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A Brief Essay Upon the Nature and Significance of the Magical Alphabet

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By Aleister Crowley. From "777". This document © O.T.O.


The book 777 has for its primary object the construction of a magical alphabet.

One of the greatest difficulties experienced by the student—a difficulty which increases rather than diminishes with his advance in knowledge—is this: he finds it impossible to gain any clear idea of the meanings of the terms which he employs. Every philosopher has his own meaning, even for such universally used terms as soul; and in most cases he does not so much as suspect that other writers use the term under a different connotation. Even technical writers and those who take the trouble to define their terms before using them are too often at variance with each other. The diversity is very great in the case of this word soul. It is sometimes used to mean Atman. an impersonal principle almost synonymous with the Absolute—itself a word which has been defined with scores of different senses. Others use it to mean the personal individual soul as distinguished from the over-soul or God. Others take it as equivalent to Neschamah. the Understanding, the intelligible essence of man, his aspiration; yet others mean the Nephesch, the animal soul, the consciousness corresponding to the senses. It has even been identified with the Ruach which is really the mechanism of the mind. Apart from these major distinctions there are literally hundreds of minor shades of meaning. We find therefore a writer predicating the soul A, B, and C, while his fellow student protests vehemently that it is none of these things-despite which the two men may be in substantial agreement.

Let us suppose for a moment that by some miracle we obtain a clear idea of the meaning of the word. The trouble has merely begun, for there immediately arises the question of the relations of one term to the others. There have been few attempts at constructing a coherent system; and those that are coherent are not comprehended.

In view of this Euroclydon of misunderstanding it is dearly necessary to establish a fundamental language. I saw this fact in my twenties. My extended travels throughout the world had brought me into contact with religious and philosophical thinkers of every shade of opinion; and the more I knew the greater became the confusion. I understood, with bitter approval, the outburst of the aged Fichte; "If I had my life to live again, the first thing I would do would be to invent an entirely new system of symbols whereby to convey my ideas." As a matter of fact certain people, notably Raymond Lully, have attempted this great work.

I discussed this question with Bhikkhu Ananda Metteya (Allan Bennett) in 1904. He professed himself completely satisfied with the Buddhist terminology. I could not concur with this opinion. Firstly, the actual words are barbarously long, impossibly so for the average European. Secondly, an understanding of the system demands complete acquiescence in the Buddhist doctrines. Thirdly, the meaning of the terms is not, as my venerable colleague maintained, as dear and comprehensive as could be wished. There is much pedantry, much confusion, and much disputed matter. Fourthly, the terminology is exdusively psychological. It takes no account of extra-Buddhistic ideas; and it bears little relation to the general order of the universe. It might be supplemented by Hindu terminology. But to do that would immediately introduce elements of controversy. We should at once be lost in endless discussions as to whether Nibbana was Nirvana or not: and so on for ever.

The system of the Qabalah is superficially open to this last objection. But its real basis is perfectly sound. We can easily discard the dogmatic interpretation of the Rabbins. We can refer everything in the Universe to the system of pure number whose symbols will be intelligible to all rational minds in an identical sense. And the relations between these symbols are fixed by nature. There is no particular point—for most ordinary purposes—in discussing whether 49 is or is not the square of 7.

Such was the nature of the considerations that led me to adopt the Tree of Life as the basis of the magical alphabet. The 10 numbers and the 22 letters of the Hebrew Alphabet, with their traditional and rational correspondences (taking into consideration their numerical and geometrical interrelations), afford us a coherent systematic groundwork sufficiently rigid for our foundation and sufficiently elastic for our superstructure.

But we must not suppose that we know anything of the Tree a priori. We must not work towards any other type of central Truth than the nature of these symbols in themselves. The object of our work must be, in fact, to discover the nature and powers of each symbol. We must clothe the mathematical nakedness of each prime idea in a many-coloured garment of correspondences with every department of thought.

Our first task is thus to consider what we are to mean by the word number. I have dealt with this in my commentary to Verse 4, Chapter I, of The Book of the Law; "Every number is infinite; there is no difference." (See, "What is a 'number' or a 'symbol'," p. 127.)

The student should go very thoroughly into the question of transfinite number. Let him consult the "Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy" of the Hon. Bertrand Russell in a reverent but critical spirit. In particular, in the light of my note on number, the whole conception of Aleph Zero should give him a fairly dear idea of the essential paradoxes of the magical interpretation of the idea of number, and especially of the equation 0 = 2 which I have devised to explain the universe, and to harmonise the antinomies which it presents us at every turn.

Our present state of understanding is far from perfect. It is evidently impossible to obtain a dear notion of each of the primes if only because their number is Aleph Zero.

The numbers 0 to 10, as forming the basis of the decimal system, may be considered as a microcosm of Aleph Zero. For they are endless, 10 representing the return to Unity by the reintroduction of Zero to continue the series in a manner progressively complex, each term representing not only itself in its relation with its neighbours, but the combination of two or more numbers of the first decad. That is, until we reach numbers whose factors are all (except unity) greater than 10; as 143 = (11 x 13). But this necessity to consider such numbers as altogether beyond the first decad is only apparent; each prime being itself an elaboration in some sense or other of one or more of the original 0 to 10 series. This at least may be regarded as conventionally true for immediate purpose of study. A number such as 3299 x 3307 x 3319 may be regarded as a distant and not very important group of fixed stars. (Thus 13 is a "middle modulus" and 111 the "great modulus" of Unity. That is, the multiples of 13 and 111 explain the coefficients of their scales in terms of a more specialised idea of Unity. E.g. 26 = 2 x 13 represents the Dyad in a more specially connotated sense than 2 does; 888 describes the function of 8 in terms of the full meaning of 111, which is itself an elaborate account of the nature of Unity. including—for instance—the dogmatic mystery of the equation 3 = 1.)

By repercussion, again, each larger correlative of any number of 0 to 10 expresses an extended idea of that number which must immediately be included in the fundamental conception thereof. For instance, having discovered that 120 can be divided by 5, we must henceforth think of 5 as the root of those ideas which we find in 120, as well as using our previous ideas of 5 as the key to our investigation of 120. On the surface, it would appear that this mode of working could only lead to baffling contradictions and inextricable confusion; but to the mind naturally lucid and well trained to discrimination this misfortune does not occur.

On the contrary, practice (which makes perfect) enables one to grasp intelligently and class coherently a far vaster congeries of facts than could possibly be assimilated by the most laborious feats of memorizing. Herbert Spencer has well explained the psychology of apprehension. The excellence of any mind, considered merely as a storehouse of information, may be gauged by its faculty of representing any required facts to itself by systematic classification into groups and sub-groups.

This present attempt at a magical alphabet is, in fact, a projection, both intensive and extensive, of this system to infinity. On the one hand, all possible ideas are referred by progressive integrations to the pure numbers 0 to 10, and thence to 2, 1, and 0. On the other. the connotations of 0, 1, and 2 are extended, by progressive definitions, to include every conceivable idea on every plane of the Universe.

We are now in a position to consider the practical application of these ideas. As regards the numbers 0 to 10 of the Key-Scale, each one is a fundamental idea of a positive entity. Its nature is defined by the correspondences assigned to it in the various columns. Thus we may say that the God Hanuman, the Jackal, the Opal, Storax, Truthfulness and so on are all qualities inherent in the idea called 8.

With regard to the numbers 11 to 32 of the Key-Scale, they are not numbers at all in our sense of the word. They have been arbitrarily assigned to the 22 paths by the compiler of the Sepher Yetzirah. There is not even any kind of harmony: nothing could be much further from the idea of 29 than the sign of Pisces. The basic idea had better be considered the letter of the Hebrew Alphabet; and the correspondence of each with fairly comprehensive definitions such as the Tarot trumps is very close and necessary. (It will be noticed that certain Alphabets, especially the Coptic, have more than 22 letters. These additional symbols fill up the Tree of Life when attributed to the Sephiroth.) The numerical value of the letters does however represent a real and important relation. But these numbers are not quite the same as the original sephirotic numbers. For instance, although Beth = 2, = Mercury, and Mercury is part of the idea of Chokmah = 2, the one 2 is not identical with the other. For Mercury, in itself, is not a Sephira. It is not a positive emanation in necessary sequence in the scale 0 to 10. For Beth is the path which joins Kether and Binah, 1 and 3. Zayin = 7 is the path joining Binah, 3, and Tiphereth, 6. That is, they are not numbers in themselves, but expressions of relations between numbers according to a predetermined geometrical pattern.

Another class of number is of immense importance. It is the series usually expressed in Roman numerals which is printed on the Tarot trumps. Here, with two exceptions, the number is invariably one less than that of the letters of the alphabet, where they are numbered according to their natural order from 1 to 22. Thus Gimel, the third letter, pertains to trump II, Mem, the thirteenth letter, to No. XII. These numbers are very nearly of the same order of idea as those of the numerical value of the letters; but they represent rather the active magical energy of the number than its essential being.

To return to the pure Sephiroth, the numbers 0, 1, 2, 3, 5, and 7 are primes, the others combinations of these primes. Here we have already the principle of equilibrium between the simple and the complex. At the same time there is an inherent virtue in these compound numbers as such which makes it improper to think of them as merely combinations from their mathematical elements. Six is an idea in itself, a "Ding an sich" [German phrase for "thing in itself"]. The fact that 6 = 2 x 3 is only one of its properties. Similar remarks apply to the numbers above 10, but here the importance of the primes as compared to that of the compound numbers is much greater. Few compound numbers appear in the present state of our knowledge in themselves as distinguished from the value of their mathematical elements. We may however instance 93, 111, 120, 210, 418, 666. But every prime is the expression of a quite definite idea. For instance 19 is the general feminine glyph, 31 the highest feminine trinity, a "great modulus" of Zero. 41 is the aspect of the feminine as a vampire force, 47 as dynamic and spasmodic, 53 as hedonogenous, 59 as claiming its complement, and so on.

Each prime number retains its peculiar significance in its multiples. Thus the number 23, a glyph of life, exhibits the life of the Dyad in 46, etc. The significance of the primes has been carefully worked out, with fair accuracy in each case, up to 97. Above 100 only a few primes have been thoroughly investigated. This is because, by our present methods, such numbers can only be studied through their multiples. That is to say, if we wish to determine the nature of the number 17 we shall examine the series 34, 51, 68, etc.. to see what words and ideas correspond to them. We shall establish a ratio 51 : 34 = 3 : 2. From our knowledge of 3 and 2 we can compare the effect produced upon them by the modulus 17. For instance, 82 is the number of the Angel of Venus and means a thing beloved; 123 means war, a plague, pleasure, violation; and 164 has the idea of cleaving, also of profane as opposed to sacred. The common element in these ideas is a dangerous fascination; whence we say that 41, the highest common factor, is the Vampire.

But the above considerations, which would extend the letters of the magical alphabet to an infinity of symbols, are not properly pertinent to this essay. Our main object is convenience in communicating ideas. And this would be violated if we aimed too high. We can attain all our objectives for practical purposes by confining ourselves to the traditionally accepted scale of 32 paths, of 10 numbers and 22 letters. The only extension necessary is the inclusion of the three Veils of the Negative, a matter of fundamental importance in the apodeictic structure of the Tree given in the structural diagram. These Veils are useful in only a very few positive lists.

The numbers 31 and 32 must be duplicated because the letter Shin possesses two very distinct branches of idea, one connected with the element of Fire, and the other with that of Spirit. Also the letter Tau is referred both to the planet Saturn and the element Earth. This is a great defect in the scheme, theoretically. But the traditional attributions are so numerous and well defined that no remedy seems feasible. (In practice no serious trouble of any kind is caused by the theoretical confusion.)

One further difficulty has arisen owing to the discovery of the planets Neptune and Uranus. We have however tried to turn this into an advantage by including them with Primum Mobile in a Sephirotic arrangement of the planets. And the device has justified itself by enabling us to construct a perfectly symmetrical attribution for the rulings and exaltations of the Signs of the Zodiac.

For the rest it need only be said, that, as in the case of most lines of study, the key to success is the familiarity conferred by daily practice.