History of the Occult Tarot: 1870 - 1970 by Ronald Decker and Michael Dummett
Review by Lee A. Bursten   

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This book is a sequel to the authors’ previous book, A Wicked Pack of Cards, although this time without the co-authorship of Theirry Depaulis.  The story begins with a look at Jewish and Christian Cabala, spiritualism, theosophy, Rosicrucianism, and early Tarot esotericists such as Papus and Levi, then focuses on the Order of the Golden Dawn.  Most of the book, in fact, is concerned with members of the Golden Dawn and their ideological descendants.  The stories behind the creation of the Wirth, Rider-Waite-Smith, Crowley-Harris, and Builders of the Adytum (BOTA) decks are covered in detail, and the book ends with a detailed biography of Eden Gray, who popularized the Rider-Waite-Smith deck and Tarot in general in the U.S. in the 1960s and ‘70s. 

I found this book very useful because, although the history of the Golden Dawn has been examined in several other books, this is the first time to my knowledge that history has been looked at specifically from a Tarot perspective.  I was interested to read about Kenneth Mackenzie, of whose existence I had been ignorant, and whom the authors speculate may have been the author of the “Cypher MS” which was the source of so much of the Golden Dawn’s theory and practice, including their Tarot correspondences.  Paul Foster Case’s life story was also quite interesting, and something one is not likely to read anywhere else.  I had known that Sandor Konraad had taken much of his theory of Tarot from his teacher, Rolla Nordic, whom he credits, but I hadn’t known that Nordic had taken her theory almost entirely from an author named Frank Lind, but without crediting him. 

While the book was interesting and useful, I cannot say I enjoyed reading it.  The reason is that the authors have an unfailingly disapproving tone which they apply to almost every single person they write about.  Sometimes this tone is subtle, and may only be discerned by the fact that, for the individuals they write about, they only choose the bizarre or unsavory aspects of their lives and work to write about.  But oftentimes the authors don’t even bother to hide their contempt for their subjects, and lash out with satirical and ironic remarks. 

Now, don’t get me wrong; many of the people involved in the evolution of the occult Tarot were not exactly shining examples of humanity, and the deeds and misdeeds of the Golden Dawn founders in particular make for quite amusing reading.  But Decker and Dummett don’t seem to realize that it’s poor sport to satirize that which is already patently ridiculous.  To make fun of S.L. “Macgregor” Mathers is like shooting fish in a barrel.  Thus, their editorial remarks come across as heavy-handed and unsophisticated, in fact as quite childish. 

As absurd as the private lives of these esotericists may be, what the authors don’t realize is that it is equally absurd to suggest that their subjects’ misdeeds somehow reflect on their accomplishments.  No one would suggest that the peccadilloes of famous artists, writers and composers somehow invalidate their art. 

In the foreword, the authors state about the earlier book, somewhat defensively, “Some of our readers complained that our book was not the one they really wanted to see written.  They would have preferred that we had written as metaphysicians, semioticians, mythographers or iconographers.  These perspectives could yield valuable views of the esoteric Tarot, but they cannot receive proper delineation in one book.  We had noted that Tarotism lacked a simple, honest, thorough chronicle.”  I believe the authors are being disingenuous here.  Their goal, it seems to me, was not to provide a “simple, honest, thorough chronicle” but rather to debunk the entire notion of an esoteric approach to the Tarot, and their method is to portray every single person who has tried such an approach as a misguided fool.  Frankly, I would have welcomed a book which stuck to the facts, both negative and positive, and left aside the contemptuous remarks. 

I find the authors to be particularly disingenuous when they say, “We do not deny the likelihood that some Renaissance allegories underlie the selection of trump images.  We did not write A Wicked Pack of Cards in order to attack all arcane interpretations of the Tarot, as some critics have supposed.  On the contrary, we initially intended to include some chapters advancing a theory about the esoteric significance attached to the trump sequence by its original inventor.  However, the accumulation of French theories proved sufficient for an ample book, and we omitted any comprehensive interpretation of our own.  We have encountered a similar abundance of Tarot theories in the English-speaking world; we have again curtailed our own hypotheses of trump symbolism in favour of greater attention to those of importance in our chronicle.” 

How convenient.  The authors seem to be claiming the moral high ground because they really wanted to include their own theory, but were prevented from doing so.  Of course, this means that we don’t have the opportunity of subjecting their pet theory to the same cold, hard scrutiny that they apply to everyone else’s.  Are we really to believe that the publishers couldn’t have squeezed out five more pages so Decker and Dummett could tell us what the “correct” theory is, since they think everyone else is wrong?  Even assuming there were space restrictions, I think the authors could easily have found room by the use of judicious editing.  

For example, often in the book we are given an excruciating degree of detail about people who are marginal at best to the evolution of the Tarot.  Perhaps we could have done with a little less material about Dion Fortune, who did not design a Tarot deck and was not instrumental in creating any Tarot theory.  Were we denied the Decker/Dummett Grand Esoteric Theory in order to make room for the invaluable information that Dion Fortune “had a strict code of sexual ethics, by which she abided, being revolted by the practice of homosexuality and disapproving both of extra-marital and premarital sexual relations”?  Did we really need to know that Case’s second wife “contributed to the Congregational Church by staging religious pageants in the sanctuary,” and that “in coaching them so that they would relax on stage, she induced the dignified ladies of the church to bend over and chant, “I know my heart.  I know my mind.  I know that I stick out behind”?  And how, exactly, is this important to the history of the occult Tarot?  It seems like the authors simply couldn’t pass up any opportunity to make their subjects appear ridiculous by recounting bizarre or unpleasant anecdotes, no matter how incidental to the subject at hand. 

Another example of the authors’ bias is to be found in their selection of illustrative plates.  There are 12 pages of plates, which is not very much given the subject of the book and the number of decks discussed.  I’m sure the authors would have wanted more but were restricted by their publishers.  But if there was such a restriction, why did the authors choose to use plate eight to show cards which picture the artist, such as the BOTA Hierophant which supposedly portrays Case, the Balbi Emperor which portrays Stuart Kaplan, and the Eight of Swords from the Mountain Dream Tarot which shows the artist, Bea Nettles (whose deck falls outside the book’s stated time frame)?  There are many, many decks discussed in the book which are currently unavailable and which I really would have wanted to see, and instead an entire plate was wasted on something which is really of very marginal interest, unless they simply wanted to show how silly and vain they feel Tarot creators are.  

Decker and Dummett seem to view Tarotists in general in a condescending way which I found vaguely insulting, as in such sentences as, “Metzner, like Gresham, refuses to force the Tarot into conformity with detailed dogma.  This breaks with earlier Tarotism and heralds the open-ended interpretations that are permitted for the trumps today.” 

Permitted by whom?  The authors want to paint a picture of  Tarotists as lemmings, ready to follow the latest authority over the cliffs of foolishness.  In fact, I doubt very much that there is any “authority,” either now or in the past.  Tarotists have always been an independent, free-thinking lot, who tend to rely on their own preferences rather than slavishly following particular doctrines. 

So, if you want a detailed history of the people and ideas involved with esoteric approaches to the Tarot, you will find much valuable information here.  Just be prepared for the authors’ unrelentingly sour attitude. 

Be sure to read Alma Puissegur’s interview with Ron Decker. It appears from the interview that there was some disagreement between the two authors, but I could only review the book which is in front of me, which lists Decker as the primary author. 

History of the Occult Tarot: 1870 - 1970 by Ronald Decker and Michael Dummett
Publisher: Duckworth
ISBN #: 0-7156-3122-5

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

Lee A. Bursten has been studying Tarot off and on for about 20 years. He enjoys reading about Tarot and searching for the "Perfect Deck," which is always just around the corner but out of reach. He is very grateful to Michele and Diane for posting his reviews, and especially to his significant other, Larry Katz, for his superhuman patience.