Is there an Ironic Genealogy of the Contemporary Tarot?

#1
It seems my previous posts about my interest in the fascination by current occultists with the imagery of the tarot have been unclear. I hope I can make it clearer here, and generate a better discussion.

What I am giving is not so much a history of the tarot as a genealogy of the current fascination with it. In this regard, I believe Dummett's work is incomplete. To me, In very broad outlines, this geneology has three phases.

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1) According to Pierre Hadot, in a view that has become widely influential, ancient philosophy was a practice as well as a form of knowledge. The practice was encoded in virtue ethics. Virtue ethics started in antiquity as practices that promoted personal skills and excellence; they morphed into a set of practices promoting happiness, serenity and constancy in ones duties in the Classical and Hellenistic period, and finally into a morality in the Christian era. The Renaissance fused all three forms into the chivalric and then courtly virtue ethic. With the Reformation and Enlightenment, the practical side of philosophy is eclipsed, and the virtue ethic falls into desuetude.

2) A Renaissance card game, the tarot, requires a sequence of pictorial trumps. As a matter of happenstance, a pictorial digest of the virtue ethic is used for this sequence. These images are preserved during the Reformation and Enlightenment period by conservative card players who often prefer these now obscure, but perhaps still evocative, images to more modern or more arbitrary pictorial sequences.

3) The late 18th and 19th century brings a widespread revival of interest in spiritual disciplines of all sorts. New religions like Swedenborg's are invented. Romanticism becomes a search for the soul and the exotic. Folklorists search for pagan survivals and ancient wisdom in primitive customs. And finally Blavatsky fashions an occult history fusing Hermeticism, Vedanta, and a mythology with a scale that rivals modern cosmology but puts our eternal souls at the center of the universe.

What could be more perfect than the Tarot for all these projects? An undoubted folk custom, used for card playing and fortune telling. And a sequence of mysterious images that can be, with a little squinting, construed as containing Kabbalistic and Hermetic wisdom. Voila! Meet secret doctrine as folk survival: the tarot.

The irony is that the tarot is indeed a folk survival of the pagan past. Not of occult secrets from Atlantis, Memphis or Jerusalem, but of the virtue ethic that begins with Socrates, proceeds through the Stoics to the Neoplatonists and Christians, and comes to its finale with Renaissance courtiers.

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My thought on this is that if the images had not contained a digest of the virtue ethic, no amount of squinting would have produced the Hermetic and Kabbalistic interpretations we have now. These interpretations are therefore not fantasies, but misconstruals of the images' original ethical/spiritual content.

I am much too new at this to tell how solid the notion is of tarot images being a digest of the chivalric and courtly virtue ethic; certainly some of the discussions of the cards on this forum support the idea. If it is true; a much more productive dialog between the historians and the current tarot users should be possible.

Re: Is there an Ironic Genealogy of the Contemporary Tarot?

#2
Jim Schulman wrote: The irony is that the tarot is indeed a folk survival of the pagan past. Not of occult secrets from Atlantis, Memphis or Jerusalem, but of the virtue ethic that begins with Socrates, proceeds through the Stoics to the Neoplatonists and Christians, and comes to its finale with Renaissance courtiers.
Hello Jim,
the adjective “pagan” suggests a contraposition with “Christian”. Since much of ancient philosophy has been successfully integrated in Christian doctrine, I think that labelling Platonic virtues as “pagan” does not clarify things. Are St.Augustine's moral works a survival of the pagan past?
Jim Schulman wrote:My thought on this is that if the images had not contained a digest of the virtue ethic, no amount of squinting would have produced the Hermetic and Kabbalistic interpretations we have now. These interpretations are therefore not fantasies, but misconstruals of the images' original ethical/spiritual content.
I don't see how a particular modern misinterpretation could shade some light on an ancient artifact, when better evidence is available. It seems easier to me to work the other way round, the ethical/spiritual content of tarot has generated ethical/spiritual misinterpretations. Since we have a great deal of Renaissance historical elements to formulate an interpretation of the original meaning of tarot, we can more easily understand how and why the original intended meaning was misinterpreted by the occultists. XIX Century occultists had access to much fewer information than we have, moreover they had no interest in tarot as a historical artifact. Of course, their works can still be a very interesting field of study, but in general they are of no help in understanding XV Century tarot.

I think that one can produce a Hermetic / Kabbalistic interpretation of almost anything. See for instance Enochian Chess or the way in which in Naples Kabbalah (Cabala) is associated with the game of Lotto. Do these interpretations tell us much about the original meaning of Chess or Lotto?
For one who has an interest in Egyptian hieroglyphs, are the thousands of pages written by Kircher a good starting point, given the currently available alternatives?
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Re: Is there an Ironic Genealogy of the Contemporary Tarot?

#3
In a geneology, what is being explained is the current understanding of an object. This can be based on complete fabrication or on misconstrual of its past. In the case of misconstrual, it calls for an analysis of what is being misconstrued.

Kircher's work is a very good case in point. It was believed that Horapollo's classical book on the hieroglyphs was virtually a complete fabrication. Now it turns out that the author was reflecting a late Egyptian tradition of indulging in highly allegorical "deep" readings of the hieroglyphs to draw out moral and spiritual lessons. This was similar to the third or fourth level of bible reading done by monks and kabbalists. Kircher was proficient in these traditions of deep reading, and attacked the hieroglyphs from this point of view. So while he corrected Horappllo's errors and identified Coptic as the base language, he never got anywhere, since he assumed the hieroglyphs were used exclusively for deep readings.

Does this tell us anything about hieroglyphs as used in the New Empire? Of course not. Does it tell us something about the (mis)use of hieroglyphs in Alexandrian Egypt, and the reception of this practice in the Renaissance? Of course it does.

The basis of Horapollo's work apparently includes a lost text by allegorizing Egyptian priests who did understand regular hieroglyphic writing (sorry, I lost the url of the newpaper article I read on this). It would be interesting to see what they would have made of Kircher.

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