I have long been fascinated by the deck which appears in Papus’ (1865-1916) Tarot Divinatoire; Clef du tirage des Cartes et des Sorts (1909). I like its strangeness, its unique Egyptian-Marseilles hybrid images, its excess of symbols, its brazen inaccessibility, the way the cards really do look like pages from a book with wide margins and mysterious annotations. Above all, it is the very last deck to appear before the Rider Waite Smith Tarot came along and moved the goalposts.
I like the way it isn’t afraid to be impenetrable in that late nineteenth century, early twentieth century way, when tarot was an exclusive, gentlemanly club behind velvet drapes, heady with cigar smoke and secrets, and frock coats were removed, silk robes donned to participate in hushed up ceremonies.
However, I have never been able to locate a facsimilie copy of the 1992 Dusserre edition, and the U.S Games Papus Tarot from the 1970s (which I do have) isn’t quite the same somehow. It doesn’t have all the symbols and hieroglyphs in the card margins for a start, which immediately strips it of its magic. Yet there is a curious edition of the Papus tarot which can be seen on page 282 of Kaplan’s Encyclopedia of Tarot (Volume I) called the “Tarô Adivinhatório, which was first published in São Paulo in 1974. I have an original copy of this book and deck set which always seemed relatively easy to pick up in bookshops in Brazil. The printing was a bit rough and ready, the colours a bit primary but it was a curious little deck and I always liked its rather unrefined edge. Last week I came across a new edition of the set, bought it out of curiosity and when I looked on the inner flyleaf of the book, was surprised to discover that it is actually in its 32nd edition. It has probably been in print constantly (with the same publishers, “Pensamentos” and by all accounts with the same cover) since its release, and yet it is a deck which remains largely unknown to the tarot-buying European and American public.
There are very few changes to the artwork, it still has that slight sparse shabbiness, but the (few) colours are richer, the cardstock is shinier, the lines of the printing and shading are a little bit tidier, yet it still feels like a “basic” tarot deck, far removed from the sleekness and advanced printing processes of most of today’s deck. but for me this only serves to make it feel more lovably antiquated. New backs have also been designed which have something of early 1980s curtains and really don’t work. The older nondescript backs of the previous editions worked much better, but I quite like the naivety here to try and make the deck “modern”, and which backfires charmingly.
The cards, a nice compact, shuffleable size, are numbered in Roman Numerals from I (Mago) to the Ace of Coins (LXXVIII), with The Fool placed between numbers XX and XXI. There are four court cards but with the Page being renamed Slave. The Major Arcana cards retain the usual names (Justice at VIII, Strength at XI), the Tower is The House of God and The Lovers is The Lover. But it is all the detailed pointers and symbols and Sanscrit and Hebraic letters which make the deck unique. The Major Arcana also have different symbols from the “Arqueometre of Saint-Yves” (The Archeometre is the measurement of the Universal Cosmic Force “of which the hermetists speak”).
Esoterica and heavy occult symbolism is to be found by the bucketload in this deck. The cards also have character types written in the margins (“effeminate man”, “soldier”, “dark girl between 2 and 4 years old”) which give it a quaint gypsy feel. Some of them have peculiar titles (10 of Cups; “The city where you are”, Ace of Cups; “Table”). The cards also have very exact timings written on them, which is something I often hear tarot aficionados asking about in decks, to be able to pinpoint time. We have dates (such as “May 20th-30th”), times of day (“10 and 11 a.m”, “5 in the morning”) and Moon cycles (“6th day and night of the 4th crescent”, “2nd night of the new moon”). All text on the cards is in Portuguese. Only the Minor Arcana (and not court cards) have reversed meanings written on them.
The book (in Portuguese) has no identifiable authorship neither on the cover nor in the credits. I suspect this isn’t a translation direct from Papus. It contains 12 very elaborate, over the top ways to “lay” the cards, a far cry from today’s advice to “try a one card draw and see how it makes you feel”. Here we have rambling, complex spreads (when reading them, you feel as though the whole of the New Age movement has been disdainfully sidestepped; it is as if Llewellyn never existed), while the latter part of the book has infinite combinations of cards and their suggested divinatory meanings. No mention of “what do the cards mean to you?” No, here we have the nineteenth century patriarch laying down the law, dutifully passing on ancient esoteric lore, from the Egyptians no less, and with only a cursory mention of Etteilla in one of the spreads. At the end of the book, there is a handy list for consultation, divided up by theme, so you can look up sickness, wedding, or deceit etc and which cards and combinations might mean just that. So I suppose if you were hopeful of – say – an inheritance, you could lay out the cards and immediately see if an inheritance was denoted. Cut to the chase, as it were. “I don’t know what the cards are saying exactly but I can see they’re not saying “inheritance.” That kind of thing. I doubt I shall read with this deck but something about it attracts me. Tarot from another era perhaps, tarot out of step with market trends, dowdy tarot and – worst of all – difficult tarot. But to think this deck has been in print throughout so many editions makes it feel like a great great grandfather deck, like finding that a distant relative is actually still alive and well and with many, many stories to tell. It can look its lesser cousins in the face, toss down the gauntlet and dare them to try and make it to 32 editions. Go on, just try.