Greco-Mulsim EsotericismBy Christine Payne-Towler
Tarot ArkLetter 56
October 17, 2009
It is well known that the Tarot pack as we know it now represents two card-sets spliced together. First we see the Mamluk pack (sometimes called the Minor Arcana), which came into Europe from the south and east as a 52-card game. Afterwards, the Trump set (sometimes called the Major Arcana) was created to accompany those, first appearing in Northern Italy. It is most often assumed that the Mamluk game pack was not invested with the degree of symbolic and esoteric implications that seem to have grown up around the Trumps, no matter at what point those implications became public. But since no source has been found to explain the cards or the game that is played with them, we are forced to rely on informed guesses and observation of their similarities with other card games of the era.
Accounting for the Mamluk pack’s origins solves one problem about these enigmatic cards, but does that really give us a full estimation of the way this playing-card deck would have been received by its European users? Is it not at least possible that the Mamluk pack's admirers in Moslem-influenced southern Europe might have found themselves responding to the structure of this new game for its esoteric potential, even before the addition of the Trumps?
Perusals through Fournier Museum's Playing Cards demonstrate that the face cards of the Spanish packs at least sometimes show the characteristics of mini-Trumps. This suggests that some might have envisioned a body of elevated ideas "hovering overhead" of the Royals, similar to the way the blonde-haired Knight leaps over the head of the Justice card in the Visconti-Sforza Tarot. The idea of “higher meanings” would be consistent with the nobility, rank and cultivated intelligence associated with royalty in Islamic society, especially while playing a game called “Kings and Viceroys”.
On another page over at Andy's Playing Cards we get to view the Moorish pack of gaming cards (called Italy 2), from the Fournier collection dated about 1400, which are at this point the oldest Western cards known. <<http://l-pollett.tripod.com/cards77.htm>> the descriptor 'Western' is given specifically because the court cards in this pack are drawn in with human figures for the first time that we know of. This would never have happened in an Islamic context.
To further contextualize the rest of this article, have a look at the Tarot History Forum thread on Spanish Cartomancy <<http://www.forum.tarothistory.com/viewtopic.php?f=11&t=210>> There you'll find an excellent and multifaceted discussion about card-reading in Spain circa 1450, initiated by Ross Caldwell, one of Tarot's few and mighty, extremely stoic and generous historical researchers.
As I was reading through this thread I had a slightly dislocated feeling, as if I am writing "on the other side of the same coin" as Ross ET. Al. Or maybe the image should be "drilling from opposite sides of the same tunnel", through the mountain that stands between. For my part, the goal would be to demonstrate the presence of esotericism interwoven all through the exoteric cultural context that first received the Mamluk pack (specifically, Islamic Europe). In the case of the Spanish divination references that Ross is sharing, his stated goal is to demonstrate the presence of Tarot divination springing up almost immediately upon Europe's adaptation of the Mamluk cards into their earliest "Western" form.
My guess is that when these and other lines of inquiry are more fulfilled, have been thoroughly examined and have yielded up their secrets, we will have a better understanding of the way implicit meaning (based on esoteric thought) informs explicit meaning (divination techniques and interpretations) in the richly symbolic and multicultural world of Tarot's origins. In any case, it's exciting to be contributing to the discussion, even if only tangentially.
With these ideas in mind, let's survey the Iberian Peninsula's unique history to get a feel for the intellectual context into which playing cards, with their 10x4 and 3x4 structure, landed.
What do we mean by Esoteric in this context?
Before the presence of Islam in Spain, the Iberian Peninsula had already been doing business with all the cultures of the Mediterranean world since the earliest trade ships started plying those waters. The Phoenician alphabet was the lingua franca of international trade, due to its convertible alpha/numeric and decimal/ordinal properties. Spanish ports were also strongly supportive of the thriving international network supporting Rome's era of empire. As a result, Spanish culture evolved through exposure to all the directions of the ancient world's philosophies: both Semitic and Hermetic thought, astrology, alchemy, Orthodox (Eastern) Christian teachings, Druidism, Gnosis and the Alexandrian synthesis. (This is not to exclude the idea of exposure to Yogic, Confucian, Taoist, Zen and other far-eastern philosophies; they are simply not my focus this article) Spain’s ancient exposure to the alphabetic languages set up the perfect substrate for subsequent blooming of literacy and numericy in the Spanish trading cities. This situation goes a long way towards understanding why Europe's various waves of Renaissance inevitably started in the South (Spain, Cicely, and southern Italy) and moved northwards.
The Christian scriptures themselves are packed with number-letter mysticism throughout both the Old and New Testaments. Arthur Versluis skillfully suggests that it was through the 'gnosis of the word' that esoteric Christianity managed to keep itself open to mystical inspiration, despite being founded upon a historical event that quickly became literalistically boundaried by political interpretations of its earliest records. The holy books are not only clothed in Sacred Alphabet garb -- passed down to us written in alphabets derived from the Phoenician, with their number/letter correspondences still largely intact. But further, certain books in the Christian Bible (some elements of the Book of John, plus the Book of Revelation) express and encourage an 'ahistorical, revelatory emphasis' (in Versluis' words). To condense several pages of his lucid explication;
"When we consider the emergence of historicist Christianity in light of world religious traditions, we can see how anomalous it is, for on a worldwide scale ahistorical religious traditions predominate. Consider, for instance, the development of Buddhism, which resembles Gnosticism far more than historicist Christianity: here, as throughout world religious traditions, individual spiritual revelation is incalculably more important than simple belief in a historical series of events. The Johannine elements in Christianity owe a great deal to the various movements collectively known as Gnosticism in antiquity, and represent a central reference point for the subsequent reemergence of esotericism time and again.
"This division between exoteric and esoteric can, of course, be characterized according to people's approach to language. Historicist Christianity has always taken a literal interpretation of the Bible, and insisted on an objectified historical Christ in whom one must have faith in order to be saved. Such an approach to language is particularly common in modern times, where the idea that language might convey multiple layers of meaning has been almost completely jettisoned in favor of objectified technical language, be it scientific, legal or technological. The gnostics, on the other hand, by and large eschewed literalist views of language in favor of more complicated, multilayered approaches. Whereas the historicist Christians established a fixed canon of Biblical books that ended with the Revelation to John, gnostic Christians continued to generate revelatory scriptural works because in their view, the Word was not literal but spiritual, and hence revelation could take place today just as in antiquity. What mattered to them was inward or esoteric understanding, not only outward fidelity to fixed written words from the past . . .
"Of course, to make this dichotomy so clear-cut is to distort what was and remains a spectrum. Some of the Church Fathers were in fact clearly esotericists and gnostics -- the most prominent being Origen and Clement of Alexandria, who insisted that there was an orthodox gnosis and that it is the 'crown of faith'. There have been many gnostics since who have also insisted that they remain orthodox, however much their literalist opponents think differently. Likewise, there were some gnostics who were not far from historicist Christianity, and whose primary emphasis was on morality, asceticism, and spiritual illumination. Who was rejected as heretical, and who else was accepted as orthodox, often seems more like an accident of history than an inevitability.
"But there remains a spectrum in antiquity nonetheless, and it is the esoteric side of it that interests us here, for in it we find the predecessors of all the later Western esoteric traditions. It is particularly useful to consider Gnostic spiritual traditions in light of what we have said regarding language. For instance, some Gnostic groups laid great emphasis on the inner meanings of language, and were reputed to use certain letters as intonations similar to mantras in Hinduism and Buddhism. Their repetition and intonation of certain letter combinations were ridiculed by literally minded Christians, but make a great deal more sense when one considers that language in this context is not merely a matter of transferring data, but of communication, and communion, that is, of communing with the power that the letters correspond to. And we in fact find such strings of apparently nonsensical letters, chiefly vowels, in some of the Gnostic treatises of the Nag Hammadi library."This use of language is fundamentally different from what we ordinarily expect: whereas usual communication is horizontal, here it is vertical, a means not for one equal to convey information to another, but for a person to experience an organizing principle of creation itself. We may recall the first line of the Book of John: 'In the beginning was the Word,' or 'In the beginning was the Logos.' 'Logos' here refers to that which precedes and transcends manifestation, the seeds of all things, corresponding in some respects to the Platonic archetypes. These vibratory seeds human beings may contact or activate through spiritual practice and in this way be in touch with the powers that inform creation itself; but such an approach is not for everyone. In general, it is reserved for those who are capable of it, who are worthy of it, and who will not use its power for selfish purposes.
"We find a similar approach to language visible in Jewish esotericism in the doctrine of the Shemhamphorash, or sacred Names of God: by vibrating the names of God in the permutations of the sacred letters and by knowing their proper, true pronunciation, one is in touch with inconceivable power. Such doctrines of the hidden names of God, in turn allied with similar numerical-alphabetical mysticism involving the angels, are prevalent in Jewish esotericism during precisely the same time that Christian Gnosticism was flourishing, and in fact close scrutiny of this time suggests that Jewish and Christian esotericism are so intermingled as to be virtually inseparable. Scholem remarks that Merkabah mysticism of the third and fourth centuries drew upon Greek language, just as Greek Christian mysticism drew upon Hebrew or Aramaic terms . . .
"All of this is to suggest that there was in antiquity in Jewish and Christian esoteric circles a very widespread gnosis of language which was grounded in writing, and to which we may refer as a gnosis of the word, which undoubtedly drew upon and incorporated elements of the Greek mystery traditions even as they differed from the Greeks in their emphasis upon writing down the mysteries and then writing down commentaries upon the previous writings. This gnosis of the word represents a "fixing' of the mysteries, as does the creation of images, and its aim is twofold at least: microcosmically, its purpose is to restore the individual to a paradisal or transcendent state; and macrocosmically, it is to restore the cosmos itself to its paradisal condition. The letters, as principles of creation itself, are a means to creation's redemption; and in this regard man may be said to complete the work of God by being co-creator or co-redemptor."Both the gnosis of the word and the gnosis of the image are extensions of the monotheism of the book, and contain within them the seeds of the perennial struggle in all three forms of monotheism between those who take the word literally and those who advocate gnosis. Both word and image reveal and 'fix' the divine, thereby making this conflict inevitable. But monotheism is a rubric under which all manner of possibilities exist; and even if monotheism often turns toward a fundamentalist literalism, one finds that from the very beginning of our era the very same elements conduce also to a wide spectrum of gnoses and hence to angelic polytheism and to nontheistic gnosis in which the very concept of God is transcended, paradoxically conveyed often through the permutations of word, letter, number, and image -- the very means by which concepts are fixed to begin with!" (Versluis, Restoring Paradise, p. 18-20).
Priscillian; An Early Christian Magus in Spain
The earliest homegrown esotericist that Spanish history retains was Priscillian, the controversial Bishop of Avila from 381 AD. Called a heresiarch by his detractors, Priscillian's charismatic synthesis provided a several-century-long competitor to the early Christian Church in Spain. What we know of his teachings links him to Manichaeism, an ancient Persian gnostic dualism. Its founder Mani held that the Devil is from a different domain than God, one of darkness rather than light. In this view, the Devil is self-generated from Chaos, and is therefore not under the control of the good God of Light. The Devil is the maker of our bodies, which are intended to trap and enslave God-created immortal souls here in time/space/matter.
In the words of Kocku con Stuckrad in Western Esotericism; A Brief History of Secret Knowledge,
"The importance of Manichaeism for esotericism is illustrated by the role of astrology. In the Manichaean system the planets possess a comparable status to that in Gnostic and Hermetic writings. They represent the evil powers of heimarmene and are responsible as archons, that is, ruling powers, for hostile cosmic regions. The planets rule in the fourth region of the universe together with the twelve houses of the zodiac. [<< Link to Hermetic Cosmos image; Ladder of Lights superimposed on the Zodiac>>] They give power over war and peace, order and chaos, the captivity of the soul, desire and property. At the end of time, heralded by revelation and the mission of Mani, their reign will reach its conclusion and the soul of the elect will be freed from their power. Up until this point Mani still conforms to Gnostic and Hermetic references. The seven planetary powers have, however, been modified, because Mani excludes the Sun and the Moon from being negatively regarded as archons. But in order to preserve the traditional numerical system of seven, he replaces these two lights with the two lunar nodes."The exclusion of the Sun and the Moon is Mani's own achievement. It is a consequence of the important role of Sun and Moon in the journey of the human soul back to its home of light. Both lights are described as ‘ships’ that transport the souls illuminated by Mani. They are simultaneously 'guardians of the gate', which sort the wheat from the chaff at the entrance to the heavenly realms of light . . . This positive regard for the Sun and the Moon did not escape others. Epiphanius, for example, characterized the Manicheans as follows: 'They pray to the Sun and the Moon . . . they proclaim the Seven and the Twelve, according to them there are lucky stars and destiny, and they are zealous in the art of the Chaldaeans' (Panarion LXVI, 13). This description certainly accords with the facts..." (p. 28)
Among Priscilllian's other trespasses was to equate God (above) and Christ (below) into one single Being, a conception that had been designated a heresy by the Christians (called Modalism) a century previous. Further elements of Hermeticism, Pythagoreanism and messianic Judaic traditions were also blended into his practices. According to his enemies, Priscillian possessed an amulet that had the name of God inscribed upon it in Latin, Greek and Hebrew. Seized by a vengeful squad of Catholics who were encouraged in their vindictiveness by the Roman state, Priscillian was tried, condemned and executed in 386 CE, convicted of "sorcery". Made a martyr for his unique brand of Christianity, Priscillian has the distinction of being the first Christian to be legally executed for his beliefs.
So this is our ground-level understanding of 4th century Spanish esotericism, based on the evidence we find in Priscillian’s case:
- 1) His philosophy is based on the Hermetic version of the cosmos, positing a hierarchal reality; the Macrocosm of Aeons in Eternity over lighting the Microcosm, including our planet and everything incarnate in time and space. This view visualizes the interactions among our solar system deities as the Lights striving to liberate entangled human souls from the forces of Darkness.
- 2) 'Proclamation of the 7 and the 12' (becoming known through an astro-numerical signature like that of the Platonists and Pythagoreans, which in this case also evokes correspondences to the Double and Single letters in the Hebrew alphabet, the 12 signs and 7 planets of the visible sky);
- 3) Gnostic sympathies, including towards the idea of reincarnation;
- 4) Polyglot talismans charged with divine names in all three sacred alphabets (Hebrew, Greek and Latin).
Taking Priscillian as our poster-boy for the mystical and esoteric impulse that animated many seemingly exoteric religious differences, we can go forth to consider the Iberian Peninsula as a culture medium for creative spiritualities cross-pollinating at the margins of the monotheisms.
Santiago de Compostela
Historical speculation exists to the effect that Priscillian’s tomb is located at Santiago de Compostela. But this is only one small part of the charisma of this ancient settlement. Originally a Roman town (part of the Swabian monarchy until the 7th century), excavation shows that this site has been a pilgrimage site since pre-Christian times. The tomb of James the Apostle was discovered (or presumed to be) here by King Alfonso II. This entrepreneurial monarch saw the potential for this spot to reawaken as a site for spiritual communion (and an economic engine) for those who couldn’t afford or physically survive a trip to the Holy Land, a sort of European believer’s ‘staycation’. Once this far-seeing insight was concretized in a Christian church, the town of Santiago gained and has maintained a position on the ‘short list’ of must-see spots for pilgrims, the other two entries being Rome and Jerusalem.
The Christian city's foundation dates back to 830, the year the first church was built over the old Roman mausoleum. From that time forward, during the more clement seasons of the year, Santiago has received the devoted attention of vast numbers of postulants of multiple faiths, drawn to the site for a million different reasons, but united in the act and fact of pilgrimage. Ancient roadways spanning Europe were connected and maintained to facilitate and support the pilgrims along El Camino de Santiago, The Way of St. James. Staff in hand, gourd water bottles at their side, with the distinctive shell pinned to their cloaks or the band of their sun-hats, pilgrims of every century were instantly recognizable. They pass through the landscape in a steady stream, certificates in hand, collecting their stamps as they go. Modern pilgrims can still claim a bowl of stew or a sleeping spot for a small donation to the communal guesthouses along the Way. <<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Way_of_St._James>>
Give me my scallop-shell of quiet,
My staff of faith to walk upon,
My scrip of joy, immortal diet,
My bottle of salvation,
My gown of glory, hope's true gage,
And thus I'll take my pilgrimage.
(Sir Walter Raleigh, 1604)
More on Santiago de Compostela
"Origins: Until the 9th century, the city of Santiago did not exist as such. However, archaeological excavations have shown that the present-day location of the old town was the site, in antiquity, of a Roman town that acquired certain importance... In the 1st century, alongside the walled enclosure of the Roman “civitas”, a pagan mausoleum was erected that subsequently gave rise to the cathedral. It has been demonstrated that, in that same century, three Christian martyrs were buried in the mausoleum, which became an established centre of worship, as shown by the nearby Christian cemetery that was used until the 7th century.
The City´s foundation: During the early 9th century (the year 813 is the most probable), the bishop of Iria Flavia, Teodomiro, was taken by a hermit called Pelagio to examine the mausoleum, which he recognized as that of the Apostle James; he based his opinion on the oral tradition according to which St. James had preached in Spain’s “finis terrae”, thereafter being martyred on returning to Palestine. His disciples Atanasio and Teodoro brought his decapitated body back; according to legend, they disembarked in Iria Flavia, 20 km away, and took it to Monte Libredón, where they buried it in a stone chest.
The Asturian king Alfonso II traveled from Oviedo with all of his court and recognized the existence of the Apostle James’ tomb. At that very moment, he made James the patron saint of his kingdom, turning the place into a centre of worship capable of uniting Western Christendom against the Moors’ expansion. The city’s foundation dates from the year 830. Santiago’s first church was also built –a simple construction housing the mausoleum from Roman times." http://wiki.ifmsa.org/scope/index.php?title=Santiago_de_Compostela
Here’s a clip from 'Sacred Site of the Knights Templar' by John K. Young, PhD:
'...Pilgrimages to Santiago were first organized by monks of the French congregation of Cluny. The second church at Santiago in turn was destroyed by the Moorish general Almanzor, who confiscated its doors and church bells... a new cathedral, dedicated by Pope Urban II in A.D. 1105. Thenceforth, Santiago was put under the supervision of a Benedictine order of French monks, who also supervised the pilgrimage routes leading through southern France. In 1164, the military and religious order of St. James of the Sword was founded, much like the Knights Templar, to protect the pilgrimage road leading to Santiago.' With thanks to http://sutherland.blogs.com/sandbox/2005/01/santiago_de_com.html
For a few more remarks about the relics associated with the area, and the manuscripts thought to be produced there, see http://www.csj.org.uk/history.htm.
The Moslem Era
Once the Moslems conquered Iberia (between 711 and 714), a thriving cultural exchange with Baghdad began. With Islam came Sufism and a blooming of Hermetic thought, encouraged by Spain's multiculturalism and translation industry. Our oldest extant copies of the Emerald Tablet of Hermes, and the Picatrix (an important Arabic astral-magic text, later translated from Arabic into Spanish at the behest of Alfonso the Wise of Castile and Leon, reign 1252-1284) were prepared in Spain.
The city of Cordoba was already ancient, being originally a Phoenician trading city, but now it became the capital of Islamic Spain. Cordoba's library was considered, along with Cairo and Baghdad, one of the three great libraries of the Islamic world. Here we have another example of a ‘gnosis of the word’ taking hold. According to Biagent & Leigh:
"In Cordoba, Islamic magi such as Ibn Masarra (c. 883-931) taught what amounted to their own interpretation of Hermetic thought. Having himself visited Baghdad, ibn Masarra proceeded to disseminate, among other things, a discipline known as the "Science of Letters', a variant of the system already established in Judaic and Hermetic tradition. He also promulgated the Hermetic premise of the interrelationship between microcosm and macrocosm. Whether Ibn Masarra was himself a Sufi remains uncertain. There is considerable evidence to suggest he was. In any case, his teachings were enthusiastically embraced by later Sufi masters, including the greatest of them, Ibn Arabi." (p. 78, The Elixir and the Stone by Biagent & Leigh; 1997)
A Literate, Multicultural Society
To get a sense of how exceptionally educated and worldly-wise the average citizen in Islamic Spain might have been, let’s investigate History of Islamic Origins of Western Education AD. 800-1350 by Mehdi Nakosteen, who was Professor of History and Philosophy of Education at the University of Colorado at the time that this was published (Colorado Press; 1964). From the section called "Other Works", we get this (p. 183-4):
"Although some of the most important scholars and creative minds of the Muslim world belonged to Eastern Islam, it was through Western Islam -- Sicily and Spain in particular -- that Latin Europe made considerable contacts with Islamic learning in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and to a smaller extent in the fourteenth. These contacts were made through two principal channels. One was the result of the flow of European students and scholars who studied in the Muslim colleges and universities of Spain, Sicily and southern Italy. The second came from the Latin scholars' direct contacts with original Muslim books and the eventual translation of the most significant of those into Latin as well as other European languages."By the mid-1300's, the number of these translated works had reached between twelve and fifteen hundred. Although many of them are now lost, we know that in the scope of their areas of learning these translations included studies in philosophy, theology, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, technology, history and historiography, natural sciences, biographies, fables, literary works, geography, music, and encyclopedias. The translators were predominantly Sicilians, Spaniards, French English, Germans, Greeks, Catalans, and Hebrews."
Then, from the section "Latin Translations of Muslim Works and the Rise of Western Universities" (p. 186-7)
[After a summation of the traditional Latin scholastic outline based on the Seven Liberal Arts, Nakosteen says:]
"Arithmetic, geometry (with geography) and astronomy were rudimentary and of little consequence until the introduction of the Indo-Zoroastrian and Greco-Muslim mathematics and astronomy into the European curriculum in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
"Indeed, the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries -- especially between 1050 and 1300 -- may be thought of as the renaissance of medieval learning, the intellectual literary and esthetic flowering of the Middle Ages. In the area of intellectual revival, in science and philosophy, this early European Renaissance was stimulated largely by the influx of Greco-Muslim scholarship in an ever-increasing number of translations from Arabic into Latin and Hebrew, or from Arabic into Hebrew or Spanish, and from these into Latin. Moreover, this passion for Greco-Muslim learning in a sense characterized the very nature of this early renaissance and gave this renaissance its intellectual-educational scope and direction. To receive and assimilate the substance of this Greco-Muslim thought became the dominant interest of intellectual life of the Latin-Christian world of that time, to which Latin scholarship throughout these two hundred years was devoted primarily...."If the inspiration for this renaissance came from within the Latin-Christian world, certainly its stimulation --to a large extent its substance and intellectual direction -- came from the Muslim world, which gave the European revival its form as well as content. What the European intellectual talked about, wrote about, and taught involved Indo-Persian, Greek, Syriac-Hellenistic, Chinese, and Muslim-Hebrew sciences and philosophies."
Cultural Melting Pot and Zone of Contention
Within its established boundaries, the Greco-Islamic culture in Spain was quite coherent despite the wide-ranging mix of its population. Had it not been for the militancy of Christianity during this era, the history of Spain might read very differently, right into the 21st century. It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that the offenses perpetrated upon Islam by Roman Catholic fundamentalism during the Crusades and the Reconquista helped to sow the seeds for the world's current difficulties with radical Islamic fundamentalist resurgence.
According to Biagent & Leigh,
"Except for those engaged in militant opposition to Islam, Christians were treated with tolerance, even benevolence. So, too, were Jews. Churches, monasteries, religious schools and synagogues remained intact and in constant use. Many Christians converted to Islam, finding its regime relaxed and congenial compared to that of Rome. Other Christians from beyond the Pyrenees were drawn to Spain as well, lured by reports of the country's culture, learning and opportunities for wealth. While books in Christian Europe were largely confined to courts and monasteries, in Spain they were available to the populace as a whole." (p. 69)
This period of Spain's history has been called the Andalusian enlightenment, a lost golden age, inasmuch as Western scholarship has been slow to recognize the possibility that Islam, Christianity and Judaism can and have found ways to work together in peace. (See The Ornament of the World; How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain, by Maria Rosa Menocal for a contemporary presentation of what we have lost and need to find again.) Unfortunately, despite the relative grace of the Moslems towards the indigenous population of the Iberian Peninsula, the territory was always embattled at its fringes. The Christians never surrendered their stronghold in Galicia, in the extreme northwest, site of the revered cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Later, the capture of Barcelona in the early 9th century gave the Christians a second outpost south and west of the Pyrenees. From these two flanks, a Christian rallying-cry of Reconquista emerged, focused on pushing the forces of Islam out of Spain. This movement had its first success in the campaign of 1085 with the Christian recapture of Toledo.
The Reconquista had everything going for it, considering the times. Returnees from the First Crusade found a welcome back on European soil, but could keep a comfortable distance away from Rome. Young men from the upper classes who were eager to prove themselves found spiritually-macho role models in an activity that granted them status, adventure, and formal military training, all without having to leave their homeland. It didn't take long before highly embroidered stories of the capture of Valencia in 1093 by Roderigo Diaz, known as El Cid, concentrated the attention of Europe's professional warriors upon Spain’s homegrown holy war. Again, from Biagent & Leigh,
"It was not difficult to obtain their support, since the conflict in the Iberian peninsula was now officially designated a crusade as well, with all the attendant benefits -- indulgences, remission or absolution of sins, the prospect of booty and land to be wrested in God's name from the 'infidel'. Aided by veteran campaigners from the Holy Land, the Christian armies under the king of Aragon captured Saragossa in 1118. Like dominoes other urban centers began to fall in turn. By 1148, Tortosa, at the mouth of the Ebro, was taken. "(p. 73)
By the completion of the First Crusade (to Jerusalem), the Iberian Peninsula had not only acquired multiple chapters of the Templar and Hospitalier Orders, but had also spawned a number of its own religio-military orders, several of which were rooted in Santiago. The Pope incorporated the Order of Calatrava in 1164, in the same Cistercian footprint as the Templars. 1170 marks the establishment of the Order of Caceres, which by 1175 had become the Order of Santiago. The Order of Alcantera emerged in 1177, later to merge with Santiago as well. This process continued throughout the Reconquista, which had played itself out by the last third of the 1200's. By this time the Islamic presence in Iberia was whittled down to the small kingdom of Grenada, which only maintained its existence due to the protection of the Castilian crown.
Biagent & Leigh suggest that the Templars and Hospitallers were very difficult to motivate in cases of Muslim/Catholic conflict on Spanish soil. The Templar excuse was that their true mandate was the defense of Jerusalem and its pilgrims, which surprisingly was accepted without much protest. This situation boosted enrollment in the growing Iberian Orders, which, though modeled after the Templars and Hospitallers, actually undertook military operations in Portugal and Spain. The Spanish military-religious orders were apparently immoderately fierce, 'uncompromising and fanatical in their zeal’ against their enemies, the Moslems. Unlike the Templars and Hospitallers, who had found grounds to compromise and accommodate with Islam on occasion, the Iberian Orders were single-minded, and their tenacity was eventually rewarded with enormous influence and great wealth, persisting even long after their military role had faded. Through it all, interestingly enough, there still remained enough goodwill between the continental and the Spanish Orders that when the Templars were finally crushed in Europe, the Order of Montessa was established to receive those knights and their families who managed to make their way to Spain.
Esoteric Convergence in the High Middle Ages
For form's sake, let us remember that academicians are still debating whether and/or to what degree the various esotericisms mentioned below might have cross-pollinated in the Moslem lands of Europe before the Italian Renaissance. We have mentioned arguments both pro and con in our article on Courtly Love, Initiation and the Cary-Yale Visconti Tarot. In overview, it seems obvious that they must have impacted each other, since the moving intellectual forces in Spain have been so deeply involved with comparative and polyglot mystical studies from the Moslem invasion right up to (and past) the Spanish Inquisition. But let's investigate the testimony of our scholars, and see what there is to see.
Chivalry and the Knightly Orders
With the Reconquista providing the backdrop, the Chivalric movement grew in significant ways across the 1200's, though the end of the century saw significant loss of goodwill for the Templars, leading to their ultimate disbanding in 1312. First let us recall that the flourishing of Grail literature and courtly culture coincided with the timing of the Crusades, the appearance of the Troubadours, the expansion of the Templar Order, and the fullness of the Cathar heresy. It is necessary to envision these things together because these cultural movements turn out to be functionally inextricable, hand in glove so to speak.
We moderns know what it's like to live in a highly militarized time, with soldiery providing an outsize percentage of the opportunities available for young men and women, who otherwise meet a dearth of career opportunities at home. Then as now, the knightly calling was framed for the public eye so as to glamorize its militarism by casting an overlay of nationalistic, religious and mystical sentiment over the conflict. Wikipedia tells us that "The Knights Templars were at the peak of their influence around the time that Grail stories started circulating in the 12th and 13th centuries" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holy_Grail. The first wave of historical Troubadours were indeed composing and performing tales of Parzival, Gawain, Lancelot and Galahad, the Knights of the Round Table, and the Quest for the Holy Grail. These roles and ideals were minstrelled all around the courts of Europe, through the high and low culture of every tongue. No wonder a young man's fancy in that era would turn to Holy War as a method for attracting attention from the ladies. The man of arms was the culture hero of the day.
No one doubts the myriad benefits gained from focusing a culture’s young adults towards self-development training, literacy and numeracy, philosophy and comparative thinking, including the mandate to develop a moral sensibility concomitant with ordination to the minor Church orders (all of which were expected of the holders of a Knightly commission). The martial arts in every culture serve to harden children into adults, and adults into human beings (if they are willing to work hard enough on themselves, that is...) But the practical goal of Knightly enrollment during this era was the chance to engage in a Holy War, actually risking life and limb, even possibly to achieve a noble death (conferring remission or absolution of sins, said the Pope). This implies overcoming one’s fear of death and coming to some kind of spiritual acceptance that reaches beyond fashion, romanticism or even nationalism. Therefore we have to believe that a majority of Knights embraced their path sincerely, in the sense of finding personal satisfaction and spiritual inspiration as well as status in the lifestyle.
As it ultimately happened, the Church encouraged the Templars when it served Rome's purposes (despite their esotericism, their occasional cooperation with Islam, and even their gnostic tendencies). But then the Templars were murderously discarded once they had outlived their military mandate, having ripened into a self-standing economic entity of their own (to which Rome and the French throne owed considerable money, let it be said). This cast a pall over a previously well respected segment of late medieval society, impugning a whole class of people, one that was known for providing a stable economic climate wherever they settled. A way of life and an honorable profession was overnight reduced to scapegoat status, with all dangerous implications intact. The fact that the Church could bring down the final judgment on the Templars made every Knight in every country feel a chill run up his spine. The handwriting was on the wall; things were never to be the same for Knighthood anywhere in Europe.
A Parallel Christianity
Most interestingly, even as we investigate the content of the legends and stories with which the Troubadours were capturing the public imagination at the start of the Crusades, what we simultaneously see is a shadowy competing doctrine, a disinformation campaign if you will, riding along between the lines of the Troubadour movement. By this I mean that, despite the promulgation of knightly role models for observant Catholic youth, which was “officially” supposed to arouse the aspiration to participate in a glorious Holy War, something else was happening alongside and in the meantime.
The true long-term effect of the Troubadour movement was to recruit members into their unique allegorical interpretation of Christianity, which was even then recognized as a neo-Manichaeanism. Veiling their teachings in art and legend, the Troubadours actually penetrated all the social classes, introducing a parallel or alternative Christianity, one which was 'hidden in plain sight' in Catholic Spain, France and Italy. This form of Christianity offered a religion of love, tolerance and pacifism (teaching reincarnation, and imposing celibacy and vegetarianism upon the higher orders) for those who found their way to it, having “ears to hear” the story within the story.
But let me use the words of a Catholic researcher to tell this tale. The following lengthy quote is from Eugene Aroux (Les Mysteries de la Chevalerie. Paris 1858), and was brought forward by Isabel Cooper-Oakley in her eye-opening Masonry and Medieval Mysticism; Traces of a Hidden Tradition (a Kessinger reprint). These remarks reinforce a number of similar testimonies that Cooper-Oakley has gathered from 19th century sources, but one can find these ideas amplified by more modern scholars as well. Here we read about the re-enlivening of Rome's ancient enemies -- Gnosticisms like Manichaeism, Bogomilism, and Paulacianism, sprouting up again in southern Europe under the name of Cathars and Albigensians, Neo-Manicheans, Bougres, or Texerants/Tisserants, meaning "weavers"; whereas they called themselves bonshommes, “good men. This is the alternative Christianity that was being evangelized via the underground ministry of the troubadours. Aroux begins by citing one of his reliable sources, M. P. Fauriel (Paris) who established his intellectual hegemony by cataloging and commentating on Provencal literature (please forgive the length of this quote -- I doubt many will have access to the original!):
"The eminent professor whom we follow untiringly because he is an authority on the subject, had no suspicion, when making researches into the elements composing the personnel of Provencal literature, that he was digging into the archives of the Albigensian Church. So it is, however, as will be shown by a rapid estimate of these elements in the light of common sense. One may believe with him that previous to the XIth century there were in the south of France men, who under the name of jesters, joculatores, made it their profession to recite or to sing romantic fictions. But it was precisely because the apostles of the dissenting doctrine found this custom established in the countries where it had survived the Roman domination, that they eagerly adopted it for the furtherance of their propaganda. For just as they excelled in turning to account the heroic traditions, the religious fables of the various peoples in order to engraft their ideas on this national foundation, they displayed exceeding skill in adapting themselves, according to times and places, to the manners and customs of the countries in which they carried on their ministry. Thus they became minnesingers in Germany, bards and skalds in Scandinavia, minstrels in England, trouveres in northern France, troubadours and jugglers in ancient Aquitaine, giullari, men of mirth, in Italy -- leaving everywhere monuments of their genius and a most popular memory.
"The missionaries of the heresy certainly preached the religion of love long before the time when William of Poitiers spoke of them, towards 1100, by the name of Troubadours, for before winning over the higher classes of society, their doctrines must have taken a long time to filter through the lover ranks.
"At the time of the complete organization of the sectarian propaganda, that is to say from 1150 to 1200, the most brilliant period of Provencal literature, Fauriel rightly distinguishes different orders of troubadours and jesters, the very necessity of things having obliged their division into two distinct classes. The one in fact addressing themselves more especially to social parties, singing only for courts and castles; the other, appealing more to popular instincts, composed for public places, for the mercantile and working classes, for the country population. We have said that the former were the dissenting bishops, combining the qualities of the Perfect Knights and the Perfect Troubadours [the term 'perfect' here meaning 'fully initiated']. We have explained how, having no less courage than skill, knowing how at need to employ cunning, and giving constant evidence of a patience and humility proof against everything, they were of the type of Renaud de Montauban, the chivalrous figure in contrast to Maitre Renard, the symbolical representative of the Roman clergy.
"The latter, no less useful on account of the recruits that they unceasingly made amongst the most numerous classes, amongst those who had most to suffer from clerical oppression and exactions, furnished the model of the knights errant, as also that of the wild nights ['chevaliers sauvages'], personified in the romance of which Guido the Wild is the easily to be recognized hero.
"Lastly, above these two orders of knights and troubadours, there was that of the barons and feudal lords, who, having embraced the Albigensian faith, having become its protectors or godfathers, carried on the propaganda in their own way and in their own social sphere. These men often cultivated poetry, and used it to impress on the nobility, and still more on the bourgeoisie, ideas hostile to pontifical omnipotence. Not only did they encourage the people to shake off the theocratic yoke by setting them the example, but they further upheld them and resolutely took up their defense against prelates, inquisitors and legates, the Estults, Galaffrons, giants and necromancers that abound in the romances of Geste . . .
"These noble sectaries, of the type of the chivalric Roland, were, as a matter of fact, feudal lords, true knights. As such, they did not hesitate to confer in case of need, in accordance with the ideas of the time, and especially in masonic [? "masseniques"] lodges, the order of knighthood on distinguished members of their communion whom religious or political interest drew into foreign countries.
"On another side, observe how generously certain German Emperors -- such as Conrad, an Otho, the two Fredericks -- once came down into Italy, lent themselves to bestowing the order of knighthood on the bourgeois of Milan, on merchants and bankers of Genoa and Florence. For them it was a means of recruiting their forces against the papacy, and of strengthening in Italy an opposition which they well knew to be not simply political. And Dante also is careful not to forget the families who quartered on their shields "the arms of the great baron," vicar of the Emperor Otho; and it is with pride that he recalls the promotion of his great-great-grandfather Cacciaguida, knighted by Conrad.
"As to the jesters, properly so-named jesters of song, of sayings, of romance, as they were called -- they must be distinguished from the mimic jesters, that is to say, from the mountebanks and buffoons. The clerical jesters were, as has already been said, evangelical ministers, still subject to the preliminary discipline of the priesthood. Holding the rank of deacons in the sectarian church, they were with regard to the pastors to whom they were attached, in a position analogous to that of squires to knights, and it is under this title that they figure in the romances.
"If distinguished troubadours are spoken of, and, among others, Giraude de Borneil, as always accompanied by two jesters, it is unquestionably that these troubadours were Abligensian bishops, whose dignity and functions required the assistance of two deacons. This is why it is said of them that 'They never went on a tour (episcopal) without having both of them in their retinue.'
"It would be a great mistake to think that the first comer could be admitted to the functions of a jester. Fauriel will tell you that it was necessary to have 'an extraordinary memory, a fine voice, to be able to sing well, to play well on the accompanying instrument, and also to have a knowledge of history, of traditions, of genealogies. Several jesters indeed are cited for their historical knowledge’ . . . Besides the jesters attached to the person of the bishop or of the mere pastor, were those who, having already completed their probation, went forth, furnished with the recommendation of the one or the other, to give instruction or carry consolation into courts and castles. It was these who were called elder sons [of age? 'fils majeurs'], deacons of the first-class. The others, designated younger sons [under age? 'fils mineurs'], performed the same functions in towns and villages; but for the most part their own special aptitudes marked them out for the kind of service expected from them.
"These two classes of one and the same priesthood were recruited from all ranks of society, on the sole condition of uniting to a true vocation the natural gifts and the knowledge necessary for success in so difficult and dangerous a mission.
"One curious matter, to state precisely, would be how many personages came down into these poetic classes from a station generally considered superior. Nothing was more common in the 12th and 13th centuries, in the countries of the Provencal tongue, than to see knights, castellans, canons, clerics, become troubadours or simple jesters. Several of the most distinguished among both had begun by being considerable personages in society . . . Assuredly these men did not consider that they were lowering themselves by embracing the apostolate, but on the contrary were raising themselves in their own eyes and in those of their brethren." (Pp. 111-115)
The above comments, if researched through more contemporary sources, could grant new insight into who the Fool and the Mountebank might be among the ranks of the Trumps. Could we have been missing a major clue to their identity by failing to consider the Troubadours and their attendants amongst the Ranks of Man? And meanwhile, might this help us interpret anew the courtly and enigmatic Cary-Yale Visconti pack, including its surfeit of pages on the Emperor and Empress, Kings and Queens? Might this help us make sense of its line of female Knights and Pages in the four suits; its female Charioteer; as well as the three Masonic virtues Faith, Hope, and Charity, shown standing on the backs of crowned kings and bishops?
Dante and the Troubadours
Now that Dante's name has come up, let me jump to Rene Guenon’s The Esoterism of Dante. Picking up where Cooper-Oakley left off (considering the insights Aroux's testimony grants us into the hidden religion of the Languedoc), Guenon says,
"One of the essential points on which he shed light, without perhaps drawing from it all the conclusions it implies, is the significance of the different symbolic regions Dante describes, and more especially the 'heavens'. These regions actually represent as many different states, and the heavens are properly speaking 'spiritual hierarchies', that is to say degrees of initiation. In this context an interesting concordance could be established between the conception of Dante and that of Swedenborg, not to speak of certain theories of the Hebrew Kabbalah, and especially of Islamic esoterism. In this regard Dante himself has provided a clue worth mentioning; ['To see what is meant by this third heaven, I say that by heaven I mean science, and by heavens, sciences.'] But what exactly are these 'sciences' understood under the symbolic designation of the 'heavens', and should we see therein an allusion to the 'seven liberal arts' so often mentioned elsewhere by Dante and his contemporaries? What leads us to think that this must be the case is that according to Aroux, 'the Cathars had signs of recognition, passwords, and astrological doctrine as early as the twelfth century; they conducted their initiations at the vernal equinox; their scientific system was founded on the doctrine of correspondences: Grammar corresponded to the Moon, Dialectic to Mercury, Rhetoric to Venus, Music to Mars, Geometry to Jupiter, Astronomy to Saturn, and Arithmetic or Illumined Reason to the Sun.’ Accordingly, to the seven planetary spheres -- the first seven of Dante's nine heavens -- corresponded the seven liberal arts respectively; and precisely these same designations are depicted on the seven rungs of the left upright of the Ladder of the Kadosch (30th degree of Scottish Masonry). The ascending order, in this latter case, differs only in an inversion, on the one hand, of Rhetoric and Logic (which is substituted here for Dialectic), and, on the other, of Geometry and Music; and also in that the science corresponding to the Sun (Arithmetic) occupies the rank normally assigned to that star in the astrological order of the planets -- the fourth, or mid-point in the septenary -- whereas the Cathars placed it at the highest rung of their Mystical Ladder, as on the corresponding rung on the ladder's opposite upright, Dante places Faith (Emounah), that is to say this mysterious Fede Santa of which he was himself Kadosch.
"However, further comment is necessary on this subject, for how is it that correspondences of this kind, which are assimilated to real initiatic degrees, have been attributed to the liberal arts, which, after all, were taught publicly and officially in all the schools? We think they must have been considered in two ways, the one exoteric and the other esoteric. It is possible to superimpose on any profane science another science that is related to the same object but looks at it from a profounder point of view, and which is to that profane science what the higher meanings of the scriptures are to their literal meaning. One could say further that external sciences serve as a mode of expression for higher truths because they are themselves only the symbol of something that is of another order; for as Plato said, the perceptible is only a reflection of the intelligible. The phenomena of nature and the events of history all have a symbolic value in that they express something of the principles upon which they depend, and of which they are the more or less remote consequences. Thus, by means of a suitable transposition, all science and all art can assume a true esoteric value; why then, in the initiations of the Middle Ages, should the expressions drawn from the liberal arts not have played a role comparable to that played in speculative Masonry by language borrowed from the art of the builders? We will go further: to look at things in this way is, after all, to bring them back to their principle; this point of view is, therefore, inherent in their very essence, and not accidentally super-added; and if this is the case, could not the tradition to which it is connected go back to the very origin of the sciences and arts, whereas the exclusively profane viewpoint preponderant in the modern age would only be the result of a general forgetfulness of this tradition? We cannot deal with this question and its many ramifications here, but let us see how Dante himself, in the commentary he gives on his first Canzone, points out the way in which he applies to his own work the principles of the some of the liberal arts:
['O men, who cannot see the meaning of this Song, do not however reject it; but pay attention to its beauty, which is great, either for its construction, which concerns the grammarians; or for the order of its discourse, which concerns the rhetoricians; or for the number of its parts, which concerns the musicians.']
Do we not hear an echo of the Pythagorean tradition in this way of relating music and number in a science of rhythm, with all its correspondences; and is it not this same tradition, precisely, that makes possible an understanding of the 'solar' role attributed to arithmetic, which it makes the common center of all the other sciences, and also of the correspondences that unite them, especially of music with geometry, through knowledge of proportion in forms (which finds its direct application in architecture), and, in the case of astronomy, through knowledge of the harmony of the celestial spheres? ...we shall see clearly enough what fundamental importance the symbolism of numbers assumes in Dante's work; and even if this symbolism is not uniquely Pythagorean and reappears in other doctrines for the simple reason that truth is one, it is no less permissible to think that from Pythagoras to Virgil, and from Virgil to Dante, the 'chain of the tradition' was undoubtedly unbroken on Italian soil." (p. 6-8)
Multiple Layers of Meaning
There is so much to ponder here, especially for those who specialize in the Mantegna series of icons, that I suggest the reader just let this sink in a minute. The evolution of Priscillian-esque magism should be evident to all. But what is more notable here is the dissection of the method by which esoteric content is shown to be the internal driver of well-known exoteric symbolism as well. If this was happening within the Cathar religion, what's to say that this kind of poetic transposition between common and hidden meanings wasn't going on other aspects of society as well? We are talking about a common handling of ancient teachings, on the one hand used to organize systems like the academic programs of the new European universities, but on the other hand leading into deeper teachings, inclining towards higher octaves of spiritual meaning 'for those who have eyes to see'. This is a wonderfully compact and efficient system -- requiring no extra effort to conceal the secondary, tertiary and quaternary meanings, because the primary ones are so ubiquitous as to obliterate the shadow of any alternate applications. Surely we are still in the realm of Versluis' 'gnosis of the word', where the same body of teachings can have multiple levels of correspondences depending upon the individual's level of initiation within the system!
These quotes were put next to each other to emphasize the inter-relationships, and even sometimes double-identities, running between Knights, Troubadours, and Cathars. No wonder the historians get into arguments about the degree to which these different communities had knowledge of each other. It appears that for political and security reasons, the Troubadours quite intentionally obscured both their chivalric origins and their Cathar missions, as part of a long-term strategy to keep initiatory gnosis alive despite determined opposition from Rome. Below we will also read about crossovers to and from the Provencal Kabbalists, Scottish Rite Masons and other simultaneous influences as well. Let's just remember that these are controversial linkages that are still being fought out between the academics. My experience over the years, for what it's worth, is that individual scholars have each discovered different parts of the connection and brought them to the surface, but they have not known quite what to do with the evidence they have found because of the limits of their own specialization.
Given the testimony that we just received, it might now be easier to understand how it came about that all those Templar-affiliated families managed to suddenly disappear into the cracks and crannies once their alternative form of Christianity came under siege from the Church. They were smuggled away to be assimilated into other communities that retained sympathy for the Templars, including the Iberian Knightly Orders and their Scottish brethren. Doubtless some returned to their family’s lands as farmers and householders, and others departed as pilgrims to the Holy Land, but wherever they went, many came back as troubadours and traveling minstrels (like the Knight of Cups, the Grail Knight as bard). This time they were ministering to their people through the narrative and musical arts instead of the military model, but they still retained the mystically alternative worldview that characterizes this esoteric interworld between the official monotheisms.
Now You See Them, Now You Don’t!
At this point the involvement of Catharism in the rest of this rich stew of influences should be coming clearer. But in fact, the Cathar connection is the most controversial aspect of this interwoven knot of philosophies. This is not because there is any doubt about the simple exoteric history of the movement, its outer features, or its ultimate end. The problem comes up when one tries to pin down Catharism's orb of influence upon the other esotericisms we are reviewing here, which takes us across disciplinary lines and demonstrates how unsettled academic opinion still remains in this area.
For example: turning to the Dictionary of Gnosis & Western Esotericism (Hanegraaff et. al; Brill 2006), we find no listing for the Templars whatsoever (!), and are pointed to a category called Neo-Templar Traditions instead. This article firmly closes the door on any ideas of a literal "survival of the Order", instead preferring to dilate on the uncanny persistence of what they dub 'the ideal -- or to use a neutral term, the imaginary world -- of chivalry'. The authors remark that
"Chivalry itself, of which [the Templars] had been among the most illustrious representatives, only survived them for a few decades and gradually faded away during the second half of the 14th century . . . The very persistence of the chivalric imagination through the centuries is a most unusual phenomenon in the history of ideas. Whilst the romances of chivalry lost their literary status in the 15th and 16th centuries, they continued to be read, as testified by countless editions up to the 18th century . . . The history of the improbable number of knightly orders ... is in fact a unique history: that of the persistent battle waged by certain people throughout the centuries to maintain the ideal of chivalry. If they speak at length about the facts, often epic and sometimes mysterious, which explain the creation of these orders, it is because of what those circumstances teach about the nature of this knight's battle against human contingencies, the forces of evil or destiny. " (p. 850)
We are left to surmise that according to Hanegraaff ET. Al., the chivalric ideal exists, much like spiritual alchemy, largely in the imagination of the one who holds it to heart.
Similarly, there is also no hint of any contact between the Cathars and the Troubadours, although in the Catharism entry we find another affirmation of the 'bishop, elder brother, younger brother' pattern in the administration of the Cathar dioceses. We also read that the Bishops and Perfects were constantly traveling, 'even during the persecutions', because they were responsible to provide the final consoling ritual, the consolamentum, which was ministered to the dying and provided the only path to salvation. No mention is made of the presence of Cathars in Spain either. What we do find is this excellent summation of the exoteric, cultural penetration of Catharism during its time of influence:
"As far as the social aspects of Catharism are concerned, there is no question of marginality whatsoever. The Cathars penetrated all strata of urban and rural society and were often recruited from the middle class (merchants, lawyers, physicians, etc.). In the South of France, their protectors belonged to the chivalry of the castles, and in Italy members of the Ghibelline party were among their defenders. The involvement of women in the movement was important; they could also become Perfects, wholly initiated members of the sect." (p. 243)
Funny thing -- isn't this nearly exactly the same thing that Aroux and Guenon were telling us about the Troubadours?
Let's move on to the fascinating testimony taken from Gershom Scholem's Origins of the Kabbalah, in his chapter called 'The First Kabbalists in Provence’. Let's listen in while he's discussing,
"...forces and influences... at work in this Provencal [kabbalist] circle, in the form of a flood of translation from Judeo-Arabic and, in particular Neoplatonic literature, both original texts and Jewish adaptations. The kabbalists thereby absorbed a spiritual heritage that enriched both their ideas and their language, and whose influence was to become very apparent in the following generation. In the three great monotheistic religions, Neoplatonism often appeared, at that time, in a popular garb; many of its works enjoyed greater popularity among wider circles of enthusiasts and religious minds than among the adepts of rigorous scientific thought . . . This region, moreover, witnessed the great religious ferment that had begun with the Cathar movement and also made itself felt in various Jewish groups.
"In this generation in France and especially in its southern part we hear, with increasing frequency, of scholars called by the epithet ha-parush, the ascetic, or ha-nazir, the Nazirite . . . The origin of the perushim is ... connected with the religious enthusiasm that gripped France in the twelfth century, finding expression in the Jewish milieu as well as in the surrounding Christian world, including the reform movements and their religious heresies. Naturally, the very choice of words already reflects the spirit of asceticism that characterized the period. These perushim took upon themselves the "yoke of the Torah" and completely detached their thoughts from the affairs of the world. They did not engage in commerce and sought to attain purity. The similarities between this phenomenon and Christian monasticism on the one hand and the condition of the perfecti or bonshommes among the Cathars on the other, are especially striking, despite the clear divergences resulting from the different attitudes of Judaism and Christianity toward celibacy . . .“ . . . It is unnecessary to remind ourselves that in the Middle Ages ascetic ideals could manifest themselves at any time and in any place, in Islam just as well as in Christianity and Judaism. Nevertheless, we should bear in mind that analogous ideas emerged in the same Provencal environment where the moral decadence observed among the Catholic clergy moved men to the glorification of ideals apparently embodied by the Cathar perfecti. Just as the Jewish Nazirites of France took upon their shoulders the full weight of the yoke of the Torah, to which a further ascetic emphasis should be added, so did the 'perfect ones' take upon themselves the full burden of the world-denying morality of the 'neo-Manichaeism,' which the Bogomils had transplanted to Italy and France and which was, in their eyes, identical with primitive Christianity. Abstinence from meat was one of the most conspicuous elements in the conduct of the Cathar 'perfect ones.' . . .
"Our discussion of the groups of Jewish ascetics in France devoting themselves to a contemplative life gives added urgency to the question of a possible relationship between the emergence of the kabbalah and Catharism in the middle of the twelfth century . . . We saw in the previous chapter that different details of a gnostic character entered into the Book Bahir through an internal Jewish tradition, just as a number of gnostic details turn up here and there in Cathar doctrine. Thus the Cathars recognize four elements as composing that supreme world in a manner reminiscent of the circle of Isaac the Blind. The Creator God or demiurge, who for the Cathars is identical with Satan, has a form and a figure in which he appears to his proponents; the good and true God, on the other hand, is imperceptible to the eye. We may also detect a certain resemblance between the doctrine in the Bahir of Satan as the seducer of souls, as the prince of tohu and the material world fashioned from it, and the conceptions of the Cathars with regard to the role of Satan . . .
"The coupling of masculine and feminine potencies in the upper world, which subsequently came to play such a significant role in the doctrines of the Spanish kabbalists, seems to also have been known in Cathar circles. Here too we should assume a common source in the ancient gnosis rather than immediate influences. However, it is plausible that some details were taken over by the Cathars from Jewish mystics as, for example, the ideal, well known to us from the Hekhaloth texts, that Israel was the name of a celestial angel. Such ideas may also have been introduced into the movement by Jews who attached themselves to the Cathars. Thus, we learn for example that at the end of the twelfth century, a weaver named Johannes Judaeus stood at the head of the Italian Cathars as their bishop. The name would suggest, though it by no means proves, Jewish origin. The surname Judaeus does not always signify Jewish lineage in the Middle Ages. Another algological doctrine to be found only among the Cathars and the kabbalistic traditions of Moses de Leon and the Zohar asserts that the prophet Elijah was an angel descended from heaven. The ideas of the two groups resemble each other, here and there, on the subject of the soul's fate in the last judgment, and regarding the garments worn by the souls before their birth that are then preserved in heaven during their earthly existence. But all of these are disparate, and unconnected details, and they concern points of secondary interest only.
" As regards the fundamental conceptions, there could of course be no real agreement between the two movements, since in their rejection of the world as the creation of Satan and of the Torah as the law of Satan, the Cathars go much further in their metaphysical anti-Semitism than does the Catholic Church. Besides, the Jewish scholars of Provence were thoroughly conscious of the gulf separating the Jewish conception of the world from that of the Cathars. From the circle of the Rabad himself, in other words as early as the twelfth century, we have a statement with an unmistakably anti-Cathar polemical slant from the highly esteemed R. Joseph ibn Plat, who belonged to the group of aforementioned perushim and Hasidim. According to him, the Qedushah in the morning prayer is inserted in the text of the prayer yoser 'or, which speaks of the creation of the sun and the stars, precisely 'in order to oppose the opinion of those people, that the sun and the other stars do not exist by the order of their creator, blessed be He [but of Satan as the demiurge], for all of the hosts on high sanctify Him [in this prayer] and proclaim Him the one who created all and governs all'.
"The only major doctrine in which kabbalists and Cathars seem to concur is that of the transmigration of souls. But here, too, the details are very different..." (Pp. 228-238)
Scholem wrote the above during the early 1960's, but there's another set of remarks he made on the subject in an earlier work called Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (published first in 1946 and revised in 1954). Here Scholem surmises:
"On more than one occasion we read of the 'audience' given to the soul by God before its decent into a mundane body and the vow taken by the soul to complete its mission on earth by pious acts and mystical cognition of God. From its good deeds, mitswoth, nay from the days on which it has accomplished good, as the poetic description has it, the soul during its earthly stay weaves the mystical garment which it is destined to wear after death in the lower paradise. This notion of heavenly garments of the souls has a special attraction for the author. Only the souls of the sinners are 'naked,' or at any rate the garment of eternity which they weave in time and out of time has 'holes.' After death, the various parts of the soul, having accomplished their mission, return to their original location, but those which have sinned are brought to court and are purified in the 'fiery stream' of Gehenna, or, in the case of the most shameful sinners, buried.
"Here the doctrine of transmigration, Gilgul, also plays a part. One encounters it first in the book Bahir. Unless it goes back to the literary sources of this work, it is reasonable to assume that the Kabbalists of Provence who wrote or edited the book Bahir owe it to the influence of the Catharists, the chief religious force in Provence until 1220, i.e. e. during the years which saw the rise of Kabbalism. The Catharist heresy, which was only stamped out after a bloody crusade, represented a late and attenuated form of Manichaeism, and as such clung to the doctrine of metempsychosis which the Church condemned as heretical." (p. 242-3)
Moshe Idel, in his Kabbalah; New Perspectives, bemoans the fact that Scholem never had the time in his life to pull together all of the incidences he discovered of a Kabbalah/Cathar overlap. Idel also complains that subsequent generations of scholars have tended to take Scholem's word as the last there is to be said on the subject, instead of seeing these remarks as openings and invitations for further study. That was in 1988. I wonder what has changed in the last 20-odd years of scholarship, and whether we have any better resources to draw from regarding this fascinating cultural cusp?
What gets overlooked by most historians is that the Hebrew mysteries had yet another realm of influence, allowing them to be strongly represented in Europe's High Middle Ages, because of all the cathedral-building activity taking place. Masonry as a craft guild has been synonymous with Jewish mysticism from antiquity, historical testimonies being well nigh unanimous on this point. In her peerless and invaluable study Restoring the Temple of Vision; Cabalistic Freemasonry and Stuart Culture (Vol. 110 of Brill's Studies in Intellectual History, 2002), Marsha Keith Schuchard has meticulously connected the dots demonstrating the grounding of early Scottish Masonry in Hebrew esotericism, revealing a complex Art of Memory visualized in the tools, patterns and proportions of Solomonic Architecture. Those who can find their way to a copy of this august tome will be able to truly settle their minds about the interpenetration of the Hebrew mysteries into Christian Europe long before the Renaissance. Schuchard carefully notes every step in the cross-cultural dialogue as the ancient Semitic masons moved into and across Europe, infusing new learning into the construction guilds as they came. By making common cause with Christian cathedral-builders and later Freemasonic postulants, the Hebrew Masonic masters infused Holy Land visualizations and aspirations into the European craft guilds.
Let me just quote from a section that's particularly focused towards our topic:
"Among medieval Jewish artisans, the resultant guild secrecy about practical masonry was compounded by the secrecy required about their mystical traditions. From the early twelfth century, in the Rhineland, Spain, and southern France, circles of Jewish mystics emerged who revitalized the ancient practices of Merkabah and Hekalot mysticism. Calling themselves 'Cabalists,' or receivers of 'tradition,' these methodical visionaries produced a stream of commentaries on the Sepher Yetzirah, which merged neo-Platonic, Hermetic, and Arabic theosophy into Jewish Temple mysticism. Though the original Sepher Yetzirah portrayed the ten sephiroth mainly as linguistic-mathematical entities, the commentators added emanationist theories that made the sephiroth into dynamic potencies within God Himself. By manipulating these potencies through meditation rituals, the adept could perform acts of visionary magic. Thus when Cabalists wrote about 'the craftsman with his hammer,’ the entrance of the priest into 'the chamber of Hewn Stone,' and 'the secret of the supernal structure,' the ancient Temple mysticism took on a heightened operative significance. Moreover, this sense of magical creative power was infused into actual building guilds, thus contributing to the aura of forbidden lore that eventually surrounded the masonic fraternities (both Jewish and Christian) . . .While [some uses of Cabalistic knowledge were] considered ... dangerous form of magic, other Cabalistic treatises glorified the architect as the one who bodies forth God's Word (Torah) and Wisdom (Hokhmah) . . . This connection of practical imagery from the stonemason's craft with spiritual imagery of God's creation of the cosmos provides a particularly Jewish context for the development of Gothic architecture.
"Early planners of the cathedrals recognized that they would have to utilize workmen trained in foreign quarries and guilds in order to achieve the difficult geometrical and engineering tasks required. In 1123 Abbe Suger of Saint-Denis traveled to southern Italy to recruit masons, goldsmiths, and sculptors from abroad in order to realize his dreams of recreating the Temple of Solomon in a Christian church. That Suger learned about traditions of Jewish Temple mysticism is suggested by the Jewish symbolism portrayed in the church at Saint-Denis. In one window medallion, Christ unveils the Mosaic law and the synagogue; in another, the Ark of the Covenant is borne on four wheels resembling a chariot. Like the Hebrew prophets, Suger was convinced that the design of his church had been inspired by a celestial vision. His fascination with the Solomonic tradition was provoked by reports of the crusaders who now guarded the Temple mount in Jerusalem, and he deliberately sought out returning knights in order to get first-hand information on Jewish and Arabic traditions about the Temple.
"The confluence of Jewish, Arabic, and crusader lore was especially fruitful in Spain, where the early Cabalists initiated a spiritual and architectural revival. Like Abraham ibn Ezra, who was associated with a secret brotherhood, another Jewish polymath -- Abraham bar Hiyya (d. 1136) -- was associated with a secretive fraternity, the chivalric order of Knights Templar. Bar Hiyya was given high official status by the Templars when they came to Span to crusade against the Moslem infidels. Later known as 'Savasorda' (corrupted Arabic for 'magistrate of the city'), Bar Hiyya was... extensively employed by the Templars, who undertook a massive building program in Spain. Moreover, the Templars probably admired his theosophical theories as much as his geometrical capacities." The linking of Bar Hiyya to the Templars is important, for the heterodox Christian knights may have formed a significant vehicle for the transmission of "Savasordan' mystical mathematics and Temple lore into Gothic building guilds. Other Jewish families in Spain were intimately involved with the Templars; in fact the Cavallerias of Aragon were called 'homines temple' because of their collaboration with the knights. The multi-national involvement of Jews in Templar financial, trade, and building enterprises would eventually provoke persecution of both groups -- on almost identical charges. Moreover the Templars would play the same allegedly heretical and subversive role within Papal Christianity that some confraternities of Cabalistic and Sifuc adepts played in Talmudic Judaism and Koranic Islam . . .
"While the Templars developed far-flung financial networks and mounted an aggressive building campaign, they utilized Jewish expertise in banking and stonemasonry -- which they recognized as rooted in the Jews' superior mathematical knowledge. Moreover, the complex codes developed to insure the security of financial transactions drew on Jewish number-letter manipulations (Gematria). Increasingly cut off from the orthodox Christianity of Papal Europe, the Templars secretly assimilated the mystical mathematical and Temple lore of their Jewish colleagues and, surprisingly, that of their Arabic enemies. Esoteric emblems from Tyrian, Jewish and Sufic traditions were often carved in Templar building stones. Many of these emblems were strikingly similar to the masons' marks carved in Templar and other Gothic churches in northern Europe (and which can still be seen in Scotland)." (Schuchard, p. 42-6)
Lull and the Christian Kabblah --
One negative side-effect of this oriental/occidental cultural cross-pollination was that sometimes the Christian students came to their Hebrew studies wanting to ferret out strategies by which to ultimately convert Jews to Christianity. In hindsight, it seems like another version of Christian cultural imperialism, but at least this wave of "knights" was non-violent, as these jousts were waged in the realm of the archetypes. Raymond Lull was paradigmatic for the type. He started out a troubadour from a cultivated family, at least for the period of his life before he became a cleric. In the life and times of this one individual we can see many of the threads and themes of Spanish esotericism converging.
Harvey J. Hames, author of The Art of Conversion; Christianity and Kabbalah in the 13th Century (Brill; 2000), makes an excellent summary about the Spanish melting pot in which the monotheisms and their heresies (or gnoses, depending upon how on looks at them) were stewing. Proceeding on the premise that Lull's art was invented to effect the conversion of Jews and Muslims over to Christianity, Hames then has to try and illuminate cultural context that Lull was nurtured in.
"Any attempt to describe this context runs the risk of turning something fluid and multi-dimensional into something static and prosaic. This is a world where boundaries, where they exist, are more theoretical than actual, and where ideas and currents flow between the different belief communities with consummate ease, sometimes adopted and at other times rejected by those various groups. There has been a tendency in modern scholarship to insist on particular and stringent types of evidence, mainly, textual, for proof of influence and interaction between Jews, Christians and Muslims, leading to the erection of barriers between the different communities. However, if we are prepared to go beyond the limits of the particular text and see the intellectual context of the Crown of Aragon and its environs as a whole, unless we are prepared to accept pure coincidence, it is difficult to comprehend how parallel developments within the different religious communities can be looked at as totally separate phenomena. Clearly, it is not to be expected that each religious group will react to intellectual stimuli in the same way, as naturally, the social conditions and status of these groups are crucial for how ideas are integrated and used, however, when similar processes occur at the same time in various groups who are known to interact with each other, it cannot be just attributed to coincidence.
"For example, the mid- to late-thirteenth century was marked by a strong reaction to extreme philosophizing represented by the works of Aristotle and his commentators, especially Averroes. In the Christian world, one form of reaction came from within the universities themselves, with the theological faculties trying to limit what was allowed to be studied and by whom. Another type of reaction to Aristotelianism is associated with mainstream Franciscan thinkers such as Thomas Gallus (d.1246) and Bonaventura (1217-1274), who sought to find a balance between philosophical speculation and spiritual contemplation based on Neoplatonic concepts, through the mediation of figures such as Augustine, Pseudo-Dionysius, Anselm and the Victorines. A more extreme reaction was to be found in the writings of thinkers, and the way of life of religious groups such as the Spiritual Franciscans and Beguins, associated with the apocalyptic texts of the Calabrian abbot, Joachim of Fiore. These groups were particularly, but not exclusively, prevalent in the kingdoms of the western Mediterranean and arose in the same climate of spiritual and social protest that produced the Cathars and other heretical movements later active in these areas. These groups sought to give an example of true Christian life as against that of the heretics, and believing in the immanent apocalypse decried sophistry and preached reform and a return to the simple message of the gospels.
"A similar conflict over the study of philosophy was tearing away at the fabric of the Jewish communities of the Crown of Aragon and Provence, and the various approaches to this issue mirror those just outlined. There were those who sought to limit the study of philosophy to those of a certain age and particular intellectual training. A more extreme reaction came from the Kabbalists whose ideology sprang from what they claimed was a return to the true meaning of the sources, the revealing of ancient secrets, but in reality has to be seen as a new reading of these texts in a contemporary context. They offered alternative ideologies to those of the philosophers, revitalizing the tenants of Judaism and bridging the chasm between God and man as upheld by the followers of Maimonides and his disciples. [Footnote: It is possible that in 1233 Maimonides' writings were denounced to the Inquisition in Montpellier and burned. This incident should be seen in light of the fight in both Jewish and Christian circles against Aristotelianism . . .) Kabbalistic theosophy and mysticism emerged and developed in the fertile intellectual milieu which nourished the Cathars and Spirituals, and like both the latter, spread its message through the written word, the sermon, and personal example." (Pp. 9-12)
A footnote on page 11 points us to another footnote on p. 35, about 'the literature which examines the possible connections between the Cathars and the emergence of the Kabbalah'. Here we find an excellent example of the approach necessary to encompass this welter of subtle social variables and esoteric loose cannons affecting the spiritual climate of Aragon:
" . . . Clearly the social, political, and religious turmoil of late twelfth and early thirteenth-century Provence must be taken into account. The proliferation of Christian heresy in the form of the Cathars and Waldensians, as well as the spread of Aristotle's natural philosophy, and the arrival of translations of philosophical works from the Muslim world, were influential for the appearance of works such as the Sefir ha-Bahir, commentaries on Sefir Yetzira and the general spread of Kabbalistic theosophy. The relationship between Kabbalah and Catharism has been discussed a number of times by various scholars with no consensus of opinion. However, these studies have focused on textual and ideological similarities rather than on the social aspects of these phenomena and their geographical and chronological proximity. See [a number of sources, including] J. Shatzmiller, 'The Albigensian Heresy as Reflected in the Eyes of Contemporary Jewry' (Hebrew), in M. Ben-Sasson, R. Bonfil and J.R. Hacker (eds.), Culture and Society in Medieval Jewry, (Jerusalem 1989) pp. 333-52. This last article is important, since aside from the usual focus on doctrinal similarity, Schatzmiller tries to show what contemporary Jews knew about the Cathar movement on their doorstep. The fact that some of those critical of Kabbalah were also critical about the Cathar heresy is of no small importance and only strengthens the possibility of links between the two. In this context, Alan of Lille's polemical work, Quadripartita editio magistri Alani contra hereticos, Valdenses, Iudeos et Paganos is of great interest as it was written in Montpellier ca. 1200 and contains sections on the Cathars, Jews, Waldensians and Muslims . . . "
These remarks are amplified by Dan Merkur, whose Gnosis; An Esoteric Tradition of Mystical Visions and Unions (SUNY Press, 1993) traces the awakening of the West to the initiatory potency of the spiritualized imagination. We might remember at this juncture that the Greek, Hebrew and Islamic mysteries saturated Europe clothed in letters and numbers, but not, typically, in pictures. The High Middle Ages have actually been likened to a mini- or pre-Renaissance, largely because of the increase of literacy due to the translation revolution. But this was also the period when so many traditional objects of interior visualization, which had been "trapped" in endless streams of words written by the philosophers and apostles, were finally wrestled into lists, graphs, wheels, 'trees', emblems and every other device of illustration that could be reproduced via the printing press and bound with their originating texts. It's hard for us to appreciate the profundity of this shift in the zeitgeist, but during this few centuries, the collective mind gave birth to a visual revolution. In particular, the situation on the Iberian Peninsula forced all these different streams to encounter each other up close, and the sparks that flew from the clash of cultures set the spiritual imagination of the Iberian Peninsula on fire.
Merkur includes Lull's Art as one of the mechanisms that facilitated the passage of the active imagination of spiritual alchemy (which he terms gnosis) into Christian Europe.
"Lull understood visionary experiences in a Catholic rather than a gnostic manner, as revelations whose significance was allegorical. He used the trope of heavenly ascension, for example, in reference to ecstatic experience; theosophy was signified by the return to earth . . . Probably because Lull's Christian asceticism bordered on the world-rejection of Gnosticism, he felt obligated to insist that 'the world [is] to be loved . . . but as a piece of work, for the sake of its maker.' Lull's mystical theosophy was otherwise profoundly shaped by gnostic orientations . . . Although Lull's purpose was not ecumenical but evangelical, his thinking was deeply shaped by his contacts with Muslims and Jews. Lull's debts to Ibn al-Arabi were so extensive as to amount occasionally to plagiarism. The parallels to the kabbalah are only slightly less striking. The first system of Christian theosophy to succeed in becoming a living tradition, Lull's Art may fairly be considered the matrix of Western Esotericism" (pp. 245-6)
For those who wish to explore more about Lulls' combinatory system, there are a number of excellent websites that are presenting the Llullian art; try here and here. Several of our ArkLetter articles have also referenced Lull's mystical system, in the light of its contribution to the context that gestated the Tarot. http://www.tarotarkletters.com/2008/06/courtly-love-in.html#vectors .
Architecture and Catholic esotericism
To place the 'capstone' on the esoteric structure I have been assembling here, let’s consider an example of esoteric thinking from after the Alhambra Decree of 1492 (by which all the Jews in Spain were banished unless they converted to Roman Catholicism). If we were reading history from the literalist slant that some of our historians are complaining about above, we would have to say there is no chance of finding esotericism in Spain after the expulsion of the Jews -- at this point all of Spain was unified, as the Inquisition had already started up on Spanish soil. But, amazingly enough, even in this fiercely Catholic context, there were still individuals and organizations that maintained their interest in the ancient mysteries.
I'm quoting now from the Architecture section of Secret Societies and the Hermetic Code; The Rosicrucian, Masonic and Esoteric Transmission in the Arts by Ernesto Frers. I might have been nervous to use this source in an earlier time, but I think now that we have stacked up the testimony of "real" academics, we can allow a little input from a mere "author specializing in medieval history [who] has investigated enigmatic and occult subjects for many years". Frers seems to have his facts straight, so as usual, the issue here is whether his method of handling those facts tends towards the 'literalist' interpretations, or whether he is of the 'syncretist' persuasion.
Frers is presenting El Escorial, a monastery and palace built by Spain's Philip II between 1563 and 1584. The king used two architects; Juan Bautista de Toledo created the design, and then, after Toledo's death, Juan de Herrera completed the construction. Everything about this building was esoterically charged, starting with the King's desire to erect a symbolic reproduction of the ancient Temple of Solomon (which, remember, has been a major meditation object for the Hebrew masons since the Sefir Yetzirah was still an oral tradition). We should already be saying “aha” when we hear that, since Schuchard has conveniently enlightened us about the longstanding art of memory conveyed to the European Masons around that theme. But let me use Frers' words here:
"The obsessive mysticism of Philip II manifested itself in a kind of double life. In public, he appeared as an austere and severe Catholic monarch who presided over the judgments and executions of the Inquisition, but in private, he surrounded himself with astrologers, gnostics, and kabbalists. The most influential among those was Benito Arias Montano, an intellectual, translator, polyglot, erudite, and member of the secret society known as the Sons of God. This group of scholars practiced a sort of Christian Kabbalism that was dedicated to a certain interpretation of the Bible and was connected to King Solomon, an interest that led them to mingle with the Jewish Tadea Tecta (covered lamp) sect and perhaps with the Order of the Temple, which lived on within the Order of St. James.
"It was possibly Montano who, even before the battle San Quintin [won in 1557, the celebration of which was Philip's ostensible motive for building this edifice] suggested to Philip II the place where the king should build his monastic monument. El Escorial (The Slag Heap), as its name indicates, was raised on a bed of slag deposits [from an ancient mine] that the locals called ' the gate of hell,' located at the foot of Mount Abanto on the Guadarrama Sierra, at an elevation of about 3.200 feet some thirty miles from Madrid. At the time, nothing was located there but a modest country house, found at the exact geographical center of the Iberian Peninsula and on the same parallel that passes through Rome." Despite its function as a garbage dump, the place had held a certain mysterious fame since ancient times, for currents of water ran beneath the ground there and formed an extensive subterranean aquifer. The Celtic Druids, medieval alchemists, and Arab mages all considered these currents to have special vibrations, and the Moors called this region Mah'rit, 'place of hidden waters,' which later became the name Madrid." (p. 144-5)
According to Frers, both architects had made themselves experts in what he calls the Hermetic Arts, Toledo having even been a disciple of Michelangelo. With Montano's help, the square ground plan with its 'gridiron' design was completed, including a monastery and a church. Some preliminary grounds-preparation was done and materials acquired, but Toledo did not survive to see any part of the construction. At this point, Juan de Herrera was called in to make it happen. This architect had earned the reputation of a magus, not only for his mastery of mystical architecture, but also for his practice of necromancy, his collection of talismanic stones and metals, his theurgical work, and possible membership in the Masons. Frers quotes a letter by the famous architect Ventura Rodriguez written to Francisco de Goya more than two centuries later, which says:
" 'When the great architect Herrera was studying in the lodge of Trashier, whose meetings took place in Santa Maria de Bareyo, this was not the only Masonic work occupying his efforts. He also practiced the Royal Art, leading King Philip through the ways of the Majorcan [Ramon Llull] in search of the Great Work.' " Frers then sums up this project nicely: "Even if we ignore the temptation to consider all architects as probably Masons, Rodriguez certainly provided very precise information, such as the name of Herrera's lodge and the location of its meetings. The astrologer and palmist Matias Haco Sumbergense was also a member of this courtly circle; he was the author of the Horoscope of Philip II known as El Prognosticon, and he calculated the orientation of El Escorial in relation to the celestial spheres.
" And so here we have a king inclined toward esotericism, an intellectual inclined towards the occult sciences, an architect and Mason following Ramon Llull's Neoplatonic Hermeticism, and an astrologer with gifts of divination getting ready to raise nothing less than the new Temple of Solomon in the sierra outside Madrid . . . Following a strict astrological order and using the architectonic parameters of ancient mystical monuments, the building of El Escorial exhibits measurements, forms, and proportions that gather all the millenary wisdom of Hermetic architecture. According to the recognized expert Rene Taylor, the geometry of the structure's lines and spaces points to the use of kabbalistic methods, alchemical principles, Llull's mnemotechics, and Pythagorean numerology, as well as other esoteric resources."Perhaps the intention of Philip II and his advisers was not only to copy the Temple of Solomon but also to create a kind of culmination of all the biblical works constructed by divine mandate, such as Noah's ark and the Tabernacle. El Escorial would be a unique monument, perfect and timeless, the magical center of the universe, the axis mundi so dear to religious and pagan occultism. Moreover, the creator of this great work, Philip II, would thus be recognized as the new Solomon, king of the world and leader of Christianity. "(Pp 146-8)
A Circle of Associations
Over my years of research into magic, a conviction has emerged that gains strength every year. Already a decade ago I had enough confidence in these ideas to publish my book and get my foot in the door, flawed as that effort was. But in the last ten years the grounds for these arguments have been carefully excavated and examined minutely by any number of pedigreed researchers, so I'm no longer a lone voice crying in the wilderness.
Among the sources quoted, each one arrives at his or her conclusions from their own unique angle of vision, of course. Yet and still, all these researchers are honorable, sensitive and ethical enough to refrain from doing violence to what they have found. (In the realm of lay esotericism, this is something that can by no means be taken for granted!) The heroic labors of my sources are what make an article like this possible. There is no way that I am capable of manipulating unrelated data points to fall so congruently into line unless that congruence is authentic and already "baked into the cake", so to speak. This is why I use so many quotes from outside sources in these articles. Those who wish to doubt my right to say certain things can take their argument to the scholastics, whose research informs my conclusions.
That being said, I am acutely aware of the fact that some kind of invisible wall stands between the data in the historical record, and the majority of those who task themselves with evaluating it. In years past I have speculated that certain individuals or cultural influences intentionally obscured the fundamental structure and inherent meaning of the Tarot cards. Those conclusions stand, but now I understand it all within the much larger, slower, deeper context of the centuries of multicultural esotericism providing the backbone for Western Civilization as a whole -- and also, reciprocally, for the Tarot. A contrarian voice or misguided revisionism raised against the facts will eventually be flattened by the sheer mass and momentum of the evidence itself. Sooner or later, the unchanging fundamentals start to shine through the momentary fashions, leaving the individual myths threadbare but revealing the sinews of reality exposed.
It's a paradoxical situation, however. We now possess many more translations, histories, and analyses of our Western esoteric currents than any previous time in history. Nevertheless, there still aren't enough modern scholar/occultists in the trenches, people who can operate within the necessary syncretic, correspondence-based art-of-memory worldview required to follow (for example) an idea promoted by the Kabbalists that gets reflected among the Pythagorean architects and built into a cathedral, thereby becoming entwined with astralized imagery understood to have a gnostic double meaning, which is ultimately keyed to an alchemical process we find enshrined in Masonic ritual. Marsha Keith Schuchard is one of a few scholars who has challenged herself to maintain a wide-enough orbit of inclusion -- she has, to a heroic degree, resisted becoming overspecialized in a tiny corner of her field, isolated in a self-created intellectual ghetto. But even her magnificent overview has remained obtuse in certain areas, awaiting those who will come after, to connect their conclusions where her work leaves off, and mine the synthesis for further insights.
One way to state the situation which accords with the best of modern scholarship, is to recognize that all of the monotheisms have as their backdrop the Persian, Egyptian, Greek and Babylonian Mysteries, all of which are rooted in the stellar and harmonic sciences (astronomy, sacred geometry and alchemical medicine). Taken together, these define the shared causes and effects experienced within the Hermetic Cosmos. These Mysteries are entwined with every esotericism, East and West, and the practitioners of these Mysteries are variously seen as Magi, Rabbis, Sheikhs, Priests, Druids, Yogis, Bards and gnostics. It seems the academics have finally settled between themselves that the 'umbrella term’ that contains all these variations is "Gnosticism & Western Esotericism ". Wherever there are Mystery Traditions buried, there we find the marks of gnosis, which, though it took different forms in different religions, offers teachings to counter those aspects of monotheism that cause people to feel spiritually trapped.
In the face of a pass/fail event at the Judgment, gnosis offers the possibility of a soul's learning and growth both in and out of its adventures in the flesh. In the face of one life, one death, and only a slim chance at attaining immortality, gnosis offers teachings about metempsychosis or reincarnation, offering hope that the soul's eternal life is not revocable just because of the details of any one incarnation. In the face of an unreachable, implacable and inscrutable God, gnosis offers the idea of a whole creation made of Intelligences that collectively embody the Divine Mandate, usually mediated by a Divine Feminine figure like the Shekinah, Sophia, or the World Soul. In the face of a maze of cultural per- and proscriptions causing every believer's life to be straight jacketed by incessant legalistic wrangling with a God of Demerits (or so it can seem), gnosis offers direct experience with and immersion in Divine Consciousness, relieving the bone-deep sense of guilt and shame that the monotheisms encourage in their believers. For this reason, it doesn't matter what horrors the monotheisms wish to inflict on their gnostics and esotericists (and upon each other in religion's name), because the very presence of a belief in and technology for achieving immortality beyond the one-life paradigm will forever be irresistible to a certain dedicated subset of humanity. It might be possible to kill every living esotericist or gnostic in a given time and space, but it will never be possible to utterly extinguish the human soul's search for a larger paradigm!
Ultimately I think that Christopher Lehrich might have the tiger by the tail in his book The Occult Mind; Magic In Theory And Practice. Similarly to the way one can see the harmonic significance of 12, 7, and 3 traveling between disciplines (musical, geometrical, astronomical, alphabetical), and just as we see certain common symbols and images arcing between Alchemy, Tarot, Kabbala and Masonry, we are also going to see certain overarching themes from esotericism spilling out into the public sphere, organizing and lending meaning to the more mundane structures of the collective life. It's not so much that one reading of a text is "true" and another is "untrue"; rather there are multiple levels of reality riding alongside each other all the time, and the invisible contingencies of the reader's inner world and personal exposures will determine the interpretation any person takes away from their exposure.
This was true at every level of society -- not only in the monasteries and scriptoria, where the polyglot specialists took refuge, but also in the courts, cathedrals and public squares, in the academic structure of the universities, in the rituals of the craft guilds, and certainly in the arts and sciences of the day. Recall again the Mantegna series of iconic images, describing a 10-stage ascent that is repeated at 5 levels. Starting with the ten Conditions of Man, we rise into Apollo and the Muses, and then move through the Liberal Arts, then the Cosmic Principles, finally to arrive at the Planets out to the final edge of the Primum Mobile. This is not just an arbitrary collection of antique gods and goddesses! This is an exposition of the interpenetrating levels of the High Middle Ages worldview, demonstrating the context in which the individual found him or herself -- walking the Earth, but subject to (and possibly learning to subjugate) all these surrounding influences up to and including the Planets. As we saw in our quote from Guenon, there is both exoteric and esoteric significance to the program of the Seven Liberal Arts, (the Trivium and Quadrivium of scholasticism), and it should no longer seem surprising to see them here completed by the three Celestial Arts; Philosophy, Astrology, Theology.
In other words, rather than envisioning magic as an obscure, background force with which only a few were involved, it is likely to be much more accurate to understand magic as the context or matrix from which culture, literacy, numeracy, the arts and sciences, and in fact the whole literary tradition of the West was drawn. Once we have adjusted our perspective and gotten the horse before the cart again, it becomes clear that it would have been well nigh impossible for a literate and educated Spanish citizen of the High Middle Ages to avoid noticing that the playing-card game that had recently become fashionable carried some deeper implications upon closer examination.
The concept of 3x4 Royals (keyed to the 12 signs of the Zodiac) alongside the four elemental Decaves (referencing Magic and Alchemy as well as Kabbalistic, Platonic and Pythagorean number mysticism) is right there on the faces of the cards, available for anyone who might have the inclination to make such inferences. It seems fairly obvious that even if the cards didn't arrive on Spanish soil with esoteric correspondences already explicit, it was only a matter of time before such ideas began to bubble to the surface in the Greco-Muslim melting pot of the High Middle Ages.
October 17, 2009
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