This is the second of four articles on the four aces in The Alchemical Tarot and The Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery and their elemental associations. In this article, we will discuss the ace of cups.
As we said in the last article, the minor suits in The Alchemical Tarot and The Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery are assigned to the four elements: coins to earth, vessels to water, swords to air, and staffs to fire. Historically this is the most accepted list of elemental associations. However, there are variations in historic decks. For example, in The Grand Etteilla, Etteilla clearly equates the four minor suits to the elements by depicting a landscape dominated by an element as the background for each deuce. He equates coins to fire, vessels to water, swords to air, and staffs to earth. We can see on the Etteilla two of cups that the cups seem to be floating on the surface of the sea. Etteilla agrees here with the standard association, but not for coins and staffs. For more information on historic association see the last article on the ace of coins.
The Etteilla card also includes a flaming alchemical vessel with snakes entwining it, turning it into an alchemical caduceus. Etteilla was an alchemist, and he would have known that the caduceus was an alchemical symbol for the elixir, a magical substance that was created by combining opposites, like fire and water or masculine and feminine. The combining of the opposites also illustrated the card’s meaning, which is love, or desire if reversed. His caduceus seems to have been his interpretation of the stylized two headed staff found on The Tarot of Marseilles two of cups. In turn, Etteilla inspired Pamela Coleman Smith’s two of cups, with a lionheaded caduceus and a man and a woman representing the opposites coming together in passion. I think that the lion was her interpretation of the flames, but it is also influenced by the Mithraic lionheaded figure, with wings and a spiraling snake that most scholars agree symbolizes time. The Mithraic meaning does not seem to add to the basic meaning of the card, and it is probably an example of the intuitive free associations that Smith was known for. For The Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery I combined the man and woman with the caduceus to arrive at the same meaning, and my composition is closer to the Marseilles model.
The Waite Smith ace of cups breaks from the Marseilles pattern by depicting the cup held in a hand, like the Marseilles ace of swords and staffs. Here again Smith seems to be influenced by Etteilla, who also broke with the Marseilles pattern and introduced a hand on all of his aces. On his ace of coins, however, the hand is holding the god Apollo and the coin is below. This is a reversal of the other pips in this suit, which depict the coins in the upper space and a god in the lower space. Perhaps Etteilla was saying that happiness, represented by Apollo, is above money, represented by the coin.
Smith’s ace of cups is an allegory depicting the cup as the Holy Grail containing the life-giving blood of Christ. This is suggested in the Marseilles ace by the hexagonal shape of the cup. The hexagon symbolized the squaring of the circle, which is the joining of the spiritual and physical worlds. This is how the Grail was depicted in Medieval and Renaissance art. Smith’s ace has an upside-down letter M on it, which I believe symbolizes Mary, the mother of Christ. The dove represents the Holy Spirit, and he is placing the host, a circle of bread with the cross on it, in the cup. In the Christian mass, the host symbolizes the body of Christ. There are five streams flowing from the cup symbolizing the five wounds of Christ. Waite says that this card represents the “house of the true heart of joy.”
In The Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery, the ace of cups in also modeled on the ace in The Tarot of Marseilles. In the traditional Tarot of Marseilles, the ace of cups depicts a chalice with an elaborate lid in the shape of a castle. This card was modeled on earlier Italian cards, like the ace from the Tarot printed in Ferrara in the 15th century. In some examples, there is a bird standing on the foot of the cup. Like Etteilla did with the two, I elaborated on the suggestions I found in the Marseilles image. I transformed the lid into a miniature castle with a door that is the right size for the bird. The bird is an ancient symbol for the, soul and as the castle is an elaborate birdhouse, it symbolizes the natural home for the soul. The meaning that I derive is that this card represents being in harmony with the soul’s purpose.
The Alchemical ace of cups or vessels, as the suit is called in this deck, contains more allegory. Each ace in The Alchemical Tarot depicts the suit symbol immersed in its element and accompanied by an animal that represents the beginning essence of the element. Also each Tarot suit symbol is linked to one of the modern French suit signs that are used on common playing cards and this symbol is worked into the Tarot symbol as well, sometimes providing a surprisingly meaningful addition.
On the Alchemical ace of vessels, there is a fish floating on the water in an inlet of the sea. On his back, there is a large glass vessel, like an alchemical retort. The retort is half filled with blood and in the retort, floating on the blood, there is a heart that also opens like a vessel. There is a grapevine growing out of the heart and up through the opening of the retort.
The fish, which lives in the sea, is an appropriate animal to represent the element. Likewise, the vessel, made to hold liquids, is also a fitting symbol for water. Water is a feminine element, and it is a natural symbol for the unconscious, which presents its surface to our conscious mind but keeps the majority of its substance hidden below. The sea depicted on this card symbolizes the collective unconscious. The fish is its messenger and appropriately presents himself on the surface. The retort represents the psyche of an individual and the blood, which is chemically related to seawater, represents the individual unconscious. In the center of the psyche, the heart, a vessel within this vessel, symbolizes the depth of the individual soul.
Seeds have been planted in this inner vessel by the Anima Mundi. These are our most precious desires—our true destiny that surfaces when we look deep into our psyches and are honest with ourselves. To find fulfillment in life, we must nurture these seeds and let them grow. It is not selfish to fulfill these desires; they are planted in us by the Anima Mundi and the world needs the fruit. Like the Sevenfold ace, this ace is about the uncovering of your true destiny, and as with the Sevenfold ace, being in harmony with the soul’s purpose.
On the Alchemical king of cups we see that the fish has become a crowned whale, the king of the sea, and a common alchemical symbol for the mastery of water. Because he is a sperm whale he can spout water from his blowhole and fill his own cup. He is the master of hos psyche and he find hos own fulfillment. The Sevenfold king of cups shares the same meaning, but here the sperm whale is his coat of arm, and the heart floating over his cup symbolizes his fulfillment.
This is the first of four articles on the four aces in The Alchemical Tarot and The Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery and their elemental associations. In this article, we will discuss the ace of coins.
The minor suits in The Alchemical Tarot and The Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery are assigned to the four elements: coins to earth, vessels to water, swords to air, and staffs to fire. In historic decks, we can find some variations in these associations. For example, in The Grand Etteilla, Etteilla clearly equates the four minor suits to the elements by depicting a landscape dominated by an element as the background for each deuce. He equates coins to fire, vessels to water, swords to air, and staffs to earth. Therefore, his two of coins depicts two coins floating in a fire. Also, there is the glyph for Mercury on each coin, and the god is pictured below. But, his list is out of the ordinary. The most popular list of associations, the one endorsed by Eliphas Levi and Pamela Colman Smith, is the one listed above and used in The Alchemical Tarot and The Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery. This also seems to be the elemental associations that we find in the earliest Tarot and playing card decks. Although in these decks the associations are not as explicit, and we need to look for clues to determine them.
In the earliest decks, the presence of the elements was suggested by authors who equated the suits with a mandala-like cosmology in which the suits are linked to four kingdoms, four classes of society, or four activities. Traditionally, with this association with kingdoms, classes, or activities, there is also an association with four temperaments embodied by each. These lists of four temperaments have been related to the elements since ancient times through the theory of the four humors. This symbolic structure was mentioned by name for the first time in the 16th century anonymous Discorso, in which coins are equated with riches, cups with pleasure, swords with martial arts, and staffs with literature. The author claims that these pursuits each steam from one of the humors and their personality type: melancholic linked to earth, phlegmatic to water, sanguine to air, and choleric to fire.
Another clue is that in early decks the round earthy suit symbols of coins and cups are considered feminine, and the phallic looking symbols of swords and staffs are considered masculine. We find the same division between feminine and masculine in the alchemical theory of the elements. The more physical elements, earth and water, are feminine, and the less material elements, air and fire, are considered masculine. Therefore, coins are feminine and related to earth.
In Alchemy the elements are arranged in a progression from the most physical to the least. I have followed this progression when arranging the suits in both The Alchemical Tarot and The Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery. Therefore, we start with the Ace of Coins.
In The Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery, the ace of coins in modeled on the ace in The Tarot of Marseilles. In the traditional Tarot of Marseilles, the ace of coins depicts the suit symbol with a four petaled flower in the center, and surrounded by flowering vines, a common way of representing the earth. However, the vines that surround the central coin in the Sevenfold are more elaborate and influenced, as is the rest of the deck, by the Pre-Raphaelite designs of the 19th century English artists William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. Petals and leaves also appear on the body of the coin, surrounding a five-pointed star, called a pentacle. This is a detail borrowed from Pamela Colman Smith’s deck. Smith’s ace depicts the coin or pentacle above a flowering landscape. But hers is held by a hand coming out of a cloud, a detail that she borrowed from the Marseilles aces of swords and staffs. The pentacle is one of the tools of a magician. It is a five-pointed star made with a continuous line and engraved on or cast into a metal disk. It is used in rituals to represent earth.
The Alchemical ace of coins contains more allegory. Each ace in The Alchemical Tarot depicts the suit symbol immersed in its element and accompanied by an animal that represents the beginning essence of the element. Also each Tarot suit symbol is linked to one of the modern French suit signs that are used on common playing cards and this symbol is worked into the Tarot symbol as well, sometimes providing a surprisingly meaningful addition.
On the ace of coins a rabbit sits in front of a large coin nestled into a fertile bower of the earth. In the center of the coin, the related playing card symbol, the diamond, forms a hole, like the hole in the center of a Chinese coin. From the corners of the diamond four arrows extend to indicate the four cardinal directions. Alchemically the number four is linked to the physical world of time and space, which is described in fourfold divisions, such as the four elements, the four seasons, the four directions. The most important element, however, is the non-material essence, known as the Quinta Essentia, the essential fifth element. To depict the Quinta Essentia, alchemists placed it in the center of a mandala with the four divisions placed at the corners or sides. This coin has become an alchemical mandala. It illustrates that all of physical reality emerges from the immaterial—the hole in the center. In the same way everything that we have manifested in our lives, such as our physical surroundings, started with an idea that, in turn, emerged from the unknowable depths of our unconscious mind. The magician’s pentacle is similar in symbolism in that its five points represent the fifth element dominating the other four.
In cultures from around the world a white rabbit is associated with the moon and because the moon progresses through phases each month the rabbit is also associated with transformation. In many cultures it is considered a shamanistic guide and at times a trickster hero, like Br’er Rabbit or Bugs Bunny. The alchemists use the rabbit as a symbol of Mercurius, the alchemical essence and the god of alchemy. The rabbit on the ace of coins, although facing in the opposite direction, is the same rabbit that appears on the Fool, where he is guiding the novice alchemist into the interior of the earth to begin the initial dark stage of the Magnum Opus, the great work. It is fitting that he is also here at the beginning of the earth suit where he will be transformed into the lion that is the king of this suit. The rabbit’s body is carrying it to the left, as if it is reluctant to enter into this process but its head is turned to the right. As we learned from the coin with its central hole the material process and the body will be guided by the immaterial idea and the head.
On the Alchemical king of coins we see that the rabbit has become a crowned lion, a common alchemical symbol for the mastery of earth. His coin now has a picture of him on it, because he is the master of his physical world. He is able to provide for himself in his own way.
On the Sevenfold king of coins, a lion maned human king clutches his coin to his chest. He sits in front of a partition with his banner on it, and his banner symbol is the alchemical lion. In the center of the loin’s chest is the diamond, demonstrating that the lion’s courage stems from a connection to the immaterial fifth element.
Saugerties, where Rose Ann and I live, is the town that separates Woodstock from the Hudson River. It is exactly 100 miles up the Hudson from New York City. The name, Saugerties, is a combination of Dutch and English and reflects the colonial heritage of the area, and the original dialect that was spoken in the town. The name is derived from the sawmills that made use of the Hudson’s smaller tributaries, which merge with the river at this bend, to turn their waterwheel powered saws and cut wood. This wood was shipped down the river, or up, to build bigger cities like New York and Albany. The name Woodstock, no doubt, has something to do with the fact that the area to the west is where the trees were felled that fed the saws.
A Local Hero
When I first moved to the town, I had the pleasure of exploring, the large brick mansion that served as the town library (it has since been expanded with a large modern addition). In the library, at the far end of the room, hidden behind the shelves, there was a reading alcove with some wooden chairs gathered around a fireplace with a tiled mantle. The tiles, with their sculpted relief in the historic arts and crafts style, illustrate what is probably the most famous fable to come out of the Hudson Valley, Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle. Here in a series of images, we find the familiar tale of a henpecked husband, who, looking for peace of mind, hiked with his dog, Wolf, and his fowling-piece to the mountain source of Kaaterskill Creek. Once there, he met the short, stout ghosts of Henry Hudson and his men and accepted an evening drink that took twenty years to sleep off.
Irving was our nation’s first internationally acclaimed author and Rip was his most popular character, one who became as well known from the numerous theatrical performances of his tail as from Irving’s writing. As it was Rip’s story that brought the Hudson Valley to the attention of the world, references to Rip Van Winkle are ubiquitous in this area but Saugerties may have a unique claim to this character. Is it possible that Saugerties was Rip’s hometown?
Rip Van Winkle was first presented to the public in May 1819 in the first installment of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon Gent. This was during the Romantic era in art and philosophy, which combined a reverence for nature with a fascination for the supernatural. The Catskill Mountains were a preserved area of rugged wildness in close vicinity to the centers of population in New York and Albany, and they, therefore, were becoming an attraction for Romantic tourist, who wanted to get back to nature and who valued legend and tradition. With his writing, Irving attempted to supply the second element and the legend of Rip Van Winkle was seized on by the Catskill tourist industry, perhaps the first such industry in our country’s history. In 1823, the Catskill Mountain House, the first resort hotel in the US, was constructed on top of the cliff, at the foot of North Point, from which the Kaaterskill Creek descends, and, as local historian, John Thorn, pointed out in an article in the Saugerties Times, by 1826 there was a building claiming to be the Rip Van Winkle House along the road to the hotel. Although Rip is a fictional character, it seems that this fact was soon forgotten and some longtime residences began to claim that they had known him. Here is a 1902 Catskill postcard showing the house.
As the nineteenth century progressed, Rip continued to be a valued Catskill tourist attraction and many local towns vied with each other claiming to be Rip’s hometown. The most adamant claimants were Catskill, Kingston, Stone Ridge, and Palenville. By the twentieth century, Rip’s name seemed to be on everything from hotels to rocking chairs and a Rip Van Winkle theme park was built on the plateau above Kaaterskill Clove next to North Lake, which is the source of the Kaaterskill. Here, among eighteenth century cottage architecture complete with appropriately dressed women engaged in colonial crafts, a visitor could shake hands with Rip himself, or at least an actor playing the part. But the only road leading from the valley to the summit of the plateau lead through Palenville and here tourists would first be greeted by a sign claiming that Palenville was the home of Rip Van Winkle. Even today on the Palenville website we are informed that Washington Irving envisioned Rip living in Palenville because Irving lived there when he wrote the story. On a Catskill web site designed for tourists an alternative claim is found that it was Irving’s visit to Catskill that inspired him to write the story. It seemed that every town except Saugerties has been claiming Rip.
Irving, who was born in 1783, lived in New York and occasionally spent time on the Passaic River in New Jersey and just up the Hudson from New York in the old Dutch village of Sleepy Hollow. His first view of the Catskill mountains was from the deck of a sloop on his way up the Hudson. On at least two occasions in 1802 he sailed from his home in New York to Albany to visit his sisters, Nancy and Kitty, and again in 1803 he sailed up the Hudson to Canada with his employer Judge Hoffman. It seems that before 1819 when Rip Van Winkle was published, the only time that Irving had a chance to explore the Catskill region on foot was for one week in August in 1812 when he was a guest of John Robert Livingston at his mansion on the east bank of the Hudson at Barrytown, across the river from Kingston. Irving was twenty-nine at the time and took advantage of his stay to make day trips with some of the young Livingston women as companions. The Livingstons were wealthy landowners who lived in a series of mansions along the east bank of the Hudson where, from their spacious lawns, they could view their land holdings on the West bank, which included what is now Saugerties, Woodstock, and much of the Catskill mountains. John Robert was the younger brother of Robert R. Livingston who lived in Clairmont the principal estate, which lies about seven miles north of Barrytown directly across the river from Saugerties.
In his The Catskills: From Wilderness to Woodstock, historian Alf Evers states that during this stay Irving got his only up close view of the Catskills when he saw Overlook Mountain in what is now Woodstock. To accomplish this it was most likely that Irving would have taken a carriage to Clairmont where the Livingstons had a ferry, which regularly crossed over the river to Saugerties. On the west side, The Livingstons had built a road from the bank to their sawmill in Woodstock over which logs were brought to the river. Irving could have taken a carriage up the road to the sawmill within view of Overlook Mountain. Although Woodstock at the time was only a sawmill and some workers’ huts, in Saugerties Irving would have found farms and, clustered around the Esopus where it empties into the Hudson, rows of brick houses inhabited by people who spoke a combination of Dutch and English like the inhabitants of Irving’s beloved Sleepy Hollow. And, like the residence of Sleepy Hollow, they were steeped in ancient lore and a belief in Witchcraft.
Washington Irving’s Inspiration
Between 1815 and 1819 Irving was living with his Sister Sara Van Wart in Birmingham, England. Because of the bankruptcy of his family business, Irving had decided to try and make a living as a writer but, because of his depressed state of mind, he had written almost nothing for most of a year. At the urging of Walter Scott, he had been studying German folk legends and he longed to create a similar folk history for his home country. One evening in June, Washington was walking with his sister’s husband, Henry, and they were reminiscing about their visits to Sleepy Hollow. Sparked by the memory of happier days, Washington retired to his room early and began to write.
That night he made use of two German folk stories. One was about the Emperor Charles the Great and his army who disappeared into a cleft in a mountain where they were condemned to stay until doomsday. It was said that when claps of thunder were heard in the mountain it was the Emperor making an appearance. Irving had been reading a description of Kaaterskill Clove written by Samuel Mitchill and he thought of replanting the story in this new-world location, substituting Henry Hudson and his men for the Emperor and his army. The second story was about Peter Klaus, a goatherd who followed his goats into a cleft in a mountain where he discovered some otherworldly bowlers. The bowlers gave him a drink of wine that caused him to sleep for twenty years. In Irving’s imagination, Peter Klaus became Rip and the bowlers became Hudson’s men complete with a means of creating thunder by striking their bowling pins. All that was left was to give Rip a suitable colonial Dutch village.
Kaaterskill Falls in the 1800
Kaaterskill Falls today
Of course, when creating Rip’s home, Irving made use of images of Sleepy Hollow, which he had been recollecting that evening. He described the town as being founded by Dutch settlers during the early rule of Peter Stuyvesant (1645-1664) with the oldest houses being made of yellow brick brought from Holland. Sleepy Hollow was settled in 1645 and does have yellow brick houses. Saugerties was settled in 1677 during the rule of the English governor Andros and the oldest Dutch houses are made of fieldstone not brick. But, it is the oldest town near the foot of the Mountain where the story takes place and it is founded by Dutch settlers as well as English. Irving also describes the village as seen from the river, just below the mountains with “light smoke curling up from a village, whose shingled-roofs gleam among the trees, just where the blue tints of the upland melt away into the fresh green of the nearer landscape.” This is not a description of Sleepy Hollow but a description of Saugerties as seen from the grassy riverside sloop of the Clairmont estate. Saugerties occupies the ridge just above the river, which, because of an optical illusion, would appear to be at the foot of the mountains from this vantage point. It seems that just as Irving had amalgamated German legends with this new landscape he fused Sleepy Hollow and Saugerties into one village.
Palenville is at the foot of the mountain from which the Kaaterskill flows as the town is described in the story but it did not exist in the late 1700s when the story took place, and it cannot be seen from the river as the town is described. Even in the early 1800s, all that stood there were two mills and the cabins of the workers who manned them, and, as we have seen, Washington Irving was living in England when he wrote the story not in Palenville as they claim. Stone Ridge at over twenty-eight miles and Kingston at over twenty are just too far from Kaaterskill Clove to be thought of as within walking distance and only make their claims by disputing the location of Rip’s nap. Catskill is a colonial town founded in 1678 on the east bank of the Hudson about nine and half miles from the base of the mountain, which would have been walking distance for Rip, but Irving is not known to have visited Catskill before he wrote the account. Saugerties is actually a year older than Catskill and a half-mile closer to the clove making it the closest colonial town, and as we have seen, it is likely that Irving did visit Saugerties before he wrote the story. Therefore, in answer to our question, yes, it is likely that Saugerties was Rip’s hometown.
Still, one mystery remained. Where did the name Rip Van Winkle come from? Is it possible that it based on the name of an actual family in the Catskill region as many have claimed? My friend Susan who is the librarian in North Haledon, New Jersesy, helped me to solve this one. After I talked to her about my theory that Saugerties was Rip’s hometown, she discovered an account by a local historian explaining why an avenue in Haledon was named Rip Van Winkle. It seems that Wasington Irving was a friend of the Van Winkle family of Totowa, New Jersey, a town near Haledon and on the Passaic River, where Irving was living. Irving was particularly fond of the Van Winkle boy, who was nicknamed Rip because of his wide grin. As Irving spent more time in New Jersey than in the Catskills this account does seem plausible. It struck me as Ironic, however, because I grew up in Totowa. It seems I had traveled up the Hudson to find Rip’s hometown only to find out that I may has attended grammar school with some of his descendants.
Rip’s Mythological Roots
To most Americans, Rip Van Winkle, is a unique humorous character, famous for his nap. However, I know from uncovering Irving’s sources for the story and from my study of Celtic mythology that Rip was not alone. The theme of the hero being lured into fairyland and returning to find that years have passed is a popular one. Also a mountain or a hill is the most likely place for this type of encounter. The Gaelic for fairy is sidhe, pronounced “shee.” It means “people of the hills.” Hills and mountains are traditionally associated with the inhabitants of the spirit world. The Irish call them fairy mounds. From Irving’s retelling of the Native American legend we can see that the American natives associated North Point with the spirit world as well.
In Ireland, Scotland, and other Celtic countries, hills are also said to be the burial places of ancient kings, such as King Arthur and there are parallels between the Fairy world and the other ancient myths of the underworld, the land of the dead. In the ancient Greek myth of Persephone, Hades, the god of the dead, carries the young maiden away to his home under the ground with the intent of making her his bride. Persephone’s mother, Demeter, manages to win her back but, because Persephone has eaten six pomegranate seeds, she must return to the underworld for six months out of the year. Similarly, it is because Rip accepted a drink from the keg of his fairy/ghost hosts that he fell into his sleep. In Celtic folklore, it is an established fact that, if one should venture into a fairy mound, one should not accept invitations to play, dance, eat, or drink. Rip managed to avoid playing ninepins but he made the mistake, in spite of intuitive warnings, of drinking from the keg.
According to legend, a young Irishman named Shon ap Shenkin was even less fortunate than Rip when he encountered the fairy world. On a warm summer morning he was walking through the forest when he became captivated by the most beautiful yet eerie melody. Shon sat under a tree to relax and listen. When the music came to an end, he got up and was surprised to find that the green healthy tree that he placed himself under had become an old dead trunk during the course of the melody. Shon made his way home and found that his house had also aged. At the door, he encountered a strange old man. When he introduced himself, the stranger said, “I have often heard my grandfather talk about your disappearance.” At the news, Shon crumbled to dust on the doorstep. The years had caught up to him. A visit to the underworld is not to be taken lightly and folk tales are continually warning us of the dire consequences that can befall an ordinary man who dares the adventure. Yet, the underworld is the very place that a hero must venture to if he or she is to escape the realm of time and find the secret of immortality.
We can see this in the oldest known myth, recorded in Sumeria in 2,000 BCE, Inanna, the Queen of Heaven and the Goddess of Love, decides to descend to the underworld to visit her sister, the Goddess of Death. At each one of the seven gates, that mark the descent, she gives up an article of clothing – the original dance of the seven veils – and she arrives before her sister naked. Inanna is killed and put on a meat hook where she hangs for three days. On the third day she is sprinkled with the Water of Life and reborn. Now she can return to her people imbued with power and wisdom.
This theme in mythology may reflect ancient ideas that predate the Sumerians. I know from my study of shamanism that shamans, from every culture, while in a trance, visualize themselves entering into the earth where they commune with their spirit guides and gain power and wisdom. To obtain a shamanistic state one may dance and drum but a shaman may also lie still and deathlike as he or she ceases to focus on the physical world. The Shaman may visualize following a fish up a stream, like the Kaaterskill, until he or she enters into the rocks at the source. Or, like Alice, he or she may follow a rabbit down a rabbit hole. Or, their spirit guide may be a wildcat. The underworld is the place of dreams and the place where the dead go when they depart and it is here that the shaman can find out the secrets needed to conquer death and disease. Ending suffering and conquering death is the true goal of all religion and philosophy. It is not surprising that the earliest Greek philosophers were also willing to take the mystical journey to the realm of death for the sake of the love of wisdom.
The first person to call himself a philosopher, which literally means a lover of sophia (wisdom in Greek), was Pythagoras who lived in the sixth century BCE. In the third century CE the Greek writer Diogenes Laertius wrote that Pythagoras was initiated into wisdom first in the Idaean Cave in Crete and then in the crypts in Egypt where “he learned the secrets of the Gods.” The third century author, Hermippus, wrote that, while living in southern Italy, Pythagoras had himself buried in the ground for a period of time and when he emerged he said that he had been in Hades, the realm of the dead, and impressed everyone at the assembly with his knowledge of the events that had happened while he was gone. As a rationalist Hermippus claimed that Pythagoras’s mother was writing down the daily news on a tablet and sending it down into her son’s crypt to keep him informed while he was in the ground. Like many modern observers, Hermippus seems to be unable to accept psychic abilities. But, his account does make the point that the pre-Socratic philosophers may also be considered shamans or magicians.
The idea that Inanna rose from death on the third day and that Pythagoras was entombed and also returned from the land of the dead may remind the modern reader of the story of Christ. The story of Christ definitely fits the archetypal pattern of the hero’s journey and we can see that this is also connected to shamanistic practices.
The Greek historian Herodotus, writing 420 years before the birth of Christ, described the myth of a hero cult in Thrace that may remind the modern reader of Christ and the Last Supper. Herodotus wrote that the Thracians believe that their god, Salmoxis, is the only god. At one time Salmoxis was a man. He was a slave belonging to Pythagoras but he won his freedom and returned to his home in Thrace where he brought culture and wisdom to the people. Salmoxis had an underground chamber built in which he held a feast for the townsmen. At the feast, he told them that those who drank with him and their descendants would not truly die but after their physical death they would join him in a paradise. At the end of this speech he had himself entombed and remained there for three years. On the fourth year he came out of the tomb and returned to them to demonstrate his mastery of death.
We have come a seemingly long way from an entertaining tale popular with Hudson Valley tourists to a shamanistic practice that helped give birth to religion and philosophy. But, as we can see, there are connections that can be made. Joseph Campbell, the author of A Hero with a Thousand Faces, explored these themes more thoroughly, and he was living nearby in Woodstock when he did it. Perhaps there is something in the area that inspires these thoughts.
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It was Hippalus’s first visit to the temple of Apollo at Delphi. This was the most important thing his father, Ampelos, had ever asked him to do and, as you can imagine, he was a little nervous, but he was well prepared. Hippalus knew that this was important, because Ampelos was a merchant and would not think of launching a major sea voyage without the approval of the oracle of Apollo. Would the voyage be successful at this time and bring his father riches? And, how can the favor of Apollo be maintained? These were the questions that Hippalus was instructed to ask.
By sunset, Hippalus had climbed Mount Parnassos. There, nestled at the top beneath the twin cliffs, glowing red with the sun’s last rays, was a magnificent collection of statues and Doric style buildings. The buildings included the main temple or sanctuary, an outdoor theater, several smaller buildings that served as storehouses for the treasures that the grateful had gifted the Oracle, and several detached porches with tiled roofs supported by rows of columns for outdoor events. Hippalus stood there taking it in. He was afraid to make a sound.
To the ancient Greeks this was the center of the world, the most sacred spot on earth. According to legend, this fact was determined by Zeus himself, the king of the gods, who let two eagles fly in different directions around the world until they came face to face at the very center. This auspicious spot was marked with a carved, domed stone called the “omphalos” in Greek, which meant the navel of the earth. It was said that the omphalos was carved from the stone that Zeus’ mother, Rhea, had fed to her husband, Kronos, as a substitute for her son when Kronos had attempted to eat all of his children. Later Zeus forced his father to spit up the stone along with all of his brothers and sisters, and now it was housed in the inner sanctuary of the temple called the “adytum,” along with the laurel tree sacred to Apollo. Hippalus bowed his head in respect. He wore his best white linen tunic and he had plenty of gold coins to pay for his stay in the inn and to pay for the consultation tax, called the “palanos,” which was the equivalent of ten days pay for the average worker.
On the morning of the seventh day after the new moon, a lucky number sacred to Apollo, Hippalus paid the tax and purified himself in a ritual bath in the Castalian Spring, which was at this time enclosed in a bathhouse. Then, dressed again in his best tunic and a crown of laurel leaves, like the wreaths found on the heads of ancient statues, he joined a group of men and climbed up the flagstone steps, known as the Sacred Way. It zig zagged first to the west then to the east, passing treasury buildings and rows of statues placed there to thank Apollo for help in the past. As Hippalus read the inscriptions, he became more and more sure that Apollo would help his father. At the top the men formed a circle outside the temple where a fire blazed on a great stone altar designed to accept sacrifices to the god. Some of the men were from familiar cities like Athens and Sparta and some form distant colonies across the sea or foreign states like Egypt, but all had questions for Apollo’s oracle and all were sure the god himself would answer their questions through the oracle.
Because it was a regular consultation day, the temple priests provided the goat for the sacrifice. The priests sprinkled the animal with holy water causing it to give an affirmative nod, which was interpreted as a sign of approval so that the ritual could continue. After it was butchered, a thighbone was burnt on the altar, along with a handful of barley from each of the participants. The goat’s organs were examined for further signs from the god, but the rest of the meat was roasted to provide for a feast later in the day. Rituals like these were the only time that Hippalus ever ate farm-raised meat and he looked forward to it. At home, it was more common for him to eat fish of wild animals that he hunted.
After the prayers and offerings, the questioners were led by a group of priests and other officials into the first chamber of the temple. Some of the priests were called the “prophetai,” the origin of the English word prophet, but, unlike prophets, they were not actually the ones who would receive the visions from the god. Their job was to interpret the visions and utterances of the prophetess, who was called the “Pythia.” It was she who would actually listen to the god and, because of that, she was the most influential woman in all of Greece.
At the entrance to the inner sanctuary, or adytum, Hippalus placed an offering of some meat on the offering table and then entered the inner room with the other men. Their order of entry and, therefore, the order that their questions would be answered was determined by numbered stones, called lots, that the men had to choose. The men could not see what stone they were choosing and this may seem to have been an order created by luck, but to Hippalus and the other participants this was yet another way of determining the will of Apollo. Everything at the temple was designed to be in harmony with Apollo’s will.
As Hippalus stepped down into the adytum, he detected a faint sweetness in the air. This odor was a gas coming form deep within the earth under Mount Parnassos. It was a sure sign that the god was present and that the prophecy could begin. Hippalus sat on a stone bench along the wall with the other participants. From this location they would be able to hear the prophecy but a screen separated them from a view of the three-legged stool that was the seat of the Pythia.
The name of the Prophetess, the Pythia, was derived from Python, the name of a huge dragon or serpent, who, in ancient times, was said to have guarded the sanctuary. At that time the sanctuary belonged to the Earth goddess Gaia and the dragon was hers. In modern times, the Python has lent its name for use as a name for the largest known species of snakes, but the ancient Python was even larger. It was said that when Apollo took control of the oracle he slew the Python who blocked his way and cast his lifeless body into a fissure in the earth found within the temple. The fumes from the decaying body of the Python were said to give the inner temple its sweet smell and were responsible for putting the Pythia in a trance so that she could see Apollo’s messages. In honor of his victory, Apollo was given the title “Pythios,” all things Delphic were referred to as “Pythian,” and, as we said before, the prophetess was called the Pythia.
The Pythia whose turn it was to be the prophetess on this day was one of three who lived in the temple. She was a tall woman in her 50s, who was chosen for this role from the women of Delphi because she was a good person and because of her natural ability to fall into a trance. She took her role very seriously and she had also purified herself in the Castalian spring on that morning. Then, she donned her sacred robe, and offered a sacrifice of barley and laurel in the eternal fire on her own altar within the temple. Holding a holy laurel branch and a bowl of holy water she stepped down into the chamber and climbed into the high three-legged stool that stood over the fissure in the floor. As the sweet smelling gas pored over her body she fell into a deep trance. She could see Apollo beckoning her through a mist and sending her meaningful pictures in answer to the questions that the participants asked. She stated what she saw as clearly as she could but, because of the visual dream-like nature of the messages, the priests called the prophetai had to help the questioners to understand the answers. When it was Hippalus’ turn to ask his questions, she answered that she saw a blue sky swept over the sea and a rain of gold. A prophetai told Hippalus that a sea voyage would be profitable at this time, but to maintain the favor of Apollo he had to make the proper sacrifice to the God before he and his father set sail and again on their return to show their thankfulness.
What History Has To Say
For a thousand years the Oracle at Delphi was the most respected and popular oracle and temple in ancient Greece. You might think that because it was valued so highly only people who were considered upper class would be allowed to ask questions, but as long as they had the resources to make the trip and pay the tax, anyone could consult the oracle from common farmers to kings and ambassadors representing the city-states. Some of the famous men who consulted the oracle were Socrates, Sophocles, Alexander the Great, and Croesus of Lydia. Sophocles, the 5th century BCE playwright, wrote that a challenge to the oracles was a challenge to religion itself. To the Greeks, the fact that Apollo was willing to talk to the people through the Oracle was the proof of his existence.
According to Iamblichus (250-325 CE), in his biography of Pythagoras, around 570 BCE, the great phiolospher’s father, Mnesarchus, was asking the oracle a question about a business venture, similar to the one asked by Hippalus in the story, when the Pythia spontaneously provided an additional prediction. He was told that when he returned from his voyage he would find that his wife had birthed a son, who “would surpass all other in beauty and wisdom.” In honor of the Pythia, he named his son Pythagoras.
In myth, the oracle originally belonged to the earth goddess, Gaia, or, in some accounts, the goddess of Justice, Themis, and the oracle and was taken over by Apollo at a later date. However, historians tell us that the Oracle was dedicated to Apollo, the god of light, logic, art, and music, from its origin at the end of the 9th century BCE until 393 CE, when it was closed by the Christian emperor Theodosius. As the god of the sun and light, Apollo brought forth clarity and understanding and always spoke the truth. The Python, the dragon who was slain by Apollo, was a symbol of the darkness that blocked the light and therefore stopped the messages from getting to the people at Delphi. By killing the Python, Apollo allowed his light to shine through and allowed the people to hear the oracle. He is one of the many mythic heroes, who slayed dragons.
Although ancient writers wrote more about the Oracle than most subjects, many of the details of the worship and practice at Delphi are still disputed by modern scholars. For example, the first French archeologists who examined the remains of the temple in the 1800s found no evidence of the fissure and the escaping gas that the ancient writers mention. By the middle of 1900s, most scholars believed that the gas was an invention of the writers and not based on fact. Modern archeologists examining the site, however, such as the team lead by John Hale, from the University of Louisville Kentucky, have found a fissure in the sanctuary that emits ethylene gas. Ethylene has the potential to cause visions if enough gas is breathed in. Some of the details in the account we have just read may be disputed by some scholars, but it is one version of what is likely to have happened on a consultation day at the oracle at the height of its operation in the 5th century BCE.
For many years I have been lecturing on the history of Tarot and divination cards at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. My lectures take place in the print collection, a library of historic prints nestled behind the walls of the print gallery in the museum. Although I do expound on the history of cards, the afternoon is actually more of a guided tour of the museum’s collection of playing and divinatory cards. The collection includes what may be the oldest woodcut printed Tarot cards in the world, and contains examples of cards from every period from the 15th century to the present. Although most of my students are probably drawn here by the chance to see early Tarots, when we get to the 19th century examples, oracle cards (non-Tarot decks intended primarily for use in divination) dominate the collection. Naturally, after seeing these decks for several years and realizing that there was little information available on them, I had a desire to uncover their history. Simultaneously the idea of designing my own oracle deck began to emerge. So, when Rachel Pollack approached me with the offer of collaborating on an oracle deck I was not only open to the suggestion, I was eager to start.
As Rachel states in her Burning Serpent Oracle book, we did not begin this project with the intention of creating a Lenormand deck but this is the tradition to which The Burning Serpent belongs. It is as if the Lenormand cards reached out to us unconsciously, and at a certain point in the process we became conscious of this direction and began to intentionally create a Lenormand. The Lenornand cards are a type of oracle deck that originated in 19th century Europe, and that has remained popular there. In America and England, however, it was unknown or overlooked until recently, when it has become almost an obsession with a growing group of card readers, many of whom also read the Tarot. The Lenormand deck tends to be minimalistic, with cards depicting, for example, a ring, a scythe, or a book, and it tends to apply definite meanings to these images, such as commitment for the ring, danger for the scythe, and secrets for the book. This limitation is useful when the cards are used for divination, and I apply similar basic meanings to the cards when I work with the Tarot. However, I also look into the images in the Tarot for deeper spiritual guidance, and I noticed that many non-Lenormand oracle decks have similar spiritual or mythic dimensions. It was my intention and Rachel’s to create a Lenormand with this spiritual dimension and I am writing this history to provide insight into my inspiration for our deck.
1854 German Lenormand cards: the Ring, the Scythe, and the Book
At first, all I knew about the Lenormand came from a brief mention in A Wicked Pack of Cards by Ronald Decker, Thierry Depaulis, and Michael Dummett, who pointed out that the Lenormand deck was based on an earlier deck used for a game. Much of the history of the deck beyond this connection has only been uncovered recently, thanks to the efforts and discoveries of Marcus Katz and Tali Goodwin, the authors of Learning Lenormand, and Tarot scholar Mary K. Greer, who has found a previously unknown early source for the Lenormand images. This article is intended to add to the work that they started. I intend to unveil an even earlier source, one that is a common ancestor for both the Lenormand and all other oracle decks. I have also found that many of the images that I created for The Burning Serpent Oracle, although they emerged totally from my imagination and my discussions with Rachel, have an uncanny resonance with this early deck.
Let’s Start with Lenormand
Marie Anne Adelaide Le Normand (1772-1843) was born in Normandy but moved to Paris in 1786. She also lived in Belgium and London for short periods. She became the most famous fortuneteller in Europe during the Napoleonic era. Le Normand used a variety of divinatory methods, including palmistry, numerology, scrying, necromancy, 33 Greek sticks, a magic wand, and a special talisman. She also read egg whites and coffee grounds. For cartomancy, she used an ordinary pack of 32 French Piquet cards and a German 36-card deck. In addition, she is said to have been an admirer of the French occultist Etteilla and may have used the Tarot that he designed, The Grand Etteilla, as well as a traditional French Tarot.
The French and German decks seem to have influenced the later Lenormand decks and it is useful to know more about their structure. Pique decks have the four French suits: hearts, clubs, diamonds, and spades, but only contain the knave, queen, king, ace, and the pips numbered seven to ten in each suit. The traditional German 36-card deck is used mainly in Bavaria for playing games like Schafkopf (sheep’s head). It has four suits of: hearts, acorns, hawk belles, and leaves, each with an under knave, over knave, king, ace (the ace displays two suit symbols and is sometimes considered a duce), and the six to ten pips. There are also German decks that use the French suit symbols, and a deck that combines the French symbols with the German colors: red hearts, yellow diamonds, green spades, and black clubs.
16th century German ace of acorns
Mlle. Le Normand’s fame rests on the fact that she was the author of 14 best selling books, in which she described her career and her dealings with her famous clients. Her clients included Marat, Robespierre, Czar Alexander, and most famously the Empress Josephine. Le Normand is credited with predicting the rise and the fall of Napoleon. In fame, she is comparable to the 20th century psychic Jeane Dixon (1904-1997), who was famous for having predicted the assassination of President Kennedy. Many of Mlle. Le Normand’s statements about her life and her dealings with high society have been shown to be exaggerated or simply false. However, it is true that she was a member of a secret society in London, called Members of Mercurii.
Grand jeu de Mlle Lenormand, 1845
In 1845, two years after her death, Mlle. Le Normand’s name was attached to a set of divination or cartomancy cards, Grand jeu de Mlle Lenormand, published in France by Grimaud. The colorful deck was one of the first examples of lithographic printing in France. It consisted of 52 cards related to an ordinary playing card deck, with two additional cards (significators) representing a male or a female querent, 54 cards in total. Each card depicted a central scene surrounded by symbols: a miniature playing card, a bold letter, a constellation, and a flower. It was sold with a set of five books describing various types of divination, including cartomancy, palmistry, astrology, numerology, and talismans.
In 1846, Mlle Le Normand’s name was applied to another oracle deck, Petit Le Normand, published in Germany. The German deck consisted of 36 cards, which had little in common with the French Lenormand. Each card depicted an iconic symbol, such as a ring, a ship, a house, a dog, or a heart, all with a miniature playing card at the top. Although it contained 36 cards like a German deck, the miniature playing cards on the face displayed the French suit symbols. Neither of these decks had been used by Mlle. Le Normand and her name was attached only so that the publishers could cash in on her fame. Similarly, several spurious biographies of Mlle. Le Normand and a book claiming to contain her last predictions were published soon after her death.
There seems to have been earlier divination decks that may have influenced the Lenormand. By 1818, 36-card fortune telling decks were being created in Germany and Austria in which iconic images related to some of the Le Normand images were correlated with German suits. These decks seem to have influenced the Petit Le Normand, and are related to sibilla cards that were created in Italy, France, Germany, Austria, and Hungary since the 1700s but do not display numbers or suit symbols. Another offshoot, the Kipper Cards, was created in Bavaria, circa 1870. There are also numerous decks with Lenormand in their name that were created after 1846 and contain most of the standard Lenormand images but have additional cards such as a safe, a mirror, or lightning. These are believed to be adaptions of the standard deck but I have found that some of the additional images can be traced to an earlier source.
Below is a list of the 36 standard Lenormand cards:
The four Aces, 1818 German fortune-telling cards
The Game of Hope
According to Decker, Depaulis, and Dummett, in 1972, Historian Detlef Hoffmann discovered that the German Le Normand is based on a deck published in Nuremberg as a game in 1799, and authored by Johann Kaspar Hechtle. The Game of Hope. The numbering and subjects on the 36 cards in this deck are identical to the Petit Le Normand, but there are two miniature cards at the top of each card instead of one, one with French suits and one with German. It was a race game and it came with instructions, which have been published in English by Katz and Goodwin. The 36 cards were to be arranged in a square of six rows of six cards, in numerical order and two dice were thrown to see how many cards along the square a player may move his or her marker. There are lucky and unlucky cards, and landing on them brings rewards or penalties. The first player to land on the next-to-last card, the Anchor (called Hope in the booklet), wins. In Christian iconography, the anchor is the symbol of the Christian virtue hope and this explains the name of this card and of the game. If the player overshoots the anchor and lands on the last card, the Cross, he or she will be stuck until a double number is thrown or another player lands on it and the first player can go backward from this space.
Three Game of Hope cards: the Gentleman, the Ship, and the Lady
This type of game belongs to a group of spiral race games collectively known as The Royal Game of Goose. In all of these games the next-to-last space is the winning position. Goose games first appeared in Florence in the 16th century, where they were most likely brought from Greece. Their boards are in the form of a spiral and they may derive from Mehen, a 5,000 year old Egyptian game named after the snake god, who coiled around the sun god Ra to protect him. We have ancient spiraling Mehen boards carved from stone or bone but the game was thought to have died out before 2,000 bc. However, a similar looking clay artifact called the Phaistos disk, was created in Crete, circa 2,000 bc, There is no definite knowledge about the use of this spiraling disk but Rachel has theorized that it was a similar game board. Also, modern anthropologists have found a similar game being played in Africa in the 20th century.
Ancient Egyptian Mehen game board
At the end of this Game of Hope pamphlet, there is a brief explanation of how the deck could also be used for divination. The deck is to be shuffled and the 36 cards laid out in four rows of eight cards and then a row of four on the bottom. The position of a card representing the querent, called the significator, the Gentleman for a man and the Lady for a woman, determines how the cards are to be read, and the reader was encouraged to create a story centered on this character and the cards that surround him or her. This is the standard Grand Tableau used by Lenormand readers today, but the 1799 pamphlet does not provided definite meanings for each card. Some cards, however, were considered positive or negative in the game and this would affect their interpretation. Also the Book is said to be a Grimoire, the Bird is from the Canary Islands, and the Path leads to the Garden.
Coffee Ground Cards
Recently, Tarot scholar Mary Greer was doing research in the British Museum’s archives when she found a deck of cards accompanied by a 31-page book that is an earlier model for the Petit Le Normand. The deck, whose full title is Les Amusements des Allemands, or The Diversions of the Court of Vienna, in which the Mystery of Fortune-Telling from the Grounds of the Coffee-Cup is unravelled, and Three pleasant Games, viz.: 1. Fortune-telling from the Grounds of the Coffee-Cup. 2. Fortune-telling by laying out the cards. 3. The new Imperial Game of numbers are invented, was published in England 1796. The book states that these cards were based on an Austro-German set of cards published in Vienna in 1794. The cards consist of uncolored engravings with a full landscape on each card dominated by the singular subject. There are a few lines of text on the bottom of each card that are meant to be the divinatory meaning but also offer moral advice. There are only 32 cards in the deck, like a Piquet deck, four less than the Lenormand, they are numbered differently, and some cards, like the vipers card, do not relate to any Lenormand cards. The majority of the cards, however, can easily be matched with Lenormand cards. Below is a list of the cards with images provided by the British Museum. The images are used in accordance with the British Museum’s guidelines and are copyrighted to Trustees of the British Museum. They may not be used for commercial purposes without their permission. I have found that nearly all of these images and subjects, as well as the ones found in the Lenormand, can be traced to a deck created in England two decades earlier.
Tree I – Labor, Pains, Long Effort (the second Tree card seems to a better fit with the Lenormand Tree)
Rose (relates to the Lenormand Bouquet)
Bird/Turtledove (Relates to the Lenormand Birds)
Lion (Mary Greer feels that this relates to the Lenormand Bear and I agree that there is an iconic resemblance in the pose that is used for the Bear in the early Lenormand cards)
Tree II – the result of one’s labor and support (this seems to be a better fit for the Lenormand Tree, which means health)
Worms or Vipers (“Bugs”) (does not relate to Lenormand)
There are no cards relating to the Lenormand Ship, Fox, Stork, Tower, Key, or Book (unless you consider the book that the child holds on the Child card).
According to the book and the title, The Diversions of the Court of Vienna, (commonly known as the Coffee Ground Cards) were designed to correlate with numerology and divination with coffee grounds. Coffee grounds reading and tealeaf reading, together known as tasseography, were introduced in Europe in the 17th century with the importation of tea and coffee. Coffee ground reading is traditionally performed with Turkish coffee, and is more popular in Eastern Europe.
To read coffee grounds, water is poured into a white cup on top of ground coffee beans, as is common when brewing Turkish coffee. The client may sip the coffee until sludge is left in the bottom of the cup. Then the reader places a saucer on top of the cup and turns it over so that the excess liquid pours out, leaving the grounds clustered on the bottom and sides of the cup. The remaining dark grounds form patterns and shapes against the white cup. The reader looks for images in the shapes, and notes their darkness, lightness, and position on the cup. When reading the grounds, each image and position adds meaning. Darker shapes are considered negative and light ones positive. The same shape positioned on the side or bottom will have a different meaning.
There are hundreds of possible images the reader might envision in the blobs of coffee. Over time, lists of standard images emerged. One website that I investigated had a list of 120 meaningful shapes to look for. In that list 18 were animals or objects found on Lenormand cards. Because there is a similarity between these lists and the Lenormand images, it was natural to form a correlation between the two techniques, and that is what the Coffee Ground cards did. Also the fact that different positions change the meaning of an image is similar to what happens in a Lenormand reading. Because of this, some have suggested that the Lenormand images were derived from coffee readings, but these similarities do not prove that tasseography is the source. I believe that the source of the Lenormand is more likely found in cartomancy, which evolved from earlier forms of divination.
The first cards in Europe were Islamic playing cards, known as the Mamluk deck, with four suits: coins, cups, scimitars, and polo sticks. They were introduced in Spain in the 14th century. The Spanish and Italians copied the cards and created decks with the suits: coins, cups, swords, and staffs. Both decks have ten pips and three royals in each suit, equaling 52 cards (there are variations with four royals and 56 cards also with only nine pips per suit and 48 cards). The decks spread through Europe, and although the essential structure remained, new suit symbols were invented in Switzerland, Germany, and France.
Hand-painted and gilded examples of the Mamluk cards from the 15th century still exist and they contain calligraphic aphorisms, which suggest divinatory meanings that were attached to the cards. Historian Ross Caldwell has also discovered numerous Spanish references to divination with cards, in literature and in the records of the Inquisition. His work has shown that, at least in Spain, there have been professional card readers at work since the 16th century. It seems that from the beginning, cards were used for both gaming and divination.
One of the first texts to describe divination with cards is the c.1450 Spanish Juego de Naypes (game of cards) by Fernando de la Torre, who dedicated his work to the Countess of Castañeda. Fernando described a game played with a 49-card deck of the four Spanish suits with nine pips and three all male court cards per suit. The deck also included an additional Emperador card, which functioned as a trump. Fernando mentioned that the deck could also be used to tell fortunes, but only on the subject of love. The cards could predict a man’s love interest with each suit representing a different class of women: coins represented maidens, cups wives, swords nuns, and staffs widows. Fernando included instructions for the artists creating the deck and instructed that each card should contain lines from his poem, in a different color for each suit and with the number of lines corresponding to the rank of the card: 20 lines for the Emperor, 12 for the Kings, and on down to one for the aces.
One of the first mentions of symbolism connected with an Italian Tarot deck, a deck containing an extra suit of trumps, is found in a poem attributed to Count Matteo Maria Boiardo, court poet of Ercole D’Este, of Ferrara. Boiardo wrote a poem about a set of Tarot cards, between 1460 and1494. The deck he describes has four minor suits with 14 cards in each and a fifth trump suit with 22 cards, a Fool and 21 figures, which he calls “The Triumph of the Vain World.” This is one of the oldest references to a deck with 22 cards in the trump suit, but only images of the minor suits still exist. Boiardo’s minor suits are, eyes, vases, arrows, and whips, which in his poem symbolize four human passions: jealously for eyes, hope for vases, love for arrows, and fear for wips. Each card contains a three-line poem at the top that can serve as its divinatory meaning.
The next group of texts that we know of that describe divination with cards were published in Germany in the early 15th century. Possibly the oldest is the Mainzer Kartenlosbuch (Mainz fortune-telling book), first published in Mantz or Ulm, in 1505. The Mainzer Kartenlosbuch makes use of the German suited deck. It displays a frivolous eight-line poem next to the image of each card, such as, “You have been drinking too much from the vine, and, therefore, you will find sorrow.”
The Mainzer Kartenlosbuch is an oracle or fortune book, a type of divination book that was popular in the 16th century. In this tradition, the answer to the querent’s question is found in the book in the form of a poem, and the cards are only used as a means to arrive at the right poem. Some fortune books instead of using cards, made use of dice, the time of day, or a wheel to find the correct passage. Indeed, the earliest Mainzer Kartenlosbuch published in 1485, made use of a wheel and the divinatory poems were paired with pictures of birds or animals. One of the best examples of a fortune book is Le Sorti (the fates), written by Francesco Marcolini (c.1500-c.1559) and published in Venice in 1540. The Metropolitan Museum has a copy of this book and it is one of the items that we explore in my class at the museum.
Le Sorti, is more serious in its philosophical purpose. It is heavily influenced by fortune-telling with dice but the book uses playing cards as its tool. Specifically, it makes uses of the king, knight, knave, ten, nine, eight, seven, duce, and ace from the suit of coins. (These are the cards used in the illustrations, but the same cards from any suit may be used.) In the beginning of the book, Le Sorti lists fifty questions that are the only questions that may be asked. Thirteen of them are for men, such as: “Is better to marry an ugly or a beautiful woman?” Thirteen of the questions are for woman, such as: “Will the woman suffer for her lover?” The remaining twenty-four questions are for both men and women, such as: “Is it good to take vengeance on an offence?” or, “Will the world find peace?”
To find the answer to the chosen question, the querent is directed to a page with as allegorical illustration of a virtue, a vice, or a human condition. There are also forty-five pairs of cards illustrated on the page. The querent then draws two cards and finds those two on the page. This matching pair will direct the querent to draw an additional card and proceed to a abstract principle page with depictions of single cards. The querent will match this third card with one of the cards on the page and the text next to the card will direct the querent to a page with an illustration of a philosopher. There are fifty pages with philosophers in the book, and each page also has illustrations of forty-five pairs of cards. The querent must draw one more card and combine it with abstract principle card. Then he or she must find this pair of cards on the philosopher page.The answer will be written next to the pair, written as a three line poem, called a tercet, composed by the poet Lodovico Dolce (1508-1568). The first tercet on Socrates’s page is:
Peace will arrive, making everybody happy;
After you have spent a long time in troubles;
But peace will come with slow steps.
The oldest known deck of cards that was created primarily for divination is John Lenthall’s Fortune-Telling Cards, first published in England in 1665, with additional editions published up to 1712. The deck is structured like a 52-card deck with 10 pips and three royals in each suit but the kings contain a list of possible questions that the deck may answer and the answers are found on lists written on the even numbered pips. The odd pips contain wheels with astrological signs, numbers, and symbols, and the royals are equated to legendary mystics and magicians, with the queens and knaves holding books with numbers and singular words. The method of divination is often described as complicated or convoluted and not worth going into. But as the questions and answers are found written on the cards, this is obviously a fortune book in the form of a deck. At this date, there seems to be no consistent meanings attached to individual cards except for individual decks that had the meaning written on the cards and their meanings were not transferred to other decks.
John Lenthall’s Fortune-Telling Cards, English 1665
I again am thankful to Mary Greer for bringing to my attention an English fortune book published in 1729, Dr. Flamstead’s and Mr. Patridge’s New Fortune-Book containing . . . Their new-invented method of knowing one’s fortune by a pack of cards. Like other fortune books, It contains a method of divination in which a chosen card led to a verse in the book. By 1770, however, a new shorter version appeared whose complete title is Patridge and Flamsted’s new and well Experienced Fortune Book, delivered to the world from the Astrologer’s Office in Greenwich Park, for the benefit of all young men, maids, wives, and widows. Who, by drawing Cards according to the direction of this Book, may know whether Life shall be long or short; whether they shall have the person desired; and every lawful question whatsoever. The signification of Moles in any part of the body; and the interpretation of Dreams, as they relate to good or bad fortune. This book provided a definite meaning for each card in a standard deck and it could be applied to any deck. With this universal system we have the beginning of what is considered true cartomancy, in which any card deck can be used for divination without a list of specific questions and lists of answers. The reader is free to answer any question and the list of answers is only limited by the reader’s imagination. Historian Ross Caldwell tells us that there is further literary evidence found in the play Jack the Gyant-Killer, from 1730, that attests to the practice cartomancy in England in the early 18th century.
In this same period, a new category called morality cards was born. One example is Geistliche Karten (clergyman cards), published in Germany in 1718. This was a deck with moral a homily written on each card. The intent was that one card should be drawn each day as the motto for the day. This practice was combined with playing cards by adding a motto to a standard card and In England, numerous engraved decks were published in the early 18th century. Although they all maintained a connection to the suits and structure of standard playing cards by adding a miniature card or at least the suit symbol and number at the top, the cards were dominated by illustrative scenes and contained a moral message at the bottom. Examples include The Duke of Marlborough’s victories Playing Cards from 1707, Lenthal’sl Proverb Playing Cards published between 1710 and 1720, and Hogarth’s Delightful Playing Cards form 1723 (based on the moralistic artwork of William Hogarth). The Coffee Ground cards, with a moralistic message on each card, actually fit this category (although they do not reference playing cards) and demonstrate the ease in which morality cards could be adapted to divination. The Game of Hope itself is similarly moralistic, in that virtues and vices are suggested in its symbols, but it is also an oracle deck. Now that cartomancy had been born and merged with moral statements and pictures, the stage was set for the development of oracle cards, in which each card is an illustrated symbol designed for divinatory interpretation.
Lenthal’sl Proverb Playing Cards published between 1710 and 1720
Hogarth’s Delightful Playing Cards form 1723
The oldest oracle deck that I have found, the one that appears to be the predecessor of all Lenormand decks and other oracle decks, Including The Burning Serpent Oracle, is S. Hooper’s Conversational Cards, published in England on October 2, 1775. Cards from this deck can be found in The Waddington Collection and in the British Museum collection and are available on line, but with very little information provided. In the few comments on the deck that exist online, they are also referred to as the Tragedy and Comedy Cards, because Tragedy and Comedy is written at the bottom of what may be the title card. The deck consists of 56 uncolored engravings each with a morally descriptive picture but no text other than the title.
When I first found these cards on the Internet, all that was said about them was that they were an antique fortunetelling deck available for use in craft projects. I immediately noticed that the figures were heavily influenced by the art of Hogarth and Joshua Reynolds and suspected that they were created in the mid 18th century, earlier than any other oracle cards. In fact, the scene depicted on the title card is drawn form a painting by Joshua Reynolds depicting the actor David Garrick standing between two allegorical women, one representing tragedy and one comedy. This painting was painted in 1761. So I knew the deck had to have been created after that date, but how long after was the question. It was only when I found a faint trace of a name and date on the bottom of one of the cards, that I learned that it was published by Hooper in 1775. This information allowed me to better research the deck and to find clearer copies. I even discovered that it had three additional cards that I did not know of at first.
The reason that they were called conversational cards is that they were designed for playing a game in which the first card picked became the beginning of a story. Each player then picked an additional card and used it as inspiration to continue the tale. This is something like the game invented by Surrealist artists, called “The Exquisite Corpse.” The Hooper cards are the oldest deck I have seen that has a male and a female significator and these cards suggest that they could become the central figures in the story told with the cards. Rachel suggests that the significator could represent the person who started the story by picking the first card. With the significator as the focus of the story we can see that this game is similar to The Game of Hope’s prescribed method of divination.
The Hooper deck is the oldest one to have a figure with an anchor representing Hope; it has a melancholy hermit contemplating death and the cross; and it has an optimistic figure of Fortune like most non-Lenormand oracle decks and unlike the Tarot with its moralistic Wheel. The complex stories depicted on the cards often help to explain the meaning attached to a single object on the related Lenormand card. The images are rich with cultural references going back to Elizabethan England and to the Classical world and I have spent months attempting to uncover the stories connected with each card. Here is a list of the Burning Serpent cards with a correlation to Lenormand cards and the Hooper cards. Some Hooper cards are applicable to more than one Lenormand and sometimes two cards are applicable to one Lenormand. The correlations are determined by the meanings as much as by the image.
Hermes the Messenger – The Rider – Folly or Idleness (The meaning of Folly or Idleness is, in fact, the opposite of the speed shown by the Rider, which does link them to opposite ends of the same theme. Also the depiction of the fool riding a donkey and wiping his mount is visually comparable to the Rider and it was likely to have been the first card after the title card.)
The Red Clover – The Clover – Courtship (depicting a couple conversing on the glass, which is keeping with one meaning of The Clover)
The Voyage – The Ship – Equipage (a carriage with a crew like a ship)
The House on the Hill – The House – Cottage
The Flaming Tree – The Tree – Industry (depicting a woman in front of a tree regenerating itself from a stump)
The Clouds – The Clouds – Garden (Although the Garden card also relates to the Lenormand Garden, the sky on the card is dominated dark and light clouds that are similar to The Clouds—it relates to both cards.)
The Burning Serpent – The Snake – Flattery or Deceit (depicting Eve and the Serpent)
The Dead Tree – The Coffin – Death but also Physician (who is depicted entering a coffin shop)
The Bouquet – The Flowers or Bouquet – Nobody (holding a rose in his teeth)
The Scythe – The Scythe – Time (depicted holding a Scythe and an hourglass–the hourglass appears with the scythe on The Game of Hope card) but also Plenty (depicted holding Grain)
The Cat-‘o-Three-Tails – The Rod or Whip – School (depicting a school master holding the birch rod in front of a crying student) but also Contemplation (in which the hermit holds a cat-‘o-three-tails)
12. The Owl and Mouse – The Birds or The Owl – Harlequin or player, Courtship, or Friendship (all of which depict two people conversing, which is the same meaning)
The Girl and Boy – The Child – Innocence (depicting a boy with a dog)
The Fox – The Fox – Courage (depicting a lion and a rooster; the rooster often appears with the fox on Lenormand cards) but also Treachery (which is similar in meaning)
The Bear – The Bear – Courage (This card depicts a lion instead of a bear as in the Coffee Ground Cards. The Bear means mother, protection and strength and courage is a virtue related to protection and Strength) also Charity (which depicts a mother)
The Stars – The Star – Religion (depicting a woman holding a light like a star)
The Stork – The Stork – Charity (depicting a woman nursing two babies like the stork in her nest)
The Hound – The Dog – Fidelity (depicting a dog defending a house)
The Tower – The Tower – Church (with its steeple) but also Palace (with men looking down on a steeple from inside a tower)
The Garden – The Garden – Garden
The Mountain – The Mountain – Crime (a mountain with a gallows in front blocks a thief’s path)
The Path – The Ways – Equipage (which is on a winding path but also Tragedy and Comedy (depicting Garrick between Tragedy and Comedy suggesting a choice)
The Mice – The Mice – Gratitude (depicting a mouse freeing a lion in a net) but also Ruin (which is closer in meaning) as well as Fidelity (which depicts a burglar trying to bribe the dog with a sausage)
The Heart – The Heart – Heart
The Gold Ring – The Ring – Hymen or Marriage (depicting a couple before the god of marriage)
The Book of Life – The Book – Religion (a woman depicted holding a large book) but also School (depicting boys with books)
The Letter – The Letter – Law or Security (depicting two lawyers with a contract) but also Courtship (although the communication depicted is verbal the meaning is similar)
The Man – The Gentleman – Gentleman
The Woman – The Lady – Lady
The Lilies – The Lily – Folly or Idleness (with lilies growing in front of his donkey)
The Sun – The Sun – Fortune (who foretells success like the Sun)
The Moon – The Moon – Honour (depicting a victorious general which is similar in meaning)
The Key – The Key – Law or Security (the lawyers have a locked strong box)
The Jumping Fish – The Fish – Liberality (a woman who is giving money to the poor, which is similar in meaning)
The Anchor – The Anchor – Hope
The Rusty Cross – The Cross – Contemplation (with a hermit contemplating a cross)
Osiris and 38. Isis these do not correspond to Lenormand cards but do correspond to several Hooper cards including Fortune, Prudence, Religion, Cupid or Love, and Justice (which depict divine beings and represent higher spiritual influences)
I believe that the Hooper Cards are one of the earliest, if not the earliest oracle deck. Oracle decks are not a variation on the Lenormand deck but the larger group to which Lenormand belongs. The Lenormand is an oracle deck and the earliest oracle cards contained moral allegories and references to divine figures. By creating the The Burning Serpent Oracle Rachel and I were attempting to add these aspects to the Lenormand cards and in effect we were reconnecting it with its roots.
In the previous issues, we were discussing the various cards in the Waite-Smith Tarot in which Waite’s description did not match Smith’s art. As we have seen, these discrepancies were not confined to the minor suits. In the last issue we saw that Waite’s description of the Chariot trump differs from Smith’s art as well. We learned that this happened because while Smith based the design on the drawing of the famous 19th century French occultist Eliphas Levi (1810-1875), which he published in his Transcendental Magic, Waite was basing his description on statements made by Levi in earlier chapters of the book, statements that spoke of details not included in the drawing at least not in an obvious way. We find similar discrepancies when we investigate another card that Smith based on Levi’s art, the Devil.
In the mid 19th century when science was discrediting occult philosophy as superstition, Levi embraced the occult. Instead of superstition he found that it contained a sophisticated mystical philosophy and he became the most influential proponent of this occult philosophy in his time. Levi created a magical synthesis where Kabala, Hermeticism, alchemy, Pythagorean number symbolism, astrology, ceremonial magic, and especially Tarot were the key ingredients. The purpose of his magical system was to channel psychic energy toward the goal of self-mastery and eventually enlightenment. For a more complete discussion of Levi see the section on Levi in my book, The Tarot: History, Symbolism, and Divination.
In 1854 Levi published his first book, The Doctrine of High Magic. The following year he completed a second volume entitled The Ritual of High Magic. They were later combined together as two volumes in one book and, in 1896, Waite translated the two volumes into English, and his translation was published by Rider (the publisher that published the Waite Smith Tarot) under the title Transcendental Magic. In Transcendental Magic, There are 22 chapters in each volume, which correspond to the 22 trumps in the Tarot’s fifth suit. Levi named the trumps keys. Chapters 1 – 20 correspond to the trumps or keys bearing the same numbers as in the Tarot of Marseilles order. Chapter 21 corresponds to the Fool, which Levi believed belonged in this penultimate position, and 22 to the World.
In his synthesis, Levi associated each of the 22 Tarot keys, presented in his order, with the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. He started with the first letter, aleph, assigned to the Magician; proceeding to shin, the next to last letter, assigned to the Fool; and then the last, letter, tau, assigned to the World. In the Kabala, each letter was also assigned a correlation with a planet, a constellation, or an element, and Levi assigned these, as well, to the Tarot keys connected with each letter. Levi’s Kabalistic correspondences were based on the writing of the Christian Kabalist Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680). As Kircher was trying to dissociate the Kabala from its Jewish origin his correspondences differ from the associations based on the Jewish Kabalistic text the Sepher Yetzirah that was later used by the Golden Dawn, the occult society to which Waite and Smith belonged. To complicate this further, the Golden Dawn placed the Fool at the beginning of the series and assigned the first Hebrew letter, aleph, to the Fool, the second letter, beth, to the Magician and proceeded in this order until they reached the World, which was the only key that was associated with the same letter in both systems. The Golden Dawn also switched the positions of Justice and Strength, so that in their system Strength would correlate with teth and Leo and Justice to lamed and Libra.
In Levi’s system, therefore, the Devil, key 15, is associated with the letter Samekh and the planet Mercury, but in the Golden Dawn’s system, The Devil is the letter ayin and the constellation Capricorn, a fitting association for the goat-headed figure.
Now let’s look at the Waite-Smith Devil, and compare it to a drawing by Levi called The Sabbatic Goat. Although it was published as a front piece in the second volume of Transcendental Magic, its description can be found in chapter 15, which clearly links it with the Devil Trump. Both can be seen above. Let’s also compare both of these to the Tarot of Marseilles Devil, also seen above.
It is easy to see that Smith’s drawing for the Devil in the Wait-Smith Tarot is a synthesis of the Marseilles Devil with elements derived from Levi’s figure and Waite even mentions Levi’s interpretation of the figure in his commentary in The Pictorial Key to the Tarot.
Like the Marseilles card, Smith’s Devil has a male and female minion chained to his altar, has bat wings instead of Levi’s bird wings, and is holding a torch in his left hand. But like Levi’s Figure, the Devil has a goat’s head with horns instead of the Marseilles antlers and a pentagram on his head, although Smith has inverted it, possibly because of the influence of Levi’s discussion of the inverted pentagram as a symbol of the Goat of Mendes. Like Levi, it also has one arm raised with a hand gesture and one arm down, and is sitting on its altar.
It seems that Smith has dropped the female breasts that appear in both of the others and the male genitals that Levi has transformed into Mercury’s caduceus, no doubt, to confirm his Devil’s connection to Mercury’s planet. Waite has consistently said that the trumps in the Tarot do not relate to the Hebrew letters and he included details in the layout of his deck that would contradict both Levi’s and the Golden Dawn’s associations. But he does appear to have approved with the Golden Dawn’s celestial and elemental associations, which can clearly be seen on at least two-thirds of the trumps. Or, are these celestial associations Smith’s doing.
There is evidence for this in the fact that although Smith dropped the symbol of Mercury and kept the goat head linking her figure to Capricorn, Waite wrote in his description of the picture in The Pictorial Key that, “At the pit of the Stomach there is a sign of Mercury.” It seems that he was actually describing the caduceus in Levi’s picture here and not the image on Smith’s card. Also he seems not to be concerned that he is connecting the figure with Mercury instead of Capricorn. Later in the same paragraph he makes a connection between the two minions on the card and the figures of Adam and Eve on the Lovers card, which he mistakenly calls the “fifth card” when it is actually the sixth. This may attest to the fact that the book and deck were created quickly without much time to edit. But then, I took a year to write The Tarot: History, Symbolism, and Divination and had it edited by two expert editors and it still went to print with mistakes.
In my last article we discussed the various minor arcana cards in the Waite-Smith Tarot in which Waite’s description did not match Smith’s art. These discrepancies, however, were not confined to the minor suits alone. As we will see, Waite’s description of the Chariot also differs from Smith’s art. To understand the themes that were incorporated into the Waite-Smith Chariot and why this discrepancy happened, we must first discuss a 19th century occultist who was influential in shaping Waite’s view of the Tarot and who created the model for Smith’s design.
Alphonse-Louis Constant was born in 1810, in Paris, to a poor family. At the age of fifteen, he entered a seminary and by 1835 he became a deacon. Because of romantic inclinations, however, he left the seminary and never became a priest. Constant had a talent for drawing and writing and made a living for himself as an illustrator for magazines and books, by creating paintings for churches, as an actor, a schoolmaster, and various other jobs. He was also interested in social reform and he became a vocal advocate for women’s rights and communism. On two occasions his political views earned him several months in prison.
In 1846, Constant married Noemie Cadiot, a young woman of 18. They had a daughter the next year. Constant’s marriage, however, ended badly. In 1853, Noemie left him and the following year their daughter died. It was at this low point in his life that Constant embraced occultism, a daring move at the time because thanks to the influence of the “enlightenment” in the early to mid 19th century interest in the occult was dying out. To mark his transformation, Constant changed his name to Eliphas Levi, which he felt was the Hebrew equivalent of his first two names, Alphonse-Luis. No doubt, most readers will be familiar with his work by his occult name.
The newly born magus, Levi, applied the same daring and individuality, the qualities that had earned him a place in prison for his political views, to his new field of interest. He considered High Magic, as he called it, a mystical path to enlightenment. The key ingredients in Levi’s magical synthesis were Kabbalah, Hermeticism, alchemy, Pythagorean number symbolism, astrology, ceremonial magic, and especially Tarot. He never wrote a book on any of these subjects alone because he believed that all of these should be combined in one interconnected doctrine, a type of occult science that was designed to channel psychic energy toward the goal of self-mastery and the development of one’s will.
In 1854 Levi published his first book under his new name, The Doctrine of High Magic. The following year he completed a second volume entitled The Ritual of High Magic. They were later combined together as one book, and in 1896, when Waite translated the two volumes into English. It was published by Rider under the title Transcendental Magic.
The central component of Levi’s synthesis was his correlation between the twenty-two cards in the Tarot’s fifth suit, which he called keys, and the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. He started with trump one, the Magician, which he aligned with the first letter, aleph, and proceeding in order to the World, which he aligned with the last letter, tau. Of course this only makes use of 21 keys. To make the correlation work he placed the unnumbered Fool in the penultimate position just before the World and aligned him with the next-to-the-last letter shin. This is the reason why Waite placed the Fool in this same position in his Pictorial Key to the Tarot, which was written to accompany the Waite-Smith deck. In the Golden Dawn system, the Fool would have been the first card and therefore aligned with aleph.
Each of the Hebrew letters was originally a picture of an object or animal, something like a hieroglyph, and the name of each letter retains this meaning. For example, aleph means ox and was originally a stylized picture of an ox head. In the Kabbalah, each letter was also assigned a correlation with a planet, a constellation, or an element, and a path on the Kabbalistic symbol for the journey toward enlightenment called the Tree of life. Both of Levi’s books contain twenty-two chapters and each chapter presents a correlation of subjects freely associated with the appropriate number, Hebrew letter, pictorial symbol, celestial or elemental association, or Tarot key.
Chapter seven in The Doctrine of High Magic, which became volume one of Transcendental Magic, is, of course, linked with the Tarot’s Chariot, the seventh key if we are following the Tarot of Marseilles order as Levi was. The seventh Hebrew letter is zain, which means sword. Therefore, the title of the chapter is “The Fiery Sword.” Because Levi followed the correlations of the 17th century Christian Kabbalists, Kircher, instead of the more traditional Jewish associations, he equates zain with Principalities, the third of the nine orders of angels found in the medieval Christian world-view, instead of the constellation Gemini as recommended in Jewish texts such as the Sepher Yetzirah. He also associates it with the seventh sepiroth in the Kabalistic Tree of Life, which he called Conquest. In this chapter he treats us to a description of the Chariot key in which he projects numerous associations of his magical synthesis onto the traditional image.
“(The septenary is) represented in the Tarot by a crowned warrior, who bears a triangle on his cuirass (breastplate) and is posed upon a cube, to which two sphinxes are harnessed, straining in opposite directions, while their heads are turned the same way. This warrior is armed with a fiery sword and holds in his left hand a scepter surmounted by a triangle and a sphere. The cube is the Philosophical Stone; the sphinxes are the forces of the Great Agent, corresponding to Jakin and Boaz, the two pillars of the Temple (of Solomon); the cuirass is the knowledge of Divine Things, which renders a wise man invulnerable to human assaults; the scepter is the Magic Wand; the fiery sword is the symbol of victory over the deadly sins, seven in number like the virtues, the conceptions of both being typified by the ancients under the figures of the seven planets then known. “
(Page 80; Levi, Eliphas; translated by Waite, A. E.; Transcendental Magic; Samuel Weiser, New York: 1970)
It is surprising that, although Levi was an artist, he did not design his own version of the Tarot deck, one that would illustrate his theories. It is believed that he was working on such a deck but never completed it. He did, however, complete the illustration for one card, The Chariot, which he included in chapter 22 of the second volume of his book. Chapter 22 is entitled The Book of Hermes and focuses on Levi’s theories concerning the 22 Tarot keys.
We can see that Levi’s illustration, although more realistic in style, is firmly based on the Tarot of Marseilles model. However, he reads into what is included in the Marseilles image and, for the most part, makes the details conform to his fantasies. His description included next to the illustration in Volume Two has been altered form the one presented in Volume One.
Jean Dodal Chariot 1701
“Hieroglyph, a Cubic Chariot, with four pillars and an azure and starry drapery. In the chariot, between the four pillars, a victor, crowned with a circle, adorned with three radiant golden pentagrams. Upon his breast are three superposed squares, on his shoulder the Urim and Thummim of the sovereign sacrificer, represented by the two crescents of the moon in Gedulah and Geburah; in his hand is a scepter surmounted by a globe, square and triangle: his attitude is proud and tranquil. A double sphinx or two sphinxes joined at the haunches are harnessed to the chariot; they are pulling in opposite directions, but are looking the same way. They are respectively black and white. On the square, which forms the fore part of the chariot is the Indian lingam surmounted by the flying sphere of the Egyptians. This hieroglyph, which we reproduce exactly, is perhaps the most beautiful and complete of all those that are comprised in the Clavicle of the Tarot.”
(Page 388; ibid.)
In chapter two of The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, Waite describes each of the trumps, and he has this to say about the Chariot:
“This is represented in some extant codices as being drawn by two sphinxes, and the device is in consonance with the symbolism, but it must not be supposed that such was the original form; the variation was invented to support a particular Hypothesis (Court de Gebelin’s theory that the Tarot originated in ancient Egypt, first published in 1781). In the eighteenth century white horses were yoked to the car.”
(Page 15; Waite, Arthur Edward; The Pictorial Key to the Tarot; Harper & Row, San Francisco: 1971)
Indeed, the earliest cards do depict horses harnessed to the chariot and Levi was depicting sphinxes to add an Egyptian flavor to the image, but he did have a historical model for his card. One of the oldest French Tarots, The Jacques Vieville Tarot, published in Paris circa 1650, has sphinxes on the Chariot. But the typical French Chariot in the most popular form (the Tarot of Marseilles) depicts horses on the Chariot. In the many variations of the Tarot of Marseilles the charioteer is most often holding a scepter toped with a sphere and a triangle, the armor plates covering the charioteer’s shoulders have human faces seen in profile that suggest the image of crescent moons with faces, and the crude depiction of the chariot helps it to appear as a cubic block sitting on the ground with the wheels protruding at angles on either side. But there is no card depicting a flaming sword.
Jacques Vieville Chariot c1650
Levi’s Charioteer stands with his left hand on his hip and holds a scepter in his right hand as he does in almost ever Marseilles model. His scepter is toped with a sphere and a cone as in the Marseilles cards. I assume that these are the globe and triangle that Levi mentions, but, as for the square, he is probably referring to the disk at the base of the cone. The symbolism of the square and the triangle are important to Levi because they represent the four and the three that comprise the seven, the number of the card.
Notice that the charioteer is not holding a fiery sword, or any other sword, and Levi seems to have dropped this detail considered so important in Volume One. Also in Volume One, he said that the warrior was holding the scepter in his left hand, not his right as he is here. This seems significant, because the only model in the French decks that I have found that has the scepter in the left hand is the Chariot found in the Jacques Vieville Tarot, the one with the sphinxes. When he first described the Chariot in Volume One Levi may have been focusing on the card from this deck (the only known copy is found in the national library in Paris) and when it came time to draw his own version he opted for the more common pose with the scepter in the right hand.
In the oldest French cards, the charioteer’s crown has three fleurs-de-lis, fitting for a French prince, but Levi interprets these as three pentagrams. The angles drawn on his breast plate Levi interpreted as a triangle in Volume One but now he has decided that they are the corners of three squares, again, the three and four symbolism.
On his shoulders, the Charioteer has armor plates hammered into faces. Seen in profile they suggest a waxing moon on our left and a waning moon on our right, notice that Levi has placed the light sphinx on the side with the waxing moon and the dark one with the waning moon. Levi has equated these symbols with the Urim and Thummim, two stones that were attached to the breast plate or worn on the shoulders of the ancient Hebrew priests and used in divination to provide a negative or positive answer to a question, although it is uncertain from the Biblical references which stone is positive and which one is negative. Similarly, in Volume One, Levi compared the sphinxes to the dark and light pillars said to reside in Solomon’s Temple: Boaz and Jachim, which are depicted on the High Priestess in the Waite Smith Tarot.
As we can see on the French cards, the Charioteer has a small shield attached to the front of his vehicle. In most examples, this shield contains the initials of the card maker. Levi added the Indian lingam (upright stone) and yoni (dish) symbols here. These and Tantric symbols for the interaction of the male and female sexual organs. These symbolize the creative essence that Levi sought to channel in his magical practice. Above this, Levi has interpreted the decorative scrollwork found at the top of the shield on some Marseilles cards as the Egyptian solar disk, a symbol of the divine power that Levi hoped to attain once the creative essence had been channeled. All of these symbols are being equated to the cubic stone which was the raw material that the alchemists hoped to turn into the magical elixir that they sought. Levi loved to mix the symbolism of various cultural traditions in this way.
Notice, also, that Levi has added a small sphere below the dish. With this addition the Tantric symbol begins to look like a stylized sword and as the solar disk is a type of flame, perhaps Levi meant this symbol to also represent the fiery sword from Volume One. After all, he did not say it was in the warrior’s hand, only that he was armed with it. If this is true, then we can see that although Levi wishfully projects his symbols into tiny abstract details, all of his observations are sparked by the actual details included in the traditional cards. The only thing totally fabricated by him is the addition of the Hebrew letter zain. The Arabic numeral seven is, of course, replacing the Roman numeral on the traditional cards.
Pamela Colman Smith’s Chariot 1909
Now let’s look at Pamela Colman Smith’s Chariot. Although different in style and symbolically simplified, it is clearly based on Levi’s design and as Levi was Waite’s inspiration for much of the symbolism in the deck, it is likely that he suggested this model to Smith. However she has allowed herself artistic license in recreating the image. Instead of three stars on the crown she has one. Instead of the suggestion of three squares on the breast she had one complete square. The warrior’s left hand is off his hip, the Tantric symbol has been simplified to a wheel and axil, and the sphinxes are complete and separate and each is looking its own way. Notice that she has changed the dark and light sides so that they no longer coincide with the waxing and waning moons. Also she has more clearly depicted the chariot as the cubic stone, resting on the ground with the charioteer seemingly embedded in it, or as the spirit off the stone rising out of it.
In the Pictorial Key to the Tarot, Waite clearly states that the Chariot design is based on Levi’s model and he has therefore included the sphinxes, although earlier in the book he mistakenly writes that they are not based on a historic model. He also seems to veer away from Levi’s magical associations for the Chariot and sees his as a character of lesser importance. As we said in the beginning, his description does not entirely coincide with Smiths art. Waite begins the section with the following description,
“An erect and princely figure carrying a drawn sword and corresponding, broadly speaking, to the traditional description, which I have given in the first part. On the shoulders of the victorious hero are supposed to be the Urim and Thummim.”
(Page 96; Waite, Arthur Edward; The Pictorial Key to the Tarot; Harper and Row, San Francisco:1971)
Obviously Smith’s figure is true to Levi’s and is only carrying a scepter, not a sword. Waite seemed to be carried away by Levi’s description in the first volume and neglected to notice that the sword is not in the picture. Also, I am not sure what Wait means by “supposed to be.” Is he complaining about Smith for not putting the stones on the shoulders or about Levi for saying the crescents are the stones? If he is complaining about Levi, I believe that Waite has misinterpreted him. When Levi says that the moons are the stones, I believe that he is only suggesting that they are symbolically linked. Unlike Wait, Levi drew his own picture and knew what he was depicting.
This article was first published in the Restored Temple of Hermes Newsletter in 2005
copyright Robert M. Place 2005
As I mentioned in my last article on the famous, 1909, Waite-Smith Tarot, I often find in books and articles that Waite is referred to as the designer of the deck. I do not believe that the term designer should be applied to Waite. To design, in its artistic meaning, is to create a visual plan for a work of art or to actually create the work. One cannot design a visual work of art by describing it in words and Waite was not known to possess a talent for visual communication. He hired Smith to design the deck because she did possess the talent. The question then becomes; How involved was Waite in this project?
In his memoirs, Waite specifies that he paid special attention to the direction of three trumps but we cannot assume that he had as much control over all of the cards. It is most probable that for the Major Arcana Waite described the design that he desired for each card, complete with the symbolism it should contain and the significance of each symbol, and, then, he would have stepped out of the picture and let Smith work in her usual spontaneous and intuitive manor. Waite seems to have given Smith more freedom to express her visionary talent in the creation of the fifty-six Minor Arcana, which comprised the bulk of the work. When the art was complete, Waite looked at each piece and wrote a description for his book, The Pictorial Key to the Tarot.
That the art came first and the descriptions second, is demonstrated by the fact that Waite at times misinterprets what he is looking at. As this is not always obvious to Wait’s readers, I am often asked to give examples. Therefore, I will describe some differences between the words and the art here.
The most often sited example is the Waite-Smith Ace of Cups. The Waite-Smith Ace of Cups depicts a hand emerging from a cloud holding a chalice. A dove is depositing a host in the chalice and five streams are emerging from the chalice as in a fountain and pouring down to the pond below. In The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, Waite says, “the hand issues from the cloud holding in its palm the cup from which four streams are pouring.”
This is an image that borrows heavily from Christian iconography. The cup seems to be an allegorical image of the Grail. The dove is the standard Christian symbol for the Holy Spirit and the host with the cross is the body of Christ. This Grail is marked with the letter “M” representing Mary. The Grail is being depicted as the body of Mary, which is a vessel receiving the body and blood of Christ. The five streams represent the five wounds, which Christ bled at his crucifixion to bring eternal life to the world. It appears that, Waite would prefer to connect the Grail to the fountain in the center of Eden from which four rivers flowed. He, therefore, saw only four streams.
The next example will be less obvious to most readers. On the Nine of Cups Smith depicts a man sitting boldly in the center facing us with his legs spread and his arms folded. Behind him is a curved table with nine cups. Smith has depicted him as fat with a smug smile. His body gesture is a classic example of defensiveness and defiance, as if he is guarding his cups, which are obviously too many for one person. Of the listed divinatory associations he seems to be illustrating victory, success, and advantage, but Smith has depicted these in an unfavorable light, as something selfish. However, Waite seems unaware of these overtones and describes the character as “a goodly personage” who “has feasted to his heart’s content.”
The Six of the Swords depict a man propelling a boat with a pole. In front of him, sit a woman and a child and in front of them six vertical swords seem to be stuck into the boat. The figures have their backs toward us and their heads are bowed as if in sorrow, which is appropriate considering their heavy load of swords and the overall heaviness of the design. The water on the right side of the boat is choppy and turbulent and the water to the left is calm. Waite seems not to notice the differences in the texture of the water. He only says that “the course is smooth” and, in spite of the oversized swords, that “the freight is light.”
On Smith’s Page of Swords the trees and clouds are blowing in the wind, birds are flying and the ground seems to be swirling. Everything in the design seems to be moving except the page himself, who stands defiantly in the center on a rise in the earth with his weight on one foot holding his sword aloft and looking over his shoulder. Waite, however, says that the page is “in the act of swift walking.” Even if his right leg, the one not bearing weight, is preparing to swing forward and allow him to step off the rise, this is not a depiction of walking but of a pause in the walk a moment of stillness in the midst of this commotion.
Waite says that the man on the Seven of Pentacles is “a young man leaning on his staff” and looking “intently at seven pentacles attached to a clump of greenery on his right.” Waite has missed a small detail at the bottom of the “staff” that depicts the head of a hoe. The pole is not a staff but the handle of the hoe. With this detail added, the picture now suggests that the man has cultivated the greenery on his right and he is admiring the fruits of his labor. Smith’s inspiration for this card is possibly an 1859 painting by Millet called “Man with a Hoe.”
Smith’s image for the Eight of Pentacles is based on The Sola Busca Tarot’s Six of Coins which represents a metal worker raising the shield like disks that are the suit symbols for that deck. In Smith’s design, the craft worker is sitting at a bench and using a small hammer to chase the stars on the metal pentacles. When he is done, he hangs them from a board possibly to display them for sale. Waite calls him “an artist in stone at his work.” But, the pentacles are too thin for stone, his bench is too light, the pentacles are hung by a cord or a wire that would be difficult to attach to stone and too weak to hold its weight, and they are colored yellow, representing gold. Waite wanted him to be the apprentice to the artist on the Three of Pentacles, who is carving stone. The man is doing production work in contrast to the individually creative work of the artist on the Three of Pentacles.
There are other examples in which Waite’s descriptions of Smith’s illustrations seem vague or uncertain but the ones I have listed here are examples where I strongly disagree with Waite’s interpretation of the picture. I feel that these examples demonstrate that Waite was not the author of these designs and that he only commented on them after they were complete. All of these examples are cards from the four minor suits but there are also examples of discrepancies in Waite’s descriptions of the trumps. But because this discussion will be more involved, I will save it for my next article.
In 1903 Arthur Edward Waite, with the help of two friends succeeded, in taking control of a faction of the London branch of the famous occult society the Golden Dawn and created a smaller separate group. Under Waite’s direction magical practice and divination were frowned upon. Waite believed that the main purpose of occult practice was spiritual transformation – the search for enlightenment – and this became the focus of the group. One of the members of this group was the gifted artist Pamela Colman Smith.
Smith had studied art in the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. As an adult, she settled in England and made her living as a set and costume designer at the Lyceum Theater, and as a storyteller, an illustrator, and a fine artist. In the early 1900’s, she regularly showed her work in New York at the gallery owned by the famous photographer Alfred Steiglitz and received critical acclaim, particularly for her visionary drawings. Smith was part of the Symbolist art movement that was prevalent at that time. Symbolists were noted for the sensual beauty of their work and for the portrayal of subjects based on mythology, dreams, and fantasy. As an artist, a psychic, and an occultist, Smith was well suited to this style. She tended to work intuitively and spontaneously. When she was not illustrating a particular legend or story, she would allow herself to fall into a light trance while listening to classical music and draw what she saw. For example, once, while listening to a composition by Beethoven she painted a majestic queen in flowing robes standing on the sea carrying a small ball-like moon in her hands.
Among Smith’s friends were many artists and writers including Bram Stoker, Florence Farr, and William Butler Yeats. It was Yeats who introduced her to the Golden Dawn. Smith impressed her friends and acquaintances with her open hearted friendliness and her child-like innocence. Yet, they recognized a depth behind the innocence, especially in that she had a gift as a psychic as well as an artist. Many believed that she had the ability to directly perceive the spirit world while she worked at her art. John Butler Yeats, the father of her friend William Butler Yeats described her in a letter to his son:
She will go far because she believes in all her ideas… She has the simplicity and naiveté of an old dry as dust savant (but) with a child’s heart.
(Greer, Mary, K.; Women of the Golden Dawn: Rebels and Priestesses; Park Street Press, Rochester, Vermont: 1995; Page 406.)
In 1909 Waite hired Smith to create a new artistic Tarot. He was hoping that with Smith’s talent she would make a deck that was both an appealing work of art and one that clarified the mystical story in the Tarot. Like a Renaissance artwork, it would have body and soul, beauty and meaning. Of course this deck was destined to become the most famous Tarot deck in the world. The deck was originally named just The Tarot, but it became The Rider Waite Tarot in the U.S. and now commonly referred to by scholars – to acknowledge Smith’s role -as The Waite-Smith Tarot.
But, what was Smith’s role? I often fine in books and articles that Waite is referred to as the designer of the deck; sometimes, even in recent books, Smith is not mentioned at all. I do not believe that the term designer should be applied to Waite. One cannot design a visual work of art by describing it in words and Waite possessed no talent for visual communication. He hired Smith to design the deck because she did possess the talent. As an artist and a writer myself I find that people often have trouble separating these roles. On my first two decks, The Alchemical Tarot and The Angels Tarot, I designed and illustrated the decks and coauthored with Rosemary Ellen Guiley the accompanying books. Yet in early reviews it was stated that I co-designed these decks.
The question then becomes, how involved was Waite in this project? Certainly Waite had a mystical theory of the Tarot, a vision that he hoped Smith would express and it was in his nature to take seriously the direction of this project. Yet he hired Pamela because she had a gift for intuitive painting not the kind of work that is easily directed. Waite briefly acknowledges this challenge in his memoirs:
I saw to it therefore that Pamela Colman Smith should not be picking up casually any floating images from my own or another mind. She had to be spoon-fed carefully over the Priestess card, over that which is called the Fool and over the Hanged Man.
(Waite, Arthur Edward; Shadows of Life and Thought, Kessinger Publishing, Page 185.)
Waite specifies that he paid special attention to the direction of the three trumps listed above but we cannot assume that he had as much control over all of the cards.
Now, let’s look at the time frame in which Smith completed this work. Smith was in New York attending a show of her work at Stieglitz’ gallery in March or 1909. By necessity, she would have been working in January and February on the pieces that she would need for her show. On November 19, 1909, Smith wrote a letter to Stieglitz in which she mentions finishing her Tarot.
I’ve just finished a big job for very little cash! A set of designs for a pack of Tarot cards 80 designs – I shall send some over – of the original drawings as some people may like them! – I will send you a pack – (printed in color by lithography) – (probably very badly!) As soon as they are ready – by Dec. 1 – I think
(Kaplan; The Encyclopedia of Tarot, Vol III; U.S Games Stamford, CT:1990; Pages 30-33.)
The deck did come out in December and it is unlikely that Smith’s artwork could be transferred to plates and printed in less than two weeks and at the time that Smith is writing she seems to already have the original art back from the printer. We, therefore, can assume that she worked on the designs sometime between May, when she returned from New York, and October, the latest she could have delivered the art to the printer – within a five-month period. It is common for an artist to take a year or more to create a Tarot deck, I certainly do, and six months or less is a short time to produce eighty designs (there are seventy-eight cards in the deck and no one is sure what the other two designs were but perhaps they were a title card and an advertisement card) even for a spontaneous artist like Smith. Also, from Smith’s message we may surmise that she was not paid half of a year’s salary for this work, which may have made it necessary for her to complete other works for pay during this six-month period.
Even when it is clear that Waite did not design the deck, many people still assume that Waite oversaw every aspect of the design of the Waite-Smith Tarot and attribute even the smallest details on each card to his direction. This type of interaction between an artist and a director, however, would have been tedious and time consuming and given the short amount of time in which the deck was created it would actually have been almost impossible for Waite to have had this much input in all seventy-eight cards. It would have been highly impractical for Waite to be standing in Smith’s studio looking over her shoulder everyday during the months that she was working and he would have to choose which images merited his attention. Waite has continually expressed in his writing that he was most concerned with the symbolism of the Major Arcana, which he saw as expressing the mystical quest, and we can also infer from his writing that he would have been less concerned with the Minor Arcana, which he associated merely with divination.
It is most probable that for the Major Arcana Waite described the design that he desired for each card, complete with the symbolism it should contain and the significance of each symbol, and, then, he would have stepped out of the picture and let Smith work in her usual spontaneous and intuitive manor – it was Smith’s intuitive psychic ability that convinced Waite that Smith was the right person for task in the first place. Although the original art for the deck no longer exists, we can see from the printed copies that Smith drew the designs in black ink and colored them with watercolors in her usual manor. Art produced in this manor cannot be edited. If Waite desired changes once a design was complete, Smith would have had to recreate the entire piece, and considering the short time in which the work was completed that can not have happened often.
It seems that Waite gave Smith more freedom to express her visionary talent in the creation of the fifty-six Minor Arcana, which comprised the bulk of the work. Unlike earlier Tarots, which commonly display only a repetition of the suit symbol and possibly some decorative details on the pip cards, the Wait-Smith pips are illustrated with complete scenes in which figures interact with the correct number of suit symbols on each card. These scenes are allegorical and express the intended divinatory meaning of each card. As this innovation is one of the outstanding characteristics of the deck, it is likely that Wait requested it. We can also gather that he explained the general elemental and symbolic structure of the four suits, and provided a list, from the teachings of the Golden Dawn, Etteilla, and other sources, of traditional meanings that are associated with each card. These lists are included with each minor card in The Pictorial Key to the Tarot. Many of the meanings are contradictory and Smith’s illustrations convey only some of the listed meanings. As we can see in Waite’s descriptions in his book, Waite seems to have formed his opinion on which meaning is being conveyed after Smith created the illustrations. It is, therefore, likely that Smith chose from Waite’s list the meaning that she wanted to convey for each card.
Further evidence for Smith’s independence in the creation of the Minor Arcana can be gleaned from the fact that many of the characters and symbols that she incorporated in the pips are modeled on her own paintings that she completed sometimes years before receiving the commission. Many observers have also mentioned that besides the Tarot of Marseilles many of Smith’s illustrations for the Minor Arcana are clearly modeled on the 15th century Sola Busca Tarot, the only Renaissance deck to have figures and complete scenes on the pips. A complete set of photos of the Sola Busca engravings had arrived at the British Museum two years before Smith’s commission and was certainly available for Smith to study. It is known from Waite’s memoirs that he was a frequent visitor to the museum and he may have recommended the Sola Busca deck to Smith – in The Pictorial Key to the Tarot Waite acknowledges that there is an historic precedence for the fully illustrated pips. Also in the first article to be published about the deck, in the December 1909 “Occult Review,” the editor of the magazine introduced the deck and mentions that it was designed by Pamela Colman Smith, who did extensive research of historic Tarot decks.
The Sola Busca and Smith’s Three of Swords
The pips in the Sola Busca deck contain scenes in which figures interact with the correct number of suit symbols for each card in the same way as Smith’s pips. Although we have no evidence that the images on the Sola Busca pips were intended to illustrate their divinatory meaning, other than a rare 19th century Russian edition of the Etteilla deck, this is the only Tarot that made use of this novel approach before the Waite-Smith deck. Besides taking the same approach as the Sola Busca, the Waite-Smith cards are also the same proportion as the Sola Busca cards, and many individual cards are obviously modeled on individual Sola Busca cards. The most obvious example is Smith’s three of swords which contains an image of a heart pierced by three swords that is almost identical to the image on the Sola Busca three of swords. Besides the pips many of Smith’s royal cards are also modeled on Sola Busca royal cards and even the her Fool seems to be modeled on the Sola Busca five of cups which contains a similar figure with a small dog at his feet. Many other images found in the deck can be connected with figures found in paintings in the British Museum and in museums in Holland. It is likely that Smith found inspiration in these works as well.
As we can see, although Waite gave the initial instructions to Smith for what he intended the deck to convey he could not have overseen the entire creative process nor controlled the numerous and subtle influences that Smith incorporated into the work. It is only when he saw the finished art for the cards, that he wrote his impressions and added these before the lists of meanings in his book. The fact that these descriptions were only written after the art was complete is evident in the nature of the text. It reads like a description of a first time observer, one who, at times, misunderstands what he is looking at. This is especially obvious in his description for the Ace of Cups, Waite says that there are four streams pouring from the cup and the picture shows five. For the Six of Swords, Waite says that “the course is smooth” but the water is smooth on the viewer’s left and choppy on the viewer’s right. It is different on each side of the boat, which suggests another meaning. Waite says that the man on the Seven of Pentacles is resting on his staff but the man is resting on a hoe. This figure is based on a painting popular at the time depicting labor and Waite seems to be unaware of the source. Even with Waite’s descriptions of the trumps we find mistakes. When is describes the Devil and the Chariot, he includes details found in Levi’s descriptions of thee cards that are not in Smith’s illustrations. As more and more of Smith’s sources are uncovered and the early mentions of Smith’s role in creating the deck come to light, I hope we can finally put to rest the myth that Waite designed the deck that is connected with his name, and that Pamela Colman Smith can receive the credit that she deserves.
An ad from the 1910 “Occult Review,” mentioning Smith as the designer of the deck
For over ten Years, I have been posting articles in my bimonthly email newsletter, The Restored Temple of Hermes, containing an article on Tarot and divination and news about by workshops and publications. For this blog I intend to repost these articles, and once these are all posted, the new articles as they are written. For the first I have chosen one from 2004 on the nature of divination.
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copyright Robert M. Place 2004
“Divination” is often defined as an attempt to see into the future – synonymous with fortunetelling. However, this is not really what the word divination means. It is derived from the Latin divinus, which meant soothsayer, which, in turn, was derived from deus, meaning God. Literally it means to get in touch with God or the gods.
Most of us learned when we were in grammar school about the importance of the oracles in Greek culture. The most famous was the Oracle at Delphi, where a priestess, called the Pythia, sat on a tripod deep in a sacred cave and communicated with the god Apollo while in a self-induced trance. Inhaling the fumes from burning laurel and barley possibly helped her state. The story that the tripod was suspended over a fissure in the earth that emitted fumes, seems to be a later Hellenistic invention and is unsupported by archeological evidence. The Pythia’s pronouncements were often mysterious and they had to be interpreted by a body of priests, called the Prophetai. It is often said that the statements of the priests were ambiguous – as if they were trying to hedge their bets and make it difficult to say that the prediction was wrong. However, it is more likely that the statements were, at times, unclear because of the symbolic nature of communication with the inner world.
When I was in grade school studying the ancient Greeks, I was told the story of a Greek king, Croesus of Lydia, who because he was planning to invade the neighboring Persian kingdom, in 560bce, first asked the Delphic Oracle to predict the outcome. The pronouncement of the Oracle was, “A kingdom would be conquered.” The king, thinking that this pronouncement guaranteed his success, went ahead with his plans, but, to his dismay, it was his kingdom that was lost. This story was popular because it illustrated the supposed ambiguous nature of the oracle and fatalistic attitude of the Greeks. But, this is not how the ancient world viewed the oracles. They saw the oracle as a sound source for advice and wise council. For example, the Athenian ruler, Solon, known as the lawgiver, because he established democracy in Athens, successfully annexed the island of Salamis in 594bce, by following the oracle’s instructions. Later, he credited the Delphic Oracle for the inspiration to convert the government of Athens from the rule of tyrants to democratic rule.
Divination was an integral part of ancient religion. In ancient pre-Christian religion, there was no central authority such as the Pope or the Cardinals. Religious decisions were brought directly to the gods and through the oracles the gods answered. For most people, the oracles provided conclusive evidence verifying the existence of the gods.
At the oracle of Zeus, in Dodona, the questions that were asked of the oracle were first written on led tablets. Archaeologists have found stores of these tablets and can read first-hand what types of questions were asked. Hardly any questions requested a prediction. The questions include: “Is an alteration to a cult practice acceptable?” “Is a marriage, a journey, or a career choice wise?” “Which sacrifice does the god prefer?” “Will my wife conceive?” “How can I cure this illness?” “Is my child legitimate?” and the most common question, “How can I win divine favor?” Rather than being ambiguous, the answers were primarily yes, no, or by performing a religious ritual or sacrifice. Each oracle had a specialty. The oracle of Asclepius was devoted primarily to health issues and the Oracle of Delphi was noted for its philosophical and religious statements, but the great majority of the statements contained no predictions. Their aim was to help Individuals improve on existing conditions.
When we look at ancient histories and literature, we can see that even when the Greeks received a prediction from the gods they did not sit back and accept fate, but interacted with the gods in a creative way to change fate. This creative use of a prediction can be seen in the following famous example.
In 480 bce, The Persian king, Xerxes, amassed a huge army and invaded Greece. Intending to avenge the defeat that his father Darius had suffered at the hands of the Athenian general, Miltiades, during the previous invasion, Xerxes made the destruction of Athens his primary objective. As Xerxes army was the largest the Greeks had ever seen, the Athenians were concerned for their fate, and sent a messenger to consult the Oracle at Delphi. The Oracle sent back this answer, “Why sit you doomed one? Fly to the ends of the earth. All is ruin for fire and headlong the god of war shall bring you low.” Such a prediction of doom would send a fatalistic person into despair, but instead the Athenians held a council to decide what to do.
The Athenian general, Themistocles, was sure that there was a way to defeat the Persians, and asked that a second messenger be sent to Delphi. This time the question was, “What can we do to defeat the Persians?” The Oracle’s answer was “Though all else shall be taken, Zeus, the all seeing, grants that the wooden wall shall not fail.” Themistocles, interpreted the “wooden wall” as his fleet of ships. Although the Persian’s fleet had over twice as many ships, Themistocles knew that his triremes, small fast ships with a pointed bow designed for ramming, were superior in capability. The general convinced the population of Athens to abandon the city to Xerxes’ army. Instead of defending the city, he tricked the Persians into attacking the Athenian fleet in the narrow Strait of Salamis, where the Greek triremes were able to outmaneuver the larger Persian ships, ram them, and sink them. The result was one of the most famous victories in all of History. Without the support of their ships the Persian army retreated. The victory also assured the dominance of Athens in sea trade in the eastern Mediterranean. The resulting prosperity and influence helped to usher in the golden age of Athenian art and culture.
As we can see, divination does not mean simply predicting the future. It is a method of obtaining divine guidance – a way of making wise choices and creating a better fu