The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was a late Victorian secret society that focused on ceremonial magic, the evocation of god-forms, and divination. Central to the Golden Dawn's esoteric project was the attempt to create a unified system of magic, a way to bring together the various strands of Western occultism that existed in the late nineteenth century. They synthesized Solomonic, Enochian, Theosophic, Rosicrucian, and various other forms of magic, bringing them all together into one unified system. The keystone of Golden Dawn magic, the thing holding their whole system together, was occult Qabalah.
Qabalah pervaded everything the Golden Dawn did, including the use of Tarot for magic and divination. The Golden Dawn completely redefined modern Tarot, creating a systematic approach to Tarot cards based on a set of Qabalistic correspondences for each card. These correspondences, in turn, went on to shape the divinatory meanings of the cards used by most Tarot readers today. The overwhelming majority of Tarot decks on the market are based on the symbolism of the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot deck, published in 1909. The creators of this deck, Arthur Edward Waite and Pamela Colman Smith, were both members of the Golden Dawn, and they based their Tarot symbolism and interpretations on the Golden Dawn Qabalistic system. As such, a Qabalistic structure became the underpinning for modern Tarot.
The Golden Dawn's version of Qabalah focuses primarily on a glyph called the Tree of Life, which is comprised of ten spheres (Sephiroth, singular Sephirah) of divine power, each giving expression to a different sort of energy and governing a different area of human life. These ten Sephiroth are, in turn, connected by twenty-two paths, which allow the energy of the Tree of Life to flow freely from one Sephirah to another. Each card in the Tarot deck corresponds to some part of the Tree of Life, whether it's one of the spheres or one of the paths between them. We begin with the Minor Arcana:
Each card in the Minor Arcana gives expression to one of the ten Sephiroth. The four suits add nuance and depth, giving us a particular version of each Sephirah's energy as seen through the lens of the elements of fire, air, water, and earth. Thus, the Ace of Wands is the energy of Kether as expressed by the element of fire: it's a unity of passion and will. The Ace of Swords is the same energy of Kether, but as expressed by the element of air: it's still a unity, but now it’s a unity of thought and truth. Likewise, the Ace of Cups is a unity of emotional contentment, and the Ace of Pentacles is a unity of material potential and stability. The four suits give us a multifaceted understanding of what the Sephirah is about.
The same goes for all the cards of the Minor Arcana. The Two of Wands is the dynamism of Chokmah expressed in a fiery way, the Five of Pentacles is the conflict of Gevurah expressed in an earthy way, and so on. Understanding the basic combination of the Sephiroth with elemental energy can provide us with unique insight into each card in the Minor Arcana.
We find similar correspondences with the court cards, as well. Each of the four court cards also corresponds to one of the Sephiroth on the Tree of Life:
Thus, the Kings are forceful and dynamic, the Queens give things shape and form, the Knights seek equilibrium and fulfillment, and the Pages are practical and grounded. Each member of the court in a particular suit has a personality that expresses the key elemental energy of the suit in a different way, depending on their Qabalistic placement on the Tree of Life.
These correspondences also establish a link between the court cards and certain of the Minor Arcana. Because the Kings correspond to Chokmah, they have an affinity with the Twos. Because the Queens correspond to Binah, they have an affinity with the Threes. Likewise, the Knights share their nature with the Sixes and the Pages have resonance with the Tens.
What does this mean in practical terms? Well, the personality of the King of Wands is someone who strives for the kind of ambition and fulfillment we find in the Two of Wands. The Queen of Cups cultivates the celebration and joy of the Three of Cups. The Knight of Swords seeks the intellectual transformation and discovery of the Six of Swords. The Page of Pentacles craves the stability and fulfillment of the Ten of Pentacles. Each member of the Tarot court has something in particular that they want, something that they value and organize their life around; that value is expressed in the Minor Arcana card that shares a Qabalistic correspondence with the court card.
Finally, we can turn our attention to the Major Arcana. The twenty-two Major Arcana correspond to the twenty-two paths between the Sephiroth on the Tree of Life:
Thus, each of the Major Arcana combines the energies of two of the Sephiroth. Strength combines merciful Chesed and disciplined Gevurah; Temperance combines balanced Tiphereth with intuitive Yesod. Some of these connections are easier to understand than others—it may be difficult, for example, to conceive of how the Chariot is a bridge between Binah and Gevurah—but they are all ripe for exploration. Taking time to meditate or journal on each Major Arcanum and its Qabalistic connections will allow you to discover new, deeper, richer perspectives on the divinatory meaning of each card.
Using Qabalistic correspondences in Tarot is not only a matter of meditation, however. It can also have practical implications for Tarot reading. If you do a three-card reading and two of your cards are Fours, you know that the energy of Chesed is dominating in your querent's situation. Likewise, if you do a larger reading and you turn up Minor Arcana cards of every number but the Sevens, you know that the energy of Netzach is lacking, and that absence may be part of what's causing problems. Having these correspondences in the background gives you an extra layer of meaning to draw on when you are performing divination.
Consider a three-card reading in which a querent has come to you because they're feeling overwhelmed in their work life and they need help balancing their time. You draw the Four of Cups, the Hermit, and the Devil. Looking at the Tree of Life, you see that the Four of Cups is associated with Chesed, the Hermit is the path between Chesed and Tiphereth, and the Devil is the path between Tiphereth and Hod. Your three cards, then, draw a line on the Tree of Life. They start at Chesed and terminate in Hod.
This tells you that your querent is currently stuck in Chesed—giving too much of themselves to others, or cutting other people too much slack. What they need to do is make the transition out of Chesed and toward Hod, learning to embrace the more personal, individualistic energy of that Sephirah. They need to learn how to say "no" and prioritize themselves, rather than always putting other people's needs first. This is just a quick sample reading, but it shows how you can bring a layer of Qabalistic understanding into your Tarot interpretations.
The goal of bringing Qabalah into your Tarot reading, as with any other divinatory technique, is to give you another tool in your toolbox. It might not always be the right tool for the job—you wouldn't use a chainsaw to fix your kitchen sink—but it's worth having the tool, because sometimes you'll find that it's exactly what you need. Not every Tarot reading will be suited to an overtly Qabalistic interpretation, but you'll find that there are cases where Qabalistic meaning leaps out. In those cases, knowing the Qabalistic underpinnings of modern Tarot can be extraordinarily useful.