In looking through various decks and reading across a reasonably broad variety of books on tarot, divergent claims are made for trumps and various correlations. One of the most persistent is the claim that somehow trump cards and letters of the alphabet have correlations.
If the earliest extent tarot cards have any such letter attributions intended by the artists, woodcarvers or publishers, then these have not come down to us, and correlations or attributions have become well masked. The strongest case I have seen to suggest that trump design may have been influenced by letters is Mark Filipas’s Alphabetic Masquerade. Therein, Mark shows how woodcut decks from the 17th and 18th centuries bear some resemblence, and what could be some evidence, for deck design to have been modified as an abecederium – basically, the images have been influenced by considerations that continue to be popular in children’s picture-books (A is for Apple, B for Bear, etc.), though in tarot’s case, the letters are suggested as Hebrew letters, and their associated words often somewhat removed from the obviousness of the apparent image (see Newsletter #4 for an example from Mark).
For those amongst us who normally attribute Hebrew letters to the trumps of the tarot, it is apparent that whatever preference we have is not shared by others who prefer attributions at varience with our own. And then, we also at times come across attributions which seem so far at odds with the more common ones. If there are numerous variations that are in existence, three dominate. Below is a minor modification of a webpage originally prepared in order to discuss with Sitsky his attributions (to which I shall return shortly). As can be seen from the table, there is no unified view on the matter.
Let’s briefly go through these columns in the order presented.
This is one of the three most common or popular version. It appears in the late 19th century with the works (and deck) of Falconnier. If I ‘head’ that column with Filipas’s name who wrote his work in 2001, it is only because if his idea of an alphabetic abecederium is correct, then it indicates the earliest likely influence on tarot design: the 17th century decks commonly referred to as ‘Tarot de Marseille’ (irrespective as to whether they originate from Marseille or other regions).
The ordering is quite simple and to the point: the numbers on the cards are taken as ordinal (1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc, with the last un-numbered), and the alef-bet (Hebrew alphabet) is similarly taken in its ordinal value. What emerges is a very straightforward relation between, for example, card XVII and the seventeenth letter.
De Mellet’s essay is the first historical instance in which some kind of direct relation is made between letters and trumps. The essay, available (in part) in a previous ATS Newsletter (#56), was originally published in De Gebelin’s Monde Primitif, vol VIII, 1781. Therein, he lists the trumps in descending order from XXI through to I, after which he places the un-numbered Fool. This implies that in his view, as later authors and card designers have similarly done, that this card is ‘numbered’ zero.
He also mentions:
These twenty-two first cards are not only hieroglyphs, that placed in their natural order retrace the story of the earliest times, but they are also as much letters [footnote: the Hebrew alphabet is composed of 22 letters], that combined differently, can form many sentences; as well their name (A-tout) is only the literal translation of their general use and general.
So here there is a clear implication that the ordering that he had just enumerated reflects in some manner the Hebrew letters as presented in the second column.
Alphonse Louis Constant, better known through his Hebraïsed name as Eliphas Levi (Zahed), is undoutbedly the individual most influential in bringing Hebrew letter attributions to tarot. His works span a few decades with a locus around the 1850s. It is also from his view that the ensuing column (of the G.D.) indirectly stems, as he showed his correlations to Mackenzie, one of the founders of the GD, over twenty years prior to the latter’s establishment.
The difference between the Filipas attributions and his own is that the Fool is placed between cards XX and XXI, thereby attributing it Shin. No ‘obvious’ reason is given for this, but it is interesting that in the game of tarot, gamblers establish specific orderings that are likely passed on from generation to generation: if one holds the Fool in one’s hand, it is placed next to last in the sequence of trumps in one’s hand, as a simple mnemonic to preclude it being played last (the only play which loses the Fool for the player, it being deemed as one of three singularly important cards for scoring purposes). This attribution of Shin remains important even on decks that otherwise attribute it as does the GD. For example, a Shin is still found on the Waite-Smith and BOTA Fools, despite their GD influence.
With the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn [G.D.] formed in 1888, numerous decks incorporate their preference at times without, it seems, understanding how the attributions were derived.
In the first place, the proposal by Levi became a preliminary working model by the GD’s founders. In addition, the early Kabbalistic Sefer Yetzirah, in which is given elemental, planetary and zodiacal correlations to the letters, is considered. To make attributions in a manner they considered more apt, not only was the Fool placed as heading the sequence (for them numbered zero), but the two cards that appeared to be ‘out’ of what then follows as astrological sequence were interchanged (so VIII Justice and XI Strength become 8 – Justice and 11- Strength).
In addition, though this does not affect the letter attributions, the planetary attributions to the letters differ to the various versions of the Sefer Yetzirah. It should be noted, however, that these do differ in various versions of the book, unlike the consistency found for the elemental and zodiacal attributions.
In looking at the list in the fourth column, what should be apparent is that reading down the list the trumps are simply listed in (revised) order, as they are for each of the previous three columns (with obvious differences).
Aleister Crowley’s attributions takes its basis that of the GD, save that he had to reconcile an insight during a working whilst in Egypt that ‘Tzaddi is not the Star’. After a number of years, he found a method that satisfied his general acceptance of the GD attributions together with that lingering ‘problem’: by placing the cards in a double lemniscatory form, not only was the interchange from the longer established ordering of Justice and Strength ‘justified’, but, interestingly, the Emperor and the Star now also ‘interchanged’.
The difference between Crowley and the Golden Dawn is that he generally maintains (apart from adding zero to the Fool) the numbering of the more traditional order (ie., VIII is Justice), but allocates Hebrew letters according to the GD with the further addition of the interchange of the Emperor and the Star.
Since 2005 when I mentioned his Twenty-Two Paths of the Tarot Piano Concertos during an interview on national radio, Larry Sitsky’s attributions had remained a ‘bother’. Of course I could ‘rationalise’ the differences by any number of possibilities, but it was not until this year (2009) that I finally contacted Larry to simply ask him.
In final analysis, his rationale is quite as straightforward as any of the others so far mentioned: he begins from a tarot ordering, and following these attributes the letters in order. Amongst his more detailed communication, he summarises it thus:
The order of the Tarot in my piece came from Ouspensky’s little book on the tarot, and the music was the result of meditating on each of the cards.
Ouspensky’s little book, Symbolism of the Tarot, in general follows the ordering of the GD, except that he positions the Fool last (strictly, Ouspensky also interchanges the Pope [or Hierophant] and the Chariot, but Sitsky follows the normal numbering for these).
I’ve included Gray’s attributions more as an example of something that at first hand appears far more complex and even, at mere listing, apparently irrational.
Strictly speaking, William Gray prefers his own version of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ letters. Still, he does make suggestions for card placements on the Kircher version of the Tree of Life with, importantly, Hebrew letters there allocated. These, though obviously taken from the GD attributions, are thereby ‘mismatched’ in a manner that nonetheless ‘makes sense’ (though I personally consider it rather contrived).
The overall rendition, taken from combing his Concepts of Qabalah (Cf esp. pp 146 & 223), gives rise to the listing given.
In writing about Hebrew letter attributions to tarot trumps, it should not be forgotten that many amongst us also see that none are intrinsic to the cards, but rather extraneous ‘intrusions’ into a deck that may originally bear no rapport with any kind of alphabetic or Kabbalistic thought.
Yet, I am personally lead to consider that that even if the earliest created decks had no such direct influence, it is possible the Hebrew letters were ‘incorporated’ very early as the deck settled to the canon with which we have become familiar. Later still, further reflections on cards and letters have certainly, and repeatedly, made their mark on various developments.