Pythagorean Tarot by John Opsopaus and Tarot of the Saints by Robert Place
Reviews by K. Frank Jensen

The American publisher, Llewellyn has over more than a century supplied the market with books on esoteric themes, among them several books on tarot. During the later years Llewellyn has extended its position to become one of the largest tarot sources on the American market, a position that recently was further strengthened by a contract for distribution of tarot products from the Italian publisher Lo Scarabeo.

New in Llewellyn’s own range of tarot publications are John Opsopaus’ "Pythagorean Tarot" and Robert M. Place’s "Tarot of the Saints". They are both substantial works, not only regarding the contents but also physically. Both decks come with extensive books (respectively 470 and 248 pages), the packaging is the same in both cases, a book-size cardboard box, which contains the book and the deck. In an attempt to solve the usual annoying problem with cards that slip around in a much too big box, a neutral white box, which can hold any standard size tarot deck is included to keep the deck in place. This concept will presumably be used in all forthcoming deck/book packages from the publisher, so maybe it would be an idea if Llewellyn printed a sheet of adhesive labels, maybe depicting one or two cards from the relevant deck, so the owner could individualize the neutral boxes (I have already 3 of them, all looking alike but with 3 different decks in them). Any excessive labels on the sheet might be used by the owner and serve as advertising for the deck.

Opsopaus’s "Pythagorean Tarot", excellently illustrated by a female artist called "Rho", is an attempt to create a tarot deck as Pythagoras, the Greek mathematician and philosopher (who has not heard of him?), would have done it, had he known about tarot. The basis for the deck’s structure is numerology, which was an important part of Pythagoras’ mathematical considerations. To be able to apply the Pythagorean numerology to the deck, Oposopaus found, that the oldest documented numbering of the major arcana, as it was listed in "Sermones de ludo cum aliis"(ca.1500), fits the purpose well. Opsopaus discusses this structure as well as his own assignment of Greek letters to the cards in great detail in his book. An interesting perspective is also his pointing out the close connection of this structure to the numbers gained by a throw of two or three dice; dice casting being one of the oldest divination methods known.

The book describes the historical, cultural, philosophical and religious backgrounds of a period where those ideas grew in fertile soil, that later found a visible form when tarot decks came into being in the 16th century. Personally, I find it a lot more relevant to create a tarot deck based upon this early Mediterranean tradition and knowledge than to adopt a lot of irrelevant mythologies to the tarot frame, as so often is the case.

To support his text, Opsopaus make use of many quotes from many sources, but luckily he has included these in the text proper; is there anything more annoying than the usual academic way to have two fingers in the back of the book during reading?

Robert M. Place’s deck "Tarot of the Saints" and his accompanying book "A Gnostic Book of Saints" can be seen as a follow up to the Pythagorean Tarot. It takes its beginning in the same world of ideas. Pythagoras’ teachings are here also part of the background, but Place brings tarot further up in history to Christianity. Robert M.. Place’s tarot is a description of the world of saints, whose development began during early Christianity. Each of the Major Arcana and court cards depict a saint, whose archetypal qualities correspond with the card’s traditional meaning.

Both books are scholarly works, based upon historical facts. You will not be overrun by unsubstantial nonsense like in so many other tarot books. You need not be a devoted tarotist to have pleasure in reading these books and looking at the cards. An interest for the historical periods will do. On the other hand, these two books are not for those tarot readers who ignorantly state that they are not interested in tarot history. For unknown reasons, the publisher’s advertising material states the target audience for "Pythagorean Tarot" to be "male, 25-55 years of age" while for "Tarot of the Saints," prospective advertising lists themes like "Tarot, Santeria and Christianity".

Both decks are excellently made with high quality cardboard and printing. The art style of the Pythagorean Tarot is light, simple and attractive, while Robert Place’s illustrations are more rigid, with pure colors similar to stained glass paintings (as are Place’s two earlier tarot decks: The Alchemical Tarot and The Angels Tarot). While the number cards of "The Pythagorean Tarot" are decorative but not illustrated, Place uses vignettes, sometimes borrowing traits from the Waite-Smith iconography. Personally, I prefer the art style of "Rho", but that is merely a matter of taste. Place’s illustrations suit their theme very well.

If you buy these two Tarot book/deck sets and really want to explore them in their full potentiality, you need not buy any other tarot packs for the next year or so. In fact, they could do for the rest of your life. Llewellyn shall be given high credit for making them available as a contrast to the endless number of trivial packs published these days.

Pythagorean Tarot. John Opsopaus. Illustrations by Rho. 78 cards + book, 470 pages. US$40.

Tarot of the Saints. Text and illustrations: Robert M. Place, 78 cards + "A Gnostic Book of Saints", 248 pages, US$35, both Llewellyn Publishers, USA 2001.

If you would like to purchase the Pythagorean Tarot, click here.

If you would like to purchase Tarot of the Saints, 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.

Reviews © K. Frank Jensen 2003. First printed in "The Playing Card".
Images © 2002 Llewellyn Worldwide
Page © 2003 Diane Wilkes