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Take a Magical Mystery Tour.
Join celebrated Tarot author, artist, and scholar Rachel Pollack on a magical walk through the mysteries, archetypes, and dream-like images of the Tarot. In the tradition of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, Rachel draws upon symbols, myths, and folk tales both ancient and modern, to illuminate the spiritual truths behind the Tarot's symbols.
The Forest of Souls unfolds like a dream, in a series of musings upon the confluence of the sacred and the mundane. How can a simple deck of 78 cards become keys unlocking life's greatest secrets? While the most common use of Tarot is for divination, Rachel shows how to use the cards for readings of an entirely different nature. Asking improbable, even impossible questions, she plays with the sacred possibilities and answers that the Tarot gives us. What nourishes my soul? What is soul? What is Tarot? What plan did God follow to create the universe?
We now know that the Tarot was almost certainly not originally designed to include Kabbalistic and other occult correspondences. Yet such systems can greatly enhance our understanding of and relationship with the cards. Embracing paradox and non-linear thinking allows us to push the boundaries of the known and venture into the unknown. It is in that sacred space that we open ourselves to wonder and mystery.
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Rachel is considered one of the World’s foremost authorities on the modern interpretation of the Tarot. She is also a poet, an award-winning novelist, and a Tarot card and comic book artist. She has published 12 books on the Tarot, including 78 Degrees of Wisdom (Thorsons, 1998), considered a modern classic and “the Bible of Tarot reading.” Its’ marriage of common sense, wide-ranging knowledge, and esoteric awareness have inspired many tens of thousands of readers worldwide to a deeper knowledge of the Tarot.
She is a member of the American Tarot Association, the International Tarot Society, and the Tarot Guild of Australia. With fellow Tarot author Mary Greer, she has taught at the famed Omega Institute for the past twelve years. She has been conferred the title of “Tarot Grand Master” by the Tarot Certification Board, an independent body located in Las Vegas, Nevada.
As a fiction writer, Pollack has been bestowed many honors and awards, among them the famed Arthur C. Clarke Award for Science Fiction (for Unquenchable Fire) and the World Fantasy Award (for Godmother Night). She is a recommended member of PEN International, and has written for numerous publications.
Myths of Origin
Where does it come from? No matter how we treat the subject--whether we dive deep into the symbolic mysteries, or recite formulas for fortunetelling, or play with the pictures--we cannot escape the question. There are certainly enough answers. Enter the world of Tarot and stories of its origin move around you like excited birds. Here is a sample.
The Tarot depicts the sacred myths of the Romany (or Gypsies), disguised in cards for the centuries of exile from the Rom homeland in India--or Egypt--or outer space. The Tarot is a Renaissance card game inspired by annual carnival processions called triumphs. The Tarot is a card game derived from annual processions called thriambs, in honor of the God Dionysus, the creator of wine. The Tarot conceals/reveals the secret number teachings of Pythagoras, a Greek mystic who lived at the time of Moses, and who influenced Plato. The Tarot depicts the secret oral teachings of Moses, who received them directly from God. The Tarot contains the lost knowledge of Atlantis, a drowned continent first described by Plato. The Tarot is a card game imported from Palestine and Egypt during the Crusades. The Tarot is a vast memory system for the Tree of Life, a diagram of the laws of creation. The Tarot hides in plain sight the wisdom of the Egyptian God Thoth, master of all knowledge. The Tarot shows Egyptian temple initiations. The Tarot shows Tantric temple initiations. The Tarot preserves the wisdom of Goddess-initiated witches during the long, dark centuries of patriarchal religion. The Tarot maps the patterns of the Moon in Chaldean astrology. The Tarot was created by papermaker guilds who were the last remnants of the Cathars, Christian heretics brutally suppressed by the Church of Rome.
All of the above, and more, Tarot writers have proclaimed as the one, true, authentic origin of the Tarot.
The great mythographer Joseph Campbell once commented that the world is full of creation stories and all of them are wrong. The Tarot is like that: full of origin stories, and probably all of them wrong. They are wrong because they take a compelling idea as literal truth. Wrong because they need that literal belief to take the idea seriously, and if someone should disprove once and for all these origin tales they will have lost their hold on its meaning and value. But if we can learn to take these origin tales as myths, as divine play, then not only can we let go of this need to prove the superiority of one to all others, we also can appreciate the poetic truth of each one. And we can marvel at this amazing work, this pack of seventy-eight pictures that somehow adapts itself to so many spiritual and historical traditions.
The Tarot''s Secret Origin is part of its myth. One of the most remarkable things about the cards is the way people snapped at this idea the moment it appeared and have clung to it tenaciously ever since. Here is a personal story. Years ago I was in Denmark shortly after the publication of the Danish edition of my book Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom. Two radio stations wanted to interview me. The first, on national radio, went very well. The second was for a New Age program and I looked forward to it as a chance to discuss the Tarot in some more depth. The day before, the host called me to go over some topics. When I told him that I did not believe the Tarot came from Atlantis, or that secret occult masters crafted it and disguised it as a game, he canceled my appearance.
Though we cannot determine the exact origin of the cards, we can, in fact, pinpoint the origin of the myth. In the 1770s and 80s a man named Antoine Court de Gébelin published a nine-volume study of esoteric ideas called Le Monde Primitif (The Primitive World). The very idea of a primitive human state is itself a myth. In our time, the term "primitive" suggests people unformed, ignorant, savage. In earlier times it meant the opposite, a supposed golden age in which people knew spiritual truth and lived in perfect peace. The Garden of Eden is a variation on this myth.
In the course of his work, Court de Gébelin visited a friend, Madame la C. d''H., who showed him the latest fad, an Italian card game popular in the southern countries, called in Italy tarocchi, and in France les tarots. Court de Gébelin looked through the bright pictures and had an epiphany. The ordinary card game was, in fact, a disguised great work of occult mystery. He called it the Book of Thoth, the very sum of all knowledge.
Thoth was an Egyptian God, the quintessential master of wisdom. Thoth guided the boat of the Sun God Ra across the sky, he invented mummification to resurrect the slain God Osiris, he helped judge dead souls for the afterlife, he even gambled with the Moon to create extra days for the year (more about that story in awhile). The Greeks linked Thoth with their own Hermes, God of magic, healing, wisdom, science, commerce, and, not incidentally, patron of swindlers and thieves (you have to love a religion with a God of swindlers).
Much of the esoteric tradition originates with a shadowy figure known as Hermes Trismegistus, or Thrice-great Hermes, author of The Emerald Tablet, a work composed in Alexandrian Egypt in the early Christian era. The myth of the Emerald Tablet considers Hermes Trismegistus another name for Thoth. Now Antoine Court de Gébelin had described the Tarot as an even more fundamental divine work than the Emerald Tablet itself. Thoth, he said, had given the symbolic pictures to his human disciples and disguised them as a game so it could move through the centuries undetected.
What a wonderful idea! And how amazing that this moment''s inspiration took such a powerful hold on people''s imaginations that it reverberates to this day. Court de Gébelin and his nine volumes would be long forgotten were it not for this one short essay in volume eight. The compelling part of the myth was not really the claim of Egyptian beginning. That was just the particulars. The core idea, the one that took hold so powerfully it dominates subsequent origin stories (at least the occult ones), is that the Tarot forms the basis of all knowledge, the key of keys, or "clavicle," as occultists sometimes call it. In other words, the Tarot lies behind all other knowledge systems. The Tarot summarizes all the mysteries and discoveries of ancient masters. Know the Tarot, understand it correctly, and you will know everything. When Tarot interpreters say it is not Egyptian but Hebrew, or not Hebrew but Tantric, or Chaldean, or heretical Christian, or Wiccan, they begin with the same assumption--that whatever the origin, the Tarot must contain ultimate secrets. They may argue over just which secrets it contains, but they never doubt its esoteric significance.
If we let go of literal belief in all these stories, if we accept the strong likelihood that the Tarot began in the fifteenth century as a popular card game with common allegorical images, do we lose the value of the myth? Can we play with myth rather than believe in it? It seems to me, and to many modern Tarotists, that we actually gain when we see the Tarot''s multiple origins as stories rather than history. For one thing, we can stop arguing, stop trying to prove our version of the origin is correct. Instead, we can look at the subtle beauty and inner truths of the varied esoteric systems entwined with the Tarot.
One of the major traditions looks at the Tarot as a representation of Kabbalah, a vast system of Jewish mystical ideas and practices. We will look at how this idea originated in a moment, but for now there is a Kabbalist myth that illuminates the question of literal belief. The Kabbalists teach that the universe exists in ten levels of divine energy, called sephiroth (the word is connected to "sapphire"). They picture these sephiroth in various ways, sometimes as concentric circles with God in the center and the physical world at the outermost circle, or more commonly with the sephiroth arranged as small circles on a Tree of Life, with the ultimate energy at the top sephirah, called Kether (Hebrew for "crown"), and the material universe at the bottom, called Malkuth ("kingdom"). God created Adam, the first human, with the ability to see and understand all the levels. However, Adam looked at the beauty of Malkuth and allowed himself to mistake it for all creation. And so Adam "sinned," and lost the closeness to God, and took us all with him. Or maybe we ourselves repeat Adam''s error of our own free will, and continuously confuse the material world with the whole of existence.
A literal belief in any particular origin for the Tarot seems to me a little like Adam''s great mistake. We become entranced by the claim and lose sight of the poetic levels and what they actually can teach us. Similarly, if we debunk the specific assertions--if we say no, the Tarot did not come from Egypt, or Atlantis, or ancient rabbis--we would make a great error to think such beliefs no longer mean anything.
The link of Tarot and Kabbalah also goes back to Le Monde Primitif, and a certain Comte (Count) de Mellet, who wrote a backup essay to Court de Gébelin''s comments on the Tarot. Court de Gébelin wrote that "the set of XXI or XXII trumps, the XXII letters of the Egyptian alphabet common to the Hebrews and the Orientals, which also served as numerals, are necessary in order to keep count of so many countries" (quoted in A Wicked Pack of Cards, Decker, Depaulis, and Dummett). Contrary to popular belief about the Egyptian hieroglyphs, they are indeed an alphabet, and not picture writing. However, there are not twenty-two of them. Nor can we determine just who "the Orientals" might be. The Hebrew alphabet, on the other hand, does indeed have twenty-two letters, and Jewish mystical thought considers them the very basis of existence. They link up the sephiroth emanations on the Tree of Life via twenty-two pathways, each with the special quality of one of the letters. Just as Court de Gébelin said, they have numerical value, so that each word adds up to a number, and we can discover secret connections in pairs of words that have the same numbers (this practice is called gematria). We also can move through mystical worlds with the letters and perform acts of magic using the divine names and other letter combinations. It was the Comte de Mellet''s idea to link each Tarot trump to a particular Hebrew letter, so that the individual cards would take on the magical powers of the letters.
Tarot scholar and teacher Mary K. Greer has suggested an interesting revisionist history of the articles in Le Monde Primitif. Court de Gébelin and de Mellet were both Freemasons. Greer considers it likely that the Masons had developed the esoteric theory of Tarot over some time, and gave permission to the two writers to make it public (she also thinks it likely that de Mellet''s essay came first). For Greer, Madame la C. d''H. was a cover story. If Greer is correct in her speculations, it still does not diminish the remarkable impact the announcement had on the history of Tarot.
Christian mystics and magicians became interested in Kabbalah around the same time as the first appearance of the Italian card game tarocchi, so it is not impossible that the Tarot indeed derived from Kabbalistic ideas (though modern scholarship suggests that the cards existed a few decades before the first Christian use of Kabbalah). And the structural comparisons are indeed impressive. Twenty-two is not as common a mystical number as, say, twenty-one (numerologists describe twenty-two as a "master" number, but this is probably a Kabbalistic influence). Kabbalah describes four distinct worlds of creation, each with ten sephiroth. In Tarot we find four suits with cards Ace-Ten. Kabbalah also makes much of the mystical meaning of the four letters in God''s most holy name. And the Tarot has four court cards, Page, Knight, Queen, and King, in each suit. No wonder the idea took hold so powerfully.
In the nineteenth century an occultist and magician named Eliphas Lévi (originally Alphonse Louis Constant) developed the Kabbalistic symbolism of the Tarot in great detail, especially for the trump cards and their Hebrew letters. At the end of the century a Rosicrucian group with the wonderful name of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn took Lévi''s work and expanded and revised it to construct a magical universe of Kabbalah, ritual, Pagan Gods, Hindu philosophy, Freemasonry and other occult traditions, astrology, alchemy, and secret names. The key to all this, the key of keys that would enable the highest adepts (adept was a favorite word and there were many levels) to move through all these different worlds of consciousness and magical power was--of course--the Tarot. Antoine Court de Gébelin had claimed it as the Book of Thoth. Eliphas Lévi had made it the embodiment of the Hebrew letters. Now the Golden Dawn made these beliefs a reality, or at least a fully developed system.
Did it matter that there was no historical evidence for a Kabbalist, or for that matter an Egyptian origin for the Tarot? It does if you need to believe in the literal truth of your magical system. The Golden Dawn included poets, artists, scholars, even a scientist or two. For such an intellectual group they seem to have been remarkably gullible. One of the founders, Samual Liddell "MacGregor" Mathers, produced the group''s official Tarot deck, which differed in some interesting ways from the traditional cards.
Apparently, one evening Mathers took a set of blank cards, went into a room for a short time, and emerged with a complete deck of painted cards. This was enough to convince the group of the deck''s divine inspiration. It does not seem to have occurred to them that Mathers (or possibly his wife Moina) might have painted seventy-eight pictures in the usual manner and concealed them somewhere in the room.
But then the Order''s founders, Mathers, Dr. Wynn Westcott, and Rev. W. R. Woodman, based the whole thing on a fraud. They claimed to have received a "cypher manuscript" that included a page with information about a Frau Sprengel in Germany, who could authorize them to start an English branch of a secret mystical order. After decades of debate, scholars such as Israel Regardie (himself a former member of the Golden Dawn) demonstrated that Frau Sprengel never existed. Westcott himself seems to have written the vital page. Does such proof discredit the Golden Dawn and all its productions? The word hermetic in the title comes from Hermes Trismegistus, but ultimately from that Greek God of swindlers. Hermes might have delighted in such a daring enterprise. Perhaps the Order''s great success owes much to Hermes'' blessing.
A personal story. While I was writing the above paragraphs, my dog, whose name is Wonder, decided to chew up one of my decks of cards, something she never has done before (or since). To do this she had to pull the cards off a table, then bite off the silk scarf that enwrapped them, and scatter the cards about the floor. She actually chewed up only one card before she returned to the room where I sat at my desk. When I discovered what she had done (and gotten over the shock), I checked to see which card she had destroyed. The deck is not Tarot, but an Egyptian-based oracle called the Book of Doors, and the card that Wonder chewed up was called Kerhet, after an Egyptian Goddess of secret initiation. Secret initiations were the Golden Dawn''s whole manner of operation.
The deck''s writers, Athon Veggi and Alison Davidson, write of this card that "the quality of secrecy is recognized in the oath to Keep Silent, to keep the creative operation in perfect secrecy." The Golden Dawn took this concept so seriously that members took...
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