A pathbreaking anthology, Tarot in the mainstream media, "Gurus in the Mud," and Cosmic Eggs . . .
Welcome at last to Cycle 1 of the Exploration Project newsletter. Once I started work on the five promised topics, I realized there was a lot of territory to cover. But they are all here, so scroll on!
1 . . . Then: An overview of Angeles Arrien and James Wanless’s pathbreaking 1992 anthology, Wheel of Tarot: A New Revolution.
As soon as I focused seriously on this collection, I realized that each article deserves a closer look than I can offer in one story. So for now I’m going to provide some context about the book itself, plus a high-level map of the content. Then I’m going to post a closer look at one article on each of the 22 days of Cycle 1.
I’ll put them—day by day—into a single story on the Exploration Project page, so you can read as many (or few) as you like, either along the way or all together at the end.
Now for the background/context:
By 1992, a number of important Tarot books had already been published. (You can see a timeline in the Exploration Project story Transforming Tarot: “A New Revolution.”) But only one had brought together varied perspectives on Tarot—the 1989 volume New Thoughts on Tarot: Transcripts from the First International Newcastle Tarot Symposium.
Four of the folks featured in New Thoughts will also be found in Wheel of Tarot. Four others were already-popular Tarot authors:
Eileen Connolly (Tarot: A New Handbook for the Apprentice, 1990)
Gail Fairfield (Choice Centered Tarot, 1982)
Mary K. Greer (Tarot for Your Self, 1984)
Amber Jayanti (Living the Tarot, 1988)
Carl Lammey (Karmic Tarot, 1988).
All of those authors continued to produce new books for at least a decade, and Connolly created a Tarot deck that was very popular for a while.
The editors of New Thoughts on Tarot—Mary Greer and Rachel Pollack—would go on to become the best known and most admired writers/teachers in the entire field of Tarot studies.
But let’s get back to Wheel of Tarot, which was published three years after New Thoughts. It’s a very different kind of book, in several ways. First, it’s comprised of articles (some written for other purposes) rather than transcripts of Tarot-centered discussions. Second, the majority of articles are by authors from various academic or professional disciplines, who write about Tarot from their own disciplinary perspectives.
In other words—they were not (specifically) Tarot specialists.
The editors of Wheel of Tarot themselves came from academic/professional backgrounds. Angeles Arrien, Ph.D. was a cultural anthropologist, James Wanless, Ph.D., a political scientist. Both became fascinated by Tarot, and created works that contributed to the late-20th century “transformation.”
Along with Mary Greer and Hillary Anderson, Arrien and Wanless are the only authors to appear in both New Thoughts and Wheel. The other nineteen Wheel contributors include two physicists, half a dozen practicing psychologists, a social worker, an ordained minister, and an assortment of people who had integrated Tarot into their professional and/or creative practices.
Two contributors, in particular, were well known in circles outside Tarot:
Consciousness researcher Ralph Metzner, Ph.D., became famous—along with Timothy Leary and Ram Dass—for exploring the intersection of psychoactive drugs and sacred traditions. Metzner was also a pioneer in the emerging field of parapsychological research.
Jane English, Ph.D., had begun a career in particle physics, but shifted her focus to photography and Oriental philosophy. In 1985, English collaborated with her husband (Taoist teacher Gia-Fu Feng), on an illustrated translation of the Tao Te Ching that has remained popular ever since.
Looking back at Wheel of Tarot, it seems important in (at least) two ways. For one thing, it’s a snapshot of certain cultural/intellectual trends that were converging in the later 20th century: consciousness research, parapsychology, interdisciplinary studies, “new age” philosophies, cross-cultural and alternative approaches to psychotherapy.
But beyond any historical significance, most of the anthologized articles are not only still interesting, but often refreshing—and even provocative.
Wrapping up this overview of Wheel, here’s the Table of Contents:
If you’re intrigued already, gently-used copies of Wheel are reasonably priced on Amazon. But if you just want some highlights, consult my promised “daily feed,” beginning soon with notes on Ralph Metzner’s “Synchronicity, Divination, and Psi.”
2 . . . Now: A speedy tour of how Tarot is treated in today’s media—including mainstream magazines like Cosmopolitan and The New Yorker; digital mags like Aeon; and content collections like Mental Floss and NBC Think.
As it turns out, Tarot never really goes out of fashion as a topic. But Tarot stories have been surfacing more often in mainstream publications, I think, since 2017—possibly because generating an endless stream of content has become such a necessity for marketers and publishers.
I haven’t done a real analysis, but my general impression is that mainstream Tarot stories fall into two general categories. One comprises semi-serious accounts, often coupled with celebrity leads and/or personal anecdotes. The other is a genial mash-up of how-to and self-help.
The first category is actually bigger than one might expect. Not huge, of course. But then . . . why does it exist at all?
For example: A Tarot story recently popped up on my NBC news feed, in the “Think” section. It was headlined “Tarot cards don't predict the future. But reading them might help you figure yours out.”
Nicely written by “Jenni Miller, pop culture connoisseur,” it turns out to be partly an account of her 2017 interview with “the famous Chilean-French surrealist director Alejandro Jodorowsky”—who is also a well-known Tarot enthusiast.
If that sounds interesting (actually, it is!), read Miller’s piece and then go back to 2011 for a Tarot-focused profile of Jodorowsky in the New York Times. Spoiler alert: Jodo had amassed a huge collection of Tarot decks, but was told by Surrealist icon Andre Breton that the only worthwhile Tarot was the Marseilles. So Jodo disposed of his collection and started over.
Speaking of the Times, Tarot pops up there every so often—contextualized in some way that lends a layer of pop/seriousness to the topic. For example, this 2019 profile of Jessica Dore, whose master’s degree in social work serves well enough to link her Tarot readings with psychotherapy—and whose huge Twitter following provides the kind of cachet preferred by Times editors.
Meanwhile, online, the digital magazine Aeon (which takes itself so seriously that it now requires writers to be “academics” with institutional affiliations) published this 4,000-word story in 2017:
The author—a British journalist—takes readers through a reasonably accurate summary of Tarot history, then switches to an account of his own experience as a Tarot querent, and closes with his personal theory of Tarot divination.
Here’s a highlight:
“Tarot reading works, ultimately, because we make ourselves the willing victims of our cognitive biases. Under the influence of false-pattern detection, or apophenia, we turn the string of necessarily disconnected statements made by a medium or tarot reader into a coherent narrative in which we are the hero.”
The piece, which ends up in a few off-hand Jungian flourishes, looks smart because it mentions book titles and uses quasi-academic jargon. And the researched part is well done. But there’s often a slightly snide tinge—and the author’s opinions are supported by absolutely nothing.
So Aeon’s “The truth about tarot” is much like other semi-serious mainstream articles I’ve come across, combining the appearance of historical rigor with an emphasis on psychological connections, and a sort of one-off authorial anecdote. Bottom line: I’m honestly not sure whether such stories do harm or good, in terms of creating a more positive understanding of Tarot.
It seems I haven’t left much time for the how-to/self-help category, but one example will serve well enough. Here’s a snip from Sami Main’s charmingly simple overview, published by Cosmopolitan in 2020:
The story is short, bright, and just the sort of thing that might engage the Cosmo audience. Best of all—nothing in it is wrong or untrue!
So that’s “a speedy tour of how Tarot is treated in today’s media,” as promised. But I’ll leave off by suggesting one of the better examples of the semi-serious story, published first in Collectors Weekly and reprinted in the online magazine Mental Floss. Although the historical account is off-base in some places, there’s an appealing focus on decks—including novelty Tarots as well as antique oracle decks—and the author’s approach is nicely balanced.
3 . . . Lore: The time in 1973 when John Lilly and Alan Watts persuaded an assortment of academics and psychonauts to spend a week in the woods, studying higher concepts of math and logic. With comical results! And how that led to the proposal for a television series about . . .
Once I started trying to write this story—I realized it is almost impossible to explain briefly. Or perhaps at all.
At a simple level, its charm depends largely on recognizing some of the characters, and appreciating the spirit of a bygone time. Beyond a simple level, the story becomes so convoluted that one might reasonably give up (as either writer or reader!) within a few paragraphs.
Nevertheless, I’m keeping the story in so I can share this unique image:
Created by illustrator Tom Cervenak, this emblematic “trump” appeared on the cover of the Pacific Sun newspaper in September of 1973. Occupying center place: eccentric mathematician/philosopher G. Spencer Brown.
I think that’s Alan Watts on the right, and John Lilly on the left--it looks like them, and they were the two principal organizers of the AUM Conference. (AUM stands for “Academy of Universal Masters,” a fanciful organization made up by Watts.)
The best I can do in explaining all this is to introduce the cast of characters, and then provide a synopsis of the “plot” . . .
G. Spencer Brown (1923-2016) was a British polymath who: served in the Royal Navy, earned advanced degrees in philosophy at both Oxford and Cambridge, studied with maverick psychologist R. D. Laing, and became a lecturer in mathematics at the University of London (after being recommended by no less a mentor than Bertrand Russell). Along the way, he set records as a glider pilot.
Then in 1969, Brown published Laws of Form—a mathematical/logical treatise so advanced and original that no one could figure it out.
Many tried, however, and among them were eccentric neuroscientist John C. Lilly (1915-2001), and counterculture icon Alan Watts (1915-1973). Lilly—who invented the flotation tank--became famous for his work with dolphins and his theories on interspecies communication.
Watts is still well known today for his role in popularizing Zen Buddhism. A former Episcopal priest, Watts wove together strands from diverse spiritual traditions, from psychotherapeutics, and from cybernetic studies.
So just those three characters would have been a formidable assembly!
But the comedy of AUM begins when Lilly and Watts invite Brown to spend a week sharing his highly advanced ideas with a wildly eclectic group of invitees. Among them: Stewart Brand (publisher of the Whole Earth Catalog), neuropsychiatrist Karl Pribram (who developed the holonomic brain model), and Charles Tart—pioneering parapsychologist and co-creator of transpersonal psychology.
To appreciate the whole story, you first have to imagine these figures (along with an assortment of other characters) gathered at Esalen—a woodsy California site that was not yet famous—for a sort of super-intellectual Woodstock week.
And then you have to imagine Lilly, Watts, and Brown falling out rather fiercely over the question of Brown’s honorarium.
Despite the kerfuffle, Brown tried explaining his mathematical/logical innovations to this eclectic crew of neuroscientists and new-age celebrities. But after two days of frustration, he left in a huff—and the bewildered AUM attendees decided to create their own experimental retreat.
If you want more detail (it really is funny), just read journalist Cliff Barney’s account of the event, “Gurus in the Mud.” In which case, you can follow the story through several further episodes, which include the return of G. Spencer Brown (years later), an unfortunate party on the by-then-deceased Alan Watts’ houseboat, and the creation of a wildly detailed proposal for a Tarot-based television series, “The OMasters.”
I’d love to write more in future about how and why Tarot became intertwined with these explorations. But for now, it’s on to . . .
4 . . . Decks: Carol Herzer and Guido Gillabel’s miniature Cosmic Egg Tarot.
In the spring of 1987, Tarot theorist Guido Gillabel was inspired by the mythic dimensions of Easter to create 22 major arcana designs—based on the archetypal symbolism of birth and rebirth. He executed the designs in minimalist (almost diagrammatic) ink drawings, and produced a limited edition of 2.5”x 2.5” decks.
I’m lucky enough to own set 11/99.
Here are The Fool and The Empress from Gillabel’s original deck.
Two years later, artist and collaborator Carol Herzer translated those original designs into a series of richly colorful paintings, producing a slightly larger (3.4” x 3.4”) deck:
A tiny booklet accompanies each of the decks, offering Gillabel’s brief commentaries. For example:
0. The Fool represents “the cosmic egg,” out of which everything arises and in which everything finally disappears. He is the breath of the universe, in and out. He identifies himself neither with the one nor with the other. Thus he is free from the limitation of identification.
. . . freedom / liberation, folly / purity . . .
In revisiting these two wonderfully inventive decks, I discovered that Guido’s brother Dirk (who is also Carol Herzer’s life companion), had created a counterpart to the “Cosmic Egg”—in this case, the “Physical Egg.”
For his playful project, Dirk painted directly on empty egg shells, spontaneously creating simplified images that reflect the essentials of Tarot iconography.
So . . . this gifted trio has provided us with three ways to contemplate the archetypes of birth and rebirth, permanence and change.
Enjoy Carol Herzer’s Tarot art, and—watch for more about the brothers Gillabel in the next “What’s New at the Exploration Project.”
5 . . . Lagniappe: My notes and handout for “Reclaiming the Wild Tarot”—the last presentation I gave at BATS.
Actually, the title of the session seems to have been “Tarot Contraire.” And as things worked out, I gave a rather different talk—but here (for whatever you want to make of them!) are the notes I’d made in advance.
And the graphic I created as a handout.
Well—Newsletter 1.1 has been much longer than I envisioned! I may try to make next week’s edition smaller, but we’ll see.
In the meantime, thanks so much for joining me in the Exploration Project. And please invite others to have a look if you think they might be interested.
Warmest regards, Cynthia