By Christine Payne-Towler
In last month's essay, the role of Esotericist was explored relative to
what such a person can contribute to their times and their society.
But the question was not asked, much less answered, regarding how a
person makes the leap from interest to accomplishment in this area.
What are the steps, one might ask, what is the progression necessary
that a person undergoes to become an Esotericist?
Those of my readers familiar with my previous work will be aware that there are many roads to this goal. Every one of the sub-disciplines that make up the canon of Western Esotericism represents a legitimate and long-trodden path to "inner knowledge".
Whether one is studying Cabbala or Alchemy, Magic or Number Theology, Astrology or Hermetism, there exist multiple well-marked roads laid out for students to travel and evolve along. Each discipline will have its own specialized vocabulary and mechanisms, plus a subtle cultural flavor that is all its own. Nevertheless, the goal in each case is the accomplishment of a certain kind of inner work, able to move the aspirant from a state of latency into a state of actualization, spiritually speaking.
The Tarot arrived very late in the development of the Western esoteric arts and sciences. The Trumps and Queens were added to the Mamluk pack of playing cards a century after they first appeared in Italy and Spain, and this only after a number of variant card games had been taken up and then forgotten among the gamblers and card-players of Europe. It wasn't until the mid-1430's (the date is still unclear) that the first 78-card, 22-Trump pack was made, and it still took till the turn of the 1500's before they began to be produced in great numbers and circulate freely throughout Europe.
Steeped as they are in the ethos of the Classical Revival, the Trumps at minimum serve as a cross-disciplinary catalogue for detailing contemporary assumptions about the stages of evolution that a full human incarnation includes. Wonderful works have been written to explicate the mythic and religious associations that can be made between the Trumps and the culture of the times, not the least of which are the excellent essays by Robert O'Neill over at the website Tarot.com.
Let us remember that it is no accident that the full Tarot pack seems to have first appeared in Italy. Italy was the California of Europe in the 1400's! In the High Middle Ages, tipping over into full Renaissance, there was such a surfeit of "extreme personalities" and radical social experiments going on across the territory, that the populace fairly seethed with individuation, competition, and deeply-clashing values.
Really, it's amazing that the set of trumps we have now is so close to the original set (even with slight changes of ordering) despite all the culture-clash that typified that period. Even though other packs of cards were being produced at the same time with varying card-count and symbols, the Tarot which has become traditional and come down to us as the Marseilles pack is virtually identical with several that can be dated to around 1500. This means that these ideas, tropes and themes held resonance for a large number of card users, employing the cards for multiple purposes.
The Trumps: a Narrative of Ascension
By way of overview, let us briefly note the obvious interior structure in the Trumps that many commentators on the Tarot have noted.
THE FIRST SEPTENARY (Marseilles Tarot):
The Fool and the first seven numbered Trumps picture forth a fairly
standard social hierarchy as it would be found in many medieval towns
across Europe; peasants (Fool and Bateleur), ecclesiastics and royals
(Priestess, Empress, Emperor, Hierophant), the binding social and
spiritual contract of Marriage (Lovers) and the empowered individual
who has gained control, riches and honor in life (The Chariot or
THE SECOND SEPTENARY (Oswald Wirth Tarot):
The second round of Trumps faces us with the kinds of challenges and temptations that lie in wait for the person who is self-actualizing, therefore making waves in the world. This covers the sequence Justice, Hermit, Wheel, Strength, Hanged Man, Death, and Temperance. If we view these Trumps as allowing a stepwise elevation of the soul into a higher realm of existence and self-consciousness, we will not be far amiss.
THE THIRD SEPTENARY (Stella Tarot):
The final Trumps raise our sights to the heavens, where we find the vaster Powers That Be, whose movements and interactions set the tone for all life here "below" (the Devil, Lightning-struck Tower, Star, Moon, Sun, Judgment, and World). Now we have finally arrived at the Emperion, the exalted heights from which the Virgin of the World, or Christ in Glory, looks down upon all the "lower" rungs of the Great Chain of Being.
If we still doubt that there is an ascent narrative going on, we can look over at the Mantegna Tarrochi and the Lazzarelli Trump images, between them demonstrating both a mythopoetic and literary bridge between the traditional Hermetic Cosmos and the Tarot. Again we see the theme of "rising on the planes" in both packs.
The Mantegna expounds the system in five ranks of ten each, whereas the Lazzarelli follows the flow of the Tarot trumps, but with a few extra images of his own invention added on for good measure. Lazzarelli also accompanied his Trumps with writings reminiscent of the Alexandrian Hermetic Ascent as found in the Corpus Hermeticum. There is a fascinating crossover between the Mantegna Trumps, the Lazarelli Trumps and the Cary-Yale Visconti Sforza Trumps, which I hope future Tarot historians will have more to say about.
Manual for Self-Initiation for the Renaissance Magus
Knowing all of the above, I want to take the association between the Trumps and the traditional Esoteric Path of Ascent one step farther. It seems fairly obvious that by arranging these classical subjects in this order and with this trajectory, the inventor(s) of the Marseilles-style Trump ordering was intending to evoke the already-ancient Ascension technologies embedded in the several disciplines of esotericism popular at the time.
The Trump progression we are most familiar with (and actually, all of the progressions first associated with the Trumps) spark associations with other ascent narratives such as those found in the Corpus Hermeticum, the Chaldaean Oracles, the Merkabah work of traveling on the Cabbalistic Tree, the Mithraic Ladder of Lights, Muhammad's mi'raj or "ascension", the Christian Vision of Alberic, Dante's Divine Comedy, and other "inner world" paradigms in circulation at the time. Looked at in this way, the sequence of the Trumps becomes an interdisciplinary old/new manual for Self-Initiation into the Soul's Ascent.
If we accept this premise, what can we learn from studying the traditional terminology and language that has been used in these disciplines to express what is going on during such a self-initiation? Is there a way that we can explicate this cycle of implied instructions in the absence of a definitive manual written at the time of the Trumps' appearance?
Let us call forth the most often-used descriptors applied to the various Ascent narratives, and see if the vocabulary itself can reveal anything to us.
Metanoia -- From Greek word μετάνοια, "after/behind one's mind", it is a compound word of the preposition 'meta' (after, with), and the verb 'noeo' (to perceive, to think, the result of perceiving or observing).
In this compound word the preposition combines the two meanings of time and change, which may be denoted by 'after' and 'different'; so that the whole compound means: 'to think differently after'. Metanoia is therefore primarily an after-thought, different from the former thought; a change of mind accompanied by regret and change of conduct .
Palingenesis = (Greek) A compound which means "coming again into being," or "becoming again."...the continuous transmission of an identic life producing at each transformation a new manifestation or result, these several results being in each case a palingenesis or "new becoming" of the same life-stream"
(more Palingenesis from mixed sources:) Resuscitation; rebirth; metempsychosis; exact reproduction of ancestral characteristics. Recapitulation. - Palingenesis is the concept of mythic rebirth from the ashes, embodied by the Phoenix.
"Apotheosis" = elevation to divine status, or more simply, deification.
An exalted or glorified example; a model of excellence or perfection of a kind.
The enrolment of a mortal among the gods. (from mixed sources)
From Robert Turcan's article on "Apotheosis in; Death, Afterlife, and the Soul" (selections from the Encyclopedia of Religion), we read this:
"Apotheosis is the conferring, through official, ritual, or iconographic means, of the status of an immortal god upon a mortal person."
More recognizable modern common parlance (at least in New Age circles) for this archetypal act of "changing the direction of consciousness (afterthought) and awakening to Divine Nature" is:
*Creating an internal vision of, and identification with, God as you know it.
*Fleshing out the inward, Adamic model, with the self as the stage for the action. Embodying the Divine Hologram.
*Restitution. Resurrection. Theogenesis. Transfiguration.
*Self-initiation. Divinization, during which the individual is gradually elevated through successive mystical openings. This often implies soul flight, or the separation of the soul from the body for purposes of travel, whether "upwards," "inwards," or "downwards".
*Assumption of one's Body of Light, Perfect Nature, or the Resurrection (Diamond) Body
*Merging with one's Higher Self. Knowledge and conversation with one's Holy Guardian Angel.
What does this mean to the holder of a Tarot deck?
Most modern people have identifications that run all over the map -- north, south, east and west. A fewer number also have identifications that run right to the center of the Earth, and out into the infinity of the Heavens. This expanded pattern produces a six-directional matrix instead of a four-directions one, and as a result new worlds of consciousness are opened up for exploration and expansion. For those lucky people, the World and everything in it are only half of reality, and the invisible Central Pillar anchors a dimension as real as the visible four directions of space. Measured against this new axis, Creation itself is viewed from a radically different angle.
As is testified in the Sefir Yetzirah, the addition of a vertical axis completes the so-called Cube of Space (the 6-sided cube) within which is hidden a seventh point at the epicenter of all the corners and sides. This convergence-point gives us one of the significances of the Chariot, both the Merkabah Chariot and the chariot of the Tarot. Hence when the six Trumps of the initial sequence are fulfilled and organized around the 7th Trump, The Chariot, the operator has completed the conditions necessary for "movement and rising on the planes". One's vehicle for Astral Travel has been created. Once the Chariot is stabilized, progressive revelations of the rest of the Trumps will emerge in their own time. [See Sophia as Palingenesis; http://weblog.bergersen.net/terje/archives/001126.html)
The Trumps of Tarot as an Optimistic Gnostic Testament
Picking up the book "Gnostic Philosophy from Ancient Persia to Modern Times" by Tobias Churton recently, I was thrilled to see that he gave quite a bit of time and energy to topics that intertwine dramatically with developments being closely examined within contemporary Tarot circles. Churton uses his second book to dig into territories that his first book ("The Gnostics") only just introduced, namely evidence of gnostic movements appearing in popular culture in Europe from the High Middle Ages into present time.
I was fascinated by the fact that in the topics he touches on, we see the same chain of teachings, Magi, cultural movements, Orders, Lodges, mystics and philosophies that I and some others have strongly suspected were contributory to the mysticism and esotericism of Tarot. He even includes chapters about the Elus Cohens, Eliphas Levi, Papus' Gnostic Church, Aleister Crowley, and the modern Neo-Gnostics that are springing up across the Internet. What more proof do we need that including a scholarly snippet on the beliefs of the Gnostics belongs in this article about TheoGenesis in the Tarot?
The quote below is from the "Immortality" article in "Death, Afterlife, and the Soul" (article by Julien Ries, tr. David M. Weeks). It makes a great condensation of classical gnosis, and I hope that it also helps to demonstrate again the resemblance of the Trump sequence to the central myth of gnosticism -- that the human soul requires self-transformation along an ascending scale of experiences designed to raise it from a cultural state, through the intermediary realms reserved for the questing few, to the achievement of Apotheosis. (...and I hope that you didn't miss the definition for that above, which can be "conferred through iconographic means"!)
"The central element in gnostic philosophy is a dualistic teaching that the human being possesses a divine spark that originated in the world above but has fallen into the lower material world and is held captive there. This divine spark -- the soul -- has to regain the knowledge of its heavenly origins, escape the material world, and return to its native home. Each sect of this gnostic religion, with its own creed and method of salvation, teaches and practices the release of souls in its own way. Gnosis implies the identity of three factors -- the knower, the celestial substance, and the means of salvation. This threefold assimilation makes it a transforming faith reserved for a select group of initiates. To the transitory material world of birth and death, gnosticism opposes the higher world, the world of life, permanence, incorruptibility, and immutability. The gnostic thinks of himself as a complete stranger to the world -- he is "allogenous", of another race....
"Thus the gnostics viewed man as the combination of matter and spirit and saw the body as the prison which holds the soul after its fall. Within this mixture, the soul, an aeon of the same substance as the celestial world, remains intact, for it is incorruptible. The technical term aphtharsia ("incorruptibility") is part of the theological vocabulary of all gnostic systems. Incorruptibility is part of the soul's makeup because of its divine origin and is the essence of its immortality, even though by being imprisoned n the body the soul has become steeped in matter.
"Salvation consists in the liberation of the soul. A heavenly savior intervenes to stir the captive soul's memory, to remind it of its origin and make it recognize its true "self." This revelation is made through a series of initiatory trials, by the end of which the soul has discovered a luminous vision of its own essence; the vision awakens it to a burning desire to return to its home. Then begins the second stage, that of the return to the "realm of life." The description of this ascension (or Himelsreise) is found in the texts of all the sects; it includes deprivation and release from material bonds, a path passing through many dangers, the presence of a heavenly guide, and a triumphant entry into celestial Paradise for an immortal destiny amid the blessed light. The gathering of all the souls that have been held in bodies reconstitutes the Pleroma." (pp 273-274)
If there is a disconnect between classical gnosticism and the doctrine illustrated in the Trumps of Tarot, it is that Nature is no longer viewed in such a negative light in the Tarot as it was in the ancient teachings. As a matter of fact, the final Trump, the World, is most often portrayed as a beautiful female figure in the traditional heavenly mandorla (pointed oval or almond-shaped wreath) reserved for members of the Trinity (in Christianity) or the Messiah (in Cabbalism). This figure was known in the Renaissance as the Virgin of the World, and represents the divine Sophia (the Wisdom or Imagination of God) reflected in matter.
In the first century of the Trumps' existence, they were counted both bottom-to-top, and top-to-bottom, indicating that the actions of the Trumps upon each other in sequence could flow both 'upwards', from the Human world to the Divine, as well as 'downward' from the Divine world to the Human. Thus it seems quite conceivable that the Tarot trumps represent a new development in the historical gnostic stream -- a World-positive and matter-positive reconciliation between Earth and Heaven, consummated within the body of self-initiated, purified Humanity. This is what I see in the sequence of the Tarot trumps, and this is what I teach.
Speaking as a Christian Sophianic Gnostic and a modern Tarot initiate, there are a few insights I want to add from my own experience:
- In truth, there is no need to "search for immortality". There is instead a continuous opening to progressive revelation of Being Immortal.
- It is less a matter of having a "second birth" then it is a matter of recognizing our origin in the uncreated and eternal Light.
- Through the long, slow process of Apotheosis, one comes to know oneself as a permanent Being, and then the question is solved, the link is completed, and all lesser worlds converge in the World.
Happy New Year, beloved Readers! May your Path to Higher Ground be regenerative and enlightening.
EMBEDDED LINKS FOR YOUR RESEARCH CONVENIENCE:
Mamluk Pack - http://www.wopc.co.uk/mamluk/index.html
Corpus Hermeticum - http://www.levity.com/alchemy/corpherm.html
Robert O'Neil - http://www.tarot.com/about-tarot/library/boneill/
Renaissance Retail Therapy - http://www.ramagazine.org.uk/index.php?pid=299
Multiple purposes of cards - http://www.geocities.com/cartedatrionfi/Fragments/Pre-1440.html
Marseilles Tarot - http://www.tarot.com/about-tarot/decks/browsedecks.php?newdeck=15
Oswald Wirth Tarot - http://www.tarot.com/about-tarot/decks/browsedecks.php?newdeck=36
Stella Tarot - http://www.tarot.com/about-tarot/decks/browsedecks.php?newdeck=32
Mantegna Tarot - http://www.aeclectic.net/tarot/cards/mantegna/index.shtml
Lazarelli - http://www.luxlapis.co.za/at/lazzarelli.htm
Muhammad's Mi'raj - http://answering-islam.org/Gilchrist/Vol1/3d.html
Self Initiation - http://aolsvc.womens.tarot.aol.com/about-tarot/library/boneill/fool-journey
Metanoia - http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/metanoia
Palingenesis - http://www.experiencefestival.com/a/Palingenesis/id/69136
Iconographic means - http://www.wga.hu/frames-e.html?/html/b/baciccio/ap_franc.html
Theogenesis - http://www.kheper.net/integral/evolution.html
Pattern - http://www.normanallan.com/Sci/introduction%20tx1.htm
Trumps - http://www.tarotarkletters.com/2005/05/the_major_arcan.html
Sophia as Palingenesis - http://weblog.bergersen.net/terje/archives/001126.html
Tobias Churton - http://www.newdawnmagazine.com/articles/New%20Dawn%20Interview%20With%20Tobias%20Churton.html
Elus Cohens - http://home.powertech.no/ohjay/orc/ec.htm
Pleroma - http://www.kheper.net/topics/Gnosticism/Pleroma.html
Underground Stream - http://noreah.typepad.com/tarot_university/2005/02/the_underground.html
Many Paths - http://www.esoterikha.com/cursos_gratuitos/curso_gnose.php
Renaissance Market - http://www.sussex.ac.uk/Units/arthist/matren/Brighton2003.shtml
6 Directions - http://www.sixdirections.com/6direct.htm
Now What - http://lightcolortime.com/
Goddess Tarot - The World - http://www.tarot.com/about-tarot/decks/browsedecks.php?newdeck=11
Research: Esoteric Tarot, Literature and Practice;
Publisher, The Tarot Arkletters
Bishop, Gnostic Church of St. Mary Magdalene
Founder: Tarot University;
Author: The Underground Stream;
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The Tarot ArkLetters are a publication of Christine Payne-Towler, founder of Tarot University Online. Christine offers classes, readings, and private sessions.
*copyright 2005-2006 christine payne-towler all rights reserved*