As I work my way through The Discarded Image, an examination of Medieval cosmology by C.S. Lewis, I encountered an observation that seems to support my long-standing assumption – not my own idea but one I read somewhere – that the Hermetic Qabalah is to a large extent grounded in the Neo-Platonism that was grafted onto its Hebraic roots. Lewis commented that, according to the Neo-Platonists, the Universe “seeps into existence” through a series of “declensions or diminutions” (hmm, how about particularities?) that, in a step-wise fashion, infuses from above the increasingly scrutable and eventually tangible worlds of Mind, Soul and Body. (He went on to say that, in this process of emergence into manifestation, the Body – rather than being a “thing apart” – actually represents those outermost dimensions of the Soul that are comprehensible to the five senses, like the proverbial “tip of an iceberg.”)
This seems like a simpler approximation of the ten emanations – delineated by the Sephiroth on the Tree of Life – that are assumed by the qabalists to depict the gradual “descent of Spirit into Matter.” In both philosophical models the physical world (“Body”) is at the bottom of a chain of causation, with each of the more numinous realms of existence prefiguring (“extruding” is a more vivid analogy) the denser one immediately below it. (Some smart-ass – I can no longer find the post – once likened it to “God’s excretory system” [not his exact words, of course] and guess where we come in [or, more accurately, “out”]. But as we’ve all heard, things do seem to “roll downhill;” think of it as the “nihilist’s view of religious creationism.”) I’ve examined these concepts at length from a tarot perspective in earlier posts, the details of which I won’t repeat here, but I do think they are worth summarizing once again.
For the tarotist, the value in this model is that it allows for a range of nuances in the cartomantic expression of the four classical elements, Fire, Water, Air and Earth. The most exalted (and therefore least concrete) form of an element as defined in the cards occurs at the top-most rung of the ladder, in a realm one small step removed from that of pure Spirit (from which it “coalesces,” a word I find more apt than “seeps”). The Ace represents the formative “ideal” arising by virtue of a centrifugal organizing impulse within an element (and, by extrapolation, the actions resulting therefrom as conveyed by the rest of the suit). The most pedestrian or mundane form of elemental energy (Aleister Crowley used unappealing but cogent terms like “corrupted” and “debased”) inhabits the very bottom rung, where development largely ceases as a primordial element’s nascent urge to indwell matter becomes fully “earthed” and ultimately exhausted in the Ten. Every descending rung in between is part of the process of “becoming,” with the fundamental nature of its resident card losing its vigor and eslasticity the closer it gets to the base. In short, what was once spiritually unfettered is now firmly bound to the wheel of experience.
Of all the types of esoteric correspondence that have been tacked onto the tarot over the last couple of centuries, this approach – along with the “occult number theory” of Pythagoras – is the one I’ve found to be the most compelling and therefore the most useful (as well as one of the oldest, harking back to the cosmogony of the Greek philosopher Empedocles in the 5th Century BCE). However, it has necessitated dismissing most of the charming but largely irrelevant narrative content that Pamela Colman Smith invested in the famous deck on which she and Arthur Edward Waite collaborated. Thinking of the cards as “packets of energy ” rather than as “scenes in a life” opens them up to a much wider range of interpretation that resists being hijacked by the more prosaic conclusions of an anecdotal “storyboard.”
Of course, in practice we must still forge a symbolic link between these abstract principles and the external circumstances of mundane existence if we are to make practical use of them in divination. But I would submit that there are more inspired ways to get there than by having to “intuit” our way out of a ready-made interpretive “box.” Rather than the deductive process of relying on visual clues in the images to strip away what doesn’t apply within the context of a reading, I prefer the inductive one of adding up the hints in a broader elemental “stew” of meaning to create a completely original tableau. It exemplifies the difference between donning a tailor-made suit of clothes and trying to squeeze ourselves into a “strait-jacket.” This approach has served me well in coming to grips with the non-scenic “pip” cards in older decks like the Tarot de Marseille, while still allowing me to use the Waite-Smith deck in more creative ways.