The Tarot: History, Symbolism, and Divination by Robert Place
Review by Mark McElroy


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Too many books on tarot begin with old wives’ tales (“The Tarot was created by the ancient Egyptians and carried throughout the world by Gypsies”) or dubious advice (“All decks should be wrapped in silk cloth and smudged with sage once a month”).


Not this one! Bob Place’s The Tarot: History, Symbolism, and Divination is a frank, meticulously researched, and enormously satisfying look at the origins and applications of tarot. While the book embraces mysticism (Place, for example, reveals that his own work with the tarot was initiated by a symbolic dream), its primary focus is on the card illustrations, the symbolism of the tarot, and the rich heritage of myth and magic that lie at the heart of both.


Place’s clear, concise writing style makes his practical and mystical histories of the tarot – the first two major sections of the book – a pleasure to read. Few books on the subject of the tarot offer so much information in such an approachable format; these chapters should be required reading for anyone with a serious interest in the cards.


Why do the images on tarot cards intrigue some and frighten others? As Joseph Campbell often pointed out, we live in a mythically illiterate society; signs and symbols immediately recognizable to viewers a few hundred years ago now, in our ignorance, strike us as mysterious and spooky. Beginning in Chapter Four, “Interpreting the Major and Minor Arcana,” Place does his part to dispel mystery rooted in ignorance and reconnect the reader with the genuine myths and mysteries referenced in the details of each card.


Chapter Five, at first glance, appears to be little more than Place’s notes on the popular and familiar images from the Rider-Waite Tarot. This would be disappointing, as dozens of other books have covered this territory in great detail already. In this chapter, however, Place does much more than recycle tired traditional meanings; instead, he often reveals the sources that likely inspired many of the Waite-Smith illustrations.


As an artist, Place has a unique perspective on the art of the tarot; his vision, though, also embraces the deck’s remarkable ability to serve as a divinatory tool. Near the end of the book, Place suggests a number of ways the reader can use the cards as a mirror of the soul – a means of connecting with information beyond that offered by linear awareness. This adds an important dimension to the book, revealing how the historical and mythological information found in earlier chapters can be applied to “make tarot work.”


Here, at last, is a book that presents the facts and the fantasies that feed our growing fascination with these bright little cards. Place’s book is the perfect companion for anyone interested in the art and application of tarot.


The Tarot: History, Symbolism, and Divination by Robert Place
Publisher: Tarcher

ISBN#: 1585423491


If you would like to purchase this book, click here.

Review © 2005 Mark McElroy
Page © 2005 Diane Wilkes