General Book of the Tarot
F ever a book should be written on the Romance of Symbolism, its hypothesis of interpretation, its traditional and imputed histories, a considerable space would be allotted assuredly to Tarot-cards; while seeing that at this
day there is more concern in the subject than was felt even in the past, there would be a call not only to survey that
which lies behind us, a strange field of speculation and reverie, but the prospect extending in front, since every year brings forth some new proposition and provides material for future imaginative flights. It is very curious to contrast those comparatively sober terms in which Court de Gebelin introduced his discovery of the cards, * though he sought to prove that their origin was in Ancient Egypt, with the fantastic declamations of Éliphas Lévi, who affirmed not only that they were the Alphabet of Enoch, Hermes Trismegistus and Cadmus but the Gospel of all Gospels, a synthesis of science and the universal key of the Kabbalah.
De Gebelin was a man of learning at his own period and remained within the circle of facts, actual or supposed, as he saw and read them. His successor was a man of extravagant mind, who contemplated past and future alike through a glass of vision, and so beheld all faërie unfold its images. The occult happenings of the past became in the process as
much a matter of invention as his own notions. The inventions were decorative and were even characterised at times by a magian quality of intuition; but in most cases his record of past events was like his reading of things to come. His tale of the Knights Templar, his intimations on the Rosy Cross, his survey of alchemical literature are in much the same
category as his prognostications about a parliament of nations under an universal monarchy ruled by a King of France. He discovered the religion behind all religions, a fountain-source from which they issued in their day and into which all return. This was the Secret Tradition of Israel; but it proves to be a Tradition of his own making, which falsifies all the
literature, and he had not read the texts from which he claimed to draw. He had glanced there and here at a few records of the subject and distorted them in the magic crystal of his seership. He took up the Tarot, and just as a cartomancist shuffles and deals and lays out its picturesymbols for the reading of things to come, so did he divine their past. He adopted the speculations of De Gebelin, and they dilated in his own mind. He dressed up the Trumps Major in Egyptian vestures and affirmed that he had restored the Tarot in its primitive hieroglyphical form. By a fortunate chance there had preceded him in 1857 another fantasiast, J. F. Vaillant, with a gift in etymologies, more stupefying than anything produced before him. * Between them there deployed all
Babylon and all its idols. But Egypt loomed behind Babylon and the Kabbalah behind Egypt. It is post-Talmudic in unadorned fact, but for them it was older than Moses and older even than Abraham. In fine, behind the Kabbalah there was, and remains among us, the Book of Thoth, and this was the Tarot, within which was the light unlimited of its
endless range of meanings that had never passed into writing but dwelt implicitly in both, above all in Lévi's mind. And a day came when he made his great discovery which had never entered previously into the heart of scholiast or commentator. The Tree of Life in Kabbalism has 22 Paths by which the Sephiroth or Numerations are connected one with another and late Kabbalism had married these Paths to the 22 Letters of the Hebrew Alphabet. But the Tarot Trumps Major are also 22, and Éliphas Lévi proclaimed another marriage, constituting a Trinity in unity
of Cards and Paths and Letters. It has been the joy of all Occult hierophants and their believing disciples through the decades that followed. On all these Lévi has exercised a great influence in French circles, and seeing that Tarot expository literature is French almost exclusively, he calls for consideration at length when estimating expository values.
It was not in the least needful but was pleasant, if opportunity offered, to find that there were others before him who knew and had used to some purpose the Tarot keys. As a fact, there was St. John on Patmos, the proof being that he wrote his Book of Revelations in 22 chapters. The Apocalypse henceforward, for true initiates, became an exposition of
Tarot Trumps. It had not occurred to Lévi or to those who followed him that the arrangement of scripture texts in divisions called chapters is unhappily a late device. There was also Louis Claude de Saint-Martin, who was one of les vrais initiés, and he had written a certain Tableau, setting forth the relations between God, Man and the Universe. He broke it up into numbered parts which reached the same total, so the Tableau Naturel arises out of the Tarot and returns therein. After what manner the cards and the sections belong to one another in either case, it was not to be expected perhaps that a French Magus should unfold, though he held the key of all things, so the allocation remains a mystery even to this day, while the Lévi successors in France reproduce their master's dogmas from generation to generation.
Hereof is the Tarot in its literary history, from the pre-French Revolution Monde Primitif of Court de Gebelin to the year 1870, when it occurred to P. Christian (Paul Pitois), ancien bibliothecaire that the History of Magic might be extended further, with profit, by the gentle art of invention. The Franco-Prussian war stood on the threshold of events, Éliphas Lévi had been silent for five years and was forgotten for the time being, though
still in print. It was safe to borrow something of his motives and manner, as also from the spectacular findings in his glass of vision; so Christian borrowed accordingly, and his tale of La Fatalité à travers les temps et les peuples is the Histoire de la Magie of Lévi, retold after another manner and with more liberal and frequent appeal to the repertory of the Father of Lies. Christian had none of those literary gifts which adorn the pages of Lévi, but his inventions are highly sensational and often microscopical in detail. It seems probable even that, like his predecessor, he began by convincing himself (a) that things should have happened in that or in this way and therefore did, (b) that his divinatory devices foretold the future, at least now and then. It is precisely this kind of mischief which begets itself in others, and altogether I am not surprised that Christian's L’Homme Rouge des Tuileries, which followed--I think--his
[paragraph continues] Histoire de la Magie, has become of authority among Grimoires and is sought eagerly, or that he is still quoted off and on for his Tarot views.
A space of fifteen years elapsed, and circa 1885 a group of neo-Martinists began to be formed in Paris, with Papus--Dr. Gérard Encausse--at their head. As it happened that notwithstanding the two-and-twenty sections of his Tableau Naturel, Saint-Martin contributed nothing to Tarot lore, had in all probability never glanced at the mysterious card-symbols, and abandoned early and definitely all occult workings, the Martinism of the late XIXth century signified, as a name only, that its followers had their eyes turned to the esoteric tradition of the West, rather than that of the East, and in their preoccupation were thinly Christian rather than theosophical in the sense of Modern Theosophy, through which some of them had passed and had come forth unsatisfied. The Master in Chief of Papus was always Éliphas Lévi, to whom his occult notions are referable in the last resource, whose Kabbalism is his Kabbalism and whose Tarot is his Tarot. Papus worked indefatigably at these subjects and extended them on every side, producing great inventions, with a certain laborious sincerity, as I shall be disposed always to think. But, like those who preceded and those who have come after him, Papus was an occultist, not a mystic, and from my point of view the pictorial symbols of les imagiers du moyen âge, as Oswald Wirth terms them, unfold their meanings in this other and higher light.
The Martinist School, its connections and derivatives, produced their Tarots, sub nomine Falconnier, sub nomine Alta, sub nomine Oswald Wirth, and there were yet other artists and diviners, some borrowing lights from one another and some kindling an occasional torch or a casual flash on their own part. The Monographs multiplied, and the
Marquis Stanislas de Guiata produced a sequence of treatises wherein all occultism unfolded from the Trumps Major. There was no end to the activities, with the Lévi pageants always in the background and in the forefront often.
When twenty-five years had elasped in this manner and the Tarot Bibliography had attained considerable dimensions, the War of 1914 engulfed all the Schools and all their brave imaginings; and when it was in fine suspended by the figurative peace of Versailles, the Schools emerged but slowly from the weltering chaos and were shorn of their chief personalities,
their adornments and appeal. The names of some of them are with us at this day, centered in a little group at Lyons.
But French occultism, apart from specific schools and incorporated pretensions, seems very much alive, and Oswald Wirth produced recently the most decorative Tarot study, so far as form is concerned, which has appeared since we first heard of the subject. * His attention is directed to the Trumps Major solely and he has little to say on the divinatory side of the subject, that so-called practical side which engrosses most persons who would call themselves Tarot students. It is none of my own business, but it is clear from my knowledge of the literature that under this aspect there is room for new treatment. Dr. Thierens has approached it from an astrological standpoint in the work which these
preliminary pages are designed to introduce. I have been led to do so because very little has been printed previously on the zodiacal attributions of the cards and because it happens that I am acquainted with unpublished divinatory methods making use of these attributions for many years past in one of the occult circles. † There is a literature of the Tarot which has not emerged so far into the light of day and some of it is excessively curious. It was said of old in a very different connexion: Quod tenet nunc teneat donec de medio fiat; and I do not know whether certain subsisting difficulties will be taken ultimately out of the way, so that the theoretical and practical speculations of such circles may be compared with those brought forward in public ways during recent and earlier years. In this manner we should have at least the subject general of the Tarot expanded fully.
Meanwhile Dr. Thierens has approximated more than anyone else towards a valid interpretation of Tarot Trump Major No. XII, being the Hanged Man. From Court de Gebelin to Papus and Stanislas de Guaita, not excluding Oswald
[paragraph continues] Wirth himself, all published exoteric meanings are utterly remote from the true significance of this most pregnant symbol.
In my Pictorial Key to the Tarot and in the Little Key which accompanies Miss Pamela Colman Smith's complete set of the cards, produced long ago under my own auspices, there was said concerning it that which was possible at the time. I will give now one further indication. The human figure of the symbol is suspended head downward and as such it is
comparable to the Microprosopus or God of Reflections in the so-called Great Symbol or Double Triangle of Solomon, prefixed by Lévi to this Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie, being the frontispiece of the first volume. * It follows that the true symbol belonging to Trump Major No. XII, though it is by no means that of Lévi, is not a Hanged Man at all; but it will continue to be depicted in this manner unless and until the Greater Arcana are issued by the authority of another Secret Circle, which so far has never testified officially concerning itself in the outer channels of research.
I have said that every year brings forth some new consideration, and Dr. Thierens promises another work, while the speculation which has just been adventured speaks of things unattempted and yet conceived in the mind. There is no intention signified; but I know what emblems would adorn it. How things will stand with the Tarot in days to come may loom therefore vaguely; but obviously there are activities to come. There is, however, one side of the subject on which no horizon opens. As to where the Trumps Major originated, how and with whom, there is no conclave of adepts to tell us and no isolated student, holding evidential warrants. At the moment we can look only for more speculations and more dreams to come.
7:* Monde Primitif, analysé et comparé avec le Monde Moderne, par M. Court de Gebelin, g vols. The account and examination of the Tarot will be found in Vol. VIII, published in 1781.
8:* Les Romes appeared at the date in question and maintained that the history of the Tarot is lost in the night of time, but everything justifies the hypothesis that it is of Indo-Tartarian origin and that it has been transmitted to modern times by the Romany tribes of his title.
11:* Le Tarot des Imagiers du Moyen Age, 1927, accompanied by a separative portfolio of coloured plates and with many illustrations in the text.
11:† Oswald Wirth has a short excursus on Astrology at the end of his work, in which he enumerates the zodiacal implicities allocated to the four elements, but no Tarot connection is suggested. It is rather curious that a study of the Sepher Zetzirah in conjunction with the Tree of Life and the triple marriage effected by Éliphas Lévi has not produced
speculations long since on the astronomical and astrological correspondences of the Tarot Trumps.
12:* See my annotated translation, entitled Transcendental Magic: Its Doctrine and Ritual, new and revised edition, 1923.