Since the inception of the motion picture, Hollywood has given us images of colorful gypsy-types using cards, crystal balls and other occult paraphernalia to tell people’s fortunes. Often these fortune tellers have been beautiful and mysterious women, like Marlene Dietrich in “Golden Earrings,” giving readings to the idle rich. Sometimes they have been played for comic value, with the reader being an elderly dowager or a con-artist showman, like the traveling fortune teller in the opening sequences of “The Wizard of Oz.”
In the movies, fortune tellers are usually used as a way of adding atmosphere while incorporating some foreshadowing into the plot. In the Oz adventure, Dorothy is told that she will go on a magnificent adventure by the traveling fortune teller. In “Golden Earrings,” the hero is aided by a sear who might be choosing sides because she already knows the outcome. You can watch most of these movies and never realize that there is a spiritual discipline behind the tools that fortune tellers use, or that these tools are used for purposes other than telling a client that a “tall dark stranger” is about to come and sweep her off her feet.
Because of images such as these, the Tarot has become a most misunderstood tool of spirituality. This does not mean that these cards can’t be used for divination, for indeed that is part of their design. Anyone can learn some basics about the cards meanings, don colorful gypsy gear, and make some money being a good razzle-dazzle at parties. If you wish, you can use the Tarot to check up on your love life two or three times a day or to fret over a career. Many people do.
Even though the Tarot works fine for divination that is not its primary function, as many people who start working with the deck soon learn. In actuality, the Tarot is a psycho-spiritual text book that’s not unlike the Bible, Koran or Sutras. The 78 images of the traditional Tarot are a type of Bible, designed to explain a spiritual reality that is intrinsically tied to the psychological and physical aspects of life.
The Gnostic Connection
It has often been claimed that the Tarot has been handed down to us from ancient times. In the last decade or so, decks have been marketed with the claim of having origins in ancient Egypt, Sumeria or even China. A TV ad for a 900 psychic-hotline service promises that their readers use the “Tarot of the Egyptians.” The Victorian occultist Aleister Crowley thought that the deck was a recovery of the legendary lost “Book of Thoth,” which was an ancient book of Magick from the Egyptian god of Magick, the Ibis headed Tahuti. Even though we know that the modern Tarot dates only to the time of the early Renaissance, most modern metaphysicians would tend to agree with this last viewpoint, that the Tarot represents a knowledge that is extremely ancient.
The earliest reference to the cards is from 1392, with the first known Tarot deck coming from Milan in 1441, a wedding present to the city’s future duke Francesco Sforza from the local Gnostics. As far as we can tell, the deck did not develop slowly over the centuries as would be expected from such an intricate system. The first deck, the wedding gift in Milan, is a complete deck, just as we know it now. This would seem to indicate that the Tarot had perhaps been a part of the secret inner teachings of the Gnostics for quite some time.
Another possibility is that it had been developed in the early 14th century as a way of saving Gnostic ideas from the flames of the inquisition. By the late 1300s, the Gnostics were very much in decline. Not only were they vastly outnumbered by the followers of Catholicism, who represented the mainstream of European religious life, but with the inquisition getting under way, the Holy Office of the Roman church was beginning to show a rather cruel intolerance to anyone not adhering to strict Catholic doctrine.
It’s important to remember that, up until this time, the Gnostics had a rich history dating almost all the way back to the time of Christ. In fact, for several centuries after Christ’s death they were extremely influential among the early Christians. Even though their importance went into decline in the forth century of the current era, when Catholic doctrine became the official state religion of Rome, they continued to hold a substantial influence throughout the dark ages. Even up until their end, they continued to attract some of most learned spiritual scholars in Europe.
Actually, by today’s standards the Gnostics would hardly be considered Christian at all. Their philosophy was a synthesis of Christianity, Greek philosophy, Hinduism, Buddhism and the mystery cults of the Mediterranean. They saw the world as a series of emanations from the highest of many gods and believed that the lowest of these was an evil god, the demiurge, who had created the physical world as a prison for the divine spirits that dwell in human bodies. This demiurge, or evil creator god, was identified as the God of the Old Testament and they thought that the story of Adam and Eve and the ministry of Jesus were attempts to impart divine secret wisdom to free humanity from his control.
The Tarot and Kabbalah
Although the Gnostics would give the world the first Tarot deck in the middle of the 15th century, four hundred years would pass before French occultist Eliphas Levi would observe that the twenty-two cards of the Major Arcana, or trump suit, correspond with the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet and thereby with the twenty-two paths of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. This would be followed, near the end of the 19th century, by the scholarship of S. L. MacGregor Mathers and A. E. Waite, two members of the influential English occult group “The Golden Dawn,” who would determine that this Kabbalistic connection would apply not only to the trump suit, but to the entire 78 card deck. With this understanding, the powerful secrets of the deck would begin to become revealed.
The Kabbalah, or more specifically the Kabbalistic design of Otz Chiim or the “Tree of Life,” is a diagram of ten spheres, called sephiroth, and twenty-two specific pathways linking these spheres together. According to mystical tradition, the pattern of this diagram represents the grand plan of all creation, from the lowly atom up to the entire universe and everything in it. The Kabbalah itself is a magical and mystical system, and contemplation on the Tree of Life is said to bring a higher state of consciousness, leading eventually to a “union with God.” In this regard, it’s not unlike the Mandala upon which the Tibetans meditate. As a mandala, the Kabbalah is indeed powerful, since it’s also thought to bring Magickal abilities to those who work with its energies.
In retrospect, the connection between the Tarot and the Kabbalah should have been a no-brainer. The Gnostics believed in a hierarchy, or cosmology, of divine forces that emanate from the highest to the lowest, which agrees fully with the Kabbalistic understanding of the universe. On the Tree of Life, each sphere is ruled by a specific name of God as well as a specific archangel and choir of angels. Most modern occultists now believe that the Tarot was meant to be a tool to explain and teach the Kabbalah. With this understanding, the Tarot becomes one and the same with the Tree of Life and any understanding of one automatically brings about an understanding of the other.
What Is The Kabbalah
In plain language, the Kabbalah is ten spheres and twenty-two paths; a deceptively simple diagram that explains the beginning of creation. From a triple negative, the goddess, springs forth all that exists. Here is the big bang theory, as well as what was before that event and all that has come after. It has been said that the Kabbalah is a map of the individual human being and of the entire universe in which s/he lives. The Tree of Life has been likened to the master key to all of creation, a key that will unlock the mysteries behind all doors, from the secrets of the physical universe and on to mental and spiritual planes as well. Over the centuries, mystics on a wide variety of spiritual paths have found the Tree to be a useful tool in their search for enlightenment.
Even in modern times, as the empirical scientific process has dominated our cultural reality, this “superstition” that was given to us by the ancient Jews has continued to prove its worth as an instrument of truth. Scientific facts that would’ve been unknown to the ancients are included within the structure of the Tree, from nuclear spin theory to the structure and role of DNA. The “big bang” theory of creation is explained on the Tree in minute detail, as are more modern theories like quantum physics.
Although the Kabbalah is intrinsically Hebrew and an integral part of Jewish philosophy, it began to be adapted to fit new spiritual realities soon after the death of Christ. As already noted, the Gnostics found it’s scope to be universal and easily adapted it to their own knowledge. The alchemists, who followed them, also used the Kabbalah in their work and both groups believed that this body of knowledge predated the Hebrews from whom it had come.
Before the Gnostics, however, the Kabbalah seems to have been the exclusive property of Judaism and remains today an important part of the esoteric and mystical aspects of that religion. In Hebrew, the word Kabbalah (QBL) means “an oral tradition” and there appears to have been no written texts on the subject until approximately 100 C.E. with the appearance of “Sefir Jezirah” or “The Book of Creation.” Because of this, the origins of the Kabbalah are lost to antiquity, but it’s believed to have a history dating back to at least the time of Moses. Although there is no definitive historical proof, many modern occultists believe that the knowledge originally came from the Egyptians, part of a body of knowledge that was brought out by Moses, who had been privy to the knowledge of the Egyptian priesthood.
Although always controversial and never an accepted part of mainstream Judaism, the Kabbalah has been studied and used by Jewish mystics for well over two millineum. Over the years, there have been periods when the system has completely disappeared from human culture for centuries at a time, only to reappear miraculously during times of spiritual turmoil. As an instrument of Jewish mysticism, the Kabbalah was used to define and explain the secrets of the Torah, the divine revelation to the Jews. The rabbis were the main recipients of this secret knowledge and they framed the Kabbalah within the context of their patriarchal religious beliefs. They believed that, as God’s “chosen people,” only they had the genetic predisposition to understand the Kabbalah and that it was futile for gentiles to even try. Women, even Jewish women, were also believed to be unable to understand this mystical system.
This belief is still prevalent today among many Jewish Kabbalists. Several years ago, a woman friend of mine with considerable Kabbalistic knowledge was discussing the system with a rabbi who was in our town to conduct a workshop on the Kabbalah, which my friend had been planning to attend. During their discussion, he told her than in her last life she must have been a Jewish man, because it would’ve been impossible for her to have gathered so much understanding as a gentile and as a woman. Needless to say, she took a pass on his workshop.
As non-Jewish occultists began to work with the Kabbalah, moving it away from it’s strictly Judaic origins, they began to differentiate between the Jewish Kabbalah and their new understanding of this spiritual body of knowledge. Eventually, modern occultist began to refer to their understanding of the Kabbalah as the “Esoteric Kabbalah,” but even though this approach has expanded upon the Kabbalah’s original Jewishness, it still cannot be separated entirely from ancient Hebrew mystical thought. Even if we suppose that this system predates the Jews and has origins in Egypt, we must first learn to understand it from its connections with the Hebrew language. We cannot pretend to begin to understand how the system was utilized by the Egyptians, where most knowledge has been essentially lost, until we understand the meaning behind the Hebrew.
The Kabbalah can be said to be the “unified field theory” of spirituality. One of the main functions of the Tree of Life is that it’s sort of a psycho-spiritual file system. Because of this, by placing aspects from other spiritual systems into their proper “file,” it becomes possible to unify all forms of spiritual thought. Here, it’s possible to see where an aspect of yoga corresponds to an aspect of Judaism, Christianity, Wicca or any other spiritual practice. The labels on these Kabbalistic files are in the ancient form of the Hebrew language, which means we must understand something about that language before we can begin retrieving files.
In fact, the Kabbalah can itself be seen as a study of the Hebrew language and numbers (which are essentially one and the same). In addition to the diagram of the Otz Chiim, or The Tree of Life, there are two other major branches of Kabbalah: Gematria and Notircon. Like the tree, both of these are a study of the interaction between a divinely inspired alphabet and sacred number theory.
Unlike modern languages, ancient Hebrew was a “sacred” or divinely inspired language. In this language, the concept of number and letter (or sound) are intricately tied together. Each of the twenty-two letters in this alphabet has a numerical value, from 1 to 900, and each of the letters can be said to represent the sacred properties of that number. Therefore, the letter Aleph, with the value of one, represents unity, the letter Beth, with the value of two, deals with duality and so on.
Gematria is the study of the sums of words according to their letters. The gematriast adds the letters in a word according to their numerical value to reach a sum and then compares them with other words made of letters with the same total. For example, the Hebrew word for “love,” is spelled Aleph-He-Gimel-He and the word for “unity” is spelled Aleph-Cheth-Daleth, both of which add-up to 13. It’s easy to see a connection between “love” and “unity,” and the Gematriast would say that the two words have a correspondence. The other major branch of Kabbalah, Notaricon, rearranges the letters in a word, sentence or entire text, to create a second subtext.
Kabbalists believe that the writers of the old testament, undoubtedly the most learned Jews of their day, understood these inner workings of the Hebrew language and used them in the scriptures. It’s certainly true that by analyzing the Torah in this way, many spiritual secrets seem to become unveiled. This would mean, of course, that it’s impossible to understand the true meaning of the Old Testament by studying an English language translation – no matter how good that translation may be.
The main branch of the Kabbalah, however, is our trusted glyph of the Tree of Life, for here is the key that explains the properties of both the letters and numbers. These two becomes the basic element of a file cabinet, into which we can next add color and astrology. This diagram of ten spheres and twenty-two paths is deceptively simple, for it’s claimed to be no less than a map of “the microcosm and the macrocosm,” which means that it is a map of each individual person on the planet and of the entire universe within which s/he resides. In this regard, it’s like a hologram in which total reality is embedded within each piece.
On the tree, the first ten numbers are arranged in a meaningful pattern which explains the relationship of one number to another. Each number, or emanation, has a certain quality (the basis of numerology) that corresponds with different states of existence. For example, on the tree the number three falls in sequence after the number two, but it is located so that it is physically just as close to the one and the five, and is closer to these numbers than it is to the four, which numerically follows.
This placement tells us certain things about the properties of the three, and the study of this makes the number seem to come alive with a personality that transcends simple arithmetic. It’s proximity to the one shows that the three attempts to rectify the duality of the two by creating a new unity. On the layout of the tree, the first three numbers form a triangle, our simplest shape in plane geometry, which means that one thing has been created out of three.
This suggests the birth process and gives the number a feminine quality. This would seem to verify the ancient Pagan belief in the triple aspect of the Goddess, the three phases of a woman’s life and other feminine triplicities. This would also explain the Kabbalistic attribution of the number three with the planet Saturn, which creates form. There is much more that we could learn from this number by studying this placement, just as we can learn about the spiritual properties of the other nine numbers by studying their placement. Indeed, we will have to do this as we delve into the study of the Tarot.
Many magicians create “astral” temples to each of these ten worlds, to use the energy in a Magickal working or as platforms to gain mystical entrance to the twenty-two paths that connect the ten sephiroth. These paths are attributed to the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and entrance to the mystical worlds they represent comes about by meditating on the specific letters, visualizing them in flaming form, hanging in the air. Each of the twenty-two letters represents a different Magickal experience.
These paths, or letters, are the energy exchange between the spheres they connect. In this regard, the ten sephiroth are static energies, akin to psychic spaces. The twenty-two paths are more fluid and can be seen as psychic experiences. Vincent Bridges, an expert on both the Kabbalah and the Tarot, puts it best when he says, “The sephiroth are states of being and the paths are states of becoming.”
A priestess of the mysteries uses the Kabbalah as her starting point. Learning to understand this tool allows her to study many spiritual and magickal systems without getting lost along the way. For example, by using Kabbalistic correspondences it becomes easy to see that the Egyptian Isis and the Greek Aphrodite are both appropriate to the seventh sphere, which is called Netzach and corresponds to Venus. Although these goddesses are very different, we can see by this that they are also somewhat interchangeable, or that they are different aspects of the same divine principle.
Since the Tarot is one and the same with the Kabbalah, one of the most effective ways to learn the esoteric Kabbalah is by studying the Tarot. Learning how the Tarot deck is put together and how the cards relate to one another opens the secrets of the Kabbalah. Because both the Tarot and the Kabbalah are spiritual systems, the study of either is a mystical, life-enriching experience.
The Pattern of the Tarot
As evidenced by the Kabbalah, the study of higher consciousness is the study of patterns. Anybody who practices yoga, delves into the study of Magick or drops into the Shamanic underworld to visit with Don Juan, soon realizes that patterns, or vibrations, are the basic building block of all existence. The quartz crystal follows a pattern that compels it to grow into a hexagonal shape. Hydrogen and oxygen, patterns in their own right, follow another pattern to combine in such a way as to create water. Music is a pattern of sound vibrations with vibrations within vibrations. The color of a flower is a vibration, as is the flower itself.
The discovery of the self is the discovery of our own unique patterns. There are the patterns of our likes and dislikes, our loves, and the basic pattern of our journey through life. Some patterns are warning signs of things that need to be healed, like when we continually pick lovers who are bad for us or when we develop harmful habits like drug addiction or eating disorders. Finding the patterns that lead towards health and happiness is necessary, but that’s only half of the job of self-improvement. It’s also essential that we find what needs to be healed, to identify those areas in our life that are disharmonious, so that we can bring those aspects of ourselves into harmony.
The Tarot, like the Kabbalah, is a very complex system of patterns within patterns and it would be a mistake to think that any of these patterns are accidental. Remember, the Tarot was designed by learned Kabbalists, who well understood numbers and their patterns. Every aspect of the Tarot has been carefully thought-out, which can been seen very clearly by looking at the basic pattern of the deck.
For example, there are 78 cards in the Tarot deck. Since seven is a number of fertility and eight is a number of thought or logic, we see that the Tarot is an instrument for growing thought or expanding consciousness. By adding seven and eight together we get fifteen, a number associated with the over identification with matter which the Gnostics associated with the demiurge or evil god. This indicates that another aspect of the Tarot is that its study will help free one from being trapped on the physical plane. If we reduce further, by adding the one and five of the fifteen, we get six, a number associated with harmony, the heart and divine consciousness. In other words, we can free ourselves from the chains of matter by bringing ourselves into harmony with the divine consciousness of the universe.
This is only one example of the many patterns that are embedded into the design of the Tarot deck. The deck is divided into two major sections, the Minor and Major Arcana, representing the dual nature of existence. Since the word arcana means “mystery,” we can say that this division also represents the “greater and lesser mysteries” of the ancient spiritual schools. The 56 card minor arcana is further divided into 40 pip (or numbered) cards and 16 court cards.
Again, these numbers are meaningful. Using kabbalistic numerology, 56 reduces by addition (5+6) to 11, a number representing the individual operating within the physical world. As we will discover, the Minor Arcana actually represents the physical forces in our environment, making this number an appropriate description of this division of the deck. We will also see that 40, the number of pip cards, is a number of very solid manifestation and that the number 16 sheds much light on the nature of the court cards, which represent people. The four suits represent the elements of Fire, Water, Air and Earth, the same elements used by modern astrologers, which can be seen as gross natural forces. The pip cards use number to divide these elements down to definable limits, so that each card represents a well-defined “natural force” at work in our environment.
This last is an important point, for the meanings of these cards is not arbitrary, as many people who don’t understand the Tarot think. I’ve found that many ill-informed people think that a card like the Two of Cups is called “Love” merely because the deck needed a “love card” and that this card would do as well as any other. However, as we learn to combine number and element (with a smidgin of astrology), we will see that the Two of Cups has to be connected with the idea of “Love.” Likewise, we will see that “Material Trouble” or “Worry” also aptly describes the energy of the Five combined with the Disc suit.
Thus, our journey into understanding the world of the Tarot begins!
Christine Hall has been working as a journalist since the 1970s. She currently hosts a weekly radio show of sixties music, The Sixties in 60 that can be heard every Sunday at 6 pm Eastern Time on The Barrel of Rock.