A Very Brief Historical Perspective: Connecting Qabalah With Tarot

The origins of the Jewish mystical school known today as Cabala or Kabbalah can be traced back to the 12th – 13th centuries to Provence and southern Spain, places where the Islamic, Jewish and Christian traditions merged with Gnosticism, Taoism, Neoplatonism, Sufism and other ancient schools of wisdom to form a rich cultural tapestry that has not been possible to replicate since. Based largely on the Zohar (Sefer ha-Zohar, the Book of Radiance or Splendor -a commentary on the five books of Moses, as interpreted and or channeled by the Spanish scholar Moisés de León, 1240 – 1290) and expanded by several Jewish intellectuals through the centuries, this discipline is usually referred to as the “theoretical” or “spiritual” Cabala, to distinguish it from the meditative and magical traditions of Jewish mysticism that are as old as Vedic mythology and rituals. In fact, it is important to view Cabala or Kabbalah as part of a mythological continuum that amalgamates ancient wisdom with new ideas. Its texts, ambiguous and esoteric, open themselves to multilevel interpretations and are a magical source for healing and spiritual renewal. Cabala is, first and foremost, a system of Knowledge.

The etymology of the word “Cabala” implies receptivity. Cabala gives and receives, constantly exchanging wisdom and blessings and adapting itself to every generation that wishes to access its fountain of wisdom. We can also view Cabala as a magic and alchemical vessel that leads the devoted student to higher levels of consciousness as well as to spiritual transformation. The Hermetic schools of the 19th century incorporated the images of Tarot into the Tree of Life and assigned to each image a specific sphere of influence, as well as designated a Hebrew letter to each of the twenty-two Majors. This mnemonic manipulation injected Tarot with the power to re-collect through the Art of Memory -another gift from the Renaissance - all the mysteries of Creation. In my opinion Hermetic Qabalah and the practices of ritual magic render a mystical dimension to the cards. When we work with the cards as a vehicle for healing or for any kind of transpersonal work, we are engaging energies that have been infused into the cards to bring us sparks of the Divine and to open for us the wisdom of antiquity.

For me, it is impossible to separate Tarot from either Qabalah (the spelling used by my mystery school) or Alchemy, since I have been a student of this Hermetic school for many years now. I usually apply the connections in ways that would make sense to the client, avoiding making the interpretation too complicated, but if the connection came to mind, then there is a reason to weave it into the reading in a language that is simple and to the point. Several Tarot readers that I respect are quick to dismiss this connection; however, I believe that the moment that the cards started to be associated with the Cabala system of knowledge, a very special dimension was added to Tarot that facilitated its use in healing and transformational work. Like the old alchemical axiom, “as above so below,” the emanations from the ten Sefirot of the Tree of Life whirl down into spheres of consciousness and levels of manifestation as we ourselves travel upwards through the various levels in search of enlightenment and union with the One. Our allegorical search for the Holy Grail, for example, which is reflected in many “traditional” Tarot decks, can be interpreted as a search for wisdom from the spheres above and from those who have traveled the Path before us; as well as by our willingness to serve as vehicles of expression for the Light, the "limitless Light" that we seek as archetypal energy of our personal luminosity and illumination.

Just like Alchemy looks at the human body and mind as vessels where all transmutations take place, sometimes serving as athanor or oven as well as the prima materia being subjected to the processes, each Sefirah on the Tree of Life can serve as vessel as well as athanor. The emanations from the Tree are aspects of God’s personality as well as archetypes for humanity and become both male and female, yin, yang, giving and receiving energies, according to the intention of the Divine Light that flows through the spheres. The archetypal marriage of opposites that Jung identifies with individuation is explicitly suggested in the Zohar: “The blessed Holy One does not place His abode anywhere male and female are not found together.”

Cabala scholar Dr. Daniel Matt emphasizes that the Sacred Marriage or hierosgamos that fuses male and female, good and evil, light and dark is the essential act of creation. We need to embrace the vision of a universe being constantly created and re-created by the opposite powers of the One. In fact, modern interpretation of many of these texts emphasizes the need to recognize the “feminine side of God” through Binah the Mother (the third Sefirah on the Tree that gives birth to humanity) and Shekhinah, the daughter and Bride (reflected in Malkuth, the Kingdom and 10th Sefirah) who manifests on our behalf to bring us back to redemption. Shekhinah is the benevolent feminine energy that makes it all possible and who brings us home as we, ourselves, bring home the Bride.

The Hermetic tradition fully embraced many of the rituals of the Cabala School. By the 19th century we see its influence in several of the esoteric movements that also used Tarot as a tool to communicate with the numinous. The practice still continues today: one meditates with the cards and with the Hebrew letters and at the same time we use the Tree of Life as the mythical structure that guides us through the many levels of awareness that lead us to the Beloved.

Mystical Cabala, for example, is all about union and about relationship: with ourselves, with the world that surrounds us, with the Divine. When we meditate on the Tree of Life, we allow the energies of the Sefirotic emanations to lead us into new levels of consciousness as our soul journeys in search of enlightenment. Dion Fortune notes that “Qabalah is as much a method of using the mind as a system of knowledge.”(p. 65) Unless we learn to train the mind, the knowledge in Cabala is never revealed to us. Each sphere is “bi- sexual;” and the archetypes assigned to each sphere represent both vices and virtues, all depending on the degrees or potencies one is able to reach within each emanation. (D. Fortune, p. 99) This is not an easy Path. Cabala, like Alchemy or mystical Tarot or any other esoteric tradition, requires careful study and application.

When we are dealing with archetypal energies, where do we draw the line? Even Jesus Christ has been called a mystical Cabalist, as his teachings echo deep understanding of this tradition. Moreover, the term “Christ consciousness” has come to symbolize in western mystery schools the attainment of avatar or enlightened consciousness through the ascension on the Tree of Life. It is the sixth Sefirah, Tiphareth, Sphere of the Sun -assigned to the Son of God- that unites with Shekhinah the Bride and helps to bring us home to the One along the Path of Return.

The Cabala that we use today, like Tarot, is a product of the Renaissance and of Neoplatonism. Spanish theologian and mystic Ramón Lull, for example, was writing in Spain at the same time that the Zohar came to light. Lull’s work was well known among alchemists and he is now recognized as the driving force behind “Christian Cabala,” or Cábala cristiana. Whether he was a magician or an alchemist is debatable, but the fact is that his work, which was written with the intention of converting Jews and Muslims, influenced Agrippa and Giordano Bruno, as well as other pivotal minds of the Renaissance and beyond. Lull’s Arts Magna is a monumental work that greatly influenced the culture that gave birth to mystical and cabalistic Tarot. By connecting the similarity of the archetypes being used in both systems, philosopher Ronald Decker and art historian William Dummet made the connection between Lull’s Arts Magna and Tarot (1980).

However, we can appreciate the connection better by looking at how Lullism influenced the works of Giordano Bruno and other Renaissance thinkers, as well as the Art of Memory.

Pico della Mirandolla (1463 – 1494) advanced and validated the concept of a Christian Cabala just when the spirit of religious tolerance was waning in Spain and other western countries. England and Germany were to eventually become the centers of the Christian Cabala movement (although Barcelona and Amsterdam might argue that point), which by the 18th century had integrated a large number of alchemical symbolism and ritualistic practices. That at some point along their separate development someone like Eliphas Levi (1810-1875) finally made the connection that cross-pollinated Cabala and Tarot is not surprising. Cabala has a life all its own that transcends any religious classification because it points at an elemental Secret Doctrine that is basically archetypal.

The Tarot images of the 19th century were ripe for this magical infusion. But notice how many centuries we are involving in this process. There is a transpersonal energy here at work that moves through a visual medium as it captures the myths and cultural traditions of many people and societies. There is also a raw or primordial quality that becomes imprinted in the cards and that serves to expand our consciousness as old traditions, beliefs and rituals are amalgamated with the new.

With Eliphas Levi’s Dogma and Ritual of Transcendental Magic (1854), the connection between Cabala and Tarot is firmly established. From this point on, Tarot is considered a pictorial key to ageless wisdom among students of the Hermetic tradition. When we work with the twenty-two Majors and their respective Hebrew letters and associations we are creating a new imaginal language and, like with anything else that one studies and meditates upon, new meanings are, inevitably, brought forth. This especial language is not for everyone, just like any other system of knowledge. However, I do believe that the connections between Tarot and Cabala become real and easily accessible to anyone serious about delving into this mysterious hierosgamos.

Copyright © 2008
Yolanda M. Robinson, PhD