Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The politics of Baphomet

Let's address an issue that we should have discussed weeks ago. A group called the Satanic Temple, having noted the monument to the Ten Commandments on the grounds of the Oklahoma Statehouse, proposes the erection of a Baphomet statue nearby. Obviously, the Satanists want to deliver a message: If taxpayers are going to fund religious imagery on public property, then everyone deserves to get into the act.

Frankly, I think the design of this monument is hilarious.
The 7-foot-tall monument would include a goat-headed Baphomet figure sitting cross-legged on a stone slab, flanked by two smiling children. The monument would also include quotes from poets Lord Byron and William Blake.

“The monument has been designed to reflect the views of Satanists in Oklahoma City and beyond. The statue will serve as a beacon calling for compassion and empathy among all living creatures. The statue will also have a functional purpose as a chair where people of all ages may sit on the lap of Satan for inspiration and contemplation,” spokesman Lucien Greaves explained.
If Greaves managed to say those words out loud with a straight face, color me impressed.

As a result of this stunt, many writers have tried to discuss the history of the Baphomet symbol. But all of these writers have missed certain key points.

This particular visualization of Baphomet traces back to an illustration that French esotericist Eliphas Levi used as a frontispiece for his 1856 book Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie, published in English as Transcendental Magic. Levi drew the picture himself.

Note that the Satanic Temple neglected to give their version female breasts. Perhaps they censored Levi's design because they did not wish to offend the bluenoses of Oklahoma.

I could write a fairly long essay explaining what Levi meant by this symbol-laden image. For example, Levi wrote that the right hand is pointing up to the qabalistic sephira called Chesed ("mercy") while the left hand points down to Geburah ("power"), thus signifying a unity of the two concepts. These terms will make sense to you only if you've ever read a book about the qabala -- which you probably haven't. I, being a weirdo, have. Since Chesed and Geburah are normally depicted as being on the same level, Levi's design has always seemed flawed to me.

At any rate, he didn't mean this image to be taken as a picture of Old Scratch. He said it was a depiction of the Absolute.

The image became satanic in the public mind when Arthur E. Waite commissioned a similar drawing for the Devil in his influential deck of Tarot cards. As you can see, Waite changed much of the symbolism -- the pentagram is now inverted, the black and white moons are missing, the female breasts have been masculinized, the eagle wings have become bat wings, and so forth. Most tarot readers will tell you that this image is meant to convey the concept of materialism, to which Adam and Eve (and all their progeny) remain chained -- even though the chains are loose and thus quite easy to escape. Deep, innit?

(Waite, the translator of Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie, was a British expert in esoterica who could be very droll and engaging at times -- and very, very ponderous at other times, so much so that some wags have called him "Wisdom-while-you-Waite." One of his books contains a sentence so extraordinarily long that I suspect he's still writing it, more than 70 years after his death.)

Now, I tell you all of this to make a few observations that all commentators -- including those lovable scalawags at the Satanic Temple -- seem to have missed.

1. Eliphas Levi may have been a very strange fellow, but he remained a Christian throughout his life. That fact is made very clear in Christopher McIntosh's excellent biography, Eliphas Levi and the French Occult Revival. (I can't give you a page number because I lost my copy of that work ages ago. For years, used copies were scarce and expensive -- but now I see that you can buy the book at Walmart!)

2. Levi's Baphomet drawing was constructed -- at least in large part -- to illustrate his interpretation of Jewish mysticism.

3. Waite, too, was a Christian. Not your average Christian, perhaps, but a Christian nonetheless. Historian Robert Galbreath titled his biography of the man “Arthur Edward Waite, Occult Scholar and Christian Mystic.”

Thus, in the final analysis, this proposed statue is not Satanic at all! It's based on the work of very pious Christians and Jews.

If the good folks at the Satanic Temple want to evoke an infernal force, they should erect a very different sculpture. My suggested image -- though extremely disturbing and frightening -- is nevertheless one that might actually pass muster with the good folks at the Oklahoma Statehouse:

When I was in 'Nam, we called that the "1,000 yard stare."
Why would you want to rob the patron saint from alcoholics?

The kids are a nice touch; like visiting Santa Claus.
There are Satanists in Oklahoma City? Enough of 'em to warrant the expense of a huge sculpture, just to make a point?.....As Chicken Man used to say: "Weee...llll".

Interesting detail though, Joseph. Thanks. I mentioned on mine, at the time, that talk of the devil's appearance always brings to mind Arthur C. Clarke's
"Childhood's End", in which, when aliens are eventually seen, they look like human depictions of devils through the ages....for a reason.
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