Mystical Origins of the Tarot: From Ancient Roots to Modern Usage

Mystical Origins of the Tarot is a well-researched and well-written reference book discussing the development and background of Tarot, its symbols and its divinatory meanings.

· Book · Published by Destiny Books

Review by Bonnie Cehovet

Several years ago, when I first began my Internet life, I had the great fortune to have my sister give me a heads up about a wonderful Tarot e-list. From following the threads on this list, I was able to learn not only about card definitions and combinations, but about the differences between decks, about Tarot symbology, and about the wonderfully rich history of Tarot. Life can be a wonderful school if you are in the right place at the right time.

It took me a long time to put names and faces together, to be able to follow a Tarot timeline, and to know where to look for more information. Help came along in the way of resources such as Mary Greer's Women Of The Golden Dawn, and Brian William's Minchiate Tarot. I devoured them, and went back to them again and again, each time learning more.

Those who have the good fortune to read Mystical Origins Of The Tarot are presented with a well researched, well written resource that allows them to follow the origins and development of Tarot, including the background of the symbols on the cards. (It should be noted here that Paul Huson's background includes studies with both the Society of Inner Light (formed by Dion Fortune) and the Order of the Golden Dawn.) I was impressed with the author's respect for and acknowledgment of his sources, as well as the fact that someone that I personally hold in high regard concerning historical Tarot matters, Mary Greer, read one of the initial drafts and had input into the project.

Paul Huson was originally contemplating a revision and update to a much earlier Tarot book that he had authored, entitled The Devil's Picturebook. Where the first book was largely speculation, enough time had gone by, and enough new resources had surfaced, that a completely new book was indicated.

Paul Huson defined three questions, or areas of question, that he felt needed to be addressed. They were:

  • What was the origin of the suit card symbols, and what did they stand for?
  • What was the source of the trumps, and what was their original import?
  • When and why did people begin using the cards for divination - that is, as a means of acquiring spiritual guidance or discovering hidden information?

Throughout this book you will find black and white illustrations of early Tarot decks done by Paul Huson. It adds a great deal of meaning to a book when you can "see" what the author is talking about. It very much puts me in mind of Brian Williams outstanding work. Another interesting tid bit was a one page chronology of Tarot history from the 14th to the 20th centuries. Rather like a synopsis of what was to come in the following chapters!

In his introduction, Huson begins with the Mamlk decks (15th century hand painted cards from Egypt). He goes on to talk about the court cards, and how they came about. It is interesting to note that in the Mamlk decks the court cards show the suit sign, and a description of the title in calligraphy, sometimes with the addition of flowery prose. The reason for this? In Islam there was a prohibition again depicting the human figure! In some later decks additional court cards were added - such as a female Knight. It is also interesting to note that the titles for the court cards varied from culture to culture.

When it comes to the Tarot trumps, it seems that they were added to the deck to give some extra help in trick taking (Tarot being predominately a game at this point). Huson goes into the various artists behind the decks, as well as their patrons and the regions that various decks originated in. Changes in the style of Tarot decks is discussed here also - such as the advent of the minchiate Tarot, which differed from the prevalent tarocchi decks in changes that were made to the trumps - i.e. the Female Pope becoming the Grand Duke, the Empress becoming the Western Emperor and the Emperor becoming the Eastern Emperor.

There is an excellent discussion of the suit symbols, and their evolvement differed in France and Italy. Here we begin to look at things that we generally take for granted, and do not think about. Were the suit symbols chosen in a random manner, were they reflective of the culture that they came from, or do they have great esoteric meaning? This is really a fun section to go through, as Huson presents many different sides to the picture, and doesn't hesitate to present the opinions and arguments of others (especially those of Michael Dummet). An interesting aside in this section is reference to the cardinal virtues, and their inclusion in the Tarot.

From there we go on to the Tarot Trumps, and the history behind them. It is quite interesting to read the arguments presented here - influence from Mystery, Miracle and Morality plays, and from the work Dance of Death (Dance Macabre).

In the section on cartomancy and the Tarot, there is an interesting chronological sequence of documented occult Tarot. Here we see names that many of us are familiar with (at least to some extent): Etteilla, liphas Lvi, Aleister Crowley and Arthur Edward Waite - and we see how they flow in a given sequence. Huson talks about Egyptian magic and the Book of Thoth, and how the Kabbala came to be associated with Tarot. (There is an excellent chart giving the Kabbalistic attributions for the Tarot included here.) There is also mention of the Golden Dawn, and their method of assigning zodiacal decans to the minor arcana.

Now the fun starts, as Huson goes through the Trumps, Minor Arcana and court cards, discussing the meaning of the card, listing the original cartomantic interpretations from several sources ( Pratesi's Cartomancer (1750), De Mellet (1781), Lvi (1855), Christian (1870), Mathers (1888), Golden Dawn (1888-96), Grand Orient (Waite, 1889, 1909) and Waite (1910), as well as his own suggested interpretation. From the book:

The Fool

Pratesi's Cartomancer (1750): Madness. De Mellet (1781): Madness. He has no rank. Lvi (1855):The Hebrew letter Shin, the Fool. The sensitive principle, the flesh, eternal life. Christian (1870): Arcanum 0. The Crocodile. Expiation. The punishment following every error. You can see here a blind man carrying a beggar's wallet, about to collide with a broken obelisk on which a crocodile waits with open jaws. The crocodile is the emblem of fate and the inevitable expiation. Mathers (1888): The Foolish Man: Folly, expiation, wavering. Reversed: Hesitation, instability, trouble arising herefrom. Golden Dawn (1888-96): The Spirit of the Ether. Foolish Man: Idea, spirituality, that which endeavors to rise above the material. (That is, if the subject inquired about is spiritual.) But if the divination be regarding ordinary life, the card is not good, and shows folly, stupidity, eccentricity, and even mania unless with very good cards indeed. Grand Orient (Waite, 1889, 1909): The Fool signifies the consumation of everything, when that which began his initiation at zero attains the term of all numeration and existence. This card passes through all the numbered cards and is changed in each, as the natural man passes through worlds of lesser experience, worlds of successive attainment. Waite (1910): The Fool: Folly, mania, extravagance, intoxication, delirium, frenzy. Reversed: Negligence, absence, apathy, nullity.

Suggested Interpretation:

Mania. Intoxication. Infantilism. Innocence. Unpredictability. Anarchy. Reversed: Stupidity. Nullity. Apathy. Sloth. Mental Illness.

At the end of the book Huson presents several different spreads, from the simple to the complex. He presents them using a significator, although he does note that this is not necessary. He has also included a section on the court cards that lists them by physical description (hair, eye and skin color) and astrological sign.

In Appendix 1 Huson lists historical decks, with short descriptions of each. In Appendix 2 he lists places worldwide (by name, address and Internet site, if there is one) where versions of older decks can be purchased. At the very end, he lists the sources for his illustrations.

I found this book to be of great benefit, with the added bonus that it reads easily and is highly enjoyable! I would recommend it to Tarot students that already have a good basic understanding of the cards - mid level to advanced students. This book certainly has a place as a reference book in my Tarot library, and I am sure will have in others also.

© 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

Paul Huson has been a student of the Tarot for over forty years. In his latest book, Mystical Origins of the Tarot, he explores the esoteric roots of Tarot and tracks each symbol to its origin, card by card, showing how the divinatory meanings based on those symbols grew and evolved. Huson traces the mystical and divinatory history of Tarot meanings through the Renaissance, and onwards from 1750 as the cards caught the interest of occultists.

The book is divided into the following chapters:

Introduction: Of Playing Cards and Tarot Decks
1. The Origin of the Suit Signs
2. The Origin of the Trumps
3. Of Cartomancy and the Tarot
4. The Meanings of the Trump Cards: The Major Arcana
5. The Meanings of the Suit Cards: The Minor Arcana
6. Reading the Tarot

Of Playing Cards and Tarot Decks takes us through a brief history of the pre-occult cards, tracing their roots all the way from Chinese gambling cards, through Persian Mamluk cards which had four suits of Cups, Coins, Polo Sticks and Swords (or Scimitars), to the early Italian Tarot decks, and then to the common Tarot of Marseilles pattern in the seventeenth century. The Origin of the Suit Signs goes into more detail, delving into Sufism, the four cardinal virtues and the four castes of ancient Persia to develop a theory of a Persian origin to the four suits.

The Origin of the Trumps describes the context and inspiration for the twenty-two trumps added in the Renaissance, calling on sources including the poems of Italian author Petrarch, medieval mystery, morality and miracle plays, and Catholic Church doctrine. Huson also suggests that the religious turmoil in sixteenth century Europe is responsible for the loss of meaning of the trumps to almost everyone; the religious pageants of which Tarot cards were an artistic offshoot drawing on their symbolism stopped - as the processions were intended to convert to the Catholic faith, not to the rising Protestant faith.

In Of Cartomancy and the Tarot, we find out more about the divinatory history of Tarot; which personalities have shaped and developed the interpretations of Tarot cards by associating new systems and layers of meaning. Though there is little documented evidence for Tarotís divinatory use before 18th century Italy, Huson puts forward his theory that Tarot is an advanced form of sortilege - a method of divination which predicts the future or offers advice by the drawing of lots - and conjectures that there is a similarity of purpose between the sequence of trumps, and other, simpler and older sortilege devices.

The Meanings of the Trump Cards and Meanings of the Suit Cards are the heart of the book. Each contains "Original Cartomantic Interpretations", the keywords favoured by prominent occultists and philosophers who developed, created or added their own system of meanings for the cards. The meanings of the 22 trumps are provided by Pratesiís Cartomancer, the first documented person to use the Tarot for divination in 1750; Tarot writer Court de Gebelin, who was drawn to Tarot in the late eighteenth century and wrote an imaginative history; De Mellet, who aided de Gebelin with his research; Eliphas Levi, who enlarged the link between the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the trumps, and helped the Tarot become a tool for the ceremonial magician; Christian, a student of Leviís; Mathers, founder of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn; the Golden Dawn itself, through which decans from ancient Egyptian lore were added; Grand Orient (another occult group of which Waite was a member), and finally Waite himself in 1910. The text for each card is accompanied by black-and-white illustrations from the 1761 Conver version of the Tarot of Marseilles, and elements from other historical decks.

The Meanings of the Suit Cards are illustrated by close-ups of the main Rider-Waite imagery without backgrounds or borders as well as the Marseilles imagery. They list cartomantic interpretations from just four men: Etteilla, Mathers, the Golden Dawn and Waite. (Etteila is included here but not in the major arcana section as his minor arcana interpretations are the only ones deemed to be of any divinatory significance, though he contributed to the belief in the Egyptian basis of Tarot and for expanding the use of Tarot in spreads.) Both the historical divinatory meanings for the major and minor arcana are followed by a "Suggested Interpretation", a handful of keywords from Huson to sum up the meanings.

Huson then introduces the Tarot beginner to the uses and techniques for using the cards in Reading the Tarot, offering help with selecting a deck, getting in touch with your cards, preparing for divination and his general rules of cartomancy. There are simple Tarot spreads for use with a restricted number of cards, and also some for more advanced cartomancy involving linking the cards and twelve to twenty-one card spreads, ending with complex systems from Etteilla and Orsini involving the whole deck or just 42 cards respectively, considered to be for experts.

The appendices at the back of the book contain a guide to important historical Tarot decks from France, Italy, Belgium and Switzerland, describing their history and idiosyncrasies. Next, there is a Where To Buy Your Cards section that lists the major publishers and only one retailer, followed by a very useful collection of details on where to see the few original cards that are left in museums around the world. Footnotes and an extensive bibliography are at the back of the book, which ends with an index.

Mystical Origins of the Tarot is an excellent reference book on the roots and development of Tarot cards, and the history of divinatory meanings from the last two hundred and fifty years. Huson has summarised the research of art historians, playing card historians, Tarot historians and iconologists into a concise and interesting book that offers plenty of interest for intermediate to advanced Tarot readers and students.

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

Home > Tarot Books > Mystical Origins of the Tarot: From Ancient Roots to Modern Usage