For a complete discussion of all of the symbolism in Leonardo da Vinci’s most famous drawing read my article on Medium.
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It was in the summer of 1987 when I first conceived of The Alchemical Tarot. I was studying an alchemical image that symbolized the Philosopher’s Stone. I had been studying alchemy for some time and I was well aware that the Stone was a mystical substance, whose creation was the central purpose of the alchemical quest, known as the Magnum Opus. Alchemists stipulated that the Stone is not actually a physical substance; it is “the stone that is not a stone. It is composed of a spiritual essence, known as the Anima Mundi. Although it is nonmaterial, the Stone has the power to transform any substance into its highest form. It can turn lead into gold; it can cure any illness; and it can transform an ordinary man or woman into an enlightened sage.
Because it is nonmaterial, alchemists created mystical diagrams, what we now call mandalas, to portray it. The image I was studying in 1987 depicted a heart, surrounded by a thorny wreath, and placed in the center of a cross. The cross framed images of the four elements, one to each corner. This type of mandala is called a quincunx.
Although I had seen images like this before, this time it was different. The image seemed to unlock a secret portal in my mind and in an instant I saw that it was symbolically interchangeable with the Tarot’s final trump, the World. In a flash, I realized that if the Tarot’s series of twenty-one trumps culminated in this image, which symbolized the Anima Mundi and could be linked to the final result of the Opus, then the whole series of cards could be correlated with this mystical quest. I then picked up my copy of Jung’s Psychology and Alchemy and began to make notes in the margins next to the alchemical images comparing them to Tarot cards.
This was the beginning of a process that would take several years. The fruit of this insight and labor was the The Alchemical Tarot, which was published by Thorsons in England, in 1995. The first edition of The Alchemical Tarot went out of print many years ago, but I regained the rights to publish the deck and I have published three newer editions. For each I made improvements in the drawings, the coloring, and the symbolism. The fourth edition, The Alchemical Tarot: Renewed, was published in 2015, it is still in print, and you can buy it through this website. I have now designed this fifth version. For this newer deck I have broken away from the initial drawings and redesigned the cards. Therefore, I have given it a new title.
The Tarot of the Alchemical Magnum Opus began when I attempted to redesign The Alchemical Tarot in a simpler iconic form, something like the iconic images found in traditional oracle decks, such as the Lenormand oracle. I wanted to create simplified images that captured the essence of what each card was saying. While the original Alchemical Tarot images are strongly based on actual 17th century alchemical engravings, for this version I have created my own images expressing each of the alchemical processes in my own way.
I also waned to make a deck that could have been printed using wood blocks, like Renaissance cards. I used only four colors: black, white, blue, and red, each representing a separate wood block printed on a parchment background. (I found it necessary for the maintenance of alchemical symbolism to add yellow on three cards.) Because the colors each represent an area printed from a carved block, the colors are hard-edged without gradation. The black lines define the outlines and darkest areas and the blue and red areas act as medium tones that define the forms and textures. This simplified code for interpreting forms, like alchemy itself, can be traced back to ancient Greece. It is a cornerstone of Western art. What I also realized was that through this process I was distilling the symbols, paring them down to their essence. It was a work of alchemical art.
Just like my An Ukiyo-e Lenormand deck, these cards will be three inches by four inches with gold edges, and come with a small book. It will also have the same style two part cloth covered box, as in the photos below. These will be full 78 card Tarot decks.
The Fool and the trumps each relate to an alchemical material or process, which is part of the Opus. The alchemical name appears on each card. The four minor suits are related to the four mundane elements: Earth, Water, Air, and Fire. To delve more deeply into the symbolism I recommend my book, The Tarot, Magic, Alchemy, Hermeticism, and Neoplatonism. The cards are pictured below.
The Unnamed Card (the Fool) – This image of a joker represents the alchemist at the beginning of the Work – His ignorance is necessary for him to begin to learn – He is a naive beginner
I. Materia Prima (the Magician) – Hermes, the god of alchemy is the Matter of the Work, containing all four elements – He is the raw material that will become the Stone – He is the spiritual essence found in the material world
II. Priestess of Water (the High Priestess) – She begins the separation of the elements, called Dissolution – She is Water, esoteric spiritually, intuition, a secret, or something that cannot be spoken
III. White Queen (the Empress) – She continues the Dissolution and represents the element Earth, sensation, attraction, fertility, and the feminine principle
IV. Red King (the Emperor) – He is Air, thinking, intelligence, authority, and the masculine principle
V. Priest of Fire (the Hierophant) – He completes the Dissolution representing Fire and exoteric spiritually – He is Hermes Trismegistus, balance, and morality
VI. Conjunction (the Lovers) – The elements are recombined in the Minor Conjunction – Sex, at- traction, coming together, and partnership
VII. Sublimation (the Chariot) – The child of the Conjunction rises impetuously toward the goal – The three glyphs are Mercury, Salt, and Sulphur (the alchemical essences: spirit, body, and mind, and the parts of the chariot) – He is also speed and travel
VIII. Disposition (Justice) – This is the process of weighing – Truth, balance, justice, and the law
IX. Exaltation (the Hermit) – Exaltation is an enhancement like meditation – The alchemist is con- tained in the ouroboros (the serpent of time) rep- resenting solitude, inner guidance, and being alone
X. Circulation (the Wheel of Fortune) – The Fixed unwinged dragon swallows the tail of the Volatile winged dragon and is in turn swallowed – They are centered in the wheel of the elements: clockwise from the upper right, Water, Fire, Earth, Air – Fate, transformation, change
XI. Fermentation (Strength) – Above the lion of strength, the Sun and Moon pour their essences into the flaming heart, representing control through love, self control, and discipline
XII. Crucified Serpent (the Hanged Man) – Represents the process of Calcination, in which the serpent, who is Mercury, becomes a willing sacrifice – Suffering, loss, discomfort, illness
XIII. Putrefaction (Death) – This is the depth of the Nigredo, the first black stage of the Opus, symbolized by the raven – The end of anything, decay
XIV. Distillation (Temperance) – Distillation im- itates the natural processes of evaporation and pre- cipitation and is used to nurture the perfection of the Stone – Health, beauty, balance, art, timing
XV. Coagulation (the Devil) – The culmination of the Nigredo, vice, enslavement, addiction, bad habits
XVI. Greater Dissolution (the Tower) – This is a greater separation of the red and the white opposites and the beginning of the Albedo, the second white stage of the Opus – Breaking, separation, sudden change, expulsion, divine intervention, or a sudden insight
XVII. Baptism (the Star) – The Siren of the Phil- osophers, giving forth blood (suffering) and milk (nurturing), with the ladder of the planets above, represents purification and the peace beyond blood red fear and milk white hope – Calm, understanding, and ascent
XVIII. Lapis Albus (the Moon) – The Feminine Moon represents the White Stone that will become the Philosopher’s Stone when it is reddened – Rest, retreat, anticipation, preparation, and dreams
XIX. Greater Conjunction (the Sun) – The joining of the yellow Sun and the white Moon brings us into the Citrinitas, the third yellow stage of the Opus – Spiritual love, soul mates, marriage, en- lightenment
XX. Resurrection (Judgement) – Wheat growing from the skull symbolizes life from death – Re- juvenation, healing, removing blocks, recalling the past, judgment
XXI. Lapis Philosophorum (the World) – This is the Phliosopher’s Stone, the Red Elixir of healing, and the essential fifth element composed of the Anima Mundi (the Soul of the World) – The Good, an inner guide, the attainment of our goals
I have always loved Japanese art, since I was first exposed to it in high school, especially the woodcut prints of Hokusai and Hiroshige, masters of the style known as Ukiyo-e, which means “the floating world” in Japanese. The use of strong lines to delineate the subject, the areas of flat colors with gradations in tone or transparency, and the compositional device of contrasting a landscape with a figure in the foreground have all influenced my own work. It seems I was in good company, because when Japan opened trade with the West in 1853, Japanese prints influenced many 19th century European and American artists.
The value of these prints was not recognized at first. They were brought to Europe by Dutch traders, who used them to pad the ceramics that they imported. The prints were then recycled as wrapping for cheese, and in this way they were introduced to French artiest, who liked cheese. Artists soon began collecting these prints and their innovative way of depicting the world seduced many artists. Included in this list are many famous names such as Manet, Whistler, Degas, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Mary Cassatt, Klimt, Mucha, Beardsley, and the famous Tarot designer Pamela Colman Smith, who was exposed to Japanese prints by her teacher, Arthur Wesley Dow, when she studied art at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn in the 1890s.
One of our ceramic masks
Another ceramic mask
Like Colman Smith, I began collecting Japanese prints when I was in collage and have added to my collection over the years. My wife, Rose Ann, and I now have a collection of Japanese prints, cards, ceramics, masks, sculptures (mostly of the Bodhisattva Kannon), one hand-painted scroll, and a kitchen shrine with carvings of the gods Daikoku and Ibisu. We enjoy Japanese food; at times, I have worn a hipari and Rose Ann has worn a kimono. I studied both Zen philosophy and Karate. But until 2018, the closest we have gotten to Japan was Japan Town in San Francisco and in São Paulo, Brazil. Last autum after I was teaching my workshop in Beijing, Rose Ann and I finally got to Japan. Giselle, who organizes the workshop, also planed a trip to Kyoto, Nara, and Osaka. So Rose Ann and I joined her and a few of my students on a bus tour.
The Kitchen Gods Daikoku and Ibisu
A 19th century Ukiyo-e print from our collection
The first place that we visited in Kyoto was the Shinto shrine of the god of prosperity, Inari. Inari’s mesenger and protector is the fox, Kitsune, and there are statues of Kitsune in front of the temples and spread throughout the gardens. The sculpted foxes have various items in their mouths, most often a letter roled like a scroll, a key, or a small whip. Now the fox and all three of these items are some of the symbols included in the traditioal Lenormand oracle card deck. Looking back, I think it was here that I began to fantasize about making a Japanese themed Lenormand deck. But it was later when I was looking at a statue of the god Ibisu, who is the god of fish and also money, that I began thinking how it was odd that the Lenormand card, called the Fish, symbolizes money (something that many people find puzzling about the Lenormand meanings) and here in Japan I was finding the same link in symbolism. I began to work on a Japanese Lenormand in my imagination. By the time I was home, I was committed to completing the project.
Rose Ann on the Way to the Inari Shrine, Kyoto
Kido and Giselle on their way to the Inari Shrine, Kyoto
Rose Ann approached the shrine
Kitsune with a whip
Kitsune with a scroll
Kitsune with a key
Ibisu, the god of fish and money
Beside allowing me to explore the similarities and differences between Japanese and European symbolism, I realized that the deck would allow me to create my own version of Japanese art and my reinterpretation of the prints in my collection or other pieces. I decided to create the designs without borders on a background the color of rice paper. They have strong black lines, like a woodcut print and a limited pallet of colors. At the top left of each card there is an image of the European playing card that each card is correlated with. I decided to call the deck An Ukiyo-e Lenormand.
I was able to find Japanese images that related to all thirty-six of the Lenormand cards, but the Heart, the Ring, and the Cross, were the most challenging. Until modern times, the Japanese did not wear rings or have images in a heart shape. Also even today, there are very few Christians in Japan. These items all typify European culture but not Japanese. As you will see, I had to be creative with my interpretation for these cards.
This will be a deluxe edition with gold edged cards in a cloth covered box. The cards will be four inches by three inches. For the box, I decided to make one based on an antique deck in my collection. It is a design that I have not seen being used lately. It is in two parts, an open toped box that holds the cards and the little book, and a slip case that goes over the box, making it double thick. The box will be covered with cloth and a label goes on the front and the back. The book will not only contain the divinatory meanings for each card but discuss the significance of each symbol in Japanese culture. There will be references to Shinto gods (called kami), to Bodhisattvas, and other aspects of Japanese culture.
The box is based on the one from an antique Italian deck, but covered in cloth
These are photos of the first sample of the deck to arrive from the printer on 3/18/2019
The Label for the back
Here are the thirty-six cards with a description of each image.
Horses were first brought to Japan in the 6thcentury and were valued by the samurai class for their role in warfare.
Japanese clover is a flowering plant in the pea family that grows in East Asia. Detailed drawings of plants such as this are common in Japanese books containing artist sketches, known as manga. In the Tale of Genji,the clover is used as a metaphor for the season of autumn and the fading of life and love.
Being surrounded by water, boats and ships are essential to Japanese culture. Traditional Japanese boats are built by craftspeople, who follow designs that have been passed down for many generations. They are built of planks nailed together with hand-made square copper nails. The holes for the nails, therefore, cannot be drilled. They are cut into the plank with a chisel.
When Westerners were first allowed into Japan after 1853, they were amazed to see that Japanese houses have massive title or thatch roofs but thin walls made of paper stretched over wooden frames. There are no windows, but the paper walls are translucent and allow light to enter the house. The roofs are actually supported by a structure of heavy wooden beams that are expertly joined without the use of nails.
The Japanese red maple is native to East Asia. It is popular in Japanese gardens and art because of its graceful shape and its vivid red leaves in autumn. Red is a sacred protective color associated with the kami Inari, and with Amaterasu and her sun.
In Japanese art, influenced by Shintoism, clouds, represent the spirits of the dead. In Buddhism, in contrast with the traditional Lenormand meaning, they signify the Western Paradise where Buddhists hope to reside after death.
This image is based on a woodblock print by Hokusai (the most famous ukiyo-e artist) representing a snake with two melons. The snake is one of the twelve signs of the Chinese zodiac.
Emma-O is the god of the underworld. He holds the souls of the dead until it is time for them to be reborn.
Ikebana(flower arrangement) is one the traditional arts of Japan. It was first introduced in the 15thcentury by a Buddhist priest as an expression of the beauty of nature.
Daikoku is a combination Buddhist and Shinto deity. He is one of the Seven Lucky Gods. He is the god of the rice harvest, depicted standing on bags of rice, and he is, therefore, considered a god of prosperity and of the kitchen. He holds a wish-granting wooden mallet and, as a god of the harvest, the scythe would also be one of his tools.
Small whips like this one are depicted in the mouths of the Kitsune (fox) sculptures that guard the god Inari’s shrines. They signify that Kitsune is a protector.
Because of their love of nature, birds are a common theme in Japanese art. Originally ukiyo-e art mainly focused on depicting kabuki actors or beautiful women. It was Hokusai who popularized nature subjects, known as birds and flower pictures.
Known as the Golden Boy in English, Kintaro is a legendary hero, who was born with immense strength. He was an orphan, who was raised in the forest by Yama-Uba (mountain witch). His only friends were animals, and although he was a child, he used his ax for felling trees like an adult.
Kitsune is the messenger of the god Inari, the Shinto god (or kami) of rice and wealth. Kitsune is believed to ward off evil, which is in contrast with some of the traditional Lenormand meanings and with some of her roles in folklore. The fox spirit in Japanese folklore is a prolific shapeshifter, who often takes the form of beautiful young women, and attempts to seduce men for mere mischief or to consume their bodies or spirits.
Having learned the language of the animals, Kintaro befriended a bear, who became his servant.
In ancient Japan, the star Polaris was believed to be Amaatsu-Mikaboshi. He was an evil god, who represented the void of primordial darkness from which the universe emerged. He was constantly trying to recapture the world and bring it back into darkness. Being void, he had no other pictorial form. When Buddhism came to Japan he merged with the more benevolent Buddhist deity Ama-no-mi-naka-nushi (Divine Lord of the middle heavens), the god who rules over stars.
The Oriental stork is a native of East Asia. It resembles the European stork. In Japan, birds, in general, are believed to be able to interact with the kami.
This samurai hero with his faithful dog is based on a series of prints depicting the twelve signs of the Chinese zodiac.
A pagoda is a tower (the traditional name for this card) with several tiers. It is found in China, Japan, and other parts of East Asia. It evolved from the Indian stupa, a funeral mound with a tower projecting from the top that became one of the central symbols of Buddhism. Buddhist stupas held relics and the structure itself became taller and leaner. It served as a symbol of the axis mundi, channeling Buddha Energy down to earth.
Shinto is considered a nature religion, in which the kami personify various aspects of the landscape. Therefore gardens are a natural component of Shinto shrines. Japanese gardens are also heavily influenced by Chinese Buddhist ideas, especially Zen aesthetic principles, such as simplicity, harmony with the natural landscape, and a preference for aged materials. Gardening is considered a high art, like painting or calligraphy. One common feature is the Japanese iris.
Mount Fuji was made famous by Hokusai’s series of woodcuts, Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (which includes the Great Wave, the most famous work of Japanese art), and of Hiroshige’s series, One Hundred Views of Edo. These artists popularized the landscape as a subject in Ukiyo-e prints. They depicted the mountain in the background of their landscapes, using it as a symbol of the spiritual and eternal in contrast to the mundane world depicted in the foreground. We may, therefore, add this symbolism to the traditional meanings for this card.
Small statues of Jizo, like this one, can be found along paths and at crossroads throughout Japan. Jizo is a bodhisattva depicted as a monk with a shaved head. He holds a monk’s sounding staff (that rattles and warns away small creatures, who could be accidentally stepped on) and a wish-granting jewel. He is the protector of children (particularly the ghosts of dead children) and of travelers.
Mice are the natural predators of silkworms, which helps to explain the Japanese fondness for cats.
Kokoro, written at the top of this card in Japanese calligraphy, means heart, but also mind, emotions, and feelings, much the same as heart does in the West. The Western heart symbol did not exist in Japan until it was introduced in modern times. We can find this shape, however, in the bleeding heart flower, which is native to Japan.
Before the Meiji Restoration of Imperial power in 1868 rings were not common in Japan, but once the emperor decreed the adoption of Western dress, Japanese metalworkers began to apply their skills to designing Western jewelry.
With the help of his bear, Kintaro taught himself to read.
During the Edo period (the 18thand early 19thcenturies), 50% of males and 20% of women from all classes were literate. Today Japan is included among the most literate countries in the world. Japanese letters were rolled like a small scroll. They are often depicted in ukiyo-e prints and we find them depicted in the mouths of Kitsune at Inari shrines.
Like the gentleman depicted on the traditional Lenormand card, Japanese samurai were nobles who were expected to carry a sword.
A woman dances in a traditional Japanese kimono. Her fan, like the man’s sword, signifies her elevated social standing.
The lotus is an aquatic follower that is similar to the water lily (Lily is the traditional name for this card). In Buddhism, the lotus represents purity of body, mind, and spirit. Buddha and other deities are depicted sitting on a lotus. On the Jizo – The Path card, we can see that Jizo is standing on a lotus.
Amaterasu is the goddess of the sun and the principle Shinto kami. It was believed that the emperor was her descendant. Her necklace is made of hand-carved stone beads called magatama, a traditional design that stems from the earliest Jomon period (1,000 BCE).
Kannon is the bodhisattva known as Quan Yin in Chinese and the Goddess of Mercy in English. She is the most beloved of the Buddhist deities, and has miraculous powers to assist all those who appeal to her. She is also associated with the Moon and childbirth.
This is an antique Japanese key. It is often depicted in the mouth of Kitsune statues guarding Inari shrines. There is one in the mouth of the Kitsune on the Kitsune – The Fox card.
Ebisu is one of the Seven Lucky Gods. He is the god of fishermen and luck. Over time he also became the god of merchants and money. Just as in the traditional Lenormand card, fish and money are linked.
Traditional Japanese anchors are similar to their Western counterparts.
Family crests, called kamon, originated in the 11thcentury among the samurai class. They allowed the members of a clan to be identified during warfare. Today they are included on formal garments. When cloth is dyed for clothing, a resist is applied in the form of the crest so that the crest remains undyed. This kamon is called Nakagawake Kurusu (the cross of the Nakagawa clan).
Recently I was asked if I know of a connection between music and the Tarot. This immediately brought to mind my Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery and how the sevenfold mystery of the title is connected to the seven notes in the Western musical scale. To explain this connection I will start with the section on Pythagoras in Chapter Four
from my new book, The Tarot, Magic, Alchemy, Hermeticism, and Neoplatonism.
The Greek Mysteries were a major influence on the Western practice of white magic and one of first groups of magicians to be influenced was the mystical school of philosophy founded by Pythagoras (born 580-572 BCE, died 500-490 BCE). We commonly think of Pythagoras as a great mathematician who is credited with the geometric theorem for determining the relationship of the areas of the squared sides of a right triangle. (The square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides.) All of our information about Pythagoras, however, comes from authors that lived in the centuries after his death and we cannot be certain if all of the things attributed to him are true, including whether or not he developed the theorem that is named after him.
What was written about Pythagoras is that he was the first person to call himself a philosopher, which was a title more like sage or mystic at the time, and he was as interested in the symbolism of numbers as he was in their use in geometry. He also saw a connection between music and numerical order and this type of reasoning led to sacred geometry. In the ancient world, he was spoken of with reverence and awe. It was said that he had a golden thigh, that he could be in two places at one time, that he could charm animals, and that he could remember his past lives. Many believed he was a god or at least an enlightened master.
In the 3rd and 4th centuries CE, the earliest Neoplatonic authors, Porphyry and Iamblichus, wrote biographies of Pythagoras. Iamblichus (c.250 – 325CE) was heavily influenced by Pythagoras and attempted to write a ten-volume encyclopedia on the older philosopher, who preceded him by over 800 years. Because of this interest, Neoplatonists may also be though if as “Neopythagoreans.”
In his biography, Iamblichus tells the story of Pythagoras’s birth. Pythagoras’s father, Mnesarchus, was a merchant and an inhabitant of the Aegean Island of Samos, a rich Greek trading center that had trading ties with Egypt and the Levant. While on a business trip, Mnesarchus visited the Oracle of Delphi to ask advice about a trip to Syria. The oracle told him it would be a successful business trip, but then went on to predict that his wife, Parthenis, was pregnant, and that by the time he returned she would have given birth to “a son who would surpass all others who had ever lived in beauty and wisdom, and that would be of the greatest benefit to the human race in everything pertaining to human achievements.” (Guthrie, Kenneth Sylvan, The Pythagorean Sourcebook and Library: An Anthology of Ancient Writings Which Relate to Pythagoras and Pythagorean Philosophy, Grand Rapids: Phanes Press: 1987, p. 58)
When he returned from his successful trip to Syria, Mnesarchus found he did have a beautiful son. He named the boy Pythagoras in honor of the Pythian Apollo, who had spoken to him through the oracle. His wife also changed her name from Parthenis to Pythais to honor Apollo, and they erected a temple to the god. Mnesarchus spared no expense in his son’s education and secured the wisest teachers. When Pythagoras was eighteen years old, the tyrant Polycrates took over the rulership of Samos, and Pythagoras left his home to continue his studies elsewhere. He went to Syros to study with the philosopher Pherecydes, and then to Miletus to study with Anaximander and Thales, whom Aristotle considered to be the first philosopher in the Greek tradition.
After teaching him all that he could, Thales urged Pythagoras to go to Egypt to study with the priests at Memphis and the priests of Zeus. Then Iamblichus tells us that Pythagoras returned home and prepared for a voyage to Egypt. On the way to Egypt he stopped in Syria, and Phoenicia. After having learned all he could of the Phoenician mysteries, he determined that they were based on the Egyptian rites and that he needed to complete his voyage. To accomplish this, Pythagoras sat in meditation on Mount Carmel, which was considered sacred (another example of the axis mundi) until a ship arrived that was bound for Egypt. The sailors on this ship agreed to take Pythagoras with them but secretly planned to sell him into slavery when they arrived. However, Pythagoras sat in meditation and fasted for the entire trip, and the sailors believed that it was his influence that helped them to avoid the storms that were predicted. They suspected that he was a god, and when they arrived in Egypt they led him ashore and erected a temporary altar in his honor, complete with offerings of fruit.
Once among the Egyptians, Pythagoras visited all of their temples and studied with all of their priests and prophets. He spent twenty-two years studying astronomy and geometry, and was initiated in all of their mysteries.
At the end of this period he was captured by soldiers and taken as a prisoner to Babylon. But again fate turned in his favor and he was able to study with the Magi. At the age of fifty-six he returned to Samos, where he set up his first school and began to share his wisdom. While in Greece, he visited all of the oracles and mysteries and developed a reputation for learning. At home, on his Island, however, he was dissatisfied with the Samians lack of interest in learning and the demands that they made on him to participate in public affairs. Therefore, he moved to Croton in southern Italy, which, at the time was held by the Greeks, and set up a new school of philosophy, open to both men and women.
Initiates to the Pythagorean School were first vetted by examining their behavior and interests. Once admitted, there was a probationary period of three years, in which they studied and were observed but otherwise neglected. All of their property became the property of the commune. In the next stage of their probation, the initiates had to refrain from speaking for five years, maintain a vegetarian diet, abstain from wine, and shun wealth and greed. At the end of this period, they were either accepted as disciples or rejected and sent away with twice the amount of property as they had brought.
The disciples were given white robes to wear and were permitted to speak but maintained the other prohibitions. These disciples were called akousmatikoi(hearers) and were provided with daily lectures, physical exercise, and rituals. They also practiced silent contemplation and a type of meditation. Their meditation focused on memory. In the morning when they awoke, the akousmatikoi would systematically remember everything that was said and done on the previous day, and everything that was dreamed during the night. The innermost disciples were called mathematikoi. Their study focused on the numerical harmonies of the cosmos (a name that Pythagoras coined, meaning both order and beauty).
Pythagoras taught that on a deep level all reality is mathematical, which is the cornerstone of all Western scientific thought. Yet for him, the symbolism of numbers was of equal importance. He also believed that numbers and ratios could capture the beauty that we experience in music and architecture. Pythagoras believed in reincarnation and taught that humans are on an endless wheel of incarnations, each life doomed to end in suffering and death. To escape this dilemma and emerge into union with the divine, it was necessary to practice contemplation and to live a moral life. This was the purpose of philosophy. In this respect his teachings were similar to those of Gautama Buddha, who lived and taught in the same century in what is now Nepal and northern India. Instead of thinking of Pythagoras as an ancient mathematician or a philosopher, I feel that it would be more accurate to think of him as a Western Buddha. This would be closer to how the people of the ancient Greek and Roman worlds viewed him.
In Iamblichus’s biography of Pythagoras, he tells the story of how the ancient philosopher coined the word “philosophy”, which means to love wisdom. In a lecture, Pythagoras described a public spectacle in which three different types of men come to attend.
One hastens to sell his wares for money and gain; another exhibits his bodily strength for renown; but the most liberal assemble to observe the landscape, the beautiful works of art, the specimens of valor, and the customary literary productions. So also in the present life men of manifold pursuits are assembled. Some are influenced by the desire for riches and luxury; others by the love of power and domination, or by insane ambition for glory. But the purest and most genuine character is that of the man who devotes himself to the contemplation of the most beautiful things, and he may properly be called a philosopher.
(Guthrie, p. 70)
In this story, Pythagoras was not only describing three different types of people. The actions of each are dominated by one of the three parts of the soul as described by the Egyptians, and that we discussed in the second chapter. The first man is dominated by the Ka and the needs and desires of the body; the second is concerned with the social desires of the Ba, such as fame, social standing, and power; and the last man is cultivating his Akh, which is his divine or Dionysiac soul.
Pythagoras is also credited with creating our Western Diatonic music scale with its seven notes. And again we come upon the number seven.
As we discussed in the last chapter, in the ancient view of the cosmos, it was believed that there were seven planets that circled Earth. Earth was not considered a planet and the sun and the moon were included in the seven. In the Pythagorean view each planet existed on a crystal sphere that circled Earth, each one higher than the next, like the layers of an onion. By the time that the Neoplatonists were writing, we find that the list of planets was organized by the speed that each planet seemed to circle Earth. Pythagoras believed that numerical relationships found in each planet’s orbit could be interpreted as sound and he believed that his scale captured these sounds that related to the planets. This is the meaning of the phrase, “the music of the spheres.”
Although the Greeks borrowed their alphabet from the Phoenicians, the Phoenician alphabet, like Hebrew, which it also influenced, only contains consonants; the Greeks added seven vowels. The vowels are the musical notes of the alphabet. The vowels did correspond to the actual notes and were used for musical notation. Pythagoras is credited with inventing the vowel upsilon, which looks like a Roman Y, to assure that there would be seven vowels. There is a story that Pythagoras used the shape of upsilon to illustrate an allegory.
He said that the place where the shaft splits into two directions represents a choice that must be made in life. One path is smooth and easy but leads to death and suffering; the other is coarse and difficult, but it leads up through the hierarchy of the parts of the soul and to the immortality of the soul.
In the Pythagorean view, the planets were considered the soul centers of the cosmos, and seven corresponding soul centers ascended the human spine, from the sacrum to the crown of the head. This is similar to the modern New Age concept of the seven Chakras. As the notes of the scale were related to the planets, they also affected the soul centers in the human body, and Pythagoras would use his seven stringed lyre, called a kithara, to bring the centers in his human patients into harmony with the “music of spheres.” This healing process is described by Iamblichus in the following quote.
Moreover, he devised medicines calculated to repress and cure the diseases of both bodies and souls…divinely contriving mingling of certain diatonic, chromatic, and enharmonic melodies, through which he easily switched and circulated the passions of the soul in a contrary direction, whenever they had had accumulated recently, irrationally, or clandestinely—such as sorrow, rage, pity, over-emulation, fear, manifold desires, angers, appetites, pride, collapse, or spasms. Each of these he corrected by the rule of virtue, attempering them through appropriate melodies, as through some salutary medicine.
When we look at the structure of the Tarot’s trump suit, we can see that the numbers three and seven are also important in the Tarot. Here is another excerpt, this time from Chapter Eleven in my book.
Allowing that the Fool is not a trump, there are twenty-one trumps in the Tarot. If we divide them into three groups of seven, the characters in each group have a distinctive quality (as the Comte de Mellet observed) that relates them to one of the three soul levels. In the Marseilles order, the first seven, from the Magician to the Chariot, relate to the Soul of Appetite (Ka/the body), with the first six figures dominated by Cupid, representing lust, who is then trumped by the hero on the Chariot, representing virtue and moving us into the Soul of Will (Ba/the mind). The next seven trumps characterized by time, death, and suffering, but also three of the cardinal virtues, is the realm of the Soul of Willm(Akh/the spirit). The last seven trumps move us from the unreasonable Devil through greater and greater celestial light to the defeat of Death represented by Judgement and the enlightenment represented by the World. This is the realm of the Soul of Reason.
The seven cards in each division, like the seven battles in the Psychomachia, or the seven metals in the alchemical transmutation, relate in quantity to the ladder of seven planets, which are also a means to ascend to a higher spiritual plane. The allegory is composed, therefore, of three parts each featuring the seven steps (or musical notes) needed to purify that soul level. If we examine the two other early orders for the trumps that we listed in chapter nine, order A and order B, we see that these orders can also be divided in this way with only minor differences. The Chariot and the Devil, which are transitional figures, may switch their allegiance with little consequence. The biggest change is in the placement of the three cardinal virtues found in order B, The order from Ferrara, but this only strengthens that premise. In order B, which may be the original order for twenty-one trumps, we find that the three virtues are divided with one in each group. If we allow for the reversal of Justice and Prudence (represented by the World), the one that is found in each section is precisely the one Plato would have recommended for balancing that soul level.
As we learned above in Chapter Four, Pythagoras is credited with creating our Western music scale. He filled it with seven notes that captured sounds based on ratios determined by the movements of the seven ancient planets that he believed encircled the Earth (the “Music of the Spheres”). He also believed that these planets corresponded to seven centers ascending the spine in the human body, which are similar to the modern concept of the chakras. Further, in a healing ritual, Pythagoras would use his seven stringed lyre, to bring the seven soul centers in his human patients into harmony with the celestial spheres.
When I first read about his practice, I realized that I wanted to use the Tarot like this, and I developed what became my main Tarot reading practice, the soul centers reading. For this reading, I lay out cards describing the patterns I find in each soul center, and then I work creatively with the Tarot to remove energy blocks and help to restore the health and wellbeing of my clients. You can read more about the soul centers reading in the last chapter of by book, The Tarot, Magic, Alchemy, Hermeticism, and Neoplatonism.