Music and the Tarot

72dpi Orpheus 450BC

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.


 The Soul Centers

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.


72-Chariot-7fold with quote


Pythagoras is also credited with creating our Western Diatonic music scale with its seven notes. And again we come upon the number seven.


72 Cosmos


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.

72dpi Upsilon


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.

(Guthrie, p.72)



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.



The Threefold Allegory of the Trumps

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.   


72dpi The Tarot MAHN Cover front

About robertmplace

I am an illustrator and author best known for creating the Alchemical Tarot and the Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery and writing The Tarot: History, Symbolism, and Divination.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s