I discovered Tarot—really, the Tarot discovered me—in 1970. At that time, I had a lifelong interest in mythology, and had occasionally looked at books of both mysticism and occultism—strangely, my home town library had a whole section of occult books that I read, without much understanding, as a teenager—but knew nothing of Kabbalah. I had never heard of the Tree. Through Tarot I learned of this wondrous image of the cosmos, and later worked out how to use it as a spread for readings that looked deeply at who we are. I first described how to use the Tree as a Tarot spread in my book 78 Degrees Of Wisdom. The spread can be done in a “short” form, with one card for each position, which is, of course, the usual way we do Tarot readings. But it also offers us the possibility to do a reading that uses all 78 cards. Over the years since 78 Degrees I have changed and developed some of the meanings I use for the positions in the spread. Now I’ve decided to offer this full deck spread as part of my reading practice. Below is some information about the Tree, the reading, and how it works.
The Tree of Life is an ancient Kabbalistic diagram of energy and its movements between the physical world and the divine. We all of us exist in different worlds at once, and the Tree, with its different levels, is a perfect way to envision and understand who we are, from our daily lives to our highest spiritual experiences. The spread shown below—which I have done for over thirty years—is a very powerful way to look at your whole self. Because it uses the entire deck of 78 cards it becomes not a question of which cards come up, but where they come up, and how they relate to each other. What emerges is a deep and powerful portrait of a person’s life and its possibilities, its joys and hardships, its difficulties and its triumphs.
Mystics have contemplated and studied the Tree of Life for centuries. Over the last two centuries Tarot has become increasingly identified with the Tree, almost like ivy covering the branches. The Tree contains ten positions called sephiroth (singular, sephirah). Because the sephiroth are often depicted as circles, some people assume a sephirah is a sphere, and this can be a useful way to visualize it. In fact, however, the word is derived from the Hebrew for sapphire, because each sephirah shines like a bright jewel of truth.
The Tree contains ten of these sephiroth, based upon a very old Hebrew teaching that says the universe was created with 22 letters (the Hebrew alphabet, often identified with the 22 “Major Arcana” of the Tarot), and 10 numbers. Not 9, we are told, and not 11. In Tarot we often see the ten sephiroth with twenty-two connecting lines, to show us the order of the Major Arcana (and their correspondences with the mystical energies of the Hebrew alphabet). For this reading, however, we will use only the ten sephiroth as the positions in the spread.
We draw the sephiroth as circles, but in fact they are radiant energy, each one an aspect of our existence. The Tree forms a perfect pattern of development. The energy moves from the wholeness and perfect unity of the Crown, sephirah 1, to the vibrant complexity of daily life in the world we see around us every day, known as sephirah 10, Kingdom.
10, not 9 and not 11. In fact, tradition teaches that an eleventh sephirah does exist, or rather has the possibility to exist, in a kind of gap between the top three sephiroth and the bottom seven. Because this sephirah, called in Hebrew Da’ath (in English, Knowledge), is more a possibility than a fixed state, I have given it the number 0 rather than 11. This reminds us that the “official” number of the sephiroth is 10. It also allows us to see the Fool as the image of Da’ath (just as we can see cards 1-10, the Magician to the Wheel of Fortune as representations of the main sephiroth). The Fool, and its 0 of nothingness, reminds us that we are never pinned down, we always the possibility of change. Da’ath thus becomes the line of transformation.
Here is the Tree, with the Sephirah in their places. The first name for each sephirah is the original Hebrew, the second is the same title in English.
To use the Tree for a reading we need to “translate” these ideals into ways we look at our lives. There are, in fact, many ways to see the sephiroth as symbols of who we are. One is simply to look at the quality of the position and see how it can illuminate something about ourselves. Another is to relate them to what are called “planetary” energies, based upon the ancient astrological idea of the Earth, plus the Sun, the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. A quick count will show you that this comes to eight places. As the highest places on the Tree, the Crown and Wisdom, sephiroth 1 and 2, lie beyond the limitations of a specific planet (some people see 2 as the stars, and 1 as the cosmos as a whole, but these ideas are not that easy to translate into places in a Tarot spread). Because it exists more as transformation, Da’ath—Knowledge—also is not part of a specific planetary energy. The meanings below are possibilities. In the actual readings I do we work intuitively to understand the message of each line.
1. Kether/Crown—Highest spiritual level. Unity. Cards in this line should generally be interpreted positively, from a standpoint of growth, and reaching to a higher level. However, some cards may show what blocks you from that highest achievement.
2. Hokhmah/Wisdom—How are you wise? What in your life leads to wisdom? (Alternatively, this card may also show the influence of your father.)
3. Binah/Understanding—What is your understanding of the world? What have you learned? (Alternatively, this card may also show the influence of your mother. Also, the realm of Saturn—what is born out of going beyond limits.)
4. Chesed/Mercy—How are you generous? How has life been good to you? Again, some cards may show what blocks the good things in life. (Also, the realm of Jupiter, largeness of spirit.)
5. Geburah/Power—How has life been hard on you? What tests you, what crises must you face? How do you express your power? (Also, the realm of Mars, aggressive force.)
6. Tiphereth/Beauty—Where is there beauty in your life? What is at the center of who you are? (Also, the realm of the Sun, how you shine.)
7. Netzach/Victory—What are your victories? How do you direct your will? (Also, the realm of Venus, and thus the emotions.)
8. Hod/Glory—What is your glory? What’s special in your life? How do you share your victories with others? What good things do others see in you? (Also, the realm of Mercury, and thus the intellect.)
9. Yesod/Foundation—What is the foundation of your life? What’s at the base. (Also, the realm of the Moon, and thus the imagination, dreams, stories.)
10. Malkuth/Kingdom—What is your world in which you live and act? What is the effect of outside events, other people? (Also, the realm of Earth, and thus the body.)
0. Da’ath/Knowledge—How do you transform things in your life? What makes change possible? What do you know so deeply it can change your life?
How, then, do we use the whole deck to do this reading? The answer is actually very simple and very elegant. A Tarot deck consists of 78 cards. There is a tradition that tells us to start a reading by taking a single card from the deck, called a Significator, and setting it above the place where we will lay out the cards in their positions. Usually this will be a Court card, and because it represents the whole person, it does not get interpreted. There are many ways to choose the Significator in a specific reading, but the simplest is probably to lay out the sixteen Court cards and ask the person getting the reading to say which one attracts him or her the strongest (my own method, when I read for someone, is slightly more developed).
If we remove one card, we end up with 77. Since there are eleven positions in this spread (10 plus the 0 line of transformation), we end up with a perfect pattern of seven cards for each sephirah. Usually we set these seven out in a simple line, but of course it’s possible to play with how to place them. To illustrate this, here is how the top of the reading looks:
First position. Crown
Cards 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
|Third position. Understanding||Second position. Wisdom|
|Cards 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21||Cards 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14|
Following the pattern of the Tree we lay out positions 1-10, and then at the very end, lay out the final seven cards for 0, Da’ath.
Using the entire deck, with seven cards for each position, rather than the usual one, leads to a very complex reading. In my experience, each line has its own quality, its own movement. Sometimes the energy flows from left to right, or vice versa. At other times there is a clear center, and the other cards radiate from it, or go to it. At the same time, we see themes and issues emerge, not just in each line, but in the Tree as a whole. A Tree of Life reading is complex, and subtle, with wonderful variations and movements of energy. And yet, it is often very simple, getting right to the heart of who a person is even as it shows so many different levels.
Please note: this reading is (c) 2011 by Rachel Pollack.