Fools and the Tarot

Traditional Tarot Sequencing and Misinterpretation

[Tarot Index]

The cabalists have always had a horror of the magic of Kasdeems.
          Suares, Cipher, p.21

Hundreds of books have been written and countless authoritative statements have been made based on the fabrications of 19th century Englishmen who forged their credentials, played at being "magicians" and claimed to understand Hebrew tradition better than the Jews.

In an astonishingly successful act of intellectual and spiritual colonialism, the Order of the Golden Dawn "improved" on a millennia-old Hebrew tradition and discovered the "true" correspondences between the Hebrew letters and the astrological planets. The "supreme mystical insight" of the Golden Dawn, which surpassed ancient and classical tradition, both East and West, and was to have provided the "new light" for the coming age, went nowhere in the 20th Century.

Instead, the "false meme" of the Golden Dawn Tarot has served as a shell which assured the survival and proliferation of its contents: the 22 images of the Tarot in a myriad of forms and interpretations and the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet in an encoded, unconscious form.

Much of the Tarot "establishment" has been built on what is essentially an imaginary system, invented by Hebrew-challenged Victorians and disconnected from ancient and traditional cosmological and astrological wisdom. Nothing new has come of their work in the last century and it may be useful to take a fresh look at the assumed wisdom of these influential "experts."

Perhaps none of this would matter -- the appropriation and exploitation of one obscure system of mystical or religious thought by another -- except that the Hebrew alphabet, and the Tarot, when their relationship is properly understood, is literally a key to encoded texts that can't be deciphered when a third of the letters in the alphabet are misarranged.

... the one pristine symbol set from which all Golden Dawn symbolism is derived is the Hebraic-Tarot correspondences, which Mathers rediscovered (as demonstrated in the addendum to Key 12). The supreme magickal formula, upon which is erected the complete Temple of Golden Dawn magick, equates zero with 1 as:
0 = The Fool (Tarot) = Aleph (Hebrew) = 1

so that

0 = 1
David Hulse: The Key of it All, Vol 2, The Western Mysteries, Llewellyn, 2000, p.259

This so-called "formula" is really a confusion of representational systems and is nonsensical in at least two of them -- Hebrew and mathematics. It says that Aleph is "one" in the semiotic system of Hebrew, but is "zero" in the semiotic system of the Tarot, although they are actually identical, presumeably in the semiotic system of mathematical logic.

Qabalistic & Thelemic Proofs of the Grand Binary Code 1 = A = 0

Revived Tarot: The Fool: Aleph/1 The Zero Deal: Aleph = 1 not 0

In 1642, Rittangel published the third Latin translation of the SEFER YETZIRAH, based on the 1562 Mantua edition. This was the translation used by Westcott who made his English translation in 1887. Wescott's Hebrew was somewhat less significant than Shakespeare small Latin and less Greek. He compared the Rittangel translation to a relatively corrupt and late British Museum manuscript, adopted most of the erroneous variants and thereby set the Golden Dawn and its followers on a misdirected adventure.

Two observations: the validity of mystical and magic[k]al systems derived from the Westcott translation depends on their internal consistency. That a number of erroneous choices were made during the course of the translation has meant that practitioners of the Hermetic Kabbalah have long recognized difficulties in the interpretation of this work and have generally explained these or tried to explain them away as 'mysteries'. Although MacGregor Mathers's wife, Moira, the sister of the French philosopher, Henri Bergson, has a good command of Hebrew [and was responsible for most of the work for which her husband took credit]

Neither Mathers himself nor Westcott nor Crowley, for that matter, had anything more than a smattering of Hebrew, at best the equivalent today of four undergraduate semesters of Beginning Biblical Hebrew: adequate for picking one's way through a text word for word but hardly sufficient for producing accurate translations. Once again, the general xenophobia of the time in England, coupled with both anti-Judaism and antisemitism, meant that the last people to be consulted about what their tradition actually meant were the Jews.

From The Sepher Yetsira by Professor Bryan Griffith Dobbs

Early Tarot sequences, from the 15th and 16th centuries, show significant variation in their orders, with the cards often unnumbered and sometimes untitled. The earliest list of the Tarot trumps, from the late 15th century (from Stuart Kaplan, Encycolpedia of the Tarot, 1978, p.2) (English translation of Italian titles):

1 Juggler
2 Empress
3 Emperor
4 Popess
5 Pope
6 Temperance
7 Lovers
8 Chariot
9 Strength
10 Wheel
11 Hermit/Time
Sermones de Ludo Cum Alis late 15th Century
12 Hanged Man
13 Death
14 Devil
15 Arrow
16 Star
17 Moon
18 Sun
19 Angel
20 Justice
21 World
22 Fool

By the 18th and 19th centuries, however, the familiar Tarot order had emerged via the Tarot de Marseilles adopted by Eliphas Levi and his followers, Papus and Wirth, setting the stage for the Golden Dawn to canonify the "standard" model from the only source they knew.

The earlier sequence assigned Justice to Tayt (9) (Leo) and Strength to Lammed (30) (Libra) (Trumps 8 and 11 if one includes the erroneous "key 0"). As Western occult researchers began to understand the Hebrew Qabala via the Sepher Yetsira as the source for the images, the obviousness of Lammed=Libra=Scales and Tayt=Leo=Lion became too much to bear, and the swap was codified by Macgregor Mathers in the Golden Dawn Tarot.

Macgregor Mather's and the Golden Dawn's so-called "Secret Order of the Tarot Trumps" was simply the received order with Justice and Strength switched and Aleph restored to the beginning of the alphabet, resulting in the Mathers-Golden-Dawn-Rider-Waite deck.

But in order to preserve the placement of the rest of cards, it was necessary to change Hebrew tradition to fit the requirements of the historical (we would say encoded) Tarot sequence. This in turn meant that the Hebrew alphabet had to be re-numbered and the classical planetary assignments changed because the Jews didn't know the truth about their own ancient tradition and "the attributions of the Sepher Yetzirah were wrong."

Here is David Hulse's description of Mathers' "proof" of the Tarot":

  • Permute Levi to place "0" at the head of the order
  • Exchange Key Viii with Key XI
  • Qualify the seven Tarot keys (I,II,III,X,XVI,XIX,XXI) to correspond to the seven planets (Mercury, Moon, Venus, Jupiter, Mars, Sun, Saturn) by their Tarot images, thereby establishing a new secret esoteric order
David Hulse, The Key of it All, Vol 2, Llewellyn, 2000 p.351

This "qualification," which was actually an attempt to tamper with the formative semantics of the Hebrew alphabet, was said to have resolved all the "blinds" or intentionally mis-sequenced cards, though Waite, at least, seems to voice grave doubts that this is true ("I may go further and say that the true nature of the Tarot symbolism is perhaps a secret in the hands of a very few persons").

Apart from the placement and numbering of the Fool, the most significant change made by Mathers to the trumps was the counterchange in the numbers and locations of the trumps Justice and Strength. Traditionally, Justice is numbered eight and Strength eleven. Mathers numbered Justice eleven and Strength eight, and exchanged the places of these cards in the sequence of the Major Arcana.

This change was adopted by many modern Tarot designers, some of whom probably did not even know why the change was made. The rationale for the counterchange of these trumps lies in the zodiac signs assigned to each in the system of occult associations used by the Golden Dawn. In that system, which is too complex to explain here, the trump numbered eight is linked with the sign Leo and the trump numbered eleven is linked with the sign Libra. Obviously Leo is a more appropriate sign for the trump Strength, which illustrates a woman holding in her hands the jaws of a lion, and Libra is a more appropriate sign for the trump Justice, which shows a woman holding a set of scales (the symbol of Leo is the lion, the symbol of Libra is the scales).

    Truth About the Tarot --Coronzon

This left, however, seven other cards whose astrological symbolism did not match their positions in relationship to the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. To address this problem, Mathers rewrote the traditional Hebrew Yetsiratic assignments and claimed to have discovered "the true order." The rationalization for this was the claim that the planetary correspondences in the Sepher Yetsira are ambiguous ("most blinded"). In fact only one, late, version varies from the standard Hebrew and classical assignments (and they ignored that one too).

When the only zodiacal misplacement among the 22 trumps, Strength-Justice, is resolved, every single non-planetary astrological Tarot correspondence is in accord with the consensus of versions of the Sepher Yetsira.

The incorrect placing of Strength and Justice was obvious and so they were counterchanged quite empirically. It was assumed that the numbering of the Tarot cards had become distorted.     Knight, Practical Guide to Qabalistic Symbolism, 1972.

Thus the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, because they are nouns, are actually twenty-two labels for mental pictures. From the same stock of pictures, by association, are drawn the occult attributions of the letters, and the symbols of the Tarot Keys. To make this clear, and to establish the correctness of this long-hidden attribution of the major trumps to the letters, is one of the main purposes of this book.     Case, Tarot, 1949.

Upon being initiated into the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Aleister Crowley was surprised to find out that the only secrets entrusted to him were the occult order and virtues of the Hebrew alphabet.     Hulse, Key of It All, 1996.

Golden Dawn Planetary Attributions

Hebrew Letter Planet Tarot Trump
  Bayt Mercury Magician
  Ghimel Moon High Priestess
  Dallet Venus Empress
  Kaf Jupiter Wheel
  Pay Mars Tower
  Raysh Sun Sun
  Tav Saturn World

According to Hulse, (Key, 1996), the Golden Dawn attributions were "based on Macgregor Mathers' secret order." Since this ordering ignored the source document, the Sepher Yetsira, in all of its translations, classical understanding of the Hebrew attributions, the interpretations of every famous (Jewish) Qabalist and the classical (Platonic and Ptolemaic) order of the celestial spheres, one may wonder where Macgregor Mathers got his inspiration, which has completely dominated Tarot interpretation for over a century.

Why the system was accepted is another question.

Planetary Double Letters
Double LetterSepher YetsiraPtolemaicKircher & MeyerStenring & Week Indian ChakrasMathers-GD
Adapted from Hulse, Key of It All, 1996, p.130-131

See: Planetary Attributions in the Sepher Yetsira

It appears that Mathers may have imported four planetary attributions from a non-Western (Hindu) system into the "secret" Golden Dawn attributions and then shuffled the remaining three (Sun, Jupiter and Mars) from the same system.

Nineteenth Century western occult researchers realized that the Strength/Justice transposition is not the only "obvious" symbolic problem in the Tarot Major Trumps. The Magician, with its Hermetic connections, the High Priestess with the Moon at her feet, the Empress with Venus on her shield, the Sun and the Tower all convey specific astrological connotations that presented problems equal to the scales and the lion. When presented with the problem of changing the order of the cards or changing the meaning of the source text, Mathers and the Golden Dawn followers chose the latter and re-assigned seven planets from their actual positions (as specified in the Sepher Yetsira).

Hulse's and Heidrick's view, rationalizing changing the Hebrew and classical planetary assignments:

The seven double letters, assigned to the seven planets, are analyzed next. This symbol set is the most blinded of all attributes in the Sepher Yetsira. Mathers felt that the Tarot offered the pictorial key to clarify which planet should be governed by each of the seven double letters.     Hulse, 1996, p.19 .

"These applications of the planets to the double letters are the most highly corrupted matter in existing manuscripts of the "Sepher Yetzirah", as is noted further below. No definitive text exists in this matter."      -- Heidrick

This was true in the case of the Double letters, where one of several natural methods of assignment in the "Yetzirah" was passed over to provide a better match between the Double Letters and the planets to work with Tarot Trumps. The other methods do not work as well with the G.'. D.'. Tarot-Astrological system, and they are therefore excluded from "Liber 777".     Heidrick

Here we have the traditional Hebrew assignments of the Sepher Yetsira "passed over" in favor the Golden-Dawn system because they "do not work as well" with the traditional tarot placements rationalized by the "G.'. D.'. Tarot-Astrological system."

It is false that "no definitive texts exists in this matter." In fact, there is total agreement on the planetary attributions of the seven doubles until the late Lurianic-influenced 18th century "Gra" version.

The previous change, Strength/Justice, restored the Yetziratic attributions to the primary symbols, scales/Libra, lion/Leo. Why decide now that it is the source, the Sepher Yetsira, that is blinded, and not the Tarot cards, or their interpreters?

The only cards that don't iconically carry their astrological symbolism, the Fool, the World and the Wheel, use equally obvious symbolism for their true numerical positions, one, two and three in the sequence of initial structuration.

The Golden Dawn could have used Westcott's or Stenring's Gra translation, but they would have had to move seven trumps, and apparently the challenge made them opt for telling the Jews their Sepher Yetsira was incorrect about its own alphabetical/astrological correspondences.

These are, in fact, not "correspondences" in the Golden Dawn sense of the term, but rather linked categories (formative Hebrew letter, planet and contrary qualities, zodiacal sign and formative, position in the Cube of Space) with complex semantic and structural relationships.

"The letter of the alphabet is the source of the planet, and not a sign by which it is designated" ( Joseph Dan, Jewish Mysticism, Vol I, Aronson, 1998, p.151 ).

The so-called "blinded" planetary attributions are not arbitrary assignments to be corrected with Eastern wisdom, but part of a symbolic system that interweaves and over-determines its syntax and semantics on every level. Parts of the alphabet can't be re-assigned without meaning deteriorating rapidly.

See Meadim for the intimate relationship of Dallet and Mars.
See:   Semantic Drift in the Tarot | Obscuring the Origins | Tarot Unlocked | The Fool

Classic BOTA Tarot Correspondences
Revived Tarot: Aliester Crowley and the Star

Traditional Tarot Sequencing - Aeclectic Tarot Forum - "I read the first paragraph and got bored."

The Pictorial Key and the Fool's Location (Tarot community remains wed to their ideologies)

Native Positions of the Tarot According to the Sepher Yetsira
Ancient Recensions By Hebrew Letter-Astrological Correspondences