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Myths & the Tarot’s Tower

March 14, 2018

by Tony Willis       

When the tarot first came to the attention of French occultists, the title for Trump 16, The Tower, and the image that goes with it (see below) were well established. However, the Trump was not always so named and not always so represented. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries it had a variety of names: Il Fuoco, fire; La Saetta, translated as lightning or thunderbolt; La Sagitta, the arrow; and La Casa del Diavolo, the devil’s house. Later it acquired a title that is the opposite of the Devil’s House; it was called The House of God, disconcerting some tarot historians, as this was a term used, at one time, on the continent for a hospital. These alternative titles and the images associated with them play little or no part in the occult development of the tarot.

Occultists of the French Occult Revival of the eighteenth century accepted the Tarot de Marseilles symbolism of the card and the name attached to it in that deck, The Lightning Struck Tower, as basically correct, even if they desired to ‘rectify’ or ‘redeem’ certain aspects of the card’s imagery. This tendency continued into the twentieth century and beyond. Paul Foster Case, when he had the Builders of the Adytum tarot drawn, instructed that the tower be shown with twenty-two courses of brickwork. (Third image below.) Case wanted to align the tower with the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, also twenty-two in number. The letters of the alphabet link to speech, for letters spell out words, and that concept in turn connects to the biblical story of the Tower of Babel. The Bible tells us that humans attempted to construct a tower that would reach to Heaven itself. At the time, so the story goes, everyone on earth spoke the same language. In order to confound the effort to climb up to Heaven, God caused the builders to speak in different languages, so that they didn’t understand one and another, and the project had to be called off. Almost from the first, occultists assumed that Trump 16 depicted events in the biblical story and the card was named The Tower of Babel by some and assigned the meaning “the punishment of pride”.

visconti sforza 16    Arcane-Arcana-16-maison-dieu-tower    bota trump 16

Deriving their ideas from the design on the Tarot de Marseilles card, tarot masters such as Eliphas Levi, Paul Christian, Papus and Oswald Wirth interpreted the Tower as indicating “ruin, in all its various aspects”. The gypsies of the continent concur. They interpret the card as Catastrophe – a sign that danger is on its way. They said it heralded unexpected misfortune, but it could also be, more mildly, a sign of events that will surprise the inquirer, and which might be good or otherwise. S.L. Mathers, in the Golden Dawn’s tarot manual, Book T, gives the card these meanings:

Ruin, Disruption, Over-throw, Loss, Bankruptcy; Reversed: These in a more or less partial degree.

Frank Lind, writing half a century after the compilation of Book T, is in general agreement with Mathers:

Bolt out of the blue. Catastrophe. Ruin of one’s plans. Danger-signal. Disillusionment.

This is the broad consensus of opinion on the meaning of the card. A.E. Waite, outside the pages of The Key to the Tarot, gave Trump 16 the following significance, diverging hardly at all from the pronouncements of Mathers and Lind.

Destruction, confusion, judgment; also the idea of Divine Wrath.

The instruction book that comes with the Cagliostro Tarot, and which is grounded in the teachings of Levi and Papus, has:

Catastrophe, ruin, collapse, disasters, misfortunes. The punishment of pride, weakness of the soul Reversed: Pride Punished; Sudden Accident.

Basing his conclusions on the cited sources, the British astrologer-occultist Sepharial came up with a similar set of keywords for The Tower. What appears below is an amalgam of entries from his Manual of Occultism (c. 1910) and The Kabala of Numbers (1914).

Sudden calamity, the overthrow of spiritual pride. The pride of intellect and its consequence. Overthrow; reversal; ruin; fatality; sudden death; catastrophe; accidents.

In The Art of Card Fortune Telling (for which I don’t have a date), Sepharial says the same in other words.

Misery, adversity, disgrace, even ruin; some unforeseen or unexpected calamity. Reversed: it loses much of its malignity, though with bad cards near, it might show imprisonment.

The only meaning I would add to the list is “Enlightenment”, which topples false perceptions and calls for a fresh start as much as financial ruin does. In his book The Painted Caravan, Basil Rákóczi assigns the Trump the meanings “loss of faith” and “to see through hypocrisy, to gain freedom of body or mind at great cost”, both of which relate to the effects of enlightenment, which can be uplifting or temporarily (or so it is to be hoped) discouraging depending on how prepared for the blow a person is mentally and spiritually. There are also those who read the card, when it is appropriate to do so, as the eye-opening jolt of love at first sight. This certainly fits the symbolism of the Tower, interpreted metaphorically.

What I have called the Secret Titles of the Trumps are not really secret. It is just that, in most countries where English is the predominant language, these titles are relatively unknown, even those who have come across them affording them little regard. These titles were printed on the cards Papus used to illustrate his Tarot of Divination. Those associated with The Tower are: Destruction through Antagonism, Disruption of Material Equilibrium, and Ruin and Catastrophe. They can be seen, in French, under the picture of Lightning Struck Tower on the Papus card. (See below.) They have been interpreted as relating to the punishment of pride, the downfall of the spirit who attempts to penetrate the mysteries of God, and reversals of fortune respectively.

Arcane-Arcana-16-maison-dieu-towerAll three interpretations can be related to the story of the tower of Babel as related by the Talmud. There we are told that it was Nimrod who commanded the tower be built, with the intention of taking Heaven by arms. While the tower was still abuilding, Nimrod and his chief minister, who was the tower’s architect, climbed to the top of the unfinished structure and Nimrod, who the Bible tells us was a mighty hunter, loosed an arrow at the throne of God standing high above them. This was the last straw for the Almighty. He confounded the speech of the workmen so that they understood neither their overseers nor each other, but at the same time He smote Nimrod and his vizier with a bolt of lightning causing them to topple from the tower. There is an occult tradition that the two figures hurled from the Tower Stuck by Lightning are the hubristic king and his first minister. Nimrod was blinded by the lightning flash but lived.

There are echoes in this last detail of Greek myths where one of Zeus’s paramours asks to see him “as he really is”, in all his glory, only to be blinded when the god reluctantly accedes to the request. Those myths represent the opposite side of the coin. They convey a sense of the effect that the revelation of naked truth can have on unripe souls, while the myth – for this is surely what it is – of Nimrod and the tower of Babel illustrates the secret titles of Trump 16. Human pride is punished, those who sought to lay hands on God’s mysteries without the proper preparation meet, not with an increase of authority, but with downfall and disempowerment in a devastating reversal of fortune.

Other occult titles attributed to The Tower are the Elimination (or Expulsion or Exclusion) of Logic; Astral Constraint; and Physical Destruction. The first of these is a back-reference to The Devil card, for one of its secret titles is Logic. A good servant but a bad master, Logic must be kept in its place, and it is the function of the occult principle illustrated in the symbolism of Trump 16 to do exactly that. Whatever humans attempt to do, whether simply as an ordinary member of the genus homo sapiens, or as an initiate of the sacred mysteries, is subject to astral constraint. While the matter of which the astral plane is composed is pliable by nature and can be moulded by the human mind, there are limits to its elasticity, and restrictions concerning which images can survive on the astral once the force of the human will has been removed from them and they are left to fend for themselves in that great heaving sea of ethereal forces.

The third occult title, Physical Destruction, is easier to understand, being yet another reference to the ruin/catastrophe aspect of the Trump. Something on the material plane is destroyed – a career, a marriage, a friendship.

Like the preceding Trump, The Lightning-Struck Tower must be carefully handled in a divination. These days, when I read the tarot, I do so for others who, like myself, have been treading the esoteric path for many years. For them, Trump 16 is as likely to signify a realization of great importance to their spiritual evolution as it is to point to material ruin or the collapse of a close relationship. The diviner should always take into account the inquirer’s nature, her temperament and psychology, when constructing the narrative outlined by the keywords of the cards making up the reading. It can be as important a factor as their standing in life and their social condition – married, single, divorced, daughter, parent, and so forth. Diviners ignore this factor at their peril.

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One Comment
  1. _R_ permalink

    Interesting post as usual. As to the iconography of this card, Jean-Michel David, and before him, Jean-Marie L’hôte, have convincingly argued for its origins in the biblical narrative of the fall of the idols of Egypt, rather than the tower of Babel, or of Plutus (Aristophanes), or of Rhampsinit (Herodotus) or some other such legend…

    See the images on this page:

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