WHY ARE THERE HEBREW LETTERS ON THE SIGIL OF BAPHOMET?
Stop us if you’ve heard this one: The symbol we commonly call the Sigil of Baphomet features five Hebrew letters, which spell the word “Leviathan.”
Unless you’re a Cradle of Filth fan, in which case possibly they spell nothing at all. Either way people will send us emails about it.
What the emails never disclose, though, is why. That is to say, why Hebrew?
French magician Stanislas de Guiata first illustrated the sigil. De Guiata was French by way of emigration from Italy and about as Jewish as Pilate, so what’s the deal?
De Guiata was also an almost obsessive fan of fellow French occultist Eliphas Levi, so maybe he was just imitating Levi’s Hebrew habit. Of course, Levi wasn’t Jewish either–his real name was Alphonse Louis Constant, and he was born Catholic, because how could he not be.
What were 19th century magicians so interested in about ancient semitic languages? Why are Modern Satanists? And why does nobody ever seem to ask?
In his public speaking engagements, atheist Bible scholar Bart Ehrman says he asks his students at the beginning of each semester what language they think the authors of the New Testament wrote in.
According to Ehrman, only a few have ever said English, which is simultaneously reassuring and perversely disappointing.
Many more say Aramaic, the language Jesus would have spoken (if we assume any such person ever existed). A good guess, but also wrong.
Still more say Hebrew, because after all that’s what most of the Bible was written in. The actual answer is Greek, but I’m surprised Hebrew isn’t the only answer anyone ever gets: It just feels right.
To non-speakers, it’s a language that seems hazy and ancient and mystical. This is a blundering, stupid, selfies-on-Mount-Everest sort of take on it, but it is quite common.
For example, in his Satanic Bible, old Anton LaVey advises would-be Satanists to conclude their supposedly magical invocations with the phrase “shemhamforash.” He does not say what this means, but it turns out it’s a euphemistic word for the ancient, secret name of god, of all things.
Many Satanists still utter the phrase in hushed tones, and treat it as essentially a synonym for “Hail Satan,” despite it meaning distinctly “not Hail Satan.”
The modern Church of Satan claims that to speak “shemhamforash” is blasphemous. But this is inconsistent: “Shemhamforash” is a euphemism to avoid saying god’s name. The real blasphemy would be to say “YHWH”–but of course, if you shouted that at the end of your Satanic ritual, people would cotton that something was off.
In his own Satanic Bible, Temple of Set founder Michael Aquino argued that the meaning of the word didn’t matter, because “it was the effect, not the elucidation, that counted.”
In other words, “shemhamforash” sounds spooky and important, therefore it works for…something.
Similarly, Aquino argued that Hebrew letters on the Baphomet sigil “look mysterious to gentiles,” and thus create the proper atmosphere of…again, something or other. Not Jewishness, evidently, but something.
Now I guess it’s possible we’re overthinking this: Maybe it’s natural that Hebrew comes up in a discussion about Satan, because after all “satan” was originally a Hebrew word, and came into English as a loanword.
(We’ve never bothered to repay the loan, which is how you know it’s authentic.)
That being the case, why not just say that? Why rationalize it with feints at “blasphemy” or “mystery?”
In his 1943 book The Devil & the Jews–which I’ve had trouble finishing in a timely manner on account of not really wanting people to observe the title while I’m reading in public–Rabbi Joshua Trachtenberg notes that “the Hebrew language […] had achieved the status of an especially effective magical medium in ancient times.
“Among Jews it was the sole language believed to be spoken by angels,” he adds (just imagine John Dee rolling over in his grave and digging down to the Earth’s mantle in embarrassment), and medieval occultists believed that “as an exotic and unintelligible tongue, it lent effectiveness to magical formulas.”
Of course, any language is “exotic and unintelligible” if you don’t speak it yourself–but that was evidently the point. Just as today, so long as it looks and sounds “mysterious,” that was apparently good enough.
Trachtenberg adds that this of course had the additional effect of reinforcing the idea of Jewishness as synonymous with mystical powers and traditions like alchemy and Kaballah. “A Jew is full of sorcery,” as the saying went.
This in turn reinforced the existing association of Jewishness with devilry. Many Modern Satanists invoke the names and sigils of the 72 Goetic demons out of the Lesser Key of Solomon, but do we ever wonder about that title? Why is it a key “of Solomon?”
(If you assume that King Solomon actually had anything to do with the book’s composition, then I have done a very poor job of priming you on the topic up to this point.)
To be fair, Jewish folklore itself has long credited Solomon with power over demons, going back to first-century texts like the Testament of Solomon and Apocalypse of Adam, which are probably (probably) of Jewish origin.
But of course, there are plenty of legendary wizards whose names could have gone on a demonology manual. Solomon’s name seems profound and authentic because, to paraphrase Eric Idle, “You just won’t succeed in necromancy if you don’t have any Jews.”
(“You may hail the Ancient Set, fill the room with blest assets, you may pay to every devil all their dues. You may chant and wear the ring, but I’m sorry Solomon king, you’ll no spirits find, just lots and lots of booze…”)
Now, I am not going to sit here and lecture Modern Satanists about appropriating Jewish culture. I spent good money on a statue of Lilith three months ago, so I’ve got about as many legs to stand on as an amoeba.
However, I do think it’s interesting that I had never previously bothered to ask why these letters? And I’d guess neither have most people.
Oftentimes in our studies we seem preoccupied with asking what–and sometimes, in using the answers as a cudgel against one another.
Maybe we should dedicate ourselves harder to the idea that the what is only ever a partial answer; we can’t ever know the full story until we also answer why.
Sometimes the why is not an answer we will necessarily like. But this is also part of why we ask.