The Tarot: History, Symbolism & Divination

The Tarot: History, Symbolism & Divination is well-grounded and factual account of the Tarot's development in the Renaissance and its mystical roots history and evolution. Author Robert Place also offers information on the card symbology, and practical techniques for using the cards in divination.

By Robert M. Place · Book · Published by Tarcher

Review by Bonnie Cehovet

For those who have followed author/artist Robert Place's work, The Tarot - History, Symbolism, and Divination will be seen as a natural progression of thought and wisdom. In his previous work (including The Alchemical Tarot and The Angels Tarot (with Rosemary Ellen Guilley), The Tarot of the Saints, and The Buddha Tarot and its companion book) Place has delved into Kabbalistic, alchemical and Christian mysticism, the correlation between Christian saints and the archetypes of the Tarot, and the connection between the life of Buddha and the journey that is the Tarot. He is a recognized expert on the Tarot, as well as the Western mystical tradition.

What struck me about this book was that not only does it endeavor to set down a solid foundation for the history and symbolism of the Tarot, it is itself a part of the living history of Tarot. Several years ago, when I first became involved with the Internet, I was led to one of the predominate Tarot e-groups of that time. I consider myself honored and blessed to have been able to interact with knowledgeable historians of our time, including Robert Place, Robert O'Neill, Tom Tadfor Little and the late Brian Williams. These gentlemen showed themselves to be very wise, yet very real people. Their thoughts, as well as the thoughts of historians Ronald Decker and Michael Dummett, and the inimitable A.E. Waite himself, are interwoven throughout this book. What an awe inspiring feeling to know that we have been gifted with front row seats to view the ongoing play that is Tarot history!

Place has divided this book into six major sections: The History of Tarot; The Mythical History of Tarot; The Search For Meaning; Interpreting the Major and Minor Arcana; The Waite-Smith Tarot; and Hieroglyphs From the Soul. Each section leads seamlessly into the next, creating a wonderful, colorful tapestry, where the Seeker can look both forward and backward at the journey that is Tarot, sift truth from fiction, and develop their own conscious picture of what the Tarot is and can be.

Place's personal Tarot journey has its own place in this story. From his introduction to Tarot in college, through his abortive beginning efforts to birth his own Tarot deck, to the dream that would change his journey - it is clear that the path of Tarot and his personal path were meant to be joined. He has to date created four decks on the Tarot, and written four Tarot books. He has connected Tarot to the paths of Buddha, Saints, Angels and alchemy.

In his introduction, he notes that occultists from the eighteenth century on have recognized in the Tarot a mystical philosophy. Here is where the fun begins, as Place shows us how some of the more fanciful theories for the origin of the Tarot came about - such as having it originate in ancient Egypt, or even Morocco or China. He also refers to a "forced" connection with systems such as the Kabalah, the Hebrew alphabet and astrology. He goes on to point out that historian can correct factual errors, but they have not addressed the symbolism of Tarot.

Place has chosen to address this issue through its historic origins in the Italian Renaissance, referencing the iconography and symbolism of that era, and exploring the relationship of this art to the ancient mystical philosophy revered by Renaissance artists and writers. In this manner, he hopes to bring about an understanding of the actual development of the Tarot, while showing the mystical philosophy and symbolism that stand behind its various uses.

This book works with, in the main, the Waite-Smith Tarot. At the beginning of each chapter is placed a quote from one of A.E. Waite's writings. What better way to get to know the larger than life person who had such an influence on the Tarot, yet whose character is so enigmatic as to be misunderstood, at best.

In the section entitled "The History of the Tarot", we get a birds eye view of the Tarot from the fifteenth century on. I find this fascinating, as we review some of the more fanciful theories, such as the one that has it originating in ancient Egypt and being spread through Europe by Gypsies. Then there is the deal with the secret code in the trump cards! Place points out that these theories have placed a large gap between the fifteenth-century Italian artists who illustrated the first Tarot decks and modern day users of the Tarot.

Here in one place we have all of the information that we see in snippets on Tarot e-lists. How the Tarot originated as a game - the precursor to the modern game of bridge. How the early decks show a consistency in the use of five suits (the trumps are considered to be a fifth suit in this book). What I found interesting about the fifth suit (the trumps) is that in early decks they were unnumbered and untitled, and varied in number. Place also talks about the Fool as a "wild card", which can be played as a trump, but which cannot win a game. The trumps, together with the Fool, illustrate a mystical allegory (which is the backbone of this book).

It is fascinating to read about the decks, where they come from, and who the artists were. There is a great deal of information here about the Marseilles style decks that I appreciated. Also interesting was the history of paper, beginning in China. There are illustrations of Chinese money cards that show the equivalent of four different suits - with the thought that in China, in the beginning, paper cards for games and paper money may have been the same thing.

From Asia, paper making spread towards the Middle East. New card games were developed, the size of the cards changed, and images of gods, kings, and heros began to be painted on them. One of the most interesting charts in the book has to do with the various European countries, and their hieroglyphics for the four suits. (It was interesting to see the curved sword versus the straight sword here.)

What makes this book move are the snippets of information tossed into the mix - such as the Marseilles decks being a group, or family, of decks, rather than one particular deck. There is an excellent discussion of the seven virtues (the four cardinal virtues of temperance, strength, justice and prudence, from classical philosophy, and the three added "Christian" virtues of faith, hope and charity), and why this allegory differed from deck to deck.

Building on the factual history of the Tarot, we move on to "The Mythical History of the Tarot". Place refers to this as the second stage of Tarot history, the occult or modern stage. Here we start to hear some very familiar names: Court de G´Pin (to whom all occult theories can be traced), Etteilla, Eliphas Levi, Papas, and A.E. Waite. It was through Paul Christian, the charlatan who forged evidence connecting the Tarot and ancient Egyptian mystery cults that we owe the term "arcana", or "secrets".

It is interesting to see how these individuals lived their lives, why they believed what they did, and how they were able to get their various beliefs accepted. Here we begin to understand how the Tarot is a product of its time, and why it has gone through the changes that it has. Part of what makes this section so very powerful is the wonderful illustrations from the older decks, several of which are illustrations from de G´Pins deck. Also included in this section are discussions of Hermes Trismegistus, the book of Thoth, alchemy, and Renaissance and modern Hermeticism. Place refers to what he terms the six qualities of hermeticism: (1) the world is a living being; (2) the value of imagination; (3) the idea of correspondence; (4) the belief in transmutation; (5) the perennial philosophy; and (6) spiritual truth is gained through transmission or initiation.

Kabalah and the Sepher Yetzirah are presented, along with a chart of correspondences between the thirty-two paths and: their Hebrew letter, meaning, macrocosm, calendar (season), and microcosm. In this same section we find Levi's correspondences for the four suits, relating them to evangelist angel, Zodiac fixed sign, elements, alchemical essence, tetragrammaton, and kabbalistic world.

In the section entitled "The Search For Meaning", Place addresses Neoplatonism, and its place in the Tarot world. Neoplatonism is defined as a group of Western philosophies that synthesize the philosophy of Plato with other philosophical and mystical systems. Here we are introduced to the Pythagorean tetractys, the seven runged ladder, and the three parts of the soul. It is in this section that we begin to see how the Tarot makes use of the "triumphant parade" to organize the trumps, as well as the mythical storylines.

In "Interpreting the Major and Minor Arcana", Place makes use of the Marseilles deck, which he sees as the blueprint for later eighteenth- and nineteenth-century occult decks, as well as for the Waite-Smith deck. Each of the major arcana are discussed for their symbology and for their mystical content. Included in this section is a list of suit correspondences, developed by Place, that associate each suit with an evangelist, a symbolic creature, Zodiac sign, element, elemental creature, social class, divinatory theme, virtue, and psychological function.

In "The Waite-Smith Deck", Place gives a short biography for both A.E. Waite and Pamela Colman Smith, as well as a very good background on the deck itself. This is followed by a discussion of each of the seventy-eight cards, their background influences and symbology.

In "Hieroglyphs From The Soul", Place does some of his best work. This is a section about reading the cards, and is something that shines in each of his books. He sees the Tarot as a spiritual tool that works, through its archetypal images, to assist our Higher Self to guide us to enlightened choices and spiritual wisdom. He recommends three card readings as a Tarot staple, and sets out a guideline for interpreting them called "The Six Patterns". These patterns are: linear, choice, central origin, central destination, the central problem and the central teacher. Place gives easy to follow examples for each of the six patterns.

Several spreads are presented, including a nine card relationship spread (cards 1-3 represent the querant; then there is a space, with cards 4-6, representing the other person or the issue; with cards 7-9, defined as the bridge, centered above. There is a Seven Soul Centers, which is a representation of the seven chakras, with three cards placed in each chakra position. This is followed by a Twelve House spread, which is a basic astrological reading with three cards in each house position. Place ends the book with a short instruction on meditating with the cards.

I am impressed with the depth and scope of this book. In one place, we see a factual history of the Tarot, mini-stories of the individuals that played such a large part in developing it, the "story behind the story" of the development of the early European decks, the how and why of the symbology of the cards, what the allegory of the trumps is, and ... a very good method for reading the cards! A top resource book, well reasoned and well presented. Thumbs up for Tarot - History, Symbolism and Divination!

© 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.

Review by Solandia

"A comprehensive guide to the mysterious and potent Tarot deck: its often misunderstood history, its symbolical meaning, and its practical uses as a tool for inner knowledge."

Robert M. Place is an established and respected name in the Tarot world. He’s the author behind the Tarot of the Saints, the Angel Tarot, the Alchemical Tarot and most recently the Buddha Tarot, plus four books other books on Tarot. In his latest book, The Tarot: History, Symbolism and Divination, Robert has written a thoroughly researched guide to the Tarot, on which he lays out the evidence for his belief that the Tarot is a product of the popular art of the Renaissance.

Place connects the dots of Tarot history and offers a clear and logical picture of its development in the Renaissance and then further to the early 20th century, combining this with a practical understanding of the cards and their use for divinatory guidance and intuitive insight. Rather than simply writing from the perspective of an academic historian or Tarot teacher offering insight on the cards, he has drawn on the existing works and research by notable Tarot scholars and academics Dummett and Decker, John Opsopaus, and Robert O’Neill, in his search for meaning.

The search for meaning is deep, tracing back to Plato and Pythagorus’s philosophies and their adaptation in Renaissance stories and art, and how the philosophies came to influence the artists of the time. Place shows that Tarot is based on a mystical philosophy with its roots in ancient mysticism; that its message was dressed in the art and popular symbols of the Middle Ages and Renaissance in a way that would have been familiar to people at the time. Far from Tarot having Egyptian or occult origins, the book explains that it is firmly a child of the Renaissance and most likely Renaissance Italy.

The two main eras covered are the Renaissance and modern Tarot after 1781 - a date chosen because of De Gebelin’s publications of the first set of occult interpretations for the Tarot – until the publication of the Rider-Waite Tarot. Similarly, the group of closely-linked decks known as the Tarot of Marseilles and the Rider-Waite Tarot are the two main Tarot decks studied in this book. The former because of its position as an early deck and pattern that seems to be closest to what was available in the fifteenth century and then became the blueprint for later decks, including the Rider-Waite which has been influential in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Chapter by chapter, Place moves in a logical progression from a broad historical overview, to specific cards and their details, then to the use of the cards. Beginning with the history of Tarot cards, we then move onto the history of the magickal and occult systems later attached to the Tarot images. The book delves deeply into the historical context and mystical nature of the Tarot imagery and symbolism, attributing Neo-Platonism to the conceptual roots of the Tarot. (Place explains that Neo-Platonism is a term for a group of Western philosophies that see Plato as a mystic, and share Platonic principles. These principles include the idea of correspondences; the mystic quest; the concept of the world as alive; the archetype; and a belief that the purpose of life is to transmute – to progress to a higher spiritual state.)

Further on, Place then goes through each trump card of the Tarot of Marseilles individually, illustrating his explanations with cards from the Francois Chosson Tarot, period paintings and 16th century Italian decks. The following chapter moves onto the Rider-Waite Tarot, offering a background to the deck and placing it in its historical and occult context. Place infers that Pamela Colman-Smith was the creator of the fine detail and scenes of the cards, and that Waite provided a broad outline and focused primarily on the “more important” major arcana. It is also suggested that Pamela’s images were influenced by her theatrical training as well as the cards of the Sola Busca Tarot, a 15th century deck which had pictorial majors. Following the background information, each of Colman-Smith’s 78 cards is pictured and the symbolism and divinatory meaning is described and explained.

The final part of the book, Hieroglyphs from the Soul, covers the use of Tarot cards for divinatory guidance, with instructions for forming a question and laying out the cards, six patterns or permutations of the three-card spread and sample readings to assist in illustrating, and further exercises with more complicated spreads.

I found Place’s book to be a fascinating look at the lesser-known area of the history of Tarot cards and Tarot symbolism. His writing style is a little staccato and scholarly, but is packed with information. Place leads us to greater understanding of the influences that contributed to the creation of Tarot and its significant later developments - showing us that it was a product of Renaissance ideas, concepts of the world, art and common symbolism.

The Tarot: History, Symbolism and Divination is well-researched, well-organised, and well worth adding to a Tarot bookshelf. Highly recommended for anyone with a serious interest in Tarot, and a desire to deepen their knowledge of the cards.

Kate Hill is the owner, founder and editor of Aeclectic Tarot, and has reviewed more than 200 decks over the years.

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