Christian & Hermetic Sources
of the Renaissance Tarot

Tarot Philosophy

Heaven & Hell vs. Inner Alchemy

The Tarot is a masterpiece of Hermetic natural philosophy. Hermeticism refers to the art of making opposites compatible. Already the magic square of the Four Elements on card XXI, which serves as the master key for the entire game, is organized exclusively in opposites that must be related to one another. What role did Hermetic thinking play in history? Why do we speak of Christian Hermeticism? Here is the historical background

For centuries, the hermetic philosophy of nature was at war with the prevailing religions. Some created cults and rites around all-powerful gods and goddesses, others studied the laws of nature and worshipped its generosity and goodness. While religion must strive to maintain conformity among its followers and constantly defends its principles against dissenters and ‘unbelievers’, nature gives equally to all beings, constantly seeking harmony, healing injury without regard to worth or unworthiness. In this the natural philosophers recognized a loving power far superior to the petty habits of man, to which they turned with humility and curiosity. The priests sensed anarchic agitators in the free thinkers. The philosophers despised the opinionated clergy.

Priests and philosophers agreed that every soul originally comes to earth from an ideal world of eternal light. In order to return there after the death of the body, no ‘dark impurities’ must adhere to it. However, the soul collects these during its life on earth as a bundle of energy made up of frustration, anger and the clinging to unfulfilled desires. Therefore, the task of every human being is a rigorous inner cleansing from these residues.

This is relevant to Tarot research inasmuch as in the Greater Arcana of the Tarot de Marseille describe the birth of a soul from cosmic light and its subsequent adventures on earth. There the soul gets entangled and can no longer find its way home.

Priests and thinkers alike asked: What to do? So everyone set out to find the way out. And here now the approaches divided in terms of liberation and redemption. While the church offered salvation and return to the paradisiacal state of happiness through repentance and pious submission, philosophy emphasized the personal responsibility and self-liberation of each individual. It was to this then very solitary and risky path that the first Tarot masters dedicated their game.

Two competing paths to salvation.

Today, after half a millennium, it is important to realize how much at the time of the Tarot’s emergence religious fantasies captivated the thoughts and feelings of most of the contemporary society.

The Church’s worldview assumed that human beings were fallen sinners. A celestial examination at the gate of heaven can save them or condemn them to eternal torment in hell. Thus, at the end of life, people came before Almighty God; some humbly, others trembling, still others with self-righteous confidence.

The natural philosophers, on the other hand, never worshipped a God who judged or even punished. Their divine world, which they called macrocosm, was an infinite realm of unconditional love and shelter. Every human microcosm was embedded in this light-filled sphere, whose cosmic creative power would only want the best for every one.

According to this world view, the Tarot masters of the Renaissance developed their revolutionary narrative for the self-liberation of man through the alchemical transformation of the inner lead of burdensome feelings into the radiant gold of confidence: From stress and doubt to calm serenity – and not just in the heavenly world, but right now in this very lifetime.

Here the Hermetic art of overcoming contradictions, unfolded its healing effect.  Renunciating the harsh either-or, right-wrong, good-evil of constrained thinking opens up the mind for the unifying as-well-as, and with it a redeeming sense of freedom, of tolerance and … surprisingly: Humor:

The ancient Tarot creators had discovered that the path to liberation – our personal confrontation with failures, blockages, and deceptive hopes – can become a quite amusing process. “Humor is about laughing in spite of oneself.” In a comedy, things are constantly going wrong, which is precisely what provokes the laughter. How do you manage that in everyday life?

Humor arises from the art of combining two originally incongruous worlds in a witty and provocative way, for example, giving a story a completely unexpected twist. The sharper the contrast between expectation and realization, the more people laugh.

Therefore, it was no coincidence that the natural philosophers turned – like the early Christians of antiquity – to Hermetic thinking as a method of inner purification: ‘As above, so below’, ‘As in heaven, so also on earth’, ‘The last shall be first’. One practiced the linking of uncomfortable opposites, so that the love of nature which must also constantly overcome contradictions, may unfold through the human being into the world.

The model was Christ’s striking parting words, “Love your enemies.”

Its symbol used to be the symmetrical cross, composed of the opposite horizontal and vertical bars. In the image of the unifying cross the Christian and the Hermetic way of thinking merged.

In the middle of the cross: a hole !
At the intersection of two opposing understandings emerges
the mysterious void through which the love of life-giving nature seeks to flow into a person.

Why could this practice be cultivated only in secret for a thousand years?

As an alluring alternative to the demanding process of self-improvement, Roman church elders had devised an extraordinarily attractive vision of redemption starting in the 5th century: the washing off of all sins with the blood shed by Jesus on the cross. The faithful were allowed to replace the laborious work on themselves with worship of the cross on which the Savior had voluntarily sacrificed Himself for them. More inviting as with the invention of the ‘true cross’ (vera crux) as an automatic washing facility of souls, religion can hardly present itself.

Crucifixion scene from ca. 580

On this early depiction of redemption through the death on the cross, we recognize a single vertical bar above the heads of each of the condemned on the right and left side. In contrast, an almost symmetrical cross is painted above Christ, a reference to the Hermetic tradition of unified opposites, which was still alive at that time. His body, however, is already carefully nailed and is pierced so that the cleansing blood may flow.

Before the 5th century, this subject was practically unknown. But for 1000 years to come, redemption through shed blood was maintained as an advertising dogma. Original christian, natural philosophical and hermetic views were systematically exterminated throughout the Roman Empire.

It was not until the ideological incursion suffered by Church and Vatican in the 15th and 16th centuries – the period of origin of the first tarot decks – that the basic Christian attitude and Christian practices like charity and gratuitousness, which had been overshadowed by the pompous guise of religion, were rekindled. Again the hermetic natural philosophy found its followers: wherever omni-benevolent nature reigns, there is no need for doctrines, pyres, or religious wars.

The original Christian ethic was discovered to be the basic natural attitude of man.

To the same extent that Adam (Hebrew: adama, the being born of clay) abandons this innate naturalness in favour of ‘worldly pleasures’, he alienates himself from the joy of life as well as from ethic virtue.

Now, the new Christian Hermetic Movement wanted to overcome the material corruption and bring back a natural way of life for all mankind. In the process, the Tarot became a secret manual for adepts throughout Europe.