In Hermetic Kabbalah the sefira of Gevurah is associated with the planet Mars and its weapon is the sword.
The sword is an instrument of protection used in offense and defence. A person declares “this is my turf, step on it and I will attack you”. The sword is a symbol of whatever we employ for our of self-protection, whether it be harsh words, locked doors, barbed wire, tear-gas, or bullets. Of all the feelings associated with self-protection, anger and fear are the most important. When we have marked out our turf, we feel anger when it is stepped on, and we fear that our turf will be damaged or lost. Our sense of a self that should be protected extends into the sphere of property, neighbourhood, family, abstract concepts, intellectual property, lifestyle and social propriety. We fear the erosion of these things, and feel we have a right to take up the sword to defend them.
A practical Kabbalist is likely at some point to possess an actual sword for ritual use. A piece of tradition I was given is that one does not win the right to own a sword until one chooses not to use it. It is easy to understand this superficially: one should be discriminating in the use of a sword, and not attempt to hit every nail with the same hammer.
The reason I am posting this comes from a complex personal issue I will not describe, but one where I felt my survival at every level – emotional, ethical, and physical – was at stake. I was at the end of my tether. I felt that using the sword was the only remaining option. When the dust settled, I understood that something important had happened. On the same day someone sent me this quotation via a Tibetan Buddhist mailing list:
“The ground of fearlessness and the basis of overcoming doubt and wrong belief is to develop renunciation. Renunciation here means overcoming that very hard, tough, aggressive mentality which wards off any gentleness that might come into our hearts.
Fear does not allow fundamental tenderness to enter into us. When tenderness tinged by sadness touches our heart, we know that we are in contact with reality. We feel it. That contact is genuine, fresh, and quite raw.
That sensitivity is the basic experience of warriorship, and it is the key to developing fearless renunciation.”
The quotation is from Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who fled Tibet during the Chinese invasion and was responsible for establishing many important teaching lineages in several countries. He learned to teach and write in English, and his prose has an astonishing clarity and precision.
Let me explain what I think he means. Fear and anger are dual responses to a threat. A threat is something we must protect ourselves from. We cannot be fearless so long as we experience a world of threat and self-protection. We cannot be gentle when our chosen power is that of the sword.
It is only by giving up the sword – that is, renouncing our instinctive feelings of self-protection – that we can lose our fear and encounter reality as it is. It is then that we experience the ubiquity of pain and suffering, and see how much pain is caused by competition and self-protection. This is true not only in human beings, but throughout the animal kingdom. What one then feels is sometimes called ‘compassion’, but words can be overused and lose their freshness. Trungpa uses ‘tenderness’ instead. That tenderness is an authentic encounter with a new level of reality. In Kabbalah it is called Chesed, Loving-Kindness.
The Loving-Kindness of Chesed, the tenderness Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche describes, is not like the occasional warm feelings we have from time-to-time. It is like being stripped naked and beaten with sticks and rubbed raw. One can see the plight of every sentient being, trapped in fear and the consequent readiness to fight, and what one feels is an overwhelming pity. And tenderness.
I have read several biographies of Dr. John Dee, and all of his diaries, including the transcripts of his angelic communications, which occupied a relatively small portion of his life. A biography I like is that of Charlotte Fell-Smith, published in 1909. I read it about 20 years ago; it was out of print and I obtained an original copy through an inter-library loan. It is now back in print in an inexpensive facsimile copy published by Forgotten Books, and I have taken the opportunity to read it again.
I still like it. It is an authentic, cradle-to-grave biography, and does not over-stress the exoticism of the few years Dee spent working and travelling with Edward Kelley. Fell-Smith adopts a sceptical view of Kelley and the angelic workings, something I think is warranted in view of a tendency to glamorise and become excited by relatively limited parts of what the angels said.
Several writers stress Dee’s brilliance, his education, his contacts, his polymath tendencies. Fell-Smith reveals something different. He was a man who spent his whole life struggling for recognition, a free-lance scholar outside of the church who survived on an uncertain patronage. The Queen clearly regarded him with affection, but always passed him over when awarding sinecures. He wrote and published, but little he wrote had lasting value. He knew many wealthy and powerful people, but was never wealthy or powerful. He was a geek in an age of giant adventures and pan-European religious turmoil. He was forced to defend his reputation on several occasions, publishing self-righteous testimonies throughout his life, asking to be exonerated from slanders. His final appointment at Manchester College was a poisoned chalice, and he ended his life with little to show for his efforts and diligence. His memory was ridiculed a few generations later.
This is the background to Dee’s mid-life crisis and his angelic adventures with Kelley. He needed something big, something to impress the people he needed to impress. Kelley was a mercurial and volatile individual with few scruples, but I believe the scrying was genuine. There are aspects of his character that suggest he may have been bipolar – a thought that would go some way to understanding the complexities of his behaviour.
Dee and Kelley departed for Poland with Count Alfred Laski (a pretender to the throne) on a quixotic quest for patronage and influence, and there was something desperate and pathetic about the hardships the families were forced to endure. I completely discount any idea that he was a secret agent. His house in Mortlake was ransacked, his precious library destroyed, rents unpaid, debts accrued, and influence waned almost to nothing. This is the background to the most important and mysterious parts of the angelic communications. The two men worked for hours daily in a quest for divine knowledge that would change the world. They worked in rented houses, in inns, as they travelled around the courts and castles of Europe. It was a work of desperation. It broke Dee. Kelley, through some subterfuge, convinced the world that he could make gold, but he died escaping from prison.
It is a sad tale.
I have a perennial fascination with the angelic communications of Dr. John Dee and Edward Kelly. Part of the reason for my interest has been the spontaneous eruption of quasi-gnostic symbolism in my own meditations, symbolism that seems related to the system of Dee and Kelly. Although my interest has been sustained across decades and many books, it is sporadic. I find there is some truth or insight that is always just beyond my reach. Today I have been deep-diving on the Call of Nineteenth Aethyr. The language intrigues me. Crowley observed:
These Keys being re-written backwards, there then appeared conjurations in a language which they called “Enochian”, or “Angelic”. It is not a jargon; it has a grammar and a syntax of its own. It is far more sonorous, stately and impressive than even Greek or Sanskrit and the English translations, though in places difficult to understand, containing passages of a sustained sublimity that Shakespeare, Milton and the Bible do not surpass.
I would not go quite so far with the claim of “sustained sublimity”, but there are certainly a few passages (and the Nineteenth Call is one) that possess a marked literary flair. Other Calls feel like someone has opened several pages of the Psalms at random, plucked out random phrases, and stitched them together. Before going on with the deep diving, let me take a step backwards, and say something about the big picture.
The Bible is, in the scheme of things, a relatively recent and heavily redacted document that contains hints of things that didn’t make the final cut. For example, there is an Abrahamic tradition that is alluded to in Genesis, but the associated cultic structure was preserved in the Arabian peninsula and eventually codified as Islam. There is the dominant Mosaic tradition that became Judaism. There are hints at a third independent tradition, an Enoch tradition. The Enoch tradition appears to have deliberately excised, but enough survives for us to get a glimpse of it. The Enoch tradition would appear to have been a gnostic or knowledge-based tradition, a tradition of secret esoteric knowledge concerning the structure of the creation. One could think of it as a Semitic shamanic tradition that existed in parallel with other sects that became mainstream Judaism. We can perhaps glimpse its final late form in 3 Enoch (c. 5th century CE?), a Hekhalot text, at which point the Enoch tradition disappears from history.
An interesting feature of the Enoch tradition (and this is a significant part of 1 Enoch) is judgment. God will cleanse the world of evil at certain discrete times. 1 Enoch contains the entire story of the fallen angels who taught forbidden knowledge to humankind, a story stripped out of the Bible. The Bible describes how God flooded the world to cleanse it, but mumbles over the justification. The fallen angels and their fate is not discussed. All of this redacted material is made clear in 1 Enoch. 1 Enoch describes how the world was cleansed of evil by the Flood, and at the end-of-days will be cleansed of evil once again, and the fallen angels condemned.
A text that echoes the themes of 1 Enoch is the famous Apocalypse or Revelation of St. John. There are several undeniable signs that this is another text out of the Hekhalot tradition overlayed with a heavy Christian gloss. A characteristic feature of Hekhalot literature is a translation through the heavenly realms culminating in a vision of the divine throne, along with standard signposts such as the Holy Living Creatures, functionary angels, the substance mistaken for water etc. The Book of Revelation contains several elements to link it to this tradition, but focuses on that part alluded to in 1 Enoch – the culmination of days, the immanentisation of the eschaton, the end of the world. It combines a detailed esoteric theophany with an eschatology. Apart from the Christian gloss it could easily have been retitled 4 Enoch, with Enoch as the seer rather than John of Patmos.
Now we can return to Dr. Dee and Edward Kelly. They believed they were recovering the lost Book of Enoch – the original Heavenly Book. The angels agreed. If we take the revelatory material Dee and Kelly received from the angels we could be justified in calling it 5 Enoch. It is at this point a scholar sticks up hir hand and says “we should not dignify the transcript of a 16th century seance with the title ‘5 Enoch’. It is just a pastiche, a confabulation”. At which I have to throw up my hands and ask “how do you imagine all the other examples of Enoch literature were obtained?”.
The bizarre thing is: none of the Enoch manuscripts we possess today were available to Dee or Kelly. They were flying blind. And yet what they recovered from the angels is a creditable continuation of the Enoch tradition. It does not describe a translation through the heavenly realms; the angels were transmitting the lost keys necessary to open gates. That is, it is a precusor, the operational means to continue working within the Enoch tradition. This was the purpose of the Calls.
My interest in the 19th Call is its language. Crowley called it “the original curse on creation” because that is what it is. It is beautifully composed, it has the poise and rhythm of some of the finest texts in the Bible. Here it is, exactly as Kelly spoke it and Dee wrote it down:
O you heuens which dwell in the First Ayre, the mightie in the partes of the Erth, and execute the Iudgment of the Highest! To you it is sayd, Beholde the face of your God, the begynning of cumfort, whose eyes are the brightnes of the hevens: which prouided you for the gouernment of the Erth and her vnspeakable varietie, furnishing you wth a powr vnderstand to dispose all things according to the providence of Him that sitteth on the Holy Throne, and rose vp in the begynning, saying: the Earth let her be gouerned by her parts and let there be diuision in her, that the glory of hir may be allwayes drunken and vexed in it self. Her course, let it ronne wth the hevens, and as a handmayd let her serve them. One season let it confownd an other, and let there be no creature vppon or within her the same: all her members let them differ in their qualities, and let there be no one creature aequall wth an other: the reasonable Creatures of the Erth let them vex and weede out one an other, and the dwelling places let them forget thier names: the work of man, and his pomp, let them be defaced: his buyldings let them become caves for the beasts of the feeld. Confownd her vnderstanding with darknes. For why? It repenteth me I made Man. One while let her be known and an other while a stranger: bycause she is the bed of a Harlot, and the dwelling place of Him that is Faln. O you heuens arrise: the lower heuens vnder neath you, let them serve you! Gouern those that govern: cast down such as fall! Bring furth with those that encrease, and destroy the rotten! No place let it remayne in one number: ad and diminish vntill the stars be numbred!
Arrise, Move, and Appere before the Couenant of his mowth, which he hath sworne vnto vs in his Iustice. Open the Mysteries of your Creation: and make vs partakers of Vndefyled Knowledg.
The sentence “It repenteth me I made Man” links us directly to 1 Enoch and the first cleansing of the world; it refers to Genesis 6:7:
And the LORD said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them.
The 19th Call is genuinely horrible. For example “the reasonable creatures of the Earth let them vex and weed out one another …”. This is God deciding to throw His Toyes out of the pram. The sentence “Confound her understanding with darkness” echoes another resonant part of the Bible, the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis. The story begins with the people united in speech and purpose, and God sees this:
And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.
So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.
This is horrible. One can easily understand why many gnostic sects depicted the OT God as an evil tyrant, a false God, an abomination. And here is the thing about the system of Dee and Kelly; it is absolutely saturated with a gnostic sensibility, even down to the details. In the authentically gnostic Secret Book of John the demonic creator is called Ialdebaot. No plausible etymology for this exists. In the angelic (’Enochian’) language communicated by the angels to Dee and Kelly ‘Iad Baltoh’ means ‘God of Righteousness’. Inexplicable. Weird. Did Kelly at some point happen upon the works of Church heresiologists Irenaeus and Hippolytus? We will never know.
As a companion to my thinking I have been reading two books. The first is Tetragrammaton by Donald Tyson and the second is The Angelical Language, Volume I: The Complete History and Mythos of the Tongue of Angels by Aaron Leitch. For overall background context these are the two books I go to. Too many works on Dee and Kelly fail to look at the overall context for their thought, especially the Bible, and the Book of Revelation, and other works such as 2 Esdras. Tyson and Leitch between them have done a lot of homework. My problem with both books (and I do not wish to seem critical, because these are worthwhile explorations of the Angelic communications) is that they are too quick to shoehorn the communications into an existing interpretational framework. Both spent an interminable amount of time ‘explaining’ what the text means, based on extremely fragile assumptions.
For myself I would like to see a more linguistic and textual approach to the entire communications, not just the obviously esoteric parts. The angels employ patterns of speech and textual references that I find fascinating but largely unexplored. I enjoy reading the original handwritten transcripts (especially the later Causabon material) because the angels have a distinctive character that deserves to be listened to more carefully.
A few years ago my geekier friends were showing me complicated shapes made out of a white, nylon-like plastic. They had been printed using the first generation of home 3D printers. There were wild claims that 3D printing would transform manufacturing. Perhaps it will. My son Dougie uses one for prototyping the climbing equipment he designs.
The idea is not new. A few years ago I was staying with my mother in Scotland, and drove over to Montrose for something to do. On the way I stopped at a National Trust property, and there, in a barn, were three working Jacquard looms turning out traditional linen for the tourist trade. There was nothing to announce or celebrate this extraordinary find. It was like finding a velociraptor wearing an apron and starched cap serving cake in the tearoom. I used to work for Hewlett Packard, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of printers, and although my work did not involve printing, I could not help being interested in the technology. Finding a working Jacquard loom on a random day out in Scotland was fantastically exciting.
The Jacquard loom was invented in 1801 by Joseph Marie Jacquard. A large continuous ‘tape’ punched with holes passes over a reader (this tape can be seen hanging in folds in the picture to the left – you can click on it to see the details) and causes frames carrying the warp thread to raise and lower, thus automating the actions of a weaver. It is essentially a 2.5D printer. The image of J.M. Jacquard at the head of this article was woven in silk using 24,000 punched cards. As you can see, it is capable of considerable subtlety and detail, and it was capable of automating the mass-production of images at a time when photography had not been developed. It inspired Babbage in his quest to create computational engines. The punched cards are almost identical in concept to the Hollerith punched cards I used on a daily basis when I first began working as a programmer. The first printer I ever used was driven by a deck of Hollerith cards, just like the Jacquard loom.
The Jacquard loom is a seminal idea. When you look at it you are looking at one of the most profound things you will ever see. I do not exaggerate. At the top there is the read head and the instruction tape, and at the bottom there is the print head and woven fabric. You can see the weave emerging in the second photo above. Every living cell is filled with exact analogues of the Jacquard loom. They are called ribosomes.
The ribosome is a molecular printer. It is about 25-30 nanometres in size (a nanometre is a billionth of a metre). The ribosome works like the Jacquard loom: it reads a tape and sequentially ‘weaves’ or prints a protein. The only difference is that the loom is fed with continuous thread, while a ribosome is fed with amino acids, one at a time.
The tape used by a ribosome is called messenger RNA, or m-RNA. It is literally a tape, the most minimal kind of tape one could make. The fabric of the tape is a simple sugar called ribose, and like many sugars it can form long molecular chains (for example, starch and cellulose are made out of chains of glucose). The molecules of ribose are connected like beads on a necklace, and hanging off each bead is one of four special molecules that make up the code. These molecules, called bases, are adenine, guanine, uracil, and cytosine. Each group of three bases specifies an amino acid. Decoding is like using a rosary in groups of three beads – count off three beads, get an amino acid, count off another three, get another amino acid … and so on, linking the amino acids together until an entire protein in assembled.
It is so simple. A ribosome even looks a little like a Jacquard loom – a read head where the tape goes in, a hole where the amino acids are fed in, and an output where the printed protein emerges. You can find animations of ribosomes at work on Wikipedia.
Where does the tape come from? It comes from a gene when it is being expressed, and it is a direct copy of the DNA of the gene. The gene produces the m-RNA, and the m-RNA is transported to a ribosome and a protein is printed.
Proteins are the worker-bees of every living cell. They catalyse all the important chemical reactions, and in doing so, drive the processes that run the cell. They can act back on the genes in the DNA, switching genes on and off, and so regulating the printing of new proteins. The genetic code of DNA is like the queen bee, not very active, but giving birth to new proteins on demand. The ribsome is at the centre of this miracle, turning specifications into actions.
The Platonists of the ancient world grasped the nature of these separations of concern. There was a world of specification, of form. There was a world of imprinting, what they termed soul. And there was a receptacle that was imprinted, a concept we now translate as ‘matter’. The soul functioned something like a Jacquard loom, translating specifications into functioning living beings. We now know it doesn’t seem to work exactly like that – form, soul and matter are all embodied at the same level by molecular machines of the most astonishing beauty, sophistication and complexity. There is a circularity, like a snake eating its tail: the specification makes the machines, and the machines manufacture new copies of the specification. Sometimes they make mistakes. That is why we exist.
Stromatolites sounds like a pious Byzantine librarian who wrote “I am offended by this!” in the margins of Neoplatonic discourses. But no …
When I visited my son in Western Australia we visited an unremarkable lagoon with active stromatolites. They don’t look like much – mounds of stuff left behind by untold generations of bacteria, like the ancient city mounds (‘tells’) that dot the middle east.
They are probably the oldest, continuously active life forms on the planet. There are stromatolite remains in Western Australia that have been dated to 3.7 billion years old.
The remarkable thing about life on this planet is how quickly it became active. For about 3 billion years bacterial lifeforms terraformed the planet, oxidising everything in sight until there was an oxygen surplus, a bizarre situation considering oxygen is just one spark away from an accident waiting to happen. We think of wood as inflammable, and petrol, and polyester nighties, but no, oxygen is the causus belli in every case. Oxygen provides the necessary free energy for centrally-organised multicellular life, with differentiated cell types.
So far from being uninteresting, bacteria are amazing. They made us. And hey, there might be stromatolites on Mars.
Twenty years. This year 2015 is the 20th. anniversary of Digital Brilliance. This site has been on the WWW longer than Google.
In 1995 I bought my first personal computer and a domain name. The WWW was growing explosively, and one key factor was the release of Netscape Navigator in late 1994, and the ability to include graphics in a web page. It was all very exciting. I had circulated some writing on Kabbalah on the Usenet from about 1990 on, and thought it would be good to give it a proper home, and offer a place for other writing.
A principle that I adopted (and I have stuck to) is that the site should be about Kabbalah – not advertising, product, courses, or other merchandising schemes. Yes, there is now an advert for a book. I am pleased to say that 2015 is also the publication date of The Hermetic Kabbalah. Like the site, it was made for you, not for me. It is a big book, and I’m selling it for more or less what it costs to print.
I have spent several years working on a book about the Hermetic Kabbalah. I am very pleased to say it is now available through Amazon in the USA and in the EU. It is a large book of 464 pages and over 60 illustrations, and not only covers many aspects of traditional Jewish Kabbalah in depth, it highlights what is distinctive about the Hermetic tradition as it has developed from the later part of the 15th century – the influence of Hellenistic philosophy and Neoplatonism, the Hermetica, theurgy and ascent mysticism, the mystery cults of antiquity, Gnosticism, and traditions of occult tutelage – the Holy Guardian Angel. It was written to benefit anyone who knows something about the Hermetic tradition of Kabbalah and would like to know more about the big picture – its historical foundations, literary traditions, key figures, and practical methods.