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Steiner and Tarot


How were these [spiritual] truths presented to humanity prior to the existence of modern learning? They were presented in ritual images. The essential element in the spread of religion over the centuries lay not in the sermons, for instance, but in ceremonial, in the rituals. Try to imagine for a moment what it was like in Christian countries in the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries.

The important thing was for people to enter a world presented to them in mighty and grandiose images. All around, frescoes on the walls reminded them of the spiritual life. It was as if their earthly life could reach as high as the tallest mountain, but at that point, if one could climb just a little bit higher, the spiritual life began.

The language of the spiritual world was depicted in images which stimulated the imagination, in the audible harmonies of music, or in the words of set forms such as mantras and prayers.

These ages understood clearly that images, not concepts, were required for the spiritual world. People needed something vividly pictorial, not something which could be debated. Something was required which would allow the spirit to speak through what was accessible to the senses. Christianity and its secrets, the Mystery of Golgotha and everything connected with it, were essentially spoken about in the form of images, even when words were used in story form. The dogmas were also still understood as something pictorial. And this Christian teaching remained unchallenged from any quarter prior to the existence of intellectual learning, and for as long as these things did not have to be justified by reason.

. ∴ .

Rudolf Steiner Anthroposophic Movement   lect. 4 [1923] GA 258

Anthroposophy and Tarot

An increasing number of books on tarot make either direct or indirect reference to Steiner. Some of these, however, and despite even frequent quotes by Steiner, either misrepresent Steiner's view or attempt to support their own peculiar viewpoints by quotes taken out of context.

The only major Anthroposophical work dealing with tarot of which I am aware is Meditations on the Tarot.

Rudolf Steiner on Tarot

There are very few times that Steiner appears to have directly referred to Tarot. In fact, only three sources (inclusive of his notebook entry) have thus far come my way. Those who are familiar with especially some of Steiner's untranslated work may come across other sources, and would be grateful for further offerings (please contact me!).

As will be obvious from what follows, I strongly suspect that further material from the 1906 period is yet to emerge.

Steiner Tarot Christmas Tree Symbol

GA 96 Christmas Lecture 17th December 1906

The following is in reference to the symbols exhibited (shown above) on the Christmas tree - with a clear and obvious reference, as for the seven seals of the Apocalypse, to Eliphas Levi's work referencing a similar diagramme. Steiner explained the symbols thus:

The square is the symbol of the fourfold nature of man: physical body, ether body, astral body and ego.

The triangle is the symbol of the higher man: Spirit Self, Life Spirit and Spirit Man.

Above the triangle is the symbol of the Tarot. Initiates of the Egyptian Mysteries knew how to read this sign. They also knew how to read the Book of Thoth, which consisted of seventy-eight cards on which were recorded all world events from beginning to end, from Alpha to Omega, and which could be read if they were joined and assembled in the right way. The Book of Thoth, or Hermes, contained in pictures the life that fades in death and again sprouts forth anew into life. Whoever could combine the right numbers with the right pictures was able to read it. This wisdom of numbers and pictures has been taught since primeval ages. In the Middle Ages it still played an important role, but today there is little left of it.

[the above paragraph is also reprinted, with minor modification (perhaps only arising out of an alternate translation, on p375 of GA 265 The Misraïm Service: "Freemasonry" and Ritual Work - the double quotation marks surrounding 'Freemasonry' showing something of the hesitation the publisher obviously had surrounding Steiner's involvement with the MM-Rite]

Above the Alpha and Omega is the sign of Tao. It reminds us of the worship of God by our primeval ancestors because this worship took its origin from the work Tao. Before Europe, Asia and Africa were lands of human culture, our ancestors lived on Atlantis, which was submerged by a flood. In the Germanic sagas of Niflheim, the land of the mists, the memory of Atlantis still lives. For Atlantis was not surrounded by pure air. Its atmosphere was filled with enormous masses of mist similar to the clouds and mists in high mountains. The sun and moon were not seen clearly in the sky, but were surrounded by a rainbow, and sacred Iris. At that time man still understood the language of nature. What speaks to him today in the lapping and surging of the waves, in the whistling and rushing of the wind, in the rustling of the leaves, in the rumbling of thunder, is no longer understood by him, but at that time he could understand it. He felt something that spoke to him from everything about him. From the clouds and waters and leaves and winds the sound rang forth: Tao (the I am). Atlanteans heard it and understood it, and knew that Tao streamed through the whole world.

Finally, all that permeates the cosmos is present in man and is symbolized in the pentagram at the top of the tree. The deepest meaning of the pentagram may not now be mentioned, but it is the star of mankind, of mankind developing itself. It is the star that all wise men follow as did the priest-sages in ancient ages.

It symbolizes the earth that is born on the Night of Consecration, because the most sublime light radiates from the deepest darkness. Man lives on toward a state when the light shall be born in him, when one significant saying shall be replaced by another, when it will no longer be said, “The Darkness does not comprehend the Light” but when the truth will resound into cosmic space with the words, “Darkness gives way to the Light that radiates toward us in the Star of Mankind, Darkness yields and comprehends the Light”.

This shall resound from the Christmas celebration, and the spiritual light shall radiate from it. Let us celebrate Christmas as the festival of the most lofty ideal of the Idea of Mankind, so that in our souls may rise the joyful confidence: Indeed, I, too, shall experience the birth of the higher man within myself. The birth of the Savior, the Christos, will take place in me also.

Rudolf Steiner Signs and Symbols of the Christmas Festival [lecture III] GA 96, 17th Dec. 1906

Further notes on the theme - 12th December 1906

It seems that no Anthroposophist of the time paid much attention to Tarot, for there appears little evidence of secondary material developing there and then. Perhaps it was picked up with greater zeal by members of the co-freemasonic order working the Memphis-Misraïm rite under his jurisdiction. This, however, is likewise an area that appears to have had relatively little coverage outside of the series published as Temple Legend, Occult Brotherhoods, and Freemasonry and Ritual Work (Cf my page 'Steiner and Freemasonry').

Certainly a few days earlier than the above section mentions, and during a lecture at an esoteric session, Steiner mentioned Tarot. During those lectures, notes were not permitted. Afterwards, however, notes were made by various participants. These were made perhaps simply to jolt memory for what may have been considered significant, or simply for the sake of later recollection.

The entire session, given on the twelfth of December 1906, is summarised by one participant in just forty words, given below - and I must here thank Adrian Anderson for both alerting me to the notes, and providing me with both a copy and its translation:

The Book of Thoth of the Ægyptians consisted of 78 cards that contained the secrets of the cosmos. One knew this very well in the Egyptian Initiation. The cards used as playing cards derive from this origin. The designations King, Knight, Tower-guards, Commander are Occult names.

[the above paragraph is also reprinted, with minor modification (perhaps only arising out of an alternate translation, on p375 of GA 265 The Misraïm Service: "Freemasonry" and Ritual Work - the double quotation marks surrounding 'Freemasonry' showing something of the hesitation the publisher obviously had surrounding Steiner's involvement with the MM-Rite]

What is of significance is that if this summary is of the whole lecture or session, then, presumably, Steiner devoted at least a whole session to working with Tarot, and that to a highly select group.

It may also have been in consequence of his own inner work in the course of preparing the more public lecture on the symbols of the Christmas tree mentioned above.

From Steiner's NoteBooks - December 1906 - Notebook ref. 222

Given the dates of the above two references, I took the opportunity when I was last in Dornach, Switzerland (the week after Easter, 2008), to check out Steiner's NoteBooks from the period - and was both pleased to find a reference and at the same time disappointed that not more notes, however peripheral, were made. In fact, the whole entry is the following:

Rudolf Steiner Notebook 222 December 1906

Perhaps we can note two small important details from this: the first is that Steiner spells 'tarot' in the French manner rather than in the German as was made by the stenographer in GA-96 above; the second is that the position of the Alpha (α) and Omega (ω) is inversed in relation to their placement when it came time to position these on the Christmas Tree (again as shown above from GA-96). That these, incidentally, were in his notebook in lower-case rather than capitals I personally consider without significance.

These details again point to Eliphas Levi as an influence, though it should be noted that Levi appears to only have used the capitals (though, again, I do not think this is of significance), and that he positions the 'P' so that the 'head' is above the horizontal of the 'T', unlike Steiner. Perhaps the influence is therefore indirect. One avenue that may be worth pursuing are references — or rather imagery — that may have been used for tarot by Reuss or Yarker, through whom Steiner had originally obtained the charter for the Memphis-Misraïm Masonic rite (Misraim-Dienst, also referred to at times as Mystica Aeterna).

Steiner Resources

The books that follow are those that contain the material mentioned above, and related topics. These are in addition to the three more general ones I mention on the Spiritual Science page.

essential reading:

Anonymous Meditations on the Tarot

Steiner, Rudolf Festivals and their Meaning / 'Signs and Symbols of the Christmas Festival'

recommended Tarot site:

Association for Tarot Studies

for other Anthroposophical and Tarot pages within this site:

Anthroposophy tab on the home page
Tarot tab on the home page