Sometimes a tarot card is clear to you and ‘easy’ to interpret. Those are the cards that I don’t have to think so hard about and so I spend less time delving into the origins of the symbolism and meanings. For me, one of those cards is 5 of Pentacles. I’ve assigned my own meanings and theories to this tarotcard ages ago and I’m always secure when it pops up in readings.
But recently I was – as it always happens: by coincedence – triggered again to take a look at the basic meanings of this card. And that led to a fascinating historical deepdive and some old new insights that I would like to share.
On a number of Tarot cards in the RWS deck you can see drop-like things. On the Tower and on three of the aces (Cups, Swords, Wands) they are very visible. With the Cups they look like drops of water, with the Wands they look like leaves. But what are they about the in the Swords suit? What do these drops symbolize and why was the Ace of Pentacles skipped?
Although Madamoiselle Lenormand was famous (and infamous) in her time, many things about her life are shrouded in mystery. A number of biographies have been written but it is not certain whether they are reliable. She is mentioned in historical works about other “celebrities” of her time in which “The Sibyl of Paris” is either applauded or reviled. Mlle lenormand has also written a number of books herself, (of which only a few have been translated into English) and which unfortunately are not about her divination methods but, among other things, about the life and secrets of her famous clients… uhum… we will discuss ethics later.
Pentacles 10 has been showing up a lot lately. A while ago I took a good look at the card again, and only then realized that the symbol on the old man’s cloak is not really explained anywhere. I asked the question on the socials and there were a number of theories and suggestions:
It is a fertility symbol (pomegranate and sprites)
It is an astrological symbol: two crescent moons and the (split of the ram?) sign
It is an Alchemical emblem
It is a (family) coat of arms
It’s not a symbol, just decoration
When I heard someone say on You Tube that he thought the symbol on the old man’s cloak was a wine press, I thought that was very far-fetched. The man in question had found a picture of a medieval wine press that looked exactly like the symbol on the cloak however, so I browsed the internet to learn what the wine press could symbolize.
The ‘Mystical’ wine press is Christian symbolism. Some images show Jesus in the wine press, where he himself is pressed along with the grapes. This symbolizes that Jesus sacrifices himself for the people. But more often I read that most people see ‘The Mystical Winepress’ as a symbol for ‘the end of time’ or the ‘day of judgment’ where God destroys the unbelievers.
Luckily, a more humanistic interpretation also exists: the winepress symbolizes the spiritual strength needed to endure suffering. Maybe a bit like ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’?
I also tried to search for an image of an antique wine press that looks like the symbol on the old men’s cloak. But I can’t find it. There is a lot to be found about the Symbolism of the grapes, but not about this particular symbol.
Since Waite and Smith where not the kind of people that just ‘doodled’ some cards (every penstroke has a meaning!), I think there’s definitely some symbolism hidden in it. But what?
Please let me know if you have any ideas about this.
“Religion is the collective poesy of great souls. Her fictions are more true than Truth itself; vaster than Infinity; more lasting than Eternity; in other words, they are essentially paradoxical“
Tarot card ‘The Hierophant’ has been occupying my mind for some time now; When I started studying the Tarot, I thought it was the least sympathetic card. And even when I had already learned a lot about the Tarot, I still thought of the card as being annoying. Although I don’t think The Hierophant is unsympathetic anymore, I still think of this Tarotcard as being difficult. Especially when this Tarotcard shows up in a reading one tends to attribute a variety of meanings to it (which do not seem ‘logical’ to me)
However, in the last year that has changed. Especially since I started reading the work of the ‘old’ occultists again. I studied the books by authors who were contemporaries of Waite – or a generation after him – and tried to look at the Hierophant with fresh eyes. I am very fond of the work of the ‘oldies’ because I can imagine they had to stretch their minds in order to in order to be able to write about symbolism of the Tarot. Because Tarot is organic and ever evolving, I also enjoy ‘modern’ authors. However, when it comes to The Hierophant, a number of them do still stick with the interpretation of Waite & Smith.
We know that Waite was attracted to Christianity; At least to the idea that there is one god and/or that a ‘creator of the Universe’ exists. He himself wrote that he turned his back on the Theosophical teachings of Blavatsky (because the ‘image of God’ was not sufficiently highlighted in Theosophy) and that he focused more on Freemasonry (where the condition is that you believe in an ‘architect of the Universe’). But he has deliberately deviated from the symbolism used by the Golden Dawn and has clearly given this Tarot card a ‘Catholic look and feel’.
And so I thought maybe I would find the answer in the work of the occultists who inspired Waite. One of them is Eliphas Lévi (1810 – 1875). Lévi was held in high regard by Waite. Before he became an occultist, Lévi had been a Catholic priest and he uses many biblical quotations and analogies. I came across a small book that I have never read before, entitled: ‘Les Paradoxes de la haute science‘. (The Paradoxes of Higher Science). The book was published in 1856 and translated into English by the Theosophical Society in 1883. In 1922 it was republished, this time with commentary by a mysterious ‘Eminent Occultist’ (Abbreviated to E.O.). No one knows who E.O. is, but some claim that it is none other than the founder of the Theosophical Society herself: Helena Blavatsky (1831 – 1891). This seems very credible, since she often commented on essays by Lévi. Blavatsky is even said to have been partly inspired by Lévi and, like Waite, she also had a high opinion of him. For example, the following can be read in a preface to an article by Lévi – which was shared with the members:
“The three essays – the first of which is now given – belong to the unpublished work Of the late French Occultist, a series of whose other Lectures on Secret Sciences is being published serially in the Journal of the Theosophical Society. These three papers were kindly copied and sent for this Magazine by our respected Brother, Baron Spedalieri of Marseilles. We hope to give, in good time, the translation of every scrap ever written by this remarkable ‘Professor of High Transcendental Sciences and Occult Philosophy’, whose only mistake was to pander rather conspicuously to the dogma’s of the established church – the church that unfrocked him”
The reason I came across this book by Lévi was because I was watching a video on a Tarot channel on You Tube, in which it was stated that the two priests on Tarot card The Hierophant symbolize “Reason” and “Liberty“. Reason and Liberty? Where did that come from?
I browsed the internet to see if there are more people who assign ‘Reason’ and ‘Liberty’ to the two priests in this Tarot card. There weren’t many. I did see ‘Action’ and ‘Liberty’ a number of times. ‘Love and Liberty’ was also once attributed to the two figures. I think the idea behind this seems to come literally from Lévi’s book about the Paradoxes. In The Paradoxes of Higher Science, seven paradoxes are described. And of course you will see quite some ‘Tarot’ symbolism in the descriptions.
The seven Paradoxes are:
Religion is Magic Sanctioned
Liberty is Obedience to the Law
Love is the Realisation of the Impossible
Knowledge is the Ignorance or Negation of Evil
Reason is God
The Imagination Realizes What it Invents
The Will Aclompishes Everything, Which it Does Not Desire
At first, I thought it quite difficult to read and understandt. But in the end, I did see ‘the punch line’ and perhaps the symbolism of ‘Reason’ and ‘Liberty’ in Tarot card V The Hierophant! I have tried to pick out a number of relevant quotes below and explain them in a way that I have understood.
“In the principle is Reason, and Reason is in God, and God is Reason. All is made by it, and without it is nothing made”
With this paradox the most confusing is that Levi seems to be speaking of both reason in the form of ‘thinking’/’intellect’, and reason (in the form of: ‘the reason that something exists’).
Lévi states that without reason – or intellect – nothing can be created or nothing can come into being. If God is the creator, god is reason. Everything has a right to exist, including irrationality. This is the counterpart of reason and also has a purpose. The same purpose as the dark has for the light: After all, without light there is no shadow!
The reasonable believer, according to Lévi, is he who believes in a reason greater than knowledge and is aware that ‘absolute wisdom’ is non existent. “Thinking” or “Intellect” is a means and not an end. It is something that is always developing and that is always growing. When you reason ill, it will become unreasonable.But it is not then reason that should be distrusted, but your own judgement. The danger is lurking that you will blindly believe your own prejudices and judgments. It is therefore advisable to go to someone who knows more than you, as long as you don’t blindly follow them! In short, you should always think for yourself and not take things at face value, even if you have good reason to believe that someone else is “superior” in a certain area.
According to Lévi, it is not ‘weird’ to believe in something you have never seen or touched. There are a lot of things you’ve never seen but know exist. I tried to think of an example and came up with ‘gravity’. I can’t see gravity, but I know it’s there. For example, there are a number of ‘laws’ and ‘rules’ that you only know by reasoning and that everyone – religious or not – should submit to because they cannot be changed. They can be laws of nature, but according to Lévi they can also be moral ‘laws’. Unfortunately – says Lévi – the Christian Church has tried to eliminate reason and that makes people believe ‘blindly’ in something they do not know. It doesn’t come from within (by reasoning):
“To conjecture, at random, what one does not know, and then believe blindly in one’s own conjectures, or in those of others, who know no more than ourselves, is to behave like madmen. When we are told that God demands the sacrifice of our reason, this is to make God, the ideal or despotic idol, of folly”
Liberty is Obedience to the Law
“The true Piety is the Piety that is independent. The true Faith is the absolute Faith which explains all Symbols and moves above all Dogmas. The true God is the God of Reason, and his true worship is Love and Liberty”
Because man has intellect, he has freedom. However, this is not ‘for free’, as we have to do something for it in return (take action). For example, by practicing science, pursuing inventions that will lead to progress of humanity. At the moment, however, this is not yet recognized; The “freethinkers” do not tolerate ecclesiastical authority, and the Church does not tolerate freethinkers.
On the one hand, it is your duty as a human being to make use of your intellect and your freedom. On the other hand, you have to deal with those in power who are not happy about this. There are priests, kings, laws, powerful groups, etc., who want to stop things. It doesn’t do you much good if you protest against this all too loudly (and then get burned at the stake). The smartest thing to do is to ‘obey’ on the outside as long as you KNOW what is going on inside. You continue to progress and develop, so that one day – for example the generation after you – it will become a fait accompli and the rulers will also have to move forward. Or, as Lévi puts it, “It is full time for the shepherd to rise when his flock goes off..”
This Paradox also refers to Tarot card XV The Devil (also a Christian symbol). So keep an eye on this blog for the sequel!
Religion is Magic Sanctioned
“Comprehension of religion is the emancipation of the spirit, and the Bible of the hierophants is the Bible of liberty. To believe without knowing is weakness; to believe, because one knows, is power”
Here, too, Lévi emphasizes ‘Reason’. People are forced to “believe” and worship God. The Church frightens them (fear God himself, the Devil, hell, etc.). True Magi, according to Lévi, are those who worship God without fear because they know that they have the same powers as God. To worship without fear is Love, to worship with fear is hate. Magi lean on religion, but religion does not weigh on them.
According to Lévi, it is the uncritical worship of God (without thinking for oneself) that is to blame for all the terrible crimes committed in the name of the Church (or religion alltogether) over the centuries. People ‘mindlessly’ participate in the Christian ceremonies without focus and without understanding why. This leads to (religious) fanaticism (which we unfortunately also still see today). This also applies to various ‘occult’ groups; They consider themselves freethinkers, but in the meantime they are searching for ready-made remedies, miracles, and knowledge about the future in cards/dice/crystals/tea leaves etc. They try to communicate with the dead in order to find out ‘the truth’. But that’s not Magic according to Lévi:
“True magic is a scientific force placed at the service of Reason. False magic is a blind force added to the blunders and disorders of Folly“
To control will-power and to subordinate it to the law of intelligence – this is ultimately the great work of our priestly art.
I do now see much more in this Tarot card as the symbolism is much more lively. The High Priest holds a Christian symbol (the ‘true’ Cross) in one hand and the other hand makes an occult gesture. In my opinion, the two listeners play a bigger role than just being students or listeners. The keys lie between them, perhaps symbolizing that ‘the keys’ lie in ‘Reason and Liberty’. But even if it is ‘Reason and Love’, ‘Love and Liberty’, ‘Reason and Action’…. it doesn’t matter. The “reason” that Waite and Smith portrayed The Hierophant in such Catholic way is clear. I think they were definitely inspired by Lévi’s Paradoxes.
According to the Theosophical Society, Levi would have had great difficulty in letting go of the “dogmatic” idea of the Catholic Church. When you read the paradoxes, it seems as he is indeed struggling; The many twists and turns he makes as not to deny Catholicism (and other religions). And at the same time, he tries to critisize the same church and wants to explain the occult meanings.
However, I think there is much more to it. I think he goes to great lengths to convey what he sees as the esoteric symbolism behind religion(s). And that’s something you ‘know’ but can’t explain so easily!
The book is still published today and available in many (online) stores. Copies are also available online (and as far as I can see this is legal). I have created a PDF of the complete text for everyone to read. Feel free to leave a comment about your understanding of the text.
If you look closely at Tarot card the Six of Pentacles from the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, you will see a small red ‘label’ near the pocket of the beggar with the blue cloak. What does this red ‘thing’ means? Is it a Yod? Or something else?
Every time I come across a quote somewhere, I think of a Tarot card. This is not surprising since the Tarot consists of a thick pack of one-liners from ‘the things your mother used to say’ to statements by the great philosophers and natural scientists. But, because the ancient Greeks had a great influence on our current thinking and actions, they are the best to go with!
When I read this quote from Aristotle, the first Tarot card that popped into my head was the Two of Swords. But when I started to delve a bit more into the background of this quote, I gained another nice insight regarding the swords in the Tarot
The Swords are often – unfairly – interpreted in terms of rational thinking. In everyday interpretations, this is then – also wrongly – placed opposite to ‘feeling’.
It is well known that the Swords (and the element of air in general) has a much deeper symbolism than logical thinking. Air is a medium, a connector. The element air ‘feeds’ the other elements (earth, water and fire); For instance, when there is not enough air in the earth, roots of plants will stop growing and they will die. When Hydrogen (H2) cannot bind to air (O), there will be no water that is necessary to maintain life on earth. Fire that does not receive oxygen extuiguishes.
The Swords, or the intellect, in the Tarot therefore symbolizes the ability to connect things, to think creatively, to fantasize, to make plans, to discover patterns and to reflect. ‘Logical’ thinking also belongs to this domain, but is just a small part. With a Sword you can separate things such as main and secondary issues (think of the Hebrew letter Zain). You can also cut away bullshit with your Sword. Finally, the sword depicts mental strength, a not to be underestimated super-power that unfortunately can also work at a disadvantage.
The Swords are often considered ‘negative’ and I have set a goal for myself to stand up for this ‘underdog’. All elements are equally important in life and therefore also in the Tarot. Waite may have put a bit of a depressive spin on it, but I won’t let that distract me.
Please find a quote from Eliphas Lévi below. It is taken from his well known ‘paradoxes’ (Paradox V: Reason is God)
THIS should be placed first. It is before everything: it is self-existent, it exists even for those who do not know it, as the Sun for the Blind, but to see it, feel it, understand it, this is the triumph of the understanding in man; it is the definite result of all the travail of thought and all the aspirations of Faith. In the principle is Reason, and Reason is in God, and God is Reason. All is made by it, and without it is nothing made. It is the true light that enlightens us from our birth: it shines even in the darkness, but the darkness does not close it in.
These words are the oracle of Reason itself, and they occur, as all know, at the commencement of the Gospel of St. John.
Without this Reason nothing exists; everything has its reason for existing, even unreason, which serves as a background to reason as the shadow does to the light.
True magic is a scientific force placed at the service of Reason.
On a number of Tarotcards you can find ‘Yods’. The Yod is the tenth Hebrew letter and means “the creative hand of God.” The Yod as a letter is assigned to Tarotcard IX the Hermit by occultists who follow the Golden Dawn as a system (others sometimes assign it to Tarotcard X The Wheel of Fortune). The Yod is depicted on the Aces, the Tower, the Moon and on some decks also on the Sun. There it represents a ‘divine spark’.
In this post I would like to elaborate on the number of Yods that appear on Tarot card ‘The Tower’. This differs per deck and that is no coincidence! All occultists have had their own reasons for displaying exactly that number of Yods on the card. I’ve listed a few for decks that I own myself, but I’m sure there are many more decks that show a different number of Yods.
When you think of Alchemy, you usually think of the 16th and 17th centuries. You probably see the image of (old) men brewing all kinds of concoctions from which they try to make gold. The candlelight and the old books & manuscript add an occult touch to this image. You might think it is a bit silly, but many great discoveries have been made during these experiments! And nowadays, we are actually able to create gold out of other commodities (although this is such an expensive process that the costs do not outweigh the benefits of the gold obtained). You could, however, argue that these alchemists were the forerunners of our “modern” sciences (physics, chemistry, medical sciences).
The Tarot is full of symbolism. To what extent some symbolism has always been in there, we do not know for sure but is not likely. The Tarot seems to have been designed primarily as a game, as an artistic gift in honor of marriages of the high nobility and perhaps to promote Renaissance thought. What we do know is that the occultists who have been working with the Tarot since the 18th century, did add a lot of hermetic and occult symbolism to the Tarot. Eliphas Levi, Arthur Edward Waite, Paul Foster Case and Aleister Crowley are some of them who have indulged themselves in particular.
When you study the Rider-Waite-Smit deck carefully, you will see that not a single penstroke was done by chance! Some Tarotists don’t find it helpful to dig through all this symbolism. Others find it too far-fetched and implausible. I personally really enjoy doing it and it really helps me interpret the cards. This way, I am able to empathize more and see the cards come to live in front of me…
In this article, I would like to share an insight about the angle in which the Fool’s staff is positioned. It is exactly 37 degrees! 37 degrees is the average ‘normal’ body temperature of man. So “human” seems like an important keyword. When we look up this number in the reference books on Gematria, we come across many interesting associations that refer to “The Fool”!