by John Michael Greer
(This article was originally written in 2001 for the Tarot Journal, a good but unfortunately short-lived periodical for which Archdruid John Gilbert and I both wrote. — JMG)
I suspect most people have had the experience of encountering a new idea, and watching the contact between that idea and one’s existing stock of knowledge unfold a whole sequence of new perspectives and ways of looking at the world. Most students of the Tarot, in particular, will be familiar with it, since the art of divination works in large part precisely by opening up such connections. My latest brush with this experience came by way of John Gilbert’s article “The Tree of Life and the Wheel of the Year” in Issue One of The Tarot Journal.(1)
Like most revelations, this one had plenty of preparation in my life and studies. As a longtime practitioner of Hermetic magic in the Golden Dawn tradition, I’ve been wrestling with the Cabalistic Tree of Life for a quarter of a century. As a member of the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids (OBOD), an international order of Druidry based in England, I’ve also spent several years working with the eightfold year-wheel, the ritual calendar of the modern Pagan movement.(2) The concept of bringing the two together into a broader symbolic pattern, though, was new to me – and it sparked a series of discoveries that not only confirm and expand on John’s insight into the connections between these apparently different symbolic systems, but also offer a range of practical applications in ‘ and out of the realm of Tarot.
An Alternate Tree of Life
The Tree of Life has been called the central glyph of the Western esoteric tradition, and it is used in many approaches to the Tarot as a guide to the meaning and relationships of the cards. Many students of the Cabala (3) are aware that the standard version of the Tree of Life, as it appears in most occult writings, is only one of a forest of Trees that have been used at one point or another in the long history of the Cabalistic tradition. The differences aren’t limited to the assignment of Hebrew letters or Tarot trumps to the twenty-two Paths of the Tree. There are versions that place the Paths differently on the Tree, versions that put the ten Sephiroth or Spheres in a different order, even versions that dispense with the Paths altogether or combine Spheres into larger unities.(4)
One of these alternate Trees is of particular interest in the present context, as it rearranges the Spheres and Paths into a pattern with straightforward similarities to the Pagan wheel of the year. Students of sacred geometry will know that this alternate version is based on the square root of 2, while the more common version of the Tree makes use of geometries based an the square root of 3. (5) This has more than a little relevance to the present subject; the square root of 2 is the geometrical function of Generation, and represents the forces of natural growth and decay in the world (among many other things). It thus has a good deal to say about the cycle of the seasons, with their alternation of summer and winter, life and death, beginnings and endings. The square root of 3, by contrast, is the function of Reconciliation, and stands for the timeless realm where all these opposites come into harmony.
In this alternative version of the Tree, eight of the Spheres form a circle, with the remaining two – Tiphareth, the Sphere of the Sun, and Yesod, the Sphere of the Moon inside the circle. Since the Sun and Moon are the driving forces and anchors for the cycle of the year, this seems appropriate! The remaining Spheres can be assigned to the eight festivals of the year-wheel in a straightforward manner. The symbolism of the year-wheel varies widely within different Pagan traditions, and the extent of the common ground between the Tree and the Wheel varies accordingly. Still, many of the common themes of the Pagan festivals link with their corresponding Spheres of the Tree to a remarkable extent.
We’ll start with Samhain, the beginning of the Pagan year.(6)
Samhain/Samhuinn (7) (November 1) Cabalistic correspondence: Binah
In Druid tradition, Samhuinn is the time of the dead, when the barrier between the worlds is let down and spirits walk the land of the living. It is the feast of death and rebirth, the beginning and end of the old Celtic calendar. Most Pagans celebrate and commemorate at this time their ancestors and elders who have passed into the Otherworld. It represents the fall of the last leaves and the heart of autumn. It is also a special festival of the Goddess in Her third aspect, the Crone.
All this is exactly mirrored in the symbolism of Binah, the third Sphere of the Tree of Life. Binah’s planetary equivalent is Saturn, the planet of time and restriction; its symbolic color is black, and its magical image is a mature or elderly woman in a black robe, bearing a staff To Binah belongs the most powerful of female images of Divinity in the Cabala: Aima Elohim, the Mother of the Gods and Goddesses. Binah is also Mara, the bitter Great Sea, and its symbolism is deeply linked with that of the Abyss-the gap between the three higher and seven lower Spheres-which is described symbolically as a dark and pathless void. In the Golden Dawn system, this Sphere corresponds to the grade of initiation called Magister Templi or “Master of the Temple,”(8) the level at which the aspirant comes to experience everything in the universe — even death and decay — as a manifestation of the Divine.
Yule/Alban Arthuan (December 21) Cabalistic correspondence: Kether
Alban Arthuan, “the Light of Arthur” in the Druid tradition, is the festival of the Winter Solstice, and is associated with the northern quarter of the world. As the name implies, it also has much to do with the legendary King Arthur, who is also Arktos the Great Bear or Big Dipper, tracing out the Round Table of the stars as it turns around the North Pole. The association of Santa Claus with the North Pole is a sign that the polar symbolism of this holy day is not limited to Druidry! The months leading up to the solstice have seen the Sun retreat far into the south. This festival is the day of the Sun’s return, and is celebrated among Pagans with trees or garlands, the kindling of lights, and the burning of the yule log.
Here, too, Cabalistic symbolism and Pagan tradition mesh closely. Kether is the summit of the Tree of Life and the source of all light; it is the single star that shines across the Abyss, just as the newborn Sun brings the year’s longest night to an end. In the Golden Dawn tradition, which maps out the Tree of Life on the sphere of the heavens, Kether’s place is at the north celestial pole, guarded by the prowling Great Bear. Its astrological correspondence has been debated among Cabalists, with some suggesting Pluto, others the Milky Way, and still others relying on the ancient concept of the primum mobile, the outermost sphere that moves all the heavens; all these cases share the concept of Kether as the highest and outermost realm of manifestation. Equally, the Golden Dawn grade of initiation corresponding to Kether is that of Ipsissimus, “Most Oneself,” about which nothing meaningful may be said at all.
Brigid/Imbolc (February 2) Cabalistic correspondence: Chokmah
Imbolc or Oimelc in Irish Gaelic literally means “ewe’s milk,” and it was once a festival kept by shepherds; it celebrated the end of the harsh weather of winter, but little is known about how it was once kept. In modern Druid practice and in many other Pagan traditions, this festival is dedicated to Brigid, the Irish goddess (and later Christian saint) of poetry, healing, and ironwork. It represents the first stirring of the light and warmth of spring. In many traditions it is the only one of the eight festivals in which male images of Divinity have no place.
This is the one place in the eightfold wheel where current Pagan practice parts company with Cabalistic symbolism, for Chokmah is the primary male Sphere, as Binah is the primary female Sphere. Its astrological symbol is the Zodiac, or the realm of the stars generally, and its magical image is a mature or elderly man clad in a gray robe, bearing a staff. On the other hand, a festival of returning light and life has much in common with Chokmah, which is the head of the Pillar of Force on the Tree and represents creative power at its purest and most primal. The grade of initiation in this Sphere is that of Magus, “Mage,” the Master of Power through whom flows the creative forces of the entire cosmos.
Ostara/Alban Eiler (March 21) Cabalistic correspondence: Chesed
A solar festival in modern Pagan practice, welcoming the coming of spring and the bursting of new life in the natural world, this festival takes place at the Spring Equinox. It is often assigned to the Germanic goddess Ostara or her Anglo-Saxon equivalent Eostre, whose name is the origin of the modern word Easter. The eastern quarter of the world and the element of Air are important in many traditions at this time. In Druid tradition this is Alban Eiler, “the Light of the Earth,” and has similar overtones; seeds are distributed to all present, and the new life of spring is welcomed.
Here the Pagan and Cabalistic symbolisms come back into harmony. Chesed is the great center of constructive force on the Tree of Life; its astrological correspondence is Jupiter, the Greater Benefic among the planets, and its symbolic color is the clear blue of the springtime sky. In the Golden Dawn tradition the Spring Equinox is celebrated with intensive ritual work, in which the powers of Sun and Earth are brought together and the Temple and its members renewed; it is a time of new beginnings, one of the three major festivals of the Golden Dawn year.(9) The grade of initiation corresponding to this Sphere in the Golden Dawn tradition is that of Adeptus Exemptus, “Exempt Adept,” the level at which the initiate has resolved the entire burden of his or her past karma and is ready to cross the Abyss into a new and greater life.
Beltane/Belteinne (May 1) Cabalistic correspondence: Netzach
In Pagan circles this is the great spring festival, celebrating the mating of the Goddess and the God. Fires are lit to welcome the summer and drive away the spirits of the year’s cold half; the Goddess takes on her first aspect, that of Flower Maiden, and the God may be welcomed as Bel, the Celtic fire god, or as the horned and homy Pan. In Druid groves this festival is linked to Glastonbury, the ancient Isle of Avalon; the masculine and feminine powers are symbolized by Glastonbury Tor and Chalice Well, and in another sense by the sword and the cup, Excalibur and the Holy Grail.
It would be impossible to find anything on the Tree of Life closer to the spirit of Bealteinne than Netzach, the seventh Sphere. Its astrological correspondence is Venus, its symbolic color is green, and its magical image is a beautiful woman wearing a crown of roses and nothing else whatsoever. At the base of the Pillar of Force, Netzach represents the power of attraction manifesting at every level of existence, from the energy bonds that link subatomic particles to the vast gravitational forces that hold the galaxies together-and to the forces of friendship, passion, and love that unite human beings with one another. Even the relationship to Fire is there, since in the Golden Dawn tradition the grade of initiation corresponding to Netzach is Philosophus, “Philosopher,” which corresponds to Fire.
Litha/Alban Heruin (June 21) Cabalistic correspondence: Malkuth
The festival of the Summer Solstice, Alban Heruin or “the Light of the Shore,” is the most important day of the Druid calendar; the Sun is at its height, and Druids gather at dawn and again at noon to welcome it and rejoice in “the plenty and gladness of the realm that is to be restored.” In many other Pagan traditions this is a celebration of summer’s richness and a time for healing and purification. The element of Fire and the southern quarter of the world are symbolically important to many traditions at this time.
This may seem like an unlikely festival to correspond to Malkuth, the tenth and last Sphere of the Tree of Life, which corresponds to the Earth as the realm of the four elements. Still, the connection is there, and relevant. Malkuth is the Sphere in which the entire creative process of the Tree comes to fruition and manifestation; it contains and fulfills all of the other Spheres. Its symbolic colors include citrine, russet, and olive, the colors of full-grown vegetation, along with Binah’s somber black, a reminder that when summer is at its height winter is not so far away. In the Golden Dawn tradition, the annual Consecration of the Vault of the Adepts is held near the Summer Solstice; the vault is the symbolic burying place of Christian Rosencreutz, the legendary founder of the Rosicrucian Order, and the imagery of the vault deep within the earth, fashioned as a symbol of the universe, resonates well with Malkuth.(10) The corresponding initiation of the Golden Dawn system is that of Zelator, the “zealous one” who tends the transmuting fire of the alchemist.
Lammas/Lughnasadh (August 1) Cabalistic correspondence: Hod
In Pagan and Druid practice alike this festival marks the beginning of the harvest and its abundance, and heralds the approach of autumn and the cold half of the year. The Irish god Lugh gives his name to this festival in many traditions; a solar god, he also had the title Samildanach, “possessing all skills.” In ancient Ireland this was a season of horse races, athletic contests, and bardic competitions.
Here again Pagan and Cabalistic symbolic systems come into close harmony. Hod is the basal Sphere of the Pillar of Form, and represents individuation, the process by which each thing and being in the universe becomes something uniquely itself, just as each seed planted during spring grows into a unique plant with its own character and form during the warm months of summer. The astrological correspondence of Hod is Mercury, and the Roman god Mercury also possessed all skills-in fact, the relationship between Lugh and Mercury was close enough that Roman writers called Lugh’s Gaulish equivalent, Lugos, “the Gaulish Mercury.” The grade of initiation assigned to this Sphere in the Golden Dawn tradition is that of Practicus, “Practicer,” and represents the achievement of practical competence in the magical arts. The symbolic color of Hod is orange, recalling the warm sun of August and the first trace of color in leaves that are soon to fall.
Mabon/Alban Elued (September 22) Cabalistic correspondence: Geburah
The festival of the Autumn Equinox is called Alban Elued, “the Light of the Sea,” by Druids, and a variety of names by other Pagans. It marks the middle of the harvest season and the coming of the cold half of the year. Some modern Pagan traditions assign this festival to Mabon ap Modron, the divine child of Welsh legend, who was kidnapped from his mother at the age of three days and hidden in an Otherworld fortress; he is a symbol of the Sun, which spends more than half its time beneath the Earth after this day.
The Cabalistic symbolism again forms a close harmony to these Pagan traditions. Geburah, at the heart of the Pillar of Form, represents the powers of destruction and radical change that we all fear-and all must face. Its symbolic color is red, like the changing leaves and the spilled blood of farm animals who were slaughtered beginning at this time, so their meat could be preserved for the coming winter. At this time Golden Dawn temples again enact the Equinox Ritual, as the Sun passes southward across the celestial equator. The corresponding Golden Dawn grade is that of Adeptus Major, “Greater Adept,” the master of will and silence, who has defeated the most difficult enemy of all-his or her own ego.
Applications and Possibilities
From one perspective, the correspondences and connections just outlined can be seen as yet another set of symbols to arrange on the Tree of Life, another addition to the already bulky mental toolkit of the Cabalistic magician. On the other hand, there are some useful possibilities that unfold from these connections. Some of these relate directly to the Tarot. In the standard Tree of Life, the eight Spheres that represent the festivals of the year-wheel are connected by eight Paths, and each of these has a Tarot trump associated with it, as follows:
Samhuinn (Binah) to Alban Arthuan (Kether): I, Magician
Alban Arthuan (Kether) to Imbolc (Chokmah): 0, Fool
Imbolc (Chokmah) to Alban Eiler (Chesed): VI, Hierophant
Alban Eiler (Chesed) to Belteinne (Netzach): X, Wheel of Fortune
Belteinne (Netzach) to Alban Heruin (Malkuth): XVIII, Moon
Alban Heruin (Malkuth) to Lughnasadh (Hod): XX, Judgment
Lughnasadh (Hod) to Alban Elued (Geburah): XII, Hanged Man
Alban Elued (Geburah) to Samhuinn (Binah): VII, Chariot
These correspondences can be used in divination as a way to suggest the approximate season of the year when an event may happen-for example, the Wheel of Fortune might suggest a time in early spring, between late March and the beginning of May. They can also be used in Pathworking as a way of inner voyaging, traveling the Paths around the rim of the Wheel one at a time or all in sequence. Finally, they offer some useful possibilities to Tarot designers, who may find it interesting to weave seasonal patterns directly into the artwork of these eight Trumps-or into the whole set-to provide a dimension that has been lacking in many decks to date.
Equally, the alternate Tree of Life outlined above can be used as the basis for a divination spread that could be used for a picture of the year to come.(11) Each of the eight positions around the wheel would stand for a period of time beginning with that festival and ending with the next one. The central card, representing Tiphareth and the Sun, would indicate the character of the year as a whole, while the card of Yesod, between the central Sun and the Summer Solstice card, could be used to suggest the position of the querent relative to the events of the year.”
Other Tarot applications can be unfolded from the basic pattern of symbolism. Equally, those whose interest in the Tarot (and the Tree of Life) extends beyond divination may be able to open up the connection between the Tree and the year-wheel in a variety of ways, including ritual and meditation. In particular, at a time when the esoteric community suffers in many areas from a sharp division between Pagan and Cabalistic/Hermetic approaches, a way of drawing connections between the central symbolic structure of each side may be a welcome step toward building bridges of understanding.
All these are just the first possibilities that come to mind. One of the great advantages of the sort of symbolic thinking central to the Western magical traditions is the way that a single, symbolically rooted insight can unfold and expand, revealing more and more of itself, given time and contemplation.
John Michael Greer, CTM, is a longtime student of Hermetic magic and the Western esoteric traditions. The author of six published and two forthcoming books on occult topics, he is also a Druid of the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids (OBOD), a practitioner of geomancy and sacred geometry, and an active member of eight fraternal and two magical lodges. He lives in Seattle.
2. Despite claims that have been made for the antiquity of the eightfold Sabbats, no reference to a Pagan ritual calendar composed of eight festivals at roughly equal intervals around the year can be reliably dated before the early 1950s. Older sources, including such standbys as J.G. Frazer’s Golden Bough, show a far more diverse and localized set of ritual calendars, with wide variations in different parts of Pagan Europe and a range of pagan or quasi-Pagan festivals that are not part of the modern year-wheel (see Ronald Hutton’s acerbic but well-researched Stations of the Sun [NY: Oxford UP, 1996]). The eight festivals of modern Pagan practice have been pieced together from many different cultures, with names taken from Irish Gaelic, Welsh, German, Old English-and one (Litha, the Summer Solstice) borrowed from the fantasy fiction of J.RR Tolkien, hardly evidence of ancient roots. None of this makes the year-wheel one iota less valid as a symbolic structure or a ritual calendar; every tradition has to be new at some point in its history, while a teaching can be gray with the dust of centuries and still partly or wholly useless.
3. Also spelled Kabbalah, Qabalah, and a wide range of other ways, the Cabala is a tradition of mystical thought and practice evolved within Judaism and passed on, during the Renaissance, to the whole range of Western spiritual movements. See John Michael Greer, Paths of Wisdom (St. Paul: Llewellyn, 1996) for an overview that includes the Cabala’s relation to the Tarot.
5. For an introduction to sacred geometry, see Robert Lawlor, Sacred Geometry: Philosophy and Practice (NY: Thames & Hudson, 1982), which covers the geometries of the square roots of 2 and 3 in detail.
6. The following comments on the eight Sabbats are impressionistic at best, and focus on those elements of their symbolism that suggest Cabalistic equivalents. They also draw on my own background as a Druid, and so may not match the symbolism of other Pagan traditions. Along with Druid writings, I have used Elen Hawke’s useful In the Circle: Crafting the Witches’ Path (St. Paul: Llewellyn, 2001), along with that dog-eared classic, Scott Cunningham, Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner (St. Paul: Llewellyn, 1988), among other sources, as a basis for these outlines.
7. The eight festivals of the year-wheel have different names in different traditions, although (as mentioned above, note 1) no complete set of names in any single culture or religious tradition from before 1950 has ever been uncovered. I have given two names for each festival; the first is the one commonly used in the American Pagan community, the second is the name used in the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids.
8. The grades of initiation have been used and interpreted in a variety of ways over the years. As used here, they are not simply a matter of passing through ceremonies, but stages of spiritual attainment that may take many lifetimes to achieve. See Greer, op. cit., pp. 85-88, and for a somewhat different approach, Paul Foster Case’s The True and Invisible Rosicrucian Order (York Beach, ME: Weiser, 1985).
Case, Paul Foster. The True and Invisible Rosicrucian Order. York Beach, ME: Weiser, 1985.
Cunningham, Scott. Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner, St. Paul: Llewellyn, 1988.
Giibert, John. “The Tree of Life and the Wheel of the Year,” Tarot Journal 1: 1 (Spring 2001), pp. 5-7.
Greer, John Michael. Paths of Wisdom. St. Paul: Llewellyn, 1996.
Halevi, Z’ev ben Shimon. Kabbalah: Tradition of Hidden Knowledge. NY: Thames & Hudson, 1979.
Hawke, Elen. In the Circle: Crafting the Witches’ Path. St. Paul: Llewellyn, 2001.
Hutton, Ronald. Stations of the Sun. NY: Oxford UT, 1996.
Lawlor, Robert, Sacred Geometry: Philosophy and Practice. NY: Thames & Hudson, 1982.
Nichols, Ross. The Book of Druidry. SF: HarperCollins, 1990.
Regardie, Israel. The Golden Dawn. St: Paul: Llewellyn, 1989.