The four letter tetragrammaton (Greek, ‘four letters’) is the ‘true’ name of the God of the Hebrew scriptures. It never appears complete in written form; only the four consonant letters, YHVH (Hebrew, Yod Heh Vau Heh, read right to left), or in the Latin version, IHVH.
At the time the Hebrew scriptures were written, spoken language was considered to be very powerful. With a cosmology that viewed the creation as the result of an utterance, the name of the creator was considered very powerful knowledge. Because the pronunciation of the name of God considered to have such great power, it was kept a secret- only the highest-ranked members of the priesthood were entrusted with the knowledge. Even then, the Name was only pronounced during one time of the year, during the Feast of Atonement, Yom Kippur.
The commandment against “taking the Lord’s name in vain” had nothing to do with making disrespectful comments, but referred to the name’s inherent power. Similar name traditions existed in Babylonian and Egyptian religion.
It is because of this stricture against pronouncing the name that even after the Hebrew language developed a system for marking vowels in written scripture, its pronunciation was concealed by substituting the vowel markings and pronunciation of the word Adonai, Lord. Christians translating Hebrew texts did not understand this tradition, and due to the vowel marks, mistranslated the text of the name as “Yahweh” or “Jehovah.”
In modern Judaism, the tetragrammaton is commonly referred to as “HaShem,” meaning, “The Name,” and the pronunciation rules still apply.
The tetragrammaton is central to the doctrines of both the Jewish and Esoteric Kabbalistic traditions, where it is equivalent to the four kabbalistic worlds of creation, the four elements, the four archangels, and the four cardinal directions. Christian kabbalists added the letter “Shin”, rendering “YHShH,” or Yeheshua, Jesus, as proof of the divine origin of Christ.
Kabbalistic doctrine assigns four states of the manifestation of creation the the four letters. The four weapons of Ritual magick symbolize the essence of the letters of the tetragrammaton; these also form the basis for the four suits in Tarot cards. Ritual magicians emply various pronunciation of the names in theurgic rituals, usually intoning the names of the letters rather than trying to recreate an ancient pronunciation.
Ancient “YHVH” from a Phoenician inscription in stone