Mystical Origins of the Tarot by Paul Huson
Review by K. Frank Jensen

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Paul Huson wrote his first book on tarot, The Devil‘s Picture Book, back in 1971. This was in the very beginning of the esoteric tarot revival and much has happened in the more than thirty years which have passed since. Paul Huson‘s new book is called Mystical Origins of the Tarot, with the subtitle From Ancient Roots to Modern Usage, and his aim is to track all the symbols inherent in a traditional tarot deck back to their historical origin, and then follow how the traditional divinatory meanings of the cards developed from there. Huson cares also for the origin of the apparently arbitrary divinatory meanings connected to the Minor Arcana cards, a theme not much discussed before. The author is not only a tarot researcher, but he is also a card reader or "diviner," as he prefers to call it himself.

Taking the reader through the centuries, Huson comes a great way around his subject, from 15th century Islamic Mamluk cards, with no persons depicted for religious reasons, over design details, titles and names given to the court cards of the early playing card decks, up to the so-called Mantegna series of prints and to the early standard tarot patterns. We are also presented with a Sufi and Zarathustra connection. The development and interconnections of the various suitmark systems is discussed in great detail, including the Grail legend, a connection Huson does not agree with. Among the sources that inspired the major arcana illustrations he points to are medieval pageant theatre and the mystery- and morality-plays.

Many of the divinatory meanings of the Minor Arcana cards still in use in our day is, according to Huson, based upon the French cartomancer Etteilla and his followers, M.M.d’Odoucet and J. de Salette; an interesting aspect, worth to delve further into. One link in the chain of divinatory meanings from Etteilla up to the modern esoteric tarot which Huson does not mention is the Golden Dawn paper called Book-T., which contains the essential G.D. tarot instructions. I wonder why the author did not find this paper of sufficient importance to mention.

When it comes to the book‘s second part -- the descriptions of the 78 cards and their divinatory meanings -- Huson lists the divinatory references and the keywords assigned to them over the years by an unknown cartomancer, de Mellet, Gebelin, Etteilla, Lévi, Paul Christian, Mathers, Golden Dawn, Waite writing as Grand Orient, and Waite writing as himself. (The "unknown cartomancer" was referred to by Italian historian Pratesi in his series of articles in The Playing Card). Huson condenses the many keywords for each card to a few, which he calls a "suggested interpretation."

The book ends with the chapter "Reading the Tarot," which starts with the sentence, "Now that you are familiar with the tarot, you may want to learn how to read it." I do not believe that any novice reader will feel familiar with the tarot after reading Paul Huson‘s book; this book is for those who already have at least a fundamental knowledge of the subject. The "reading" chapter is a detailed account of the steps a card reader of the old school was told to take before she/he started: selecting a tarot deck, getting in touch with the cards, preparing for divination, creating the mood, the question, the significator, the shuffle... By adding these lengthy and elementary instructions, the author moves away from his otherwise scholarly approach and turns his work into a beginners book for card readers. Maybe this was motivated by a demand from the publisher? The book is interesting and relevant reading in itself, but it is not a beginner’s tarot book and this last part should have been omitted.

The book is illustrated thoroughly with the author‘s own simple line art illustrations. This is a reasonable solution and definitely better than a lack of illustrations, but once in a while I miss the details a photographic illustration can give.

Huson also supplies a two pages list of sources for buying cards decks. My experience is that it is very unlikely you will ever get an answer from several of these sources.

Mystical Origins of the Tarot by Paul Huson
Publisher: Destiny Books
ISBN #: 0892811900

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.

Review © 2004 K. Frank Jensen
Page © 2004 Diane Wilkes