My Tarot odyssey began nearly ten years ago. It started with a simple curiosity about the pictures on the cards: Why those subjects? What did they originally mean? Did their sequence tell some kind of story? I assumed that the answer was readily available in a book, perhaps repeated in many, probably available in an encyclopedia entry. I was a newbie, and that naive.
There were no encyclopedia entries explaining the trump cycle. So the first stop was the local bookstore where there were dozens of Tarot books -- I skimmed many. I even bought some and read them through, although it quickly became obvious that the authors were fools or charlatans. I joined the largest of the online Tarot forums and began asking questions. This was hardly more satisfactory than the bookshelves, and both took time.
It was soon apparent that today's occultists didn't know anything about the object of their obsession, at least not in historical terms. It turned out that most of the more interesting ideas came from an earlier generation of occultists, from the late-19th and early-20th century. So I began reading Levi, Papus, Waite, Wirth, Crowley, and the excellent Golden Dawn intro, The Qabalistic Tarot by Robert Wang. This took more time, and as I gained a basic grasp of this traditional occultist approach to Tarot, it became clear that these guys also didn't know what Tarot was about. The next turn in my path was the neo-occultist Tarot Symbolism, by Robert V. O'Neill. It argued that most of the more interesting ideas of the traditional occultists came from Renaissance magi and Neoplatonic mysticism. That seductive figment, popular since the mid-1970s and still the dominant paradigm among today's more sophisticated Tarot enthusiasts, lead me eventually to my own studies. All told, these excursions constituted a long detour, a side trip through other people's Tarot theories, down many dead ends, wrong turns, and ultimately going about in circles, (most of these folks just repeat what others have said in a slightly different form), which took about two years.
This post is a short list of books that, given a decade of hindsight, I should have read first. (A couple of them were not published at the time, but you get the idea.)
There are not many English language books on the subject of Tarot history. Most of what is available can be found in these four books.
The Encyclopedia of Tarot
Stuart R. Kaplan
U.S. Games Systems, 1978.
The Game of Tarot: from Ferrara to Salt Lake City
Michael Dummett, Sylvia Mann
The Encyclopedia of Tarot: Volume II
Stuart R. Kaplan
U.S. Games Systems, 1986.
A Wicked Pack of Cards: The Origins of the Occult Tarot
Ronald Decker, Thierry Depaulis, Michael Dummett
St. Martin's Press, 1996.
Despite his disinclination to propose an iconographic interpretation of his own, or to comment on those of others, Michael Dummett has nonetheless been the most insightful of all Tarot commentators. In The Game of Tarot, and in a 1985 article, "Tarot Triumphant" in FMR, he analyzed the trump sequence into three types of subject matter, based on analysis of the many different orderings of the trumps. This is a crucial finding which no one else has followed up on. (Except me, of course. I'm crazy about it!) Dummett also established the "null hypothesis" of Tarot iconography, namely, that there is no overall narrative or schematic design to the trump series. The series is simply a collection of well-known and easily distinguishable subjects arranged in a vague hierarchy to serve as trumps in a card game. In lieu of a convincing, i.e., consensus alternative, this explanation remains the best by virtue of its parsimony: no additional assumptions required. Of those who have attempted the challenge directly, only Gertrude Moakley proved to be a plausible analyst. (See The Unicorn Hunters for more details.)
The Tarot Cards painted by Bonifacio Bembo for the Visconti-Sforza Family:
An Iconographic and Historical Study
Gertrude Moakley, Bonifacio Bembo
New York Public Library, 1966.
The Tarot Trumps, Cosmos in Miniature:
The Structure and Symbolism of the Twenty-Two Tarot Trump Cards
Aquarian Press, 1985.
Tarot and the Millennium:
The Story of Who's on the Cards and Why
New Perspective Media, 1998.
Petrarch and Trionfi
Perhaps Moakley's most valuable insight was that the Tarot trumps, carte da trionfi, were not merely analogous to a medieval triumph in that one card trumped another, but also in the sense that one allegorical subject triumphed over another in a concatenated series of triumphs, like that of Petrarch's hugely influential poems, I Trionfi. While her detailed interpretation of the trump cycle as a ribald parody of Petrarch's Triumphs has relatively little explanatory power, the general idea is sound and both the poems themselves and scholarly treatments of them provide insight into the sensibility behind the trump cycle. Another important book by Petrarch is his Remedies, the basic idea of which appears to be reflected in the most popular historical Tarot deck, Tarot de Marseille.
The Triumphs of Petrarch
Francesco Petrarca, Ernest Hatch Wilkins
Univ. of Chicago Press, 1962.
Lord Morley's Tryumphes of Fraunces Petrarcke
Francesco Petrarca, Henry Parker Morley trans., Lord, D.D. Carnicelli ed.
Harvard University Press, 1971.
Petrarch's Triumphs: Allegory and Spectacle
Amilcare A. Iannucci, Konrad Eisenbichler eds.
Dovehouse Editions, 1988.
Petrarch's Remedies for Fortune Fair And Foul:
A Modern English Translation of De Remediis Utriusque Fortune, with a Commentary
Francesco Petrarca, Conrad H. Rawski
Indiana University Press, 1991.
The Larger Triumphal Tradition
The social impact of the trionfi conceit was enormous, and not merely in art and literature, nor Carnival and Corpus Christi celebrations. From late medieval religious processions to the politically imposing events of the Renaissance and for centuries after that, rulers used triumphal pageants for political purposes. This world of street theater and spectacle is the overriding context of the trump cycle, and in fact Ross Caldwell argues that the cards may reflect just such a triumphal procession. Chapter 4 of Enter the King provides some excellent parallels with the trump cycle, and Imago Triumphalis is a succinct overview of the history of triumphs into the High Renaissance. Also, the William Prizer article discussed in the previous post is very revealing in terms of how such events were produced and in terms of the subject matter of the trump cycle. There are a number of books on ancient Roman triumphs, but the new one by Mary Beard is both informative and very readable. (So is her blog.) Finally, one of the books on Mantegna's Triumphs of Caesar needs to be included because of the still-promoted Tarot legend regarding a passage in Vasari and the falsely so-called Mantegna Tarocchi, the E-Series model book. Also, the spectacular and influential Trionfi di Cesare in some ways epitomize the triumphalism of the period.
The Triumphs of Caesar by Andrea Mantegna
in the collection of Her Majesty the Queen at Hampton Court
Harvey Miller, 1979.
Enter the King: Theatre, Liturgy, and Ritual in the Medieval Civic Triumph
Clarendon Press; Oxford University Press, 1998.
The Function and Significance of Triumphal Imagery for Italian Renaissance Rulers
Margaret Ann Zaho
P. Lang, 2004.
The Roman Triumph
Harvard University Press, 2007.
Boccaccio and the De Casibus Tradition
The middle section of the trump cycle shows an allegorical summary of the Fall of Princes narrative arc: success, reversal, and downfall. This is literally the central allegory of the trump cycle, the meaning of Tarot. The best survey of the contemptu mundi sensibilities behind this world view, contextualizing the importance of Fortune and Death in the medieval mind, is Willard Farnham's The Medieval Heritage of Elizabethan Tragedy. The exact same world of art, literature, drama, sermons, etc. constitutes the medieval heritage of Tarot.
Lydgate's Fall of Princes
Giovanni Boccaccio, John Lydgate, Henry Bergen
Oxford University Press, 1924-27.
The Medieval Heritage of Elizabethan Tragedy
Willard Edward Farnham
The Fates of Illustrious Men
Giovanni Boccaccio, Louis Brewer Hall
A Mirror for Magistrates and the De Casibus Tradition
Paul Vincent Budra
University of Toronto Press, 2000.
Esoteric interpretations by themselves, given their typical absurdity as applied to Tarot, are credible only to indoctrinated cultists. (Of course, that includes the vast majority of those who have any interest in Tarot.) Modern occult apologetics, however, can be much more misleading. The writers of such polemics routinely take the 22 Tarot subjects out of their sequential context (as a fortune-teller does) and cherry-pick superficially similar, supposedly "archetypal" images from a preferred historical source. This childish and disingenuous game should require no debunking beyond pointing it out. Forms of perverse interpretation, (especially reading works in any context other than the most historically appropriate and plausible), have always been current. This has been true from ancient Gnostic revisions of Homer, the Torah, and Christian legends to the 20th-century Freudian, Marxist, Feminist, Afrocentric and other forms of pathological bias posing as deeper insight. The new element which has been introduced to justify such falsification is Postmodern literary theory. Reception theory, deconstruction, and other manifestations of Postmodern relativistic fraud have been greedily adopted by the more astute occultists. While there are books specifically attacking "the French Disease", the books below are both more interesting than the outraged Pomo-bashing titles, and also more generally helpful in getting perspective on the interpretive quest. (Several other books by Eco could be added to the list.)
Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism
Oxford University Press, 1982.
The Open Work
Harvard University Press, 1989.
Interpretation and Overinterpretation
Umberto Eco, ed. Stefan Collini
Cambridge University Press, 1992.
Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles?
On the Modern Origins of Pictorial Complexity
The "Tarot Iconography" category has a new member:
Explaining the Tarot:
Two Italian Renaissance Essays on the Meaning of the Tarot Pack
Edited, translated and commented by
Ross Sinclair Caldwell, Thierry Depaulis, Marco Ponzi