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HISTORY OF THE TAROT

THE BEMBINE TABLET

or 

THE MENSA ISIACA

     SOME NOTES . . .

     There is one document, if we may call it such, that may be able to throw light on the history of the Tarot, or at least to the environment in which it appeared, and this is the Bembine Table. A study was published in 1887:

Wynn Westcott, W. The Mensa Isiaca - The Isiac Tablet , or The Bembine Table of Isis. London,1887.

This has been reproduced in a facsimile edition by the Philosophical Research Society, of the late Manly Palmer Hall. 

The Bembine Tablet of Isis is presently housed in the Egyptian Museum in Turin, this 'tablet' has fascinated many esoteric scholars for at least 600 years, including Eliphas Levi, who tried to correlate it with the Tarot. I have seen the Tablet in Turin on various visits to the Museum. Reading through the Wynn Westcott today, it struck me that a great deal of work is necessary to untangle the mass of detail presented, but a few images do correspond closely to the iconography of the Egyptian Tarot. 

When I corresponded with Manly Palmer Hall some years and years ago, he mentioned that the Philosophical Research Society was thinking of preparing a large poster size of the Bembine Tablet.  This is  available at:

THE PHILOSOPHICAL RESEARCH SOCIETY, where you can find a PRINT of The BENBINE TABLET for sale. 

At the same time he said that he thought the Egyptian Museum in Turin also was preparing a print. 

A Short History of the Museo Egizio in Turin:

Home of the MENSA ISIACA

      Tabula Bembina sive Mensa Isiaca. The Isiac Tablet of Cardinal Bembo, its History and Occult Significance, Bath, 1887

Other prints appear in the 17th and 18th centuries sources mentioned in the Wynn Westcott text.  For example, the Mensa Isiaca, by Laurentius Pignorius, 1670, …which includes folding sectional plates of the entire tablet and an interpretation based on the writings of Athanasius Kircher.  [M.P.Hall]

A good version of the Tavola isiaca - Bembine Tablet  Plate has been placed Online by James Eason  where there is a Plate of the University of Chicago:

The Brazen Table of Bembo & Hieroglyphics

     The Bembine Tablet, in humble my opinion, deserves deeper study. It is not Egyptian per se, but may be a later production of some Mystery Cult in Italy. We must remember that there were Isis cults right across Italy even up in the Val d'Aosta. The Basilica of S. Stefano, in Bologna, was built on an Isis Temple. And at present there is a cult of the Baby Mary, Maria S.S. Bambina,  in this Church. Thus it comes as no surprise, that according to one source, it was first discovered on Mount Aventine in Rome at a spot where a Temple to Isis once stood. 

And there are many Isaic frescos in Pompeii. The Emperor Caligula, was a devotee of Isis, and his Isis Temple, which is now beneath Rome, has beautiful decorations. The Emperor Hadrian, visited Egypt, which we must not forget, was a Roman colony for many centuries.   Also, there are many Egyptian obelisks set up at strategic geomantic points across Rome. Images of the Egyptian dwarf God Bes, have been found on rocks in the Alps, as part of the documentation and research of the Alpine Society. Now for those who deny the possibility of Egyptian influences in the Tarot, I would tend to agree. But there is a wider historical perspective that must be taken into account, and it is possible that in this context, certain archetypes have been transmitted, certainly in the case of Isis and other Goddesses. Though this sketch may not have direct bearing on the Tarot, it certainly points towards the emergence of texts such as the Hieroglyphica of Horappolo and the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, of Francesco Colonna in the later part of the 15th century. For further material on Egyptian mysteries, see a few clues scattered in Edgar Wind, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance. The subject of Egyptian influences on European religion and culture has its supporters and detractors. See for example, and Exhibition catalogue on EGYPTOMANIA

These few notes are followed by further Internet sources.

Samten de Wet   

Tuesday, November 25, 2003


Some complicated mathematical and esoteric permutations on the Bembine Tablet are offered by:

TONY SMITH  plus a PLATE.


ASHMOLEAN, OXFORD - Frontispiece from Mensa Isiaca by Lorenzo Pignoria, Amsterdam, 1669


1652-1654: Athanasius Kircher describes the Mensa Isiaca, or Tablet of Isis, a folding plate of possibly ancient origin containing symbolism found in the Tarot, specifically the 21 sacred signs of the alphabet of Thoth.


SCAMUZZI ERNESTO, La "mensa isiaca" del Regio Museo di Antichità di Torino. In 4º con 110 pp. e 6 tavv. in b/n. ISBN 88-85699- -        € 30,00 
 Roma 1939.


Articles in: KEMI-HATHOR   Volume 14, N. 79, January 1996

Editoriale

La Storia dei Tarocchi

Angelo Angelini

Medicina Energetica

La Paralisi delle Calme e dei Sonni

Prof. Calligaris

Simbologia

Il Tarocco Egizio

Giammaria

Simbologia II

Excursus su: La Mensa Isiaca

Marco Daffi

Simbologia III

Disposizione dei Trionfi in rapporto alla Tavola Bembina

Marco Daffi

Arte

Tavole Originali dei Tarocchi

Auri Campolonghi

Storia

L’eredità Sapienziale dei Templari

Julius Cohen

Alchimia pratica

I Tarocchi dal punto di vista Divinatorio

Stefano Stefani


As interest in the Gypsy ("Egyptian") arts developed into European spiritualist fads of the eighteen century, as the Hermetic ("Egyptian") philosophy spread through publications of the Corpus Hermeticum and various alchemical and magical texts purchased by the nobility, and with the popularization of hieratic Egyptian artifacts like the Mensa Isiaca (Tablets of Isis) published by Kircher, all divinatory and esoteric knowledge was attributed to ancient Egypt. Everything from Freemasonry to Mesmerism claimed its roots in the hoary antiquities of Egypt. Gebelin, Etteilla, and the other eighteenth-century European popularizers of cartomancy attributed the Tarot to the ancient Egyptian Books of Thoth, and the trump images to symbolic frescoes on the walls of Egyptian temples used as part of instruction given during priestly initiation.

The Esoteric Origins of Tarot: More than a Wicked Pack of Cards
by Lewis Keizer, Ph.D.

At the BIBLIOTECA PHILOSOPHICA HERMETIC in Amsterdam.  Laurenzo Pignoria. Mensa Isiaca. Venice, G.A. Rampazetto, 1605


An Exhibition at The BROOKLYN MUSEUM OF ART: Egypt through Other Eyes: Images from the Wilbour Library of Egyptology .

Title page from Lorenzo Pignoria's Mensa Isiaca qua Sacrorum apud Aegyptios ratio & simulacra subjectis tabulis aeneis simul exhibentur & explicantur (Amsterdam: Sumptibus Andreae Frisii, 1669).  


Bibliography of Writings by W.W. Westcott


Isiac table. A true monument of Egyptian art. It represents the goddess Isis under many of her aspects. The Jesuit Kircher describes it as a table of copper overlaid with black enamel and silver incrustations. It was in the possession of Cardinal Bembo, and therefore called “Tabula Bembina sive Mensa Isiaca ”. Under this title it is described by W. Wynn Westcott, M.B., who gives its “History and Occult Significance” in an extremely interesting and learned volume (with photographs and illustrations). The tablet was believed to have been a votive offering to Isis in one of her numerous temples. At the sack of Rome in 1525, it came into the possession of a soldier who sold it to Cardinal Bembo. Then it passed to the Duke of Mantua in 1630, when it was lost.

The  THEOSOPHICAL GLOSSARY by  H. P. BLAVATSKY