Oswald Wirth Facsimile Decks by Marco Benedetti
For the first and last time on this blog I’m reviewing a deck by a DFO (Dead French Occultist). I usually run out of the room when someone starts in about Kabbalistic associations with tarot (it’s a personal hang-up). But I know a gorgeous deck when I see one. Marco Benedetti’s gold foil edition of Wirth’s 1926 deck is pure magic.
Oswald Wirth drew two versions of his major arcana. Benedetti is offering both of them.
In 1887, Stanislaus de Guaita, founder and grandmaster of L’Ordre Kabbalistique de la Rose-Croix, asked Wirth, a member of the order and an amateur artist, to create a deck embodying the order’s teachings, which were heavily influenced by Eliphas Levi. Wirth created 350 copies of his deck, each colored by hand, to be distributed to fellow initiates. The cards, which follow the TdM pattern closely, are rendered with graceful lines and only six colors on a white background, giving them a feeling of purity and simplicity. (See the entire 1887 deck further down in this article).
Benedetti’s gold foil deck is a facsimile of Wirth’s 1926 deck, in what could be called Wirth’s mature style. Intricate borders are integrated with the deck’s figures. The colors are softened and the original background was colored with gold ink. A few cards have minor design changes. The card with the most changes from 1887 is La Papesse who acquires a carved sphinx on her throne and a tai chi symbol on her book cover, while her face is partly covered with a veil.
Benedetti has a long history with the Wirth deck. The U.S. Games version was one of the first tarot decks he ever purchased. He found it aesthetically pleasing and a good transition deck between the TdM and later occult decks; but he wasn’t happy with the colors on any of the available decks. After experimenting with his own colors, Benedetti realized Wirth used subtle shading to give the images depth. Working from a 1926 original, he set about creating a facsimile with a gold foil background. He did numerous trial printings to adjust the luminosity and saturation of the colors and to align the figures with the background, which were sometimes misaligned on Wirth’s original. The result is an exquisitely beautiful and luminous set of cards
Benedetti’s decks are housed in solid wood boxes covered with sturdy paper. The box cover of the 1887 deck is a facsimile of the original packaging. The box cover for the gold deck is a slightly redesigned facsimile, printed in gold, of the cover of the first edition of Wirth’s book, Le Tarot des Imagiers du Moyen-Age. The cards are the original size (5.75 x 3.25 inches) with their original wide white borders, printed on sturdy card stock with plain backs.
This is not a limited-edition print run. Your deck is printed specifically for you, and the inside cover of the box is personalized with your name.
I have a small collection of facsimiles and restorations created by artisans who love tarot, work alone and produce a limited number of decks. These decks have a special aura – you can feel the love and energy that went into them. Benedetti’s golden Wirth has the same aura.
Who was Oswald Wirth?
Over a decade ago, I wrote a series of articles on the foundational masters of tarot, including DFOs like Etteilla and Papus. That exercise solidified my disinterest in occult tarot; but I surprised myself by developing a soft spot in my heart for Uncle Oswald.
Wirth (1860-1943) was an important figure in Rosicrucian and Masonic circles. He had a day job as a civil servant while serving as Stanislaus de Guaita’s secretary. Like most occultists, he believed tarot was designed to embody kabbalistic correspondences and to be an occult key to universal wisdom. He also believed tarot was a product of medieval “imagiers”: the architects, masons and cathedral builders who belonged to guilds that transmitted esoteric symbols and rituals. His deck is the first to have the Hebrew alphabet on the cards, and the first deck to illustrate occult teachings since Etteilla’s in 1787.
For many of us, our opinion of Wirth comes from the redrawn, uglified cards created to accompany the 1966 reprint of his 1927 book Le Tarot des Imagiers du Moyen-Age. The same cards were published in a 78-card deck with a shiny bronze background by U.S. Games in 1976. After seeing Benedetti’s beautiful cards, I’m going to reconsider Wirth.
Why should we care about Wirth?
If you’re like me, you’re probably sticking your nose in the air saying, “I read intuitively with an 18th-century deck – I don’t need to concern myself with occult tarot”. But you may be limiting your understanding of the cards if you ignore the occultists.
Nearly two decades ago, when I first started learning to read with the TdM, there were no books in English, so I imported books from France and Italy. Nearly every author dedicated his book to Wirth or cited Wirth as a major influence. I suspect many contemporary books on the TdM are infused with Wirth’s teachings. But we’ll never know the extent of his influence if we don’t study the source itself.
I found Wirth to be the most humane and sensible of the European occultists. His writing style is refreshingly clear and conversational, in contrast to the turgid bombast of most occultists. His 1926 deck and 1927 book are the fruits of 40 years studying tarot through a masonic and kabbalistic lens and need to be taken seriously. If it weren’t for the Golden Dawn/Waite Smith tsunami that hit shortly after Wirth’s deck and book were published, tarot in the English-speaking world may have taken a very different, French occultist path.
Wirth teaches us that reading words about tarot only gives second-hand knowledge from someone else – and that goes for reading his book as well. He says you must come to your own truth by contemplating the images and letting them inspire your dreams and imagination. Wirth had the humility to suggest that you look at the cards closely before reading his book; and not depend on anyone’s canned card interpretations, including his own.
Even if I don’t agree with his esoteric philosophy, I’m looking forward to reading his book while laying out his circle and line card patterns using Benedetti’s magical gold deck.
The most accessible way to experience Wirth is the book Tarot of the Magicians published by Weiser in 2012 with an introduction by Mary Greer. Wirth’s 1887 deck is reproduced at the back of the book on heavy card stock so you can cut the cards out and make your own deck.
To see more of this and other decks go to Marco Benedetti Tarot on Facebook.
To acquire your own deck email Tarot@MarcoBenedetti.it
Here’s my review of Benedetti’s gold foil redrawing of the Visconti-Sforza deck
Do you know what the symbol on the deck cover is? It looks like a swastika. A slightly related question, regarding Wirth and other esoterica of the late 19th and early 20th centuries— were any of them known Nazi sympathizers? I have wondered about Lady Harris and Crowley— making paintings during WWII— when supplies were so short in England. Moreover, various secret exclusive societies in both US and Europe have an element of white supremacy in their ideologies. Do you know anything about that?
Hi Joan – Yes the symbol on the cover of the box seems to have a swastika in the center as a way of joining the arms of the triangles. I hadn’t thought about the deeper meaning, so I checked my old friend Wikipedia. I originally thought that the Nazi swastika had its arms facing in one particular direction. But it seems that the swastika can face either direction depending on the culture. What made the Nazi swastika unique is being turned 45 degrees so it was balanced on one leg. The Nazi party adopted the symbol in 1920, so it’s within the time frame of Wirth’s second deck.
In the 19th century, antiquarians were discovering the swastika as a universal symbol found in cultures around the world. In 1871, Heinrich Schliemann, who discovered the ruins of Troy, published something about finding 1800 swastikas while digging in the ruins. I suspect that these findings inspired Wirth rather than an association with Nazis. I’ve never heard anyone mention any secret society as being in league with Nazis or white supremacists. But occultism isn’t a big interest of mine, so I’m not very well informed on this. I wouldn’t be surprised if privately many members of these societies were white supremacists. It was actually a fairly mainstream attitude until quite recently.
As for Crowley and Harris getting art supplies during the war, I don’t know if you can read anything sinister into it. They probably had ways of getting stuff on the black market, and wealthy patrons who would help finance it. I read somewhere that it seemed rather odd that Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Jewish lesbians, were able to live unmolested in German-occupied rural France for a time with plenty of food and firewood. It turns out that the German commander in charge of that region loved literature, was a personal friend of Gertrude’s, and told the local officials that Gertrude and Alice were to be taken care of. Since the Germans never occupied Britain, this wouldn’t be the situation with Crowley and Harris.
You’ve brought up some interesting points. I’m sure there are people in the tarot community who study occult tarot and have inside information on the secret societies. Perhaps you can find them in one of the facebook groups that focuses on tarot history or esoteric tarot. Best of luck.
Thank you Sherryl. It is complicated! There is the risk of making incorrect links between iconography and ideology. A cousin of mine is writing about complex ideas and moral principles among Jewish musicians who worked closely with Wagner, even after he made explicit anti-Semetic statements. On the other hand, Wagner let them represent him by conducting, playing, etc. I will do more inquiring about Wirth, Crowley, etc. Thank you for your magnificent and reliable website.