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THE MYSTICAL TREE OF THE TAROT

A Qabalistic Working of the 13th Path

Gareth Knight

One of the key images of the deeper aspects of the Western Mystery Tradition is the discovery of the tomb of Christian Rosencreutz upon the breast of whose incorruptible body lies the Book T. This book is that strange collection of evocative images that is more generally known as the Tarot, which is much more than a fortune telling device. Indeed it provides a series of keys to unlock the ways to spiritual illumination.

We are unlikely to discover these ways, let alone gain entrance to them, unless we approach the images in the right way. And that way is not to be discovered by swotting up "meanings" in book. But rather to allow the images in this evocative picture book to trigger a response from the organs of inner perception within us, and so act as a stimulus to higher consciousness.

Let us therefore imagine making a start by creating a sacred inner space, and in terms of the Tree of Life this can be located at Tiphareth, the central sphere of harmony and balance. Above us are the spiritual worlds, below us are the worlds of form, and we can fix our position by reference to two Tarot images that are upon a level with us. On one side is that of the Hanged Man and on the other that of the Wheel of Fortune, that are allocated to the vertical Paths on either side of Tiphareth, connecting upper and lower worlds.

However, let us look to the centre of our sacred space and see there the brickwork of a circular well that we can look down. Far below us is the surface of the water, that corresponds to the Sephirah Yesod, and further below that the ultimate floor of the well, the Sephirah Malkuth, for we are gazing down the equivalent of the 25th and 32nd Paths.

Let us not bother too much with Qabalistic terms however, but concentrate our faculties of sight upon fish that swim within those waters below. They seem quite contented and to have all they need. And although some of them may rise to disturb the surface from time to time they are unable to pass through it. Indeed they can have no conception that there IS anything beyond it. Their consciousness is limited to their own aquatic world, bounded by the circular wall of the well around them and the rock of the bottommost depth.

Let us pause for a moment to reflect how this is an image of the condition of those who are unaware of the existence the higher worlds – of any reality beyond that of their immediate physical environment. The ability to rise from one element to another is one of the aims and gifts of initiation.

So having established where we are in terms of consciousness let us now look back at the Tarot images that are upon a level with us. As we do so, with the intention of turning our gaze upward, rather than downward, we see that both of them undergo a simple transformation. By the process of turning!

The Hanged Man, turning upside down now appears as a figure right side up, the radiant figure of an archetypal guardian and initiator who stands between pylon gates that before seemed to have been a gallows. And the Wheel of Fortune, which is operated by the goddess Fortuna (usually left off contemporary cards), also turns, and in turning transforms from a vulgar fairground image into the turning sphere of the stars, or Wheel of Arianrhod, and then into a Round Table, which we may now see as being placed as a cover over the well shaft to the lower worlds. In this transformation of the Wheel we may perhaps call to mind the magical motto Deo Non Fortuna, as it transmutes from an image of the crude play of so-called good or evil fortune to form the intricate movements of the patterns of the will of God.

And as this turning about of the two images upon a level with us is a signal that we are about to be concerned with a journey into higher consciousness, so we become aware of two guides who have appeared before us. Their images are associated with two Paths that rise from Tiphareth. One is that of the Hermit, a wise old man, sometimes winged, with staff and lantern. The other is that of Justice, a female figure, sometimes blindfold to indicate impartiality, bearing balance and sword.

These two will lead us on our way. And as it involves an over sea journey, over higher waters, the Hermit takes on also the archetypal function of the Ferryman – named in some mythologies as Chairon, in others as Barinthus. He will be the pilot at the stern of our boat.

The figure of Justice, although seeming quite a conventional image, also has deeper aspects, as Astraea, the Virgin of the Stars, (and in the constellation Virgo holds the balance of Libra), for she is ultimately the epitome of cosmic law who will make all thing straight in the latter days. She will be the figurehead at the prow of the boat in our spiritual journey.

But where is the boat in which we are to travel? The answer comes as we look up into the sky above the ocean which we now find laps at our feet as we stand on its strand, between two modes of consciousness, shore and sea. We see the full moon shining clear and high before us in the light of which, walking across the high blue background of stars is the great figure of the goddess Isis, whose usual representation in the Tarot pack is the High Priestess who rules over the 13th Path that leads up to the Supernal heights.

It is she who will provide the Moon Boat – which is a very ancient symbol of initiatory journeying, and as it appears in the shallows before us, a simple barque like a silver crescent moon, we embark upon it, with Justice and Hermit, (or Astraea/Virgo and Berinthus/Chairon), before and behind us.

One other presence is needed however, before we can cast off. And that is, in a sense, the guardian who watches over the boundary of the Solar Logoidal jurisdiction. Without her blessing we cannot pass. On the Tree of Life she is commonly called Strength, and stands on the transverse Path above Tiphareth, in the form of a maiden and a lion.

What is the source of her strength, and upon whom or what does she exert it? The source is shown by a symbol that is sometimes depicted above her head, and also in the chain of flowers that winds around herself and the lion in a figure of eight conformation. The emblem of Eternity. For her authority is a cosmic one, (emphasised by her name of Una), that transcends the laws of limitation of the Solar Logos. That great overseeing consciousness is represented by the Lion, who in alchemy is sometimes depicted as swallowing the sun. Leo, (containing the original marker star of the zodiac, Regulus the King, at its heart), is also a major constellation which marks the point when the sun begins its annual descent. At this stage of our journey we may see lion and maiden at either side of the gates of a harbour entrance as we make out into open sea, in cosmic terms receiving permission to pass on out of the Ring-Pass-Not of our Solar system.

As we continue our voyage in the Moon Boat we will now, as we progress, find a certain cosmic expansion of power and significance in the two guides who journey with us. This is the influence of those powers that on the Tree of Life are represented by the two Paths that depend from Chokmah, Divine Wisdom, on the one hand, and the two that depend from Binah, Divine Understanding, on the other.

The one pair, represented by the Tarot images of Emperor and High Priest or Pope overshadow the figure of the Ferryman, represent the powers of supreme kingship and of ultimate priesthood. In other words the Ferryman takes on the aspect and function of a Priest King, which in Biblical terms has been expressed as a combination of melech (king) and zadok (priest) or Melchizedek.

The other pair, that overshadow the figure of Astraea, are great feminine powers that are somewhat obscured in the iconography of modern Tarot, although the truth shines easily through the forms of the Lovers and the Chariot. The important figure on the Tarot Card of the Lovers is the Goddess of Love herself, whilst the rider in the chariot is none other but Winged Victory – another form of the goddess of love (as hinted by the title of the Sephirah Netzach whose planetary attribution is Venus, a goddess who is classically portrayed as being victor over the strife of Mars). Thus the figure at the prow of our boat is the feminine embodiment of divine Love as well as of Law.

With the realisation of this we may feel the moon boat beneath us leave the surface of the waters as we rise up into another element entirely which we might regard as the cosmic aethyrs. This is perhaps the equivalent of Daath upon the Tree of Life, as we pass to the possibilities of a higher level of Knowledge altogether, that of direct cognition of the Supernal World.

The bounds of this are represented by a pair of golden gates, and we may well see in them a higher analogue of the Una and the Lion that guarded the harbour gates from which we began our journey.

And so we disembark upon a higher terrain and enter into a virtual Garden of Eden or Paradisal Garden, which is ruled over by a figure depicted as the Empress in the Tarot, associated with the transverse Path that conjoins the spheres of Divine Wisdom and Understanding.

She appears in similar vein to us, and also similar in some respects to traditional presentations of a faery queen, enthroned between two trees before a flowing fountain, which may be a reflection of this almighty figure before us, who is indeed the closest we can approach to a vision of the feminine side of God, the Great Mother, who holds a mirror out before us, inviting us to gaze within.

We may look hard and long for it can reveal to us our entire past – in this life, in this world, in past lives and in other worlds, ever since we were first created as eternal spirits. The Spiritual Experience of Binah is called the Vision of Sorrow, which in its deepest aspect is a vision of all experience in the worlds of Form. Whatever we discern in that mirror might be regarded as a form of higher clairvoyance, or "spiritual reflection", and is part of that process that was succinctly written above the gates of the Delphic Oracle – Know Thyself.

It is hardly likely that we shall do this at one sitting but once having gained these heights of perception we should, by divine grace, be able to recall the experience and continue to gaze and to learn.

Having gazed our fill we are now directed to proceed further into the Garden where at a consecrated spot, or tenemos, we come into a presence which is represented in the Tarot by the Magician or Juggler, a thinly disguised form of the great being known as Hermes, not only a god of magic and learning and travellers and trade but also as Hermes Trismegistus the founder of the Hermetic tradition, the Mystery system of the west. And this in turn is but a cloak by means of which we can look upon the masculine side of God, the progenitor of all, the ultimate Great Magician.

He stands before a cubical altar, which we realise to be the Cube of Space and holds out toward each of us our own individual cube for contemplation. It consists of 7 x 7 x 7 smaller cubes, each cube representing an aspect of ourselves, but the ultimate one in the very centre contains the basic name or formula of our origin in the cosmos or Mind of God – the name behind all our subsequent magical or given names. These cubes, or Vision of God Face to Face, Qabalistically speaking, represent our cosmic past as compared to our past in the worlds of form that were discernible in the mirror of the Goddess. This aspect of the search for our own true being can also be followed up by later contemplation. As a magical aside, emphasising the basic importance of number in the formation of the worlds, we might regard the number of cubes in a 7 x 7 x 7 cube, (or 7 cubed), to be 343. And here is a guide to the central cube or our own being. On entering keep 3 cubes above you, and 3 cubes below you, 3 to the left and 3 to the right, and press on inward until you have 3 cubes behind you and 3 before you, and there your are, four square in the centre!

And in contemplating such mind games as this we find our attention raised to yet another figure, that of the Heavenly Androgyne, whose outer equivalent is Trump Zero, the Fool of the Tarot, a youthful figure of indeterminate gender, carrying a rose, which, as in the climax to Dante’s Paradiso, is an emblem of heavenly reality as closely as can be expressed in form terms, as well as being, of course, at the heart of the Mysteries of the Rose Cross. Who bears a bag in a staff over his shoulder which contains the infinite possibilities of the Mind of God. We may also choose to see, if we wish, the accompanying dog as a representative of unconditional devotion, which is the prime spiritual quality, or the traditional functions of guardian (Cerberus) or opener of ways (Anubis) which are to be discovered at all levels.

This young androgynous figure of the Godhead may naturally be difficult to hold on to but we now see it transform into a more conventional archangelic figure. One who stands pouring the waters of life from an infinite source into an infinitely capacious container, framed within a rainbow, the Bow of Promise, traditional sign of the Divine Covenant between Creator and Creation. And we realise that this figure is the equivalent of the Tarot image of Temperance, which in terms of the Tree of Life is associated with the interior of the well beneath us.

This has major consequences, for it represents God made manifest in the realms of Form, which is no less than a foreshadowing of the events of the Last Days.

As we realise this, the starry Round Table cover of the well blows off, for the well beneath is disintegrating and falling, but it is falling upwards. It has all the time been an inverted tower, represented as such in the Tarot, now struck by spiritual lightning. Thus the male and female figures who have been confined within it are seen also falling upwards, back to the heaven world of the Creator and their origins in cosmos. Similarly, the human figures to be seen in the cards that represent Death and the Devil are also seen to be released, and returning heavenward. Released respectively from confinement in form and confinement in illusion respectively. All this is a representation of "the freeing of the spirits in prison" that is brought about by direct intervention of the Godhead.

And in a representation of the final Revelation of the Last Days, so the physical spheres that are most closely familiar to us are also called back, "falling" into the only one true reality. These are the Sun, the Moon, the Earth (represented in the Tarot as the Last Judgement, or final days of the planet) and its ideal pattern, Venus, the morning and evening star, represented by the Tarot card of the Star.

As a final Epiphany we see the Androgyne with the Rose finally transform into an image represented in the Tarot as the World or Universe – the androgynous figure within a triumphal wreath, holding the Sun in one hand and the Moon in the other, standing upon the Earth and with the Star above, whilst at the four quarters are four Holy Living Creatures at each corner – Lion, Angel, Eagle, Bull – which have their Elemental and Stellar and Apostolic and Biblical equivalents – as Fire, Air, Water and Earth; as Regulus in Leo, Fomalhaut in Aquarius, Antares in Scorpio, Andromeda in Taurus; Mark, Matthew, Luke and John; and as the four rivers running out of Eden. In terms of Qabalistic mysticism this could well be equated with the concept of the Shekinah – the presence of God in Malkuth – or in Christian terms, the Holy Spirit.

There is thus a whole cosmogony and theogony to be found within the Tarot which is why it is so intimately associated with the heart of the Western Mystery Tradition.

The interpretations described above have been worked in a ritual context with powerful results but should not be regarded as exclusive. There are many ways of approaching the symbolism of the Tarot, in theoretical and practical, mystical or magical terms, and a considerable modern literature has developed, some excellent and original, some derivative or fanciful. My own alternative approaches have been described in A Practical Guide to Qabalistic Symbolism (1965), in The Treasure House of Images (1986) (aka Tarot and Magic), and in The Magical World of the Tarot (1991). It is an inexhaustible school of knowledge and wisdom in which one is ever learning.

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  Page last updated October 2009