Book Review: Llewellyn’s Complete Book Of The Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot

Llewellyn’s Complete Book Of The Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot, by Sasha Graham

This is an odd book for several reasons.  In reading it, I could not help but think that despite the author’s intentions that this book would tend to make people more skeptical about the reasons why tarot decks in general and this tarot deck in particular have become popular despite being released more than a century ago without fanfare or much attention at all.  The fact that the writer spends so much effort trying to untangle the various influences on the deck and the interpretation of the various cards as well as various possible spreads suggests that she takes tarot seriously enough to view it as a possible source of insight, but what she discusses about the deck of cards and the motivations and influences that went into the art design of the cards themselves would tend to make one less confident that the importance that is given to the way that tarot cards look in terms of how they are to be interpreted is remotely worth the effort the author (and others) spend on it.  Admittedly, I come to the book as a biased and not particularly friendly reader, but for me this book and its account of the popular Rider-Waite-Smith deck only increases my disdain for tarot in general as well as the untrustworthiness of such mystical art in general.

This book is a large one at almost 500 pages, and it is divided into ten chapters based on various esoteric contexts that appear to come from the Hebrew kaballah (and may be distantly familiar in a different form to some readers of the Bible).  The book begins with a foreword by one Stuart Kaplan that gushes over the author’s work and the tarot deck in particular as well as a timeline and introduction of the material.  After that comes a short discussion of the big picture of tarot (1) and ten a deeper look into the supposed wisdom that is sought from it (2).  After that comes a chapter that encourages the reader to understand the history of the Golden Dawn and its influence on the tarot deck (3) as well as some information about the Kabbalistic tree of life on which the tarot stands (4).  This leads to a discussion of astrology (5).  Coming after this the author then devotes the vast majority of the book to a discussion of the major arcana (6), minor arcana (7), and court cards (8) of the tarot deck, including their imagery and the influences on that imagery, a discussion of the ways that they are interpreted normally and reversed in spreads, as well as various planetary and astrological meanings associated with them.  After that the book ends with a brief discussion of how to read the cards (9) and 78 spreads (10), one for each of the cards, that the author has either created or adapted for the reader, after which the book ends with a symbol dictionary in an appendix as well as a glossary, thank you, image credits, bibliography, and index.

What one gets out of this book is an understanding of a few matters that tend to reflect badly on the tarot and the people who have made such decks.  For one, the author of this particular deck was involved in a fractious group that was devoted to esoteric knowledge but which split apart because everyone was interested in seeking power and not enough people were interested enough in following moral and ethical principles of common (much less noble) decency.  It is not as if the artist comes off any better, plagiarizing previous tarot decks as well as making a lot of theatrical drawings about actress Ellen Terry and generally showing the art of the tarot deck to have been immensely superficial and even idolatrous in nature.  It is striking that the author’s interest in biblical language and in the way that biblical terms are used in esoteric thinker only demonstrate the way that mankind seeks to acquire divine power for corrupt ends and to avoid the necessary path of repentance in order to reconcile with God and obtain eternal life as well as the divine power of the Spirit.  If you want a book that shows how messed up tarot has been throughout its history and certainly today, this book is a good one, contrary to the author’s intentions.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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