Until the 18th century, tarot cards were simply playing cards. It was then that occult researchers became convinced that these cards in fact held magical properties, and that they contained a secret truth that originated in ancient Egypt and was preserved in Jewish mysticism…
It was during one of the early waves of the COVID pandemic, when the future seemed shrouded in mist and I was spending my time balancing a hectic schedule of frequent afternoon naps and proper nighttime sleep, that I was drawn deep into the world of Tarot. As usually happens when I begin to research an occult doctrine or theory that is new to me, I was apprehensive at first.
On the one hand, I consider myself to be a rational, logical, and sensible person and I knew that there was nothing to fear. On the other hand, maybe this stuff actually worked? A friend had mailed me my first tarot deck, and to quote the Israeli singer-songwriter Meir Ariel, every time I turned to my deck with a question – I immediately felt that the cards were able to “guess me and open themselves up to me”.
As I delved deeper into the history and mythology of Tarot, a question began to form in my mind that even the tarot deck couldn’t provide me with an answer to: were tarot cards influenced by Jewish mysticism – the Kabbalah – with which I was already familiar from my work at the National Library of Israel? How else can one explain the fact that the Sefirot from the Kabbalistic Tree of Life keep showing up in the tarot cards?
Many books have dealt with the connection between Tarot and the Kabbalah, and particularly – Tarot’s reliance on the latter. The majority of these books seem to presuppose the connection between the popular card deck and Jewish mainstream mysticism, and don’t feel the need to explain the relationship or prove its existence. But since we are, of course, rational, logical and sensible people, we will need to find the answer to this question within the complex and intricate history of the deck of cards that we refer to as Tarot. So, let’s dive in.
The first appearance of the tarot deck came about in medieval Italy when a new card game called Tarocchi became a hit among the Italian aristocracy. The structure of the new playing deck was different from other card decks of the era, which might have been the reason that an anonymous monk in 1377 decided that the tarot cards were the most complete and accurate representation of the “current state of the world”. And indeed, the first 22 cards in the deck, known as the Major Arcana, depict medieval personas, such as the Emperor, the Empress, the Magician, the Hierophant and the High Priestess. Alongside these, appear cards with conceptual values and symbols: the World, Justice, Temperance, the Wheel of Fortune and Death.
The 56 Minor Arcana cards are organized in a structure that would eventually inspire the playing cards we are familiar with today. The Minor Arcana cards are subdivided into four suits: Wands, Cups, Pentacles (also referred to as Coins), and Swords. Each suit begins with the number one card – which is the Ace – and runs up to the number ten card; following are the four Court cards: the Page, the Knight, the Queen and the King.
For centuries, the tarot deck was used as a regular deck of playing cards and for gambling. It was only some 400 years later, in the late 18th century, that the deck was attributed hidden powers. In 1781, a Protestant pastor named Antoine Court de Gébelin published a book dedicated to the tarot deck, and became the first to draw a connection between Tarot and ancient Egyptian theology. During one of his walks through the streets of Paris, Gébelin came across a group of women playing with a tarot deck and determined then and there that these were not ordinary playing cards but an arcane repository of timeless esoteric wisdom. In his ensuing studies he concluded emphatically that the tarot symbols were based on ancient Egyptian wisdom that had made its way to Europe through Jewish Kabbalah.
Although the ancient Egyptian language had not yet been deciphered at the time, the Frenchman asserted that the word “tarot” derived from two ancient Egyptian words: “tar” (road or path), and “ro” (king or royalty). Therefore, according to Gébelin, the meaning of the word “tarot” is, “the king’s path”. When Jean-François Champollion deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphics in 1822, the etymology provided by Gébelin was revealed to be completely delusional.
Gébelin was not the first to view the ancient Egyptian religion as a significant and unique source of knowledge. Since the Renaissance, the belief had existed in Europe that western culture had its roots in ancient Egyptian theology, that its wisdom was handed-down to ancient Greece through conquest and expansion; and to Judaism (and from there on to Christianity) through Moses.
The innovative book contained a short article by the Comte de Mellet, who followed Gébelin’s esoteric thought, and asserted that the 22 Major Arcana cards are an illustrated representation of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. This idea would subsequently become an anchor for those who claimed a direct connection between Tarot and Kabbalah, as flimsy as the evidence may have been: 22 cards correspond to the 22 letters of the alphabet.
Gébelin and de Mellet’s assertions instantly changed the way the tarot deck was perceived, to this day: from a popular pastime for European aristocrats, the tarot decks quickly became associated with fortunetellers, magicians and occultists. In fact, two years after Gébelin’s book was published, Jean-Baptiste Alliette popularized the tarot divination method.
Éliphas Lévi further developed Tarot as a key to the great mysteries. This 19th-century French author and poet, born Alphonse Louis Constant, wrote more than twenty esoteric books about Kabbalah, alchemy, and magic. He maintained in his book Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie, that “without Tarot, the magic of the ancients is a closed book”.
Lévi likened Tarot to a book. Whereas Alliette designed tarot cards, Lévi elevated the Tarot of Marseilles to the rank of sacred scripture. “One who is confined, with no access to any books aside from the Tarot, can obtain universal wisdom within a few years and proficiently lecture on all subjects unmatched and with undoubtable astuteness”, asserted Lévi, who believed that Tarot’s wisdom preceded even the Law of Moses.
Lévi continued Gébelin’s line of thought. He accepted the correlation between the 22 Major Arcana cards and the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. In addition, he directly associated the first ten cards of each suit with the ten Kabbalistic Sefirot, and contended that each of the four tarot suits corresponds with a letter of God’s name (Y-H-W-H). Within a few decades, Lévi’s tenets reached England, and were circulated and enhanced by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. This New Age of tarot and spirituality had begun to take shape.
The Rider-Waite Tarot and the Thoth Tarot Deck
The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was a secret society that concerned itself with mystical doctrines. The Order was established in 1887, in London. For over a decade, the Order acted in its original configuration until it disbanded and split into various, and at times contentious, groups. One cannot overestimate the Order’s great influence on modern Tarot and Western spiritual movements.
Two members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn would subsequently design the two most influential and popular tarot decks of the New Age declared by the Order. They both deliberately embedded Kabbalistic symbols into their decks—along with emblematic drawings from astrology, Christian mysticism, alchemy, and ancient Egyptian theology. The members were, Arthur Edward Waite, who published his deck in 1909, and Aleister Crowley, whose Thoth deck was published posthumously in 1969.
The Rider-Waite pack is named after the publisher (William Rider) and its mastermind (Arthur Edward Waite). The name given to this deck disregards the essential contribution of the artist who actually designed the deck, Pamela Colman Smith. The major innovations of this deck are the illustrated scenes that Waite and Smith crafted into the Minor Arcana cards – which in the older decks resembled simple playing cards. The Kabbalistic influence is most apparent in the 10th card of the Pentacles suit. In this card, ten Pentacles are arranged in the pattern of the Sefirot in the Tree of Life, superimposed on a scene depicting urban life. The images of the Sefirot and the Tree of Life are central symbols in Kabbalah, visual representations of the divine Sefirot – the ten omnipotent powers of God, who is manifested from Ein-Sof (“the Infinite”) into the material world.
In the accompanying book written by Waite, which details his tarot deck, he made no reference to the Sefirot and the Tree of Life displayed on the card.
The other clues disseminated by Rider are found in the Major Arcana: The Magician (card no. 1) lifts his right arm to the sky while his left points to the ground – a Kabbalistic emblem that signifies the connection between heaven and earth. The infinity symbol hovers over his head.
In card no. 2, the High Priestess is seen reading the Torah, with Boaz and Jachin, the two pillars of Solomon’s Temple, on either side of her. Waite wrote of the High Priestess, who in the Tarot of Marseilles is called La Papesse (“The Popess”): “In a manner, she is […] the Supernal Mother herself – that is to say, she is the bright reflection. It is in this sense of reflection that her truest and highest name in bolism is Shekinah – the co-habiting glory. According to Kabalism, there is a Shekinah both above and below.” This is one of the few instances in Waite’s commentary in which he interprets one of his tarot cards using a Kabbalistic symbol – the Shekinah or Shechinah, which is the last of the Kabbalistic Sefirot, and the female essence of the divine.
The Lovers card (no. 6) – in older decks, the card depicts a young, enamored couple with Cupid floating overhead, while in Rider’s deck the couple transforms into the naked Adam and Eve with the angel of God poised over them.
The Wheel of Fortune tarot card (no. 10), features a wheel adorned with the Hebrew letters י-ה-ו-ה”” (Y-H-W-H, the divine name), and on its four sides stand the four “living creatures”, the animals described in the vision of the Prophet Ezekiel, each reading a book. In the older tarot decks, this card was called “The Wheel”, and the four creatures did not appear.
And these are just the most obvious clues.
Even though Waite published his tarot deck, he did not elaborate on his interpretation of the cards. In this sense, Waite was a faithful follower of Golden Dawn, an order whose members were not expected to impart its substance and secrets outside of its private circle.
With Aleister Crowley, the opposite was true. One of the reasons he was expelled from the Order was his reckless distribution of manuscripts and artwork compiled and composed by members of the Order. Of the two, Crowley was the one who put a particular emphasis on Kabbalah.
As early as the introduction in his book, after detailing the Tarot structure (Major and Minor Arcana), Crowley asserts that this structure might appear “arbitrary, but it is not. It is necessitated, as will appear later, by the structure of the universe, and in particular of the Solar System, as symbolized by the Holy Qabalah. This will be explained in due course”.
Thus, in a single paragraph, Crowley explains how he understands the Kabbalah: the Sefirot symbolize the universe, and not the ten omnipotent powers or qualities of God, as they do in traditional Kabbalah. Crowley combines astrology and Kabbalah in his interpretation of the tarot deck. And it seems that most of the cards refer to at least some aspect of Kabbalah – particularly one of the ten Sefirot. Many examples can be offered, but we’ll settle for two that stood out to us.
Card number 10 in the suit of Swords, called “Ruin”:
Crowley expounded on the deck he crafted in the book that accompanied the Thoth cards. His own interpretation of this card begins with:
“The number Ten, Malkuth [kingship/kingdom], as always, represents the culmination of the unmitigated energy of the idea. It shows reason run mad, ramshackle riot of soulless mechanism; it represents the logic of lunatics and (for the most part) of philosophers. This is reason divorced from reality.”
“The hilts of the Swords occupy the positions of the Sephiroth, but the points One to Five and Seven to Nine touch and shatter the central Sword (six), which represents the Sun, the Heart, the child of Chokmah [the wisdom Sefirah] and Binah [understanding].”
Another clear Kabbalistic influence appearing in Crowley’s deck is found in the Wealth card in the Pentacles suit, which Crowley referred to as the Disk suit: disks arranged as the Sefirot in the Tree of Life, with the central disk featuring the name of the Archangel Raphael, written in Hebrew.
Frieda Harris, who designed Crowley’s deck of cards, claimed that the tarot cards that originated in Egypt were lost. And so, the illustrator of the most peculiar and mysterious deck of tarot provided the most peculiar and mysterious claim about their origin: she claimed that Jewish Kabbalists were responsible for redesigning the tarot deck in the Middle Ages. The majority of advocates of the secret connection between Kabbalah and Tarot make a claim that is much more subtle: that medieval tarot illustrators were influenced by the Kabbalah, which was itself shaped by Egyptian theology, and that these influences were hidden among medieval images and personas such as the Emperor and the Hierophant.
Arthur Waite made another intriguing claim. He flat out rejected the idea that Tarot originated in ancient Egypt. By analyzing the two Arcana he understood that these were two disassociated decks that had been deliberately united in Europe. The inception of the tarot cards, therefore, is an unsolvable enigma. Historical research supports this conclusion. The tarot deck is a combination of ordinary playing cards and others featuring allegoric imagery. So indeed, Waite was correct.
The Kabbalah in Support of Tarot
In this article, we referred to the term Kabbalah, without expounding on its essence. It is important to emphasize that the two deck creators – Waite and Crowley – were influenced by the Christian interpretation of Kabbalah, rather than the Jewish Kabbalah. Christian Kabbalah, as this interpretation was termed, flourished in Europe as early as the 15th century, and its main objective was to promote Christian dogma while utilizing Jewish Kabbalistic symbols.
Despite their differences in approach, it was not the intention of the creators of the two most prominent modern decks of Tarot to endorse Christian dogma. Waite and Crowley both believed that applying Kabbalistic aspects would allow them to restore the original, natural religion that preceded Christianity, and thus bring forth a New Age in which man would knock the gods off of their divine perch, and fashion a new life for himself, in his own way, according to his own wishes.
Crowley was radical in everything he did, and even asserted that he aimed to replace Christianity with a new-ancient religion revolving around the Egyptian deity Horus, and thus he felt he was permitted to alter the original pack as he saw fit. Arthur Waite negated the concept of Tarot’s Egyptian origins, and the deck he and Pamela Colman Smith illustrated remains the closest to the older tarot decks. It is also currently the most prominent and accepted pack, and the one which the majority of new Tarot artists base their illustrations on.
The New Age concepts that the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn members promoted, later became the New Age that we are quite familiar with today. The New Age reverted its gaze from Egypt, and beginning in the 1860s, turned to the true Far East: India and China.
And what does academia have to say about the matter? Gershom Scholem, who was the founder of the modern academic study of Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism, utterly dismissed the Golden Dawn’s modern analysis of Kabbalah (this was a typical attitude of Scholem’s). Although he had some respect for Éliphas Lévi and his “erroneous but brilliant” analyses, he referred to Crowley as a “gaudy imposter” and determined that “it is pointless to waste words on Crowley’s ‘Kabbalistic’ writings and what he called “magic” in his books and his periodical ‘The Equinox’.” The scandalous notions and interpretations of Crowley and similar figures led Scholem to advocate for “a redemption of this forsaken field [the study of Kabbalah] by applying rigid rules of historical research. I am committed to this mission”.
So who was right? Does the tarot deck really have secret and possibly prophetic powers? Are these forces obtained from the Kabbalah? And is it possible for us to come to any conclusion? A fabulous way to circumvent the need for an unequivocal and clear conclusion was offered by the psychologist and philosopher Carl Jung, Freud’s prodigious student. Jung proposed to view Tarot as a direct path to our subconscious. A way to penetrate our deepest thoughts, to self-explore our place in the world and make sense of our own lives. I prefer this approach to the common mystical analysis. Because even if the cards do provide an answer to my question, isn’t the knowledge really emanating from my inner self and subconscious?
Aleister Crowley, The Book of Thoth (Samuel Weiser, Inc. 1985)
Arthur Edward Waite, The Pictorial Key to the Tarot (U.S. Games Systems, Inc., 1989)
Robert Wang, The Qabalistic Tarot: A Textbook of Mystical Philosophy (Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1983)
מורן גאם-כהן, גלגוליה של הקבלה דרך העולם הנוצרי עד ה”עידן החדש” על ידי בחינת מסדר “שחר הזהב”, עבודת גמר עבור תואר מוסמך בחוג למחשבת ישראל באוניברסיטה העברית, שנת 2011
אורי רז, האתר טארוט
גרשם שלום, זרמים ראשיים במיסטיקה היהודית, הוצאת משכל, 2016