Misreading the Cards

Gerald Suster. The Truth About the Tarot. Skoob Books, 1991.

So, we're waiting for The Truth, and it's one paragraph into the introduction when we are presented with the usual fantasy, nonsense and downright lies about the tarot: "All we know for certain is that the Gypsies brought the cards to Europe at some unidentifiable point prior to the fourteenth century and used them for purposes of fortune telling." At least the author does manage to hold back some of the even more fanciful nonsense (Egypt, ancient Sumerians, etc.), dismissing it with an ambiguous "possibly so ... ", or, as I would put it, "definitely not".

A moment's thought will dismiss this Gypsy nonsense. Where were the Gypsies. a nomadic people. going to keep the printing equipment and wood-blocks needed to produce a tarot deck? Why were none of the Gypsy tarot decks ever described by contemporary writers? Why in every lie, misrepresentation and persecution that has ever been levelled at the Gysies were they never accused of using the tarot for evil purposes? Why are the oldest known tarot cards lavish productions for princely courts, hardly the sort of people who would even come into contact with Gypsies? Why did no writer on the Gypsies. George Borrow for instance, ever notice this rich tradition of Romany tarot reading until well into the twentieth century? Why did none of the famous mystics of the Renaissance (could I mention our patron Doctor John Dee?) ever record even the whisper of tarot cards in their copious writings?

It cannot be repeated too often when confronted by nonsense like this that the tarot cards were devised for use in a series of card-games of a distinctly non-mystical secular nature. They was no suggestion that they could be used for divination until the eighteenth century when a barmy French wig-maker called Alliette decided to move on from reading ordinary playing cards to reading the popular but curious tarot cards he saw some of his clients playing with, presumably while they were having their heads measured.

A century later all this got caught up in the French fin de siecle occult revival, there was no stopping the great tarot nonsense spreading and burying the true facts of the tarot in a welter of occultist claptrap. Which is a pity, because the real truth about the historical tarot is fascinating enough not to need this embroidery. Even the modern tarot, with its rich variety of occult imagery, has developed enough of its own tradition and perhaps, in the hands of a skilled practitioner, psychological value not to need the shaky edifice of pseudo-history which this book, like too many others. tries to foist upon it. In fact this book describes a use of the tarot more akin to the I-ching and actually makes less of any alleged inherent supernatural qualities in the cards than most others in the field. -- John Rimmer, from Magonia 39, April 1991.


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