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.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Dummett's Game of Tarot

This post is a small tribute to Michael Dummett’s 1980 The Game of Tarot. His first Tarot book contains 600 densely informative pages, and attempting to describe it can exhaust one’s supply of superlatives. At the time it was published, much of the information was not merely new but revelatory. Over three decades old, it remains the most comprehensive and generally reliable work on the subject of Tarot history(1). Dummett’s findings, analyses, and conclusions constitute prerequisite material even for iconographic studies of early Tarot, and his fundamental contributions in that area were the subject of my previous overlong post.

The facts that were first presented in Dummett’s book have shaped much of my online discretionary time for the last thirteen years, directly or indirectly. That was true even before I had seen a copy. Most people interested in Tarot are attracted to the New Age aura, superstitious practices, and pseudo-historical bullshit that surround it. In my case it was the opposite: the fact-based history of Tarot which The Game of Tarot established is the primary reason for the existence of this blog. With the author’s passing it seems appropriate to express appreciation for his contribution to a field of study that, in its pop-culture expression, almost uniformly ignores, rejects, marginalizes, distorts, and denigrates his contributions, those damned facts.

The intended audience for this post is someone who has heard of the book, (probably from a Tarot enthusiast warning them how limited and misleading Dummett’s studies were, or how Dummett has been superseded by online Tarot “historians”), and who searches the Web to learn a bit more about it. Dummett’s outline of “principle topics” for the book will be reproduced, along with the table of contents for the companion volume, Twelve Tarot Games. There will be quotes and comments about a few subjects Dummett addressed in his Preface which seem revealing of his purpose and methods. Finally, a bibliography will list those later Tarot books which include him as author or co-author. This is not any sort of book review, but each section should provide a bit of context for better understanding The Game of Tarot.

Facts About Tarot

What’s the big deal? Mainly, it's about the facts. More than anything else, the publication of The Game of Tarot was the birth of a fact-based Tarot history. He was not content to assemble a few facts, review conventional wisdom, and write up a seemingly plausible story. He believed that every supposed fact cited by previous authors should be tracked down and verified, and as much additional information as could be discovered should be added. Folklore carried no weight, regardless how many people might have credulously accepted it. Crucially, he embraced and developed the taxonomic study of playing cards, methods pioneered by Detlef Hoffmann and Sylvia Mann, to structure the previously inchoate factoids into a coherent history. In this rigorous manner, most of what is known about Tarot history was discovered, collected, collated, analyzed, and explained by Michael Dummett, and the majority of it was laid out in 1980. In the world of Tarot, Dummett remains the King of Facts. (In the same sense, “Etteilla”, Antoine Court “de Gébelin” and “Eliphas Lévi” are Barons of Bullshit, poseurs who wouldn’t even give you a straight answer about their own names.) In honor of the treasure chest of historical evidence marshaled in The Game of Tarot, a short list of quotes from the world of fact fanciers.

Data! Data! Data! I cannot make bricks without clay.
Sherlock Holmes
It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.
Sherlock Holmes
Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan
Where facts are few, experts are many.
Donald R. Gannon
Facts are facts and will not disappear on account of your likes.
Jawaharlal Nehru
Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.
Aldous Huxley
Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.
John Adams
We can have facts without thinking but we cannot have thinking without facts.
John Dewey
I am turned into a sort of machine for observing facts and grinding out conclusions.
Charles Darwin
There are in fact two things, science and opinion; the former begets knowledge, the later ignorance
Hippocrates quotes
It's not what a man don't know that makes him a fool; it's what he do know that ain't so.
Josh Billings
Facts have a cruel way of substituting themselves for fancies. There is nothing more remorseless, just as there is nothing more helpful, than truth.
William C. Red Field
A fact never went into partnership with a miracle. Truth scorns the assistance of wonders. A fact will fit every other fact in the universe, and that is how you can tell whether it is or is not a fact. A lie will not fit anything except another lie.
Robert Green Ingersoll
Let us take things as we find them: let us not attempt to distort them into what they are not. We cannot make facts. All our wishing cannot change them. We must use them.
Cardinal Newman

It is easier to accept time-honored lore than newly revealed facts. People are more comfortable with an oft-repeated falsehood, especially one otherwise congenial to their values, attitudes, and predispositions, than they are with being disabused of their error. The greatest affront occurs when part of one’s psychological identity or emotional support is “debunked”. Tarot folklore today presupposes an entire world of long-standing falsehoods and newly fashioned pseudo-history, a universe of paranormal powers, ancient mysteries, and secret societies and traditions which people have made central to their world view. Facts, if accepted, automatically and inevitably debunk such cherished figments. That is why Dummett, with his damnable evidence and logic, is rejected, misrepresented, despised, and mainly ignored.

A Table of Principle Topics

No one needs to guess what The Game of Tarot was about, or read every one of the 600 pages to discern the main themes. Dummett, ever the Oxford logician, was nothing if not analytically clear and explicit. Because of that, even dim-witted or deeply biased readers have little excuse for the assorted bizarre claims they make about his work.

This book is concerned with three major subjects: the history of playing cards, the history of card games, and fortune-telling and the occult. It is implicit in the approach that a study of playing cards and that of card games cannot be separated from one another without detriment to both: each supplies vital clues to the other. But different readers will have particular interests in one or another of these topics: for so long a book, it may therefore be helpful to indicate, a little more precisely than is done by the chapter headings, which portions deal with each.

Below is a graphical interpretation of Dummett’s table. Dummett naturally used page numbers, making it an indexed table of contents. While that is helpful for someone using the book, for the present summary purposes the display below, with dashes and x’s, seems more revealing.

The Game of Tarot
  History of
Playing Cards
History of
Games Played
and the Occult
Preface — x — — x —
Annotated List of Illustrations — x —
Part 1: History and Mystery
1. The Tarot Pack in Playing-Card History X — x —
2. The Beginnings in Europe X — x —
3. Europe and Asia X — x —
4. When and Where the Tarot Pack was Invented X — x —
5. Cartomancy — x — X
6. The Occult X
7. The Game of Tarot — x — X
Part II: Games with 78 Cards
8. General Features of the Game — x — X
9. The Early Stages of the Game in France X X
10. Swiss Tarot, Tarock or Troccas X X
11. Classic 18th-century Tarot Outside Italy — x — X
12. Grosstarock — x — X
13. Tarocco in Piedmont and Lombardy — x — X
14. Tarock-l'Hombre X
15. Tarot in France in the 19th and 20th Centuries X X
Part III: Italian Games and Italian Cards
16. Tarocchino or Tarocchi Bolognesi X X
17. Minchiate X X
18. Trappola X X
19. Sicilian Tarocchi X X
20 The Order of the Tarot Trumps X
21. The Early Italian Game X
22. Tapp-Tarock — x — X
23. The Variants of Tapp-Tarock — x — X
24. Cego X
25. Konigsrufen X
26. XIXer-Rufen, XXer-Rufen and Czech Taroky X
27. Paskiewitsch and Hungarian Tarokk — x — X
28. Bavarian Tarock and its Relatives — x — X
(Based on the “Index of Principle Topics”, page 586.)

Perhaps the most striking fact to leap out from the table is how little of the book is concerned with the preoccupations of most Tarot enthusiasts: fortune-telling and the occult are a minor part of the book. That reflects the fact that The Game of Tarot is a history book. Fortune-telling and the occult were not significantly associated with the deck until after about 340 years of Tarot being an enormously popular game. Even then, when a tiny handful of French Freemasons and fortune-tellers were creating occult Tarot, the game was enjoying its greatest popularity as an international phenomenon, due in part to the reinvention of the deck with more modern features. Even now, on any given day, there are probably more people playing cards with Tarot decks than reading their fortune.

Despite that, the chapters on cartomancy and occult Tarot are long and thorough, and at the time the book was published they constituted by far the most detailed and documented history ever written about their respective subjects. They have since been superseded by two more books, both co-authored by Dummett. Clearly it was no part of Dummett’s project to ignore these aspects of Tarot or to argue that “throughout its history it was only a game.” This “just a game” accusation was leveled against Dummett by his first and most famous reviewer, Frances Yates in the New York Review of Books, and it is repeated without justification to this day.

Dummett’s goal, clearly stated and impressively realized in The Game of Tarot, was to discover and present the facts about both aspects of Tarot history, what might be called Tarot’s double contribution to popular culture. One big revelation, where facts refuted folklore, was in the timing. The unanticipated but inescapable evidence told a very different story than had been accepted by cultists: the fact is that Tarot was invented as a card game around 1440, and was extremely popular for centuries, across much of Europe. It was not popularly adopted for fortune-telling until the late 18th century, and more esoteric views of the old game did not become popular until a century after that, about 150 years ago. Cultists who pretend to an interest in factual history work tirelessly to distort that chronology, but...

A final point about the subjects covered concerns the companion book, Twelve Tarot Games. While Dummett was first researching Tarot he was also becoming an aficionado of the game. And when he published his encyclopedic history of Tarot, he simultaneously published a much smaller book on how to play the game. It is an essential element of the context of The Game of Tarot.

This description is from Ross Caldwell(3):

Although all the material is in The Game of Tarot, it is entirely rewritten with a view to precision, clarity, and playability, since GoT is hardly convenient to consult when playing or looking for tips on strategy. There is not a single footnote, nor an index. He says in the introduction that he would have included Minchiate, but that packs were no longer available (1980). This is no longer true, as reproductions of historical packs can be easily found.

Twelve Tarot Games has a matching cover photo and reversed color scheme, from the same publisher in the same year as The Game of Tarot. It is, in effect, Part IV (in volume II) of the same book.

Part IV: Twelve Tarot Games
  1. Introduction
  2. Scarto
  3. Mitigati
  4. French Tarot
  5. Grosstarock
  6. Ottocento
  7. Sicilian Tarocchi
  8. Tapp-Tarock
  9. Point-Tarock
  10. Königsrufen
  11. Cego
  12. Hungarian Tarokk
  13. Bavarian Tarock

This quote is from the back cover:

Michael Dummett, author of The Game of Tarot, a comprehensive history of games played with the Tarot pack and of the pack itself, here explains how to play twelve different Tarot games, all of them currently played in Italy, France, Germany, Denmark, Austria, or Hungary. This selection from the great variety of such games that are now played or have been played in the past will introduce card players to a whole range of new experience.
Many of these games require just as much strategic skill as Bridge, but present quite new problems to the serious player, to which his experience at Bridge will give him very little guidance. Some of the games are for three players, some for four. In some of the three-handed games, each plays against each, in others one, according to the bidding, plays against the other two. In the Bolognese game of Ottocento, there are fixed partners, as in Bridge; but in most of the four-handed games, one player plays against the other three, or, in some cases, plays with a partner who is the player holding a card that he has called, whose identity is therefore not at first known except to himself. In none of the games does winning depend simply on making more tricks than the other side, but on the particular cards won in tricks, and in Ottocento on the particular combinations of such cards; but in most of the games there are bonuses for additional feats in the course of play, presenting the player with a choice of objectives lacking in most games.

Dummett’s Hobby

The majority of the Preface discusses the sources of information found and used, with many acknowledgements, and emphasizing “a great debt to Mr John McLeod”, who has since co-authored the expanded and revised 2004 work, A History of Games Played with the Tarot Pack. In addition there is an interesting discussion of how Dummett came to be absorbed in his “hobby” of Tarot and Tarot scholarship, in the 1960s.

I first became interested in the game of Tarot in the summer of 1967. It had been a potential interest of mine since childhood when, looking at a compendium on the occult, I had read the chapter on fortune-telling with playing-cards. This, besides explaining how to tell fortunes with regular playing-cards, had also a section on the Tarot pack, from which I first learned of the existence of that pack, and which, in its introductory paragraphs, stated that Tarot cards were still used in central Europe for a complicated game of skill.... And then, in the summer of 1967, when I was on holiday with my family in Normandy, I came across a Tarot pack ‘avec règles du jeu’ in a shop in Honfleur, and eagerly bought it.

That purchase proved something of a disappointment, being a modern style deck with rules that were not entirely clear, but Dummett and his son Andrew learned to play the game nonetheless. He began to discover that the game was played differently in different countries, and that players employed different decks as well. Encyclopedia entries and playing-card authorities were of little help in understanding this diversity. The most important exception was Sylvia Mann, whose “great knowledge, unrivaled in its breadth, of the history of playing cards”, made possible a collaboration eventually resulting in The Game of Tarot. Her assistance is credited on the title page, for reasons partly discussed below. A few pages later he arrives discusses another motivating factor.

I do not think that I should ever have become so gripped by this investigation as I was had it not been for political events. When I first became interested in it, I was deeply involved in work to combat that racism which has, over the past fifteen years, disfigured our national life and dishonoured our country.

As older readers may recall first-hand, the years 1967 and 1968 were notably disturbing and discouraging for those in the Civil Rights movement... and others.

1968 was the most terrible year that I hope I ever have to live through. In the United States it was the year in which Richard Nixon was elected President for the first time: I spent three months there, arriving about three weeks before the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King, and leaving one week after the assassination of Robert Kennedy, who I believe might really have saved that country. In Britain it was the year in which the Labour Party, then in power, finally declared itself willing to go to any lengths to promote racism in this country for the sake of supposed electoral advantage.

Dummett was one of the more influential philosophers of the late twentieth century, as well as a prominent activist in areas of immigration and race relations. The trivial yet challenging area of playing-card research was a recreational diversion for him.

I found it almost impossible to do any more work on philosophy or logic than my teaching duties made essential: apart from the difficulty of finding the extended periods of time necessary for such work, both subjects present themselves as wholly serious; and in a time of such crisis, it seemed impossible to devote any energy available for serious work to anything so remote from the concerns of most people when there were so much more urgent calls upon it. But when one is engaged in what produces constant emotional anxiety, there is a need for some kind of refuge, and my new hobby became for me such a refuge. It presented sufficiently difficult and sufficiently intriguing problems to exercise the mind, but provoked no anxiety and seemed too far removed from serious concerns to compete with either my academic or my political work; it became a necessary recreation for me, almost a drug that could alone confer for an hour or two a piece of mind that was otherwise absent. I have, indeed, continued to pursue it long after I ceased to need any such refuge, and have transformed it from a recreation into a piece of research which, although only a hobby, was still undertaken as conscientiously as impossible; but I doubt if I should ever have become so absorbed with it as to carry it so far had it not in the first place been for a time an emotional necessity for me.

And the rest is (Tarot) history.

Sylvia Mann

Sylvia Mann had an informal collaboration with Dummett, mentioned above, which he discussed in the Preface of The Game of Tarot. In turn, she presented an account of Dummett’s Tarot researches in the 1987 anthology, Michael Dummett: Contributions to Philosophy. We will begin with a passage from that chapter of hers, titled “Playing Cards”.

The very fact that his attention had been held by this particular aspect of playing-cards dragged the whole attitude towards playing-card research kicking and screaming into the field of reality. A lot has been published about Tarot and other playing-cards during the past twenty years, about eighty per cent of which has been rubbish. Much of the best of the remainder has been catalogues of exhibitions held in Austria, France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Switzerland and at last, in 1982, in the U.K. These have been carefully and lovingly compiled, but mainly by art historians, who are interested chiefly in visual images. So here we had beautifully mounted displays, comparable to a collection of rare, dead butterflies, however attractively presented. Michael Dummett is the person who, above all others, had breathed life into these dead images. He has brought alive the purpose and use of the cards; at last one understands the why of certain packs, as well as the when. Gradually, I am sure mainly because of his efforts, museum curators interested in playing-cards are beginning to associate their possessions with their original use and are paying increasing attention to the history of particular games, especially national ones.

The point she made in this 1987 piece remains true: “In my opinion, The Game of Tarot is the most important book on cards ever written. It is a huge work and obviously balanced in favour of Tarot cards, but his attempt to relate the earliest known European cards to ancestors and relations elsewhere is most impressive.” Further along, she makes this comment:

Obviously he is listened to with attention, but it is really his written work (including papers originally read at meetings) which must emphasise what a milestone he is along the road taken by historians of playing-cards. There are still Philistines among us who cannot be bothered to follow his most carefully and closely reasoned deductions, ("Dummett? I can't understand a goddamn word he writes!") but anyone who really cares about cards and the truth about cards will always treat his words with the greatest respect. There are several individuals who also write with scholarly accuracy about cards but, with the exception of the aforementioned Professor [Detlef] Hoffmann(2), most of these are specialist writers dealing with extremely limited subjects, and none has Michael’s breadth of knowledge, particularly when concerned with cards intended for play and not for those thousands of decorative packs published more or less as artistic exercises or mere gimmicks, which few card players would favour.

Sylvia Mann

Sylvia Elizabeth Mann was a Londoner, born June 8, 1924, died November 6, 1994. She was a playing-card collector and historian. She authored Collecting Playing Cards in 1966, The Dragons of Portugal (with Virginia Wayland) in 1973, Collecting English Playing Cards in 1978, and the catalog Alle Karten auf den Tisch for a 1990 exhibition in Schaffhausen, Germany. She was a founding member and the first president of the IPCS, and editor of their journal, The Playing-Card. On her death, George Beal (Playing-Cards and Their Story, 1975) wrote a notice for the London Independent:

“Sylvia Mann was an authority on the history and study of playing-cards. It was she who formulated much of the present classification of playing-cards of the world: the various national patterns and suit systems of Europe and also of Oriental cards. She was a founder, member, and past president of the International Playing-Card Society which, after nearly 25 years' existence, has members in more than 30 countries. It was Sylvia Mann who led the way in refuting the ridiculous claims that tarot cards were somehow occult and of mysterious ancient Egyptian...”

Years earlier, Dummett had lauded Mann, her knowledge and understanding of playing-cards and her contributions to his own work in general and that book specifically. In particular, he singled out her distinction between standard pattern decks and novelty decks. This distinction is crucial to understanding the history of playing-cards, and this passage is worth quoting for that reason as well as for the acknowledgement.

No articulated framework was provided for [the systematic study of playing-cards] until the publication in 1966 of Sylvia Mann’s unpretentious volume [“her masterly and lucidly written book, Collecting Playing Cards”]. She was the first to draw a clear distinction, absent from the catalogues of any of the great collections of playing-cards, between the standard and non-standard cards: that is, between those of a kind normally used for playing, on the one hand, and on the other, all other cards. The distinction may at first sight look to be an obvious one: but, obvious or not, it had not been drawn until Miss Mann drew it, and, once drawn, it introduced a great clarity into the subject.
In fact, however, the distinction is not so obvious as it first appears, because standard cards may be differentiated from non-standard ones in either of two ways. The obvious distinction—even though this is not clearly drawn in the earlier books—is between cards whose design is largely or partly determined by some purpose extraneous to the use of cards to play card games, for instance that of advertising, political propaganda or educational instruction, and those whose design subserves no such further, albeit secondary, end. Not all those belonging to the latter category constitute standard cards, however. Among them we must again distinguish between those which card players would regard as normal playing-cards and those which they would see as special or as fancy, as cartes de fantaisie. And this, being a psychological distinction, is not always apparent from the cards themselves: to draw it, it is necessary to have historical knowledge. One must know what, at that time at which the cards were made, and in that place where, or, rather, for which, they were made, were regarded as the acceptable limits of variation in the design of normal playing-cards: within those limits, we have standard cards, outside them non-standard ones—although occasionally what is a new non-standard design when first produced may become a standard one if it gains sufficient popularity.
Playing-cards are very ephemeral objects, and so only a tiny proportion survive from former centuries; and, as a result, our knowledge is very patchy. Perhaps, of some design of which tens of thousands of examples were produced, only a handful of cards from a single pack may have come down to us. It is therefore not surprising that earlier writers had simply failed to draw the crucial distinction introduced by Sylvia Mann between standard and non-standard cards; not, indeed, that, having been introduced, it is always easy in practice to draw. But it is a crucial distinction. Isolated experiments in playing-card design occur again and again, and are often of great beauty and therefore of interest to those for whom the study of playing-cards is an adjunct of art history; but they have no significance for the history of playing-cards as such. That acknowledged, how can we apply the distinction to early periods from which we have so few examples that we cannot readily tell what is customary and what is exceptional? Hard as this is to do, it has been made a great deal easier by the realization that, at all places and times, standard playing-cards conform to one or another standard pattern, another concept introduced, in its generality, by Miss Mann.… What earlier researchers had failed to grasp, or, at least, clearly to enunciate, is that the stereotyping of playing-card design into standard patters that then evolve only so gradually that the changes pass unnoticed by card players is a universal law, whether those patterns are consciously distinguished from others used elsewhere or are merely unconsciously accepted as the norm. Only by the introduction of the general concept of standard patterns could there have been a basis for a systematic taxonomy of standard playing-cards, a work now being undertaken by the Playing-Card Society of which Miss Mann was the first President. When we go back to the earliest times in the history of playing-cards, there is little hope of identifying for certain the cards that exhibit standard patterns, and distinguishing them from occasional variants or sports; but at least we are now clear about the content of our speculations when we conjecture that some early pack was or was not standard.

Dummett credits Mann with far more than that, however, as noted on the title page: “with the assistance of Sylvia Mann” appears below his name. Since her contribution is commonly overlooked by those discussing The Game of Tarot, it is worth quoting Dummett a bit on the subject.

Indeed, this book—the present Preface excepted—is to be regarded as a work of collaboration. I have done the actual writing, which Miss Mann has checked, making numerous helpful suggestions and corrections.… The work on documentary sources and on the rules of games has been mine; but the sections on the history of playing-cards are the outcome of a co-operative endeavour, extending over a decade. I have been able to make some discoveries in this area, such as those set out in Chapters 9 and 19, and have propounded some theories, to be found in Chapters 2, 3, and 20. But at every step I have been able to rely on the stream of information which she has provided me; and I have been stimulated by the equally constant flow of suggestions and ideas she has put forward, informed by an extremely sound judgment based on an almost unequaled knowledge of the subject. A great deal of what is said in this book about the history of playing-cards is therefore due to her, and hence also a great part of the credit.

Stuart R. Kaplan’s Encyclopedia of Tarot

Stuart R. Kaplan, president of U.S. Games Systems, Inc., had published The Encyclopedia of Tarot only two years earlier. In his Preface, Dummett takes Kaplan to task for his misleading presentation. Because Kaplan’s book is still important to anyone studying Tarot history today, these observations are worth repeating as a caveat.

[The Encyclopedia of Tarot’s] object, as stated on p. xiii, is to bridge the gap between the occultist and the art historian. The result has inevitably been equivocation. In non-sensitive areas, that is, where presentation of the historical facts will not disturb the preconceptions of the occultist... there is indeed serious historical discussion.... But the book as a whole is organized in such a way as to conceal from all but the most alert of those readers previously unaware of the fact that, before 1781, Tarot cards were not used for any purpose other than to play card games, at least until such readers arrive at the very last chapter, which occupies a single page. This is effected by a historically inaccurate differentiation between the French word tarot and its German equivalent Tarock: Latin-suited packs are referred to as ‘tarot decks’, without any distinction between cartomantic ones and those intended for play, while French-suited ones are designated ‘tarock packs’, irrespective of country of origin, and the game is almost always referred to as ‘tarock’ and never as ‘tarot’. Moreover, in the entire book no clue is given as to the date of invention of the French-suited form of the pack, which in fact originated in the eighteenth century. Chapter XIV, which deals with ‘tarock packs’, i.e. French-suited ones, begins thus: ‘The game of tarock probably dates from the sixteenth century, possibly even the fifteenth century, and it continues in popularity today in certain sections of southwestern Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. early trumps were often highly artistic and depicted animals ... or full-length figures and scenes including operas, dancers, costumes ... Many of these early cards were hand stenciled.’ The effect on the previously uninformed reader must be to make him suppose that the French-suited pack dates back to at least the sixteenth century, and that it alone was used for the game of tarock, the Italian-suited cards, including the fifteenth-century ones discussed at length in previous chapters, having been intended for some other purpose; from the context, he could not guess that the ‘early trumps’ referred to dated from after 1750.

This cleverness appears to be a conscious trick on Kaplan’s part. As another example of it, in his Preface where he introduces the subject matter of various chapters of his book, Kaplan has this to say about Chapter XIV. “This encyclopedia would not be complete without detailed information about the game of tarot, known in Europe as tarock. Chapter XIV contains photographs and descriptions of some thirty decks used for playing the game of tarock rather than fortune telling.” There is no question that Kaplan is leading the reader to false conclusions by this false distinction. Reading the paragraph of Dummett, and then reading Kaplan’s comments in the Preface to his own book, is enlightening in regard to the misleading occult apologetics presented by the Encyclopedia. Dummett concludes:

The gap between the occultist and the serious historian is unbridgeable, because occultist theories rest upon a whole spurious pseudo-history of the Tarot pack. To give its true history is, necessarily, to puncture those theories; any attempt to avoid puncturing them obliges one, at best, to fudge the fact.

Tarot Bibliography

The Game of Tarot was just the first Tarot book from Dummett and, later, his co-authors. Its context today necessarily includes the entire shelf of Tarot books with his name on the cover. This short list is limited to books, but there are also many articles in different periodicals, notably including The Playing-Card, the journal of the International Playing-Card Society.

One periodical, however, seems particularly noteworthy because of its iconographic observations. The feature “Tarot Triumphant”, with three Tarot articles, appeared in issue № 8 (January/February 1985) of FMR. (Copies can be found online via eBay and used book sellers.) Dummett’s article, “Tracing the Tarot”, provided an overview of early Tarot history and his clearest analysis of the design of the standard trump cycle. An article by William Voelkle discusses the Visconti-Sforza deck, and the 35 cards of the Pierpont Morgan Library collection are reproduced. The third article is a 19th-century short story involving Tarot. (The following year Dummett published his own volume on the Visconti-Sforza deck, with full-size reproductions of all 74 surviving cards.) The Italian edition of FMR published another article by Dummett at the same time. It was about the falsely so-called Charles VI Tarot deck, and included images of all the extant cards.

The Game of Tarot: From Ferrara to Salt Lake City
Dummett, Michael
Duckworth (©1980)
600 pages
ISBN-10: 0715610147, ISBN-13: 9780715610145

Twelve Tarot Games
Dummett, Michael
Duckworth (©1980)
242 pages
ISBN-10: 0715614851, ISBN-13: 9780715614853

Di Trionfo in trionfo: Tarocchi di corte di Carlo VI
Dummett, Michael
FMR/ITALIAN № 30, Gennaio/Febbraio, 1985)
15 pages
ISSN: 0747-6388

Tarot Triumphant
Dummett, Michael, and William M. Voelkle
FMR/AMERICA № 8, January/February, 1985)
20 pages
ISSN: 0747-6388

The Visconti-Sforza Tarot Cards
Dummett, Michael
Paperback, George Braziller (©1986)
141 pages
ISBN-10: 0807611417, ISBN-13: 9780807611418

Il Mondo e L'angelo: I Tarocchi e La Loro Storia
Dummett, Michael
Bibliopolis (©1993)
489 pages
ISBN-10: 8870882721, ISBN-13: 9788870882728

I Tarocchi Siciliani
Dummett, Michael
La Zisa (©1995)
176 pages
ISBN-10: 8881280108, ISBN-13: 9788881280100

A Wicked Pack Of Cards:
The Origins of the Occult Tarot

Decker, Ronald, Thierry Depaulis, and Michael Dummett
St. Martin's Press (©1996)
308 pages
ISBN-10: 0312162944, ISBN-13: 9780312162948

A History of the Occult Tarot: 1870-1970
Decker, Ronald and Michael Dummett
Duckworth Publishing (©2002)
320 pages
ISBN-10: 0715631225, ISBN-13: 9780715631225

A History of Games Played With the Tarot Pack:
The Game of Triumphs, Vol. 1

Dummett, Michael and John McLeod
Edwin Mellen Press (©2004)
402 pages
ISBN-10: 0773464476, ISBN-13: 9780773464476

A History of Games Played With the Tarot Pack:
The Game of Triumphs, Vol. 2

Dummett, Michael and John McLeod
Edwin Mellen Press (©2004)
508 pages
ISBN-10: 0773464492, ISBN-13: 9780773464490

A History of Games Played With the Tarot Pack:
The Game of Triumphs, Supplement

Dummett, Michael and John McLeod
Maproom Publications, (©2009)
80 pages
ISBN-10: 0956237002, ISBN-13: 9780956237002


1. As an example of how sound Dummett's research and analyses were, there have been some wonderful facts discovered recently regarding the first decade or so of Tarot history. The most striking was announced just this week: Thierry Depaulis discovered the earliest known documentation of Tarot, with some fascinating and suggestive details. Before these new discoveries, based on Dummett's research as of 1980, the likelihood was that Tarot was invented in either Ferrara, Milan, Bologna, or possibly Florence, probably in the late 1430s. After these great new findings of 2011 and 2012 have been taken into account, the best guess is that Tarot was invented in either Ferrara, Milan, Bologna, or Florence, probably in the late 1430s.
2. On Hoffmann and Mann, from A Catalog of the Cary Collection: “Detlef Hoffmann and Sylvia Mann established the broader relevance of playing-cards. As a serious pursuit, the study of these materials extends beyond the concerns of the antiquarian. Hoffmann, with E. Kroppenstedt, affirmed the value of cards as cultural documents in a succession of catalogues of the holdings of the Deutsches Spielkarten Museum. Commencing in 1966.... [...] While these catalogues differ in thematic content and plan, their cataloguing method is uniform and consistently applied. The descriptions themselves are divided into two sections: the first part presents the pack's basic information such as title, manufacturer, date of manufacture, place, composition, dimensions, and process. [...] The entry then provides commentary on particular characteristics of the pack or points out relationships with other packs illustrated or discussed in the playing card literature. Most, if not all, entries are illustrated. [...] Sylvia Mann's Collecting Playing Cards was published in 1966 and appeared concurrently with the first work of the German series. It made collectors and scholars realize that playing-cards, even considering their great variety and number, could be studied in logical groups. For example, packs of cards used within a particular geographical region might share qualities of design, such as the attributes of the king or queen. In many cases these groups of cards may be given names and their traits listed in orderly fashion. For the first time in the playing card literature, Mann provides both names and extensive commentary for these card types. Because Collecting Playing Cards gave encouragement to collectors and opened new areas of inquiry, researchers perceived a need to exchange information on their findings. Collectors' newsletters had been in existence for many years; however, they could not accommodate the new historical approach to the subject proposed by Hoffmann and Mann. Discussion among British collectors resulted in the formation of the Playing Card Society, and Sylvia Mann was elected president. The inaugural meeting was held on September 9, 1972, at the University of East Anglia in Norwich.” It is worth noting that Hoffmann and Mann were beginning to establish the taxonomy of playing-cards at the same time when Dummett was taking up the study of playing-cards in general and Tarot history in particular.
3. My thanks to Ross, not just for the short description of Twelve Tarot Games but also for scans of that and the two Italian book covers illustrated in the Bibliography section.