David Sedley
Rabbi, teacher, author, husband, father
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Defense against the dark arts: Parshat Balak

In case you thought Balaam's spiritual heights would lead him to reevaluate his life choices and protect the Israelites, guess again
Aleister Crowley at the Abode of Chaos. (CC BY, Abode of Chaos/ Wikimedia Commons)
Aleister Crowley at the Abode of Chaos. (CC BY, Abode of Chaos/ Wikimedia Commons)

The most famous Victorian English battle of white magic against dark magic took place on April 19, 1900, at 36 Blythe Road, London. The Battle of Blythe Road pitted one of the best-known Irish poets against someone who is known to history as, “the wickedest man in the world.”

Nowadays, 36 Blythe Road, in West Kensington, in the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham,  is the home of George’s Café. But once it was the headquarters of a secret Victorian society with occult pretensions, called the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

Let’s first look at three of the main protagonists.

William Butler Yeats was an Irish poet, writer and politician. He is considered one of the leading figures in 20th century literature and won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1923.

I love this poem, entitled “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven,” first published in 1899.

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Yeats photographed in 1903 by Alice Boughton. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

In 1885, Yeats published his first two poems, “Song of the Fairies” and “Voices.” Between then and his death on the eve of World War II, in January 1939, he published more than 75 books of poetry, stage plays, dramas, and non-fiction. In addition to being one of the foremost literary figures, he served two terms as a senator for the Irish Free State, from 1922.

(I can’t resist telling you one of my favorite facts I learned from “No Such Thing as a Fish.” Yeats’s brother, Jack Butler Yeats, won Ireland’s first ever Olympic medal, a silver medal for swimming in the 1924 Paris games. But he did this without getting wet. Because in that year, medals were awarded in four arts competitions, and Butler’s painting “Swimming” (also known as “The Liffey Swim” was judged second best, behind the entry from Luxemburg).

However, in addition to being a writer and politician, Yeats was also a magician. Not a conjurer pulling rabbits from hats, but a believer in white magic, based in part on kabbalistic wisdom literature. He considered magic to be essential to everything else he did.

For example, in 1892, Yeats wrote a letter to John O’Leary (president of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, who had spent 20 years in prison for seeking Irish independence from Britain):

Now as to magic. It is surely absurd to hold me “weak” or otherwise because I choose to persist in a study which I decided deliberately four or five years ago to make, next to my poetry, the most important pursuit of my life…If I had not made magic my constant study I could not have written a single word of my Blake book, nor would [my play] “The Countess Kathleen” have ever come to exist. The mystical life is the center of all that I do and all that I think and all that I write.

Magic was important to Yeats, so it was fortuitous that he happened to meet one of our other protagonists, Samuel Liddell MacGregor-Mathers (1854-1918). In his “Autobiographies” Yeats wrote:

At the British Museum reading-room I often saw a man of thirty-six, or thirty-seven, in a brown yelveteen coat, with a gaunt resolute face, and an athletic body, who seemed before I heard his name, or knew the nature of his studies, a figure of romance. Presently I was introduced, where or by what man or woman I do not remember. He was called Liddle Mathers, but would soon, under the touch of ‘The Celtic Movement”, become Macgregor Mathers, and then plain Macgregor. He was the author of The Kabbala Unveiled… He had copied many manuscripts on magic ceremonial and doctrine in the British Museum, and was to copy many more in Continental libraries, and it was through him mainly that I began certain studies and experiences, that were to convince me that images well up: before the mind’s eye from a deeper source than conscious or subconscious memory.

Mathers was born at 11 De Beauvoir Place, Hackney, on January 8, 1854. We know that his father died when he was very young and he moved with his mother to Bournemouth. After his mother passed away, he returned to London. He married Moina, the sister of philosopher Henri Bergson, who was herself a noted occultist.

Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers, in Egyptian getup, performs a ritual in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Mathers was a vegetarian, a non-smoker and outspoken against cruelty to animals. He wrote several books on magic. He was initiated in the Hengist Lodge in 1877 and later admitted to the Rosicrucian Society of England. In 1891, Mathers became the leader of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

At some point, Mathers demonstrated his magic powers to Yeats, causing the poet to envision, “mental images that I could not control: a desert and black Titan raising himself up by his two hands from the middle of a heap of ancient ruins.” He then invited Yeats to join his newly-formed society, the Hermetic Order of the Golden  Dawn.

In “The Golden Dawn Scrapbook,” R. A. Gilbert described the society as follows:

It is an association for the study of the Archaeology of Mysticism and the origin and application of Religious and Occult Symbolism. Its teachings are strictly moral and inculcate a profound respect for the truths of all Religions.

The secret society based its rituals on the Cipher Manuscripts, which William Wynn Westcott, another founder of the order, claimed to have discovered. The origins of these manuscripts remain a mystery to this day, though Westcott was subsequently disgraced and expelled from the Golden Dawn when it turned out that he had fabricated his story of discovering them.

Victorian England had many men (and later women) who were interested in the occult and enjoyed pageantry and ritual. Over the years, the Golden Dawn counted among the members of its various temples, Charles Henry Allan Bennett, who introduced Buddhism to Britain, novelist Arnold Bennett, physician Edward W. Berridge, author Algernon Blackwood, motorist Gabrielle Borthwick, singer Anna de Brémont, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, actress Florence Farr, writer Arthur Machen, medic Alfred John Pearce, and author A. E. Waite.

However, by the end of the 1890s, Mathers became more and more demanding of the society’s members, requiring submission to his authority. He began expelling members who he felt were displaying insubordination.

Then in January 1900, Mathers initiated our third protagonist into the society — Aleister Crowley.

Crowley in Golden Dawn garb, 1910. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

If you have not heard of Crowley, let me quote Atlas Obscura, who described him as, “a poet, a magician, a journalist, an alchemist, a philosopher, a spy, a self-affirmed drug fiend, and a sex addict. He was also known as ‘The Great Beast.’”

In his lifetime, he was reviled as a black magician. After his death, he became even more famous. He is in the top row (second from left) on the cover of The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page revered him (and eventually bought Boleskine House, in the Scottish Highlands, which had been Crowley’s home). Ozzy Osbourne’s debut solo album “Blizzard of Ozz” has a song entitled, “Mr Crowley.”

Crowley’s influence on the world of literature was nowhere near as great as Yeats’s. However, he was the greatest occultist of the 20th century. He wrote dozens of books, including, “The Book of Lies,” “The Book of Thoth,” “Diary of a Drug Fiend,” and “The Magical Record of the Beast 666.” As the name implies, Crowley’s magic was much darker and more evil than that of Yeats.

Mathers’s friendship with Crowley was too much for the other members of the Golden Dawn. They considered themselves to be practitioners of white magic. They wanted nothing to do with Crowley and his evil ways.

Mathers relocated to Paris, having lost the trust of most of the British members of the Golden Dawn. It was there that he initiated Crowley into the Second Order. But that was not recognized by the British members of the group. Yeats was one of the most vocal opponents of Crowley, due to what he saw as the occultist’s immorality and his reputation for sexual depravity.

In March 1900, the Second Order members of the society expelled Mathers and his wife Moina, and took control of the Blythe Road address.

In April 17, Mathers sent Crowley to the temple, which was on the second floor of the building. He forced the door open and changed the locks, to prevent the other members entering. Yeats and the others managed to regain control of the building and ordered Crowley to appear before them for an interview.

Ellic Howe, was a member of the order, and a witness to what happened. He described the events in “The Magicians of the Golden Dawn”:

At about 11.30 Aleister Crowley arrived in Highland dress, a black mask over his face, and a plaid thrown over his head and shoulders, an enormous gold or gilt cross on his breast, and a dagger at his side.

We now turn to Yeats’s biographer, Richard Ellman, who in the 1948 Partisan Review, portrayed the incredible magic battle that ensued.

Making the sign of the pentacle inverted and shouting menaces at the adepts, Crowley climbed the stairs. But Yeats and two other magicians came resolutely forward to meet him, ready to protect the holy place at any cost.

I imagine the spells flying, the white magic neutralizing the black magic being hurled up the staircase as the “Great Beast” ascended the steps. Despite being severely outnumbered, Crowley continued to advance, with his evil signs and black magic spells. And then, as Ellman says, the Battle of Blythe Road ended in a much more mundane manner:

When Crowley came within range the forces of good struck out with their feet and kicked him downstairs.

That was not the end of the fight over the future of the Hermetic Order, and only the beginning of Crowley’s power.

Ellman tells of a young painter, named Althea Gyles, who came under the influence of Crowley. She asked Yeats to help save her. He replied, “Bring me a drop of his blood and I will exorcise it.” That proved impossible, but Gyles was able to steal a hair from Crowley’s head. She gave it to Yeats who “cast the requisite spells and exorcism.”

That night, when the black magician went to bed, he discovered a vampire beside him; all night long she bit and tore at his flesh. His best charms proved of no avail against her ferocious advances, and for nine nights the torture went on.

How much of this story and magical war is actually true and how much has been embellished, I don’t know. There are certainly other accounts of Crowley’s confrontation with Yeats in Blythe Road that have no mention of the magic battle or the well-placed kick, and instead end with a local police constable leading Crowley away. But why should we let facts get in the way of a fantastic story. There is so much more to say about the Golden Dawn, Victorian magical societies, Yeats and Crowley. I encourage you to follow the links and read more.

But now I wish to turn to this week’s Torah reading, of Balak.

Balak was the king of Moab. He feared that the Israelites, who had already conquered several tribes on the east bank of the Jordan River, would next wage war against him. Knowing that he could not defeat the Israelites in conventional warfare, he sent messengers to Balaam, requesting his help. The messengers asked Balaam to curse the Israelites — perhaps magic would work where swords and spears could not.

Bamidbar Rabba (20:1) describes the spiritual growth of Balaam.

At first he was a dream interpreter. Then he became a magician. And then he received the Divine Spirit.

Sifrei on Devarim 34:10 describes the astonishing level of prophecy that Balaam reached:

There never arose a prophet among Israel like Moses. But from the non-Jews there was was one. Who? Balaam ben Be’or. There was a difference between the prophecy of Moses and the prophecy of Balaam. Moses did not know who was speaking with him, but Balaam knew who spoke to him, as he said, ‘The says the one who hears the speech of God and knows the mind of the Supernal,’ (Numbers 24:4)… Moses could not speak with Him until he stood up.. but Balaam could even speak while he was fallen on the ground.

So, Balaam reached a higher level of prophecy than Moses. He knew God in ways that even Moses did not. Yet he did not use his spiritual power for good. He eventually agreed to curse the Israelites. Miraculously, his curses were turned into blessings.

I might have thought that such clear evidence of Divine intervention, coupled with his tremendous spiritual heights would have caused Balaam to reevaluate his life choices and either join the Israelites, or at least support them.

Yet, instead, he chose to advise Balak that if the Israelites could be enticed into sin, they would become vulnerable. And then he seems to have reverted from being a prophet to being simply a practitioner of dark arts.

According to Bamidbar Rabba (20:3):

The wicked Balaam did magic and caused the five kings to fly [into battle against the Israelites]. They [the Israelites] showed him the headplate [of the High Priest] and they fell down. You know this is what happened because the verse states, ‘They killed the kings of Midian with the rest of their slain, Evi, and Rekem, and Zur, and Hur, and Reba, the five kings of Midian, but Balaam ben Be’or they killed with a sword,’ (Numbers 31:8)

Balaam’s magic was not able to counteract the holy power of the High Priest’s clothing. By this point Balaam was no longer a prophet, but a profiteering magician using his power for evil. In Joshua 13:22, the verse calls him a magician:

The Children of Israel killed Balaam ben Be’or, the magician, with the sword, among the rest of their slain.

In the end, Balaam was just as mortal as the rest. Instead of prophecy which elevated him to the greatest spiritual heights, he died as a mere magician, casting dark spells in vain.

I’m not sure to what extent people do or should believe in magic nowadays. We are no longer living in biblical times or even in Victorian England. Nevertheless, we all make life choices, deciding between allying ourselves with the side of goodness and kindness, or doing the opposite. Do we use our talents and abilities to help others or to harm them? Do we want to be with the prophets or with the profiteers?

Yeats is remembered as a Nobel-winning poet and author. Crowley is known as the most evil man who ever lived. Moses was the lawgiver. Balaam was the failed curser.

Which side do we want to stand on? How do we want to be remembered by others?

The last class in my current series on WebYeshiva and is entitled “In Their Time: The Tannaim” will be on July 4th. You can sign up on WebYeshiva. I’ve also started sharing more of my Torah thoughts on Facebook. Follow my page, Rabbi Sedley.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. He currently teaches online at WebYeshiva. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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