A student who has been studying esotericism (tarot, astrology and kabbalah) with me all year contacted me this morning with the following question:
“You mentioned that the numbers associated with the tarot are not necessarily accurate, as I understood you; that to assume that the [Pythagorean] 1-9 set-up is popular, but not the way it really works. Is there a book, or something to read, clarify, or define? And how is the thing set up? Is tarot based on kabbalah, rather than the numbers? Astrology? How does the whole thing go together, and from Waite forward, which came first? Thanks.”
A pretty big question! I tried to put it all in perspective and explain the basic process with the following.
Here’s my answer:
To start, we have to look at the history of assigning meaning to the cards (rather than simple game playing, where six is worth more than five and so on). For this, we need to look at the use of tarot for divination and the development of the esoteric tarot.
Tarot wasn’t really used for divination until Etteilla, mid to late 18th c. He developed his own system of divination which used a modified tarot deck. I don’t know if he used numerology; I haven’t studied his system that much since he went some odd ways that don’t appeal to me. But he did develop some excellent methods for laying out and reading the cards, and eventually the Golden Dawn would find this and use it to develop their divination techniques. But first we need to discover how the esoteric meanings came to be assigned to the tarot cards.
In the 1770s Court de Gebelin and the Comte de Mellet published some essays on tarot saying it had an Egyptian origin – not true, but this sparked the esoteric tarot movement. The essay written by C de M indicated that the cards were associated with the Hebrew letters – this is the first published evidence of this tradition. Both Gebelin’s and Mellet’s essays had some similarities, but didn’t seem to point to each other, so there is a possible implication that perhaps both of them got their info from the same source—perhaps this unknown source developed some of the initial esoteric correspondences for the cards. Mellet’s essay said that the World was aleph and worked backwards, which set of correspondences is not currently used at all, except for Crowley’s attribution for the Star as heh instead of tzaddi—this attribution works if you start at the World as aleph and count backward (for the cards, forward for letters), lining up heh with the Star.
The next significant writer was the French esotericist Eliphas Levi in the mid-19th c., and he assigned the cards to the Hebrew letters as well, starting with the Magician as aleph and ascending in order of the trumps and letters, but placing the Fool in the penultimate position, assigned to shin. The World is tav.
Then came the Golden Dawn in 1888. They researched the older texts and pulled from all the significant traditions, synthesizing Etteilla’s methods of divination with the previously implied comprehensive kabbalistic correspondences. At this time Marseille cards were what was available; GD members were required to draw their own deck. I don’t know the whole development of the transition from the Marseille decks to the now standard Golden Dawn illustrations (which differ from the Marseille tradition, Waite’s cards or Crowley’s). There are some other very important esotericists in here, but I won’t go into them (particularly the French writer Papus with The Tarot of the Bohemians—he also worked with a comprehensive integration of kabbalah and tarot. Many of the important texts are at this link.).
Waite translated Levi in 1896, and in 1911 published his own Pictorial Key to the Tarot and his deck. He said that the associations of the Hebrew letters to the cards, all save one, were incorrect. What he meant was that somewhere along the line the GD had moved aleph to the Fool and continued in order, leaving the World at tav, the only card to maintain the correspondence originally published by Levi and Mathers (and Papus).
Paul Foster Case subsequently published the Golden Dawn’s associations (giving aleph to the Fool) and this has since become standard. Eventually, the Golden Dawn’s Book T: The Tarot (by Mathers) was published (along with all the GD rituals and writings) by Israel Regardie.
That’s the history of the esoteric tarot and clearly from the early days these writers were trying to establish a correspondence to the kabbalah (22 letters and 22 Major Arcana cards left only the arrangement to the imagination). Of course, I haven’t touched on numerology, just showed that the significant writers who helped shape the modern tarot deck were relying on kabbalistic correspondences, not neoplatonic philosophy. Other influences, which I won’t go into in more depth, were medieval magical grimoires and astrology (the astrological correspondences to the cards were derived from those of the Hebrew letters as assigned in the Sepher Yetzirah). So, when we get to numerology, why would we jump to a different system, such as the Pythagorean? We don’t. The numerology of the tarot is entirely based on kabbalistic correspondences.
Every card in the deck fits onto the Tree of Life, and each cards derives a portion of its meaning from this association. So the pips fit into the sephiroth—Aces to Kether, Deuces to Chokmah, Threes to Binah, etc on down to the Tens at Malkuth. Because each suit is associated with one of the four worlds, the meaning of the card is comprised of the sephirah in the world—the Ace of Wands is Kether in Atziluth, and so on and so forth.
The Court Cards are YHVH – Kings at Chokmah, Queens at Binah (abba and ama), Knights at Tiphareth and Pages at Malkuth, again, in their appropriate world. The Majors fit onto the paths (navitoth). Throughout the rest of the course we will learn a series of correspondences for the sephiroth and the navitoth. You will have to draw the tree and label these, just like you labeled the worlds and the pillars. These correspondences will flesh out the meanings of the pips.
One last thing to consider—Crowley developed a numerological take on the cards that was dimensional—not based on the planar figures, but on a geometric progression that moved forward from one dimensional level to the next. He called it the Naples arrangement (you have seen this in class earlier in the year). This again is not based on Pythagorean numerology, and he claims to have conceived of the correspondences himself when he was in Naples, so apparently this was not an influence of any of our earlier writers. In this he associated the pips and their corresponding numbers with the point, line, triangle, tetrahedron, etc. as we learned earlier. He was combining this geometric progression with kabbalistic numerology and threw in some other philosophies for good measure. But nevertheless, not Pythagorean numerology.
The books I recommend (Dion Fortune’s The Mystical Qabalah and John Michael Greer’s Paths of Wisdom) focus on kabbalah and you have to extrapolate the meanings to the cards yourself. For tarot and kabbalah, and not just kabbalah, I would recommend Robert Wang’s The Qabalistic Tarot. He spells it out for you. They have it at Isis. You can also get the big Golden Dawn book by Regardie which contains Book T, which covers all the kabbalistic and astrological correspondences.
Here’s a pdf of the Tarot and the Tree of Life, or Tarot TOL, showing the basic kabbalistic correspondences of the tarot.
If you want to ask a question about any tarot or Reiki technique or metaphysical philosophy, please feel free to ask it in the comments! You just might see an answer from me in the very near future!
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 Denver Traditional Reiki Meetup and served on the faculty of Avalon Center for Druidic Studies. She is a Certified Professional Tarot Reader and a member of the American Tarot Association. 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. 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.