Joseph Smith and Kabbalah:
The Occult Connection

by Lance S. Owens



This work was originally published in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Vol. 27, No. 3, Fall 1994, pp. 117-194. The paper received considerable notice, and in 1995 the Mormon History Association recognized Joseph Smith and Kabbalah: The Occult Connection with its annual award for the best article in Mormon studies. There is an ongoing demand for this paper but unfortunately  Dialogue sold out its entire printing of the Fall, 1994 issue within a few weeks.  Most academic libraries will have Dialogue in their collection of journals for those seeking a print copy.

For easier access, the paper is presented in three parts: Part 1, which begins below, includes pages 117 to 134; Part 2 includes pages 134 to 166; and Part 3 includes pages 166 to 194. The work uses extensive notes which are linked in the text. The illustrations all have captions; access the caption by "clicking" on the figure.

Those interested in this subject might also enjoy the much shorter introductory article by the same author, published in Gnosis: A Journal of Western Inner Traditions, Spring 1995 and subsequently repubilised in the book The Prophet Puzzle: Interpretive Essays on Joseph Smith (edited by Bryan Waterman, Signature Books, 1999):  Joseph Smith: America's Hermetic Prophet.
| GNOSIS ARCHIVE |

 

Joseph Smith and Kabbalah: The Occult Connection

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IN 1973 RLDS HISTORIAN PAUL M. EDWARDS identified a fundamental deficiency of Mormon historical studies: "We have not allowed," says Edwards speaking of Mormon historians, "the revolutionary nature of the movement from which we have sprung to make us revolutionaries." He continued:

 

The one thing about which we might all agree concerning Joseph Smith is that he was not the usual sort of person. He did not approach life itself--or his religious commitment--in a usual way. Yet the character of our historical investigation of Joseph Smith and his times has been primarily traditional, unimaginative, and lacking in any effort to find or create an epistemological methodology revolutionary enough to deal with the paradox of our movement. The irony of our position is that many of our methods and interpretations have become so traditional that they can only reinforce the fears of yesterday rather than nurture the seeds of tomorrow's dreams.1

 

More than two decades have passed since those words were penned, years marked by a veritable explosion in Mormon studies, and yet Edward's challenge "to find or create an epistemological methodology revolutionary enough to deal with the paradox" of Joseph Smith remains a summons largely unanswered. Revolutions are painful processes, in measure both destructive and creative. The imaginative revisioning of Joseph Smith's "unusual approach" to life and religion, demands a careful--though perhaps still difficult and destructive--hewing away of an hundred years of encrusting vilifications and thick layerings of iconographic pigments, masks ultimately false to his lively cast. Smith eschewed orthodoxy, and so eventually must his historians. To that end, there is considerable value in turning full attention to the revolutionary view of Joseph Smith provided by Harold Bloom in his critique of The American Religion.

Broadly informed as a critic of the creative imagination and its Kabbalistic, Gnostic undertones in Western culture--and perhaps one of the most prominent literary figures in America--Bloom has intuitively recognized within Joseph Smith a familiar spirit, a genius wed in nature to both the millennia-old visions of Gnosticism in its many guises, and the imaginative flux of poesy. Individuals less informed in the history and nature of Kabbalism--or of Hermetic, Alchemical and Rosicrucian mysticism, traditions influenced by a creative interaction with Kabbalah--may have difficulty apprehending the basis of his insight. Indisputably, the aegis of "orthodox" Mormon historiography is violently breached by Bloom's intuition linking the prophet's visionary bent with the occult aspirations of Jewish Kabbalah, the great mystical and prophetic tradition of Israel.

Bloom is, of course, not a historian but a critic and interpreter of creative visions, and his reading of Smith depends perhaps less on historical detail than on his intuition for the poetic imagination. The affinity of Smith for these traditions is, nonetheless, evident to an educated eye.

 

What is clear is that Smith and his apostles restated what Moshe Idel, our great living scholar of Kabbalah, persuades me was the archaic or original Jewish religion. . . . My observation certainly does find enormous validity in Smith's imaginative recapture of crucial elements, elements evaded by normative Judaism and by the Church after it. The God of Joseph Smith is a daring revival of the God of some of the Kabbalists and Gnostics, prophetic sages who, like Smith himself, asserted that they had returned to the true religion. . . . Either there was a more direct Kabbalistic influence upon Smith than we know, or, far more likely, his genius reinvented Kabbalah in the effort necessary to restore archaic Judaism.2

 

While I would not diminish the inventive genius of Joseph Smith, careful reevaluation of historical data suggests there is both a poetic and an unsuspected factual substance to Bloom's thesis. Though yet little understood, from Joseph's adolescent years forward he had repeated, sometime intimate and arguably influential associations with distant legacies of Gnosticism conveyed by Kabbalah and Hermeticism--traditions intertwined in the Renaissance and nurtured through the reformative religious aspirations of three subsequent centuries. Though any sympathy Joseph held for old heresy was perhaps intrinsic to his nature rather than bred by association, the associations did exist. And they hold a rich context of meanings. Of course, the relative import of these interactions in Joseph Smith's history will remain problematic for historians; efforts to revision the Prophet in their light--or to reevaluate our methodology of understanding his history--may evoke a violently response from traditionalists. Nonetheless, these is substantial documentary evidence, material unexplored by Bloom or Mormon historians generally, supporting a much more direct Kabbalistic and Hermetic influences upon Smith and his doctrine of God than has previously been considered possible.

Through his associations with ceremonial magic as a young treasure seer, Smith contacted symbols and lore taken directly from Kabbalah. In his prophetic translation of sacred writ, his hermeneutic method was in nature Kabbalistic. With his initiation into Masonry, he entered a tradition born of the Hermetic-Kabbalistic tradition. These associations culminated in Nauvoo, the period of his most important doctrinal and ritual innovations. During these last years, he enjoyed friendship with a European Jew well-versed in the standard Kabbalistic works and possibly possessing in Nauvoo an extraordinary collection of Kabbalistic books and manuscripts. By 1844 Smith not only was cognizant of Kabbalah, but enlisted theosophic concepts taken directly from its principal text in his most important doctrinal sermon, the "King Follett Discourse."

Smith's concepts of God's plurality, his vision of God as anthropos, and his possession by the issue of sacred marriage, all might have been cross-fertilized by this intercourse with Kabbalistic theosophy--an occult relationship climaxing in Nauvoo. This is a complex thesis; its understanding requires exploration of an occult religious tradition spanning more that a millennium of Western history, an investigation that begins naturally with Kabbalah.

 

 

The Nature of Kabbalah

 

The Hebrew word kabbalah means "tradition." In the medieval Jewish culture of southern France and northern Spain, however, the term acquired a fuller connotation: it came to identify the mystical, esoteric tradition of Judaism. Between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries, this increasingly refined spiritual heritage was an important force in European and Mediterranean Judaism, competing with and often antagonistic to more rationalistic and Rabbinical trends. By the sixteenth century, Kabbalah had infused not only Judaism, but Renaissance Christian culture as well. Starting first with the Florentine court of Lorenzo de Medici at the end of the fifteenth century, Kabbalah became a potent force inseminating the Renaissance world view. Ultimately this movement engendered during the late Renaissance a separate heterodox tradition of Christian Kabbalah. From this period on, Kabbalah has been a major creative force in Western religious and poetic imagination, touching such diverse individuals as Jacob Boehme, John Milton, Emanuel Swedenborg, William Blake, and perhaps Joseph Smith.

An understanding of Kabbalah starts with an understanding of "tradition." Contrary to the word's common connotation, the tradition of Kabbalah was not a static historical legacy of dogma, but a dynamic phenomenon: the mutable tradition of the Divine mystery as it unfolds itself to human cognition. Kabbalah conveyed as part of its tradition a complex theosophic vision of God but simultaneously asserted that this image was alive and open to further revelation. Thus the Kabbalist maintained a creative, visionary interaction with a living system of symbols and lore, and--most importantly--new prophetic vision was intrinsically part of the Kabbalist's understanding of their heritage.3

How long and in what form Kabbalah existed before blossoming in twelfth-century Spain is uncertain. Kabbalists themselves made extraordinary claims that require our understanding before being discarded: Kabbalah was--said adepts--the tradition of the original knowledge Adam received from God. Not only was Kabbalah guardian of this original knowledge, but it preserved the tradition of prophecy which allowed a return to such primal vision: "Kabbalah advanced what was at once a claim and an hypothesis, namely, that its function was to hand down to its own disciples the secret of God's revelation to Adam."4

In keeping with its own mythic claims, Kabbalah has been accorded fairly early origins in Judaic culture. Some modern authorities--Moshe Idel is a notable representative--identify roots of Kabbalah in Jewish mythic motifs predating the Christian era and suggest that the tradition emanated from archaic aspirations of Judaism.5 In a more conservative posture the eminent authority Gershom Scholem dates first threads of Kabbalah to the initial centuries of the Christian era. With origins cryptically entwined in Gnostic traditions and Jewish myths coursing through that early epoch, Kabbalah became in its mature form what Scholem describes as the embodiment of a "Jewish gnosticism."6

In recent years, this identification of Kabbalah with Gnosticism has been a source of controversy.7 Noted Swiss psychologist C. G. Jung commented, "We find in Gnosticism what was lacking in the centuries that followed: a belief in the efficacy of individual revelation and individual knowledge. This belief was rooted in the proud feeling of man's affinity with the gods."8 While classical Christian Gnosticism vanished from the Western world by the forth or fifth century, this Gnostic world view was not so easily extinguished. Historicity here, however, becomes a vexing problem. Under what circumstances should anything occurring after the disappearance of classical Gnosticism be called Gnostic? Was the Gnostic world view transmitted to later ages through historically discernible influences and communications or, instead, was something similar continually and independently recreated, reborn time after time? What now are the proper bounds for using the term, "Gnostic"?

Questions like these animate modern Gnostic and Kabbalistic studies, and the types of answers offered often reach beyond history into human psychology. The proper historical definition of Gnosticism has generated wide variances of opinion during the last several decades, and yet remains a fluid area. In the second century, Gnosticism clearly produced an historically manifest movement: it had specific myths, rituals, schools, teachers, and enemies. Some scholars have felt it most expedient to artfully delimit all discussions of Gnosticism with taxonomic dissections rooted exclusively in these ancient manifestations and, having so done, declare the old heresy long dead in its grave. But while this kind of a strictly delimiting approach was not uncommon three decades ago, other and much more insightful thrusts have recently developed in Gnostic studies.9 As Dan Merkur summarizes,

 

The Gnostic inventory should not be defined too rigidly. . . for it was not fixed and immutable, as scientific and metaphysical categories may be. Gnosis was and is a historical phenomenon that has undergone change over the centuries. A detailed definition for the gnosis of the second century will not fit the gnosis of the eighteenth, but the process of change can be traced. Gnosticism appears to have made its way from late antiquity to modern times, in a manner and by a route that compares with the transmissions of both Aristotelianism and the practice of science.10

 

To be sure, Gnosticism was always at core an independent product of primary, creative vision; by definition, devoid of this experiential ingredient there was no Gnosis. And perhaps it could be argued that whenever this primary Gnostic vision is found, it is in essence new creation. If such a view of Gnosis is granted, the precise part played by historical individuals, rituals, myths or texts as conveyors of tradition must remain problematic. Nonetheless, as Merkur suggests, there is substantial evidence to argue that a Gnostic world view was transmitted by historically identifiable sources coursing from antiquity into more recent times, and that Kabbalah was one of the principal agents of this transmission.11

In the thirteenth century, the oral legacy of this Jewish gnosis increasingly took written form and several Kabbalistic manuscripts began to circulate, first in Spain and southern France and then throughout Europe and the Mediterranean. By far the most important text emerging in this period was the Zohar, or "Book of Splendor". This massive work first appeared in Spain just before the year 1300. Internally it presented itself as an ancient work, a lost record of the occult and mystical oral teachings given by one Simeon ben Yochai, a notable second-century Rabbi, as he wandered about Palestine with his son and disciples, explaining the hidden mysteries of the Torah. The Zohar's significance in the evolution of Kabbalah cannot be overstated; it played a preeminent role in the development of Kabbalistic theosophy, and soon took on both canonical rank and unquestioned sacred authority--a status it retained for nearly five centuries. Thousands of manuscripts would eventually be added to the corpus of written Kabbalah, but none rivaled the Zohar in dissemination or veneration.

The Zohar was, however, what a modern student might call a forgery: it was a pseudoepigraphic work--a work written in the name of an ancient author by a contemporary figure. This was a literary device popular with Kabbalists, as it had been with Gnostic writers in earlier centuries. Though probably based on oral tradition, Scholem argues that the majority of the Zohar is the work of a single thirteenth-century Spanish Kabbalist, Moses de Leon. To understand how a pseudoepigraphic work--a "forged book"--could remain at the center of a religious tradition for centuries requires consideration of the Kabbalistic experience.

Kabbalah used the term "tradition" in a radically deconstructed sense. The tradition it guarded was not a dogmatic or theosophical legacy, but a pathway to prophetic consciousness. The teachings of Kabbalah were not dogmatic assertions, but maps intended to lead a dedicated and worthy student to experiential cognition.12 Unlike the rabbinical tradition which placed the prophets in a past age and closed the canon of revelation, Kabbalah asserted that the only valid interpretation of scripture came when the individual passed beyond words and returned to the original vision. Though such a visionary experience was shared in full measure only by a vital elite among Kabbalists, it nonetheless was the sustaining heart of Kabbalah. In the inner sanctum of his contemplation the adept Kabbalist found--so he claimed--no less than the vision granted the ancient prophets; with them he became one. To speak pseudoepigraphically with their voice was a natural expression of the experience.

Kabbalah thus arose from oral traditions extant in medieval Judaism--and possibly of even earlier origin--which proclaimed both special knowledge of the Divine and possession of ecstatic or mystical gifts similar to those enjoyed by the ancient prophets, gifts which allowed men (in measures varing with their own natures) to achieve knowledge of God or even union with God.13 In this affirmation, it shared some bond to earlier Gnostic traditions. Now the majority of Kabbalists were not full-fledged mystics or prophets, and a great deal of Kabbalistic teachings was purely intellectual theosophic speculation. At the heart of the tradition, there nonetheless was a prophetic aspiration, and several Kabbalists left intimate records--material preserved in manuscript and often held in restricted circulation--of visions, angelic visitations, ecstatic transport, and divine anointings.14 These individuals saw themselves, and were sometimes seen by others, in the same mold as Israel's ancient prophets. A rationalistic approach to history might judge such phenomena as aberrant, even pathological. But within the scholarly study of Kabbalah, these phenomena are so well witnessed and so central to the tradition, that they require acceptance at very least as empirical psychological realities.

Kabbalistic experience engendered several perceptions about the Divine, many of which departured from the orthodox view. The most central tenet of Israel's faith had been the proclamation that "our God is One." But Kabbalah asserted that while God exists in highest form as a totally ineffable unity--called by Kabbalah Ein Sof, the infinite--this unknowable singularity had necessarily emanated into a great number of Divine forms: a plurality of Gods. These the Kabbalist called Sefiroth, the vessels or faces of God. (See Figures 1 and 2.) The manner by which God descended from incomprehensible unity into plurality was a mystery to which Kabbalists devoted a great deal of meditation and speculation. Obviously, this multifaceted God image admits to accusations of being polytheistic, a charge which was vehemently, if never entirely successfully, rebutted by the Kabbalists.15

Not only was the Divine plural in Kabbalistic theosophy, but in its first subtle emanation from unknowable unity God had taken on a dual form as Male and Female; a supernal Father and Mother, Hokhmah and Binah, were God's first emanated forms. Kabbalists used frankly sexual metaphors to explain how the creative intercourse of Hokhmah and Binah generated further creation. Indeed, sexual motifs and imagery permeate Kabbalistic theosophy, and the Divine mystery of sexual conjunction--a hierosgamos or sacred wedding--captured Kabbalistic imagination. Marital sexual intercourse became for the Kabbalist the highest mystery of human action mirroring the Divine: an ecstatic sacramental evocation of creative union, an image of God's masculine and feminine duality brought again to unity. Of interest to Mormonism, among several groups of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Kabbalists, polygamous and variant sexual relationships sometimes served as social expressions of these sacral mysteries.16

The complex Divine image composed of the multiple vessels of Divine manifestation was also visualized by Kabbalah as having a unitary, anthropomorphic form. God was, by one Kabbalistic recension, Adam Kadmon: the first primordial or archetypal Man. Man shared with God both an intrinsic, uncreated divine spark and a complex, organic form. This strange equation of Adam as God was supported by a Kabbalistic cipher: the numerical value in Hebrew of the names Adam and Jehovah (the Tetragrammaton, Yod he vav he) was both 45. Thus in Kabbalistic exegesis Jehovah equaled Adam: Adam was God.17 With this affirmation went the assertion that all humankind in highest realization was like God: the two realities shadowed each other.

The Kabbalist saw himself intimately involved in a story told by God--he heard the divine voice and followed. He saw that in the redemption and knowledge of creation, God depended on man, just as man turned his eye to God. History came from two realms: man's burden was to wed this mysterious dual story in his own flesh.

 

 

The Renaissance and Christian Kabbalah

 

Kabbalah was a growing force in Judaism throughout the late medieval period and by the beginning of the Renaissance had gained general acceptance as the true Jewish theology, a standing it maintained (particularly in the Christian view) into the eighteenth century.18 Only in the last several decades of the twentieth century, however, have historians begun to recognize the importance of Kabbalah in both the history of religion and in the specific framework of Renaissance thought. Frances Yates, one of this century's preeminent historians of the period, emphasized "the tremendous ramifications of this subject, how little it has been explored, and how fundamental it is for any deep understanding of the Renaissance." She continued,

 

Cabala reaches up into religious spheres and cannot be avoided in approaches to the history of religion. The enthusiasm for Cabala and for its revelations of new spiritual depths in the Scriptures was one of the factors leading towards Reformation. . . . The Cabalist influence on Renaissance Neoplatonism . . . tended to affect the movement in a more intensively religious direction, and more particularly in the direction of the idea of religious reform.19

 

Yates has delineated how understanding Kabbalah and its penetration into Christian culture are essential not only for comprehending Renaissance thought but also for studies of the Elizabethan age, Reformation religious ideals, the seventeenth-century Rosicrucian Enlightenment, and much that followed, including the emergence of occult Masonic societies in mid-seventeenth century England.

From its early medieval development in Spain, Jewish Kabbalah existed in close proximity to the Christian world and inevitably aroused notice among gentile observers.20 During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Kabbalists increasingly established a presence in several areas of Europe outside Spain, the most consequential of these perhaps being Italy, where Kabbalah soon touched the vanguard of Renaissance life. Then in 1492 came one of the great tragedies in Jewish history: the violent expulsion of Jews from newly unified Christian Spain. Forcibly expelled from their homeland, they fled to Italy, France, Germany, to the England of Henry the VII, and to Turkey, Palestine, and North Africa. With them went Kabbalah.

European culture in the fifteenth century had been animated by explorations, sciences, and bold visions reborn. Man stepped out from the shadow of the Creator and found himself master of worlds, capable of knowing God's handiwork. He discovered himself: the jewel of creation, the measure of all things. Perhaps no place was ablaze in this creative fire more than the Florentine courts of Cosimo and Lorenzo de' Medici. Cosimo had assiduously collected the rediscovered legacies of Greek and Alexandrian antiquity (an effort facilitated by the exodus west after the Turkish conquest of the Byzantine Empire in 1453). But most important, in 1460 he acquired and had brought to Florence the Corpus Hermeticum, a collection of fourteen ancient religious treatises on God and man. Authoritatively mentioned in the early Christian patristic writings of St. Augustine and Lactantius, these "lost" texts were thought to have been authored in antiquity by one Hermes Trismegistos ("Thrice Great Hermes"), an ancient Egyptian prophet older than Moses, a knower of God's ancient but forgotten truths, and a seer who foretold the coming of Christ.21 Though eventually dated to the Gnostic milieu of the second century C.E., sixteenth-century scholars believed that Hermes Trismegistos and the Hermetica were an occult source that nurtured true religion and philosophy from Moses to the Greek philosophers of late antiquity.22

The influence of the Corpus Hermeticum was remarkable, its diffusion among intellectuals immense; it epitomized the Renaissance world view, a reborn prisca theologia, "the pristine font of ancient and Divine illumination." In a variety of ways, Renaissance thought was radically transformed by the Hermetic doctrine that man was infused with God's light and divinity: "You are light and life, like God the Father of whom Man was born. If therefore you learn to know yourself . . . you will return to life."23 Man was a divine, creative, immortal essence in union with a body, and man reborn "will be god, the son of God, all in all, composed of all Powers."24

Kabbalah made a dramatic entry on the Renaissance stage at almost precisely the same time the rediscovered Hermetic writings were gaining wide dissemination in the elite circles of Europe. The initial impetus for study of Kabbalah as a Christian science and for its integration with Hermeticism came from Florentine prodigy Pico della Mirandola (1463-94). Pico's philosophical education was initiated under the Hermetic and Platonic influence of the Medici Academy and court, of which he became an intellectual luminary. About age twenty he began his studies of Kabbalah, a pursuit furthered by Jewish Kabbalists who assisted him in translating a considerable portion of Kabbalistic literature into Latin and then aided his understanding of their occult interpretations.25 In 1486 Pico penned the "Oration on the Dignity of Man"--one of the seminal documents of the Renaissance--as an introduction to the famous 900 theses which he intended to debate publicly in Rome that year. More than a hundred of these 900 theses came from Kabbalah or Pico's own Kabbalistic research.26 "The marrying together of Hermetism and Cabalism, of which Pico was the instigator and founder," notes Yates, "was to have momentous results, and the subsequent Hermetic-Cabalist tradition, ultimately stemming from him, was of most far-reaching importance."27

Hermeticism found a perfect companion in Kabbalah. Sympathies that can be drawn between the two occult sciences, both supposed ancient and divine, are remarkable, and it is easy to see how they would have impressed themselves upon sixteenth-century philosophers: Kabbalah originated with God's word to Adam and the ancient Jewish prophets after him; Hermeticism was the sacred knowledge of the ancient Egyptian Gnosis, the legacy of a thrice-great prophet, transmitted to the greatest pagan philosophers, and foretelling the coming of the divine Word (Logos). Both placed considerable interest in a mystical reinterpretation of the Creation; the Hermetic text Pimander, often called "the Egyptian Genesis," complimented the new vision gained from a Kabbalistic revisioning of the Hebrew Genesis.28 Each taught the great "Art" of Divine knowledge based on the tenet that man is able to discover the Divine, which he reflects within himself through direct perceptive experience. And both offered paths to God's hidden throne, the divine intellect, where humankind might find revealed the secrets of heaven and earth. Element after element of Renaissance thought and culture is linked to the force of a new religious philosophy born of these two Gnostic traditions intermingling in the cauldron of Western culture's rebirth. Indeed, Yates suggests that the true origins of the Renaissance genius may be dated from two events: the arrival of the Corpus Hermeticum in Florence and the infusion of Kabbalism into Christian Europe by the Spanish expulsion of the Jews.29

Christian Kabbalah advanced an innovative reinterpretation of the Jewish tradition. For Pico and many influential Christian Kabbalists after him this ancient Gnostic tradition not only was compatible with Christianity but offered proofs of its truth. Many early Christian Kabbalists were, like Pico, not only scholars but Christian priests investigating remnants of a holy and ancient priesthood, rife with power and wisdom endowed by God. Their cooptation of the tradition was of course disavowed by most Jewish Kabbalists--though some aided and encouraged the development and a few converted to Christianity. But to the Christian scholars and divines who embraced it, Kabbalah was

 

a Hebrew-Christian source of ancient wisdom which corroborated not only Christianity, but the Gentile ancient wisdoms which [they] admired, particularly the writings of "Hermes Trismegistus". Thus Christian Cabala is really a key-stone in the edifice of Renaissance thought on its "occult" side through which it has most important connections with the history of religion in the period.30

 

This was not just a speculative philosophy, but a new (though cautious and often occult) religious movement which radically reinterpreted normative Christianity. In some fashion it touched every important creative figure of the Renaissance. To an age seeking reformation and renewal, there had come forgotten books by prophets of old--pagan and Hebrew--who foresaw the coming of the Divine creative Logos, who knew the secret mysteries given to Adam, who taught that man might not only know God, but in so knowing, discover a startling truth about himself. These ideas reverberated in the creative religious imagination of the Western world for several centuries, perhaps even touching--though illusively and attenuated by time--the American religious frontier of the 1820s.

 

 

The Hermetic-Kabbalistic World View

 

Christian Kabbalah was not a recapitulation of the Jewish tradition, but its creative remolding, a metamorphosis engendered by newly aroused religion-making vision. Though it would be too bold to judge Gnosticism a legitimate historical parent, this movement was arguably encouraged and fostered by distant transmissions and legacies of the old heresy. In the broad creative confluence of Kabbalah, Hermeticism, and alchemy were numerous eddies and counter-currents. Like early Christian Gnosticism, the tradition reborn had a dynamism which bred creative reinterpretation, and the important and subtle distinctions among its various redactions form the subject of specialized study. Nonetheless, there are a few themes echoed so often by sixteenth- and seventeenth-century proponents of this alternative, reformative philosophic and religious vision (which I hereafter refer to simply as Hermeticism) that they may serve almost as its hallmarks.

The first of these essential elements was mentioned above: humankind is the bearer of an uncreated, divine, immortal spark. This theme was mirrored in the next keynote, developed in both Kabbalistic and Hermetic sources: there is a duality in creation. Says the Zohar: "The process of creation has taken place on two planes, one above and one below . . . . The lower occurrence corresponds to the higher." This dictum appeared in almost identical wording in the earliest Hermetic works. The revered text of the Tabula smaragdina--considered the summation of Hermetic wisdom and attributed to Hermes Trismegistos--echoes this cryptic formula as its central mystical truth: "That which is below is above, that above is also below."31 The exegetical possibilities of this simple text plied the imagination of new Hermetic philosophers. There are, they suggested, two realms of reality--call them heaven and earth, spirit and matter, God and man--in relation to each other, shadowing each other. What happens in one realm echoes in the other, the Divine life reflects itself in the life of women and men, and they by their intentions and actions affect the Divine.

This idea infused Kabbalah, one example being the image of God as archetypal Man, the Adam Kadmon: Man below reflected the Divine form above. The influential seventeenth-century Hermetic philosopher Robert Fludd interpreted this idea to imply a spiritual creation which preceded the physical. God's first creation, stated Fludd, was "an archetype whose substance is incorporeal, invisible, intellectual and sempiternal; after whose model and divine image the beauty and form of the real world are constructed."32 The terms macrocosmos and microcosmos--the outer form and the inner form--also reflected this duality. The outer formed creation of the universe--the macrocosmos--reflected (and was a reflection of) the microcosmos--the inner mystery of creation and seed of God in man. To this view, both microcosmos and macrocosmos ultimately were dual mirrors of the Divine. These concepts resonate in Joseph Smith's theosophy.33

The correspondence of above and below molded the foundations of two influential disciplines flourishing in the creative society of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: natural science and magic. In the Hermetic world view, each was in part a scientific and a spiritual study. Science meant "knowledge," and knowledge led to Intelligence, the Divine glory uniting all truth into the wholeness of God's consciousness.34 Whether the Hermetic-Kabbalistic magus ventured to explore the divine hierarchies by magical invocations or the structures of matter by natural science, he found mirrored the same light-dark face of God.35 Magic and science each offered methodologies for investigating heaven and earth, the mind of God and the structure of nature, microcosmos and macrocosmos. As Pico della Mirandola explained, "Magic is the practical part of natural sciences."36

The Hermetic scientist-philosopher-magus reasoned, given the correspondence between the two realms, creative manipulation of the one affected the other. Theurgic actions influencing the divine hierarchy were mirrored outwardly in nature; transformations effected in nature, or in the nature of man, were reflected in the supernal sphere: spirit and matter were coupled, even interdependent. To several leading figures of the age, this vision was a high spiritual calling; it evoked the desire to reach upwards, to join in the eternal intelligence, the knowing vision of God's All-Seeing Eye.37 By piously pursuing occult knowledge of the archetypal structure of creation, the adept could find reflected the innermost secrets of nature. Of course, for individuals of less lofty aspiration, the concept of correspondences devolved to particular concerns--the common magic rejected and ridiculed in subsequent and more rationalistic times.38

This was an occult philosophy reborn into an age longing for spiritual regeneration, and its effects were far-reaching. Quite naturally, men and women sharing this vision sought techniques of communicating with the divine hierarchies; Kabbalah provided both a framework for seeking such intercourse and an image of the divine order awaiting encounter. The wedding of Kabbalah with the Hermetic image of man gave birth (among many offspring) to the magical traditions contrived in this period, represented by Cornelius Agrippa's immensely influential work, De occulta philosophia, first published in 1533. "Agrippa's occult philosophy," notes Yates, is "in fact . . . really a religion, claiming access to higher powers, and Christian since it accepts the name of Jesus as the chief wonder-working name."39 Three centuries later these ideas and this text would order the magical rituals and ceremonial implements possessed by members of the Joseph Smith family on the religious frontier of early nineteenth-century America.


Go to Part 2 -- pp. 134 - 166