A Wicked Pack of Cards

The Wheel of Fortune-Tarot de Marseille
The Wheel of Fortune-Tarot de Marseille

Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold, nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,
With a wicked pack of cards. Here, said she,
Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,
(Those are pearls that were his eyes.Look!)
Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks.
The lady of situations.
Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,
And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,
Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find
The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.
I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring,
Thank you. If you see dear Mrs Equitone,
Tell her I bring the horoscope myself:
One must be so careful these days.

T.S Eliot The Waste Land 1922

It is no surprise really that the Tarot are mentioned at length in the masterpiece of Modernism, T.S Eliot’s The Waste Land from 1922. The notes alone are a treasure trove of esoteric references, making mention of the Cumaean Sibyl, The Golden Bough of James Frazer, the study of Arthurian legend From Ritual to Romance by Jessie L. Weston, Buddha’s Fire Sermon, Gérard de Nerval’s densely hermetic sonnet El Desdichado and the Upanishads.

Interest in all matters esoteric and occult had become a feature of the avant-garde ever since the later Romantics, especially Charles Baudelaire and the above-mentioned Gérard de Nerval. Later in the 19th Century there would be Arthur Rimbaud with his theory of  ‘the alchemy of the word’, the Swedish playwright August Strindberg’s stint in Paris as a practising alchemist, known as the Inferno Period, and various writers and painters connected to the Symbolist and Decadent movements, most notably  J.K Huysmans and my personal favourite Comte de Villiers de l’Isle-Adam (see To the Dreamers, To the Deriders).

As the century progressed the Tarot became increasingly esoteric itself. This was quite a recent development, previously the Tarot had been a card game popular in Italy, France and Switzerland, though it also undisputedly used in cartomancy as well. However it was a theologian and Freemason, the Count Gébelin who first advanced the theory in 1781 that the Tarot was a repository of lost ancient knowledge, a theme developed at length by that strange figure known as Etteilla, who added that it was initially conceived by Hermes Tristemegistus himself and was actually ‘The Book of Thoth’. When the man responsible for the French Occult Revival, Eliphas Levi incorporated the Tarot into his magical system and tied the 22 cards of the Major Arcana with the 22 characters of the Hebrew alphabet, the occultation of the Tarot was complete and it became an essential tool for any would-be magician. A quick comparison between any of the older versions of the Tarot with the most famous deck, the Rider-Waite-Smith of 1910 makes this clear, the Rider-Waite-Smith is self-consciously more “mystical”, with an over-abundance of symbolism.

In certain respects the Tarot was tailored-made for Modernism and Post-Modernism, with its emphasis on chance, interpenetration and the shifting, elusive nature of meaning. I have written previously on the Surrealist take on the standard deck of playing cards, Le Jeu Du Marseille-A Surrealist Pack of Cards, and both Salvador Dali and Ithell Colquhuon produced Tarot decks. The Italian post-modernist fabulist Italo Calvino wrote The Castle of Crossed Destinies where the entire plot is told through the Tarot. The Chilean-French film-maker Alejandro Jodorowsky has written eloquently on the Tarot de Marseille and weaves the arcana throughout the acid western  El Topo (The Mole) and The Holy Mountain.

In Douglas Cammell’s and Nicholas Roeg’s midnight classic movie Performance, the on-the-run gangster Chas Devlin (James Fox) turns up at the Notting Hill home of the reclusive rock star Turner (Mick Jagger) claiming, somewhat inexplicably, to be a juggler. The first numbered card of the Major Arcana is sometimes called The Juggler, though it nowadays most commonly referred to as The Magician. This hermetic figure points both downward (to the underworld) and upwards (to the stars), a perfect illustration of as above, so below, and prefigures the merging identities towards the end of the movie. Turner seems to realise the import of Devlin’s claim to be a juggler as he immediately comments, ‘You’re a performer of natural magic’.

A quick word on the selection of images; there are thousands of variants on the Tarot available so I have limited myself mainly to the classics. My own preference is for the Tarot De Marseille and the Swiss 1JJ, however the most recognisable is the Rider-Waite-Smith.  I have included selections from Dali and Colquhuon as well as the deck designed by Lady Freida Harris for Aleister Crowley. For a contemporary rendition Ulla Von Brandenburg’s excellent deck shows that Tarot continue to fascinate and inspire.

The Sun-Rider-Waite-Smith
The Sun-Rider-Waite-Smith
The Devil-Crowley-Harris
The Devil-Crowley-Harris
The Lovers, Wheel of Fortune, The Moon-Dali
The Lovers, Wheel of Fortune, The Moon-Dali
Tarot-Ithell Colquhuon
The Magician-Rider-Waite-Smith
The Magician-Rider-Waite-Smith
Tarot-Ulla Von Bradenburg-2008
Tarot-Ulla Von Bradenburg-2008

As Above, So Below

Tabula Smaragdina-Matthew Merian 1612
In her post on Hermes (► “Hermes & Writing in Ancient Greece”: “Collaboration with Alan Severs”✍️.-,) the wonderful Aquileana mentions the syncretic figure of Hermes Trismegistus (Hermes the Thrice Great, on account of being the greatest priest, the greatest philosopher and the greatest king). This figure who at various periods has been considered divine, semi-divine or legendary is nowadays shrouded in obscurity yet it once was a name to conjure with. As Aquileana has outlined the Greek-Egyptian deity in her post I will dealing exclusively with the Hermes Trismegistus who was the purported author of the Corpus Hermeticum and the Emerald Tablet.

In 1463 the great Florentine banker, power broker and patron of the arts Cosimo de Medici heard from his agent Leonardo de Pistoia that he had recently acquired the Corpus Hermeticum, part of the treasures rescued before the sack of Constantinople (previously Byzantium and now Istanbul). At 74 Cosimo was an elderly man for the time and he didn’t hesitate in instructing his brilliant scribe Marsilio Ficino to stop translating the Complete Works of Plato and start work on the Corpus immediately so that he could read it before his death. Ficino immediately agreed and only returned to Plato after he had completed translating the Corpus. It may seem amazing to ourselves that such cultivated  and learned men as de Medici and Ficino sidelined Plato, the philosopher whose immeasurable influence upon Western thought has led to the suggestion that the entire history of Western philosophy is merely a footnote to his works, but they were believers in the prisca theologia. Hermes Trismegistus was believed to be of immense antiquary, a contemporary of Moses and was therefore closer to the source of divine inspiration than Plato.

The effect of Ficino’s translation galvanised the nascent humanist Renaissance movement. Hermeticism and Gnosticism share many similarities, however Hermeticism’s emphasis on the inherent divinity of mankind and its descriptions of the soul’s ascent through the heavens make it a fundamentally more optimistic and positive philosophy than the rather austere and ascetic doctrines of Gnosticism and would have held a particular appeal in the hothouse atmosphere of the Renaissance. One of the high watermarks of that giddy epoch,  Pico Della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man, is clearly indebted to Hermetic thought.

The Corpus, was well as influencing astrology, alchemy and magic also spurred the developing field of the natural sciences as has been shown in a series of books by the truly exceptional Renaissance scholar Dame Frances Yates, including Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, The Art of Memory and The Rosicrucian Enlightenment. This spirit of scientific empiricism that Hermeticism had in part engendered caused the eventual demise of the Hermetic Revival. In 1614 the distinguished Swiss philologist Isaac Casaubon published his philological study of the text. The Corpus was not the product of a single author of an antiquary predating Plato and Christ but was actually written by multiple differing authors from Alexandria in the 3rd or 4th Century AD. This revelation would weaken the intellectual appeal of Hermeticism during the 17th Century, although certain esotericists, notably Robert Fludd and Athanasius Kircher kept the faith in the historical veracity of Hermes Trismegistus.

Below is The Emerald Tablet attributed to Hermes Trismegistus in a translation by the scientist and the discoverer of gravity, Sir Isaac Newton. A key text in alchemy it also contains the doctrine of as above, so below, the central tenet of Western Esotericism. I have chosen the Newton translation as it shows how magic and science were once closely allied and not mortal enemies.

The Emerald Tablet

1.) Tis true without error, certain & most true.
2.) That which is below is like that which is above & that which is above is like that which is below to do the miracles of one only thing
3.) And as all things have been & arose from one by the [meditation] of one: so all things have their birth from this one thing by adaptation.
4.) The Sun is its father, the moon its mother, the wind hath carried it in its belly, the earth is its nurse.
5.) The father of all perfection in the whole world is here.
6.) Its force or power is entire if it be converted into earth.
7.) Separate thou the earth from the fire, the subtle from the gross sweetly with great industry.
8.) It ascends from the earth to the heaven & again it descends to the earth & receives the force of things superior & inferior.
9.) By this means you shall have the glory of the whole world
10.) & thereby all obscurity shall fly from you.
11.) Its force is above all force. For it vanquishes every subtle thing & penetrates every solid thing.
12.) So was the world created.
13.) From this are & do come admirable adaptations whereof the means (or process) is here in this. Hence I am called Hermes Trismegist, having the three parts of the philosophy of the whole world
14.) That which I have said of the operation of the Sun is accomplished & ended.