Eliphas Levi’s Explanation of Origin of the Tarot and its Kabbalistic Key
In many of his book, Eliphas Levi promoted the idea that the Plates of the Tarot cards were derived from Egyptian Hieroglyphics:
In the Preface to his famous History of Magic (1860) Levi says that we should “carefully study” his three books Dogma and Ritual of High Magic, the History of Magic and the Key to the Great Mysteries for a complete course on “the science of the ancient Magi”.
“…our discovery of the great mysteries of this science rests entirely upon the signification that the ancient hierophants attached to numbers.”
Because of the importance of the symbolic value of numbers, it follows that numbers are equivalent to letters, symbols or figures which represent some principle(s).
“There is subject to believe that this comes from the ancient manner of explaining by numbers and by figures, as were the hieroglyphics among the Egyptians before letters were invented.”
“The absolute hieroglyphical science has as its foundation an alphabet in which deities were represented by letters, letters represented ideas, ideas were convertible into numbers, and numbers were perfect signs. This hieroglyphic alphabet was what Moses used to make the great secret of his kabalah and which he took from the Egyptians…”
– From the ‘Editor’s Introduction’ to The Kabalistic and Occult Tarot of Eliphas Levi
Eliphas Levi, Religious Symbolism and the Kabbalah
Levi always emphasizes the importance of symbolism:
“All religions have preserved the remembrance of a primitive book from the earliest centuries of the world written with figures by the sages, and from which these symbols (simplified and vulgarized later on) have provided Writing with its letters, provided the Verb with its characters, and provided occult Philosophy with its mysterious signs and its pentacles.
This book, attributed to Enoch (the seventh master of the world after Adam) by the Hebrews; to Hermes Trismegistus by the Egyptians; to Cadmus, the mysterious builder of the Holy City, by the Greeks, this book was the symbolic summary of the primitive tradition, called since then “Kabalah” or “Cabala”, a hebrew word which is equivalent to ‘tradition’.”
“The doctrines of Hermes can never be lost for those who know the keys of symbolism.”
“The symbolism of numbers and the allegory of figures easily gives the key to the poetry of the prophets, as those from the past knew who were versed in oriental literature.
These oriental traditions are incontestably extremely ancient. The prophets often spoke through signs and hieroglyphics, and put their words into action. Their writings were full of figures which could seem strange to those who do not penetrate their meaning…”
“Beautiful poetry is exactly what we call true philosophy, and that poetic measure obeys (like geometry) the laws of number and of comparison. Great poets are mathematicians without knowing it, since the incontestable beauty of their production is the result of their exactitude.
Words are the numbers of thought, and figures are the algebra of genius.
There is only beauty in that which is true, and that which is true is just or right. Rightness or accuracy in literature, is exactitude, and exactitude is the property of the mathematical sciences. Therefore the good poet is then a veritable mathematician…”
“To be a poet, it is to create; it is not to dream nor to lie. God was a poet when he made the world, and his immortal epic is written with the stars.
The sciences have received from God the secrets of poetry, because the keys of harmony were delivered into their hands.
Numbers are poets, because they sing with notes that are always exact, which gives rapture to the genius of Pythagoras.
Poetry that does not accept the world such as God made it, and which seeks to invent another, is but the delirium of the spirits of darkness…”
Going further, Levi says that we must be careful of the danger of literal interpretation of symbols, because often times this misses the point:
“…words, numbers and figures have their mystery, which explains how the letter kills while the spirit vivifies…”
“…almost all popular superstitions are profane interpretations of some great axiom or of some marvelous arcanum of occult wisdom.
Did not Pythagoras, in writing his admirable symbols, devise a perfect philosophy to the wise, and a new series of vain observances and ridiculous practices to the vulgar?
Thus, when he said: “Do not pick up what falls from the table, do not cut down trees on the great highway, do not kill the serpent which has fallen into your garden”, was he not giving the precepts of charity, either social or personal, under transparent allegories?
And when he said: “Do not look at yourself by torchlight in a mirror”, was he not teaching in an ingenious manner about the true knowledge of self, which does not know how to exist with artificial lights and with the prejudgments of systems?
It is the same with the other precepts of Pythagoras, who, as it is known, were followed literally by a flock of stupid disciples, to the point that, among the superstitious observances of our provinces, there are a great number which apparently originate from the primitive misunderstanding of the symbols of Pythagoras.
Superstition comes from a Latin word which signifies ‘survival’. It is the sign which survives the thought; it is the cadaver of a religious practice. Superstition is to initiation what the idea of the devil is to that of God.
It is in this sense that the worship of images is forbidden and that the most holy dogma in its first conception may become superstitious and impious when it has lost its inspiration and its spirit.
It is then that religion (always one like supreme reason) changes its clothes and abandons the ancient rites to the greed and deception of fallen priests, transformed by their wickedness and their ignorance into charlatans and puppeteers.”
Therefore, we must study the signs or symbols in order to understand their ‘poetry’, and grasp their meaning or ‘spirit’. Luckily, these are available to us in the form of the Tarot:
“Now, the tarot that we have today … has come to us from Egypt passing through Judea.
The keys of this tarot, in fact, correspond with the letters of the hebraic alphabet, and some of its figures even reproduce the same form of the characters of this sacred alphabet.”
– From the ‘Editor’s Introduction’ to The Kabalistic and Occult Tarot of Eliphas Levi
Eliphas Levi and the Key of the Tarot
So if the Tarot corresponds with the Hebrew alphabet, then we should study the Numeric and Kabbalistic significance of the Hebraic letters in order to grasp symbolic value contained in them.
One of the first things one will notice when studying the Hebrew letters is that they correspond directly to numbers. Then it becomes clear that these letters (which are also numbers) are directly related to the Tarot cards.
Levi attributes the Hebrew letters to the Tarot cards based on the Hebrew alphabet.
This can be seen in Ch. 10 of Dogma of High Magic , and in Ch. 22 of Ritual of High Magic , as well as in Levi’s manuscript The Magic Ritual of the Sanctum Regnum given to his student Baron Spédalieri and published by W. Wynn Westcott in 1896.
The correspondence of the Hebrew letter & number to the Tarot cards has been a cause for confusion for many Kabbalists and most often this is because of the last 2 Tarot cards (although plenty of other deviations are also perpetuated).
The value of these last 2 Tarot cards has been altered to conceal a mystery related to the symbolism of the Hebrew letter Shin ש . Levi has explained this mystery (it is the mystery of the Great Arcanum) in his books and it is summarized with the statement given in Ch. 10 of Dogma of High Magic for Shin ש : “Where the mortals who lack a brake descend in herds”.
The 21st letter of the Hebrew alphabet is Shin ש and the corresponding Tarot card (the Lunatic or Fool) is sometimes given the value of 0, instead of 21. Careful study of the symbolism associated with Shin ש will explain why 0 might make sense for this letter individually, although this value causes confusion with the letter that follows Tav ת and therefore becomes problematic when used along with other letters.
The 22nd and last letter of the Hebrew alphabet is Tav ת and the corresponding Tarot card (the Crown or World) is often given the value of 21, instead of 22, when the 0 value is given to the Shin ש card. [See Table 2 below]
Further confusion has been caused by a complication of the previously mentioned mis-association of Tav ת with 21.
Since the card for Tav ת (the Crown or World) has been known as 21, when the card for Shin ש (the Lunatic or Fool) is added back to the deck: it mistakenly becomes the new 22. [See Table 3 below] This is common in many modern Tarot decks.
Besides the previous example (given in Table 3 below), another mistaken Modern Tarot Card association is that the Hebrew letters are given in alphabetical order correctly, but the Tarot cards for Shin ש and Tav ת remain reversed.
The solution to all of this is to just remember the alphabetical ordering and that alphabetically Shin ש = 21 and Tav ת = 22, then we will not fall into confusion regarding the ordering of the Tarot cards. [See Table 1 above]
The alphabetical ordering is what Levi has given and explains in all his books, and is therefore the ordering used in this study guide.
“We have said that the 22 keys of the tarot are the 22 letters of the primitive kabbalistic alphabet.”
When all of this becomes clear, then we understand why Levi has done the following:
“Our Dogma and our Ritual are each divided into twenty-two chapters marked by the twenty-two letters of the hebrew alphabet.
We have put at the head of each chapter the letter which is related to the Latin words which (according to the best authors) indicate the hieroglyphic signification.
Thus, at the head of the first chapter, for example, we read:
1 א A
Which signifies that the letter Aleph א, who’s equivalant in Latin and French is A, the numerical value 1 signifies ‘the Recipient’, the human being called to initiation, the skilled individual (the bateleur [juggler or magician] of the tarot), which also signifies the ‘dogmatic syllepsis’ (Disciplina ), the being in its general and first conception (Ensoph [Ain Soph] ); and finally the first and obscure idea of divinity expressed by Kether (the crown) in kabbalistic theology.
The chapter is the development of the title and the title hieroglyphically contains the whole chapter. The whole book is composed following this combination.”
If we look at the chapters of Dogma of High Magic , we will see that Ch. 21 is associated with Shin ש, and Ch. 22 with Tav ת.
In Ch. 22 of Ritual of High Magic , which Levi has named “The Book of Hermes” and where he gives (among other things) a description of all 22 Hebrew letters and their ‘hieroglyphs’, there is the following description for Shin ש :
“THE LUNATIC: a man dressed as a lunatic, walking aimlessly, burdened with a satchel which he carries behind him, and which is no doubt full of his follies and vices; his disordered clothes allow the discovery of what should be concealed, and a tiger who follows him also bites him without him wondering how to escape or defend himself.”
And in Chapter 22 of Dogma of High Magic , Levi describes the figure of ‘the Crown or World’, again showing the association of Tav ת, saying:
“This universal arcanum, the final and eternal secret of high initiation, is represented in the Tarot by a naked girl, who touches the earth by only one foot, has a magnetic wand in each hand, and seems to be running in a crown held up by an angel, an eagle, a bull and a lion.”
In the ‘Introduction’ to Ritual of High Magic , Levi says the following:
“But here, Fabre d’Olivet is just missing the true interpretation, because he is ignorant of the great keys of the kabbalah.
The word Nahash [נהש], explained by the symbolic letters of the Tarot, rigorously signifies:
14 נ Nun. — The force which produces mixtures.
5 ה Heh. — The recipient and passive producer of forms.
21 ש Shin. — The natural fire and central equilibrium through double polarization.”
Here, again, Levi gives 21 as the numeric value of Shin ש and associates the “letters of the Tarot” with the Hebrew letters.
And in Ch. 19 of Ritual of High Magic :
“Whosoever wants to achieve an understanding of the great word and possession of the great Arcanum must (after studying the principles of our dogma) read the hermetic philosophers carefully, and he will doubtless attain initiation, as others have attained it; but one must take as the key of their allegories the unique dogma of Hermes, contained in his emerald tablet, and follow (in order to classify the knowledge and in order to direct the operation) the order indicated in the kabalistic alphabet of the Tarot…”
So we can see that Levi is using the alphabetical association of the Hebrew letters & numbers with the Tarot cards.
So let’s study this wonderful book (the original book of the ancients that synthesizes their profound wisdom), ‘letter’ by ‘letter’, in order to access the secret science contained within.
“The science of signs begins with the science of letters. Letters are absolute ideas. Absolute ideas are numbers. Numbers are perfect signs.
In using ideas with numbers, one can operate upon the ideas like one can operate upon numbers and arrive at the mathematics of truth. The tarot is the key of letters and numbers…”
“Each letter represents a number: Each assemblage of letters is then a series of numbers.
The numbers represent absolute philosophical ideas.
The letters are abridged hieroglyphs.
Now let’s see the hieroglyphic and philosophic significations of each of the twenty-two letters.”
– Paraphrase from the ‘Editor’s Introduction’ to The Kabalistic and Occult Tarot of Eliphas Levi
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