The Underground Stream: Esoteric Tarot Revealed

The Underground Stream: Esoteric Tarot Revealed looks at the Golden Dawn and Continental attributions alongside their origins and derivatives, and speculates on the early occult history of the Tarot.

By Christine Payne-Towler

Book - 155 pages - Published by Noreah Press

Review by Scion

Right off the bat, I have a disclaimer: I love bold speculation; I entered this book with real hopes and a willing eye.

In brief, there's great stuff in The Underground Stream by Christine Payne-Towler. There's also great silliness in here and great, gruesome gaping holes in logic. Ratios between all of the above vary wildly from section to section, from chapter to chapter.

I'm always excited by a book that goes behind keywords and spread samples. I was thrilled to find a book that took on the task of examining the "Esoteric Tarot" at its roots. Finally, a book which looks at the Golden Dawn and Continental attributions alongside their origins and derivatives, making some sense of the differences, subtle and otherwise. To her credit, Payne-Towler has collated information and simplified comparisons in ways that I've been dying to see. Her use of charts and illustrations to make these points is clear and illuminating. She has obviously spent an enormous amount of time poring over multiple versions of every card from early decks, and her observations about the divergences are terrific. So too, Payne-Towler is a passionate advocate of Levi's attributions, and in the general tide of modern GD popularity, Levi does tend to be overlooked. Less fortunately, having decided to defend Levi, she takes him fully at face value, accepting his every claim as fact and repeating his freeform theorizing as hermetic gospel.

Again on the plus side, Payne-Towler has also identified some meaty theoretical threads that may have fed into the development of Tarot, and she has read some people who know this material well. She presents several intriguing ideas about the possibility of an early occult Tarot that has at least a whiff of possibility. No small feat. This book has the makings of something both exciting and exceptional, but her enthusiasm is more convincing than her scholarship. The trouble in navigating this Underground Stream begins when she shifts from identifying possibility towards "proving" a pet theory by twisting facts to arrive at her desired result.

At the root of the book is Payne-Towler's belief that every Mystery tradition was fundamentally connected to every other Mystery in an "underground stream" that protected hermetic wisdom from the Catholic Church. Unfortunately for her thesis, Christianity borrowed relentlessly from its fellow Mysteries as well. Often her arguments only work in retrospect: she seems to think that the monolithic power of the Catholic Church drove all hermetic thinkers, mystery cults, and radical heretics to band together. The Catholic Church did not become a monolithic institution for many centuries, and the divisions between these institutions and schools of thought were not merely cosmetic. Unfortunately, Gnosticism does not equal Mithraism does not equal Alchemy does not equal Neoplatonism does not equal Ceremonial Magick does not equal Paganism. Obviously there are overlaps, but the attempt to boil them down to a single coherent worldview of a band of beleaguered Illuminati struggling against 'those mean Catholics' is both silly and doomed.

Ironically, I'm a perfect audience for even her most bizarre leaps: I have an abiding faith in the freakiness of history and passionate belief in conspiracies. Why not? The Mysteries were real and overlapped and a few of them are still mysterious to this day. Most of the surviving magical grimoires were penned by and for the Catholic clergy. Gnosticism almost beat Pauline Christianity for control of the Church. There are strains of polytheism detectable in the Pentateuch. Magicians did not live in a vacuum... they traded secrets and read each other's work. I do believe that Decker and Dummett were too cautious; Tarot does seem to draw on something occult. The trouble here is that not only is Payne-Towler convinced she's sharing the "truth," she has decided to convince readers with "academic" evidence she's collated, which is where she gets into trouble. What we're left with is a book written with enthusiasm, imagination and squishy scholarship reminiscent of a continuing ed class taught by an eager amateur lecturer.

Payne-Towler's history and theory are the weakness of the book, and in a book which is presented primarily as history and theory, this concern becomes overwhelming. My main complaint is that she sets out with a far-fetched theory to prove and an axe to grind and then deliberately skews and selects "evidence" to accomplish same. I actually loved her rampant speculation, but I loathed being repeatedly "tricked" into assuming claims were fact with faulty logic, uncited research, and sometimes outright deception. She is adamantly uncritical of sources, and willing to reference any author in print anywhere who supports her theory, often ignoring contradictory opinions from more respected authors. The thing is, I didn't mind that she couldn't prove her wackier claims, but I minded greatly that she kept trying to fool her readers into thinking they were both provable and proven.

Like many New Age armchair scholars, Payne-Towler is quick to buy into the fight-the-patriarchy, all-religions-are-one, any-nude-woman-is-a-goddess cliches enshrined in the past 20 years in the aftermath of postmodernism, the occult boom, and the pop psychology revolution. Like many New Age authors, she is quick to quote other speculative, uncritical texts which reference only other New Age texts in a kind of Aquarian Age vacuum. She seems unaware that the traditions she references have undergone a lot of recent scholarship, though not generally repackaged as mass market nonfiction. These gaps in critical research are indicative of her willingness to plunk facts next to fabrication devoid of context or discernment.

Alice in Wonderland logic rules throughout this book: verdict first, evidence after. In a sense, I wish that Payne-Towler had presented her bias(es) as an uncritical belief rather than a theory, and then catalogued the interesting resonances between her Tarot worldview and the evidence/suppositions as they stand. In fact, she does admit her biases, but usually tangentially and after she's presented reams of suppositions as accepted truth. Rather than trace the heretical threads of thought that might have become embedded in the deck (a la O'Neill's delightful Tarot Symbolism), Payne-Towler takes the ill-advised path of proving a conspiracy by explaining that the evidence is absent because "they" have destroyed it categorically over the centuries. Cum hoc ergo propter hoc. Her proof is that no proof survives.

Over and over, she tells us that the Church banned Tarot because of heretical content, knowing that the documented bans referenced the cards' use in gambling. Over and over we hear about the church suppressing secret hermetic societies, the Inquisition's war on Renaissance Magi... and her explanation for the absence of proof is that the Church has destroyed it categorically for centuries. What I find unsettling is that because I know her (uncited) references, I also know that she's deflecting reader attention from historical facts: the suppression of gambling was not connected to the suppression of magic. That's not an oversight, that's deliberate dishonesty.

It did seem that much of the book's smoke and mirrors is intentional... Making no distinction between modern New Age theory and primary sources, she presents modern reinvention alongside historical detail as if they equally irrefutable. In her section on the history of the Majors, Payne-Towler pointedly identifies Trumps by post-Occultist titles (Hierophant (sic), Magus/Magician) without pointing out that these occult renamings date from the 19th century. Quotation of New Age authors is interwoven with Victorian occult theory and Renaissance scholarship with equal weight, as if all of the facts presented were popularly accepted and interdependent. She claims that Pythagoras studied Kabbalah and that his philosophy explicitly based upon it. What she doesn't mention is that she probably gleaned these tenuous speculations from Secret Doctrine of the Kabbalah by Leonora Leet, an author somewhat more scrupulous in her claims. Repeatedly, she references and presents images from recent decks alongside Marseille to prove esoteric content in Tarot's history, as if the Ibis Tarot of 1989 were an ancient historical document because it is based on Paul Christian's demonstrably fraudulent claims in his 1870 History and Practice of Magic. In fact, she "identifies" a school of "Hermetic/Alexandrian Tarots" based on Christian's famously plagiarized, fictional Trumps-as-Initiation ceremony, as if modern decks based on old hoax were proof that the hoax had tapped a hidden stream of Gnosis. Post hoc ergo propter hoc.

Payne-Towler is occasionally candid about her fierce preconceptions, and the strange assumptions she makes. She is not as candid about her shaky references and inability to distinguish between substantive research and lurid speculation, whether from credulity, sloppiness, or wishful thinking. She is openly excited by discoveries she's made in the "scholarly Tomes printed in the last 30 years", but the titles she mentions give a clear indication of the Underground Stream's uncontextualized schizophrenia. To reference Margaret Starbird alongside legendary scholar Morton Smith is bizarre, but to mention Scholem's Kaballah in the same paragraph as Holy Blood, Holy Grail is depressing.

Dan Brown's bank balance aside, doesn't everyone know that Holy Blood, Holy Grail and the Magdalene=Grail, Priory of Sion mishmosh plagiarized in DaVinci Code was based on a series of calculated forgeries? The perpetrators confessed and were pilloried in the European (and then global) press. After reading Underground Stream, a quick google informed me that Payne-Towler has wisely "cooled off" somewhat on the Holy Blood, Holy Grail material and is aware of the fraud. But even in the vacuum of evidence or credibility, she stands firm in her 8 year old arguments.

Comparisons can be cruel, and this is where I think Payne-Towler measures very poorly against other modern Tarot historians and theoreticians. In a sense she has written a book from another time, very much in keeping with Levi's shameless, anti-scholastic invention of "ancient traditions" and the convenient, absent secret chiefs behind the Golden Dawn's Cypher Manuscript. Sadly, her ideas are not original enough, and her writing not skilled enough to make her points clearly and honestly, so that the reader can participate in her logic.

On a minor note, typos are rampant throughout, and there is a repeated reference to texts "on this CD-Rom" which lets me know she's recycled essays written for a computer project and no one bothered to proof the pages. By degrees, all of this begins to chip away at even the more solid points.

There are some wonderful ideas batted about casually in the Underground Stream, but they float in an unstrained stew of supposition, assertion, and murky references that left me feeling bamboozled. I can just detect the outline of a spectacular 30 page article entombed within 150 pages of sweeping generalizations, logical disconnects, and New Age pandering. I was left with a sense of the wasted opportunity.

All this being said, I would recommend this book to certain readers as wildly speculative theorizing by someone with little academic or rhetorical skill. And my recommendation carries a caveat: the only way to get at the meat of Payne-Towler's book is to have read all of her sources so that you can discern and discard material that she misrepresents, misappropriates, or simply misunderstands. The critical reader would be well-advised to start at the bibliography, read every one of her cited sources and related recent research, and only then flip back to page one. The problem is that the experience I'm describing isn't a book, it's a research project in itself. Payne-Towler presents some terrific thoughts and fascinating theory in her Underground Stream that are well worth considering. Trouble is, the book that articulates and explores them properly hasn't actually been written.

"Scion" is the Aeclectic handle of an award-winning playwright who has been working with Tarot since he was 13 and in commercial theatre since he was 8. His degree in Religion/Philosophy from Columbia included work towards a Masters before he came to his senses and entered the loving, respectful, wildly remunerative world of the professional writer. Recently, he's drunk the KoolAid and begun working for film and TV producers. He also teaches classes in Playwriting and Magick (no, really) at a private school for gifted kids in NYC.

Review by Bonnie Cehovet

I don't know why it took me so long to bring this book into my life. It has been on my "wish list" since I heard about it, so there really is no excuse! I have always been drawn to the esoteric side of Tarot, which is one of the reasons that I was drawn to this book. Another reason was the high level of respect for this author within the Tarot community ... shown even by those that may disagree with her conclusions.

"The Underground Stream" delves into the areas of ancient astrology, Hebrew Kabbalah, Alexandrian Hermeticism, Renaissance Magism, and the history of European Secret Societies to show the foundation for the esoteric structure underlying the Tarot. The wisdom presented here began as articles written for the Internet site, and if I have a quibble at all with this book, it is that it reads to a large extent as a series of articles, rather than as a cohesive volume.

The task of this book is gigantic ... to present disparate threads of information in a way that the similarities and differences can be easily seen and understood. To this end, exceptional use has been made of charts and illustrations, such as those for the Kabbalah (including associations with the human body); Major Arcana associations with numerology, geometry, the sephiroth, and astrology; correspondences amongst the Continental Tarots; Levi and the Continental Scholars Universe in Tarot; Maxwell's Marseille Universe and more.

There is extensive use of scans from older Tarot decks, noting the difference between decks and how certain lines of Tarot evolved. It is important here to remember that Payne-Towler is an ordained Bishop in the Gnostic Church, and that she brings that Christian background to her work. The reason that I make this note is that an emphasis is placed in this work on the Tarot being persecuted and driven underground by the Catholic Church, correlating with its teachings being preserved by various secret societies. Payne-Towler makes an interesting statement that I would very much agree with, and that is that the Tarot can be used as flash cards carrying esoteric wisdom.

She states in her introduction that she believes that there is no one true, authentic Tarot, but that there are many streams, lineage's, and traditions. Every effort has been made to place the decks within their own scope of time, reflecting the culture and politics that surrounded them. In doing so, we learn about the people involved, and their thought processes. She offers her book in homage to those philosophers who have protected and preserved the sacred knowledge of numbers, geometry, sound, astrology, alchemy, and ritual technology. A theme that is reflected throughout this book in the use of the terminology "astro-alphanumeric", reflecting associations of astrology, letters, and numerology, where "a sounded letter to also stand for a number and also refer to a planet or a sign, all at the same time".

The book has been divided into four parts: Part I gives an overview of the ideas to be presented, including basic Tarot history and criteria for inclusion as an esoteric Tarot deck, along with an article by Lewis Keizer, PhD., on the esoteric origins of the Tarot.

Part II references the Major and Minor Arcana. The presentation on the Major Arcana includes a discussion of the imagery from several different decks, along with the astro-alphanumeric correspondences. The presentation on the Minor Arcana is less in depth, but includes a discussion of the elements, the symbolism of each suit, astrology, geometry, Kabbalah, and numerology.

Part III deals with various esoteric movements that have impacted the Tarot, including a look at each of the cards in the "Gran Tarot Esoterica", the Spanish and English Schools, Mary Magdelene, the Alexandrian Stream, Gnostic concepts and the Tarot, Iconographers of the middle ages (including a nicely done timeline), the Christian Caballah, the Continental Tarots, and the confluence of the three great systems.

Part IV deals with how the reader can personally apply the information within this book, and literally why they need to find a system that works for them, and study any deck that they use to make sure that it reflects their belief system for esoteric associations.

In some ways, this book is a stream of consciousness writing coming from long periods of research and personal application. Multiple systems a correspondence are presented between astrology, the Greek alphabet, the Hermetic Kabbalah, and Tarot. Some might take issue with Payne-Towler's version of Tarot history, but I see it as something significant enough to take into consideration. (Perhaps you need to know here that I give credence to the place of Mary Magdelene as presented in Margaret Starbird's work, as does Payne-Towler.) I also appreciated her defense of Levi, and where his influences may have come from. Where she cannot present a large amount of supporting evidence for her theories, she will say so. This does not make her wrong, or necessarily far out on the proverbial limb, it simply means that she has yet to come across needed evidence.

There is a great deal to think about in this book, and enough names, places, and dates that the reader can begin their own research. There is also an inclusive bibliography with this book, as well as a reference index. Eight years after the publication of this book, I find its topics to be still relevant. I loved the personal asides, and the recognition given throughout to such Tarot luminaries as Mary Greer and Stuart Kaplan. This is a book of and for our times. If you disagree with part ... or even all ... of this work, at the least, it has made you think!

© Bonnie Cehovet

Bonnie Cehovet is Certified Tarot Grand Master, a professional Tarot reader with over ten years experience, a Reiki Master/Teacher and a writer. Bonnie has served in various capacities with the American Tarot Association, is co-founder of the World Tarot Network, and Vice President (as well as Director of Certification) for the American Board For Tarot Certification. She has had articles appear in the 2004 and 2005 Llewellyn Tarot Reader.

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