The Arch of the Arcana: From Kenoma to Pleroma

“I’ll get back to posting weekly,” he said. “I promise,” he said.

Well, he was a big fat liar and he apologizes for his deceit. Things are hectic right now, but I promise, I am trying to keep up with the blog as much as possible. This summer might turn out to be a season of bi-weekly posts, but the posts will still keep coming, so fret not and frown not.

Today, we’re going to get into some old-school Gnostic stuff. Gnosticism is a fun and wacky branch of Western mysticism, closely tied up with a lot of the more hoobedy-hoobedy aspects of New Testament Christianity. (What is “hoobedy-hoobedy”, you ask? It’s the same thing as mysticism, but I was aesthetically displeased with repeating the word “mysticism” twice in a row and I couldn’t think of a synonym.) Personally, I first encountered Gnostic thought when wee little baby-Jack started reading Carl Jung at about the age of eleven, although of course the philosophy long predates Jung.


There are a lot of really interesting shiny bits in Gnosticism upon which we can float off into the sunset, but today I want to talk about the concept of the two worlds. (I feel like I should capitalize that and make it the Two Worlds.) These worlds structure the Gnostic universe. They are, respectively, known as Kenoma and Pleroma.*

We’ll start with Pleroma. The word “pleroma” is derived from the Greek pleres, meaning “I fill” or “to fill” or some such nonsense. (I don’t actually speak Greek, so I’m forced to rely on Google for my etymology. A brief internet search will provide you with the same depth of knowledge as I have.) It means both “fullness” and “the thing that is filled”, and in Christian theology it’s used to describe the glory of God.

In Gnosticism, the Pleroma is the world of the supreme Godhead (different from the Christian trinitarian God… more hoobedy-hoobedy and pantheistic). It is the world of completeness, where God is not distinguished from his (His?) creation. In the Pleroma, nothing is distinguished from anything at all; rather, there’s a sense of overflowing wholeness, where everything is all just one great big interconnected One.**

My favorite description of the Pleroma comes from Carl Jung’s Seven Sermons to the Dead:

Harken: I begin with nothingness. Nothingness is the same as fullness. In infinity full is no better than empty. Nothingness is both empty and full. As well might ye say anything else of nothingness, as for instance, white is it, or black, or again, it is not, or it is. A thing that is infinite and eternal hath no qualities, since it hath all qualities.

This nothingness or fullness we name the PLEROMA. Therein both thinking and being cease, since the eternal and infinite possess no qualities. In it no being is, for he then would be distinct from the pleroma, and would possess qualities which would distinguish him as something distinct from the pleroma.

In the pleroma there is nothing and everything. It is quite fruitless to think about the pleroma, for this would mean self-dissolution.

The complement of the Pleroma is the Kenoma. Where Pleroma is fullness, Kenoma is emptiness. And where Pleroma represents the highest truth of the unified Godhead, where all is One, the Kenoma represents the illusory reality of the material world. Kenoma is our false impression of the world, where we are enslaved by our senses*** and unable to perceive the ultimate unity of the Pleroma.

The goal of Gnostic spiritual development is to break free of the bonds of Kenoma and to access the Pleroma. And I think this spiritual arch is also beautifully represented in the Major Arcana of Tarot, in the journey from the Fool to the World.

It’s easy to see how the World is the Pleroma. The World is the card of completion, where all the archetypes of the Tarot come together and apotheosize into something greater than any of them. The World is the beginning and the end, and it represents that same idea of convergence–of everything melding together into one messy mystical entity–that we saw in the Pleroma.

The Fool as Kenoma is perhaps a bit more difficult to see, because the Fool is not so much about being bound by the senses. (That theme is much more the domain of the Devil.) But if we think of Kenoma as emptiness, as potential, then it makes perfect sense with the Fool. The whole purpose of the Fool’s journey is to proceed from a state of (admittedly blissful) ignorance to the World’s knowledge of the All. The Fool progresses through the stages of lower knowledge, observing each distinct archetype, but ultimately, he weds the World**** and transcends all the individual parts of the universe for a deeper knowledge of the whole. The Fool is emptiness waiting to be filled. He is a soul in the womb who must experience the world of the living, but who will eventually move beyond that world into the hoobedy-hoobedy Pleroma-like world of the afterlife.

The sequence of the Major Arcana represents many, many things, but perhaps the most important of those themes is the journey from spiritual emptiness to spiritual fulness–from Kenoma to Pleroma. And I think the Fool and the World bookend these concepts rather beautifully.

Apologies again for the lack of consistent posting. Fingers crossed, I’ll get the next post up in a more timely manner. As always, I’d love to hear any comments you have. Do you think the Kenoma/Pleroma dichotomy works when brought into Tarot? Would you assign different cards to the concepts, or approach the idea from a different angle altogether? Give me your beautiful thoughts.

*Pleroma is, naturally, also called Barbie-oma.

**A very difficult concept to explain in non-hoobedy-hoobedy terms. Another way to think of it is as the way that we perceive the world when we’re newborn. Before we learn to categorize the world into distinct objects like “Mother” and “Father” and “nipple” or “bottle”, we’re overwhelmed with a sensory smorgasbord of swirling colors and sounds and tactile impressions. The world is just a massive, glowing sphere of stuff, but none of that stuff is perceptible as essentially different from the rest. That is the world of the Pleroma.

***Hello, Plato!

****Okay, so nothing in any text really says that the end of the Fool’s journey is a marriage to the World, but I could never help feeling like this was how things turned out.

4 thoughts on “The Arch of the Arcana: From Kenoma to Pleroma

  1. I too have very little free time and wish I could write more. What you’ve written is beautifully explained and I thank you for taking the time to write it. Very few touch me with intelligence and mischievous humor yet you’ve accomplished just that. Thank you.


  2. Interesting. I just recently posted about some of these ideas myself as they pertain to the World card.
    I’m familiar with the Pleroma; I am not with the Kenoma. Based on what you’ve taught me here, though, I would have to disagree with your correspondence between it and the Fool. To me, the Fool is the being just before it exits the Pleroma and enters the Keroma, while the dancer in the World is the being just after it exits the Kenoma and re-enters the Pleroma. So as I see it, the Pleroma appears as bookends on either side of all of the other cards, which would then be various aspects of the Kenoma, which are ordered, as you suggested, in such a way as to eventually regain the Pleroma.
    If you arrange the cards in a circle, rather than a line, you get the circular image of the Pleroma, fastened by the connection between the Fool and the World. You take any one card out of the circle, and you see an aspect of the Kenoma. Does that make any sense? Anyway, just my initial thoughts upon reading. Your posts always give me something to think about.


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