by Mary K. Greer, ©2007
This article was written in preparation for a tarot and mystery school journey to Egypt in November 2007, led by Mary Greer, Normandi Ellis and Niki Scully of Shamanic Journeys.
Tarot did not originate in ancient Egypt, despite claims to the contrary. Nevertheless, an occult tradition underlies modern Tarot decks that arises from 18th century lore about the Egyptian mysteries. Mystery schools often use tarot to define the levels of their initiations and feature Egyptian god-forms and symbolism.
Mystery Schools claim there is hidden meaning behind outer words and symbols that can only be experienced, not taught. The schools guide an individual through a series of rites that begin or “initiate” a transformation of consciousness. This awakens organs and subtle energies within the body, activating abilities of which the general populace are not generally aware. Egypt is believed to have attained the highest development of these teachings and skills. Occult scholar Manly Palmer Hall believed that such schools are institutes of Isis, mother of Mysteries, from whose dark womb initiates are born into a second or philosophic birth. All adepts are sons (or daughters) of Isis. Each initiate is a Horus, a hawk of the sun, whose job is to avenge the destruction of wisdom, symbolized by the murder of his father Osiris. The widow Isis is the Mystery School itself, which continues to produce out of herself potential redeemers.
But what does tarot have to do with this? The problem is that tarot did not originate in Egypt but in Northern Italy between 1420 and 1440. This period was characterized by a belief in the magical power of images. At the same time there was a huge influx of scholars and manuscripts from Spain where Jews were persecuted and from Constantinople, which was being invaded by Muslim Turks. Cities in Northern Italy, who welcomed these exiles, became centers of learning, their libraries full of books on magic, astrology and formerly lost works of Greek philosophy. Much of this knowledge had been preserved in Alexandria in Egypt, home to an eclectic mix of Egyptian, Coptic, Greek, Roman, Hebrew and East Indian learning. In 1422 a 5th century Greek manuscript, the Hieroglyphics of Horapollo, arrived in Florence. It falsely purported to reveal the hidden meaning of Egyptian hieroglyphs and had a great impact on Renaissance thought. While few of the images appear directly in the tarot it added to the tradition that Egypt was key to ancient wisdom.
Pythagoras, founder of one of the most influential mystery schools of all time, studied in Egypt. Through him the sacred principles of numbers made their way into the Western world. Plato, Pythagoras and Plutarch, among others, acknowledged Egyptians as the wisest of mortals and their temples as repositories of the occult sciences. In Greco-Roman Alexandria the Eleusinian mysteries of Demeter and Persephone were wedded to those of Osiris and Isis producing the mysteries of Serapis and Isis, which spread throughout Europe. Notre Dame cathedral in Paris is built over a temple of Isis and many of the oldest “black Madonnas” are actually statues of Isis and her son Horus.
It wasn’t until the height of France’s 18th century Enlightenment that tarot came to the fore in relation to Egyptian-styled initiations being introduced into the Rosicrucian and Masonic secret societies. France was home to a scholarly movement in search of the roots of language, believed to be a form of Hebrew, a remnant of the language of the gods codified in the Egyptian hieroglyphs. (It is only since the translation of the Rosetta Stone in the 1830s that their phonetic qualities and true meanings became known.)
Pre-revolutionary France was full of secret societies and extraordinary personalities such as the Comte de St. Germain, Cagliostro, Anton Mesmer (who developed hypnotism), Benjamin Franklin and Antoine Court de Gébelin, principle Egyptologist of the French Academy, all who were involved with the Egyptian rites of Freemasonry and Rosicrucianism. The inspiration for these was a document called the Krata Repoa (that first appeared in Venice in 1657), a blend of classical and Hermetic works on Egyptian mysteries formatted into seven initiation rites.
Court de Gébelin in his encyclopedic work of anthropological linguistics, Le Monde Primitif (1781), was first to ascribe occult wisdom to the cards when he announced that a work of the ancient Egyptians still remained: the Book of Thoth. He declared it was the only thing to survive the burning of their libraries and contained their purest doctrines in a form that was spread widely, though undervalued, through much of Europe by gypsies, who he believed to be Egyptian. This book of bizarre figures on 78 leaves, he explained, is obviously allegorical and conforms to the doctrines of the ancient Egyptians. The fact that there were both male and female priests was one proof. The triple cross on the Pope or Hierophant card is the djed pillar (backbone) of Osiris, representing the regeneration of plants and all of Nature. The star on the Star card is the Dog-Star, Sirius, that rises with the inundation of the Nile at the beginning of the new year in Leo. The lady below is Isis, Queen of Heaven, spreading water from her vases, as it was the tears of Isis which flooded the Nile each year. One of her tears would fall from the Moon when time for the Nile to rise. The Devil card was Typhon (or Set), the great demon. The twenty-two trump cards corresponded to the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The four suits were the four Egyptian classes of society: Swords were nobility, Cups the priesthood, Staffs (or cudgels) were agriculture, and Coins were trade.
This “book of destiny” was pure Egyptian, he said, composed (falsely) as it was of the word Tar, which means “way, path” and the word Ro, which means “king, royal.” It therefore showed the “Royal Path of the Human Life” that we must follow. The tarot makes us aware of the course of events and their results, and the wise men of Egypt used these sacred pictures to predict the future and interpret dreams.
A hundred years later, French occultist Paul Christian wrote in a book called The History and Practice of Magic of an Egyptian initiation rite, which was actually that old blend of classical sources, the Krata Repoa, to which he had added a section involving the tarot trumps. He said the Sphinx of Giseh served as entrance to sacred vaults in which the Magi held their tests. Corridors led to subterranean portions of the Great Pyramid where the candidate faced life-threatening ordeals. Then he descended into a bottomless pit on a ladder of seventy-eight rungs where he found a hidden opening into a long gallery lined on each side with twenty-two statues in facing pairs representing mysterious beings and symbols. Here, the ‘guardian of the sacred symbols,’ welcomed the candidate with the following words:
“I must not hide from you that other perils lie in store; but I am allowed to encourage you and give you direction by letting the Arcana of the Tarot explain their symbols, the understanding of which will create in your heart an invulnerable armour. . . . For the Science of Will, the principle of all wisdom and source of all power is contained in these twenty-two Arcana or symbolic hieroglyphs. [Their] attributes conceal a certain meaning . . . expressing a reality of the divine world, the intellectual world and the physical world. Each arcanum, made visible and tangible here, is a law of human activity whose combination produces the phenomena of life.”
Most modern Egyptian-styled tarot decks have evolved from these descriptions in Christian’s book. Arcana, from a root signifying “boxes,” was a word long used by magicians to mean “magical secrets.” Paracelsus explained in the Archidoxes of Magic that 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.”
From this beginning, the tarot rapidly became the definitive map delineating a series of initiations offered by a variety of mystery schools including the Brotherhood of Light, Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Ordo Templi Orientis and Fellowship of the Rosy Cross. Tarot decks were modified from the older French and Italian models to emphasize the mystical and magical wisdom teachings of Egypt (learn about Egyptianized tarot decks – here).
An internet article by Michael Poe describes a Temple of Serapis near Naples, now badly damaged, whose statues and illustrations he sees as similar to those of the tarot. Poe’s description begins with the ram-headed god Khnum, standing by an altar (his potter’s table?) with one hand pointed up and the other down. Next is Veiled Isis, followed by the maternal Isis with Horus, then a Roman emperor with the pharaoh’s hook and flail (see link above for the complete series). Unfortunately no one has yet confirmed Poe’s findings, most of which are examples of archetypal motifs like those shown in dozens of tarot decks depicting myths from around the world.
It is said that history tells us outer truth and inner lies, while myths tells us outer lies and inner truth, and so this myth of tarot’s Egyptian origin recounts an inner truth about a higher purpose and meaning to our lives. Manly Palmer Hall, in Freemasonry of the Ancient Egyptians, states the case for the Egyptian tradition within the mystery schools:
“Isis was the patroness of the magical arts among the Egyptians. The use to which magic should be put is revealed in the Osirian cycle where Isis applies the most potent of her charms and invocations to accomplish the resurrection of Osiris. In other words, the redemption of the human soul.”
Tarot is uniquely suited to carry out this task.