A PERSONAL VISION OF THE TREE OF LIFE AND TAROT
The ideas presented in this article represent my thoughts and deliberation over how tarot can be related to my own personal concepts of the creation of the universe, as well as numerological, astrological, and Jungian archetypes. And, because I'm a scientist at heart, I wanted to be able to portray the evolution of life on earth and connect it to the Tree of Life and the major arcana.
Early on in studying and learning about the Tree of Life, qabalah, and Western mysticism, I realized that there is much there of value, and also many aspects which I could not fit into my own philosophical system. In many respects, it was like a religion with many positive features, but with deeply-held beliefs conflicting with my own. In the end, I felt it was most important to develop my own, internally consistent, system, that would act as a blueprint or structure for my thoughts. All such matters are based on faith, and no one can be proven to be more valid than another, no matter how many centuries of belief stand behind it.
To that end, I decided to treat the structure of the Tree of Life as an "archetypal structure," which each person can use in their own way to reflect their metaphysical philosophy. There are many aspects of the traditional diagram that ring true to me and which I have incorporated into this version, including the passive/active polarity of the two sides along with the central path, the origin in a single point, and the reflections of the triangles downward culminating in the world as we know it. Other aspects, such as the order in which the paths are followed and their assignment to the major arcana cards, do not work for me, and I have not used them here.
Therefore, I am not claiming this system to be at all based on the Jewish, Christian, or Western mystical qabalah, and followers of those traditions should not expect to see those concepts fully reflected here. Golden Dawn attributions of the major arcana to the paths are not used, there are no associations with Hebrew letters, and the names of the sephiroth are not mentioned. Instead, the nodes of the Tree are simply called "spheres." In general, because this Tree does not draw heavily from the qabalah, the spheres themselves are much less important than the pathways that lead up and down the Tree, and the overall patterns and structure. I have retained the name Tree of Life, because it is still the origin and structure of life that we are discussing. In all other respects, I have started completely from scratch, to see what would emerge. I welcome your reactions, thoughts, and comments.
The diagram of the Tree of Life will appear familiar to most students of the tarot and the qabalah, with perhaps one exception. A sphere has been placed between the uppermost triangle and the middle triangle, along the central path. This sphere represents the hole in the heart of the diagram, and in Western mystical tradition, is known as Da'ath, the place of knowledge. The triangle above this point represents the unknowable – the origin of life and realms we cannot experience while we live in a physical body. The two triangles below this point represent non-physical realms that can be accessed during our physical lifetimes, while the sphere at the bottom of the diagram represents the actual manifestation of the physical world. Between the upper and middle triangles is the abyss – the divide between life and after-life (or between lives). Da'ath exists there, as the gateway to the abyss, or across the abyss, directly on the central path of incarnation and death, and has no connection to the other spheres.
There are many reasons why I chose to represent this sphere on the diagram. A gateway to or across the abyss seems an important concept, which I wanted to include. As will be discussed as part of the major arcana pathways, it affects the path of the Fool and of Judgment differently depending on whether the soul is being incarnated or is leaving its physical body. Also, I felt the need for a point that would represent the moment of incarnation – the balancing and combining of the archetypal male and female principals at the top of the Tree's left and right columns into a whole. The addition of this sphere balances out the numbering system and allows for the use of zero, which will be discussed in the next section. Finally, having 11 spheres allows the assignment of the planet Earth to the lowest sphere, which seems appropriate.
As will be immediately apparent, the numbering system I use departs from the traditional, in that it assigns Zero to the topmost sphere, One to the sphere representing the active, male principal at the top of the right-hand column, Two to the sphere representing the passive, female principal at the top of the left-hand column, and Three to the sphere which has been added between the upper and middle triangles. All other numbers are the same as in the traditional numbering system. This shifts the placement of the Ace, Two, and Three minor arcana cards on the Tree somewhat, making them more consistent with their meanings (as I use them) and numerological origins.
The uppermost sphere is the origin of all life, and as the origin, is assigned the number zero, like the Fool in the major arcana. In my mind, it consists of unified, formless, creative energy. It contains the potential for all things, but is itself nothing but energy. None of the minor arcana, nor even the major arcana, can exist here, since nothing has yet been created or differentiated from the source. From this limitless energy, all life and physical manifestation comes, and to it all returns. From a scientific standpoint of the origin of the Universe, the "big bang" arose out of a singularity, infinitely small, approaching a single point with zero volume. For all these reasons, zero is the appropriate number to assign to the uppermost sphere.
One is the number of the Aces, and of the Magician. In numerology, One is a masculine number, representing the initiation and seed. In the major arcana pathways I have developed, the Magician represents the archetypal male principal, and his path runs from the Sphere 0 to Sphere 1. This places both the Aces and the Magician at the top of the masculine, active column of the Tree. Each of the Aces represents a differentiation of the original energy into four elements and therefore represent the endpoint (not the origin) of the first act of creation. The Aces appear on the Magician's table as his raw materials as he begins to consciously manifest energy into substance.
Two is the number of the High Priestess, and in numerology, is a female, passive number. It balances the Ones. The Twos in tarot are all relatively passive cards, representing balancing, reflection, thought, preparation, and complimentarity between the male and female principals. In the major arcana pathways I have developed, the path of the High Priestess runs from Sphere 0 to Sphere 2, placing both the High Priestess and the Twos at the top of the female, passive column of the Tree.
In numerology, Three is a balanced number, representing the sum of the male One and the female Two. As such, it should appear in the center column of the Tree, below the Ones and the Twos to show that it is the result of combining the male and female principals. From a religious standpoint, this is a very powerful archetypal concept – the combination of the male seed of God with the Virgin to produce a child. This child appears along the central path as a direct incarnation of God, able to transcend the abyss.
This renumbering of the diagram balances the Tree, numerologically speaking. The left-hand column is now 2, 5, 8, reading downward, the right-hand column is 1, 4, 7, and the middle column is 0, 3, 6, 9 (and 10, which is not really a separate number). In each case, the numbers increase evenly by threes, and all the balanced numbers end up in the center column.
All of the colors in the diagram are meaningful, and reflect the formation of the Earth, as well as the active and passive polarities within the Tree. At the origin, Sphere 0, the formless creative energy is represented as white light, which contains the potential for all the other colors and can be diffracted into them. My view of the initial act of creation is that this creative energy is instantaneously differentiated into the four elements, the male/female polarities, and the three primary colors. This is only a metaphorical or representational view, since there are actually infinite degrees of diffraction that can occur. None of these events occurs before the others; none of these energies can exist without the others. Therefore, Spheres 1, 2, and 3 are formed simultaneously, and this triangle is then reflected down through the Tree as echoes of that initial formative burst, successively taking on greater form and definition, until it culminates in the physical world we know. We are removed from the archetypal energies by several layers of reflection, as well as the abyss, and thus it is difficult for us to comprehend and encompass this initial act of creation with our minds.
In this initial triangle, Sphere 1 and the paths that continue down the right-hand side of the Tree are assigned the primary color red, to indicate the active, masculine principal. Sphere 2 and the paths that continue down the left-hand side of the Tree are assigned the primary color blue, to indicate the passive, female principal. The central path of the Fool to and through Sphere 3 is assigned the primary color yellow, a balanced color representing the golden light and warmth that makes life possible (and also for the element Air, with which the Fool is associated).
The middle triangle is composed of the secondary colors green, orange, and purple. Sphere 5 is assigned the color green, a combination of the blue and yellow spheres above, and to represent the path of the Empress, which brings life and abundance. Sphere 4 is assigned the color orange, a combination of the red and yellow in the spheres above, and to represent the path of the Emperor (one of the few major arcana cards in which orange is a predominant color). Sphere 6 is assigned the color purple, as it is the only sphere with a direct connection to the blue and red Spheres 1 and 2, and is centrally located between the active and passive sides of the Tree.
The lowest triangle is composed of tertiary colors, which are beginning to tend toward shades of brown. Sphere 8 is assigned the color olive green, representing the decay associated with death and the recycling of life energy, and a combination of the green of Sphere 5 and the brown of Sphere 10. Sphere 7 is assigned the color ochre, representing a combination of the orange of Sphere 4 with the brown of Sphere 10, and the formation of mineral soils and oxides. Sphere 9 is assigned the color umber, an intermediate color on the way to brown. Sphere 10 represents the Earth, and is assigned a rich brown color, to represent the element earth, the soil or actual earth and sediments that sustain us, and the recombination of all colors into a muddy brown hue.
As shown in the diagram, there are six colored paths comprised of the major arcana. Each of these is discussed separately, and briefly, below. Much more could be said about each one, but in the interests of space and readability, this is a starting point.
The Archetypal Paths (Blue and Red)
The blue and red sequence of paths run downward along the left- and right-hand columns of the Tree, respectively. These represent female and male archetypal pathways that are seldom directly experienced, but which combine in various proportions to create our personalities and experiences in life. The female pathway represents, from the top down, the Maiden/Mother/Crone archetypes, followed by the Moon, which encompasses all three in its phase changes. The male pathway represents a similar idea, which I call Youth/Father-Protector/Wise Man, followed by the Sun, which also represents these three conditions as it rises, shines overhead, and sets.
I have always seen the Magician and the High Priestess as complimentary, pure expressions of the male and female energies, and these were clear choices for the top two paths. The High Priestess is often referred to as a virgin or maiden, and portrayed as a young woman. One of the most passive cards in the major arcana, she holds the keys to the vast collective unconscious and therefore, the potential of life. The Magician represents the idealism of youth, the idea that one can be anything, create anything, one chooses. This card represents within it the supreme self-confidence and seeming invincibility of young men, whose ideas and beliefs are yet untempered by experience.
Following these two are the Empress and Emperor – the earthly guardians or parents. As representatives of the Mother and Father archetypes, these were also relatively clear choices. The Empress brings fertility and productivity to her time as the child-bearing Mother, and also represents Mother Nature in the development of life on earth. The Emperor represents not only a paternal archetype, but also Man in the prime of his life, acting as a provider and protector of not just the family, but of society. He represents civilization and order, a counterpart to Mother Nature and chaos.
The third element of each archetypal path presents the most difficult choice. For the Crone, I chose Death over the other possibility, the Hermit. The Hermit could have acted as either the Crone or the Wise Man, but I felt it belonged on a more spiritual path, discussed later in this section. Death represents aspects of the Crone associated with midwifing and birthing, dealing with sickness and death, and coming to terms with the end of life. Death brings full circle the cycle of life, growth, and decay. Wisdom and strength in a woman's old age are gained by working directly with these forces of life and death, and seeing oneself as part of the cycle.
On the male side, the Hanged Man represents a point in a man's life where he is no longer acting in the role of provider or protector of the family or society. His active, outwardly-focused nature must be discarded as he engages in soul-searching within to find a new purpose and identity. His external life is put on hold as he searches for wisdom in places he has never needed to look before. Once found, he may come down out of the tree and become a wise man, a source of wisdom and experienced guidance for youths and kings, young men and providers.
As you work down the paths, the passive and active principals becomes less pure and separate, as does everything else about the Tree. The Empress is more actively engaged in life than the High Priestess, and the Crone may be more direct and assertive in her decisions and actions than either the Maiden or the Mother. On the male side, the brash action of the Youth is tempered by maturity in the Father, and by wisdom and restraint in the Wise Man. There are paths that cross over and connect the two columns directly, and each learns with time from the other, and mixes more and more together, until in the Earth, Sphere 10, there is no pure male or female energy, but only mixtures in all of us.
The Sun and the Moon combine all aspects of their respective male and female aspects, and carry them in all their nuances and cycles to Sphere 10, the Earth. Since the Sun and the Moon are the two celestial bodies that have the greatest influence on the earth and on people's lives, it is appropriate that they appear along with the World to make up the three paths that lead to Sphere 10.
The Central Path (Yellow)
The Central Path represents the most direct path that can be taken by the soul as it is incarnated, and as it returns to the universal energies at death. Beginning at Sphere 0, the Fool represents a soul in its purest form, closest to spirit, as it becomes incarnated in a physical body. On the way down the Tree, the path of the Fool passes easily across the abyss, through Sphere 3, all the way down to Sphere 6. At this point, one could imagine a differentiated soul, associated with a pregnant woman's child. The process of birth takes the soul through the paths of Judgment and the World, and the child is born into Sphere 10, the world.
On the return up the Tree, as a person approaches death they traverse the path of the World. They begin to feel the approaching transition and to anticipate the elevation of the soul out of the body. During or after the physical process of death, the soul experiences Judgment and comes to understand how the experiences of this lifetime can be seen and judged in a larger context. The path of Judgment carries the soul all the way to the gates of the abyss, at Sphere 3. Once the process of Judgment is complete, the soul is free to cross over the abyss and remerge with the universal creative energies.
The Twisted Paths (Orange and Green)
The twisted paths represent ways that we can get off-balance and off the central path. These represent lessons that have to be learned in order to rejoin the central golden path. The green paths represent problems and solutions that tend toward passive approaches, and the orange paths represent problems and solutions that tend toward active approaches. Paths that have both green and orange are balancing or integrating paths. These paths are part of the learning process and teach us to balance our energies so that we can return to the central path. The green and orange paths both start with more traumatic, difficult experiences near the bottom of the Tree, and we find the solutions as we work up the Tree toward the light.
On the lowest green and orange paths, we find the Devil and the Tower. The Devil represents a passive approach to life's problems, getting ourselves into difficult situations and then refusing to take action or responsibility to get ourselves out again. It represents all forms of escapism, such as drugs, alcoholism, overeating, sex – distractions to keep us from having to face up to and deal with the problems we have. On the other side we have the Tower, in which we actively build up walls to insulate ourselves and protect our egos. The more assertively and assiduously we build up these walls, the more painful and difficult it is when they come crashing down again, exposing all our weaknesses and problems. These two paths lead us away from the center toward the extremes.
On the next set of diagonal paths up from there, we have the Star and the Wheel of Fortune. These are both processes of change that can help lead us away from the problems indicated by the Tower and the Devil. The Star is a passive process which consists only of laying ourselves bare to the healing powers of the universe, and allowing our minds to fill with hope and inspiration. The Wheel represents a more active process of understanding the cycles of life and working with them to effect positive change, or to put the ups and downs of life into perspective.
On the highest set of diagonal paths, we find virtues that can help bring us back to the center and overcome our problems. Strength is the more passive of the two, overcoming our vices, passions, and difficulties of life through patience, kindness, determination, and quiet purpose. Justice is the more active approach, where we may take direct action to right wrongs and ensure that our karmic balance has improved. All four of the paths in this area lead to centering ourselves in Sphere 6, where we can regain our movement upward along the central path.
In the two orange and green balancing paths, we have Temperance and the Lovers. Temperance connects the Crone and Wise Man, and allows the most complete combination of the active and passive energies and various elements. Because it is represents a fuller integration than the Lovers, it belongs lower in the Tree. Temperance is also a useful balancing process when we have been too passive or too active and have built up problems in our lives because of it. The Lovers connects the Mother and Father archetypes, and provides the link that allows the Empress and the Emperor to work together and see each other's points of view, in a complimentary way. The Lovers allows us to see the value of doing things differently. It also brings in the mature energy of the Mother and Father to allow us to take responsibility for our actions and problems, and solve them through Justice and Strength, thus bringing ourselves back to the central path.
The Soul Paths (Purple)
These are paths chosen by souls who have reached the point where they are able to transcend the abyss and merge with the universal energies, but have instead chosen to stay within the Tree of Life and interact with others. Within these paths we find great teachers and religious figures. The Hermit represents the passive path, one who searches within for wisdom and who distills this wisdom as a light for others to follow. Gandhi or Buddha might be examples of souls that follow this path. The Chariot represents the active path, one who works within the world for the betterment of humankind by active example. Mother Teresa might be an example of these souls.
Lastly, the Hierophant represents souls who exist on the other side of the abyss, and have no physical form. These souls may represent spirit guides who guide individuals in life or souls through the process of death and judgment. Although the choice of this card for this concept did not seem ideal, there really is no card in the major arcana that is perfect for this. However, the Hierophant in his more positive manifestations could represent messages brought from the spiritual world to the living. As a spiritual mentor or guide, some of the newer images chosen in the pagan or Wiccan decks work quite well.
All of the court cards represent living people, either aspects of oneself or of others. Therefore, they are all assigned to the middle or lower part of the Tree, rather than to the archetypal spheres located above the abyss. The Emperor and Empress are closely associated with the Kings and Queens, and therefore, the Kings are assigned to Sphere 4 and the Queens to Sphere 5. The Knights fall just below them in hierarchy, and both the Knights and the Pages seem to me to be gender-neutral. Therefore, the Knights are assigned to Sphere 6, where they can charge off in any direction. The Pages are associated with Sphere 10, to represent their firm connection to the element of earth and their relative inexperience, placing them at the bottom of the Tree.
Since eleven spheres are used in this version of the Tree, the Earth is added to the traditional ten planets for allocation to the spheres. Uranus is assigned to Sphere 0, to reflect its association with the Fool and the unpredictable and random (to me) nature of the bursts of energy that create life. Mercury and Neptune are assigned to Spheres 1 and 2, in part to reflect the order in which the earth was formed (see below). Mercury is also associated with the Magician. Although the High Priestess is often associated with the Moon, Neptune is also a good choice to represent the limitless seas of the collective unconscious and the many sea/mother goddesses in world culture, and the deep blue color of Sphere 2.
Pluto is assigned to Sphere 3. Sphere 3 represents the gates of the abyss, and is a mysterious sphere which is often not even depicted in diagrams of the Tree. The abyss is uncrossable and unknowable to man in his human form, and this mysterious nature fits well with Pluto. Pluto is the farthest planet in our solar system, beyond which there is only empty space. Sphere 3 represents the highest point in the Tree we can go, beyond which is the abyss and the universal energies. Pluto is also associated with deep probing, which fits well with the path of Judgment that leads to this point.
Spheres 4 and 5 are assigned to Venus and Mars, to represent the Empress and Emperor and their male and female energies in their active, productive state. Sphere 6 is assigned to Jupiter, the beneficial planet of harmony and expansiveness. This is considered the sphere of beauty, the most balanced and harmonious point on the Tree, and therefore it goes well with Jupiter. Sphere 9, on the other hand, is assigned to Saturn, which represents the principal of restriction and contraction. This seems appropriate since it is surrounded by the "difficult" paths of the Devil and the Tower, and is the barrier through which you must first travel to leave the material world and climb higher in the tree. Saturn is also associated with The World, whose path passes through this point.
Spheres 7 and 8 are assigned to the Sun and the Moon, respectively, because of their position along the Archetypal Paths and their proximity to the Earth, and finally, Sphere 10 is assigned to the Earth, as it represents the manifestation of the physical world.
The scientific process of the evolution of life on earth is also represented by this version of the Tree of Life. The process begins with the "big bang", an infinitesimally small point in space filled with white-hot energy – represented by Sphere 0. As the universe expanded and the gases began to coalesce, the planetary body of earth was covered with oceans and a gaseous atmosphere, represented by Sphere 2 (Neptune) and Sphere 1 (Mercury/Air). Light and heat streamed down from the Sun, represented by the central yellow path through the Tree (Sphere 3), providing energy to all stages of the evolution of life.
In the next phase, volcanic activity occurred and rock formed above the surface of the oceans (Sphere 4; mountains behind the Emperor). Green things began living in the ocean and on the surface of the earth (Sphere 5; Empress), photosynthesis providing the energy they needed to grow in abundance (Sphere 6; Jupiter). Soil began to form (Sphere 7) and plants began to decay (Sphere 8; Death), providing enough food for animals to leave the oceans and live on land. Lastly, humankind evolved through competition and adversity (Sphere 9; Saturn), and developed the community and civilization we know today (Sphere 10).
Illustrations from Universal Waite, Hanson-Roberts, Spiral, Ancestral Path, Herbal, Dragon, Halloween, Russian Tarot of St. Petersburg, Medieval Scapini, Crow's Magick and Tarot of Ceremonial Magick tarot decks reproduced by permission of US Games Systems Inc. Copyrights © 1990, 1998, 1999, 1996, 1990, 1996, 1996, 1996, 1985, 1998, 1995 respectively by US Games Systems, Stamford, CT.
Wheel of Change tarot cards © 1997 Alexandra Genetti