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Tarot of the Holy Light
by Mary K. Greer
Editor's Note: Enjoy this enlightening review of a tarot deck with unusually complex symbolism.
The Tarot of the Holy Light is a new deck illustrated by Michael Dowers with assistance of his partner, Christine Payne-Towler. I was very excited to hear this deck was coming out as I have been a fan of Christine’s tarot work for a very long time. Christine is one of the few people who has deeply explored the pre-de Gébelin esoteric underpinnings of the Continental Tarot decks. Christine feels she has discovered these underpinnings in the works of Cornelius Agrippa, Paracelsus, Jacob Boehme, William Postel, Abraham von Franckenberg, Joachim Fiore, Louis Claude de Saint-Martin and other alchemists, Rosicrucians, magicians and Kabbalists, with connections back to Pythagoras and Alexandrian Egypt (and even earlier).
Christine espouses the theory that there is a fairly consistent set of Astro-Alpha-Numeric (AAN) correspondences that exist among all of the aforementioned people as part of an unbroken lineage of Western occult philosophy. That is, a correspondence exists among Astrology, the Hebrew (and possibly Greek) Alphabets, and Numbers that at some point in the 18th century came to be related to Tarot cards by French Martinists and Freemasons. To this can be added swaths of angels and archangels. All this was known to Etteilla and Eliphas Lévi but, by the time we get to the late 19th century, it was beginning to get confused. It went totally off track when the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn knowingly led their initiates astray with a set of competing correspondences that was meant to hide the true lineage.
I have to admit that I am a follower of the Golden Dawn system and, although I have tried to understand the works mentioned above and Christine’s system, I find the material too abstract for my tastes. Christine’s earlier book: The Underground Stream: Esoteric Tarot Revealed is an excellent source for an overview of her theory, and those who are interested also need to read the articles in her Arkletters at Tarot University in order to see how her ideas have continued to develop.
It should be mentioned that, while it appears likely that Tarot was known to some French Freemasons before Antoine Court de Gébelin’s public revelation, tarot doesn’t seem to have been known by any of the earlier philosophers (mentioned above) despite such claims by the magician Eliphas Lévi and Papus. Secret societies have a history of making claims to great antiquity and illustrious predecessors, little of which can be substantiated by historical facts. However, most secret societies are based on an admiration and incorporation of earlier works, often with an accompanying belief in a golden age in which intelligent men and women were guided and lived by these lofty principles. This may be expressed as a founding myth-described-as-history.
This deck is structured according to Christine’s theories, using art derived from 17th century alchemists, collaged and colored by comic book artist, Michael Dowers. Despite some of my comments below, several of the Minor Arcana feature an almost humorous nod to illustrations in the Waite and Thoth deck that many will find comfortingly familiar. [The box features art by Patrick Dowers, which is in such a different, though delightful, style to that of the deck such that there is a disconnect every time the box is opened.] The LWB (little white book) contains only brief, Etteilla-based interpretations and spread suggestions that elucidate each number from one to twelve.
I’ve tried approaching this deck from several viewpoints. First, I tried to simply work with the images, but the cards are so filled with illusive alchemical references that I felt like I needed an alchemical symbol dictionary to understand them. My usual method of “describing the card” fell apart in the face of these—
“The card depicts a crowned and winged lion and eagle facing each other (an alchemical marriage?). Above is an eye-in-a-triangle with another one in the lower half of the card and a sun and a moon in triangles facing opposite the eyes. There are eleven colored balls in the background and two red flowers whose stems frame the picture. Around each eye and and in front of the colored balls are circles (one above and one below) with numbers like a clock (1-12) and the letters of the alphabet. The sky above is lighter than the sky below so perhaps the circles are the hours of the day and the hours of the night.”
The only phrases I came up with were – “a meeting of contraries” and “keeping the balls in the air.” Neither of which made much sense.
Next, I tried working with the correspondences on each card. This is the 6 of Wands. It is is 1-10° Leo ruled by the Sun—the first decan (ten degrees) of Leo. So I turned to my Agrippa who declares that the first decan of Leo shows a man riding on a Lion; it signifies boldness, violence, cruelty, wickedness, lust and labors to be sustained. Okay, I can go along with ‘Boldness with a touch of cruelty.’ But, why is the first decan of Leo the 6 while the 2nd decan of Leo is the 4 of Wands and the 3rd decan the 5 of Wands (card order = 2nd, 3rd, 1st decans)? This is especially confusing because in the 1, 2 and 3 cards of each suit the decans are in order. I’m told Christine’s forthcoming book will answer this question.
Then, I followed the recommendation in the little white book to lay out the cards to illustrate my birth chart. I love doing this with decks! The following illustration shows my chart (laid out on a rug that had a convenient circle of just the right size). The circle itself consists of the 36 Minor Arcana cards that depict the decans (10° segments) of the 360° of the circle. Along the outside I’ve laid the Major Arcana cards that show the signs of the Zodiac (touching the three decans to which they correspond). Inside I’ve laid the cards for the seven classical planets (Uranus, Neptune and Pluto were unknown in this older system). At the center I’ve woven together the four Pages to mark the angles of my chart as they represent the four seasons: Spring/Ascendant, Summer/IC, Fall/Descendent, Winter/MC. My Scorpio Ascendant is on the left with three planets in it (Venus, Mercury, Jupiter). My Sun and Moon are in Libra (12th House), and Mars and Saturn are in Leo in the 9th House at the top.
This can be pretty confusing, so let’s examine one planet placement: Mars in the 1st decan of Leo -
The first card is Mars, which corresponds to the Trump card of Strength. It’s great that it has a Lion on it (but if my Mars were in Pisces I’d find this confusing). The woman is lactating (which I don’t get—feeding the passions?), but the volcano in the background is appropriately Mars-like and fiery. We’ve already examined the second card, which is the 1st decan of Leo; it describes my Mars-drive as ‘bold with a touch of cruelty.’ The third card, the Hermit, corresponds to Leo. The Hermit is holding a large sun in his right hand (Sun rules Leo), and the eye-in-the-sky matches the eyes on the Leo decan card, and I suppose the dragon around his feet could stand in for Leo’s lion. But, really, the introspective Hermit does not seem at all like the proud, socially-oriented Leo, despite his red robe. Furthermore, a great number of cards in the deck have the alchemical Sun, Moon and Eyes on them—so they aren’t particular to these cards, at all.
So, all in all, I’d say this deck is colorfully beautiful and incredibly complex. Clues to the card’s meaning are not obvious, in many cases, from the illustrations. To truly understand what the cards are supposed to mean, you’ll have to wait for Christine’s explanatory book. That book is bound to take you on a journey into the 16th and 17th century metaphysical mind of the giants of occult philosophy, and introduce you to a system of correspondences that might take a bit of study if you wish to incorporate it into your practice. It will definitely expand your horizons.
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About the Author
Mary K. Greer has made tarot her life's work. Not only is she the author of eight books on Tarot, her Blog marygreer.wordpress.com is a mecca for those wanting to learn more about the subject. Three of her books are listed in the “Top Five Tarot Books” survey by the American Tarot Association, which polled members of the major tarot discussion lists, while two of her books are in the top five of the Aeclectic Tarot’s 2005 poll.