I Dream of Tarot: Three Reviews

Review copyright 2013() Freeman Presson, all rights reserved

It seems there are always more turns, climbs, and switchbacks on the initiatory path.

I’ve recently read and enjoyed two books on Tarot. One was brought up in an old podcast on Occult of Personality, and I discovered the second while searching for the first on-line.

Both of these books make most use of the Waite-Smith deck, which is fine by me. The first examines historical decks in their place, but illustrates most points with the Waite-Smith cards. I remember how I felt the first time I looked through those cards: a heady mix of déjà-vu and cognitive dissonance. Other decks don’t trigger that for me; only the Waite-Smith cards and the taste of papadums.

If you use the Waite-Smith deck, or want to, and you don’t have the Pamela Colman Smith Commemorative Set, buy it. If you only ever take my word for one thing, let this be it.

First, The Tarot: History, Symbolism, and Divination by Robert M. Place. Place started studying Tarot symbolism from an artistic standpoint, but his story of how he came to meet the Tarot is pure magic (so I won’t spoil it; it’s in the book and the podcast). As an artist, he knew very well that much of what people say about the history and symbolism of Tarot is the purest nonsense, so he set out to find “The Truth (ta-daaa).”

The first chapters of the book thus examine the real and mythical origin stories of Tarot, and form a welcome antidote to the old traditional “the Romany brought the cards from Egypt” guff. And yet, these things have a way of being meaningful and “true on the astral” that is sometimes very intriguing. Place explains how Renaissance Europe became fascinated with “hieroglyphs” or “emblems” of the sort familiar from Tarot and alchemical art: the works of the 5th century Hellenic writer Horapollo, including the Hieroglyphica text, were rediscovered, sparking not only a renewed interest in all things Egyptian (which had been shared by the Greeks for centuries), but a vigorous fashion for mystical and allegorical art which in the end, shaped the Tarot trumps as surely as if a divine hand had reached out of an Egyptian cloud and drawn them.

Watch for the implications of the origin of the word “trump,” as well. That’s an important key to understanding the original intent of the cards, and shows just how widely Place read before writing this book.

He also went deeply into the use of the Tarot for divination, and he gives some very intriguing hints for readers. So this is not just a dry Tarot history. Spoilers would not be fair on this part, either, because I can summarize the new material on divination very briefly, but only because I read how it was developed.

Place demonstrates quite convincingly that the Tarot was not developed in sync with Qabalah (or, pace Eliphas Lévy and Paul Foster Case, certainly not before it). He would say that where modern occultists get value out of considering Tarot on the Tree of Life, they are mostly not working from the symbolism of the cards themselves, but from the fact that the Tarot and the Paths both describe initiatory journeys.

Notice that he is basically agreeing with Waite here, who said (paraphrasing) that the best ordering of cards on the Tree of Life has yet to be demonstrated. Considering that there are 22! = 1,124,000,727,777,607,680,000 ways to lay out the 22 Trumps on the 22 Paths, we have to admit he’s probably right on principle. And, yet … it works anyway (I can speak intelligently only about paths below Tiphareth, mind you). Perhaps it’s Chicken Qabalah. Or Chicken Surprise.

Place does say that the cards, developed as they were for the play of a game in the Renaissance, still have a wonderful wealth of esoteric meaning, because the artistic culture of that time and place was steeped in alchemical and Hermetic symbolism (Place generally uses “Neoplatonic” where I would be more specific and say “Hermetic”; I don’t think we will be requiring seconds and an isolated place at dawn over this difference). I said something similar a year or so ago, along with “whatever order you put the ingredients in, you still get soup.” At any rate, while I don’t intend to give up the Qabalistic use of the cards, I am definitely on board with Place’s ideas about how to appreciate them on their own terms.

I rate this a must-read for anyone who ever touches a Tarot deck or is even curious about the Western Esoteric Tradition. For that matter, it’s worth reading as an exercise (and cautionary tale!) in the history of ideas, or of art.

Next, we have The Secret Language of Tarot. This book, by two long-time Tarot practitioners, is in some sense a complementary opposite to Place’s approach. The plan is that by digging a bit deeper into the symbolic vocabulary of the Waite-Smith cards, one’s ways of seeing and interpreting can be sharpened, so an analytical approach to the card images is called for. It is not too much of a stretch, as compared to this, to call Place’s book generally synthetic.

The book is structured as an outline for a series of mini-classes on sets of symbols. Which cards have clouds? Castles? Crowns? Armor? Nudes? and so on. The interpretations do not ramble on or try to go very deep into associations with each symbol, because it is assumed the reader will do the work, and relate the symbolic meanings correctly to the context of the particular querent and question.

I was finding myself somewhat annoyed with this, and with the repetition of “Hello, and welcome to our class on …” that heads each section, but I was also being pulled onward by the compelling nature of the material. The text gradually gets richer as you go, and if you stick it out to the end, there’s an explosive Gnostic sermon in the last few pages that—I think you will agree—made any slight discomfort on the preceding journey quite worthwhile. Please don’t leaf to the end and preview it: you will get much more out of it if you pass the other gates first.

Based on my experiences with these two books, I am now involved with Jungian Dream Interpretation: A Handbook of Theory and Practice (Studies in Jungian Psychology By Jungian Analysts, 13), by James A. Hall, MD. I asked my #brain-trust on Twitter for favorite books on Jungian dream work, and this (from @mike579) was the only answer I got1.

I thought it sounded a bit dry, but I am very glad I picked it up. It starts with a splendid overview of Jungian psychology and analysis that made me realize that I knew the Jungian “alphabet” well enough, but had been spelling some of the “words” wrong all along!

As an exercise, I journaled and analyzed the very first classic anxiety dream I remember (from when I was barely four years old), and squeezed yet more juice out of that old lemon.

The most helpful concepts are the dream as a message from the Self, which the waking ego must evaluate non-defensively, remaining open at least to the possibility that the dream message should be acted upon. The Self presents dreams on behalf of the process of individuation, and using them well allows the ego to find its proper place in the theater of the psyche, rather than repeating the error of the Demiurge by declaring itself the Source of the light in which it is bathed.

One thing this book does not seem to address carefully enough is the difficulty of remembering dreams. On page 61, we see the bald statement that “Since the ego does not produce the dream, ego-distortions do not have to be taken into account …”. This is later softened by some cautions against letting the waking ego edit the dream or fill in details based on how things “should be,” but in my experience, the dreamer on waking is often reconstructing the experience of being washed ashore based on the splash patterns of the wave on the beach. It takes skill and a generous helping of tranquility to bring anything like a complete dream back from the deep in the first place.

Things may get weirder yet. Probably will. Please wake me up when they do. I take my coffee black, but Turkish with some sugar is probably better on apocalyptic mornings.


  1. I have since spent several months studying Jung (another rabbit-hole in which one could spend a lifetime), and devoted a study group meeting to “Jung for Magicians.” 
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About freemanpresson

Celto-Cherokee Pagan, Priest, Frater of the Church of the Hermetic Sciences, sometime writer, etc.
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2 Responses to I Dream of Tarot: Three Reviews

  1. Patricia Lay says:

    And now I have to add some things to my reading list. Damn it, Freeman. :)

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