Traditional Tarot

Desultory Notes on the Tarot

René Guénon: Two Book Reviews: Van Rijnberk and Chaboseau on the Tarot

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Translator’s Note

The previous two posts contained excerpts from two important twentieth-century works on the Tarot, namely, those by Jean Chaboseau and Gérard Van Rijnberk respectively, and it is not without interest to consider the reception these works have had. One author who wrote incisive and insightful reviews of both books in question was the French writer René Guénon. Guénon’s work, generally and somewhat erroneously labelled as “Traditionalism,” a label he himself rejected, is profound, multifaceted, and controversial if not polemical. Interested readers may pursue this line of inquiry by further reading, referring preferably to the works of the man himself.

It is not without interest to note that one of the subjects dealt with by Guénon in his works is that of sacred symbolism, a topic to which he devoted a large number of articles, compiled into works such as Symbols of Sacred Science. It is therefore all the more surprising that he never dealt with the Tarot in extenso, with the notable exception of the two following book reviews, aside from some brief, scattered allusions throughout his works. Nor do we find, in the works of his followers or emulators anything of the sort either, with one obscure but important exception, to which we shall return in due course.

We thus present these two book reviews, following which we have included a number of excerpts from other works or correspondence further elucidating Guénon’s views on the nature of the Tarot, and on that of a related topic, namely, folklore. The original French texts may be found here. Similar endeavours have been undertaken in Italian, as well as in Spanish, and a list of relevant quotations has likewise been compiled in English. Excerpts from the works of van Rijnberk and Chaboseau have also been published on this blog.

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Two Book Reviews on the Tarot

René Guénon

Gérard van Rijnberk. Le Tarot. Histoire, iconographie, ésotérisme (Paul Derain, Lyon)

This large volume is the result of long and painstaking research on everything that concerns the Tarot, whether closely or remotely, and it behoves us, before all else, to praise the author for all the conscientiousness and impartiality he has brought to the task, and for the care he has taken, contrary to what more often than not happens, to avoid being influenced by the unfounded assertions of the occultists and by the multiple fables they have spread on the subject.

In the first part, he has gathered everything it is possible to find in the books and archival documents on the origins of the Tarot and of playing cards and on the era of their apparition in the different countries of Europe, and it must be said, he has not been able to arrive at a definite conclusion; he has, in a way, cleared the ground by putting paid to certain fantasies, but in sum, the enigma remains intact, and, as it seems improbable that any important documents in this regard have escaped his attention, there is in all likelihood but little hope of ever being able to resolve it, at least on the purely historical terrain.

All that we may affirm is that playing cards became known towards the end of the 13th century, especially in the Mediterranean countries, and that the word “Tarot,” whose etymology is moreover impossible to discover, only began to be employed in the 15th century, even though the the thing itself is surely more ancient still. The hypothesis of an oriental origin, on which some have strongly insisted, is nowhere proven; and we shall add that, in any case, even if it were true that the Arabs here played the role of “transmitters,” it is no less inconceivable, for more reasons than one, that the cards originated in an Islamic milieu, in such a way that the difficulty is simply put off.

In that regard, we do not understand why so many more or less strange explanations for the Arabic word nâib are sought for, when it is perfectly well-known and means nothing more than “replacement,” “substitute,” or “deputy”; whatever the reasons may have been for adopting it to designate a card, it has absolutely nothing in common with nabî, no more than it is derived from a root “indicating a magical or divinatory action.” Let us also note, while we are on the subject of remarks of this order, that the Arabic name for “games of chance” is not qamar, “moon,” but qimâr, and that pagad is certainly not an Arabic word, but that, in Hebrew, bagôd means “deceitful,” which may well be applied to a mountebank.

Furthermore, the introduction of the cards by Gypsies is no more certain than all the rest, and it would appear that, on the contrary, it was in Europe that they learned its use; moreover, contrary to the assertions of Valliant, the Tarot was known in western Europe before the Gypsies arrived there; and in this way, all the occultist “legends” vanish as soon as they are subjected to a serious examination!

In the second part, the author examines everything in the writings and works of art of classical antiquity which seem to him to present some relation to the ideas expressed by the symbolism of the arcana of the Tarot: some similarities are rather clear, but there are others which are less so, or only remotely so. Naturally, these parallels are in any case only very fragmentary, and bear only on certain points in particular; moreover, one must not forget that the use of these symbols never constitutes proof of a historical connection. We will admit to not understanding why, on the subject of these parallels and the ideas to which they refer, Mr Van Rijnberk speaks of the “exotericism of the Tarot,” nor to what exactly he means thereby, and what difference he sees with what he designates on the contrary as his “esotericism of the Tarot.”

The third part, in effect, which he presents as “the result of personal meditations and inspirations,” and to which he attributes an “esoteric” character, contains in reality nothing of a deeper order than what has preceded it, and let us say it frankly, this part is indeed not the best part of the book. As a title to the considerations relating to each of the major arcana, he has placed a sort of motto formed of two Latin words, which has no doubt the pretension to more or less resume the general meaning; and what is rather amusing is that he visibly striven to find, in as many cases as he could, words having for initials the two letters S. I.!* But let us not insist any more on this fantasy of no consequence; and let us note instead the extent of the bibliography and the interest of the reproductions of ancient documents contained in the plates which end the book, and let us add that, despite its erudition, this book is not at all boring and is even a pleasant read.

Note: * The letters ‘S.I.’ refer to Supèrieur Inconnu – Unknown Superior, the alleged ‘hidden’ leaders of the Masonic Rite of Strict Observance, and later, the third of the four degrees of the Martinist Order. – Translator

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Jean Chaboseau. Le Tarot. Essai d’interprétation selon les principes de l’hermétisme (Éditions Niclaus, Paris)

This other book on the Tarot is written from an entirely different point of view than the preceding book, and, although much less voluminous, it has apparently great pretensions, despite its modest qualification of “essay.” We will not contest, moreover, that it may be valid to seek an astrological interpretation, and others yet, on condition to not present any one of them as being exclusive; but is this condition met if we consider hermeticism as “the proper basis of the symbolism of the Tarot”? It is true that we would first of all need to agree on the sense of the words; the author seems to wish to unduly expand the one he assigns to hermeticism, to the extent of englobing almost all the rest, including Kabbalah; and if he marks the relations and differences of hermeticism and of alchemy clearly enough, it is no less true that there is a strong exaggeration to claim, as he does, to identify the former with “Total Knowledge”!

In fact, his commentaries on the cards of the Tarot are moreover not strictly limited to hermeticism, since, all the while taking it as a point of departure, he gives fairly numerous parallels with information drawn from very different traditions; it is not us who will reproach him for it, far from it, but perhaps he did not check sufficiently to ensure if all of them were justified, and in the way in which all this is presented, we sense a little too much the persistence of the “occultist” spirit. It would be best, for example, to stop using the figure of Adda-Nari (that is, Ardha-Nari, androgynous figure of Shiva and of Parvati), which has no relation to the Tarot, except in the bizarre parody Éliphas Lévi has subjected it to.

The intentions of the author are moreover not always as clearly expressed as one might wish, and notably, when he cites our writings, we are not at all certain, given the context, that he understands them in the same way we meant them ourselves…

Mr Chaboseau has also attempted, following a number of others, to “reconstitute” in his own way the figures of the Tarot; naturally, there is no reason to consider one or the other of these “reconstitutions” as being more valid than another; we think it surer to refer simply to the ordinary depictions, which, even if they have become somewhat deformed over time, have nonetheless a greater chance of having, as a whole, kept the original symbolism more faithfully.

In the end, the transmission of the Tarot is something quite comparable to that of “folklore,” even if it does not constitute a simple case in particular of the latter, and the preservation of symbols is assured there in the same way; in such a domain, any innovation due to individual initiative is always dangerous, and like all literary retellings of so-called “folk” tales, it can only distract or obscure the meaning by mixing in more or less fanciful and in any case superfluous “embellishments.” These last remarks, of course, are not aimed at Mr Chaboseau more particularly than his predecessors, and we will willingly concede that the “medieval” style he has adopted for his drawings does not have the unlikeliness of a so-called Egyptian or Hindu Tarot, but this is but a question of degree.

Again, we shall only place ourselves from the point of view of the symbolic value; on a more “practical” order of considerations, do we believe that the psychic influences which are undoubtedly attached to the cards of the Tarot, regardless of their origin and quality, might still find an effective support in all these arbitrary modifications of the traditional figures?

Études Traditionnelles, 1948.

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Excerpts on the Tarot & on Folklore

As to the Tarot, I think that its use is not to be recommended, and that it is even preferable to abstain from it because it seems to easily serve as a vehicle for psychic influences which are not always of the best quality. There are those who wish to find all sorts of things in it, but that is certainly to exaggerate its importance; in any case, it is wholly unknown outside of Europe. Its origin is moreover very obscure, and its connection with the Gypsies is not exactly a recommendation, for they seem to have but an initiation of an inferior order (limited to the domain of certain traditional sciences), and lending themselves thereby to many deviations.

– Letter to Vasile Lovinescu, 6th June, 1936.

As to the Tarot, I will willing admit that it may give valid results in the sense that you speak of; only, its handling is perhaps not devoid of all danger, due to the psychic influences it certainly puts into play. I could say the same of certain other methods, such as geomancy, for instance; but in the case of the Tarot, the matter is further complicated due to the question of its particularly dubious origin… And I have no idea in the slightest as to where one might find out further details, unless from the Gypsies, for it has to be said that, outside of Europe, the Tarot is something that is completely unknown; besides, its symbolism has a specifically Western form.

– Letter to Louis Caudron, 9th March, 1936.

There would be much to say in this respect, in particular on the use of the Tarot where the remains of an undeniable traditional science are to be found, whatever its true origin, but which also has very dark aspects to it; by this, we do not mean to allude to the numerous occultist reveries which it has given rise to and which are negligible for the most part, but to something much more effective which makes its handling genuinely dangerous for whomsoever is not sufficiently secured against the actions of “underground” forces.

– Le Règne de la Quantité et les Signes des Temps, chapter XXXVII.

Another interesting chapter is the that devoted to the symbols of the Tarot, not only because the occultist inventions which this question has given rise to are therein appreciated to their just value, but also because there are allusions to a certain rather dark aspect of the subject, which no one else seems to have noted, and which quite certainly exists in effect; the author, without unduly insisting on the matter, speaks clearly of an “inverted tradition”, which shows that he has at the very least sensed certain truths concerning the “counter-initiation.”

– Review of: Arthur Edward Waite. Shadows of Life and Thought. A retrospective review in the form of memoirs (Selwyn and Blount, London). Études Traditionnelles, 1940.

In that respect, we should say that the very concept of “folklore” such as it is most habitually understood in our time, rests on a radically false idea, the idea that there are “popular creations,” spontaneous products of the popular masses. It is obvious that this conception is closely linked to certain modern prejudices and we shall not repeat what we have already said on other occasions. In reality, when it is a matter of traditional elements in the truest sense of the word, as it almost always is, no matter how deformed, reduced or fragmentary they may be, and of things having a truly symbolic value, even though disguised under a more or less “magical” or “fairylike” appearance, all this is very far from being of popular origin, and is certainly not even of human origin, since tradition is defined exactly, in its very essence, by its supra-human character. What may be popular is only the fact of its “survival,” when these elements belong to disappeared traditional forms, and in this regard, the term “folklore” takes on a meaning fairly close to that of “paganism,” taking into account only the etymology of the latter term, without the polemical and pejorative intention. The people thus preserve without understanding the debris of ancient traditions, going back to a past so remote that it would be impossible to determine exactly when, and which we content ourselves for this reason, to relate to the obscure domain of “prehistory”; it fulfils in this way the function of a sort of more or less “subconscious” collective memory, whose content has manifestly come from elsewhere. What may appear astounding is that, when we reach the bottom of things, we note that what has been preserved contains above all, under a more or less veiled form, a considerable amount of information of a properly esoteric order, which is to say what is precisely the least popular by nature. To this fact there is but one plausible explanation: when a traditional form is on the brink of disappearing, its last representatives may very well willingly commit to this collective memory of which we have spoken, what would otherwise be lost forever; it is, in sum, the only means of saving what might be saved to a certain extent; and, at the same time, the natural incomprehension of the masses is sufficient guarantee that what possessed an esoteric character will not be despoiled of it, but will remain only, as a sort of testimony to the past, for those who, in later times, will be capable of understanding it.

– L’Ésotérisme du Graal, 1951.

There remains to make another important remark: among the very diverse things the “collective unconscious” is supposed to explain, “folklore” must also naturally be counted, and it is one of those cases where the theory may present the semblance of truth. To be more precise, as regards the latter, one should speak of a sort of “collective memory,” which is like a mirror or a reflection, in the human domain, of this “cosmic memory” which corresponds to one of the aspects of the symbolism of the moon. Only, to wish to deduce the very origins of the tradition from the nature of “folklore” is to commit an error similar to the one, common nowadays, which considers as “primitive” what is but the product of a degenerescence. It is obvious, in effect, that “folklore,” being essentially constituted by elements belonging to extinct traditions, inevitably represents a state of degenerescence with respect to the former, but this is moreover the only means by which something might be saved. One must also ask the question as to in which conditions the preservation of these elements was committed to the “collective memory”; as we have already had occasion to mention, we cannot but see the perfectly conscious action of the last representatives of ancient traditional forms on the point of disappearing. What is assuredly certain, is that the collective mentality, forasmuch as there exists something that may be labelled as such, may be properly reduced to a memory, which is expressed, in astrological terms, by saying that it has a lunar nature. In other words, it may fulfil a certain role of preservation, which constitutes “folklore” precisely, but which is totally incapable of producing or elaborating anything at all whatsoever, and especially, anything of a transcendental nature, as anything traditional is by definition.

Symboles de la Science sacrée, chapter V.

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