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Commentary On Ms Montalban’s Article

January 13, 2020
by Auntie Tarot      

Ms Montalban’s article entitled ‘Knowledge is Magic’ is very much of its time. Let me start, therefore, by bringing it up to date. In paragraph 1, Ms Montalban identifies the tarot as the Book of Thoth. In the nineteen-sixties, most occultists believed that tarot cards did in fact date back to the time of the ancient Egyptians when it, allegedly, formed part of their “mysteries of Thoth”, god of intelligence, knowledge and magick. Scholarship of the last quarter of the twentieth and the early years of the present century have proved that idea to be a pipe-dream at best. Occultism finds it hard to relinquish the theory entirely for the very good reason that it is useful peg on which to hang a whole mass of other propositions.

As is clear from her writings, Ms Montalban accepted the concept without reservation. In this article and the one that follows it, she refers over and over to Thoth, sometimes in his forms of Hermes and Mercury, connecting him to magick and to the tarot in particular. Although nowadays an Egyptian origin to the tarot cards is judged impossible, it is nevertheless true that, when the tarot deck is employed for magical purposes, including using it for divination, it comes under rulership of Thoth-Hermes-Mercury as lord of all reserved or sacred knowledge.

For Ms Montalban, then, the tarot is the Book of Thoth and “hidden in the pictures and symbolism is all the accumulated arcane knowledge of the ages”. None of this is true. On the other hand the tarot’s symbolism does hold the key to a vast number of occult mysteries, that of the accurate prediction of events being but one of them. The tarot was not, however, created to act as a repository for those mysteries. It was adopted by occultists of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries, and they superimposed esoteric ideas upon it. The tarot was supremely fitted for the role of embodying the metaphysical concepts of the Western Mystery Tradition on account of it having twenty-two trump cards, four suits, four courts and ten spot cards in each suit, the numbers twenty-two, ten and four having great significance in that tradition.

Although the concepts didn’t become associated with the cards in the way occultists of Ms. Montalban’s era believed, they are now firmly attached to them, and the symbolism of individual cards can yield much information to those who know how to interpret the signs correctly.

Fortune-telling by means of the tarot didn’t interest Ms Montalban much at all. As she rightly says in paragraph 2, “the method that uses an ordinary pack of playing cards is much simpler to learn”. She was happier focusing on the magical side of the tarot. Before going into the details of that, she recommends McGregor Mathers’ book The Tarot. It sold in the sixties for seven shillings and six pence; today it is on sale through Amazon for £8.99. The bookshop given a namecheck by Ms M. is still trading, its name and address slightly altered: Watkins Books, 19-21 Cecil Court, London, WC2N 4EZ. As Mathers’ book is out of copywrite it is also available free of charge online.

It is a good book for the absolute beginner in tarot, but anyone beyond beginner stage will likely be disappointed in it. For those whose interest is primarily in reading the tarot, either from a psychological or a predictive standpoint, a better buy, in my opinion, is Rachel Pollack’s Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom (Element Books), $16.00.

As I have already said, the tarot is not synonymous with the legendary Book of Thoth. Setting that idea aside, it is certainly true (paragraph 3) that “knowledge, when properly applied, is magic, inasmuch as it can work wonders.” That pronouncement made, Ms M. is ready to get down to business.

She implies (paragraph 4) that the first step on the path to occult knowledge is nothing more that “really wanting” to access the magick and mystery embodied in the tarot’s symbolism. She is speaking of an inward urge that is far more than desire. Many have a nebulous wish to know about the tarot’s magical side but in the majority of cases this amounts to no more than a heightened curiosity. Where a desire is potent enough, it affects the will, and once the will is engaged, something has got to give, as the saying goes.

The would-be student of tarot who experiences this inner urge has set foot on the path leading to the gates of occult knowledge. The situation is the equivalent of finding oneself outside a major train station in any great metropolis – New York’s Central Station, London’s King’s Cross Station, the Gare de Lyon in Paris. To make further progress one needs to purchase a ticket. That ticket, for Ms M., is the recognition that “the pictographs of the Tarot are manifold”. Her meaning is that the truth of the tarot is not wholly encompassed in any one pack of tarot cards; students who attempt to uncover that truth by examining the pictorial symbols of one deck only are doomed to fail in their objective from the outset.

The number of decks Ms M. had in mind were relatively few: any Tarot de Marseille-type decks, the Waite-Smith cards, Oswald Wirth’s representations of the twenty-two major arcana, the B.O.T.A. cards, the Egyptian tarot published by the Church of Light, the Golden Dawn tarot, Crowley’s Thoth deck, and the Thomson-Leng cards Ms M. herself employed. There is now such a profusion of tarot decks that today’s student needs to treat Ms M.’s injunction with great caution. That said, a good deal of dross can be easily cleared away because so many modern decks are little more than clones of those Ms M. approved of. The Aquarian Tarot is basically a reimagining of the Waite-Smith designs, Rolla Nordic’s deck is a redrawing of the Insight Institute cards, which themselves are essentially a Marseille-type tarot. On the principle that “the nearer to the source, the purer the stream”, I would advise those newly arrived on the path to the tarot’s occult secrets to center their attentions on the Waite-Smith deck rather than any of its derivatives. Purchase a pack or buy a book, such as Rachel Pollack’s Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom mentioned above, that has pictures of all the Waite-Smith cards in it. Whenever you run across a new deck, whether freshly published or simply new to you, compare the pictures with those of the Waite-Smith pack. Where the former are a redrawing of the latter, it is a fairly safe conclusion that this is a deck you do not need to take into consideration. At the start, the raw beginner would do well to limit themselves to the decks listed above.

I agree with Ms M. (paragraph 4) that a complete exposition of the magical tarot has never been written and never could be written; its uses are too various and multiform. Magick is an art just as painting is an art; new modes of expression are constantly being found in both areas due to the need to keep abreast of an ever-changing society imbued with ever-changing mores and viewpoints.

Ms M. next proceeds to put her astute observation about the picture symbols of the tarot into practice. (Paragraph 5.) She chooses to illustrate her article with a representation of Trump 1 from the Tarot de Marseille, known in French as Le Bateleur and in English as The Juggler. She speaks first of the card as the Juggler and later (paragraph 6) as the Magician, taking pains to emphasize the “juggling” aspect of the trump. She makes the point that the figure on the Marseilles card juggles with what he knows, or thinks he knows, as well as with perceptions and beliefs. The Juggler has not yet learnt about the hidden powers behind Nature, for he is only one of the early, low-numbered, tarot Trumps. When he has accumulated greater knowledge, he will become the Magician, or Adept, “the instructed, aware and magically-powerful student of the occult.”

In paragraph 6, Ms M. promises that “We shall wind up this series by dealing with the Magician-Adept side of Trump No. 1, when we have come full circle through the mysteries of the trumps.” It is a promise she fails to keep. The series changes track after the third article. Practical magick and the Lore of the Path fall by the wayside and the focus from then on concerns more general applications of individual Trump’s energies. Perhaps the initial articles had served their purpose and those truly possessed by the urge to study the magick of the tarot had by then made contact with Ms M., who ran a correspondence course in the subject, and had found a home within a competent and functioning school of the mysteries. The quota of students filled for the time being, maybe there was no longer a need to trail this aspect of the tarot in her Prediction articles.

She ends paragraph 6 by returning the reader to the Juggler aspect of Trump 1, as this is the facet of the card she wishes to explore in this article.

Paragraph 7 is brief but vital. As Niccolo Machiavelli said, “A sign of intelligence is an awareness of one’s own ignorance.” In Ms M.’s philosophy, the ordinary person who wishes to go looking for esoteric wisdom must first admit their own ignorance of the subject. If you don’t know how to write shorthand but desire to learn how to do so, you can sign up for a course. Alternatively, you can attempt to learn the subject from a book, though the self-teaching route is generally a more protracted one than the learning-in-class route as it is subject to diversions and delays. When a person tutoring themselves encounters a problem, some fact they don’t comprehend shall we say, they have to wait until the book containing the explanation they require comes into their hands, and that could take years. On the other hand, a student with a teacher can take their confusion to somebody wise in the ways of the subject they have chosen to study and receive from that person a reasonable explanation of whatever it was that was troubling them. Whichever way anyone reading Ms M.’s article decides to proceed, certain preparatory mental adjustments need to be made.

“The first step,” Ms M. tells us (paragraph 8), “is to acquire a balanced mind” about the journey one is about to undertake, continuing, “from the Tarot point of view it is mental balance and dexterity that is implied.”

In order to reach this stage, one must set aside all preconceived ideas one has about magick. Not all magick is black magick, she asserts. There is such a thing as black magick but its practitioners are almost as scarce as hen’s teeth. The greater proportion of magick performed in the world is a form of theurgy, the intention of which is to bring the worker of magick into a closer alignment with the gods.

Horror films and novels about Satanist groups are responsible for the mistaken beliefs lodged in the mind of the general public concerning the widespread prevalence of black magick in the world. On the other hand, where the public get the idea from that magical powers “can be obtained with no effort or study” is hard to imagine. It is probably part of the same mindset that believes that absolutely anyone can sing well enough to fill the Hollywood Bowl to capacity three nights in succession before embarking on a sold-out world tour. Singing is a natural capacity, so this form of reasoning goes, and therefore anyone can do it; all one needs are the breaks, a shot of tv exposure on America’s Got Talent and hey presto! one is the next Jay-Z or Beyoncé. The same logic applies in the field of magick, fed by a misunderstanding of tenets such as “magick is as much a part of you as your bloodstream.” In truth, becoming an adept takes as much study and effort, in the form of repetitive practice, as the acquirement of any other skill. Tennis players don’t just hit a ball with a high degree of accuracy; they bone up on the science of the game, how balls react on different playing surfaces, how the perfect top spin is produced and all the technical side of the sport. Bear in mind the connection between the words ‘technical’ and ‘technique’. Believe me, magical powers are only obtained through effort and study.

Another myth firmly rooted in some minds is that adepts are free of “the limitations and trials that life imposes on us all”. They are not, for the simple reason that life is a school; we are all here on Earth to learn, which is why Ms M. concludes the paragraph with the words: “Life is experience; from experience comes wisdom. Wisdom is magic, when you learn to use it.”

Having set one’s misconceptions aside by determining to study magick with an open mind, testing the teaching offered step by step, the next lesson the apprentice magician needs to absorb is that talking about one’s magical training with outsiders is a fruitless activity, generally speaking. As Ms M. says (paragraph 9), the more advanced initiates have their own magical assignments to work on and will have little inclination to discuss the topic with raw beginners. There are teachers available and it is not too difficult to discover who they are and what they have to offer. But not every adept chooses to teach, and where teaching is available it is frequently set at a fairly basic level. The magical beginner has two stark choices: tutor themselves or latch on to someone willing to instruct them in its fundamentals.

Outside of the esoteric community, there is usually little point discussing magick with those who either know nothing about it or have their heads stuffed full of the misapprehension that it is the work of the devil. Ms M.’s injunction notwithstanding, it is most often through bitter experience that the wise student learns to keep what they learn to themselves. (Paragraph 10.) This lesson is encapsulated in “the symbolism of the little seal on the right-hand side of the Juggler diagram,” a representation of “the Egyptian God of Silence, called Harpocrates, seated on the lotus of knowledge, with his finger to his lips.”


Putting aside for now Ms M.’s lurid claims of what happened in former times to those who broke their esoteric vows (paragraph 11), she certainly has something valid to say about knowledge and power. And about foolishness, too. Ms M had an old school attitude to the tarot Fool. To her the card was a symbol of folly plain and simple and that view permeates the latter part of the current article. Elsewhere she had written that we all start out as the tarot Fool. Some of us, coming in contact with the world of occultism, leave the path of folly and, by setting foot on the road to magical attainment, transition from The Fool, Trump 0, to The Magician, Trump 1.

In doing so, the person gains knowledge and with knowledge comes power. Those occult schools that are genuine repositories of magical wisdom put a good deal of energy into discouraging or deflecting fools from their portals. Ms M. gives the reason in splendid synopsis: “power . . . put into the hands of fools, can be very dangerous. Fools will not be taught, cannot learn, and will not be parted from their folly. Moreover, they are unscrupulous. Their own folly makes them so.”

As Ms M. says in paragraph 12, “Even today, any occult school that teaches things of worth asks for a pledge of secrecy from its students. They still follow the old system, because they have found it is good.”

And with that, Ms M. returns to her main theme, silence. “Nobody can teach you when to talk, but you can learn not to talk . . . until you have attained Adept degree, when, oddly enough, you won’t want to talk about it!”

Ms M. was an expert at interpreting symbolism. Everything I know of that subject, I learnt from her. She puts her skills to good use in paragraphs 13 and 14 when she dissects the image she has attached to her article. I recommend that you study the illustration and then read those paragraphs again, for by doing so you will learn an immense amount about how pictographs are to be interpreted.

Now into the final furlong, Ms M. notes (paragraph 15) that if the reader has made it this far into the article they are definitely attracted to the occult path and moreover feel the need to learn the lore and laws of magick. That being so, she reminds us (paragraph 16) that the most powerful weapon we possess is our minds, and “An instructed mind is a power-house that can sway events and forces.”

Lastly, harking back to the idea of Faustian pacts with the devil, she asserts that the only pact the magician makes is with her- or himself. “The pact is that you will learn, and not abuse what you learn.” This cannot be stressed strongly enough. Abuse of occult knowledge leads to the revocation of magical powers and a the unfolding of a situation in which the magician’s clairvoyance is clouded over and their ability to sway invisible forces is subtly sidelined by the Higher Powers until they are back on a par with the uninitiated and those ‘fools’ who aren’t even aware that another, invisible world even exists.

But for the student starting out for the first time on the path to occult knowledge, Ms M.’s uplifting message is: “If you stretch out your hand from the Pit of Ignorance, the God of Knowledge will grasp it.” And she promises (in paragraphs 18 and 19) to tell us more about this process in her next article.

From → occult tarot, tarot

  1. It’s good to see you again, Auntie! Both you and Mr. Willis are a trove of information that makes this blog an invaluable resource.

    • Dear Ashe, You are very kind. But if you ever saw anything on the blog that was inaccurate, please let us know and it will be corrected. To continue being an invaluable resource, the blog needs to be accurate and Tony Willis and myself rely on readers of the blog to keep us up to scratch!
      Best wishes, Auntie

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