The images on the Marseille Tarot cards started out as illustrations
of Sumero-Bablyonian myths, preserved through the centuries on
cylinder seals. They were copied by people who didn't understand
them but who also had access to some form, whether written or
oral, of the wisdom encoded in those myths and in Bible stories.
That wisdom is identical with Sufi teachings as espoused by
teachers like Ibn al 'Arabi, Rumi, and others, including Gurdjieff
and his teachings about the enneagram. The myths and stories
are decoded in this book using the multiple meanings conveyed by
Arabic consonantal word roots and by reference to those doctrines
and to modern discoveries about conditioning and the hemispheric
specialization of the brain. Arabic is the closest existing descendant
of the ancient Protosemitic language. The Kabbalah, long
rumoured to be linked to the Tarot, is shown to come from the
same sources, and originally had eight, not ten, sefiroth. The visual
evidence alone is overwhelming: the mystery of where the Tarot
comes from has been definitively solved.
One of the best known metaphysical systems that purports to give a comprehensive explanation of reality, including its origin and man's place in it, is the Cabala, which is a large body of teaching - more diverse than most of its contemporary students probably realize - that is almost without exception identified as of Jewish origin, although even within that assumption opinions differ as to whether it dates from the time of Moses, or from even before that, or, rather, from medieval Europe.
In Origins of the Kabbalah, Gershom Scholem describes the question of the Cabala's origin and the initial phases of its development as second only to the destruction of the Second Temple in the sense of being problematic within the context of the history of Judaism. By no means, he asserts, have the source materials received adequate attention, and he indicates that a reason for that is that they are all but bereft of material that can be thought of as historical in the sense of shedding any light on those origins or their circumstances...
The 'Faithful Brothers of Basra' were the Ikhwan as Safa, the 'Sincere Brethren', a group of Ismaili (a Shiah subgroup) Muslims whose great tenth century AD work was their Rasa'il (Letters), an encyclopedic undertaking that attempted to make available the knowledge of the time, including what we would call esoteric or metaphysical knowledge. They considered themselves heirs to the most ancient wisdom of Pythagoras and Hermes, which the Sufis also say is identical with their tradition.
The same Jewish Encyclopedia tells us further that 'Eleazar of Worms' statement that a Babylonian scholar, Aaron B. Samuel by name, brought the mystic doctrine from Babylonia to Italy about the middle of the ninth century, has been found to be actually true... The fact is that when Jewish mystic lore came in contact with Arabic-Jewish philosophy, it appropriated those elements that appealed to it; this being especially the case with Gabirol's philosophy on account of its mystical character...
'The following doctrines of Arab philosophy especially influenced and modified Jewish mysticism, on account of the close relationship between the two. The "Faithful Brothers of Basra", as well as the Neoplatonic Aristotelians of the ninth century, have left their marks on the Cabala. The brotherhood taught, similarly to early Gnosticism, that God, the highest Being, exalted above all differences and contrasts, also surpassed everything corporeal and spiritual; hence, the world could only be explained by means of emanations. 1. the creating spirit (nous); 2. the directing spirit, or the world-soul; 3. primal matter; 4. active nature, a power proceeding from the world-soul; 5. the abstract body, also called secondary matter; 6. the world of the spheres; 7. the elements of the sublunary world; and 8. the world of minerals, plants and animals composed of these elements. These eight form, together with God, the absolute One, who is in and with everything, the scale of the nine primal substances, corresponding to the nine primary numbers and the nine spheres. These nine numbers of the "Faithful Brethren"... have been changed by a Jewish philosopher in the middle of the eleventh century into ten, by counting the four elements not as a unit, but as two.'
Another source, a little studied historical occult one, discusses the three upper sefiroth as unequivocal disinformation. What that may mean in the context of the present study should become evident. It also maintains that the real Cabala originated in Babylonia, and is currently the property of some of the Sufis of Persia.
'The Cabala, however,' The Jewish Encyclopedia continues, 'is not a genuine product of the Provencal Jews; for just those circles in which it is found were averse to the study of philosophy. The essential portions of the Cabala must, on the contrary, have been carried to Provence from Babylon; being known only to a small circle until Aristotelianism began to prevail, when adherents of the speculative Cabala were forced to make their doctrine public.'...
We need to keep in mind these two facts: that there is, in Cabalistic lore, in addition to the ten sefiroth, an element above and outside them that represents 'the infinite', and another one within them that has been translated as 'knowledge', but an Arabic homonym of which, dhat, means 'essence', which is significant in Sufi teaching...
'Sphere', as in 'world of the spheres', the next emanation after 'secondary matter', in Arabic is falak. Falqahat means 'grace' (the meaning of the sefirah Hesed, or perhaps that of Tifereth) in the sense of 'polite manners, social graces'. Undoubtedly another kind or level of 'grace' altogether was intended by Hesed, but the term carried over. Another name for this level of being is 'throne', 'arsh.
The elements of the sublunary world: it is these that are said to have been divided into two by the Cabalists. There are four: heat, cold, moisture and dryness; or, fire, air, water and earth. Again, the sense of 'heat' and 'cold' has been overlooked, so that hada(t), 'heat' in the sense of an individual's temperament of being inclined to activity or violence, has given us the sefirah Hod. Fatur, 'cold' in the sense of 'lukewarm, indifferent', may well have been compounded with furutat, 'sweet' (if, extending the tree analogy, the essence, dhat, of the fruit of the tree may be said to be sweet), to produce the name Tifereth.
'Arsh means 'throne', but a closely similar word, arsh, in Arabic means 'creatures', in the sense of 'all creatures'. In its meaning it corresponds with the sefirahMalkuth, 'kingdom', even though in the Ikhwan formulation it was meant to comprise 'minerals, plants, and animals', but not humans.
Bain or baun(another possible source for Binah) means 'interval' or 'interstice', which is of interest if the enneagram was referred to, because of the intervals in the 'law of octaves'...
Thanks go to Jean-Michel David for including an excerpt from this book in the January 2006 edition of the Association For Tarot Studies e-newsletter. I found the excerpt very interesting, and wanted to see what else this author had to say. I also found it interesting that I had just finished a review of the Babylonian Tarot, by Sandra Tabatha Cicero, which is based on the deities and myths of Mesopotamia -- the very territory that Swift is addressing... Swift starts out with the thought that perhaps authors of Tarot books claim that the origin of the Tarot is unknown because they really prefer not to know, as if it is better left a "mystery". He also posits that after reading this book the reader may find it hard to justify the manner in which they are accustomed to using the Tarot. His wry sense of humor is evident from the very beginning of the book... The body of this book is Swift's linking of the imagery in the Marseilles deck to the iconography of ancient Mesopotamian cylinder seals, and he does an excellent job of this. Scans of the Tarot cards and representations of the seals that they are being compared to are thought provoking, to say the least!... There are in-depth discussions of the imagery of the seals, and how it transfers to the Tarot (and it does so remarkably well). Sufi myths are presented in a story-like manner (I read this book in one sitting - it is that interesting!), and there is a great deal of discussion of word derivations, sound-alike words, the alphabet etc. The work of many of the masters is referenced in a knowledgeable manner (masters such as Madam Blavatsky, Idries Shah, Gurdjieff, and many more Sufi writers), and in a manner that is easily understood by those of us who may not have the background that we would like to have on esoteric subjects. Tossed in amongst this mix are such jewels as Madam Blavatsky's belief that the first three sephiroth are actually blinds, and the notation that horns on individuals found on the seals indicate not that they are "devils", but that they are Gods, with multiple horns indicating high ranking gods. While the reader is free to disagree with Swift on any or all of his suppositions, my feeling is that this book at the very least presents ideas for further study, and opens the mind in many ways - not only as to the origins of the Tarot, but as a mini-study in word derivation and usage. I am left with the thought that this material certainly warrants further study, and that the material here has found its time. I should mention here that there is an extensive bibliography, in case the reader does want to do some research of their own... [It is] very much an "Aha!" experience!
Bonnie Cehovet, Aeclectic Tarot website review
[I] feel motivated to express admiration and respect for the wonderful work of research and presentation of these not commonly met subjects.
Ilya S., Tel Aviv
The basic premise looks sound: the pictures on the medieval Marseille tarot cards have never been explained satisfactorily, but they match the images on Archaic cylinder seals too well for coincidence. Nick Swift's investigations into ancient and modern near-Eastern languages underpin some fascinating linguistic detective work. He makes a strong case that the Sumerian seals were part of a mythological wisdom tradition that was still available in some form to the originators of the tarot deck several millennia later. Happily, the research is presented in an engaging and at times amusing style. Mirror of the Free should fascinate everyone from scholars of iconography to readers of Dan Brown. Students of sufism, Kabbalah, Fourth Way and related experiential paths will find it particularly valuable.
Michael Emmans Dean, author The Trials of Homeopathy: Origins, Structure and Development
Thankyou for publishing such an amazing and interesting book.
Deb G., USA
There is no doubt that this book contains some new and highly important information which has not been published previously. His research covers parallels with Gurdjieff's teaching which has been previously documented and also connections with the Ikhwan as-Safa and Ibn Arabi's thought which has been touched on by Idries Shah in The Sufis and Jereer el-Moor in The Occult Tradition of the Tarot in Tangency with Ibn Arabi's Life and Teachings, but it is in the linking of the Tarot depictions and imagery to be found in the Marseille deck to the iconography of ancient Mesopotamian cylinder seals that the work is truly groundbreaking. Consider the following two depictions: ... To keep this brief I'll just pick up on a few points: the Devil motif, the Hanged Man and possible Islamic/Sufi influence on the development of the pack (it would be good to also include a look at the eight-fold Cabala)... The Devil: the observation is made early on (see also in Gurdjieff's teachings) that the god-figures are the ones that have horns whereas our contemporary society is more accustomed to associated horns with evil in general and Old Nick himself in particular. It is a marked feature of Gurdjieff's teaching that he takes a controversial character -- one who is reviled or avoided -- such as Judas or the Devil and 'rehabilitates' them as not just blameless but as adepts of the highest degree (without of course accepting any of the baggage assigned to them by the erstwhile detractors). In doing this, G is merely following an earlier Sufi practice... I think this book will prove to be something of a watershed and there are really some revolutionary ideas there - far more so than meet the eye on first contact.
Tarquin Rees, Anulios blog
Reading posted by Infra on March 23rd, 2007 One of my backorders finally came in. This now makes three books that I've found quite useful for understanding and working with the Tarot, so in case anyone is interested, these are the titles: Mirror of the Free by Nicholas Swift, A Brief Hirstory of Time by Orryelle Defenstrate-Bascule, and Tarot and the Magus by Paul Hughes-Barlow... Generally speaking, most books about the Tarot are worth just about as much as any other. Maybe you'll learn some theory, some history (although mostly about the cards themselves, not the origins of the Atus, on which Swift's book is the only decent one I've found so far)...
... this astonishing book...
2008/01/23/a-gorgeous-orrery Mostly, when it comes to things like that, I simply stumble across them: an acquaintance introduces me to someone else, who recommends a book, which comes from a distributor that carries small press items, which mentions a specific press, which carries a limited edition book that's only available from them. Or something along those lines. (That's how I found out about Mirror of the Free, which examines Sufi and Near Eastern cylinder seal influences on the Tarot. Worth the read, if you come across it and that subject interests you.) Oh, Infra. I think we may be kindred spirits. And that's not to mention our similar affections for language. ;)
Our Descent Into Madness blog