Mystical Origins of the Tarot.

The title of this book by Paul Huson is kind of odd. It suggests to me some sort of BS pseudo-historical narrative along the lines of Court de Gebelin’s theory about how the Tarot was created by ancient Egyptian priests trying to preserve the secrets of the Universe. This is odd, because the book itself is a work of legitimate historical research – there is nothing “mystical” about the origins of the Tarot, and Huson never tries to make it seem so beyond the title page. I suspect it’s tongue-in-cheek, like his earlier work on the Tarot called The Devil’s Picturebook (I have not read that one, but am assured there is nothing but wry humor behind its provocative title).

HPIM0624

The subtitle, “From Ancient Roots to Modern Usage,” is perhaps a better indication of the content. Ancient to modern is quite a chunk of time to cover, but Mystical Origins does it, tracing the evolution of the Tarot as we know it today from its mysterious beginnings (which, while long ago, are not exactly ancient, at least not as ancient as the Egyptian priests).

Books like this one are necessary precisely because the origin of the Tarot is so mysterious. In the 1800s theories like de Gebelin’s could catch on, not only because they seemed to make enough sense on the surface and because occultists wanted to believe them, but because we really didn’t know any better until fairly recently. Many Tarot books perpetuate false or only partially true “histories”. These books are perfectly fine in other respects, but they simply are not good resources for historically-verifiable information.

Now, this is the Tarot we’re talking about here, not recently declassified government documents or freshly-discovered tablets of Linear A or anything like that. Whether they’re used for gambling or fortune-telling, cards are not exactly the sort of thing generally taken seriously by academic types, historians or otherwise.* As such, books about the Tarot are not usually concerned with meeting academic criteria. Shoddy history is to be expected, and anyway, why does it even matter?

Well, it does and it doesn’t matter. The Tarot does not require a history lesson to be used or enjoyed. Furthermore, the aura of mystery surrounding the Tarot is a major attraction for many folks, myself included, and mystical histories only add to that aura. I’ve said it before, these legends add to the flavor of the cards, illustrating their hold on the imagination. The mythic connections are very real, despite not being based in empirical fact.

However, I believe that myth and history are not mutually exclusive, and just as myth enriches our metaphysical experiences with the cards, history enriches the experience on a much more practical level. Context is key in understanding any spread, and history is just a lesson in context on a grand scale. Through historical research, we can better understand the cards themselves, what they were, where they came from, who made them, and how they became what they are now. This information may not be immediately applicable when using the cards, but it strikes me as foolish to invest in the Tarot as I have without understanding what it really is. It pleases me that Huson’s book, and others like it, are available as a counterbalance to all the “woo” out there.

But I digress. Mystical Origins isn’t the only book backed by historical research, and it may not be the best out there, but of what I’ve read, it provides the most thorough history, and on the whole I think his interpretations of it stand on sound reasoning. He asserts that the historical mystery of the Tarot can be boiled down to three questions:

1. What is the source of the suit symbols?
2. What is the source of the trumps?
3. When and why did people begin to use the Tarot for divination?

The first chapters attempt to answer these questions. The suits are thought to have been derived from the Persian Mamluk cards after they were introduced to Europeans in the 14th century. At the time, these were primarily used for trick-taking games. The playing cards became the Tarot in the following century, when the trump cards were added to the pack. The imagery of the trumps is medieval in origin, drawing from many sources, most notably from religious dramas of the time. The earliest ones were hand-painted for nobles, but they remained devices for gaming. It wasn’t until a long time afterward, in the 18th century, that the Tarot was established as a tool for divination and the occult by Etteilla and his contemporaries. By this time, the Persian and medieval European sources of the cards had been forgotten, and so it was hypothesized that they originated in Egypt.

Mystical Origins is often touted as a Tarot history book, and it certainly is. The first few chapters make up the historical overview beginning with the Mamluk and concluding with the occult developments of the late 1800s – early 1900s. This isn’t the whole book, though; in fact, it’s barely a third of it. The remainder of the book focuses on the actual cards of both the Major and Minor Arcana and on reading techniques, all of which builds upon the previous material.

hpim0395
From the DFW Tarot.

Each card is briefly discussed in terms of its historical symbolism, followed by its divinatory interpretations by Tarot masters throughout the ages, with a final suggested interpretation from the author. The chapter on reading is especially interesting. We get Huson’s personal advice on card reading, and although he expresses some opinions that I’m sure are disagreeable to some, I thought much of it was quite wise. Then he provides several spreads and methods, from very simple to very advanced, all taken from historical sources. The entire book is illustrated with line drawings by the author, and in them one can recognize the roots of much of Huson’s own Tarot, Dame Fortune’s Wheel, which was published a few years after Mystical Origins.

In conclusion, this book is not only a fascinating history of the Tarot, but it is a thorough and excellent handbook for cartomancy with the Tarot, and a good divinatory reference for historical and occult packs, from the Visconti to the RWS and virtually everything in between.

~~~

*Occult Tarot may be a different story, but the first rule of Occult Club is don’t talk about Occult Club.

Advertisements

A Thoth Study Guide.

Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot by Lon Milo Duquette sets out to help the reader do exactly as the title says, and it does it well. Certainly, I continue to learn more about the Thoth every time I take it out to use, but prior to reading this book, I knew almost nothing, and can’t imagine how else I might have progressed. I could see from the outset that this was an especially complex pack of cards, but beyond that my eyes were closed. This book opened them to a whole new world.

HPIM0616
That’s the Princess of Disks on the cover.

My first introduction to the Golden Dawn brand of the occult was in a book called Portable Magic, which I’ll write about in more depth at some other time. It was an excellent introduction, looking back, providing me with a base familiarization of Kabbalah and astrology. These are vital subjects to know if you plan on delving seriously into the world of the Thoth or any Golden Dawn-based Tarot. Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot (henceforth abbreviated UACTT) examines these things and more, in far greater detail, while still remaining perfectly accessible to a novice. While Portable Magic made a fine primer, it wasn’t until I read UACTT that I could honestly say I began to comprehend the occult Tarot.

Of course, Mr. Crowley’s Tarot isn’t precisely the same as the Golden Dawn’s, but as a one-time member, he certainly derived much of his Tarot from their template. To understand his version of the occult, you must first understand theirs. DuQuette’s book addresses this, and is split into two parts: an introduction aptly titled “Little Bits of Things You Should Know Before Beginning to Study Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot”, which takes up about a third of the book, followed by “The Cards”, which is, obviously enough, about the actual deck.

In the first part, we learn about Mr. Crowley the person, the Golden Dawn, Lady Frieda Harris and the nature of her work on the cards, Crowley’s notions about the “Aeon”, the Rose Cross on the card backs and all its secrets, the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, color symbolism, and the “Holy Guardian Angel” that each of us has according to the teachings of Mathers and the Golden Dawn. All of this is essential background information, required if one hopes to really understand the Thoth Tarot as its creator intended it (don’t try to take it all in at once and hope to internalize it, though. Multiple readings are recommended). I was exposed to so much occult stuff at once while reading these pages for the first time that I thought my face might melt off. It is well written, conversational, entertaining, and incredibly informative. Interspersed throughout are quotes from Mr. Crowley and Lady Harris, some of which are quite entertaining themselves. The author, who is clearly very knowledgeable, makes light of a rather heavy and confusing subject, and he attempts to dispel common misgivings about Crowley, the occult, and the Thoth Tarot as he goes, although whether or not he did a good job there I couldn’t say, as I really had no misgivings myself when I approached the deck.

Before dealing with the cards proper, DuQuette starts the second part with a discussion of general Tarot structure, followed by the astrological and Kabbalistic attributions of the Major Arcana, highlighting the differences between the Thoth and the Golden Dawn model. Each Major Arcana card is then examined in fair detail (about two or three pages per card).

Then we are introduced to the Minor Arcana, and the four Aces are explained, followed by the Court Cards, and then the small cards, complete with convenient charts for astrological correspondences. Every single card, Major and Minor, is prefaced with its Golden Dawn title, any relevant astrology, a brief description of the original Golden Dawn card, any relevant Kabbalah, colors used, and a quote, all laid out for quick reference.

After the chapters about the cards, we get a run-through of Mr. Crowley’s method of divination, and a list of all the cards in the pack alongside their intended divinatory meanings. The final chapter is a glossary of Thelemic and Tarot terms.

Not only did I learn (a lot) from UACTT, it was fun to read. DuQuette writes with a sense of humor, and that’s very refreshing, particularly when reading about a subject as dense as this. Another thing about this book that I appreciate is, despite its thickness, it has very convenient lists and charts of anything you might need in a pinch. UACTT combines the joy of reading a good long book with the ease of use of a simple guide (well, you’ll still have to flip through many pages to find the “convenient” stuff, as they are not all in one place, but I think it’s worth the trade-off).

Now, if one really wants the authentic Thoth Tarot experience, he or she needs to acquire a copy of the Book of Thoth, which is the official companion to the cards, penned by Mr. Crowley himself. This book, however, is anything but accessible to the average reader. UACTT works as a middle man, if you will, between the student of the Thoth Tarot and its infamous creator. I would very strongly recommend this book as a prerequisite to Crowley’s own, unless you’ve got very big intellectual britches.

~~~

78 Degrees of Wisdom.

It seems like every day I find more and more opinions that disagree with mine, but I still maintain that the Rider-Waite-Smith is the best deck with which to learn Tarot. Of course, if someone has a specific deck in mind that he or she connects with, by all means, my opinion (or anyone else’s) doesn’t matter a bit – always go with your own gut. But if a person wants to get into the Tarot, and they have no prior knowledge, and they have no opinion about which deck they’d like to start with, then I think the Rider is the way to go.

I feel this way for many reasons, not least of which is that there are more books published about the RWS than probably any other version of the Tarot. Someone who wants to learn with a Marseille or a Thoth has far fewer resources at their disposal than one who studies with the RWS or one of its derivatives, and fewer still if they want to go in a different direction.

Which brings me to my next recommendation: Assuming the RWS was selected as the learning deck, which is the book to study alongside it? There are countless options out there, and I’ve admittedly read only a very small number of them. However, without a doubt, the best book I have read on the RWS (one of the best Tarot books in general, really), and one that I’ve referenced many times on this blog, is Rachel Pollack’s Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom.

HPIM0613

This book was originally published in two volumes, one for the Major Arcana, and one for the Minor, but now you can purchase them as a single book. At 354 pages, 78 Degrees is sizable for Tarot literature, although not remotely the heftiest on the market. Even so, the first thing I should clarify is that this is a book, not a cheat-sheet. I heartily recommend it, but it’s certainly better suited for my fellow readers than it would be for someone looking for a quick RWS reference.

78 Degrees is generally considered a classic in the world of Tarot literature these days, and I’d have to agree. Along with two or three other Tarot books in my library, this one forms part of the bedrock of my understanding of the cards.* It is well-written, fun to read and educational, showing a broad understanding of psychology, mythology, the occult and symbolism as they relate to the Tarot.

The book is split into three parts, the first of which is about the Major Arcana. It begins with an introduction, in which we are introduced to the Tarot, its origins, some occult elements, and the theory of archetypes, and then Waite’s version of the cards, which constitute the focus of the remainder of the book, all rounded up with a discussion about divination and what it means in relation to the Tarot. We are then given an overview of the basic patterns underlying the Major Arcana, before diving into the cards themselves. Each card is allocated several pages, in which its meaning is thoroughly discussed according to the themes set out in the intro.

The section on the Major Arcana is divided into three parts of seven cards each (the three septenaries). Pollack puts a lot of emphasis on these groupings, suggesting that each represents a stage of personal development. Cards I through VII are under the heading The Worldly Sequence, the following seven under Turning Inwards, and the final cards under The Great Journey. These titles are indicative of the sorts of trials and triumphs to be found within each septenary.

Next is the Minor Arcana. As with Part One, we are started off with an introduction expounding upon the themes and patterns to be covered in the following pages. These are by and large very similar to what is covered in the first part, with a little more emphasis given to things like Kabbalah and the elements, as well as a discussion on the nature of Smith’s renditions of the Minor Arcana versus those of historical or (overtly) occult packs. We then move along to the cards themselves, this time divided into four sections according to suit: Wands, Cups, Swords, and then Pentacles. Each section begins with the King and descends to the Ace. Substantially less space is given to each card in this section compared to the Major Arcana (usually about a page or two), but everything is still adequately covered. At the very least, it surpasses anything else I’ve read on the Minor Arcana.**

The final part is about reading with the cards. We are once again given an introduction, this time about the psychology of divination and Tarot, with a lengthy discussion about “common sense” and the value of lessons learned with the cards.

The bulk of Part Three is in the section about types of readings. In particular, Pollack presents us with the Celtic Cross spread, which is the best explanation of the spread that I’ve yet read; the “Work Cycle” spread, which is Pollack’s own invention and riffs on some of the patterns learned in the Cross; and a Kabbalistic Tree of Life spread. The entire book is wrapped up with a chapter on how to use readings and a chapter on what we learn from readings, both of which are fascinating and insightful.

~~~

*78 Degrees is the best RWS book. Lon Milo DuQuette’s Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot is my go-to CHT reference, and Paul Huson’s Mystical Origins of the Tarot is an excellent resource on historical Tarots. Hajo Banzhaf’s Tarot and the Journey of the Hero is another phenomenal book, and I think the title says it all. Of course, I have read many other very fine books on the Tarot, but if I had to name what I consider to be my “essential reading” list, it would probably be these four.

**Such a shame. Don’t get me wrong, I love reading about the Major Arcana, and this blog absolutely has more material by far about it; but the Majors cast quite a shadow, and the Minors are certainly worth an entire book in their own right.

The Complete Book of…

It’s been a little while since I’ve posted here, so I thought I’d publish a quick book review for the sake of keeping this site somewhat active.

First thing’s first: the title of this book is beyond stupid – Complete Book of Tarot Spreads. Not only is this a lie (I’m aware of many spreads that are not in this book), it’s the type of title that smacks of phony marketing ploys which would normally drive me away.* This is compounded by the subtitle “Includes 122 Layouts (!)”. I haven’t counted them, but if everything in this book is included in that number, then it’s a bit of a stretch, because there are several “spreads” that are really only one card, and several more that are better classified as “exercises” than proper spreads for divination. This title is meant to draw in suckers.

HPIM0451
I actually really like this book.

However, when I saw this in the bookstore, I flipped through it out of skeptical curiosity, and found that, in spite of the title, the content of the book seemed honest and practical enough to be genuinely useful to me. It helps to know (for me, at least) that this book was originally published in German with the title of Tarot Praxis, which translates to “Tarot Study” or “Tarot Practice.” It seems that it’s only in America that publishers feel the need to try and dupe people into buying things, as if we consumers weren’t intelligent enough to make a decision without a radical promise of some sort of exponential pay-off (I realize I may be overreacting slightly to this title, but I so resent the commercialism in this country – stop talking at me like I’m a fucking jackass!).

And it’s true, this book does offer more than just spreads – it offers practice, as well. It’s comprised of three sections, only one of which focuses on actual layouts.

The first section is called “Practicing Tarot”, and it consists of all kinds of handy and helpful advice for the modern Tarot reader, laid out in quick and easy chapters. There’s no history or exposition about the occult or the “woo” factor. The deck pictured on the cover is the RWS, but the book itself does not focus on any single version of the cards. It also tries to dispel many antiquated myths about Tarot reading, such as the idea that one cannot and should not read for him or herself. This book is cut-and-dry practical Tarot and nothing more. The language is somewhat terse, but it gets the job done, like a no-nonsense book should do (it is good, but by no means is it “complete”).

The second section is entirely about the layouts. There is little by way of explanation here; just pages upon pages of various spreads. This section is also divided into chapters, categorizing the spreads within to better facilitate easy look-up for any given situation. There are a few large and complex spreads here, but for the most part they are fairly simple, even to the point of being a bit generic at points. I’ve played with many of these spreads so far, and for the most part, I like them. As with the first section, they get the job done, and if they don’t for some reason, at least they provide basic templates for spread shapes and questions that can easily be tweaked by the individual. While not at all “complete” (yeah, I’m going to keep harping on that), this section is decently comprehensive, so that most of your everyday sorts of issues (and even some that go beyond the everyday) can be sorted out with its help, no problem.

The final section is called “Tarot & Astrology”, and is the shortest section by far. That’s pretty self-explanatory, I think, and most of this section is made up of various charts for astrological correspondences (the basic template used here is that of the Golden Dawn). It’s very convenient for quick reference, and this is the only section of the book that talks about anything that’s not strictly Tarot cards. Considering that, of all the systems applied over the years to the cards, astrology is probably by far the most common, this was a thoughtful addition to the book on the part of the authors.

I’ve been using this book a lot lately, and overall, I think it’s very good. It can probably be used with success by beginners and advanced Tarot readers alike.** In Germany, another use of the word “praxis” is to denote a rigorous practice test designed to help students pass the Abitur, which is essentially the equivalent of the SATs here in the US (albeit much more academically intense than our sad excuse for a college aptitude test – man, do I sound condescending. I guess I’m still fired up from my commercialism rant. It’s true, though, what I say about the SATs). With that in mind, this book is basically just a Tarot study guide, and as such, it is very well done.

But doggone-it, it is not complete.

* Anything that’s labelled “complete”, or “ultimate”, or worse yet, “the only (insert subject here) book you’ll need” always raises doubt in my mind. As a guitar player, I’ve seen many, many “ultimate” guides and “complete” books of tricks that promise virtuosity overnight. It’s total bullshit, and I’d never spend my money on it. Tarot cards are admittedly a bit different than musical instruments, and it seems that, although the literature available is overflowing with these sorts of titles, they do often have content in them worth reading. I just wish the publishers would dispense with these titles that are nothing more than empty promises. As good as some of these books really are, none of them could ever truly be “complete.”

**For the record, on the scale of Beginner – Intermediate – Advanced, I consider myself at the time of this writing to be somewhere in between Beginner and Intermediate as far as skill with card reading is concerned. So no, I can’t actually say with certainty that advanced readers would get something from this book, but I think it’s pretty good all the same.

Deviant Moon Companion.

In my second post on this blog, I began a catalogue of the Tarot books on my shelf. Every time a new book is added to the collection, I update the post to include it. The function of the post is essentially that of an annotated bibliography, and it contains every literary influence on this blog that is directly related to the cards.

I make it a point when I obtain a new Tarot deck to at some point write a few brief thoughts on that deck, but I’ve come to realize that my relationship with the Tarot is as much affected by the books I read as by the cards I use; however, my writings on these books are comparatively sparse. So I’ve decided to go through my list and give some thoughts that are a little more in-depth than those comments I’ve provided in the above link. And I’m going to start with the newest addition to my library: The Deviant Moon companion book by Patrick Valenza.

hpim0418
The Cards and the Book.

This is easily the most beautiful book in my Tarot library. Others have said that this book sets a new precedent for companion texts, and I have to agree with them, although I do hope the amazing production quality doesn’t become the new norm.

Wait, what? Hope that amazing production quality doesn’t become the norm?

Well, here’s the thing about this book: In my opinion, one of the best things about it is also the most off-putting. Allow me to explain my paradoxical opinion.

This book has over 300 very nice, glossy pages with many large, full-color images. Its got a very beautiful embossed hard cover featuring the figure from the 6 of Wands. And the book is huge, weighing in at roughly 3 pounds. My god, I’ve never seen or held such an immaculately produced book on the Tarot! U.S. Games has really outdone themselves with this one.

Indeed, I appreciate all this, but I have to be honest: it’s all a bit much when what I really only wanted was a simpler companion text to fill in some of the blanks left by the LWB. I like the portability of my paperback copy of the Shadowscapes Companion or Waite’s Pictorial Key. These are books that I leaf through fairly often, that I don’t feel bad about cracking the spine or dog-earing the pages if I have to, and to drag out the hefty Deviant Moon book when I want to check up on the cards just isn’t as convenient. And I certainly can’t toss it in a bag to take with me for some light reading on the go.

Is the trade-off worth it? Well, yes and no. On one hand, the quality of the book does outweigh its inconvenient size. I took my sweet time deciding whether or not to buy it because of the size, but now that it’s on my shelf, I absolutely do not regret my decision. But what about the quality of its contents?

Unlike every other companion book I’ve read, this book not only describes each card’s image and meaning (it includes upright and reversed), it also talks about the artistic process, inspiration, and evolution of the deck as a whole, with many anecdotes about specific cards (although not all of them). It’s valuable to an artist as much as to a Tarotist. This is incredibly interesting and visually stunning, and it gives us an intimate look into the author’s (very active) imagination.

Valenza gives us lots of stories about nightmares and visions he experienced as a child that helped to inspire the cards (my favorite is “the Man”, because it reminds me of the Nightman that plagues Charlie’s dreams in the TV show It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and I can’t help but smile at that. Embedded within this story about the Man, however, is a very poignant lesson about the nature of fear, and it gives an important spin on how to view this sometimes frightening pack of cards).

I admit, I like this personalized perspective a lot, and find many of the childhood stories endearing, but it’s not exactly what I was looking for. I feel like some of the explanations of the cards themselves, while greatly expanded from the LWB, may not be as comprehensive as they could’ve been, because they weren’t the only focus of the book.

Then again, perhaps this isn’t the problem that I originally thought it was.

I mean, every Tarot book I’ve ever read always leaves me wanting more information. I think students of Tarot are doomed to be forever unsatisfied no matter how much they read – such is the enduring nature of the mysterious Tarot, alas! We’ve all climbed willingly down the rabbit hole before we realized that there is no bottom! And the personal perspectives of the artist give unique insight into the meanings of the cards that isn’t available just from the descriptions of the symbolism. It’s one of those things that isn’t obvious at first; we get a rare glimpse into the mind that made them, and that is sometimes more telling than whatever superficial stuff can be gleaned just by looking at them.

Alright, I admit it: I’m really just frustrated (still) by the Hermit. This book has done very little to answer my itching questions about this card’s odd symbolism, and complete lack of traditional symbolism. And for all the background stories in this book, there is nothing about why he chose this route. The author does recount a fascinating and haunting dream he once had about the character depicted in the card, but why did he choose this character to represent the Hermit?

hpim0420

It is true, his interpretation of the Hermit is not exactly traditional. This Hermit is not wise, just an outcast. Other cards have been re-interpreted, as well. Valenza apparently doesn’t have a very high opinion of the Hierophant, for example, and it shows in his written interpretation. I can see that, deep down, a kernel of tradition is present in every card’s meaning, but sometimes that’s all there is. Not that this is a bad thing.

For a modern, post-RWS Tarot, the Deviant Moon is very original, and this book has only helped me to realize that. There are many nods to tradition throughout, but they are in the structure rather than the actual depictions. Death is untitled, and Justice and Strength retain their pre-Waite positions (yet none of these three use particularly traditional imagery, nor do many of the others). For the Minor Arcana, there is no attempt whatsoever to superimpose any sort of non-Tarot esoteric systems on the cards – not even so much as to mention what elements are associated with each suit (except water with Cups, for some reason). In fact, the only thing Waite’s work even contributes to the DMT, as far as I can tell, is the Pentacles, as opposed to the more traditional Coins. But Valenza explains this decision at the end of the section on this suit. In essence, this Tarot is a very non-traditional rendering of the most traditional pattern there is.

For every single card in the deck, this book includes one page-size image of the card, and at least one full page of text (many cards include another page or two of pictures and text, but not all of them). There is also a multi-part introduction that details the creative process of the artist. The book is structured thus: Introduction – Major Arcana – Minor Arcana. It ends rather abruptly after the last thought on the suit of Pentacles, but that didn’t really bother me (although I do like to read some closing thoughts, it seems like many Tarot books don’t bother with them, so what can you do).

As anyone who has read my original thoughts about this deck knows, I was very hesitant to add it to my collection. I found many of the images (especially that darn Hermit) discomforting at first, and wasn’t sure if it was right for me. Also, any time someone brought up this deck on an online forum, there was always such a positive, almost fanatical response (this is true of the book, as well), and that sort of one-sided reaction makes me wary. But I did get it, and it continues to grow on me every day. This book certainly adds to my ever-increasing appreciation for these cards, and I would recommend it to anyone who wants a deeper understanding of them (assuming there’s room for it on the shelf, that is).

~~~

More New Books.

Two more books for my Tarot Library. I’m beginning to delve into some heavier reading.

Here’s the first one:

Wirth, Oswald. Tarot of the Magicians: The Occult Symbols of the Major Arcana that Inspired Modern Tarot. Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC., 2012. First published in French in 1927 as Le Tarot, des Imagiers du Moyen Age.

I’m already well into this one. It’s fascinating and a very historically important look at the occult functions of a Tarot deck. Oswald Wirth was working with the Tarot at the same time the Golden Dawn was using its now famous occult Tarot methods. Wirth’s methods are different. They deal with much of the same stuff (astrology, Cabbalah, etc.), but Wirth had a different idea of how these ideas fit into the Tarot. He reworked the Marseilles-style Major Arcana to better fit with his ideas.

Wirth was much more straightforward in his writing than his contemporary occultists Aleister Crowley and Arthur Waite. Granted, Waite still felt bound by his oath of secrecy despite Crowley having already published the Golden Dawn’s secrets, and Crowley was just the kind of guy who seemed to like the way his own convoluted voice sounded, but the both of them are confusingly verbose in their prose. I enjoy reading them, but it’s like reading a puzzle at times, and it’s refreshing to me that Wirth doesn’t really mince words. That’s not to say he doesn’t delve into deep and complex esoteric matters; he does, but rather than making it even more complex to discourage the uninitiated, he has the goal of education, and tries to facilitate that with his writing.

Of course, the trade-off here is that Wirth is sometimes just plain dry. I don’t really mind it personally, but I know that can be a bore to some.* It should also be kept in mind that this book was originally published in the late 1920s by a man who was already well along in age by that time. It’s just not going to grab modern readers who find themselves discouraged by language which seems archaic to their sensibilities.

Anyway, without going into too much detail of the specific contents, I will say that this book appears to be organized into three basic sections. First is the introductory material in which Wirth explains where and how he came to use the symbols he uses. This includes a brief description of alchemical, astrological, and cabbalistic principles, theories of occult initiation, as well as basic things like shape, number, and color symbolism. Of course, as I’ve already noted, none of these things are used in quite the same way that the Golden Dawn used them. This is a totally different system for using the Tarot that just happens to draw from the same sources.

Second is a card-by-card description of each card of the Major Arcana as Wirth redesigned it. That’s pretty self-explanatory, so I won’t talk anymore about it here. Last is a section which includes methods of using the cards for divination. There is more than that, but I am still currently working my way through the second section, so I don’t really know what the last section is really all about aside from divination. I look forward to getting there, though, because unlike other haughty occultists, Wirth does not appear to look down on divination but rather seems to have a certain respect for it.

Overall, I really enjoy this book so far, and I find it very useful in terms of adding another dimension of understanding to the Tarot. I do not have a Wirth deck, but his influence can be felt in some of my other decks (most notably the Medieval Scapini). And being interested in history as I am, I find this book to be an important installment in the historical chronicle of the Tarot.

~~~

The other book I haven’t yet begun to read, but it promises to be interesting, if nothing else.

Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism. Tarcher/Penguin, 1985 (originally published in French in 1980).

At over 650 pages, this anonymously written work is the longest book I have on this subject. I have not yet cracked its spine, so I can’t really give much of a review. From what I can gather, it is one religious (Christian) man’s thoughts and meditations on each of the 22 Major Arcana from a Marseilles-pattern deck. It’s arranged in 22 letters addressed to his “dear unknown friend,” us the readers. After briefly flipping through the pages, it appears to go very in-depth into each card. The title suggests an angle of Hermeticism tinged with Christianity; it was penned in 1980, which is fairly modern, and I expect this to have an impact on the contents. I am eager to begin reading this one, but have decided to wait until I’ve finished reading Wirth’s book first, so I can give it my full attention. I have a feeling it will require it.

Perhaps once I’ve read it, I’ll provide an actual review.

 ~~~

Both of these titles will be added to my library shortly.

*Then again, if we’re comparing Wirth’s style with Waite’s and Crowley’s, I don’t know if I can really say it is any more dry than the others, especially Waite’s. The only real difference here that I can see is that Wirth is aware of the dryness of his work and doesn’t really care to try and cover it up. He even directly addresses the reader on several occasions, one of which he encourages him or her to strive to continue on in spite of the dryness of his work, because that is the way it must be to prepare one for the study required to really learn the Tarot, or to “make it speak”, as he says.

New Books.

I went on an amazon spree recently. I purchased three new books (and a new deck, but that will be dealt with in another post).

The first of these new books is called Designing Your Own Tarot Spreads by Teresa Michelson, and was published by Llewellyn in 2003 as part of their special topics in Tarot series. I keep a collection of spreads in my Tarot Journal, which come from books, LWBs, or various websites (most notably aeclectic). The number of spreads continues to grow, but for my personal readings, I often find them lacking. I decided to purchase this book so I could learn on a fundamental level what goes into a Tarot spread, with the goal of customizing my readings to elicit better success. So far, I am finding the book helpful.

The second is called Tarot and Astrology by Corrine Kenner (published by Llewellyn in 2011) and is intended as an introduction to astrological principles for students of the Tarot. I’ve never personally put much stock in astrology, but the deeper I go down the rabbit hole of the Tarot, the more I find that astrology plays a significant role in many decks. Because my current understanding is less than elementary, I figured I should learn more about it, and what better way than with a book that discusses it in the context of the Tarot.

The last book is considered a classic in the field, and after reading many glowing reviews, I caved and finally ordered myself a copy of 78 Degrees of Wisdom by Rachel Pollack (published by Weiser in 2007; originally published in two volumes in 1980). I’ve only read a couple of chapters so far, but I am not disappointed. This book is intended as a guide to the Tarot in general, and is specifically geared towards the RWS. Every card in the deck is examined in-depth. I was pleased to find many of my own ideas reflected back at me in the opening chapters of this book, such as mythic archetypes and binary opposites, and I look forward to reading more.

My Tarot Library will be updated soon to accommodate these new additions. I haven’t yet read more than a couple of chapters from any of these new books, but so far I am pleased to add them to my collection (I admit, I always like getting new books, no matter what the subject matter is). They are promising to be helpful and informative.