Tarot of the Holy Light: A Continental Esoteric Tarot (Noreah/Brownfield Press, June 2015) is a book that started ten years ago, and so when I talk about the long-awaited arrival of this book, I’m not kidding. It is the first volume of companion text to the Tarot of the Holy Light tarot deck by Christine Payne-Towler and Michael Dowers, which I’ve reviewed on this site before.
Volume two, forthcoming, will be Foundations of the Esoteric Tradition. The two volumes together function as left and right hemispheres of the same mind. This book review will only be of volume one, Tarot of the Holy Light (“THL Companion Book”)
The THL Companion Book is self-published by Christine Payne-Towler and Michael Dowers under their publishing entity, Noreah/Brownfield Press. The book is soft-cover and perfect bound, and at 492-pages, is full of meat. I love the unique dimension, too, at 5″ x 7″, which makes it an incredibly compact text to throw into your handbag.
The cover art is by Patrick Dowers, who also designed the box for the Tarot of the Holy Light deck (“THL Deck”). It is based on “The Maze” (2011) a work of art by Patrick Dowers. Dowers, or at least this Dowers isn’t the Dowers who illustrated the THL Deck, however.
The Deck itself is illustrated by Michael Dowers. Definitely be sure to check out the deck review.
If you have the THL Deck, then it goes without saying that you’ll find the THL Companion Book indispensable, but I am here to convince you that you need this book even if you don’t have that deck. Payne-Towler’s book is keyed to the continental esoteric tarot, a term she defines both in the book and in her previous publication, The Underground Stream: Esoteric Tarot Revealed (Noreah Press, June 1999).
While continental esoteric tarots are distinct from the broader descriptive category of Tarot de Marseille decks, I would consider continental esoteric tarots a sub-category under the Marseille decks. If you’re a Marseille reader, you’re going to find this book to resonate with you. Most of you know that I’m an RWS reader, and yet I find that I glean a lot of my evolving understanding of the card meanings from Payne-Towler’s interpretive approach and especially to the THL Companion Book.
If you want to know where someone like me turns to for card meanings, it’s this book.
Merely reading the THL Companion Book, and mind you this is reading it after I’ve come out with Holistic Tarot, has dramatically evolved how I look at and interpret the cards. Yes, even the RWS cards, not just the THL Deck or Marseille/Continental decks in general.
The table of contents is deceptively simple because you look at that and think, oh, this is going to be an easy book to digest. Nope. You would be wrong on that count. This book is dense and requires slow reading, rereading passages, and then altogether stopping, putting the book down, thinking, and writing down thoughts before returning to the read.
Payne-Towler refers to the tarot (she capitalizes Tarot throughout; please permit me to keep it lowercase) as the “premier magical calculator of the Renaissance” and an “esoteric computer,” which implies a fundamental belief in the science of the occult traditions. That belief is very much in line with my personal philosophies. What’s more, Payne-Towler brings that occult tradition to the THL Companion Book in a way that both exemplifies the timelessness of the esoteric tarot tradition and fuels modern day curiosities (see, e.g., “This volume has been written to conform to the most popular application of 21st century Tarot culture.”).
As she notes, her correspondences can be applied to any Marseille deck, and so here we have one of the best books out there right now for Marseille readers, especially those with esoteric leanings. I know so many of you gripe about not having enough Marseille-keyed texts. Well here’s one for you.
You’ll see that Payne-Towler and thus the THL Deck is heavily influenced by Etteilla, Levi, and Papus, among others. What the THL Companion Book does expertly that I haven’t seen any other contemporary tarot text do quite as well is address the esoteric and magical interior architecture of tarot, and while it is specific to the Marseille or continental decks, there is much to learn here for RWS and Thoth readers as well.
Every aspect of the text has been artfully curated, from the ornate frontispiece and the detailed watermarks in the front matter right down to the font, which is based on the font used in the 1499 text, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, one of the earliest examples of incunabula, or Western printing. The formatting and layout design is competitive with what any of the major publishers might produce today.
The text begins with the Minor Arcana, which immediately sets it apart from most tarot texts. She describes the Minors as a “giant chessboard of gradient values that fluctuate through the esoteric arts like recombinant DNA.” You’ll see throughout the chapters on the Minor suits that Payne-Towler takes great pains to describe the structure and layers of esotericism in the cards.
Chapter 1 will take a lifetime to get through. It contains a series of essays on the history of esoteric tarot and tarot as applied to the occult arts. Of great interest to me were the essays on number theology in the pips and superimposing a 360 degree wheel subdivided into quadrants onto the linear pip concept of 10. Payne-Towler devotes introductory pages to explaining number theology because she asserts that the numbers anchor the meanings of the cards. “Long ago I decided, alongside the Continental master Papus, that a card’s number is the source of its primary meaning.” The author correlates the theory with the Creation myth in the Sephir Yetzirahi, “which recites the very first Devine Act of Creation, the first ten ‘paths,’ are actually the numbers One to Ten ranged top to bottom as an overflowing emanation of Sephirot corresponding to the visible planets of the Solar System.”
While Payne-Towler never comes outright to take a stance on reading with reversals or not, an informative essay in Chapter 1 does suggest a leaning toward reading with reversals. Case in point:
- “Reversed cards offer an excellent opportunity for the practitioner to stretch his or her intuition and unpack hidden layers of influence.”
- “There are reasons for every manifestation, including when cards come out reversed in your spreads. Don’t neglect these indicators, but instead become curious about them.”
- “Reversed cards offer the chance to think beyond the clichés, and touch into the mysteries of divination.”
- “Challenge your intuition to use reversals to unveil essential realizations that are needed to restore balance and perspective.”
- “Users who have learned how to integrate reversals into their reading style effectively double the horsepower of their deck.”
One dimension of tarot that I am wholly unfamiliar with and am now fascinated by is the use of tarot to petition angels as our allies during difficult times. Payne-Towler sees the pips as being associated with the angels, at least since the time of Etteilla. These angels are like doorways, giving us access to help and guidance when we call upon them.
There are 72 Shemhamphoras (Shem) angels inhabiting the ten sephiroth and for the Aces through Nines (9) of the four Minor suits (9 x 4 = 36), each card is associated with an angel upright (an angelic dignity), and a different angelic dignity when the card appears in reverse (36 x 2 = 72). A helpful reference in the text would have been an index or glossary of the 72 Shem angels and their powers, but I didn’t find one in the Appendix section (though there is a basic graph in Appendix 6, “Graph of the Shem Angels,” which only provides the angelic names and decans). I’m hoping it might appear in volume two, Foundations.
In the Eight of Swords, to give an example, the angelic dignity associated with the card when upright is Nanael. Through the Eight of Swords, the gateway to Nanael, a practitioner can invoke the assistance needed to dispel melancholy or depression. Nanael is also associated with the high sciences, innovation, and intellect. In reverse, the Eight of Swords ill-dignified is associated with invoking the angel Nithael, for God’s mercy, and associated with emperors, kings, and princes. (Source link here.) Conceivably, the tarot deck can also operate as an angel oracle deck.
Payne-Towler’s approach to esoteric tarot card interpretation diverges from what RWS readers may be used to, but I’ve found these entries to be incredibly insightful, deepening my knowledge of each card. Seeing the Eight of Swords as having to take up the gauntlet adds a new dimension to my RWS-based reading. Marseille readers, meanwhile, will be delighted.
For the Minors, Payne-Towler devotes a generous amount of time to each card, about 600 to 750 words per entry, which is far more than typical texts on the Minor Arcana. Compare the book above to its corresponding entry in the little white booklet that came with the THL Deck.
Also for each card, a full page grayscale illustration is provided in the book. I’ve found this helpful in examining the card images in greater detail. Details I missed when looking at the regular cards in my hand are now seen in the magnified version in the book. I heard that the digital e-book version of the book is in full color, which would be even more helpful for the practitioner who wishes to study the details of each card close-up.
Many of us are used to associating each court card with the three zodiac signs of the corresponding suit element. So, for instance, the Knight of Wands (and also the Page, Queen, and King of Wands) would be associated with the Fire signs, Aries, Leo, and Sagittarius. In the THL Deck, however, the Knight of Wands is associated with Sagittarius only. An appendix in the book offers the Minor Arcana astrological and Kabbalistic values to show the architecture of Payne-Towler’s associations.
The card meanings still resonate very strongly with RWS sensibilities, however. Here in the Knight of Wands, we have the theme of “embarking,” someone who is progressive, who takes risks, someone ready and fearless about facing adversaries. I really like the allusion to kamikaze pilots here when talking about the Knight of Wands energy.
This book devotes a balanced focus to both card meanings upright and reverse. The Knight of Wands in reverse shows self-righteousness, indignation, a highly temperamental disposition, and even irrationalism. When the Knight of Wands appears in reverse, you have a good and valid point to get across to others, but your self-righteousness, indignation, and hyper-defensiveness prevents those points from being made well.
Chapter 6, the Major Arcana, is framed by the three septenaries. Significant word count is devoted to each Major Arcanum. At the top of each entry, for quick reference, there are the Kabbalistic associations. A full page image of each card is again provided as it was in the Minors. I would have liked to see a separate section for these entries–and this also applies to the Minors–that contained a description of the card image. The THL Deck is unique and rich with symbolism. While it isn’t necessary per se, since the practitioner can attune directly to these cards, it would have been intellectually intriguing to see what the deck creators’ intentions were in constructing each card.
Here in the THL Deck, the Magus is given a mountebank or trickster persona, which differs from contemporary associations with the Magician. Most of us might associate the trickster with the Fool, not the Magus, though here Payne-Towler has convincingly explained the mountebank association in the Magus.
The Chariot card entry is another great example of how an RWS or Thoth reader can deepen her understanding of each card with this book. Reading the entry for The Chariot, much of it will be familiar, the principle of perpetual motion, a vehicle responding to consciousness. In the THL Deck, the charioteer is female, and her armor represents the left hemisphere of our brain, the rational mind. Payne-Towler explains her reasoning for the feminine figure and takes us through fascinating historic references.
After The Chariot, we have an essay on the first septenary. Each of the three septenaries begins with an introduction and ends with a summary.
For an example from the second septenary, I’m using the Wheel of Fortune to illustrate the dimensions of this book. A quick overview of the history of how the Wheel of Fortune card has been depicted is given. With all of these entries, as it is here in Key 10, the card meaning can be read in layers. At the epidermis, the text lets us read the Wheel of Fortune as indicating the cyclical, routine nature of mundane life and feeling no relief from the routine.
It is read very much through the philosophies of the sixth house in Western astrology and the zodiac sign Virgo. You’ll note that at the top of the Wheel of Fortune entry, we see Payne-Towler’s association of Virgo with Key 10, and not the more popularized association with Jupiter. Payne-Towler’s associations are derived from the earlier esoteric sources, such as the Sephir Yetzirah and the Hermetic texts of the Old Alexandrian school.
One layer further, the text informs us of the Wheel’s representation of fate, but how fate is reliant upon accident, chance, and synchronicities. Yet another layer down, still reading from the same text, we come to understand the Wheel of Fortune as the wheel of space-time. The existential individual life is one cycle, one routine, with all lives turning in their separate cycles, comprising of a greater existential cycle. Key 10: Wheel of Fortune is an expression that reality is round, depicting the spiritual entrapment we feel from the karma of the material world.
All that and more you will get from reading a mere three pages from this book. That is why even if you are one who normally reads 3 pages in 3 minutes, you will have little choice but to slow down and read 3 of Payne-Towler’s pages in 30.
Moving on to the third and final septenary, tarot practitioners who are more familiar with the English systems, using Payne-Towler’s terminology, e.g., the RWS or Thoth, might associate Key 15: The Devil with Capricorn, rulership Saturn. In the THL Deck, The Devil is Sagittarius, following the tradition of the Sephir Yetzirah and the correspondences of Etteilla, Levi, Wirth, and Papus. The rationale for Payne-Towler’s correspondences are explained in great detail and fully outlined in both the text throughout the book and in very easy to understand tables in the appendices.
As it is in the continental tarots or Marseille tradition, The Fool comes last, at the end of the Majors section. Then comes the Appendix, which zooms back out after devoting great concentration to the depths of each card, to give the practitioner a view of the tarot’s architecture.
The above and below photographs are snapshots of the Appendix. While the book’s content focused on the micro aspect, the appendices give you the macro view, helping the practitioner to understand the “big picture.”
As I see this book, the primary purpose is to introduce in greater detail the operations of the THL Deck. The essays in here focus on the esoteric practice and study of tarot, and therefore can be dense reading material. Even the entries of card meanings, while multi-faceted and therefore could be useful to beginner students, is probably going to be more enriching to the advanced practitioner.
Two spreads are taught in the Appendix section, neither accompanied by illustrations or diagrams of the card positions. For the seasoned tarot practitioner, that’s not a problem. When you say “zodiac spread” or horoscope spread based on the 12 houses and 12 signs, most experienced tarot practitioners can already see the layout in their minds. The other spread is the Celtic Cross, which again, the experienced tarot practitioner will be familiar with. What the THL Companion Book does with these two spreads is delineate the author’s approach to these classic spreads and how the card positions are interpreted per the author’s approach. The book’s treatment of spreads, though, does demonstrate who its target readership is, and it isn’t the beginner.
For those who study the intersection of tarot and the Kabbalah, you are in for a treat. Kabbalistic principles are central to the THL structure and symbology. She draws parallels between the Kabbalistic traditions found in the Sephir Yetzirah with later Greek thought, specifically Pythagoras and Hermetic philosophy. An older article that Payne-Towler published at Tarot.com offers context for the crossovers between esoteric tarot and the Kabbalah (Christine Payne-Towler, Kabbalah Influences, Tarot.com, July 16, 2013).
The THL Companion Book provides a solid structure for learning esoteric tarot practice, and while it may be specific to the THL Deck, no part of this book limits its usage to only the THL Deck. In fact, there is much to be learned within these pages by any tarot practitioner, irrespective of which system or tradition you work with. As an RWS reader myself, I found that the THL Companion Book, despite its focus on continental tarots, deepened my personal understanding of the RWS, and theoretical tarot overall.
A fun final note: As soon as I got word that the THL Companion Book was now published, I placed my order within 5 minutes of first notice. Then when the book arrived, I fetched my THL Deck and drew a card. I didn’t formulate a specific question, but my thoughts were on the book I was holding in my hands and how it might inform my journey with tarot. I drew the Ace of Wands upright.
A modern day American view of this Ace would be beginnings, and that it certainly is, but here in the esoteric tarot approach, the Ace is also for ascension.
It is initiation, but it is also the fated or fateful step toward completion. The first decan in Aries ruled by Mars. This is the crown. In terms of where I am in my journey with and study of tarot, the THL Ace of Wands is the perfect embodiment of where I am and where I’m headed.
Also, the Ace of Wands upright is the doorway to invoking the angel Vehuaiah, for wisdom, the pursuit of science and the arts, and great accomplishments.
For comparison, here is the card with its original LWB. If you have the THL Deck and have been pining for an operating manual, well here it is. If you don’t yet have the THL Deck and you are interested in the esoteric study of tarot, in particular the body of knowledge pre-dating the English Golden Dawn, then you have to get the THL Deck and then this book. Or just this book. The book itself can be read independent from the deck. It will add new dimensions to what you thought you knew about the 78 cards.