Tarot Picture Books
Once there was a time when lovers of tarot seeking to look at beautiful cards had to (gasp!!) purchase a book! In that long-ago time (say, 1976) there was no Google, no wikis, no surfing nor clicking. To indulge your tarot obsession, you hopped in your Ford Pinto and drove to a local bookstore where these beautifully illustrated volumes nestled on a shelf.
The three books described here are all over-sized, hardbound, beautifully illustrated, focused on the Tarot de Marseille, and published between 1973 and 1986. They’re easy to obtain for about $5.00 at online used booksellers. Yes, you can see many more decks online, but there’s something magical about holding a large book in your hands and looking at a curated selection of cards.
Out of the three, The Book of Tarot by Fred Gettings is the most compatible with my approach to tarot. Gettings says, “the cards are intended to be springboards for intuitive judgments rather than happy hunting grounds for scholars of esotericism.” Then he gives 18th– and 19th-century esotericists a hilarious, over-the-top tongue lashing, saying that historical research on tarot is actually “….. an extended commentary on human credulity, duplicity, inventiveness, ignorance and superstition.” He was ahead of his time in asserting that tarot is a product of late-medieval Italian culture, not of ancient Egypt, nor of Neo-platonic renaissance thinkers.
His disdain for putting an esoteric overlay on the cards falls apart when he discusses the geometric structure of each trump. He sees the Hebrew letter Aleph in the Juggler’s arm positions, and the horns of Isis behind the Papesse. You can try his method yourself by laying paper over a card and tracing the main outlines in black pen. Try to see the underlying geometric structure, and ask yourself if the lines remind you of an astrological or alchemical symbol.
Throughout the book he gives examples of reading the cards intuitively in the context of the question and adjacent cards. He advises not using the suit cards for divination since the card meanings vary arbitrarily from one reader to another. Then he contradicts himself once again by giving Papus’ esoteric numerical system based on Hebrew letters.
Most of the cards shown in the book are Tarot de Marseille and nearly every page has art from the Middle Ages to the 19th century. This book gives you a good introduction to tarot history, the study of comparative imagery, and reading intuitively with the TdM.
Sylvie Simon’s book can serve as a beginner’s guide to occult tarot. Her interpretation of each trump card is based on the Hebrew alphabet, the Tree of Life, and astrological associations. Since she’s a French esotericist, she uses the continental system where Aleph is assigned to the Juggler rather than the Fool, as in the Golden Dawn system, giving a different set of correspondences from what most Americans are used to.
Unlike most French authors who turn up their noses at reading with the suit cards, her discussion is surprisingly detailed. Her card meanings are based on a combination of Pythagorean numerology and the numbers associated with the sephiroth on the Tree of Life. She gives each card a couple of paragraphs of useful divinatory meanings, and her descriptions of the court cards bring them vividly to life.
The book contains many reproductions of art depicting card players, card readers and card printing workshops, as well as several historic decks. This book is a good introduction to European esoteric tarot. Her card meanings are very useful, even if you don’t use esoteric systems.
Color reproductions of historic decks are the main event in The Tarot by Brian Inness. Each trump card gets a full page spread of illustrations from nine historic decks and related alchemical emblems. There’s also a double-page spread of cards from several decks ranging from the 18th-century Vandenborre to the 20th-century Sheridan Douglas deck.
His tarot history is refreshingly accurate. He points out that attributions from other symbol systems are usually an awkward fit. But then he gives his own system which has as many problems as the others.
This book goes into divination methods more than the other two. We get several classic spreads like the Celtic Cross, and spreads by Papus and Mathers, with sample readings. New to me is a flexible spread with cards radiating out from a central significator which can be modified depending on the question and the circumstances.
These books are a delight to look at while introducing us to tarot scholars of a previous generation.
Gettings, Fred. The Book of Tarot. London: Triune Books, 1973.
Simon, Sylvie. The Tarot: Art, Mysticism and Divination. Vermont: Inner Traditions, 1988.
Translated from the French edition published by Editions Fernand Nathan, 1986.
Innes, Brian. The Tarot: How to Use and Interpret the Cards. London: Macdonald & Co, 1976 and 1987.