19 November 2012


Nicholas Swift. Mirror of the Free. O-books, 2011.

The author suggests that the imagery of the Tarot pack, specifically the classic Tarot of Marseilles, derives from the religious iconography of ancient Babylon, as depicted on surviving cylindrical seals. This seems plausible, since some of the Tarot trumps (also called the Major Arcana) are roughly identical to illuminations in medieval astrological manuscripts, whose contents were ultimately derived from Babylonia. Nevertheless, his case is not convincingly argued.
He reproduces various Tarot cards alongside Babylonian seals, but the resemblances are not very close. He compares the Moon God Nanna to The Emperor, and the Love Goddess Inanna to The Empress, but the only point in common is that all show a male or a female seated figure. There is a similarity of The Hanged Man to a seal depicting a priest of Adad, but this is largely due to the fact that he has reproduced the latter upside down.

Swift has much to say about Old Testament stories, Sufi legends, and the Kabbalah, but these are not obviously to the point, nor necessarily correct. He cites “an old edition of The Jewish Encyclopedia” as saying that the Sephiroth (in the Kabbalah, ten mystical emanations of the Godhead) were originally only eight in number, and that this was taught by the Faithful Brothers of Basra in the ninth century. But the Sepher Yetsirah, which is certainly older than that, says uncompromisingly in its first chapter: “Ten is the number of the ineffable Sephiroth, ten and not nine, ten and not eleven” In any case it is unclear what this might have to do with the Tarot.

There are two particular remarks about individual cards upon which I would like to challenge him. Of The Lovers he says that “there are three people there . . . It looks like a man between two women”. (He seems to have taken this assertion from Alfred Douglas’s The Tarot; that book is not listed amongst his notes and sources, but he only lists one Tarot book there, although he has clearly read several.) Swift, like Douglas, has failed to notice that the card represents a wedding ceremony, so that the three figures are, from left to right, bride, priest, and groom, the latter having been misdrawn as a woman in recent decks.

He flatly asserts that “The Fool became the Joker”. A lot of people think this, but it is certainly wrong. The Fool goes back to at least the fifteenth century, whereas the Joker did not appear until the second half of the nineteenth, and its origins are fairly well established. In one popular German card game, the highest card was the Jack of Trumps, so it became known as ‘Jucker’, which is German for ‘Jack’. It remained popular amongst German immigrants in the United States, where the name became anglicised as ‘Euchre’. Many packs of cards, in addition to the regular fifty-two, had another bearing the maker’s design. Some players introduced this into play, so that now the Jack of Trumps was the second highest card, and the maker’s design card became the highest of all. The latter also became known as ‘Jucker’, and then anglicised differently, as ‘Joker’. Eventually playing card manufacturers took the point and started making a card, or more often two, in the fashion of a mediaeval court jester, usually in a harlequin’s outfit, although, unlike the court cards, there is no standard pattern for them.

There is no division into chapters, and an index would have been useful. - Gareth J. Medway

  • Nicholas Swift has replied to this review HERE


  1. Having a life long fascination with the cards (my Gran read them) and a couple of really spooky accurate Tarot readings (synchronicity, perhaps?), I'd like to learn about the origins and history of the cards and their use over time.

    Are there any books you'd recommend? Thanks.

    1. The definitive work on the history of the tarots is Michael Dummett's The Game of Tarot: From Ferrara to Salt Lake City, published in 1980. This tells you absolutely everything about the cards from a strictly historical viewpoint. Unfortunately, it is a massive book and massively expensive (£125 on Amazon!). Most other books on tarot are written from the viewpoint of divination with the cards, and many give a rather romanticised view of their origin. When assessing a history of tarot bear in mind that until the late 18th century they were only ever used for card games, like the modern German 'tarock' cards. -- JR

  2. Magonia21.11.12

    This seems a very useful online resource:


  3. Thanks for the information. My appetite has been whetted to learn more. Ahhhh. Nothing like a new obsession, eh?