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 (d.challis@ucl.ac.uk, 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.”

Feather of Ma'at

This image depicts the Ostrich feather worn upon the head of the goddess Ma’at. Ma’at personified the laws of all existence, she represented truth, justice, law, divine and world order, and as such the image of the feather depicts these qualities and is the symbol of truth. This symbol appears frequently in the Book of the Dead, in the Hall of Judgement at the ‘Weighing of the Heart’, in which the heart of the deceased is weighed against the feather of Ma’at, upon the scales of justice.

On the tarot cards, the feather of Ma'at is used to symbolise justice and truth.
o ‘XIX – The Sun’ – the woman standing beneath the sun has a headdress of two ma’at feathers and ma’at feathers hanging from each arm.
o ‘XIII – Death’ – shows Anubis weighing the heart of the deceased against the ma’at feather.


Horus was seen early in Egyptian mythology as a sky god, depicted as a falcon with outstretched wings, whose eyes represented the sun and the moon. From the early historic period Horus in his celestial falcon form was associated with the King and kingship, seen often as the manifestation of Horus himself. In mythology Horus was seen as the son of the god Osiris and rival to his uncle, the god Seth.

Tellow sandstone falcon of Horus, possibly Ptolemaic (Greek rule 332 - 30 BCE).

Horus appears most frequently in the tarot cards in falcon form:
o ‘Horus’ Glory’ (3 of pentacles) – “After his victory over Seth, Horus could finally rise to the heavens bearing two Shen, and here he was crowned with a flaming sun disc by Ra”.

o ‘Horus’ Sceptre’ (Ace of Wands) – Falcon Horus “with the sign of power over the earthly world (wand)”.
o ‘The Chalices of Souls’ (10 of Chalices) – “The god Horus surrounded by ten chalices, symbols of the hearts containing the souls destined for reincarnation”.

Lotus / Lily / Papyrus Flowers

The lotus, or red waterlily in Egyptian mythology is associated with one of the creation myths as the ‘blossom which came into being in the beginning’ from the primeval waters or ‘emerged from the light’. At night waterlilies close their flowers and submerge into the water, appearing again in the morning to face the rising sun. The waterlily therefore also became a symbol for the rising sun.

The ancient Egyptians also viewed the blue lotus as a sacred flower. As the plant belonging to the god Nefertem, the blue lotus appeared frequently in Egyptian art.

The Papyrus plant was a symbol of the world which had risen from the primeval waters. The papyrus was the heraldic plant of Lower Egypt. Bunches of papyrus plants were supposed to signify triumph and joy.

Large storage jar with lotus and papyri decoration,18th dynasty Amarna (1550 - 1500 BCE).

The lotus, lily and papyrus flower features in tarot imagery, for example:
o ‘The Lady of Glory’ (Queen of Pentacles) – “The Princess holds a bunch of flowers while the sun shines in the sky”.
o ‘Uraei of the North’ ((4 of Pentacles) – Two papyrus stems representing life.
o ‘Papyrus Buds’ (8 of Chalices) – “Papyrus flowers that bend over towards the sides symbolise maturing that stops”.

Nefertiti and Akhenaten (Amarna Imagery)

Artefacts in the Petrie Museum from the royal palace at Amarna offer examples of Amarna royal imagery, for example in display case WEC4 there is a limestone statuette group of Akhenaten, Nefertiti and Princess.

Although the cards are not specific in mentioning Akhenaten and Nefertiti they are easily recognised by their identifiable image:
o ‘The Lord of the World’ (King of Pentacles).
o ‘The Lady of Glory’ (Queen of Pentacles).


In Egyptian mythology, the sacred scarab beetle came into being from a ball of dung. He was worshiped in the form of the god Khepri, ‘he who came forth from the earth’, who was believed to roll the sun across the sky, just as the dung beetle rolls balls of dung on earth. The scarab became a popular amulet for its association with the sun, light and warmth and was commonly placed with the deceased, symbolising new life.

Scarab amulet from 2nd Intermediate period (1700 - 1570 BCE)
The selection of amulets in pottery case 33 in the Petrie Museum demonstrates the scarabs important role as an amulet motif and its surrounding mythological/religious significance:
• PC33: displays a selection of scarab amulets.
• PC32: displays a winged scarab as used in one particular tarot card.

Scarabs can be seen in the following tarot examples:

‘Khepri’s Glory’ (4 of wands) – shows Khepri with outstretched wings “symbol of the rising Sun and the continuing alteration of day and night, life and death.”

‘The Goldern Scarab’ (9 of wands) – Described in terms of tarot cards as being “one of the most important amulets, Kephri’s scarab protects the heart and emotions in particular”.

The Sun - The Aten's life giving hands

The Aten, depicted in these Tarot cards, is an image of the sun disc with its arms outstretched offering the Ankh or ‘breath of life’ to those beneath its rays. This solar symbolism came into being under the reign of Akhenaten, who denoted the Aten as the ‘sole god’ of Egypt. However solar imagery has long been connected to Egyptian mythology and has varied greatly in its manifestation, such as the lotus, Horus headed depiction of Re-Herakhty, the scarab headed Khepri and the sun disc of the god Ra.

Fragment of an alabaster relief showing Akhenaten, Nefertiti and Princess Meritaten beneath the Aten’s outstretched arms – common Amarna symbology, from early in Akhenaten’s reign (c. 1350 BCE).

Although the sun as a generalised symbol appears frequently in the cards, the sun specifically as the aten appears on a number of tarot cards:
XIX ‘The Sun’ (Shining Light – Happiness).

‘The Lord of the World’ (King of Pentacles) – “A sovereign gathers the rays of the sun with his own hands.”


The uraeus represents a rearing cobra and is a significant symbol of kingship, usually found on the diadem and later on the crown of the Pharaoh and worn by the royal gods Horus and Seth. As a flame-spitting serpent the uraeus had the ability to ward off evil and became defined as the eye of the god Re.

Sandstone slab showing Osiris wearing the uraeus, 26th dynasty (664-525 BCE)

The Uraei in tarot cards are often used to highlight solar connection. For example:

‘Uraei of the North’ (4 of Pentacles) – “Two cobra under two papyrus stems represent Ra’s power to make things live: vital fluid and breath of life”.

‘Uraei of the South’ (5 of pentacles) – “Two cobras coming directly out of the sun represent Ra’s destructive power: inflamed fluid that destroys life”.

'Wands' - Crook and Flail Imagery

As a hieroglyphic sign the staff like crook held the meaning ‘to rule’ and commonly appeared in Egyptian imagery being carried by either god, king or high official. It is believed to have originated from the staff carried by shepherds, later adopted as a symbol of power and authority.

The flail consists of a short rod with either two or three strips of pendents or strings of beads. The origin of the flail in Egyptian imagery is unclear, some believe it to originate from the shepherd’s whip whilst others believe it to be a fly-whisk. The flail was viewed as a symbol of authority when held by a Pharaoh, but was also a symbolic characteristic of the gods Min and Osiris.

Painted wooden Stela of Neshkons, showing Osiris with crook and flail, 21st dynasty (Tanis 1069 - 945 BCE). The crook and flail royal and religious imagery is best represented in the reliefs and stelae of the Petrie collection.

The crook on its own appears heavily in the tarot cards series of ‘wands’ cards, either standing alone or held by individual characters:
‘Wands’ series of cards in general.

‘The Lady of the Sciences’ (Queen of Wands) – “a noblewoman decorated with the royal symbols raises her hand in greeting”.

‘The Lord of Fertility’ (King of Wands) – “A King raises the wand of earthly power”.
‘The Traveller’ (Knight of Wands) – “A noble knight rides his charger, bearing the banner of power”.

‘Horus’ Messenger’ (Knave of Wands).

Water Imagery - Boats

Water played an important role in the ancient Egyptian creation myth, as the primeval matter which ‘brought forth all things’. Subsequently water came to represent purification, reproduction, birth and re-animation, and became a part of female symbolism.

Wooden boat from 2nd Intermediate period (2024 - 1700 BCE) in Case V at the bottom of the stairs.

Water imagery/representation (traditional multiple wavy lines) appears often in tarot imagery. This is an example:

‘The Ship of the Dead’ (6 of Swords) – “Osiris’ journey on the Nile seated in a boat that represents his brother and enemy, Seth, is the model for whoever aspires to conquer destiny; a symbol of radical renewal but also of extreme danger”.

Wedjet Eye

The wedjet eye is considered to be the left eye of the god Horus, stolen from him by his brother Seth in conflict it was then healed and restored by Thoth and called ‘the whole one’.

Considered as the lunar eye, it was also a powerful symbol of the power of the god of light and offered protection in amuletic form. It was used as a symbol to ward off evil in funerary contexts, appearing on tomb door recesses in the late Old Kingdom, coffins of the Middle Kingdom and sarcophagi of the New Kingdom.

The Bead Cases in the Petrie Museum demonstrate the use of the wedjet eye as amulets in jewellery:
• Bead Case 23: UC6831; UC6830; UC6829 (all 22nd dynasty).
• Bead Case 24: UC28153 (22nd-23rd dynasty); UC38008 (22nd dynasty).

The wedjet eye is represented as ‘Eye of Horus’ or ‘Eye of Ra’ in the tarot cards and can be seen in these examples:

‘Horus’ Defeat’ (10 of swords) – relates to the ancient Horus and Seth myth, in which Horus’ eye was removed by Seth.

‘Ra’s Eye’ (2 of wands) – in which the wadjet is seen as the symbol of the ambiguous power of the sun that makes the earth live - solar symbology through connection to Ra.