by O Books
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tarot and the Grail
British author Kate Mosse in her novel “Sepulchre”
plays with tarot cards to enrich the mystery of Rennes-le-Château
and its enigmatic priest, Bérenger Saunière. In
an interview for Radio Rennessence, Kate Mosse stated that if
a secret knowledge would have been handed down through a select
group of initiates, the tarot would have to be considered as the
primary mechanism, seeing its universal nature – both in
appearance and understanding. Indeed, when we look into the history
of Rennes-le-Château, we find that the Martinist tradition
even published a book on the “tarot des Bohémiens”.
Though some experts in the tarot considered the book to be a “tissue
of errors”, adding “this school has not the true reading”,
perhaps the error of their ways was not due to a problem in understanding,
but in the means of using the tarot as a code.
Centuries before, another work – generally believed to be
of fiction – was the Grail legend. Here too, there is not
only a code, but another possible connection to the tarot, one
that has gone unnoticed by most.
A deck of tarot cards consists
of 78 cards, composed of 21 trump cards, one Fool, and four suits
of fourteen “normal” cards each. However, it are the
22 “special” cards that have attained most attention.
Often used for divination, the cards are believed to derive from
the Kaballah and medieval alchemy. But could there also be a link
to the Grail? What if in the Major Arcana, each card represented
a character of the Grail? What if the hanged man might be representing
Jesus making his sacrifice? They are novel thoughts, which few
seem to have pondered.
First of all, it is clear that the key card in the tarot deck
is the Fool. He is the person travelling on the road – the
quester – on par with the person seeking to know his or
her “fortune” by consulting the tarot cards. It is
also Percival, the Grail Knight, who has abandoned the security
of his home and wonders through the land, in search of his destiny.
The likes of composer Richard Wagner suggested that Parsifal (Parsi-fal)
might mean “pure fool” – The Fool.
The Fool was normally depicted as a beggar or a vagabond, wearing
ragged clothes, with a stick on his back, sometimes having feathers
in his hair. He would become the joker of modern card games, but
could he also be the same person as the man in search of enlightenment,
the “Fool”, of the Hermetic tradition, who meets remarkable
men along his travels?
that if Percival, the Grail Knight, wanders in search of his destiny,
we know that Percival chances upon the Grail Castle. The key components
of the Grail legend are traditionally identified with the Cup,
the Lance and the Sword – though in some legends, the Grail
is presented on a Dish. Though none of these objects are typically
Christian as such, most of them have, since the 12th century and
the writing of the Grail legends, been redefined within a Christian
context: the Cup of the Last Supper, the Spear of Destiny with
which the Roman soldier Longinus was said to have pierced Christ’s
side, whereas the Sword became linked with King Arthur and…
one seems to have forgotten about the Dish, just like few remember
there are Grail traditions that involve a dish.
It was Arthur Edward Waite in “The Hidden Church of the
Holy Graal” who pointed out “the correspondence of
certain tarot symbols with those of the Holy Graal”.
Waite highlighted that the four key symbols of the tarot are the
Cup, the Wand, the Sword and the Pentacle. The Wand is sometimes
a sceptre, but often linked with a spear, whereas the Pentacle
is often linked with the dish. Coincidence, or is there design
behind the correspondences between the principle tarot cards and
the principle Grail attributes?
Indeed, the presence of the Cup and the Sword should be of paramount
interest for those interested in the Grail and, indirectly, the
Sword (i.e. spear). In fact, the four symbols are often seen as
corresponding with the four categories of a normal set of playing
cards: the Cup is Hearts, the Wand Clubs, the Sword Spades and
the Pentacle Diamonds.
“Servants of the Grail”, I point out that the true
essence of the Grail is Knowledge, the Grail itself linked with
the Cup in the sky, which should be seen as a Hermetic tradition,
which revolves around the acquisition of Knowledge. As such, it
should not come as a surprise that within the tarot, the place
of the Cup is seen as the acquisition of Knowledge too.
In the same book, I also highlight that the Grail was largely
a Westernized version of the Corpus Hermeticum, and that this
had made inroads in Western Europe three centuries before Ficino
had it translated in Florence for Cosimo de Medici. It arrived
in Europe in the 11th century through the “Reconquista”,
when Islamic rulers were ousted from Spain. Though it is seen
as the demise of Islamic rule in Europe, Islamic knowledge –
including the Corpus Hermeticum – conquered, briefly, Europe,
before fully exploding on the European scene during the Renaissance
from the 15th century onwards.
Where does this leave the tarot? It is clear that the tarot is
a divinatory tool, a practical tool, almost to put theory into
practice. Dare one suggest that cards – and the tarot specifically
– were a practical application (divination) of the theoretical
body of the Hermetica?
At a basic level, the Hermetica was linked with Hermes, and hence
Thoth. Equally, whenever the tarot is discussed within an occult
framework, it is pointed out that it was seen as the “Book
of Thoth”. Unsurprisingly, some sets of tarot cards were
given specifically Egyptian designs, though one shouldn’t
read too much into that.
Where does this scenario sit
within what is known about the tarot? Traditional historians argue
that the first tarot decks were created between 1410 and 1430,
in either Milan, Ferrara or Bologna – in short, northern
Italy. This is, of course, the exact timeframe when the roots
of the Renaissance were created, and when the Corpus Hermeticum
made its way into Europe – also in Northern Italy. Coincidence?
However, it is known that traditional playing cards existed earlier
in Europe, at some point before 1367, when their used was banned
in Bern (Switzerland) – though some historians now believe
it was chess, not cards, that was banned. It is also known that
by that time, cards were widely used in Andalusia – a part
of Spain that had remained Islamic. Cola di Covelluzzo’s
“Viterbo Chronicle” reports that in “1379 there
was brought to Viterbo the game of cards, which in the Saracen
language is called nayb.”
But, interestingly, there are references to cards being used in
Barcelona and Marseilles – two places of great interest,
as it is in the latter city that the “tarot des bohemians”
was said to have originated. In Barcelona, in1310 the game of
cards (naips) was forbidden by the “Consell de Cent”.
In 1337, it is in Marseille that are found the oldest mentions,
in the statutes of the Abbey of Saint Victor, where monks were
forbidden the following: “quod nulla persona audeat nec
praesumat ludere ad taxillos nec ad paginas.” And on August
30, 1381, Jacques Jean, son of a Marseille merchant, about to
embark for Alexandria, promised to abstain from games of chance,
among which are cited cards: nahipi.
The only question one has to
ask, is whether the tradition of such cards might be a century
or two older than currently accepted. History needs documents,
but can we at all be sure that amidst the turmoil of a Reconquista,
i.e. a war, some bits of small papers – which is what tarot
cards are – would have neatly survived the mayhem?
is true that the available evidence suggests that tarot cards
were less “esoteric” in the 15th century than by the
18th century. Indeed, by the 19th century, Mosse is right to argue
that all mystics were head over heels in love with them and would
have used it as a primary mechanism to pass on occulted information.
But, again, the absence of evidence doesn’t mean it is evidence
of absence. The 18th-19th century is specifically important as
many previous oral occult traditions were written down and published
and it might be foolish to mistake the appearance of written records
as the record of appearance.
Again, in “Servants of the Grail”, I argue that specifically
the Grail story of Chrétien de Troyes is linked with the
“quest” of another Fool – Lucius – and
that the story features an initiation into the mysteries of Isis.
Interestingly, when the divinatory-occult dimension of the tarot
was written down – though some might argue it was invented
– as e.g. in 1781 by de Gébelin, he argued that the
symbolism of the tarot des Bohémiens represented the mysteries
of Isis and Thoth. They are, indeed, obvious candidates to be
included in the tarot, but simply because something is obvious,
doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Interestingly, Gébelin
further claimed that the name “tarot” came from the
Egyptian words tar, meaning “royal”, and ro, meaning
“road”, and that the tarot therefore represented a
“royal road” to Wisdom. Though this might be a clever
and imaginative play on words, the fact once again remains that
this is precisely what the tarot was meant to highlight –
and that “royal road to wisdom” is precisely the path
walked by the Grail Knight, Percival.
As mentioned, when tracing the
origins of playing cards, we know they came into Europe from Moorish
Spain. But in Spain, they had arrived from Egypt. These were,
however, traditional playing cards. As researcher Stephen J Ash
points out: “it is unknown where the 22 picture cards came
from.” It is possible that the Italian Tarocchi games –
from which the name tarot is believed to have been derived from
– were the first to combine the traditional playing cards
with the 22 “tarot” cards. What is clear, is that
by 1470 – the Renaissance – the Mantegna Tarrochi
had five suites of ten cards, based on the planets, muses, arts,
ranks and cosmic principles, thus clearly showing their occult
– in this case, Kabbalistic – dimension.
where does this leave the debate? It is clear that the tarot has
an occult dimension, and that this occurred relatively recently,
during the Renaissance. This mixture of Hermetica and Kabbalah
by default has overtones with the Grail, because, as argued in
“Servants of the Grail”, the medieval story of the
Grail was a westernised rendition of the Hermetic Quest.
It is also clear that there are still a lot of unknowns about
the origins of the tarot. Just like many now consult the cards
in trying to find some milestones into the big walkabout that
is our life, it is clear that there are few milestones in the
history of the “game”. The parallels between the voyage
of the foolish Grail Knight and the tarot’s Fool nevertheless
remain intriguing, and might one day reveal further insights.
to Stephen J Ash, Liz Swanson and Linda Marquardt for providing