In the Cards

The Game of Tarot from Ferrara to Salt Lake City

by Michael Dummett
Duckworth (Biblio Distribution Center, Totowa, New Jersey), 600 pp., $47.50

Twelve Tarot Games

by Michael Dummett
Duckworth, London, 242 pp., £5.95

This very large book is an elaborate history of the game of Tarot, a card game not unrelated to our modern cards, with suits and trumps, but much more complex, using packs of picture cards with strange images. From the fifteenth century this game spread over Europe with variations in different countries. Professor Dummett, a very well-known philosopher and interpreter of Frege, has taken time off from his labors to write a detailed account of this game and its local variations: a much shorter companion volume is a guide to the playing of twelve games. In the larger volume he publishes many illustrations of Tarot cards; even a reader uninterested in card games must surely be puzzled and fascinated by the pictures. The same images, in varying forms, recur constantly: “the Female Pope,” “the Hanged Man,” “the Emperor,” and so on, just as we constantly see kings, queens, and knaves in our packs. It seems to be the basic aim behind Professor Dummett’s fanatical pursuit of the Tarot game, in all its forms, to prove that throughout its history it was only a game, and nothing else. His book will not be welcome to contemporary occultists, who attach immense significance to “the Tarot,” to the initiations into mysteries, or revelations of the future, supposed to reside in these cards.

According to Professor Dummett, the first person to, “occultize” the Tarot cards was Court de Gébelin, author of Le monde primitif, an immense work in nine volumes published in Paris from 1725 to 1784. Gébelin believed in a primitive world in which all men lived in harmony, in which all arts and sciences had their origin, in short, in a golden age which it was the object of his vast researches to uncover, principally through the investigation of mythologies and languages. Following the euhemerist tradition he believed that all myths and allegories secretly record the invention and progress of the arts and sciences. For his linguistic studies he collected the alphabets, grammars, vocabularies and their etymologies of many languages, seeking to establish their common origin in the language of nature. These ideas have a familiar ring, reminding of both Rousseau and Vico. Gébelin is one of the very few of his contemporaries to have heard of Vico, whose Scienza nuova he mentions with approval. Similarities in the treatment of the Hercules myth by Gébelin and Vico are discussed by Frank Manuel in The Eighteenth Century Confronts the Gods.

Though Gébelin is aware of new thought movements stirring in the eighteenth century, his outlook is firmly rooted in Renaissance occult traditions, in the writings associated with the “Egyptian,” Hermes Trismegistus, and in the Cabala. A word frequently used by Gébelin is “hieroglyph,” and by this he does not mean what Egyptologists have meant since Jean François Champollion established the modern science of Egyptology, including the principles for deciphering hieroglyphics, early in the nineteenth century. He has in mind the Hieroglyphica of Horapollo, a fourth-century collection of pseudo-Egyptian images, deeply revered by …

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Letters

Origins of Tarot May 14, 1981