Traditional Tarot

Desultory Notes on the Tarot

Leave a comment

Book Review: Roger Caillois on Joseph Maxwell: The Tarot

Translator’s Introduction

The publication in 1933 of Le Tarot: le symbole, les arcanes, la divination by Joseph Maxwell (pub. Félix Alcan) occasioned a number of reviews, both laudatory and critical from the occultist milieu. Maxwell (1858-1938) had a dual background as both a medical doctor as well as a lawyer, interested in what what was then known as metapsychic(al) phenomena, or what is now known as parapsychology. One such subject was that of the Tarot, to which he devoted over three decades of research, the fruit of which is contained in this book. Prior to its publication, Maxwell published one article on the Tarot in the special issue of the occultist journal Le Voile d’Isis in 1928 dedicated precisely to that topic, “Le symbolisme des arcanes majeurs”. His book was reprinted in 1984 by Archè. It was also translated into English by Ivor Powell and published a number of times as The Tarot (Neville Spearman, 1975; Samuel Weiser, 1977; C.W. Daniel Company Ltd, 1988).*

Although a later author such as Piek Anéma considered Maxwell’s method to be rational, analytic or empirical, another author, this time with an academic background in sociology – Roger Caillois – thought otherwise, and wrote a critical but thought-provoking review of the book in 1936. Caillois himself was no stranger to the Tarot; interested in gaming systems in general, he would also go on to write a preface to the Tchou reprint edition of Oswald Wirth’s classic “Le Tarot des imagiers du Moyen Âge in 1966,* and later devoted a lengthy entry to the Tarot in his encyclopaedia of games (s.v. Les Cartes, in Jeux et Sports, Encyclopédie de la Pléiade, 23:961) which has been described as “a small encyclopaedia of Renaissance esoteric and semiotic systems.” (Michel Beaujour, Poetics of the Literary Self-Portrait, NYU Press, 1992)

By way of contrast with the former assessment of Maxwell’s work, and in the interest of shedding some light on the singular clash between esoterically-minded intellectuals and more historically-oriented thinkers in 20th-century France, we present this short book review in its entirety. The original was published in Les Cahiers du Sud, 1 July 1936, and may be read on the French news archive here.

Notes: * The English edition of Maxwell’s book does not contain the appendix criticised by Caillois, and the English edition of Wirth’s book (“The Tarot of the Magicians,” Weiser Books, 1990/2012) does not contain Caillois’ preface either.

1984 French edition

* * *

The Tarot, by J. Maxwell (F. Alcan)

Roger Caillois

When faced with the Tarot, two attitudes are possible: the à priori interpretation of the 78 enigmatic cards, or the critical study of their origin and history. Mr Maxwell has chosen the first and has deliberately focused on the explanation of the arcana by drawing on all the symbolisms which it was materially possible to use: numbers, colours, traditional attributes, astrosophic signs, etc…. His ingeniosity is admirable, but too many prejudicial questions are posed that we cannot accept this free exercise without reservations. There is effectively no guarantee that the Tarot is a series of cryptogrammes, and much less that these figures represent, in a veiled way, the sort of Neo-Platonic philosophy that Mr Maxwell has found with his eyes shut. On the contrary, everything leads to believe that the present Tarot is a combination, going back to the end of the 14th century, of the game of numeral cards of Spanish suits, and for the major arcana, of a sort of encyclopaedia of images destined to instruct children in a pleasant manner. Such is, at least, the hypothesis very convincingly proposed by Henry-René d’Allemagne in his monumental work (1) on playing cards, which Mr Maxwell cites in his bibliography, without seemingly having consulted it very much. Moreover, it must be admitted that this explanation leaves the mystery of certain cards intact: thus, for the Juggler, the Hanged Man, the Wheel of Fortune, the Fool. As to the symbolism of the series, it is difficult to see with the author a figuration of the elements: air, water, earth, fire. A work published in Venice in 1545 (2) saw, with much more humour but no less arbitrariness, the swords as the death of those whom playing has driven to despair; the staffs as the chastisement of those who cheat; the cups, the drink that appeases all quarrels; and finally, the coins as the very fuel of the game. In fact, it is probably a transparent representation of social classes: soldiers (swords); clergy (cups, that is, chalices); traders (coins); and peasants (staffs).
Mr Maxwell sees only the means of divination in the Tarot. Yet, the use of this game in cartomancy is not attested once before the end of the 18th century, that is to say, before the barbour-boy Alliette used the reveries of Court de Gébelin to try his fortune at the expense of public credulity in known circumstances, and where the coarsest charlatanism is manifest. This should have incited Mr Maxwell to greater prudence, all the more so as he concludes his work with an analysis of the psychology of conjectural divination which devotes the greater part to the professional skills of the diviner. We regret that in these conditions he should have gone so far astray in the interpretation of these figures, which, despite undoubtedly not being the bearers of any philosophical system, are no less worthy of an in-depth exegesis. But it is fitting to change method and to rely more, in these matters, on historical information rather than on the metaphysics of numbers.

* * *

  1.  Les cartes à jouer du XIV au XX siècle. Volume 1. Volume 2.
  2.  An allusion to Le carte parlanti by Pietro Aretino, first published in 1543. (Thanks to Ross Caldwell.)

Support this Site at