One of the most powerful symbolic influences on modern Tarot interpretation is the Qabalah.
The origins of the Qabalah are said to have been dictated to humans by the Archangel Metatron aka Enoch the Scribe.
In Western circles of esotericism, the Qabalah has come to mean the tradition of mysticism and occult knowledge shared via certain principles, usually shared through a glyph or symbolic structure called the Tree of Life.
The roots of Qabalah are in the Jewish Mysticism known as Kabbalah. They are spelled differently because Qabalah and Kabbalah refer to different traditions, as explained below.
Is the Qabalah Culturally Appropriative?
There is a worry that the use of the Qabalah in Tarot interpretation is culturally appropriative.
But just like the Jewish faith evolved from the culture of Ancient Canaanites, and Canaanite culture evolved from Ancient Near East culture, so too did Christianity evolve from Jewish culture. And it would be wrong to say that all Christians are thereby appropriating Judaism by calling themselves Christians.
The proper term for this is religious syncreticism. A classic example is the Romans syncretizing their gods with Greek gods (Aphrodite and Venus, Hermes and Mercury). It is a common way that religions have evolved over the centuries.
Similarly, there is a syncretic outgrowth of Jewish Kabbalah that is referred to as Hermetic Qabalah, which some say grew out of Medieval Jewish Neoplatonism and traditions of Jewish/Christian Gnosticism. Others say, however, that Hermetic Qabalah grew out of Hellenistic and Indo-European cultural sources.
Either way, Hermetic Qabalah syncretized into a different enough form to be genuinely different from Jewish Kabbalah as it became influenced over the centurues by Hermeticism, Platonism, Christian Qabalah (itself a syncretism of Jewish Kabbalah), astrology, and Western esotericism of all stripes.
Coming into the later centuries, Hermetic Qabalah influenced movements like Rosicrucianism, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Themela, Wicca, New Age, and all kinds of Western esoteric/occult/magickal traditions.
The linkage between Hermetic Qabalah and the Tarot can be summarized in the following analogical formula:
psyche of God : Tree of Life :: psyche of humans : Tarot
Uses of the Qabalah
From Magical Qabalah for Beginners, the Qabalah can be used as:
- Map or model of the Spirit world
- Meta-system and meta-knowledge system
- Cosmology and cosmogony
- Practical system of correspondences, formulas, acronyms, ciphers, sigils, and numerology
- System of magic, meditation, and contemplation
Qabalah as a “meta-system” – “A system to that is used to describe or organize another system.” (Magical Qabalah for Beginners)
Qabalah and Synchronicity
There is little concrete, historical evidence the creators of Tarot in the 14th century Italy were aware of these correspondences between Qabalah and the Tarot. And although absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, we are left wondering: is it just a coincidence?
Or perhaps, corresponding to the great spiritual archetypes of humanity, it is what Jung called a synchronicity, a meaningful, almost magickal coincidence that has no possible causal explanation. Such things are common in the world of Tarot. And one might even say Tarot operates on the power of synchronicities.
Regardless of whether the creator(s) of the Tarot knew about Qabalah, the mapping is good enough to provoke thought and had extra dimensions to the hermeneutics of the Symbols. Furthermore, because the most popular Tarot Systems (Waite-Smith and Thoth) are inspired by this connection, like it not, accurate or not, the Tree of Life is now a part of the collective unconscious of the Tarot.
And, in my opinion, if we take a chaos magic or pragmatic perspective (in the Jamesian sense), if it works for you then it is true for you. If “historically accurate” Tarot symbolism is what works best for you, that’s fine, but if incorporating Qabalistic symbolism into your Tarot practice works best for you, in terms of achieving the results you are looking for, then that’s all that matters in terms of establishing its truth value.
Structure of Qabalah
The structure of the Qabalah can be analyzed in many different ways.
Path from 1-10 = The Great Chain of Being
The Ten Sephirah are aspects of Divinity.
The Path from Nothing to Kether (1) through the rest of the Nine Sephiroth is visualized as a lightning bolt.
22 Paths between the Ten Sephiroths
22 Letters of the Hebrew Alphabet
22 Tarot cards in the Major Arcana
If the Sephiroth are aspects of the nature of the Divine, the Paths represent a journey to know the Divine.
While the Path from 1-10 is a lightning bolt, the 22 Paths are visualized as a Great Serpent, like the Serpent wrapped around in the Cosmic Egg in IX. The Hermit (Thoth Tarot).
Kether and the Three Negative Veils
The One and the Many
Beyond the One is another triad, the Triad of Nothingness, the Three Negative Veils:
–Ein Sof (Limitless Nothing)
–Ein Sof Aur (Limitless Light)
The Three Negative Veils obscure what’s beyond the One from human comprehension.
Four Worlds and Four Subtle Bodies
Each with its own tree, producing 40 distinct Sephirah
The Ten Sephirah
Sephiroth is the plural of Sephirah, which means “number” in Hebrew
The ten sephiroth do not represent places in space but rather modes of being, just like a human can exist in multiple modes of existence: physical, experiential, spiritual, etc.
The number Ten is significant for in base-ten counting systems. Ten represents completion. It is also of note that these counting systems have their primordial origins in counting on ten fingers.
Each Sephiroth contains within itself both a feminine and masculine disposition. For each Sephiroth are overflows from the previous one and are thus feminine or negative cups to catch and form the active force of the previous Sephiroth and also at the same time masculine sources of positivity, spilling out as creative Force to the next Sephiroth. Each Sephiroth is thus bigender.
The Tree of Life
“Correct attributions fit upon the Tree through endless ramifications of symbolism.” (The Mystical Qabalah, p. 46)
What is the Tree of Life?
“The universe is really a thought-form projected from the mind of God. The Qabalistic Tree might be likened to a dream arising from the subconsciousness of God and dramatising the subconscious content of Deity. In other words, if the universe is the conscious end-product of the mental activity of the Logos, the Tree is the symbolic representation of the raw material of the Divine consciousness and of the processes whereby the universe came into being.” (The Mystical Qabalah, p. 16).
There are 32 paths in the Tree of Life. The first ten correspond to the Ten Sephiroths and the remaining 22 correspond to the Paths of the Sephiroth, which correspond to the 22 Trumps in the Major Arcana.
The Tree of Life is a living, breathing Symbol System used as a method of understanding both God and the human Soul.
“The Tree is a method of using the mind, not a system of knowledge.” (The Mystical Qabalah, p. 29)
Tree of Life is just a model but do not confuse the map with the territory. One could build a different map that is just as useful.
|Binah (Left side of Image of God)||Chokmah (Right side of Image of God)|
The Lightning Path Through the Sephirah
The Lightning Path represents the process of Divine emanation unfolding into different modes of manifestation.
An astute observer will notice in my version of the Tree of Life I have put back Aleister Crowley’s switch of the Emperor and the Star. For me this brings more beauty to the Tree.
In its restored state, the Emperor is the masculine Father figure from Chokmah forcefully influencing Tiphareth, corresponding to the feminine influence of Binah to the Tiphareth through the Lovers, which represents balance. This brings a more harmonious balance of energy compared to having the Star flowing from Chokmah, which lacks the gendered symmetry I find attractive.
As a corollary, the Star back in its place can act as the feminine version of Sol (itself a Star) corresponding to the masculine version of the Sun. This gives better balance to the gender-bending nature of Yetzirah. I explain more about Crowley’s Switch here.
The Three Triads
The Qabalah is composed essentially of three Triads and one hanging Sephirah (Malkuth).
Each Triad is at its core: Thesis – Antithesis – Synthesis
Supernal Triad – Kether (1), Chokmah (2), and Binah (3)
Kether is Holy Trinity
Represents the idea of “Levels of Heaven,” as seen in works such as Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Second Triad – Chesed (4), Geburah (5), Tiphareth (6)
Mirror of the First Triad
Dion Fortune – Ethical World
Tiphareth is Christ
Third Triad – Netzach (7), Hod (8), Yesod (9)
Copy of the Second Triad
“The Magickal Triad”
Dion Fortune – Astral or Magickal World
Yesod is Holy Spirit
Netzach: Mother Nature
Hod: Books and Science
In this Triad we thus see the balance of Nature-worship and Science-worship in the equilibrium that is Witchcraft, the occult science.
The Ten Sephirah
“Kether is the Malkuth of the Unmanifest” (The Mystical Qabalah, p. 29)
“Concealed of the Concealed”
Root of Air
Tarot cards: Ace of Wands, Ace of Cups, Ace of Swords, Ace of Disks.
Emanation refers to a type of creation flowing from a source into a lower order. Kether is the first emanation from the Nothing/Zero beyond Oneness, which we cannot comprehend. In other words, Kether is the first Manifestation in the process of something coming from nothing, ex nihilo.
When we say “Kether is the Malkuth of the Unmanifest,” the unmanifest refers to the nothingness beyond the One/Monad, of which it is impossible for humans to comprehend. Kether, or Oneness, is the lowest aspect (Malkuth) of what is beyond Oneness. In virtue of being the lowest aspect, it becomes analogically knowable through the Symbolic Structure of the Tree of Life (and also the Tarot, as represented by 0, the Fool).
From the Oneness/Monad, creation flowed as a series of emanations from high to low, otherwise known as involution. Similarly, evolution refers to the process of going from low to high.
One step beyond nothingness, Kether represents a unified field of latency. One might think of the concept of a Boltzmann brain, a thought experiment where given enough time in infinite space, a fully-formed brain could spring into existence as a random, spontaneous, quantum fluctuation out of the vacuum of space that is self-contained and after a single cohesive thought returns to the void.
Kether thus represents the pure being and potentiality latent in the vacuum of space, which is close to nothing, but not quite.
Physicists call this zero-point energy, which is the lowest energy state a quantum-mechanical system can have. In this state, a system is constantly fluctuating due to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. In these fluctuations of vacuum energy there can be spontaneous emissions where a particle in a higher energy state can emit a photo of light as it moves into a lower energy state.
Vacuum energy is described by a system of particle and anti-particle pairs. The particle appears and the anti-particle annihilates it. This is akin to the creative and destructive complement between the Pillar of Mercy and the Pillar of Severity aka the masculine-principle vs the feminine-principle.
Balanced together in the Supernal Realm we see the perfect union of the lowest manifestation of Ein Sof, the great infinite void of nothingness.
In some sense we can think of the entire universe as manifestations of matter and antimatter. If you add it all up together it sums to zero.
In a true vacuum there is always quantum energy manifesting as a particles and anti-particles. All this always sums to zero. Thus, there is always potential in zero. This is the meaning of the Zero in the Tarot. The Fool is the pathway between Kether and God as Positive Force. This represents the idea of Kether being the “Malkuth of the Unmanifest.”
The Manifest is the zero-point system, which contains potential. Kether, Unity, Oneness, is the first stage of this zeroness coming into being as positive principle.
As some physicists have phrased it, “nothing is unstable.” The first stage of stability out of nothingness is Kether.
First overflow of Kether
Top Sephiroth in the Pillar of Mercy (Love)
Root of Fire
Overflow of Chokmah
Top Sephiroth in the Pillar of Severity
The Great Sea – the the beginning there were the primordial waters
Root of Water
Ruled by Saturn, the Ancient Father of all Gods – indicating great age and the primordial sea. For this reason Saturn is the first Sephiroth to be ruled by one of the Ancient Seven Planets.
Venus, archetypal woman, cis normativity
Overflow of Binah
Middle Sephiroth in the right hand Pillar of Mercy(Love), Jachin.
Ruled by Jupiter, the lawgiver and ruler
Ruled by a Wise and Kind King
Chesed is well-dignified
Overflow of Chesed
Middle Sephiroth in the left hand Pillar of Strength (Fear), Boaz.
Ruled by Mars, aggressive, fiery, destructive energy
Ruled by a Warrior King, destroyer of Evil
Associated with: Pentagon, five sided figure
It is the masculine force of Chokmah expressed in Chesed and then pooled in strength in Geburah, like magma flows pressurized under the Earth ready to explore. Hence we see the 5 associated with strife in the Tarot.
This is feminine Strength, Leo, the roar of the Lioness, righteous female anger.
Overflow of everything
Ruled by Sol, the Sun.
Called the “Christ-center” in Christian Qabalah.
It takes the imbalances of Jupiter and Mars and finds Redemption in the Sun, the Light of God.
Tiphareth represents the Word made Flesh, and thus, the only form of divinity that we can truly understand.
Ruled by Venus, Goddess of Nature
This Sphere is seen in the Nature worship of paganism.
Netzach represents the ill-dignified version of the masculine Chokmah, and the Love of the Wise ruler becomes overly sentimental due to the influence of Venus. In effect, the sentimentality of Venus is unable to clear out the brush with the Fire of Mars.
Ruled by Mercury, the analogue of Thoth, the Messenger and Scribe of the Gods, associated with all science and technology.
Ruled by the Moon, Luna, the Mistress of Witchcraft
Represents the Kingdom of Earth
Malkuth is not part of any triangle, for it is a Fallen Angel, cut off from the Divine realms in the Fall.
Nevertheless it is the receptive into which is poured all the energy of the First Nine Sephiroths.
Below it, Malkuth touches the Qliphoth, the Averse Sephiroth, which are the Evil Spheres of unbalanced Force. There are 10 Qliphoths corresponding to their falling away from Each Sphere.
If Chokmah is Wisdom and Binah is Understanding, Daath is the fruit of that combination, Knowledge.
“The beautiful path” – corresponds to the spine
There is, strangely, an 11th Sephiroth on the Tree of Life which is not pictured. It is Daath. It is born of Chokmah and Binah. The Daath is below the Abyss and in the Middle Column forming a line between Kether and Tiphareth and in some sense represents the Inner Path of consciousness.
Tree of Life and the Lord’s Prayer
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. 10 Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 11 Give us this day our daily bread. 12 And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13 And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one. Added from ancient authorities, “For the kingdom and the power and the glory are yours forever. Amen”
|1. Kether/Crown||“Hallowed by your name”||God – Beyond the Comprehension of humans with mind and language – Beyond dualism of Mother/Father – nothingness/Zero from which everything else is formed – blocking our perception and understanding of Kether are the Veils of Negative Experience –|
|2. Chokmah/Wisdom||“Our Father”||The highest accessible form of God – the sphere towards which Prayer is directed – Masculine component of the Image of God (Father/King) – Path from 1 to 2 is the Fool – Right Side of Heaven (right: expansiveness/force)|
|3. Binah/Understanding||“In heaven”||Feminine Component of the Image of God (Mother/Queen). Spheres of Heaven. Comes after Chokmah because masculine (force/emanation) precedes feminine (form/creation/restriction, associated with Saturn). Path from 1 to 3 is The Magician. Path from 2 to 3 is 3, the Empress. It is the power of Life and Resurrection – Left side of Heaven (left: form/restriction)|
|4. Chesed/Mercy||“Your Kingdom come”||First sphere beneath the Supernal Triad, beneath the Abyss, Jupiter, planet of expansion, “right side of Heaven” – Father/King – emanation – Demiurge – first manifestation of the realm of emanation that is in Briah, the world of creation|
|5. Geburah/Strength||“Your Will be done”||Child of 3, Mother (Binah), concentrates Binah’s power of life and resurrection, represents creative power of the Left-hand side (Motherly side) of God|
|6. Tiphareth/Beauty||“On earth as it is in heaven”||Principle of hermeticism – being in the center – aligned with Kether – exhaltation of energy and form – perfection and balance of energy|
|7. Netzach/Victory||“Give us this day our daily bread”||Action and expansion – energy realized in the everyday World.|
|8. Hod/Splendor||“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”||Yielding – restriction – the active force of Netzach resonating in the left path of form and restriction – reconciliation –|
|9. Yesod/Foundation||“And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.”||Maintaining the purity of the Moon in the face of temptation (being so close to Malkuth – the material world)|
|10. Malkuth/Kingdom||“For the kingdom and the power and the glory are yours forever. Amen”||Chesed to Malkuth is 1-7, a natural spiritual cycle.|
The Left and Right Pillars
|Binah (Left side of Image of God)||Chokman (Right side of Image of God)|
In between the Two Pillars on the Left and Right is the Middle Path, which can be thought of as levels of consciousness:
Malkuth – everyday, sensory consciousness
Yesod – psychic, intuitive consciousness
Tiphareth – illuminated consciousness, enlightenment – exalted higher self
Daath – the Invisible Sephiroth – Knowledge
Kether – root of all Being
The Four Realms
The Tree of Life can be broken into four distinct Realms or Worlds: Atziluth, Briah, Yetzirah, and Assiah. Each of these Realms corresponds to a unique suite of the Tarot: Wands, Cups, Swords, and Disks, respectively.
|Kether/Chokmah/Binah||Aztiluth/Emenation||Realm of Divinity (God and heavens), the first triad, Archetypes||Wands||Fire|
|Chesed/Geburah/Tiphareth||Briah/Creation||The second triad, which is the first triad beneath the Supernal triad, a mirror of it that is beneath the Abyss, Closer to spiritual world, creation||Cups||Water|
|Netzach/Hod/Yesod||Yetzirah/Formation||Third triad, mirror of the second triad, closer to the material world, dealing with everyday concerns||Swords||Air|
|Malkuth||Assiah/Action||The material world, lowest of the lowest, contains within itself the idea of the Highest of the High, world of action and matter||Discs||Earth|
Each realm corresponds in a unique way to the Ten Sephiroth. In this sense, there are four different Trees of Life.
Each of the Ten Sephiroths therefore has a four-fold nature. The first realm, Atziluth, is akin to the incomprehensability of Kether and the three other realms are “veils of negative experience” – aka the method through which we know the nature of God: via what God is not.
The Four realms correspond to Tetragrammatron – Yod – He – Vav – He
Corresponds to Ten Names of God – the world in which God acts directly
Color Scale – King Scale
Realm of the Absolute
Realm of Emanation (issuing from a source)
Corresponds to Ten Archangels – Veil of Negative Experience – God works with Angels
Color scale – Queen Scale
Corresponds to Angelic Hosts – choir of Angels – Veil of Negative Experience – God works with Angelic Orders
Color scale – Emperor Scale
Corresponds to ten parts of the Body – Veil of Negative Experience – Works with the mundane, planets, elements, Zodiac signs
Color scale – Empress scale
Qabalistic Correspondence Within the Tarot
Numerology in the Qabalah and Tarot
|Aces, Twos, Threes||Strong in identity for they are in the World of Emmanation that defines the Suits in their Platonic Form|
|Fours||First manifestation of Suit below The Abyss and thus think of themselves like the Ace. For this reason they are strong representations of their suit and wish to enforce a sense of normativity and exactness|
|Fives||Active and strong but too aggressive to be cohesive – ends in strife.|
|Sixes||The Wholeness and Energy of the Sun finding balance for the first time in the Briah, or Realm of Cups, or mobile energy|
|Sevens||First manifestation of the Yetzirah, a lower world in the Tree, unbalanced (on the side of the tree), and represents an attempt at masculine Victory improperly balanced by feminine forces|
|Eights||Second manifestation of the Yetzirah, low in the Tree, unbalanced, and represents an attempt at feminine Splendor improperly balanced by masculine forces|
|Nines||Nines, representing the foundational Moon in relation to the Energy of the Sun, are generally strong representations of their Suit.|
|Tens||Tens represent the low world of material form, and because they are at the end of their Journey within the Suit, about to (reluctantly) deterritorialize into a lower world. Ten of Wands descends into the World of Cups; the Ten of Cups descends into the World of Swords; and the Ten of Swords attains ego death and is reborn into the World of Materiality (Earth). The exception to this is the Ten of Pentacles, being already of the Lowest Realm, can do nothing but ascend to the highest high, the world of Spirit.|
The 22 Letters of Hebrew
|letter||Hebrew Letter Sequence||Name of letter||Astrology|
|1||Magus (The Magician)||בּ||2||Bet||Mercury|
|20||Aeon (Judgement)||שׁ||21||Shin||Fire & Spirit|
|21||Universe (World)||תּ||22||Tav||Saturn & Earth|
Netzach, Hod, and Hermaphroditus
8, Hod, Mercury, Left side of Tree (feminine) – 7, Netzach, Venus, right side of Tree, (masculine)
Venus is associated with Aphrodite. Mercury is associated with Hermes.
Aphrodite and Hermes had a son, Hermaphroditus. A naiad, or nymph, Salmacis, prayed to be united with Hermaphroditus forever and a god joined them, thus making Hermaphroditus trans with a body with breasts and a penis.
Because Yesod, the Moon, lies at the center and thus balances Netzach and Mercury, it is natural to think that a secret association of the Moon is with Hermaphroditus, the masculine modulated by femininity.
Netzach thus represents masculine force improperly balanced with the form of femininity. Hod represents the feminine form improperly balanced with the force of masculinity. And Yesod represents the perfect balance of masculine force (Tiphareth, Sun) and feminine form (Yesod, Moon).
The Path between the Sun and the Moon is Trump 14, Art (Sagitarrius), which in the Crowley deck denotes a dual-faced woman (Hermaphroditus) mixing together in a cauldron two opposing forces, femininity and masculinity. We thus see the perfection of Zero, the androgynous Fool, in the transmutation of energy from Sun to Moon and ultimately into the Earth.
But from this model we come to understand why trans people have traditionally been associated with divinity and holiness and took on shamanic social roles in cultures throughout history.
A Reimagined Tree of Life
Now that we have spent time learning the traditional meaning of the Tree of Life, it is time to break it. I propose a new version of the Tree of Life, based on modern, feminist principles.
First, it is obvious to me that the Pillar of Severity could not be feminine in principle. Femininity is better aligned with the Pillar of Mercy. There is just no way that Mars should be in the feminine Pillar. And thus it is better thought of as masculine.
Tradition had it that force comes before formation in the process of emanation and hence Chokman must be masculine. But force must always be transmitted in a field of potential. The field is the Great Sea of the Mother. This adjustment actually matches Chokmah, who the Gnostics called Sophia, the Goddess of Wisdom.
We now have to adjust the Trumps. I realized the Fool is not a Path but rather the person who travels the Path and represents the potential for the entire Tree. The Path of Yesod to Kether is now one Path, Sagittarius.
We now have balanced pairs. The Magician is balanced with his counter part the High Priestess. They are both balanced by the Lovers, for that’s what they are after all. The Emporer is now properly balanced by the Empress. The Hierophant and the Chariot are switched, as well as the Hermit and Lady Justice.
Furthermore, the Tree of Life now has 21 paths instead of the previous 21. Doesn’t this ruin the correspondence with the Hebrew alphabet and thus cast doubt on its potency as a framework?
Well, according to Mary K. Greer, the prominent Tarot historian, in its infancy the Major Arcana was always described as 1-21 with the Fool being an extra card, an “excuse card.” Thus, we retain the original correspondence in the new formulation of the Tree of Life.
Tarot Spirituality: A Neopagan Approach
Goddess Worship in the Hermetic Qabalah
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