By Christine Payne-Towler
ArkLetter 39 -- June 3, 2008
The study of Tarot is a lot like the study of myth, or that of the human psyche -- because of the everywhere-ongoing process of development and maturation happening on every front, one can never dip one's toe into the same river twice. The human observer doesn't remain the same day in and day out, year in and year out, so how can any subject under study maintain a unified face? There are as many Tarots as there are users, it seems.
The controversy waxes especially hot with any topic that situates
Tarot in the context of historical esotericism and magic. In
particular, questions about magic's reality, much less its mechanism
and provenance, have evoked such reactivity from both its fans and its
detractors that there has been precious little energy left over for
actually studying the phenomena itself, separate from all our opinions
The good news is, a new academic island has been added to the world map of worthy objects of study, called Western Esotericism. In the last decade, this hitherto invisible but now vital realm of thought has finally come into focus as an essential component in the development of what we currently call western civilization. Therefore we have available a rash of new textbooks shining light into the overlooked corners of the religious, philosophical and scientific unfolding in the West. Analyses of magic, esotericism, comparative metaphysics, gnosis, theurgy and the life histories of famous magi are finally getting their proper attention, being valued now as seminal contributions to human self-understanding.
Because of this upwelling of awareness, it gets easier by the year to show the links between the once-strictly-separated threads of the West's cultural tapestry. This is a great relief for synchretists like myself! Academic sources are finally providing the proofs of what some armchair historians have been suspecting all along -- that the ground-of-being upon which Tarot rests and from which it takes its shape is esoteric; Tarot is the product of esoteric experimentation in the Italian Renaissance. In the light of Western Esoteric research, Tarot reveals itself to be an emblematic construct encompassing the sacred numbers and concepts of astrology, kabala, number theology, alchemy, gnosis, theurgical magic and other subtle but long-lived cultural currents.
New Texts in Western Esotericism
This month's article is going to take the form of an extended book review, because the thing I am trying to outline only takes shape by looking across multiple disciplines and comparing core concepts. The goal and object is to say something relevant to the history of Tarot, but in the process we are going to range across a broad spectrum of related topics and make a composite, much more than the sum of its parts. Here's a sampling of the new textbooks from the universities possessing departments of Western Esotericism, from which we will be dipping for this article (with other sources added in as we go):
Kocku von Stuckrad, Western Esotericism; A Brief History of Secret Knowledge
*Von Stuckrad makes a meticulous academic review of the field, under the watchful eye of Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, who holds the chair in Western Esotericism at Exeter University. Exeter has the distinction of offering full Masters and PhD degrees (as opposed to more superficial "survey classes"), for you future Western Esotericism experts. Don't think for a minute that because this volume looks slim, you'll be through it in a weekend. But when you are done, you will have an excellent overview of the territory.
Christopher Lehrich, The Occult Mind; Magic in Theory and Practice
*I found this fascinating on multiple levels, and plan to read it several more times. Not a beginner's exercise! I think Lehrich is making a bid to make a cogent rebuttal to Umberto Eco. The fact that he has a whole chapter dedicated to Tarot is only one of the charms of this book.
Henrik Bogdan, Western Esotericism and Rituals of Initiation
*This volume makes an in-depth study of the typical ways historical initiatory societies have transmitted esotericism, and which groups transmit which types of esotericism. There is also a great first chapter, contrasting the approaches of the 'founding parents' of our discipline and laying out the issues facing contemporary scholars in the field.
Arthur Versluis, Magic and Mysticism; An Introduction to Western Esotericism; and The Secret History of Western Sexual Mysticism
*I have a great and abiding appreciation for Versluis, who is professor of American Studies at Michigan State University, founding president of the Association for the Study of Esotericism, and editor in chief of Esoterica, an electronic journal devoted to the academic study of esotericism. Here we have another rigorous examination of the issues facing researchers, from a questing mind who has refused to limit himself to the givens of past analysis. His approach picks up where others leave off, since he has made it his practice to lead rather than follow this discussion. This volume alone proves that Tarot is esoteric, and he's not even trying!
*An earlier contribution from Versluis, focused on the 'gnostic power of the imagination' and its role in self-initiation through literature and art, is called Restoring Paradise: Western Esotericism, Literature, Art, and Consciousness, published in 2004. This should be read alongside Lehrich for ballast. It also contains an excellent chapter on the esotericism of the troubadours and the Courtly Love movement, culminating in the contributions of Geoffrey Chaucer and Raymond Lull.
Joscelyn Godwin, The Golden Thread; The Ageless Wisdom of the Western Mystery Traditions
*This is the most accessible source for the beginner, which I hope makes it very popular among non-academics. Godwin brings you into the topic as if you and he were chatting over tea, and he's not averse to sharing his personal views, which I find delightful. (Having met and shared a little time with Godwin at a Western Esotericism conference hosted by Versluis in 2006, I can imagine him putting on his wizard's cap and pince-nez as I'm cracking the book.) For all its humble affect, Godwin makes the boldest of the survey books, in the sense of pressing the question "what are the realities standing behind all the accumulated scholarly vocabulary?" This is the one I will be sharing with my mother, to help her understand why I never could just accept my fate and get a regular job.
Let's note the concepts contained in these titles:
- Secret Knowledge,
- Occult Mind,
- Golden Thread,
- Wisdom, and
- Mystery Traditions.
Scanning the contents pages one encounters more of the same;
- Secret Societies,
- Esoteric Missions,
- Magical Orders and Lodges,
- Arts of the Imagination and the
- Religion of Art, Occult Philosophy, Art of Memory.
These assembled topics are the preoccupations of Western
Esotericism. (In a moment of vanity, let me submit the title of my
own -- admittedly limited, imperfect and superficial -- survey of the
same territory, The Underground Stream; Esoteric Tarot Revealed.)
It has been nearly two decades since Antoine Faivre proposed his academic definition of esotericism. In the interim, both the academics and the lay historians have been parsing every word, sticking their conceptual penknives into every crack and cranny to ascertain where Faivre might have left any loopholes or squeezed off any missing lines of thought. The academic results of those debates are synthesized in the Introductions and/or earliest chapters of the books named above (except my own), all quite recently published (most of them in 2007).
In the light of these new developments, I am going to proceed as if the question were settled regarding Tarot's participation in the transmission of esotericism from antiquity to modernity. The upshot of all this in-depth effort to define esotericism reveals that the Renaissance phenomenon of the 78-card Tarot pack is esoteric in its internal structure, esoteric in its cultural context, esoteric in its emblematic visualizations, esoteric in its correspondences to other esoteric disciplines, and esoteric in its mode of employment. (Did I miss anything?) People who can't accommodate to this idea simply because most of the earliest documentation about Tarot reflects gaming usage, are clinging to a 20th century approach that has proven too constrained to describe the full scope of the paradigm that Tarot was created to reflect.
Gnosis is the root of the Quest
Smoley's recent summary of the transmission of gnosis through the ages, Forbidden Faith; The Secret History of Gnosticism, contains an excellent map of the interrelated channels through which ideas about self-initiation and the spiritual quest have flowed since ancient Antiquity. I'm letting this conceptual map provide the first firm stone under our feet, from which we can launch this month's investigation. By starting with this map, I hope to bypass the necessity of detailing and defending every component of Gnosticism, Kabala, Hermetism, Alchemy, Occult Philosophy, etc. that might show up in the course of this article. I'm offering this diagram as an emblem of the filial ties and historical outpourings that link these disciplines together at their roots.
The Presence of Absence
It is also necessary to establish a hub, intersection or nexus that effects and links every one of the ideas interweaving before our eyes in the forthcoming essay. This nexus I will call The Presence of Absence, wherever we encounter it, and whatever else it is named in the various disciplines that have registered the concept. We will find the Presence/Absence duality to be a very big catalyst in the spiritual inheritance of humanity. Functioning as both a cause and an effect, as both the problem and its own solution, it boils down to this: A shadowy, internal spiritual presence taunts with its apparent absence, forcing us to reflect on the emptiness and draw forth from ourselves what's missing from this world. Sometimes we might find the formula manifesting as presence in absence, or presence as absence, sometimes it will appear as a true void, the absence of presence. But in every case we have a situation wherein something invisible and inaccessible has to be called forth into form through sheer force of need, longing and desire. Out of the obscure empty mirror of the inner life, somehow a new "birth" takes place in the world. Only this ultimate labor of love will reveal the impulse that set the Quest in motion to begin with.
If this seems to be a case of inverted causality, like the ancient conundrum "the wound calls the blade” or the Paracelsian insight "the disease seeks its spouse, the medicine", then you are hot on the trail of the mystery in question. In the circular time of myth and legend, where all the action revolves around the loss of Eden and the Quest to find the way back again, there is only ever one thing happening, and every part of that thing is happening simultaneously, forever. The eventual restoration and rectification of the Primordial State (which Christians call the Resurrection, illustrated in Trump #20, Judgment) turns out to be the cause of the fall that makes redemption necessary in the first place. It's as if the ultimate, planned restitution, being an accomplished fact already in Eternity though not yet completed in time, exerts such a pull on reality from the future that it shapes the flow of history even back into the dim past. This is not a type of causality that fits with our materialistic and time/space-bound daily reality; hence this feature of consciousness has confounded spiritual, magical, scientific and psychological theorists from the time humans first started discussing it.
Some Examples of the Presence/Absence Dilemma
In the ancient Gnostic recounting of the original creation, God first emanated His creative qualities as companions in the work, drawing them into focus around Himself to form the first family or collectivity. This multiplicity-in-one is called the Pleroma, and is populated by yin/yang pairs of Elohim or Archons, said to surround the Holy Throne (easily visualized in the form of a Solar System, with half-darkened planets revolving around the Sun). The final female Archon that was created, named Sophia (thus the dark side of the outermost planet in our visual aid), felt herself to be so far away from the All-Father's warming radiance that she couldn't contact Him directly. Predictably, as if pre-ordained to do so, she fell into confusion, loneliness and anguishing terror like that of a child. Filled with the fear of being disconnected, lost and forgotten, her emotional turbulence became so great that she actually created an image within her mind and fixated upon it in the seeming absence of the Father. This image, the "conception" of her fear, gestated within her (puns fully intended); the intensity of her anguish ultimately gave birth to its own reality. This was seen as a unique occurrence, and as such happened "accidentally", without the fertilizing and balancing contribution of her twin/partner/bright side with whom she was created.
Unfortunately but naturally, anything born out of such grief, turbulence and suffering is bound to be imperfect. Therefore, when Sophia saw the malformation of her parthenogenic creation, she threw it out of the Pleroma. Legend has it that this "abortion" became the world that we live in. Thus, in the pessimistic version of the Gnostic creation myth, the presence of absence is the source of this world and everything in it. Interestingly enough, those souls who become aware of invisible presence in the absence can then follow its traces and wend their way out of this "fall". But only if they can become awake to that which is missing, becoming curious and spiritually active enough to start following its shadowy image through the labyrinth of their own interior lives.
We see this same presence in absence inhabiting the Kabalistic account of Creation, summarized in the doctrine of Tzimtzum.
This could be likened to the Buddhist teaching that "Buddha breathes
out and the universe is born; Buddha breathes in and the universe is
destroyed". Rabbi Yitza'aq Luria (1534-1572) elaborated upon the
process by which the "smooth and simple" light of Ayn Sof Or became
contracted into the Tree of Life. In essence, G*d had to back up a
little and make space, because our type of life form cannot survive in
the direct presence of the Divine. Therefore God retreated somewhat
from his Creation, to open up some "empty" space wherein His Divine
Order wasn't overshadowing and controlling everything so completely.
That space of unconditioned potential is the area where our world
formed up, which means that we exist in a state that's intentionally
outside of God's direct control. Instead of being constantly over
determined by God's vast preordination and predestination, there is a
zone of relative non-interference around us in which we can develop and
flex our individual wills. This is good in some ways. It makes us
"interesting" to God because of the novelty and unpredictable
adventures we get into. But it also means that if we do not willingly
chose to submit ourselves to the Divine Law, we can seem to get away
with it, at least in the short run. The absence of presence is this
world's blessing and our curse, the context in which we develop our
Courtly Love and Eros magic deal with the presence of absence according to methods that were crafted from an amalgam of aboriginal Celtic myths mixed with Christian Hesychism, Persian theurgy and medieval Kabala. Due to many factors, including exposures acquired during the Crusades, those gospels reflecting biblical Sophiology had come to be understood with a decidedly radical slant compared to the teachings of normative Christianity. In short form, the Lady whom the knight idealizes serves as his personal Sophia and initiator, following the shamanic model of the tyrannical but spiritually inspiring guide whose challenges, when overcome in the proper spirit, leading to the most sublime delights. The Knight in this context is simultaneously her servant, her Priest and her lover, as She requires. Most of the time the Knight is away from the castle on one or another Quest, and therefore far away from the Lady of his dreams. During those times, his cultivation consists of helping and supporting the female figures that do present themselves, whether in the flesh or in his reverential visualizations and dreams. Sometimes, it is hard to tell in the course of the myths whether the ladies portrayed are fleshly humans or phantasmal contacts from the spirit world, but in either case they lead him on and seal his fate, even through years of non-contact with the Lady herself, and despite many tests and layers of blocks imposed by the outer world. We will say more about this model below, as this is the presence in absence haunting the courtly world of the Cary-Yale Visconti pack.
To look at a more modern instance of the interaction of presence and absence, we can take in hand the legacy of Carl Jung, who formulated a very sophisticated and subtle theory to deal with the pantheon of things and beings that his psychotherapy patients encountered in the mirror of their own dreams, reveries, and myths of themselves. Over the course of a long and varied clinical practice, which Jung supplemented with readings in the history of magic, our theorist of the Unconscious began to recognize repeating characters, themes and images that seem to summarize forces and tendencies in the human psyche, and which co-occupy vast numbers of people simultaneously. Following Paracelsus, Jung called these collective energy-objects Archetypes (occultists call them Egregores). Therapists using this model tend to assume that all these aspects of the collective mind field -- including operative forces such as the "inner child", history's traditional angels and demons, the denizens of our individual anxiety closets -- are all considered products of the given individual’s private, interior life. Most people raised with scientific thinking as their backstop feel more comfortable believing that these characters are chimera of consciousness, having no objective, external, measurable reality in time and space, being therefore not "real". Yet there are countless others (aboriginals, healers and ecclesiastics among them) who strenuously object to the idea that those forces exist only on an imaginal level, as mere 'constructs' of the people who experience them. No theory of Archetypes can explain away the sheer mass of human experience, the undeniable and constantly recurring apprehension, which strikes every person from time to time -- that of an invisible, inexpressible Otherness framing even the humblest and most ordinary of daily experiences. Like the Dark Matter of the physicists, which outweighs our visible matter 10-to-1, this mystery of presence in absence implies that the concept of Archetypes itself is a kind of mask or disguise over a much stranger and more mysterious truth that for now remains unrevealed, at least to modern Westernized consciousness. (And what will we westerners do when our Archetypes take off their masks and show us their ~real~ natures, I wonder? Truly a case of presence as absence!)
For the Tarot reader, the concept of presence in absence has direct
application every time we shuffle the cards to make a spread, whether
for another or ourselves. A Tarot reading is a conversation between the
interpreter (who may be the questioner) and the cards, “whoever” that
is. There is no need to personalize the force that arranges the cards
during the shuffle and determines the lay of them after the cut, but a
reader with any experience whatsoever knows that interpreting a set of
cards is likely to bring up ideas and connections that did not exist in
the reader's mind before the cards were thrown. Where were these ideas
when the cards were still dormant? What brought those ideas up to the
realm of consciousness, if the ego of the reader was unaware of them
before the cards were taken up? For that matter (and I'm speaking for
myself here), how does it happen that one can think that they are
gathering up words from their own mental processes to explain what a
card might mean, but as the explanation is uttered, the client
registers shock because "you took the word right out of my head!" or "I
was just saying that very thing to my partner not two hours ago!" It's
as if there is a very clever, psychologically savvy and wise but
invisible third party in the room, which is using the cards to poke,
prod, and tease fresh ideas out of the shared mind-space of the
participants, ideas that would probably not have shown their full
significance any other way. It doesn't matter what either the
questioner or the reader "believes" about the process by which the
cards become meaningful. Even when the questioner and the reader are
collapsed into the same person, and there's nobody else around to
witness or comment on the reading, somehow the human manipulator of the
cards is accompanied by an extra "voice”, "thought" or "vision", which
seems to be stimulated by the associations set loose by the card. Are
those associations really "mine"? Or even, are they really "from" the
cards? What other forces are we invoking when we shuffle a pack of
cards with intention? Looking into this darkened mirror, the question
of presence in absence again rises to mind.
We can understand the principle of sympathetic vibration in the case of untouched guitar strings pulsing when the piano is played. But where are the "strings" that vibrate when a Tarot card is dropped into the still pond of the empty imagination? What is the presence that steps forward out of the void and leaves traces of an applicable translation of the cards before us? To the extent that the freshly emerging idea becomes a workable answer to the question posed at the shuffle, that answer seems to be coming from the future itself in some ineffable way.
If we could quantify this motion of consciousness towards the as-yet-unformed future, this act of "conception" which in and of itself can be powerful enough to change the world, or create a new one, then we can know what Magic is. We might in the process also learn what God is, and who we are as well.
Tarot and the Mind of Magic
This is the moment to mention Christopher Lehrich's excellent The Occult Mind; Magic in Theory and Practice, in which one entire chapter discusses Tarot. Here we address the deepest layer of our magical Quest so far. Lehrich leads us into the interior transactions of the human mind's process of signification, by which free thought is crystallized into signs, bringing ideas closer to the realm of speech through a form of interior writing. I can't begin to summarize the many twists and turns his labyrinthine argument takes, but he manages, through a masterful use of magical thinking, to shine a light around the corner of consciousness and catch the mind in the act of making something out of nothing. To my mind, Lehrich succeeds in demonstrating that far from comprising the cast-off false starts of science, or the rejected heresies of religion, or even the protean unconscious of psychology, magic is part and parcel with the matrix of human consciousness itself. In fact, it is possible that the vaunted academic disciplines which have in the past made a habit of looking down their noses on magic -- like religion, science, and psychology -- actually represent mere islands in the ocean that is magic!
Right off the bat, Lehrich takes us through an extended examination of the related but starkly different concepts; that of Egypt, the historical place and nation, on the one hand, as set against the landscape of AEgypt, the mythical, timeless and imaginary place considered by medieval and renaissance esotericists to be the ancient epicenter of the Mysteries. Anyone familiar with the legendary arguments that have taken place among tarot historians on this account, knows that many trees have been sacrificed and much ink and pixels spilled in the process of sorting out what to do with the legend of Tarot's AEgyptian origins, handed down from the first writers about Tarot in the late 1700's. Lehrich's practical response to modernists' puzzlement when facing these kind of fabulist "myths of origin" set in a sacred time is that only literalists will find this to be a mystery. Anybody who understands the "occult mind" will recognize the setting of the timeless realm populated by the Archetypes, to which the initiate gains special keys of entry and where the problems of this world can be solved through understanding the orderly Laws and Truths established at the Creation.
It is the desire of Lehrich throughout this book to awaken to the investigator to the possibility that our modern, literalistic, reductionist and deconstructionist modes of thinking are peremptorily destroying the very thing we claim to be studying as we investigate historical esotericism. Nowhere is this point better taken than regarding the mythical "origins" of Tarot in this very same AEgypt of lore and legend. It remains for another author to fully exploit the intellectual front that Lehrich has mapped out in general, for the sake of establishing historical Tarot's claim on this eternal territory and point of 'origin'. For now it is enough to note the fact, and use his analysis when it proves useful in this discussion.
Meanwhile, the significance of finding the act of interpreting Tarot
readings under consideration in an academic book that's grappling with
the theory of magic cannot be underestimated. It has been my experience
that most academics fear getting personally involved in the workings of
their study, for fear of taking on a fatal degree of
contamination-by-sympathy in the process. But Lehrich turns this fear
on its head by demonstrating the ways in which genuine esoteric
productions -- for example, John Dee's Monas, or the emblematic
art of the Tarot -- manage to constellate significance in the mind of
the user/observer. (With a little reflection, the reader realizes that
detractors' fears of intellectual contamination work by the very same
mechanism!) The discussion shows the reader moving into the
"unthinkable" to pull out an understanding of signification from the
other side of the looking glass, so to speak. It is an act of
initiation just to follow Lehrich around this mulberry bush! In the
process, we get a chance to examine our own methods of assembling our
realities, piecing things together just like we do a Tarot
We have encountered Lehrich's previous work in an earlier Arkletter , so his style of thinking is not entirely unfamiliar at this point. One of the themes carrying over from his previous book highlights the interior/exterior act of writing (forming glyphic units to contain/transmit unique meanings) as the fount of magical affect/effect. Lehrich's analysis of the territory can catalyze the ripened reader to midwife at their own formation process, that pregnant moment when a new concept is born in the AEgypt of its author's inner life. This is slippery territory, requiring a deft and subtle turn of phrase, in order not to hedge the reader's experience in too tight, suppressing one's ability to recognize the phenomenon and follow the argument. Happily, Lehrich is up to the challenge.
To tell the truth, Lehrich has done such a creative thing in this book that I hesitate to try and quantify it here except in the most general of terms. He states at the outset that he's trying to write for the non-academic, but I've got to tell you, he's challenging nonetheless! The whole time I was reading along, I had the feeling that we were cycling together through a huge long course covering both time and space. On the one hand, the machine under us (Lehrich's expository skills) rolls along smooth and strong, mile after mile. On the other hand the landscape is rising and falling around us in fantastical variety as he guides the journey through a range of different psycho-systems. There's a sense that the reader will be tested when the journey is over, but it's barely possible to take in this much landscape rolling by this fast -- some of it will only be fully appreciated by hindsight, or on a later tour through this same territory.
Lehrich's appropriation of the Tarot is idiosyncratic in the best sense of the word. For one thing, his entire discussion takes place in the liminal space evoked in the act of "reading" Tarot. This strategy allows him to sidestep all questions of chronology or causality, while at the same time grounding his argument in the oldest and most stable features of the cards. Lehrich envisions the history of Tarot with the help of Decker and Dummett's History of Occult Tarot, so his understanding of Tarot's presence is limited by that book's timeline. Nevertheless, he sets all controversy about origins and authenticity aside to then compare the art of interpreting Tarot to the composition of a traditional musical form called a fugue. This comparison allows Lehrich to elaborate on the act of "assembling" of disparate parts that has to be done in order to make meaning of a random assemblage of cards, first by the performer/interpreter, but also by the listener/querant if that is a different person.
This was a brilliant stroke on Lehrich's part, because once he has drawn this parallel, he can look back at the discussion going on among the academics about the "meaning of magic" from a firm footing in the operative performance Art of Consciousness taking shape during the reading/fugue. The whole setup gives him the microscope with which to examine the subtle acts of creativity that allow humanity to invent/derive/project/perceive/respond to our infinitely variable and unpredictable inner and outer reality, in a way that proves meaningful to ourselves and those with whom we share our experience. Lehrich then uses the same microscope to investigate the question of whether the historical theorists of magic, religion, and science are talking about the same "thing" when they argue about the provenance of magic, or whether there is even a "thing" (in the sense of objective reality) being named under the rubric of "magic" at all.
Without putting my reader through a torturous blow-by-blow recap of the book, let me drop to the bottom line. What I take away from Lehrich's amazingly wide-ranging analysis is that science, religion and philosophy are going to be hard-pressed to retain the prestige they have had in the past, once these conclusions have been unpacked and drawn out to their wider implications. Lehrich's various strategies succeed in demonstrating that Magic is actually the matrix of consciousness, an intrinsic style and working method of the human mind. In truth, all the disciplines of culture and academia emerge from this magical substrate in order to become conscious and assert themselves within their own boundaries and self-definitions. What turns out to be true is that magic as a process of self-scrying has given birth to all the constructions of consciousness from smallest to largest, from tools to arts to disciplines to cultures. All the scientific, moral and psychological tools that have been employed to judge magic as somehow deficient, have themselves stemmed from this same unquenchable font!
Sacred Sexuality as a Path to Initiation
Let's get back to the Gnostic syzygies (primal pairs) in the Pleroma, and the substantive distress of Sophia, which was ejected as an "abortion” from the Pleroma. Using terms from my college years, this "crack in the cosmic egg" posits a fall and a rupture of the Aeonic perfection, leading to the radical polarization of above and below. The Monad (Pleroma) falls in two (heaven and earth); Tao becomes yin/yang. Descending from "heaven" to the material plane, this vertical reflection of man as microcosm of the Heavenly Adam is then complicated again by the appearance of two human genders in the world "here below". Possibilities for confusion abound from this point forward, what with the shadow play of projections and reactions going in all directions. Yet the chance to interact with a manifested "other" (rather than an exalted visualization in the imagination, or an introjected "dark side" of oneself) also means we can experience our sexual mythos in the flesh as well as in spirit, a very attractive proposition. The broad-spectrum Magus does both -- carrying on a spiritual cultivation along the vertical (heaven/earth) axis with the Archetypes, while simultaneously living out a horizontal cultivation with a like-minded partner here in the material world.
Unfortunately, due to the repressive attitudes practiced by the culture-imposing force of the Church, there has been very little leverage in Christian society to talk openly about tantra or sacred sexuality in any era. However, anybody who became exposed to the carryings-on of the Greco-Roman and Egyptian pantheons, the Celtic shamanic substrate of Christian Europe, the passionate envisioning of the early and Medieval Christian saints and renunciates, the art and writings of Alchemy, the eroticism of the Cabbalists, or the "medicinal and spiritual" sexual practices developed in various Eastern cultures, would discover the theme for themselves soon enough. For the sake of this discussion, I would suggest investigating one or more of these, all written by professional researchers:
Arthur Versluis, The Mysteries of Love (as well as his works above)
Ioan P. Couliano, Eros and Magic in the Renaissance
Julius Evola, Eros and the Mystery of Love
Dan Merkur, Gnosis; An Esoteric Tradition of Mystical Visions and Unions
Jean Markale, Courtly Love; The Path of Sexual Initiation
Moshe Idel, Kabbalah and Eros
Can we be sure Europe had its own Sexual Magic?
Subtle but numerous are the threads that draw the teachings of Eros magic close to the Tarot, some of which have been explored in my past writings. But now we have a source that brings the interweaving of gnosis, magic, and sexual cultivation into focus, together and in right relationship for our study, giving us a new jumping-off point for this discussion. I am referring to The Gnostic Faustus: The Secret Teachings Behind the Classic Text by Ramona Fradon.
Sacred sexuality, whether undertaken with living people or with spirits, is not a central theme of Fradon's book. As the title suggests, the focus here is on the traces of Gnosis in the Faust story. Nevertheless, the inclusion of a shadow form of eros magic interwoven in the larger legend -- which Fradon has tellingly contrasted to quotes from various early Gnostic scriptures and core Tantric teachings -- demonstrates quite convincingly that there was a lasting body of beliefs and taboos, a European legacy of sexual cultivation, that was carried forward from antiquity right into the northern European Renaissance. The parallels are sometimes startling in their mirror-likeness, albeit with distortions and exaggerations riding along, as would be expected through such a protracted cross-cultural and intergenerational game of postman.
I was initially skeptical when I picked up Fradon's book, thinking that the author was overreaching when she undertook to demonstrate the fingerprints of Gnostic and Tantric scriptures in a magical folk-story from Germany of the 1500's. To the contrary, I have not been disappointed in the least; matter of fact I have stayed up after hours several nights running just to read it in bed, because I found these parallels and her method of explicating them so compelling. For the academically minded, there are two more books on the subject presently available in the bookstores, which I have not yet held in my hands. They are The Modern Revival of Gnosticism and Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus, by Kirsten J. Grimstad, and Hidden Mutualities: Faustian Themes from Gnostic Origins to the Postcolonial by Michael Mitchell. For the moment, I'm content with letting Fradon represent the European Magus for this discussion, with the understanding that the Faust story portrays (among many other things) a Christian moralistic critique of contemporary theurgic approaches to sexual cultivation on the path to gnosis. Fradon's analysis of the Faust story can help us feel confident that it is not vain to search the magical paradigm for a Western sacred-sexual practice that confers initiation upon its followers through a course of trials and tests.
Vectors for Sexual Mysticism in Southern Europe
In my own research, I have run across more authors connecting esoteric sexuality with Kabala, than authors connecting it to the scriptures of ancient Gnosticism. But this may just be a phenomenon of the idiosyncratic process by which these related ideas are saturating the aquifer below the academics of Western Mysticism. By 1993 already, Dan Merkur already felt confident enough to say, "Gnosticism was present in Western Europe at the start of the Italian Renaissance of the late fifteenth century, and has since been a major component of Western esotericism." (p. 237, Gnosis.) A little farther on, Merkur highlights the signal life and influence of the Majorcan nobleman and troubadour Ramon Lull (1182-1226), whose "...Christian asceticism bordered on the world-rejection of Gnosticism...[and whose Art was] intended as a form of Christian mysticism that would secure the conversions of Muslims and Jews -- presumably through competition with theosophical Sufism and the kabala... [H]is thinking was deeply shaped by his contacts with Muslims and Jews" (Gnosis, p. 245-6.) These remarks, alongside Versluis' excellent chapter on Chivalry and the Troubadours in Restoring Paradise, help us to visualize the cross-cultural wave that pushed into Europe from the mystical East centuries several centuries before the Renaissance. We have seen in previous Arkletter articles mentioning Lull's body of work that in him we have a forefather of the Renaissance occult philosophy. In Merkur's words, "Lull's Art may fairly be considered the matrix of Western esotericism." (p. 246)
A fusion of religious esotericisms like this could only have emerged in Christian Europe because of the special cultural confluence going on in southern Europe and the Iberian Peninsula. Moshe Idel, in his wonderful Kabala and Eros, offers the Jewish-centric view of the same time and place (though he doesn't address the presence of gentile Kabbalists):
"According to Mark Bloc, a visible and positive change in the status of woman is discernible beginning in the twelfth century. More recently, this change has been documented from other points of view by Moshe Lazar for southern France. The troubadours and the Cathars in twelfth- and thirteenth-century southern France evinced diverse interests in eroticism which could, in principle, have had some influence on their Jewish neighbors. However, no significant proofs for the affinities between those two movements and nascent Kabala has yet been adduced. Nevertheless, such a possibility should not be excluded. Denis de Rougement's thesis connecting Catharism, troubadours, and the cult of Mary as part of one single historical narrative is by now regarded as obsolete. The question today  is not whether those three phenomena are causally related to one another, but whether there is a simple historical coincidence among these phenomena -- to which Kabala should be added -- which flourished at the same time in the same geographic area, France, especially Province." (p. 45)
reminds us that the originator of the courtly romance was Chrétien de
Troyes (~1160-1191), who was a converted Jew and heir to a long
kabbalistic tradition in his native region. -- See also http://www.princeton.edu/~lancelot/romance.html>-- it is certain that students of the Zohar had sex-positive views built into their mysticism, as Moshe Idel's Kabala and Eros
makes abundantly clear. This tremendous contribution by Idel has been
sorely needed, to give the overall subject of Eros magic in Europe more
grist for the mill. Idel seems possess a special gift for parting out
these delicate and multivalent subjects into their many lotus-petals,
without losing the larger cultural and historical context in the
process. He also manages to explicate a varied range of erotic topics
and behaviors without introducing much in the way of distortions of his
own. Idel's exploration of the historical roots of
religiously-mandated sexual theurgy (meaning the actual practice of sex
in a ritual context), as well as his introduction of the concept of
"cosmeroticism" to describe imaginal Eros magic practices that don't
involve external behavior but are nevertheless "ascents" and "mergings"
in the style of Merkur's Gnosis, each have value to the discussion beyond the strictly Jewish context in which they appear.
A proposed Cube of Eros Magic studies (with apologies to the Kabbalists)
To bring our studies into 3D, we have a wide spectrum of testimonies from impeccable sources. One could envision a sort of Cube of Courtly Space defined by this series of authors, with a hologrammic synthesis arising at the convergence point.
Along the theory and symbolism axis, we have at one end the tremendously erudite Eros and Magic in the Renaissance, penetrating to the spiritual and magical heart of the matter in the exquisitely insightful manner of Ioan Couliano. At the other pole of this axis we find Herbert Silberer's classic Hidden Symbolism of Alchemy and the Occult Arts. Silberer was a peer and colleague of Carl Jung, studying esotericisms a century before the discipline had academic recognition.
Defining the mystical axis are the works of Versluis, covering the spectrum between the lyricism and romanticism of his The Mysteries of Love to the more straightforward historical catalogue offered in his The Secret History of Western Sexual Mysticism; Sacred Practices and Spiritual Marriage. Versluis is the acknowledged expert of the American academics in the esotericism of love.
The final axis is traced by two mature and sober elder statesmen with a similar pragmatic bent, Jean Markale’s Courtly Love; The Path of Sexual Initiation on the one hand, and Eros and the Mysteries of Love; The Metaphysics of Sex by Julius Evola on the other.
I envision these sources all gathered under the 'big tent' defined by Dan Merkur in his overview Gnosis; An Esoteric Tradition of Mystical Vision and Unions.
Let us not forget the contextualizing benefits stemming from Lehrich, Bogdan, Versluis, Godwin and von Stuckrad, in their excellent analyses of Western Esotericism in general. Mining these sources for confirmation of the shamanic approach highlighted by Markale and Fradon, we become convinced that we are in the presence of a revelation that applies to at least one early Tarot.
The Ideal of Love in a World of Duty
The overall issue facing the mystics of Love and Union is the problem of resolving duality, closing the gap both between the human state and the Divine. Theologically, on the vertical plane, this is attempted through visualizations and devotional practices. On the horizontal plane, specifically the creative duality of Man and Woman here "in the world", this is done through careful titration of the force of attraction and the opportunities it creates for sexual union.
the world, religious traditions have analogized human sexuality to the
bliss of Eden or Heaven. Certainly, in the aggregate, our type of
nervous system is built to enjoy it. But individuals, in all our
variations, are not so tractable and obedient to moral and cultural
programming as would be convenient. How to reconcile the human
opposites in a way that will harness their energies in a co-operative
and loving mode, rather than having them clash against each other as they so often do?
All sorts of ideas have been formed to explain this situation and offer
suggestions for harmonization, but the problem needs to be solved over
and over in each person's unique life. There is no "one size fits all"
Looking at the Cary-Yale Visconti pack and seeing the prevalence of symbolism from the Courtly Love tradition, the impression it gives is of a set of emblems codifying the 'fin'amour' (refined love) ideal of the troubadour culture that permeated southern Europe starting in the late 10th century. Although Tarot itself is nowhere near so old, it is clear that the Cary-Yale Visconti emblems represent, alongside the game of Tarot, an idealization of that courtly code. I say "idealization" because, for one thing, we know of no historical European court wherein there were as many female knights as male knights! One should envision the "land" portrayed in this Tarot as another region of the timeless AEgypt that Lehrich introduced us to, only at this latitude we are focused on the Celtic Grail cycle and the Arthur/Guinevere/Lancelot triangle of story and song.
At this intersection we can benefit from Lehrich's reminder that a set of beliefs or practices, such as magic or courtly love, doesn't attract codifying attention until the spontaneous, originary impulses that gave it birth have been largely played out. Once the cultural phenomenon have been lived through for enough generations, there are not a lot of novel developments left to explore. It is not necessary to boil a way of life or belief down to rules and specifications of a legalistic nature, until that way of life matures and begins to feel in danger of being forgotten and abandoned. Only after the open ground has already been trampled, and the footprints of the first actors in the field have been obscured, does the impulse dawn to look backwards and create a rule to limit future developments -- usually, limited to the space between the lines of the re-envisioned origins. At this point, the redactors rule the field, and it no longer matters what actually happened, but only what is ~believed~ to have happened. To the extent the Cary-Yale Visconti pack is a carrier of Courtly Love mores, we would have to assume that it was commissioned to "freeze the moment" against a backdrop of decline and cultural transformation.
Books we can turn to in an effort to bring the ideal of this mythical "land" and "era" into focus include those previously mentioned by Merkur, Evola, Versluis, and Couliano. To get a perspective on the world of the family that commissioned this pack, one can consult Gertrude Moakley's The Tarot Cards Painted by Bonifacio Bembo for the Visconti-Sforza Family; an Iconographic and Historical Study. There is also an extensive segment in Volume II of Stuart Kaplan's well-known Encyclopedia of Tarot.
I would also like to suggest The Mystery of the Grail; Initiation and Magic in the Quest for the Spirit by Julius Evola. Although this author's spiritual politics sent him out of the mainstream of academics by his death in the 1970's, he edited this essay late in his life to direct the reader towards the ennobling ideals animating the Grail Quest, tracing out the numinous symbols of self-transcendence through Sacred Love found in this "time outside of time".
An excellent historical presentation of the Grail Goddess in the
larger context of Sophianic mysticism can be found in Caitlin Matthews'
wonderful book Sophia; Goddess of Wisdom; the Divine Feminine from Black Goddess to World-Soul. Another contribution one might wish to peruse is the esoteric Christian tome The Mysteries of the Holy Grail by occultist, mystic and Tarot theoretician Corinne Heline (who also wrote the classic The Bible and the Tarot).
For those whose interest flows towards secret doctrine and esoteric
streams, there are these fascinating avenues: Ean Begg's The Cult of the Black Virgin, Owen St. Victor's The Masked Madonna: Studies in the Mystical Symbolism of the Secret Sovereign: the Queen of Heaven , and The Templar Revelation; Secret Guardians of the True Identity of Christ, by Picknett & Prince.
In the case of these last recommendations, it is well to remember the remarks quoted from Idel above, to the effect that earlier attempts to directly link Catharism, the Knightly Orders, Mary Magdalene and the Grail myths, have come to be seen as academically naive. One must therefore look for confirmation of these author's more radical premises from sources that are respected by modern academics, if one is building from conclusions found in those books. In no way does this reality make these books useless, however, because each one of these authors includes links to a plethora of respectable references and themes, some of which could prove fruitful once extracted from these settings.
It is also worth remembering that not everybody totally agrees with Idel's rejection of all cross-contamination between the esoteric currents in the Province area of France during the tenth and eleventh centuries. It was here that multiple esotericisms flourished simultaneously -- Catharism, troubadour culture and courtly love, Kabbalism and the Cult of Mary. Smoley, for example, finds positive value in Denis de Rougemont's book Love in the Western World (1938; criticized by Idel above). Versluis also offers a counter-critique to Idel's comments, found between pp. 125- 128 of The Secret History of Western Sexual Mysticism.
This difference of outlook reminds us that academic discussions are seldom really "open and shut", but develop more like Lehrich's analogue of a musical fugue or a Tarot reading -- following a process of lapping over and then draining away from the topic like waves on the beach. New insights alter the older givens, while discarded theories can take on new vitality in fresh arrangements. Let us heed this reminder that this Quest is never ultimately over; if there were ever to be an ultimate determination, it could only happen in a time as mythical and changeless as the era of th e Round Table.
For a visual treat and some context for the art we are looking at in the Cary-Yale Visconti pack, look into Michael Camille's The Medieval Art of Love. This beautiful volume is filled with depictions of courtly love scenes and stories, rendered in multiple fine arts of the era. It is obvious that the love we are witnessing in this catalogue has a wide range of expressions, from spiritual and allegorical to carnally physical. This tangible evidence helps us rest assured that we are in the presence of an authentic cultural movement; I am not projecting my own fascination with idealized mystical Eros onto the times! Camille gives us a strong sense of how vital and lively these ideals were to the folks who enjoyed these works in their lives, not only as objects of beauty and pleasure, but also as subjects for contemplation and self-cultivation. Through these representations, as through the cards of Tarot, we can try to catch a glimpse of their users, even after all these centuries.
Hopefully, now the reader has the chance at getting an overview of the context before undertaking any discussion of Courtly Love's relevance to Tarot. Even though our modern and post-modern ideas about romance and it's fulfillment are powerfully influenced by the culture of the fin'amour, yet the circumstances in which this Art of Love was played out are so alien to those offered by contemporary culture that it takes some investigation and preparation for the researcher to make any sense of the references. I will do my best to convey highlights of the Courtly Love worldview and some possible links to this pack, but like other things I write about, there will need to be more in-depth work done along these lines before the connections are fully understood.
The Cary-Yale Visconti Tarot
When we crack open the Cary-Yale Visconti Tarot, we see most of the expected cards from the familiar Tarot deck, although the Priestess, the Hierophant and the Star seem to be replaced by Faith, Hope and Charity (not necessarily in that order). It is not known whether there were actually 25 Trumps and some are missing, or whether there was originally some other count, because the deck is incomplete. (Modern copies carry replacement cards created by the Tarot artist Luigi Scapini).
Looking at the individual cards, certain details stand out. Both the Emperor and the Empress have four pages standing at the four corners of their thrones. There are six Royals for each suit, the usual four as well as a female Knight and Page. All four Kings and Queens also have single Pages attending them. The suit symbols for the suit of Staves or Wands are actually arrows, with points at one end and feathers at the other -- except the Staves in the hands of the Royals, which are simply wands of rulership. These arrows, I believe, make a reference to the dart in the hand of the blindfolded Cupid hovering over the Lovers on Trump 6.
The Pages attending every female Royal (not repeated in later Tarots) ensure that these Ladies are not only well served but also well watched-over, granting these women little-to-no privacy. The page is simultaneously a prop for the Lady's reputation (serving as a reporter to the rest of the castle population), and a channel of access whereby her Knight can send her messages. Discretion is, of course, the first line of defense when the Lady's honor might be at stake, but the Page also participates in subterfuge and misdirection as needed. The Page is therefore a very important person in the courtly love process, a fact that is emphasized by the sheer number of them proliferating in this pack of cards.
Note the celebratory tent with red-robed plinth before which the Lord and Lady are standing on the Lovers card. This temporary abode, with curtains folded back, stands ready to shelter the intimacies of the divine/infernal couple. It resembles both the illustrations of jousts and summer tourneys found in manuscripts of the era, as well as suggesting the vessels and marriage-beds that the King and Queen occupy in the alchemical engravings of the 1600's. No wonder the blindfold cupid hovers near, ready to pierce one or both of the Lovers with his bolt. Once they enter the tent, they will be easy prey for his heart-seeking missile...
Among the Trumps, the only one showing a woman in a reproductive or maternal mode is the card of Charity. Here the Lady is portrayed with a naked male infant at the breast. If this card were intended to substitute for the Priestess (since we already have an Empress in this pack), it would comprise a sly way of referring to the "Virgin who must give birth" from antiquity, now appearing as Mary, mother of Jesus. Markale fascinates with his exposition of the ancient Virgin as the 'available' woman, the possible woman, the one who is unmarried and belongs to no man, she who is therefore free to be compassionate and giving to the worthy petitioner for her favors. There is no escaping the ancient Sacred Prostitute of earliest civilizations, which Markale stitches up to the Marian "fertile Virgin" image with historically compelling threads. The fact that this card is called Charity only reinforces his implication. In this context and making this particular constellation of references, how could such an ambivalent icon have found its way into a supposedly Christian pack of cards?
These remarks begin to demonstrate that the Cary-Yale Visconti is a special pack, one that carries an extra layer of meaning beyond the traditional trick-taking game that it was supposedly created for. It is my opinion that the value of Tarot as a relationship counseling tool would be greatly clarified if we could begin to decode the unspoken suggestions that flow into us through the use of a card pack created in the courtly Love context. And for those of us who feel that we might still have karmas to resolve from previous soul-adventures in Europe between the Crusades and the Renaissance, using the Tarot in this way might prove to be especially spiritually fertile.
Investigating Tarot in the Mirror of Markale
In exploring the concept of Tarot as an emblematic recital of Love's initiatory process, my primary resource on the specifics of the Courtly Love tradition will be Jean Markale's Courtly Love; The Path of Sexual Initiation . We find here a range of remarks that, totally unintentionally, shed light on the unique features of this pack.
Markale is specifically giving himself the assignment to represent the Celtic component of the Grail mythos, as he believes that most historians overemphasize the Middle Eastern contribution to the genre (witness Merkur's Gnosis). Among the mysticisms of the ancient world that might be contributing to the phenomena of sex-magic coming to Europe with the returning Crusaders, the primary ones would be Gnosticism, Theurgy, Hermeticism and Kabala, all of which have deep cultural roots in the biblical civilizations. What Markale intends to emphasize is that these seeds would have had no trouble germinating in the seed-bed of indigenous Goddess cultures and shamanic spirituality already present in Europe.
alert reader will also notice that Markale is another writer who
doesn't agree with Idel's assertion that courtly love and troubadour
culture, Hebrew Kabala, Catharism and the Cult of Mary be strictly
separated in our analyses of the times and places under consideration
here. Being a syncretist myself, and knowing how hard it is to keep
related ideas from cross-pollinating once they appear together in the
same mind, I must admit to having some sympathy for the idea of mutual
influence, even if only in subtle and individualistic ways. Markale
doesn't make a particular point of stating his position pro or con, but
we find in reading along that he is constantly drawing parallels
between these streams, especially that of courtly love, Celtic
shamanism and the Cult of Mary.
The first thing that attracted my attention in Markale's work is the emphasis he puts upon the social structure supporting the "Divine and Infernal Couple" (his words). Courtly Love is not just an experience that is had between two people, though there are moments of great privacy enfolding the sacred dyad. The links that tie the courtly couple back to the community are on the wife's side, her husband, and on the Knight's side, his messenger. (Yes, the union of The Lady and her Knight is an adulterous one, but one that is sanctioned, under rigorous controls, by the surrounding culture.) The four essential people making up the core unit of a Courtly Love scenario are the King, his Queen, the Knight, and his (or her, in this case) Page or Messenger. Already, we can see the connection to Tarot!
As is obvious from the subtitle, Markale is at some pains to compare the relationship that forms between the Knight and his Lady as one of aspirant and initiator. It turns out that approaching Courtly Love from the angle of Celtic shamanism is a brilliant tactic. Here are some of the shamanic features of the Courtly Love doctrine that Markale highlights:
- *the knight's Lady is his personal Goddess, whom he follows in all things. She gives him superhuman powers due to the potency of her effect upon him. Markale characterizes the Knight's role in service to the Lady as that of her priest as well as lover. "...the lover's attitude differs not one whit from that of a believer receiving the Eucharist...courtly love is a veritable religion." (Markale, p. 34-5)
- *the Lady is of a higher rank than the Knight -- therefore she requires that he evolve and better himself for her sake. The Knight is on a path of ascent that theoretically culminates in Gnosis, with the Lady and with the Holy Spirit. The Knight (aspirant) pledges to willingly go through any and all changes required, while the Lady (his initiator) makes his transform ation possible through her training and attentions. This helps to explain the relatively low status of the Knight at his first appearance in the Trumps, as the Mountebank.
- *the sacred relationship is kept in process (without promise of fulfillment) for long stretches of time, while the Knight is tested severely and repeatedly. This is another instance of the Presence of Absence, because the Knight must keep the Lady's image and desire alive within himself through all of his trials and despite all his temptations.
- *the relationship exists outside of social norms and is irresistible; in fact the possibility of union is more the "actor" in the drama than either of its participants. When and to the extent a contact happens, the moment is "outside of time" in important ways. A lifetime of fulfillment can be had in an evening, which might never be repeated again. Plus, the couple exists outside of either one's marriage obligations, therefore they can never be "institutionalized", and they will never be able to rescue, possess, or control each other. The Lady always remains a Free Woman in relation to her Knight.
- *the relationship between the Lady and her lover impacts the Lady's (and the King's) whole realm and lands. The Knight's job is to elicit her delight, and for his reward he gets to witness it and (possibly) share in it. The couple is a microcosm of the well being of the macrocosm. (This echoes the union of God and Shekhinah that the Jews were encouraged to mirror here on Earth.)
- *it is a specific tenant of Courtly Love that their exchange, whatever it consists of, is not a fertile union and does not produce children. This is also the case in the situation of the Alchemical Wedding -- the goal is not fertility or family, but enlightenment for the participants. (the Lady of Courtly Love has a husband with whom she would be having her children; the female partner in the alchemical project must foreswear a life of ease, servants and children, being prepared to isolate herself from others for the sake of concentrating on the work.)
- *the Lady is infernal as well as celestial; she is the repository of all the most radiant and effulgent qualities, but she is equally free to punish and withhold as she is to grant, as willing to deny as to reward. Her will is law, to which the Knight sacrifices his energies freely, without reservation. There is little redress if he alienates her.
Retraining Warriors for re-entry into civilization
One thing that is patently obvious about the Courtly Love worldview, is that it provided a welcome and refreshing reversal of the reigning norm of patriarchal privilege. One can see why this orientation was so vital to medieval life, which, especially outside the protective walls of the castle, was rightly described as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short". (Thomas Hobbes, The Leviathan.) The life of the King and Queen was somewhat better and more protected, due to the labors of the peasants attached to the castle and whatever tribute could be collected for the Lord from the surrounding territories. But the job of the Knight was to represent the court in the lawless territories between castle communities. The Knight was simultaneously the Sheriff, the Priest, and the Judge for the outlying lands, which put a lot of pressure on the person inside the suit of armor. Wherever the Knight dismounted, slept for the night or made camp, people came from all around with their petitions. As one can imagine, the role would be rife with temptations that could distort a personality of unbalanced development.
In modern times we have made considerable studies about the psychic effect of warfare, torture, murder and mayhem upon both the warriors involved and the population that lives under the warrior's protection/tyranny. The protracted cataclysm that was the Crusades included vicious, all-out campaigns against European targets as well as Middle Eastern ones, wherein whole populations, men women and children, were obliterated outright. Later on, the perfidious destruction of the Knights Templar after centuries of prestige and success was a dispiriting blow to the profession as a whole. Meanwhile, repeated incursions of barbaric hordes from the east constantly plagued Europe's Orthodox borders. All these phenomena, along with constant exposure to highway robbers, slavers, rapists and the criminally insane would leave many soldiers suffering from the personality-numbing effects of their adventures. On the one hand, the Knight might morph into a horrible punishment-machine, dispensing militaristic justice wherever he landed. On the other hand, he might find all his time taken up in rescue missions, trying to repair the damage caused by the lawlessness and unregenerate urges of under civilized inverts. In any case, the Knight would be witness to a wide spectrum of horrors, whether these were inflicted by or avenged by his presence.
This fact alone certifies the value of the Courtly Love system. The Lady who was the object of the Knight's affections was the wife of his liege lord. In swearing his oath of faithfulness to the Lady, he stakes his reputation on resisting the urge to take advantages to the extent his position might allow. His loyalty to his Lord and lands are increased when he puts his heart in the charmed circle of his Lady. Should she accept his offer of service, he is further motivated to refine his demeanor and upgrade his activities, both to burnish his reputation as a civilizing influence within the bounds of his Lord and Lady's fiefdom, and to spread their fame in the surrounding territories.
The Tests of Courtly Love
As the Knight gains her confidence, the Lady tests him by giving his assignments that are physically and psychologically difficult, motivating him to sublimate his forcefulness and develop sensitivity, subtlety and restraint. He learns to reroute his rage, lust and impulse-energy into self-cultivation practices oriented towards improving the quality of his consciousness and strengthening his conscience. The Lady calls him back to his Christian heritage, though she might do so by dangling the possibility, be it ever so slight, of him being granted the blessing of 'special attentions' in her company alone. These attentions could, if he was worthy, go so far as a night spent together, doing whatever pleased the Lady to request. His ticket of entry to this earthly paradise was total, unquestioning submission to his Lady's every command or suggestion, even when that meant giving up all hope of ever winning her favor!
Clearly, only the few would ever realize the tantalizing dream of reaching the Lady's inner sanctum, though it would raise the tone of the whole court to have the Knights vying for this opportunity. Even at its best, the situation was rife with ambivalence, especially for the Knight. His inclusion in the Court forever depended upon the whim of King and Queen, who between them possessed all the legal and lineage rights. Because of the circle of prying eyes and ears surrounding the Lovers, eager to magnify any hint of scandal or betrayal, the Knight walks on eggshells and questions his every thought. Meanwhile, the Lady must be shown to all as challenging him and constantly raising the bar on her tests of his fealty; the entire triangle would be dishonored by any implication that the Lady gave her love away too freely. Therefore the Knight was required to have a nearly masochistic willingness to accept her direction unconditionally.
Reading along in Markale's presentation, one can't help but notice the almost psychedelic effect that the Lady has upon her Knight. Her slightest gesture in his direction sends him into waves of feelings, whether mortification or exaltation. Sometimes she uses her impact to encourage him, but other times she crushes him utterly for what superficially seem to be the tiniest of infractions. She seems to know the most interior contents of his thoughts, his fears, his emotional marrow, even when she is not present. She invisibly rides along within him during all of his adventures, yet paradoxically, all the female figures he meets along the way are her representatives. Moving between the literal and the spiritual worlds, just as the female actors among the Trumps shimmer between human and divine manifestations, The Lady is clearly the image of Sophia on earth, tutoring and toying with her aspiring scribe/priest/Knight in the course of his spiritual evolution.
The Knight's ultimate test, the assais (the 'attempt'), was the ultimate proof of the training program the Lady has applied to refine him. In this situation, the Knight is brought into the intimate graces of the Lady, but under her exclusive and total command, imposed under the strictest of conditions. As Markale says so succinctly, "...the initiative is the exclusive prerogative of the woman. This is the heart of the revolution that took place in the eleventh century. The woman was no longer the object of man's pleasure, as she had been both in classical antiquity and in the early years of the Christian Middle Ages.... She has in some way become the leader of the game, the lady's desire surpasses all else, and the desire is a command." (p. 39) Could this be the reason that we see Faith, Hope and Charity standing on the backs of King, Priest, and Knight in the Cary-Yale Visconti pack?
The Lady is a Demoness
In his final chapter, Markale makes the shocking but apt comparison between the Lady and the "woman of the streets" who tamed the wild man Enkidu in the Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh. (This helps us to see how old the archetype of the 'woman, civilizer of bestial man' actually is!) We are reminded of the Trump of the Strength card, the taming power, which most often shows the Lady with a lion, traditional symbol of the ego. Another version of the same story, Markale reminds us, is Beauty and the Beast. "Through love, or by virtue of sexual relations, a beast -- that is, a human being suffering under a curse, still in a state without self-awareness -- acquires human proportions and is revealed to be a handsome prince." (p. 151) Taken further,
"This gesture must be understood on a cosmic plane: it is the symbol of the union of the deity (originally feminine) and the creature (masculine in this instance). Other traditions and rituals show us the priest (representing the male god) having sexual relationships with women (the feminine principle), which represents the same hierogamy, but inverted. In sum, every religion is an attempt to reestablish the contact -- interrupted by the process of creation, that is to say, by existence (in the etymological sense of the word meaning 'to hold oneself outside of ') -- between the creating deity and the created human being. And nothing can better translate this profound desire for fusion than the sexual act." (p. 152)
But of course,
no Lady no matter how celestial would be a fit match in cruelty or
steely will to a seasoned medieval Knight unless she still had full
position of her own infernal qualities! One of Markale's central
propositions is that with the gradual victory of Christianity in
Europe, the figure of Sophia, Divine Feminine and goddess of origins,
was split into Mary and the Serpent. The argument might sound on paper
like "the Church did this terrible thing." However, a more contemporary
sensibility could with the same degree of truth say the collective
psyche took a turn and chose to symbolically de-constellate Eve from
the Serpent, leaving the former in an ambiguous state, but fully
demonizing the latter. Ultimately, the split was made, however it is
This split in the Goddess mirrors the way the circle of the Pleroma is split by the imposition of time into eternity, leaving humanity feeling nostalgia for a past Eden and anxious about a future Resurrection. Just so, the Sacred Feminine has been broken into a human vs. demonic dichotomy, after which each has taken its own trajectory in the history that follows. The Woman Clothed with the Sun on the Empress card becomes our ideal of the "exalted Lady", countered by an androgynous, female-breasted sexually obsessed beast on the Devil card. To the extent that every female reference in the Trumps of Tarot is an aspect of Sophia, we can locate the deepest aspects of the Feminine Infernal on Tarot's Devil card.
Further, informed occult rumor asserts that the goat like face we see on the Devil card is Baphomet of the Templars, which the biblical scholar Hugh Schonfield has decoded, using the Hebrew Atbash cipher, to spell "Sophia"! (see The Essene Odyssey, 1984, p. 164) In my own investigations of the Devil through the years, I have become convinced that this card represents the Scapegoated Goddess of Antiquity, which is, of course, Sophia by another route. The presence of the Tower (orgasm) following the Devil (arousal) only emphasizes this association further. Crowley makes wily reference to this reality when he subtitles his Devil "Erect and Glad". Since we see both masculine and feminine sexual body parts on the body of the Marseilles Devil card, it’s rather hard to miss that something special is being referred to with this hybrid symbol. I, for one, consider the consciousness of the times fully sophisticated enough to envision a full spectrum of nuances for this card, whether the original was of the "hairy devil" type or the Baphomet type (which is how Scapini drew it when he produced the replacement Devil for the commercial reproduction of this deck).
Beware! She will eat you alive!
Therefore, let us not be in denial about what the Knight is submitting himself to and fusing with. What we are looking at in the Devil card is a symbolic expression of Knightly awe at the feminine libido. Let me quote some of Markale's passionate prose on the subject. As you read this, remember the lesson we learned from Fradon above -- that an authentic tradition of sex-magic informs the Faust legend and demonstrates undeniable intercourse between indigenous and imported sex-magics going back into antiquity. We have also the impeccable testimony of Moshe Idel in the case of the Jews and their passionate mysticism of the Divine Feminine. All of these instances, and there are many more, put us on notice that this is not just a metaphorical or platonic bond being developed between the Knight and his Lady. Whatever were the details of the individual case, the collective result produced a collective revelation of the fierce and insatiable side of "Domina -- the all-powerful mistress of hearts and minds, supreme goal of the lover-knight's actions." (p. 177)
"Here is an established erotic cult of great refinement and of a rare subtlety. The lady is a little like a spider, in a corner of her web, waiting for the lovers she will put to the test and perhaps devour like Kali or transform into animals like Circe. She is also the Queen in the game of chess, who can move anywhere on the board and who plays with her knights, her rooks and her pawns. whereas the king, indispensable but useless, remains stuck in the most exposed corner as regards his enemies....
How does this courtly love ritual take place? The fact that the ideal lover is a knight -- that is, a warrior -- indicates a very close link between war and sexuality, to which we must add a third element -- magic, which retrieves and sometimes provokes the mysterious feeling of love. It well and truly concerns the initiation of a neophyte, of his complete preparation to attain the state of hero, which will consecrate both the victory of this hero and that of the lady, who has been successful in capturing the one she needs in order to achieve self-realization." (pp 207-208)
After retelling a story from the Book of Merlin, which Merlin is said to have recounted to the Lady Vivien during their courtship, Markale writes an inspired passage on the significance of the Diana story to Merlin's own future with Vivien:
"...the story is interesting insofar as it tells of the 'chaste' Diana, who, however, still has lovers she does not hesitate to get rid of when necessary. It is an assertion of the omnipotence of the goddess of beginnings, because Diana obviously recovers this primitive entity. She is simultaneously beautiful, good, and cruel. She is the very image of the lady of fin'amor. She is the very image of the Indian Kali, sometimes worshiped under the name of Durga, the 'Inaccessible One,' the 'Dangerous One,'.... This Kali is most often depicted clad entirely in red (the color of blood and violence, but also the color of love), standing at the prow of a boat sailing on an ocean of smoking blood. She stands there in the middle of the flux of life, like the eternal mother, ready to kill whoever approaches her but also ready to create new life forms that she will nurse with her inexhaustible milk. She is the goddess of beginnings and of the end. She is the Virgin Mother, eternally available, sacred prostitute and admirable parent of the world. She is the witches' Diana, Lucifer' s accomplice, the most beautiful of all the archangels, and also the Diana described by Merlin as if she were Vivien, the future Lady of the Lake. She is the lady of courtly love, waiting in her chamber while her lover suffers injury in the dangerous orchard he must traverse before winning to her side." (p. 203)
This kind of allegorizing goes on, unwinding deeper layers of myth and legend, until we have reached the ancient legends of Adam, Lilith and Samael, who are held up as the original courtly love triangle. Adam, the husband, sees Lilith, the original Eve figure, as "given to him" by G*d, to do with what he wishes. He wishes to lie atop her and copulate like he sees the other beasts doing. Lillith does not agree to be "given", even by her creator, and will not consent to be used by Adam in this way. She flies away to live with Samael, the Tester (long before he has become the Devil,) individuating freely in the realm of the spirits. Adam complains to G*d, who then makes Eve from his rib, but then Eve starts taking lessons from the Serpent, and all Hell breaks loose again... What we are seeing here -- and it is a huge accomplishment for humanity, however fleeting it was in history -- is:
"The woman in the assais [taking] her revenge on her impervious, tyrannical husband, on the brutal desire that was too fast. The man that 'she had lie next to her' had to obey all her whims and succumb to the temptation only as much as she wanted to succumb herself.... In the assais (and this is what still smacks to a certain degree of the infernal component), it is the lady who decides whom she desires, when she will accept, and what she wants. The difference is huge." (p. 209-10).
Inversion of Masculine and Feminine at the Heart of the Exchange
Markale informs us that Celtic mythology relates the Lady's power and presence with the Sun at the center of the sky. In this ancient formula the Lover/Knight corresponds to the Moon, while the husband of the Lady takes the third term as the Night (Markale, p. 77, also 161). Markale's grounding in Celtic and Irish myth comes to the fore here, as he explicates for us the many ways that the Lady assumes the attributes of the eternal Goddess -- initiatrix, irresistible magnet, and fertile virgin, encompassing the Sun, Earth and Waters. Because she carries these associations, the Lady offers her Knight a " becoming that has no end". And, fascinatingly enough, the relative immortality bestowed upon the traditional heroes of the Quest fulfills this eternal becoming -- having been called from their personal obscurity to serve something greater than themselves, they have made their way into the annals of history, legend and song.
This construct could be part of what is being illustrated on the exquisite birth-tray from Florence, circa 1400, showing the Lady as a dark-winged Venus/Sophia/Virgin within a golden mandorla high in the heavens, sending golden beams of light and Eros down from her pudenda upon six different courtly lovers of legend. The men, shown kneeling in a fruitful Garden of Love and devotedly gazing back along the lines of her radiance, are identifiable through inscriptions on their clothing: Achilles, Tristram, Lancelot, Samson, Paris and Trolius. (from Michael Camille's The Medieval Art of Love, p. 33.) Since this tray was created to celebrate the birth of a child, we could be looking at an artistic "spell" to empower the new mother to rear heroes for the Quest. On the other hand, we know that the men at the bottom of the image were each given direction for their lives by following the light emanating from their Lady, so in fact the rays represent a two-way flow of energy. To my eye, this image makes it clear why the figure inside the mandorla on the World Card is so often female, rather than male as one would expect in the context of a pack of Christian icons.
There might even be a connection between this conception and that of the Manicheans who influenced Europe from a distance, through infiltration of their doctrines along the Silk Road. This group felt that the world was governed by heimarmene (Destiny, necessity) a matrix of binding, materializing forces centered upon the zodiac, the five planets and the Nodes of the moon. Only the Sun and Moon were benevolent, and their dialogue educates the seeker to rise above the world and make his way back to the paradise state from which he had fallen. Since it is also the courtly Lady's job to challenge, test and improve her Knight, leading him from the impure state of worldly-mindedness into a higher sacrificial and service-oriented state through her challenges and requirements, one can see these symbols of Sun and Moon being equally applicable to both instances of the Quest.
The Hebrew mystical discipline of Kabala also shows a curious inversion of (our superficial interpretation of) male and female qualities in the mystic significance of "man made in the image of G*d". The Deity/Human resemblance is mapped on a diagram called the Tree of Life, existing in five vertical dimensions and three horizontal dimensions; a Middle Pillar of five stations, and two side pillars of three stations each. The right-hand Mother Pillar corresponds to the worldly, active aspect of humanity, whereas the left-hand Father Pillar is associated with the contemplative, visionary qualities of humanity.
One heavenly mandate for the Chosen People was that every husband and wife should come together on the Sabbath and re-enact the union of God and his Shekina in the Holy of Holies. This adds a religious sheen to the pleasurable duty of giving the Sacred Feminine her due. (It's written into the law! The Lady must have her delight every week! ) Because so many of our academic sources cite influences from Hebrew mysticism in the myths of the Courtly Love era, we have to allow for the idea that this teaching too might have influenced gender relations as practiced in the European courts of love.
In a wonderful alchemical image found in The Golden Game; Alchemical engravings of the Seventeenth Century (a compendium of alchemical art annotated by Stanislaus Klossowski de Rolla), we see this same inversion happening between the outer appearance of Solar Man and Lunar Woman, and their true, spiritual relationship at heart. In this image they trade positions, undergoing inversion while engaged in the spiritualized Coitus of the elements. At the top of the plate, we see the Man and Woman meeting at cliff-side, much like the Lovers in the Visconti-Sforza pack. The birdlike feet showing through from the center of the mountain reveal them to be the same species at root. In the worldly and societal sense, he is the Lord and she is his Lady. But in the emblem at the center of the image, the two are shown in miniature as a seated Sun-headed woman with the man at her feet, resting his head in her lap like a child. (p. 201 of The Golden Game.)
In any case, the maturing of the Knight accurately mirrors the radical ups and downs of the Alchemical path -- occasional moments of high drama interspersed with long tedious stretches marked by fear, self-doubt and sometimes depression. Though usually alone in the often-joyless landscape of the Quest, the true Knight will hold fast to the Goddess of Light, the radiant Sun for whom he is the reflective Moon. Her Image in the dark mirror of his inner life calls him back from the barbaric psychological frontiers of the battle-scarred warrior, from being or contending with the highwayman, the invader, the murderer and the rapist. She alone has a Power within her that is equal to his own, because he has given all his energies to her for transmutation. By laying his will and his destiny at her heavenly and demonic feet, asking her Image to take over his own obscurity and voidness, she can change him from the inside out, mending and balancing his battle-scarred psyche. Fused into an unbreakable unit, she accompanies him ever after, always ready to outshine the shadowy demons that civilization creates with its laws, its wars and its inhibitions.
What have we accomplished here?
This article has been quite a long perambulation, and I want to thank you for reading along to the end. The twists and turns we have undergone puts us in mind of how difficult it has been to talk about this subject in the past. There's a quality of knightliness required in this Quest, the willingness to face down all obstacles and speak truth to power whatever the consequences. Hopefully in the process of sharing these resources and conclusions, some of the longstanding barriers to understanding the Tarot in its historical context will begin to be surmounted.
Our first step in the journey was to recognize the deep well that is Western Esotericism. Anyone who takes the time to peruse the literature will realize that historians have been habitually overlooking a powerful current of belief and experience, the lack of which has undermined the efforts of 'uninitiated' researchers to make sense of certain stages of the cultural unfolding of Europe. So, for the sake of those who are interested, we surveyed the latest writings in the field.
In point of fact, this entire essay could have been written using only the works of Arthur Versluis and Jean Markale, but that would have made it easier for the scoffer to dismiss as just a few eccentrics' opinion. It was necessary to demonstrate the broad consensus that has formed in the process of defining and cataloguing historical esotericism. Anybody who does their homework will be forced to admit that Tarot belongs in the catalogue, by any scholar's standards. I appended Smoley's model of the various disciplines and their interrelationships, because it summarizes the various esoteric traditions flowing forward in time, combining and transforming as they evolve.
From there we took some time to meditate on the issue of Presence and Absence in the spiritual or initiatory quest. This is a theme that runs below the surface of many different spiritual traditions, courtly love being a case in point. The idealization of the Knight at the turn of the first millennium AD mirrors our post-modern glorification of military action, and for much the same reason. Humans like to have a defined good guy to root for and bad guy to hate. The rivalry could be about competing football teams, presidential candidates, or intellectual theories, it really doesn't matter. We love to reduce all of our challenges to black and white terms. Therefore, the mass tolerance for ambiguity is low.
Nevertheless, there is always a minority of people who are capable of multilayered thinking, who come to realize that behind every deity is a shadow, behind every devil is the angel it started out to be. Only the highest strata of any society are well enough fed, rested, and educated to indulge in the kind of figure/ground reversals that esoteric thinkers revel in. For the sake of investigating the kinds of thinking that characterizes 'initiates', we reviewed several disciplines that stake their central conclusions upon the pregnant absence, the meaningful emptiness. For Tarot readers, who have to make meaning out of chaos every time they sit down to interpret a throw of cards, this is a paradox that has to be embraced before we can get our confidence up and challenge ourselves to work for strangers in a professional setting.
From there we leapt off into the gemlike facets of Christopher Lehrich's argument, the extreme creativity of which provokes responses in the reader that logic and deep data bases never will. I am not suggesting that everybody who reads this article purchase Lehrich's book, but for theorists of Tarot, he has done us all a great favor. Whereas it is true that almost all the authors I have cited in the list on Western Esotericism have made a larger or smaller nod in the direction of Tarot, in fact only Lehrich has taken on Tarot as a topic in its own right. His investigation of the Egypt/AEgypt question is priceless, something that has been desperately needed in the field for years already. (Although let me give credit where credit is due, by saying that Mary K. Greer has been saying substantially the same thing for years already, among the 'converted'.) The critique he makes of the literalist historians and their impotence in the face of Tarot's participation in parallel realities is well taken, and I look forward to the contest if future scholars decide to challenge his assertions. May we be so lucky as to witness that joust!
Now we get into the meat of the essay. First it is necessary to establish that it is not specious to talk about a European form of esotericism that utilizes sex and relationship as its ground. In fact, an initiatory model of sexual cultivation existed in Europe, and has recently undergone through examination by sources that can be trusted to know what they are looking at. The courtly love era is only one manifestation of this trend, but for those interested in Tarot, this culture might well provide the key to some of the enigmas attending the Cary-Yale Visconti Tarot. To give us context for this exploration, an array of relevant sources is offered. Otherwise, the relative strangeness, the sheer difference-value between that culture and our own might defeat our investigations.
Comparing notes between sources, there seems to be a controversy about whether or not the various esotericisms of southern Europe actually intersected enough to impact each other, or whether they somehow managed to co-occupy the same time and space without interpenetrating. This might always remain a matter of opinion, but at least we are not running into denial that courtly love as a spiritual path had an initiatory character. As a matter of fact, one of the paradigmatic esotericists of the time was a courtier, a troubadour, and eventually, a cleric as well. I am speaking here about Raymond Lull, whose oracular and alphanumeric experiments unleashed so much synthetic inventiveness upon his world. There is universal agreement among all our scholars that Lull represents a watershed personality in the transmittal of the esoteric paradigm from the dusty tomes where it was languishing in obscurity, to a lively and useful tool for spiritual experimentation. So here again, we can see that there are good and sufficient reasons to imagine the Cary-Yale Visconti pack might demonstrate a family resemblance to it's illustrious forebear.
Ultimately, we pick Markale's book to anchor this comparison, though I could have drawn nearly as much from Evola's Eros and the Mysteries of Love. By combining these two volumes with Versluis' contributions, one could have a quite thorough survey of the relevant issues without being overwhelmed by the mental pyrotechnics of some of the other authors. There has been a particular trend, now finally dissolving, that has caused generations of researchers to interpret frankly erotic literature as somehow "symbolic" or "allegorical". Though there is value in that approach, it overlooks entirely the human animal's natural response to erotic and sexual symbolism. No doubt the more sophisticated members of any generation have seen through the literalities that are taken as symbols, and the symbols that are taken as literalities. Nevertheless, a streak of Puritanism has marked this field until very recently, when we can finally study these things without the plethora of veils and circumlocutions.
Where we end up after all these layers are penetrated is in a cultural frame that is showing, for the first time in the West, a model of "women on top". Not every researcher mentions this directly, but those that do are truly resonating in sympathy with the courtly love tradition. Markale is particularly sensitive to the implications of the idea of the Lady as initiator and the Knight as postulant, perhaps because his own studies are so strong in the Celtic Mysteries, wherein there was no notion of original sin and where there was a timeless tradition of Goddess-focused spirituality. I don't know if others will have the response I did to Markale -- his wide flights of associations could be considered intellectually heretical, if he didn't back them up with plenty of etymological and mythological evidence. But even if he's wrong in some of his details, he's certainly captured the mystical, lusty, magical spirit of the era, both the zeitgeist itself and the subconscious needs that drove it. If nothing else, he's relatively easy to read and thoroughly engaging.
A new Spirit in Tarot?
This topic has so engaged my imagination because, having been a Tarot reader for all of my adult life, I am fully aware of how often relationship issues are evoked as the reason for a throw of the cards. Just noting the favorite spreads used by the customers at Tarot.com makes this abundantly clear -- it's 75% relationship questions, and 25% everything else. But what are the messages that we are subconsciously getting from using Tarot as a source for relationship counseling?
The issue of romantic love first came to consciousness in the west through the courtly love tradition, but at its first appearance, "true love" was something that was contrasted in black/white terms with married love and filial bonding. This is very hard for us to imagine now, since very few Westerners are "given in marriage" to strangers for economic and social reasons anymore. We think that because we are "free" to pick whomever we please, that the results of our partnership search should provide us with lifelong compatibility and fulfillment. But nothing could be further from the truth! Courtly lovers would never have the satisfaction and burden of living together day in and day out. Therefore that first flush of attraction could be sustained for years, seldom being tested against reality for more than a few hours here or an overnight there.
This new situation of choice-based partnering puts pressure on the
person in the male role to integrate both Kingly and Knightly
attributes inside of one psyche. This makes for the kind of confusion
reflected in the anguished Western koan "what does a women really want
from a man?" On the one hand, the modern man resists the message of
self-improvement for the sake of the Lady, which was a backbone feature
of the original romantic love model. He might make noises about him and
her being "equal", but in fact he feels entitled to make use of her
assets and qualities as if they are his own, once the knot is tied.
This betrays his over-reliance on the King archetype -- he thinks that
the courtship is over when the marriage begins, so he lets himself
slack off on showing the kind of manners and consideration that would
keep her emotional interest, assuming that she is "his" now, and he's
free to take her tolerance for granted. The problem with this attitude
is, he still feels entitled to be treated as if he were the Knight --
the culture's ideal of heroism, honor and altruism. It doesn't take
much pondering to see where the cracks are going to form in this case!
Similarly, these undigested ideas from the past push the contemporary person in the female role to arrange her emotional life so that she is putting all her eggs in one basket. We forget that this almost never happened during the times when the courtly love culture was current. The Lady was not expected to "love" her husband, only to be dutiful towards him and ensure that any children she bore were truly his, and to support him in the labors and endeavors that kept their family safe and well. Her individuation needs were hers alone to fulfill, which would doubtless be frustrating at times, but was also quite freeing in other ways. The Lady would be able to form alliances based on her own heart's urgings, and as long as they didn't infringe on her husband's lineage rights, he could not deny her those satisfactions. She was not at risk of losing home, family, and security just because someone in her husband's court earned her admiration. And strong social safeguards were in place to be sure that these extra-marital relationships didn't threaten the women or her family stability, but actually strengthened them. Looking at this in comparison with our current culture of opportunistic hookups and internet dating, it is not hard to see the benefits of the older model, at least in the protection it offers for the woman in case of a misjudgment or affair-gone-bad.
The fact is, no society has ever sustained the divorce rate like ours -- so what can Tarot do to make a difference in this dismal misapplication of the ideal of romantic love? It will probably take several more generations to figure out. But now that we have the height of scholarship, breadth of insight, and depth of need to really focus on the problem, we can now reinterpret our oracle for the next stage of human development -- the stage in which we build towards a lasting and egalitarian spiritual, emotional, and physical rapport between men and women. Perhaps we won't go back to the ideal of the woman offering her attentions as the reward for a man's self-improvement labors. Nor should we keep encouraging the self-entitlement that patriarchal culture has granted to men over these recent millennia of human history. We will have to find some middle ground, an understanding that supports both parties in the qualities that make them complimentary and compatible.
Nevertheless, the Tarot has proved itself in the world court of opinion as an excellent tool for crisis counseling, particularly in the realm of romantic relationships. Therefore it behooves us all, who love Tarot and want to see it flourish, to rethink our clichés and fathom anew the Mysteries of Love as portrayed in our cards. The more informed we are as readers, the less likely we are to perpetuate these confusions in our work with clients. At least we need to be able to name and explicate the subconscious threads of the past that are still active in the culture and in the Tarot. Knowledge is power! Even if we haven't yet untangled these old programs and subconscious suggestions, the fact that we can begin to point them out and recognize them at work will go a long way towards giving our clients the power to make better choices.
June 3, 2008
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