The 21 Faces of God – The True Origins of the Tarot

The Tarot is the poor cousin of the other esoteric disciplines such as alchemy, the kabbalah and astrology.  In the 20th century Carl Jung elevated alchemy to respectability and Gershom Sholem did the same for the Kabbalah while in astrology figures like Liz Greene, Robert Hand and Geoffrey Cornelius have written serious, scholarly work on the topic.

But the Tarot has found no such allies or towering figures to do its bidding.  Both astrology (Ptolemy's Tetrabiblos) and the Kabbalah (Zohar)  have foundational texts and alchemy has revered works like the medieval Aurora Consurgens which was attributed to Thomas Aquinas.  Newton was obsessed with alchemy and Kepler was known as a brilliant astrologer, but the Tarot has no such legendary figures to enhance its credibility.

The origins of the Tarot are in a Mamluk card game which arrived in Europe sometime around the early 14th century.  The major arcana of the Tarot were added to the original game in Italy in the 15th century and it’s in the major arcana, the 22 trump cards, wherein lies the transcendent power of the cards. The only prominent academic to write about the tarot, the English philosopher Michael Dummet, insisted that it had no esoteric meaning and though the prominent Renaissance scholar Frances Yates, took umbrage, no one of her caliber has ever taken on the challenge to dig deeper into the meaning of the major arcana.

We are left with 18th and 19th century figures like Etteilla, Antoine Court de Gébelin, and Éliphas Lévi and 20th century figures such as Arthur Edward Waite and Aleister Crowley to find some transcendent qualities in the cards.  This is were the confusion arises as these 19th and 20th century occultists focused on  Egypt and especially the Kabbalah as the cosmological backbone of the major arcana.  This was a crucial error and began a tradition of attributing to the Tarot whatever suited one’s fancy.

The main cause of this problem is the number 22.  The Hebrew alphabet has 22 letters and there are 22 paths connecting the Sephiroth on the Tree of Life and because of this occultists jumped on the connection and were sure that the Kabbalistic Tree of Life and the major arcana were correlated.  First off, this is mere coincidence, and secondly, there are really only 21 cards in the major arcana, The Fool being a liminal figure between the Trump cards and the minor arcana.  The prominent scholar of the Kabbalah, Gershom Sholem, was adamant that there was no connection between the Kabbalah and the Tarot.

One might as well try and connect the Kabbalah to Buddhism.  The Kabbalah and the Tarot come from very different linguistic, cultural and religious world views.  The major arcana of the Tarot are rooted in alchemy, Pythagoras, Plato, western astrology and medieval Christology.  Nonetheless, the Tarot has become a place where all ideas stick and while this has creative and psychological merit, it also takes away from the true meaning of the cards.

But maybe for just this reason, the Tarot is all the rage.  The Village Voice even went so far as to write, “New York is in the middle of a tarot revival” and goes on to describe how New Yorkers are in the grips of a Tarot craze and the The New York Times writes, “Tarot-deck sales in general are up 30 percent this year, after rising 30 percent in 2016 — the highest in 50 years,” and it goes on to explain how Dior is using Tarot images in it’s designs.

In spite of the lack of a great text or eminent figures to support it, the Tarot persists in convincing millions that within what appears as a mere game, there is something more - and there is.  The new documentary, The 21 Faces of God attempts to tap into the deeper meaning of the cards by exploring the foundational ideas of the of Western esoteric tradition and weaving the path of the cards using film, art, music and commentaries from figures like Joseph Campbell, Terence Mckenna and Carl Jung.


The most popular deck in the world is the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, created by the very talented illustrator Pamela Coleman Smith and the occult scholar Arthur Edward Waite and published in 1909.  Smith’s illustrations of the major arcana of the Tarot have become cultural icons, but the true enduring qualities of the cards comes from their tapping into the key archetypes of the Renaissance world.

Archetypes are not symbols - they don’t represent something clear and tangible.  Archetypes are the fundamental forms of our consciousness, they are to our psyches what elemental particles are to particle physics.  The most fundamental archetypes are numbers, they are the building blocks of our understanding of the world but therein lies the rub.  Although mathematics has been able to explain our universe in a frighteningly accurate way when you ask a mathematician exactly what is a number you are sure to get squirrelly answer.  Ask a physicist and he will refer you back to the mathematician.

Within the 22 major arcana of the Tarot lie some of the most universal of Western archetypes - Venus, Athena, three of the four classical virtues (Prudence, Temperance and Justice), Fortuna, the Sun, Plato’s allegory of the Chariot, and the Devil.   When we see the major arcana as the fundamental archetypes of western culture, the mystery to their popularity becomes clear.  The major arcana of the Tarot are the building blocks of our psyches.

Just as the signs of the zodiac explain the cycle of life, from the fiery beginnings in Aries to the dissolution back to water in Pisces, so the order of the major arcana explain to us the path to awakening.  Their numbered order creates a path, much like the alchemic images that were so popular at the time the major arcana were created.  Just as the alchemic images show the path of transformation from prima materia through to the philosopher's stone, so the cards are guideposts to spiritual transcendence.

The Confusion

So much written about the cards leads us away from their true meaning.  The major arcana of the Tarot are firmly based in the esoteric teaching of the western tradition with its origins in Pythagoras, Plato, and the Alexandrian Gnostics, Hermeticists and neo-Platonists.  These traditions were slowly pushed out of the mainstream by Christian hegemony and sometimes persecuted, as the medieval gnostic Cathars were exterminated in the Albigensian crusades in the thirteenth century.

The Tarot emerges from this repressive and violent effort of the Church to enforce strict adherence to Catholic dogma.  By embedding this series of archetypes in a game of cards, those descendants of heretical sects and movements avoided confrontation with the Church.

The esoteric traditions carry the kernel of what became Christianity, but which was swept under the rug once the Church gained the upper hand.  Nonetheless, the figure of Christ and his confrontation with the duality of existence is essential to understanding the cards.  In the archetypes of the Tarot we are given a road-map to our ancient heritage.  The Fool is the hero, and the major arcana his journey.  If we look seriously at these cards, beyond their use in divination, there is something very rich waiting to emerge and quench the thirst of an age that has lost its spiritual footing.

The 21 Faces of God is available on YouTube in a serialized and long-form version.