Etteilla v. Waite, Concluded.

I began this series about two years ago. It’s almost as old as the blog itself, and I have to say, it’s kind of odd to be wrapping it up after all this time. It is also a relief, because to be honest, this series presented more than its fair share of problems, and was incredibly tough to work through at times. The time has finally come to set it to rest.

At the start, my goal was to compare and contrast my pack of Etteilla cards (the Book of Thoth Etteilla Tarot from Lo Scarabeo) with the vastly more popular Rider-Waite-Smith pack. The reason was simple: I didn’t know a thing about Etteilla or his cards, which was a problem because the cards are very different from anything else I had used. This problem was compounded by the fact that I could not (and still can’t) find any written material that elaborated on the intended meanings or patterns of these cards. On the other hand, I knew much more about Waite’s cards, and I figured that I could perhaps suss out some underlying structural cohesion through comparison.

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As I progressed, I realized that this method also had its problems. First of all, anything I came up with would not necessarily be true. Everything was based on my interpretations of the art, and nothing more. Now, I knew this going in, but it seemed that the further I went, the more I had to stretch, and at the end I have to admit that I still know almost nothing objectively about these cards, despite having come up with a neat story to tell with them.

That story is the mythic structure of Creation, Preservation, and Destruction (or the “Creation Myth” for brevity), which is a nice counterpoint to the Hero’s Journey myth of the RWS. I like this very much, but I have nothing in the way of written evidence supporting this theory.

The other problem didn’t become apparent to me until I learned a bit more about the deck itself. As I mentioned, this pack is called the Book of Thoth, and it is in fact quite far removed from Etteilla’s original cards. It is based on (how closely, I don’t know) what is known as the Grande Etteilla III, which was not created by Etteilla but by one of his students in 1800s, a few years after Etteilla’s death. The Grande Etteilla II remains an absolute enigma, while Etteilla’s own Tarot cards, the Grande Etteilla I, are available to purchase only by those with a larger purse than I currently possess. Pictures of this deck are hard to come by, so I can’t say one way or the other how faithful my cards are to Etteilla’s original plan (the Major Arcana especially; the Minors are different at least in that Etteilla’s had astrological symbolism on them, which these lack). So for all intents and purposes, my series did little, if anything, towards deciphering Etteilla’s mysteries; it was rather an exercise in familiarizing myself with an odd pack of cards that may or may not be much like his. I just don’t know.

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During the course of composing this series, I did learn quite a bit about Waite’s cards and their historical context, but overall my personal interpretations (that is, the Hero’s Journey) remain more or less the same.* Waite’s ideas in this regard were never recorded, so insofar as the pictures of either deck depict mythic themes, I suppose my interpretations of Etteilla are as valid as Waite. In this sense, it doesn’t really matter what Etteilla intended for his cards.

I have learned a bit about Etteilla’s role in the history of the Tarot’s development, as well, but I think that may have to wait for its own post, because it ultimately has no bearing on this series.

~~~

Because it did take me so long to compose, this series probably seems disjointed in some places or redundant in others to a passing reader. I did my best to read through previous posts as I wrote new ones, but my thinking changed over time as I learned more, and sometimes it was difficult to keep things straight. When I started, I was only writing what I wished I could read when learning about these cards.** It evolved from basic comparison to a rather more in-depth look at what the pictures on these cards were telling me. I never lost sight of my goal for comparison, though, and every single card I examined came with a counterpart from another deck (usually the RWS, but not always). The counterparts were not always easy to select. In doing so, however, I made some interesting discoveries about many of the cards from traditional decks that I probably would not have encountered had I not tried to match them with Etteilla’s cards.

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It is the unexpected revelations about traditional cards and the interesting story that I think the Etteilla cards tell that I found to be the most valuable things I took away from this series. The Book of Thoth Etteilla deck itself did not end up making much more sense to me in terms of divination, like I’d hoped. I do continue to find these cards fascinating, but they are more of a curiosity for my collection than anything I would regularly use.

~~~

I think that’s all I have to say in conclusion for the Etteilla v. Waite series. Before I sign off, though, I’ll put an index here for convenient navigation for anyone who’s interested in going back through. Despite the issues I’ve run into along the way, I hope this series was interesting and informative to anyone who, like me, is confounded by these strange cards.

Part I: Introduction
Part II: The First Eight Cards
Part III: Cards Nine through Fifteen
Part IV: Sixteen through Twenty-One and the Fool
Part V: Chaos, Light, and Plants
Part VI: Sky, Man & Beast, and Stars
Part VII: Birds & Fish, and Rest
Part VIII: Justice, Temperance, Force, and Prudence
Part IX: High Priest, Devil, and Magician
Part X: Last Judgement, Death, Monk, and Struck Temple
Part XI: Wheel of Fortune, African Despot, and the Fool

And finally, for a real throwback, my initial thoughts upon first using these cards can be found here.

~~~

*These are largely based on Tarot and the Journey of the Hero, an excellent book by Hajo Banzhaf, and one I can’t recommend heartily enough to those whose interest in the Tarot stems from an interest in mythology or Jungian psychology.

**This is actually the motivation behind much of what I write on this blog.

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Etteilla v. Waite, Part XI.

Last time on Etteilla v. Waite, we witnessed the final destruction of the world. What began with Chaos has ended in chaos; thus the mythic cycle of creation, preservation, and destruction comes full circle.

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The Wheel of Fortune: The next card in the GE Major Arcana is the Wheel of Fortune. It is a fitting card to end the cycle, showing that it is a cycle, and that the final destruction isn’t so final, after all. Life leads to death, which leads to life. The Ouroboros is never ending.

There are two cards from the RWS and more traditional Tarots, I think, that fit this one. First, and more obviously, is the Wheel of Fortune. I chose to picture the Wheel from Huson’s DFW Tarot simply because it shows Dame Fortune herself, while the RWS and many others omit her. Whether the Lady is present or not, though, the basic meaning of the card is the same. It represents the endless ups and downs of fate, and that what goes around will inevitably come around.

Second is the World. This fits the more cosmic implications of the GE Wheel – the Ouroboros, or the Great Round, and the never-ending cycle of life, death, and rebirth.

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The African Despot: This card confuses me. The title suggests the Emperor. The imagery suggests the Chariot. It’s location in the progression – the last card before the Minor Arcana – is odd. And why is he African?

I have formulated some theories, but like everything else in this series (or on this entire blog, really), they’re just ideas, and I have no way of backing them up.

First of all, I believe this character is the Magician we met in part IX. Like the Priest, this fellow faces the Devil; unlike the Priest, he stayed true to his faith. Now, the Magician’s “faith” is the occult – and it’s important to remember that this is a rendition of an early attempt at an occult deck. With his occult-based knowledge of the truth – of which traditional religion provides only an incomplete picture – he is able to obtain enlightenment through the Devil, rather than succumbing to the Devil’s temptations and corruption. Maybe this is why the Magician seemed comparatively sinister when we met him. He embraces his inner demons. Now, after the Judgement, he is crowned King, victoriously riding his Chariot.

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The High Priest degraded, the Magician exalted.

I also think this is why the African Despot is placed after the Wheel, rather than before it. He has attained enlightenment, and is freed from the ever-spinning wheel of terror-joy. He has reached nirvana. He is no longer chained to the cycle.

As far as his African heritage is concerned, all I can come up with is the fact that, in Etteilla’s day, the Tarot was believed to have been derived from ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, and so an occult master such as that pictured on the card would be heir to an “African” tradition. It is a stretch, but at least in the RWS Chariot, the eponymous vehicle is drawn by a pair of sphinxes, so it’s not entirely unfounded.

Of course, his divinatory meanings (and his designation as a “despot”) are not positive ones, which hurts my theory, but unfortunately this is the best I can come up with. It makes a cool story this way, at least.

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The Fool or Alchemist: The final card is the Fool. This card is separate from the rest of the Major Arcana, although unlike its counterpart in the RWS, it does have a number. 78 places it as the final card in the entire pack, behind even the Minor Arcana. It is nonetheless virtually the same as any other Fool. The fact that he is also called the Alchemist just means that he has wisdom which is not shared by the everyman, making him appear a fool to those less learned than he. Such is the enlightened Fool’s burden, but he does not let it weigh him down.

~~~

That’s it for the Major Arcana of the Book of Thoth Etteilla Tarot. For the final installment of this series, I will share some concluding thoughts, hopefully wrapping this very long, often disjointed, sometimes repetitive, totally subjective, and probably confusing series up with a pretty bow. My views of this pack of cards has evolved quite a bit since I began writing about it, and I should probably spend some time clearing up the mucky-muck.

It’s been a long time coming.

Etteilla v. Waite, Part X.

Creation – Preservation – Destruction. As I’ve said a few times already, this is the general mythic pattern which appears to me to fit the distinct Major Arcana of the Type III Etteilla deck (as opposed to the Hero’s Journey pattern of the Rider-Waite-Smith deck). Last time, I wrapped up the section of the progression which dealt with Preservation – culminating with the dubious Magician. Now, things are about to take a darker turn. The equilibrium which defines Preservation is upset, and the world is about to end. The following cards are the cards of Shiva; of Revelation; of Ragnarok; of the Apocalypse.

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Last Judgement: The day of Judgement is a fitting start to this portion, and I believe it coincides naturally enough with Judgement from the RWS. These cards are not exactly the same, however; in the GE, the angel is seen descending from heaven wielding a sword against the living (seven people for the seven deadly sins, perhaps?), while in the RWS the angel awakens the dead with a blast from his trumpet. In the RWS, Judgement is the final step before apotheosis. Here, it is not the end, but merely the beginning of the end. For all the differences, though, I can’t think of a better RWS equivalent than Judgement.

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From the MST – Both are dancing.

Death: Another fairly straightforward match. Another symbol of the End Of Days.

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The Monk: Based on the imagery, this card should match with the Hermit. This monk is shown leaving his monastery, and the divinatory meanings warn of treason and betrayal. This monk is not really a monk anymore; he is an apostate. He also happens to look very much like the High Priest from the previous post. This former symbol of morality and harmony betrayed his purpose when faced with the Devil, Judgement, and Death, whether from fear or corruption it matters not, thus making a mockery of all that he once stood for. This is yet another sign that civilization is on the decline.

Another possible match is based not so much on imagery as on meaning: the Hanged Man is sometimes interpreted as a traitor being punished for his heinous crime. But we can also consider the Monk’s departure from traditional religion in a different light: the Hanged Man sometimes represents initiation into the occult, or an inversion of perspective to gain spiritual insight. Such might be the case with the Monk, who is perhaps only moving on to bigger and better things. The world is falling apart around him; his old faith is no longer serving him, so why should he continue to serve it?

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From the CHT

The Struck Temple: This card shows a walled city or temple complex burning to the ground. It is quite possible the flames came from the sun in the upper corner – divine intervention. Everything in this post so far has been a sign of the impending apocalypse. Now it is actually happening. This card is the violent Destruction of the world by fire. This card is the End.

Except it isn’t the End, not really. There are still three more cards to examine, which I shall do next time on Etteilla v. Waite.

~~~

Etteilla v. Waite: Part IX

Last time, I took a look at the four cardinal virtues of the GE and matched them with their respective virtues from the RWS. Following the creation through binary opposition, existence is preserved by the four elements maintaining separateness from each other.* The four elements correspond to the four virtues, which represent the pillars of a stable and moral society. Thus the framework for the Preservation of the world has been erected; now I shall take a look at what goes on within this framework.

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High Priest: The title of this card suggests the Hierophant, but the imagery suggests the Lovers, especially the Lovers from Mr. Crowley’s Thoth deck. Because I already brought attention to this fascinating similarity in part III, I will say nothing more about it here.

I think this card intentionally combines the Hierophant with the Lovers. The Hierophant suggests a bridge between man and God, while the Lovers (in their more mundane sense, as opposed to the choice I spoke of previously) suggests marriage. In other words, this is a card of unity, of a happily functioning society.

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Devil: The Devil of the GE matches up with the Devil from the RWS pretty easily. It acts as an agent of chaos, a counterpoint to the harmony of the previous card. The Devil has a few levels of meaning, ranging from evil to enlightening, but in every case, there is no better card to match it than another Devil.

As a counterpoint to the High Priest, the Devil introduces a sense of balance to the Preservation section of the progression. This is appropriate, because Preservation is all about keeping equilibrium. Eventually, however, the balance is thrown off, and that’s often the Devil’s doing. Therefore, I think the Devil signals the beginning of the end of Preservation, and foreshadows the era of Destruction.

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Magician or Juggler: Again, pretty obvious, although it’s worth noting the differences between these two cards. The RWS Magician (or TdM Juggler) is certainly more benevolent than that of the GE, whose divinitory meanings offer only maladies for the querent. The picture of the GE Magician also seems comparatively sinister, as he manipulates a mannequin on a tablecloth covered with symbols of the occult. This suggests malfeasance to me, and could symbolize the beginning of the Destruction of mankind. This does not, however, match with anything at all associated with the RWS Magician, who is a creative force. Perhaps it’s only another superficial match, like the Suns of part V. Perhaps his toying with a mannequin could instead represent the manipulative Trickster archetype, which does match the TdM Juggler well enough. Perhaps, though, there’s another way of looking at the Magician, upon which I expounded in part IV. In a nutshell, the Magician is a point of contrast to the High Priest, one on either side of the Devil. Both characters react to the Devil in different ways, and we will see their respective fates as we continue down the line.

The latter interpretation is entirely my own theory, and is based only on artistic details in the cards. In such a case, the Magician is probably better considered a part of Preservation rather than Destruction, and despite his apparent manipulation of the Voodoo-doll-thing, he would ultimately turn out to be a positive character. Of course, this fits better with the positive nature of the RWS Magician, but in the end this is all only speculation.

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This is the point of the mythic progression where I’m starting to rely more heavily on my own interpretations. Obviously the first eight cards are the Creation, so I wasn’t stretching much there, and I think the Preservation and Destruction fit naturally enough with the progression of the cards; but all the same, I must confess to making most of this up. As I stated earlier in this series, I don’t have much to go on in the way of outside sources when it comes to making sense of this version of the Major Arcana.

In any event, the next installment of Etteilla v. Waite will continue to examine the cards as they appear in the progression of the GE, and though the demarcation line between Preservation and Destruction may be blurry in this section, next time we will have undoubtedly entered Ragnarok, the era of Destruction.

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*I opted not to lose myself to a digression about the four elements while discussing the Creation cards, since I was just focusing on RWS counterparts, but perhaps I should have. The elements are the building blocks of creation, after all. Four of the eight Creation cards are indeed assigned to an element, as follows: Fire is the Sun, Air is the Sky, Water is the Plants, and Earth is assigned to Man and Beast. Which element corresponds to which virtue, on the other hand, is up for debate. I tend to associate Fire with Force, Air with Justice, Water with Temperance, and Earth with Prudence, per Paul Huson, but that’s not the only possibility.

Sola-Busca: One for the Collection.

The Tarot’s history is certainly steeped in mystique. Strange as it all sounds today, though, with a little digging it turns out that they really are just a pack of playing cards. Not so strange, after all.

We strive to define our past with neat and tidy narratives. It’s human nature to think this way; it is how we can make sense of a chaotic and nonsensical existence. Whether the history is verifiable (that the cards as we know them evolved from a card game conceived in Italy during the renaissance) or not (that the cards were created by ancient Egyptian mystics and disseminated through the generations by Gypsies), it provides a story, a context, and that is greatly comforting to us.

But of course, reality isn’t quite as simple as the histories would have us believe. There are new discoveries every day, new interpretations of things we thought we knew, and sometimes these really shake things up. And new discoveries or no, we can never truly know how things were experienced by folks of bygone eras. We weren’t there, and even with the benefit of hindsight, there’s always a piece of the picture missing. It’s a double-edged sword: on the one hand, it’s enough to make a researcher want to tear his hair out. It’s more than frustrating; it’s disconcerting to have your neat and tidy narrative splinter at the slightest touch of contrary evidence (and there is always contrary evidence). On the other hand, it’s exhilarating to find something that forces new perspectives. Even if a complete understanding is impossible, we can always inch our way closer, and there is joy in the unending process of learning.

This is a long and rather dramatic preamble, I know. And it’s really only about a new Tarot deck in my collection: the Tarocchi Sola-Busca. These cards threw a wrench in the Tarot narrative as I understood it. I know next to nothing about this Tarot, but I don’t doubt there are sources out there somewhere that examine it. The Sola-Busca is not remotely a new discovery in the world of the Tarot, but it is new to me, and it’s raised a couple questions about my notions of the Tarot’s history.* But before I get into that, I think I’ll talk a bit about the deck itself.

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An example of the Major Arcana, a small card, and a court card – SBT.

I bought this one purely as a collector’s item. This is the first time I’ve spent money on my collection for its own sake. I’d fully intended on using every other deck I obtained at the time of purchase, even if some of them did end up as curiosities for study rather than actual use (I’m looking at you, Etteilla). I don’t know if I’ll ever divine with these.

Actually, I will probably give it a try at some point. But this deck is even marketed as a collector’s item rather than a reading deck. It is very nice. It’s so nice, that one of the extra publisher’s cards in the pack was complete with a disclaimer advising against shuffling the cards, because they’re “untreated” and prone to damage with use. That irks me a bit, because I don’t care if they are the most collectible cards in the world, a deck that’s too delicate to shuffle just defeats the purpose. It almost seems pretentious to me.

That’s just a minor annoyance, though, since I never had plans to make this my workhorse deck; and anyways, it’s not like the cards are actually fragile. The cardstock is decent enough, there’s just no finish of any kind to protect the images. I’m pretty sure my Shadowscapes deck is similarly untreated, and they’re holding up fine so far (and I do use those).

So what makes the Sola-Busca so collectible?

For one thing, they are very old. The actual deck I have is a 19th century reproduction (very faithful, according to the LWB) of the original cards, which date to sometime between 1491 and 1523. Even at its earliest, this is not as old as the Visconti-Sforza Tarots, but it is pretty darn close. Like the Visconti, these cards were commissioned by Italian nobility (remaining in the possession of the Sola-Busca family of Milan until only about a decade ago), presumably for gameplay.

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It pleases me that, though the Hermit is absent, Carbone takes up the staff and torch for a moonlit stroll on card 12.

But were they really intended for games? The second reason these cards are so collectible is because they are astonishingly atypical of traditional packs. It should be borne in mind that Tarot “tradition” as we know it was not yet fully formed when these cards were produced, but all the same: why are these cards so divergent from their contemporaries? The Visconti cards were certainly for games; surely these can be used for games as well, but what else is going on here?

Structurally, they are the same. 40 small cards, 16 court cards, 21 trump cards, and one unnumbered Fool card. 78 in total. But aside from the Fool, the Major Arcana of the Sola-Busca are not the classic allegorical images to which we are accustomed. Instead, they depict mostly figures from Roman history, and two from the Bible. These include characters from the history of Christianity, Literature, Numismatics, and Alchemy (again according to the LWB – I must admit the majority of the names on these cards are obscure to me). This suggests a possible educational utility, with some hints of what we would call “occultism” today. Other packs of cards that apparently served this dual purpose of gaming and education do exist, like the Minchiate. Why not the Tarot, too?

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Deo Tauro sits in place of the Chariot.

This blows a hole through the argument that Etteilla and Court de Gebelin were the first people to suggest esoteric uses for the Tarot, even if the Tarots they were using were not derived from the Sola-Busca. Now, the occultism attributed by these men to the cards is not the same thing as anything depicted in the Sola-Busca, and they were still wrong about the origins of the Tarot; but it raises an interesting question about the apparently mundane and frivolous uses of the earliest cards. We know they were used for gambling, but was that all? Is it possible that there was an aura of mysticism about them, even at the beginning? This is a valid question to ask of the Visconti as it is of the Sola-Busca. It is more than probable that the artist who rendered the Sola-Busca cards was familiar with packs like the Visconti. They are from the same country and the same approximate time period. Moreover, for all its differences, there are familiar motifs to be found throughout the Sola-Busca. For example, Deo Tauro, who graces card number seven, could be riding a chariot, and card thirteen shows Catone standing over a severed-and-impaled head. There are subtle similarities throughout. Perhaps the Visconti was only created for games, but if decks like the Sola-Busca were floating around, it’s certainly possible that owners of the Visconti also saw a certain educational and mystical potential in their cards. After all, we only think so because the Tarot’s pictures are so suggestive, and they would only have been more so during the renaissance, a time that these images were current. It’s easy to forget that the line between the sacred and the profane – that is, the spiritual and the mundane, or the intuitive and the rational – was not always as clear as it’s often perceived today.

It wouldn’t have been associated with the divination and occultism that we know, not by a long shot, but the very existence of this deck suggests that Etteilla and de Gebelin’s revelations about the esoteric significance of the Tarot may actually have been the fruits of seeds planted long before them.

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And that’s just the Major Arcana. If anything, the Minor Arcana are actually more fascinating.** The suits are typical – Swords, Wands, Cups, and Coins – but the pip cards are all illustrated. Whoever designed these cards were centuries ahead of their times. Nowadays we take illustrated pips for granted, but it was only in 1910 with the publication of the Rider pack that they really became popular. Smith’s illustrations were revolutionary for the Tarot, but they were not really her innovation. Photos of the Sola-Busca were available for public viewing in a museum in London while Waite and Smith were working on their cards, and it is fairly certain that these photos served as inspiration for Smith’s iconic drawings. A handful of her Minor Arcana even have direct counterparts in the Sola-Busca.

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Some of Pamela Smith’s inspiration.

I won’t go so far as to speculate that the Sola-Busca may have been used for intuitive divination, but it is an awfully elaborate pack of cards for game play. It makes the lavish Visconti cards seem almost plebeian by comparison. These are illustrations, not flowery embellishment. Creativity went into this. Is it an extension of the educational element from the Major Arcana? What are these images supposed to convey? Or are these cards a product of people simply reveling in the artistic extravagance of 15th century Italy?

Maybe we’ll never know. Maybe we already do, and I’m just uninformed. I want to stress again that I actually know very little about this deck. It is foreign to me, and it makes me re-think the Tarot in interesting ways. If nothing else, these cards provide me with new avenues for study and musing, should I ever feel so inclined. And as a collector’s item, it fills a satisfying niche in my collection, bringing together its hitherto disparate ends. The wildly non-traditional modern decks, such as the Mary-El or the Wildwood, now have a historical precedent in breaking from convention. The Sola-Busca brings it all back to the beginning. It is very different, yes, but its differences are a reminder that the Tarot is living, evolving alongside the people who use it, and it always has been.

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*The Sola-Busca has been in my periphery for quite some time now, in fact, but I never gave it much thought until I decided my collection ought to have one.

**There are actually many motifs from the traditional Major Arcana peppered throughout the Sola-Busca’s Minor Arcana. I thought that was very interesting. One example is a Cups card which shows a goofy-looking man holding a cudgel on his shoulder while a small dog tears down his pants. This card looks very much like the Marseille Fool, only without the jester cap.

Mystical Origins of the Tarot.

The title of this book by Paul Huson is kind of odd. It suggests to me some sort of BS pseudo-historical narrative along the lines of Court de Gebelin’s theory about how the Tarot was created by ancient Egyptian priests trying to preserve the secrets of the Universe. This is odd, because the book itself is a work of legitimate historical research – there is nothing “mystical” about the origins of the Tarot, and Huson never tries to make it seem so beyond the title page. I suspect it’s tongue-in-cheek, like his earlier work on the Tarot called The Devil’s Picturebook (I have not read that one, but am assured there is nothing but wry humor behind its provocative title).

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The subtitle, “From Ancient Roots to Modern Usage,” is perhaps a better indication of the content. Ancient to modern is quite a chunk of time to cover, but Mystical Origins does it, tracing the evolution of the Tarot as we know it today from its mysterious beginnings (which, while long ago, are not exactly ancient, at least not as ancient as the Egyptian priests).

Books like this one are necessary precisely because the origin of the Tarot is so mysterious. In the 1800s theories like de Gebelin’s could catch on, not only because they seemed to make enough sense on the surface and because occultists wanted to believe them, but because we really didn’t know any better until fairly recently. Many Tarot books perpetuate false or only partially true “histories”. These books are perfectly fine in other respects, but they simply are not good resources for historically-verifiable information.

Now, this is the Tarot we’re talking about here, not recently declassified government documents or freshly-discovered tablets of Linear A or anything like that. Whether they’re used for gambling or fortune-telling, cards are not exactly the sort of thing generally taken seriously by academic types, historians or otherwise.* As such, books about the Tarot are not usually concerned with meeting academic criteria. Shoddy history is to be expected, and anyway, why does it even matter?

Well, it does and it doesn’t matter. The Tarot does not require a history lesson to be used or enjoyed. Furthermore, the aura of mystery surrounding the Tarot is a major attraction for many folks, myself included, and mystical histories only add to that aura. I’ve said it before, these legends add to the flavor of the cards, illustrating their hold on the imagination. The mythic connections are very real, despite not being based in empirical fact.

However, I believe that myth and history are not mutually exclusive, and just as myth enriches our metaphysical experiences with the cards, history enriches the experience on a much more practical level. Context is key in understanding any spread, and history is just a lesson in context on a grand scale. Through historical research, we can better understand the cards themselves, what they were, where they came from, who made them, and how they became what they are now. This information may not be immediately applicable when using the cards, but it strikes me as foolish to invest in the Tarot as I have without understanding what it really is. It pleases me that Huson’s book, and others like it, are available as a counterbalance to all the “woo” out there.

But I digress. Mystical Origins isn’t the only book backed by historical research, and it may not be the best out there, but of what I’ve read, it provides the most thorough history, and on the whole I think his interpretations of it stand on sound reasoning.** He asserts that the historical mystery of the Tarot can be boiled down to three questions:

1. What is the source of the suit symbols?
2. What is the source of the trumps?
3. When and why did people begin to use the Tarot for divination?

The first chapters attempt to answer these questions. The suits are thought to have been derived from the Persian Mamluk cards after they were introduced to Europeans in the 14th century. At the time, these were primarily used for trick-taking games. The playing cards became the Tarot in the following century, when the trump cards were added to the pack. The imagery of the trumps is medieval in origin, drawing from many sources, most notably from religious dramas of the time. The earliest ones were hand-painted for nobles, but they remained devices for gaming. It wasn’t until a long time afterward, in the 18th century, that the Tarot was established as a tool for divination and the occult by Etteilla and his contemporaries. By this time, the Persian and medieval European sources of the cards had been forgotten, and so it was hypothesized that they originated in Egypt.

Mystical Origins is often touted as a Tarot history book, and it certainly is. The first few chapters make up the historical overview beginning with the Mamluk and concluding with the occult developments of the late 1800s – early 1900s. This isn’t the whole book, though; in fact, it’s barely a third of it. The remainder of the book focuses on the actual cards of both the Major and Minor Arcana and on reading techniques, all of which builds upon the previous material.

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From the DFW Tarot.

Each card is briefly discussed in terms of its historical symbolism, followed by its divinatory interpretations by Tarot masters throughout the ages, with a final suggested interpretation from the author. The chapter on reading is especially interesting. We get Huson’s personal advice on card reading, and although he expresses some opinions that I’m sure are disagreeable to some, I thought much of it was quite wise. Then he provides several spreads and methods, from very simple to very advanced, all taken from historical sources. The entire book is illustrated with line drawings by the author, and in them one can recognize the roots of much of Huson’s own Tarot, Dame Fortune’s Wheel, which was published a few years after Mystical Origins.

In conclusion, this book is not only a fascinating history of the Tarot, but it is a thorough and excellent handbook for cartomancy with the Tarot, and a good divinatory reference for historical and occult packs, from the Visconti to the RWS and virtually everything in between.

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*Occult Tarot may be a different story, but the first rule of Occult Club is don’t talk about Occult Club.

**Huson does occasionally posit theories which are pure speculation – they are simply not provable based on available information – but he always acknowledges when this is the case.

Etteilla v. Waite: Part VIII

In the previous installment of Etteilla v. Waite, I finished examining the first eight cards of the GE, which constitute the portion of the progression that corresponds to the creation of the world. Now that creation is complete, we will move onto the next phase of existence, which I refer to as “preservation.” In the grand scheme of the mythic past and the mythic future, preservation is the eternal present. It is the here and now; the mythic components of our everyday lives; existence maintained.

Given the Biblical imagery of the Creation, it is fitting that the Preservation should kick off with some good old-fashioned Christian virtues.* There are four of them, like four pillars to ensure the support of the completed Creation, and they will be the subject of this post.

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Justice: I don’t think this card really warrants any explanation. Pretty obvious, I’d say, which RWS card it matches.

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Temperance: Like Justice above, I don’t think I need to explain why I placed Temperance with Temperance. However, the imagery of these two Temperance’s are different from each other, and in particular the bridle held by the GE Temperance also reminds me very much of the Chariot, the occupant of which must reign in the Horses of Opposition and make them work together for him.

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Force: Once again, easy-peasy. The RWS uses the title “Strength” for the equivalent card, but that’s nothing more than an issue of translation. Traditional decks sometimes called the same figure “Fortitude,” and I think I like that word best for this card.

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GE Prudence on top; RWS Hermit, TdM Popess, and DFW World

Prudence: And here we come to a problem. The RWS does not have a card for the virtue Prudence, nor does any other Tarot except the GE. What is interesting is that, for some reason, three of the four cardinal virtues are represented in traditional Tarot. Why should the fourth be excluded? Many have speculated that Prudence is there, just under a different title. Of course, no one can agree on which card Prudence uses as her guise.

The Hermit is a popular candidate for Prudence, and this makes more than just a little sense. The High Priestess is also considered to be an appropriate match for this card. She holds a similar book in the TdM (where she’s called the Popess), and her gender does coincide with the other three virtues (or rather, the personifications of those virtues). Personally, however, I consider the Priestess’ brand of wisdom to be deeper and of a more spiritual nature than simple prudence, and because the Hermit strikes me as more worldly than the ethereal Priestess, I find him to be a better fit for this card. Prudence is, as I understand it, merely a practical sort of wisdom – to think before acting, for example. It’s common sense, almost. There is nothing common about the wisdom of the High Priestess. That’s not to understate the Hermit’s wisdom, but of the two, I think he is the more, well, prudent.

In his book Mystical Origins of the Tarot, Paul Huson suggested that the World was intended to represent the virtue Prudence. He cites early renaissance era cards that employed slightly different imagery than the modern World cards, which often showed a woman holding a mirror and a scepter with a snake, and crowned with an interesting sort of halo. Unlike the round halos seen on cards depicting angels (like Judgement), this halo is scalloped and is supposed to represent a personification of an abstract quality. Aside from the World, there are only three other figures in these renaissance decks that were adorned with such halos, and they are Justice, Force, and Temperance. Huson designed his own version of the World with all this in mind, as you can see in the photo above. This card is usually interpreted to mean a completion or an integration of sorts, and taken from a certain perspective, this card could certainly signify experience, or wisdom in the ways of the world – or, you know, prudence. I think his proposition stands on sound reasoning, although I must admit, without his book, I doubt it would have crossed my mind to match the World with Prudence.

The question of Prudence in the Tarot has never been one that truly bothered me, so as far as I’m concerned, any or all of the cards mentioned above work just fine as a match.

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Aside from the little hiccup with Prudence, these cards were considerably easier to match than the cards of the previous sections. Most of the remaining cards will be similarly simple to match, but not all of them (and even when matched, these cards are all in a different order than they appear in the RWS). The next part of this series will continue to examine Preservation, particularly the forces that ultimately lead it to give way to Destruction.

 

*Adopted, of course, from the classical Greeks. Those guys sure were awfully civilized for a bunch of misguided pagans, eh?