The Tarot &
the Tree of Life
by Simon Jester
This entry is addressed to the many friends who have written to ask about the numerous variations and apparent contradictions in correspondences that they have discovered in literature on magic. Since most of these questions spring specifically from a confusion caused by encountering many different systems of assigning Hebrew letters and Tarot cards to the 22 Paths on the Tree of Life, I thought that a brief, general examination of this subject would be helpful. I'll try to show how a very basic and time-honored distinction between the nature of the Sephiroth and their interconnecting Paths can help dispel a lot of unnecessary bewilderment and actually transform apparently contradictory systems into complimentary alternative perspectives.
As readers of this blog already know, the Qabalistic Tree of Life diagram, which is virtually ubiquitous in the literature of Hermetic magic today, originally grew out of the rich soil of Judaic mysticism. No one knows exactly when the concept of the Ten Sephiroth emerged, but some scholars (like Aryeh Kaplan, for example) speculate that the Sepher Yetzirah, one of the earliest Jewish mystical texts to discuss the Sephiroth, may date to a period prior to the Common Era, perhaps even back to the Biblical era. We don't know exactly when the Sephiroth were first depicted by using a tree diagram, but scholars of the Qabala believe this development probably occurred sometime during the 11'th or 12'th centuries C.E. among communities of Jewish mystics in southern France and Spain. The tradition of assigning Hebrew letters to the 22 Paths between the Sephiroth also dates at least to the Sepher Yetzirah. But even during this early phase of development, no general agreement existed concerning such letter assignments, and many variant systems were employed among the compilers of different editions of the Sepher Yetzirah.
By the late 1400's, due to a growing anti-Jewish sentiment in Spain that eventually culminated in the Jewish Expulsion of 1492, Qabalists fled to other parts of the Mediterranean area and throughout Europe, thus bringing Qabalistic metaphysical ideas into the intellectual and religious ferment of the Renaissance. These ideas were eagerly received and, especially in Italy, philosophers like Pico della Mirandola attempted to synthesize them with Christian theology, Hermetic philosophy, and alchemy. This is how the Qabala entered the Western Hermetic Tradition, and from this point on a significant divergence between Jewish and Hermetic Qabalistic thought appeared and grew ever wider.
It would take too much blog space to describe the many different developments that separated Jewish and Hermetic Qabala, but the one of greatest relevance to our current discussion occurred in France in 1781 when the Comte de Mellet (in a short essay appearing in Court de Gébelin's Le Monde Primitif) first suggested a connection between the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the 22 cards from the fifth suit of the Tarot deck (which was not yet called the "Major Arcana," a term coined over half a century later by occult writer Paul Christian.) This suggestion was enthusiastically adopted in the 19'th century by the renowned French magician Alphonse Louis Constant, better known as Eliphas Levi, who developed a complex system of correspondences between Hebrew letters, Tarot cards, and Paths on the Tree of Life. MacGregor Mathers and the other founders of the Golden Dawn revised Levi's system in the 1880's and created a vast magical edifice based on a set of Path-letter-Tarot card correspondences that still provides the foundation for much of today's magical theory and practice. But the use of Tarot symbolism to illuminate the Hebrew letters and Paths on the Tree of Life is not accepted by Jewish mystics, and constitutes one of the major differences between Jewish and Hermetic Qabalistic traditions.
This divergence often causes confusion to students who, after reading a book like Israel Regardie's A Garden of Pomegranates, which expounds the Golden Dawn correspondence system, turn to works by Jewish Qabala scholars such as Gershom Scholem, Aryeh Kaplan, or Sanford Drob and find no information given about Tarot cards. Confusion only deepens when they find that the Hebrew letter and Path correspondences given by these Jewish scholars differ significantly from those used by Golden Dawn exponents. And a feeling akin to discouragement occurs when it becomes apparent that many discrepancies even arise within the Western Hermetic Tradition itself concerning these important correspondences. Paul Foster Case, Franz Bardon, Aleister Crowley and other esoteric writers all employ slightly different arrangements of letters, cards, and Paths. Adding to this apparent chaos, contemporary Tarot scholar Robert M. Place (in his excellent The Tarot: History, Symbolism and Divination, 2005) presents a well-researched argument that the Tarot was an early 15'th century Italian invention that had no connection whatsoever with the symbolism of the Tree of Life. Place argues that the Tarot arose within the milieu of Renaissance Neoplatonism at a time historically prior to the influx of Qabalistic thought into Italy, and concludes that its creation cannot have been influenced by Qabalistic metaphysical speculations. All those romantic legends about mysterious ancient conclaves of learned Qabalists gathering in Fez or Alexandria to encode their arcane secrets in an innocent-looking deck of cards are simply myths, and the connection between the Tarot and the Tree of Life seems to be merely a fabrication of two French savants that generations of subsequent occultists greatly elaborated.
So where does this leave us? Should we abandon the connection between the Tarot and the Qabala altogether, and announce the fall of the elaborate "house of cards" constructed by Levi, the Golden Dawn and others since it stands on historically invalid premises? To do so would be to deny the meaningful spiritual experiences of countless individuals who have used such Qabala-Tarot correspondences in their Pathworkings, meditations, and rituals. For those of us who have devoted many years to Hermetic studies and who have harvested many meaningful, life-guiding insights from using Tarot-based maps to help us travel the Paths on the Tree of Life, the abandonment of this numinous system seems unthinkable. Yet how can the correspondence system that connects Tarot cards, Hebrew letters, and Qabalistic Paths be maintained when it embodies so many internal contradictions among its own exponents and lacks any verifiable historical basis?
The best way through this apparent impasse is to formulate a clear understanding of the traditional distinction between the Sephiroth and the interconnecting Paths on the Tree of Life. Traditionally, the Sephiroth are defined as objective in nature, whereas the interconnecting Paths are described and subjective. Stated simply, what this means is that the Sephiroth, as aspects of God, are eternal and changeless. As transcendent realities, they can never be completely encompassed conceptually, but certain changeless aspects of their natures can be defined in the same way that we can define a triangle as having three sides. And a study of Qabalistic texts reveals that the essential definitions of the ten Sephiroth (as well as their hierarchical order of emanation) remain fairly consistent, even across boundaries established by different traditions throughout diverse historical periods. When novel sets of characteristics for the Sephiroth occasionally emerge in the literature, they are typically presented as expansions or ellucidations of pre-established concepts that compliment rather than contradict existing definitions.
The Paths, however, represent the subjective experiences of the individuals who encounter the energies of the Sephiroth in unique and individualistic ways, and such experiences can only be described, never defined. True, such experiences will be conditioned by the nature of the two Sephira at either end of a Path, and thus share certain general resemblances. But this still leaves room for many variations in experience. Rome and New York City are objective destinations, but my subjective experiences in flying from NYC to Rome can be utterly different from yours. Of course, certain similarities will be inevitable, e.g., we'll both become impatient waiting to clear airport security, and we'll both experience various delays, hit air pockets, and probably dislike the food served during the flight. On the up side, we'll both experience the spectacle of the Atlantic far below us and then see the city of Rome from a vantage point high among the clouds. But you might be airsick or sleeping as we circle the city, while I'm ecstatically viewing the scenery. On a flight from Rome to Darjeeling, the same pattern of similarities mingled with subjective differences will recur.
All our experiences of objective things are like this. And when we travel a Path on the Tree of Life we are subjectively experiencing a blending of the objective energies of the Sephiroth with our own individual perceptions and cultural determinants. The term "Path," since it denominates a subjective reality, is actually a metaphor for a state of consciousness or a moral course of action that brings the energies of particular Sephiroth to bear upon the problems of earthly life. This explains why each individual's experiences on a particular Path can often be described with different sets of symbols and why correspondences between Hebrew letters, Tarot cards and Paths on the Tree of Life differ from one tradition to another. Someone has had an experience of the Paths in a certain way; has expressed these subjective experiences with a particular arrangement of Tarot cards and letter correspondences, and (if they aspire to be the founder of a tradition) has codified this symbolic method of expression into a system designed to help other people have similar subjective, spiritual experiences. This doesn't always succeed, and the successes, when they do occur, tend to be approximate. Nevertheless, such communication, sharing and engendering of spiritual experience is a major goal to which most Hermetic traditions aspire.
The distinction between objective Sephiroth and subjective Paths also helps to explain why an extraneous and historically unrelated system like the Italian Renaissance Tarot can be used in a meaningful fashion as a guide to the Hebrew Tree of Life. Even Robert Place, who thoroughly dismisses the old theory that a Qabalistic influence lay behind the creation of the Tarot deck, acknowledges that the Tarot itself embodies an alternative system of spiritual illumination that is compatible with (but not identical to) the ancient traditions of Jewish mysticism. Both systems help explain the same territory, but in different symbolic languages and from different cultural points of view. Both systems can, at many key points, relate to each other and their shared subject matter in a mutually explanatory fashion. This fact misled many 19'th century occultists into thinking that a direct historical connection existed between the two systems, but this need not be the case in order for a meaningful interpretive relationship to form. To give a prosaic example, a modern American guidebook about hiking through the Allegheny Mountains and an Army Ordinance Survey map of the Allegheny Mountain area drawn by mid-20'th century surveyors obviously provide different kinds of descriptions of the same territory. A hiker could meaningfully use the map to supplement the book. But the contemporary author of the guidebook might never have seen the particular map drawn up by the survey team, nor does an historical connection need to exist between those surveyors and the author in order for the map and the guidebook to be mutually explanatory (and of practical relevance) when taken along on a trek through the Allegheny Mountains.
The real truth is that Tarot card correspondences with the Qabalistic Tree of Life are not supposed to always be the same! We should expect them to differ, just like the notes of various musical compositions differ. Such systems of correspondences eventually become impediments to spiritual progress if treated like the enshrined and immutable Sacred Cows that some magical organizations have turned them into. But—and this is extremely important—students of magic must nevertheless start out by learning and working with a particular set of these correspondences. In spite of everything I have written above, I still believe there are excellent reasons for adopting this procedure. I will give these reasons in my essay about the need for tradition in Magic.