Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Witch's Pyramid: a House of Tarot Cards

Why do we use magic? Is it so that we can cast spells to get what we want? Well, yes, but if that’s all you think it does, you're missing the point. Using magic is not about filling your life with all the material crap you might desire. Magic is the divine power that permeates the universe, so if you simply suck on it like a calf from a teat, you will be back to repeat this life over and over again, never ascending beyond the earthly plane. The best reason to use magic is to evolve into higher beings – to ascend. The path to ascension lies in learning how to use magic.

Does this mean that the material plane is bad and we should seek to escape from it? It does not. Too many people already seek to escape the lessons of growth found on the material plane by seeking some amazing afterlife. The paradox behind the lesson of magic is that only by embracing that we exist in this material world for now, can we move to the next step. There is yet another step to take and it is only by facing the lessons that are immediately before us can we transition to the next stage in our journey. Think of it this way. When you are taking a road-trip, you might stop at a diner to get something to eat. When you are done, you move on, not because you hated the diner and because the next stop is so much better than the diner, but because your purpose for being at the diner has been fulfilled. It is just one stop on the journey. It is a stop at which you got some food, got some rest, but possibly also met some interesting people – perhaps your server or another traveler – that helped you to enjoy your dining experience or to appreciate something else about the world or even to learn that you really hate eating borscht. Like the diner, the material plane is not better or worse than the step to which we are going, it is simply the step at which we are now. Since this is where we are now, let’s do what we are here to do, which is experience it without being deviated from the idea that we are still on a journey.

Let’s follow the metaphor further. While at the diner, you might be served an amazing meal and a truly divine pecan pie! Could the pie be so good that you never want to leave the diner ever again? I have not yet had a pie that good, but you might still enjoy it better than any pie you’ve ever had before. And yet, when the pie is eaten, you get back in the car and continue on. You do not stay in the diner until closing, gorging yourself on slice after slice of pie. Similarly, becoming mired in the pleasures of the material plane does not serve your journey. Pleasure is one of the lessons to experience here, but so are fear and discontent. All of these things are here for us to experience because that’s what our job is while we are here. They are not blessed or sinful, they simply are. But by becoming so damaged by hardship that you seek to escape this world, or allowing yourself to become driven to load all of your experiences with only pleasure, are the surest ways to miss learning the lessons of the material plane. They are the surest ways of returning here again and again until it finally clicks what your real work in this world should be.

Those who study Wicca or other related magical systems are well aware of the Witch’s Pyramid. It guides the inner study of the witch such that magical work can become possible. But from where did this lesson emerge and what does it really mean to the witch? So many Wiccans with whom I’ve crossed paths tend to confuse the lessons of the pyramid or only grasp it in a limited way. They certainly do not really concern themselves with applying its teachings to improve.

Despite the old origins of its story, the rise to prominence of the Witches Pyramid started with the Hermetic Kabbalah occultist, Eliphas Levi (Alphonse Louis Constant) in the mid nineteenth century. His writings comprised the most influential and the majority of the source material from which the Golden Dawn created their system, as well as those of the occultist and tarotist, Oswald Wirth. The Golden Dawn, in turn, greatly influenced Gerald Gardner and the New Forest coven. This is why so much of Levi’s writings are still present in contemporary Wicca today. If we go back to the source material, we find some interesting lessons about how magic functions as a mechanism to evolve mankind.

To assist my thesis, I’m going to refer to certain cards of a particular tarot deck, because the signposts of the magical work towards mankind’s evolution were conveniently placed there. One caveat: In the last 200 years, attempts have been made to link tarot cards to the glyphs of Egypt and the system of Kabbalah.  I am making no such attempt. This entry is not claiming to link all tarot cards with any ancient esoteric or occult doctrine. To be sure, A. E. Waite redesigned the trumps of the tarot to fit his speculation that they were a repository of esoteric knowledge. Maybe he was right and maybe he was wrong. I’m not claiming either. I’m simply using the deck designed by Waite because it borrowed some of Levi’s symbols and composed them into a system of iconography that helps to explain how mankind can evolve using the philosophy of the Witch’s Pyramid.

Just what is magic, exactly? Levi reveals this about magic in the Dogma et Rituel de la Haute Magie (translated by A. E. Waite, 1896):

Magic is the traditional science of the secrets of Nature which has been transmitted to us from the Magi. By means of this science the adept is invested with a species of relative omnipotence and can operate superhumanly, that is, after a manner which transcends the normal possibility of men.

Magi is simply an archaic word meaning “masters.” They are simply people who have figured it all out. Aren’t those the same guys who followed that star on Christmas morning? Yep, they were the wisest magicians from three different cultures. The gifts they gave were symbols of occult knowledge, not simply material wealth. Did you ever notice how the characters of Mary and Joseph, who were poor nomads, were never represented being thrilled that gold was given to their infant son? The story does not tell of them taking the gold around the town, trying to buy a nicer room for their newborn. The fact that three very valuable things – royal gifts – were just placed into the ownership of an infant in their care doesn’t faze them at all. Perhaps this is because the Magi didn’t actually give them material goods, but instead something symbolic. But this is a digression.

In the middle ages, "the secrets of Nature" were researched by alchemists and theologians. It was believed that the keys to understanding the true face of the divine lied in studying the natural world around us. Most alchemists were priests, monks and friars. Alchemy led to “physic,” which led to chemistry and eventually to modern medicine and the scientific method of test and repeat. Today the secrets of Nature are sought only by the scientific and technological disciplines. Somewhere along the way, science and religion became estranged. They have never reconciled. What we are really discussing here is not the separation of science and religion but the estrangement of logic and faith. Levi tells us that this is not at all beneficial, though perhaps necessary.

Read what Levi writes about the power of magic:

. . . there exists in Nature a force which is immeasurably more powerful than steam, and a single man, who is able to adapt and direct it, might change thereby the face of the whole world. . . . By the direction of this agent it is possible to modify the very order of the seasons; to produce at night the phenomena of day; to correspond instantaneously between one extremity of the earth and the other; to see, like Apollonius, what is taking place on the other side of the world; to heal or injure at a distance; to give speech a universal success and reverberation.

Levi’s words are describing exactly what has happened in our modern world thanks to technology. We can create isolated environments that allow crops to grow all year, we can turn to dust whole nations of people from afar, we can light up the night and talk with people around the world, all with the flick of a switch. All of these things are amazing creations. Certainly, if we were to show them to a person at the time of the birth of Jesus, or even a monk in the Middle Ages, we would surely be thought of as adept magicians, super-humans or possibly even gods. So how do we get there? What steps must we take so that we can use this power and evolve?

The first tarot card we should inspect is The Magician. This is our first evolutionary signpost. Here we find a person with great focus on his face. This man represents mankind, learning our magical lessons. One hand holds a white, double-sided wand above his head and the other points to the ground. The particular wand he uses is not like the rough staff that lies on the table; instead, it is symbolic of divine grace, purity and power. The ground, where the man is pointing, represents the plane of the material and the plane of solid manifestation. The magician is attempting to function as a conduit, to transform divine power into material existence. He stands in a garden of flowers (material desires) attempting to tap into the power of the divine above him -- trying to call it down to earth. What tools does he use to do this? They are the four elements, which are symbolically laid out before him on the table. The message here is that working with divine power requires application of the four elements to make divine power manifest in this world. Above his head is the symbol of infinity marking him as one with the potential to join with the infinite divine. Unfortunately, the Magician is functioning separately from the elements. He views the divine power as outside of himself rather than as within and part of him, which is why they lay on the square table before him (look for this shape later). Traditionally, the card represents a magus, but the subtleties of the symbols show that science and technology are yet unable to reconcile with faith. The elements of Nature are things to be manipulated by him, rather than powers with which he unifies to elevate himself. This is where most of us begin -- with the use of tools -- so we should not be surprised that this card is number 1.

How do we incorporate the elements into ourselves to achieve evolution? That answer lies in the Witch’s Pyramid.

The elements of the Witch’s Pyramid – elements that nearly every witch can recite – are traditionally “to know, to will, to dare, to keep silent.” This is the order that it is most often regurgitated, presumably because it flows off the tongue or out of the memory more easily that way. But let’s look at what Levi says about each step:

To attain the SANCTUM REGNUM, in other words, the knowledge and power of the Magi, there are four indispensable conditions – an intelligence illuminated by study, an intrepidity which nothing can check, a will which cannot be broken, and a prudence which nothing can corrupt and nothing intoxicate. TO KNOW, TO DARE, TO WILL, TO KEEP SILENCE – such are the four words of the Magus, inscribed upon the four symbolical forms of the sphinx.

Notice the order of the four steps. Here is what Levi says about why they are put in that order: “In order to DARE we must KNOW; in order to WILL, we must DARE; we must WILL to possess empire and to reign we must BE SILENT.” So we see that one lesson flows from the one before it.

To recap what each one means:
TO KNOW - an intelligence illuminated by study
TO DARE - an intrepidity (courage) which nothing can check
TO WILL - a will which cannot be broken
TO KEEP SILENCE - a prudence which nothing can corrupt and nothing intoxicate

Levi connects these four lessons to the four symbolical forms of the sphinx. The “symbol of the sphinx” is the pyramid, which is why these four lessons collectively have the name “Witch’s Pyramid.” Unfortunately, the images of sphinxes in different cultures of the real world do not compose all of the imagery that make them effective esoteric symbols. Instead, we must reconstruct the esoteric sphinx using Levi’s description:
. . . his the human head, in order to possess speech; his the eagle’s wings, in order to scale the heights; his the bull’s flanks, in order to furrow the depths; his the lion’s talons, to make a way on the right and the left, before and behind.
So the traditional image of the sphinx, which is usually the winged body of a lion with the head of a man, is incomplete. The esoteric sphinx would be more correct with the winged body of a bull that has the head of a man and the claws of a lion. The body of the bull is essential to incorporate the strength of that elemental power, which we will examine shortly.

How did these particular symbols get into the sphinx as representations of each element? Each of these four elements are present because of their astrological correspondences. The man is Aquarius, a sign of air. The bull is Taurus, a sign of earth. The lion is Leo, a sign of fire. The eagle is Scorpius, a sign of water. But there are three star signs for each of the elements, so why use these particular signs of the zodiac? Because these constellations made up a group of special constellations in ancient Babylon, which is where western astronomy and the mysteries of Kabbalah began to form. They were the constellations that rose at dawn on the Solstices and Equinoxes each year, and so were known as “royal signs.” As such, they represent the great cross that connect the four cardinal points of the sky.  The Biblical prophet, Ezekiel, was exiled by the Babylonians and likely incorporated these symbols into his vision, which he wrote into his book that was later canonized. (Those who discount the Bible as a useless book of myth fail to capitalize on the rich esoteric symbology, especially Kabbalistic, which is hidden within.)

Through their astrology, the qualities of the sphinx represent the four elements with which we must work to achieve mastery. Levi describes what we are called to do if we are to gain this mastery:

You are called to be king of air, water, earth and fire; but to reign over these four living creatures of symbolism, it is necessary to conquer and enchain them. He who aspires to be a sage and to know the Great Enigma of Nature must be the heir and despoiler of the sphinx ....

The symbols of Ezekiel were woven into the tarot card The Wheel of Fortune. A more correct name for this card would be “the cycle of karma” or “the cycle of reincarnation.” Karma is not a system of payback or come-uppance as most people believe. Karma is the life path or purpose that is most true for each of us. It is our path to godhood. When we deviate from it, we experience hardship. But when we pay attention to the signs and follow our true path, life improves. Here the wheel represents our continually regenerating lives on the material plane. We repeat our life lessons, both easy and difficult, going up and down the wheel. In control of the wheel is the sphinx, which has already incorporated the four elements into herself. She is an integrated human that is not bound by the cycle of rebirth, yet remains connected to the material world. She poses to us her riddle every time we go around the wheel (the mystery of rebirth). The four elemental angels (angel means “messenger”) surround the wheel as watchers and keepers of the records of our progress.

The Greeks told a tale of the sphinx in the epic of Oedipus. In that tale, the sphinx related an important riddle that, if answered, would allow Oedipus to rise to royal status. This story is symbolic of the life journey. Oedipus represents each of us attempting to master the four elements of Nature. Mastery would allow us to become elevated to a status higher than our normal human selves (transcending the normal possibility of mankind). The essence of the riddle is to ask what kind of creature can transform – become malleable and adaptable – as the journey of life passes. The answer of this very esoteric of riddles is that only mankind holds the power of ascending. Levi states for us:
The combination of these four types of face and being represents the Created Universe, a complete and eternal entity, Man in fact, the Microcosm; and this is the first formula of the mystical explanation of the enigma of the Sphinx.
Only man has the ability to overcome his limitations to transform into more than he is now.

What does it mean to “master the elements?” Levi tells us that too.

You are called to be king of air, water, earth and fire; but to reign over these four living creatures of symbolism, it is necessary to conquer and enchain them. He who aspires to be a sage and to know the Great Enigma of Nature must be the heir and despoiler of the sphinx: his the human head, in order to possess speech; his the eagle’s wings, in order to scale the heights; his the bull’s flanks, in order to furrow the depths; his the lion’s talons, to make a way on the right and the left, before and behind.

What do we need to do to “conquer and enchain” them? In more modern words, you are tasked with defeating your fears. To find mastery and do it well, you must not fear to stretch your mind as far as it can go, be ambitious to great heights of success, have the strength to face and master your darker self, and have the fierceness to fight against any opposition. Only by conquering your fears can you become a complete master of your life. You must become the sphinx. The great secret of Hermetic philosophy is that the power to do that – the power of all four elements – is inside you right now. Four “angels” are inside you right now. The very transformative power of the divine is inside you right now. You have the ability to transform yourself right now to be great. You simply need to overcome your fear and do the work.

Let’s examine each of these directions one at a time. First is to “possess speech.” We have already seen a clarification of this when Levi told us that this condition was about “an intelligence illuminated by study.” The link between speech and intellect is not a new one. A thorough understanding of anything is the mark of a great orator. Those who fear knowledge will always speak with the ignorance of a child or an idiot. You can see the unfortunate side of this lesson represented in the tarot card of the Fool. The boy turns into the abyss, away from the mountains and the light of the sun, which represent the sharp truths of intellectual pursuits capped by the cold snow of logic and the brilliance of inspiration. He is happier to avert his eyes in ignorance than to embrace real knowledge, and in so doing, we walks blindly into destruction. Only his animal instinct (the dog at his heels), which he completely ignores, seeks to avert him from complete oblivion.

To accomplish this lesson, we must be like the figure in the card Temperance. Unlike any of the other figures representing the four elements, this figure has wings. Most tend to explain this by claiming that he is an angel and indeed he is, but not more so than any of the non-winged figures we will meet. This figure has wings because, despite that he is a water-bearer and just like the star sign Aquarius, he represents the element of air. The brilliant light of intelligence shines from his head. He focuses intently on pouring water from one vessel into another, despite the unsteady endeavor of standing with one foot on the sure earth and the other in the uncertainty of water. It is a precise operation that he could not do without an understanding of the properties of the water, the cups and the physical laws that govern the world. Also, the pouring act attempts to portion the water, which is an intellectual act of measurement. Despite being divine, this figure is very much a scientist. Behind him is the long path that leads to the crown of achievement.

Exactly what does it mean to “furrow the depths?” Remember that the gift of the bull is fearlessness. To furrow means to plow or dig out. “Depths” are the deeper places of the inner self. To plow or dig out the deeper places of the inner self means we must be willing to examine our inner selves and dig out from what we hide. We must have courage in spite of what we find in the depths, no matter how ugly or repulsive to us. We see this represented in the card of the Hermit. Here is a man with a one small lantern to light his way. Gone is the brilliant sun seen in other cards. The crown from the last card has become his guide; his lantern is lit only with the light of hope. He has dressed himself in drab robes that obscure who he is, for his station in life is now irrelevant, as it is to all who do introspective work. His only task now is to look within and so, rather than stare into the distance, his eyes are closed in quiet contemplation. His companion is a staff, symbolic of the element of fire, the element of desire. He leans on his deep desire to discover himself – to find the inner answers that cannot be found in the external landscape. To him, the outer world, being irrelevant to his work, is barren of life and the sky is devoid of guiding stars.

We must “make way on the right and the left, before and behind.” This condition asks us to overcome the fear of opposition. External obstacles must be torn away with the lion’s claws, no matter from which direction they arise to challenge our wills. Because this is a condition of the will, our will must be fierce, like the claws of the lion! In the card of Strength, we see a figure that is demure, but not afraid to face the ferocity of a lion. With very little struggle, she closes the fang-filled jaws of the lion. Fearless, she exerts complete control over the animal despite that it could kill her.

“Scaling the heights” is what we do when we do not fear to succeed. This lesson speaks of ambition and wisdom. This is not the ambition of greed; it is the ambition of achievement. The latter is a reward unto itself and provides a boon to all mankind, rather than simply to the individual. Not being afraid to try for a goal that seems out of reach is the lesson of the eagle. Again, the Fool card, by being a card without value and with a degrading name, shows us who we will be if we do not aspire to be more. Conquering a fear of success is what turns us into the figure in the Chariot card. Here we see a warrior returning from a battle in his chariot, the vehicle of war. His vehicle is lashed to sphinxes of two opposite colors before him, which he commands. They are the duality of the universe – yin and yang, male and female, light and dark, this and not-this. He has shown that he is not afraid of the labels and boxes of the world that seek to categorize us. He can be fully himself, in control of any condition to which he is challenged. Likewise in war, prudence and silence are important. Spies are all around and multiple battalions must all be placed correctly. Prudence is the wisdom to manage all of the material assets in your arsenal to bring about your success, but without the unnecessary loss of life. Such important management is impossible if you spend too much time boasting of your plans, thus allowing others to influence or disrupt your management.

What happens to us if we do not conquer our fear and use the lessons of the pyramid to evolve? There are several cards that suggest to us what might occur, but the best card to examine is the Devil. Here is an animalistic figure with the same physical posture as the magician, for it is what he has become. However, now the wand, the link to the divine power, is missing. The figure stands on a black stone cube, a square like the table in front of the Magician, symbolizing the rigid stability of the material plane. To this same block are chained two humans that are horned as though they have devolved away from humanity towards a more animal state. They are chained to the block of the material, unable to break free from this plane because they rely too heavily on all that it offers. That reliance has caused them to actually move away from being human towards a less evolved (more animal) state of being. These humans are prisoners to everything they desire from the material world. They are incapable of viewing anything beyond it. By using this particular title, "The Devil," this card also evokes subtle fears inside the mind. Those who see devils in shadows are so consumed by their fear that they never see the truth - that what they are seeing are only shadows. They will fain to inspect the true nature of what actually creates the silhouette. They allow their fear to make them believe that shadows have more power than they do. Does this card refer to the mythic demon of the Bible? Perhaps. The proper name of the Devil, Satan, translates as “the adversary.” It is a complex concept embodying everything that is antithetical to progress. If the Biblical character is not an anthropomorphic being, but is instead a state of being, one which is devoid of courage, wisdom, generosity and justice, then this card may represent that state. This card ultimately symbolizes what happens to us when we become a prisoner to the material garden of desire in which the magician stands - a prisoner to the turning wheel on which the sphinx sits.

The completion of man’s evolution is seen in the tarot trump of The World. Perhaps a better name for this card would be “the Universe,” for that’s what essentially opens up to us when we incorporate the lessons of magic and gain mastery. The garland is the divine boundary between our material world and the void out of which all things emanated at the beginning of time; the area inside it is the divine area inside the magic circle, which is at once, both and neither a particular time or a place. The symbols of cosmic vastness, which floated above the heads of the Magician and Strength, are now wrapped around this divine boundary. The figure is female, as was the sphinx, because here, the four elements of the material world have separated from that first figure to stay behind on the material plane. She represents us once we have moved to the higher plane, no longer needing interaction with the material in the way we once did. Also, she is the Sophia (wisdom), which was present with the divine at the time of creation. The wands now exist in both hands because she is no longer simply a passive wire for power; she can now freely draw in and project power at will. She has become the Magus. This card is an image of the great work, which alchemists and Hermeticists called the “Magnum Opus.” The ultimate goal of the Magnum Opus is to master the power of creation – a power that is only accessible to man and to the divine – to become masters of ourselves and our world, so that we can ascend one step closer to being one with the great divine.

Addendum (in my own opinion)
It has come to my attention that, in recent years, the Witches Pyramid has had ascribed to it a fifth principle: "To Go." I believe this is happening from a misguided attempt to correlate the pyramid with the pentagram. The pentagram is a very different symbol and does not discuss the hermetic principle symbolized by the pyramid. The pentagram is a symbol of the unity of the five elements of the universe, not the principles employed by hermetic students to understand how to evolve the spirit. Though I'm fine with people developing whatever mnemonic device they feel is helpful, I do not agree with inventing something that never was while claiming that it did. The pyramid has older names including the "Hermetic Quaternary" and the "Four Powers of the Magus." Both of these names specify four principles, not five, because the new principle that has been invented is clearly not necessary. The four principles are forward-moving principles, so to state that one must then go is redundant to the goal. It also shows a failure to understand what is being taught.

The hermetic magical principles are not symbolized by the corners of the pyramid, but by the faces. There are four triangular faces representing the principles. They are supported by a square face that is hidden. Triangles are symbolic of active properties. Squares are symbolic of manifestation. The surprise to most is that we are not trying to metaphorically travel to the peak of the pyramid. Too many people assume incorrectly that the only way to symbolize the attainment of higher states of being is with a literal movement upward. However, in this case, what is revealed comes from looking at the face of the pyramid that we cannot see. On each of the active faces rests one of the elemental angels, as we saw in the Wheel of Fortune, above. On the base is the manifested figure of the Sphinx herself, for she represents the unity of the elements. Only through unifying the powers of the elements do we gain manifestation. This is the core lesson of magical work.

To help visualize this, I will provide you with a teaching tool that I use with my own students: A paper pyramid that you fold and keep as a visual aid. I also keep one of these in my library, on which I reflect from time to time. Just cut around the outer edge and fold on the grey lines, then glue together.


  1. G'day Fen, I really enjoyed the article and wondered if you're familiar with the RA Material, (particularly Book 4)?
    Would be very interested in hearing your opinion if so?
    Cheers J

    1. Hi James, thanks for reading! It's possible I know of it, but I don't know the name "RA Material." Is the work/author known by a less cryptic name?

  2. Sorry Fen, yes it is probably better known as The Law of One (the Ra Material) a series of 'channeled' work published over 5 books. The fourth of which discusses the origin of the Egyptian Tarot and the specific purpose of the major arcana. I found your article very consonant! Hence my interest in your observations.
    Cheers J

  3. That's great to know! I will look into the material myself. Curiosity is a wonderful thing.

  4. Glad to hear it, if you're into ebooks there are free ePub downloads available @
    Look forward to your observations.