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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 Renaissance scholars and artists. The pseudo-Egyptian aspect of Renaissance iconography is very familiar to art historians, and is discussed, for example, by George Boas in the introduction to his translation of Horapollo, and by Rudolf Wittkower in Allegory and the Migration of Symbols. It is in this Renaissance sense that Gébelin speaks of “hieroglyphs.” The pseudo-Egyptian hermetic picture-language is, in fact, the language of the primitive world, more profound than any discursive description, which he wishes to restore. And it is significant that Gébelin calls the Tarot cards “hieroglyphs.”

Dummett is at rather a disadvantage when discussing Gébelin on “Egyptian” terminology because he is unaware of all this Renaissance Egyptian lore. He looks in Wallis Budge for light on Gébelin’s Egyptian quotations, and naturally finds no help there. Budge was a post-Champollion Egyptologist for whom Horapollo and the Renaissance hieroglyphic tradition were an exploded pseudo science.

Gébelin’s remarks on “Le Jeu des Tarots” occupy only a few pages in the eighth volume of Le monde primitif. He informs the reader that there exists an Egyptian book which has escaped destruction. It is concealed in a game, the Tarot game, well known in Italy, Germany, and Provence, but unknown in Paris. He describes the strange images on the cards of this game and states that they are hieroglyphs, written by Thoth-Hermes, the Egyptian god of letters, containing all the doctrines of the ancient Egyptians.

Considering the importance which Dummett attaches to Gébelin as the first to “occultize” the Tarot cards, it is typical of his negative approach to iconography that he does not reproduce the Court de Gébelin images. They are reproduced by Stuart R. Kaplan (Encyclopaedia of Tarot, page 139), and are close to the cards of the Tarot of Marseille except for a significant change in the image of “the Hanged Man,” who is presented right-way-up.

The professional iconographers and art historians seem to have curiously neglected the Tarot images, as Gertrude Moakley complains in her interesting attempt to relate the trumps of the fifteenth-century Italian cards to the Trionfi of Italian spectacle.* I cannot find that any serious iconographical attempt has been made on the French Tarot tradition to which the Court de Gébelin images belong. I am therefore plunging dangerously into an uncharted sea in the following remarks.

The image called “Luna” shows two little doglike animals gazing at the moon: below them, an object rather like a crayfish crawls out of the water. Gébelin offers some explanation of this image which he says is reported by Clement of Alexandria. The two dogs are, according to the Egyptians, guardians of the tropics, placed there to prevent the stars from wandering; the crayfish is the sign of the zodiac, Cancer, and refers to the inundations of the Nile, which occur when the sun and the moon leave that sign. This is exactly the kind of abstruse information provided by the pseudo-Egyptian hieroglyph, which always has a further reference to Egyptian teachings on the divine. In the Horapollo type of Egyptian hieroglyphic, dogs are prominent, with the general meaning of “sacred letters,” though I have not found the Tarot image of Luna either in Horapollo, or in Valeriano’s Hieroglyphica, the Renaissance encyclopedia on the subject, which Gébelin mentions. However there can be no doubt that the “Luna” Tarot image is what the Renaissance called a hieroglyph, a conveyor of Egyptian wisdom.

An anonymous essay is printed by Gébelin, with his own discussion of the Tarot. This essay attempts some interpretation of the images, of a religious nature, referring to the Eternal God and the moral law. The writer amplifies a statement made by Gébelin that the images of the Tarot trumps correspond to the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. This introduces the possibility of a Cabalist interpretation, and it is in this sense that I would approach the image of “la Papesse,” or the female Pope, one of the most puzzling of the cards. Behind the head of this hieroglyphic woman is an unrolled scroll; she holds a book half concealed by her cloak. I suggest that this could be an image of the scroll of the Torah, the Hebrew scriptures, now unrolled or unveiled in Cabalist interpretation. This is something of a shot in the dark, like my attempt on “Luna,” but I would venture to say that even these preliminary and hesitant efforts to enter the iconographic areas opened up by Dummett’s book have aroused in my mind a doubt about the validity of his main argument, that the fact that the Tarot was an “actual game” gets rid of all “occult” associations.

Whether or not Gébelin was the first to “occultize” the Tarot cards, which I tend rather strongly to doubt (his images of “Luna” and of “la Papesse” are already present in the Tarot of Marseille), his announcement of the discovery of an “Egyptian” book in a well-known card game would give rise to particularly intense excitement in pre-Revolutionary France. Gébelin died before the outbreak of the Revolution but he held an important position in the intellectual world of liberals and philosophes which was moving toward it.

There was a remarkable revival of occultism in that world. Revolutionary Egyptianism, as propagated by Giordano Bruno, entered into the real Revolution. The cult of a Supreme Being, using Egyptian symbols, was the religion of the Revolution. Mesmerism, the science or medicine of the revolutionary period, enthusiastically adopted by Gébelin, was hermetic in origin; Mesmer’s astral fluid comes out of Ficino. Egypt became a symbol of freedom, an idea reflected in the Egyptian symbols on American dollar bills (Gébelin was a friend of Franklin). The role of Freemasonry, with its Hermetic-Egyptian rituals, is a force very much to be reckoned with in all this movement (Gébelin was a Mason). In this general climate of opinion, Gébelin’s promotion of the Tarot cards begins to look less eccentric, if these cards contained Hermetic-Cabalist allusions.

Gébelin was a Protestant, the son of a man very closely associated with the Protestant cause, author of a history of the war of the Camisards, the last stand of the persecuted Huguenots in the Cévennes. Gébelin delayed bringing out his own researches until he had published his father’s work, with which he was deeply identified. For the Protestants, the arrival of the Revolution meant the end of their persecution, for the Revolution stood for religious toleration. The fact (corroborated by Dummett) that the Tarot was not known in Paris raises the question of why Gébelin presented it with such force to the Parisian world. Might this have been because it was associated in other parts of France with the resistance to persecution?

Whatever the Tarot mystique may have meant to Gébelin himself, it forms only a small section of his vast researches into the allegories of “le monde primitif,” yet this small section was the part of his work which was seized on by contemporaries and successors and became associated with the history of occultism up to the present. It is the great merit and value of Professor Dummett’s work that he has brought this out. He draws an important distinction between Renaissance occultism, in touch with early science and with forward-looking movements, and the post-Gébelin type of occultism in which the mystique of the Tarot cards was added to the Hermetic and Cabalist sources used in the Renaissance and assumed a dominant role in French occultism of the eighteenth century.

The Tarot cards, almost immediately after Gébelin’s promotion of them, were used for fortunetelling. In this tainted form, “the Tarot” was adopted by Eliphas Lévi, who flourished in the mid-nineteenth century and propagated belief in the images of the cards (in the form of the Tarot of Marseille) as containing the whole of Hermetic, and particularly of Cabalist, magico-spiritual teaching. Dummett expounds the role of Tarot in Lévi’s works, so influential in modern occultism, and traces its presence in his spiritual descendants in France. He draws attention to the fact that the Tarot game was not known in Britain during the time when it flourished on the Continent, and that therefore the Tarot mystique was not developed there. I can confirm his statement that the Tarot is never mentioned in the Renaissance occult tradition either on the Continent or in Britain.

A fact of importance to the historian which Dummett brings out is that the modern occultists support their belief in the immense significance and immemorial antiquity of Tarot by assuming that all earlier occultists knew of the Tarot, though they do not mention it. Thus Guillaume Postel is drawn into the Tarot camp by the assumption that this noted sixteenth-century French Cabalist must undoubtedly have known the Tarot mystique, and similar annoying claims are made for other well-known Renaissance figures such as Trithemius. This trait of the occultists confuses history, like their other habit of the false ascription, assigning to well-known authors statements which they never made. In such minds no firm historical statement can be arrived at.

How can one sum up one’s impressions of Professor Dummett’s extremely odd book? For specialists in card games he has dredged up an enormous amount of out-of-the-way material. His main argument, that the fact that the Tarot cards were used as “real card games” proves that their images did not have any occult significances, is unconvincing. If Professor Dummett had expended one-tenth of the time and industry that he has devoted to chasing obscure card games to examining more carefully the volumes of Court de Gébelin, he would have had to ask himself who “Orapollo” was and in what sense Gébelin used the word “hieroglyph.” Such researches would have led him to ask other questions of his material besides the one which he has chosen to explore.

The oddest thing of all about this book is that, in spite of his antipathies, Dummett has actually contributed a great deal to a critical elucidation of the history of occultism. He has shown that the Tarot mystique entered French occultism in the eighteenth century, and that it was imported into England, where it had previously been unknown, in the occultist movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

I am greatly in sympathy with Professor Dummett’s aim of applying critical historical methods to the history of occultism. This is what I try to do myself. His book helps in this direction by its critical history of Tarot elements in French occultism, but his rational approach through “real” card games is not satisfactory. I would suggest that other approaches should be applied, through iconography, or through the history of Cabala, of which the Tarot mystique is no doubt a debased form.

The most interesting feature of the problem is, to my mind, Court de Gébelin himself, who appears to be moving within those “universal language” explorations, those searches for “real characters,” as by Leibniz in his characteristica, through which Renaissance hermetic, Cabalist, and mnemonic studies had been evolving into new approaches to what is now called linguistics (see my Art of Memory, chapter seventeen). Yet this same man reverts to the Renaissance attitude toward “Egyptianism” and the hieroglyph in his treatment of the Tarot cards as written in remote antiquity by Thoth-Hermes. It is striking evidence of the persistence of these ideas, which even the advent of Champollion—only a few years after the publication of Le monde primitif—failed to kill, as the history of French occultism shows.

The real clue to Court de Gébelin and the Tarot of Marseille may be in some form of post-Revocation (of the Edict of Nantes) Freemasonry.


Origins of Tarot May 14, 1981

  1. *

    Tarot Cards Painted by Bonifacio Bembo for the Visconti-Sforza Family (New York Public Library, 1966).

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