Amber and Kabbalah
My fools for senses,
After having explored the poetry of a perfume as deep as the sea itself, we wanted to dig a little deeper and look for a treasure both reknown and unknowable, both ambery and salty ; the treasure of Neptune’s heart ; fishermen’s silver gold : ambregris. If its story and origins are now known by many, there’s a subject which remains yet untold : its mysticism. Be it in Crowley’s treaties or in medieval magic formulae, there are many instances where ambergris is met however discreet, almost secret, the part it played. That is why we shall embark together upon a mystical, esoterical journey through Amber and Kabbalah.
To grasp the esoteric reach of ambergris, one must know its origins. As with all animalic materials, ambergris has a somewhat repugnant history. One must picture a sperm whale swimming in the abyss and vomiting a sticky goo, a visquous and pungent ball floating o’er the waves, awashen with salt and foam and algae. One must picture this ball become rock, this brown and golden pumice stone washing up on the beach. One must picture the fishermen of the Persian Gulf, the Mayan priests of Yucatan looking over the Caribbean Sea and harvesting, from the sand amidmost, betwixt bones and shingles, a tiny crumbly white rock, bearing the faint smell of salt and flowers and the sea’s terror.
Such is the treasure of Nepture – of which the Greek knew naught about.
Ambergris’s first mentioned during the Vedic period. There, in the Amara Kosa, we’ve read that ambara, the sanskrit term in use to describe ambergris at the time, was referring to the skies. What a strange word-association to link the seas and the skies in a time when the ocean was a symbol of death. Continuing on our research, we found that during the Early Middle Ages, Arabic texts mentioned another story of the origins of ambergris. It was no longer coming from the sea but rather from the great Himalayan range. They believed that some mountains exsuded honey which would flow directly into the sea, thus becoming the sweet and golden amber one might find in Persian Gulf.
We were quite surprised to notice how such traditions answered to one another, despite originating from different times and places. Unfathomably, it seems like ambergris’s meaning was hidden between the lines of a story which we’d have loved to be its own. Far from being an oceanic oud, ambergris wanted to assert itself as a link between Heaven and Earth – subtle, invisible, hermetical.
Such link will be kept alive through many magics, Crowley’s included, which will associate ambergris to the skies or Heaven. Elemental magic shows us other, more obvious, correspondances where ambergris is either linked to the Water element or the colour white. Nonetheless, if such correspondances are obvious, one ought wonder why Crowley and many others before him wanted ambergris to pair with the skies.
The answer lies within the Kabbalah, where everything is a symbol and bears a meaning of its own. Ambergris, according to the Kabbalah, is closely associated with Kether, the sephira presiding over the Tree of Life and through it, over all creation. Kether is the highest emanation of Ein Sof, the unmoved mover, the Name Above All Names. Through it, the Unknowable manifests Itself unto the Creation. Thus, Kether is the Crown sitting on top of the other sephiroth –hence its name- and the Creation must yearn to come back to the knowledge of Kether through the learning of all the sephiroth.
According to the Kabbalah, ambergris is not to be seen as a link to the ocean but to the skies. It is no longer the soiled excretion of a sea monster but the very fragrance of G-d, the uncomprehensible scent of the Unknowable, the only scent which can let us enter a conversation with the Ineffable. Hence, ambergris isn’t an end but a means to know and comprehend the source of all Being whom transcends the Creation itself ever since He restricted from it.
So what exactly is this path leading to the Crown –Kether- of Creation ? And how is ambergris linked to it ? Is it an ascending way of sorts, like the Song of Ascents leading to the Temple in Jerusalem ? No. The Sefer Zohar refers to Kether as Aur Penimi, the Inner Light as well as Aur Mopla, the Hidden Light. One must thus look for it within. One must go downwards in order to go upwards and enter the depths of sea and soul.
In the belly of a whale.
The Bible tells the surprising story of Jonah, a prophet who, upon fleeing from God, ended swallowed up by a whale. He would stay there for three days and three nights before being coming out to fulfill his destiny. This curious episode –which we all know from Pinocchio- caught the attention of many kabbalists. And we must now delve onto the symbolism behind the whale in order to understand what mystical secrets in ambergris do lie.
The kabbalist, upon reading the tale of Jonah, will first take a look at the letters. Jonah is written with the letters Yov, Vav, Nun and Hei whereas the whale and the sea are respectively bear the letters Nun and Mem. Yod, Vav and Hei are also the letters used in the Tetragram : YHWH, so as to tell us that Jonah is the one working with and for YHWH – for God. He does so by being swallowed by the whale, Nun, which swims in the Mem, the ocean. Here, Mem is a symbol of the sephira Malkuth, the Creation after the Fall in all its bitterness and Nun is a symbol of all passions and carnal desires, of concupiscence inhabiting the soul of all Men.
The journey of Jonah in the womb of the whale is a metaphor of the fight we must all partake against our passions. It is a metaphor of this movement of the soul as it draws back in itself, a metaphor of metanoia –the letter Nun is found in the root –noia- without which it is impossible to leave the sorrows of Mem –the sea- of Malkuth -the fallen Creation- and rise to the heights of Kether, the knowledge of God. Moreover, this journey makes us realise that Jonah must confront his passions, Iod, Vad –first letters of Jonah- must visit the Nun – the sea monster- in order to purify it and attain the Hei – God. That is to say the very Energies of God, the Truth, must descend to the very bottom of our pitless hearts and transmute and transfigure the passions within ; so that Iod, Vav through Nun might be complete in Hei ; so that Jonah and all Men with him, through the transfiguration of their passions, might know God.
Ambergris teaches us that the path to the truth is above all a narrow one. It is a descent towards the darkness of our soul, the same way amber comes from the nightly abyss. The scent of Aum Penimi, it is the scent of the Inner Light. Inner means it must shine in our darknesses. It is also the scent of Kether, the Crown of Unknowing. It teaches us that the light must shine in the darkness, that it must come down from Kether to Malkuth. The name Jonah means collaborating with God, trusting in God. The Kabbalah reads it as an order to trust in the Unknowable whose desire is to come down from his Might –Kether- to know us in our misery –Malkuth- so as to raise us up to the very knowledge of Himself.
Ambergris shows us the way. We need to confront our miseries and learn to let go, go on with the flow and being tossed about, awashen and purified by the sun and salt before washing up on a beach, hoping to get picked up. Ambergris is the school of renunciation, of retreating in ourselves. It is the perfume of the way which goes from Malkuth to Kether through Tiphareth ; from the Fall to the Knowledge through Harmony. Ambergris is both the sign and the way to unite Heaven and Earth.
Bearing the paradox of being both light and dark, airy and salty, this precious resin and its undescribable aromas sheds light on our own contradictions. As it brings to the surface that which remained hidden, it wants us to bring light into the dark passions of our hearts and unearth unmended wounds.
A divine balm, ambergris heals by making us understand that the true ascetism doesn’t lie in the negation of all passions but in their transfiguration. We understand that turning a blind eye to our problems shan’t bring about peace for no wound can be healed if left in the dark. We understand that is it vain to yearn for the heights of divine knowledge without accepting to descend in the unknown places of our heart first. There we shall see that « light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it ».
In the darkness
Of our soul :