The Birth of the Modern Tarot Deck: Eliphas Levi and His Kabbalistic Tarot

The Birth of the Modern Tarot Deck: Eliphas Levi and His Kabbalistic Tarot

I have written sometime ago an article on the Egyptian myth of the Tarot. I mentioned there that the ‘creators’ of the Tarot as we know it were basically 18th century esoteric writers Antoine Court de Gebelin and his friend the Count of Mallet. Yet Tarot would not be the esoteric phenomenon it is today (a search on the internet on ‘tarot’ would pull a staggering amount of 28 million entries) if it weren’t for another Frenchman, Alphonse Louis Constant, known as Eliphas Levi (1810 -1875).

Levi was a shoemaker’s son, just like another famous esotericist, Jacob Boehme. He was due to become a priest, but he gave up and got involved in the whirlwind of the 1848 revolution (1). When his political ambitions became frustrated, Levi turned to a serious study of Western esoteric traditions. In the process, he became acquainted with two key traditions: the Jewish Kabbalah and the Tarot.

The Kabbalah is a set of esoteric teachings developed by medieval Jews, and based upon a hidden understanding of the Hebrew Bible. At the core of the Kabbalah stays the Tree of Life, a complex system representing the 10 emanations of God into His Creation and the relationships amongst them. Kabbalah had been enthusiastically taken up by the Hermetic thinkers of Renaissance Europe, particularly Pico della Mirandola, Johann Reuchlin, Cornelius Agrippa and others. Christian Cabala, or Qabalah, as it became known, may have altered the original Jewish thought, but it had a tremendous influence on modern esoteric traditions. Levi enthusiastically subscribed to the Kabbalah and included it in his works.

Eliphas Levi held a belief in the fundamental unity of all esoteric traditions of his time, including Kabbalah, Renaissance magic, alchemy and the Tarot (2). He then naturally tried to unite the inherited symbolism of the Tarot with that of the Kabbalah. Up to him, the Tarot was considered a purely “Egyptian” offspring, the book of Thoth. Levi did not deny the idea; he was still, as most of his esoteric contemporaries, profuse with ideals of the Egyptian origin of esoteric knowledge. However, truthful to his commitment to the Kabbalah, he added a new, original interpretation of Tarot. The Tarot, he said, “is pure Kabalah, already lost by the Pharisees at the time of Christ’s advent”(3). He advanced the idea that the twenty-two Tarot trumps correspond to the twenty-two paths on the Kabbalah Tree of Life. Through this, he implicitly envisaged the Tarot as a path of ascension from the lowest emanation of God, Malkuth, to the highest, Kether.

A good example of his theory of correspondence between Kabbalah and Tarot is the name of “Tarot” itself. He believed the origin of the Tarot stood in “Taro”, an amalgamation of the words “Rota” (wheel) and “Tora” (the first books of the Hebrew Bible). Furthermore, he connected the four-letter word of “Taro” to the four-letter word for God, YHWH (4). All this he set on his Tarot image of the “Wheel of Fortune”, which has survived until today in the Rider-Waite Tarot (number 10).

With his explanation of Tarot as being a key of esoteric knowledge, Levi had a profound impact on his contemporaries. Another French Hermetic philosopher, Papus, would expand on Levi’s vision in his Tarot of the Bohemians (5). Levi also had a great influence on the development of the magical practices of the famous Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. It was Golden Dawn that adopted the Tarot as an important magical tool. In Golden Dawn, the Tarot served the dual purpose of a symbolic image of the Order’s structure and a learning tool for the adept (6). One of the Order’s founders, Samuel MacGregor Mathers, designed the Golden Dawn deck that was used in the ceremonies (7). Although this deck has not survived, it inspired the creation of the most famous Tarot pack, the Rider-Waite. Arthur Edgar Waite, a famous esotericist of his time, did not believe in the Egyptian origins of the Tarot, and he was not as passionate about Kabbalah as Levi. Nevertheless, he did take up much of Levi’s Tarot imagery and incorporated it in his own deck (8). Through him, Levi’s philosophy and vision lived on into the twentieth, and why not, twenty-first century.

References

(1), (2), (4) Williams, T.A. (2003). Eliphas Levi, Master of the Cabala, the Tarot and the Secret Doctrines. Williams & Company.

(3) Eliphas Levi. (1896). The Dogma and Ritual of High Magic, trans. by A.E. Waite. London: Rider & Company.

(5) Papus. (1892). Tarot of the Bohemians, trans. by E.P. Morton. Online. Available at : http://books.google.com/books?id=QCX_KoqrKh0C&printsec=frontcover&dq=tarot&lr=&as_brr=3#PPP3,M1. Accessed on 06 December 2008.

(6), (7) Timmermann, A. (2006). “Pictures passing before the mind’s eye”: the Tarot, the Order of the Golden Dawn, and William Butler Yeats’s Poetry. Societas Magica Newslettter, 15, Spring 2006.

(8) Waite, E.A. (1911). Pictorial Key to the Tarot. Online. Available at : http://www.sacred-texts.com/tarot/pkt/index.htm. Accessed on 04 December 2008

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