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The Masonic Tarot as “Discourse Delivery Device”

An article written for Canadian Journal of Sociology entitled “A Sociology of Tarot,” burst the mythical bubble that surrounds the western Tarot deck by pointing out that the tarot is not a spiritual tool of deep cosmic/spiritual wisdom, as its creators would have you believe, but a propaganda device, a “body of knowledge” (a discourse (McHoul and Grace 1993) dressed up as spiritual wisdom) developed by Freemasons in order to help lubricate and facilitate the peaceful transition of power from feudal to capitalist lords by subjugating, in the sense used by Foucault, both the elites themselves and the masses which they are attempting to control. Along these lines, Decker, Depaulis, and Dummet (Decker, Depaulis, and Dummett 1996:27)suggested, the tarot was the

…most successful propaganda campaign ever launched: not by a very long way the most important, but the most completely successful. An entire false history, and false interpretation, of the Tarot pack was concocted by the occultists; and it is all but universally believed.”

Tarot World CardHow does the tarot function as a propaganda tool? It basically tells you how to think about yourself and how to act in the world. It tells you who you are and how to behave. It does this by giving you a specific view of who you are in the cosmic/natural scheme of things, and specific rules which you are to follow if you are going to “graduate” and take your place in this world, or the next one, as the case may be.

Of course, statements provided by the Masonic tarot are not framed as rules and perspectives provided by Freemasons for venal political and economic purposes, which is what they are. If they were, people would be more likely to take a critical stance and wonder why they should follow rules created in an 18th and 19th-century organization that only elite/rich white men could join. Instead, the rules are framed as answers to big questions. For example…

Big Question: Who are you?

Tarot Answer: You are a “fool in school” here to learn your lessons so you can graduate and move on.

Big Question: What lessons am I here to learn? 

Tarot Answer: you are here to learn how to submit, follow the rules, do what you are told, and listen to your superiors. If you do that, you will graduate. If you don’t, you will be excluded and cast out.

Brigit Biddy, an online tarot authority, perfectly captures the masonic story.

In the Fool Tarot card, a young man stands on the edge of a cliff, without a care in the world, as he sets out on a new adventure. He is gazing upwards toward the sky (and the Universe) and is seemingly unaware that he is about to skip off a precipice into the unknown. Over his shoulder rests a modest knapsack containing everything he needs – which isn’t much (let’s say he’s a minimalist). The white rose in his left hand represents his purity and innocence. And at his feet is a small white dog, representing loyalty and protection, that encourages him to charge forward and learn the lessons he came to learn. The mountains behind the Fool symbolise the challenges yet to come. They are forever present, but the Fool doesn’t care about them right now; he’s more focused on starting his expedition (Brigit 2020: italics added).

Framing rules and perspectives as answers to big questions does lend some authority, but again, the question remains, why should we listen to answers provided by Freemasons.

In order to get beyond this little hiccup, Freemasons give authority to their tarot-based answers to big questions not by being honest that they made them up (Decker et al. 1996) in order to shape populations so they could better fit them into the industrial capitalist’s machine, but by claiming these answers came from ancient, cosmic (often Egyptian), mystical sources. They create, in the words of Decker et. all (1996), a false history that lends a false authority to the discourse embedded in the tarot, a legitimacy that it could never have if people knew the truth.

You don’t have to go very far into the esoteric literature on the masonic tarot to see that the tarot does in fact provide a discourse aimed at creating peons for the system. It is very clear, for example, in the book “Tarot of the Magicians” by esotericist Oswald Wirth. In chapter eleven of that book, Wirth provides a concise moral guide on what is “good” behaviour versus what is “bad” behaviour. Many of Wirth’s statements are sensible ethical advice that can help a society function; however, many statements clearly represent the moral standards, behavioural expectations, and social class interests of the emerging bourgeois elite. For example, be diplomatic (don’t fight amongst yourself), have business acumen, be powerful, subjugate your passions, don’t be lazy, don’t be idle, do what your superiors tell you, and so on. The bourgeois nature of the moral guidance provided by the Freemason’s tarot is clear in Wirth’s description of the “Justice” card where he says, in essence, you get paid only when you work. “We live in order to work, not to enjoy life without paying. Increases in salary reward the good ‘workman’ who by aiming at living better, benefits from the superior way of life to which he has risen” (Wirth 1990:171). Wirth’s words provide as clear a statement of the protestant work ethic, an ethic that Max Weber once argued was the essential ethical motor that drove the expansion of Capitalism, as any.

To me, it is pretty clear that the Freemasons (and other brothers from similar filial organizations) created the tarot as a training tool, a propaganda device to help them disseminate a discourse conducive to the Capitalist system, that they themselves created. Is this a bad thing? I guess that depends on what you think about the deception involved and your view of Capitalism, but whatever your particular view on these things is, it does not change the fact that the tarot is not a mystical deck of deep spiritual truths. It is a “discourse delivery device,” a kind messaging system used to shape how we think about ourselves and how we act in the world.

References

Decker, Ronald, Thierry Depaulis, and Michael Dummett. 1996. A Wicked Pack of Cards: The Origins of the Occult Tarot. New York: St Martin’s Press.

Wirth, Oswald. 1990. The Tarot of the Magicians. San Francisco: Weiser Books.

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