Mystical Origins of the Tarot: From Ancient Roots to Modern Usage, by Paul Huson
Destiny Books, 0892811900, 335 p. (incl. appendices, notes, bibliography and index), 2004
This is Paul Huson’s second book on tarot; his previous Devil’s Picturebook was a mainstay for tarot enthusiasts. In Mystical Origins of the Tarot he has updated many of his theories in light of new research and opens up new realms of tarot interpretation.
Regarding tarot’s history, Huson’s stance is that “if you take the art of tarot reading seriously (and expect others to), it might behove you to know something about the actual historical roots of your chosen field” – a sentiment with which I fully agree! Many tarot authors continue to perpetuate the old myths – myths which were refuted in the seventeenth century, and for which there is little excuse to see repeated in contemporary texts today. It has now been more than ten years since Ronald Decker, Thierry Depaulis and Michael Dummett wrote A Wicked Pack of Cards, the first in depth study of tarot’s historical roots. Huson acknowledges his debt to these fine scholars (Dummett’s work especially), though also notes where he differs from their conclusions, but it is refreshing to see the scholarly approach he takes in this work on.
Many of tarot’s origin theories are revisited, including the line of thought which attributed the four “minor” suits of the tarot to the “four magical talismans that belonged to the pagan gods of Irish Celtic legend – the cauldron of the Dagda, the sword of Nuada, the stone of Fal, and the spear of Lugh”, which he lightly mocks – a bit cheekily, as he was a proponent of this origin myth in The Devil’s Picturebook!
Huson provides an intriguing theory into tarot’s origins, tracing its roots back to ancient Persia. He believes that symbolic meanings were always an integral part of their use and here his theorizing becomes somewhat less convincing, but remains stimulating.
The trump card analyses derive mainly from medieval and Renaissance mystery plays, from which he quotes liberally from where parallels can be drawn. He also includes cartomantic descriptions from Etteilla, Pratesi’s Cartomancer, De Mellet, Court de Gébelin, Éliphas Lévi, Paul Christian, S. L. MacGregor Mathers, the Golden Dawn, A. E. Waite, tracing the lines of thought, and also offers his own interpretations.
Mystical Origins of the Tarot is Huson’s most solid work to date, and I highly recommend it to all serious students of tarot.
The Pictorial Key to the Tarot: Being Fragments of a Secret Tradition Under the Veil of Divination, by Arthur Edward Waite
Samuel Weiser, Inc., 340 pp. (incl. annotated bibliography), 1910, 1982
‘The true Tarot is symbolism; it speaks no other language and offers no other signs. Given the inward meaning of its emblems, they do become a kind of alphabet which is capable of indefinite combinations and makes true sense in all. On the highest plane it offers a key to the Mysteries, in a manner which is not arbitrary, and has not been read in.’
In general Waite today reads as ridiculously Victorian; pompous and hinting rather than actually explaining anything. It can be assumed that this is due to his Golden Dawn connection. Waite writes: ‘It is regrettable in several respects that I must confess to certain reservations, but there is a question of honour at issue.’ Nonetheless, the Rider-Waite-Smith deck is certainly among, if not the, most popular deck used today, and however vague Waite is, it is an important work.
Part I outlines the Tarot’s assumed and actual history, and Waite’s accounts of other writers thesis on the origins of Tarot are interesting, though, of course, peppered with Waite’s usual snide remarks.
In Part II Waite gives a brief overview of the cards of the Major Arcana, with brief description of some of the symbolism, naturally vague and without expanding, and open to interpretation for the uninitiated, presumably assuming it is obvious to others. As with his notes on Tarot history, he tends to spend more time discussing why other writers interpretations of the cards are wrong than he does illuminating the ‘correct’ way to read them. Later in Part III he gives brief, one or two sentence divinatory readings of the cards upright and reversed.
In addition to the historical and divinatory aspects of the cards, he also discusses significantors and outlines a few spreads, and his annotated bibliography is a great reference.
Of course, this is an essential classic text for historical purposes, one which should find a home on any shelf of a Tarot reader or collector, but it is hardly practical as a primer for the beginner.
Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom: A Book of Tarot, by Rachel Pollack
0722535724, 354 pp (incl. bibliography and index), 1980, 1983, 1997
Previously, Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom was comprised of two volumes, one tackling the major arcana, and the second the minor; this revised edition helpfully combines them into one hefty tome.
After a brief history lesson, Pollack begins to explore the major arcana in depth, guiding the reader along the Fool’s Journey. She compares and contrasts cards from several decks for many of the cards, drawing on a rich mythological background from various sources, Christian, Hindu, the quabalah and occult significance. Brief histories of the cards are described, also giving a divinatory upright and reversed meaning for each.
With the minor arcana, Pollack focuses on the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, as it was among the first to use pictures of people in the cards in addition to the weapons. She takes direction primarily from Waite’s description and interpretation of the cards, while giving upright and reversed meanings.
Pollack also describes how to give a reading, outlines several spreads, including the familiar Celtic Cross, giving sample readings with each. She goes into more depth than most other works previous to it as she describes how to use Tarot, psychological readings, in meditation, spreads as mandalas, etc.
With Pollack’s clear, concise manner and style, it’s not surprising her Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom is likely to be found among the books of any Tarot enthusiast – and rightly so. Whether using the Rider-Waite-Smith deck or one of it’s variations, this book is likely to be an invaluable tool to any student.