by Christine Payne-Towler
This exercise proposes Faivre's definitions of "Western Esotericism" and "esoteric spirituality", as showcased in his contributions to Modern Esoteric Spirituality (Crossroads Press, 1995) and Access to Western Esotericism (SUNY Press, 1994.) If we are interested in determining when Tarot became esoteric, it seems only logical for us to definie the idea -- what IS esoteric?
In _Access_ p. 10, Faivre posits four fundamental elements, necessary conditions for a document, group, or movement to be eligable for consideration by scholars as "esoteric". Then he adds two other elements, which are not necessary but which often show up along with the fundamental elements. Here they are:
1) Correspondences: "Symbolic and real correspondences (there is no room for
abstractions here!) are said to exist among all parts of the universe, both
seen and unseen....These correspondences, considered more or less veiled at
first sight, are, therefore, intended to be read and deciphered....The
principles of noncontradiction and excluded middle of linear causality are
replaced here by those of the included middle and synchronicity. We can
distinguish two kinds of corresopondences. First, those that exist in
nature, seen and unseen, e.g. between the seven metals and the seven
planets, between the planets and parts of the human body or character (or of
society).... Next there are correspondences between nature
(the cosmos) or even history, and revealed texts. Here we find the
Kabbalah, whether Jewish or Christian, and varieties of 'physica sacra'...
Ultimately the world stage is a linguistic phenomena."
This is the mysticism of The Word, which is arrived at by spelling out Sacred Names according to numerical, cosmological, and sound values. Of course, this alone is not enough to classify a body of ideas as esoteric, unless it is based on the idea of (p. 11):
2) Living Nature: "The cosmos is complex, plural, hierarchical -- as we have just seen with the idea of correspondence. Accordingly, Nature occupies an essential place.... The word magia, os important in the Renaissance imaginary, truly calls forth the idea of a nature, seen, known, and experienced as essentially alive in its its parts, often inhabited and traverwed by a light or a hidden fire circulating through it. Thus understood, the'magic'is simultaneously the knowledge of the networks of sympathies or antipathies that link the things of Nature and the concrete operation of these bodies of knowledge....More than the practices, properly speaking, it is knowledge -- in the sense of 'gnosis' -- which seems to contribute to establishing the notion of the esoteric attitude....Thus are established a science of Naure, a gnosis laden with soteriological elements, a theosophy which labors over the triad of "God-Humanity-Nature" [the Three worlds!] from which the thesopher brings forth dramaturgical correspondences, complementary, and forever new."
3) Imagination and Mediations: "The two notions are linked and complimentary. The idea of correspondence presumes already a form of imagination inclined to reveal and use mediations of all kinds, such as rituals, symbolic images, mandalas, intermediary spirits. From whence the importance of angelology in this context, but likewise of the 'transmitter' in the sense of "initiator," or "guru"....Perhaps it is especially this notion of mediation that makes the difference between the mystical and the esoteric. In somewhat oversimplified terms, ...the mystic...aspires to the more or less complete suppression of images and intermediaries because for him they become obstacles to the union with God. While the esoterist appears to take more interest in the intermediaries revealed to his inner eye through the power of his creative imagination....He prefers to sojourn on Jacob's ladder where angels (and doubtless other entities as well) climb up and down, rather than to climb to the top and beyond....It is the imagination that allows the use of these intermediaries, symbols, and images to develop a gnosis, to penetrate the hieroglyphics of Nature, to put the theory of correspondences into active practice and to uncover, to see, and to know the mediating entities between Nature and the divine world."...
p. 13: 4) Experience of Transmutation: "If we did not consider the experience of transmutation as an essential component, what is discussed here would hardly exceed the limits of a form of speculative spiritually. Now we know the importance of initiation rituals in what on the most popular plane is called to mind by words like 'esotericism,' 'gnosis,' and 'alchemy.' .... 'Transmutation,' a term brrowed from alchemy in our context, seems more appropriate. It should be understood also as "metamorphosis." ....that illumined knowledge that favors the "second birth" -- a capital notion here, espeically in theosophy. It seems an important piece of the alchemical corpus....It is often implied in such contexts that transmutatin can just as well occur in a portion of nature as in the experimenter himself."
Here are Faivre's other two criteria, those which are fequently found with the other four:
p. 14: The Praxis of Concordence. What is designated thus is not a property of Western esotericism throughout but marks most particularly the beginning of modern times (end of the fifteenth through the sixteenth century)...to reappear at the end of the nineteenty century in a different and triumphant form. This shows up in a consistent tendency to try to establish common denominators between two different traditions or even more, among all traditions, in the hope of obtaiining an illumination, a gnosis, or superior quality....the tye of concordance meant here is....a gnosis embracing diverse traditions and melding them in a singel crucible. This would give the "Man of desire" an X-ray plate image of the living and hidden trunk behind and beneath the visible branches of the discrete traditions."
6) Transmission: Emphasis on transmission implies that an esoteric teaching can or must be transmitted from master to disciple following a preestablished channel, respecting a previously marked path. The "second birth" comes at that price. Two notions follow from this: a) the validity of knowledge transmitted by an affiliation of unimpeachable authenticity or "regularity" (the believer must be attached to a tradition considered as an organic and integral ensemble deserving respect); b) the initiation, that is generally effected from master to disciple.... We know that importance of these conditions in the genesis and development of secret, initiation societies in the West."
So then, does the Tarot as it first appeared, and the time and enviornments in which it made its first appearance, show any signs of at least these first four criteria? It seems evident to me, and I think to Faivre too, that by the early 1500's, Tarot has become an esoteric document, when he says (On page 57 of _Access to Western Esotericism_) "Playng cards, apearing around 1375, began from the early fifteenth century to be symbolic repositories for the gods and the planets." At the point when the Tarot settled into 22 numbered Arcana with the suits and royalty as we know them today, one would be hard-pressed to undermine the idea that at least some of their users were educated, initiated, and imginative enough to see their "esoteric" applications and use them with this in mind. Perhpas this usage did not get the ink that divinitory usages and card-game usages have had, but given Faivre's criteria above, how could Tarot not be almost immediately seen in an esoteric light, once it appeared?
For that matter, once we factor in the strong 'initiatory/Chivalric" and "Hermetic-Cabbalistic" themes already traditional and in common currency during the 1400's, the profound outpouring of classical imagery simultenously emerging from the scholastics at the same time, plus the publishing revolution being dominated by heretical esoteric families of Gnostic Jews... how can we ignore the implications of this climate and culture for Tarot? How can Tarot's eventuation into a form so totally suited to expressing QBL, Astrological, Elemental, and Sacred Number values be coincidental? How can we imagine that the Tarot somehow stood outside the Renaissance Imaginal, when it so obviously and inherantly portrays that very body of ideas from the very first?
In my reading of it, these criteria are perfect for characterizing Tarot from its inception, even as it was flexing around to find its eventual final form. Graded progress through heirarchical levels; numbers that correspond to the Hebrew and Greek sacred alphabets; corresopndences between heaven and Earth, humanity and the cosmos; notions of evolution, transformation, resurrection; the sense of Nature as a Living Entity (The World); praxis of concordance (overt linkage to Alchemy, QBL, Hermetics, Astrology, Theurgy); its all there.
Author of the TarotMagic CD &
The Underground Stream; Esoteric Tarot Revealed