Thinking How the Tarot Smuggled Paganism to the Present

In my twenties, the Tarot was about the most “occult” thing around that I could bring out in public settings. I learned to read the cards semi-competently and had some adventures thereby. When I made it through an evening of reading for casual strangers in a nightclub, I figured that I was probably at my pinnacle.1)I told a woman that she was pregnant althought it did not show. I was right—she already knew.

Then I moved into other things more and more, including other types of divination. 2)For some good short essays on divination, read John Michael Greer on “The Speech of the Stars” and “Foundations of Magical Practice: Divination.” I did write a little on the history of the Tarot, then pretty much shelved my cards.3)They are now unshelved, however. At one point I had thought of collecting Tarot decks — that was right about when the number of decks exploded! From the short list (Marseille, Waite-Smith, Crowley’s Thoth deck, Palladini’s Aquarian Tarot, and few others), we went to practically a “Tarot Deck of the Week.” U.S. Games Systems has a few. “The Undersea Tarot,” anyone?

Some months back, I was reading something that Thorn Mooney had written on Tarot, maybe her Tarot Skeptic blog. We see each other at long intervals; otherwise, it’s email, so I wrote and asked her what historical books on Tarot she would recommend. One was out of my price range.4)It might as well have been published by Brill. The other was The History of the Occult Tarot by Roanld Decker and Michael Dummett.

I bought the book. I read through 200-plus pages of Rosicrucians, Freemasons, ceremonial magicians, astrologers, Western Qabbalists, etc.5)Overlapping categories, yes. trying to force the Tarot to mesh with these other systems, such as the Hebrew alphabet. If it did not mesh, they hammered on it until some sort of fit was achieved, as in A. E. Waite’s switching of the Strength and Judgement cards to fit his scheme.

It all seemed part of Western esotericism’s ongoing demand for a system Where Everything Fits Together and Corresponds with Everything Else — a demand that seems informed by a quasi-monotheistic or Platonic outlook.

But what if it will not all fit together? The Tarot deck itself is a mashup. You have the four symbolic elements, which are also social groups, as favored in the Indo-European tradition:6)Other  cultures get along with three, five, or whatever. Air/spades/swords/aristocracy; Fire/wands/clubs/farmers; Earth/pentacles/diamonds/merchants & craftsmen; Water/cups/hearts/priesthood.7)If you follow George Dumézil’s “trifunctional hypothesis”, you might think of this as 3 + 1, with merchants being the 1 split of from class 3, the commoners.

Built on top of that is an upper story derived from “the Pagan dream of the Renaissance,” to borrow the title of Joscelyn Godwin’s excellent book on “the almost untold story of how the rediscovery of the pagan [sic], mythological imagination during the Renaissance brought a profound transformation to European culture.”

As Decker and Dummett write in their section on Tarot-writer Eden Gray, her interpretation of Tarot symbolism was “based not on occult fantasy, but on themes well known to art historians.”8)Still she could not stop trying to glue on some “Cabalism, astrology, and numerology.” Art historians have more to offer here than do correspondence-obsessed magicians, I suggest.

Consider the observations of William Lindsay Gresham, who wrote a preface to one editing of Charles Williams’ Tarot-based novel The Greater Trumps and created his own Tarot-influenced noir novel, Nightmare Alley. He wrote,

The Tarot is not a mnemonic device for a set doctrime, it would seem, but a philosophical slide-rule on which the individual can work his own metaphysical and religious equations.

So forget the Hebrew alphabetic correspondences. Think instead of the Tarot as the product of some (probably aristocratic and/or clerical) creative dreamers living in (most likely) northern Italy in the 15th century. They were not Pagan as such, but they might have been what we could call “Pagan re-enactors,” trying intellectually and artistically to reinhabit the world of Greco-Roman Paganism.

They took artistic and philosophical themes of their time and grafted them onto a pre-existing card game. Among the pages of this “book” the old gods and archetypes snuggled in for a journey of five or six centuries.

Notes   [ + ]

1. I told a woman that she was pregnant althought it did not show. I was right—she already knew.
2. For some good short essays on divination, read John Michael Greer on “The Speech of the Stars” and “Foundations of Magical Practice: Divination.”
3. They are now unshelved, however.
4. It might as well have been published by Brill.
5. Overlapping categories, yes.
6. Other  cultures get along with three, five, or whatever.
7. If you follow George Dumézil’s “trifunctional hypothesis”, you might think of this as 3 + 1, with merchants being the 1 split of from class 3, the commoners.
8. Still she could not stop trying to glue on some “Cabalism, astrology, and numerology.”