Permutations: Sefer Yetzirah and Astrology

“Oh, do not be stupid, boy!” Mrs Whatsit scolded. “You know perfectly well what I am driving at!”
“You mean you’re comparing our lives to a sonnet? A strict from, but freedom within it?”
“Yes,” Mrs Whatsit said. “You’re given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself. What you say is completely up to you.”
—Madeline L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time (192)

The Sefer Yetzirah account of permutation stood out boldly on this morning’s reading. It seems to be one of the most basic elements of the material and forms one of the keys to the operations both within the Kabbalistic material and to the broader magical techne of which it forms a part. Sheesh, it is easy to see the influence of the practice on the grimoire tradition and the Enochian practices of Dee and Kelley.

The discussion of the twelve elemental lines (the diagonals) opens so many doors. it begins with the simplest of things, the permutation of pairs. For reasons that are only partially clear to me, the permutation of Tet and Yud (shaping Leo and Virgo) gets my engines running. But the pairs are really only the training wheels of the permutations. The text proceeds to expand the practice to include the total permutation of the diagonals, the rearrangement of the constellations into all of their possible orders. That is wild! That entails working through the latent potentialities of the firmament itself.

Grasping the full implications of that are well beyond me, well-beyond the scope of a mere mortal given the amount of time it would take to ritually work through even one complete permutation (some quick math suggests there are 479,001,600 possible permutations). However, there is an interim step which might reveal some of the limited implications of the permutations.

That step is astrology. Astrology deals with twelve basic permutations of the twelve elementals, permutations which preserve the basic order of the letters / constellations but explores what happens when you shift their priority. It also weaves into that circle the seven letters of the planets, which breaks the pure permutation of the twelve, but provides introduces a modest yet comprehensible depth to the permutation, deepening somewhat our sense of how complex this can become.

For a dispositionally-minded witch like myself, this transforms how we understand the natal chart. That chart becomes a modest alphabet of magical potencies which we may activate through an examination of their relationships to each other in meditation and ritual. The more thoroughly we engage with these forces actively, the less useful the chart becomes as a predictive tool. The consciously charged elements lose their passive, inertial direction as they acquire a full, polyvocal, life.

Like proper words, they cease to mean one thing, but instead become the locus for many meanings that it becomes our life’s work to live through and develop within a moral-ethical frame. You can’t look at the chart as a model of who you are, but as a model of what you have at your disposal to develop in this lifetime. That brings it more in line with astrology as it was practiced prior to the modern era, but once you start to consider the broader of permutations possible, it explodes the typological-physiological presuppositions spackled atop it.

“He separated the witnesses and stood each one alone: the Universe alone, the Year alone, and the Soul alone.”—Sefer Yetzirah (Saadia Version) 6:16, trans. in Sefer Yetzirah: The Book of Creation in Theory and Practice by Aryeh Kaplan (292)

I mean explode almost in the technical sense used in modelling, where the elements are blown out such that we can see their possible articulation (the sympathy of Leo and the right kidney) and not a specific articulation. The body-soul and the heavens share formative letters, but are different witnesses. It is then the task of the soul, that fragment of the Depths, to play the possibilities into determinate realities, beginning likely with the subtle choices that go into preparing the life that will be, like parentage and birthplace. I knew you before you were shaped in the womb indeed.

It provides some ground for making (more) sense of the injunction against worshiping the planets, too. If what they reflect to us is a plastic possibility, than directing too much attention toward them becomes an exercise in vanity, looking to the mirror rather than developing the potencies as they are present in our soul.

Because, apparently, I can’t help but observe distortions, I also have to note that it suggests that over time the alphabet will change, undergo transformations resulting from things like the changing position of earth and our solar system in relationship to the stars that define our present constellations. The alphabet of meanings is not stable, but slowly changes, albeit at a pace that takes much more than a human lifetime.

This brings us back to an important consideration about the nature of our relationship to the heavens, because while the changes will be too small to note within a single lifetime, they will develop over the course of millenia, and this lore does seem to go back to a period many millenia ago. Over time, what would have been perfectly correlated, will have become off-kilter necessarily. Moreover, our relationship to the night sky changes with our location, such that practices carefully calibrated to one region might not transport so well elsewhere.

I don’t have a good way to resolve those challenges, except to note that they are likely to introduce small distortions, but perhaps the sort that would prevent the highest of the magical possibilities from being realized as easily. And, distantly, I an still hear the niggling voice that wonders after whether the constellations are the same for all, or whether their might be peoples defined by other constellations and other vocabularies of meaning.

Carry this back to the Soul-body as a separate witness and the distortion becomes the slow movement of evolution, the shifting relationships of the animal body over time and ecosystem. We aren’t a stable image, either. I suspect, too, that it is precisely through this mysterious relation between the soul-body and the animal-body, though, that the naming of the animals transpires.

And writing that, I see again the figure of the matrical rising up. Whew. So much more to do, so many gaps to fill. You who read this, I am writing as I learn. That feels absolutely necessary, but keep that in mind.


8 thoughts on “Permutations: Sefer Yetzirah and Astrology

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