When I first obtained volume 1 in 1985, it had already been in print since 1978, the internet did not yet exist, and the variety of tarot decks available in any location was a reflection of the views of those in that region: in France, basically only the playing cards, the Grimaud Marseille and some Etteilla were available; in contrast, in the USA it was basically the Waite-Smith or the 1jj, both marketed by US Games, the owner of which, Stuart Kaplan, is simultaneously the author of this Encyclopedia.
Matters of tarot were also rapidly changing. Numerous new decks were coming out, and the ‘crystal craze’ appeared to be replaced by an emerging ‘tarot craze’. Neo-paganism in its various forms was already the rage in many parts of ‘Western’ countries in which English was spoken, and, to also provide a totally contrasting perspective on the way in which tarot was looked upon by the populace, Michael Dummett (not yet ‘Sir’) had also already published his massively influential (though still seldom read) The Game of Tarot (1980).
It wasn’t until nearly ten years had lapsed since the first volume had appeared that volume II of the Encyclopedia was published in 1986. By then, the tarot ‘furore’ was in full swing, and it took merely another four years for volume III to appear in 1990.
These ‘volumes’ are also perhaps not to be thought as pre-organised, planned and structured as one may expect an encylopædia to be: establishing clear guidelines and structure across a number of volumes that would see later editions amend errors or omissions occuring in its antecedent edition. Rather, and, I would suggest, out of necessity at the time, the first volume sought to encapsulate as a resource all decks and writings about tarot that was known at the time, simultaneously aware that much was in the process of being published which would, of necessity, form the basis of a later volume in which could also be included decks and writings from earlier times that had since been uncovered… and likewise for volume III.
By that stage, the style of each volume was well established. It took another fifteen years before volume IV emerged in 2005. By then, US Games had become one (though its largest) amongst various tarot publishers, and a large number of new decks had also emerged from an unexpected source: in Japan in various Manga and related styles. In Europe, K. Frank Jensen had already established what is likely to be the most complete collection of 20th century tarot decks (in addition to completing ten years of his Manteia); the Musée des Cartes a Jouer was opened in Paris; Lo Scarabeo was emerging as a major player in card production and variety of design; quite a number of early decks had been re-published (often in limited runs) by the likes of Flornoy, Grimaud, Il Meneghello and Héron; and, importantly, the advent of the Internet had made not only deck variety well known and often partially readily available, but also enabled those interested to communicate with one another across the globe and, at times, purchase decks that may have simply otherwise been locally unavailable.
I personally think that it is in that context that the volumes have to first be considered and assessed for not only their worth, but also their influence and future development. On the subject of their future development, a brief mention should here be made that volume V is apparently in preparation. Personally, I strongly suspect that such will be the last of the series – at least in that form.
Structure of books
I have been using the volumes in what may be considered semi-frequent but regular ways since obtaining that first volume now (…how time flies) nearly 25 years ago. By far the volume that has seen the most wear (simply because of my usage) is volume II. I must admit that I still find their structure somewhat confusing.
One way to describe their structure in a nutshell is to consider that each volume has a three-fold division, the central one being its most visual and likely its main selling point: firstly, there is (or are) some tarot essay(s) of note, each volume focussed on different essays; secondly, there are listings of numerous tarot decks with representative imagery from each; and thirdly, and not to be dismissed, what is perhaps collectively the most complete tarot bibliography, usually briefly annotated.
The essays make their appearance usually at the beginning of each volume, though volume IV is a little distinct in this regard. Also, volumes I and II have essays towards the end. Still, in essence, the essays provide some view on the development, the interpretation, or some other consideration on tarot. In general, they each provide good synopsis of the main views they advocate in the context of research of the times in which they were published.
Volume I, which, it must be recalled, was originally published in 1978, provides a good synopsis of the views of a large variety of authors, though in some cases makes statements that assumes the veracity of the views promulgated by the Golden Dawn.
The chapters that follow on early references to playing cards and to tarot, as well as the references to the Visconti Sforza emblems, still provide (together with volume II) one of the most accessible reference work as a foundation to that area of investigation – despite the work that has taken place over the past thirty years, including at least one PhD.
The essays at the end of the book, on card interpretation and on spreads, reflects the times in which they were written and the scarcity of readily available equivalent material at the time. From my point of view, the ‘interpretations’ provided, as well as the card-position meaning of the various spreads, appear a little fixed. To be fair, on the other hand, especially the second essay can be taken as reporting on the spreads found in other works.
In volume II, the essays on various things historical are a real mine for research regarding early considerations pertinent to tarot. There’s not much out there that is comparable and that easily accessible. If for no other reason, it makes this volume – for myself at any rate – indispensible.
Volume III’s essay on Pamela Colman Smith appears (to me at lesat) to lack due acknowledgement to Melinda Parsons’s 1975 MA dissertation. The essay is nonetheless well worth reading, but it has to be taken in light of the incredible amount of work that has emerged over the last few years. As such, it forms one amongst a number of such materials, including, of course, Frank Jensen’s 2006 Story of the Waite-Smith Tarot (though this admittedly hit the press subsequent to volume III which, it must be recalled, was published some sixteen years earlier in 1990).
With volume IV, there are no essays of comparable breadth or depth as in the other volumes. Still, worthy of mention is a one-page description near the end of the volume which includes the number of permutations possible for a given ten-card spread (basically, 78!/68!).
Overall, it seems to me that though some of the essays (such as especially the ones in volumes II and III) have their proper place in the series, others would be better presented in different media – such as a journal or Newsletter.
The strength of the volumes lies not, in any case, in the essays, and doubt that anyone would purchase the Encyclopedia (with the possible exception of volume II) for that content.
I next jump to the last section of the Encyclopedia simply to make brief mention and then return to the central content. Yet, though brief, it should not be underestimated!
This still remains a location which not only lists publications as near comprehensive as can reasonably be expected but, more importantly, still remains uniquely so!
The annotations are also, though brief, of merit. This is one area I hope to either see somehow reflected online (whether on Tarotpedia or elsewhere) or as on ongoing updated and separate volume of its own.
What makes the Encyclopedia wonderful for many remains, of course, the ease of access to representative cards from hundreds of decks. Yet this is also its own downfall: until volume IV, there was effectively no other means these were able to be accessed in one place with relative ease. These days, not only are most of the images from those same decks online in a variety of places, but also in colour.
Again, and through this aspect alone, the Encyclopedia, in its current form, shows its age and its past merit.
If it has not as yet been surpassed online, it is more that comparable work has to be systematically undertaken by not only someone who has the passion required, but also the resources. At the moment, this is spread across a number of individuals working in different locations across the world in non-coordinated ways and, as such, the Encyclopedia, despite the awkward manner in which the decks are arranged, remains in a unique position.
I say the decks are arranged in an awkward manner and yet, to be sure, I cannot say what other way they could have been better presented. The way they are grouped together suggests, for each volume, a logic that makes sense, even if across volumes new finds, new decks, or new styles cuts across groupings from earlier volumes.
It should be recalled that volume IV, as an example, does not arise out of a plan before volume I was completed, but rather is itself a consequence of the inevitable omissions of the previous three volumes.
If the whole four volumes were to have been written today, then I certainly would expect their overall arrangement to differ greatly with greater focus on earlier decks in the earlier volumes and greater sub-groupings with decks that have emerged since 1980.
So, in a nutshell, what do I think of them? Firstly, I sincerely hope that the set gets a fifth volume as many amongst us expect. Irrespective of their limitations, it is a set that will remain for years to come a testament to the diversity and richness of not only tarot in general, but also of this period in its history – and it seems to me that its closing volume has yet to appear.
For tarot enthusiasts and researchers, the set, irrespective as to whether most images also become available online and whether Tarotpedia or something similar develops to the extent of the volumes of the Encyclopedia of Tarot, remains a fount of reference material that is both relatively affordable and (still) readily accessible.
There are, of course, other books on tarot that any bookshelf ought to include. These, however, remain amongst that select group.
Encyclopedia of Tarot vol. I (isbn 0913866113 ), 1978
Stuart R. Kaplan
387 pages + 8 colour pages
images from 250 decks
30 page annotated bibliography
Encyclopedia of Tarot vol. II (isbn 0913866369 ), 1986
Stuart R. Kaplan
552 pages + 16 colour pages
images from 300 decks
28 page annotated bibliography
Encyclopedia of Tarot vol. III (isbn 0880791225 ), 1990
Stuart R. Kaplan
694 pages + 16 colour pages
images from over 550 decks
6 page annotated bibliography
Encyclopedia of Tarot vol. IV (isbn 157281506X ), 2005
Stuart R. Kaplan & Jean Huets
802 pages + 16 colour pages
images from over 800 decks
32 page annotated bibliography