Here're the facts:
1. Tarot was certainly invented in the fourteenth-fifteenth century, in Italy, and was used for a trick-taking game not unlike Hearts, Spades or Bridge (the Trumps were Trumps, you see).
2. In the late eighteenth century, Antoine Court de Gebelin re-invented Tarot as an occult device, as part of his vast project of interpreting everything interesting as Egyptian.
3. Eliphas Levi picked up on Court de Gebelin (we don't know how directly), and through his influence Tarot (as a divination device and later an initiatory and meditational one) became central to the occult revival and now Neopagan and New Age spiritualities.
4. In the nineteenth century, lots of people got interested in Tarot and cartomancy, such that it became a big fad, especially in France.
Now, given all that, Dummett would have us go one step further: since Tarot was not invented for occult purposes, and since Tarot was not handed down since Egypt, Atlantis, or what have you, Tarot as an occult device is stupid and everyone who uses it is an idiot.
Dummett is a distinguished scholar of Frege, if memory serves, and has a top chair in logic, with expertise in epistemology and language. You'd think he wouldn't fall into this elementary logical trap: what makes historical origin (of a word, a practice, an object) necessarily absolutely contiguous with every possible later usage? For example, "occult force" was once (until the late 17th C.) a stock term describing things like gravity, and now it's always and only used to mean magical forces and such; does that mean Dummett's book should be retitled to avoid "occult"? or that Newton was an idiot to call gravity "occult"? It boggles the mind that Dummett can turn off his brain this completely, book after book.
At any rate, in this particular book, rather than going on from this claim to tell us all about how Tarot was (and is) used for playing a card-game (as in other books by Dummett), he and his pals tell us instead about how various interesting characters of the Belle Epoque developed cartomancy into a fad, a craze, and an occult tradition.
Unfortunately, there is no better history of occult Tarot out there, and if you simply discard every editorial or analytical remark, it's not even all that bad. Of course, that's rather a lot to cut.
If you want the history of occult Tarot from about 1790 to about 1900, this is the only place to go. Just disregard everything except factual statements (and consider carefully whether any given remark is really opinion masquerading as fact), and be ready to look things up in the notes if the authors don't make it clear.
Someday somebody will do a Ronald Hutton on Tarot, and things will be better. Until then, Dummett is as good as it gets. Too bad he's so miserable.
Incidentally, if you want the original texts on Tarot, they've been published, in French (try amazon.fr -- American Amazon doesn't have it):
Court de Gebelin, Antoine. _Le Tarot_. Ed. Jean-Marie L'Hote. Paris: Berg, 1983. ISBN 2.900269-30-X.
The authors of this book try to do for the history of this old game what Ronald Hutton did for the origins of neo-paganism in "Triumph of the Moon." What they lack, though, is a wider background in the literature and culture, including the popular culture, of the period of French history in question. A broader grasp of this material would answer the question of why a need was felt for a mystic Tarot in nineteenth century France, and enable them to relate to their subjects with somewhat more sympathy. This background is given in Hutton's book, and is perhaps the most successful thing about it. Without it, the discussion of occult cartomancy turns into a round of "liar, liar, pants on fire."
The focus in time and space is thus fairly narrow, yet the authors provide extravagant detail about the earliest occultic Tarot writers and their continuing influences on today's understanding of what is the Tarot's place within the Western mystery tradition.
I never before quite understood the relevance of obscure references in other writers' works to such moldy old contributors as Eliphas Levi or Court de Gebelin, or why anyone would possibly care about Oswald Wirth's work. Now I understand, as this book places those old timers into clear perspective.
It is also somewhat refreshing to see the historical narrative written by thoughtfully skeptical authors rather than by uncritical true believers. By pointing out both the positive innovations and the flaws (in logic and sometimes of character) of the people who developed the esoteric Tarot, one gets a better grounding in how this basic game was turned into a deeply spiritual tool that speaks to the modern heart so well. I eagerly look forward to the next volume, when the Rider Waite deck (and its hundreds of derivatives) comes along to take the Tarot world by storm. Yes!
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