A new wave of interest is emerging about Tarot, and this well-researched, in-depth tome is excellent proof of this development. Emerging from outside the boundaries of Tarot's traditional audience, Origins of the Tarot by Dai Leon is written to engage this new set of minds and hearts. As one might assume under the circumstances, the target audience has different considerations than those who have, up to this point, seen themselves as guardians and gatekeepers of Tarot's history and legacy. For this reason, while Leon's book has the potential to both introduce the subject from a fresh angle and bring new voices to the discussion, it could also frustrate and confound any who have an interest in confining the discussion about Tarot's history within it's previous, self-referential boundaries.
Generally, Tarot books are written either from the how-to perspective or the historical-argument perspective. Writings that arise from outside these foci have had a hard time finding traction among modern Tarot articulators -- if they do stimulate a response, it is fairly predictably negative. To a certain extent this has been good for the Tarot, in that it has sorted out the "pure intuition" types from the bedrock-fact types, and allowed each group to pursue their goals unhindered by the other. What has also happened as a result of this dichotomy, however, is that the intense polarizing has obscured the 360 degree field of alternate approaches to Tarot. Any number of fascinating topics -- such as the history of Tarot's use as a magical tool; evidence of southern European esoteric Christianity; the influence of Eastern philosophies on the Trumps; Tarot and the Art of Memory; and the initiatory program of the Trump ordering (to it's contemporaries, rather than to moderns) -- all this and so much more have been consigned to a sidestream, sometimes for decades. Whether this blockage could be chalked up to a matter of personality politics, a dearth of syncretic thinkers, or simply a market-driven phenomenon, the overall Tarot community has been the poorer for the delay.
This deadlock is clearly breaking up, because the Tarot as a cultural phenomenon has finally outgrown its unique subculture and is washing up onto the shores of the broader culture. Not only have the academics of Western Esotericism begun to research and write about Tarot-related phenomena, but the Perennial Tradition community has found its way into these parts as well. Dai Leon is opening a door between worlds of thought with this volume, and for this reason alone it is long-awaited and deserves to be celebrated.
Because of his angle of entry, Leon's method of presentation might seem opaque to some and obtuse to others. This is the mark of a synthetic thinker in an era of over-specialization, and is nothing to apologize for. Readers might experience cognitive dissonance because the book isn't organized or presented in the manner to which we have all become accustomed. But whose problem is that, actually? Leon has a global perspective, gleaned from becoming a student and practitioner of multiple initiatory systems. Therefore he can speak from the position of the self-cultivated magus who has undertaken a lifetime of self-improvement and values-seeking while immersing himself in the cultures and wisdom traditions of the systems he has studied. This is living knowledge, my friends, and once such a structure is installed within the Self, it faithfully attracts and collects everything on that frequency, despite all cultural or temporal boundaries.
In other words, don't read this book to find a repetition of what you already believe. Instead, read it to discover what the academics and philosophers already realize, but which is still only trickling into the Tarot community!
An edited snip from my review over at Aeclectic Tarot ([...]): Tarot researchers have for the most part agreed that the Trump sequence (in any known ordering) demonstrates a spiritual ascent with its concomitant evolution of consciousness, from the lowly status of the individual ego (Fool or Mountebank) to the highest point in the known World. By hewing close to the oldest known patterns, Leon frees himself from the chicken/egg discussion of "who's on first?" directing attention instead to the spiritual architecture that structured the Trump ideas even before their first appearance on cardstock. This is a refreshing approach that saves the reader the work of thrashing through the mucky swamps of modern Tarot politics. In the process Leon demonstrates the inevitability of the Trump ideas and their natural inter-relationships, which were fully ripe and ready to be harvested at the point that some bright artist/designer made the choice to illustrate the system on a set of flash cards.
To accomplish this, Leon has set his heels firmly on the historical line that marks the first wood-block printed Tarot for the masses, and he's resolutely moving backwards in time from there. In this he is responding to a long-recognized, ongoing periodic need in the study of Tarot; to catologue Tarot's antecedents across the multiple cultures that contributed to it. Therefore one doesn't find information about what the cards mean "in a spread; in a divinatory application with a modern pack". Instead Leo's goal is to bring forward the chains of linked ideas we have inherited from Antiquity, which over centuries distilled and eventuated into the Trumps.
Nor is this work to be compared to the more romanticized presentations of our Tarot forefathers (Wirth, Levi, Etteilla etc.) because Leon's conclusions are supported by the best modern scholarship. Our Tarot elders had, in contrast, the records of the Lodges and Orders, plus the dusty shelves of the university collections and antique book dealers for their archives. In the course of reading Leon's book, one will no doubt encounter ideas that strike echoes of old Tarot myths-of-origin, but that doesn't make them wrong! It's quite possible that our Tarot elders were actually onto something that the 20th century Tarot revisionists intentionally obscured. (Other syntheses of the same historical territory are to be found in Dan Murker's _Gnosis; An Esoteric Tradition of Mystical Visions and Unions_ [SUNY Press; 1993] and Tobias Churton's _Gnostic Philosophy; From Ancient Persia to Modern Times_ [Inner Traditions Press; 2005]. However, neither of them ties their conclusions back to the Tarot, though Churton's account of the succession reads like a veritable Tarot who's who!)
My suspicion is that readers who are unwilling or unable to suspend their culturally-constructed disbelief long enough to envision the Tarot from this deeper, older angle are probably using their cards at a different level than the one Leon is speaking to/from. I don't see Leon's book written in the style of a diatribe, against which to react and with which to contend. More, it's a long meditation on the Ancient Tradition, as revealed through the interior logic structuring the oldest expressions of the Tarot Trumps. The reader might have a more coherent experience of reading this book once they understand that Leon sees the Trumps being formed in the mold of Tradition, rather than the other way around.