A Wicked Pack of Cards: The Origins of the Occult Tarot
Ronald Decker,Thierry DePaulis, Michael Dummet
St. Martin’s Press, New York, NY, 1996

An acquaintance with the historical-critical method of Bible scholarship, even on the popular level (Bart Ehrman, for instance) is excellent prep for this book.

It is not about how to read the Tarot. The ancient Egyptians, the Rosicrucians, etc., do not appear in it, except as objects of ridicule.

Yes, I said ridicule. The authors give good snark, despite their dry erudition. Every chapter, from the introduction, “Imaginary Magi,” to the final “Papus and his Circle,” peels back another of the fairy-stories passed off as spiritual history – and their indignation glares from every page.

To begin with, the word Tarot is not derived from “Tar-Rho … which means royal road,” nor from “T’a’Rosh, the science of cosmogony,” which isn’t Egyptian either.

In fact, what we now know as the standard playing card deck came first, and the Major Arcana were originally common symbols, some of which we still understand (Justice, the Lovers, Death, for instance). Much of the Tarot lore attributed to De Gébelin was common currency among Freemasons in his day.

The entire book raises the issue of authenticity; of generations and layers of tradition versus a return to primeval truth, a “Protestantism” of divination, if you like. But the historical-critical truth about the Tarot is relatively trivial, making “Tarot fundamentalism” much more attractive than religious fundamentalism, for instance.

Decker, DePaulis, and Dummet are meticulously gossipy about all the great Tarot luminaries; suffice to say that all the glittering legends are stripped away, revealing a crew no more glamorous than you and me. The traditions of Tarot divination were established by grocers, hairdressers and Christian clergyman, just as other religious (“spiritual”?) traditions were established by fishermen, shepherds and caravan leaders.*

There is a great deal of painfully meticulous crawling along centuries-old paper trails.  The book is filled with obsessive detail about the movements, work history, and marriages of these linchpins of Tarot history, which is occasionally interesting.  For the lay reader, this is reminiscent of the begats in the Bible.

In chapter 6, one-third of the way through the book, Mademoiselle LeNormand suddenly appears – but only because the divinatory cards associated with her have been miscalled Tarot:

Although she filled her books with anecdotes about her life and the people she met, and although many works have been published on her career – there are at least six biographies, not to mention dictionary entries – it is not easy to trace the real life of Mlle. LeNormand. Most of her assertions are spurious, many of her biographers are forgers, recognized or not.

The authors spend more ink on the publication data of LeNormand’s bibliography than on its contents, which are (perhaps deservingly) dismissed with a sneer. Mademoiselle LeNormand’s autobiography is a promotional item. She also wrote a biography of the Empress Josephine which had very little history in it. The authors are not at all impressed. She wrote a number of (largely inaccurate) prophecies about contemporary French politics, and promised even more. This chapter wades through about a million times more than I ever wanted to know about Mademoiselle LeNormand before finally getting to the subject of LeNormand cards.

The cards now called by her name were not invented by her and were certainly unknown to her; apparently she used many other divinatory systems – and, for that matter, many kinds of cards. These cards, and other decks intended solely for fortune telling, were designed only after her death. (One of these days I’ll open my new LeNormand card deck and compare it to the description given in this book.)

A designer whose name is unfamiliar to me, Edward Moulth, impresses the authors as the first author of a Tarot manual – that is, an instruction book about how to read the cards – who is both sincere and knowledgeable.

By the time of Eliphas Lévi, science and hucksterism had almost extinguished the Renaissance cosmology on which Western high magic was based.**

Lévi was the great synthesizer and popularizer of the various strands of Western magical traditions. For this, despite his “bombastic” writing and “slipshod” scholarship, the authors praise him highly; and yet —

[Regarding Etteilla’s view that, with nothing more than the Tarot as a guide, one could acquire knowledge of “all things:”]

It is a pity that this fact is not known to scientists; instead of squandering billions on space telescopes and particle accelerators, they could discover all they wanted to know for the expenditure of some £10 or so.

I think the authors get some of their snark from Eliphas Lévi, whose assessment of Etteilla scorches the page.

“The Tarot was not, for Lévi, to be considered on its own, but only as it intertwined with all the rest” of the traditions of Western high magic. He returned to the earlier idea of correspondence between Hebrew letters and the Major Arcana, which the Order of the Golden Dawn later rejected.  One thing Lévi has in common with his predecessors (and successors): he made a lot of things up.

There follows a gossipy, entertaining biographical sketch. In fact, about a third of this book is gossipy biographical sketches.

Each of the chapters is devoted to one great name in Tarot lore, and to his or her principal contribution: Lévi and the association with Kabbalah, and the need to “rectify” the Tarot deck; de Gébelin and the supposed Egyptian origin; Paul Christian and the astrological correspondences (and the free and deliberate use of not-true data); Etteilla’s … well, he was the first, after Court de Gébelin, to approach all of these. Vaillant’s chief contribution was developing the deep roots of the Romany Tarot tradition, which the Romany themselves did not take up until the 20th century.

Papus, the subject of the final chapter, sounds like someone I would have liked to know: a medical man whose house was full of strange and wonderful magical objects, who “presented the appearance, not of a magus, but of a bon vivant.” He is described as a clear and systematic (and copious) writer and a quick study, but not an extremely original thinker. He was also a great founder and builder of occult organizations.

I must confess I was not able to finish this book – it was simply too much of a muchness. The combination of true gossip and meticulous pedantry is arresting, but over-rich. This is a book to buy, not borrow – if you can find it – if you can afford it once you find it.

And I must say that it is a fangy, vinegary pleasure to gossip about the hubris and scandals of occultists (or folklorists) long dead. I thought only catherine yronwode did that.

*Mohammed is usually described as camel driver, but he actually managed caravans for his wife, a successful merchant. You can find details in Karen Armstrong’s Mohammed: a Biography, I believe.

**The authors pause to define “high magic”:  “In Richard Cavendish’s illuminating definition, it is ‘an attempt to gain so consummate an understanding and mastery of oneself and the environment as to transcend all human limitations and become superhuman or divine.'”

2 thoughts on “Book Review: A Wicked Pack of Cards

  1. Oh man. I love detailed histories, but the last thing we need is more fundamentalism encroaching on the occult. It’s all too painfully present in the world of grimoire magic. One of the sad byproducts of the age in which we live is the unconscious desire to have art (and so magic) work like science. Magic will never be science and will never have the mundane respectability of science. Mystery and, yes, even hucksterism are what keep it liminal, moving through the dark beyond the edges of our neat-and-tidy whited sepulchres!

  2. Well, this is the beauty of “higher criticism”: It forces you to penetrate into the mystical, poetic, magical, down-below-the-subconscious meaning of a text, if you are to retain it at all! So _A Wicked Pack of Cards_ is a valuable book, though dry.

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