The Art of Memory and the Tarochi (Tarot)

By Michael Freedman S.G. (1991).
The first essay was written specifically in relation to the images known as the triumphs of the Tarocchi. However, its summary of the ars memoria applies equally well to any set of images, such the astrological images of Giordano Bruno, or the set of 50 images known incorrectly as the Tarocchi of Mantegna. It originally was circulated as a knowledge paper among the magical apprentices of the author.

It is most unlikely that the game of Tarocco or the Triumphs was invented by occultists. It is very likely that, shortly after the cards came into common use in Italy, during the second half of the 15th century, their potential for esoteric use was realised. Soon, at the level of low magic, both ordinary playing cards and the Tarocchi were used for fortune-telling. Among high magicians, it was realised that they could be used for the ars memoria or art of memory. This paper deals with the history and techniques of the art of memory and some of its later magical developments.

Images in Places

The art of memory was originally a technique for memorising long poems or speeches, as well as lists of events, names and items of information. The technique was first used in Greece by actors and poets. It was invented by the poet Simonides of Ceos [556-486 bce]. It was well-known in Rome, being taught as part of the art of rhetoric or effective speech-making by such famous lawyers and orators as Cicero.

In his book on oratory, Cicero had told how "Simonides had inferred that persons desiring to train the art of memory must select places and form mental images of the things they wish to remember and store those images in the places, so that the order of the places will preserve the order of the things and the images of the things will denote the things themselves; and we shall employ the places and images as a wax writing tablet and the letters written on it."

Taking a Mental Walk

Roman orators who used the art of memory would often use the rooms of their villas as the places, and their contents as the images. They would tag the introductory section of their speech to the portico and entrance hall of the villa and relate the various points made in the introduction to the statues and furnishings located there. A transitional section of the speech might be related to a passage-way and its picture, murals and busts, while the main sections of the speech would be allocated to the various principal rooms of the villa, and so on.

As they delivered their speeches in the Forum or Senate, they would mentally walk through their villa. As the various rooms their statues and furnishings came to mind, the various parts of their speech would also come to mind in proper order. Using the art of memory, they could make an elegantly constructed speech in the Senate or Forum for four or five hours, without referring to a manuscript or notes.

Prudence and the Art of Memory

Traditionally, the art of memory was said to be ruled by the virtue Prudence. Cicero defined virtue as a "habit of mind in harmony with reason and the order of nature." He also said: "Virtue has four parts: Justice, Fortitude, Temperance and Prudence. Prudence is the knowledge of what is good and what is bad and what is neither good nor bad. Its parts are memory, intelligence and foresight. Memory is the faculty by which the mind recalls what has happened. Intelligence is the faculty by which it ascertains what is. Foresight is the faculty by which it is seen that something will occur before it does occur."

Because the works of Cicero were among the few that survived the fall of Rome, the art of memory, i.e., the use of images in places to facilitate learning, was known and taught by the Church's scholars for hundreds of years from the time of the revival of learning at the beginning of the 12th century. In the late renaissance era, the same techniques would be used by magicians, but with the intention of bringing things about, rather than merely remembering the past.

The Tarocchi as Art of Memory

There is no obvious set of places for the 78 images of the Tarocchi. Esoteric scholars believe that the places are to be found in the qabalistic diagrams known as the Trees of Life, in which ten Sefiroth, drawn as circles, are linked by various arrangements of 22 connecting paths.

There is a saying within our order, "The minors are more important than the majors." This is because, among the minors, the four court cards refer to the four worlds of the qabalists, 'Atsiluth, Briyah, Yetsirah and Assiyah, and the ten numbered cards refer to the ten Sefiroth of the Tree of Life. The 22 majors or triumphs refer only to the paths linking the Sefiroth. As it is written: "The Minors refer to where we are going; the Majors to the ways to get there."

Because the 22 paths of the Tree of Life are referred to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, the triumphs can also be linked to Hebrew letters and through them to a wide variety of other esoteric lists of correspondences. The correspondences between Tarocchi and qabalah are set out in the two tables in this paper. Note that the magical number of each triumph is the value of its corresponding Hebrew letter. The numbers before the triumphs merely show their order.

It is not appropriate, at this early stage, to discuss which paths are referred to which triumphs. While a few paths are referred to the same triumphs and letters in all 35 of the Trees of Life in Weavers' Woods, most triumphs are on paths linking different Sefiroth in different Trees of Life.

Experienced magicians work with a variety of different Trees of Life. They study the shifts in significance of the triumphs as they appear on different paths in different Trees of Life. Figure 1 on the last page shows how the Tarocchi are allocated to the paths in one of the Trees of Life in Weavers' Woods.

The general rule for referring letters to paths in any of the Trees of Life is: To the right, to the left, to the centre; to the right, to the left, to the centre.

The Art of Memory: further reading:

All of Dame Frances Yates's books are worth reading by any serious student of high magic, who wishes to go beyond glamour or autosuggestion. Much of the material in this paper has been taken from Frances Yates's The Art of Memory, which is required reading for all high magicians.

The following books are in the Sanctuary's Qabalah Reference Library on Mount Eden, where they may be consulted by Guardians and their students, and by others after special arrangement.

Frances A. Yates, The Art of Memory , Penguin Books, 1969.

Frances A. Yates, The Rosicrucian Enlightenment, Granada, 1975.

Frances A. Yates, Theatre of the World, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969.

Frances A. Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1964. [Now in print again.]

Frances A. Yates, Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969.

Ad Herennium [On the Art of Memory, Book 3. 6-24.] Cicero. Most libraries have the complete works of Cicero in one or more translations. The Qabalah Library has a photocopy of the relevant verses.

© Society of Guardians, 1991.