Table of Contents


Tarot Reflections


 September 01, 2003

Intersecting Paths: An Introduction to
Tarot and the Qabalah
Stephen Walker Sterling

Stephen Walter Sterling is the author of Tarot Awareness: Exploring the Spiritual Path from Llewellyn and is a teacher of Tarot and metaphysics at the Mandala Labyrinth Center in Carmichael, California. 

Besides tutoring English for the Sacramento Literacy Program, he also teaches film at Sierra College in Rocklin, CA.


Numbers and emanations, Geburah and a place called Malkuth.  Kabbalah, Cabala, or is it Qabala?  No wonder the word doesn’t crop up in our spiritual vocabulary very much.

After all, how often do you consider consciousness of the inner Heart of Spirit, located in the center of the Tree of Life, the Qabalah’s sacred glyph, at emanation Number Six, Tiphareth—in your readings?  Do you ever think of the immanent Beauty of Spirit [Tiphareth means “beauty” in Hebrew] and Its infinite symmetry when you see a Six of Swords in your morning Tarot spread?  Six in the Six of Swords.  Here in Tiphareth on the Tree, aware of the infinite Beauty in our own human heart, we like the boatman, progress to a higher consciousness:  Tiphareth—the heart chakra—activated.  As Tarot readers, we guide the seeker with a special blend of inner knowledge [Swords] and an awakened sense of compassion [heart chakra and number Six in the center of the Tree].



Some of the early thinkers and mystics of the Tarot felt that numbers [and the letters of the Hebrew alphabet] were holy, given to humankind directly from the very mouth of the Godhead.  At the Number Six, they describe a loving Light glowing from the Heart of Spirit, and it became essential for them to convey It in their scheme of the Cosmos.  With the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, we sense the Love of Spirit emanating outwards from the heart chakra [#6 Tiphareth, Beauty on the Tree of Life; some call it the Christ Consciousness, or awareness of the ‘Anointed One’ within].  In Tarot, we find the heart chakra and Tiphareth most especially represented in the realm of Cups. 

With the RWS deck in the Six of Cups, Spirit is presenting the seeker with a precious gift. We know that Dr. A. E. Waite and other Tarot innovators [such as Paul Foster Case and the Builders of the Adytum] were highly conscious of the Qabalah in their conception of the Ageless Wisdom.  In Waite’s Six of Cups, for example, we can see it as an out-picturing of the same inner warmth and delight that we find in the sixth emanation on the Tree of Life, Tiphareth—located in the center of the Tree, a place through which the universal currents flow. It is up to us as seekers to transmute those currents into virtues like love, gratitude for our blessings, courage, discipline and compassion toward others.


In Pentacles at the Six, we see a portrayal of the loving generosity of Spirit, a selfless concern for others that we are supposed to emulate. 

In Wands at the Six, we see our ideals and virtues at work; we have been disciplined and vigilant, and most especially in the Six—cheerful.  That is why we can proclaim, along with St. Augustine, “Love, and do what you like.”

A Spontaneous Act of Compassion

Recently I went camping in the spectacular Sequoia National Forest in California with my two nieces and my brother, Brian, a thoroughly unpretentious man very close to the Earth. While fishing in the exquisite Tule River, he caught a huge rainbow trout and held it up in the sunlight.  I was stunned by the brilliance of the colors flashing from the squirming fish.  I also salivated as I thought of this big thing sizzling in garlic butter on the barbecue later that night at our cabin.  Then, suddenly, my brother threw the trout back into the river.

“He was just too beautiful to eat,” he said, looking at me.

“Brian, you are a true Buddhist.”

With his famous wry smile he replied, “Are you calling me names?”

Now Brian was acting from his heart chakra and Tiphareth.  If we were to add in our Tarot perspective, we could say that Brian, as the Hermit, imparting his wisdom in the ways of Nature was showing me an example of compassion [the 20th Path on the Tree of Life from #4 Mercy to #6 Beauty is called the Hermit].

What have we to gain by incorporating the Qabalah into our Tarot work?

Scholars generally agree that the translation of the word (which I will spell, after Paul Foster Case, “Qabalah”) is “something passed down by tradition.”[1]

However, it is that certain “something” that can be so elusive—and yet so magical at the same time.

Those who have studied, meditated upon and lived in its mystical ways testify that “work” with the Qabalah becomes a very individualized experience in the seeker’s quest for inner Truth; perhaps more so in combination with our Tarot meditation, study and practice.   As for understanding the intricacies of the Qabalah, this article will only give a brief overview and impressions of a few basics.  Yet even a glimpse into the “Secret Wisdom” can enhance our life perspective and can add an interesting, valuable dimension to our own Tarot Awareness.

Yod-Heh-Vav-Heh [IHVH, the holy Name, the Tetragrammaton]

When Moses stood before the “burning bush” and asked Spirit to name Itself, the answer he heard was:  “I am that I am.”  In Hebrew, the letters Yod-Heh-Vav-Heh mean THAT which was, is now and will forever be.  [Some approximate the sound of the letters and pronounce the holy Name as “Jehovah” or “Yahweh”].  For the Qabalists, the essential thing is understanding IHVH as a Power that knows—a loving Conscious Energy,[ii] and they separate the workings of this Power into four different, yet interpenetrating worlds.

The Archetypal World

[Atziluth in Hebrew, located at the top of the Tree as the Supernal Triangle of: Kether (Crown), Chokmah (Wisdom) and Binah (Understanding); it can also been understood as a human triangle, formed by the shoulders as the lower two points with the head at the apex]

The Qabalists refer to the first letter of the holy Name as Yod, the “open hand of God”; in the Major Arcana, Yod is the Hermit.   The Archetypal World also corresponds to the realm of Wands in Tarot and the archetypes of the Major Arcana.  Fire.  Zeal to get the job done and the ideas behind it. The holy Presence within and without.  Bliss.

The Creative World

[Hebrew, Briah, located at #4 Chesed (Mercy) and #5 Geburah (Severity), the triangle forming the right and left arms of the body, and pointing down to #6 Tiphareth (Beauty), the heart in the center].

The Creative World is the un-manifested patterns of all things; the realm of emotion and Cups, the Element Water. It is also signified by the second letter, Heh, the Emperor, the “window,” reason, intellect and logic.

The Formative World

[Yetzirah, at #7 Yetzach (Victory), #8 Hod  (Glory) and #9 Yesod (Foundation) another downward pointing triangle at the stomach and groin area of the body]

This is the realm of process, the patterns taking form.  In the Name, it is Vav, the Hierophant, the inner Voice that holds it all together [Vav is “nail” in Hebrew]; our intuitive self.  The Formative World is also the element Air, the realm of thought processes and Swords.

The Material World

[Assiah, #10 Malkuth, the Earth, at the “bottom” of the Tree and the human feet]

This is the realm of the tangible, what you can touch, see, hear, and taste. It is the world of experience and the fourth letter of the Name, a second “Heh.”  It is Pentacles and the element Earth.

What does all this mean to us as seekers?  The Qabalists have given us a secret formula, not just for how things work, but how to see the nature of Spirit as It moves within the manifested world.  Their formula is written IHVH [Yod-Heh-Vav-Heh], the workings of the Holy Presence within and without: Idea—Pattern—Process—Result.

Writing poetry at the water’s edge and contemplating the intensity of Nature, you are struck by the sudden desire to share the experience.  As you meditate on water cascading over the moss-covered stones, you sense a call to action.  You get the idea to open a mountain retreat where you can teach Tarot and metaphysics close to Nature in a forest [Idea, World of Archetypes, Yod in the holy Name, Wands, enthusiasm, Fire].

From there you start imagining the cabins for the workshop participants, each with a view of the mountains.  The two in front overlook the river. You can see the visualize the workshop attendees gathering around a campfire beneath the stars in a deep dark sky... The picture of the retreat begins to take form in your mind [Pattern, World of Creation, Heh, Cups, imagination, Water].

Later you call family and friends for loans, talk to realtors and contractors and locals.  You weigh the pros and cons, think how to construct the cabins within the forest pathways, what friends you can convince to help you with the landscaping and repairs [Process, World of Formation, Vav, Swords, intellectual planning, Air]. 

The following year, after a gourmet breakfast under a canopy of oak trees, you take your workshop students on a gently sloping hike along the river where you will lecture about making the Tarot practical in your life.  Later you will conduct a mid-day meditation up river as you stand before three waterfalls. [Result, World of the Material, Heh, Pentacles, tangible manifestations, Earth]

As seekers, we are encouraged to stay conscious of the formula whenever we need to be clear about an issue, or when we must remember to bring quality to the project, or when we see a relationship that needs healing.  It could be a sudden urge to quit your job. First, the inspiration comes, then the imagination to bring it to fruition; soon the thinking processes enter the foreground, followed by the action to get it done.  What is the result?  You enter a new career that actually meshes with your destiny.

“I am that I am”   Idea—Pattern—Process—Result:  If you look closely on the collar of Zero the Fool and the Archangel Michael in Temperance, Key 14, you will see the holy Name Yod-Heh-Vav-Heh inscribed in Hebrew.

Here the intimation is that the Life-Breath, the Power that knows Itself and loves every particle of Its creation, expresses Itself though our consciousness, our emotions and thoughts—through our very Being [Zero the Fool].  It is a Power behind the Limitless Light and yet, in a kind of mystical paradox, is at the same time individualized as the Holy Guardian Angel within our heart, mind and body temple [Key 14, Temperance].  Awareness of this idea can influence the spiritual quality of our life in general and our Tarot readings in particular.

For Thine is the Kingdom, and the Power and the Glory forever, Amen.[iii] 

When we look into the famous prayer to our “Father” given to us by Master Yeshua Ben Joseph [aka Jesus Christ], we can imagine that he might have had some understanding of the ideas within Qabalah, perhaps by way of his supposed contact with the Essenes, a mystical desert sect in Israel.

Either way, one of the central questions in our consideration of the Qabalah, as well as the Tarot for that matter, is the definition of that loaded word “Thine”—that certain “something” we spoke of earlier.  Later we will look at the Glory, #8, Hod and the Kingdom, #10 Malkuth, but for now let us consider this next to impossible word to define, Power.

“Thine” is the Power behind the white sun manifesting as the yellow sky of Spirit manifesting as the individualized consciousness on the Path we have come to know as Zero the Fool [See illustration above].   When I try to imagine this, I think of the soul as a kind of hologram surrounded with Light, a walking, talking prism with colors like the inside of an abalone shell.

In the Qabalah, it is the Power behind and above Kether, the Crown at the top of the Tree [see Tree of Life diagram above; It is also within the crown chakra just above the head in the human aura].  The Qabalists, the mystics of Israel, call this Power the Limitless Light, the Light before manifestations.[iv]

Number 8, Hod is translated “glory” and refers to the infinite splendor of the Power as it manifests [the 8 on its side in an infinity symbol, pictured above the head of the woman in Key 8, Strength].

Number 10, Malkuth, the Kingdom, is the manifested Earth and is the densest aspect of Spirit. In Key 10, the Wheel of Fortune, we see the involution of Spirit into the material world [the yellow snake on the left hand edge] and our evolution out of it into the higher realms [Anubis, on the right of the Wheel].

 The Pattern on the Trestleboard says of Number 10:  “The Kingdom of Spirit is embodied in my flesh.”[v]

A Basic Construction of the Tree

Zero the Fool, walks along the path on the Tree from Kether the Crown #1 to #2 Chokmah, Wisdom, and gathers experience and knowledge at each of the 10 “way-stations” on the Tree, called sephiroth, which translates from the Hebrew as “emanations” [sephirah, singular].

The 22 paths between the sephiroth are named for a Key of the Major Arcana;  the Ones through Tens of the Minor Arcana are placed on the corresponding number on the Tree, and as for the Court, we find disagreement.  One method separates the Tree into three vertical columns.  The column to the left is feminine passive receptive Water and includes numbers 3, 5, 8; we place the four Queens [Water] below the 8, Hod, Glory. The column on the right hand side is masculine active Fire and includes numbers 2, 4, 7 on the Tree; we place the four Kings at the base of the right column below the 7.  The Knights are Air and we place them in the center column 1, 6, 9, 10 below the 9.  Finally, we place the four Pages, Earth, right on the Kingdom, number 10, Malkuth, also representing Earth.

At the Crown is the number One, the un-manifest manifesting for the first time, working Its way “downward,” like a lightning bolt, completing one of the most intriguing and beautiful achievements in all of creation, none other than—you.  The emanation of number One in Tarot is symbolized by the four Aces [the essence of Fire, Water, Air and Earth:  idea, feelings, thinking and body], as well as Key One, the Magician.  The Magician is our idealized, individualized, conscious Self acting as a conduit for the Most High.  At Kether, the Crown of the Tree, we are illuminated, the Infinite made practical in our everyday life.

We have looked at the Number 6, Tiphareth, Beauty, in some detail and briefly considered the 1, 8 and 10.  In our next article, we will move from 1 to 10 in greater depth and show how the Qabalists’ conception of Spirit expands within the divine numbers on the Tree of Life

[1] Gershom Scholem, Kabbalah  (Jerusalem, Israel:  Keter Publishing House Jerusalem Ltd., 1974), p. 3.

[ii] Paul Foster Case, The Tarot:  A Key to the Wisdom of the Ages (Richmond, VA.: Macoy, 1947), p. 4.

[iii] KJV, Matt. 6:13

[iv] Case, p. 31.

[v] Ibid, p. 15.



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