Friday, August 7, 2015

2. My hypothesis

I might have saved my conclusions until the end, but then they would be easy to miss, and some people might not get that far. Also, it is not easy to find one's way around in the mass of details. So I will say what I make of the multifarious data now. 

My hypothesis is that the imagery of the tarot trumps fits the sefirotic system in the following way. (1) the Fool is seen in terms of the En Sof: (2) the first 10 triumphs are seen starting from the highest sefira and ending with the lowest. (3) the next 10 trumps are seen as reflecting, in sequence, the lowest sefira up to the highest sefira. and (4) the 21st trump is seen in terms of the highest sefira leading beyond it to the En Sof again. In other words, it is the conventional descent of the soul before birth through the ten spheres of the medieval cosmos, followed by the ascent of the soul after birth, but applied to the Tree of Life.

Such a descent is the basis for the so-called natal horoscope; the soul at birth enters the visible universe at the sphere of the fixed stars at a particular point and then the planets in a particular way, picking up particular characteristics associated with each one.

The Neoplatonists were more concerned about the other half of the journey, after death. In that tradition, e.g. Macrobius's Commentary on the Dream of Scipio, one retraces one's path through the spheres until either descending again, for a new incarnation, or going beyond the visible universe. Assuming that the Jewish idea of the sefiroth as a hierarchical sequence developed in this same Platonic milieu during the time of the Roman Empire, the same process would apply there. During the Renaissance, Pico explicitly correlated the seven lower sefiroth to the seven planets, thus making the comparison a natural one. Agrippa did so as well, but in a different way, correlating the planets with sefiroth 3-9.

My idea is that, just as the soul descends through the spheres, it descends through the sefiroth at birth and ascend at death, with the goal of returning to the One and then the Nothing, stepping off the Tree to join the En Sof again. This journey after death could be facilitated by meditative explorations before death, with consequent revelations. An example of such meditation, in terms of the conventional ten spheres of the ancient Ptolemaic/Christian universe, is at the end of the Poimandres, the first book of the Corpus Hermeticum, a work much read in the Renaissance, starting in the late 15th century. Gikatilla's Gates of Light, of which the Portae Lucis of 1516 is a condensed version, does something similar, but starting with the 10th sefira, Malkhut, and moving step by step to the top. specifically referring to the Kabbalists' meditative ascent. At left is Fludd's early 17th century diagram of the soul's progress. Although rather late, it merely diagrams what was generally understood for centuries.

The fit of the sefiroth to the tarot is not perfect. This is only to be expected, as the Tarot surely originated independently of any contact with Kabbalah. Yet the correspondences that do exist give some reason for thinking that during the period of the tarot's development, Kabbalistic considerations may have played some role, at least after 1486, as reflected in the tarot sequence in Lombardy and France.

In any case, the parallels give us a way of using the sefiroth themselves, as opposed to the paths between them, in understanding the tarot trumps, and thereby benefiting from whatever wisdom they contain. .

In the 19th century, Eliphas Levi explicitly correlated at least two of the trumps with the sefirot. He associated. the 6th trump, the Lover, "the man between vice and virtue", with Tiferet (Transcendental Magic, its Doctrine and Ritual, translated by A.E. Waite, p. 366 at; in the original French, it is p. 348, at He also associated the last trump, the one with the "four mysterious animals" (translation p. 368, original p. 354), with Kether. (Wicked Pack of Cards, p. 188, says that he correlated the first trump, the Magician, with Kether; that may be, but I cannot find it said in Waite's translation.)

I would propose that all of the trumps be given such correlations, depicting the path of the soul in its journey from God to this world and back up again, so that indeed the 6th trump is Tiferet and the 21st Kether. Many of them are straightforward enough; therefore I see no reason why these wouldn't have been made relatively soon after the necessary Kabbalist sources became available in 1486 and before. For the first 10 cards, these correlations also fit the letter assignments that Levi made, if they are correlated to the sefiroth in the manner stated in the Bahir, which gives aleph to Kether and so on down to Teth as Malkhut. This of course is not the whole of the tarot cards' meaning. Levi, for example, saw numerological associations to the tarot subjects; that of course is another story. There are more such stories.

Levi in his early writings imagined the last 11 cards as a descent through the "heavens" from above Saturn down to the vegetative and sensitive soul. He identified card 13, death, with  "the heaven of Jupiter and Mars". So 12 would be Saturn. 11 is a woman "crowned with the vital oo", meaning infinity; that would seem to put her rather high up in the sky. Then 14 is "the heaven of the Sun", 15 is Mercury and magic, 16 the Moon and changes, 17 "the soul", but meaning the rational soul, 18 "the elements" of the visible world, 19 "composites" and the head, 20 the "vegetative principle" and generation, 0 the Fool as the "sensitive principle" and the flesh, and 21 "the microcosm", "all in all" and "Kether". These all can be read online at, pp. 368-369 and in the original pp. 351-354. In later writings Levi abandoned this idea and instead proposed the paths (Wicked Pack p. 189), the course followed by most later occultists.

Oswald Wirth, however, in his 1927 Le Tarot des Imagiers de Moyen Age (in English, 1985, as Tarot of the Egyptians, pp. 28-29, online here), identified all of the first 10 trumps, in the "Marseille" order, with the correspondingly numbered sefira and incorporated these associations to the sefiroth into his interpretations of the individual cards. He gave no sefira-trump correlations for the cards from 11 to 21, but associated the En Sof to the Fool.  These accounts were all very short.

In 1934 Paul Foster Case picked up the idea in his Book of Tokens. He assigned at least eight, and perhaps twelve, cards to sefiroth, starting with the Fool as the En Sof, the Magician as Kether, the High Priestess as Hochmah, and so on until the Lovers at Tiferet; after that the only one for sure is the Hanged Man, which he gives to Yesod. (However, as we will see, there is some suggestion that he assigned both the Hermit and the Moon to the En Sof, the Sun to Kether, Judgment to Hochmah, and World to Binah. These of course are not in keeping with my hypothesis. In his 1947 The Tarot: A Key to the Wisdom of the Ages, Case added Chariot, Strength, and Wheel--assigned to the 7th, 8th, and 10th sefiroth--but stopped there.

What I want to do is to go back to the earlier cards, of the 15th-18th centuries, and see whether assignments of  sefiroth to cards might have made sense even then, for all 22 of the special cards ("major arcana"). That would be accomplished if each card was assigned a sefira--including the En Sof, not technically a sefira--twice, once for the descent of the soul into matter and once for the ascent into spirit. Such an extension of Levi's, Wirth's, and Case's idea would actually incorporate Case's assignment of the Hanged Man to Yesod, as the second from the bottom on the ascent, as well as all the others (except Moon-World etc.). The 21st could either be assigned to En Sof or again to Kether, but going into the En Sof.

Since this procedure is different from that of the later Levi and most of those who came after, Papus and the Golden Dawn, which assigned the 22 special cards of the tarot to 22 "paths" between sefiroth, I will say what I think about these assignments in regard to the 15th and 16th centuries. But first I need to describe how the ten sefiroth themselves were understood. We cannot assume that they were always understood as they are presented on Internet sites and books today. Then I can start looking at "paths" and also the astrological correspondences that historically were made in various Jewish texts before the 16th century.

Then, in two further chapters, I will summarize, card by card through all 22, the results of seeing the cards in terms of the sefiroth as understood in the late 15th-early 16th centuries, and comparing that result with what Wirth had for the first ten plus the Fool, and what Case had for most of those plus a few more.. For a more complete reporting of what was said about the sefiroth, the reader is referred to an Appendix, which quotes in some detail the descriptions of the sefiroth in 10 texts, 9 available in Latin and one, by the late 15th century Kabbalist Yohanan Alemanno, in Hebrew. Alemanno was a close associate of Giovanni Pico from 1487, if not earlier, until the latter's death. Although Pico would have been able to make out the Hebrew, perhaps with help, Alemanno would surely have communicated the substance orally as well.


Why is it of value to see the tarot in terms of the sefirot? It is a question of whether the sefirotic system itself is of value, for learning about the future beyond what can be known by normal means, The sefiroth were in a realm beyond the visible universe; but they also put their stamp on a part of the mind normally inaccessible to consciousness.

The mechanism was described by Agrippa in his Three Books of Occult Philosophy, in the chapters on divination by lots. The drawing of cards for a "reading" is essentially just a form of drawing lots. From a thoroughly shuffled deck, one draws a card face down at random. Then the process repeats, until the requisite number of cards are drawn. It is like "drawing straws", except that there are 78 of the randomly arranged objects, and a person draws more than one.

According to Agrippa, however, the drawing is not as random as it seems. He says (Book II, ch. LIV):
Now that there is in man's soul a sufficient power and virtue to direct such kind of lots, it is hence manifest, because there is in our soul a divine virtue, and similitude, and apprehension, and power of all things...
There is a connection between the mind and the hand that is determined by the connection between our mind and something higher, the divine mind, which knows much more than our own conscious mind. It knows not only what is on the other side of the cards that the hand picks, but also future circumstances that one will have to face, and things about oneself that are not part of one's conscious awareness. It picks cards that reveal these unknown facts, in accordance to what we have a strong desire to know.

Robert Fludd in one of his books (Tomus secondus de supernaturali, naurali, praeternaturali et contranaturali microcosmi historia, 1619, reprinted in Tyson's edition of Agrippa, p. 195) illustrated Agrippa's point by means of a diagram, at right. You can see the connection between the divine mind and the mind of the man. Oddly enough, Fludd's divine mind has the appearance of the sefirotic tree, except that there are not as many paths between spheres, and the spheres are labeled "seraphim",
"cherubim", "thrones", "dominions", "archangels", "angels", etc.  It would appear that he thought that these  choirs of angels were the Christian equivalent of the sefirot. He also fits in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (click on the image at right to make it bigger).

Another part of the mechanism is explained in terms of the Ars Brevis, a short text written near the end of the 13th century by the Catalan mystic and philosopher Raimon Llull. He presents a series of interconnected wheels, each with 9 letters on it. The letters correspond to 5 sets of 9 concepts each, as seen below.

The concepts in turn correspond to certain axioms and postulates that he thinks are at the basis of all three of the major religious systems of the time, Christianity, Judaism, and Mohammedanism. One starts with a question--column 2--pertaining to a particular aspect of God--column --further qualified by some concept in remaining 3 columns. Combining all five, he maintains, will answer any theological question, so that the answer may be compared to what is taught in the three religions. If an answer turns out to be contrary to Christianity but in harmony with one of the other two, he pledges embrace that religion, Llull says. And by the same token, people of the other religions should leave their religion if it is contrary to reason. Reason plus postulates shared by all three religions will be the arbiter for all.

This system could easily have been adapted to card-reading. Instead of columns, we have, say, five cards in a certain order. Each has a particular title, representing a particular concept, as well as other associations suggested by that title and the imagery on the card. In a work of 1527, The Chaos of Triperuno, Teofilio Folengo gave some examples of how these concepts could be combined to result in a "fortune" (in Italian, sorte, lot) i.e. something about the person's future not clear before. Folengo's card-interpretations, since they are in a literary work, do not go beyond what any literate person of the time would know. It is the procedure that is of interest. It is a demonstration of the skill of one of Folengo's characters, named "Limerno" (a permutation of the letters in "Merlino", the famous magician).  For his first example, his character Limerno takes 5 cards that the subject drew at random from the 22 and combines their ideas in four different ways, each corresponding to the stanzas of a sonnet. All come to the same conclusion. For example, one man draws the cards Love, Fire (now often called the Tower), Angel (now Judgment), Devil, and Justice. Love of a woman is no Angel for you, but the Fire of a Devil with no regard to Justice, the sonnet advises the man.

Here is the sonnet:
Quando ‘l Foco d’Amor, che m’arde ognhora,
Penso e ripenso, fra me stesso i’ dico,
Angiol di Dio non è, ma lo Nemico
Che la Giustitia spinse del ciel fora

(When I consider and reconsider the Fire of Love, which burns me even now, to myself I say, “This is not the Angel of God, but the Enemy whom Justice pushed out of heaven.”)

Et è pur chi qual Angiolo l’adora,
Chiamando le sue Fiamme dolce intrico,
Ma nego ciò, ché di Giustitia amico
Non mai fu, chi in Demonio s’innamora.

(And there are still those who adore him as an Angel, calling his flames sweet intrigue. But I refute that, because no one was ever a friend of Justice who falls in love with a Demon.)

Amor di donna è Ardor d’un Spirito nero,
Lo cui viso se’n gli occhi un Angiol pare,
Non t’ingannar, ch’è fraude e non Giustitia.

(Love of a woman is the fervor of a black Spirit, whose face if it appears in the eyes to be an Angel, don’t be fooled, because this is deception and not Justice.)

Giustitia esser non puote, ove malitia
Ripose de sue Faci il crudo Arciero,
er cui Satan Angiol di luce appare.

(This cannot be Justice, where the cruel Archer sets the malice of his Torches, so that Satan appears the Angel of light.)
So we have:
First stanza: Fire, Love, Angel, Devil ("Enemy"), Justice
Second stanza: Angel, Fire ("Flames"), Justice, Devil ("Demon"), Love.
Third stanza: Love, Fire ("fervor"), Devil ("black Spirit"), Angel, Justice
Fourth stanza: Justice, Love ("Archer"), Fire ("torches"), Devil ("Satan"), Angel.)
In terms of Agrippa, the five cards correspond to five ideas in the mind of God. activated by the man's desire to know his fate. In Fludd's diagram, this mind has the shape of the sefirotic tree. It is the sefiroth which have been activated, and which guide the hand to the cards. It is thus in terms of the sefiroth that the cards selected need to be understood.

If the cards can be understood in terms of the sefiroth, it is not likely mere coincidence. Llull, whose method is similarly combinatory, himself formed his ideas in Barcelona at the time that Abulafia was teaching his method of ascending into the invisible world by means of permutations and combinations of letters in divine names. Then Abulafia went to Italy and taught his method there, where it took a Neoplatonist direction in the texts that were translated for Pico. The main difference is one that Pico noticed in 1487: Llull used words while Abulafia and other practitioners of the so-called "ecstatic" Kabbalah used letters. In the Apologia that he wrote in defense of his 900 Theses he says (Harvey J. Hames, The Art of Conversion: Christianity & Kabbalah in the Thirteenth Century, 2000, p. 1, in Google Books):
Unam quae dicitur hohmat ha-zeraf  id est ars combinandi et est modus quidam procededendi in scientiis et est simile quid sicut apud nostros dicitur ars Raymundi, licet forte diuerso modo proceda...

that which is called hohmat ha-zeraf [revolution or combination of letters] is a combinatory Art and it is a method for gaining knowledge, and it is similar to that which we refer to as the ars Raymundi, although it proceeds in a very different manner.
Abulafia's method, as people like Alemanno understood it, was to combine letters in different ways so as to ascend to the realm of the sefiroth and thereby be able to prophesy. Idel writes (Kabbalah in Italy p. 253):
 Thus, when dealing with the moment of revelation, Alemanno combines elements found in ecstatic Kabbalah, especially the concept of a "science of prophecy" and the "sphere of letters," with an Avicennan and Ibn Tufayl's theory of "sudden vision," a form of intuition that is sometimes also called prophecy, and with a concept of nature.
The same can be done with words or even pictures, toward the end of seeing them from the perspective of the sefirot, as a message from that realm. Llull's method was meant to be purely rational; Abulafia's method is purely ecstatic; the two could be combined to the same end of prophecy.

In fact the Ars Brevis was translated from Latin to Hebrew in Central Italy of 1474; the manuscript is still extant (Hames, "Jewish Magic with a Christian Text" Traditio 1999, pp. 286-300). And in 1518 Venice, an explicitly "Cabalist" application of Llull, De Auditu Kabbalistico, was published in Latin by Pietro Mainardi, a member of the medical faculty at Padua (Paola Zambelli, L’Apprendista Stregone [The Sorcerer’s Apprentice], Venezia 1995). There is nothing of the Jewish Kabbalah there, however, at least judging by Zambelli's account. By then the Lullian "ars combinatoria" itself was considered part of "Cabala".

The general project of ascending into realms beyond the physical universe by means of the divine names was one common to both Christians and Jews. Among Christians, interest had been fostered by the translation into Latin of pseudo-Dionysius's works. This is Christian writer of the sixth century who applied the Neoplatonism of Proclus to Christianity, so that for example the "henads" of Proclus became the "choirs of angels" of pseudo-Dionysius. He is called "pseudo" because he was thought then, and for several centuries thereafter, to have been the Dionysius the Areopagite mentioned in the Book of Acts as a disciple of Paul. The French considered him to be the same St. Denis who brought Christianity to Paris. The Greek Emperor gave a copy of his works to the French king in the ninth century, and John Scotus Eriugena made a passable translation into Latin. It influenced many French monks.
One 12th century manuscript of particular interest, because of an illumination, was collected by the Visconti rulers of Milan and listed in the 15th century inventories of their library at Pavia (left, the scan of a page in Roob, Alchemy and Mysticism). It shows monks helping each other ascend the spheres, apparently an activity that could be accomplished in this life. Manuscripts of Llull contained similar imagery, usually in the form of ladders or ropes to be climbed (one is at

In c. 1436 Florence, the monk Ambrogio Traversari, head of the Camaldosean order, published a new translation of pseudo-Dionysius. So he would have been of much interest at the time of the early tarot. Although no one knows when the tarot was invented, the first record of a deck of "triumphs", as the tarot deck was then called, is 1440 Florence, done for Florence's hired military leader Sigismundo Malatesta. However it is not certain that tarot originated in Florence. For one thing, another military leader of Florence at the same time was Francesco Sforza, who had earlier served Filippo Visconti in Milan. The earliest extant tarot cards date from the early 1440s, done for Filippo or some other Visconti in Milan. For another thing, a game similar to tarot, but whose trump suit consisted of Greco-Roman gods, had been made for Filippo sometime before 1425, when it is known that the designer, named in documents, died.

As I have said already, I do not expect the tarot's fit to the sefiroth to be perfect. I do not believe that the tarot was invented with the sefiroth in mind. It isn't known when the tarot was invented, but it was sometime before 1440, and Kabbalah just didn't have enough popularity then among potential card-players. As for the Ars Brevis, the evidence suggests that it wasn't known in Italy before 1440 (although it was after after that date, in Padua). But the relevant groups of concepts were in the general consciousness; it was just the combinatorial aspect that was new, and that, for the tarot, could come later. I even doubt if there were 22 special cards at first. The evidence for 22 isn't until late in the 15th century. Early on, there is more evidence is for 14-16. 

With these provisos, in the two sections that follow, I will be looking at each of the tarot special cards in terms of the sefiroth as understood by Christian students of the Kabbalah at that time, to try to show that there are enough correspondences to have provided a basis for using tarot cards as a source of advice in the hands of someone knowing the correspondences, whether by means of deduction from general truths symbolized by the cards or of a sefirot-structured unconscious mind, or both.

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