Transforming Tarot: “A New Revolution”

The last quarter of the 20th century saw an unprecedented surge of Tarot scholarship and creativity

For two centuries (beginning around 1420), Tarot was “merely” a game — at least, as far as we know. But over the next two hundred years, it was gradually imbued with esoteric meanings, drawn into an array of occult practices, and remodeled into a method of divination.

We can look at that process in different ways. From one perspective, it may seem that a parade of people seized on the Tarot as a vehicle for their own ideas and purposes. Because little was known about the origins of the Tarot trumps, they provided a kind of blank screen on which interpretations and origin stories could easily be projected.

From another perspective, it may seem that Tarot was a seed, from which a garden of ideas and interpretations naturally grew.

Or that a core of meaning was enfolded/encoded in the trumps and suits, just waiting to be unfolded and decoded as humans gained more advanced levels of understanding.

But whichever way you look at the rise of esoteric Tarot in the 18th and 19th centuries, those developments reached a plateau in the early 20th. The world was beginning a period of dramatic change — sparked in the first two decades by Freud’s theories of the unconscious, Einstein’s breakthroughs in physics, rapid increases in mobility, new methods of communication, and the blood-soaked tragedy of World War I.

The entwinement of occultism and Tarot reached a high point in 1909 with the publication of A. E. Waite’s iconic deck, emphasizing an accessible kind of visual symbolism. The Waite Tarot (illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith and published by the Rider Company) became widely popular, and established an enduring template
for future deck designs.

That is essentially where modern Tarot came to rest, and where it remained for most of the 20th century. There were several noteworthy developments that would prove to be foundational— but for the most part, they occurred in isolation and received only a little attention.

Then came the ’70s.

Almost from the beginning of that decade, Tarot became both a subject of serious scholarship and a source of creative inspiration. Radically new and different decks appeared, along with new approaches to reading Tarot, new historical research, new Tarot communities, and much more.

Here’s what all that energy looked like . . .

  • 1970: Eden Gray published the Complete Guide to the Tarot, a book that remained both popular and influential for many years. Gray introduced the idea of Tarot trumps as a sequence of archetypes — the “Fool’s journey.”

  • 1971: Richard Roberts published Tarot and You, a book of transcripts from readings done with David Palladini’s 1970 deck, the Aquarian Tarot. And Paul Huson published The Devil’s Picture Book, one of the first works to situate Tarot in the context of Wicca and paganism.

  • 1973: Sally Gearhart and Susan Rennie published A Feminist Tarot, linking Tarot imagery to the rhythms of womanhood, and connecting divination with intuition. In addition, Fred Gettings published The Book of Tarot, an early “coffee table” book combining plentiful illustrations with useful commentary.

  • 1974: Jack Hurley and John Horler collaborated on The New Tarot, a stylized black-and-white deck designed for “projective reading”— an interactive, impressionistic reading approach that would help to reshape the practice of Tarot divination.

  • 1975: Bill Butler published Dictionary of the Tarot, offering a comparative view of various designs and interpretations for each card, plus a glossary of terms and symbols. Butler was a poet, publisher, and co-founder of the innovative Unicorn Bookshop in Brighton, UK.

  • 1976: Peter Balin created the Xultun Tarot, drawing on imagery from Mayan art and culture. It was the first of many decks that would explore conceptual relationships between Tarot and non-European cultures. Balin painted a single large work that was then divided into the 22 trumps.

  • 1978: Stuart Kaplan published the first volume of his magisterial four-part Encyclopedia of Tarot, with pictures and commentary covering hundreds of historical decks. Kaplan, owner of U. S. Games System, assembled the world’s foremost private collection of Tarot cards and historical materials.

  • 1979: Timothy Leary published The Game of Life, utilizing Tarot, I Ching, and the periodic table of elements to link his theories on the structure and evolution of consciousness. Leary — a Harvard psychology professor until 1963 — helped to popularize LSD, and became a counter-culture guru.

  • 1980: Rachel Pollack published Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom, a brilliant, concise explication of Tarot imagery and meaning. In addition, Sallie Nichols published Jung and Tarot: An Archetypal Journey, offering a psychological interpretation that influenced many subsequent writers.

  • 1982: Diane di Prima co-founded the San Francisco Institute of Magickal and Healing Arts, and soon began teaching classes on Tarot and the Western occult tradition. A noted poet, influential in the Beat movement, di Prima had studied Tarot since the late 1950s.

  • 1983: Gary Ross and Jack Hurley began publishing the Tarot Network News, first of several small periodicals dedicated to sharing new ideas and building a California Tarot community. Others would include Tracy Hoover’s Winged Chariot, Crystal Sage’s Tapestry and Geraldine Amaral’s Celebrating the Tarot.

  • 1984: Mary Greer published Tarot for Your Self, offering a detailed guide to the understanding and creative use of Tarot. Combining a wealth of information with many original ideas, it became the first volume of a widely read trilogy — and established Greer as an important writer, teacher, and Tarot theorist.

  • 1987: Angeles Arrien published A Tarot Handbook, linking the Tarot with traditional symbol systems and indigenous wisdom. Arrien, a cultural anthropologist, had inspired many students — including James Wanless and Mary Greer — with her Tarot classes and works on shamanic practice.

  • 1988: Theodore Roszak published Fool’s Cycle/Full Cycle: Reflections On The Great Trumps Of The Tarot. This short chapbook links Tarot with complex patterns of human life and the evolutions of consciousness. Roszac was a noted historian, and author of an important study on counter-culture in the 1960s.

  • 1991: Thalassa Therese launched the Bay Area Tarot Symposium, which grew quickly — attracting authors, artists, and enthusiasts from across the country. It has continued annually ever since, inspiring similar gatherings held in Los Angeles, and later in New York City.

  • 1992: James Wanless and Angeles Arrien co-edited Wheel of Tarot: A New Revolution — the first anthology of serious essays on Tarot. It offered twenty diverse perspectives, on topics that ranged from education and politics to dreams and literature. Wanless, a psychologist and political scientist, had co-created the influential Voyager Tarot deck in 1986.

  • 1993: Rachel Pollack created the Shining Woman Tarot, a vivid deck that combines shamanic imagery with other traditions, and introduces variant versions of the suits and court cards. Pollack, a novelist and poet as well as a Tarot authority, provided the art and also authored the companion book.

  • 1995: Michael Dummett and Ronald Decker published A Wicked Pack of Cards: The Origins of the Occult Tarot. Dummett was a highly regarded British philosopher, specializing in logic and mathematics. This was his sixth book on Tarot history, but the first to focus on esoteric aspects.

  • 1997: Janet Berres organized the first World Tarot Congress, which was held in Chicago and attracted enthusiasts from both coasts, along with visitors from Japan, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom.

That Chicago gathering was in many respects a high-water mark, so it makes a fitting end for this account of a fascinating period.

Many ideas introduced from 1970 to 2000 have continued to bear fruit, with new artists, interpreters, and innovators emerging. But the past two decades have also seen trends toward commercialization and popularization on one hand, fragmentation and appropriation on the other.

So the status of Tarot in the 21st century is open to debate. But I don’t think there can be much disagreement about the revolutionary importance of the late 20th-century developments I’ve listed above — or the many others that took place in the same period. Their influence went well beyond the borders of Tarot study and practice, to a broader engagement with symbolism in art, literature, history, and even theories of consciousness.