Torah, Tarot, and Taos: The Alchemy of Symbols
An interesting thing struck me while we read through the portion, Shoftim. The portion begins by instructing the Israelites to tear the asherot and m'tzavot, sacred trees* and stone pillars associated with pagan (or, more likely, corrupted Israelite) worship. But then Shoftim ends with God instructing the people not to cut down fruit trees during a siege. It made me think of how the idea assigned to the object makes all the difference. After all, trees and rocks remain potent Jewish symbols. Deuteronomy itself refers to God as Tzur, "Rock." and centuries later Proverbs speaks of wisdom** as "a tree of life." The objects don't go away, they just undergo a symbolic transmutation.
I was particularly struck by the pair of sphinx (sphinxes?) on the Chariot card. Ezekiel and others describe God's merkavah as being drawn by cherubs. We know (now) from archeaology that these celestical creatures were portrayed as sphinx-like by the Israelites. I'm not so sure that was known in Waite's time. He might have been drawing purely on Egyptian/Hermetic iconigraphy, and in doing so serendipitiously arrived as this surprisingly authentic image. Another observation. The two creatures are male and female, which mirrors a Talmudic tradtion in Yoma that the cherubs represented the erotic structure of the cosmos. The ring-and-rod symbol on the Chariot over the the "cherubim"(see above) likewise parallels the kabbalistic notion the the divine order as kav u'maggel (line and circle).***
So this pagan > Biblical > kabbalistic > hermetic mental mini-tour just drives home the fact that fundamental symbols and archetypes never go away, they just undergo a kind of alchemical transmutation in meaning, revealing their hidden power over and over again.
*Totem poles, really. There might have been living trees in a few shrines and high places, but given the fickle fate awaiting flora in the Levant, a aspirational tree makes a more enduring icon.
**Later equated by the Sages with Torah.
*** OK, so in the movie I saw the next day, The Tree of Life, the viewer is beaten over the head with "men are lines/women are curves" imagery. This movie reminds me that a little recurring symbolism goes a long way. Like drugs, symbols can easily be used to excess, losing their therapeutic value in the process.