Towards a Greek Kabbalah: Why the Alexandrian Tree Isn’t Really a Thing

So, let’s clear up some naming terminology before we continue this thread of thought.  Because there are different traditions of qabbalah depending on religion, I’m going to differentiate between them all using the following spellings:

  • Kabbalah (with “k”): Jewish
  • Qabbalah (with “q”): Hermetic
  • Cabala (with “c”): Christian
  • Kampala (with “k” but “mp” instead of “b”): my new Greek framework

Alright.  If I want to end up with what’s effectively a Greek kabbalah, the system of kampala is going to need to fulfill several requirements:

  1. Provide a cosmological framework that allows for the ten spheres of the cosmos (Earth, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Fixed Stars, Divinity)
  2. Provide a cosmological map that allows for traversing the spheres of the cosmos with paths that connect them together
  3. Provide a mapping between the paths of the map with the 24 letters of the Greek alphabet
  4. Provide a means of starting from awareness on the Earth sphere (where the majority of us live and operate on a day-to-day basis) and reaching any other sphere by means of the paths, especially that of Divinity
  5. Provide a description of the creation of the cosmos by means of the cosmological framework and mapping
  6. Provide a means of correspondence to link other forces, concepts, objects, etc. to the paths and spheres on the framework and map
  7. Be rooted primarily in Neoplatonic and Pythagorean thought, referencing Hermeticism as necessary without relying on explicitly Jewish principles that are not also present in Hermeticism

I’m sure there will be other requirements as we come along, but so far, so good.

The whole business with wanting to work with a Greek kabbalah started when I found the Rosicrucian Archives site, which contains a series of posts describing a Greek kabbalah with a Tree of Life with 24 paths.  The spheres themselves are the same as those of the sephiroth on the Jewish Tree, just with their names in Greek.  Most of the paths are the same as on the standard Hermetic qabbalah tree, except that two paths were removed (between spheres 2/6 and 3/6) and four paths were added (between spheres 3/4, 2/5, 1/5, and 1/4).  The paths were numbered in a different way than the Golden Dawn did with their Kircher tree, with the first letter of the Greek alphabet Alpha being assigned to the path between spheres 9/10 and working upward from there.  The picture they use is highly similar to the one given in Stephen Flowers’ Hermetic Magic: The Postmodern Papyrus of Abaris, where he gives the image as “the form of the Kabbalistic ‘Tree of Life’ as it might have been framed by the Hellenistic cosmologists” when giving an overview of Neoplatonic cosmology.  Both trees are presented below; the paths are the same, as far as I can tell, while the names differ slightly for the spheres.

It’s an interesting Tree, and the analysis the Rosicrucian Archives gives to describe the internal logic of the Tree is a fascinating read, though with a sometimes purposely obtuse and obnoxiously mysterious style.  They also use the same stoicheic associations I do when assigning the Greek letters to the planets, elements, and Zodiac signs, which is a nice addition, and make use of those distinctions an important part in their analysis.  As might be expected from a Rosicrucian organization, the analysis is steeped in Christian theology, which is appropriate and not that much a stretch; after all, if Hebrew is the language of the Jews, Greek can arguably be said to be the language of the early Christians, especially since that’s the original script of the New Testament.  Stephen Flowers, on the other hand, leaves much more wanting when it comes to describing the Tree and kabbalah generally; he claims that “it has long been suspected that the cosmology of the Hebrew Kabbalah—as outlined in the Sefer Yetzirah and the Zohar—was based on a now lost Greek original”.  Mentally, I’m just throwing in [citation needed] tags all over his book nowadays, though it was useful to get started with as a basic, though fanciful, primer.  He claims that the “restored [Neoplatonic kabbalah] is based on simple principles using the classic cosmological pattern inherited by the Hebrew Kabbalah together with what we know of the Hellenistic philosophical tradition”.

If anything in this world is simple, the cosmology and patterns present in Jewish kabbalah aren’t it.

At any rate, I liked this schema, since it already fit nicely with what I already do and simply changed a few of the paths near the top of the Tree around.  Nothing big, right?  Well, as my ponderings from last time indicated, the more I thought about it, the less I wanted to work with this system.  What was substantially different?  Different numbering of the paths?  Big deal, plenty of Trees have been used by different traditions with different success.  Different associations of stoicheia on the paths?  Crowley himself changed the Star and Emperor, and thus their stoicheia, around on the Golden Dawn Tree.  Different paths towards the top?  Even the Golden Dawn had the use of several Trees, as did the Jewish kabbalists before them.  Even with the different coating of Greek bark, the Tree was still kabbalah, and relies on connections and culture that don’t fit quite right for me.  Even though it’s used by most modern Western magicians nowadays, what (maybe) works for them doesn’t dictate what will work for me.

Besides, even as a matter of correctness, there’s no real evidence to show that this Alexandrian Tree of Life is anything more than a fanciful mental exercise in what I was going to get myself engaged with.  Kieren Barry in his “The Greek Qabalah” describes many uses of the Greek letters in understanding the forces of the cosmos, but (chapter 6):

On the evidence we have seen, it is plainly incorrect to state that there are only a few correspondences to the letters of the Greek alphabet along the lines of those found much later in the Hebrew Qabalah.*  It is also anachronistic, as well as completely pointless, to attempt to project Hebrew Qabalistic symbolism onto the Greek alphabet, or to imagine anything so historically impossible as an “Alexandrian Tree of Life,” as has been done.**  It is hoped that the extensive Greek letter symbolism examined above is enough to put an end to any perceived need for this unnecessary practice by those with a background in Hebrew Qabalah.

* (47) See for example, D. Godwin, Light in Extension—Greek Magic from Modern to Homeric Times (St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 1992), pp. 197-198.  Through historical error, Godwin also unfortunately alleges that the Milesian system “which seems to have originated around 400 B.C., more or less copies the Hebrew/Phoenician system”; all of which is quite wrong.
** (48) See for example, S. Flowers, Hermetic Magic (York Beach, ME: Samuel Weiser, 1995), a forgettable mixture of historical fact and personal fantasy.

In other words, Barry is of the opinion that the Greek letters are alive and well with their own internal symbolism and meaning, as well as those of the stoicheia behind them linking them to the elements and astrology, but nothing in the classical world along the lines of today’s kabbalah with the Hebrew script.  Like Greek letters, Hebrew letters have their own symbolism and biographies, with whole personalities and worlds within each letter.  Greek letters have the same, tailored just for themselves and not borrowed from another script.  To borrow the meanings of Hebrew kabbalistic practice, though, into Greek wholesale is folly.

Barry says that “the extensive Greek letter symbolism examined above is enough to put an end to any perceived need for this unnecessary practice [of making an Alexandrian Tree] by those with a background in Hebrew Qabalah”, and I agree with him.  However, where we may diverge (he’s not explicit with this) is that I think a method of understanding a creation of the world by letters, which are numbers, in a systematic and coherent way is worthy of our attention.  Thus, if the Alexandrian Tree of Life won’t do, something else needs to be made in its place that not only achieves the same ends but in a way more faithful to the Greek philosophic tradition.

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About polyphanes
I'm a software developer and Hermetic occultist living near Washington, DC, USA. I claim that I'm youthful, dashing, daring, and other things. I make things and chant stuff, and periodically write about them.

12 Responses to Towards a Greek Kabbalah: Why the Alexandrian Tree Isn’t Really a Thing

  1. Spanish Moss says:

    As an Alexandrian Initiate that works with the Qabalah quite extensively, I had my guard up going into reading this… but then I saw you were talking about a different Alexandrian. ;)

    In regards to the post, I do find the idea of a Greek Tree to be fascinating. Feel free to keep posting updates on your work thereof.

    Blessings,
    -SM

  2. One quibble: Flowers said the *principles* were simple, not the elaboration thereof. “Simple” to me means “has a short definition that doesn’t depend on a large number of terms that also need defining.” I have the Flowers book, but it’s way down on my list to read, so I can’t be sure how he’s using the terms.

    And thanks for all the nifty references!

  3. Rose says:

    What a timely and excellent post! Have you seen the Saadia Tree, or any other work over at Blogos? http://hermeticlessons.blogspot.com/2013/09/the-tree-of-life-qabalah-is-new-black-i.html

    I ask because working create a different model of the ToL is something I’ve wanted to do for quite some time but unfortunately (or fortunately, depending upon one’s perspective) I’ve chosen another course for a time. In addition, Hebrew and Greek are not my strong points, and I now need to refresh myself on most other correspondences and associations as well.

    My initial goal was to understand the paths and Sephirot as they relate to the Tarot and work from there. It’s a fascinating subject.

    And freemanpresson has a good point, IMO. Simplicity has it’s strong points. I often have to remind myself of the K.I.S.S. rule when solving problems lately. Sifting through the internet dross to find the gems can create a kind of information overload which hurts my head. :)

    • polyphanes says:

      I loosely keep up with Blogos, though much of his writing is beyond me. I’ve seen variant trees before, but they’re all still Kabbalah.

  4. the serpent says:

    I too have always had an interest in using Qabbalah as a tool in my practice beyond it’s generally accepted use among western occultists as a correspondence filing cabinet, but have felt woefully under-versed in its Jewish roots to penetrate its deeper meanings and uses. While I’d like to rectify that through more study, I’m also deeply fascinated by your project to (re)create a version of the tree, and thus the entire system generally, to one that is more in line with Ancient Greek language, culture, and ideas. I am glad to see that you are thinking of a more radical reimagining of the system, not just a simple translation of terms.

    I’m wondering, though, with your basis for undertaking the project being to see if it is “possible to make a Hellenic style of emanationist cosmological magic and theology that works with the Greek letters as magical units and entities in their own right,” why you have chosen to to use a model of ten spheres of the cosmos. I can clearly see eight spheres in a mapping to the cosomological makeup of Ancient Greece (Earth, Moon, Sun, Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Venus, and Mercury), but why the insistence on “Fixed Stars” and “Divinity” as a needing separate spheres? What do you mean by these two classifications?

    In my somewhat limited knowledge of Qabbalah as a model for emanation, the all – or the divine essence in its truest sense – lays outside of the tree, outside the emanation of itself that leads eventually to physical form. While Kether represents godhead, it is still a conceptualized representation of divinity – divinity’s first intellectually comprehensible instantiation in the process of emanation from the intellectually unknowable nothingness, or emptiness, that is Ain. Is your “Divinity” sphere simply that starting point for emanation? Or is there some other motivation behind this?

    What would you imagine the “Fixed Stars” to represent in this context?

    It would seem to me to be more logical to approach the task from a perspective of expressing Ancient Greek ideas about cosmogenesis, more about expressing the process of manifestation and less about creating correspondences right off the bat. I think that approach would lead to a more meaningful magickal/theological/spiritual tool than focusing on the creation of a new correspondence filing cabinet would be. Perhaps this is not what you are after, though. But if it is…

    I would highly recommend David Chaim Smith’s “The Kabbalistic Mirror of Genesis” for a view of how the structure of Tree of Life (and several component parts and alternate layouts) and its context of divine (although not necessarily theistic in the purely transcendent deity sense) emanation can be pulled from a deeper understanding of the structure of the Hebrew language and alphabet and the text of the Book of Genesis. It really speaks to the process of creation of manifest existence through language, or breath; quite literally speaking the cosmos into existence.

    Perhaps something similar could be used in the Greek context, like Hesiod’s Theogony. Although I’m not sure of any ideographic aspects of the Greek alphabet as it existed in those times or more modern times for that matter. It seems that, although it is a syllabic alphabet, the Hebrew alphabet also tends to some extent to be ideographic, in that each letter may also embody a concept in its own right. There’s also the strong possibility that the content of the Book of Genesis (and other Old Testament books) could be derived from other, more ancient sources, like the mystery schools of Egypt, Greece, Persia, etc. So, perhaps using the Book of Genesis in its Ancient Greek form could be appropriate for the type of endeavor.

    Anyway, just some thoughts and questions I had and what I would see as a way to move forward with the project… Apologies for the rambling. Thanks for listening, err – reading!

    • polyphanes says:

      I’m sticking to the Ten Spheres idea because it’s attested going back at least as far as Plato. Earth and seven planets is agreeably old as eight spheres, and the ninth as the sphere of the fixed stars is seen in many classical works, both Platonic, Neoplatonic, and Hermetic. “Divinity” might be a misnomer here, and might be more accurately called “the Undiferentiatable Whole” or “the Source”, but “God” or “the Good” is a convenient name for it. Remember that much of Jewish Kabbalah, especially as it built the Tree, was heavily influenced by Neoplatonism.

      Just wait and keep up with the series of posts; it’ll answer a number of these questions in time.

      • All of that, but we can ultimately pin it on Pythagoras and the tetractys.

        I am quite agnostic about the usefulness of the whole “Hebrew is the language of Creation” trope. We know where the Sephira and Gematria came from, so unless believing the traditional account is useful somehow, such as making us better Jews or something, we’re best off without it.

        • awakeningtheserpent says:

          Yes; there are definitely what seem like obvious influences from Pythogrean and Platonic (and other Greek philosophical ideas) in the current form of the Tree of Life. I assume that the ultimate structure of the diagram that polyphanes eventually presents here for a Greek Kampala system will heavily rely on these ideas.

          On the note about “Hebrew is the language of Creation” feel that might have come through my original comment, it was not necessarily intentional. I too am agnostic on this point and am not Jewish; I certainly realize this is not the only account of the cosmos being spoken into existence that exists in the extent religious literature of the world. Take Hindu perspectives on creation of manifest existence through sound, for instance.

          My statements were more to the point that this idea of creating the manifest universe from the void (ex nihilo) through language is a driving factor behind Kabbalah and, further that this is nicely laid out using the physical form of the Hebrew alphabet in David Chaim Smith’s book to ultimately arrive at the structure of the Tree of Life. I was trying to point out that the physical form and ideographic qualities of the alphabet behind the glyph really had an influence on the structure of the glyph as we commonly know it.

      • awakeningtheserpent says:

        Thank you for the response. I will definitely keep up with the posts to see where you head with this project.

  5. Pingback: An Alternative System of Stoicheia | The Digital Ambler

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