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The Crystal Gate - Tarot

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Mystical Origins Of The Tarot -
From Ancient Roots To Modern Usage

author: Paul Huson
Destiny Books
ISBN #0-89281-190-0

Several years ago, when I first began my Internet life, I had the great fortune to have my sister give me a heads up about a wonderful Tarot e-list. From following the threads on this list, I was able to learn not only about card definitions and combinations, but about the differences between decks, about Tarot symbology, and about the wonderfully rich history of Tarot. Life can be a wonderful school if you are in the right place at the right time.

It took me a long time to put names and faces together, to be able to follow a Tarot timeline, and to know where to look for more information. Help came along in the way of resources such as Mary Greer's Women Of The Golden Dawn, and Brian William's Minchiate Tarot. I devoured them, and went back to them again and again, each time learning more.

Those who have the good fortune to readMystical Origins Of The Tarot are presented with a well researched, well written resource that allows them to follow the origins and development of Tarot, including the background of the symbols on the cards. (It should be noted here that Paul Huson's background includes studies with both the Society of Inner Light (formed by Dion Fortune) and the Order of the Golden Dawn.) I was impressed with the author's respect for and acknowledgment of his sources, as well as the fact that someone that I personally hold in high regard concerning historical Tarot matters, Mary Greer, read one of the initial drafts and had input into the project.

Paul Huson was originally contemplating a revision and update to a much earlier Tarot book that he had authored, entitled The Devil's Picturebook. Where the first book was largely speculation, enough time had gone by, and enough new resources had surfaced, that a completely new book was indicated.

Paul Huson defined three questions, or areas of question, that he felt needed to be addressed. They were:

  • What was the origin of the suit card symbols, and what did they stand for?

  • What was the source of the trumps, and what was their original import?

  • When and why did people begin using the cards for divination - that is, as a means of acquiring spiritual guidance or discovering hidden information?
  • Throughout this book you will find black and white illustrations of early Tarot decks done by Paul Huson. It adds a great deal of meaning to a book when you can "see" what the author is talking about. It very much puts me in mind of Brian Williams outstanding work. Another interesting tid bit was a one page chronology of Tarot history from the 14th to the 20th centuries. Rather like a synopsis of what was to come in the following chapters!

    In his introduction, Huson begins with the Mamlűk decks (15th century hand painted cards from Egypt). He goes on to talk about the court cards, and how they came about. It is interesting to note that in the Mamlűk decks the court cards show the suit sign, and a description of the title in calligraphy, sometimes with the addition of flowery prose. The reason for this? In Islam there was a prohibition again depicting the human figure! In some later decks additional court cards were added - such as a female Knight. It is also interesting to note that the titles for the court cards varied from culture to culture.

    When it comes to the Tarot trumps, it seems that they were added to the deck to give some extra help in trick taking (Tarot being predominately a game at this point). Huson goes into the various artists behind the decks, as well as their patrons and the regions that various decks originated in. Changes in the style of Tarot decks is discussed here also - such as the advent of the minchiate Tarot, which differed from the prevalent tarocchi decks in changes that were made to the trumps - i.e. the Female Pope becoming the Grand Duke, the Empress becoming the Western Emperor and the Emperor becoming the Eastern Emperor.

    There is an excellent discussion of the suit symbols, and their evolvement differed in France and Italy. Here we begin to look at things that we generally take for granted, and do not think about. Were the suit symbols chosen in a random manner, were they reflective of the culture that they came from, or do they have great esoteric meaning? This is really a fun section to go through, as Huson presents many different sides to the picture, and doesn't hesitate to present the opinions and arguments of others (especially those of Michael Dummet). An interesting aside in this section is reference to the cardinal virtues, and their inclusion in the Tarot.

    From there we go on to the Tarot Trumps, and the history behind them. It is quite interesting to read the arguments presented here - influence from Mystery, Miracle and Morality plays, and from the work Dance of Death (Dance Macabre).

    In the section on cartomancy and the Tarot, there is an interesting chronological sequence of documented occult Tarot. Here we see names that many of us are familiar with (at least to some extent): Etteilla, Éliphas Lévi, Aleister Crowley and Arthur Edward Waite - and we see how they flow in a given sequence. Huson talks about Egyptian magic and the Book of Thoth, and how the Kabbala came to be associated with Tarot. (There is an excellent chart giving the Kabbalistic attributions for the Tarot included here.) There is also mention of the Golden Dawn, and their method of assigning zodiacal decans to the minor arcana.

    Now the fun starts, as Huson goes through the Trumps, Minor Arcana and court cards, discussing the meaning of the card, listing the original cartomantic interpretations from several sources ( Pratesi's Cartomancer (1750), De Mellet (1781), Lévi (1855), Christian (1870), Mathers (1888), Golden Dawn (1888-96), Grand Orient (Waite, 1889, 1909) and Waite (1910), as well as his own suggested interpretation. From the book:

    The Fool

    Pratesi's Cartomancer (1750): Madness.
    De Mellet (1781): Madness. He has no rank.
    Lévi (1855):The Hebrew letter Shin, the Fool. The sensitive principle, the flesh, eternal life.
    Christian (1870): Arcanum 0. The Crocodile. Expiation. The punishment following every error. You can see here a blind man carrying a beggar's wallet, about to collide with a broken obelisk on which a crocodile waits with open jaws. The crocodile is the emblem of fate and the inevitable expiation.
    Mathers (1888): The Foolish Man: Folly, expiation, wavering. Reversed: Hesitation, instability, trouble arising herefrom.
    Golden Dawn (1888-96): The Spirit of the Ether. Foolish Man: Idea, spirituality, that which endeavors to rise above the material. (That is, if the subject inquired about is spiritual.) But if the divination be regarding ordinary life, the card is not good, and shows folly, stupidity, eccentricity, and even mania unless with very good cards indeed.
    Grand Orient (Waite, 1889, 1909): The Fool signifies the consumation of everything, when that which began his initiation at zero attains the term of all numeration and existence. This card passes through all the numbered cards and is changed in each, as the natural man passes through worlds of lesser experience, worlds of successive attainment.
    Waite (1910): The Fool: Folly, mania, extravagance, intoxication, delirium, frenzy. Reversed: Negligence, absence, apathy, nullity.

    Suggested Interpretation:

    Mania. Intoxication. Infantilism. Innocence. Unpredictability. Anarchy. Reversed: Stupidity. Nullity. Apathy. Sloth. Mental Illness.

    At the end of the book Huson presents several different spreads, from the simple to the complex. He presents them using a significator, although he does note that this is not necessary. He has also included a section on the court cards that lists them by physical description (hair, eye and skin color) and astrological sign.

    In Appendix 1 Huson lists historical decks, with short descriptions of each. In Appendix 2 he lists places worldwide (by name, address and Internet site, if there is one) where versions of older decks can be purchased. At the very end, he lists the sources for his illustrations.

    I found this book to be of great benefit, with the added bonus that it reads easily and is highly enjoyable! I would recommend it to Tarot students that already have a good basic understanding of the cards - mid level to advanced students. This book certainly has a place as a reference book in my Tarot library, and I am sure will have in others also.

    The book can be purchased here:

    © May 2004
    Bonnie Cehovet

    The Tarot Connection - The Tarot Podcast dedicated to the traditional, historic and modern Tarot.