The History and Philosophy of the Tarot
As we stated in the introduction, it may seem odd that a symbolic spiritual tool such as a Tarot can be created incorporating the vampire theme—a theme that is more at home in horror literature and movies than in the self-help or New Age section of the bookstore. It is the view of this deck and book, however, that the vampire of literature, which reached the height of development in Stoker's masterpiece, Dracula, incorporates a mythological theme that is related to the allegory expressed in the Tarot. The reason that this may not be self-evident is that the mystical allegorical aspect of Stoker's book has been lost in many of its reinterpretations in .lm, which is how most people are familiar with the story today. Likewise, the mystical allegory incorporated in the Tarot's symbolic images has been distorted by the occult reinterpretations of the deck that emerged four or five centuries after it was created. In this chapter, we will take a brief look at the actual history of the Tarot and at the symbolism that was likely to have been intended by its creators. We will save the discussion of the vampire theme in literature for the next chapter. The information in this chapter is based on The Tarot: History, Symbolism, and Divination by the same author as The Vampire Tarot, and for a more detailed study it is recommended that one also reads that book.
Defining the Tarot
For those who are not familiar with the Tarot we will start by describing the deck. The standard Tarot is a set of playing cards, much like a regular poker deck, but instead of having just four suits, the Tarot also has a fifth, more powerful suit, composed of a procession of twenty-two enigmatic images. The Tarot also differs in that its four minor suits, which relate to the poker deck, feature the antique Spanish and Italian suit symbols—swords, cups, staffs, and coins—instead of spades, hearts, clubs, and diamonds. Like the poker deck, each suit has ten pip cards, from ace to ten. Traditionally, these are illustrated with a repetition of the suit symbol like the pips in a modern poker deck. The four minor suits in the Tarot also have four royal cards—the knave or squire (often mistakenly called a page in English decks), the knight, the queen, and the king—instead of three in each suit like a poker deck. This makes a total of seventy-eight cards in a Tarot. Today, the Tarot is primarily used for divination or spiritual exercises, particularly in English-speaking countries. Originally, however, its primary use was for gaming, and divination was secondary. Also, in the fifteenth century, the first century of its existence, the number of cards in the deck varied.
It is essentially the addition of the fifth suit with its mysterious figures that makes a deck a Tarot and transforms it into a spiritual tool. This fifth suit includes the unnumbered Fool and twenty-one numbered trumps arranged in a hierarchical order from the lowest to the highest. Some of the trumps depict humans, such as the Magician and the Pope, and other allegorical or religious figures, such as the Wheel of Fortune and the Last Judgement. The trumps have captured the modern imagination and account for the Tarot's popularity, and it is through the trumps that the Tarot expresses a timeless mystical quest, the hero's quest for immortality.
Here is a list of the twenty-two cards in the fifth suit based on the number and order of the French pattern known as the Tarot of Marseilles, which is considered the modern standard. It also contains a brief description of the image on the card.
The Fool—a jester wearing motley, with a pole over his shoulder with a bag on the end, walks to our right while a dog rips his pants.
I. The Bateleur, or The Magician—a street performer holding a wand stands behind a table.
II. The Papesse, or High Priestess—a woman on a throne wearing a triple tiara sits between two pillars.
III. The Empress—the Holy Roman Empress sits on a throne and has an eagle emblem on her shield.
IV. The Emperor—the Holy Roman Emperor sits on a throne and has an eagle emblem on his shield.
V. The Pope, or Hierophant—the pope on a throne, wearing a triple tiara, sits between two pillars, with two priests before him with their backs to the viewer.
VI. The Lovers—a man standing between two women, with Cupid above.
VII. The Chariot—an armored warrior stands in a chariot facing the viewer.
VIII. Justice—a crowned woman sitting on a throne holds scales and a sword.
IX. The Hermit—a man in profile and in a hooded robe holds a lantern before him.
X. The Wheel of Fortune—a wheel has three foolish monkeys ascending, surmounting, and descending it.
XI. Force, or Strength—a standing woman, wearing a wide brimmed hat, controls the mouth of a lion.
XII. The Hanged Man—a man hangs head-down by one foot from a scaffold.
XIII. Death—a skeleton with a scythe stands in a field with severed heads and limbs.
XIV. Temperance—a standing winged woman pours water from one cup to another.
XV. The Devil—a beast stands on a pillar with two minions chained below; he has a human body but bat's wings, eagle's talons, and antlers.
XVI. The Tower—a tower is struck by lightning as two figures fall from it.
XVII. The Star—a large star in the sky is surrounded by seven smaller ones; below, a nude woman pours water from two pitchers, one on the land and one on the sea.
XVIII. The Moon—the moon, with a face in profile, hangs in the sky between two towers; below, two dogs howl and a crayfish emerges from a pond.
XIX. The Sun—the sun, with a face, hangs in the sky; below, two youths stand in a walled enclosure.
XX. Judgement—an angel blows a trumpet in the sky; below, two nude men and one woman emerge from graves.
XXI. The World—a beautiful nude woman dances in the center of an oval wreath; outside the wreath in the four corners are placed the symbols of the four evangelists: an angel, an eagle, a lion, and a bull.
Early Tarot History
Since the late eighteenth century, occultists have been drawn to the Tarot and have considered it an indispensable part of their magical equipment. To provide it with, what they considered, a suitable ancient pedigree, occultists have made up numerous spurious histories and associations for the deck. Most commonly, it was given an origin in ancient Egypt and said to be the creation of ancient Kabalists or of Egyptian priests under the guidance of the mythical sage Hermes Trismegistus, a Hellenized version of the Egyptian god Thoth. The twenty-two cards in the fifth suit were said to derive from Egyptian hieroglyphs but, strangely, also represent the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet as well as celestial and elemental symbols associated with each letter. Not all the insights of the occultists were wrong, but these assertions are false. At their worst, the occultists' associations have become a wall of confusion that blocks one from appreciating the mystical heritage that is preserved in the deck. The first step in understanding the symbolism and allegory presented in the Tarot, therefore, is to become familiar with the facts of its history.
THE ORIGIN OF THE TAROT
Historic evidence indicates that the Tarot began in Renaissance Italy some time between 1410 and 1442 when a set of trumps was added to the four-suit deck that had existed in Western Europe since the late fourteenth century. The birthplace of the Tarot is most likely Milan but possibly Ferrara or Bologna. The trumps or trionfi, as they were called in Italian, were added to the deck to play a trick-taking game that is the ancestor of bridge. Unlike modern bridge, played with a four-suit deck, the Tarot has a natural trump suit that outranks the other minor suits. Game-playing was the Tarot's main purpose, but, as stated previously, there is evidence that it was also used for divination. Because the Tarot was created primarily to play a game, we may think that the allegory told in its pictures is trivial or meaningless and not worth all the attention that it has been given, but, in the Renaissance, it was expected that works of art should have an intended symbolic meaning and even a game was considered a suitable place to express a profound mystical allegory.
In a letter he had written in 1449 to Queen Isabelle of Lorraine, her agent described two decks that he was acquiring for the queen but were originally created for Filippo Maria Visconti, Duke of Milan (1392-1447). Here we find a description of what may be the oldest Tarot deck. We also find that the question of profundity in a game was addressed. Of the two decks, the oldest was designed for the duke by his astrologer, Marziano of Tortona, sometime between 1412 and 1425. The deck consisted of four suits, each with a type of bird as its suit symbol: eagles, phoenixes, turtledoves, and doves. Each suit has seven pips and one royal card, the king. To this, Marziano added a fifth suit of trumps consisting of a hierarchy of sixteen classical gods meant to represent higher powers. The letter quotes Marziano's description of the deck, but, before he described the deck, Marziano asked if it is fitting for a serious and virtuous man such as the duke to spend time playing a card game. His answer was that it is fitting if the game is equally serious and virtuous in the philosophy that it presents, and he felt that his game met that standard.
In 2003, Tarot historian Ross Gregory Caldwell discovered another early Renaissance document that seems to mention a Tarot. This one was found in an account book from Milan's southeastern neighbor, the city-state of Ferrara. The document recorded the fact that in January of 1441 the painter Sagramoro was hired to paint fourteen cards, most likely trumps, which seem to have been added to a regular card deck consisting of the four suits common at the time: coins, cups, swords, and staffs, each suit also consisting of fourteen cards: ten pips and four royals. This deck was created as a gift for Bianca (1425-1468), the daughter of the duke of Milan, Filippo Maria Visconti, mentioned earlier. She was then fifteen, the same age that she was to be married, and the deck was presented at a party given in her honor, perhaps a birthday party.
Unfortunately, no cards have survived from either of these decks. The oldest Tarot deck still in existence, however, again seems to have been created for Filippo Maria Visconti, who was a great lover of card games. The deck, which is now housed in the Yale University Library, is known as the Cary-Yale Visconti Tarot. It contains sixty-seven cards but must have originally had more. These are sumptuous miniature works of art painted with gold leaf backgrounds on heavy paper rectangles by the artist Bonifacio Bembo in approximately 1445. The four minor suits are the same as the regular four suit decks of the time, with coins, cups, swords, and staffs as symbols. The only difference is that there are six royal cards instead of four in each of the suits: a male and female knave, a male and female knight, and the king and queen.
In the eleven remaining trumps in the Cary-Yale Visconti Tarot, we find the Empress, the Emperor, the Lovers, the Chariot, Strength, Death, Judgement, the World, and three cards representing the three Christian virtues, Faith, Hope, and Charity. The Christian virtues are not represented in the standard Marseilles pattern listed above and their inclusion suggests that originally the deck included all seven virtues that were common in lists from the Medieval and Renaissance periods: the four cardinal virtues, Temperance, Strength, Justice, and Prudence; and the three Christian virtues, Faith, Hope, and Charity. As in all the early painted decks, none of the trumps are titled or numbered and it is impossible to know for certain how many were originally included or in what order.
AS AN INTERESTING SIDE NOTE, historian Ross Gregory Caldwell informs us that when John VIII Paleologus (1390-1448), the acting emperor of Constantinople, visited northern Italy in 1424 in an effort to make an alliance with fellow Christians and drum up military and financial support for his struggle against the invading Islamic Turks, the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund (1368-1437), who was likely the model for the first Emperor card in the Tarot, sent his vassal Vlad Dracul (died 1447) to receive him in Venice and ultimately be his guide. After their time in Venice, Vlad, Paleologus, and his entourage spent three months in Milan as the guests of Filippo Maria Visconti. No doubt he entertained them with games of Tarot among other pleasures. Vlad Dracul was the father of Vlad Tepes Dracula (born 1428 to 1431, died 1476), who in 1447 inherited his father's title, Prince of Wallachia, and his father's mission as the defender of Transylvania from the Turks. According to Italian historian Maria Grazia Tolfo, the Emperor Sigismund's wife, the Empress Barbara von Cilli, who was the model for the oldest Empress card, was said to have a close relationship with Dracula and rumored to have become a vampire herself, perhaps the first vampire. In 1897, in an effort to ground the vampire of his novel in real history, Bram Stoker borrowed the prince's name as the name of his villain. However, before Stoker wrote Dracula there were no stories connecting the historic Dracula with vampirism and it is not clear when the rumors about the Empress originated.
MOST OF THE KNOWN fifteenth-century Tarot cards are hand-painted works of art created for royal patrons. Some were created for the rulers of Ferrara and possibly Venice, or other city-states, but the majority in existence, 271 cards from fifteen different fragmented decks, were created for the rulers of Milan. The most complete deck is one created circa 1450 for Francesco Sforza (1401-1466), who became the heir to Filippo Maria Visconti after he married Filippo's daughter, Bianca. This deck, known as the Visconti-Sforza Pierpont Morgan-Bergamo, consists of seventy-four cards, four less than standard, beautifully painted and gilded by Bembo and another unknown artist. The minor suits are the same as a four-suit deck with the Italian suit symbols, except that the Three of Swords and the Knight of Coins are obviously missing from the deck. The two other cards that would make it a complete standard deck are trumps, the Devil and the Tower. Because, once again, the trumps are not numbered, and because there is no Devil or Tower card found in any of the fifteen existing Milanese decks, we cannot be sure that these cards were ever included. The Fool and the nineteen trumps that are included, however, are related to the ones found in the Tarot of Marseilles.
The oldest example of the Tower card can be found in the so-called Gringonneur deck, which at one time was mistakenly believed to have been created in 1392 by the artist Jacquemin Gringonneur for King Charles VI of France (1368-1442). However, the text, which the theory was based on, indicated that Gringonneur painted decks of cards for the king but not a Tarot deck. The Tarot did not yet exist in 1392 and no Tarots appeared in France until the sixteenth century. Scholars now accept that this deck was created by a Ferrarese artist working circa 1480.
We have fewer printed decks from the 1400s, but at least one engraved deck and some examples of woodcut decks exist from the end of the century. In these decks and in the lists of trumps found in literary sources from the end of that century, we find that the list of trumps included the Tower and the Devil as well as trumps corresponding to the others in the Marseilles Tarot. The printed decks also introduced the addition of numbers on the trumps, and we can see that the standard number has become twenty-one with the addition of an unnumbered Fool in the fifth suit. When a deck was created in Florence in the early 1500s that deviated from this pattern by incorporating forty trumps and a Fool, it was given a new name, the Minchiate.
THE ORDER AND NUMBER OF THE TRUMPS
Although the number of cards in the fifth suit had become standardized by the end of the 1400s, the order of the trumps did not, at least not throughout Italy. The Tarot had been developing in separate independent Italian city-states, and each city-state tended to develop its own order. From lists of trumps in sermons and other literature, and from the earliest numbered cards, we find that in the first 150 years of the Tarot's existence there were twelve different known orders, which Tarot historian Michael Dummett has pointed out fall into three distinct groups with minor anomalies within each group. Dummett labeled the groups A, B, and C. As there were three city states hat were the primary users of the cards, it is not surprising that there are three main orders that can be associated with each city-state and its area of influence. Order A was found in Bologna, Ferrara, and Florence; order B in Venice and Ferrara; and order C in Milan and later in the Marseilles decks in France and Switzerland.
In each group the number of almost all the trumps is different, but this was not as disruptive to the allegory as it sounds. Although the numbers changed, large groups of cards were kept in the same order. Only a few cards were moved to a new area or switched with a neighbor. The three cards representing virtues, Temperance, Strength, and Justice, were the most divergent. For example, in order C, which is the basis for the Marseilles order listed above, Justice is number eight and the last two trumps are Judgement and the World in that order; in order A, Justice is number nine, and the last two trumps are the World and Judgement, in reverse order; and in order B, The last three cards are Judgement, Justice, and the World. In B, Judgement and the World have retained the same relationship as in C, but Justice is placed between them.
THE TAROT COMES TO FRANCE
In 1499, Charles VIII of France invaded Milan. From that date until 1535 Milan was under the control of the French. It is likely that during this period the Tarot spread to France, Switzerland, and Germany and therefore, it was the Milanese order of the trumps that became the model for decks outside of Italy. The first evidence of the Tarot being in France is a record of their manufacture in Lyons, a city near Marseilles, in 1507. Marseilles, France, a port and commercial center with a thriving paper and printing industry, became a major production center of Tarots and introduced the Tarot to other parts of Europe. Therefore, the French-style deck became known as the Tarot of Marseilles.
As we can see, historians do not think of the Tarot of Marseilles as a title of an individual deck or as a reference to decks produced in Marseilles. The title refers to a family of decks that are related in number, order, style, and symbolism. Also, in the Marseilles deck, the titles were added to the trumps as well as the numbers. In proceeding centuries, the Marseilles-style deck was produced in all parts of France, Switzerland, and even in Northern Italy complete with French titles. Because the Marseilles deck was the one seized upon by occultists in the eighteenth century, and it was the occultists who introduced the Tarot to most of the rest of the world, the Marseilles order has come to be considered standard.
It was the occultists in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries who became interested in the Tarot primarily as a tool for divination and for spiritual development. This is the way most people think of the Tarot today and therefore we may consider the modern period of Tarot history as being initiated by the occultists. Next we will take a closer look at their contribution.
The Modern Tarot
The modern history of the Tarot can be said to start in the year 1781. This is the year that the French occultist Antoine Court de Gébelin (born 1724 or 1728, died 1784), who was the .rst occultist known to focus on the Tarot, published his essays on the Tarot and created a fantastic heritage for the deck. Because of the attention he gave the Tarot, it became a focus of occult study in France and England and it is doubtful that the Tarot would be popular today without his contribution. Yet, de Gébelin is also the source of much of the misinformation that has been passed on about the Tarot.
COURT DE GéBELIN'S WORK
De Gébelin was a Parisian occultist and a Freemason. He was a member of the Neuf Soeurs Loge, a famous Parisian lodge that included Voltaire and Benjamin Franklin as members. In 1772, Court de Gébelin began work on the first volume of his nine-volume encyclopedia of his occult observations titled Monde Primitif (Primitive World), and he would work on this encyclopedia until the end of his life, in 1784. The word primitive in his title is meant to convey the image of an initial or original world, not a savage or an uncivilized one. The work is based on his belief that before modern civilizations came into existence there was a golden age, a time when there was one civilization that ruled the world with one language and one religion based on true wisdom.
In his work, de Gébelin relied mostly on guesswork and intuitions and freely made up evidence to .t his theories. As a result, after his death most of his observations and accounts of history were proved false and his entire encyclopedia was considered valueless as a work of scholarship. The only aspect of his work that continued to receive attention after his death were two brief essays that appeared in volume eight, published in 1781. The two essays were not more accurate than any others in Monde Primitif, but they were the first mention of the Tarot in any occult literature and they seized the public's imagination. The first essay was written by de Gébelin, and the second is believed to have been written by a friend, the Comte de Mellet.
In his essay, de Gébelin correctly observed that the Tarot trumps contained a mystical allegory. This allegory is one that scholars would now classify as Neoplatonic, a term used to refer to philosophies that synthesize Platonic philosophy with various mystical ideas. It may also be classified as Hermetic, a mystical philosophy attributed to the teaching of the mythical Hermes Trismegistus. These two Western, mystical, philosophical traditions stemmed from the ancient Egyptian city of Alexandria and were revived along with other aspects of Classical culture during the Renaissance, when the Tarot was created. Because de Gébelin observed an Egyptian mystical tradition in the Tarot, however, he assumed that the deck originated in ancient Egypt. When he first discovered the Tarot (the Tarot was not popular in Paris at that time), he believed that he had found an allegory that stemmed from a book of wisdom created by the ancient masters who were the focus of his encyclopedia. He further believed that it came into the possession of the Egyptians, and to preserve this valuable text the Egyptian priests disguised it as a pack of playing cards. He reasoned that the ancient priests realized that disguised as a trivial game this book would evade those who would intentionally destroy it and be faithfully copied for the purpose of gambling and amusement. From there, de Gébelin said it was brought to ancient Rome and, in the fourteenth century, when the papacy was brought to Avignon, it came with the pope to southern France. Alternatively, he suggests that it may have been the Gypsies who introduced the Tarot to Europe. De Gébelin surmised that over the centuries it had continued to exist unrecognized and ignored by scholars as something not worthy of study until, in a .ash of insight, he recognized its true worth.
To back up his theory, de Gébelin claimed that the word Tarot is Egyptian and derived from two Egyptian root words, Tar, and Rha or Rho, which together meant "royal road." Of course, he was writing before 1799, when the Rosetta Stone was discovered, and before anyone in Europe could accurately read ancient Egyptian. The French name, Tarot, or as it was originally spelled, Tarraux, is actually derived from the older Italian name for the deck, Tarocchi. To accompany the text, de Gébelin had engravings made that were based on the images found the Tarot of Marseilles but to which he gave his "corrected" Egyptian names. For example, the Chariot became Osiris, and the Devil, Typhon, a Greek name for Set, Osiris' evil brother. De Gébelin particularly wanted to explain away any Christian images, and therefore changed the name of the Papesse to the High Priestess and the Pope to the High Priest or Hierophant.
De Gébelin observed that the Tarot trumps depicted only three of the four cardinal virtues that were praised by ancient philosophers: justice, strength, and temperance, but not prudence. To explain this supposed oversight, he proposed that the Hanged Man, depicted hanging by one foot head-down from a scaffold, must have originally been a man standing upright on one foot avoiding a snake and that this was a symbol of the missing virtue prudence.
He reasoned that in a previous century, card-makers, who were ignorant of the image's true meaning, must have mistakenly turned it upside down. Once again history does not back up de Gébelin's claim. From the earliest depictions of the Hanged Man to the eighteenth century he was consistently depicted head-down (see figure nine). In Renaissance Italy, this icon would have easily been recognized as an image of a man being punished for treason, and it represented suffering and falling from grace, but de Gébelin would not have known this. As we will see in the last part of this chapter when we learn about the Tarot's symbolism, the fact that there are only three virtues of the cardinal four depicted in the trumps is a key to their interpretation, but de Gébelin's explanation once again leads us astray.
To further explain the allegory, de Gébelin claimed that the trumps told the story of the creation of the world, starting with trump twentyone, working backwards through the suit, and ending with the Fool. He stated that the twenty-two atouts (his name for the trumps) represented the twenty-two letters of an alphabet that he mistakenly believed was common to the Egyptians and Hebrews and that also served as numerals to keep count of the cards. With this assertion, he became the first to make a connection between the twenty-two cards in the Tarot's fifth suit and the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet, an association that would bear fruit in the next century.
In the second essay, written by the Comte de Mellet, de Gébelin's friend proposed an alternative derivation for the word Tarot. De Mellet once again stated that the word Tarot is Egyptian but that it was derived from ta-rosh, which he believed meant the doctrine or science of Thoth or The Book of Thoth. The Book of Thoth was a legendary magical text supposedly written by the Egyptian god Thoth himself. Thoth, who was depicted as a man with the head of an ibis, or as a baboon, was believed to be the inventor of writing and a great benefactor of mankind. He was said to have taught writing, geometry, magic, and sciences when he lived on earth during an ancient golden age. The Book of Thoth was said to be his most powerful gift to mankind.
To understand why de Mellet believed that the Tarot could be this magical book we will first have to learn something about the ancient mystical philosophy that he studied. Although it may seem like an aside, this information is necessary to help us understand not only de Mellet, but the symbolism of the Tarot as well.
The Hellenistic period began with the conquests of Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.E.). When Alexander conquered Egypt, in 331 B.C.E., he moved the capital to Alexandria, a new city near the delta of the Nile, a suitable location for the prominent port and center of trade that this city was to become. Greek rulers continued to rule Egypt from Alexandria for several hundred years, and in this Greek-ruled Egypt a synthesis of Greek and Egyptian culture was created that is referred to as Hellenistic. The Hellenistic writers living in Alexandria identified the Greek God Hermes, who was credited as the inventor of their alphabet, with the Egyptian Thoth, the mythical inventor of the hieroglyphs. They Hellenized Thoth's name by changing it to Hermes Trismegistus, which meant "Hermes the thrice great." In the Late Hellenistic period, after Rome had conquered Egypt, a group of Greekspeaking mystics living in Alexandria wrote a series of mystical philosophical texts that they believed were derived from the teachings of the ancient god Hermes/Thoth. They, therefore, signed these works Hermes Trismegistus. This body of texts, written between the first and third centuries, came to be referred to as the Hermetica, and the teaching that it contained, which was basically a text on how to reach the mystical state of wisdom known as enlightenment, came to be known as Hermeticism. Some believed that the Hermetica was The Book of Thoth, and this is what de Mellet believed he had found in the Tarot.
As some of the Hermetic texts were also concerned with alchemy and astrology, these mystical studies, particularly alchemy, were also referred to as Hermetic. Some scholars do not make a connection between the philosophical text, which they refer to as high Hermetica, and the pseudoscientific alchemical and astrological texts, which they refer to as low Hermetica. Astrology and alchemy, as they were practiced in the ancient world, however, are intimately connected with the mystical Hermetic philosophy, in that they are also a means to a mystical transformation.
Ancient astrologers were also astronomers who observed the sky with the naked eye. To them it seemed obvious that the earth was in the center of the universe and that the stars circled the earth in a fixed pattern. Between the stars and the earth, observing only with the naked eye, they could see that there were seven heavenly bodies that seemed to move independently against the backdrop of the stars. These seven bodies were called planetes in Greek, which meant "wanderers." This is the source of the English word planet. The seven planets of the ancient astronomers were the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Each was believed to circle the earth on its own crystal sphere. Each sphere was thought of as progressively larger and encompassing the lower spheres like the layers of an onion. By the Hellenistic period, these planetary spheres were organized by the speed of the planet as it seemed to move around the earth. The Moon, the fastest, was on the bottom, closest to earth, and Saturn, the slowest, was on top, just below the sphere of the fixed stars, as illustrated in figure one. It was also observed that as the planets circled the earth they consistently moved through a limited circle of twelve constellations, called the zodiac.
Ancient mystics believed that the human soul originally resided in the heavens beyond the sphere of the fixed stars. At the moment of birth, the soul passed through one of the twelve constellations like a doorway into the physical world. On the material side of this doorway the soul would descend to earth making use of the seven planets like seven rungs on a ladder. At each step, the god of that planet would endow the soul with certain positive or negative qualities. This is the reason that lists of seven virtues and vices were developed. Once the soul made it to the earth plane it was clothed in a body made of the four elements and subject to mortality and fate or fortune. The Wheel of Fortune, as depicted in the Tarot, was meant to symbolize the zodiac, and the spheres of the planets, as well as mortality and fate. And, the astrological natal chart was designed to map this journey and determine one's fate.
From the writings of Plato (428-347 B.C.E.) and the ancient Neoplatonists we can see that ancient Western mystics believed in reincarnation. Like Buddhists today, they believed that the soul was condemned to suffer endless births and deaths in the physical world unless one could purify oneself from negativity through the practice of virtue and come to understand one's true immortal nature through the practice of contemplation. This purified state of virtue and wisdom is called gnosis or enlightenment. In that it is a realization of, and an identification with, one's immortal soul, it is essentially the victory over death that all mystics seek, and we will see that victory over death is what the allegory in the Tarot, as well as the mythology of the vampire, speaks of.
As we said, the seven planets of the ancients were thought of as a ladder that allowed the soul or the spirit to descend to earth while it was given certain qualities that would become its earthly personality. The mystics called these steps on the ladder emanations and saw it as a two-way path. They believed that by entering a deep trancelike state of contemplation they could climb up this sevenfold ladder while they were alive, let go of the seven endowments of the planets, and in this purified state enter the heaven beyond and receive a vision of their true immortal nature. The astrological beliefs were, therefore, intimately connected with the philosophical Hermetic goal, the achievement of enlightenment.
The alchemical Hermetic texts were likewise mystical in nature and gave birth to an ongoing practice that evolved over the centuries but continued to claim Hermes Trismegistus as the first alchemist. Although alchemists were the precursors of modern chemists, and they did achieve practical results in their experiments with various substances, the main or great work of alchemy was the creation of a mystical substance called the philosopher's stone. Alchemists believed that all matter was alive and contained soul, and that all souls were derived from the one World Soul, or Anima Mundi, as it was called in Latin. While all physical substances were composed of the four elements, earth, water, air, and .re, the element that imbued life into matter and held the others together was the mysterious fifth element that was hidden within. The fifth element was referred to as the quinta esentia—the origin of the word quintessence. The quinta esentia was essentially the Anima Mundi residing within all matter. The job of the alchemist was to take a physical substance, put it through a series of chemical processes in which it was first killed and then revived in a purer state, and then continue to purify it until the four material elements were washed away and only the Anima Mundi remained. This work created the magical transformative substance called the philosopher's stone.
The philosopher's stone, although referred to as a stone, was actually spoken of as an indefinable red substance—sometimes described as a solid and sometimes as a liquid. In the process of making the philosopher's stone, the alchemist was also purified and transformed. It was believed that he or she would become enlightened. But as the mythology of the stone grew it developed some material advantages as well. It was said that when used as a catalyst it could transform any base metal, such as lead, into gold; that it was a panacea that could cure any illness; and that it could prolong life indefinitely. Some famous European alchemists, the thirteenth-century alchemist Nicolas Flamel and his wife, Pernelle, and the eighteenth-century alchemist Saint-Germain, were said to have conquered death and lived for centuries enjoying good health and great wealth because of their alchemical work.
In the alchemical process, we can find parallels to the astrological ascent up the ladder of seven planets. Often the alchemists equated the chemical processes of their great work to these emanations and would develop lists of seven principal operations that were the equivalent of seven mystical steps. The alchemists also equated the seven known metals to the seven planets: lead to Saturn, iron to Mars, tin to Jupiter, copper to Venus, quicksilver to Mercury, silver to the Moon, and gold to the Sun. They believed that all metals were composed of the same substance, but impurities that contaminated them caused them to take different forms. As a metal was purified, through its association with the philosopher's stone, it transformed through the list of metals, like a mystic climbing the ladder of planets, until it became gold, the purest form.
As we can see, there seems to be some parallels between the alchemical quest and the legend of the vampire. Like the alchemist, the vampire also seeks the magical red liquid that will make him invulnerable to illness and prolong his existence indefinitely. The vampire of fiction also enjoys great wealth. Because of this, Stoker, in his novel, included alchemy as one of the skills that Dracula had mastered. And, the twentieth-century writer Chelsea Quinn Yarbro wrote a series of novels based on the premise that the alchemist Saint-Germain was a vampire. But now let us return to the Comte de Mellet.
DE MELLET'S HERMETIC INTERPRETATION
Because of his Hermetic background, de Mellet considered seven a sacred mystical number. He noticed that the twenty-one trumps can be divided into three groups of seven and that each group has a separate distinctive quality. He said that the first group, starting as de Gébelin did with the World card and working backwards, illustrated the creation of the world and the golden age. The Judgement card he interpreted as the creation of man and woman, with the people on the card arising from the earth instead of the grave. This was followed by cards depicting the creation of the sun, with the union of man and woman on the lower half; the moon, also showing the creation of animals; and the stars, showing the creation of sea life on the bottom. The Tower depicts the fall of man, and the Devil leads us out of this golden age. The second age, the age of silver, dominated by images of time, fate, and death, was the stage when death and suffering were introduced, but it also contains the cardinal virtues. In the iron age, the last stage, the chariot of war leads, followed by sexual desire, the temporal rulers—the Emperor and Empress surrounded by Jupiter and Juno, his name for the Pope and the Papesse—the Magician (a deceptive trickster), and as we continue, we descend to the present fallen state of man represented by the Fool.
De Mellet's story is well founded in Hermetic philosophy. What is implied in his comments but left unsaid is that if the trumps outline the descent of humans into a state of ignorance, when we read them in the forward direction, from one to twenty-one, they describe the mystical process back to the initial state of spiritual oneness. Like the Hermetica, they are a textbook for experiencing enlightenment. As we will see, de Mellet's explanation of the Tarot's symbolism is closer to what was likely to have been intended by the Tarot's Renaissance creators than any of the explanations given by other occultists.
Excerpted from THE VAMPIRE TAROT by Robert M. Place
Copyright © 2009 by Robert M. Place
Published in July 2009 by St. Martin's Press
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