Modern Tarot Studies A Nineteenth Century Legacy

This is a book of philosophy, of metaphysics, describing a profound system of self-exploration imbedded in seventy-eight simple pictures known as the Tarot. And while these cards have long been publicly associated with odd cults and gypsy fortune tellers, they are increasingly capturing the attention of serious students, who view the cards as a repository of a very complex system for the development of inner knowledge.

Perhaps the inventors of the Tarot cards intended that they should be understood as a graphic summation of the principles of the Qabalah, or perhaps not. At least there is no written evidence to suggest this, and the great Jewish scholar of the Qabalah, Gershom Scholem, is probably correct in his assertion (however deprecatory) that the connection was made by late nineteenth century English and French occultists. One way or the other, the interlock of Tarot and Qabalah is so precise that the systems are mutually explanatory. And actually, the likelihood that the two systems developed independently gives far greater authority to the ideas of both because it points toward their mutual roots in universal Truth.

Yet, a great deal of nonsense has been written about both the Tarot and the Qabalah, the sale of a large percentage of occult literature being a tribute to the public's gullibility. Thus, we should be grateful for the scholarly works of the past few decades. Scholem pioneered studies on the Jewish Qabalah, while the western trends have been admirably researched by scholars such as Frances Yates, D.P. Walker, Francis King and Ellic Howe. Serious research is increasingly disabusing us of incorrect notions about the roots of modern esotericism, and we should not be disturbed to see sand-castles tumbling. If a system has inner merit it will remain unscathed. We must also appreciate that what is known as The Mysteries has apparently, until very recently, been transmitted through a secret oral tradition.

Despite increased public interest, surprisingly little attention has been paid to the Tarot by academia, though the cards are a veritable gold mine of art history and metaphysical philosophy. They should be of great interest to any medievalist, being clearly of the same temperament which produced the sculptural programs of the Gothic cathedrals. It is likely, also, that the cards in some way relate to the medieval books of Emblemata and to those delightful, and supposedly historical narratives called the Chansons de Gestes.

What the Tarot represents is an allegorical journey, each card being the experience of something (a universal energy) along the way, rather like the episodes in Dante's Divine Comedy, Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress or even Tolkein's Trilogy of the Ring. And the idea of an adventuresome and perilous journey through unknown territory was typical of medieval literature. The analogy here is that to travel in the middle ages was as dangerous and difficult as to travel the inner paths of the Mysteries. So one might agree with the monk who in 1377 suggested that the Tarot was a mirror of fourteenth century society, saying that the cards represented "... the state of the world as it is now most excellently described and figured."2 Early decks show many of the Virtues and Liberal Arts so important to the ieonographic programs of Gothic Humanism, some of which remain in today's standard Tarot keys: TEMPERANCE is Prudence, STRENGTH is Fortitude, JUSTICE remains Justice, etc. All of these cards are female, as the Virtues and Liberal Arts were always represented.3

Even an Emperor was visible in the real society. That had been especially true since 1200, when the Pope crowned Charlemagne Holy Roman Emperor in an attempt to strengthen Christianity by aligning it with a great secular power. And when we come to THE HIGH PRIESTESS, we find that tradition related her to the legend of a "Female Pope,"4 circulating at just this time in history. The evidence for the fourteenth century origin of the cards is convincing, and hopefully some historian of medieval art history will pick up these fascinating threads and provide us with the real historical answers.

On the other hand a considerable number of well-trained esotericists insist that the cards are of very ancient origin. It is likely that these individuals are, through the Tarot, encountering the shadows of other systems which have been used to approach the same universal energies. Such differentiation is often extremely difficult on the inner plane, which may explain why the experiences of so many students contradicts historical evidence. Of course, if the Tarot can be of use to us in something so important as the development of inner understanding, study of its origins is little more than a pleasant side trip. The same is true for the very question of an original link between Qabalah and the Tarot, although we are not here proposing that such a link was originally intended between Tarot and the Hermetic Qabalah on which this present book is based.

That system, developed in Europe from the time of the Renaissance, is a westernized Qabalah. It grew from the improbable attempts of fifteenth century philosophers to incorporate the essence of Jewish mysticism into Christian thought. The history of the modification of these ideas by the philosophers of the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is particularly interesting. But it is the nineteenth century developments which are most important for us. During that time the Hermetic Qabalah, largely de-Christianized, reached its fullest expression with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. The leaders of that fraternity performed the remarkable task of unifying the disparate elements of the Western Mystery Tradition (Qabalah, Hermeticism, Astrology, Neo-Platonism, Dee's Enochian Magic, etc.) in such a way that it formed a coherent method of inner exploration for the fin de si├Ęcle temperament. There are few modern schools of western esoteric thought which have not been affected in some way by the developments of that group. And as one discusses Hermetic Qabalism, one of necessity refers to the Golden Dawn as its primary modern expression. Hermetic Qabalah and Golden Dawn must be considered virtually synonymous.

Nor is it significant whether the esoteric tenets of this group were handed down secretly for generations, or if they were meticulously culled from ancient manuscripts in the British Museum. The authority of any group derives entirely from its inner contacts. The "Secret Tradition," "The Mysteries," or whatever this may be called, can be tapped into by anyone. An individual or group becomes a part of an ancient tradition by contacting inner teachers in that tradition, and it would certainly appear that the decks used to illustrate this book are the result of such inner contact.

The three key decks of the modern era were all produced by members of that fraternity: The Golden Dawn Tarot (designed by MacGregor Mathers), The Rider-Waite Deck, designed by A.E. Waite, and the Thoth Tarot designed by Aleister Crowley. A fourth major deck, already mentioned, is that of Paul Case for the BOT A. His version is an excellent correction of that issued by Waite.

The Waite deck, one of the most popular ever published, seems to have been designed with such concern for oaths of membership in the Order that it remains entirely exoteric. It is included in the hope that those who may have chosen to study the deck may find its (often admirable, occasionally unacceptable) symbolism more useful when considered from the standpoint of the Hermetic Qabalah.

The Golden Dawn Tarot is an esoteric deck, intended for the private use of members of the Order. Crowley's deck is also esoteric, in that it conceals the nineteenth century Order's symbolism. Certainly, Crowley's Thoth Tarot is the most original recent contribution to Tarot studies.

Unfortunately neither Crowley nor Mathers has received appropriate credit for their work with the Tarot. And because of their occasionally outrageous behavior, both men have been fair game for social historians. Moreover, their scholarly limitations have made them the butt of jokes by meticulous researchers on the Hebrew Qabalah. But a study of any Mystery

Tradition, unless it be purely historical, requires that preconceived notions be set aside, and that the system be judged solely on the merit of its efficacy. One must use the word efficacy because that is the only valid measure of a metaphysical system. Does it work? But how do we establish whether it works or not? The answer to these questions is certainly not to be found through the present methods of the sciences, or of the humanities, which are predicated on those of science; data is collected and analyzed empirically. And since those ideas known as "The Mysteries" do not lend themselves to this sort of attack, being in high degree irrational, they may be denigrated even by historians. Many knowledgeable scholars perceive late nineteenth century Hermetic Qabalism as only a romantic and fanciful offshoot of Hebrew Qabalism, unworthy of the sort of research devoted to esoteric Judaism. And the social toning of the materials as "occult" adds to the wall of preconceptions and prejudgments.

The problem arises in that to study any aspect of the Mysteries the investigator must himself become a part of the system. He must evaluate it from the inside, which may make it appear that he has abrogated investigative objectivity. Today's academicism does not allow for the acquisition of knowledge through intuition and psychism, an attitude placing it in paradoxical contradiction to a high proportion of those great thinkers whom the Humanities study and purport to revere. In the Humanities, the universities have deteriorated into observers of, rather than participants in, the development of man's creative and intellectual faculties.

A more serious problem, in terms of the cautious dissemination of occult ideas, is that any proofs which may emerge are valid only for the investigator himself. Carl Jung expressed this by stating that "only the psyche can know the psyche."

The fact is, however, that those who travel the inner paths (using any given system) have parallel experiences. The encounter of, for example, the energies symbolized by THE UNIVERSE card, theoretically produces the same basic experience for everyone. It should be quickly added, however, that through what is known as the astral level of consciousness, one functions within the confines of a cultus. A Catholic mystic will learn the same lessons through the symbolism of Christianity that a Qabalist learns through the symbolism of the Tree of Life. The universal energies are actually formless, yet we perceive them in the guise of our chosen system.

It is at the level of the Christ-Buddha-Krishna Intelligence that the unity of all systems becomes apparent, and we are freed into pure consciousness. Thus, in these terms, one may appreciate that when the question is asked, "Does the system work?" it means: Is the symbolic structure of the system representative of universal truths sufficient to carry one beyond the system itself? In the case of the Hermetic Qabalah and its practical tool, the Tarot, there can be no doubt. This is an extremely potent system, particularly in that it may be incorporated into any system or religion in which the student chooses to function. Of course, no one is asked to accept this statement on face value. Blind acceptance of anything whatsoever is contrary to the Qabalistic method.

Continue reading here: The Search For Truth

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