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Tarot Picture Books

covers of three 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.

Page from book by Fred GettingsHis 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 onpage from Sylvie Simon book 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.

Page from Brian Inness bookColor 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.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. mkg #

    I loved the Fred Gettings book and also liked the one by Brian Innes. You didn’t mention my other favorite: The Tarot by Richard Cavendish, although perhaps you’ve talked about it elsewhere. These piqued my interest and appreciation for the Marseilles style decks. Thank you so much for your wonderful website and fascinating and well-researched articles. I always appreciate reading them and I come back often.
    Mary Greer

    April 22, 2018
  2. Hi Mary, thanks so much for your comments. I don’t have the Cavendish book but now I’m inspired to track it down.

    April 22, 2018
  3. Ron Roffel #

    Gettings “gets it”.

    I remember purchasing Eden Gray’s paperback book on the RSW tarot a few years before I found my copy.

    You are right, there is something about holding a book that has a curated display of cards, even if the cards are in black and white.

    August 19, 2021
  4. Lynyrd N #

    I was recently a tarot book stash by a friend who was moving on from his tarot phase. Sylvie Simon’s book was one of them. It was great reading something which was different from the common “post-RWS” style set of meanings. Interestingly, for a book leaning towards the TdM, she does add a lot of esoteric stuff in it and even relates it to the tree of life. I do love how different the meanings of the pips are from what people are normally used to. As a deck creator, it’s something that inspires me – to illustrate the cards in a way that isn’t a rehashed version of the RWS’. Like for example, the 3 of Coins/Pentacles where, if you Google for the term, you get the same imagery of three people marvelling at three pentacles in the design of a staned glass window, or an artist/creator figure finishing three rounded things. Robert Wang’s book was an eye-opener for me in the variety of ways one could execute art on each card.

    I love picture books in general since as an artist, I tend to get inspired visually (even when I read fiction, the inspirations I get from it tend to come from the scenes I imagined happening in the book). The books that started me into my tarot creation journey were picture books, though none as old as these three. They were the divination volume of the Time-Life Mysteries of The Unknown series, which, interestingly, featured the Thoth deck (back then the courts cards of the suit of Disks seemed sinister and fascinating in all their horned glory). The second book was Rachel Pollack’s Illustrated Guide To Tarot which had a lot of pictures of different decks and had such an approachable writing style perfect for a beginner, I still treasure my copy to this day.

    Sorry for rambling. I do love books and picture books at that. Thank you for the recommendation, Hopefully, I can hunt down copies of the other two (i actually stumbled upon this old post of yours when I Googled for Fred Gettings’ book after someone mentioned it in Facebook). Thanks for this post! 🙂

    August 28, 2021
    • Hi Lynyrd, I’m happy you found inspiration in my article. To look at those old picture books is to see tarot at an unaccustomed angle. The last time I checked they were very inexpensive because they are in that in between zone where they are considered old fashioned today and haven’t become tomorrow’s collector’s items. I hope you can hunt some of them down.

      August 28, 2021

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