Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Hieroglyphs Before the Tarot

The Art of Hieroglyphs - as Hermetic Symbols

If the Tarot is truly based upon hieroglyphs a study of their origin and meaning should naturally serve to provide further insights into Tarot symbolism. This deeper insight shall also serve to lay a foundation to bond with the Alexandrian Tarot itself, and is furthermore important because the Alexandrian Tarot adapts its symbolism after ancient hieroglyphics more than other Tarot decks do. Comparably most teachers explain only the resulting symbolism of the Tarot itself, saying that ‘this image represents this and that goddess’ etc. But those understandings do not reach back to the true source of knowledge. The Tarot reader, who understands the hieroglyphic origin has a deeper bond with the Tarot than the other, obtains a spiritual connection to its Egyptian ancestors and immediately tastes the fruit of wisdom. We can compare this study with preparation of a meal. Ask; ‘who understands food better, a person who simply eats but did nothing in the kitchen, or a person who participates in its full creation, from the stages of farming and harvesting the food to the actual cooking and eating of the meal?’ Obviously the first person does not see all the stages involved that contribute towards the richness of the final cuisine.
To consider this further, every ingredient serves to improve the meal. Every ingredient adds another unique flavour and knowing each ingredient or spice allows a person to appreciate each flavour when dinning at the table. The Alexandrian student must gain a sense of the great effort that has been sewn into the fabric of the final cuisine of the Tarot. 
The Tarot is our Bread and Wine, our invisible Eucharist because it offers food to the soul. Who has the knowledge to fine-tune the ingredients of the meal to make its final result taste better, the cook or the lazy man? Hieroglyphs are like ingredients in Hermes alchemical cook-pot and we are his dinner guest! By understanding how they seasoned this ‘food of the soul’ your ability to achieve self-realisation with the Tarot is increased!
The word ‘hieroglyph’ comes from the Greek hieros (sacred) and glyphos (symbols) giving ‘sacred-symbols.’ This in itself shows that the Alexandrian Greek speaking world dealt with them not as alphabetical letters, but rather as something more profound. The term hieroglyph was first used by Clement of Alexandria approx 200AD. The Egyptians then, of dynastic-Egypt, naturally spoke Egyptian rather than Greek. But they did not record all esoteric meanings for their writings. This is why much of what we know about ancient Egyptian interpretations of hieroglyphs comes not from Egyptians but rather from Greek historians. This in itself poses no problem because we know that those Greek philosophers, many of whom were born in Egypt, also studied with Egyptian sages. What we have as records concerning the hieroglyphs arose in the Age of Acceptance; the Alexandrian period.
During the Alexandrian period, that is after Alexander conquered Egypt, the Egyptian people also no longer spoke Egyptian. They spoke Greek. The earlier pure Egyptians are mostly silent on several matters. This is perhaps not unfortunate because of the great cultural exchange that occurred during the new Greco-Egyptian period of universal acceptance. The Mystical student, if there is anything to learn from them, should ever focus on what people have in common and seek union in all things. If one student says ‘I am a Kabbalist’ or ‘I am a worshiper of Egyptian gods’ then that is not really honouring what these Alexandrians achieved. Everything in existence blended into a new stream. It is no wonder, therefore, that the Tarot would arise out of a period with such universal wisdom who conceived that all streams but spring from one great ocean of wisdom. Consider for example how many things considered to be ‘Greek’ were actually taken directly from Egyptian culture. It is because of this contact with the Egyptians that the Greek written sources are quite reliable. 
The ancient Egyptian way of writing was in existence long before Egypt’s known dynastic history, some five thousand years ago, making it quite original. Many glyphs are descended, as can be seen, from primitive rock-art drawings when Egypt was still in its early shamanic stages. This allows the Alexandrian Tarot to obtain a system that is both rooted in shamanism but also ascends to the advanced philosophic meanings of Kabbalistic Greco-Egypt bearing its high philosophy. Indeed it would be foolish to ignore the natural world presented by hieroglyphics in terms of Tarot study seeing that the Egyptians themselves represented their gods with polymorphic animal-god images such as Anubis the jackal headed keeper of gates. The Sages of all ages have taught that ‘Nature is the Great Teacher’ and that every leaf upon a tree is a page from the Book of Nature. In this respect hieroglyphs are renditions of nature and the Book of Thoth is an abstraction of the Book of Nature which belongs to Isis. This is why in Mystica Aeterna teachings there are references to two books, the Book of Nature from Isis and the Book of Thoth from Hermes.
The origin of hieroglyphs according to the Egyptians was given a higher enigma, rather than an evolution from primitive forms they said the creation of the alphabet came by a god, saying that it was Thoth who created the alphabet. In this case they were personifying describing a part of the human mind, into a god representing potential-qualities of the human mind, such as our ability to recognise abstract symbols. Egyptians said Thoth created the alphabet by discerning forces, sounds and powers out of the vast expanse of the universe. They also said that he was the first to teach writing to humans.
It is well to note here that his well known name ‘Thoth,’ as used in the Book of Thoth, is not his original name. His Egyptian name was Tehuti, whereas the Thoth name was used only by Greek speaking Alexandrian Egyptians. Meditation reveals that Thoth probably did creating the first writings. He was probably a rock-painting shaman who discerned symbols as representations of his natural world, named Isis. Through these symbols he could begin to understand his shamanic universe and nature, that is, Great Mother Isis became discernable. While the Greek philosophers wrote that they learned the alphabet from the Phoenicians or Egyptians another Greek myth arose describing something similar. They said it was Hermes who invited writing by using the feather of an ibis bird. The ibis is of course the bird of Thoth in earlier Egyptian mythology which shows its feathers were once used for early quill-like pens by the Egyptians. No wonder ibis-headed Thoth god was called the ‘Scribe of the Universe.’ His symbols, the hieroglyphs, teach us one important lesson; that even symbolism should remain closely connected to nature; that the Book of Nature came first and that the Book of Thoth is simply a means to understand nature herself.
It may be said that a major problem of today’s Hermeticism is that it has become an overlapping of mental constructs based upon other mental constructs, creating quite a mess in the mainstream curricula of occult study. The result is that such overly mental symbolism becomes far removed from nature who is the ‘Nurse of Initiation.’ In following the Alexandrian way we learn that symbols are used to understand not only our own-human nature but also Nature around us. It shows that we are closely connected to nature, ever being dependent upon her for life forces, and furthermore that such a process of hieroglyphic or nature based symbolism shall serve to connect us properly to the wider universe. This is why the images of the Alexandrian Tarot are rooted in a natural world.
The matter of Thoth’s creation of alphabets was recorded by Plato in his ‘Collected Dialogues.’ In reading all following quotes provided it should be remembered that they are the very same materials that the Renaissance creators of the Tarot had access to themselves. They translated these quotes from Greek into Latin and it was these sources that helped form their opinion on hieroglyphs which they were to evolve into Tarot cards.
Plato states:
‘SOCRATES: The unlimited variety of sound was once discerned by some god, or perhaps some godlike man; you know the story that there was some such person in Egypt called Thoth. He it was who originally discerned the existence, in that unlimited variety, of the vowels—not ‘vowel’ in the singular but ‘vowels’ in the plural—and then of other things which, though they could not be called articulate sounds, yet were noises of a kind. There were a number of them too, not just one, and as a third class he discriminated what we now call the mutes. Having done that, he divided up the noiseless ones or mutes until he got each one by itself, and did the same thing with the vowels and the intermediate sounds; in the end he found a number of the things, and affixed to the whole collection, as to each single member of it, the name ‘letter.’ It was because he realized that none of us could ever get to know one of the collection all by itself, in isolation from all the rest, that he conceived of ‘letter’ as a kind of bond of unity, uniting as it were all these sounds into one, and so he gave utterance to the expression ‘art of letters,’ implying that there was one art that dealt with the sounds.’[1]

Hieroglyphs, as we know, comprise a large number of pictorial symbols. The signs below show how all hieroglyphs were images based upon the Egyptian natural world, and therefore it has Egyptian origins and was not imported or influenced by other cultures.

By the 12th Dynasty, that is 2000-1780 BCE, about 700 signs were in more or less constant use. There are practically unlimited numbers of these natural symbols. By the Greco-Alexandrian period, they numbered more than 5,000. Academic Egyptologists cavalierly chose 24 symbols out of thousands of hieroglyphs, and have assigned these glyphs to later alphabets, such as Greek and Hebrew. This approach is quite questionable considering the number of hieroglyphs that exist and remain unanswered for in the mainstream Egyptologist approach. There is much debate on this subject. This affects our study of the Alexandrian Tarot. It is not certain which hieroglyphics were really the basis for later individual letters like Greek, Hebrew and Phoenician letterings. But we do know that the Greeks learned their alphabet from Phoenicians and that this sailing-trading people obtained their own alphabet from Egyptians.
This is why in my Alexandrian Tarot you will not simply see one hieroglyph attributed to each of the Tarot trumps. Normally each of the 22 Major Arcana is attributed to the 22 Hebrew Letters. However, as it will be shown while each of the trumps apply to a Hebrew Letter they also contain several hieroglyphs within each card, which was true for the Tarot of the Renaissance Neo-Platonists, because they combined several hieroglyphs on each card. For example; a man raising a wand to the sun is three hieroglyphs; respectively a man + wand + sun. Clearly the normal attribution of one hieroglyph per Tarot card or Hebrew letter does not work by ancient means and for that matter as you shall see the Italian creators of the Tarot included several hieroglyphs in each card to make up the overall image and the message of that Tarot Trump. It was Levi who wrote also that the Tarot was based upon hieroglyphs before the Hebrew Letters which is highly significant.


[1] (Philebus 18-b,c,d)

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