Cards have fascinated the West for nearly 700 years, maybe longer. They are generally dismissed as children's play things at best, or instruments of debauchery at worst. Yet there is something strangely appealing about the organization and symbolism they employ, as though they are a more honest representation of the world than we care to admit. And this is seemingly what the cards were always meant to portray, for modern playing cards likely derived from the Tarot.
"Opinions of authorities differ widely concerning the origin of playing cards, the purpose for which they were intended, and the time of their introduction into Europe. In his Researches into the History of Playing Cards, Samuel Weller Singer advances the opinion that cards reached Southern Europe from India by way of Arabia. It is probable that the Tarot cards were part of the magical and philosophical lore secured by the Knights Templars from the Saracens or one of the mystical sects then flourishing in Syria. Returning to Europe, the Templars, to avoid persecution, concealed the arcane meaning of the symbols by introducing the leaves of their magical book ostensibly as a device for amusement and gambling."
(The Secret Teachings of All Ages, Manly P. Hall. pg. 409)
In other words, playing cards are the exoteric deck to the esoteric Tarot deck. And yet, much symbolism still resides in the common deck of playing cards.
"Modern playing cards are the minor trumps of the Tarot, from each suit of which the page or valet, has been eliminated, leaving 13 cards. Even in its abridged form, however, the modern deck is of profound symbolic importance, for its arrangement is apparently in accord with the division of the year. The two colors, red and black, represent the two grand divisions of the year -that during which the sun is north of the equator and that during which it is south of the equator. The four suits represent the seasons, the ages of the ancient Greeks, and the Yugas of the Hindus. The twelve court cards are the signs of the zodiac arranged in triads of a Father, a Power, and a Mind according to the upper section of the Bembine Table. The ten pip cards of each suit represent the Sephirothic trees existing in each of the four worlds (the suits). The 13 cards of each suit are the 13 lunar months in each year, and the 52 cards of the deck are the 52 weeks in the year. Counting the number of pips and reckoning the jacks, queens, and kings as 11, 12, and 13 respectively, the sum of of the 52 cards is 364. If the joker be considered as one point, the result is 365, or the number of days in the year.
(ibid, pg. 425)
And that brings us to the Tarot. The origins of the Tarot are shrouded in mystery, though it is seemingly closely related to the Romani people, better known in the West as 'Gypsies.' Both the Tarot and wandering bands of Romani appeared in Europe at roughly the same era. Both were assumed to be of an Egyptian origin (hence the name Gypsies, which is a play on Egyptians or 'Gypos').
"Through the Gypsies the Tarot cards may be traced back to the religious symbolism of the ancient Egyptians... A curious legend relates that after the destruction of the Serapeum in Alexandria, the large body of attendant priests banded themselves together to preserve the secrets of the rites of Serapis. Their descendants (Gypsies) carrying with them the most precious of the volumes saved from the burning library -the Book of Enoch, or Thoth (the Tarot) -became wanderers upon the face of the earth, remaining a people apart with an ancient language and a birthright of magic and mystery."
(ibid, pgs. 409-410)
However, some scholar have speculated that the Romani people (as well as the Tarot) are originally from India rather than Egypt.
"The gipsies originated in India, or their historian has at least shown the likelihood of this theory. Now the extant Tarot is certainly that of the gipsies and has come to us by way of Judea. As a fact, its keys are in correspondence with the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and some of its figures reproduce even their forms. What then were the gipsies? As a poet has said: They were the debased remnant of an ancient world; they were a sect of Indian Gnostics, whose communion caused them to be proscribed in every land; as they may be said to admit practically, they are profaners of the Great Arcanum, overtaken by a fatal malediction."In recent years genetic evidence has validated an Indian rather than Egyptian origin for the Romani. Many occultists such as Aleister Crowley have still insisted on an Egyptian origin for the Tarot, even while acknowledging in the Indian heritage of the Gypsies. This is easily understandable when one considers that Egypt was generally thought to be the birth place of the Mysteries by various occult orders since the Renaissance. Yet India is an even more compelling birthplace for the Tarot to my mind.
(The History of Magic, Eliphas Levi, pg. 240)
From time to time this blog has tackled the complex topic of twilight language. As this concept will play heavily into this post, I thought I would briefly address it again at the onset. The historical notion of twilight language comes from India.
"Buddhism's tantras are thousands of years old and yet never publicly revealed, never written down. Gradually it became necessary to write the secrets down so they would not be completely lost. But when they were written, they were written in a 'twilight language,' that is, in allegory, symbolism, code, so they could not be misinterpreted and misused by unworthy seekers. For this reason, if we do not have a proper guide, the ancient texts may be confusing or even misleading to us today."In other words, twilight language is an entirely symbolic form of communication. It also seemingly originated from India, which may also have been where the Tarot derived from. Researchers such as the controversial Michael A. Hoffman have argued that numerous occultic organizations have a most peculiar view of twilight language that puts it at far greater age than the historic twilight language of the Buddhists and Hindus:
(The Copycat Effect, Loren Coleman, pg. 237)
"In the secret societies, 'twilight language,' was advertised as the 'Adamic language,' the language Adam learned from God in Eden, 'the key to divine knowledge.' "
(Secret Societies and Psychological Warfare, pg.7)
It seems highly unlikely that this 'Adamic language' consisted of letters as we now understand them. Images and numbers are a far more probable form that such a language would take. Thus, twilight language is seemingly on similar ground as the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung's concept of the collective unconscious. To Jung's mind, the collective unconscious was something that existed in all human beings and was genetically passed down generation to generation.
"... In addition to our immediate consciousness, which is of a thoroughly personal nature and which we believe to be the only empirical psyche (even if we tack on the personal unconscious as an appendix), there exists a second psychic system of a collective, universal, and impersonal nature which is identical in all individuals. This collective unconscious does not develop individually but is inherited. It consists of pre-existent forms, archetypes, which can only become conscious secondarily and which give definite form to certain psychic contents."
(The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, Carl Jung, pg. 42-43)
The most famous inhabitants of Jung's collective unconscious were of course the archetypes, would would fulfil the visual aspect of twilight language. Jung also tentatively embraced numbers as part of the collective unconscious as well.
"It is generally believed that numbers were invented or thought out by man, and are therefore nothing but concepts of quantities, containing nothing that was not previously put into them by the human intellect. But it is equally possible that numbers were found or discovered. In that case they are not only concepts but something more -autonomous entities which somehow contain more than just quantities. Unlike concepts, they are based not on any psychic condition but on the quality of being themselves, on a 'so-ness' that cannot be expressed by an intellectual concept. Under these conditions they might easily be endowed with qualities that have still to be discovered. I must confess that I incline to the view that numbers were as much found as invented, and that in consequence they possess a relative autonomy analogous to that of the archetypes. They would have, in common with the latter, the quality of being pre-existent to consciousness, and hence, on occasion, of conditioning it rather than being conditioned by it. The archetypes too, as a priori forms of representation, are as much found as invented: they are discovered inasmuch as one did not know of their unconscious autonomous existence, and invented inasmuch as their presence was inferred from analogous representational structures. Accordingly it would seem that natural numbers have an archetypal character. If this is so, then not only would certain numbers and combinations of numbers have a relation to and an effect on certain archetypes, but the reverse would also be true. The first case is equivalent to number magic, but the second is equivalent to inquiring whether numbers, in conjunction with the combination of archetypes found in astrology, would show a tendency to behave a special way."
(Synchronicity, Carl Jung, pgs. 41-2)I've written more on twilight language and its ties to the collective unconscious here.
Now, we can finally return to the Tarot, which is seemingly one of the most striking representations of twilight language in modern culture. As hinted at above, it may even have been one of the original expressions of twilight language if an Indian origin of the Tarot deck is possible. It also was heavily influenced by esoteric Judaism as noted above. Will will further examine this influence a little further down.
The Tarot is comprised of 78 total cards. 22 of these cards are what is known as major trumps, some of which will be explained in much greater depth below. The other 56 cards are known as minor trumps, and are subdivided into two separate groups: the small cards numbering 1 through 10 (the equivalent of aces through tens in a normal deck of playing cards) and the court cards (which are equivalent to face cards in a playing deck, though there are four court cards in each suit of the Tarot as opposed to three in a regular deck). There are 40 small cards in total and 16 court cards. The minor trumps are also divided into four separate suits (wands, cups, swords, and disks) as are conventional playing cards, each suit numbering 14 total cards.
|One of the earliest Tarot decks|
The images on Tarot cards are of course highly symbolic, and play deeply into Jung's concept of the collective unconscious. Jung himself acknowledges this:
"It also seems as if the set of pictures in the Tarot cards were distantly descended from the archetypes of transformation..."This is only scratching the surface.
(The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, pg. 38)
"The two paths which we have marked out are, however, open to other interpretations. Jung distinguishes the two aspects of the individual's struggle against others and against him- or herself. There is the solar path of extraversion and action, of practical and theoretical reflection upon rational motivation. And then there is the lunar path of introversion, of meditation and intuition in which motivations are all-embracingly dictated by the senses and the imagination. The Tarot also appears to contain a number of basic archetypes -the mother (the Female Pope, the Empress, Judgement); the horse (Chariot); the old man (Emperor, Pope, Hermit, Judgement); the wheel (Wheel of Fortune); Death; the Devil; the house or tower (Tower, Moon); the bird (Star, World); the virgin, the Spring, the star (Star); the Moon; the Sun; the twins (Devil, Sun); the wing (Lover, Temperance, Devil Judgement, World); the flame (Tower)...
(Dictionary of Symbols, Jean Chevalier & Alain Gheerbrant, pg. 975)
|The archetypes via King Crimson|
So much for the archetypes. Numerology, especially that derived from the Qabalah, is also of major importance when attempting to understand the Tarot.
"Kabbalists who have studied the Tarot have been struck by several points. There are the same number of major arcana as there are letters in the Hebrew alphabet and this number is 'precisely the same as the twenty-two paths of wisdom, the channels between the ten sefirot, which link together these sublime metaphysical principles of the Jewish Kabbala'... Mystic attributes of God, the sefirot themselves evolved 'in the shape of groups of three, in each of which trinities two opposites are linked by an intermediate'... Moreover, they agree with the symbolic meaning of the cards -the Crown of the sefirot matches the Juggler, First Cause from which all things proceed; the Female Pope matches Wisdom; the Empress, the Understanding; the Emperor, Magnificence and Mercy; the Pope, Fortitude or Judgement; the Lovers, Beauty; the Chariot, Victory; Justice, Splendour; the Hermit, the Foundation; and the Wheel of Fortune, 'representing the whirlpool of involution', the Kingdom... As there are correspondences between all the cards, this has provided the foundations for building a complete Kabbalistic symbolism for the Tarot since 'in the chain of being, everything is magically contained in everything.'"
(ibid, pg. 972)
The Tarot trumps also corresponds to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, but not in an obvious fashion. While there are in fact 22 trumps, they are numbered 1-21, with the Fool trump remaining unnumbered. This has led to much dispute as to where the Fool card should be placed. Some occultist such as Eliphas Levi, placed the Fool trump between the 20th and 21st trump. However, it seems much more likely that the Fool trump corresponds to the number zero.
"... the zero card to AIN SOPH, the Unknowable First Cause. As the central panel of the Bembine Table represents the Creative Power surrounded by seven triads of manifesting divinities, so may the zero card represent the Eternal Power of which the 21 surrounding or manifesting aspects are but limited expressions. If the 21 major trumps be considered as limited forms existing in the abstract substance of the zero card, it then becomes their common denominator. Which letter, then, of the Hebrew alphabet is the origin of all the remaining letters? The answer is apparent: Yod..."
(The Secret Teachings of All Ages, Manly P. Hall, pg. 413)
In the Kabbalah, AIN SOPH is God before He assumed any form, and equivalent to zero in the Tree of Life, before Kether (1). This seems like an apt place for the Fool, for reasons we shall examine a bit further down, but that leaves us with only 21 trumps and 22 Hebrew letters. And yet, the correspondence is uncanny...
"If Le Mat be placed before the first card of the Tarot deck and the others laid out in a horizontal line in sequence from left to right, it will be found that the Fool is walking toward the other trumps as though about to pass through the various cards. Like the spiritually hoodwinked and bound neophyte, Le Mat is about to enter upon the supreme adventure -that of passage through the gates of the Divine Wisdom. If the zero card be considered as extraneous to the major trumps, this destroys the numerical analogy between the cards and the Hebrew letters by leaving one letter without a Tarot correspondent. In this event it will be necessary to assign the missing letter to a hypothetical Tarot card called the elements, assumed to have broken up to form the 56 cards of the minor trumps."I shall allow the Great Beast himself to expand on this notion of the minor trumps:
(ibid, pgs. 413-414)
"The description begins with the 'small cards' numbered 1 to 10. These are divided into four suits according to the four elements.
"Thus the Ace of Wands is called the Root of the Forces of Fire. It pertains to Kether, and purports to represent the first positive manifestation of the idea of Fire...
"The Court cards are sixteen in number, four to each suit. There is thus a subdivision of each element into its own system. The Knights represent the element of Fire, so that the Knight of Wands represents the fiery part of Fire, the Knight of Cups, the fiery part of Water. Similarly the Princesses or Empresses represent Earth, so that the Empress of Disks... represents the earthly part of Earth."
(The Book of Thoth, Aleister Crowley, pgs. 34-35)
|the Court cards|
So much for the basic structure of the Tarot. I would now like to briefly address several of the major trumps which are most striking to me. I shall begin with the Fool, naturally. Crowley associates this card with Harpocrates, the Greek form of the Egyptian god Horus. The Greeks considered Harpocrates to be the god of silence. Crowley states:
"Of all the magical and mystical virtues, of all the graces of the Soul, of all the attainments of the Spirit, none has been so misunderstood, even when at all apprehended, as Silence.
"It would not be possible to enumerate the common errors; nay, it may be said that to think of it at all is in itself an error; for its nature is Pure Being, that is to say, Nothing, so that it is beyond all intellection or intuition. Thus, then, the utmost of our Essay can be only a certain Wardenship, as it were a Tyling of the Lodge wherein the Mystery of Silence may be consummated.
"For this attitude there is sound traditional authority; Harpocrates, God of Silence, is called 'The Lord of Defence and Protection.'
"But His nature is by no means that negative and passive silence which the word commonly connotes; for He is the All-Wandering Spirit, the Pure and Perfect Knight-Errant, who answers all Enigmas, and opens the closed Portal of the King's Daughter. But Silence in the vulgar sense is not the answer to the Riddle of the Sphinx; it is that which is created by the answer. For Silence is the Equilibrium of Perfection; so that Harpocrates is the omniform, the universal Key to every Mystery soever. The Sphinx is the 'Puzzel or Pucelle', the Feminine Idea to which there is only one complement, always different in form, and always identical in essence. This is the signification of the Picture of the God; it is shown more clearly in His adult form as the Fool of the Tarot and as Bacchus Diphues, and without equivocation when He appears as Baphomet."
(ibid, pg. 120)
Here we may find the strongest links between the Tarot and twilight language. Crowley was obsessed with silence, and wrote vaguely of communicating through the language of silence. Twilight language is seemingly a visual rather than verbal language that relies on symbolism and numbers to communicate ideas. So to does the Tarot. Some of the most radical theories of the Dawn of Man have suggested that early humans communicated telepathically rather than verbally. Is this, then, the true nature of the 'Adamic language' various occult schools are obsessed with? Is the Tarot then a representation of this era? If the Tarot in fact derives from India, it would be a well-placed candidate for the first language of humans, as the first known civilizations hail from ancient India and Sumeria.
Moving along. The next card I would like to address is the fourth numbered card of the major trumps, the Emperor.
"...the Emperor, and by its numerical value is directly associated with the great Deity revered by the Pythagoreans under the form of the tetrad. His symbols declare the Emperor to be the Demiurgus, the Great King of the inferior world."
(The Secret Teachings of All Ages, Manly P. Hall, pg. 415)
Crowley agrees with this designation of the Emperor as the Demiurge. Interestingly, he associates Harpocrates (and by default, the Fool) with Abraxas, the 'Great Archon' and 'Unbegotten Father' of the Gnostics. This being would also be vaguely synonymous with the Ain Soph of the Kabbalah.
In historic Tarot decks the eleventh card was known as Strength but in the Crowley deck it is renamed Lust. In either case, the card depicts the Scarlet Woman of the Book of Revelation. The imagery of the Book of Revelation was a major influence on Medieval Tarot decks in general, but especially in this card. When Crowley designed his deck in the early 20th century, he went from a perspective that the Age of Osiris (the Christian age) had already passed and that the Scarlet Woman was in fact the usherer of a new age. Interestingly, 11 was also the number of magical expansion to Crowley.
"In this card, therefore, appears the legend of the woman and the lion, or rather lion-serpent (This card is attributed to the letter Teth, which means serpent.)
"The seers in the early days of the Aeon of Osiris foresaw the Manifestation of this coming Aeon in which we now live, and they regarded it with intense horror and fear, not understanding the precession of the Aeons, and regarding every change as catastrophe. This is the real interpretation of, and the reason for, the diatribes against the Beast and the Scarlet Woman in the XIII, XVII and XVIII-th chapters of the Apocalypse; but on the Tree of Life, the path of Gimel, the Moon, descending from the highest, cuts the path of Teth, Leo, the House of the Sun, so that the Woman in the card may be regarded as a form of the Moon, very fully illuminated by the Sun, and intimately united with him in such wise as to produce, incarnate, in human form, the representative or representatives of the Lord of the Aeon.
"She rides astride the Beast; in her left hand she holds the reins, representing the passion which unites them. In her right she holds aloft the cup, the Holy Grail aflame with love and death. In this cup are mingled the elements of the sacrament of the Aeon."
(The Book of Thoth, Aleister Crowley, pgs. 93-94)
|the eleventh trump of the Crowley deck|
Finally, we shall consider the seventeenth trump, known as the Star. I am quite obsessed with the number 17, as regular readers of this blog know, and have mentioned this card in brief before. But now we shall examine the Star, which is the card of Sirius, in greater depth. Sirius, the Dog Star, is highly important in the occult. Though unfamiliar with its significance are advised to read my prior articles on Sirius, which can be found here and here. Anyway, back to the Star:
"The seventeenth numbered trump is called Les Etoiles, the Stars, and portrays a young girl kneeling with one foot in water and the other on land, her body somewhat suggesting the swastika. She has two urns, the contents of which she pours upon the land and sea. Above the girl's head are eight stars, one of which is exceptionally large and bright. Count de Gebelin considers the great star to be Sothis, or Sirius; the other seven are the sacred planets of the ancients. He believes the female figure to be Isis in the act of causing the inundations of the Nile which accompanied the rising of the Dog Star. The unclothed figure of Isis may well signify that Nature does not receive her garments of verdure until the rising of the Nile waters releases the germinal life of plants and flowers. The bush and bird (or butterfly) signify the growth and resurrection which accompany the rising of the waters."
(The Secret Teachings of All Ages, Manly P. Hall, pgs. 421-422)
Crowley believed that the Star was the key to unlocking the full potential of the Tarot.
"There was, however, one kink in the rope. The card called Adjustment is marked VIII. The card called Lust is marked XI. To maintain the natural sequence, Lust must be attributed to Libra and Adjustment to Leo. This is evidently wrong, because the card called Adjustment actually shows a woman with sword and scales, while the card called Lust shows a woman and a lion.
"It was quite impossible to understand why this reversal should have taken place until the events of March and April, 1904... One need here give only one quotation: 'All these old letters of my Book are aright; but... is not the Star'... This was making darkness deeper. It was clear that the attribution of 'The Star' to the letter Tzaddi was unsatisfactory; and the question arose, how to find another card which would take its place. An incredible amount of work was done on this; in vain. After nearly twenty years the solution appeared.
"The Star represents Nuit, the starry heavens. 'I am Infinite Space, and the Infinite Star thereof.' She is represented with two vases, one pouring water, symbol of Light, upon herself, the other upon the earth. This is a glyph of the Economy of the Universe. It continually pours forth energy and continually reabsorbs it. It is the realisation of Perpetual Motion; which is never true of any part, but necessarily true of the whole. For, if it were not so, there would be something disappearing into nothing, which is mathematically absurd...
"The card which must be exchanged for 'The Star' is 'The Emperor', who bears the number IV, which signifies Power, Authority, Law, and is attributed to the sign Aries. This proves very satisfactory. But it became infinitely more so as soon as it was seen that this substitution cleared up the other mystery about Strength and Justice. For Leo and Libra are, by exchange, shown as revolved about Virgo, the sixth sign of the Zodiac, which balances the revolution of Aries and Aquarius about Pisces, the twelfth sign. This is a reference to a peculiar secret of the ancients...
"The justice of the exchange is evident when one considers Etymology. It is natural that the Great Mother should be attributed to He', which is her letter in the Tetragrammaton, while the letter Tzaddi is the natural letter of the Emperor in the original phonetic system, as shown in the words Tsar, Czar, Kaiser, Caesar, Senior, Seigneur, Senor, Signor, Sir."
(The Book of Thoth, Aleister Crowley, pgs. 39-40)
|Crowley's version of the Star|
There is much to reflect upon here. For starters, we should consider the source of the quotation that alerted Crowley to the importance of the Star. This source was none other than the being Crowley dubbed Aiwass, or Aiwaz, whom he claimed to make contact with during a bizarre magickal ritual sometimes known as the Cairo Working.
"It was Aleister Crowley who fanned the flame to furnace heat, which he did when the 'world was destroyed by fire' in 1904. This phrase is a technical one; it signifies destruction and supercession in a sense that may only be interpreted by resorting to the astronomical myth cycles from which it derives... Crowley was in Cairo at the time of this event. There he received The Book of Law -the New Gnosis, the latest Tantra, the most complex Grimoire -from a praeter-human Intelligence named Aiwaz, a messenger of that most ancient god whose image was worshipped in the deserts under the name of Shaitan, and long ages earlier, as Set, the soul or double of Horus."
(The Magical Revival, Kenneth Grant, pg. 7)
Set is closely associated with Sirius, which was also known as the Star of Set.
"The Star of Horus is also the Star of Babalon -the seven-rayed star of the planet Saturn (or Set) which rules Aquarius, the eleventh house of the Zodiac. Aquarius is the constellation through which the influence of Horus (the Sun) reaches man during the present Aeon. Saturn, therefore, is the power behind Venus, as Sirius is the power behind the Sun. These two great Stars (Set and Horus) are therefore symbolically identical, and in this way also is Venus transcended in Sirius, in a celestial sense.."
(ibid, pgs. 51-52)
Crowley viewed Aiwass as a messenger of Sirius/Set. What's more, Aquarius is the ruling sign of the Star Tarot card. Thus, Crowley's decision to swap the Star card with the Emperor trump is even more significant when we remember that the Emperor represents the Demiurge, or Jehovah. This seems to hint at the so-called Age of Aquarius, so popular in New Age circles nowadays. It also seems to represent a triumph of Sirius/Set/Sothis over Demiurge/Jehovah. It also plays into the ancient occult concept of Sirius as a hidden sun, the true sun, or the power behind the actual sun (which as a symbol is closely associated with Jehovah). The enigma of 17 strikes again.
This seems a good a place as any to wrap up our inquiry into the Tarot. Of course I am only scratching the surface of the vast possibilities behind the Tarot. But then again, scratching the surface may be as far as any inquiry into the Tarot may be able to go.
"Whatever validity these different points of view may possess, we should never forget that the Tarot never submits to any one attempt to systematize it and it always retains something which escapes our grasp."Indeed. All that can be said is that the Tarot is shrouded in mystery in terms of both its meaning, purpose and origin. We can note that it bears a resemblance to the occult concept of twilight language, and may even originate from the part of the world from which the historic twilight language derives. We can note its remarkable correspondence to both the modern Jungian archetypes of the collective unconscious and the ancient numerology of the Kabbalah. We can even ponder its connections to the Sirius mysteries and the enigma of 17. But we shall probably never be able to explain what exactly the the Tarot truly is for it is something that speaks to us in a fashion that words can never express.
(Dictionary of Symbols, Jean Chevalier & Alain Gheerbrant, pg. 975)
And that may in fact be its strongest ties to a pre-historic origin and link to some kind of Adamic language.