The Tuesday Newsletter (10.5)
Belated, but well-stuffed!
If you didn’t read last Thursday’s newsletter, I hope you will. And if you did read it on Thursday or early Friday, I hope you’ll revisit the second half, which I’ve since rewritten to be more fair and informative.
An Unplanned Excursion
First for today is an instance of serendipity, which occurred because I was trying to sneak the “Tuesday” newsletter out very early Wednesday morning. On the way to my desk, I happened to walk through a room where an early morning rerun of the TV serial Have Gun, Will Travel was playing. I have no idea why a television was even on, much less why it was tuned to that channel, but there you are.
HGWT, which ran from 1957 to 1963, starred Richard Boone as “Paladin,” a freelance hero-for-hire during the late 1870s. And as I discovered this morning—in the fourth-season episode titled “Everyman,” Paladin receives a Tarot reading.
In the series, Paladin is portrayed as a sophisticated intellectual, who uses his problem-solving skills along with impressive fisticuffs and marksmanship to help out in all sorts of situations. Every episode starts off in San Francisco, and in this case, he’s looking for a little romance with his elegant lady friend Elaine, who happens to be a Tarot reader.
She insists on reading for him, and though he doesn’t take her predictions seriously, they are borne out by the events that follow.
This is one of the earliest instances I know of in which Tarot was given a mass media presentation. But I haven’t looked very hard, so if anyone has insight on this point, please share!
By now you may be wondering what the “reading” was like. There doesn’t seem to be a defined layout, but the deck used is a French variant in which the Death card looks like this:
First Elaine has Paladin select a card, and he chooses the Cavalier d’Epée (Knight of Swords). In this deck, the knight is holding a particularly bloody sword, but Elaine is not alarmed, noting that this reading will be more interesting than her usual practice, which is mostly telling bored women that their lives will continue to be boring.
Next she turns over “The Wheel,” which is not shown, but she predicts Paladin will be traveling soon—a good bet, since that’s what he does for a living. Then she somehow manages to turn the Knight of Swords again (unclear how this could happen), and is immediately upset.
La Mort (Death) follows, and she bursts into tears. Paladin comforts her and insists that she resume the reading because he’s “dying of curiosity.” She then turns over another card, which we don’t see, and exclaims “But this will help you! The Drowned Sailor—the Phoenician!”
An interesting turn of events. There is of course no such card in the real Tarot. It was T.S. Eliot who invented the exotic-sounding name for use in his landmark poem The Waste Land, where it appears in a reading given by “Madame Sosostris.” In his notes to the 1922 poem—which he later explained were only added to make up the necessary number of pages—Eliot cited Jessie Weston’s book From Ritual to Romance as one of his sources.
As we know, Weston introduced the idea of connecting Tarot with symbolism of the Grail quest. And of course the “Paladins” were twelve knights who appear in medieval chivalric romances. And of course “Elaine of Astolat” was a character in Sir Thomas Malory’s 15th-century compendium, Le Morte d'Arthur.
Somehow, all these elements seem to have found each other in Have Gun, Will Travel. But I have no idea how, unless we want to credit the archetypal imagination.
In any case—I’m charmed by the fact that one of mid-century television’s highest rated series included this mash-up of French Tarot, Middle English literature, and modernist poetry. If you want to hear some of the dialog, and a discussion of the episode, enjoy this podcast.
As for what I originally intended to offer today—I’ve been looking back over some early posts that I’d planned to expand. Here are two.
The Story of Bill Butler
Bill Butler’s Dictionary of the Tarot (1975) was an early and very valuable attempt to organize and describe multiple deck designs, with interpretations for each card from various commentators. This snapshot is a bit fuzzy, but it gives the idea:
Butler’s book is long out of print, with just a few “well-used” copies available from Amazon at $50+—so I didn’t want to tear mine up for scanning. Someone was willing to, though, and kindly made the whole book available for free reading on the Internet Archive. If you’d like to see more, just visit archive.org and search on the title.
After revisiting this ambitious book—which also has an extensive and very useful glossary—I wondered how Butler had come to write it, and what had become of him afterward. As it turns out, Butler’s interest in Tarot has been overshadowed by more dramatic aspects of his life, so I couldn’t find out much more about the first question. But his story is fascinating in its own right.
Butler was born in America and worked for a time in San Francisco, where he met some important Beat period poets. He began writing poetry himself, and like many others in the “San Francisco Renaissance” milieu, he was deeply interested in myth, magic, and symbolism.
In 1965, Butler and his partner moved to Brighton in the UK, and opened the Unicorn Bookshop—which quickly became a hub of “hippie” life in this seaside resort. He also started a small press, which published his poems in several chapbook editions.
The bookshop became a national controversy in 1970, when Butler was convicted of selling obscene material, but was cleared on appeal. A number of poets (both famous and obscure) contributed to a collection that raised funds for his defense.
In 1974, butler closed the store, and traveled for a while in England and America, giving poetry readings. And presumably either working on or completing The Dictionary of Tarot, which was published by Schocken Books in 1975.
Butler moved back to London in 1977 to finish up his next book, which was on contract to Rider Publishing—the historic company that gave us the “Rider-Waite Deck.” His ambitious new work, The Myth of the Hero, attempted an encyclopedic view of the title topic. Here’s a description, which I think may have been from the publisher, but I’m not certain of that.
The late Bill Butler looks at various heroes from antiquity to the space age. He examines their origins and characteristics — their miraculous birth, their disastrous love-life, their lawlessness, their superhuman strength — and discusses the reasons why heroes exist — to pursue their quest, to teach, to redeem and to bring knowledge to mankind. He discovers a common pattern in their lives and deaths which serves to explain the timeless and irresistible appeal which heroes hold for the ordinary person.
Among Butler’s close friends was the popular science fiction/fantasy writer Michael Moorcock. As he explains it, Butler was working hard to meet a deadline on Myth of the Hero, and had been taking some “uppers” to finish. He delivered the manuscript, but was “very wired and tired” so he took half a dose of the only “downer” available in the house, and chased it with a bottle of lager. He slept heavily, and his flat-mates were reluctant to disturb him, but finally realized that he was in distress. He died on the way to the hospital.
Moorcock offers this detailed account in order to dismiss rumors that his friend had died of an overdose, intentional or otherwise. He views Butler’s death (at age 47) as a “freak accident.”
Butler’s poems were collected posthumously in the volume Static of the star-filled wind: Selected poems 1959-1977. And Myth of the Hero was published in 1977. It’s long out of print, but someone has posted the whole text here.
Notes on a Classic Tarot Anthology
The groundbreaking 1992 anthology Wheel of Tarot, edited by Angeles Arrien and James Wanless, was comprised mainly of articles by authors from various academic or professional disciplines, who wrote about Tarot from those perspectives.
In other words—they were not (specifically) Tarot specialists.
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.
For context, here’s the whole Wheel of Tarot Table of Contents:
I’d love to reread every article, but there’s never enough time. However, I did go through Cycle I, Section One—”The Science of Divination”—for another reason, so here are the summaries I came up with.
#1 . . . “Synchronicity, Divination, and Psi,” by Ralph Metzner, Ph.D.
A bit dry, and somewhat dated. But Metzner’s attempt to link divination with the concept of synchronicity—and both with research in parapsychology—is still worth reading. He provided this summary at the end:
To summarize, there appear to be two kinds or levels of synchronicity applicable to mantic procedures: the first, in which there is a meaningful connection between cosmic or abstract factors (planets, numbers) and psychic or personal events; the second, in which there is a meaningful connection between certain apparently random arrangements (of cards, coins, sticks, stones, leaves, entrails, flying birds) and psychic or personal events. This second kind of synchronistic phenomenon can usefully be compared with certain kinds of laboratory experiments in [the field of ] parapsychology. The theory of goal-directed, unconscious psi functioning can provide a conceptual bridging between scientific studies of psychic phenomena and the hitherto occult studies of Tarot, astrology, and other divinatory media. C.G. Jung's formulations of the synchronicity principle play a certain role in this kind of conceptual bridging.
If you want to make a deep dive into the topic of synchronicity, there’s a brand-new book by physicist Paul Halpern that explores the concept from many perspectives—and includes a chapter on Jung’s approach. I haven’t read the book yet, but I follow #paulhalpern on Twitter and always find his perspectives interesting. You can get quite a good sense of Synchronicity: The Epic Quest to Understand the Quantum Nature of Cause and Effect by means of Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature.
#2 . . . “A Scientist’s Experience with Tarot,” by Jane English, Ph.D.
English discusses generally the scientific community’s bias against the whole idea of subjective/objective connections, then relates a small experiment she performed with Tarot cards—focusing on whether card choices were random or non-random, with respect to certain pre-determined criteria. The experiment involved three subjects, using cards from (a) the Crowley-Thoth Tarot deck, and (b) a set of blank index cards, numbered 1-78. Her statistical analysis of the results—explained quite clearly in the article—suggested some evidence of non-randomness. English, who is herself a Tarot practitioner, concludes with brief speculations on possible explanations for the results of her experiment, and some reflections on the need to move beyond a perceived inner/outer split, with further research on the Tarot as means of making that connection.
#3 . . . “An Experimental Test of the Basis of Probability Theory,” by Cherie Sutherland McCusker and Brian McCusker, Ph.D.
The McCuskers follow up on Jane English’s Tarot experiment with their own very similar version, and expand the discussion to include more about the scientific perspective. The article includes a section linking their experiments to then-recent experiments in quantum mechanics. Both English and the McCuskers cast their reflections in the framework of traditional/Newtonian physics versus the basic concepts of quantum physics—and by now (2021), that debate may seem a little passé. But these two articles make a good review of the points at which divination may connect with modern science. Better still: the McCuskers provide a set of (fairly) simple instructions for conducting your own Tarot/probability test. Worth a try!
#4 . . . “A Transpersonal Approach to Symbolic Therapy: Dreams, Synchronicity, and Tarot,” by Mary C. Culbertson, Ph.D.
Culbertson carried out a more extensive experiment than those attempted by English and the McCuskers, again finding positive correlations that suggest a non-random correlation between the selection of Tarot cards and certain psychological processes. In some ways it is a bit more “fuzzy,” which reflects in part the slipperiness of anything to do with dreams. But it offers a nice reminder of how various symbol systems (including Tarot) can intersect. It’s noteworthy—in terms of connections that had been solidifying during the 1980s—that Culbertson’s experiment used the Crowley-Thoth deck, and employed a spread worked out by Angeles Arrien.
Just for a related tease—I’m planning a future newsletter on the relationship between Tarot and parapsychology, along with a discussion of Tarot and psychic phenomena.
But for this edition, I want to leave off by mentioning a site that offers a large, easy to access list of Tarot decks. It’s published by Lily Stone—and I’m not even going to point out the fact that Elaine of Astolat is also referred to as the “Lily maid.”
I’d actually come across this site before Have Gun, Will Travel caught my attention. I was looking for further information on Giani Siri’s New York Tarot, which is luckily in my own collection. Stone’s collection dwarfs mine by orders of magnitude, and she’s been kind enough to list online her whole inventory of nearly 900 decks:
And better still—you can click on any deck for an illustrated full-page overview:
I’m always hoping to catch up on the many, many decks I’ve missed. Preferably without jumping from place to place and/or getting overwhelmed. So I really like this scroll-and-click setup. Some of the decks are for sale, by the way, and there’s a subset list for those.
The site also has some older essays written by Lily Stone, which I found interesting. Plus there are the author’s own designs. I liked them all, but especially “Tarodelics”:
I’ll hope to be back on schedule for tomorrow’s edition, but candidly, it might take a day or two longer. In the meantime, though—thanks for reading!
Warmest regards, Cynthia