The Qabalah that we encounter in the Golden Dawn may be best described as Hermetic Qabalah. It derives from the Qabalism of the Pseudo messianic sect of Shabbatai Zvei and entered the Golden Dawn via the Order of the Asiatic Brethren. It draws on a great many influences, most notably: Jewish Kabbalah, Western astrology, tarot, alchemy, pagan religions (especially Egyptian and Greco-roman), neoplatonism, gnosticism, the Enochian system of angelic magic of John Dee, hermeticism, rosicrucianism, and Freemasonry. It differs from the Jewish form in being a more admittedly syncretic system, however it shares many concepts with Jewish Kabbalah.
Conception of Divinity
A primary concern of Hermetic Qabalah is the nature of divinity, its conception of which is quite markedly different from that presented in monotheistic religions; in particular there is not the strict separation between divinity and man which is seen in monotheisms. Hermetic Qabalah holds to the neoplatonic conception that the manifest universe, of which material creation is a part, arise as a series of emanations from the godhead.
These emanations arise out of three preliminary states that are considered to precede creation. The first is a state of complete nullity, known as Ain ("nothing"); the second state, considered a "concentration" of Ain, is Ain Suph ("without limit, infinite"); the third state, caused by a "movement" of Ain Suph, is Ain Suph Aur ( "imitless light"), and it is from this initial brilliance that the first emanation of creation originates.
The emanations of creation arising from Ain Suph Aur are ten in number, and are called Sephiroth (singular Sephirah, "enumeration"). These are conceptualized somewhat differently in Hermetic Qabbalah to the way they are in Jewish Kabbalah.
From Ain Suph Aur crystallises Kether, the first sephirah of the Hermetic Qabalistic tree of life. From Kether emanate the rest of the sephirot in turn, viz. Kether (1), Chokhmah (2), Binah (3), Daath, Chesed (4), Geburah (5), Tiphareth (6), Netzach (7), Hod (8), Yesod (9), Malkuth (10). Daath is not assigned a number as it is considered either a false or a hidden sephirah.
Each sephirah is considered to be an emanation of the divine energy (often described as 'the divine light') which ever flows from the unmanifest, through Kether into manifestation. This flow of light is indicated by the lightning flash shown on diagrams of the sephirotic tree which passes through each sephirah in turn according to their enumerations.
Each sephirah is a nexus of divine energy and each is given a number of attributions. These attributions enable the Qabalist to form a comprehension of each particular sephirah's characteristics. This manner of applying many attributions to each sephirah is an exemplar of the diverse nature of Hermetic Qabalah. For example the sephirah Hod has the attributions of; Glory, perfect intelligence, the eights of the tarot deck, the planet Mercury, the Egyptian god Thoth, the archangel Michael, the Roman god Mercury and the alchemical element Mercury. The general principle involved is that the Qabalist will meditate on all these attributions and by this means acquire an understanding of the character of the sephirah.
Tarot and Qabalah
The tarot forms an important part of the Qabalistic system. While the sephiroth describe the nature of god, the paths between them describe ways of knowing god. As the sephiroth are numbered in turn, so are the paths numbered.
The "Kircher Tree": Athanasius Kircher's 1652 depiction of the Tree of Life, based on a 1625 version by Philippe d'Aquin.This is still the most common arrangement of the Sephiroth and paths on the tree in Hermetic Qabalah.
Jewish Kabbalah was absorbed into the Hermetic tradition at least as early as the 15th century when Giovanni Pico della Mirandola promoted a syncretic world-view combining Platonism, Neoplatonism, Aristotelianism, Hermeticism and Kabbalah. This was further developed by Athanasius Kircher, a Jesuit priest, hermeticist and polymath, who wrote extensively on the subject in 1652, bringing further elements such as Orphism and Egyptian mythology to the mix. Modern Hermetic Qabalah is the product of all these influences.
Hermetic Order Of The Golden Dawn
Hermetic Qabalah reached its peak in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Within the Golden Dawn the synthesis of Qabalistic principles such as the ten Sephiroth with Greek and Egyptian deities was made more cohesive and was extended to encompass other systems such as the Enochian system of angelic magic of John Dee and certain Eastern (particularly Hindu and Buddhist) concepts, all within the structure of a Masonic- or Rosicrucian-style esoteric order.
Aleister Crowley inappropriately published the book of magical correspondences compiled by S.L. MacGregor Mathers as though it were his own work as “Liber 777,” which is a good illustration of the wider Hermetic approach. It is a set of tables relating various parts of ceremonial magic, Eastern and Western religion to thirty-two numbers representing the ten spheres and twenty-two paths of the Qabalistic Tree of Life. The attitude of syncretism embraced by Hermetic Qabalists is plainly evident here, as one may simply check the table to see that Chesed corresponds to Jupiter, Isis, the color blue (on the Queen Scale), Poseidon, Brahma, and amethyst.
The Golden Dawn System
From the beginning, the overall initiatic process in which the Golden Dawn is but the first step was conceived as being composed ten grades, each one corresponding to a Sephirah on the Qabalistic Tree of Life, and of three degrees, each one corresponding to an entire order. Each successive order is veiled from the previous one by the veils of Isis and Nephthys (called Paroketh).
The first degree and order consist of the curriculum and cycle of initiations of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. The grades of the first degree begin with the Neophyte initiation and correspond to the Sephiroth of Malkuth, Yesod, Hod, and Netsach. The second degree and order following the H.O.G.D. are those of the Rosae Rubeae et Aureae Crucis (R.R. et A.C.). The Grades of the second degree begin with the probationary initiation of the Portal of the Vault of the Adepti and correspond to the Sephiroth of Tiphareth, Gevurah, and Chesed. The third degree and order are those of the Third Order, whose true name remains concealed. The grades of the third order correspond to the Sephiroth of Binah, Chokmah, and Kether, and begin with the probationary initiation of the Portal of the Abyss (which corresponds to Non-Sephirah of Daath).
In the first order, the magical forces are awakened, activated, and balanced in the candidate by the initiator in the rituals themselves. These forces are those of the traditional elements; Fire, Water, Air, Earth, and Spirit, which are symbolized by a pentagram. Beginning in the second order, however, the individual practice of ceremonial magic greatly enhances this process. The Second Order work primarily activates the forces of the seven traditional planets: Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, the Sun, Venus, Mercury, and the Moon, which are symbolized by a hexagram. Furthermore, in the second order, the adept learns to independently work with the elements through a series of sub-grades, which further differentiates these forces in the adept's aura. The third order primarily activates the forces of the signs of the zodiac, as well as alchemical Salt, Sulfur, and Mercury, which are symbolized by a triangle. Thus the work of the third order includes Hermetic inner alchemy as the capstone of the Western esoteric tradition.