The Esoteric Tarot: Transition (Part 2)
From magickal theories to secret societies . . .
Both his eclecticism and his occult interests placed Christian in perfect tune with his times. Among the intellectuals and artists of 19th-century France, esoteric ideas were a common coin, and the study of such matters was regarded by many of its participants as a bold counterstroke against the decaying rationalism of mainstream French thought. Playwright and novelist Victor Hugo, for example, was interested in the Kabbalah; the Romantic poet Gerard de Nerval had a considerable acquaintance with alchemy; and Arthur Rimbaud drew on occult literature for some of the symbolism in his poetry.
So it was that in 1870, when Paul Christian published his History of Magic, the book was received with quick enthusiasm in France, and was soon known abroad. In this work, Christian gave a full depiction of one of the ceremonies which supposedly took place under the Egyptian pyramids. The aspiring adept was led up a series of seventy-eight steps, and then through a hall containing the images of the Tarot trumps.
Christian’s trumps were recast a bit to fit into the ambience of his stories, but they are still perfectly recognizable:
I. The Magus
II. The Gate of the Sanctuary
III. Isis Urania
IV. The Cubic Stone
V. Master of the Mysteries of the Arcana
VI. The Two Roads
VII. The Chariot of Osiris
VIII. Themis or the Scales and the Blade
IX. The Veiled Lamp
X. The Sphinx
XI. The Muzzled or Tamed Lion
XII. The Sacrifice
XIII. The Skeleton Reaper or Scythe
XIV. The Two Urns or Genius of the Sun
XVI. The Beheaded or Lightning Struck Tower
XVII. The Tower of the Magi
XVIII. The Twilight
XIX. The Blazing Light
XIX. The Awakening of the Dead or Genius of the Dead
O. The Crocodile
XX. The Crown of the Magi
Christian’s ordering of the trumps was essentially the same as Lévi’s. Indeed, Christian had studied with Lévi briefly, and though he formed a dislike of the man himself, he was undoubtedly influenced by Lévi, as was almost every other occultist of the period.
Lévi had derided the popular fortune-telling decks of his own day, and had insisted on the necessity of going back to the “original” Tarot deck (which he thought to be the 18th-century Marseilles-type deck that Court de Gébelin had first encountered). While Lévi accepted the order of the Marseilles deck, he asserted that the key to “rectifying” the deck- — that is, regaining its esoteric purity — was in the correct placement of The Fool, which he put between Trumps XX and XXI (Judgment and The World). The Fool was designated as 0, rather than XXI, in order to signify its unique character as both beginning and ending the sequence. Christian placed The Crocodile in the same position.
This matter of trump sequence was to become increasingly important as interest in the Tarot grew, for it was generally thought that the secrets of the Tarot trumps were accessible only to those who knew the “correct” order. The catch? Many occultists believed that only true adepts, those who had been initiated, would know the correct order — and that they would not reveal it to the uninitiated. Therefore, went the reasoning, anyone who told the order either didn’t know it or was purposefully concealing it!
On this basis, it was later claimed that Lévi and others had purposely concealed the true order of the trumps to preserve the burden of secrecy imposed on them by their occult groups.
The “correct” attribution of Hebrew letters to the trumps was also considered vital to a proper understanding of the Tarot, and every published attribution was similarly suspected of being false.
It was inevitable that, as these details were being debated, the cards themselves should have to be redesigned, their images esoterically clarified. Lévi himself had announced the necessity of “restoring the twenty-two Arcana of the Tarot to their hieroglyphic purity,” but he had never gotten around to it. And it was not until 1889 that a deck was produced in accordance with Lévi’s particular system.
Now the Marquis Stanislaus de Guaita, along with Spanish-born physician Dr. Gérard Encausse, enters the picture. In 1888 they founded the Cabalistic Order of the Rosy Cross, and it was de Guaita who joined forces with amateur artist Oswald Wirth to produce the revised Tarot deck envisioned by Lévi.
Here’s a sample:
The appearance of this limited-edition deck was only one in a cluster of events that took place in the demimonde of French occult enthusiasts during the years 1888 and 1889. Tarot was included in a number of esoteric publications around this time, but the first substantive book devoted exclusively to Tarot was The Tarot of the Bohemians, written by Encausse under the name “Papus.”
Encausse is known today only as Papus, so that is what he will be called hereafter.
Papus’s principal contribution to occultism was not to be in the form of revolutionary new insights, but rather in the elaboration and refinement of ideas that had already become the mainstream of Tarot tradition. These ideas were organized around the Kabbalistic interpretation of the Tarot, and they formed a link between the Tarot deck and the foundations of ceremonial magic. Like virtually all of the 19th-century commentators, Papus wrote as much or more on the principles of magical practice as on the Tarot itself. This synthesis of esoteric ideas and activities came to be known as “occult science.”
The Secret Tarot
In the process of further developing Tarot lore, Papus added yet another piece to the myth of Tarot origins that had been percolating ever since Court de Gébelin. According to Papus, writing in The Tarot of the Bohemians, ancient priests had purposefully chosen a game as the repository of their secrets:
At first [the priests] thought of confiding these secrets to virtuous men secretly recruited by the Initiates themselves, who would transmit them from generation to generation. But one priest, observing that virtue is a most fragile thing, and most difficult to find, at all events in a continuous line, proposed to confide the scientific traditions to vice. The latter, he said, would never fail completely, and through it we are sure of a long and durable preservation of our principles. This opinion was evidently adopted, and the game chosen as a vice was preferred. The small plates were then engraved with the mysterious figures which formerly taught the most important scientific secrets, and since then players have transmitted this Tarot from generation to generation far better than the most virtuous men on earth could have done.
Papus’s work on the Tarot — though it was as lavishly romantic in conception as anyone else’s — was nevertheless densely argued and carefully supported. My own copy, a 1953 reprint of the English translation, runs to more than 300 pages, scattered with information graphics like these:
Because of the rigor Papus attempted to bring to the subject, The Tarot of the Bohemians turned out to be the only work to emerge from the French occult school that has remained of real interest. But others were written. De Guaita produced Le Serpent de la Genise, which presented a more mystical approach to the cards — in which, for example, The Hermit signifies the mysteries of solitude, Fortitude (Strength) the power of will, and The Wheel of Fortune the circle of becoming.
De Guaita was a colorful character, whose relatively short life of thirty-six years was lived with great intensity. Richard Cavendish, in The Tarot, gives this provocative description of the young magician:
He was said to own a familiar spirit, which he kept locked in a cupboard when not in use, and to be able to volatilize poisons and project both them and his own body through space. He lived in rooms hung in scarlet and was accused of constantly dressing up as a cardinal, though his friends said that the truth was merely that he had a favourite red dressing-gown. An aspiring poet and admirer of Baudelaire, Guaita experimented with morphine, cocaine and hashish, and took up occultism with passionate enthusiasm on reading Eliphas Lévi.
Whatever his idiosyncrasies may have been, de Guaita was tireless in his efforts to create a viable occultist order, and together, he, Wirth, and Papus formed the nexus of several esoteric currents. Wirth, a hypnotist, was both a Freemason and a Theosophist, as was Papus; all three men were fascinated by a loosely organized tradition of esoteric teachings called “Rosicrucianism”; and de Guaita and Papus were also involved in the revival of Martinism, a mystical order which had been very powerful in Europe during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. (Court de Gébelin himself had belonged to a Martinist order, the Elect Order of Cohens.)
The special quality of Martinism was its emphasis on meditation over magical practice. Martinist initiations were not ceremonial, but purely personal, passed along from master to student. This tradition was ideal for de Guaita’s purposes, because his involvement in creating a neo-Martinist movement was actually designed to discover and attract promising students who might in turn become adepts in his Rosicrucian group. Like a good many other characters (some of whom we will meet in the next chapter), de Guaita was part of an emerging competition — both social and philosophical in nature — for leadership of the occult movement.
The movement was marked by the proliferation of “secret” societies. These groups, many of which sprang up in England and Europe around the same period of time, drew their participants from many different sources. Modern Tarot commentator Mouni Sadhu, in his unique hermetic textbook The Tarot, describes the groups in this way:
To them came people tired by their long religious search; those disappointed in academic knowledge; those desiring something similar to Masonry, but, as they hoped, in a nobler form; ordinary, curious people of all calibers, and those who were unacceptable to other occult organizations. Finally, there were the really honest men and women who were striving after mystical powers, lovers of talks on occult themes in full salons, and hysterically-minded ladies, who are always keen for membership of societies where there is a taste of mystery.
The fountainhead of all this interest in the occult was a rising, restless dissatisfaction with modem materialism, with the increasing complexity and changefulness of life. There was a strong need to discover — or recover — some sense of continuity, meaning, simplicity; and this need was perfectly addressed by the message that de Guaita’s friend Papus presented in his books on the Tarot and the occult sciences. The very first paragraph of The Tarot of the Bohemians declared that materialism had failed:
We are on the eve of a complete transformation of our scientific methods. Materialism has given us all that we can expect from it, and inquirers, though disappointed as a rule, hope for great things from the future, and are unwilling to spend more time in pursuing the path adopted in modem days. Analysis has been carried, in every branch of knowledge, as far as possible, and has only deepened those moats which divide the sciences.
The several streams of esoteric thought that flowed through Papus’s mind enabled him to weave a strong fabric of occult associations into his interpretation of the Tarot. He contended that in ancient times, all knowledge had been condensed into a few simple principles. These fundamental laws, Papus believed, could be glimpsed in the Bible, Homer, the Koran, and all the important documents of early civilization; they had been handed along through a chain that included the classical mystery religions and Gnosticism (a divergent form of Christianity).
After being lost for centuries during the Dark Ages, Papus believe, these ideas had been passed back to the Western world through the discovery of Arabic texts in which they had been preserved. Once reclaimed, the ideas were perpetuated by the alchemists, the Knights Templar, Raymond Lull, and the Rosicrucians, and finally preserved by the Masons and the Martinists.
The essential record of that original synthesis, according to Papus, was the Tarot. However much the primeval knowledge may have been distorted by its passage through many centuries and many voices, the pure form of those fundamental cosmic laws was still to be found in the Tarot.
But only those who possessed the real key to the Tarot images could know these profound truths.
Given human nature, a struggle over possession of the “real” key was inevitable. And that struggle was to take its most dramatic (or, some might say, melodramatic) form not in France, where the story of the esoteric Tarot had been unfolding for more than a century — but in England. At almost exactly the same time that Stanislaus de Guaita formed his Rosicrucian society, another group of seekers was gathering across the Channel: a group whose aim would become nothing less than the re-animation of the primal imagination . . . .
The next installment of Tarot history—”Makers of Modern Tarot”—will start soon.