Mirror of the Free

Mirror of the Free

The Tarot and the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, miscopied and misunderstood, have survived from Sumerian times, disguising esoteric Sufi teachings.


The images on the Marseille Tarot cards started out as illustrations of Sumero-Bablyonian myths, preserved through the centuries on cylinder seals. They were copied by people who didnt understand them but who also had access to some form, whether written or oral, of the wisdom encoded in those myths and in Bible stories. That wisdom is identical with Sufi teachings as espoused by teachers like Ibn al Arabi, Rumi, and others, including Gurdjieff and his teachings about the enneagram. The myths and stories are decoded in this book using the multiple meanings conveyed by Arabic consonantal word roots and by reference to those doctrines and to modern discoveries about conditioning and the hemispheric specialization of the brain. Arabic is the closest existing descendant of the ancient Protosemitic language. The Kabbalah, long rumoured to be linked to the Tarot, is shown to come from the same sources, and originally had eight, not ten, sefiroth. The visual evidence alone is overwhelming: the mystery of where the Tarot comes from has been definitively solved.


http://www.darkstar1.co.uk/mirrorofthefree.htm 24th November 2012 Author Nicholas Swift advocates that the imagery from the cylinder seals parallels that of the Tarot of the Mediaeval period, an observation first made by the esotericist Madame Blavatsky (p12).  The Tarot is already thought to have been influenced by Arabic sources before it came to Europe.  Drawing on Blavatsky's thought, Swift's thesis takes this idea further.  He directly compares the enigmatic imagery of the Tarot with that of the ancient Mesopotamian cylinder seals and finds some remarkably strong correlations.  The original Marseille Tarot was likely based upon ancient Mesopotamian imagery that had made its way into mediaeval Europe, he concludes.  Perhaps considered to be heretical in those times, the symbolism of the ancient Arabic world was hidden in plain sight through conversion into the cards.  The only problem was that the original symbolism was reinterpreted by the Tarot artists - the images contextualised into the 'modern' times of the mediaeval period. One of the many examples of this cited by Swift is the origin of the symbolism in the Tarot's "The World" card, above left.   He compares it with a cylinder seal of North Syrian origin, an example of which I tracked down on the British Museum's online database (above right).  Besides the lack of lion in the seal, the imagery around the central figure is very similar indeed... In addition, as a student of Persian and Arabic, Swift builds a case for a connection between the symbolism of the Tarot and that of the Sufis, the mystical teachings of Islam.  A reader of Gurdjieff, Swift also finds parallels with his wisdom, in particular his enneagram.  This then leads us into the Jewish mystical Kabbalah. The author delves into some deep philological arguments to draw these various strands together and, in so doing, creates a fairly comprehensive theory of the evolution of myth and symbolism in the Middle East - all in just 179 pages!   Perhaps this was too ambitious an undertaking for the space available.  The content of the book is deep and detailed... I think his underlying thesis is a sound and even rather compelling one... Although these arguments will interest my own readers, they are not the life and blood of 'Mirror of the Free'.  It is in the comparison of visual symbolism that the book shines brightest.  His analysis of the Wheel of Fortune takes him into the debate on reincarnation, and on Temperance we examine a link to the Kabbalah.  It's all rather clever stuff.  In one of his many detours, he explores whether left brain versus right brain functionality have a role to play in understanding some Biblical myths.  And he provides a quite delightful telling of the Epic of Gilgamesh, the protagonist of which is, naturally, linked to the Strength card. There's much to consider in the way of ideas in this book... its core thesis is rather engaging. ~ Andy Lloyd, Andy Lloyd's Book Reviews (blog)

If you are interested in Mesopotamian and Middle Eastern religion, spirituality or mythology and the Tarot, you will find Mirror of the Free, its themes and explanations, most enjoyable... For those of you unaccustomed with Mesopotamian cylinder seals, they were fabricated out of hard stone (or other material), and stories and images were engraved on to them.  Then, once the picture was complete, they could be rolled across wet clay, where the carvings would leave an impression.  The subject matter very often focused upon religious and mythological themes. The book opens with a fairly amusing (and dare I say it, accurate?) account of the stance various authors take on the origins of the Tarot:  “It is common for authors on the Tarot cards to assert that their true origin is unknown.  One sometimes gets the impression, however, that they prefer it that way:  knowledge means not only less excuse to speculate but, also, more responsibility.  They write as if they want to know; or as if they want the reader to think they want to; or as if acknowledging, almost reluctantly, that they ought to make an earnest effort to find out: but, when it comes down to it, they might, for some reason, rather not.” The images on the cylinder seals do bear an uncanny likeness to some cards of the Tarot.  Mr Swift goes on to explain that themes run through the depictions on the cylinder seals which, when combined, may suggest the symbolic meanings of the cards. The reader is encouraged – and perhaps, depending on how you receive the information presented, persuaded – to see the history of the Tarot from a different angle.  Let’s not forget that the title of the book Mirror of the Free means ‘unconditioned perception’.  And after all this, if indeed the notion that the origins of the Tarot lie in Sumero-Babylonian myth, the cards have a longer, richer history than was first supposed (as currently we cannot guarantee a history further back than the Middle Ages). Mr Swift’s commentary throughout the book is engaging and insightful; as you turn page after page of pure information – for that is what this book primarily consists of; there is no waffle or filler here! – you are more than aware of the level of scholarship and understanding the author has for the languages discussed and the complexities surrounding cultural and religious succession in the relevant areas. For all its intricately woven threads, Mirror of the Free does, however, contain snippets of humour, to lighten the journey somewhat: [In reference to the Death card] “…it would not go down very well with Miss Dimplebottom to tell her that the bulge in the pocket of the tall dark and handsome stranger she is going to meet is a sharp farming implement…” “…one needs to beware of experts whose ruling principle seems to be, ‘When in doubt, say it’s a fertility ritual.’…” After reading this book, one comes to understand that no matter how much you think you know about the Tarot, the meanings of the cards, and their history, there is still so much more to learn.  You will not be able to absorb all the information Mr Swift sets out in his book in one sitting; it is not that kind of book.  To truly understand it all, it is a book one must return to and study. There is no getting away from the fact that Mirror of the Free is a heavy read, but one must ask whether the origins of the Tarot would be easy to understand, seeing as though we freely accept that what we currently know of the cards is thought to contain much hidden symbolism.  I found the book to be a fascinating, if complicated read and the stance the book takes on the origins of the Tarot to be well worth our consideration. I highly recommend this book. ~ Samantha Cox ("Sammiwitch"), http://thelifeandtimesofaforeverwitch.wordpress.com/blog/

As a summary of content, this appears to be an awesome collection of mind-tickling information. .. (T)he long-neglected writings of the Persian and Arabic wisdom schools and mystical movements (the Sufis) of the 8th – 12th centuries CE are finally leaking into the sphere of western esotericism and astrology. It was inevitable that someone would kick open the door between the Wisdom schools and the tarot... Plenty of tarot books go overboard in spoon-feeding the reader a puree of regurgitated, watered-down information. This presentation is the diametric opposite of the spoon-feeding variety. If readers are willing to tackle the challenges, there are gold nuggets to be mined. With that in mind – read the book. But curb your expectations for immediately accessible tools to use in tarot readings. It isn’t that sort of book. ~ E. Hazel, American Tarot Association Quarterly Journal Summer 2012

A hidden past coming into the light., June 3, 2012 Well done Nicholas Swift. ~ William Hoban, amazon.com

wow, super interesting, June 2, 2012 A friend recommended this book to me and I was really blown away. Like one of the other reviewers I have wondered about Idries Shah's comments on the Tarot in the "The Sufis." Page after page of The Mirror of the Free expands on the Persian/Sufi origins of the tarot with lucid insightful commentary. It contradicts the commonly assumed function of the tarot-- it will no doubt meet with resistance in the minds of most contemporary "readers." I will definitely read this several times. It feels like scattered notes that I need to get in tune with to perceive the form, composition, and harmonies. Thanks for writing this book, it's a very liberating interpretation and I intend to write a better review once I read it a few more times. I highly recommend this to anyone who's ever had an interest in the tarot. ~ Ryan McCliment, amazon.com

A great work on the origins of Tarot & Sufi lore Mr Swift has written which is probably the most lucid and interesting book available on the Sufi origins of the Tarot symbolism, a matter that had already been remarked upon by Idries Shah in his groundbreaking work ''The Sufis'' (1964) -- the book that most contributed to acquaint Western readers with the monumental and fascinating body of knowledge of which Sufis have been custodians for millennia. The author... unveils for us the real meaning of the Tarot cards... Their message -- the message hidden in the Tarot cards -- is of more far-reaching consequences, and Mr Swift tell us about it in a fascinating prose... Congratulations, Mr Swift! You have written a real masterpiece! ~ Xokhtenger, amazon.com

Worth the price for just the comments on The Story of Mushkil Gusha!!! This is a most remarkable book by Nicholas Swift --the author of ''The Longest Circle'' too -- and although I don't have the knowledge or scholarship to do it justice, I can tell you it is very much worth its price for just the most enlightening comments Mr Swift makes on ''The Story of Mushkil Gusha'', included in Idries Shah's ''Caravan of Dreams''. Shah, the leading authority on Sufism for the Western world, said that ''The Story of Mushkil Gusha'' was the most important teaching-story to transmit to the students of Sufism a kind of higher knowledge that cannot be transmitted by any other means, since it pertains to an entirely different ''level of being''. Mr Swift's comments on ''The Story of Mushkil Gusha'' reveal not only a deep scholarship and his excellent command of Persian and Arabic languages, but also a most remarkable mind and a gifted writer and storyteller. ~ Un lector, amazon.com

Here in the UK, at least, some "crossover" writing is finding an audience.  Malcolm Gladwell and Ethan Watters, for example, have both been published by mainstream imprints, despite the fact that they are both niche American authors. In general Im noticing, at least as far as popular writing goes, some erosion of the self-imposed separation between subjects and disciplines.  Dot connecting seems to be coming into vogue, and the idea that there is a kind of gingerbread trail of knowledge one can follow, which winds through numerous fields but is linear in historical or intellectual terms, is being tolerated more than I can remember.  This seems to fit into the broader trend towards a more holistic view of the planet and the human experience -- shocking that its taken us this long to start seeing life as an interwoven tapestry -- but the rise of environmental concerns in particular, I believe, has had an effect on the way people see themselves and their societies.  In a sense, the horizon of cause and effect is expanding laterally, and I definitely think that Eurocentric culture seems more willing than before to accept its place within a much broader historical and cultural context. Mirror of the Free is firmly a part of that.

~ Mike Freedman, independent film maker (Critical Mass), London, UK, Correspondence

This book about the Tarot is fascinating if you are interested in unlocking the secrets hidden in them. I generally use and teach from the Rider-Waite deck because it is full of Jungian symbolism, kabala, astrology, and more. However, this book has opened my eyes to more. I found this a difficult book to read because it isnt organized in a way that makes it easy, Im guessing on purpose. 

Many years ago, I was a student of the teachings of Blavatsky, Alice Bailey, et al and I found his style of writing reminiscent of that, only easier to understand. I am a fan of Rumi and Swift makes a lot of references to the Tarot and Rumi. Other correlations, to Sufism, the Babylonian cylinders, Gurdjieff, and Taoism, plus others paints a deep and rich picture of the power of the Tarot to help us with deep self-understanding and personal growth.

I would love it if this books illustrations were in color and bigger since visuals are such an important part of the learning.

~ Anita Burns, Editor, The Messenger: A Guide to Life's Adventure, http://www.themessenger.info/content/home/item/1652-mirror-of-the-free

(On the 2005 limited edition)

Thanks go to Jean-Michel David for including an excerpt from this book in the January 2006 edition of the Association For Tarot Studies e-newsletter. I found the excerpt very interesting, and wanted to see what else this author had to say. I also found it interesting that I had just finished a review of the Babylonian Tarot, by Sandra Tabatha Cicero, which is based on the deities and myths of Mesopotamia -- the very territory that Swift is addressing... Swift starts out with the thought that perhaps authors of Tarot books claim that the origin of the Tarot is unknown because they really prefer not to know, as if it is better left a "mystery". He also posits that after reading this book the reader may find it hard to justify the manner in which they are accustomed to using the Tarot. His wry sense of humor is evident from the very beginning of the book... The body of this book is Swifts linking of the imagery in the Marseilles deck to the iconography of ancient Mesopotamian cylinder seals, and he does an excellent job of this. Scans of the Tarot cards and representations of the seals that they are being compared to are thought provoking, to say the least!... There are in-depth discussions of the imagery of the seals, and how it transfers to the Tarot (and it does so remarkably well). Sufi myths are presented in a story-like manner (I read this book in one sitting - it is that interesting!), and there is a great deal of discussion of word derivations, sound-alike words, the alphabet etc. The work of many of the masters is referenced in a knowledgeable manner (masters such as Madam Blavatsky, Idries Shah, Gurdjieff, and many more Sufi writers), and in a manner that is easily understood by those of us who may not have the background that we would like to have on esoteric subjects. Tossed in amongst this mix are such jewels as Madam Blavatskys belief that the first three sephiroth are actually blinds, and the notion that horns on individuals found on the seals indicate not that they are "devils", but that they are Gods, with multiple horns indicating high ranking gods. While the reader is free to disagree with Swift on any or all of his suppositions, my feeling is that this book at the very least presents ideas for further study, and opens the mind in many ways - not only as to the origins of the Tarot, but as a mini-study in word derivation and usage. I am left with the thought that this material certainly warrants further study, and that the material here has found its time. I should mention here that there is an extensive bibliography, in case the reader does want to do some research of their own... [It is] very much an "Aha!" experience!

~ Bonnie Cehovet, Aeclectic Tarot website

(On the 2005 limited edition)

[I] feel motivated to express admiration and respect for the wonderful work of research and presentation of these not commonly met subjects.

~ Ilya S., Tel Aviv , Correspondence

(On the 2005 limited edition)

The basic premise looks sound: the pictures on the medieval Marseille tarot cards have never been explained satisfactorily, but they match the images on Archaic cylinder seals too well for coincidence. Nick Swifts investigations into ancient and modern near-Eastern languages underpin some fascinating linguistic detective work. He makes a strong case that the Sumerian seals were part of a mythological wisdom tradition that was still available in some form to the originators of the tarot deck several millennia later. Happily, the research is presented in an engaging and at times amusing style. Mirror of the Free should fascinate everyone from scholars of iconography to readers of Dan Brown. Students of sufism, Kabbalah, Fourth Way and related experiential paths will find it particularly valuable.

~ Michael Emmans Dean, author The Trials of Homeopathy: Origins, Structure and Development, Unpublished review

(On the 2005 limited edition)

Thank you for publishing such an amazing and interesting book.

~ Deb G., USA, Correspondence

(On the 2005 limited edition)

There is no doubt that this book contains some new and highly important information which has not been published previously. His research covers parallels with Gurdjieffs teaching which has been previously documented and also connections with the Ikhwan as-Safa and Ibn Arabis thought which has been touched on by Idries Shah in The Sufis and Jereer el-Moor in The Occult Tradition of the Tarot in Tangency with Ibn Arabis Life and Teachings, but it is in the linking of the Tarot depictions and imagery to be found in the Marseille deck to the iconography of ancient Mesopotamian cylinder seals that the work is truly groundbreaking. Consider the following two depictions: ... To keep this brief Ill just pick up on a few points: the Devil motif, the Hanged Man and possible Islamic/Sufi influence on the development of the pack (it would be good to also include a look at the eight-fold Cabala)... The Devil: the observation is made early on (see also in Gurdjieffs teachings) that the god-figures are the ones that have horns whereas our contemporary society is more accustomed to associated horns with evil in general and Old Nick himself in particular. It is a marked feature of Gurdjieffs teaching that he takes a controversial character -- one who is reviled or avoided -- such as Judas or the Devil and rehabilitates them as not just blameless but as adepts of the highest degree (without of course accepting any of the baggage assigned to them by the erstwhile detractors). In doing this, G is merely following an earlier Sufi practice... I think this book will prove to be something of a watershed and there are really some revolutionary ideas there - far more so than meet the eye on first contact.

~ Tarquin Rees, Anulios blog

(On the 2005 limited edition)

March 23rd, 2007 One of my backorders finally came in. This now makes three books that Ive found quite useful for understanding and working with the Tarot, so in case anyone is interested, these are the titles: Mirror of the Free by Nicholas Swift, A Brief Hirstory of Time by Orryelle Defenstrate-Bascule, and Tarot and the Magus by Paul Hughes-Barlow... Generally speaking, most books about the Tarot are worth just about as much as any other. Maybe youll learn some theory, some history (although mostly about the cards themselves, not the origins of the Atus, on which Swifts book is the only decent one Ive found so far)...

~ Infra, eso.terica.net/skinfilter blog

(On the 2005 limited edition)

... this astonishing book...

~ Kai, Germany, Correspondence

(On the 2005 limited edition)

2008/01/23/a-gorgeous-orrery Mostly, when it comes to things like that, I simply stumble across them: an acquaintance introduces me to someone else, who recommends a book, which comes from a distributor that carries small press items, which mentions a specific press, which carries a limited edition book thats only available from them. Or something along those lines. (Thats how I found out about Mirror of the Free, which examines Sufi and Near Eastern cylinder seal influences on the Tarot. Worth the read, if you come across it and that subject interests you.) Oh, Infra. I think we may be kindred spirits. And thats not to mention our similar affections for language. ;)

~ Daisy, Our Descent Into Madness blog

Nicholas Swifts book Mirror of the Free is a revelation of the veiled for those interested in the Tarot, the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, and in the esoteric transmission of knowledge. This book is not only a treasure-trove for the Tarot expert, enthusiast, and student; it is also of profound value to the seeker of higher learning. In an erudite weaving of coded symbolism from Sufic sources and their expression in a range of Western esotericism, Swift does a remarkable job in making the complex understandable. This is a book of depth, and the author clearly shows his awareness of the subtle layers in the Tarot transmission. It is a delight to be introduced to new insights and revelations in this book. A remarkable contribution to a much misunderstood subject. Hats off to Nicholas Swift!

~ Kingsley Dennis, author, New Consciousness for a New World; co-founder, WorldShift International; visiting fellow, Lancaster University, Unpublished review

Great Spiritual Books

Reviewing the best and most fascinating spiritual books

Mirror of the free, Nicholas Swift: on the origin of the Tarot

by Katinka Hesselink - Spirituality on November 24, 2011

Those of you who are into Western Esotericism and Tarot will be glad to hear that Nicholas Swift has taken Blavatsky up on the hints she gave in her letters and looked at the Babylonian cylinders. Blavatsky Collected Writings Vol XIV pp 106, 94 and 174, p. 12 of the book under review.

This is not the kind of book you can just read at your leisure. In fact, I’ll freely admit that I haven’t read the whole thing through for this review. I’m not currently very interested in the Tarot, though I dabbled in it in my late teens and early twenties.

The tarot is of course a type of divination and like all types of divination it works best if you use it as a method to access your own intuition. However, that doesn’t mean that it is not also a good idea to know about the background of those symbols. That’s what Nicholas Swift has tried to uncover. In the process he goes into Sufism, Gurdjieff and Fourth Way as well as Taoism. In short: he’s your classic occult author, mixing and matching stories, graphs, quotes and inspiration from all over in order to delve deeper into the soul.

Like Blavatsky herself he doesn’t do this always equally logically. He jumps from one reference to the next and the reader  may get lost trying to figure out if there was any connection.

That said – for the serious student of the tarot and theosophy this really is the kind of book that just can’t be ignored. It will stay in my own personal library, unlike many books publishers send me, because the research done here is invaluable.

~ Katinka Hesselink, http://www.greatspiritualbooks.com/2011/mirror-of-the-free-nicholas-swift-tarot/

Nicholas Swift
Nicholas Swift Nicholas Swift was born in St. Catharines, Canada, and graduated from the University of Toronto. In his last year there he did a course in C...
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