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Tarot Hermeneutics

Exploring How We Create Meaning with Tarot

Charles Williams, A.E. Waite and  the Secret of The Greater Trumps (1937; USA Edition: 1950)

William Lindsay Gresham wrote a preface to the first American Edition of The Greater Trumps by Charles Williams. Gresham learned of Tarot while researching his only popular fiction, the roman noir classic Nightmare Alley that features a different Major Arcana card for each of its 22 chapters. The novel was made into a milestone film, considered by critics Tyrone Power's best performance. Both Gresham and his wife, the poet, Joy Davidman Gresham (poetry pseudonym: "Joy Brown") had been fervent Communists during the 30s, becoming disillusioned with it after the Hitler-Stalin pact and, partly by reading the books of C.S. Lewis, together converted to Protestant Christianity after WWII. Both wrote  separate accounts of their conversions that appeared a collection of apologia, These Found the Way (1951). I plan to discuss in greater detail William Lindsay Gresham's views of Tarot in another article.

Here I reproduce a portion of William Lindsay Gresham's Preface American Edition of The Greater Trumps by Charles Williams because of the peculiar order and numbering of the Trumps as well as useful glosses on their meanings. This unusual ordering and numbering follows from Williams book (see pages 14-15, 1950 edition). My question is what, if any, significance can these variant numberings and order mean? For instance what does it signify to nest, between the Empress and Emperor, the pair  High Priestess and Hierophant? Even a cursory look shows a narrative reordering mostly in complimentary pairs of two thirds of the Fool's Journey! Also consider the numerological values that these shifts suggest.

On the other hand, perhaps some, more familiar with Tarot history, may point to an early variant ordering of the Trumps that Williams is referencing?

Here is a personal list of interpretations of the Greater Trumps, drawn from Williams, with Waite in the background, and intuition-of-the-moment playing a large part: 

  1. (i) The Juggler. He is the inventor, creator and operator of our three-dimensional illusion, behind which stands reality. Job's Voice from the Whirlwind is the Juggler speaking.
  2. (ii) The Empress. Here is the Great Mother of the Gods; nature as we perceive her, with the twelve months as jewels in her crown. She is both loving and cruel—an imperfect creature.
  3. (iii) The High Priestess. Between the pillars of dark and light she guards the sanctuary of truth; behind the veil of the temple is the secret of God, man and the universe which we long to know.
  4. (iv) The Hierophant. He expounds the truth in terms of dogma and formal ritual; for many seekers it is enough. His mitre and staff are emblems of power in human terms.
  5. (v) The Emperor. He is worldly power and man's will applied to matter; authority over other men is the end result of man's proud "control of the forces of nature."
  6. (vi) The Chariot. Man's will is a charioteer, driving the black and white sphinxes of decision with invisible reins. But who stands behind the curtain of the chariot, whispering to the driver?
  7. (vii) The Lovers. Adam and Eve, perhaps, or simply sex. Yet there is an implication of the divine in the angel over their heads. Sex as a powerful element in spiritual growth; a hint of heaven.
  8. (viii) The Hermit. Paired with the Lovers, he is spiritual growth in solitude, search for the inner light. In a Zen Buddhist poem: "You must know that the fire which you seek is in your own lantern."
  9. (ix) Temperance. Williams: ". . . an image bearing a cup closed by its hand. . ." Also called Time: an angel pouring light from one cup to another. The mystery of time, space, dimension.
  10. (x) Fortitude. (or Strength) The Earth Mother, with her garlands, is closing with her hands the mouth of one of her lions. This is strength from beyond earth, strength through surrender of self.
  11. (xi) Justice. With sword and scales. She is in the exact center of the Major Arcana, whenever it is arranged symmetrically. Whence comes man's sense of justice? And why do men die for it?
  12. (xii) The Wheel of Fortune. Cyclical nature in constant motion; wheel of seasons and the Big Dipper about the north star; to the Hindus—Karma: causality and the web of action-reaction.
  13. (xiii) The Hanged Man. Renunciation of self is the greatest triumph; the long battle with man's untaught impulses and self-will; sacrifice leading to the secret at the heart of the world.
  14. (xiv) Death. It is not what we see, it is other. Paradox: the worst punishment man can inflict on evil men is a fate met daily by thousands of the innocent as well. There is no Tarot card for birth.
  15. (xv) The Devil. Man in bondage, held by self-will, lust and the illusion of mortality. From these come evil and malice. The lovers are chained to Satan's throne by self-love.
  16. (xvi) The Falling Tower. "Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it." The structures man raises by his pride fall to dust, stricken by a bolt of fire.
  17. (xvii) The Star. Beneath it a naked girl pours water from two urns, upon land and sea. Waite: "She is in reality the Great Mother in the Kabalistic Sephira Binah . . . supernal understanding."
  18. (xviii) The Moon. Into the field of man's inner visions come thoughts from the deeps and impulses as irrational as those of the dog and wolf. While above them is the passionless Watcher of the mind.
  19. (xix) The Sun. Source of earth's life, the children play in its warmth. Yet it is but a reflection of Divine Light, a fact of which most men are as ignorant as are the children.
  20. (xx) The Last Judgment. Immortality, resurrection —in this same three-dimensional segment or in another? And is not the heavenly body promised us but a parable of extra-dimension?
  21. (xxi) The Universe. In the circling mandala-wreath, watched by the symbols of the Apostles, a girl turns in the harmony of the Dance. The circle is the boundary of man's mind, thinking: "Universe."
  22. (o) The Fool. Whether Charles Williams' interpretation has any basis in Tarot tradition or not, it has transformed the Tarot for the modern student. The occultists were blinded by pride.

Charles Williams—novelist, poet, critic, dramatist and biographer—died in his native England in May, 1945. He had a lively and devoted following there and achieved a considerable reputation as a lecturer on the faculty of Oxford University. T. S. Eliot, Dorothy Sayers and C. S. Lewis were among his distinguished friends and literary sponsors. He was also a member of the Inklings, a group of Christian writers that included J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings.

Less well known, except to occultists concerned with the history of secret societies, is that Charles Williams was a member of A.E. Waite's Fellowship of the Rosy Cross, founded by Waite in 1915. It drew many of its members from the ranks of Freemasons and theosophists. Waite himself was raised Catholic and considered himself observant and devout.

At 5:00 p.m. on Friday, September 21, 1917, Charles Williams went to the Imperial Hotel in Russell Square, in London, where he was to be initiated into the Salvator Mundi Temple of the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross. At 5:30, following the "Ceremonial Summons to assume the habit," the Temple was opened and the Postulant was admitted, robed in black. The hired rooms were consecrated to symbolize the Temple of Jerusalem. Before an assembly of fourteen Fratres and five Sorores, he swore that he would "keep all secrets of the Sanctuary" and received the symbolic baptism of water and fire. Waite officiated as Sacramentum Regis, Imperator of the Rite in the Ceremony of Reception into the Grade of Neophyte. Thereupon, in the words of the official minutes, he was "received into the Portal Grade under the Sacramental Name of Qui Sitit Veniat [thirsting for grace]."

Williams had begun reading Waite some five years earlier. After publishing his first book of poems in 1912, at the age of twenty-six, he began making notes for an ambitious sequence of poems on the King Authur legend. As a practicing Christian and High Church Anglican, he was attracted to the story of the Holy Grail (Malory's Sankgreal). He liked Waite's 1909 study The Hidden Church of the Holy Graal because it enlivened the story as a tradition of sacrament and ceremony and because it hinted at a more spiritual Arthuriad than Tennyson's Idylls of the King. He also liked the sequel of 1913, The Secret Doctrine in Israel, that has chapters on such topics as "The Hidden Church of Israel" and "The Mystery of Sex."

Unlike Waite's more fanciful readers, Williams was well aware that Waite's last "mystery" had little, if anything to do with Tantra, and much to do with the traditional Christian interpretation of the Song of Solomon; that the "secret doctrine" was, first of all, a doctrine of purity under the divine law; and that this law came into the Church as the bridegroom came to the bride of the Song. He may have been tempted by such prospects of further knowledge as The Secret Doctrine offered in closing: "Hereunto is that which can be said in public places, and for all that remains over "Sacramentum Regis abscondere donum est,[You rule as the hidden gift of your Oath]" and Williams would have been alert that Waite's Latin motto referred to that "Supreme Mystery ... which is the King of the Law." Williams copied passages from these works into a hefty blank book... he continued to fill the book for several years, and later gave it to a young colleague, the future sacramental poet, Anne Ridler."

Even after drifting away from the pomp of Fellowship of the Rosy Cross, perhaps around 1928 or a bit later, Williams remained fond of Waite's scholarship and often obliquely references his views in his fiction. In some ways, Williams' and Waite's themes coincide: The Holy Grail, the Philosopher's Stone, the Tarot are all evident in their works. Likewise topics assiduously studied  in the original Golden Dawn, including astral projection, the use of talismans, and the exercise of will power are explored in Williams' novels.

One might conclude, as does the Golden Dawn scholar Francis King, “that the Golden Dawn system--or to be more correct Waite's heterodox version of that system--is the key without which the deepest and inmost meaningfulness of Williams can never be unlocked.” but this “key” has eluded the most attentive readers. Perhaps some of the odd liberties Williams takes with tarot symbolism may conceal initiate secrets or may reveal them in ways not yet explored. 

Another authority on the Golden Dawn, R. A. Gilbert, has noted more cautiously that the novels draw “from concepts that Williams could, and probably did, find in A. E. Waite's Fraternity of the Rosy Cross, but the elegant structure of his work and the peculiar orthodoxy of his theology are Williams' own.”


The Greater Trumps (1932) is apparently the best instance of William’s preying upon occult subject matter to create blatantly Christian morality play. It also demonstrates a commanding echoing of the political themes and characters in the novels of Benjamin Disraeli.

Williams’ use of symbolism is near its peak in this novel. A classic occult mystery play where all the forces of truth and justice, very conventionally established as staid British institutions set against anarchistic gypsy intrigue, and in the mysterious figures of the tarot Trumps. The trumps motivate and embody the characters, set the action and redeem the antagonists by being themselves neutral leaves from the tree of knowledge of good and evil that compete for their control.

The Greater Trumps are the original set of Tarot, the ur-deck of hyper powerful cards, were bequeathed to a minor English civil servant, "Warden in Lunacy," Lothair Coningsby by a deceased distant relative, a collector of tarot decks, Mr. Duncannon. The name of this shadowy benefactor is definitely Irish. After the well known town, it literally means: Dweller at Conán's Hill-Fort (Dun=fortress,  cannon=the mythical "Conán mac Morna", also known as "Conán Maol" ["the bald"], a member of the fianna [(singular fian)small, semi-independent warrior bands who lived apart from society in the forests as mercenaries, bandits and hunters], was an ally of the great hero Fionn mac Cumhail, whose exploits are told in the Fenian or Ossianic Cycle of tales in Irish Myth. Conán mac Morna usually portrayed as a cruder version of Falstaf, [pardon the anachronism] a troublemaker and a comic figure, fat, blustering and greedy. However he is loyal to Fionn and never runs away from a fight. It is quite possible that this shadowy collector of tarot cards may be a version of the Fool as trickster-demiurge or even the harlequin Christ.

[There is also a possible historical symbolic connection for Williams between John Ponsonby, Lord Duncannon and Benjamin Disraeli's views about Christian Zionism and British engagement in Palestine that one might research. Where did those cards come from anyway?]

Lothair's daughter, the spritely Nancy is engaged to a young man, Henry Lee, whose heritage is Romany. Nancy's father, Lothair seems a rather dim and pompous fellow. He is considering what to do with these very rare, old set of Tarot cards. He intends to turn the cards over to a museum upon his own death.

Nancy's fiancé is quite taken with this particular Tarot deck. reciting a bit of folkloric and ritualist patter to his easily distracted Nancy:
"It's said that the shuffling of the cards is the earth, and the pattering of the cards is the rain, and the beating of the cards is the wind, and the pointing of the cards is the fire. That's of the four suits. But the Greater Trumps, it's said, are the meaning of all process and the measure of the everlasting dance."

Henry consults his grandfather, Aaron Lee who is custodian of the Hermetic secret inheritance of the Romany people. He has long sought after the innermost mysteries of the Tarot. Aaron resides in a 17th century house out in the countryside. There, on a table in a secret room, is a collection of miniature figures ever contorting in a ceaseless dance, signifying the "Great Dance," that is the foundation of the universe.

Together they surmise that this deck of Trumps is the only "true" deck in existence--that is, a deck that is so accurately rendered that it can truly summon and command occult power, as opposed to other sets that lack such outré influence. These cards can predict events, but  can also cause them. They do not just interpret reality, but are also a mysterious source for the regeneration of reality. The ur-deck of tarot trumps can quicken the magical properties of the table and gyrating figurines so that one will achieve consummate power to command the four elements of earth, wind, water, and fire.

The classic dualism is set between the coveting gypsy occultists, Henry (Fool) and Aaron (Magician, Osiris) and the unwitting Lothair (Emperor), his maiden sister Sybil (Empress)  and the high-spirited Nancy (High Priestess).

First the gypsies offer to purchase the cards, failing that they try to steal the cards. When this  too fails, Henry schemes to lure Nancy, her father, Mr. Coningsby, her inured obliviously self-encaptured-to-commonsense and the common place no-matter-how-astounding-circumstances-become, brother Ralph, and Nancy's unmarried aunt, the mystical Sybil, who lives with them, to Aaron’s country house for Christmas, in the hope of getting the cards away from Coningsby. Since they cannot use direct violence, he uses the occult power of the cards to create a blinding snowstorm when Coningsby goes out for a walk on Christmas afternoon, in the hopes that the man will die in the storm.

Two women disrupt this plan: Nancy's aunt Sybil who is so spiritually sophisticated that she lives in a permanent mood of deep, loving calm, and it appears that she observes things that others cannot and remain nonreactive in circumstances that would injure others.  Sibyl (High Priestess, Empress) is at times a fascinating figure--rather like a female Christ come to life. She is the pristine Sophia who is shadowed by the arrival of her disruptive doppelganger, Henry's own great-aunt, Aaron's sister, Joanna (Pope Joan, reversed High Priestess, the Hanged Man), a half-demented old woman (the fallen Sophia) who believes her (Isis’) own deceased child (Demiurge) was the reincarnation of the Egyptian god Horus and has spent years wandering the back roads looking for a way to bring him back to life (much as Isis did for her husband-brother, Osiris); Joanna providentially shows up Christmas afternoon, after being estranged from her brother for years.

In this pregnant symbolic instance, Christmas day, we have entered a timeless wrought moment of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’s twofold Christmas tide. The country house (The Falling Tower) becomes an athenor, a digesting furnace used by alchemists to maintain uniform and durable heat for execution of the great work (contraindicated by the snowstorm).  Not without some social comedy at the expense of the pompous Coningsby, and Nancy's aunt, Sibyl (who is Cassandra-like) and whose name means “prophetess.” Likewise Lothair means "loud warrior" and suggests the Chariot. Whereas, Coninsgby means “royal manor” (Emperor).  Aaron Lee remind us of the brother of Moses who fashions the Golden Calf while Moses in receiving the law on Mt. Sinai. Aaron is the Magician to Henry's The Fool.

Here we have a central theme of many of Charles Williams' novels -- the profanation of holy Mystery by those who would misuse its promise of healing and wholeness for ego-aggrandizement and the quest for tribal power. The classic tarot figure of The Falling Tower is the symbol of the fate that engulfs those who attempt to lay hold of the Holy Mysteries of Magic to satisfy their egotistic thirst for power.

This conspiracy to ruthlessly possess the Tarot deck at all costs, to co-opt its power, Henry and Aaron Lee's nefarious pursuit to wrest the Tarots from Mr. Coningsby and murder him, unwittingly, unleashes primal forces of the snowstorm which are entirely beyond their ability to control. The snowstorm goes awry, spiraling away from command, so that the primal elements will completely destroy the world,  or so we are assured by the commentary of Henry and Aaron. And that is true but not in a way we are led to expect. It seems we are only being teased, since an unexpected conclusion occurs. For the archetypal potencies of the Divine World cannot be predicted or manipulated by the unworthy for their own ends and the attempt to do so is  not made with impunity: thus the novel builds up to a compelling denouement which is also a transfiguring and mystical meditation upon the the sudden appearance of radiant light emanating peace and presence of pure love.

At various times on Christmas afternoon, Nancy (a virginal High Priestess) discovers her fiancé’s treachery toward her father (intending to use the storm to murder him and obtain the cards) and is nearly made a human sacrifice herself by the half-demented old aunt Joanna who is searching for Horus, but by the end of the afternoon, everyone is cozily reconciled, and the young pair are even persisting in their plans to be married!

It is not Lothair’s legal claim on the cards that ultimately foils the occultists, but the seemingly inconsequential claims of his sister, the aptly named Sybil, (The Empress) whose only claim on the cards or the characters is that she loves them indiscriminately and without condition. The sublime equanimity of Aunt Sybil who amongst all the characters has truly attained to a high degree of spiritual freedom and thus plays a pivotal role: Sybil's selfless and calm wisdom contrasts strikingly with the hubristic greed of the magical adepts and the deluded Johanna. This love supports her brother’s legal claim to the cards, strengthens Henry’s and Nancy’s love until it becomes something more than a ruse to realize Faustian ambitions, and apart from the lever that Henry and Nancy wished to make of it, and this mysterious love redeems the characters' fall and undoes all the mischief released by the cards as a result of the manipulation of this love by ambition. Here we are taken into the mysterious presence of Divine love.  Lothair's sister, the serene Sybil, who foils the occult schemes of the Lee's, is the Empress, Justice and Temperance. Nancy is the High Priestess, Henry Lee, The Fool to his grandfather’s The Magician is redeemed this Christmas day to becomes the Hierophant.  As a couple, they become the Lovers and The World. Even old Aaron is transformed into the serene Hermit. And Joanna settles her delusion that Nancy is her child messiah!

So skillfully woven through this brilliant and cautionary Christmas tale of young love, illegitimate lust for control, satires on conventional etiquette and preternatural high jinks is an extended esoteric morality play upon the emblems of the Tarot Trumps as timeless mysteries of command, archetypes and prototypes, Divine Ideas, virtues and eternal Platonic Forms and for Williams' always Christian redemption. The Greater Trumps  is distinctively perceptive, trenchant and matchless of Williams' novels in its understanding of the human and perhaps cosmic comedy.

This essay is an invitation for the reader, not only to read The Greater Trumps, but to explore Williams' fanciful fiction of the tarot as carriers of the symbolic, ceremonial and magical truths. I see this unfolding both in the descriptions of the trumps and the dancing figurines but in the symbolic embodiments of the characters and the undercurrents of the plot, may well provide clues to as yet under-realized features of the oracle.

The Greater Trumps by Charles Williams provides many allusions to the political novels of Benjamin Disraeli. It is obvious merely by the selection of protagonist’s names that their backstory alludes to characters and themes in Disraeli’s fiction. I suspect that in these novels a sort of occult history of the Christian Zionism and millennial expectations as it relates to progressive social reform, secret societies, freemasonry that still needs to be told with greater precision than can I. Also these allusions add a greater social depth to Williams' stories, otherwise unremarked in criticism his fiction.

Coningsby, or The New Generation, is an English political novel by Benjamin Disraeli published in 1844. The story of the novel follows the life and career of Henry Coningsby, the orphan grandson of a wealthy marquess, called Lord Monmouth. Lord Monmouth initially disapproved of Coningsby's parents' marriage, but on their death he relents and sends the boy to be educated at Eton College. At Eton Coningsby meets and befriends Oswald Millbank, the son of a rich cotton manufacturer who is a bitter enemy of Lord Monmouth. The two older men represent old and new wealth in society.

As Coningsby grows up he begins to develop his own liberal political views and he falls in love with Oswald's sister Edith. When Lord Monmouth discovers these developments he is furious and secretly disinherits his grandson. On his death, Coningsby is left penniless, and is forced to work for his living. He decides to study law and to become a barrister. This proof of his character impresses Edith's father (who had previously also been hostile) and he consents to their marriage at last. By the end of the novel Coningsby is elected to Parliament for his new father-in-law's constituency and his fortune is restored.

The character of Coningsby himself is based on the life and career. George Smythe, 7th Viscount Strangford.

The themes, and some of the characters, reappear in Disraeli's later novels Sybil, and Tancred.

Sybil, or the Two Nations (1845), is a fallen and redeemed Sophia tale set in the social life in the Northern milltowns, from the dosing of babies with laudanum to keep them drugged and quiet at home while their mothers worked, to the plight of the handloom weavers and the ever-present threat of social unrest. And Disraeli's Lothair, first published in 1870 when Benjamin Disraeli was sixty-six and Leader of the Opposition in Parliament. Lothair follows its eponymous hero, rich and aristocratic but orphaned, as he attempts to find his place in the world. Before his father died he appointed two guardians, one a Scottish Presbyterian, the other a high-church Anglican clergyman who becomes a Roman Catholic and, eventually, a cardinal. Set against the backdrop of Giuseppe Garibaldi's attempts to create a united and independent Italy, Lothair finds himself at the centre of a battle between Protestantism and Catholicism to secure him as their own. Taking in England, Italy, Malta and the Holy Land and moving amongst the highest society of Europe, the novel follows its hero as he agonizes over his faith as well as finds himself bewildered by love. These novels foreshadow themes well represented in The Greater Trumps.

In response an early version of this essay on RS NING, Mary K. Greer alerted me to some essential tarot facts about William Lindsay Gresham. These notes would not have been added without Mary's generous promptings.

William Lindsay Gresham was the author of Nightmare Alley - another great tarot book - in fact, the novel itself is a tarot reading, with each of the 22 chapters a different card (and should be read from this pov). Gresham, who was obsessed with the shadow side of carnival life, created the rise-and-fall story of Stan Carlisle, a carny-trained con-man who becomes a spiritualist and Tarot teacher. A year after publication Nightmare Alley was made into what many consider to be the greatest film-noir movie of all time (1947). Stan Carlisle was played by Tyrone Power, who backed the film and felt it was his most significant role. Unfortunately, Gresham was a very unhappy (sick?) man who drank heavily and beat his wife, Joy, who finally escaped into her short but very happy marriage with C. S. Lewis (which makes their story only the more poignant).

Thanks to sources: Mary K. Greer, Cynthia Tedesco, and Wikipedia.

Mary Greer rearranged and slightly edited this essay, featuring it on her popular blog. I am grateful for the exposure. I added this comment once the novelty passed:

Greater Trumps as Community Stage Play with Dance Pantomime and Some Music.

Thank you, Mary for improving my presentation of this material and adding it to you blog space. I hope that people read at least enough of the essay to be inspired to try to read the book.

One fantasy that I had while working on a rewrite is what a wonderful stage play it would make. I could see it as a three or five act play, holding close to the dialogue as written by Charles Williams, that has such a quaint indirection of British speech patterns from before World War II. I think I would camp up of the occult and hypnotic aspects of the novel.  I see three or four major costumed dancers representing the major Arcana itself and also the figurines on the tarot table. In some ways I see it as a play in which in the foreground you have this little domestic Christmas drama in all of its fusty and mundane triviality, while in the foreground or background dance and abstract patterns, holding pantomime poses, a sort of mime of cosmic significance the tarot trumps dance to weave significant patterns that reveal and thwart the various machinations of the grandfather and grandson Lees.

Maybe I would flush out the personality of Henry Lee a little more, because in my mind his motive of being the suitor-fiancé of Nancy is definitely at odds with his wanting to fulfill the tarot destiny of the Gypsy people. Also I think the easy reconciliation of Nancy with Henry at the end needs to be explored more fully perhaps because of the occult influence of Aunt Sybil.

Perhaps a way of dealing with this novel as they play is to tighten up the action to last about three days instead of two weeks to a month. To put all of the action at Aaron’s house, revealing with backstory dialogue, the issue of the tarot cards and the invisible is that the elder Coningsby has with them.

Perhaps even a few well-chosen, period-piece songs could unite the action between the pantomime dancers of the tarot and the domestic concerns of the families Lee and Coningsby. It is a fantasy that gives me a great deal of pleasure, though I doubt I have the talent or the leisure to make the transition of the novel into a dramatic piece.

In a slightly different key, I can see how this novel can also inspire a tarot liturgy of sorts. There are definite sections of the novel that hint at elements of ritual and moral transformation.

Thank you everybody for taking the time and looking at this little labor of love. And do when you can, take an afternoon to read, Charles Williams’ The Greater Trumps.