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).
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.
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.
**Huson does occasionally posit theories which are pure speculation – they are simply not provable based on available information – but he always acknowledges when this is the case.