Tarot Symbolism

A classic and well-researched book on the historical influences, trends, theories and origins of Tarot. Originally published in the mid-eighties, it has now been reprinted by the Association for Tarot Studies.

By Robert O'Neill · Book · Published by Assocation for Tarot Studies

Review by Jean-Michel David

When first published in 1986, this book certainly didn't get either the profile nor distribution it deserved. It has by now (2002) become one of those hard-to-find classics, and stands very much in a niche of its own. I must admit that, though having known of it for a long time, I was only able to obtain a copy earlier this year (through another Aeclectic member :). Here is a book I would like to have written, expressing so many considerations I consider of central importance - not that I agree with Robert O'Neill on, in fact, numerous points, for he often takes considerations which are far too recent for them to be projected back to much earlier times. Still, this is not about what or how I may have liked to have written the book, but on the masterpiece Robert has gifted the Tarot world.

Apart from the introductory, review and concluding chapters, the fifteen chapter headings display much of the various nuances arising during Tarot's emergence:

3. The Italian Renaissance
4. Neoplatonism
5. Gnosticism and the Mystery Religions
6. Egypt and the Hermetic Tradition
7. Christian Mysticism
8. Heretical Sects and their Influence on the Tarot
9. Renaissance Art and Sources for the Tarot Images
10. Kabbalah and the Tarot
11. Alchemy and the Tarot
12. Numerology and the Tarot
13. Astrology and the Tarot
14. The Art of Memory

Here is a book with a focus on the history of Tarot which seeks to go beyond various post-Tarot appearance discourses, unveiling the various impulses alive at the time of its emergence. In each case, whether it be Hermetic, Alchemical, Astrological, Kabalistic, Christian or Heretical considerations, O'Neill importantly indicates how each of these, though undoubtedly not sole ancestors to the images of the Major Arcana, form part of the important syncretic trends of the renaissance - whether this be the early 13th century Pyrenees renaissance or the more spectacular form it found in Florentine Italy a couple of centuries later.

Though O'Neill provides much historical substrates and observations, it is really his own syncretic and aeclectic blending of these various considerations which make the book both so unique and charming. Sixteen years on, much of the possible further research indicated has remained unfulfilled - though the task is immense and requires expertise in such disparate fields that, I suspect, until Tarot becomes more formally academically acceptable, it will remain the task of those with the deep interest, passion and academic merit shown by O'Neill to continue these important researches - now at least supplemented by the more recent complementary works of the like of Little, Filipas, Decker, Depaulis and, of course, Dummett.

To give an idea of O'Neill's style, often expressing views I also happen to share, his discussion of Ficino in the central chapter on neoplatonism states that 'the contemplation of a symbolic image was not simply an intellectual exercise. Use of the image was effective in producing an effect since the image "focussed" the power of the Divine Idea' (p113).

O'Neill clearly and repeatedly argues from the Golden Mean between the dry historical game-only type research of the early Dummett variety and the excesses of the mytho-cum-historical reflections of De Gebelin and his successors: The Tarot arose during the eclectic culturally rich syncretic early renaissance.

In the book, Robert O'Neill does not hesitate to provide numerous reflections by which to further investigate especially the rich images of the major arcana. For example, he seemingly is strongly convinced the images reflect dualistic heresy. Personally, and though I too suspect a strong Bogomil-type influence, I do not agree with the dualistic nuances he finds within the deck. Likewise his Kabalistic considerations - I personally do not think they work as described, though his comments regarding the importance of the newly Christian-discovered Kabbalah, and its importance in the world of renaissance syncretism, makes these influences highly probable.

Another of the especially strong contributions he makes is in considerations of the Judgement card - arguing that if the deck arose from orthodox Christian views, it would be placed last.

His footnotes - or rather chapter-end notes - are extensive without being overwhelming. Unfortunately, though, in one particular case of specific interest to me, he did not provide the details: on page 387, where he mentions, I suspect repeating Gettings in his 1973 The Book of Tarot, that the depictions on the Tower card may represent the Holy Family's flight from Herod to Egypt as supposedly presented in the Golden Legends. I have not been able to locate the tale within this famous mediaeval book, though it is, apparently, in a different apocryphal work, referred to as the infancy Gospel of pseudo-Matthew (mentioned in D. Fideler's Jesus Christ: Sun of God, p227).

If nothing else - though, as I hope to have indicated, there in fact is much else - O'Neill has indicated in a well written book the social milieu's importance of neoplatonism, astrology, alchemy, numerology, Kabalah, heretic dualistic thoughts, hermetic considerations, Egyptian, Greek, Pagan, heretical and Christian views and how each and all these were sought to be, in myriad ways, integrated by the syncretic impulse of the new consciousness arising during the 15th century.

If it doesn't get republished soon, it may provide the motivation for others to take on the tasks of furthering this important contribution O'Neill made to the world of Tarot - and for which many of us will remain grateful.

Review by Bonnie Cehovet

The 2004 reissuing of Tarot Symbolism is an exact reprint of the original (Fairway Press, 1986) version of Robert V. O'Neill's excellent (and long out of print) work. There are no updates or other additions to it, with the exception of a note from the editor, Jean-Michel David, at the beginning of the book. Aside from a small misprint identifying the book as being nearly ten years old (it is actually nearly nineteen years old), David expresses thoughts that are held by many in the Tarot world: that O'Neill's work brings a sense of high caliber research into the venue of Tarot, and that this definitive work on Tarot iconography provided a firm foundation and wonderful starting point for further studies in this field.

Dr. O'Neill has a background working as a research scientist in environmental studies, early training for the Catholic priesthood, and continued study of Zen Buddhism through the martial arts. This well rounded, Renaissance type mindset is exactly what was needed to follow the trail of Western mysticism and the Tarot.

His thesis in Tarot Symbolism is that the cards designed during the Renaissance represent a profound mystical philosophy, a "cosmograph" of the universe and man's role in it. He takes us back to the sources of Western thought in Greece, Egypt and the Middle East. His argument is that mystical insights from this early age have endured throughout European history, and that their symbolism can be found in the Kabbalah, Alchemy, Numerology, and Astrology. In turn, he argues that the Tarot presents a complete meditation system.

What is presented here is a series of studies on different areas relating to the Tarot, including the Italian Renaissance, Neoplatonism, Gnosticism and the Mystery Religions, Christian Mysticism, Heretical Sects and their influence on the Tarot, Renaissance Art and Sources for the Tarot images, Kabbalah, Alchemy, Numerology, Astrology, and the Art of Memory ... all leading up to a final interpretation of the cards.

It is accepted that the Tarot was originally designed to play a game, and was not used for anything other than that until after 1781. However, Dr. O'Neill reminds us that games can be used as tools for educating. For reference purpose, he has chosen to use the Tarot de Marseilles, partially because this is the deck that most occultists focused on, and partially because this deck shows internal evidence that it follows original Tarot symbolism.

In the beginning of the book there is a presentation of the 22 Trumps, with a discussion of the symbolism on the card, as well as its archetypal representation. This sets the tone for the remainder of the book, and acts as a reference for the studies that follow.

In the following section, which covers the major theories that have been presented for the origins of the Tarot, we come to understand just how diverse this topic can get. It is fascinating to read about the reasoning behind the attribution to Egyptian origins, Magical interpretations, Arabic origins and the Templars, the Gypsies, the Golden Dawn, Gnosticism, the Fez Morocco theory and more (even the Grail legend comes in here!). There is a rather unique summary chart of the theories of the Tarot, broken down into Countries of Origin; Transmitters of Cards to Europe; Philosophical Origins; and Theories of Interpretation, followed by a discussion of each.

In his study of the Italian Renaissance, Dr. O'Neill theorizes that the hand painted decks from this period survived largely because they were family treasures, and not because they were original designs. Therefore, these decks cannot be assumed to be the original designs of the Tarot. The printed decks from this time are more likely candidates to be considered the original designs. What we also take from this section is that Renaissance man was preoccupied with the magic, mysticism and enigmatic imagery found in late Hellenistic and Roman literature. There was a synthesis of these elements with the Christian and Italian elements already in Renaissance culture, and this synthesis was then projected into the art and poetry of the time, and, O'Neil hypothesizes, into the Tarot.

In his study of Neoplatonism, Dr. O'Neill concludes that the Renaissance Neoplatonists included in their all of the lines of thought that had ever been suggested for the Tarot (with the possible exception of alchemy). All of the themes to be later found in the Tarot can be found in this time period. The occult themes that later Tarot interpreters found in the Tarot we have to remember were considered high wisdom in the Italian Renaissance, and may not have been superimposed in the Tarot after all.

In his study of Gnosticism and the Mystery Religions, Dr. O'Neill notes that Gnostic ideas were always considered "rebel" ideas. We have the Fool (uninitiated man) at one end of the deck, and the Initiate (the divine androgyne) at the other end, with Fortitude (the direct point of contact between spirit and matter) in the middle. Also seen in the Tarot is the mystical journey into the Underworld. A strong argument is made for Gnostic influence in the Tarot due to the presence of dualist heretics in northern Italy during the time period when the Tarot was being designed, and the high place accorded Hermetic philosophy during the Renaissance.

In his study of Egypt and the Hermetic Tradition, Dr. O'Neill points out that the Renaissance Magus was influenced by the philosophies of Plotinus, Proclus, Porphyry, Clement and Origin - all Egyptians who were carrying on the tradition of Plato and Pythagorus, both of whom were supposed to have studied in Egypt. The Renaissance Magus also had the writings of the Hieroplyphica and the Corpus Hermecticum, which referenced Egyptian wisdom.

O'Neill continues his studies with Christian mysticism, and the Fool's journey through the Tarot. It is quite interesting to note that during the Renaissance there was a reactionary feeling against the hierarchy of the Church, with vital mysticism enduring outside of it.

In the Heretical Sects and their influence on the Tarot, there is an excellent summary of the major doctrines of the pre-Renaissance Heretical movements in western Europe: Concepts which anticipated the spirit of the Renaissance; Concepts derived from the second to fourth century Syncretism; and Fundamentally Mystical Character of the Heresies. Dr. O'Neill concludes that it is reasonable that the dualist sects did have an influence on the Tarot. An important thing to remember there is the nature of the Renaissance and Neoplatonism: that many ideas were synthesized into a whole. Thus, sources of wisdom that can be found in the Tarot did not necessarily come from primary sources, they could well be found in the synthesis of thought during the Renaissance.

The study on Renaissance Art images in the Tarot takes the nature of a card by card discussion, relating them to watermarks found on the paper of this time. Dr. O'Neill notes that only a small percentage of watermarks are under discussion (as common images show no correlation with the cards), and that what is basically being found is bits and pieces of Tarot symbolism. Because of this, there is little reason to believe that the symbols in the Tarot and the watermarks are directly related. What Dr. O'Neill shows in this chapter is that the symbols of the Tarot came from the Renaissance period itself, and do not have a more ancient lineage.

In his study of the Kabbalah and the Tarot, Dr. O'Neill covers the various influences quite well. In one chart, he compares the Tree of Life path attributions to individual Tarot cards from the systems developed by Case, Crowley, Gray and Achad. In another chart, he compares the Hebrew letter assignments from Levi, Case and Stenning. What I also found of interest here were the motives presented for Christian Kabbalists: (1) that they hoped to use similarities between the Kabbalah and the Neoplatonic versions of Christianity prevalent in the Renaissance to convert the Jews; (2) that the Kabbalah fit in with specific tenets of the world view they were constructing; and (3) that the Kabbalistic tradition dated back to the same ancient world and the same sources as the rest of their system.

In his study on Alchemy and the Tarot, Dr. O'Neill discusses the alchemical nature of each of the Tarot Trumps, and how they relate to each other, noting a strong similarity between the Tarot and alchemical texts. We need to remember that alchemy formed a part of the intellectual environment of the Renaissance, which was the environment that the Tarot comes from. He concludes that (1) the designers of the Tarot did understand the allegories and symbolism of alchemy, and did incorporate it into their world view; (2) that the designers of the Tarot had the same propensity as the authors of alchemical works in their use of pictorial symbolism; and (3) the same mystical journey is outlined in texts on the Tarot and texts on alchemy.

Dr. O'Neill ends this work with an analysis of the symbols in each of the twenty-two Tarot Trumps. For example, in the Fool, we see the base of the Neoplatonic hierarchy - man without spiritual meaning, Adam Cadman, primal man. The Fool is a symbol of spirit trapped in matter. He is unaware of the magical powers that the keys to nature hold. He is still subject to the fatalism of the stars. The Fool is assigned the number zero - indicating that he is not yet defined - he is the symbol of the potential of all men. He is a symbol of the beginning of the journey, as well as a symbol of the traveler on the journey. However, the Fool is also the symbol of the redeemed initiate, who has returned to society to save others. As the court jester, he is an enlightened fool.

Tarot Symbolism will never become outdated. It is not meant to be the final word on anything - it is meant to set forth a scholarly study of the iconography of the Tarot, and it does this well. In studying this book, the reader can get a feel for the development of scholarly research - a template, perhaps, for their own future endeavors. They can get a feel for the iconography in the Tarot cards, where it might have come from, and where their own studies might take them.

I have wanted to read this book since I first heard it referenced, and was afraid that I might never have the chance, as it had been long out of print. Many thanks go to Jean-Michel David and the Association For Tarot Studies for taking on the project of reissuing this work, and to Dr. Robert O'Neill for allowing it to be done.

I highly recommend this book as a Tarot resource, and a wonderful read. Dr. O'Neill's style is one of speaking to the crowd, sharing great wisdom in a clear, coherent manner with a large dose of humor. Works of this nature are rare, and need to be acknowledged and cherished for the power they carry.

© 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.

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