By Christine Payne-Towler
[Originally published in July of 1999; abridged and revised for TarotUniversity in August 2006]
The sequence currently employed to govern the Trump appears to be quite old. The oldest pack which shows this ordering is the French set by Catelin Geofroy, from 1557 (Kaplan, Vol. 1, p. 65). We can see the continuance of this sequence in the Anonymous French Tarot, made in the first half of the 1600's...
...This is the pattern that has continued to dominate all the Marseilles-style Tarots and nearly every other style right up to current times. Some earlier fragmentary Tarots show Roman numerals on some of their Major Arcana, but not all of them, and not in the order we are now familiar with. Those very old woodblock decks tend instead to follow the list enumerated in a sermon written by an Italian friar in the late 15th century (see illustration opposite page 1 in Volume 1 of Kaplan's Encyclopedia of Tarot). There is also another order derived from the Charles VI pack that keeps Temperance, Fortitude and Justice together in a group. A very small minority of Tarots follows this order, including Etteilla's Tarots. Many of the earliest decks did not show either Roman or Arabic numerals, titles or astrology sigils. Some of the images do, however, utilize traditional scenes and characters from the signs of the zodiac, the personae of the planets and other traditional mythic themes familiar to the culture of the times.
What we nowadays call the Marseilles family of Tarots began to appear in the late 1400s or early 1500s, slowly evolving and becoming more distinct as versions were reproduced and as their popularity spread. O'Neil suggests that the Marseilles Tarots were actually the original folk pattern of the Tarot, but since most copies were woodblock-print "catchpenny" decks, rather than expensive works of art like the handmade decks of the Milanese ducal families, they more easily became worn and were discarded and replaced. This helps explain the uniqueness of the Visconti Sforza and related hand-illuminated, gilt-enriched art Tarots created for the nobles, which have more in common with the Mantegna Tarots that the Marseilles.
Even taking into consideration the fragmentary nature of the printed decks remaining from these early years of Tarot's existence, there is clearly a high degree of standardization governing the images on the 78 named and numbered cards. Tarot card fragments dredged up from the moat at the Sforza castle, which sport beautiful representations of ancient god forms on their backsides (Saturn, Mars, Truth, Proserpine, Pluto etc.) are like other decks of their era on their faces, easily recognizable today. Some experimentation can be seen on the handmade cards, as befits their special status as commissioned works for royal families (note the completely eccentric Trumps of the Sola-Busca deck; Vol. 2, p.297-302). However, due to the inherent conservatism of mass printing from carved plates, the catchpenny decks were largely free from obvious changes, decade to decade. The main variation would be in back designs, and in the ribbon on the Two of Coins that traditionally bears the name, date, and location of the press that produced them.
But in the early 1660s, two decks appeared that permanently changed
the look of several of the Trumps. Subsequently, those changes grew
beyond the Marseilles mold, expanding from Italy and France into the
decks produced in Switzerland, Germany, and Austria. (The exception is
the Flemish-style packs, the makers of which preferred the archaic
Devil though they did change the Lovers Trump.) The transmuted Trumps
continue to flow forward without comment (despite remembrance of the
earlier forms), appearing in the works of de Gebelin and all the
Etteilla variants of the following century. For all intents and
purposes, the new style effectively obliterated the older versions of
these Trumps except in the case of a nostalgic few Tarot makers who
preferred the archaic form. The two Marseilles-style decks that date
this telling change in the Tarot canon are the Tarots by Jacques
Vieville and Jean Noblet, both Parisian card makers in the Marseilles
A Glance At the Cards in Question
Two defining characteristics of the oldest Tarots were a Lovers card that shows "The Marriage of the King and Queen," and a Devil card that shows the image of a traditional werewolf or lamia from European pagan antiquity. After the change in the late 1600s, those two cards are drawn to entirely different models, called the Two Paths and Typhon (later to be associated with Baphomet, the Knights Templar's so-called "idol"). A century later these same amendments appeared as illustrations in Le Monde Primitif by Court de Gebelin, and Etteila's Tarot also followed them faithfully. By the beginning of the 19th century, all schools of Tarot used the "new" models despite their other differences. Adjustments were made at the same time to several other Trumps (including a more overt nod to the alchemical arts on the Temperance card), but the Lovers and the Devil serve as perfect "markers" for the Tarots that accepted this new influence.
In Volume 2 of Stuart Kaplan's Encyclopedia, we have an excellent illustration of the appearance of these two "new" Trump-images as they appeared in 1660 in Jacques Vieville and Jean Noblet's decks. Kaplan was kind enough to put them on facing pages (pp. 308-309), so we can actually see the ideas developing. Apparently Vieville favored the new version of the Lovers, but rejected changes to the Devil, while Jean Noblet went all the way and changed them both. It is uncanny how these two packs seem to form a line of demarcation--before them, only the old forms appear, but after them, the new images take over, not only in these packs, but in nearly all the subsequent ones. It's hard not to wonder, "what happened here?"
Introducing Athanasius Kircher
One way to answer the above question would be to ask the parallel question, "What else was happening in Europe during the second half of the 1600s that might cause a ripple of change in the Tarot?" This question is easier to answer.
In a general way the answer is -- the closing years of the Renaissance. But the more specific answer, very relevant to Tarot, is "the last of the Renaissance polymaths, Athanasius Kircher." One has only to find a copy of Joscelyn Godwin's wonderful presentation Athanasius Kircher: A Renaissance Man and the Quest for Lost Knowledge from Thames and Hudson to realize that this German Jesuit scholar is a key to several riddles in the history of esoteric Tarot.
In my essay "Kabbalah/Cabbalah," an entire section is devoted to Kircher's Christian Cabbala paradigm. It is he who adapted the paths of the Tree of Life into the form that modern magicians and Tarot practitioners are familiar with. He was also a big promulgator of AAN (Astro-Alpha-Numeric) tables, having discovered the links tying all the sacred alphabets of antiquity together. He wrote the first Coptic lexicon, revealing that Coptic is also one of the members of the Magical Alphabet family. It is also Kircher who was so convinced of the Egyptian source of the ancient mysteries, and so learned and literate in the exposition of his ideas, that the sheer force of his certainty impregnated esoteric thought for centuries afterward. I think it is he who, either directly or indirectly, affected the look of the Tarot forever after.
Gazing upon his illustrations of Pan or Jupiter, and his image of Typhon (also known as Set in the Osirian Mysteries), it is difficult to miss how closely the "new" Devil that appears in the 1660s has taken on features characteristic of these two images. A shift in the Devil's gender then commences, completed by Levi's time (late 1880's), in which the Devil gravitates from a masculine form, through a form with attributes of both genders, to the final female form, which gives us the modern Baphomet image favored in the esoteric schools all over Europe (see chapter on The Major Arcana). "
An Eros Magic Detour
Although it deviates a bit from the center of today's topic to mention this, research on the early roots of the 20th century O. T. O. demonstrates that the androgynization of the Devil card (and maybe also the changes in the Lovers archetype) seems to run parallel to the involvement of certain European Orders in sex-magical practices inspired by Tantric, Taoist, and other oriental sources. We must remember that the "culture of chivalric love" had a long history in Europe, starting with the Crusades and still running strong in the courts that produced the Visconti-Sforza and Cary-Yale Visconti Tarot packs. Alchemical illustrations are also quite often overtly sexual, and some alchemists wrote about cultivations and experiments they accomplished with the help of their wives.
One correspondence of the Hebrew letter Samekh (associated with the Devil card in the European tradition) is with the circular opening of a woman's vagina. It might also be relevant to note that the scholar Hugh Schonfield transliterated the Templar magical name "Baphomet" via the Hebrew Atbash cipher to reveal Sophia, the hidden feminine deity of Medieval and Renaissance Europe Eros magic (see appendix of The Essene Odyssey; Element books, 1984). The fact that it is the Devil card that begins to morph suggestively, of all the Trumps that could have been chosen for editing, draws attention to the shifting focus of the Lodges.
To quote T. Allen Greenfield, author of The Story of the Hermetic Brotherhood of Light (Looking Glass Press 1996) in an article I found on the internet regarding the sequence by which these Tantric inspirations were carried forward from the Lodges and Orders of the 1700's right down to the first years of the 1900’s:
"In summary, it appears that there is a parallel tradition running through the eighteenth century Fratres Lucis and Asiatic Brethren on the one hand, and Cagliostro's Egyptian Rite (androgynous) Freemasonry on the other. These fuse with primordial Egyptian traditions during the Napoleonic conquests in Egypt, passed on to Metamon, Theon, Levi, Randolph, Davidson and other nineteenth century luminaries, down to Papus..."
"...Paulos Metamon...[was] a mysterious and influential figure.... who influenced Madame Blavatsky in the 1840's and introduced her to the H. B. of L. in 1870.... Metamon appears to have passed on the Grand Mastership to Davidson and Theon. The former, in his turn, profoundly influenced Papus, a member of the Davidson H. B. of L. who called Davidson 'one of the wisest of Western adepts, my Practical Master.' Davidson represented the Martinist Order under Papus in the Georgia H. B. of L. colony during the 'American Period'.... At minimum, the continuity of ideas, aforementioned, and uniquely so, runs from one to the other in a fairly seamless fashion, allowing a bit for the fact that we are dealing with Victorian times and 'secret' societies to begin with. In context, it is remarkable how much continuity can be shown.... "
If we accept that these transformations of the Devil card might be giving us a subtle reflection of underground streams of esoteric study, then we might also be inspired to look further into Kircher's works and those of like-minded contemporaries (likely alchemists, Rosicrucians and/or Masons, participants in the initiatory societies of his day) for further insights into the simultaneous shift in the Lovers card, and possibly other adjustments as well. A definitive exposition of each of the Tarot cards for their Secret Society affiliations across the first five centuries of their existence is, unfortunately, yet to be undertaken.
A Bit of Secret Society Overview
The term Secret Societies is used to refer to a shadowy but very vital affiliation of esotericists, healers and magicians, who were regularly in danger of being deemed heretical by the Catholic Church. These various associations had the flexibility and multicultural outlook to enfold pagans, Jews, Arabs, Gnostics, Druids, Gypsies, Free Spirits and other people of minority beliefs in Christian Europe. One such association is the international confraternity known as the Masons, an excellent history of which has been produced by Marsha Schuchard, called Restoring the Temple of Vision; Cabbalistic Freemasonry and Stuart Culture. She makes it clear that by the 1400's, there already existed in Europe a sophisticated international subculture within which mystically and philosophically inclined people, including Christians of a tolerant ilk, could associate and cross-pollinate their ideas.
Another important underground stream in the history of Tarot is Rosicrucianism, referring to a legendary confraternity having their announced public beginning in Germany in 1614. Strict historians become uncomfortable when this quasi-mythical group is mentioned, because officially this group existed in name (and rumor) only. Nevertheless scholars such as Dame Frances Yates, Joscelyn Godwin, Marsha Schuchard and Thomas Churton -- whose book The Golden Builders; Alchemists, Rosicrucians, and the First Freemasons helps to explicate the interpenetration of these visible and invisible Orders -- give us a sense of the fertile intersection between the "shadowed" Rosicrucians and the more public Masons. Groups of this ilk, whose membership was usually kept discreetly concealed, were dedicated to keeping recondite aspects of ancient wisdom (especially Alexandrian, Hebrew and Arabic esotericism) available despite the Catholic domination of Europe's intellectual life. Over time the Rosicrucian ideal inspired various Masonic Orders to open new Lodges to serve the waves of applicants attracted by the (mostly anonymous) Rosicrucian literature emerging across Europe. Freemasonry became tolerated as one of the few legitimate non-Christian affiliations one could pursue in Catholic Europe, providing a haven of refuge for alternative thinkers who were spiritually inclined but would not bind themselves to the Pope and all he stood for.
Even within the ranks of ordained Catholics in good standing, there were esotericists whose synthetic scholarship and personal search for meaning drew them into association with Jews, Arabs, Druids and Sufis, and who left enough writings in the historical record to inform future generations of similar seekers. In the 9th century, a multi-lingual Scottish monk named John Scotus Eriugena translated from Greek into Latin the treatise on the angelic hierarchies attributed to Dionysius the Aeropagite. This work drew on concepts in early Jewish Gnosticism as well as neo-Platonism. "Eriugena's theosophy influenced Azriel of Gerona and other Jewish theosophers, who perceived similarities between his Temple mysticism and that of the Sepher Yetzirah, and between the angelic hierarchies and the sephiroth. " (p. 71 of Schuchard's Temple of Vision.) The Crusades, both the one launched inside Europe against the Cathars, and the ones into the Holy Land, exposed Europe to a range of exotic "heresies" which subsequently assumed more permanent assimilation into European culture. The Platonic revival of the 11th and 12th century impacted European Arabs and Jews as well as Christians, drawing them together in response to the revived teachers of Antiquity, but also forcing each intellectual stream to sharpen their appreciation of the esotericism of their own traditions, and to use their resulting insights to defend their faith from the probing of the others.
Moses Maimonides (d. 1204) contributed his exhaustive A Guide To The Perplexed, which was studied alongside the Sefir Yetzirah by such Christian savants of the 1200's as Frances Bacon, Michael Scot and John Duns Scotus. Albertus Magnus and his student Thomas Aquinas both wrote arguments supporting the use of Natural Magic. Magical compendia from the Holy Land and the Arabic world, especially the Secretum Secretorum, the Picatrix, and the Keys of Soloman were examined for understanding of the internal workings of God's invisible administration, as well as to defend seekers from the constant presence of lower spirits, demons, and lamia.
In the late 1200's, Raymond Lully perfected from this historical welter of worlds, correspondences, and entities an alphabetic synthesizing tool in the form of wheels within wheels. Following out the alphabetic and numeric visualizations that stud the Sefir Yetzirah, he manifested those potentials by stacking variously sized wheels of number/letters onto a single spindle, creating an alphabetic random-correspondence generator. With this primitive "esoteric computer" his students and followers could meditate on the influence of the entire ladder of lights, with all of its various stations and occupants, upon each other. With the help of his new teaching aid, mystics and magicians alike could be guided through their meditations and research by the changing associations denoted by the Lillian wheels. Over time Lull adjusted his invention until he had winnowed it down to the fewest movable parts holding the maximum possible meanings. It truly was a marvel of philosophical computation for its age. Marsha Schuchard quotes Lull's scientific biographer F. D. Pring-Mill, who "...thus includes Lull's ars combinatoria among the forerunners of modern symbolic logic and computer science, 'with its systematically exhaustive consideration of all possible combinations of the material, reduced to a symbolic coding.'" (p. 73 of Temple of Vision.)
Other ArkLetter articles have covered some of the relevant intellectual currents from Lull to Paracelsus, and the interpenetration of Hebrew mysticism into this ostensibly Christian stream of Magi, therefore I will not repeat myself here. Suffice it to say that the Tarot quite likely represents the next level of Lull's systematized combinatory style of thinking, only this time physically untethered from any formal organizing principle such as the wheels-within-wheels format that Lull pioneered.
One thread I have not emphasized enough yet is Europe's steady and unflagging reverence given to Egypt as a root-source of the Mystery Tradition, which was reflected in all the streams enumerated so far. The standard reading of the Old Testament at the time made it seem as if the Hebrew nation received the bulk of their wisdom from their two enslavements -- time spent in Babylon with the premier astrologers of the ancient world, and time spent in Egypt, absorbing the magical technologies to be learned there. (Even as the Magi of the Renaissance were gobbling up the Hebrew Kabala, their ideas about the worth of Jewish culture were still not quite charitable, but were more focused on using what they learned to convert Jews to Christianity.) Further, those whose educations allowed them to read the New Testament in its original Greek could also see that Jesus of Nazareth's sermons were studded with the vocabulary of an Egyptian initiate. The beauty of Egyptian art, the grandeur of their monuments, and the impenetrable mystery of their hieroglyphics impressed the Europeans so much that they found it irresistible to attribute the roots of the global Mystery-tradition to Egypt.
Egypt Is The Source
The main obstacle to a clear assessment of which sources were dependent upon whom was the conflation of mythical and historical characters in Old Testament times, and a lack of chronological perspective which didn't get worked out until late in the 1600's. Let's put this in context with some notes from Erik Iversen’s The Myth of Egypt and its Hieroglyphs (p. 60.)
"The general conception of the direct connections between Christianity, the Hermetic literature, and the philosophy of Plato was already formed by Marcilio Ficino), in his De Christiana Religione and his Theologia Platonica written in. In 1471 he published a Latin translation of some of the Hermetic treatises, in 1483 a translation of Plato, in 1492 a Latin translation of Plotinus and in 1497 an edition of Iamblichus, and through his activity in the Platonic Academy he became one of the pioneers of the Neo-Platonic revival.
"According to Ficino, Hermes Trismegistus was a sage of the Egyptians, a contemporary or maybe even a predecessor of Moses. He had attained a knowledge of things surpassing even that which was revealed to the Hebrew prophets, and comparable only to that of the Evangelists. Pythagoras had become acquainted with his teachings in Egypt, and through his intermission they had been transmitted to Plato who was a student of Egyptian wisdom himself, and had eventually based his own philosophy on the doctrines of Hermes.
"Egyptian wisdom, Neo-Platonic philosophy, and the humanistic studies, became in this way consecutive links in an unbroken chain of tradition, joined together and united with Christianity by their common aim: the knowledge and revelation of God."
An "Egyptian" Restatement Of The Trumps
The context within which Kircher felt confident to attribute the world's alphabet-mysticism and imagistic esotericism to an Egyptian root is now clearer. Kircher's environment, both cultural and ecclesiastical, was saturated with the full phantasmagoria of the glorious but fading Renaissance, so soon to crash and shatter against the materialistic hegemony of experimental science. By his era, the various circulating versions of the Sephir Yetzirah (derived from the Zohar), with its astro-alphanumeric coding and its interwoven Pythagorean decave mysticism, were available for interested individuals to compare and contrast. Kircher's travels inspired him to collate all the Sacred Alphabets from antiquity to current usage and draw the links between them, culminating in his preparation of the first systematic lexicon in Coptic. Born into the era of the Rosicrucian Manifestos and their call for a transcendent union among the feuding branches of Christianity, Kircher seems to have been ready to expand the embrace further and include an even broader scope of the world’s great religions. Inspiration was also provided by the labors of contemporary esoteric theorists like Michael Maier and Robert Fludd, whose visual inventions Kircher occasionally borrowed to make his own points. The amazing creativity of the Paracelsian and Kabalistic alchemical manuals, which kept proliferating every decade of the 1600's, could not have failed to impress Kircher's artistic eye. The Egyptian hieroglyphic inscriptions so admired by the Europeans had not yet been translated, leaving one last, great Mystery unplumbed and tantalizing the imagination of esotericists throughout Europe.
Due to his long life, wide travels and renown as a scholar of recondite subjects, Kircher likely would also been exposed to the teachings of another late-Renaissance esoteric confraternity, the earliest generations of the Fratres Lucis lineage. Their dissertation on the Egyptian origin of the Trumps was by then available in manuscript form to interested occultists in Europe, though not yet offered for public attention (see below). Mirroring the tenor of the times, the Fratres Lucis treatise reflects the Hermetic astro-alphanumeric cosmos that was more-or-less consensus property among the Gnostics, Jews, Arabs, and Christians of Europe. It also features the Lovers card in Two Roads formulation, and the Devil card specifically named Typhon. Set alongside the teachings of the Hebrew sages, the literary trove of the so-called Prisca Theologa (the Orphic hymns, various books of the Corpus Hermeticum, the Chaldaean Oracles, fragments from the pre-Socratic Greeks and the Sibylline prophecies) plus the entire catalogue of Medieval and early Renaissance Christian esoterica mentioned above, this great mass of metaphysical exposures ultimately convinced Kircher that the foundation teachings substanding the occult canon of the Renaissance were indeed Egyptian in origin.
What moderns best remember Kircher for was his attempt to collate multiple Hebrew and Christian Cabbalistic elements onto a freshly stated Tree diagram. The arrangement he produced has proved to be a perennial favorite amongst Christian magi and ritualists, though it does not connect with the mainstream of Hebrew Kabalistic thinking of the time. But I think Tarot historians tend to overlook the rest of Kircher's wonderful art, and therefore miss the influence his Oedipus Aegyptiacus (1652-4) might have had on the Tarot Trump reform of the early 1660's. It seems worth investigating that in the early 1660's the broad stream of Marseilles Tarots suddenly shows distinct and characteristic changes in the Devil card which seem to reflect a direct awareness of Kircher's images of Pan and Typhon. The esoteric community of Kircher’s day appears to have quickly adopted his latter-day re-envisionment of these Egyptian and Alexandrian god-forms, enhancing the already-existing bird-footed, multi-faced folk Tarot Devil with potent details from his extremely occult images. Kircher's worshipful AEgyptianizing set the trend going forward in the recondite Societies, including the project to regather all the ancient accounts of Mystery-School initiations and collate them into a single document, ultimately called the Crata Repoa.
Even the discovery of the Rosetta stone by Napoleon’s forces, the translation of which dispelled most of the fanciful myths of ancient Egypt and taught the world how to read hieroglyphics, never managed to dent the firmly entrenched mythos about the primacy of the Egyptian roots of the Mysteries. In their own day, Court de Gebelin and Etteilla (both Freemasons) each publicized the story of the Egyptian roots of the Mysteries (and hence the Trumps) just as Kircher asserted it. However, Paul Christian in his still-famous History and Practice of Magic did not reveal their galvanizing initiatory document, inherited by the Orders and Lodges downstream from the original Fratres Lucis, publicly until 1870.
It strikes me as no coincidence that the descriptions of the Egyptianised Tarot Trumps in Christian's History and Practice of Magic (supposedly the first appearance of modern "esoteric" Tarot) match exactly the changes that erupted "spontaneously" (never to be unexplained) across the entire Marseilles family of Tarots during the first half of the 1660s. I draw the conclusion that the inspiration for those changes is to be found in the circles around Kircher and the esoteric preoccupations of his times. My feeling is if Kircher himself did not have a hand in mirroring those "Egyptian Pan" qualities onto the Devil card, then the esoteric (ecclesiastical, Fratres Lucis, Rosicrucian and Masonic) community who followed in his immediate footsteps did.
Tarot historians have never seen the original models for the changes that appear in the Vieville and Noblet Tarots, but that may be just because we are not studying the art of the late-Renaissance magi carefully enough. The telling fact that the inspiration for the Trumps' so-called "Egyptian" origin first appeared on Tarot cards two centuries before Paul Christian's publication of the Fratres Lucis document means that we have to reevaluate the current theory that the "Egyptian-style images" of some Tarots are late developments in Tarot art. It is much more likely that the so-called Egyptian Trumps, which came into public consciousness in the 1870's, had been traveling through underground streams for centuries before. Although the temptation for modern historians has been to look at the pivotal 19th century and the work of Eliphas Levi as defining the epoch of esoteric Tarot, upon closer examination, the situation is not so easy to characterize.
The Movement After Kircher
The article by Dr. Keizer points to the mid-1700s as a pivotal time in the history of Tarot, because that is the time when the teachings of the later wave of the Fratres Lucis or Brothers of Light became more accessible to the collective consciousness.
In essence, Dr. Keizer says that the writings by de Gebelin and Etteilla on Tarot, lauding the Egyptian origin of the Tarot Arcana, were not original in their ideas at all, but were "already common understanding in French occult circles, which were essentially Freemasonic". Keizer affirms Greenfield's timeline, suggesting that the "Egyptian Initiation" manuscript translated and published by Paul Christian (aka Jean Baptiste Pitois) in 1870 was earlier used by the Fratres Lucis groups as an initiatory document, even before the French Revolution (1789). Keizer does not say at which point the Fratres Lucis got the document or when the images were created for it. Upon examining the book Dr. Keizer refers us to, called Egyptian Mysteries (anonymously published by Weiser in 1988), we find in its foreword "... Egyptian Mysteries was probably translated into French by Christian, though not from the original manuscript.... but from a handwritten copy, many of which had been circulating in the occult world from the Middle Ages up to the 19th century."
The very first of these Egyptian-style Tarots to emerge after Christian's publication was the Falconnier/Wegener Tarot of 1896. Gareth Knight, in his fascinating book The Treasure House of Images, tells us
"Designs for the Falconnier Tarot were taken from original frescos and bas-reliefs in the Louvre and the British Museum, but they nonetheless retain a very French flavour" (p. 20). In the article written about this deck in Volume 2 of the Encyclopedia of Tarot, Kaplan remarks "Interestingly, he [Falconnier] cites the 1760 Tarot of Marseilles by N. Conver [see Vol. 1 of the Encyclopedia] as one that is closest to the 'traditional' Tarot."
Perhaps now we can understand why Falconnier would make such a comment, linking the so-called Egyptian Tarots back to the "reformed" Marseilles Trumps of the time following Kircher, despite all of their superficial differences. Though we don't know the origin of the Fratres Lucis manuscript or the images that have become associated with it, clearly those who assert that Pitois/Christian made that set of Trumps up for his book in 1870 are simply not looking at the evolution of the Trumps over time.
The modern catalog of Egyptian-style Tarots, matching the Fratres Lucis manuscript, also includes the Papus Tarot, the St. Germaine Tarot, the Ibis, the Brotherhood of Light Tarot, Egypcios Kier, Tarot of the Ages, the Knapp-Hall Tarot and a few others <see Mark Filipas' webpage on the Egyptian Tarots>. The booklets accompanying these Tarots create the impression that their images come to us from sources far anterior the first historical decks of the 1400s. Yet each pack of this type shows the Two Paths and Baphomet rather than the earliest European images for those Trumps.
A very strong argument for the venerability of the Fratres Lucis exposition of the Tarot Trumps is the fact that Madame Blavatsky and her early circle in India disseminated the teachings of the Fratres Lucis and a set of Egyptian-style Trumps through their Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor in 1884, before the Falconnier Trumps appeared in Europe. To me, this fact carries a special weight. Blavatsky was a true classicist regarding her sense of history -- I tend to seriously doubt that she would pick up and promulgate a "new" Tarot style that had just been invented a decade before! Plus, she had been raised in the encyclopedic Masonic library belonging to her father, was known to be an avid student of the Mysteries from her youth, and knew her esoteric lore backwards and forwards. Through her lifetime people were constantly amazed at her grasp of history, her knowledge of "insider subjects", and her understanding of global esoteric worldviews. If there were a person qualified to pronounce on the value and venerability of the so-called Egyptian Arcana, it would have been Blavatsky!
Further Channels of Transmission
Another channel of transmission for the Fratres Lucis teachings published by Christian is the Order of Elect Cohens (established in the second half of the 1700's by Martines de Pasqually). This Order is the father-lodge of another lineage whose members have included many esoteric scholars pivotal to the history of Tarot, including Court de Gebelin and Etteilla. I refer here to the Martinist Order, named after the philosophical stream of Martinez de Pasqually and Louis Claude de St. Martin and started by Papus in 1891.
Notice that we are back to quoting the selfsame list that Greenfield gave us as the holders of the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor (Fratres Lucis) lineage above. So at minimum we can confidently assert that, from the time of Etteilla, who was the first to popularize a Tarot with overt esoteric content in the 1780s, virtually all the pivotal writers and makers of esoteric Tarot decks in Europe have been Secret Society members. It may prove true that the Tarot is itself a Secret Society creation, although the unknown conditions under which it originated make that assertion difficult to either affirm or deny.
It is possible to find many books of Tarot "expertise" professing to recount the known history of Tarot but that entirely gloss over the Secret Society connections of the people who have been most pivotal in the history of Tarot. This results in a view of Tarot development with holes big enough to swallow an entire esoteric lineage! Thus I am infinitely grateful to have in my possession, due to a simple twist of fate, a three-volume restatement of the history of the European lodges, (called The Book of Rosicruciae, published in 1947) which puts an entirely different spin on the situation.
The author, E. Swynburne Clymer, also asserts that many of the people whose names are intertwined with the 18th and 19th century Tarots were members in the remarkable, multi-layered web of connections linking the mystical intelligentsia of Europe. In his giant Book, he starts with the publication of the seminal Rosicrucian document "Fama Fraternatis." From that event he moves forward in time with biographies of all the leaders through the generations who were willing to have their names go down in history (many more are mentioned, but anonymously).
I have been greatly enriched by reading Clymer's esoteric biographies of St. Germaine, Cagliostro, Stanislas de Guaita, Eliphas Levi and Gerard Encousse/Papus. All these names are familiar to students of Tarot, but the public record on these people is in some cases scant, in others distorted by the agendas of the writers doing the reporting. Clymer's information gives another view into these dedicated and cultivated persons. The caveat on Clymer is, however, that although scholars of no less repute than Joscelyn Godwin have used him as a source of historical perspective, we also learn that Clymer also has his biases, and therefore his information has had to be reconfirmed by comparison with other sources. For a survey of sources used to confirm the Hermetic Brotherhood Of Luxor and their teachings, see the dossier compiled by Godwin, Chanel and Deveney entitled The Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor (Weiser, 1995)
When I looked for confirmation of Clymer's assertion that St. Germaine, Cagliostro, de Guaita, Levi and Papus were all members of the Rosicrucia, I found Isabel Cooper-Oakley and her book The Count of Saint-Germaine ("as derived from the Masonic Archives", with all sources cited). Cooper-Oakley affirms that a whole cohort of magical personalities-- St. Germaine, St. Martin, Etteiila, Mesmer, Cagliostro and others--collectively represented the French at the Masonic Convention in Paris in 1785 (see pages 108-9). By the end of this chapter she has supplemented that note with similar remarks from multiple attendees to that convention. As in the previous paragraphs, we are seeing the cross-pollination of well-connected esotericists who have featured heavily in the history of the Orders, in the history of occultism, and in the history of Tarot.
Hallmarks of a Continental Esoteric Deck
In the process of looking at Tarot decks and Tarot literature, contemplating what a given source's sources were, a particular type of thinking and a distinct manner of approach appears to characterize all the historical Tarot presentations that together comprise the Continental Esoteric stream of decks. The primary signals of inherited esotericism were that certain titles and/or phrases, and sometimes whole segments, would be quoted from what ultimately turned out to be the Fratres Lucis treatise on the Arcana. Sometimes the clues are only reflected on the faces of the cards, but in other cases the support literature accompanying the deck would demonstrate the connection. In the extreme case of the Etteilla Tarots, the pack has to be "decoded" a bit to see the connection (see Part 2 of this article next month). Whether we are talking about the Martinist transmission, Court de Gebelin, Levi, Blavatsky’s Saint Germaine Tarot, the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor, the graph made by Pierre Piobb republished in the Encyclopedia of Occult Sciences (Tudor Publishing, 1938), the two books by Hariette and Homer Curtiss, Mouni Sadhu, Papus, Wirth, the Brotherhood of Light, Elizabeth Haich or Manly P. Hall, there is in every case a line of continuity which holds together quite coherently and successively transmits the Fratres Lucis approach through the generations. In many cases, the decks attached to this tradition have a characteristic "Egyptianized" look, but not always. The Etteilla Tarots, for example, are explicitly "Hermetic" rather than Egyptianized, and his students even went so far as to re-translate his Trumps into their Marseilles cognates to increase it's accessibility to users more experienced with the Marseilles decks.
Next month in Part 2 of this article, we will continue our explication of the Continental Esoteric Tarots, and talk about the consequences of the 20th century Tarot boom on Tarot Esotericism.
Research: Esoteric Tarot, Literature and Practice; Tarot.com
Publisher, The Tarot Arkletters
Bishop, Gnostic Church of St. Mary Magdalene
Founder: Tarot University;
Author: The Underground Stream;
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