Tarot and the Tree of Life

By Joumana Medlej


The Tree of Life is a vast subject requiring several volumes; even limiting oneself to the placement of Tarot cards on the Paths is worth an entire book. My goal here is to give a brief and simple overview of this correspondence, in line with my previous article addressed to those who are not familiar with the occult and the esoteric.

The Tree, on the level that interests us here, is a system of classification of experience. It is very similar to the methods of categorizing animal species in zoology, except that it deals with abstract concepts that are forces/stages in one's spiritual/moral/ethical growth - the beauty of the system is that it can be regarded and studied in a variety of areas (not limited to the occult) and scale (for instance it is considered a map both of the soul and of the Universal order).

This mere sketch will suffice for the purpose of this article, which is to explain the connection between Tarot and the Tree of Life. It seems that the former was born from the latter, or at least was so influenced by it as to become an outcrop of it. Quoting my previous article: "To know this diagram (the Tree) and where each card falls is all one needs to memorize: then the cards themselves reveal what exactly each of the 32 paths is about and how they relate to each other". The 78 Tarot cards are divided as follows: 22 major Arcana; 56 minor Arcana among which 4 times 10 numbered cards and 4 times 4 court cards. The 32 paths are divided into 10 "Spheres" and 22 "Paths". We can already see a pattern; now let me explain the terms above.

The major Arcana fall into place on the 22 Paths of subjective experience, while the minor Arcana relate to the 10 Spheres. I will leave this second part for another article and focus here on the 22 Paths. It is customary to explain the Spheres first since the Paths are just links between two Spheres, but since my approach is from the Tarot side I will endeavor to make it clear without going through another lengthy foreword.

After this lengthy introduction (which I hope hasn't discouraged newcomers), here are the correspondences between the Paths (numbered 32 to 11, in the order that ascends the Tree) and the Tarot, the way I understand it. There is much more involved but it would require expending into a mass of other correspondence. If you are interested in more, I suggest the book mentioned at the end of the article.

Path: 32
Connects: Malkuth to Yesod
Card: The World (21)
Why: Called the Path of Coming and Going (into and out of physical form),it represents on one level birth and death. On another, it is a process of introversion away from exterior sensations and towards one's inner consciousness, as happens in a trance for instance. Either way, it connects the manifest, tangible world to its intangible, underlying principles, and that's just what the card shows: the dancing soul of the world within the frame of the manifest Universe.

Path: 31
Connects: Malkuth to Hod
Card: Judgement (20)
Why: This Path represents psychological and intellectual evolution, the history of civilizations - and these started with the discovery of fire. The Judgement card implies a bringing back to life, but it is heavily symbolic of this element. Michael, Archangel of Fire, forms a triangle (the sign for Fire) with the two people standing on either side of him. From left to right they represent earthly fire, solar fire, and astral fire.

Path: 30
Connects: Yesod to Hod
Card: The Sun (19)
Why: This is the Path of scientific discovery. The scientific process is like a strong solar light that casts stark shadows or dispels them all, as opposed to the creative inspiration of the 28th path (opposite to the 30th) that is fostered by the soft light of the Star.

Path: 29
Connects: Malkuth to Netzach
Card: The Moon (18)
Why: This is the evolution of the forms that are manifested in the material world; in other words our physical evolution. The Moon is closely associated with the latter as it rules cyclic activity (tides, vegetation cycles, mensesŠ), which determines growth.

Path: 28
Connects: Yesod to Netzach
Card: The Emperor (4)
Why: This card seems to disrupt the numerical pattern that had started to become apparent. In fact, the card attributed to this path was long considered to be the Star (17), and the order was there, but Aleister Crowley swapped them. The reason may or may not be agreed with, but it goes to demonstrate that the Tree is not a static and inflexible system. It evolved for centuries and is probably still evolving now. I personally disagree with the exchange, the original attribution clicks better for me. The 28th path is considered to be creative inspiration and the awakening of consciousness to the perfect world of higher beings: to me the Star fits with this concept, and I can't see how the Emperor would. The Emperor feels too deep and primordial a concept to be this low on the Tree. More on this under the 15th Path.

Path: 27
Connects: Hod to Netzach
Card: The Tower (16)
Why: This horizontal path constitutes the structure of the Personality: it links the Sphere of the intellect and the Sphere of emotions. It is also crossed by the vertical 25th path, the "descending fire" (descending from the higher spheres to this spot). This means that it is a point where vertical and horizontal polarities are simultaneously used in the siege of the Personality (symbolized by a tower). If the latter is not well balanced, i. e. if the tower is not well built, or its foundations askew, it cannot withstand the descending fire - it will crumble, as shown in the Tower card.

Path: 26
Connects: Hod to Tiphareth
Card: The Devil (15)
Why: The 26 Path is one of three Paths (24, 25, 26) known as the Dark Night of the Soul. This one is a test to the intellect - where all that we know is questioned and doubted as we make the transfer to intuitive knowledge. The Devil carries the notions of both ignorance and being chained to matter, in other words being unable to remove one's thinking from the logical material world and open up to intuition. "One can be voluntarily enslaved to either science or faith".

Path: 25
Connects: Yesod to Tiphareth
Card: Temperance (14)
Why: The 25th Path's test touches on our devotional aspiration: aridity and darkness in our life precede an opening to light and love. It connects the Sphere of the Sun (Tiphareth) and that of the Moon (Yesod), a relation represented on the Temperance card by the golden vase being poured into the silver vase. The word temperance itself connotes the vigorous beating of metal that is necessary to create any strong and beautiful object.

Path: 24
Connects: Netzach to Tiphareth
Card: Death (13)
Why: Death is willingness to change - to let old aspects of our personality die in order to give birth to new ones. This is the Dark Night of the 24th path. In a more mystical sense the transformation may be more radical, involving the illumination of making one's way towards a more wholistic consciousness beyond the ego. The attribution of the Death card is rather obvious, and the skeleton in particular is the basis which remains a constant while we strip away and renew the surface flesh.

Path: 23
Connects: Hod to Geburah
Card: The Hanged Man (12)
Why: This is the path of sacrifice, or what we invest to achieve progress. To give in order to receive, stand still in order to advance. This Path holds the key to the universal law that we get out of life exactly what we put into it. The Hanged Man reminds us of a variety of mythological or historical figures, from Odin to Christ, who went through a sacrificial death to obtain world-scale changes.

Path: 22
Connects: Tiphareth to Geburah
Card: Justice (11)
Why: Balance is restored on this Path, all past factors are weighed - you could call it a karmic adjustment. The attribution of Justice is obvious enough.

Path: 21
Connects: Netzach to Chesed
Card: The Wheel of Fortune (10)
Why: On this Path we experience the yearning and emotional urge that move us to start on a quest, even though for a purpose that may not be clear to us yet. For this reason it is sometimes called the Path of Desire and Vision. The yearning for incarnation belongs to this path and it is therefore responsible for our cyclic rebirth into a body: this, and the pattern of our evolution, is the theme of the Wheel of Fortune.

Path: 20
Connects: Tiphareth to Chesed
Card: The Hermit (9)
Why: This Path bridges the gap between our lower and higher self and affords us the vision of the way the latter thinks of itself- the pattern on which it builds the lower self. This can be called "destiny" since ultimately, we are meant to evolve into our higher selves. The Hermit is the holy man who sees into the future/destiny and carries a lantern aloft to help others follow him up the Path.

Path: 19
Connects: Geburah to Chesed
Card: Strength (8)
Why: This is another horizontal Path, a higher equivalent of the 27th. This is the structure of our higher self, where we are able to live an ideal. There we "drink the cup": we are able to face and accept all our deviances, everything we have done during our personal evolution. The lion on the Strength card represents all those "wild forces" that are here under gentle control, held in check by the woman but accepted for what they are.

Path: 18
Connects: Geburah to Binah
Card: The Chariot (7)
Why: Here we reach up higher than ever to the realm of the Spirit (no matter how you see it), which is to our higher self what our higher self is to our lower self. The Spheres it joins are Geburah, Sphere of activity, and Binah, a symbol of which is the throne. Traditionally a chariot is a throne in motion, hence the choice of the Chariot to represent this path. The man in control of the vehicle is Spirit.

Path: 17
Connects: Tiphareth to Binah
Card: The Lovers (6)
Why: This Path is about the relation that should exist between us and the part of us that reveals our purpose within the Divine Plan (esoterically known as the Holy Guardian Angel). This relation is again represented in the Lovers card, where the couple actually represent us and our HGA. The Angel is the driving force behind manifestation, and older decks also included a crowned woman that was the principle of Form. This pair allude to the incarnation of the human on the card, which must result in partial splitting from his HGA and seeking to retrieve it.

Path: 16
Connects: Chesed to Chokmah
Card: The Hierophant (5)
Why: This is another link between higher self and Spirit, wherein all aspects of our existence radiate truth (as Chokmah receives and reflects the image of Kether directly). The Hierophant is chosen for his function which is receiving power form above and mediating it down to another level.

Path: 15
Connects: Tiphareth to Chokmah
Card: The Star (17)
Why: This is the card that was swapped with the Emperor (4). The explanation is usually that this path affords us to "glimpse a spark of the majesty of the Creator as through a window", hence the image of a star (added to the fact that the Hebrew letter for this path, Heh, means window). Personally, I find it a bit far-fetched and disagree with Crowley's exchange. The glimpse is said to be of "the soul's origin and goal on the Way of Evolution", and this seems to me like seeing the order and organization behind all things -- the Emperor.

Path: 14
Connects: Binah to Chokmah
Card: The Empress (3)
Why: This is the final horizontal Path, and again reflect the previous ones at a higher level. It is the do.or to manifestation and illumination: since it joins Chokmah, a pre-form Sphere, and Binah, the first to carry the idea of Form, it is the archetype of all manifestation. Hence the attribution of the Empress, whose symbolism evoke a fertile Mother ready to bring forth children of Form.

Path: 13
Connects: Tiphareth to Kether
Card: The High Priestess (2)
Why: The 13th Path is known as the Abyss, the final purification where everything irrelevant about us is annihilated as we dash straight from the central Sphere to the ultimate one. This Path crosses a hidden and mysterious "Sphere" called Daath, likely what is hidden behind the veil in front of which sits the High Priestess. The figure of the priestess herself stands as the direct link between heaven and earth evoked by many female figures in lore, such as Isis and the Virgin Mary.

Path: 12
Connects: Binah to Kether
Card: The Magician (1)
Why: On this Path we have the ability to see things as they really are. We see the true Plan and bring it down into the Sphere of Form. A Magician traditionally has the role of bringing down higher forces to a lower level. On the card, he is standing under an eternity symbol (the Unmanifest which gave birth to Kether) and over a table (representing manifestation), connecting them with the Rod of Power he's wielding.

Path: 11
Connects: Chokmah to Kether
Card: The Fool (0)
Why: This is the final approach to God. We now approach Union after having experienced Vision. The Fool, the deepest symbol in the Tarot, is a paradoxical being, both wise and foolish, who lives in a world of his own (menaing he has a different set of values). He has the innocence of first beginnings (for the descent from Kether) but it is also the tabula rasa of total purification through traveling all the way up the tree and being ready to dissolve once again into the Creator. We cannot understand the way his mind works, just like we cannot comprehend the Path he treads.
All quotes from Gareth Knight's A Practical Guide to Qabalistic Symbolism.