Dante & Beatrice

Dante and Beatrice pass beyond the fixed stars and gaze on the nine concentric rings of angels, illustration by Gustav Doré.

I am parched with thirst and dying :
let me drink from the ever-flowing spring on the right,
by the luminous cypress tree.
'Who are you? And where are you from?'
I am a son of Earth and starry Heaven
but my descent is from Heaven.

Orphic burial gold leaf, translated by Ted Jenner

At the beginning of the 14th century the Italian poet Dante Alighieri wrote an imaginary description of a journey through the Cosmos as it was then imagined to be. In the company of the classical Roman poet Virgil he journeyed through the realms of Inferno and Purgatario, and then in the company of his ideal love Beatrice he journeyed upwards into heaven - Paradiso. First they travelled through the spheres of the planets, then the fixed stars, and finally into the Empyrean, characterised by nine concentric rings of angels surrounding the divine presence.

At the end of the 19th. century a group of mildly eccentric and individualistic British freemasons and occultists met at the Mark Masons Hall in London  and ritually initiated each other into what could be viewed as progression through the sefirot of the Tree of Life. This was not poetry. They really did believe they were concentrating the occult powers of the spheres into the temenos of a masonic lodge, using symbols and incantations and the assumed forms of gods to refract the light of spirit like a prism, splitting it into its component parts, and focussing it onto the candidate. They believed that profound changes in cognition and agency would occur, and in a vital sense, they would transcend their humanity.

Celestial Hierarchy - Fludd
The traditional view of the cosmos according to Robert Fludd
Although it may not be obvious, Dante and the members of the Golden Dawn shared an ancient worldview that is now almost forgotten, although anyone with a serious interest in astrology is likely to be familiar with it. It is a composite worldview, part of it coming from classical Greek philosophy, part from the astronomy of late antiquity, part from a Neoplatonic forgery, and part from Christian theology (most of which was adapted from classical Greek philosophy). It is based on the simplest of observations: that human beings live under a sky that is filled with interesting things that happen regularly. The sun rises and sets. The moon waxes and wanes. The stars and constellations rotate around a fixed point in the sky. Wandering lights traverse the constellations.

By the time of Christ much of the detail had been worked out, and there was a consensus that the lights in the sky were the outward signs of the powers that ruled humanity. The sun, moon and planets were associated with gods, and there were cults and temples devoted to them. But there was more ... according to Plato the mechanism of the cosmos had been set in motion by a craftsman, and behind the appearance of multiplicity there was a unique cause. The cosmos, glorious living thing that it was, was only the outward sign of a deeper reality. This deeper reality was the origin of human souls, which descended from on high, and accreted layers of substance from each plane of reality until they were immersed in gross matter. Because the human soul had acquired a portion of substance from every plane, it was like a little universe ... literally, a micro-cosm. At death, if the soul was not weighed down by matter, it would ascend once more. The layers would be stripped off. This is described in the ancient Corpus Hermeticum as follows:

“And thereupon, having been stripped of all that was wrought upon him by the structure of the Heavens, he ascends to the substance of the eighth sphere …”

There was a measure of world-hating puritanism in the idea that the soul had been sullied by its descent through the spheres into physical incarnation. The Platonists insisted that all was well, that the cosmos was perfect in every respect, but also believed that the soul was overwhelmed by the sensory impact of physical existence and had forgotten its divine nature. The most negative of the traditional Platonic views was that the body was the "tomb of the soul".

Some of the books that comprise the Corpus Hermeticum are explicitly negative and see the influence of the planets as the source of the passions that bind the soul to material existence.  These are given as:

  1. Increase & Decrease (i.e. fickleness, inconstancy - the Moon)
  2. Machinations of Evil Cunning (Mercury)
  3. Lust, whereby Men are Deceived (Venus)
  4. Domineering Arrogance (Sun)
  5. Unholy Daring & Rash Audacity (Mars)
  6. Evil Strivings after Wealth (Jupiter)
  7. The Falsehood which lies in wait to
    work Harm (Saturn)

This is a perceptive list. In general, the reality of any thing we experience is a function of our attention, which in turn depends on the entire complex of feelings and concepts that are evoked by that thing. When our feelings are powerful enough we become obsessed and cannot stop relating to something even when it is not present - love and hate have this quality. Similarly, when feelings are absent we may ignore things completely and may have no memory of them. Regardless of the fundamental ontic status of objects, we can say that reality as we experience it is synthesised by the interplay of our attention mechanism (is this thing important?), our valuations (how is it important?), feelings (how should I feel?) and conceptual thought (what narrative should I construct to explain my behaviour?). Excessive feeling (e.g. lust, greed, jealousy, hate, self-importance) and lack of empathy (e.g. sociopathy, psychopathy) warps human nature away from a temperate middle ground and is the stuff of drama. The author of the list above is blaming the planets for defects in our being.

The gnostics went further still and took the view that material existence is the domain of evil powers that hold the soul in subjugation. The planetary powers (archons) are administrators and captors that must be foiled and evaded if the soul is to rise to the realms of light beyond. To do this required divine grace, and often secret knowledge - seals, names, incantations - to control the daemonic spirits of the planetary aeons. 

One of the most unusual related sets of gnostic literature, the Pistis Sophia and the two Books of Jeu (IAO, or IVH), purport to be teachings given by the risen Jesus to his disciples. These are "closed group teachings" to the elite. They are highly irregular from the perspective of normative Christianity, but consistent with the barebones historical picture of Jesus1 compiled by Prof. Morton Smith in Jesus the Magician. The Pistis Sophia describes a Jesus who claims he has descended from the realms of light into the sphere of Fate to free the righteous from the demonic powers of the zodiacal regions, the planets, the 360 Egyptian demons of the calendar, and the world-serpent that circles the sphere of Fate. He performs magical rituals, utters strange incantations, and knows the dark arts used by the demonic powers to enslave the human soul by binding it to a "counterfeighting spirit" of their own devising:

"And they put the counterfeighting spirit outside the soul, watching it and assigned to it; and the rulers bind it to the soul with their seals and their bonds and seal it to it, that it may compel it always, so that it continually doeth its mischiefs and all its iniquities, in order that it may be their slave always and remain under their sway always in the changes of the body; and they seal it to it that it may be in all the sin and all the desires of the world."

If Jesus did travel to Egypt to learn arcane magical arts, and return with his body tattooed with magical devices (as Prof. Smith reconstructs from various sources), then the Pistis Sophia and the Books of Jeu are the kind of secret tradition he might have taught his closest followers. But that is speculation and a digression ...

The mixture of Neoplatonic, Hermetic, Stoic, Gnostic and Ptolomaic conceptions of the universe developed from the classical period to late antiquity provided a rich palette of options for constructing metaphysical cosmologies, and the basics formed a kind of "standard model" for over 1000 years.  The cosmos described by Dante is a Christian fusion of parts:  a hell where souls are imprisoned and subjected to torments, somewhat like the Pistis Sophia; the planetary shells of Ptolomy, complete with spiritual intelligences; a divine pleroma of angelic orders that follows the model of a late Neoplatonic forgery, the Celestial Hierarchies of pseudo-Dionysus. It is much closer to gnosticism than Hellenistic rational speculation. The Church remained uneasy about the planetary powers, and saw them as primarily demonic - this was a thorny subject, as Giordano Bruno (1548-1600)  found to his cost. Various under-the-counter grimoires such as the Key of Solomon provided instructions for communicating with the morally ambiguous planetary spirits.

It is the ascent model of spirituality that is most interesting. The soul descends, it is embodied, and on death (with luck, grace and a following wind) it ascends. This is a huge shift from the most ancient beliefs in Greece and Mesopotamia, where souls went to a dark place and ate dirt. Now the soul is a divine creature that descends into the world, and depending on many factors - divine grace, moral conduct, secret knowledge, ritual purity, or faith, it may rise to a blessed utopia, or it may fall into a place of torment. Dante's imaginative tour of creation had its precursors. In On the Delay of Divine Vengeance Plutarch (46-120 AD) describes a rogue and villain named Aridaeus from the town of Soli who appeared to have died after a fall. Three days later, on the way to his funeral Aridaeus revived and described how he was assigned a guide and conducted through the netherworld and its punishments. According to Plutarch, Aridaeus was a changed man thereafter. There are many other similar stories, including the well-known (but much earlier) Myth of Er.

The origin of the shift in perspective from dirt-eating to divinity lies in ancient mystery traditions associated with Orpheus, Dionysus and Demeter. The Neoplatonists subscribed to the myth of Orpheus, who was supposed to have brought mystery traditions to the Greeks, and who influenced Pythagoras, Plato, and was thus co-opted into their own lineage. Orpheus and the "Orphic tradition" is still the subject of considerable academic debate, and may well be a late invention. What is known however is that the local mystery cults of Dionysus and Demeter offered an alternative to the economy, cattle-class, after-death experience. With suitable purifications and offerings the soul of the deceased might travel to a better place and become a companion to the gods. Over time the choice of afterlife destination became more extreme and dualistic, with a choice between a very, very bad place and a very, very good place, not unlike the current beliefs of many Christians (and it should also be noted that in rituals such as the Viaticum, Christianity has preserved ancient traditions for the in-flight care of the soul).

The famous Eleusinian Mysteries, celebrated at the small town of Eleusis near Athens, were not just a purification. They were an initiation into mysteries of life and death. Our understanding of what happened is imprecise because initiates were required to be silent about their experiences, and remarkably, they were. In well over one thousand years no-one revealed the central experience, although there are many informed conjectures. Central to the Mysteries was the myth of Demeter, goddess of growth and fertility, as told in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. Demeter's daughter Persephone is given by Zeus to Hades, king of the underworld. Hades seizes Persephone while she is picking flowers, and carries her off. Demeter searches for her daughter, and eventually goes into mourning. Nothing grows, there is no harvest, the human race is in danger of starvation, and Zeus is forced to intercede. A compromise is reached: Perspephone must spend six months of each year with Hades as queen of the dead, but is permitted to join her mother for the remaining six months, a myth that is obviously related to the pattern of winter and summer in the northern hemisphere. We can infer (and there is some evidence to support this) that the pattern of death and regrowth in nature was applied to human existence: that in death there is also life. However, there was much more to the Mysteries than a simple idea - it was a vivid and life-altering experience.

It must have been an exhausting event, as it was spread over several days, and began with various purification rituals that included washing a pig in the sea. There were several days of fasting. There was a fourteen mile procession from Athens to Eleusis, and much lewd humour. There were all-night dances. The central part of the Mysteries was held in a large building known as the Telesterion, and the various ritual roles were hereditory positions taken by members of one or two families. Much was done at night in the light of torches. It is reasonably certain that various clever tricks and illusions were used, and some have suggested that psychotropic substances were given in drinks. Drugs were probably unnecessary, as people are extremely suggestible and malleable in groups, and there are many extraordinary videos on YouTube of charismatic Christians showning "signs", such as talking in tongues, of being "slain in the spirit", and exhibiting all kinds of atypical manic, catatonic and convulsive behaviours.

Golden Dawn grades
It is now possible to attempt to contextualise the unusual things that members of the Golden Dawn were doing at the end of the nineteenth century. The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was instigated in 1888 by three members of a quasi-masonic Rosicrucian organisation called the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia - SRIA. The SRIA requires that its members be Master Masons, and provides an initiatory structure of grades. The founders of the Golden Dawn preserved the basic structure of SRIA grades and added a tenth so that the grade structure corresponded to the ten sephirot of the Tree of Life (see right). The order of the initiations follows the reverse order of emanation of sefirot on the Tree of Life; in other words, they can be regarded as an ascent of the Tree.

Another innovation was to associate each sefirot with a planet so that the ascent of the Tree coincided with the traditional ascent through the spheres of the planets - the order coincides exactly with that given by Fludd above (and many other sources, including Dante). In other words, the ancient view of the experience of the soul after death became a living experience, and in this respect the Golden Dawn initiations resembled the Eleusinian Mysteries. The temple became a place where the soul could experience the operational forces of the cosmos while still alive.

Sefira Planet Grade
Malkhut Earth Zelator
Yesod Moon Theoricus
Hod Mercury Practicus
Netzach Venus Philosophus
Tiferet Sun Adeptus Minor
Gevurah Mars Adeptus Major
Chesed Jupiter Adeptus Exemptus
Binah Saturn Master of the Temple
Chokhmah Fixed Stars, Zodiac Magus
Keter Ipsissimus

The authors of the Golden Dawn initiation rituals were aware of these connections. The titles and roles of the temple officers - those entrusted with conducting rituals in the temple - were based on those of the Eleusinian Mysteries. The Hierophant ("who shows what is holy") represented the right-hand pillar of the Tree of Life, the quality of mercy, the east, and the forces of the "right side". The Hiereus ("priest") represented the left-hand pillar, the quality of judgement, the west, and the powers of the "left side". The Hegemon ("guide") represented balance, Tipheret and the Middle Pillar. The Dadouchos was the torchbearer. The Stolistes ("preparer") was the cup-bearer. 

The rituals followed the ancient pattern of legomena, "things spoken", dromena, "things performed", and deiknymena, "things revealed". There were invocations, ritual actions, circumambulations, solemn oaths. The temple officers conducted a ritualised initiation on the physical plane, and a more elaborate version of the same ritual in their imagination, in which they were embodying and channeling cosmic forces. In this sense the temple was a cosmic simulacrum designed to awaken and instruct the soul of the candidate. There are parallels with the theurgic ritual theory of Iamblichus, a Neoplatonist philosopher and theurgist who believed that the soul was so ensnared by material existence it required the "shock" of theurgic ritual to awaken it to the powers of the cosmos. It need to be "snatched out" of its short-sighted obsession with the life of the physical body and exposed to the larger reality from whence it had come.

The wording of the Golden Dawn rituals dramatically contrasts "light" and "darkness". Darkness is normal physical existence, light is both the light of occult and spiritual philosophy, and the experience of being "enlightened" through progressive initiation into the ascending levels of spiritual life. Neophytes were advised to "quit the Night and seek the Day", a spiritual dawn embodied in the rising sun symbol of the Golden Dawn itself. The final goal of initiation can best be summarised by the quotation from the Talmud that has become a staple of greeting cards: "Every blade of grass has an angel that bends over it and whispers" grow, grow". The is the tip of an ancient belief found in both the Hermetic and Jewish traditions, that everything in the world below has its reflection and origin in the world above. What is true of grass is true of human beings, and there is an angelic being in the upper worlds that is both the Holy Guardian Angel, the divine genius, and the true self. The aim of the Golden Dawn rituals was to accomplish this unity.

There are legitimate questions about the extent to which these goals were met. A spiritual hierarchy is an unstable social construct. The Celestial Hierarchies of the pseudo-Dionysus describes the ideal or prototype:

"For each of those who is allotted a place in the Divine Order finds his perfection in being uplifted, according to his capacity , towards the Divine Likeness; and what is still more divine, he becomes, as the Scriptures say, a fellow-worker with God, and shows forth the Divine Activity revealed as far as possible 'in himself'. For the holy constitution of the Hierarchy ordains that some are purified, others purify; some are enlightened, others enlighten; some are perfected, others make perfect; for in this way the divine imitation will fit each one."

The members of the Golden Dawn may have liked to imagine themselves as recreating the celestial hierarchy of imitatio dei, with members higher up the hierarchy exemplifying the spiritual life to those further down the ladder. In reality the organisation suffered the problems of any newly-created hierarchy, which can be informally summarised as "who sez you is the boss of me". A collection of spiritual non-conformists is bound to experience difficulties with this concept. One of the most notably non-conformist of the members, the child of fundamentalist Christian non-conformists, was Aleister Crowley.

Crowley's tendencies towards self-promotion, notoriety, ill-advised legal contests, drugs, sexual promiscuity, and spiritual grandstanding have obscured the fact that despite being a member of the Golden Dawn for a short period of time, he remained faithful to their goals and methods throughout his life. He continued to work his way through the grades of the order for decades after leaving, convinced that higher powers would provide the necessary initiations. His Holy Guardian Angel communication occured in Cairo in 1904, his crossing of the Abyss to Master of the Temple grade occured in North Africa in 1909, his assumption to Magus occured in 1919, and in 1924 he accepted the grade of Ipsissimus while in Cefelau in Sicily. The Golden Dawn system of occult symbols and correspondences, including Kabbalah, became the platform around which he structured his life.

For example, both Crowley and fellow Golden Dawn member A.E. Waite collaborated on the design of successful Tarot decks, and both wrote a book on the Tarot. Waite understood very well that the Golden Dawn tarot attributions were of relatively recent provenance, and was flexible in his collaboration with artist Pamela Colman Smith. He borrowed from the Golden Dawn without being slavish, and the deck has become the world's best-selling Tarot deck. Crowley acted as if the Golden Dawn tarot had been handed down to Moses on the reverse side of the tablets of the law, and treated his minor changes as if he had discovered nuclear fission. Having said this, his collaboration with Lady Freida Harris produced a richly symbolic deck in a beautiful art deco style that is a monument to the Golden Dawn system.

Even the inclusion of sexual magic into Crowley's occult system was not an innovation - these ideas had been kicking around in various masonic orders since the 18th century, and are well-known in the case of Swedenborg and his contacts, including the poet William Blake. There are several clues that these traditions may have infiltrated European occultism via Lurianic Kabbalah and the Sabbatian heresy - see Marsha Keith Suchard's Why Mrs. Blake Cried: Swedenborg, Blake and the Sexual Basis of Spiritual Vision. Crowley's (much detested and slandered) companion in the Golden Dawn, the writer A.E. Waite, was an extremely erudite student of ancient traditions. His book, The Holy Kabbalah, was complimented by Scholem as the only worthwhile book on Kabbalah to emerge from the occult schools. In The Holy Kabbalah Waite uses the sexual symbolism of the Zohar and the eroticism of the Song of Songs to suggest that in the marriage bed a husband and wife were performing an act of divine mimesis, with all that might entail from a spiritual persective. To my knowledge, I know of no other place where the kabbalistic significance of the coitus is discussed so explicitly (although Waite does his best to be coy and obtuse).

In conclusion, the Golden Dawn rescued the ancient Hermetic and Mystery traditions and recreated a living theurgic and initiatory tradition. Much of 20th. century magic has been a reaction to it in one way or another as more and more source material has become available to researchers. One realisation is the understanding that while the cake may have been ancient, the icing wasn't - much of the dense web of symbolism was concocted by the founders.  The hierarchical approach has its social problems, as many of the influential offshoots of the Golden Dawn have experienced, which has lead to a proliferation of individual approaches. Crowley attracted many people to the western esoteric traditions, but obscured as much as he clarified - he was an effective proselytiser, but not a good historian. His reputation has done nothing to restore the tradition to respectability. Many books on Kabbalah (or Qabalah) were published, and did a great deal to keep interest alive at a time when it had been marginalised within Judaism. While these are not great works of scholarship, they reflect a living, working, theurgic tradition of Kabbalah that is both well-developed and accessible.

Jewish traditions have their own descriptions of ascent. The traditions of the Merkavah mystics were preserved into medieval times, but these literary remains do not seem to have reignited attempts to duplicate these ancient visionary techniques. The Merkavah traditions differ from the Hellenistic worldview of planetary spheres in that they resemble an attempt to gain audience with a great king in his palace. In modern terms, admission to the VIP lounge of a celebrity night club ("if you're not on the list, you can't come in"). The purpose of these ascents was not to experience or pass beyond the powers of the spheres; it seems to have been the experience of nearness to the divine, with possible occult, theurgic and prophetic benefits.

One of the most enduring symbols was that of a column or pillar connecting the higher and lower worlds down which souls pass at birth and ascend at death. There are descriptions of meditative ascents through the worlds/sefirot. Cordovero described this practise, the purpose of which was to ascend to Keter and draw down spiritual forces. One might also ascend in the imagination to perform unifications in the upper worlds. Many kabbalists were influenced by Greek philosophy, and did place Platonic interpretations upon the worlds and spiritual ascents, but one finds nothing quite like the systematic ascents through the sefirot as practiced by the Hermetic schools. The interested reader is referred to Idel's Ascensions on High in Jewish Mysticism: Pillars, Lines, Ladders.

Jacob's DreamOne of the most important and enduring symbols of the connection between earth and heaven is Jacob's Ladder, based on the dream of Jacob in which he saw angels ascending and descending from earth to heaven via a ladder. This symbol is appealing to hermetic kabbalists, who do tend it interpret it from a Platonic perspective. There are those who interpret the geometrical shape of the Tree of Life as a ladder (e.g. William Gray's Ladder of Lights).

1. See Jesus as a Figure in History by Mark Allan Powell for a more rounded perspective.