John Yarker is perhaps best remembered for his highly active involvement in Freemasonry in especially the UK around the turn of the 20th Century. He was not only instrumental in keeping alive a number of various Orders that had either already ceased active existence, or were on the brink of oblivion. He also has some other personal interest and connection in that it is ultimately through his work that Rudolf Steiner’s own involvement in Freemasonry derives: Yarker passes to Reuss letters of authority for the working of what is known as the Memphis-Misraïm rite, from whom Steiner inherits his authority for the same. It’s also quite serendipitous that on the same day that I was working on an earlier draft of this entry, a paper was given at an SRIA College meeting I attended focussing in part on John Yarker’s Arcane Schools (albeit on a totally different topic and for different reasons).
Perhaps a few words of brief explanation about some of the various points I already mention above for the benefit of the many who have no involvement in Freemasonry, Steiner’s varied works, or the SRIA. Who and what are all these things?
Similarly to tarot, aspects of the origin and early development of freemasonry are obscure. As for tarot, there remains, however, clear watersheds that can be dated with precision. One of the most important one of these for freemasonry is the year 1717, at which time a Grand Lodge was formed in London that eventually was to give rise to what we consider today modern Freemasonry. Of course, this Grand Lodge did not arise in a vacuum: it required that speculative Lodges were already in existence. Nonetheless, this is an important marker.
Perhaps it should also be pointed that at that stage, the number of active initiatory degrees within the Freemasonry of the times were simply two. It was not long, however, before this becomes three… and then other active degrees became either incorporated within the existing canon or developed ‘on the side’. So here we see the rise of various rites, various types of Grand Lodges (or Orients, Councils, etc). Some of the more interesting amongst these arise during the ‘Egyptian furore’ that saw Europe overwhelmed with all things Egyptian: not only were public houses designed in the style, but things deemed of possessing the secrets of the ages were attributed to an Egyptian origin: in this neither tarot nor freemasonry escaped!
With freemasonry, the rite of Memphis developed a 90° system. A separate (but seemingly related) rite of Misraïm developed a 96° system. In practice, not all the degrees had rituals that were actually worked. Rather, many of these were (actually, I should here use the present tense as well: are) conferred. For example, a person obtaining by conferment the 36th degree would undergo the ritual associated with that grade and be ‘given’ the grades between that last practiced and the current one undertaken (by way of example, the 29th through to the 35th would be conferred if the previously ‘worked’ grade was the 28th degree). This is, as evidenced by my bracketed present tense, still applicable today in many forms of masonry that practices more than three degrees.
These two versions of Memphis and Misraïm were combined during the 19th century. Bear in mind that here were two sets of rites that had at their foundation an Egyptian form.
It is this form that Yarker sought to (re-)establish and gave patents for its use to Reuss in the German speaking world, and this latter who passed on to Steiner, who himself revised and altered according to his own spiritual views.
Rudolf Steiner is undoubtedly best remembered for his Anthroposophical works. His early works included what may be considered more typical academically oriented philosophical works – including working on the collected scientific papers of Goethe, and on Schiller’s, Nietzsche’s, and other philosophers of the 19th and earlier centuries.
Steiner’s involvement, and subsequent break, with the Theosophical Society heavily influenced the formation of not only the Anthroposophical Society, but also the formation of a Christian movement (the Christian Community), as well as the more widely spread educational impulses such as Camphill communities and Steiner / Waldorf schools; Bio-dynamic farming practices; the artistry of Eurythmy; Anthroposophic medicine (influenced by homoeopathy); sculptural architecture; and social reform through the Three-Fold Commonwealth (or Social Order) – amongst other works!
As mentioned earlier, Steiner was also involved in the Memphis-Mizraïm form of Freemasonry, and it is known that he had a copy of Yarker’s Arcane Schools. His three Mystery Plays – written after both his involvement in Freemasonry and after his editorship of the Berlin-based literary journal Magazin für Literatur – it is also an interesting side-note that Chekov was himself influenced by Steiner’s literary and dramatic views.
As I mentioned in a previous entry on ‘Rudolf Steiner and Tarot‘, Steiner did not have much to say on tarot – though it is evident that he used, and was familiar, with both Yarker (and his short comments on tarot) as well as the highly influential Eliphas Levi, on whom he based not only his symbols displayed on the Christmas tree, but also his panel hangings on the seven seals of the apocalypse. These are also interesting in that Steiner’s rendition of each of these calls to mind the description of an underground chamber in Paul Christian’s History and Practice of Magic, in which were postulated claims of eleven pairs of hangings depicting the trumps of the tarot.
John Yarker’s Arcane School
Yarker does not say much about tarot… yet it is highly significant in that it establishes and emphasises yet another link between Freemasonry and tarot, and at the very least increases interest in those Free-Masons who have developed esoteric interest. On page 87 of his Arcane Schools, he writes:
The learned French writer Christian considers that the 22 symbolical designs of the Tarot cards embody the synthesis of the Egyptian Mysteries, and that they formed the decoration of a double row of 11 pillars through which the candidate for Initiation was led, and that these designs further correspond with the 22 characters of all primitive alphabets.
There is little doubt in my mind that it is in large part Yarker’s influence that sealed the usage of the tarot by the about-to-be-formed Golden Dawn. Certainly Eliphas Levi had previously disseminated his Hebrew-letter correlations to a future founder of the GD. Also, similarly, Levi had also influenced the description that Paul Christian was to give of the claimed 22 hangings in the underground chambers between the Sphinx and the Great Pyramid. Yet were it not for Yarker’s own acceptance and promulgation of the same, I personally remain doubtful of the manner of their incorporation and usage within the GD (and the English magical revival that followed).
So let’s also have a brief look at Paul Christian and what he says of them which, incidentally, also impacts significantly on Papus’s own works.
Paul Christian’s 1870 History and Practice of Magic
On page 89 (Bk II: ‘The Mysteries of the Pyramids’), Christian writes:
Iamblicus, who lived in the first half of the fourth century A.D., has left us a treatise on the Egyptian mysteries [On the Mysteries], in which are related the principal scenes of the initiation tests. This very curious relic of antiquity deserves our attention for a space. [He then continues:] The Sphinx of Giseh, says Iamblicus, served as an entrance to the sacred vaults in which the Magi held their tests. [...] In the body of the Sphinx were constructed corridors that communicated with the subterranean portions of the Great Pyramid; these corridors were so skilfully arranged that anyone who undertook the journey from the Sphinx to the Great Pyramid without a guide was inevitably brought back through their mysterious network to the point whence he had started.
Following some imaginative descriptions of part of the initiatory rite, Christian continues thus (page 93):
The stairway turns in a spiral. At the twenty-second step is a bronze grating through which the postulant can see a long gallery lined each side by cariatides in the form of sculpted sphinxes: there are twenty-four. Between them the wall is covered with frescoes representing mysterious personages and symbols. These twenty-two pairs of pictures face each other, lit by eleven bronze tripods arranged in a line running down the middle of the gallery. [...]
Thereupon, passing in front of each of the twenty-two paintings in the gallery, the postulant received from the Pastophore the information which follows.
What follows are 16 pages of descriptions of the tarot and their significance, with a summative statement worth repeating:
By joining together the 22 meanings inherent in these symbols the whole may be resumed in the following terms as the synthesis of Magism:
Human Will [I], illuminated by Knowledge [II] and manifested by Action [III], creates Realisation [IV] of a power that it can use rightly or wrongly, according to its good or evil Inspiration [V], in the circle described for it by the laws of universal order. After having overcome the Ordeal [VI], which is imposed on it by divine Wisdom, it enters, after its Victory [VII], into possession of the work it has created and, retaining its Equilibrium [VIII] on the axis of Prudence [IX], it dominates the fluctuations of Fortune [X]. Man’s Strength [XI], sanctified by Sacrifice [XII], which is the voluntary offering of himself on the altar of dedication and expiation, triumphs over Death; and his divine Transformation [XIII] raising him above and beyond the tomb into the tranquil regions of an infinite progress, opposes the reality of an immortal Initiative [XIV] to the eternal falsehood of Fatality [XV]. The course of Time is measured by its ruins; but, beyond each Ruin [XVI], we see the re-appearance fo the dawn of Hope [XVII] or the Twilight of Disappointments [XVIII]. Man aspires ceaselessly to whatever is beyond him, and the sun of Happiness [XIX] rises for him only behind the tomb, after the Renewal [XX] of his being by the death that opens for him a higher sphere of will, intelligence and action. All will that lets itself be governed by bodily instincts is an abdication of liberty and condemns itself to the Expiation [O] of its error or its mistake. On the other hand, all will that unites itself to God in order to demonstrate Truth and operate Justice enters, after this life, into participation with the divine Omnipotence over beings and things, the eternal Reward [XXI] of enfranchised spirits.
Though it may be obvious, it is worth recalling that Iamblichus does not, of course, mention the chambers as described by Christian: rather, there is a reference to Iamblichus by Paul Christian, and then a description that calls to mind in precise descriptive terms the imaginative rendering of the various trials and tribulations of an aspirant seeking initiation. Still, what we have here is not only important basis that supplements the work of Eliphas Levi in the esoteric schooling revivals throughout Europe, but also much of the basis for what transforms, only a few decades later, into important developments for both tarot and esoteric free-masonry.