The Esoteric Tarot: Transition (Part 1)
From ancient mysteries to magickal mysticism . . .
The whole idea of an “esoteric Tarot” had begun toward the end of the 18th century, seemingly out of the blue. In the main, it was a kind of fantasy — generated by a few men who were already steeped in misunderstood lore.
Among the most consequential figures were a gentleman scholar, Antoine Court de Gébelin, and an innovative cartomancer who styled himself Etteilla. (Catch up on their respective activities in Backgrounds and Inventions.) Like generations of occult enthusiasts, both men had been eager to possess special knowledge and promote grand theories. So when they came across the Tarot, with its evocative, unexplained images, the appeal was immediate.
Surely the deck must be an ancient artifact, with profound meaning — perhaps even the long-missing key to a treasury of lost wisdom! One who studied and mastered its secrets would undoubtedly gain great power.
None of that was true, of course, in any literal way. But once the Tarot had been placed in an esoteric context, it seemed to fit perfectly. Since its images and structures could be plugged into almost any theory or scenario, the Tarot connected easily with an array of mystical systems and magical practices.
To see how all that took shape, we pick up the story with a quartet of 19th-century French occultists, as they laid the groundwork for what will become our modern Tarot.
The Kabbalistic Tarot
Eliphas Lévi Zahed — usually shortened to Eliphas Lévi —was the pseudonym of Alphonse Louis Constant. Reports of Constant’s early life differ, but it seems certain that he was born in 1810, that he trained for the Catholic priesthood, and that he turned instead to teaching and journalism, as well as the serious study of magic and mysticism. When he began to write occult treatises, Constant followed the common practice of adopting a nom de plume, which he derived by translating his own name into Hebrew.
And since he is now known almost entirely by his pseudonym, he’ll be referred to as Lévi hereafter.
Like others interested in “occultism” (a term he actually coined during the 19th century), Lévi was certain the Tarot trumps must be a very ancient document, containing great esoteric secrets. Indeed he saw it as connected with many occult traditions, including the Egyptian mysteries. It was Lévi who suggested a connection between the Tarot and the so-called Bembine Table of Isis (a large bronze and silver panel covered with Egyptian hieroglyphics) thought by the Hermetic philosophers of the Renaissance to contain the highest wisdom of the ancient world. It was probably a decorative item of late Roman origin, but of course they didn’t know that.
Lévi’s greatest enthusiasm, however — and his most significant contribution to the lore of the Tarot — was the extensive correlation he developed between Tarot and the great Hebrew system of mysticism, Kabbalah. The history of the Kabbalistic tradition is complex, and richly debated. But in terms of esoteric Tarot, it’s likely that our group of French occultists derived most of their ideas from late medieval magical texts, and from a group of interconnected Jewish works probably dating from the 13th century — known simply as the Zohar.
Although Court de Gébelin had seen a potential for connecting the twenty-two trumps with the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet, it was not until Lévi that the idea of a profound relationship emerged. He was so taken with the perceived commonality that it led him to a new scenario for the origin of the Tarot cards:
When the Sovereign Priesthood ceased in Israel, when all the oracles of the world became silent in presence of the Word which became Man, and speaking by the mouth of the most popular and gentle of sages, when the Ark was lost, the sanctuary profaned, and the Temple destroyed, the mysteries of Ephod and Theraphim, no longer recorded on gold and precious stones, were written or rather figured by certain wise Kabbalists first on ivory and parchment, on gilt and silvered leather, and afterwards on simple cards which were always objects of suspicion to the official church as containing a dangerous key to its mysteries. From these have originative those Tarots whose antiquity was revealed to the learned Court de Gébelin through the sciences of hieroglyphics and of numbers.
By this time (in fact, by the time Lévi was born) there was general awareness that Egypt’s hieroglyphic language was not a code concealing occult wisdom, but rather an ordinary means of general communication. So there was need of a new mythography to maintain the idea of Tarot as a profound source of knowledge. And since the Kabbalistic tradition already had a long and well-documented history, there was no danger of another rug being pulled out from under the occult community.
But Lévi’s idea offered something much more important than simply a new creation myth for the Tarot. He saw the Tarot not just as a fascinating relic of some ancient symbolic system, but as an unparalleled practical tool, a key to the wisdom of the ages:
The universal key of magical works is that of all ancient religious dogmas the key of the Kabbalah and the Bible, the little key of Solomon. Now, this clavicle [Lévi’s term for the major arcana of the Tarot] regarded as lost for centuries has been recovered by us, and we have been able to open the sepulchres of the ancient world, to make the dead speak, to behold the moments of the past in all their splendor, to understand the enigmas of every sphinx and to penetrate all sanctuaries. Among the ancients the use of this key was permitted to none but the high priests, and even so its secret was confided only to the flower of initiates . . . . The Tarot is truly a philosophical machine, which keeps the mind from wandering, while leaving its initiative and liberty. It is mathematics applied to the absolute, the alliance of the positive and the ideal, a lottery of thoughts as exact as numbers, perhaps the simplest and grandest conception of human genius …. An imprisoned person, with no other book than the Tarot, if he knew how to use it, could in a few years acquire universal knowledge and would be able to speak on all subjects with unequalled learning and inexhaustible eloquence.
To understand Lévi’s excitement, it is necessary to realize that, from the Kabbalistic point of view, the Hebrew alphabet is not just a system of writing, but rather an expression of all the fundamental facts and forces of creation — which in turn can be organized in a complex image called the “Tree of Life.” The framework of this tree is made up of ten sephiroth (“glowing sapphires”), which represent fundamental ideas such as Splendor, Wisdom, Force, and Kingdom.
The image on the left below shows the earliest surviving version of the Kabbalistic tree, while the one on the right shows the extent to which esotericists had complicated the idea in just over a century.
According to hermetic lore, the sephiroth are connected by twenty-two wisdom paths, each designated by a letter of the Hebrew alphabet and describing certain psychospiritual processes. The twenty-two Tarot trumps, Lévi asserted, are emblematic of these twenty-two paths.
The rest of the Tarot deck has also been linked to this system. Each of the ten sephiroth has a number, and occultists suggested these numbers can be correlated with those of the ten number cards in the suits of the Tarot. In turn, the four suits (in the form of their court cards) relate to the Kabbalah’s Four Worlds, or successive emanations of creation, from the highest (the divine or archetypal), through creative and formative dimensions, to the material level of the planetary sphere.
By thus connecting all seventy-eight Tarot cards with the complex structure of the Kabbalah, it seemed possible to form a complete system that would interrelate number, word, and image. Just such a “grand synthesis” had been the compelling goal of esoteric investigation for centuries—so it was no wonder Eliphas Lévi believed that in wedding Tarot with Kabbalah, he had discovered a powerful source of knowledge and magic.
Lévi, like Court de Gébelin, had grasped something important about the Tarot, something which has shaped the whole course of Tarot studies. But — also like Court de Gébelin — Lévi let himself be carried away from the heart of the matter by a wave of romantic enthusiasm. It’s apparent that the Kabbalah and the Tarot resemble one another in certain respects, but there is no evidence at all to suggest the two systems were ever linked in any intentional or dependent way. Similarities between the two systems are important not because they indicate a common source, but because they reveal certain basic esoteric concepts embodied in both.
Once one begins to pick up the threads that run between the Kabbalah and the Tarot, it’s possible to follow them in many other directions as well. To alchemy, to astrology, to Native American religion. Ancient Greek mystery cults, Hawaiian Kahuna magic, Chinese Taoism, Tibetan Buddhism — all of these systems of thought (and many more) have elements in common with those of Tarot.
The Magickal Tarot
It was exactly this wealth of possible associations which encouraged an idea that Tarot must be part of an ancient complex of esoteric knowledge. And as various commentators — each with his own special bit of knowledge — went on to “discover” more correlations . . . . the new mythography of Tarot began to expand.
Next among these contributors was Jean-Baptiste Pitois. Writing under the penname “Paul Christian,” this prolific French journalist and historian produced, in 1863, L’homme rouge des Tuileries, a work which significantly influenced a whole generation of occultists.
It purports to include a manuscript copied by an old monk, and although it never mentions the Tarot by name, allusions to Tarot are quite clear. One of the chief features described is a great circle made of seventy-eight gold leaves, once contained in an Egyptian temple at Memphis. On these leaves, according to Christian’s story, were images used in the process of initiation into an ancient mystery religion. No factual basis was offered for the tale, but it swiftly became part of the burgeoning background to the occult movement, and helped lay the groundwork for a whole series of secret societies — which were to base their practices on the supposed initiatory rites of ancient cults.
Christian was a historian, a professional journalist, and a man of action; there was little about him of the eccentricity that marked many other occult figures of the time. His interest in esoteric matters had begun in 1839, when he was appointed (at the age of twenty-eight) a librarian in the Ministry of Public Education. His task was to sort through a huge quantity of books that had been seized during the suppression of the French monasteries in 1790. Among these texts were many related to magical and philosophical subjects, and Christian began a lifelong study which was to culminate in 1870 with the publication of his History of Magic.
In the intervening years, Christian served as editor-in-chief of the Moniteur du Soir and the Moniteur Catholique; wrote a well-respected history of the French Revolution, an account of the French conquest of Morocco, and an eight-part Heroes of Christianity; contributed the introduction to a volume of Helvétius; produced a translation of James MacPherson’s Ossian; and collected a volume of tales called Stories of the Marvellous from All Times and Lands.
From that partial list of his accomplishments, it seems obvious that Christian’s abilities and interests were wide-ranging . . . .