This is a link to a podcast of a recent interview with me.
Recently I was asked if I know of a connection between music and the Tarot. This immediately brought to mind my Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery and how the sevenfold mystery of the title is connected to the seven notes in the Western musical scale. To explain this connection I will start with the section on Pythagoras in Chapter Four
from my new book, The Tarot, Magic, Alchemy, Hermeticism, and Neoplatonism.
The Greek Mysteries were a major influence on the Western practice of white magic and one of first groups of magicians to be influenced was the mystical school of philosophy founded by Pythagoras (born 580-572 BCE, died 500-490 BCE). We commonly think of Pythagoras as a great mathematician who is credited with the geometric theorem for determining the relationship of the areas of the squared sides of a right triangle. (The square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides.) All of our information about Pythagoras, however, comes from authors that lived in the centuries after his death and we cannot be certain if all of the things attributed to him are true, including whether or not he developed the theorem that is named after him.
What was written about Pythagoras is that he was the first person to call himself a philosopher, which was a title more like sage or mystic at the time, and he was as interested in the symbolism of numbers as he was in their use in geometry. He also saw a connection between music and numerical order and this type of reasoning led to sacred geometry. In the ancient world, he was spoken of with reverence and awe. It was said that he had a golden thigh, that he could be in two places at one time, that he could charm animals, and that he could remember his past lives. Many believed he was a god or at least an enlightened master.
In the 3rd and 4th centuries CE, the earliest Neoplatonic authors, Porphyry and Iamblichus, wrote biographies of Pythagoras. Iamblichus (c.250 – 325CE) was heavily influenced by Pythagoras and attempted to write a ten-volume encyclopedia on the older philosopher, who preceded him by over 800 years. Because of this interest, Neoplatonists may also be though if as “Neopythagoreans.”
In his biography, Iamblichus tells the story of Pythagoras’s birth. Pythagoras’s father, Mnesarchus, was a merchant and an inhabitant of the Aegean Island of Samos, a rich Greek trading center that had trading ties with Egypt and the Levant. While on a business trip, Mnesarchus visited the Oracle of Delphi to ask advice about a trip to Syria. The oracle told him it would be a successful business trip, but then went on to predict that his wife, Parthenis, was pregnant, and that by the time he returned she would have given birth to “a son who would surpass all others who had ever lived in beauty and wisdom, and that would be of the greatest benefit to the human race in everything pertaining to human achievements.” (Guthrie, Kenneth Sylvan, The Pythagorean Sourcebook and Library: An Anthology of Ancient Writings Which Relate to Pythagoras and Pythagorean Philosophy, Grand Rapids: Phanes Press: 1987, p. 58)
When he returned from his successful trip to Syria, Mnesarchus found he did have a beautiful son. He named the boy Pythagoras in honor of the Pythian Apollo, who had spoken to him through the oracle. His wife also changed her name from Parthenis to Pythais to honor Apollo, and they erected a temple to the god. Mnesarchus spared no expense in his son’s education and secured the wisest teachers. When Pythagoras was eighteen years old, the tyrant Polycrates took over the rulership of Samos, and Pythagoras left his home to continue his studies elsewhere. He went to Syros to study with the philosopher Pherecydes, and then to Miletus to study with Anaximander and Thales, whom Aristotle considered to be the first philosopher in the Greek tradition.
After teaching him all that he could, Thales urged Pythagoras to go to Egypt to study with the priests at Memphis and the priests of Zeus. Then Iamblichus tells us that Pythagoras returned home and prepared for a voyage to Egypt. On the way to Egypt he stopped in Syria, and Phoenicia. After having learned all he could of the Phoenician mysteries, he determined that they were based on the Egyptian rites and that he needed to complete his voyage. To accomplish this, Pythagoras sat in meditation on Mount Carmel, which was considered sacred (another example of the axis mundi) until a ship arrived that was bound for Egypt. The sailors on this ship agreed to take Pythagoras with them but secretly planned to sell him into slavery when they arrived. However, Pythagoras sat in meditation and fasted for the entire trip, and the sailors believed that it was his influence that helped them to avoid the storms that were predicted. They suspected that he was a god, and when they arrived in Egypt they led him ashore and erected a temporary altar in his honor, complete with offerings of fruit.
Once among the Egyptians, Pythagoras visited all of their temples and studied with all of their priests and prophets. He spent twenty-two years studying astronomy and geometry, and was initiated in all of their mysteries.
At the end of this period he was captured by soldiers and taken as a prisoner to Babylon. But again fate turned in his favor and he was able to study with the Magi. At the age of fifty-six he returned to Samos, where he set up his first school and began to share his wisdom. While in Greece, he visited all of the oracles and mysteries and developed a reputation for learning. At home, on his Island, however, he was dissatisfied with the Samians lack of interest in learning and the demands that they made on him to participate in public affairs. Therefore, he moved to Croton in southern Italy, which, at the time was held by the Greeks, and set up a new school of philosophy, open to both men and women.
Initiates to the Pythagorean School were first vetted by examining their behavior and interests. Once admitted, there was a probationary period of three years, in which they studied and were observed but otherwise neglected. All of their property became the property of the commune. In the next stage of their probation, the initiates had to refrain from speaking for five years, maintain a vegetarian diet, abstain from wine, and shun wealth and greed. At the end of this period, they were either accepted as disciples or rejected and sent away with twice the amount of property as they had brought.
The disciples were given white robes to wear and were permitted to speak but maintained the other prohibitions. These disciples were called akousmatikoi(hearers) and were provided with daily lectures, physical exercise, and rituals. They also practiced silent contemplation and a type of meditation. Their meditation focused on memory. In the morning when they awoke, the akousmatikoi would systematically remember everything that was said and done on the previous day, and everything that was dreamed during the night. The innermost disciples were called mathematikoi. Their study focused on the numerical harmonies of the cosmos (a name that Pythagoras coined, meaning both order and beauty).
Pythagoras taught that on a deep level all reality is mathematical, which is the cornerstone of all Western scientific thought. Yet for him, the symbolism of numbers was of equal importance. He also believed that numbers and ratios could capture the beauty that we experience in music and architecture. Pythagoras believed in reincarnation and taught that humans are on an endless wheel of incarnations, each life doomed to end in suffering and death. To escape this dilemma and emerge into union with the divine, it was necessary to practice contemplation and to live a moral life. This was the purpose of philosophy. In this respect his teachings were similar to those of Gautama Buddha, who lived and taught in the same century in what is now Nepal and northern India. Instead of thinking of Pythagoras as an ancient mathematician or a philosopher, I feel that it would be more accurate to think of him as a Western Buddha. This would be closer to how the people of the ancient Greek and Roman worlds viewed him.
In Iamblichus’s biography of Pythagoras, he tells the story of how the ancient philosopher coined the word “philosophy”, which means to love wisdom. In a lecture, Pythagoras described a public spectacle in which three different types of men come to attend.
One hastens to sell his wares for money and gain; another exhibits his bodily strength for renown; but the most liberal assemble to observe the landscape, the beautiful works of art, the specimens of valor, and the customary literary productions. So also in the present life men of manifold pursuits are assembled. Some are influenced by the desire for riches and luxury; others by the love of power and domination, or by insane ambition for glory. But the purest and most genuine character is that of the man who devotes himself to the contemplation of the most beautiful things, and he may properly be called a philosopher.
(Guthrie, p. 70)
In this story, Pythagoras was not only describing three different types of people. The actions of each are dominated by one of the three parts of the soul as described by the Egyptians, and that we discussed in the second chapter. The first man is dominated by the Ka and the needs and desires of the body; the second is concerned with the social desires of the Ba, such as fame, social standing, and power; and the last man is cultivating his Akh, which is his divine or Dionysiac soul.
Pythagoras is also credited with creating our Western Diatonic music scale with its seven notes. And again we come upon the number seven.
As we discussed in the last chapter, in the ancient view of the cosmos, it was believed that there were seven planets that circled Earth. Earth was not considered a planet and the sun and the moon were included in the seven. In the Pythagorean view each planet existed on a crystal sphere that circled Earth, each one higher than the next, like the layers of an onion. By the time that the Neoplatonists were writing, we find that the list of planets was organized by the speed that each planet seemed to circle Earth. Pythagoras believed that numerical relationships found in each planet’s orbit could be interpreted as sound and he believed that his scale captured these sounds that related to the planets. This is the meaning of the phrase, “the music of the spheres.”
Although the Greeks borrowed their alphabet from the Phoenicians, the Phoenician alphabet, like Hebrew, which it also influenced, only contains consonants; the Greeks added seven vowels. The vowels are the musical notes of the alphabet. The vowels did correspond to the actual notes and were used for musical notation. Pythagoras is credited with inventing the vowel upsilon, which looks like a Roman Y, to assure that there would be seven vowels. There is a story that Pythagoras used the shape of upsilon to illustrate an allegory.
He said that the place where the shaft splits into two directions represents a choice that must be made in life. One path is smooth and easy but leads to death and suffering; the other is coarse and difficult, but it leads up through the hierarchy of the parts of the soul and to the immortality of the soul.
In the Pythagorean view, the planets were considered the soul centers of the cosmos, and seven corresponding soul centers ascended the human spine, from the sacrum to the crown of the head. This is similar to the modern New Age concept of the seven Chakras. As the notes of the scale were related to the planets, they also affected the soul centers in the human body, and Pythagoras would use his seven stringed lyre, called a kithara, to bring the centers in his human patients into harmony with the “music of spheres.” This healing process is described by Iamblichus in the following quote.
Moreover, he devised medicines calculated to repress and cure the diseases of both bodies and souls…divinely contriving mingling of certain diatonic, chromatic, and enharmonic melodies, through which he easily switched and circulated the passions of the soul in a contrary direction, whenever they had had accumulated recently, irrationally, or clandestinely—such as sorrow, rage, pity, over-emulation, fear, manifold desires, angers, appetites, pride, collapse, or spasms. Each of these he corrected by the rule of virtue, attempering them through appropriate melodies, as through some salutary medicine.
When we look at the structure of the Tarot’s trump suit, we can see that the numbers three and seven are also important in the Tarot. Here is another excerpt, this time from Chapter Eleven in my book.
Allowing that the Fool is not a trump, there are twenty-one trumps in the Tarot. If we divide them into three groups of seven, the characters in each group have a distinctive quality (as the Comte de Mellet observed) that relates them to one of the three soul levels. In the Marseilles order, the first seven, from the Magician to the Chariot, relate to the Soul of Appetite (Ka/the body), with the first six figures dominated by Cupid, representing lust, who is then trumped by the hero on the Chariot, representing virtue and moving us into the Soul of Will (Ba/the mind). The next seven trumps characterized by time, death, and suffering, but also three of the cardinal virtues, is the realm of the Soul of Willm(Akh/the spirit). The last seven trumps move us from the unreasonable Devil through greater and greater celestial light to the defeat of Death represented by Judgement and the enlightenment represented by the World. This is the realm of the Soul of Reason.
The seven cards in each division, like the seven battles in the Psychomachia, or the seven metals in the alchemical transmutation, relate in quantity to the ladder of seven planets, which are also a means to ascend to a higher spiritual plane. The allegory is composed, therefore, of three parts each featuring the seven steps (or musical notes) needed to purify that soul level. If we examine the two other early orders for the trumps that we listed in chapter nine, order A and order B, we see that these orders can also be divided in this way with only minor differences. The Chariot and the Devil, which are transitional figures, may switch their allegiance with little consequence. The biggest change is in the placement of the three cardinal virtues found in order B, The order from Ferrara, but this only strengthens that premise. In order B, which may be the original order for twenty-one trumps, we find that the three virtues are divided with one in each group. If we allow for the reversal of Justice and Prudence (represented by the World), the one that is found in each section is precisely the one Plato would have recommended for balancing that soul level.
As we learned above in Chapter Four, Pythagoras is credited with creating our Western music scale. He filled it with seven notes that captured sounds based on ratios determined by the movements of the seven ancient planets that he believed encircled the Earth (the “Music of the Spheres”). He also believed that these planets corresponded to seven centers ascending the spine in the human body, which are similar to the modern concept of the chakras. Further, in a healing ritual, Pythagoras would use his seven stringed lyre, to bring the seven soul centers in his human patients into harmony with the celestial spheres.
When I first read about his practice, I realized that I wanted to use the Tarot like this, and I developed what became my main Tarot reading practice, the soul centers reading. For this reading, I lay out cards describing the patterns I find in each soul center, and then I work creatively with the Tarot to remove energy blocks and help to restore the health and wellbeing of my clients. You can read more about the soul centers reading in the last chapter of by book, The Tarot, Magic, Alchemy, Hermeticism, and Neoplatonism.
This article is an excerpt from my new book, The Tarot, Magic, Alchemy, Hermeticism, and Neoplatonism, which can be preordered now. It will be here at the end of December and I will be mailing out the preorders on the last week of December and the first weeks of January, 2018.
The book is an updated and expanded version of my book, Alchemy and the Tarot, and my book, The Tarot, History, Symbolism, and Divination, which the American Library Association said may be the best book ever written on the Tarot. (The new book will be covering more than twice as much information as both books). It will contain numerous chapters on ancient magic and mysticism, updated information on alchemy and the history of the Tarot, and it will cover The Alchemical Tarot cards, but also The Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery, the Waite Smith Tarot, and The Tarot of the Marseilles. And it will have basic information on the Lenormand deck.
To preorder the book go to this page:
The Marseilles Queen of Cups sits on her throne under a canopy, with her
crown and scepter. She holds a large cup on her knee, and it is the only one
in the suit, other than the Ace, that has a lid. Although she is gazing intently,
she cannot see what is inside. It seems that she is contemplating a mystery.
Etteilla’s Queen of Cups is a similar figure with a sealed cup, but she is leaning
forward and more intensely staring at her cup. Etteilla calls her “a woman
above reproach.” Book T says that she is “imaginative” and “poetic.” Waite
agrees with Etteilla and calls Smith’s Queen a “good fair woman.” But he
also refers to her “as one who sees visions in a cup” (Waite, p. 200).
Smith’s Queen of Cups is influenced by the Sola Busca Queen of Cups,
who sits on her dolphin-armed throne, but also by the Marseilles Queen, with
her lidded cup. Smith’s cup is an elaborate gold vessel, with extensions holding
angels on each side and a lid surmounted by a cross. It looks like a Catholic
ciborium, the covered vessel that holds the hosts during the mass. As Waite
said, she is contemplating the contents of her cup and experiencing visions.
This Queen is clearly connected with Water and the Unconscious. Her
throne is facing the edge of the sea, and there is a fish lying on the ground by
the side. Her cape is decorated with waves and has a shell for a clasp. The
throne has a scallop shell carved at the top with fishtailed children supporting
it, and another carved on the side. They are Undines, the Water elementals.
On The Alchemical Tarot’s Queen of Vessels, a crowned mermaid, bearing
a sealed vessel, skims the surface of the Water. She is at home in her element.
Unlike the Lady of Vessels, she does not need to stand. She can swim and
she can travel below the surface. She is a relative of both the Knight of Vessels
and his fish. She carries her sealed vessel to its destination but has no need
to open it. She knows the vessel will open when the time is right. The hook
on the lid may be thought of as a question mark, denoting a mystery.
The Queen of Cups in The Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery is intently
contemplating her cup resting on the table. The cup’s lid displays a seven-
pointed star, the symbol of the mystery. Instead of a subtle hint, there is an
actual question mark on the side of the cup. The Queen is pondering a mystery
but she is also comfortable with not knowing. A true mystery is not a riddle
but something that defies logic and explanation. The Queen knows that the
truth will be revealed in time or that it is not something that can be revealed.
This article is an excerpt from my new book, The Tarot, Magic, Alchemy, Hermeticism, and Neoplatonism, which I am working on right now and hopefully will have available by the end of year. The book is an updated and expanded version of my book, Alchemy and the Tarot (covering more than twice as much information). The new book will contain updated information on alchemy and the history of the Tarot, and it will cover The Alchemical Tarot cards, but it will also cover The Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery, the Waite Smith Tarot, and The Tarot of the Marseilles. And It will have several chapters on ancient magic and mysticism
The Two of Cups in the Tarot of Marseilles is a unique card Depicting
a stylized two-headed staff between two cups, resting on a rectangle that in
most decks contains the name of the publisher (sometimes it is blank or
contains a decorative design). The staff has a flame-like flowering top and
the serpent-like creatures that emerge from each side have dragon heads
turning to face the top. (In the Nicolas Conver Tarot they look like dolphin
heads, and on the bottom, there is a heraldic design with angels flanking a
phoenix or an eagle in the rectangle.)
In the Grand Etteilla this card is used to correlate the Cups suit with the
element Water (figure 216). Two cups are depicted floating in the air against
the sea in the background. Etteilla has turned the Marseilles staff into a long
necked vessel containing the red elixir, with flames emerging from the top.
The two creatures have become the intertwined serpents of a caduceus. Etteilla
was an alchemist, and he would have known that the caduceus and the red
liquid were alchemical symbols for the elixir, a magical substance that was
created by combining opposites, like fire and water. This combining of the
opposites also illustrates the card’s meaning, which is “love.” The Golden
Dawn agrees with Etteilla that the meaning of the card is “love,” and they
visualize the card as depicting a flowering lotus with two dolphins crossing
in front of its stem.
For the Two of Cups, Smith borrowed Etteilla’s caduceus placed between
two cups, but she depicts a man and a woman holding the cups and facing
each other, as if they are pledging their love. Authors Katz and Goodwin tell
us that these figures represent Romeo and Juliet, and in support of this theory,
we can see that this is another one of Smith’s cards that seems to be set on
a stage with a backdrop. A caduceus is often depicted topped with wings, but
Smith’s has a winged lion’s head. I think that the lion was her interpretation
of the Marseilles flames, but it is also influenced by the Mithraic lion-headed
figure, with wings and a spiraling snake that scholars agree symbolizes Time
(figure 222). 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.
On the Alchemical Two of Vessels, the man and woman, now nude, stand
holding hands in a glass vessels. A second vessel has been placed on top,
mouth to mouth. In the upper vessel, the caduceus has been replaced with
an Old World Rose, which arises like a vapor from the union of the couple.
This rose is a symbol of perfection. It is the vegetable counterpart of gold.
This image in influenced by an engraving found in Mylius’s Basilica Phil-
osophica (Philosophical Pavilion), 1618, where the upper vessel contains
the god Mercury, who is the alchemical essence and the equivalent of the
rose. This card represents sexual attraction or attraction of other kinds. The
pair in the vessel are lovers but this may be a metaphor for other partnerships.
Attraction is wonderful but it only a beginning.
For The Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery I wanted to create a design that
was closer to the Marseilles Two of Cups. I placed a winged caduceus between
two cups in the same way as they appear on the Marseilles model. The
serpents, however, transform into a man and a woman as they ascend the
shaft. The man is offering a cup to the woman, as a symbol of his love. As
on the Etteilla card, the sea is in the background.
This article is an excerpt from my new book, The Tarot, Magic, Alchemy, Hermeticism, and Neoplatonism, which I am working on right now and hopefully will have available by the end of year. The book is an updated and expanded version of my book, Alchemy and the Tarot (covering more than twice as much information). The new book will contain updated information on alchemy and the history of the Tarot, and it will cover The Alchemical Tarot cards, but it will also cover The Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery, the Waite Smith Tarot, and The Tarot of the Marseilles. And It will have several chapters on ancient magic and mysticism
The Queen of Swords from the Tarot of Marseilles,
The Waite Smith Tarot, The Alchemical Tarot, and
The Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery.
In the Tarot of Marseilles, the Queen of Swords sits erect on her throne holding her sword upright in her right hand. She looks out in the direction of her sword and gestures with her left hand as if she is about to say something. Perhaps her sword is a symbol of her proclamation. Etteilla’s Queen is slightly more in profile. She leans forward on her throne, leans her sword against her shoulder, and places her left hand on her knee. She is also wearing an armored breastplate. This Queen is not about to say anything, but she has an intent look on her face. Etteilla calls her widowhood. Perhaps he imagined that she killed her husband. This idea gains strength from her reverse meaning, a malicious woman.
The Queen of Swords from The Grande Etteilla
Waite repeats Etteilla’s widowhood meaning for this card but adds qualities like, sadness and mourning. But Smith’s illustration has more in common with the Marseilles Queen than with Etteilla’s. Her Queen erect sits in total profile, she holds her sword upright, and holds her left hand out as if she is making a proclamation. There are clouds and one bird in the sky, which dominates the background, and we can see by the tassel on the Queen’s sleeve that the wind from the Knight’s card has now died down. The Queen’s cape also displays clouds and is clasped with a golden brooch in the shape of a bird. Her crown and the sides of her throne have sylph butterflies, and under the arm, there is a winged head, which represents a cherub in Christian art. She is the Queen of Air and of words.
The Alchemical Queen of Swords is not making a proclamation; she is helping us make a decision. The Queen is a winged angel with an armored crown, who holds one sword upright sheltered by her red wing. On the other side, under her green wing, she supports a down-ward-thrusting sword. She stands on a cloud demonstrating that her element is Air and that she represents our thoughts. The figure is winged like an angel but with her helmet and her swords, she also resembles the goddess Athena or Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, war, and justice.
In alchemy, green symbolizes what is unripe and red what is ripe. The Queen presents us with a choice between what is negative or immature and what is positive, mature, or ripe. She also represents a progression from the immature to the mature. If she is flanked by two cards, the card to our left will reflect the mature side and the card to our right the immature side.
In The Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery, the Queen of Swords sits facing us on the other side of a table. Like the Alchemical Queen, she has two swords. The downward negative one is stuck into the table, and she holds the positive one in her right hand. Under her cape, the Queen wears chainmail and armor. Two feathers are falling from above. They represent the element Air, but they also represent truth, like the feathers of Maat, the Egyptian goddess of justice. The feathers of truth fall on both swords. The Queen recognizes that some things are negative and some are positive. She accepts the fact that not all things are positive, but she chooses to hold the positive sword. She is like the goddess of Justice but her two swords are her scale.
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.
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.