Tarot Mysteries: Rediscovering the Real Meaning of the Cards is an exploration of the theory of tarot - history and background of the Tarot, its associations with Qabala, astrology and more - and its concrete application in reading.
By Jonathan Dee · Book - 336 pages · Published by Hampton Roads
Review by Lori Lytle
This deceptively compact book contains interesting perspectives, intriguing tidbits of Tarot history, and solid and easy to assimilate information about both the Major and Minor Arcana. The wry tone took a little bit of getting used to for me, but it won me over by the end. In the introductory first chapter, written in 2003, Dee gives a brief explanation of what the Tarot is on a practical level, its structure and discusses his intention of giving a balanced and informative perspective on each of the cards as well as an overview of the entire deck. He mentions that the Tarot has been used for divination since at least AD 1500, and that, “The reason for their survival is that they work.” He goes on to say quite elegantly, “The act of shuffling and dealing the cards is a potent symbol of the workings of fate. The hand of cards you receive isn’t yours to choose, but how you play them…Well, that’s up to you.” (p. 4).
Jonathan Dee was a professional astrologer, Tarot reader and psychic who worked all over the UK and also in the US since the 1970s. He was the daily astrologer for BBC Radio Wales for 23 years, and his publications on the Tarot, astrology, Egyptology, mythology and history have sold more than 5 million copies to date. He lived in Wales until his untimely death in 2010. Tarot Mysteries was originally published as an illustrated edition by Sterling in 2003, and now in 2016 by Hampton Roads Publishing.
The book is divided into four Parts:
Part One: The Mystery of the Tarot Cards
Part Two: The Minor Arcana of the Tarot
Part Three: The Major Arcana
Part Four: The Art of Reading the Tarot
Part One covers the history of the Tarot, the connection with the Qabalah, the Zodiac and the Four Grail Hallows.
In Chapter 2, The History of the Tarot, Dee discusses the key players and their contributions to Tarot, and discusses the different opinions and approaches of de Gébelin, Levi, Waite, S.L. Mathers and Crowley without judgement and, “without too much unnecessary comment as to their relative merits.” (p. 8). He also includes a basic outline of the Game of Trionfi (Trumps), leading to a compelling but almost totally theoretical explanation of the origins of the Major Arcana. In Chapter 3, The Holy Qabalah, Dee presents an engaging and refreshingly clear explanation of the Hebrew mystical system and its connection and influence on the Tarot. I have found that this is a topic that has been widely explored in Tarot literature, but is often explained in a way that is convoluted or overwhelming for the novice. Dee gets the information across in a digestible way that prepares the reader for a more in depth discussion later in the book, in the section that covers the Major Arcana.
I felt that Chapter 4, The Major Arcana and the Zodiac, lacked impact. Dee includes a discussion of how various Tarot scholars/mystics attempted to create a feasible correlation between the Tarot and the system of the 12 Zodiac signs plus the seven heavenly bodies known to the classical world. The chart that explains the full Golden Dawn system for Major Arcana card correspondences to Hebrew letters, pathways of the Qabalistic Tree of Life and astrological attributions is a useful reference tool, but at this point in the book the purpose or significance of this information doesn’t clearly come across.
On the other hand, Chapter 5, The Four Grail Hallows, was a fascinating read. Dee takes the reader through the parallels between the Tarot suits and the four Hallows noticed by A.E. Waite. The four sacred objects, the Holy Grail, the Spear of Destiny, the Sword of Power, and the Stone of Kings, are linked with the suit Cups, Wands, Swords and Pentacles respectively. Dee tells us the story of Sir Perceval of Wales and the Fisher King, talks about the Knights Templar and King Arthur, pointing out much earlier pagan and mythological connections. Again, this was so enjoyable to read, but at the end of the chapter I wanted more, I felt the Tarot side of things was not really explored here.
In Part Two, we dive into the world of the Minor Arcana, and things start to come together in a practical way. We have been prepared in the earlier chapters for more concrete applications of all the theory Dee initially covered. The introductory chapter talks about the attribution of the cards of the Minor Arcana to the signs and decans of the zodiac, a purely Golden Dawn conception. Dee goes on to explore the sometimes cumbersome connections to the Tree of Life, as well as number symbolism (with many reference charts).
The following chapters cover each suit, first the Ace to Ten, and then the Court Cards, again divided by suit.
With the numbered cards, each explanation includes the Esoteric Title, Key Concepts, Astrological Relationship, Tree of Life position, Positive Meaning and Negative Meaning. The information is succinct, and there is a feeling of balance as explanations include aspects of divination, motivation and inner work/understanding.
The sections on the Court Cards state that the Kings and Queens normally represent people in a reading, while the Knight and Page can represent people, situations or the need to take action. Personally, I have some trouble with this explanation, as well as the way Dee refers to the physical characteristics of the figures, for example looking at the Page of Wands as, “A young person of either sex with hazel or blue eyes and brown hair.” (pg. 170), and the Queen of Pentacles as, “A mature woman with dark hair and eyes. Possibly this Queen is amply proportioned and generally cheerful.” (p. 186).
Part Three, The Major Arcana, includes a brief intro this portion of the deck followed by individual explanations of the cards. This part of the intro section resonated with me, “If a spread shows a disproportionate number of Major Arcana cards, then the events surrounding the Querent are in the hands of fate and may be quite considerable. If the cards are balanced, there seems to be a balance between the forces of karma and destiny on one side and the Querent’s ability to direct his life on the other.” (pg. 214).
The explanations of each Major Arcana include the Alternative Title, Esoteric Title, Qabalistic Letter, Tree of Life Pathway, Direction, Astrological Correspondence, Description, Symbolism, and Upright and Reversed Meanings. There is some rich material here, references to history and mythology as well as practical ways to interpret the card when it appears in a reading. Again, Dee’s interpretations seem to be slightly slanted towards the fatalistic or fortune-telling side of things, but there are empowering and inspiring messages as well. The final section, Part 4, The Art of Reading the Tarot, includes brief chapters on Reading the Cards, Basic Tarot Spreads, and Answering Questions. This part feels like a bit of an afterthought or a rush, and could have used further expansion. Dee introduces some fairly traditional spreads, based on astrological and Qabalistic approaches, as well as some more free-form Past-Present-Future and “Quick Answer” formats. Explanation here is minimal and no examples are included, so they may confound beginner readers.
All in all, I found this to be a well-written and useful book, even though at times I didn’t resonate or agree with some of Dee’s specific points and explanations. It is clear that he was fascinated by and knowledgeable about history and mythology, and he conveys this enthusiasm in his writing. However, the structure of the book may not sit well with beginners, as it took quite a while to get through the theory to the more practical information about the deck itself and how to use it. Patience and trust, and going along for the ride was necessary for me when reading Tarot Mysteries. With all this in mind, I would confidently recommend it to my Tarot students who are interested in the historical and technical/detail oriented side of the cards.
Lori Lytle is a professional Tarot reader based in Toronto, Canada and the founder of Inner Goddess Tarot. Her email and in-person readings focus on empowerment and personal growth. Visit her website and blog at innergoddesstarot.com.