Meditations on the Tarot; Chapter III, The Empress

The third chapter of Meditations on the Tarot interprets the third major arcana, The Empress, as signifying magic; or, more specifically, “sacred magic”. This he differentiates from “personal magic” and “sorcery”; the first coming from the divine, the second from the person, the third from “elemental forces”. He defines magic with the statement the subtle rules the dense. [Compare with Crowley’s definition, the science and art of causing change to occur in accordance with will, to see the difference between the author’s “sacred magic” and Crowley’s “personal magic”.] She has her tools, as any good magician. The crown, scepter, and shield she bears are her divine authorization, magical power, and aim, respectively. The throne has a place as well, per the book, as the role of magic in the world.

There are obvious parallels to be drawn between the tiara of the High Priestess and the crown of the Empress. The author surmises that the two level crown signifies that the work of magic is done on two levels rather than three, meaning the “sublimation of Nature” rather than the “revelation of Gnosis”. This crown grants the moral basis for her work, as practicing the only legitimate form of magic [for the author, arguing from a Christian perspective], that same type practiced by the apostles. Rather than a book, there is the image of an eagle, to signify activity, or rather “the accelerated evolution of the living forces of Nature.” The scepter contains with it the power to make the operation work.

Here we could get into one of those endless, and excellent, debates on the finer points of magical symbolism in specific imagery. The author points out that the scepter contains, within its design, both a wand (staff) and a chalice; symbolizing the Divine Will turned earthwards, and human will turned to Heaven. Through the eyes of a ceremonial magician, this is clearly the wand and cup used to symbolize fire and water, also “will and feeling”, or whatever else the magician sees fit. So does that make the crown the knife? Being on the head one could surely make the argument that it represents the sword, or the intellect, and certainly has enough pointy little blades on it to bring the metaphor home. Is the shield the pentacle, then, representing the element of earth and manifestation? The author doesn’t make those connections directly, so this case is my own.

The magician symbolized by the Empress is, for the author, practicing what may be more precisely defined as theurgy than magic in the modern, Western Occult fashion. The magic of a miracle worker or saint, who has given his or her will to merge with the Will of the Divine (but while still maintaining free will) and thus becomes a vehicle for the power of such. Thusly, the scepter is complete.

So if the crown is the sword, the scepter both wand and cup, and the shield the pentacle, what is the throne? Here you see the mistake I am making already, that one can so easily throw the tools of the ceremonial magician over the author’s Christian Hermetic view of the imagery of the card. [Although I would argue for them being there when looked at from a different perspective.] The throne is the thing transformed by the magic, Nature itself, the very “domain of sacred magic”. [I wonder, as tarot students, do we give enough thought to the thrones in the tarot? For they are literally and metaphorically “seats of power”.] Here, for the author, the throne of the Empress is the Tree of Life, guarded by the flaming sword of the cherubim against those who would, of their own will, reach out and take its fruit. Rather, the sacred magician waits to receive the fruit of the tree, and through this reception, is able to participate in the Great Work.

Meditations on the Tarot, Chapter II- The High Priestess

The second chapter of Meditations on the Tarot takes the traditional representation of the High Priestess card and turns it into a metaphor for the mystic, where the figure represents the transfer of spirit into philosophy. The experience of pure, spontaneous creation goes through the stages of “gnosis” and “magic’ on its way to being transfixed in a material fashion as Hermetic philosophy, or the “book” on the lap of the High Priestess.

As the Magician is standing vertically, representing the vertical nature of the spirit, the High Priestess is seated, forming the intersection of the spirit and the material. Through the three tiers of the tiara she wears, the pure experience descends into consciousness, or rather;

Spirit must become divine Breath in place of arbitrary, personal activity, and Water must become a perfect mirror of the divine Breath instead of being agitated by disturbances of the imagination, passions and personal desire.

Meditations on the Tarot, p30

This process the author equates to the rebirth mentioned in the Gospels (John iii, 5), and a “Christian Yoga”, where the practitioner doesn’t strive for the state of “radical deliverance” but reintegration of the active and still elements of consciousness. It’s not a unity but a unity of two, which preserves the mysteries of dualism against monism, with love acting as the “cosmic principle which presupposes duality and postulates its non-substantial but essential unity.”

The author feels strongly that the mystery of the number two is not solely the “origin of evil” as Louis Claude de Saint-Martin asserts, where two centers of contemplation form, one legitimate and one not, but that there is a possibility of two legitimate centers of contemplation stacked vertically. Thusly, the “as above, so below” of the Emerald Tablet can be contemplated simultaneously. Two, for the author, is necessary to make true the Christian principle that “God is Love”. If God did not create something with its own nature, and all of existence were simply God in His own substance, than the concept of Love would be moot, as God would merely be giving Love to Himself.

The author expounds further on the difference between seeking Being versus Love, and to paraphrase, shines some light on the differences between the two available paths of the mystic. One can either seek unity of being with the eternal, or share in the love of the the eternal. The former path gains repose in exchange for feelings, while the latter embraces feeling. Anyone who, like me, has spent some time reading stories of Zen masters will know there is no shortage of interesting characters and feelings in that tradition, so while the author is a bit facile here in terms of falling into that old false-dichotomy of “East vs West”, there is truth there in that there are certainly paths that seek to erase the volatile ego in place of a universal consciousness. The mystical experience the author describes is one where “nothing is extinguished in the human personality but, on the contrary, everything is set ablaze.”

In this light, the author ties back to the Gospels, specifically “All who came before me are thieves and robbers”. (John X, 8). That is to say, the teachers before Jesus promoted depersonalization on the way to mystical revelations. While I have always imagined Jesus was referring to “false messiahs” or even prophets in this phrase (who were stealing his birthright so to speak), and find it unlikely he was referring to Buddhas or yogis, it’s an interesting conjecture.

Returning to the image of the High Priestess, she symbolizes to know, where the Magician symbolizes to dare. She is the gnosis which follows the revelation symbolized by him. If he is the Yod in the tetragrammaton, she is the first , following the progression of a mystic.

He who dares to aspire to the experience of the unique essence of Being will develop the mystical sense or spiritual touch. If he wants not only to live but also to learn to understand what he lives through, he will develop the gnostic sense. And if he wants to put into practice what he has understood from mystical experience, he will develop the magical sense. If, lastly, he wants all that he has experienced, understood, and practiced to be not limited to himself and his time, but to become communicable to others and to be transmitted to future generations, he must develop the Hermetic-philosophical sense, and in practicing it he will “write his book”.

Meditations on the Tarot, p42

Without these in progression, the author contends, each stage is incomplete; magic becomes sorcery, philosophy a “parasitic system of autonomous thought”, gnosis “the corpse of religion”, mysticism “intoxication”. This progression must be there as an organism, lived through one’s whole being.

Here, then is the second stage, the woman seated in contemplation and veiled from that which is above, taking what is received vertically and bringing it to the horizontal plane of existence. The veil is reminiscent of the veils that separate the tiers of Sephiroth on of the Tree of Life, and it would seem that for the author the High Priestess resides in ‘clam ha atziluth, the gnostic world, where pantheism is true and all is God. As an artist can create ex nihilo, and a woman brings new life to the world, so is magic, these epitomize the magic the author refers to, in the next stage of the progression. The experience is transferred to the book, where, as stated in the Emerald Tablet, can be found “the three parts of the philosophy of the whole world”. Rather than being a card merely symbolizing the process of gnosis, the High Priestess is a blueprint of the entire function of a mystic.

Meditations on the Tarot Chapter I; “The Magician”

The Magician

I finally used this down time to dive into the hefty tome that is “Meditations on the Tarot”, something I have been meaning to do for awhile. For anyone unfamiliar with the opus, it was published posthumously and anonymously and dedicated to the “Unknown Friend”. While it is quite easy these days to find the presumed author with a Google search, I will respect his wishes and leave him unnamed. The book is a journey through Christian Hermeticism, using the Major Arcana of the tarot as a guide through his take on Hermetic philosophy, Christianity, and the confluence of the two.

He starts with the Magician, rather than The Fool, for reasons that make sense for several reasons. The easy reason is it’s the card numbered with “I”, and while that bucks many tarot-readers’ assertion that the The Fool is the first card of the Major Arcana, there is no indication (in the first chapter at least) that the author used the tarot for divinatory purposes or had any inclination to do so.

The bulk of the chapter has to do with the Magician as an “authentic symbol”, in the typological sense, which he differentiates from the mythological sense. A myth, using Cain and Abel (among others) as a reference, is an analogy across time, according to the author. The tarot is, by contrast, an analogy across space, and instead of relating a story that repeats throughout human history, it instead speaks to a sort of perfect archetype. The arcanum, as such is “a ‘ferment’, or an ‘enzyme’ whose presence stimulates the spiritual and psychic life of man.” He surmises that The Magician must come first in the series, as it has to do with the “rapport of personal effort and of spiritual reality”, and therefore is necessary to understand the rest of the arcana. His statement of the meaning of The Magician is as follows.

Learn at first concentration without effort; transform work into play; make every yoke that you have accepted easy and every burden you carry light!

 

He further ties this into the sayings of the Gospels with “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew xi, 30). Much like a tightrope walker, who cannot think of his situation or risk falling, so the author compares the soul who is able to walk this path. One must be able to compartmentalize the intellect to its true purpose and not allow it to interfere where other systems should take over. The Magician’s practical teaching is therefore stated as concentration without effort. The author compels the reader to be analogous to a child, who plays with great concentration, but not to be identical to a child. He encourages the reader to attain “harmony and equilibrium between the spontaneity of the unconscious and the deliberate action of the conscience.”

The chapter concludes with a defense of the Emerald Tablet’s place in the Corpus Hermeticum and Hermeticism’s congruence with Catholic teaching, using the examples of Sts. Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure.

So far, this has been a dense but profound read, and I look forward to breaking it down by chapter as I go.