Balaam part 2
by John Thomas Lowe
The Jewish element is supplied by the Kabbala (the doctrine of a secret, mystical interpretation of the Torah), which had been familiar to scholars in Europe since the Middle Ages, and which was linked with the Hermetic texts during the Renaissance. The resulting Hermetic-Kabbalistic tradition, known as Hermetism, incorporated both theory and magical practice. The latter presented as natural, and thus good, magic, in contrast to the evil magic of sorcery or witchcraft.
Alchemy was also absorbed into the body of Hermetism, and this link was strengthened in the early 17th century with the appearance of Rosicrucianism, an alleged secret brotherhood that utilized alchemical symbolism and taught secret wisdom to its followers, creating spiritual alchemy that survived the rise of empirical science and enabled Hermetism to pass unscathed into the period of the Enlightenment.
During the 18th century, the tradition was taken up by esoterically inclined Freemasons who could not find an occult philosophy within Freemasonry. These enthusiasts persisted, both as individual students of Hermetism and, in continental Europe, as groups of occult practitioners, into the 19th century, when the growth of religious skepticism led to increased rejection of orthodox religion by the educated and a consequent search for salvation by other means—including occultism.
However, those interested turned to new forms of occultism rather than to the Hermetic tradition: on the one hand to Spiritualism—the practice of alleged regular communication between the living and the spirits of the dead through a living “medium”—and on the other to Theosophy—a blend of Western occultism and Eastern mysticism that proved to be a most effective propagator of occultism but whose influence has declined markedly over the last 50 years.
Indeed, despite the 19th-century revival, occult ideas have failed to gain acceptance in academic circles. However, they have occasionally influenced the work of significant artists, such as the poet William Butler Yeats and the painter Wassily Kandinsky, and occultism in Europe and North America seems destined to remain the province of popular culture.
Divination is the practice of determining the hidden significance or cause of events, sometimes foretelling the future, using various natural, psychological, and other techniques. Found in all ancient and modern civilizations, it is encountered most frequently in contemporary mass society in the form of horoscopes, astrology, crystal gazing, tarot cards, and the Ouija board.
In the context of ancient Roman culture and belief, Divination was concerned with discovering the gods' will. However, scholars no longer restrict the word to the root meaning. Divinatory practices and the beliefs undergirding them are more significant in scope than discerning the gods' will and the fatalistic view of the human condition that inspired so much of early Mediterranean religious thought.
In some societies, Divination is a practice many persons frequently resort to, but never in terms of discovering the gods' will. The idea of a divine providence controlling human affairs in such societies is unusual, although humbler spirits are often thought to intervene in troublesome ways. While Divination is most commonly practiced in the modern Western world in horoscopic astrology, other forms were and continue to be of equal importance for other cultures.
Nature and significance
Divination is universally concerned with practical problems, private or public, and seeks information upon which practical decisions can be made. However, the source of such information is not conceived as mundane, and the technique of getting it is necessarily fanciful. The mantic (divinatory) arts are many, and a broad understanding can emerge only from a survey of actual practices in various cultural settings. However, a short definition may be offered as an introductory guide: Divination is the effort to gain information of a mundane sort by means conceived of as transcending the mundane.
Though the act of Divination is attended by respect and the participants' attitude in the divinatory act may be religious, the subject of Divination (like that of magic) is ephemeral—e.g., an illness, a worrisome portent, a lost object. Divination is a consultative institution, and the matter posed to a diviner may range from a query about a few lost coins to high questions of state. That of the diviner usually matches the casual or solemn nature of the matter in terms of attitude, technique, and style. Where the diviner is a private practitioner, the elaborateness of the procedure may be reflected in the fee. In contrast to the worldly motives of some diviners, the calling of diviner-priest was seen by the ancient Etruscans in Italy and the Maya in Mexico as sacred; his concern was for the very destiny of his people. Divination has many rationales, and it is difficult to describe the diviner as a distinctive social type. He or she may be a shaman (private curer employing psychic techniques; see shamanism), a priest, a peddler of sorcery medicines, or a holy person who speaks almost with the voice of prophecy. To appreciate the significance of the diviner’s art in any culture or era, one must be familiar with prevailing beliefs about man and the world. In Christian times Europe has moved from a horror of necromancy (conceived not as consultation with a ghost but as a literal “raising of the dead”) to an amused tolerance (among the educated) of spiritism as a sort of parlor game. To assert that European religious beliefs have remained the same throughout the Common Era would be to ignore the impact of modern science and secularization. On the other hand, to suppose that Divination has been doomed by science and secularism would be to ignore the continuing popularity of astrology and recurrent fashions for other mantic disciplines—and perhaps to misjudge the security of “modern” beliefs.
The structure of Divination
The extent to which a practice such as Divination should be called a corollary of the beliefs entailed and the extent to which the opposite might be true (i.e., the beliefs deriving from the practice as an after-the-fact explanation) is difficult to ascertain. Among the great cultures, the Chinese tradition has given the broadest scope to Divination; yet there is no single Chinese religious cosmology, or theory on the ordering of the world, comparable to those of the Mayan, Sanskritic (Hindu), or Judeo-Christian traditions, from which the variety of popular practice can be seen to derive. Sometimes, as with the flourishing business of astrology in Christian countries since the Renaissance, the metaphysical (transcendent) presuppositions of mantic practice may have been muted to minimize conflict with official religious and scientific doctrines. Generally, however, the philosophical underpinnings of Divination need not be deep or well worked out. However, where they are, they will afford clues to fundamental beliefs about man and visible or invisible nature. Some traditions of Divination—such as astrology, geomancy (Divination employing figures or lines), or the Chinese divinatory disciplines—are so old and established that it is virtually impossible to discover their original contexts. Over the centuries, such practices have survived many changes and have become perennial attempts to answer recurring questions about the human condition. Part 3