A History of the Tarot: Video and Notes

Three important take-aways from this video that I have confirmed in my study this week:

(1) Tarot is at the earliest a Renaissance era phenomenon, not ancient Egypt. A Wicked Deck of Cards, the best book on this subject, makes it very clear that the playing card deck preceded the tarot card deck, not the other way around.

(2) The Rider deck, conceived by Waite in part but produced and re-imagined by Smith, is the version of the cards that brings tarot into the popular realm, especially with respect to divination. Waite’s notes on this subject in his Illustrated Key to the Tarot make it explicit that he thought this use of the cards was illegitimate and fraudulent; he believed the cards were best used as points of reflection for a spiritual seeker. More on this in the coming posts on the Talbot Celtic Cross spread.

(3) The Rider-Waite-Smith deck is the model on which all others have been conceived, which is anything but plagiarism given how much Smith and Waite borrowed from historical decks themselves (especially with respect to the trump cards). This includes the Thoth tarot deck and Crowley’s work on it (funny to see that the narrator in the film chose that deck as her own).

All this will be important in the discussion of Talbot’s Celtic Cross spread because of the several clues and curiosities about it and his notes that suggest he was using the Rider deck rather than the Thoth or Waite’s guide to interpreting it. The use of the word “pentacles,” for instance, the absence of pictures on the illustrated page, and the choice of this particular spread, one popularized by Waite’s book (a chapter not written by him), while Crowley’s method is much, much more involved, all point to the Rider deck, Levi’s astrological associations, and Waite’s Key.

Which shouldn’t be very surprising as the Rider deck and Waite’s guide were almost certainly the tools with which the young Joanne Rowling entertained her friends in her Comprehensive. More anon!




  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    A Wicked Pack of Cards: The Origins of the Occult Tarot by Ronald Decker, Thierry Depaulis, and Michael Dummett (St. Martin’s Press, 1996) and A History of the Occult Tarot, 1870-1970 by Ronald Decker and Michael Dummett (Duckworth, 2002) are both fascinating books. But I cannot recall if either gives attention to Flizabeth Goudge’s acknowledgement in The White Witch to Charles Williams’s The Greater Trumps: his imagination of Tarot antiquity moved her to imagine Seventeenth-century ‘fortune-telling’ use.

  2. Shea Thomas says

    Almost everything you said here is potentially problematic. It’s debatable as to whether “A Wicked Deck of Cards” is the best Tarot book extant. Waite and Smith collaborated in real time on the RWT in 1909 (there was no later production or reimagining by Smith). The “Illustrated Key to the Tarot” was written by L. W. De Laurence (not A.E. Waite); although you may be confusing that with the “Key to the Tarot/Pictorial Key to the Tarot) which Waite did in fact write. Crowley and Lady Harris’ Thoth deck came out decades after the RWT (so it would have been impossible for Waite and Smith to borrow from it). Not all decks are modeled after the RWT – the Tarot de Marseille and the Thoth deck (which came both before and after respectively) being prime examples. None of the literature supports the idea that Waite did not write his own material, unless you’re relying on things said by Crowley, who was a famous antagonist/slanderer of Waite.

  3. D.L. Dodds,

    Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this entire article is how it forces me to reconsider a previous assumption. It has to do with a question you asked not too long ago. It was about what possible influence Charles Williams might have exerted on the “Strike Series”? At the time, my thinking was that it wasn’t necessarily a mistake to claim he was a part of the “compost heap” of the secondary world version of Denmark Street. In other words, it may not have been out of bounds to assume he was “there”, yet merely as a background weave in the overall pattern of Rowling’s narrative. Now, however, the revelation of Rowling’s knowledge of the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot Set raises the possibility that Williams might just exert a more direct influence on the imaginary world of Cormoran Strike.

    The presence of A.E. Waite among Rowling’s sources leaves open room for the idea that it was a possible familiarity with CW’s novels that lead her to find out about the Tarot in the first place. Granted, this is just speculation. However, it is the fact that Waite is an influence in “Troubled Blood” which begs the question. As the scholar and the writer are sort of forever linked to one another’s career. With this in mind, while I still maintain that it is Dorothy l. Sayers who functions as the main model of the “Strike Books”, it may now be possible to claim that Charles Williams serves as a secondary, back-up source.

    A corollary to all this is to ask whether or not it is at all feasible to go back and figure out if the essentially hermetic rubric Williams lays out in critical study texts such as “The English Poetic Mind”, or “The Figure of Beatrice” has a greater deal of “applicability (to borrow Tolkien’s word) for the “Potter Saga”, as well as the current one under discussion. Food for thought, at any rate.

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