The origins of the Jewish mystical school known today as Cabala or Kabbalah can be traced back to the
12th – 13th centuries to Provence and southern Spain, places where the Islamic, Jewish and Christian
traditions merged with Gnosticism, Taoism, Neoplatonism, Sufism and other ancient schools of wisdom
to form a rich cultural tapestry that has not been possible to replicate since. Based largely on the Zohar
(Sefer ha-Zohar, the Book of Radiance or Splendor -a commentary on the five books of Moses, as
interpreted and/or channeled by the Spanish scholar Moisés de León, 1240 – 1290) and expanded by
several Jewish intellectuals through the centuries, this discipline is usually referred to as the “theoretical”
or “spiritual” Cabala, to distinguish it from the meditative and magical traditions of Jewish mysticism that
are as old as Vedic mythology and rituals. In fact, it is important to view Cabala or Kabbalah as part of a
mythological continuum that amalgamates ancient wisdom with new ideas. Its texts, ambiguous and
esoteric, open themselves to multilevel interpretations and are a magical source for healing and spiritual
renewal. Cabala is, first and foremost, a system of Knowledge.
The etymology of the word “Cabala” implies receptivity. Cabala gives and receives, constantly exchanging
wisdom and blessings and adapting itself to every generation that wishes to access its fountain of
wisdom. We can also view Cabala as a magic and alchemical vessel that leads the devoted student to
higher levels of consciousness as well as to spiritual transformation. The Hermetic schools of the 19th
century incorporated the images of Tarot into the Tree of Life and assigned to each image a specific
sphere of influence, as well as designated a Hebrew letter to each of the twenty-two Majors. This
mnemonic manipulation injected Tarot with the power to re-collect through the Art of Memory -another gift
from the Renaissance - all the mysteries of Creation. In my opinion Hermetic Qabalah and the practices of
ritual magic render a mystical dimension to the cards. When we work with the cards as a vehicle for
healing or for any kind of transpersonal work, we are engaging energies that have been infused into the
cards to bring us sparks of the Divine and to open for us the wisdom of antiquity.
For me, it is impossible to separate Tarot from either Qabalah (the spelling used by my mystery school) or
Alchemy, since I have been a student of this Hermetic school for many years now. I usually apply the
connections in ways that would make sense to the client, avoiding making the interpretation too
complicated, but if the connection came to mind, then there is a reason to weave it into the reading in a
language that is simple and to the point. Several Tarot readers that I respect are quick to dismiss this
connection; however, I believe that the moment that the cards started to be associated with the Cabala
system of knowledge, a very special dimension was added to Tarot that facilitated its use in healing and
transformational work. Like the old alchemical axiom, “as above so below,” the emanations from the ten
Sefirot of the Tree of Life whirl down into spheres of consciousness and levels of manifestation as we
ourselves travel upwards through the various levels in search of enlightenment and union with the One.
Our allegorical search for the Holy Grail, for example, which is reflected in many “traditional” Tarot decks,
can be interpreted as a search for wisdom from the spheres above and from those who have traveled the
Path before us; as well as by our willingness to serve as vehicles of expression for the Light, the "limitless
Light" that we seek as archetypal energy of our personal luminosity and illumination.
Just like Alchemy looks at the human body and mind as vessels where all transmutations take place,
sometimes serving as athanor or oven as well as the prima materia being subjected to the processes,
each Sefirah on the Tree of Life can serve as vessel as well as athanor. The emanations from the Tree are
aspects of God’s personality as well as archetypes for humanity and become both male and female,
yin/yang, giving and receiving energies, according to the intention of the Divine Light that flows through the
spheres. The archetypal marriage of opposites that Jung identifies with individuation is explicitly
suggested in the Zohar: “The blessed Holy One does not place His abode anywhere male and female are
not found together.”
Cabala scholar Dr. Daniel Matt emphasizes that the Sacred Marriage or hierosgamos that fuses male and
female, good and evil, light and dark is the essential act of creation. We need to embrace the vision of a
universe being constantly created and re-created by the opposite powers of the One. In fact, modern
interpretation of many of these texts emphasizes the need to recognize the “feminine side of God” through
Binah the Mother (the third Sefirah on the Tree that gives birth to humanity) and Shekhinah, the daughter
and Bride (reflected in Malkuth, the Kingdom and 10th Sefirah) who manifests on our behalf to bring us
back to redemption. Shekhinah is the benevolent feminine energy that makes it all possible and who
brings us home as we, ourselves, bring home the Bride.
The Hermetic tradition fully embraced many of the rituals of the Cabala School. By the 19th century we see
its influence in several of the esoteric movements that also used Tarot as a tool to communicate with the
numinous. The practice still continues today: one meditates with the cards and with the Hebrew letters
and at the same time we use the Tree of Life as the mythical structure that guides us through the many
levels of awareness that lead us to the Beloved.
Mystical Cabala, for example, is all about union and about relationship: with ourselves, with the world that
surrounds us, with the Divine. When we meditate on the Tree of Life, we allow the energies of the Sefirotic
emanations to lead us into new levels of consciousness as our soul journeys in search of enlightenment.
Dion Fortune notes that “Qabalah is as much a method of using the mind as a system of knowledge.”(p.
65) Unless we learn to train the mind, the knowledge in Cabala is never revealed to us. Each sphere is “bi-
sexual;” and the archetypes assigned to each sphere represent both vices and virtues, all depending on
the degrees or potencies one is able to reach within each emanation. (D. Fortune, p. 99) This is not an
easy Path. Cabala, like Alchemy or mystical Tarot or any other esoteric tradition, requires careful study and
When we are dealing with archetypal energies, where do we draw the line? Even Jesus Christ has been
called a mystical Cabalist, as his teachings echo deep understanding of this tradition. Moreover, the term
“Christ consciousness” has come to symbolize in western mystery schools the attainment of avatar or
enlightened consciousness through the ascension on the Tree of Life. It is the sixth Sefirah, Tiphareth,
Sphere of the Sun -assigned to the Son of God- that unites with Shekhinah the Bride and helps to bring us
home to the One along the Path of Return.
The Cabala that we use today, like Tarot, is a product of the Renaissance and of Neoplatonism. Spanish
theologian and mystic Ramón Lull, for example, was writing in Spain at the same time that the Zohar came
to light. Lull’s work was well known among alchemists and he is now recognized as the driving force
behind “Christian Cabala,” or Cábala cristiana. Whether he was a magician or an alchemist is debatable,
but the fact is that his work, which was written with the intention of converting Jews and Muslims,
influenced Agrippa and Giordano Bruno, as well as other pivotal minds of the Renaissance and beyond.
Lull’s Arts Magna is a monumental work that greatly influenced the culture that gave birth to mystical and
cabalistic Tarot. By connecting the similarity of the archetypes being used in both systems, philosopher
Ronald Decker and art historian William Dummet made the connection between Lull’s Arts Magna and
However, we can appreciate the connection better by looking at how Lullism influenced the works of
Giordano Bruno and other Renaissance thinkers, as well as the Art of Memory.
Pico della Mirandolla (1463 – 1494) advanced and validated the concept of a Christian Cabala just when
the spirit of religious tolerance was waning in Spain and other western countries. England and Germany
were to eventually become the centers of the Christian Cabala movement (although Barcelona and
Amsterdam might argue that point), which by the 18th century had integrated a large number of alchemical
symbolism and ritualistic practices. That at some point along their separate development someone like
Eliphas Levi (1810-1875) finally made the connection that cross-pollinated Cabala and Tarot is not
surprising. Cabala has a life all its own that transcends any religious classification because it points at an
elemental Secret Doctrine that is basically archetypal.
The Tarot images of the 19th century were ripe for this magical infusion. But notice how many centuries we
are involving in this process. There is a transpersonal energy here at work that moves through a visual
medium as it captures the myths and cultural traditions of many people and societies. There is also a raw
or primordial quality that becomes imprinted in the cards and that serves to expand our consciousness as
old traditions, beliefs and rituals are amalgamated with the new.
With Eliphas Levi’s Dogma and Ritual of Transcendental Magic (1854), the connection between Cabala
and Tarot is firmly established. From this point on, Tarot is considered a pictorial key to ageless wisdom
among students of the Hermetic tradition. When we work with the twenty-two Majors and their respective
Hebrew letters and associations we are creating a new imaginal language and, like with anything else that
one studies and meditates upon, new meanings are, inevitably, brought forth. This especial language is
not for everyone, just like any other system of knowledge. However, I do believe that the connections
between Tarot and Cabala become real and easily accessible to anyone serious about delving into this
Copyright © 2008
Yolanda M. Robinson, PhD
|A Very Brief Historical Perspective: Connecting Qabalah With Tarot