Let it be said from the beginning: If you like alternative histories, then this is the book you want to read right now: The Game of Saturn, by Peter Mark Adams.
First off, you want to get this book because Scarlet Imprint produced it. I could say they’ve produced it handsomely, but that would come across as flat. ‘A handsome Devil’ would be more appropriate, but that’s still not it.
What I really want to say is that Scarlet Imprint produced this book with dedication, fearlessness, hard work, and a precise sense of elegant style that, indeed, only Saturn, the planet of ‘take your goddamn time,’ would understand. We are grateful.
Second, alternative history is fascinating.
Why ‘alternative history’?
Simply because what we’re dealing with here is not history that has its basis in documents, textual proof, and taxation of an artefact that describes the precise purpose of a ‘game’, the so-called Sola-Busca Tarot.
What we’re dealing with here is the kind of history of cards that tells a story around the cards; a contextual history that proposes a bold thesis; a literary history that, above all, invites us to read beyond ‘convincing argument.’
Alternative history is the kind of history that takes risks, raises your curiosity, and weaves magic into ecstasies of common-sense.
Alban Berg, a Vienesse composer and master of the 12-tone technique said the following:
‘The best magic always results from ecstasies of logic.’
While reading this book, I kept hearing this line at the back of my head. The more I heard this line, the more I appreciated the book.
I can say that there are two kinds of appreciation that go into my experience of reading it: One pragmatic and one aesthetic. The pragmatic relates to valuing the author’s dedication to his idea: ‘This tarot, or tarocchi, is a dark grimoir used for conjurations of dark forces.’
The aesthetic relates to seeing how images can be used to tell a wild story: Historical events and characters, malefic fixed stars, and romance literature all come together in Peter Mark Adams’s book in order to tell a story of what is plausible and what is possible.
The basic question is: How does the elite maintain its power, wealth, and privilege?
As a diviner, one who makes a living telling fortunes, this is good enough for me.
This is good enough for me because I already see history, and prediction markets à la Wall Street, on par with what we do when we read the Tarot.
Tell a story. When we read the Tarot, or any other oracular artefact for that matter, we look at is what is plausible and what is possible. We look at what is always a construction.
Why construction? Because what we call ‘fact’, or ‘reality’, always already submits to language.
This is another way of saying that ‘fact’ and ‘reality’ are concepts that submit to perception and how we see things in a given time and context.
This means that context rules over fact and reality, and not vice-versa. Ultimately this is the reason why some facts get away with being ‘alternative’, ‘orange’, or ‘purple’.
Looking at the images of the Sola-Busca Tarot just now, it strikes me that not only are there many shields in play here, reflecting whatever reality, but that they may be thought of as scrying devices in a detective story about a sorcerous Tarot and its function of drawing down power.
Indeed, let us appreciate it when the author says this, in his introduction (xiv):
‘In essence this work is a literary detective story’.
I want to insist on the fact that when we read occult books, it is best not to focus too much on what’s convincing and what’s not, and thus lose ourselves in the fallacy of finding proof when proof is not even proposed.
The ‘convincing argument’ cannot be part of the program, when what we’re dealing with here is an obscure artefact whose date of origin is still debatable.
Consequently, in this essay I’m more interested in looking at how the author is advancing an idea and whether I find it exciting, rather than evaluate to what extent I ‘buy’ the story.
Academically speaking, however, it’s a fair question to ask:
Why was this Tarot only first referenced in around 1831, when it is presumed to have been designed around 1491? Where has it been until then? And since then, why have so few engaged with it, art historians and occult writers alike?
If we accept the historians’ proposition that this Tarot deck is the product of the Renaissance, then we can also fairly ask:
What’s up with the weird images, with the out of proportion and distorted bodies representing belligerent historical figures, such as Alexander the Great?
Big heads and fat limbs are not the usual stylistic traits we associate with Renaissance iconography.
The plain answer is that we don’t know.
But we can let ourselves be enchanted by the story that Adams tells around what we don’t know about the Sola-Busca Tarot.
He does a good job at proposing that the iconography of this tarot follows not so much what we know of Alexander the Great as a historical figure, but rather what we know of the way he’s depicted in literary contexts, such as the romance genre, more specifically the Romance of Alexander, a collection of legends dating back to the 3rd century Greece.
The distorted and grotesque images may mirror the exaggerations and hyperbole we find in fiction and tall tales.
Thematically, Adams tells the story of the Renaissance Italian lords of wealth and money – hence the reference to the temple and rites of Saturn, the lord of wealth and money – and how these lords went about maintaining their power and privileges by making recourse to underground initiations, following mystery traditions, and participating in pagan rites. Not very Catholic.
Furthermore, Adams traces the lines of the story of how closely interconnected alchemy is with magic in the Renaissance. For this, the weaving of alchemy with magical discourse, we have plenty of evidence, as there’s almost no text dating to the 15th century that’s not about magic and how to craft surviving beyond one’s conditions.
But Adams tells not only the story of the elite as the only group fortunate enough to have access to knowledge about mystery rites, conjurations, and revivals, but also the story of how the elite may have been resisting the existing dominant code and power.
Stressing the importance of Hellenistic thought and its emphasis on magic and theurgy for appropriate political action may well have had a counter-cultural function.
At the same time, the fact that the elite has also used its privilege to misuse power is hardly news, but what we can appreciate in Adams’s story is the idea that hidden secrets can also be located in plain sight, staring you in the face.
There’s always something very unsettling about the obvious, especially when the obvious is dressed in seemingly obscure and complex code.
Perhaps that’s why we can think of the obvious as rather diabolical, because it relates to what’s under your nose, to what you can breathe and dance into the world.
At the heart of the book is the thesis that we can read the cards as a representation of a cosmology derived from Plato’s Timaeus.
However, what gives the deck its flavor is Neoplatonic thought as filtered through the gnostic lens of the Mythraic mystery cult (99).
Adams gives very detailed descriptions of all the lines he pulls together, making the book an Encyclopedia of what might go into the context of constructing a ‘hidden gnostic grimoir’ (246).
How this deck was used as a dark grimoir, however, is anybody’s guess.
Adams’s own suggestion here is that through working with the deck, while maintaining the idea of personal gnosis, one might arrive at tapping into the connections that went into the purpose of the deck.
The proposition is that we use this deck for contemplative work, though there’s an implicit warning: Stick with evocation rather than invocation, as you don’t want any of the presumed malefic powers associated with the images of the deck take possession over your curious self.
Alternatively, we can use this set of cards as more than just a talismanic object to reflect on, or as an aid to the magician who may desire to decapitate his enemy, or at least to stick a spear through their eyes (in reference to Adams’s discussion of planetary power, here particularly the fixed star Algol).
In my own work with the cards, I appreciate them for their oracular power and divinatory capacity.
Those following my cartomantic work will know that what interests me the least is lists of meanings that are randomly created for the purpose of devising a method for reading the cards.
Methods are good, as they inspire us in a particular ‘straight’ way, but what is better is the simple approach of formulating a specific question whose answer we can find the ‘crooked’ way, which is to say, the poetic way.
Divination has been associated with a secret language, the language of the birds, or the green language that enables us to participate in the integration of our unconscious desires with our conscious acts.
In this sense, we never need ‘meanings’ that are pre-determined. What we need is an active way of looking at something, whether that be straightforward images, odd images, obscure images, abstract or literal images, dogmatic images that follow religious or pagan design, any images.
Perhaps the greatest mystery is found in the way in which we are capable of responding spontaneously to what we see whether that be a ghost or garlic. We can ask the ghost for advice, and we can ask the garlic to protect our turf. Meaning is always created in context, not in categories or lists.
What I find fascinating is when we combine the use of images crafted along a specific system (for example, the tarot has 78 cards, 22 trumps and 56 pip cards), with conjectures about the purpose of sets (for example, the idea that the tarot is used to heal, to kill, or to play with).
What we find at this intersection of system with purpose is a way of going beyond cultural pre-conditioning.
The Game of Saturn is very much a book that suggests the value of going beyond cultural dictations.
However, going beyond cultural dogma is always a tall order, because it invariably implies an act of violence.
You don’t kill dominant power by submitting to it, by going to church and hoping that things will get better. You kill a dominant power by transgressing its most odious rules, by making sacrifices, by taking risks, by invoking the old gods, and by inducing a state of frenzy that disrupts habitual patterns.
To the outside perceiver, invoking the demiurge, and transmitting knowledge via symbolic content that’s encoded on cards and carton will always seem like a mad project. But how much madder is the Catholic church with its hierarchy and dominant power?
All things being equal, what is the difference between the Catholic church burning some bodies, and the Pagans slashing some throats? None whatsoever.
Therefore I’ll say, all power to the transgressors, the designers of cards who tickle our imagination, the storytellers, and the mad dancers. It is the transgressors who always teach us something beyond the human condition.
What I take from Adams’s book is that we can take any historical fact, event, rite, and doctrine, and read into it what is always a travel of discovery. With every turn of the cards, what we do is discover new ways of thinking about forgotten practices of living magically.
Along these lines, let me end here with this question that I pose to the Sola-Busca tarot, as this is what I do best: Read the damn cards. In my reading I will not rely on any ‘meanings,’ or back stories, but rather go with what I see.
Scarlet Imprint will soon release a deck to accompany Adams’s book, and it will be exciting to see what Adams makes of both the cards as a grimoir, and the cards as a tool for divination.
Meanwhile: The cards I have here are from Wolfgang Mayer’s collection, in facsimile by Giordano Berti.
Here’s my specific question addressed directly to the cards about their existential status:
In addition to Peter Mark Adams’s thesis, that you, cards, constitute a hidden, talismanic grimoir encoding magical and theurgic knowledge, what is your most powerful story that you want to tell?
The cards have this to say:
Watch your step. Sacrifice your left eye in your meeting with the gods, hold forth your wormwood, your vehicle for astral travel, and be ready to dive deeply into your heart’s desire.
Ask yourself: ‘How can these desires help me transform or, rather more literally, shape-shift, so that what I think I am is aligned with what I really am, or the nature of the mind?’
Work on these desires. Make them upright. Let them stick into the air. Carry them on your back, and if you must justify them, blame it on the fruit of knowledge that you carry in your hand.
In theurgy, do we even care if it was an apple or a pear that the demiurge used for seduction?
Get this book, and the cards that will be released by Scarlet Imprint, and enjoy seeing how stories emerge, and how they can be crafted in the image of knowledge, wisdom, and the beyond.
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