The Descent of the Tree

This is a short note to open up a thought about how we tell the story of the four suits in the Tarot. The Major Arcana are often described as The Fool’s Journey. It is a narrative which we can tell from the Fool setting off unheeding and joyful into the world, then having a series of archetypal encounters which lead, finally, to The World and a sense of completion and accomplishment.

Each suit also has a narrative. It might not be as explicit as The Fool’s Journey but it underlies a lot of our thinking about the suits. From Ace to Ten, there is a sense of movement which tells a kind of story of its own.

The tarot as we know it today in the form of the Rider-Waite-Smith deck comes from a very specific milieu. All three of those names associated with the deck were members of The Golden Dawn and the teachings of that Order on the Tarot were derived from the work of other late 19th century occultists, nearly all of whom learned their magic within the quasi-masonic, initiatory orders so popular at the time.

Within that context, much work was being done on ‘correspondences’, there was a feeling that all esoteric knowledge, religion and magic, could be syncretised, made into one system. Crowley’s book 777 is a the classic example of this where Indian and Egyptian and Celtic pantheons of gods are simply set next to one another and next to crystals, herbs, incenses, and every other manner of thing. And central to this endeavour in the worldview of the 19th century occult orders was the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. The Tree of Life is a diagram which shows 10 spheres from 1 at the top to 10 at the bottom and represents a ‘emanatory’ theology. That is, the Kabbalists believed that creation rested upon emanations from the godhead. So very basically, at the top of the tree, the sphere of Kether (the Crown) represents the white light of divinity and as the lightning of god’s creative impulse surges downwards, it travels through the other ten spheres becoming heavier and coarser all the way until it ends up in Malkuth (the Earth). This top to bottom model was then mapped onto the Tarot among many other things. It is this emanatory model which has shaped the story we tell of the suits and possibly, has done so a little too much.

One of the purest and most explicit attempts at incorporating the Kabbalistic tree and its philosophy into a tarot deck was that made by Aleister Crowley in the creation of this Thoth deck. We only need to look at the names that Crowley gave to the 10s in his deck to see how the emanatory model of the Tree of Life has added a layer of value judgement to the story of the suits. Whilst the Aces are all represented as the purest and best expression of the energy of the suit, as we move through the numbers from ace to ten, we see a slow degrading of that elemental energy until we have the tens of cups, disks, swords and wands named Satiety, Wealth, Ruin and Oppression respectively. All lofty ideals have scattered, all sense of purity and clarity has vanished in the murky depths of Malkuth, the earth. Even away from Crowley’s Thoth deck it is commonplace to read the story of the suits as a slow falling away from the purity (good) of the ace to the embodied murk of the tens (bad). The duality of spirit-good and matter-bad has been with us for centuries and is hardly confined to the Tarot, but the roots of the RWS and decks since in the world of the Kabbalah and quasi-masonic orders has left it with some strong value judgements.

Many occultists today are questioning hard the methods of these Victorian magicians. Their syncretism seems far too close to an unthinking appropriation these days, certainly it roams through cultures and religions with an Imperial glee that simply picks up what it finds and decides to use it, often deaf to its original context and subtleties. The overlaying of the Tree of Life symbolism on the Tarot is an interesting thought experiment but many would argue it should perhaps have stayed at that level. Now, it colours every reading, even imprinting backwards that ‘descent into matter’ approach on cards which were in use long before RWS and its followers. It would be an interesting experiment to read the cards being aware of this context, to look for ways to overthrowing its influence. Instead of seeing the movement from ace to ten as a kind of falling away from grace, from spiritual refinement to earthy coarseness, perhaps it might be more appropriate to see in the ace a seed. Meditating on an acorn seems a slightly fay thing to do perhaps, but once you do it in the shadow of a fifty-foot oak tree and begin to understand at a visceral level that all that mass of tree once resided in the acorn in your hand, suddenly the insight takes on power. The ace can be our acorn for the spirit of each suit. And instead of a falling away, perhaps the increasing complexity is something to be celebrated, like the growth of a detailed and intricate flower from the simple shape of its bud. These are only beginning thoughts but there is a sense that 19th century magicians didn’t do the Tarot a straightforward favour by overlaying it on the Tree of Life.

Six of Wands – The Wild Unknown

The Six of Wands in the Rider Waite tarot can be tricky to relate to. Our victories, no matter how hard won, don’t often come with a homecoming on horseback, banners and cheering crowds. The tarot, as we are used to seeing it, has a number of images like this which can be hard to pin down in our modern, workaday lives. Looking at and working with other decks then, with the re-imagining of ideas and imagery to express the same universal truths, can help us unlock cards which seem closed or worse, irrelevant.

Six of Wands – Coleman Smith Centenary Deck
I recently bought the Wild Unknown tarot. I know I’m a bit behind with this purchase, but having wanted to spend a few years really cementing my relationship with Coleman Smith images, I was avoiding scattering my attention too much with other decks. I also admit to being uncertain about the lack of human figures in the cards figuring that surely, if we are relating the cards to our human experience, it helps to have people int he pictures.
Interestingly enough though, I have found the lack of human figures encourages a much more symbolic relationship with the deck and a chance to listen to and explore the bigger picture of our existence or things which are difficult to express.
The Six of Wands is an interesting one for me. A beautiful blue-green butterfly rising out of the depths of tangled and rather menacing undergrowth is all about victory over the inherent conditions of our life. The butterfly must metamorphose and it must become itself if it is to live and reproduce. This isn’t about some job well done and a medal at the end, rather a deeper more essential success – I have survived! I live!

It is interesting personally though because I have a rather long-term phobia of butterflies. It is quite specific, as I fear them most when they are inside, out of their proper environment. I have been at a loss at to what this means or where it comes from, but perhaps this card suggests that a fear of failure coupled with the fear of success might keep one trapped in the pupae stage. Whatever it is, the Six of Wands shows that development, growth and moving out of the fear and conflict that we find in the Five of Wands is not only possible, but indeed essential and inevitable.