by Nicholas Swift
an extract from Mirror of the Free
Authors of books on the Tarot cards commonly assert that their true origin is unknown. One sometimes gets the impression, however, that their attitude to the mystery it presents is ambivalent: knowledge means not only less excuse to speculate but, also, more responsibility. They write as if they want to know; or as if they want the reader to think they want to; or as if they acknowledge, almost reluctantly, that they really ought to make an earnest effort to find out: but, when it comes down to it, might, for some reason, prefer not to…
Perhaps more generally, and less excitingly, there is the threat of something even more difficult to deal with: a sense of anticlimax. Instead of enjoying the mystery, one has to work at understanding something.
It is true that if you read this book you may find it difficult to continue to justify the uses to which you are accustomed to putting the Tarot.
On the other hand, you may decide that there is a great deal more to the Tarot than you ever suspected; and, having become aware of certain facts, that those facts conflict with your beliefs; and that, if you are to be honest, you have to shed some of them.
If what you are already doing with the cards, as they say, ‘works for you’, you may even find that the information offered here constitutes an opportunity to come to a deeper understanding of what it is you have really been doing all along…
Looking at photographs of impressions made by Mesopotamian cylinder seals can be almost the same as looking at an old photograph – a very old photograph.
Four or five thousand years old, to be precise.
It is not really the photographs that are old, of course: it is what has been photographed.
Because they are physically relatively shallow impressions, and have to be highlighted to be clearly discerned, they have an eeriness about them, attributable though this may be to our conditioning through occupying the place we do in the history of visual media. (The present book uses charcoal pencil drawings closely based on the originals.)
Figure 2 shows a Mesopotamian deity that has not been identified with certainty.
How do we know it is a god? By the horns. Its head-gear, if you look closely, is curled up at each side. In the times and at the place of which we speak, one of the ways that gods and goddesses were recognized was by their horns.
Isn’t that the wrong way round, though? Isn’t it the Devil who has horns?
If it is a god – and thus corresponds, presumably, to something good – why does it have horns?
Or is it just proof that all those old pagans were wicked anyway, worshipping what we now know to have been evil?
On a more basic cultural and, even, psychological level, the issue of ‘the Devil’ being, in popular imagination, a creature with horns relates critically to the question of the difference between appearance and reality.
The same theme features in a brief passage in Ihya ‘Alam ad Din (Revival of Religious Knowledge) by the exceedingly influential eleventh (CE) century Muslim thinker and Sufi Al Ghazali.
In discussing knowledge of ‘the world’ and contrasting it with that of spiritual things, he wrote: ‘He who is experienced in the religious sciences is inexperienced in worldly learning. For this reason, the Prophet said: “Most of the inmates of Paradise are indifferent”: in other words, they are inattentive to worldly matters.’
It is the next line, however, that is arresting in the context of considering understanding of ‘devils’ or ‘the Devil’, mainly because the way in which it is phrased would seem to suggest that it might allude to the reported ability of Sufi masters to somehow experience the immediate, living presence of other Sufis of the past and future, even the distant past and future, and to communicate with them: Ghazali quotes another historically prominent Sufi named Hasan al Basri (‘of Basra’), thus: ‘We have seen such people whom you would think, if you had seen them, diabolical… If they had seen you, however, they would call you devils.’
Basra was, at the time of Hasan – and is still today – in what is now called Iraq. Indeed, it is only a few miles from the modern city Babylon.
‘They would call you devils…’
Looking again at the image of what has universally been interpreted as a tower struck by lightning, what may strike us is the fact that the object – or phenomenon, if you insist on seeing it as lightning – that seems to be causing the destruction resembles nothing so much as a gigantic feather.
The winged gate or door (Figure 19) is one of the motifs that occur over and over again in Mesopotamian seals for which no one seems yet to have come up with a satisfying explanation.
It thus seems at least possible that the eight sefiroth of the original Kabbalah of the Ikhwan as Safa and the Sufis consisted of the seven lower sefiroth of the Kabbalah we know, plus the three upper sefiroth combined into one; if so, it would confirm Blavatsky’s assertion that the division of the top sefirah into three is a ‘blind’. Moreover, the description of the first three sefiroth as ‘hidden potencies’ that ‘do not act in the visible sphere’ as do the other seven obviously closely parallels the relationship, and difference, between the law of three and the law of seven as Gurdjieff taught them.
In Figure 11 we see the king, the one in the middle, with his two escorts, who are divinities in their own right. The round object on the table the leg of which the individual in the front is grasping is a ‘sun-disk’, an emblem of the god Shamash, the great god to whom the king is being presented. About the odd bearded fellows in the upper right, even what significance it may be possible to gather in the context of the stele image cannot be considered here, because what is shown here is only that part of the scene that is likely to have been the origin of the image on the card The Lovers. It requires no great effort of imagination to see how the figures aloft who seem to be executing some procedure with some kind of ropes extending down to the sun-disk have become the arrow-shooting angel, and the sun-disk the angel’s nimbus.
Over the centuries of their existence up to the time of the writing of the books of the Bible – as, of course, in the centuries since – the Jewish people, whether through captivity or by other means, came into contact with a wide variety of foreign cultures and languages, and their language, Hebrew, was inevitably much changed by those contacts. Arabic, on the other hand, was, until the time of the expansion of Islam, the language of a relatively isolated people. One consequence of these unarguable historical facts is that of existing languages, Arabic is the closest to Protosemitic. If knowledge or methods of encoding and accessing it, or both, were woven into Protosemitic, and they are to be sought in any currently used language, Arabic is the obvious choice.
If, moreover, we take the methods – the ones of which we may have an inkling, at any rate – used to embed knowledge in one place (such as Arabic) and try them out in another (such as ancient Hebrew writings), especially when the two are known to have a common ancestor, and the results appear meaningful, it is reasonable to conclude that the same methods were used to embed knowledge in that other place.
The philosophical principle that dates from the European Middle Ages and is referred to as Occam’s Razor states that if there is a simple explanation for something, you should not seek a more complicated one. The obvious defect of this principle is that one’s very notion of what constitutes simplicity is itself almost certainly heavily culturally conditioned: which is to say it rests on a foundation of relative ignorance that is felt, on the contrary, to be a foundation of relative knowledge.
Another way of putting it might be to say that Occam’s Razor is fine for shaving, but try to use it to do something requiring a finer instrument, such as brain surgery, and you will discover its limitations.
It is worth looking again at the image of Shamash sitting receiving Nabuplaiddin, and considering in juxtaposition to it another passage in Meetings With Remarkable Men.
In the passage in question, Gurdjieff is describing what was ostensibly an attempt he made to relieve his poverty by setting himself up as a shoe shiner on a public street. Not having much luck at first, he decided he needed to innovate, and so obtained an armchair of some special kind, and put one of Edison’s phonographs underneath it, where it would not be seen by casual observers. To this he connected, he says, a flexible tube with, on the other end, an apparatus that the customer, while resting comfortably in the armchair, could put to his ears even as Gurdjieff surreptitiously started up the record player for them. He even names the Marseillaise as one of the pieces of music they would indulge in (others being operatic works) while he shined their shoes. Further, he says, he affixed to one of the arms of the chair a tray to bear liquid refreshments and magazines. His advanced ideas about customer service paid off well, he notes.
A third passage may be reflected upon in the light of the two odd bearded figures, who only seem to exist from the waist up, leaning out from the front of the covering of Shamash’s shrine in Figure 29 or 31.
He says that, one day, as he was walking on the Kurfurstendamm (in Berlin) toward the Zoological Gardens, he spied a man, who had lost both of his legs, on a little hand-operated wagon and turning the crank on an ‘antediluvian’ musical box. Somewhat further on, he again mentions the character, having related a story about his life as it had been before he came to his current predicament; again he describes him as without legs, operating the music box in the manner described, and accepting German coins of small denomination from passersby.
In his initial general behaviour, Gilgamesh obviously represents the commanding self or, possibly, even the nafs al haywaniya, the ‘animal self’, to which regular commanding-self people may sink if they are not careful. He meets and does battle with his ‘twin’ – Enkidu, the wild man – which is to say, unconditioned or less-conditioned reality, a spiritual reality that is also his own real self or, possibly, a teaching pertaining to it. Enkidu is rendered more presentable after his rendezvous with and seduction by Ishtar’s agent, which represents the capturing and relative neutralizing of that reality by the lower, conditioned world. (Another ancient story with the same theme is the Biblical story of Esau and Jacob, which we will look at soon.) Enkidu’s struggle with Gilgamesh may thus also correspond with the manifestation of the accusing self, and their subsequent harmonization with the inspired self, or nafs al malhama: Gilgamesh and Enkidu together slay Humbaba, the beast in the forest; as it happens, another spelling of malhama means ‘bloody combat, slaughter’.
Shibli must have seemed like one kind of fool when he, an intelligent and capable man, followed the instructions of Junayd and sold sulphur, begged, and went from door to door looking for people he might have offended during his career as a civil servant in order to apologize to them. He must have seemed like another kind of fool when he first put sugar in the mouths of those who repeated the name of God; and then, as his ‘state’ increased, offered gold to those who would repeat it for him; and finally, when anyone repeated it, came after them with a sword because, he said, he had realized that they were only doing so out of mechanical habit.
The gradations of being in this scheme of the Ikhwan do not represent aspects of divinity, but stages of manifestation. Nor do they, as given, have intricate and specific interconnections as seen in the sefirothic ‘tree’. The intermittent inclusion in the midst of the latter of Da’ath, ‘knowledge’, however, and the interconnections of the points of the circumference of the enneagram, the inner triangle of which is supposed to represent the vital status of the thing or process represented, does suggest that the formulators of the sefirothic Kabbalah were trying to produce something of their own by combining elements of the teaching of the Ikhwan and the enneagram of the Sarmoun, and other Sufi doctrines as well.
Wasu’a (after ‘Esau’, of course), on the other hand, corresponds to meanings of ‘spacious, vast, extensive’, ‘contain, comprehend, encompass, include’, and ‘be generous, liberal, open-handed’: suggestive of the spatial, ‘holistic’ (to use an over-used word), and selfless aspect of the mind. Waswas is ‘temptation, delusion, fixed idea’, and also ‘anxiety, concern, melancholy’. Iswa means ‘example, model, pattern’.
Isaac in his fatally weakened condition represents the same reality as Esau rendered delicate by extreme hunger, the same hunger that Isaac now expresses when he states his desire for some of Esau’s strongly flavoured wild game (the vividness of less-conditioned reality). The difference is this: Esau, after he had partaken of Jacob’s bowl of stew, recovered; Isaac is not going to recover. Sufis say that spiritual states are temporary, but stages are permanent.
The fact is, Mesopotamian cylinder seals have more people pouring things in them than the U.S. Air Force has explanations for Roswell.
The days and nights as well of Mesopotamian priests were anything but badly planned, being filled with precisely timed prayers, liturgies and sacrifices, and with new moons and the ends of months marked by festivals. Each deity had its own priesthood, from the highest offices of (the Sumerian) sanga and en all the way down to the sacred temple prostitutes that scholars since the advent of Latin have politely referred to as ‘hierodules’, very large numbers of whom, along with eunuchs, were necessary for the rites of Inanna/Ishtar to be properly performed. Speculation is still the best we can do when it comes to determining the precise functions of the various categories of priests, although their Sumerian and Akkadian names are known; one kind, for instance, seems likely to have been concerned with literary and musical forms of worship, and another with the flow not of sounds, but of celebratory inebriants and ablutions.
The name ‘Iblis’, again, means ‘the wicked one’, or ‘the hopeless’. His other name in Arabic, Shaitan, means ‘one who opposes’. Satan particularly disliked that he, a creature made of fire, was expected to humble himself before man, who was made of mere clay. ‘So the angels prostrated themselves, all of them together: not so Iblis: he refused to be among those who prostrated themselves. God said: “O Iblis! What is your reason for not being among those who prostrated themselves?” Iblis said: “I am not one to prostrate myself to man, whom Thou didst create from sounding clay, from mud moulded into shape.” God said: “Then get thee out from here; for thou art rejected, accursed. And the curse shall be on thee till the Day of Judgment.” (Koran, Sura 15, verses 30 to 35.)
Gurdjieff’s explanation as conveyed by Ouspensky is confusing inasmuch as he says that the broken-away pieces of consciousness that unite and are, in effect, evil in the sense that they oppose the (new) evolutionary manifestation are themselves from the evolutionary process (presumably an earlier, failed one), but that they do so at certain points in the involutionary process. The ‘involutionary process’ and ‘evolutionary process’ sound more than a little like the Sufis’ ‘arc of descent’ and ‘arc of ascent’. Apart from the context of individual souls, examples of involutionary processes would, one thinks, be all forms of higher teaching that become coarsened and distorted through progressively greater degrees of mixing with the lower levels of reality: like Esau eating his stew, or Ishtar in the underworld, or like a great religion twisted into a killing machine, or like Sufi teachings in a pack of cartoonish cards. The evolutionary process, however, would seem to be something that takes place partly through engaging with those remnants, if only to the purpose of developing the discernment to understand that that is what they are, and then going on to seek out fresher and purer impulses.
The idea of it happening at certain points in the involutionary process, then, can only mean when a certain quota of transcendent content has been lost; when a certain corner has been turned, in the sense of no longer merely deviating from the original direction, but becoming opposed to it. It resonates, ‘like calling to like’, with the errant consciousness at a vulnerable stage in its evolutionary climb, and turns it aside.
Zohra, Venus, is Ishtar. In the myth of her descent into the underworld, she escapes by arranging to have Tammuz substitute for her, which it turns out may be a way of saying that when people get through with distorting a teaching about higher reality, all they are left with is their own tendency to turn something alive and uncontrollable into something as docile as a sheep. One way of reading the story may be to see the two principal characters’ ‘substituting’ for her as having the same significance. One of the meanings of nabi is ‘deputy’, who is a substitute for the higher authority. People come to the Tarot cards wanting to learn a kind of magic…
None of this is to discount the importance of the fact that, for instance, there is a basic practical – if you like, psychological – relationship between ‘secrets’ and ‘power’. Arabic for ‘hair’ is sha’r. In fact, if meanings of words that sound like sirr and sar and sha’r are considered altogether, one of the things they can be assembled into is the story of Samson in the Biblical Book of Judges.
‘Once so strong and mighty,’ the Contemporary English Version has him saying, in the ‘riddle’ he composed after he found the lion he had slain earlier with his bare hands had bees living in the carcass, and he had sampled their honey, ‘- now so sweet and tasty!’
‘When the seeker of truth,’ Attar records Abu al Hasan Khirqani as saying, ‘has cheerfully tasted poison nine times, on the tenth time he tastes sugar… To me it is as if there is something I do not know but that is in my stomach and that feeds me. It is as sweet as honey and as fragrant as musk. The world does not know in what way I am fed.’
The Tablet of Destiny or, to use the Sumerian word for it, the me (‘meh’ or ‘muh’), was a sort of divine template. They are sometimes referred to (whether by the ancients or by the translators) in the plural, the Tablets of Destiny. The me were, according to some, the property of Enki/Ea (even though Zu stole them from Enlil), and occupied a position of overwhelming importance in the religion of the Sumerians and, hence, for the many people who took over their land and religion. They were the decrees of heaven, written before our world came into being, and formed the basis of all insititutions and, even, every aspect of society, religion and civilization; from another point of view, they were discussed as including actual physical objects as well as abstractions, from musical instruments and artisanal tools to truth and lies, sex, various kinds of priest, victory and royal paraphernalia.
Let us consider this startlingly un-primitive conception in light of the ideas that we discussed earlier about levels of reality emanating from a sublime source. Looking down, as it were, from God’s point of view – and as blasphemous as that might sound, it is only an exercise to try to follow what the great teachers have said about how it really is – the First Intelligence was created; the Universal Soul was produced out of that; and the Intelligence then transmitted to the Soul – the Pen wrote on the Tablet – everything that was to be; and the World Soul made it, and continues to make it, happen. At some point, as Ibn al ‘Arabi said in so many words, this means everything we know … ‘Arsh means ‘throne’, but a closely similar word, arsh, in Arabic means ‘creatures’, in the sense of ‘all creatures’. In its meaning it corresponds with the sefirah Malkuth, ‘kingdom’, even though in the Ikhwan‘s formulation it was meant to comprise ‘minerals, plants, and animals’, but not humans.
The opinion of historians is that the individual shown in Figure 53 – the original is right side up – is the priest spoken of in the seal’s accompanying inscription. Adad, again, is another name for Enlil and is, supposedly, represented by the winged disc to which the priest is raising his arms. His mid-air position may indicate that he is performing some act of ritual worship, or that he is dancing ecstatically, as did the dervishes of the god Baal on Mount Carmel who are mentioned in the eighteenth chapter of the first book of Kings in the Old Testament. The reason for showing him upside-down here should be obvious. Someone else, a few hundred years ago, also saw him that way.
The origin of the name, ‘The Hanged Man’, may be not that hard to discern: the inclusion of the word ‘man’ could be what gives it away. We have already seen the importance of the Sufi teaching concerning what they call al insan al kamil, the ‘perfect’ or ‘complete man’. Insan is ‘man’, kamil is ‘complete’. Another word for ‘entire, total, universal’ is kulliya(t). Arabic for ‘hanged’ is ‘alaq. Someone may very well have misread insan al kulliya(t) as insan al ‘alaq.
That leaves the question: what gave them the idea of a ‘hanged man’ in the first place?
Where the Moon card showed a situation, a condition, in which there is no ‘self’ to be seen and, yet, there is a suggestion of something that was, at some point, constructed, although it now may be in disrepair – the lunatic world, in which the fateful moon syphons off the energies that could, with effort, knowledge and luck, be raised to the spiritual level of the Sun; yet for which, paradoxically, there is still (in a word) hope – while that is the case with The Moon, the scene on The Devil may show the end result of persisting under that influence, of failing to escape it, where two beings regard each other with what may be desire, or loathing, or horror: but is unlikely to be indifference, because the fact that they are bound, held in stasis, would be meaningless if they had no will to be restrained and to make it worthy to be called Hell; if it is anything like attraction they feel, they are so similar-seeming as to make that something of a joke; and, if loathing or horror, the same applies, although for the opposite reason. They cannot even be said to have the satisfaction of being, fully, whatever it is they now are, as is demonstrated by their stunted state relative to the ‘real’ Devil who, obviously, rules over them, and of whom they – as a further dimension, almost a luxury, of unfulfilment – are prevented from seeing and knowing. The two may be and, indeed, probably are – in the perfect expression of the nature of Hell – the same person: and that person’s being portrayed as two small, imprisoned devils may be the ultimate representation of what it means to have a self, to be a self, to be condemned to be that self, and never have the possibility of being anything but that self, yet not to know that self, and to know that you do not know yourself, and now never will.
Same people; different card. Same sun. It is even apparent that the horizontal lines of the support for the sun-disk have transmogrified into the brick wall behind the two friends. One could say that it is not unlike watching Law and Order and noticing that the actor who is playing a blackmailing doctor in the current episode is the one who played an accountant who was an important witness a few weeks ago; but, there it is.
That the importance of the duality of consciousness that in our time has found an anatomical correlative in the brain hemispheres was something recognized by the ancients is shown by the fact that the Jacob and Esau story is far from being the only part of the Jewish scriptures to deal with it.
While it may have been Herakleitos who said, ‘Character is destiny’, and Nietzsche who said, ‘I am a destiny’, only Butt-head, or someone very much like him, can, with full accuracy, say, ‘I am a character’; and in the last analysis, of the three, he is by far the most influential.
[Thank you to Nicholas for permission to include this extract, also on his site, in this Newsletter]