The 23rd Trump

The Path of Dreams:

My involvement with the Tarot began with a dream, and since that night, dreams, visions, and synchronicity have guided me deeper and deeper into its mysteries.

When I began experimenting with the cards, I resolved not to read any books on the Tarot. I wanted to communicate with the images unhindered by preconceptions. The Tarot taught me a great deal directly, but it also developed a hunger in me for more information. I wanted to understand its history and the philosophy that led to its creation. Eventually, I realized that to unlock its secrets further I had to gather more information. I began reading everything that I could find on the Tarot, Gnosticism, alchemy, and related subjects. Every table in my studio, at that time in my western New Jersey home, was soon covered with stacks of books reaching toward the ceiling, and I filled a large hardbound book with charts, lists, and notes.

By 1987, my reading had become noticeably excessive to my wife and friends – they seemed to be worried about me. I intuitively knew that I was on to something, but I was unable to explain what it was. One afternoon I was sitting in the living room reading when a commentator on the radio began talking about the Harmonic Convergence. Talk of this phenomenon had been peppering the airwaves for a few weeks, but I thought of it as “just another new-age curiosity.” However, this time it was different, the commentator said that, during this period of spiritual transformation, sensitive individuals all over the Earth would be experiencing a flood of information on spiritual subjects. Finally, someone had an explanation for what was happening to me, this intensity was a product of the time, in some way the “Soul of the World” demanded it.

Shortly after August 16th – the day of the Convergence – I was reading a book on alchemy and became fascinated by a mandala like symbol representing the Philosopher’s Stone, a substance of pure spirit that is the goal of the alchemical quest. The oval design depicted a heart in the center of a cross with images of the four elements assigned to each quarter. A twisted thorn covered vine more closely encircled the heart. From the top of the heart a rose bud sprouted and five drops of blood were on its front.

In a flash, I realized that the symbolism in the design was interchangeable with that of the World card in the Tarot of Marseilles. The heart, of course, was a reference to the “Sacred Heart” of Christ. That it was in the center of the four elements was a symbolic way of stating that it was the fifth element, the spirit that holds together the other four and creates the world (the alchemists call this the “quinta essentia” the origin of the English word quintessence). This is the spiritual substance that the Philosopher’s Stone is made of. It can be symbolized by Christ or, as in this case, by his heart. The heart is also a symbol of the soul and this alchemical fifth element is more commonly referred to as the “World Soul,” or “Anima Mundi,” symbolized by a nude female. The nude on the World card is dancing in the center of four creatures, the lion, the bull, the eagle, and the man, who represent the four evangelists of the Christian Gospels. Through their astrological association to the four fixed signs of the zodiac, they are equated to the four elements. Putting her in the center of the elements turns the layout into a standard symbol, called a quincunx, an arrangement of five elements with one at each corner and the fifth in the center representing the sacred axis. This arrangement clearly states that she is the Hermetic fifth element, the “Anima Mundi,” the sacred axis of the world and the goddess sought after by the alchemists.

This realization was like a key opening a lock in my head. I sat mesmerized, as images flashed through my mind. It became obvious that the Tarot trumps are alchemical, and that the series of trumps – particularly in the Tarot of Marseilles – outlines the alchemical Opus or Great Work, the search for the Philosopher’s Stone. This insight happened in seconds, but it began a seven-year journey that led me to design and write The Alchemical Tarot.

Synchronicity was my guide on this journey, and it was synchronicity that led me to write my first article on The Alchemical Tarot for the Fall 1989 issue of Gnosis magazine. In turn, this article introduced my to Rosemary Ellen Guiley, who asked me to write an article for her book The Mystical Tarot. Later we teamed up to write the book for The Alchemical Tarot, and it was Rosemary who introduced me to our publisher, Thorsons, of London.

The Man with the Triangular Aura:

Although my creation of The Alchemical Tarot was guided by my visions throughout the work, after it was complete and in print, it was Rosemary’s vision that led me to a deeper understanding. One night Rosemary awoke to find a man with a long white beard and ancient clothing standing at the foot of her bed. He had a triangular aura about his head, and he was holding an oversized Tarot card. Rosemary recognized him as Hermes Trismegistus, the first alchemist. The card he was holding was labeled Truth, and it depicted a pyramid in the air. The pyramid consisted of seven layers; four were made of solid stone; and dispersed between the stone layers there were three of air. From the top, a flame pointed to the heavens. Hermes told her that this card was the 23rd trump (which, of course, is labeled number 22). Rosemary described the vision to me and asked me to illustrate it. A black and white version accompanies this article.

From the beginning, I saw in the image the seven-fold latter of ascent that the ancients related to the original seven planets and the alchemists to the seven metals. In addition, I found a related alchemical image of the philosopher’s stone depicted as a triangular mountain with a flame at the top. However, neither of us fully understood the image at first. It has become a door that leads into the Western Mystical tradition and its relationship to the Tarot. Each of us has followed the trail in our own way. These are some of the things that the image has taught me.

The Seven Fold Journey:

In the Classical world, a group of mystical philosophers, living in Alexandria, wrote a series of texts of such profound wisdom that it seemed to them that it was really the work of a god and that they were only channels for this information. They did not sign their names to this work but instead gave the credit to Hermes Trismegistus, the thrice-great god. By the Third Century, the philosopher called Plotinus married this mystical quest with the work of Plato. This synthesis was later called Neoplatonism.

Hermetic and Neoplatonic philosophy permeated the Renaissance, and they were encapsulated in the Tarot. These philosophies teach that the spirit, the One, is beyond comprehension and can only create the world through a series of stages or emanations. Plotinus called the first emanation, after the One, “Nous.” This is synonymous with Plato’s world of archetypes or forms, the ideas or thoughts of the universe. These thoughts are the patterns that manifest in the physical world. Plotinus represented the next emanation as the “World Soul” or “Anima Mundi.” The Anima Mundi is the living presence in the physical world, the way that Nous animates the world.

Later Neoplationists believed that the Anima Mundi entered the world of matter by descending a ladder of seven planets that had been described in the philosophy of Hermes. The word planet is derived from the Greek word “planetai” which means wanderer. To the Greeks, the wanderers were the seven celestial bodies, visible to the naked eye, which appeared to move independently from the constellations. They included the Sun, the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. The ancients believed that the Earth was in the center of the Cosmos and that the seven planets circled the Earth. Each orbit was thought of as a crystal sphere, one nesting inside the next with the Earth in the center. Encasing the outer most crystal was the sphere of the constellations and beyond that was the home of the spirit.

Every living being is animated by the soul and all soul comes from the one World Soul. Each part of the one Soul has to make this journey through the seven soul centers of the cosmos, the planets. Each planet clothes the soul in qualities – Later called the seven virtues and seven vices – as it becomes a living individual. These soul centers are echoed within our bodies as the seven centers commonly called by their Sanskrit name, Chakras. The journey of the soul can also be conceived of as a journey through this inner space. The astrological natal chart is designed to map this process. However, for the mystic the process must be reversed. In a trance state the mystic ascends this seven runged ladder and lets go of each quality, until union with the soul can be achieved. This state is called gnosis, the wisdom of the experience of the spirit. This same soul journey is the object of the alchemical “Great Work” or “Opus,” and this is the story told by the Tarot Trumps.

If we view the Tarot trumps as this journey back to the soul, we would expect to see an image of the World Soul on the last trump, numbered 21, and as I explained in the beginning, that is exactly what the last trump illustrates. To go beyond this trump is to ascend to the next emanation, Nous. This is what is depicted on the card in Rosemary’s vision, Nous, the unchanging “Truth”, or pattern behind the world of matter, the world of constant change.

The Tetractys:

Like all true symbols, the Twenty-Third Trump is multifaceted. It contains the pattern of the mystical ascent, a pattern that is expressed in the entire Tarot, but it includes all aspects of this pattern in one image. Although it is a pyramid, it also relates the Pythagorean symbol called the Tetractys.

Pythagoras is well known as an ancient Greek mathematician and the first person to call himself a philosopher, which means a lover of wisdom. He lived in the 6th Century BCE, the same time that the city of Marseilles was founded, and the time that Buddha was alive in India. In many ways, his teaching paralleled that of Buddha. Pythagoras taught that life is an endless series of reincarnations until we purify ourselves and return to the One. For purification, Pythagoras recommended a moral behavior based on the four Cardinal Virtues; a vegetarian diet and healthful life-style; and contemplation of the numerical abstract harmonies that underlie all physical reality – to describe this he coined the word Cosmos. The symbol that the Pythagoreans devised to represent this numerical intelligence of the universe consisted of a triangular arraignment of ten dots (considered the perfect number) with one at the top, two on the second layer, three on the third, and four at the base. This symbol was called the Tetractys, and the Pythagoreans considered it sacred.

We can see the similarity between the Tetractys and the pyramid on the twenty-third trump. The dots are like the stones in the pyramid that emanate from the One to the four-fold square of the base. Between these physical layers, are the unseen spiritual layers that permeate all of reality. Together they form the seven stages of assent.

The physical layers describe the geometric progression of the material world. The top depicts the point, a theoretical beginning with no dimension. The second layer has two points, which describe a line. Next are three points, which are necessary to form the first polygon, the triangle. The base has four points, which brings us to three-dimensional reality and allows us to form the first polyhedron, the tetrahedron. This same progression is described in the famous alchemical quote attributed to Maria Prophetissa,

Out of the One comes the Two, out of the Two comes Three, and from the Third come One as the Fourth.

If we follow this progression backward, it leads us from physical reality to it origin in the One, the Spirit.

The three immaterial layers in the Tetractys and in Hermes’ pyramid symbolized to the Pythagoreans the relationship between numbers. These are called ratios. The One contains all relationship within itself, and therefore, is beyond ratio. The first ratio is between the one and the two, written as 1:2. Between the layers in the Tetractys, we can also find the ratios 2:3 and 3:4. Pythagoras found that these ratios described the vibrations of the most important points on the musical scale; 1:2 is the whole note; 2″3 is the perfect 5th; and 3:4 is the perfect 4th. These three notes are harmonious realities that underlie all music in any culture.

To fill out the scale Pythagoras devised four other notes and created our familiar Western diatonic scale. Pythagoras believed that the seven notes of the scale captured the sound that the seven planets made as they traveled through the aither in their orbits. By tuning his seven stringed lyre to this “music of the spheres,” he could use it to bring the corresponding soul centers in the human body into balance and health.

The four layers in the Tetractys can also be used to describe the relationships between the ratios. These are called proportions and they show us the evolution of consciousness back to unity. At the base we have a proportion envolving four qualities, described as a is to b as c is to d. This is written a:b :: c:d. The Pythagoreans called this discontinuous Proportion. It describes the ability to observe relationships and patterns in reality – the beginning of intelligence. Next, is continuous proportion, evolving three qualities and written as a:b :: b:c. This is a higher state of the perception of relationship in which the initiate begins to see the interdependence of all things. As we progress we come to a relationship of two qualities, called the golden relationship, in which a is to b as b is to a+b. This is a relationship we can find in growth patterns in plants and animals and throughout the proportions of the human body such as the height of our navel in relationship our overall height. It represents the appreciation of the duel forces of feminine and masculine or love and strife at work in all processes and symbolizes the mystical state approaching unity. In the final state of Oneness, all relationship is dissolved in unity.

The following quote is attributed to Pythagoras:

There is a triple world, for Hierarchical Order always manifests itself in three. The world simple, the world hieroglyphic, the world symbolic; or the world that expresses, the world that conceals, the world that signifies. All hieratic intelligence is in the perfect knowledge of those three degrees.

Three Stages:

We see these same three stages in all myth, visions, and systems that describe the process back to the One. Pythagoras illustrated these stages in his story describing three different types of men who come to a fair. The first comes to sell his wares and sees the fair as an opportunity for profit. He is dominated by the concerns of the first three soul centers, from the sacrum to the navel. The virtue that he is developing is Temperance. The second is heroic, he comes to compete in the games and win glory. This man is dominated by the soul center of the heart, and is developing the virtue Strength or Courage, a word that is derived from the Latin root “cor” meaning heart. The third man comes to the fair to observe and contemplate; he is the one Pythagoras describes as a philosopher. His concerns are of the higher three soul centers from the throat to the crown, and his virtue is prudence. This man is on the golden path, and his path leads to the union with the One.

This same pattern is the theme underlying Plato’s masterpiece, The Republic. While describing the perfect society, Plato also describes the stages necessary for the development of the philosopher king, the ruler of his utopia. To become a citizen of the Republic one must develop the virtue Temperance, a balance of the desires achieved through the study of music. These people become the workers that form most of the population. From this pool, certain people will be able to develop the virtue Strength through the study of gymnastics and rise to the level of warrior protectors. From this elite group, some will develop the virtue of Prudence or Wisdom through the study of math. These men and women will become the philosophers and leaders. From this group one, who is equated to gold, will achieve union with the will of Heaven and become the philosopher king, the embodiment of the virtue Justice.

This same pattern can be seen in the story of Christ as expressed in the mysteries of the rosary. The five Joyful Mysteries relate to the first stage, the development of peace and prosperity in the physical world. These mysteries are concerned with divine being embodied in the child who is Jesus. The second group of five is called the Sorrowful Mysteries. They relate to Christ’s heroic sacrifice that leads to the Crucifixion. The last five are the Glorious Mysteries, which describe Christ’s Resurrection and Assumption.

The influential, 12th century, visionary monk, Joachim de Fiore, saw this pattern as describing the evolution of all humanity. In his grand vision, he related all of human history with the three aspects of the Holy Trinity. In the first age, the Age of the Father, the physical world was created, the law was given and the Old Testament written. In the Age of the Son, Christ was born and made his heroic sacrifice to save the world; the New Testament was written and the Church began. In the coming Age of the Holy Spirit, the Church will be dissolved. It will be the golden age that Christ promised when love will rule and individuals will communicate directly with god.

The Trumps:

This pattern is archetypal. It can be found in all cultures. The Jungian scholar, Joseph Campbell, called it the Hero’s journey. In the Tarot, it is found in the trump cards.

In the game of Tarot, the Fool is not a trump proper he is a wild card of no value that can fit in anywhere in the sequence. In modern decks he is sometimes numbered zero, but the antique Tarot decks are numbered with Roman numerals and there is no zero in Roman numerals – he is simply a card without a number. He can be thought of as taking the Fool’s journey, the hero’s quest. There are 21 numbered trumps which can be neatly divided into three groups of the mystical number seven – Joachim also divided each of his three ages into seven stages. These can be thought of as three acts.

On the first numbered Trump, the Bateleur, we can find dice on his table. This is true of most early printed decks from Italy or France. Dice were an ancient tool for divination as well as gambling, and this use of combinations of numbers can be related to Pythagorean mysticism. There are 21 possible combinations of the throws of two dice, and this number represents all the possible divinatory solutions that two dice can give. In the Renaissance, these 21 possibilities have been represented as 21 allegorical figures related to the Tarot. Dice are designed so that the numbers on alternate sides of the die always add up to the mystical seven. On the Bateleur of the restored Tarot of Marseilles, published by Philippe Camoin of France. we can see that his table has three dice displayed so that the three sides facing us on each die add up the seven. The Bateleur initiates the sequence of trumps; his three dice are outlining the series like a table of contents. The trumps can be thought of as a three act play each compose of seven cards

The first act, which depicts couples triumphed by love, is the Joyful; the second act dominated by images of time mortality and suffering is the Sorrowful; and the third act with its celestial ascent to the Soul of the World is the Glorious. These three acts represent the mystical ascent of the spirit immersed in the physical world, the world of the four elements, four directions, and four seasons represented by the other four suits in the Tarot. This in turn is the structure of the Hermes’ pyramid with its three immaterial layers, the three acts, immersed in the four physical layers, the four suits.

This same three to four relationship can be seen in each of the seven trump cards in each act. In the first act, there are four ruling figures that are paired into two couples. These figures relate to the four-fold physical world. Around them are three other cards that depict the action of the first act. The Bateleur introduces the play and begins the action. The Lovers card in the oldest decks simply show a marriage or a betrothal and clearly indicates the triumph of Love over the four-fold world. In the restored Tarot of Marseilles, this card depicts a man choosing between a life of study, the woman with the laurel wreath, and one of sensuality, the woman with the wreath of flowers. We can find this same image on other French decks dating from the 17th century. This is the decision that every true philosopher has to face – this image can be traced to the Pythagorean allegory which describes the Greek letter upsilon as representing two paths, one easy but leading to ruin and one difficult but leading to mastery. The final card, the Chariot, shows that our hero has resolved to take the journey to the next level, the path of that takes the sorrows of the world head on.

The second act contains three cards that represent the human mortal condition – the suffering to which all life leads. They are the Hermit, the Hanged Man, and Death, and they symbolize old age, suffering and death – the same three sights that Buddha had to confront to find his motivation for his mystical quest. Interspersed with this group are four cards representing the four Cardinal Virtues that were extolled by the Classical writers. Three of the four are clearly labeled as Justice, Strength, and Temperance. Occultists, knowing that there should be four, have tried to turn the Hanged Man into Prudence. However, to see Prudence we have to understand the allegory. The virtues were first called cardinal by St. Ambrose, the fourth century bishop of Milan and one of the four “Doctors of the Church.” This was part of his effort to Christianize Greek philosophy. The word cardinal is derived from the Latin root “cardo” which refers to the axis of a wheel. Cardinal means that which turns the wheel. Originally, this referred to the four directions and the four constellations of the seasonal changes, which turned the wheel of time and space. The wheel of time and space was commonly depicted as a circle containing the signs of the zodiac and the ancients believed that it was controlled by Fortuna, or as Plato called her Necessity. Fortuna is the embodiment of chance or fate. St. Ambrose described the virtues as cardinal to indicate that it was virtue that moved the wheel of time and space and not Fortuna. In other words, through self-control, courage, and understanding we can take the reigns away from fate and steer our lives ourselves. This insight is Wisdom or Prudence and it is exactly what is illustrated on the Tarot of Marseilles’ Wheel. Here we see the wheel of fate or time with three foolish creatures traveling around it. They represent the three follies that cause the three aspects of suffering that are placed in this second act. Notice that in the Tarot of Marseilles the Cardinal Virtues are in the opposite order from the way they were presented by Pythagoras and Plato. The Virtues are moving against time and suffering. The symbol of the wheel is possibly derived from the Pythagorean image of the wheel of reincarnation. On the Tibetan Buddhist image of the wheel of rebirth, we can also find in its center three creatures symbolizing the folly that ties us to the material world. In this light, the virtues are leading us to the end of mortality – the immortality of mystical union.

In modern occult literature, the figure on the top of the wheel is sometimes interpreted as a sphinx. This interpretation is in keeping with the multifaceted symbolism of the Wheel. A sphinx is commonly considered a symbol of wisdom or prudence. The most famous Classical example is the sphinx in the myth of Oedipus, who delivers the riddle, “What walks on four legs in the morning, on two at midday, and on three in the evening?” The answer, of course, is man who over time, at three different ages, crawls, walks, and walks with a cane. The image of the sphinx is in keeping with the symbolism of the wheel of time and the sorrowful second act.

The last act starts with two cards that can be described as bad and ends with two that can be described as good. They are complements of each other. In the middle are the three celestial figures the Star, the Moon, and the Sun. We start the act with the Devil in charge. The Tower breaks this power – What was crowned is toppled. The Judgement allows the physical to ascend to the spiritual, and the final card shows the attainment of the Good, the Soul. The transition is accomplished by the ascent through the seven planets depicted on the Star card as the seven stars leading to the eighth sphere represented by the large star in the center. This configuration is introduced by a nude representing truth and beauty. The Moon and Sun, although part of this group, are highlighted on separate cards because they also represent the feminine and masculine forces that form the golden relationship.

Like all true philosophical quests, the cards have delivered us to the mother of our soul. From there, we can ascend to Nous, who shows us the entire journey in one eloquent symbol, and presents us with the final assent.

Hermes Trismegistus

Hermes Trismegistus with the 23rd trump