This a synopsis of the term project I worked on for my “Jewish Mysticism, Magic, and Lore” class (Spring 2011). My original plan was to create an amulet using imagery from the tarot—but it evolved into something quite different. The original audience was my instructor and classmates, so some of the concepts are not explained in detail. It’s long. It’s complicated. It has Hebrew words in it. And six diagrams. Enjoy!
A Runic Tree:
Combining Tarot, Hebrew Letters, and the Tree of Life
My journey with this project began with a simple desire to combine two of my favorite subjects: tarot and jewelry. Upon learning about the connections between tarot reading, Jewish mysticism, and the אץ חיים (Tree of Life), I immediately set out to find a way to incorporate them into a single art piece. The art and symbolism of tarot has always inspired me, and using the אץ חיים (Tree of Life) as a layout method for tarot spreads intrigued me greatly. I wanted to discover a creative way to incorporate tarot imagery and the אץ חיים (Tree of Life) system into a wearable object—one that would function as a protective amulet. This seemingly simple goal soon expanded into a far broader project; a project with the unexpected result of a new method of iconographic meditation using anthroponymy (the study of personal names).
Tarot imagery is simultaneously ubiquitous and esoteric in visual culture. They are capable of holding great personal meaning for the reader, as well as universal messages for all human beings. Because of this, tarot imagery can function as personal talismans—and they have been constant companions in my own daily life and spiritual practice. The meditative process of reading these images has proven to be of great value and inspiration to me spiritually and as an artist. However, upon learning the difference between the functions of a talisman and an amulet, I soon became enamored with the idea of taking the cards beyond the talismanic realm, and creating a protective amulet using the same symbology.
Talismans and amulets are thought by many to be the same in both function as design (as both can be described as protective charms); however, the difference between them turns out to be key. Amulets are created with the express purpose of protecting the bearer against harm, while talismans can be ordinary objects that may evolve into personal charms. An amulet is constructed using culturally established iconographic and lexicographic systems of symbols to serve its function. Talismans can be any object of personal significance to the bearer, and may or may not convey its purpose to others in a recognizable way. Amulets simply repel harm—specifically the “evil eye” in Middle Eastern cultures. Talismans can guard the bearer against misfortune, but also bestow them with the counter-effect of good fortune (good luck charms). Talismans are more versatile this way, but are limited to objects with strictly personal significance and connection.
I was intrigued by the potential these differentiating aspects could have if applied to tarot imagery. Tarot cards, like amulets, also use a visual language of iconic imagery and lexical symbols as a system of communication to serve their function. Each card, as they are all different, holds subjective appeal to the reader, like a talisman. The cards can also represent both positive and negative aspects, depending on their context. One may read a tarot spread with the intention of self protection against harmful events or decisions. One can even create a tarot deck with a specific intention for their purpose. Understanding this, I set out to find unique tarot symbols from personally relevant cards to construct an amulet. This was my initial project.
As the אץ חיים has such significance in קבלה (Kabbalah), it is not surprising that it is a key method of reading the tarot. The אץ חיים (Tree of Life) is used a layout card-spread for which dictates how the cards apply to the reader. The ten ספירות (sephirot), the emanations of the אץ חיים (Tree of Life), correspond astrologically to the planetary bodies in our solar system (fig.1). There are twenty-two paths between the ten ספירות (sephirot), twenty-two letters in the Hebrew aleph-beit, and twenty-two tarot cards of the major arcana (trump cards). They all correspond to each other, as well as to various astrological symbols and elements (fig.1, fig.2, fig.3). Each letter adds additional meaning to the card’s message and context. Thus, the אץ חיים (Tree of Life) became began to play a major role in my project.
The vital connection between the tarot and the אץ חיים (Tree of Life) are the corresponding letters. Hebrew is an animistic linguistic and numerical system. In addition to the semantic meaning and numerical value of each letter, each also has a unique personality, individual meaning, and gender assignment. As with any language, context is key; in Hebrew, however, it is not just the words that depend on context, but the individual letters themselves. Given this crucial relationship between tarot cards and the aleph-beit, it is not surprising that the letters captured my attention in this project. The connections I could make between words, names, and the tarot became a central theme—specifically, my own name.
The letters of my chosen Hebrew name, נטליה (Natalia, or Natalyah), connect to the אץ חיים (Tree of Life) on the Pillar of Mercy and active energy (fig.4), which includes נצח (Netzah), תסד (Hesed), and תכמה (Chochman). They also overlap with the Ethical Triangle, which includes תסד (Hesed), תפארת (Tiferet), and בינה (Gevurah). According to the conceptual system of the “Four Gateways of Life” described by Amber Jayanti in Living the Qabalistic Tarot, the cards that correspond to נטליה (Natalyah)—Death, Strength, Justice, the Hermit, and the Emperor—mainly reside in the Gateway of Adolescence and Adulthood. The Emperor alone holds a position in the higher Gateway of Childhood. This particular model makes sense when compared to the levels of the פרדס (PaRDeS) model—although experienced from a descending perspective.
The Gateway of Childhood is where the reader experiences the openness and wonder of the higher realm of consciousness: סוד (Sod, occult). The Adolescent gateway is caught between the realms of questioning and bold investigation: דרוש (Remez, interpretation). The Adulthood gateway is caught between the realms of practicality and knowledge: רמז (Drush, application). The fourth gateway, Wisdom, is the realm of heuristic consciousness and stability—a culmination of the knowledge, understanding, and applicative lessons learned through the previous three realms: פשט (Pshat, simplistic, base). When using the tree as a layout for tarot, instead of ascending from מלכות (Malkhut) to כתר (Keter), the cards descend from כתר (Keter) to מלכות (Malkhut). This turns the tarot into a channel for the divine to communicate with the reader—instead of using them as an act of shamanic magic, where you travel up the tree to seek answers from the divine.
My initial attempt to create an amulet began with experimenting with many tarot readings, layout styles, and path correspondences. Eventually, I settled on the tree system that made the most sense to me, and seemed the most consistent with my קבלה (PaRDeS) studies. The astrological aspects and path lines of this tree provided a specific design and pattern for the cards. These readings were intended to guide me towards a specific goal in my life; a goal that could be re-interpreted as protective or healing, or in need of protection and healing. However, working with this pattern had an unexpected effect. When I combined the cards and letters with the layout of the אץ חיים (Tree of Life), visual patterns began to emerge. My focus was shifted from the imagery of the tarot, to the imagery of the tree itself.
The result of this pattern was a personal rune, created by tracing the lines of each letter’s path (fig.6). In my experimentation with this pattern, I found several interesting coincidences. When my “name-path” was traced from the top-down, it corresponded to the numerical ordering of the ספירות (sephirot)—the mystical route on the אץ חיים (Tree of Life). When traced in the order of the letters of my name, it traveled from the bottom-up—the magical route on the אץ חיים (Tree of Life). For many weeks, I meditated on the rune by doodling it repeatedly at random moments throughout the day. Even thought the mystical route jumbled the letters, I preferred the flow of the rune as it moved towards the base of the tree—to earth.
Another interesting aspect of the rune shape, was that it revealed one of the triangles created by connecting the ספירות (sephirot). Triangle shapes are very mystical symbols in our visual culture, as they represent pyramids, alchemical elements, and various triads. The upside-down triangle shape reveled in my rune represents the alchemical symbol for water. The water element represents emotion in mystical and alchemical modalities. This water symbol, anchoring my rune, makes a lot of sense regarding my rather sensitive nature.
The ascending and descending path-lines in the rune evoked the other aspects of alchemical symbology. Straight lines are used to differentiate the different elemental symbols: an upwards triangle is alchemical fire, an upwards triangle with a line through it is alchemical air, a downwards triangle is alchemical water, and a downwards triangle with a line through it is alchemical earth (fig. A). Depending on the way the rune is traced, the triangle could be water (pointing down), or fire (pointing to the upper-right). The two lines indicated to me that there is a possibility for all four elements in my rune (water, fire, plus two lines for earth and air), all depending on direction. The four elements also exist in my own corresponding cards: Death, Strength, Justice, the Hermit, and the Emperor.
Although the trump cards are not attributed to the four elements through suits, as in the minor arcana (pip cards), the do associate with certain properties. Death is the card of rebirth, and associated with destruction of fire and the deeper mysteries of water. It can be a negative card, but it also reminds me of the importance of growth through change. The Strength card represents inner strength as opposed to outer force. It is often associated with the feminine aspects of earth, but also of duality: human and beast, nature and nurture, inner and outer strength. Justice rules the air, as it is the card of reasoning. The Hermit is alchemical fire, as it is associated with the י (Yud), the divine spark in the Tetragrammaton, and intense mystical contemplation. The Emperor card is ruled by Aries and the upper ה (Hei) in the Tetragrammaton. It represents intellectual force and air.
This information tells me that I could potentially have all four elements represented in my cards, my name, and my rune. The configuration of these multiple systems also informs me of alchemical properties that I need to work on. For instance, it is clear to me that I lack the grounding qualities of earth—since the earth qualities of Strength are more suggestive than established, and the letters don’t connect with the earthly realm of the tree. It also confirms that the emotional aspects of the water element—represented by Death, the central symbol in rune, and other astrological and linguistic associations—has negative potential. I often feel that my emotions are “drowning” me. I need to make sure that my feelings don’t overwhelm my consciousness.
There are many more interconnected symbols, attributes—including some obsessive experimentation with color correspondences—and other information that I could pore into my analysis (fig.5). My spiritual and artistic inspiration continues to grow and evolve as I explore this broadened project. As of now, this artistic meditation, or a method for spiritual symbology, moves from personal to universal. My current focus is on using my runic method with other people’s Hebrew names, and seeing what visual and conceptual patterns emerge. It would be fascinating to develop a kind of language; a codex of new mystical symbols.
I have yet to create an amulet, but I’m believe I have found something very important—possibly more relevant and helpful in my life at this moment than an amulet would. I found that trying to force the project into a narrow focus only made it more difficult to accomplish. All the overlapping ideas and symbology became overwhelming; subsequently, they brought my seemingly simple project to a stand-still. It wasn’t until I let go of my expectations that I was able to gain anything from these studies. I was dealing with multiple complex systems of mystic tools, therefore, it was bound to get complicated. I’m very grateful that my continued exploration led to this new runic system. It has opened doors to my understanding the connection between tarot cards, Hebrew letters, and the אץ חיים (Tree of Life).
Amiras, Ph.D., Mira Z. “Tree of Life.” Class lecture, Jewish Mysticism, Magic and Lore from San Jose State University, San Jose, October 18, 2011.
Jayanti, Amber. Living the Qabalistic Tarot: Applying an Ancient Oracle to the Challenges of Modern Life. Rev. ed. Boston, MA: Weiser Books, 2004.
Scarborough, Samuel. “The Tree of Life – by Samuel Scarborough.” Journal of the Western Mystery Tradition – No. 20, Vol. 2. http://www.jwmt.org/v1n3/treeoflife.html (accessed December 1, 2011).
All written content and diagrams (figures 1-6) are copyright © 2011 Mnemosyne Mars, and licensed under a Creative Commons 3.0 License permitting non-derivative, non-commercial distribution with attribution.