are energetic and expansive in character, in contrast to the restriction of the opposite pillar. Whereas the modality of the negative column is determined by the powerful brooding presence of Binah, here it is the explosive effervescence of Chokmah which imbues the triad. Each of the three spheres of this column expresses an aspect of the masculine creative drive. In Chokmah this is the primary impulse of Kether being sent outward on its journey to eventual manifestation—raw creative power, as yet untamed and undisciplined by interaction with the feminine current. In the central sphere of Chesed this power is more balanced and controlled, although still highly vigorous in its expression.
After the primary impulse has been subjected to the strictures of Geburah and the gentle mediating influence of Tiphareth, it is shown forth in Netzach in the typical qualities of Venus, its "mundane chakra" or planetary correspondence, as emotion and the drive to union.
In a sense, the Middle Pillar, or Pillar of Mildness, is as much a result of the interaction of the two opposed outer columns as it is a direct conduit of the power of Kether. Here is found harmony and balance, the outer pillars brought to reconciliation and equilibrium, a place of rest and repose. This pillar contains four Sephiroth and the "Invisible Sephirah" of Daath. At the head of the column is the "Primal Glory" of Kether, first of the emanations and interface with the Unmanifest. Below Kether lies the mysterious area of Daath, astride the great Abyss. In the very center of the Tree, below Daath and above Yesod, is found Tiphareth, the heart of the glyph even as it represents the subtle heart of man. With Yesod we have the first concentration of the combined energies of the Tree, for below, in Malkuth, there is no new factor or quality to be added.
The Middle Pillar is sometimes referred to as the "Pillar of Consciousness," as opposed to the two outer pillars of "function." The Middle Pillar Sephiroth are then taken to represent different levels of consciousness. To borrow Dion Fortune's extremely useful classification these are: Malkuth, "sensory consciousness"; Yesod, "astral psychism"; Tiphareth, "illuminated consciousness"; Daath, "conscious awareness or apprehension"; until in Kether is found "union with God," a level of consciousness inexplicable to those who have not so attained.
It is the way of the magician to journey (through initiation in its proper and full sense and not by the ersatz rites propagated by some occult orders) up the ladder of the Tree, following the paths and Sephiroth described by the image of the Serpent upon the glyph. (See illustration, page 24.)
The way of the mystic however is very different, for he follows the "Path of the Arrow," ascending the planes of consciousness, represented by the middle pillar Sephiroth, from Malkuth to eventual union in Kether. This path is, of course, considerably more direct than that of the circuitous travels and adventures of the magician but it is one that does not lie open to all. Although the gate may indeed be strait, and narrow the way that leads unto it, it requires a combination of qualities rarely found in the West to successfully negotiate this path without falling prey to delusion or despair, the especial dangers that await the mystic. The magician, needless to say, has his own problems, not the least being a constant and all too often unsuccessful guerrilla war with his own ego.
The Sephirothic Triads
Looking at the graphic representation of the Holy Tree it is clear that the Sephiroth fall into a series of triadic groups. Each of these triads is composed of a positive sphere, a negative sphere and a point of balance and reconciliation. In this way they resemble the pattern of the pillars of manifestation (see p. 26).
The first, and most obvious, triad is that of the Sephiroth above the Abyss. These three spheres are referred to as the "Supernals" and therefore this grouping is known as the "Supernal Triad." They are also termed, in Hebrew, Olam-ha-Mevshekal, which has the approximate meaning of the "Intellectual World." Describing this particular triad as the "Intellectual World" is somewhat misleading however, for the intellect as such has no place above the Abyss. Another name, although less common, is "The Intelligible World," but again this does not convey the true essence of the triad.
THE SERPENT ON THE TREE
The Sephiroth above the Abyss are the prototypes of the forces to be found below. In a sense all the subsequent Sephiroth are but particular, specialized, expressions of the principles contained in the Supernal Triad. Kether is the point at which the Unmanifest first begins the process of manifestation and is the conduit for the Mezla, the creative energy which pulses through the Tree. The second Sephirah, Chokmah, or "Wisdom," represents the first differentiation of Kether's homogeneous flux. The asexual impulse is transformed in Chokmah into positive, masculine force. In the following sphere of Binah the creative impulse is again intercepted and is now rendered into a negative, feminine current. So, above the Abyss is thereby established a stable triad which is to be the model for all others on the Tree.
All the necessary components are in place; positive and negative energies, represented by Chokmah and Binah respectively, and the balance point of Kether. These three Supernal Sephiroth combine to make one creative unit, the "Three-in-One" or "The One Head which are Three Heads," to quote just two of Kether's many subsidiary titles.
One obvious difference between the Supernal Triad and the two other triadic arrangements below the Abyss, is that here the apex of the triangle is upward. In the case of the two subsequent triads the apex points down the Tree. Kether is not only the equilibrating sphere in the arrangement, it is also the fount of the Tree's sustaining energy. As it is indeed the case that the focus of the Supernal Triad is upwards, unlike that of the two lower groupings, we must assume that here the emphasis is somewhat different. The lower triads focus their energies down through the Tree, the negative and positive forces combining in the third sphere to transmit their, now equilibrated, influence to the next level, which in the case of the final triad is the pendent sphere of Malkuth. Kether, although effectively the balancing sphere in the Supernal Triad, does not of course transmit the combined energies of Chokmah and Binah out to the Ain, but rather is the collector and conduit of energies from the Ain. In this way the Supernal Triad notably differs from those below the Abyss. Nevertheless, the principle of the creative trinity, which is to be found repeated throughout the glyph and even within the Ain, is first clearly demonstrated on the Tree by the Supernal Sephiroth.
Excerpted from Qabalah by John Bonner. Copyright © 2002 John Bonner. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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1. OTz ChIIM—The Tree of Life
2. The Four Worlds
3. The Sephiroth
4. Ain, Ain Soph, Ain Soph Aur
16. The Literal Qabalah
Appendix 1: Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram
Appendix 2: Transliteration Table