The Tree of Life and the Wheel of the Year Revisited
By John Michael Greer
Reprinted with permission]
I suspect most people have had the experience of encountering a
new idea, and watching the contact between that idea and one’s existing
stock of knowledge unfold a whole sequence of new perspectives and ways of
looking at the world. Most students of the Tarot, in particular, will be
familiar with it, since the art of divination works in large part precisely by
opening up such connections. My latest brush with this experience came by way
of John Gilbert’s article “The Tree of Life and the Wheel of the Year”
in Issue One of The Tarot Journal.1
Like most revelations, this
one had plenty of preparation in my life and studies. As a longtime
practitioner of Hermetic magic in the Golden Dawn tradition, I’ve been
wrestling with the Cabalistic Tree of Life for a quarter of a century. As a
member of the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids (OBOD), an international order
of Druidry based in England, I’ve also spent several years working with the
eightfold year-wheel, the ritual calendar of the modern Pagan movement2.
The concept of bringing the two together into a broader symbolic pattern,
though, was new to me—and it sparked a series of discoveries that not only
confirm and expand on John’s insight into the connections between these
apparently different symbolic systems, but also offer a range of practical
applications in and out of the realm of Tarot.
An Alternate Tree of Life
The Tree of Life has been
called the central glyph of the Western esoteric tradition, and it is used in
many approaches to the Tarot as a guide to the meaning and relationships of
the cards. Many students of the Cabala3 are aware that the
standard version of the Tree of Life, as it appears in most occult writings,
is only one of a forest of Trees that have been used at one point or another
in the long history of the Cabalistic tradition. The differences aren’t
limited to the assignment of Hebrew letters or Tarot trumps to the twenty-two
Paths of the Tree. There are versions that place the Paths differently on the
Tree, versions that put the ten Sephiroth or Spheres in a different order,
even versions that dispense with the Paths altogether or combine Spheres into
One of these alternate
Trees is of particular interest in the present context, as it rearranges the
Spheres and Paths into a pattern with straightforward similarities to the
Pagan wheel of the year. Students of sacred geometry will know that this
alternate version is based on the square root of 2, while the more common
version of the Tree makes use of geometries based on the square root of 3.5
This has more than a little relevance to the present subject; the square root
of 2 is the geometrical function of Generation, and represents the forces of
natural growth and decay in the world (among many other things). It thus has a
good deal to say about the cycle of the seasons, with their alternation of
summer and winter, life and death, beginnings and endings. The square root of
3, by contrast, is the function of Reconciliation, and stands for the timeless
realm where all these opposites come into harmony.
In this alternative version
of the Tree, eight of the Spheres form a circle, with the remaining two—Tiphareth,
the Sphere of the Sun, and Yesod, the Sphere of the Moon–inside the circle.
Since the Sun and Moon are the driving forces and anchors for the cycle of the
year, this seems appropriate! The remaining Spheres can be assigned to the
eight festivals of the year-wheel in a straightforward manner. The symbolism
of the year-wheel varies widely within different Pagan traditions, and the
extent of the common ground between the Tree and the Wheel varies accordingly.
Still, many of the common themes of the Pagan festivals link with their
corresponding Spheres of the Tree to a remarkable extent
We’ll start with Samhain,
the beginning of the Pagan year6.
Samhain/Samhuinn7 (November 1)
In Druid tradition,
Samhuinn is the time of the dead, when the barrier between the worlds is let
down and spirits walk the land of the living. It is the feast of death and
rebirth, the beginning and end of the old Celtic calendar. Most Pagans
celebrate and commemorate at this time their ancestors and elders who have
passed into the Otherworld. It represents the fall of the last leaves and the
heart of autumn. It is also a special festival of the Goddess in Her third
aspect, the Crone.
All this is exactly
mirrored in the symbolism of Binah, the third Sphere of the Tree of Life.
Binah’s planetary equivalent is Saturn, the planet of time and restriction;
its symbolic color is black, and its magical image is a mature or elderly
woman in a black robe, bearing a staff. To Binah belongs the most powerful of
female images of Divinity in the Cabala: Aima Elohim, the Mother of the Gods
and Goddesses. Binah is also Mara, the bitter Great Sea, and its symbolism is
deeply linked with that of the Abyss—the gap between the three higher and
seven lower Spheres—which is described symbolically as a dark and pathless
void. In the Golden Dawn system, this Sphere corresponds to the grade of
initiation8 called Magister Templi or “Master of the
Temple,” the level at which the aspirant comes to experience everything in
the universe—even death and decay—as a manifestation of the Divine.
Yule/Alban Arthuan (December 21)
Alban Arthuan, “the Light
of Arthur” in the Druid tradition, is the festival of the Winter Solstice,
and is associated with the northern quarter of the world. As the name implies,
it also has much to do with the legendary King Arthur, who is also Arktos the
Great Bear or Big Dipper, tracing out the Round Table of the stars as it turns
around the North Pole. The association of Santa Claus with the North Pole is a
sign that the polar symbolism of this holy day is not limited to Druidry! The
months leading up to the solstice have seen the Sun retreat far into the
south. This festival is the day of the Sun’s return, and is celebrated among
Pagans with trees or garlands, the kindling of lights, and the burning of the
Here, too, Cabalistic
symbolism and Pagan tradition mesh closely. Kether is the summit of the Tree
of Life and the source of all light; it is the single star that shines across
the Abyss, just as the newborn Sun brings the year’s longest night to an
end. In the Golden Dawn tradition, which maps out the Tree of Life on the
sphere of the heavens, Kether’s place is at the north celestial pole,
guarded by the prowling Great Bear. Its astrological correspondence has been
debated among Cabalists, with some suggesting Pluto, others the Milky Way, and
still others relying on the ancient concept of the primum mobile, the
outermost sphere that moves all the heavens; all these cases share the concept
of Kether as the highest and outermost realm of manifestation. Equally, the
Golden Dawn grade of initiation corresponding to Kether is that of Ipsissimus,
“Most Oneself,” about which nothing meaningful may be said at all.
Imbolc or Oimelc in Irish
Gaelic literally means “ewe’s milk,” and it was once a festival kept by
shepherds; it celebrated the end of the harsh weather of winter, but little is
known about how it was once kept. In modern Druid practice and in many other
Pagan traditions, this festival is dedicated to Brigid, the Irish goddess (and
later Christian saint) of poetry, healing, and ironwork. It represents the
first stirring of the light and warmth of spring. In many traditions it is the
only one of the eight festivals in which male images of Divinity have no
This is the one place in
the eightfold wheel where current Pagan practice parts company with Cabalistic
symbolism, for Chokmah is the primary male Sphere, as Binah is the primary
female Sphere. Its astrological symbol is the Zodiac, or the realm of the
stars generally, and its magical image is a mature or elderly man clad in a
gray robe, bearing a staff. On the other hand, a festival of returning light
and life has much in common with Chokmah, which is the head of the Pillar of
Force on the Tree and represents creative power at its purest and most primal.
The grade of initiation in this Sphere is that of Magus, “Mage,” the
Master of Power through whom flows the creative forces of the entire cosmos.
Ostara/Alban Eiler (March 21)
A solar festival in modern
Pagan practice, welcoming the coming of spring and the bursting of new life in
the natural world, this festival takes place at the Spring Equinox. It is
often assigned to the Germanic goddess Ostara or her Anglo-Saxon equivalent
Eostre, whose name is the origin of the modern word Easter. The eastern
quarter of the world and the element of Air are important in many traditions
at this time. In Druid tradition this is Alban Eiler, “the Light of the
Earth,” and has similar overtones; seeds are distributed to all present, and
the new life of spring is welcomed.
Here the Pagan and
Cabalistic symbolisms come back into harmony. Chesed is the great center of
constructive force on the Tree of Life; its astrological correspondence is
Jupiter, the Greater Benefic among the planets, and its symbolic color is the
clear blue of the springtime sky. In the Golden Dawn tradition the Spring
Equinox is celebrated with intensive ritual work, in which the powers of Sun
and Earth are brought together and the Temple and its members renewed; it is a
time of new beginnings, one of the three major festivals of the Golden Dawn
year9.The grade of initiation corresponding to this Sphere
in the Golden Dawn tradition is that of Adeptus Exemptus, “Exempt Adept,”
the level at which the initiate has resolved the entire burden of his or her
past karma and is ready to cross the Abyss into a new and greater life.
Beltane/Bealteinne (May 1)
In Pagan circles this is
the great spring festival, celebrating the mating of the Goddess and the God.
Fires are lit to welcome the summer and drive away the spirits of the year’s
cold half; the Goddess takes on her first aspect, that of Flower Maiden, and
the God may be welcomed as Bel, the Celtic fire god, or as the horned and
horny Pan. In Druid groves this festival is linked to Glastonbury, the ancient
Isle of Avalon; the masculine and feminine powers are symbolized by
Glastonbury Tor and Chalice Well, and in another sense by the sword and the
cup, Excalibur and the Holy Grail.
It would be impossible to
find anything on the Tree of Life closer to the spirit of Bealteinne than
Netzach, the seventh Sphere. Its astrological correspondence is Venus, its
symbolic color is green, and its magical image is a beautiful woman wearing a
crown of roses and nothing else whatsoever. At the base of the Pillar of
Force, Netzach represents the power of attraction manifesting at every level
of existence, from the energy bonds that link subatomic particles to the vast
gravitational forces that hold the galaxies together—and to the forces of
friendship, passion, and love that unite human beings with one another. Even
the relationship to Fire is there, since in the Golden Dawn tradition the
grade of initiation corresponding to Netzach is Philosophus,
“Philosopher,” which corresponds to Fire.
Litha/Alban Heruin (June 21)
The festival of the Summer
Solstice, Alban Heruin or “the Light of the Shore,” is the most important
day of the Druid calendar; the Sun is at its height, and Druids gather at dawn
and again at noon to welcome it and rejoice in “the plenty and gladness of
the realm that is to be restored.” In many other Pagan traditions this is a
celebration of summer’s richness and a time for healing and purification.
The element of Fire and the southern quarter of the world are symbolically
important to many traditions at this time.
This may seem like an
unlikely festival to correspond to Malkuth, the tenth and last Sphere of the
Tree of Life, which corresponds to the Earth as the realm of the four
elements. Still, the connection is there, and relevant. Malkuth is the Sphere
in which the entire creative process of the Tree comes to fruition and
manifestation; it contains and fulfills all of the other Spheres. Its symbolic
colors include citrine, russet, and olive, the colors of full-grown
vegetation, along with Binah’s somber black, a reminder that when summer is
at its height winter is not so far away. In the Golden Dawn tradition, the
annual Consecration of the Vault of the Adepts is held near the Summer
Solstice; the vault is the symbolic burying place of Christian Rosencreutz,
the legendary founder of the Rosicrucian Order, and the imagery of the vault
deep within the earth, fashioned as a symbol of the universe, resonates well
with Malkuth10. The corresponding initiation of the Golden
Dawn system is that of Zelator, the “zealous one” who tends the
transmuting fire of the alchemist.
Lammas/Lughnasadh (August 1)
In Pagan and Druid practice
alike this festival marks the beginning of the harvest and its abundance, and
heralds the approach of autumn and the cold half of the year. The Irish god
Lugh gives his name to this festival in many traditions; a solar god, he also
had the title Samildanach,
“possessing all skills.” In ancient Ireland this was a season of horse
races, athletic contests, and bardic competitions.
Here again Pagan and
Cabalistic symbolic systems come into close harmony.
Hod is the basal Sphere of the Pillar of Form, and represents
individuation, the process by which each thing and being in the universe
becomes something uniquely itself, just as each seed planted during spring
grows into a unique plant with its own character and form during the warm
months of summer. The astrological correspondence of Hod is Mercury, and the
Roman god Mercury also possessed all skills—in fact, the relationship
between Lugh and Mercury was close enough that Roman writers called Lugh’s
Gaulish equivalent, Lugos, “the Gaulish Mercury.” The grade of initiation
assigned to this Sphere in the Golden Dawn tradition is that of Practicus, “Practicer,”
and represents the achievement of practical competence in the magical arts.
The symbolic color of Hod is orange, recalling the warm sun of August and the
first trace of color in leaves that are soon to fall.
Mabon/Alban Elued (September 22)Cabalistic
The festival of the Autumn
Equinox is called Alban Elued, “the Light of the Sea,” by Druids, and a
variety of names by other Pagans. It marks the middle of the harvest season
and the coming of the cold half of the year. Some modern Pagan traditions
assign this festival to Mabon ap Modron, the divine child of Welsh legend, who
was kidnapped from his mother at the age of three days and hidden in an
Otherworld fortress; he is a symbol of the Sun, which spends more than half
its time beneath the Earth after this day.
The Cabalistic symbolism
again forms a close harmony to these Pagan traditions. Geburah, at the heart
of the Pillar of Form, represents the powers of destruction and radical change
that we all fear—and all must face. Its symbolic color is red, like the
changing leaves and the spilled blood of farm animals who were slaughtered
beginning at this time, so their meat could be preserved for the coming
winter. At this time Golden Dawn temples again enact the Equinox Ritual, as
the Sun passes southward across the celestial equator. The corresponding
Golden Dawn grade is that of Adeptus Major, “Greater Adept,” the master of
will and silence, who has defeated the most difficult enemy of all—his or
her own ego.
Applications and Possibilities
From one perspective, the
correspondences and connections just outlined can be seen as yet another set
of symbols to arrange on the Tree of Life, another addition to the already
bulky mental toolkit of the Cabalistic magician. On the other hand, there are
some useful possibilities that unfold from these connections.
Some of these relate directly to the Tarot. In the standard Tree of
Life, the eight Spheres that represent the festivals of the year-wheel are
connected by eight Paths, and each of these has a Tarot trump associated with
it, as follows:
(Binah) → Yule (Kether): I, Magician
Yule (Kether) → Brigid (Chokmah): 0, Fool
Brigid (Chokmah) → Ostara (Chesed): VI, Hierophant
(Chesed) → Beltane (Netzach): X, Wheel of Fortune
Beltane (Netzach) →Litha (Malkuth): XVIII, Moon
Litha (Malkuth) → Lammas (Hod): XX, Judgment
Lammas (Hod) → Mabon (Geburah): XII, Hanged Man
Mabon (Geburah) → Samhain (Binah): VII, Chariot
These correspondences can
be used in divination as a way to suggest the approximate season of the year
when an event may happen—for example, the Wheel of Fortune might suggest a
time in early spring, between late March and the beginning of May. They can
also be used in Pathworking as a way of inner voyaging, traveling the Paths
around the rim of the Wheel one at a time or all in sequence. Finally, they
offer some useful possibilities to Tarot designers, who may find it
interesting to weave seasonal patterns directly into the artwork of these
eight Trumps—or into the whole set—to provide a dimension that has been
lacking in many decks to date.
Equally, the alternate Tree
of Life outlined above can be used as the basis for a divination spread that
could be used for a picture of the year to come. Each of the eight positions
around the wheel would stand for a period of time beginning with that festival
and ending with the next one. The central card, representing Tiphareth and the
Sun, would indicate the character of the year as a whole, while the card of
Yesod, between the central Sun and the Summer Solstice card, could be used to
suggest the position of the querent relative to the events of the year.11
Other Tarot applications
can be unfolded from the basic pattern of symbolism. Equally, those whose
interest in the Tarot (and the Tree of Life) extends beyond divination may be
able to open up the connection between the Tree and the year-wheel in a
variety of ways, including ritual and meditation. In particular, at a time
when the esoteric community suffers in many areas from a sharp division
between Pagan and Cabalistic/Hermetic approaches, a way of drawing connections
between the central symbolic structure of each side may be a welcome step
toward building bridges of understanding.
All these are just the
first possibilities that come to mind. One of the great advantages of the sort
of symbolic thinking central to the Western magical traditions is the way that
a single, symbolically rooted insight can unfold and expand, revealing more
and more of itself, given time and contemplation.
John Michael Greer, CTM, is a longtime student of Hermetic magic and the
Western esoteric traditions. The author of six published and two forthcoming
books on occult topics, he is also a Druid of the Order of Bards Ovates and
Druids (OBOD), a practitioner of geomancy and sacred geometry, and an active
member of eight fraternal and two magical lodges. He lives in Seattle.
Note: This article first appeared in Volume One Issue Two of the Tarot Journal
and is repreinted here with the permission of the author and Judith Lethbridge
the Editor-In-Chief and Publisher of the Tarot Journal. All rights reserved by
the author John Michael Greer. ______________________________________________
John Gilbert, “The Tree of Life and the Wheel of the Year,” Tarot Journal 1:1 (Spring 2001), pp. 5-7.
Despite claims that have been made for the antiquity of the eightfold
Sabbats, no reference to a Pagan ritual calendar composed of eight festivals
at roughly equal intervals around the year can be reliably dated before the
early 1950s. Older sources, including such standbys as J.G. Frazer’s Golden
Bough, show a far more diverse and localized set of ritual calendars, with
wide variations in different parts of Pagan Europe and a range of pagan or
quasi-Pagan festivals that are not part of the modern year-wheel (see Ronald
Hutton’s acerbic but well-researched Stations
of the Sun [NY: Oxford UP, 1996]). The
eight festivals of modern Pagan practice have been pieced together from many
different cultures, with names taken from Irish Gaelic, Welsh, German, Old
English—and one (Litha, the Summer Solstice) borrowed from the fantasy
fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien, hardly evidence of ancient roots. None of this
makes the year-wheel one iota less valid as a symbolic structure or a ritual
calendar; every tradition has to be new at some point in its history, while a
teaching can be gray with the dust of centuries and still partly or wholly
spelled Kabbalah, Qabalah, and a wide range of other ways, the Cabala is a
tradition of mystical thought and practice evolved within Judaism and passed
on, during the Renaissance, to the whole range of Western spiritual movements.
See John Michael Greer, Paths of Wisdom
(St. Paul: Llewellyn, 1996) for an overview that includes the Cabala’s
relation to the Tarot.
See Z’ev ben Shimon Halevi, Kabbalah:
Tradition of Hidden Knowledge (NY: Thames Hudson, 1979) pp. 72-73
for a selection of alternate Trees from the Lurianic tradition of Cabala.
For an introduction to sacred geometry, see Robert Lawlor, Sacred Geometry: Philosophy and Practice (NY: Thames Hudson,
1982), which covers the geometries of the square roots of 2 and 3 in detail.
The following comments on the eight Sabbats are impressionistic at
best, and focus on those elements of their symbolism that suggest Cabalistic
equivalents. They also draw on my own background as a Druid, and so may not
match the symbolism of other Pagan traditions. Along with Druid writings, I
have used Elen Hawke’s useful In the
Circle: Crafting the Witches’ Path (St. Paul:
Llewellyn, 2001), along with that dog-eared classic, Scott Cunningham, Wicca:
A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner (St. Paul: Llewellyn, 1988), among other sources, as a basis for these
eight festivals of the year-wheel have different names in different
traditions, although (as mentioned above, note 1) no complete set of names in
any single culture or religious tradition from before 1950 has ever been
uncovered. I have given two names for each festival; the first is the one
commonly used in the American Pagan community, the second is the name used in
the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids.
grades of initiation have been used and interpreted in a variety of ways over
the years. As used here, they are not simply a matter of passing through
ceremonies, but stages of spiritual attainment that may take many lifetimes to
achieve. See Greer, op. cit., pp. 85-88, and for a somewhat different
approach, Paul Foster Case’s The True
and Invisible Rosicrucian Order (York Beach, ME:
9. See Israel Regardie, The
Golden Dawn (St: Paul: Llewellyn, 1989), pp. 248-257 for this ceremony.
Regardie, op. cit., pp. 258-265, for the Consecration ceremony.
application of the alternate Tree was suggested by Elizabeth Hazel, who
reviewed an earlier version of the manuscript.
Case, Paul Foster. The True and
Invisible Rosicrucian Order. York Beach, ME: Weiser, 1985.
Cunningham, Scott. Wicca: A Guide
for the Solitary Practitioner. St. Paul:
Gilbert, John. “The Tree
of Life and the Wheel of the Year,” Tarot
Journal 1:1 (Spring 2001), pp. 5-7.
Greer, John Michael. Paths of
Wisdom. St. Paul: Llewellyn, 1996.
Halevi, Z’ev ben Shimon. Kabbalah:
Tradition of Hidden Knowledge. NY: Thames Hudson, 1979.
Hawke, Elen. In the Circle:
Crafting the Witches’ Path. St. Paul:
Ronald. Stations of the Sun. NY:
Oxford UP, 1996.
Robert, Sacred Geometry: Philosophy and
Practice. NY: Thames
The Book of Druidry. SF:
Israel. The Golden Dawn. St: Paul:
The Tree of Life