Neoplatonic philosophy, as already explained, is pervasive in the study of magic. But much of it came in through the back door: either through the Qabala or through its philosophical spinoffs. The third century CE was a fertile time in mystical philosophy. Christianity, the suddenly popular mystery religion, had begun to displace the classical mysteries of Greece and Rome and fulfill the role these mysteries had previously played: as an avenue of personal religious experience amid a rather sterile state religion.
Two other new religious movements also gained footholds during late antiquity: Gnosticism and Hermeticism. Even though they were not in themselves inherently Christian, both of them interacted with Christianity in a syncretic and eclectic way, borrowing and modifying without necessarily understanding the system from which they were borrowing.
A full account of gnosticism would be difficult to cover in so few pages, and to be honest I’m not even remotely qualified. Essentially, however, what all gnostic sects had in common, even those who were not particularly Christian, was the idea that true knowledge came not through reason but through direct revelation. This view of knowledge was particularly striking in light of the intellectual tradition of ancient Greece and Rome. Reason, always, was the measure of truth: direct revelation rarely had the sanction of traditional philosophy. Yet the seeds of this approach are in Plato, and grow strong in the formulation of Neoplatonism.
Similarly, the Gnostics accepted the doctrine of emanation from Neoplatonism, although they identify the creator of the universe, the demiurge, as an evil figure rather than a good one, and therefore regard matter as degraded. This naturally led to the practice of asceticism, the ritual denial of the needs of the body. One reason there are few gnostics, in fact, is that many sects denied the holiness of sex and held reproduction itself to be a sin.
Gnosticism also held little room for magical practice. If your purpose was to deny matter, why interact with it at all? Unlike the view of Iamblichus, that matter could be used as a source of symbolic tokens to act as step stools to the divine, the gnostics saw matter as irredeemably degraded. The only way to be free of its degradation was to be free of matter.
Hermeticism borrowed a lot more from Neoplatonism, despite the assertions otherwise by some scholars. The Hermetic doctrine is laid out in a series of hermetic writings, mostly dialogues, compiled as the Corpus Hermeticum. To say “the Hermetic doctrine” is a bit inaccurate, as these dialogues outline doctrines, some of them contradictory. In some, matter is treated as degraded, as in gnosticism; in others, matter is holy.
Unlike Gnosticism, as well, we have the “practical Hermetica,” a series of writings, among which include some of the passages in the Greek Magical Papyri, for practical magical aims as well as the more spiritual theurgic aims of the so-called Philosophical Hermetica. From these, we can see what appear to be Hermetic rituals, but might bare some resemblance to the rituals espoused by Iamblichus. These include the manipulation of material objects and the recitation of holy names and objects.
These three streams — Neoplatonism, Gnosticism, and Hermeticism — converged in the Renaissance to form the western occult approach often called “Hermetic.” This approach concerned itself with three great fields of magic: Alchemy, the study of the magic of material objects; Astrology, the study of the magic of celestial objects; and Theurgy, the study of the magic of divine objects. These three divisions also reflect a threefold view of the universe: the divine, the celestial, and the material. God, who is featureless and without any quality but goodness, is reflected by a divine intelligence or nous. This nous, the demiurge or craftsman of the cosmos, gives order to the universe. Different Hermetic tracts provide slightly different cosmologies, but they always describe a chain of being from incorruptible perfect idealism to matter, whether regarded as evil or merely transient.
Philosophically speaking, this amalgamation of the various streams that led to modern occultism lacks any sort of overarching system. Overall, the result of this amalgamation wasn’t so much consciously constructed as cobbled together. Yet this result does resemble a system: we can clearly say what is and is not western occultism, at least in some terms. For one thing, western traditional occultism describes a chain of being. It recognizes the importance of consciousness, and regards consciousness as a universal law. It also reflects an ethical system, in which the cultivation of virtue is concurrent with the cultivation of magical power.
The grimoires that arose from late renaissance and early enlightenment experimentation with magic emphasize this ethical system. The Arbatel of Magic, a 16th century grimoire, consists chiefly of moral aphorisms, which do not look out of place in the light of the Hermetica or Neoplatonic writing. It is clear that moral virtue is connected to magical virtue, in the sense of power. Similarly, the Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin describes magic as a side-effect of the theurgic work of attaining knowledge and conversation of a holy guardian angel. Even the Goetia, a very practical work of demonic magic, is not without its moral exhortations.
With a cosmology, a system of ethics, and a theology all its own, it’s clear that the western mystery tradition arising from the confluence of Neoplatonism, Gnosticism, and Hermeticism is itself a religion. Of course, the magicians cleaving to these systems wished to connect it to their own religions, usually some variety of Christianity. But it differs from Christian theology in significant ways. Although there is talk of salvation and the son of God in the Hermetica, there is little talk of original sin, no indication that humans must be saved or will burn forever. Moreover, there are occasional references to transmigration of souls in Neoplatonic philosophy and western mysticism. It’s clear that western Hermeticism is, or at least can be regarded as, a separate and distinct religion.
Yet it is not a dogmatic religion, but a religion of personal gnosis. This feature is one reason that the Hermetic dialogues do not always agree on fine matters of cosmology. Even Iamblichus seems to privilege personal experience over reason. This element of personal gnosis is also the feature that allows the diverse manifestations of western magic. Some of the better grimoires, for example, appear to be notebooks designed for students or the practitioner himself. This is one reason the grimoires often differ in details.
Similarly, it is a religion with no central authority, no clergy, and no particular sacraments. It is a religion, therefore, not of orthodoxy but orthopraxy, but practice is defined by the practitioner himself or herself. Even the issue of whether or not it is a monotheistic or polytheistic religion is left, to some extent, to the practitioner. While there are Hermetic texts that argue for monotheism, they argue for a nonpersonal monotheistic god with multiple personal gods acting as intermediaries.
In this light, the practice of western magic represents a religious tradition existing concurrent with, and sometimes parallel to, the practice of more orthodox Christianity. Just as Gnosticism, Neoplatonism, and Hermeticism arose in response to sterile state religions in the second century, so western magical traditions arose as one option among several for personal experience of religious truth in the face of standard state doctrines.
Just as Hoodoo, which I discussed in my last column, arose from a desire of an oppressed people to gain some power over their environment, so did western traditional magic arise as a reaction to an oppressive ontology. In that light it seems to have a place, even a respectable one, in the face of the contemporary monolithic epistemology of material reductionism. Perhaps we are undergoing a similar magical revival now as a reaction to materialism and as a desire for a personal way not only to control one’s environment but also to open an avenue upward to the divine.
This might be one of the most valuable things magic can offer the world: an experiential, non-dogmatic religion that can syncretize with nearly any other religion. One needn’t necessarily even believe in the efficacy of practical magic (although I do) to espouse this religion, as theurgy is about the internal states of the magician and his or her relationship to the divine.
And if magic is a kind of religion, it helps explain the universally pervasive religious elements in most traditions of magic. Even those newer traditions, such as Chaos Magic, that try to divorce magic from religion often find a god in their bed in the morning anyway. I have even known chaos magicians, pragmatic view of belief aside, who exalt chaos itself to the status of a deity. The Neoplatonic, Hermetic, and Gnostic roots of magic are found even in these new, supposedly hyperrational, and atheistic views of magic.
©2010 Patrick Dunn.
Edited by Sheta Kaey.
Patrick Dunn has written two books on the occult, Postmodern Magic: The Art of Magic in the Information Age and Magic Power Language Symbol: A Magician’s Exploration of Linguistics. He lives near Chicago, where he teaches and writes. You can find his blog here.
In 1612, in one of the most meticulously documented witch trials in English history, seven women and two men from Pendle Forest in Lancashire, Northern England were executed. In court clerk Thomas Potts’s account of the proceedings, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster, published in 1613, he pays particular attention to the one alleged witch who escaped justice by dying in prison before she could come to trial. She was Elizabeth Southerns, more commonly known by her nickname, Old Demdike. According to Potts, she was the ringleader, the one who initiated all the others into witchcraft. This is how Potts describes her:
She was a very old woman, about the age of Foure-score yeares, and had been a Witch for fiftie yeares. Shee dwelt in the Forrest of Pendle, a vast place, fitte for her profession: What shee committed in her time, no man knows. . . . Shee was a generall agent for the Devill in all these partes: no man escaped her, or her Furies.
Quite impressive for an eighty-year-old lady! In England, unlike Scotland and Continental Europe, the law forbade the use of torture to extract witchcraft confessions. Thus the trial transcripts allegedly reveal Elizabeth Southerns’s voluntary confession, although her words might have been manipulated or altered by the magistrate and scribe. What’s interesting, if the trial transcripts can be believed, is that she freely confessed to being a healer and magical practitioner. Local farmers called on her to cure their children and their cattle. She described in rich detail how she first met her familiar spirit, Tibb, at the stone quarry near Newchurch in Pendle. He appeared to her at daylight gate — twilight in the local dialect — in the form of beautiful young man, his coat half black and half brown, and he promised to teach her all she needed to know about magic.
Tibb was not the “devil in disguise.” The devil, as such, appeared to be a minor figure in British witchcraft. It was the familiar spirit who took centre stage: This was the cunning person’s otherworldly spirit helper who could shapeshift between human and animal form, as Emma Wilby explains in her excellent scholarly study, Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits. Mother Demdike describes Tibb appearing to her at different times in human form or in animal form. He could take the shape of a hare, a black cat, or a brown dog. It appeared that in traditional English folk magic, no cunning man or cunning woman could work magic without the aid of their spirit familiar — they needed this otherworldly ally to make things happen.
Belief in magic and the spirit world was absolutely mainstream in the 16th and 17th centuries. Not only the poor and ignorant believed in spells and witchcraft — rich and educated people believed in magic just as strongly. Dr. John Dee, conjuror to Elizabeth I, was a brilliant mathematician and cartographer and also an alchemist and ceremonial magician. In Dee’s England, more people relied on cunning folk for healing than on physicians. As Owen Davies explains in his book, Popular Magic: Cunning-folk in English History, cunning men and women used charms to heal, foretell the future, and find the location of stolen property. What they did was technically illegal — sorcery was a hanging offence — but few were arrested for it as the demand for their services was so great. Doctors were so expensive that only the very rich could afford them and the “physick” of this era involved bleeding patients with lancets and using dangerous medicines such as mercury — your local village healer with her herbs and charms was far less likely to kill you.
In this period there were magical practitioners in every community. Those who used their magic for good were called cunning folk or charmers or blessers or wisemen and wisewomen. Those who were perceived by others as using their magic to curse and harm were called witches. But here it gets complicated. A cunning woman who performs a spell to discover the location of stolen goods would say that she is working for good. However, the person who claims to have been falsely accused of harbouring those stolen goods can turn around and accuse her of sorcery and slander. This is what happened to 16th century Scottish cunning woman Bessie Dunlop of Edinburgh, cited by Emma Wilby in Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits. Dunlop was burned as a witch in 1576 after her “white magic” offended the wrong person. Ultimately, the difference between cunning folk and witches lay in the eye of the beholder. If your neighbours turned against you and decided you were a witch, you were doomed.
Although King James I, author of the witch-hunting handbook Daemonologie, believed that witches had made a pact with the devil, there’s no actual evidence to suggest that witches or cunning folk took part in any diabolical cult. Anthropologist Margaret Murray, in her book, The Witch Cult in Western Europe, published in 1921, tried to prove that alleged witches were part of a Pagan religion that somehow survived for centuries after the Christian conversion. Most modern academics have rejected Murray’s hypothesis as unlikely. Indeed, lingering belief in an organised Pagan religion is very difficult to substantiate. So what did cunning folk like Old Demdike believe in?
Some of her family’s charms and spells were recorded in the trial transcripts and they reveal absolutely no evidence of devil worship, but instead use the ecclesiastical language of the Catholic Church, the old religion driven underground by the English Reformation. Her charm to cure a bewitched person, cited by the prosecution as evidence of diabolical sorcery, is, in fact, a moving and poetic depiction of the passion of Christ, as witnessed by the Virgin Mary. The text, in places, is very similar to the White Pater Noster, an Elizabethan prayer charm which Eamon Duffy discusses in his landmark book, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580.
It appears that Mother Demdike was a practitioner of the kind of quasi-Catholic folk magic that would have been commonplace before the Reformation. The pre-Reformation Church embraced many practises that seemed magical and mystical. People used holy water and communion bread for healing. They went on pilgrimages, left offerings at holy wells, and prayed to the saints for intercession. Some practises, such as the blessing of the wells and fields, may indeed have Pagan origins. Indeed, looking at pre-Reformation folk magic, it is very hard to untangle the strands of Catholicism from the remnants of Pagan belief, which had become so tightly interwoven.
Unfortunately Mother Demdike had the misfortune to live in a place and time when Catholicism was conflated with witchcraft. Even Reginald Scot, one of the most enlightened men of his age, believed the act of transubstantiation, the point in the Catholic mass where it is believed that the host becomes the body and blood of Christ, was an act of sorcery. In a 1645 pamphlet by Edward Fleetwood entitled A Declaration of a Strange and Wonderfull Monster, describing how a royalist woman in Lancashire supposedly gave birth to a headless baby, Lancashire is described thusly: “No part of England hath so many witches, none fuller of Papists.” Keith Thomas’s social history Religion and the Decline of Magic is an excellent study on how the Reformation literally took the magic out of Christianity.
However, it would be an oversimplification to state that Mother Demdike was merely a misunderstood practitioner of Catholic folk magic. Her description of her decades-long partnership with her spirit Tibb seems to draw on something outside the boundaries of Christianity.
Although it is difficult to prove that witches and cunning folk in early modern Britain worshipped Pagan deities, the so-called fairy faith, the enduring belief in fairies and elves, is well documented. In his 1677 book The Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft, Lancashire author John Webster mentions a local cunning man who claimed that his familiar spirit was none other than the Queen of Elfhame herself. The Scottish cunning woman Bessie Dunlop mentioned earlier, while being tried for witchcraft and sorcery at the Edinburgh Assizes, stated that her familiar spirit was a fairy man sent to her by the Queen of Elfhame.
The crimes of which Mother Demdike and her fellow witches were accused dated back years before the 1612 trial. The trial itself might have never happened had it not been for King James I’s obsession with the occult. Until his reign, witch persecutions had been relatively rare in England compared with Scotland and Continental Europe. But James’s book Daemonologie presented the idea of a vast conspiracy of satanic witches threatening to undermine the nation. Shakespeare wrote his play Macbeth, which presents the first depiction of a witches’ coven in English drama, in James I’s honour.
To curry favour with his monarch, Lancashire magistrate Roger Nowell of Read Hall arrested and prosecuted no fewer than twelve individuals from the Pendle region and even went to the farfetched extreme of accusing them of conspiring their very own Gunpowder Plot to blow up Lancaster Castle. Two decades before the more famous Matthew Hopkins began his witch-hunting career in East Anglia, Roger Nowell had set himself up as witchfinder general of Lancashire.
What do we actually know about Mother Demdike? At the time of her trial she appears as a widow and matriarch, living in a place called Malkin Tower with her widowed daughter Elizabeth Device, and her three grandchildren, James, Alizon, and Jennet. Her clan was very poor and supported themselves by a combination of begging and by the family business of cunning craft. The trial transcripts mention that local farmer John Nutter of Bull Hole Farm near Newchurch hired Demdike to bless his sick cattle. Interestingly John Nutter chose not to testify against her family in the trial.
Demdike’s family at Malkin Tower had a powerful rival in the form of Chattox, another widow and charmer, who lived a few miles away at West Close near Fence. Chattox allegedly bewitched to death her landlord’s son, Robert Nutter of Greenhead, for attempting to rape her daughter, Anne Redfearne. For social historians it’s interesting to see how having a fearsome reputation as a cunning woman could be the only true power a poor woman could hope to wield.
Unfortunately this could also backfire as it did with Demdike’s granddaughter, Alizon Device, who exchanged angry words with a pedlar outside Colne in March, 1612. Moments later the pedlar collapsed and suddenly went stiff and lame on one half of his body and lost the power of speech. Today we would clearly recognise this as a stroke. But the pedlar and several witnesses were convinced that Alizon had lamed her victim with witchcraft. Even she seemed to believe this herself, immediately falling to her knees and begging his forgiveness. This unfortunate event triggered the arrest of Alizon and her grandmother. Alizon wasted no time in implicating Chattox, her grandmother’s rival, and Chattox’s daughter, Anne Redfearne.
The four accused witches were interrogated by Roger Nowell, and then force-marched to Lancaster Castle, walking over fells and moorland. Both Demdike and Chattox, whose real name was Anne Whittle, were frail and elderly. It was amazing they survived the journey. In Lancaster they were handed over to the sadistic Thomas Covell, the gaoler who reputedly slashed the ears off Edward Kelly, friend of John Dee, when he was arrested on the charge of forgery. The women were chained to a ring in the floor in the bottom of the Well Tower. Although torture was officially forbidden in England, gaolers were allowed to starve and beat their prisoners at will. Being chained to a ring in the floor and kept in constant darkness would certainly feel like torture for those who had to endure it.
On Good Friday following the arrests, worried family and friends met at Malkin Tower to discuss what they would do in regard to this tragic situation. Constable John Hargreaves came to write down the names of everyone present and later Roger Nowell made further arrests, accusing these people of convening at Malkin Tower on Good Friday for a witches’ sabbat, something he would have read about in Daemonologie. The arrests didn’t stop until he had the mythical thirteen to make up the alleged coven. Twelve were kept at Lancaster and one, Jennet Preston who lived over the county line in Gisburn, Yorkshire, was sent to York. Apart from Chattox and Demdike and their immediate families, none of these newly arrested people had previous reputations as cunning folk. It seemed they were just concerned friends and neighbours who were caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Kept in such horrible conditions, Demdike died in prison before she came to trial, thus cheating the hangman. The others experienced a different fate.
The first to be arrested, Alizon was the last to be tried at Lancaster in August, 1612. Her final recorded words on the day before she was hanged for witchcraft are a moving tribute to her grandmother’s power as a healer. Roger Nowell, the prosecutor, brought John Law, the pedlar she had allegedly lamed, before her. Again Alizon begged the man’s forgiveness for her perceived crime against him. John Law, in return, said that if she had the power to lame him, she must also have the power to heal him. Alizon regrettably told him that she wasn’t able to, but if her grandmother, Old Demdike had lived, she could and would have healed him.
Mother Demdike is dead but not forgotten. By the mid-17th century, Demdike’s name became a local byword for witch, according to John Harland and T.T. Wilkinson’s Lancashire Folklore. In 1627, only fifteen years after the Pendle Witch Trial, a woman named Dorothy Shaw of Skippool, Lancashire, was accused by her neighbour of being a “witch and a Demdyke.”
History is a fluid thing that continually shapes the present. Long after her demise, Mother Demdike and her fellow Pendle Witches endure, their story and spirit woven into the living landscape, its weft and warp, like the stones and the streams that cut across the moors. Enthralled by their true history, I wrote my novel, Daughters of the Witching Hill, dedicated to their memory. Other books have been written about the Pendle Witches, but mine turns the tables, telling the story from Demdike and Alizon Device’s point of view. I longed to give these women what their world denied them — their own voice. Their voices deserve to finally be heard.
- Owen Davies, Popular Magic: Cunning-folk in English History (Hambledon Continuum)
- Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580 (Yale)
- Malcolm Gaskill, Witchfinders: A Seventeenth Century English Tragedy (John Murray)
- John Harland and T.T. Wilkinson, Lancashire Folklore (Kessinger Publishing)
- King James I, Daemonologie, available online.
- Jonathan Lumby, The Lancashire Witch-Craze (Carnegie)
- Margaret Murray, The Witch Cult in Western Europe, available online.
- Edgar Peel and Pat Southern, The Trials of the Lancashire Witches (Nelson)
- Robert Poole, ed., The Lancashire Witches: Histories and Stories (Manchester University Press)
- Thomas Potts, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster, available online.
- Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (Penguin)
- John Webster, The Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft (Ams Pr Inc)
- Emma Wilby, Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits (Sussex Academic Press)
- Benjamin Woolley, The Queen’s Conjuror: The Life and Magic of Dr. Dee (Flamingo)
©2010 by Mary Sharratt.
Edited by Sheta Kaey.
Author Mary Sharratt has lived near Pendle Hill in Lancashire since 2002. Her novel, Daughters of the Witching Hill, inspired by Mother Demdike’s true story, is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Visit her website.
She was a very old woman, about the age of Foure-score yeares, and had been a Witch for fiftie yeares. Shee dwelt in the Forrest of Pendle, a vast place, fitte for her profession: What shee committed in her time, no man knows. . . Shee was a generall agent for the Devill in all these partes: no man escaped her, or her Furies.
— Thomas Potts, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the County of Lancaster, 1613
See us gathered here, three women stood at Richard Baldwin’s gate. I bide with my daughter, Liza of the squint-eye, and with my granddaughter, Alizon, just fifteen and dazzling as the noontide sun, so bright that she lights up the murk of my dim sight. Demdike, folk call me, after the dammed stream near my dwelling place where the farmers wash their sheep before shearing. When I was younger and stronger, I used to help with the sheepwash. Wasn’t afraid of the fiercest rams. I’d always had a way of gentling creatures by speaking to them low and soft. Though I’m old now, crabbed and near-blind, my memory is long as a midsummer’s day and with my inner eye, I see clear.
We three wait till Baldwin catches glimpse of us and out he storms. Through the clouded caul that age has cast over my eyes, I catch his form. Thin as a brittle dead stalk, he is, his face pinched, and he’s clad in the dour black weeds of a Puritan. Fancies himself a godly man, does our Dick Baldwin. A loud crack strikes the earth — it’s a horsewhip he carries. My daughter fair leaps as he lashes it against the drought-hard dirt.
“Whores and witches,” he rails, shrill enough to set the crows to flight. “Get out of my ground.”
Slashes of air hit my face as he brandishes his whip, seeking to strike fear into us, but it’s his terror I taste as I let go of Alizon’s guiding hand and step forward, firm and square on my rag-bundled feet. We’ve only come to claim what is ours by right.
“Whores and witches,” he taunts again, yelling with such bile that his spit sprays me. “I will burn the one of you and hang the other.”
He speaks to Liza and me, ignoring young Alizon, for he doesn’t trust himself to even look at this girl whose beauty and sore hunger would be enough to make him sink to his knobbly knees.
I take another step forward, forcing him to back away. The man’s a-fright that I’ll so much as breathe on him. “I care not for you,” I tell him. “Hang yourself.”
Our Master Baldwin will play the righteous churchman, but what I know of him would besmirch his good name forevermore. He can spout his psalms till he’s hoarse, but heaven’s gates will never open to him. I know this and he knows I know this, and for my knowing, he fears and hates me. Beneath his black clothes beats an even blacker heart. Hired my Liza to card wool, did Baldwin, and then refused to pay her. What’s more, our Liza has done much dearer things for him than carding. Puritan or no, he’s taken his pleasure of her and, lost and grieving her poor murdered husband, ten years dead, our Liza was soft enough to let him. Fool girl.
“Enough of this,” I say. “Liza carded your wool. Where’s her payment? We’re poor, hungry folk. Would you let us starve for your meanness?”
I speak in a low, warning tone, not unlike the growl of a dog before it bites. Man like him should know better than to cross the likes of me. Throughout Pendle Forest I’m known as a cunning woman and she who has the power to bless may also curse.
Our Mr. Baldwin blames me because his daughter Ellen is too poorly to rise from her bed. The girl was a pale, consumptive thing from the day she was born, never hale in all her nine years. Once he called on me to heal her. Mopped her brow, I did. Brewed her feverfew and lungwort, but still she ailed and shivered. Tried my best with her, but some who are sick cannot be mended. Yet Baldwin thinks I bewitched the lass out of malice. Why would I seek to harm a hair on the poor girl’s head when his other daughter, the one he won’t name or even look at, is my own youngest granddaughter, seven-year-old Jennet?
“Richard.” My Liza makes bold to step toward him. She stretches out a beseeching hand. “Have a heart. For our Jennet’s sake. We’ve nothing more to eat in the house.”
But he twists away from her in cold dread and still won’t pay her for her honest work, won’t grant us so much as a penny. So what can I do but promise that I’ll pray for him till he comes to be of a better mind? Soft under my breath, masked from his Puritan ears, I murmur the Latin refrains of the old religion. How my whispered words make him pale and quake — does he believe they will strike him dead? Off to his house he scarpers. Behind his bolted door he’ll cower till we’re well gone.
“Come, Gran.” Alizon takes my arm to lead me home. Can’t make my way round without her in this dark ebb of my years. But with my inner eye I see Tibb sat there on the drystone wall. Sun breaks through the clouds to golden-wash his guilesome face. Dick Baldwin would call him a devil, or even the Devil, but I know better. Tibb, his beautiful form invisible to all but me.
“Now I don’t generally stand by woe-working,” says my Tibb, stretching out his long legs. “But if you forespoke Master Baldwin, who could blame you, after all the ill he’s done to you and yours?” He cracks a smile. “Is revenge what you want?”
“No, Tibb. Only justice.” I speak with my inner voice that none but Tibb can hear. If Baldwin fell ill and died, what would happen to his lawful daughter, Ellen? Her mother’s long dead. Another poor lass to live off the alms of the parish. No, I’ll not have that burden on my soul.
“Justice!” Tibb laughs, then shakes his head. “Off the likes of Dick Baldwin? Oh, you do set your sights high.”
Tibb’s laughter makes the years melt away, drawing me back to the old days, when I could see far with my own two eyes and walk on my own two legs, with none to guide me.
By daylight gate I first saw him, the boy climbing out of the stone pit in Goldshaw. The sinking sun set his fair hair alight. Slender, he was, and so young and beautiful. Pure, too. No meanness on him. No spite or evil. I knew straight off that he wouldn’t spit at me for being a barefoot beggar woman. Wouldn’t curse at me or try to shove me into the ditch. There was something in his eyes — a gentleness, a knowing. When he looked at me, my hurting knees turned to butter. When he smiled, I melted to my core, my heart bumping and thumping till I fair fainted away. What would a lad like that want with a fifty-year-old widow like me?
The month of May, it was, but cold of an evening. His coat was half black, half brown. I thought to myself that he must be poor like me, left to stitch his clothes together from mismatched rags. He reached out his hand, as though making to greet an old friend.
“Elizabeth,” he said. “My own Bess.” The names by which I was known when a girl with a slender waist and strong legs and rippling chestnut hair. How did he know my true name? Even then I was known to most as Demdike. The boy smiled wide with clean white teeth, none of them missing, and his eyes had a devilish spark in them, as though I were still that young woman with skin like new milk.
“Well, well,” said I, for I was never one to stay silent for long. “You know my name, so you do. What’s yours then?”
“Tibb,” he said.
“Your family name.” I nodded to myself, though I knew of no Tibbs living anywhere in Pendle Forest. “But what of your Christian name?” After all, I thought, he knew me by mine, God only knew how.
He lifted his face to the red-glowing sky and laughed as the last of the sun sank behind Pendle Hill. Then I heard a noise behind me: the startled squawk of a pheasant taking flight. When I turned to face the boy again, he had vanished away. I looked up and down the lane, finding him nowhere. Couldn’t even trace his footprints in the muddy track. Did my mind fail me? Had that boy been real at all? This was when I grew afraid and went cold all over, as though frost had settled upon my skin.
First off, I told no one of Tibb. Who would have believed me when I could scarcely believe it myself? I’d no wish to make myself an even bigger laughingstock than I already was.
Ned Southerns, my husband, such as he was, had passed on just after our squint-eyed Liza was born, nineteen years ago. He blamed me for our daughter’s deformity because he thought I’d too much contact with beasts whilst I was carrying her. In my married years, I raised fine hens, even kept a nanny goat. There was another child, Christopher, three years older than Liza and not of my husband, but far and away from being the only bastard in Pendle Forest. The gentry and the yeomen bred as many ill-begotten babes as us poor folk, only they did a better job of covering it up. Liza, Kit, and I made our home in a crumbling old watchtower near the edge of Pendle Forest. More ancient than Adam, our tower was: too draughty for storing silage, but it did for us. Malkin Tower, it was called, and, as you’ll know, Malkin can mean either hare or slattern. What better place for me and my brood?
Still folk whispered that it seemed a curious thing indeed that one such as I should live in a tower built of stout stone with a firehouse boasting a proper hearth at its foot when many a poor widow made do with a one-room hovel with no hearth at all but only a fire pit in the bare earthen floor. In truth, my poor dead mother got the tower given her for her natural life — towers named after slatterns were meant to hide guilty secrets.
When my mam was young and comely, she’d served the Nowell family at Read Hall. Head ostler’s daughter, so she was, and she’d prospects and a modest dowry besides. But what did she do but catch the eye of Master Nowell’s son, then a lad of seventeen years? The Nowells were not an old family, as gentry went, nor half as grand as the Shuttleworths of Gawthorpe Hall or the de Lacys of Clitheroe. The Nowells’ fortunes had risen along with the sway of the new religion. Back when Old King Henry’s troops came to sack Whalley Abbey, the Nowells sent their men to help topple the ancient stone walls. King rewarded their loyalty by granting the Nowells a goodly portion of the abbey’s lands. One of Old Man Nowells’ sons went to faraway Cambridgeshire to make his name as a Puritan divine, or so I’d been told. Far and wide, the Nowells let it be known that they were godly folk. But even the pious are prey to youthful folly.
My mam, before her fall from grace, had been an upright girl, so the young Master Roger could hardly discard her as easy as he would some tavern maid. And that was why Mam was given Malkin Tower for the rest of her life on the condition that she never trouble the Nowells of Read Hall. Far enough from Read, it was, for them not to be bothered by the sight of her, but it was close enough to for them to keep watch of her, should she seek to blacken their good name. My mam and I were never respectable — respect costs money and we hadn’t two pennies to rub together. We’d Malkin Tower to live in but no scrap of land for grazing sheep. Most we could manage was a garden plot in the stony soil. By and by, I think the Nowells had fair forgotten us. When my mam passed on, bless her eternal soul, the tower was in such poor repair they didn’t seem to want it back. So I stayed on, for where else had I to go? It seemed they preferred to have no dealings with me and that it shamed them less to allow me to carry on here like a squatter, not paying a farthings’s rent.
My natural father died some years back, happy and fat and rich. His eldest son, my own half-brother, also named Roger, had become the new master of Read Hall, part of it built from the very stones his grandfather’s servants carted away from the ruined abbey. Younger than me, was my half-brother, by some twenty years. Rarely did our paths cross, for the Nowells went to church in Whalley with the other fine folk, never in the New Church in Goldshaw with the yeomen and lesser gentry. But once, of a market day in Colne, I clapped eyes on Roger Nowell. Impossible to miss him, the way he was sat like some conquering knight upon his great Shire horse, blue-black and gleaming, with red ribbons twisted in its mane. That was some years ago, when my half-brother’s face was yet smooth and unlined. A handsome man, he was, with a firm chin just like mine. I looked straight at him to see if he would recognise his own blood kin. But his sharp blue eyes passed over me as though I was nowt but a heap of dung.
Over the years he’d become a mighty man: Magistrate and Justice of the Peace. We in Pendle Forest were careful not to cross him or give him cause for offence. On account of my being a poor widow, he granted me a begging license. Did it through Constable without speaking a word to me. And so I was left to wander the tracks of Pendle Forest and wheedle, full humble, for food and honest work.
But gone were the days when Christian folk felt beholden to give alms to the poor. When I was a tiny girl, the monks of Whalley Abbey fed and clothed the needy. So did the rich folk, for their souls would languish a fair long time in purgatory if they were stingy to us. In the old days, the poor were respected — our prayers were dearer to God than those of the wealthy. Many a well-to-do man on his deathbed would give out food and alms to the lowliest of the parish, so my mam had told me, if they would only pray for his immortal soul. At his funeral, the poor were given doles of bread and soul cakes.
The reformers said that purgatory was heresy: it was either heaven for the Elect or hell for everyone else, so what need did the rich have to bribe the poor to pray for them? We humble folk were no longer seen as blessed of the Lord but as a right nuisance. When I went begging for a mere bowl of blue milk or a handful of oats to make water porridge, the Hargreaves and the Bannisters and the Mittons narrowed their eyes and said my hard lot was God’s punishment for my sin of bearing a bastard child. Mean as stones, they were. Little did they know. Liza, my lawful-begotten child, was deformed because her father, my husband, gave me no pleasure to speak of, whilst Kit, my bastard, borne of passion and desire, was as tall and beautiful and perfect in form as any larch tree. Ah, but the Puritans would only see what they wanted to see. Most so-called charity they doled out was to give me half a loaf of old bread in exchange for a day laundering soiled clouts.
But I’d even forgive them for that if they hadn’t robbed my life of its solace and joy. In the old days, we’d a saint for every purpose: Margaret for help in childbirth, Anne for protection in storms, Anthony to ward against fire, George to heal horses and protect them from witchcraft. Old King Henry forbade us to light candles before the saints but at least he let us keep their altars. In the old days, no one forced us to go to church either, even for Easter communion. The chapel nave belonged to us, the ordinary people, and it was the second home we all shared. Dividing the nave from the chancel with the high altar was the carved oak roodscreen which framed the priest as he sang out the mass. We didn’t stand solemn and dour during the holy service, either, but wandered about the nave, from one saint’s altar to the next, gazing at the pictures and statues, till the priest rang the bell, then held up the Host for all to see, the plain wafer transformed in a glorious miracle into the body and blood of Christ. Just laying eyes upon the Host was enough to ward a person from witchcraft, plague, and sudden death.
When I was twelve, they finished building the New Church of St. Mary’s in Goldshaw to replace the old crumbling chapel of ease where I’d been christened. Bishop from Chester came to consecrate it just in time for All Souls’ when we rang the bells the whole night through to give comfort to our dead.
Back then we still had our holidays. Christmas lasted twelve days and nights with mummers and guizers in animal masks, dancing by torchlight. The Lord of Misrule, some low born man, lorded it over the gentry to make poor folk laugh. The Towneleys of Carr Hall used to invite all their neighbours, rich and poor alike, to join their festivities. Upon Palm Sunday everyone in the parish gathered for the processions round the fields to make them fertile. After dark, the young folk would go out to bless the land in their own private fashion. Everyone knew what went on, but none stood in our way. If a lass and her young man had to rush to the altar afterward, nobody thought the worse of them for it. I went along with the other girls, arm in arm with my best friend Anne Whittle, both of us wearing green garlands and singing. Cherry-lipped Anne loved to have her sport with the boys, but mindful of my own mother’s fate, I did nowt but kiss and dance and flirt in those days. Only went astray much later in life, when I was a married woman and sore unsatisfied, seeking my pleasures elsewhere.
In my youth, upon May morning, we arose before dawn to gather hawthorn and woodruff. We’d dance round the Maypole and drink elderflower wine till the very sky reeled. At Midsummer’s, upon the eve of the feast of John the Baptist, we carried birch boughs into the church till our chapel looked like a woodland grove. Bonfires blazed the whole night through. Some folk burned fires of bone, not wood, so that the stench might drive away evil wights from the growing crops. Most of us gathered round the wake fire of sweet apple wood where we danced all night, collapsing upon the grass at sunrise. At Lammas the reapers crowned the Harvest Queen and one year, by Our Lady, it was me, a lass of fifteen, crowned in roses and barley, the lads begging me for a kiss.
Old King Henry was dead by then and we lived in hope that the old ways would live again. Crowned in roses, I led the procession of maidens on the Feast of the Assumption, each of us bearing flowers and fruits to lay upon the altar of the Queen of Heaven. Only weeks later, Edward the Boy King sent his men to smash every statue in our church, even that of the Blessed Mother herself, whilst we clutched ourselves, full aghast. They tore down the crucifix over the high altar and burned it as though it was some heathen idol. They destroyed our roodscreen, outlawed our processions, and forbade us to deck the church with greenery upon Midsummer or to bring red roses and poppies to the altar on Corpus Christi. They set fire to our Maypole, forbade us to pray for the dead or celebrate the saints’ feast days.
Six years on, weakling Edward wasted away and his sister Mary Tudor promised to bring back the old religion. For the five years of her reign we had our holidays again, our processions, our mass with swirling incense and the sea of candles lit for the saints. The Towneleys, the Nutters, and the Shuttleworths paid for the new roodscreen, the new statues, altar cloths and vestments. We had our Maypole and rang the church bells for our ancestors on All Souls’ Night. But our joys soured when the news came of the heretics Mary burned alive, near three hundred of them, their only hope to end their agony being the sachets of gunpowder concealed beneath their clothes. Our Catholic queen was nowt but a tyrant. Before long Mary herself died, despised by her own husband, so the story went.
With Queen Elizabeth came the new religion once more to replace the old. The Queen’s agents stormed in to hack apart our brand new roodscreen. But they could not demolish the statues or the crucifix this time round, for the Towneleys, Shuttleworths, and Nutters had divided the holy images between them and taken them into hiding, in secret chapels inside their great houses. In those early days, some said Elizabeth’s reign couldn’t last long. Anne Boleyn’s bastard, she was, and it seemed half of England wanted her dead. On top of that, she refused to marry and produce an heir of her own religion. Yet the Queen’s religion had endured.
In truth, the old ways died that day Elizabeth’s agents sacked our church. For the past twenty-odd years, there had been no dancing of a Sunday, no Sunday ales like we used to have when we made merry within the very nave of the church. Though the Sabbath was the only day of leisure we had, Curate refused to let us have any pleasure of it. No football, dice-playing or card-playing. Magistrate Roger Nowell, my own half-brother, forbade the Robin Hood plays and summer games, for he said they led to drunkenness and wantonness amongst the lower orders. Few weeks back, the piper of Clitheroe was arrested for playing late one Sunday afternoon.
Curate preached that only the Elect would go to heaven and I was canny enough to know that didn’t include me. So if I was damned anyway, why should I suffer to obey their every command? Mind you, I went to church of a Sunday. It was that, or suffer Church Warden’s whip and fine. But I’d left off trying to hold myself to the straight and narrow. Perhaps I’d have fared no better even if the old church had survived, for hadn’t I been an adulteress? Yet still my heart was rooted, full stubborn, in that lost world of chanting, processions, and revels that had bound us together, rich and poor, saint and sinner. My soul’s home was not with this harsh new God, but instead I sought the solace of the Queen of Heaven and whispered the Salve Regina in secret. I swore to cling to the forbidden prayers till my dying day.
I am getting ahead of myself. Back to the story: that evening, after Tibb first appeared to me, I hared off in the long spring twilight, heading home to Malkin Tower. Wasn’t safe to be about after dark. Folk talked of boggarts haunting the night, not that I was ignorant enough to believe every outlandish tale, but I was shaken to the bone from seeing the boy who disappeared into nowhere. The moon, nearly full, shone in the violet sky and the first stars glimmered when, at last, I reached my door.
Our Malkin Tower was an odd place. Tower itself had two rooms, one below and one above, and each room had narrow slits for windows from the days, hundreds of years ago, when guardsmen were sat there with their bows and arrows, on the look-out for raiders and poachers. But, as the tower had no chimney or hearth, we spent most of our time in the firehouse, a ramshackle room built on to the foot of the tower. And it was into the firehouse I stumbled that night. My daughter Liza, sat close by the single rush light, gave a cry when she saw me.
“So late coming home, Mam! Did a devil cross your path?”
In the wavering light, my girl looked more frightful than the devil she spoke of, though she couldn’t help it, God bless her. Her left eye stood lower in her face than the other, and while her right eye looked up, her left eye looked down. The sight of her was enough to put folk off their food. Couldn’t hire herself out as a kitchen maid because the housewives of Pendle feared our Liza would spoil their milk and curdle their butter. Looking the way she did, it would take a miracle for her to get regular work, let alone a husband. Most she could hope for was a day’s pittance for carding wool or weeding some housewife’s garden.
Ignoring her talk of the devil, I unpacked the clump of old bread, the gleanings of the day’s begging, and Liza sliced it into pieces thin as communion wafer.
Liza, myself, my son Kit, and Kit’s wife, also Elizabeth, though we called her Elsie, gathered for our supper. Kit hired himself out as a day labourer, but at this time of year, there was little work to be had. Lambing season had just passed. Shearing wouldn’t come till high summer. Best he could do was ask for work at the slate pits and hope to earn enough to keep us in oatmeal and barley flour. Kit’s wife, Elsie, was heavy with child. Most work she could get was a day’s mending or spinning.
When we were sat together at the table, my Liza went green in the face at the taste of the old bread and could barely get a mouthful of the stuff down before she bolted out the door to be sick. Out of old habit, not even thinking, I crossed myself. I looked to Kit, who looked to his wife, who shook her head in sadness. Elsie would deliver her firstborn within the month and now it appeared that Liza was with child, as well. First I wondered who the father could be. Then I asked myself how we would feed two little babes when we were hard-pressed to do for ourselves? We were silent, the lot of us, Elsie doling out the buttermilk she had off the Bulcocks in exchange for a day’s spinning. Our Kit gave his wife half of his own share of bread — wasn’t she eating for two?
Then I found I couldn’t finish my own bread, so I passed it to Kit before hauling myself out the door to look for Liza. By the cold moonlight I found my poor squint-eyed broomstick of a girl bent over the gatepost, crying fit to die. Taking Liza in my arms, I held her and rubbed her hair. I begged her to tell me who the father was, but she refused.
“It will be right,” I told her. “Not the first time an unwed girl fell pregnant. We’ll make do somehow.” What else could I say? I’d no business browbeating her for doing the same as I’d done with Kit’s father, twenty-two years ago.
After leading my Liza back inside, we made for our beds. I climbed to the upper tower. Room was so cold and draughty that everyone else preferred sleeping below, but of a crystal-clear evening I loved nothing better than to lie upon my pallet and gaze at the moon and stars through the narrow windows. Cold wind didn’t bother me much. I was born with thick skin, would have died ages ago if I’d been a more delicate sort. Yet that night the starry heavens gave me little comfort. I laid myself down and tried to ignore the hammer of worry in my head. Church Warden and Constable were sure to make a stink about Liza. Another bastard child to live off the charity of the parish. They’d fine her at the very least. She’d be lucky if she escaped the pillory. Sleepless, I huddled there whilst the wind whistled through the thatch.
When I finally closed my eyes, I saw Tibb, his face in its golden glory. Looked like one of the angels I remembered seeing in our church before the reformers stripped the place bare. Out of the dark crush of night came his voice, sweet as a lover’s, gentle as Kit’s father was in the days when he called me his beauty, his heart’s joy. Tibb’s lips were at my ear.
“If I could,” he told me, “if you let me, I’d ease your burdens, my Bess. No use fretting about Liza. She’ll lose the child within a fortnight and none but you and yours will know she fell pregnant in the first place.”
My throat was dry and sore. Couldn’t even think straight.
“You’re afraid of me,” he said. “But you shouldn’t be. I mean you no harm.”
“You’re not real,” I whispered. “I’m just dreaming you.”
“I’m as real as the ache in your heart,” he whispered back. “You were meant to be more than a common beggar, our Bess. You could be a blesser. Next time, you see a sick cow, bless it. Say three Ave Marias and sprinkle some water on the beast. Folk will pay you for such things. Folk will hold you in regard and you won’t have to grovel for the scraps off their table.”
What nonsense, I thought. Church warden would have me whipped and fined for saying the Ave Maria — and that was but mild chastisement. Catholics were still hanged in these parts, their priests drawn and quartered. I told myself that there was no such boy called Tibb — it was just my empty stomach talking. I rolled over, pulling the tattered blanket to my ears.
He wouldn’t give over. “It runs in your blood. You’ve inherited the gift from your mam’s father.”
I shook my head no. “My grandfather was an ostler. An honest man.”
“He was a horse-charmer, if you remember well.”
Tibb’s voice summoned the memories. I was sat on Grand-Dad’s knee and he jostled me so that I could pretend I was riding a bouncy pony and all the while he chanted the Charm to St. George to ward horses from witchcraft. Enforce we us with all our might to love St. George, Our Lady’s Knight. Grand-Dad died when I was seven, but he’d taught my mam all his herbcraft for healing beast and folk alike, which she, in turn, had taught me, though Mam herself had no dealings in charms.
What a marvel. Grand-Dad working his blessings in the stables at Read Hall, beneath the Nowells’ very noses. He must have served them well, kept their nags healthy and sound, so that instead of reporting him for sorcery they became his protectors. Perhaps that, indeed, was why the Nowells had given Malkin Tower to Mam — it did no good at all to vex a cunning man by treating his daughter ill.
Still the knowing made the sweat run cold down my back. To think that I carried this inside me. I could not say a word, only pray that Tibb would vanish again and leave me in peace.
“My own Bess, do I need to give you a sign or two? You’ll see what I’ve said of Liza will come to pass. Now I’ll give you more knowledge of the future. Before the moon is new again, Elsie will bear a son.”
In spite of myself, I laughed. “Any fool can see she’s carrying a boy from the way she’s bearing so high and wide. I don’t need a slip of a lad like you telling me about wenches bearing babies.”
My mocking didn’t put Tibb off. He only coaxed me all the more. “They’ll name the lad Christopher after his father and you’ll see your Kit’s father in the little lad’s face, my Bess. You’ll feel so tender that the years of bitterness will melt away.”
Tears came to my eyes when I remembered my lover who had given me such pleasure before he bolted off, never to show his face again, leaving me to bear my shame and endure an angry husband fit to flay me alive and the gossips wagging their tongues and pointing. My husband refused to give the baby his name, so that was why my Kit was named Christopher Holgate, not Southerns. As punishment for my sin, I was made to stand a full day in the pillory in Colne marketplace.
“That’s not all I can tell you of your future,” said Tibb, nestling close, his breath warming my face. “In time, your Liza will marry an honest man who will love her in spite of her squint.”
“Fortune-telling’s a sin,” I squeaked. In this Curate and the priests of the old religion had always been of one mind. A dangerous thing, it was, to push back the veil and look into the future, for unless such knowledge came from a prophecy delivered by God, it came from the other place, the evil place, the Devil. Diviners and those who consulted them would be punished in hell by having their heads twisted backward for their unholy curiosity.
Still Tibb carried on in a voice I couldn’t block out. “Liza will give you three grandchildren.”
How seductive he was. If only I could trust him and believe that my Liza would be blessed by the love of a good man, a happy family.
“Her first-born daughter will be your joy,” Tibb told me. “You’ll love her till you forget yourself, my Bess. A pretty impudent lass with skin like cream. A beauty such as you were at her age. She’ll be your very likeness and you’ll teach her the things that I’ll teach you.” His voice sang with his promise.
“What else can you tell me?” I asked, my heart in my mouth.
Opening my eyes, I dared myself to look him in the face, but I only saw the stars shining in the window slits.
©2010 by Mary Sharratt.
Origins of the Tarot
The Tarot has been a central part of the Western esoteric tradition since 1781, when Antoine Court de Gébelin (1728-1784) made it a topic of interest by including two analytical essays on the subject in Volume 8 of his nine volume encyclopedia, Monde primitif, the separate volumes of which were published between the years 1773 and 1782. One of the essays was written by de Gébelin himself, and the other by Louis-Raphaël-Lucréce de Fayolle, comte de Mellet (1727-1804). My English translation of both essays was published in an earlier edition of Rending the Veil.
Court de Gébelin believed that the Tarot was Egyptian in its origins, that its 22 picture cards, known as the trumps, were based on the 22 letters of an Egyptian alphabet related to the Hebrew alphabet, and that it had been spread throughout the world by gypsies, who were thought by many scholars at the time to have come from Egypt. In all of these particulars he was quite wrong. Even so, his essay exerted a profound influence over the esoteric interpretation of the Tarot in France during the following century, through the writings of such occultists as Alphonse Louis Constant (1810-1875), who wrote under the pen name Éliphas Lévi, and Gérard Encausse (1865-1916), who was known as Papus. From France this bias made its way into the beliefs and practices of various esoteric schools, such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in England, and the Builders of the Adytum in America.
The true origins of the Tarot are, on the surface at least, quite mundane. They are known in a general way, although no one can say exactly when the Tarot was invented, or by whom. It first appeared in northern Italy around 1425 as a card game for bored and wealthy Italian aristocrats. The game was called the game of Tarot, and was a trick-taking game somewhat similar to bridge. It is still played today, and it is why the picture cards of the Tarot are known as trumps. The inspiration of its inventor was to add the 22 trumps to a set of 56 cards that was very similar to the common decks of playing cards in use in Europe at the time the game of Tarot was invented. More than one kind of Tarot deck came into being in the early decades of the 15th century, and the number of cards varied, but the Tarot quickly settled into its present pattern of 22 trumps and 56 minor cards in four suits.
Court de Gébelin may have been mistaken in his belief that the Tarot had an ancient and lofty origin among the priest class of Egypt, but he was not wrong to assign it a profound esoteric significance. Even today, the Tarot speaks to those who study it, using the language of symbolism. It became the central device for the system of occultism of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a secret Rosicrucian society established in London in 1888. The leaders of the Golden Dawn based much of their interpretations of the cards on the work of the French occultists of the 19th century. Through the teachings of the Golden Dawn, the Tarot correspondences used in that occult order were spread throughout the world, and are still the prevalent Tarot correspondences today.
Tarot correspondences are the sets of esoteric symbols associated with the Tarot. Each card is linked with symbols of occult forces, or names of spiritual beings, drawn from various sources such as alchemy, astrology, numerology, the Kabbalah, and geomancy. The links are more numerous in the case of the Tarot trumps, which bear images rich in meaning. For example, the trump the Magician is linked in the Golden Dawn system of magic with the Hebrew letter Beth, the number one, the astrological planet Mercury, the twelfth path on the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, and with the ox, a beast associated esoterically with the Hebrew letter of this trump. Correspondences provide bridges to other correspondences. Because the trump, the Magician, is associated with the planet Mercury, it is also linked with the angel of Mercury, Raphael, the Intelligence of Mercury, Tiriel, and the Spirit of Mercury, Taphthartharath.
Since the occult correspondences for each Tarot trump are connected by various associative bridges, to manipulate any of them is to gain a measure of control over all of them. This works on the basis of the same general magical principle that governs the well known magical law of contagion, which states that a thing that was once in physical contact with someone is still in touch with that person on some deep level, and therefore manipulating the object causes influence to be exerted on the person it formerly touched. The associations connecting the forces and beings that form the occult correspondences for a Tarot card are like links in a chain. Move one link, and they all rattle.
The Golden Dawn Tarot correspondences are rooted in Court de Gébelin’s casual observation that there are 22 trumps, and 22 Hebrew letters. The French occultists such as Éliphas Lévi had already placed the trumps on the Hebrew alphabet by the time the leader of the Golden Dawn, S. L. MacGregor Mathers (1854-1918), came to create its system of esoteric Tarot correspondences. Mathers did not adopt exactly the same relationship as that used by Lévi, and that difference and others like it are what this essay is all about, but he followed the same general principle. Each Hebrew letter has various esoteric associations. By linking the Hebrew letter to a Tarot trump, those associations can be transferred to the trump.
Since, in modern Western magic, the Tarot trumps derive their correspondences through the Hebrew letters, it is obviously a matter of great significance which Hebrew letter is linked to which trump. The ordering of the Hebrew letters is not open to reinterpretation, but has been established and accepted for thousands of years. However, the ordering of the Tarot trumps does not have such an ancient or well-established history. Indeed, the earliest Tarot decks were unnumbered. The sequence of the Tarot trumps was a matter of oral tradition. It was passed on between those who played the game of Tarot, and it appears that in the decades following the invention of the Tarot, there was more than one accepted ordering for the trumps.
But, when the pack was first standardised, the subjects of the trump cards were standardised, too; they were at first everywhere the same.
Somewhat surprisingly, however, they were not everywhere arranged in the same order. The variations in order were not a later development, but must have occurred from the earliest moment when Tarot cards were known in the principal original centres of their use — Milan, Ferrara, Bologna and Florence.1
Trump Sequence of the Marseilles Tarot
We need not go into the earliest sequences of the trumps, some of which are uncertain, but may begin with Court de Gébelin, since it is with his Tarot essay of 1781 that the esoteric history of the Tarot really begins, at least in a documented manner — for there was an esoteric tradition of the Tarot in use in France in the late 18th century, when de Gébelin published his essay, but exactly what it taught, we cannot be sure, other than that some of those teachings must be reflected in de Gébelin’s essay.
Court de Gébelin accepted the traditional ordering of the trumps of his day, as it was codified in the numbering of the French pack of Tarot cards known as the Tarot of Marseilles. As I mentioned, the earliest Italian Tarot decks were unnumbered, but as early as 1490 card makers in Ferrara, Italy, probably began to place Roman numerals on the trumps, fixing them into a specific sequence. This practice was carried on by the early French card makers. It is uncertain which of the Italian trump sequences was adopted in what came to be known as the Tarot of Marseilles, but it is speculated that it may have been the ordering used by the Tarot card makers of Milan.2 The Marseilles sequence of trumps, with its original French spellings as they appear on the 1761 pack designed by Nicolas Conver, is as follows:
I. Le Bateleur (The Juggler)
II. La Papesse (The Female Pope)
III. L´ Imperatrice (The Empress)
IIII. L´ Empereur (The Emperor)
V. Le Pape (The Pope)
VI. L´ Amovrevx (The Lover)
VII. Le Chariot (The Chariot)
VIII. La Justice (Justice)
VIIII. L´ Hermite (The Hermit)
X. La Rove De Fortvne (The Wheel of Fortune)
XI. La Force (Strength)
XII. Le Pendu (The Hanged Man)
XIII. — (Death)
XIIII. Temperance (Temperance)
XV. Le Diable (The Devil)
XVI. La Maison Diev (The House of God)
XVII. L´ Etoille (The Star)
XVIII. La Lune (The Moon)
XVIIII. Le Soleil (The Sun)
XX. Le Jugement (Judgement)
XXI. Le Monde (The World)
Le Mat (The Fool)
A few points are to be noticed. The method of writing Roman numerals is slightly different from the accepted manner of today. Instead of using IV to represent the number four, IIII was used. Sometimes the letter “v” was employed where we would put the letter “u” today. The trump L´ Amovrevx is usually called the Lovers, but the singular form, the Lover, may be more accurate. It is translated in this way on the trump in the well-known Grimaud Tarot. The trump Death did not have its name written on the face of the card at all, although the title of this card was known to everyone using the Tarot. This was in keeping with the popular superstition that to speak the name of Death was to invoke this dreaded dark angel. The trump the Fool did not bear a number of any kind.
Trump Sequence of Court de Gébelin
Court de Gébelin renamed some of the trumps to give them a more Egyptian flavor, but he retained their Marseilles sequence. It was the usual custom to place the only trump that remained unnumbered, the Fool, at the end of the sequence, following XXI the World. Court de Gébelin declared that it should be numbered zero, because like the zero of mathematics, it has no value of its own, but only acquires value when added to other cards. This statement exerted profound influence over later occultists who wrote about the Tarot.
Court de Gébelin believed that the trumps should be arranged from highest number to lowest number, in the belief that the Egyptians &”began counting from the highest number, going down to the lowest4.” To interpret the cards correctly, he asserted, they must be examined in this manner. It was on this basis that he felt free to rename the Marseilles trump Judgement, which from its name might be expected to come at the end of the sequence, as Creation, which might be expected to come at or near the beginning. Here are the changed titles that de Gébelin applied to the trumps in their reversed order, followed by their usual Marseilles titles in English.
XXI. Time (The World)
XX. Creation (Judgement)
XIX. The Sun (The Sun)
XVIII. The Nile (The Moon)
XVII. The Dog-Star (The Star)
XVI. Castle of Plutus (The House of God)
XV. Typhon (The Devil)
XIV. Temperance (Temperance)
XIII. Death (Death)
XII. Prudence (The Hanged Man)
XI. Fortitude (Strength)
X. Wheel of Fortune (Wheel of Fortune)
IX. The Sage (The Hermit)
VIII. Justice (Justice)
VII. Osiris Triumphant (The Chariot)
VI. Marriage (The Lovers)
V. Chief Hierophant (The Pope)
IV. The Emperor (The Emperor)
III. The Empress (The Empress)
II. The High Priestess (The Female Pope)
I. Lord of Chance (The Juggler)
0. The Fool (The Fool)
Trump Sequence of the comte de Mellet
What de Gébelin did not do was make a direct relationship between the trumps and the Hebrew letters. However, it is obvious what arrangement he intended, and indeed, his contributor the comte de Mellet supplied the explicit arrangement that must also have been in de Gébelin’s thoughts, and applied the inverted sequence of the trumps to the Hebrew alphabet, with the final numbered trump, XXI the World, on the first letter, Aleph, and the unnumbered trump the Fool, to which de Gébelin gave the zero, on the final letter, Tau.
De Mellet seems to have been the first person to explicitly define a relationship between the trumps and Hebrew letters. He called the Fool by the title Madness, and changed some of the other names of the trumps, although his interpretations are not always exactly like those of de Gébelin. It is evident from his descriptions of the Pope and Popess (Female Pope) that he used the Tarot of Besancon, rather than the standard Marseilles pack, where the Pope is replaced by Jupiter and the Popess by Juno.5
Here is his sequence of the trumps on the Hebrew letters, along with the interpretations he gave them, translated into English. The more conventional names for the trumps are placed in parentheses.
XXI. The Universe (The World) — Aleph
XX. Creation of Man (Judgement) — Beth
XIX. Creation of the Sun (The Sun) — Gimel
XVIII. Creation of the Moon (The Moon) — Daleth
XVII. Creation of the Stars (The Star) — He
XVI. House of God (House of God) — Vau
XV. Typhon (The Devil) — Zayin
XIV. Angel of Temperance (Temperance) — Cheth
XIII. Death (Death) — Teth
XII. Prudence (The Hanged Man) — Yod
XI. Strength (Strength) — Kaph
X. Goddess Fortune (Wheel of Fortune) — Lamed
IX. The Sage (The Hermit) — Mem
VIII. Justice (Justice) — Nun
VII. Chariot of War (The Chariot) — Samekh
VI. Choice Between Vice or Virtue (The Lovers) — Ayin
V. The God Jupiter (The Pope) — Pe
IV. The King (The Emperor) — Tzaddi
III. The Queen (The Empress) — Qoph
II. The Goddess Juno (The Female Pope) — Resh
I. The Juggler (The Juggler) — Shin
0. Madness (The Fool) — Tau
Trump Sequence of Éliphas Lévi
When Éliphas Lévi brought forth the second volume of his two-part Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie, published in French in 1855-6), he applied the sequence of the Marseilles trumps to the Hebrew alphabet in its traditional order, but he placed the Fool just before the final numbered trump, on the second-last Hebrew letter. Either he did not understand Court de Gébelin’s intention to invert the sequence of trumps, or as seems more likely, he chose to ignore it. He was convinced that the posture of the upper body of the Juggler defined the shape of the first Hebrew letter, Aleph, writing “His body and arms constitute the letter Aleph6.” This cannot be denied, but since few, if any, of the other figures on the cards resemble Hebrew letters, its significance is questionable. Below are his titles for the picture cards of the Tarot, and his placement of the trumps on the Hebrew letters.
I. The Juggler — Aleph
II. The Female Pope — Beth
III. The Empress — Gimel
IV. The Emperor — Daleth
V. The Pope — He
VI. Vice and Virtue — Vau
VII. Cubic Chariot — Zayin
VIII. Justice — Cheth
IX. Prudence — Teth
X. Wheel of Fortune — Yod
XI. Strength — Kaph XII
The Hanged Man — Lamed
XIII. Death — Mem
XIV. Temperance — Nun
XV. The Devil — Samekh
XVI. Tower Struck By Lightning — Ayin
XVII. The Blazing Star — Pe
XVIII. The Moon — Tzaddi
XIX. The Sun — Qoph
XX. The Judgement — Resh
0. The Fool — Shin
XXI. Kether — Tau
The placement of the Fool second from the end of the trump sequence had considerable influence on later writers on the Tarot. It is difficult to know how to justify this location for the Fool, which appears to have been put at the end of the trumps in the earliest arrangements of the cards, and was placed at the end of the inverted trump sequence by Court de Gébelin. The French occultist Jean-Baptiste Pitois (1811-1877), known by his pen name Paul Christian, imitated Lévi in this quixotic location of the Fool second from the end of the trumps, when he published his monumental (in size if not in content) work, Histoire de la Magie in 1870.7 Papus also followed Lévi’s lead in his Tarot of the Bohemians, first published in 1889, by placing the Fool on the second-last Hebrew letter, Shin, just before the final trump, the World.8 Neither bothered to justify this location for the Fool.
A. E. Waite also followed Lévi’s example and put his Fool second from the end of the trump sequence in his Pictorial Key to the Tarot, published in 1910, even though he held it to be incorrect. As a member of the Golden Dawn, Waite was bound by oath not to reveal the occult secrets of that Hermetic order, so he could not present the Golden Dawn sequence for the Tarot trumps, which he believed to be esoterically accurate. He deliberately presented what he knew to be a false arrangement of the trumps.
On the placement of the Fool, Waite wrote:
Court de Gébelin places it at the head of the whole series as the zero or negative which is presupposed by numeration, and as this is a simpler so also it is a better arrangement. It has been abandoned because in later times the cards have been attributed to the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and there has been apparently some difficulty about allocating the zero symbol satisfactorily in a sequence of letters all of which signify numbers. In the present reference of the card to the letter Shin, which corresponds to 200, the difficulty or the unreason remains. The truth is that the real arrangement of the cards has never transpired.9
This quotation from Waite’s Pictorial Key is worth examining on several points. He was wrong to state that Court de Gébelin placed the Fool “at the head” of the trumps, since de Gé inverted the sequence, making trump XXI the head, and the zero card the Fool the tail. It is true that de Gébelin shifted the Fool from the end to the beginning of the sequence, but then he inverted the sequence, which put the Fool back on the end.
It is curious that Waite did not locate the Fool at the beginning of the trumps. This was the esoteric teaching of the Golden Dawn, so perhaps he felt honor-bound not to do so, lest it be construed as a betrayal of a secret. He felt that he knew the “real arrangement” of the trumps, but also felt that it must remain hidden from profane eyes. So he imitated Lévi, fully aware that Lévi’s placement of the Fool made no sense, and stating as much to his readers in his book.
In view of his reluctance to put the Fool at the head of the trumps, it is curious that Waite felt free to invert the places of VIII Justice and XI Strength. This inversion was based on the esoteric teaching of the Golden Dawn, and should have been just as taboo for Waite as the true location of the Fool. In his Pictorial Key he made this switch, but did not explain it or justify it to his readers.
Trump Sequence of the Golden Dawn
The location of the Fool at the head of the trumps, and the inversion in the places and numbers of Justice and Strength, are innovations of S. L. MacGregor Mathers, chief of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Around the time the Golden Dawn was establishing its first London temple, in 1888, Mathers and his wife were working on an esoteric Tarot deck. His wife Moïna, formerly Mina Bergson, sister of famous French philosopher, Henri Bergson, was an artist, and it was she who actually painted the designs for the new Tarot. Since she was a psychic who often helped her husband in receiving esoteric teachings from the spiritual leaders of the Golden Dawn, known as the Secret Chiefs, it is safe to assume that she was deeply involved not merely in the design, but also in the esoteric interpretation of the new Golden Dawn Tarot. Indeed, it is quite possible that the composition of the Golden Dawn Tarot owes more to Moïna Mathers than to Samuel Mathers.
The major innovation of the Golden Dawn was the absolute determination that the Fool be placed at the front of the Tarot trumps, before the Juggler, which in the Golden Dawn Tarot was called the Magician. This bumped all the trumps up one Hebrew letter. It created the awkward condition of having a card numbered zero falling on a Hebrew letter with a numerical value of one, and so for the rest of the trumps, each out by one number from its Hebrew letter — or at least, the first ten Hebrew letters, since after the letter Yod the number values of the Hebrew letters become non-consecutive, increasing by a factor of tens, and then hundreds.
This awkwardness becomes less distasteful, from an aesthetic point of view, when we realize that the numbers on the trumps are not in any way a part of the trumps. For example, the VII on the trump the Chariot is not attached in any way to this card — it merely indicates the location of this card in the trump sequence. How do we know this? Because originally no Tarot trump was numbered. The trumps are picture cards — their identities are in their pictures. The Roman numerals were applied to the trumps merely as an aid to memory, to insure that errors were not made in their sequence. The seven on the Seven of Wands is very much a part of that Tarot card — indeed, the greater portion of its identity — but the VII on the trump the Chariot is not a part of that trump, and may be removed without in any way diminishing the meaning of the trump.
The second innovation of the Golden Dawn, the inversion of the locations of Justice and Strength, was dictated by the way Mathers and his wife applied the trumps to the Hebrew letters. They used as their guide the most ancient of Kabbalistic texts, Sepher Yetzirah. In this texts, the 22 Hebrew letters are divided into three groups:
3 Mother letters: Aleph, Mem, Shin
7 Double letters: Beth, Gimel, Daleth, Kaph, Pe, Resh, Tau
12 Simple letters: He, Vau, Zayin, Cheth, Teth, Yod, Lamed, Nun, Samekh, Ayin, Tzaddi, Qoph.
The Mother letters are associated with three of the four philosophical elements, the Double letters with the seven planets of traditional astrology, and the Simple letters with the twelve signs of the zodiac. In the version of Sepher Yetzirah translated by W. Wynn Westcott, a leading member of the Golden Dawn, the placements of the elements and zodiac signs on the letters are explicit, but the placement of the planets is somewhat obscure, and open to various interpretations.
If the Tarot trumps were simply applied in order to the Hebrew letters, with the Fool on the first letter, then the trump VIII Justice would fall on the Simple letter Teth, and XI Strength would fall on the Simple letter Lamed. In the correspondence between the Simple letters and the zodiac signs that is given in Sepher Yetzirah, this would put the sign Leo on the trump Justice, and the sign Libra on the trump Strength.
But there is an obvious problem. Leo is the sign of the lion, a beast symbolic of virility and strength, and Libra is the sign of the scales, the primary symbol of justice. The trump Strength shows in its picture a lion, and the trump Justice shows in its picture a set of scales. It was obvious to Mathers, and indeed would be obvious to almost anyone, that it would be more appropriate to link the trump Justice with Libra, and the trump Strength with Leo. How could he do this? The Hebrew letters could not be inverted. The associations of the zodiac signs with the Simple letters could not be changed, since they are quite explicit in Sepher Yetzirah. The only thing to do was to invert the locations of trumps Justice and Strength, and this Mathers did. He renumbered Justice as XI and placed it after the Wheel of Fortune, and renumbered Strength as VIII and placed it after the Chariot. This corrected the obvious error in symbolism on these two trumps.
Here is the sequence of trumps used by the Golden Dawn, along with their Kabbalistic associations from Sepher Yetzirah. The names of some of the trumps were updated by Mathers, based primarily on suggestions in the writings of Court de Gébelin and Éliphas Lévi.
0. Fool — Aleph (Air)
I. Magician — Beth (Mercury)
II. High Priestess — Gimel (Moon)
III. Empress — Daleth (Venus)
IV. Emperor — He (Aries)
V. Hierophant — Vau (Taurus)
VI. Lovers — Zayin (Gemini)
VII. Chariot — Cheth (Cancer)
VIII. Fortitude — Teth (Leo)
IX. Hermit — Yod (Virgo)
X. Wheel of Fortune — Kaph (Jupiter)
XI. Justice — Lamed (Libra)
XII. Hanged Man — Mem (Water)
XIII. Death — Nun (Scorpio)
XIV. Temperance — Samekh (Sagittarius)
XV. Devil — Ayin (Capricorn)
XVI. Blasted Tower — Pe (Mars)
XVII. The Star — Tzaddi (Aquarius)
XVIII. The Moon — Qoph (Pisces)
XIX. The Sun — Resh (Sun)
XX. Judgement — Shin (Fire)
XXI. Universe — Tau (Saturn)
Mathers chose to call the Juggler the Magician. He changed the Female Pope to the High Priestess, and the Pope to the Hierophant. Strength was called by its common alternative, Fortitude. The World became the Universe.
As you can see by examining the Golden Dawn arrangement of the trumps, the zodiac signs that fall on the twelve Simple letters of the Hebrew alphabet are in their natural order beginning with Aries. This is in keeping with the information presented in Sepher Yetzirah. The three elements on the Mother letters cannot really be said to have any fixed order, but they also are placed according to Sepher Yetzirah. The planets, however, are a different matter. They do have a natural order, and it is not preserved in Sepher Yetzirah — indeed, in the Westcott edition of that Kabbalistic book, which was used as a source by Mathers, the way in which they are intended to be placed on the seven Double letters is not explicit, but is open to interpretation.
Order of the Planets in Sepher Yetzirah
The text in Sepher Yetzirah reads: “So now, behold the Stars of our World, the Planets which are Seven: the Sun, Venus, Mercury, Moon, Saturn, Jupiter and Mars10.” It is obvious that the planets cannot be applied to the Double letters in this order, since that would result in incompatible matches. It would place Mercury on the Empress, for example, and the Moon on the Wheel of Fortune, which would be symbolically incorrect.
Mathers chose to disregard both the order of the planets presented in the text of Sepher Yetzirah, and their natural order. The natural order of the planets is based on their apparent rapidity of motion, as view from the surface of the Earth. From slowest to fastest, their order is: Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Sun, Venus, Mercury, Moon. But from fastest to slowest, their reverse order is: Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn. Mathers adopted neither ordering, but created his own for the Double letters and their associated Tarot trumps.
There are hints in Sepher Yetzirah as to how the author of that ancient text intended the planets to be applied to the Double letters. He gives sets of opposites for each of the letters, and it is possible to apply these sets to the seven planets, thus generating a list of the planets on the Double letters. Which planet matches which pair of opposite qualities is a matter of conjecture. Here is the relevant text, from the fourth chapter of Sepher Yetzirah.
The Seven double letters, Beth, Gimel, Daleth, Kaph, Peh, Resh, and Tau have each two sounds associated with them. They are referred to Life, Peace, Wisdom, Riches, Grace, Fertility and Power. The two sounds of each letter are the hard and the soft — the aspirated and the softened. They are called Double, because each letter presents a contrast or permutation; thus Life and Death; Peace and War; Wisdom and Folly; Riches and Poverty; Grace and Indignation; Fertility and Solitude; Power and Servitude.11
Matching up the qualities of the planets with these pairs of opposites, we might get the following list, which may be how the author of Sepher Yetzirah intended the planets to be assigned to the letters.
Beth — Life and Death — Sun
Gimel — Peace and War — Mars
Daleth — Wisdom and Folly — Saturn
Kaph — Riches and Poverty — Mercury
Pe — Grace and Indignation — Venus
Resh — Fertility and Solitude — Moon
Tau — Power and Servitude — Jupiter
This arrangement is only conjecture on my part. In any case, it does not match very well the nature of the Tarot trumps that fall on the seven Double letters of the Hebrew alphabet. It would place the planet Mars on the trump the High Priestess, which seems obviously wrong. Even had Mathers derived this list, he would not have used it. The key innovations of Mathers and the Golden Dawn with regard to the order of the trumps and their esoteric correspondences are thus the explicit numbering of the Fool as zero, and the placement of the Fool at the head of the trumps; the inversion of the locations and Roman numerals of Justice and Fortitude; and the unique assignment of the planets to the seven Double letters of the Hebrew alphabet.
Trump Sequence of Aleister Crowley
Aleister Crowley (1875-1947), who was a member of the Golden Dawn, and perhaps possessed the greatest esoteric knowledge of the Tarot of any man who has ever lived, made surprisingly few innovations in the order of the trumps. He regarded the Golden Dawn arrangement, which Mathers had received from the Secret Chiefs — they conveyed to him psychically the correct locations of the planets on the Double letters — as received sacred wisdom, and did not attempt on his own initiative to meddle with it. He may have had a low regard for Mathers after departing the Golden Dawn under a black cloud, but he always held the Secret Chiefs in the deepest respect.
It was only when Crowley’s guardian angel, Aiwass, came to him while Crowley was visiting Cairo, Egypt, in the year 1904, and dictated to Crowley a holy book titled Liber AL vel Legis, or the Book of the Law, that Crowley felt bold enough to modify the sequence of the Tarot trumps. In the received text of this book is written the statement, “All these old letters of my Book are aright; but [Tzaddi] is not the Star12.” The word “Tzaddi” was not written out, but was in the form of the Hebrew letter Tzaddi. The “old letters” obviously refer to the ancient Hebrew alphabet. The reference to “my book” is to the Book of Thoth, another name among occultists for the Tarot. The “Star” which is capitalized in Crowley’s received text, must refer to the Tarot trump the Star. In the Golden Dawn arrangement, XVII the Star is linked with the Hebrew letter Tzaddi, and the zodiac sign Aquarius.
For years Crowley puzzled about this cryptic message. If Tzaddi was not the Tarot trump the Star, to which trump should it be assigned? The solution reached by Crowley in his Book of Thoth is based on the inversion of the trumps Justice and Strength made by Mathers in the Golden Dawn Tarot. Crowley wrote the twelve signs of the zodiac in their natural order around the rim of a reclining oval, with Pisces on its left side and Virgo on its right side. When this is done, the inversion made by Mathers may be represented graphically by pinching the right end of the oval and giving it a twist to form a little loop, so that the signs of Leo and Libra exchange places around the pivot of Virgo. To balance this change, Crowley took the other end of the oval of the zodiac and gave it a similar twist around the pivot of Pisces to form a second loop, so that the signs Aquarius and Aries changes places. In this way, the model of the zodiac was balanced.13
By this trick, Crowley determined to his own satisfaction that Tzaddi was “not the Star” but was instead, the Emperor. The trump the Star receives Aquarius and the Hebrew letter Tzaddi in the Golden Dawn arrangement, and the trump the Emperor receives Aries and the Hebrew letter He. Crowley inverted this assignment. He did not make this change with the same degree of elegance as Mathers, however. Instead of giving the Emperor the Roman numeral XVII and the Star the Roman numeral IV, Crowley left them where they were in the sequence of the trumps, and broke the continuity of the Hebrew alphabet, inverting the two Hebrew letters, along with their linked esoteric correspondences.
This seems inconsistent on Crowley’s part. To exactly balance the change made by Mathers in the loop at the other end of the zodiac, Crowley should have exchanged the Roman numerals and the placements of the trumps the Emperor and the Star, but kept the integrity of the sequence of the Hebrew alphabet, which has been established for thousands of years. Mathers moved the trumps — he did not move the Hebrew letters. Crowley should have done the same, had he wished to mirror the change made by Mathers.
Instead, Crowley chose to return the Roman numeral VIII to Justice, and XI to Strength, which places them back in their original locations in the Marseilles sequence of the trumps, but he retained the Hebrew letters and zodiac signs given to these trumps by Mathers, thereby violating the sequence of the Hebrew alphabet a second time.
In the Tarot trumps of Crowley’s Thoth deck, the card of the Emperor bears the Hebrew letter Tzaddi, but still retains the zodiac sign Aries. Similarly, the card of the Star bears the Hebrew letter He, but retains the zodiac sign Aquarius. This appears to be an error, since it would be assumed that the zodiac signs should have been changed along with the Hebrew letters — indeed, this was done in the table of the trumps that appears near the end of Crowley’s Book of Thoth.14 Below is Crowley’s arrangement of the Tarot trumps, as it appears in that table. He has changed many of the names of the trumps, but not so radically that they cannot be recognized. Justice was called Adjustment, Strength became Lust, and Temperance was called by Crowley Art.
Trump Sequence of Donald Tyson
The Tarot has been central to my esoteric studies and practices for over thirty years. I have spent considerable time considering the arrangement of the trumps, and have come to some conclusions that I wish to offer here, for those who may be interested in my own sequence and occult correspondences for the trumps. This material previously appeared in the appendix to my book Portable Magic (Llewellyn Worldwide, 2006), which deals with the use of the Tarot for works of ritual magic. Since I believe it is important, I wish to make it as widely available as possible.
My own sense is that Crowley’s change is not valid. It does apply a kind of balance to the loop of the zodiac, and Crowley was obsessed with balance in magic — he believed that all true magicians have an innate sense of harmony and balance, and that they naturally abhor anything in their art that is lacking in symmetry. Well, maybe so, but I see no necessity to balance the inversion of Justice and Strength made by Mathers. The change has its own inherent balance, in that each trump replaces the other. I believe that the change made by Mathers is valid, and indeed inevitable, given the symbolism on the two cards and the zodiac signs involved. Leo must go with Strength, and Virgo must go with Justice.
My primary problem with the Golden Dawn sequence of the trumps lies in the Double letters of the Hebrew alphabet, which are linked with the seven planets. In astrology and in magic, the planets have a very definite ordering, as I explained above. Since the zodiac signs are arranged on the twelve Simple letters in their natural order, it seems to me that it would make good sense to arrange the planets on the seven Double letters in their natural order as well. The reason Mathers did not do this is because it creates some problems. However, in my opinion these issues are not beyond solution, even though some of the changes I propose may seem fairly radical.
The placements of Mercury on the trump of the Magician by Mathers, through the mediation of the Double letter Beth, and the Moon on the High Priestess through the mediation of the Double letter Gimel, have a rightness that would be difficult to challenge. This suggests that if the planets are placed on the trumps in their natural astrological order, it will be an ascending order from quickest and nearest, to slowest and furthest removed. But there is a serious problem. The first planet in this ascending order is the Moon, not Mercury, which is the second planet. To simply apply the planets to the trumps of the Double letters would result in the Magician receiving the Moon, and the High Priestess receiving Mercury. This does not seem symbolically correct.
The solution is obvious, but daring — to invert the location and Roman numerals of trumps the Magician and the High Priestess, so that the High Priestess receives the Roman numeral I and is placed directly after the Fool, and the Magician receives the Roman numeral II and comes after the High Priestess. It is safe to say that this change is the most likely to arouse controversy, among those I have advocated. There is a natural prejudice that the male Magician should come before the female Priestess. However, when we consider why this should be so, it is not easy to come up with a reason. There is something to be said for the Priestess opening the sequence of the trumps — for the Fool, although he is nominally placed at the beginning, really has no place of his own, as his zero designation indicates, but moves where he wills, and relates to all the other trumps equally. The pillars of the Priestess are like an open doorway into the mysteries of the Tarot.
There is another change necessary to apply the planets in their natural ascending order on the seven Double letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and their corresponding trumps. In the Golden Dawn arrangement, Jupiter is placed on trump X the Wheel, and the planet the Sun is placed on trump XIX the Sun. I asked myself, if the planet the Moon is not located on trump XVIII the Moon in the Golden Dawn arrangement, who should it be necessary to locate the planet the Sun on the trump of the same name? It is not necessary, and indeed, not even desirable to do so. When the planets are applied to the trumps of the Double letters in their natural order, it is the Sun that falls on the Wheel, and Jupiter that falls on the trump the Sun.
This change works very well. The Sun is a great fiery wheel rolling across the heavens, and has been characterized in this way in stone age petroglyphs of shamans, and in numerous systems of mythology around the world. It is symbolically apt to link the astrological planet the Sun with the trump the Wheel of Fortune. As for the trump of the Sun — what could be more appropriate to represent it than the beaming countenance of the god Jupiter, as represented by his planet? Jupiter is the dispenser of benevolent laws, the patriarch of the heavens. The planets Jupiter and the Sun have always had harmonious natures in astrology.
It can be seen that by inverting the locations of the trumps the Magician and the High Priestess, all seven of the planets fall on highly appropriate trumps when applied to the sequence of the Double letters in their natural ascending order. The placement of the planet the Sun on the Wheel of Fortune is so right, it is difficult to imagine how Mathers could have avoided making it. Perhaps the designation of Jupiter as the “greater fortune” in astrology swayed his judgment. Even so, I cannot agree with his choice, and believe that the Sun should be on the Wheel, and Jupiter on the trump the Sun.
There are actually three fortunes in astrology, as Cornelius Agrippa pointed out in his Occult Philosophy: “There are three Fortunes amongst the planets15.” These are the Sun, Jupiter, and Venus. However, Jupiter is usually called the Greater Fortune and Venus the Lesser Fortune. I mention this merely to point out that the Sun has at least as much connection with the Wheel of Fortune, thematically, as Jupiter. Both Sun and Jupiter are astrological fortunes. It also shows the close tie between the planet Jupiter and the trump the Sun.
There is one more essential change in the sequence of the trumps that must be made before they can be considered perfected. It involves the inversion of trumps XIV Temperance and VII the Chariot. It has long been my conviction that the zodiac sign Cancer does not belong with the Chariot. In spite of the valiant attempts by Mathers and other occultists to justify its location on the Chariot, there is nothing warlike about the sign of Cancer. The characterization of the fierce Crab with her savage pincers raised for battle strikes me with amusement every time I encounter it. The sign of the Crab is not fierce — it is watery and feminine.
Similarly, I found nothing appropriate in linking the rather warlike zodiac sign of the Archer, Sagittarius, with the feminine and watery trump Temperance. Indeed, there seems no obvious symbolic harmony between the two. The bow and arrow is a weapon of war, and a weapon of the hunt. It is designed to deal death. But the waters poured between the two vessels on the trump Temperance are the waters of life.
I have no hesitation in advocating that these trumps be inverted, and their Roman numerals exchanged, so that Temperance is placed just after the Lovers, and receives the number VII, and the Chariot is placed just after Death, and receives the number XIV. Indeed, this change strikes me as the most obvious and inevitable of all the changes that I have made, and I am amazed that Mathers did not make it himself.
You will notice that this results in an series of violent or warlike cards: the Hanged Man, Death, the Chariot, the Devil, and the Tower. In the common sequence of the trumps, and the Golden Dawn sequence as well, the card Temperance breaks up this set. Equally, the older placement of the Chariot seems completely wrong — it comes in the midst of a peaceful series of trumps, after the Hierophant and the Lovers, and before Strength and the Hermit. Strength is not violent, but is the strength of self control and restraint. The overtly violent and warlike Chariot is completely wrong for this series.
Here, then, is my rectified sequence of the Tarot trumps, according to my best judgement. It is my experience that it lends itself very well to the paths on the Tree of Life — better than the Golden Dawn sequence. Of course those accustomed to using the Golden Dawn arrangement on the Tree will find it an effort to change mental gears, and try something new, but those who make the change will not want to go back.
0. Fool — Aleph (Air)
I. High Priestess — Beth (Moon)
II. Magician — Gimel (Mercury)
III. Empress — Daleth (Venus)
IV. Emperor — He (Aries)
V. Hierophant — Vau (Taurus)
VI. Lovers — Zayin (Gemini)
VII. Temperance — Cheth (Cancer)
VIII. Strength — Teth (Leo)
IX. Hermit — Yod (Virgo)
X. Wheel — Kaph (Sun)
XI. Justice — Lamed (Libra)
XII. Hanged Man — Mem (Water)
XIII. Death — Nun (Scorpio)
XIV. Chariot — Samekh (Sagittarius)
XV. Devil — Ayin (Capricorn)
XVI. Tower — Pe (Mars)
XVII. The Star — Tzaddi (Aquarius)
XVIII. The Moon — Qoph (Pisces)
XIX. The Sun — Resh (Jupiter)
XX. Judgement — Shin (Fire)
XXI. World — Tau (Saturn)
- Decker, Ronald; Thierry Depaulis; Michael Dummett. A Wicked Pack of Cards. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996, page 25.
- Ibid., page 41.
- Ibid., page 43.
- Ibid., page 62.
- Ibid., page 70.
- Lévi, Éliphas. Transcendental Magic. New York: Weiser, 1979, page 386.
- Christian, Paul. The History and Practice of Magic. New York: Citadel Press, 1963, page 110.
- Papus. Tarot of the Bohemians. New York: US Games, 1978, page 184.
- Waite. A. E. The Pictorial Key to the Tarot. New York: Weiser, 1980, page 29.
- Westcott, W. Wynn. Sepher Yetzirah. New York: Weiser, 1980, page 23.
- Ibid., page 22.
- Crowley, Aleister. Book of the Law. Quebec: 93 Publishing, page 26.
- Crowley, Aleister. Book of Thoth. New York: Weiser, 1974, pages 9-11.
- Ibid., page 278.
- Agrippa, Cornelius. Three Books of Occult Philosophy. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 1993, page 250.
© 2008 by Donald Tyson.
Edited by Sheta Kaey.
Donald Tyson is the author of Sexual Alchemy: Magical Intercourse with Spirits, Familiar Spirits: A Practical Guide for Witches & Magicians, and Soul Flight: Astral Projection and the Magical Universe, among other works. You can visit his website here.