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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 Egyptperhaps 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 agepresumably ours.

Some of those who argue for an Egyptian origin claim that the Tarot was carried from Egypt in the Exodus. (Surprisingly, Ive found no speculation that it was contained in the Ark of the Covenantalthough

there is speculation, of course, that the Templars discovered the Tarot in Jerusalem and brought it to Europe.)

Still others have suggested that the Tarot was brought out of Egypt by the Romani people,the Gypsies, so called because they were believed by many to be Egyptians. (As you may know, they actually emerged from India.)

Others have argued for origins in the Kabbalah, even assigning Tarot cards to the pathways in the Tree of Life. Albert Pike, 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, ought carefully to read the Hermetic philosophers, and will undoubtedly attain initiation, as others have done; but he must take, for the key of their allegories,

the single dogma of Hermes, contained in his table of Emerald, and follow, to class his acquisitions of knowledge and direct the operation, the order indicated in the Kabalistic alphabet of the Tarot (777).

(Refreshingly, that was one of General Pikes shorter sentences. And its on page 777, which Im sure means something.)

Others trace the origin of the Tarot to early Islam, especially in its Sufi form.

And theres more. Chas Clifton, writes

In Tarot history, any connection is fair game. For instance, because there are fifty-six filled-in Aubrey Holes at Stonehenge and fifty-six cards in the Minor Arcana [Ill define that term shortly], to an occult

commentator such as Stephen Franklin the two not only might be but must be connected (114).

But of course, none of this legendary history is documented.

What is documented is that in the early 1400s, Tarot decks were being used in Italy for playing games. (In many places they still are.) By the early 1500s they may have used for divinationfortune tellingbut more informed researchers generally argue that this use occurred much later. What is certain is that by the middle 1700s they were being seen as having occult or esoteric meanings.

By way of background, a standard Tarot deck has four suits of fourteen cards each (the cards of a modern fifty-two-card deck plus four Pages, ranked just below the Jacks or Knights). Esotericists refer to these fifty

six cards as the minor arcana. The suits are swords, cups, coins (or pentacles or disks), and wands (or rods or staves or batons). As you can guess, esoteric users of the Tarot have established correspondences between these suits and the four traditional elements, four classes of medieval European society, the four seasons, the four directions, the four Gospels, the four levels of the cosmos, and so on. It seems certain, however, that the four Tarot suits led directly to the four suits in our familiar decks of playing cards.

To these minor arcana are added twenty-two trump cards, called by esotericists the major arcana. Each represents a category of person (such as the Magician or the Lovers); an object (such as the Chariot or the Moon); or an idea (such as Strength or Temperance). Early esoteric users of the Tarot established correspondences between these cards and the

twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabetas well, as Ive said, as the twenty-two paths in the Kaballistic Tree of Life. Some have credited the major arcana with reflecting, or even inspiring, the twentytwo chapters of the Book of Revelations.

The cards of a Tarot deck have no established designs, so hundredsif not thousandsof artists and esotericists over the centuries have designed their own. For example, today you can find Tarot decks themed around baseball, cats, Christian saints, faeries, Shakespeare, and witches. One of the most-used decks today is the Tarot of Marseilles, which you have been seeing and which probably dates from the sixteenth century. P.C. Browne, an adherent of the Templar school of Masonic origins, makes much of Naomi Ozaniecs argument that the Marseilles Tarot was first published in 1718just one year after the founding of the

Grand Lodge of England. Browne writes, It is interesting that two ancient forms of esoteric study and practice should emerge to public view the same time (Browne).

For divination the cards are shuffled, then dealt into a pattern, or spread. The Tarot readerusing one or more of the many systems of the meanings of the cardsinterprets the spread, both as individual cards and as a whole. 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.

As Ive said, hundreds or thousands of articles and books posit direct reciprocal influences between the Tarot and Freemasonry. But after examining such arguments, Jean-Michel David concludesas I dothat Freemasonry and the Tarot remain on opposite faces of a chasm, no

matter how much some may have worked at their union (David).

My thesis today is that although the Tarot and Masonic ritual have no shared documented historical origin and no significant historical

influence on each other, they do have several interesting points of historical contact.

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, a relief sculpture of the Flight to Egypt at Amiens Cathedral bears a striking resemblance to the design of Trump 16the House of God, usually called the Towerin the Marseilles Tarot (David). However, discovering the reasons for such pictorial similarities belongs to the field of art history.

The first significant documented point of contact between the Tarot and speculative Freemasonry occurred in the person of Antoine Court de Gebelin, born in France in 1719. He became a Freemason in 1771 at the Lodge of Les Amis Reunis, but transferred to the Lodge of Les Neuf Soeurs, where he became a lodge brother of Benjamin Franklin. Court de Gebelin had been a supporter of American independence, and to my knowledge, its possible that he sat in Lodge the evening of April 7, 1778, when Most Worshipful Brother Ben escorted FrancoisMarie Voltairea giant of the Enlightenmentto Voltaires initiation.

In Volume 8 of his book Le Monde Primitif, published in 1781, Court de Gebelin positedwith no historical evidencethe theory that the Tarot is a repository for the secret wisdom of Egypt, in fact the secrets of the legendary Book of Thoth. An essay in Le Monde Primitif written by a

possible Mason, le Comte de Mellet, proposed the correspondences between the twenty-two trumps and the Hebrew alphabet, and yet another essay in the book laid out a method of using the cards for divination.

Mary K. Breer, seemingly one of the most through historians of the Tarot, writes

Court de Gebelin and probably le Comte de Mellet were members of Masonic, Rosicrucian, and other secret societies that were then rampant in France. Thus, there is a good chance that they were revealing information that had already been circulating among these secret societies (280).

However, Breer offers no evidence for this speculation. 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, or in the design of, tarot. Court De Gebelin and

Etteilla were two such Freemasons. . . .

Of course, 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)


A second important point of contact between Freemasonry and the Tarot occurred in the person of Arthur Edward Waite, Freemason and esotericist. 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. Incidentally, it is frequently sold and referred to as the Rider-Waite Tarot, giving its publisher top billing and omitting any mention of Smith.

Burkle examines the twenty-two trumps of what I wish to call the WaiteSmith Tarot, and despite Waites immersion in Freemasonry, finds overt Masonic association in only one card, the High Priestess, seated between the two familiar pillars of Solomons Temple.

The third Tarot in that trinity is the Thoth Tarot, devised by Freemason and esotericist Aleister Crowley and illustrated by fellow occultist Lady

Frieda Harris. The Thoth desk was created between 1938 and 1943, but not published in its entirety until 1969. Like the WaiteSmith deck, the Thoth Tarot has no significant Masonic symbolism.

Freemasonry and the Tarot as archetypal

I suggest that the most significant relationship between Freemasonry and the Tarot is, as I have said, that both are works of folk art that give expression to some of the same fundamental human archetypes.

Why folk art? Folk artthink of the traditional folk song, for example is art that emerges from a folk, a community. Even if a work was created by a single artist, that artist may be long forgotten, as the work spreads and changes. This process can be called a kind of Darwinism, in which fit elements or changes survive and less fit elements or changes become extinct.

Just as we do not know who created the first Masonic ritual, we do not know who created the first Tarot deck. Both have developed within relatively defined communities, and have changed by addition and subtraction. Anyone who has experienced Masonic ritual in different Grand Lodge jurisdictions will instantly note the differencesdifferences typical in folk art. (For example, the relatively minor differences between Indiana and New Mexico ritual continue to make my head hurt; 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, even in fairly traditional decks.

But paradoxically, fundamental similarities remain, even across cultures and genres. It was these similarities that led Carl Jung to develop his theory of archetypes. Jung wrote, The archetype concept derives from

the often repeated observation that myths and universal literature stories contain well defined themes which appear every time and everywhere (Jung).

For Jung, archetypes are fundamental themes or motifs that reside in our collective unconscious and which are expressed in myths, folktales, visual arts, and personal dreams. 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. But even if you are a strict materialist, you must agree that all animals are born with instincts shared with other members of their species, and that for humans, at least, archetypes may simply be instincts of consciousness instincts seen from inside instead of outside.

In the case of the Darwinism of folk art, the surviving forms may be the most fit in part because they are the most archetypal.

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. Jung saw the Empress, for example, as an image of fruitfulness; and the Hanged Man, an image of sacrifice.

Subsequent students of both Jung and the Tarot have expanded on Jungs work. Gerald Schueler is just one Jungian therapist who uses the Tarot in his work (Schueler). Any many people use the Tarot for meditation.

In fact, Jung had a huge influence on one of the most profound works on Tarot cards, a Russian mystics anonymously published 1984 book Meditations on the Tarot. In that book, each of the major arcana in the

Tarot of Marseilles becomes a focus for deep Christian contemplation.

(Im honoring the authors desire for anonymity, although his name is widely available.)

Not surprisingly, these same archetypes and concepts are expressed or embodied in Masonic Ritual. Fruitfulness, for example, is embodied both in the Cornucopia and in the Wages of a Fellowcraft, and sacrifice to a higher principle is the chief quality of Hiram Abiff.

Surely the most interesting card in the Tarot is the Fool, numbered zero. In tarot games, this card generally has no value on its own, but increases the value of other cards played along with it.

In esoteric and psychological interpretations of the Tarot, the Fool is often seen as an initiate, who moves through the other major arcana on his path to enlightenment. Many students of Tarot have pointed out that the major arcana can represent stages in the life journey, perhaps even

the steps outlined by Joseph Campbell in the heros journey, his Junginspired description of common elements of the worlds myths, stories, and initiation rites (Campbell).

As a series of initiation rites, the rituals of Freemasonry dramatically embody the Fools journey. Like the Fool, the Masonic candidate has no value alonehe is symbolically divested of all metals, for examplebut both gains and gives value as he is inducted into the Craft.

As a side note on the Fool, the Marseille deck depicts him in a way very similar to Hieronymus Boschs 1510 depiction of the Wayfarer. John J. Robinson pointed out a number of similarities between Boschs wayfarer and a Masonic initiate: footwear, pants legs, cable tow, and others (11718). He uses these similarities to argue that Bosch must have known recognizable Masonic ritual much earlier than it is otherwise known to

have existed. But I dont have the time or knowledge to support or oppose that argument.

One more slight digression, particularly meaningful to those of us from the Southwest. Six of the cards in the major arcana are also cards in the Loteria, the Mexican game of chance similar to Bingo.

One of those cards, of course, is La Muerte, Death. Clifton suggests that this way of portraying Death, echoed in the Tarot, is the ancestor of the semicomic skeleton creations that Mexicans buy for November 1, El dia de los muertos (117).

He continues:

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

the Penitentes, a Hispanic religious brotherhood of northern New Mexico and sourthern Colorado. Marta Weigle, author of a comprehensive work on the Penitentes, argued that the Tarot trump of Death not only inspired the carven figure but was itself taken from Petrarchs I Trionfi, because in the poem and on the cart Death is a female figure (the New Mexicans sometimes referred to her as Dona Sebastiana). I think this is an unlikely connection, given the cultural isolation of the area during the early nineteenth century when the Penitente brotherhoods had their major growth; it is more likely that Petrarch, the Tarots designers, and the founders of Hispanic Catholic lay brotherhoods drew on a common cultural tradition (117).

Masonic Tarot decks

Before I conclude, Id like to briefly introduce you to threepotentially fourmodern Tarot decks labeled as Masonic.

The Tarot Maconnique, 1987, by Jean Beauchard, while including a number of general esoteric themes, has little that is specifically Masonic, at least in English-speaking Masonry.

Collin Browne, a South African Mason, created and published The Square and Compasses Tarot (2003). It does contain extensive Masonic symbolism.

And 2007 saw the publication of the Tarocchi Massonici, by Morena Poltroneiri and Ernesto Fazioli. Because I have not found a copy of the Fool card, I am instead showing you card number 1, the Magician, which fortuitously holds special meaning for me as the emblem of my Mother Lodge. The images I have seen from this pack are incredibly beautiful. In

fact, this Tarot was created as fine art, not as a working deck: it comprises only the major arcana, and is printed in large format and only on one side of the paper. Im saving my money to buy a copy for framing.

I also want to be so presumptuous as to show you a work in progress, the Freemasonry Tarot, now being shopped around to publishers by David Naughton-Shires and me. David, as some of you know, is an Irish artist and designer who is also a Mason and a former member of the board of The Masonic Society.

Our deck is designed to be used in all the ways other Tarot decks are usedbut also educationally, as an introduction to Freemasonry. Our major arcana are the chief degrees and symbols of Masonry, numbered

to correspond with the major arcana of the traditional Tarot and their underlying archetypes.

Our minor arcana are prominent Masons, grouped into suitsLodges by the areas of their achievement: wands for artists and entertainers, cups for writers and philosophers, swords for warriors and statesmen, and coins for businessmen, scientists, explorers, and athletes. We see these Celestial Lodges as the Masonic equivalent of fantasy baseball and football teams.


In conclusion, what I suggest is that Freemasonry and the Tarot emerged from the same sourcesbut those sources were, of course, not Ancient Egypt or the Templars. Both the Tarot and Freemasonry were born out of the ferment of the European Renaissance, when mundane objects and

practices began to be seen as symbolsnot as mere signs with specific defined meanings dictated by the Churchbut as true symbols, with rich, multiple meanings. In the Renaissance, a great age of symbolism, both the workings of ordinary stonemasons and the figures on ordinary playing cards were invested with roughly the same sets of universal archetypal meanings. If the Tarot can help us see and think archetypally, perhaps we can become better at seeing our Craft in the same way

Works cited

Browne, P.C. The Masonic Tarot (A History), presented to the Lyceum Lodge of Research No. 8682 E.C. ards_Masoni c.htm. April 11, 2011.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Commemorative Edition. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004.

Clifton, Chas S. The Unexamined Tarot, in The Inner West, Jay Kinney, ed. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2004, pp. 11123.

David, Jean-Michel. Tarot and Freemasonry: An Amorous Chasm. Association for Tarot Studies, April 11, 2011.

Freemasonry and Tarot. Tarotpedia. July 7, 2011.

Greer, Mary K. Tarot for Your Self. Pompton Plains, NJ: Career Press, 2002.

Jung, Carl. Quoted at Carl Jung Resources, http://www.carljung. net/archetypes.html. July 11, 2011.

Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism. Robert Powell, translator. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 1985.

Pike, Albert. Morals and Dogma. Washington, D.C., 1960.

Robinson, John J. A Pilgrims Path. New York: M. Evans and Company, 1993.

Schueler, Gerald. Chaos and the Psychological Symbolism of the Tarot. July 6, 2011.