Tarot as the Book of Thoth and Ancient Egyptian Religion
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Tarot as the Book of Thoth: The Power of Fascination with Ancient Egypt Back in the late 1700s, a Freemason by the name of Court de Gebelin was shown for the first time a tarot pack. He studied the cards and a revelation hit him: they were living remnants of ancient Egyptian religion. He was so convinced of his intuition that he wrote an entire treatise on the Tarot and its Egyptian origins (1). He did not offer much in terms of evidence to uphold his conviction, but we must keep in mind that he was writing at a time when the so-called ‘scientific method’ was not part of the humanistic tradition. A friend of his, the Count of Mellet, wrote a supporting essay that went even further by claiming that Tarot was the surviving “book of Thoth” that contained divine Egyptian revelations (2). Gebelin and Mellet’s work gave birth to an entire esoteric tradition that maintained the Egyptian origin of the play pack. Following this tradition, a French cartomancer named Eteilla became famous by expanding on the Egyptian Tarot, and later in the 19th century, the physician Papus affirmed that the Tarot was the “Bible of Bibles”, the book of Hermes Trismegistus, kept alive by the Gypsies (3). It was only at the beginning of the 20th century, in the authoritative work of A.E.Waite, Pictorial Key to the Tarot that he remonstrated those that believed that the pack could have possibly originated from Egypt (4). However, remnants of the old esoteric belief can still be found in Aleister Crowley’s Book of Thoth tarot pack and modern tarot creations like the Ancient Egyptian Tarot (5, 6). Waite’s deconstructionism was based on a rising modern concern with recorded history. In this sense, he was correct: apparently, the first tarot packs in a recognizable form rose in Italy in the 1400s, before spreading far and wide across Europe (7). In the 1600 and 1700s the tarot game was at its peak, being played in many intellectual salons throughout the continent (8). There is little evidence that any mystical or esoteric meaning was associated to the Tarot prior to Gebelin’s revelation: apparently it was only in the early 1700s that symbolism began to be associated with it (9). What is certain is that, after Gebelin and Mallet’s “manifestos”, Tarot became less and less of a game and more and more of an instrument of divination, meditation or esoteric philosophy, as it remains until today. You can hardly hear of anyone actually playing the Tarot, even though except for the 22 trumps, the others are very similar to the normal playing cards. Leaving prosaic history aside, why did the two Frenchmen choose Egypt as the origin of Tarot? Some people point out, rightfully I would say, that “Egyptian Tarot” was the offspring of an Egyptomania craze in the 1700s (10) which culminated with Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1799 and Champollion’s deciphering of the Rosetta Stone. Needless to say, Egyptomania is still with us today, witness Stargate, The Mummy trilogy, Indiana Jones or the Discovery Channel’s fascination with Tutankhamen. Perhaps Egyptomania makes me write this article today. However, the Egyptian roots of Tarot cannot simply be attributed to a 1700 folly. Gebelin himself was the heir of a long Western esoteric tradition that traced its legacy to Egypt, Thoth / Hermes Trismegistus and the Corpus Hermeticum. By placing Tarot into Egyptian tradition, Gebelin was only trying to contribute to the long and laborious work of restoration that Renaissance scholars committed themselves to. They firmly believed that sometime in the past all religion had been one and the same, and they were in search of this ancient theological truth. A key piece of the puzzle was
contained in Egyptian hieroglyphs, which were seen as hiding the most powerful mysteries of all, those that could not be betrayed in ordinary words. Thus, Tarot more likely belongs to the ‘Hieroglyphomania’ that characterized Renaissance scholars. Yet if some books were written to convey the hidden message of the hieroglyphs (see for instance Athanasius Kircher’s outstanding Hieroglyphica), it was more customary in the period to imitate the hieroglyphs by creating similar mysterious images (11). Thus, an entire art of emblems, painting, statues portraying enigmatic figures arose. Enigmatic images were particularly pervasive in alchemical literature and emblem books. It was in this hieroglyph-crazed environment that the Italian Tarot was either born or grew. Thus it is possible that, whether or not the original Tarot consciously hid esoteric meaning, its roots may have harkened back to a fascination for Egypt. It is furthermore possible that Court de Gebelin, glancing at the enigmatic Tarot images, may have made an intuitive connection between these and the ‘hieroglyphic’ emblems of the 1500s and 1600s centuries. Therefore, one may conclude that even though the Tarot may not come from Egypt in a historical sense, in the esoteric imagination, it did. The survival of the esoteric Tarot practice is in this sense a proof that recorded history is not as powerful as human imagination. References (1) Gébelin, Antoine Court de. (1781). Du Jeu des Tarots, Monde Primitif, Vol. 8, tom. 1, Paris. Online. Available at : http://www.innerlightsociety.org/gebelin.html . Accessed on 07 December 2008. (2) Mellet, Count de. (1781). Recherches sur les Tarots, et sur la Divination par les Cartes des Tarots, Monde Primitif, Vol. 8, tom. 1, Paris. Online. Available at : http://www.innerlightsociety.org/gebelin.html . Accessed on 07 December 2008. (3) Papus. (1892). Tarot of the Bohemians, trans. by E.P. Morton. Online. Available at : http://books.google.com/books?id=QCX_KoqrKh0C&printsec=frontcover&dq=tarot &lr=&as_brr=3#PPP3,M1. Accessed on 06 December 2008. (4) Waite, E.A. (1911). Pictorial Key to the Tarot. Online. Available at : http://www.sacred-texts.com/tarot/pkt/index.htm. Accessed on 04 December 2008 (5) Crowley, A. & Harris, F. Tarot of Thoth. Online. Available at : http://www.aeclectic.net/tarot/thoth/. Accessed on 06 December 2008. (6) Barrett, C. (1994). Ancient Egyptian Tarot. Online. Available at : http://www.aeclectic.net/tarot/cards/ancient-egyptian/ . Accessed on 07 December 2008. (7), (8), (9). Tarot History. (2008). Online. Available at : http://www.tarotpedia.com/wiki/Tarot_History. Accessed on 07 December 2008. (10) Karlin, J. (2002). How Tarot Became Egyptian. Online. Available at : http://jktarot.com/egyptomania.html. Accessed on 07 December 2008. (11) Klossowski de Rola, Stanislas. (1997).The Golden Game : Alchemical Drawings of the Seventeenth Century. Slovenia : Thames & Hudson.