In the Western Hermetic Tradition, the cards of the Tarot's Major Arcana symbolize the interconnecting Paths on the Qabalistic Tree of Life, and each Path with its corresponding card represents a state of equilibrium or harmony between the sephiroth that are so connected. I've written in a previous entry about the subjective nature of these Paths and about how the Tarot trumps are arranged in different ways by travelers on the Tree to symbolize their experiences. I now want to focus on a particular Tarot card that seems to produce a lot of difficulty for people who try to relate it in a meaningful way to the Paths. This card is The Tower, sometimes called The Tower Struck By God, The Lightening Struck Tower, or The House of God.
Regardless of whichever system of attributions is employed, this card seems so overtly negative that it is initially very difficult to understand how it can represent a state of balance between any two Sephiroth, especially since these latter are invariably seen in an idealized and positive light. How can Hod, the sephira of cognition, possibly be connected to Netzach, the sephira of affect and instinct, by such a destructive looking card as The Tower?
In what follows, I employ the Golden Dawn system of Tarot attributions and use the symbolism of the Waite-Smith Tarot. I do this for reasons of simplicity. As I have noted before, other equally valid systems are available. However, the Golden Dawn correspondences and the Waite-Smith deck are by far the best known, and the general method I employ may easily be applied to other systems once the basic interpretive schema becomes apparent.
We must begin by making a distinction that, if not properly understood, can cause much confusion to those who seek to understand how the Tarot is applied to the Tree of Life. This is the distinction between the divinatory meaning of the Tarot cards when used in a reading and the higher mystical significance that they possess when employed to designate the Paths between the sephiroth. When utilized for divination, Tarot symbolism is typically given a practical significance, and the cards in a spread are usually interpreted in terms of significant people, social situations, financial factors, health conditions, and psychological states that bear upon a person's life situation during the time period surrounding the moment of the reading. When used as Path symbols, however, the cards take on a more spiritual, metaphysical significance. This is not to say that a complete disjunction obtains between the divinatory and mystical significance of the Tarot cards, merely that the divinatory meaning focused on in a reading points only to a limited material instantiation of the higher metaphysical principles expressed by the Paths.
In addition to this distinction, a proper understanding of how the Tarot relates to the Tree of Life necessitates adopting a bivalent method of interpretation. A Path (and corresponding Tarot card) that is given a specific meaning when seen as a stage in the descent of the Divine Light down the Tree toward material manifestation will take on a different coloration when viewed as a Path of ascent toward enlightenment for the aspiring Magician and Mystic. This "descending & ascending" hermeneutic will become apparent in our following analysis of the cards.
Beginning with The Tower, we are confronted with the spectacle of an apparent calamity: a mighty Tower, silhouetted against an ominous black sky, is being struck by a lightening bolt. Its crown-like top is shattered and falling, flames belch from its windows, and its two occupants plummet head first toward the ground. Few people, especially after the 9/11 atrocity, react positively to this card, and its divinatory meanings reinforce such negative responses. We are told that The Tower, whenever it shows up in a divinatory spread, indicates a sudden reversal of fortune, an unexpected setback, the overthrow or downfall of plans, dreams, goals, ways of life. Yet the Golden Dawn system uses this card to symbolize the Path of Peh, a Path that connects the apparently benign sephiroth of Netzach and Hod. How can such a destructive looking image symbolize a state of equilibrium between the spheres of Instinctive Emotion and Rational Thought?
The distinction noted above between divinatory and metaphysical meanings helps resolve this question. As a divinatory symbol, The Tower refers to a temporal event in the life of the person for whom a Tarot reading is being given. But as a Path symbol, The Tower symbolizes an eternal principle, a Law of the Cosmos that, like the law of gravity, is always in force. It represents a process that is constantly occurring, now and forever, World Without End.
An examination of the Path correspondences will clarify this point. The Hebrew letter assigned to this Path in the Golden Dawn system is Peh—a letter that, according to ancient Jewish traditions, represents the mouth. The mouth is the bodily orifice that absorbs food, and thereby satisfies our most basic instincts and needs--those facets of reality that fall under the precinct of Netzach. The mouth also produces speech, an intellectual product by which we attempt to capture, define, and express our needs and experiences and communicate them to others in a linguistic format. These cognitive/linguistic methods of definition and communication derive from Hod. The speech associations of the letter Peh, along with the tower symbolism appearing on the card related to this Path lead naturally to associations with the Biblical myth of the Tower of Babel, that archetypal human fabrication which incurred Divine Wrath and Destruction for its presumption of trying to reach Heaven. According to the ancient myth, humans considered their empirical skills capable of bridging the gap between the mortal and the divine. God punished them by confusing their speech. Such a finite product as human language, with its limited conceptual capacity, was shown to be utterly inadequate to the task of reaching and defining the ineffable Nature of God.
One cannot capture the mighty tempest of Ultimate Reality in a teacup of human grammar and syntax or completely embody it in any of the emotions or instincts of the finite and isolated empirical ego. Any given linguistic system or personal complex of affective response is necessarily limited, simply because infinite energy will always overflow the finite forms used in the attempt to embody, contain or make it communicable for a brief moment on the stage of finite historical expression. Our conceptual systems and emotional expressions endlessly strive to incarnate, describe and explain ultimate reality, and always fall short of the mark. The Tower, the Golden Dawn's symbol of the Path of Peh between Netzach and Hod--the Instincts and the Intellect--symbolizes this eternally foredoomed endeavor. Languages can never completely encompass the energies given to them in the form of instinctive, immediate perceptions, which are themselves finite experiences limited to the isolated domain of the ego. The ever-flowing world of change will eternally shatter the conceptual forms and alter the ego-engendered emotions fashioned by the finite mind to contain and constrain the limitless power of the lightening bolt of God.
Many years ago I wrote a poem called Nimrod's Tower in which I wrote about the limitations of the philosophical systems I had studied in school:
Blake engraved the Human Form Divine
And deified sublime Imagination;
Hume proclaimed the mind an empty slate
Inscribed upon by chance and mere sensation.
Schopenhaur felt compelled by Will and saw
A sorrow hidden deep within all things;
Nietzsche scorned morality and law
And freely sailed aloft on joyous wings!
How can the root that Roequentin perceived,
All knotted in itself and sunk in anguish,
Sustain the fruit that Rulman Merswin saw
Eternal on the branch? How can the Light
In Newton's prism decomposed
Reflect a unity on Boehme's pewter plate?
Illuminating portions, every system casts a shadow.
How long must we wait until our guiding star
Attains the height, and shines down from the zenith of the mind
To reconcile the Shadow with the Light?
I was struck by the limited nature of the view offered by any system into the infinite, seething abyss of reality. Within the Shadow (i.e. those "dark areas" of reality not illuminated by a given system) the energies of the Lightning Bolt build until they are potent enough to shatter the system that casts them into the darkness. This is the world of The Tower, the world that exists between Netzach and Hod on the Tree of Life of the Holy Qabalah. It is a world of eternal warfare, dedicated to the god Mars; one in which necessarily limited concepts and temporary feelings arise, presuming to capture and contain the infinite Light, only to crash and burn in the unavoidable flames of an ever-transcendent reality. Sixteen centuries ago, Heraclitus described such a world perfectly as a dimension of eternal strife.
Thinking down the Tree, the Path of Peh traces another phase in the ever-deepening descent of the Divine Light into material manifestation. At this level, the polarities of Force and Form become capable of coming into a more manifest kind of conflict. Try to remember the thunderous impact of rational thought upon instinctive needs. "I want to eat NOW!" demands the instincts of Netzach. Hod responds with a thunderbolt: "You must WAIT till mother is ready!" Then remember, if you can, how Hod knocks down one of our most cherished fantasies: "I am the Center of the Universe!" our Netzach center asserts. But Hod soon confronts us with the concept of others whose needs legitimately compete with our own. In this endless battle, Netzach also fires destructive volleys back at Hod. Think of the volcanic heat of sexual desire melting and finally destroying the constraining forms of Victorian morality, or the tides of compassion and understanding that finally sweep away cultural bulwarks of racial prejudice and social injustice.
Moving upward on the path of mystical ascent, The Tower symbolizes the attainment of a liberating awareness, an awakening realization not only of the endless strife between impulse and concept that defines this level of consciousness, but also of the higher metaphysical realities that keep this process in ceaseless motion. Our limitations, which the fiery incandescence of the thunderbolt reveals, also necessarily point to higher realms beyond their boundaries. Seen in terms of the mystic's ascent, The Tower represents an enlightenment that breaks through the encumbering shells of temporal consciousness. It marks the boundary we must cross in order to climb above the level of strife and reach the unified awareness symbolized by Tiphereth—the "guiding star" I mention at the end of the poem above.