Monday, January 9, 2012

The Case for a Gnostic Tarot

Many students of the tarot over the years have argued that its images comprised a visual system of gnostic or hermetic wisdom. Some have tried to make very specific arguments, such as that the tarot was originally created by Cathar heretics as a way of secretly encapsulating their doctrines and history in a coded, visual format. (See, for example, Swiryn, The Secret of the Tarot.)

Many of these arguments break down in the face of the specifics of what we know about the history of the tarot. The Cathar heresy, for example, was effectively suppressed by the beginning of the 14th century, while playing cards don't appear to have been known in Europe until the end of the 14th century, and tarot cards don't appear to have been invented until the last half of the 15th century. The Guglielmites, another heretical group seen as possibly behind the tarot, were active only in the 13th century.  We just don't know enough about the origins of the tarot to draw a direct lineage between the tarot and any specific religious group or movement, and so far every attempt to do so has been based on conjecture that requires to put it generously a long stretch in order to work.

Nevertheless, the tarot contains spiritual images that can't all be explained simply by pointing to the predominant culture in which the tarot emerged. Many of the images in the tarot are puzzling or even disturbing from an orthodox Christian perspective, and demand some sort of explanation. The most reasonable explanations point to alternative theologies, spiritualities, or philosophies.

Many of the symbols in the tarot are conventional medieval and early Renaissance symbols that seem to be drawn from popular culture. But the “Popess” and the “Pope” cards were always problematic. The “Popess” was puzzling and seen as a slander against the Church, and the portrayal of the Pope in a pack of playing cards was seen as irreverent at best. Also puzzling was the fact that only three of the seven classical Christian virtues were represented in the cards: Justice, Strength and Temperance. If only three were to have been represented, why not the three higher, theological virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity? And if only cardinal virtues were to be presented, why not include the fourth, Prudence? The presence of the Devil in the deck was disturbing, as was the related Tower/House of God/House of the Devil card. Finally, the inclusion of the Star, the Moon and the Sun, with their astrological and pagan associations, with cards of a theological nature, such as Judgement/the Angel and the World, hinted at hermeticism.

The proof that these cards were viewed as problematic within their own cultural context is the fact that from the time of their earliest appearance on the scene, various attempts were made to “fix” the cards, and publish versions of them that were more conventionally palatable. So, for instance, in an early Visconti deck, produced in the mid-fifteenth century, Faith, Hope and Charity cards appear to have been provided. (There's debate among tarot scholars as to whether these cards were intended to replace the Pope and Popess cards -- we can't know for sure since the deck is incomplete.) In other early Italian decks, the Pope, Popess, Emperor and Empress were replaced with Moorish Satraps, or Eastern and Western Emperors and Popes, while in Flemish and Swiss decks the Pope and Popess were replaced with fanciful figures like “the Spanish Captain” and “Bacchus,” or “Jupiter” and “Juno.” In the “minchiate” decks that became popular in Florence, additional astrological signs and the elements were added to provide a more conventional astronomical context for the Star, Moon and Sun cards, and the missing virtues were supplied, while the offending Pope and Popess were not just replaced but removed outright. Sometimes – as in the case of the early Venetian “Sola Busca” tarot deck, or later German and Austrian decks, the mystical symbolism was completely done away with in favor of themes taken from nature or from secular history.

The reason explanations of the tarot pointing to hermeticism and gnosticism seem so attractive is because, considered in their entirety, as a collection, the symbols of the cards lend themselves well to a hermetic/gnostic worldview. They are capable of telling a complete story that makes sense in the gnostic Gospel. The Emperor, the Pope and the Devil easily correspond with the Gnostic idea of “the Powers” and the demiurge, just as the Popess, the Empress and the Star correspond with the gnostic idea of the Divine Feminine leading us back into the eternal realm of Spirit and Truth (symbolized by the World). Death, the Tower and Judgment correspond nicely with the idea of the release of the soul – the divine spark – from the prisons of carnality and convention. The Fool, the Magician, the Chariot, the Hermit and the Hanged Man, on the other hand, nicely correspond to gnostic stages in the path to enlightenment, while the Wheel, the Moon and the Sun symbolize important awareness acquired along that path. Love represents the key gnostic/hermetic concept of conjunctio, the union of the feminine soul with its divine source. Meanwhile, the virtues of Strength, Temperance, and Justice do double duty, representing both the virtues that are required to achieve spiritual awakening, as well as symbolizing mystical concepts such as the transmigration of souls, the discernment of spiritual truth, and the harmony that arises from mastering the physical. A key to understanding the role of the virtues has to do with possessing or intuiting the secret knowledge of where to place them in the journey – which may have something to do with why the cards were initially left unnumbered. In fact, with the cards unnumbered, the different ordering conventions could have constituted a form of theological debate – different statements about the role particular virtues or theological principles played in relation to others above or below it in the hierarchy.

While the set of 22 trionfi or atouts offered a fairly complete vocabulary for discussing gnostic theology, the same cards are not so apt for telling a complete story in an orthodox Christian framework. Too many elements are missing or transmuted beyond recognition, and some elements (like the Popess) just don't fit.

A comparison of the tarot with the (misnamed) Tarocchi del Mantegna shows something of how different the tarot would or could have been if its images had portrayed a more conventional scheme of Christian wisdom. The Tarocchi del Mantegna, neither a “tarot” deck, nor designed by the famed Italian artist Mantegna, was a contemporary product of Renaissance Italy, and contains a much more positive portrayal of conventional earthly hierarchies and a more straightforward rehearsal of the contemporary Christian view of the cosmos. In the Tarocchi del Mantegna, the social hierarchy is portrayed more unproblematically (without disruptive female authority figures) as a graded chain of being, and God is shown reigning highest in his heaven over all the intermediary forces and principles that govern the cosmos. The image of that cosmos is untroubled by disturbing images of Death, the Devil, wheels of fortune, or towers of pride and destruction. Women appear as ethereal virtues and muses. All Christian virtues are present, and faith is ranked as the highest virtue. Theology is ranked as the highest form of knowledge. In fact, all the cards are tidily numbered, leaving no doubt which values rank highest and which rank lowest. From the point of view of reigning Renaissance social convention and Catholic Christianity, the tarot, by comparison, is a disordered crazy quilt of puzzling symbols, having disturbing lacunae in its account of the social and cosmic order. At best it was a bad joke. No wonder it has always garnered mostly contempt from ecclesiastical establishments.

While it is not possible to draw clear lines between the production of the tarot and specific heretical or hermetic movements, we know that gnostic and hermetic thought existed as a constant cultural undercurrent in European history – from the classical age, when state-sponsored Christian orthodoxy first waged war against Gnostic Christianity, through the middle ages when gnostic ideas periodically surfaced as Bogomilism and Catharism, and, later, in Renaissance Hermeticism, which flowered in the 19th and 20th centuries in the esoteric movements that popularized the tarot as a source of occult knowledge. Gnosticism and hermeticism have, in essence, always thrived in European (and Euro-American) culture because of orthodox Christianity's inability to provide theologically satisfying answers to questions regarding the problem of evil and human nature and destiny, and also as a response to oppressive and corrupt state church establishments. Sometimes the gnostic undercurrent manifested itself in specific, articulate, theologically coherent movements. At other times, when those movements were violently suppressed or driven underground, it manifested itself more inchoately in smoldering anti-clericalism, skepticism, secret fraternities, and in various forms of popular mysticism.

Thus, while it can't be proven that tarot cards were the direct product of, for instance, underground Cathar theologians, it seems no coincidence that the cards came into being and were initially most popular in those parts of Europe where skepticism, anti-clericalism, anti-papism and gnostic heresy had historically been strongest, and where the authority of Pope and Emperor were relatively weak, namely in northern Italy and in France (especially, but not limited to, southern France). Northeastern Italy -- the most likely birthplace of tarot -- was also the last refuge of Cathar heretics. After the the Albigensian crusade in southern France, many French Cathars fled to states like Ferrara and Milan, where they were somewhat protected by a sympathetic, anti-papal nobility (Butler, pp. 164-168). These same noble houses commissioned the first tarot decks known to exist.

Card-playing itself has always – in western culture at least – carried with it a whiff of non-respectability, and has always been at least frowned upon by the Church, if not outright condemned. The popularity of the tarot – even, or especially, for the vast majority who saw in it nothing but a game – was undoubtedly due at least in part to the mysteriousness of at least some of its symbols as well as their seeming irreverence. The popularity of the Tarot of Marseille in particular was probably due to its perfection of those mystical and irreverent aspects of the cards, and its presentation of them in an attractive, iconic format.


Much of my analysis is based on study of facsimiles of the following antique tarot decks: the Cary-Yale Visconti-Sforza tarot deck (Milan, 15th century), the Pierpont Morgan Visconti-Sforza tarot deck (Milian, 15th century), Tarocchi del Mantegna (northern Italy, 15th century), Tarot de Paris (Paris, 17th century), Jacques ViƩville tarot deck (Paris, 17th century), Tarocchini del Mitelli (Bologna, 1664), Etruria minchiate deck (Florence, 1725), Nicolas Conver tarot deck (Marseille, 1760), F.I. Vandenborre tarot deck (Bruxelles, 18th century), and Giacomo Zoni tarot deck (Bologna, 18th century).

Barber, Malcolm. The Cathars: Dualist Heretics in Languedoc in the High Middle Ages. Harlow, England: Pearson Education Limited, 2000.

Clifton, Chas S. Encyclopedia of Heresies and Heretics. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1992.

Dummett, Michael. The Game of Tarot: from Ferrara to Salt Lake City. London: Duckworth, 1980.

-----. The Visconti-Sforza Tarot Cards. New York: George Braziller, Inc., 1986.

Kaplan, Stuart R. The Encyclopedia of Tarot. Vol. 1. Stamford, CT: U.S. Games Systems, Inc., 1978.

Swiryn, Robert. The Secret of the Tarot: How the Story of the Cathars Was Concealed in the Tarot. Kapaa, HI: Pau Hana Publishing, 2010.

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