A Spiritually Enlightening Online Magazine. January's Theme: "Path"
Volume 4 Issue 2 ISSN# 1708-3265
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Technically Tarot
Tarot and Qabalistic Pathwork:
A Reexamination of the Cards on the Tree of Life

with Jeannette Roth

The beginning of wisdom is found in doubting; by doubting we come to the question, and by seeking we may come upon the truth. - Pierre Abelard

Tzaddi is not the Star. - Aleister Crowley

Qabala - it's "all the rage." Contemporary media, drawn to the topic by pop-culture icons, has in the space of a few short years brought this rich theological/spiritual system to a wider Western audience than ever before. But today's celebrity "spiritual system du jour" is much more than that for the practicing tarotist.

The student of Qabala, if she chooses, can fruitfully undertake her studies without paying heed to tarot, but the student of tarot works at a disadvantage if she chooses to entirely ignore the subject of Qabala. Qabala's influence on tarot is enormous, from the most mundane "canned" divinational interpretations to the loftiest spiritual work with the cards. This is not to say there aren't, or cannot be, approaches to tarot that do not incorporate Qabalistic elements. However, the most prominent exemplars of tarot texts and decks from the 19th and early 20th centuries - the work of Waite and Crowley being among the most salient examples - clearly and deliberately utilize Qabala to explain, enhance, and interpret the cards. Since these works, in turn, have influenced the tarots which have come after, we see these Qabalistic underpinnings carried forward, either in retained, diluted, or expanded form.

The purpose of this article is not to fully expound upon the tarot/Qabala connection - the subject is vast, and there are plenty of materials already available for the student who seeks a better understanding of the topic. Rather, my goal is to explore one specific aspect of that connection: the assignment of the Major Arcana to the "paths" connecting the spheres on the Qabalistc "Tree of Life" diagram. It is, on the one hand, a subject that has been done to death in the literature. On the other hand, it is a subject which remains of interest, insomuch as it continues to spark more than a little controversy.

In order to understand why, we begin with a brief primer for those less familiar with the development of the tarot/Qabala "blend"…

Qabala vs. Kabbalah

The roots of Qabala spring from Kabbalah. According to various sources, including the Wikipedia entry on Kabbalah, the different spellings of the word have been adopted to differentiate Western "Hermetic Qabala" from traditional "Judaic Kabbalah." And indeed, such a distinction is useful, since many, and perhaps most scholars and theologians writing on the topic seem to be in general agreement that the tenets of the two variations are no longer particularly similar, and most likely never were. Judaic Kabbalah actually refers to a collection of mystical and esoteric teachings of the Hebrew faith, which include such texts as the Zohar and the Sefer Yetzirah. In contrast, while writers on Western Qabala occasionally cite the Jewish texts, the focus generally centers on a reinterpreted version of the Judaic Kabbalah Tree-of-Life diagram, onto which all manner of esoteric and theosophical systems have been grafted - including, and perhaps especially, tarot. For a rather nice diagrammatic overview of the evolution of and influences on both variations, visit Colin Low's "Hermetic Kabbalah: The Big Picture".

The Hermetic version of Qabalism has been under continual fire from scholars of the Judaic tradition for its "in-authenticity." In fact, from a historical perspective, such criticisms are entirely valid. In an essay quoted on the website psyche.com, Kabbalistic scholar Professor Bryan Griffith Dobbs accuses the 19th century occultists (in particular MacGregor Mathers, William Wynn Wescott, and Aleister Crowley) of retooling the discipline in a blatant act of anti-Semitic arrogance, coupled with ignorance of the original texts and traditions. Support for Professor Dobbs' position can be found in the research of Michael Dummett and Ronald Decker, whose book A History of the Occult Tarot: 1870 - 1970 documents numerous examples of error and fabrication on the parts of those who profoundly shaped the course of contemporary Western esoteric thought some 100+ years ago.

Yet, when considered as a "separate" system as opposed to a "better" one, Western Qabala arguably stands on its own merits. Stripped of its bogus claims to antiquity and intolerant, unnecessary assertions of superiority, the system that has evolved - and continues to evolve - has proven valid and useful to many. Its emphasis on comparison and synthesis allows seekers to tackle concepts beginning from the especial knowledge garnered from their own backgrounds and experience, and, through correlation, come to an understanding of new ideas that previously seemed unapproachable or unfathomable.

It is this approach to psychological and spiritual understanding which is of particular interest to the practicing tarotist. The student of tarot deals in symbols, and Hermetic Qabala is replete with them. The Tree-of-Life diagram that is the centerpiece of Qabalistic teaching presents a symbolic organizational system which has been subjected to endless associative exercises. Foremost among the correlated systems are the Hebrew alphabet and the tarot. The 22 letters of the former, and the 22 Major Arcana of the latter, have supplied a wealth of material for associative study. Yet the conclusions one may draw from such studies tends to rely on what they're associated with…

The Qabalistic Tree of Life

To understand how all this fits together, it is important to be familiar with the specific structure of the Qabalistic Tree-of-Life itself. (In Judaic Kabbalah, the diagram has evolved over time to have several versions, but Western Qabalism focuses almost exclusively on the one presented here.) As can be seen in the illustration, the Tree consists of 10 circles, collectively called Sephiroth (singular: Sephirah), connected by a series of lines referred to as paths. In the Qabalistic version (as well as one of the more popular Kabbalistic variations), there are exactly 22 connecting paths (note: the sephiroth are also referred to as paths in many texts, but for purposes of this essay, we'll use the word "path" to refer only to the connecting lines). Each sephirah represents certain qualities: levels of creation, of the psyche, of the structure of the universe. These qualities are considered to be objective. In tarot, the minor arcana are assigned to the various sephiroth - aces to the topmost, or first, sephiroth, twos to the second sephiroth, threes to the third, and so forth. The court cards are assigned to specific sephiroth as well.

In contrast, the paths are states of transition or evolution, and are considered subjective (see Dion Fortune, The Mystical Qabala, chapter 6, page 37). It is the paths to which the Major Arcana are wedded, and from whence the term "pathworking" with the cards originates. The 22 Hebrew letters (which represent more than mere phonetic sounds) are also matched to the various connecting paths. In theory, by knowing which majors and which Hebrew letters share a given path, we can correlate their symbolism and thereby better understand both.

Or can we?

What Goes Where?

There is one "catch" in extrapolating tarot Major Arcana symbolism by examining associated ideas or systems on a given card's corresponding path, which is: how do we know where a particular card belongs? The associations depicted in the illustration provided here are the "standard" ones, but there is by no means a unanimous agreement on this arrangement among students of Qabalistic tarot. In a classic example, Aleister Crowley declared in his Book of Law "Tzaddi is not the Star"; that is, Crowley disagreed with the assignment of the Star card to the same path as the Hebrew letter Tzaddi. His solution was to swap the locations of the Star and Emperor cards, thus associating the former with the letter Heh, and the latter with Tzaddi.

Other points of contention include the assignment of the Fool card to the first, or Aleph path (since the Hebrew letter Aleph also represents the number 1, and the Fool is traditionally numbered zero or remains unnumbered), and whether the paths of the Strength and Justice cards should be switched (since these two cards occupied reversed positions in the traditional Marseille majors sequence). So the question arises: which of these arrangements is actually correct? Or is it possible that none are, and the correct arrangement is something entirely different yet?

Path Assignments: the Case for a Fluid Approach

It would seem that unless we can determine the correct path assignment for each major card, comparative tarot studies within the framework of Qabala cannot be undertaken with any degree of confidence in the results. However, upon examination, the question makes a potentially erroneous assumption: that there is a correct assignment for each card. While there are great benefits to studying one or more of the systems adopted as "standards" by various sources, to declare that there is only one correct and true manner for assigning the cards to the paths ignores two generally accepted principles of Qabala and tarot:

Therefore, if we undertake the Fool's Journey via Qabalistic pathwork, it stands to reason we would not necessarily encounter the exact same cards on the exact same paths along the way as the next seeker - or even each time we personally meditate upon the cards.

While there may be good reason to assign a given card to a particular path, it may be counterproductive to accept such assignments as the be-all and end-all of our comparative studies. The tarot majors are multidimensional, as evidenced by the long lists of concepts and keywords associated with each one. Thus, while we may generally expect to have a "Moon" experience when pathworking between sephirah ten (Malkuth) and sephirah seven (Netzach), it may not be wise to discount the possibility that under certain circumstances, we may find ourselves in the midst of a "Hermit" experience, or a "Devil" experience, or one of the other 19 "Fool's Journey" possibilities. Rather than dismiss such occurrences as misinterpretations or anomalies, it may behoove us to consider what we can learn from the temporary transposition of a card from one path to another. Tarot teaches us that we do not become wise by knowing; we become wise by seeking. In exploring, we often learn the most when we come across something we didn't expect to find.


The paradox of spiritual work is that we are told we cannot progress without taking a disciplined approach, while at the same time we are encouraged to think "outside the box."

The assignment of the tarot Major Arcana to specific paths on the Qabalistic Tree of Life provides us with a starting point for disciplined study. The resulting associations reveal information that can greatly expand our understanding of the world around us. However, when working within the Tree for purposes of personal spiritual growth, it may be unwise to avoid acknowledging the subjective nature of the process. To reject our own experience merely to conform to an appealing theory seems shortsighted at best, and dangerously counterproductive at worst.

The search for facts brings us knowledge. The search for truth brings us wisdom.

Jeannette Roth has been collecting and studying tarot decks for over 20 years, and has presented lectures on topics related to tarot evolution and imagery around the midwestern U.S. for nearly 15 years. She is the co-owner of The Tarot Garden, which maintains the largest publicly-accessible database of 20th and 21st century tarot and cartomantic decks in the world.

Feel free to check out Tarot Garden's auctions on eBay!

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