If you are interested in Mesopotamian and Middle Eastern religion, spirituality or mythology and the Tarot, you will find Mirror of the Free, its themes and explanations, most enjoyable. The book deals with the hypothesis that the artist responsible for the illustrations found in the Marseille Tarot Deck had access to the designs found on Mesopotamian cylinder seals, and copied parts of the images, sometimes accurately, sometime inaccurately, which in turn led to these drawings forming the Major Arcana.
For those of you unaccustomed with Mesopotamian cylinder seals, they were fabricated out of hard stone (or other material), and stories and images were engraved on to them. Then, once the picture was complete, they could be rolled across wet clay, where the carvings would leave an impression. The subject matter very often focused upon religious and mythological themes.
The book opens with a fairly amusing (and dare I say it, accurate?) account of the stance various authors take on the origins of the Tarot:
“It is common for authors on the Tarot cards to assert that their true origin is unknown. One sometimes gets the impression, however, that they prefer it that way: knowledge means not only less excuse to speculate but, also, more responsibility. They write as if they want to know; or as if they want the reader to think they want to; or as if acknowledging, almost reluctantly, that they ought to make an earnest effort to find out: but, when it comes down to it, they might, for some reason, rather not.”
Using references and information sourced from Helena Blavatsky, Rumi, the Kabbalah, Sufism, Middle Eastern mysticism and much more besides, Mr Swift proceeds to walk us through the theory that it is possible for the images found in the Major Arcana to have originated in Mesopotamia. This book is illustrated throughout using images of the Marseille Tarot alongside which he offers intriguing similar depictions found on the cylinder seals, allowing the reader the opportunity to formulate their own opinion with regard to their resemblance, to allow them to ‘see for themselves’ if you will. He provides in-depth discussions to accompany these pictorial references (see quote below), leading us through myths, mystical teachings and even linguistics.
“With or without reference to a Devil, to be sure of what you think is evil, it probably helps to know what you think is good. The flag-draped villains of history have always seen themselves as heroes and saviours of their people, and sometimes of the rest of the world as well. Gurdjieff, too, put it very concisely when he said that for the vast majority, evil is an entirely subjective matter: whatever furthers the satisfaction of their desires is good, and whatever impedes it is evil for them.”
The images on the cylinder seals do bear an uncanny likeness to some cards of the Tarot. Mr Swift goes on to explain that themes run through the depictions on the cylinder seals which, when combined, may suggest the symbolic meanings of the cards.
The reader is encouraged – and perhaps, depending on how you receive the information presented, persuaded – to see the history of the Tarot from a different angle. Let’s not forget that the title of the book Mirror of the Free means ‘unconditioned perception’. And after all this, if indeed the notion that the origins of the Tarot lie in Sumero-Babylonian myth, the cards have a longer, richer history than was first supposed (as currently we cannot guarantee a history further back than the Middle Ages).
Mr Swift’s commentary throughout the book is engaging and insightful; as you turn page after page of pure information – for that is what this book primarily consists of; there is no waffle or filler here! – you are more than aware of the level of scholarship and understanding the author has for the languages discussed and the complexities surrounding cultural and religious succession in the relevant areas.
For all its intricately woven threads, Mirror of the Free does, however, contain snippets of humour, to lighten the journey somewhat:
[In reference to the Death card] “…it would not go down very well with Miss Dimplebottom to tell her that the bulge in the pocket of the tall dark and handsome stranger she is going to meet is a sharp farming implement…”
“…one needs to beware of experts whose ruling principle seems to be, ‘When in doubt, say it’s a fertility ritual.’…”
After reading this book, one comes to understand that no matter how much you think you know about the Tarot, the meanings of the cards, and their history, there is still so much more to learn. You will not be able to absorb all the information Mr Swift sets out in his book in one sitting; it is not that kind of book. To truly understand it all, it is a book one must return to and study.
There is no getting away from the fact that Mirror of the Free is a heavy read, but one must ask whether the origins of the Tarot would be easy to understand, seeing as though we freely accept that what we currently know of the cards is thought to contain much hidden symbolism. I found the book to be a fascinating, if complicated read and the stance the book takes on the origins of the Tarot to be well worth our consideration.
I highly recommend this book.
Title: Mirror of The Free
Author: Nicholas Swift
Publisher: O Books/ 2011
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