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.
Quantum Leap
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.
Try out the Four Worlds Tarot Spread or the Revolutionary Wheel Tarot Spread, both based on the Tetragrammaton.
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
© 2014 by Joy Vernon. All rights reserved.

Joy Vernon
Joy Vernon

Joy Vernon is widely recognized as an expert tarot teacher and respected community leader. With over twenty-five 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 grew into one of the largest and most active tarot-specific meetups in the world. Now Joy runs the Greater Seattle Tarot Meetup. Joy works as a tarot reader, astrologer, and teacher in Burien, Washington. To learn more, please visit

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  1. It’s wonderful to read these insights into the qabbala’s relationship to Tarot, especially the interesting note about spelling the name of God. In fact I think your post has clarified some simple aspects of the Tree of Life that I hadn’t considered before, so I thank you for that!

  2. The Knights are top dog in the Thoth because there are no Kings. It’s just a different naming convention but it causes massive confusion if you are accustomed to RWS 🙂

    • It does indeed – and even more confusing when other decks change the system (e.g. Juliet Sharman-Burke assigns cardinality to Kings and fixed-ness to Queens) 🙂

      • Ania, that’s one way of looking at it, but it doesn’t take the larger structure into consideration, which is what I’m talking about in this post. Crowley was following the convention of the Golden Dawn (which Waite chose not to follow) and put the Knights at the top and the Kings beneath them–remember, at this time, there was no RWS deck or Thoth deck, only Marseille decks commonly available and the GD members would have been working with these decks (and were also encouraged to draw their own).
        In the GD system, the court cards are given titles, and each Knight is called The Lord and The King, whereas the King of each suit is called the Prince, e.g., “The Knight of Wands is called the Lord of Flame and Lightning, The King of the Spirits of Fire” and “The King of Wands is The Prince of the Chariot of Fire.” So the GD intentionally changed the existing Marseille Kings to Princes and the existing Marseille Knights to the Kings, making the latter the highest court card in the hierarchy.
        Some tarotists get around this convention by speaking of the Mounted Kings and the Throned Kings as I mentioned in my post–it’s not that there are no Kings in the Thoth deck or a GD deck, it’s that there are two different kinds of Kings–the ones on horseback (mounted) and the ones seated in a chariot or throne (throned).
        My insight into this (not based on research, but based on my understanding of the underlying structure that is the foundation of the modern tarot deck) is that the GD established a new paradigm for the court cards–rather than being a simple hierarchy, these cards come to represent the power struggle of change and transformation. The Throned King represents the establishment, the status quo, and the longevity of the ruler (for good or bad). The Mounted King represents the fight against or the overthrow of the establishment by the rising new power, the revolutionary, for good or bad.
        My personal belief is that if you look at changes in world powers between 1888 when the GD was established and 1909 when Waite published his deck, you can see changes in power that led Waite not to want to embrace the ideology of the overthrow of the establishment, and he put the Throned Kings back at the top to represent a long-established wise rule, and to support the idea of ruling not through might and power but through wisdom and experience. (And likewise, I think Crowley put the Knights back at the top as a form of sympathetic magic to effect change in WWII.)
        By incorporating the permutation of the Divine Name into the philosophy of the court cards, we find the unity that rises above the duality of the power struggle. Although the Christian Bible translates Exodus 3:14 as “I am that I am,” the Hebrew Bible translates the same phrase as “I will be what I will be.” G-d is perfect and unchanging and is beyond our comprehension. And yet, even though He is unchanging, the name we most often call him by (YHVH, Jehovah or Yahweh) is the verb to be, and its conjugations: was, is, will be. This tells us that all change, everything that was at one time, or that we hope will be at some time, or that currently is but we fear might not always be, is subsumed under the perfection of the unchanging Divine. We learn to lose the ephemerality of the daily existence of the microcosm and rise toward the eternal perfection of the macrocosm. To me, this is the spiritual argument for Waite’s reestablishing the rule of the Throned Kings.

  3. Oh, you’re too bright for me, and it’s past my bedtime. This post deserve more attention than I can give it right now. I’ll be back on Saturday for a closer read! 😀

  4. I am left with the question: do you assign fire to Wands or Seords, then? And what I most appreciated was your distinguishing throned and riding Kings: I had thought it a sign of Crowley’s anti-establishmentarianism at a purely personal level. Lots of great learning, thank you Joy!

    • Hi Chloe! I had wondered if I made that clear–I guess not! 🙂 Fire is Wands, assigned to Y in the YHVH and the highest world of Atziluth/Emanation, the spiritual world and initial spark of inspiration; Air goes to Swords, V in the YHVH and the world of Formation–think of this world as measuring (logic/air/swords) and cutting (the function of the blade). I’m glad you liked it! Thank you!

  5. Well, that was a great way to clarify the often muddy waters of qabalah, thank you! Like others, I am still working on whether or not I want to incorporate this element into Tarot. Having read DuQuette’s analysis of the Book of Thoth, I was still wondering…So, many thanks for simplifying this a bit more!

    • Hi Joanne! In general, I like Lon Milo’s stuff a lot, but I have repeatedly been frustrated with his lack of depth in his book on the Thoth deck. I have gotten a lot more (in terms of qabalah and tarot generally) out of Paul Foster Case’s book The Tarot (or you can try the BOTA correspondence course). A lot of my colleagues also like Robert Wang’s book The Qabalistic Tarot. Let me know how it goes! 🙂

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