Manly P. Hall and Masonic Tarot
I'm happy to announce the release of another new book for the scholars among us. Researched and written by Yolanda M. Robinson, Ph.D., it is entitled The Revised New Art Tarot; Mysticism and Qabalah in the Knapp-Hall Tarot. I thought that while my readers are awaiting my next contribution, Foundations of the Esoteric Tradition, they might enjoy this excellent tome about the excellent and fascinating Knapp-Hall Tarot by Manly P. Hall and Agustus Knapp.
Mysticism and Qabalah
in The Knapp-Hall Tarot
I have been awaiting this book for years, having used the Knapp-Hall cards since Stewart Kaplan promoted it in the second half of the 1980’s. I remember rejoicing because I could see from the catalogue that The Magus carried the Hebrew letter A. Unfortunately, at the turn of the new millennium I had to put the pack in my “research” pile because I lost the Three of Disks somehow, a grievous mistake that I have regretted for years.
Hall and Knapp’s Secret Teachings of All the Ages has occupied a special place on my bookshelf for decades, as it does for every self-respecting occultist who started in the 20th century. I have the little square-bound article “The Tarot” by Hall as well. I consider myself a decent analyst of occult systems, but for some reason I couldn’t really penetrate beyond the beautiful surface of the cards until Dr. Robinson’s book came into my hands.
This is indeed the long-desired card by card accounting of the Knapp-Hall Tarot, prayed for by so many users over the years. Robinson’s considered and inclusive overview, paired with liberal quotes from Hall’s writings, makes for a substantial and fulfilling breakdown of this small and gemlike pack. It seems that Robinson’s aesthetic matches very well with that of Knapp and Hall; the book extends the psychic space defined by the cards, mirroring the tone of the creators and their creation. I imagine that Hall and Knapp would be pleased to see this accounting of their powerful metaphysical tool.
As it so happens, this volume is much more than just a rich and sophisticated representation of the Knapp-Hall synthesis. Robinson’s research also offers a framework for investigating the complex interface between the old-school Continental Tarots, the intermediate Egyptian-style packs from Etteilla to CC Zain, and the modern English packs. Robinson has done an extremely ambitious thing here, which is to shed light on the back-and-forth discussion between three loose but distinct “schools” of Tarot that were present and vying for attention at the turn of the 20th century. By this I mean, 1) the original historical pattern (which Hall preserved to a large degree on the faces of his Trumps), 2) the Masonic contribution that became obvious during the intermediate period from Etteilla to Oswald Wirth, and 3) the full-on transformation that burst into the 20th century with the packs of Waite, Case and Crowley.
The sign of how much I am enjoying a book is when I find that it is impossible to read without having a pencil and highlighter at hand. This is one of those books where I was moved to be an active participant. My underlining and marginalia are full of stars, exclamation points, and dancing arrows pointing to highlighted or bracketed ideas that turned the wheels in my head.
Some of the explanations taken from traditional number-theology might seem a little opaque or even impenetrable to a person who is new to them. Especially readers who are new to Qabalah (her spelling) might want to follow the bibliography back to the cited sources, since some of the ideas are abstruse on their faces. But those who have made their own explorations into this territory will recognize the ideas in play and will see how the author has linked Hall and Knapp’s worldview back to the prevailing models they inherited from the Christian Qabalists among the Rosicrucians and Masons of the Enlightenment era.
I was actually quite surprised to see how eclectic Hall’s thoughts were compared to the very traditional presentation his deck makes when standing alone. As I said at the beginning, I was never quite sure that I had grasped the full revelation of this pack, since in my experience Hall had never consolidated his Tarot remarks down to a single paradigmatic statement. Hall preferred to make allusions that move back and forth between the Continental and English approaches, while scattering his Tarot remarks far and wide among his writings on other topics. Now finally due to Robinson’s research, I can understand what Knapp and Hall were doing, which clears up some unspoken paradoxical feelings lingering in the back of my mind for years.
Each reader will focus on Robinson’s accounting of the details that are most important to him or her, of course. I found the personal influences that the creators brought to the New Art Tarot to be remarkably wide-ranging. I had no idea that Augustus Knapp was more than two generations older than Manly P. Hall, or that Knapp had such deep connections with the movers and shakers of European esotericism. Historians of Tarot are still struggling to comprehend the overlap between Masonry, Rosicrucianism, Qabalah, Hermeticism and Tarot in the period between Etteilla and Wirth. Robinson has very generously placed herself in that gap and done a magnificent job of illuminating the many threads of mysticism and magic that are drawn together in The New Art Tarot.
In my own practice with this pack, I had failed to question why the New Art Tarot is configured in the Continental manner (A = 1 in the Trump sequence), when in fact Hall states very clearly in his Introduction that, “… placed according to the Pythagorian system, the zero comes before the one” (p. XVII). The implications of this statement had never fully risen to the surface of my thought until being exposed by Robinson’s careful exegesis. Come to think about it, all of my greatest interest in Tarot is focused on this question, which Hall simultaneously acknowledges on the card faces, but soft-pedals in his writings. I see now that Hall was leaving a door open in the direction of the incoming trend, in which his artistic partner Knapp was an active participant.
With Robinson’s volume in hand, we can see how the Knapp-Hall Tarot occupies the fertile intersection where concepts drawn from Eastern mysticism were meeting up and being spliced into Christian Qabalah, Hermeticism and astronomical magic. Hall himself counsels us that we should use “the mandala method from the Buddhist and other Eastern philosophies” when we read his cards. By this he means us to read his cards at four levels:
1) Deity or circumstance is shown in full detail & colors.
2) Deity is translated into symbolic attributes.
3) Symbols are boiled down to alphabetic letters.
4) Design is moved into the heart of the disciple
Here lies the principal conundrum of The New Art Tarot. Hall specifically instructs his readers to boil the symbols of the Trumps down to alphabetic letters (step 3). These are the letters he placed on the faces of his Trumps so clearly, following the French or Continental pattern. Yet in Hall’s Trump writings, assembled by Robinson, Hall addresses both the French and English alphabet attributions equally, harnessing them both to amplify the teaching stories he wants us to associate with the cards. As Robinson carefully reminds us, “…(Hall) never discusses directly the symbolic meanings of the Hebrew letter assigned to a card. “(p. xxi).
The way I read this Gordian knot, Hall was pointing out the oft-acknowledged split in the Tarot stream, which breaks along the boundary between divination and magic, or prognostication versus philosophizing. In the realm of divination, Hall left the way open towards any and all interpretations of the individual cards, especially since his partner Knapp was a savant in the English model. But let it be noted that, when moving away from divination into the “mystical, Hermetic and Qabalistic” system that informs the mandalas of the New Art Tarot, Hall expected his followers to bridge back to the French or Continental number/letters he provided on the Trumps.
Thank you Yolanda Robinson, for your careful scholarly attention towards this very important meeting of Tarot worlds. I will enjoy my New Art Tarot studies considerably more for having your book in hand. The Knapp-Hall Tarot offers a very deep well of ideas to work with, representing as it does the best of all the Tarot worlds in mandala form. I hope to see this become a classic.
Further Musings on Related Topics
While I was pondering over the above, other ideas came to mind that I didn’t want to clutter up the review with. When investigating the period of Tarot development between Levi’s writings and the English debut, it is necessary to bring to mind the range of teachers who were casting their bread upon the waters at roughly the same time. Knapp and Hall quite self-consciously created a synthesis of the inherited tradition (the Continental Tarots), the overt Masonic Tarots (the Egyptian style packs) and the modern style of the 20th century. But they were not the only systematic thinkers striving for an occult synthesis at the turn of the 20th century.
For example, Papus was on a mission to stabilize the Martinist and Masonic Tarot (deeply informed by Etteilla) in “so-called Egyptian” form, grounding his pack in the lineage of Levi while also assimilating the magical Vattan alphabet and the fabulous Archeometer.
The Tarot table from Pierre Piobb’s book Formulaire de Haute-Magic, (Paris, 1907) is associated with a fascinating and unique melange of Tarot revelations collated by M. C. Poinsot for a volume entitled The Encyclopedia of Occult Sciences (Tudor Publshing, New York; 1939, pp 419 – 440). This presentation seems to have affected and possibly even shaped the Iberian Tarot tradition of the 20th century.
Many people of my age cut their teeth reading the Marseille packs with Joseph Maxwell’s little but very useful manual. Oswald Wirth also contributed to the discussion with his book and deck, published in the early 1920’s. Those who followed the leadings of Madame Blavatski encountered Tarot through the reprint of the Falconnier pack dubbed The Tarot of Saint Germain. (http://green-door.narod.ru/sg-tarot.html.) Other authors also weighed in during this period, producing books that approach limited aspects of the Tarot, or expanding upon the works of one of the above teachers. Here I’m just trying to note the presentations that propose whole systems of esoteric thought and practice that use the Tarot as a skeletal framework. (If I forgot any other turn-of-last-century Tarot systems, please leave a note at the end to remind us!)
Each of the aforementioned productions had to share space in the collective mind with the gauntlet that had been cast into the inherited stream via the Waite/Smith Tarot. Due to the controversies attending its appearance, soon enough this prototype branched into a spectrum of approaches, the most well-known of which are the Paul Foster Case courses and the Aleister Crowley phenomenon. This is the situation facing Manly P. Hall in his productive years, prompting Dr. Robinson to state, “There was too much bickering going on among the various schools.” (p. XVIII) Robinson further ventures that “the use and placement of the Hebrew Letters in esoteric decks” was at the center of the squabble.
In fact, Waite and the circle around him made it a point to actively cast doubt on the historical manner in which the number-letters “should” be attached to the Trumps. Apparently there wasn’t enough etymological certainty about the origin of the Alphabet to settle the question at that time, as can now be done for students in the 21st century. Before he became part of the Order of the Golden Dawn, Waite’s friend W. Wynn Wescott had already published a very clean and correct presentation on the number-letters in his excellent little book The Occult Power of Numbers (first published in 1890). There, Wescott even confirmed the existence of “a bastard Greek Kabalah on the Hebrew type”, which I have since identified as the key to the arrangement of the planetary letters on the Continental patterned Trumps.
But somehow, Waite and company chose to redefine the ancient and long-settled number/letter conventions of history as suddenly out of date. Hence, as the brand-new tradition of the English-style Tarots spread out, so did the tradition of contesting whether the letters on the Trumps were connected to the magical alphabet, or not, and if so, how and to what degree.
My own introduction to the Tarot was through another turn-of-last-century production, The Sacred Tarot by CCZain (pseudonym of Elbert Benjamine, 1882 -- 1951). Zain wrote a 21-volume encyclopedia to support his Tarot deck, drawing in connections from both historical and contemporary magical practice. This pack saturated deeply through American Masonic circles – matter of fact, in 1971, my grandfather told me that members of his Masonic lodge in post WWII Seattle were studying it. This compilation must also be added to the list of contending occult systems appended to the Tarot between the writings of Levi and the bursting-forth of the English-style packs.Zain’s response to the letter-number squabbles was to develop his own body of astrological correspondences for the Trumps, despite the fact that he retained the Hebrew letters matched with the Trump numbers in the classic Continental manner. There is a whole alchemical discipline of astrological medicine built on Zain’s method, which he perfected over decades during his private practice with clients and students. Those who want to delve more deeply into Zain’s contribution can find his bio and all of the BOL study material at the Church of Light site: https://www.light.org/brotherhood-of-light-lessons.cfm
Among contemporary Tarot researchers, Samten de Wet is our modern Sacred Tarot savant, so I defer to him about the nuances of the Church of Light’s esoteric synthesis. Samten has put forty years into mastering Zain’s model and accumulating support materials within his truly magical historical archive. You can follow Lily Beard at Facebook and ask to join the Luxlapis Tarot Research group for access to his stunning collection of art and articles. A little bird recently told me that Samten would be sharing some overlooked material regarding the Falconnier Tarot very soon. We can look forward to seeing this at the Lily Beard Facebook page. We have only just begun to learn about the occult controversies of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, and how they shaped the magical dialogue for the emerging century.
Here is another evidence of the turn-of-last-century esoteric squabble that is unintentionally highlighted by Dr. Robinson’s presentation on the Knapp-Hall Tarot. As mentioned above, last page of Hall’s Introduction To The 1985 Edition, gives this assertion: “There is a difference of opinion as to the placement of Le Fou, The Fool. Placed according to the Pythagorean system, the zero comes before the one.” This sounds very logical and natural in our computer age, when we have been trained to understand the cipher as “a thing” rather than “no thing”. But when I go back to Wescott’s The Occult Power of Numbers, and read Part II, ‘Pythagorean Views on Number’, I notice that nowhere is there a single remark about zero. Historically, Pythagorean philosophy commences from the Monad, the effulgent Source from which all enumeration emanates. Clearly at one time Wescott knew this fact, however thoroughly he might have forgotten it later.
Looking to Wescott’s next chapter, entitled ‘Kabbalistic Views on Numbers’, there is again not a single remark about zero. As a matter of fact, inclusive of all the traditions Wescott is quoting (Pythagoras, the Kabala, the Bible, the Talmud, the Romans, Chaldeans, Egyptians, Hindus , Medieval Magicians, Hermetic students and the Rosicrucians, to quote the back cover), there is not a single remark about zero in the whole book. Reaching out for Stirling’s magisterial presentation The Canon, An Exposition of the Pagan Mystery Perpetuated in the Cabala as the Rule of All the Arts, I can’t even find a single entry for Zero in the index.
This makes sense, because there in NO magical alphabet ancient or modern, nor any linguistic alphabet either, that has a number/letter for zero. Zero was not included in the ancient roster of “positive numbers”, from which Hermetic number theory draws it’s philosophical prima materia. In the entire continuity of esoteric numerology from Antiquity to the present, zero was only relevant as a place-holder in the decimal system of Arabic (Hindu) numerals. This is why we find the zero on the final card of every suit sequence (the 10’s) rather than on the Aces. In all the history of magic, Eastern or Western, you will never find a single god-name, astrological denomination, alchemical formula, kabbalistic operation, geometric equation or magical invocation spelled or characterized in a way that includes the cipher. Not until very close to the the 20th century, that is.
Due to circumstances like this, I have developed an esoteric litmus test to separate the wheat from the chaff. Essentially, I withhold credibility in any context where I see the word magic spelled with a k, wherever I see this anomalous emphasis on the “mystery of the zero”, and where I hear the clever locution “path numbers” when the situation requires the understanding of the ancient number/letters. Wherever I see the ancient arts being taught from a cut-and-pasted “new and improved” format that shows disrespect for thousands of years of historical norms, I assume that there is no “there” there. My feeling is, people need to learn what the ancient traditions actually ARE before deciding that they can rewrite them over in their own image!
How, then, do I interpret these kinds of flagrant distortions of history when I find them in the writings of somebody as respectable and august as Manly P. Hall? After years of reading these Tarot Masons, I have learned to look through and past these internal contradictions, the same way I do regarding Oswald Wirth’s sleight-of-hand with the Fool in his excellent book, Tarot of the Magicians. Long ago I noticed that Wirth constantly places the Fool in the 21st position in his Trump lists. But when he illustrates the “circle of the Trumps” they are always shown with the World followed by the Fool, which then links up with the Magus. In other words, the Fool/Zero actually does “come before the one” when the Trumps are circled. What that means in practice is that The Fool is actually the last in the sequence of the Trumps, following after the World and providing the glue between it and the Magus.
One could decide that this is a mistake or misspeak on Wirth’s part, but careful perusal of his Tarot of the Magicians shows that this paradoxical use of the Fool appears in several places. Considered as a letter, the Fool is attached to the letter Shin, which always has the next to last position in the alphabet. But considered within the self-repeating sequence of 22 spokes in a wheel of Trumps, he is the last spoke uniting the end of the old sequence, the World, to the new beginning promised by the Magus.
We see the same enigmatic Fool-ery in the Etteilla packs, where the Fool is numbered #78. This seems to say the Fool is the final card of the whole pack, and therefore not to be grouped with the other Trumps. However, when one follows Etteilla’s instructions and breaks the pack down into the various groupings that Etteilla calls “cahirs” (booklets), it becomes very clear that Etteilla always counts the Fool as the final Trump in the sequence of 22. It is never grouped with the suited cards, instead the Fool always takes the final position in the Trump set.
Let me offer just one more example from the sequence of packs that appeared between Levi and Waite: Much has been made about the switch-up in astrological correspondences in the final Trumps of the Saint Germaine Tarot. We see the symbol of the Sun on Trump XXI, The Crown of the Magi, along with the magical alphabet letter that signifies Shin. Then on Trump XXII, entitled The Crocodile, we see the glyph representing the letter Tav, and what looks like an eclipse of the Sun by the Moon overhead. These symbols would appear to change the Astro-alpha-numeric associations of this pack away from the rest of the Continental family of decks. I would agree that these details might represent a new and unique system, but only IF the cards were being read in a divinatory manner, from surface features only. But when one lines up the magical alphabet on the cards with the Hebrew alphabet, as Hall tells us to do (remembering the settled tradition that assigns the letters to the planets, elements and signs), then we see that the Falconnier is another Continental pack just like the others. What becomes apparent is that that the significance of these details is determined by the lens one is looking through, be it “divinatory” or “mystical”.
Ultimately, I think we are looking at a peculiarity of Masonic transmission. Masonry provided the cultural context that unites all the packs from Etteilla to Wirth, and is clearly discoverable in the writings of all the Tarot exegetes across the 1800’s. Dr. Robinson asserts that both Masonry and Rosicrucianism are important sources for antecedent ideas and symbols included in the Knapp-Hall Tarot. In my experience, the teaching style of the Masons involves freely sharing a set of standard symbols, which come along with a simple and accessible explanation of what it all means. A truly interested student will ponder the presentation until s/he eventually discovers that there is a missing link, leading to an unasked question and pointing to the “keystone of the arch”, so to speak. When the overt word of the teacher gestures in one direction, but the results of further study suggest looking another way, the good student is obligated to speak up and ask for the missing piece of the puzzle. Knowing this, we must realize that certain aspects of the teaching inherent in the Masonic-era Tarots will be closed to those who do not scrutinize, question, and test their assumptions before deciding they can credit themselves with full comprehension.
The Masons, after all, were looking for candidates who could think like engineers and scientists. They used this method to attract the operative thinkers out of the general mass of humanity. Masons have a mission that they are pledged to fulfill; they have historically made themselves responsible to retain and transmit the historic body of arts and sciences. Ancient masons had to know how to build cultures and structures that would withstand an apocalypse, and modern Masons continue to carry that mandate. A person who hasn’t got the gumption to question their superiors when the operating premises show a fatal flaw or obvious divergence, will not get far among observant Masons.
As mentioned above, the key lies in the distinction between the divinatory and the mystical strains of Tarot teaching. By drawing this distinction as part of their self-description, the innovators of the 20th century were able to claim the “folk” aspect of Tarot divination as their foundation ground. As we now know, the English divinatory tradition is based on Etteilla’s pips packs and those of his students (including the Lenormand distillation of Etteilla’s Le Petit Oracle des Dames). Meanwhile the formal and traditional structure of past practice still stands, attached to the ancestral packs presented in Marseille style, suitable for the Continental AAN correspondences.
Manly P. Hall expected his deeper students to use his mandala method, meaning his staged procedure that reduces any given Trump to a few apt symbols, loads those symbols into the associated letter, and then moves the loaded letter directly into the interior life. This agreed-upon distinction between divinatory and mystical Tarot usage differentiated the various esoteric groups that bickered at the outset of the 20th century. According to their creators’ own self-characterization, the English Tarots were designed for divination and prognostication in the parlor mode exemplified by Madame Lenormand. The Continental Tarots, by contrast, lead the student beyond all that, into the ancient esotericism of our ancestors, whose thinking was framed in positive values only. Tactful and diplomatic as Manly P. Hall was, I can’t help but think that he was teaching Continental Tarot by the Masonic method, leaving plenty of clues for his sharper students to differentiate between the parlor-sybil modality and the true heritage of Antiquity.