The Gnostic Faustian Tarot
January 2015 ArkLetter
Philosopher and friend Samten DeWet took the time to start a discussion recently, a portion of which I want to pass on to you. He had recently found a recitation of the Egyptian Tarot myth of origins, in this case entitled The Ritual of Egyptian Initiation, written by esotericist C.C. Zain. This is the same individual (original name Elbert Benjamine) who created The Sacred Tarot and the extensive encyclopedia which supports it. (For the essay in question, see https://www.light.org/The-Ritual-of-Egyptian-Initiation-SL001.cfm )
The Sacred Tarot is the first formal, real Tarot deck I was able to truly study and work with in 1970, and this is the pack with which I learned astrology. People with an eye for such things will realize that I learned the pattern of dividing the Shem Angels around the four elemental trines from Zain. This was a decade before I understood this approach to be a Lullian practice derived from the Seals of Solomon.
Samten's remarks that came along with the 'Ritual' essay were, "I do not know what to make of this – it is the first time that I have seen this piece. My problem is that it represents a theological miss-mash – if we could do an archaeological dig on the ideas manifested - and scrape away the barnacles - very little is left that is Egyptian per se . . . or at least it seems so. The only way to salvage this material, for me, is to place it in an imaginal category – a sort of dream world - which if followed through as a series of visualizations, may produce some results."
In my first answer to Samten I overlooked his references to the imaginal reverie technique, which was extremely obtuse of me. I routinely engage in this type of thinking when I read these historical essays alluding to a mythical time in an indeterminate land. This type of 'between the worlds' narrative is a regular feature of the Arabic mysticism, Grail literature, and Masonic teaching stories abounding in the many Rosicrucian and Alchemical manuscripts. Ultimately the whole magical movement is carried along by productions like this from ancient times to the present. That triggered me to think in the direction of the Tarot's rootedness in the Masonic and Rosicrucian milieu:
This legend may or may not be "true" in the literal sense, but it certainly is "functional", and the question is, who constructed it and for what function?
In recent years I have included Masonic studies into my regime, since without taking a good long look at the Masonic/Rosicrucian contribution, the full understanding of the history of Tarot will always be lacking. Everything we see about Tarot in the overt story of history is the visible counterbalance to a huge "underground stream" of Wisdom teachings being collected and disseminated through the Masonic Lodges, both the old royalist lodges and the new "peoples" orders. When we compare the myth of Hiram Abiff with the writings of CCZain, it is clear that Zain's work shows this very same "architectonic" style that characterizes the traditional Masonic treatises. It is Masonic practice to put forward teaching stories where simple phrases and symbols become the magic keys into larger bodies of thought, with each idea or symbol possessing three levels of meaning, and the levels are unveiled as the aspirant progresses through the lessons. One gets the same impression from reading the Fama Fraternatus, the wonderful works of Alchemy (like Atalanta Fugiens), the Rosicrucian corpus, and the early essays on Tarot written by the Martinists and Masons of the 1700's. In every case, secondary and tertiary levels of meaning will ride along behind the surface of the overt presentation, simultaneously revealing a different lesson to the members of each separate Grade.
I am of the opinion that all of these symbolic pieces are related. You can see some of my reasoning in the below articles. In my opinion, creating and disseminating the historical Tarots has been a project taken on by the Masons since long before Etteilla (1790's). This is why Etteilla took the liberty of investing his Tarot with the same titles, symbols and teachings that have animated Masonry for centuries, even before the French Revolution forced a reformulation of the Orders.
The following articles unpack some of the Masonic and Rosicrucian affiliations:
The points I am making address all of the historical "Egyptianized" Tarots and Trump Essays. The first obvious example of this genre of Tarot writings emerged in a multi-volume Masonic history entitled Le Monde Primitif, written by Antoine Court de Gebelin (including a supplementary article by another Mason named de Mellet). This theme was continued in Etteilla's Tarot, who dedicated his Tarot to Thoth. In due time we see the emergence of Tarot Belline, echoed by the writings of Paul Christian in his mid-1800's History of Magic. This story was endorsed uncritically by Levi, Papus, Falconnier, Mouni Sadhu, Zain, Oswald Wirth, Elizabeth Haich, Margaret Peeke, Homer and Henriette Curtis, Corrine Heline, and Valentine Tomberg (who wrote under the moniker Anonymous.) More recently this myth-of-origin seems to have been pushed aside by the wave of modernization brought on by the anglophile Tarots, but not before Crowley put out a pack that made a blatant homage to Etteilla in the title, the Book of Thoth Tarot.
Regarding Masonic history, I continue lauding the redoubtable Marsha Schuchard for her detailed history of the Masons in her Brill book entitled Restoring the Temple of Vision: Kabbaistic Freemasonry and Stewart Culture. Here we learn that Masonry is rooted in Jewish Mysticism that retains the very strong cultural impressions taken during the Hebrew captivities in Babylon and then in Egypt. Both of these cultures were rooted in the observatory model of their astronomical priesthoods, from which the Hebrew Alphabet acquired it's body of correspondences to astronomical and astrological features of the sky. The Masons, of course, were the ones who knew how to build these observatories with the proper orientation relative to the night sky across the year. These priestly secrets are the technological contents of the Wisdom Tradition, contents that are jealously preserved, hidden but passed on within the tribe or lineage, because of the great value these arts and sciences brought to their possessors. It's all about knowing the ways and means of the 12 signs, the 7 planets and the three "celestial" Elements, as well as the calculation methods that allow us to track these heavenly values as they make their stately dance overhead. These values have since ancient times been coded to the alphabet, which connects quite directly to the Trumps of the Tarot via the Trump numbers.
What does that imply for the inherent meaning built into a Tarot pack? It means that this "so-called Egyptian" myth of Tarot origins is actually based on Mosaic/Egyptian history, which is considerably older than the Alexandrian synthesis. Think about all the historical chatter on the internet lately about Moses being Akhenaten. Also remember that Moses was known to be trained in all the Priestly arts, including astrology, the early teachings of Kabbalah (those embedded in the alphabet), practical alchemy and direct communication with the Unmanifest. His troupe carried the priceless Arc of the Covenant out of Egypt with them, and in that journey they were accompanied by a pillar of light and fire both night and day. A careful reading of the story of his peoples' 40 years in the wilderness reveal a catalogue of challenges and solutions that rivals any of the Faustian, Shakespearian, Masonic, Rosicrucian, or Grail myths which have accumulated across the intervening centuries.
In Moses we have the image of a potent and magisterial leader, a full-on Hierophant, rather than the more compromised protagonists we have in the legends of his rival Simon Magus, much less the later Templars and troubadours who followed, including Parcival, Lancelot, Christian Rosencrantz, and other romanticized mystical heros of the Middle Ages. All of these later characters in literature were shaded with ambivalent and potentially dangerous (Faustian) affiliations by a Church that felt threatened by the fascination these mysterious figures constellated in the collective mind, but in the orthodox accounts, Moses never lost his purpose or fell into apostasy, though his people were sorely tempted on more than one occasion.
The now-overlooked volume, The Christian Interpretation of the Cabala in the Renaissance by Blau (1994,Columbia U. Press), asserts that as the Kabbalah became a topic in southern Europe, the Hebrew exponents were focused on the tripartate soul of the Neoplatonized Aristotelians, leading to a focus on the Archetypes of the "unfallen" Zodiac, Planets and Celestial Elelments, just as we find in the Hebrew Alphabet. It is clear that this point of view informs the 22 Trumps of Tarot. Meanwhile, the Christian Cabbalists who picked up the scent in Europe were interpreting the Hebrew Mysteries in materialistic terms, focused on a 4-elements, post-Fall world of matter and manifestation. I find that this orientation informs the Suits of Tarot.
I was content to just accept this at face value, but recently I got hold of a more recent study, entitled Hidden Mutualities: Faustian Themes from Gnostic Origins to the Post-Colonial (by Michael Mitchell; Rodopi Press in Amsterdam and NY, 2006). In this wonderful study, the split or schizm between the heavenly ideal and the earthly reality is analyzed and expanded upon quite keenly to tease out the cultural implications of these ideas. Mitchell wants us to fully understand the contrast between the Archetypes of the 22 Letters versus the post-Fall, 4-elements schema represented by the Pips pack of four Suits. In this transition, the European collective psyche became relocated. Whereas before it occupied the mythic, geocentric worldview of antiquity, afterwards the place of humanity withinCreation collapsed into the heliocentric model, undergoing an attendant "flattening" of perspective and self-esteem. The addition of the Queens and then the 22 Trumps to the Mameluke pack for the sake of the European user, demonstrates how important this distinction is for historians to fathom.
The point is, gradually across the 1600's, the Copernican Revolution eliminated the prior certainty people felt in the history that was told by the Mystery Schools, since a demand emerged for "literal" knowledge of linear facts, rather than metaphorical revelation of archetypal Principals. Despite that shift, within a century we see a wave of committed esotericists who weren't moved by the claims of empirical science, who instead simply allowed that literalizing wave to wash over them, after which they stubbornly re-commenced with the Mysteries as if modern science had never entered the field. Hence we see a bifurcation between the modern "engineers" and the throw-back Magi. (In The Hebrew Alchemists, Patai even defines a "new category" of Hebrew alchemical magus for the 1700's, containing Dr. Falk and Cagliostro.) So be it! The myth of Tarot's Egyptian history is actually a triple-veiled allusion to Moses/Akhnaten and the esoteric technologies (the Wisdom Tradition) he took with him and branded into the psyches of his followers.
I have really enjoyed Mitchell's affirmative response to the question of whether the Medieval universe of the Cathars and Troubadours would have impacted that of the Hebrew and later Christian K/Cabbalists. Mitchell has many other virtues as well, all focused on showcasing the transmission of these particular Mysteries from Antiquity to the American experiment. The sophistication of MItchell's understanding of these dynamics has greatly encouraged me that eventually even the Tarot world will be forced to understand how deeply our Tarot has been steeped in this Gnostic/Hermetic and Masonic/Kabbalist interweaving of influences.
Mitchell is also quite astute at jugging the different theories of "how magic works", variations of which unfolded at different stages of the intercultural transmission of these ideas. This insight is very helpful in understanding how the outline of Tarot would register in the minds of esotericists living in different centuries. Mitchell's analysis of the significance of the work of Ficino, Pico, Trithemius, Paracelsus, Agrippa, Reuchelin, and Boehme closely parallels my own investigations.
What becomes clear in this volume is that the search for the esoteric reality (gnosis, in Mitchell's words) standing behind the Faust myth is much like the search for the "Real Egyptian Origins of Tarot". The student of these Mysteries undergoes a constant alchemical process of breaking down and building up of associations, allusions and correspondences across a welter of esotericisms. The fact that these esotericisms stubbornly insist upon borrowing each other's terms and primary characters only makes the puzzle more fun to try and solve! To accomplish his educated overview, Mitchell has left any tendency towards open/shut, either/or thinking behind, which allows us to follow these varying threads through the tapestry of time without any preconcieved notions painting us into arbitrary, mind-closing corners.
A special point from Mitchell I want to mention is that he has assembled all the most apt resources that I was collating in 1997-8, enhanced by the treasure-trove of new research that became available in the 7 years between the release of The Underground Stream and Hidden Mutualities. This time gap allowed Mitchell to develop an excellent academic overview of the evolving synthesis of interwoven esoterica across the entire Renaissance, Reformation, counter-Reformation and Enlightenment. Without intending to, Mitchell specifically addresses the entire period of Tarot origins and evolution. Having such a well-supported resource is very helpful to Tarot historians, especially since Mitchell brings his analysis of these crucial magical themes right up to the time of Waite and Crowley, presenting them as exponents of this selfsame Gnostic/Hermetic tradition he's dutifully tracing. (Mitchell takes a stance that is very closely akin to my own observations, which pleases me greatly! It's always a thrill to discover others who have come to parallel conclusions through their own research.) An additional advantage the Tarot world can gain from studying Mitchell is that, by using Faust as his focus, Mitchell keeps the whole discussion inside the topic of our paradigmatic Tarot Arcanum, the Magus/Mountebank.
In summary: "Egypt" means "what the Hebrews learned in Egypt", a body of knowledge, rather than a place or time.The Trumps are the neoPlatonic Archetypes, whereas the Pips pack is the product of the Fall, as interpreted through Islamic culture. We are following a construct that's being assembled by multiple generations of interdisciplinary esotericists, who cleverly interwove the Astrological/Gnostic/Hermetic/Kabbalistic/alchemical transmission into Tarot, the hybrid product of Hebrew and Arabic philosophy which has been taught under the "Egyptian" rubric since the mid-1500's. The Faust legend provides a direct and Tarot-relevant way to trace this transmission as it moved through Europe and into the Americas, exciting different strata of intellectuals all along the way.
I do not believe that we have properly evaluated the foundation our Tarot stands on, therefore we have massive blind spots when we look at it. Tarot's outline is an architectonic, Masonic astrological calculator. That's why Zain made his cards the way he did -- to feature the letters, numbers, and glyphs, and to make the images heiroglyphic as well. He among all the Tarotists of his time was trying to feature the esotericism of Tarot straightforwardly. (I'm guessing he was reading Mouni Sadhu, or was a Martinist himself.)
When all is said and done, these stories of Tarot's Egyptian origins turn out to be more than merely metaphorical. There is solid, "hard data" being transmitted via Tarots myth of Egyptian origins. That data is not hidden to the Tarot community, except in plain sight. We need to take a more contemporary approach the history and background of the text that is engraved upon the Tarot Belline, is written into the Trump essays by Paul Christian, approved to by Levi, enshrined by Papus and transmitted by Zain, Wirth, Sadhu and Anonimous (Meditations On The Tarot). I'm convinced Etteilla had these essays, since these little Trump essays appear to have been part of a larger trove of Masonic teaching materials that are all much older than that.
End note: For those who have read all the way to the bottom of the page, here's is a little progress report on the ongoing, neverending publication schedule of my book. The goal at this point is to have the book available via print-on-demand for the Portland conference in early March, at the Northwest Tarot Symposium. (see below). Here's a little blurb on the talk I will be giving, entitled Sophia Among the Alchemists.
Upcoming talk by Christine Payne Towler at the 2015 Northwest Tarot Symposium: Since historians have begun seriously examining the esotericism permeating the culture that created the early Tarots, it is becoming clear that Europe has hosted a wide variety of clandestine societies since at least the onset of the Crusades. Some of these groups kept a low profile for reasons of exclusivity, others to evade the prying eyes of the Catholic Censor and remain below the radar of the Inquisition. Eliphas Levi left us a roster of pivotal personalities whose legacies he suggests that we study for greater insight into the wisdom teachings embedded in the icons that decorate our cards. While investigating why Levi was so focused on these particular individuals, it became evident that each of them was known for their allegiance to one or another manifestation of the Feminine Divine. By taking these lineage masters as exemplars of a developing body of thought, a common denominator appears. Beneath the layers of costuming that portray Her as Eve, Mother Mary, the Magdalene, Lady Alchemy and the Virgin of the World, aside from all worldly Queens or pagan Goddesses, this tradition is focused on the ancient figure of Sophia, spouse of God and agent of the Divine Imagination. In this workshop we will review the key concepts associated with Sophia's appearance among the Renaissance and Reformation magi, as a way of helping us recognize the hidden mutualities between the game of cards and the subtle transmission of esoteric thought.
Blessings on your new year! May this be the year when your highest visions are realized.
The Northwest Tarot Symposium in Portland, Oregon where I will be speaking on the subject of Sophia Among The Alchemists.
The Northwest Tarot Symposium (NW Tarot Symposium), will be happening March 6 - 8, 2015 at the Monarch Hotel in Portland, OR. You can find out all about this conference at http://nwtarotsymposium.com/ This is the event to attend if you have ever wanted to check out Oregon's only true megopolis, with its many bridges, famous gardens, signature brewries and restaurants, and of course the ultimate mecca of bibliophiles, Powell's City of Books. People from out of state will get a chance to experience a slice of Oregon's fabulous extended spring season, which actually starts in late winter and continues right through to early summer. Whether it rains or shines on that weekend, Portland is truly Oregon's Emerald City, of which the state is justly proud. Come and experience your own slice of Portlandia, in the company of your favorite Tarot writers, readers and creators!
If you want to engage in even more conversation about Tarot, I invite online comments to my ArkLetter essays. Just visit the ArkLetter URL of the article you want to discuss and tell me what you think - your comments are published immediately on the site, and may stimulate more dialogue over time.
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ArkLetter 117, January 20, 2015
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