This fascinating history and exploration of the Tarot was written by the late Jonathan Dee, a well-known British Tarot reader and astrologer. The book begins with an extensive history of the Tarot, including a lot of information I was unaware of even after doing a fair amount of research on Tarot history myself. Tarot Mysteries also includes not just the usual discussion of the Major Arcana but also a fascinating examination of the Minor Arcana. Most books about Tarot gloss over the Minor Arcana, which is a shame.

In addition to his own thoughts about the Tarot, Dee includes views and interpretations from all the “biggies” from the last few centuries: de Gébelin, Etteila, Eliphas Levi, MacGregor Mathers, A.E. Waite, and Crowley as well as more recent commentators. This variety of viewpoints makes it clear that Tarot is very much a personal, multi-faceted endeavor for everyone who approaches it.

As I noted above, the section about the history and background of the Tarot (titled “The Mystery of the Tarot Cards”) is packed full of fascinating information. Dee is careful to distinguish between known facts and popular interpretation, and he provides plenty of both. I was especially interested to discover that the Major and Minor Arcana originally began as two separate types of decks and were only combined later on into what we know as the modern Tarot.

Once he has addressed the history, Dee then delves deeply into the relation between the Tarot and the Qabalah. He begins with a history of Qabalistic practice and a helpful explanation of the Tree of Life so everyone who reads the book will have enough background information to make sense of the correspondences. Then he moves on to a description of how the Major Arcana cards relate to the Sepiroth and the paths on the Tree of Life, including multiple interpretations by Etteila, Eliphas Levi, Mathers and Crowley. I was interested to see where their approaches coincided and where they differed.

The next chapter, about the relationship between the Major Arcana and the zodiac, is equally interesting. Once again, each of the “big names” had their own version of the correspondences, and Dee offers plenty of charts and tables with all that information. He points out the shortcomings of the various systems in addition to the bits that work well and also includes more modern sets of correspondences from people like Joseph Maxwell and Brian Innes. Again, I was fascinated to see how much the interpretations can vary from one person to another, but they all seem to work in their own way.

The last chapter in the “Mystery of the Tarot Cards” section addresses the correspondences between the Minor Arcana suits and the four sacred objects of Arthurian legend. This is a subject I haven’t read much about, mainly because there isn’t much out there, so I found it especially interesting. The four sacred objects are the Holy Grail, the Spear of Destiny, the Sword of Power, and the Stone of Kings. According to Dee, the Minor Arcana suits were created during the Middle ages and probably represent the four medieval social classes: the priesthood (cups); the warrior aristocracy (swords); the merchants (coins); and the peasants (rods). Dee then goes on to share information about the Fisher King, the Grail legends, and the folklore of the Spear of Destiny. He especially emphasizes the Pagan Celtic roots of much of this folklore and relates that back to the Minor Arcana cards.

This is an excellent segue into the next section of the book, which focuses on the Minor Arcana cards. It’s this section that really sets this book apart from all the others I’ve read about the Tarot, since most books gloss over the Minor Arcana and focus almost entirely on the Major Arcana. Dee includes interesting tidbits of information such as the fact that Pamela Coleman-Smith (of Rider-Waite deck fame) was the first artist to include actual symbolic art instead of just pips on the Minors.

Dee explains that, even with “just plain pips” on the Minor Arcana, the symbolism of these cards includes Biblical and seasonal number meanings, compass directions, and more. There really is much more to the Minors than I ever imagined. He also talks about the fact that MacGregor Mathers, who was active in the Golden Dawn, created a set of correspondences between the signs of the zodiac and the Minor Arcana cards using the Egyptian system of decans. The Golden Dawn folks then added the planets in their order of the Planetary Hours from Renaissance magic to complete the correspondences. I was very surprised to learn that this is the source of the modern interpretations of the whole Minor Arcana! This same group then went on to  create correspondences between the Minor Arcana and the Sephiroth, making for a very complicated system indeed.

The section that focuses on the Minor Arcana includes a detailed examination of each card in all four suits. Dee includes the astrological and Qabalistic correspondences as well as positive and negative meanings, keywords, and esoteric titles for each card. It’s a lot of information and it took me a while to get through it all, but it’s so helpful to be able to refer back to it when I’m doing readings or just studying the cards.

The section about the Major Arcana is also in-depth and fascinating, with detailed explorations of each card. My favorite part is that Dee includes the descriptions of older versions of the cards in decks that date back two, three, or more centuries before the Rider-Waite version. This is great background information and shows how the Tarot has evolved over time. Dee sticks with early interpretations of the cards as much as possible without making the meanings useless for modern readers.

I was fascinated to read about the changes that were made to the Majors during the French Revolution to remove all traces of monarchy. For instance, the Emperor and Empress were renamed the Grandmother and Grandfather and some of their symbolism was changed. I also enjoyed finding out about earlier Renaissance-era decks and their artwork. For instance, on the Strength card, instead of a woman overcoming a lion, one of the oldest decks shows a seated woman effortlessly breaking a pillar in half. Over the centuries, a number of different creatures have been depicted riding up and down on the Wheel of Fortune. I also found it interesting to see which cards have stayed the same over the centuries.

The final section of this book is about reading the cards. It is by far the shortest section and it felt like it was just a cursory glance at the subject, after the in-depth explorations of the earlier sections. Still, it contains a lot of interesting information. Dee discusses both traditional and modern methods of reading the cards, and I was interested to see the trends that have changed over time. Dee shares some spreads that relate to astrology and the Qabalah. I’m keen to try the variation of the Tree of Life spread that uses a significator and the whole deck. So even in this shortest section of the book, I learned a lot.

If you’re at all interested in the Tarot, this book is well worth your time. It’s an in-depth, informative introduction for someone who is new to Tarot but it’s also full of unusual information that will entertain and fascinate anyone for whom Tarot is “old hat.” Definitely worth a slow read and a place on your shelf of reference works that you’ll turn to again and again.

~review by Laura Perry
Author: Jonathan Dee
Hampton Roads, 2016
pp. 321, $19.95

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