The shoddy house on the edge of time: Sefer Yetzirah, the astrological take

As I have been reading about sidereal astrology, I have been trying to work out the conceptual points of contact and divergence between it, tropical astrology, and the material in the Sefer Yetzirah (SY). These last few days, reading the SY, it has begun to come into view. What I am seeing in even a summary account of India’s astrological traditions suggests that the tropical/sidereal distinction doesn’t capture the conceptual ferment in astrological antiquity I am glimpsing through the SY.

As I look at this through the lens of the SY, there are superficial resemblances to both sidereal and tropical astrology. The celestial tree (remember there are three trees in the SY, that of the heavens, of time, and of the body) drew my attention to the sidereal dimensions of astrology, focusing quite specifically on the astrological bodies of the planets and constellations. I have spent a lot of time on this aspect so far, and hopefully made clear how that unfurls into a relationship with both time and the body. Let me shift gears, though, toward the other configurations, especially that of time.

The tropical zodiac, by contrast, defines each zodiacal figure as a span of time synchronized around the vernal equinox. It gives pride of place to the sun, both as the celestial object whose motion defines the equinox, but also in the way in which favors the sun sign, i.e., the position of the sun in those fixed spans. When the SY describes the tree of time, the three elements become the three seasons (temperate, hot, cold), the seven planets become the seven days of the week, and the twelve zodiacal constellations become the twelve months of the year.

In other words, in the tree of time, the months of the year play a function that parallels the zodiac in the heavens. This seems like something very much like the role played by the date ranges assigned to each figure of the zodiac in tropical astrology. Do we see here, perhaps, the point at which we can join the two systems?

I don’t think so, but thinking through why this is the case is productive.

The SY begins in the differentiation (not identification!) of the body, time, and space. The months aren’t the constellations, but they express a sympathy with them through which we can access their potency. This model recaptures the fundamental unity of time and the heavens by forming sympathies between them. This conceptual unity isn’t a perfect match for the original unity, though. There is a certain degree of loss.

This loss is not accidental. The Kabbalistic framework presumes that there is something broken, that there has been a drift between the original unity and present existence. What the differentiaton between the trees of time, body, and the heavens makes clear is that they are not identical. Part of the work of learning the sympathies is that they provide the Kabbalist with the active tools to reinvigorate the sympathies and prepare them to enter into a more unified state. The Kabbalist help raise creation harmonically closer to a more perfect state.

(‘Harmonically,’ while a little new age sounding,  seems to be the right word, too, because the work does not fully heal but prepares the world to receive the healing from a higher power. Lots of good material here for comparing and contrasting Kabbalism with other gnostic movements, more than a few of which have Judaism itself at their roots.)

So, initially, it seems like tropical astrology could be explained as either (1) a somewhat blurred model that conflates what the SY distinguished or (2) provides a supplement to the SY‘s model, describing the point of interaction (the sun) though which the interaction of the constellations and the months becomes possible. The problem lies with a closer examination of the months in the SY; they aren’t solar months. The SY uses lunar months.

Also, the time ranges assigned to each figure of the tropical zodiac isn’t a month but straddles two (Julian) months. Both the zodiacal ranges and the monthly ranges are fixed according to the sun, but the monthly ranges are more arbitrary. It’s tempting to say, then, that the tropical zodiac and the roman months are just two parallel solar calendars, except we know that the earliest Roman calendars were lunar, too. The major innovation of the Julian calendar was to wrest the calendar from its lunar moorings.

From one perspective, the Julan months are best understood as the commemoration and subtle distortion of some specific year’s lunar calendar. There is something subtly necromantic about that. The Empire never ended, perhaps, with its demiurge shielding itself from its celestial siblings? The world keeps spinning, the planets keep moving, and tropical astrologers address those, but, in tandem with the Julian months, this cosmogram hedges out the interaction of both the Moon and celestial zodiac. They appear primarily through the intermediary of the Sun, a sort of Sol Invictus before the fact. In its continued vitality today, it is also a kind of Sol Invictus after the fact, too.

The calendar is a magical diagram on a grand scale and from the perspective of the SY material the Julian and tropical system together actively orient us away from important aspects of our magical world. The moon and stars do not disappear, of course, but they become something external to the daily life, the province of a smaller subset of individuals with interest in them.

Though perhaps sunny and optimistic, well-meaning, this actively works us free of our very human ties to the cosmos itself. The more modern fantasies of stellar empires and space powers may very well be modern expressions of this solar hijack. What if instead of needing to fix and conquer, there is a way to participate directly in the life of the universe, one that is just a little to the side of our present fantasies.

What does a sympathetic, more Kabbalistic account look like, then? It starts to look a little more like the Mesoamerican one. There are two interlocking cycles whose intersections we make use of to interact with (and preserve) creation. There is the cycle of the heavens, the zodiac, and the Sun’s progress through it. Then there is the cycle of the months and seasons, and the Moon’s progress through which we make distinctions in that time.

Reading through the SY commentary, I am struck by the way it orients the Hebraic material toward epochs of time stretching across thousands and millions and billions of years, in a way not so disparate from the great ages within which many Mesoamerican communities oriented themselves, ages that unfolded within the time of the cosmos.

I don’t want to get too far along with the Mesoamerican comparison, though, because Mesoamericans made use of Sun-Moon cycles, not Moon-Constellation cycles favored by the SY (and at least some of the Sumerian materials which might be antecedents). Perhaps, it might be possible to draw the two together to form a complex system of interlocking cycles that encompassed Sun, Moon, and Stars?

So, we have the space age starting in the depths of time, with figures like Abraham whose connection to the stars is clear, fueling the development of more complex human society, then of agriculture, with a fundamentally Roman distortion, one that has rippled out and threatened to engulf us, a distortion that points to the stars while all the while attempting to neutralize their operations. Which makes me wonder if things like calendar reform and/or reorienting some piece of your life to lunar and sidereal events might be a sensible form of dissenting from the empire.

Maybe we’re living in the wrong space age, and it’s destroying us. Space is the place, right? Space and the question of rights for the beings that populate it being the not-so-subtle code for rethinking our place in it, an operation which ought to have repercussions down into the roots of imperial capitalism itself. Rights and rites.

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One thought on “The shoddy house on the edge of time: Sefer Yetzirah, the astrological take

  1. Pingback: Tai Chi Y4D36: swiftness | Wanderings in the Labyrinth

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