Twelve Signs of Jacob

Mezuza 12 tribes small - YeminiAstrological Attributions of the Twelve Tribes of Israel
By David Godwin

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
South	        Camp of Reuben	   Reuben
Center	       (tabernacle)	   (Levi)
West	        Camp of Ephraim    Ephraim
North       	Camp of Dan        Dan

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.)



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