Tarot and the Tree of Life, Part 1: The Real Way

I’ve been trying to write one version of this post or another for almost as long as this blog has been running, but I’ve always struggled to get it into words. What I really want to talk about is the modified version of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life that I use in my own Tarot practice, but before we can get to that point, I need to give a lot of background information about the Tree of Life as it’s used by everyone else. And, well, I’m not good at background information. This isn’t a teaching blog. It never has been.

So the first thing I will say is this. If you don’t already know about the linkages between Kabbalah and Tarot, go read a whole bunch about it elsewhere. Unfortunately, there’s not really a good blog post I can point you to, along the read-these-seven-hundred-words-and-you’ll-understand-everything lines, but go old-fashioned and read books. Read one book each by DuQuette, Israel Regardie, and the Ciceros; comb through the Sepher Yetzirah and the Zohar; and of course, read literally everything by Aleister Crowley. The man was a creep, but he was a hell of a ceremonial magician, and he had a profound effect on the shape of modern Tarot. Oh, and if you’re feeling really snazzy, read Cornelius Agrippa’s De Occulta Philosophia. But that one’s not required reading.

Assuming you’re actually interested enough in this topic to have done all that (or to have some prior knowledge of the Tree of Life), I’ll now proceed with a very basic rundown of the connection between the Tree and Tarot.*

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As ever, Wikipedia is very helpful in supplying visual aids.

The Tree of Life is a glyph of Hermetic Qabalah, as appropriated from the Kabbalah (a tradition of Jewish mysticism). It purports to represent the entire universe in one handy, compact diagram.

The basic idea structuring the Tree of Life is the quasi-Platonic theory of emanations: that all the created universe is (to be redundant) an emanation of the infinite Godhead. This is sort of a pantheistic vision; everything is part of God, to one extent or another. The Tree of Life has ten primary emanations, known as the Sefirot** (singular: Sefirah). Their names are, respectively:

  1. Keter (which translates into English as “Crown”)
  2. Chokmah (“Wisdom”)
  3. Binah (“Understanding”)
  4. Chesed (“Mercy”); Some people alternatively call this Sefirah “Gedulah” (“Glory”)
  5. Gevurah (“Severity”; you’ll also see it translated as “Strength” or “Power”)
  6. Tiferet (“Beauty”)
  7. Netzach (“Victory”)
  8. Hod (“Splendor”)
  9. Yesod (“Foundation”)
  10. Malkut (“Kingdom”)

They are structured as seen in the picture above, with Keter at the top and Malkut at the bottom. There’s a lot of crazy, deep, takes-years-to-know-and-a-lifetime-to-be-able-to-teach mystical crap going on with the Sefirot, which unfortunately I can’t get into now if we want this post to be anywhere near comprehensible.*** (This is why I had that recommended reading list up above.) But each Sefirah has some very basic correspondences, which I’ll list here for simplicity’s sake.

  1. Keter – ultimate unity. This is the closest that we can ever get to the Godhead, and is so pure and so far above our limited materialistic understanding that, realistically, we’ll never achieve knowledge of Keter. Supposedly, there’s something even beyond Keter known as “Nothing” (and beyond that, “Super Nothing” and “Super Duper Nothing”, more commonly known as “Light” and “Limitless Light”), but once again, that’s all way beyond our mere mortal understanding.
  2. Chokmah – maleness. The “male” archetype of the Kabbalah is very different from that of much Western Christian thought; it’s associated with growth, expansion, nurturing, and energy, but not so much with violence, restriction, or severity. Chokmah is all about an uncontrollable burst of energy.
  3. Binah – femaleness. Here, we think of “female” as the womb, the vessel that contains, limits, and shapes the boundless energy of the male. Binah is a restricting force, but not in a negative sense; more in the sense that the ultimate holy-bam-cow-shammiddlegy of divine power needs to be limited if it can manifest in the physical world.
  4. Chesed – well, “Mercy” pretty much says it all here. Chesed is about kindness, softness, meekness. At its worst, it can be weak, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s all the gentle things in the universe, the lovey-dovey New Testament version of God.
  5. Gevurah – severity. This is the angry Old Testament complement to Chesed. At its best, it is strength and power, and its influence is very much needed in the world, but it can also be a frightening and unpleasant force to encounter.
  6. Tiferet – super-duper-amazing-balance. Tiferet has paths that connect it directly to eight of the other nine Sefirot. It’s the convergence of all the influences represented elsewhere on the Tree of Life, and it’s about synthesizing those influences and bringing them into balance. Tiferet also represents the ego, the conscious mind. There’s also, weirdly, a lot of symbolism of death and rebirth associated with this Sefirah. The reasons for this are complicated.
  7. Netzach – the group mind. I mean, well, there’s more to it than that. Netzach also rules over love, lust, and pretty much anything involving the connection to other human beings. (Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention, each of the ten Sefirot also has an astrological ruler, which helps determine the symbolism associated therewith. Netzach’s is Venus.) But if you want to talk about social behavior, about the dissolution of the individual self into a transpersonal community, then Netzach is where you want to land.
  8. Hod – the individual. Hod is a counterbalance to Netzach, and where Netzach represents submission of the self to the All, Hod is the affirmation of the self and the individual’s accomplishments. Hod is about what you can achieve from your own merit.
  9. Yesod – the dreamy unconscious. This is the counterbalance to Tiferet’s ego-self, and represents the darker, more swimming, unknown aspects of the psyche. It rules over the astral plane, so it’s also a good Sefirah when dealing with illusions, magic, and the like.
  10. Malkut – the physical world. This is the world we live in, the world of sensory perception and all that inside-Plato’s-cave nonsense. It’s the lowest form of reality (although it is still a part of reality, still an emanation of the Godhead, and therefore still divine). Most people spend their entire lives without perceiving anything beyond Malkut.

Keep in mind that entire books can be written about any one of the Sefirot, so this list is just a super-duper-extremely-basic introductory skim-over so that any Kabbalistic newbies will have a rough sense of what I’m talking about. If this seems interesting to you, for the love of God, do all the reading I mentioned, because my wee blog will not be anywhere near enough to give you a good understanding of the Kabbalah.

(You see? This is why I don’t run a teaching blog.)

Whew. That was a big wall of text. Here’s a picture of a puppy to lighten things up:

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Now, here’s the part where we start to connect the Tree of Life to Tarot. Because the Sefirot are numbered 1 through 10, it doesn’t take a genius to realize that they can be connected to the Minor Arcana. In Kabbalistic Tarot (i.e. the Thoth deck and anything based on the Golden Dawn tradition), each card of the Minor Arcana is understood through a combination of its Sefirah and the elemental attributions of its suit. The Six of Swords, for example, is a combination of the holy balance of Tiferet and the intellectual, airy nature of the suit of Swords. (This card is named “Science” in the Thoth deck.) Likewise, the Two of Cups (“Love”) is a Chokmah-like burst of newness and energy on the Cupsy emotional plane. And so on.

The Court Cards are also assigned to Sefirot. The Kings**** are associated with the male principle of Chokmah, the Queens with Binah, the Knights with Tiferet, and the Pages with Malkut. (This is interesting, because it means that Kabbalistically, you can draw a connection between cards that wouldn’t otherwise be apparent. Although there are some complicated astrological reasons that the cards differ, the King of Wands and Two of Wands share a connection in esoteric Tarot that you don’t see if you read without the Tree of Life. The same goes for the Queen of Pentacles and the Three of Pentacles, and so on.)

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Another puppy to reward you for your patience.

As for the Major Arcana? There are twenty-two connections drawn between the ten Sefirot, known as “paths”. (The yellow line between Binah and Chesed in the diagram above is a misnomer, and doesn’t actually count.) Each of these paths is assigned to one of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet and to one of the twenty-two cards of the Major Arcana.

Now, the assignment of paths to Arcana is the biggest point where I differ from tradition in my personal practice, but the traditional way of doing it is to start at the top of the Tree and work your way down. The path from Keter to Chokmah, the first path on the Tree, is assigned to א (the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet) and the Fool (the first card of the Major Arcana). The path from Keter to Binah (the second path) is assigned to ב and the Magician. And so on, all the way down the tree to the final path, from Yesod to Malkut, which is assigned to ת and the World.

This version of the Tree of Life is known (at least where I’ve seen it referred to by name) as the Kircher Tree, named after Athanasius Kircher. It’s the version used by Aleister Crowley, S. L. MacGregor Mathers, Cornelius Agrippa, and countless other magicians and occultists throughout the centuries, although not all of them used it in conjunction with Tarot, of course.

Why have I bothered to go through this lengthy and unpleasant post about the Kircher Tree of Life when I only plan to tear that Tree apart and show you my own version instead? Well, aside from being the Way Things Are Done, the Kircher Tree is also the granddaddy of modern esoteric and exoteric Tarot. All of the Tarot meanings we use today, even the distinctly non-Kabbalistic ones such as you’ll find in the works of Mary K. Greer and Rachel Pollack, owe a lot to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and its use of the Kircher Tree in Tarot and ceremonial magic.

For example, Temperance (a card about uniting opposites and achieving unity) gets its meaning in large part from its position on the Tree of Life–the path uniting Tiferet and Yesod. (There’s also some astrological and other stuff in the mix, but we’re setting that aside for now, largely for simplicity’s sake.) I think it’s important to have a handle on the source of the traditional Kabbalistic correspondences (and their import) before I go about cutting and pasting and redesigning the Tree to suit my own aesthetic tastes.

I apologize, everyone, for the length and density of this post. Like I said, I’ve attempted this post before, but have never gotten through it because this material is just so damned daunting. My next post will be something light-hearted and fun, I promise. After that, I’ll dive back into Kabbalah, unsay everything I’ve just said, and give you the version of the Tree of Life that I work with in my own Tarot practice. But for now, I’ll sign off, and leave you to go do something more fun and mindless. Eat a cookie. Cookies always make me feel better after an extended period of Kabbalah.


*Why is all this extra reading necessary? Because I’m a follower of the goddamned Hierophant. I don’t love the traditional Tree of Life; I have a lot of problems with its structure, which is the reason that I personally work with a modified version of it. But the traditional Tree is important nonetheless, and there’s a lot of value to be had in learning it before proceeding to any wacky modifications. Changes to tradition should be made consciously, and with a deep understanding of why those changes are significant, but in order to achieve that understanding, we first have to get on good terms with tradition and really try to see the value in the way things are normally done.

**Classical English transliteration has this word spelled “Sephiroth”. I’m amending that to be more in line with contemporary Hebrew pronunciation. All throughout this post, I’ll use my own versions of the spellings of things. If you want the real versions, a quick Google search for “Sephiroth” will bring them right up.

***Some highlights: Nine of the Sefirot are split into groups of three, called “triads”. Keter/Chokmah/Binah form the “supernal triad”, representing man’s relationship to the divine; Chesed/Gevurah/Tiferet represent the “moral triad”, governing social and ethical behavior; and Netzach/Hod/Yesod are the “astral triad”, which rules the individual psyche. The right-hand side of the glyph is known as the “Pillar of Mercy” (named after Chesed) and is associated with masculinity; the left-hand side is the “Pillar of Severity” and is associated with femininity. These two pillars, in turn, are associated with the two pillars of Solomon’s temple in Jewish myth. There’s a blank space between Keter and Tiferet for a “missing” eleventh Sefirah, known as Daat, the absence of which (among other things) represents mankind’s fall from grace in the Garden of Eden. And so on, and so forth. The Kabbalah/Qabalah/Cabala all kind of drops into deep pits of mysticism from which we can never return.

****I’m using RWS titles of the Court Cards here. Adjust as necessary for other decks.

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6 thoughts on “Tarot and the Tree of Life, Part 1: The Real Way

  1. I look forward to reading the continuation, especially your take on the tree of life as you apply it to tarot. I have read some of Israel Regardie and it’s just a bit too much for me sometimes and I have to put it aside. I also have the Zohar. I just find it too dense. I have to wade through it sloooowly.

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    1. Personally, I’m not much a fan of the Zohar. I know how important it is, which is why I recommend it, but I also find it unspeakably dull. If you want something a little lighter (though we’re still nowhere near the domain of Saturday morning cartoons), the Chicken Qabalah is a good text to start with. Robert Wang’s Qabalistic Tarot is also decent, although that one’s more of a textbook and less of a read-through-in-one-sitting book.

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