Many people are introduced to Tarot as an ancient tool, a divining device whose history is blurred in the haze of antiquity, having been transmitted from Egypt – or perhaps somewhere even older – down through the ages by wandering “Gypsies”…
That’s how I was introduced to the Tarot. Luckily, I’ve had a few decades to sort that nonsense out (for more on the factual – and fanciful – histories of the Tarot, I highly recommend A Wicked Pack of Cards: Origins of the Occult Tarot (Dummett, Michael | Decker, Ronald | Depaulis, Thierry)). The point is, there are no Egyptian links to the Tarot, despite the fevered, frenzied insistence of 19th century occultists.
Or are there?
In every truth a hint of falsehood, and in every falsehood…
One of the probable influences on the Pamela Colman Smith/ A.E. Waite Deck was a proto-Tarot called the Sola Busca, from the 15th century. While it is a 78-card deck, the Trumps do not reflect the Major Arcana as we know it; instead, they are allegorical, Christian, and highly provincial.
What makes the Sola Busca unique is that each of the cards of the Minor Arcana is given an archetypal image, as opposed to just a literal representation like one would see on modern playing/older Tarot cards. Some of these images are clearly echoed in the Smith-Rider-Waite deck, and the concept of illustrated pips certainly owes a debt to the rare treasure that is the Sola Busca.
And this is where Egypt sneaks in, well, quite…sneakily.
Starting the fourth century C.E., a remarkable work emerged from the Mediterranean: the Alexander Romance.
It was quite popular.
How popular, you ask?
Well there are versions in:
Coptic, Ge’ez, Byzantine Greek, Arabic, Persian, Armenian, Syriac, Hebrew.
Then, we have the ‘modern’ languages:
Old French, Middle French, Anglo-Saxon, Middle English. Even two version by the Scots.
And the Slavs. never forget the Slavs. Old and not-so-old Slavonic versions exist.
So, yes, the Alexander Romance was popular.
So where does Egypt come into all of this?
Enter Nectanebo II:
Nectanebo II was the last native-born Egyptian Pharaoh; his empire, which was prosperous (and very religious) would fall briefly to the First Persian Empire.
They, in turn, would fall to the only guy who ever gave Genghis Khan’s reputation a serious run for its money (by the by, Genghis wins, no matter how you crunch the numbers).
Alexander the Great.
Alexander the Great, son of Phillip II and Queen Olympias of Macedonia.
Alexander the Divine, as he was proclaimed by the Libyan Sibyl.
The Sibyl at Delphi served Apollo, but the Sibyl at the Siwa Oasis in Libya served a syncretized God, Zeus Ammon.
That is to say, the Greek All-Father Storm-bringer and Egyptian Air-Sun Lord, both rolled into one, handing out visions, including the one proclaiming Alexander a living deity.
So to recap: A Macedonian prince, his father, his mother, a Greco-Egyptian God capable of bestowing divinity, and a freshly deposed, religiously (which included magically) inclined Egyptian Pharaoh…
What could possibly go wrong?
After his defeat by the Persians, some Egyptians thought Nectanebo II fled to Nubia.
The Alexander Romance tells us otherwise.
Nectanebo disguised himself as a magician and made his way into Phillip II’s court. While Phillip was out campaigning (i.e., raping and pillaging), the “magician” had a vision, one that he shared discretely with Queen Olympias:
None other than Ammon, yes, the Ammon, the All-Father-Storm-Air-Sun lovin’ Ammon, wanted to impregnate her, so she might give birth to the Greatest Conqueror the world had ever seen.
*He’ll probably show up around 11 p.m. tonight, so wear something nice, maybe a little lacy, will you? I mean, he is Ammon, after all*
And so, as the Alexander Romance informs us,
Nectanebo II, Ammon, sired Alexander the Great.
So how do we get from Nectanebo II, the last Egyptian Pharaoh-Mage, to the Tarot?
Back to the Sola Busca:
Note the title: Natanabo, which is how many of the Alexander Romance’s transliterated Nectanebo.
Above is the Knight of Cups, Nectanebo II, bearing a strikingly al-khem-ical appearance. Below is a bust of the actual Pharaoh:
Here we have Amone, i.e., Ammon, i.e., Zeus-Amun, in a strangely non-heavenly guise. This card is the Knight of Swords (the name Ammon has survived into English in words like ammonium).
This card is the Queen of Swords, Olympias, mother of Alexander, wife of Phillip II.
Here we see Phillip II, presented as the King of Discs.
And finally, to round out the story of Nectanebo II and the Crowned and Conquering Child, we have the man himself:
The King of Swords, looking rather imperious…a card fitting for an Alexander…
So, what’s the Takeaway?
Alexander was a God-Emperor who was secretly sired by an Egyptian Magician-King whose story is embedded in the Sola Busca, which would play a pivotal role in the formalization of the modern Occult Tarot via Pamela Colman Smith and Arthur Edward Waite.
Try saying that three times in a row.
So is there an Egyptian influence to the modern Tarot?
Only Nectanebo II, the Knight of Cups, knows.
Post-Credit-Scene: Nectanebo’s Dream
Al-Bruni, 973-105x CE) was an Iranian scholar during the Islamic Golden Age. He has been called the Founder of Indology, the Father of Comparative Religion and the first anthropologist. The following tale is recounted in his A History of India:
In this story, Nectanebo II wakes from a prophetic dream of Isis – one in which the god of War, Onuris, is upset with the Pharaoh for leaving his temple incomplete. Nectanebo sends for his best sculptor, one Petesis.
Unfortunately, Petesis got drunk. He proceeded to chase a girl.
And then, presumably, Egypt fell.
Cut, end scene.
And wait for the sequel –
Sure, it’s got a different cast, it’s got a “Next Generation” vibe to it, but it stars Anthony and Cleopatra, and they’re worth their weight in NWB*.
(*NWB is the Egyptian word for gold, which they mined in Nubia, which is the origin of the word).
And that’s a wrap…