Backing Rose Cross by Stephen Montalvo
ON THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE NUMBER OF MAJOR ARCANA IN THE
BY FRATER W.I.T.
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
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
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.