9 December 2012


Nicholas Swift replies to Gareth Medway's review of his book, Mirror of the Free
1. The sefiroth and the Sefer Yetzirah. The Sefer Yetzirah was a product of the Merkabah mystical tradition, predating the Kabbalah, and numerous sources confirm that the sefiroth as presented therein are different from the sefiroth of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life (Kether, Binah, etc.), as it has become widely known, inasmuch as they are simply the numbers one to ten, correlated to the first ten letters of the Hebrew alphabet, with metaphysical significances ascribed. They may, indeed, have been the reason the Arabic terms in the Ikhwan as Safa's mystical map were forced into a tenfold template. 

Some of my book is devoted to demonstrating (one of the things Gareth J. Medway assiduously ignores), with varying degrees of precision, how the meanings of the original Arabic terms are likely to have been lost: parallelling, in fact, the corruption and misinterpretation of not only the Mesopotamian imagery that became the Marseille Tarot, but also the words that landed on the cards. That, also, is why it is not inaccurate to refer to the Ikhwan as Safa's eightfold metaphysical hierarchy (God being above all) as the original Kabbalah. Nor – again, as I explain in the book -- is the Jewish Encyclopedia article the only reason for thinking so. As (for instance) Gershom Scholem says in Origins of the Kabbalah, as far back as the Bahir many Kabbalists thought they should be divided into three upper and seven lower: "In sections 13, 18, 32 and 95 the second and the third sefiroth are conceived as forming a unity with the first..." (JPS/PUP 1987, page 131).

I show, for example, that while at the top of the sefirothic scheme is something translated into English as "Crown," at the top of the Ikhwan's setup is something with many names, but one of the most quoted of which is "Universal Intellect"; if you skip the Hebrew and go straight to the languages used by Muslims of the time and place, you find that the Arabic for "crown" is ikleel, while the Persian for "universal intellect" is aql ee kull (Arabic, aql al kull). In other words, they sound very much alike, and it is easy to imagine someone, especially with insufficient knowledge of one or more languages, mistaking one for the other.

I refer anyone who doubts the historic Sufi influence on the Kabbalah to Thomas Block's 2010 book, Shalom/Salaam: A Story of a Mystical Fraternity (Fons Vitae). In the chapter on Kabbalah, he concludes that "there is enough Islamic mystical thought cradled in the bosom of the Kabbalah to bring into question the pure 'Jewishness' of this most Jewish of mystical systems."

2. The "old edition of The Jewish Encyclopedia." I call it that because it doesn't say when it was published. In the references I note that the Preface is dated 1901. If a publication date had been given, I would tell you. Honestly, I would.

3. The degree to which the card images resemble the seal images. I don't know how it's possible for anyone who looks carefully and with an unprejudiced eye at the Mesopotamian images -- mostly, but not exclusively, from cylinder seals -- and compares them with the Marseille Tarot imagery to not see the correspondences. Of all the people who have read the book, or at least had it in their possession, only two, counting Gareth J. Medway, have told me they simply don't see it. Both dealt with it, if I can call it that, by repeating some things about the history of the Tarot since it became what we call "the Tarot" – in other words, by changing the subject.

Of course the seals and the cards aren't exactly the same (again, as I say more than once in the book): whoever it was who made the copies -- and who knows how many copies, and copies of copies, there were -- they obviously didn't grasp what it was that was supposed to be represented. Even today there is much in the seals that hasn't been identified or interpreted. That is why, for instance, it is far from ridiculous to think that a medieval artist – having, through means unknown, before him a copy of a first millennium BCE representation of a Priest of Adad leaping and pulling his lower legs back, and raising his arms at 45 degree angles, as he performs an ecstatic dance, and also having, somewhere to hand, or having heard, and recalling, an ancient tale about an angel who was punished by being suspended upside down -- assumed that one was an illustration of the other. Without context, how would he know it wasn't, or even which way was up?

If the most obvious individual examples aren't enough, there is the fact of the cumulative detailed resemblance, to varying degrees, of all the major arcana, and at least some of the minor ones, to one or another seal image: or even more than one, where they appear to have been conflated. As far as the seated figures go, Mr. Medway does the reader a disservice by not also pointing out that when discussing the Justice card and its likely source I acknowledge that "it is an example of one of many cylinder seal impressions from which the image may be derived... there are so many images similar to this one, and some of the seated figures in the cards look as though they could be based on any of them, or on more than one."

Please note that I am saying there are many seal images similar to that particular card, and to some of the other Marseille Tarot seated figures, in the sense that they are similar to each other. That is, a great many cylinder seals are similar to each other because they are obviously, and presumably intentionally, on the same model, with some variation in execution. I am not saying that the card, or any of the other cards, or any of the seal images, could be mistaken for any picture at all of anyone sitting down, as Gareth J. Medway seems to imply when he says that "the only point in common is that they all show a male or a female seated figure." In the case of Justice, there are the sword held up in her right hand and the scales suspended from her left, mimicking the mace raised in Ishtar's right hand in Figure 34 (where she isn't, in fact, sitting), and the scimitar dangling from her left. The angled water-streams flowing out of Ea's shoulders in Figure 49 have become the curious drapes behind The High Priestess. And so on.

If you can entertain the idea that the Mesopotamian material is the source of the card images, the relationship with the other areas of study follows. The seal images are illustrations of mythical scenes. Some of the myths, at least, are allegories. The subject of the allegories is the same knowledge similarly encoded in stories in the Hebrew scriptures, and communicated in various forms in Sufi lore, including the work of the Ikhwan as Safa and some of the Gurdjieff material.

4. The Fool and the Joker. The only reason I mention the Joker at all is because at least one good cylinder seal candidate for the Marseille Fool is a representation of the Babylonian god of war and death, Nergal, and, as an aside, I say, "the Joker, like war, is wild." ("The gods will enter, invited or not," went the saying Jung kept over his door.) The source of the Joker card that Mr. Medway presents as certain is, in fact, just another theory. In the Tarot there was and is a Fool, but no joker, and in the deck of playing cards there is a Joker, but no fool. In that sense, however it happened, one replaced the other. Some do think it was directly derived. Unless you have dedicated yourself to reading a book without absorbing any but a few bits here and there that you think you can use to imply that the rest is unworthy of attention, when you read mine it is obvious that the sense in which I mean "became" is not the one Mr. Medway implies, because it would be irrelevant in the context of the rest of the book. He does, though, here inadvertently affirm the validity of the process of word corruption the details of instances of which are one of the subjects of Mirror of the Free, with the difference that the scope for error was greatly enlarged through the involvement of different language groups.

5. The Lovers. I haven't "failed to notice" that it's a wedding ceremony; what I have failed to do is be satisfied with received wisdom, and let it distract me from noticing that the total weight of the Mesopotamian correspondences makes it clear that it is one of at least three cards derived from a well known stone stele scene of a Babylonian king being presented to the god Shamash – or, possibly, another, now lost, similar artefact. Not surprisingly, a medieval European artist had no idea about that, so he rendered it ambiguously. Again, the reviewer, I'm sure without planning to, here validates the misdrawing of figures affecting subsequent intelligibility.

6. "Not obviously to the point," "unclear what it might have to do with the Tarot." One of the mythical stories portrayed in the cylinder seals is the Gilgamesh epic, at the end of which, indicating the culmination of his spiritual journey, he reaches Utnapishtim, the Sumerian Noah, who in the context represents the ancient sage archetype, and who, as such – like, in Sufi doctrine, Mohammed and the other prophets -- is considered to be identical with the Universal Intellect (see para 1 above). That's what it has to do, etc., and it's about as obvious, etc., as I can make it, which is more than anyone else has, as far as I know. Again, this is all in the book, which Gareth J. Medway presumably read before he undertook to review it.

When Blavatsky -- and whatever your opinion of her, I don't think you can say she was stupid -- wrote that it was obvious that the cylinder seals were the source, and that anyone could verify it for themselves by going into the British Museum and having a look, I very much doubt that it occurred to her that she was in any danger of making herself look precisely that (stupid), if only because going for a walk on Great Russell Street was not difficult. We now are further advantaged by the publication of books containing thousands of cylinder seal images from collections all over the world.
Figures referred to in text (numbering is as in the book)

Figure 27. Nana, the moon god, from a Third Ur Dynasty stele currently in the University Museum of the University of Philadelphia.

Figure 28. The King from the Marseille Tarot.

Figure 45.  Detail of a cylinder seal, possibly from north Syria, showing a nude goddess inside an arch motif with a bull, worshippers, a hawk and, apparently, a hooded cobra.  In the British Museum.

Figure 46. The World from the Marseille Tarot.

Figure 55. Detail of a 900 BCE Assyrian cylinder seal, now in the British Museum, showing priests of the Canaanite goddess Athirat or Ashera
Figure 56. The Hermit from the Marseille Tarot. the Marseille Tarot.

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