I’ll begin boldly: modern Tarot arises in France in the mid-17th century; whereas modern Freemasonry arises in England in the early 18th. Neither knows of the other and the two are not seen in any manner as related nor as connected.
I suppose I should justify a little my dates as they are undoubtedly going to be questioned by many of my readers. Note that I say, in each case, ‘modern’, and I mean this in the sense that what we have come to know as tarot – or, for that matter, as freemasonry – takes its established form at those respective dates as far as we best can tell. Of course there are precursors of similar shape that are direct antecedents.
Tarot as we know it – ie, as clearly having twenty-two trumps and fourteen cards in each of four other suits, each of the former having clear sequential numeration, and rules established for its game, appears between 1635 and 1650. The various decks appearing at an anterior date are not ‘complete’ (unless the full deck comprised of less that twenty-two trumps), and neither is the sequence as yet stable. It is with what has come to be called the ‘Marseille’ that we have the establishment and foundation of tarot as unaltered across three and a half centuries. In no way does this of course diminish such antecedents as the Sola Busca, the various Minchiate decks, the Carey Yale and the various Visconti-Sforza decks. Nor, importantly, the card remnants found in a Sforza Castle well.
If we look through historical records from our current situation back to earlier extant examplars, we reach a hurddle once hitting decks from the 1650s, and documents from the 1630s. Before that we certainly have decks that bear similarity, and documents that reflect what later becomes tarot, but to call those ‘tarot’ in the modern sense is, to my mind at any rate, going beyond what we generally know as ‘tarot’.
A similar situation arises in the history of Freemasonry. Certainly masonic activities occurs prior to the formation of the Grand Lodge in London in 1717: apart from other considerations, it is the meeting of four existing Lodges that so form this Grand Lodge. Furthermore, there are records of Lodges in Scotland prior to this, and the Schaw Statutes (also from Scotland) gives us important information about early masonic activities. Even earlier than this, there are records of ‘Grand Lodges’ in various places, for example in Stassbourg in 1459. These, however, have a similar character to what is the situation with regards tarot: antecedents that have their direct influence on what eventually becomes modern freemasonry.
As 1717 and London can be seen as a watershed in Freemasonry, irrevocably transforming what was before to what becomes modern Freemasonry, so too can Paris and 1650 with especially the Jean Noblet tarot. In the former, we have an incredibly rapid popularisation and spread of the Craft; in the latter, a similar situation with regards tarot. And in each case, standardisations that rapidly forms the backbone of what is deemed essential characteristics, including the three (blue) degrees with their respective signs and their sequence, and, for tarot, similarly the 78 cards and the trump design and sequence. Again, in each case, antecedents have their direct influence.
In the history timeline on Tarotpedia, Michael Dummett is quoted as stating that ‘a million is probably a highly conservative estimate of the number of Tarot packs produced in France during the seventeenth century’. As Freemasonry was yet to arise, it seems that any infuence of it on the development of tarot is senseless. And yet…
Let’s take a different tact for a while.
Let’s consider some of the formative influences on both tarot and on freemasonry, by heading backwards to the time of those magnificent Cathedrals and their builders. What is certain is that though there are distinctions between 12th century cathedral builders and Freemasonry, there are also lines of connections. In former times, of course, it was those who were directly involved in the design and construction of the edifice who were masons – though in those times they were indeed workers of stone, or masonry, of carpentry and of design or architecture, even if specialties also existed amongst these various trades.
The stone-carvers who gave us those incredibly rich Cathedral ornaments have, in due time, found their reflection in many tarot images. I have previously shown such details as the ‘Escape to Egypt’ from Amiens, Strength from Chartres, and ‘cowardice’ from Paris (amongst others), each of which has its similarity in imagery to, respectively, the Tower (or ‘Maison Dieu’), Strength, and the Fool. The ‘Last Judgement’, having, as its overall design, a combination of both the Judgement and World cards is found on such a large number of Cathedrals and other religious buildings as to become virtually ubiquitous throughout pre-revolutionary France, as well as what is now northern Italy.
In Milan, around the period and location in which proto-tarot takes its genesis, it is reputed that the teenage Duke (under tutelage in Savoy), wrote to Strassbourg requesting Masonic expertise for the supervision of the building of a Church.
Despite all these inevitable cross-currents in European cultural life, tarot and masonry, at that time as well as at those important watershed dates already mentioned, remain distinct – apart from the commonality of shared images, in part made popular and abundant by their public display on the façades of Cathedrals.
It was not until the 1730s that Freemasonic Lodges appear in France, specifically in the Parisian region. By that stage, we should recall the statement previously quoted of Michael Dummett’s. Could the early Freemasons in France have been infuenced by tarot? Certainly that is a possibility, but the influence would more likely have been of the same nature as participating in other games of chance, rather than affecting the manner in which Freemasonry developed or, indeed, the manner in which tarot continued to alter. Part of the greatest alteration to this latter has nothing to do with Freemasonry: with the design of reversible trumps, and the substitution of the ‘Italian’ suits for the ‘French’ ones, ie, Batons, Cups, Coins and Swords become the more easily manufactured stencilled Diamonds, Clubs, Spade and Hearts.
If we want to look for Freemasonic ‘connections’, it seems to me that we need to await the end of the 18th century, with the essays of De Gebelin and the Comte de Mellet (both published in De Gebelin’s vol VIII of the Monde Primitif). But even here, the connection is not one that links in any manner tarot with Freemasonry as such. Rather, it is that with De Gebelin (and, it seems, also with Mellet), we have on the one hand Freemasons writings on tarot and, importantly, the connections they make between tarot and both Egypt and the Kabbalah: it is these last two that similarly also had begun, a little earlier around the same period, to make claims on Masonic ritual and claimed origins, with one consequence being that certain new forms of Freemasonry begun to be developed with more specifically ‘egyptian’ flavours. Yet even at that stage the two remain at perpetual distance.
It is during the nineteenth century’s increasing esoteric interests that both tarot and freemasonry begin to be described in ways that make each of them foundation stones for the western esoteric movements (the third, if I may add it here, being Kabalah). Finally, when Jean Baptiste Pitois (aka Paul Christian) wrote (initially in his novel L’homme rouge des Toileries), claiming Iamblichus as his source, that under the passage between the Sphinx and the Great Pyramid of Giza were initiatory chambers in which were depicted the twenty-two trumps, we enter the combined realm of tarot and the initiatic rites of Freemasonry, and from hence the two become variously woven by his successors, whether in the form of the Kabbalistic Order of the Rose Cross in France and Switzerland, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in the UK and its spread in the antipodes and in North America, or the Brotherhood of Light – or, indeed, their respective derivatives and schisms. The most famous decks arising therefrom being the Wirth, Waite-Smith, Crowley-Harris, and Zain, each and every one in various ways taking both the Marseille pattern and aspects (however altered) of P. Christian’s influence into the deck’s intent.
Many, if not all, of those who became involved with the various redesign of tarot via those various Orders and societies were also Freemasons. Yet, I would suggest, it is generally not freemasonry that is the connection to the redesign, except in a very indirect manner in that the Craft generally had far more of an influence on the development and structure of the various Orders than is generally acknowledged. The influence on such an Order, however, is not solely from the Craft, and it seems to me that those Orders who have designed their various tarot have also allowed tarot to influence their work, and in turn their work impacts on the re-design, merging other influences (from Astrology, Kabbalah, Alchemy, Psychology and myriad other disparate fields) in ways that often masks tarot’s own intrinsic story.
And what of tarot and freemasonry in the 21st century – do they have a connection? Frankly, no… except that each continues to be central to the esoteric lore of the Occidental traditions, and that many amongst us work in various ways with both – at times to the chagrin of those who dislike one or the other (and that usually out of ignorance).
If anyone has seen the working in a Co-Masonic Lodge (in English speaking countries), even a deck such as the Australian Millenium Tarot that ostensibly bears no freemasonic connection brings the Freemasonry rituals to mind!
And of course, there are also the various tarot decks that, over the course of the past 30 years, have their designers incorporate in a far more direct and acknowedged manner freemasonry (such as the Square and Compasses Tarot featured in a previous issue of this Newsletter).
As to tarot and freemasonry, they remain, I would suggest, on opposite faces of a chasm, no matter how much some may have worked at their union.