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Journey To the Center of Kaballah: An Analysis of the Use of the Sefirot in Alan Moore and J.H. Williams III’s Promethea

by Andrew Friedenthal

The ongoing comic book series Promethea, written by Alan Moore and penciled by J. H. Williams III, uses a traditional format and genre to tell a very untraditional story. The star of the series is Sophie Bangs, the latest in a long line of inheritors of the legacy of Promethea, a mythical figure from the land of imagination who can be summoned to inhabit the body of any woman who forges a particularly strong connection with her. Although outwardly garbed like any super-heroine following in the tradition of William Moulton Marston’s Wonder Woman, Promethea uses magic, intellect, and imagination to defeat her foes, rather than brute physical force. The difference between Promethea and a more traditional super-hero comic book can especially be seen in an eleven-issue storyline wherein Sophie and a companion ascend the Tree of Life on a voyage that eventually sees them arrive at the Godhead. This “Tree of Life” is formulated by Moore as a representation of the ten Sefirot discussed in the Zohar, “The Book Of Enlightenment,” a Jewish mystical, or “Kabbalistic”, text. A brief analysis of the depiction of the Sefirot in Promethea, taken in comparison to their portrayal in the Zohar, will show that a fictional use of Kabbalistic traditions, even with many liberties taken, is an effective method of transmitting mystical concepts to a modern society with a waning interest in religion, even in its mystical forms.
Sophie’s journey intro the Sefirot begins in issue thirteen of Promethea, wherein she says good-bye to the material world and provides an explanation of what the Sefirot are (which she has learned by studying Kabbalah through mystical texts) to her best friend, Stacia. In Sophie’s own words, “Earth’s a place, and a state of mind, and me and Promethea are leaving both of them” (Moore 13 4) . The explanation of the journey that Sophie is about to embark upon begins on page four, when she tells Stacia that magic is, “an attempt to map existence, both physical and non-physical. The planets are used to symbolize levels of awareness, as if they were actual places on that map” (Moore 13 4). Although there is no direct reference to the Kabbalah or to the Sefirot here, there can be no doubt that this is at least partially what Sophie is hinting at, especially in light of the panel-borders on the double-page spread of pages four and five (Williams is known for the elaborate borders that he creates in his comic book illustrations). In this border is seen the ten Sefirot, each a different color and embedded upon the leaves of the tree. Here, although not directly spoken about, two important aspects of the Zoharic Sefirot are revealed – their association with particular colors, and their imagistic connection with a tree. According to Kabbalistic scholar Gershom Scholem, “The ten Sefiroth constitute the mystical Tree of God or tree of divine power each representing a branch whose common root is unknown and unknowable” (214). The “color-coding” of the Sefirot can be seen in the Zohar itself, in the passage, “There are colors that are seen, and colors that are not seen, and both of them are a supernal mystery of faith, which people do not know and cannot contemplate” (Tishby 322). Thus, before they are even directly mentioned in the story, the Sefirot in Promethea are seen to have several of the important attributes revealed by the Zohar, with something more added – the association of the Sefirot with the planets, as a way of mapping both the physical world and the mystical realms. Shortly after this, Sophie begins to explain the Sefirot to Stacia, but only after transforming into Promethea and bringing Stacia into the “highest, most ethereal symbolic level of awareness” of “the earthly, material plane” (Moore 13 8). She shows Stacia an image of the Sefirot drawn in chalk on the ground, like a child’s game of hopscotch, and explains:
It’s as complicated as one needs it to be. It’s got big general measurements, and fine gradations, like any system. If you like, it can be as simple as a child’s game. [ . . . ] this is like a map, or maybe a circuit board. It’s the structure of things, whether that’s the universe or each individual human soul. It’s an old Hebrew knowledge system called Kaballah. It’s intended to encode all conceivable existence in a single glyph. Each of those ten spheres is called a Sephiroth. Sephiroth is just a Hebrew word for number. The twenty-two paths connecting them are the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. So it’s as simple as one, two, three, or A-B-C. (Moore 13 8-9)

For the first time, we see here one of the major themes throughout this storyline in Promethea – the “simplicity” of the Sefirot and the Kabbalistic system. Although Moore clearly recognizes the complexity of the Kabbalistic tradition, he also continually places emphasis on the fact that the ascension of the human soul to join with the Godhead is something simplistic, achievable by anyone. This is very counter to the view of the traditional Jewish mystics, who, “are inclined to be reticent about the hidden regions of the religious life, including the sphere of experiences generally described as ecstasy, mystical union with God, and the like” (Scholem 121), and reveals a sensibility that is inclined towards the universal accessibility of a personal, unitive experience with the divine, as opposed to the exclusivity of the Kabbalistic tradition, an exclusivity that would not be popular with a Western society that is grounded in democracy and the equality of all people. Aside from this, however, the description of the Sefirot is very close to that given by more “academic” sources, such as Daniel Chanan Matt: “the term sefirot originally meant “numbers” or numerical potencies, but in medieval Kabbalah the Sefirot became stages of God’s being, aspects of divine personality. Their pattern and rhythm inform all the worlds of creation” (33). Thus, in this “prologue” to Sophie’s journey, a sort of very brief “sefirotic primer,” we already see that Promethea makes liberal use of Kabbalistic tradition, while at the same time diverging from those traditions in order to appeal to a contemporary culture.

Immediately after speaking about the Sefirot in general, Sophie/Promethea jumps into the second important aspect of issue thirteen – it’s representation of the tenth Sefirot, Malkuth. The traditional Kabbalistic examination of the Sefirot, however, tends to go from the top down, starting with Kether and ending at Malkuth. The focus is clearly on God, and the emanations from the “hidden” Ein Sof out of which arise the Sefirot. In Promethea, however, by beginning with Malkuth, the Earthly sphere, the focus is on the human being, and his or her ascension of the Sefirot and return to God. The message is far more personal, much like it is in the case of the “simplification” of the sefirotic system. However, of all the Sefirot examined throughout Promethea, Malkuth is probably given the least amount of time and detail. It is described as the Earth-sphere, and associated with “the planetary symbol for Earth,” a cross within a circle, where each of the four regions is a different color and, “The four colors represent the graded levels of earthly awareness [ . . . ] from underworld black, up through russet and olive to heavenly citrine” (Moore 13 10). The three “paths” leading out from this sphere are also described, and associated with letters of the Hebrew alphabet and also particular cards from the traditional tarot deck, thus revealing another major theme in Promethea’s examination of the Sefirot – comparative mythology. Moore, while writing most prominently about Kabbalistic traditions, continually returns to symbols of the tarot, to the mythology of various other religions, and even to the experiences of such “real life magicians” as Alestair Crowley. In Promethea, even though the major emphasis is on the mystical side of a very particular religious tradition, the larger schema of the author, it seems, is to integrate various systems, beliefs, and traditions into one cohesive whole in order to develop a sort of universal magical mysticism. As such, many of the details of the Sefirot are understandably skipped over, since a significant amount of time and space is given to these other traditions. The description of Malkuth is one of the prime examples of this. Arguably one of the most-mentioned Sefirot in the Zohar, Malkuth is barely touched upon in Promethea. According to Gershom Scholem, Malkuth is “the ‘kingdom’ of God, usually described in the Zohar as the Kneseth Israel, the mystical archetype of Israel’s community, or as the Shekhinah” (213). The Shekhinah (a name given to the tenth sphere, in Zoharic literature, perhaps even more often than “Malkuth” is) is “God’s Presence and Immanence,” a feminine aspect of God that “is the opening to the Divine. [ . . . ] Once inside, the sefirot are no longer an abstract theological system; they become a map of consciousness. The mystic climbs and probes, discovering dimensions of being” (Matt 16-17).

Shekhinah, then, is the aspect of the Divine that most closely touches the human soul, and that connects that soul to the rest of the Sefirot. Malkuth is thus the primary gateway for the mystic into the mysteries and wonders of God. In Promethea, however, Malkuth is only afforded the brief description Sophie/Promethea gives in regards to the colors of its pictographic representation. Moore, in his “comparative mythological” take on the Sefirot, only uses Malkuth to symbolize Earthly existence, and shies away from the Shekhinah/Community of Israel connotations that are much more firmly rooted in Jewish tradition. As Sophie leaves Malkuth, however, along the path Moore calls “Route 32,” she encounters a representation of the Universe, itself (a dancing woman representing the imagination, and a spiraling snake coiled around her, representing DNA and “all earthly growing things”), thus showing how Sophie, in her path from Malkuth up to the next Sefirot, is leaving behind both the Earth and the human understanding of the universe. This concept is furthered when she meets “an allegorical figure from a sixteenth century engraving,” holding a kite-like construction that is made up of the Sefirot and the paths connecting them. As Sophie explains, “That’s the Tree of Life. I think the reason you’re here is because the path you’re holding it by is this one, Route 32. It symbolizes how this path helps mankind grasp the entire system” (Moore 13 22). Sophie’s passage from Malkuth to the next Sefirot, Yesod, is thus viewed as an important one, wherein the entire system can be grasped. To understand what this means in light of the teachings of the Zohar, we must first look at that next Sefirot.

Yesod, the ninth Sefirot, is similarly represented quite differently in Promethea than it is in the Zohar. When Sophie first enters Yesod, it is the realm of the dead – she arrives there being ferried across the River Styx by Charon, a Greek mythological figure who would take dead souls over the Styx into the afterlife (Moore 13 26). Yesod itself is rendered by Moore and Williams, in issue fourteen, as “the lunar realm” and “the realm of the dead,” combined into one, because, “After all, the moon governs dreams and the unconscious. The unconscious, in a way, is the underworld [ . . . ]” (Moore 14 2). Here, Sophie meets up with Barbara Shelley, the woman who was Promethea before Sophie and who has recently passed away. Sophie’s reason for journeying into the Sefirot was to find Barbara and say good-bye to her, but she learns that Barbara intends to go farther, in order to find her dead husband, Steve, who thought of himself as a magician and who has already ascended into higher realms. Sophie decides to accompany her, and the two continue their journey, first by learning a little more about their current location, Yesod. They encounter an archway with “Yesod” engraved upon it, and, as Sophie explains, “It’s a Hebrew word, meaning Foundation. I guess it implies that spirituality is founded on imagination” (Moore 14 16). In Promethea, then, Yesod represents the realm of the unconscious and of the imagination, which is congruous with the realm of the dead (as Charon points out early on, “Where else do we meet the departed, save in dreams?” (Moore 14 2)), and this imagination serves as the basis of spirituality. Once again, there is a sort of universalism to the mysticism that Moore presents – the imagination, an easily-accessed human faculty, is the key to accessing the divine. Thus, Route 32, the connection between the earthly side of the human soul and the imagination, is the method by which any individual can ultimately grasp the entire system of Sefirot. Once again, however, many of the important Zoharic aspects of Yesod, aspects tied to Jewish tradition, are passed over in order to get at this universalism. Indeed, while the connection of Shekhinah and Yesod is very important to Kabbalistic tradition, it is important for entirely different reasons than those presented by Moore (especially since Moore is presenting the Sefirot from the bottom up, while Zoharic tradition presents them from the top down). Although Gershom Scholem does describe Yesod as “the ‘basis’ or ‘foundation’ of all active forces in God” (213), the term “foundation” has a different sense when it is considered as a channel from God down to man, and not from man up to God. In the former case, Yesod “represents the phallus, the procreative life force of the universe. [ . . . ] Yesod is the axis mundi, the cosmic pillar. The light and power of the preceding sefirot are channeled through Him to the last sefirah, Malkhut” (Matt 36). Yesod is still a foundation, but is a foundation for the existence of life in the universe, and on Earth, rather than a foundation for spirituality within the human soul. Once again, Moore’s inversion of the Sefirot (explaining them through ascension, rather than through descending) creates a different interpretation, and one that provides a greater focus on the individual, rather than on the immense process of creation. However, in one aspect, the Zohar does focus on how Yesod is a foundation for spirituality – it is associated with circumcision, and the male who undergoes the rite is mystically bonded to this Sefirot (Matt 246). Thus, the mystic (who, in Kabbalistic tradition is generally male), is bonded to one of the Sefirot and has a foundation for further spirituality, represented by the eight other Sefirot, within him.

Sophie and Barbara soon leave Yesod (via a “lunar railway”) and go to Hod, the eighth Sefirot. In issue fifteen, they learn about this realm, fail to find Steve there, and move on to the seventh Sefirot, Netzach. Once again, in issue sixteen, they explore the realm, learn about it, don’t find Steve, and move on. Although these two issues are not particularly tied together in any unique way, the two Sefirot they examine are intimately tied together in the Zohar. According to Scholem, Hod and Netzach represent, respectively, “the ‘majesty’ of God,” and “the ‘lasting endurance’ of God” (213). Although theses two attributes don’t seem to have any special connection, in the sefirotic system they are important, and function together, because they serve as the source of prophecy, and are rendered as the legs of the body (Matt 36). Expanding upon this idea, Matt explains, “Prophecy is the result of emanation. The pair of lower sefirot, Nezah and Hod, Endurance and Majesty, are the channels of inspiration, the field of prophetic vision” (229). In most Zoharic analysis, Nezah and Hod are two of the Sefirot that are focused on the least, but Moore renders them fully and shows their importance to the human soul, since the Sefirot are, in his representation of them, a map of both the forces of creation and of each individual soul – “as above, so below,” a major theme of the storyline. Sophie describes Hod as, “the mercurial realm of language, magic, and intellect. Its Hebrew name is Hod. That means splendour. [ . . . ] Communication is how minds reveal themselves. Language gives a shape to the splendours of the intellect” (Moore 15 4). Although the exploration of Hod goes into much greater depth (including a memorable encounter with the Greek god Mercury, composed of the liquid metal mercury, who knowingly winks at the comic book reader while explaining, “I’m saying some fictions might be alive, that’s what I’m saying” (Moore 15 16-18)), Moore’s basic interpretation of the Sefirot is that it represents language and communication, which is important because, “To perceive form . . . even the form or shape of your own lives . . . you must dress it in language. Language is the stuff of form. [ . . . ] It creates splendor. It creates truth” (Moore 15 16-18). Everything in the universe, then, is made from and of language, and thus this language it is the “majesty” or “splendor” of God. Hod, the Mercurial sphere (in terms of the God, the planet, and the metal – Moore’s love for comparative mythology and tying absolutely everything together really shines in this issue), represents this language, including the languages of science and mathematics. Netzach, on the other hand, is the Venusian sphere, and represents the emotions, particularly love. Moore and Williams depict it as an ocean, “an ocean of emotion,” through which Sophie and Barbara must make their way (Moore 16 8-10). They are soon overwhelmed by emotions of sadness, sorrow, and grief, however, and start to drown in the ocean, until they surrender to those emotions, and “surrender to love . . . because in love . . . surrender . . . is . . . victory” (Moore 16 16). Moore translates Netzach as “victory,” rather than “endurance,” and portrays it as the victory that comes from surrendering to the emotions of the human soul (this victory, of course, could also be called a sort of endurance, an endurance of and over the emotions). One of the most interesting things he does with Netzach comes once again out of comparative mythology – he renders it as the Venusian sphere, the symbol of which “is the only planetary symbol that completely reprises its shape. They say it’s because that’s the principle the entire universe is founded on: love” (Moore 16 19). To simplify Moore’s depiction of these two Sefirot, Hod is seen to represent communication and language, while Netzach represents the emotions and love. Interestingly, this is not very out of keeping with the Zoharic view of the two Sefirot – as the rational and emotional sides of the human soul, they represent human nature, through which an individual interprets, develops a love for, and give form to the divine, in a process that could be described as “prophecy” (though not necessarily, of course, in the literal form of Biblical prophecy like that of Moses and the patriarchs).

After Netzach, Sophie and Barbara move on, in issue seventeen, to the sixth Sefirot, Tiphereth, which Sophie describes rather simply: “This is beauty. That’s what Tiphereth means: beauty. Harmony. It’s like the sun. It’s the point of balance all the other spheres revolve around” (Moore 17 7). Later on in the issue, it is described as the immortal part of the soul that continues on (and, one would suppose, upward through the Sefirot) after the body and the lower, worldly ideas pass away; as the place where the soul encounters its guardian angel, the highest part of itself; as pure will, both personal and universal; as the point where the human soul and the divine touch, and thus the highest human point in the sefirotic system; and as the realm of the risen gods (Moore 17). These last two aspects of Tiphereth are particularly important to the most powerful, and provocative, image in the issue – that of Jesus Christ on the crucifix, which is associated with the lowest five Sefirot formed into the shape of a cross. This is one of the most interesting cases of comparative mythology in Moore’s system of the Sefiroth, and it leads to one of the most beautiful passages in all of Promethea, stated by the angel Boo-Boo, Barbara’s guardian angel (a younger version of herself):

See, crucifixion, it wasn’t just, like, executin’ somebody. It was something you’d do to a dog. To a dog, man. A #$%&in’ dog. It was degradin’. It was humiliatin’, and they did it to him. To him. You get it? Our highest point. The best in us. The gold. And it’s nailed writhing on the cross of the world. That’s us up there, man. But even down here, at the lowest Auschwitz ass-end of what humans are, and what humans do, our highest point is still here with us. There’s light. Always remember that. There’s light at the bottom. (Moore 17 21)

Clearly, Tiphereth, like Yesod and Malkuth, is a Sefirot that in Moore’s depiction differs greatly from its portrayal in the Zohar. Very interestingly, though, the role of Tiphereth in Zoharic tradition does lend itself quite well to the Christ-like imagery that Moore imbues it with. Gershom Scholem describes Tiphereth as “the ‘compassion’ of God, to which falls the task of mediating between the two preceding Sefiroth [of Geburah and Hesed]” (213). According to Matt, “Tif’eret is the trunk of the sefirotic body. He is called Heaven, Sun, King, and the Blessed Holy One, the standard rabbinic name for God. He is the son of Hokmah and Binah [the second and third Sefirot]” (36). Another important aspect of Tiphereth is its union with Malkuth/Shekhinah: “The joining of Tif’eret and Shekhinah becomes the focus of religious life. Human righteous action stimulates Yesod, the Righteous One, and brings about the union of the divine coupe (Zohar 3:110b). Human marriage symbolizes divine marriage. [ . . . ] The union of Tif’eret and Shekhinah gives birth to the human soul, and the mystical journey begins with the awareness of this spiritual fact of life” (Matt 36-37). In Jewish mystical tradition, then, Tiphereth is seen as an emanation of the divine that unites with the Shekhinah, the aspect of God most associated with humanity. Tiphereth is also viewed as the son of the union of two higher aspects of God. Thus, it is in a sense an offspring of God, and a representation of the union between the divine and the human. Not only does this fit with Moore’s depiction of Tiphereth as the place where the human soul and divine energies commingle, but it also very much coalesces with the concept of Jesus as the son of God, meant to bring humanity into closer contact and union with the divine. What might seem like an immense departure from Kabbalistic tradition – association of Tiphereth with Christ – is thus, strangely, one of the cases where Moore sticks rather close to Zoharic concepts, simply making a few leaps of thought in the name of comparative mythology.

Guided by Boo-Boo, Sophie and Barbara leave Tiphereth, to move on to higher spheres in search of Steve. When Barbara wonders what could be above the highest human point, Boo-Boo explains, “Well, the lowest five spheres, you’re talkin’ about human things: flesh, dreams, mind, emotions, spirit. . . Above this sixth Sephiroth, you’re looking at big, universal qualities. Universal will. Universal love” (Moore 17 23). In issue eighteen, they arrive at “the fifth sphere, Geburah. That means strength. It also means stern #$%&in’ judgment” (Moore 18 2). This is quite similar to Scholem’s description of the fifth Sefirot: “the ‘power’ of God, chiefly manifested as the power of stern judgment and punishment” (213). In the Zohar, Geburah, also known as Din, is intimately associated with the fourth Sefirot, Chesed, which Sophie, Barbara, and Boo-Boo come to in issue nineteen, and which Boo-Boo describes as “the sheltering sky,” the realm that “nurtures and protects” the energies of the universe that have just been “born into existence” (Moore 19 7). Similarly, Scholem simply describes Chesed as “the ‘love’ or mercy of God.” Matt gives a very clear explanation of the complex interconnectedness of these spheres of mercy and judgment:

They are the right and left arms of God, two sides of divine personality; free-flowing love and strict judgment, grace and limitation. Both are necessary for the world to function. Ideally a balance is achieved, symbolized by the central sefirah, Tif’eret (Beauty), also called Rahamim (Compassion). However, if Judgment is not softened by Love, Din lashes out and threatens to destroy life. This is the origin of evil, called Sitra Abra, the Other Side. From a more radical perspective, evil originates in divine thought, which eliminates waste before emanating the good. The demonic is rooted in the divine. (35-36)

This description is extremely similar to the exploration of Geburah and Chesed in issues eighteen and nineteen of Promethea. To work backwards, slightly, and begin with Chesed, Boo-Boo describes the particular Sefirot as a realm of universal love, “the unconditional love of the universe for its children. For itself” (Moore 20 11). This Sefirot, then, is the image of God the Father, with infinite universal love and mercy for all of his children, all of creation. Although this is an extremely beautiful issue of Promethea – it is painted by Williams as much as it is penciled by him, Sophie and Barbara begin to more fully realize certain important aspects of creation in general, such as “as above, so below,” and Sophie meets her dead father, who she never got to meet in real life – it never really delves much deeper into Chesed other than as a loving father, the bearer of universal love and mercy. Issue eighteen, on the other hand, deals with the complexities of Geburah. It is the realm of strength and judgment, and in it, according to Boo-Boo, the “energy of God” is “purged of any impurities. Anything flawed. Anything weak.” In contrast to the universal mercy and love of Chesed, Geburah is “the will that moves the suns and planets. Universal will. Universal fire” (Moore 18 4-5). However, the strength, will, fire, and sheer power of this Sefirot, which burns out the impurities of the energies emanated by the Godhead, is something that can lead to anger if it goes untempered by judgment, as it does in Sophie and Barbara. When they give in to that anger, they find themselves transported to “the Qlippoth. It’s the adverse Tree of Life. It’s like spiritual anti-matter” (Moore 18 10). Here, they are subjected to anger, hatred, hurt, grief, and all kinds of emotional suffering under the watch of a demon king named Asmodeus. Eventually, however, Sophie realizes that Asmodeus is just eating in these negative emotions, and, after she treats him with respect, he transforms from a giant, horrific spider into a handsome, respectful young man. In response to a question from Sophie as to whether demons reflect humans, he explains, “Very much so. We’re much closer to you than the gods, for example. The motives of the gods are unfathomable. Whereas we demons rage and cheat and bellow. We’re like you” (Moore 18 17). More extensively, he delves into the nature of demons, and of the Qlippoth:

Like gods or angels . . . or humans for that matter . . . demons have many identities. We are legion. The Qlippoths are generally understood as hells although the word means husks, or shells. It’s what remains once the sacred energy in things has departed. The sacred energy is meaning. When the meaning in a thing moves on, that thing becomes a husk. Beauty, without meaning becomes hollow pride. Stern judgment, without the judgment, becomes empty rage. Becomes a husk. A shell. A Qlippoth. Becomes me. (Moore 18 19).

Evil, then is a part of the divine; or rather it is what is left behind when the divine has moved on, leaving a shell or husk. Because the divine is such an intricate part of the human soul, humanity views these husks, with their absence of that divinity, as evil, and the husks change to reflect that view. In the end, however, Sophie and Barbara survive the Qlippoth, having been tested and judged by Geburah, and make it through to Chesed. Like the energies coming down from the Godhead, the energies of their souls have been judged and strengthened, and the impurities such as anger and rage are burned out. Once again, the human ascension of the Sefirot differs from the descending energies of God moving through the Sefirot, and yet the basic elements and natures of the spheres remain the same. When Sophie and Barbara are in Geburah, and judgment is not tempered enough by love and mercy from Chesed, the “evil” that is unleashed exists on a very personal, emotional level. When the descending energies of God are not tempered, on the other hand, the evil released is unleashed upon the universe. In the end, though, in both the Zohar and Promethea, Chesed and Geburah, mercy and judgment, are very intricately linked, and one cannot exist without the other – mercy without judgment weakens the soul and/or the energies of existence, allowing impurities to remain, while judgment without mercy allows for evil to be unleashed, whatever form that “unleashing” takes.

At the very end of issue nineteen, Sophie and Barbara come to a tremendous, impassable abyss, “the edge of existence,” which is “as far as everything goes” (Moore 19 24). Taking each other’s hand, they jump into it. Issue twenty portrays their fall into that abyss, a seemingly endless fall during which they encounter the “lost Sefirot” of Daath, which they explore in a hallucinogenic shared illusion that takes place while they continue to fall. According to A.E. Waite, “The conjunction of CHOKMAH and BINAH [the second and third spheres] produced a quasi-emanation called DAATH, knowledge, but it is not one of the SEPHIROTH” (195). Joseph Gikatilla, a very early scholar of the Zohar, describes Daath as “the Middle Line, [which] stands between right and left and is the one that splits between them, arbitrates between them and reconciles the two. This is the rule: wherever you find the word DAT, it is the third and it arbitrates between the other two” (226). Gikatilla further refines this description:

[ . . .] it is the Sphere that includes all the Spheres. For it is the source of the spring which has no end or final purpose. [ . . . ] the Sphere DAT begins from MaLCHUT (the lowest and most humanly accessible Sphere) and reaches to AYN SOF [ . . . ] the sphere Dat, even thought there is some found in all the Spheres, both lower and upper, ascends so high – until the infinite, until the essence of KeTeR, which has no end or final purpose. There is no creature that can plumb its depths for it has no end or final destination above. Thus it is written, “. . . a mystery that I cannot fathom”. If this is so, then fathom the essence of the Sphere DAT. (231-232)

Clearly, Daath is a complex idea. It is not really a Sefirot, yet to some (though not to all – Scholem and Matt, in the works that are cited in this paper, make no mention of it) it is extremely important to the mystical tradition. It is almost more of a line than a sphere, a line that runs from Malkuth up through Keter, the “crown” of the Godhead, and all the way up to Ein Sof, encompassing Route 32, Yesod, and Tiphereth, thus representing the divine energies flowing down from the Ein Sof to the individual human soul. For Moore, Daath is the abyss, an endless fall. As Sophie says, “Some books mentioned something called the false Sephiroth, or the invisible Sephiroth. It looked hard, so I skipped it” (Moore 20 5). She and Barbara eventually learn that Daath, while a false Sephiroth, is still represented by a number, and in fact by a number that falls between three and four – Pi. “And because calculating Pi goes on forever, I guess that like the abyss, it’s sot of bottomless,” (Moore 20 12). Delving further into the realm, they come to a frightening black tower where they meet the “magician” Austin Spare, who reveals: Daath, in the great beginning, was a Sephiroth as true as any. Paths led to and from it, both the beggar and the fountain. Then, the tree was of a whole. God was not separated from the universe. Now came the fall. Now came the cataclysm. The lightning energies of God, descending, overwhelming the structure of existence. Its lower spheres were broken from the three divine supernals. Where Daath had been was now a dreadful absence. Was a marvelous crack in everything. (Moore 20 17).

Because of the mythical fall of man, then, the three highest Sephiroth, the representations of God Him/Her/Itself, were separated from the rest of creation, and from humanity. Daath represents that separation, that abyss, the eternal fall of man. “Daath is that knowledge knowable only by it’s absence” (Moore 20 18), and it is the fall that ultimately separates man from knowledge of God. To a certain extent, this separation reflects the exile of Shekhinah described in the Zohar: “But once the Temple was destroyed the light darkened, and the moon was not illuminated; and there has not been a single day when it has not been subject to curses, pains, and torments” (Tishby 403). What is interesting to contemplate, though, is something that Moore never touches upon. In the ascension of the Sefiroth, one must get across the abyss by surviving the fall in order to gain knowledge of the nature of God, but what does that mean about the reverse? Does God not have true knowledge of man, and do the divine energies simply flow down the Sefiroth without any true knowledge of where they are going or what they are intended for? Did God once hold this knowledge but then lose it, purposely or accidentally, with the fall of man? If Moore’s interpretation of Daath, one that doubtlessly utilizes many “magical” or occult analyses of the Sefirot, is to be taken seriously, these are important paradoxes that need to be taken into consideration and worked out carefully.

Fortunately for Sophie and Barbara, they don’t need to worry about these paradoxes, and they pass into the third Sefirot, Binah, in issue twenty-one; into Chokmah, the second Sefirot, in issue twenty-two; and into Kether, the first Sefirot, in issue twenty-three. Before an analysis of Moore and Williams’ vision of the final (or, rather, the first) three Sefirot can be fully taken into account, however, a brief overview of the Zoharic view of these three spheres must be made. According to Scholem, Binah is “the ‘intelligence’ of God,” while Chokmah, is “the ‘wisdom” or primordial idea of God,” and Kether, is “the ‘supreme crown’ of God” (213). Beyond even Kether, however, is the Ein Sof, the hidden God that cannot be perceived or understood, “the inexpressible fullness” (Scholem 217). In the primary spark of creation, “God is externalized and the light that shines inwardly made visible, [ . . . ] [which] transforms En-Sof, the inexpressible fullness, into nothingness. [ . . . ] Nothing can change without coming into contact with this region of pure absolute Being which the mystics call Nothing” (Scholem 217). This “nothingness” is the first Sefirot, Kether. In the words of the Zohar, this shift from “hidden” to “nothing” is described as, “When the King conceived ordaining He engraved engravings in the luster on high. A blinding spark flashed within the Concealed of the Concealed from the mystery of the Infinite, a cluster of vapor in formlessness, set in a ring, not white, not black, not red, not green, no color at all” (Matt 49). The first moment of Being, however, the “Beginning” mentioned in the first line of the first verse of Genesis, came when something – the smallest possible “something,” a point, the primordial point that contains all of existence and which is the second Sefirot of Chokmah – arose from the nothingness of Kether (Scholem 218). Finally, in Binah, “the point develops into a ‘palace’ or ‘building’ [ . . . ] What was hidden and was as it were folded up in the point is now unfolded. [ . . . ] What was previously undifferentiated in the divine wisdom exists in the womb of the Binah, the ‘supernal mother,’ as the ‘pure totality of all individuation.’ In it all forms are already preformed, but still preserved in the unity of the divine intellect which contemplates them in itself” (Scholem 219). The Zohar, itself, describes these first divine emanations, from Kether to Chokmah to Binah, as follows:

Deep within the spark gushed a flow, imbuing color below, concealed within the concealed of the mystery of the Infinite. The flow broke through and did not break through its aura. It was not known at all until, under the impact of breaking through, one high and hidden point shone. Beyond that point, nothing is known. So it is called Beginning, the first command of all. [ . . . ] Zohar, Concealed of the Concealed, struck its aura. The aura touched and did not touch this point. Then this Beginning emanated and made itself a palace for its glory and its praise. There it sowed the seed of holiness to give birth for the benefit of the universe. (Matt 49-50)

In ultra-simplified form, then, divine emanation begins with the hidden, ineffable Ein Sof transforming somehow, in part, into the nothingness of the first Sefirot of Kether, and from there into the mystical point of Chokmah, the very first “something,” the entirety of existence in one point, emerging out of that nothingness, and then continues with the expansion of that point into the palace of Binah, the mother from which all other Sefirot emerge. In a sense, the union of Chokmah and Binah – of the palace and the point that contains all existence – is what produces all the rest of creation. Moore, as usual, follows some of these ideas very stringently, while deviating greatly from others. Binah, for example, is seen to be a holy cave, wherein both Barbara and Sophie have an immense sense of belonging, as if they came from there. As Barbara says, “This place, it knows us. It knows who we are” (Moore 21 6). As the highest female sphere, it is a place where they, two Prometheas, two women, truly do belong, and, as the “intelligence” (or “understanding” as Moore’s translation has it) of God, it knows and understands them. During the exploration of Binah, they ultimately encounter the supernal mother that the realm represents. However, in an obvious departure from the Jewish tradition, this mother is in the duel form of both the Whore of Babylon and Mary, Mother of God, two figures from Christian traditions. Moore thus represents Binah as the ultimate example of the Madonna/Whore complex, which is not a tremendous part of Kabbalistic tradition but which nevertheless seems somehow fitting with the concept of “mother of all creation.” Whereas Binah is the highest female aspect of God, Chokmah, on the other hand, is “God as male, the highest male element” (Moore 22 10). Barbara first describes it as “new, and fresh, but it’s been here forever. Just this feeling of . . . of gentle, shimmering . . . grace, I guess” (Moore 22 10). Sophie, in a more “insightful” description, calls it, “This perfect, timeless moment where everything is happening. The beginning. The end” (Moore 22 11). She also describes it as, “Wisdom. Just wisdom. Understanding that happens in the womb-dark silence inside us. Wisdom is expressed, it just spills out, unbidden” (Moore 22 12). Chokmah, as Moore and Williams show it, is a realm of sparkling brilliance where the enfolding of existence is just starting to happen. It isn’t so much the primordial point as it is the moment when that point finally and eternally expands into everything in creation. In essence – and Moore and Williams literally show this through the giant figures of Pan and Selene, two figures from Greek mythology – Chokmah is eternal sexual intercourse, always building towards the ultimate climax of the Big Bang, of the first word, the word that ultimately appears before Barbara and Sophie as they witness the primary and never-ending orgasmic moment of existence when everything comes into being: “I.” Moore, however, leaves the meaning of this word up to the reader; it could mean God’s awareness of Himself, man’s awareness of himself, man’s awareness of God, or any other possibility, perhaps not even having anything to do with awareness. At the end of Chokmah, Sophie and Barbara come to a tremendous staircase leading into an extremely bright light, representative of Kether, the crown, the Godhead, God. They ascend these stairs on the very last page of issue twenty-two, with Sophie warning, “It’s the highest sphere. Sphere one. The crown. You can be annihilated in it. You can fuse with it. [ . . . ] The white light. The pure, perfect experience of God. Some souls just dissolve into it forever. Some souls go into it and never come back. But then . . . why would you?” (Moore 22 24). They then disappear into the whiteness, which is exactly where issue twenty-three begins – with the golden-hued forms of Barbara and Sophie emerging out of a pure, white sphere, saying “Something . . . from nothing” (Moore 23 1). Here, we see the ultimate magic of existence, the first moment of being – where something emerged out of a pure nothingness. In many ways, Kether is depicted the most simply of all the Sefirot, since it is nothing more ore less than that one perfect moment when something comes out of nothing. As Sophie says, “Just the idea of one, of something, for that to even exit . . . where there was only nothing. This is God” (Moore 23 4). Because it is the one moment where everything emerges out of nothing, Kether is also all-enveloping – that is to say, its whiteness comes close to consuming and annihilating Sophie and Barbara’s individuality, since everything is contained within it. Here, there is a remarkable similarity to the Sufi tradition of annihilation of the self when unified with the divine force that encompasses all of existence. The two women almost allow themselves to fade away, and be spread out over everything, but they regain their identities thanks to the appearance – finally – of Steve. Speaking of his own experience of “fusion” (Sophie’s word) with the divine, he tells Barbara. “It was like I was everything . . . this perfect bliss . . . I didn’t even remember being me, but . . . but I remembered you. I don’t want to be God without you, love” (Moore 23 15). Taking them to the edge of Kether, where they look down upon the rest of the Sefirot, upon all of existence, he explains to them their choices now that they are here:

When we climb up the tree, winding from sphere to sphere, then we're serpents. The serpent is the will to climb, and rise. The will to live. But when we descend from this sacred purity, back into the turmoil and suffering of the world, then we're doves. The dove is the will to sacrifice, to descend. The will to die. The will to die to this glorious world of spirit, and live again in matter. . . The will to take a little more light back down into the world, where it needs it. Back down there. (Moore 23 14-15)

The three decide to be doves, and they jump, descending in seconds what has taken so very long to ascend. This a very interesting turn on the way Moore has been constantly playing with how the ascension of the Sefirot is a different, yet intricately related, process from the descending of the divine energies. It seems that he is showing how those energies effortlessly fall, while the human soul must work hard to climb its way to the top; thus, the sacrifice that the trio makes by undoing that ascension is all the more poetic and beautiful. Plummeting to Earth, Steve and Barbara end up reincarnated as brother and sister – twins – while Sophie ends up in her own physical body back in the park where her long journey started. Steve, on the way down, perhaps puts this moment of divine descending best: “What a trip! What a universe! Oh, God, I love this” (Moore 23 18). Looking at the use of the Sefirot in Promethea in comparison to their descriptions in the Zohar and in works analyzing the Zohar, certain patterns emerge. In Promethea, Alan Moore takes the ten Sefiroth (and the “false Sefirot” of Daath) and removes them from the Jewish tradition that they are embedded in. As such, he maintains much of their original nature, but also changes them quite a bit. Partially this is because, no matter how much the storyline delves into the nature of mysticism and of existence itself, he is still trying to tell something of a fantasy/adventure story. On another level, however, he is extremely interested in comparative mythology, and mixes a multitude of traditions, studies, and practices together into a melting pot that has the Sefirot as its base, but not as the be-all and end-all of its nature. Perhaps a more important pattern, however, is the focus in Promethea on the accessibility, simplicity, and personal nature of the mystical experience in general, and even to a certain extent of the Sefirot in particular, which is quite different from the exclusive nature of the Zohar, which was originally intended to be read only by well-studied and prepared mystics. Moore is interested in bringing this mysticism to his audience, in teaching a modern society about these beliefs and practices in a way that can be enjoyed and understood. He focuses on the ascension of the human soul to meet with the divine, rather than the descending of the divine energies, in order to highlight and showcase the importance of the human aspect of existence over the divine. “As above, so below,” is a final, and perhaps ultimate, pattern that emerges in these eleven issues of Promethea, and it seems quite fitting – as the Zohar is meant to teach of the wonders of Kabbalistic mysticism to those who stand above society, Promethea wants to bring the same wonders, and more, to that very society. Although far from a Kabbalistic scholar, Alan Moore, along with J.H. Williams III and their collaborators, is using a popular format, comic books, to transmit ancient mystical ideas designed to nurture the human soul and make it grow stronger. Like Sophie, Barbara, and Steve choosing to be doves who bring some of the light of God into the world, Promethea attempts to enlighten and enliven its readers, and it is one of the strongest examples of what the medium of graphic literature is capable of. A far cry from muscled figures in capes beating each other up, Promethea is something worthy of academic study and analysis, a truly moving work of art that expresses thoughts and ideas not seen anywhere else in popular culture. Promethea is important, because of what it says and what it does, which, for every reader, is something as individual and personal as a mystical experience.

Works Cited

Gikatilla, Joseph. Sha’are Orah: Gates of Light. Trans. Avi Weinstein. San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers, 1994.

Matt, Daniel Chanan. Zohar: The Book of Enlightenment. New York: Paulist Press, 1983.

Moore, Allen, J.H. Williams III, et. al. Promethea, Issues 13 – 23. La Jolla, CA: America’s Best Comics, April 2001 – December 2002.

Scholem, Gershom. Major Trends In Jewish Mysticism. New York: Shocken Books, 1946.

Tishby, Isaiah and Fischel Lanchowever. The Wisdom of the Zohar: An Anthology of Texts. 2 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Waite, A.E. The Holy Kabbalah. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1929.