Tuesday, 9 December 2014
“Real” Magick in RPGs: the MotherF*cking Kabbalah
I’ve spoken about the Kabbalah previously, but I feel like I need to get some more detail in about that; mainly because if there’s one thing that can drive a regular person to utter metaphysical “magical insanity” its the Kabbalah.
The first thing to note is that the Kabbalah that magicians use is not the same as the traditional Hebrew Kabbalah; nor is it the sort of thing Madonna is into; that’s a new-age hollywood version of the Hebrew Kabbalah. Though it can be funny for people in your game to make that kind of mistaken assumption, as its the sort of thing that would drive a magician to rage, if someone says shit like: “Oh yeah I love the kabbalah, i have a special power bracelet, see?”
The Hermetic or Magical Kabbalah is descended from the Hebrew Kabbalah; its point of divergence is when Johannes Reuchlin and a few other Christian writers in the 14th century began to borrow the Kabbalah (which contrary to claims was only a couple of hundred years old at the absolute most at that time), translating it into latin, and writing commentaries on its virtues that stated to separate it from Judaism. Their intention originally was of course to try to use the Kabbalah to “prove” that Jesus was the Jewish messiah, but the unintentional result of their methodology led to the Kabbalah being transformed into a system that could work outside of an orthodox jewish religious context, and seemed to reveal a much broader view of the universe than either Judaism or Christianity would offer. It was the Hermetic Kabbalah, teaching something that magicians already were working on but could not as easily explain before the Kabbalah came along to act as a giant “filing system” or index: that everything is connected to everything else, that the universe operates on multiple dimensions where different rules apply in each dimension, and where all of creation is ultimately One, and then None.
The Kabbalah’s popularity, and what made the Hermetic Kabbalah central to western magick from that moment on, was that it served as an aforementioned indexing system. It had a practical application, which is what we want to focus on in terms of emulating it for gaming: it lets you try to figure out the secret codes of the universe, and how any one thing connects to any other.
There are two parts to this: the first is the Tree of Life, the giant blueprint of creation. It consists of ten spheres (sephira) with 22 paths connecting it (the same number as there are letters in the hebrew alphabet, or cards in the major arcana of the tarot). Each of these sephira represent a different level of reality, from the 1st (kether) that is pure creation, to the 10th (Malkuth) that is what we usually think of as our actual material world. But each of these spheres actually contain within them an aspect of all reality, like a miniature blueprint of the universe within them, so that in each sphere, there’s also a tree, making for not 10 but 100 sephira. But beyond that, there are four overall levels to reation, making for not 100 but 400 sephira. And somewhere on these sephira or the paths that connect them you can place absolutely any object, word, colour, phenomenon, or concept; to see what other concepts are basically identical to them, which are very closely related, and which are very far away.
The methods by which to derive this are by correspondence (as in, looking up in tables of correspondences that have already been compiled by others) or by what’s called “gematria”; where you calculate the number value of any word, and compare it to other words that have the same value.
Finally, the Tree of Life can also be used as a method to engage in astral travel; where you project yourself in spiritual visions to different levels of the tree, to try to learn or experience the lessons of that level.
So what would all this look like? How would you simulate it in a game?
First of all, an NPC who was caught up in the Kabbalah would probably be frequently doing gematric calculations; either about everything in general (if he was rally batshit obsessed) or about the specific magical works he’s doing (magicians tend to use gematria for “proofs”, that if they can find something meaningful in the gematric calculations for symbols or words or numbers they’ve received in operations or visions, its a “proof” that they’re on the right track). Such a magician would be very excited when he made a connection, and would talk excessively about numbers and words and how such and such word “corresponds” to some alchemical concept, or to the planetary spirit of mercury, or to a phrase from the old testament, or whatever.
You might have to, as GM, simulate Gematria. Unless you want to actually become a kabbalist yourself, the best way to do this is probably to bullshit it; have a “kabbalah” skill or use whatever skill is effective in your game, and abstractly imply that the PCs have figured out the number values of words (this isn’t hard to do, it only takes a minute or two for anything short of a paragraph), and have looked up in a kabbalistic encyclopedia (very easy to obtain, remember magical books are NOT hard to get) to find that the word corresponds to whatever damned magical concept you want it to in your game. You could try to be tricky, for example if the players are dealing with a particular kind of demon, something new or little known, the name of that demon might not be in the encyclopedia; but it could be connected to the name of beelzebub or some other goetic demon, or to one of the qlippothic spheres (oh yeah, the Tree of life ALSO has a “negative” or “qlippothic” realm of broken things that never were, a kind of shattered mirror of tree of life, from which demons are said to arise). They might have to calculate the names of two different things, only to find that they correspond to the same number, to discover that a certain object has power over a certain spirit, for example.
A failed roll can be explained as mistake in the calculation. Anything that isn’t in Hebrew has to first be transliterated into Hebrew before you can calculate its number; and that’s where errors can easily come in. There’s no single agreement for what the value of certain english letters with no hebrew alphabet should be translated as, or even if they should be skipped. There’s no hebrew F, or E; and while there is a hebrew A (aleph), a word with an A in it may sometimes have that “A” translated into an aleph, and sometimes ignored, because in biblical hebrew there are words with an “a” sound in between the consonants without an actual Aleph being there.
Such errors might be discovered, but since most magicians tend to jump to certain conclusions in their work, they may miss some obvious correspondence that way until something they’re trying doesn’t work or doesn’t make sense, after which they’ll try to figure out the gematria yet again.
Go overboard with gematria, and pretty quickly you reach “A Beautiful Mind”-levels of near-schizophrenic obsession of seeing connections and deep magical meanings in everyday objects and events. Everything starts to seem metaphysically important.
As for astrally pathworking the tree of life; I think trying to describe pathworking will take up at least an entire entry of this series, but if you want to get ahead of me on that, I’d strongly suggest you read Alan Moore’s comic Promethea. The main character goes through a journey up the tree of life in several issues of that series, and its one of the best illustrated descriptions of the type of experiences one can have along the way; no doubt sprung from the recollection of Moore’s own pathworkings.
Currently Smoking: Dunhill Classic Series Rhodesian + Rattray’s Old Gowrie
(originally reposted August 15, 2013; on the old blog)