The Cards: The Evolution and Power of Tarot by Prof. Patrick Maille was published earlier this year by the University Press of Mississippi. If your tarot bookshelf is populated by books such as Decker and Dummett’s A History of the Occult Tarot, or Robert M. Place’s The Tarot, Magic, Alchemy, Hermeticism, and Neoplatonism and Jung and Tarot by Sallie Nichols, then The Cards was written for you.
The book is subdivided into two main parts: Part I is a timeline of tarot origins and history, along with an overview of historically or culturally significant individuals that influenced the world of tarot, and Part II is about the tarot’s influence in arts and culture.
While the actual practice of reading tarot cards might not be as ubiquitous as other aspects of mainstream popular culture, Maille presents the argument that tarot cards have served as a powerful vehicle driving the progress of nearly all significant aspects of culture– art, music, television, and movies.
Specifically, Maille narrows his book’s focus down to four key areas where tarot has been influential: art, television, movies, and comics.
The Introduction chapter defines many of the terms that will be used throughout the text, such as esoteric, gnosticism, occult, the term popular culture itself, etc. Driving Maille’s research and commentary on the tarot is the underlying belief that while the tarot doesn’t inherently contain supernatural powers, it does serve as powerful psychological triggers for thought and contemplation.
We start with the origins of tarot cards. Italian tarocchi first came to light in the 1400s, most likely their own version of earlier Islamic concepts of playing cards that they were borrowing from. While Maille asserts that tarocchi is a unique, distinct, and entirely different playing card game (and deck itself) from the Islamic or Chinese decks they were inspired by, I am not so sure. Reading several instructions on the game of tarocchi, it really feels like a close derivative of mahjong and many Chinese playing card games I’m familiar with. That’s not even to speak of the Islamic playing card games that would have been the direct descendant of the tarot.
The rest of the historic overview is phenomenal. I enjoyed reading about the context of cultural contacts that allowed for the invention of the tarot, the Renaissance-era Visconti-Sforza deck illustrated by Bonifacio Bembo, and how the numerical series of keys in the 22 trumps are based on characters in the procession of a parade. The tarot illustrations on the trumps were also based on Dante’s Inferno.
The Sola-Busca, which came around 1491, one year before Columbus, Nicola di maestro Antonio painted this iconic deck somewhere in northern Italy. He created a set of engravings so the line drawings of the deck could be printed, and then an artist painted in the lines to create the full-color deck.
We then get to the transformation of the tarot as the Hermetic tradition spread across Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Age of Enlightenment (or the Age of Reason) was a critical turning point for the tarot. Antoine Court de Gebelin claimed that the tarot playing cards were encoded, secret transmissions of occult knowledge from a legacy of Egyptian magi, and the cards were page leaves from The Book of Thoth.
The 19th century saw a renewed interest in the religions and myths of antiquity. Helena Blavatsky claimed that the tarot originated from ancient Babylonian sources. Two of Blavatsky’s colleagues in the Theosophical Society, MacGregor Mathers and William Wynn Westcott, parted ways with her and formed the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which has had the most formative influence on occult traditions of the tarot.
Maille’s coverage of how A. E. Waite and Pamela Colman Smith’s iconic tarot deck came to be is a fascinating read, and anyone with an interest in tarot should get this book. It will enrich your understanding and appreciation for the tarot. The book also covers a biographical overview of Aleister Crowley and the making of the Thoth Tarot with Lady Frieda Harris.
The author draws from his academic knowledge on the history of magic. He talks about the contrast between men of science who explored alchemy, forming an elite practice and traditions in Hermetic magic, with “wise women” of the late Middle Ages knowledgeable in herbal magic and how to break curses. “Magic in the popular culture and magic amongst society’s elites was often on two different tracks,” writes Maille.
While the New Age movement, arguably, started back in the 1930s with Alice Bailey, it really took off in the mainstream consciousness in the 60s and 70s. At each turn, Maille connects what’s going on in the social and political climate of the time with both the evolution of the tarot and magical traditions.
The treatise takes us all the way through tarot as it was popularized by Eden Gray, then Mary Greer and Rachel Pollack, bringing forth the “Tarot Renaissance” that began around 1969. I was taken by surprise and really honored to read about myself and the trajectory of tarot through the 21st century! “Wen represents one of the best examples of twenty-first century tarotists who have built off of the oldest traditions associated with the cards. . . If one can consider Benebell Wen as representative of the best of the current generation of tarotists, the culture of Tarot seems to be self-aware of a solid foundation capable of projecting growth well into the foreseeable future.” *clears throat, sits up straight, looks serious, hides blushing* This won’t affect the objectivity of my book review… no, sir…
Just for the record, even before having read the passages that included me, I was already very much enthralled by this book. The references to me were truly a total shock and surprise.
After going through a timeline of the tarot, we get to the tarot community in American culture. The discussion begins with an undercover police officer going in for a tarot reading from Z. Budapest back in 1975, then arresting the feminist and Wiccan for the crime of fortune-telling. The case made its way up to the California Supreme Court and ultimately, Budapest prevailed.
There’s another incredible account of a tarot reader saving the day with the cards that I had heard about before, vaguely, but really appreciated the full story here. In 2015 tarot reader Jayne Braiden was doing a reading where the Judgment and The Devil cards came up, at which time the client, Star Randel-Hanson, confessed to murder. Braiden called the police, but because she said she was in a tarot parlor, the matter was treated as low priority. Meanwhile, Braiden continued to coax information from Randel-Hanson, even getting the location of the body.
I have yet to read a book that documents the evolution of the tarot community, both the one formed by tarot associations and conferences and the one formed online through social media. The coverage here is fascinating, especially as someone with an insider view of some of the tarot drama within the organizations and among the leadership that the author might not have necessarily known about.
There’s a great homage to the late Stuart Kaplan in here, on how a U. Penn Wharton School of Business graduate took his entrepreneurial savvy to the tarot and forever changed the business of tarot in the United States, arguably the world.
Part II begins with a discussion on tarot as low art or high art. Since a deck of tarot cards is mass-produced, intended to be functional, and is a form of craft rather than fine art, and is formulaic, tarot illustrations are often categorized as low art. Maille then walks the reader through tarot’s appearances in the entertainment industry, in both film and television, from features of tarot cards in the 1960s daytime soap opera Dark Shadows and on The Andy Griffith Show to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Xena Warrior Princess, The Simpsons, and Penny Dreadful, just to name a few from the wealth of coverage in this text. Maille devotes an entire chapter to tarot and the graphic novel, and tarot’s appearances in comics, introducing the works at this intersection by Rachel Pollack and Neil Gaiman.
The Cards is an accessible read that will take you about a weekend, at most, to finish while gaining invaluable academic knowledge of the tarot, thanks to the thorough research Maille has done for this book. There is so much to extract from these pages that I can’t imagine a tarot enthusiast not getting this book for their personal library.
I did stumble upon a negative review of the book that made me laugh pretty hard. Why the negative review? The reviewer was upset that this book contained no card meanings and didn’t teach any spreads. Friend…buddy… read the book description before you hit buy.
So yeah, let me clear that right up for you, the reader of this review, so that there is no confusion. This is not a book of card meanings and the point of it is not to teach you tarot. It’s academic research and commentary on the tarot authored by a professor of history.
I love how Maille shares why he first became interested in the tarot. He was introduced to the tarot by a beautiful woman from Texas who ended up becoming his wife, with which he had two children, one being artist and illustrator Eric Maille, the creator of The Ink Witch Tarot. (Keep an eye out for my review of the deck, forthcoming.) While pursuing his doctorate in history, Maille’s primary area of interest was in the history of magic, with his dissertation focused on Christian and pagan attitudes toward the supernatural.
The Cards: The Evolution and Power of Tarot is one of the best treatments of the tarot I have seen in a while. Prof. Patrick Maille has produced one of the best summations on the origins of the tarot, its impact on the global collective from the Italian Renaissance to the 21st century, shedding light on the tarot community formed at tarot conferences and online in social networks, to all the ways the cards have had an impact on both the fine arts and entertainment media. This was a highly enjoyable and educational read, and wholeheartedly recommend that you get your hands on a copy.
FTC Disclosure: In accordance with Title 16 of the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations Part 255, “Guides Concerning Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising,” I received this book from publisher for prospective review. Everything I’ve said here is sincere and accurately reflects my opinion of the book.