32nd Path: Katabasis

Bruno Perramant, Trois chevaux, Apocalypse noire n°2 (les dieux obscurs), (2006)

Some reflections on the 32nd path of the Tree of Life, occasioned by recent work and meditation.

Pathworking is a technique much abused: sometimes it seems to mean any kind of dreamy reverie or confused guided meditation. In the Ogdoadic tradition – and in ritual magical traditions generally – it has a specific technique and referent: the meditative exploration of the paths of the Tree of Life, with specific transformative intent. The AS published their sequence of guided pathworkings in Magical States of Consciousness, a rich resource and worth exploring. Notably, guided meditations are given for the paths from Malkut to Tiferet, as part of a full, sequential work on the way of return.  I understand that there were once even cassette tapes available – I’d love to hear those – but I can recommend self-recording as a useful stopgap.

These reflections arise not as a direct consequence of full ritual pathworking, but out of study and meditation on the 32nd path. I have long felt that magicians who spend much time meditating and working with sefirotic energies – that clear and shining decad of light – can miss out on the paths as subtler and specific gradations, concerned with mutability and transformation, often speaking closely to the rhythm of life outside the temple room. Having recently moved house as well as embarked on a new phase of my magical life, it’s natural I’ve found myself drawn heavily to the 32nd path in particular – a path of new beginnings, under Saturn with all its ambiguities.

RITTANGELIUS

One of the prime texts used in study and meditation on the paths of the Tree of Life is the ’32 Paths of Wisdom’, a collection of short texts published as a preface to a 1642 edition of the Sefer Yetzirah by Johann Stephan Rittangel (Latin: Rittangelius), a convert from Judaism to Christianity, and professor of Oriental languages at Königsberg. Far from a small addition to the Yetzirah, Rittangelius’ text takes up a good 140 pages of his edition, with texts given in Hebrew and Latin, along with extensive cullings from Kabbalistic authorities and his own commentary. This text made its way into the Hermetic tradition by way of William Wynn Westcott, who published a translation of the Latin texts without commentary – to my knowledge no translation of the commentary exists. There is much worth study and reflection in there.

The translation given by Denning and Phillips for this path adjusts Westcott’s translation thus:

‘The 32nd Path is the Governing Intelligence, so named because it governs and co-ordinates the seven planets singly and collectively, each and all in their proper orbits.’

Substituting ‘governing’ for Westcott’s ‘administrative’ (from the Latin adminicularis) makes sense – thinking of the path as a vehicle of transmission and ordering for all the powers made manifest in Malkut. But it is also worth going deeper: adminiculum means a prop or support, a stake hammered into the ground – an appropriate image for this path, as one might think of the ancient stakes used to measure out boundaries and borders, or by which the tents of nomad peoples are pitched. But the Hebrew gives us another aspect too: נֶעֱבַד, navad, which carries the sense of cultivation, as in tilling the land – thus the 32nd path governs the powers made manifest in the world around us, and the Hebrew gives us a sense of the material, earthy and intimate nature of that power, the matrix from which the sensible world springs.

TAU

The traditional attributions to this path are the letter Tau and the planet Saturn, both speaking of finality and transformation, of death and terror. Yet the Talmud (Shabbat 104a) says Tau stands for truth, אֱמֶת, emet – with its last letter rather than its first, for truth is found not at the beginning but at the end of the journey; setting foot on the path, its thread can be hard to trace except in momentary glimpses. But Tau also means ‘a sign’, the cross (the ancient form of the letter) painted over the doors of the elect so that the angel of death might pass them by; it reminds me of a remark made by Denning and Phillips, that to step one foot on the way of return is to commit entirely, though its fruition may not be in this life, it marks a decisive moment in the life of the soul.

The stanza attributed to this path in the AS ‘Song of Praises’ captures this power well:

‘Thine is the Sign of the End,
Sum of existences:
Thine is the ultimate Door opened on
Night’s unuttered mystery:
Thine, the first hesitant step into the dark of those but latterly
Born to the Labyrinth!’

REFLECTION

The mystery of this path is reflected in the winnowing sickle of Saturn: it is the path of initiation, calling the candidate forth into the darkness. The journey is an ancient one, yet utterly individual. Like all true magical secrets, it is secret not because it is bound by an oath, but because it cannot be divulged – only experienced.

At the threshold of the mysteries, why do we descend rather than ascend? (The way up and the way down are the same way, said Herakleitos.) The heroes of ancient myth so often underwent katabasis, the descent into the underworld – Orpheus for Eurydike, Odysseus seeking Teiresias’ wisdom in the land of the dead, Aeneas crossing the Styx in Charon’s boat. They have sent me in search of the dazzling dead, the heroes who lived before us, against whose measure we fear to be revealed as their lesser children.

Nekyia: the name for our whisperings with the dead. Western magicians too rarely think of the spirits of the underworld, the dead who have gone before us: our ancestors, and our ancestors not only of blood but spirit. Those who shaped us, who gave us our first taste of the world; either the nameless number who shaped the world out of the wild earth, those who did magnificent things, those who did terrible things – or those individuals who shine in memory, having gone before us under Saturn’s scythe. The magician, too, can think of her lineage among the dead, the great chain of adepts gone before her, whose words, written and otherwise, shape the path before her.

What is our reckoning with the dead? With the ancestors? The questions this path puts before us take bravery to ask and answer. The first of the magician’s powers: to know. Not the dry knowledge of books, but the living knowledge of the self, austere, with no corner for hiding. Who are you? How were you formed? Where do you come from? What do you believe? There is a pitiless aspect to Saturn in the katabasis: as Inanna descending to the underworld, each piece of finery given up, winnowed away until only the essential remains. That winnowing is also part of speech with the dead: what have you given me that I will carry no more? What parts of my heritage will I carry with me, no longer as an imposition or reflex, but embraced with conscious joy – and which do I need no longer, to be thrown off like the crutches of the miraculously healed?

*

The esoteric schools talk, on this first path of the initiatory sequence, of the Watcher on the Threshold, sometimes with only little explanation. What is the Watcher? Some in magical orders speak of it as if it were the specific guardian of their current and particular mysteries, but its guardianship is more general. One might think of it as a kind of filter, rebuffing dilettantes and the unready. Its manifestation will be familiar to many: the lassitude that sets in after a burst of enthusiasm in magical work, a dryness, perhaps an accompanying worry that something is wrong, or frustration that you cannot yet call spirits from the vasty deep.

The advice given on confronting the Watcher is generally simple (and, at first, frustrating to hear): persist. Persist in your daily practice. It is no accident that life will often throw up sudden obstacles after the first few steps on the path: did you expect to churn up the deep seas and feel no turbulence? But what of the lassitude that seems to come from within, the truculence and resistance within the self, the bridling at the discipline? Confronting this aspect of the Watcher – its microcosmic aspect, which seems to come from within us – is part of the mystery of the 32nd path.

The descent into hell, the reckoning with the dead, the bridling at the path: who are you? One of the secrets that this path uncovers for us is fear, and the fear, especially, that comes from that question. To answer it fully, we must offer up our illusions and their comfort, all the lazy habits we acquire from our culture, the reflexes which short-circuit our perception and ability to think for ourselves. Yet fear is not a useless emotion: it can teach us what we cherish, what really matters. And we might therefore call fear the secret name of the Watcher. For all the ambivalence and riddling doubt of the rational mind, levels both below and above the conscious self know the profound transformation promised on the path, the burning up of the dross and transformation of the prima materia. Hesitation and fear at the gate might be an instinctive response: but to know this truth is to possess the ability to move beyond it.

This path, from Malkut to Yesod, governs the waking of the psychic, magical senses, the world of shadow and half-light in which the creative faculty of the magician plays. Thus the perhaps surprising austere government of Saturn over this path: to avoid the madnesses and kaleidoscopic self-aggrandisement that the astral light can bring, the ability to tell truth from falsehood, to pass through the underworld unflinching, is essential. No-one emerges from the katabasis unchanged; not even the gods of myth. But the magician should emerge with the sign of Tau on her brow, a mark of the willingness to transform – and with the heavens shining before her eyes.

Thus the ancient Orphic initiates said, in their descent to the underworld, demanding not lulling oblivion, but the cool water from the fount of memory:

Γς πας εμι κα Ορανο στερόεντος,
ατρ μο γένος οράνιον!

I am a child of Earth and starry Heaven – but my race is of the heavens alone!

Binah


(Bruno Perramant, Notre Dame No.2, [2005])

The sefirah Binah, the third emanation on the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, is a focus for numerous magical traditions. As the ‘nearest’ of the supernal triad, it represents  and transmits the highest and most abstract powers down to the mental and physical world. In the great compilation of Kabbalistic wisdom, the sefer ha-ZoharBinah is often referred to as a fountain or an ocean from which run seven watercourses, the seven lower sefirot. She is also frequently called the supernal mother; Moses Cordovero refers her to the heart, the organ of understanding and intuition. In the words used in the AS’s consecration of the grail, she is ‘the mother of all living, and the womb of rebirth.’

As Sophia, and as the supernal aspect of Saturn, Binah is of special interest to the Ogdoadic tradition – especially in the resonance between Saturn and Earth, Binah and Malkut, the Heavenly Mother and the Veiled Maiden. The Reiya Mehemna, a late stratum of the Zohar says of her, ‘if she were to distance herself from the world for a moment, all that exists would be destroyed and void’. In magical traditions, the attribution of Saturn to Binah divides into two distinct forms: one, the limiter, bringer of death, and the other the great teacher of wisdom. Marsilio Ficino says of Saturn:

‘Saturn is also neighbour to the innumerable (i.e. fixed) stars; and indeed, he is very similar to the Primum Mobile because he travels a lengthy circuit. He is the highest of planets; hence they call that man fortunate whom Saturn fortunately favours. And although most people are terrified of him as alien from the ordinary life of man, nevertheless the Arabs consider he is agreeable even to the common life whenever he has very great power and dignity as he ascends, or his Jupiter (who tempers Saturn – ed.) aspects him favorably or receives him well in his terms. Otherwise, unseasonably received in matter, particularly gross matter, his influence is like a poison, just as by putrefaction or adustion an egg may become poisonous. From such influence, certain people are born or become impure, lazy, sad, envious, and exposed to impure daemons. Flee far from the company of these. For in other places the poison of Saturn lies hidden and dormant like sulphur far from flame; but in living bodies it often blazes up and, like kindled sulphur, not only burns but fills everything around with noxious vapour and infects the bystanders. Against this influence of his, generally alien to, and in a way unsuitable for, human beings, Jupiter arms us by means of the following: with his natural quality, with certain foods and medicines of his, with images (as they think), and with behavior, business dealings, studies, and affairs properly pertaining to himself. But it is not only those who flee to Jupiter who escape the noxious influence of Saturn and undergo his propitious influence; it is also those who give themselves over with their whole mind to the divine contemplation signified by Saturn himself.’ (De Vita Libri Tres, Book III, Ch. 23)

There’s a lot going on in this passage, and I only want to dwell on it briefly. The two faces of Saturn I mentioned above are present – predominantly as the classic astrological malefic, but also as the remotest power from human experience, and guardian of the transcendent realms. This doubleness preoccupies Ficino, who was born with one foot in and one out of the world, who suffered terrible melancholia (Saturn’s ailment), and fixed his eyes on the stars in search of truth. Here and elsewhere it is Saturn’s remoteness from human affairs which Ficino understands as inimical to a settled and conventional life. But to mystics, magicians, those given over to contemplation and artists, Saturn might show quite another face. Ficino warns later in this book that the advantages Saturn bestows cannot be won by whiting a sepulchre: fraud, hypocrisy and deceit, a pretence at the contemplative life, will cry out for the sickle.

Saturn and Binah for the modern magician are deeply linked. But we might multiply the ways we think about the sefirah of the great mother: as reflected and refracted in the lower sefirot traditionally assigned feminine deities, the green fuse of life in Netzah, the lady of mirrors in Yesod, or the great earth mother of Malkut. All have their root in her. Rittangelius says of Malkut that it will be uplifted on the throne of Binah, in one of the deepest and most concise images of spiritual integration. (It is why, in a shared ritual meal, we might dip bread into salt: bread made of the bounty of the earth, dipped in the salt of the great ocean from which all things come.)

Too often in twentieth century writing on magic, there is a lot of very masculine bravado about the ordeal of Binah, the ‘crossing of the abyss’ and the various high grades it entitles one to blather about. All that has its place. But too often the deep, bodily intimacy between heaven and body, Saturn and earth, is missed. The poem below, by Kathleen Raine, is one of my favourite ways of redressing that, and contains in it a beautiful images of anamnesis, a kind of intuitive spiritual ‘unforgetting’ which is sometimes a gift of Binah.

 

BINAH
Kathleen Raine

Lifelong the way —
I never thought to reach her throne
In darkness hidden, starless night
Her never-lifted veil;
Too far from what I am
That source, sacred, secret from day;
But, suddenly weeping, remembered
Myself in her embrace,
In her embrace who was my own
Mother, my own mother, in whose womb
Human I became.
Not far, I found, but near and simple as life,
Loved in the beginning, beyond praise
Your mothering of me in flesh and blood.
Deep her night, but never strange
Who bore me out of the kind animal dark
Where safe I lay, heart to heartbeat, as myself
Your stream of life carrying me to the world.
Remote your being as the milky way,
Yet fragrance not of temple incense nor symbolic rose
Comforted me, but your own,
Whose soft breasts, nipples of earth, sustained me,
Mortal, in your everlasting arms.
Known to the unborn, to live is to forget
You, our all,
Whose unseen sorrowing face is a farewell,
Forgotten forgiver of forgetfulness.
Lifelong we seek that longed-for unremembered place.