Andrea Vitali's Historical Essays on the Tarot

The Masonic origins of the esoteric Tarot


By Gerardo Lonardoni


Some years ago, in Italy has been published the book “il segreto dei tarocchi massonici” (the secret of the Masonic Tarot) with a new Tarot deck specially drawn for it. Among the Authors was Morris Ghezzi, a name well known in the Italian Masonic Lodges. Another deck with original iconography and its companion book entitled “Tarot Masonnique” has been published in France in 1987; the Author was Jean Beauchard. The latter deck is deeper than the former as far as the Masonic interpretation of Tarot is concerned; but both of them lack in references to the common history of the two traditions.


It is usually believed that Tarot is the divinatory tool par excellence; nothing can be more wrong. In ancient times for this purpose were used the common playing cards, and even that use is very rare; cartomancy till recent times was a divinatory practice absolutely negligible, of which no trace may be found in the treatises of Magic like the ones by Paracelsus or Cornelius Agrippa. The use of Tarot for divination becomes usual only since the end of the 18th century, when they were widespread in Europe since four centuries before.


But in the meantime something very important had happened.


Since 1773 a French savant whose name was Court de Gébelin, had published many volumes of a gigantic work entitled Le monde primitif. The Royal family herself subscribed for about one hundred copies of it; nine volumes were published before the death of the Author in 1784.


The “primitive world” of Court de Gébelin is the primordial time of Humanity, that the Author did not consider at all an age of stupid savages; on the contrary it would have been a golden age when the human civilization was undivided and existed one language, one religion, one culture. Court de Gébelin presented here a history of the civilization showing some resemblance with the idea of the “noble savage” of his contemporary Jean Jacques Rousseau; but differently from the latter, the esotericist was persuaded to be able to bring back to life that ancient age analyzing comparatively the myths and languages still existing and going back to their common origins.


Of this huge work, rich in cultural ambitions but absolutely weak from the historical and scientific point of view, no record would survive today but for a short essay contained in the VIII volume, which begins with a prologue universally known among the Tarot scholars:


“If one proceeded to announce that there is still nowadays a work of the former Egyptians, one of their books that escaped the flames that devoured their superb libraries, and which contains their purest doctrines on interesting subjects, everyone who heard, undoubtedly, would hasten to study such an invaluable book, such a marvel. If one also said that this book is very widespread in most of Europe, that for a number of centuries it has been in the hands of everyone, the surprise would be certain to increase. Would it not reach its height, if one gave assurances that no one ever suspected that it was Egyptian; that those who possessed it did not value it, that nobody ever sought to decipher a sheet of it; that the fruit of an exquisite wisdom is regarded as a cluster of extravagant figures which do not mean anything by themselves? Would it not be thought that the speaker wanted to amuse himself, and played on the credulity of his listeners?”


With such words, Court de Gébelin announced to the world of the savants of his epoch that Tarot is the only Egyptian book that survived the destruction of the Egyptian libraries, adding that no one before him had ever guessed its noble origins.


The statements of de Gébelin and the few pages he consecrated to Tarot were the starting point – like the small ball of snow that brings about an avalanche – of a world movement where thousands of scholars of any place and time keep producing new books to interpret its symbolism, and famous artists ad Dalì, Guttuso and Balbi keep creating new iconography devoted or inspired to Tarot.


Following the writings of de Gébelin, the practice of cartomancy with Tarot will spread everywhere, giving fame and celebrity to Etteilla and M.lle Lenormand, while before the French savant the Arcana were used almost exclusively for game.


Among the historians of Tarot, de Gébelin is generally considered to have been a hoaxer, who entirely invented the legend of the Egyptian Tarot and spread it anywhere with his work on history and mythology. But the reality is different.


The French savant held an important office at the Court, being one of the Royal Censors. He was a worthy son of the Enlightenment, but for our purposes he was first of all an esotericist and a remarkable Freemason. He had entered Freemasonry through the Parisian Lodge Les amis réunis,  then he joined an important Lodge, Les noeuf soeurs,  to which belonged the most famous men of his age, like the scientists Lalande and Benjamin Franklin, the philosopher Voltaire, the revolutionary Danton. In 1777 he lectured in the temple of the Main Lodge of the Scottish Rite about the allegorical meanings of the Masonic grades. Then he was among the Founders of the Order of the Philalethes, that had sprouted from Les Amis Rèunis, later joined by many members of the Order of the Elus Cohen, which had dissolved in 1781 and whose last Ruler entrusted their archives to the Philalethes.


That de Gébelin belonged to the XVIIth century esoteric circle is then a fact, and for this reason he did not invent anything about the Tarot. The information that he spread were fruit of confidential teachings received in the Lodges he had attended, and probably they had already become partly spurious at the time of de Gébelin. His work allowed their survival; but we do not know if he had been allowed to reveal them – the historian of Tarot Giordano Berti doubts it – nor do we know if he did it in a correct way or in a distorted way, out of ignorance or even intentionally.


Many years ago, has been published in Great Britain a scholarly book written by three outstanding  historians of Tarot: Michael Dummett, Ronald Decker and Thierry Depaulis. The book is entitled A wicked pack of cards and states what I have always thought it was logical to think: that de Gébelin did not invent anything. He simply spread ideas going round since long time in the Masonic Lodges of his time. The text demonstrates the theory by a comparative analysis of the still existing documents (1).


In a footnote of “Le monde primitif”, we find an interesting remark:


“Twenty-two pictures form a book not very bulky; but if, as is quite probable, the first traditions were preserved in poems, a simple image which fixed the attention of the people, by which one illustrated the event, served to help them to retain them, as well as the verse which described them " (2).


The most likely explication of the passage is that, if the cards were relics of an ancient Knowledge, they were certainly joined to captions in form of verses; we can suppose that at the time of de Gébelin these poetic supplements were still existing, or that survived a memory of them in the occult circles.


Then de Gébelin makes a statement, that reveals his subtlety: the ludic shape of Tarot has been the vehicle by which the secret doctrine of the Egyptians has been able to survive along the centuries, eluding the watchful eye of the Holy Office. Here are the words of the French author:


“A necessary consequence of the frivolous and light form of this book, which made it capable of triumphing over all the ages and of passing down to us with a rare fidelity: the ignorance which until now even we have been in concerning what it represented, was a happy safe conduct that allowed it to cross every century quietly without anyone thinking of doing it harm” (3).


Anticipating Edgar Allan Poe, the French writer rightly says that the best way to hide something valuable and make it invisible, is to put it under the sight of everybody in a shape lacking in whatever attractiveness.


The theory of the Egyptian origin of the Tarot has not passed the examination of history; anyway, in an article I have written for the website of my Association Le Tarot, entitled  Antoine Court de Gébelin e le origini del Tarocco esoteric, I stressed some discrepancies in the work of the French savant on the Tarot (4). The hypothesis I reckon to be most likely, is that he intentionally blended with spurious data what he had learned in the Lodges he attended, to preserve a supposed secret he probably felt bound to.


After de Gébelin, very often it was Freemasons who expanded the knowledge of Tarot: chronologically, the first one was Etteilla, an anagram of his real surname Alliette, a celebrated fortune-teller and alchemist, contemporary of Court de Gébelin. He set up and directed in Lyon a Masonic rite in seven degrees, called  Des parfaits initiés d'Egypte till his death, that took place in 1791.


After Etteilla, mention must be made of Alphonse Louis Constant (1810 – 1875) who wanted to render his name in Hebraic language calling himself Eliphas Levi. He joined the Socialist wing of the French Masonry and in the climate alternatively revolutionary and conservative of France in his time, he suffered sometimes imprisonment. Levi connected the doctrine of Tarot to the cabbalistic speculations and, adding from his own, he created a complete symbolic, theurgic, magic system.


Then we must mention Oswald Wirth, a Freemason from Switzerland, who wrote a book considered a milepost in the esoteric study of Tarot:  “Le Tarot des imagiers du Moyen Age”. Attached to the book there was a Tarot deck, drawn by Wirth himself, who had been disciple and secretary of a famous nineteenth-century occultist, Stanislas de Guaita. The Author explicitly stated that he intended to bring back the iconography of Tarot to the medieval symbolism of the cathedrals; his book, being the work of a celebrated Freemason, was an element in support of the hypothesis of the common origin of the two traditions, and an attempt to “bring back to the spring” the iconography of Tarot.


A contemporary of Wirth was the English Freemason Arthur Edward Waite (born in USA), author of  an important essay on the Tarot and above all of a deck, painted by and English artist, Pamela Colman Smith; the Rider-Waite Tarot is at present the most widespread in English-speaking countries, where is continually reprinted.


At present, publishers like Lo Scarabeo in Italy, Llewellyn in America and AGMuller in Switzerland issue every year hundreds of new Tarot decks with iconography inspired by history, mythology, esotericism, even physical sciences, like the Quantum Tarot. Tarot is an universal alphabet whose symbols can fit whatever subject.


The Tarot has attracted the attention of famous artist, as we saw before, and of writers like Italo Calvino, author of the novel The Castle of crossed destinies, whose main character is just Tarot in its two most opposed expressions: an artistic illuminated XVth-century deck, and a tavern pack for lower-classes. But it was from depth psychology and, of course, esotericism that the Tarot received its most important acknowledgments, from two Authors who had for the rest  ideas very different from each other: the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung and the French “traditionalist” René Guénon.


In the first half of the 20th century, when both of them wrote the largest part of their works, the history of Tarot had not yet been studied thoroughly and scientifically, as happened after the pioneer work of Gerard van Rijnberk: Le Tarot, histoire, iconographie, ésotérisme, published in 1947. Since that date, the history of Tarot has made giant steps and today we have much larger information about the subject than Jung and Guénon, though much is still unknown about the origin of these cards. The two Authors above mentioned could not therefore study systematically the Tarot, about which no historically sure data existed; but devoted to it many statements scattered in their works, that made clear the importance they attributed to those mysterious symbols.


On the net may be found a document kept in the library of the Jung Institute of New York, that reports the short notes written by Hanni Binder during the speeches made by Jung about Tarot. The verbal description made by Jung about the Greater Arcana is based upon the Tarot de Marseille edited by Grimaud in 1930, but the deck itself in its most ancient forms dates back at least to the XVIIth-century. The notes may be found on the blog of Mary K. Greer (5).


It must be stressed here that Carl Gustav Jung's grandfather, a physician like him and who had the same name, was Grand Master of the Swiss Masonry and his grandson was probably a member, too.


René Guénon, who was a fierce adversary of Jung, which he accused to debase the ancient Traditions using them for the treatment of the mind illnesses, had equally a high regard for Tarot from the esoteric respect.


Guénon studied the forms of spirituality that he believed to be authentic, claiming they had a common origin in a supposed Primordial Tradition, whose See would have been a spiritual centre presently hidden. He stated that the spiritual reintegration of man in our epoch may have place only through a regular initiation, as happens in Freemasonry or in the Christian baptism, bestowed by a qualified master, followed by the spiritual practice used in the traditional form to which the initiation belongs.


In the course of his researches, Guénon run also into the opposite of the primordial Tradition; he called it “counter-tradition”, that is degenerated and inverted forms of it, that could lead men to their final disruption spiritually and morally, instead of their reintegration into the Sacred. This counter-tradition would have reached its peak in the present epoch, where we can also find those lower psychic forms that represent the exact opposite of the real spirituality. Given these premises, we could easily expect that Guénon rejected contemptuously the Tarot, whose origin is still unknown and that is largely used today by fortune-tellers.


All the contrary, he thought that Tarot descended from the Primordial Tradition and that its symbology, though had passed for centuries across the work of incompetent paper producers, had retained entirely its esoteric valence. Nevertheless he believed that it was not possible to approach it and its hidden knowledge, without the greatest caution. He wrote in fact to see in the Tarot: “the relics of an undeniable traditional science, whatever its real origin, though characterized by very shadowy aspects” (6).


We may suppose that Guénon feared that Tarot, a relic of traditional forms but lacking in whatever relationship with any regular initiation, could expose who made use of it to the risk of being sucked down by lower forces, against whose influence he warned whomever entered the spiritual way without a strong anchorage to a regular Tradition. Guénon probably saw in the practice of divination or meditation with the cards a useless opening to dangerous psychic influences, against which in his opinion the Arcana offered no shield. It must be remarked anyway that such was his point of view about esotericism in general, opposed by many other Authors, especially as far as the need of a “regular” initiation is concerned.


Guénon acknowledged that Freemasonry descended from the Primordial Tradition and deemed that the Masonic initiation bestowed by a qualified Master could – at least potentially – open the “inner doors” of Spirit. Since the occult knowledge of Tarot was, as above explained, initially kept in the Masonic Lodges from which de Gébelin drew it, until it was used within that circle it had evidently to be considered a vehicle of Knowledge absolutely valid and regular.


We may now draw the conclusion from what we have written: the Tarot is not, and never was before, a simple tool for divination. This use spread in a very late time, mainly after the “revelations” of de Gébelin: but it is to be considered “inferior”.


The Tarot was instead a set of images devised for the purpose of symbolizing the path of the Initiate toward his own self-realization. It was used in the XVIIIth century Lodges as a sort of esoteric manual in images, probably together with aphorisms or short explications of each figure. This knowledge was considered to be esoteric and de Gébelin himself exposed it only partially ad in a contradictory form, perhaps intentionally. For this reason the studies about the Tarot esoteric symbolism are going on, with the intention of discovering the knowledge that is deemed to be hidden in its symbology.





                                                                                             Tarot Maçonnique





1 - Michael Dummett, Ronald Decker, Thierry Depaulis, A wicked pack of cards , 3th chapter, St Martin Press, 1996 

2 -, p. 35

3 - Ibidem, p. 4

4 -

5 -

6 -