Monday, February 27, 2012

Lost in the Myths of Swine

Let us stipulate in advance of any other derogatory remark that the vast majority of Tarot enthusiasts are nincompoops. (>L. non compos mentis.) Plenary ignorance, devotion to the historicity of folklore, the practice of superstitious rituals, combined with a lack of temperament and skills associated with critical thinking—these are hallmarks of the species Tarotardus typicus. To be singled out for derision one must sink even lower than this base level of stupidity. Many do; so in addition to the usual, implicit TLDR (too long—don’t read) warning, be advised: this post says rude things about stupid people.
P.S. A stupid idea phrased in the form of a question (“Alex, I'll take STUPID for $200... what is ancient Egypt?”) does not become a smart idea.

Michael Dummett died two months ago, December 27, 2011. Since then I have begun a series of posts, basically a string of rambling personal comments related to his Tarot writings. The first post had some photos and provocative quotes. In the second, Dummett’s factual findings and analyses were argued to be an essential foundation for any serious attempt at Tarot iconography. (Dummett himself stated that vital role of his researches on several occasions, starting in 1980. In particular, he stressed that aspect of his research in replies to critics who complained about his own lack of any detailed iconographic study. Nonetheless, his findings and conclusions are still ignored by all of the many pop-culture Tarot interpreters.) In the third, some color and context were provided for appreciating The Game of Tarot, including a table outlining the principle topics of the book, topped with some typical snark.

In this post, a famous quote from A Wicked Pack of Cards will be put in context, along with a recent complaint about it and the bad example (“every single sentence... is untrue”) which was used to illustrate the point. (Another caveat: there are quotes quoting other quotes quoting quotes, so buckle up.)

The Ancient Egyptian Origins of Tarot

The quote:

[...] the most interesting fact about the Tarot pack [is] that it is the subject of the most successful propaganda campaign ever launched: not by a long way the most important, but the most completely successful. An entire false history, and false interpretation, of the Tarot pack was concocted by the occultists; and it is all but universally believed.
(A Wicked Pack of Cards, p.27.)

Damn that Dummett—he said mean things!

Touché. In his defense, however, they were true things.

That quote, commonly attributed to Dummett, is from the 1996 book co-authored by Ronald Decker, Thierry Depaulis, and Michael Dummett. To shield the living authors from any association with this post, assume that those are Dummett’s words. The quote is repeated by those who appreciate the truth of it, and denigrated by those who continue to promote false histories and false interpretations of Tarot. It is known to many who have read nothing else of Dummett’s writing on Tarot.

As an example of the quote’s enduring fame, a couple weeks ago an anonymous spammer calling himself Shit4brains TarotCard signed up on a well known Tarot forum and authored a single post. That post was a form of stealth advertising, a sock-puppet persona promoting what is presumably his own book. As Ross pointed out in a subsequent post, the book is not available yet, so the pseudonymous TarotCard is almost certainly the same person as the apparently pseudonymous author, Morgan DuVall. For this post we’ll just stick with the more descriptive name, Shit4brains, using it to refer to both online personæ. (If Shit4brains objects, he/she can post under his/her actual name instead of assorted fake ones.) According to his advertising material, Shit4brains has done something never attempted before, and solved the great puzzle that is Tarot’s history and meaning:

The Tarot has been a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma but no longer. This book exposes the origin of the Tarot symbolism which is often grossly underestimated. It is the first of its kind to seriously advance a pre-Renaissance origin to the Tarot using the oldest Tarot de Marseilles. Take a symbolic journey from the Unas Pyramids Texts to the Ptolemaic period and learn the ancient values permeating our contemporary world as the numerous ancient religions and civilizations have waxed and waned.(1)

Shit4brains claims to have written the first book “of its kind” (whatever that may mean) to “seriously” (whatever that may mean) advance a pre-Renaissance origin for Tarot based on the “oldest Tarot de Marseille” (whatever that may mean, given that the oldest TdM decks are indistinguishable from later ones). Moreover, that newly revealed origin is tied up with ancient Egypt (quelle surprise!) and the author suggests some parallels with later cultures. Wow.(2) On one hand, this suggests ignorance (and/or bullshit) unbecoming an author on the subject. The conventional “wisdom” since Antoine Court de Gébelin’s time (1781) has been precisely a pre-Renaissance origin for Tarot, based on the Tarot de Marseille style decks, and reflecting ancient Egyptian wisdom and symbolism.

On the other hand, such silliness is routinely seen in the world of Tarot pseudo-history. A Tarot book announcing a new approach with surprising results while actually recycling themes from 18th- and 19th-century Masonic fiction is typical. The main point here is that the shop-worn tale of unknown origins and Egyptian mysteries, popular in the world of Tarotards for over two-hundred years and still flourishing in the second decade of the 21st century, was the basis for the WPC quote above.

Everyone is Entitled to His Own Opinion...

Because of that, Shit4brains finds the quote offensive. When someone asked whether the facts presented in WPC adequately refuted the ancient-Egyptian-origin story, Shit4brains answered:

I am glad to hear that you are willing to learn and you should pursue your instincts. As you can see, there are two schools of thought on the Tarot. One that it is very ancient (i.e., not invented here syndrome) and the other that can be summed up as the "invented here" (meaning western Renaissance). Please continue to research this issue for yourself. However, since the majority of books today espouse the "invented here" philosophy, and you are perhaps interested in investigating the other philosophy, a new book called Archaeology of the Tarot will give you plenty of insights for your quest.

A Wicked Pack of cards, in my opinion, is only propaganda for the "invented here" philosophy. On page 27 there is a very reasonable quoted passage essentially saying no one knows where the Tarot comes from and some of the theories abounding. One sentence states "The majority view among the Western Occultist is that the Tarot originated in ancient Egypt." This passage is mercilessly attacked as being "the most successful propaganda campaign ever launched" and "every single sentence in the foregoing quotation is untrue". The authors' bias is easily exposed in that not every single sentence in the quotation is untrue. At least we should all agree the first sentence is true: "For all its theoretical and practical importance, the history of the Tarot is still a matter of controversy and debate". Ironically, the "most successful propaganda campaign ever launched" is actually the "invented here" one. So Thanks for asking and keep on researching....

There is a lot of nonsense in that short post. (And, as always, no evidence supporting the ancient Egyptian origin of Tarot.) For example, Shit4brains feels that research is a matter of “instinct”, “philosophy”, and unsubstantiated “insights” for a (religious? mystical?) “quest” rather than facts for an historical study. He suggests that literary invention is a “school of thought”, while carefully reasoned analysis of objective evidence is, in his “opinion”, mere propaganda for a competing opinion. He suggests that casual enthusiasts who post newbie questions to online Tarot fora are qualified to “keep on researching”, as if this were an alternative to consulting the works of historians.

And why not? After all, history is just a matter of opinion.

Most of that we can profitably ignore. Here we are mainly concerned with the alleged falsehood in WPC, exposing the bias of WPC’s authors. Shit4brains insists that “we should all agree” that the origin of Tarot is “still a matter of controversy and debate”, i.e., unknown, lost in the mists of time.

We should all agree with that? Really?! Not every alleged dispute is just a difference of opinion. Sometimes, one side is completely full of shit. Up to their eyeballs. Those folks, the shitheads, are likely to claim that both sides are merely expressing an opinion, and one opinion is as legitimate as another. Paul Krugman famously mocked this “fair and balanced” approach:

There are several reasons why fake research is so effective. One is that nonscientists sometimes find it hard to tell the difference between research and advocacy - if it’s got numbers and charts in it, doesn't that make it science? Even when reporters do know the difference, the conventions of he-said-she-said journalism get in the way of conveying that knowledge to readers. I once joked that if President Bush said that the Earth was flat, the headlines of news articles would read,
“Opinions Differ on Shape of the Earth.”

Yes, opinions differ on the origin of Tarot... and on the shape of the Earth, global warming, the efficacy of homeopathy, the accuracy of astrology, Creationism, the Sho'ah, UFOs, telekinesis, the Priory of Sion, ghosts, the Loch Ness monster, Bible codes, the bloodline of Jesus and the Magdalene, perpetual motion machines, the role of crystal skulls in the 2012 Mayan apocalypse, levitation by yogis, who shot JFK, psychic surgery, whether 9/11 was orchestrated by the Bush administration or by the Israelis, the Bermuda Triangle, sorcery, reading auras, cartomancy, orbiting teapots, and so on. Opinions differ on the origin of Tarot.

...But Not His Own Facts

Opinions differ, but opinions are not all created equal. Some opinions are Really Fucking Stupid™(3), and many of these have been researched, debated, and decided on long ago. We can marshal facts and employ the tools of critical thinking to evaluate different claims. We can adopt guidelines such as parsimony and Carl Sagan’s excellent safeguard against absurd beliefs and crackpot theories: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.(4) Most importantly, we can rely on facts. As noted in the previous post, The Game of Tarot was primarily about the facts. Dummett’s great sin against occult fiction was marshaling facts rather than just stating opinions, and keeping the opinions he did present very close to those documented facts.

Ignoring or dismissing Dummett means rejecting the facts of Tarot history.

Of course, giving facts to occultists is like giving roses to swine.(5)

Cast Not Roses Before Swine

The roses-before-swine metaphor is a Dutch proverb about folly and futility, wasting things of value on those who cannot properly value them.

The pigs may eat the roses, thinking that they've gotten the good out of them. However, they cannot appreciate them as roses, admiring their beauty and understanding their symbolism. It is a variation of Jesus’ “pearls before swine” metaphor from the Sermon on the Mount.

Matthew 7:6. “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.” (KJV)

The roses-before-swine subject has been found in wood carvings, like the 15th-century image from the Rouen Cathedral depicted above. It was used repeatedly in painting, where proverbial wisdom was popular. The Netherlandish Proverbs (also called Blau Huicke) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, is the most famous example. His son made many copies of this design, and others copied it as well.

A version of Die Blau Huicke by Frans Hogenberg is dated to 1558, the same period as Bruegel’s paintings were becoming popular. Another prominent example of the motif appears in Jan Steen’s The Effects of Intemperance.

Yes, opinions differ. The stupidity of pop-culture Tarot history, a mindless devotion to patently false beliefs, is not an unusual phenomenon. It is the nature of fringe beliefs and believers—crackpots generally care about a subject more than rational people. Calling such people “fucking dolts” is not an ad hominem attempt to substitute insult for evidence and argument. Evidence and argument have been presented, and they overwhelmingly refute their cherished beliefs. “Fucking dolts” is not even an insult, but an accurate description based on objective observation. In this usage, “fucking” serves as a comparative adjective, emphasizing the extreme doltishness of the “dolt” in question. Google tells us that dolt means a stupid person: fool, blockhead, dunce, or simpleton. Those who ignore evidence and argument, in order to promote the lost-in-the-mists-of-time falsehood in the 21st century, are fucking dolts, and their childish views do not result in controversy at the grown-ups’ table.

Another way of looking at why there is no genuine “controversy or debate” on such matters is that there is no conceivable evidence, nothing imaginable, that would persuade the cultists their views are mistaken. Epistemologically, their position is not falsifiable. Rather than being a mere historical artifact, subject to scholarly study like any other, Tarot is a numinous object or fetish for the cultists, and so it must have always been. It could not have become magical in the late 18th century—if it is magical, then it must always have been magical. Their view that Tarot is something more than an artifact is a key reason for their rejection of objective definitions and factual history of Tarot. Presenting even more factual evidence to esotericists is just casting more roses to the swine.

That figment of something transcendent in Tarot is what actually lies on the other side of the supposed controversy or debate, making it a sham debate. Proponents of academic scholarship do not and would not dispute such subjective experiential claims, if asserted as such. It would be akin to debating the historical truth of the Trinity. Unfortunately, the cultists are uncomfortable with that position, and choose to frame their beliefs in terms of factual historical claims. After positioning themselves as historians rather than religionists, they then take offense when they are asked for evidence, but this does not constitute an historical controversy or debate.

Playing-card historians and those sincerely interested in the history of Tarot don’t debate the “ancient Egyptian origins” of Tarot. It’s not an open question. For any who were paying attention, A.E. Waite explained that over a century ago. But not everyone paid attention.

The Quote in Question

Here is the WPC quote (in bold) from Decker et al., with some surrounding context. The largest part is a quote, from someone who wasn’t paying attention, which exemplifies occultist folklore.

So what are Tarot cards? Are they instruments of a card game, or a means to self-knowledge, or, as Papus called them, the absolute key to occult science? How to reconcile this bewildering variety of ways of regarding them and using them? Here is an explanation:
For all its theoretical and practical importance, the history of the Tarot is still a matter of controversy and debate. We simply do not know where it came from, or if someone does know, he can’t prove it to anyone else. The necessary facts don't exist. Some say it came from India, others from China. The majority view among the western occultists is that the Tarot originated in ancient Egypt. Its trumps are said to contain in disguised form the secrets of the teachings of Hermes Trismegistus, or Thoth. This legendary "Book of Thoth," the Tarot, survived to modern times precisely because its true nature was not understood. It was taken as a diversion, a game. And since it amused people, it survived the vicissitudes of ages and kingdoms.... Because the Tarot became a game of chance, we are able to study it today. There is a general agreement among occult authorities that the use of the Tarot was popularized in western Europe by the wandering bands of Bohemians - gypsies - who made their appearance in the late Middle Ages. The earliest historical reference to the Tarot dates from the time of Charles VI of France, who is known to have possessed a set that survives, in part, to this day. Of its earlier history, nothing is known.
This passage, taken from Thomas Williams’s [1975] doctoral thesis for the University of Alabama, very well illustrates what, sociologically regarded, is the most interesting fact about the Tarot pack, namely that it is the subject of the most successful propaganda campaign ever launched: not by a long way the most important, but the most completely successful. An entire false history, and false interpretation, of the Tarot pack was concocted by the occultists; and it is all but universally believed. For instance, save in so far as it is safeguarded by qualifications (themselves often dubious) like “the majority view among occultists is that...”, every single sentence in the foregoing quotation is untrue.

Shit4brains feels that Williams’ remarks are “very reasonable”. (That is ample justification for dismissing anything Shit4brains ever says, on any topic.) They restate conventional esoteric lore, that the origin of Tarot is lost in the mists of time; that, for unstated reasons, the origin should be sought in ancient Egypt; that the earliest evidence of Tarot is French, from the 14th century; that part of that deck survives; that we know there is an earlier history but we do not know anything about it.

As discussed above, Shit4brains says that the bias of Decker et al. is proven because “not every single sentence in the quotation is untrue”. Specifically, he contests the first sentence, as mocked in the two preceeding sections. There are thirteen sentences in the passage quoted from Williams, and we will consider the reasonableness of them all, to assess the claim that, except for weasel words, “every single sentence in the foregoing quotation is untrue”. Before exploring the passage in detail, however, let’s consider the source. It will be a long digression, but perhaps we can sell a few copies of Williams’ book while presenting the original context of these 13 ill-informed sentences?

Eliphas Lévi: Master of Manure

Williams’ book is a biography of Eliphas Lévi. Two versions are available: Eliphas Lévi: Master of Occultism (1975) and Eliphas Lévi: Master of the Cabala, the Tarot and the Secret Doctrines (2003). (Note that neither title suggests that Lévi was a master of factual history, about Tarot or anything else.) Williams announced that his study was to be an academic one, i.e., objective: “Occult and esoteric thought has become an inescapable part of our contemporary intellectual climate. It is time for all of us to find out something reliable about it.” These promotional quotes are from the back cover:

Eliphas Lévi, author of The Dogma and Ritual of High Magic, is the leading figure in the modern revival of interest in occult and esoteric thought and the insights it offers into the spirit and destiny of man. Perhaps no other figure of his time represents so clearly and openly—without pretense or unnecessary secretiveness—the teachings of the cabala, the tarot and the secret doctrines in their relation to contemporary intellectual history. The unusual thing about Eliphas Lévi, when he is compared to other occultists, is his good humor, his openness, and his smile. For all his erudition he remained as he always had been—a spiritual guide who cared deeply for his students.
This is an often enjoyable, well-documented, readable biographical book on Lévi and his influence.... A significant book.
Thomas A. Williams offers to our understanding a knowledge of what the occult is as well as of Eliphas Lévi, one of the most important revivers of the lore and language of esoteric doctrines.... Williams offers useful materials on the Cabala, numerology, and the Tarot....
Christian Scholar’s Review
Thomas Williams gives us for the first time a well-researched, honest and unbiased biography of one of the giants of occultism.... Mr. Williams has done the occult, or psychic, world a service that should be acknowledged by all concerned.... We should all stand up and cheer!
Spiritual Studies Center Booknews

In this opening passage, Williams is in agreement with Dummett’s assessment of Lévi’s seminal importance to modern esotericism.

AT THE HEAD of the contemporary revival of interest in occult and esoteric systems of thought stands the imposing figure of Eliphas Lévi. Pierre Chacornac, Lévi’s disciple and editor, calls his master the "renovator of occultism in France."

But Lévi was much more than that. Outside France his ideas exerted a powerful influence on such writers as Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, the Russian expatriate who founded the Theosophical movement in England and furnished the major inspiration and doctrinal source for the new occultism in the English-speaking world. In her most important book, Isis Unveiled, Madame Blavatsky (as she preferred to be called) cites Lévi as her principle authority, referring to his work on thirty-three different occasions. Most of the key ideas in her book that do not come from pseudo Indian sources come directly from Lévi. Somewhat later, that monster of modern magicians, Aleister Crowley, author of Moonchild and Magick in Theory and Practice, thought himself to possess Lévi’s soul reincarnate. Crowley and Arthur Edward Waite, indefatigable student and popularizer of the esoteric, soon translated Lévi’s magical works into English. In this way Lévi's influence stretched out into the mainstream of modern western literature not only through the intermediary of such French writers as Catulle Mendes, Villiers de l’Isle Adam, Joris Karl Huysmans, and perhaps even Baudelaire, Hugo, Rimbaud, and Mallarme, but also through such towering English figures as William Butler Yeats and others influenced by the theosophists, the Order of the Golden Dawn, and similar late nineteenth century occult movements.

It appears that Williams did considerable research on some areas of his subject and became rather expert in those areas. In critiquing earlier writers on Lévi, Williams even acknowledges that occultists tend to be bullshit artists rather than historians. He mentions sources to which A.E. Waite did not have access, which limited his understanding of Lévi, and notes that “the writings of other occultists don’t help much” either. Williams then generalizes with this charming and insightful observation:

The magi of any period are not likely to be the most scholarly and objective of men, and their disciples are even less so. The most viable and respected of occult traditions is unfortunately not the one that hands down ancient and priceless truths from generation to generation, but the one that authorizes each succeeding generation to invent brand new “ancient” truths of its own.

A Critical View of Lévi

As an aside within this already overlong digression, it is worth repeating a few more words of Dummett. While he did not write a biography of Lévi, he did do considerably more research on him and the world of Western Esotericism than most Tarot enthusiasts ever will. In addition to being knowledgable about both Lévi and, for comparison, other writers of his ilk, he was an objective and critical historian. Lest we seem too kind to Lévi, here are a few playful yet true words in which Dummett summarized the old fraud's work.

“It is from Lévi's work, above all from the Dogme et rituel, that the whole of the modern occultist movement stems. At first glance, Lévi's success is bewildering: his style is bombastic, the intellectual content is thin, the factual information is inaccurate, and the claims advanced range from the unintelligible through the obscure to the frankly puerile.
“It may well be wondered how such preposterous nonsense ever attracted attention at all.”
(The Game of Tarot, p.114.)

“A sober appraisal of Lévi's works on magic could characterise them only as the product of an advanced state of intellectual deliquescence. Nevertheless, he initiated a boom in occultist writing, and almost all his successors acknowledged their debt to him, and may be said to have belonged to his school.”
(The Game of Tarot, p.120.)

Any study of Lévi which does not include some such critical comments, albeit perhaps less tartly worded, has failed to provide a proper historical understanding of the fabulous fuckwit.

It is an encouraging sign that Williams rejects the invention of new fiction. Unfortunately, he approached his subject in much the same way as many, perhaps most other students of Western Esotericism, not as an academic but as an enthusiast, or even an advocate.(6) While concocting new folklore is unacceptable to his scholarly standards, repeating old folklore is not. When it came to Tarot, for example, he seems to have done no research at all. Instead, he simply accepted what occultists had written, without any critical thought or independent investigation.

Of Tarot’s role in Lévi’s world, he wrote this:

For him, nature was a living organism, hierarchically organized according to a strict and knowable system of analogies and correspondences—if you had the key which would unlock them. Everything is related to everything else. The microcosm mirrors the macrocosm. In the words of the Emerald Table[sic], “As above, so below.” Occult symbolisms reveal this all-important web of correspondences. The most important of these symbolic systems is that of the Tarot trumps. For Levi the Tarot was the Rosetta stone that made possible the interpretation of nature's hieroglyphs. It was a kind of periodic table of the elements of occultism.

Williams’ discussion of Tarot was written in the context of a biography of Lévi, and was originally written in 1975, when there was little in print about Tarot which was not false, misleading, or simply ill-informed. Accepting Lévi’s views at face value is a significant weakness. A good biographer of an occultist will necessarily be a skeptical one (see sidebar above), one who challenges every fringe assumption and points out pseudo-historical blunders. In terms of Tarot, Williams appears to be an advocate of Lévi’s positions rather than a scholar putting them in historical context. However, the “lost in the mists of time” assumption about Tarot was not as egregious then as it has been since 1980. Unlike Shit4brains and other writers today, Williams did not need to be a complete moron to write what he wrote in 1975. He only needed to be a credulous esotericist.

Every Sentence is Untrue

Williams’ book may be a decent biographical treatment of Lévi, in some ways. That question is left to others. The question here is whether the account of Tarot stated or implied by Williams’ in the passage quoted by WPC is, discounting the weasel words, essentially false. Does it provide information or does it use smoke, mirrors, and misdirection to hide information and insinuate falsehoods? The first five sentences are a restatement of the founding myth: the origins of Tarot are lost in the mists of time, but ancient Egypt is the place to look.

For all its theoretical and practical importance, the history of the Tarot is still a matter of controversy and debate. We simply do not know where it came from, or if someone does know, he can’t prove it to anyone else. The necessary facts don't exist. Some say it came from India, others from China. The majority view among the western occultists is that the Tarot originated in ancient Egypt.

The facts do exist. They were collected, collated, and analyzed into an understandable historical account in 1980, five years after Williams first wrote those lines. Most of the facts existed at the time of his research, but he did not look for them. Sentence #2 says we don’t know, and #1 says there is controversy and debate because of that ignorance. These are both false. Tarot did not come from China, India, or ancient Egypt as Williams suggests, but from Italy, almost certainly in the 1430s. People still dispute the details, look for more evidence and sometimes find some, suggest an origin a few decades earlier, and so on. But those are quibbles compared to Williams lost-in-the-mists nonsense about distant lands and ancient times.

Its trumps are said to contain in disguised form the secrets of the teachings of Hermes Trismegistus, or Thoth. This legendary "Book of Thoth," the Tarot, survived to modern times precisely because its true nature was not understood. It was taken as a diversion, a game. And since it amused people, it survived the vicissitudes of ages and kingdoms.... Because the Tarot became a game of chance, we are able to study it today.

The notion that Tarot is an esoteric code book is just like the notion that if you sail too far you reach the edge of the world: it's a childish fairy-tale. There was never any support for it, it is absurd on its face, and even the proponents of this claim cannot agree on what the supposed occult manifesto was about, what correspondences were secreted therein, or why anyone would have bothered. The confused and contradictory blather of competing occultists demonstrates that Tarot conveys no more wisdom than a Rorschach inkblot. Conversely, many works of esoteric lore were written and have survived, with no reference to Tarot or anything like it, while a great deal of existing evidence demonstrates that Tarot was, at the time of its invention and to the present, a card game.

There is a general agreement among occult authorities that the use of the Tarot was popularized in western Europe by the wandering bands of Bohemians - gypsies - who made their appearance in the late Middle Ages. The earliest historical reference to the Tarot dates from the time of Charles VI of France, who is known to have possessed a set that survives, in part, to this day. Of its earlier history, nothing is known.

Williams says that there is general agreement among con artists “occult authorities” on the truth of a falsehood. Nonetheless, it remains a falsehood, and Williams fails to mention that part. Here again Williams uncritically regurgitates 19th-century fabrications which have been thoroughly researched and debunked. So, except to the extent that they are is protected by slippery qualifications like “the majority view among occultists is that...”, every sentence in that quotation is untrue. The origins of Tarot are not lost in the mists of time but hidden, intentionally concealed behind the myths of swine.

That is, folks like Eliphas Lévi, Thomas Williams, and Shit4brains.

Where Are We Today?

These fictions were invented by Freemasons including Antoine Court de Gébelin in the late 18th century. Lévi and others recycled them in the 19th century. Williams swallowed them whole and puked them out for a Ph.D. in the silly 70s. Now Shit4brains is recycling them in the 21st century, claiming that a load of rubbish is very reasonable. Nonsense aside, where are we today in terms of knowing the origin of Tarot? Pretty much the same place as in 1980 when The Game of Tarot was written, or 1996 when this was written in A Wicked Pack of Cards:

[...] the most interesting fact about the Tarot pack [is] that it is the subject of the most successful propaganda campaign ever launched: not by a long way the most important, but the most completely successful. An entire false history, and false interpretation, of the Tarot pack was concocted by the occultists; and it is all but universally believed.

In WPC, the authors did not stop with the simple, factual assertion that “every single sentence in the foregoing quotation is untrue”. The next paragraph explained why the Williams passage was false.

It is not at all difficult to say, in general terms, where and when the Tarot pack originated: it was invented in northern Italy in the first half of the XV century. Indeed, anyone with an elementary knowledge of the history of playing cards would, on inspecting a Tarot pack of traditional type, assign it to an Italian origin on the strength of the suit-signs and their arrangement on the cards. The earliest documentary references to Tarot cards are from account-books of the d’Este court of Ferrara, in the year 1442. A lower bound for the date of their invention is harder to determine. It probably occurred around 1425; the earliest date with any claim to be plausible would be 1410.

And so on. Documented facts and inferences closely based on those facts. The authors have the entire body of findings about early Tarot, some presented in that book and more in The Game of Tarot, to support their positions. There are no pieces of evidence left out; nothing which points to earlier examples of Tarot in France, India, China, Egypt, or Atlantis. This was the case in 1980, and despite many new findings since then, the revolutionary conclusions of The Game of Tarot remain essentially intact. Tarot was invented by Roman Catholics in northern Italy, sometime shortly before 1440, for the purpose of playing a card game.

That is the opposite of “lost in the mists of time”.


 ✎ 1.I would link to the quote, but Google flags the page for malware.
 ✎ 2. For comparison, in 2011 the Speculative History and Interpretation of Tarot (S.H.I.T.) award in the category of Recycled Masonic Fiction (aka, the Dorodungo Award for polished turds) went to Robert Swiryn, in recognition of his discovery and revelation of “how the story of the Cathars was concealed in the Tarot”. (Tragically, the post celebrating his award was destroyed by a reptilian space alien who posts under the names “Advice Kid” and “DeckDivaI”.) As sports fans will remember, Swiryn also began his journey into the Tarot Hall of Shame with a sock-puppet promotion of his own book, before it was available, hiding behind the revealing name “Foolish”. So “Shit4brains”, who seems to be copying Swiryn’s award-winning strategies while replacing Cathars with ancient Egyptians, must be considered the early front-runner for 2012’s prize.
 ✎ 3. “Some people are really fucking stupid.” George Carlin.
 ✎ 4. Sagan’s safeguard was an update of the Humean maxim: No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish.
 ✎ 5. Is it worth the time and effort to debunk the bullshit artists who dominate Tarot-history discussions? Obviously, I think that it is, but why? There is no possibility of reaching most of the cultists by reasoning with them—cast not your roses to swine. Cultists’ claims are the subject of debunking, but sensible people are the intended audience.
 ✎ 6. The varied approaches to the study of Western Esotericism have been usefully analyzed by Wouter J. Hanegraaff. Online one can find Beyond the Yates Paradigm, which contains that analysis, and Some Remarks on the Study of Western Esotericism. While I'm here, let me plug Hanegraaff’s new book, published last week: Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture. Tell your library to get a copy.
 ✎ 7. Great thanks to Ross for suggesting "the frescoes arranged as they are 'in situ' in the Sala dei Giochi of the Palazzo Borromeo, as if looking in the ground floor window". Images from the Storia di Milano site.


  1. Dear Mr. Hurst,
    I'm a researcher at the Museum of Ostend in Belgium and am currently trying to locate an untitled print showing a Schutzmantelmadonna in a rosary. I haven't been able to find any information about it anywhere, except right here on your blog, in your post on the ranks of man in Tarot ( It's the one titled 'Mary plague sheet'.
    Is there anything else you can tell me about the image? A source, a title, a collection where it is kept? I'd appreciate it incredibly, as I really am a bit out of my depth here. You can contact me at thijsdekeukeleire(at)
    Thank you very much in advance,
    Best regards,

  2. Hi, Thijs,

    That particular example was scanned from Fifteenth Century Woodcuts and Metalcuts from the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (1965), by Richard S. Field. It is identified as "The Madonna in a Wreath of Roses" (the wreath is not shown in the detail posted), Augsburg, 1490-1500.

    "Inside a rosary stands the 'Madonna di Misericordia,' accompanied by angels and God the Father. The Virgin is crowned as Queen of Heaven but appears in an earthly setting to protect her devotees: A Pope, a King and Queen, 2 cardinals, a bishop and a number of lay people. Her role as protectress against the plague is made apparent through God's being armed with the three arrows traditionally regarded as protection against pestilence, famine, and war."

    It is actually included in this post:
    - The Estates and Ranks of Man

    Some related images are shown here:
    - A Tripartite Ranks of Man

    Best regards,

  3. Here is the description at the National Gallery website

    Madonna in a Wreath of Roses, 1490/1500
    woodcut, hand-colored in red lake, green, and gray-yellow
    diameter (trimmed within plate mark): 17.8 cm (7 in.)
    Schreiber, no. 1012, State a
    Rosenwald Collection

  4. Aline -- is that you?

    Thanks for the links. It's a shame they don't have a larger image online, as it is much nicer in color than the B&W scan I sent to Thijs.

    Best regards,

  5. Nope, just me, Ross. I signed up under my Google account, but it reads "Unknown" for some unknown reason.

  6. Here is a helpful link

    1. The author of the book, who is known on this site as Shit4brains, appears to use pseudonyms such as "Morgan Duvall" on his own site, "TarotCard" when spamming one online forum, "Peter" when he is reviewing his own book on Amazon, and other names elsewhere. Among other crackpot notions, he seems to think that quoting passages of his writing for analysis or debunking purposes is some sort of copyright violation -- LOL! Hence his name here, Shit4brains, which refers simultaneously to all these varied personae as well as indicating the arrogance, ignorance, and slow-wittedness of the fellow.

      Shit4brains is apparently so paranoid about being reviewed that he has devoted time and effort to cyber-stalking those who criticize his writing, and blocking their IP addresses from that website. For anyone who suffers this minor indignity, simply Google the terms "ip hide". There are so-called anonymizer sites that will conceal your IP address, and there are browser tools such as JonDoFox which will do the same thing.

      There is, however, nothing of value at his website. Shit4brains has reproduced a few pages of silliness, random brainfarts in which he free-associates on the trump cards in terms of ancient Egyptian subjects. Given that there is no actual historical linkage presented, there is nothing in them even worthy of discussion. There is no historical information relevant to Tarot revealed. His choice of historical Tarot includes revisionist decks such as charming 19th-century Belline cartomantic deck and the odd, 21st-century Camo-Jodo deck. And there appears to be no coherent treatment of the trump cycle whatsoever.

      It's just a waste of time. However, if he intends to promote this 18th-century fiction in one of the few online Tarot fora which I keep track of, I will naturally debunk some of the more entertaining nonsense, as with my recent posts about the Popess.

      Best regards,