The Tarot as a Tool for Raising Consciousness
Author: Radko Vacek
A Tarot deck is one of the most common tools of the Wiccan. Yet, I think that often it is incompletely understood in two ways: it can be used as a tool for magic as well as divination, and secondly, many try to divorce it from the Kabbalah with which it may be wed very well.
As far as I have read, there is no good evidence that Kabbalah and the Tarot are historically connected. Nonetheless, there are numerical correspondences between the two, which make connecting them hard to resist. The numbers ten and twenty-two are essential to both.
The so-called Tree of Life is the central symbol of Kabbalah. It consists of ten circles, called sephiroth, arranged in a way roughly resembling a tree, from the top circle, the first sephira, at the crown through seven other sephiroth down to the bottom two resembling the trunk. These all represent emanations from the divine Infinite to the finite world of our experience. Their number corresponds to the Ace through the Ten card of each suit. More importantly, each sephira can be thought of as being like a coin. Just as every coin has two sides, so also does every sephira, with two specific, successive cards of the Major Arcana corresponding to each two-sided sephira. Therefore, twenty out of the twenty-two Major Arcana reflect individual sephiroth this way. The remaining two, Judgment and The World, reflect the Tree as a whole, each one reflecting it from one of two, complementary perspectives.
This article unfolds from the following five ideas:
1) The world is sustained because the divine Infinite overflows into a number of levels of manifestation, all the way down to all the things of this world experienced daily.
2) By the principle, “as above, so below, ” the development of every person reflects this divine process of manifestation.
3) Some people reflect this divine process in their development with more clarity and detail. They are the magical people. Magic is not just something to do sometimes; it is essential in defining who these people are.
4) The Tarot symbolically illustrates both human development in general, and especially that of the magical person.
5) Meditating on the ideas of these developmental milestones, illustrated by the Major Arcana, facilitates raising our consciousness to a level needed both for working spells and for living magically on a more steady basis afterward.
Our work is to make this possible correspondence come alive. I do it through my poetry. The pictures on the cards are like symbolic illustrations of the ideas contained in the stanzas, and each stanza echoes the ideals of its corresponding sephira. I mentally recite each stanza from memory, while relating its ideas both to the ideals of the corresponding sephira and to the corresponding two cards. I have been using my poem, Yet a Magical Route – “Tarot!” which I had to post on http://www.allpoetry.com due to its length.
This procedure is at the heart of much of my working. Words are among my essential tools for magic because I relate to them better than nearly everything else. To me, it makes sense to personalize your magic by working with those things among which you have the most authority. I typically divide my workings into three phases. The first phase is a poem of initiation, in which the tone and purpose of the working is set. The second phase is a raising of my consciousness to the level needed for the work, bridging the gap between the stated purpose and the work of realizing that purpose as the spell. Here is where my poetic meditation on the Tree is used. The third phase is whatever visualization and/or poetic incantation fulfills the purpose of the spell.
My Tarot meditation raises my consciousness by taking me through major steps from birth to the maturity of the magical person. The Major Arcana can be interpreted as symbolic illustrations of these developmental steps. By focusing on these steps, my consciousness is helped to ascend in steps to this magical state of consciousness.
I use my poem, which I memorized, to guide my meditation. Nearly all the poetry used in my workings is my own, and if you choose to use the power of ideas contained in words, you probably should use your own words too. The power is largely in the personalization.
Every sephira not only has two sides to it, like the two sides of a coin, but also a weak and a strong theme to the sephira as a whole. In order to raise my consciousness to the level needed for self-improvement, I use the strong theme of each sephira. It is easier to start with something already strong and strengthen it than to make something weak strong first, and then to strengthen it.
Let us consider the crown sephira, the first emanation from the divinely Infinite. It corresponds to early childhood. As a time of beginnings and routines that are only weakly established to form the basis for extensive repetition, early childhood and its corresponding sephira are associated with the strong theme of realizing oneself anew. What does this mean?
Realizing oneself anew contrasts with producing something again, such as producing some response again as in habitual repetition of a behavior. Habitual responding is incompatible with heroism. Remember times when you were heroic. It involved using the extra energy to take some action off of your usual track, and also doing something that made you stand out from the crowd. This entails to two aspects: 1) asserting your right to be distinct from your surroundings and your former, routine self; 2) having the valor to endure whatever pain may ensue as the consequence of your behavior. A strong theme of childhood, symbolized by the crown sephira, is still being free enough from habit to assert your right to be distinct and to endure the consequences. The Fool card also illustrates heroism done in this childlike spirit.
The Magician card is the other side of the theme of this sephira. The term, “magical hero, ” is nearly as redundant as, “Jewish Rabbi!” What does working magic really mean? We cannot realistically expect magic to shield us from all the pain. The nature of life is such that, no matter how well magic spares us the pain of some exigency, often something else comes up soon to take its place. We are like the Dutch boy using his fingers to plug the holes in the dam. We magically plug one only to see two others take its place. It may well be that the most real magic we can work is to realize ourselves anew with the heroic valor to endure the inescapable pains of life.
One important way in which realizing oneself anew contrasts with producing something again is with respect to sexual reproduction. There is nothing heroic about conceiving babies, but sometimes everything heroic about defending them. Across species, mothers are noted for their heroic self-sacrifice in defending their offspring. Maybe it is having endured the pains of giving birth which enables the mother to realize her child’s worth, to the magnitude seen in maternal efforts to defend her young. As previously stated, the capacity to endure pain is essential to heroism.
This common denominator of capacity to endure pain bridges the ideas associated with the crown sephira with those associated with the second sephira, given the keyword Wisdom. Whereas the first two Major Arcana, associated with the crown sephira, have male characters, the next two Major Arcana of the second sephira have female ones: The High Priestess and The Empress.
The High Priestess represents the good mother who, realizing the child’s worth, inspires self-esteem and the confidence to realize dreams. The contrast between The High Priestess and The Empress is that, whereas the former symbolizes the encouraging function nurturing independence, the latter symbolizes the disciplinary function nurturing responsibility. This disciplinary function is needed as the follow-up to teach the child to exercise self-discipline as a healthy constraint on assertive independence.
These two aspects of mothering can be set to correspond to the second sephira traditionally called Wisdom. I introduced this sephira with respect to enduring pains. Whether having to endure the pains of heroism or of childbearing, such endurance on our daily, mundane level reflects the nature of wisdom on the ideal, divine level. It is through enduring the painful consequences of our errors that we generally acquire wisdom.
So far in our meditation guided by the Kabbalistic Tarot, we have meditated on healthy development in the following terms: 1) asserting one’s distinct identity, 2) developing the resilience of a magical personality, 3) acquiring the confidence needed for growing independence, and 4) internalizing discipline. All these come together to enable the child to master increasingly complex physical tasks.
The Emperor, one of the two Major Arcana corresponding to the third sephira given the keyword Intelligence, symbolizes this child acquiring mastery. However, this mastery is just over physical tasks at first. The child at this stage also needs to refine the power to divide the right from the wrong, that is, to develop a real conscience. The Hierophant symbolizes this. Is this sephira properly called Intelligence? It makes sense that intelligence at the ideal, divine level includes not only the child becoming smarter, but also kinder. Specifically pertaining to Wicca, not only does abiding by the Wiccan Rede make us kinder, but also in the long run the kinder magic is the more effective. It soon becomes much too hard to keep bending the world to meet our desires. We achieve more general, lasting results by selflessly improving ourselves to meet the needs of the world.
Here in the Tree, a shift occurs from the intellect to something else. The latter is commonly described as the psyche. I prefer to describe it as the emotions. On the level of our development, this is reflected as a deepening of affective ties into bonds of real love. This is illustrated symbolically by The Lovers card. This does not necessarily refer to mature sexual attraction. I rather think of this in the more developmental sense of a friendly attraction between a bit older children, who may feel infatuation but not yet be capable of sexual arousal. Still, the experience prepares them for the romantic side of mating. The message of this card is that, although the truth of the physical aspects of the world often are overpowering, these subtle types of enchantment continue to be quite real, if we stay attuned to them.
The second aspect of this fourth sephira, usually called Love, is symbolized by The Chariot. I think of it as The Driver. This deals with love in regard to taking control. In a psychological sense, how do we take control of a situation? By changing our perception, to realize that something is worth doing, not in spite of factors out of our control, but because of these very factors. What seemed to be a factor diminishing the goodness of the thing comes to be perceived as essential to its goodness. Learning to take control over perceptions is essential for the development of the Magician; this actually is what I call mental magic, often the most real of all.
With regard to love, we tend to think of grief as diminishing the beauty of love. But we can work the magic of seeing it this way: valuing is reflected by sorrow, like the moon reflects the sun. Without the light of the sun, the moon would not shine, nor would sorrow be without the valuing coming from love. Sorrow is the overflowing of love into timelessness; therefore, sorrow is a sign of real love. The Chariot symbolizes taking control over love, in realizing that sorrow is part of its essence.
In contrast to Love, the fifth sephira is commonly called Power. Young powers may reach the edges of Earth, but need to fathom the depths of the heart. The Strength card symbolizes the power developed by the young person when earlier acquired abilities are coordinated, integrated, and thus strengthened through maturation. But this newly developed magnitude often lacks proper direction in youth. All the force in the world gets you nowhere, if it is applied in the wrong direction. The Hermit card symbolizes giving efforts a productive direction. With respect to the aspiring magicians, the youths, realizing all, which they are, may reach seemingly unreachable stars!
The eleventh card of the Major Arcana, The Wheel of Fortune, like the hub of a wheel, is the first of the two symbolizing the theme of the sixth sephira, called Compassion or Beauty. It is the turning point of the developing personality. If the youth has developed the overall strength and directs it the right way, the torque is much more likely to turn the person’s life the right way. The right way of the magical person is from limitation to the realization of what they yearn to be.
The magical person, the best that I can judge, most yearns to be original, uncorrupted, and free. We want to be original in creating ourselves anew, distinct from anyone else. What distinguishes the magical person is being more obviously unique than most people. Also, the magical person typically is artistic, or somehow creatively inclined. The painter’s medium is paint on canvas, the sculptor’s are wood and stone, and the magician’s are the elements of reality. Having a mature conscience, the magical person seeks not to be corrupted by the intolerance of society. This desire not to be corrupted is closely intertwined with assertion of the power to choose, putting utmost priority on being a free spirit. The ideal of the magical in human nature is a sense of justice, this yearning for liberation from prejudices underlying intolerance. Therefore, it is fitting that the second card, paired with The Wheel to symbolize this sephira of Compassion, is Justice. This symbolizes the sense of compassionate justice incompatible with holocausts.
In passing from the sixth to the seventh sephira, a second, major shift occurs. This first was from the intellectual to the psychic; now it is from the psychic to the natural. The seventh deals with lasting endurance; the eighth deals with asserting the will; the ninth deals with righteousness of those who seek goals seemingly as remote as stars. All three of these themes have at their foundations learning to accept seemingly undesirable realities as essential to natural order, namely death, aggression, resistance.
The first card of the seventh sephira, commonly called “Lasting Endurance”, is The Hanged Man. It symbolizes moving beyond truths to the reality of ideals, which can make the seemingly unattainable within grasp. People commonly think that truth is of utmost value, but, contrary to the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats, truth may be ugly. Among the most atrocious acts of man can be justified by probable truths; therefore, we need to move beyond truth to the reality of ideals, such as love, whose supremacy makes atrocities abominable. The maturing young magicians thus might make reality of a love moving even hearts too hard to be moved! They might even be moved to heroics, facing Death as calmly as a Stoic. This leads us into the second card symbolizing the theme of the seventh sephira, Death. This is an undesirable reality to most people, but the maturing magician needs to move beyond revulsion to acceptance. Death is essential to maintaining the natural balance of the world!
Nothing reflects the ideal of lasting endurance better than facing death calmly. Death comes as aggressively as a beast, but only through the dying of the undesirable in ourselves can self-improvement be. The magician endures the worst hardships of life by accepting death as a prime agent of needed progress.
This gives basis for the transition to the eighth sephira, called Majesty. Only by the right to be majestic can anything have majesty. Yet, the assertiveness to claim this right is just a tamed version of that aggression so feared. Given that temperance subdues his harmfulness, even the Devil, the personification of potentially dangerous impulses, has an essential part to play in the development of the young person. This is especially so in the case of the aspiring magician, because using the very elements of the world as artistic media is quite an assertive stance! The cards Temperance and The Devil are the symbols fitting the theme of this sephira. Of course we want to assert ourselves, but still, the true adult way is of temperance, weathering life’s storms in peaceful balance.
This dynamic relationship between aggression and temperance leads into the theme of the ninth sephira, called The Foundation of the World. The Witch has the strength of mind to bend reality, and the wisdom of the spirit to make right choices, but Fate can overturn us like a ship in a hurricane, and turn the wisest into fools. Even Zeus, it was told, sometimes was subjected to Fate. Yet even under the stormiest circumstances, at the foundation of our being in the world lies the divine potential within us. As magicians mature enough to realize this, we still can be fulfilled, like reaching that remote star. The Tower of Destruction and The Star correspond to the developmental theme of this sephira, the former symbolizing the overturning and the latter the fulfillment still attainable by the mature magician.
The tenth, final sephira, called the Kingdom or the Diadem, is the synthesis all the previous themes, enacted on the level of our daily lives. All the objects of our experience are subject to the wear and eventual destruction at the hands of time, as are we the subjects who experience. This inexorable decline applies to our most beloved, which makes Sorrow the unavoidable companion of Life. Those who love, while looking at the full moon, may cherish love lost and sink into gloom. The Moon card symbolizes the painful impermanence of all material things. Yet, as it is put in my poem The Message, posted on Witchvox, “Sorrow is the overflowing of love into timelessness, just as the moonlight is the overflowing of the sunshine. Are not the love and the sunlight divine? Let us therefore regard their overflow!” No less than the moon reflects the sun, in real love there is a victory won! The Sun card symbolizes this victory, like the rainbow after the storm, the celebration of the magnificent surprise of life and love.
The remaining two Major Arcana, Judgment and The World, symbolize two alternate ways of viewing The Tree of Life, with all its sephiroth and corresponding cards, as a whole picture. The card Judgment symbolizes the completions of the various cycles of our world, seemingly in cold disregard of our feelings and welfare. In contrast, The World symbolizes the freedom we nonetheless may find in the world, whose reality is like the beauty of a flower with its petals unfurled. The beauty of this reality of our personal experience is as well a reflection of the beauty of our spirits, having unfolded like buds through the stepwise process of learning to live magically, symbolized by the illustrations on the Major Arcana.
The method of interpreting the Major Arcana here is hardly the only way to make sense out of them. But I have found it useful as a means to a meditation helping to raise my consciousness to a magical level needed for working spells. This is particularly for work involving self-improvement and petitioning for Divine Judgment. One might expect this benefit, because the meditation does consist of focusing on the characteristics needed by the mature person and the professional Witch.