Tarot and the Tree of Life: Finding Everyday WisdomIn the Minor Arcana/Choice Centered Tarot

Tarot and the Tree of Life: Finding Everyday WisdomIn the Minor Arcana
 by Isabel Radow Kliegman. Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, Theosophical Publishing House, 1997. Paperback, xxv + 220 pages.

Choice Centered Tarot
 by Gail Fairfield, foreword by Ralph Metzner
York Beach, ME: Weiser, 1997. Paperback, vi+ 154pages.

What is the tarot? It is a deck of cards consisting of four suits equivalent to present-day playing cards, except that each suit contains an extra face or court card, called the "knight." To these fifty-six cards, called the "minor arcana," are added twenty-two additional trump cards, known as the "major arcana," ranging from a trump card numbered zero (the Fool) to the trump card numbered twenty-one (the World).

The origin of the tarot is a matter for speculation. Nineteenth- and early twentieth-century tarot enthusiasts were wont to follow the lead of Court de Gel-elm (1728- 1784) and other French esotericists, who saw in these cards a remnant of mysterious Egyptian sources, especially a legendary book called the Book of Thoth. Others, notably the brilliant writer and esoteric teacher Papus (Dr. Gerard Encausse), drawing on Gypsy legend , discerned Indian symbolism in the cards and attributed the four suits of the minor arcana to the four principal castes of the Hindu social order.

While there is little certainty concerning its origin, the re has never been any doubt about the uses of the tarot. They are threefold: (1) symbolic study of the cosmic and psychic patterns that move our lives, (2) expansion of our consciousness by visual meditations focused on the cards of the major arcana , and (3) divination or securing guidance upon practical matters of a perplexing nature.


The first of the two books reviewed here, Isabel Kliegman's Tarot and the Tree of Life, has a just claim to a unique status because it addresses itself to the minor arcana of the tarot. Although most books about the tarot contain a great deal of information about and insight into the archetypal images and mysterious implications of the twenty-two cards of the major arcana, the fifty-six cards of the minor arcana are almost routinely neglected. Most informed sources assure us that the minor arcana represent the human personality and the manifold structures of creation, while the major arcana symbolize spiritual potencies linked to the cosmos and personhood. To contemplate the spiritual side of universal existence and at the same time to remain uninformed regarding the personal dimension shows an attitude lacking in balance. This imbalance has been remedied by Tarot and the Tree of Life.

According to Isabel Kliegman, the tarot is above all a system of self-knowledge, self-integration, and self-transformation. Vital to this integration is the creative interact ion of the opposites leading to an ultimate and balanced union. A symbol system such as the tarot is eminently suited to facilitate this process, which, as C. G. Jung pointed out, takes place on a level of consciousness other than the rational, one where development expresses itself in symbols. In order to undergo successfully this process, we need to avail ourselves of all our psychological resources. Kliegman tells us in simple but impressive language that the neglected cards of the four suits of the minor arcana are indispensable to our psychological development and ultimate wholeness. These cards are "overlooked looking glasses" into the reality of our souls.

One of the most impressive chapters of this book is the second, entitled "Kabbalah: The Ultimate Gift." In a mere twenty' four pages, the author accomplishes what many have failed to achieve in tomes of many hundreds of pages. She presents a clear and practical exposition of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life and its relevance to the basic concerns of everyday life, including the relevance of the Tree of Life to the tarot deck. Since the time of Eliphas Levi in the mid nineteenth century, the Kabbalah has been frequently employed to elucidate the meaning of the tarot cards, especially the twenty-two major arcana, which were attributed to the twenty-two interconnecting "channels" of the Tree of Life. The author expertly elucidates the attributions of the ten numbered cards of the four suits to the ten sephiroth (73-176) and presents a refreshingly original treatment of the court cards of the suits in their relationship to the four olams (regions or worlds) of the Tree (177- 215).

The book is replete with examples of people's experiences with the cards and has a friendly, direct tone that cannot help but set the reader at case when undertaking tarot study. A minor area of difficulty the reader may encounter is the author's use of the modernized phonetic spelling of Hebrew names, which is different from the older spelling to which man y readers are accustomed. The religious context of the book is Jewish, which is the author's faith, but which obviously may not be the religious background of many readers. Fortunately, many of the explications of Jewish religious concepts are given in a commendably universal tone, so that they are readily applicable to all traditions. A remarkable and brilliant instance is the author's commentary on the "Shema Yisrael" (17-1 8).


Gail Fairfield's Choice Centered Tarot possesses a thrust that is rather different from that of the previous book. Its emphasis is primarily on the tarot as a "psychic tool" and thus on divination. There is very little information presented that might create a context (or the symbolism of the cards; one misses the mythological frame, work expounded by Joseph Campbell or by Sally Nicholls. Even more one misses the Kabbalistic context presented by numerous other authors. (The word Kabbalah does not appear in the text.)

It is of course all too true that one of the most popular uses to which the tarot has always been put is that of divination. Yet divination without a larger philosophical and even transcendental context becomes a dreary business. The late Manly P. Hall expressed this well when he wrote: "To those versed in ancient philosophies it appears unfortunate that these cards should be collected and examined mainly in the interest of fortune telling. Man's place in the universe is far more important than the outcome of h is daily concerns" (The Tarot: An Essay, 21).

It is not that the Choice Centered Tarot is without some practical merit. As the noted figure of consciousness studies, Ralph Metzner, points out in his foreword, the author "emphasizes the psychological meanings of the Tarot, showing ... how the card symbols, which at first seem so perplexing, can yield powerful insights and help people come to greater self-understanding and the ability to make creative and responsible choices in all kinds of situations" (iv). Whether this emphasis appears as clearly and consistently as one might wish is an other quest ion.

Certainly the most annoying feature of this book is its frequent and for the most part quite unjustified introduction of "politically correct" motifs into the discussion of the tarot. What is one to make of remarks such as this: "Most Tarot decks are blatantly racist in that they confine themselves to the use of Caucasian images. The exclusion of people of other races ... reinforces the misconception that the Tarot is only relevant to the white race" (8)? The present reviewer has lectured on the tarot to many audiences of a racially mixed composition and has never heard anyone titter this kind of objection. Where race-oriented "PC" is present, the gender-oriented variety of the same thing cannot be far away: "Many decks and books still reflect the more traditional, rigidly defined sex roles... we need to be aware of the sexist and heterosexist attitudes that they reflect and reinforce" (8). Poppycock! Does the Queen of Swords not hold the most masculine of magical symbols, the sword? And can one imagine a feminine figure of more awesome power than the High Priestess, or a more dynamic and energetic one than the woman on the card of Strength?

Both of these books are useful additions to the ever-expanding body of literature on the tarot , but Tarot and the Tree of Life is more complete and more useful than Choice Centered Tarot. The former shows us how we are instructed by the numinous symbols of the cards, while the latter tells us how we may use these same symbols to serve largely personalistic ends. The difference between the two approaches is significant.


Summer 1998