Those Doggone Egyptians


I've been reading an obscure work which has been somewhat discussed here, "The Hieroglyphics of Horapollo." I especially enjoyed Ross G. Caldwell's perceptive comments about this book on the "Plato" thread.

The work itself is an unsorted bundle of loose ends in which the author (or authors) engages in an apparently random association of concepts with images. It's kind of like playing a word association game. For example:

When they mean a mother, or sight, or boundaries, or foreknowledge, or the year, or the heavens, or pity, or Athene, or Hera, or two drachmas, they draw a vulture. A mother, since there is no male in this species of animal. And they are born in this way:" (Here follows a fanciful description of the supposed manner in which vultures conceive and deliver eggs.)

I would not have made any sense of these strange interpretations at all if it weren't for the introduction by the translator, George Boas, and, especially, a short but very tightly written foreward by Anthony T. Grafton. Apparently, when this work was written, in the fifth century CE, the hieroglyphic script it purports to explain had been nearly totally forgotten. The author, a Hellenized Egyptian, assumed that every glyph was a symbol, whereas we now know most of them to be simple phonemes.

Egyptian culture had long fascinated western Europeans, from the time of the Roman Empire onward, partly because Egypt was so old. Its monuments were already ancient by the time the Colosseum was built. As Grafton explains it, "the powers of traditional Egyptian culture fascinated Western historians, philosophers, and scientists, who admired what they saw as the millenial continuity of Egyptian life. In particular, Egyptian philosophy seemed to them older and deeper than their own" (p. xi).

And no wonder. Ancient writing which can't be deciphered is automatically mysterious, and the mystery is deepened by the impenetrability of the beautiful symbols of the hieroglyphic script.

This was not the only work that mixed genuine Egyptology with imagined doctrines of the past. There were also the works supposedly authored by a certain Hermes Trismegistus which, in Grafton's words, "mixed real Egyptian traditions and unfounded Greek prejudices into one heady textual cocktail."

I have no way to judge whether the "Hieroglyphics" contributed to the birth of tarot. I simply don't know enough. Grafton assures us that "the 'Hieroglyphica' itself did more than any other single text to shape the Renaissance's view of Egyptian symbols" (p. xvi). But I don't see any overt Egyptian or pseudo-Egyptian symbolism in any of the early tarots, rather what's there is mostly Christian or Hellenistic Pagan symbolism.

One thing is certain, however. This book, or the ideas contained in it, persisted through the centuries, all the way down through the Enlightenment, and resulted in the late 18th century in the now notorious assertion by Court de Gebelin that the tarot trumps were a set of degraded Egyptian hieroglyphs. The idea persisted, resulting in Levi's contention that every trump was simultaneously a symbol, a concept, a letter, a number, and an astrological attribution.

These misconceptions should not have lasted past 1822, when the Rosetta Stone was decoded and the hieroglyphic language was at last revealed for what it really is. Thus, by the early years of the twentieth century, AE Waite wrote a snarling and curmudgeonly condemnation of occult Egyptology as it had been applied to the tarot.

But the myth of Egypt and it's magical hieroglyphs, which if studied methodically will unlock the secrets of the universe, persists right down to the present day. New "Egyptian" decks are still being drawn and commercially produced in the twenty-first century.

Thanks to Horapollo, it looks like we're stuck with those doggone Egyptians.


Thanks for that wonderful overview of this book, catboxer.

One great importance this book has to my eyes is not its direct connection to Tarot, but the style of thinking which many have had and continue to have - otherwise at times referred to as analogic thinking.

This book demonstrates - amongst others - that to presume that the image creators of something such as the Tarot was little more than accidental images seems rather stranger than considering that they may contain important symbolic analogic allegories or semiotic metaphors.

Here is where, at least for the images found in the Marseilles - but not solely the Marseilles - this kind of thinking becomes important. The images themselves speak of such considerations which transcend the more haphazard depictions of cards more clearly created for 'simple' gaming purposes.

That many of the considerations of De Gebelin, Levi and others have been shown to very likely be erroneous should also maybe indicate that many of the current views may contain various errors.

Still, a wonderful discussion could result from considering the possible influences of this and other books of the period and before. It should also be remembered that Marseilles and other places were also important ports, and one may assume that the wonders of the tales of voyagers to distant and incredible Egypt would undoubtedly have been at play in pre and post Renaissance thinking.


Anthony Grafton's Alberti text

If it is the Anthony Grafton of Harvard University Press, he wrote an expecially fine twentieth century view of Leon Battista Alberti, a subject he developed many lectures on.
If you find that he is also detailed in how the Renaissance absorbed Egyptian myths or at least icons in their thinking, that would be one source I would be interested in.
The Alberti book has some discussion of Renaissance thinkers developed ideas about hieroglyphic as they read what Greek thinkers observed. Someone here said the Greeks didn't read the Egyptian hieroglyphics in context, they thought it was part of a pictorial language. Alberti and others developed sympathy for this view. Alberti even thought he could develop an optical language of philosophy.
Florence or Venice or Milan may show different observable reference to Egyptian thought or their courts might have housed scholars and and astrologers with different opinions before 1441.
In the corner of Ferarra that was developing tarocchi poetry and allegories, it seems to be French and Latin imports between the 1430s. It was during the late 1430s to 1450 more ideas wee introduced from a growing circulation of Greek manuscripts being recovered throughout Italian city states. Alberti and humanists influenced successive generations with their beliefs, mistaken or not.
Astrology was a strong influence, but Egyptian daemons were being painted as some sort of Medieval-Renaissance Greco-Roman muse in the Schifanioa frescos under Marquis Borso after 1450.
A very small by-the-way reference in Matteo Maria Boiardo's poetry epic Orlando Innomorato was a crocodile monster by a Nile-like river. It's mention was supposed to be a humerous...I read that Alberti also developed fables and jokes in his own work that paralleled the newly translated Greek thinker Diagones into Latin.

An addendum:
Ross asked about the Alberti 'fables and jokes' and it was in his autobiography, titled Life. Alberti played off of two texts: Lives of the Philosphers translated by Ambrogio Traversari in the 1430's and translation by Alberti's friend on the Life of Thales. The friend was Lapo da Castilonchio. More detail in the Plato and 22 archana thread.

Mari H.

Ross G Caldwell

Re: Anthony Grafton's Alberti text

Mari_Hoshizaki said:
...I read that Alberti also developed fables and jokes in his own work that paralleled the newly translated Greek thinker Diagones into Latin.

Could you give a little more detail on the texts and manuscripts here mentioned, dates of translations etc.? It would be relevant to the discussion of Diogenes in the Sun card of the Ercole d'Este tarot on another thread (in Tarot History). Right now I'm assuming the story was known through a life of Alexander, or mentioned in Latin somewhere. If he is only known through Greek sources, we have to be careful on the chronology of translation. Guarino had a lot of Greek books - I don't have any direct information on his library.

I'm not clear on the chronology of Alberti's involvement with the Este court - perhaps a lot over time, but principally 1438-1445? Early on, at any rate. Then to Sigismondo Malatesta, then to the Pope.

The most recent translator of the Hypnerotomachia Polyphilii thinks Alberti, not Colonna, wrote it.



When Revelations Replaced Revolution

Egyptian revival seems to be a periodic fad among Western history, cycling in periodic emergences. I believe people will also cite times where the tarot card and playing card design and popular culture also reflected re-awakened interests with archeological finds or written thought in astrology, Greco-Roman pagan mythologies, or biblical archeology.
I referred back to my Michael Dummett's History of the Occult Tarot in the context of receiving my romantic and delightful book and deck from an order of an English langauge Lo Scarabeo book and deck: Egyptian Tarot, published September 2003. It is based on Paul Christian's work, which had a revivalist interest in their almost "Victorian gothic thriller version" of Egyptian mysteries.
I read every citing of Dummett and Decker's' mention of Paul Christian and agree with them, in the context of my checking Oswald Wirth and some few dippings into Wirth's Tarot of Magicians.
I really think historians who enjoy Tarot and Egyptian revival topics would like the following books and their different tones:

History of the Occult Tarot; Ronald Decker and Michael Dummett

The Egyptian Tarot: book and deck set: Giordano Berti, Tiberio Gonard, Silvana Alasia---it's timeline and general overview AND bibiliography is very good, allows for further research and augments Decker/Dummett and Kaplan.

The Last Alchemist: The Seven Extrodinary Lives of Count Caligstro, Iaian McClaman. This is a factual history of the charlatan enchanter.

Tarot of the Magicians: Oswald Wirth

Mark Filpas History of Egyptian Tarots might answer the question--WHY BOTHER? Of course one can merrily live in tarot halls without once dipping their toes onto Egyptian flagstones...this is for those who perhaps looked at the funny writing on the walls and wondered if it ever meant anything to anyone throughout history...