Tarot History Search started September 2004       

S.L. MacGregor Mathers(1854 - 1918)

S.L. (Samuel Liddell) MacGregor Mathers became founding member of the Golden Dawn in 1888, together with Dr. William Wynn Westcott and Dr. Robert William Woodman. The Golden Dawn wrote in the course of time an nearly unbelievable success story in the spreading of Tarot in English speaking countries; the nowadays most popular decks Rider-Waite and Crowley Tarot developed in thiscircle. Mathers became the dominant person between the founders of the orders and reigned it, even after he left 1892 for Paris, till some trouble in the year 1900, which parted the group in various communities.

Somebody unknown, who knew Mathers in his youth, told about their meeting: "It was in or about 1883 - when I, as a young man, was haunting the British Museum, trying many paths of search - that I observed continually the lean figure of a fellow-student frequenting the Reading-Room and pursuing kindred quests. He was, I am afraid, in very narrow circumstances and was a much more faithful visitor than myself, even in those days. He might be found in the early morning and still late in the evening. The closing time was then 7 or 8 p.m., according to the season, and at those hours he would be seen struggling with mammoth collections of books towards the central counter. I got to know that they were occult books, like my own gatherings, though I kept these within the limits of possible reference in the day's course. It must be confessed that I grew curious as to the identity of this strange person, with rather fish-like eyes, and more especially as to what he was after. Some other melancholy votary of that sanctuary made us known to one another in the end, and he proved to be S.L. Mathers, for the MacGregor prefix had not as yet been adopted."

So Mathers had the start of a brave young researcher, fighting in the libraries with a first translation of Knorr of Rosenroth "Kabbala Denundata" in work.

About the later life the same commentator added: "When he translated his ménage to Paris my acquaintance with Mathers came practically to a close, but the tales told concerning him were many and strange. He established a branch of the occult society which I have mentioned and various occult notabilities of France looked in and looked out again. He was a firm believer in the destiny of the Stuart dynasty to regain the throne of England, and rumour accredited him with Young Turkey plottings - conspiracy for the sake of conspiracy, as W. B. Yeats once said about him. I believe that he knew evil days, poor fellow, and tried to retrieve his fortunes in various ways. He had a Temple of Isis at the French Exhibition, and I have even heard of Tarot fortune-telling at Dieppe - to which I hope that he was not really reduced. He had unfortunately no inclination to earn a competency in the ordinary walks of life."

The commentator obviously was not blinded by too much Tarot enthusiasm. It's interesting, that Mathers in his early years took part in "women liberation" - one biography states about 1887: "Mathers was heavily influenced by a Dr. Anna Kingsford and her associate, Edward Maitland. They were the founders of the Hermetic Society and very close friends with Mathers. He picked up a lot of his beliefs from Anna Kingsford and insisted that one of those beliefs be incorporated into the G.D. That belief was that women should be allowed within the Order, on a completely equal basis with men. Mathers was insistent on this point and until Westcott and Woodman agreed, he would not proceed. All were in agreement with Mathers and women were allowed into the Order on an equal basis with men."
It doesn't really surprize, that Mathers became acquainted to Mina (later Moina) Bergson (sister of a later nobel-prize winner) just around the same time (he detected her in the library - where else? - and she studied Egyptian art - what else should she do?) and married her later (1990).

Crazy parallels: "Mina became an important life-long partner of Mathers, though strangely their marriage was never consummated" says the biography and the "never consummated" marriage reminds me - with my personally strong developed sense for the strange accident - somehow to Filippo Maria Visconti, who also had this feature of a "never consummated" marriage from 1427 - 1447 with a Savoy-daughter, short after he had commissioned (we calculate this for 1424/25) a "first Tarot deck" (Michelino deck) and a "first Tarot book" (text of Martiano da Tortona) - a deck, which focussed a "not reachable woman" in the form of the Greek mythology figure Daphne. The theme "cruel woman", who makes the love-wishing man suffer, was just on its way to become a popular theme in 15th century, after Alain Chartier, court poet and diplomat for the coming French King Charles VII, had written his famous poem "La Belle Dame sans Mercy" (?The Beautiful Woman Without Mercy?). Chartier (whose name might indicate a familiary relationship to the profession cartier = card-maker) had personal contacts to Filippo Maria Visconti, whom he reported about his impressions about Jeanne d'Arc (the perhaps "real incarnation" of the cruel woman) in 1429 - and it became the last sign of his life, his future destiny stayed unknown. Well, the poem "tells of the death of a lover rejected by his lady" - and it might be true, that this popular theme influenced the Milanese duke Filippo Maria Visconti to select the theme for his commissioned card deck, which by accident and development somehow became mother to a very popular - although finally rather different - playing card genre named Tarot.
Filippo Maria Visconti opened once the door to the Trionfi decks and in final consequence to Tarot with the result of finding a "cruel beauty" in real life. Mathers ca. 360 years later opened in 1888 the door to English language for Tarot - actually once a "women deck" in early 15th century, made for the "girls at the courts" (men were advised to play chess). Mathers (1888) engaged for "women liberation" and wrote a Tarot book and found promptly his wife, another "cruel beauty" of his time. Life has its funny aspects.

Mina "was also the first woman initiate into the Golden Dawn (for which she changed her name to Moina)" as the biographies tell.

Naturally there was a big difference between Filippo Maria Visconti and Mathers. Filippo Maria was unbelievable rich and Mathers mostly had to live under poor conditions.

Mathers wrote his short book about Tarot in 1888, short after (or parallel to) he had founded the Golden Dawn at 1st of March 1888. A short part of the text presents his own understanding and his knowledge of the history of the cards. The "Gringonneur" idea "was exploded" then, but Court de Gebelin's worldview still looked as a great prophecy. Mathers in his text also informs his readers, that Tarot is a game and how it is played (not presented here) - something, which by the later "Tarot divination authors" often was forgotten.

The term "Tarot", or "Tarocchi", is applied to a pack of 78 cards, consisting of four suits of 14 cards each (there being one more court card than in the ordinary packs--the Cavalier, Knight, or Horseman), and 22 symbolical picture-cards answering for trumps. These latter are numbered from 1 to 21 inclusive, the 22nd card being marked Zero, 0. The designs of these trumps are extremely singular, among them being such representations as Death, the Devil, the Last Judgment, &c.
The idea that cards were first "invented' to amuse Charles VI of France is now exploded; and it is worthy of note in this connection that their supposititious "inventor" was Jacques Gringonneur, an Astrologer and Qabalist. Furthermore, cards were known prior to this period among the Indians and the Chinese. Etteilla, indeed, gives in one of his tracts on the Tarot a representation of the mystical arrangement of these cards in the Temple of Ptah at Memphis, and he further says:
"Upon a table or altar, at the height of the breast of the Egyptian Magus (or Hierophant), were on one side a book or assemblage of cards or plates of gold (the Tarot), and on the other a vase, etc." This idea is further dilated upon by P. Christian (the disciple of Eliphas Levi), in his "Histoire de la Magie," to which I shall have occasion to refer later. The great exponents of the Tarot, Court de Gèbelin, Levi, and Etteilla, have always assigned to the Tarot a Qabalistico-Egyptian origin, and this I have found confirmed in my own researches into this subject, which have extended over several years.
W. Hughes Willshire, in his remarks on the General History of Playing-Cards, says: "The most ancient cards which have come down to us are of the Tarot's character. These are the four cards of the Musée Correr at Venice; the seventeen pieces of the Paris Cabinet (erroneously often called the Gringonneur, or Charles VI cards of 1392), five Venetian Tarots of the fifteenth century, in the opinion of some not of an earlier date than 1425; and the series of cards belonging to a Minchiate set, in the possession of the Countess Aurelia Visconti Gonzaga at Milan, when Cicognara wrote."
W. A. Chatto, in his "History of Playing-Cards," says that cards were invented in China as early as A.D. 1120, in the reign of Seun-Ho, for the amusement of his numerous concubines.
J. F. Vaillant, in "Les Romes, histoire vraie des vraies Bohémiens," Paris, 1857, says that the Chinese have a drawing divided into compartments or series, based on combinations of the number 7. 1 "It so closely resembles the Tarot, that the four suits of the latter occupy its first four columns; of the twenty-one atouts fourteen occupy the fifth column, and the seven other atouts the sixth column. This sixth column of seven atouts is that of the six days of the week of creation. Now, according to the Chinese, this representation belongs to the first ages of their empire, to the drying up of the waters of the deluge by IAO; it may be concluded, therefore, that it is an original, or a copy of the Tarot, and, under any circumstances, that the latter is of an origin anterior to Moses, that it belongs to the beginning of our time, to the epoch of the preparation of the Zodiac, and consequently that it must own 6600 years of existence."
But, notwithstanding the apparent audacity of this latter statement, it must be evident on reflection that the Tarot, consisting, as it does, of the ten numbers of the decimal scale counter-changed with the tetrad, and of a hieroglyphic alphabet of twenty-two mystic symbols, must be relegated to far earlier period in the history of the world than that usually assigned to the introduction of cards into Europe; and we may take the fact of the Tarot being the origin of the modern card as being now pretty well established by general consensus of Opinion.
It was Court de Gèbelin who, in his "Monde Primitif" (Paris 1781), wrote: "Were we to hear that there exists in our day Work of the Ancient Egyptians, one of their books which had escaped the flames which devoured their superb libraries, and which contains their purest doctrine on most interesting subjects, every one would doubtless be anxious to acquire the knowledge of so valuable and extraordinary a work. Were we to add that this book is widely spread through a large part of Europe, and that for several centuries it has been accessible to every one, would not it be still more surprising? And would not that surprise be at its height were it asserted that people have never suspected that it was Egyptian, that they possess it in such a manner that they can hardly be said to possess it at all, that no one has ever attempted to decipher a single leaf, and that the outcome of a recondite wisdom is regarded as a mass of extravagant designs which mean nothing in themselves? Would not people think that one was trying to amuse oneself with, and to play upon the credulity of one's hearers?
"Yet this is a true fact. This Egyptian book, the sole remains of their superb libraries, exists to our day; it is even so common that no savant has designed to trouble himself about it, no one before myself having suspected its illustrious origin. This book is composed of seventy-seven leaves or illustrations, or rather of seventy-eight, divided into five classes, which each present objects as various as they are amusing and instructive. In one word, this book is the PACK OF TAROT CARDS."
(Source: Introduction of Mathers' Tarot book)

Well, somehow the begin of English Tarot, mainly done by an honourable "poor poet". The following development of Golden Dawn is presented on many internet-documents.

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Samuel Liddel MacGregor Mathers
It's said that the photo is
from 1889, short after Mathers
wrote his Tarot book       Content of       Google       Yahoo
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