Robert Place and I had so much fun with his first interview that we decided to give you Part 2. Robert is such a interesting man having not only designed five beautiful tarot decks, but being an occult scholar as well. So please enjoy more of our fascinating conversation.
Can you tell me what The Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery is about? It sounds very intriguing. Is it based on a Mystery Tradition? The art I saw looks very beautiful as well.
I started on The Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery in 2001. At present, it consists only of the Fool, the 21 trumps, the ace and two of coins, the ace of swords, the ace of cups, and the ace of staffs. I also completed a set of the Fool and Trumps printed oversize with annotations in the margins and background done in a calligraphic script. I completed this for my exhibition in the Crafts and Folk Art Museum in LA in January, 2010. I made 17″ high prints of these and they were the main focus of the exhibit. They are also included in my book based on the exhibition, The Fool’s Journey: the History, Art, and Symbolism of the Tarot.
The inspiration for the deck came when I was looking at the paintings of 19th century English Pre-Raphaelite artist Burne-Jones. Burne-Jones and the Pre-Raphaelites believed that art was a spiritual or magical endeavor and toward this end they formed a mystical brotherhood of artists dedicated to recapturing the sincerity of the art of the early Renaissance—the same historic period that gave us the Tarot. In many ways they paved the way in England for the Golden Dawn. Burne-Jones, in particular, based his tall female beauties and melancholy heroes on the paintings of Botticelli and Michelangelo, two artists whose works are considered primary examples of Renaissance Neoplatonic mysticism. I noticed that Burne-Jones painted some of the same allegorical figures that are found in the Tarot such as Foolishness, Temperance, and the Wheel of Fortune. I always loved his style of painting and I wanted to complete the Tarot deck for him that he seems to have unintentionally started.
Robert Place: The Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery
As the deck progressed, besides being enamored with the beauty of the style, I found that it was the perfect means to express all of the insights that I had developed concerning the nature of the Tarot and its mystical message. It allowed me to bridge the gap and synthesize the Renaissance ideas expressed in the original Tarot with the broader archetypal interpretations of those images that were added by 19th century occultists.
The name of the deck comes from my belief that the Western system of seven virtues, is a yogic system designed to purify the seven soul centers, which ascend the human spine, and that have been known in the West at least from the time of Pythagoras (the 6th century BC). The World card, in particular, represents the virtue Prudence, who is the culmination of the four cardinal virtues. The other three virtues: Temperance, Strength, and Justice, were considered the parts of Prudence, and that fact helps to explain why the three are more explicitly illustrated in the Tarot. Prudence as Sophia (the Wisdom of God) was also the mother of the three Christian virtues: Faith, Hope, and Charity. Prudence symbolizes the enlightenment that is achieved when the virtues have completed their jobs and brought each soul center into balance and health.
I went to an exhibition of Burne-Jone’s work in Burmingham when i lived in England. His work is absolutely stunning. I can see why you would be inspired by him. He also did so much! In England even some of the small country churches have stained-glass windows by Burne-Jones. That is a perfect medium for his work with the light coming through. Come to think of it—your work would make amazing stained glass.
I use to be a stained glass apprentice for about a year when I was first out of college in the 1970s.
Burne-Jones did a lot of stained glass in the US also.
I did a search to find some of his pieces and saw some great ones in Boston and Delaware. But it turned out that his first US commission was in the Episcopal Church right here in Saugerties where I live.
(Here’s a link to the stained glass windows in Saugerties:
They are gorgeous—Angels by William Morris., the rest by Burne- Jones)
I want to explore more about symbolism with you
and how you find your inspiration in other arts like painting and films and magic.
Maybe something like:
Is there a mystical unity between your tarot themes?
Is there an alchemy in the art of Burne-Jones as there is with vampires?
There is certainly a link between vampires and the PreRaphaelites.
Did you know that John Polidori who wrote The Vampyre, was
D.G. Rossetti’s uncle? Did you know about the vampiric myth that grew up around Lizzie Siddal?
I have a screenplay half written about that.
What about the Grail legend? Is that part of your alchemy as it is of Burne-Jones?
Your themes of Saints and Angels — how do they fit in? There is a Gothic quality to your
work taken as a whole I think.
Chew chew chew
Robert Place:The Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery
These are good questions and I will try to answer them as best as I can.
I feel that there is a unity behind all of my Tarot decks. At first glance, this may not be obvious because my first three decks: TheAlchemical Tarot, The Angels Tarot, and the Tarot of the Saints, were based on Western mystical and religious themes, and then with the creation of The Buddha Tarot and The Vampire Tarot, I seemed to be drifting further and further away from that area.
But, my goal from the beginning was to recover the original mystical message that was expressed by the Tarot’s 15th century creators and to find ways of expressing that wisdom by illustrating its connection to popular mythology or mystical systems.
My Buddha Tarot is not just about Buddhism but how it is similar to Western mystical traditions and how this comparison helps us to better understand our own traditions. My Vampire Tarot, which although it was just published last year, was actually the second deck that I began after The Alchemical Tarot, is about Dracula and how this story is based on the Grail legend which was one to the early influences on the Tarot, and that this story in turn grew out of the shamanic practice of soul retrieval.
I believe that Edward Burne-Jones was a mystic and that his paintings were his alchemical practice. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which he belonged to, was founded in 1848 by a group of artists in England who came out of the Romantic movement and shared a romantic fascination for the art of the Middle Ages. They wanted to capture the sincerity and honest piety of the works created before the time of the Renaissance painter Raphael (1483-1520). A time when paintings were believed to have magical curative powers, were used in rituals to heal and protect cities, and were the inspiration for pilgrimages. They believed that their art could uplift their viewers to a higher moral state and counteract the illnesses brought about by industrialization.
Burne-Jones was a second generation member of this movement and the art critic Ruskin labeled his variation the Mythic School. He focused on a mythic Classical or Arthurian world populated by tall, pale, beautiful heroines or femme fatales, and equally beautiful armored heroes. He was a major influence on the Symbolist painters that became popular in the rest of Europe at the end of the 19th century and helped create the atmosphere that led to the revival of occultism.
Toward the end of his life, beginning in 1881, Burne-Jones worked on a large mural,”The Sleep of Arthur in Avalon.” During this period he also created a number of works depicting the legend of King Arthur, including a series of tapestries (1890-1891) designed for Morris & Company, sets and costumes for the play “King Arthur” (1895) performed at the London’s Lyceum Theater under the management of Dracula author Bram Stoker, and illustrations for Sebastian Evans’ The High History of the Holy Grail (1898). But “The Sleep of Arthur” became a personal work that he slowly perfected between other commissions. When he worked on it, he would say that he was retreating to Avalon. He finished it in 1898 and died shortly after. When I read about this, I had a strong intuition that he had achieved his goal and escaped to his inner world –escaped to Avalon.
I didn’t know that Polidori, the first author of a Vampire prose, was D.G. Rossetti’s uncle. Rossetti, of course, was Burne-Jones’ mentor and was a major influence on his style. But the vampire theme comes out of the same Romantic movement, with its obsession with the Middle Ages, the irrational, and the occult, that gave rise to the Pre-Raphaelites. I believe that the pre-Raphaelites and Burne Jones in particular influenced Bram Stoker. In Dracula, Stoker created, a strong beautiful heroine, several femme fatales, and a group of heros that were basically knights –characters that were similar to Burne-Jones’s figures. I acknowledged this by incorporating a Pre-Raphaelite style in my illustrations for my Vampire Tarot. Some of the figures are based on photos of the famous Pre-Raphaelite model Jane Morris; for example, the Mina trump.
Robert Place: Vampire Tarot
I love the Jane Morris paintings. She had a very mysterious, silent quality that suited those mystic images of women.
Rossetti first wife, Lizzie Sidall, was the artist’s primary model and in spite of their class differences he married her in 1860. With his instruction and encouragement she also became an artist. By 1862, Lizzie feared that her husband was looking for a younger muse. After her daughter was stillborn and she became pregnant again she was hopelessly depressed. She committed suicide by taking an overdose of laudanum. Overcome with grief and romantic ideals, Rossetti placed a book containing the only copies of his poems in her grave. After seven years he had second thoughts and had her exhumed so that he could retrieve this book. Her body was said to have been in perfect condition. Her red hair had continued to grow while she was dead and now filled the coffin framing her and creating a memorable last impression. The image of the beautiful dead Lizzie surrounded in her luscious hair captured the public imagination and led to the rumors that she was actually undead. Red hair in itself is often associated with vampires. Stoker was likely to have been influenced by this description when he wrote the scene with Lucy beautifully laid out in her coffin.
Burne Jones’ son, Philip Burne-Jones, was also a painter, but his only well known painting is “The Vampire,” a portrait of a femme fatale vampire leaning over her male victim. The model for Philip’s vampire was Mrs. Patrick Campbell, an actress who in 1893 played the lead in “The Second Mrs. Tanqueray,” captured the public eye, and became famous for her beauty and talent. Philip dated her for a while, showered her with expensive presents, and painted her several times. But for the vampire portrait he worked from memory after she broke his heart by dumping him for a leading man and then a series of other lovers. In 1897, he displayed the painting at the annual summer exhibition of the New Gallery, a major show that included works by Sargent as well as Philip’s father. Alongside the painting, Philip included a poem “The Vampire” by his cousin, Rudyard Kipling, that described the foolishness of a man allowing himself to be destroyed by a heartless woman. This exhibition was held only a few months before Stoker’s Dracula was first in print.
Philp Burne-Jones: The Vampire
Philip’s painting received good reviews in London, but bad reviews later, after a New York showing. Some reporters also recognized his model, and speculation on the circumstances that led to her depiction as a vampire became the focus of gossip. During her American tour, which coincided with the American exhibition of “The Vampire,” Mrs. Campbell’s agent played up her connection to the painting. Philip, his painting, and Mrs. Campbell all came together in Chicago and the press had a field day with the story. In 1907, Porter Emerson Browne was commissioned by the actor Robert Hilliard to write a play based on the painting, which was called ” A Fool There Was.” Katherine Kaelred played the vampire and the play was carefully constructed so that it ended with a tableau that echoed the painting. The play was a popular success and influenced the burgeoning American movie industry. William Fox bought the rights to the play and created a film version, which stared Theda Bara. This role as a heartless femme fatale, which Bara continued to play in over 40 films, earned her the nickname ” the vamp.” As you can see, Pre-Raphealites, vampires, and popular imagination and culture are all intimately connected.
This was a really fascinating interview, Bob! I have long been a fan of the PreRpaelites and Dracula—-all of it and you told me things I didn’t know. Thank you Robert, it has been wonderful talking to you.
I would like to mention that Robert has a beautiful new book out:
The Fool’s Journey: The History, Art, and Symbolism of the Tarot
An 8.5″ by 11′ full color book
A PDF download is also available for only $10.00.
Interview with Robert Place: Tarot Illustrator & Historian
I was living in London when I bought Robert place’s Alchemical Tarot. I have been interested in Alchemy since discovering Carl Jung’s work on Alchemical Art in the late 1970′s and since been very aware of those forces at work in my life. So I was very excited to find this Tarot deck and even more excited at the idea of combining Tarot and Alchemy. The deck is also extremely beautiful and poetic. Robert Place’s style is so crystal clear and refined; his choices and use of symbolism inspired. But he wasn’t just inspired once—-he has gone on to be create four more decks and has two more in progress. The Alchemical Tarot was followed by Angels Tarot, Tarot of the Saints, Buddha Tarot and The Vampire Tarot. His recent history of Tarot, The Tarot: History, Symbolism, and Divination has been described as one of the most important books ever written on the Tarot. Works in progress include Tarot of the Seven-Fold Mystery (looks gorgeous!) and the Facsimile Italian Renaissance Woodcut Tarot.
In my research, I discovered that Robert is also an internationally renowned jeweler. If his jewelry is anything like his Tarot decks it must be amazing. He is a really nice man and we had fun doing this interview by email over several weeks.
All images are copyrighted by Robert M. Place and are used with his permission
Aline: I bought your Alchemical Tarot shortly after it was published. I love Alchemy, but I was also drawn to the clarity your images and the interesting combination of Alchemy with Tarot. I would not have taken you for a Vampire fan. Is there an Alchemy of Vampirism? Does the vampire have a place in the alchemical universe? If so what would it be?
Robert:. The first Tarot I designed was the Alchemical Tarot. The thing that I liked most about it was that it was inspired by a vision of how the alchemical Great Work, the creation of the Philosopher’s Stone, and the Tarot trumps were related stories. In fact alchemy seems to have influenced the original designers of the Tarot. So after I completed the Alchemical deck I wanted to find another story that was in sync with the trumps in the same way. My next inspiration was to make a Vampire Tarot because I saw it as a related story but the publishers were not ready for it at that time.
While working on the Alchemical Tarot I teamed up with Rosemary Ellen Guiley on the book for the deck. At that time she was also working on a couple books on vampires and I did some illustrations for her. I had always been enamored with vampire stories and I began to see that the literary vampire was related to alchemy. In fact in the novel, Dracula, alchemy is one of the disciplines that Dracula is supposed to have mastered.
The Philosopher’s Stone is described as a stone but not a stone, sometimes it is a liquid or it is immaterial. But it always described as red in color. The Stone is a mystical substance that can improve any substance that it comes in contact with, It can change lead into gold, it can cure any illness, it can turn an ordinary man into a sage, and it can prolong life indefinitely. This supposedly happened to the 14th century alchemist Nicolas Flamel. According to the stories, he created the Stone in the early 1400s and he and his wife are still alive. So you can see that the how this relates tot he vampire–both are looking for a red liquid that can prolong life indefinitely.
Aline: I had thought vampires might be connected to the nigredo- the shadow as well. You discuss that in your book. I am reading the book to the Vampire Tarot. Its really good.
Robert: This age old preoccupation with immortality seems to be at all time high these days.
That is an interesting topic in itself and how the Vampire mythos plays into that.
Aline: I have another question coming from the artist point of view. I am curious about your artistic path. I see the influence of the medieval woodcuts in your work. I wonder about your inspiration. Was Alchemical art an early influence on
your style and choice of subject matter?
What drew you to Alchemical art, the art or the study of Alchemy?
How did Tarot come into your life? That’s always a good story.
I have more, but I’ll save them. This is fun because we are busy people
and its nice to find a way.
Robert: I have always known that I was an artist since I could first pick up a crayon. As a child, I would look for inspiration wherever I cold find it. My first models for how to draw came from comic books but while in school working on projects I became fascinated with the pictures in encyclopedias and began to develop a delineated style like the ink drawing that illustrated the encyclopedia. I was always the class artist and I spent most of my time in grammar school working on large historic scenes that were stapled on bulletin boards.
When I was in fifth grade, we studied the Classical gods and my interest really peaked. I put together a booklet with drawings of all of the gods and goddesses that we studied. I drew them from pictures of Greek statues and the teachers and other adults were blown away by how realistically I could draw. It was the gods that put me over the edge artistically. I think that I lived another life in ancient Greece–maybe several.
When I was in college in the 1960s I discovered the occult. I spent a lot of time in the library looking at books on occult subjects and started visiting an occult book store in Hackensack, New Jersey, and another in Greenwich village. I still have books from those shops. The one in the Village also sold powdered incense and I can still smell the incense when I open those books. One of my favorite books from that time is The Picture Museum of Sorcery, Magic, and Alchemy by Emile Grillot de Givry. This book is filled with magical and occult pictures from old woodcuts and engravings and it turned out to be an important book that continues to feed my inspirations. My girlfriend at that time was into the Tarot. She used the Waite-Smith deck, which was about all you could get in the 60s. But in the Picture Museum I saw pictures of antique Tarot’s from the 1400s to the 1700s and I started creating my own deck based on the Tarot of Marseilles. I only completed four cards, though, and then, seeing how much work it was going to be, I lost interest.
I was not involved with the Tarot again for many years but, in 1982, I had a dream that changed that situation. In the dream, I received a phone call from a dream law firm in England and the ringing of the phone in that dream brought on an intense clarity that makes the dream impossible to forget. Even now I can easily visualize the dream. When the phone rang, I remember thinking, “how can someone call you in a dream? I didn’t know that that could happen.” When I answered the phone, a dream operator verified that I was Robert Place and then connected me with a woman from the dream law firm. The second woman told me that I had an inheritance coming from an ancestor in England, and that it had great power. She said that it was called “the key,” it would come in a box from England, and that I would recognize it when I saw it. When I woke up the dream had been so vivid that I expected the box to be at the foot of the bed. It wasn’t, but, within a few days, my friend Scott came to my house to show me his new Waite-Smith Deck. My head turned in his direction of its own will and then my eyes decided to focus on the deck in his hands. I immediately recognized it as my inheritance. In a few more days my friend Ed gave me a Tarot of Marseilles deck. He said that he just had a feeling that I needed it. After that, I went to New York City to buy my own copy of the Waite-Smith deck. With these decks, I started on my study of the Tarot and Western mysticism.
Aline: That is an amazing story! It sounds like Fortuna had plans for you—or the Gods were calling again.
Robert: That is how I started my obsessive study of the Tarot. I soon realized that most of the books on Tarot did not make much sense historically and that the occult correlations for the images were not that helpful either. Instead I looked at the pictures themselves and let them talk to me. The pictures soon led me further into the study of alchemy, Gnosticism, Hermeticism, mysticism, and magic, which I continued for many years.
Now, let’s jump ahead to 1987. By this time my study of mysticism and the occult had become even more obsessive. Although I was making my living as an art jeweler, I was spending more and more time reading and less and less time on my work. One day in August, I was looking at my old friend The Picture Museum and I became fascinated by a 17th century alchemical engraving representing the Philosopher’s Stone in an abstract way. The design depicted a heart in the center of a cross with images of the four elements assigned to each corner, an arrangement called a quincunx. As I looked at this image, I realized that the heart in the center was symbolically interchangeable with the dancing nude in the center of the World card and that the symbols of the elements assigned to the corners were also interchangeable with the symbols of the four evangelists in the corners of the World. Pictures like this hold tremendous power and I had just unlocked the power in this one. It was like a key opening a door in the back of my mind and out of this door came a flood of images. Within seconds, I saw that all of the trumps in the Tarot were interchangeable with alchemical images and that when that interchange was complete it was evident that the Tarot’s trumps were telling the same story as the alchemical great work, the Magnum Opus. The Tarot could be read as a text on the creation of the Philosopher’s Stone, the magical transformative substance that could prolong life.
Aline: How remarkable!
Robert: I began working on The Alchemical Tarot to illustrate this revelation and I started writing the book (although I had not considered myself a writer before this) to explain my vision. It took me seven years and the deck was published by Thorsons in England in 1995. Rosemary Ellen Guiley teamed up with me on the book. As for the images, besides The Picture Museum, I relied heavily on Jung’s Psychology and Alchemy, and The Golden Game, which is full of 17th century alchemical engravings. In keeping with the vision of the deck, I made conscious references to images from these engravings. My style of drawing is more like a woodcut than an engraving though. The biggest influence on my style of drawing in The Alchemical Tarot is Albrecht Durer’s woodcuts. I have a Dover book with all of his woodcuts and whenever I was stuck on how to render or shade a form with lines I would look and the book and see how Durer would do it.
Aline: Yes, I can see the influence of Durer in your work. But also the look of Alchemical art itself which is mostly woodcuts.
Maier: Atalanta Fugiens, 1618
Aline: One more question: You have designed 5 Tarot decks. That is amazing!
Now, I painted a tarot deck in the 1990′s that was never published.
During the four and a half years it took me to do that, many weird things happened.
I began to wonder if the concentration on the cards was effecting my life. I did not paint them in order
but received visions that came when they wanted to an I painted them in that order.
Did you find that working on Tarot caused things to happen in your life?
If so can you share a story about that?
Robert: It is funny that you should ask about the effect designing the cards has on the designer because that is actually part of the reason I stopped when I first started creating a deck in college. I noticed that the card that I drew would manifest in my life. The last one I did was the Tower and after that I had a falling out with my girlfriend. So I stopped. When I started on The Alchemical Tarot though things were different. For one thing I no longer used the cards as a way of making predictions about the future. I came to see the Tarot as a way of conversing with the Higher Self and obtaining wise advice. Every card has wisdom to impart and if that was what manifested after I did the design there was no problem. What started to happen is that I would include details in the picture, guided by my intuition and not really know why I was doing that. It was not until later when I was using the cards that I began to understand some of these details and was able to read them.
For example, when I designed Justice I placed the female figure on a stone base in the center of the picture and placed two columns behind and to either side of her. Her arms extended to either side holding her sword in her left hand and her scales in her right so that each tool lined up with the column in the background. When I did this, I was thinking that this was an odd way to compose the picture. It was not something that I would usually do because I would be afraid that it would look awkward. However, it seemed to work and I went with it. Then I spontaneously added flames and a column of smoke emerging from her crown, like she was a furnace, and I put an eye in the center for the flames. It was not until I was looking at the picture later that I realized what I had done was to relate the figure to the Kabalistic Tree of Life with its three columns. The scales on our left related to the pillar of severity, the sword on our right related to the pillar of mercy, and Justice’s body formed the central pillar with the column of smoke rising toward the divine presence. That the scales were on the side of severity made sense because one has to be severe or unemotional to find the true balance without any prejudice. Also the sword is a symbol of action or punishment and this does need to be tempered with mercy or forgiveness.
Aline: The archetypes are very powerful. They have to well up in your subconscious mind when you dwell on the symbols and then putting them paper “manifests ” them in some way. It is interesting that that was more managable when you stopped using them for divination —-perhaps your approach prevented the dark side being triggered…
Is there anything you would like to add? Are there any new projects you would like us to know about?
Robert Right now I am working on a book about the Tarot exhibition that I curated at the LA Craft and Folk Art Museum. The exhibit was a huge success. It got two articles in the LA Times and record attendance. This book will be a catalog of the show providing examples of important Tarot decks from the earliest 15th century Italian decks to the latest designs by contemporary artists. It also will have additional illustrations comparing the Tarot designs and symbols to other Renaissance and occult art and even to Egyptian art. It features all of the trumps from my Annotated Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery, which I actually completed for the exhibit, and all of the trumps from my Alchemical Tarot with related examples of alchemical art.
People who are interested in finding out when it is complete should watch my web site, link to me on Facebook, or sign up for my email newsletter.
There is information at my web site:
This poem is very hard to find in translation. My dance Director, Elizabeth Dickinson owned a vast library of rare books and I think it came from there. Click the button to stream it from the blog. It’s very short.
This may come as a surprise to all of you, but my first formal initiation into a spiritual path was in 1982 when I entered the Sufi Order. This was not the California hippy version headed by Vilayat Khan, but then Paris based order run by his brother, classical composer Hidayat Khan.
This came about through a dance company I worked with for many years called Companions of the Musavir.The Musavir is the creative aspect of God in Sufism. We performed Sufi stories using Middle Eastern Dance and mime. Dressed is magnificent costumes, the director, Elizabeth Dickinson, a former model and Opera singer, wanted us to be the Russian Ballet of Middle Eastern Dance. We also did Balkan line dances, Gyspy hora’s, and under my influence, Medieval and Renaissance styles used to act out fairy tales.
My Sufi name was Majid. I liked it because it sounded like Magic and Mage.
Goddess's veil dance
The Influence of the Goddess
My interest in Middle Eastern was direct offshoot of my growing connection to the Moon Goddess. I was also reacting against Feminism — the idea that in order to be equal to men that woman had to become the same as men and give our femininity. I like my femininity and see no benefit or equality in doing violence to myself to fit into the power structure in its own terms. That is not a revolution but a sell out.
I could think of no stronger way to affirm the Feminine than to become a belly dancer. Companions of the Musaivir was perfect for me because I also saw the theater as a temple, and the idea of creating rituals using woman’s sacred dance forms — ancient as Egypt, archaic as Greece — appealed to me immensely. Elizabeth said I was one of the very few dancers in the 20 odd troupe that understood what she was trying to do with it, and invited my to join the Sufi Order.
We made videos of all of our performances and they were played on cable access in Seattle. I must see if they still exist…I was really proud of a piece I choreographed in which I was Circe luring the ship of Odysseus to my shores…We did an amazing staging of Oscar Wilde’s Salome with some really incredible dances. We did fabulous Dance to the Moon Goddess to wild flutes and drums, the Zar, and of course Dervish spins turned into snowflakes and planets. Our most beautiful one was Attar’s Conference of the Birds. Elizabeth so talented and had a music collection from all over the world.
The Opening of the Heart
The most powerful thing that happened right after my initiation was that my heart center opened at a very deep level. I spent that Spring being so moved by the beauties of nature that I would burst into tears. I had always loved nature, but this was different, more pure. It was an opening to the Divine.
The symbol of Sufism is the winged heart — a motif that I could not ignore in the art of Nigel Jackson, who like myself, is a carrier of the witch blood.
This video is gorgeous as is the Tarot deck, Rumi Tarot created by Nigel Jackson. Watch for my interview with him sometime in September, 2009.
During my early adolescence, the call of the Otherworld intensified to such a pitch that I had a very hard time being present. Vivid dreams assailed me, astral projections, and visits from the horned Spirit of the Woods upset my sleep. Perhaps my imagination was merely fueled by the constant reading of fantasy and fairy tales, combined with my taste for the supernatural. These pastimes may have contributed a great deal to my susceptibility to the Unseen. This was the 1960’s remember. In rural Massachusetts, my experiences were way beyond the pale. Nobody understood me — or maybe very few.
I used to walk down a woodsy road that ran between two reservoirs. Open on the sides facing the road, they were bounded on the further sides by tall hedges of arbor vitae. These trees were so old and tall that I could see the tops as I approached. The subtle movements of their leaves had a powerful, trance inducing effect on me so that I felt as if I was going through a doorway into a different dimension that existed close to the real world, but was more vivid and beautiful. It was pleasant in the summer months to lie in the lush green grass beside the water and watch the birds and small animals and the arbor vitae. I was convinced that the trees spoke, that they were aware of my presence, and that their movements expressed feelings and intentions. They explained things to me about nature, and revealed certain spirits that would show themselves briefly before backing away again into the shadows.
One day I remember very clearly that I decided I was a Pagan. I knew the experiences I was having were spiritual, but no one ever spoke about things like spirits and nature in church or in catechism. Obviously, the trees were not Catholics so maybe they didn’t count. I struggled to find the word Pagan. I didn’t really know what it meant. But atheist and agnostic didn’t work. Witch was too strong a word at the time.
The Magic of Old Cemeteries
The new neighborhood we moved to when I was eleven had a few things to make up for the loss of the woods and the sawmill road. Cemeteries. They were very old. One was along Main Street and held the graves of the local blue-blood families (Protestant with Mayflower ancestry). Minute Men who had met to plan the Revolution on our village green over 200 years ago. Fallen English ‘Red Coats’ from the Revolutionary War, were also buried there.
There was another cemetery further away. I had to walk down along road that went through the woods to get there. This cemetery had many old graves. They still outnumber the new ones. I used to wander around, enjoying the sense of history, the quietness, and park-like beauty of the place. I always thought my attraction to cemeteries was because of a streak of melancholy stemming from my old French Catholic roots and the somber atmosphere of New England. Now I think I was picking up on ghosts, or sensing the ‘betwixt and between’ nature of a place that trembles between the worlds of the living and the dead. Such places are a threshold to the Otherworld.
There was another, hidden, cemetery in the woods far off the reservoir road. It had a high stone wall around it with a wrought iron gate we called Spider Gates. The graves inside were extremely old. We partied there as teenagers but did not damage anything. In those days we respected those things. I can only pray it hasn’t been seriously vandalized since then, for it is a very mysterious, Gothic place with a reputation for weird goings on including blood sacrifices on Sacrifice Rock.
Sometimes I would just find a lone grave in the woods from the 17th century or so.
I just made me aware of how old my home town was. Something about stumbling on a grave in the woods makes the person under it more real than words written in the pages of history books.
My Discovery of Tarot Cards
The circus occasionally came to town. I was privileged to see the Flying Welenda’s trapeze act. I still remember how astonished I was watching the women stand on their heads on the trapezes, their blond ponytails hanging down, and their legs in splits — all without a net!
There was an odd circus that came once and camped in a clearing in the trees along the road leading to the reservoirs. They had a row of tents pitched. I remember them vividly: cream colored canvas, with peaked roofs set against a green background of pines and arbor vitae. Though it was twilight and the show was over, it seemed as if the Circus was still open for business in their camp in the ring of trees, because when I went to check them out there were other visitors milling around. There was a kind of side show, if I recall, but I had no money so I couldn’t go into the tents. (After reading Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen, I now know what must have been going on, but back then it was way over my head.)
Circus people hanging out in midst of the trees was an odd sight. Some of them were still in costume. This image left an indelible mark in my imagination and still crops in stories I have written over the years. In the middle of the grass a skinny guy covered in tattoos (extremely unusual in those days) smoked a cigarette while he talked with an acrobat in a tutu. There was a woman sitting under a tree dressed as a Gypsy. She had some cards spread out on a table in front of her. I stood looking down at them and she began turning them over. Unlike the playing cards, or Old Maid cards, I was used to, these had pictures on them that looked like illustrations from a story book. They appealed to something very deep in me. The images were enigmatic, inducing a sense of wonder and curiosity that other artwork did not. I don’t remember much else, except that I wanted those cards.
Many years later, I was given my first deck by my boyfriend, J.B.
I used to summer for a weeks in Ogunquit, Maine with a group of other kids from my High School. This was the mid 1970’s when the beaches were wild and free, the Victorian and Edwardian hotels elegant and few. Cat Stevens had just released the evocative Moonshadow, and water beds were a novelty.
Here is Cat Stevens circa 1976. Moonshadow was a background song for one magical summer by the sea. Check out my post John Barleycorn is Dead for another magical song from this period.
During my first Ogunquit summer, I remember going along a wooden boardwalk with a small string of shops on one side, their white paint weathered to gray. My walk was stopped, at the very end, by a closed door. I was so struck by it that I still remember it after all this time. I can only figure out that it was a sign for me, so it stayed in my mind until I could understand what it stood for. The door was white and had a life sized red hand painted on it, fingers together pointing up, palm facing out. There were lines on the palm with little symbols, as a palm reader would use. There was nothing else on the door except a small sign saying Do Not Disturb.
Someone later told me that there was a man in there who read Tarot Cards, but you had to give him money. Not having that, I couldn’t go in.
But the seeds were being planted….
New England Witches
As girls, we gathered in the woods and played at witches. Sometimes I knew the magic we did was real because it overpowered me, and made me wild. The sea at twilight had a powerful effect when we called out to spirits, or sent wishes on little paper boats on the waves. I wonder if any of those girls turned out like me?
It being New England, there were always spooky rumors. Tales were told of an old lady who lived in certain very creepy Victorian house nearby. One girl told me that she and her friends went there, and the lady invited them in. Inside, the walls inside were painted black, and there was a black cat on the sofa. The old lady asked my friend to sit down next to the cat. When she reached out to the pet it, she found that the cats was stuffed! The lady gave them tea and told them she was a witch and that she came from a long line of witches who had lived in that house for generations…
This was said in all seriousness, how could I doubt? Dark Shadows was on TV. It was an era of spookiness!
I wrote my first short story when I was eight about fairies living in a fallen log in the woods behind our house. I always won prizes for stories in school, and my finished my first novel in my teens. Of course it wasn’t very good, but I was totally into it. In my first year at Worcester State College, I took a supernatural writing course and wrote an ‘evil child’ story. I can’t remember the story, but the professor, an old lady with a silvery bun and a penetrating gaze, looked at me strangely suggested I go to the library do some research in The Encyclopedia of Magic andExperimental Science. It was an unusual assignment. This encyclopedia took up a whole shelf! But started to look through them and became totally enthralled with the early volumes on Magic, discovering pages of fairy lore, folktales, hauntings and fascinating ‘superstitions.’ It was here that I read that the bite of a red haired person would drive you mad!
In retrospect, it became clear to me that this lady professor of mine was probably a witch, and saw in me a kindred spirit.
I also started writing my very witchy poetry at this time. I couldn’t even think of other subjects. My poetry professor told me about the ‘Collective Unconscious’ That led to my discovery of Jung. Jung’s ideas began to have a strong influence on the way I looked at spirituality and magical perception. Jungian Psychology became very fashionable in the 1980’s, and it was difficult to see things any other way. I had to go to Europe to break out of that box!
It was in this year I also had a powerful past life memory that I wrote about on the blog under the title Death in Art.
I was always drawing images that I felt came out of the land and the woods. They had fairy tale themes, but I wasn’t conscious of that. I drew mysterious figures in the woods, standing among candles in the snow, wearing sweeping cloaks. Even a man coming up from under a snow bank with a candle in his hand, and a ‘black man with a black book’ standing inside a circle in the woods like a figure from a story by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
When some of my art work was compared to the Pre-Raphaelites,I looked them up. I had to agree, for there was a strong romantic and mystical quality to my art. I became so smitten with the Pre-Raphaelites that I began to wear my hair long and curly and dressed in the Victorian vintage clothes you could still find back then in second hand shops.
In retrospect, I realize I was seeing spirits and that some of those drawings I made about them were psychic impressions that I mistook for imagination. I know this because I later learned who it is that lives underground, and who the ‘black man’ is, and how past lives are experienced.
When I get my pictures out of storage, I will post them on the blog.
All these things may not seem particularly magical. Maybe they are just imaginative.
But it shows a predisposition towards the mystical, and an innate attraction to the unseen that would lead me to the full blown knowledge that I carry the Witchblood.
Most of my drawings throughout my teenage years were self portraits. I didn’t know this consciously, but those wild haired women in wind swept cloaks standing under the trees at the edge of an abyss filled with stars, were alter egos of mine — signs telling me who I was and what I was born to do.
This isn’t me of course, it’s Monica Belushi. But you get the drift!
Paul Huson from the back of my copy of Mastering Witchcraft, 1970
Paul Huson is one the most interesting writers on the occult. His approach to witchcraft has inspired many magical people since the publication of his classic Mastering Witchcraft in 1970. He is a proponent of ‘Traditional Witchcraft’ , rather than Wicca. The most apparent difference between these two approaches is that, while Wicca is a highly structured religion that mixes Masonic Lodge Magic with fertility rites aligned with the cycles of nature, Traditional Witchcraft is a way of life filled with magical spells and charms based on folk traditions in harmony with the land. A lot of readers feel that, in Mastering Witchcraft, Paul Huson cuts to the chase and provides instruction and guidance in how to begin life as a Traditional Witch.
Since reading Mastering Witchcraft and The Devil’s Picture Book long ago, I have been burning with curiosity about this man and wonder at his deep authority on the ancient practices, spells, charms, regalia of witchcraft.
Huson’s originality and dramatic writing stlye contribute a great to the enjoyment of reading his books, as he creates an aura of mystery around his subjects. He is also an artist, and his books are full of many delightful line drawings. His new Tarot Deck Dame Fortuna’s Wheel displays his talent for elegant, evocative images that read like a charm. Many of the concepts he discusses in Mystical Origins of the Tarot, for instance the use of the figures of the Nine Worthies for the Tarot Courts, have made their way into his Tarot deck to great effect.
He is delightful man and shares a lot of wonderful bits of information on tarot and magic in the interview.
Paul Huson was born on September 19, 1942 in London, England, the son of the author Edward Richard Carl Huson and painter and motion picture costume designer Olga Lehmann. “He claims that one of his Scottish ancestors, Alice Huson, was hanged as a witch in the seventeenth century. While he works in motion pictures and T.V., he has had a lifelong interest in the occult.” –(from the cover flap on Mastering Witchcraft.)
Huson currently lives in Los Angeles. His partner and frequent collaborator is William Bast
Arlene: Hi Paul! I would like to thank you in advance for sharing your thoughts and ideas with my readers and myself. Why don’t we begin with a little background about you. What brought you into magic and witchcraft?
Paul: I discovered I could scry at a very early age, when I was still a tot – something I suspect a lot of children can do; later I found I also often seemed to be able affect the course of simple events by the power of concentrated thought. To try to explain these things I read whatever occult or magical books I could lay my hands on, and in the early ‘fifties wrote to G.B.Gardner to describe my experiences after I read his book “Witchcraft Today”. He put me in touch with the Society of the Inner Light, although he doubted they would accept me for magical tutoring at such an early age. In fact I waited a couple of years until I had entered college, and then the SIL accepted me as a student.
Arlene: Whenever I read Mastering Witchcraft, I imagine you must have come from a long line of witches. Is this true?
Paul: Alas, no. At least, not as far as I know. An Alice Huson was prosecuted for witchcraft in seventeenth century England, but I have no proof I’m her descendant. In fact I do happen to be directly descended from one of Oliver Cromwell’s extremely Puritan generals, and I’m quite sure he had no connection with Alice H. However, back in the sixties, if you shared a name with anyone accused of witchcraft in the historical record, it gave you status in the witchy circles I attended. When Putnams heard about this conceit of mine, it appeared in the advertising blurb on the book flap with a lot of other gothic stuff; along the way Alice also somehow acquired a Scottish provenance. Arlene: How were you able to master witchcraft at such a young age?
Paul: I would never have claimed to be a master of the craft. However, again, the title of the book resulted from a compromise with the editorial dept. The manuscript I submitted had originally been entitled “So You Want to be a Witch?” However, they wanted to call it by what I considered the rather stodgy “Witches, Warlocks & Covens” – in fact, they already had the graphic of this title designed and ready to print. I thought the teaching element was missing, so suggested “Mastering Witchcraft: a Practical Guide for Witches, Warlocks and Covens” as a compromise, which allowed Putnams to use their graphic.
Arlene: What is the difference between Traditional Witchcraft and Wicca? Can you elaborate so readers understand?
Paul: Traditional witchcraft is what Margaret Murray — a British historian who during the twenties advanced the notion that Witchcraft was originally a clandestine pagan religion that had continued to exist alongside Christianity — referred to as “Operative Witchcraft”, to distinguish it from what she called “Ritual Witchcraft”. Operative Witchcraft, to use her words, encompassed all charms and spells, whether used by a professed witch or by a professed Christian, whether intended for good or for evil, for killing or for curing. Ritual Witchcraft on the other hand, embraced the religious beliefs and ritual of those who practiced what Murray referred to as the Dianic Cult, the worship of a deity that was incarnate in a man, a woman, or an animal, traces of which she believed were to be found in Italy, in Southern France, and in the English Midlands. The god was named Janus or Dianus, the goddess Diana. “Wicca” or “Wica” was arguably G.B. Gardner’s own personal take on the Dianic cult. “Mastering Witchcraft” for the most part dealt with processes of Operative Witchcraft that I had learned over the years, but it also gave a nod to the cult aspect in the final chapter. It was not basically a Wiccan tract, although it drew on a lot of the same material that Gardner did.
Arlene: Where did you see your first Tarot deck? Was it one you were drawn to, or was it a gift?
Paul: During the 1950s I used to read articles about tarot written by one Madeline Montalban in a UK magazine named “Prediction”. They featured illustrations of the RWS (Rider Waite Smith) deck, and I used to faithfully copy them onto file cards and arrange them around my bedroom for meditation purposes. I acquired my first deck, an Insight Institute one designed by Frank Lind, by mail order from “Prediction” magazine, sometime soon after I wrote to Gardner.
Arlene: What is it about cards that hooked you in so that you spend a lifetime exploring this subject?
Paul: I was attracted to the standard deck of cards when I was still a very small child, and used to lay them out on the pattern of the living room carpet to contemplate them. Something about those strange little people featured on the Court cards magnetized me. Who were they? What powers did they possess? How did they relate to one another? Maybe I psychically intuited their history, even that early.
Arlene: Do you practice cartomancy?
Paul: Yes, to a limited extent. I don’t really fancy precognitive divination, although my friends tell me I’m accurate in my tarot forecasting. Actually I’m more interested in tarot history and the varied forms of the cards themselves.
Arlene: In The Devil’s Picture Book, you suggest that the Fool and Magician are a duality — twins in a sense.
Fool comes out of a childhood dream, and the first person he meets is a — thimble rigger?
Most Tarot creators, influenced I think, by Christianity –like Waite– created the myth that the Fool goes on the spiritual path expecting a gentle awakening The first person he meets is a lofty practitioner of Magic, an Initiate. Before this interpretation, you suggest the Magician was more of con artist.
Can you explore the interpretation of the Magician as Mage vs. the Carnival trickster of the older decks, and how that skews the Fool’s journey?
Paul: I believe interpreting the Juggler (as I prefer to call him) as a mage puts undue emphasis on this lowly card. It’s not for nothing that he comes at the very beginning of the deck among the Lesser Trumps, right after the Fool. In the oldest decks the Juggler is a quite obviously a mercurial Mountebank, a Tregatour, a Street Huckster, who is bamboozling the crowd with the oldest trick in the book, the Cups and Ball trick or Find the Lady. He was elevated to mage status by Éliphas Lévi during the nineteenth century as part of Lévi’s transformation of tarot into an instrument of Transcendental Magic – not even the earliest commentators on the cards, Court de Gébelin, de Mellet or Etteilla himself, made that mistake. I feel that making the Juggler into an all-wise wizard is just plain wrong. Real magic, per se, is not actually represented in the historical tarot.
Arlene: It puts a different spin on the Major Arcana as a whole as well, don’t you think? It seems much more earthbound in the Magician is a con.
Paul: Precisely. The Lesser Trumps are supposed to be earthbound. That’s exactly their point. The tarot trump parade describes an arc beginning with the lowest of the low, the homeless Fool, climbs through all the ranks of society, through betrayal and death and hell, and finally ends up in the celestial regions with sun moon and stars and finally eternity, as shown in the so-called Greater Trumps. As I say in my most recent book “Mystical Origins of the Tarot”, basically they tell of the soul’s journey through life into the afterlife, an archetypal and perennial story recounted in Christian imagery typical of the late medieval period.
Arlene: How do the Fool and the Magician mirror each other?
Paul: I would say as victim and victimizer. The person who is ruled by the Moon, taken in by the person who is ruled by Mercury.
Fool & Juggler
Arlene: Where does this idea of the Fool’s Journey come from? Do you agree with it?
Paul: I think A. E. Waite first introduced it in his book “A Handbook of Cartomancy, Fortune Telling and Occult Divination” that was published under his pseudonym “Grand Orient” in 1889. I do agree with it to some extent, although I don’t think the historical trumps had the exact connotation Waite placed on them. Allow me to quote him: “As regards the Fool … signifies the consummation of everything, when that which began his initiation at zero attains the term of all numeration and existence. The card which bears no number passes through all the numbered cards and is changed in each, as the natural man passes through worlds of lesser experience, worlds of devotion, worlds of successive attainment, and receives the everlasting wisdom as the gift of perseverance.” This is basically a neoplatonic idea, and there are wise folk who believe the tarot originally had this kind of deep philosophical underpinning, although I have yet to be convinced of that. I think it can be read into the cards, but I don’t think they were originally conceived with this in mind.
Arlene: Do you think the trumps were always arranged in the order we have them in now?
Paul: Pretty much, with only minor exceptions of a card here or there. In some decks the Justice trump figured among the Greater Trumps at the end of the sequence, but I suspect this only happened because it was similar to, and therefore linked thematically with, the Last Judgment. The Fool, being without number, can theoretically be placed anywhere, but generally he is placed at the beginning, sometimes at the end. The Florentine Minchiate on the other hand have an entire zodiac, four more Virtues and the four Aristotelian elements shoehorned in between the Lesser and Greater Trumps, but this was a later innovation made for the sake of complicating the game and probably introduced by folk who knew little and cared less about the original meanings of the trumps.
Arlene: Was there any perception that they needed to be in any order?
Paul: We have documentations of the various marginally divergent orders; these can be found in Kaplan’s tarot encyclopedias.
Arlene: Do the numbers on the cards have relevance to the images on the trumps, and what are they?
Paul: Some tarot historians believe they do, but they’re in the minority. Personally I don’t think there are any numerological connotations, except maybe for the Fool’s lack of number, and the fairly consistent placing of Death in the thirteenth position.
Arlene: Does Tarot belong to the Qabbalistic Tree of Life, or this a conceit?
Paul: A conceit is putting it mildly! The Society of the Inner Light, having inherited the notion from the Golden Dawn, presented me with the idea as a factoid, but try as I might I couldn’t really fit the tarot onto the tree however I arranged it. Something always didn’t quite fit and had to be fudged, and calling it a blind for the uninitiated didn’t do anything repair the damage. When you analyzed the god names of the Sephiroth, for instance, they had nothing intrinsically to do with the planets.
If you wanted a Gnostic planetary ladder, you really didn’t need to tie it to the Sephiroth at all. Then when you add up the signs of the zodiac, the seven planets and the four elements, they result in 23, not 22. Furthermore none of the verses of the Sepher Yetzirah really made any sense paired with the trumps, either. I finally came to the conclusion that the Qabalistic theory was an utterly mistaken concoction of Lévi’s.
Arlene:I love the idea that Tarot trumps were influenced by Mystery plays. I have seen many Italian paintings of Gods and Goddesses on floats with all their icons around them, that look just like Tarot cards. Do you have any new thoughts that you could share about this history, maybe ideas that didn’t get into the book?
Arlene:How do you imagine card games were played that included the Major Arcana?
Paul: Rather like Bridge without bidding, or Whist. You had to follow suit. The object was to win tricks, and every trick contributed to the point-count total, which included extra points for the courts and trumps. The Fool could be played sacrificially if trumps were led and you had a high trump you wanted to protect.
Arlene: If they weren’t used for play, what was the intention in creating them and adding them to the playing cards that you know of or can guess? Were they always meant to spiritual tools for meditation and divination?
Paul: No sequence of trumps, either in cut or uncut sheet-form, has yet been discovered unattached to the pip and court cards of the Minor Arcana. This leads one to suspect they never had an independent existence. However, a negative like this is very difficult to prove. Just because we haven’t found a solo trump sequence doesn’t prove that one never existed. It’s tempting to believe the sequence originated in some other work, possibly didactic or devotional, maybe even divinatory, like one of the many sortilege wheels of images that were consulted in medieval times.
Arlene: Do you know the history of the use of Tarot for divination? What about playing cards?
Paul: In 2005 tarot historian Ross Caldwell discovered a paragraph in De Rerum Praenotione, a text proscribing various types of divination published in 1507 by one of Savonarola’s disciples, one Gianfranceso Pico della Mirandola, that includes divination by the images depicted on playing cards, so we have documented evidence that card divination existed in the sixteenth century. I’m sure the practice goes much further back however. If you think about it, card reading is basically a type of sortilege, a divinatory practice dating back to the time of ancient Greece at least.
Arlene:The Pope Joan angle so interesting. Why do you think she was replaced by the High Priestess?
Paul: I think Court de Gébelin was the first to call her this. Undoubtedly his Ancient Egyptian take on the cards was the cause.
Arlene: Does their symbolism match? How is Pope Joan like and unlike the High Priestess?
Paul: Well, again, like the Juggler, elevating the Female Pope to the rank of a High Priestess works against the basic meaning of all the Lesser Trumps. She follows the Juggler in the sequence at the beginning because she’s low in virtuous ranking, a heretic, something bold and scandalous and outrageous, not because she’s the mysterious and mystical wisdom figure Lévi and all his followers turned her into. Interestingly de Mellet had the right idea, I think, when he deciphered her (only negatively) as Pride and Idolatry, taking his cue from her Besançon incarnation as Juno with her peacock. But maybe the substitutions of Juno for the FP and Jupiter for the Pope were not so far off the mark, after all?
Arlene: Besides the presence of 2 Popes, and one being a woman, why did the Church dislike Tarot and playing cards in general?
Paul: As far as the Catholic church was concerned, chiefly because they were used for gambling. I think the fact that cards were used for unsanctioned sortilege too could also hardly have endeared them. We do have a seventeenth century English Puritan rant against playing cards as actually being pagan gods disguised as legendary heroes such as Charlemagne and Lancelot, which indicates the Protestant church’s attitude at its most extreme.
Arlene: The Church didn’t like the Tarot, but it still survives. Like the Grail legends, Tarot is stronger than its persecutors. You even mention a connection between Tarot and the Holy Grail when you discuss the emblems of the suits. What is it about these subjects that makes them so powerful they have never been driven underground and lost?
Paul:I think it’s that mysterious something Jung was striving after when he coined his theory of archetypes, certain compelling patterns in nature that also find expression throughout humanity as complex recurring symbols in dream and vision.
Arlene: I painted a Grail tarot in the 1990′s. They seem to be naturally connected.
Paul: The arrival of playing cards in Europe and the popularity of Grail stories appear to be roughly contemporaneous. Historians also believe the cup suit came in with Mamluk cards, from the middle east. Maybe the Grail legend is also a middle eastern import? The connection seems tenuous to me at best, however. But I do feel that any literate person playing with a cup suit in the late middle ages or early Renaissance would have been bound to note the Cup/Grail similarity, whether or not there were a connection of provenance.
Ace of Cups by Paul Huson
Arlene: If Tarot was a Teaching tool, what was it meant to teach? What were these images meant to represent to illiterate people? They certainly are not very Biblical. Any thoughts on that?
Paul: Not Biblical, but religious and philosophical in the way that Morality plays were.
Arlene:You have a side that is little known, I think. A screenwriter! Have you written any screenplays about the colorful characters you discuss in Mystical Origins of the Tarot. I thought Etteilla had an exciting story, as does Levi. Can you share anything about your film work as related to occult subjects?
Paul: I’m working on a script dealing with what you might call the occult at present, but would rather not talk about it.
Arlene:Fair enough. Your Dame Fortune’s Wheel Tarot is really lovely. It reads clearly and precisely. No clutter. It speaks. Non-traditional decks, though artistically beautiful, are sometimes unreadable, I find. Can you address the issue of how the correct images carry divinatory power, where more innovative Tarots may not?
Paul: Power lies in the baldness and simplicity of the original images. They work together as a thematic unit, and add up to more than the sum of their parts. I think we should also remember that the trumps were originally drawn from what one would have to call the world of medieval pop entertainment, the imagery of medieval drama, mystery and morality plays, chansons de geste and works of historical romance, Arthur and Charlemagne. They are, to fall back on the cliché, quite literally archetypal.
Dame Fortune's Wheel
Arlene: What is next for you? Do you practice magic? Do you give seminars, or talks?
Is there anything else you would like to share?
Paul: I shall be concentrating on my screenplay and my next book. I only very occasionally practice the Art these days. And no, I don’t give seminars or talks.
I think I’ve probably shared too much already…
I hope this isn’t all too daunting!
Thank you again Paul Huson. That was totally fascinating and enjoyable!
Please hit ” comments” at the top of the post and let me know what you think. There is so much food for thought in here!
If you would like to read Paul Huson’s works click on the Amazon link below. His Dame Fortune’s Wheel tarot can also be purchased from
Llewelyn’s or at Alidstore.com. Part of own Tarot of the Holy Grail, now Grail Keepers’ Tarot can be found on page 95 in the volume 4 of the Encyclopedia of the Tarot.
The classic 1972 book on the history of the Tarot Cards by Paul Huson called The Devil’s Picture Book, opens with one of the most evocative first pages about the “wicked pack of cards” ever written. So I quote the whole thing:
“Whether you know it or not, each time you pick up a deck of playing cards you are putting your soul in immediate danger of hellfire. So the church once said. The tarot was the medieval prototype for our present day deck. Instead of hearts, diamonds, spades and clubs, it used cups, coins, swords, and batons as symbols. In addition, it also contained a series of twenty-two mysterious picture cards called trumps. The main use for tarot cards, apart from simple gambling, was for telling fortunes. This was their true danger. Worse still, within the cards lurked devils disguised as kings and heroes. To quote a seventeenth century moralist on this point:
The playe of the Cards is an invention of the Devill, which he found out, that he might the easier bring in ydolatrie amongst men. For the King and Coate (Court) cards that we use now were in olde times the images of idols and false gods; which since, they that would seeme Christians, have changed into Charlemaigne, Launcelot, Hector, and many such like names, because they would not seeme to imitate their idolatrie therein, and yet maintain the playe itself.
This indicates the connection between playing cards and witchcraft. That witches practiced rites drawn from old pagan cults is becoming more and more a matter of common knowledge. That remnants of these old cults have boldly remained on display for all to see down the ages is not so well known…”
How I First Found Tarot
They were boldly displayed for me at a fair.
The first time I saw a pack of tarot cards was in my early teens in the 1970′s. It was a Coleman-Smith- Waite deck, called back then Rider Waite. The images in the cards had a strange, mysterious feel to them that instantly attracted me. I was drawing constantly back then, making black and white Bearsdleyesque illustrations for fairy tales, heavily influenced by the seventeenth century energies still streaming in the aethers of Massachusetts. The pictures on these Tarot cards tapped into those aethers, suggestively masking an unseen world populated by spirits who wished to communicate with us.
It wasn’t long before my boyfriend gave me my first tarot deck — a castoff given to him by someone else. It was the Rider Waite, one of the very few tarot decks published at that time.
I spent a long time brooding over the pictures on the cards, more interested in the art, and the effect it had on me, than in divination. That was much too daunting to learn, having to memorize all the meanings: right side up and up side down, and in all sorts of combinations between.
So, I began drawing my own. Here are my very early attempts at a Tarot Deck:
The Magician looks like an occult guy I used to know back then. The Fool I think is me.
It shouldn’t be a surprise the Tower card looks wonky.
The Hanged Man was the first one I drew. He is so autumnal, like a leaf hanging from a tree.
This was all I did. The task of making a complete Tarot deck was more than I could commit to at 17 years of age.
But, it doesn’t matter. The importance is that by just brooding over the tarot images seeded my already receptive imagination and anchored it deep into the archetypes. This led to an ability to write poetry from a deep and primal source, to continue to make images drawn from the depths of the unconscious that can hold its attention like a magnet.
The tarot was, and still is, the most accessible gateway into the Occult, introducing you to numerology, astrology, Qabbalah, symbolism, and many other fascinating realms of magic and mystery. The cards can be called upon to guide almost every avenue of occult study, and can be used to construct rituals, story plots, artworks, dances, and many other artistic creations.
I was once involved in a piece of street theater that was based on the tarot. We were all dressed as various tarot figures — I was High Priestess and then Death. The Fool met each one of us at various picturesque stops along the way like doorways, under trees, beside the river, until we had a grand procession following him down the streets of Boston. I would love to do that again in London.
Mystery plays are still performed in Chester and other cities in the U.K.
How Medieval Mystery Plays Inspired Tarot
In The Devil’s Picture Book, Paul Huson discusses the connection of the Major Arcana or Trumps of the tarot deck with the ancient Mystery religions. He gives examples of the use of tarot-like figures in talismanic art, hymns to the pagan gods and goddesses, planetary and magical workings invoking the Gods through icons like those found on tarot cards. The Empress is the Goddess, the Devil is Lucifer, the Magician is Hermes and so on. He calls on Henry Cornelius Agrippa’s magical correspondences to create a thesis for the origins of Tarot that is wonderful to read and ponder. He also makes a fine case for the use of tarot images as memory devices for teaching spiritual truths the mostly illiterate people of the times.
In 2004, Paul Huson wrote a second book on the history of Tarot called The Mystical Origins of the Tarot. In this carefully and lovingly researched book, he introduces the 15th century Mamluk playing cards from Persia called Muluk wanuwwab, or the “Game of Kings and Deputies. ” The four suits displayed in the Islamic deck consist of Cups, Coins, Swords, and Polo Sticks. Huson writes: “In 1980, Dummott fairly conclusively demonstrated that they all showed more than a significant similarity to the suits of the Italian playing cards.”
Huson develops a fascinating argument that the images of the Major Arcana were originally based on stock characters from medieval Mystery Plays. In Italian cities during the Renaissance, processions of pagan Gods, seated on thrones and carrying symbols appropriate to their functions, were pulled by chariot through the streets with great fanfare. It was a time when pagan Gods and Goddesses were in high fashion, eclipsing the state religion of Christianity, until zealots like the monk, Savaranola, preached fire and brimstone in the streets, demanding the sheep return to the fold. Under the spell of this fanatic and the social guilt he stirred up, the great Botticceli tragically burned some of his paintings of pagan subjects — thank God his Birth of Venus wasn’t among them! Playing cards, and especially the use of cards in fortune telling, went underground as a climate of fear sprang up around notions of the Devil and his secret followers.
But the deed had been done. Playing cards combined with Trumps or Triumphs had become Tarot and thus went on to create mysteries of its own. The cards stayed in the shadowy occult underground for centuries, until no one could remember where they came from, or how they came to be. Under the influence of the 19th century Theosophical Society, and others, Tarot was brought back. Tales were spun about the mysterious cards origins in the ever popular ancient Egypt. They were brought into Europe by Gypsies who preserved them through the murk of the Middle Ages until they could be restored to their proper spiritual plane by modern Magicians.
With my experience of our 1970′s tarot guerrilla theater behind me, it was not difficult to believe Huson’s suggestion that the tarot images were illustrations of medieval Mystery Plays, Morality Plays and even Christian Miracle Plays performed in a pre-literate age when deep truths were taught through the use of allegory and iconic images. The Dance of Death, frequently performed during the plague years, also had a strong influence in developing ideas in tarot.
These are very rich subjects, and Paul Huson brings so much to the study of tarot. His history, much more accurate than that of Eliphas Levy, or the Golden Dawn, is still full of wonders, and charged with magical overtones. The first theatrical productions in ancient Greece, were ruled by Dionysus. Theater evolved into religious folk drama during Medieval times, and went on to be preserved in the majestic Major Trumps of the Tarot. Their actual lineage is indeed steeped in spirituality of a rather more earthy, than lofty, kind, but is no less powerful and beautiful.
Please return for my exclusive interview with Paul Huson. We will go much deeper into these subjects and also discuss his new Tarot Deck, Dame Fortune’s Wheel.
Below are most of Paul Huson’s excellent books if you want to buy them here!
Pre-Raphaelite artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s first published poem, “The Card-Dealer,” was based on a painting by Theodore von Holst (1810-1844) called “The Wish” or “The Fortune-Teller” (1840). The poem, which epitomized Rossetti’s fascination with the theme of the femme fatale, was inspired by the painting that he described as being of “a beautiful woman, richly dressed, who is sitting at a lamp-lit table, dealing out cards, with a peculiar fixedness of expression.” In his poem, the woman plays with men as she plays with the cards, which, we are told, represent the heart that craves the more it feeds, the diamond that makes even the base seem brave, the club that smites, and the spade that digs a grave.
“The Card-Dealer”(1852; revised 1870)
by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Could you not drink her gaze like wine?
Yet though its splendour swoon
Into the silence languidly
As a tune into a tune,
Those eyes unravel the coiled night
And know the stars at noon.
The gold that’s heaped beside her hand,
In truth rich prize it were;
And rich the dreams that wreathe her brows
With magic stillness there;
And he were rich who should unwind
That woven golden hair.
Around her, where she sits, the dance
Now breathes its eager heat;
And not more lightly or more true
Fall there the dancers’ feet
Than fall her cards on the bright board
As ’twere an heart that beat.
Her fingers let them softly through,
Smooth polished silent things;
And each one as it falls reflects
In swift light-shadowings,
Blood-red and purple, green and blue,
The great eyes of her rings.
Whom plays she with? With thee, who lov’st
Those gems upon her hand;
With me, who search her secret brows;
With all men, bless’d or bann’d.
We play together, she and we,
Within a vain strange land:
A land without any order,—
Day even as night, (one saith,)—
Where who lieth down ariseth not
Nor the sleeper awakeneth;
A land of darkness as darkness itself
And of the shadow of death.
What be her cards, you ask? Even these:—
The heart, that doth but crave
More, having fed; the diamond,
Skilled to make base seem brave;
The club, for smiting in the dark;
The spade, to dig a grave.
And do you ask what game she plays?
With me ’tis lost or won;
With thee it is playing still; with him
It is not well begun;
But ’tis a game she plays with all
Beneath the sway o’ the sun.
Thou seest the card that falls,—she knows
The card that followeth:
Her game in thy tongue is called Life,
As ebbs thy daily breath:
When she shall speak, thou’lt learn her tongue
And know she calls it Death.
As a great fan of Heironymous Bosch, I could not help posting a whole boatload of Fools! Note the little head in the tree!
I found an interesting source for the idea of the painting in a book called Dreamtime: Concerning the Boundary Between Wilderness and Civilization by Hans Peter Duerr.
The Fool has a lot of resonance with Dionysus, God of Divine Madness.
Here it is:
“The maenads of Zagreus–Dionysus were closely related to the Couretes, and probably had the same roots. The Meanads were the ‘grasping ones’, the ‘tearers’, even more closely than the Couretes bearing traces of the Wild Hunt. Like the Erinys of Artemis, these ecstatic huntresses were spirits of the dead who raged through the land ‘between the times’, clad in the skins of panthers, deer or foxes, carrying the thyrsus and suckling wolf pups. they were given death offerings usually of milk and honey. The same offerings were later given to the ‘bonnes dames’ and the ‘naht-frouwen’, the women of the night. On choes, the second day of the of the Anthesteria festival, Dionysus, the ‘great loosener’, the ‘god of blossoms’, rolled through the streets and alleys of Athens, seated on his ship cart. The cart was drawn by two satyrs, and the god was accompanied by the souls of the dead, who on this day arrived from the swamps of Lerna, the door to the underworld, to visit the mortals.
When a ship rolls on land, all matters are turned upside down. the rule of the masters did not prevail on choes, and the slaves were free and could do as they pleased. As late as 1133, a wooden ship on wheels traveled from Cornelimunster to Tongern and Looz via Achen and Maastrischt, where it was fitted out out with sails and mast. Wherever the ship haulted, women were overcome by wild ecstasy. half-naked or clad in short shifts, their hair loose, they danced around the ship and later engaged in behavior about which a monk who reported the event maintained he could only weep or be silent. Regrettably for posterity, he did not write while weeping, so we are left in ignorance as to what might taken place around the ship after nightfall.
Ships float in water, in no-man’s-land, as it were, not subject to the laws of one particular country. it is understandable, therefore, that in the latter part of the Middle Ages, ‘lawless’ fools were often represented on ships. If the ship then traveled over ‘someone’s land’, this was chaos overcoming order.”
The images here are amazing. If you read this paragraph slowly, allowing the images of the Maenads, the ship, the mad Fools to play in your imagination, you will see how one simple image of the Fool resonates, like fine poetry, into the deepest levels of the unconscious and tap into the Ancestral Memory where the Ship of Fools still exists as a ‘reality’.
This is how Tarot works. Images and symbolic keys to deeper meanings, many unseen, not obvious, require meditation to reveal themselves. Images from the Ancient Mysteries transmit core energies from the Soul of the World, fertilizing and ordering the imagination so that it becomes a mediator between times, dimensions, and levels of consciousness beyond the boundaries of the known.
For this to happen, you must do something that has gone out of fashion — you must slow down, savor, brood upon an image until it falls into your bloodstream and becomes part of you. Then, when you read the cards they will come to life and speak in ways no instruction manual can teach.
Next post will give a definition of Tarot with a few ideas on how to consecrate a Tarot deck.
“...but we will speak only of those things which are difficult, and not to be grasped by the senses, but, indeed, which are almost contrary to the evidence of the senses.”
Paracelsus, Archidoxi Magica
Using my own handpainted Holy Grail Tarot, I will use this blog to teach the definitions of the cards and explore their deeper meaning. Their part in the Grail Legend will also be told, using the literary sources that inspired the outer images. I say outer images, for this Tarot deck is the result of an Initiation, and the real images came to me directly from the UnderWorld of Faery.
When I embarked on my visits to the Kingdom of Faery, I was no more sensible of the dangers and rewards than this Fool you see here blithely walking off a cliff. Heaven and Earth attempt to warn him to watch his step…but the Fool’s way is to venture into the unknown because there is no other way for him to learn but through experience.
David Ovason, in his book The Zelator: the Secret Journals of Mark Hedsel,Way of the Fool.
“The Way of the Fool is the way of the independent traveler on the Path of Initiation. Such a traveler may study under a variety of Masters, yet will strive always to preserve his or her own identity, and rarely undertakes vows of silence which will bind his or her being to a particular school or teaching. The fact that this traveling Fool is on a Path is meant to reflect that he or she is following the way of experience, which in ancient Greek was termed pathein.”
He goes on to say that the Path of the Fool is about development of the higher Ego, or the Self. This is the Self that Jung talks about, “the droplet of Godhead which has sought experience through involvement in matter.” The part of us that that knows itself to be divine. The Divine Fool is one whose folly is to surrender to this Godhead. He is motivated by his desire for life beyond earthly existence. To find it, he steps into the unseen and therefore begins an journey into the unknown. But in his surrender to trust in the divine pattern of his life, he knows perfect freedom.
The meanings of the Fool card in Tarot are more complex than they seem. The symbol of the 0 is rich with meaning. As a newly incarnate soul, the Fool is the baby that has passed through the 0 of the birth canal, coming from the spiritual dimension into the world of matter. His consciousness is raw, full of sensations and visions of a former life of complete security, enclosed in warmth and darkness. He is jolted awake by pain and blood and light, beginning the journey of the Fool from the second the umbilicus is cut. He has no name and knows nothing. In many respects he is an empty 0 waiting to be filled.
In the Middle Ages, the Fool was known as the Lord of Misrule; he was unpredictable, anarchic, arcahic, somehow ‘inferior’ to us in his instictual abandon. This uncouth manner is symbolized in traditonal Tarot cards by the Fool’s cap and bell, a residue of the old crown of asses ears that resonates so well with the sin-burdened scapegoat. To say it simply, civilized people sometimes long to return to the raw, unconscious, instictual stage of infancy expressd in the madness of the Fool. Because they fear a break down of their inner control, they joy in having someone else act it out for them. In ancient times it is easy to consider that the one who played the Fool too well was cast out or killed so that society could rid itself of these base desires for the rest of the year.
The Lord of Misrule
The little dog barking at the Fool to watch his step symbolizes the internalized, positive side of an instictual, natural response to life. Attuned to nature, this instinct builds in protection when it is needed at the most dangerus junctions of the Path.
In his sack, the Fool carries his unknown Self, or Shadow. He doesn’t think he wants what is in that sack, yet he needs it, and it can never be left behind. It can be seen as a bag of Karma, that which must be paid out by the end of life. In my deck, the Fool, Parzifal, carries a bag of black and white squares, signifying his inability to see the shades of grey. Black and white thinking blocks subtle awareness, depth of perception and openess to the contradictions through which the Mysteries are revealed. It suggests that even as free as the Fool’s mind is, his clinging to easy answers causes him to fail to ask the questions that would bring the Wasteland to life again. In a sense, black and white thinking is the sign of an inner wasteland — an utter lack of imagination. In the legend of his life, Parzifal was raised alone by his mother in the deep forest. All she supplied him with was a set of rules. His story shows that blind reliance on the rules can bring disaster when creative solutions are called for.
It is not hard to see that the sack and staff have phallic conotations. In traditional decks, the sack dangles at the end of the stick which is over the Fool’s shoulder visually severing his head from his body. There is no more apt arrangement of symbols to suggest that much of the Fools’ instinctual bad behavior, and much of his mania, is sexual. On another level, this sexual imagery has less to do with sexual acts than with fertility of ideas, creative energy as yet unformed, direct from a source close to the divine.
” The Way of the Fool is a sort of balancing act on a tightrope. While the Fool has no wish to lose contact with his Higher Self, he or she wishes to gain experience of life…”
Though my Fool, Parzifal wears no Fool’s cap or horns, or asses ears, the trees behind him mimic those shapes. They are part of nature. This Fool is already partly redeemed, for he wears the royal purple emblazoned with butterflies of transmutation, his bare head shines with gold and is free to recieve the angel’s blessings from above. He is wrapped in the yellow cloak of the mind in harmony with the body it floats around and supports like wings.
Parzifal walks out of the starry night of the forest toward an abyss of stars in the UnderWorld, for unlike our forebears, we have seen the Earth floating in space; we know the earth is as divine as any other celestial body. He is drawn to the wider world by a vision of ‘angels’– an encounter with the Knights of the Round Table whose armor shone in the sunshine like gold. Therefore, his motivation is a spiritual search.
The motley magpies represent and gathering of bright things, also in their constant chattering, the Mystery Language of the Birds. In the far distance the rising sun shines over the sea of origin, the source of all life.
Tarot meanings: Ignorance, naivete, entering the unknown, higher guidance, Idea, thought, that which endeavors to rise above the material, spiritual aspiration. In a reading about material concerns it shows folly, stupidity, eccentricity and mania unless balanced by very strong cards that stabilize.
To see the complete Tarot of the Holy Grail, go to www.whiteswan-tarot.com and look under Photo Gallery.