This will be a bit advanced unless you’re an enormous fan of Tarot lore. If so, please skip past this chapter. It is not necessary for the intuitive reading method described above.
The most common tradition has each trionfi matched to a letter. Very old lore already involves special myths and meanings for each letter, and until the rise of scripts, writing was exclusive territory, very limited to regions, to the few who had access to lettered courts. A closely guarded secret, and probably the origin of much of the imperative of secrecy legend holds for things like this today.
Right alongside the flowering of Hermetic lore in the Renaissance, the involvement of Jewish scholars produced important works of Kabbalah which have a prominent place in the library of magic, especially having a flourishing in European communities in the medieval and Renaissance period. There can be no question that their antiquity have both Kabbalah and Hermeticism as not only contemporary, but related. Because of secrecy (and lack of literature) on the origin of these traditions, we have mainly surviving poetry to get a glimpse of the world they developed in. But they are intriguing, and describe the sacred importance of the alphabet among the bards. The poems describe sailing from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, North Africa to Ireland, and to attend festivals in Egypt, all from the days when Sacred Groves still held a high and somehow intercultural place.
Syncretism, Quicksilver, the Mercurial Path
It is possible that in the complicated, shape shifting character of Hermes, the avatar of many paths, of old ways, of writing and dance and so many other things, we have a personification of all the stories of spiritual life before the city states, anything ‘from long ago’. Religion before the great temples, or the caves hidden stories below the now refined steps of marble. The Hermetic or Mercurial is difficult to understand when so many other late Olympian characters arrive to redouble such places, but that’s precisely it, they are modern restatements and new styles and fashions for dealing with the complexity of life. Hermes continued among them for several mythic reasons – for being a reminder of old ways, and for being the Exalted Seer or Shaman that had earned their place among the gods. And as myths tend to go, probably describes an actual historic person, who did manage to accomplish an advancement worthy of memory, like deriving an alphabet out of hieroglyphics to democratize written communication. If so this person likely lived around four thousand years ago. Or perhaps he has always been abstract, a stand in for all the initiated poets and scribes.
As for embodying a reverence for the old ways, even as civilization had moved on to whole new visions of itself, it wasn’t so much the scantily clad youth that earned his place in fertility lore… it was the old tree on the hill, the little spring near the cave. These old folk magic places are pure Hermetic territory. Even modern people having no names to put to them, feel something admiring for the old standing stones, and that is the ‘Hermetic’ they experience. In that case, Hermetic is a synonym for ‘spiritual’. Some of those stones are more recent, some were laid up long ago by cultures so old even their languages are not known.
In the oldest poems, we have limited lists of names from stories to help guess at what they’re called now, enough to find that even before written record, “word travels fast” and stories had a way of traveling across continents and back, quickly and with little change. A classic example where the names and places change but the grand finale does not, is the affinity between the story of Krishna and the Naga, which has striking similarities in both age and character, to that of Hercules and the Hydra, George and the Dragon, Marduk and Tiamat, or Seth and Apep. Another uncanny similarity is that between the caduceus carried by Roman Mercury and the jade carvings of intertwined snakes from clear across the world, relating to the Chinese myth of Nüwa and Fuxi, brother and sister, who are credited with the creation of humanity, and, yes, the Chinese writing system, as well as hunting, fishing and farming. In one version, writing was discovered when a phoenix dropped a hoof from an animal that it was crunching on into the dirt, leaving an interesting mark.
It once excited antiquarians to believe there was this singular, perfect lost culture, if you could only peer back far enough, that would tie it all together, this was the old legend regarding Atlantis. This kind of thinking, that all myths and accomplishments are the fragmentations of a lost but superior culture, still persists on television in many ways today. The older a fortress, the bigger it gets in the movies. But those who study these things deeply, especially the movement and branching of languages themselves, point to an equally simple, yet opposite conclusion – they are similar because they have blurred together over time, and because, at their root, these are stories about nature, and people’s memories taking place within it.
One lesson that seems to come from Hermetic philosophy, is that there is always another beginning, different from the one we were taught. And there will be other beginnings long after we are gone, especially if we do our bit successfully and preserve the best stories.
Hermes then, known to many cultures by various names, is like a super hero compendium of old stories, the best storyteller, having been everywhere and seen everything, standing at every crossroads, drinking from every spring, the first shaman, the great inventor, and the creator of writing, the best thing that the oldest ancestor of civilization could have done. In a way, Hermes isn’t really a person at all, but living language, and that extends to the languages of life, death, and history. When a new ruler took up places where the old ways had been, they built temples to Hermes and Mercury over them, and would offer messages inscribed on silver, a metal that never fades, and could be melted and reshaped over and over again.
Some say the alphabet was invented from watching the cranes fly in formation, or the marks birds left walking in the sand. Some say it was the way the reeds moved in the wind, others said the motions of a snake gave the idea first, or the marks left by the way sheep knuckles (an early form of dice) fell in the dust.
I resisted the idea that tradition that the Trumps were tied to the Kabbalah for a long time, mainly because it did not seem to mesh with the pictorial themes that I knew to be Classical. I felt something was not right about the way it’s been taught.
However, as I’ve realized the cards do favor Hermetic lore and better understood what that meant, it shows that for all the tribal Celtic and Iberian and Gothic and eastern and northern crossovers in the cards, the Egyptian influence that tradition holds is indeed precisely its link to the key of the alphabet, and this too was Hermetic. What I think is missing is to take one step further back… we can still find our match of 22 letters in the Semitic alphabet of the Phoenicians, it does appear likely to be the work of one hand. It is the source of the Hebrew alphabet, but it is more contemporary to the old sacred sea, tree and bird culture of forgotten times. Not only this, the earlier letters match a little more smoothly, suggesting that the arrangers of the deck, however they pulled it off, happily welded together the lore of Hermes to the humanist concerns of their own time.
The script of the Phoenicians contains the full 22 letters necessary to match the cards, as does the Hebrew. As does the older Greek alphabet, its offspring also, and so very distantly, its great grandchildren Coptic, the Runes of the North, and Cyrillic could also be used, why not? This convinced me at last that there was merit to the letter association from the start.
In any case, before I present the tables below, I just want to review the assertions that can be drawn about the North Italian and Marseilles contributors to the deck. This would mean that the arrangements a) match the order of the Semitic alphabet, b) contain one variation after another on Hermetic themes, c) contain references Classical, Celt-Iberian, Gothic and other cultures, and d) are loaded with humanist themes, including the Power of Women. From this we derive a person capable of a clever feat, who is familiar with non-Latin languages, who is intimate with the Classics, including pagan writers and Hermetic themes, who is familiar with the traditional seaside cultures of France, Spain and Italy, who is familiar with current scholarship, the natural sciences, has considerable sympathy for women and a disdain for oppressive ecclesia. Far too many intersections in one artwork for a gradual development. Definitely of multiple worlds, the inventor(s) were well travelled and highly privileged in access to knowledge. Whoever she/they may be, they devised the Tarot arrangement to explain something more complicated than just a secret history or a rite, they presented a package dealing with the intersectionality of cultures, including folk wisdom regarding the cognition of language itself.
I found that by taking this step back a bit further to the Phoenician alphabet, the letters more closely matched themes on the individual cards. Look at The Wheel of Fortune (IX) – taytu is literally a drawn wheel with an ancient value of 9 (before Indian numerals arrived via Arabic expansion, letters served double duty as numbers), while the letter’s shape and meaning have changed a great deal by the time of Hebrew, and the Kabbalah. If I am correct, we have on staff at the development of the Tarot a master scribe who is in possession of what was assumed to be a lost script at that point, and has hidden it in there… an extraordinary thought. Or note how appropriate nahsu is for Death’s scythe, or qoph, resembling an ankh or possibly birth, for the moon. Because the alphabet is essentially the same, what this means is that the Kabbalah can still be used to read the key in the cards, but the cards do not themselves necessarily need carry correspondence to the specific sephiroths of the Kabbalist’s Tree of Life to be read. Because the lore of the alphabets already extends back quite far. However you use this, what a perfect hiding place in plan site, a perfect book of many paths in one.
However, to make this work with the order of the letters, several of the cards needed to be switched one place, while the Fool needs to travel farther (and this is what the card does in the play of the game). This not a new observation in the study of this kind of correspondence. It is probably an added level of encryption. Not a new trick for the poets of old, it is well recorded that the bards intentionally scrambled the lines of their recitations in order to communicate warnings, reference concealments, and extend alternative meanings.