Friday, April 03, 2015

Flirtations with the Spirit of the Tarot

I'm 85 years old today! Time for a little indulging in memories of things past. And what better than the Tarot?

One set of words of wisdom that have paid off for me is “don’t be afraid to take on a job that nobody else wants – for you never know where it may lead!”

This certainly applied back in the early 1960’s when I agreed to take on the job of part time unpaid librarian at the Society of the Inner Light. Not a very onerous task it should be said, consisting of running a postal circulating library that had about half a dozen customers a week. So with wrapping paper, sellotape and string supplied by the management it just needed a couple of hours spare time a week to keep the customers happy.

What nobody had factored in was the prospect of an American publisher writing in out of the blue wanting to reissue a couple of Dion Fortune’s titles – The Secrets of Dr. Taverner and The Esoteric Orders and their Work – and then ask someone in the Society to write an Introduction to each one of them. Nobody in the place was willing to take this on so the job was passed on to the part time unpaid librarian. I duly did my best and to such effect that the request came back for me to have a go at writing a book on the Tree of Life that included coverage of the 22 Paths between the Sephiroth.

This of course required a pretty close study of the Tarot. I was willing to take this on but, unbelievable as it may seem, it was impossible to find a pack of Tarot cards for sale in London at that time.  Nobody was interested apart from an outfit called the Insight Institute that used to advertise in Prediction and who produced a version of their own. Not bad but nothing like the real McCoy of the traditional 18th century Marseilles designs, let alone A.E.Waite and Pixie Colman-Smith’s esoteric version produced in 1910.

However I had the run of the Society’s library which had pretty well all the literature on the subject, and on the strength of this I compiled (at quite tedious length) a comparative description of the main decks I knew about. I think this performed something of a public service as A Practical Guide to Qabalistic Symbolism after fifty years still sells enough copies to make reprinting it just about worth while, even if without the opportunity to update it  apart from a new Introduction I was able to smuggle into the one volume paperback version in 2000 A.D.

During the writing of it I did have the opportunity to get closer to the Crowley-Harris Tarot than anyone else probably has, when I was asked by a publisher thinking about re-issuing it to check upon its state of preservation. My wife and I duly turned up at the Piccadilly branch of Lloyd’s Bank where the quite hefty originals were wheeled up from the vaults in trucks by the distinctly bemused and somewhat resentful porters as we ploughed our way through all 79 designs, (the extra one being the design on back of the cards).  

And when it became obvious that there were no esoteric Tarot packs to be had, I had the further challenge cast upon me to design a set for the new book. So for any students of mine who have sweated under the task of designing their own set of Tarot cards I can assure them that I have not asked anyone to do what I have not done myself! The only regret I had about asking students to perform this task was when one senior student, who was very painstaking and artistically gifted, had half a dozen of his designs chewed up by my dog who got to the front doormat before me after the postman called. I still blush at the memory. I am not sure that I – or my dog – were ever truly forgiven!

However, at least for my own set of designs I did not have to rely upon my own very average efforts but could rely on a real artist – so I chose a Dutch astrologer friend of mine, Sander Littel, which meant a trip or two over to Holland, where as a gustatory initiation I was introduced to eating raw fish. Which all goes to show where getting involved with the Tarot might lead you!  

More challenges were on the way however. The publisher who had commissioned book and  cards ran into some unexpected financial problems (not uncommon in the trade!) and so had to shelve both items indefinitely. So much for literary fame. Book written and typeset but held hostage by a printer, cards all designed and painted but similarly seized pending settlement of outstanding bills.

However, I have a touching faith in destiny, or at any rate the way inner plane powers have of setting things up to turn out all right in the end – even if they keep you chewing your fingernails until the last minute! I managed to get a friend of the Society of the Inner Light to put up the money for me to publish the book myself – which was the start of Helios Books as a publisher – but all depended on the blessing of the current Warden of the Society, who unfortunately did not like the Tarot part of it. It has to be recalled that the Tarot had something of a disreputable reputation in those days and the word “occult” was not one to be readily associated with by any respectable people.

By an irony of fate, in a bid to reach out to the public forty years later, a new Warden issued a pack designed by himself, called the Dion Fortune Tarot, although it has to be said that Dion Fortune had very little to do with it apart from her name on the packet. She showed little interest in the Tarot in her private or public papers and in a rare article on divination seemed to prefer geomancy.

Anyhow in those more straitlaced times the title of my book had to be changed from the all embracing A Practical Guide to Occult Symbolism to the more accurate but limited A Practical Guide to Qabalistic Symbolism and it was touch and go whether financial subvention would be forthcoming. However, someone or something must have given a discrete shove on the inner side of things, for in the end the scale of Maat tipped into the right direction at any rate as far as the book was concerned. But full colour printing being hideously expensive in those days, the cards had to be abandoned. Zilch reward for poor old Sander Littel after a year’s hard graft!

However, things can sometimes come right in the end, if only at the end of  twenty years, because in 1984, US Games Systems came to the rescue, got the artwork out of hock and finally produced the Gareth Knight Tarot and we got a few royalties. But what might have been a pioneering deck in a world bereft of Tarot cards, after the tremendous explosion of interest in Tarot during the 1970’s, trailed rather ingloriously behind rather like the muck cart after the Lord Mayor’s show.

I look back upon the deck with some affection, not a bad old thing, but my own, and rather   regard it as apprentice work – but then one’s ideas about the Tarot evolve over the years – and it could be no bad idea to keep refashioning one’s own, say every ten years. But by then you might not need them. The wisdom and symbolism is all in the mind really – not on the cardboard. 

However, if I ever dreamed that my thoughts on the Tarot might be universally welcomed by an astonished world I soon had my illusions shattered by that formidable old occultist William G Gray. As I proudly showed him my new book he took one look and then sighed with heavily charged world weariness bordering on contempt “Oh you’ve used the old Golden Dawn attributions!” and dismissed the work as useless.

Of course one might have expected such a reaction from an occultist of Bill Gray’s calibre who had gone far beyond the Golden Dawn interpretation of things and come up with his own correspondences with the Paths on the Tree of Life.  He eventually got round to elucidating his views in a book called The Talking Tree, recently reissued by Skylight Press, but had some difficulty getting it published in the early days because his views were considered too idiosyncratic by timid and semi-ignorant commissioning editors. However they have since been taken up and used highly effectively by the likes of Alan Richardson and R.J.Stewart, and I have used them on occasion myself. Although I still prefer the old Golden Dawn attributions for my personal use, with a few nips and tucks here and there.

We need to keep in mind that there is no “one and only true” system of Tarot/Path correspondences. In the first instance no such Qabalistic tie up was ever thought of until the French occultist Eliphas Levi came up with the idea in the 1850’s. And his system of correspondences, which was  taken up by his admirer Dr Gerard Encausse (“Papus”) in 1893 in “The Tarot of the Bohemians” differs radically yet again from the Golden Dawn attributions because Levi placed Trump 0 – the Fool – towards the end of the sequence of Trumps rather that at the beginning.

The difference between accepted correspondences between Francophile and Anglophile students of the Tarot bothered me a little when I was invited to lecture to the Martinist Order in Paris but I need not have worried. My hosts were very open minded and it was interesting to see how they had put their own take on symbolic matters, as for example by regarding Trump I, the Juggler, (which in French is le Bateleur) as representing the neophyte first starting out on the path by hearing the hour of realisation strike, because the name can be read as Le Bat √° l’Heure!  Which is not far different from William Gray’s positioning of the image on the 30th Path, between Yesod and Hod, where as the Magician, he is seen to represent the condition of subconscious imagination being converted into intellectual ideas. Which is not so different from the capabilities of a Juggler (of ideas or balls) if you think about it.

Anyway by a happy coincidence my first trip to France coincided with a magnificent exhibition of Tarot cards at the Bibliothèque Nationale. Everything from the fabulously fashioned gold encrusted early Florentine cards such as the Visconti-Sforza to the many versions issued by playing card manufacturers who catered for the popular game (of which the Marseilles Tarot is but one among many) and on to high art dabbling by the likes of the surrealist Salvador Dali.

I  had the good fortune to meet one of the organisers of this event some years later, Professor Michael Dummett, who after a massive tome on the Tarot as a game The Game of Tarot  found himself embroiled with esoteric enthusiasts whom he had never heard of, and bookshops that insisted on putting his book on the occult shelves. As a celebrated philosopher and Professor of Logic at Oxford University he did not much care for his newfound associates. However, it spurred him and his academic colleagues to go on to have a shot at the origins of the occult Tarot in A Wicked Pack of Cards in 1996 and then onto a more detailed A History of the Occult Tarot in 2002. Far from being a fire breathing old dragon I found him an old boy of much charm when he treated me to lunch at the Charing Cross Hotel to thresh out some ideas, in which I think I improved his original impression of occultists, as did his meetings with a few others in the esoteric backwoods, and I found myself quite kindly treated in his latter book, even with a chapter to myself, but which only went up to 1970 because, after that, the popular Tarot explosion grew to mammoth proportions quite impossible to cover in the pages of any book of less than encyclopaedic pretentions.  Though one has indeed been produced by Stuart Kaplan of U.S.Games Systems, which stretches to three volumes.

This is to anticipate events a bit, after the high jinks of getting my book published in 1964 came a gap of some twenty years between the next serious flirtation with the Tarot, when in 1984 the Gareth Knight Tarot made the light of day thanks to Stuart Kaplan. Not that that it was necessarily a red letter day in the history of the universe but it seemed to trigger off a new phase of Tarot involvement, starting with a workshop at Hawkwood College which resulted in turn to the publication of Tarot & Magic in which I took on board some of the issues mentioned above, and showed different ways in which the Tarot could be used, in ritual circumstances, or as a connected series of directed visualisations, following the course of the Serpent of Wisdom up the Tree of Life from Malkuth to Kether .

I recently revisited this book to double its length in a Skylight edition taking in a number of other ways to juggle this great panoply of symbolic wisdom. Although the Tarot book closest to my heart remains my treatment of the Tarot as a children’s story To the Heart of the Rainbow when I fancied my chances of getting one up on C.S.Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. Fat chance! But still one of my favourite ways of playing with the Tarot and one I recommend. Let your fancy run free! There is only one ideal Tarot, and that is the one you fashion within your own heart.  

As I have grown older, and possibly wiser, I have come to regard the Tarot more as a free standing system of wisdom without having to be tied to any other – be it Tree of Life or whatever. In pursuit of this idea I launched a correspondence course back in the 1990’s called The Magical World of the Tarot. It purported to be a course on how to read the Tarot but which had an ulterior purpose to encourage enquirers new to the subject to develop their creative imagination. I no longer run the course, there are other attractions in my life, but the book chunters on in the United States, and I was most touched by a letter from an American sergeant of marines who wrote to say he found it of great help to him in life. So that is one satisfied reader – satisfying to me, that is! And a considerable difference from some esoteric workshop clientel I have tried to please in the esoteric stews of Lower Manhattan and elsewhere.

Obviously I am happier these days sat behind a keyboard. But an equally fulfilling practice is to sit with a set of Tarot cards, try to make contact with the inner intelligence beyond, either Magician or Fool, and have a little chat. One up on telling fortunes – other people’s or one’s own.