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Ancient Mysteries Tarot


About the author/artist | Major Arcana | Air | Fire | Water | Earth | The book | Purchasing

The Ancient Mysteries Tarot is about the primal sources of the Tarot tradition. Long before Tarot cards were used in early Renaissance Europe, the Mystery School traditions of initiation and divination were working with earth, air, fire and water, the power of numbers, and the great archetypal beings that we refer to as the Major Arcanum. To assemble symbolic expressions of these forces on cards and then make the cards widely available became possible with the advent of printing between 1400 and 1600 AD in Europe. Thus, in a popularized and somewhat debased form, with many variations, symbolic expressions of the ancient Mystery School teachings were dispersed in veiled imagery into the European mind.

The general intolerance of the Christian mindset in Europe from the Middle Ages to the end of the Enlightenment, and well beyond into our own century, made it necessary to cloak the spiritual and occult possibilities of Tarot with quasi-Christian, European symbolism. The earliest European decks also included some Hermetic and Alchemical symbols, which do come closer to the primal roots of the ancient tradition. Packaged for the European mind, the High Priest (or Hierophant) was illustrated as the Pope, and the Priestess was represented as the "Papesse" which is just about as close to heresy as one might want to risk. The official position of the churches, both Protestant and Catholic has usually been that Tarot is the work of the devil. Yet, if we want to truly understand what Tarot is, it is necessary to know its roots, its original meaning, the nature of its symbols and the energies to which they refer, and to see how Tarot evolved as it journeyed through time.

In Ancient Mysteries Tarot, I envisage Tarot as a tree. Its roots reach down into the obscurity of ancient historical and even pre-historical times and its branches and fruit are above the surface to be seen and touched by the outer mind. There is no evidence that the ancient seers and sages used the same 22 archetypes as we find in the earliest decks of cards produced in Europe in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. But they did have a very active interaction with the archetypes both for divination and initiation. There is no evidence that the creators of early European decks of Tarot cards had the four elements of earth, air, fire and water in mind when they developed suits in symbols of pentacles (or coins), swords, wands and cups. But occultists and diviners have seen this in the cards and used them that way for centuries. There is no question that the use of numbers on Tarot cards opened up many esoteric possibilities, with echoes of Pythagoras and the traditions of Chaldea and Egypt from which he drew. But there is no evidence either that the designers of the earliest Tarot decks were thinking of the esoteric meanings of Pythagorean numerology. We cannot say therefore that the earliest decks in existence prove a link with the ancient mystery schools. Yet when we see how the seed of the Tarot tree has risen up from its hidden roots and flowered into a variety of decks which are currently used far more for magic, meditation, healing and divination than for card games, we have to conclude that the inner reality of Tarot has much more resonance than the earliest decks of European Tarot cards might suggest.

The Ancient Mysteries Tarot draws its imagery from the Mystery Schools of pre-Christian Egypt, India, Greece, Mesopotamia, and Meso-America. These cultures flourished from the earliest times well into the Roman, imperial period of world history. Their art resonates with a sense of ancient, magical, primal, archetypal and mysterious realities. Between 1987 and 2003, I had the good fortune to visit places where the ancient mystery schools flourished, to meditate, photograph, sketch and paint what remains of their temples, their statues, and their art. In the Parthenon at Athens, in the ruins of Knossos on the isle of Crete, in the Valley of the Kings, the Temples of Luxor, at the Pyramids and in the museums of Alexandria, in Southern India, in the old Inca temples of Peru and in the Khmer temples of ancient Thailand, I was able to take in the energies and consciousness of the mystical past, and to document much of it in watercolour. As a historian and amateur archaeologist, I was also able to have first hand experience of North American sites where the sacred realities of the past were still strongly resonant. All of this direct experience, enriched by thirty years as a daily meditator, went into the writing of the book The Ancient Mysteries Tarot, and the painting of a deck of cards to accompany it.

My own spiritual journey is relevant because through it I came to an in-depth and personal experience of the Wisdom Tradition. In the course of about thirty years of spiritual seeking, I was very fortunate to discover the work of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother and to spend time living at their Ashram. Together, these two spiritual pioneers opened a new chapter of evolution on our planet by connecting the earthly consciousness to the very highest sources of spiritual reality. Sri Aurobindo called this highest plane of energy and consciousness the Supermind. From about 1920 until his death in 1950, he attempted to bring it down into the earth atmosphere. In 1956, The Mother, his spiritual collaborator, announced that a door in the inner world had finally opened, and that the golden light from above had begun to descend into the earth. From that time to this, momentous spiritual changes and shifts in consciousness have been taking place all around us, including the New Age movement, the growth in popularity of yoga and meditation, mutation of human DNA into greater degrees of complexity, and increasing experiences of mystical reality on the part of spiritual seekers in all traditions.

The Universal Truth that is being expressed in the symbols of Tarot was well articulated in ancient India, but was also widely revered in many other pre-Christian cultures. The Mystery Schools are important because they were the repositories and the universities of ancient spiritual traditions (as contrasted with official state rituals and priesthoods). The ancient wisdom was transmitted from master to disciple by direct initiation for thousands of years until eventually, by the end of the Roman Empire, the last traces of the mystery schools were obliterated. By the time that Rome was waning, Christianity was a dominant influence. From the time of late antiquity (roughly 300 to 400 AD) until the twentieth century, Christian dogmatism held sway over the European mind, as Islamic theology gripped the Middle East and large parts beyond. Yet within the last quarter century much of the ancient Mediterranean tradition has been re-discovered, and re-constructed. There are now many communities of practitioners who have embraced primal, archetypal forms of divination and initiation as well as the wisdom teachings that support them. These people are in the vanguard of a universalized spiritual awareness which is spreading ever wider, and the result is that Tarot books and decks have become best sellers in the mainstream market.

Still, most people who read Tarot books and use Tarot cards do not understand its ancient roots. History suggests that Tarot developed in Europe. But for many, its internal structure and symbology suggest that its roots reach back to the primal wellsprings of civilization itself. And when we know more about the primal powers to which Tarot refers, we will see that Tarot is a Book of Truth, a wide and universal truth that cannot be contained within any religion, because it speaks the language of symbolism, number and archetypal form, and because it appeals not to the dogmatic or theologically inclined mind, but to the love of spiritual adventure and the importance of intuitive revelation. These are the building blocks of all true spiritual expression. It is for this reason that personal meditation, and the writings of the great spiritual masters become indispensable for plumbing the depths truth from which Tarot comes. Those who practice a spiritual path, and those who have progressed their consciousness in spiritual matters are likely to be more deeply aware of the inner lineage of esoteric energies and symbols than academic scholars who write about the same matters. For example, the meaning of The Fool can only be understood in its truest sense when we come to know the reality of the soul, and its representative, the psychic being. In any case, Tarot is not merely an arcane mental amusement, it is a way of moving into deeper levels of engagement with Truth in all its varied forms of self-presentation. Those who, like The Fool, set forth on their own inner adventure will be best able to discover the richness with which Tarot can speak about the journey of self-discovery. Sceptics, positivist historians and debunkers will be able to split hairs and sift evidence for many years to come with a view to grounding Tarot in a much more mundane matrix.

In The Ancient Mysteries Tarot, you will find that earth, air, fire and water are referred to directly, rather than mediated by symbols such as pentacles, swords, wands and cups. Stone is very important because it is the bones of the earth, the crystalline repository of earths wisdom and power. Ancient temples, statues and sacred power spots all relied on the energetic properties of stone to hold and transmit the energies of awakening. Stones were libraries and batteries and canvasses for the sacred energies of initiation. For this reason, stone figures prominently in this deck. In fact, there is hardly a card that does not have stone on it. For the Earth-Energy cards (pentacles), stones are used; for the Water-Energy cards, you will find streams of water emerging from stones; for the Air cards, you will find windows in stone. Only among the Fire cards, sometimes, will you find less stone. But then, Fire-Energy is furthest removed from that of stone. Stone is a powerful medium of artistic expression. If you place your hand on certain of the statues in our modern museums, you will often be able to feel a certain kind of energy that indicates a living presence inside the stone. Many of the ancient carvings were true power objects, homes to living entities that had been invoked to take residence there. Indian temples carry on the practice to this very day.

There is a great deal of superstitious nonsense that has been attached to Tarot. It helps to understand that Tarot expresses universal spiritual wisdom, not any limited religious version of it. The Highest Truth is One. But in its expression, in this universe into which we are born, Truth is manifold, varied and complex. Consciousness is infinite, but as it manifests in this three-dimensional time-space continuum in which we live, consciousness takes on many guises. It can manifest as energy. Or it can manifest as matter. In matter, it is not fluid, but becomes fixated or crystallized into specific forms. These forms occur in space. They change in time. The ultimate reality is beyond time and space, but its varied expressions are limited when they occur in this dimension. In other words, all forms must be situated in some specific relation to north, west, south and east, as well as up, down and centre. Thus, geometry and number become means by which the expression of truth can be accomplished in a multi-faceted way. Colour and sound are also means by which the unity of truth can be given varied expression. Tarot is about the expression of Truth in form.

Either we take the position that all expression of the Divine Reality is idolatrous, or we admit that all expression involves some distortion, yet it is worth the effort. Tarot takes the latter position. Whereas in the Bible God is a Father figure, in Tarot, Divine Authority can be expressed in both genders, and it is understood to be beyond gender. The Emperor is not "better than" or "superior to" the Empress. They have different, but complimentary roles, just as males and females do. The Patriarchal position has for much of recorded history been that female energy is inferior. Thus, in the New Testament we find St. Paul advising women to take a subservient position to men, and we find also in Islam and Judaism that women have traditionally been kept to the background. However, Tarot gives a place to the feminine aspect of the Divine, and considers it indispensable to our human wholeness.

Initiation and divination are about the search for wholeness. Tarot, which I sometimes refer to as The Book of Truth, ranges freely through many forms of expression in which Infinity has clothed itself and by means of which higher consciousness has revealed itself to humans in quest of greater wisdom. Both the dark and the light are necessary for the full revelation of Truth on earth. Therefore, in Tarot we find images of Death, The Devil, The Tower and The Hanged Man (The Prisoner), as well as many aspects of challenge and negativity in the numbered cards, particularly swords.

It came as a complete surprise to me to experience that I was being guided by The Muse to start writing about Tarot. But a series of revelations took place, often in my morning meditations, that showed me, chapter by chapter how to proceed. I learned to follow the thread of what was being shown and unfolded and to keep at it daily as long as the inspiration lasted. I supplemented my writing by doing as much reading as I could. However, I have to say that what is original in this work comes from what I was shown inwardly in meditation day by day as the book wrote itself. This is what makes me feel and believe that deep spiritual connections are important to truly understand Tarot; the content of the book came to me largely as a revelation from these sources, supplemented of course by extensive research.

It was immediately after a trip to Peru, where I had spent weeks among the ancient ruins of the Incas and Pre-Incas, that I received the inspiration to paint a Tarot Deck. Since beginning to write The Ancient Mysteries Tarot, I had been collecting Tarot decks which I felt to be in harmony with the earliest traditions of divination and initiation. I vividly recall one lazy afternoon in mid July 2003, when I was alone at my country retreat relaxing on the couch and drifting off to sleep. Suddenly, with a sense of urgency, I awoke and knew that I had to return home at once, that same hour, and begin putting together the art for a new Tarot Deck, which would embody a different vision of its roots. This, like the urge to begin writing, came as a bolt from the blue. I had no desire to undertake a new project as demanding as painting 78 images, right after completing a 250 page manuscript and hard on the heels of three weeks of adventure in the mountains of Peru. But the inner directive to begin painting came as clearly, imperatively and surprisingly as had the directive to begin writing. It simply could not be denied.

As a matter of fact, many pieces of art which I had completed during my years in Asia between 1989 and 1995 were ideal for certain cards within a proposed Ancient Mysteries Tarot deck. Others had to be worked up from my understanding of ancient tradition, drawing on a collection of pictures and photographs that I had assembled during my years of travel to ancient sacred sites around the world. Important decisions and choices had to be made in creating an Ancient Mysteries Tarot Deck. To illustrate the Minor Arcana or not this was one important question. My choice and direction in this matter can best be understood by looking at other Tarot decks from the past.

The modern Tarot traditions which we find in the Tarot of Marseilles, the Etteilla Tarot, and most of all the Rider-Waite Deck, with paintings by Pamela Colman Smith, have shaped our understanding of Tarot in modern times. The Waite deck in particular accomplished a popularization of Tarot, but at a great cost. The nature of what was lost can best be explained if we understand the importance of numerology in Tarot.

Numerology is a very profound field of study going back thousands of years and known in all parts of the globe. Each of the numbers from one to ten has a set of meanings, perhaps on average five or more highly significant meanings, as well as a number of subsidiary ones. Arthur Edward Waite decided to illustrate the Minor Arcana, (which was something new) and to do this he commissioned Pamela Smith to paint a picture that would express for each card one of the numerological meanings. Let us take one example. The number five carries an energy of movement, change, progress, freedom, a need to explore, to experience new adventures, to communicate and to gather fresh experience. Along with change and movement five carries a vibration of adaptability, and an element of uncertainty and instability. It can, on occasion bring shifting fortune, and in the extreme, may precipitate strife, difficulty, adversity or conflict. In the Waite deck, the artwork for the Five of Swords emphasizes the challenging and crisis-like character of the number. It is one of the most unpleasant of the tarot cards, with overtones of humiliation, meanness, defeat, betrayal and violence. It suggests failure and misfortune. Obviously this is not the complete picture of the five vibration. It is a substantial reduction and even a distortion of its total meaning.

This narrowing of meaning is the price Waite paid for his decision to illustrate the Minor Arcana. Previously, the illustrators would have placed a single sword on the card for the ace of swords, then two, three, four, five and so on for the remainder of the cards up to ten. A person reading the cards would bring to bear his or her knowledge of the symbol to which swords refer, which is air, and the full range of meanings of the number, and put this together in the overall context of the reading to come up with an interpretation. Waite simplified Tarot, popularized it, and at the same time greatly reduced (and to that extent distorted) the meanings of many Minor Arcanum cards by his decision to paint one of many meanings for each number. The average, relatively untrained Tarot reader would find it quite easy to remember a given cards meaning by simply looking at the illustration and picking up its visual clues. The Ten of Swords, for example, shows complete destruction, whereas the meaning of ten and of air are in no way negative. It was Waites destiny to create a form of Tarot which would appeal to the masses and bring about a world in which Tarot was more widely used. What Waite did made perfect sense to him, from his perspective. The pictures were more interesting than endless illustrations of swords, wands, discs and cups, and the visual clues of Waites new, illustrated Minor Arcanum greatly simplified the problem of interpretation. Tarot has never been the same since.

Ancient Mysteries Tarot, on the other hand, has returned to the older, more demanding way of reading the Minor Arcanum, which is to combine your knowledge of the meaning of the four elements, whether earth, air, fire or water, with the full range of meanings of the ten numbers, and thereby take into account all possible meanings that any card may have. This is a richer, deeper, and more accurate way to read the Minor Arcanum than simply to settle on one meaning, often a lesser one, but the one the artist has chosen over and above all the others. It is the ancient way, the way of those who, in the past made a lifetime study of divination. It is perhaps more demanding, but it is true to the tradition. In this, the Ancient Mysteries Tarot parts company with the Rider-Waite deck and others of its ilk which have illustrated the Minor Arcanum with pictures, thereby forcing the numerological significance of any given card into the procrustean bed of one exclusive meaning or at best a much reduced range of meanings related to the illustration.

I have also chosen to return to the primal elements as opposed to their cultural symbols. Thus water, not a cup, is used to designate that element, and stone, not a pentacle is used to designate earth. Fire is fire, and a window framed with stone is used to designate air. This pulls Tarot back into its primal and ancient ambience, making for possibilities of richer and more complex interpretation, but also demanding a deeper study of the timeless, universal meaning of numbers and the four elements.

As to the question of whether the negative or the positive energies of any given card predominate, it is a function of the degree of ego that is present in the person for whom the reading is being made. Mind is the most direct outflow of ego, so it is the suite where the smallness and negativity of egocentric people is most apt to be most exposed. But a spiritually developed, or a very pure individual might find very positive indications in a card such as the five or the ten of swords (air) which would for a selfish and mean-spirited person, dominated by ego, spell suffering. My own practice is not to use reversed cards. But these cards are designed so that reverse cards can be used by those who prefer to do readings that way, and the obverse side of each card has a rich illustration which echoes the mystery school tradition.

This book may be adding something new and valuable to our understanding of Tarot in several ways. Firstly, it recognizes the role of the Divine Mother in the processes of initiation and divination which are central to Tarot. For it is the Goddess aspect of Infinite Consciousness which imparts to humanity its capacities for intuition, creative expression, nurturing and healing. Secondly, the hidden roots of Tarot reach back, as I have mentioned, into the ancient traditions of the Mystery Schools. If one has had past lives in this tradition, and if one examines these past lives, or if one examines the history of the Mystery Schools or of ancient religion, or if one studies the modern material which has been channeled on these subjects, it becomes very evident that this is so. Thirdly: Each soul is evolving toward a higher level of awareness, and in that journey, we will all become more and more open to spiritual presences and energies which we call the archetypes. This is not the highest realm of spiritual experience, it is an intermediate realm, but the pilgrim soul must pass through it on the journey home to the ultimate Source. We have important things to learn in the archetypal realms. The Major Arcanum of Tarot uses imagery of the great archetypal beings to open doorways in human consciousness. In this sense it expedites our initiation. Tarot is not only a tool of divination, but also of divinisation. We will each be required to develop and unfold from within ourselves the consciousness of the Magician, the Hermit, the Empress, and the others. Many or most books on Tarot stress how the images can be used in fortune telling, but the Mystery School tradition from which Tarot places equal or greater importance on the process of initiation.

The real validation of how helpful Tarot is in the spiritual journey comes from the personal experience of its users. For me personally, the act of writing the book and painting the deck came as an inspiration from the beyond. The Muse revealed something, and I recorded what I was shown. I hope that I have set down clearly and beautifully what was given. My wish is that it will bring you, the student of Tarot and of life, an opening to a wonderful new adventure of self-discovery.