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Tarot Reflections

 August 01, 2003

Tarot and the Tree of Life
Christopher delaMaison, CPTR

By day, Christopher delaMaison is a mild-mannered computer instructor at a private college in Wilsonville, Oregon. By night, he may be found doing tarot readings or drumming for belly dancers at the local SCA events. This summer, Christopher will be teaching beginning tarot classes at the August 1st Seadog Nights/Gypsy Carnival, in Marcola, Oregon. When not reading tarot or drumming, Christopher can be found hanging out with his Sci-Fi friends planning the upcoming 25th Anniversary of the Oregon Sci-Fi convention, Orycon25. Check out this link for details.

His web site: features a number of items which you simply have to see for yourself.


During my initiation into the Masonic degrees at the Scottish Rite Temple in Portland, I had the opportunity to participate in a series of classes that were designed to give the Scottish Rite initiate some basic background in the esoteric disciplines of the Tarot and the Tree of Life. These classes followed the Scottish Rite degree presentations, and were designed not only with idea of providing some background information into these esoteric disciplines, but also to provide some insight as to the underlying nature of the Masonic degree symbolism the attendee had just witnessed.

In these classes, two books were primarily used: The Tarot, by Paul Foster Case, and The Mystical Qabalah, by Dion Fortune. The text by Case was used when introducing the Tarot to new students. This included obtaining a set of the blank BOTA Tarot cards, and then coloring them in, as per class instructions. Once this was accomplished, the students would then use these cards as they read through the text by Fortune. The result was a basic, but thorough, introduction to the Tarot and the Tree of Life.

This method of introducing the Tarot in combination with the Tree of Life helped create a more in-depth understanding of the Tarot than could have been accomplished by teaching only the individual card meanings and spread layouts. Teaching these two disciplines together helped provide a common ground between what most might consider to be separate fields of esoteric thought. While the more conservative Masons did not approve of practicing Tarot reading for its own sake, it was realized that this field, as well as Astrology, were integral parts of the symbolism of Masonry, something which was deemed important enough to pass on to younger generations of Masons.

For this discussion, I would like to draw upon my lessons from those classes that outlined the assignment of the Tarot to the various paths and Sephiroth on the Tree of Life. Such assignments provided insight as to why various cards have the symbolism they do, and how such symbolism illuminates the interactions between each Sephirah on the Tree of Life. As I am basically concerned with understanding the Major Arcana symbolism at this point, I will not touch upon the Minor Arcana placement, or the astrological implications of arcana placement. A more in-depth discussion of these topics will be left to another paper, at a later date.

As pointed out by Dion Fortune, our systems of esoteric thought are essentially based on three things: the Tree of Life, the Tarot and Astrology. These three disciplines are not separate systems, but three aspects of the same system, which we call the Western Esoteric Tradition. Each of these disciplines relies on the other two to help give it depth and understanding. This is the underlying reason why all three disciplines are represented (in a somewhat piecemeal fashion) in the Scottish Rite Masonic degrees, as well as in the esoteric classes following the degree program. It is interesting to note that other esoteric traditions, such as the Golden Dawn and their later off shoots, also make use of this triplicity of esoteric disciplines.

Dion Fortune goes on to indicate that the paths on the Tree of Life, as numbered by Aleister Crowley, correlate to the Major Arcana of the Tarot, and represents the equilibrium between these two sephiroth. Just as each sephirah represents one stage in the creation of the universe, the Major Arcana then bridges one sephirah to another and illustrates the experience to be gained as one Sephirah flows into the next. This idea can be charted onto a convenient table, as presented below. The numbers following the starting and ending sephirah are the numbers as usually applied to the sephiroth, as commonly seen in charts illustrating the Tree of Life.

Major Arcana               starting sephirah                      ending sephirah

The Fool                                    Kether(1)                                   Chokmah(2)

The Magician                             Kether(1)                                   Binah(3)

The High Priestess                     Kether(1)                                   Tiphareth(6)

The Empress                             Chokmah(2)                               Binah(3)

The Emperor                              Chokmah(2)                               Tiphareth(6)

The Hierophant                          Chokmah(2)                               Chesed(4)

The Lovers                                 Binah(3)                                     Tiphareth(6)

The Chariot                                Binah(3)                                     Geburah(5)

Strength                                    Chesed(4)                                  Geburah(5)

The Hermit                                Chesed (4)                                Tiphareth(6)

The Wheel                                 Chesed (4)                                Netzach(7)

Justice                                      Geburah(5)                                Tiphareth(6)

The Hanged Man                        Geburah(5)                                Hod(8)

Death                                        Tiphareth(6)                               Netzach(7)

Temperance                              Tiphareth(6)                               Yesod(9)

The Devil                                   Tiphareth(6)                               Hod(8)

The Tower                                 Netzach(7)                                Hod(8)

The Star                                    Netzach(7)                                Yesod(9)

The Moon                                  Netzach(7)                                Malkuth(10)

The Sun                                    Hod(8)                                       Yesod(9)

Judgment                                  Hod(8)                                       Malkuth(10)

The World                                 Yesod(9)                                   Malkuth(10)

Without becoming too entangled in Qabalistic philosophy, we can think of the Sephiroth as being the planets the ancients had conceived of. This, in turn, allows us to conveniently link astrological significance’s to the Tree of Life, as well as map planetary influences to the interplay of the Major Arcana. Also note that each planet, or sphere, has an esoteric symbol associated with it. These symbols, which have been used for several centuries, help convey the esoteric characteristics of each planet. When used with the Tree of Life, they help outline the basic qualities of each Sephirah, which in turn allows the initiate to quickly grasp these correspondences. This method of looking at the Sephiroth is more easily understood than the Qabalistic or Golden Dawn interpretations, which are much richer in information, but require a great deal more study. The following mappings will suffice for our discussion.

Sephirah                      Planet  or Sphere        Esoteric Symbol

Kether (Creativity)          Primum Mobile              The First Whirling Motions of Creation.

Chokmah (Wisdom)       Sphere of the Zodiac      The Sphere of the Zodiac.

Binah(Understanding)     Saturn                           The Cross of Corrosion atop the Crescent.

Chesed (Mercy)             Jupiter                           The Crescent Moon atop the Cross.

Geburah (Severity)         Mars                             The Cross of Corrosion atop the Solar Disk.

Tiphareth (Beauty)          The Sun                        The Solar Disk.

Netzach (Victory)           Venus                           Solar Disk atop the Cross of Corrosion.

Hod (Splendor)               Mercury                        Crescent atop the Disk atop the Cross.

Yesod (Foundation)        The Moon                      The Crescent Moon of Cyclic Changes.

Malkuth (Kingdom)         Earth                            Disk, Cross and Crescent, all overlaid.

Dion Fortune writes that there are basically only three esoteric symbols: the Cross of Corrosion, the Crescent Moon, and the Solar Disk. When one looks at the planetary potencies, as defined by the ancients, each planet could been seen as being a combination of these symbols in a particular order. Added to these symbols, the medieval alchemists added the Sphere of the Zodiac to represent Chokmah, and the Primum Mobile (or what we could think of as the “Big Bang” of modern astrophysics fame) to represent Kether.

One can divine the meanings of these esoteric symbols by conducting the following exercise. Venus is depicted as the Solar Disk atop the Cross of Corrosion. The Solar Disk is, of course, the Sun with its radiant heat and warmth. The Cross of Corrosion are the four elements of the alchemist’s world, each in its proper proportion. However, they work with and against each other in the physical world, which is why nothing ever built will remain forever. Everything breaks and wears down, or becomes corroded. Now, Venus is outwardly very warm, loving and radiant, as can be seen in any of the popular art from the last several centuries. However, inwardly, it can be quite corrosive. Just ask anyone who is going through a romantic breakup.

Mars, on the other hand, is depicted with the Cross of Corrosion atop the Solar Disk. Outwardly, Mars may appear corrosive, with things like war, destruction and what not laid at its doorstep. Inwardly, however, it is quite solar in nature. Tearing things down makes way for new things in its place. A good example of this is the trimming back of a rose bush. Very destructive at the onset, but very solar when the roses grow back next season, in ever larger blooms.

Mercury, as a final example, has one of the more complex symbols. It has the Crescent Moon atop the Solar Disk, atop the Cross of Corrosion. Outwardly, Mercury seems very hidden and occult in nature, with its arcane knowledge and occult secrets. Inwardly it is very solar. It is very enlightening and uplifting to learn the esoteric secrets this planet has to offer. On a deeper level, however, the occult knowledge of Mercury is very corrosive. The learned secrets, when applied, will cause profound changes in the initiate.

Try applying these esoteric symbols to other planets, and see what inferences you can deduce. Such exercises will give you a more insightful look at the symbolism used in the Western Esoteric Tradition.

Following the BOTA deck-coloring portion of the course, the remainder of the evening classes was spent on discussing the pathways between the Sephiroth and the appropriate Major Arcana cards. The correspondences that were worked out were based on the symbolism of each Major Arcana, and how that symbolism would apply to the two Sephiroth as a balancing agent or action of equilibrium. What emerged could be seen as both life lessons for the individual initiate, as well as universal Qabalistic truths regarding the creation of the physical universe.

The Masons see the Major Arcana paths as conduits within which each Sephirah conducts its energy downward into the next Sephirah. In this fashion, the universe is created from very simple ideas, which are built up into specific archetypes. These archetypes then form the basic foundation of what becomes the physical universe.

One more item before I jump into the correspondences. The paths on the Tree of Life are numbered the same way as the Major Arcana, starting with zero. This might be a bit confusing at first, but it really makes the mental gymnastics a lot easier when equating these two items.

To begin with, the zero path linking Kether with Chokmah is the first Major Arcana, The Fool. The Fool’s youthful exuberance is the creative energy of the Primum Mobile flowing into creation towards the second sephirah, resulting in Wisdom. To start any new project, reach towards any goal, or bring any new idea into manifestation, there must be a creative spark to get the process going. This is The Fool, as he steps off the cliff and falls into manifestation.

This path defines the manifestations of the First Whirlings’ creative force into a dynamic, directed force. The ancients considered this the Sphere of the Zodiac. From a mathematical standpoint, Kether can be considered as a point. Chokmah, then, is that point extended into a line. The process of creating this line was The Fool.

The first path that links Kether with Binah is represented by the next Major Arcana, The Magician. The Magician directs the creative energy of Kether towards the third Sephirah, Binah, which results in Understanding. The magician understands the importance of focused thought in directing this creative energy. This understanding gives us the symbols of the four suits of the Tarot, as well as the four alchemical elements, with which we define our reality.

The second path linking Kether with Tiphareth is represented by the next Major Arcana, the High Priestess. The High Priestess directs the creativity of Kether into the beauty of Tiphareth, creating the secrets of the universe, which she hides behind her veil, behind the throne. Even though these secrets may be learned by all, the seeker must prove to the High Priestess that he/she is worthy to receive them.

The third path linking Chokmah with Binah is represented by the next Major Arcana, The Empress. The Empress directs the wisdom of Chokmah into the understanding of Binah. This completes what is known as the Supernal Triangle, in Qabalistic thought. This first triangle defines the idea of opposites, such as on/off, yes/no, male/female, etc. This path provides a way of balancing the idea of opposites, which takes both wisdom and understanding.

This path defines the change of dynamic force (Sphere of the Zodiac) into the stable form of Saturn. Again, using a math metaphor, The Empress defines the changing of a line of dynamic energy into a surface of stable form, adding a second dimension. The Empress, then is working as Mother Nature, on an archetypal level, creating form from force. The esoteric symbol for Saturn, the Cross of Corrosion atop the Crescent Moon, is quite apt for both this Sephirah and the path leading to it. Saturn, as well as The Empress, are outwardly corrosive. Dynamic energy is hammered into form and shape. Inwardly, this is a very lunar process, filled with hidden processes and intuitive reasons. This is the archetypal female principle of creation, lovingly creative and also terrible cruel.

The fourth path linking Chokmah and Tiphareth is represented by the next Major Arcana, the Emperor. The Emperor is a combination of the wisdom of Chokmah and the beauty of Tiphareth. As a ruler, he combines wisdom with beauty to rule objectively and fairly. The Emperor, as a ruler, is never disputed or questioned. He rules with a steadfast authority that is never in doubt. This is the archetype of the male principle, which could be seen as good government.

The fifth path linking Chokmah to Chesed is represented by the next Major Arcana, the Hierophant. The Hierophant directs the wisdom of Chokmah down to the mercy of Chesed. This creates the traditional path a priest or priestess would normally take when they act as an intermediary between their constituents and deity. This is also the path assumed by the traditional teacher. The collegian faculty also uses this path, as they dispense the traditional knowledge of a college or university. In both cases, the client is deferring to the “expert” advice or counsel of the priest, teacher or guru.

The sixth path linking Binah and Tiphareth is represented by the next Major Arcana, the Lovers. The Lovers balance understanding with beauty to provide the foundation for personal relationships. This is the archetypal or unconditional love of soul mates. It is interesting to note here, that this sort of love is very rare in our pedestrian world. The mass media focuses on stylized beauty that usually runs only as deep as the makeup used before the photo shoot. This is very different than the love and acceptance seen with partners who have shared very long, married lives.

The seventh path linking Binah and Geburah is represented by the next Major Arcana, the Chariot. The Chariot directs understanding of Binah down to the severity of Geburah. This creates a path of determined leadership, which we rely on to see ourselves through tough times. The Chariot is the battle commander of our lives. He never gives up or gives in. The Chariot uses severity to accomplish set tasks. However, no more severity is used than is absolutely necessary, which is why it is tempered with understanding.

The eighth path linking Chesed and Geburah is represented by the next Major Arcana, Strength. Strength balances the mercy of Chesed with the severity of Geburah to create Strength. This is not just physical strength, but is also seen as the strength of one’s character. Stories of such strength, Samson & Delilah and the Greek Hercules, show the dynamic (and very difficult) balance of such forces. Such stories are not, necessarily rare. One has only to look carefully at the history of the founders and defenders of our own country. These are stories of common people travelling this path.

This is seen in the symbolism for Jupiter, the Crescent atop the Cross of Corrosion. Mercy demands that the issuant judge when to grant mercy and when to withhold it. Outwardly, this necessitates an understanding of the hidden issues of the situation. Inwardly, this type of judgment can be very corrosive to the person in judgment, as well as for the judge. The symbolism of Mars, the Cross of Corrosion atop the Solar Disk, indicates that outwardly severity is corrosive. Inwardly, Geburah is very solar, in that the destruction of old ideas and thought-forms makes room for new ideas and concepts. Together, these two planets share a common symbol, the Cross of Corrosion. It is perhaps this one symbol that can be used to sum up the path of Strength: both planets (and Sephirah) have a common theme of corrosion. It takes Strength to remake the balance, and to hold both ends in balance.

The ninth path linking Chesed and Tiphareth is represented by the next Major Arcana, The Hermit. The Hermit directs the mercy of Chesed down to the beauty of Tiphareth, creating a path dedicated to finding the “quiet time” to reflect on one’s inner thoughts. This is the path of meditation and contemplation 

The tenth path linking Chesed with Netzach is represented by the next Major Arcana, the Wheel. The Wheel, or the Wheel of Fortune, directs mercy from Chesed down to the victory of Netzach. This is the wheel of chance and opportunity. It constantly recombines all four alchemical elements to provide reoccurring chances for “the right opportunity at the right time.” This is how “luck” is created.

The eleventh path linking Geburah to Tiphareth is represented by the next Major Arcana, Justice. Justice directs the severity of Geburah down to beauty of Tiphareth. This combination of severity and beauty is what Justice is composed of. This is the “poetic justice” of reaping what you have sown, as well as the justice of the hangman’s noose. This is necessary to correct past karma, to make way for the soul’s evolution to higher planes.

The twelfth path linking Geburah to Hod is represented by the next Major Arcana, The Hanged Man. The Hanged Man directs the severity of Geburah down to the splendor of Hod. This combination of severity and splendor creates the basic framework for spiritual awareness. This is the sacrifice upon the alter to attain the splendor of the spiritual awareness and esoteric knowledge that it brings.

The thirteenth path linking Tiphareth and Netzach is represented by the next Major Arcana, Death. Death directs the beauty of Tiphareth down to the victory of Netzach. Death, as a combination of beauty and victory, allows a seeker to transcend older, worn out ideas, and move on to higher levels of understanding. On the physical plane, Death may be seen as a blessing, when it comes in its proper time.

At this point, it is interesting to note that Mars (Geburah), the Sun (Tiphareth) and Venus (Netzach) all share a common symbol in their esoteric makeup, the Solar Disk. Mars and Venus look as if they are opposites, which they are. The Sun, as a mid-point between these two planets, is represented by just the Solar Disk. What these three planets, and Sephiroth, have in common is that they all have a solar component, either outwardly or inwardly. They all, in some manner, contribute to the growth of the spirit.

The fourteenth path linking Tiphareth to Yesod is represented by the next Major Arcana, Temperance. Temperance directs the beauty of Tiphareth down towards the foundation of Yesod. This provides a balance that is seen as moderation. Moderation allows one to see and experience the sights, sounds and sensations of the physical world, but still maintain one’s self control and reason.

The fifteenth path linking Tiphareth and Hod is represented by the next Major Arcana, The Devil. The Devil directs the beauty of Tiphareth to the splendor of Hod, creating the materials of our desires and passions. This, in and of itself, is not really evil. It becomes evil when such desires take over our lives as our main focus. This is when we become “bedeviled” by our passions and desires. Greed, lust, drug addiction are only a few of these combinations of beauty and splendor that have gone bad. 

The sixteenth path linking Netzach to Hod is represented by the next Major Arcana, The Tower. The Tower balances the victory of Netzach with the splendor of Hod. This balance is not really a balance at all, but a dynamic shifting of our patterns of consciousness. The Tower calls us to challenge those assumptions, ideals and goals that are outmoded or false. It tears these things down, which leaves room to build better structures on which to build our lives.

Symbolically, Venus and Mercury appear very similar, both have Solar Disks atop Crosses of Corrosion. However, Mercury’s symbol is surmounted by a Crescent. This planet itself is the symbol of occult knowledge and learning. Learning such knowledge is emotionally very similar to loving. Both consist of the same trial and error, as well as the same emotional rollercoaster rides. The path between Venus and Mercury, The Tower, is most appropriate. Learning difficult subjects often entails tearing down what you think you already know and replacing it with something new. This is a process any instructor, especially college professors, have seen many times.

The seventeenth path linking Netzach to Yesod is represented by the next Major Arcana, The Star. The Star directs the victory of Netzach down to the foundation of Yesod. This combination of victory and foundation brings enlightenment and hope to the seeker.

The eighteenth path linking Netzach and Malkuth is represented by the next Major Arcana, The Moon. The Moon directs the victory of Netzach down to the kingdom of Malkuth. Combining victory and the kingdom creates intuition.

The nineteenth path linking Hod and Yesod is represented by the next Major Arcana, The Sun. The Sun directs the splendor of Hod down towards the foundation of Yesod. The combination of splendor and foundation produce happiness and a zest for life. It is this zest for life that gives us the desire to work for a better day, to strive for a better life.

The twentieth path linking Hod and Malkuth is represented by the next Major Arcana, Judgment. Judgment directs the splendor of Hod down towards the kingdom of Malkuth. Combining splendor and the kingdom creates the conditions that allow for renewal and rebirth. Judgment is not so much about judging and punishing souls according to their karma, but has more to do with rebirth and renewal, or getting that “second chance in life.” This allows for the atonement of errors and to learn from past mistakes.

The twenty-first path linking Yesod to Malkuth is represented by the next Major Arcana, The World. The World brings the foundation of Yesod down into the kingdom of Malkuth. When the foundation of Yesod is combined with the kingdom, the attributes of all the paths are made available to the physical plane. This is where the “rubber meets the road” in the Masonic teachings. All of the archetypal energies of the Major Arcana are now made manifest in the physical world, completing the first half of the cycle of the Tree of Life.

The Three of Life, as a glyph portraying the Western Esoteric Tradition, is a composite set of symbols from astrology, Qabalah, and the Tarot that are all interrelated and interconnected. Along with these symbols are two additional items which help link each of the components of the Tree of Life. They are the Lightening Bolt, or Flaming Sword, and the Serpent of Wisdom.

The Lightening Bolt links the Sephiroth in sequential order from Kether down to Malkuth. This is the flow of energy from one Sephirah to the next. This flow of energy is independent of the paths that interconnect the Sephiroth. This bolt of energy flows from Kether down through each Sephirah, proceeding as a sequence of the evolution of force into form, from which the material universe was eventually created.

In contrast to the Lightening Bolt, is the Serpent of Wisdom. The Serpent of Wisdom is pictured as a snake, winding its way up the Tree of Life, from one Major Arcana path to the next, never touching the Sephiroth. The serpent winds its way back up the Tree of Life crossing each Major Arcana path in the exact reversed order, starting out from the last path, The World, and proceeding up the Tree of Life. This is the Path of Initiation, the path traveled as the initiate unravels the mysteries of each path in the Tree of Life.

As Tarot readers, we are also initiates in this system of Western Esoteric Traditions, even if we currently practice only one of the three main disciplines. The enthusiastic reader will uncover additional correspondences and linkages between the tarot and other esoteric systems. Many authors have written about associations between the Tarot and the Chakras, Viking Runes, Numerology, Color Theory and the I Ching, to name only a few. Perhaps this is the best feature of our favorite discipline, its interrelationship with so many other esoteric disciplines. For myself, the Tarot is as ubiquitous and as indispensable for the esoteric student, as a screw driver and pliers are for the homeowner.


Fortune, Dion. The Mystical Qabalah, Twelfth printing, 1976, Ernest Benn Limited, London, England.

Case, Paul Foster. TheTarot – A Key to the Wisdom of the Ages, 1975,Macoy Publishing Company, Richmond, VA.


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