Paths of Wisdom: Cabala in the Golden Dawn Tradition

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Acclaimed as an instant classic on its original publication and eagerly sought by students of magic ever since, Paths of Wisdom is a comprehensive introduction to the theory and practice of the magical Cabala, as practiced in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and most other contemporary Western occult traditions. Engaging and accessible, yet packed with material found in few other books, it illumines the Cabalist underpinnings of today's Hermetic magic as never before.From the fundamentals of Cabalistic philosophy, through a detailed examination of the Spheres and Paths of the Tree of Life, to the magical disciplines that bring the symbolism to life as a potent toolkit for self-knowledge and esoteric attainment, Paths of Wisdom is your guide to the principles and practices of the magical Cabala.

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Chapter One - The Tree of Life

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One of the great difficulties in beginning work with the Hermetic Cabala—and one of the reasons that this system of magic and mysticism has developed such a reputation for complexity and obscurity—is the sheer mass of material that has been built up over the years. As a living tradition more than four hundred years old, with its roots in other traditions many centuries older, it has been enriched by the efforts of generations of magicians, mystics and scholars. An immense store of tradition, lore, and experience has been amassed over this time. Like an ancient forest, it has grown thick with underbrush, and in all this underbrush it is easy to become so thoroughly lost that not only the forest but the trees themselves are hidden from sight.

Underlying all this, however, is a basic structure of great simplicity. It arose, as all mystical philosophies arise, out of the experiences of human beings facing the inner side of existence, and their attempts to describe those experiences. Such attempts are problematic, to say the least, because in a very real sense human language—any human language—can only express certain kinds of perceptions clearly.

 

Chapter Two - The Paths upon the Tree

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So far, we have considered the Spheres on their own, as phases of the spectrum of being. This is only half of the complete picture. Each Sphere also stands at the center of a web of interactions linking it with other Spheres in certain specific ways, and these links can be used as bridges to move from one Sphere to another. There are twenty-two such links in all, and they are symbolized by the twenty-two Paths of the Tree of Life.

You will find the Paths diagramed on the picture of the Tree of Life on page 21 (opposite). Each Sphere, as you will notice, is connected by Paths to at least three other Spheres, but no Sphere contacts all of the others. The arrangement of these Paths is used to teach a number of important lessons about the Spheres and their relationships, lessons which will be covered in detail later on in this book.

In one sense, then, the Paths represent the interactions between the Spheres, the play of energies between one aspect of the universe and another. These interactions have another significance, however. Each Path also represents a shift in awareness, a movement between different states of consciousness. In this sense, the Paths stand for the routes a traveler on the Tree must take to journey from Sphere to Sphere. This second sense is the foundation of all practical work with the Cabala, and you will be using it more often than the other in this context. Both need to be kept in mind, though, and both will have their place at different times in the course of your work with this book.

 

Chapter Three - The Polarities of Being

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The Spheres and Paths of the Tree of Life stand at the heart of Cabalistic symbolism and philosophy in the Golden Dawn tradition. In a real sense, however, a grasp of these levels and their interactions is only the first step in making sense of the Cabala. Woven among the branches of the Tree are a whole series of structures and interactions, which we will call energy relationships. The use of “energy” as a metaphor here is not part of the traditional symbolism of the Cabala, but it conveys the dynamic, transformative quality of this aspect of the Tree to modern minds more clearly than older terminologies.

While it is a metaphor—the “energy” we're discussing won't show up on a meter or run your toaster oven—it can be useful to think of the Tree of Life as a structure along which a whole array of energies flow and surge. These energies are the driving forces of creation, the powers which form and sustain the universe at all its levels; they are also the forces which are used by the Cabalist in magic and other kinds of practical work. Like any form of energy, they can be dangerous when used clumsily or inappropriately, and a basic grasp of the principles by which they operate will spare the student some burned fingers.

 

Chapter Four - Macrocosm and Microcosm

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In a way, the idea of practical application of many of the things we have mentioned begs a question. To apply polarity, or any aspect of the Tree of Life, to the workings of the human mind is to imply that this map of the universe is also a map of the human individual. This kind of multiple uses of metaphor-maps is in many ways alien to our present culture's way of thinking; we do not commonly use chemistry as a key to psychology, for example.

Yet precisely this habit of thought is central to the philosophy of traditional Western magic. There is even a formal name for the concept: the Principle of Macrocosm and Microcosm. The macrocosm (literally, “big universe”) is the cosmos around us, the microcosm (“little universe”) is the individual human being; the principle uniting them is that any pattern which exists in one of these also exists in the other. The Tree of Life, for example, is a symbolic map of the universe; it is also a diagram of the human soul. In the same way, the human body is not merely the form of one rather unusual kind of animal on an out-of-the-way planet (though it is this, certainly); it is also an image of the universe as a whole.

 

Chapter Five - The Way of Creation

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The material we've covered so far—on the nature of symbolism, the structure of the Tree of Life, the metaphors of energy and polarity that allow the Tree to be used in practice, the reflections of the Tree in macrocosm and microcosm—have all been by way of a first look at the philosophy of the Hermetic Cabala, the governing system of ideas that underlies the system and gives it its shape and potentials.

In traditional Jewish Cabalistic texts, though, such things take up only a small amount of space. Detailed analysis of Scriptural verses, part of the quest to “decode” the Bible, takes up much more. A large part, though, goes to what can only be called the creation of a Cabalistic mythology: a vast account of the birth, history, and end of the entire universe, reaching over huge cycles of time and immensities of space, in which the myths of the Bible are used as springboards for astonishing speculations and the lives and history of human beings are part of a much greater drama of love, war, loss, and redemption among spiritual powers. While much of this drama was left behind by the magicians who adapted the Cabala to their own uses in the Renaissance and later, a significant part of the mythology of the Cabala was preserved, and plays a large role in the teachings of the Golden Dawn tradition.

 

Chapter Six - The Way of Redemption

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The mythic structure of the Cabala, as the last chapter mentioned, deals with the present and the future as well as the past. In dealing with these, in particular, it is important to stay clear of certain easy mistakes. One of these is the habit, already discussed, of taking the metaphors of myth as literal descriptions of what we usually call “fact”—to do as orthodox religions in the West have done, for example, and identify Adam, Eve and the serpent as historical figures in the same sense as George and Martha Washington. Another, equally common, is the habit of dismissing myth as meaningless because it is not a description of ordinary fact.

A subtler mistake, though, affects many attempts to make sense of mythic metaphors like those we are examining here. This is the failure to recognize that myth, symbolic though it is, has practical implications.

A Native American tale from the Puget Sound country describes how Moon, a mythic hero, was pursued by a forest fire. As he ran from the flames, he asked each thing he passed if it could shelter him. The various trees and plants of the forest could not, but finally he came to a trail. The trail answered, “Lie down in me, and I will shelter you.” And so it happened; the fire and smoke passed over Moon and left him singed but alive.

 

Chapter Seven - The Tree Below the Veil

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From the traditions and myths covered in the first part of this book to the detailed correspondences of the Spheres and Paths of the Tree—the subject of this second part—may seem like a substantial jump. The same principles of symbolism and symbolic thinking govern both, however, and the principles of the Hermetic Cabala provide the foundation on which the correspondences rest.

Traditionally, works covering the Tree of Life have presented the Spheres in their descending order, following the Lightning Flash of the way of Creation. By contrast, the three chapters of this section will follow the opposite order, rising from Sphere to Sphere and Path to Path along the route of the Serpent. This sequence, rather than the other, determines the order of practical work on the Tree—and it is in practical work that the Hermetic Cabala has its chief value.

Malkuth, the Tenth Sphere

Title: MLKVTh, Malkuth (Kingdom).

Name of God: ADNI, Adonai (Lord).

Archangels: MThThRVN, Metatron, Prince of Countenances;

 

Chapter Eight - The Tree Between the Veil and the Abyss

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Above Netzach, the Paths of Wisdom that make up the Tree rise above the realms of experience normally accessible to human beings. The process of opening up these higher ranges of human possibility—and in particular, of opening up the five Paths which cross the Veil—is the central work and the principal challenge facing the magical Cabalist, and the focus of most kinds of magical workings which go beyond purely practical goals. The Paths and Spheres between the Veil and the Abyss, then, have important lessons to teach concerning magical practice. At the same time, they lay the foundation for the summit of the Cabalist's journey—the crossing of the Abyss to the realms of Unity beyond.

Path 25, the Path of Samech

Letter of the Path: ס, Samech (Prop).

Name of God: ALHIM, Elohim.

Astrological Correspondence: Sagittarius, the Archer.

Tarot Correspondence: Trump XIV, Temperance.

Esoteric Title: Daughter of the Reconcilers, Bringer Forth of Life.

 

Chapter Nine - The Tree Above the Abyss

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With Chesed, the way of Redemption passes the last region of the Tree of Life that can be experienced, in any sense of that word, by the conscious self. The Paths and Spheres beyond relate not to the universe we perceive around us, nor to any of the higher levels we can learn to perceive, but to a realm beyond space and time in which the unchanging patterns of our experience exist in their pure state. From this realm, those patterns descend to shape the world we know; in this realm, in turn, dwell the immortal aspects of the human soul. For both these reasons, a grasp of the lore concerning the Supernals, and the Paths which link them to one another and to the rest of the Tree, is worth having, for their secrets touch on the deepest mysteries of the universe and of the self.

Path 13, the Path of Gimel

Letter of the Path: ג, Gimel (Camel).

Name of God: SHDI AL ChI, Shaddai El Chai.

Astrological Correspondence: the Moon.

Tarot Correspondence: Trump II, the High Priestess.

 

Chapter Ten - Foundations of Practice

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The material on theory and symbolism that has been covered in the first two parts of this book is only a part, and not a particularly large one, of the vast accumulation of Cabalistic lore that has been gathered together over the past thousand years or so, and that is involved in one way or another with the Golden Dawn's version of the Hermetic tradition. It would be easy to expand on any of the points discussed so far in this book at much greater length, even without drawing on the immense resources of the Hebrew literature on the subject.

Too much theory, though, is not necessarily an advantage, nor is book-learning by itself enough to make a magician. In fact, the pursuit of hidden knowledge for its own sake has been an obstacle between many a would-be adept and the potentials of the magical path. The common notion that real mastery of magic depends on possessing some sort of exotic information is wholly misleading, as we have seen, and the most important “secrets” of magic to the novice are neither particularly exotic nor particularly secret.

 

Chapter Eleven - Ritual Magic

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Of the various kinds of magical practice, the one that generally comes first to anyone's mind is ritual. Even people who have only the dimmest notion of what magic is and what it does tend to think of magic in terms of weird rites complete with robes, wands, strange gestures and shouts of “Abracadabra!” Caricatured as this is, it nonetheless points in the right direction, for ritual—understood in its broadest sense—is the most important of the practical methods used by the magician.

We can define ritual, for practical purposes, as symbolic action. Every action done in a ritual context, whether it be the speaking of a word, the movement of a hand, the drawing of a breath or the building up of an image in the imagination, is a deliberate symbol. It means something, and something specific. In a well-designed ritual, these meanings resonate together like the notes of a musical chord, expressing a single pattern of meaning in a complete and balanced form.

From a Cabalistic viewpoint, this definition can be expanded a little, for the union of action and meaning in a well-made ritual works at every level of the Tree. Thus physical actions, etheric patterns, concepts, emotions, will and memory come together in a ritual under the direction of the imagination, which itself reaches upward toward the primal Form, Force and Unity of the Supernals. Seen in this light, then, ritual is a way of unifying the self on all its levels and directing it toward a single end. This combination of unity and direction makes ritual the magician's principal tool for action on any level of experience.

 

Chapter Twelve - Meditation

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As a part of magical training in the Golden Dawn tradition of Hermeticism, the technique of meditation is less well known than ritual, but it is very nearly as important. Where ritual forms the central active technique, meditation is the most useful receptive technique. Where ritual shapes energies, meditation shapes the forms of awareness; where ritual builds on symbolism, it's through meditation that the symbols to be used are made a part of the self.

In some ways, it is unfortunate that the word “meditation” is the only common term in English for the range of inner techniques that are based on specific modifications of receptive awareness. Originally, the term (meditatio in Latin) simply meant thinking, especially deep or drawn-out thought. Applied to the Catholic practice of directed thought about religious ideas, it was used for want of anything better to describe the not particularly similar methods used by Oriental monks and mystics. Once broadened this far, the meaning of the word proceeded to stretch completely out of shape, with the result that nowadays, “meditation” is used by many people to refer to practically any kind of spiritual or pseudo-spiritual exercise.

 

Chapter Thirteen - Pathworking

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The disciplines of ritual and meditation form the foundation of practice in the Golden Dawn's Hermetic Cabala. The skills developed through these techniques provide the basis for the whole process of inner development. They are not, however, the only branches of practice in the tradition; there are a wide range of other methods used in training and practical work.

One of these other techniques is the art of Pathworking—the ascent of the Tree of Life by way of the powers of the imagination. In Pathworking, the Cabalist moves from Sphere to Sphere through intensely visualized journeys along the symbolic landscapes of the Paths. In turn, these journeys open up the Paths on other levels, linking and energizing the structure of the Tree within the consciousness of the magician.

The methods of travel used in these inner journeys are based on the same principles of symbolic thought we have presented already—- with a critical difference. Unlike the Spheres, which are perceived in the same manner and through the same or similar symbols by every human being, the Paths are personal experiences that must be understood by way of a personal symbolism.

 

Chapter Fourteen - Prayer

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Of all the various technical methods of mysticism and magic that are part of the Golden Dawn tradition, the art of prayer has received perhaps the least attention in modern magical writings: this, despite the detailed discussion of the methods and purposes of prayer in many older esoteric texts. There is a tendency in some magical circles, in fact, to think of prayer as something incompatible with the theory and practice of magic, or—worse—as a kind of half-hearted attempt at magic on the part of those whose theology won't let them go further.

There is a certain validity to this claim; it is based on a drastic misunderstanding of the nature of prayer—but that misunderstanding is itself very common nowadays, even (one might even say especially) in those religions that stress prayer most. For the sake of clarity, we'll need to look at this mistake in some detail before the way of prayer in the Hermetic Cabala can be described and explored.

What is prayer, then? To most people in our society, in or out of the orthodox religions of the West, it's generally thought to be the practice of talking to God in order either to please God by praising him or to ask for the things one desires. (Those with Protestant backgrounds may recall the lines from the hymn “Sweet Hour Of Prayer”—“…that bids me, at my Father's throne, make all my wants and wishes known.”) Both these notions, common as they may be, are odd ones, to say the least—in terms of common sense as well as the theology of those same religions.

 

Chapter Fifteen - The Hermetic Cabala in Daily Life

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One difficulty faced by many magicians nowadays, in and out of the Golden Dawn tradition, is the apparent gap between magic and the world of everyday life. In the fantasy fiction loved by so many people in the magical community, magicians save vast realms and cast down the forces of evil; in what we tend to call real life, on the other hand, students of magic are more likely to save coupons than kingdoms, and the opportunities to fight against evil—while they certainly exist—tend to be on a distressingly small and personal scale. This kind of dislocation between grand ideals and petty realities plays a certain role in giving magic its current reputation in society at large, just as it has a good deal to do with the posturing and grandiose claims rather too common in the magical community.

This gap, though, is more apparent than real; it has less to do with the nature of magic—or of the world we perceive around us—than with the common modern habit of seeing other times and places through incurably rose-colored glasses. Behind the glossy images of Merlin's myriad clones lie older figures which, stranger and far more compelling, are nonetheless a good deal more prosaic: Myrddin Wyllt, half-mad prophet of the Caledonian woods, soaked to the skin and shivering in the rains of winter; John Dee, who sold books from his library to pay for groceries while he and his scryers searched after the secrets of the universe; the odd assortment of men and women from England's middle class who created and shaped the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. It needs to be remembered that these, not the constructs of fantasy fiction, are the real magicians, and their work took place in worlds which were not, ultimately, all that different from our own.

 

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