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The Tarot and the Temple(s) of Solomon

Model van de tempel van Salomon met tarotkaarten de Hogepriesteres, Gerechtigheid en de Hogepriester

On a number of Tarot cards, the figures are depicted between two pillars. The most obvious is Tarot Card II The High Priestess; According to Waite, she sits between the pillars ‘Boaz’ and ‘Jachin’ that belong to ‘the Mystical Temple’. But what exactly is this Mystical Temple? And where does the symbolism come from? Did the temple really exist? The key, according to many myths and mysteries, is  the legend of King Solomon who had a temple built on a mountain in Jerusalem sometime in the year 1000 B.C. This temple has been the motivation and inspiration for many people ever since – to do both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ things. To unravel the mystery, we have to delve a bit into (biblical) history…

The Beginning: King Solomon’s Temple

It is about 900 years before Christ. King David (the David who defeated Goliath when he was a poor young shepherd) has died. King David’s son is called Solomon, and he becomes the new leader of the Israelites. “Solomon” means “Peace”. And when he became the new king, God asked him what he wanted. He replied that he wanted to have the wisdom in his heart and mind to be able to judge people and the ability to distinguish between right and wrong.

God was delighted with this “modest” request and gave Solomon wisdom in his heart and mind. And as icing on the cake, god also granted Solomon success and wealth! God alledgedly also added that after Solomon, there would never be another king who would be so wise and so successful. And God kept his word, for Solomon was praised all over the world. Also in the Qur’an, according to which god have given Solomon the ability to rule over nature as well as over the spirits and demons (“djinns”). In the Qur’an, Solomon was called “Suleiman” and he posessed a special “superpower”: the ability to command the wind and speak to birds.

The Judgement of Salomon, paining by  Nicolas Poussin (1648)
The Judgement of Salomon, paining by Nicolas Poussin (1648)

Solomon brought all the peoples living in the “promised land” closer together. He raised a large and impressive army with a large cavalry and a chariot corps. He had a gigantic fleet built to trade with various countries bordering the Red Sea.  Under his leadership, Jerusalem doubled in size. On Mount Zion, he had a huge palace built for himself, his 700 wives and 300 concubines. He couldn’t help himself as these women were all gifts from various kings and he had to house them somewhere. He had a separate palace built for 1 special woman (the daughter of an Egyptian Pharaoh).

In the fourth year of his reign, Solomon built a Temple. This temple was not at all impressive in terms of dimensions (his own palace was 4 times larger). But the finish and decoration was unprecedented. The inside was completely covered with cedar wood and the outside was richly decorated with gold. In the square in front of the temple (in a south-easterly direction) a large basin was placed resting on 12 bronze bulls.

This is what the temple of Salomon could have looked like

Two large hollow bronze pillars were erected in front of the entrance, one on each side. The Pillars were free and were not meant to support anything. The tops of these pillars opened into a lotus or lily shape and were decorated with garlands of pomegranates. The man who had accomplished these feats was called Hiram Abiff and he was the son of a widow. He assigned names to the pillars: the southern pillar was called “Jachin” (upright/stable/supporting) and the northern pillar was called “Boaz” (strength/strengthening/in him is strength). You probably had to read the words in one sentence: “He (god) will support (the temple) in his power”. In the Bible, this Hiram Abiff quietly disappears from the scene. But later he will appear in many legends and mysterious rituals and stories. 

Inside the temple the Ark of the Covenant was kept; This was an object so sacred that no one could touch it without instantly dying! The Ark of the Covenant played the leading role in the story of the battle of Jericho where, according to the Bible, it brought down the walls. The Ark was a coffin of Acacia wood covered with gold. It was “guarded” by 2 cherubim and a large bronze serpent. The Ark was hidden under a veil. Originally, this chest kept the tablets with the 10 commandments, Aaron’s staff, and a jar of manna that people used to feed during the period in the desert. The Israelites had carried it with them for years as they wandered in the desert, and it represented their faith in and the presence of God. This Ark would also recur in the myths of Jewish and Christian cultures for thousands of years to come.

Solomon has become more than just a wise king of the story “the judgment of Solomon.” He has been depicted over the years as a magician who possessed occult abilities. In a kabbalistic legend, it is said that he summons a demon to accompany a friendly king to the seven chambers of hell in order to report on what is going on in the underworld. He also appears in “Fairy Tales of 1001 Nights” where he uses his famous signet ring to lock a genie in a bottle for a couple of centuries.

The Signet Ring came from heaven and was given to him by God. The design consists of two triangles: 1 that points up and 1 that points down. Around it is a circle and in the middle are the words: “The greatest name of god”. The seal of Solomon is a popular design of coins in the Arab world and of course we also know it as the Star of David on the flag of present-day Israel

The Seal of Solomon
The seal of Solomon

The Four (or Five?) Temples of Solomon

When you search for the symbolism of (the temple) of Solomon, it is striking that it is mentioned that there are  four temples. How come? Here, too, we need to delve into a bit of ‘history’;

Whether the ‘first’, original temple really existed, we do not know. Because the only texts that deal with it come from the Old Testament. It states that the temple (together with the city) was built in the year 586 B.C. It was then destroyed by the Assyrians. These people were originally from Mesopotamia and around this time they did many conquests and their empire covered a large area including Turkey, Georgia, the area around the Persian Gulf and parts of Egypt. The Assyrians exiled the entire (Jewish) population of Jerusalem to Babylon (yes indeed to the banks of the river as in the song of Boney M.)

Shortly after, in 520 BC.  the Assyrians were defeated again by the Persians. They built a new temple on the site of Solomon’s temple , the temple of Zerubbabel. Jerusalem would remain Persian for the next 200 years.

A model of the temple of Zerubbabel

But then Alexander the Great appeared, and under his leadership the entire Middle East came under the power and cultural influence of the Greeks. A few hundred years later – we are now in about 60 B.C. – the Romans advanced and – as we know – took over from the Greeks. The Romans called the area around Jerusalem “Palestine.” Jerusalem came under the leadership of King Herod, a Jew loyal to the Romans, 30 years later.

The temple of Zerubbabel had not survived the 500 years of war and neglect that had passed. But instead of destroying the temple, Herod left part of it standing and integrated it into a new temple. So this was temple number 3.

Model of the Temple of Herod (temple number 3) in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem

You don’t expect it…….. but within a century Herod’s temple had already been destroyed. You would think that people would give up. And in a way, it they did. Because the 4th temple didn’t really “exist”.

It was a visionary temple. It is the Temple of Ezekiel and it is described in detail in the Bible. The prophet Ezekiel was one of the exiles who were expelled to Babylon by the Assyrians. There, Ezekiel had a vision that Solomon’s temple would rise from its ruins and be restored to its full glory. This temple was, in fact, an expression of longing for the time of King Solomon and is a symbol of a lost ideal. The Temple of Solomon has become a legend for the Jewish people, but also for other peoples in the world; And, that would continue to inspire people for hundreds (even thousands) of years and become a great attraction for pilgrims of all kinds.

In 636 AD, the Arabs conquered Jerusalem and built a 5th temple on the site where Solomon’s Temple is said to have once stood. The spot was also sacred to Muslims and they called it “al-bayt al-maqdis” (the holy house). The reason for this was that Muhammad had had a vision years earlier in which he ascended from this place to paradise. On this spot, on the holy mountain, a large mosque was built: the Al Aqsa Mosque. After several centuries of fighting and some of the first ‘Crusades’, the ‘Temple Mount’ was recaptured by the Christians in 1099. And from this moment on, the real mystery begins;

A group of ex-crusaders who thought they were going to enjoy their retirement were persuaded to travel to Jerusalem and become a kind of ‘bodyguards’ of the (Christian) pilgrims.

Hugo of Payns, originator of the Knight Templars
Hugh of Payns

Their headquarters would be located on the Temple Mount, where they would restore the Temple of Solomon to its former glory. And so it was that on Christmas Day 1119, Hugh of Payns and about 10 other knights took an oath in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, swearing to be satisfied with a meagre wage, to wear only clothes that were donated, and to protect at all times the pilgrims who traveled to the Holy Land. In January 1120, “The Order of the Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple of Solomon” – simply “The Order of the Knights Templar” – was officially introduced to the world.

The seal of the Knight Templars
The seal of the Knights Templar depicted how poor they were: so poor that the two of them had to share a horse

We know what happened to the Knights Templar and – thanks to Dan Brown – we also know all the ‘conspiracy theories’ that have revived and become very popular in the last 30 years. One of those theories is that the Knights Templar found “The Secret of Solomon” under the ruins of the temple, and blackmailed the Church with this information. The Secret of Solomon alledgedly contains ‘physical’ treasures and relics, as well as philosophical and spiritual secrets.

Although the Freemasons originally originated as a group in the Middle Ages from actual masons, or stoneworkers, since the beginning of the 18th century no “ordinary worker” was allowed in the official lodges. Freemasonry consisted of boring-rich-men’s clubs and not considered very  palatable. Until 1737 ….. because then a Scottish Freemason (Andrew Michael Ramsay) started to polish the boring – and somewhat dull – image of the Freemasons. He introduced the idea that the original Freemasons were actually Templars who had fled and had formed secret societies after their return. The mission of the Knights Templar had been to restore the Temple of Solomon and to protect themselves from the hostile Muslims they had devised a system of secret language and rituals. And it was only today’s Scottish Freemasons who still knew this system. He wrote a book in which he said that “every Freemason was a Knight Templar”. This remark got wings, after which all bets got off. From that time on, the Freemasons were thought to have preserved both the aforementioned physical “treasures” and relics of the Knights Templar (including the embalmed head of Jesus, the Ark of the Covenant, the Holy Grail), as well as philosophical and religious “secrets” of the Universe.

This, as well as the revival of occult ideas and systems (including the Tarot) at the end of the 18th century, has ensured that we now recognize all kinds of (Freemason) symbols in our Rider-Waite-Smith deck, including the ‘Temple of Solomon symbolism’.

Tarot and the Temple(s)

Of course, everyone immediately recognizes the 1st temple of Solomon in the description as that of the High Priestess. In the Waite-Smith deck, the letters ‘B’ and ‘J’ (Boaz and Jachin) are also on the pillars. It couldn’t be clearer. The pomegranates are depicted on the veils behind her. In the biblical description, it was garlands of pomegranates that decorated the columns. On the card, they have been incorporated into the veil. According to the original description, the “secret” (Ark of the Covenant) was also hidden under a veil. The Veil behind the High Priestess is also meant to hide something. However, you can still see something on the Tarot card, namely WATER. The water represents the unconscious, that which is within you but at the same time also hidden from you.

Tarotcard II from the Waite-Smith deck

Furthermore, we also recognize King Solomon himself in the description(s), namely in Tarot card ‘Justice’. The figure is also seated between two pillars. He has control over the wind (The Sword, which is a real ‘superpower‘!). In addition, the figure has “the wisdom in heart and mind to be able to judge people and the ability to distinguish between right and wrong.” Justice is about the heart and the head: not only the ability to read “letter of the law” but also fairness and compassion must be taken into account when administring Justice. Justice means that you can regard things in many ways: from within, from without, from below, and from above. Being honest with yourself and with others is only possible if you know yourself well (if you ‘know’ what is behind the veil…)

Tarotcard 'Justice' from the Waite-Smith deck
Tarotcard ‘Justice’ from the Waite-Smith deck

Finally, you can also spot the pillars on Tarot card V The High Priest; This seems to be a bit of an odd one out, but there is also a ‘Salomon’ symbol in it: the keys at his feet.

The Key of Solomon‘ is a medieval book that is full of all kinds of magical spells and incantations. These are attributed to King Solomon. As mentioned earlier, he was also seen as a Magician who had access to all kinds of knowledge with the help of God; The work, which was probably written between 1000 and 1400 AD, offers a kind of manual for summoning spirits from hell, talking to the dead, the creation of amulets, and all kinds of alchemical and magical formulas.

Traditionally, the key has been seen as a symbol of having ‘access’ (to knowledge, control, power). The keys are at the feet of the High Priest, which means that he has mastered this quite well. An important condition is that you can only complete the ‘experiments’ from the book if you yourself are ‘free from evil’. Only then will you enjoy the protection of god, just like King Solomon.

Tarotcard V 'The High Priest' from the Waite-Smith Tarot deck
Tarotcard ‘The High Priest’ from the Waite-Smith Tarot deck

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