FREEMASONRY AND THE TAROT
Kenneth W. Davis
Semiannual Meeting, The Masonic Society Salt Lake City, Utah, July 16, 2011
Copyright © 2011 by Kenneth W. Davis
Hundreds, probably thousands, of books and articles have been written about supposed connections between Freemasonry and the Tarot. A Google search last week found more than a million pages that include both those terms. Libraries and archives surely include many more.
Today I propose to briefly introduce the Tarot, to provide an overview of its supposed connections with Freemasonry, to dismiss many of those
connections, to discuss a set of real but relatively unimportant connections, and to discuss one very important one.
Histories of the Tarot
First, the Tarot. Like Freemasonry, the Tarot has both a legendary history and a documented one.
The most discussed legendary history of Tarot traces it back to ancient Egypt²perhaps to the god Thoth himself, perhaps in his incarnation as Hermes Trismegistus. For example, the astrologer Doris Chase Doane contended that
. . . underneath the Great Pyramid is a temple of initiation on whose walls hang tablets depicting the same images as the seventy-eight tarot cards, plus another thirty that are more esoteric still (Clifton, 114).
Some have suggested that the Tarot contains the secret teachings of ancient Egypt, coded to hide those teachings until they could be discovered by a more enlightened age²presumably ours.
Some of those who argue for an Egyptian origin claim that the Tarot was carried from Egypt in the Exodus. (Surprisingly, I¶ve found no speculation that it was contained in the Ark of the Covenant²although
that the Templars discovered the Tarot in Jerusalem and brought it to Europe. as others have done. of course. in what I believe is his one mention of the Tarot in Morals and Dogma. wrote
He who desires to attain to the understanding of the Grand Word and the possession of the Great Secret.there is speculation.)
Others have argued for origins in the Kabbalah. for the key of their allegories.the ³Gypsies.´ so called because they were believed by many to be Egyptians. ought carefully to read the Hermetic philosophers.)
Still others have suggested that the Tarot was brought out of Egypt by the Romani people. even assigning Tarot cards to the pathways in the Tree of Life. Albert Pike. they actually emerged from India. and will undoubtedly attain initiation.
. (As you may know. but he must take.
the order indicated in the Kabalistic alphabet of the Tarot (777). to class his acquisitions of knowledge and direct the operation. any connection is fair game. which I¶m sure means something.
(Refreshingly. especially in its Sufi form. For instance. writes
In Tarot history.the single dogma of Hermes.)
Others trace the origin of the Tarot to early Islam. and follow. contained in his table of Emerald. because there are fifty-six filled-in Aubrey Holes at Stonehenge and fifty-six cards in the Minor Arcana [I¶ll define that term shortly]. And it¶s on page 777.
And there¶s more. to an occult
. that was one of General Pike¶s shorter sentences. Chas Clifton.
What is certain is that by the middle 1700s they were being seen as having occult or esoteric meanings. none of this legendary history is documented. Esotericists refer to these fifty
By way of background.
What is documented is that in the early 1400s. a standard Tarot deck has four suits of fourteen cards each (the cards of a modern fifty-two-card deck plus four Pages. (In many places they still are. Tarot decks were being used in Italy for playing games.
But of course. ranked just below the Jacks or Knights).) By the early 1500s they may have used for divination²fortune telling²but more informed researchers generally argue that this use occurred much later.commentator such as Stephen Franklin the two not only might be but must be connected (114).
To these minor arcana are added twenty-two ³trump´ cards. and so on. that the four Tarot suits led directly to the four suits in our familiar decks of playing cards. As you can guess. four classes of medieval European society. called by esotericists the major arcana. The suits are swords. or an idea (such as Strength or Temperance). the four seasons. coins (or pentacles or disks). the four directions.six cards as the minor arcana. esoteric users of the Tarot have established correspondences between these suits and the four traditional elements. and wands (or rods or staves or batons). an object (such as the Chariot or the Moon). Each represents a category of person (such as the Magician or the Lovers). cups. It seems certain. the four levels of the cosmos. Early esoteric users of the Tarot established correspondences between these cards and the
. however. the four Gospels.
which you have been seeing and which probably dates from the sixteenth century. as I¶ve said. For example. Some have credited the major arcana with reflecting.twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet²as well. or even inspiring. an adherent of the Templar school of Masonic origins.
The cards of a Tarot deck have no established designs. Christian saints. cats. makes much of Naomi Ozaniec¶s argument that the Marseilles Tarot was first published in 1718²just one year after the founding of the
. so hundreds²if not thousands²of artists and esotericists over the centuries have designed their own. and witches. the twentytwo chapters of the Book of Revelations. One of the most-used decks today is the Tarot of Marseilles. Shakespeare. Browne.C. today you can find Tarot decks themed around baseball. faeries. as the twenty-two paths in the Kaballistic Tree of Life. P.
For divination the cards are shuffled. The Tarot reader²using one or more of the many systems of the meanings of the cards²interprets the spread. But after examining such arguments. or spread. ³It is interesting that two ancient forms of esoteric study and practice should emerge to public view the same time´ (Browne). then dealt into a pattern.
As I¶ve said. no
. both as individual cards and as a whole. Browne writes.Grand Lodge of England. Sometimes the meaning of a card is affected by whether it is dealt with its picture right side up (to a viewer) or upside down. Jean-Michel David concludes²as I do²that Freemasonry and the Tarot remain ³on opposite faces of a chasm. hundreds or thousands of articles and books posit direct reciprocal influences between the Tarot and Freemasonry.
My thesis today is that although the Tarot and Masonic ritual have no shared documented historical origin and no significant historical
.matter how much some may have worked at their union´ (David).
influence on each other. discovering the reasons for such pictorial similarities belongs to the field of art history. a relief sculpture of the Flight to Egypt at Amiens Cathedral bears a striking resemblance to the design of Trump 16²the House of God. usually called the Tower²in the Marseilles Tarot (David).
Points of contact
The first documented point of contact between masonry and the Tarot is a relatively minor one. concerning the work of operative masons. David has pointed out that some of the images in buildings designed and constructed by medieval stonemasons have strong similarities to the images of the Tarot of Marseilles and other early decks. For example.
. However. they do have several interesting points of historical contact.
Court de Gebelin had been a supporter of American independence. and to my knowledge. but transferred to the Lodge of Les Neuf Soeurs. 1778. An essay in Le Monde Primitif written by a
. where he became a lodge brother of Benjamin Franklin. when Most Worshipful Brother Ben escorted FrancoisMarie Voltaire²a giant of the Enlightenment²to Voltaire¶s initiation.The first significant documented point of contact between the Tarot and speculative Freemasonry occurred in the person of Antoine Court de Gebelin. it¶s possible that he sat in Lodge the evening of April 7. published in 1781.
In Volume 8 of his book Le Monde Primitif. born in France in 1719. Court de Gebelin posited²with no historical evidence²the theory that the Tarot is a repository for the secret wisdom of Egypt. in fact the secrets of the legendary Book of Thoth. He became a Freemason in 1771 at the Lodge of Les Amis Reunis.
Rosicrucian. seemingly one of the most through historians of the Tarot. and other secret societies that were then rampant in France.
Mary K. Thus.possible Mason.
. Breer. and yet another essay in the book laid out a method of using the cards for divination. le Comte de Mellet. writes
Court de Gebelin and probably le Comte de Mellet were members of Masonic. proposed the correspondences between the twenty-two trumps and the Hebrew alphabet. there is a good chance that they were revealing information that had already been circulating among these secret societies (280).
Of course. Court De Gebelin and
Etteilla were two such Freemasons. Breer offers no evidence for this speculation. or in the design of. tarot. .However. .
. And an anonymous entry in Tarotpedia (a Tarot wiki) puts it this way:
Freemasons have been involved since at least the 18th century in
writing about. this says no more about an intrinsic connection between
freemasonry and tarot than a connection between tarot and horse-
racing (which they likewise may have had an active interest in)
and despite Waite¶s immersion in Freemasonry.
Burkle examines the twenty-two trumps of what I wish to call the WaiteSmith Tarot. devised by Freemason and esotericist Aleister Crowley and illustrated by fellow occultist Lady
. finds ³overt Masonic association´ in only one card. giving its publisher top billing and omitting any mention of Smith. Freemason and esotericist. Incidentally. The 1909 Tarot deck he created along with artist and fellow Golden Dawn member Pamela Colman Smith joins the Marseilles Tarot as one of the three best-known decks today. seated between the two familiar pillars of Solomon¶s Temple.
The third Tarot in that trinity is the Thoth Tarot.A second important point of contact between Freemasonry and the Tarot occurred in the person of Arthur Edward Waite. it is frequently sold and referred to as the Rider-Waite Tarot. the High Priestess.
a community. The Thoth desk was created between 1938 and 1943.
Why ³folk art´? Folk art²think of the traditional folk song. that artist may be long forgotten.
Freemasonry and the Tarot as archetypal
I suggest that the most significant relationship between Freemasonry and the Tarot is. the Thoth Tarot has no significant Masonic symbolism. in which ³fit´ elements or changes survive and less ³fit´ elements or changes become extinct. Even if a work was created by a single artist. that both are works of folk art that give expression to some of the same fundamental human archetypes. for example² is art that emerges from a folk. This process can be called a kind of Darwinism.Frieda Harris. Like the WaiteSmith deck. as I have said. as the work spreads and changes. but not published in its entirety until 1969.
the relatively minor differences between Indiana and New Mexico ritual continue to make my head hurt. Jung wrote. even in fairly traditional decks. I now speak a kind of creole and often find myself wrong in both jurisdictions.) And anyone who browses Tarot decks and books in a bookstore will find even more dissimilarities. (For example. even across cultures and genres. ³The archetype concept derives from
. and have changed by addition and subtraction. Both have developed within relatively defined communities.Just as we do not know who created the first Masonic ritual. we do not know who created the first Tarot deck. It was these similarities that led Carl Jung to develop his theory of archetypes. Anyone who has experienced Masonic ritual in different Grand Lodge jurisdictions will instantly note the differences²differences typical in folk art. fundamental similarities remain.
folktales. visual arts.the often repeated observation that myths and universal literature stories contain well defined themes which appear every time and everywhere´ (Jung). But even if you are a strict materialist.
For Jung. at least. you must agree that all animals are born with instincts shared with other members of their species. and personal dreams.
. archetypes are fundamental themes or motifs that reside in our collective unconscious and which are expressed in myths. If you believe in a reality beyond the material (a belief all of us confirmed as Entered Apprentice candidates) you can think of the collective unconscious as a great underground pool of knowledge and wisdom that all men and women can tap into. archetypes may simply be instincts of consciousness² instincts seen from inside instead of outside. and that for humans.
an image of sacrifice.In the case of the Darwinism of folk art. as an image of fruitfulness. Any many people use the Tarot for meditation. each of the major arcana in the
. the surviving forms may be the most ³fit´ in part because they are the most archetypal. Jung saw the Empress. and the Hanged Man. In that book.
In fact. Gerald Schueler is just one Jungian therapist who uses the Tarot in his work (Schueler). a Russian mystic¶s anonymously published 1984 book Meditations on the Tarot.
Subsequent students of both Jung and the Tarot have expanded on Jung¶s work. for example. Jung had a huge influence on one of the most profound works on Tarot cards.
Jung was a student of the Tarot and even listed the archetypes or other concepts that he believed were expressed or embodied in the twenty-two major arcana.
.Tarot of Marseilles becomes a focus for deep Christian contemplation.
for example. who moves through the other major arcana on his path to enlightenment. and sacrifice to a higher principle is the chief quality of Hiram Abiff. is embodied both in the Cornucopia and in the Wages of a Fellowcraft. numbered zero. Fruitfulness.
Surely the most interesting card in the Tarot is the Fool. these same archetypes and concepts are expressed or embodied in Masonic Ritual. perhaps even
. Many students of Tarot have pointed out that the major arcana can represent stages in the life journey. but increases the value of other cards played along with it. although his name is widely available.(I¶m honoring the author¶s desire for anonymity.)
In esoteric and psychological interpretations of the Tarot. this card generally has no value on its own. In tarot games. the Fool is often seen as an initiate.
the steps outlined by Joseph Campbell in the ³hero¶s journey. the Masonic candidate has no value alone²he is symbolically divested of all metals. John J.
As a series of initiation rites.
As a side note on the Fool. Like the Fool. the rituals of Freemasonry dramatically embody the Fool¶s journey. for example²but both gains and gives value as he is inducted into the Craft. stories. and initiation rites (Campbell). He uses these similarities to argue that Bosch must have known recognizable Masonic ritual much earlier than it is otherwise known to
. cable tow. Robinson pointed out a number of similarities between Bosch¶s wayfarer and a Masonic initiate: footwear. pants legs. the Marseille deck depicts him in a way very similar to Hieronymus Bosch¶s 1510 depiction of the Wayfarer.´ his Junginspired description of common elements of the world¶s myths. and others (11718).
is La Muerte. particularly meaningful to those of us from the Southwest. is ³the ancestor of the semicomic skeleton creations that Mexicans buy for November 1. Death. Clifton suggests that this way of portraying Death. of course. Six of the cards in the major arcana are also cards in the Loteria. El dia de los muertos´ (117).
One of those cards.have existed. echoed in the Tarot. the Mexican game of chance similar to Bingo.
This card has also been claimed as an ancestor of the figure of Death drawing a bow that is carved in wood and carried in a cart by
. But I don¶t have the time or knowledge to support or oppose that argument.
One more slight digression.
and the founders of Hispanic Catholic lay brotherhoods drew on a common cultural tradition (117). author of a comprehensive work on the Penitentes. given the cultural isolation of the area during the early nineteenth century when the Penitente brotherhoods had their major growth. Marta Weigle.
³Masonic´ Tarot decks
.the Penitentes. it is more likely that Petrarch. because in the poem and on the cart Death is a female figure (the New Mexicans sometimes referred to her as ³Dona Sebastiana´). I think this is an unlikely connection. a Hispanic religious brotherhood of northern New Mexico and sourthern Colorado. argued that the Tarot trump of Death not only inspired the carven figure but was itself taken from Petrarch¶s I Trionfi. the Tarot¶s designers.
a South African Mason. Because I have not found a copy of the Fool card. 1987. at least in English-speaking Masonry.
And 2007 saw the publication of the Tarocchi Massonici. I¶d like to briefly introduce you to three²potentially four²modern Tarot decks labeled as Masonic. I am instead showing you card number 1.
Collin Browne. the Magician. created and published The Square and Compasses Tarot (2003). has little that is specifically Masonic. which fortuitously holds special meaning for me as the emblem of my Mother Lodge. by Morena Poltroneiri and Ernesto Fazioli.Before I conclude. It does contain extensive Masonic symbolism. by Jean Beauchard.
The Tarot Maconnique. while including a number of general esoteric themes. The images I have seen from this pack are incredibly beautiful. In
now being ³shopped around´ to publishers by David Naughton-Shires and me. as an introduction to Freemasonry. not as a working deck: it comprises only the major arcana.
I also want to be so presumptuous as to show you a work in progress. the Freemasonry Tarot. Our major arcana are the chief degrees and symbols of Masonry. and is printed in large format and only on one side of the paper. David.
Our deck is designed to be used in all the ways other Tarot decks are used²but also educationally. numbered
.fact. as some of you know. I¶m saving my money to buy a copy for framing. is an Irish artist and designer who is also a Mason and a former member of the board of The Masonic Society. this Tarot was created as fine art.
swords for warriors and statesmen. cups for writers and philosophers. when mundane objects and
. explorers. Both the Tarot and Freemasonry were born out of the ferment of the European Renaissance. and athletes. what I suggest is that Freemasonry and the Tarot emerged from the same sources²but those sources were. and coins for businessmen. scientists. of course.
Our minor arcana are prominent Masons. We see these Celestial Lodges as the Masonic equivalent of ³fantasy´ baseball and football teams. grouped into suits²Lodges² by the areas of their achievement: wands for artists and entertainers. not Ancient Egypt or the Templars.
In conclusion.to correspond with the major arcana of the traditional Tarot and their underlying archetypes.
multiple meanings. In the Renaissance. with rich. a great age of symbolism. If the Tarot can help us see and think archetypally. both the workings of ordinary stonemasons and the figures on ordinary playing cards were invested with roughly the same sets of universal archetypal meanings.practices began to be seen as symbols²not as mere ³signs´ with specific defined meanings dictated by the Church²but as true symbols. perhaps we can become better at seeing our Craft in the same way
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