Given my personal and professional interests, I am at various times asked whether Rudolf Steiner talked about tarot in either his books or his lectures – or was at least aware of tarot. It should be brought to mind that amongst the thousands of recorded lectures he gave between 1900 and 1925, many have yet to be published, and even more to be translated into English. So it is possible that a number of references are not yet in the public domain.
A case in point is one of the references I include below, having discovered when I last visited Dornach in Switzerland and, already familiar with the specific dates during which he would likely have talked about tarot, discovered a small entry in his private notebooks… but we’ll come to that a little later.
Much of what follows is extracted from a page on my fourhares.com site specifically addressing tarot and Anthroposophy. Of note also is that an increasing number of books on tarot make either direct or indirect reference to Steiner. Some of these, however, and despite even frequent quotes by Steiner, either misrepresent Steiner’s view or attempt to support their own peculiar viewpoints by quotes taken out of context.
The only major Anthroposophical work dealing with tarot of which I am aware is Meditations on the Tarot, written anonymously by a Russian Roman Catholic Anthroposophist during the mid 1960s, and published posthumously. The English translation is by Robert Powell, an astrologer, Eurythmist and Anthroposophist who also developed an integrated ‘dance of the Cosmos’ to the service of Sophia, combining some of Steiner’s suggestions for the Eurythmic planetary and zodiacal forms, but worked in a circular form to music. It is clear from some of Powell’s works that part of his inspiration derives from the works of the author of Meditations on the Tarot.
Rudolf Steiner’s reference to Tarot
There are very few times that Steiner appears to have directly referred to Tarot. In fact, only three sources have thus far come my way. Those who are familiar with especially some of Steiner’s untranslated work may come across other sources, and I would be very grateful to be informed of these.
As will be obvious from what follows, I strongly suspect that further material from the 1906 period is yet to emerge.
The only currently published source within Steiner’s works (ie, apart from my own website and this Newsletter) is from a Christmas lecture given in 1906.
GA 96 Christmas Lecture 17th December 1906
For ease of bibliographic reference, Steiner’s works have been numbered as part of his overall ‘collected works’ – which in German abbreviates to ‘GA’. GA 96 therefore forms part of Volume 96 of his collected works. In 1906, there were still many lectures that were not short-hand recorded, especially some of the lectures intended for members of the Society rather than open to the public.
In a lecture on the festival of Christmas given in 1906, various symbols were displayed on a pine Christmas tree:
Steiner explained the symbols, from the bottom up, in the following manner:
The square is the symbol of the fourfold nature of man: physical body, ether body, astral body and ego.
The triangle is the symbol of the higher man: Spirit Self, Life Spirit and Spirit Man.
Above the triangle is the symbol of the Tarot. Initiates of the Egyptian Mysteries knew how to read this sign. They also knew how to read the Book of Thoth, which consisted of seventy-eight cards on which were recorded all world events from beginning to end, from Alpha to Omega, and which could be read if they were joined and assembled in the right way. The Book of Thoth, or Hermes, contained in pictures the life that fades in death and again sprouts forth anew into life. Whoever could combine the right numbers with the right pictures was able to read it. This wisdom of numbers and pictures has been taught since primeval ages. In the Middle Ages it still played an important role, but today there is little left of it.
[Note that a mildly different version of the above is recorded further on, from what appears to be a different source]
Above the Alpha and Omega is the sign of Tao. It reminds us of the worship of God by our primeval ancestors because this worship took its origin from the work Tao. Before Europe, Asia and Africa were lands of human culture, our ancestors lived on Atlantis, which was submerged by a flood. In the Germanic sagas of Niflheim, the land of the mists, the memory of Atlantis still lives. For Atlantis was not surrounded by pure air. Its atmosphere was filled with enormous masses of mist similar to the clouds and mists in high mountains. The sun and moon were not seen clearly in the sky, but were surrounded by a rainbow, and sacred Iris. At that time man still understood the language of nature. What speaks to him today in the lapping and surging of the waves, in the whistling and rushing of the wind, in the rustling of the leaves, in the rumbling of thunder, is no longer understood by him, but at that time he could understand it. He felt something that spoke to him from everything about him. From the clouds and waters and leaves and winds the sound rang forth: Tao (the I am). Atlanteans heard it and understood it, and knew that Tao streamed through the whole world.
Finally, all that permeates the cosmos is present in man and is symbolized in the pentagram at the top of the tree. The deepest meaning of the pentagram may not now be mentioned, but it is the star of mankind, of mankind developing itself. It is the star that all wise men follow as did the priest-sages in ancient ages.
It symbolizes the earth that is born on the Night of Consecration, because the most sublime light radiates from the deepest darkness. Man lives on toward a state when the light shall be born in him, when one significant saying shall be replaced by another, when it will no longer be said, “The Darkness does not comprehend the Light” but when the truth will resound into cosmic space with the words, “Darkness gives way to the Light that radiates toward us in the Star of Mankind, Darkness yields and comprehends the Light”.
This shall resound from the Christmas celebration, and the spiritual light shall radiate from it. Let us celebrate Christmas as the festival of the most lofty ideal of the Idea of Mankind, so that in our souls may rise the joyful confidence: Indeed, I, too, shall experience the birth of the higher man within myself. The birth of the Saviour, the Christos, will take place in me also.
Rudolf Steiner Signs and Symbols of the Christmas Festival [lecture III] GA 96, 17th Dec. 1906
It is obvious from the above quote, as will again be apparent below, that Steiner in large part took his source from Eliphas Levi (the symbol clearly has that derivative) as well as, very likely, Book II (Chapter III) of Paul Christian’s History and Practice of Magic from 1870 (therein the reference to tarot linked to Egypt falsely attributed to Iamblichus). Even that, however, is likely derived from a comment made by Yarker in his Arcane Schools, which talks briefly of tarot thus:
The learned French writer [Paul] Christian considers that the 22 symbolic designs of the Tarot cards embody the synthesis of the Egyptian Mysteries, and that they formed the decoration of a double row of 11 pillars through which the candidate for Initiation was led, and that these designs further correspond with the 22 characters of all primitive alphabets.
Within a page of that quote, Yarker also notes and discusses Freemasonic ‘Marks’ that include the Square, Ankh, Triangle, Pentagramme, and but few other marks (and has them illustrated therein).
Given that Steiner had a copy of Yarker’s book and that, further, his warrant for the Co-Masonic Memphis-Misraïm Rite derived from Yarker via Reuss, and that, further, 1906 roughly coincides with the ‘pinnacle’ of Steiner’s involvement with Freemasonry (it was earlier that same year that Reuss and Steiner signed an accord), it seems highly likely that the tarot reference stems from the same sources.
More notes on the theme – 12th December 1906
One of the few people that completed his PhD on the works of Steiner lives not far away from me. Whilst he was still working on his dissertation, I asked if he would keep an eye out for any references he may come across that either mentioned or appeared to mention tarot. His knowledge of German, together with the access he had to unpublished documents, would, I had accurately hoped, unravel more reference than the single mentioned above in GA96.
It certainly seems that no Anthroposophist of the early 20th century paid much attention to tarot, for there appears little evidence of secondary material developing there and then (apart from the later Meditations on the Tarot). Perhaps it was picked up with greater zeal by members of the co-freemasonic order under his jurisdiction. Freemasonry, however, is similarly an area that appears to have had relatively little coverage outside of the series published as Temple Legend, Occult Brotherhoods, and Freemasonry and Ritual Work (Cf also my page ‘Steiner and Freemasonry’ on my Fourhares.com site).
Certainly a few days earlier than the GA96 quote mentioned, and during a lecture at an esoteric session, Steiner mentioned tarot. During those lectures, notes were not made. Afterwards, however, notes were made by various participants. These were made perhaps simply to jolt memory for what may have been considered significant, or simply for the sake of later recollection.
The entire session, given on the twelfth of December 1906, is summarised by one participant (and that record is the only one I am aware of) in just forty words, given below – and I must here again thank Adrian Anderson for both alerting me to the notes, and providing me with both a copy of the German as well as its translation:
The Book of Thoth of the Ægyptians consisted of 78 cards that contained the secrets of the cosmos. One knew this very well in the Egyptian Initiation. The cards used as playing cards derive from this origin. The designations King, Knight, Tower-guards, Commander are Occult names.
What is of significance is that if this summary is of the whole lecture or session, then, presumably, Steiner devoted at least a whole session to working with Tarot, and that to a highly select group. That the brief note seems somewhat garbled is more likely a reflection of the person recording the session. After all, if the whole session was on tarot, and the person making those notes was unfamiliar with the deck, it would be rather unusual for clear card designation to emerge. It may be, for example, that ‘King’ refers to the Emperor; ‘Knight’ to the Chariot; and ‘Commander’ to the Pope – who is ‘Master of the Arcana’ according to P. Christian.
Given this reference, it seems likely that Steiner was at that period working a little more intensively with tarot – and certainly more intensively than has been recorded: if he gave a whole esoteric session on the subject, even if in the context of the ritual Freemasonic Memphis-Misraïm work.
Freemasonry and Ritual Work
The last book mentioned in the previous section, Freemasonry and Ritual Work, contains again the two references already mentioned. As it is there quoted in mildly different form, for the sake of completion, I will present the entire brief section (p 375 – 376):
The Book of Thoth (Tarot)
(footnote: The way the cards were used is not recorded)
From an instruction lesson, Munich, Dec. 12 1906
The Egyptian Book of Thoth consisted of 78 card, which contained the world secrets, This was well known in the initiation rituals of Egypt. The names of the playing cards come from that – King, Knight, Keeper of the Tower, Commander-in-Chief are esoteric denotations
From a lecture, Berlin, Dec. 17, 1906
Those who were initiated in the Egyptian Mysteries were able to read
(the symbol for Tarot). They could also read the Book of Thoth, which comprised 78 cards, in which all world events were depicted from the beginning to end, from Alpha to Omega, which one could decipher if they were arranged in their proper order. The book contained pictures of life, leading to death and arising again to new life. Whoever could combine the correct numbers with the correct pictures could read what was written. And this number-knowledge, this picture-knowledge had been taught from earliest times. It also still had a great influence in the Middle Ages, as for instance on Raymond Lully, but nowadays not much of it remains.
It is at times the small differences in the notes that bring to light something or other that is omitted from another record to helps to shed light on sources and what may have been at play. Here, the mention of Raymond Llull is, to say the least, interesting, and adds another dimension to not only what Steiner was working with, but also the manner in which tarot may have been viewed. I’ll leave it at that for now, only to mention that Llull’s works on the ‘Ars Combinatoria’, implied in this reference, is instructive.
Steiner’s NoteBooks – December 1906 – ref. 222
Given the dates at which Steiner delivered the above two references, I took the opportunity when I was last in Dornach, Switzerland (the week after Easter, 2008), to check out Steiner’s personal NoteBooks from the period – and was both pleased to find a reference and at the same time disappointed that not more notes, however peripheral, were made. In fact, the whole entry is the following:
Perhaps we can note two small important details from this: the first is that Steiner spells ‘tarot’ in the French manner rather than in the German as was made by the stenographer of GA-96 above; the second is that the position of the Alpha (a) and Omega (w) is inversed in relation to their placement when it came time to positioning these on the Christmas Tree (shown earlier). That these, incidentally, were in his notebook in lower-case rather than capitals I personally consider without significance.
These details again point to Eliphas Levi as an influence, though it should be noted that Levi appears to only have used the capitals (though, again, I do not think this is of significance), and that Levi positions the Rho ‘P’ so that the ‘head’ is above the horizontal of the ‘T’, unlike Steiner. Perhaps the influence is therefore, again, indirect, via manuscript works derived from Reuss, Yarker, or even various people associated with the likes of E. Schure (whom he met in Paris), or Papus, whose Tarot of the Bohemians, which includes multicircular ‘keys’, is reminiscent of Llull’s work.
One avenue that may be worth pursuing are references — or rather imagery — that may have been used for tarot by Reuss or Yarker. That, of course, is work that has yet to be undertaken.