Many of you will be familiar with the tarot teachings of Paul Foster Case and the Builders of the Adytum (BOTA). Case took the idea of the adytum from a word long associated with the Mysteries. His idea was to build the adytum by meditating on the tarot Arcana. Adytum means inner shrine or holy-of-holies, from aduein meaning “not to be entered.” The adytum is said to contain the arcana, from the root arcus, “chest or box,” and arcere, “to ward off; shut up, keep,” from whence we get such concepts as the Ark of the Convenant, as a container of the secret knowledge between God and humanity that also wards off the profane. But what do these two terms, arcana and adytum, really mean and how do they relate to the tarot?
The phrase Arcana in the Adytum, first mentioned by Iamblichus, signifies the container of mysteries in the innermost sanctuary of a temple. Mystically speaking, this sanctuary must be built in the heart where the mysteries are directly experienced out of view of the profane. [This photograph is of the altar in the sanctum sanctorum at Karnak, which only the pharaoh was allowed to enter. The picture after it is of the spirit ascending into the starry sky in that sanctuary.]
Helena Blavatsky described the innermost shrine as:
“The Sanctum Sanctorum of the Ancients, i.e., that recess on the Western side of the Temple which was enclosed on three sides by blank walls and had its only aperture or door hung over with a curtain—also called the Adytum—was common to all ancient nations. . . . They regarded it—in its esoteric meaning—as the symbol of resurrection, cosmic, solar (or diurnal), and human. In Theosophy, therefore, the Holy of Holies represents the womb of nature, the female generative principle found in the mystery religions of Egypt, Babylon, India, Kabbalism, Masonry, etc. . . . The esoteric meaning of this arrangement typified cosmic, planetary and human resurrection or regeneration” (Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine, Vol. II).
The word arcana goes back at least to the Neoplatonist, Iamblichus (165-180 CE). Thomas Taylor, in translating Iamblichus’ On the Mysteries explains:
“For the highest order of intelligibles is denominated by Orpheus the adytum, as we are informed by Proclus in Timaeus. By the arcanum in the adytum, therefore, is meant the deity who subsists at the extremity of the intelligible order [i.e. Phanes]; and of whom it is said in the Chaldean Oracles, ‘that he remains in the paternal profundity, and in the adytum, near to the god-nourished silence.’ . . . And all things remain perfect and entire, because the arcana in the adytum are never disclosed. Hence, in those particulars in which the whole of things possesses its safety, I mean in arcana being always preserved occult, and in the ineffable essence of the Gods, never receiving a contrary condition; in these, terrestrial daemons cannot endure.”
The Abbot Trithemius (1462-1516) defined arcana as “a synthesis of Hermetic alchemical doctrine, Pythagorean numerology, astrological correspondences, and Cabalistic word magic” (Trithemius and Magical Theology by Noel L. Brann). It was Trithemius’ cryptogram that was employed in the “cipher manuscripts” upon which the Golden Dawn rituals and tarot correspondences were based.
Paracelsus (1493-1591) uses the word in his philosophy of alchemical medicine. He tells us that in contrast with our bodily being, arcana are immortal and eternal, “they have the power of transmuting, altering and restoring us, and are to be compared to the secrets of God, being vital in human health” (Paracelsus, Archidoxies, Bk V, trans. A.E. Waite).
It was in the adytum that the Ark of the Covenant was kept. The arcana (plural form of arcanum) contain and preserve the hidden wisdom, the esoteric, versus exoteric knowledge. This distinction is made explicit by Eckartshausen, a favorite author of A.E. Waite, in speaking of the different roles of priest and prophet, where the prophet, not the priest, held the inner truth of the arcanum in the adytum:
“The wisdom of the ancient temple alliance was preserved by priests and by prophets. To the priests was confided the external,—the letter of the symbol, hieroglyphics. The prophets had the charge of the inner truth, and their occupation was to continually recall the priest to the spirit in the letter, when inclined to lose it. The science of the priests was that of the knowledge of exterior symbol. That of the prophets was experimental possession of the truth of the symbols. In the interior the spirit lived. There was, therefore, in the ancient alliance a school of prophets and of priests, the one occupying itself with the spirit in the emblem, the other with the emblem itself. The priests had the external possession of the Ark, of the shewbread, of the candlesticks, of the manna, of Aaron’s rod, and the prophets were in interior possession of the inner spiritual truth which was represented exteriorly by the symbols just mentioned” (The Cloud upon the Sanctuary (c. 1790) by Karl von Eckartshausen (translated by Madame Isabel de Steiger)).
The Golden Dawn named their tarot rites of the 12 Zodiacal and 7 Planetary Major Arcana after the items mentioned in the quote above: “The Table of the Shewbread” and the “Ritual of the Seven-Branched Candlestick,” respectively, making clear that for them the Ark was the Arcana.
In 1782 Count Cagliostro gathered his research in secret societies into a body of knowledge known as the Arcana Arcanorum, or A. A., consisting of a series of magical practices that stressed “internal alchemy.”
Although he doesn’t mention arcana, Etteilla tells us of the mystical arrangement of these cards in the Temple of Ptah at Memphis, “Upon a table or altar, at the height of the breast of of the Egyptian Magus, were on one side a book or assemblage of cards or plates of gold.” [The photograph to the right is of an image at the entrance to Ptah’s temple at Thebes showing Pharaoh making his offerings with Shekmet, wife of Ptah, giving him strength and direction.]
In 1863 Paul Christian (pseudonym of J-P. Pitois) wrote a novel called L’homme rouge des Tuileries, which tells of an encounter between Napoleon and a Benedictine monk who possesses an occult manuscript. This manuscript described seventy-eight symbolic houses or pictorial keys, referred to as Arcana. Virtually the same Egyptianized descriptions of the Arcana appeared in Christian’s 1870 Histoire de la magie, where they were finally acknowledged as the tarot.
Ely Star’s 1888 work, Mystéres de l’Horoscope contains a chapter on the tarot based almost entirely on Paul Christian. He was first to use the terms Major Arcana and Minor Arcana, and the following year they also appeared in Papus’ book Tarot of the Bohemians, suggesting that these terms were already in general use.
Blavatsky believed the Arcana were key to the science of the soul.
“There is a regular science of the soul. . . . This science, by penetrating the arcana of nature far deeper than our modern philosophy ever dreamed possible, teaches us how to force the invisible to become visible; the existence of elementary spirits; the nature and magical properties of the astral light; the power of living men to bring themselves into communication with the former through the latter” (Blavatsky, Isis Unveiled, Vol. 1).
The term arcana continually calls us back to the spirit of the hieroglyphs that make up the tarot, which can only become known in the astral light of the inner temple of the heart. We must make of ourselves a sacred place to receive and contain the inner spiritual truth that can, in turn, transmute, alter and restore us.
Added: for a modern perspective on arcanum check out the definition from Inna Semetsky here.