Moses Redux

Let’s get ready to ramble, shall we? This is one of those throat-clearing posts that tend to show up in the middle. I keep coming back to something Simon said in response to my last post on Moses in the medieval Jewish Kabbalistic material:

“SY is considered a text of the school of ma’aseh bereishit (work of creation), a complementary but separate school to ma’aseh merkavah (work of the chariot). The former is a school focusing on the metaphysics of creation as outlined in chapter 1 of Genesis and the latter school is based on visions of Ezekiel and Isaiah involving heavenly ascent. I would place the experience of Moses receiving the law as related to ma’aseh bereishit and the splitting of the sea of reeds as related to the school of ma’aseh bereishit.”

It was useful to have it said in these terms contrasted in just this way because it reopens a series of distinctions that has long animated my thinking (wizard/witch; the sumerian diasporas; though the diasporas posts are basically a pitch to break it out into wizard/sorcerer/witch). So, when we are talking about the early medieval fusion of the SY with an account of an ascent to heaven by Moses, we are looking at an interesting case where the two modalities have crisscrossed each other.

I am also thinking about it in relationship to some other discussions that I have either participated in or seen going on. The first is the series of posts over at Hermetic Lessons talking about astral travel, which is a strong pitch for what are basically merkavah practices.

The second is a discussion I have been having with Stacey and watching take place around Star.ships, with its Witzel-ian distinction between Gondwanan and Laurasian mythology, which again play into a similar pattern of creation and (space/heaven/astral) travel. Also, hey, the sea of reeds and the swallowing up of the Egyptians as reanimating the tales of Sundaland for the Jewish people.

(I have to confess that I haven’t read Star.ships and my knowledge of the book is mostly secondhand, either from the discussion or having familiarity with some components of the book that have shown up on Runesoup. It’s not that I haven’t tried, but when I pick it up and try to dip into it, it is like nails on the chalkboard for me, noise in my signal. It is really not where my head is at—I’m working toward why I that is the case here.)

The third is the circle of discussions about trying to find other terms that join Western esotericism to other forms of magical practices in the world—the discussion, for example, that currently favors a supposedly more neutral ‘animism’ to the supposedly more freighted ‘shamanism.’ I really hate those discussions. The question of which mediocre term to cram our magical work into makes me a little queasy and angry, so I tend to avoid them.

How much better would it be to start talking about this in terms like merkavah and bereishit, creation and travel, enstasy and ekstasy? You know, terms that actually get us a little closer to what individual people do rather than vague, alienating colonial terms in which the ghosts of Victorian empire still dwell. We could probably do even better just to talk about what people do in the concrete and build up the terms of our discussion more organically, with more rough and tumble comparisons, than to rush eagerly toward some great grouping ahead of time.

I have done my share of running around the history and I think there is much to be talked about on that front. Still, I suspect a good bit more of the distinction has to do with something about our spiritual, biological, and psychological makeup. It’s one thing for these patterns to have historical roots, but why have they had such historical durability, frequently when that deep context has been lost and forgotten?

I am betting it has more than a little to do with the way we are wired to be and exist in the world, that the distinctions between sorts of myth and sorts of practice have much to do with how we experience, understand, and interact with the world. Where does the magic actually happen? It happens in experience, understanding, and interaction at the personal level. You don’t get it in the history unless you have already started having it in the personal.

More than a few people seem to use historical research as a form of justification and verification for what they do. The history is offered as certification, a proof of efficacy and a source for practices. I have done this, too, but it usually feels like an error (albeit a useful one on occasion), something I have to undo in order to proceed with my practical work. When push comes to shove, I have gone to the history for permission, permission to just do magic as I have intuitively felt is right. So, what I have tended to extract from historical work is that weirdos like me (and perhaps us) have always been, and they tend to proceed through a mixture of inspiration and opportunism.

That inspiration and opportunism is not historical research, though it does exploit historical material. This is why I am very fond of Walter Benjamin, because he proposes a form of history that resonates more closely with my experience of magical work, a form of history that takes for granted that linear history is the lie, the propaganda organized by empire to put everything in its place and time, whereas real history always involves these sometimes miraculous and often wondrous cross-stitches between disparate historical moments.

(I know, I have barely mentioned Moses. Almost there.)

One of the most liberating things I ever did was allow my work to follow a ‘folkloric’ path, not in the sense of following folkloric practices, but in allowing myself the freedom of people practicing magic without the immense historical resources I had available. I allowed myself to turn to the historical resources at my disposal in a manner similar to the way a medieval magician or cunning person turned to the fragments at their disposal.

A major break for me was reading about a practice found among Spiritual Baptists in Trinidad and Tobago, when people would camp out within the Church to receive wisdom directly from the Bible, directly from the verses and spirits themselves. This wasn’t the tired theology that always had to recontextualize, critically, the sources but one which allowed a spirited text to be spirited, to speak and dialogue. The history is relevant to that process only insofar as it provides the spirit more tools to clarify and express itself.

Which gets me back to Moses, because it was under the figure of Moses that a portion of my work has developed. Moses didn’t show up at my doorstep talking up a storm, but he started to show up in the material, in the way I would open the Qur’an or the Bible and find myself in the middle of his story, or of coming across him in Bezels of Wisdom, or of his persistent sidelong presence when I was reading around Zora Neale Hurston’s life and travels, of her later work ensconcing Moses as one of the patrons of hoodoo (no stretch there, of course, but it does highlight the way in which in hoodoo Moses was already there ahead of the grimoires, through the connection to Islamic Africans brought to America as slaves).

All that tended to be more primary to me than the prophetic merkavah texts like Isaiah, or the stories of astral travel that feature prominently in Islamic mystical traditions.  There was a specific way in which those astral doors tended to open for me, but it wasn’t so much a matter of ascending upward or outward as of tuning my presence to the astral dimension itself, of constellating myself with the astral world (sometimes quite literally the starry world that gives the astral its name). It was a less a matter of astral travel than of astral invitation. Which is where the story of these early recensions of the medieval diagramming traditions of the SY intrigued me, because they reminded me of Moses at this nexus.

Ibn al’Arabi, following the conceptual rubric of Islam, talks a lot about the seals of the prophets and the saints, and there is an odd way in which some of the work I have done occurs beneath the seal of Moses, because what is at work through the figure of Moses is the work of creation as the interweaving of the astral and the manifest, the tuning of the outer to the inner, to resonance. In the SY proper, it’s true, Abraham has a more prominent role than Moses, but while Abraham is the one with whom God initiates the covenant, it is with Moses that covenant is refreshed and given social form (consider, for example, Moses as instituting a system of judges on the advice of his father-in-law).

The nature of invitation and embodiment is one of the other entry points to a discussion going on about the virtues of meditation in magical work. Yes, meditation broadly construed helps prepare us for things like the ascent, for the transition into the astral, but it can also be one of the primary means for conditioning ourselves to receive and contain the mysteries within our being and our lives. This is the deep end of the talismanic operations, the challenge to contain and transmit those mysteries within the material.

The question of hoodoo practitioners not meditating Jason mentions…yes, generally true, but at the roots of it? It isn’t Buddhist one-pointed meditation to be sure, but the relationship of robust hoodoo work to the Bible and vigorous prayer makes it easy for me to think that hoodoo is being washed in the waters of heaven, too.  The way in which the Spiritual Baptists of Trinidad and Tobago operate, with their passionate embrace of the mysteries, has its parallels in the churches alongside of which hoodoo developed. The point of the saints is that they have done the work and through them the people, too, may be saved.

My own work has necessitated time spent in the sanctuary of the church, making clear the connection between the two modalities. Moreover, while I have had a basic mindfulness practice for a while, it was through daily prayer that I really found it take shape and flower. Listening through prayer, focusing on the presence(s) that arise within it and not imposing and interposing my desires upon and between it/them, gave me an appreciation the beauty of that sort of meditational work.

The connection between Moses and spirit work is suggestive, too, because it provides a counterpoint to the Solomonic practices. Not only are there the ways to read the story of Moses and Egypt as a story between Moses and the spiritual world, of embedding and purifying spirits within his domain, there are the stories of Moses and Khidr, a figure that can be understood as a spiritual, rather than human, being. In the shadow of the covenant fall the network of pacts that animate the coven, facing the other direction as it were.

Which is to getting back to the way in which Kabbalism as such is part of a deep and old tradition that is constantly going in two directions at once, inward, making and composing peoples, and outward, spreading wild, so that it can begin again its work of making and saving peoples, heading back to the sense of covens in the Yeatsian sense, of otherwise disparate and sometimes even opposed communities working a common spiritual root (remember the war of the elementals? Apply that to relationships between peoples such that what is life-giving for one is poisonous to another and so on).

Okay, I will stop here. This has wandered widely enough for now!

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6 thoughts on “Moses Redux

  1. Simon Tomasi

    One example a the spirit of a text communicating is Rabbi Joseph Karo, 16th century codifier of Jewish law. He had a Maggid, angelic entity, which was a personification of the Mishna (oral law codified in 3rd century CE) speak to him which he recorded in a diary.

    Being a legal authority and kabbalistic is a common combination in Jewish history.

  2. Simon Tomasi

    Something I learned from academic books on Merkava texts is that it involves heavenly ascent and summoning angelic entities. There is similarity to PGM but also key distinctions. I recommend Rebecca Lesses book ‘Ritual adjurations to gain power’ for good analysis on differences/similarities.

  3. Alexandra

    “…the discussion, for example, that currently favors a supposedly more neutral ‘animism’ to the supposedly more freighted ‘shamanism.’ I really hate those discussions. The question of which mediocre term to cram our magical work into makes me a little queasy and angry, so I tend to avoid them.

    “How much better would it be to start talking about this in terms like merkavah and bereishit, creation and travel, enstasy and ekstasy? You know, terms that actually get us a little closer to what individual people do rather than vague, alienating colonial terms in which the ghosts of Victorian empire still dwell. We could probably do even better just to talk about what people do in the concrete and build up the terms of our discussion more organically…”

    The more involved I get with the magical, the more I feel this same way. However, I will always retain a love for the term “animism,” because I was an animist before it was cool. Specifically, before I was 12 years old. I was hiking along the central California coast with my dad, and talking mythology, expressing some of my misgivings about conventional Christian religion, and speculating about possible alternatives. My dad said that he thought people were, in general, moving away from the of-the-book model of religion and towards something more animistic. I asked what animism was, and he told me it was the view that everything is alive and inspirited. From that moment I knew that if that was animism, then I was an animist. The very fact that I have remembered that bit of conversation all these years is testimony to how much of an impact it had on me. Yes, it’s a clunky and fraught term, but it’s home to me.

    And so, like a hipster working in a record store who hears her favorite song on the radio, I am equal parts amused and dismayed by the current popularity of the idea in magical circles. I hadn’t thought of it, though, as the politically correct version of “shamanism.” Perhaps that is the case. I’ll never stop being horrified at the many ways people dishonor language, but from a pragmatic point of view, we need to just accept that we’ll never have adequate words for things that transcend verbalization in the first place, so we must make do.

    As far as a more organic discussion based on what people DO, one that doesn’t need to look to history for legitimacy, I do think that is needed; but I don’t think it is mutually exclusive with the squabbles about authenticity or magical-political-correctness. To me they look like a difference of scale. There is no ontology without epistemology, and I don’t think it’s possible to discuss anything free from a structuring framework. Or I should say, frameworks–language itself being one such. In this sense, I don’t think merkavah and bereishit are any improvement on or corrective to animism and shamanism–they are still fraught with theoretical baggage. What we do with history is the same thing we do with language, viz., periodically course-correcting or revising. It never gets us any closer to the truth but it sometimes gets us further from a particular error.

    I find myself moving more toward something that feels more organic and holistic. I am less and less drawn to the structure that grants legitimacy, and more and more drawn to experienced relationships with other living beings. Further from what “is” right and closer to what “feels” right. The outward form this takes is 90% mundane actions that arise organically from that worldview (as opposed to overt “magic”), and something that I suppose looks more like “witchcraft” and sometimes, dare I say it, shamanism. It is, to use your very apt description, inspired and opportunistic. (And, if I’m honest, probably a bit lazy.) But as I’ve discussed on my blog, I also find it quite terrifying at times to be without legitimizing structure or even just helpful directions. So I do have sympathy for that urge to look to history–after all, we are all palimpsests. But I think my instinctive, perhaps irrational, desire to cling to legitimizing structures is also because I want to find some common ground with other weirdos. There are sadly few weirdos in my face-to-face life, and my experiences, from early childhood to today, seem to circle back again and again on a theme of being shunned or mocked for my weird ideas. (I assume this is a common experience for magical folk.) I have probably wasted months of my life trying to come up with models that would allow me to finally express the internal coherence, integrity, enchantment, and beauty of my worldview, only to be met with a blank stare, or more often, disdain. It can be almost addictive to feel like you belong to a tradition. Nevertheless, here I am insisting once again on doing it the hard way in spite of my fear.

    Well, that was a bit more rambling than I intended! Thank you provoking so many thoughts.

    1. Io

      I hear you on a lot of this stuff, but I think that terms like merkavah and bereishit (regardless of whether you use those specific terms; terms like them) are better terms than animism and shamanism, because terms like merkavah and bereishit are organic terms, that developed from within a magical practice, as a means of describing and relating a whole bunch of quite concrete mystical experiences. To use anthropological lingo, terms like merkavah and bereishit are emic terms while those like animism and shamanism are etic.

      I think we can meaningfully correlate a lot of emic terms if we sit down long enough and we are all talking emically, in part because I think what the emic terms are all doing a pretty good job of is highlighting a nexus of experiences that are basically components of our human being. Culture is one of the major ways that we ‘hack’ that human being, but the being itself has some pretty basic commonalities.

      My problem with a lot of academic discourse (which is where I think our contemporary use of animism finds its roots) is that it departs too quickly from the emic tangle of experience into an etic tangle of categories only tangentially related to experiences. Obviously, the categorical dimension is present in the emic terms, but the categories are still tightly bound up with the experiences they animate and, in mystical discourse, transparently indirect. A lot of the academic terms are descriptive and are usually accompanied with an illusory sense of certainty.

      I see this all the time when people use terms like shamanism and animism. As soon as they drop the term, they think they know something really substantive about what they have categorized under it. “Oh, well, animists….so…” It’s not exactly false, but the kind of truth it gets at is pretty fuzzy and often times lead people to think they have more in common with each other than they actually do. It feels good to have that in the short term, but you don’t get much stable out of that because the differences will manifest and the conflicts ensue.

      In other words, I agree this is an epistemological question that is important to our ontology, but I think the epistemological register of animism is poorly suited to the ontological register of magical work. The weird thing about using a lot of etic terms for self-understanding is that you basically start to treat yourself like you are ‘other people,’ which gets the alienation going right at the roots.

      Merkavah and terms like it. Am I running, am I visiting other places, what places am I going, how do I or should I direct myself through these other places? Those are the epistemological and ontological horizons that matter.

      Bereishit and terms like it. Am I creating, and I bringing spiritual forces into this space, what forces are those, how am I structuring their relationship, is this stable, does it need to be stable? Those are the epistemological and ontological horizons that matter.

      These questions identify common forms of action, but they don’t identify common domains of action, leaving us plenty of room to talk about how we may be doing similar things but with different goals, different destinations, different spiritual forces, different values, different techniques.

      So, someone who wants to go visit the dolphin spirits that live in the Amazon and get them some spirit nookie is going to come at the flying work a little differently than someone who wants to dialogue with Metatron beneath the throne of heaven, but they might (emphasis on might) be able to help each other out in terms of techniques for getting and directing their flight (I would imagine it would be swapping tips for getting a really good fast going, but who knows).

      It flags at the front end how we need to think about what we might borrow from other people, think about their practices and goals as opposed to our own. Whew, it actually asks us to form goals of our own rather than rely on a series of more or less implicit “what animists/etc. do” assumptions. It also allows for perfectly honest answers like “I have no idea exactly what I want or believe, I just want to play with some magic and see what happens. Will it bother you if I do that near your stuff?”

      From there it seems like we can start to have some discussions about how the world is from within the magical frame, which allows us to speculate a little more organically, in ways that magnify and amplify on the basis of magical experience. It also provides us with the means to step back from speculation which is more the flower than the root and step into the work of, well, flying and creating.

      1. Alexandra

        Ah, when you put it in terms of emic and etic I see what you are getting at. In general I agree, etic terms are problematic in that they automatically force you to other whatever you’re looking at, and you’re right that that can even be yourself. (Though, if one has never been through the process of othering oneself, it can be salutary, and at times it’s magically useful.)

        I do think etic categories can be useful if we are careful and precise, though I agree that typologies and categories are abstractions that get us further and further away from what they seek to understand. For me, “animism” remains useful because it works within my essentially agnostic approach. I don’t know what the heck is going on, but I’m pretty sure that “it” is made of living consciousnesses. At any rate, that’s my working model, and that’s about as far as I can take it. While I think that other self-described animists would share that bare-bones assumption, I’m sure there are many aspects of the animism descriptor that we don’t all share.

        Shamanism is a little more problematic to me. It’s useful as a shorthand since it has come to be an umbrella for certain (assumed) beliefs and practices, but the flip side of that is that it is now burdened and requires unpacking and defining every time one uses it (like “Celtic”). That makes it mostly more trouble than it’s worth. I admit, though, that over the time I’ve been writing this blog I have lapsed into the assumption that my readers probably know what I mean and thus have gotten lazy and imprecise with my terminology.

        I guess animism, now that it is becoming popular as a self-description, is moving into that overly-burdened category, and will soon have to be put in quotes or footnoted or abandoned entirely. However I will always have a sentimental attachment to it and to its useful vagueness.

        At any rate I have a better sense of the project (if I can call it that) that you are describing here and it seems like necessary work.

  4. Pingback: [NB] Hard-hearted Pharaohs and Plagues – Disrupt & Repair

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