Monday, 1 March 2010

Ancient Egypt and the Tarot Journey: Sacred Marriage

Katy Noura Butler will be talking to people at the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology about some of her work on the journey through tarot and Ancient Egypt on Tuesday 2 March at 6.30pm (doors open at 6pm).

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Isis and the Tarot: Goddess of the Moon and High Priestess

In a recent talk at the Theosophical Society, Katy N Butler gave a talk entitled ‘Isis- Bright Queen of Magick and Healing and the Eternal Soul (Ba)’. The story of Isis, her suffering and message of unconditional love was shown as a map for a process of internal integration. Katy talked about loss and sorrow, ‘the shadow sides of Isis’ and connected her with the High Priestess card in the Tarot. Katy has recently published a book ‘The Egyptian Path To Love’ and runs a modern-day Mystery School in Egypt (Sacred Egypt).

Isis features heavily in the Major Arcana if you look for her. In the story of Osiris and Isis, seven scorpions assisted Isis in searching for the scattered 14 body parts of Osiris. The card entitled The Moon (number 18) shows a scorpion and a crayfish emerging from a body of water. The water could be the Nile, which symbolises Isis’ tears. In some accounts of the Isis and Osiris story a crayfish or crab ate the phallus of Osiris, the one body part Isis could not find in her search.

Two dogs are pictured looking up to the moon. Dogs have mythical links with death and the moon, and Anubis, Egyptian god of the underworld had the head of a jackal.

A woman’s face stares out from inside the moon. The deep sorrow of Isis at the loss of Osiris is reflected in this card, which also contains lessons about the concepts of fear and loss and the lessons to be learned from going through these experiences. This card is one of the most misunderstood of the Tarot, it has attracted a host of different associations and interpretations, some very negative. It was often thought of as a bad omen to draw this card- but really it speaks only of fear, which is in the mind. Without fear, we can transform ourselves by loving courageously even if we cannot be sure of outcomes.

The Moon is the link between Spirit (Sun) and Earth (Matter), urging a transcending of the material and physical and a plunge into the realms of the unconscious for answers.

In ‘The Sacred Magic of Ancient Egypt’, Rosemary Clark tells us that the most respected use of divination in Ancient Egypt was dream interpretation. The Sentyt- or Priestess, was the practioner of divination sciences and she would have been ‘versed in several forms of divination, such as scrying, and in reading sacred images like the Tarot.’ The patron deity of divination science- or oracle – was Maat. This fits in with the moon card in the Tarot being linked to dreams, and seems to point at this card being one of the most important in terms of Ancient Egyptian symbols and resonances.

Just as the true symbology behind moon worship remained hidden for centuries, the true meaning of the Moon card seems to have been masked and distorted. All of the three water signs are represented here - Cancer the crab, Scorpio the Scorpion and Pisces the fish who swim in the waters of the unconscious. The moon is not just about emotions it is about bodies, our link to the earth and to the Source. There are layers of sacred meaning.

It is the card of the divine feminine, linked to another card which shows another facet of Isis, The High Priestess. The High Priestess was often called ‘Isis’ in earlier packs. She is representative of the Moon Goddess, her veiled face indicating mystery and secrets.

‘Isis, in her veiled form, presided over a powerful and widespread mystery religion. She was said to incorporate many goddess forms within her character and was known as myrionimos – ‘the one with ten thousand names.’’ (Jane Lyle)

She holds a scroll on which is written ‘Taro’. The connections with ‘Torah’ and ‘rota’ are clear. This woman holds the key to the wisdom in the book of Tarot. She is the guardian of the gateway to the deepest recesses of the soul. This card is drawn when someone needs to listen to their intuition. It concerns issues of female independence and agency, and of giving away one’s power.

On the card, palm trees are shown. These were used for divination in the Isian Temples. Pomegranates sit above the head of this the High Priestess, a sign of fecundity.
A card that retains much Egyptian character and appearance is the Chariot. Many depictions have the Egyptian ‘Aten’ winged solar disc displayed on the front of the Chariot, pulled in two directions at once by two Sphinx creatures. Some have connected this card with ‘Horus The Warrior’ – in some decks he has a hawks head and wears the crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt. Horus was the son of Isis.

Text by Lena Munday

Friday, 6 November 2009

Life, Death, Power, Judgement, Evil, Good . . .

Life, Death, Power, Judgement, Evil, Good . . . are big themes in Ancient Egyptian religion and thought. They are, in fact, big themes in any religious or spiritual system. In Ancient Egypt these themes were represented by myths, stories and symbols that were used in any thing from high status objects (what we might call 'art' objects), on everyday objects, in texts and through story telling.

The language of tarot uses a number of the same symbols and imagery as Ancient Egypt and the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology at University College London has been looking at the crossovers between symbology in Ancient Egypt and Tarot. This is the start of our findings and we hope to build on this over the coming year.

The research on tarot and tarot use and history is by Lena Munday and on Egypt and objects in the Petrie Museum by UCL graduate student Alice Williams. The cards used are from The Egyptian Tarot by Gordano Berti and Tibero Gonard, with art work by Silvanna Alasia.

We are hosting an event at the Petrie Museum on Thursday 3 December 6 - 8pm to discuss crossovers and ideas around symbology. Please feel free to participate by coming along or by leaving comments on this blog.

Debbie Challis (, Audience Development Officer, Petrie Museum)

Alternative Egypt: The Symbolic Language of Tarot

A language in itself, a book of occult wisdom, a mode of communication invented by the Ancients that reaches us today despite centuries of persecution, distortion and neglect…A coded system linked directly to Astrology, gnosticism, alchemy, ritual magic and Qabala... The Tarot is a mirror and a map of the soul reflecting the entire spectrum of human experience.

From the infancy of the Fool to the completion and knowledge that finds its embodiment in the World, this system speaks the ancient language of symbols. This book has evolved into a deck comprised of 78 cards, 22 of these are the Major Arcana and the remaining 56 are the Minor Arcana with four suits- Pentacles, Swords, Rods or Wands and Cups. These number ace to ten and include pages, knights, kings and queens. For each card there is an alchemical correspondence, an astrological sign and a number.

The deck currently in widespread usage with its myriad of artistic interpretations, is based on the pack designed by Pamela Colman Smith under the direction of Arthur Edward Waite whose book ‘The Pictorial Key to the Tarot’ was published in 1910. The occult revival during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries manifested some interesting study although much of this was male dominated. An exception was the work of Helena Blavatsky who mentioned Tarot in ‘The Secret Doctrine’ and ‘The Unveiling of Isis’ connecting the origins of Tarot with Ancient Egypt.

As a system of occult meaning and esoteric guidance, Tarot was forced underground in Medieval Europe. Disguising the Tarot as a game was a way of enabling practicioners to continue its usage without persecution. It was called 'The Devil's Picture Book' by the Christian Church and heretics using it were put to death. This is why records are patchy and the Tarot appears to only to resurface at certain times. Those in the know always used it, but secretly if they needed to.

Aleister Crowley wrote in ‘The Book of Thoth:A short essay on the Tarot of the Egyptians’ (OTO 1944): ‘the origin of Tarot is quite irrelevant, even if it were certain. It must stand or fall on its own merits.’

Unlike Crowley, many are concerned with Tarot origins and among these historians, practicioners, healers, mystics and writers there are many who believe the answers do lie firmly in Ancient Egypt. The Theosophers, following on from Madame Blavatsky and her classic work ‘The Secret Doctrine’ (1888) are the alternative Egyptologists, writers that include John Gordon and Katy Noura Butler who assert that Ancient Egypt is more ancient than we think and that the Ancient Egyptians guarded the wisdom and knowledge of Atlantis.

Text by Lena Munday


The Ankh’s original meaning remains debatable, theories of its origin include the Egyptian sandal strap and a magical knot. As a hieroglyphic sign the Ankh means ‘life’ and symbolises eternal existence. As such, the Ankh is often attributed with the royal and the divine, often a god is shown holding the Ankh to the nose of the Pharaoh, giving to him ‘the breath of life’.

The ankh can be seen being held in the hands of deities/royalty in some relief/stelae fragments in the Petrie Museum(in the same manner that they are held by some characters in the tarot cards):
• Case IC11: UC14781 (limestone slab with unidentifiable goddess holding ankh, 17th dynasty).
• Case IC12: UC14783 (limestone slab with Antef VIII worshipping Min and holding the ankh, 17th dynasty).

The image of the Ankh is also identifiable in a more private/domestic religious context:
• Faience ankh, from Meroe in Sudan.

The Ankh appears frequently as a symbol in tarot cards, examples include:
o ‘The Lady of Life’ (Queen of chalices) – Queen shown holding the ankh sign in her hand, described as the “amulet of life”.
o ‘Seth’s Ladder’ (2 of chalices).
o ‘Isis’ knot’ (9 of chalices) – Ankh described as a “very powerful talisman, symbol of positive energies that bring life with them”.
o ‘The Chalices of Souls’ (10 of chalices).

Anubis - Death and Judgement

Anubis was the Jackal headed god of the dead, embalming and guardian of the deceased. Anubis held many epithets including ‘lord of the hallowed land’, for his role within the ancient necropolis where he protected the dead from evil forces in the night. Anubis played an important ritualistic role at the mummification of the deceased, where a priest would wear the black jackal mask representing the god. He also resided over the ‘Weighing of the Heart’ in the Hall of Judgement, where the deceased’s heart would be weighed against the feather of Ma’at, before the god Osiris.
Limestone statue of Anubis as a jackal, Dynasty 26 (664 - 525 BCE).

Anubis appears in two of the major arcana:
o ‘XIII – Death’ (The Reaper Skeleton – Transformation) – shows Anubis in a typical judgement scene of the book of the dead, weighing the heart of the deceased against the ma’at feather.

o ‘XX – Judgement’ (The Walking of the Dead – Renewal) – shows Anubis guiding the deceased.

Crown / Diadem

As the insignia of kings and gods, crowns were the ultimate symbol of power in Egyptian imagery. There were a number of crowns of different style which indicated the character of the wearer. The Double Crown combined the white crown of Upper Egypt and the red crown of Lower Egypt, indicating rule over both lands. The Atef crown, primarily worn by the god Osiris, combined the double feathers of the royal headdress and the Upper Egyptian crown, but had the addition of a solar disc on the very tip.

In tarot the crown is worn by different figures and used as a symbol in its own right.
o ‘The Royal Diadem’ (7of Pentacles) – “A head covering of Ostrich feathers surrounded by seven coins is the symbol of power and well-being”.
o ‘The White Crown’ (6 of Chalices) – “An ornament of Osiris and the Pharaoh, the crown of ostrich feathers represents intellectual and spiritual purity.”

o ‘The Overturned Djed’ (10 of Wands) – “The crown of Osiris, overturned under the djed, the backbone of the god, is the symbol of the loss of power deriving from defeat by the hand of Seth.”