Serpent Tongue of Liber AL vel Legis

Some of the passages in the (Egyptian) Book of the Law seem to have been put there expressly to bamboozle Aleister Crowley, the scribe. The same passages have befuddled many other persons since. Not least of which, is the passage of III: 47, which includes a word concerning the translation of the book into “all other tongues”. If the book is regarded as an encrypted esoteric treatise, there is some chance that wisdom might send her kiss to soothe our troubled brows. If the book is approached in the same way that lay preachers sometimes choose to construe their ‘holy bibles’, as literal instruction to be blindly obeyed, then what is there to distinguish Thelemites from those who burned so-called witches at the stake on the advice of the biblical book of Exodus? Interestingly, perhaps, Crowley never authorised or produced a translation of Liber AL vel Legis in his lifetime, even though the book’s instruction of III: 47 is one that appears to have been delivered to him personally.

Serpent Tongue: Loki’s Brood, Emil Doepler 1905

The written word may be taken literally or metaphorically. The laws of state governance, for example, are literally intended. Even then it is not straightforward; the difficulties of literal interpretation are such that a large army of lawyers and judges are required. When the written word is taken as spiritual wisdom, a matter for the soul, then the use of poetic metaphor is taken for granted. There is an exception to that. When persons wish to use scripture as a means of exercising political power and control, then the written word becomes a matter of dogmatic doctrinal assertion.

Hissing Serpent of Exodus

The eight hissing serpent words in the King James Bible version of Exodus, 22: 18, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”, can be understood esoterically. There is a caveat to be applied to the Old Testament when applying the Qabalah to make sense of it. Some of the books, and Exodus is no exception, are merely political diatribes. Some chapters consist of lengthy lists of social and moral prohibitions and, as a consequence, dire curses and punishments to be meted out on sinners. The primary intention of producing such scriptures was to force mass compliance with emerging nation states. These require, along with the flag and usual hereditary emblems of governance, centralised religious worship to reinforce national identity. Military plans for conquest require finance and so increased taxation; by appealing to ignorance and xenophobia, support may be garnered for what would otherwise be unpopular legislation (what else is new?). Nonetheless, Aramaic, the language of the scriptures, is a magical language. As with ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, the written word affords multiple levels of interpretation—for there is no vowel pointing to indicate precise meaning, as with Modern Hebrew.

The word that was translated as ‘witch’ in the King James edition (and most others) is KShP (400), a verb which means, ‘to use magick or sorcery’. The noun for a magician or sorcerer is AShP (381), and this same name is also used to describe astrologers, for example—who, in those times, were regarded no differently than astronomers and physicians. Ironically, the three magi that follow a star to witness the birth of the magical child Jesus of Nazareth, as recorded in the New Testament, were likewise astrologers or magicians. The Qabalistic Gematria for the numbers 381 and 400 yields rich treasure.[1] The association of keshef with the Egyptian word for the constellation we know as Ursa Major, ShPK, ‘foreleg (or thigh) of the Bull’, also bears much fruit. We can avoid digression, though, by simply looking into the name for ‘a person that does magick’. AShP is ashah, ‘woman’, or ‘fire’, with the letter of the ‘mouth’ or ‘utterance’ added (P). The old magick, persisting even centuries after the end of the precessional age of the Bull, always concerned oracular women or priestesses. From times of great antiquity, the serpent was the zoötype of the oracular word. Eve was named simply ‘the woman’ (ashah) in the first book of Genesis. Eve and the Serpent are one, as typified in Thelemic imagery by Babalon and the Beast. We may also think of the zodiacal Bull and its polar twin, glyphed by the serpent and eagle as well as the scorpion. Thus it is not uncommon to find ancient depictions of the magician as a woman, naked as the sky, with the wings of a bird and bearing two serpents, one in each hand, all set against a background of stars. The three letters of the verb ‘to do magick’ (KPSh) encompass all these ideas, along with their Yetziratic path and Tarot correspondences. The ‘hand’ (kaph) of the goddess Fortuna that turns the wheel or chakra of time; the word from the ‘mouth’ () of the fire snake (shin).

The biblical association with the tricky Old Serpent produces the time-honoured instruction, known by every hermit, that if we succumb wholly to the proud persuasion of the reasoning intellect then we pour our life’s blood into the Ark of Evil and mistake dead things (including all ‘holy books’) for the living word. And that is exactly the error of the witch-burners and fundamentalists—not to mention the self-righteous worthies that sign up with the lynch mob every time the popular press pruriently parades the latest victim of some outrage—whether the alleged perpetrator is an individual person or ecclesiastical institution.

This book shall be translated into all tongues: but always with the original in the writing of the Beast; for in the chance shape of the letters and their position to one another: in these are mysteries that no Beast shall divine.

Serpent Tongue of AL, III: 47

The instruction of Liber AL, III: 47 appears, on the face of it, to be a lighter matter than that of Exodus, 22: 18. Yet the consequences for slavish obedience to the literal interpretation of an arcane treatise are incalculable, certainly in spiritual terms. “This book shall be translated into all tongues” has been enthusiastically taken up, so that the book is by now translated into almost every European language, and quite a few others. Unfortunately, it is impossible to translate the book into any language other than the ‘barbaric’ English that was heard by Rose and Aleister Crowley in Cairo in 1904 without making nonsense of it. When the book is translated into other tongues, the meaning is changed and strictly limited. As with ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, it is intentional, nay essential, that the text carries multiple levels of meaning. This can easily be demonstrated. If we go through some of the key verses or tenets and translate them into modern English, it no longer works. The book was written down in a peculiar hybrid of archaic and modern prose. Add to that some Greek and Coptic words, plus the very curious ‘Coph Nia’ (III: 72). The grammar does not conform to any accepted standard. There are neologisms, specially created words that do not appear in any dictionary, namely ‘unfragmentary’ and ‘abstruction’.[2] Thus, to translate into any other language renders the book completely useless as esoteric treatise. In ordinary translation work—and this is no ordinary book and no ordinary writing—one must make a clear difference between translating a text and interpreting that text. With the enigmatic Liber AL vel Legis, it is not possible to translate without applying precise definition of meaning. All attempts to translate the book have therefore failed utterly, and will continue to do so.

The elevenfold spell, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law”, for example, translates into modern English as “Do what you will shall be the whole of the Law”. The substitution of ‘you’ for the archaic ‘thou’ automatically places personal emphasis on the nature of the will in question, which has already been defined in the book, I: 39, by the Greek word Thelema (Θελημα). The meaningful context for the use of that word owes to sixteen centuries of cultural and linguistic tradition. Furthermore, the ambiguity of present and future tense in the phrase automatically invokes the curse of causal determinism. We are then stuck with something perhaps worse than the rationalist argument of philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer in his treatise, The World as Will and Representation (1818).

II: 21 Nuit! Hadit! Ra-Hoor-Khuit! The Sun, Strength and Sight, Light; these are for the servants of the Star and the Snake.

To take one further example—each of the 220 verses of the book presents unique translation problems, some of which are completely insoluble—the noun ‘snake’ is neutral in English. The word appears four times in the book.[3] In some tongues other than English the noun must be either masculine or feminine. While it has become traditional to speak of the snake Hadit as ‘he’ in English, in some languages the masculine gender form of ‘snake’ has rather amusing connotations. In the Eastern Tantras, the serpent as Occult Force is usually identified with the feminine (shakti) power and intelligence. However, in the Book of the Law, Hadit is the polar complement of the star goddess Nuit, who is unmistakably female in form. The poetic sense of the book becomes lost in translation, as does its real spiritual and magical import.

The (Egyptian) Book of the Law shall certainly be ‘translated into all tongues’ in the sense that individuals will uniquely understand it each according to their wisdom.


Notes

The painting used here as an illustration is titled, Lokis Gezücht (Loki’s Brood), and was painted by Emil Doepler in 1905 (photograph Wikimedia Commons). It depicts the Nordic gods Hel, Fenrir and Jörmungandr the world serpent. Angrboða, the mother of sorrows, is thought to be shown in the background and to the left. The body of the serpent arches to form the mouth of the entrance to hell or the underworld, guarded over by the serpent’s mother. Thus the serpent nahesh and the letter , ‘a mouth’, are combined. As explained above, the Aramaic noun for a magical practitioner or ‘witch’, as termed in the King James Bible, is AShP, combining ‘woman’, ‘mouth’ or ‘oracle’ with the hissing sound of the serpent or fire snake.

1. See The Flaming Sword Sepher Sephiroth, numbers 381 and 400 [Ordo Astri].
2. ‘Unfragmentary’ was the original (received) word of the Book of the Law, I: 26, “And the sign shall be my ecstasy, the consciousness of the continuity of existence, the unfragmentary non-atomic fact of my universality.” Aleister Crowley later sought to change the wording. The neologism, ‘abstruction’, was not changed by Crowley and appears in III: 11, “I will make easy to you the abstruction from the ill-ordered house in the Victorious City.”
3. Liber AL vel Legis, II: 21; II: 22; III: 34; III: 38.

© Oliver St. John 2018

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Liber 364 Spells from Egyptian Papyri

The practical use of these spells or invocations is more or less identical to that of the better-known Graeco Egyptian papyrus called the ‘Bornless Ritual’. That use is defined poetically as the ‘Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel’, which is to realise the immortality at the centre of Self. The world centre is symbolised in many traditions. In the Bornless Ritual it is named, ‘Heart girt with a Serpent’. Such a work is also to prepare the soul for the ultimate crossing or passing through the duat, which is the overcoming of physical death in the miracle of resurrection and transcendence.

Weighing of the Heart from Papyrus of Ani

In our desire to understand the wisdom of Egypt, we tend to draw Egypt into the sphere of our modern mentality. But our effort will bear no fruit unless we pierce that sphere and try to draw nearer to Egypt.[1]

The Egyptian Book of the Dead is more correctly ‘The Book of Coming Forth into Light’. According to Bika Reed, ‘The Book of the Dead Man’ was a name coined by tomb robbers.[2] Egyptologists have used the term ever since, for reasons best known to themselves. They are entirely unable to translate Egyptian sacred texts meaningfully but will not admit the fact, or if they do, they will deny that anyone else can do it either. Most commonly, they will say the confusion in their literal word-by-word translations is the fault of the ‘primitive’ ancient Egyptians, who did not know what they were doing. They assume that the language of hieroglyphics could only be used to convey simple ideas. On the contrary, the ancient Egyptian language includes poetry and prose. The meaning may be construed literally, when that is required, or metaphorically.

This article is abridged from the introduction to ‘Liber 364 vel Lux Occulta’, from the book, Babalon Unveiled! Thelemic Monographs.

There are three levels of the mysteries, of which only the second two may be applied to the Egyptian spells:

1. The literal or simple sense, where concrete meaning is applied to the symbol.
2. The allegorical or symbolic sense, which requires study and learning to master.
3. The gnostic sense, which requires prolonged meditation. The symbol is followed back to its source with all other symbols, through reversal of the consciousness current. Analogous thought is a means of approaching direct knowledge.

Spells for Eternity

The E.A. Wallis Budge translation, famously The Egyptian Book of the Dead or Papyrus of Ani (1895), was first published seven years after the British Museum acquired the 18th Dynasty papyrus that makes up a large part of the text.[3] Early Egyptologists assumed the name ‘Ani’ to be that of an ecclesiastical dignitary of the priesthood of Aunnu (Heliopolis) that produced the funerary papyrus. The name actually means ‘anyone’—it is clearly in the plural form! The idea, as with any oath or magical spell, is to insert our own name in the place of ‘N’ if we are going to use it for sacred or magical purposes. The great usefulness of the Budge presentation is that it is threefold. The top line is a transliteration into English with some phonetic keys. The middle line is a beautiful copy of the hieroglyphic text. The lower line renders Budge’s attempt to make some sense of it all through word-by-word translation. This has enabled our prose translation and commentary on three selected spells. The difficulty in translation becomes apparent when we consider there are countless ways to spell one word in Egyptian; even the same spelling of a word may convey as many shades of meaning.

It may seem strange that some short sentences in the papyrus often have long explanations in the commentary. However, those ‘short sentences’ relate to definite mythological themes and yield sense only through them. To appreciate the development of the argument and therefore the depth of its conclusion, one must understand how these mythological themes relate to the papyrus. It is through such long explanations that we arrive at a consistent interpretation; they therefore prove themselves necessary.[4]

Bika Reed, in producing the only initiated translation of a complete Egyptian sacred text to date, has shed a great deal of light on what has previously been a very dark area. She has opened the ways for us. Her method is to take the literal Egyptological rendition and compare it side by side with all the variations of meaning given in the hieroglyphic dictionary. By applying her knowledge of the hieroglyphics and deep understanding of the mythological basis—without which, nothing can be achieved as these are profoundly sacred texts—Reed was able to produce the first meaningful translation of Egyptian prose. The text cannot be interpreted on a word by word or even a line-by-line basis. It is only when the context of the whole is taken into consideration that a small light begins to glow in the night of obscurity—a light that grows in intensity if the person is receptive to the initiatic ancient Egyptian current. Conditions being suitable, previously unknown faculties are awakened in the mind of the translator.

Spells 80, 78 and 84 Translated

We began this present work with the spell numbered 80 by Budge, ‘Making the transformation into the God who giveth Light in the Darkness’. It later transpired that Spell 80 was the correct place to begin such a work—which seems obvious now but it certainly was not when we made the first draft some fifteen years ago, not as a linguistic exercise but for practical use. We agree with Bika Reed that such texts had more than one use, and that originally at least—for they were edited and recopied over thousands of years—their use was initiatic. The Papyrus of Ani was produced, according to Budge, during the second half of the 18th Dynasty, a relatively late time in the long history of the ancient Egyptian civilisation.[5] Scribes and others entitled to full funeral rites would believe in the power of magical words and spells to secure a passage in the afterlife. Thus the papyrus was treated much in the way of a talisman. The use of such texts as initiatory devices involves memorising the words and images. Thus in speaking forth the words, the appropriate images are at the same time invoked. With much practice, the visualisation technique is not required as such, for the words automatically summon the images and the powers associated with them.

Spells of the Papyrus of Ani

By the time the Papyrus of Ani book of spells was created, the popular cult of Osiris had become dominant over all of Egypt; the far more ancient Setian gnosis was preserved through secret orders of priests such as the cult of Mentu at Thebes, from whence the Stele of Revealing. The gnosis is preserved throughout the texts of the Papyrus of Ani, however, as with the Pyramid Texts. Most persons wished only to continue a dreaming life in the underworld. This was achieved through familial offerings and observances made to the Ka double at the mastaba tomb. This life in the underworld was seen as being much like the life lived on earth, though in an idealised form, consisting of rest, pleasure and recreation. Indeed, the underworld, Yetzirah, is a kind of mirror reflection or image of the terrestrial life, Assiah. In the (Egyptian) Book of the Law, Liber AL vel Legis, I: 49, the duality is likened to Osiris and Isis who are “not of me” (i.e., Nuit-Hadit), existing in symbiotic relationship.

Abrogate are all rituals, all ordeals, all words and signs. Ra-Hoor-Khuit hath taken his seat in the East at the Equinox of the Gods; and let Asar be with Isa, who also are one. But they are not of me. Let Asar be the adorant, Isa the sufferer; Hoor in his secret name and splendour is the Lord initiating.

A spell of Gematria: The spelling of the name of Horus, ‘Hoor’, occurs in this passage uniquely. Hoor has the numerical value of 217, equal to Set (Σηθ). This is the “secret name and splendour” of Horus in the form of Mentu or Set, the Lord of Initiation. Aiwass, the intelligence that communicated the Book of the Law, would have it known that he was revealing a secret doctrine known only to a few—and not the doctrine of the Osirians. Set and Horus are a dual form of Nuit’s only begotten child—for she requires no paternal intervention to manifest her star or ‘son’. Hadit is Nuit’s power of manifestation or self-realisation. The key to this secret doctrine becomes clear if we consider the nature of Set, whose number is 217.

Set … embodies the principles of dividing, cleaving, breaking, slaying and reversing. Set is the means of ingress and egress between the worlds, and of passing backwards and forwards between time and eternity. Set is the ‘slayer of the real’ who breaks the circle of infinity to beget creation. Conversely, Set moves through creation as the destroyer perpetually annihilating the forms he created out of chaos. His dwelling place is the desert, the burning and transforming expanse of the Abyss in which knowledge and the contents of mind turn to dust. Set is the double; he is always where consciousness, embodied by his twin brother Horus, is not. Thus he drives consciousness forwards—which may mean backwards, depending on one’s point of view![6]

At Thebes in Upper Egypt, the dual form of Horus and Set was personified in one figure as Mentu. The principal cult of Thebes was that of Amoun, Mut and Khonsu—known as the Theban triad. The local deity Mentu, who appeared as a warrior god in the form of Horus, or as a lunar god, hawk-headed, at other times the serpent Apep, continued to be honoured. The ancient Egyptians never adopted monotheism save for the brief twenty-year reign of the profane ruler Akhenaten, who forcibly imposed his belief on them.

The Osirians hoped to cheat the second death by the ineffable power of words and spells, the sacred rites. By that time this included animal sacrifices, expensive unguents, professional mourners and two or more officiating priests to perform the opening of the mouth ceremony at the door of the tomb. The ‘second death’, or dispersion of the astral body following physical death, could then be averted and the Ka of the deceased live on as Osiris, coming and going as he pleased. His domain, though, like that of Osiris, was strictly limited to the underworld. If the offerings of flowers, cakes, meat and beer were discontinued, the Ka became an astral vampire.

Egyptian Spells: Bennu bird drawn by Jeff-Dahl

Initiates, however, learn the secret power of rectification, which is more than merely learning spells for recital.[7] They have overcome the state of thraldom where the magnetic power of the underworld moves them in any given direction. The power is thereby made subject to the True Will (Thelema).[8] The desire of the mind and body for objectification must then be stilled. Initiation is a work of transformation on the soul, whereby the twin serpents of kundalini are stilled and woven into a resurrection body (Khu) capable of comprehending and dwelling in eternity.[9]

The three spells we have translated, Spell 80, 78 and 84, are all located, mythically speaking at least, in the North of Egypt. The North was the region of the watery lakes and canals of the Delta. The Delta uniquely symbolises the place of birth of all things from the primordial abyss. At the same time it symbolises the second birth of Horus, as all-transcendent spiritualised soul, and his flight to the immeasurable regions. The spells are concerned with the ultimate resurrection of the soul to an immortal life in ‘heaven’ or eternity.


Notes

1. Rebel in the Soul, Bika Reed, pp. 89. The author’s initiated translation and commentary on the Berlin Papyrus 3024, assisted by Lucy Lamy [Inner Traditions International, 1978].
2. Pp. 89 [ibid].
3. The Egyptian Book of the Dead, E.A. Wallis Budge.
4. Rebel in the Soul, pp. 105 [ibid].
5. 1500–1400 BCE.
6. See The Flaming Sword Sepher Sephiroth, Volume One [Ordo Astri].
7. Visitae Interiora Terrae Rectificando Invenies Occultum Lapidum.
8. The True Will cannot by its nature be particular, because any particularity is only an ‘effect’, an appearance of things and as such is only relatively true or false. The term ‘True Will’ is potentially misleading. The Greek word thelema occurs dozens of times in the New Testament and there are only one or two instances where it does not relate to the will of God. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus says in Mark 14: 36 (and also in Matthew 26: 42), “Father, all things are possible unto thee; take away this cup from me: nevertheless not what I will, but what thou wilt [thelema].” He would have gladly passed on that cup of sorrow. Freeing up the True Will from all these restrictive notions of personal power is the only way to know the True Will in any measure at all.
9. Kundalini is a Sanskrit term for the dual operation of the life force that carries consciousness. It is also a name of the divine feminine power or Shakti. According to the Tantras, when Kundalini sleeps she weaves the dream of world appearance. When she awakens the illusion is destroyed and Reality obtains.

© Oliver St. John 2018, 2021 (revised).
Bennu Bird and Egyptian Wings drawings by Jeff Dahl
Hall of Judgement from Book of the Dead, courtesy of British Museum

This article is abridged from the introduction to ‘Liber 364 vel Lux Occulta’ from the book, Babalon Unveiled! Thelemic Monographs [Ordo Astri].

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