Myths and legends serve the same social function as history, science and propaganda, that being to orient us (indoctrinate and give us a sense of identity) in the natural and social worlds, as well as helping to maintain social order. One difference between the two is that mythology (including religion) is concerned with the mystic or spiritual dimension in our lives. What we might call public myths, those that don't deal with the spiritual, are ideologies.
Another diference between the two is that myths and legends are allegorical and symbolic in nature; that is, not to be taken literally. We make sense of the world by painting word pictures, and science and mythology use two different languages to achieve that end; with one claiming to be literal, while the other may be characterized as poetic and symbolic.
The chief symbol used by Kabbalists is known as the Tree of Life, and is made up of ten spheres (correlating to the ten arabic numbers 1-10), said to be connected by twenty-two "paths" (correlating to the twenty two Hebrew letters- see Psalm 119, 22 Tarot Trump cards, 22 Chapters in the Revelation, etc.). Here is a copy of the first published image of the Tree, on the frontpice of "Portae Lucis" ("Gates of Light", a Latin translation from Hebrew, 1516).
According to Dion Fortune, the Tree of Life is the most comprehensive meditative symbol of the Western Esoteric Tradition, and is an archive of science, psychology, philosophy and theology. Compare to de Lubicz's description of the Egyptian Temple as a "library in stone". Fulcanelli and others use the same language to describe the Gothic Cathedrals in Europe. Of coure, the archetype of this symbolism is the twin pillars, said to have been erected by the legendary Enoch, as a depository of all human knowledge. The notion of the transmission and preservation of knowledge is a constant theme in the Kabbalah.
[A short footnote concerning DF's remark about meditation: contemplation is an active form equivalent to the notion of study, while meditation is a passive from, where one is quite and lets the Universe impinge on us through the Collective Unconscious, if you will. You can recognize the two in a gnostic statement by John Michell, "Revelation comes to those who invoke it through intense studies and an lively curiousity of mind."
Readers of Herman Hesse may recognize the Glass Bead Game here; that being divided into two sections, first the presentation of the game symbols, and a following session of meditation.]
While Kabbalistic legends are multi-leveled, the simplest interpretation of the Tree of Life is that it depicts the Journey of the Soul, in the case of man, or the Divine Sparks, in the case of matter. The Kabbalah teaches that "the world is an iradiation of God", that a divine spark lives in every thing and being, so that God can be beheld in everything. This is an optomistic view which sees the cosmos as a theophany, a manifestation of divinity.
For the more pessimistic Gnostics, the divine sparks have fallen into all things, and are now imprisoned in them. Gnostics use the metaphors of sleep and forgetfulness, saying that the soul in the body forgets his divine origin, believing itself to be merely a body. The goal is a "gnosis", a knowledge experience, which dispels this ignorance and awakens the subject to his true nature and origin; which liberates the soul, by revealing it as a divine spark. In this sense, gnosticism is very close to Buddhism.
In Hasidism, the salvation of man does not depend on removing oneself from the wordly, but in consecrating or hallowing it, to a divine meaning. Alchemists use the metaphor of extracting gold from inert matter, to symbolize the same consecration of the worldy to the divine.
Remember that in the Kabbalah, this is a round trip, an exile from, and a return to Paradise. The imagery of a ladder is perhaps the most commonly used metaphor for this, as in the story of Jacob from Genesis 28:12, "And he dreamed and behold a ladder set up on the earth; and the top reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. This is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven". And Jacob named the place that "was called Luz at first", Bethel (the house of God; Beth = house, el = of god).
Here Jacob refers to the earth as the house, or dwelling place of God, a statement of the Kabbalistic notion that God inhabits and is revealed in the creation. The earth, the abode of the elements, is at the bottom of the Tree, and is conceived as the stone (cube) that fell from the heavens, the home of Light (Luz).
Jacob takes the stone that he was using as pillows, and sets it up for a pillar (Luz becomes Beth-el, and pillows becomes pillar). "And this stone that I have set up for a pillar shall be God's house and of all that thou shall give me I will surely give the tenth part to thee."
[Note the equivocation here; at first Jacob calls the earth the House of God, now he is using that name for his pillar/altar. In the same manner, the Shekinah is identified as both the Presence in the Holy of Holies, as well as the earth itself.]
This is clearly phallic. Here Jacob refers to Beth-el, not as the earth, but as the altar, prototype of the Tabernacle and the Temple. An upright stone was the most primitive form of worship of the male deity, which is reflected in the letter "I" and the number 1, as in one tenth. The letter "O" and the number 0 are symbols of the female forces of the universe. The number 10 combines these two just like the Star of David, composed on an upright and an upside-down triangle.
The tenth part is also the earth (the tenth sphere on the tree), which on the Tree is conceived of as being in isolation or exile from the rest of the spheres. Jacob is dedicating the earth to God, the source of All; promising to return to heaven what belongs there. This is an early statement of Hasidism and of Alchemy.
The Kabbalah follows the modern convention that sees God and the heavens as masculine, and the earth as female, and utilizes the allegory of a bride exiled from her husband (like the sun and moon seperated at the full moon but conjoined at the new moon) to describe this last sphere of the Tree. This exiled "presence of the Lord" is given the name Shekinah, and is said to reside in the Holy of Holies in the Temple. We see a treatise on the Shekinah in the 21st Chapter of the Revelation:
"And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of Heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. The tabernacle of God is with men and he will dwell with them. Descending out of heaven from God, having the glory of God; and her light was like unto a stone most precious. And the city had no need of the sun neither of the moon to shine in it, for the glory of God did lighten it." Recall the legend that Solomon's Temple was built upon a stone which was the foundation of the world. The keyword for the tenth sphere on the Tree is Foundation.
The Zohar, a Kabbalistic text, says that the righteous man is like a ladder with his feet on the ground and head in the heavens. This notion of a man and tree as "axis mundi" or world axis that connects the earth and heaven (matter and spirit), is mirrored in Daniel, where the king tells him of a dream:
4:10 Thus were the visions of mine head in my bed: I saw, and behold a tree in the midst of the earth, and the height thereof was great.
4:11 The tree grew, and was strong, and the height thereof reached to heaven, and the sight thereof to the end of the earth.
Daniel tells the king, "The tree that thou sawest, it is thou".