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Origins of Tarot

In response to:

In the Cards from the February 19, 1981 issue

To the Editors:

Dame Frances Yates, in her notice of my book, The Game of Tarot, reviews only four pages out of 600 [NYR, February 19]. In view of her interests, this may not be surprising; but she gives a false impression of the book’s purpose. If the many chapters tracing in detail the history of the different forms of the game had been included, as she says, simply “to prove that throughout its history [Tarot] was only a game,” I should have been indulging in an extravagant degree of over-kill. On the contrary, the chapter on the origin and development of Tarot occultism was a digression from the main concern of the book, namely to give a detailed history of the game in all its forms, as H. J. R. Murray did for chess. A further purpose was to reconstruct the history of the cards and of the different types of design used for them, something not previously attempted. Such a history forms an essential basis for any theory about their iconography; because Dame Frances ignores, not merely my answer to the question when and where the Tarot de Marseille designs originated, but the question itself, her observations on the subject lack the credibility they might otherwise have had. The Tarot de Marseille is descended from a particular type of design for popular Tarot cards used in Milan from the late fifteenth century, but acquired some of its features in France. The crayfish on the Moon card is found in the Milanese prototype, but the dogs are not; to my mind, the idea of dogs baying the moon is so commonplace that no resort to arcane pseudo-Egyptian symbolism, such as Dame Frances suggests, is needed to explain their presence.

Dame Frances evidently thinks that the occultists were on to something genuine in their interpretations of the Tarot pack; but more substantial reasons than she offers are required for such a conclusion. She does not challenge, though she does not mention, the evidence I brought forward, based on a multitude of documentary references, that no occult significance was attached to the cards, nor any use made of them save for playing games, until the intervention of Court de Gébelin in 1781. It could still be that the original iconography of the cards involved hermetic or other magical symbolism, though it is far less likely that this should be true of details, like the dogs mentioned above, introduced at a later stage. It was not a thesis of mine that no such symbolism was involved; in fact, however, it appears to me that the iconography of the cards is explicable in terms of standard Renaissance imagery, without invoking anything more esoteric. In particular, I cannot see a shred of reason to suppose, with Dame Frances, that any allusion to the Cabala was intended, as the occultists believe; the fact that they have been unable to agree which card to associate with which Hebrew letter is proof that there is no very evident correspondence between them. Dame Frances gives no ground for the supposition: to make it out, she will have first to state which association of cards with letters she considers correct. In the meantime, given the widespread confusion about this subject, it seems to me unhelpful of her to advance a conjecture of this kind without solid reason.

Dame Frances is selective in citing de Gébelin’s ideas on the Tarot, omitting, for example, his suggestion that the trump cards are to be read in descending order (because, he says, the Egyptians always counted backwards), so that trump XX, as being the second card, should be seen as depicting, not the last Judgment, but the first Creation. I think that no enlightenment is to be looked for from such speculations as these. I did not, as she thinks, suggest that his ideas were eccentric in the prevailing intellectual climate, but stressed many of the points she also mentions, such as his Freemasonry, his defense of French Protestants, his affinity with Rousseau, and his belief in Mesmerism; what I complained of concerning his ideas was that they were hopelessly wrong. I allowed that his general project was not intrinsically absurd, but judged its execution worthless, because of his radically unscientific methods of investigation. The dates 1725 and 1784, given by Dame Frances for the first and last volumes of his Le Monde primitif must be misprints; they should be 1773 and 1782 (1725 being the date usually cited, in mistake for 1719, for his birth, and 1784 being that of his death).

After devoting a paragraph to the erroneous Renaissance lore of hieroglyphs, Dame Frances remarks that “it is significant that Gébelin calls the Tarot cards ‘hieroglyphs,”’ and goes on to describe me as being at a disadvantage in discussing de Gébelin through ignorance of that lore and to instance my citation of Wallis Budge as a manifestation of such ignorance. This entire line of criticism appears to be misconceived from start to finish. De Gébelin does not once refer to Tarot cards as “hieoglyphs” (the author of the other essay that follows his does do so). Both writers offer derivations of the word Tarot from what purport to be transliterated phrases of ancient Egyptian, without citing any hieroglyphic forms. Since the Renaissance literature on hieroglyphs was unconcerned with phonetic renderings, hieroglyphs, whether genuine or pretended, are completely beside the point; I cited Wallis Budge’s dictionary to confirm what, as I remarked, one would expect from pre-Champollion fragments of ancient Egyptian, that they are completely spurious. Dame Frances proceeds to expatiate further on the relation of de Gébelin’s ideas about Tarot cards to the Renaissance theories of hieroglyphs, without establishing the slightest direct or indirect connection between them: she fails to identify any point of correspondence of the pseudo-hieroglyphs either with the Tarot imagery or with de Gébelin’s interpretation of it. By so failing, she only reinforces my conclusion that his speculations about Tarot cards rested, not on a mistaken basis, but on none at all.

The thirty-six plates in my book were carefully selected to give a comprehensive pictorial history of Tarot cards. Dame Frances cites their not including de Gébelin’s illustrations as “typical of [my] negative approach to iconography.” Since these were merely indifferent drawings after what was, with a single exception which I mentioned, a quite ordinary pack of the Tarot de Marseille type, which I did illustrate, it would have been superfluous to reproduce them; I am curious to know which of the existing plates seems to Dame Frances even more dispensable. The book is not about Court de Gébelin—though Dame Frances has not shown what it says about him to be in any way defective—but about a game with many variations. I said only a little about iconography, since that was not my theme: but I said enough to establish that the ideas on the subject of all the occultists, from de Gébelin onwards, were wholly misconceived, and, further, that the iconography of the cards had no bearing upon the purpose for which they were originally invented or used. Moreover, by working out the early history of Tarot designs, I supplied a basis for any serious theory of their iconography; without such a basis, speculations on the subject must go quite astray, exactly as do those which Dame Frances herself chooses to air in her review.

Michael Dummett

New College, Oxford, England

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