If you don’t know about the way the Kabbalistic Tree of Life is used in conjunction with Tarot, check out my previous piss-poor attempt at an introductory Kabbalah post.
The Kircher Tree of Life (pictured above) is the one used by just about everyone who’s interested in Kabbalah these days. Especially those influenced by the Golden Dawn and those interested in Tarot. I think there’s a lot of value to be had in learning this version of the Tree and being able to speak competently about it. After all, esoterica is a language, and the point of learning a language is to be able to engage in dialogue with others. When I learned French, I couldn’t just decide “I don’t like the way they conjugate verbs” and rearrange everything to my own liking. (Well, I could have, but no one would have understood anything I said, and I would no longer have been within my rights to call it French.) Similarly, in working with the Kabbalah, I (and the pedant buried deep within me) think it’s really, really important to understand the “right” way.
That said, the right way only gets you so far. I have a deep respect for the Kircher Tree, but if we’re telling the truth, I really don’t like it all that much. From the day I first encountered it, I’ve had some deep, deep issues with it. Some of those issues have to do with certain correspondences on the Tree,* and although I’ve studied those correspondences and gained at least a rough understanding of why they came to be,** they still don’t sit well with me. I’ve always felt like it was a bit of a cop-out to start with the Fool at the top of the Tree and work downwards towards the World; I’ve always thought there must be a better, more meaningful way.
I also struggle immensely with the geometric structure of the Tree of Life. There’s a big, ugly old gap between Keter and Tiferet, which seems downright stupid to me. I mentioned in a footnote on my earlier post that this gap is a placeholder for Daat, the “missing” eleventh Sefirah. Kabbalistic tradition holds that the Tree of Life used to be symmetrical, with Daat in its place and no Malkut, but that after Adam and Eve fell from grace (all that apple-eating rubbish), Daat “fell” too, and became Malkut. The Kircher Tree of Life is more heavily balanced towards Malkut (the material) than towards Keter (the heavenly), to represent mankind’s loss of the divine. The gap where Daat should be is known as “the abyss”, and we’re given to understand that no mortal can ever reasonably expect to cross that abyss and achieve true knowledge of the Godhead.
And that’s some beautiful symbolism. Really, it is. But it just don’t work for me, Clarence.
And so a couple of years ago, after much gnashing of teeth and wailing about the break from tradition, I designed a version of the Tree of Life for my own personal use. I made it symmetrical, because that was what made sense to me; I really didn’t understand the whole Abrahamic pity party about the Fall and an irredeemable loss of grace. You may recognize the above image if you’ve seen previous posts about my Tarot altar (although the setup there has also changed somewhat in recent months; I have a real dagger, fancier candles, and an altar cloth now).
The Major Arcana are assigned to the paths of the Tree of Life based on their astrological correspondences. The twelve cards on the diagonal paths are linked to the signs of the Zodiac, the seven cards on the vertical paths are linked to the planets of Chaldean astrology, and the three cards on the horizontal paths are connected to three of the four classical elements. The colors are also based on astrological correspondences, and I’ve written about them elsewhere.
I admit, the idea of arranging the paths this way was not entirely my own. I got it from a beautiful and thoughtful article in the now-defunct Journal of the Western Mystery Tradition. (There are also some good intros to the Tree of Life here and here, which are much better than my failed attempt. Damn, but the JWMT was good. I’m so disappointed it died.) Regardless, this arrangement makes sense to me. Certainly more sense than the structure of the Kircher Tree.
There are certainly problems with some of the path assignments, and I’m sure that some people will find this Tree just as unpalatable as I find the Kircher. But like I said. It makes sense to me.
And then a couple of months after I’d started working seriously with my personalized version of the Tree of Life, I discovered (with equal parts of relief and disappointment at my lack of originality) that I was not the first person to structure the Tree this way. As it turns out, there are many versions of the Tree of Life. The Kircher Tree happens to be the most popular in Hermetic Qabalah and Christian Cabala, but is by no means the only one. Other versions have been developed by various rabbis over the years, although they seem to be used primarily in the Jewish branches of the mystical tradition (that is to say, Kabbalah with a K). Notable contenders include the Lurianic Tree (pictured above), and my own brain-child, the Gra Tree of Life.
There are other versions, as well, although these two seem to be the big runners-up to Kircher. At one point, I came across a really cool archiving project by an Israeli university that wanted to collect medieval manuscripts depicting various versions of the Tree of Life and other universe-mapping Kabbalistic glyphs. I haven’t been able to track it down again since, but oh, boy, was it cool. (If you know what I’m talking about and can tell me where to find it, by all means, leave a comment.)
I work with the Gra Tree of Life in pretty much all of my personal Tarot jiggledygoo, including my weird quasi-religious atheo-polytheistic devotional Tarot practice. (Say that five times fast.) When I’m talking about Kabbalah with other Tarot practitioners, I’ll revert to the Kircher, but deep in my heart, this is the Tree of Life that grows.
As always, I hope you enjoyed. I’d be interested to hear anything you have to say on this matter, and if all this Kabbalah mumbo-jumbo was utterly boring to you, do let me know so I can know to avoid it in the future.
*The Tower on the path from Netzach to Hod? Really?
**Though not nearly enough of an understanding to satisfy most Crowleyites.