“Work with the Square and Compass”: The Hidden Mysteries of Chess and Playing CardsOct 23, 2004
Author: Tracy R. Twyman
Since the beginning of recorded history, man has enjoyed playing games. Indeed, he has felt compelled to play them. Gaming is, in many ways, a reflection of man’s competitive spirit. We refer to virtually every aspect of life with gaming terminology, from romance to commerce, and we see our lives as a constant Darwinian struggle against both one another, and against the odds of the universe. However, there are two types of games which provide the most commonly-used gaming metaphors, and those are chess and the playing cards. These are the games most commonly played in the Western world throughout the last five centuries, familiar to any school child: one a game of strategy, the other a game, mostly, of chance. Research indicates, however, that the two systems of gaming may in fact have had a common origin.
Playing card featuring King Dagobert II of France.
But, as with the case of chess, the oldest sets of playing cards that have been found were from China, although they hardly resemble the cards that eventually made their way to the West. They were thinner, longer, and rectangular, usually with rounded edges, and look more like modern bookmarks than modern cards. Called “chih p’ai”, they are said to have been derived from Chinese dominoes, and, like some of the early cards from India, they are divided into “money-suits” of “coins, strings of coins, and myriads of coins” (4), with pips in each suit of varying numbers, depending on the deck. There is a theory that these cards were, “originally... bank notes, for with and which with the gamblers played (5).” In many of the games, the objective was much like “Rummy”; that is, the goal was to collect sequences of pips in chronological order, and all in the same suit. There were no court cards.
There is a game now called “Chinese Chess Cards” (or “Four-Color Cards” in China) that do appear to be based on Chinese chess. There are four suits, differentiated by four different colors, and each suit consists of one each of the seven ranks of Chinese chess - King, Advisor, Minister, Rook, Horseman, Cannon, and Pawn - for a total of 28 cards in a deck. However, the antiquity of this game, or lack thereof, cannot be determined, and it is possible that they were influenced by European playing cards, or four-sided Indian chess, or both.
The Persian/Indian Ganjifa cards were widespread throughout the Islamic world, and it is from there that most scholars believe the European cards were derived. As Roger Tilley writes:
“... cards and carvings traveled along the great Peking to Samarkand silk routes, in caravans of thousands of camels... From Samarkand they were taken, by more convenient systems of trade and travel, through Persia to Syria and the Holy Land, where they were carried into Europe either by the Saracens or the Crusaders.”
Mr. Tilley seems to think that it is far more likely that the Crusaders took the cards from the Saracens and brought them into Europe, rather than the Saracens taking them into Europe themselves. He continues:
“However strong the case for Arabs and Spain may be, there is an even stronger one for the Crusaders... Many Crusaders lived to return to their native lands, and they... took back with them a new awareness of Greek and Saracenic culture... Their ships were filled with new commodities, such as sugar, saddles, and salves, cotton, and, it is suggested, knapsacks stuffed with playing cards. If the original premise, that cards were available in the Holy Land, be accepted, then the case for their being introduced into Europe by Crusaders is a powerful one.”
But Tilley does not think that the cards proliferated throughout Europe in exactly the same form in which they were received from the East. He concludes:
“In the absence of such proof [to the contrary] let us declare, until proven wrong, that European cards were invented by a European, adding the rider that it is possible that he drew his inspiration from the site of an oriental pack or of a Hindu god.”
But there is one group of crusading knights in particular who were well-poised to import and distribute playing cards from the East throughout Europe, and who may have even altered them to create the more familiar European-style cards. These are the Knights Templar. Until their arrest by the seneschals of French King Philip the Fair on charges of heresy in 1307, the Knights Templar were one of the most influential forces in Europe. During Christendom’s Second Crusade, the Templars accompanied France’s King Louis II into battle, and played a decisive role in preventing the war from becoming a total disaster. Over the next century, they secured their important role in international politics by utilizing their influence upon a number of kings, nobles, and ecclesiastic authorities. Many of these kings were financially indebted to the Templars, and some even resided with them. At times, it appeared that the Templars possessed the power to make or break a monarch’s career according to their whim.
Their political influence spread in direct proportion to their huge banking operation. In fact, the modern institution of banking, in which money can be deposited in one location and withdrawn in another, is a Templar invention, along with the “cheque”, likely named after the “chequerboard” pattern that was one of the Templars’ most well-recognized motifs, and which might have been used on the checks themselves. This made it possible for pilgrims and travelers to journey safely without fear of roadside robbers, and the cheques were unforgable, as they were written in sophisticated secret codes for which the Templars became known. Almost every king or queen in Europe banked with them, as well as a number of Muslim leaders whom they dealt with on a regular basis. As Holy Blood, Holy Grail (6) puts it, “The Templars thus became the primary money changers of the age, and the Paris preceptory became the center of European finance.”
Their enterprises put them in the position of conduits of new forms of art, science, and craft, new forms of thought and belief. They had access to new advances in agriculture, armaments, surveying, mapmaking, and navigation, and they were one of the first groups of people to employ the magnetic compass in their seafaring. They ran their own hospitals to treat wounded soldiers, and were at the forefront of modern medicine, bringing to the field a scientific point of view unusual among their contemporaries, including an unprecedented understanding of the principals of hygiene. They even made medical use of mold extracts, similar to the widespread use of penicillin as an antibiotic today. Their mastery of architectural principles, both ancient and modern, including the understanding of advanced mathematics, along with their patronage of the stonemasons’ guilds, led to the development of Gothic architecture.
But they were equally influential in bringing new religious and philosophical ideas into vogue throughout Europe, including blends of Islamic, Judaic, and, for lack of a better term, “Gnostic” threads of thought, setting the stage for Europe’s cultural Renaissance, which followed the medieval era and incorporated these same themes. Their ambiguous relationship with the Saracen enemy in the Holy Land, with whom they maintained a respectful peace whenever possible, lead to the incorporation of a number of these new thought systems and scientific techniques, for the Arab culture was still, at that time, a high civilization. There were even rumors of a close relationship with the Order of the Assassins, called the Islamic equivalent to the Knights Templar, who, like the Templars, took oaths of secrecy, conducted strange ceremonies, and were obliged to fight with the same fanatical bravery.
It is their interest in the esoteric, especially Judaic and Islamic occultism, that makes the Templars such superb candidates for the designers and early proliferators of playing cards. For as Ana Cortez and C.J. Freeman reveal in The Playing Card Oracles, the 52-card European deck is thoroughly embedded with esoteric secrets. First there is the obvious reference to the four elements, as well as the four cardinal directions, implied by the division into four suits. The currently-used signs even match up with the four symbols (cups, swords, wands and pentacles) used by occultists at least since the Renaissance to denote the four elements. Note, too, that the shapes of the suit signs themselves imply the numbers one through four, as the spades are one-sided, the hearts two-sided, the clubs three-sided, and the diamonds four-sided (7). Other authors, such as M. Bramston, writing for The Occult Review in the year 1906, have demonstrated how the four suits can also be seen to represent the four sepherotic worlds of the Hebrew Cabala, which each contain their own ten sephiroth, or spheres of existence (thus the ten pips in each suit), as well as the trinity of Ain, Ain Soph, and Ain Soph Aur that are said in that system to precede existence (represented by the three court cards in each suit.) Then there is the division of the deck into red and black colors, a binary separation representing the two opposing forces in the universe: light and dark, good and evil, the Persian concepts of Ahura Mazda and his arch-rival Ahriman. Cortez and Freeman have shown how the binary aspects of playing cards can be used to perform geomantic divination, and even, conceivably, I-Ching readings.
But perhaps the most interesting aspect of all is that the deck conceals within itself the 364-day fixed lunar calendar, divided equally into thirteen months of 28 days each, which was used by the Mayans, the Jewish Essenes, and throughout the Islamic world, but never in the Western world, although it is a treasured secret amongst some occult groups today. In The Playing Card Oracles, Cortez and Freeman demonstrate how the 52 cards correspond to the 52 weeks of the years, the four suits to the four seasons, and the thirteen cards in each suit to the thirteen months in each year, as well as the thirteen weeks in each season. If all of the values of the cards in each suit are added up, the equal 91, the number of days in each season. But perhaps most amazing of all, the total value of the cards in the deck is 364, the number of days in this calendar’s year.
The Compass of Enoch.
Now it may be argued that the 52-card deck was not recorded in history until 1377, seventy years after the arrest and disbanding of the Knights Templar. But in those days, seventy years wasn’t nearly as long in terms of history as it is now, certainly not too long for an idea to have left the Templars’ enclosed circle of secrecy after their disband and to have filtered out into the rest of Europe before finally making its way into the history books. Besides, while the Templars proper may have not survived the year 1307, their secret tradition, and indeed most of their membership, most certainly did. In fact it is said that in Portugal the order continued without halt by simply changing their name to the Knights of Christ. In Germany and elsewhere, the Templar tradition was purportedly continued by the mystically-oriented Rosicrucian order. In Scotland, many of the fugitive Templars who escaped French persecution are believed to have migrated there, and to have reconstituted the order in the form of Scottish Rite Freemasonry. As in the Templars’ day, these were among the most influential forces in the Western world. They have been given credit for most of the populist revolutions, including the French and American revolutions, and in America the Freemasons almost single-handedly created the main government institutions, including the very Constitution itself. It is notable that there were originally thirteen colonies in America, and that the U.S. dollar bill, replete with Masonic symbolism, is covered with both hidden and overt references to the number thirteen. Conspiracy theorist Milton Pottenger believed that the United States would eventually be expanded to 52 states in order to accord with the 52-card deck of playing cards!
It is also worth noting that many of the early decks of playing cards contained images of people who can be associated with both the Templars and their creators, the Order/Priory of Sion.These included: King David, forefather of the “Grail dynasty”, whom both Sion and the Templars were sworn to protect, as well as a number of other Biblical figures and scenes known to figure prominently in the mysteries of the Templars/Sion; the Merovingian kings, who were the branch of the Grail family that the Templars/Sion were loyal to specifically; characters from the Grail/Arthurian romances, such as Lancelot, Ogier the Dane, and Morgan la Fay (notable as the Templars are thought by some authors to have influenced these stories); and the famous Templar co-founder Godfroi de Bouillon, who helped capture the Holy Land and became King of Jerusalem. There was even a pack designed by prominent Freemason and French revolutionary Jacques-Louis David, described by Roger Talley as “a Deputy during the Convention who, artistically speaking, dominated the revolutionary and imperial period, and whom Napoleon appointed as his ‘first painter.’” In this deck he features his emperor as the King of Diamonds. Napoleon, by the way, went to a great deal of trouble to identify himself with the Merovingian bloodline of France previously mentioned, even going so far as to marry into the bloodline, and having 300 golden bees from the tomb of Merovingian King Clovis I sewn onto his coronation robe.
But there is another form of cards which have been ascribed quite consistently throughout the centuries to the invention of the Templars (although not with much historical proof), and that is the tarot deck. The first tarot cards appeared some time between 1392 and 1442, depending on which source you believe, and one of the earliest known decks has been ascribed to either the famous painter Andrea Mantegna or to his equally famous pupil, Sandro Filipepi (a.k.a. Botticelli) who, it is claimed, was also one of the Grand Masters of the Priory of Sion. The cards are first recorded as having been used for a game called “tarocchi”, and were only later recorded as having been used for divination, although there is no way of proving that they were not used for this at an earlier date. The deck, in its most common form, consisted of the 52 playing cards, to which an additional court card was added (8), along with the 22 “trumphs”, later called the Major Arcana, each of which was ascribed to a certain metaphysical concept. One current thought amongst historians is that the cards were, to quote Roger Tilley:
“... contrived at a time when several bands of heretics who had taken refuge in the Italian valleys of the Cottian Alps, to the west of Milan, were subjected to exceptional pressures by the Inquisition. The most important of these groups were the Waldenses, and... they are now put forward as the possible originators of the trumphs and the amalgamators of the two types of cards to form the basis of the game of tarocchi.”
Later on, Tilley speculates on why the Waldenses might have created the tarocchi deck in the first place, suggesting that it was a way of safely preserving their heretical secrets while fleeing the Inquisition:
“It would have been impossible to take with them a copy of their own instructional material. Yet without pictures the meaning of which could be grasped quickly by anyone, however scant their learning, how could [they] set about the task of education? Therefore we believe that they disguised their illustrations as well as their persons, and it follows that the disguise must have taken the form of something easily explained away to an inquisitive official. Could anything serve this purpose better than a pack of cards?”
The same reason is given for the invention of the tarot by the Knights Templar. As it states in the Templar Tarot booklet by Daria Kelleher, “This order of warrior monks was believed to have created the cards to hide secret knowledge they brought into Europe from the Middle East - knowledge deemed heretical and forbidden by the church .” (9)
Israeli playing card featuring the demon Asmodeus.
“The Emperor, in the Gnostic reckoning, stands for the Holy Roman Empire, which would eventually be blasted apart by the lightening of Lucifer [a reference to the tarot trumph “The Tower], while the two figures falling from the uppermost and crowned battlements of the [Tower] were the Emperor and the Pope. But of course the real coded message comes with the card which corresponds to the Pope himself, namely the Devil.”
Godwin then goes on to interpret each of the trumphs as representations of certain aspects of the Templar-inspired Grail mysteries. The Fool is Parzival; The Magician, Merlin; the High Priestess, the Lady of the Lake; the Emperor and Empress, Arthur and Guinevere; the Hermit, the Grail Hermit; the Hanged Man, the Fisher King; and on and on. The four suits of the tarot are the “Four Hallows” of the Grail romances: the Grail (Cup), Sword (same), Spear (Wand), and Dish (pentacle). Godwin has also attributed each of these suits/hallows to the royal families mentioned in the Arthurian romances. The “Court of the Disc” is the House of Benwick; the Grail, the House of Pellinor; the Sword, the House of Pendragon; and the Spear, the House of Lothian and Orkney. He has even laid these houses, and their attributed suit cards, onto a chess-like apparatus he calls “The Gaming Board of the Grail.”
Another author, Joan Bunning (11) connects the four hallows/elemental suits to the artifacts supposedly found by the Templars under the mount of Herod’s Temple in Jerusalem, which may have included the Ark of the Covenant, along with, possibly, the Rod of Aaron (attributed to the Grail spear/tarot wand); the Sword of David (the sword of the Grail/tarot); a golden dish set (the Grail dish/tarot pentacle); and perhaps the cup of Christ’s Last Supper (the Grail/tarot cup). She also theorizes that the House of Lothian and Orkney, supposedly connected in the Grail mythos with the spear and in the tarot with the wand, could be a reference to the St. Clair family of Scotland, descendants of the famous Templar knight Henry the Navigator, who are responsible for turning Templarism into Scottish Rite Freemasonry. As she points out, they “were the last Princes of Orkney, and [their] Rosslyn Chapel is in Lothian.”
Bunning further claims that the Strength card “represents the lineage of the lion of Judah and the promises made to David’s heirs”, and that the High Priestess is “the female Pope [Joan], who was a bloodline descendant of Jesus.” (Note also that she is standing between the pillars of Jachin and Boaz, the ones which once stood outside Solomon’s Temple and which are so important in Masonic lore.) The Hanged Man card, she says, hanging upside down with his legs crossed in a peculiar position, is a direct reference to the Templars. She writes that, “The more elaborate tombstones of leading Knights were engraved with an image showing this pose, or with a fully-sculpted effigy showing the deceased in this unusual position.” The Hermit, according to Bunning, is Peter the Hermit, who is credited with having inspired the Crusades, and who is suspected of having been in league with the Priory of Sion/Templars. The Tower, he believes, represents Christ’s supposed wife, with whom he purportedly spawned the Grail family, because her name means “tower.” (One should also note the importance in Freemasonry of the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel, which this card illustrates perfectly.) The Devil, far from depicting the Pope, matches precisely many of the Knights Templars’ confessions to the Inquisition that their idol, Baphomet, was a goat-man with both male and female genitalia.
To these observations, I would add the following: that the Moon card shows the Moon united with the Sun, a Hermetic concept important to the Templars, Sion and Freemasonry which we will discuss later on; that the Page of Cups, with the fish coming out of the cup, denotes the belief that the Grail is the bloodline of Christ, the Fish; that the Ace of Cups shows the cup engraved with an inverted “M”, a known symbol used by the Templars/Sion to denote Mary Magdalen; that the Queen of Cups is holding a vessel affixed between two cherubim, just like the Ark of the Covenant; and that the Temperance card has been said by some to represent the secrets of the Templars being poured from one vessel to another, i.e., disguised by the tarot. And perhaps the most specific of all is the Death card, predictably the thirteenth trumph, which shows Death riding on a horse garlanded with skulls and crossbones (Templar symbols) underneath the banner of a very Rosicrucian-looking Tudor rose. Below, the Pope begs for mercy from him, something I’m sure the knights tortured by the Inquisition would have liked to have seen. The Two of Cups shows two cups giving birth to a caduceus, a symbol of Hermes or Mercury, a.k.a. Thoth, the supposed inventor of the gaming board who has also been credited by some with the creation of the tarot cards. Thus, “tarot” is, some say, a bastardization of “Thoth” (12). The Count de Gebelin, in his Le Jeu des Tarots, wrote that the tarot was based on the Egyptian Book of Thoth, which, he said, was “composed in the 1828 year of Creation, or 171 years after the Deluge, and written 3953 years ago by 17 Magi, including Athodis, a descendant of Mercury who was also a grandson of Ham and therefore a great-grandson of Noah.” (13)
It is the gaming board of modern chess, however, that is perhaps Thoth’s greatest achievement, and it will be seen that the complexity of the game and the messages encoded within are just the sort of things that he might have come up with. It is said by many authors that (as with cards) the Knights Templar were responsible for bringing chess into the Western sphere through their contact with the Saracens, but actually, chess was widely known throughout Europe as early as 1000, 90 years before the Templars were brought into existence. But it is certainly not impossible that they did have some role in the spread and development of chess. (14) After all, in 1106, chess-playing was listed amongst a collection of “knightly accomplishments” by Petro Alfonsi, and it is interesting to note that in the year 1090, listed by some as the year that the Templar order was born, the “chequered” pattern of the chessboard was introduced. This pattern is closely associated with the Knights Templar, who made wide use of it in their designs, and are said to have picked it up from the temples of Eastern mystic groups that they were in contact with. The word “chequer” and the related financial terms “cheque” and “Exchequer” are supposedly derived from the Latin word for chessboard, “scaccarium”, and the story purportedly involved:
“...a new kind of abacus or calculating machine, one that involved manipulating counters on a checkered cloth laid out like a chessboard. This abacus was adopted for use in collecting taxes, and twice yearly the sheriffs, who collected taxes in the various shires, had to gather at the royal treasury and render their accounts. They did so by standing at the chessboard (ad scaccarium) while the clerks did calculations. The phrase ad scaccarium eventually worked its way into English as "exchequer," thus providing a name for the administrative division in charge of collecting revenue.” (From a medieval sourcebook.)
But perhaps there is another explanation. For as previously noted, the Knights Templar were the first to introduce the system of “checking” in the first place. Perhaps they used the chequered chessboard pattern on the checks themselves as a way of encoding ciphered information on them - information that could not be forged by another, so that the banker who cashed the cheque on the other end would know that it was valid, as well as how much it was for, and whose account it was coming from. (As we shall see, the chessboard is especially useful for encoding ciphers.) In this case, the word “check” would simply derive from the term “checkmate”, the Europeanized version of “shah mat.” Perhaps the Templars also made use of the chessboard abacus described above in their banking practices, reinforcing the connection. The verb “to check”, then, would derive from “chequing” calculations, or “chequing” the validity of a written cheque. In fitting with the theory, the first recorded use of the term “exchequer” was in 1106, just 16 years after the Templars’ inception.
The chequered pattern is an old one. Clearly, it represents the deep philosophical and spiritual concept of the eternal struggle between and coexistence of the forces of lights and dark, good and evil, as discussed previously. The pattern was used in ancient Greece to denote the fabled “labyrinth” of the Minotaur, and seem to have been interchangeable with the more familiar circular labyrinth shape. H. Peter Aleff writes that, “checkerboards .. decorate the entrances to labyrinths in many ancient Greek vase paintings.” This same author believes that the ground plan of Solomon’s Temple was based upon an 8 x 8 checkerboard, and that it was centered around a focal point oriented towards the North Pole, which, “was a preferred abode of the high gods in many cultures, a natural choice as the one fixed and thus privileged spot in the entire cosmos that revolved around it.”
The Caduceus of Hermes.
“The king, the most important piece, represents the Sun of this solar system... traveling only one step at a time, along both square and triangular lines, in any of eight directions. The king is virtually hidden from the action, yet the entire game revolves around it...The Queen is the most powerful piece on the board, having unlimited movement in any of eight directions of manifestation... In another sense she is Regina Coeli, Queen of the Heavens, the widely traveling moon which always reflects the light of the Sun, the king.”
Besides the king and queen, other pieces on the board also have special significance. The four rooks, or castles could represent the “four watchtowers” that divide the Zodiac into four cardinal points. The pawns, being androgynous, represent, according to Michael Schneider, the hermaphroditic union between the goddess Venus and the god Mercury, who is the equivalent of Thoth, the inventor of the game board. The chessboard itself, made up of four concentric rings of squares, resembles a “bird’s eye view” of a four-stepped ziggurat, and thus represents the “World Mountain” that provides the axis along which the cosmos metaphorically rotates.
But other authors, such as H. Peter Aleff, have given the chess pieces alternative planetary attributions. He believes that the king represents Jupiter because, “Jupiter was the king of the gods and of the game, single-stepping hen as now, the slowest in both realms. The Rook is, according to him, Mars, because that planet “has the longest retrograde motion and deviates least from the straight elliptic path, with an inclination of only one and a half degrees.... the long and straight strides of today’s rook.” The Knight, interestingly, is, in his cosmology, Venus, because she “veers three and a half degrees sideways, and when passing before the sun disappears in the glare and thus seems to jump over the middle of its path from Morning Bringer to Evening Star. The Horse representing that planet [ jumps] one field straight plus one slanted sideways without touching down the middle, the same move the horse-shaped chess knight still performs.” Mercury, the board’s purported inventor, is relegated in this system to a mere Bishop, formerly the “Ship” in older versions of Chess. This is because Mercury “stays out of sight for even more of its voyage, and when visible near its extremes, it strays up to seven degrees sideways, twice as far as Venus does ... in the same direction as today’s Bishop...”
Of particular significance, astronomically, in regards to the game of chess is that it is based upon the number eight. (The board is 8x8, with eight main pieces and eight pawns on each side.) Michael Schneider believes that the number eight is connected with the moon, since there are eight major phases in the moon’s cycle. Schneider writes:
“The Octad and eight-sided geometry has often been associated with the moon, with water, and with lunar deities.... If we look at a regular octagon we find that each corner angle measures 135 degrees. The sum of all its corner angles must be 8x135, or 1,080 degrees. This number is the radius of the moon in miles, the sacred measure used to coordinate cosmic dimensions and rhythms…”
But H. Peter Aleff believes that the number eight actually symbolizes a “meeting of sun and moon”, an occurrence called “syzygy”, representing the alchemical union which creates the Philosopher’ Stone. As he explains:
“Eight solar years are also the time it takes the ‘new’ midwinter solstice sun to again come close to a new moon, within a day and a half of 99 months at 29.5306 days each. Here again, the rounded numbers come even closer, to 2920½ days, if the fractional day of the lunar month is counted simply as half a day.
The eight years from one such ‘meeting of sun and moon’ to the next were called a ‘Great Year’ and measured the life span of the sun because at each of these ‘meetings’, the old sun died and the new one was born for the next cycle.”
He goes on to explain that in many ancient cultures, such as the Celtic and the Egyptian, these conjunctions every eight years were celebrated by the ritual sacrifice of the king, to represent the death and rebirth of the sun in the sky. This was done either literally, or symbolically, in the form of a scapegoat animal. This, of course, is the end goal of every game of chess: “shah mat” - “the king is dead.” Perhaps the game of chess was invented as a replication of this ritual.
Even the inventor of chess himself, Thoth/Mercury, can be connected to these solar-lunar conjunctions, and to the number eight. (15) Aleff draws our attention to the shape of the figure eight, sometimes drawn as two circles stacked on top of one another, representing, he says, the celestial conjunction. He then adds that just such a symbol can be found at the base of the caduceus staff traditionally held by Mercury, “the top one sometimes opened to look like the sickle of the new moon.” Of course, it is hard not to notice that the twin snakes entwined around the caduceus themselves form a figure eight. Aleff then goes on to show that this same symbol can be connected to Mercury’s Egyptian counterpart, Thoth. He writes:
“The emblem Thoth wore for his function as "Measurer of Time" was a circular disk, the sign of the sun, with a crescent moon placed above it very similar to the one Hermes wore on his staff.”
All of this octagonal symbolism brings to mind the emblem of the eight-legged spider spinning its web. After all, the relationships between the pieces on the chessboard do form, as Michael Scheider suggests, “lines of force composing an energy web”, like the web of the spider goddess Arachne, whose eight legs can be likened to the eight directions on a chessboard. Schneider writes that, “The chessboard, the spider's web... represents the world's opposite forces weaving the eight-fold 'elements'... the warp and weft of matter's web.” In the belief system of ancient man, it was the cosmos, and the heavenly bodies contained within it, that controlled man’s fate, and the chessboard symbolizes a mosaic of fate’s possibilities. In fact, quite a number of different mosaics can be mapped out onto the chessboard. For instance, each of the 64 hexagrams of the ancient Chinese divination system known as “I-Ching” can be laid out on the board, representing the entire Chinese cosmology of the universe. Each “hexagram” is made up of six lines, each of which is either complete or broken, and each hexagram represents a fortune. A coin toss (heads or tails) determines whether each line is to be broken or complete. There are 64 different possible permutations of this, and thus, 64 hexagrams.
The same binary coin toss technique is also used for the divination system known as geomancy. In this, there are sixteen cosmological elements corresponding to various constellations, each with a planetary, zodiacal, and cabalistic attribute. Each geomancy sign is made up of four rows, and the coin toss determines whether that row will contain one dot or two. Anna Cortez and C.J. Freeman have shown how the binary black/red and odd/even attributes of playing cards can be used to make geomantic readings. And as it turns out, if you place one row of each geomantic sign into one square on the chessboard, all sixteen signs can be mapped out with no squares left over.
Another system of universal elements that can be adapted to the chessboard is that of Cabalism. In this system, the universe is organized into a “Tree of Life”, with ten “sephiroth”, or “worlds”, and 22 paths between them, corresponding to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, each representing an aspect or stage of existence. But there is also another tree, that of the “Qlippoth”, or Shells, which is a mirror-image of the Tree of Life and descends below the “surface of the Earth”, as it were, to form the dark side of the Tree, or the “Tree of Death.” The Shells are thought to have been “dispersed” amongst existence at the time of the Fall of Adam in the Garden of Eden, and now intermingle with the living world, so that each of the 32 aspects of existence on the Tree of Life has its own shadow counterpart. What better way to lay out these symbols then to have a mosaic of 64 alternating black and white squares? In addition, the outer ring of 28 squares on the board can be said to represent the Cabala’s “28 Camps of the Divine Presence.”
And it is not just occultists, but nature herself who arranges the elements of the universe into patterns of 8 x 8. Everyone who has ever taken a music class is familiar with how the rule of eight plays into harmonics, and how each eighth note in the musical scale is the same as the one seven notes previous, only at a higher vibration (one octave.) The same principle holds true on the Periodic Table of Elements, where each eighth element shares the properties of the one seven atomic numbers lower on the chart. (Also, all of the elements within that string of eight have common properties.) Even the elements of our DNA are made this way. DNA is made up of six-part “codons” consisting of six letters that each represent a protein, and of course, there are 64 possible combinations of them. The adaptability of the chessboard to systems such as this demonstrates how chess still lends itself to the task of divination. (16)
Chessboard with geomantic figures.
Interestingly, the magic square attributed to the intelligence of Mercury is an 8 x 8 matrix.
But by far the most famous 8 x 8 magical squares are those associated with the Knight’s Tour. This is the name of a puzzle of interest to both chess players and mathematicians alike. The aim is for the knight to visit each and every square on the chessboard once, and only once, using the L-shaped knight’s move. There are thousands of solutions on the 8 x 8 chessboard. Knight’s Tours can also be displayed on a number of other platforms, including larger or smaller boards, and even three-dimensional objects like cubes, tubes, and cylinders. (There are tours for rooks and kings as well, yielding different results.) They are classified as either “open” or “re-entrant”, depending on whether or not the knight ends up on the same square from which it started. (The re-entrant tours are considered the most “elegant.”) Numerous magic squares (as well as cubes and cylinders) can be created by numbering the squares that the knight visits in chronological order to create an array. Drawing lines to connect these squares in order can create beautiful web-like patterns. One, discovered by Edward Falkber, yields a pattern at its center resembling a stylized swastika. And many of the most fascinating Knight’s Tour magic squares (including “supermagical” squares that form magical multiplication tables as well) yield sums that are always multiples of thirteen, the most famous of which is a supermagical square discovered by Benjamin Franklin.
All of this is of interest to us because of its connection to the treasure of Rennes-le-Chateau, France. In this remote country village, the Knights Templar (or their administrative heads, the Priory of Sion) are believed to have left a treasure hidden somewhere beneath the surface of the Earth, possibly the treasure of Solomon’s Temple, or the “Holy Grail”, whatever that might be. As a clue to the whereabouts and meaning of the treasure, two parchments were concocted in code, concealed within texts copied from the New Testament, which were written on parchment paper and hidden inside one of the pillars that held up the altar in the local Catholic church. The encoded messages have puzzled and fascinated researchers for decades. They said:
“To Dagobert II, King, and to Sion belongs this treasure, and he is there dead.”
“Shepherdess - No Temptation, that Poussin and Teniers hold the Key. PAX 681; by the cross and this Horse of God I destroy this demon guardian at noon. Blue Apples.”
It is not within the scope of this essay to explore the meaning of these two messages. Let it suffice to say that they describe what the treasure is and who it belongs to. What is of interest to us is how the cipher in which these coded messages were written was created. The cipher was made using a Knight’s Tour! As Ted Cranshaw explained in his article, Who Wrote the Parchment at Rennes-le-Chateau?:
“[The author of the code] starts the encryption process by changing the order of the letters, i.e. he uses a Transposition Cipher. The reordering is achieved by means of a solution to the old problem posed in 1720 of the “Knight’s Tour”.... The tour used appears to be a beautiful adaptation of the first published solution by de Moivre (1667-1754). The plaintext is written on a chessboard, starting at the start of the tour. After 64 letters, the text is continued on another chessboard carrying the same tour but drawn upside down. The next array of letters, starting xnls, is obtained by reading across the boards, starting in the top left hand corner.”
Perhaps this is the reason why Berenger Sauniere, a priest at the church who discovered the parchments and subsequently had them deciphered, built a chessboard into the floor of his church near the entry-way, as a clue to treasure-hunters of future generations. (17) Perhaps this is also why the landscape around the village of Rennes-le-Chateau contains an area called “The Pass of the Rook”, reminding those interested to look to the chessboard for clues to the mystery. Then of course there are the chess references found in a poem called Le Serpent Rouge, which was supposedly written and published by the Priory of Sion, once again, as a clue to anyone who is interested in solving the riddle of Rennes-le-Chateau. The poem is written in thirteen stanzas, each dedicated to one of the signs in their thirteen-house zodiac system, and each is quite surreal, its meaning far from overt. In the stanza dedicated to Taurus, the mysterious author writes:
“Thanks to him, from now on with sure eye and measured step I can make steady progress. I can find the 64 dispersed stones of the perfect cube which the brothers of the beauty of the black wood had scattered when they fled from the white fort while they were being pursued by the usurpers.”
Are these “64 stones” the squares on a chessboard? Given what else we know about the mystery, that would be the natural choice. And they do form a “perfect cube”, as the number 64 is four cubed (18). And the “Perfect Cube” is a symbol of great significance in Freemasonry, as it represents the Philosopher’s Stone, or Grail Stone, and the cornerstone of Solomon’s Temple (which was itself constructed as a cube, with the chequerboard as its foundation).
But why are the stones described as “scattered”? For this answer, we turn, once again, to the cabala, and to one of the premier sources for cabalistic wisdom, the Sepher Yetzirah (The Book of Creation), attributed to the patriarch Abraham. In it, the author describes how, just as it says in the first few paragraphs of Genesis, the Lord created the universe by speaking the “Logos”, or the Word. “In the beginning was the word...”, says the Bible. In Sepher Yetzirah, it specifically states that the “stones” out of which God created the universe were the “32 Ways of Wisdom”, represented by the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the ten sephiroth on the Tree of Life. If we add to this the 32 “stones” represented by the Qlippoth, the Tree of Death, we get “64 scattered stones” - scattered because, if you’ll recall, the elements of the Qlippoth are said to be “dispersed” amongst the other half of creation, giving each “Way of Wisdom” - each white square or “stone” on the chessboard - its equal and opposite “shadow stone.” Le Serpent Rouge seems to be indicating a way to reunite the “dispersed” elements of the universe into the “Perfect Cube” of the Philosopher’s Stone, the rectification of opposing universal forces which is the end result of the alchemical process, and of the quest for the Holy Grail.
In this sense, the Knight’s Tour in itself can be considered a way of reassembling the scattered elements of the chessboard into a cube. Recall that the Knight’s Tour can be performed upon a cube, and of course, the numbers of the knight’s moves, when placed upon a cube, can create a “magic cube.” The distinctive L-shape of the knight’s move - three squares down and two across - form a perfect right angle, and the squares in a knight’s move are in Golden Mean proportion, just as if the move was formed by a mason’s square and compass, tools that are used as sacred ritual implements in the secret rites of Freemasonry. Not coincidentally, the fifth stanza of Le Serpent Rouge, dedicated to the zodiac sign of Gemini, states:
“Reassemble the scattered stones and, working with square and compass, put them back in order...”
In summation, it is this author’s conclusion that the chessboard and the 52-card deck of playing cards - each based on something ancient from the East, possibly from an original game common to them both, and each possibly altered and disseminated throughout the West by the Knights Templar - are both representations of a profound and powerful philosophy of metaphysics which has been preserved in the mystery schools of probably every high culture the world has ever known. This philosophy is said to have been originated by the God Hermes/Thoth during the “Golden Age” that supposedly preceded the Deluge, and vestiges remain, only intelligible to the initiated. Both the chessboard and the playing cards are a complex system of universal elements, represented by numbers, hieroglyphs, and a governing hierarchy of kings, queens, and ministers, just as the universe itself is, in occultism, believed to be composed of such a hierarchy. Each element indicates an aspect of creation, and each arrangement of the elements indicates a particular situation, either one that already exists, or one in potentia. Both systems (the cards and the chessboard) can be used either for divining the potentialities of a given situation or, conceivably, for conjuring up a desired outcome, through ritual magic. They can also be used for simple meditation, to obtain a greater understanding of the ruling elemental systems that govern the universe.
Because of its application as a calendar, the deck of cards seems to be a system more relevant to questions of temporality, whereas the layout of the elements on the chessboard in the form of a tablet seems to relate more to questions of space. Since the 364-day calendar can be laid out upon the circular “Compass of Enoch” (possibly used by the Templars), it makes sense to think of the time-based system of playing cards as a circle, whereas the chessboard should, obviously, be thought of as a square. Are the two systems meant to interact with one another? Perhaps this relates to the Masonic concept of “squaring the circle”, that is, creating the Philosopher’s Stone or Grail by unifying Heaven and Earth, or in this case, time and space, represented by their ritual implements, the square and compass. Do we find, in the command from Le Serpent Rouge to “[work] with the square and compass” a reference to the chessboard and the Compass of Enoch/playing cards? It is impossible to say. But it can certainly be said that the study of both systems and their hidden meanings can be inexhaustively rewarding for the attentive student. It has been so for me, and I recommend it to anyone who is eager to understand the complex mysteries of the universe.
(1) Jean-Marie Lhete, Histoire des jeux de société.
(2) Chess continued to be used for widely divination for at least another nine centuries, and it was only in 1220 A.D. that it began to be played without dice. As late as 1230 A.D., the Byzantines were playing the newly-invented game of “astronomical chess” for divinatory purposes, using a circular board.
(3) Andy’s Playing Cards.
(4) Roger Tilley, A History of Playing Cards.
(5) W.H. Wilkinson, “Chinese Origin of Playing Cards”, The American Anthropoligist, Volume VIII, January, 1895.
(6) Written by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln.
(7) The diamond suit is derived from the “coin” suit used in Persian and early European playing cards. This may hearken back to the use of cards as money in Persia, India, and China, and even, by some accounts, in Europe.
(8) In many earlier versions of the regular playing cards, there is an additional court card in each suit as well.
(9) This is also said of the heretical sect known as the Cathars, who were connected to the Templars, and who were accused by the Church of using “cards to teach their Gnostic doctrine”, according to Malcolm Godwin’s The Holy Grail: Its Origins, Secrets, and Meaning Revealed.
(11) Learning the Tarot - An On-Line Course", by Joan Bunning, Copyright © 1995-2002, at dreamwater.org.
(12) Another explanation is that it comes from the word “Torah”, meaning “The Law”, a concept backed up by the “High Priestess” card, where she is seen holding a scroll marked “Tora.”
(13) Quote taken from Roger Tilley’s A History of Playing Cards.
(14) Ingmar Bergman’s film The Seventh Seal centers around a chess game between Death and a Templar Knight. Chess also shows up in several scenes from the Templar-inspired Grail romances.
(15) In addition, Venus, Mercury’s female counterpart is also associated with the number eight because every eight years it’s cycle around the sun catches up with our own. It takes five Venusian years to equal eight Earth years. Note once again that 8 + 5 =13, a number associated, among other things, with Mary Magdalen, who is revered as a symbol of Venus. Note also the connection to Friday the 13th, Friday being the day of the week which corresponds to the planet Venus.
(16) In the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a game called “Enochian or Rosicrucian chess” is still used for divination. The board is divided into “quadrangles” representing the four elements, and each square is. according to Israel Regardie, “the name and symbolic address of a different Angelic force”, each with its own planetary, zodiacal, and cabalistic attributions. As in Chaturanga, there are four players, and the pieces are made in the form of Egyptian gods, and associated with a tarot card. A dice role determines which piece each player moves.
(17) Sauniere had the chessboard placed between two statues that he had erected, one of Jesus and one of the Devil, as if they were playing chess with one another, demonstrating the battle between light and dark which the board itself symbolizes.
(18) Maybe this explains a curious coded message which appears in a wall mural in the Notre Dame de France church in London, painted by the famous artist Jean Cocteau, who was one of the Grand Masters of the Priory of Sion, and, quite possibly, the author of Le Serpent Rouge. He signed the mural with the initials “D.D.D” If the periods are taken as multiplication signs, and the Ds (the fourth letter of the alphabet) as the number four, the result is 64.
Author’s Note: This essay is part of a forthcoming book by Anna Cortez and Charles Freeman.