Origins of the Tarot
In Origins of the Tarot: Cosmic Evolution and the Principles of Immortality, Dai Leon shows how the influences of diverging esoteric traditions came together to produce the tool of tarot. This well-researched book is aimed at readers in both the world of tarot, and that of philosophy and science.
By Dai Leon
Book - 560 pages - Published by Frog Books
Review by Bonnie Cehovet
This is not a book for the faint hearted. Dai Leon is a lifelong student of East-West philosophy and contemplation, raised as a Catholic and schooled as a mathematics savant in the United States in the 1960’s and 1970’s, he studied directly under the Venerable Gai-fu Feng, the head of the Stillpoint Foundation in Colorado. Dai Leon’s work is that of an emissary between modern and traditional cultures, and scientific and spiritual domains.
In “Origins of the Tarot” Leon takes the roots of Tarot far back in time, showing how divergent streams of ancient wisdom influenced each other to produce the tool of empowerment that we know as the Tarot. The range of esoteric traditions that he draws from include Kabbalah, Western esotericism and alchemy, Buddhism, Taoism, yogic disciplines, Sufism, mystical Christianity, Gnosticism and Neoplatonism.
Leon does not speak to hear himself talk. The target audience for this book is a combination of those in the Tarot world, and those in the philosophical and scientific fields. While this is definitely a resource book, it is written at a level that can be understood by anyone who seriously makes the attempt.
From the book: “The Tarot became known as a divining tool because it imparted to the studied and contemplative user a true and profound awareness of natural law.” The Tarot is seen as “a unique exemplification of perennial teachings on the soul and its liberation, as well as a still unfolding window into concealed currents of human history.”
As Christine Payne-Towler indicated in her review – this is a book whose time has come. She also makes another very important point in that Leon does not feel the need to defend his arguments – instead, he has included an in depth bibliography for each individual chapter, so that the reader can go to the source and make their own decisions. (Leon himself made the point in the beginning of the book that he did not include footnotes because he felt that they would not be of benefit for his intended audience, but that the chapter by chapter bibliography would.)
We have all read snippets of Tarot history, and have some idea of where various influences came from. What Leon presents here is much more in depth than I have seen anywhere before. We are walked through different cultures, and the influences that they had on each other. How on city might become involved in a war not for any altruistic purposes, but to take on an arch rival city, and how politics and religion influenced each other.
Leon sees the Tarot as a spiritual ascension, developed through a ten stage process of enlightenment. He sees a continuity between the initiatory Way of Dionysus and the Quest portrayed in the Tarot Triumphs. (Interesting note – the individual on the quest for the purposes of this book is known as the Questor, rather than the Seeker.)
From the book: “… It is the thesis of this book that the twenty-two images conceptually originated in Sufi circles trained in Greek studies. An unknown Eastern Christian-influenced artist then portrayed those concepts via playing cards similar, if not identical, to the iconic images shown in this book.”
I loved the presentation of this work, which includes a scan from an older deck on the top outer corner of each page, with commentary on the card relating to the quest. Leon has designated two cards to each of the ten stages of the journey, and presents them throughout the book with commentary. They are:
Requesting Liberation (The Fool, The Magician)
Molded Luminosity (The Empress, The Popess)
Passionate Intercourse (The Emperor, The Pope)
Streaming Recognition (Temperance, Love)
Secreted Forbearance (The Chariot, Fortitude)
Spirited Intimacy (Wheel of Fortune, Hermit)
Ecstatic Empowerment (Devil, Tower)
Mirrored Wisdom (The Star, The Moon)
Continuous Resurrection (The Sun, The Angel)
Liberated Bliss (Justice, The World)
At the end of the book Leon presents each of the Triumphs, with the following associations: Traditional Triumph, Immortal Name, Sufi Station, Cosmic Stage, Social Stage, Questor Stage, Keys, Strengths, and Dangers.
It takes time to process the information in this book. It may not be a book that you read straight through – but it is a book that has a tremendous amount of information in it. Whether you agree with Leon or not, he gives you food for thought, and presents excellent references that can be followed up on by the reader.
I also see this as the type of book that would be a great help to someone on their own quest in that connections are made between many diverse traditions and schools of thought. In reading this work, an individual has the chance to solidify their own thinking, and their own path.
I would recommend this book for intermediate or advanced Tarot students. It is also one of those things that comes into your life, but you set it aside for use at a later date. Don’t worry – that later date will come!
© 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.
Review by Katrina Wynne, M.A.
Reading “Origins of the Tarot” was a body-mind-spirit resonance of Bliss with the Beloved for me. It is a rare book that touches so profoundly into the heart of our individual and collective soul.
“Origins of the Tarot” is a complex and comprehensive treatise on Eastern influences and their relationship with Western philosophy and religion, leading up to and deeply formulating what we now call Tarot. In essence, it traces the non-dualistic roots of Tarot from Europe, back to the East, along the Silk Road, and beyond.
For those interested in the history of philosophy and religion, this is the equivalent of a college-level course with its expansive details. It traces a complicated confluence of crossed and criss-crossed influences from Indo-Aryan "shamanic cultures" to ancient Greek philosophy and myths, Buddhism, Taoism, Sufism, Neoplatonism, Kabbalah, Hermeticism, Gnosticism, Eastern Christianity, Western Christianity, and Celtic culture, including the metaphysical concepts of alchemy, tantrism, and Eros.
At its heart, this work is a philosophical study following the weaving of dual and nondual values as they stream together, influencing, sometimes repelling, each other throughout our history of evolution as intelligent beings.
Tarot enthusiasts will find this is to be a radically different interpretation of the basic template of our modern Tarot’s major arcana. Yet, knowledgeable scholars of Tarot will recognize these deeper roots and how they informed the pre-Renaissance sequence and power of each Tarot Trump, or Triumph. When seen through the wisdom of nondual values as they move through the hierarchy of stages toward immortality, this preeminent template of Triumphs constitutes an amazing model of evolution, our spiritual potential reflecting back to us through the visual archetypes of the Tarot.
This movement toward our spiritual potential is the most powerful argument and I suspect the reason for the creation of this impressive labor of love, as found within its title “…Cosmic Evolution and the Principles of Immortality.”
For some folks, Léon’s writing style may be circuitous, dense and difficult to follow. On the surface, it does not appear to apply a linear outline, but topics are well-rounded discussions of major concepts with their multiple influences. I particularly appreciate his vast knowledge, extensive references, and precise vocabulary.
This is a must read for any serious student of Tarot wisdom.
Katrina Wynne, M.A. is an international metaphysical teacher and personal counselor. She has studied Tarot and other metaphysical traditions since 1972. She is the creator of the "Tarot History" poster, "My Sacred Journey" books and the weblog, MySacredJourney.org.