4 October 2013


Ronald Decker and Michael Dummett. A History of the Occult Tarot, 1870-1970. Duckworth Overlook, 2013 (second ed.)

Many people do not realize that the Tarot pack was for centuries used for playing card games before it began to be employed in fortune-telling. Sir Michael Dummett (1925 – 2011), a retired professor of logic from Oxford University, has written the definitive studies of the games played with the cards.
Decker is an art historian who was once the curator of a collection of antique playing cards.

Since the late eighteenth century people have been writing about the (hidden?) meaning of the cards. I must say at the outset that, in my opinion, the imagery of the Tarot is based upon mediaeval astrology, and probably also Arabic heraldry. Unfortunately, most of those who have written interpretations of the cards have been ignorant of these subjects.

This book is not only about what people have said regarding the Tarot, but the history of organizations that have done so, most notably the Golden Dawn, but also lesser known ones such as the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor and the Church of Light. Éliphas Lévi, in the 1860s, connected the Tarot with the Cabala, and this was taken up by the Golden Dawn, and many subsequent writers.

The literature of the mediaeval Cabala is vast (the British Library’s catalogue of Hebrew manuscripts lists 220 items, for example), so it is unlikely that anyone has read it all. Nevertheless, this material has been extensively studied, yet no-one has found anything resembling the Tarot. The ‘Major Arcana’ (the trumps plus the Fool), number twenty-two, which is the same as the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet. But this may be a coincidence, just as it is certainly a coincidence that the wickets on a standard cricket pitch are twenty-two yards apart. (It is obviously not a coincidence that this book has twenty-two chapters.)

Though the literature of the Cabala is generally regarded as having started with the Bahir, compiled in Provence circa 1200, there is also the much earlier Sepher Yetzirah. This short work related the twenty-two letters to the elements, planets, and signs of the zodiac, though not specifying exactly which goes with which. This has been seized upon by Tarotists (as the authors refer to them, although I am not sure how this word should be pronounced, since in ‘Tarot’ the final consonant is silent, as with many French words, so it might be ‘Taro-ist’ or something else), but they do not agree upon the attributions.

Éliphas Lévi considered that the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, aleph, corresponded to the first trump (variously called the Bagatella, the Bagatto, the Pagad, the Magus, the Magician, or the Juggler), the second letter, beth, to the second trump, the Popess, and so on. He placed the Fool between XX and XXI, for which there was no historical precedent. The Golden Dawn was founded (in 1888) on the basis of some anonymous cipher manuscripts, now thought to have been composed by an occultist named Kenneth Mackenzie (1833-1876). These gave a different system: aleph to the Fool, beth to the Magician, right up to tau, the World.

Because Fortitude (XI), shows a woman throttling a lion, [right] and hence was thought to correspond to Leo, and Justice (VIII), holds scales and had to be Libra, and since Leo comes before Libra in the zodiac, the position of these two cards was reversed; this was supposed to be secret, but it was subsequently published by Aleister Crowley, Paul Foster Case, and Israel Regardie, and has become widely accepted, at least in the English speaking world, though LĂ©vi’s system seems to have been retained in places like France and Spain.

Many authors attribute the four suits to the four alchemical elements, but once again there is no agreement. The suit of coins (or pentacles) has been variously said to correspond to Fire, Air, and Earth. They also often switch the identity of the suits: Burgoyne, of the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor, made the suits Diamonds, Clubs, Cups, and Swords, though one point upon which they agree is the obvious one of making Cups correspond to Water.

Elisabeth Haich, a Hungarian who settled in Switzerland, declared that “it is not mere chance that governs the way someone shuffles the cards, cuts them or lays them out.” This brief remark appears to be the only attempt to explain, out of a vast literature, how a random process might foretell the future.

The cut-off date of 1970 is, I suppose, inevitable, as since then there has been a proliferation of packs and interpretations, too many to cover. It is a pity, though, as there have been such decks as the feminist Daughters of the Moon Tarot, which, although not at all faithful to the original versions, is of artistic interest. -- Gareth J. Medway.

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