In another article, we have already begun to note the shift from the invented history or myth of the occult Tarot to a more nuanced approach, one based on a proper historical grounding, but which does not eschew forasmuch the idea that a greater symbolic significance may be found within the Tarot sequence or structure. The present article adopts a similar position, and one which contemporary readers ought to find thought-provoking, if not operative.
The author, Paul Naudon (1915-2001) was a prominent French Freemason and author of a number of works on the subject, dealing mostly with its history and origins, as well as with some of its ritual aspects. One of his works was translated into English as The Secret History of Freemasonry, Inner Traditions, 2005. Additionally, Naudon was also a specialist of Rabelais, and devoted two works to exploring the connections between Rabelais, Freemasonry, and other “occult sciences” in general. The following sub-chapter is taken from one of these latter works, La tradition et la connaissance primordiale dans la spiritualité de l’Occident; les silènes de Rabelais, Dervy, 1973, pp. 77-80.
One will note the references to contemporaneous works on policing, references which betray Naudon’s legal background, and which have proven to be a rich seam of inquiry as far as the serious historical research on the development of the Tarot and playing cards in general is concerned. Indeed, mining the legal and juridical literature is revelatory of the changing status of both games of chance and divinatory processes throughout European society, and provides a wealth of information on the Tarot and early cartomancy.
For Naudon, Rabelais and men of the Middle-Ages “did not only think in words, but often in symbols. The symbol does not adopt a significance; it provokes an illumination. It is addressed at the same time to the two poles of thought: intuition and reason. The method it sets in motion, the way of which it is both language and key, are neither didactic nor dogmatic, but esoteric, anagogic, and initiatory. The disciples of this path, the traditionalists, affirm no less that it is the pre-eminent instrument of metaphysical reflection, and the best means of grasping the Principial Truth.” (pp. 15-16)
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At the risk of mixing up the chronology, it seems logic and necessary to open a parenthesis on a symbolic form, to which the modern “occultists” attach the greatest importance, and acknowledge as having an antiquity at least as distant as that of alchemy or the Kabbalah. It is the Tarot.
We know that the Tarot is not only a game of cards, but that in the current “mantic arts” it is accepted that the traditional figures of which it is composed, the symbols which it bears and the combinatorics to which it may be lent, confer on it an exceptional value.
From the historical point of view, playing cards did not exist in Europe prior to the middle of the 14th century. It is supposed nonetheless that they may have a more ancient oriental origin. As to the Tarot, its appearance is more recent. Its legendary arrival by way of the Gypsies is very problematic, and we do not find its first definite traces before the end of the 15th century, under a more simple form than that which is commonly known today. (1)
At that time, it was a game and it does not seem to have been used for conjectural purposes. Everything seems to prove that this use is relatively recent. In effect, there are never any allusions in the ancient texts treating of the various modes of divination, no more than there is of cartomancy.
Rabelais, when he lists the multiple games of Gargantua, does indeed count the cards among those games (Gargantua, chap. 23). But in the Third Book (chap. 25), he makes an ample review of all the modes of divination, and cartomancy is not mentioned. At the same period, Josse de Damhoudère, in his Practique Judiciare ès causes criminelles, carefully notes the various forms of the crime of divination, severely punished as “offences against the Divine Majesty and Sovereign.” He too is silent on cartomancy. Better yet, two centuries later, Delamarre, in his Traité de la Police (1722), in which he treats at length of the divinatory arts in the same spirit of repression in order to provide the judges and judicial officials with documentation, observes the same silence. (2)
It is usual, to give the Tarot the highest antiquity, to acknowledge an oriental, and more precisely Hebraic, origin. In support of this, the analogy of the 22 major Arcana with the 22 Hebrew letters is invoked. In fact, this thesis must be rejected. As G. Van Rijnberk has noted, the majority of the figures of the major Arcana, which are the keys of the Tarot, cannot be oriental. Pope, Popess, the Hermit, Cupid loosing his arrows on the Lover, the Wheel of Fortune, Justice, Force, Temperance, Resurrection, “all these images are based on concepts belonging to the West. … They belong, from the iconographic point of view to a purely Western ideography.” (3) On the other hand, from the complex and difficult to read form of the Tarot, this author makes the argument that it represents the most ancient type of playing card, the simple and more convenient cards appearing to him as being more evolved and more recent. The contrary seems to be infinitely more probable to us, the idea being, on the one hand, to increase the interest of the game of cards by increasing its difficulty, and, on the other, to introduce into the game, very simply and very naturally sometimes put to conjectural uses (e.g. the game of patience), elements of a symbolic order enabling the creation of more learned combinations, and of a greater apparent value.
In sum, we think, contrary to most “specialists,” who were guided especially by their feelings or who only repeated their predecessors, that the Tarot is a relatively recent Western composition, formed by the use and combination of traditional symbols, whose formulation is clearly influenced by the Kabbalah. These historic remarks in no way detract from its esoteric value. To a greater degree than the form, and its conjectural, combinatoric use, of no great antiquity, it is the traditional, and in consequence, immemorial, elements and symbols of which the Tarot is a remarkable synthesis that makes it of considerable interest.
As to the signification and the scope of this value, we cannot do better than to quote the opinion of an insightful “occultist” of our time. “Tarology, writes Valentin Bresle, (and not taromancy), is an art and a science to translate thought into ideograms, into hieroglyphs, into letters, into numbers, and into geometric figures, and to draw from these symbols indications on the moral, mental, psychic, cordial and physical state of the being whom we traditionally name the consultant.” (4)
- On the tarot, there is an abundant literature of very unequal value. Let us cite only those works which serve to objectively understand its various aspects. G. Van Rijnberk, Le Tarot, histoire, iconographie, ésotérisme, (important sections on iconography and especially the bibliography); Dr Marc Haven (Dr Lalande); Le Tarot, l’alphabet hébraïque et les nombres (symbolic study chiefly based on the Kabbalah); Valentin Bresle, Le Tarot révélé dans son intégralité théorique et pratique, (study of the logic and “combinatoric” of the Tarot as an instrument of access to Knowledge); Paul Marteau, Le Tarot de Marseille, (remarkable overall exposé, minute description of the 78 cards and of their signification, and practical methods of reading the cards).
- Josse de Damhoudère, Practique Judiciare ès causes criminelles, French edition of 1573, and Delamare, Traité de la Police, tome I, pp. 552-564.
- Van Rijnberk, op. cit., pp. 46-47.
- V. Bresle, op. cit., p. 29.