The Benbine Table of Isis and The Tablet of Cebes: Ancient Tarot Templates?

Although Athanasius Kircher’s reputation was severely damaged by his dubious interpretation of Egyptian hieroglyphics, it is often forgotten that he did, in fact, demonstrate the connection between ancient Egyptian and the modern Coptic form.

Other studies, however, including his mapping of Atlantis and claims that The Voynich Manuscript was a form of universal language (1.) tend to place him in the realm of the more eccentric 17th century scholars.

Perhaps the most famous example of Kircher’s enthusiasm and curiosity placing him outside of mainstream thought was his translation of The Benbine Table of Isis.

This table measures 50 by 30 inches and is made of bronze, enamel, and silver.

It depicts engraved Egyptian looking images and hieroglyphs on its surface all leading the eye to the central figure, thought to be the Goddess Isis.

Because it was most likely created in Rome during the first century it has long been considered a mere meaningless imagining with no esoteric basis.

Kircher’s opinion, that it represented a secret, mystical rite, was dismissed after Champollion’s work on The Rosetta Stone in the 1820’s.

In 1860, Eliphas Levi, in his book The History of Magic, hinted that Kircher was indeed on the right road but that the rites depicted were associated with The Book of Thoth or Tarot. (2.)

Levi created a key in which he claimed one could decipher the seasons, the zodiac and the Tetragrammaton, the name of God, as well as the 22 major arcana of Tarot.

Levi was the first person to rigorously detail a relationship between the 22 major arcana and Kabbalah, following initial investigations by Court de Gebelin in the late 18th century.

Levi famously wrote, “An imprisoned person with no other book than the Tarot, if he knew how to use it, could in a few years acquire universal knowledge, and would be able to speak on all subjects with unequaled learning and inexhaustible eloquence.” (3.)

Levi believed that the symbols of the major arcana were the secret key to forgotten yet eternal truths.

Noted Tarot scholar, Robert Place writes in his book The Tarot: History, Symbolism, and Divination that “…Levi believed, like Plato, that all knowledge is within and that we actually remember it.” (4.)

So, in essence, what we have, without allowing speculation to cloud our perception, is a table of uncontested ancient origin. This table is said by antiquarians to date to a Roman temple dedicated to Isis in, roughly, the first century.

The table then disappeared until after the sack of Rome in 1527 when it was acquired by Cardinal Benbo.

The problem for anybody trying to trace the origin of mystery cults is that by their very definition their rites and history are obscured. So, in that context, can we really call The Table of Isis a fraud because we don’t understand its symbolism?

The table is one of the finest examples of ancient metallurgy and is painstakingly decorated with bronze, black steel, silver, and copper. Why would anyone go to such trouble in order to create something meaningless?

The images correspond in the eyes of occult historians to archaic, esoteric systems which would have remained secret except to initiates.

We know from works such as Plutarch’s essay On Isis and Osiris (5) that temples to Isis in Rome practiced rites consisting of the interpretation of Egyptian ceremonies and the temples developed independently to each other with no central or dogmatic system.

Using this information, we might well speculate that it would be only natural that individual rites might evolve and that these systems might also interpret and record the sacred knowledge in a way that might be recognizable only to the priests and priestesses of that particular temple.

As long as the central ideology was understood and maintained, outer decoration and images might change according to location and cultural influence.

If this were the case with The Benbine Table of Isis we might expect to find at least one other surviving example of the same motifs from the same era.

Coincidentally enough, we do. The Tablet of Cebes is such an example.

This is a written work from roughly the first century which claims to be a description of a tablet depicting the life of the soul, from pre-existence to the afterlife.

Much like The Tarot and the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, the tablet can be understood on many different levels including the mundane routines of life as well as the journey and effect of the planets and constellations.

It seems to express the alchemical and hermetic ideology of ‘As above, so below.’

According to Ronald Decker in his recent work The Esoteric Tarot, “It charts the soul’s progress through the precinct of life.”

Going further, Decker writes about the images detailed, “They are comparable to some Tarot inhabitants: lovers, Virtues, hermits.”(6.)

The tablet was reinterpreted as a woodcut by Hans Holbein the Younger (ca 1497-1543) (7.)

If we consider that the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet used in Kabbalah derived from a Phoenician script, which in turn evolved from Egyptian hieroglyphics (8.) we have a very interesting connection.

Although it is beyond the scope of this article, many scholars today associate the Phoenician alphabet with the constellations and in the Kabbalah, the 22 pathways are often referred to the pathways of the soul or creation.

According to Manly P. Hall in The Secret Teachings of all Ages, a manuscript by Thomas Taylor detailed how The Benbine Table was the altar before which Plato stood while receiving the knowledge of the great mysteries. (9.)

If this is so, then we are once again forced to consider an Egyptian origin for the Tarot and the symbols of the major arcana.

And must we also ask if it is time to re-evaluate The Benbine Table of Isis and The Tablet of Cebes as remnants of a shared sacred wisdom?


© David Halpin 26/11/2015


(8.)Michael C. Howard  Transnationalism in Ancient and Medieval Societies. P. 23. (2012.)

(9.) The Secret Teachings of All Ages. Manly P. Hall (p 163 Penguin Tarcher Edition: 2003)

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Dave Halpin

David Halpin is a writer from Carlow, Ireland.
David has also worked as a sound engineer and museum researcher.
In his spare time David compiles local folklore and documents alignments between ancient monuments near his home in Ireland.
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