Thanks to a gift from a thoughtful friend, I’m now the proud owner of a new tarot deck.
The proud and baffled owner.
The Alchemical Tarot Of Theofanus Abba is issued by Czech Hermetics, an organisation devoted to the translation of occultist material from Czech to English. The cards were designed during the 1970s and 1990s by Martin Stejskal, a learned hermeticist, student of Theofanus Abba and long-standing member of the Prague Surrealist Group.
Beautifully produced in full colour, it’s an exciting and intriguing deck. A lot of the intrigue comes from its sheer strangeness to dweebs like me who (a) are mainly familiar with widely known decks such as the Waite-Smith and (b) don’t read Czech and therefore know sweet FA about Czech hermeticism.
The images on these cards are vivid, mysterious, unexpected (unexpectedly busty, in the case of some female images), bold bordering on brash, and rich with alchemical and other symbols. According to the Czech Hermetics website, the cards reveal even more detail when placed under UV light. Not having a UV lamp myself, I won’t be able to test that one out until the cops come round to investigate all these bloodstains on the floor of my meditation room.
But my first thought on tearing through the vacuum-packed wrapper (insert “hermetically sealed” joke here) and opening the box was: Holy shit, where’s the Fool?
The Fool’s Numbers
In this deck, the Major Arcana start with Arcanum 1: Magus.
Fatuus (The Fool), which in most decks is either unnumbered or numbered zero, is positioned as Arcanum 21, where The World would usually be.
21 is usually the last number in the Major Arcana, but in this deck we have Arcanum 22: Universum (the Universe).
Well, it gave me a turn, I can tell you.
Ok, it’s par for the course for different esoteric systems to futz with the numbering of the Major Arcana.
The Waite-Smith deck famously swops the positions of Arcana 8 and 11 (which in other decks are usually Justice and Strength respectively). Waite made the swop so that the numerological structure of the Major Arcana would also map onto an astrological structure. It was all part of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn’s grand programme to synthesise myriad hermetic traditions into one overarching system.
The Thoth deck, even more famously, renames several of the Arcana in accord with the Thelemic system: Justice (8) becomes Adjustment, Strength (11) becomes Lust, Temperance (14) becomes Art, Judgement (20) becomes The Aeon.
So in this case, what gives with the Theofanus Abba deck and its displacement of The Fool from 0 to 21?
The question becomes deeper when you factor in the correspondences between the Major Arcana and the Hebrew alphabet: 22 Major Arcana, 22 Hebrew letters, 22 paths between the Sephiroth on the Kabbalistic Tree of Life.
These and other correspondences were first suggested by Eliphas Lévi, and were adopted by those synthesising sorcerers of the Golden Dawn. They have become absolutely central to the use of the Tarot in Western magick.
Unless, that is, you’re Alejandro Jodorowksy.
A Short Digression On Jodorowsky’s Tarot
Syntheses, correspondences, Kabbala, hermetic traditions: Jodorowsky is having none of it. In 1997 he released his own version of the Marseille deck, a painstaking and “authentic” reconstruction of the lost “original” Marseille deck. He rejects all other decks as bogus hocus-pocus, on the basis of advice he once received from André Breton:
I allowed myself to offer [Breton] this Waite Tarot, expecting his approval […]. The poet examined the cards of the Arcana attentively with a smile that gradually transformed into a grimace of disgust. “This is a ridiculous deck of cards. Its symbols are lamentably obvious. There is nothing profound in it. The sole valid Tarot is that of Marseille.”
– Alejandro Jodorowsky, The Way Of Tarot
Jodo’s system for interpreting the tarot is as austere as the Marseille deck itself, in the sense that it is entirely self-contained. Although he sees constant allusions throughout the cards to everything from Kabbala to Taoism, he refuses to map those allusions onto any structure beyond that of the tarot itself. No hermetic systems, no Kabbalistic or astrological correspondences, no nothing. The numerology, colour symbology, geometry and dynamic meanings are all derived from the relationships among the cards, which Jodo insists must be grasped as a whole and understood as a mandala.
Jodo’s tarot system thus occupies a paradoxical position both inside and outside the Western hermetic tradition – we might even say, just as Jodo himself is both inside and outside the contemporary Surrealist movement.
It is in fact a very beautiful system and a powerfully enigmatic deck. The Jodorowsky-Camoin Marseille was the deck I used to write my novel The Golden Cut, where the trajectories of the two main characters were mapped by Fibonacci progressions (in opposite directions) through the Major Arcana: Arcana 0, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13 and 21.
But I digress. Let’s get back to the mysteries of Prague.
Are You Game For Aleph?
The correspondences between the Hebrew letters and the Major Arcana usually start at zero. The first letter of the Hebrew alphabet is Aleph, which Waite-Smith and Thoth both associate with The Fool – Arcanum 0. The Magician/Magus (Arcanum 2) is Beyt, The (High) Priestess (3) is Gimal, and so it goes on through the alphabet to The World/The Universe (22, Tau). And those 22 cards/letters are glyphed onto the 22 paths on the Tree Of Life.
The Thoth deck even includes the letters on the cards themselves, so that you know where you are, which is handy.
So does the Theofanus Abba deck, though, which is… um… perplexing. Because of course, since the first card of the Abba deck is not The Fool but The Magician, it’s the Magus that’s linked to Aleph, Beyt is Isis, Gimal is Imperatrix… and Fatuus (The Fool) is Shin, not the first but the 21st Hebrew Letter.
There’s clearly a hermetic system underlying the Abba deck that differs dramatically from both Thelema (not surprisingly) and the standard Golden Dawn-derived model (much more suprisingly). The question is, what is it?
The Wandering Fool
Part of the answer lies in a comparison with the Oswald Wirth deck. Czech Hermetics tell us the Wirth deck was Abba’s favourite, and was his model for his own alchemical deck.
Wirth leaves The Fool unnumbered, and he places it at the end of the deck rather than the beginning.
So Wirth’s Arcanum 1 is The Magician and is linked to Aleph; Arcanum 2 is The Priestess and Beyt; 3 is The Empress and Gimal… and so it goes, right up until Arcanum 22, The World.
At which point things get really wacky.
Because Wirth has gone one better than all those occultists who swop the cards around to fit their own hermetic systems. Turns out that he has not rearranged the cards to suit his purposes; no, the cheeky monkey has rearranged the alphabet instead.
He swops around the two last letters of the Hebrew alphabet, assigns Tau (the 22nd letter) to Arcanum 21 (The World), and gives Shin (the 21st letter) to The Fool. He does this for numerological reasons:
The twenty-first letter of the Hebrew alphabet is the Shin and not the Tau. However it is the letter which fits the arcana [sic] marked number 21 for its corresponds [sic] to the complete whole to which logically the seven ternaries and the three septenaries lead. The early Tau is a simple vertical cross + or oblique X.
– Oswald Wirth, The Tarot Of The Magicians
So there you have it: Theofanus Abba has retained Wirth’s correspondences between the Hebrew letters Shin and Tau and The Fool and The World respectively. Abba has just reorganised those two cards so that the alphabet runs in the right order again: Fatuus is 21 because it’s the 21st letter of the alphabet (Shin), and Universum is 22 because it’s the 22nd letter (Tau).
Um, not really.
Who Was Theofanus Abba, And What Was His System?
I’ve done what I can to piece together some information about Theofanus Abba, but it doesn’t amount to much. Sources in English are scarce. Perhaps Czech Hermetics will be releasing some of his writings in translation sometime soon… but until then it’s a case of “through a glass, darkly”.
It seems Abba was born Josef Lauda in 1901, and he died in 1975. According to the biographical note provided with the tarot deck, he was one of the most famous Czech hermeticists and alchemists, noted for his successful transmutation of base metal into silver in 1928. He authored several major works, the most important of which appears to be Letters To Paracelsus.
A Czech-language Wikipedia entry gives a list his major influences, which includes Eliphas Lévi, Oswald Wirth and Louis Claude de Saint-Martin. The inclusion of Lévi is hardly a surprise, particularly since we’ve just uncovered the Hebrew/Kabbalistic basis of Abba’s tarot.
Saint-Martin is a more substantial clue. He was an 18th-century Christian mystic and freemason, and the translator of Jakob Böhme into French. Saint-Martin’s philosophy emphasised the centrality of the spiritual quest as a path of initiation.
Although he is not mentioned by name in the booklet that accompanies the Abba deck, the Martinist idea of initiation is clearly there once you know what you’re looking for. It’s right up front in the booklet’s definition of the tarot:
What is the Tarot? The world’s game of initiation into the Light.
It’s also there in the descriptions of the cards – within each card itself, and also in the progression from one card to the next, which is outlined as, precisely, a path of initiation.
For example, in Arcanum 2, Isis (the figure known as The High Priestess in other decks) is shown with an owl perched on her left wrist. The booklet glosses the image as follows:
Let us reveal this esoteric mystery: this owl is the true ambassador of the Virgin Sophia, the ruler of the 22nd Tarot card – it is the owl of Wisdom.
For a follower of Saint-Martin and Böhme, that brief reference to the Virgin Sophia indicates a vast hinterland of Christian mysticism. According to André Nataf’s Dictionary Of The Occult:
Saint-Martin […] believed that the “man of desire” (ie you, me, anybody) must get back to his creative principle. He believed that magic was necessary to achieve this [… using] the power of Christ. […] In summary, we can describe Saint-Martin’s method thus: Sophia (or wisdom) blossoms when the individual truly discovers his own “sensitivity”, which is normally buried beneath his inner darkness.
And there are lots of other examples of Martinism in the deck, most obviously in the renaming of Arcanum 12 – usually called The Hanged Man – as Initiatus (The Initiate). Obviously, the Abba deck teems with alchemical symbols and meanings too, tying up with the long Western tradition of alchemy as a spiritual quest – often a Christian one.
Indeed, it’s impossible to wholly disentangle any part of Western esotericism from Christian symbology, for historical reasons if nothing else. So it’s less surprising than it might at first appear to find the Surrealist Stejskal creating images that are so thoroughly steeped in Christianity. If you’re going to do alchemy or Western magick, you’re going to have to negotiate that stuff, like it or not. (Yes, even if you’re Jodorowsky.)
All the same, I was a bit startled to see that Czech Hermetics celebrated the publication of the deck with a special Mass held in an actual Christian church. Woah, WTF?
And Finally, Still Resisting The Urge To Do Stupid Abba Puns In These Subheadings…
I seem to have taken a very long route to come to the conclusion that I don’t really understand this tarot deck. And that I kind of like it for precisely that reason.
It’s a great deck. Check it out. And if you figure out anything more about either the deck in particular or Theofanus Abba in general, please share it in the comments section. I want to know more, but preferably without having to go to the trouble of, y’know, learning bloody Czech.
(Can you hear the puns, Fernando? Sorry, I just couldn’t hold it in any longer.)
All images of the Theofanus Abba deck from the Czech Hermetics website,
reproduced under fair use
Arcana from Waite-Smith and Thoth decks my own photos (which is why they’re a bit crappy, sorry)
Tree Of Life image by VendettaXIII, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0
Hebrew alphabet chart by IEVKEVVEL, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0