Lesson 8: QBL: The Wheel of Fortune

Welcome to Lesson Eight. You will notice that I am fond of using italics and boldface to highlight specific words. Anything highlighted can be considered a vocabulary word or concept that I want to bring special attention to. Boldface is a topic that I recommend doing further personal research about.

I use the following spellings to differentiate between three very different esoteric systems: Kabbalah as a type of Jewish mysticism that began in the Middle Ages, Cabala as a form of Christian mysticism that began during the Renaissance, and Qabalah as a form of Western occult philosophy that began with Éliphas Lévi and the Golden Dawn-era magicians. Qabalah is the only one of the three that includes tarot. When I’m talking about all three traditions at the same time or something general enough to be part of all three, I use QBL. Other writers use their own conventions.

In Lesson 4, I stated that the classical Western elements are one of the most ancient and fundamental principles to esoteric tarot. I traced this principle back to 5th century BCE and Empedocles of Acragas. The oldest known inscription of the Tetragrammaton dates to 840 BCE and the Mesha Stele (Moabite Stone). The inclusion of the Tetragrammaton in Jewish magic, especially the inscribing of magical amulets was popular during the Second Temple Period (516 BCE and 70 CE) when there was generally a lot of syncretism going on with Hellenistic culture. Jewish Talmudic & Merkabah mysticism originated during this period;
Jewish Kabbalah appeared centuries later and with even more syncretism.

The Sefer Yetzirah, the foundational proto-Kabbalistic mystical text, was written somewhere between 400-900 AD. I am pretty certain that its author was influenced by esoteric philosophies outside of the Merkabah tradition, especially those originally spawned in Hellenistic culture. Non-Jewish cabalism surfaced during the Renaissance thanks to Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. Mirandola is attributed with being the founder of Christian Cabalistic philosophy. 

Until the 1850s, Christian cabalists worked with astrology, alchemy, gnostic literature, and many other occult practices but not the tarot. Tarot- tarocchi cards, in Italian- happened to use a lot of iconographic themes also favored by the Renaissance aristocracy and those they patronized. The first known occult scholar to believe (incorrectly) that tarot could be traced back to Egyptian mysticism was Antoine Court de Gébelin (1725 – 1784). He made a direct link between the 22 Major Arcana and the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet based on his experiences with Freemasonry and cabalism.

After 1780, several prominent occultists created their own tarot decks where they intentionally included cabalistic and/or Egyptian iconography and began to use tarot as part of ceremonial magic or other occult practices. The most famous of them was Éliphas Lévi, who published his system as Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie in 1854-1856. It was translated into English and published under the title Transcendental Magic its Doctrine and Ritual by A.E. Waite in 1896.

Left- the BOTA deck Wheel of Fortune © Builders of the Adytum; Right- the Universal Waite deck Wheel of Fortune © US Games Systems, Inc.

The Tetragrammaton

The Tetragrammaton appears in the RWS and BOTA decks upon the Wheel of Fortune card. The Wheel featured in these cards resembles the type of magical glyph favored by ceremonial magicians. In Greek, Tetra means four and a Tetragram is a word with four letters. The Tetragrammaton is a specific Hebrew name of God.  Hebrew is read from right to left, backward of English.  The Tetragrammaton has four Hebrew letters, Yod Heh Vau Heh. 

The tetra mytheme expresses itself in modern esoteric tarot over and over again. For example, we see it as the four elements, the four suits, the four court cards in each suit. Specifically on the Wheel of Fortune, we we see it as the Tetragrammaton and other symbols that all correspond to the four elements.

Here is how all the tetrads displayed on the RWS/BOTA style Wheel of Fortune associate with one another.

Yod יHeh הVauHeh ה
Sulphur.svg♒︎Mercury symbol.svg🜔
Leo (lion)Scorpio (eagle)Aquarius (man)Taurus (bull)
Aryeh kerub of fireNesher kerub of waterAdam kerub of AirShor kerub of Earth

Those alchemical symbols along the middle row are not the traditional ones for the four elements. Instead, they represent the Water of Dissolution (shares symbol of Aquarius) and the Three Principles of Alchemy (sulfur, mercury, and salt). A very interesting discussion on the alchemical glyphs upon this card and what would happen to them should the wheel be rotated is archived on the now defunct Aeclectic Tarot forum.

The Kerubic beasts have a long tradition in Jewish and Christian mythology. They are included, along with a number of other tetra mythemes, in the Conjuration of the Four Elements by Éliphas Lévi.

This will be concluding my first set of Esoteric Tarot lessons. The next set will be dedicated specifically to the works of Éliphas Lévi and everything he established that is the foundation of Qabalistic tarot.

End of Lesson Exercises

Exercise #1

Watch Ellen Goldberg’s Howcast video (~7 minutes) on the RWS-style Wheel of Fortune card then write your thoughts about the Wheel of Fortune card and all of this related esoteric lore in your tarot journal.

Exercise #2

Look at the Tetragrammaton Spread featured on the Tarot Club website. Experiment with doing it for yourself and write down any thoughts about the reading as well as the spread itself in your tarot journal.

Exercise #3

Using the big table of elemental associations from Lesson 4 as well as the table above, pick an elemental system or names for the elements that you really like and do a little bit more research on your own. Imagine how you would work them into a set of Aces for the Minor Arcana. Get creative and play with sketching or image editing your own set of Aces that use them.

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