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Today the “Tarot” cards are thought by many to be “mystical”, “magical” , the repository of ancient Occult Knowledge, accessible only if one knows how to interpret the cards correctly. But where did these strange cards and their mysterious pictures come from? Who really put the “Occult” knowledge into the images seen in the Tarot deck? What real knowledge, if any, does the modern Tarot deck contain? There are many writers, some centuries old, some “New Age” that claim the Tarot came from ancient Egypt or even Atlantis, which is at best simple unsupported speculation, or at worst, a case of “say anything to sell a book.” In sharp contrast there are people who study the history of playing cards and these strongly disagree with any Atlantean or ancient Egyptian source, since they can trace the evolution of the Tarot deck through time, back to the earliest playing cards of Europe and beyond. Since one of the Tarot images from the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot Deck is the Ace of Cups, the Ambrosia Society believes our real interest should be on understanding the esoteric knowledge contained in the images on the modern Tarot Cards. A knowledge of the history of the Tarot and it’s various creators, is however very helpful in understanding the images.

Paper Playing cards appear to have been invented in the 10 or 11 century A.D. in China, these early Chinese decks of cards carry the numbers of all 21 combinations of a Chinese pair of dice and seem to be the oldest cards known. Playing cards were wood block printed in China shortly after the process was used for the first mass produced printed books. From China paper and playing cards spread to India and Persia along the silk road and the Indian ocean trade routes. From Persia and India paper playing cards spread into the rest of the Islamic world in the Middle East, across North Africa to Islamic Spain. Paper manufacturing and playing cards appear to have entered Europe from Islamic Spain and perhaps the Mameluke Sultanate of Egypt.


Chinese playing card 11th century
the oldest playing card known


 Playing card historians believe the ancestors of modern cards arrived in Europe from the Mamelukes of Egypt in the late 1300s, by which time they had already assumed a form very close to that in use today. In particular, the Mameluke deck contained 52 cards comprising four "suits": polo sticks, coins, swords, and cups. Each suit contained ten "spot" cards (cards identified by the number of suit symbols or "pips" they show) and three "court" cards named malik (King), na-'ib malik (Viceroy or Deputy King), and tha-ni- na-'ib (Second or Under-Deputy). The Mameluke court cards showed abstract designs not depicting persons (in keeping with Islamic law ) though they did bear the names and ranks of military officers. This basic deck with a change of suits and the names from the Mamelukes court to the European, King, Queen and Jack with the modern addition of two jokers is the modern western Poker and Black Jack deck.


Mameluke playing card, Ace of Cups, 14th century

Note, how thin the Chinese and Mameluke cards are compared to European cards.


In the late 14th century, the use of playing cards spread rapidly throughout Europe. Documents mentioning cards date from 1371 in Spain, 1377 in Switzerland, and 1380 in many locations including Florence, Paris, and Barcelona. A 1369 Paris ordinance [on gaming?] does not mention cards, but its 1377 update does.

The earliest European cards were made by hand, like those designed for Charles VI; this was very expensive. Printed woodcut decks appeared in the 15th century. The technique of printing woodcuts to decorate fabric was transferred to printing on paper around 1400 in Christian Europe, very shortly after the first recorded manufacture of paper there, while in Islamic Spain it was much older. The earliest dated European woodcut is 1418. No examples of printed cards from before 1423 survive. But from about 1418 to 1450, professional card makers in Ulm, Nuremberg, and Augsburg created printed decks. Playing cards even competed with devotional images as the most common uses for woodcut in this period. Most early woodcuts of all types were colored after printing, either by hand or, from about 1450 onwards, by the use of stencils.

The number of cards in a deck and the number of divisions (suits) a deck was divided into did not always follow the four suit, 52 card rule, with some early decks containing only 36, 40, 48 cards or some decks contained more than 52 cards, one of these decks is the Tarot deck which is now generally considered to have 78 cards.

The tarot (also known as tarocchi, tarock or similar names) is a set of cards typically featuring twenty one trump cards, the fool, and an extra face card per suit, in addition to the usual suit (face and pip) cards found in ordinary playing cards. Tarot cards are used throughout much of Europe to play Tarot card games. The first documented usage of tarot cards is for playing games, with the first basic rules appearing in the manuscript of Martiano da Tortona (before 1425; translated text), the next reference are from the year 1637. In Italy the game has become less popular, one version named Tarocco Bolognese: Ottocento has still survived and there are still others played in Piedmont, but the number of games outside of Italy is much higher, especially in France there connected to the words Tarot and Tarock.

These Tarot games are now played with a special “playing” tarot deck. The so-called "esoteric" decks used for divination are usually ill-suited for playing, for example the corner symbols are missing; thus there are regular playing decks in the countries where tarocchi is popular.

The 78-card Tarot deck contains:

1 Four suits: depending on the region, either the Anglo-French hearts, diamonds, spades and clubs or the original Latin suits of swords, batons, cups, and coins; numbered one through ten, plus four court cards - a jack, a knight, a queen, and a king;
2 The twenty-one tarots, known in divination as the Major Arcana, which function in the game as a permanent suit of trumps;
3 The Fool, also known as the Excuse, an un-numbered card that in some variations excuses the player from following suit or playing a trump, and in others acts as the strongest trump.

The twenty one tarots and the fool, the so called Major Arcana are believed to be modeled on the “Triumph” parades of Medieval times which celebrated a victory in war by the King or to start the celebration of a religious festival or the start of a Medieval Fair. The word Triumph carrying on as the “trump” cards which rank higher and have more power in playing the Tarot games than the lower valued cards. The Medieval Triumph parade was led through the streets by a “fool” or jester who was part of the “Royal” court but held no rank there; just as the fool card has no fixed rank. Following the “fool” in the parade, starting with the lowest rank, would be all the “Royal” court members and Church dignitaries in the area. It is believed by some, that the “Tower card”, the “Devil card” and several others were not in the earliest Tarot decks, many of which seem to have only sixteen trumps. These particular cards were believed to be added to later Tarot decks by the more Occult designers and users of the Tarot, by now these cards are considered part of a standard Tarot deck.

In 1540 Francesco Marcolini published in Venice a fortune book that can be considered the first known document about cartomancy. The cards that were used in the divination process were not tarot cards and actually played a rather marginal role, being used as a randomizing device to pick a page in this book of fortunes, the selected page was then read to reveal the future.

The later 18th century saw an even more portentous development of Tarot, well beyond its use to play cards. Fortune-telling with playing cards had developed from their use as a randomizing device to pick a page in a book of fortunes in the 1500s, through the use of special fortune-telling decks in the 1600s, and finally to the point of regular decks being given symbolic meaning in the 1700s. A few scattered indications of this appear earlier in the century, but the first book on cartomancy was published in 1770. It was written by “Etteilla” in reality Jean-Baptiste Alliette (1738 – 1791) Etteilla is just his sir name written backwards. He is the world's first professional cartomancer, who became one of the founders of occult Tarot. In the 1780s he and two other French writers (Antoine Fabre d'Olivet (December 8, 1767–March 25, 1825) and Antoine Court who named himself Antoine Court de Gébelin (ca.1719 – May 10, 1784) developed much of the occult lore and fortune-telling methods that would reinvent Tarot in the late 1800s.

These three writers changed Tarot forever. Neither knowing nor caring much about Tarot's 350-year history, its original and common use as a game, or the intended meaning of its allegorical cycle, they interpreted the images freely. They used the twenty-two trumps as signs designating the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. These newly-minted correspondences made the Tarot deck into a novel emblem system for Cabalistic magic and mysticism. These two esoteric uses, Cabala and divination, became permanently attached to Tarot. The authors of this newly invented Tarot also wrote up a detailed fantasy about Tarot's origin and history, involving Egyptian initiations, Jewish mystics, and vagabond Gypsies. These fictional histories were intended to validate the correspondences the occultists had devised, by appeal to alleged ancient wisdom and secret traditions.

Although much of the groundwork for today's occult Tarot lore was established in the late-1700s, the only part that became popular during the subsequent century was fortune-telling. Before the more elaborate myths and esoteric systems could become popular, occult Tarot had to be invented a second time. This happened in the mid-19th century. New systems of correspondence were invented and additional layers of legend were overlaid. This second invention came at just the right historical moment, at the beginning of the Victorian occult revival, and by the end of the century both French and British occultists had developed various schools which took the cards from a 15th-century game to be the Absolute Key to Occult Science.

Eliphas Lévi, born Alphonse Louis Constant, (February 8, 1810 - May 31, 1875) was a French occult author and magician. "Eliphas Lévi," the name under which he published his books, was his attempt to translate or transliterate his given names "Alphonse Louis" into Hebrew. Lévi was the son of a shoemaker in Paris; he attended a seminary and began to study to enter the Roman Catholic priesthood. However, while at the seminary he fell in love, and left without being ordained. He wrote a number of minor religious works: Des Moeurs et des Doctrines du Rationalisme en France ("Of the Moral Customs and Doctrines of Rationalism in France", 1839) was a tract within the cultural stream of the Counter-Enlightenment. La Mère de Dieu ("The Mother of God", 1844) followed and, after leaving the seminary, two radical tracts, L'Evangile du Peuple ("The Gospel of the People," 1840), and Le Testament de la Liberté ("The Testament of Liberty"), published in the year of revolutions, 1848, led to two brief prison sentences.

In 1854, Lévi visited England, where he met the novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who was interested in Rosicrucianism as a literary theme and was the president of a minor Rosicrucian order. With Bulwer-Lytton, Lévi conceived the notion of writing a treatise on magic. This appeared in 1855 under the title Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie, and was translated into English by Arthur Edward Waite as Transcendental Magic, its Doctrine and Ritual. Its famous opening lines present the single essential theme of Occultism and gives some of the flavor of its atmosphere:

“Behind the veil of all the hieratic and mystical allegories of ancient doctrines, behind the darkness and strange ordeals of all initiations, under the seal of all sacred writings, in the ruins of Nineveh or Thebes, on the crumbling stones of old temples and on the blackened visage of the Assyrian or Egyptian sphinx, in the monstrous or marvelous paintings which interpret to the faithful of India the inspired pages of the Vedas, in the cryptic emblems of our old books on alchemy, in the ceremonies practised at reception by all secret societies, there are found indications of a doctrine which is everywhere the same and everywhere carefully concealed.” (Introduction of Transcendental Magic, its Doctrine and Ritual)

In 1861, he published a sequel, La Clef des Grands Mystères (The Key to the Great Mysteries). Further magical works by Lévi include Fables et Symboles (Stories and Images), 1862, and La Science des Esprits (The Science of Spirits), 1865. In 1868, he wrote Le Grand Arcane, ou l'Occultisme Dévoilé (The Great Secret, or Occultism Unveiled); this, however, was only published posthumously in 1898.

Lévi's version of magic became a great success, especially after his death. That Spiritualism was popular on both sides of the Atlantic from the 1850s contributed to his success. His magical teachings were free from obvious fanaticism, even if they remained rather murky; he had nothing to sell, and did not pretend to be the initiate of some ancient or fictitious secret society. He incorporated the Tarot cards into his magical system, and as a result the Tarot has been an important part of the paraphernalia of Western magicians. He had a deep impact on the magic of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and later on the ex-Golden Dawn member Aleister Crowley. It was largely through the occultists inspired by him that Lévi is remembered as one of the key founders of the twentieth century revival of magic.


Eliphas Lévi


During the occult revival, which continued into the early 20th century, there was a great deal of anthropological revising of older traditions. Arthur Edward Waite, a Christian mystic and scholar of the occult, explicitly rejected the core of occult Tarot. He wrote, "I am not to be included among those who are satisfied that there is a valid correspondence between the Hebrew letters and the Tarot Trump symbols." His own novel interpretation of the trumps drew on many sources (including the occultists) to create an eclectic but tightly integrated representation of the mystical Perennial Philosophy. The first half of the trumps illustrated an involuntary descent while the second half illustrate an evolutionary ascent, this was all in keeping with common ideas of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century regarding comparative religion and the universality of myth and mysticism. Waite described his new creation as "a true Tarot under one of its aspects", and "not occult, but mystical". In addition, he was the first to use pictorial pip cards to facilitate the intuition of fortune-tellers.


A. E. Waite


The images on the 'Rider-Waite' deck were created by artist Pamela Colman-Smith, to the instructions of Christian mystic and occultist Arthur Edward Waite, and were originally published by the Rider Company in 1910. This deck is considered a simple, user friendly one but nevertheless its imagery, especially in the Major Arcana, is complex and replete with esoteric symbolism. The subjects of the Major Arcana are based on those of the earliest decks, but have been significantly modified to reflect Waite and Smith's view of Tarot. An important difference from Marseilles style decks is that Smith drew scenes with esoteric meanings on the suit cards. However the Rider-Waite-Smith wasn't the first deck to include completely illustrated suit cards. The first to do so was the 15th century Sola-Busca deck.


Pamela Colman-Smith


In the late 20th century, Tarot was widely adopted by various New Age enthusiasts, neo-Pagans, and of course, fortune-tellers, as well as people who were simply interested in using the deck for self-exploration without any spiritual or mystical motivation. It was again redefined, largely in the terms of Jungian psychology, but with borrowings from the earlier occultists and from Waite. This development was greatly facilitated by Waite's mystical Tarot deck, whose trumps and pips had been redesigned in a manner consistent with such usage. This Waite-Smith Tarot deck served as a model for hundreds of derivative Tarot decks.

Like all the older Tarot decks the images created by Waite-Smith in their version of the Tarot, are in reality Christian images who’s source is found in European Christian Art. Waite was a self described “Christian mystic” and this Tarot deck was to be as Waite described his new creation "a true Tarot under one of its aspects", and "not occult, but mystical". Waite is often cited as the designer of the Waite-Smith Tarot, but he was not an artist, and he commissioned Smith to design the deck because she was a talented and intuitive artist. It is more correct to credit Smith as the designer. Smith completed the art for the deck between April and October of 1909, a six-month period. It is doubtful that Waite would have been hanging out in Smith’s studio all of this time directing her every move. Yet, this is a short period of time for an artist to complete eighty pictures (the number claimed by Smith in a letter to her art dealer Stieglitz in 1909). The illustrations were most likely done in Smith’s typical style in pen and ink and colored with water color. There is no way to edit such work except to redo an illustration and considering the short time allowed for the project it is unlikely that Waite could have requested this often. It is most likely that Waite described the designs that he desired for each of the major arcana complete with certain symbols that he wished them to contain and then stepped back and let Smith work in her usual spontaneous and intuitive manner. It is likely that for the minor arcana Waite simply provided a list of the meanings of each card and let Smith create them. Smith’s main influences for her tarot designs were the previous works, the 18th century French Tarot of Marseilles, and the 15th century Italian Sola Busca Tarot.

Waite and Smith were both members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Smith joined in 1903 meeting Waite at that time, in 1909 she started on the new Tarot with Waite. So the question then becomes did the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn know the Sacramental secret behind the images of Waite and Smiths’ Tarot card the Ace of cups? I do not think that this can be proved one way or another. Yet the magic they professed to study and use, does not seem to have any relationship with the Sacrament or it’s secrets. The main influences on Golden Dawn concepts and work include: Christian mysticism, Kabbalah, Hermeticism, the religion of Ancient Egypt, Theurgy, Freemasonry, Alchemy, Theosophy, Eliphas Levi, Papus, Enochian magic, and Renaissance grimoires.

The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was a magical order of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, practicing a form of theurgy and spiritual development . It was possibly the single greatest influence on twentieth century Western occultism. Concepts of magic and ritual that became core elements of many other traditions, including Wicca, Thelema, and other forms of magical spirituality popular today, are drawn from the Golden Dawn tradition.

The three founders, Dr. William Robert Woodman, William Wynn Westcott, and Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers were Freemasons and members of Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia (S.R.I.A.), an appendant body to Freemasonry. Westcott, also a member of the Theosophical Society, appears to have been the initial driving force behind the establishment of the Golden Dawn. The original Lodge was founded in 1888, as the Isis-Urania Temple in London. A.E. Waite joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in January of 1891, became a Freemason in 1901, and entered the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia in 1902. The Golden Dawn was torn by internal feuding until Waite's departure in 1914; later he formed the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross, not to be confused with the Societas Rosicruciana. By that time there existed some half-dozen offshoots from the original Golden Dawn, and as a whole it never recovered. The start of up till then, the most brutal war in history (WW1 - 1914-1917)further eroded the interest in magic and the occult and basically ended the Victorian Occult revival.

Since the original founders of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn were all Freemasons, the question then becomes, do the Freemasons know of the secret of the ancient Sacrament? Freemasonry uses many esoteric symbols to represent Masonry and it’s ideas, most of these are based on the historical tools used by real stone masons, or derived from Masonic origin legends. Yet most of the esoteric Christian symbols seem to be lacking from the Freemasonry list of symbols. There was also a reputed consumption of wine at Masonic lodges of 50 or 100 years ago, however I have no indications that this wine is anything but alcoholic wine, which today is banned from most American Masonic Lodges. I may be wrong, but from my many years of studying secret societies and Freemasonry, I would have to conclude that Freemasonry does not posses the secret of the Ambrosia Sacrament. For “Ye shall know them by their fruit” Mt. 7:16, and while Freemasonry has born many fruits, it does not bear those fruits that only come from the knowledgeable use of the Sacrament, such as the Grail, the Ambrosia or the Living bread.

Reading Esoteric Christian images

The Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot does indeed contain ancient hidden esoteric or “occult” knowledge in the images but it is in a esoteric Christian context. Christianity has two sides, two separate belief systems incorporated into one “religion” in essence it is Schizophrenic. On the one hand there is the commonly accepted version of Christianity which promotes a miraculous birthed Man/God as the miracle working, King of Israel and founder of the Christian religion. On the other hand there is the Sacramental or Eucharistic Christians who understand the Jesus story as being about the real Sacrament, the ultimate secret at the very heart of Christianity. It is this side of Christianity that knows the secrets of the Sacrament and from them comes the stories of the Holy Grail and other miraculous works that the Sacrament produces. This schism in the Christian religion is not noticed by most of the followers of the Man/God version who either believe the impossible stories told in the text (the God side) or excuse it away (the Man side). In contrast the Sacramental Christians knew the story elements that were impossible for a man, really described the Sacrament/God. Of course to the Man/God believers, this Christian Secret of Secrets is basically Heresy in it self. So in the shadows of “mainstream” Christian belief, the Secret lives on, etched in stone on old Church walls or coded into their stained glass windows, these images show the Secret to all, but only those with eyes to see, will see it. That the old churches of Europe abound in the coded images of the Secret of the Sacrament there is ample graphic evidence.



Now; when Art is encoded with hidden meaning, Art, that has been copied for generations, it does not mean the stone cutters, painter’s, etc that actually produced the art knew it’s Secret message nor for that matter the “mainstream” Church that commissioned the work. Some of these esoteric Christian art motifs go back many centuries, some are even pre-Christian and these were copied and recopied into newer Churches for a long time, and even transplanted to the Americas, Australia etc. Surrounded by such Christian imagery artists such as Smith and Christian mystic Waite used these esoteric Christian images such as the image on the Ace of Cups. Of course that does not mean that Waite and Smith understood the hidden Sacramental meanings of the Ace of cups image which they borrowed entirely from Church stone work etc. any more than the old stone cutters did who copied it before them.




In Christian iconography the Dove represents the Holy Spirit, when the Dove is represented descending it is coming to earth, when rising it is returning to Heaven. In the pre-Christian ancient Greek mythology, Ambrosia was brought to the gods in Olympus by doves (Odyssey xii.62). The round Eucharist wafer carried to Earth from Heaven by the Dove, is marked with the equilateral cross, the sign of the Persian Magi from ancient Greece to China. The Eucharist is also called the “bread of Heaven”, the ‘Living bread” and the “bread of Life” among other names. Understand that the true “bread of Heaven” really is “living bread” and is capable of resurrecting from a dried state with the addition of water in “three days” or less.



In Christian art the Chalice, like the Eucharist wafer is a symbol of Communion between God and the believer that involves the “eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Jesus” which is logical or even possible, only if “Jesus” is the Sacrament personified. Now if dried Amanita muscaria is used in a liquid based Sacrament, it easily makes it self at home in a wooden, terra cotta or horn cup in three days or less. So add the dried “living bread from Heaven” to a wooden or simple clay Chalice filled with sweetened wine or diluted honey water and in three days or less, you end up with a living cup that can make hundreds of times it’s volume in Ambrosia over time. Thus “my cup runneth over” Ps 23:5, is visually represented on the Ace of cups as five fountains springing up and out of the Chalice.



In this painting you can see an impossibility before your eyes, here Mary presents a baby Jesus living in a Chalice! This painting and the many others like it, present many questions that the Man/God followers can not really explain.

Yet, to the Sacramental Christians who know that “Our Father in Heaven” is really the Sky and that “Mary, the mother of God” is in reality the Earth and that the big “Jesus” is the Sacrament, the Amanita muscaria mushroom. Then, the image of the “baby Jesus” living in a Chalice becomes in reality a coded symbol of the true Holy Grail and the secret of the Sacrament that is at the very heart of Christianity.

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