Thursday, May 31, 2012

Maybe Now You'll Remember

Jun 20, 2012 postscript:

Of course, A Serious Man might take a more expansive view of Tarot.

Jul 5, 2012 postscript:

The S.H.I.T. quoted above is from 1986. That S.H.I.T. continues to dominate much of the “historical research” in online Tarot fora today. Here is a recent example that was not posted to a forum on fortune-telling, psychology, New Age religion, or some other appropriate topic, but to a forum on Tarot history.

People are fascinated by the Tarot, not as a card game, but as an oracle, spiritual discipline, or hidden wisdom. This fascination has been explained by the cards being created by implausible Egyptians or Kabbalists, or plausible Humanists and Neoplatonists. But the proximate reason for the fascination must lie in the cards themselves, not their origin. Maybe it is time for an old fashioned formalist analysis of the deck itself. Once this is done, asking why this formal structure attracts us, and how it was created, might be more easily answered.

If you look at the conclusion (“how it was created”) and the introduction (“not as a card game”) you can see the shorter(1): Tarot was not created as a card game. The author wants desperately to be taken seriously while pursuing a silly goal, arguing against the historical evidence. The writer offers no reason for his rejection of the findings and conclusions of playing-card historians, (collectively, what Ross has dubbed the “Standard Model” of Tarot history), and no indication that he is even familiar with that material or with the iconographic studies of Moakley and Dummett, much less the extensions of their work by Ross and myself. He simply ignores all that and says, let's try something less fact-based, something more speculative and congenial to the “people”.

Of course, by “people” the author of that quote is referring to “stupid people” and “dishonest people”. Some of those who use Tarot for divination do not pretend to have any interest in early Tarot history, or at least do not attempt to manufacture a false connection between the two. Others are the fools and frauds, (matto and bagatto), who created the endless streams of pseudo-historical apologetics for occult inventions.

There is another group interested in Tarot, but it is a very tiny one: historians. This small group of intrepid folk seek to understand the early history of Tarot in terms of that early history, and to understand the modern folklore on its own terms. Modern Tarot folklore was NOT created in the Italian Renaissance, any more than in ancient Egypt. These blunders, fantasies, superstitions, and scams were created by French Freemasons and fortune-tellers during the Romantic reaction against the Enlightenment. That fanciful rejection of the Age of Reason is the source of these confections. Modern Tarot folklore was vastly elaborated and developed during even later periods, and these are the formative environments that must be studied to learn about occult Tarot. These studies have been pursued in extensive detail, once again owing to Michael Dummett, and it would be worthwhile to add to those researches by emphasizing the social context.

However, the most salient point to be made is the absolute rejection of that writer's conclusion. He asserts the same S.H.I.T. as O'Neill: by understanding modern Tarot folklore we can thereby explain “how it was created”. This is fucking retarded. Tarot was created more than three centuries before this modern mythology was added, in a very different milieu, for very different purposes. The historical evidence is clear:

Tarot was created by Roman Catholics in 15th-century Italy to play card games.

That is the only legitimate context for pre-Gébelin Tarot iconography.


 ✎ 1. Shorter: an Internet tradition of snarky rejoinder. The “shorter” of an argument or position is a sardonic summary with the implication that said argument or position – when stated plainly – is moronic or otherwise contemptible.


  1. Great blog. your post on dummett's tarot research was plenty usefull. I'm doing a work about a semiotic approach to the tarot as a divinatory system, but, you know, I'm trying to find how it works, as a system...
    It's nice to find someone here who doesn't believe in the hermetic tradition and all that, even if is interested in the tarot...
    Sorry if my english it's wrong.
    Saludos from México.

  2. Michael,

    Which book would your recommend reading (first)? Given the exorbitant price, The Game of Tarot versus The History of (V1 & 2) must become a matter of which is more thorough in the matter. Do the later volumes cover the same ground? Are they more up to date? Which one would be the best choice for accuracy and detail?

  3. Hi.

    The question is, which "matter" are you interested in? They are very different books. The Game of Tarot has 28 chapters, and is pretty comprehensive in its coverage of Tarot. Ten of the chapters are crucial for the GENERAL history of Tarot: Chapters 1-8, 20, and 21 constitute the best book on Tarot history yet written in English. The other eighteen are about the SPECIFICS of the games played in different locales.

    I transcribed the Table of Contents in this post:

    Chapters 5 & 6 were later expanded into two additional books, A Wicked Pack of Cards (basically covering occult Tarot from 1770-1870) and A History of Occult Tarot (occult Tarot from 1870-1970). Except for Chapter 1, The History of the Games Played with the Tarot Pack is essentially an expanded and updated edition of the "other eighteen", i.e., it's about the specifics of the games played.

    My main recommendation would be to try to borrow The Game of Tarot from a library, via inter-library loan if necessary, and photocopy those ten chapters. That is, in my view, the best general introduction. Dummett was very thorough in his research and very conservative in his conclusions, and no one has attempted anything approaching an updated edition of his book. Nonetheless, keep in mind that the book is over three decades old, and a lot of online discussions are by people who have never read Dummett and who focus disproportionately on material brought to light in the last few years.

    Four years ago I wrote A Short List of recommendations:

    I hope that helps.

    Best regards,