A Wicked Pack of Cards

The Wheel of Fortune-Tarot de Marseille
The Wheel of Fortune-Tarot de Marseille

Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold, nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,
With a wicked pack of cards. Here, said she,
Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,
(Those are pearls that were his eyes.Look!)
Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks.
The lady of situations.
Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,
And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,
Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find
The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.
I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring,
Thank you. If you see dear Mrs Equitone,
Tell her I bring the horoscope myself:
One must be so careful these days.

T.S Eliot The Waste Land 1922

It is no surprise really that the Tarot are mentioned at length in the masterpiece of Modernism, T.S Eliot’s The Waste Land from 1922. The notes alone are a treasure trove of esoteric references, making mention of the Cumaean Sibyl, The Golden Bough of James Frazer, the study of Arthurian legend From Ritual to Romance by Jessie L. Weston, Buddha’s Fire Sermon, Gérard de Nerval’s densely hermetic sonnet El Desdichado and the Upanishads.

Interest in all matters esoteric and occult had become a feature of the avant-garde ever since the later Romantics, especially Charles Baudelaire and the above-mentioned Gérard de Nerval. Later in the 19th Century there would be Arthur Rimbaud with his theory of  ‘the alchemy of the word’, the Swedish playwright August Strindberg’s stint in Paris as a practising alchemist, known as the Inferno Period, and various writers and painters connected to the Symbolist and Decadent movements, most notably  J.K Huysmans and my personal favourite Comte de Villiers de l’Isle-Adam (see To the Dreamers, To the Deriders).

As the century progressed the Tarot became increasingly esoteric itself. This was quite a recent development, previously the Tarot had been a card game popular in Italy, France and Switzerland, though it also undisputedly used in cartomancy as well. However it was a theologian and Freemason, the Count Gébelin who first advanced the theory in 1781 that the Tarot was a repository of lost ancient knowledge, a theme developed at length by that strange figure known as Etteilla, who added that it was initially conceived by Hermes Tristemegistus himself and was actually ‘The Book of Thoth’. When the man responsible for the French Occult Revival, Eliphas Levi incorporated the Tarot into his magical system and tied the 22 cards of the Major Arcana with the 22 characters of the Hebrew alphabet, the occultation of the Tarot was complete and it became an essential tool for any would-be magician. A quick comparison between any of the older versions of the Tarot with the most famous deck, the Rider-Waite-Smith of 1910 makes this clear, the Rider-Waite-Smith is self-consciously more “mystical”, with an over-abundance of symbolism.

In certain respects the Tarot was tailored-made for Modernism and Post-Modernism, with its emphasis on chance, interpenetration and the shifting, elusive nature of meaning. I have written previously on the Surrealist take on the standard deck of playing cards, Le Jeu Du Marseille-A Surrealist Pack of Cards, and both Salvador Dali and Ithell Colquhuon produced Tarot decks. The Italian post-modernist fabulist Italo Calvino wrote The Castle of Crossed Destinies where the entire plot is told through the Tarot. The Chilean-French film-maker Alejandro Jodorowsky has written eloquently on the Tarot de Marseille and weaves the arcana throughout the acid western  El Topo (The Mole) and The Holy Mountain.

In Douglas Cammell’s and Nicholas Roeg’s midnight classic movie Performance, the on-the-run gangster Chas Devlin (James Fox) turns up at the Notting Hill home of the reclusive rock star Turner (Mick Jagger) claiming, somewhat inexplicably, to be a juggler. The first numbered card of the Major Arcana is sometimes called The Juggler, though it nowadays most commonly referred to as The Magician. This hermetic figure points both downward (to the underworld) and upwards (to the stars), a perfect illustration of as above, so below, and prefigures the merging identities towards the end of the movie. Turner seems to realise the import of Devlin’s claim to be a juggler as he immediately comments, ‘You’re a performer of natural magic’.

A quick word on the selection of images; there are thousands of variants on the Tarot available so I have limited myself mainly to the classics. My own preference is for the Tarot De Marseille and the Swiss 1JJ, however the most recognisable is the Rider-Waite-Smith.  I have included selections from Dali and Colquhuon as well as the deck designed by Lady Freida Harris for Aleister Crowley. For a contemporary rendition Ulla Von Brandenburg’s excellent deck shows that Tarot continue to fascinate and inspire.

The Sun-Rider-Waite-Smith
The Sun-Rider-Waite-Smith
The Devil-Crowley-Harris
The Devil-Crowley-Harris
The Lovers, Wheel of Fortune, The Moon-Dali
The Lovers, Wheel of Fortune, The Moon-Dali
Tarot-Ithell Colquhuon
The Magician-Rider-Waite-Smith
The Magician-Rider-Waite-Smith
Tarot-Ulla Von Bradenburg-2008
Tarot-Ulla Von Bradenburg-2008

31 thoughts on “A Wicked Pack of Cards

  1. Haven’t read The Wasteland in so long, thanks for the reminder. It is ground breaking. The versions of cards and the styles are really cool. The Colquhuon set is really interesting. You did not include an example from the de Marseilles, your other preference? Enjoyed the post, Mr. Cake

    Liked by 2 people

      1. I collect Tarot cards to a certain extent,they are wonderful. The Wasteland is great as well, did you forget Madame Sosostreis and her cold and wicked pack of cards?


      2. Do you? That is really cool! I suppose I’ve forgotten most of the poem and its analysis – when I say long time, I’m talking not since college. And I will leave you wondering exactly how long that might have been… *wink*

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I am immediately captivated by seeing tarot images! Many years ago when I was young and extremely naive, my then partner decided to send away for a tarot deck. I had never heard of them and forgot about it until 1 day the Marseille tarot deck arrived in the mail.
    Well my partner almost immediately became bored with them, but to this day, I can still remember the very strange feeling of disassociation with the present to almost stepping into an alternate reality that I experienced when I first held them. Somehow I felt I was hOME and I have been playing with them ever since.
    Although I ended up becoming enamoured by a friend’s Dakini deck and have mainly used them for many years now.
    I must say from reading a bloggers excellent tarot interpretations using the Dali deck, I straight away loved them and might buy it 1 day.
    I have found that tarot raises fabulous questions sending us on quests to answer them and they have taught me so much.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you Heron, I am glad that you share my fascination with the Tarot… the endless possibilities and variety contained within the 78 cards is intriguing. It is an art as well, intuition and imagination are required. Thank you for sharing your story.


  3. Lovely presentation, Mr. Cake. I’m waiting for you to read your pulls in a blog post. You don’t let others hold your cards, do you? Wonderful post, I think people are always fascinated by what they don’t know, as long as it has a magical/mysterious element to it.
    ~ Miss Cranes

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Excellent post…. So interesting to learn how Tarot influenced writers. I was particularly intrigued when you mentioned Rimbaud´s theory of ‘the alchemy of the word’… and how “Tarot was tailored-made for Modernism and Post-Modernism” (quoting you).
    I like that you make reference here to the Magician… one of the most iconic cards of Major Arcana, O´d say… Hard not to think of Hermes when this card shows up!.
    You mentioned Eliphas Levi and how the Hebrew influence and I have been wondering why there are hebrew letters, symbols or words in some of the cards of the Rider Waite deck… Eclectic indeed, don´t you think!?… I´ll be linking back to this post in the future, if you are okay with it!…
    Thanks so much for sharing, mon ami!. Love & best wishes 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much. The tailor-made is my own opinion, just the way chance and multiple meanings are woven into modernist and post modernist aesthetic theory. Also you could read them as a form of hyper text. The 22 cards of the major arcana and the 22 Hebrew characters is a coincidence that was too hard to pass up, after all Hebrew is seen as the language of God in Kabbalah. As for Rimbaud, he was definitely influenced and would influence esoteric theory. More on that later. Thank you very much, so much to discuss further. Please go ahead and link, and thank you very much.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Mr Cake thank you for the memory, your writing has taken me back to a place many years ago, of someone that was always intrigued with tarot cards and was fascinated with the occult, you have brought a vivid memory of that young boy to mind with such clarity.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I love that sequence from the Wasteland. I’ve been reading a lot of Eliot lately, well the same pieces over and over, and using them as source material for art. Have you come across the graphic novel version? It has a fascinating history.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Try this
        You can buy the graphic novel version easily but here’s the thing, the author was forced by Elliot’s widow to remove any reference at all to Elliot’s original poem from the UK edition resulting in a truly post-modern experience reading the book. The USA edition was spared this and editions of that imprint are prized. I certainly cannot source a copy.

        Liked by 1 person

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