Morgan P. Stevens
As is the case with the other suits of the tarot, the pentacle presents a number of different issues. But first it must be acknowledged that the tarot, as we know it, is a relatively modern invention. Most decks have been modeled after Arthur Edward Waite’s, which was influenced both by his fraternal affiliations and the works of enigmatic scholars, like Eliphas Levi and Court de Gebelin. Still, the entirety of Western occultism can be seen and traced through an examination of the persistent symbols in the tarot.
There is, however, a growing tendency to reject the tarot’s material history. An earnest, yet unfortunate, predilection which was fostered by the works of Levi, de Gebelin and others who saw a universal key in the cards—a way to combat the increasing sterility of their world. The truth of the matter is that the desire to ascribe cosmogenic or metaphysical realities to the cards themselves partially obscures, and neglects their real origins as corroborated by the material record: They are Eastern playing cards introduced into Italy during the late 14th or early 15th century. Theirs was ultimately a manufactured desire. As the 15th century Master Mason Jean Migot once remarked, ars sine scientia nihil est. The height of human ingenuity and ‘progress’ is achieved when this statement is fully recognized, when the two antipodean and complimentary systems are allowed to function in tandem with another.
For the medieval and the early modern European alike, tarot was a game of tricks—a game of fate and of fortune; it was a game of life to be played with others. It had a specific set of rules, value attributions, and culturally appropriate symbolic images which appealed to the relevant sensibilities. As such, the earliest extant decks do not exhibit total suit conformity; pentacles, for example, have taken on a number of ideograms, “nuts,” or “acorns,” “disks,” “coins,” and even “rings.” As we will see, all of these are—for one reason or another—appropriate enough designations. Though it should be stated that of all the depictions, coinage is the least desirable.
The merit of coinage as material wealth is indicated more readily and rightly by other modalities. Wealth, in a natural setting, has always been the product of natural labor. Bartering directly for goods and services is, of course, a practice that has been enjoyed since time immemorial. Likewise the Sumerians, the Egyptians and the earliest pastoral peoples rightly counted their food—livestock, or grain—as currency, rather than the symbolic middleman of coinage. Wealth, at its core, has always been indicative of that which governs materiality: Health. This is not to say that precious metals and gems are worthless, only that their use in furnishing monetary systems was a sophistication made possible, and necessary, by settings and people that have been largely bureaucratized. Isidore of Seville reported that Mercury’s nominative root, in both Greek and Latin, is an amalgam of “speech,” or “interpreter,” and that commerce (merx, mercis) is referred to as-such due to the interconnective medium of speech between producers and consumers. It is important to not conflate symptoms for source.
However, we are less concerned with the specificity of modern projections than we are interested in being able to reconstruct and engender for ourselves, the ancient sympathies with which these tools were predicated. At this, we ought to listen carefully to the words of Schwaller de Lubicz, writing:
“Esoterism is not a particular meaning hidden in a text, but a state of fusion between the vital state of the reader and the vital state of the author: this is in the sense of a spiritual, spatial, synthetic vision which disappears at precisely the moment thought becomes concrete. Thus esoteric teaching is strictly evocation, and can be nothing other than that. Initiation does not reside in any text whatsoever, but in the cultivation of intelligence-of-the-heart. Then there is no longer anything occult or secret, because the intention of the enlightened, the prophets, and the ‘messengers from above’ is never to conceal—quite the contrary.”
The roots of the pentacle are fourfold. They are exemplified by: Talismans, the sacrality of stone, sigils or seals, and ultimately language.
To the Golden Dawn, the pentacle was a specific sigil worn on the lapel. In popular, and Wiccan thought the pentacle assumed the shape of a simple pentangle etched into an earthy, metallic disk which was worn around the neck. Given some manner of specialization and mythological confusion, it is pertinent to continue this search.
The pentacle’s earliest attestation comes from mid-16th century French goetic texts that refer to various seals and occult sigils. Taken literally in its primal form, a pentacle is simply something which is worn around the neck. But still, such a reduction betrays the talismanic principles underlying the pentacle for the medieval occultist. A talisman, then, is best conceived of as an emblematic object intentionally imbued, or inscribed, with specific characteristics toward eliciting particular effects.
The talisman is the product of an applied symbolic rationale.
Many of the earliest talismans in the material record are rudimentary charms and fetishes intended for apotropaic purposes. Man is inextricably drawn to create, and it is no coincidence that various traditions arrived at similar, arguably universal figures to this end. Naturally, many of the qualities or images in-and-of themselves are referenced from the immediate environment. Celestial bodies figure as the most effective, though, and especially those derived from the permanent polar constellations. Among them are the Tau cross, the crux ansata, the pentagram, the solar disk or wheel, and the djed amulet.
Amulets likewise serve a talismanic purpose. Many amulets visibly encapsulate the specific rationale from which they were derived. For example, the Egyptian djed is fashioned in the form of a pillar—an axis—and was hung in such a manner around the neck so as to gird the portions of the body it sought to protect: The spine, or more obtusely, the heart. Charmed rings, like those belonging to the mythical Gyges of Lydia, Genghis Khan, and Solomon, were employed after a similar fashion to augment or transcend the unique attributives of the wearer’s respective finger. In this sense the amulet and the ring reveal their meaning to the observer, without one needing to fully understand the construct in great detail. This formula also extends to their composition and medium.
The most sophisticated amuletic talismans were in specific concord with the material utilized. Jewelry of amber, depending on the cultural settings, would evoke the mythic, Hyperborean, and solar associations that made it suitable for energetic or curative purposes. Brass and copper bore venereal sympathies, while silver and gold were used in ritual to gain dominion over solar or lunar governances, and so-forth.
Talismans also extend beyond the mineral. The material record is certainly replete with wooden, bone, or more exotic constructs. As we have examined elsewhere, wands were frequently fashioned from wood by virtue of its ‘liveliness,’ according to the primordial association of Man as a tree; bone was favored for circumstances regarding the taboos of life, death, fertility, and necromancy. Regardless, minerals serve as the preferred and supreme medium for the talisman. This much can be seen in their emblematic inclusion into the very pediments of sacred architecture throughout disparate cultures, and in the prevalence of jewelry—crafts which can only mature alongside some degree of mastery over geological knowledge.
The Sacrality of Stone
Mineral earth—stone or metal—is the natural medium for the talisman, as stone and precious metals are found both in the cavernous lower regions and the mountainous upper regions. This symbolic system of upper and lower regions figures into the same rationale that forms the Seal of Solomon; that of the interlaced triangles. For the classically oriented symbolique these figures also serve to recall the concept of centrality, in-so-much as the precious stone is taken to represent the mythical mountain; the omphalos, or the lapis niger.
The sacred stone is preserved in the Western canon through the Grail mythology. The Grail serves in one sense as the legendary sacred central stone; it is the prima materia, the Hermetic lapis, and the Luciferian Stone—which constitute sensorial existence, and governs cyclical rejuvenation.
Despite the evident thematic overlap between the Grail and some particular instantiations of broader sacred stones, it’s important to maintain sufficient scope toward the pentacle. To this end, we will settle for remarking that Guénon affixed a textual element to the Grail that proves useful for understanding the operative principles governing the make and manipulation of seals, and talismans. Among the earliest cycles of the Grail, the holy receptacle is, in French, interchangeably referred to as both “grasale,” grail, and “gradale,” or book. Here we are witness to the traditional attribution of the talisman, for the gradale is both a textual hymn, dependent upon meter, and the place where it is sung—at the grade of the temple.
According to many ancient traditions, man himself has been bound to his mortal coil. His corporality is the deadening, or confinement of his quintessential nature; of his otherwise divine spirit. Primordial Adam, for example, was said to have been sculpted from the red clays of Mesopotamian river valleys. Hesiod, too, recounts the metallic ages and construct of men. Many traditions hold that sensorial existence is the result of a cosmic binding carried out by sorcerous entities belonging to weaving or cosmological myths.
Sigils / Seals
At some early stage it became necessary for man of antiquity to map, and to categorize the esoteric aspects of himself and of his environment. This was accomplished through divination, the product of gnosis, and self-awareness.
For the Hermetic philosophers, ceremonial magic, sorcery, and binding, are all dependent upon the willful recognition and manipulation of revealed seals, and signatures. To this Agrippa said,
“All stars have their peculiar natures, properties, and conditions, the Seals and Characters whereof they produce, through their rays, even in these inferior things … in elements, in stones, in plants, in animals, and their members.”
Agrippa adds that many of the sigils used to organize occult qualities were derived immediately from the lineaments of the hand. Paracelsus firmly noted that kheiromancy, was always the practice of being able to derive knowledge and omen from lineaments whether they occur in plant, stone or flesh, and not just the hand. Both philosophers agree that divinatory practices are comprised of some form of literacy; to be able to read the heavens, the flight of the birds, the theater of dream, the casting of bones or to interpret the forms of the hands, are things to be fundamentally “read” in the same capacity one would read anything in a written language.
Man records because he knows that he will die, and therefore, forget. In the words of Guénon, writing “is the only way to salvage what can still be salvaged.”
The morphology of written language is a fraught topic to broach. We can say a few things to serve our purposes, however. Namely that the first writing system belonged to the Sumerians—who generated it around 3400 BC. We also know that the Sumerians largely utilized their written system for record-keeping, and that cuneiform was predominantly pictographic.
While it is strenuous to convey certain abstract concepts in cuneiform, the system adapted. Through imagistic sequencing, things which bear qualitative similarity could be manipulated to stand in for more difficult poetic concepts. Additionally, homophonic, or syllabic pronunciations amended gaps when needed.
The earliest written languages were pictographic. Being comprised of a series of ideograms dependent upon contextual syntax, they were closer in form and in verbiage to the evocative purity of spoken language. There is always a high degree of intentionality behind language, whether it is written or spoken. Spoken language inherently lends itself to natural, divine, law by the simple fact that the mouth and tongue are subject to biological constraints. These laws are translated, consequently, into the symbolic thought processes of early man and explain his poetic proclivities, as well as his primordial belief that magic is inherent to speech.
While these laws can be translated into written form to some degree, through syntax and grammar, it is incredibly difficult to translate sound into a static medium like written language. For this reason it was apparently more effective to adhere to the closest, and most evocative, form of communication to spoken language: Symbolism.
Hieratic and glyphic languages directly evoke an idea, just as the true temple is the one that enables a lived experience.
Glyphic languages now scarcely exist beyond the purview of fringe occult communities and primal peoples. Cuneiform functioned as the scribal lingua franca for nearly 3500 years in the known world, only to be fully replaced by syllabic Aramaic script at the dawn of Christendom. Since then, alphabetic languages have become the rule, rather than the exception. The legendary destruction of the Tower of Babel was perhaps the sundering of the prevalence of cuneiform, and the subsequent ruination of symbolic thought. The construction of sigils, seals, and pentacles then appears to be a revitalization of that sympathetic capacity; as a method according to which man can labor to recall that which he’s long-forgotten.