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The Symbolism of The Square & Compasses Tarot Deck

Posted in Blog

Colin Browne 
creator of the S&C Masonic Tarot

To the best of my knowledge this was only the second specific Masonic deck produced and the first that specifically stayed within the basic Craft Degrees. The reason I chose to produce this deck was that I could not find an existing deck that I was comfortable with. When considering other decks I invariably found the graphics not to my taste or far too detailed and prescriptive. This is not to say that they are wrong in anyway. I always tell people who enquire which Tarot deck or book is the best to purchase, that it is the one that they feel comfortable with.

Freemasons are taught that Masonry is a progressive science and as can be seen from the development of the rituals this is the case. The Fellow of Craft Degree clearly states that the member should study the liberal arts and sciences. This was clearly to ensure that a Mason could think and develop opinions independent of the current restrictive and repressive church dogma of the time. If Masonry can move with the times and retain its credibility as new scientific discoveries were made without losing sight of its traditional landmarks, then the same should be true of the Tarot. If the meanings of the original cards were either Humanist, Christian or both then that does not prevent them now acquiring new and broader meanings in a climate of free religious thought. The Tarot is a vehicle to a greater end and as such should not stagnate by hanging on to the original meanings, which are inappropriate to our current thinking. If we take for example the card called The Hanged Man or Le Pendu which many believe related to punishment, humiliation and treason in its originally form. Why should this card now not hold a much more subtle association with indecision and a midway point? After all it is no longer the practice to hang traitors upside down as punishment. Quite correctly the traditional penalties in Freemasonry have been removed from the obligation as there is no record of them ever being carried out. The candidate is certainly reminded that they once existed to ensure that the history is not lost, but it would be ridiculous to ask him to swear on oath on what would never take place.

When I conceived the idea of this deck in about 1996, I sought to design, compile and produce a Tarot deck which embodied the broad principles of the modern Masonic Craft and takes the art into the future. Yet at the same time reflects not only to the earliest examples of the Tarot, but also draws out and enhances the aspects of the Freemason’s Craft that are entrenched in other earlier decks. I deliberately ignored all degrees beyond the Third, but I included the Holy Royal Arch and Mark Master Mason degrees. This is because I believe that the Holy Royal Arch is Ancient Freemasonry worked in a truncated form, and the Mark Master Mason Degree adds an important key at Craft level. The exclusion of the other Degrees is based on the premise that the fundamentals of Freemasonry are all inculcated within the Craft. It can be argued strongly that all the Degrees beyond the Third are not as old as the three Craft degrees. Indeed some schools of thought claim them to be creations of the Masonic boom of the 18th Century.

In the developmental methodology of these cards I followed a process where I have embodied all the four aspects of the Tarot suits, as reflected in the four Kabbalistic worlds called, Atziluth, Briah, Yetzirah, and Assiah.

Assiah is the world of Physicality (Earth) as illustrated by the Suite of Pentacles and is embodied in my deck by the tactile act of painting the cards. This reflects the work of the operative Craftsman.

Yetzirah is the world of Emotions (Water) as illustrated by the Suite of Cups and is embodied in my work by the emotive images displayed on the cards as well as the emotions I felt whilst producing them. This reflects the sensitivity of the Mason to his environment.

Briah is the world of Intellect (Air) as illustrated by the Suite of Swords and is embodied in my pack by the mathematical and rhetorical relationships between the cards as reflected by the Liberal Arts and Sciences which are inculcated in the Fellow of Craft Degree.

Atziluth is the world of Spirituality (Fire) as illustrated by the Suite of Wands and is embodied in my work by the sub-conscience acts necessary for the conception and creation of all things.

I made a conscious decision when I started in 1996 to paint these cards at full size rather than at a much larger scale and then reduce them. Whilst I acknowledge that reduced graphics often look more attractive than the originals that they came from, I felt that it was very important that no detail should be lost or compromised, which is always a risk with reductions. The geometrical format of each picture I painted is that of a double square reflecting the frontal view of the Altar of Incense. The size of each representation being of two inches by four inches, which relates to the twenty-four inch gauge numerologically. I also felt that it was important that the cards were developed in a distinctly hand-crafted genre, as Freemasonry is all about “Craft”. Being an architect by training and profession I have sought to design these cards in the most simple, un-cluttered and planar form possible. I have also endeavoured to stay as close to the original concept as possible. The reason for this being that I am uncomfortable with any Tarot decks that are too prescriptive and detailed. I chose the French spellings for the major arcana as I felt them to be more in keeping with the definitions that I was looking for. Since producing these cards I have used them extensively for both personal meditation and magickal ritual and have experienced considerable success in both of these fields.

By 1998 I had designed and completed a deck consisting of the 40 minor arcana cards and 22 major arcana cards, which correspond to the Kabbalistic doctrine surrounding the Otz Chiim. I only produced the 16 Court cards some two years later in 2000, once I had discovered what I felt to be satisfactory definitions of their import. These cards being more specifically related to divination.

The 22 paths on the Tree of Life are reflected by the 22 Major Arcana and are named in keeping with the current recognised practice. I have not numbered the cards, as the ordering is a very subjective matter, with considerable disagreement amongst the various learned bodies as to the correct sequence. However I have proposed my own numbering format, which I feel fits in with the Masonic path of development. I believe that it is possible that there is no fixed or finite arrangement of the Tarot to the paths of the Otz Chiim. I hold the view that the Tarot, as with all religious and spiritual issues, should remain a personal matter between each individual and TGAOTU, as each person pursues their own destiny with their own Supreme Being. This philosophy is of course one of the key aspects of Freemasonry.

Whilst from quite an early stage I had generally satisfied myself with a particular arrangement of the cards. I was informed in a dream in December 2002 that La Papesse should be the 11th Path. On making the change I discovered that when she is exchanged for with L’Empereur a triangle is formed as in the ritual for the Three Principals of the Holy Royal Arch.

I am a firm believer that design is not a linear process, but rather a spiral one, and as such, there were numerous changes made as I progressed. Also I believe that post-rationalisation is a very important learning exercise in putting together the whole, particularly as the meaning of many subconscious acts was only discovered later in the process. Indeed I am sure the Kabbalists would acknowledge that to incorporate all four worlds, a spiral revisiting process is essential to a successful conclusion.

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