Thursday, July 1, 2010

Tarot as the Greatest of the Old Grimoires

 (You can purchase this special blank book and others like it here.)

Here I am, standing before a solemn and somewhat nerdy crowd of practicing magicians, seeking to opine on the secrets and mysteries of the art of invocation and evocation. It’s a tough crowd to please, you can be sure of that. So many sophisticated and erudite thinkers, all with their own powerful opinions and over-sized egos. Of course, they are not alone in this affliction, for I am supposedly afflicted in a similar manner. I begin with the usual clearing of my throat that gets my listeners’ attention, then I proceed with my talk.

In our present time of the post-modern era, the fad of using and incorporating grimoires from the middle ages and the renaissance is supremely popular. It is probably one of the hottest topics around, and numerous newly translated versions of these manuscripts are being published at a rapid pace, revealing previously obscure and unknown arcane grimoires to the adoring eyes of occult afficionados. But this fad has overlooked probably one of the greatest grimoires of all time, a stupendous collection of occult lore and a powerful system of symbology all in one concise work, which I might add, is still very relevant today. What book is that, you ask? Is it some new version of the Greater Key of Solomon, the Lemegeton, the Grimoirum Verum, Agrippa’s Four Books of Occult Philosophy, or perhaps a book that no one has even heard of yet? No, it is the Tarot, also known as the Devil’s Picture Book!

At this point in the discussion I hear the sounds of gasps, startled disagreement, perhaps someone spewing out their coke, looks of disbelief, and outraged and mocking voices, seeming to say in unison - “How the hell can that be? The Tarot is a divination tool, not a grimoire! (You dolt!)” Yet I beg to differ and I have several occultists, including Lon Milo DuQuette and Aleister Crowley (the beast himself) at my back. After everything quiets down to some nearly inaudible grumbling, I continue with my discussion, although the pressure is on me to quickly prove my point - otherwise, I will be left to lecture to no one but myself. So I continue, and this is the basic point of my argument.

In fact, I truly believe that the Tarot is the greatest of all grimoires, since it contains a veritable arsenal of magickal knowledge, symbology, analogies, spiritual hierarchies and the mechanism of transformation itself. Like other grimoires, it doesn’t have everything that is needed to practice ritual or ceremonial magick, but it has all of the source material needed to formulate and build all of the other pieces. The Tarot is the source of all Western occultism as well as the master key of correspondences. I will cover what is lacking in it as well as what is greatly abundant.

If I may quote two of the notables in this field of magick and occultism, then perhaps I may be listened to more openly and attentively. There might also be less of a likelihood of someone throwing a spit ball or two at me while I am speaking.

First -

“The Tarot is, thus, intimately bound up with the purely magical Arts of Invocation and Evocation.” (Book of Thoth - Aleister Crowley, p. 84)

Then -

“The Hebrew Qabalah forms the foundation upon which the Western Hermetic arts (astrology, tarot, geomancy, and the various branches of ceremonial magick) are constructed. The tarot is a visual representation of qabalistic fundamentals and is the common denominator between the various Hermetic arts. One could even say the tarot is the DNA of the Qabbalah. Properly decoded it reveals not only the mysteries of the Qabalah, but also that of all other Qabalah-based systems.” (Tarot of Ceremonial Magick - Lon Milo DuQuette, p. xxiv)

So Aleister Crowley and Lon Milo DuQuette appear to perceive the Tarot as not only a contiguous source of the Qabbalah (as it is practiced and understood today by western occultists), but that it’s also a system of magick in and of itself. DuQuette even titled his book “Tarot of Ceremonial Magick” and there have been others who have linked the two subjects in a very intimate way. DuQuette wrote his book to show a very ceremonial magickal perspective on the Tarot, even putting together a hybrid of the two systems. However, I would go even further and state that they are already intimately related to each other, because the Tarot contains everything that a good source grimoire should contain.

That gets a few nods from some of the members of the group, but others are still waiting for the proof and are reserving their judgement. I may have pulled out a couple of good points, but there are some major flaws to my argument. Those will be brought up with a great deal of fervor, objection and derision unless I can do better than that.

What does a grimoire typically have within its covers? What would you expect to find if you went to all of the trouble and expense to buy one of the more rare, coveted and collectible grimoires that are being sold these days? Well, let’s make a list. In fact, let’s consider the ideal grimoire, the one that we would like to own but doesn’t exist in the real world.

An ideal grimoire would contain rituals and ceremonies, words of barbarous evocation (the infamous “verba ignota”), lists of tools, magick circle designs and various other sorcerous regalia. Lists of spirits and the sigils, characters and devices for conjuring them. A bunch of talismans and amulets for various uses, as well as special prayers and rites for performing the necessary preparatory period of atonement and purification. The book itself would be printed on nice heavy acid-free paper, housing all sorts of cool colorful illustrations, an archaic type face with lots of medieval looking graphics, and a heavy black, blood red leather or even a snake skin cover, with a metal frame and clasps. Maybe there would be the leering face of a demon embossed on the cover or some wicked looking arcane sigil, along with gold leaf sparingly applied to the title. A typical geek sorcerer would pay a week’s IT salary for such a book, maybe even more.

(Note to myself, in case I ever need a windfall of cash, maybe I could produce a really clever forgery of a supposed antique grimoire. It’s been done before! Naw, too much bother for now. But who knows about the future?)

Now that I have listed what an ideal grimoire would look like and might even contain, I can hear the sneering in the background increasing in volume, as some smart ass says “None of that stuff is found in any Tarot deck, so how can it be considered a grimoire?” 

I agree somewhat, the Tarot doesn’t contain any specific spells, incantations, talismans, sigils, characters, barbarous words of evocation or anything like that. However, it does contain other things that are just as important, such as all of the symbology and associated spiritual hierarchies of most systems of magick in the Western Tradition. It contains an active methodology for personal transformation, and it is warded by a powerful angelic or demigod guiding intelligence, who can be accessed to answer any question or pierce any mystery. The Tarot is a living system of magick and mysticism, so it could also function like any other magickal book or manuscript. It may not have everything that is needed to practice ritual or ceremonial magick, but then quite a number of grimoires appear to be incomplete as well, even though in the end, all of the omissions and blanks are assiduously filled in by the determined magician.     

So my point is that the Tarot is a grimoire, plain and simple.  Now lets get down to showing how that is truly a fact and not some hyperbole that I have pulled out of my ass to keep my listeners’ on their toes.

The origins of the Tarot date to the middle of the 14th century, and it has evolved, been mutated and changed over time into the form that we know and take for granted today. The 19th century was a very important time for strategic changes to be made in the Tarot, for that was when occultists (like Levi, Mathers and Papus) linked it forever with the Qabbalah. In the present time, there are a myriad of different Tarot decks in print, and each and everyone of them could represent a kind of magickal grimoire. Let me show you how that would work, but I will use the standard Tarot deck as derived from the Golden Dawn tradition of magick - a version that Crowley himself worked with and upon which he based his Tarot deck and famous work, the Thoth Tarot.

I have said that the Tarot is a magician’s arsenal, and this is what it contains, in pictural form with lots of symbols, images, analogues and designs giving it a power and animation that other occult manuscripts or books might lack.

1. The Four Aces represent the Divine Tetrad of the Four Elements, from these all manifestation proceeds. They can also be seen to represent the four cardinal directions that define the domain or world of the magician, functioning as Watchtowers in some systems of magick (such as my own). Associated with them are a plethora of symbolic attributes, probably representing the first key of correspondences that any budding occultist or magician first attempts to master.

2. The sixteen court cards or dignitaries, as they are sometimes called, because they depict a feudal power structure associated with the four elements, has an entire hierarchy of powers, spirits and domains of the inner planes associated with them. The court cards represent the forces that the magician will wield to acquire that which he or she wills to be in the material plane. Implicit in this system is the Lunation cycle, which consists of eight phases, and which directs the temporal waxing and waning of psychic forces, both collectively and individually. This is an entire system of magick all by itself. One could even tie in the sixteen Enochian Calls or Keys to add even more intensity to a magickal system devoted to the elementals.

3. The thirty-six naib cards of the lesser arcana are also analogous to the astrological decan faces (with their planetary rulers), and the qabbalistic sephiroth of Binah through Malkuth as projected through the four qabbalistic worlds of Atziluth, Briah, Yetzirah and Assiah. Associated with the thirty-six naib cards are various gateways into another matrix of the inner planes, and an entire set of hierarchies of demigods, angelic and demonic entities and another completely distinct system of magick are revealed.

The hierarchy of the decan face and of the naib card of the Tarot has been shown to contain the Egyptian demigod and great hermetic spirit, as well as the angelic ruler of the decanate. Also, the spirits of the ha-Shem who rule the enclosed quinarians of day and night, and their opposites, the goetic demons, by day and night. This host of spirits can be controlled and summoned through the power and rulership of the decan face, which also acts as a gateway to the lesser mysteries of the Tarot. Perhaps this is why I not only have a fondness for the symbolic images of the decan faces, but also for the symbolic analogies depicted in the Tarot designed by A. E. Waite and executed by Pamela Colman Smith, since they appear to show the themes of various lesser mysteries. Somehow either set of images represent for me powerful magickal images that resonate with a talismanic force.

The decan faces are linked to the sixteen elementals, since twelve of the elementals would correspond to the twelve signs of the Zodiac - so these two hierarchies would be interrelated. 

4. If the four Aces are added back to the thirty-six naib cards to produce an array of 40 cards in all, then a new structure is revealed, the forty Qualified Powers. I had introduced this matrix of magickal qualities in the book “Mastering the Art of Ritual Magick - Grimoire” where it was defined as an array consisting of the ten attributes of the Sephiroth projected through the four elements. These forty Qualified Powers represent a matrix of both magickal powers and spiritual intelligences, being therefore, a combination of qabbalistic qualities and the four powers of the elements. The ritual of the Pyramid of Power is described as the rite where this kind of power is generated, and I have found it to be highly adaptable and useful in many magickal applications.

5. Finally, the twenty-two trumps of the major arcana represent two concurrent cycles of transformation - the transcendental initiation of the individual spiritual seeker, and the transformation of the world and the universe at large - the cosmogonic cycle. Arrayed in the form of a greater and lesser cycle of initiation, with the cosmic cycle imbedded within the transformative cycle of initiation as the universal revelatory vision, the magician may use it to not only ascertain his or her own current spiritual disposition, but may deliberately cause this process to be made manifest by one’s will. Thus the twenty-two keys of the major arcana represent the magician’s mastery of personal transformation and spiritual evolution. There are few if any grimoires that can give the individual magician such a powerful tool to be used in whatever manner imagined - its use is nearly unlimited and its affects, most profound.

Over this great array of archetypal symbols, analogies, hierarchy of spirits and magickal powers, and domains of the inner spiritual planes is the presiding genius of the Tarot, called by members of the Golden Dawn and Aleister Crowley, Hru, the great angel set over the living and secret wisdom of the cards. This entity is a very powerful egregore and more, since it is also the guide, guardian and secret initiator of the Hermetic path of magick and mysticism. It is this great spirit that one is directed to seek out all knowledge that is yet unknown, obscure or omitted from that which one knows. Whatever is missing or omitted from the “great grimoire” of the Tarot will be discovered through meditation, divination and an active spiritual and magickal search. We can be certain that all questions will ultimately be answered, and all mysteries revealed through the power and majesty of this being. One need only consult with it in a regular, periodic and consistent fashion. Few grimoires can boast of an active spiritual guide and superior entity who will come to the aid of anyone who takes the book (as the Tarot cards) and simply summons its presence.

So, now we can see that everything that is essential and necessary to the profitable work of magick is to be found in the Tarot. If one were to be bereft of all books and tools, and even a place to work magick, having possession of a Tarot deck would suffice to mastering all of the rest of the occult arts.

To recap, the Tarot contains the following symbolic systems:

10 Sephiroth of the Qabbalah
22 Paths of the Qabbalah (also the Cycle of Transformation and Cosmic Cycle)
12 Signs of the Zodiac
7 Planets
4 Elements (4 qabbalistic worlds)
16 Elementals
36 Decan Faces (Ruler of Decanate, ha-Shem Angels, Goetic Demons)
40 Qualified Powers

All any magician needs to do beyond mastering the Tarot is to build up an array of sigils, talismans, characters, signs, symbols, incantations, and the requisite magickal tools, vestments and regalia. These are found nearly everywhere, but the key to it all is found in the Tarot.

The lecture is over, and no is either dismayed or outraged, instead, there are many thoughtful looks, furrowed brows and the nodding of heads. It appears that I have gained a brief respite from controversy. I know in my heart that it won’t last.

Frater Barrabbas


  1. I agree with you here regarding the Tarot as being part of an effective grimoire. I don't know about it being the "greatest" - that's hard to say - but with the popularity of Hermetic Qabalah it is quite widely used.

    The rest of this grimoire can be found in Crowley's Liber O and Liber 777. Liber O has the rituals and ceremonies, Liber 777 has the correspondences. The final piece is from Agrippa, the sigils of the various spirits and intelligences, but you can also use the cards of the Tarot themselves as the sigils.

    With all that you have a complete system of practical magick that has stood up to a lot of empirical testing over the course of my own practice.

  2. @Ananael - Thanks for the additional information. However, the comment "I don't know about it being the "greatest" - that's hard to say" is probably just a quibble. I am just making an emotional point, that's all.

  3. @Frater.Barrabas
    You are absolutely correct that the Tarot is not merely for divination. In the Rosicrucian Order of Alpha et Omega, Tarot divination is part or our beginners (First or Outer Order) curriculum. Advanced magicians in our Second Order, the R.R. et A.C., practice the unpublished, traditional Rosicrucian system of "The Magic of the Tarot."

    Unfortuantely, vows of secrecy prevent me from making substantial comment on this system in such a public arena. In fact, this is the first time outside of the AO that I have even admitted the existence of this system. I have hesitated, as to even mention this, will likely engender a whole new series of pulp magic imitations of this system. Since you have now pointed people in this direction anyway, there is no further point at this juncture in not at least admitting that the system does indeed already exist. Sadly, this admission will almost certainly produce yet another series of magically worthless Llewellyn knock offs!

    Let it suffice to say that "The Alpha et Omega, Magic of the Tarot" is one of the most powerful and effective systems of practical magic I have ever encountered. As practiced in the AO, however, Tarot magic runs in a quite a different direction than that which you have suggested in this blog.

  4. @Barrabbas - Of course it's a quibble, and I didn't mean it to detract from the main point of the article, which is a good one.

    It is a pet peeve of mine, though, when people say "best" or "greatest" when they mean "good," just like saying "all" when you mean "most." Emotional or not, it can be confusing.

    And here I thought you were the linguist... ;-)

  5. @Ananael - Care Frater - if you want to get someone's attention or advertise something you don't say that it's good, you say it's great and the best. It works for Madison Avenue, so why not for me. If course, it's all a bit of tongue and cheek, and there is humor in the article. So please be amused. It's not often that I wax humorously.

  6. @David - The more hints you reveal, the more intriguing it becomes for me. If this continues, I may be petitioning you to become a member of the Golden Dawn. Do you accept witches?

  7. “The Hebrew Qabalah forms the foundation upon which the Western Hermetic arts (astrology, tarot, geomancy, and the various branches of ceremonial magick) are constructed."
    Excuse me, but this is unhistorical nonsense. Astrology evolved centuries before qabalah (which on the contrary draws on it, not vice versa). Tarot has no historical debt to qabalah either, it was simply linked to it by C19th romantics, not that they didn't produce a workable system, but there was no prior link. Geomancy is manifestly based on astrology also, while ceremonial magic - whose debt to astrology is major and long standing - only became linked with Qabalah in 1495, having a substantial history prior to that in which qabalah played no role whatever.

  8. Somewhere it is recorded Eliphas Levi about the tarot being compendium of universal truths and that one could learn these truths with the Tarot alone.