TAROT and the MILLENNIUM: The Story of Who's On the Cards and Why
by Timothy Betts, Ph.D.
384 pgs, 150+ illustrations, softcover
Includes bibliographical references and index
ISBN 0964102056
Library of Congress Number: 98-91311
Published July, 98
Price $24.95 US 

Tarot And The Millennium presents a perspective on early Tarot images
that's somewhat obvious yet all but ignored. Betts compares images on early
Tarot decks to medieval representations of the Christian Apocalypse (i.e.,
from Revelations). We're talking about an anti-Christian polemic within
occult circles. This, despite enormous influence, subtle and not, of
Christian myth in the Western Magical Tradition associated with various
occult tarots. In the same way, perhaps, that Jean Seznec suggests Pagan
imagery held fast in Christian iconography throughout the middle ages?

On the one hand, Betts outmatches every previous attempt to link early
tarot images to medieval Christian ones (I should point out that these are
largely Roman Catholic--there are few mentions of Byzantine imagery, and
less Ethiopian/Coptic). Unlike the speculators of classic modern occult
tarot positing their Science Fiction as historical fact, Betts rigorously
uses historical letters, images and histories. And yet there are a few
problems, in sources not consulted and basic assumptions. There are modern
commentaries Betts could have used, such as the aforementioned Seznec
(Survival of the Pagan Gods). I am most amazed to see Betts toss Gertrude
Moakley aside without much of an argument, simply a statement of judgment.
Dummett's Game of Tarot is referred to for factual matters, but I wonder
about characterizing Dummett's thesis as "that Tarot has no meaning
whatsoever" (p.14). Allusions to the New Jerusalem and certain cardinal
virtues in early tarots is there for all to see, especially for one who
wrote a book on Visconti-Sforza. On page 17, when Betts speaks of the
paradigm shift as a result of the Protestant Reformation, here would be the
perfect place for a quote from Eliade's preface to Culianu's Eros and Magic
in the Renaissance.

There are a number of gems to be found here. One of the first occurs in
Chapter Three (page 47), i.e. the notion that the Tetramorph provides a
tenable Egyptian connection that Court de Gebelin missed. Betts suggests
similarities to the Sphinx, which is mentioned in two books of the Bible,
Revelations and Ezechial. Compelling here are the suggestions that early
Tower renderings resemble key passages from Revelations. From there Betts
tries to connect the Star, Moon, Sun, Judgment and World to bits from the
Bible and later to what he calls "Ancestor". While these connections seem
plausible one wonders about other theories. Should we dismiss the notion
that these particular trumps represent Celestial Spheres? Such connections
are, after all, also based on sources historical, iconographic, and
literary. This is one of many examples where the fallacy of all or nothing
fails us--why look for a single explanation?

Chapter Four begins a most puzzling chapter--an attempt to tie historical
(and somewhat mythical) figures John Ball and Wat Tyler to some theory that
tarot trumps were invented by and for the People to fight against the
tyranny of  Nobility. Now, I have a soft spot for anyone who attempts to
teach the facts of the Wat Tyler Rebellion (and Betts gets the details
right, as far as we know them), but as Betts himself says, this is medieval
England. Later on there's some thoroughly fascinating historical narrative
of Frederick of Sicily. Why Betts rarely speaks of Northern Italy is beyond
me. The English are ignorant of Tarot until well into the modern Occult
period. No wonder the Golden Dawn was so influenced by Eliphas Levi! And no
wonder the English Occultists (and thus Americans) were ignorant of the
Tarot tradition beyond France (as detailed in A Wicked Pack of Cards).
Betts speaks so much of Sicily without talking much about the Sicilian
Tarot deck, with its slightly different iconographic tradition.

Chapter Five generally covers ground covered elsewhere in several Dummett
books, in O'Neill (Tarot Symbolism) & Giles (The Tarot : History, Mystery,
and Lore). While I am not impressed with Betts' theory that early Tarots
were invented by the commons and imitated by the nobility, I should say the
most impressive bit of evidence I've seen so far to support his side of the
argument is on page 110, i.e. a woodblock from Nuremberg depicting the
burning of various games. On the page before, however, he mentions again
the "chance hypothesis." I'm not sure what makes Betts assume that the only
alternative to the notion that the tarot images came from one source is
that the whole thing is up to chance. Having studied Renaissance culture
most of my adult life, it seems to me both those options are cop-outs.

One of the major devices used by Betts is this key to it all he calls the
"Ancestor"--presumably the ancestor to Tarot from medieval apocalypse
representations. On page 125 he asks us to trust him on this until the end
of the book--when he'll explain the whos and whats and hows. I guess Betts
figures saving the story of finding "Ancestor" at UCLA will add a bit of a
punch to what he thought was a lackluster ending? I don't know--I'm
skeptical anyway, and him telling me to trust him until the end put me on
guard for some sort of manipulation--the story of searching the medieval
Apocalypse renderings via the Online Christian Art Indexes and UCLA was
impressive and believable--much more so than some of the connections Betts
tries to make. If you want to skip ahead to this section, look for Chapter
16 on page 351.

Frustrating for me personally are places where Betts comes close to
touching on some of the more compelling explanations for early Tarot
images. In one place, Betts mentions the epic poem, Romance of the Rose :

The religious message is another reason why I don't think Tarot was created
in noble's courts. It certainly wasn't in their interest to promote
spiritual over temporal power. And the ideals of the Romance of the Rose
(Roman De La Rose) and Boccaccio's Decameron were more agreeable to
sophisticated tastes then.
p. 363

This thesis only works if one takes Betts' religious theory as likely. For
me the irony is he is aware of the cardinal virtues. Most people have heard
of the seven deadly sins and their respective virtues. Those who have seen
or read Shakespeare's As You Like It are aware now of a medieval conceit
that Jacques reinvents, the "Ages of Man" trope (one earlier version for
English readers is Thomas More's Pagaents). Here we are talking about
psychological states personified--the cardinal virtues are often invoked as
people or Gods even (some of which of course were associated with specific
deities--Anger with Mars; Love with either Venus or Cupid; jealousy with
Hera; and so on). To personify these psychological states (I call them
Psychomachia, since often you will see the Virtues and Vices battling it
out) as such was not a conceit limited to nobility. Nor was this a trope we
find in only the middle ages. In any case, one finds it in much medieval
literature, such as in Romance of the Rose, and the fact that Betts does
not seem aware that it is common to invoke Fortune, Time, Death, or Love
takes luster away from his work.

On page 177, Betts suggests the Daniel myth (from the Old Testament) as a
source for what we generally call the trump Strength. This is Tarot And The
Millennium at its best. But then his theory of the Empress trump seems
circumstantial, especially in the face of heraldic evidence that strongly
suggests a connection with the Duchy of Milan. Even more disheartening is
Betts' theories on the Wheel of Fortune and Hermit trumps--these are
extreme cases of fitting square pegs into round holes--in his zeal to make
the whole trump sequence (the one we're used to, that is) fit his Ancestor
theory, Betts has to ignore major evidence. This is not to say he has not
uncovered important hints here and there. St. John eating a book, is this
is supposed to prefigure Old Man/Time/Hermit? If one was to lay aside the
more obvious hinted symbolism of a Saturn/Time connection here, and look
for a Saint this trump could represent in early Tarots I would tend to say
Italo Calvino was on the right track in Castle of Crossed Destinies--there
are some definite parallels between this image and depictions of St.
Jerome. In my mind more direct than those of St. John eating a book.

Chapters 9 and 10 make for fascinating reading, but even on the third and
fourth time through them I can't shake the sense that these are
divergences. The Concords of Joachim just don't seem relevant--see for
instance the chart on page 200--I know these are related to his medieval
theory of the Second Coming, but for someone who casts aside Moakley with
such aplomb, it comes across as ironic.

Chapter 11 begins with a decent enough history of magicians in
Europe--although Betts does seem particularly preoccupied with the low
magic type of magician performing legerdemain--the charlatan/trickster. I
find his conclusions suspect along the lines of other objectionable bits,
and would add that he might learn something from Brian Williams'
Renaissance Tarot when it comes to what the images of the Bagatella might
imply within the late medieval milieu. Perhaps his perspective is colored
by what John Michael Greer calls in the Fall 1998 issue of Gnosis Magazine
"an inherited polemic against magic that has colored most scholarship on
the subject for the last 300 years."

Later (page 248) Betts dismisses the trionfi paradigm--and wonders aloud
what event the Chariot must commemorate. There are a number of Roman
emperors the Chariot might refer to. It seems we're dealing with
preconceptions coloring the evidence being examined I think. I would fail
my charge not to mention Betts' fascinating talk about the Last Emperor. I
do wonder how much of that though is tempered by anti-Byzantine hegemony
still prevalent in Western intellectual life. For instance, Chapter Twelve,
which addresses the Pope trump, is unaware that Popes were a rather new
phenomenon in this period--before the Schism with the Greek Orthodox
Church, what later was called 'Pope' was simply the 'Patriarch of Rome'.
Later, more fallout from dismissing Moakley--Betts seems unaware of her
theory related to the trump we call the Hanged Man. Then again, I wonder if
the notion of shame paintings might weaken an argument related to cathars,
medieval speculations regarding the apocalypse, and the leader of the True

I do not mean to sound overly harsh, for Betts has done an incredible job,
and hopefully his work here will open the dike to a torrent of research
looking for connections between early tarots to medieval Christian
iconography and other cultural imagery. Personally, though, I think the
situation is far more diffuse than most commentators make it out to be.

Copyright (c) 1998
George Leake

This page is Copyright 1997 by Michele Jackson