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Occult Decks

For some, it may come as a surprise that the tarot could ever be anything but occult. Isn't it all about fortune-telling, secret initiations, and magic rites?

It is much more than that, but the occult interest in the tarot that peaked during the 19th century has in a way become the canonical image against which all other approaches to tarot must define themselves. So much so that when I speak to people about the history of the tarot, I begin with the French occultists, even though that is the middle of the story of the tarot.

Occultism arose as a kind of reaction against the Enlightenment. The ancient civilization, in which everything--nature, man, and God--was conceived mythically, in which the blood of kings had supernatural powers and the motions of the stars were linked with human fate, was being replaced by the Age of Reason. Now nature was a machine, every human being had equal political authority--and equal fallibility, and God, if he was permitted a place at all, was to reside in an ever-shrinking corner of life, from which he would be brought out for admiration for two hours each week, but otherwise irrelevant to the Way Things Really Are.

For some, the banishment of superstition seemed also to dethrone the essential poetry and mystery of life. Romanticism was born, and with it its less reputable cousin, occultism. The occultists identified themselves with the alchemists, astrologers, and magicians of earlier centuries. They fancied themselves inheritors of an underground culture that originated in what was then thought to be the most ancient human civilization, the Egypt of the pharoahs. Although indeed these earlier practices (and their religious expressions in Jewish qabala and Christian gnosticism) are interesting and relevant precursors to modern occultism, one should be careful to realize that the intellectual climate in ancient and medieval times was nothing like that of the post-scientific age in which the occultists lived and thought. For example, whereas the occultist would reject astronomy in favor of astrology, for their ancestors there was little or no such distinction to be made in the first place.

Perhaps the fatal flaw in the approach of these occultists was just this failure to recognize that the issues of their own times did not permeate all of human history, ancient and modern. They searched the past for vindication of their own feeling of oppression at the hands of the demythologized world. And when what was discovered was insufficient, they would fill the gaps with invention. The story they wove was one in which the mystic and mythic truths that held the secrets of ultimate power had been persecuted and driven underground by the forces of conventional society. They lived out this story themselves, sometimes becoming conspicuously anti-conventional, anti-rational, anti-Christian and even anti-moral in order to live the role they had cast themselves in. They formed themselves into secret societies and seemed to actually enjoy the suspicion with which they were regarded by more conventional people.

The tarot fell in with this strange company because of the allegorical nature of the images on the trump cards. The tarot trumps are mysterious, compelling, and old--though not as old as the occultists supposed. By a combination of this genuine insight that the tarot trumps are symbolic with large helpings of wishful thinking, the occultists came to regard the tarot as a book of ancient Egyptian mystical secrets, and worked with it as such, building elaborate metaphysical theories upon the tarot.

Although the occultist interpretation of the tarot may not be justifiable on strict historic grounds, that does not make it invalid or illegitimate. The occultists connected the tarot in their minds with astrology, qabala, and alchemy, to name just a few prominent components of their system. All these systems, tarot not excepted, partake of a more mythological, mystical view of the world. They are intercompatible. Whether the occultists were uncovering the secrets of the original tarot designers (as they asserted) or simply creating a new synthesis for use in their own practices, their ideas about the cards represent an important resource for modern tarot users.

The Order of the Golden Dawn, an incredibly influential (considering its short duration) Brittish occult society, spawned the two most influential tarot authorities of all time: A. E. Waite and Aleister Crowley. I think their greatest contribution was in exploiting the correspondence they saw between the number cards of the minor arcana and the sephiroth of the qabalistic Tree of Life. This approach expanded tarot symbolism from the domain of the trumps alone, and made the entire deck symbolically active. This was, I feel, an essential step in paving the way for modern uses of the tarot. I am less impressed with what they said and did with the major arcana. I think these cards were already symbolically potent to begin with, and did not often benefit much from being embellished with additional associations.

So what is an "occult deck"? I use the term to mean a deck that is designed with the view that it conveys ancient secrets in an obscure, coded form. Occult decks differ from classic decks, in that they are not intended to be used as playing cards or art objects. They differ from modern decks in that they are designed to embody as very structured, secret system of religious knowledge, rather than merely serving as a springboard for receiving intuitive impressions about one's life situation. The latter is admittedly a distinction without a sharp line. Many deck designers intend their deck to function in both these ways. It is a matter of emphasis, a matter of degree.

The occultists were really very creative metaphysical synthesizers. By taking the tarot seriously as a symbolic system, they made it available to future generations as a psychological tool. Learning occult tarot may inspire you to study other ancient metaphysical systems, such as qabala and astrology, which are fascinating in their own right. And I think the occultist perspective still serves the psychological purpose which pushed into being in the first place--to provide a refreshing antithesis or complement to an overly rationalistic, demystified, materialistic worldview.

There are at least two unfortunate aspects of their legacy, however. The first is that many of their completely baseless theories of the origin and history of the tarot are still perpetuated and accepted by the uninformed. This is a great barrier to cultivating an appreciation of the true rich history of the tarot, among both tarot users and the general public. The second is that an aura of disrepute surrounds the occultists and everything they came in contact with, at least in the public perception. The suspicion--sometimes even fear--with which people often react to tarot cards and tarot readers is a direct result of occultists cultivating a dark reputation to bolster their sense of self-importance. To be fair, of course, much of that ill repute would have come to them anyway, such were the prejudices of their time. Still, it is a continuing source of misunderstanding and a barrier to an open-minded assessment of the value of the cards.

Copyright © 1998-2008 Tom Waters