The classic Tarot that occultists know and use, and that the Golden Dawn lionized, has mythic elements in it that make it possible to compare it to other unrelated systems. If it were not for the mythic and archetypal flavor of the twenty-two Tarot trumps then occultists, like me, couldn’t compare it to the Qabalah or the literary Hero’s Journey. In fact, if we examine the Tarot at the time of its genesis in the very early renaissance period of Italy, there appears to be very little of the iconic Tarot trumps operating in those versions. A case in point is to examine the Visconti-Sfortza Tarot deck, which seems to lack some of the dark themes and striking mythic and archetypal elements that make the modern Tarot so compelling.
As I examined the earliest versions of the Tarot that reside in various collections but have been displayed in books and even card sets, it seems to me that the Tarot was made more for entertainment than for any kind of divination. Indeed, historical references to the Tarot being used as a system of divination doesn’t appear until the late 18th century, where it quickly became an important tool within French occult social circles. Later on it was promoted by occultists such as Eliphas Levi and Papus, and because of their writings it was realized and incorporated into the Golden Dawn corpus. Prior to that time, it would seem that the Tarot, along with the older Naibs (numbered cards) and Court cards of the 52/56 card deck, was reserved for gambling and gaming.
So, one might ask, when did the Tarot trumps acquire their more esoteric and iconic nature? Was it something that happened in the mid 19th century? Was the Tarot mutated to fit the ideals of French occultists or did it naturally and gradually occur with a Tarot version already well established? This is an important question, since if the emergence of the occult Tarot was fostered by a later version, then one could easily state that the Qabalistic associations and other comparisons were intended all along when the occult Tarot was formulated. It would be an unremarkable situation where the tail wagged the dog instead of the other way around. I felt compelled to know this answer, and even though I was well steeped in the history of the Tarot, I believed that I should probably carefully examine the historical record to verify that the occult Tarot was either a late invention or an amazing discovery. I later found out that the answer was far more complicated than I had at first thought.
What I found in my search is that the occult Tarot had actually existed for quite some time, and in fact, it became the model for the modern Tarot promoted and embellished by the Golden Dawn. That powerful prototype had all of the essential elements needed to formulate a Qabalistic comparison as well as an association with the literary Hero’s Cycle. The mystery Tarot deck, known as the Marseilles Tarot, was one that I had known about since I was a teenager, but I had avoided using or even scrutinizing it because it was crude, plain and inelegant when compared to the wide array of modern Tarot decks then available. I suspect that many have dismissed this Tarot deck because of its lack of aesthetics, but the Marseilles Tarot has a long history and in fact, it was the lone Tarot design that kept Europe interested in it long after the other Italian prototypes had passed into disuse. Allow me to explain.
The actual history of the Marseilles Tarot is, for the most part, unknown. Some have speculated that the game of tarocchi found its way into France from northern Italy after French troops (under Louis XI) had successfully invaded and taken over the duchy of Milan and the town of Piedmont in 1499. The prototype for the French version of the Tarot deck would have likely been found in the design and execution of the Visconti-Sforza deck (painted by Bonifacio Bembo), which had been commissioned some 40 years before the French ousted the Sforza family from it’s dukedom in Milan. There is a miniature version of the Visconti-Sforza deck (found today in the Bibliotheque Nationale) that was reputed to be in the possession of either Charles VI of France (1363 - 1422) or one of his heirs, and supposedly attributed to Gringonneur, an artist in that court, but it is actually Italian in origin and execution, and likely not older than the Visconti-Sforza prototype.
However, the Marseilles deck was quite different in tone and in the presentation of its themes. It was also more complete, since it included the more problematic trump cards of the Tower (House of God) and the Devil. While some might argue that the original Italian decks would have had these cards included, there is no actual proof that they actually existed; no decks have been found with these cards depicted. Also, other trumps reveal controversial elements, such as the Popess (legendary Pope Joan) and the unnumbered and unnamed Death or Grim Reaper card. Still, enough of the iconography existed in the original 15th century Italian version to build a more dark, dramatic and mythical collection of Tarot trumps.
Yet it wasn’t until much later in the 16th century that the first known version of the Marseilles Tarot was mass produced. It was printed in 1557 by Catelin Geofroy in Lyon, but it was likely that the model for that printing had already existed in France for some time, although no hand painted version of this deck has ever been found. We can only speculate that some brilliant individual, or perhaps a group of individuals, produced the design that appeared in the printed edition. I believe that the design of the Marseilles Tarot was the work of a single genius who incorporated features and ideas from many obscure and now unknown sources. Perhaps there were some influences from the middle east as well as heretical insights that helped to forge the design of these cards. Even so, the Tarot in France was nearly nonexistent until it was mass produced on card stock. The Marseilles Tarot deck has a very dim and mysterious origin that defies attempts to unlock its secrets even in the present time, but its impact has been universally noted by scholars and occultists.
During its long history, this version of the tarot wasn’t even called the Marseilles Tarot, and once it appeared in Lyon, it was produced elsewhere as well. (In the late 19th century, this Tarot deck was mass produced in Marseilles, which had become a center for such manufacturing, so it was then called the Marseilles Tarot.) Even so, this printing had the important effect of making the game of tarocchi popular again and spreading it throughout Europe. While historical documents indicated that card decks were used for gaming by both the aristocracy and the emerging middle class, there was no historical proof that anyone was using these decks of cards for any other purpose, such as divination or occult speculation. However, just because there isn’t any historical documentation doesn’t mean that playing cards weren’t used for divination until the late 18th century.
Since dice and coins, as well as other common things could and likely were used for divination purposes, it was also likely that playing cards were also so used, although in an informal manner. The mythic quality of the Tarot cards and the ability to produce a random drawing of a card would have been too compelling to pass up a chance to entertain or even inform the average intelligent person who owned or had access to a deck. What I believe is that people who had access to cards used them for a number of informal purposes, such as drawing lots, determining individual luck, and perhaps even testing one’s intuitive abilities. Even so, it wasn’t until nearly the end of the 18th century that the Tarot began to be formally perceived as something far beyond a game of chance, fortune or entertainment. That change of perspective had likely been building for many decades, and it might have even had an informal underground consisting of various individuals who saw in the mythic themes and curious icons of the Tarot an esoteric system. France was where the Marseilles Tarot had its origin, so it naturally became the place where the occult Tarot was formally introduced, scrutinized and became a part of modern European occultism.
The first person to write about using Tarot cards for divinatory purposes and to propose occult correspondences for them was the self-styled savant, Etteilla (Jean Baptiste Alliette, 1738 - 1791), who popularized Tarot divination and even produced his own variant of the Tarot. Etteilla was quickly followed by Court de Gebelin (Antoine Court, 1719 - 1784), whose massive book “Le Mond primitif” proposed that the Tarot was actually an elaborate occult system of teachings whose roots went all the way back to ancient Egypt. He was the one who gave the Tarot the sensational name of the “Book of Thoth.” He also developed an elaborate symbolic system for deciphering the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, although this theory was proved to be mere fantasy a few decades later when Champion successfully deciphered and demonstrated that the hieroglyphs were not symbolic amalgams but an actual writing system. Still, Court de Gebelin had a powerful influence on French occultism and the popular belief in the antiquity of the Tarot, which fueled the imaginations of later occultists, such as Eliphas Levi and Papus, both of whom believed that the Tarot was a strategic addition to Qabalistic lore.
The writings of both Eliphas Levi and Papus (Gerard Encausse) caught the imagination of S. L. MacGregor Mathers and other founding members of the Golden Dawn, and they also incorporated the Tarot into the Qabalah and made it an important part of their occult lore. Cartomancy as a form of divination as well as attributing the Tarot trumps to symbolic and archetypal images of the twenty-two paths of the Tree of Life was brought into the mainstream of occult practices and beliefs by the Golden Dawn. Several members of that body went on to produce their own versions of the Tarot, which ultimately spawned the myriad of other Tarot variations and designs that exist today.
Perhaps the most compelling version of the Tarot that I encountered as a young witch, ritual magician and occultist was when the deck designed by Aleister Crowley and executed by Lady Frieda Harris was first mass-published by Llewellyn in the 1970's. I still have a copy of that original Tarot deck and it had a powerful influence on me. It was from Crowley’s Thoth Tarot deck that I got my inspiration for linking the literary Hero’s Journey to the Tarot after reading and studying Joseph Campbell’s book “Hero with a Thousand Faces.” I noticed that the stages of the Hero’s Journey, including the Cosmogonic cycle, added up to the iconic number 22. This was the same number as the Trumps of the Tarot, and thinking that this couldn’t possibly be a coincidence, I sought to make a careful examination of each stage in the Hero’s cycle and try to find a Tarot trump card that matched it. This, I found, was an easy task, but it had more to do with the nature of the Thoth Tarot deck than with the Tarot as a whole.
In my current inventory of Tarot decks I have the Marseilles Tarot, the Renaissance Tarot (which compares favorably to the early Italian decks), the Waite-Rider-Coleman Smith Tarot, and the Thoth Tarot, plus many others. I decided to test my hypothesis about the mythic and iconic nature of the Tarot, from the Renaissance to the modern era, and witness the change and transformation that the Tarot had undergone. I split out the trumps from each deck and sorted them into the order associated with the Hero’s journey. I then laid down each card in that pattern from each of these decks, with the cards from different decks arrayed below each other so I could look down at a specific stage and see all of the different cards and how they matched up to that stage in the Hero’s journey. It was an interesting moment when all of these decks were so arrayed, and I could easily see the changes that had occurred over time. What was most striking to me was that there was an easily identifiable continuity between the Marseilles deck and the more modern decks. However, the modern decks seemed to incorporate more mythic and occult elements, and the Thoth tarot deck was the most mythic and iconic of them all. (So there was, indeed, a process of change that had occurred, but it wasn’t a complete re-invention.)
For my test I particularly focused on two points in the Hero’s Journey, which were the two thresholds of the underworld. There was the entrance and the exit, and I also decided to include the hero’s encounter with the guardian of the threshold. I felt that these important iconic stages should be represented by the symbology of the associated trump cards. In the beginning of his journey, the hero encounters the guardian of the threshold and must undergo the first of many ordeals in order to proceed beyond the warded gateway into the underworld. In some cases the guardian is shown to be frightening and awe inspiring, but within an occult attribution, that terrible guardian becomes transformed into something more of a stern teacher and judge. The tarot trump that I associated with this stage is the Hermit. Once past the guardian, the hero enters into the underworld, symbolized by the belly of whale, the cave of mysteries, or other such places. I chose the trump the Tower for this stage, and it is also curiously known as the House of God. The exit gateway, which could be considered the same doorway as the entrance but with a different perspective, is known in the Hero’s Journey as the Rescue from Without, representing the fact that to leave the underworld with the prize of the boon (as the sacred knowledge) required an extraordinary effort, often aided by outside influences. I attributed the trump of the Moon to this stage.
So, we have the Hermit and the Tower on one end of the cycle of the hero, and the Moon on the other. Do the characteristics of these three trumps align with the associated stages of the Hero’s Journey? If we confine our examination to just the Renaissance Tarot, the answer would probably be in the negative. The Moon has romantic associations and the Tower is something more like the moral implications of the biblical Tower of Babel. The Hermit is just a representation of the natural Christian order to be found outside of the Church. However, broadening my examination by including the Marseilles deck and then extending that to the Waite and Crowley decks, I could see that the mythic qualities of the Hero’s Journey appeared to focus into brilliant clarity. It is perhaps less clear with the Marseilles deck, but even so, the Moon trump has the frightening and malefic content associated with the underworld gateway and the progress that the hero must make to escape it. The Hermit is shrouded in darkness and holds aloft a lantern, and the Tower is destroyed by thunderbolts, flinging its inhabitants from off its ramparts. When we look at Crowley’s depictions of these trumps, it becomes even more clear that there is a match between these points in the Hero’s Journey and the archetypes of the associated tarot trump cards.
It’s pretty obvious to me that the Marseilles Tarot was the source and the model for the modern decks, but the Thoth Tarot deck had pushed the envelope and entered into a world fully inhabited by myth and allegory. It would seem that Aleister Crowley had a deep understanding of world mythology and an intuitive sense of the mythic progression of the iconic and heroic individual. What he imbedded into his tarot design was later assembled and written into Joseph Campbell’s master work, “Hero with a Thousand Faces,” and it seems clear to me that they both drew from the same sources but used that knowledge for altogether different reasons. Crowley produced his greatest work, the book and the tarot deck that he named the “Book of Thoth,” a few years before his death. In his book he factually states that the Tarot trumps, although attributed by the Qabalah, astrology and to a lesser extent, alchemy, also had numerous layers of myths and legends pervading them.
“Such truth accordingly appears to the vulgar as fable, parable, legend, even creed. In the case of this comprehensive symbol of The Fool, there are, within actual knowledge, several quite distinct traditions, very clear; and historically, very important. These must be considered separately in order to understand the single doctrine from which all sprang.” - Aleister Crowley, "Book of Thoth", p. 56
Compare Crowley’s statement to what Joseph Campbell wrote a few years later:
“Throughout the inhabited world in all times and under every circumstance, the myths of man have flourished; and they have been the living inspiration of whatever else may have appeared out of activities of the human body and mind. It would not be too much to say that myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation.” Joseph Campbell, "Hero with a Thousand Faces", p.8
While they are talking about the same thing from two different perspectives, where Crowley devalues myth as a vulgarized greater occult truth and Campbell sees the continuity of myth as an indicator of its universal truth, both sought to engage world mythology to complete the understanding of their respective topics. Yet it would seem that the underlying doctrine that Crowley discusses is actually a sign-post or indicator of something deeper and more profoundly universal. The underlying great truth is actually the universality of myth and its power within the mind of humanity; from the very dawn of consciousness to our modern times. So it would seem that as the Tarot trumps are invested with more mythological images and themes, the greater their overall power will be on the human mind.
And what is the overall pattern that these mythological images and themes appear to express within the Tarot? It is the pattern of the lesser and greater cycles of consciousness. The lesser cycle is the transformation of the individual human into that of a god or hero, and the greater cycle is the creation and destruction of the domain or world of consciousness itself. These cycles have their origin in the circadian rhythm of wakefulness and sleeping/dreaming that have been the foundation of life on this planet, along with its diurnal cycle of light and darkness, day and night, the phases of the moon and the seasons of the sun. This cycle has been imprinted into our genetic structure since the beginning of complex life on this planet, and it also acts as the basic pattern of consciousness, myth and meaning for all human life. Is it then such a wonder if the basic overall pattern of the archetypal Tarot trumps also assumes this lesser and greater cycle?
These two cycles are not actually to be found in the ascending and descending pathways of the Twenty-two Paths of the Tree of Life, since the pathways represent a kind of one-way deliberative path, either up or down. The Hero’s Cycle and the Cosmogonic Cycle represent processes that return onto themselves; where the ending blends into the beginning, being therefore a circular cycle, or even a spiral. Traveling this cycle to its end is never the penultimate achievement, it is merely the entrance into yet another state or beginning, whether higher or lower is dependent on the nature of regression or progression. Even the creation and destruction of the universal world of consciousness is nothing more than part of a never ending cycle of creation, destruction, and creation again.
The ancients understood this type of cyclic repetition and saw it everywhere, despite the fact that modern history and science perceives an opposite linear progression, which oddly can also be found in the Qabalistic pathways. Both perspectives represent the greater truth; but regarding the cycles of growth, ascendency, decline and death, or sleep and wakefulness, or the passage of the lunar and solar cycles, there is a poignant truth to the archetypal cycle of the hero. That truth is in the nature of individual transformation and the transformation of the world of consciousness. It is the veritable iconic cycle of initiation, and it represents the archetypal patterns whereby consciousness is expanded and individuals realize their own godhead.
Therefore, locked within the tarot trumps are the archetypes and symbology of the cycle of initiation. To unlock these symbolic themes, one must first array the trumps in the proper order contained within the Hero’s Journey (17 stages) and the Cosmogonic cycle (5 stages). To employ these symbolic themes, one must write them into a powerful ritual of initiation that would also include the vision of the greater cycle of conscious evolution. A ritual magician who has such a ritualized tool in his or her possession is the true master of ascension and archetypal progression. This tool can be utilized with all twenty-two stages or by just using the descending or Western gateway and ascending or Eastern gateway ritual structures. Even so, it adds a powerful environment to any kind of working, particularly one where the magician seeks to enter into the underworld of the domain of the unconscious and therein gain access to the spirits that haunt that place.
To merge the mythic archetypes of the Hero’s Journey with the trumps of the Tarot gives the practicing ritual magician an indispensable tool. Whether or not there is any historical or traditional precedence for this joining does not in any way either deflect or negate the power of this association. In the same manner that the Tarot trumps were attributed to the Twenty-two Paths of the Tree of Life in the 19th century without any prior precedence or traditional doctrine, I have made the correspondence of the Tarot trumps to the Hero’s Journey. I have found that association to be so useful and meaningful that I could easily imagine that it was a natural fit, if I didn’t know as much as I do about the history of the Tarot.
What this means is that there is more to the traditions of occultism and ritual magick than merely accepting and using what is already available, whether by published material or initiatory doctrine. I believe that it is just as important, perhaps even more important, to experiment and create new associations and systems through insights and inspiration as it is to preserve and protect existing occult traditions. Nothing has remained the same throughout the long centuries, so there is no precedent against creating new ways and new traditions. All new ideas are subject to the opinions and judgment of one’s peers, and in this way are traditions expanded and evolved, or bad ideas summarily rejected.