Hebrew Letters are the main method by which astrological correspondences are justified on the Major Arcana of esoteric Tarot. These letters provide the logic for saying "The Magus is Mercury" or "The Magus correspondends to Primal Air." So the relation of the letters to the Arcana is of vital interest to occultists, magicians, and those interested in the psychology of the Arcana in astrological terms.
Anyone who has ever studied the magical systems of Western Civilization has noticed that a huge amount of attention goes towards the letters of the alphabet, a) as individual glyphs linking a network of numeric, astrological, and elemental correspondences together, b) as combinatory tools for the sounding and notating of words of power, and c) as "handles" for summoning entities and energies from the invisible words (even unspoken, to be engraved or inscribed upon magical objects), among other uses.
Some scholars of the subject have thrown up their hands at the apparent plethora of symbols, glyphs, sigils, numbers, letters, and other notae demanding translation if one is to come to an understanding of the writings and images that the highest sages of Kabbalah, Magic, Alchemy, Astrology, and Number Mysticism have left in the historical record. Therefore it is easy to be tempted to throw out the baby with the bathwather, by taking the stance that all tables of correspondences are arbitrary, one is as good as the other, and the main requirement for using these symbol sets in practice (eg; with their Tarot deck) is to work with "whatever system makes sense to you".
For a person interested in tradition, in origins, and in working with the magical values as the originators intended, this is not good enough. Those who wish to use their Tarot decks as the "magical computers of the Renaissance" that they are, have to learn some things about the Astro-Alpha-Numeric canon of values that the earliest Tarot users were familiar with when the cards were first designed. That means becoming conversant with the way the alphabet penetrated into Western Civilization and brought along with it the bodies of correspondences which then were built into magical methods of Europe.
The Ancient Alphabets
About the formation of the alphabet in its earliest forms, Kieren Barry, author of The Greek Qabalah, has this to say:
(p. 3-5) "Such systems [pictographic scripts] were obviously cumbersome, and there was much experimentation in the ancient Near East aimed at producing a simpler method of representing language in writing. The origin of the alphabet, in which each sound is denoted by a single sign, is generally attributed to the region forming the land bridge between the great cultures of Egypt and Mesopotamia. This area is also known to historians and archeologists as the Fertile Crescent, and was home to the kingdoms of Phoehicia, Aram, and Israel.... For many centuries, Egypt had maintained close ties with the coastal Phoenician cities, and Egyptian influence can also be seen in several letters."
Alphabet Development in Drucker's Alphabetic Labyrinth
(p. 7) "The Phoenicians became famous traders, colonists, and sailors... .They carried their alphabet with them to most of the lands of the ancient world, while another form of the same parent north Semitic Alphabet, Aramaic, spread eastward by land routes toward India. In this fashon, the 22-letter North Semitic alphabet became the source of almost every script used in the world today, except those of the Far East (see fig.5, p. 98). Among the alphabetic scripts of the world that can be traced to this one original parent alphabet are Pheonician, Aramaic, Arabic, Hebrew, Greek, Coptic, Russian, Latin, Runes, Gothic, English, Mongol, Tibetan, Korean, and Sanskrit."
The Greek Qabalah (2)
Kieren Barry's "Greek Qabalah" chart on p.8 is very similar to Stuart Kaplan's chart (3) on p. 15 of his Encyclopedia of Tarot, Vol 1. Both of them are presented in "alpha-beta-gamma" order, and by lining all the cited charts up, one can see that in most cases, the sound values and number values (ordinal, decimal, or both) are the same from one alphabet to another. [click on the images to enlarge them; print them out and compare them!]
It is the very possibility of linking numbers to the letters through their sounds that gave this "alphabet" idea such legs in the commercial culture of the ancient world.
Notating by sound values instead of pictographs, characters or syllabary sets made the alphabet easy to transfer from one spoken language to another. Also, those languages that alphabetized themseves closest to the Phoenecian model could inherit several calculation systems along with their letters, (although the earlier versions did not have letters for the vowels like the later ones did).
In my book, The Underground Stream, 1999, (4) I highlight the Sefir Yetzirah (SY) as one symptom of this trend, though not necessary at the origin nor the only mode of transmission. This quite ancient body of alphabet-lore provides us with good evidence of a fairly early complete system of AAN that has been seminal in the Hebrew Mysteries, and was retained almost intact in the Greek. Aryeh Kaplan, "Sefir Yetzirah," SY's primary modern interpreter, tells us that the SY was "one of the primary ancient astrological texts".
Sefer Yetzirah by Aryeh Kaplan (7).) Nor was Pythagoras the originator of base-10 counting, by the way, although he made an elegant mystical statement of it for all who came along after him. The letters of the alphabet have also been numbers from the beginning, hence any language that adopted the alphabet could calculate with the letters as well. Some did, some didn't, but those that did were rewarded by having this great tool to work with, long before either Roman and Arabic numerals.
Egyptian Phonemes System (5)
In the book Hermetic Magic, by Stephen Edred Flowers (Weiser, 1995),(5) which makes a very interesting presentation of Greek alphabet-magic, we find tables of Egyptian Phonemes (with columns for the Heiroglyphic, Heiratic, and Demotic scripts, and this includes ordinal values, (counting values), to 24. There are no accompanying "decimal values" on this chart however. Then on p.113, in a table of the Coptic alphabet (a dialect of the language spaken by the ancient Egyptians, which fell out of speech but was retained as a liturgical language by the Egyptian Gnostic Christians), we see a list much like the Hebrew lists we have all seen, but with enough vowels sprinkled in to take the decimals to 800, with ordinal values to 30. This shows us that the Egyptians, both in deep Antiquity, and in later Alexandrian times, used number-letters too. As with all the other phoenecian-derived alphabets, in both the very ancient Egyptian and the later Coptic, A=1 again, although the earliest Egyptian scripts vary more from the Pheonecian/Semitic alphabet order than the later Coptic.
Looking at the table on p.71 from Fabre D'Olivet's The Hebraic Tongue Restored (6) (first published n France in 1815, but re-published in English in 1976 by Weiser), comparing related ancient alphabets, he brings in Samaritan, Syriac, Arabic, and Greek to parallel the Hebrew. In his section about the "radical roots" of Hebrew (the two-letter combinations of each letter with each other letter, through which he defines the innermost sense of these roots), he also references the related laguages of Persian, Chaldaic, Latin, and Ethiopic along with the aforementioned, detailing their parallel sounds, spellings, and meanings (although not every language in the case of every root!) It is all very amazing to see laid out in such meticulous detail, even if d'Olivet did feel constrained by his times to clothe his sexual references in euphemisms.
Thus we can see that the number/letters are related at their roots, through their sounds, from their creation, and the numerical values which they hold are enshrined in western linguistic history. It requires no exaggeration to say that there is a number/letter canon enshrined and embellished with astrology in the Sefir Yetzirah, and that includes any version one can name, from oral tradition to 20th century. This canon was once common knowledge, before the time of Arabic or even Roman numerals in the West. It was clothed in geometrical musticism by the Mystery Schools of Alexandria, introduced into Europe with the growth of the Moslem universities and the influx of Jewish scholars in the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries, picked up by the magical Christians who have used it within the Lodges and Orders of Europe since the Renaissance. Throughout, this canon has held very constant (relatively speaking) from antiquity to the late 1800's.
My aim here is to put a foundation-stone under the heel of our Tarot chronology, so we can see where the various strata which eventually add up to Tarot fit in. The Hebrew alphabet, in its a,b,c,d order, gives backbone to the Major Arcana. It seems clear that, once the Major Arcana recieve the formal order of 22, (and even more so once the numbers 1-22 appear on their faces), their related letters, astro-values, and decimal numbers can be assumed as well.
It is not necessary for these values to be printed upon the face of each card for them to be applied by an Art of Memory practitioner of any experience. Any Tarot reader of any skill has an internalized canon that works just the same for them even now. And this does not disqualify any other meaning-system that works with 22 units from also being relevant, if it can be seen to be part of the Western Mystery Tradition (The oldest sets of Runes come to mind here). But just as you see Alphabet Mysteries at the backbone of Christian Cabbalism, Alchemical notation, and Hermeticism of the late middle ages at the birth of Tarot, I think we can see Alphabet Mysteries in the Trumps of Tarot once they were set at 22, in their modern (Marseilles) order.
The golden apple of the Alexandrian Mysteries did not fall far from the tree, when it fell into Tarot form!
(1) Godwin, Jocelyn. Athanasius Kircher, Thames and Hudson, 1979
(2) Barry, Kieren. Greek Qabalah, Weiser Books, 1999
(3) Kaplan, Stuart. Encyclopedia of Tarot, Vol 1. U.S.Games Systems, 1978
(4) Payne Towler, Christine. The Underground Stream, Noreah Press, 1999
(5) Flowers, Stephen Edred. Hermetic Magic: The Postmodern Magical Papyrus of Abaris, Weiserr, 1995
(6) D'Olivet, Fabre . The Hebraic Tongue Restored (6) (first published n France in 1815, but published in English in 1976 by Weiser)
(7) Kaplan, Aryeh. Sefer Yetzirah, Weiser, 1997
Research: Esoteric Tarot, Literature and Practice;
Author: Divinatory text at Tarot.com
Author: The Underground Stream;
Bishop, Gnostic Church of St. Mary Magdalene
Founder: Tarot University;
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