Skip to main content

A Review of Peter Mark Adams & Christophe Poncet’s ‘Two Esoteric Tarots’

Today’s Via-Hygia Bibliotherapy-Book review is ‘Two Esoteric Tarots‘, a 2023 Scarlet Imprint Publication, which is the transcript of a discussion held online between two leading tarot experts, Peter Mark Adams & Christophe Poncet and curated by Cesar Pedreros, updating us about the latest news in the tarot scholarly research field with many new information to offer to the interested reader. To understand the conversation, a bit of background context is necessary:

I. When a male scholarly ego

gets in the way of scientific research

It is a current defect to judge a period with a contemporary set of beliefs that are anachronistic and lack an understanding of the studied epoch’s mentality and culture. We commonly expect people of those ages to behave and think like us, at the present time. ‘In A Wicked Pack of Cards, we seek to show that various of the recounted theories about Tarot are baseless and anachronistic: they usually assume far too great an antiquity for the Tarot, and tend to interpret it according to pagan and/or Jewish doctrines that Italians of the early XV century could not have known. Some occultists, when responding to our earlier book, abused us for using rational arguments; but the constructive critic would do better to meet us on our own ground and use rational argument to prove us wrong.’ (Michael Dummett, in the introduction of ‘A History of Occult Tarot’, 1870-1970.)

It is exactly what happened to Sir Michael Dummett himself, in a case of the biter bit – because an absence of proof does not mean it does not exist – One needs to know where to look and how to properly interpret in accordance with the period’s complexes societal codes, customs and sub-cultures -In the ‘1981-Dummett-Yates controversy‘, on one side we have a celebrated and seasoned Oxford scholar, Sir Michael Dummett hammering the claim ‘that there was no such thing as an esoteric tarot before the french occultists ‘discovered’ it in the eighteenth century!‘ and on the other side we have the great Warburgian scholar, Dame Frances Yates kindly suggesting that there are clues still out there to be explored that may lead to important discoveries that could lead to a complete reassessment of this statement-clues to be found in the Renaissance’s mastery of the art of duplicity: For the obvious reason that nobody wanted to be burned at stake for his/her opinions and work and the sheer necessity to hide one’s thoughts disguised behind some word-game, symbolic subject, elements in an artwork, mythological allusions, etc…An art by itself: In plain, nobody would claim to use the tarot game for divination and furthermore to preserve and teach ancient knowledge! That person would have been in immediate danger. Hence the artily dissimulation, an art by itself, the Italian Renaissance luminaries would excel in.

Sir Michael could have simply said ‘I stand my position’, but I will search for the clues that you kindly suggested.’ But he didn’t and his answer to Dame Frances was a sad but-too-common-example of scholarly mansplaining of someone hurt in his feelings when somebody challenges his playground hegemony and so called expertise – At the commoner level, an attitude just plain rude. Dame Frances died a few months later after all this avoidable and embarrassing exchange. End of the so-called controversy that would demoralize, discourage and freeze serious research for quite some time.

It is important to note that this is reminiscent of the dismissive and patronizing treatment of trail-blazing archeologist Marija Gimbutas by her patronizing male peers that organized a real smear campaign against Gimbutas’ work, starting in the last years of her life and following her death in 1994. You can still read on Professor Gimbutas wiki page such typical comments, like ‘immensely knowledgeable but not very good in critical analysis‘ (!) The sad irony is that most of her fierce critics, in 2017 and 2018 in front of the latest scientific findings ‘had to admit she was right‘ and she stands ‘as the triumphant precursor of much current work‘…Quite a ‘walk to Canossa‘! But no one is updating the wiki page – just saying. Professor Gimbutas was ultimately vindicated but Dame Frances Yates was not…until some ten years ago.


II. ‘X Marks The Spot’

…the issue rested, finally, on Dummett’s appeal for, and openness towards, evidence overturning his statement. The evidence that neither Dummett nor Yates had access to in 1980 has only become available over the last ten years, and it fundamentally overturns Dummett’s opposition. Frances Yates was right but lacked the specifics to establish her case.'(Peter Mark Adam, ‘Two Esoteric Tarot’ page 72 and 73) Sounds familiar, no?

The scholar’s good fortune never fails to show up and Italy in deed held the clues to unlock this curse and it took two scholars, Christophe Poncet and Peter Mark Adams to reverse it, from one taunting discovery to another, following two very different traditions – but whose cultural background were intrinsically interweaved – the Tarot de Marseille and the Sola Busca Tarot, both phenomenon of the complex burgeoning of Italian Renaissance: ‘Two different deck from the fifteenth century revealed themselves as spectacular examples of esotericism in tarot, more than three hundred years before the earliest date previously accepted by academic consensus.’ (Christophe Poncet, ‘Two Esoteric Tarot’, page 25).


III. Christophe Poncet

& the ‘Tarot de Marsilio’

Christophe Poncet started researching exactly where Dame Frances was suggesting to start. And guess what? Clues started to unravel, one more daunting than the other and a new light started to shine over what possibly could have been the history of this particular tarot, leading to no one but to the Careggi Platonic Academy greatest figure, Marsilio Ficino and his impressive entourage of artists and polymathic scholars!

Obviously, Marsilio Ficino didn’t boast in public that he invented a pedagogical game aimed at teaching platonic philosophy. But when one is looking carefully into his writings, we are struck by the exact correspondance between certain texts and some of the trumps of the Marseille tarot’ says Christophe Poncet, in an interview with Alain Jacob. In a multi-layered approach, a true ‘ars combinatoria‘, Christophe Poncet examined the iconography that has surfaced since the ‘Dummett-Yates controversy‘ and researched all the possible sources, texts, artworks, etc., to try to determine what has been the inspiration of the artist who created the more ‘philosophical’ trumps joining the common gaming cards.

André Chastel in his now classical study, ‘Marsilio Ficino and the Arts’ (Droz, 1996, page 160 – our Via Hygeia translation from the original French) points to the method Ficino opportunistically used to serve his purpose at a critical time when very popular use of the tarots was leaning towards ‘kitchen practices’ of some sort of folk divination and he took advantage of it to ‘hide the dog’s bones’…in plain sight:

The platonic allegory therefore is the instrument able to induce the soul in a state of poetic receptivity; it has, in short, only two limits established by the relationship between two essential forces, mens & anima, with symbolic forms. When it is about cosmic order, the allegory is marked off by the ‘magic’, in a Ficinian meaning, that is the result of a rigorous attention to the hidden forces of nature and to the resulting effects of true correspondances: the magical operation, alike the one that gathers and orientates the Jovian influx by the sign, the stone and the correct time, is a realized allegory.

In the superior order of the intelligence, where vision is faster and more enlightening, the allegory ceases to be enough; the spirit is already, so to speak, ‘on the other side’. After using other formulas, Ficino finally started to use the word and idea of ‘hieroglyph’, to designate the image or the sign that, beyond the allegory, maintains the spirit in a tension useful to contemplation close to ectasis: the talisman of the ‘oculus mentis’ (eye of the spirit).

While publishing more than a dozen academic papers to share these exciting discoveries, Christophe Poncet  produced with the TV Channel ARTE a documentary, ‘The Mysteries of the Tarot de Marseille’ (see the appendix below) aired at the end of 2014 which was weaving together all the findings that allowed him to pierce the elusive code, an hermetic and philosophic syllabus, that was embedded at the heart of this popular tarot game, hence becoming…’The tarot of Marsilio’!

A book in three volumes with this very name will soon be published, also by Scarlet Imprint, and present, in detail, the impressive art of creative duplicity Ficino and his entourage were bent to develop to ensure that their esoteric vision would be preserved and shared with further generations, especially demonstrating how they bravely ‘rode the tiger‘ in such a way that still fascinates us today.


IV. Peter Mark Adams

& The Sola Busca Tarot

ESSWE (European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism) member and Warburgian scholar Peter Mark Adams comes from a different background but lived a similar experience with the revelation of a complete set of cards known by their former owner’s name, the Sola Busca Tarot, to the main public in 2009 by the Italian Ministry of Culture and Heritage after buying it from private hand and exhibited at the Brera Art Gallery in Milan. He shares with us the process that led him to write the first authoritative study about this very particular tarot, ‘The Game of Saturn’ (Scarlet Imprint, 2017):

Despite the fact that I had been a student of the tarot for decades, when I examined the cards they made little sense to me; and I couldn’t believe that anything that had had this much time and effort expended on it wasn’t possessed of some deeper significance. In other words, if it was obscure, it was obscure for a reason; and it was that reason that drove me to ponder the images for something like five years. As I engaged with the cards, I slowly started to achieve a certain resonance with their ‘vocabulary’ and with the classical literary sources that they encoded; in turn, these insights suggested further associations and ultimately I scented the faintest of allusions to the mystery traditions of antiquity. I think the major realisation that I had was that the figures actually embodied a postural and gestural repertoire – a ritual grammar – that followed distinctly Hellenistic precedents. This realisation was incredibly significant, because in the history of Western arts, or at least in how art historians have gone about their interpretative work, the gestural repertoire of non-christian ritual practices seldom, if ever, features.’ (Peter Mark Adams, ‘Two Esoteric Tarot’, page 12).

Taking upon what Dame Frances suggested as an area of attention, the mysterious ‘hieroglyphs’ that were so popular at the time of the Renaissance – alike the seemingly non-sensiscal hieroglyphs of the Bembine table of Isis – Peter Mark Adams  found that the Sola Busca cards were also ‘hiding the dog’s bones’ but not in an obvious way, which explains its bad reputation due to the grotesque and dark imagery it displays very openly to the curious eye. He could build a systematic understanding of the ritual imagery and body postures’ ‘vocabulary and grammar’ hidden behind the grotesque mythological narratives and started un-winding a thin blue thread that lead him to uncover what was deliberately and with much efforts concealed, the manifestation of a deep political and occult underground, devoted to Power and the continuity of the celebration of antique deities that would support such burning desires for it; the back-bone of some Italian families fighting by all means, especially psychological through many covert operations of mis-information and manipulation, for supremacy. Welcome to the Italian Renaissance, when life and death were dancing their way through a procession of creative excesses and repentances!

A whole subtile ‘Theatre of Memory’ was laid in plain sight, patiently waiting behind the grotesque and deliberately shocking imagery, to deliver its message ‘to the educated eye‘. The curious reader will discover this important work of sleuthing wits, to be alike reading a mystery book that treads in the darker corners of the Italian Renaissance, forces in the shadow that were opposed to Marsilio Ficino and his Platonic Academy of Florence’s dream of ‘harmony & concord’ between nations and their people with also a duplicity of words and art: The Sola Busca Tarot was one of their brain-child involved into their greater scheming game. In a forthcoming study, ‘The Cult of Saturn’, Peter Mark Adams will develop further these findings into what he considers ‘the cornerstone of his work’.

Finally, Dame Frances Amelia Yates couldn’t be more proud of the ‘Warburg Spirit’ that is displayed by the generations who followed her at the institute – all in their own creative and dissimilar way –  but recognizable, as one publication after another they are renovating the art of the academia and Peter Mark Adams is no exception!


V. The Lessons of ‘Two Esoteric Tarots’:

A Fascinating Discussion

Here are the take-aways that the curious reader

may benefit from this stimulating book:

1. Scholars are not talking enough between themselves and especially across disciplines and should share more often their conversation in book-form. This little book does just that, brilliantly. So we can see the serendipities and the synchronicities of our two tarot scholars searches and follow the thread of their exciting findings. Much happened in the field of the tarot and this book is a great way to get the latest update, for both the Sola Busca & the ‘Tarot de Marsilio’.

2. If you want to find a missing information, go search for it, there are chances that you will find it. Do not wait that someone undertakes this task for you, as he/she will probably not. The end of the Dummett-Yates curse was brought by two scholars who didn’t leave un-turned any rocks in their respective field of interest, the ‘Tarot of Marsilio & the Sola Busca Tarot.

3. If you are interested in the survival of the Antique wisdom and how it subsisted throughout the Middle-Ages up to the Italian Renaissance, you will devour this book, as it displays a wealth of rare information, the ‘curious and educated’ reader would want to know, so to update him/her self. See below the rich table of content.

4. Finally, facts overcome tales (“and a fact is the most stubborn thing in the world.”― Mikhail Bulgakov, ‘The Master and Margarita’) Here is a quote from Dame Frances Yates that covers this subject:

A fact of importance to the historian which Dummett brings out is that the modern occultists support their belief in the immense significance and immemorial antiquity of Tarot by assuming that all earlier occultists knew of the Tarot, though they do not mention it. Thus, Guillaume Postel is drawn into the Tarot camp by the assumption that this noted sixteenth-century French Cabalist must undoubtedly have known the Tarot mystique, and similar annoying claims are made for other well-known Renaissance figures such as Trithemius. This trait of the occultists confuses history, like their other habit of the false ascription, assigning to well-known authors statements which they never made. In such minds no firm historical statement can be arrived at.’ (From Dame Frances A. Yates review of Michael Dummett’s book, ‘The Game of Tarot’, February 19, 1981).

Because many occult orders and esoteric societies, and tarot users as well, conveyed too many ‘filiation of desire’ – Serge Caillet coined this notion – about ‘how old the tarot really is’, it has critically delayed for too long proper scholarly studies. What we observe at the present time is a conjunction of young scholars debunking many orders claims of ancestry and filiations, helping to rewrite in a scientific and factual manner, the history of Western Esotericism.

5. What are you waiting for, go and get the book!






English dubbing


For French viewers


More about the book and these great publisher:🌿More about Peter Mark Adams:🌿More about Christophe Poncet:🌿Dame Frances Yates review of Michael Dummett’s book (the polemic):🌿About Marija Gimbutas’ Wikipedia page that needs a serious updating:
A Review of Peter Mark Adams & Christophe Poncet’s ‘Two Esoteric Tarots’

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

all rights reserved Via Hygeia 2022