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Tarot and the Kabbalah

Adherents of the Mysteries have long held the idea that the Tarot has its origins in the arcane system of the Kabbalah, though there is no firm historical evidence for this. The work of 19th century French occultist, Eliphas Levi, was the catalyst for the study of the esoteric links between Tarot and Kabbalah, which became the main model for the development and interpretation of the Tarot. The most influential decks of the 20th century were founded on Kabbalistic principles, in terms of their structure, symbology and interpretation.

Central to the Western Kabbalah is the glyph Otz Chiim or the Tree of Life: a hierarchy of ten spheres or sefirot connected by 22 paths. Though the tree may be drawn with variations in the locations of paths (pure, Judaic Kabbalah, for example, tends to have the lowest sphere connected only to the one above it, with additional paths near the top of the tree instead), esoteric tradition is fairly consistent in presenting the tree as shown below. The tree is built from ten sefirot and 22 paths, the Tarot from ten numbered cards in each Minor Arcana suit and 22 cards in the Major Arcana.

The Major Arcana and the 22 Paths

Tarot on the Tree of LifeTarot on the Tree of Life

As can be seen in the diagram to the right, there are 22 paths on the Tree of Life, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. There are also 22 cards in the Major Arcana of the Tarot, and each of these corresponds to a Hebrew letter and a path on the Tree of Life. The usual attributions of the Trumps to the paths is shown in the diagram, but some occultists offer slightly different assignments. Aleister Crowley transposes the Star and the Emperor, so that the Emperor corresponds to the Hebrew letter tzaddi, and the Star to heh. This is in keeping with the Thelemic teaching of Crowley's Liber AL vel Legis (The Book of the Law), where it is written "All these old letters of my Book are aright; but Tzaddi is not the Star" (chapter 1:57).

Each path expresses the interaction between the pair of sefirot it connects. As a quick, much simplified example, Trump XXI, the World, concerns the successful completion of one phase and the start of another, as well as ideas of synthesis and crystallization. The interactions of sefirot nine (Yesod - Foundation) and ten (Malkuth - Kingdom) mirror these ideas, with the generative aspects of Yesod finding their fulfillment in Malkuth. The process of Creation ends in Malkuth, and the return begins through Yesod. The path and the World both correspond to the Hebrew letter tav, and again this is highly appropriate as it is the final letter of the alphabet and means "cross," a symbol associated with the manifest world.

The above example is, of course, a greatly simplified distillation. The meanings of the paths can only be approached through much study and meditation, and the symbolism of a suitably-designed Tarot deck can help in this process. Conversely, an understanding of the Kabbalah facilitates a much deeper understanding of the Tarot.

The Minor Arcana and the Sefirot

There are ten sefirot on the Tree of Life and ten numbered cards in each suit of the Minor Arcana. This gives a simple and compelling correspondence, with all the sixes belonging to the sixth sefira, Tifereth, for example. Just as the sefirot follow a sequence from the new beginning or creative impulse in the first sefira (Kether) through to completion in the tenth (Malkuth), so the numbered cards in each suit follow this pattern from the Ace through to the Ten.

Kabbalists view the Tree as acting in or through four worlds: Atziluth (Archetypal World), Briah (Creative World), Yetsirah (Formative World) and Assiah (Manifest World). So the system can be further refined, as each of the suits of the Minor Arcana corresponds to one of the four worlds. For example, Assiah is the manifest world, corresponding to the element Earth and the Tarot suit Pentacles. So the Six of Pentacles corresponds to Tifereth in Assiah. Tifereth is the sefira of balance and beauty, and Assiah the manifest, material world; hence the Six of Pentacles in the Tarot deck has meanings associated with putting money to good use, generosity, nobility and deserved success. The correspondences between the Kabbalistic worlds and the Tarot suits are as follows:

Tarot Suit Element Kabbalistic World
Pentacles Earth Assiah (Manifest World)
Swords Air Yetsirah (Formative World)
Cups Water Briah (Creative World)
Wands Fire Atziluth (Archetypal World)

All that remains are the court cards of the Minor Arcana, which placed at fixed positions on the Tree:

Court Card Sefira
Pages Malkuth (Kingdom)
Knights Tifereth (Beauty)
Queens Binah (Understanding)
Kings Chokmah (Wisdom)

Entire suits are also allocated their places, just as the four worlds are sometimes expressed on a single Tree:

Tarot Suit Sefira
Pentacles Malkuth (Kingdom)
Swords Tifereth (Beauty)
Cups Binah (Understanding)
Wands Chokmah (Wisdom)

That the final two tables above are nearly identical is no surprise, as each type of court card corresponds to a particular element or Kabbalistic world, as does each suit. Our discussion of the Minor Arcana goes into this in more detail.