“The Da Vinci Code” and the Tarot
Approaches to the Western Mystery Tradition
Dan Brown’s “Da Vinci Code” has enjoyed phenomenal success in terms of sales and general controversy. Criticism by the Church and its supporters has been vehement – claiming that the Catholic Church and its history has been slanderously and inaccurately attacked. Meanwhile, in the opposite camp, the writers of “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” are suing Brown for plagiary of their ideas. Whether or not the fast-paced thriller is to your taste, its occult content raises some compelling questions about the spiritual history of the West.
Among other theories, “The Da Vinci Code” suggests that Mary Magdalene bore the children of Christ, who subsequently became the Merovingian kings of France; that Mary Magdalene is an aspect of the goddess Isis, or the ‘Feminine Divine’ eliminated by the patriarchal Church; and, that Da Vinci and other members of secret societies – as subscribers to this belief – coded their heretical message into their artworks and allegories.
Presenting ‘heretical’ messages in a coded form is, of course, nothing new, and was the only way of transferring alternative views of spirituality during the Middles Ages and Inquisition. Among these ‘occult’ mysteries, the Tarot is mentioned in the “Da Vinci Code” in reference to the Suit of Pentacles – the five-pointed star representing Venus (the planet as well as the goddess). The Pentacle is presented as part of the code revealing the hidden Divine Feminine.
The Tarot has remained one of the more overt expressions of the Western Mystery Tradition. It developed from the secret societies of the Middle Ages and has been called a ‘book of floating pages’. Its symbolism and concepts weave a common thread between the Gnostics, Knights Templar and Alchemists, all of whom followed a spiritual path blending ‘Pagan’ and Christian mysticism. Despite the stigma attached to the Tarot – in its association with gypsies and charlatans – its imagery is readily recognisable in mainstream society.
It could be said that the Tarot is a document of true Western spirituality – incorporating concepts and symbols stretching back to pre-Christian times – a tradition that has borrowed and adapted beliefs after successive waves of invasions and conversions, yet which has remained constant in its essence.
In the Earth-based mystery cults of pre-urban eras, the tides of the seasons ruled the cycles of life. Thus it was observed that the re-incarnating soul underwent its own form of seasonal development, a process of growth (summer), death (winter) and rebirth (symbolised by spring). The imagery of the sacrificed god represented this cycle, and came to be depicted as a man tied to a cross – which is an ancient symbol representing the four seasons and elements. The crucified man also symbolises the presence of God within the Creation, or the soul inhabiting the human body. This image came to represent the crucified Christ, although very similar images of a crucified Bacchus from circa 700 BC have been found.
Resurrection is a recurring and exceptionally important theme in the development of religion, and particularly in Christianity, which, despite its claims to uniqueness, is essentially a different form of the mystery-religion phenomenon.
The Classical Melting Pot
In the context of the West, Egypt was the spiritual centre of the ancient world. Even by Classical Greek times, its civilisation was ancient. Such was its reputation, that young Roman nobles travelled to Egypt to find a spiritual mentor – much like modern Westerners seek a guru in India. Egyptian religion directly influenced Greek ‘paganism’, as well as Judaism – the Israelites not only lived in Egypt for many centuries, but the founding figure of organised Judaism was Moses, brought up in the household of the Pharaoh.
The story of Osiris, Isis and their son Horus is a direct precursor to the story of Christ. After Osiris’ dismemberment by his evil brother Seth, the mourning Isis travelled the world in search of the scattered parts of his body. Once reconstituted, he returned to life for one night and they conceived Horus, making love in the forms of birds – symbolic of the soul, and later the Holy Spirit. This essentially implied immaculate conception, which led to the birth of the saviour-king. After growing up in exile, Horus deposed his uncle Seth and was later reborn to became the first Pharaoh – the semi-divine kings of Egypt. Osiris subsequently became the god of the Underworld, his annual rebirth being represented by the return of the wheat crops each spring. Isis became the mother goddess, who was also described as a virgin and the Queen of Heaven. Her cult was to spread throughout the Roman world and remained one of the most popular until the Empire converted to monotheism. In fact, so dear was she to the people, that the names of Isis and Horus appearing on statues were literally chiselled out when Rome Christianised, being replaced by the names Mary and Jesus.
Throughout ancient Greek and Roman history, the Mystery cults of prehistoric origin remained enormously popular, being open to all people of free birth. Unlike the organised religions of the time – where the gods could at best be petitioned for assistance via offerings – the Mysteries offered a direct experience of the divine. The best known were the Eleusinian Mysteries, in which thousands of adepts participated each year. Famous initiates included Socrates, Pericles and various Roman emperors (most notably Hadrian). The age-old cycle of birth-death-resurrection was overseen by the Hierophant (the high priest), and adepts were ‘reborn’ after initiation – meaning the ‘sins’ of their past were washed away, and like the seasons, they could start afresh.
When Rome became the capital of the entire Mediterranean and beyond, new cults constantly entered the capital, and thus a syncretic (or amalgamated) spiritual approach developed. Christianity was just another of these exotic cults coming from the East, yet the charity its followers offered the poor caused it to spread rapidly throughout the Roman world.
Spiritual Empires – Divergent Christianities
By the end of the third century the Empire was characterised by weak rulers, uprisings, factionalism and the split of the territory – with Constantinople as the capital of the East, and Rome of the West. The emperor Constantine needed to unite his ailing superpower, and what better way than to unite under one god and a strict religious dogma. He was well aware that the majority of the army was Christian, so he rallied their support by announcing a dream in which he saw the cross and heard God say: “This is the sign in which you shall conquer”. Constantine was himself a follower of Sol Invictus (Invincible Sun) and Mithras throughout his life. Both these cult figures heavily influenced early Christianity: the birth of Mithras/Sol Invictus is celebrated on the night of the winter solstice – in ancient times, on 24 December.
Before the ‘official’ version of the Bible appeared in 367 CE, there were countless Gnostic gospels – including the gospels of Thomas, Philip and Mary Magdalene – rediscovered in the form of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi scriptures. They tell a very different story to that of the orthodox New Testament – for example, they believed in re-incarnation, an equal place in society for women, and, most shockingly, the assertion that Christ was not necessarily a historical man, but a state of consciousness to which all could aspire! The early Christian Bible also made no mention of the Crucifixion.
Gnosticism was at first the most widespread form of Christianity, and fits the mystery tradition of dying to the old self and being reborn. Its principle aim was ‘gnosis’, a direct knowing of God – independent of dogma or scriptures. Gnosticism, was, however, dualistic to the extreme, seeing the world as a place of evil which needed to be transcended.
Gnosticism went underground after it was declared heretical by the Literalists (Catholics) who won the day.
Christ’s Holy Bloodline
Part of the controversy stirred by “The Da Vinci Code” is its suggestion that Christ was married to Mary Magdalene. This was in fact stated in various Gnostic scriptures, but most blatantly in the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, where Jesus “kissed her on the mouth often”. Here the conspiracy theory is raised, stating that the Orthodox Church eliminated the Feminine Divine (the Magdalene) from the Bible, thus altering the true foundation of Christianity.
One of the interpretations of Da Vinci’s ‘Last Supper’ is that the figure commonly thought to be St John the Younger, sitting to the right of Christ, is none other than Mary Magdalene. The book “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” goes further in this regard, claiming that Mary Magdalene took the Sangraal (Holy Grail, or ‘Royal Blood’ of Christ’s child) to France, thus establishing the Merovingian line. The Priory of Sion is purportedly a secret society wanting to reinstate the rule of the Merovingian kings in France.
Mary Magdalene starts to resemble the figure of the Anointing Goddess – a primal Middle Eastern Mystery figure who was the wife of the sacrificed god. According to this legend, the sacrificed god was discovered and anointed by a woman three days after his resurrection. The word ‘christos’ is in fact Greek for ‘the anointed’, with the equivalent of ‘messiah’ in Hebrew. This popular tradition was most likely followed by pre-orthodox Jews, who worshipped a variety of gods and goddesses. Mary Magdalene and Isis share many similarities – they are weeping wives responsible for the ‘re-membering’ or resurrection of their sacrificed husbands.
The “Uncommon Gold”
During the Middle Ages, Europe sank into an age of religious fanaticism, while the Islamic world fostered tolerance and the spirit of enquiry. Alchemy (from Arabic Al-kimia) and astrology were refined from their Greek roots and algebra was developed by Arab mathematicians. With the Crusades, Europeans were once again exposed to the exotic Middle East; from which they adopted the concept of zero as well as Arabic numerals.
The Knights Templar started out as a small group of armed monks who sought to protect pilgrims to Jerusalem, and who allegedly found the treasure of King David. They soon became fabulously wealthy and their influence was felt throughout Europe, where they became the first international bankers. Many conspiracy theories surround their activities, although there does seem to some evidence of their holding secret knowledge – often thought to be the Golden Mean and certain principles of Sacred Geometry which they used in the highly symbolic design of their churches and cathedrals. Some theorists imply that the Templars supported a restoration of Christ’s bloodline to throne – if not in the form of the pope, at least in the kings of France.
The best known yet most misunderstood of all secret societies are the Alchemists. The symbolism of Alchemy and Tarot are undoubtedly linked, as both describe the perennial process of life-death-rebirth. While employing the outward symbolism of Christianity, they both incorporate the most salient aspects of the Mysteries. The rich and ambivalent imagery of Alchemy describes a process of accelerated evolution. In spiritual terms, it aspires to the “aurum non vulgi” (uncommon gold) of spiritual purification. The physical process of turning lead into gold is an analogy for this sublimation. In short, the inherent structure of the mineral is broken down, resulting in the extraction of the ‘soul’ of the substance, which is purified, then re-introduced to lead and thus transmuting it into gold.
The Tarot – Summarising All-of-the-Above
In her book “Woman With The Alabaster Jar”, Margaret Starbird states that the Tarot is a ‘catechism for the Grail Heresy’. In card IX. The Hermit she sees as ‘Peter the Hermit’ of the first crusade, who wanted to restore the Davidic/Merovingian bloodline to Jerusalem (opposing the corruption of Rome). The legs of XII. The Hanged Man’s look like one half of the fleur-de-lis (symbol of the French royal family), and portrays the torture of a Templar knight (the figure holds onto bags of gold). In the VIII. Strength card Starbird interprets the broken pillar of ‘Boaz’ as a representation of the broken bloodline.
Apart from these images specifically relating to the Merovingians, the Tarot very neatly summarises the sum-total of the Western Mystery Tradition in its 78 cards. This may be illustrated in its structure:
- The Four Elements: Earth, Water, Air and Fire (as well as the four seasons) make up the suits of Pentacles, Cups, Swords and Wands. This is a thematic division into the four states of human experience: materiality, emotions and relationships, intellect and communication and action, respectively.
- Numerology: The Minor Arcana consists ten cards in each suit, incorporating the 10 cardinal numbers sacred to Pythagoras. In the Minor Arcana, they represent the ways in which the four states (of the elements) are expressed in the world.
- Astrology: The sixteen Court Cards assign the four elements and three modalities to the astrological signs. They represent the personalities inside and outside the individual.
- The Major Arcana represents the journey of the soul through life; it traces the path of growth-death-rebirth of the Sacrificed God as he makes his way through the world of the Four Elements. It thus represents a map for the evolution of human consciousness, as well as being a formula for alchemy and the creative process.
Certain cards of the Major Arcana are overtly alchemical in their symbolism:
- While I. The Magician is the ‘Alpha’ of the Major Arcana (referring to Hermes Trismegistos and Christ); XXI. The World represents the ‘Omega’ (as the Gnostic Sophia, or the female Christ).
- V. The Pope (Hierophant) has a female equivalent in II. The Popess (High Priestess) – this concept would still be heretical to orthodox Christians and reflects a Gnostic world-view. The imagery of The High Priestess is that of Isis (feet resting on a crescent moon)
- The cards I. Magician through to XIII. Death reflect the life of the uninitiated, unconscious human. The process of rebirth and resurrection leading to human realisation is fulfilled in XX. Judgement.
- Card XIV. Temperance symbolises the alchemist who channels divine energy in order to transmute the physical according to a higher vision.
Given the various aspects of the story of Christ that can be traced to earlier mythological traditions, one wonders how much of what we have learned about the ‘historical’ Jesus is true. Whether he really walked the Earth, we will never know, but one cannot doubt the fact that his story is a hybrid of many traditions and beliefs, the true nature of which may have gone underground with the secret societies that were so persecuted by the politically-motivated Church. Trying to discover what ‘really happened’ in occult history is perhaps missing the point of spiritual enquiry – rather, the different theories allow one to find a path that fits personal taste and conviction. Thus the questions raised in “The Da Vinci Code” and similar works open the realm of possibilities concerning the way we interpret our spiritual heritage.