A History of the Occult Tarot 1870-1970 by Ronald Decker and Michael Dummett
Review by K. Frank Jensen

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

This book has been awaited for a long time since the authors, Ronald Decker and Michael Dummett (along with Thierry Depaulis), published "A Wicked Pack of Cards" in 1996. The first detail I wondered about is the title: One would assume that a follow-up volume to „A Wicked Pack of Cards", would be named in a corresponding style, for example "Symbols of Enlightenment: A History of Occult Tarot 1870-1970" would have suited better as a subtitle if the two volumes are to be seen as a whole. The front of the dust jacket shows a tarot reader’s shop (in the United States of America, I assume), which I doubt is from before 1970, where the contents of this book essentially ends. On the back of the dust jacket there is a collaged illustration, including several tarot cards in color arranged around a High Priestess card, which looked familiar to me, and yet I could not immediately identify it. Information about the cover illustrations could not be found in the book (why not?), but a request revealed that the collage was by Ronald Decker and originally intended for the front cover. The mysterious High Priestess turned out to be Decker’s coloring of the BOTA card. I would also have appreciated to know which one of the two authors are responsible for which chapters. I guess that both have more or less agreed about the contents, but who did the hard work for the various themes?

There is a long wait for scholarly works dealing with tarot these days, where most tarot books are just one more attempt to put more or less superficial personal opinions into the framework of tarot. Decker/Dummett’s book is, however, a scholarly book, no doubt about that. At the same time, it is also an endless listing of facts. The principal fault I have with this book is the lack of illustrations. Despite the interesting subject, and the wealth of new information, much of which is seen here for the first time, I am afraid that many will find the book boring reading because it is designed like it was published in Waite’s days in the first half of the 20th Century, where printing facilities were considerably more limited than they are today. The book consists of 318 compact pages of text plus 60 pages of notes, literature lists and register, all dealing with a theme which fundamentally is visual. Modern printing technique allow for a proper and illustrated page design with no essential extra cost, except for the time it takes to set up the pages.

In the middle of the book, there are 12 pages of illustrations, depicting cards from a total of seven (!) tarot decks only. Furthermore there are five single tarot cards shown depicting tarot personalities (Oswald Wirth, Paul Foster Case, David Hoy, Stuart Kaplan and Bea Nettles), three of them only peripherally mentioned in the book. Why are the illustrations not placed within the appropriate texts? Why are there not many more of them? Where are the portraits of the tarotists discussed? I am sure that if the readers do not know the cards discussed in the text already, it is quite impossible to get an idea of what the cards look like from the literal descriptions. As an example, how can anyone from the description given on page 196 get the faintest idea about what Glahn’s Deutsches Original Tarot look like?

Writing in the introduction about the Hermetists of the 16th and 17th Century, the authors state that "The Typical Hermetist had no interest in the History of Hermeticism nor, indeed, in its underlying philosophy". But the same can be said about typical contemporary tarotists, who often say that they are not interested in the history of tarot, only in how tarot functions, whether as a psychological tool, a means of self-recognition, or for card reading. Alas, historical knowledge is little valued today. We see this right now clearly in Denmark with our recent so-called new-liberalistic government, who has appointed a 30 years old (!) conservative party member to the position of minister of culture. A minister of culture who wants to move the National Archives away from the administration in Copenhagen, tauntingly calling these historic files "those old yellowed papers". With this general attitude, how can we convince a tarotist in our days that tarot history has a meaning, that the more we know about the subject, the more interesting it becomes. I would say by making the subject attractive, which nowadays means to make it visually stimulating! The authors may argue that they are writing for another readership, but where do they find that?

The tarot history told is as complete as can be expected, and I believe it will take years and further intensive research before anything substantial can be added. The book is a detailed report about the people whose work through a period of 100 years build the steps that led tarot to what it is today. The overwhelming load of information in the book is, as I see it, as correct as it can be. Of course there are omissions, but these are of minor importance, like when one of the few illustrations depicts cards from the Insight Institute tarot and the other decks from this organization are not even mentioned, or when the authors list two of the DeLaurence plagiate editions of the Waite/Smith (yellow and red), but do not mention the orange colored edition.

The authors' personal opinions only rarely show up, except when, for example, the authors express animosity towards a tarotist like S.L. Mathers, not to mention Aleister Crowley, where many a statement about him could as well have been written by R.A. Gilbert, whose disgust for this magician is notorious. After all, Crowley’s bad reputation originates from what today’s youth is preoccupied by: self-promotion/-exposure, bisexuality, mind-expanding chemicals. Are we right now in Crowley’s "Do What Thou Wilt"-Age of Horus, maybe? Another example of the authors’ personal opinions being expressed is the -- admittedly richly deserved -- negative description of the obscure, but in certain circles very popular, ideas of Elisabeth Haich. In general, the book   expresses a rather neutral attitude towards the occultists, their systems and works.

Much of the Golden Dawn history described is, in my opinion, irrelevant in this context and easily accessible elsewhere. After all, this is not a book about the history of the Golden Dawn, but about the history of tarot. Instead, what would have been interesting here would have been more details of the tarot decks made by the members of Golden Dawn on basis of the order papers. An appendix with these order instructions or just a selection of them would have been welcome. The authors state that they ‘have been allowed’ to see photocopies of Wynn Westcott’s majors, which belong to a ‘private collection’ but the lack of illustration is significant. Maybe they were not allowed to reproduce them (some private collectors appear to have taken over the concept of secrecy from the formerly "Secret Societies"), but I am afraid that this could just as well be the result of the publisher’s general - and incomprehensible - limitation of illustrations in the book. The authors describe the cards and references: astrological, elemental, cabalistic and whatever they include, but still we have not the faintest idea of what they look like. Westcott/Moina Mather’s court cards are illustrated elsewhere, so why not here? The Westcott/Moina Mather’s court cards are, after all available, illustrated in a booklet in the series of Golden Dawn Studies from Holmes Publishing (mentioned by the authors in the notes).Why also is it not mentioned that Crowley in his "Moonchild" gives a biting portrait of Arthur E. Waite (named "Arthwait" in the book)? That would have been more relevant than superfluous details - like their parental background - about members of the Golden Dawn without any particular tarot reference . Waite’s article in "The Occult Review", December 1909 - before the publication of the Waite/Smith deck - is mentioned and also that Waite misspelled the name of the artist (as "Coleman"), but not the interesting detail that The Sun rendered is wrongly numbered. It is mentioned, that Pamela Colman Smith was almost never credited for her art, but it is not mentioned that the deck now is generally known as the "Waite/Smith Tarot". Neither do we hear anything about the different editions and redrawings of Pamela Colman Smith’s original art, which were published in the years up to World War II. On a positive note, among the few illustrations we actually do find are the Rosicrucian meditation plates by J.B. Trinick, that the authors call "Waite’s Second Tarot". As far as I know, this is the very first time these images have been mentioned in the tarot literature and a selection have been reproduced.

A great part of the book is dealing with descriptions in detail of the "correspondences" which various tarot schools have assigned to the tarot cards, particular the 22 major arcana cards: Hebrew letters, astrological-, elemental-, numerological- and color references. This is an essential part of the esoteric or occult tarot, its basis actually. Without these systems of correspondences, there would not be an esoteric tarot, and it is in this regard and in the sequence of the cards that the systems differ from each other. The authors include tables in the text to make it easier to overview the correspondences assigned by the particular occultist or tarot school. What I miss is an appendix, repeating these tables and including also cross-reference tables, comparing the most important concepts from different decks.

I find the chapters dealing with tarot in the USA most interesting, because this part of the history has, to my knowledge, never been told before and additionally offers many details that are the result of the authors' own research. Not so many years ago (1988) did a noted USA tarotist claim in her book that Paul Foster Case was the former head of the Golden Dawn. Information about him was really needed, and where else but in A History of Occult Tarot can we read such details about Paul Foster Case, which the successors, who now run the BOTA organization, carefully keep as secrets. Actually, in the book, Case appears to be a lot more likeable than the impression one gets from the current commercial BOTA-organization -- just ask them for details about their program! I did that once, and the essence of the answer was that I had to sign on (and pay), and then I would learn, what it was all about. The chapter dealing with Case should be compulsory reading for all BOTA followers.

Manly P. Hall is likewise portrayed as a pleasant and seriously interested occultist, but also his successors keep his knowledge close in a commercial society. The story about him and the Knapp-Hall tarot is interesting, and a few cards from their deck are even illustrated. So why not also render Knapp’s meditation symbols instead of just describing them? The story of Eden Gray is outstandingly told with exactly that personal touch which could have added positively to several other descriptions in the book. The text mentions a painted portrait of her that is not shown either. A great surprise to me was The Holy Order of MANS. I have different versions of the tarot deck distributed by this order in my collection, but have never known what a huge organization it was and what a sad ending it had.

A History of the Occult Tarot 1870-1970 is a long story, and very often a story of fights between magical or esoteric orders, organizations and single persons. The authors’ closing sentence is: "The Story is quite complete," and they state that they will not write a follow-up volume, covering the period up to the year 2000, which they originally planned to include in the present book. The 1970’s were the years when Pandora’s box was opened and the world was flooded with tarot. The disputes and fights are still going on. Someone else has to write - and illustrate (!) - the subsequent history.

A History of the Occult Tarot 1870-197
by Ronald Decker & Michael Dummett
Publisher: Duckworth, London 2002
ISBN #: 0-7156-3122-5 (English hardcover edition)  
If you would like to purchase this book, click here.

K. Frank Jensen is the founder and editor of Manteia, a now-defunct tarot magazine. For his significant contributions to the tarot community, he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Tarot Society at this year's World Tarot Congress. He has one of the greatest tarot collections in the world.

Earlier printed in the "Newsletter of International Tarot Society", vol.5 #2. Summer 2002 and (in an abridged version)  in "The Playing Card", July-August 2002
Review © 2002 K. Frank Jensen
Page © 2003 Diane Wilkes