-Tarot in Culture (Review) 0

Emily E. Auger (ed) This volume is expected to total over 900 pages and includes 24 colour plates.

Reviewed by Arthur E. Rosengarten, Ph.D., a Clinical Psychologist in Encinitas, California, and the author of Tarot and Psychology: Spectrums of Possibility (2000), creator of Tarot of the Nine Paths: Advanced Tarot for the Spiritual Traveler (2009), and Owner/Moderator of the website/discussion forum Tarotpsych

Tarot cards RoerigTarot in Culture is both original and extensive in its attempt to distinguish the complex streams of history, sociology, and metaphysics that have entwined Tarot ever since its first appearances in Northern Italy in the early fifteenth century.  The fascinating narrative of this famous metaphysical deck of 78 cards is advanced significantly through fine scholarship from many perspectives. In an entertaining and thought-provoking collection of papers from contemporary scholars around the world, we discover the vast scope and variance of thought surrounding the deck itself, if only in the sheer range of analysis presented in this tome.  Tarot, to varying degrees, has been cast by its purveyors as exalted, recreational, clandestine, archetypal, cliquish, magical, revered, and debunked.  Hence its unique fascination.


Much of the discussion in Tarot in Culture is a kind of scholarly mystery tale that engages both sensibility and imagination, particularly given the disquieting fact that no agreed upon theory or evidence of the first designer(s) today exists.  The vacuum left for heady and arcane speculation is filled here, however, with grounded research that allows a useful laying to rest of the popular fables. Essays regarding Tarot’s origin and original purpose make a strong case for something no more esoteric than a trump-bearing card game, stemming perhaps from the Middle East and akin to bridge, thus ruling-out the more common romantic notions of ancient Egyptian beginnings (which persists today, regardless, in some darkened corridors under the aegis of “popular misconceptions”).  Likewise rendered moot is a very thorough accounting of Tarot’s mistaken saddlebag of associations with the gypsies, and the legacy of fortune-telling, which has been challenged convincingly by historians.


The Tarot lineage is traced skillfully up through the French school of Tarot de Marseille– referring to a deck style originating in the sixteenth century in Italy and appearing in France in the mid-seventeenth century– onto the milestones of Tarot’s occult beginnings including the Eteilla Tarot published in 1789, marking the first tarot designed with a divinatory aim, History of Magic by Eliphas Levi (1860) which strengthened Tarot’s developing associations with Masonry and Caballa, and leading to the grand finale of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in London (founded in 1888), the hotbed of Tarot’s famed British incarnation, with such turn-of-the century notables as MacGregor Mathers, William Wynn Wescott, the poet William Butler Yeats,  the often-acknowledged fathers  (and mothers) of the modern movement, Arthur E. Waite (with Pamela Colman Smith) who authored of the Rider Tarot (1909), and Aleister Crowley (with Lady Freida Harris) who authored The Thoth Tarot (1944).


In Tarot and Culture, a web of socio-cultural forces and precedents inform this previously-documented linear history. One feels safely-educated here in the otherwise elusive journey through the deck’s evolution and its current relevance as a map of consciousness as ascribed by some Jungian scholars. The book showcases a slice of Tarot’s contemporary era, marked by a profusion of creativity, commercialism, artistic experimentation, human potentials, and cultural funkiness, as first splashed down onto the scene of the American 1960’s and has grown remarkably through its adolescence over ensuing decades.  As a part of popular culture today, Tarot’s appearance in twentieth-century literature and film is discussed, including how it grapples with its counter-cultural costumery, and as well, its undressing in through the lens of postmodernist deconstruction. Tarot’s liminal stance at the threshold of social acceptability, its ambiguous relation to the law, as well as its coming of age initiatives, relative successes and failures with professionalizing and credentialing organizations are also laid out.


In one of Auger’s own entries a particularly fascinating distinction is made regarding the post-modernist notion of “heterotopia.”  Referencing Michel Foucault’s (1926-1984) definition as “real locations where otherwise incompatible spaces intersect or events that are incompatible with social norms occur (Auger, p. 236),” Auger suggests Tarot itself is a “heterotopian radiating point,” one that has inspired the creation and use of a vast array of different Tarot and other meditational decks.  I find this a credible elucidation of what occurs in psychotherapeutically-based readings with Tarot as well; an opening of the “real locations” in one’s subjective life occurs and intersects with the spiritually-laden symbolism of the cards in such a way as to deepen one’s understanding and visually capture the complex web of simultaneous forces operating in the moment.


Through it all, however, Tarot morphs in our imagination to an entity holding a special category unto itself, much as Auger and the contributors would bear out.  Embedded in Tarot’s arcane layers of meaning and mythology as these pages so wittingly reveal are parallel layers of misnomer and mythologizing, or as author James Hillman might reframe, pathologizing. Through the wider eyes of cultural discernment this added shadow grants a complexity and compelling interest to the Tarot phenomenon in its entirety. The cumulative effect, perhaps, not unlike like guns, incense, or bibles, hinges less on the object’s intrinsic merit or virtue, and far more on the user’s motivation, interpretation, application, and experience. A good reading, therefore, is never the final word on a subject so much as a rich invitation for continued exploration.


The Association for Tarot Studies is pleased to be able to announce the forthcoming collection of important essays from a variety of well-known authors and researchers.

This volume is expected to total over 900 pages and includes 24 colour plates.

Release date (expected): June 2011

The recommended retail price is expected to be around AU$ 95 (approx €65 / US$ 90) plus postage and handling. Airmail to most parts of the world will depend on final weight, but is expected to be in the vicinity of AU$ 30.

Total expected cost (including postage): AU$ 125

Paying now helps us with printing costs and avoids increased postal charges.

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