A Wicked Pack of Cards

A Wicked Pack of Cards: An Occult History of the Tarot is a somewhat controversial book intended to dispel misinformation on the origins of Tarot. It's written by two historians and a professor of logic, on the premise that tarot was not created with occult or cartomantic uses in mind.

By Michael Dummett & Ronald Decker & Thierry Depaulis · Book · Published by St Martins Press

Review by Sean McLaughlin, MS, CTR

A few years ago I was talking to a department chair of philosophy from Western Michigan University about his spiritual journey that took him from Bible College to a PhD at Vanderbilt University. He lamented some of his friends from college were no longer in the faith so I asked for his analysis of why that had occurred. He explained, “It was like their faith was a thick rope dipped in liquid nitrogen. While it was strong against most attacks, it was brittle. When it broke it just shattered completely. They became atheists and dropped everything. The best kind of faith is one where you rope is taunt, but flexible enough to handle life’s difficulties.” For a Tarot enthusiast to read this book (and especially the second volume) will require this taunt, albeit flexible, rope kind of faith in the cartomantic practice we hold dear.

A Wicked Pack of Cards is a unique history book that is written by non-Tarotist while speaking mainly to Tarot enthusiast audience. The authors (two are trained historians while the third is a professor of logic) provide an outside perspective on the “occult Tarot,” a term they created to differentiate any use of Tarot cards for other than a trick-taking card game one of the authors had previously written (Decker, 1980). They further divide users of the occult Tarot into what I would call cartomancers (i.e., Tarot used primarily for divination) and magicians (i.e., Tarot as part of an intricate system of magickal knowledge) while allowing for some overlap between the two groups.

The thrust of the authors is Tarot cards were not created with either cartomantic or occult significance in mind. In order to justify such significance, the authors point out Tarot cards would need to have their significance established according to method of the science from which originate. For example, physics relies on empirical observation & measurements, philosophy on the history of thought & logic, theology on divine revelation & the faithful community’s lived experience, and the occult sciences on the passing of secret information from adept to initiate. Even though the occult sciences has a distinct method, the original Tarot theorists used purely intuitive inferences, bombastic assertions, wild conjectures, and – even in a few cases – deliberate falsehood to attach significance to the cards. Yet there is a Star at the end of tunnel for the brave Tarotist who finishes this book, but here are some of the characters you will encounter.

In between 1773 to 1776, Court de Gebelin wrote in one of his multivolume, journal-like books of which the series was entitled Monde primitif (literally “primitive world” but “pristine world” is what was meant) the Tarot pack was in fact a hidden “Book of the Egyptians.” He happened to be in the salon of Madame Helvetius as she was playing the game with her lady friends when it occurred to him the images were in fact cryptic allegorical messages from the past. His famous Tarot article in Monde primitif, along with another he published in the series authored by comte de Mellet, contained the seeds for most occult Tarot theories we hear of today such as links to the Hebrew alphabet, Egyptian magi lore, an early medieval date of the Tarot in Europe, and distribution & use of the Tarot by Gypsies.

Within a decade, Jean-Baptiste Alliette, a grain merchant-turned-book-publisher, had become the first professional cartomancer and is better known to us today as Etteilla (inverse of his last name). While he initially used a Piquet deck (traditional playing card deck, but with all twos through sixes removed), he later transitioned to using Tarot after reading the Monde primitif essays. In Etteilla’s life time pictures of actual Egyptian hieroglyphs were unknown to the public at large, so he was able to un-Europeanize the Tarot in order to restore it to its pristine (i.e., hieroglyphic) condition. Etteilla was also responsible for developing cartomancy as a distinct profession alongside other forms of divination, gathering a group of disciples into an interpretive school, and publishing courses for learning the art as well as expanding on the ideas of Gebelin and Mellet.

After the public career and death of Mademoiselle Le Normand (also known as “Mlle Lenormand,” see my French Cartomancy review for more details on the impact of her life) in 1843, cartomancy had entered its golden age as a profession while the Tarot itself fell into decline. The “fortune-teller madam” pictures that are so prevalent in our circles are actually portrayals of middle to upper-class ladies using 36 card and Piquet decks in French salons, not Gypsy women with Tarot decks. It was not until the emergence of Eliphas Levi, the pen name Alphonse-Louis Constant (1810-1875) used when he took up the calling of magus in 1854, that Tarot had a new champion. In fact, without Levi it is unlikely there would be any Tarot enthusiasts today as the theories of Gebelin, Mellet, Etteilla, and Lenormand would have faded into historical obscurity.

Levi revived the Hermetic tradition (also in disrepair) by combining all the western magickal traditions together and then subsuming them under his theory of the Tarot. Levi’s work set the stage for a number of future developments in the occult Tarot which he did not see in his lifetime. These were an occult renaissance in the late 19th and early 20th century as best expressed in the Golden Dawn, a robust resurgence in Tarot theory and practice (both cartomantic & magickal), the re-emergence of the Christian or Hermetic Qabalah, the necessity of initiation among practitioners, and the validity of an individual pursuit of the art as Levi eschewed lodge & order memberships. However for as much good as Levi had contributed, he was given to making bold assertions without offering proof or rationale for his statements. While the reader would walk away from his works impressed by the breadth of his discourse, it lacked the depth to sustain critical analysis due to historical and scientific inaccuracies.

A contemporary to Levi of some note who linked the Tarot more explicitly with astrology was Paul Christian (Jean-Baptiste Pitois, 1811-1877). It is also from Christian we receive the importance of the 1+2+3+4=10 sequence, the secret meaning of INRI (which has greater coherency than the Tetragrammaton as “I” both begins and ends the word), the terms “arcana” and “lames,” and also many meanings and artistic conceptions for the cards which later Tarotist expanded. Christian is mainly known, however, for his three-pronged approach to his occult literary creations: obtuse systems of astrology, fictitious anecdotal stories, and quotations of non-existent sources. In his other writings Christian could be trusted, so he limited his charlatanism to the occult. Still if there are any redeeming aspects to Christian, he provided the most thorough explanation of the meaning of the cards to date as well as assigning them astrological significance. His astrological system, however, was too unwieldy for practical use in consultations which may have been intentional as he seems to have taken some secret sadistic delight in duping his readers.

Up to this point in the book, the reader sees “the French Connection” but is at a loss for “the Gypsy Connection” until Jean-Alexandre Vaillant (1804-1886) is introduced. Vaillant was an impassioned progressive writer who would take up the causes of disenfranchised people groups and write treatises to highlight their contributions to the world. One such group he saw experiencing unjust oppression were the Gypsy (or Romany) people. In a visit to Romania (another oppressed group), he noticed a settled Gypsy woman playing (not divining) Tarot cards and created a fanciful history that he added it to his book pleading for the Romany people entitled Les Romes. In Les Romes, Valliant asserted the Tarot contained scientific teachings on astronomy from India (the true origin of the Gypsy people), from which all other sciences are derived, and the Gypsies were responsible for dispersing this knowledge all over the world. Valliant’s arguments, which were completely unsubstantiated, were then quoted in Papus’ Tarot of the Bohemians along with Gebelin and is how this belief has come down to us to this day.

From what can be historically supported, Gypsy women only performed chiromancy (i.e., palmistry) from accurate sources we have that go back to 1530. There is no mention of Tarot until possibly 1889, which is a doubtful source, and more likely it wasn’t until the early 20th century when it became a mainstream practice. However once the Gypsy women heard they had a long tradition of Tarot from Georgios (non-Gypsies), they said, “But of course…let me read your future in the cards.”

The final actor in this cast of character was Papus (Dr. Gerard-Anaclet-Vincent Encause, 1865-1916). In many ways Papus is a synthesizer of the better parts of Paul Christian and Eliphas Levi as well as becoming an important figure for establishing the validity of the short-lived Paris temple (i.e., chapter) of the Golden Dawn from Britain. Unlike Levi who sought the path of the lone magus, Papus joined every ancient order he was allowed admittance and even established some fringe Masonic groups as well. Papus also highlights a common thread seen throughout the historical records; almost all the major practitioners had an “and” in their profession. They were a professional cartomancer and a book publisher, a writer on the occult and a civil servant, and in Papus’ case an occultist and a medical doctor. So when contemporary professionals find an “and” in their title or struggle to make ends meet, it can be some relief to know it has been this way from the inception.

I trust this small sample of the challenge that awaits you has been sufficient to catch a glimpse of the nature of the problem. The authors do succeed in what they set out to accomplish, to dispel misinformation and accurately document the rise of the occult Tarot in the age of reason. It is at this point where the book grants you its gift. On the one hand you must acknowledge the critics have a case while on the other hand you cannot return to the innocence you had before cracking its spine. It is at this point the lesson of the rope comes to the fore which is this; can you forge a faith in the occult Tarot that takes the historical facts seriously?

My personal response at this time has been to note that Tarot arose in the period of modernity to critique the new priesthood, which was not the Church but the Academy. With so much emphasis on empiricism and rationalism as the new messiah, Tarot arises as a protest movement against the overweening confidence in a method which is still failing to cure the ills of humanity today. After all, what does it profit us to gain an iPod 4 and forfeit our soul? So yes, you will have to join me in finding a better grounding for your Tarot practice in light of some of the failures of the tradition. However, by remaining the taunt and flexible rope an enthusiast can emerge the other side with a stronger, albeit more realistic, faith in the occult Tarot.

Note: This book is out-of-print. However as it is a history book by non-occultists, I was able to borrow it through the public library interlibrary loan system for free. I highly suggest this alternative to the scalpers.

Sean 'Michael' McLaughlin is a Certified Professional Tarot Reader (CPTR) and sole reader of Tarot by Michael. He earned his Master of Science in Human Services and has studied religion, spirituality, and theology at the graduate level in addition to psychological studies. He combines brief, empowering therapeutic techniques with a Systems-Based approach to Tarot that incorporates aspects of Astrology, Intuition, Numerology, and the Qabalah.

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