One of the classic works based on the Tarot, almost wholly unknown in the English language, is the series of books published by the French author Stanislas de Guaita (1861-1879). Of aristocratic origins and a poet by inclination, de Guaita became interested in occultism and related disciplines, to the point of constituting an extensive library of rare works and manuscripts on all manner of esoteric and mystical lore, and establishing the Ordre kabbalistique de la Rose-Croix [Kabbalistic Order of the Rose-Cross] in 1888 with Joséphin Peladan.
De Guaita’s background and his relations and disputes with the other luminaries of the Belle Époque are well documented and need not be mentioned here, suffice to say that his literary influence extended beyond the confines of the occultist circles. The interested reader will profitably consult the recently published Occult Paris: The Lost Magic of the Belle Époque by Tobias Churton for a fuller account of this picturesque scene and its colourful characters.
De Guaita’s published output consisted of three books of verse and three books of occultism, followed by a last volume, completed posthumously by his erstwhile secretary Oswald Wirth, and further embellished and published by the latter’s disciple Marius Lepage. This occultist corpus was formed of a diptych entitled: Essais de sciences maudites [Essays on the Accursed Sciences] I. Au seuil du Mystère [On the Threshold of the Mystery]; II. Le serpent de la Genèse [The Serpent of Genesis]; the latter itself formed of 3 books: Le Temple de Satan [The Temple of Satan], La Clef de la Magie Noire [The Key to Black Magic], and the third posthumous volume, Le Problème du Mal [The Problem of Evil]. The first three books of his occultist writings have been recently published in English as: At The Threshold of Mystery; The Serpent of Genesis: The Temple of Satan, and The Key to Black Magic, although we have not read them and thus cannot vouch for the translation.
De Guaita’s occultist works, in spite of their sulphurous titles, are neither apologetics for Satanism, much less are they grimoires of black magic. They are, in fact, a reasoned and rigorously organised exposition of de Guaita’s views on the development of religion, magic and mysticism through history (I), followed by a doctrinal interpretation of many of the issues mentioned, along with a dictionary of the various applications which they give rise to (II). The last two books deal with questions of occultist philosophy, epistemology and ontology, various contemporary developments in occultism, whether sectarian or pseudo-scientific, and finally, considerations on the question of evil.
We shall here concern ourselves with the volume entitled Le serpent de la Genèse, based on the structure of the Tarot trumps. Although the entire schematic outline of the work is based on the twenty-two major arcana of the Tarot, it is not in itself an examination of the Tarot as such, much less a treatise of cartomancy. Each chapter contains allusions to the card in question, but by and large these considerations may be taken as representing de Guaita’s own synthetic view of magic and mysticism more generally.
In this respect, the remarkable rigour of de Guaita’s exposé must be noted. Indeed, in a 1950 review of the posthumously published volume, René Guénon, who had in his youth been involved with some of the circles in question, writes:
Guaita, who was intellectually superior to most of the other representatives of the occultist school at the end of the last century, had nonetheless something of their way of thinking […] but in spite of these faults which make his work “dated” in a way, and which in all likelihood would have been corrected with age, everything he wrote bears testimony to a standard of quality which brooks no comparison with the other productions of the same school, such as the popularising works by Papus.
“and if Papus too often works hastily and carelessly, de Guaita is always mindful, almost to excess, of his careful, dignified, polished, and rather formal phrasing.”
Although de Guaita’s endeavours and works had a lasting influence on the occultist circles of the 19th and 20th centuries, his legacy as far as the Tarot is concerned has been largely refracted through the lens of his personal secretary, Oswald Wirth (1860-1942), whom de Guaita had commissioned to not only illustrate his books, but also to create a deck of the 22 trump cards of the Tarot deck according to his instructions. This deck, published in 1889 and entitled Les 22 Arcanes du Tarot Kabbalistique [The 22 Arcana of the Kabbalistic Tarot], would later be reworked by Wirth in 1926, and forms the indispensable complement to his own work, Le tarot des imagiers du Moyen-Âge [Eng. trans. The Tarot of the Magicians] (1927), later summarised as Introduction à l’étude du tarot [Introduction to the Study of the Tarot] in 1931. Both sets of decks are currently in print, as indeed are both books, courtesy of Aquilonia and Weiser Books. De Guaita was also the lynchpin in the transmission of the so-called tirage en croix, or ‘cross spread’ commonly used in Tarot readings in the Francophone world: having learned it from Péladan, he in turn taught Wirth, who then codified it further along Hegelian dialectic lines and published it in his work, thereby ensuring its diffusion and eventual popularity.
The following series of Tarot-oriented excerpts from de Guaita’s work will consist of one first excerpt, the dictionary entry dealing with the Tarot; his table of analogical correspondences; and a brief article on magical herbs. This excerpt appears on pages 378-380 of Le Serpent de la Genèse, book 1, Le Temple de Satan, Librairie du Merveilleux, 1891.
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The Tarot (or Book of Thoth)
Stanislas de Guaita
The Tarot (or Book of Thoth): Hieroglyphic monument of the ancient Sages, which would later become the pre-eminent instrument of divination; to finally degenerate into a mere game of cards. Court de Gébelin, in his great work (Le Monde Primitif, 1777, 9 vol. in-4), attributes the invention of the Tarot to the mages of Egypt. Others date it back to the earliest cycles of India, that early teacher of Mizraïm: a constant tradition among certain tribes of nomadic Bohemians, originating in the high plateaus of the Himalayas, and who transmitted the divinatory Art – from time immemorial and from father to son – inseparable from this prestigious instrument.
The Tarot is essentially composed of: twenty-two magical keys, figurative of the 22 Arcana of the absolute Doctrine; and of 4 x 14 cards, each marked with one of the tetragrammatic signs: of Staffs (י Iod, 🜍 male Principle, common Club); of Cups (ה He, ☿ Feminine Faculty, common Heart); of Swords (ו Vaf, ☤ lingamic union of the two virtues combined, common Spade); and finally, of Shekels or Coins (ה second He, ⧠ or 🜔 fruit of this union, common Diamond).
Each set of fourteen is constituted by the Pythagorean Denary (Θ or ϴ, or 10, ספרות Sephiroth of the Kabbalists), and a quaternary (1) of emblematic figures, representing the application of the great Name or יהוה Diagram to each of the denaries (the King is י 🜍 , the Queen is ה ☿, the Knight is ו ☤, the Valet is ה 🜔).
For further details, one will consult the very rich and comprehensive volume by Papus, The Tarot of the Bohemians. (2) Of all the occultists who have concerned themselves with the Book of Thoth, Papus was the first to have had the bravery and the talent to scientifically deduce the law which governs the procedure of the Tarot. No one has gone further down this fertile avenue.
Many editions of the Tarot are known; some are necessarily altered where the figures are concerned, to the point of being unrecognisable. Examples: the German and Chinese Tarots, and the supposedly corrected deck by Etteilla. A few others present very noticeable variants. The most recommendable editions, from the point of view of magical Synthesis, are the so-called Besançon and Marseilles decks, especially the latter. From there to say that they are satisfactory…
It was expedient to rebuild at the very least the authentic edifice of the 22 Keys. Mr Oswald Wirth has courageously taken on this arduous task: by substituting correct drawings for the amorphous jumble of the old Tarots, this young initiate has performed a most meritorious deed. (3) All the amateurs of Theosophy will by now know the Tarot of Paris, in which the symbolism of the 22 keys finds itself restituted to its original purity, thanks to the care of Mr Wirth.
In the hands of the Mage, the Tarot is a philosophical machine, revealer of the absolute Synthesis. In the hands of the Bohemians and the fortune-tellers, it is a mediator of divinatory lucidity: and, as though by some dark alchemy, the perverse knowing how to spoil the best of things – optimi corruptio pessima – the Tarot all too frequently degenerates with these modern sorcerers into a very lucrative instrument of blackmail and even of crime.
By the inversion of the four letters of the hierogrammatic word Taro, we obtain the sacred words: Ator, Rota, Tora.
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1. The Pythagorean Tetraktys.
2. The Tarot of the Bohemians.
3. See the 22 Keys of the Tarot by Wirth (Poirel ed., 1889).