The Underground Stream: Esoteric Tarot Revealed by Christine Payne-Towler
Review by Michele Jackson

If you are interested in buying this book, click here.

I have had this book for almost a year. I have read quite a bit, though not all, of it. For many reasons, I found it very difficult to review. First among them is that it is not the easiest book to read. The author makes a lot of assertions in this book about secret societies, the Catholic Church, and tarot history in general.  Some of these are a bit hard to swallow. I like to read with an open mind, but one thing that hampered me is that the author is usually not very clear as to what is documented and what is her own conjecture. This led me to doubt just about everything that she did not corroborate from other sources. To her credit, she does state early on that she has " agenda with this book that extends beyond pure history..." and that she cannot prove her theory with manuscript evidence.

Another problem I had in reviewing this book is that it was the subject of a great deal of discussion on Tarot-l around the time I was reading it (late October, early November 1999). There are several list members who are interested in Tarot history, including author Robert V. O'Neill (Tarot Symbolism),  Tom Tadfor Little, and James Revak, to name a few. It was difficult reading the often heated discussions without being swayed one way or the other and I delayed writing the review until the discussions had died down. Of course, by then I had forgotten much of what I had read in the book and had to start reading it all over again. 

The book consists of several papers or articles, primarily dealing with the authorís theories concerning the impact of secret societies on the tarot. Central to her arguments is the premise that tarot was driven underground by the Catholic Church, and that its teachings were hidden and preserved by various secret societies. Another key idea in her work is the theory that tarot is based on what the author calls "astro-alphanumeric archetypes." A brief definition of these archetypes is: "...those number/letter astrology correspondences which allow a sounded letter to also stand for a number and also refer to a planet or a sign, all at the same time."  An example would be the Hebrew alphabet. The book is divided into four parts: 

  • Part I. Introductory Chapters - These pages provide background information on the author and an overview of the ideas she plans to present.
  • Part II. Arcana Major and Minor - The author discusses the imagery of each of the Major Arcana cards using examples from numerous decks. She also provides the astro-alphanumeric Correspondences for each card in this section. The Minor Arcana section is much shorter and discusses the elements, suit symbolism, numerology, kabbalah, geometry and astrology. There are many wonderful depictions of cards from various historic and modern decks. 
  • Part III. Esoteric Movements Impacting Tarot - This is the heart of Payne-Towler's book. Here she elaborates on her theories concerning secret societies and their impact on the tarot. She describes each of the Major Arcana from the Gran Tarot Esoteric, a deck the author believes "..fits with the ancient teachings of the Hebrew people." She also discusses what she calls the Spanish School, and the English School, and provides an interesting chart of correspondences between the Major Arcana and alphabets, planets, signs in several different systems. This is also the section that I had the most problems with, in terms of veracity. The author relies on myths as well as facts to support her thesis. An example is the myth of Mary Magdalene being an initiate and ending up in France with some of the secrets underlying the tarot.
  • Part IV. Personal Applications - This section provides information and exercises to help you decide which set of correspondences work best for you.

The book has lots of black and white images from several historical and modern decks, as well as charts, tables and illustrations. One thing that I found very interesting is that most of the book is available on The Tarot Magic Software CD and you can also read a great deal of it on-line at the Tarot Magic Website. I recommend this book for those who are interested in tarot history, though I caution the reader to read carefully to determine what is fact and what is theory. As previously stated, the author is not always clear which is which. Overall, the book provides a lot of food for thought - even the parts that I felt were shaky, as far as accuracy is concerned.

  If you are interested in buying this book, click here.

The Underground Stream: Esoteric Tarot Revealed
Author: Christine Payne-Towler
ISBN: 096730430X
Publisher: Noreah Press, Eugene Oregon


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