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.