In Essential Tarot Writings, Canadian magician, scholar, and esotericist Donald Tyson has gathered an excellent collection of historical texts about cartomancy and Tarot. Perhaps not all modern-day Tarot practitioners will want to bother with it, but a good many will recognize both the significance of the included titles and the value of Tyson's commentaries and notes.
I purchased the e-book edition while silently hoping for lots of links in good working order: navigating a digital book this long is impossible if it isn't well-constructed. As it turned out the links to all of the parts of this lengthy anthology are readily accessible from any point in the book and all work perfectly. The notes, including Tyson's detailed annotations, appear together at the end of each section, but may also be viewed individually: simply touching a note number makes the note itself appear at the bottom of the digital page. Not all e-reference books are so well prepared, and whether the credit for that preparation is owed to the publisher or the author or both, they have my heartfelt thanks for it.
The anthology includes many must-reads for the serious student of Tarot history or cartomancy. Some older readers are likely to have purchased original copies of at least some of the entries when they first became available or during the years before the mainstreaming of Tarot inflated prices beyond the reach of the average pocket book. Some are available as free downloads here or there on the internet. The value of Tyson's collection specifically lies in the extraordinarily informative introductions and notes that he provides for every included essay and book excerpt. Some of these notes point out and correct the many historical errors made due to the lack of extensive scholarship on the subject at the time earlier authors were writing. This task is crucial to the improvement of scholarship on Tarot and Tyson is among the few able to even attempt it in any detail. Likewise, Tyson's ability to identify sources that are lacking in the original texts speaks to his personal familiarity with the literature. He provides an extraordinary array of comparisons and cross-references between authors that many readers will find entirely fascinating.
The collection is divided into parts, most of which include Tyson's introduction to a text followed by the text itself. Part One includes two essays from Le Monde Primitif, vol. 8 (1781) that mark the beginning of esoteric Tarot: Antoine Court de Gébelin's "The Game of Tarots" (with illustrations) and Louis Raphaël Lucrèce de Fayolle's (aka Comte de Mellet) "Study on the Tarots." Tyson's French to English translations of these essays have been available for some time on the internet, but he has improved and refined that work in these published versions.
Part Two includes P.D. Ouspensky's The Symbolism of the Tarot: Philosophy of Occultism in Pictures and Numbers (1912, English 1913). This essay was updated for Ouspensky's A New Model of the Universe (1931), but it is still best known through the Dover edition published in 1976 with color illustrations of the Rider-Waite-Smith trumps and it is the Dover edition that is included her3e. Tyson's introduction and notes detail the essay's publication history and identify the decks that Ouspensky was likely familiar with. He discusses the differences between the 1912/13 and 1931 texts with specific attention to the author's manipulations of the order of the cards while also making good use of such authorities as Kaplan and Decker, Depaulis, Dummett. Other notes of interest address the ordering of the trumps into three sets of seven, Blavatsky's involvement or rather lack of involvement with Tarot, and many of Ouspensky's comments and designations that modern readers are likely to find obscure to the point of inexplicable.
Part Three includes Tyson's Introduction and his essay "Tarot Divination Methods of S.L. MacGregor Mathers." The Introduction is a fascinating discussion of Mathers's paper that draws attention to the importance of spirit communications to the creation of the Golden Dawn Tarot and the role of Mathers's wife Moina in that process. The essay itself sorts out the convoluted how-tos of the classic Golden Dawn "Opening of the Key" method of Tarot reading. Tyson's concise writing style and thorough familiarity with the method results in a presentation that is much easier to follow than the original. He also makes some astute observations about the authenticity of some purported Golden Dawn decks relative to Mathers's directions for using them: observations that would answer any number of queries on that very subject that I have seen of late on various facebook posts.
Part Four includes Golden Dawn member J.W. Brodie-Innes's "The Tarot Cards" (1919). In his Introduction to the essay, Tyson once again provides the context needed to understand it: information about the author, the friction between him and Arthur E. Waite with regard to the assignment of Tarot suits to those of the playing cards, and even a chart detailing the various assignments of Tarot suits to playing cards by different Golden Dawn-associated authors. The notes provide more explanations for many points in "The Tarot Cards."
Part Five includes W. Wynn Westcott's "The Isiac Tablet of Cardinal Bembo," extracted from Westcott's book Tabula Bembina sive Mensa Isiaca: The Isiac Tablet of Cardinal Bembo: It's History and Occult Significance (1887). Tyson's Introduction and notes, as readers of this anthology will already have come to expect, provides interesting and relevant details about the tablet and Westcott's work that link it with later developments in the Golden Dawn Tarot tradition.
Part Six includes Arthur E. Waite's "The Great Symbols of the Tarot" (1926), the last of three essays on Tarot by Waite that were published in The Occult Review. Tyson summarizes Waite's main points, names a source that Waite evidently used but does not name, and debates Waite's cynical observations about the lack of canonical authority on Tarot by pointing out the obvious fact that Waite himself has become part of that very canon. I personally found this essay of special interest because in re-reading it I was reminded that it includes Waite's brief speculation that the trumps may have been invented independently of the other cards and later combined into a single pack. This notion has popped up on my desktop and in print a few times in recent months and I fear it may be an error with a longevity akin to that naming the so-called Gringonneur cards of 1392 as the earliest extant Tarot deck. As surely as we now know that the 1392 cards were not, in fact, Tarot cards, research of the past forty years or so has clearly established that the trumps were invented as an addition to the playing deck and thus a part of a single deck from their first appearance.
Uncharacteristically, Tyson does not comment on this particular whimsy of Waite's, so with apologies for digressing from this contemplation of the many merits of Essential Tarot Writings, I will digress briefly with the intention of sparing us all the future pain of endless repetitions of Waite's fascinating but erroneous speculation as if it were fact. I addressed this error in an earlier review, but at that time had entirely forgotten that it appeared in one of Waite's essays. First, Waite was probably not the first person to come up with the idea of independently invented trumps, since it is also suggested in Robert Steele ("A Notice of the Ludus Triumphorum and some Early Italian Card Games; with some remarks on the origin of the game of cards," Archaeologia 57.1 (Jan. 1900): 185-200, Plates 21 and 22). Second, there is plenty of research and evidence proving that the trumps were invented as a fifth suit added to a pre-existing four-suited playing deck. In his Game of Tarot, Michael Dummett established that there are no surviving trumps-only decks (81-83). On the invention of the very idea of trumps added to the playing deck, see Tractus De Deificatione Sexdecim Heroum Per Martianum De Sancto Alosio / A Treatise on the Deification of Sixteen Heroes by Marziano Da Sant' Alosio with text, translation, introduction, and notes by Ross G.R. Caldwell and Marco Ponzi (Scholion Press, 2019) and Christina Olsen's PhD dissertation (U of Pennsylvania, 1994) Carte da trionfi: The Development of Tarot in Fifteenth-Century Italy. In addition, see Gherardo Ortalli's "The Prince and the playing cards: The Este family and the role of courts at the time of the Kartenspiel-Invasion," Ludica, 2 (1996): 175-205, as the best source detailing the references to carte da trionfi in the fifteenth century and then tarocchi in the sixteenth century in the Este archives in Modena. (As Ross Caldwell pointed out to me, the only updates Ortalli's article needs are the revision of the attribution of some cards from decks such as the Charles VI aka Gringonneur, Catania, etc., all of which are listed in the second full paragraph on page 194 of the article, from Ferrara to Florence, and the identification of the "torchiolo" as a paper press, rather than a playing card press. My particular thanks to Ross Caldwell for this latter source and associated information.) Clearly, fact-based Tarot history remains a work in progress.
Part Seven includes Manly P. Hall's "An Analysis of Tarot Cards," an extract from Hall's book The Secret Teachings of All Ages: An Encyclopedic Outline of Masonic, Hermetic, Qabbalistic, and Rosicrucian Symbolical Philosophy (1928). Again, Tyson provides an excellent introduction to the essay, both summarizing and contextualizing it so that modern readers can fully appreciate its relevance. In the notes, he outdoes himself filling out Hall's scanty references with full citations. Anyone who has ever worked on proofing, checking, and improving footnotes prepared by an author who did not take any particular care in preparing them will appreciate how painstaking and time-consuming this task can be. Tyson does not, however mention the edition of Hall's Tarot essay published by The Philosophical Research Society and copyrighted 1978. My copy of this edition has a number of black-and-white illustrations, including the Knights from a Portuguese deck; the Chariot from the deck once believed to have been painted for Charles VI of France (the infamous "Gringonneur" Tarot); a fifteenth-century woodblock print of the Seven Ages of Man from the British Museum; the Wheel of Fortune from the Margarita Philosophica, identified in the label as the first encyclopedia published in Europe; a plate of four old Tarot cards; a two page plate of a full set of Mantegna cards; and at the back the full set of the Knapp-Hall Tarot cards designed by J. Augustus Knapp and Manly P. Hall. None of these is essential to understanding the text of Hall's essay, which is undoubtedly why Tyson left them out. However, in checking the illustration from the "Gringonneur" deck against that available in Stuart Kaplan's Encyclopedia of Tarot Volume I (p. 113), I noticed that both Hall's and Kaplan's charioteer faces to the left from the viewer's point of view. The charioteer on the same card in the Lo Scarabeo edition of the deck faces to the right. A minor point, surely, but certainly the sort of thing that might interest your everyday cartomancer or collector.
Part Eight is titled "English Method of Fortune-Telling with Playing Cards by Various Authors." In this section, Tyson offers a number of texts on cartomancy with playing cards that are of relevance to Tarot practices. In the Introduction, he traces the "English method" to the later eighteenth century, suggests that it is best represented by Robert Chambers's essay "The Folklore of Playing Cards" from volume one of the same author's Book of Days (1863), and considers the method as a likely influence on such notables as Arthur E. Waite and other esoterically-minded Tarot-involved cartomancers. Tyson then provides introductions to and the actual texts of "'The Art of Fortune-Telling by Cards" from Breslaw's Last Legacy; or, The Magical Companion (London 1784); "The Art of Fortune-Telling by Cards" excerpted from The Universal Dream Book (London prob. 1816); and Chambers's "The Folklore of Playing Cards,'" already mentioned in the introduction to Part Eight. The next entry is "Fortune-Telling with Common Playing Cards" from Rev. Ed. S. Taylor's The History of Playing Cards (London 1865), which Tyson finds to be a rewritten version of Chambers's essay. The next entry returns us to the work of Arthur E. Waite, this time to his "The English Method of Fortune-Telling by Cards" made available in a book first published in 1889; the version reproduced here is taken from the 1909 edition which was retitled A Manual of Cartomancy, Fortune-Telling, and Occult Divination. Finally, we come to Charles Platt's "Some English Methods of Telling," excerpted from the author's book Card Fortune Telling: A Lucid Treatise Dealing with All the Popular and More Abstruse Methods (London 1920). The influence cartomancy with playing cards had on the development of the English tradition of cartomancy with Tarot is a subject begging for further study and Tyson has pointed out some of the works crucial to the endeavor.
Essential Tarot Writings concludes with biographical notes on occult authors of importance to the history of Tarot, beginning with Jean-Baptiste Alliette and Elbert Benjamine and ending with Dr. William Robert Woodman; and a bibliography.
Tyson, a well-established author and authority on Golden Dawn practices who obviously has no lack of ideas for original books of his own, is to be commended for taking up the generally thankless task of educating others as he does in this anthology. Perhaps he was inspired by Waite's comments about the lack of a canon of Tarot literature (see Part Eight)? Digital accessibility and amazon previews aside, it can still be difficult to sort good from not-so-good sources and the historically relevant from the factually accurate; the task is made even more difficult by the recentness of well-documented Tarot history. Essential Tarot Writings is thus a welcome addition to the canon, combining as it does, so many Tarot classics with informed commentary about them.
~review by Emily E. Auger
Author: Donald Tyson
pp. 430. $29.99