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Astrological Attributions of the Twelve Tribes of Israel

This article was written by David Godwin
posted under Magic & Ritual

Ever since the doctrine of sympathies was propounded by the Greeks and popularized in the Renaissance by Agrippa, there has been a great deal of emphasis in esoteric circles on establishing sets of correspondences. Sometimes these lists have become elaborate tables, such as those in The Magus of Francis Barrett (1801) or, as perhaps the ultimate example, Liber 777 by Aleister Crowley. According to MacGregor Mathers and all those who use him as a source (although not according to scholars such as Gershom Scholem), this sort of knowledge represents the "unwritten qabala." If so, it can hardly be said to have remained unwritten!

Aside from aesthetic theoretical considerations and mystical possibilities, such correspondences are of the greatest importance in all sorts of magic. It is well known that magic operates by sympathy or contagion, so correspondences are at least half of magic.

A convenient means of classifying these correspondences is the qabalistic Tree of Life with its Sephiroth and Paths--the 32 Paths of Wisdom with their elemental, planetary, and astrological significations. One key part of this system is the twelve single letters of the Hebrew alphabet, which correspond to the twelve signs of the Zodiac. To key anything to the Zodiac is to key it to the twelve single letters (heh, vav, zayin, cheth, teth, yod, lamed, nun, samekh, ayin, tzaddi, and qoph) and through them to every other category containing twelve items.

The twelve tribes (clans) of Israel derive from the twelve sons of Jacob, aka "Israel." These sons/tribes were, in order of birth, Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph, and Benjamin. Levi became the priest tribe, not one of the twelve, while Joseph split into two tribes named after the sons of Joseph, Manasseh and Ephraim.

Jacob's first wife was Leah, and she was the mother of Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun; these are called the "Leah tribes." Leah's handmaiden, Zilpah, was the mother of Gad and Asher. Jacob's second wife, Rachel, was the mother of Joseph and Benjamin, while her handmaiden Bilhah was the mother of Dan and Naphtali. The mother of Joseph's sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, was Asenath, daughter of Potipherah, Egyptian priest of On, but they are considered "Rachel tribes" because of their grandmother.

Since there were twelve tribes, it is natural to assume that some correlation with the twelve signs of the zodiac was intended or, if it was not intended, that it is at least feasible. Given the passion for correspondences among scholars of these matters and the necessity for them among magicians, it would seem to be desirable to come up with some sensible correlation. Indeed, MacGregor Mathers attempted to assign the tribes to the signs in a logical fashion in his essay, "Twelve Signs and Twelve Tribes," reprinted in R. A. Gilbert's The Sorcerer and His Apprentice (Aquarian Press, 1983).

However, even though these attributions were used in ritual in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (particularly in the consecration of the Lotus Wand), not everyone has chosen to accept them as Holy Writ. For example, Z'ev ben Shimon Halevi (Warren Kenton) gives an entirely different system in Kabbalah and Exodus (Weiser, 1988).

Any attempt to attribute astrological signs to the twelve tribes must first of all, it would seem, arrive at some logical and definite order for the tribes. The order of birth has already been given, although some confusion may arise when one substitutes Manasseh and Ephraim for Levi. (Joseph's sons were born after all the others, but they could be said to substitute for Joseph and therefore precede Benjamin). A description in the second chapter of Numbers puts the twelve tribes in four camps at the cardinal points and designates their marching order as that listed below:

 

East          	Camp of Judah      Judah

Issachar

Zebulun

South Camp of Reuben Reuben

Simeon

Gad

Center (tabernacle) (Levi)

West Camp of Ephraim Ephraim

Manasseh

Benjamin

North Camp of Dan Dan

Asher

Naphtali


This is also the order assumed by Calmet's Dictionary of the Holy Bible (cited by Manly P. Hall's Secret Teachings of All Ages, 1928) in attributing the jewels on the breastplate of the High Priest to the tribes. (This is another correspondence question where there is little agreement. I have also seen an attribution [in Kenneth Mackenzie's Royal Masonic Cyclopedia, 1877, for example] based on the order of birth and including Levi and Joseph instead of Manasseh and Ephraim.) The listing in Numbers is the order adapted by Halevi in attributing the signs of the zodiac, beginning with Aries.


Mathers begins his list with Leo, but, because of various considerations, does not then follow the order of the zodiac. The twelve tribes of Israel and their associated astrological signs according to Mathers and Halevi are shown in the below table.

 

Tribe        Mother                Mathers          Halevi

Judah Leah Leo Aries

Issachar Leah Cancer Taurus

Zebulun Leah Capricorn Gemini

Reuben Leah Aquarius Cancer

Simeon Leah Pisces Leo

Gad Zilpah Aries Virgo

Ephraim Rachel (Asenath) Taurus Libra

Manasseh Rachel (Asenath) Gemini Scorpio

Benjamin Rachel Sagittarius Sagittarius

Dan Bilhah Scorpio Capricorn

Asher Zilpah Libra Aquarius

Naphtali Bilhah Virgo Pisces

At first glance, Halevi's list may seem more logical, but Mathers—correctly in my opinion—attributed the four main tribes or camps--Judah (East), Reuben (South), Ephraim (West), and Dan (North)--to the fixed signs of the zodiac, the four tetramorphs of the vision of Ezekiel; namely, Taurus, Leo, Scorpio, and Aquarius (bull, lion, eagle, and man). His other attributions, however, are based on rather liberal and strained interpretations of the descriptions given in Genesis 49 and Deuteronomy 33—that, and the standards or armorial bearings of the various tribes (which are said to have their origins in Freemasonry), as if the sons of Joseph had been English peers. For example, he attributes Gad to Aries because the descriptions fit the "martial and dominant nature of Aries." Issachar is allotted to Cancer because the description "coincides well with the peaceful nature of the quiet and watery sign."


Mathers rather eccentrically insisted on beginning the zodiac in Leo at the star Regulus; hence Judah falls to Leo. Another reason for this assignment is that Genesis 49:9 says that "Judah is a lion's whelp." That seems a very strong reason for the attribution until you consider that Deuteronomy 33:22 says that Dan is a lion's whelp! Of course, the New Testament refers to Jesus as the lion of Judah. Gematria proves of very little help, here. "Lion's whelp" is gur arieh, 425, which is 25 x 17. Capricorn, Gedi, is 17, so perhaps gur arieh indicates the martial aspect (25) of Capricorn. That idea, however, does not seem to lead anywhere, especially in view of the fact that the appellation is applied to two separate tribes. But one might consider that, although the progression of the signs is clockwise on a horoscope, it is counterclockwise in the heavens as seen from earth. This fact is reflected in the Golden Dawn's Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Hexagram, where one begins with Leo in the East and progresses to Taurus (not Scorpio) in the South. Based on this ritual, and the placing of Leo in the East to accord with the primacy given to this sign by Mathers, we could come up with this list of attributions:

 

     Judah	       	Leo

Issachar Cancer

Zebulun Gemini

Reuben Taurus

Simeon Aries

Gad Pisces

Ephraim Aquarius

Manasseh Capricorn

Benjamin Sagittarius

Dan Scorpio

Asher Libra

Naphtali Virgo


Note that half (and only half) of this list coincides with that of Mathers. If, on the other hand, you wish to give no special importance to the fixed signs and follow Halevi in the assignment of Judah to Aries, but follow the counterclockwise scheme, you get this, which I personally consider altogether unsatisfactory (or at least unsatisfying):

 

     Judah		         Aries

Issachar Pisces

Zebulun Aquarius

Reuben Capricorn

Simeon Sagittarius

Gad Scorpio

Ephraim Libra

Manasseh Virgo

Benjamin Leo

Dan Cancer

Asher Gemini

Naphtali Taurus

One might also consider whether, at the time of the Exodus, the Vernal Equinox might not have been in Taurus. That would require a date previous to something like 2200 B.C., which is unlikely, but the nomadic Jews had no astrology of their own and may have borrowed what they knew from an ancient Chaldean culture in the Taurean Age. How else can one explain the prominence throughout scripture of the fixed signs of the zodiac? The four tetramorphs play a central role in the vision of Ezekiel, and they are said to correspond to the four evangelists of the New Testament. They are used to this day in Golden Dawn ceremony and in rituals based on those of the Golden Dawn. Aside from the fact that three of the four constellations in question are rather conspicuous (Taurus, Leo, and Scorpio), there is really no way to account for this emphasis except to assume that it came from a period when these four constellations marked the equinoxes and solstices. In any case, the tribe dominant in the East—that is, Judah—would then naturally fall to Taurus. Applying the "counterclockwise concept," we end up with this list:

 

     Judah	       	Taurus

Issachar Aries

Zebulun Pisces

Reuben Aquarius

Simeon Capricorn

Gad Sagittarius

Ephraim Scorpio

Manasseh Libra

Benjamin Virgo

Dan Leo

Asher Cancer

Naphtali Gemini

This scheme accords with Deuteronomy by having Dan as the "lion's whelp." Judah is the ox, Reuben the man, and Ephraim the eagle.

We can also come up with a number of schemes by assuming that the three tribes in each camp represent zodiacal triplicities (that is, Fire signs, Water signs, and so on). However, that does not seem as likely to have been intended as an attribution that follows the circle of the zodiacal belt.

We have so far assumed that the order of the tribes that should be used is that of the encampment and marching order described in the second chapter of Numbers. Indeed, the resemblance of this circular encampment with twelve divisions to a standard horoscope chart (and/or to the belt of the zodiac) is striking and in all likelihood intended. But we might also want to consider the order of birth and various other orderings that occur in scripture. For example, there is the order of blessing (by Jacob) in Genesis 49: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Zebulun, Issachar, Dan, Gad, Asher, Naphtali, Joseph, and Benjamin. Similarly, there is the order of blessing by Moses in Deuteronomy 33: Reuben, Judah, Levi, Benjamin, Joseph (with mentions of Ephraim and Manasseh), Zebulun, Issachar, Gad, Dan (the "lion's whelp"), Naphtali, and Asher—with no mention at all of Simeon! In Deuteronomy 27:12-13, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph, and Benjamin, cited in that order, are to stand on Mt. Gerizim to bless, while Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan, and Naphtali are to stand on Mt. Ebal to curse.

Besides the business about Judah and the lion's whelp, we can likewise consider other beasts and elements prominent in the descriptions of the sons of Jacob included in his blessing in Genesis 49: Reuben (water), Zebulun (sea), Issachar (ass), Dan (serpent), Naphtali (hind), and Benjamin (wolf). This really doesn't seem to get us very far, however. Right away, we have Judah = Leo and Dan = Scorpio, but that still leaves ten attributions to be made. Reuben could be either Aquarius or any water sign (Cancer, Scorpio, Pisces); likewise for Zebulun. Benjamin could be either Aries or Scorpio, the signs ruled by Mars (because of its association with the wolf). But the ass and the hind have no clearcut astrological associations.

As with most questions of this kind, nothing can be said to be absolutely correct. The student is free to make her/his own attributions without fear of gross error.

Nevertheless, despite the apparent difficulties with the system of Mathers (its evidently arbitrary nature and the fact that the signs do not follow in order according to the encampment), I must render the decision in his favor. There is nothing to recommend Halevi's (Kenton's) system except a certain superficial common sense in placing Aries in the East with Judah. I have already gone into the more-or-less compelling reasons to allot the four camps to the four fixed signs, with Judah for Leo despite the remark about Dan. Besides, the system presented by Mathers in his essay is not, as most people think, original with him. It duplicates without alteration the system found in the great Albert Pike's mammoth Masonic opus, Morals and Dogma (1871). (Mathers was, of course, a Freemason, as were the other founders of the Golden Dawn.) Pike is clear where Mathers is muddy, and the Golden Dawn chief's reasoning becomes clear if you read Pike's explanations. This book is not some secret tome hidden away under lock and key in Masonic libraries, as the reputation of the Masons might lead you to believe, but is generally available in most public libraries. It is fascinating reading for the amateur or professional qabalist.

Here's what Pike has to say about it (in his discussion of the 25th Scottish Rite degree of "Knight of the Brazen Serpent:):

"There is no more striking proof of the universal adoration paid the stars and constellations, than the arrangement of the Hebrew camp in the Desert, and the allegory in regard to the twelve Tribes of Israel, ascribed in the Hebrew legends to Jacob. The Hebrew camp was a quadrilateral, in sixteen divisions, of which the central four were occupied by images of the four elements. The four divisions at the four angles of the quadrilateral exhibited the four signs that the astrologers call fixed, and which they regard as subject to the influence of the four great Royal Stars, Regulus in Leo, Aldebaran in Taurus, Antares in Scorpio, and Fomalhaut in the mouth of Pisces, on which falls the water poured out by Aquarius; of which constellations the Scorpion was represented in the Hebrew blazonry by the Celestial Vulture or Eagle, that rises at the same time with it and is its paranatellon. The other signs were arranged on the four faces of the quadrilateral, and in the parallel and interior divisions.

"There is an astonishing coincidence between the characteristics assigned by Jacob to his sons, and those of the signs of the Zodiac, or the planets that have their domicile in those signs.

"Reuben is compared to running water, unstable, and that cannot excel; and he answers to Aquarius, his ensign being a man. The water poured out by Aquarius flows toward the South Pole, and it is the first of the four Royal Signs, ascending from the Winter Solstice.

"The Lion (Leo) is the device of Judah; and Jacob compares him to that animal, whose constellation in the Heavens is the domicile of the Sun; the Lion of the Tribe of Judah; by whose grip, when that of apprentice and that of fellow-craft—of Aquarius at the Winter Solstice and of Cancer at the Vernal Equinox—had not succeeded in raising him, Khurum was lifted out of the grave.

"Ephraim, on whose ensign appears the Celestial Bull, Jacob compares to the ox. Dan, bearing as his device a Scorpion, he compares to the Cerastes or horned Serpent, synonymous in astrological language with the vulture or pouncing eagle; and which bird was often substituted on the flag of Dan, in place of the venomous scorpion, on account of the terror which that reptile inspired, as the symbol of Typhon and his malign influences; wherefore the Eagle, as its paranatellon, that is, rising and setting at the same time with it, was naturally used in its stead. Hence the four famous figures in the sacred pictures of the Jews and Christians, and in Royal Arch Masonry, of the Lion, the Ox, the Man, and the Eagle, the four creatures of the Apocalypse, copied there from Ezekiel, in whose reveries and rhapsodies they are seen revolving around blazing circles.

"The Ram, domicile of Mars, chief of the Celestial Soldiery and of the twelve Signs, is the device of Gad, whom Jacob characterizes as a warrior, chief of his army.

"Cancer, in which are the stars termed Aselli, or little asses, is the device of the flag of Issachar, whom Jacob compares to an ass.

"Capricorn, of old represented with the tail of a fish, and called by astronomers the Son of Neptune, is the device of Zebulun, of whom Jacob says that he dwells on the shore of the sea.

"Sagittarius, chasing the Celestial Wolf, is the emblem of Benjamin, whom Jacob compares to a hunter: and in that constellation the Romans placed the domicile of Diana the huntress. Virgo, the domicile of Mercury, is borne on the flag of Naphtali, whose eloquence and agility Jacob magnifies, both of which are attributes of the Courier of the Gods. And of Simeon and Levi he speaks as united, as are the two fishes that make the Constellation Pisces, which is their armorial emblem."


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