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Backing Rose Cross by Stephen Montalvo



There are precisely 22 cards of the major arcana, greater secrets, of the traditional tarot deck.  This article will explore the various reasons for this as well as the relevance of the key scale of these cards, also known as the trumps.  Profound Qabalistic formulae will be brought to light during this explication.

The primary reason for there being 22 trumps is that this is the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet.  Each card is assigned one of these letters as well as their esoteric attributions.  The trumps may then be placed on the Qabalistic Tree of Life, one for each of the paths which interconnect the ten Sephiroth in a gradual course upward from Malkuth, the Kingdom, to Kether, the Crown.  Some of the greater secrets involve this serpentine way up the tree of manifestation which leads the spiritual aspirant back
to the source of all.

The attributions of the Hebrew letters to the major arcana were kept as a closely guarded secret by esoteric orders of the western mystery tradition for centuries.  A false set of assignments were given out to outsiders as a blind to trap the foolish who sought the hidden knowledge beyond the auspices of the instituted mysteries.  The first letter, Aleph, was said to be attributed to the trump whose key scale number was 1, The Magician.  The numerical value of the Hebrew letter matched the key scale number in this way.  The trump numbered 0, The Fool, was mysteriously placed between trump XX, The Last Judgment, and XXI, The World.  The Hebrew letter Shin was attributed to The Fool following this scheme and the last letter, Tav, was attributed to The World, the last trump in the series.

These false attributions were widely reported until the veils of the old orders was lifted by such modern occult commentators as Aleister Crowley and Israel Regardie.  The truth finally came out that The Fool is placed at the beginning of the series of major arcana, just as 0 comes before 1.  This is the card to which Aleph is attributed.  The previously reported attributions had been all wrong except for trump XXI.  It isn’t important for the value of the Hebrew letter to match the key scale number since the former counts up to 400 while the latter counts up to 21.  Even in the false system, they matched only for the first ten trumps.  Clearly, the letter values and the key scale represent different symbolic ideas.  They come together, however, in a consistent, gradually increasing progression, but with one possible exception.

In the earliest tarot decks, there are two trump cards whose key scale numbers or Hebrew letters have been apparently switched.  Trump VIII was entitled “Justice” and trump XI was called “Strength.”  The seeming incongruity is that the Hebrew letter Lamed is attributed to Justice and the letter Teth is given to Strength.  However, Teth is the ninth letter of the Hebrew alphabet while Lamed is the twelfth.  The question arises as to whether this is an intentional blind, like the displacement of trump 0, or if some profound truth is being communicated by this apparent switch of attributions.

The influential, late nineteenth century magical group, called The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, dealt with this situation by switching the key scale numbers between Strength and Justice so that the two numbering schemes involved with the major arcana came into sync.  The order’s leaders believed the situation to be another blind to the real order of the tarot cards.  All but one of their members, who later went on to form their own organizations, adhered to the Golden Dawn fix.

The one dissenting voice was that of Aleister Crowley, who deviated considerably from the Golden Dawn spiritual belief system in founding his own religion and magical system.  He declared that a new age had dawned for humanity and that all the existing symbols of religion and spirituality had become obsolete.  The meanings of many of the old concepts had undergone a reversal and Crowley worked out a new religious and magical paradigm to incorporate the advanced consciousness of the new aeon.  Thelema was the name he gave to his new way and founded or reworked several magical orders to embrace and teach the newly revealed truths of the Aeon of Horus, the Crowned and Conquering Child.

Crowley expressed many of his new ideals in a new version of the tarot deck, which he called The Book of Thoth.  It has since become very popular and widely used by Thelemite and non-Thelemite alike.  He retained the Teth-Lamed switch, which can be diagrammed on the wheel of the zodiac in the following way.

The twelve signs of the zodiac, the seven classical planets, and the five elements of antiquity can be attributed to the 22 Hebrew letters, with the last two letters having two of these powers associated with them.  Shin has the elements Fire and Spirit while Tav has Saturn and Earth.  Twelve of the trumps have the zodiacal signs associated with them, including the two trumps under consideration.  Justice and Lamed have Libra attributed to them while Strength and Teth have Leo.  The order of the zodiacal trump cards shows a loop around the sign Virgo, associated with trump IX, The Hermit, and the letter Yod, when they are placed around the wheel of the zodiac.

Crowley was able to use this idea in deciphering a particularly cryptic passage in the Thelemic holy book, called The Book of the Law.  Chapter 1, verse 57 says that, “All these old letters of my book are aright; but Tzaddi is not the Star.”  Crowley understood that the book in question was the tarot deck and that the quoted passage indicated that the letter Tzaddi was not attributed to trump XVII, The Star, as specified in the old magical tradition.  He wondered for years about what other card was to have Tzaddi attributed to it and which Hebrew letter was to be assigned to The Star.

The answer finally came to him that there was another loop in the wheel of the zodiac, opposite to the pivot around Virgo.  The sign opposite Virgo is Pisces.  On one side of it is Aquarius and on the other is Aries.  In the traditional tarot system of correspondences, trump IV, The Emperor, is assigned to Aries and these are placed on the path of He on the Tree of Life.  Trump XVII, The Star, is assigned to Aquarius and these are placed on the path of Tzaddi.  Crowley realized that these trump cards, with their zodiacal and other magical attributions, should switch paths and so letters.  The Star and Aquarius were reassigned to the letter He while The Emperor and Aries were reassigned to the letter Tzaddi.  Tzaddi was not the Star.  It was the Emperor.  The letter He was now the Star.  However, the key scale numbers were kept with these two cards.  The Emperor was still numbered IV and The Star was still XVII.  The other switch involved the key scale numbers only.  Justice and Strength kept their letters, signs, and positions on the Tree of Life.

Some Thelemites disagree with Crowley’s interpretation of the above quoted passage from The Book of the Law.  They believe that the only change indicated was to rename The Star card as The Stars.  The author of this article believes that Crowley was correct.  These zodiacal loops indicate a profound doctrine of time paradoxes.  Effects can precede causes from a perspective transcendent to the normal course of time.  Magical exaltation can raise consciousness to such a state.  The tarot deck symbolizes the quintessence of the western magical tradition so it makes sense that such deep mysteries would be subtly placed in this dense, coherent system.  The Justice – Strength reversal indicates a time paradox within the normal course of human existence while the Emperor – Star transposition exhibits the change of aeon, uplifting the new consciousness right out of the universe of space and time.  Each magician may decide which of these schemes work for them.

There is a great deal of significance to the Hebrew letters in the Hermetic Qabalah, as the above analysis shows.  There must be 22 tarot trumps to express the sublime mysteries of that alphabet, believed to be the very characters of creation.  The heights of human destiny and cosmic creation are expressed by this multifaceted, serpentine course through physical and psychic reality.

There is another significance to the number 22, however, that involves ancient geometry.  It was understood in the Hellenic era, that fusion of cultures which produced the Hermetic tradition as well as the Hebrew Qabalah, that the diameter of a circle whose circumference was 22 measured to seven.  This ratio of 22:7 came to represent the measuring of what was inherently immeasurable.  The unknown was made known by the use of number and the ratios that expressed eternal truths as seen throughout nature.  The alchemists of that period and in medieval times called this process the squaring of the circle.  A linear measurement was directly related to a circular figure which could not exactly be measured.  A comprehensible course was charted through the mysterious realm of the mind, the heavens, and beyond.  The number 22 came to represent this circular course of the sun, planets, and stars through the day and night.  The aspirant to the transcendent mysteries could identify with the sun in its eternal way by the use of pure reason.  The markers of nature were unchanging and ubiquitous.

The last topic on the significance of the number of major arcana to be covered in this article is the key scale itself.  Beyond the winding, transcendental course already explored is the simple fact that this series of numbers counts from 0 to 21 and not from 1 to 22.  The progression of universal and personal creation emerges out of pure nothingness and unfolds through 21 positive stages.  An analysis of the number 21 will reveal much about this unfolding process from naught.

21 = 3 * 7 and 2 + 1 = 3.  The triangle is the simplest geometric figure and the basis for all circular geometry.  The planets are the basic causes of action in the magical universe.  These points are more clearly expressed with the understanding that 21 is equal to the sum of the first 6 numbers.  6 is the Qabalistic number of the sun and the center of the Tree of Life, the place of beauty.  Further, 6 is equal to the sum and the product of the first 3 numbers.  3, in turn, is the sum of the first 2 numbers.  This is why 21 is called the third magical extension of 2.  One might be reminded of Aleister Crowley’s 0 = 2 equation as the expression of the first impulse of creation, 1 being an illusion that fades with understanding.

Qabalists take this numerical unfoldment one step further and derive 231 as the sum of the first 21 numbers, the fourth magical extension of the original 2.  This is the number of gates or Hebrew letter pairs used to create a golem, a magical android made of river mud and legended to serve its creator faithfully until it eventually goes berserk.  The unfoldment of the four worlds of Qabalah can be recognized from this progression.  21 represents the third world, called Yetzirah, the world of formation, in this scheme.  This is the world of the human mind in its myriad expressions of thought and feeling as well as the astral plane, the world of illusion.

It is significant in this context that 21 is the enumeration of AHIH, Eheieh, the name of God attributed to Kether, the Crown, the first Sephirah on the Tree of Life.  It is also the enumeration of the Trigrammaton, IHV, another expression of the divine creative process down to the third world of Yetzirah.  Thus, the major arcana express not only the path of human creation from nothing but the way to discover the original creative principle inherent in that creation and so achieve perfection in this unfoldment.