The lore of Life, Leaf & Stone
Part 2: Taratir to Tarot, the Royal Road
In part 1 of this series, Behind the Wisdom of Life, we began our investigation of the traditions underlying the Tresco MS documents by examining the calendar-based 'Wisdom of Life'.
We examined Middle-earth calendar development and saw how the thirty-six Taratir archetypes could be distributed around the year-wheel. We examined how this 'Wheel of Visions' could provide a framework both for exploring the archetypes themselves and the events and experiences encountered during each of the thirty-six decans (ten day periods).
Also described were the numerologically derived LIFE-vision and Year-visions. Parallels were drawn with other systems, particularly the tarot 'Lifetime Cards' of Angeles Arrien.
We turn now to the 'other half' of the Tresco MS lore, the so-called 'Lore of Leaf & Stone'. This involved selecting a number of Taratir archetypes represented either by lassi (cards, literally 'leaves' ) or serni (casting stones). These cards or stones were arranged in some manner and their divinatory meanings ascertained.
Although there are undoubtedly parallels to be drawn between the serni and the divinatory use of runic casting stones in Northern European traditions, this article will concentrate upon the extraordinary and far-reaching similarities between the Taratir cards of Fourth Age Middle-earth and the emergence of tarot cards in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries of the present age.
Before commencing it must be pointed out that the manuscript texts describing the lassi were composed long after the cards first appeared and, further, that no examples of the cards themselves have survived to the present day. We must therefore be wary of assuming too much concerning their original nature.
Development of the Tarot
For a contemporary definition of the tarot we can do no better than this, from Mary Greer:
The Tarot is an ancient Western occult psychological and philosophical system consisting of 78 cards divided into the Major and Minor Arcana. The 22 cards of the Major Arcana represent in archetypal symbols wo/man's journey through life.(1)
The historical development of the tarot is a subject as complex, and at times as uncertain, as that of the Taratiri themselves. For a detailed examination of the subject the reader is referred to the first volume of Stuart Kaplan's Encyclopedia of Tarot(2), from which much of the following discussion is taken.
The earliest extant cards identifiable with the tarot are known as the Visconti and Visconti-Sforza decks and date from around 1430-1450 CE.
Although only incomplete sets of these Italian cards have survived they appear originally to have comprised twenty-two pictorial trionfi or Trumps (Major Arcana) plus four suits each containing fourteen 'pip' cards. The latter fifty-six cards comprise the Minor Arcana. The Visconti Trumps are untitled and unnumbered. The original sequence is unknown, as indeed is 'the precise purpose of these early cards.'(3)
The earliest documented sequence for the Trumps is in a manuscript dating from around 1500 CE, entitled Sermones De Ludo Cum Aliis. The manuscript distinguishes 'cards' from 'trumps', suggesting that at this time the Major and Minor Arcana were, in Kaplan's words, 'separate entities.' The order of Trumps differs little from the 'Geofroy sequence' of 1557, which has been considered the basis of modern tarot usage.
Other, related decks of cards appear to have been in use in the mid to late fifteenth century. The so-called Mantegna decks, dating from around 1470 CE, comprised fifty cards numbered 1 through 50 and arranged in five 'suits' or series. Within each series the ten cards represented graded expressions of a specific theme. In this way they may be seen as foreshadowing the pictorial 'story-board' decks of the twentieth century, such as the Waite-Smith pack first published in 1910.
Of the fifty Mantegna cards, eight equate directly to Visconti trionfi. Kaplan broadens this somewhat, corresponding nineteen Mantegna cards to thirteen Trumps. In either case it seems likely that the later Mantegna deck arose in part out of the earlier Visconti cards, or that both drew upon common themes. Perhaps, as Kaplan suggests, each was in part derived from a set of 'prints unknown today.'
One such source may have been the so-called Gringonneur or Venetian cards, three sets of which were reputedly painted for Charles VI of France in 1392CE. Seventeen cards, supposedly of these series, exist today. They are untitled and unnumbered, but are identifiable with images from both the Visconti trionfi and the Mantegna cards.
Doubt exists, however, as to the origin of these cards. Whilst 'sumptuous in pictorial design and belong[ing] to a style of the 14th century'(4), it is likely that they are of fifteenth century Venetian origin. This doubt does not, of course, rule out the possibility of a common source, or sources, for all these early sets of cards.
Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the game of tarocchi flourished, and numerous packs of cards for playing the game were produced. At this stage there is little evidence that the cards had a fortune-telling role. According to Kaplan, until at least the late eighteenth century 'tarocchi decks appear to have been used mainly as a game or as pictorial representations of noble families and their surroundings.'
Esoteric applications can be said to have begun with Antoine Court de Gebelin (1725 to 1784 CE). After many years of research Gebelin, a scholar of ancient religions and mythologies, expounded his belief that the tarot was of Egyptian origin.
This thesis was elaborated by one of Gebelin's most ardent followers, Etteilla. Etteilla declared the tarot to be the work of 'seventeen Magi, including the second of the descendants of Mercury - Athotis ... [who] decreed the Book of Thoth in accordance with the science and the wisdom of his ancestors.'(5)
Interestingly, whilst the cards published to accompany Gebelin's Du Jeu des Tarots closely followed the 'Geofroy sequence', Etteilla saw fit to rearrange and rename many of the Trumps. His own seventy-eight 'Grand Etteilla' cards were nevertheless based upon tarot symbolism, and the two systems can be readily equated.
Etteilla was the first to ascribe astronomical and astrological connections to certain of the Trumps, and further equated seven of his cards to the first seven days of Creation.
In 1854, Eliphas Levi (Alphonse Louis Constant, 1810 to 1875 CE) published his Dogme et Ritual de la Haute Magie. In this and later works Levi propounded his own theory that the tarot derived not from Egypt but was rather linked to the Jewish Kabbalah.
The Kabbalah is ultimately based upon the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, which are considered the essence of all Creation. The letters comprise the twenty-two 'true paths' on the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, and these Levi corresponded to the twenty-two tarot Trumps.(6)
Although Paul Christian (Jean-Baptiste Pitois), writing in the nineteenth century, reasserted the 'Egyptian Connection' by interpreting the Trumps as Egyptian hieroglyphic paintings, Levi was the first to explicitly link the tarot to an esoteric alphabet.
Due in large measure to the occult revival that spread throughout Europe from France in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Kabbalah came to stand at the centre of western esoteric practice. Because of this, the cards of the tarot Trumps can be corresponded via the Tree of Life with a wide range of systems. These include astrology, colours, gemstones, animals and plants(7).
Of the occultists whose work has influenced the development of the tarot, A E Waite (1857 to 1942) deserves particular mention. He rearranged the order of the Trumps, swapping cards VIII, Strength and XI, Justice and placing card 0, The Fool at the head of the series.(8)
More fundamentally, Waite's own 'rectified' tarot deck broke with tradition by fully illustrating each of the 'pip' cards of the Minor Arcana. This revolutionary pack, illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith and first published in 1910, has profoundly influenced the majority of subsequent decks, many of which are little more than stylistic reworkings of the Waite-Smith images.
The past decade has seen a remarkable renaissance in tarot's popularity, with a seemingly vast number of new decks appearing on the market. One of the largest publishers in this field, US Games Systems Inc, lists over 200 tarot decks (including variants and card / book sets) in its mail order catalogue.
Facsimile editions of early tarot decks are listed alongside contemporary (and sometimes bizarre) interpretations of tarot symbolism. Undoubtedly there is a large market for these decks of cards - many are truly beautiful works of art and eminently collectible in their own right.
Amidst all this variety you would - until recently - have looked in vain for a 'Tolkien Tarot' (at least, a commercially available deck: from my own research I know of at least two private projects along these lines). All this changed with the publication last year of The Lord of the Rings Tarot Deck & Card Game.(9)
Several reviews (and a certain amount of controversy) about this deck have already appeared in Tolkien fan publications. In my own opinion, it is a remarkable tour de force and warrants acknowledging as such. The accompanying book(10) can and should be read as much as an exploration of the depth and imagery of Tolkien's mythos as an exploration of a valuable divinatory tool.
Relationship of the Tarot and Taratir systems
From the above discussion it is clear that a number of comparisons and contrasts can be drawn between the tarot and the Taratir ('Vision') cards described in the Tresco MS.
Tarot / Taratir
The most obvious similarity is between the words 'tarot' and 'Taratir'/'Taratiri'. The origins of 'tarot' are uncertain, even amongst scholars. Kaplan(11) states that tarot is the French derivative of tarocchi, by which term the early decks of Major and Minor Arcana were known in sixteenth century Italy.
An alternate derivation is from the word tarotée, a variety of criss-cross or 'tartan' design commonly employed on the backs of early tarot decks, though Kaplan discounts this, asserting in contrast that the name of the designs arose from the cards which bore them.
Various writers have commented upon the significance of anagrams drawn from the word tarot, including:
From which may be derived:
TARO ORAT TORA ATOR
Court de Gebelin proposed that tarot means 'Royal Road', being composed of the Egyptian words tar, 'way' or 'road' and ro/ros, 'king' or 'royal'. This is interesting given that the Parma Taratirion, the work from which arose the Fourth Age traditions described in the Tresco MS, was first written for Eldarion, High King of the Reunited Kingdom. Furthermore, one likely derivation from Taratir is tar-, once used in Middle-earth as a Royal name prefix.
The actual meaning of Taratir is nowhere given explicitly in the Tresco MS except that it is glossed Sighð throughout - Old English Boc þaera Hehsighðana translating Parma Taratirion as the title of the prime text.
Bennett's translation from OE Sighð to modern 'Vision' seems secure enough, at least to this poor scholar who must rely upon more learned advice. I am informed that Boc þaera Sighðana was used in Old English for the biblical Book of Revelations.(12)
But if the OE gloss may be rendered as 'Vision' this is only half the story: we have yet to prove the fidelity of Sighð/Vision as a translation of the (supposedly) original 'Taratir'. We may here remind ourselves of the texts' provenance.
The extant manuscript is - potentially - the autograph of Hundred of Warwick, or at least a contemporary copy. Upon Sûli (modern-day Scilly), in his native English, Hundred compiled and rewrote the Grey and Green Books of Lindisfarne. Those books, also in English, had been translated by brothers of that house from the already-ancient 'Book of Finan'.
Whilst the language of Finan's book cannot be known for certain, it seems to have been one of the Mannish tongues of the middle to late Fourth Age. In the absence of evidence to the contrary we may call it 'Westron', acknowledging that the language may have developed and / or degraded significantly from the Third Age Common Speech presented by Professor Tolkien.
However, Taratir is not Westron. The wisdom traditions described in the texts have their source in Elven lore and it is to their tongues that we must look for the origins of the word. From Tolkien we have Sindarin tar- 'high' (Quenya tára- 'lofty') used as a "prefix of the Quenya names of the Númenórean Kings ... Feminine tári 'she that is high, Queen' in Elentári, Kementári."(13)
Again we find tir 'watch, watch over', as in Minas Tirith, Tower of Guard, and palantir , 'far-seer', from Quenya palan 'far and wide' + tir.
Taratir might be translated literally as 'that which is high (or noble or lofty or royal) and watches (or watches over, or may be used to see)'.
Whilst clearly not precise, the rendering into OE Sighð > Vision seems valid, maintaining the twin properties of 'specialness' and 'seeing'. I am informed that sighð was "used for 'vision' both in the ordinary, everyday sense of 'being able to see' and for the more exalted, religious type."(14)
The second similarity is so obvious it might almost be overlooked: the card format of both the tarot and the Taratir lassi. Note that tarot symbolism has only been expressed in the form of the deck-of-cards (allowing that the tarot may be considered archetypally aside from its physical manifestation), whilst - as previously mentioned - the Taratiri were physically manipulated in the form of both cards and casting stones. The correspondence of the latter with European (runic) casting stones must remain a subject for another day.
To us a rectangular card format seems obvious and it will probably come as no surprise that tarot decks have traditionally been rectangular. However, other shapes are feasible and a number of circular tarot decks have appeared in recent years, notably the Motherpeace Tarot (Vogel/Noble) and Tarot of the Cloisters (Leavitt).
Whilst it seems reasonable to assume that Taratir cards were also rectangular, this is nowhere explicitly documented. The possibility remains that they were of some other shape: perhaps 'leaf-shaped' (whatever shape that might be) matching the etymology. Intriguingly in this context, 'the common term for cards in Hindustani is taj or tas, suggesting a leaf'.(15) According to Kaplan, Hindustan is one possible source for the origin of playing cards.
Whilst the pictorial imagery of tarot decks has varied enormously down the years, with greatest diversity arguably being seen at either end of the timeline (that is, amongst 'early' and 'modern' decks) the underlying structure has remained remarkably constant.
The 'standard' tarot deck comprises 78 cards, divided into the 22 pictorial Major Arcana plus 56 Minor Arcana arranged as four suits each of 14 cards ( ten 'pip' cards valued 1 through 10, plus four pictorial cards usually named Page, Knight, Queen and King). The similarity with modern playing cards is self-evident. The names of the suits vary but in most decks they are named Cups, Wands, Swords and Coins (or Pentacles).
Most modern decks follow Waite in having images on all cards in the deck (even where the imagery chosen differs from Waite's own). This pictorial approach makes learning the meaning of the cards much easier.
Based as they were upon the Visions of Rómendil (expounding lore delineated according to the alphabet of Fëanor), the Taratiri must always have been thirty-six in number.
As to their ordering: the sequence of both Taratiri and Commentaries in the Tresco MS follows that described for the Wheel of Visions in the Lore of Life, Leaf & Stone, but the possibility exists that Rómendil's original ordering was amended or rewritten by the Mannish Wise when they brought the Parma Taratirion into alignment with their own astrological and calendrical traditions.(16)
Neither can the editorial hand of later writers, including Hundred Elf-friend, be totally excluded from consideration.
According to the Tresco MS each card bore an image taken from the relevant Commentary illustration, together with the ascribed Tengwar letter and letter-name. The exact card layout is not known, however. Neither is it told whether the cards were numbered, or whether they bore additional words or symbols to elucidate their divinatory or esoteric meanings.
Despite these obvious differences there is a clear and very strong correspondence between the Taratir and tarot systems: specifically between the sequence, pictorial representation and meaning of the Vision archetypes and the Major Arcana:
[TABLE]: Tarot : Taratir correspondences
It is beyond the scope of the present article to discuss each correspondence in turn: one detailed example will have to serve as illustration. Note that, except where indicated, interpretations of imagery and meaning are my own. In the case of The Lord of the Rings Tarot Deck, these were composed before reading the accompanying book.
Allowing one's immediate impulses to be directed by the use of reason. Creating bridges between this realm and the realm of higher energies. Opening oneself as a channel for these forces.(18)
One of the most beautiful of the LotR Tarot cards, Strength shows the White Tree rising into a red-gold sky from a grassy mound surrounded by small standing stones. From the text it is clear that the stones emphasize the symbolism of the seven stars overhead. The tree's white branches are bare but seem to reach up and out into the air. The roots are very prominent above ground, heightening the impression that the tree is bridging earth and sky.
The tree is surrounded by a green eight-pointed star formed from two interlinked squares, representing the element of earth. Arching above the tree are seven six-pointed 'Stars of David', each formed from two interlinked triangles, symbolising the element of air. Between the eight-pointed star and the arch is a large golden Leo glyph.
Taratir 8, TREE: alda ('tree')
We are made of the bones of the earth.(19)
This archetype indicates long-nursed emotions beginning to rise to the surface. Trees are strong. Not a rigid concrete or brick-wall strength, but one which tolerates, adapts, bears the affront of the seasons and the weather. Think of trees bending in a gale. Or roots, seeking out a path between stones in the earth.
Yet, to us, rushing along in our own time frame, trees appear part of the static background to our daily lives. We might notice the seasonal changes in their foliage, but hardly that the trees themselves have grown, moved. And yet, those same roots can and do split rock, break pavements.
The image is of the Entmoot at Derndingle, at which the long-nursed grievances of the Onodrim overflow into action. Action that sets them on the road to Isengard. The lesson here is that such outpourings need to be channelled: directed into some positive, creative or healing direction. Otherwise, the surge of previously suppressed energy may wreak havoc within your life, and that of those around you.
It is first of all worthy of note that both The Lord of the Rings Tarot Deck and the Taratiri place this archetype at position eight.
As discussed above AE Waite rearranged - he would have said 'rectified' - the received order of the tarot Major Arcana. He swapped cards VIII, Strength or Fortitude and XI, Justice - 'for reasons which satisfy myself'(20) - and also placed card 0, The Fool at the head of the series.
Waite's revolutionary pack has profoundly influenced a majority of subsequent decks, though his authority is by no means universally acknowledged. The infamous occultist Aleister Crowley restored the original ordering (renaming the Strength card "Lust" in the meantime).
Whilst it is understandable that the creators of The Lord of the Rings Tarot Deck should follow Waite's sequencing, it is less readily explained how that same order is to be found in the Taratir archetypes, whose origins are said to be traceable back to the undetermined antiquity of Fourth Age Middle-earth.
Furthermore, although the images upon the two cards differ, it is surely remarkable that both use the image of the tree to express the fundamental potency of archetype eight. The 'standard' (post-Waite) tarot representation of Strength is of a figure, usually female, holding closed the jaws of a lion or similarly ferocious beast.
As Donaldson notes, in early tarot decks "the Strength card suggested more brutal physical power, the kind that overwhelms and is capable of breaking limb from limb"(21) - frequently represented by Hercules and the Nemean lion.
Quoting Waite again: "Fortitude, in one of its most exalted aspects, is connected with the Divine Mystery of Union."(22) To me this is suggested by the Lord of the Rings Tarot image of the White Tree bridging heaven and earth, though its creator states that "here we have a new image of Strength ... The tree illustrates the idea that resilience comes from renewed growth."(23)
The earlier idea of the wild beast - often taken as a metaphor for raw passions - held in check by the higher aspirations is more closely represented in Taratir 8, TREE with its central idea of the dynamic tension between suppressed energy and the creative manifestation of that energy's release. In the Tarot this may be indicated by the astrological glyph for Leo. This links to the lion in the conventional tarot image, but also stands for the creative deployment of energy.
The original method by which Taratir cards were interpreted is not recorded. Aerlinn can only state with certainty that "by various means some leaves were drawn from the rest, and their meanings told."(24)
Scant of detail though this description is it must be instantly familiar to any modern reader of the tarot. The later 'Lore of Life, Leaf & Stone'25 describes (but does not illustrate) two card layouts or 'spreads'. The 'Star of the West' spread shown below has been constructed from the following manuscript passage:
One for the Sky, the Crown of the King.
The spread symbolises the four cardinal directions - north, east, south, west - plus the relationship between the earth (below) and the sky (above).
Comparison can be drawn between this layout and the (so-called) 'traditional' Celtic Cross tarot spread. Indeed, the Star of the West can be seen as a three dimensional Celtic Cross, with the Sky and Earth cards lying respectively above and below the plane of the Cross.
The second Taratir card spread (not shown here) represents the northern constellation of the Plough or Sickle (cards one through seven), together with the north pole star (card eight). Both spreads will be more fully treated in a later article.
To summarise thus far: we have found a number of similarities between the Taratir archetypes of Fourth Age Middle-earth (as revealed via the Tresco manuscript texts) and the tarot:
Such observations are intriguing but could there be more to them than coincidence? Retracing the historical development of the tarot (as described above) and the provenance of the Tresco MS we may detect further, and more compelling, parallels.
Around 1450 the Benedictine priory of St Nicholas on the Scilly island of Tresco is recorded as having fallen into disrepair. This dating coincides with the appearance in Italy of the first cards comparable with the tarot (although extant cards show poor correlation with later tarot sequencing).
There may be no direct connection between the two events. However, it is certainly possible that knowledge of Hundred's great book (itself apparently entrusted to hermits of Scilly in the ninth century) had passed into Europe with, or in advance of, the dissolution of the priory.(26)
If so, there might be a more-than-coincidental relationship between the two systems. Indeed, Hundred's work emerges as a prime candidate for Kaplan's "prints unknown today" as the source of the earliest tarot decks. Ridiculous though this assertion appears at first glance, the hypothesis is supported by certain features of tarot's subsequent development.
Through the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the 'tarot-like' game of tarocchi became widespread. Although, as described above, the true tarot sequence seems to have been known from around 1500, the images, numbers and titles of 'tarot'-like cards varied greatly through the period. This would seem to suggest that the sources had become lost, forgotten or memory of them increasingly confused.
With the 'Occult Revival' of the late eighteenth century the tarot was first linked with 'esoteric' alphabet lore. Correlation was first attempted with the Egyptian hieroglyphs, but this approach was subsequently rejected in favour of the Hebrew alphabet underlying the Kabbalah.
The switch in alphabets followed closely - and intriguingly - upon the discovery of the Tresco MS in 1835 by the Masonic Grand Master Augustus Smith. Individual variations notwithstanding, the 'new' approach returned the Major Arcana to the ordering documented at the start of the sixteenth century - and apparently 'lost' in the intervening period.(27)
I have endeavoured in this - necessarily abbreviated - article to describe the major strong parallels between the Taratir archetypes and the Major Arcana of the tarot. I have further related intriguing correlations in the mutual histories of these two systems.
Far from considering these similarities coincidental, I propose that the tarot arose directly out of the dissemination throughout Europe of Fourth Age lore contained within the 'Book of Visions' compiled by Hundred (Ælfwine) of Warwick. Furthermore that the discovery of the only extant version of Hundred's book upon the island of Tresco in 1835 was influential in the alignment of the tarot with the Hebrew alphabet.
Needless to say, the evidence supports alternative interpretations. I would be happy to discuss matters further with any interested parties.