The Fake History of the Occult Tarot

Note: This is the fifth of a series which looks at the real history of Tarot. I do not deny that Tarot has occult connections which are seriously problematic for Catholics. We will get to all of it in time, but for now please be aware that this series is not about fortune telling, but about cultural history and gaming.

Historical/anthropological research about games is part of what I do as Editor-at Large of Games Magazine, and a shorter version of this material will appear as the lead feature in our November issue. You can see another example of my research in this series on gaming in Colonial America, which also was compiled into a feature for Games. I believe that games are unique and important elements of folk culture akin to song, story, dance, art, and clothing, and therefore worthy of serious study.

Antoine Court de Gébelin (1720s-1784) was an intellectual, Protestant pastor, Freemason, and occultist who traveled in powerful circles. He believed that there was once an ancient, advanced civilization that spanned the globe, and that the wisdom of this enlightened culture is at the root of common elements of symbolism and language shared by all humans.

Antoine Court de Gebelin: The man who fabricated the “history” of the occult tarot

His major work was a series of books called Le Monde primitif, analysé et comparé avec le monde moderne (“The Primeval World, Analyzed and Compared with the Modern World”), which set out his theories in a series of essays. The work was widely read and remarkably influential (Louis XVI was an admirer), and included an essay exploring the “history” of the cards used for the game of Tarot.

De Gebelin believed that Tarot trumps contained wisdom and hidden knowledge encoded by the vanished ur-civilization of humanity. His work was nothing more than a speculative flight of fancy that imagined the cards being transmitted to the priests of ancient Egypt and connected with the Book of Thoth, a title with a complex history, both real and imagined. Elements of Jewish Kabbalah and the Hebrew alphabet were also “encoded” in the cards. At some point, so he claimed, the cards came to Rome where they were used secretly by the Popes, who eventually brought them to France when the papacy was based in Avignon during the 14th century.

None of this had any roots in history or tradition: Gebelin simply concocted his theory based upon his interpretation of the imagery and structure of the deck.

For instance, the trump suit has 21 cards plus a Fool, for a total of 22 cards. The Hebrew alphabet has 22 letters. Ergo, the Tarot is Hebrew in origin! The logic is airtight!

Other writers filled in more details, and within two years after the first appearance of Gébellin’s essay, Jean-Baptiste Alliette, using the pen-name “Etteilla,” published a manual for fortune-telling using Tarot, and a fad was born.

All other occult Tarot lore and “history” simply spins Gebelin into ever-more-elaborate flights of fancy.The task began almost right away with card art changed to bring out the esoteric elements. Occultist Eliphas Levi (1810-1875) made these decks a central part of his own Kabbalistic system. Theosophists added them to their toolbox, and their usage continued to spread. Jean Baptiste Pitois (writing as “Paul Christian”) concocted “evidence” tying the images to Egyptian mystery cults and their secrets, or “arcana.” After this, the trump cards were called the “Major Arcana” and the conventional suits were dubbed the “Minor Arcana.”

The English occultists connected with the Golden Dawn (most famously associated with the poet William Butler Yeats) added Tarot to their teachings. Golden Dawn member A.E. Waite collaborated with artist Pamela Colman Smith on a new deck designed to emphasise his interpretation of the occult meaning of the “Major Arcana.” This deck was issued by the Rider Company as a bundle with Waite’s book, The Key to the Tarot. The success of the venture led to the Rider-Waite deck becoming the standard set of images most people associate with Tarot:

Images from the Rider-Waite deck, contrived to meet the occult needs of AE Waite

Every stage in the development of the occult tarot was a lie. At no point from Gebelin on did anyone trouble themselves about the truth. They merely continued to concoct ever-more-elaborate falsehoods about these simple tools of a regional game. Some were mere charlatans, others were dupes and true believers.

Try to imagine it this way: Pokemon cards are created for a collectible game in 1996. A couple hundred years pass, and people forget about them. Then someone finds a deck, and is mystified by the strange words and images. These odd harbingers of lost wisdom! Ponyta! Charmander! Lickitung! Psyduck!

Someone writes a book speculating what they could mean. Someone else pretends this speculation is truth, and writes a second book. Ten years later, people are going into dim tents and praying that the Pokemon reader doesn’t draw Mareep.

In the process of being adapted by occultists, the true purpose of the cards started to be forgotten. Certain regions of Europe retained their interest in the game, but by and large, as the association with fortune telling increased, the use of the decks for play decreased.

Finally, by the 20th century, the real history of the tarot was lost, and tarot games—when they were played at all–became games played with cards “invented” by ancient Egyptians for fortune-telling. It wasn’t until Dummett began digging deeper in the 1970s that the real story emerged, but even then it was trapped in specialty publications.

Fortunately, even many who believe in the divinatory properties of the cards are abandoning the false history. Robert M. Place begins his book The Tarot: History, Symbolism, and Divination with chapters on both the actual and the false history of Tarot, before continuing with an exploration of what he believes to be their mystical properties.

Indeed, as we’ll see in the next post, the images on the cards are the product of a fertile culture of Christian theology and imagination, and they do provide an intriguing set of symbols for examination. They were not chosen at random, but emerged from a culture in which God was an ever-present reality. They have intrigued and inspired people wholly apart from their occult connections.

Next: The Meaning of the Cards

NOTE: I would urge people who are inclined to be irritated by this piece–both Catholics who think Tarot are nothing but evil and Tarot users who find pleasure in the cards–to wait until the end of the series before rendering any judgement. We have a long way to go through the following posts:

About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • Rebecca Fuentes

    I couldn’t help it, the Pokemon example cracked me up.

  • http://www.parafool.com/ victor

    Whoa. I think you might be on to something. There are 151 Pokémon in the original National Pokédex. 151 is the 36th prime number. According to Jewish Tradition (according to Wikipedia) the initial light of God’s initial creation shone for 36 hours (until the sun was created), 36 righteous people are born into every generation, and 36 candles are lit over the course of the eight days of Hannukah. And if “Kangaskhan” isn’t a Kabbalistic word for something or other, I don’t know what is.

    In all seriousness, though, this has been the most enlightening series of articles I’ve read anywhere on the Internet so far this year. And the Pokémon example is just perfect.

  • Gail Finke

    The Golden Dawn is associated with Alaister Crowley, “The Wickedest Man in the World,” and numerous other shady characters who are the basis of pretty much all New Age stuff ever since. I’m glad you’re telling people that all the tarot stuff is made up, which it is (like all New Age stuff). But people should know that doesn’t mean it’s not dangerous and stupid to get mixed up with the made up fortune-telling stuff. “The Secret,” “A Course in Miracles,” and similar things have really messed up people’s lives — whether or not evil spirits are ever involved, you can wreck your own brain pretty thoroughly by depending on silly made-up things to make your every move and run your life, but plenty of people do. Just ask any former Scientologist. And that’s not even mentioning the other people you can also get mixed up with! You don’t actually have to join a cult to get mixed up with strange, messed-up people who will impact your life as well as their own. Enjoy the history of tarot, but stay away from the nuttiness!

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    Tom

    I’m really enjoying this series. I’m not sure if you’re aware of it (probably are) TS Eliot devotes a section of his poem The Waste Land to a Tarot card reading. Now I always took the reference to Tarot cards in the poem as occult symbolism, and I had developed a theory about it. If you are familiar with Eliot’s poem, do you think Eliot was after an occult allusion or was it more the historical understanding as you’ve presented here? If you’re going to eventually address it in your series, I’ll patiently wait. Your series on Tarot cards may have altered my understanding of the poem. Eliot’s poem can be ascertained here:
    http://eliotswasteland.tripod.com/

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com/ Thomas L. McDonald

    Eliot is one of my favorite poets. A couple of quick observations: Waste Land was written prior to his conversion, and drew on Weston’s “From Ritual to Romance” for much of its inner symbolism. It’s an interesting book of the Golden Bough school of mythical/ritual anthropology: an inescapable influence at the time.

    Weston’s sections on the tarot repeat the fiction debunked here and in vogue at the time due to the influence of the Golden Dawn, Waite, Yeats, and others. I don’t think Eliot really knew much about tarot at all: he was just grabbing at intriguing images, which of course the cards have. Weston links the “suits” of the tarot–which occultists incorrectly identified as “cup, lance, sword, dish” rather than cup, stave/baton, sword, coin–to his reading of grail symbols and “reproductive forces of nature.”

    It’s a lot of Frazier-esque hoo-ha, but interesting and certainly attractive to the artist. I think in one of his notes, Eliot even admits that he doesn’t know anything about the meaning of the cards. Certainly, the Eliot of 1922 was not the Eliot of the Quartets.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com/ Thomas L. McDonald

    Here you go, from Eliot’s original note: “I am not familiar with the exact constitution of the Tarot pack of cards, from which I have obviously departed to suit my own convenience. The Hanged Man, a member of the traditional pack, fits my purpose in two ways: because he is associated in my mind with the Hanged God of Frazer, and because I associate him with the hooded figure in the passage of the disciples to Emmaus in Part V. The Phoenician Sailor and the Merchant appear later; also the ‘crowds of people’, and Death by Water is executed in Part IV. The Man with Three Staves (an authentic member of the Tarot pack) I associate, quite arbitrarily, with the Fisher King himself.”

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    Thank you. My theory on how Eliot uses the Tarot cards in the poem is as occult imagery contrasting the fertility of the Fisher King of a medevil period with the sort of silliness that modern society has degraded to with the occult. It shows a progression of the efficacy of a mythic world view with the sterility of card games. I think my theory still holds since what eliot describes is a contrast. Whether he intends the progression from efficacy to sterility may be my interpretation, but I stand by it. There’s enough in the poem to support such a progression, which is actually a degradation.

  • Jay

    As a Pagan and an occultist, I applaud you in writing this series. I have no patience for fake history and was really appreciative of Robert Place’s book on the subject. I look forward to your essay on Playing the Tarot, since I have yet to learn how to play the game, and I love card games.

  • kenofken

    I too am a pagan, who employs the Tarot from time to time among other forms of divination. I’m all in favor of accurate history as well, but I sense Mr. McDonald feels that he will somehow deconstruct and debunk our religions by poking holes in some long-held pop culture assumptions about the history of Tarot. If he demonstrates that Tarot isn’t everything we always thought it was, then we’ll realize our entire belief system is Satan’s lie and “made up”?

    If so, it reveals a common but profound misunderstanding about what informs our spirituality and even our understanding of divination. The power and utility and beauty of Tarot do not hinge on the inerrancy of some canonical account of its occult origins. There’s no “gotcha” in asserting, or even proving, that Tarot was not designed from square one as an occult tool. 19th Century occultists found that the symbolism in these cards was nicely adaptable to various astrological and divination themes they borrowed from Kabbalah, Hermetic and alchemical sources etc.

    How is that a “lie”? It’s the sort of innovation and cross-pollination of ideas that has been going on for thousands of years. Tarot doesn’t work because it contains some secret technology conveyed intact from the ancients. It works because divination is a natural ability we all have. It simply allows us to engage our subconscious mind and take in a bigger picture of reality than we can see with the fine-focus and limitations of our senses and everyday waking consciousness. The cards and images are just tools to help relay and translate information in the form of themes and archetypes, which is the operating language of that part of our consciousness. Tarot happens to be a very versatile tool set for a variety of reasons (including cultural familiarity), but it holds no special powers that hinge on a particular historical understanding.

    Your crack about Pokemon cards is more insightful than you know, but it misses the mark about divination. We would not need a 1996 deck to sit around for centuries and acquire some faux legend and cache. Anyone who truly understands divination could take one right out of the box and do a read that is just as useful as one done by a real Tarot deck. I don’t expect to change anyone’s mind about the accuracy or morality of divination, but I think the discussion would benefit by a more accurate picture of how modern occultists understand Tarot and divination.

  • Jay

    Oh, I agree completely, and am well aware of the author’s intentions, I just wasn’t feeling up to writing an entire essay on the subject, lol. He doesn’t understand the nature of divination, or our relationship to it. He doesn’t understand that anything and everything can be and has been used for diviniation, including standard playing cards, dice, coins, rocks, bones, twigs, smoldering ash, fire, smoke, candle wax, water, shadows, bird formations, you name it. All that is required is an established sytem of symbols and meaning, or just the correct state of mind, an openness to intuition and the subconscious. Anybody can do it, all it takes is practice.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com/ Thomas L. McDonald

    I don’t know what your particular strain of “paganism” is, but the entire neo-pagan movement was yanked out of Gerald Gardner’s ass based on an imaginary history of pre-Christian European religion. That the movement has adapted to the falsehoods of its founding is nice, but hardy changes the fact that for decades neo-paganism has claimed roots in ancient religious belief and practices that don’t, in fact, exist. I keep getting people who say, “Oh, no one believes that,” yet I can reach over to a shelf of books full people saying EXACTLY that.

    The well-documented ancient polytheisms–Egypt, Greaco-Roman, Indian, etc…–are complex and historical, but rarely of interest to modern New Age self-styled “pagans,” who prefer things like Wicca, which is a make-it-up-as-you-go hash derived mostly from fantasy novels. (There’s a reason people choose the Celts for their New Age religious systems: we know almost nothing about their beliefs, and therefore can project anything we like on them.)

    You talk about how “modern occultists understand Tarot and divination” as if that’s a monolithic thing. Which occultists? Every occultist is his own god, so every one is different.

    I don’t doubt that many practitioners have a sophisticated understanding of the history and use of divinity tools, which is why I singled out Robert Place for special praise. But the vast majority still buy into the “ancient wisdom” paradigm, as is proven by the dozens of messages and comments I’ve gotten from people saying, “I had NO idea.”

    And, yes, I AM heaping ridicule on the practice, and I do believe it is wicked. You’re not addressing someone who gets his information mostly from Jack Chick tracks. I spent 15 years in the new age wilds before returning the one true faith. Believe what you like, but try to keep the history straight.

  • kenofken

    You’re very late on this bandwagon. Ronald Hutton deflated the whole “ancient intact survival” of modern pagan witchcraft 14 years ago. Today’s pagan community largely agrees with his assessment, including the humble origins of Wicca in Gerald’s backside. (It’s more complex than that and probably owes more to Doreen Valiente’s bum, but I digress). We know, and we’re okay with that. People claimed roots that didn’t exist because of wishful thinking and shabby scholarship. We’ve never claimed to be immune to that, and our understanding evolved with new information.

    We do in fact have lots and lots of people who are exploring and reconstructing the ancient polytheisms you mention, and they are engaging the complexity and scholarship required to do that. It is one of the fastest growing segments of the pagan community (a nebulous construct, I know).

    No, occultist and Tarot users are not monolithic, but I can say that I have not met any whose beliefs or practices would be shattered by De Gebelin’s “fabrication” (more properly adaptation). It’s also a bit much to assert that we view ourselves as “our own god”. Our own priests and priestesses certainly, but not gods.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com/ Thomas L. McDonald

    If Hutton’s work is indeed embraced now, then I’m glad to hear about it. At the time, it wasn’t so warmly received.

    And let me thank you for responding politely to what I see on second reading was a more sharply worded reply than I intended, I won’t pretend that I respect neo-paganism or occultism (having been inside them to some degree, I simply regard with pity those who are still involved), but I need to remember that there are well-read and sincere practitioners among the wingnuts and flakes.

    PS: FWIW, I spent time in my teens steeped in HOGD; then was immersed in the Greeks, Jung, and Eliade before practicing Harner-style Shamanic meditation until I returned to the Church.

  • Jared B.

    Maybe this has been asked before (I haven’t persued all the comments of all prev. posts) but could you recommend a good Tarot deck that does not have the occult / Waite influence on the art? Something just good for playing the card game, or better still, a reproduction of pre-Waite card design? I’d love to pick up a deck and learn to play and would just assume get a more ‘authentic’ deck. Maybe that’ll get covered in the next installment.. :-)

  • kenofken

    You might look at the Visconti-Sforza deck, which was commissioned by those two royal families in 15th Century Italy. It is one of the earliest decks known, and were designed apparently for use as game cards rather than occult uses. This deck is also visually gorgeous, with gold/gilt backing and rich colors and artistry. Some company makes reproduction decks, and they’re a bit pricier than Rider-Waite, but very nice. A friend of mine gave me one this past Christmas and I love it. I don’t use it for reads and I don’t play the game, but I love looking at them.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    I still want to know why Waite’s imagery that he thought was occult, was so Catholic. It’s clearly St. Peter on the Hanged Man for instance, and Adam and Eve are The Lovers

  • kenofken

    Anyone who cares (or perhaps dares) to have a serious look at the modern pagan movement would find that we have a good many sincere practitioners along with the “wingnuts and flakes.” We have people who take inspiration from their religions to challenge themselves to personal excellence. We have people who just wear their faith as a lifestyle accessory. We have others who just use their religion to justify self-serving or even predatory behavior.

    We have some whose lives model what you would call sainthood. We have eccentrics and actual lunatics and drunks, and we have many others who are clean-cut very ordinary suburbanites who could pass as your kid’s teacher or PTA volunteer (some of them probably are). We have men and women who are first responders, and plenty who have fought and died for this country. This same wide spectrum of people is found in every religion, Catholicism included.

    I believe in judging a tree by the fruit it bears, and a belief system can be partially judged by the sorts of people it tends to attract (and especially retain), and what traits and behaviors it nourishes in them. On the whole, my participation in the pagan community has connected me with the finest people I have ever known. That’s not to say we have a monopoly on that, by any means, but your pity would be better spent on, say, the children of Syria than on me.

    The issue of “respect” is a thorny one. It’s one thing to say you don’t place any stock in another religion. It’s quite another to disrespect it in a way that presumes that all or most of its followers are lost souls or fools. I hear a lot from Evangelicals and conservative Catholics about how no one is respecting their beliefs these days. It’s true we don’t always get a fair shake, but we get what we give, on average. That’s a metaphysical lesson that our mums all taught us at five before any New Age guru thought to repackage it and sell it to us.

  • kenofken

    Waite was a Christian, or at least was favorably disposed toward the concepts and imagery of Catholicism, if not the actual practice. The western esoteric traditions, ie what we think of as “occult”, especially in the age of the Golden Dawn, arose from Christian mysticism, and are were more properly considered a heterodox form of Christianity rather than pagan in the sense we think of it today. Victorian and Edwardian-Era occultists, with some notable exceptions, did not see themselves as rebelling against Christianity. They saw themselves as its truest adherents, willing and able to explore its deepest mysteries, with the help of tools borrowed from Neo-Platonism, Eastern philosophies etc.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com/ Thomas L. McDonald

    The Visconti deck is nice but expensive.

    The best playable Italian deck is Tarot Genoves from Fournier. It’s cheap and has mirrored images, which means it’s designed for play not reading: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0014O4IIQ/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=B0014O4IIQ&linkCode=as2&tag=staofpla-20

    For French (which never had any occult connections) the Ducale can be found at some dealers like Tarobear

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com/ Thomas L. McDonald

    Some of the members of the Golden Dawn were quite fine intellectuals, if misguided. You can’t mix up someone like Waite (who was well-read and not unreasonable) with a feral thing like Crowley (his bitter enemy). Waite wasn’t a charlatan. He was just wrong. Crowley was always and forever a fraud with a bent mind. Try reading one of his crappy books sometime.

    My interest, at one point in my life, in that area of genteel occultism stemmed partly from the high quality of the art they produced (Machen, Yeats, Blackwood, etc) and their intellectual curiosity. I do believe they thought the were recapturing some esoteric element that was lost: some path to true wisdom and enlightenment. They just got off on a tangent and wound up being little more than Freemasons with convoluted rituals. There was no there there. In the end, it was just gnosticism redux, and gnosticism was always bullshit.

    Hermeticism and even some alchemy were not incompatible with medieval Christianity. (Even St. Thomas references Hermes Trismegistus, and Pseudo-Dionysus writes in an esoteric style.) There is a vast amount of symbolism, literature, history, and ritual coursing through that particular element of occultism. They just grabbed at anything that seemed meaningful without any discernment. Naturally, since Christianity is the whole truth, those symbols remained strong in everything they did. They couldn’t avoid it for trying.

    In all of these things, the Truth was there, and they missed it, because it was too familiar, and they believed the “real” truth had to be exotic. The one truth is Christ, and everything else is just a shadow rather than the substance. They became fascinated by the shadow. They pursued and came to worship the shadow (and in many cases the self), and in doing so they fell into darkness. Theirs was the first sin, which repeats forever in history.

  • kenofken

    Whatever else you may think of him, Crowley was most certainly not an intellectual lightweight. He was Cambridge educated, extremely well read, and, before he blew his inheritance in later life (and even then), traveled the world, often for months-long hands on research on Yoga, meditation etc. Yes, his books are a tough read, but it is because he assumed his readers would have a very expansive and deep knowledge about classical literature and mythology, Kabbalah, numerology, dozens of concepts from Rosicrucian and other esoteric traditions, astrology, everything. His stuff was written for graduate level students of the occult.

    Does that mean Crowley was a great guy? No. He also was a hustler and a pervert in his own right, although the stuff that earned him the “wickedest man in the world” in Edwardian times would barely move the needle on any of today’s prime time reality shows…

  • http://www.tarotofdelphi.com/ Delphi

    This is a wonderful series that I am enjoying enormously. I do wonder, however, if your personal biases may be getting in the way of writing a balanced article, as this one is tinged with snide comments about divination. Whatever people have falsely or accurately believed about tarot, the fact is that divination has never had anything to do with accurate historical contextualization. The entrails of animals and flights of birds certainly weren’t “created” for augers and diviners. When it comes to divination, the underlying idea is that everything is linked to everything else; thus, a person can take completely random objects or events and “read” how they interrelate with or reflect the question at hand. However weird you might think that is, the point I’m making is that people inaccurately understanding the history of the tarot is not a good case to expose how ridiculous divination is (clearly your point with the Pokemon analogy). If “Games Magazine” is a secular publication, you may want to remove the disparaging attitude toward divination so that the article is more respectful (and accurate) toward others’ beliefs. Thank you for contributing to the growing understanding of the tarot in a historical context. I look forward to the next article. These have truly been enjoyable.

  • http://www.tarotofdelphi.com/ Delphi

    Wow. That’s really rude. Catholicism was also yanked out of someone’s ass, and not Jesus’s. The so-called apostles themselves were writing hundreds of years after Jesus’s death and were already rewriting the history and the message. And let’s not even get into the politics and shenanigans of the Church over the last nearly 2000 years. You don’t have a lot of room to disparage other people’s religious history, Mr. McDonald.

  • kenofken

    ALL religions are made up by humans. They’re just frameworks and operating systems for engaging with the divine and the ultimate questions. Disparaging other people’s religions, more than being “not nice”, is utterly pointless and unproductive.

    It indicates a raging insecurity about one’s own religion and puts a really ugly face on one’s own movement. No one has ever undergone a sincere conversion from badgering or insult, and no one ever will. Can anyone name any sincere Catholics who became atheists because Richard Dawkins or PZ Myers mocked them and their beliefs? It is also an extremely toxic and dangerous practice. The subtext of religious attacks is that anyone who doesn’t follow your own (always) self-evident truth is a fool and merits contempt, or is evil, and, sooner or later, “something” should be done about them.

    It’s too bad that a (perhaps the) primary aim of this Tarot research is to disparage others. It’s an interesting topic and can stand on the merits of good scholarship.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com/ Thomas L. McDonald

    I usually don’t leave ill-informed anti-Catholic comments up, but this one defeats itself. “Hundreds of years?” Try 20.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com/ Thomas L. McDonald

    I don’t need to add any more to my opinion of divination than I already wrote here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/godandthemachine/2013/07/on-divination/

    Divination is either a sham, or evil. There is no option three.

    You say “bias” like it’s a bad thing. My bias is clear: Catholicism is the entire truth. Everything else is false or only partly true. Period. You may be used to dwelling in a modernist environment of moral relativism where “all paths are equally worthy,” but that doesn’t make it correct. All paths are not equal. Some religions have much of the truth in them. Some are completely wicked. Catholicism took from the pagans what was true, and left the lies behind.

    Believe differently all you like, but belief doesn’t create truth. Truth exists, and is either accepted or rejected.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com/ Thomas L. McDonald

    Nonsense. Some religions are made up by people (paganism) and some are revealed (Judaism and Christianity). Some are partly true (Islam, Buddhism, paganism). Some are false (Scientology, satanism).

    Although I have no doubt I could be more diplomatic at times, that doesn’t change the fundamental reality of truth and falsehood. As I said up-thread, just because you’re used to living in a climate of moral relativism doesn’t make that the correct default position.

    I particularly like the ominous note you try to strike in suggesting I think “something should be done” about people who disagree. Absurd. Do you what you like. You want to stare at playing cards trying to determine the future, knock yourself out.

    I’m trying to imagine your idea of “good scholarship” which DOESN’T also require agreement with you.

    The idea of two competing Truths being equally valid is absurd. As The Prophet said, “When you choose anything, you reject everything else.”

    I don’t doubt at all that your religion was made up by humans.

    Mine, however, was not.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com/ Thomas L. McDonald

    As Victor Lams suggests, I’ll let John Wright fill in the gaps. He does a much better job than I: http://www.scifiwright.com/2012/07/neopaganism-and-no-starch/

    PS: And I know I already said this, but it bears repeating: although I never considered myself a neo-pagan, I was deeply involved in what could best be called “neo-shamanism,” and earlier, outright occultism. I’m writing as someone who was in error, and found the way out.

  • http://www.tarotofdelphi.com/ Delphi

    So… let me get this straight. Other people’s beliefs in the supernatural are “made up” but your belief in the supernatural is true. That’s brilliant. You seem awfully willing to apply scholarship to other people’s beliefs but not your own.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com/ Thomas L. McDonald

    >>You seem awfully willing to apply scholarship to other people’s beliefs but not your own.

    ??? So the thousands upon thousands of pages I’ve studied on history, theology, philosophy, world religion, and scripture for my masters degree means that I’m not willing to apply scholarship to my beliefs?

    I’d love to hear more about how this is so.

  • Stifyn Emrys

    If you count Paul as an apostle (and there are many who wouldn’t), it’s probably something like 16. But he’s really the only one scholars can agree actually wrote seven of the 13 epistles attributed to him.

    Mark, probably writing at least 30 years after Jesus’ death, wasn’t an apostle but an associate of Paul’s, and there’s no consensus that the gospel attributed to him was written by him. Matthew was an apostle, but his authorship is also disputed, and his book, along with Luke’s (another associate of Paul’s) was probably written at least 40 years after the death of Jesus. John’s gospel is usually though of as having been written last, close to the turn of the century, though some argue for an earlier date.

    True, this isn’t “hundreds of years” after Jesus’ death, but it’s a significant amount of time, and there’s also a significant amount of debate about any apostolic authorship at all.

    I don’t take Gerald Gardner as in any way authoritative, and much of what he said was derivative, but the same can be said about many of the teachings attributed to Jesus (the Golden Rule, for instance, is very similar to teachings associated with Confucius and Hillel). The mere fact that something may be derivative, however, is no reason to dismiss it – in the case of Gardner, Jesus or anyone else.

    Spiritual traditions generally evolve, which makes them generally dependent on earlier traditions. There’s nothing wrong with this. It’s how things work. Christianity isn’t what it was in the fourth century, and fourth-century Christianity was a lot different than the first-century movement from which it evolved.

    Wicca today is different from Gardner’s version of it, which in turn was dependent on earlier traditions he cobbled together. Mormonism today is certainly different than what Joseph Smith had envisioned. Islam isn’t what Muhammad had in mind.

    Further, it’s inaccurate to make a broad-brush statement that ancient polytheisms are “rarely of interest” to modern pagans. There are a great many pagans out there who have a keen interest in the study of these systems, and many of them don’t have the least interest in Wicca.

    You’re arguing that things are more complex than they seem – and you’re right. The fact is that modern paganism is far more complex than you depict it as being. It seems to me that you’re making the same mistake you’re accusing modern pagans of making – oversimplifying things.


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