A Wicked Pack of Cards by Ronald Decker, Thierry Depaulis and Michael Dummett
Review by Michele Jackson

Most authors pay little or no attention to Tarot History, and the average Tarot book, whether beginner or advanced, does a dismal job of explaining where and how the Tarot originated, who the pioneers were and what they thought. This book is devoted entirely to that subject. The first book in a set, this volume covers the earliest verifiable appearance of the Tarot up until the late 19th and early 20th century. Several persistent myths are put to bed once again, such as the Egyptian origin of the cards and the dreaded Gypsy theory. Chapters are devoted to the many colorful personages who have played a role in the development of the tarot as an esoteric tool. Well known names such as Papus, Wirth, Etteilla and Levi are covered in detail, as well as less well known names such as Paul Christian and Jean Alexandre Vaillant, though I felt that these personages were given rather more space than warranted. The chapter on Mlle Le Normand could have been dispensed with altogether. While she was unquestionably a popular and well known card reader, she did not play a large part in occult Tarot. I think a few paragraphs devoted to her would have been more than sufficient. Some of the information on Papus' theories seems to have been based on inaccurate assumptions, thereby leading to inaccurate conclusions, but on the whole the book is well researched and provides more information on the occult history of the cards than anything previously published.

This is a scholarly work, which tends as most scholarly works do, to get bogged down in the minutiae at times. The book is well documented, and we are usually clear as to what is documented fact, and what is conjecture. The book begins with an introduction which traces the underlying concepts of Western occult thought from Hermes Trismegistus through the Freemasons. The chapter titles are as follow:

  1. Game or Magic?
  2. How Tarot Divination Began
  3. The Founders of Tarot Occultism
  4. Etteilla: the First Professional Cartomancer
  5. Etteilla's Disciples and Posterity
  6. Mlle Le Normand: Prophet or Sorcerer?
  7. The tradition of Etteilla
  8. The Second Founder: Eliphas Levi
  9. From Ghost Writer to Magus: Paul Christian
  10. Among the Gypsies: Jean-Alexandre Vaillant
  11. Papus and his Circle

As can be seen from the chapter titles, this book primarily covers the French occultists, who formulated many of the theories we use today, such as connecting Tarot with the Cabala and Astrology. The many personal notes and anecdotes help relieve the scholarly feel of the book. Although not integral to the history of Tarot, the bits of of personal information, made the characters seem more real. They grappled with doubt, had personal and financial troubles, and often met with failure. Most of them would be considered colorful even by today's standards.

I recommend this book to any serious student of Tarot. I have had readers and even Tarot teachers tell me that they were not interested in the history of Tarot. I will admit, that history of any type is not on the top of my interest list either, but I believe that anyone who is truly interested in Tarot, or who reads for others, or teaches Tarot should have some familiarity with the facts. If the fact that Tarot did not originate in Atlantis makes it less appealing to some, then they were probably not going to go very far with the subject anyway. Let them study Affirmation Cards or Angel Cards, or some other soft fluffy type of cartomancy. Tarot is not for the faint of heart. This book was not the easiest read I have had recently, and it was a bit bumpy in spots, but it was definitely worth the effort. Highly recommended.

A Wicked pack of Cards: The Origins of the Occult Tarot
Authors: Ronald Decker, Thierry Depaulis and Michael Dummett
ISBN: 0-312-16294
Publisher: St. Martin's Press

This page is Copyright 1996/97 Michele Jackson