The Celtic Tarot and the Secret Traditions: A Study in Modern Legend Making

Article excerpt

The proliferation of new writing on the tarot in recent years has tended to obscure the fact that interpretation of tarot cards as an esoteric device was suggested in the context of the occult revival at the end of the eighteenth century. Writers associated with the French occult revival at the end of the eighteenth century began to link the Tarot, first with Egyptian hieroglyphs, then with the cabbala (Howe 1972, 40-4; Cavendish 1975, 11-59; McIntosh 1987, 101-8; Dummett 1988, 10-19). The intellectual source of such beliefs, however misapplied, is undoubtedly what has come to be described as a western esoteric tradition.(1)

Until recently, most discussions of tarot were popular in nature. However, historian and philosopher Michael Dummett has introduced a new, scholarly approach to the subject. In The Game of Tarot (1980) and A Wicked Pack of Cards (1996), Dummett is dismissive of occult and divinatory interpretations. This is not surprising in a professional philosopher who has to deal with the somewhat haphazard use of philosophical principles which characterises occult and divinatory writings on the tarot. Historians of folklore will sympathise with two of the points he makes: first, that arguments, especially those about the nature of antiquity, are often dependent on assumptions made in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; and secondly, that popular writers tend to repeat each other rather than check their facts (Dummett 1980, Introduction). Dummett's work has also led to changes in the historiography of tarot: it is now clear that it made its first appearance in Europe, not in the fourteenth but in the fifteenth century, and its original geographical location seems to have been Italy not France, as was previously thought (ibid., 10-26).

The present discussion, however, is limited to the development of tarot in Britain from the late 1880s to the 1930s. During this period, ideas about the nature of culture were combined with ideas about the origin and meaning of Arthurian literature and with speculation about the occult nature of the tarot. These factors worked to create an esoteric and pseudo-academic legend about the tarot as "secret tradition," which transformed the tarot into a vibrant manifestation of popular culture. One of the aspects of modern tarot which I intend to consider here is the nature of the tension between creative innovation and historical accuracy and how it contributes to the dynamics of the modern phenomenon. Another area worth considering,if we are to understand esoteric developments in relation to the tarot as an occult or fortunetelling device, is the notion of culture which influenced the study of folklore and the study of Arthurian literature in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

A.E. Waite, the Development of the Tarot in Britain, and the British Occult Movement

One of the key figures in these developments was Arthur Edward Waite. Waite was born in Brooklyn in 1857, the son of a sea captain. His mother returned to England after his father's death and eventually became a Roman Catholic. His formal education was somewhat sketchy, although adequate enough to enable him to earn his living as a journalist and writer. By the time of his death in 1942, he had produced an enormous number of books, poems, articles and reviews on esoteric subjects. Despite his interest in esoteric orders such as Freemasons and Rosicrucians and his involvement with the Order of the Golden Dawn, there was a strong vein of populism in Waite. His writing style was verbose; and it may this, coupled with the length and opacity of his writings, that keeps him from being republished more often.

Waite's writings are important for any consideration of the tarot in the context of popular culture or folklore studies. In his work, folklore theory and a new approach to Arthurian literature began to overlap with esoteric ideas. He brought together a number of key ideas associated with modern occultism, such as the supposed "secret doctrine" running throughout western esoteric tradition, and the availability of that tradition to the individual through mystical experience (Waite 1911a, 59-71; 1911b, 2:379). …