Tarot and Alchemy: a short introduction

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).

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Deep Sighs and Being Consumed by Jealousy: The Vera Sibilla

Although we know that the first Tarot cards were originated in early Renaissance Italy, it is the French who take credit for the way we work with the Tarot today; After all, it was the French occultist Jean-Baptiste Alliette  (1738 – 1791) who – as far as is known at least – was the first to assign all kinds of occult correspondences to the Tarot and showed a broader audience how to use Tarot for divination. More Frenchies followed and for years the Marseille deck was THE Tarot deck to be used for divination purposes. The British also contributed a great deal when the members of the Golden Dawn started to delve into the occult writings on the Tarot at the end of the 19th century. The have ‘corrected’ the work of their French predecessors. It is not completely clear if these corrections are for the better, some argue they do and some argue they don’t.

Arthur Edward Waite  (1857 – 1942) is probably the best known Golden Dawn member because he released the popular Raider-Waite-Smith deck in 1909, in cooperation with Pamela Colman Smith (also a Golden Dawn member). Previously, a separate tradition of divination cards had also arised in Germany and the surrounding areas: The Lenormand and the Kipper decks are both of German origin. These four systems (Marseille Tarot, RWS Tarot, Lenormand and Kipper) are the most commonly used decks to date. What about the Italians?

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Tarot and Classic Philosophy

While working on my thesis for the Tarot Masters, I had decided that I would find the origin of wisdom in the Tarot. For this I needed to go back to the time of the creation of the first real Tarot Deck: The early Renaissance (1423). An important feature of the Renaissance was that people would begin referring (again) to the classical Roman and Greek philosophers. What I had forgotten since I left Highschool, was that philosophy in ancient times was mainly practical;  It was about norms and values and finding the answer to the question: “how should I live?” This is where the word “Art of Living” derives from. Actually, this ‘practical’ Philosophy consists partly of a collection of “things my mom used to say” (also called “aphorisms”).  Joep Dohmen  – who has written a some very nice instructive philosophy books – expresses himself far better than I do; His definition of philosophy is:

A coherence of thinking and living living and thinking. Eat as a human being, drink as a human being, participate in social life, learn to deal with ridicule and defamation and tolerate other people”

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Of a mysterious count and the first Tarot spread published

“If someone would announce that an ancient Egyptian work still exists: one of their books that escaped the flames that destroyed their extraordinary libraries, and which contains their highest teachings on a number of fascinating objects . . . .  Would you think he was fooling his readers?”

Antoine Court de Gébelin on the Tarot in ‘Le Monde Primitif’

Antoine Court de Gébellin (1725 – 1784) is regarded as the founder of the ‘modern’ esoteric Tarot. His father was a preacher and in 1754 he was about to become a preacher himself. However, things turned out completely different because in 1771 he joined a Masonic order… He interacted with well-known and influential people such as the writer Voltaire, sculptor Houdon and the then U.S. ambassador to France, Benjamin Franklin.

It was in 1781 that Gébellin claimed that the Tarot had Egyptian roots. When he began publishing his serial “Le Monde Primitif, analysée comparé avec le monde moderne” in 1773, he had been studying esoteric wisdom for 20 years. Thousands of people subscribed to his publications, including Louis XVI of France. “Le Monde Primitif” consisted of a total of 9 volumes and although the Tarot is already mentioned in volume 5 (“an Egyptian game”) It was volume 8 that was entirely dedicated to the ‘Tarreaux’, a deck of cards that, according to Gébellin, was best known in Germany, Italy and Switzerland. The name ‘Tarreaux’ is said to have been derived from the words ‘Tar’ and ‘Rho’ (royal road). Volume 8 of the serial was thus entirely devoted to the Tarot. 90 pages total of which 60 by Antoine de Gébellin. Antoine explains the origin of the Tarot (being Egyptian). The remaining 30 pages are from a certain “C. de M.” In this section, a Tarot spread is presented. “C. de M.” is Louis-Raphael-Lucrece de Fayolle, or ‘Le Comte de Mellet‘ (1727 – 1804). Fayolle was already researching the origins and the use of card games before he came into contact with Gébellin’s work. One of his publications is about the development of various card games at the court of Brabant (The Netherlands).

But first we return to Antoine de Gébellin; As mentioned, in 1773 he had started publishing work that would later become known for the Tarot. But before the Tarot is discussed in detail in volume 8, Antoine tries to bring up all kinds of ‘old wisdom’; He did this, among other things, by analyzing and comparing ancient languages. He was mainly interested in the alphabet and the icons that occur in some languages such as Chinese, Hebrew and of course ancient Egyptian. (Hieroglyphics).

Le Monde Primitif by Antoine Court de Gébellin (1725 - 1784)
Le Monde Primitif

Antoine also writes in his book how he came into contact with the Tarot and how he immediately understood the deeper meaning that others eluded. This is known as his famous ‘fifteen minutes of enlightenment’. Antoine was attending a party, where he met a lady – ‘Madame C. d’H’ who was playing a card game with a few other people. Fascinated, he picked up the card ‘The World’ and intuitively told what the ‘real’ symbolism was. In fifteen minutes he had explained all the cards and had declared that the origin was clearly Egyptian. How this is secretly a bit true is something for later. Because the focus here, are the 30 pages of Le Comte de Mellet; De Mellet probably published the very first Tarot Spread. And it would be a lot of fun to try that spread!

Tarot Cards in Le Monde Primitif by Antoine Court de Gebellin
Tarot Cards from ‘Le Monde Primitif’

In the original description, you do this as a couple, but you can do it alone (this just requires some extra focus).

First Published Tarot Spread by Le Comte de Mellet

First, find all the Major Arcana cards from your deck and put them aside. The other stack (Minor Arcana + Court cards together) is also placed on 1 stack on the left (step 1)

Now you are going to count from 1 to 14 where you turn over a small Arcana Card with your right hand and place it next to the stack. At the same time, you take a Major Arcana card with your left hand and place it next to the stack. However, you leave this Major Arcana ‘closed’. (Step 2)

When the Minor Arcana card matches the number you call out, you set it aside together with the Major Arcana card. You call out the numbers where Ace =1, Page =11, Knight = 12, Queen = 13 and King = 14 (Step 3)

The stack with the Major Arcana cards is of course the first to run out. When that happens, you slide it aside again and start over. You continue until the stack of Minor Arcana is also finished. According to the original description, you need to repeat this process 3 times, but I always stop after 1 round.

You now have a number of ‘pairs’ of 1 Major Arcana and 1 Minor Arcana card. You interpret this in pairs.

The Curious Paul Foster Case

Several years ago I was looking for certain information for an article that I could not find anywhere. I browsed the entire internet, but nothing. However, I came across something completely different! Something that allowed me to expand my knowledge a lot! I think the saying: ‘if you look for one thing, you will find the other’ really applies!  I came across a complete Tarot Course, written in a distant era, on a typewriter on which the letter “W” had failed at some point, Sometimes the writer had (probably) been “blind typing” while his fingers were on the wrong keys. But despite this – and the archaic writing style – I could read and understand the text quite well and it appealed to me.

A snapshot of the course of Paul Foster Case

The course was written by Paul Foster Case (1884-1954), Wikipedia told me he was the founder of “Builders of the Adytum” and had been an absolute authority on the Tarot. He published a number of books, articles as well as his own Tarot deck: The Major Arcana cards that are supposed to be colored by the student himself, according to precise instructions.

Although Paul Foster Case lived during the revival of occultism, Western esotericism and the growing interest in the workings of the human psyche (in the late 19th and early 20th centuries) and was a contemporary of Waite, Crowley and Jung, I had never heard of him.

Paul Foster Case was born in Fairport, New York, in 1884, the son of a librarian and teacher. So he literally grew up between books and could already read when he was 3 years old. His mother taught him Greek, Latin and music from an early age. At the age of 9 he ‘ worked’ as an organist in the local church where his father was a church guardian. As a result, he also formed an early opinion about the (hypocrisy) of the organized religion and denominations. However, Paul was interested in the spiritual and his father’s work in the library gave him free access to a large number of occult books that he devoured. His father, who was fundamentally Christian, of course, did not approve of this; In the Case family, it was not even allowed to bring something like ordinary playing cards into the house! 

But as befits a teenager, Paul rebelled against his father and not only bought playing cards, but also learned to do tricks with them based on instructions from various magic books. In winter, the Case family often vacationed in Nassau (in the Bahamas, which was then called the West Indies and was a British colony), where Paul came into contact with “Obeah“, an African religion that had been brought to the Caribbean by slaves from Africa. This enriched his world and made him consciously deal with so-called mystical experiences from an early age. He found out at the age of 9 that he could consciously direct his dreams and promptly wrote a letter to the famous writer (and freemason) Rudyard Kipling (author of “Jungle Book”) to get more information. Kipling affirmed that these experiences with the 4th dimension were “real” and thus an exchange of letters began that would last for years and grew into a friendship. 

But more special encounters would follow; As a 16-year-old, Paul had by now achieved success with his playing card magic tricks. He often performed at local events and fairs. During one of his performances, he met architect and writer (and occultist) Claude Fayette Bragdon who also lived in the area. Bragdon was very good at card tricks and they exchanged tricks. At one point Bragdon asked Paul, “Where do you think the playing cards originate from?” This question hit young Case like a bomb; After the performance, he searched all the local libraries to find books on the history of playing cards. Little was available but eventually he found a 17th century Rosicrucian text explaining that the Tarot was an ancient esoteric system called “The Game of Man”. From that moment on, Paul spent all his time studying Tarot cards and Symbolism. He believed that the Tarot cards were made to allow man to access hidden layers of consciousness in order to expand consciousness as well. And this is exactly what happened to Paul, because from that moment on he started hearing his “inner voice”. 

The well-read Paul had been familiar with the “modern” psychological theories that already have been emerging since he was a teenager; Sigmund Freud had opened his own psychiatric practice in 1880 and started published startling works on the human psyche, including those on the Oedipus complex in 1897 and a theory on how to analyze dreams in 1900. Because of the popularity of these theories on psychology as well as the emerging interest in psychopathology, Paul also made sure that he would not speak too much about this “inner” voice to others. Paul himself had already come to the conclusion that the phenomenon he experienced was different from the ‘typical’ cases of psychoses and he attributed his inner voice to something that came out of his own subconscious, a kind of ‘tool’ that cooperated with and was integrated into his consciousness. 

Almost simultaneously with Carl Jung he started to investigate (archetypal) images and the unconscious. However, Paul Foster Case did this by focusing entirely on the study of the Tarot cards. Paul saw each card as a separate “channel” that fed archetypal energy into the consciousness and thus provided insights. In addition to the esoteric aspects, he also noticed that the Tarot could be of a very big practical value. He had the latter in common with Eliphas Levi, a 19th century mystic whom he liked to quote: 

“Above all marvelous. a prisoner, devoid of books, he only had a Tarot of which he knew how to make use, could in a few years acquire a universal science and converse with unequated doctrine and inexhaustible eloquence” 

One day Paul had a dream that he was a Rabbi in the 18th century who was reading a book about Kabbalah. The book was written in Hebrew, but contained a Latin translation next to each text. When he woke up, he decided to go and try to see if this book really existed. Eventually he did find it in a library. Paul realized that it was inevitable that he also had to study Kabbalah thoroughly and should learn the Hebrew letters. From this time on, he maintained a strict regime and studied every day. Because he was mainly interested in the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, he soon came into contact with the yoga (pranayama) techniques. Pranayama is a yoga technique in which the physical (hatha) and the meditative (Raja) are combined by focusing on breathing. He adhered to a strict vegetarian diet and experimented with Pranayama to achieve a different level of consciousness. Initially this was very sucessfull, but also generated negative side effects: he had a number of (paranormal) experiences that he could not control. Paul finally concluded that Pranayama – although it was an effective system for expanding your perception and your level of consciousness – “was not suitable for the Western mind & body.” He saw more benefit in the Tarot for this. 

Paul Foster Case
Paul Foster Case

Paul Foster Case lived in Chicago around 1909/1910 and earned a living by performing organ performances in theaters. Once, while waiting for the bus to go to work, he was approached by a man he did not know but who seemed to know everything about him. The man asked if he couldn’t take the next bus because he had something to tell Paul. If this were to happen in our present time, you would probably walk away. But that time was different; In those days, You were not often accosted on the street by marketeers.

So Paul accepted the request. The message the strange told him, was the following: Paul had arrived at a crossroads in his life. He could go both ways. The first option was to keep doing what he was already doing; He would be able to perform in theaters and even though he would not become world famous, he would still be quite successful and lead a comfortable, enjoyable and fulfilling life. On a spiritual level, however, he would remain stuck where he was now and not develop much further. But he could also take a different path: develop his spirituality fully and play an important role for humanity and its evolution in the Aquarian age that was to come. However, his path was going to be tough! He would encounter many disappointments and even poverty awaited him. He would also be forced to withdraw from the music he loved so much. And to top it all off, he wouldn’t receive any recognition or appreciation for his work. The stranger also told Paul that he was speaking on behalf of a spiritual teacher who would help him. But guarantees about whether Paul would succeed could not be made. The only promise Paul got was that he wouldn’t starve (even though it might seem like it at times).

Paul Foster Case was 25 years old at that time, and made a pledge that he would make serving humanity its number one priority. The stranger turned out to be the chief of surgery at a major Chicago hospital, and they would remain friends for a long time. Paul did not quit his job immediately, but he faithfully continued to study the Tarot every day and began to write down his discoveries in notebooks. During musical tours he had a lot of time to read, write and reflect. He began to read the works of well-known occult writers (including Eliphas Levi and Papus) but was not completely satisfied with their contribution to the Tarot. Paul felt that the Hebrew letters and planets assigned to the major arcana by the previous writers were incorrect. Even before A.E. Waite had published his (now famous) Tarot deck, Paul also discovered that the tarot cards VIII and XI should actually be switched around. His theory was, that in earlier times a number of Tarot cards had been given the wrong order on purpose because in order to keep the (esoteric) knowledge hidden. A long the way, many of these ‘discoveries’ have been corrected and Waite (and Paul Foster Case) discovered this ‘last’ one. Paul Foster Case wrote the following about this in reaction to an Article of Arthur Edward Waite in a magazine called “The Occult Review”:

The symbolism of Mr. Waite’s pack which has just appeared, set me right about the cards for the signs Leo and Libra and I had no difficulty seeing that his Magician was Mercury, his High Priestess the Moon and his Empress evidently Venus “..” I am perfectly sure that in connection with the Hebrew letters, the Tarot keys represent the elements, planets and signs as they are attributed in these lessons ” 

In 1917, when the USA entered World War I, Paul performed as an organist in the – at that time immensely popular – silent movies. His work consisted of playing an opening piece, followed by a short variety act. Then there was a polygon news, after which the main movie started. He accompanied this movie musically playing the organ. This job only took 3 hours a day but he was still able to earn a living. This again provided him with an enormous amount of time to spend in libraries where he continued to search passionately for a “mystical truth”. 

More and more notebooks filled up. Paul also wrote a number of articles about the Tarot by which he attracted the attention of a number of well-known (occult) authors including H.S. Lewis (AMORC Librarian) and Michael James Whitty (Archivist of the Alpha et Omega order, an offshoot of the Golden Dawn). The Golden Dawn was founded in 1887 by 3 Freemasons and enjoyed much popularity for a time. But after a while this order splitted into 3 separate orders: The Stella Matutina – under the direction of – among others – the famous writer William Butler Yeats,, The Golden Dawn where Arthur Edgar Waite held sway and the Alpha et Omega with at the head one of the original founders: Samuel MacGregor-Mathers. It is with the latter order where Paul would expand his work until he found his own order: The Builders Of The Adytium (B.O.T.A) in 1922.

Paul Foster Case wrote articles in a spiritual magazine (AZOTH) and a book on the classical kabbalistic system: The Book of Tokens. While everything was going on (quarrels within the order, falling in love with a fellow member) Paul received another invitation from a mysterious stranger one evening; A gentleman calling himself Master Rococzy asked Paul to meet him at the Waldorff Astoria hotel. It is unclear exactly who Master R. (as Paul called him) was. But Paul was convinced that he was one of the highest adepts in alchemy. Someone who – as described in the mystical legends – was able to make his consciousness so strong that he is able to take it along with him through the incarnations. Paul even called him “The Earl of Saint Germain“. Master R. made no claim in this area himself, but did offer Paul to follow a mystical training under his guidance. Paul spent 3 weeks intensively with Rococzy and learned from him that it was important to review the tarot cards and educate others about it, because it was time to release more esoteric knowledge – knowledge that had hitherto been hidden – into the world . Rococzy also told him that Paul himself was not particularly special, but that there was simply no one else who seems to be ‘better” and that “they” had to make do with what they got. And because one eye is king in the land of the blind, Paul got to work. 

In 1929 Paul published his B.O.T.A. Tarot deck drawn by Jessie Burnes Parke. Paul made changes to the designs previously published by the Golden Dawn and Waite-Smith. The Kabbalah played a big (er) role in his Deck. In the years that followed, he also corrected many rituals of various orders and temples: he had discovered some “errors” in this and warned that it was not without danger to blindly copy and practice everything that was written. A complete separation between unconscious and ego could occur, with disastrous consequences. As an example, he cited Aleister Crowley, both famous and infamous English occultist and enfant terrible among the ‘magicians’ of the time. 

Paul Foster Case published a number of books and also held many lectures where he got the audience off their feet. He was in close contact with famous writers, spiritualists and occultists of his day. Among them Dion Fortune, Alice Bailey and of course Edward Waite. Yet the stranger’s prediction at the bus stop came true: Paul himself never became “famous”, had to make ends meet many times in his life. His marriages also ended more than three times (he was married several times but the exact number is unknown). 

The B.O.T.A. still exists and they are still publishing the work of Paul Foster Case. In my opinion, everyone that is interested in the Tarot should try and read some of his books. Some of them are a bit ‘difficult’ to read, but for me it really uplifts your knowledge and understanding of the Tarot! The book about his life that I read to write this post is written by Dr. Paul A. Clark: “Paul Foster Case – His life and works”.