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The Meaning of Three

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January 2010
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The devastating earthquake in Haiti has siezed everyone’s attention.  Disasters do that and this one is particularly terrible because of the lack of medical and emergency relief facilities to cope with so many dead and injured.  In the face of such life and death tragedy and loss it is hard to write about such ephemeral things as the meaning of numbers.  I feel as if I am turning my back on all those suffering people in Port-au-Prince if I write about anything else, and yet I have nothing to say about the earthquake.  Unlike acts of terrorism, such “acts of God” are met with quite a different attitude.

You cannot be angry or seek justice from an earthquake.  It may be comforting for some to say, “It is all part of God’s divine plan.”  But what can that mean?  Christianity has been constructed around the idea that every individual matters to God.  Yet we are faced with such deadly natural disasters as earthquakes and tsunamis, wildfires, floods, and drought.  The Christian notion that natural disasters are punishments meted out by God are relics of the medieval European mindset that was obsessed with sin and surrounded by violent death.  How many today still believe earthquakes to be deliberately caused by God?  Well, it is hard to avoid the logic of it.

If God is omnipotent and there are no other gods, then everything that happens in the universe must be caused by God.

If some events occur without God’s intention, then he must be for some reason indifferent to human suffering and death.

If natural disasters could be stopped by God and he does not stop them, then he is negligent and can hardly be said to care about every individual (or even every “believer”).

Now, if there are other gods and the Supreme Being allows them free will, then those divine entities might cause earthquakes and indeed be indifferent to human deaths.  Nobody supposes, for example, the Roman god Vulcan to care much about humans.  According to the pagan way of seeing the world, these nature gods (Vulcan the divine smith also the one who shakes the earth) fill a very clear need in the logic of divinity and humanity.  Of course, it was not until Plato and the Platonists that the idea of the One as the supreme deity emerged to embody all absolutes — all powerful, all-loving, all-knowing, and everywhere present.

Having been raised Lutheran, I would not want to give up that Good God, the fount of limitless love.  And I would not like to believe that he could be defeated by some other god, so I’m quite willing to let him have omnipotence.  But the lesser gods, if I may call them that without getting struck by lightning, are emanations from the One.  They are the inherent intelligences placed into the cosmos by the One.  The Platonists did not give their God any other name.  He was (and is) One, and the impications of that number can tell us much about God and much about the cosmos.

First of all, One has no gender.  While the Christian, Jewish, and Islamic faiths refer to God as male, the all-father, many of the most learned would admit that gender doesn’t apply to the Supreme Being in the same way as it does to us.  At least a few believers today consider God to be both mother and father of All.  It is all very well, when you are a man in a group of men, to talk about all men being brothers under the fatherhood of God, but the concept of “brotherhood” must extend to our sisters as well, and women are not only sisters but mothers as well.  As a Freemason I believe in the brotherhood of men under the fatherhood of God, but that is just a poetic way of saying that all humans are kin and we should treat each other as kin, with love and caring, not as strangers, and not as enemies.

Tall order.  We say that God is “the Father” in order to give stubborn minds a reason for believing we are all brothers.  Without a universal Father, many humans cannot grasp the idea of universal brotherhood.  That is because humans are more literalist than orangutans.  Sigh.  If you are capable of abstract and poetic thought, then we can safely speak about the One.  We feel that this Supreme Being (SB) is too impersonal without a name, so we give many names.  Because throughout history women were excluded from intellectual and publishing circles, we mostly have male names and representations of the SB.  Zeus, Jupiter, Ahura Mazda, Allah, Yahweh, the Lord, Vishnu, etc.  The Hindus have a more sophisticated system in Brahma, who is so vast and hard to describe that even if he does take a masculine pronoun, we cannot take it too seriously.

The reason the Great Goddess is taken to be less “supreme” than the SB is that she is identified with the whole Earth, but not the whole cosmos, and the SB is beyond the whole cosmos anyway because he is considered to have created it.  Now, personally, I adore the goddess Shava, the Great Star Woman, whose body consists of all the stars.  But her daughter Arda is the Mother Earth and her body is not only the material of our planet Earth, but all planets, all celestial bodies that are solid, and especially those that are rocky and coalesced as ours is.  Arda is as much present in the planet Jupiter as she is in Earth or our Moon or the asteroid belt.  She is a planet-goddess. Her daughter is Yavanna, and she is the goddess of the fertile growing earth — not of minerals but of the biosphere.

However, now is not the time to unfold the whole pantheon of the Elves.  Le me return to the One and the meaning of that number.

One is the sephirah Kether in the Kabbalistic Tree of Life.  It is the SB, the pure agency of the Divine.  The way we are taught mathematics these days, it may not occur to you that numbers can have meanings beyond simply the quantity they denote.  But numbers have connotations, as all signs do.  One invokes Unity, which at once implies that there are many things which can be unified into a single whole.  One implies loneliness (see how the word has “one” in the middle?)  and so self-sufficiency.  In a world of animal species, there are some that reproduce with two sexes, and some that reproduce by fission or budding.  Some plants are hermaphroditic, meaning they have both sex organs.  But regardless, there is a twoness about reproduction and if God is One, then he must give birth by some process we can call budding, emanation, or fission.

The question that theologians have long pondered is whether God is male and gives birth to his own consort, or more often, whether God is the Great Mother Goddess and gives birth to her consort.  But there is also a third possiblity and that is that One begets two.  God divides like an amoeba and becomes two — the Lord and Lady of the witches.  These two become the archetype for all pagan gods and goddesses.  The pantheons of the world are full of divine couples.

The attraction of this explanation is that the SB remains beyond sex and gender, truly absolute and encompassing All potentialities.  The split forms the division into yin and yang.  The Kabbalists identified the One as Kether, the pure unmanifest and universal Will.  The first action of this First Swirling creates Hokmah which literally means “wisdom” as Kether literally means “crown.”  These names are symbolic and must not be taken literally.  Hokmah is often identified with the point, the dimensionless point in space.  However, I think this is incorrect.  Kether is the point and Hokmah is a second point making a line.  The line is symbolic of the phallus and the direction of will; therefore, Hokmah is the force called yang by the Taoists, the Divine King beyond the world, for Hokmah exists prior to the world of forms.  By “prior to” I do not mean in linear time.  Rather, the creation of the line from Kether to Hokmah is the creation of time in tht sense.

Nor, I should add, do I mean “prior” to denote superiority.  No sephirot is better than or more powerful than any other.  The sefirot are numbers.  No one thinks of nine being better than or an improvement upon two, for example.  They are accumulative and placed in numerical order, but this order is one of pure logic, not any sort of hierarchy of power.

While Hokmah is the male force, the direction of Will, we may also think of it as simply Attention or Awareness, or Knowing.  It is the fundamental way in which all things exist, as the atom “knows” how to compose itself and electrons “know” how to move about nuclei.  this fundamental “knowing” denoted bythe word wisdom or Hokmah, is the root awareness everything has which makes it what it is.  It has nothing to do with brains or learning; it is innate intelligence and order.

The masculine principal of awareness is joined to a second point.  The male does not literally beget the Female, but there is a sense when speaking of these cosmic forces (and not men and women) that the feminine force, the yin, comes from Hokmah.  This truth is symbolized in the story of Adam and Eve in which Eve is created from one of Adam’s ribs.  While feminists often take the story to be misogynistic and believe it implies that women are secondary and inferior to men, this is not the case.  Piority when speaking of sephirot merely means that the next cosmic force is emanated from the previous one.  One could just as easily say that the third sephirot is superior to the previous one but this would mean nothing more than the statement that the number three is superior to two.  We get confused by the use of the word “greater” and “less” when referring to numbers because we also use these words to refer to social power and rank.

The third sephirot is the Divine Feminine, the Great Mother.  She does not come from Hokmah (2) but from the union of Kether and Hokmah (1+2) and she is the number three.  If we understand Kether to be the point without dimension, and its extention to Hokmah a line, then their further extention creates a triangle, the most basic polygon possible within a plane.  This then is the essential meaning of three — that masculine and feminine proceeding from the ineffable Divine Being produce the first plane of existence, which we call, the Archetypal plane.  Hokmah and Binah are the type and full potentiality of every god and goddess ever brought into being.  Binah is the Great Mother, the Divine Feminine and the triangle — more especially the perfect equilateral triangle — symbolizes the Feminine.  The symbolism works on many levels but may most easily be seen on our plane of physicality in the triangular shape of the female pudendum.  This triangle is the place of generation, from which all things and all future existence emerge into manifestation.

The triangle of the Goddess has been called the mons veneris, or the mound of Venus.  But it was not with sexual love and reproduction that I embarked on this musing.  It was with the love of the SB for all of his/it/her children.  When we think of Theos (Greek for god), we think of a person, not an abstract force, much less the abstraction of the number one.  Kether means “crown” and the crown signifies authority and sovereignty.  This symbolic name of Theos is important because crowns are circular.  Therefore, the Kether of the Divine is not only a point, but a circle inscribed around it.  The circle is the first planar figure, the first shape, needing only one point to define it.  What is the radius of this circle?  The answer is that we do not know.  The sages have claimed that the One is limitless and infinite, undefinable and ineffable.  So, in a sense we may have to say that the circle’s radius is infinite, or even that it is impossible to measure.

The point within the circle is well-known as the symbol for the Sun in astrological and alchemical notation.  As the sun is the center of gravity, light, and life for our system of planets, so Theos is the ultimate Center whose power encompasses the whole cosmos.  Likewise the line inscribed by the extention of the point is also immeasurable.  Likewise the Triangle of Binah.  We can represent three as a triangle of finite proportions, but this symbolizes a triangle of immeasurable dimension.  Indeed, the triangle symbolizes an entire dimension, that of the plane or archetypal manifestation.

In the Tree of Life map of the sefirot, the supernal triangle formed by Kether, Hokmah, and Binah is mirrored in the next three sefirot, namely Hesed, Gevurah, and Tiferet.  These three are named Mercy, Justice, and Beauty.  Again the names are symbolic of forces in the cosmos.  It is worth noting that the seven planets of astrology are linked to the Sefirot, beginning with Binah which is associated with Saturn.  Now, the god Saturn seems masculine — a grouchy old father who likes to eat his children.  But again, gender is only symbolic.  Saturn (or Cronos in the Greek myths) usurps and perverts the mother’s womb by swallowing his children.  He does not actually “eat” them.  There is no cooking or chewing involved and the myth would have us understand that they are alive inside him.  It is easy to see how this mimics the fetus in the womb.

The key to this image of putting babies back into a womb from which there is no exit, may be found in the planet Saturn and its spectacular rings.  Saturn’s rings encircle the planet as if to enclose it.  Rings have powerful symbolic meanings for humans.  In the wedding ring, for example, fidelity and unity are signified.  The ring of a Freemason reminds him of his promises and the unity of brotherly love.  A ring symbolizes wholeness, and limitation.  Not limitation in the sense of being unable to do something, but in the sense of self-control, of limits placed in order to accomplish something that could not be accomplished without limitation.  Take for example the atom.  If the orbital shells of an atom’s electrons had no limiting force placed upon them, they would simply spin off away and we should have nothing but nuclei.  If the limiting forces of gravity did not exist there could be no solar system, and indeed no planets at all.

It is these limits that Binah represents.  The name means “understanding.”  How, you may ask, does understanding relate to limitations?  If Hokmah’s “wisdom” is the core act of awareness, then Binah’s “understanding” is the core ability to grasp what we perceive.  We can only understand what we perceive because things have limits.  There could be no distinct things or persons in the cosmos without limits.  So, this is what is signified by Saturn — comprehension, the encircling movement that allows our minds to grasp something and understand it.  Old Saturn swallows his children, but that story clearly emphasizes that the limitations he tries to put on his children are excessive and unnatural.  Too much limitation is bad, but some limitation is always necessary.

Hesed, who is born of Binah and Hokmah, is the male half of the second divine couple, and Gevurah is his spouse.  Thes names mean Mercy and Justice and their child, the synthesis of these opposite forces, is Beauty or Harmony.  This second divine “couple” is often given gender, but in this case the assignment challenges our stereotypes.  For Hesed (Mercy and Lovingkindness) is considered the male and Gevurah (Justice) the female.  They are polar opposites, Justice meaning the application of law based upon what is morally right; Mercy meaning the giving of pardon.  Hesed helps others, gives of himself expansively with magnanimity and without limit.  Gevurah puts a limit on this self-giving in order to give control and discipline.  Tifaret synthesizes the two extremes of the too-generous father and the over-limiting mother to bring about Harmony, which is the basis of Beauty.  Astrologically, Hesed is associated with expansive Jupiter and Gevurah with the sword-bearing Mars.  Justice — blindfolded and bearing a sword and a set of scales — expresses the fierce and unforgiving character of Mars, who will brook no assault or threat to his people.  The God of War is essentially the god who protects the tribe, the warrior.  Linking Mars with Gevurah in this way is illuminating because we then find that the warrior must be governed by law and justice, at the same time he is the instrument of justice.

Tifaret is associated with the Sun.  Lying at the center of the kabbalistic Tree of Life, Tifaret is the center and Harmony the force from which all else proceeds.  This triangle is the archangelic triangle, the triad of forces that act upon the lower worlds of manifestation, conducting the power of the supernal triad.  Note that the supernal triangle points upwards to the ineffable source of all power and light.  The archangelic triangle represents the plane of imagination and mind and it points downward toward Malkut, which is understood to be the material world.  Below the triangle of imagination,  another downward pointing triangle is composed of the sefirot Hod, Netzach, and Yesod, which are repectively associated with Mercury, Venus, and the Moon.  These three may also be thought of as the intellect,  desire, and feelings, comprising what is usually called the Astral Plane where thoughts, emotional feelings, and desires exist beyond physical manifestation, influencing and imprinting human beings within the material world.

So, in sum, the Kabbalah, gives us numbers and the triangle figures three times in its structure as the Divine is manifested in the cosmos.  When we see in ritual the repetition of three, we may do well to consider that they are symbolic of the triads within the Tree of Life.  These nine worlds all govern and shape the one world we see and think of as “the world.”  Our material existence is only one tenth of our being.  The other nine tenths are hidden from our physical eyes and only perceptible to the feelings, the mind, and the spirit.

Does God love his children?  Yes, I believe at every level there is love and concern.  But “God” and “Heaven” are far more complicated than  the Christian religions generally lead one to believe.  If we accept Kabbalah as one divinely inspired map of the heavenly kingdom, we find these higher planes or spheres to be full of polarized forces which may be balanced or may be thrown out of balance.  The flow of divine will comes to us through these spheres and all of the spheres are within our being.  This means that every single human individual contains the whole of the Tree of Life and even the violent death of the physical body and the end of material life in blood and suffering, does not end the whole being.  He or she continues on and will remanifest again in a new material form, entering into this fragile world that exists at all because of those cosmic forces of Mercy and Justice.  The triangle of powers may be perfectly in balance as an equilateral triangle or may be askew, out of balance to left or right.  These swings are part of the flow, in themselves neither good nor evil.  We may wish for a perfect world without evil and without destruction, but there is no such world.  Destruction is a necessary part of life in a material system, for what is born must die and dissolve.  This is no consolation for those suffering from disaster, I am sure.  Yet it is at least a comfort to understand that the play of powers is the nature of the cosmos to which the Allmighty gave thought and form.  Destruction is not always Just and Mercy is sometimes destructive, despite good intentions.

We humans are challenged by disasters and tragedy, violence and evil.  But we rise to these challenges in an attempt to restore balance to the sefirot an the nine worlds that form the tree, of which our Earth is the fruit.


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