Cosmological Forests: Kabbalistic Divinity Maps – article written by Jewish Studies Program Coordinator Dr. Micha Perry
What’s an Ilan? Any synoptic diagrammatic presentation of kabbalistic cosmology. The basic graphical forms could range from the arboreal to the boldly anthropomorphic. Lurianic Ilanot, in their lengthy and complex presentations, often feature both, as well as spreadsheet-like tables.
Kabbalistic diagrams resembling Porphyrian trees have been known at least since the sixteenth century as “Ilanot” [Heb. pl. Arborae; sing. “Ilan”]. [First such reference known to me is in the work of Guillaume Postel, who refers to “Ilanoth” as a genre of rabbinic literature.] Ilanot constitute visual representations of kabbalistic cosmologies from the relatively simpler forms of the thirteenth century to the far more complex and ramified systems in Lurianic Kabbalah from the sixteenth century onward. The increasing complexity of cosmic trees between the thirteenth and eighteenth centuries directly reflects the exponential ramification of kabbalistic theosophy that took place over those centuries. Given the overwhelmingly visio-spacial conceptions of the divine in its evolutionary “becoming” in these mystical traditions, Ilanot could serve as cosmic maps. This divine cartography aspired to capture the syncronic interrelations between the various facets of the godhead and creation as well as their diachronic, evolving emergence.
The Ilanot Database (an Israel Science Foundation-funded work-in-progress) is a searchable descriptive catalogue of kabbalistic diagrams in manuscripts and books from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century, hosted by the University of Haifa’s Nazarian Library Digital Media Center. Please visit us at: http://ilanot.haifa.ac.il/Ilanot_Site/project.html