Interview by Amber C. Snider
Jack Chanek’s Qabalah For Wiccans explores the magical practice of Hermetic Qabalah with a Pagan audience in mind. Here, the author discusses the Tree of Life, how it serves as a map of the magical universe and human soul, and ways to harness this sacred knowledge in your everyday life.
In conversation with Jack Chanek, author of Qabalah for Wiccans
Amber C. Snider: Okay, let’s start with the basics. How do you define Hermetic Qabalah?
Jack Chanek: Qabalah has its roots in Jewish mysticism. Hermetic Qabalah is spelled with a “Q,” while Jewish Kabbalah is spelled with a “K.” Jewish Kabbalah emerged in medieval Iberia as a form of mysticism that blended the study of the Torah with various esoteric subjects like alchemy and astrology.
Qabalah, as a hermetic practice, is a magical system that aims to understand various aspects of the individual soul, the structure of cosmos, and various magical principles. It takes all these disparate things and it lays them out in a handy reference system so that everything connects to everything else. You can explore one thing by further studying other things that are symbolically connected to it.
ACS: Hermetic Qabalah provide us with a visual framework in which to understand and examine the nature of the universe, especially the different planes of existence, yes?
JC: Yes, the central image in Hermetic Qabalah is the symbol called the Tree of Life. It's composed of ten spheres of energy that represent different kinds of magical power, planes of existence, or different themes you can explore in magical practice. These spheres are connected to each other and map out the magical universe.
ACS: How does the Tree of Life demonstrate the connection between divine energy and our physical experiences?
JC: One of the beautiful things about this is it shows that divine energy pervades every aspect of existence. It’s not like divine power is something way out there, far away, inaccessible, or impossible to reach. It’s here now in the world. It’s here in all sorts of different ways that overlap and intersect with each other. Divine power can manifest in different ways.
As a very simple example, the ninth sphere Yesod connects to the moon, so in a very literal sense, the moon up in the sky is a manifestation of divine power. But it’s also connected to the way that we intuitively and emotionally process the world around us. Any time you draw on your intuition, divination, or when you have dreams or physic experiences, that’s all a manifestation of this particular divine power of Yesod. Full moon rituals or wearing the color purple with a particular consciousness are ways of accessing that same divine power which is present throughout everything we do.
You can understand the Tree of Life as exploring separate planes of existence, different psychological factors you have in your being, physical things about the structure of the solar system, literary themes, tropes, mythology, or symbolism. It’s all around you. All the Tree of life is present in everything you do.
ACS: How can we use the Tree of Life in our individual magical practices?
JC: You can use the Tree of Life as a way of symbolically exploring spell casting, astrology, personal development, psychology…all of those things are encoded into it. I like to talk about it like a card catalog. It has references to all sorts of information, so if you’re trying to understand one thing –– like compassion –– as it manifests in magic, you go to your sphere in the Tree of Life and there are other correspondences that help you explore that. Whether it’s with color, shape symbolism, or a particular deity you want to work with, there is so much is encoded in this handy, visual symbolic medium.
The goal of those correspondences is to take a lot of information and condense it down into a symbolic structure that’s accessible and easy to use.
ACS: You wrote that the Tree of Life is the central glyph of Qabalah; a symbol that at once serves as a map of the universe and the human soul. How does the Tree of Life reflect this?
JC: For starters, there's a principle you find in magic, “As above, so below.” There's a sense in which what's going on in the universe at-large is also happening on a smaller scale. This is also reflected in the relationship between the individual human soul and the cosmos as a whole.
Each individual person is a microcosm of the universe itself. A famous quote from Aleister Crowley is that “Every man and every woman is a star." There's a sense in which each of us is a reflection of the entirety of the world, the indescribable vastness of the universe and everything that's in it. So the Tree of Life describes the metaphysical structure of the universe and the various divine energies that are present that help to shape it and bring it into being. But they're also present within us.
ACS: What are the Sephiroth?
JC: On the Tree of Life there are ten pools of energy. These are the main flavors of divine power, known individually as Sephirah or collectively as Sephiroth, or in English, spheres.
At the top of the Tree, you have a Sephirah that is associated with divine unity and transcendence, the ultimate oneness of everything. All the way at the bottom is the sphere associated with the presence of the divine manifest in the world. The actual ‘go out and touch grass, look at the sun’ world that we all live in.
In between those, you have various spheres that are associated with things like the intellect or compassion. They’re abstract principles that are sometimes personal and psychological, and sometimes more large and cosmic. The Tree of Life arranges all ten of these types of divine energy and that's the way through which we map what that power is like in our magic (or our psychology/ the cosmos as a whole).
ACS: Can you give an example of these spheres?
JC: There are two spheres in the Tree of Life called Chesed and Gevurah. In English they are Mercy and Severity. At the cosmic level, these represent divine energies that have to do with notions of justice. Do we forgive people or demand accountability and enforce the rules? This can exist at the level of human society, at a broader sense, as a governing ethical law that structures the universe, but it's also within the individual human psyche. We have both these impulses within ourselves.
Part of the work we do with magical Qabalah is not just leveraging [these energies] to get a house or a lover, we're also looking at the balance of divine energies within ourselves and thinking about how to bring those things into harmony.
Someone who has a lot of anger, who can't let anything go, who can't forgive, has too much Gevurah and can balance that out with some more lenient, compassionate, clement energy. Conversely, someone who's a bit of a doormat, who doesn't know how to stand up for themselves, needs to bring some of that more strident, powerful energy from Gevurah into themselves to find a balance in their soul.
The magical work we do with the Qabalah isn't just the universe at-large, it's additionally about the universe written small –– the universe within us.
ACS: Is that why you also mention how it's not about polarity, but more about finding this divine balance?
JC: Polarity is such a delicate magical concept. There's a tension with things that appear to be opposite. Mercy and severity, thinking and feeling, the self and the other, various pairs of opposites, seems to be pulling away from each other, but there's also a sense in which they're kind of the same. They combine into each other and produce something new. There's this constant process of division and recombination; where you take a thing, separate it into two parts, and bring them back together to create something new.
That principle of division and recombination is present throughout the Tree of Life.
ACS: You include meditations, journal prompts, and rituals in the book. How do they serve as a bridge between Hermetic Qabalah and Wicca?
JC: [I use them to show] the ways these magical principles can show up in Wiccan rituals. Qabalah is already present in what most Wiccans do. It's not this new alien thing that has to be brought in –– you just have to learn how to look for it; and meditations are a way to make that feel very accessible.
They're organized around two of the spheres at once. They're designed to help people feel that push and pull of the magical polarity between the spheres. A lot of Qabalah books discuss each sphere individually, as an isolated unit, because they want to give each concept its due. But when they do that they give the illusion that these things are independent of each other. I think that can detract from the experience of the Tree of Life because it really is this big, dynamic, interconnected thing.
ACS: You mention in the book how the spheres can correspond to individual Pagan deities, but that a “plug-and-play” attitude towards deities can be understandably problematic. Given the diversity of Paganism, some people may feel the Gods are metaphors or archetypes, while others maintain they’re literal entities requiring devotion and worship.
You seem to unify these ideas as well, when you write: "I believe in the Gods as literal spiritual entities with the power to act upon the world, but I also think they exist as archetypes in the unconscious mind. I believe that each deity has their own individual personality, but also that there is a sense in which the Gods all share some common divine nature.”
So who are the Gods in Hermetic Qabalah and how does that relate to Wiccan practice?
JC: The answer is so deeply subjective. The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, one of the principal Qabalistic societies, tended to view the Gods primarily as symbols for archetypes (not the word they used, but the same concept). Thought forms that humans have built up that pooled a certain kind of divine energy that we can call on or invoke in a ritual.
The Golden Dawn was primarily a magical order and not a religious one. Their focus was using divine energy as a tool for magic, rather than on a relationship of devotion or worship (which may seem more common among some Wiccans, although certainly not all).
Qabalah itself doesn't have an official stance on this. It says here are the different types of divine power in the world and here are some structural principles about how they relate to each other. But it's up to you as the practitioner to feel out how Gods relate to that.
A love Goddess like Aphrodite is going to be very comfortable in [the sphere] Netzach, the sphere that deals with love and pleasure and social connection. There are some practitioners that think Aphrodite just is Netzach. There are others who think Aphrodite is an independent spiritual being who just happens to really like all of the things you find in Netzach. It's a place she likes to hang out. But there is no official stance on theology in Qabalah. It's really up to the practitioner to figure out what feels right in figuring out what feels right.
ACS: I think that's very true for Paganism as a whole. Everyone has their own practices and some look at the Gods/Goddesses as energy forms, thought forms, or even manifestations of the singular God or Goddess. So all of that can exist within the Tree of Life, within the Hermetic Qabalah universal view?
JC: Qabalah really does accommodate the plurality of perspective that we find in the Pagan community. It doesn't just accommodate it, it encourages it.
*Interview has been edited.
Jack Chanek has been reading tarot since he was eleven years old, and he has been publicly writing about tarot since 2015. He has taught workshops on tarot, Qabalah, and Wicca around the country and is the author of Qabalah for Wiccans. Jack has appeared on Seeking Witchcraft, The Magic Monday Podcast, and The Witching Hour with Patti Negri, as well as teaching at festivals such as Free Spirit Gathering and LlewellynCon. He lives in New Jersey, where he works as an academic philosopher specializing in Immanuel Kant's philosophy of science. He can be found online at his website here. You can purchase his book Qabalah For Wiccans in-store at Enchantments or order online direct from the publisher.