The Esoteric Tarot: Ancient Sources Rediscovered in Hermeticism and Cabala 

Ronald Decker
Wheaton: Quest, 2013. 330 pp., paper, $23.95

There are many baseless occult theories about the origins of the Tarot: it came from ancient Egypt; it was created by Kabbalists who modeled it on the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet; it is a hieroglyphic text created under the direction of the semilegendary magus Hermes Trismegistus; it is the oldest book in the world, created by the god Thoth, who invented writing.

Most of these can be traced to the eighth volume of Le monde primitif ("The Primitive World"), published in 1781. This encyclopedic ork, by the occultist and Freemason Antoine Court de Gébelin, captured the imagination of his fellow occultists and focused their attention on the Tarot. This trend inspired numerous books that attempted to correlate the Tarot with all aspects of occult and Kabbalistic teachings, with little regard for facts or actual history. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the Tarot's reputation as a tool for divination and as an ancient esoteric document was taken as gospel among occultists, at least in the English- and French-speaking worlds.

Later in the twentieth century, historians of playing cards and popular history began to bring out factual accounts that firmly rooted the Tarot's creation in fifteenth-century northern Italy, where it was designed to play a trick-taking game that is the ancestor of bridge. The most influential of these works was The Game of Tarot by Michael Dummett, published in 1980. Dummett was an excellent historian who examined all available early examples, documentation, and related imagery and history. He firmly established the Tarot as a creation of the Renaissance. In 1996, he teamed up with French historian Thierry Depaulis and Ronald Decker, an art historian who was the curator of the collection of the United States Playing Card Company, to write A Wicked Pack of Cards: The Origins of the Occult Tarot. This book covered the contributions of the early occultists to Tarot literature and design and often uncovered the foolishness of their theories. In 2002, Dummett and Decker teamed up again to write A History of the Occult Tarot, in which they continued to follow the Tarot's development up to 1970.

Although Dummett, best known as an Oxford philosopher, was excellent on Tarot history, he avoided all but the most obvious explanations of the Tarot's iconography and denied any use of the Tarot in divination before the eighteenth century. This, combined with his periodic ridicule of nineteenth-century occultists, tended to infuriate modern occultists and Tarot practitioners. A gulf opened up, with historians on one side and practitioners, who found spiritual value in the Tarot's symbolism, on the other.

Unfortunately, at first New Age Tarotists thought of Decker as being on the wrong side of the gulf because of his association with Dummett. But as  an art historian and an artist himself, Decker recognized that a mystical allegory is illustrated in the Tarot, and he has spent the last forty years trying to uncover it. In fact, he was attempting to validate the underlying assumptions of the occultists and find Hermetic and Kabbalistic connections for the Tarot while maintaining a scrupulous respect for facts and history. Decker was one of the few who recognized that there should be no gulf between history and meaning and that the two can be mated. The Esoteric Tarot is the outcome of his quest.

The Esoteric Tarot is a work that Decker has been developing and publishing in tidbits in numerous articles over the years. I first became aware of Decker's work when I read his article on the origins of the Tarot in Gnosis magazine in 1998. In that article, he related the Tarot trumps to the figures in an allegorical woodcut on the journey of life by Hans Holbein from 1525. Decker also related the Tarot's Magician card to the figure of the Good Demon, a man with a wand and a broad-brimmed hat who is depicted handing out lots to babies entering life's arena. Decker revisits that correlation in his introduction to The Esoteric Tarot.

Although the book is divided into six parts with chapters in each, it can really be thought of as having three parts, with the last four combined as one. In the first, Decker, like most historians, traces the origin of cards to China, where paper was invented in the first centuries of the Common Era. But while the standard theory holds that the Chinese money cards with four suits representing coins, strings of coins, myriads of strings of coins, and many myriads, were the first decks, Decker sees them as a later development that was influenced by a deck that originated in the West. Making use of new findings, he posits domino cards, based on the throws of dice, as the first deck. This deck traveled west  and gave rise to a four-suit deck that would eventually become the inspiration for the Tarot's minor suits as well as traveling east to China to inspire the money cards.

Decker theorized that this deck originated in the city of Harran, in present day Turkey. This was a culture that was firmly entrenched in Hermetic mysticism and a pagan religious synthesis. Decker sees the suit symbols as having astrological and Hermetic significance, with the suit of swords being related to the god Mars, the suit of golden coins to the sun god Sol, the suit of cups to Venus, and the suit of staffs to the moon god Thoth. From here the deck traveled to Egypt, where it was adopted by the Muslim Mamelukes, who introduced it to Western Europe in fourteenth-century Spain. This part coincides with the standard theories about the intro-
duction of the cards to Europe.

In the second part, Decker tackles the origin and symbolism of the trumps. He theorizes that it was in Milan, circa 1440, that the trumps were first added to the four-suit deck, which retained the suit symbols invented in Harran. This first deck had fourteen trumps, but was later expanded with an additional seven to have twenty-one. Decker believes that this deck was influenced by the Renaissance interest in Hermetic symbolism and can be seen as a Hermetic allegory of the soul's progress, with the trumps divided into three groups of seven. The first seven cards illustrate the soul's descent into matter, the second seven, called the probation, illustrate the soul's attempt to evolve through the trials of existence in the world. The last seven illustrate the ascent back to the celestial realm of the World Soul, depicted on the World card as Isis. This explanation of the trumps is satisfyingly harmonious with the imagery on the cards and does not feel forced in any way.

Commentators often criticize attempts to connect the trumps with Hermeticism by pointing out that the written by Joseph Gikatilla in the the principal source of Renaissance Hermeticism, the Corpus Hermeticum, only arrived in Italy in the 1460s, after the creation of the Tarot. But Decker, with his scrupulous attention to detail, lists numerous sources for Hermetic philosophy that were available in the early Renaissance, including the Latin translation of the Asclepius, one of the texts from the Corpus that was available throughout the Middle Ages. He also finds correlations for the trumps with astrological and numerical symbolism and the Egyptian hieroglyphs that were presented in the Hieroglyphica, a Hellenistic text that arrived in Italy in the early 1400s.

In last four parts, Decker takes on modern cartomancy. Although he has established that certain divination practices with cards can be traced back to the Renaissance, he champions the role of the eighteenth-century occultist Etteilla as the inspiration for modern cartomancy. This section starts with a biography of Etteilla that is the most complete and accurate one that I have read. It is probably the best one available in English, and is by itself worth the price of the book. Although almost all later occultists tended to diminish Etteilla's role, he was the first professional card reader and the first occultist to have a deck designed solely for divination. Although his theories on the trumps have little modern influence, all modern divinatory interpretations for the pip and court cards are derived from Etteilla's work. 

From the origin of the cards to their use by Etteilla, the Hermetic symbolism behind the Tarot has been established. But what about the Kabbalah? This is where Decker performs some brilliant detective work. He follows the thread back to Etteilla's source for the meaning of the pips to his study of traditional French card readers, then back to earlier Italian readers, who derived numerical symbolism for the pips from a Kabbalistic text, The Gates of Light, teenth century and available in a Latin translation to Christian Kabbalists since 1516. 

This final revelation tends to turn the standard occult theories, which find Kabbalistic references in the trumps rather than in the pips, totally on their heads. Decker's views may be surprising to many, but everything he has written is carefully researched and supported wherever possible with facts. I trust no other author more for insights into the Tarot history and symbolism.

Robert M. Place

The reviewer is author of The Tarot: History, Symbolism, and Divination, Alchemy and the Tarot, Astrology and Divination, and designer of The Alchemical Tarot, the Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery, and five other Tarot decks.


Image
Theosophical Society PrivacyTerms & ConditionsRefund Policy • © 2021 The Theosophical Society in America



Affiliate Disclaimer

The Theosophical Society in America is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program. Purchases made using affiliate links may generate a small commission which helps to support the mission of The Theosophical Society, enabling us to continue to produce programming and provide resources.