By Christine Payne-Towler
February 27, 2006
The original packs of cards that entered Spain and perhaps Italy with the Moors, known as Mamluk cards, possessed no female figures. There were no figures at all, to be exact, because in the cultures where this pack was common, the Koran was followed literally regarding the injunction against representational art.
...There were three named royalty in each suit -- the King (or sultan), the Viceroy, and his servant. (See http://l-pollett.tripod.com/cards64.htm) This type of pack is comprised of pips only; it has no Trumps, and is the prototype for our modern card-count of 52. It might amuse Westerners to know that we are all beholden to the Arabic world for one of our favorite pastimes!
This lack of feminine reflections in playing cards was rectified in the 1300's, as card-games spread in Europe and the various culture-centers began producing their own variations on the idea. Simultaneously, developments in Europe were pushing images of the idealized Feminine closer to the surface of the collective unconscious, increasing the chances that the European playing-card audience would find it desirable and even necessary to employ feminine imagery in their packs.
It stands to reason that the less visually-inhibited artistic sensibility of Europe would want to see its world modeled in the face-cards of the game pack. But when the Trumps are viewed together with other allegorical emblem series of the times (see for example http://trionfi.com/0/m/07/), a tremendous number of feminine figures appear which were drawn from the mythopoetic, imaginal and magical sphere rather than life and daily events. Looking across the catalogue of Tarot-card-related imagery that has been targeted as relevant to understanding the appearance of the Trumps in the deck, the question arises: Where did all these idealizations of female figures come from?
Chess, Dice, and Cards:
One very strong source for this theme, which has been well researched in the development of the Tarot pack, is its relationship to chess and dice games. Certainly the Queen in Chess opened the way for the Queens to appear in the playing-card deck. The Chess Queen has an exceptional movement pattern that allows her to exert maximum influence on the board immediately around her. Early explanations of the game will sometimes attribute malevolence to the Queen, due to her reach and her ruthlessness.
A growing body of research about the links between Tarot and chess can be found here: http://trionfi.com/0/c/08/index.php By looking around this site you will enjoy the work of numerous Tarot researchers as they accumulate data on a range of Tarot-related topics.
For context about how the characters of the chess pieces might impact their simultaneous appearance in the Tarot see the conversation on this subject at: http://www.tarotforum.net/archive/index.php/t-16731.html (Don't fail to look around while you are there as well, the Aeclectic Tarot Forum is wonderful!)
One of my favorite theorists of the triangulation between Chess, dice, and Tarot is Mark Filipas. He has also made available a PDF on Tarot and Chess at this site.
A fascinating presentation of links between the structure of the Trumps and all the possible throws of two dice is to be found here: http://www.cs.utk.edu/~mclennan/BA/PT/Mintro.html
Something for us to remember as we read along is that Tarot was largely a "women's game", in contrast to Chess which was considered a proper masculine entertainment. The earliest hand painted packs were mostly commissioned either by or for women, although men were known to play cards with women on social occasions. The cross-over between chess and Tarot continues to spark questions and invite new research, not the least because of chess-board-patterned floors and backdrops pictured in some early cards, as well the chessboard decorative themes shown in contemporary art illustrating card games and other entertainments engaged in by North Italian nobles.
Historical Women as Role Models of Spiritual Consciousness:
The long-expected Age of the Holy Spirit (called for by the Spiritual Franciscans and the Brotherhoods of the Free Spirit, among others) had been creating anticipation for a female Incarnation since the calendar turnover of the year 1000. The beguine movement of passionate female mystics living spiritual lives in a courtly context had boiled up in Germany across the 1100's and was peaking at its fullest dispersion by the early 1200's, leaving in the wake of its ultimate suppression a wonderful literature that continues to inspire and confound, in much the same way and for much the same reason that the Troubadour literature does. (See http://www2.kenyon.edu/Projects/Margin/beguines.htm; also the chapter called "La mystique curtoise" in Newman's "From Virile Woman to WomanChrist") Three of the best-known writers of this genre are Hadewijch, Mechthild of Magdeburg, and Marguerite Porete. The combined catalogue of their writings reveals a worldview that allowed each of them to transcend normative gender construction, role expectations and cultural programming to live the lives they chose as Beloveds to Christ.
The remarkable output of Hildegard of Bingen had already feminized the cosmos for her nuns (and for Europe), marking out a space of impeccable orthodoxy in which the Feminine Divine could flourish without threatening the patriarchal Church. Joan of Arc's divine passion was also still fresh in the collective mind when the first Tarots were just appearing, a detail that is too often overlooked. By the 1400's, a huge amount of feminine fervor for the spiritual life had accumulated and was reaching the collective consciousness through multiple avenues of expression. The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pisan (1404) uses myth, allegory and biography to refute the distressing and continuous pessimism about the spiritual and moral capacities of women, that endemic climate of misogyny that marked her era.
In the light of these remarkable lives, we ought not to be surprised at how boldly the various early Trump sets echo the story of an "underground" female Pope (see http://trionfi.com/0/i/r/02/ and http://www.trionfi.com/0/i/v/ ). Nor ought we to overlook the presence of a female ecclesiastic at the top of the "ranks of man" grouping of the Mantegna set of images. These and other examples provide us with a composite picture of the awakening voice of the Feminine as manifested in exemplary individuals who refused to allow their femaleness to impede their relationship with God as they saw It.
Another source of role models for mystical ladies were the legends and scriptural remarks about Mary Magdalene in her role as companion to Christ and Apostle to the Apostles. Since the first quarter of the thirteenth century, the Dominican Order had been spreading the stories of Magdalene's voyage to Provence. In 1458 a new limb was added to the myth to explain the inexplicable -- namely, how Charles II had miraculously discovered her relics there. Popular myths (unrelated to historical reality) related her conversion of the town of Marseilles and a 30-year hermitage at La Sainte-Baume.
Those stories as well as the collection of relics ascribed to her at Saint-Maximin spawned a culture that supported masses of pilgrims inspired by her example. This in turn encouraged an increasing wave of educated women to use her legend of Provencal evangelism to justify writing, preaching and living consecrated lives. In fact both men and women spanning orthodox, semi-orthodox and heterodox persuasions used Mary Magdalene's example to justify the apostolate of the emerging inspired women mystics. Making a very quick paraphrase of Katherine Ludwig Jansen's The Making of the Magdalen, we can see some of the motives women mystics and writers had for styling themselves in Mary Magdalene's image:
* To express their frustration with a society wherein noblewomen were kept from literacy and numeracy and were expected only to be decorative and demonstrate their family wealth, while simultaneously being caricatured for vanity, luxuriousness, and sloth,
* Mirroring the Magdalene's penitence for past sins and conversion to a life of purity upon her relationship with Christ, including a recuperated and fertile virginity,
* Embracing the work of discipleship with the passion of Magdalene's loyalty to Jesus even as the male apostles' faith was wavering,
* Invoking upon oneself the contemplative ascetic life of retreat and spiritual concentration, and
* The desire to carry her name "Maddalena", especially among the professed female religious who wished to share her bonna fortuna.
We moderns have a view of Mary Magdalene that participates in the pop-culture intrigue of publications like "Holy Blood, Holy Grail" and "The Da Vinci Code," but none of this was considered controversial at the time of Tarot's appearance. Because the Dominicans were so invested in maintaining the legends of Magdalene's time in Province (the pilgrim trade was big business, and there were political issues involved with her reverence as well), there were few questions raised about the basic factualness of the myth or the veracity of her supposed relics. Her example, distorted as it was with stories of her being a repentant prostitute and redeemed demonic, had great appeal to women who regretted their involvement with the traditionally assigned roles for women.
Those who were lucky enough to reach for some part of the intellectual and spiritual freedoms granted to men employed the example of the Apostle to the Apostles for a role model and inspirational guide, alongside the literature of the beguines, stories of female saints from the Bible and from history, Joan of Arc, and the female mystics "coming out" around them. No wonder scholars tell us that the times that witnessed the appearance of the Trumps also represent the birth of Renaissance feminism!
The Magic of the Feminine Image:
When we look beyond the popular culture, and examine the esoteric and magical influences that were shaping popular culture in the mid-to-late1400's, the employment of feminine figures to represent the refinements of spiritual values comes ever more sharply into focus. The first shot fired in what became a wave of Renaissance feminism is Agrippa’s book De nobilitate et praecellentia foeminei sexus ("On the Nobility and Superiority of the Female Sex"). Agrippa is lauded as a protofeminist by some 20th century scholars for having been so bold as to write this. But it's also obvious that, whatever else his motive, in this volume he is writing with hopes of receiving patronage from Margaret of Austria. It is not hard to read between the lines and see that his need for funding and protection was high at the time. Unfortunately his hopes in this direction were not fulfilled.
A lot of ink has been spilled between feminists and skeptics about whether this little volume was written in a sincere tone or an ironical one, as it seems to veer fairly precipitously in both directions from page to page. However, that needn't matter to us, because exaggerated or not, Agrippa's body of works and letters, including the above and another one written for women (dedicated to Marguerite of Navarre and called De sacramento matrimonii), have managed to come down through history to us intact, and in the process have influenced generations of people from both camps.
A fascinating treatment of his book and its paradoxical effect can be found in From Virile Woman to WomanChrist by Barbara Newman. Her Chapter Seven, called "Renaissance Feminism and Esoteric Theology" makes the case that Agrippa was not simply currying favor with specific women of power under whom he wanted to take refuge in times of controversy. Newman is ready to credit him with pulling off a theological and hermeneutical feat of great subtlety and innovation, employing bold arguments and crossing genres in the process.
"The specifically esoteric features of De nobilitate include such doctrines as divine androgyny; a kabbalistic interpretation of Eve; veneration of Woman as the instantiation of God's partner, the divine Wisdom (Sophia) or Shekinah; adoration of feminine beauty as an act of worship; and reverence for occult virtues ascribed to the female body. These elements, although muted by Agrippa's characteristic skepticism and wit, nonetheless comprise a distinct subtext that most of his translators suppressed or missed altogether." (p. 228-9).
Further, Agrippa accomplishes in one text what had been trickling into existence for the entire history of Christianity to date:
"...Agrippa makes two daring exegetical moves [in a passage Newman had just cited]. First, he transfers theological tropes about man (homo) as the crown of creation to woman: she is the last to be formed because she is the goal of the entire process, the one for whose service and pleasure all things were made. Eve's belatedness thus becomes a proof of her superior rather than subordinate status. Second, Agrippa takes biblical verses describing Sophia, the feminine personal of Divine Wisdom, and boldly applies them to woman per se. In patristic theology these texts had been referred to Christ, in whom "the Creator's power and wisdom" were totally enclosed (I Cor; 1:24, Col. 1:15-20). From the seventh century onward they were gradually introduced into the Marian liturgy, fostering an assimilation of Sophia to the Virgin which eventuated, by the twelfth century, in the doctrine of Mary's eternal preexistence in heaven. By quoting the central texts of sapiential Mariology and applying them to Eve, that is to woman as such, Agrippa makes an audacious, original leap from the orthodox exaltation of one woman to a full-fledged esoteric feminism." (p. 230-231)
Was Agrippa the only exponent of the virtues, gifts and magic embodied in the feminine form? Not at all! The 1400's inherited a brisk literary and artistic tradition that had been expanding already for several centuries, fueled in part by the steady trickle of the Alexandrian, Pythagorean, Hermetic and alchemical manuscripts back into Western culture, their subsequent translation and dispersion. Because of this we see a proliferation of ideas from ancient Gnosis (preserved within the traditions of Islam, Judaism and Christianity) re-seeding ideas of the Divine Feminine into the West. The Italians had for centuries already been digging up statuary, frescoes, tile work and every other kind of representation of the ancient Greek and Roman Goddesses (as well as cataloguing whatever lore they could accumulate about Sophia, Isis, Venus, Athena, and other ancient personifications of the Feminine Divine).
Ultimately, traditional feminized forms were resurrected or created to fill nearly the entire canon of Powers, Principals, and entities that mark the steps of the so-called Ladder of Lights: Virtues, Liberal Arts (the Trivium and Quadrivium of the ancient scholastic system), Muses, Spheres -- even the patriarchal Church got a feminine face. A viewing of my article The Gnostic Tarot can serve to point out a few of the themes that piqued the Western imagination with the return of the Classics. Other sources, including articles appearing in these ArkLetters about ecclesiastical Image Magic and the Ars Notoria, afford us further examples of the regular use of feminine archetypes in magical practices.
We also can look at the wonderful artistic and cultural legacies left to us by Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola, both highborn and privileged scholar-Magi whose works preceded Agrippa's. These men set the context and provided the scaffolding for Agrippa's writings both philosophically and magically. Both of them were at pains to explain the nature and workings of sympathetic magic (basically, Eros magic) in a way that would make it seem "natural" and beneficial to the enlightened user, who was of course striving towards a "higher union" with God (in whatever form the practitioner wanted to envision). However, both Ficino and Pico hedged their bets a bit and softened their presentations, mindful of the Church and the ever-present reality of censure. Neither one was so bold as to specify in so many words the patriarchy's devaluation of the feminine, or the fact that their Eros magic might be motivated in part to help redress the balance. We can't look to them for signs of proto-feminism or as boosters of the Feminine Divine, even though both people's work is informed by values derived from the esoteric, occult, Kabalistic, Sophianic and Gnostic "religion of the heart” increasingly preoccupying those who embraced the influences suffusing European culture at the fertile borderland between Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
If anything, we can mark Agrippa's contribution to the conversation as standing in a bridging position between the traditional medieval "defense of women" and "lives of the female Saints" type of presentation on the one hand, and true modern feminism on the other (which, like Agrippa, derides the oppressions of patriarchy just as much as it promotes and defends women's character and ability). He voiced plainly what many others were also feeling and acting on in their private lives, and he pointed fingers where other magical voices were content to let sleeping dogs lie. Agrippa's signature stance in this area, as in other topics for which he is known, is that he employs occult, theological, Gnostic and kabalistic arguments to critique the way the feminine influence was devalued, inverted, and ultimately wasted during his era. In so doing, Agrippa provides us with a perfect snapshot of how magical viewpoints were flavoring the collective discourse about this powerful ongoing controversy concerning the role and content of the Feminine image relative to the life of the soul.
One last factor to note here is that the Cary-Yale Visconti pack shows a multiplication of the Knights and Pages into both male and female versions, apparently in an effort to balance out the genders the same way the Queens balance out the Kings. There are also an extra few Trumps -- the theological Virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity appear, all in female form, and all standing atop crowned male figures that languish under their feet. This would indicate that for their time and place, these cards reflect a culture that is leaving behind the medieval world-view that men are the exemplary gender while the female form is seen as somehow imperfect. It also strongly implies that the Knightly culture of chivalric love and fideli d'amore had permeated the milieu in which these cards were realized.
The Arrival of the Queen; Esoteric influences
Dearest to my own heart, and certainly central to the issue of esotericism in Tarot, are the following examples of truly esoteric (in the sense of recondite, veiled, mysterious and initiatory) feminine Archetypes tincturing the culture and times that birthed the Trumps. Here we will focus on three of the most stable and well-researched threads in this skein -- those of the Queen in the Hermetic and Alchemical Tradition, Cabbalism and the Gnostic Sophia, and the Virgin of the World.
1. The Queen and the Alchemical Marriage
Alchemy is so old that we can only guess at the original truths veiled by the mythos that has grown around it. Suffice it to say that since humanity first discovered the uses of fire, alchemy has been a major theme in the growth of all our technologies. Whether in the making of food and beverage, the hardening of pottery in the fire, the extraction and combination of metals, the making of medicines and psychoactive blends for the shamans, or even in the slow ripening of the crops in the fields, alchemy has provided tools and terms, as well as methods and explanations for all the processes whereby one thing transforms into another. It is probably safe to say that the art and practice of alchemy is what God was doing in creating the world, and what is still going on to uphold and sustain it.
One of the foundational principles of alchemy is Solve et Coagula, meaning "separate and recombine". This motto is sometimes written upon the arms of the Devil card in the more recent packs of Tarots, although these words didn't originally appear here. It is felt by some that the older Devil cards (some of the earliest of which are missing or perhaps never existed) actually refer to processes undergone via the alchemical forge, particularly in those cards where the Devil appears to be standing upon an anvil, holding a fiery torch in one hand, possesses both breasts and male genitalia, and is holding a male and a female demon chained at "his" feet. This style of Devil card seems to have emerged quite quickly all over Europe during the latter half of the 1600's, a century that saw a vast proliferation of alchemical manuals with their accompanying visionary illustrations.
In his chapter called "The Alchemical Wedding" in his book The Mysteries of Love, Arthur Versluis comments on the union of the Queen and King as we find it described in the alchemical manuals. At this point of the chapter Versluis has already undertaken an explication of the Tetractys, the Pythagorean pyramid of 10 dots, built up from a row of four dots, then a row of three, then a row of two, then a final singleton. For this explication he reverses the top and bottom of the pyramid to show how the world of the four Elements reduces to the three alchemical principles of Sulphur, Salt and Mercury, which further reduces to the primordial pair of King and Queen (or Sun and Moon, parallel symbolism for the same thing), which eventually reduce to their ultimate origin and goal, the Prima Materia or First Matter, also known as the Philosopher’s Stone. Now let's hear him discourse on the stage of the Two (King and Queen), so we have some context for how the alchemical eye might interpret the queenly figures found in the Trumps and suits of Tarot:
"Complementarism necessarily precedes resolution into unity. Thus the King and Queen correspond to the gods and consorts depicted in zyzygetic union in Hindu and Buddhist Tantric works [note: and in Gnostic works as well]; and in turn to the symbolic union of opposites represented in the united teardrop of yin (feminine) and yang (masculine) in the well-known circular Taoist symbol. Their union is a dynamic process, for the powers represented by King and Queen -- which include all the subordinate principles and elements -- must fuse together, be separated and purified again, and again fuse together, in the continuous process that leads, finally, to their consummate union, resulting in the Elixir of Life, or the Philosopher's Stone.
"Thus, in the Philosophia Reformata of Mylius, published in 1622 in Frankfurt by Lucas Jennis, an extremely elaborate and well known series of engravings, we see the King and Queen undergo various kinds of union, including 'death' in a pentagonal transparent casket, and resurrection, in some stages completely uniting except for their heads, which remain separate -- solar and lunar. Finally the two stand apart, between them a crowned son, who in a later images is an adult, the new King standing between the two Powers, himself incorporating aspects of both, who are seen wholly in their solar and lunar aspects. This new King is also shown with a solar and lunar head, crowned, standing on a winged dragon, above a winged sphere, in which is the Philosopher's Stone itself. He has around him four crowns in the air, so that including his crown, the image represents the Quintessence." [...which is another name for the Stone, revealing itself to Matter under the form of the purified four Elements.] (p. 99)
In these two paragraphs we see a thumbnail view of the same kind of process that is playing out all through the Tarot cards. Each of the suits has two pairs of Royals, a King and Queen, and a Knight and Page. Within the domain of each element, also between one element and the next in the chain, and ultimately across the span of the Trumps, there can be envisioned multiple variations of the union-and-separation theme governing unfolding pairs of balanced opposites, thereby cross-fertilizing and fructifying each other's realms through their ongoing permutations. Robert Place has used a variant of this image for the Devil card in his Alchemical Tarot, which I celebrate and truly enjoy using. Remember, the Hermetic Androgyne pictured forth here is not just a new King, but also a new Queen --in truth it's a synthesis of all those polarized but complimentary qualities that Versluis was saying inhabit these Archetypes.
Moving over to Julius Evola's The Hermetic Tradition, we find more hints and clues about the identity of the Queen in the creation of the ultimate Androgyne. Without burdening you with the entire chapter entitled "Woman", "Water", "Mercury" and "Poison", I'll make a list of quotes that hopefully conveys the impression he's trying to create. First he starts out listing the primary titles of:
"...the First Matter: the undifferentiated possibility, the origin of all generation.... It is 'Night', the 'Abyss,' the 'Matrix'; the place of the 'Tree', and as we have also seen, the Woman -- the Mother, the 'Lady of the Philosophers,’ the 'Goddess of sublime beauty.' [A footnote tells us that in the third key of Basil Valentine she is called the "Woman of the Sea" as well as the "Tree that is in the center of Paradise"]...." Water symbolism is applied liberally to her existence -- "Water of the Abyss ... Living Water (or Water of Life), Eternal Water... Ocean, Mare Nostrum, Mare Magnum Philosophorum... Heavenly Water," (etc., found everywhere in the texts.... between the symbols of the Feminine Principle and those of the) "Waters -- 'Mother Earth', 'Waters.' 'Mother of the Waters,' ... 'House of the Mother'... 'House of Strength' or of 'Wisdom' -- (there is a connection that goes back to the beginning of time...)
We have mentioned another association: the Serpent or Dragon. This is...the 'universal' or 'cosmic Serpent' which, according to the gnostic expression, 'moves through all things'. Its relation to the chaos principal -- 'our Chaos or Spirit is a Dragon of fire that conquers all' [a quote from Philalethes' Introitus apertus, chap. 2] -- and to the principle of dissolution... (the Dragon Ouroborous is the dissolution), goes back to the most ancient myths. Hermetism, however, also uses more particular symbols for this. Venom, Viper, Universal Solvent, and Philosophical Vinegar designate the power of the undifferentiated, at whose touch all differentiation can but be destroyed. But at the time we find the word menstruum to indicate the same principle and, as such -- that is, as the blood of the 'Lady' which nourishes generation -- it also takes on the opposite meaning of the Spirit of Life, the 'Fountain of Living Water,’.... The principle in question then has a double meaning. It is Death and Life. It has the double power to solve and coagula; it is the 'Philosophical Basilisk', like a bolt of lightning burning all 'imperfect metal'; 'terrible Fountain', which if allowed to run all over would lead to ruin, but which confers victory over all things to the 'King' who knows how to bathe in it...."
This might feel scattered or incompletely explained as one reads over it, but the point is to follow the sight-line through the various layers of the ideas attached to the Feminine Archetype, the "Lady", the Queen. She is at one and the same time the "Fountain of Living Water" and the "terrible Fountain", the giver of Life and the destroyer, whose eternally nourishing floods also deliver the menstruum that dissolves and reduces everything to primordial chaos. She is Strength and Wisdom, she is Mother Earth and the Woman of the Sea, but she is also the Dragon Ouroborous, the bolt of lightning, the Chaos Principle before and between episodes of formed incarnation.
If we take the time to separate our thinking from the socially-dictated external meanings of the King and Queen as a royal gender pair, they stand revealed at a more primordial level of operation: the King is that which is being transformed (either dissolved or coagulated), whereas the Queen is the Matrix, Ocean or Dragon (and possibly the Devil herself!) whose "waters" actually carry out the alchemical action, whether that be towards Death or Resurrection. Therefore, wherever we might witness in the Tarot a hint of strain of alchemical thinking, we have to view the female figures (including the Devil-with-breasts) as representing different stages and different actions of the one immortal Queen as she imposes and evokes the necessary transformations through the King in their unfolding process of solve et coagula.
2. Gnostic Sophia (Wisdom) and the Matronit, Malkuth, or Shekhina, the spouse of God and Mother of this World
2. Gnostic Sophia (Wisdom) and the Matronit, Malkuth, or Shekhina, the spouse of God and Mother of this World
A second very sturdy thread in the esoteric Divine Feminine skein is that provided by the oldest Hermetic, Gnostic, and Hebrew scriptures, where they comment upon the Wisdom of God's Sophia, Who is viewed as the "Mirror of God's Thoughts". By this the early mystics meant the formative principle That clothed all of the potentials of Creation in flesh. There is a very long and strong Wisdom tradition in the Abrahamic religions, among which Gnosticism would have to count as well as the traditional Judaism, Christianity and Islam. One very old gnostic legend about Sophia states that when God found the world wanting and expressed His displeasure through allowing "The Fall" (from the edenic state into the current world), Sophia was so concerned for Her Creation, and so piqued by the all-or-nothing stance of her Spouse, that she "fell" along with Nature and Humanity, and has been immanent "here below" with us ever since. This legend persisted and received occasional expressions at the experimental margins of Christian Europe.
Sophianic Gnostic themes that penetrated into both Hermetism and Judaism sparked Christian consciousness of God's Spouse Who is Mother of the World. Since I still have Barbara Newman's article on Agrippa open on my desk, let me quote this from her, though the following could as easily be drawn from Raphael Patai's excellent The Hebrew Goddess, or Versluis' The Mysteries of Love, or Evola's Eros and the Mysteries of Love, or indeed a half-dozen other wonderful and recommended sources. For our purposes, Newman drives the point home especially conveniently, as she is describing the culmination of the 1400's, wherein this heady mix of resurrected Gnosticism, restored Hermeticism, esoteric Christianity, and Hebrew Cabbalism was forming an amalgam in the minds of the most forward thinkers of the day. In Newman's words;
"As a kabbalist, Agrippa may have associated the biblical Sophia with the Shekinah, her descendant and counterpart in Jewish mysticism. The Shekinah or 'glory of God' is the exiled feminine partner with whom the Holy One, blessed be He, continually seeks reunion. Frequently described as God's bride, she was also called the daughter or princess and associated with the Sabbath day. Thus the Creator's sabbath 'rest' in the woman, to Christians a figure of Christ's incarnation through Mary, would to kabbalists also suggest the mystical union of the Holy One and his Shekinah. Pious Jews could advance this eschatological goal by fulfilling Torah and, more specifically, by obeying the sacred command of marital union on the Sabbath eve. The kabalistic rapprochement of YHWH with Hawah had already suggested Woman's role as an embodiment of God's partner, the Shekihah/Sophia, and this identification is confirmed by the assertion that 'the Lord of all has loved' not Wisdom, or Mary, but simply 'the woman'. Their sacred marriage also reinforces the hermetic notion of divine androgyny. " (p. 231)
When we stand this insight next to the Renaissance idea (drawn from the Corpus Hermeticum) that the Magus is "officiant at the nuptials between Heaven and Earth", it gets easier and easier to imagine how the Sophia/Shekhina, mystical Bride and Beloved of the One God, becomes not only the goal and inspiration of the spiritual quest, but is equally claimed as the companion and personal reflection of the mystical seeker's efforts and rewards through all the stages of the work.
Evola describes the scope of this interiorized figure of the "Lady" among the courtly societies in Dante's time, which set the conventions that served as pillars for the magical evocation of the Divine Feminine in the Renaissance. Already at this point, the Goddess-based mysticism in Europe covers a wide swath of attitudes. She is represented, on the one hand, in a deliberately-depersonalized Knightly ideal (“a 'woman of the mind' linked to the process of evocations", says Evola p. 192) and/or a "she-demon" of the type that was said to come to the Templars at night, of which each Templar had his own (and which Evola links to the Baphomet figure we nowadays see on the Devil card!). Simultaneously, She appears at the opposite side of the spectrum of experience, as the living and fleshly women within whom the Worshippers of Love would seek and find their Lady Love.
As Evola makes so clear, "The various women celebrated by the Worshippers of Love, whatever their names might have been, were one single woman, an image of "Blessed Wisdom" or Gnosis, an image of a principle of enlightenment, salvation, and transcendental understanding.... The plane is that of an actual experience, as in the ancient mysteries and secret rites of the Templars. At the same time, we should understand that the choice of the symbolism of the woman and love was not accidental or meaningless; for they could have used any other material to express what they wanted to say and to mislead the profane crowd, as did the alchemists, for instance... Although here it is essentially a matter of the 'initiatress' or 'glorious women of the mind' (as Dante called her...), this woman was not reduced to a symbol among the Worshippers of Love; instead we believe that contact with the occult force of womanhood played an essential part. Love aroused by real woman could be employed to develop the initiatory process. " (p. 194-5)
Hence we see that the Sophianic mysticism cresting to the surface of consciousness with the Tarot Trumps is an authentic expression of a movement within the collective soul that had been gathering across several cultures in the centuries leading up to the Renaissance. This movement took its inspiration from a Divine Feminine archetype, whether expressed as a totally rarified "woman of the mind" or the utterly concrete "woman in the world", and which quite likely partook from elements of both.
3. Virgin of the World, World Soul or Anima Mundi (also connected with Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit)
The excellent essay by Andrea Vitali, found at http://trionfi.com/0/i/c/21/v/F2-bottom.html, summarizes everything that needs to be said about this culminating Trump for the sake of our theme. Anima Mundi or World Soul brings all the preceding threads together beautifully. In the small but potent selection of relevant imagery he has selected to share, Vitali demonstrates how the Virgin of the World gathers into herself the full compliment of virtues, powers, and attributes granted to the various manifestations of the Divine Feminine which had preceded and substands her.
In this review of the main sources of inspiration for the proliferation of Divine Feminine images in the early Tarots, the goal has been to help the modern reader gain some perspective on how fully the old male-superior/female inferior formula of social structuring was coming under scrutiny and being countered with legends, histories, images and teachings that brought a fresh light to the capabilities of all humans. Hermetic and Kabalistic papers taught the androgyneity of God, while the alchemical manuscripts switched genders on the protagonist of the transmutation process repeatedly.
The angelic hierarchy pertaining to the Ladder of Lights took on more and more feminized forms as the female theologians described them in their own terms and images. The eros-filled beguine literature tutored women to cultivate and express a full range of erotic and gender-bending sentiments as a part of their ardent mysticism. Meanwhile the male Magi both within and outside the Church turned to Lady Love, Sophia, the Shekhina, Venus, and the Virgin of the World for their personifications of the Great Goal of the Work. Looking back, it seems that the predictions calling for an Age of the Holy Spirit were not so far off the mark as had been previously supposed!
The world being what it is, the signs and symbols of the Divine Feminine emerging at the cusp of the Renaissance were marginalized or diminished through being relegated to the card pack, to be nearly lost within a gaming community that remains to this day largely ignorant of its symbolism. Let us give thanks that in the New Alexandria of the internet, these things can again take their rightful shapes and demonstrate for us now what was overlooked then -- that a lively Gnostic, Kabalistic, Alchemical and mythic feminism animates the Tarot face cards, and grants to us the same inspirational power that the Renaissance Magi felt when they gazed upon these archetypes at their first appearance in card form.
Research: Esoteric Tarot, Literature and Practice;
Publisher, The Tarot Arkletters
Bishop, Gnostic Church of St. Mary Magdalene
Founder: Tarot University;
Author: The Underground Stream;
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The Tarot ArkLetters are a publication of Christine Payne-Towler, founder of Tarot University Online. Christine offers classes, readings, and private sessions.
*copyright 2005-2006 christine payne-towler all rights reserved