...Reviews of a few Tarot decks at the philosophical heart of Christine's
Tarot ArkLetter 1
Rider Waite Tarot
Stairs of Gold Tarot
Tarot of the Stars
Oswald Wirth Tarot
Medieval Scapini Tarot
Pierpont Sforza Tarot
Dali Universal Tarot
This is the deck, quite modern though it is, that most of America thinks of as "traditional Tarot." The designer was A. E. Waite, the artist was Pamela Coleman Smith, and it was first published in 1910. A perusal of my essay on the Major Arcana will serve to create perspective about this Tarot's place in the historical stream. Being the archetype of modern Tarot, it serves admirably as a stand-in for many decks which have drawn inspiration from the English School.
The Royal Fez Moroccan Tarot looks very much like the Waite Tarot, although it is just as amenable to being used with the Spanish correspondences of Dali's Tarot as with the English system. The uncolored Builders of the Adytum Tarot is another variant. Wang's Golden Dawn Tarot, Dowson's Hermetic Tarot, the lovely Tarot of the Spirit by Joyce and Pamela Eakins, the Thoth Tarot, and more utilize the same astro-alphanumeric correspondences as the Waite. Even decks which were not intending to follow the English School will show its influence, due to its enormous popularity.
Be aware that, due to my career-long concentration upon the older decks from Europe , the descriptions of the cards which you will encounter in future Arcletters will sometimes not correspond exactly with the standard meanings that modern packs have take up from the Waite-Smith Tarot. Tension between the earliest decks and the modern "tradition" is inevitable with a Tarot as divergent from the historical precedent as this one truly is. I have made it a habit over all these years to crosscheck the Little White Books from all contemporary Tarots with those of the Marseilles, Etteilla, and St. Germaine tarots, so I can adjust my sense of the cards back to their historical roots. This has produced the sensibility that registers to the reader as my “bias”, woven throughout my work on Tarot.
Stairs of Gold Tarot
The Stairs of Gold Tarot is a lovely and esoterically rich pack by Giorgio M. S. Tavaglione, a modern Italian one-man Tarot renaissance. All of his Tarot decks were published in the early 1970's. The Stairs of Gold Tarot stands out among his others ( Porta della Stelle, the Enoil Gavat, and the Sybiline deck) because it illustrates the richness of correspondences built into the Tarot canon during the Renaissance.
This pack contains the copious symbolism integrated into his designs, particularly the Kabbalistic and Angelic information found on each card. The Stairs of Gold Tarot provides a wonderful hand-lettered booklet in English, detailing a wealth of traditional correspondences including the Hebrew spelling and zodiacal degrees of the Shemhamemphoresh -- the 72 Angels of the Zodiac.
One peculiarity of Tavaglione’s decks is his enjoyment of the beauty of the human figure, especially women. In this pack, the emphasis is mostly on the beauty of the women, but in Tarot of the Stars (below), he develops his appreciation for male beauty as well. One might characterize his sensibility as “heroic”, which, along with his liberal use of golden frames for the face-cards, creates a kind of visual optimism the reader can use to advantage in a reading.
This Tarot is still in print and available in America. Of Tavaglione's decks, both the Stairs of Gold and the Porta Celeste; I Tarocchi delle Stelle, represent his mature command of the European Esoteric astro-alphanumeric correspondences. As such, this Tarot is identical with Papus, Wirth, and Cagliostro -- all conforming with the scholarship of Eliphas Levi. Happily, all this tradition and scholarship is overlaid with the lush sensibility and intuitive insight of this unsung (in America) Tarot prodigy.
The Porta Celeste; I Tarocchi delle Stelle (or Tarot of the Stars) is a beautiful and esoterically rich pack, being the fourth awe-inspiring Tarot by Giorgio M. S. Tavaglione, a modern Italian one-man Tarot renaissance. All of his Tarot decks were published in the early 1970's. The Tarot of the Stars stands out among his others (the Stairs of Gold, Enoil Gavat, and the Sybiline) because it provides the mainstream Continental Tarots with an answer to the fully-illustrated packs of the English-model packs that so proliferate today.
The Tarot of the Stars has pictures on every card, a preference of many contemporary Tarot users. This pack also contains copious symbolism integrated into his designs, particularly the astronomical information illustrated above each image. The main difficulties with this Tarot are that it is out of print right now, and all the support materials are written in an archaic Italian dialect, very difficult to translate because it is loaded with magical and alchemical double entendres.
Tavaglione's Stairs of Gold Tarot fills in the missing pieces, providing a wonderful hand-lettered booklet in English (from which we have taken the descriptions of the individual cards in both decks) detailing a wealth of traditional correspondences including the Hebrew spelling and zodiacal degrees of the Shemhamemphoresh -- the 72 Angels of the Zodiac.
The art of the Tarot of the Stars is rightfully classed as “comic-book style”, and is sometimes extremely inventive to make its point. Witness the 6 of cups, wherein the protagonist is both male and female, both naked and dressed, both looking back and stepping forward across the stream of time simultaneously – symbolizing the linked-opposite meanings of “past” and “future” quite excellently. This deck makes more blatant magical and alchemical references than any of his others (in what looks like a nod to the Thoth Tarot), but it also ties the divinatory meanings even closer to the Continental tarot tradition.
Of Tavaglione's decks, these two represent his mature command of the European Esoteric astro-alphanumeric correspondences. As such, this Tarot is identical with Papus, Wirth, and Cagliostro -- all conforming with the scholarship of Eliphas Levi. Happily, all this tradition and scholarship is overlaid with the lush sensibility and intuitive insight of this unsung (in America) Tarot prodigy.
We include this Tarot not only on its own merits, but also because it represents the lineage of Egyptian-style, which seem to be woven into the skeletal structure of European Tarot images and conceptions. The historical stream of images which make up the Major Arcana shows that the prototype of this Tarot, which was more likely a manuscript than a formal deck of cards, was probably the "Egyptian Book of Thoth" that de Gebelin and de Mellet were lauding in their publication Le Monde Primitif,(pub. 1781).
This same manuscript, attributed to Iamblichus but more likely having a later pedigree (which may or may not have possessed pictures) is the standard against which the Marseilles family of decks was corrected in the mid 1660's (essay on The Major Arcana). We can even see its influence on the Lovers and the Devil of the Etteilla family of decks, despite the fact that the Etteilla were made to represent a Greek expression of the Alphanumeric Gnosis.
The first public printing of a deck from this lineage was called the Falconneier/Wegener Tarot of 1896. Although it did not remain long in print, the currently-available St. Germaine Tarot is reputed to be nearly identical. The Sacred Tarot from the Brotherhood of Light is also quite similar, although C. C. Zain reorganized the astrology to suit his course on Medical Astrology. The Egypcios Kier has Alexandrian Major Arcana, as does the Cagliostro Tarot, although the Kier is organized around Greek numerology rather than the Hebrew.
The Baraja Egipcia Tarot, made in Mexico (no date; see Kaplan's Encyclopedia, vol. I, p.236), is also related to the Ibis. The author of the Ibis Tarot, Josef Machynka claims to have studied them all to come up with the "definitive" Egyptian-style Tarot, and I for one think he did a magnificent job. The Minor Arcana are particularly brilliant, because they provide elementally-keyed color and lively scenes of nature as backdrop to the traditionally plain geometric formations of suit-symbols. The astro-alphanumeric correspondences on these major Arcana align with what I call the "Old Alexandrian" pattern, before the subtle reforms of Levi.
The Oswald Wirth Tarot is the product of a remarkable confluence of mystical insight and esoteric scholarship, embodied in the persons of Oswald Wirth and Stanislas de Guaita. Both men were French esotericists of the late 1800's and early 1900's, students of Levi and peers with him; de Guaita followed in Levi's footsteps as Supreme Grand Master of the Fraternitas. The book accompanying this Tarot is a masterpiece, even translated into English.
The title, unfortunately, does not resonate in translation. The original could more accurately be read as "Tarot of the Image-makers of the Middle Ages." Citing the icon-making craft so common throughout Europe in the epochs before the invention of wood engraving, this Tarot proposes to embody the esoteric tradition inherited from Alexandrian culture, through the Kabbalists, the Alchemists, the Iconographers, the Gnostics, eventually becoming the Tarot in Italy.
Tarot Magic highlights this line of descent in the accompanying chapters on the bookshelf, and this Tarot can be viewed as the distillation of this illustrious lineage, assembled in the heady years of the late 1800's, but unpublished until 1927. This Tarot is the product of mature contemplation and a refined Continental sensibility. The golden background is unfailingly optimistic and the deck is uniquely representative of the French Esoteric tradition at its historical peak.
The Marseilles Tarot, the Spanish edition of which was published in 1736, is one which present scholars most often think of when discussing "traditional" Tarot decks. But in truth, it emerged in Paris in the middle of the 1600's with the Jean Noblet Tarot, rather late in the game to be called a "root" deck. However, it does epitomize an entire stream of decks which took their form in the response to the so-called "Iamblichan" document called On An Egyptian Initiation, (later associated with the Fratres Lucis) For a detailed treatment of this manuscript and its impact, see the essay on The Continental Tarot decks, the review of the Ibis Tarot, and Dr. Keizer's chapter on Esoteric Tarot. This version of the Marseilles represents a number of similar decks.
A few Tarot decks made an adjustment to the Marseilles Arcana in the lead-up to the French Revolution, as in the Marseillaise Tarot by Arnoult, 1748. In those, the Empress and the Emperor are replaced with Juno and Jove, but otherwise the decks are the same. We have chosen the Spanish Marseilles to represent the entire lineage, because of its more beautiful coloration. It was published in 1975, but was based on the classical Italian-Piedmontese tarot of Giusep Ottone of 1736, (says the entry in the Fournier Playing Cards encyclopedia.)
The Medieval Scapini Tarot is a modern creation by the eminent Tarot artist Luigi Scapini. This is the man who in the 1980's was entrusted with the challenging task of restoring the missing cards from several of our earliest extant Tarot decks, one of which appears in the Tarot Magic lineup -- the Visconti-Sforza Tarot. His self-portrait can be seen upon the Eight of Coins, along with his wife and their first daughter, surrounded by portraits of the seven Planetary Major Arcana, each labeled to show their correspondences. In this way Scapini declares his esoteric affiliation with the Continental decks, despite the lack of astro-alphanumeric symbolism on his Major Arcana.
What is visible on this Tarot is the insightful wit and knowledge of detail that marks a Renaissance mind. It is clear that Scapini is not just parroting received wisdom about historical Tarot. He has investigated the history, politics, and pivotal characters of the Renaissance, capturing it all in his slightly-hallucinated style. His Major Arcana are masterworks on their own, displaying the iconographic sensibility of the late Middle Ages. There is much to learn by studying the detail in his images, drawn as they are from the rich milieu of Italian court life, and infused with the spirit and the controversies of the times. Scapini's other Tarot, the Romeo and Juliet deck, extends his range into the esotericism associated with Shakespeare's Globe Theater, drawing imagery from the many plays and characters created by the Bard.
The Grand Etteilla Tarot was first published at the end of the eighteenth century by a Frenchman named Alliette (which backwards spells "Etteilla"). An ardent follower of Court de Gebelin. Alliette was apparently an active, popular, and respected person within the system of Lodges that linked the Masons, Rosicrucians, and other esoteric Orders of Europe (see the essay on The Continental Tarot decks.) In a departure from previous decks, Alliette shows the first twelve Major Arcana (according to his own unique numeration system) with the symbols of zodiacal signs on them.
This deck was subsequently published in different countries by different houses, and the alpha-numeric correspondences on the cards became jumbled. Stuart Kaplan has published a list of Correspondences for the Etteilla Major Arcana which matches nearly identically with the ones that Levi and the Martinists used in the following century (see essay on The French School.) They follow what I have identified as the "old Alexandrian" correspondences (see Chart in the Continental Tarot article.)
Recent research shows that in making the departures that he did with the Major Arcana, Alliette was drawing from Hermetic book, the Poimandres, a treatise on the creation of the world from a Greek rather than a Hebrew perspective. This becomes his basis for picturing and reordering the Arcana in a way unusual to other Tarot decks of his times. (See A Wicked Pack of Cards by Dumett et. al.)
Alliette must have been doing something right, because this Tarot became the most famous in France from its inception. An offshoot, the Catalan Tarot, became the first 78-card Tarot deck published in Spain, in 1900, according to the Fournier Playing Card Encyclopedia. Etteilla-style decks became more ornate in the 19th century (see Kaplan's Encyclopedia, Vol. I, p.140-144; also Vol. II, p. 398-410). In Italy, the Cartomancia Italiana (a modern reproduction of a 19th century fortune-telling deck) was the homegrown response to Etteilla, and it has done us the service of unscrambling the order of the Arcana, and giving them back their more usual titles. The version which Tarot Magic showcases is the Grimaud Etteilla Tarot, first published in 1890. A more thorough exploration of the variant images belonging to this family of decks, along with their esoteric explanations, is long overdue.
El Gran Tarot Esoterico was published in the mid-20th century, making it a latecomer in the birth-order of decks, but its presence in this list is essential. There is only one "esoteric" Tarot available today which matches with what Hebrew scholars assert were the most probable astro-alphanumeric correspondences the Hebrew nation associated with their sacred book the Sephir Yetzirah. El Gran Tarot Esoterico is the deck which represents these correspondences. (There is another called The Tarot of the Ages, which also repeats these correspondences on its Egyptian-Style Major Arcana, but the Minor Arcana are not "esoteric" according to our definition. It is, however, a fine Tarot for divination as the four suits each represent the different races and cultures of the ancient world.)
The Esoterico includes amazing visual details which refer the user to goddess-based cultures that came before the triumph of monotheism. One scholarly source for applicable commentary on the imagery in the Esoterico Tarot is Raphael Patai's groundbreaking work The Hebrew Goddess. Esoterico's Minor Arcana are faithful to a pack described by Eudes Picard in 1907, and the Majors show their origins in the Marseilles stream, although with many fascinating divergences. It's pedigree as the Tarot commissioned by the venerable playing-card publisher Fournier on the 600th anniversary of Tarot in Europe, as well as the renown of its author, Marixtu Guler, make it essential for the esoteric Tarot collector to possess. There will also be readers who find that its spare, evocative, and intensely magical images are the perfect antidote to the modern excess of symbol-overkill.
The Pierpont Morgan-Bergamo Visconti-Sforza Deck is the oldest Tarot in this collection chronologically. It is standing for the handmade and woodblock decks which first appeared in Europe in the late 1300's and the early 1400's. We have all but two of the Major Arcana from this deck intact, and the brilliant artist Scapini has supplied us with substitutes which complete the deck for use.
Not only is this Tarot incredibly beautiful, but it suggests that from the first, the 78-card form was known and used, although other packs had more or fewer, depending upon the game one was to play with them. I take this to be a sign that even in the late 1400's, there was a fairly firm collective assumption in place about the template from which the varying different Tarot versions were struck. The Pierpont Sforza Tarot does not show Hebrew letters, numbers, astrology, or titles printed upon them, which after the 1700's define the esoteric decks for us. Nevertheless, these earliest decks demonstrate a depth of associations that leave the question of infiltration from Gnostic, Free Spirit, Grail Quest, classical mythology and Image-Magic considerations open for futher speculation.
In the centuries between 1100 and the late 1400’s, a multipronged challenge to both the Christian and Hebrew standard canon infiltrated into churches, synagogues, mosques and Lodges in Germany, southern France, and Northern Italy. This challenge filtered into European society along many different vectors, including trends in art, Church teachings, the Crusades, and guild traditions. The mixing and cross-pollination was driven by interfamily religious synchretism, migrations from Africa and the Middle East, and the contingencies of cultural war. This Tarot and its variants continues to raise a wealth of questions due to the multiple valences which can be read into its ostensibly-Christian surface.
The Dali Tarot is a modern deck representing a tradition originating in Spain, presumably during the last decades of the 1800's. The historical sources which help us type this Tarot are found in The Encyclopedia of Occult Sciences, with introduction by M. C. Poinsot, published by Tudor Pub. Co. in 1939. Within it are excerpts from several Tarot and magical manuals from the earliest 1900's, detailing Spanish Tarot traditions which mirror or are variants of the pattern demonstrated on the Dali Tarot. In the aforementioned volume, a table is shown from a book by Pierre Piobb, outlining Hebrew letters, numerical values, usual meanings, titles (according to the Alexandrian/Hermetic, Egyptian-style decks first publicly exemplified in the late 1800's in the Falconnier Tarot,) and zodiacal and planetary correspondences which exactly match the Dali Tarot pattern. The Euskalherria Tarot, a wonderful modern Basque-inflected Spanish Tarot by Marixtu Guler also carries these correspondences, which adds to the reasons we should be investigating this Lineage.
Dali, of course, takes the traditional Arcana to another dimension, introducing visual ideas which occasionally illuminate and occasionally confound the older sense of any given Arcanum. His art is distinctly hallucinated, showing ectoplasmic entities and breakthroughs between visible and invisible dimensions. The deck is obviously informed by some type of Magical or shamanistic experiences. The imagery, especially that of the Minor Arcana, also reflects close association with the Royal Fez Moroccan Tarot, another modern pack with historical associations. More information can be gained about Dali's Arcana by consulting Rachael Pollack's little volume about this Tarot, entitled Salvador Dali's Tarot.
The Tarot ArkLetters are a publication of Christine Payne-Towler, founder of Tarot University Online. Christine offers classes, readings, and private sessions.
*copyright 2005 christine payne-towler all rights reserved*