The “Keys to the Kingdom”

Somewhere in the dim and distant past I encountered the idea that astrology represents the “gold key” to unlocking visions of the future through divination, in that it is objective and rational (that is, based on visible phenomena), while the more subjective and intuitive tarot provides the “silver key.” I can no longer find the source of this bit of wisdom (a word-of-mouth utterance attributed by the speaker to Eliphas Levi or Aleister Crowley) but, understanding the symbolic nature of the Sun and the Moon, I can see that it has merit if only in that the brilliant solar rays deliver the (perhaps painfully) revealing “light of day” while the pale, nocturnal lunar beams are more suggestive and often hint at illusion. One method of inquiry is conscious and observational in its testimony and the other is unconscious and subliminal; one is also “fact-based” and the other “faith-based.”

As an astrologer and tarotmancer interested in the history of both, I find that the former has a deep current of Hellenistic philosophical thought running through it, shaped by the twin pillars of Claudius Ptolemy and Vettius Valens and under-girded by the bedrock of Pythagoras (number theory) and Empedocles (classical elements), while the latter can only be traced with any certainty as far back as tarocchi, an Italian card-game. Astrology was the accepted “celestial science” of its time, so it’s understandable that some masterful thinkers would have given it their serious attention. On the other hand, the much-later cards were a social diversion and a device for wagering, not initially a repository of profound metaphysical inspiration. That came later, beginning with the off-target Egyptian assumptions of Court de Gebelin, picking up speed with the esoteric notions of French occultists Etteilla (Jean-Baptiste Alliette), Eliphas Levi (Alphonse Louis Constant) and Papus (Gerard Encausse) and reaching its full expression with the creative tinkering of the late-19th-Century “Occult Revival” in Great Britain, later epitomized by Aleister Crowley. Everything after that, right up to the present day in both tarot and astrology, seems to be Jungian psychological embellishment.

So is one more valid than the other? From an historical perspective, the nod has to go to astrology since it has millennia of at least superficially reproducible observation behind it. The divinatory tarot enjoys no such even nominally-convincing database and relies solely on the anecdotal evidence of the moment gleaned from dialogue with the querent, the knowledge, proficiency and prior experience of the reader and the equally subjective opinions of tarot writers, with no widespread obligation (or, for that matter, inclination) to compile and analyze the results. The client walks out the door, never to be seen or heard from again. To those who object “Why turn tarot into a science?” I say “Why wouldn’t you want to give your sitters the most credible information possible?” Granted that an insight can seem to be unique to the querent’s specific circumstances, there is very little under the Sun that is truly unprecedented, so why not capitalize on that? I don’t think it’s ever going to happen in a comprehensive way, though, so the best each of us can do is to “tend our own garden.”

Efforts to reconcile modern assumptions about the meaning of the cards with “pre-occult” 14th-and-15th-Century sources are largely doomed to failure because the “period” literature to support them is so scarce. This is no real hardship for those who are interested only in the scholarly pursuit of verifiable facts about the cards, and who tend to “play them as they lay” without getting caught up in metaphysical hair-splitting. But for those who want to use the old decks in modern divinatory practice, some obvious compromises must be made if we choose not to simply graft on the accretions of the 19th Century, which in turn were grafted onto those of the earlier esotericists, none of which were particularly empirical in their derivation.  As someone recently said in an on-line tarot history discussion, “some guys made up a bunch of stuff, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work.” However, if we make a conscious choice not to use it our only  recourse is to create a personal system of interpretation based entirely on the visual import of the images. To be honest, if such a system produces meaningful and reliable results for ourselves and our clients, that is the only yardstick that really matters.

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