Monday, May 5, 2008

Tarot: Mundane or Magical?

When I got my first Tarot deck twenty years ago, I dutifully read through the history of the deck in the front of the book but it didn't interest me and I soon tossed it aside, more intent into getting to the cards themselves. My mistake, the history is one of the most interesting things about it, truly as interesting as the cards themselves.

There are two different levels to it, one that can be backed up by fact and the other that, as far as can be proved always veers into mythology in the end. Though many people feel that the Tarot has 'magical' origins, they have always been frustrated in their attempts to find any proof of this. Yet they insist that it it does despite any solid proof and despite appearing ridiculous. Hopefully, this post will help show you why they feel the way they feel and why they may not be as silly as they sound.

As far as any records show, the first time that the Tarot deck was actually associated with the occult was in the 18th century. A man named Antoine Court de Gebelin, who would probably not be remembered today if it weren't for his connection with Tarot, was writing a series of nine books called Le Monde Primitif when he saw a Tarot deck at the home of a friend. Upon seeing it he became convinced that it contained hidden occult knowledge from ancient Egypt. And though he only devoted one page to the Tarot, his little mention of it is where modern thoughts on Tarot begin.

He called it the "Book of Thoth." (Thoth is the Egyptian God of Magic and information) and claimed that it contained the entirety of Ancient Egyptian Magic in symbolic form. It was during this same time period that the cards were linked to the Kabbalah, an ancient Jewish Mystical system, which some say goes back all the way to Moses in Egypt--which is where the link between Egypt and Kaballah come in--in case you were wondering.

The 22 major arcana cards (The Food, etc..) are thought to represent the 22 paths on the tree of life--also the 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet. The 10 cards in each suit--Ace through 10--represent the ten Sephiroth or stages of emanation. The four suits, Swords, water, Earth and Air represent the 4 layers of existence. Though this could arguably be coincidental there are Kabbalistic symbols used throughout and not only that, but they seem to correspond in a logical order with the teachings of the Kabballah.

Besides the Kaballah, the Tarot has at one time or another, been linked with just about every form of mysticism, magic and system of esoteric knowledge that exists. As Rachel Pollack says in her book, Forest of Souls,

"The Tarot depicts the sacred myths of the Romany (or Gypsies), disguised in cards for the centuries of exile from the Rom homeland in India--or Egypt--or outer space. The Tarot is a Renaissance card game inspired by annual carnival processions called triumphs. The Tarot is a card game derived from annual processions called thriambs, in honor of the God Dionysus, the creator of wine. The Tarot conceals/reveals the secret number teachings of Pythagoras, a Greek mystic who lived at the time of Moses, and who influenced Plato. the Tarot depicts the secret oral teaching of Moses, who received them directly from God. The Tarot contains the lost knowledge of Atlantis, a drowned continent first described by Plato. the Tarot is a card game imported from Palestine and Egypt during the Crusades. the Tarot is a vast memory system for the Tree of Life, a diagram of the laws of creation. The Tarot hides in plain sight the wisdom of the Egyptian God Thoth, master of all knowledge. the Tarot shows Egyptian temple initiations. The Tarot shows Tantric temple initiations. The Tarot preserves the wisdom of Goddess-initiated witches during the long, dark centuries of patriarchal religion. The Tarot maps the patterns of the Moon in Chaldean astrology. the Tarot was created by papermaker guilds who were the last remnants of the Cathars, Christian heretics brutally suppressed by the Church of Rome.
All of the above, and more, Tarot writers have proclaimed as the one true, authentic origin of Tarot."

When you actually study the cards, it is hard to believe that they just happened on accident. The belief that these cards had some sort of mysterious, origin was solidified by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which was a magical order of the late 19th/early 20th century and was the biggest influence on modern western occultism today. Aleister Crowley was a member and so was the poet Yeats.

Whatever you may think of magic or the occult, the people who were members of The Golden Dawn were hardly ignorant people. The society was full of professional men and women some of whom were highly educated and could read ancient texts in their original languages. Though as I said, the first referenc to the Tarot being of esoteric origin was in the 1700's, they were able to look at older documents to verify the validity of this claim and...though I'll have to take their word for it as I can't read them all checked out.

Yet, anyone who has ever tried to trace the origin of the cards has found only mundane beginnings. They were used to play a card game, similar to bridge...that's it. At the time that they were made, a large part of the population was illiterate and pictorial representations were commonly used to communicate with them. Separately, the cards are no different than any other things being drawn back then, their symbolism was well-used and understood by the contemporaries.

The way it stands now, it is doubtful that we will ever know the answer to the answer to the origin of the cards. What if we found out that there was no mysterious origin, that they were simply playing cards that some deluded people thought that they saw signs in and caused other deluded people to follow them until now we have a mass delusion? Maybe it would be better to keep it like this and not ever know...the mystery adds to the cards--and at any rate--they are still very cool!