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The Golden Dawn of Tarots
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The Golden Dawn of TarotsMyths and Symbols
by Marina Bonomi
As we have seen, all the earliest written documents about triumphs pertain to the Northern Italian aristocratic milieu of the 15th and 16th centuries -- but what of the Gypsies, then, and of the tradition that has them as the legitimate owners of tarots?
The earliest mention of Gypsies in Italy goes back to July 1422 (about 20 years before the Cary Yale deck was painted), when a large group lead by Duke Andrea arrived in Bologna, allegedly on a pilgrimage towards Rome before going back ‘to their lands in Egypt’ (1).
These Gypsies, and the groups that came in the following years, were a source of curiosity and interest for nobles and commoners alike, the center of scrutiny for their exotic dress and manners. Their chieftains were at first treated according to the title they bore and given assistance, as it was custom, for their pilgrimage. Meanwhile, people crowded their encampments to watch, commerce and have their fortunes told. All chroniclers are unanimous on this: invariably they speak of ‘having their hands read’ and in some cases (for instance in France in 1427) of fiery sermons against those ‘who believed and showed their hands’ (Italics are mine).
For centuries, gypsy women used only palmistry, as the French historian François de Vaux de Foletier writes:
And so the gypsy track leads us full circle to 1781 and Court de Gébelin.
It is an interesting fact that the 18th century, commonly seen as the starting point of the dominance of reason against superstition and irrational beliefs, was historically an age rife with the hunt for long lost knowledge and mystical wisdom (as long as that wisdom did not reside in ‘orthodox’ organized religions).
In the 18th and 19th centuries, Egypt was the rage, the deciphering of hieroglyphs was the intellectual enigma of the day, and at the same time all kind of hidden, lost knowledge, incredibly advanced, was attributed to this ancient kingdom. The 18th century saw also the birth of freemasonry (founded officially in 1717). Although not an esoteric association in itself, many early freemasons (Court de Gébelin included) were also members of other, more esoterically-inclined groups. Moreover, just as it happened with the tarots, the early inner mythology of freemasonry connected it with ancient Egypt and with the Templar Knights (4).
Court de Gébelin, in his 1781 article ‘On the Game of Tarots’, announced the discovery of an ancient Egyptian book that survived through the centuries under disguise. He then proceeded to explain the real meaning of the cards: the Moon, for instance, was Isis, whose tears cause the Nile to overflow; the Chariot was Osiris’s triumph after his resurrection -- all of it based not on the oldest Triumph cards, but on the iconography of a later deck, the Marseilles; and on pseudo-etymologies of his own devising (for instance, according to him, Tarot came from tar ros -- ‘real/ true path of life’).
A collaborator of Court of Gébelin is known as ‘C. de M.’ and is introduced by the former as a provincial governor. C. de M., building on Gébelin’s writings, maintained that the tarots were not just any Egyptian book, but the Book of Thot, a name that had been associated for centuries with secret knowledge in astrology, theurgy and alchemy -- also thanks to an early identification of Toth with Hermes. C. de M. was also the first to connect the 22 triumphs to the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, seeing in this correspondence the reason of the use of tarots in divination, in his opinion a degeneration of an ancient sacerdotal practice (5).
At this point the French fortune-teller Jean-Baptiste Alliette (1724-1792) -- better known by his alias Etteilla, who had published in 1770 a tract on the use of common cards in divination -- entered the fray, publishing a work in five parts on the use of tarots. He claimed in its preface to have started his study of the ‘Egyptian book’ as early as the 1757. His theories are basically the same of Gébelin and C. de M. Etteilla, though, adds that in time the original images have been corrupted and their order has been changed. He worked to bring the tarots back to their original iconography and meaning. The final result was a specific deck, the Livre de Thot (Book of Thot). Moreover, he created the Literary Society of the Free Associates Interpreters of the Book of Thot (6) that he led until his death.
The Etteilla deck had three main versions, and gave inspiration for a great number of divining decks. Etteilla himself enjoyed star status for a very long time. The turning point in tarot history, though, came with Eliphas Levi.
Alphonse Luis Constant (1810-1877) had a diverse intellectual path. After abandoning the seminar he was attracted by the socialists and contributed to their propaganda (to the point of being arrested for ‘subversive writing’). He wrote essays on Christian mysticism, was a fair drawer and a bad poet and knew many of the most notable names in the esoteric field of the time. In 1853 he was initiated into an esoteric cabalistic tradition assuming the name Eliphas Levi Zahed.
After a trip to England he published his work of a lifetime, the Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie(7) in two volumes. The first volume, about magical dogma, is divided in 22 chapters. Each chapter is identified by a number, a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, a name with reference to a triumph and a Latin (sometime mixed with Hebrew) sentence, for instance the first is:
In the second volume Levi introduced the tarot as the universal key, a numeral and hieroglyphical alphabet born not from Egyptian knowledge but from Jewish sacerdotal ritual and saved by unknown scribes in a different shape after the Temple was razed. For Levi, the triumphs were the 22 major keys (he introduced the term major arcana, or ‘major misteries’). The deck he referenced was the Marseilles. In a later book he attributes to the Gypsies the preservation of this sacred code, an element elaborated on by Papus who called the tarot the Gypsy Bible and the Bible of Bibles. Meanwhile, even though the Gypsies were known by this time to have come from India and not from Egypt, the Egyptian connection was preserved through the supposed link with the Jewish people and their Egyptian exile.
Levi’s books became fundamental in European esoteric thinking and became the building base for many other practitioners and the myriad esoteric associations of the 19th and 20th centuries. After all, given the importance attributed to them by the most influential European esoterist, how could someone interested in magic ignore the tarots?
Later the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, founded in 1888, elaborated in its Liber T what is nowadays seen as the classic tarot symbology, with the association of each suite to one of the four elements. To the Golden Dawn also is due the re-naming of some of the Arcana to distance them from Christian references, so the pope became the hierophant and the popess became the priestess.
The Golden Dawn didn’t last long. In 1903 it was dissolved due to internal dissension, but two of its former members would be very important in the history of tarot: Arthur Edward Waite, who invented and commissioned the Rider-Waite deck, linking it in his interpretation to the Freemasonry and the Rosicrucian Brotherhood; and Aleister Crowley, the self styled (in his diaries) Beast, Man 666 and most sublime mystic in history -- for many, an eccentric; for some a pervert; for others a black wizard and outright satanist. His Book of Thoth Tarot, published in 1944, was illustrated by the surrealist painter Frieda Harris.
The major arcana are extremely complex, very beautiful and composed of elements of different mystical traditions both from the West and from the East (for the latter Tantrism and Taoism have the lion’s share), while the court cards and the numerals follow faithfully the Liber T. Crowley’s tarots are somewhat individual and separated from the 19th Century esoteric tradition, and are usually seen as a bridge towards the New Age movements.
With this I conclude my series on tarot history, hoping to have answered some questions -- but most of all, to have aroused your curiosity and stimulated some personal research.
General note to avoid misunderstandings: I am in no way saying or implying that tarots should not be used in divination. What I’m irked by is the perpetuation in popular knowledge of pseudo-history passed as fact.
(1) Quoted by François de Vaux de Foletier, Mille Anni di Storia degli Zingari, Jaka Book 1978 p.56
(2) Mérimée, writer celebrated for its story Carmen was well acquainted with gipsy bivouacs
(3) François de Vaux de Foletier ibidem p. 162
(4) Nowadays the connection is played down if not denied outright (and rightly so, since it wasn’t real to begin with), but it was often strongly stressed in the 18th and 19th century as part of the general process of nobilitation of something new by giving it a direct connection to something ancient and famed.
(5) C. de M. has been identified as Louis-Raphael de Fayolle, Count of Mellet ( in French Comte de Mellet from which C. de M.), governor of Maine and Perche from 1767 to 1784.
(6) Société littéraire des associés libres des interprètes du Livre de Thot.
(7) Dogma and Ritual of High Magic, Many of the books of Eliphas Levi are still in print, this one included.
Photo of Eliphas Levi from Wikipedia (image is in the common domain).
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