The Tree of Life is a multi-layered symbol. One layer that I use a lot with Tarot is Astrology, and there are other themed layers like Gematria and the Four Elements. There is a magnificent system of colour correspondences in the Thoth Tarot.
Other layers are structural, by which I mean we group together certain Sephiroth because they have a common function or theme. Doing this highlights certain characteristics of the Sephiroth and how they behave, which in turn helps us when we’re looking at the Tarot cards that reside in these spaces. The top three Sephiroth are viewed as being in their own group, ‘the supernal triangle’, and then all the central Sephiroth in a second with Malkuth on its own in a third. There are variations on which Sephiroth go in the second group, which change the focus of how they work together.
Another way we can group the Sephiroth is to categorise them into three columns, or ‘pillars’, on the Tree of Life. This arrangement lets us see the balance between expansion and contraction in play on the Tree of Life.
When we’re doing this, though, remember that the Sephiroth are all related to each other, and always moving: each one contains aspects of all the ones that came before, and foreshadows the one that comes next. You can read more about this in Talking about the Tree of Life: Glossary (see ‘Reflect’).
In the image to the left you can see the geometric Tree of Life superimposed upon three pillars. The one on the left is black and is called the Pillar of Severity; the one on the right is white and is called the Pillar of Mercy; the one in the middle is grey and is called the Middle Pillar.
The Pillar of Severity is the form-giving, restrictive, feminine energy, and the Pillar of Mercy is the multiplying, expansive, masculine energy. It may seem that these are reversed in terms of feminine and masculine, and I find it interesting that contemporary texts work very hard to justify why the tougher side of things is feminine. Is this just Western cultural conditioning? See what you think.
The Pillar of Severity is feminine because it gives form and establishes limits. It takes the formless idea from the Masculine and makes something solid from it. This is great, but within the beginning is always the seed of the ending: once you give something form, you simultaneously begin the process of its dissolution. If you have an idea to start a garden, you gather your tools and seeds and get to work. You plant the seeds, water them and make sure they get sun, and then they bloom. Beautiful! And then they fade. As soon as you plant the seed, you create the limit to its existence. Severity.
The Pillar of Mercy, on the other hand, does not have these restrictions. It can be as vast and generous and vague as it wants to be because the Pillar of Severity will check things out and get rid of what really isn’t going to work.
Looking at the Pillar of Severity, we see Sephira 3 ruled by Saturn, Sephira 5 ruled by Mars, and Sephira 8 ruled by Mercury. In S3, Saturn gives form and sends us on our way. It receives the general idea from Sephira 2: the planning of the 2 of Wands takes form in the journey of 3 of Wands; the brand new person who steps into your life in the 2 of Cups becomes a good friend in the 3 of Cups. Mars doesn’t hesitate to cut away the deadwood and certainly the 5s are the least patient and tolerant of all the Tarot, so we know there’s an efficient vetting process there. S5 is where your latest diet resides. Mercury represents the intellectual sorting that we do – and we can see that in the 8 of Swords, for example, where we’re eliminating wrong perceptions, and the 8 of Cups, where we’re walking away from something good but that we intellectually realise we no longer need.
The Pillar of Mercy includes Sephira 2 ruled by the whole Universe, Sephira 4 ruled by Jupiter, and Sephira 7, ruled by Venus. This is the gentler, permissive, luxurious side of things that allows us to create and explore lots of different ideas. The Tarot 2s are all full of opportunity but very non-specific. The 4s are generous and protective, and the 7s are beautiful and in touch with their physical side. The 7s in Tarot can be a little challenging when we use the Tree of Life in readings and this is because of the combination of being low on the Tree of Life, and therefore further away from the strength and cohesiveness of Kether, and Venus’ tendency to look for beauty in everything. It’s a wonderful trait! It’s the Sephira of artists and we all have to be in touch with Sephira 7 when we’re making anything, including this blog. But it’s also the Sephira that might make me feel I need to include every conceivable point about the three pillars in this one post and include thirty-five illustrations. I’m on a roll! It’s all so beautiful. And it is, but thankfully I’m keeping my eye on Sephira 8 (or Mercury is keeping an eye on me) and I’m trying to focus on the context of Tarot. Mercury acts as a filter and helps me do that.
The Middle Pillar is where the two side pillars balance out, and here we have the Sephiroth Tiphareth (S6), Yesod (S9), and Malkuth (S10). They are all spheres that manifest the best from each of the two side pillars. Tiphareth is the balance between 4 and 5, Chesed and Geburah: Jupiter’s vast generosity and compassion and Mars’ ability to see when that gets in the way. Yesod balances beauty and artistry in 7 Netzach, and intellectual boundaries in 8 Hod, and filters everything that has come down the entire Tree into Malkuth at the bottom and into our waiting arms.
Does that mean we’re balanced? Malkuth, where we live, is on the Middle Pillar, after all. A straight shot down from Kether, so that’s pretty darn good. But it’s also low on the Tree of Life – as low as you can go, and that means there is very little coherence. We know how far we are away from Divinity, and yet … and yet. It feels so close. How does that feel to you?
The Pillar of Severity is named Boaz and the Pillar of Mercy is named Jachim. These are names from the two pillars described at the entrance to Solomon’s temple in the bible. This association reminds us that we are entering a spiritual space when we work with the Tree of Life and Tarot. It is a door to the Otherworld that is always open.