ON THE SYMBOLOGY OF TAROT
I read Manly P. Hall's, The Tarot which strongly put forth the supposition that although it is claimed that tarot symbols and the body of esoteric knowledge it contains came from Saracen (middle Eastern) and Egyptian sources this is highly unlikely because all the figures are dressed in European Renaissance clothing and even Christian symbology was used. He further elaborates how it is supposed the Templars brought this knowledge to Europe due to their interaction with the Moslems during the crusades, stating that: "If the Tarot cards were brought from Arabia as is generally suspected, it is obvious that these Arabian originals were not ornamented with essentially European and Christian figures. We cannot imagine the magicians of Fez or Baghdad including a figure of the Pope in one of their esoteric manuals. It is equally unlikely that they would use an obviously Christian form of marriage, or represent the last judgement in theological form. None of the symbols on the modern Tarot are essentially Arabic, although a few show pseudo-Egyptian influence. The least that we can say then is that the cards have been strongly Europeanized. This leads to a natural inquiry: how strongly? Does it imply that the original symbols were damaged beyond recognition, or merely modified?"
In another portion of the text Hall states:"If we accept the esoteric premise that playing cards were originally intended as symbols of philosophic principles, we must proceed to the justification of this premise by supporting it with adequate evidence."
On the heals of reading this text I happened to read Franz Cumont's The Mysteries of Mithra. After reading this text, I felt that the Tarot's earliest symbolism probably did indeed come from Saracen sources. Here are some background quotes from the book: " ... the religion of the Magi, which was the highest blossom of the genius of Iran, exercised a deep influence on Occidental culture at three different periods .... first ... Paraseeism had made a very distinct impression on Judaism in its formative stage, and several of its cardinal doctrines were disseminated by Jewish colonists throughout the entire basin of the Mediterranean, and subsequently even forced themselves on orthodox Catholicism.
The influence...was still more direct, when Asia Minor was conquered by the Romans. Here, from time immemorial, colonies of Magi who had migrated from Babylon lived in obscurity, and, welding together their traditional beliefs and the doctrines of Grecian thinkers, had elaborated little by little in these barbaric regions a religion original despite its complexity. At the beginning of our era, we see this religion suddenly emerging from the darkness, and pressing forward, rapidly and simultaneously, into the valleys of the Danube and the Rhine, and even into the heart of Italy ... the progress ... was checked when it came in contact with Christianity. The two adversaries discovered with amazement, but with no inkling of their origin, the similarities which united them;...
The defeat of Mithraism did not ... annihilate its power. It had prepared the minds of the Occident for the reception of a new faith, which, like itself, also came from the banks of the Euphrates,...Manichaeism appeared as its successor and continuation...
Mithraism... if it has not inspired, it has at least contributed to give precise form to, certain doctrines of the Church, as the ideas relative to hell and to the end of the world. And thus both its rise and its decadence combine in explaining to us the formation of two great religions. In the heyday of its vigor, it exercised no less remarkable an influence on the society and government of Rome. Never, perhaps, not even in the epoch of the Moslem invasion, was Europe in greater danger of being Asiaticized than in the third century of our era, and there was a moment in this period when Caesarism was apparently on the point of being transformed into a Caliphate .... It was the worship of the sun, and in particular the Mazdean theories, that disseminated the ideas upon which the deified sovereigns of the West endeavored to rear their monarchical absolutism. The rapid spread of the Persian Mysteries among all classes of the population served admirably the political ambitions of the emperors. A sudden inundation of Iranian and Semitic conceptions swept over the Occident, threatening to submerge everything that the genius of Greece and Rome had so laboriously erected, and when the flood subsided it left behind in the conscience of the people a deep sediment of Oriental beliefs, which have never been completely obliterated."
|Figure A||Figure B||Figure C||Figure D||Figure E|
|Figure F||Figure G||Figure H||Figure J||Figure K|
These brief quotes from this text (I highly recommend you getting and reading it) hopefully will give you a sense that our Spiritual philosophies, even as in regard to European Christianity (which Hall sights as being pictorially represented in the Tarot) were greatly influenced by Saracen thought. Even more thought provoking than the text are the many drawings and photographs of Mithraic sculpture dating as far back as 70 B.C. With symbolism that I certainly could see also in the Tarot of today. In Figure A we see the bull, and above, what is claimed as the son god, Helios; certainly reminds me of the Chariot card. Figure B puts me in reminiscence of the Emperor, perhaps even of the Heirophant. Figure C puts me into thinking about the Magician...and then that dog ... keeps showing up... the Fool card? Figure D offers a plethora of Tarot symbol connections too numerous to list here... but to start our creative juices, how about the World card? Mithra slays a bull, has a head of a lion, wings of an eagle or an angel and the body of a man. Aren't these symbols in the four corners? In fact, in Figure E, isn't that a world the figure is standing on? Then of course there's the Wheel of Fortune ... Figure F certainly makes me think of the Angel in the Judgement card ... that fire ... isn't the fire glyph of Shin shown on the coffin sometimes? If Figure G doesn't put you in mind of a couple of figures in Tarot...well I don't know what would! Figure H is getting to look a lot like Archangel Michael. For me, the most tantalizing symbols for reflection came from the two people on the sides of Mithra in Figure A, and again they can be seen in Figure J and Figure K. Personally, these figures reminded me of Castor and Pollux, the Gemini twins. When I thought about that, I then thought about the bull, Symbol of Taurus. Isn't Figure C holding a shofur?...the symbol of a Ram and Aries? Of course all these symbols predate the Piscean Age, so one sees no images of fish, nor our current Aquarian water bearer symbol. These thoughts led me to others ... as thoughts do. We concentrate in current philosophy about Spiritual progression in the Taurean, Arian, Piscean and Aquarian ages. Perhaps there's an age we forget to consciously ponder, the age of Gemini. It seems to me to make more sense that Spirit didn't start creation in an Earth age, but rather only crystallized into form in the Taurean age. Gemini, mental, creative, fluid, would have been a resonant period for Earth to form from...an age of duality ... the stuff that creations are made from. These figures carry torches...a flame of Spirit? ... to light the way for a denser age?...that of the bull? ... Is the ideal archetype of man, Mithra (Adam Kadmon?) slaying the bull, the Taurean age (being inspired by Cosmic mind the flames of Gemini) to make room for the age of the Ram (a fire sign Figure C and Figure F)? Are the figures holding torches upward and downward to reflect that Heaven and Earth are connected? Could it be that the columns in the Tarot cards are these two figures now crystallized into form as the pillars of Mercy and Severity? And if all these things are true (and you've been patient enough to follow me thus far), then the age of Aquarius is the first air sign (mind) age to be trapped in form. We've actually gone through four ages (a descent into matter) now we face four ages of dealing with the matter that we've descended in, and the last four ages (starting with Libra) would complete the wheel with an ascent from matter. This could give meaning to the three stages of the sign of Scorpio. In the descent into matter we are plunged into the primordial pool of creation (the crab, scorpion) representative of the Gemini, Taurus, Aries, Pisces cycle. While we learn to deal with matter we observe it from the highest mental perspectives of duality (the atmosphere) which will allow us to go and develop our awareness (the eagle) Aquarius, Capricorn, Sagittarius, Scorpio cycle. In the final cycle we transform our consciousness trapped in form and reunite with our source yet fuller for the experience (the Phoenix) Libra, Virgo, Leo, Cancer cycle. Thus ending the twelve cycles with a water sign representing the return to the primordial pool.
In closing, I'd like to thank both these authors for catapulting me into such enjoyable musings, and for you the reader for following along. Last thought is another quote from Hall's book quoted above: "Like all other forms of symbolism, the Tarot unfailingly reflects the viewpoint of the interpreter himself. This does not detract from its value, however, for symbolism is one of the most useful instruments of instruction in the spiritual arts, because it continually draws from the subjective resources of the seeker the substance of his own erudition."
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