Review: The Underground Stream: Esoteric Tarot Revealed
by Christine Payne-Towler
Noreah Press, 1999.
From $16.99 (Amazon)
Since the little we know about the origins of tarot are lost in history, academic insights can only go so far. Did the cards originate as a simple gambling game based upon commonly understood imagery, or did artists of the early decks incorporate Hermetic, Kabbalistic, and neo-Pythagorean symbolism into them, as many esotericists have claimed?
Unfortunately we are unlikely to ever find out, and because of that many authors have gone off the deep end, concocting elaborate and fantastical stories of the origin of the cards in the temples of Ancient Egypt and among antediluvian Jews or high priests of Atlantis. But even though I am skeptical of many of the claims of esoteric origins, it is undeniable that since the 18th century (and quite possibly earlier) the tarot has acquired esoteric associations and linkages with the (Christianized) Kabbalah, Pythagorean numerology, astrology, alchemy, and other Hermetic traditions.
Christine Payne-Towler does an excellent job chronicling this shift from what was probably a mundane card game to a powerful tool of divination and personal insight. There are a number of historical groaners in this book (she mentions the discredited Priory of Sion as if it were fact, for one example), and sometimes the speculation gets too out-on-a-limb for my tastes. But it is important to remember that the artists of the early tarots did not live in a vacuum—the late middle ages and early Renaissance eras were steeped in magical and mystical theorizing, esoteric Christian allegory, as well as widespread interest in classical Greco-Roman and Egyptian cultures and their myths. So it is certainly possible those early artists incorporated esoteric and occult elements, despite some of the more well-known academics insisting otherwise. We simply don’t know.
So keep your salt shaker handy and be sure to cross-reference its more outré claims, but don’t dismiss this book as simply another unhinged pseudo history. Because whether or not the cards were intended as tools for divination and magic, for centuries they have been a used as such, and have become a critical component of western esotericism and magical practice. If you work with tarot (or teach it, as I do) you should be aware of this rich (if frequently bogus) history as well as the official, academic history, and Payne Towler has done a very thorough job pulling all the diverse threads together.
If another edition is ever produced—and it should be—I hope the author removes some of the disproved, outdated material and also finds a new editor, as the text is riddled with typos. The Underground Stream: Esoteric Tarot Revealed, even with its flaws, should be on every tarot enthusiast’s shelf . . . if only so you can be aware of the things other people believe.
The Underground Stream: Esoteric Tarot Revealed
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