Discussion with Mary K. Greer (cont'd)

 If playing cards and Tarot cards were invented solely for gaming, though, and were not originally used for divination or for any other higher purpose, it’s curious that the suits chosen for the cards would be so spiritually and mystically significant, and that the number of cards in a Tarot deck would have so many echoes in magical culture.  We must consider, too, that in the 7th century, iconoclastic Christians waged an extensive campaign to destroy what was likely an enormous amount of Pagan cultural artifacts and documents that they found offensive.   So, a lack of evidence may not necessarily be taken as absolute proof against an earlier origin of the Tarot.  But it definitely doesn’t prove there was one, either, of course. 

You mentioned that the Tarot's imagery is based on Christian themes.  Some people believe that the Tarot was intended to preserve Pagan spiritual teachings in a disguised form that wouldn't be understood for what it was by non-initiates.  Taking into account the Hanged Man, and the World card’s goddess, which seem to not have any “matches” in original Christian ideology, and also the fact that the Christian church was traditionally unfavorable to cards, and to the idea of providing "spiritual reading" material to illiterate people and lower class citizens, do you see a case for the cards being "surface Christian," and more deeply Pagan, in origin and ideology?

MKG: Throughout Italy there is an interesting mix of Christian and Pagan imagery (i.e., Greek and Roman myths) that is surprising to Americans.  Yet, there's no evidence of the Tarot having Pagan or pre-Christian roots other than those at the base of all of Western knowledge. 

The Hanged Man was a common image used to depict debtors and traitors in the 15th century.  Several of these 15th century "shame paintings" survive, most notably those by Andrea del Sarto.  In fact, at the end of WWII, Mussolini was hung upside down to deliberately mark him as a traitor.

The World card can be seen in many churches and manuscripts, usually showing a part-naked Christ with winding cloth ascending into heaven surrounded by symbols of the four evangelists and gospels (the tetramorphs).  Occasionally Mary or Sophia (Wisdom) is depicted similarly.  The earliest Tarot cards showed an angel surmounting a globe on which there is a walled city.  This is a common image for the "New Jerusalem"—the kingdom that will come.

A search through the Historical Research board at Aeclectic Tarot's forum will turn up dozens of historical images from Italian 14th and 15th century art that parallels each of the Trumps.

part 4

Mary Greer early pic 2

Mary K. Greer in the 1970s at Hampstead Heath in London.

MH: But if we’re to argue against a Pagan origin of the Tarot on the basis of its imagery being Christian, how significant is the fact that many of these Christian themes were adopted and adapted from older Pagan cultures?  For instance, you gave the example of the 15th century Hanged Man as traitor, but what about the Hanged Man's similarities with Odin?

MKG: Everything human came from somewhere else.  All cultures borrow and steal from each other.  But, by asking these questions, you are in the same place that Carl Jung was when he found myths and symbols appearing in the dreams of people who could never have come across them in their waking lives.  A. E. Waite was also fascinated at how different myths and legends could hold the same message at their core—what he called the “Secret Tradition.”  For Waite, this tradition contains Divine Truths found in mystery religions and secret organizations including those of Egypt, Greece, the Grail, Freemasonry and mystical Christianity.  Folklorists have established a system for assigning a “type” to stories that follow similar themes and storylines—whether the folktale be found in a village in 8th century China or among ghetto children in today’s Miami. 

Jung called such themes, that repeat cross-culturally and across time, archetypes, which he describes as being part of an innate, inherited ‘collective unconscious’ within the human psyche.  Plato coined the term to refer to a pre-existent prototype of things in the material world.  I call this ‘prototype’ a cosmic cookie-cutter.  It imparts a particular shape or function to things that we humans can recognize in many different forms.  For instance, we recognize a “Father” archetype in a patriarchal god, a boss, the head or founder of a country, your own father, and the Emperor and Kings in the Tarot.  We can never see, point to, or touch, an archetype—it’s the pure form or idea (the cookie-cutter) that lies behind any individual expression. 

So, as in your example, while we can talk about the archetype of a god (or hero) being hung from a ‘world tree,’ Odin is only one ‘archetypal’ manifestation of this.  There is also Jesus, Judas, Peter, Attis, Osiris, and even Oedipus (in medieval lore, when a child, he was hung by his heels from a tree). 

Rachel Pollack likes to tell a story from Geoffrey of Monmouth's Life of Merlin in which, as a test, Merlin was asked to prophesize the death of the same man (disguised) on three separate occasions.  Merlin gave a different answer each time: that the man would die from hanging, drowning and by falling.  Ultimately, the man falls from a cliff, and his foot catches in a tree, so he is hung, but with his head submerged in the river below.  Interestingly, in the Golden Dawn version of the Hanged Man, he is suspended over water.

The most probable model for the medieval image of a hanged man-as-traitor is Judas, who in the gospel of Matthew hung himself, and in Acts fell ‘headlong.’  The halo of sanctity, or divine ecstasy, we see in 20th century decks is not in the earliest cards where the Hanged Man often holds heavy bags or has coins falling from his pockets.  This refers to the thirty pieces of silver Judas received for his betrayal of Christ.

Pagan simply means “people of the countryside, fixed to their district.”  To Romans, they were unsophisticated and boorish as they didn’t understand civilized gods or ways.

MH: And despite thinking the country-dwellers “uncivilized,” many Pagan deities and rituals were adopted (and adapted, of course) by Christian Rome, in hopes of converting the masses.  Given all this inter-relatedness and cultural borrowing, I wonder if it’s any more accurate to call the Tarot Christian as it is to call it Pagan.  At any rate, the Tarot as we know it today is definitely a multi-cultural achievement.  

MKG: The 20th century has spawned numerous cultural decks from all around the world, taking advantage of the parallels among the Tarot card themes and the heroes, gods, goddesses, myths and symbols of those cultures—pagan or otherwise. 

One of the delights of Tarot is that through the study of its images we can explore core human urges that manifest over and over again in world myths and religions.  But, to me, it is even more exciting that as individuals, whatever our spiritual persuasions, we can see how these archetypal motifs manifest themselves in our own lives in ways that give deep meaning and purpose to our existence.

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