The Tarot: A Short Treatise…

In 1888, S.L. MacGregor Mathers, one of the soon-to-be founders of the famous Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, penned a pamphlet entitled The Tarot: A Short Treatise on Reading Cards. As it happens, this slim volume was also the very first book on the Tarot I ever owned, prior even to my first pack of cards.


At the time, I was only aware of the Tarot insofar as Jimmy Page used it to illustrate Led Zeppelin IV. My curiosity had been piqued, yet many months passed before I began to actually learn anything about it. I took my first conscious step towards the Tarot one day when I found the above book in a local metaphysical shop in which I was browsing. Knowing next to nothing about the Tarot (or, for that matter, just how many books on the Tarot actually exist), I bought it, thinking it would be a good primer.

Considering the eventual influence the Golden Dawn’s occult attributions would come to have over the Tarot as we know it today, the content of this book is incredibly plain. There is very little in the way of hints that Mathers was on the verge of kickstarting a revolutionary wave of Tarot study. In fact, from what I can figure, most of this pamphlet is actually very derivative. The section on the history of the cards seems to be taken mostly from Court de Gebelin (*cough*egyptianmystics*cough*), and the sections on reading with the cards seem to have come mostly from Etteilla. There isn’t really anything wrong with this, except that neither of these sections are entirely accurate; nor even are they all that interesting to read, which is largely due, I think, to the haughty writing style of late nineteenth-century English occultists (you know what I mean if you’ve ever cracked the spines of Waite’s or Crowley’s books).

Indeed, Mathers had a lot going on behind the scenes that he hid quite well in this book (I had absolutely no idea whom I was reading when I got it, and was taken by surprise much later when I first began to learn about the Golden Dawn and Mathers’ role in it). This book is aimed at the general populace, the unenlightened masses, not the would-be initiates of secret Hermetic orders. This is made clear by the inclusion of trick-taking game rules side by side with rules for traditional Tarot cartomancy, as well as the fact that common Marseille-pattern cards are used to illustrate. Oh, there is a brief chapter that mentions the possibilities of occult connections, but it obscures rather than elaborates upon them. I sure as shit didn’t know what he was going on about when I first read it, anyway.

Would I recommend this book?

To the general Tarot enthusiast? Probably not. To the occult Tarot enthusiast? Again, not really. To the historical Tarot enthusiast? Maybe, although there isn’t much in this small book that can’t be learned elsewhere. To the beginner, like I was when I first found it? HA! Fat chance I’d recommend it to past me, now that I’ve got the benefit of hindsight.

And yet, despite the off-putting nature of this book, it did not deter me from continuing to study the cards. If anything, it left me dissatisfied but with enough of a kernel of curiosity remaining that I was actually all the more intrigued by the cards after reading this relic. It’s not a bad book, just unnecessary and a little outdated given all that’s currently available on the subject.

I certainly will never get rid of it. It’s so small and unobtrusive that my bookshelf has no problem accommodating it, not to mention the nostalgia factor of it being my first-ever Tarot book. And it can be handy as a quick reference of TdM keywords, for both Major and Minor Arcana. It’s a book I wouldn’t buy if I didn’t already own it, but since I do own it, I appreciate it for what it is. This unassuming little volume came at a crossroads in the history of the Tarot, the cusp of the swell that would come to bring the likes of the RWS and CHT to the shores of Etteilla and the TdM. And I think that’s kinda cool.


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