Adam and the Sacred Nine: A Cabbalistic Drama. Part 3.

‘And Owl’, ‘The Dove Came’, ‘The Crow came to Adam’, ‘And the Phoenix has come’, ‘Light’, ‘Bud-tipped twig’, ‘The sole of the foot’.

© Ann Skea
All page references (THCP) are to Ted Hughes Collected Poems, Faber, 2003.

‘And Owl’ (THCP 448-9)


And Owl” comes. “Owl who remembers everything34. Owl, specifically “a barn-owl35, with its white, ghostly mask and silent flight, is a creature of the night in the English countryside but also, in mythology, a bird sacred to Athene, Goddess of war, wisdom, music and craft, and to Hecate and Lilith, Moon Goddesses of magic and death. Owl is traditionally known as a bird of wisdom and as both a bird of good fortune and/or ill omen, but it is also a bird which has been ritually sacrificed. The Ancient Romans crucified owls to avert hail and thunder; and in Britain, until well into the nineteenth century, owls were nailed to barn doors for the same purpose.

The owl is the sixth bird to visit Adam, so it comes from Sephira 6, Tiphereth (Beauty). Tiphereth lies at the heart of the Cabbalistic Tree and it is the centre of equilibrium of the whole Tree. Yet, because it is linked to all the other Sephiroth and, so, channels all their disparate energies, it is the most difficult Sephira to understand. Unusually, there are three Magical Images for Tiphereth: a magnificent king; A child; and a sacrificed god. They symbolize the harmonizing power of Tiphereth and its essential connection with birth and death.

Tiphereth is the place of transition and transmutation; the place where inner and outer consciousness touch; the centre where the still, small voice of the Spirit within us may be heard. It is directly connected to Kether and to the Source energies at the top of the Tree and it lies in the Sphere of the Sun. So, its power is the kingly power of the Sun, which may blind us or may bring direct illumination and insight into what lies, like a buried seed, beneath the rational, emotional, sensual persona which is our projected mask. It is a place where spiritual rebirth takes place and the Soul/Spirit enters human consciousness and either dies there in the prison of the body or is released by an act of self-sacrifice based on love and understanding.

All this is present in Ted’s poem.

The number of Tiphereth is 6, the number of Venus, Goddess of Love. And the symbol of the powers of 6 is the hexagram, King Solomon’s Seal, which is made of two interlaced triangles, the apex of one touching heaven and that of the other touching earth. Heaven and Earth, love and wisdom, body and soul are all laced together at Tiphereth and all energies are suspended, like the Owl in Ted’s poem, in a stillness where “only the centre moves”.

Ted’s Owl links heaven and earth. As an ordinary bird, gliding silently over the dark hills hunting its prey, listening for signs of life, and bringing death to its victims, it is a “masked soul”, its worldly body and needs masking the Divine Spirit within it. But it is also Ted’s “Divine messenger” floating over the lower world of the Tree, listening for the awakening Spirit of Adam and ready to demonstrate to him the self-sacrifice which is necessary if he is to help restore the balance of Nature and re-unite the Female and Male Principles of God. This is ‘The Great Work’ of healing which is the ‘Virtue’ of Tiphereth.


Ted’s Divine Owl demonstrates, first, the silence, the stillness and the attention which is needed if Adam is to hear that small voice of the Spirit within him. It “becalms deeper” the stillness of the trees and fields of the Earthly world, and its “two eyes”, two golden orbs, look down from the “heart of heaven”, just as Adam’s two eyes must be raised from his position at Malkuth towards the heart of the Tree and the Sun of Tiphereth.

Nothing is neglected, in the Owl’s stare”, just as nothing is neglected in the powers of Tiphereth. However, there is another, opposite meaning to this statement and, in the following eight lines of the poem, Ted’s words and images trace the powerful magical symbol of a circle with the hexagram of Heaven and Earth inside it, and owl demonstrates what happens and what drastic remedy must be taken if the Divine Source, the Zero, The Nothing, is neglected.

If Adam remains spiritually asleep, neglecting the work of recreating the original, undivided Zero, the No Thing, of wholeness and harmony, then the Female Principle, Nature, will be forever exiled in matter. So, in the worldly cycles of death and birth, “the womb” will open, “the cry” will come, but the Divine energies will remain trapped, becoming ever weaker and more dispersed, and “the shadow of the creature” – which is both the dark bodily shadow which masks the Divine Spirit within and the shadow of unilluminated being falling on the face of Nature – will forever “circumscribe” (encircle and limit) the “fate” of both.

Owl’s stare, like that of the Angelic ‘Watchers’ of the Sephiroth, encompasses all, past and present, and it sees this happen as it has happened so often before in the history of humankind. Owl’s response is a scream of horror and it proceeds to demonstrate its painful and complete rejection of the physical body and its limitations. Once “again”, as it has clearly done before, it rips off the “bandages” (the word suggests that the body is mere protection for a wounded Spirit), screaming in pain and horror “as if” such imprisonment “were inescapable”.

So, Owl becomes the sacrificed god which is one of the Magical Images of Tiphereth, sacrificing itself again to try and remove the shadow (which may also be sorrow) from the face of Nature, and, in so doing, demonstrating to Adam the painful self-sacrifice which must be made at Tiphereth if ever he is to complete his allotted task.

Adam, however, is still inert. So, having used his poetry to break up by force the imprisoning bodily form of owl in order to release the Spirit, in the final two lines of the poem Ted carefully brings the dualities together again to re-make the Earthly circle. At the same time, he creates from Heaven and Earth (capitalized to indicate their Divine, symbolic status), and “heaven” and “earth” (uncapitalized to indicate their ordinary worldly status) the magical hexagram which weaves all the energies together. In a mutual, painful devouring, Heaven and Earth become totally and inextricably part of each other, like the entwined triangles of the hexagram. And, in the final line of the poem, “earth eats” as the ordinary barn owl eats its prey, and “heaven is eaten” as the Divine spark of life in that prey dies.

Predator and prey, Earthly and Divine, body and Spirit, all are inextricably interwoven in our world, and the cycle of death and rebirth continues here on our ordinary “earth” and under our ordinary “heaven”. So, in this final line, the earthly circle of Nature in which Adam and we still live is re-established and a base is created at Malkuth (like the base of the triangle in the hexagram which reaches its apex towards Heaven) from which to reach the magical, transformative powers of Tiphereth which lie above it.

‘The Dove Came’ (THCP 449)


Now, “a gentle dove” comes to Adam, “forcing herself through all opposition36. She is the seventh bird and she is the most domesticated of all the birds to visit Adam. She comes from Sephira 7, Netzach (Victory, Endurance, Eternity), which lies at the bottom of the Pillar of Force, where the number 7 combines the 3 of the Sacred Triangle at the top of the Tree with the 4 of the elements from which our world is made. It represents the coming together within our world of the Divine and the human, heaven and earth, male and female and it encompasses the promise of the enduring presence of the Divine Spirit within us and in our world. Netzach lies in the Planetary Sphere of Venus-Aphrodite, Goddess of Love, and 7 is the presiding number of Nature, which is the realm of the Goddess in all her aspects.

So, the dove comes to Adam seven times before alighting and “nesting her rainbows” of Divine promise in the “dense body of thorns” which is the unenlightened human body37. In this way she reiterates the seven steps which, in the traditions of mystical ritual and iconography, the Initiate of the Mysteries must successfully negotiate before enlightenment is possible. More specifically, Ted’s imagery recalls that of Alchemical manuscripts in which the purifying Mercurial Spirit is represented by a dove which must descend seven times into the base ‘dense matter’ in the alchemical alembic before the pure rainbow colours of the ‘Peacock’s tail’ herald transmutation to pure Spiritual gold.

Dove Alchemy

At Netzach, the dove has even less freedom of movement than the birds from Chesed and Chokmah above her, but she still mirrors their dynamic energy.

Unlike the Owl of Tiphereth, which can enter and strip off form at will, the dove’s energies are form-bound. She is, as she is in Hebrew and Christian Biblical lore, the incarnated Holy Spirit. And her image in religious, mythical, Alchemical and Cabbalistic iconography represents the Divine Spirit, the Grace of God, innocence and purity.

At Malkuth, contemplation of our worldly iconography is the nearest some of us will come to understanding and knowing the Divine. Only those willing to make the sacrifices which are necessary on the Spiritual Quest will discover and release the Divine Spirit from within us and, so, progress further up the Tree. Nevertheless, Divine iconography, when it has been created with skill, understanding and love, can stir us emotionally and instinctively, thus linking our Spirit with the Divine, unmanifest, Source. The energies of Netzach encompass the flow and return of love which Divine iconography can permit. But the polarity of Netzach’s Venus, who is a Moon Goddess with a dark as well as a bright side, ensures that love, at Sephira 7, is eternally linked to sacrifice.

The dove’s task is to enter Adam’s heart and inspire in him all the emotional, instinctive, selfless and driven responses of pure love. However, in spite of her Divine, iconic status, and sometimes because of it, the dove has for centuries been sacrificed in sacred rituals and bred as food for human consumption. Her homing instinct, and the very feats of endurance which keep her coming back to Adam, are also exploited for our own worldly purposes38.

Ted’s dove, as both a Divine messenger and an ordinary bird, reflects all these things. Her breast is “big with rainbows”, as if pregnant with Divine promise. Her wings “clapped lightning”, which, like the many-rayed, rainbow-coloured Source lightning at Netzach, she “scattered like twigs”; but the sound is also the realistic clap of a dove’s wings as it comes to roost. The soft, brooding, coo-cooing thunder of her voice promises both rain and storm, fertilization and destruction. And the “silver and violet” of the “piling heaven”, whilst realistically describing the strange light and colour of a stormy sky, also suggests the iconographic silver of heavenly purity and violet, which is not only the seventh colour of the rainbow – the colour midway between the blue of Heaven and the red of Earth – but is also the colour of the vestments which, in both religious and magical ritual, are worn to symbolize the imminence of both sacrifice and rebirth39.

Five times, in Ted’s poem, the dove comes to Adam and is abused or rejected. Three times she is knocked down; twice she offers herself as sacrifice and her breast, symbol of nourishment and maternal care, is eaten, and “the milk of her blood” is drunk40.

When she comes for the sixth time, “through all opposition”, her sacrifice becomes Adam’s, too. Her energies, now, are “sun-blinding” and deafening, for him and for her. She is the disembowelled bird which he tastes, and his tongue, like hers, struggles to express the Spirit of love and devotion which now “stirs like a heart”. Language is no longer possible: instinct, love, emotion, all the energies of Netzach, must suffice as a guide to understanding the heart. And this is the lesson which Adam must learn from the dove.

Through this mutual sacrifice and suffering, the ‘Victory’ of Netzach is achieved. The Spirit is incarnated. Adam and the bird, Heaven and Earth, are united.

Now”, at last, in her seventh manifestation in Ted’s poem, the dove alights, and in the double meaning of his word “alit”, she not only comes to rest but also radiates light. In the “soft thunder” of her voice and the promise of “her rainbows”, she “nests” in the “dense body of thorns” which is the body of Adam and, also, the ‘thorny’ body of words on the printed page. So, in the final three lines of Ted’s poem41, both Adam and we see a ‘Vision of Beauty Triumphant’, which is the Spiritual Experience of Netzach.

‘The Crow came to Adam’ (THCP 449)


The Crow, which figured large in Ted’s poetry and in his life, is the eighth bird to visit Adam and, so, comes from Sephira 8, Hod (Splendour, Glory, Honour).

Hod, at the bottom of the Pillar of Form, balances the energies of Netzach which lies opposite to it on the Pillar of Force. Its energies, like those of Netzach, link human and Divine but the link is made through the head not through the heart. Like Mercury, in whose Sphere it lies, Hod’s energies are those of the intellect, abstract reasoning, communication, language and music – all the energies associated with the creative arts, plus (importantly and appropriately) the energies of the inner voice which, like Mercury/Hermes, is the guide to our Spirit/Soul.

The number of both Hod and Mercury is 8, which like the intertwined snakes of Mercury’s Caduceus, symbolizes the constantly circulating energies of Nature, and also figuratively links the Zero/Nothing of the Heavenly Source with the Uroborus of Nature’s circling energies on the Earth below. 8 is ‘The Gateway to Infinity’. And, importantly for Cabbalists, the eighth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, Chet, symbolizes dynamic life, the continuous 'run and return' of energy between the higher levels of consciousness where lie the Mysteries of the Soul, and the worldly levels of everyday existence.

Mercury, like Crow in myth and folk-tale, is the messenger of the gods. He is the ‘Teller of Truth’ and he moves constantly between the human world and the Divine, but he does not always tell the whole truth, and so, like the Crow, he is known as a Trickster.

Crows, too, are tellers of tales and they have long had a special place in human superstition, story, myth and folk-tale. Like their fellow corvid, the Raven, they are associated with the Great Triple Goddess of Nature (as with the Celtic Goddess, Morrigu), and with legendary heroes, like the Irish Cu Chulain and the British king/god, Bran. They speak in the ear of the hero, just as Hugin and Munin spoke in the ear of Odin, bringing news of all that they have heard and seen in the world. And they speak prophecy. But their news must be carefully assessed by the hearer, who must use judgment and discretion to see beyond the initial form of the news and penetrate the mask of illusion in order to get to the inner Truth.


For every hero, on every spiritual journey, through every battle which must be fought, Crow’s Truths, whether heard as an inner guiding voice or a voice in our ear, must be judged and evaluated, sifted and tested. This is a continuous process; and it is a process of separating the pure from the dross, the Alchemical Gold from Base Matter. So, in Alchemy, the Crow (or Raven) “which flies without wings into the blackness of night and the holiness of day42 represents the Nigredo, the blackness which is part of the necessary process of purification.

In Ted’s poem, Crow comes to us, as he comes to Adam, with news, but we must use our heads to interpret it.

Crow, displaying the characteristic curiosity and cheek of his species, lifts Adam’s eyelid, physically ensuring that a glimmer of light enters his consciousness; and he whispers “in his ear”. Perhaps it is the ‘Vision of Splendour’ which the dove of Netzach brought to him that Adam glimpses when his eyelid is lifted (lifting the lid beautifully suggests discovery and enlightenment). Perhaps the Crow’s “love whispers” are the love-whispers of the Goddess, Nature, whose work Adam must undertake. Perhaps, too, the “news” Crow brings is news of heroic deeds and the possible ‘Glory’ of Hod, which he may achieve. But who has understood these love-whispers, what is this news, and what does it mean? Here is the riddle which Adam and we must unravel.

Here at Malkuth, in the ordinary, everyday world, Adam must struggle to discover the true meaning of Crow’s news. We, reading these poems, know from the theme of the whole sequence of Adam and the Sacred Nine, and from Ted’s own comments on it, that this is a spiritual challenge, but to understand it we, like Adam, must first be awake and alert.

In the last line of this brief and cryptic poem (the line’s importance emphasized by its isolation) Crow achieves what all the other birds have attempted to do: stirred by Crow’s physical assault, by his “love-whispers”, and by his intellectual challenge, finally, “Adam woke”. And the spiritual nature of his awakening is made clear by the appearance, now, of the Phoenix.

‘And the Phoenix has come’ (THCP 450)


The Phoenix, as Ted noted in the Introduction to his BBC reading of some of the poems from Adam and the Sacred Nine, is not an ordinary bird43. Its legendary existence is common to Greek, Egyptian, Oriental and Christian lore, but its nature is purely mythological and symbolic. It is a fire-bird; and, traditionally, its appearance marks the emergence from the body of the human Spirit/Soul.

The Greeks seem to have taken their stories of the Phoenix from the Egyptians, whose ‘Bennu bird’, was sacred to the Sun God, Ra44. They believed that it was self-created from fire or from the heart of Osiris and, every 500 to 1000 years, it flew from Arabia to the Sun Temple at Heliopolis, where on a spice-and-sulphur-strewn altar it burned itself to ashes. After three days a small, perfect phoenix emerged from the ashes to return to Arabia, signifying that the Earth had once more been renewed, re-created by the power of the Sun. In China, the Phoenix, the ‘Feng Huang’, comes from Paradise to perform extraordinary works and to help the development of Humankind. Phoenix And in Christian, Mystical and Alchemical iconography, it represents the fiery rebirth, from the ashes of the corruptible body, of the pure, incorruptible, immortal Spirit “by which all sublunary things are refreshed45. The Phoenix is a symbol of transmutation and re-birth.

Ted’s Phoenix comes to Adam from the ninth Sephira, Yesod (Foundation), which lies directly above Malkuth on the Central Pillar of Balance. Yesod governs human evolution and redemption. It is connected directly to Tiphereth and thus, because it lies in the Sphere of the Moon, it links Moon energies with those of the Sun of Tiphereth. Through Tiphereth, Yesod is linked to Kether and the Divine Source at the top of the Tree. It is also connected by energy pathways to every other Sephira on the Tree and is the receptacle of all their emanations. Its number, 9, which contains all other numbers (1 to 9), reflects this cumulative power.

Malkuth, where Adam lies, is immediately below Yesod on the Tree and is unconnected with any other Sephira, except though Yesod which, therefore, acts as an interface. Only through Yesod can the energies which produce change and transformation reach our world. Because of this, and because it lies in the Sphere of the Moon, Cabbalists regard Yesod as the most magical and the most powerful of all the Sephiroth.

In an early manuscript note, Ted wrote that the Phoenix “worships the dove of the world”, thus linking it with the Divine Spirit: and, through 9, Cabbalist believe that humankind discovers and unfolds the inner Divine Self, and the Spirit is then released. Yesod is the place of transmutation: and the Phoenix, is a symbol of transmutation.

Ted’s Phoenix, in the first lines of the poem, is present only as a voice. This voice (the voice, like the earlier song, is pure vibration, pure energy) heralds potential change. It is a sharp sword of light in the barren desert, a “glittering” in the “valley of dew”, a flaming across the “dusty sky” and a burning, melting agent in the “rich heap” of the stony mountains. It exists in the Fire, Water, Air and Earth of the material world of Malkuth. And it is heard, like the “Cock-Crows” which herald the dawn in Remains of Elmet (THCP 491)46, in the barren, sunken, dusty and hard world of Adam. At the same time, Ted’s imagery suggests the potential transmutation of Adam’s and our own, unawakened, spiritually barren but changeable state.

This potential is embodied in the deliberate ambiguities which Ted built into the lines from “Its feathers shake… ” onwards. By the use of the impersonal “the” Ted encompasses both the Phoenix and Adam. So, “the eye” from which “its feathers” are shaken may belong to the Phoenix, or Adam or both. “Its ashes” may “smoke from the breath” of either; and the “Flesh” which “trembles” may, equally, be its own or Adam’s. The phoenix, in feathers of fire and in the smoke of its breath, sacrifices itself, and from the ashes of its own flesh the new Phoenix is born. Equally, Adam, if he accepts the Divine Fire which the Phoenix offers, must die to his old existence; must symbolically sacrifice his fleshly ambitions and existence so that his Spiritual Self may be “newborn”. So, both the Phoenix and Adam are “the altar” of their own “death and rebirth”. And “where” the Phoenix “descends” – which may be the spice-strewn altar of tradition or, here, to the body of Adam – “Where it offers itself up”, this rebirth is possible.


Ultimately, Adam must choose, of his own free will, whether or not he is willing to accept the Divine Fire of the Phoenix, acknowledge the Divine Spark within his body, and, so, begin the difficult task to which he is being called. Like the shaman, he can accept that call and become part of the ‘Machinery of the Universe’, which is the Spiritual Vision of Yesod. Or he can reject it and die spiritually.

The nature of the task to which he is called, too, is represented in the energies of Yesod, where the potential for rebirth in our world is perpetually possible in the marriage of the Queenly, female, Moon-energies of Yesod, with the Kingly, male, Sun-energies of Tiphereth above it. This is the recombination of Female and Male essences from which “heavens on earth” – harmony and wholeness on Earth – may grow and through which the reunion of the Female Principle, Nature, with the Male Principle at Kether may eventually be achieved. The Hebrew letter of Yesod, Teth – ‘The Concealed Good’ – also symbolizes in its form the union of bride and groom, consummation with conception, and pregnancy. And this is essentially a worldly pregnancy – the potential birth of the Divine Spirit which lies enwombed in the human body. If Adam chooses to accept the Divine Fire of the Phoenix and to follow its selfless example, then birth will take place and the “newborn” Spirit/Soul will “laugh in the blaze”.

Adam’s acceptance, however, will only be the start of the journey which he must make here on Earth. This is the first dawning of light; the beginning of consciousness of something more than the needs of the body and personal desires; the beginning of awareness of some dimension beyond what he knows through his five senses.

At Malkuth (the Gate) Adam will have taken his first conscious and independent decision and, thus, experienced the first stirrings of self-knowledge and will-power. This birth of new awareness, this first dawning of light, is beautifully captured in the next poem in this sequence, ‘Light’, which was included in the Rainbow Press edition of Adam and the Sacred Nine together with ‘Bud-tipped twig’. Neither of these poems appeared in the sequence published in Moortown.

‘Light’ (THCP 450-1) and ‘Bud-tipped twig’ (THCP 451)

‘Light’ and ‘Bud-tipped twig’ both have complex Cabbalistic meaning beyond the more obvious mystical interpretations which derive from images of enlightenment and of child-like innocence, and the suggestions of nourishment which are associated (although more problematically) with ‘breast’ and ‘nipple’.

In ‘Bud-tipped twig’ in particular, the nourishment seems not to be sought by the new Adam, but, tentatively, by Nature. Nor is it forthcoming. Only with reference to Cabbala does the meaning of both poems become clear, which is perhaps why they appeared only in the Limited Edition Rainbow Press publication.

In both poems, the lack of pronouns with words like ‘Light’, ‘Eyes’, ‘nipple’ and ‘breast’ is unusual but it allows these things to be both real and symbolic, specific and universal. It allows them, too, to embrace spiritual and, in particular, Cabbalistic metaphor.

Light”, which “eased open” Adam’s eyes as he lay, still prone, on the Earth at Malkuth, is something we all take for granted. Yet, without the physical reflection of the light of the Sun from every atom of matter in our world, and without the response such reflection generates in the visual cortex of our brains, we would see nothing at all. Without the presence of light, too, life could not and would not exist.

The metaphor in Cabbala which equates the light of the Sun with the Divine Source, is precise. The first emanation of Divine Light at Kether at the moment of Creation, immediately divides into Universal Form and Universal Force (represented by the two sides of the Cabbalistic tree), and the interaction of these two essences as they descend the Tree gives rise to Matter, to all living things; and, in Adam, to will, memory and the inner Sun of the Divine Spirit. Without that Spiritual light, we cannot see the true nature of our world and (as in a world without Sun) we will live in darkness, have no spiritual nourishment and no potential for growth and renewal. There will be nothing for us beyond mortality and death.

As well as the Divine Light which reaches us by passing from Sephira to Sephira down the Tree, there is also, as in Ted’s poem, “light’s bridge”, by means of which we may be spiritually enlightened and reborn. It runs directly down the Middle Pillar of the Tree from the Ain Soph (the infinite Divine Source) through Kether to Tiphereth at the heart of the Tree, then, mediated by Yesod, to Adam (and us) at Malkuth. So, Divine Light may be directly revealed to us through the powers of Yesod and we, also, may look upwards through Yesod, as Ted’s Adam did, and glimpse the whole Tree in its glory. For this reason, Malkuth is called the ‘Resplendent Intelligence’, meaning ‘Knowledge of the Divine Light’. The ‘Spiritual Experience’ of Malkuth, too, is ‘Vision of the Holy Guardian Angel’, or ‘Communication with the Holy Guardian Angel’: and our Guardian Angle is the voice within us to which, as Ted’s Owl demonstrated to Adam, we must listen if we are to be guided towards the Divine Light.

In the poem ‘Light’, Adam’s eyes (and ours, too, since ‘eyes’ is used generically), opened by “light”, show the true glory of the natural world. Leaves blossom, and “light’s bridge” is seen leading from leaf to leaf on the Tree “upward and back” to the limit: to every “last leaf” and to “the least vein of the least flower-leaf”. And Light seems “to smile”.

Eyes” are “childish” with joy but still “uncertain” of this newly revealed vision of their world. They test “each semblance” (Ted’s precise choice of words reflects the way every familiar thing now looks subtly different). And four times, since every material thing in our world of Malkuth is made of the four Elements, Light “smiled”. It is as if, as in William Blake’s ‘Fourfold vision’, eyes have been given a glimpse of the “immense world of delight” which is normally closed to us by our “senses five”: We have glimpsed the Truth, not the illusory world which we create around us based on the information we receive from our senses, and we see, as Blake puts it, “with, not thro’ the Eye47.

As with any sudden, unexpected revelation of Truth, everything appears so clear and simple that it is hard to comprehend why we have not seen it before. Eyes, still unused to seeing things in this way are suddenly “Afraid that this was all there was to it”. And, of course, this is not all there is to it. “Human kind”, as Eliot said, “Cannot bear very much reality48. If Adam steps into this world unprepared, naïve and unprotected (as he currently is), he will be taking the first step on the path of the traditional hero and facing the same dangers. Eyes do well to be afraid: even if, for the moment, it is only because their customary, comfortable view of the world has been challenged by one which is totally new and unfamiliar.

Light, which “eased eyes open”, has shown Adam that the ordinary evidence of his senses can be questioned, but he does not yet have faith in this new vision. In this uncertain state, he is in the process of passing from one state of being to another. He is still subject to the fluid, mediating, magical energies of Yesod, the ‘Receptacle of Emanations’ and Yesod will be the channel by which any future development will take place. It is possible, now, for that to happen, so, in ‘Bud-tipped twig’, Adam is Cabbalistically tested .

Adam’s newly awakened Spirit, in order to grow, must break out of the purely animal and vegetable state of being at Malkuth and must negotiate the tricky initiation posed by the triangle of energies which circulate between Yesod, Hod and Netzach. Only when this is accomplished, can he safely cross the Threshold to Tiphereth; and this he must do if he is to be able to use all these energies effectively in the healing task to which he is called.

It is tempting to picture the inverted triangle made on the Tree by the Sephiroth Yesod, Hod and Netzach, as the breast and nipples of Adam in Ted’s poem. But whether or not Ted had this in mind, his choice of “breast” and “nipple”, rather than the more traditionally accepted seat of the Spirit/Soul, the heart, beautifully conveys the nurturing relationship which must be established between Adam and the Female Principle which exists in Nature.

Breast and nipple are powerful symbols of nourishment, protection and consolation. They are the interface (skin) between our inner and outer worlds; the source of life for the newborn infant and, also, for the newborn Spirit. The image of the human god-hero at his mother’s breast is ancient and widespread in religious and spiritual iconography: so, too, is the positioning of hands close to the breast in prayer or supplication when asking the gods for nurture and protection. Aurora Surgeons Yet more pertinent here, however, is the Gnostic and Cabbalistic image of the Goddess as Sophia, Goddess of Wisdom, nurturing her human children at her breast. One such image, in the 15th century illuminated manuscript, Aurora Consurgens, attributed to St. Thomas Aquinas (with whose work Ted was familiar)49, shows Sophia as the red-faced Aurora, whose presence signifies the end of the “night of unknowing” and rebirth from the Nigredo of worldly corruption into the world of spiritual light. She suckles her children (here shown as mature men) with her “virgin milk”, feeding and nourishing the Divine Spirit within them .50

Nature provides for us through our mother’s milk and through her bounty, but only in Cabbala does humankind have the reciprocal task of nourishing and caring for the Divine Female Principle in Nature which is our Spiritual Mother. And not every human being is ready or able to do this.

In ‘Bud-tipped twig’, there is new hope and the potential of renewal for both Adam and Nature, but without appropriate nourishment no bud will open, no seeds in the grass-plume will germinate and all “green-tender” shoots will wither and die. So Nature tests Adam.

At one nipple, the Mercurial energies of Hod, rational and communicative, find no response, and the Tree retreats “aloof still wintery” .

The emotional, unfixed energies of Netzach, too, stroke tentatively across a nipple and, finding no response, flee “queerly far off” out of Adam’s ordinary world.

And the energies of Yesod, which reach down the central column of the Tree into the roots and brambles of the dark world of Malkuth, claw “by chance” at the breast before springing off unchecked to resume “quietly" their “otherworldly” existence.

Clouds, which in Cabbalistic tradition are not only the veils of illusion which obscure the upper (godly) levels of the Tree from our ordinary vision but also symbolize the veil beyond which the Mother Goddess deliberately conceals her Mysteries from those who are not ready or worthy to receive them, tumble like “godly beds” between the Sun of Tiphereth and Adam. They are not fixed; yet, realistically and metaphorically, they draw “a vast coldness / Over the breast”.

Meanwhile, Yesod, the single interface between Heaven and Earth, ordinary and Divine, is “preoccupied”. It is “the sea”, a place of moons and tides, and it transmits a sea of energies to our Earth, our sun and our moon. Its Sphere is the Aether, a Cabbalistic fifth Element, through which the energies travel in waves according to Divinely created cosmic laws; and its energies stir the human unconscious, and bring dreams and magical power. Yesod’s ‘Virtue’ is ‘Independence’, and , in lines 13-15 of Ted’s poem, which mark a transition between Adam’s unresponsive state and his first instinctive turning towards the Sun, it displays this by being wholly “preoccupied” with its own role and its “own substance and the laws of waves”.

Breast”, which realistically is “unable to see / Or to hear / Or to cry”, is also metaphorically the seat of the instincts, feelings and emotions which are governed by Yesod. The coldness it feels when the sun is obscured is also both real and metaphorical, for the sun is the source of heat and life for both body and Spirit. But it is Yesod’s independence and indifference which sway the emotions and “make the breast feel lost”, so that instinctively, as if guided by some deep inner knowledge, it lifts its simple (non rational) “face” (its unformed face-like surface) towards the original source of all sustenance, the sun.

So, Adam is at last pushed into action. And the Cabbalistic significance of Ted’s description of him now as “the first beggar” is twofold.


Firstly, a beggar has nothing: he humbly begs for sustenance and he trusts that it will be provided. He has, therefore, three attributes which are necessary for any human who is about to begin a spiritual journey: a lack of worldly encumbrances, humility and trust.

Secondly, there is a specific Cabbalistic and Mystical image, derived from the Tarot51, which links The Beggar with the beginning of the spiritual journey, the number zero, and the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, Aleph, which is linked to the first moment of creation. In Tarot, The Beggar is more frequently depicted as The Fool, and in The Painted Caravan: a penetration into the secrets of the tarot cards, a copy of which was owned by Sylvia Plath and would have been familiar to Ted, the Beggar/Fool is described as “the everyman who must journey forward whether he will or no”. He is “heedless”, “blind”, “unthinking52. The Beggar is also childlike, naive, a vagabond who lives outside the normal social order, and he is connected to his physical environment only by his emotions and his will to survive. His number, 0, is the Soul-Egg, the symbol of the beginning and the end, All and Nothing, potential and completion, and the Cabbalistic Zero which symbolizes “the source of all things53.

Adam at the end of ‘Bud-tipped twig’, is in the zero state which Eliot describes so beautifully in Four Quartets as “deprivation / And destitution of all property, / Desiccation of the world of sense, / Evacuation of the world of fancy”. He is at the entrance of the Yesodic tunnel which, like the shaman’s entrance to the Otherworld, will connect him to a world where he will be as helpless as a newborn child entering a completely new and totally unfamiliar country.

'The sole of the foot' (THCP 451-2)

The beautiful simplicity of this final poem in the sequence, belies the depth of meaning which lies behind each carefully chosen word.

Adam stands, the sole of his foot “tough-skinned”, “comfortable”, on the “rock-surface” of the cradle-grave over which “The Song” poured in the very first poem. And the “host”, which he was urged not to disappoint in ‘Awake’, are “gladdened” by his action. In spite of the break between lines 9 and 10, the lack of punctuation between “the first host, greeting it, gladden” and “With even gentle squeeze” suggests a reciprocal greeting between foot and rock, Adam and Nature, which is appropriate. But since “host” can be singular or plural, the Heavenly Host of angels and archangels, the birds and all created things (which in Genesis 2:1are called “the host”), may also be intended.

This is Adam’s first acquaintance with Nature, the beginning of his getting to know her. And in the “star-blaze” reminder of the fiery formation of our Earth from the cosmic dust, we again hear echoes of the “star-broken stone” of ‘Where The Mothers’ in Remains of Elmet54 where the four Elements, the Alchemical Mothers, “gallop their Souls” and “a happiness secret and wild” begins.

Yet, this is not all. In the final lines of the poem, Adam communicates with Nature physically and emotionally, body and Spirit. Most importantly, he acknowledges, by the most powerful, creative and magical means at his disposal – words - the role he is now to play. “I was made”, he says (and the space between this line and the next allows his statement to stand alone as his recognition of the roles of both Nature and the Divine Creator in his existence): More than this, “I was made”, he now acknowledges, “For you”. So, Adam’s commitment to both the Female Principle, Nature and the Male Creative Principle of God is spoken, and in the printed poem, written down for all to see.

Thus, Cabbalistically, Adam’s inner Self and his outer bodily self are united. He becomes an upright figure – I – the affirmative, aware, whole Self: and also a single number – 1 – which represents the complete Cabbalistic Man – Adam Kadmon.

United now, through Yesod (9), with all the energies of the Tree, the completion which is both the end and the beginning, symbolized by 10, is achieved. And it is achieved in the real world of Malkuth, where Adam must live and work and where, for Cabbalists, all changes must begin.

In his letter to Keith Sagar (23 April 1980), Ted wrote that “the whole drift” of Adam and the Sacred Nine was to alchemize “a phoenix out of a serpent: An awakened life out of an unawakened”. Now, in this final poem of the sequence, in the paronomasia of ‘sole’ and ‘soul’ in title/first line, the spiritual significance of Adam’s first, willed action is conveyed.

In history, myth and religion, the sole of the foot, feet and footprints have long been of special importance. The “human map” begins with the first hominids, like those who left their footprints to harden in the volcanic ash of the Olduvai area in Africa; it continues in the myths of god-heroes whose only humanly vulnerable parts were their ankles and feet; and it exists in the folk-tales of the evil power of the Devil’s footprints and in stories like that of Good King Wenceslas, whose snowy footprints transmitted life-preserving warmth to his young page. It exists, still, in the reverence shown for the footprints of Mohammed in the El Aksa Mosque on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem; in the footprints of Buddha; and in the intention of Christians to follow in the footprints of Christ.

Traditionally, enlightenment comes through the sole of the foot. It is significant, too, that the first footprint marks the first step on any human journey, physical or spiritual.

Here in Ted’s poem, Adam’s “first acquaintance” with world-rock is linked to the “star-blaze” creation of our Earth, to the “first host” which in Genesis 2:1 were finished together “with the heavens and the earth” on the sixth day of the Biblical Creation; and to Adam’s first speech, which in Cabbalistic legend marks the stage at which the newly created Adam changes from an unformed mass into a fully formed human being55.

More than this, however, is the importance (especially in Jewish Cabbala) of the number 10, the numeral which symbolically combines the pillar of 1 – representing the Self, and the Male, Creative Principle – with the circle 0, which represents All and Nothing, Nature, the Feminine Creative Principle. The number 10 is symbolically linked with the word and with the secret power which Cabbalists attribute to the spoken word here on Earth. This, they believe, mirrors the creative power of the Divine Creator who, as the Bible tells, “said let there be light: and there was light” (Genesis:13) and then named all else and, so, brought it into existence.

In this final poem of Adam and the Sacred Nine, Ted brings the Cabbalistic journey of the sequence full circle. The energies have all been gathered at Malkuth; Adam stands in the first moments of this new world’s existence; and on the final page of The Rainbow Press edition, opposite Ted’s poem, Baskin’s Phoenix rises triumphant from the flames. So, too, the snake, the Uroborus, eats its tail, and the end becomes the beginning.

For Adam and for Ted, both of whom have undergone this poetic Cabbalistic journey, a new creative beginning is now possible, and it is marked by words of humility, understanding and commitment. Importantly, too, Ted’s final words acknowledge that it is in this world, not on some other, transcendental plane, that he and Adam (and we) must undertake whatever healing spiritual work is necessary. It is here that we must live and work. Here we will find the sacred life energies within and around us, embedded in Nature, of which we are a part. We neglect or abuse Nature at our peril.

Most importantly, at the end of this Cabbalistic journey, Adam and Ted have pledged allegiance to the Female Principle and they are ready to devote their lives to her cause. Ted’s own commitment, in words and deeds, was evident in his lifelong support of ecological causes and, of course, in the dedication, care and skill with which he constantly sought to channel healing energies into our world through his words.



34. Ted Hughes’ mss. note, transcribed and quoted in an e-mail to me by Keith Sagar, 22 Feb. 2009.

35. Ted’s introduction to this poem in his BBC Radio 3 reading of some of the poems, given on 17 May 1980.

36. Ted Hughes’ mss. note, transcribed and quoted in an e-mail to me by Keith Sagar, 22 Feb. 2009.

37. Lines 1 (the title), 4, 7, 10, 11, 12, 15.

38. The theme of Leonard Cohen's song, ‘Anthem’, relies on general awareness of the continual sacrifices the dove makes for us. The song offers a Buddhist koan as a suggestion of hope against the ills of this world in which the Holy Dove is continually bought and sold and “is never free”. I’m Your Man , Lionsgate CD. Recorded 2004-5.

39. In the Christian Church, violet vestments are worn at Advent and on Ash Wednesday during Lent.

40. Sagar notes that “doves are unique in being the only birds to feed their young on milk, a high protein fluid called ‘crop-milk’”. The Laughter of Foxes, Liverpool University Press, 2000. p. 92.

41. 3 is the number of the Mother Goddess, Binah.

42. Roob, Op. cit. ‘Rosarium Philosophorum’. p.360.

43. Ted’s introduction to the BBC Radio 3 reading of some of the poems, given on 17 May 1980. This reading is available on the British Library CD, The Spoken Work: Ted Hughes, NSACD 54-55, 2008.


44. Xoan Abeleira, a Spanish artist/poet whose translations of a selection of Ted Hughes' poems, El azor en el paramo, were published by Bartleby Editores in March 2010, has created beautifully evocative pictures of the Bennu Bird. He sent these to me, completely unaware that I was at the time writing about Ted’s Phoenix poem.

45. Becher, Oedipus chimicus, 1664. Roob, Op. cit. p. 356.

46. The cock-crows in this later poem herald an alchemical “kindling” of light in a dark world of Elmet, and they accumulate until they boil over in a fiery, “magic soft mixture” which momentarily recreates the whole land.

47. Blake, W. ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’, Plate 7E. See Erdman, D.V. The Illuminated Blake, Anchor Books, USA, p. 104. and ‘The Everlasting Gospel’, line 100. William Blake, Everyman’s Library, Dent, 1970. p.350.

48. Eliot, T.S. ‘Burnt Norton’ 1”42-3, Four Quartets, Faber, 1972. p.14.

49. In his Introduction to Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, Ted writes of the stairway or ladder as a traditional memory map and of St. Thomas Aquinas as “the patron saint of memory maps”, whose dispensation “Man cannot understand without images” was central to Catholic spiritual cosmology. Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being. op.cit. p.20.

50. Roob. op.cit. pp. 238-9.

51. Tarot Cards are sometimes used by Cabbalists as a mnemonic device depicting the stages of the spiritual journey. The Beggar appears in the Mantegna Pack which dates from 1460, and it has been found in a few other early Tarot packs.

52. Rakoczi, B.I. The Painted Caravan, Boucher, The Hague, Holland, 1954. p. 27.

53. Crowley, A. The Book of Thoth, Samuel Weisser, York Beach, Maine. 1985. p.53.

54. ‘Where the Mothers’, Remains of Elmet, Faber, 1979. p.10. ‘Abel Cross, Crimsworth Dene’, THCP pp. 455-6.

55. Gershom Scholem quotes a Talmudic passage which describes this process in detail. Sholem, G. Op.cit. p. 161.

Adam and the Scared Nine: A Cabbalistic Drama, text and illustrations © Ann Skea 2010. For permission to quote any part of this document contact Dr Ann Skea at

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