The Influence of Papus on the Major Arcana

The influence by Papus on A.E. Waite and Aleister Crowley is probably greater than we realise. The problem stems from difficulties in reading A.E. Waite's translation of the Tarot of the Bohemians. Both Waite and Crowley saw the Tarot as based upon a system that was not kabbalistic.

If ever the whole system contained in the Tarot came to be worked out, which will scarcely be in our time, it might even prove that its attribution to the Hebrew alphabet obtains only in the lesser degrees.

A. E. Waite, Preface to Tarot of the Bohemians p xvii

The 'Tarot of the Bohemians' by Papus is not an easy read, with its ponderous prose style. Crowley could have read the book in the original French, as well the English translation. Crowley is dismissive of Papus, but this may well be a red-herring:

...[who] felt himself even more closely bound by his Oath of Secrecy, so that his dealing with the Tarot are worthless...

Book of Thoth

Significantly, the 'Book of Thoth' is a description regularly used by Papus, and it is the same phrase used in Waite's more obscure articles on tarot (Kuntz). These articles are a revelation, bearing little resemblance to his popular books associated with the Rider-Waite Tarot decks. This essay, then, is an attempt to explore the relationship and ideas common to Papus, Waite, and Crowley, in the light of the quote from Waite above.

Attributions of the Major Arcana

One difficulty of reading 'Tarot of the Bohemians' (TOTB) immediately comes apparent to the student of Tarot with the realization that Papus uses the French school of attributing the Planets, Zodiac Signs and Elements to the Major Arcana. Waite uses the Golden Dawn system of attributions (although this is not acknowledged in his popular books), while Crowley changed his GD attributions in the light of a verse from the Book of the Law and his Thelemic system. For a more scholarly analysis of the various schools of thought on the Tarot attributions, see 'The Key Of It All' by David Allen-Hulse.

Crowley and Waite assign zero to the Fool card, while Papus deliberately muddies the water: The Fool is assigned to Shin, the 21st letter, and he describes the card as the 'Twenty-first (unnumbered) card of the Tarot'! As the unnumbered card, the Fool can appear anywhere in the sequence. There are many arguments within the tarot community on the rationale behind the order and numeration of the Major Arcana, and I doubt the controversy will ever be settled. While I agree that the Fool should be unnumbered, for practical reasons in divination, I follow the Golden Dawn attribution of Zero to the Fool. However, this essay is not about those arguments on attributions of Hebrew letters to the Major Arcana, nor to the order of the Major Arcana in Papus, Waite, or Crowley's systems.

If, as Waite hints, the "...attribution to the Hebrew alphabet obtains only in the lesser degrees", we could do worse than look deeper into Tarot Of The Bohemians. This diagram holds the key to Papus' system:

Table 1
Yod 1 4 7 10 13 16 19
Heh 2 5 8 11 14 17 20
Vau 3 6 9 12 15 18 21
Heh 4=(1)        
+ - + - + - infinity
Yod Heh Vau 2nd He:

The bottom line of YHVH can be interpreted as:

  1. Yod positive or creative series
  2. He: negative or preservative series
  3. Vau: neuter or transforming series, equilibrium
  4. 2nd He: transitional series

Table 1 divides the twenty-one cards into three groups of seven. Since we know Papus has zero or the Fool as unnumbered, we know it is implicitly present although not defined. The Heh final row has no attributions since it is pendant to the system - only the Hegelian Dialectic of Thesis, Antithesis and Synthesis is considered. Comprehension of the system of Thesis, Antithesis and Synthesis is vital to understanding Papus system - it also provides us an understanding of the role of the Fool, as Waite says:

Last or first, as you please, in its own series (my italics), is the card which represents Zero and is entitled The Fool... It is said by Eliphas Lévi to signify eternal life; it is a card of the joy of life before it has been embittered by experience on the material plane.

The Fool card is seen as outside the system represented by this Table, which is why its placing can be considered to be irrelevant, thus so with the Hebrew alphabet attributions. The concept of the Fool card being 'outside the system' assumes an importance when we consider the implications of some rather unusual ideas later in this essay.

Here is Papus' basic definition of the Trinity:

  • Y: Positive. Creator
  • H: Negative. Reflex of the first. Preserver
  • V: Neuter, enveloping the two others. Transformer
  • H: Passage from one series to another. (ie, beginning at Y again)

Note that this system parallels the system of Elemental Dignities used in Tarot divination and the Counting technique. Papus uses the Trinity system to develop the characteristics of the Tarot cards as they develop in sequential order (this applies to the Court cards and the Minor Arcana).

To use the Table is simple.

  1. Pick a number and look across the table to find the Hebrew letter in the left hand column.
  2. Find the Hebrew letter in the vertical column containing the card
  3. Which sign (+ or -) governs the secondary vertical column

Papus gives an example of the 5th Arcana, which is on the heh row, the yod column, and has the negative (-) sign. Put together, we can describe this card as 'The heh of yod considered negatively'. Note that 'negative' has no detrimental connotation.

Papus' system is a manipulation of the formula of YHVH.

Origin and Derivation

Further structures can be discerned using this system. For example the origin and derivation of any card can be found by looking at the third card before it and the third card after it. In the example of the 5th card, we see that it is derived from the 2nd card and the 8th precedes it.

Uniting card

If the sum of two cards is even, dividing it by two will give us the number of the card which unites them. So, 2+12=14. 14/2=7.

Complementary Card

The complementary card is found by subtracting the number of a card from 22. So the complentary card to 14 will be 22-14=8


The three Septenarys can be analysed in general terms according to Papus:

  • God
  • Man
  • Universe

However, Papus categorises the septenarys in a slightly different manner so that there are actually six cards in each group plus one group of four!

Y - 1st Septenary

Arcana 1 - 6

H - 2nd Septenary

Arcana 7 - 12

V - 3rd Septenary

Arcana 13 - 18

H - Transition cards

Arcana 19 - 22

This contradiction appears to be resolved in the Table above, where the Heh final position has a transforming role, so the 7th card of the first septenary would be number 7, which is actually the first card of the second septenary. Remember that in this system we are dealing with Trinities - the fourth position does not exist except to serve as the transmission force. Confused? Nobody ever said understanding Tarot of the Bohemians was easy!

Later in TOTB, Papus helpfully provides an expanded version of the Table that fleshes out the triple interpretation of each Major Card using exactly the same structure.

Table 2
Y 1 4 7 10 13 16 19
H 2 5 8 11 14 17 20
V 3 6 9 12 15 18 0
H + - + - + -  
God 21 Man 21 Universe 21 Return to Unity

Here is a simplified version of the table. In this version, 0 has become 21. Not only that but 21 now appears in three positions! This is in accordance with the system of trinity discussed earlier, and Papus' statement: 'The Fool card is the twenty-first (unnumbered) card of the Tarot'. The structure of the bottom row has profound implications which seem to have been exploited in Crowley's Book of Thoth, but we are getting ahead of ourselves. Papus has given the Fool card the status of being first and last in the series of Worlds. (Note that the title 'Universe' does not represent the Universe card.) In this sense the Fool is the seventh card in the Septenarys. Another way of coming to this conclusion is to consider what symbol would be used for the missing card of each Septenary? Zero! Careful analysis of Table 2 reveals that the Fool card is represented seven times, since it has an active and passive stage (4th row). It is my understanding that the Fool card appears in the Heh final position, which results in seven positions.

Papus provides three interpretations for each card based upon the following system:

Table 3
Y Y Active Creative principle
H Passive
V Equilibrist
H Y Active Preserving principle
H Passive
V Equilibrist
V Y Active Realizing principle
H Passive
V Equilibrist

Papus combines Table 2 and Table 3 to create a trinity of definitions for the Major cards in his book "The Qabalah":

Y 1 God the Father 4 Will 7 The Father 10 Necessity 13 Universal transforming principle 16 Destruction 19 The Elements
H Adam Power Realization Potential force Death Adamic fall Nutrition
V Nature as cause Creator, Universal fluid Astral Display of magic power Universal plastic force Visible world Mineral kingdom
Y 2 God the Son 5 Intelligence 8 The Mother 11 Freedom 14 Involution 17 Immortality 20 Movement
H Eve Authority Justice Courage Corporeal life Hope Respiration
V Nature as effect Universal life Elementary existence Reflective & temporary life Individual life Physical force Vegetable kingdom
Y 3 God the Holy Spirit 6 Beauty 9 Love 12 Charity 15 Destiny 18 Chaos 0 Movement of limited duration
H Adam-Eve Humanity Love Prudence Hope Fate The material body Innervation
V The Cosmos Universal attraction Astral Fluid (AOUR) Counter-balancing force Nahash Astral light in circulation Matter Animal kingdom
  + - + - + - H Return to Unity
Himself Manifested Himself Manifested Himself Manifested
God 21 Man 21 Universe 21

It is clear that Papus 'twinned' cards vertically. For example, Card 1 is God, while the manifestation is Card 4. Similarly for cards 2 and 5; 3 and 6, and so on. The final column reverts to unity where we have the animal, vegetable and mineral kingdoms represented.

It is not my intention to illustrate Papus' system further since Waite used the Golden Dawn attributions, and Crowley of course modified the GD system in accordance with the Book of the Law. The next stage is to attempt to show how Waite and Crowley extended Papus' Septenary Kabbalistic system for their own purposes.