by Michael J. Hurst
This bookreview is abridged from its first appearance on Michael’s Carte da Trionfi site
Robert V. O’Neill wrote what is probably the most interesting of all the historically oriented Tarot books. It is 392 pages and expresses the author’s view that early Tarot was in fact virtually all the things claimed by the eighteenth-century occultists and twentieth-century neo-Jungian interpreters, more or less. The book claims that occultists have done much to “elucidate the meaning of the symbols”, and “many occultist interpretations are justified”, while taking care to reject none of the occult sciences as possible “influences” on Tarot. Because occultist views of Tarot have held center stage in terms of Tarot interpretation for over two centuries, and because this book is the most notable apologetic for the historicity of their interpretations, O’Neill’s work is must reading for anyone interested in either occult or historical Tarot studies.
O’Neill devised a novel approach in arguing for the historicity of occult Tarot, however. First, he argues against a systematic design in terms of a coherent sequence of the trumps. Second, he argues against a systematic design in terms of congruent content of the trumps, the kind of thematic design wherein all the trumps are interpreted in terms of a single source or type of source material. Instead, he presents the subject matter as diverse, and the sequence as merely a vague progression. These two conclusions constitute a nearly-complete rejection of the earlier occult systems of meaning, all of which took a unified content (unified within each of several layers of correspondence) and precisely ordered sequence as key to understanding Tarot. Although O’Neill rejects the earlier occultist interpretations of the Tarot trumps as a coherent, precisely ordered group, he adopts most of their various and conflicting interpretations of the individual cards. These three elements of his approach are closely interrelated, and shape the structure of the book.
No Sequential Meaning or Mapping
The theories presented by generations of occultists were primarily systems of Qabalistic and astrological correspondence. They associated each of the 22 allegorical cards with one of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and thereby with a host of other esoteric correspondences including astrological subjects and Paths of the Tree of Life. This essential core of occult Tarot is rejected by O’Neill, who notes in Chapter 10 that “there are correspondences, but nothing so simple as reducing the whole symbolism to the Tree of Life… There is sufficient evidence to postulate that Kabbalah had an influence on the designers.” He concludes that some Qabalistic “influence” is “increasingly plausible at this stage in our explorations.” (Page 253-4.) Introducing an appendix to that chapter, O’Neill is a bit more clear.
“[...] any such exploration must be relegated to the sphere of pure speculation. Since we are not compelled by logic or by the symbols themselves to accept any of the traditional assignments, we should feel free to explore new possibilities. [...] In many cases, understanding the relationship of the occult sciences to the Tarot requires that one make use of the imagination. It is at this level that the cards have their greatest appeal.” (Page 257)
Every chapter, as well as the appendices, relies on intuitional messages (i.e., vague analogies) and the abandonment of traditional images and sequence in favor of occult images and interpretations of those images outside of their sequential context. In Tarot, sequence conveys meaning. The cards’ rank or place in the sequence is in fact its most defining characteristic. The Pope triumphs over the Emperor, both Love and Death over the Pope, and the Angel of Judgment over all that. Sequence conveys meaning. Likewise, in Hebrew letter mysticism, sequence is also essential to meaning.
Implicitly or explicitly denying the significance of the original order, (to permit free association based on simplistic and often far-fetched analogies to the images taken out of context), is one of the techniques employed by contemporary Tarot enthusiasts. This is especially appropriate for fortune telling, where each card is interpreted either in isolation or in a new context of a randomly selected spread. O’Neill adopts this modern approach not just in this appendix but throughout. He rejects any systematic sequential meaning or coherent overall design, and adopts diverse and even conflicting analogies as the intended meaning. This effectively conceals the inescapable fact that esoteric interpretation cannot make sense of the clear meaning of the images (e.g., Justice as an allegory of justice) or their place in the Tarot sequence.
In his long (and reasonably interesting) discussion of numerology, O’Neill presents no historical connection between the trump subjects of historical Tarot decks and the numbers they allegedly symbolized. His free association is based mainly on nineteenth-century occultist decks. Two things become clear from the presentation. First, O’Neill could find nothing in historical Tarot decks which even vaguely suggests numerological symbolism. Second, modern occult Tarot decks did incorporate numerological symbolism into the Tarot trumps, and they did it systematically! Given the information in O’Neill’s chapter, those are the legitimate conclusions. What does O’Neill conclude?
“There is ample evidence that numerology was an element of the Renaissance mindset. It was available and formed a part of the education of the Renaissance Christian. There is ample evidence of the use of numerology in Renaissance art and poetry. So there is sufficient reason to believe that some elements of numerology would be incorporated into the design of the cards.” (Page 316)
O’Neill knows that it would be absurd to defend any theory of systematic numerological symbolism in the trumps, so he does not attempt that. When a researcher deeply committed to occult content in early Tarot cannot find it, that is the real historical conclusion to be noted, and as such this chapter (like the others in O’Neill’s) is valuable. Instead of drawing the common sense conclusion, O’Neill suggests that some arbitrary and unidentified subset of the trumps does show numerological symbolism, or at least may do so… and even this extremely weak position must be defended with fallacious examples culled from nineteenth century occult Tarot.
No Identifiable Subject Matter
O’Neill assumes that Tarot was the product of Renaissance sensibilities, and specifically an eclectic synthesis of Neoplatonic magic and mysticism, drawing from various esoteric and exoteric traditions. Chapter 3, discussing the Italian Renaissance, concludes with the following.
“Renaissance man was preoccupied with the magic, mysticism and enigmatic imagery he found in the late Hellenistic and Roman literature. He synthesized these components with the Christian and Italian elements already a part of his culture. The synthesis was then projected in his art, poetry and, we hypothesize, in the Tarot. He was concerned to synthesize all sources of wisdom into a single, integrated system. Thus, it is unlikely that the explanation of the Tarot symbols will be found in any single source. [...] The remaining studies [chapters of his book], therefore, will focus on individual elements or sources, developing the historical background to the point that we can understand how and why each element might have formed a part of the syncretism.” (p 96)
Such an anything-goes, kitchen-sink syncretism was a preoccupation of the nineteenth-century occultists who developed occult Tarot, and a less extravagant blend of philosophy, mysticism, and magic was pursued by an intellectual elite during the Italian High Renaissance, (beginning some decades after Tarot’s invention). Because of that, it is trivially easy to find or create analogies between the nineteenth-century inventions of occult Tarot and the fifteenth-century Renaissance magi whom O’Neill posits as the designers of Tarot.The nature of that assumed influence, and the methods by which one might verify or refute the speculation, is never explored, and thus no explanation for the selection of images and their sequence is ever offered.
This a priori insistence that there can be no coherent explanation for the images and their sequence is not defended, except by the repeated observation that the esoteric interpretations, as presented by their occultist originators, don’t work very well. O’Neill is admitting any, even all, esoteric subject matter that has credentials dating back to Renaissance Europe, (and some exoteric ones as well), but he is adopting none of them systematically. All of the “symbolic systems” are needed, and assorted elements from those systems must be combined in an arbitrary manner to account for Tarot’s images and sequence.
“The major onus of this book is to present the symbolic systems of Renaissance Italy and to suggest how these systems might have entered into the design of Tarot. The book does not offer a definitive interpretation but presents the available data from which such an interpretation might eventually be constructed.” (Page 5)
O’Neill allowed that the pieces might fit together into a coherent design, but none that he could find and present, and certainly none that was based on a unified subject matter. This position has grown more emphatic during the subsequent two decades. Today (in 2003) O’Neill uses the expression “definitive interpretation” as a term of derision, implying that anyone naive enough to search for such a thing is both ignorant and arrogant in their approach. O’Neill justifies this concept of a disjointed design by reference to a syncretic Renaissance mindset, referring to the writings of late fifteenth-century intellectuals like Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico (della Mirandola). His discussion of Renaissance art, sandwiched between heretical sects and Kabbalah, finds no coherent didactic program in any such cycles, and dismisses the actual allegorical meaning of such works.
The absence of systematic design, in terms of either sequential meaning or subject matter, when combined with occultist and neo-Jungian free-association (the “intuitional messages”), provides complete freedom for any interpretation whatsoever, and a novel justification for the many and conflicting occultist theories. However, although O’Neill rejects any grand synthesis or systematic integration of the assorted elements, he does present a framework for considering this as something more than a mere grab bag of esoteric images.
“The Joy of No Rules”
The overriding historical thesis of O’Neill’s book is that the Tarot trump cycle is not only interpretable in this manner, but was in fact created as such an archetypal myth of mystical passages. According to this view, the design incorporated elements from many different mystical paths (including sundry occult sciences) in an inchoate hodge-podge to emphasize the fact that all paths which lead to God are in fact the same path. That all paths are part of the same path is itself an essentially modern, ecumenical view, (albeit with notable precursors), and one which would have resulted in ostracismÑor even incinerationÑin most of the cultures which created the various particular “paths” that modern writers blur together. The creators of Tarot were presumably spared this fate because the trump cycle shows no such thing, at least not in any rationally intelligible form.
Of course, once one rejects the face value meaning of an image, one can make up any meaning he finds personally appealing. In fact, the only real constraint to this unbridled license and universal eclecticism is the requirement that the “intuited messages” reflect something current in Renaissance Italy. The historical problem with such an uncritical approach is its complete lack of explanatory power. By permitting any and in fact all interpretations, nothing is explainedÑany image could be substituted for any of the trump images, at any point in the sequence, and no contradiction would arise. The question posed for historical interpretation is, why were these subjects illustrated in this manner and in this sequence? In that regard, it is valuable to consider O’Neill’s criticism of the theory presented Gertrude Moakley, twenty years earlier.
The explanation is that the Tarot is not only a simplification of Petrarch’s scheme, but also a spoof, a ribald take-off on the solemnity of the original story in the spirit of the Carnival parade. This explanation is not acceptable simply because it allows too much freedom. Any lack of correspondence can be passed off as part of the joke. Therefore, if the cards match it is taken as positive evidence for the theory, while any discrepancy is dismissed offhand. This is too simplistic. (Pages 79-80)
This is a sound argument, and such explanatory weakness is a valid criticism of Moakley’s theory. She imposes few constraints and therefore explains little about the choice of images or their sequence. However, O’Neill’s argument against her interpretation is devastating to his own esoteric sampler view of Tarot. Since his view of early Tarot’s meaning imposes neither sequential nor subject matter constraints, but permits the arbitrary mixing and matching of subjects, it is by O’Neill’s own standard, “not acceptable”. In that sense, as an historical analysis or theory of interpretation, Tarot Symbolism has little to offer.
Unlike other historical interpreters of Tarot’s meaning, (e.g., Gertrude Moakley, John Shephard, and Timothy Betts), O’Neill focuses not on connecting historical Tarot to historical themes and motifs, but on connecting the speculations of occult Tarot to Renaissance occultism. Moreover, this is done via “intuitional messages” read into the symbolism taken out of context, yielding unlimited freedom of interpretation.
Although O’Neill’s journey is not acceptable as an historical explanation, as an example of a modern revisioning of Tarot in terms of sundry esoteric systems, Tarot Symbolism is perhaps the best book written. A great many knowledgable authors have reinvented Tarot in terms of their favorite subject matter, and these efforts range from simple theme decks on any subject imaginable to elaborate metaphysical systems. Luigi Scapini created a charming and amusing deck based largely on images from both early printed and handpainted decks, and also the Oswald Wirth and Waite-Smith decks. This was an ironic and self-referential theme deck with the theme being earlier Tarot decks! O’Neill’s theory of Tarot’s origin and intended meaning is very much like the Medieval Scapini deck, in offering a wholly modern interpretation of Tarot based on a hodge-podge of Tarot lore and legend, actual history as well as traditional occult and contemporary psychological projections.
Presenting his esoteric sampler as the intended historical significance of the Tarot trumps is a deeply appealing theory to those steeped in modern views of Tarot, however anachronistic and inherently implausible it may be. It claims that Tarot was intended to be exactly what we want it to be, that the fifteenth-century Roman Catholics who invented Tarot in northern Italy had the same values, attitudes, and beliefs as twenty-first century Postmodern Pagans telling fortunes with it in central California. O’Neill’s many historical discussions are interesting in their own right, and add historical flavor to the otherwise thoroughly modern interpretation. This is history as it should have been, as we might wish it had beenÑdelightfully and creatively anachronistic, and wonderful in that sense.
The other substantial contribution of Tarot Symbolism lies in its detailed critical review of earlier occult interpretations. One by one, O’Neill explicitly rejects the traditional occult explanations, creating a comprehensive compendium of negative results. Tarot Symbolism presents a painstaking examination of the many proposed occult systems, by a competent, knowledgeable, and diligent researcher sympathetic to such subject matter. Although O’Neill creates a new theory of occult meaning in early Tarot, he is able to support none of the occult speculations of the previous two centuries in anything resembling their original form. His rejection of them as inadequate, combined with his argument against explanations as limitlessly accommodating as his own, (“this explanation is not acceptable simply because it allows too much freedom”), constitute the most comprehensive and detailed case ever assembled against occult content in pre-GŽbelin Tarot.
Unfortunately, O’Neill seems oblivious to both his effective criticism of the earlier occultists and to his new theory which presents fifteenth-century Tarot as having been exactly the same as twentieth-century occult Tarot. Nowhere does he summarize his systematic rejection of earlier occult theories of interpretation, thus ignoring the most significant conclusion of his studies. Instead he leaves the reader with the impression that the occultists got it right. He does not even recognize that he has created a new historical interpretation and theory of origination. Among the elements of that theory of Tarot’s origin and meaning, O’Neill offers the following:
“The milieu of Tarot’s invention was strictly Renaissance sensibilities, humanistic and steeped in magic and mysticism. Specifically, it was probably created in a sort of pre-Ficino Neoplatonic academy.” (O’Neill has more recently suggested a proto-Masonic occult-oriented confraternity.)
The form of the first deck was likely to have been printed rather than hand-painted. The iconography is that of the Milanese pattern, forerunner of the Tarot de Marseille deck.
That is a remarkably elaborate and comprehensive theory, although explaining nothing about the images and their sequence. This overwhelming bias toward traditional occult and contemporary neo-Jungian mysticism colors every page, and tends to obscure the historical content and occasional iconographic insight.
[Thank you Michael for permission to abridge & publish this review in the ATS Newsletter
Please note that the ATS has since republished Bob O'Neill's Tarot Symbolism - Jean-Michel David]