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Tarot in Culture edited by Emily E. Auger

This two-volume book considers tarot from every possible angle: popular culture, occult theory, academic history, literary analysis and artistic commentary. I hope my brief summary of the articles will inspire you to purchase this major contribution to tarot studies.

Volume I offers a good foundation in tarot history.

The late Sir Michael Dummett surveys tarot from its 15th-century beginnings as a card game, to its appropriation by French occultists in the late 18th century.

Robert Place delves deeply into the iconography of the earliest hand-painted decks and discusses the trump sequence as a neoplatonic ascent of the soul. He also describes the first set of trump cards we know of, by the Duke of Milan’s astrologer Marziano de Tortona, which Place is currently re-creating. (Examples can be seen on his facebook page.)

Helen S. Farley shows us how early 19th century Egyptomania influenced theories of tarot’s origins and the cards’ meanings, and how this influence is ongoing.

Mary Greer’s Tarot Timeline 1750 to 1980, which has been online for several years, has been updated. For collectors, she gives an annotated list of all editions of the Thoth and Waite-Smith decks.

Marcus Katz continues tarot history into the late 20th century by discussing tarot’s association in popular culture with witchcraft and occultism. He brings us up to the present with a run-down of tarot associations, online forums and conferences.

Richard Kaczynski describes the collaboration between Aleister Crowley and Lady Frieda Harris.

June Leavitt postulates that the Golden Dawn Tarot has cabalistic roots, but they probably aren’t what you think. Rather than stemming from the Sepher Yetzirah, GD practices have roots in fringe magical practices, especially those of Abraham Abulafia (1240-1291).

Anyone creating a deck or writing a companion book will want to read Paul Mountfort’s article on tarot guidebooks as literature. He tells us what a well-designed guidebook should have, and critiques the books that accompany several popular decks.

Volume II focuses on tarot in the arts.

Literary works discussed in separate chapters: The Wasteland by T.S. Eliot, The Greater Trumps by Charles Williams, Nova by Samuel R. Delany, and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling.

Decks covered in their own chapters: The Wonderland Tarot, Robert Place’s Facsimile Woodcut Tarocchi, three decks by Julia Cuccia-Watts, and the William Blake Tarot by Ed Buryn.

Jeana Jorgensen uses the Empress and High Priestess cards from eight 20th-century decks as examples of how tarot has been impacted by feminist spirituality, goddess worship and the archaeology of Marija Gimbutas.

Casey J. Rudkin examines the RWS Tower card in light of Roland Barthes theory of images as a form of speech. She goes on to consider decks created by American feminists, such as Daughters of the Moon, and Motherpeace Tarot, as a response to feminist calls for a non-patriarchal language.

Mary Greer’s history of the iconography of the Lover’s card is a very deep look at a single card. I would love to see her write a book giving the other trump cards the same treatment.

On the literary front, Tabitha Dial describes her process of writing poems based on the RWS cards for her MFA in poetry. Casey J. Rudkin used tarot as visual writing prompts for her composition students at a technical college, with surprisingly creative results.

Speculative history is represented by two articles.

Helen S. Farley believes the Devil was not part of the original Visconti-Sforza deck; but the Tower card was, and it depicts the destruction of the Visconti’s rivals the Della Torre family.

Christine Parkhurst speculates on how Cathar imagery may have entered tarot.

The last set of articles in Volume Two are more personal than academic.

Danny Jorgensen went underground as a tarot reader in Phoenix, Arizona in 1977 to do research for his PhD thesis in sociology. His article describes how he went from from curious outsider at a time when the occult community was small, marginal and wary of newcomers; to being a consumer of books and readings, then a student, and finally a reluctant and conflicted professional tarot reader. His vivid description of the stress involved in reading at a psychic fair is useful for anyone considering that avenue.

Batya Weinbaum, feminist theorist, palm and tarot reader, and artist, relates her adventures reading tarot for room and board in Mexico, India, and Israel. She tells us folk divination always involves multiple modalities. Specializing in tarot is a symptom of the bourgeois professionalization of divination in western culture. I was fascinated by her description of candle stub divination, and would love to learn how to do it.

Carol S. Matthews says shopping can turn into a hero’s quest for identity; and a metaphysical bookstore can be an in-between zone where customers act out alternate identities as spiritual seeker, psychic, or pagan. Her interactions with customers in a metaphysical bookstore in the Bible belt revealed how shopping for and purchasing one’s first tarot deck could be the customers method of asserting a suppressed identity.

Both volumes are available in hardcover and paperback from

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. (Ok … it doesn’t look like your HTML did exactly what I intended. So … let’s try this one.)

    — Her interactions with customers in a metaphysical bookstore in the Bible belt revealed how shopping for and purchasing one’s first tarot deck could be the customers method of asserting a suppressed identity. —

    Interesting! And quite a step for some folks there.

    November 3, 2014
    • Hi Rebecca,
      Good to hear from you. As a denizen of the Left Coast, I probably don’t appreciate just how much courage it takes, and how anxiety-producing it can be, for folks in other parts of the country to simply buy a tarot deck or visit an astrologer (if they can find one).

      November 3, 2014

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