There are some books that are required reading for the serious tarot enthusiast, and this list represents my top five foundational books on tarot – books that will provide a solid historical, symbolic and esoteric foundation for any student.
1. Dogme et rituel de la haute magie (available in English as Transcendental Magic), by Éliphas Lévi (Alphonse-Louis Constant)
First published in 1855 as Dogme et rituel de la haute magie, it became a foundational text for the French occult revival. It was translated into English by Arthur Edward Waite in 1896 as Transcendental Magic, its Doctrine and Ritual and gained wider recognition among English-speaking occultists on both sides of the Atlantic.
Dogma et rituel became the first occult text to weave elemental, alchemical, astrological and planetary theory with kabbalah, the tarot and ceremonial magick, synthesizing the first wholly integrated system of magick. It served and continues to serve as the basis for much symbolism found in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the Ordo Templi Orientis, and various contemporary mystery schools. While lacking in historical accuracy, and allowing for many liberties taken with its symbolic integrity, Dogma et rituel remains an important historical work for this reason.
2. A Wicked Pack of Cards: The Origins of the Occult Tarot, by Ronald Decker, Thierry Depaulis & Michael Dummett
Published in 1996, this became the first modern book to seriously evaluate the various absurd claims occultists have made over the centuries regarding tarot’s origins and original intended use.
Decker, Depaulis and Dummett slice through the myths, misdirection and outright lies occultists have made over the years, beginning with Antoine Court de Gebélin, and continuing on through Etteilla, Mlle Le Normand, Éliphas Lévi, Paul Christian, Papus and others, to provide us with the unvarnished truth and often quite scathing commentary.
A Wicked Pack of Cards has been long overdue, and while it is out of print, it is certainly worth the investment for any dedicated student of tarot.
3. A History of the Occult Tarot, by Ronald Decker & Michael Dummett
Published in 2002, this continues where the previous book left off, and goes deeper into comparative occult symbolism from various individual authors, such as Arthur Edward Waite, Paul Foster Case, Aleister Crowley, Eden Gray; and various mystery schools, from the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor, the Hermetic order of the Golden Dawn, Builders of Adytum, and others.
Taken together, A Wicked Pack of Cards and A History of the Occult Tarot provide the basis for a solid education on this exoteric history of the tarot and how it became occulted.
4. Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom: A Book of Tarot, by Rachel Pollack
Pollack looks at the cards from a variety of angles, describing their history, symbolism (esoteric and exoteric), kabbalistic and psychological, and compares and contrasts them to good effect.
First published in 1980, the 1997 revised edition containing both the major arcana and minor arcana provides an updated history and her insights into the cards are generally good.
5. Mystical Origins of the Tarot: From Ancient Roots to Modern Usage, by Paul Huson
Published in 2004, this is Huson’s most recent book on tarot (his first being The Devil’s Picturebook in 1971), and certainly his best to date. Tarot’s origins are revisited in some depth, accompanied by numerous line drawings to illustrate his points.
The history is good, symbolic interpretations are short, but he does well in comparing cartomantic interpretations from a variety of sources, such as Etteilla, Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers, the Golden Dawn, Arthur Edward Waite and others, as well as offering his own suggestions.
Originally published in Plutonica.net 24 March 2008.
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