This page is a continuation from ‘Art and Reality’ in the light of research into the origins of the Society of the Hidden Life, and of my contact with individuals still active in the scene. In particular it concerns the discovery – or rediscovery – and the significance of an ‘Extended Tree’ diagram.
I write neither as an esoteric teacher nor as an academic scholar in the field, but as an artist with an interest in the truth within appearances.
Such was that happy garden-state While man there walk’d without a mate; After a place so pure and sweet, What other help could yet be meet! But 'twas beyond a Mortal's share To wander solitary there: Two Paradises 'twere in one To live in Paradise alone. (from The Garden, by Andrew Marvell 1621 – 1678)
Marvell’s “happy garden state, while man there walked without a mate” reflects the myth of a lost condition of wholeness, uniting our two sets of different sexual attributes, which then becomes the telos of psychological or spiritual development. One can find this theme in various cultures, for example in Ulysses’ separation from and eventual regain of Ithaca and reunion with Penelope.
The 2nd C CE, Gnostic Gospel of Phillip, for instance, clearly states this belief, and its relevance to mortality and immortality: ‘When Eve was still in Adam death did not exist. When she was separated from him, death came into being. If he again becomes complete and obtains his former self, death will be no more.’ (The Nag Hammadi Library in English, 1977)
Adam, before the fall, as created ‘in the image of God’ (Genesis 1, 27) was both male and female: as Marvell puts it, ’two Paradises ’twere in one’.
In Genesis I. the majestic cosmic detachment of the first creation account culminates with humankind, male and female ‘in the image of God’, but Genesis II moves to a ground-level close-up of a completely different order of creative events and an all-too-human drama. God makes Adam first, by breathing life into a clay model, followed by a menagerie of possible pets, and lastly the woman, Eve.
Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish philosopher contemporary with Christ, points out that God could just as easily have made Eve from mud, as he did with Adam, so the deployment of Adam’s rib suggests an allegorical meaning. Philo thinks that the ‘now’ in Adam’s exclamation (Genesis 2:23): “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh” conveys that Eve is an allegory of sensation, which exists in the immediate moment, while Adam is an allegory of mind, which places the momentary experience in a universal perspective.
The Genesis creation myth is also a major focus of The Sepher ha Zohar (Book of Splendour), a library of Kabbalist commentaries emerging from well-to-do cosmopolitan societies in Islamic Spain from the 12th and 13th C. Much of the commentary reflects the much earlier ‘Sepher Yetzirah’ (Book of Formation), which states that the deity – enthroned in a manner recalling the Book of Ezekiel – formed the world with ten dimensions of infinity, or ‘sephiroth of nothing’ and the 22 letters of the Hebrew Alphabet. The ’32 Paths of Wisdom’, are both the means of the world’s formation and ‘rungs’ for the aspiring mystic to ascend by. This notion, by the way, was disputed by Miamonides (1138–1204) on the grounds that the Hebrew Alphabet is a human convention and no more divine than any other alphabet. After all, he, and many Jews at the time, including Kabbalists, mostly spoke Arabic and were reading Greek philosophy. Abraham Abulafia (1240 – circa 1291) who greatly admired Maimonides’ writings, but whose Kabbala was about attaining first-hand knowledge of the deity through systematic permutation of Hebrew letters, argued that, Hebrew being the pre-Babel mother of all languages, other languages used related sounds and letters, and had something of the same inner meaning and spiritual potential. Nevertheless, the Kabbalah (‘=Tradition’) is that the Hebrew letters pre-existed the creation.
In the introductory book (Haqdamat) of the Zohar, ’Who’ (Mi מי), is extolled as the limit of human inquiry, identified with Binah, the third of the ten sephiroth, the Maternal aspect of deity and the source of emanation: “The first concealed one – called Who (Mi מי) – can be questioned. Once a human being questions and searches, contemplating and knowing rung after rung to the very last rung – once one reaches there: What (Mah מה)? What have you contemplated? For what have you searched? All is concealed as before.” ‘Mah – ‘what’, is the divine presence, the Shekhinah (שכינה) at the final level of emanation, the Earth. (The Zohar Vol 1 Pritzker Edition 2016)
In a rabbinical account of Genesis which seems to reflect Plato, the man and woman were first joined back to back, and the deity separated them so that they could face each other. An account is given in the Zohar introduction in which each of the Hebrew letters appeals to ‘the blessed Holy One’: “Master of the world, may it please you to create the world by me…” and all but the letter Beth are refused. Tzaddi (צ) is rejected because her two heads look boldly outwards, while Teth (ט) whose two faces look inwards towards each other, is too good for this world and will find her place in the world to come.
This mention of a ‘world to come’, and the measured assessment of His work as ‘very good’(Genesis 1. 31), implies that the deity did not intend or expect an immediate state of perfection. In Kabbalah, however, we are to understand that the ‘world to come’, refers, not to a ‘hereafter’, but to a world existing outside of time, as ha-olam ha-ba, the world of return (by way of ‘rungs’) – probably this is the Kingdom ‘not of this world’, which, according to Jesus, is ‘within you’, ‘among you’ or ‘in the midst of you’ (depending on translation).
THE ART OF MEMORY
Despite references to ‘rungs’ in Kabbala literature, the tradition as received in the 19th & 20th Centuries is based on the symbolism of a Tree rather than a ladder, though it represents a hierarchy of levels and worlds. Its distinctive structure combines ten nodes in triads of division and unification, representing the ten sephiroth, with 22 lines or ‘paths’ joining them.
Kabbalah includes threads of Platonic and Neoplatonist thought current in the Hellenistic world and late antiquity, and particularly in medieval Spain, which, together with a ‘Hermetic Corpus’ supposed to have originated in ancient Egypt at the time of Abraham, were woven into a distinctive Christian cabala in Renaissance Italy. Neoplatonism, like Kabbalah, conceives of the world in terms of emanation from an ultimate indivisible being with whom the soul is capable of being reunited through trance or ecstasy. It included the idea of the soul and its wanderings through many incarnations, and that of ‘anamnesis’ – meaning knowledge as recollection. In this sense, the ‘memory systems’, which Frances Yates, the scholar of Renaissance esotericism, expounds in ‘The Art of Memory’(1966) are much more than memory aids in the art of rhetoric, or picture-book prompts for the unlettered. They are systems of mystical ascent, or self-knowledge – to use Gurdjieff’s phrase, of ‘self-remembering’. Yates writes that, in the work of Giordano Bruno (1548 – 1600) the art of memory “..has become man’s highest power, by means of which he can grasp the intelligible world beyond appearances through laying hold of significant images”.
In his “De la causa”(1584), concerning the unity of The All in the One, Bruno writes: “…for you must know that it is by one and the same ladder that nature descends to the production of things and the intellect ascends to the knowledge of them: and the one and the other proceeds from unity and returns to unity, passing through the multitude of things in the middle.”
Such systems utilise the power of visual imagery, related to a systematic geometry or architecture, with numerous nodal points, locations, rooms or alcoves each the site of a distinctive image. Bruno’s systems involved ‘rules for places’ and ‘rules for images’ and reflect Kabbalist permutational practices. However his book ‘Shadows’ (De umbris idearum 1582) expounds a ‘combinatory figure’ of the sort first devised by the proto-Cabalist Ramon Lull (1232 – 1315/16), consisting of concentric wheels, to be used like a combination lock or encoding machine, but annotated with Hermetic and astrological imagery.
Though in Judaism graven images are discouraged, in Renaissance and Hermetic Cabalism, and in the Tree of Life Cabala of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which became one of the largest single influences on 20th century Western occultism, the correspondences of the Hebrew Alphabet extend beyond numerology and astrology to include colours, perfumes, gems, alchemical and magical images, and the twenty-two Trumps of the Tarot, culminating in what the great scholar of Kabbalah, Gershom Scholem (Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism 1946) called “the highly coloured humbug of Aleister Crowley” for which the latter’s 777 is none the less an invaluable handbook.
Many modern versions of the Tree, including that of the Golden Dawn, follow Athanasius Kirsher’s 1625 arrangement, at least in the numbering and attributions of the Hebrew Alphabet to the paths.
Crowley to the side, this was the Cabala tradition I and others received from Tony Potter in the 1960s, though it was very much in practical terms, with little historical or scholarly background of which I am now becoming, at least glancingly, aware. It was described as a mystic teaching made applicable for today; Hebraic, but not limited to the Jews. From the top downwards, the Tree explains how something comes into manifestation from nothing. Conversely, awareness begins with its source in the physical world and works back up the Tree in stages. One should come to know exactly at what point one’s awareness is at any time.
The Tree also comprises ‘The Doctrine of Worlds’, of which there are four: Assiah, the solid world we know; Yetzirah, the world of thoughts, emotions and imagery; Briah, the world which thoughts come from; Atziluth, the most abstract plane, transcending individual human experience. The worlds also correspond to the parts of the human soul, of which the ultimate unity is called ‘Yechidah’. It corresponds to Kether; Chiah to Atziluth, Neschamah, to Briah, Ruach to Yetzirah and Nephesh to Assiah.
Apart from the involvement of the Stop exercise at every stage, which seems to have been peculiar to The Society of the Hidden Life, all this is, so to speak, ‘orthodox’ western Cabala. Potter also mentioned, in passing, that the four worlds can be represented as four interlacing Trees, for example the Malkuth of a higher world overlapping the Tiphareth of a lower world, or vice-versa. He implied that this too had the authority of tradition.
In the late 1960s, for various reasons the Highgate group began to founder. Seeking to ensure continuity, the founding fathers of the preceding “Society of the Common Life” which existed in 1950s Soho, began to appear in Highgate. The leading lights were Alan Bain, whom Tony had always acknowledged as his teacher, Wilfred Glyn Davies (Glyn), and Robin Amis. All of these (now dead) esotericists, in their different ways, devoted their lifetime to The Work.
FINDING THE LADDER
Robin Amis‘ interest and subsequent career wasn’t particularly cabalistic, being more influenced by the Gurdjieff/Ouspensky teaching known as The Fourth Way. After running a summer school in The Forest of Dean with his artist wife, he went on to study esoteric Christianity with the Greek Orthodox monks on Mount Athos, and was later instrumental in translating Boris Mouravieff’s ponderous three volume work Gnôsis into English. Gnôsis describes a path of enlightenment based on esoteric Christianity and the medieval ideal of courtly love, which Mouravieff calls The fifth Way and says “It reveals the yearning of the human heart secretly lamenting its profound loneliness. This romance constitutes the essential goal of esoteric work.”
Wilfred Glyn Davies had been introduced to cabala by a mysterious John Smith whom he met while serving in the Royal Air Force. Smith would pass on his teaching only to a very few individuals at a time, and Glyn too seemed reticent about openly sharing his own esoteric discoveries. When I visited him in his Maida Vale flat on 23rd. March 1969, he consulted the Yi-Ching oracle before showing me the large pieces of paper on which he was constructing what he called ‘The Greater Diagrams’ – versions of what came to be called ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ or ‘The Extended Tree’. This interlaced four Cabala Trees of Life, one in each of the ‘Four Worlds’, and was typical of what some group members affectionately referred to as a ‘Glynthesis’.
Cherry Gilchrist and Warren Kenton, both members of a study group Glyn formed in 1970, have both written about the occasion when a version of ‘The Greater Diagram’, was revealed by Glyn in 1972. In his The Path of a Kabbalist: An Autobiography (Kabbalah Society; Tree of Life Publishing UK, 2009) Warren describes it as ‘a rediscovery’, and refers to Glyn only as ‘my instructor’. He writes:“suddenly Jacob’s Ladder was there with the Great Tree on the central column. When the Kabbalah group was shown this scheme, we were stunned.” Gilchrist writes: “In this Tree, the Kether of the lower Tree becomes the Tiferet of the next higher one, and there are nine Sefirot down the right and left pillars, and ten (plus the ‘invisible’ sefira of Daat) down the centre.”
This is, in effect, a geometrical representation of the reunited totality of the human being, divided since the Fall. Coincidentally it parallels Moravieff’s “essential goal of esoteric work”
Warren was soon to adopt Jacob’s ladder, becoming a well known and respected teacher and prolific writer on Kabbalah, using his Hebraic name Z’ev ben Shimon Halevi. His version of Kabbalah, largely based on The Extended Tree as well as his own researches in what he calls ‘The Toledano Tradition’ is now almost as influential and well-known as the Hermetic Tradition of the Golden Dawn. Of the numerous images of the extended tree that proliferate on the net, the great majority are based on Warren’s version, which in turn is based on Glyn’s.
Alan Bain had also worked in terms of a Jacob’s Ladder diagram before 1970, and he too developed a system of Kabbalah teaching, but, unlike Warren Kenton, linked it with Tarot symbolism. This is published in a limited book edition and online as The Keys to Kabbalah. He read parts of the text to myself and other members of Tony Potter’s group in 1970 – not, at the time, to very great acclaim. To be honest, in all my brief encounters with The Extended Tree in the 1970s, including Warren’s publications, I felt there was something facile, specious and even exploitative about it. I was unaware of its originality, and felt the unextended form of the Tree to be quite complicated enough.
Bain’s Extended Tree has two innovations not found in any other version: First, it includes the Three Veils of Negative Existence as three points above the level of emanation from Kether. This results in thirty-two points which Bain attributes to the Thirty-Two Paths of Wisdom described in an obscure, possibly 8th C text now invariably tacked-on to editions of the somewhat earlier Sepher Yetzirah (Book of Formation). Secondly, he is at pains to remove Daath from the ladder, on the grounds that the Sepher Yetzirah stipulates there are ten sephiroth, and not eleven. Not only do I feel that, sephira or not, the position of Daath arises from the geometry and cannot be dispensed with, but Alan’s addition of the ‘Three Veils’ actually results in twelve points “attached to” the central pillar. Presumably Bain wouldn’t have counted ‘Ain’ as a sephirah, so why worry about Daath? In my own version, which I called The Gnostic Ladder, I retain the Daath point, as well as the Three Veils.
And yet – Bain may have had good reason which we know not of. I remember once encountering an un-characteristically quiet Tony Potter standing off-centre in the bar room of The Red Lion and Sun. I asked him what he was doing and he said he was bending the Tree round and cramming all the sephiroth into his solar plexus. “Aren’t you being a bit rough with the Tree?” I said, but he answered “ I’m rough with myself”. For Tony Potter, and probably for Bain, The Tree was made for mankind and not mankind for the Tree.
Warren Kenton’s Version
Daath in each of the three lower Trees is concealed by Yesod of the Tree above. Daath in Atziluth is shown in black. The colours are of the tabernacle, Exodus 26. The order of the elements (top to bottom) is in increasing density: fire, air, water, earth.
Considering that everyone has referred to such a diagram as a ‘ladder’, it’s odd that no-one thought to draw in the rungs. As a cabalist, Alan Bain would surely have found it significant that, with or without Daath, there are twenty-two rungs, or levels, on his version of The Ladder, and on his alone. It’s early days and so far attempts to attribute a Hebrew letter, or a corresponding Tarot Trump, to each rung have been extremely tentative.
The thirty two paths of The Sepher Yetzirah include the numbers from one to ten as the sephiroth, so it would be quite valid to consider the 22 rungs, corresponding to the Hebrew letters, as a structure which supports, underlies and also gives insight into the ten ‘Greater Sephiroth’. The fractal complexity of this might be inseparable from its elegance, but what it might mean in terms of human life and The Work has yet to be grasped. Perhaps it has been kept hidden for the very reason that, other than as an artefact of geometry, it actually has no significance? That, of course, is unthinkable in cabala.
The “Gnostic Ladder”
This may be the closest version to Wilfred Glyn-Davies’ original “Greater Diagrams”, although, like Alan Bain, I have included the Three Veils of Negative Existence and numbered the 32 intersections to make it easier to compare the two versions. Unlike Bain, I include Daath (דעת knowledge or gnosis) on the central pillar at point 13, corresponding to its usual position in the sequence.
The Greater Diagram, or extended Tree, while comprising the four worlds in the form of interlaced, ‘lesser’ Trees, in a way constitutes another, fifth world, not greatly different from the others in being an array of the ten sephiroth and twenty two paths, but differing in their vertical ladder structure.
It has something in common with another diagrammatic arrangement, implicit in Kabbalah, which unifies and transcends a basic structure. The four worlds are said to represent the four letters of the divine name, YHWH, יְהֹוָה which also correspond to the elements of Fire (yod) Water (First He) Air (Vau) and Earth (Second He). The introduction of a fifth element, Spirit (Shin שׁ), as described by the Christian cabalist John Reuchlin in De verbo mirifico (1494), makes the name Jeheshuah, Jesus. Just as the Greater Sephiroth represent Adam Kadmon, or The Anthropos, The Heavenly Man and the Ladder of Return, the Extended Tree is equally a glyph of The Saviour, though not as unique historical event, as in the person of the Christ, but applicable in every human being.
Tarot Trump 21, The World (LE MONDE), is placed on the position of Daath at the seventh stage in Alan Bain’s system described in ‘The Keys to Kabbalah’. It shows the four symbols of the Evangelists, which, again, are those of the four elements and the four worlds, surrounding a fifth element in the form of a dancing figure. Several modern commentators on the Tarot Trumps aver this figure is androgynous. If so the image could be taken to symbolise the prelapsarian totality of humankind, which has become the telos of psychological or spiritual development, and is also consistent with The extended Tree diagram.
And – remember the story of Oedipus and the Sphinx? Suppose the sphinx to be a curious creature made up of four beasts (symbolising four elements), and consider the nature of the riddle – “What is it that goes on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon and three legs in the evening?” (Notice ‘what’ rather than ‘who’) And what was Oedipus’ answer? Failure to give the correct answer meant the sphinx – the four elements – would tear you to pieces, so this is a cautionary exhortation to consciousness and self-knowledge.
BOOK OF FORMATION
The Sepher Yetzirah, a foundation work of Kabbalah, describes the creation of the universe by means of ten ‘sephiroth of nothing’, and the twenty two Hebrew Letters.
What seems at first sight to be missing from Kabbalah’s emphasis on letters and numbers is grammatical structure. In fact, this is implicit in the five-dimensional geometry, which is present in the virtual performing space evoked in every sentence, whether voiced or not, and which, in the Book of Formation, is the deity’s means of communication with the creation.
It is implicit in the grammatical structure as well as the referential framework of language that we speak and think in these geometric, temporal and moral terms, and, let’s face it, this ‘deep structure’ has evolved over millions of years of natural selection. Any animate creature with eyes and organs of locomotion, from snails and bees to bats, birds and squirrels has to have a built-in world model which is spacial and social, and sooner or later, occupies a brain. We humans are constantly engaged in representing the world to ourselves and each other through numerous cultural forms, staging and re-staging its drama the whole time; mentally modelling things as they were, are, and might be.
In the words of the educational philosopher James Britton (1908 – 1994): “It is typically human to be insistently preoccupied with this world representation, this retrospect and prospect that a man constructs for himself. It is of immense importance to him I believe. It is his true theatre of operations since all he does is done in the light of it; his hopes for the future depend upon its efficacy; and above all his sense of who he is and what it is worth for him to be alive in the world derive from it.” (Educational Review 1971 – my emphasis.)
Between two and five years old, children acquire language in parallel with their sensory-motor exploration of the visual, physical, social world in which they find themselves. For Britton, the inner world-model relies largely on language for its organisation. I would argue that it also relies, not only for its vividness but also for its structure, on a coherent temporal and spatial model of the material and visual world within which we are embodied. We see and are seen; act and are acted upon.
Language is the archetypal ‘memory system’, working with symbols and imagery related to an underlying architectural framework. Its flexibility lies in its mercurial detachment, through the verbal conventions which make each language unique, but is also able to remove us from immediate reality. As Britton points out, we can seem more preoccupied with our “world representation” than we are with the moment by moment interaction with the environment that constitutes our immediate experience.
Yet the mystic or esotericist, like the draughtsman, dancer, dramatist, philosopher, scientist, musician, sociologist or psychologist, the comedian, the writer, the raconteur, is in search of that elusive reality. The language of physical engagement in an art-form ensures a link with the actual which extends, and maybe transcends, verbal categories and accepted beliefs.
The ‘sephiroth of nothing’ are five continua: height and depth, east and west, north and south, with the addition of past and future and good and evil. They become ten only by way of the individual dimensionless point – the ‘still point’ (of consciousness) at the centre of the five-dimensional cube. Each ‘sephirah of nothing’ is thus a sort of semi-infinity, with either a beginning and no end, or with an end and no beginning. This focal point of transition is specific in time and space – finite, as opposed to ineffable or ‘infinite’. It is the perpetual immediacy, of ‘is-ness’: Philo’s NOW, accessible, tangible and unique. Yet the moment is also curiously ephemeral and evasive of consciousness, perhaps because it too is ‘nothing’, even though it is the reality of experience, and the agent and subject of change, or ‘making’.
“At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
but neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity…”
(T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets)
SNAKES AND LADDERS
It is essential to have one’s feet on the ground – to be in Malkuth. As the final level of the outward arc of manifestation, Malkuth is also the first rung of the ‘Ladder of Return’ – when it is an inner about-turn or ‘revolution’ in awareness. This is ‘where the road swings off’ but – you must keep the fork in the road in sight! Or – as the Sufis say – “Trust in Allah, but tether your camel”.
The Rule of Three
Yesod is the first step up the Ladder of Return. From then on, each level, or step, is alternately a dividing of the ways, made up of two ‘lesser sephiroth’, and a reunion in a Greater Sephirah. On the downward arc of manifestation there is a sort of gravitational pull from a ‘higher’, less dense state to a ‘lower’ denser state, seemingly in terms of a logical play of opposites, which exoteric rationality implicitly sees as a triadic determinism, or evolution, towards a better and better state. Thus on the downward arc the interplay of opposites finds unity in an ‘outward’ temporary solution or compromise; whereas on the upward climb duality seeks a unity which is the truth or quintessence by internalising the opposites, which are in turn dissolved and reformed in a still higher, more refined unity. The individual changes, and in so doing becomes more of an individual.
Ascent, through subjectivity, is a process symbolised by marriage – an inward, painful or ecstatic, acceptance of uncertainty, contradiction and duality. The opposite of Pilate publicly washing his hands, this is what is meant by ‘atonement’: at-one-ment.
The upward movement opposes the gravitational pull of objectivity, by dissolving, dividing and re-uniting to a more refined state. The process sounds arcane and alchemical, but is not so removed from modern life, and was well expressed by Gurdjieff who spoke of how the ‘Law of Three’ is ubiquitous, pervading conversation, as when discourse or argument leads to a new conception:
“…There has been a result, but this result has not been for you, but for someone or something outside you.”
Just who or what are we addressing or changing when, for example, we dispute on current affairs with someone on the internet? Do we really imagine it brings about change; do we even want to have that responsibility, or do we just want to feel we are right? Are we not simply perpetuating the status quo of action and reaction in which nothing ever changes?
“But now we speak of results in us… What you have done so far when you affirmed, denied or argued with others, I want you now to do with yourselves, so that the results you get may not be objective…but subjective.” (Views from the Real World – Early Talks of Gurdjieff as Recollected by his Pupils, 1973)
A similar line in subjectivity is written about by Kierkegaard in his Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments (1846),(which is in fact an attack on Hegelian determinism) wherein Kierkegaard gives an unusual definition:
An objective uncertainty, held fast through appropriation with the most passionate inwardness, is the truth, the highest truth there is for an existing person.
At the point where the road swings off (and where that is cannot be stated objectively, since it is precisely subjectivity), objective knowledge is suspended.
(It’s only tempting to add that Kierkegaard and Gurdjieff were no sleeping beauties when it comes to telling people what’s what!)
Reading the Tarot cards has a ceremonial quality. The ‘querent’ feels intensely present ‘in the moment’. The mind has usually put aside its obsessive preoccupation, and is alertly engaged, rather like an art student when the life model first appears in all his or her naked glory. Many attempts have been made to link the twenty two Tarot Trumps to the Hebrew Alphabet, and none is wholly satisfactory in rational terms, though the characteristically mysterious and contradictory symbolism can often make the cards appear surprisingly relevant – the Psyche’s native language is imagery.
For occultists schooled in cabala the order of the 22 Trumps, the ‘Major’ or ‘Greater Arcana’, can simply follow that of the 22 letters, though perhaps with the odd adjustment. The Fool is unnumbered. The Golden Dawn places him in the position of zero, ascribed to Aleph, the actual value of which is unity. The overall arrangement matches The Hanged Man to water (Mem), arguing that the image signifies the babe afloat in the womb, and, because the figure looks both mature and not discommoded by his upside-down position, making it a symbol of a psychological rebirth revealing everything from a new angle. The Hermit corresponds to Virgo and the letter Yod – presumably validated by an association with celibacy. But what about one of the earliest Tarots, the Visconti-Sforza deck, commissioned sometime between 1450 & 1468, in northern Italy, in which the Trump cards carry neither numbering nor titles, though they are recognisable, and the figure we’d call “The Hermit” carries not a lantern but an hourglass – isn’t that a symbol of Saturn? But so, surely, is ‘Death’ (Trump 13) which usually depicts a skeleton wielding a sickle. In fact, in the G.D. system Saturn corresponds to Trump 21, The World, and the letter Tau (ת) though the hanged man’s gibbet is clearly in the shape of that letter. Would it not be true to say that all the cards reflect Saturn? Maybe – if the scale of creation begins with ‘Who?’ and ends with ‘What?’.
As a memory system, the Tarot will always tell you something however you shuffle or arrange it.
The Tower, number 16, is shown being struck by lightning. A man and woman are falling to the earth.
In some versions the Tower has twenty-two lines of brickwork and is also called ‘LA MAISON DIEV’.
The paradox is that in climbing the ladder, you should keep your feet on the ground.
Most esotericists emphasise the importance of being ‘grounded’ in physicality; Gurdjieff goes so far as to say that even a thought can be weighed, and Barry Long maintains that love is a physical sensation. While not denying the duality of good and evil, in Kabbalah it would be a great mistake to regard Malkuth, the sephirah of the physical universe, as essentially evil or inferior. The mistake is detaching it from the other worlds. Adam’s sin was in removing the apple from the Tree.
Thirty Two Levels
One ascends the ladder in terms of the ‘Law of Three’, as described above. It’s also noteworthy that each lesser Tree on the ladder consists of eight levels from Malkuth to Kether – that is including the level at Daath. Implicitly, then, the entire ladder consists of 32 levels – some overlapping – which, theoretically suggests yet another analysis in terms of the Thirty Two Paths.
Malkuth – Yesod – Malkuth
Approaching the Ladder in terms of the middle pillar sephiroth, and starting with the Tree in Assiah, the first three steps are Malkuth, Yesod, and Tiphareth. But Tiphareth in Assiah is also Malkuth in Yetzirah (Greater Hod). The same three steps on the Tree in Yetzirah arrive at Malkuth in Briah; this important point is not only Tiphareth in Yetzirah, but also Greater Tiphareth. Similarly the three steps to Tiphareth in Briah arrive at Malkuth in Atziluth. If further development in consciousness were possible at this level, it would be to Yesod in Atziluth, which is Greater Daath, a state of ultimate individuality, beyond which only the Fool would venture.
If the developmental step from Malkuth to Yesod represents the first step of independence, and the Daath point represents a step in individuation, it seems significant that the Daath point on each Tree corresponds to the Yesod on the next higher tree, independence and individuality being somewhat similar.
Th diagram below shows one possible pattern of correspondences, based on the Three Mother and seven double (planetary) letters. There might be some significance in the fact that in a tonic scale with doh on Malkuth, the Mi-Fa and Ti-doh semitone intervals each correspond to Tiphareth-Daath.*
*(See also Singinghead’s article on the musical scale: https://singinghead.wordpress.com/2017/03/01/the-octave-and-the-tree-of-life/)
A ladder to nowhere? Versions of the Ladder with other tentative attributions:
THE MINOR ARCANA
One can explore The Extended Tree in terms of the 32 ‘Paths of Wisdom’, but, perhaps more importantly, in terms of visual imagery, starting with the Tarot. The so-called ‘Greater’ or ‘Major Arcana’, the ‘Trumps’, will pertain to the 22 rungs including the Greater Sephiroth; the 40 ‘Lesser’ or ‘Minor Arcana’ of the suites of Wands, Cups, Swords and Pentacles pertain to the sephiroth of the four ‘Lesser’ or ‘Minor’ Trees.
The Waite deck, and Crowley’s ‘Book of Thoth’, are not only artistically superior Tarot packs, they extend symbolic imagery throughout the Lesser Arcana of the four suites and the court cards. Consequently there are layers of attribution attached to each nodal point on the Ladder. (This is looked at in more detail in “Cabbalistic Conclusions”)
There is scope for practical research on The Ladder. There is nothing static about it, and it should not be treated as a well-crafted set of shelves on which to tidy and display one’s insights and psychological trophies. It symbolises ‘the Telos’ of psychological or spiritual development’; a Liebestod of paradox.
As the Sepher Yetzirah says of the Sephiroth ‘Their end is in their beginning and their beginning is in their end, as the flame is bound to the coal – close your mouth lest it speak and your heart lest it think.’
PLEASE NOTE: The basic elements of a practical engagement with both the Tree of Life and The Ladder are contained in this and the preceding article. If possible one should work systematically with personal supervision from an esoteric initiate. The next article ‘Cabalistic Conclusions’, places the Ladder and esoteric ideas in a wider and more accessible context of people, arts and scholarship: https://johnnpearceartist.com/12951-2/
©️ John N.Pearce 1st May 2021
Some relevant background readings from Academia:
The Visconti-Sforza Tarot: A Sacred Open Secret By Gary Lee – excellent:
Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola and Christian Cabala Rabbi Juan M Bejarano Gutierrez – brief and highly articulate.
Mysticism Historicized: Historical Figures and Movements by Brian Ogren – informative overview of mysticism, through historical links.
Notes on Editions of Sefer Yetzirah in English Don Karr – very useful:
Jewish Mysticism in the Lands of the Ishmaelites Ronald C. Kiener – informative:
Demon est Deus Inversus: Honoring the Daemonic in Iamblichean Theurgy Gregory Shaw – fascinating despite a plethora of Greek terms:
Sexuation in Jung and Lacan (International Journal of Jung Studies, 2010) by Sean McGrath – difficult but relevant because of the significance of language stucture in Lacan.
A Very Brief Introduction to Lacan by Stephen Ross (University of Victoria) – Anything but brief! Among other things Ross eloquently explains complex ideas, such as how linguistic ‘signification’ masks the absence of the truth it at the same time evokes, thereby implying the subjective sense of alienation, division and ‘fall’. Reconciling esotericism with Lacan’s structuralist Neo-Freudianism is quite a challenge.