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Zephyros  Zephyros is offline
Join Date: 31 Jan 2004
Location: Israel
Posts: 8,179
Thumbs up Beginner's Kabbalah: The Four Worlds and the Tree of Life

This was originally intended as an answer to a question in another thread, yet it became terrifyingly long, so I thought a separate thread would be in order. All of what follows is my own opinions and research, which may not be true for everyone. Kabbalah, despite its seemingly rigid reputation, is very subjective, and no one can understand such abstract things exactly the way someone else can, they must be chewed, chawed and experienced. Also, I make mistakes (I know, it must be a shock to find out I'm not perfect, here's a tissue). So, use it as a seed for the imagination, nothing more.


Sorry, I've been watching the Ten Commandments, biblical epics can be so, well, epic.


Shhhhh, that comes later! I'll turn it down. Still, listen to this while you read the following, I always like atmosphere.

In the beginning, the universe didn't exist (obviously). When we're talking about that kind of nothing, it's a nothing we can't even talk about, because there isn't anything to talk about. Not empty space, not even that. Just Nothing. Now, that nothing had neither size nor shape, so it was infinitely small, yet infinitely vast at the same time, since the concepts of time and space didn't exist. From that Nothing, somehow, by means we cannot explain (we can try to, but that's outside the scope of this essay), developed a Self, a Being, a Potential. Now, I'm not talking (obviously) about the old bearded man, that's too developed an idea for what there was. I'm talking about pure potential for something, an idea in your mind that exists even before you know it. What Was was an idea, a concept so pure and simple as to be almost perverse to our puny minds, and so in order to explain it, we have to complicate it a bit.

By the way, a word of caution: You don't have to worry if your beliefs don't coincide with that big bearded man, mine don't either. When I speak of God, I don't mean that man, but the word God is good shorthand for "everything that can be, will be, is, was, can't be, isn't, shouldn't be, maybe, yes, no, cheese, carrots, Joe, Betsy, etc." Still, I will be quoting the King James Bible from time to time, so bear with me. Even when I quote the Bible, however, I am not saying the world was created in six days, or that Kabbalah is "proof" of that, or anything inherently religious.
That complication that I speak of is the Tetragrammaton, the unpronounceable name of God: Yod, Heh, Vau, Heh. Each of these four letters denotes a facet of the great simplicity, and they also parallel the four suits of the Tarot, and also the Courts. Kabbalists call them Worlds, and while all four exist simultaneously, they also go from top to bottom (why will be made clear in time, I hope).

Yod: This is the world of Atziluth, the Archetypal World, the suit of Wands, the Knights in the RWS and the element of Fire. This is where the ideas of creation are first conceived of, dimly, almost as in a daydream. These aren't actual things, but abstract concepts of things, the first stirrings of the existence of things. Yod is the simplest Hebrew letter, it is merely a point, and in the point there is no separation between anything, all is in a constant state of union enjoying itself (yes, I do in fact mean this in a dirty way, it isn't just your imagination!). Since it is the first potential, it is symbolized perhaps best by the male sperm (or the phalllic Wand). Hence the Wands are the suit of action, of will, of power and of conquering strife. The Knight is the mover-and-shaker of the household, he goes forth with his creative power. From our own world, we know fire as something that destroys the boundaries between things and merges them. Think of lava, many forms of rock all mixed together and forming something new.

Heh: This is the world of Briah, the Creative World, the suit of Cups, of the Queens and the element of Water. Here is where the ideas of the world of Atziluth are given form and structure. The raw power of the Knights are "accepted into" the Queens so that they can take it, form it, add a bit of their own thing and then bring it out as a formed baby. Heh looks like the point of Yod coming into a curve, illustrating what this world is all about. This is all internal, and so the suit of Cups is all about feelings, emotions, the way one internally handles external stimuli. The Queen is a stabilizing element, keeping the Knight in check, as no matter what happens, he always has to come back to her. Water, as a female element, can take in anything, it is endlessly receptive. Let's say the world of Atziluth needs "rest," the world of Briah interprets that as the need for "chair" (thank you DuQuette for that example!).

Vau: This is the world of Yetzirah, the Formative World, the suit of Swords and the Kings (Princes, the RWS can be pretty confusing in this respect, but that's another matter). This is the element of Air. In a sense this is the product of the Knight and Queen, where the raw power of an abstract concept was taken and shaped, and then their baby is an actual thought, a theory of something that actually exists. This is actually a huge step ahead, far removed from the abstract ideas we have above, separated from them. This is why this is the suit of Swords. We are back in the active, male element, where the baby begins to act and to put thoughts into motion. Vau means "hook," and the hook in this case is what connects the abstractions above to the real world below. This pertains to the Princes (Kings) who can be a little headstrong and willful, as befits teenagers, thinking they know everything. Again to DuQuette's chair analogy, this is the realm of blueprints, where chairs are planned.

Heh: This second Heh is the world of Assiah, the Manifest world, the suit of Disks, of Pages/Princesses and the element of Earth. This, finally, is where things actually exist, in the way that we can see them. All the misty ideas above have coalesced into earthy solidity, and although the Princesses, too, are the children of the King and Queen, they are still vastly different from the Princes, their brothers. They are, in a sense, us, the receivers of all of Creation, enjoying not separations, but the final product, the mix of all the worlds above. Think of our lava metaphor again, here it has hardened solid, and has become stone. This again is an internal process, as we cannot actually affect the higher, abstract worlds above, merely enjoy and appreciate them. However, as we shall see, the Princesses hold within them the greatest power, simply because they see the end result of the great alchemy that is the world.

The Tree of Life


The Tree of Life, for us, represents the theoretical structure though which the universe is created, a spiritual guidemap, if you will. On it, the entire deck of Tarot is projected. Now, connecting this to what we said of the four worlds above, in the Tarot there are actually four Trees, one for each world/suit. The Majors are placed on what is called Sephiroth (the circles), numbered 1-10, while the Majors are the paths connecting them. In this way, each Major is actually four cards in one, and so we might have Temperance of Wands, Temperance of Cups, Temperance of Swords and Temperance of Disks. The reason there are 40 Minors and only 22 Majors (i.e., the reason why the Majors weren't duplicated like the Minors) is that the Majors represent the flow of energy between the Minors, and they are always the same sort of influences (same, but different). The actual acts they perform are the same, even if the energy they carry is different. Same recipe, different ingredients. Some people divide the Tree itself into the four worlds, and I'll allude to this occasionally, but this isn't the time to make a big deal of it. Also, I won't go into the difference between left and right Sephiroths right now, but here are the Sephiroth, in a very small nutshell:

1. Keter: This is the miniscule point. It is the ultimate in unmanifest potential, in that it does not do anything, it simply is. Although it is an infinitely small point, it still carries the seed of all that will come later, and this is why the entire Tree, although drawn out for us humans as a diagram, all takes place inside Keter. This is the pure idea, the abstract concept. This Sephira is attributed to the Aces, which are not the element in themselves, but the idea of the element. In the number One there is no motion, it isn't going anywhere, and so Kabbalistically, there is no difference between One and Zero. This Sephirah connects us with the world of Atziluth, and bears many of its attributes.

2. Chochma: Here we begin to draw a line between One and Two, for here is where the One recognizes itself, and says "I am." It is as if the One stands before a mirror and comments on how handsome it is. All there is, at this point, is recognition of itself, recognition of the element it is addressing. We see this, for example, in the Two of Wands, where we see a man holding the world in his hands, looking out at his kingdom. He is recognizing his power over all that he sees, but is not yet doing anything with it. Since it is a line, we could say that Chochma is phallic male energy, both direct and directed. It is the first movement of the universe.

3. Binah: Here is where things begin to take form, where we draw the triangle. Binah could be though of as a feminine Sephira, and is where the raw line-force of Chochma is taken and given form. If one wanted to be confusing, one could say Binah is the recognition of the recognition of the element, but one doesn't, so one won't. Binah is the vessel into which enters the spirit of Keter, so one could say the whole outer shell of the universe is a product of Binah, inside which is, well, Everything. This is very abstract and difficult to understand, and even more to explain. Let's say your head is Keter, the great potential of all that is you. Suddenly, you punch the air. That line you created is Chochma, but even a line has to go somewhere. For the line of Chochma to go anywhere, there has to be a somewhere for it to go to, and that somewhere is Binah, which is created at the same moment as Chochma. So, the whole universe enveloping your fist, is Binah. This can be seen in cards like the Three of Swords. On one hand this card is unpleasant, but it is unpleasant because it is Swords in Binah; the mind is asserting it's own existence and disconnection from the primal potentiality of Keter, and there is nothing that is as unpleasant as that (this is why the divinatory meaning for the card is heartbreak, lack of communication, etc.). Binah is closely connected with the symbol of receptive water, and also connects us with the world of Briah. This is where the 1 says "I am that."

* * *

Here ends what is called The Supernal Triangle. These three Sephiroths create the basic laws of the universe which, Kabbalistically, is an annihilation of opposites. Everything that is, or happens, is due to the interplay of Chochma and Binah, projected from Keter. Let's take a prosaic example of throwing a ball. Your mind (Keter) conceives of the action, your hand (Chochma) is the driving force while the ball (Binah) receives that energy and turns it into what your mind originally though of, which is a ball flying through the air. When Genesis speaks of the story of Creation, it is said that "And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters," this is what is meant: "Spirit" is Keter, "moved" is Chochma while the "waters" are Binah.

4. Chesed: The shell of the universe has been created in Binah, now it is time to start filling it with stuff. Chesed is the number Four, which is very important, as four is the number of the stuff of the universe. There are four worlds, four suits, four elements, four letters of the Tetragrammaton... etc. Four is the actual material out of which everything we know of as solid is constructed. At this stage, though, it is undifferentiated and in a state of chaos. The elements are in their most basic form of material. Imagine fire in this state, a big block of it filling the universe, and we can't actually do anything with it, since it fills everything. Still, this isn't bad, since what we are receiving is literally everything, it's our fault we don't know what to do with it yet (that comes later). In a way Chesed is like winning the lottery: you have all this potential to do anything you want, just sitting there in your bank acount. You haven't done anything with it, you're just holding it for the time being.

5. Geburah: This is a difficult Sephira to understand, since it denotes desire and lack on one hand, but those things aren't bad in themselves. The simplest way to explain this one is through Chesed. You've won the lottery in Chesed, you have all this power, but Geburah is the force that drives you to actually want to do something with it. On one hand, this may be bad, since you're pining for that BMW which you don't have. Without that desire, however, you wouldn't want anything. Geburah is the limiting influence on Chesed, which gives us everything, and which tells it to start mixing up those elements in order to create new things. Now, honestly, I tried to find a Five that wasn't disheartening, but I couldn't. Tarot cards are meant to be used practically, so when Geburah is said to be the Sephirah of Desire or Lack, Tarot cards tend to portray that pretty depressingly. Still, the Five of Disks is a good example. The only thing these poor people have is desire, they have nothing else. Since this is the suit of disks, we have them cold and crippled in the snow. Not what I would choose to portray Geburah, but there it is.

6. Tiphareth: So much can be said about this one, but I'll try to be as clear as I can. Tiphareth is where all the upper Sephiroths come to fruition, and show the products of their work. This is as good as it gets, where everything is in its proper measure and amount. The basic laws of the Supernal Triangle, together with the material of Chesed and the desire of Geburah have created a veritable Garden of Eden, in which the Divine plan is showcased in its best form. The Tarot Sixes are all good cards, showing the element in its best form. The Six of Disks shows a man holding scales and giving charity: he isn't holding the scales because he is stingy, but because no matter how much he gives away, he will always have enough. The Six of Wands shows a man on horseback in a victory procession; force and power applied just right in order to win. Incidentally, to humans, who are at the very bottom of the Tree, Tiphareth appears as our Higher Self, the best "version" of ourselves that we can be. Tiphareth is Eden, Valinor, Valhalla, etc.

7. Netzach: Nothing perfect can last forever, and Netzach is the smack in the face after the endless party in Tiphareth. It is the hangover, the calories, the aching legs after too much dancing. Netzach refers to lessons one must learn in order to become a better person, "sweetness after bitterness," and in the context of the story of creation, it is the knowledge that it can not only be pleasant, it can also bite. It refers to the hard work that must be endured in order to achieve ends. Plants don't just grow instantaneously like in the Garden of Eden, they take time and effort. When I try to explain this one to myself, usually without success, it is through Genesis, again: "...cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return." When Adam was cast out of Eden, he learned that outside the Garden, all was made of hard work and toil. Still, it isn't all bad, as hard work is the means by which we learn to appreciate what we have. We also learn of human death in this Sephira, which of course has its good and bad sides. In Tarot terms, the Seven of Disks shows, in my opinion, Adam, looking at his thorns and thistles. In the Six of Wands, we saw a man arriving in victory, but in the Seven we see just what it takes to keep that victory. Netzach is also the Sephirah of the sexual drive, the human urge to unite with the opposite, the mechanics of human creation, by which Adam and Eve became "as Gods" (Genesis).

8. Hod: If Netzach is the means whereby we conquer obstacles, Hod is submission to them, and even enjoyment of them. I must admit that this is the most difficult for me to understand, and I can barely explain it. Still, I'll try, at least basically. In Netzach we spoke of the sexual process, and (at least symbolically, not being heteronormative here!) while for the man the act of creation is an active process entailing work, the female process is one of reception, where the male energy is received and then formed. The female receives the energy and like Binah, Hod is the end of Netzach's line. So it is with every walk of life, whether we use sex as a metaphor for it or not. To Hod is also linked the appreciation of the universe, mystical love and magick. Hod also refers to "bitterness at the end of sweetness" by which the Eve partook of the Forbidden fruit and discovered sex, but was then punished with birth pains. These birth pains, however, are for a good cause, the creation of new human life, which isn't easy.

9. Yesod: After the imbalances of Netzach and Hod, we find ourselves once again in balance, in Yesod. Yesod is where the energies of both come together, and denotes the subconscious plane, and the sexual organs. Both are connected, as it is from our subconscious that our ideas and concepts grow, and then emerge to become reality, and it is from our sexual organs that new life emerges. Human life is, symbolically, something from Nothing, the Nothing of Keter, and creating it is our greatest magic power, and it is in Yesod that all the Sephiroths converge down to us, thereby giving us their influences. This is the last staging area of creation, where everything is made ready before emerging. For example, if a rock exists, we understand and feel it to be a rock because of Yesod, and by that it has meaning for us. Yesod is also the Sephira of the astral plane, by which spirituality affects and touches us. What we touch spiritually may be in Hod, but the means for our touching it is in Yesod. In essence, this is the Will of Keter to create the world, and to have us (and to an extension, It) experience it. All the other Sephiroths are the laws of the universe while Yesod is where they all coalesce and it becomes the foundation for the experience of our world.

10. Malkuth: Finally, we have created the universe! Malkuth is the real world, where all the influences of the upper Sephiroth come to pass, and we see, feel, hear and taste them. This is where all the elements solidify and become what we know of them, and they are all mixed and some would even say polluted. They are polluted with each other, since nothing that exists is completely one element or the other. Let's take water, as an example. It is watery when at room temperature, but can also be air when mixed with fire, and earth when all the fire is taken away (obviously I am not speaking of the chemical elements, but the symbolic ones).

Now, the universe being created, I said before I would explain how is it that all four Trees of all four Worlds exist both from top to bottom, and also simultaneously. There is no easy answer for this. However, if we lay all the cards from top to bottom, starting with Wands at the top, next Cups, then Swords and finally Disks, we see that although we said Malkuth is the "real world," that isn't always true, as it can be said that only Malkuth in Assiah (Ten of Disks) is the real world that we know, while the other Tens of the Tarot are merely the Malkuth of their own world, and so still fairly abstract. Ultimately, it goes to how much one wants to bullsh*t Kabbalah. (: Since we are only human, and expect to actually use all these things, it is comfortable to assume all four worlds exist together, and Malkuth is a mixture of all of them, which is of course, true. If this were not true, there would be no universe, since in our own world, as we said, everything is mixed together. However, for the purposes of musing and meditation, it can be very very illuminating to look at each world separately both in its Minors and in its Majors.

Next week: The Courts and how put all this into practice when reading Tarot
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