Who Put the Magick in Tarot?
Recently I was invited to attend a gathering of witches for a rite that was performed to work with the new moon. As a ceremonial magician these types of ritual are always somewhat alien to my own understanding of magick and, although there are often features in common between the practice of witches and my own style of magick, I am usually far more interested in the things that are done differently. On this occasion though it was the use of something familiar in a way that was unfamiliar that has got my mind turning over.
The witches’ ritual involved a group of participants that had all brought their own individual objective to the magick circle in a way that invoked the power of the group to focus in turn upon each of the attendees. As each of us began the ritual we chose a single Tarot card from the deck of the High Priestess which, we were told, was to guide our meditation on the magick that we wished to accomplish. The HP then also chose a card to represent the gathering as a whole which she placed unseen at the altar.
As a ceremonial magician I have a long developed habit of preparing for my own ceremonies by making a divination of some sort and, as I have always leaned towards the Qabalah in my working the Tarot is my usual choice for these prognostications. This being the case, I approved of this development while my long relationship with the Tarot made me consider how much my focus on that particular card would affect the outcome of the ritual as a whole.
My own card was the IX Wands, the Lord of Great Strength and, much to my dismay, it was reversed. The system of attributing modified interpretations of the meanings of reversed cards is not a part of the general Golden Dawn instruction on the Tarot that I have followed but I am, of course, familiar with these alternate meanings of the cards. I took the meaning of the card to be strength that meets with some sort of reversal, opposition or a final grappling with an issue and went on with the ritual which required me to focus on its details and so it wasn’t until the end of the ceremony, when the participants were sharing (or not) their own cards that I had the time to consider the intention behind the use of reversed cards again.
Being in the company of so many witches I asked them if they used reversed cards in their tarot spreads and was surprised to find that so few of them had anything more than a cursory understanding of the Tarot. While they naturally accepted the Tarot as a part of magickal practice that didn’t necessarily make it an integral part of their study. The more experienced heads in the group did proffer an opinion, and I have now discussed the question of reversed cards at great length with one of my witch friends in particular but the whole thing suggested a much larger question to me. When did the Tarot become an almost universally accepted standard part of magickal practice? Who put the magick into the cards?
Because I have based the bulk of my magickal practice on the methods outlined in the Golden Dawn and Aleister Crowley’s A.A. documents, my original manual of Tarot was Book T (later published in the Equinox Vol 1, no. 8, under the title Liber LXXVII Book Θ). This book was doubtlessly compiled by S L MacGregor-Mathers and was later developed by him into his book, The Tarot, its Occult Significance, Use in Fortune Telling and Method of Play & Etc. It predates the works of Papus which hints at a connection with Rosicrucian or Hermetic secrets and, as Papus’ 1889 work on the cards Clef absolue de la science occulte, published in English as The Tarot of the Bohemians, bases its interpretations on the work of Jean-Baptiste Alliette and offers no deeper occult intention for the Tarot than as a tool for fortune telling it would seem that the esoteric development of the Tarot cards into a system of spiritual symbolism came via the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.
S L MacGregor-Mathers was greatly influenced by the occult writings of Eliphas Levi, who’s Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie, published in English as Transcendental Magic, its Doctrine and Ritual (translated by A E Waite) was divided into twenty-two chapters, each one corresponding to one of the Trumps of the Tarot. Levi spent much of his life developing the occult symbolism of the Tarot and aligning it with the Qabalah which was the framework upon which later groups like the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn would build a large and practical system of magickal symbolism.
Many of the attributions that were ascribed to the Tarot Trumps in Levi’s opus, Dogme et Rituel were later altered in his arrangement so that by the time that he wrote Le Rituel magique du Sanctum Regnum, The Magical Ritual of the Sanctum Regnum sometime nearer the end of his life the Trumps had been reallocated to fit their currently accepted correspondences and the translator Waite makes a point of saying: “the true attributions are known, so far as is ascertainable, to but a few students, members of the Hermetic schools: the attributions given by Levi in his Dogme and Rituel, by Christian, and by Papus are incorrect, presumably by design“. This implies that, however much potential Levi saw in the Tarot for becoming a magickal tool the details were a work in progress, at least throughout his life and that Waite felt the need to make an excuse for the alteration.
The connection of the Tarot with the principals of magick begin to appear in some of the earliest documents on the subject but the depth that was revealed by Levi’s intense study was totally lacking in Antoine Court de Gébelin’s 1773 work Du Jeu des Tarots in which he says that the Trumps “represent the temporal and spiritual leaders of society, the physical leaders of agriculture, the cardinal virtues, marriage, death and resurrection or creation; the various plays of fortune, the sage and the fool, time which consumes all, etc.“. A contemporary work by the Comte de Mellet, Recherches sur les Tarots, et sur la Divination par les Cartes des Tarots, does make a remark, almost in passing, that the Trumps are associated with the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet but the real inference is that they are connected to letters generally.
This indicates that the esoteric concept of the Tarot as a key to the knowledge that leads to enlightenment has almost all of its origins in the work of Levi who in turn was himself influenced by the Rosicrucian Society in England in the 1850s and which later developed a splinter group that would go on to become the Golden Dawn. The origins of the link between the Tarot and ritual magick, like many of the occult arts, is Levi and his seminal works but this didn’t explain how Tarot has come to be the all weather occult accessory with almost universally recognized magick power.
Part of the answer is in the response that I got from the gathering of witches when I asked them about their methods for using the cards. Most of them felt that they could intuit what the card was saying or interpret its meaning from the image on the card. This implies a general acceptance of the veracity of the Tarot as a bona fide occult implement which is ascribed magickal, if not mysterious powers. From an obscure and somewhat curious game intended for the amusement of ladies the Tarot has evolved into a powerhouse of occult symbolism and it has done this by becoming a regular part of popular culture.
In his book The Re-enchantment of the West, Christopher Partridge hypothesizes that popular Western culture is becoming occultural; that is to say that in many cases the New Age spiritual movements that have become popular are drawing much of their inspiration from the same sources as the traditional occultist and this is becoming an accepted spiritual path in life. The eclectic, pick ‘n mix style of spirituality that marks most New Age practices means that practitioners tend to retain those things which prove to be effective, but also those things which they particularly like or which suit their individual natures.
The wide appeal of the Tarot has given it a popular longevity that has cemented it as a fundamental aspect of New Age spirituality in much the same way that Astrology is viewed. The enduring popularity of the Tarot has also meant that it is a natural topic for popular books that present the intentions and the meanings of the Tarot cards at second and third hand and, like a game of Chinese whispers, often the esoteric and conceptual aspect of the Tarot is lost. It is uncommon now to find a student of the Tarot who has read the original volumes on the subject by Papus, MacGregor Mathers and A E Waite and over time even the designs of the cards has begun to change and drift away from the Qabalah that is at the base of the magickal Tarot. This has led to the cards themselves being attributed with the numismatic power rather than recognizing its source of power in its role as the key to a potent system of Hermetic Qaballistic magick.
It is this numismatic power that makes the Tarot such a natural part of a witches’ circle that its inclusion is accepted by those gathered as one of the common accoutrements of a magick ceremony even though its symbolism is far better suited to a more catholic style of ceremonial magick. The focus of importance has shifted from the essence of the Tarot to the façade of the cartoons that they employ to depict those essential concepts. Many popular books on the Tarot now avoid the dreary details of Qaballistic correspondences or skip over them in a cursory fashion to concentrate on what the images on the faces of the cards may, or may not indicate.
A quick perusal of the most popular books on the Tarot at amazon.com shows a proliferation in books on the topic with wave after wave of instructional manuals hitting the market every month. Most of these modern commentators dismiss the Qaballistic connections of the Tarot as superfluous to their use or even ignore them altogether, all the while using Levi’s carefully crafted arcanum of the cards in a heavily truncated form without ever crediting their ultimate source. In their very popular book The Easiest Way to Learn Tarot Ever! White & Judy even go so far as to say
“Don’t worry about the layers of esoteric stuff people like to pile on top of each card right now“, as if the Hermetic symbolism that gives the Tarot its coherence is some sort of afterthought. Similarly Ellershaw and Marchetti have said that
“…you don’t need to understand the links between Tarot and astrology, numerology, alchemy, or kabbalah to produce good readings…” in their book Easy Tarot: Learn to Read the Cards Once and for All and then go on to attribute ancient origins to the Tarot, saying
“Each of the ancient sciences requires considerable study to fully appreciate and understand it“
Perhaps the most popular writer on the Tarot at the moment, Mary K Greer, who has flooded the market with one Tarot manual after another hardly even mentions the importance of the work of Levi and the adepts of the Golden Dawn in building a system of symbolism that gives the Tarot its real practical power. In her Complete Book of Tarot Reversals she even goes so far as to include a list of Golden Dawn correspondences for the Trumps which is so truncated and devoid of Qabalah that it has been rendered illegible. Tarot seems to have fallen from being the precious gem in the crown of occultism to being a plaything for bored ladies in the suburbs once again. The boom in popular Tarot manuals means that these people will very likely never read the sublime works of Crowley or MacGregor Mathers on the subject of Tarot and its power as an image of the Holy Qabalah and the real magick of the Tarot will remain hidden from them forever.
Behind the veil of all the hieratic and mystical allegories of ancient doctrines, behind the darkness and strange ordeals of all initiations, under the seal of all sacred writings, in the ruins of Nineveh or Thebes, on the crumbling stones of old temples and on the blackened visage of the Assyrian or Egyptian sphinx, in the monstrous or marvelous paintings which interpret to the faithful of India the inspired pages of the Vedas, in the cryptic emblems of our old books on alchemy, in the ceremonies practiced at reception by all secret societies, there are found indications of a doctrine which is everywhere the same and everywhere carefully concealed, Eliphas Levi, Transcendental Magic, its Doctrine and Ritual