© by Robert Michael Place
Besides designing Tarot decks, writing, lecturing, and using the Tarot for intuitive counseling, I design and make jewelry. Last month, I was displaying my jewelry at the American Craft Council Craft Fair in Baltimore, the largest wholesale/retail event of its kind in the country. It lasted a full week, and I spent most of that time standing in my booth behind my showcase talking about my jewelry designs, or occasionally about my Tarot deck, The Alchemical Tarot, to whomever approached.
An Argument Brewing:
On the third day of the show, I was visited by my friend, Wayne, whom I had not seen since last summer when he dropped by my house and announced his intent to travel to historic alchemical sights in Europe and the Middle East. I found out that Wayne considered his trip a success, but the main reason he dropped by was to introduce me to a friend of his, an astrologer, and to show her my Tarot deck.
After a brief introduction, I pulled out a sample of my deck and laid it on the showcase. Wayne's friend spread out several cards on the glass, looked up at me, and said, "so, has your involvement in the Tarot brought you into astrology as well?" "No," I replied. This seemed to confuse her. She declared, "well, they're the same thing." "Not really," I replied after a slight hesitation in which I considered the Golden Dawn Tarot system which assigned a constellation, a planet, or an element to every trump. My involvement in the Tarot, however, has been focused on the origin of the Tarot in Renaissance Italy, its Hermetic message, and the significance of the images to its first audience. Although there is an astrological element in any Renaissance system including the Tarot, and my expertise in Tarot has given me a deeper knowledge of Renaissance astrological cosmology and its relation to the Hermetic doctrine of correspondences, it has not turned me into an astrologer, because, basically, they are not the same thing.
But I did not have a chance to explain any of this, because she quickly countered with, "well, they're both based on the Kabbalah." Although the Kabbalah was also part of the Renaissance synthesis of mystical thought that created the environment that gave birth to the Tarot, the Tarot is not inherently Kabbalistic. Its connection with the Kabbalah is primarily the invention of the 19th century French occultist, Eliphas Levi, who included this theory in his bombastic but obscure doctrine of "High Magic." Many occultists have taken Levi's unsupported claims as the "gospel truth," so I was not surprised to hear this theory repeated once again, but I was amazed that any astrologer would attribute the origin of astrology to the Kabbalah. The oldest written astrological texts are Babylonian, from the 7th century b.c., and the Kabbalah--depending on whom you talk to--originates in the 1st century in Palestine or in the 12th century in Spain and southern France. Like Hermeticism, Gnosticism, and other mystical philosophies of the ancient world, it incorporates the preexisting science of astrology into its belief system--therefore, it cannot be astrology's origin. However, all I said was, "No it isn't."
After this, the tall, dark haired woman became noticeably agitated as she exclaimed, "Well! the cards come from Egypt!" Because of her previous statements, I was not surprised to hear her utter this, the most cherished of misconceptions about the Tarot. I simply said, "No they don't." "Well! I disagree," she replied. At this, I became agitated. My voice began to quaver with anger, as I heard myself saying, "Well, I am an internationally recognized expert on the Tarot, and your opinion is not based on any of the known facts." At the time, this seemed like a good idea; although with hindsight, I realize that throwing in the comment about being an expert was the emotional equivalent to saying, "I'm older so I know better." Needless to say, I only succeeded in making her more angry. "Well, I disagree!" she repeated.
At this point, I explained how Levi had made up the connection between the Kabbalah and the Tarot in the 19th century, and that the Egyptian origin of the Tarot is a theory first put forth 1781 by Court de Gebelin; a theory that has been proven wrong, but has been quoted as fact by many occultists ever since. Actually, all the facts point to an origin in northern Italy in the early 15th century. To this, my visitor only responded by stomping away as she shouted over her shoulder, "there is such a thing as herstory' you know!"
By this reference to "herstory," I assume that she was suggesting that her information came from a higher source, perhaps an oral tradition passed from woman to woman. Obviously, a male expert like myself is hopelessly mired in historic patriarchal prejudice and incapable of knowing the truth--what else could I expect after the international expert line that I threw at her? However, as a long time defender of women's rights, the assumption of prejudice on my part, simply because I was a man, really aggravated me. "Herstory has nothing to do with it!" I shouted.
This brought her back to my booth, where I told her that the Egyptians were some of the first people to write history--so I didn't know why tying the Tarot to Egypt would have anything to do with "herstory"--and that there are images in the Tarot which express ideals of feminine equality, ideals that were being expressed in the Renaissance; proving an earlier origin for the cards is not necessary to explain why these images are there. I could have added that I didn't see what a mystical system based on a patriarchal religion--that also didn't come from Egypt--or the comments of some egocentric, possibly misogynistic 19th century French occultists had to do with "herstory," but I was trying to build a consensus, so I didn't. To this, she blurted out, "The Renaissance only came about because of the occult wisdom that the Knights Templar brought back from the Middle East."
Right! The Renaissance had nothing to do with the synthesis of Eastern and Western culture that was happening in Spain, Sicily, and Southern France; nothing to do with economic prosperity and the rise of the middle class; nothing to do with the disillusionment with Catholicism that was caused by the French king arresting the Pope and moving the Papacy to Avingnon where the newly elected French Popes were his puppets; the disillusionment caused by the plague; the other Crusaders; or the reintroduction of Hermetic Philosophy, which actually did come from Egypt. No, the Knights Templars did it all by themselves, and learned all this mystical stuff in Egypt, I suppose, although they were really in Jerusalem. But still trying to build a consensus, I didn't say any of this. Instead I said, "Now you're on the right track." To this she gritted her teeth, pressed her face close to mine and said, "I don't appreciate being talked down to." Then she turned and walked away once again muttering something about know-it-all experts.
This made me feel guilty. This was not the first time I have been accused of being pedantic, and whatever she had done she probably didn't deserve to have her misconceptions thrown in her face in public. Although, there wasn't much of a public for most of the conversation. Wayne had left my booth as soon as we started this debate--no doubt to avoid our bad vibes. In my own defense, I can say that she was talking down to me from the very beginning, and her main frustration was in finding out that she didn't know what she was talking about.
Getting To The Point:
The main reason that I am retelling this story, however, is not to embarrass myself, but to illustrate the point that many people in the New-Age culture are uncomfortable with history. They seem to feel that history is a plot to distort reality and protect those in power. Therefore, they reason that the real truth must be found elsewhere, even, at times, in the most illogical of fantasies. When I asked myself, "where does this idea come from?" I was forced to admit that it is a reaction to the ineptness of our educational system--a system that I participated in, as a teacher, for over five years. So let me clear up this misconception about history right now. That subject that was called "history" in public school was not history. It was political propaganda.
Real "history" is an accurate retelling of facts about the way things actually happened. A historian may editorialize as long as his or her theory is based firmly on the facts and does not purposely ignore facts that do not fit. Each historian's account is subject to criticism from other historians who are also busy digging up facts so that history is always in a process of revision.
The best way to teach history would be to present the facts, and then let the students form their own opinion about how they feel about what happened. But this is not what happens in our schools except, at times, in higher education. The American school system is afraid to let students think for themselves. Classes that would have been taught in ancient Greece, such as logic and critical thinking, are noticeably absent. The thing that they call "history" has been carefully crafted by so many special interests that what is left is a propaganda that excludes the accomplishments of huge segments of the population, such as women and blacks, and includes carefully crafted untruths designed to manipulate our opinions. The reason that we become disillusioned with what we were taught is because of the efforts of real historians, who present us with the facts--usually in the form of books.
Students may actually encounter real history and be asked to think for themselves in higher education, if they are lucky. This is why the most conservative members of our culture fear those "liberal college professors filling the heads of our youth with dissatisfaction and rebellion," when the truth is that the most conservative members of our culture are the ones most concerned with controlling how people think. The way out of this distortion of half truths, omissions, and lies is not through other lies and half truths, but through the truth--"the truth shall set you free"--and the truth is real history which does include "her story."
In case you think I am exaggerating about our educational system actually lying to us, I am providing the following examples.
In the 1950's I was taught in public school that in the early Middle Ages St. Patrick sailed to Ireland and brought religion to the people. I remember being curious about this; I asked the teacher, "Are you saying that the people didn't have religion before? What did they have?" "They didn't have real religion; they worshiped trees and things," she answered. The prejudice in this will be obvious to any readers of Arcanum so I don't need to go into it. The next example may not be as obvious.
I was also taught in public school that in the Middle Ages everyone believed that the world was flat, but Christopher Columbus, an intelligent and brave hero, realized by watching ships disappear over the horizon that the Earth was like a ball. In spite of the experts in the king's court that assured him that he would fall off the end of the Earth if he sailed too far, he was positive that he could reach India from Spain by sailing west across the Atlantic. On the way he discovered a "new" continent which came to be called America, our home.
Most people have had their consciousness raised enough by now to easily see propaganda in this story. It was designed to make us believe that events of importance in history happen because of the heroic efforts of European males of superior intelligence, and that we are the product of these benefactors; it suggests that we came to live in America because of their noble endeavors, perhaps even divine will. It blatantly omits certain facts, such as that the "new" continent was inhabited by an advanced culture, who came not to appreciate being "discovered" and that many of Columbus's crew members were Jewish. But many people do not realize that, besides the racist bias, every part of the story, except that Columbus did sail west and come across America, is untrue.
This story was first written by Washington Irving in his History of the Life and Voyages of Columbus. He made it up. I cannot speak for everyone in the Middle Ages, but at that time, any educated person--which by the 15th century (actually this was the Renaissance) included the middle class and professional scholars besides the clergy and nobility--was taught that the Earth was round. The observation that ships disappear over the horizon was not missed by the ancient Greeks. In fact, they were sophisticated enough to observe that the shadow cast by the Earth on the moon during a lunar eclipse was round. Every Classical cosmology accepted that the Earth was a sphere; the most popular one, the Ptolemaic, which placed the Earth in the center with the planets revolving around it, became the standard model that was taught all through the Middle Ages. If we look at illustrations of the Cosmos in Medieval manuscripts, we can easily find depictions of the Earth as a ball. Yet this remains one of the most common misconceptions about the Middle Ages. I have often heard it repeated, even by scientists, who should know better.
This misconception has been crafted to prove to us how lucky we are to live in the Modern enlightened age of progress and prosperity, where we have pulled ourselves out of the gross ignorance of the past, and it is most often quoted to perpetuate this prejudice. What actually happened at Isabella and Ferdinand's court was that Columbus argued that the Earth was smaller than the scholars believed.
The professional geographers of the court of Castille believed that, with the technology of that time, it would take three years to reach India by sailing west. The ships at that time could not hold enough provisions to last that long so they predicted that Columbus would starve to death before he reached India. Columbus, basing his opinion on information gathered from old maps which he carefully edited to exclude any information that disagreed with him, under-estimated the distance by one third. In other words, the geographers were right (as was later proved by Magellan) and Columbus was wrong. If he had not bumped into America, he would have starved at sea. To be fair to Columbus, he might have heard sailors' tales of the sighting of a coast to the west. His mistake was in thinking that it was the coast of Asia, and, in fact, he died believing that he had landed in Asia.
Irving's story of Columbus, like much of what is taught as history, is a myth. As a lover of mythology, I realize that myths are just as important as history. Because they exist in the realm of feeling, they can contain a greater truth than plain facts. However, there are also myths which are designed to manipulate us, to curtail our ability to think for ourselves, especially when they are presented as fact. At the least, I am asking that we endeavor to distinguish between spiritual mythology, political propaganda, and history--although, at times, all three categories may exist in the same story.
About the author:
Robert M. Place is the co-author and designer of The Alchemical Tarot and The Angels Tarot. A student of western art, mysticism and the occult, he has taught psychic healing and lectured and written extensively on alchemy, hermeticism and neoplatonic philosophy. Robert is also an award-winning silversmith, whose mythic and symbolic jewelry and sculpture have been displayed in museums in America and Europe. He recently hosted "Renaissance Radio," a New Age talk show on WALE Radio in New England.
Visit the author's website at:
This article appeared in the May / June 1998 issue.