Thursday, December 3, 2015

What has Thebes to Do with Jerusalem? : The Tarot and the Kabbalah


Though no introduction is necessary for this amazing work, I'll confess that I, the site owner/editor, did not know what the title alluded to. So Race was queried, and this was his response:

"The title is a reference to the Church father, Tertullian. He was once asked about how a particular point of Greek philosophy affected interpretation of a certain passage of Scripture. His response was to ask in return, "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" which subsequently became a common motto of elements within the Church who wanted to develop Christianity without reference to gentile thought, in distinction to those who were working to synthesize Jewish and Greek intellectual heritages." 

Race, never one to disappoint with an explanation, once again delivers with a punch. And there you have it, straight from the horse's mouth. By the way, this is one of the more interesting and refreshing overviews of Kabbalah relative to Tarot that has met my eyes in a long time...  ~ Joodhe

A house of worship in Jerusalem
A universal church in Jerusalem

Examining Tales of Tarot History, and Tarot's Relativity to the Kabbalah

by Race MoChridhe

The story of the Tarot’s origins which one most frequently encounters in a quick trip to the library (or a quicker Google search) is that of a trove of wisdom teachings held by the priests of Egypt, brought down from the temple walls and hidden in icons small enough to smuggle out of the country before whichever disaster that particular author has selected to arbitrarily mark the end of a civilization that has never, truly, gone away. These icons then, one is told, made long journeys through Arabia and India and into the hands of the Romani, who brought them to Europe. This is the most common version of the tale, but by no means the only one.

The Tarot as the preserved legacy of Egypt had a certain romance for countercultural and antiestablishment writers of the 19th century—an epoch that had done to the West’s Judaic heritage what the Renaissance had done to its Christian legacy. Then, scholars in Western Europe had rediscovered the Greek language—all but forgotten west of Romania for a thousand years—prompting a reevaluation of the worth and centrality of medieval Christian thought. In the same way, the 19th century recovered the secret of Hieroglyphics, prompting a frenzy of enthusiasm for Egyptian culture and philosophy that implicitly challenged the value and centrality of Hebrew civilization to the West—such comparison invited by the Bible’s habit of defining Hebrew civilization by contrast to the Egyptian.


Thus, even while the cultural currents that would emerge in the early twentieth century as Neopaganism were gaining momentum and appealing with increasing fervor to the legacy of Egypt, occultists and magicians who still considered themselves rooted in Europe’s Judeochristian heritage began to invent alternative lineages for the tools of their art, including the Tarot. Their versions of the story ranged from the idea that the cards had been invented by Jewish Kabbalists in the Middle Ages as a way of preserving and transmitting their sacred wisdom, to the legend of the Tarot being given to mankind by the angel Metatron.

Implicit to a new origin story was also the need for new frameworks of interpretation. In an earlier article, I explained how the influential French occultist Papus interpreted the court cards using the framework of the ancient Egyptian calendar. In a similar fashion, the Kabbalistic Tree of Life became a central organizing principle for Judeochristian-influenced diviners across a range of disciplines: astrology, geomancy, cartomancy, and many others.

The numbers aligned especially well with the Tarot for those working in the tradition of the 16th century rabbi Isaac Luria. (There are many interpretations of Kabbalah, which differ on a variety of points; Luria’s was not the first, but it has been the most influential.) In his teaching, the ten stages of divine emanation, or centers of divine attributes, known as the sephirot, were connected by twenty-two pathways, and existed in four different “spiritual worlds”. The twenty-two paths mapped readily to the twenty-two major arcana of the Tarot, while the minor pips one through ten could be made to correspond to each of the sephirot, with the four suits creating a natural repetition of the whole set in each of the four spiritual worlds.

The numbers fit perfectly and the interpretive meanings fit almost perfectly. The wands, elementally identified with fire, were generally matched to the highest of the spiritual worlds—Atziluth—in which the whole chain of emanation and creation began in the unrestricted illumination of the Divine Light. The cups were matched to the second world of Beri’ah, in which transcendence becomes formless existence, individuation begins, and the archangels dwell. Swords became the suit of Yetzirah, in which created things become aware of their distance from God and yearn upwards to meet the descending illumination of divine emotion and knowledge. Pentacles were assigned to Assiah—the realm of formed existence, particularity, and physicality in which we dwell. The numbers of the minor arcana were then used to explain how each stage of God’s self-revelation through the Creation, or each attribute of the Divine Nature, became manifest or acted out upon the plane represented by the card’s suit.

In the system of Dion Fortune, whose book The Mystical Qabbalah is perhaps the most cited work on the subject, the aces manifested Kether (Crown)—the unknowable point of divine origin that was the root of the powers of each of their suits. The twos were assigned to the second sephirahChokmah (Wisdom)—and represented the polarization of their suits’ energies into pairs that, at this level, are still in perfect harmony. The threes, given to Binah (Understanding), brought that complementarity into manifestation through the union of the two forces in a third. The fours, placed upon Chesed (Mercy), perfected the ruling idea behind their suit correspondences. The fives were given to Geburah (Severity), and thus indicated restriction of the good inherent to their suits.

Tiphareth (Beauty) received the sixes, making each a manifestation of equilibrium in its suit. The sevens went to Netzach (Victory), and revealed the nature of their suit in the context of battle. The eights belonged to Hod (Glory), all having to do with the idea of sublimation and of satisfaction postponed for a greater end. Yesod (Foundation) had the nines, connected with the notion of etheric magnetism. At last, Malkuth (Kingdom) claimed the tens, which represented the fulfillment of each spiritual force on the plane of form, and the possibility of their sacrifice to restore their higher spiritual principles.

The major arcana then linked each of these to one another, creating conduits for different kinds of energies and transformations. The system is vast and requires many dense tomes to be explicated fully, though Fortune’s book is a very approachable introduction for those wishing to get a toe in the water. The kabbalistic paradigm is profound and elegant. It is also, however, far from natural. This is something which needs to be mentioned only because the paradigm’s proponents often presented it as such. The proof, it is often argued, is in the pudding, and they chose the pudding’s ingredients very carefully. Fortune herself, for example, observed some of the significant distinctions in card order and correspondence between the system of Papus and that of the Golden Dawn and Crowley, writing:
Concerning the Tarot cards there are three modern authorities of note: Dr. Encausse, or "Papus," the French writer; Mr. A. E. Waite; and the MSS. of MacGregor Mathers' Order of the Golden Dawn… All three are different. Concerning the system Mr. Waite gives, he himself says, "There is another method known to initiates." There is reason to suppose that this is the method used by Mathers. Papus disagrees with both these writers in his method, but as his system does violence to many of the correspondences when placed upon the Tree, the final test of all systems, and as the Mathers-Crowley system fits admirably, I think we may justly conclude that the latter is the correct traditional order, and I propose to adhere to it in these pages. (The Mystical Qabbalah, p. 18, emphasis mine)

Kabbalah was often used, by those deeply immersed in it, in this way as a measure by which to determine the validity of all other correspondence systems, such that only those systems judged to be valid remained in play to either confirm or deny a given author’s kabbalistic mapping. Unsurprisingly, confirmations were common. The fact that Papus’ system was different did not make it incorrect, it just made it different, for reasons that had a lot more to do with competing 19th century worldviews about the roots of Western civilization and its future cultural evolution than with anything specifically pertaining to occult arts.

Today, both Egyptian and Kabbalistic systems have developed into rich founts of insight into the nature of the cards and the possibilities for their reading, and both reward as much careful study as one is able to put in. Occultists of varying stripes can quibble, of course, about whether the cards are, symbolically, a legacy of Moses or of Pharaoh’s magicians, but if one desires to learn the art of turning staves into serpents, it really does not matter at which feet one sits.

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