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78 Degrees of Wisdom by Rachel Pollack                                    Review by Michele Jackson

This book, originally released in two separate volumes, has recently been re-released in a one volume edition. A new preface has been added and a few minor changes have been made. I first read this book many years ago. At that time, I was very isolated in my tarot work, and I found that this book gave me a deeper understanding of the cards, particularly the Major Arcana. Since that time, I have been exposed to many other Tarot readers and viewpoints, both in person and via electronic communications. Still, I find that this book has a lot of food for thought. Many Tarot books provide a description of the card, followed by a short upright, or upright and reversed interpretation. Pollack provides a lot more information than most authors. Using the images on the cards, Pollack discusses each card in depth, examining it from several different angles in terms of mythology, numerology, and psychology. While all of her observations may not resonate with every reader, it would be the rare reader who did not find some of her insights useful.

Pollack discusses several different ways to divide the Major Arcana, but chooses the sequence of three sets of seven cards, with the Fool standing outside of the arrangement as the method for presenting them in the book. Per Pollack, the first set of seven cards (Magician through The Chariot) represents the consciousness, our outer, day-to-day lives. The second set of seven (Strength through Temperance) represents the subconscious, or the search within. The third set of seven cards (The Devil through The World) represents the superconscious, or our search for spiritual awareness. Because her approach is image-based, there is a great deal of discussion about symbolism. The book is illustrated primarily with the Waite-Smith (Rider Waite) deck, though images from other decks are included and discussed as well. Pollack’s approach is quite eclectic, drawing from many disciplines including Jungian psychology, mythology, and the Waite\Golden Dawn tradition.

The Chapters are as follows:

Part One: The Major Arcana


The Introduction through Chapter Three provide background information on Pollack’s views. The Introduction provides some history and information on how tarot can be used. The Four Card Pattern is a concept Pollack devised that illustrates how the Major Arcana reflect both unity and duality. The Overview explains how Pollack sees the sequence of the cards . Chapter Three is where we find the discussion of The Fool. Chapters Four through Six cover the three groups of seven cards discussed earlier. The discussion of individual cards is detailed and extends to include a wide range of topics. The discussion of each card ends with an upright and reversed interpretation.

Part Two


Part Two has a chapter devoted to each suit, with an introduction that discusses the general characteristics of each suit, followed by a card by card description. These discussions are not as detailed as those for the Major Arcana, but they are still fairly robust. Comparisons between cards are provided from time to time, and one of Pollack’s original concepts called "Gate Cards" is also discussed where applicable. Gate Cards are cards that Pollack believes are capable of opening a path between the mundane world and the inner, archetypal world. Once we have mastered their traditional meanings and have taken them as far as they can go, further study or meditation will reveal other meanings to us. An upright and reversed interpretation is also provided for each Minor Arcana card.

Part Three: Readings


Part Three provides spreads and sample readings. There is a fairly detailed discussion of the Celtic Cross spread, but my favorite spread in this book is what Pollack calls "The Work Cycle." This is a simple nine card spread that is flexible enough to be used in a wide variety of situations. A Tree of Life Spread is also provided, though Pollack uses a somewhat idiosyncratic set of interpretations for each Sephira.

I recommend this book for anyone who uses the Waite deck or one of its clones. While Pollack does show cards from other decks, her work is geared towards the Waite deck and works best with it. Although some would find her eclectic approach to discussing each card too non-traditional, or too New Age, she does try to maintain a balance between the traditional Waite/Golden Dawn interpretations and her own musings and correspondences with mythology, psychology, etc.

78 Degrees of Wisdom
Author: Rachel Pollack
Publisher: Thorsons
ISBN: 0-7225-3572-4


The meanings for the cards given in this book leave a good deal of room for interpretation by the reader. In fact they require it. This is because the practiced reader brings far more to her or his work than a detailed knowledge of the cards and their traditional meanings. Just as important is sensitivity - both to the pictures and to the person sitting there nervously and excitedly staring at the cards. A good reader does not simply repeat traditional fixed meanings. Rather, he or she will find new meanings and interpretations, will extend the pattern.

While some people desire objective readings and dislike interpretation, others argue that a reader should not use any definite meanings at all, but always work from ‘feeling’ the pictures at the moment. Yet to do so will limit the reader to the narrow range of his or her own perceptions. And those perceptions will always come at least partly from his or her own experiences and cultural conditioning. Very few people have reached a level of awareness where they can escape the bias of their own history. For most of us, our emotions cloud our intuition. The subconscious gets in the way of the unconscious.

A reader who trusts feelings can be led away from the truth as well as towards it. But there is another reason why we should work with the traditional meanings belonging to the images. If we do not use the wisdom others have put into the cards, then we deprive ourselves of their knowledge and experience. Therefore, part of a reader’s training lies in simply studying the cards, while another part lies in gaining a personal sense of them through practice, meditation and creative work.

Pg. 273 - 274

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Review Copyright 1997 by Michele Jackson
Page Copyright 2000 Diane Wilkes