While I was hobbling about recently after having some bone removed from my foot, I took the chance to transcribe a section from a Mythic Tarot Studyshop by Liz Greene and Juliet Sharman-Burke. It was the section in which Liz Greene talks about number symbolism in the Cabbala, and applies it to the Minor Arcana in the Tarot. The particular context is a discussion of the suit of cups, which in the Mythic Tarot uses the myth of Eros and Psyche. The whole studyshop is brilliant - I managed to separate the spoken part from the image part and put it on CD to play in my car - so below is a taster. Numbers 7 - 10 will be in my next post. The images are of my choosing.
The 4 suits do seem to correlate with the very ancient idea of the 4 elements, being the basic substances out of which everything is created. The stories that they tell therefore apply to one of 4 possible levels of life. That’s why we’ve tried to find myths that correlate with that element.
The suit of cups seems to relate to the element of water in terms of the traditional meanings associated with the numbered cards. We chose Eros and Psyche not just because it’s a myth about relationship, because in fact all myths are about relationship on one level or another. It’s because it’s a myth that involves the development of feeling values. That myth is unique because first of all the central character is female: rather than a hero we have a heroine. And her journey has very much to do with her establishing her values in the realm of the heart. So it seemed to be a particularly appropriate story for the element of water because the element of water is connected with feeling values.
It’s worth remembering that the very first record we have of the 4 elements is in Empedocles. And he calls them the 4 roots. And they are divinities, they’re not just stuff, they’re actually gods. And the element of water he associates with a goddess who he calls Nestis which is the Sicilian epithet for Persephone. And his version of Persephone is not the one we usually think of as being the young maiden who’s abducted by Hades and dragged into the Underworld. She is the mother of Dionysus and her background is in Orphic myth. And when Dionysus is dismembered and destroyed by the titans she weeps, and her tears in Empedocles’ cosmological model are the element of water. The element of water for him is a deity that represents grief and the pain of separation, the inevitability of separation that happens to all living beings.
(The divinatory meaning is jealousy as well as love).
These 10 numbered cards are full of number symbolism and it carries through in all the suits. The symbolism is linked with Pythagorean ideas about the cosmos being built on geometry and number and also with the cabbalistic idea of 10 Sephirah, each of which is an emanation of increasing complexity and further distance from the original source. So the more you understand about the numbers, the more you’ll get the feeling of the card. And 1 of course is unity, 1 has always meant unity, 1 is the One, everything is part of the One, everything emerges out of the One.
In the Cabbala, one is the 1st Sephirah called Keter which is the crown. Everything is contained within it, all the other Sephirah are contained within it, before they begin to emerge and differentiate. So that primal 1, the Ace, always carries the meaning of a raw primal unity which contains the whole story. And that’s why we put the deity on the Aces, the deity that presides over the myth, because that deity encapsulates the entire story, inside her she’s got all the characters. That goddess, in a sense aspects of her, are represented by Eros, by Psyche, by Psyche’s sisters and by all the other characters that we meet in the story.
2 It should be obvious, it’s one becomes 2, it’s male and female. So immediately you have the connotation of relationship, of conflict, equilibrium, mortal enemies, passionate lovers, everything that has to do with opposites, both in the dark and the light sense. The 2nd Sephirah in the cabbalistic tree is Chochmah. That Sephirah is the beginning of manifestation, you have the beginning of the pronouncement of the word that’s going to generate the cosmos. So already there is the deity and an Other, there is already the beginning of a separation of the deity into two.
The 3 is a very powerful number in many different religious systems. The Trinity in Christianity is a form of completion. It could be argued that it’s a very early form of completion because it’s an entirely male trinity and missing the 4th leg. Tables tend to be very unstable with 3 legs.
But the triangle in Pythagorean thought is a conflict which is tentatively not resolved but kept in equilibrium by a 3rd point which has emerged out of the conflict or its opposition.
So we have the equilateral triangle. It’s a very tenuous kind of balance, it’s not going to last because it’s static, there’s no movement in it, and the tension that’s still there between the opposites is going to erupt again because there’s something not complete about it. So the Sephirah which goes with it in the Cabbala is Binah. This is known as the Sepurnal triad of Sephirot. Binah is usually understood to be female. And the initial movement towards manifestation that happens in the 2nd Sephirah now is ready to be actually given birth to in form, in Binah, but it’s still not out yet. So you get this gradual movement toward manifestation, toward the animation of the cosmos. And in Binah the foetus starts to become recognisable as the universe, but it’s still not born yet, so there’s a deceptive harmony about it.
The 4. In Pythagorean thought, 4 is the number of manifestation. It represents the earth. So it’s a very stable structure and at the same time there’s something dense about it because it has to do with something concretising. And where the triangle is often associated with spirit, the square is associated with matter.
Also in astrology, which took up this Pythagorean idea of number symbolism, the trine is seen to be a beneficent aspect, the square is seen to be an aspect of friction, and I think largely because of forces linked in to manifestation. So possibly one of the reasons why the 4 in the suits of cups and pentacles is uncomfortable is that these elements are already very much embedded in life, and so if you then take the qualities of the feeling realm and sensory realm and you push them even further into incarnation, there’s a sense of entombment, it’s a sense of being trapped, because there’s already enough substance in those elements. So you put the element together with the form, it’s too much. Whereas if you put the form together with air, which is the realm of the mind, or fire, which is the realm of the intuition, the imagination, they can manifest and there’s not so much of a sense of being trapped.
The Cabbalistic 4 is very different, and this seems to be a place where it’s hard to apply the number symbolism because the 4th Sephirah in the Cabbalistic system is Chesed, which is Mercy, and this is very benign and generous, it’s the flow of energy in the deity down into manifestation with generosity and with compassion and with mercy. Too much of it, if it’s not in balance, is perceived as allowing evil to happen because there isn’t enough of a sense of justice. So the negative component of 4 in the Cabbalistic system is that it’s too soft and the dark can raise itself and begin to destroy if there is not sufficient structure to stop it. So the 4 in the Cabbala is quite different.
Psyche is too generous. I think in her relationship with these sisters she’s quite blind, she’s mercy without justice. They’re her sisters so she wants to make them welcome, she’s going to give them all some jewellery, and it wouldn’t take rocket science to work out that these sisters don’t wish her well, they’re green with envy. Anyone with any sensitivity would pick that up, but she doesn’t. So she herself is very much the Cabbalistic 4, she’s full of generosity and kindness, she’s discontented, but nevertheless she can’t draw the line and say I’ve got to protect myself or it’s wrong for them to say insulting things about my husband. So it does fit in that context. Part of what goes wrong with the 4 is that there isn’t enough strength to prevent evil and so the problems that arise out of it later have a lot to do with that lack of boundaries.
5 in the Cabbala is the Sephirah of strict justice, of severity, which is called Gevurah. In Cabbalistic philosophy Gevurah is the root of evil in the world or in the cosmos, because evil is understood to be severity unchecked by mercy or anger, unchecked by compassion, bitterness unchecked by forgiveness. So it’s a very peculiar, necessary but rather dark aspect of deity. And it’s interesting the way it comes through in medieval magic, because the pentagram has become the common symbol of magical working and whether its horns are pointing up or down is supposed to distinguish whether it represents white magic or black magic. But in the medieval popular mind the pentagram is associated with the conjuring of demons, with the darkness. When it’s pointing with its horns up it’s the head of the goat, when it’s this way it’s supposed to be positive, when it’s the other way it’s supposed to be negative.
The very fact that the number is associated with the dark side seems to be connected with the Cabbalistic idea that the dark side comes from this Sephirah. How it relates here, I think it does have to do with the appearance of something very destructive that is injuring or contaminating or spoiling. It’s very much about spoiling. In the Eros and Psyche myth, the love has been spoiled, at least apparently so, although not irrevocably, any more than it is irrevocable in the Cabbala, it isn’t, but something has contaminated the cosmos with that number 5.
The 6 is two 3s which suggests there is some component in the 6 which involves equilibrium and harmony. 6 is also the Sephirah at the centre of the 2nd triangle of Sephirot. It’s called Tiferet and it has to do with equilibrium. The extremes that precede it from mercy to severity are joined together in Tifiret which is still not yet complete, it’s not yet finished, but it’s a point where there’s this very tenuous equilibrium and balance between forces, and I think the 6 of cups has that quality. It’s a place of stillness which is not entirely comfortable, because you’re having to reconcile past and present and future fears, future hopes, anger and blame, compassion, forgiveness, and somehow hold all of them in a place of rather uncomfortable balance which is that central point in the tree of life.
Tifiret is a very interesting complex of ideas. Another word for it is beauty. It’s perceived as the bridegroom in Cabbalistic iconography. It’s the male quality of the godhead which is now ready to mate with the feminine in order to generate the world. But it’s the bridegroom that’s not yet done it. It got picked up in the Christian Cabbala as an image of Christ because it’s holding this extremely tense point between divinity and humanity, between what is above and what is below. It hasn’t quite become embodied, or not entirely, but it is not entirely in the spirit. It’s neither entirely male nor entirely female. So it’s having to hold everything together right at the centre of the tree. 6 is a terribly important card in the sequence of numbers because it’s having to pull together all the 5 cards before it, which involves something extremely beautiful, full of godhead, full of divinity. And yet there’s this tension and difficulty and the emergence of evil and things that have been spoiled, and finally there’s a temporary place of rest which involves a certain degree of sacrifice, which I think is why the Christian Cabbalists connected it with the figure of Christ. Sacrifices have to be made around that figure 6 in order to maintain the equilibrium. (to be continued)