19 October 2013


Ronald Decker. The Esoteric Tarot: Ancient Sources Rediscovered in Hermeticism and Cabala. Quest Books, Theosophical Publishing House. 2013.

Retired art historian Decker has examined Tarot packs in many parts of the world. He has also studied the written and visual material that may have underlain the cards’ designs, and therefore appears to be the ideal person to investigate their esoteric meanings. Nevertheless, his book is not wholly satisfactory.
In the late eighteenth century Antoine Court de Gébelin and Jean Baptiste Alliette, better known by the reversal of his surname, Etteilla, considered that the Tarot derived from ancient Egypt. Decker rejects this view, and takes it that the Tarot is not much older than the earliest surviving packs, that is circa 1440 (and it is thought that no cards existed anywhere in the world before about 900). Yet, he argues, it was created by people with an enthusiasm for what survived of Egyptian tradition and mysticism.

He gives an outline of Hermeticism, a theosophy that developed when Greeks settled in northern Egypt in the wake of Alexander the Great’s conquests, and combined elements of both cultures. One product was the Hermetic Corpus, a collection of discourses attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, a Greek God who was now believed to have been an early pharaoh. Though these texts did not reach Italy until the 1460s, too late to have influenced the Tarot, some of the doctrines had been incorporated into neo-Platonism. Another influence, he considers, was the writing of Marcus Manilius, a first century Roman astrologer.

Decker suggests that Trump I, The Juggler, (also called The Magician, The Bagatto, and by several other names), represented Agathodaimon (‘Good Spirit’), the supposed father of Hermes Trismegistus. One of his functions was to disperse divinatory lots, which is what the wand and ball in his hands might be. There is also Cacodaimon (‘evil spirit’), which “surely can be found in the Devil trump.”

Harran is now a ruin in south-east Turkey, but for centuries it was a flourishing city. It was home to the Sabians, star-worshippers whose religion had incorporated Hermeticism, indeed, they treated the Hermetic Corpus as a scripture. Some of their writings were incorporated into an Arabic book entitled Ghayat al-Hakim, ‘The Goal of the Wise’, which in the thirteenth century was translated into Spanish and Latin under the title Picatrix, which might be a corruption of Pythagoras or Hippocrates.
Decker suggests that the four-suited pack of cards was invented in central Asia and spread from there to both China and the Middle East, though the more usual view is that it originated in China and travelled westwards. Either way, it would principally have passed down the Silk Road, which went through Harran. The Sabians might have devised the system in which the suits were Coins, Cups, Swords, and Polo-Sticks. This is the form in which the fifty-two card pack was used in the Arab world, and, with Polo-Sticks modified to Batons, how they arrived in Europe. This suit-system is still the usual one in Italy and the Iberian peninsula. Coins were a symbol of good luck, whilst cups, swords and polo-sticks were the commonest emblems in Mamluke heraldry. They may have been thought of as (gold) Coins = Sun, Swords = Mars, Cups = Venus, and Sticks = Moon.

He relates some of the Tarot cards to the ‘Children of the Planets’. These were images, popular in the Renaissance, depicting the seven planets (i.e. Sun, Moon, and the planets from Mercury to Saturn), personified as humans in the sky, with people on the ground below performing actions thought to be ruled by them, so that beneath Mercury, the messenger of the Gods, scribes are seen writing. Trump XIX shows the sun shining over a garden in which two boys are playing. In fact, he suggests, they are wrestling, since the ‘Children of the Sun’ usually include a pair of wrestlers. The ‘Children of Mars’ shows a burning tower amongst other things, therefore it may be assumed that Trump XVI, the Lighting-Struck Tower, corresponds to Mars.

Though illustrations of the planets and the signs of the zodiac are innumerable, there is only one known depiction of the twelve astrological houses, in an engraving attributed to Erhard Schoen, as a frontispiece to an almanac by Leonhard Reymann, Nuremberg, 1515. Six of these images are more or less identical to the Tarot Trumps III, IV, VI, X, XIII, and XIX, and this can hardly be coincidence. Decker observes, however, that it is unlikely that the Tarot was known in Germany at such an early date, so that “by my reckoning, both sets of images have a common ancestor – Egyptian horoscopes”. He does not expound this point further. Probably Schoen had a manuscript prototype, but it would be a lifetime’s work to search through every illustrated mediaeval astrological manuscript.

Decker considers that the influential Tarot de Marseilles, though only created as such in the eighteenth century, goes back to fifteen century Milan in its designs, and is nearer to the original than any other pack. In this, The Star (Trump XVII) is a naked woman pouring water from two vases into a stream, while an eight-pointed star blazes overhead. This is Venus, who was said in legend to dispense dew, which might be what this pouring out signifies; the Roman senator Pliny wrote of Venus that “at both of its risings, it scatters a genital dew”, though I cannot imagine what he meant by ‘both’. But I would suggest also that in Babylonia, one of the main places where astrology originated, the Goddess Ishtar was originally associated with springs, but later with the planet Venus, her symbol being an eight-pointed star, which could have somehow influenced this card. The Picatrix says that a talisman of Venus may be made featuring a naked girl sitting on a stag. This may explain an incomplete (only fifteen cards surviving) pack in the Museo Civico at Catania, one of which shows just that, and has hitherto puzzled art historians.

Finally, Decker looks at the introduction of Tarot divination, which was started by a Parisian using the professional name Etteilla. He devised a special pack for fortune-telling. Now, whilst the trumps are rich in symbolism suitable for this purpose, the numeral cards are rather uninspiring. So he gave them names, the Two of Wands, for example, having ‘Wealth’ written at the bottom, or, if the card came out the other way up, ‘Surprise’. Decker suggests that he derived these interpretations from Sha’are Orah, ‘Gates of Light’, by Joseph Gitakilla, a thirteenth century Spanish Kabbalist, based upon his commentary on the ten sephiroth. It is unlikely that Etteilla could read Hebrew, but he may have had access to a translation or epitome of the Sha’are Orah.

This is a valuable addition to the literature, but inevitably there is a lot of speculation. - Gareth J. Medway.

1 comment:

Phil said...

As Pliny notes, Venus does in fact rise twice - it's seen at some times after sunset and at others before sunrise. "Fertile" would be a better translation of the Latin genitalis than "genital".