No doubt simply due to that I recently had to summarise and review the first 460 pages of Meditations on the Tarot in completing the monthly studies that have taken us through the first sixteen trumps, I found myself reflecting on not only some fundamental principles taken for granted in the book, but also that here again what emerges is tarot’s deep Christian roots. It is undoubtedly in very large part this that makes the author of the work write in the foreword:
These Letters are written in French because in France – since the eighteenth century until the present time, i.e. the second half of the twentieth century there exists a literature on the Tarot, a phenomenon which is found nowhere else. On the other hand, there existed in France — and it still persists — a continuous tradition of Hermeticism, in which is united a spirit of free research with one of respect for the tradition. The purpose of these Letters therefore will be to “incarnate” into this tradition, i.e. to become an organic part of it, and in this way to contribute support to it.
Now I have to admit that at first sight it may appear that this contradicts what I have just written above. Yet it is this very ‘continuous tradition of Hermeticism’ that is the one that has fundamental Christian roots. This does not, of course, negate that ‘non-Christian’ elements also form part and parcel of the tradition: rather, what tends to occur is that, in a manner very much reminiscent as to what occurred with both Plato and Aristotle, they became neo-platonic and Christian and neo-aristotelean and Christian.
With tarot, in fact, it even forms an even more obvious and literal Christian connection: there appears no authors prior to the 20th century who are not themselves either Christian or propounding Christian esoteric understanding. It seems ironic that in France, in a country that since 1788 explicitly in many ways rejects Christianity, the latter’s values continue to play a central part in not only esoteric literature and occult work, but also underpins the various strivings of tarot authors from De Gebellin, through to Etteilla, Levi, Christian, Papus and a host of others.
Perhaps it should also be remembered that the so-called Magical tradition was itself well versed and well embedded in Judeo-Christian thought: ie, Christian philosophical concepts couched in what was often a poor basis of biblical Hebrew.
Perhaps it is in large part all this to which the author of Meditations on the Tarot was referring.
After all, he lived in London at the time of writing (in the mid-1960s), and had undoubtedly seen and judged as having a relative lack of depth and tradition the writings emerging from the various authors that were influenced or derived from the Golden Dawn. Certainly Mathers, Waite and Crowley had all contributed much in the way of concatenating various systems one over the other, yet in each case what seems to have been at play is something akin to very mechanical thinking. In contrast, the ‘tradition’ to which the author of that book referred was more akin to taking the essential characteristics of Christian hermeticism, seeing how this was reflected in earlier writings, and allowing for the same to similarly be (again) reflected in the images of the trumps.
There is also, of course, the depth of the images of the trumps themselves. Here what is called to mind is very much that aspect of Christian art, which, as Robin Jensen reminds us in Understanding Early Christian Art that
images depend particularly on memory and use a kind of of sign language to remind us of what we already know. They are not meant to be taken literally, but rather only serve as openings to a far more complex set of layered meanings and significations.
And without contradiction, is able to also point out that
what images mean is more analogous to translating than to decoding.
I am suggesting that what the author saw in the ‘continuous tradition’ that until more recently existed ‘nowhere else’ was in large part reflective of this.
Of tarot itself, of course, there is no doubt that many of its images formed part and parcel of the imagery found in popular Christian culture, including various Lumière cathedral carvings. That many also had precursors in pre-Christian times is also clear: to use a non-tarot example, there can be seen a transformation from Isis and Horus to Mary and Child (though even here, I am tempted to raise that this is further reflected in tarot as Empress and shield).
In returning to the author of Meditations on the Tarot, what he manages to continuously do is precisely what Robin Jensen mentions: he allows the images to be translated, rather than decoded, and lets these ‘serve as openings to a far more complex set of layered meanings and significations’, yet at each instance reminding us of the tradition of which he speaks: that of Christian Hermeticism.
Well known author and modern mystic and teacher Abbot Thomas Keating says that ‘this book, in my view, is the greatest contribution to date toward the rediscovery and renewal of the Christian contemplative tradition of the Fathers of the Church and the High Middle Ages’. Yet I would go further in the sense that the book, irrespective as to whether it contributes to such a rediscovery and renewal, also refocusses tarot towards its Christian imagery… not that I always agree with him, by the way: there are many instances in which some more recent historical discoveries were simply not at his disposal, and he thus uses the writings of earlier authors and exegetes the image in light of such – some examples of this includes claiming that a ‘dog’ is on the Wheel of Fortune; or too closely (to my mind) connecting the Tower with its Babel counterpart (and totally omitting its reference to pseudo-infancy gospels).
Still, what the book brings to mind is that sense of the vital importance of what I shall simply here refer to as the Western esoteric Christian tradition – that tradition out of which the depth of value of personal autonomy as understood in the west is rooted, and without which the arts, culture and wealth of the west seems diminished.
Perhaps I’ll here simply leave the last word to Antoine Faivre: ‘The most beautiful and instructive book of the twentieth century concerning Western esotericism’.