McLean's thesis, that the cards explore Hermetic themes, is probably flawed, as the cards are dated prior to the explosion of interest in Hermeticism and Platonism that followed the translations of Marcilio Ficino. Moreover there is no need to invoke Hermeticism - the cards draw on ideas that were already commonplace. The rigid social stratification of late-feudal Europe, the classical gods (which inspire so much Renaissance art), the study curriculum of medieval universities, organised into the Trivium and the Quadrivium, the Cardinal Virtues (which are found in many classical sources), and the Ptolomaic spheres of the Kosmos (which were common knowlege) - these were commonplace to an educated person of that period. They encode a set of cultural values that had been stable since the time of Pythagoras in the 6th century BC.
The Esoteric Tarot
One of the beliefs of Renaissance humanism was that there was an original theology that had been given to humankind in the past by a great teacher (Thoth-Hermes) during a golden age of divine wisdom and knowledge. These teachings had survived in various traditions - Greek philosophy, the Hermetic teachings, Judiasm, Christianity - but traces of their original underlying unity could still be found.
This is the key idea behind esoteric treatments of the Tarot that were popular in late-18th. and 19th. century France. In 1772 Antoine Court de Gebelin began to publish Monde Primitif, an encyclopedic study of this hypothetical golden age, and for the first time suggested that the Tarot was a survival of ancient Egyptian wisdom.
The following hundred years saw this suggestion developed with increasingly bold and sweeping assertions about the nature of the 'wisdom teaching' supposedly concealed within the Tarot. A key figure was Alphonse Louis Constant, otherwise known by his assumed name, Eliphas Levi. Levi gave an association between the Tarot trumps and the Hebrew letters, and many other correspondences related to Kabbalah.
These ideas formed part of the cipher documents used to found the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. The assocation between the trumps and the Hebrew letters was reorganised (Levi had supposedly 'concealed' the true attributions from the uninitiated) and survives to this day in modern Tarot Packs. Many Western Esoteric Tradition books on Kabbalah/Qabalah develop these correspondences in considerable detail - an example is Gareth Knight's A Practical Guide to Qabalistic Symbolism. Another example, which takes the Egyptian origin of the Tarot quite literally, is Aleister Crowley's Book of Thoth.
The English-speaking world's most popular Tarot deck (and the design template for most other modern decks) is a collaboration between a Golden Dawn member, A. E. Waite, and the artist Pamela Colman Smith. Although Waite saw through the hyperbole surrounding the claims of ancient knowledge, he made use of Golden Dawn symbolism throughout the deck.
The next thirty engravings reflect what was considered important in the cultivation of the soul. The first decade, symbolised by the Muses, is creativity, a magical "breathing upon" that is so rich and unexpected that it feels like an outside source has literally infused the soul with a magical inspiration. It is an obsession that drives the artist like a rider on a horse.
The second decade is formal knowledge, which not only provides the structure for creativity (an understanding of poetic metres, or musical scales and harmony for example), but also aligns the soul with the fundamental orders and structure of the divine Kosmos. This is according to the view that eternal truth is apprehended through the cultivation of reason and nous (intuitive intellect).
The third decade is virtue, which purifies the soul of the passions of the world - lust and wrath being the major villians, but one could add cruelty, gluttony, greed, dishonesty, selfishness, pride, envy and sloth for good measure. The four cardinal virtues of classical Greece - temperance, justice, fortitude and prudence (practical wisdom) - were supplemented with the three ecclesiastical virtues of faith, hope and charity, and the author of the prints has added three more feel-good factors to bring the number up to ten.
The decade that "trumps all" is the decade of the Kosmic spheres, according to a belief that was fully developed by the Neoplatonists of late antiquity, that the purified soul is able to ascend through the spheres of the Kosmos. This is exactly what happens to Dante and Beatrice after passing through Purgatory; Dante's Paradisio is a poetic fusion of Christian and Classical beliefs about the structure of the Kosmos.
It must be emphasised again that the Mantegna prints are not playing cards, although they have since been published as a "Tarot" (see above). However they do seem to have a structural relationship to Tarot trumps. The Tarot trumps are less thematically organised, less obviously compartmentalised.
An idea that may throw some light on the basic structure of the Trumps is the idea of a "triumph", or ceremonial procession. This custom, like gladiatorial combat, may have originated in ancient Etruscan rituals to honour the dead. In Roman times a triumph was awarded to a successful general whose achievements met strict criteria. A triumph was an ordered parade, a spectacle of increasing magnificence as captives, treasures, and finally the conquering hero were paraded through the streets. The idea of escalating magnificence is basic showmanship. Each act or event is supposed to be better than the one before, building a feeling of excitement that grows until the climax. One sees this in the Burton/Taylor 1963 version of Cleopatra, when Cleopatra makes her triumphal entry to Rome. The spectacle may be pure Hollywood excess, but its heart is in the right place. As far as we can ascertain, towns in Renaissance Italy had celebratory processions. Much of this survives in Lent celebrations and processions such as Mardi Gras and the Venice carnival. The New Orleans Mardi Gras, with its procession of floats each dedicated to a particular theme is very close in concept to what can be reconstructed from Renaissance art.
The hypothesis that the Tarot trumps are constructed and ordered in imitation of a procession of allegorical themes is popular. A source that is often quoted in this connection is a poem by the Italian poet Petrarch, I Trionfi. This allegorical poem is structured into sections that portray successively: the Triumph of Love, the Triumph of Chastity, the Triumph of Death, the Triumph of Fame, the Triumph of Time, and the Triumph of Eternity. Contemporary woodcuts represent some of these Triumphs as allegorical figures being conveyed on a cart, in much the same way as images of saints are still paraded through the streets in Catholic communities.
The popular idea that the Tarot cards are a ancient repository of esoteric and occult wisdom whose "original meaning" can be restored does not have a shred of real evidence to support it. The Tarot historian Michael Dummett observes: "Certainly most of the subjects on the Tarot trumps are completely standard ones in mediaeval and Renaissance art; there seems no need of any special hypothesis to explain them." The internal structure of the trumps, such as it exists, appears to follow three main themes: social hierarchy, the vicissitudes of life, and the Kosmos/End Time. This is shown below (arrangement taken from Michael J. Hurst's excellent Pre-Gebelin Tarot History blog).
The existence of a huge literature elaborating the occult nature of the Tarot is best explained by studying the country and western hit song, The Deck of Cards, about a soldier who is arrested for studying a deck of playing cards during a religious service. In justification he explains that the cards are a memory aid to the gospels and to Christian doctrine. They function like a Bible. This song is founded on a tradition that goes back to the 17th. century (see Kaplan's Encyclopedia of Tarot). In other words, the regular numerical structure of the ordinary 'poker deck' can be read as a treatise on Christian doctrine.
There are many ways in which the Tarot can be "read" - that is, meaning superimposed upon the basic pattern that has been handed down since the Renaissance. The purpose of this introduction is not to undermine the esoteric use of the Tarot (the author is as much an enthusiast as anyone), but to refute the idea that there is a ancient secret meaning hidden within the cards that a suitably initiated student of the system can reveal to the world with appropriate pomp and circumstance. Aleister Crowley's Book of Thoth is an important example (out of many) of a Tarot that has been "rectified" back to its "original" condition. (Despite this imagined rectification, the Thoth Pack by Lady Frieda Harris is an outstanding artistic achievement much influenced by pre-WW2 Art Deco style.)
The Esoteric TarotThe esoteric use of the Tarot falls under four main headings:
The Fool's JourneyThe Fool's Journey or Progress is an allegory of spiritual initiation. One might regard it as an Hermetic analogue of John Bunyan's classic and influential The Pilgrim's Progress. The full title of Bunyan's work is "The Pilgrim's Progress from This World to That which is to come", and the Fool's Progress has a similar allegorical flavour. The basic theme is the same: spiritual awakening and transcendence depicted as a sequence of encounters, and a progression of themes of increasing scope that leads towards a spiritual goal. The specific details depend on who is telling the story. Three narrative frameworks are relevant to this discussion:
The Fool's Journey as an education of three parts of the soul through three realms of being: the soul of appetite in the Social Sphere, the rational soul in the Moral Sphere, and the intellectual soul in the Kosmic or Divine Sphere
The first group corresponds to the animal soul, or soul of appetite, expressed in the social sphere. The soul of appetite is characterised by its attachment to the material world in the form of possessions and physical appetites; a need for fame, celebrity or recognition; and a lust for spiritual or temporal power. Unregulated, an excess of these appetites tends towards consequences that we regard as evil.
The second group corresponds to the rational soul, and the sphere of morality. Here the lesson is the regulation of appetite and a Stoic steadfastness in the face of life's trials and exigencies.
The third group corresponds to pre-existent powers outside of the human sphere that provide a backdrop to human life. The intellectual soul apprehends the structures and forms that exist within the divine intellect that give rise to all existence.
Some flexibility in interpreting the cards is required to read this story onto the Tarot trumps, but it is a good story nevertheless. It can be found, for example, in Robert M. Place's The Tarot: History, Symbolism and Divination.
The Jungian telling requires an understanding of the psychology of the Swiss psychologist C. G. Jung. He postulated that our cognitive apparatus has a deep structure that organises experience into patterns he called archtypes. This cognitive deep structure is unconscious, and imposes itself on the conscious mind in the same way that we have a tendency to see faces in clouds: the archetypes are projected onto raw experience. Archetypes provide an organising narrative to our internal life. Jung examined religion, mysticism, and - in particular - alchemy, and claimed to find archetypal themes similar to those occuring spontaneously in the dreams and fantasies of his patients.
Jung also postulated that the conscious part of our mind is in some way aware of its partition from the unconscious, and experiences an impulse to be whole. This impulse to be whole is experienced as a drama in which projected components of the unconscious psyche are reified and seem to be interacting with the conscious ego. For example, a man's interaction with a woman might be coloured by projections of the anima, and likewise a woman's interaction with a man might be coloured by the animus. These projected components of the psyche lead to stereotypical dramas.
When it is fully understood that the origin of the drama is internal, the unconscious archetypes become part of, and are integrated into, the conscious ego, and there is a consequent feeling of enlargement. The endpoint of this process of self-transcendence and enlargement is what Jung calls the Self, and is itself experienced as an archetype of wholeness, completeness, symmetry, and transcendent holiness. The process of enlargement he calls individuation.
The Fool's Journey can thus be interpreted as a process of individuation, with the individual trumps revealing archetypal content. There is considerable flexibility in deciding what constitutes a "Jungian Archetype". The basic list consists of Persona (social mask), Anima (female archetype), Animus (male archetype), Shadow (threatening other), and Self (wholeness). One can optionally add nuclear family members (Mother, Father, Child), storytelling archetypes (Hero, Princess, Wise Old Man, Trickster) and major life events and forces. The table below shows how the Tarot can be interpreted in terms of archetypal themes.
There is an interesting contrast between the Neoplatonic and Jungian viewpoints. Until the 20th. century, the basics of the Neoplatonic view, with Christian interpolations, was the dominant view of reality. The material world of everyday life was only a surface, a foreground concealing a rich background of structures and powers and intelligences ('angels', 'daemons', 'spirits') interposed between the material world and the realm of the divine. Chief among these intermediary structures was the human soul, a unique element that spanned the entire range of being from the material realm up to (and in some opinions, including) the divine. Each thing in the material world owed its essential nature and continued existence to an immaterial world of divine emanation that consituted the "real real".
Materialism abolishes this view with the belief that the behaviour of matter can be explained without recourse to a invisible world. Without an invisible world, material things become 'disenchanted' - the connection that material things have is with other material things, not with mysterious realms of being. The hermetic doctrine of 'sympathies' becomes an impossibility. Emergence replaces emanation as an explanation for complexity. Causality becomes observable and quantifiable. The human soul is unplugged from its back-door connectivity to higher worlds, and becomes an obsolete title for the information-processing and reactive capabilities of the body.
The older Neoplatonic view of a hidden realm of the divine can be seen as an imaginative projection onto the material world, in the same way that we can visit Baker Street and imagine Doctor Watson and Sherlock Holmes going about their daily business. With sufficient immersion in the world of Conan Doyle's imagination, we might feel that Holmes and Watson's lodgings at number 221B is contiguous with the physical reality of Baker Street, perhaps even the emanating cause of Baker Street (to an extent this is true - the address did not exist when the stories were written, and the building now at this address houses a Sherlock Holmes museum and was officially assigned this address in 1990 because of Sherlock Holmes.)
A flaw in this approach is that it is so general it can never fail to work. It cannot be falsified, a characteristic of a poor theory. It provides a quasi-scientific means to re-examine religion, mysticism and myth in a syncretic spirit, so that - for instance - one can interpret the Neoplatonic Fool's Journey in terms of Jungian archetypal themes. Jung devoted considerable energy to interpreting the images and processes of alchemy in this way. In this sense, any narrative that leads towards wholeness (e.g. the Grail story, the Philosopher's Stone) can become an illustration of Jungian psychodynamics.
Jung's insights rehabilitate religion, mysticism and myth, at the expense of being laden with unproven assumptions. Mysticism may be reducible to psychology ... or it may not. Psychology in the spirit of Jung may provide insights; on the other hand, it may end up further from the truth than the unvarnished metaphysics of the ancients. Its virtue is that it knows its place. It is a psychological theory and so does not infringe on material concerns. It should be noted that even Jung hedged his bets - discussions of the "collective unconscious" often treat it as an objectively existing realm of archetypes in the spirit of Plato.
The Fool's Journey can be placed on the Kabbalistic Tree of Life (see right), where it becomes a narrative of mystical ascent leading to wholeness, an approach that merges both Neoplatonic and Jungian perspectives. Examples of this can be found in Alan Bain's Keys to Kabbalah and the author's A Depth of Beginning.
An Hermetic Exposition
The Thoth Tarot on the Tree of Life, according to a (slightly modified) Golden Dawn system of correspondencesThe Tarot can be used as an exposition of Hermetic Kabbalah. A belief, developed primarily in 19th. century France, was that the Tarot was originally an exposition of Hermetic doctrines that had become corrupt and in need of restoration. One of the key beliefs was that the twenty-two Tarot trumps corresponded to the twenty-two letters in the Hebrew alphabet. This was one of the secrets communicated in the cipher documents used to found The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and it has now become a pervasive belief. Many modern packs contain symbolism based around this correspondence. One of the best known is the Thoth tarot designed as a collaboration between Golden Dawn member Aleister Crowley and artist Lady Frieda Harris. With a couple of exceptions, it follows closely the Golden Dawn attributions of the Hebrew letters to the twenty-two paths on the Tree of Life (see right). The attribution of letters to paths differs from traditional Jewish sources, which follow the Sepher Yetzirah.
One can make many connections between Kabbalah and the Tarot. Most of these are based around numerical coincidences, but they are fun in any case. Among these connections are the follows:
Meditation and PathworkingPathworking is a technique used to build a virtual world within the imagination using symbols and images. It originated in the Hermetic belief that the world is permeated by a web of interconnections mediated by occult similarity. It was thought that the stars and planets were connected with the organs of the human body, and various stones, plants and substances could be used medicinally by virtue of their ability to channel influences of a particular kind. Late Neoplatonists such as Iamblichus and Proclus believed that the human soul had the ability to connect to these occult powers by using physical means - theurgic ritual - to attune the soul (like a psychic radio).
A Tarot Mandala
The pip and court cards of the Thoth Pack arranged in a cross of the four elements. Each element is arranged as a Pythagorean tetractys, a pattern of four and ten that is important in Kabbalah. The court cards show emanation through four worlds. The central point is simultaneously Yesod and Daat.
This is the context for pathworking. It is called pathworking because it centers on the "thirty two paths of wisdom" - the ten sefirot and twenty-two paths of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. Pathworking begins in the imagination, but the practitioner believes that the soul will spontaneously connect with an experiential realm of being that is communicated through symbols.
An important part of pathworking is an organised repository of symbols. The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn created one of the best-known repositories of this kind, published by Aleister Crowley (with his own additions, interpolations and modifications) as Liber 777. This repository is also known as "the correspondences" - that is, the collection of symbols that correspond to each path. It has been widely reproduced - Gareth Knight's A Practical Guide to Qabalistic Symbolism is an example of an extended exploration of this symbol space.
The Tarot has become the central organising principle for pathworking. One reason for this is that one can adapt a Tarot trump to contain many of the symbolic elements in one single image. This might explain the proliferation of modern decks, as different authors adapt the basic schema to reflect their own insights.
From a physiological point of view, pathworking exercises those brain functions popularly known as "right brain" - imaginative, creative, associative, and to an extent, dissociative.
If you enjoyed this presentation on Tarot then you might enjoy The Folly Tarot created by Colin A. Low for his book Playing the Fool.
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