I don’t think everyone in the Tarot community will necessarily agree with me, but it is my opinion that Oswald Wirth was one of the most important figures in the history of occult Tarot (what little of it I know).
The reason I don’t suspect widespread agreement from the Tarot community is because of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, with which Wirth was contemporary, but of which he had no part. The Golden Dawn’s system for occult Tarot is the foremost system in use today, so much so that it seems to me to possess a sort of posthumous monopoly over the cards.* Oswald Wirth’s system, on the other hand, was different from the Golden Dawn’s, and his was even derided by some of its members (including Mr. Crowley, who apparently had no respect for Wirth at all judging by his words in the Book of Thoth.**).
At first glance, Wirth’s Tarot system wouldn’t seem so very different. After all, he deals with many of the same subjects, most notably astrology, alchemy, Cabbalah, and occult initiation. He was also very clearly influenced by the theory that the Tarot was derived from a book of wisdom handed down from the ancient Egyptians, a theory that many – if not all – in the Golden Dawn apparently subscribed to, as well. But Wirth’s treatment of these subjects were indeed different than the Golden Dawn’s. For instance, he attributed his cards to astrological constellations in a much broader fashion, foregoing the strictly zodiacal method of the GD and including such figures as Perseus and Cassiopeia (the Hanged Man and the High Priestess, respectively. His reasons for these are interesting, but that’s a different topic for a different time).
Perhaps Wirth’s trumps don’t receive as much attention because they really just don’t look like much in comparison.*** The images are so heavily influenced by the Marseilles pattern that it’s safe to say all he really did was tweak that design. Of course, there are some significant deviations on many if not all of the cards, but these are subtle enough on the whole that an un-trained eye probably won’t notice much difference.
I think his true import is in his interpretations of the cards, rather than his cards themselves. Everything you never knew about occult systems and symbolism as they relate to a deck of Tarot cards can be read in his book, called Tarot of the Magicians.**** I found it enlightening, to say the least.
Now, the reason I think that Wirth’s contributions are so important to occult Tarot on a historic level is precisely because he based his designs on the TdM. This pattern of cards predates the Golden Dawn by a couple centuries, and it is essentially the basis of Tarot as we know it. By applying his methods – occult theories which are as equally valid as those of the GD – to what amounts to a universal Tarot deck, he effectively made Tarot itself occult. Prior to his work, the Marseilles pattern was not occult by definition. Granted, Wirth is not the only person to contribute to the occult Tarot, nor even the first. But the details he added to the cards are prevalent in so many subsequent decks that are based on the TdM (of the decks I own, the MST is the most clearly influenced by him). These details add shades of symbolic meaning without altering the fundamental design of the cards. Wirth wasn’t trying to create an esoteric deck of secret knowledge; he was trying to show that secret knowledge was already inherent in the deck, and with his book, he showed that it didn’t have to be a secret, after all.
Don’t get me wrong. I think secret societies are fun. But Wirth was about sharing the knowledge, and I appreciate that.
I do take issue with one major aspect of Wirth’s system: his has no place for the Minor Arcana. A Wirth deck has only 22 cards. His trumps are influential for sure, but trumps are all they are.
I for one do not consider a pack of cards a true Tarot unless it follows the structure of both Major and Minor Arcana. For all of his valuable contribution to the Tarot, Wirth would not give us a full deck. For some reason or other, he didn’t believe the Minor Arcana held any significance. I think that’s a shame (although, certainly his hypothetical Minor Arcana would have only been Marseilles pips, anyway, so I suppose it’s no great loss).
*Not that I have any problem with the Golden Dawn. I cannot overstate their importance, and I believe their associations are so well-known for a good reason, but I also think it’s fair to let other systems have their day, especially Wirth’s, whose system is grossly underrated in their shadow.
**That’ll be on page 209, in his entry on the Ace of Disks, if you’re curious. Wirth isn’t the only one Crowley lambasts here.
***Yes, it is true that we don’t actually know what the Golden Dawn’s Tarot really looked like, but we know enough about it to have a general idea, not to mention the fact that the two most popular Tarot decks in the world are arguably those of Waite’s and Crowley’s, both of whom were members of the Order.
****This book was written in French, and it’s actual title given by Wirth is somewhat different, and undecipherable to a buffoon like myself who can’t read French. I’ve recorded the specifics here if you’re actually interested.