Servants of the Grail 

Published by O Books

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The tarot and the Grail

Philip Coppens

 

The 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?

Noting 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.

In “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?

It 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.

So 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.

Thanks to Stephen J Ash, Liz Swanson and Linda Marquardt for providing valuable input.