Review by Bonnie Cehovet
Thanks go to Jean-Michel David for including an excerpt from this book in the January 2006 edition of the Association For Tarot Studies e-newsletter. I found the excerpt very interesting, and wanted to see what else this author had to say. I also found it interesting that I had just finished a review of the Babylonian Tarot, by Sandra Tabatha Cicero, which is based on the deities and myths of Mesopotamia - the very territory that Swift is addressing.
Cicero follows a very traditional structure in her deck, while using Mesopotamian deities and myths as a foundation. She feels strongly that the cultural background of Mesopotamia (also known as Babylonia) can be seen as the root of Western Ceremonial Magick.
Swift starts out with the thought that perhaps authors of Tarot books claim that the origin of the Tarot is unknown because they really prefer not to know, as if it is better left a "mystery". He also posits that after reading this book the reader may find it hard to justify the manner in which they are accustomed to using the Tarot. His wry sense of humor is evident from the very beginning of the book. In his author's bio he states that he at one time attempted a Tarot reading for friends using their photographs as a focal point, as they were not present. What he found was that everything he saw happening to them ended up happening to him instead!
Swift's premise for this book is that while some of the current favorite theories of the origins of the Tarot may have some truth in them, that this truth appears in a very distorted form, and that they all miss the most important points. He also holds to the belief that there is no "correct order" to the Tarot. (One might ask here: "Whatever happened to the Fool's/Hero's Journey?".) He is adamant that there is no aspect of the cards that dictates a specific/sequential order. An important operating thesis here is that all Tarot decks are derived from the Marseilles Tarot.
The body of this book is Swift's linking of the imagery in the Marseilles deck to the iconography of ancient Mesopotamian cylinder seals, and he does an excellent job of this. Scans of the Tarot cards and representations of the seals that they are being compared to are thought provoking, to say the least!
Each of the Major Arcana are discussed - although not in any set order. (Indeed, there is no table of contents - this is one continuous work, not broken down into chapters at all.) There is a great deal of personal "chat", and reference to current culture (such as TV shows) that may not stand the test of time. What is there more than makes up for these idiosyncrasies.
There are in-depth discussions of the imagery of the seals, and how it transfers to the Tarot (and it does so remarkably well). Sufi myths are presented in a story-like manner (I read this book in one sitting - it is that interesting!), and there is a great deal of discussion of word derivations, sound-alike words, the alphabet etc. The work of many of the masters is referenced in a knowledgeable manner (masters such as Madam Blavatsky, Idries Shah, Gurdjieff, and many more Sufi writers), and in a manner that is easily understood by those of us who may not have the background that we would like to have on esoteric subjects.
Tossed in amongst this mix are such jewels as Madam Blavatsky's belief that the first three sephiroth are actually blinds, and the notation that horns on individuals found on the seals indicate not that they are "devils", but that they are Gods, with multiple horns indicating high ranking gods.
While the reader is free to disagree with Swift on any or all of his suppositions, my feeling is that this book at the very least presents ideas for further study, and opens the mind in many ways - not only as to the origins of the Tarot, but as a mini-study in word derivation and usage. I am left with the thought that this material certainly warrants further study, and that the material here has found its time. I should mention here that there is an extensive bibliography, in case the reader does want to do some research of their own.
Swift presents a good amount of information from this book on his Internet site. It is well worth visiting, as included amongst the text are scans of some of the seals that are being referred to - very much an "Aha!" experience!
This is a limited edition, hand bound book of 317 pages, with illustrations from material held at the British Museum, the Directorate General of Antiquities in Baghdad, the Hermer Verlag in Munich, the Louvre in Paris, the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City, the Vorderasiatisches Museum in Berlin and in private collections.
© Bonnie Cehovet
Bonnie Cehovet is Certified Tarot Grand Master, a professional Tarot reader with over ten years experience, a Reiki Master/Teacher and a writer. Bonnie has served in various capacities with the American Tarot Association, is co-founder of the World Tarot Network, and Vice President (as well as Director of Certification) for the American Board For Tarot Certification. She has had articles appear in the 2004 and 2005 Llewellyn Tarot Reader.