Friday, February 05, 2016



The Tarot of the Bohemians

Papus, along with the Tarot, came to the attention of English readers in 1896 through a translation of his 1889 book Le Tarot des Bohémiens. Whether or not it can be considered a classic work it was certainly a pioneering one, reproducing line drawings of Marseilles Tarot originals of the 22 Trumps along with ‘esoterically improved’ versions by Oswald Wirth, a Swiss freemason and budding Tarot authority. A.E.Waite’s fully illustrated coloured cards, drawn by Pixie Coleman-Smith, that have become classics in their own right and usually unacknowledged pattern for dozens of latter day Tarots, did not appear for another fourteen years.

The originality of Papus’ subject brought a number of  problems, and not only esoteric ones. Although a professional translator had been engaged  he plainly suffered from complete  ignorance of his subject including even the common nomenclature of playing cards. For instance, the word in French for playing card suits is ‘couleurs’ which he blithely rendered as ‘colours’ although presumably most readers realised what was meant. And  when it came to occult matters, anyone interested in spiritual topics is called a ‘spiritualist’; initiations are referred to as ‘initiatives’; the Theosophical Society renamed the Theosophite Society and the Egyptian god Ammon rechristened ‘Amen’. Most fundamental was, however, the translation of the title. Le Tarot des Bohémiens means ‘The Tarot of the Gypsies’ so to call the English version The Tarot of the Bohemians was to name it the Tarot of the Inhabitants of Bohemia or alternatively members of the Parisian artistic community, like Mimi in La Bohème.  I don’t think she shuffles the cards to tell fortunes in the opera.

None of which probably matters in the longer view as there is considerable doubt as to whether the Gypsies had anything to do with the Tarot anyway!  The idea began as a random speculation (among many) by Court de Gebelin, the late 18th century originator of occult interest in the Tarot. The gypsies’ preferred method of fortune telling was palmistry. Oddly enough, although Gerard Encausse’s claim to gypsy blood was almost certainly spurious, he was quite good at palmistry. Soon after their first meeting, he showed Victor Émile Michelet his hand and said it foretold he would die at the age of 53. He was only a couple of years out. Papus died in 1916 at the age of 51 as a result of his medical work in the trenches of the 1st World War.    

Like a number of his works, Papus’ Tarot book is divided into three parts. The first is devoted to the kind of number symbolism we found in his Traité Élémentaire de Science Occulte, and as he all but admits later on, we could probably just as well have done without it! It is a numerological analysis of the Jewish divine name Yod – Heh – Vau – Heh that will probably cause any kosher student of the Jewish Qabalah to cry aloud and leave the rest of us very confused. Those of long patience can try their luck with pages 243 to 251 of Professor Michael Dummett’s analysis in A Wicked Pack of Cards    a detailed work on the origins of the occult Tarot that contains a chapter on Papus.

With the second part of the book we are into the diagrams and lists of correspondences dear to the hearts of dedicated occultists. The only problem here will be, for those of us who have been brought up on Golden Dawn attributions, that the correspondences are all different to what we are used to. The reason for this being that Eliphas Levi, whose lead Papus follows, chose to list the Tarot Trumps in a different order.

We gave forewarning of this back in Sons of Hermes 2. There need be no problem at all if one takes to heart that the Tarot is a system of symbolism big enough and well integrated enough to stand on its own merits, without close correspondence with any other symbolic system – be it Qabalah, Astrology, or Egyptian hieroglyphs. Insofar that any magical symbol system is an attempt to describe elements of the inner worlds, it may have similarities with others insofar that each is trying to describe the same general landscape. However, such is the range and complexity of the interlocking spheres of the inner worlds, that expecting close correspondence between one system and another is doomed to disappointment. (But as a wise old teacher of mine once remarked – the way toward reality tends to be a process of shedding illusions – another word for which can be disillusionment.)

So to get the most from the Tarot my advice is to treat it as a stand alone system. It will work very well like that, without a lot of constricting webs. The same might be said for the Paths and Spheres of the Tree of Life, or the I Ching hexagrams, or the constellations of the Starry Wisdom of the Ptolemaic cosmos. If you come across what looks like a close correspondence of realities between one system and another, tip your hat in respect, reflect upon your good luck, or inherent wisdom if you should be so foolish, and then pass on. However, I grant that there can be fascinating speculation in juggling with correspondences and some occultists have come up with interesting alternatives. 

Actually Papus comes close to this in the third part of his book, which is a typical Papusian bran tub of bits and pieces gathered from here and there, including a long contribution from Albert Foucheux, otherwise known as Barlet (anagram of Albert) a civil servant who seems to have been a permanent fixture of Parisian occultism, and member of every committee, ever ready with words of wisdom on whatever subject required, and local representative of the Anglo-American H.B.L. or Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor (Luxor being a Latin/Hebrew code for Light (Lux + Aur). As will later be seen, Papus and his circle had a great weakness for secret societies and their titles and paraphernalia.  

But more striking is Papus’ advice on how to read the Tarot – a long chapter consisting of seven lessons intended for lady readers. Successful card reading, he says, is largely a matter of intuition, the implication being that they need not bother about trying to understand all the difficult stuff in the rest of the book.

“The first part of our study of the Tarot, full of numbers, of Hebrew letters, and abstract deductions, is not calculated to attract the attention of ladies...and I hope that the pleasure gained by the fair inquirers will balance the scepticism of sterner intellects.”

For myself, I wonder how it is that for someone who from 1888 until the eve of his marriage in 1895 was very close to a prominent feminist, Anna Wolska, could not have had this arch chauvinism posing as gallantry knocked out of him. But he was at this time still only 23 and maybe he had only just met her.

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