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The Magian Tarok: The Origins of the Tarot in the Mithraic and Hermetic Traditions – Stephen E. Flowers

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Categories: hellenic, hermeticism, mesopotamian, tarot, Tags:

The Magian Tarok coverInner Traditions and Stephen Flowers seem to have a lucrative and fulfilling relationship, reissuing many of his works from over the years, usually in revised, expanded and more substantial versions than their humble first pressings on Flowers’ own Rûna Raven Press. This is one such title, originally released in a preliminary edition following its effective completion in 1992, then more widely by Rûna Raven Press in 2006 and finally again in 2015 by Lodestar Books. Suffice to say, with a cover design by Aaron Davis and layout by Debbie Glogover, this incarnation has all the effortless class one would expect from an Inner Traditions title.

The Magian Tarok follows a slightly atypical trajectory, placing, as its subtitle makes clear, the origins of the tarot in Mithraic and Hermetic traditions, rather than any of the more usual suspects, credible or not; an idea touched on briefly by Flowers in his book Hermetic Magic. In his introduction, Flowers details how the inspiration for this book long preceded its 1992 completion, having its inception in 1981 whilst he was researching in Germany. Here, the idea had an unlikely source, being found in the academic works of the Swedish poet and philologist, and promoter of the Uthark theory of the runes, Sigurd Agrell.

Flowers begins by talking tangentially, and in somewhat surprisingly glowing terms, about postmodern theory, but, of course, one as perpetually gruff and traditionalist as he isn’t referring to *that* postmodernism, oh no, heaven for fend. Instead, he is talking about, you know, the real one; the one that probably chops wood with an axe, smokes cigars, drinks whiskey, and has a moustache, rahhhh. Needless to say, Flowers can’t resist shaking his fist at those “Marxists and crypto-Marxists” on his lawn, hijacking postmodernism and storming poor, defenceless academia, saints preserve us. This is a peculiar little spittle of invective that once again highlights the incongruity of the relationship betwixt Flowers and Inner Traditions; a company one can’t imagine spends a lot of time railing against the modern world, not when there are books to be sold about vibrational nutrition, healing crystals and tuning the human biofield. This is particularly so as Inner Traditions are the kind of publisher that comes to mind in Flower’s preface when, in the very first paragraph, he laments that the modernisation and desacralisation of the tarot “has gone so far that one can even now buy “Teen Tarot” packages;” as if this apparently inconceivable proposition was one of the veritable signs of the apocalypse, right up there with human sacrifice and cats and dogs living together. Lawks, save us all from the twin evils of teenage girls and post-structuralist academics, they assail us from all sides.

The Magian Tarok spread

To ground the book’s central hypothesis, Flowers spends a considerable time, 52 pages in all, summarising Mithraism, along with its antecedents and contemporaries: Zoroastrianism, Magianism and briefly, Stoicism. This immediately provides a perfect encapsulation of some of the problems with the writing found in The Magian Tarok; something that comes as a surprise given Flowers’ experience and mileage as an author. Despite its 52 pages, this one chapter contains only five cited references, all from Franz Cumont’s seminal if not unassailable The Mysteries of Mithras, with all other secondary sources uncited, thereby leaving the reader to entirely trust Flowers’ description of these religious systems or to guess the source from amongst the three page bibliography at the back. Two of these citations relate awkwardly to a summary of Cumont’s highly speculative recreation of the story behind the tauroctony (the familiar if enigmatic slaying of the bull by the Roman form of Mithras), which, given the text’s block quote formatting makes it appear to be a direct quote from The Mysteries of Mithras, which it isn’t. This lack of sources other than Cumont is problematic given that so much of the writing is riddled with weasel words and false appeals to authority. There’s an abundant use of qualifiers like ‘maybe’ and ‘perhaps,’ but even more egregious are those appeals to false authority with phrases such as “it has been said,” “some say” and “some believe,” as well as references to some unspecified “most early scholars” and their descendants, the equally anonymous “some recent scholars.”

In addition to issues with referencing are some sloppy editing moments where whole sections of information are repeated redundantly, almost as if a few notes have been fleshed out one way and incorporated into the text, only for the author to rewrite the same information and insert it into the body a few pages later, appearing to forget doing it the first time. On page 15, for example, Flowers introduces Zarathustra and relates how this Iranian priest identified the embodiment of absolute divinity as Ahura Mazda (Lord-Wisdom), with all other gods and goddesses as abstract principles created by them. A brief five pages later, with the details still fresh in the memory of the reader, if not his own, Flowers disorientatingly introduces Zarathustra again and tells how he identified the embodiment of absolute divinity as Ahura Mazda (Lord-Wisdom) with all other gods and goddesses as abstract principles created by him. In other instances, concepts are discussed before they are defined, with, for example, Zurvanism being mentioned several times, albeit only by name, before a full explanation comes pages later, finally introducing Zurvan as if they hadn’t been mentioned in passing prior.

The Magian Tarok spread

After this lengthy grounding, Flowers moves on to a consideration of stoiechia, by which is meant the letters of the Greek alphabet, thus providing the book’s first hint of a pathway between Mithraism and the tarot. Flowers presents an esoteric, Mithraic interpretation of each letter, seemingly based entirely on the work of Agrell as no other sources, ancient or modern, are mentioned. Thus, the bull symbolism of alpha (or at least its Phoenician antecedent aleph) relates to the tauroctony; beta, as the second letter, is the lesser god and second principle of life in Zoroastrianism, the malevolent Ahriman; whereas the third letter, gamma, refers to Mithras who in Greek texts, according to Flowers, was “often called” triplasios (‘three-times-as-much’) and which he takes to imply the idea of a Mithraic trinity. It is worth noting that the names of these many Greek texts are not cited and the primary, if not only, use in Greek of the triplasios term for Mithras is by the 5th-6th century Christian theologian Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, where he employs it in the sense of thrice-great, rather than a trinitarian threefold.

This is all very speculative and it often feels like an association is made using the barest of symbolic simulacra, which is fine when one is doing an esoteric investigation for oneself, but less so when these correspondences are ostensibly being presented as an ancient belief system with a lineage that also stretches forward at least two millennia into the modern age. As the Greek letters do not have the rich symbolic associations of Hebrew or the runes, a meaning often has to be drawn, with some effort, from their numeric value using a simple Mispar Hechrachi-style number-for-letter formula. As a result, things get reachier the further into the alphabet one goes, with one of the reachiest being the eleventh letter, lambda, which is said to be associated with growth and vegetative virility. To get to this, Agrell noted that an excerpt from the Zoroastrian scripture Bundahishn tells how from five parts of the slain cosmic bull sprung 55 types of grain and twelve kinds of healing herbs. Discounting the twelve herbs, Agrell introduced the number 11 and tortuously argued that since 5 times 11 equals 55, then 11 must be the number that signifies growth and vegetative virility; not the referenced 5, nor 55, and certainly not 12. Like we said, so reachy, and that’s not even taking into account that the Bundahishn excerpt in question has Ahriman and his evil forces as the killers of the bull, not Mithra, who in his Iranian form is never associated with that act.

Undaunted with the sketchiness of this assignment to the Greek alphabet of myriad Zoroastrian and prochronistic Roman Mithraist elements, the next chapter moves forward in time with an assumption that said esoteric attributes were transferred from the Greek letters to their Latin equivalent. Little time is spent on this evolution and instead Flowers takes it as read and moves swiftly on to Agrell’s interpretation of the tarot, admitting for the first time that it would be untenable to suggest that the tarot trumps existed at this period in their later card form, but rather that their symbolism was then extant and conveyed in the esoteric import given to symbols, such as the Greek and Roman letters. Only later, the theory goes, were these arbitrary (and seemingly reverse-engineered) associations given pictorial form in the cards of the tarot; assuming an uninterrupted lineage of centuries.

The Magian Tarok spread

Flowers goes through each of the trumps, giving Agrell’s interpretation and fleshing out the information with additional details. There’s a lot of wrangling of imagery drawn from not just from Mithraism limited symbolism but also ancient Egypt, Greece and more broadly, Hermeticism, all of which has to then be inelegantly tied back to Mithraism to fit the brief; although sometimes the stretch was apparently too great to bother with. Thus, the wand-wielding Magician is linked to a was-sceptre-holding Set, but then Flowers has to make this relevant to Agrell’s hypothesis with a hand-waving claim that “it is also likely” that during the Persian rule of Egypt, their Mithra was identified with the native Set. Similarly, The High Priestess is just, well, any queen-like goddess figure, so yeah, let’s say Isis, and well, maybe Cybele, and then let’s see if we can tie this in to Mithras based merely on the proximity of their respective cults, Yeah, that’ll do. Next! What, another goddess figure for The Empress? Ahh, that must have been Diana for, um, reasons. These Mithraists weren’t exactly bothered about encoding many figures unique to their ill-defined cosmology into these cards, any old god will do, almost as if these magi had the benefit of four millennia of mythological hindsight at their disposal.

Throughout this analysis, any coincidence is looked upon as proof and any inconsistency is acknowledged as something that must have changed, albeit for unspecified, mysterious reasons. Thus, The Fool is an image of the tauroctony, but the bull has been turned, naturally, I guess, into the jester figure, with his cap and bells read, for the first time by anyone ever, as bull’s ears. Mithras himself is completely absent, but lo, a dog seen in the tauroctony is there in trump; although let’s ignore the fact that the dog is parasitically licking the bull’s blood in the former, while trying to warn the Fool of imminent danger in the latter. Not to mention that the dog first appears in the Marseilles deck, and not in any of its 15th century predecessors.

Ultimately, none of the interpretations of the cards are very convincing and the entire premise fails to move beyond confusing correlation for causation. Rather than showing that there was some ancient template for the 15th century tarot deck, inconceivably carried through time for over 1500 years by a secret magian brotherhood straight out of Dan Brown’s tawdry fiction, the swish of Occam’s Razor would argue that the 15th century designs, like any other creative output, drew their imagery from a vast array of extant sources and influences, both esoteric and mundane. Once again, if it was simply a matter of retroactively applying a Greek, Hermetic and tiny sliver of Mithraism to the symbolism of the tarot, in a manner done, for example, by anyone designing a new tarot with a specific cultural variation, then that would be fine; even if the links are, as mentioned, often tenuous. The issue though is with the implausible central hypothesis that all this happened the other way round, all managed by magian adepts with a knowledge of Hermeticism, two versions of Mithras (both Persian and Roman), who were also cognisant of a future where mere playing cards could become a system of divination (and then desacralized by those damn teenagers). This sloppy scholarship is exacerbated by the attempts to give names to these non-existent Roman trumps, as if that’s what they would really have been called, claiming for example that the original Roman name for Strength “was probably Magnitudo,” that for The Hanged Man “the evocative interpretation was probably Noxa,” that the Roman name for Temperance “was likely Pluvia, “rain (water),”” and that The Devil “would have carried the name Quirinus.” Even with those weasel word caveats, these are pretty bold claims to pull out of the aether and I could just as easily say, with comparable certainty, that The Tower was originally almost certainly most definitely called Geminae Turris (and one of the other towers was removed at some point because reasons).

The Magian Tarok spread

As an argument for a theory best left in the 1930s, the content of The Magian Tarok has little to recommend it, stretching symbolism, time, logic and the reader’s credulity. At best, one could say the book is merely a prima facie presentation of Agrell’s theory and is not intended as either critique or advocacy, But beyond the tarot theory itself, as a history of Mithraism it is also lacking, rife as it is with its lack of reference to both primary and secondary sources, and with its preponderance of weasel words, setting the discerning reader adrift in a sea of uncertain provenances and fruitless speculation. Given the relative obscurity of Mithraism, a clearer, more referenced consideration of the topic would be recommended, with less reliance solely on Cumont, some of whose popular theories have attracted criticism over the years, beginning in 1971 with John Hinnells and R.L. Gordon at the First International Congress of Mithraic Studies.

The layout of The Magian Tarok comes, as ever, by way of the expert hand of the aforementioned Debbie Glogover, who sets the body in Garamond, with Brioso, Goudy Oldstyle and Gill Sans as display faces. Images are dotted throughout the book and the tarot trumps are represented four-fold in each example, with a row of three cards drawn variously from the Visconti-Sforza, Marseilles, Grigonneur, Rosenwald and Mantegna decks, topped each time by a larger featured image from the photographic tarot of Amber Rae Broderick.

Published by Inner Traditions

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Lost Envoy: The Tarot Deck of Austin Osman Spare – Edited by Jonathan Allen

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Categories: art, chaos, tarot

Lost Envoy coverThe prospect of a long lost tarot deck designed by Austin Osman Spare is a tantalising one, and for this reader at least, guaranteed a rush to the Strange Attractor Press preorder page. Once it was finally released and it turned up in the mail I had made it all the way to the “what the hel is this package” phase.

If the thought of a Spare-designed tarot deck makes you imagine classic Sparean images, all crisp phantasmagorical lines against a white background, then temper your expectations. The look of the cards is a denser one than that, with the style, while obviously in Spare’s hand, being more traditional, and made heavier with a thorough use of watercolour washes on both figures and backgrounds. The deck is also arguably more traditional than either Crowley’s Book of Thoth, or anything one might expect from the proto-Chaote that is Spare, with the Major Arcana images obviously drawing, for the most part, on the atu of the Tarot de Marseille and its antecedents. The Minor Arcana, on the other hands, reveals the cartomantic roots of Spare’s praxis, adopting the suits of traditional playing cards and adding four court cards of queen, king, knight and knave to each set. Perhaps the strongest diversion from convention, though, is the text heavy nature of the hands, with Spare scrawling interpretations and instructions at the foot and head of each card, reflecting the orientation of the reading.

But first, the provenance of this deck and why it was lost. To the latter question first, it wasn’t so much lost, and instead has been sitting quite contentedly for over 70 years in the collection of the Magic Circle, the famed London organisation for those magicians of the stage, and not the ritual chamber, variety. Editor Jonathan Allen, a curator at the Magic Circle museum, rediscovered the archived deck in 2013 and this volume reproducing the cards and featuring commentary from a number of essayists, provides the first broad exposure of Spare’s tarot.

The written contributions in Lost Envoy take two forms: archival documentation and analysis. The former includes Spare’s Mind to Mind and How, by a Sorcerer and Arthur Ivey’s Tarot Cards and a Pack in The Magic Circle Museum from the November 1969 issue of the Magic Circle’s in-house magazine The Magic Circular. Spare’s essay is an unpublished submission for the long running London Mystery Magazine, and provides a practical guide to cartomancy as well as giving a sense of the methods behind the creation of this deck. Ivey’s brief essay uses half of its two page length as a history of the tarot which prefaces an all too brief description of Spare’s tarot, creating a museum catalogue entry as it were.

Given that the two documents provide the only extant historical information about Spare’s tarot and his methods, they are referenced extensively in the accompanying essays, creating something of a sense of déjà vu. This is exacerbated by the ultimately limited amount of things that can be said about Spare’s tarot, meaning that many of the same points are familiarly made across multiple essays. Both Helen Farley and Gavin Semple’s contributions cover the provenance of the deck and Spare’s nascent involvement in the occult milieu of Victorian London, each then followed with a little analysis of some of the cards and their characteristics. A more focused consideration of the cards themselves is provided by Phil Baker’s His Own Arcana, with his points ably reinforced with the inclusion of full colour images of the trumps and full bleed plates of details.

The Deputation by Sally O’Reilly takes a different approach from its companions, with an imagined encounter between Spare and his friend, the suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst. Spare and Pankhurst sit and engage in witty banter about his cards, with her queries allowing him to provide the explanatory exegesis. It’s a diversion whose mileage may vary depending on one’s patience for the conceit of words put into the mouths of historical figures; especially given that their tone and mores are inevitably predicated by the lens of today.

The final essay comes from Alan Moore who, with A Cartomantic Mirror, provides a pretty exhaustive tarot reading of the meaning and intention of Spare’s deck using, and it gets pretty damn meta here, Crowley and Harris’ Thoth deck. Again, no expense has been spared and the cards drawn from the Crowley/Harris deck are reproduced here in full colour, with some key atu each given a page to themselves.

The essays take up only half of this volume’s 336 pages and the remainder is comprised of reproductions of Spare’s cards. These are presented first as full pages reproductions of each of the major and minor arcana, and then followed by six examples of the various coloured card backs. For extra thoroughness, the cards are then presented again in a concordance that transcribes all of the textual data found on the cards, one page for each, along with a listing of marginal links that tie one card to another, and meticulous footnotes providing still further information. Between some of these individual pages are full colour folded inserts of some of the cards, showing the way in which Spare graphically linked the designs together across multiple spreads. This is one of those things that reveals the attention to detail that has gone into producing this volume, with an almost unnecessarily thorough presentation of the data.

Lost Envoy has been designed by Fraser Muggeridge studio, with a cover that appears a strange, jarring melange of geometric colour until one realises, as this late junction, that it shows a cascade of Spare’s multi-coloured card backs. The book is bound with, apparently, a period binding common to many of the volumes found in The Magic Circle library, with a gold deboss of Spare’s autographic bird’s head sigil (no, not the cool vulture one, the one that looks like Montgomery Burns). The text formatting inside the book is not entirely satisfying, with the body copy rendered in a far too modern sans serif typeface which isn’t conducive to reading and gives the impression, false though it may be, of text being dumped in from a Word document with Calibri set to default. With this are awfully snug header and footer margins, due to the page numbering being put on the outer edge, which again, and contrary to the intent, feels like the default settings in a Word doc, rather than something carefully designed. Otherwise, a lot of effort has gone into the production of this book, with the cover text debossed (and the aforementioned sigil debossed and foiled too), a beautifully raised emboss on the inside cover page bearing the Magic Circle logo, not to mention the preponderance of colour prints and the inserted replicas of cards.

With its repeated representation of the cards in Spare’s deck in both graphic and textural forms, it’s clear that the intent of this book is one of complete and thorough documentation, in which the cards are presented in the best possible light for posterity. Whether anyone is going to read the transcribed page for each card isn’t the point, and this reviewer certainly didn’t. Instead the point is that it’s there should one need it. In this way, the essay content is almost secondary, and it is the cards themselves that tell the story.

Lost Envoy was made available in two editions: a standard hardback edition still available with 336pp pages, fully illustrated in colour, with over 200 images. And a now sold out numbered and debossed edition of 300 copies, with fold-out sections.

Published by Strange Attractor Press