Interview with J. Philip Thomas
by Alex B. Crowther
J. Philip Thomas is the creator of the Tarot de Paris
In 1970 did you headed off to Paris with your, shall we say. eclectic artistic flair. What was the catalyst?
Actually, I didn't head off to Paris in 1970. Then again, the chronology of my life is a problem even for me to remember. I left the States in 1970 destined for Australia. Sydney's Theosophical Society was the only source for metaphysical books in those days. I added the Crowley deck to my Rider deck at that time. I still have both of them. As an artist, I regularly exhibited my paintings and also recorded a rock album as a singer-songwriter. But after four years in the land "down under" I gave in to a deep desire to see Asia and flew off to Indonesia. There I was transported into a world of art and magic in Bali and Java. I dived into the culture, learned the language and began my relationship with batik and handloom fabrics. Somehow my spiritual curiosity and passion for textiles called me on to India in 1978. Two years passed unnoticed, as is the case with India, but at least six months of that period found me in Ladakh (Indian Tibet) studying Tibetan thangka painting.
In 1980 I returned to Bali, Indonesia. It was from there that I would embark (a year later) on the trip that inadvertently resulted in the creation of this tarot. The trip was for an exhibition in Geneva and there were no plans whatsoever to go to Paris. That is where my fate stepped in and began to redesign my reality! What took me from Geneve to Paris is another story...
Now it took you 21 years to create the Tarot de Paris and as a result you say your vision of Tarot was expanded. In what way?
Yes, it did take 21 years to create the TDP but for 16 of those years I did not work on it. What happened may be of interest to some readers. From the time of the first vision of the major arcanum it took about 2 years to complete all of the 22 cards. The first book was written by Christine Hardy PhD., a French psychological anthropologist and author of several books on parapsychology and the occult. In 1983, with the images and a book draft in hand, I had a meeting in Paris with the late Monsieur Grimaud, then in his 70's and the head of F.J.Simon/Grimaud Publishing- the publishers of Tarot de Marseilles. He accepted my portfolio and studied the images in silence for a few minutes. Then he said (to the dismay of his rather snooty secretary), "Bah, c'est fantastique," and told the secretary to prepare a contract for me to consider. In those days, if you sold 5,000 decks it was considered a success whereas today the parallel amount would start around 50,000 decks. In any case, I politely refused the contract because the terms were too restrictive and offered no upfront support to proceed with the completion of the minor suits.
Mr. Kaplan thought that the deck was promising but he repeated the need for the deck to include the 56 minor cards. In view of the fact that I had no fixed residence at that moment and received no financial commitment from US Games to complete the work, I had to put the project on hold until life permitted. It is interesting to note that both Grimaud and US Games Systems published antique decks called Tarot de Paris in 1983-84. At that juncture I made a deal with my own Destiny. I said to my self, "Figure out the means whereby I can sit down somewhere and finish this deck and I swear I will stop all other work and do only that."
Somehow sixteen years passed by. all of a sudden it was December, 1999. I was living in Maui, I became a husband and father of two. One day our young dogs ran through the fence and over to a rental cottage of my neighbors. My wife (Japanese) went to get them and instead met a Japanese couple who were staying there. They quickly became friends and came over for dinner the next night. At some point I decided to show them the original images of the deck and after flipping through them they asked me why the deck was never finished. After I briefly moaned about the costs of taking off two years with no income to work on the Tarot they stopped me and made an offer. Apparently they provide funding for one art project every year and without second thoughts they decided the completion of the TDP would be their project for the year 2000. What could I say? I just looked up and thought, "OK, it's on again". From that moment everything dropped into place. I made two trips back to Paris, shot over 3,500 photos and in my studio in Maui produced the new images. The first publisher I contacted offered me a contract and this time I signed it. Altogether the TDP took about 4 years to produce, including the first two years, 1981-83.
At thirty years old I (wrongly) assumed that I had attained some level of adeptness in the art of moving between the realms (a deliberately generic term). However, I was completely unprepared, yet again, for the series of incidents that culminated in the creation of the Tarot de Paris. I feel very fortunate in life and I consider it a privilege to have been instrumental in bringing this work to publication. But something seems to have been shaking my tree for as long as I can remember!
Taking into account that this is an interview and not a biography, I will cut to the chase by saying that my vision of tarot was expanded by the total immersion it required to complete the task I had been handed. My path is continually adjusted by striking incidents that first shock and then teach in proportion to my tenacity to understand their meanings. In my case, these events don't knock before entering nor do they ask for permission to hack into my current beta version of reality. That is how I recognize their truth. I'd like to make it clear that this deck arrived unannounced and unsolicited. I had no preconceived idea to create a Tarot from the buildings and monuments of Paris.
"My highest intentions were to draw fresh parallels between the mystical art/architecture of Paris and its intimate influence on tarot in history while allowing the city to expose its subtle mysteries." What do you mean by this statement? What do you understand Paris' influence over the Tarot to be?
That statement is a recitation of what I learned during the intuitive investigation/creation of this deck. However, the simplicity of the question belies the problem of presenting a satifactory answer; especially when the "influences" I refer to are possibly the most controversial. My views on the cross pollination of Paris and Tarot were formed during the experiential process of physically "walking through the city and the symbols" taking photos for the TDP deck. As improbable as it may sound, the city's veil was lifted before me and I was allowed to briefly glimpse the subliminal forces that have sustained its existence over thousands of years. What I saw was an eternal Paris - a living archetype - fashioned by revolutions of chaos, creativity, and conservatism.
In effect this city offered the perfect nest for the birthing of Esoteric Tarot (ET). ET was gradually unveiled in the late 18th century, in Paris, as the progeny of collective sources of ancient knowledge. Prior to this it had first circulated as a naïve game that became a part of the popular culture before breaking out of its protective shell to reveal a fully embodied tool for the sublimation of the self from the mass. I contend that the Esoteric Tarot (ET) is the product of our collective evolution. I don't sense that one person created it in a flash.
Historical Influences of Paris/Tarot
Rouen and Marseilles were well known for their card making but Paris held the promise of larger distribution and exposure. Thus in the mid 17th century Paris set the stage for the publication of the Vieville and Noblet decks. Their seminal alterations to the Major Trumps (VI and XV) are generally used as decisive markers in the classification of archaic and progressive tarots. In those times, we should remember that Tarots were, apparently, only used as game cards and yet the changes in the Noblet and Vieville decks were esoteric by design. A further curiosity is the fact that neither artisan offered any "proof of origin"? How is it then, lacking a documented pedigree, that those designs were faithfully incorporated into the works of Gébelin and Eteilla and on even into many 19th century decks?
In the Paris of the mid 18th century, the precursors and Philosophes of the French Enlightement (Descartes, Voltaire, and Rousseau) had already established their edicts,"by reason man could be master of all things" and rejected "the whole of ancient and medieval metaphysics". Then, into that cloud of looming revolution a French-speaking, Swiss occultist, named Court de Gébelin, released the first edition of his "Le Monde Primitif " in 1781. In this lengthy work, and in later supplements, he boldly claimed that Tarot was an ancient artifact of Egytian occultism. Once again, not a shred of credible evidence was delivered to substantiate such an important discovery!
Gébelin and a certain Cmt. De Mellet were the first Tarotists (of written record) to produce essays lauding a direct lineage between the Tarot and a legendary book known as The Book of Thoth. De Mellet is credited with having been the first to associate the letters of the Hebrew alphabet with the Major Arcana (I wrongly attributed this act to Levi in my companion book. However, fate seems to have chosen Lévi as the flag bearer.) More importantly, it was the success of Gébelin's Monde Primitif that caught the popular imagination of Parisian society and, in my opinion, the key element of that success was just as potent then as it is now - our collective fascination with all things ancient and Egyptian! What we see here is a very human pattern of expanded interest in a subject that appeals to our intuition even though it is completely unsupported by linear logic and quantitative science. We are truly amazing creatures!
It must be noted that 18th century Paris provided ET with its first access to a sufficiently literate middle class. The Egyptian touch (of Monde Primitif) may have been all that the public could understand or wanted to hear. Even today the most common answer you'll hear to the question of Tarot's origin will be "Egypt". Not many of us have the tenacity or time to investigate the stories we hear on CNN either! Whatever the case, it remains that Gébelin, in the energy field of Paris, was the winning combination that made esoteric Tarot available to anyone with the curiosity to explore it further. In hindsight it appears the readers of Monde Primitiff were unconcerned whether Court de Gébelin produced any hard evidence or not. In fact, the last time I checked, Tarot was not and has never been an empirical science. If history can be the judge, the importance of his zealous proclamations would be measured by the fact that he lifted the darkness from the Tarot by adding just the right spark of imagination. In effect he pulled the "Egyptian" rabbit out of the hat and its been running around ever since.
Following and extending the work of Court de Gébelin were four other influential esoteric authors, either born in or based in Paris:
Jean-Baptiste Alliette, aka Etteilla, born in Paris in 1738. He may be rightly described as the pioneer of Tarotists for publishing the first Tarot deck that was specifically designed for esoteric use and the first known book on Tarot as an oracle. His contemplations on the divinatory interactions of Astrology, the Elements and Tarot were inspiring and he spoke authoritatively of an Egyptian link between the Tarot and Thoth, though never offering any tangible evidence. His influence on the meanings assigned to many of the cards in the Rider-Waite-Smith deck are self evident
Alphonse-Louis Constant, better known as Éliphas Lévi, was born in Paris in 1810. Lévi was charismatic personality who reintroduced the role of the Magus and wrote a new script for modern magic. He also catalyzed a movement to integrate Tarot with Cabala and the Four Elements. Lévi recognized the Twenty-two Cipher as a universal code.
Paul Christian (Jean Baptiste Pitois) was a Parisian author who studied with Lévi and proposed that the 22 Major Arcana originated as hieroglyphic paintings on columns in ancient Egyptian. He also sought parallels between the Tarot and Qabbalistic astrology.
Papus (Gerard Encausse, 1865-1916), a French doctor, philosopher, and Theosophist, is perhaps best known for his book 'The Tarot of the Bohemians'. His "Tarot creation theory" also pointed to Egypt and included the belief that Tarot cards were also made there. Papus investigated links between Pythagorean numerology, the Tree of Life, Tarot, and the Tetragrammaton.
French Freemasonry, via the political positions of its brethren, carried out massive redevelopment plans which sculpted elegant buildings, broad avenues, and parks out of the medieval maze of congested streets. Perhaps the greatest symbol of the Masonic Craft is the Arc de Triomphe de l'Etoile (the Star) poised on the crest of the avenue Champs-Elysees (meaning Fields of Heaven). Thoth could easily be dubbed the patron deity of Paris, if only by the mass of hermetic symbolism found on the monuments, museums, and other public buildings! You will also find many familiar Tarot icons on the cathedrals, pavilions, and colonnades. An example is the "crowned sword" of the Ace of Swords (Air) (seen in the TDP and in the RWS decks). This exists as a large Napoleonic bas- relief, flanking the entrance of the Musee du Louvre on the Rue de Rivoli. And of course, there are saints, popes, archangels, nymphs, muses, caryatids, fairies, heroes, queens and kings everywhere! To some extent he same may be said for Florence or London for that matter. However, the picture I'm painting includes city's history, its location on a grid, its monuments and architectural renderings, as one archetypal package. Much more can be said.
I find it fascinating that the Esoteric Tarot chose to make its public debut in Paris after the rational cleansing of the French Enlightenment, just after the establishment of the New America, and just before the chaos of the French Revolution.
Etymological Influences of Paris / Tarot
The avenue Champs-Elysees is also known as the "Royal Axis". This bears a striking resemblance to the Egyptian word tarosh, variously translated as the royal way. If we investigate further, this Tarosh, or Royal Axis of Paris, is crowned by one of the most famous monuments in the world, the Arc de Triomphe. Here we find a direct link between the tarot (French) and the earlier words for the game, triomphs (Latin) and trionfi (Italian). The purpose for the construction of the Arc de Triomphe was to glorify the triumphs of Napoleon's armies as they paraded down the Champs-Elysees. By highlighting the words triumph and parade I am reminded of the poems "I Trionfi," The Triumphs, by Francesco Petrarch, an Italian scholar 14th century. Also the research of Gertrude Moakley would seem to support the association of tarot symbolism with the idea of archetypal triumphs in an allegorical parade. Ahhh, the arrays of collective coincidence are truly thought provoking.
Geomantic Influences of Tarot /Paris
As I mentioned earlier, but did not explain, the most controversial "influence" Paris may have had on the esoteric Tarot is actually a composite effect. My assumption of influence is based on; the grid location of the city on a navigable line leading to the claimed origin of Tarot and the existence of a current of mind/memory that flows along a great circle route. There is ample "evidence" to suggest that the ebb and flow of collective mind/memory moving along an elliptic line from (Egypt to Paris) was implicit in the materialization of Esoteric Tarot at the end of the 18th century.
This Royal Axis or Triumphal Way is 8.5km long with the Glass Pyramid of the Louvre on the southeastern node and the Grande Arche on the northwestern node. The avenue we see today was created in several stages over the course of about 400 years. It was originally surveyed as a straight road, specific to the needs of Paris and therefore would have raised no concerns of where it might lead beyond the perimeters of the city. Given that the golden rod of Freemasonry is Hermetic knowledge and therefore Egyptian, how is possible that this connection between Paris and Egypt has only come to light in the 21st century?
But is it so difficult to allow that thought moves let alone flows like a charged current, within a charged field or along an axis? C.W. Leadbeater, Theosophist and Freemason spoke of a "common mystery-bond running through otherwise disparate cultures". Joseph C. Pierce explains in his recent book, The Biology of Transcendence, that "Fields as artifacts of memory or repositories of experience become sources of potential, creations of thought by which we explain our creations to ourselves, or dream up new ones". Biologists and even physicists are wrestling with the same reults in their respective arenas of discovery. These and other bewildering ideas will be subject my next book and supported by a documentary film. For now I will list only a few of the congruencies and ask that the readers excuse the gaps. Without the aid of maps and diagrams, I too find this concept rather daunting!
A) Starting from Egypt and moving in the direction of Paris we can see that the circle line passes through Crete, Greece and Italy to France. This is contiguous with the early evolution of Western Civilization i.e., the Hebrew/Roman alphabet, democracy, geometry, and philosophy from Pythagoras to Plato, etc. Then travelling NNE out of Paris it passes through Great Britain and continues on to the USA. This is significant as it connects the only Pyramids in North America (Cahokia, Missouri) and the Gateway Arch on a line with Giza and the Arc de Triomphe. To date I have found 3 of these Great Circle routes, each with its own unique story to tell. The many coincidental facts and points of interest along the way can not be included here.
B) Pertaining to Tarot, the circle runs right through Florence, Bologna, and Milano, all of which were important card making centers in the early 1400's.
C) As the line exits Paris (NNW) it passes exactly through Rouen where a card maker named Pierre Marechal is purported to have designed the first models of the French court cards.
D) As a walkable line between Paris and Egypt, I believe this comes closer to presenting "hard evidence" than any ever offered. The current of the line also seems to change direction in history as in the Crusades and when Napoleon returned along this line to conquer Egypt from the Mamluks - thought to be the couriers of the first Arabic cards into Spain and Italy. The Rosetta stone was discovered on this line. The city of Alexandria, rumored to be the last known location of the mythical Book of Thoth is also connected here. And there's more...
E) This discovery represents the flow of mind - through time - along a line. It is a "mindstream" showing that our unconscious similarities are far greater than our conscious disparities. No alien assistance is implied. What I'm exploring are just the visible effects of a long term unconscious process that has been shaped by thousands of years of relatively short term conscious efforts. Imagine that while we are penciling in our intentional goals over the course of a single lifetime we may also be adding brushstrokes to a much " picture" over the longer course of time.
The vision which occurred that early morning in Paris was linked to similar events in other places. What were these similar events and when did you realize there was a link?
The companion book (included in the kit) does not begin at the beginning. Rather it begins at a point of convenience (I hoped) where the reader might be able to directly associate Paris with the impact of my initial vision of the Major Arcanum of Tarot de Paris. The connections to previous events were immediate. Telling the stories of those events, in this context, only weakens their field and would be of no use to anyone else on their path. Maybe on a starry night with a bottle of distilled spirits I might answer differently! But I will say that two of those events were encounters of the extraordinary kind, they were witnessed by others, they served to confirm that my conscious mind's version of reality is very thin, and they proved to me that seemingly different dimensions of time and space occasionally overlap. When that happens to you, X-Files pales by comparison!
There are parallels with the Tarot De Paris and the Thoth Tarot (eg: your card I Initiation with Thoth Magus). Was the Thoth deck influential to you at the beginning of your studies?
Crowley, the being, was more interesting to me than the deck. At least he took his magick out into the world and tested it. That took more guts than I found in reading the works of most other secret society members. If considering a Crowley influence it would be his personal intensity to explore all realms. However, at some point I had to put his books down and ask myself what he realized as a person? Did he bring more light into the world, did he work off some crusty karma, did he ever let love overule his mind? In his obsessive genius, I felt a great deal of pain. The ALCHEMY (XIV) card in the TDP was conceived from a phrase I remembered in one of Crowley's books. The phrase was something about "piercing the rainbow" but I have no idea in which of his works I had read it. In my life I have purchased only 2 decks - Thoth and RWS and those were acquired 25 to 30 years ago. I was also given a Dali deck when it was first released and keep it as an art piece.
Why did you chose to rename the cards in the Major Arcana and how did you come to these new titles?
I became frustrated with making excuses (in readings) for the titles of the Death card and the Hanged Man! The titles I used in the TDP were decided after the images were completed and therefore I chose to let the image influence the title. The major arcanum were perceived in one flash (without titles) as I described in the book. The biggest problem was to decipher what went where in the final illustrations. I p titles that were open ended rather than fixed.
Unlike the Thoth deck, your deck does not have any keywords on the Minor cards. Why?
The Thoth deck is a bit busy for my taste. In the TDP I wanted more space for the viewer to take off into their own vision realms. Having said that I'm sure that the Thoth cards we see today contain only a fraction of what Crowley would have liked to cram into them! I'm sure that he drove Freida Harris to the brink in the course of creating the deck. She probably served as a needed buffer between his beast and his desire for artistic expression. Still I wonder what would have manifested had he been able to paint them himself. Thus, the cards we have are in fact translated through someone else's eyes and hands, and they are beautiful in their own right. But what Crowley missed in his own deck was the artist's magick that sometimes happens when the art takes off on its own and leaves both the writer and the artist behind.
There is a definitive RiderWaite/Thoth influence in your interpretation of the Tarot. How do you understand the Golden Dawn's influence within the Tarot society?
Their influence on ET was tremendous. In the shift from Paris to London a new convergence took place. Of course there were ego battles and competition within the group but overall I think their existence produced a more eloquent Tarot system.
Do you use the Tarot in your everyday life and if so how?
Yes, I see everything as symbols; subtle and dramatic, in patterns and as portraits. I use Tarot to get a second opinion on internal arguments and I sometimes do readings for others. I don't always need the actual cards to do this. In fact I tend to see pictures throughout the day framed and titled and very often they are titles that are not included in traditional tarot. Every system has its limitations and beyond that begins the realm of intuition.
What do you hope readers will gain from your deck?
Possibly they will find that this deck still retains of the mystery of the first moment I invisioned it. Definitely, this deck is something that crossed over the threshold. Hopefully it will give the user a static free connection.
Do you have any advice for people who are still thinking about living out their personal goals?
First stop thinking about it. Ooops. You see, in that last
second the meaning of life just whizzed right by while you were busy with
© Alex B. Crowther