Estimated Reading Time: 9 minutes
Welcome to the Tarot Blog Hop!
An international group of tarotists (check out the master list) are all writing on the same topic and then linking to each other so that the reader can hop from one blog to the next, seeing all the permutations and facets that the topic inspired in different writers.
For this Blog Hop, we are asked to write about a time when our understanding of the Tarot took a quantum leap and how that changed us and our readings.
When I took Physics 20 in college (the hard physics course that you needed calculus for, not Physics for Poets, which I probably should have taken!), I wrote a paper on the Bohr atom. I remember learning that when an electron jumped a quantum level, it released light as it fell back to its previous level. This always stood out for me–not that electrons could suddenly jump to a new level, but the light that shone from them when they fell back.
Thinking back through the discoveries that opened up new levels in the tarot for me, including starting to read for clients, working my first psychic fair, joining the Denver Tarot Meetup Group, learning astrology and tarot, and developing my Empyrean Key process, the discovery that I think was most significant was when I learned the correlation between qabalah and tarot.
Often my advances in knowledge come when I have a question that I don’t know how to find the answer to. I hold that question in the back of my mind, sometimes for months or even years, open to learning anything about it that I can. I may or may not actively seek the answer–often the answers come unexpectedly in unusual ways or from unfamiliar sources.
Back around 2006, I had been holding two questions in my mind: why do some people assign the four elements to the suits differently (giving the element air to wands instead of swords) and why are the Knights the top dogs in the Thoth tradition but the Kings are dominant in the RWS hierarchy. It turned out that these two questions found their answers rooted in the same philosophy–that of the qabalistic four worlds.
I was familiar with the four elements of esotericism: water and earth, air and fire. Having learned Aristotelian philosophy, I understood that the elements were arranged in a specific order from lightest to heaviest: fire was quickest and lightest and tends to rise, then air that expands evenly in all directions, then water which tends to pool or follow an existing channel, then finally earth, the heaviest and densest of the elements.
My tarot teacher had made an attempt to teach us qabalah. The only thing I remember is that he and three of us students were in a lounge in the student center at CSU in Fort Collins. He was showing us a diagram of the Tree of Life and I remember him pointing to the bottom circle and exclaiming in a too loud voice, “This is the ass of God!” I covertly looked around the room to see if anyone could hear us. I was decidedly not interested in qabalah!
I came upon qabalah again about six years later when I was studying alchemical philosophy through some books I had. One covered some basic qabalah. Around that time, a friend of mine led me in a guided meditation in which he talked me through an inner journey that culminated in my finding a box. I was to look in the box, which to me looked like a treasure chest. I reported that I found a book. He asked what was on the cover of the book. I told him it was the Tree of Life. He seemed surprised. I didn’t want him to think that I had simply conjured this up out of thin air and explained that I had seen it before and recently had been reading about it. He said that it would be very important in my life and that he couldn’t tell me what it meant.
Another six or so years later, I joined the Denver Tarot Meetup. At the first meeting that I attended, the founder and organizer, Scott Womack, did a reading for me. I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about the reading he had done and the cards he had used. I got out of bed and started typing up notes to myself on the reading. As I remembered the images on the cards I realized that the deck he was using, Ellen Cannon Reed’s Witches Tarot, used the swapped attributions–air for Wands. This set me to wondering why some decks made this switch.
I began researching it in earnest and found such sources as Eliphas Lévi and Papus, French esotericists from the 19th century. I cracked the spine of my copy of The Tarot of the Magicians by Oswald Wirth (a student of Stanislas de Guaita, who, incidentally, shares my birthday as I just discovered while Googling these ground-breaking esotericists to double check dates and spelling!).
I learned about the Tetragrammaton, the ineffable four-letter name of G-d, and how those four letters correspond to the four qabalistic worlds and the four elements. The first thing I found out was that the order of the elements is different in qabalah than in Aristotelian philosophy: fire is first, then water, then air, then earth. This affected my understanding of the universal order of things, and because RWS and Thoth lineages of tarot are derived from qabalah (among a great many other influences including astrology, medieval magic, etc.), not Greek philosophy, it ultimately provided a philosophical structure for my understanding of the cards.
The Tetragrammaton is composed of four letters, yod-heh-vau-heh, transliterated as YHVH. The Yod (often pronounced yood) is the element fire and symbolizes the first of the four qabalistic worlds, the world of Atziluth, or emanation. Emanate means to flow out from a source, and this highest of the four worlds emanates from the limitless light. It can be considered the first emanation from the unknowable Divine. It is the first spark; the idea with no previous source. This world corresponds to the tarot suit of Wands. It is the spiritual world.
The second letter of the Tetragrammaton, Heh (hay), corresponds to the element water and the qabalistic world Briah, or Creation. (The names of all four worlds mean creation, but have fine nuances to distinguish them.) Creation is the world of imagination, intuition, dreaming; a kind of expansive sea of fantasy and expression; this world is where we gestate and nourish our idea, seeing all its possibilities. This is the world of the tarot Cups. It is the emotional world.
The third letter is Vau (vav) and is associated with the element air and the world Yetzirah, or Formation. Yetzirah comes from the same root as the word yotzer, potter. In this world we begin to limit the expansive possibilities we had conceptualized in the previous world. Like a potter, we begin to give physical form to our idea, we measure, trim, and cut, we shape, we choose. At this time we must recognize which of all our dreamy possibilities we can keep and which must be sacrificed. This is the tarot suit of Swords. It is the mental world.
The fourth letter, like the second, is Heh, and this time corresponds to the element earth and the world of Assiah, or Manifestation. This is also called the world of action. In this world our original spark has become manifest reality, the creation is finished and can no longer be shaped or changed. The idea that was perfect in the spark of conception is now an utterly unique object, and the degree to which it reflects its divine origin depends on our skill in each of these worlds! This is the tarot suit of Pentacles. It is the physical world.
This was a quantum leap for me. Previously I had pondered questions such as are Wands fire because they can hold a flame or are Swords fire because they were forged in fire–certainly both ideas are equally valid ways of considering the suits, but overall were limited in the degree to which the metaphor could be extended. I now had a larger context to explain the four tarot suits. This philosophy provided an underlying structure that was relevant to many aspects of the tarot.
The concept of the four worlds also extended to the tarot court cards. The Kings were associated with the World of Atziluth (fire), the Queens with the World of Briah (water), the Knights with the World of Yetzirah (air) and the Pages with the World of Assiah (earth). This holds true when we switch from RWS order of the courts to the Thoth hierarchy: in the Thoth hierarchy the top dogs, the Knights, are Atziluth (fire), the Queens are Briah (water), the Princes are Yetzirah (air) and the Princesses are Assiah (earth).
(N.B., for those also studying astrology, keep in mind that the hierarchy of the courts is different from the astrological associations: the Knights (who can be called the mounted kings), whether RWS or Thoth, are the mutable signs, whereas the Princes or Kings (the throned kings because they are seated, whether in chariots or thrones) are fixed signs. The Queens are always Cardinal.)
When I first learned this, I presented the material to the Denver Tarot Meetup. One member was very knowledgeable in qabalah. I asked him, what would it mean if we were to switch the swords and wands or the Kings and Knights, if we were to re-order the letters of the Tetragrammaton. If these four letters in order spell the ineffable name of G-d, what would they spell if rearranged? Very simply, not only do these letters spell the name Jehovah, he explained to me, they are the verb to be (“And God said unto Moses, I Am That I Am” Exodus 3:14). Anagramming the letters creates the different tenses of this verb: He was, He is, He will be.
Rather than undermining or diminishing the metaphors of the tarot, working with a variety of symbolic approaches within a single philosophical structure opens up possibilities.
This was the light that was shone on me when I experienced this quantum leap in tarot.
Joy Vernon has been studying and teaching energetic and esoteric modalities for more than twenty years. She is the organizer of the Denver Tarot Geeks, Denver Tarot Meetup and Fort Collins Tarot Meetup, and she served on the faculty of Avalon Center for Druidic Studies. She is one of the Psychics of Isis and has been featured at SpiritWays, the Mercury Café and psychic fairs throughout the Denver Metro and Northern Colorado. She is a Certified Professional Tarot Reader and a member of the American Tarot Association. Joy also teaches Traditional Japanese Reiki. For information on upcoming classes or to schedule an appointment, please visit JoyVernon.com.
© 2014 by Joy Vernon. All rights reserved.
Joy Vernon is widely recognized by tarot professionals as an expert tarot teacher and respected community leader. With over twenty years’ experience teaching energetic and esoteric modalities, Joy brings expertise and practiced familiarity to her specialty of esoteric tarot, which layers astrological and qabalistic symbolism onto the traditional tarot structure. Under her leadership, the Denver Tarot Meetup has grown into one of the largest and most active tarot-specific meetups in the world. Joy works as a tarot reader, astrologer, and teacher at Isis Books. To learn more, please visit JoyVernon.com.