Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom: A Tarot Journey to Self-Awareness (A New Edition of the Tarot Classic) By Rachel Pollack

“Yes, I know of the Tarot. It is, as far as I know, the pack of cards originally used by the Spanish gypsies, the oldest cards historically known. They are still used for divinatory purposes.”
(Jung letter to Mrs. Eckestein, 16 September 1930)

“Another strange field of occult experience in which the hermaphrodite appears is the Tarot. That is a set of playing cards, such as were originally used by the gypsies. There are Spanish specimens, if I remember rightly, as old as the fifteenth century. These cards are really the origin of our pack of cards, in which the red and the black symbolize the opposites, and the division of four—clubs, spades, diamonds, and hearts—also belongs to the individuation symbolism. They are psychological images, symbols with which one plays, as the unconscious seems to play with its contents. (...)Now in the Tarot there is a hermaphroditic figure called the diable [the Devil card]. That would be in alchemy the gold. In other words, such an attempt as the union of opposites appears to the Christian mentality as devilish, something evil which is not allowed, something belonging to black magic.
(Jung's words on a seminar, 1 March 1933)

It seems Rachel Pollack never minded much about the Tarot cards, excepting that quote from the poem of T S. Elliot, The Wasteland, mentioning a lady called Sosotris, wisest in Europe. By 1969-1970, Rachel got lectured on Tarot by a friend called Linda; some time later, Rachel switched positions with Linda, and read the cards for her, ...and her guess got right on a near-future event in the life of Linda (to get married in Denmark...). Ever since, Rachel, an English professor at the State University of New York, didn't stop her study of the cards.

So began my study of the cards, not from texts or symbolism or diagrams, but from the pictures themselves

Mind you, I'm no Tarot cards user. Just a curious mind. Paperback Great info, great book. Well written and generally easy to follow. Paperback Sometimes, while you are reading a book, you realize that you have found a lifetime companion. Pollack's brilliant Jungian interpretation of the Tarot is such a book for me. What a treasure. This is a book that I will read again and again. Paperback I started getting frustrated when I found myself drowning in a miasma of numerology, somewhere in the preface. The connections seemed rather tenuous, and my doubts were raised. I also found that the interpretations of the meanings of the cards didn't speak to me as did other sources, although they did seem to be a little more helpful in the context of doing a multi-card reading, especially for another person. But that's not how I've been using tarot, so it wasn't particularly helpful in that regard. Also, the author has a different take on reversed cards than I was familiar with, so I struggled to get comfortable with that. I guess it could be a problem of me not being ready to digest other sources, or it could be the doubts raised by all the numerology in the beginning; either way, I wasn't compelled to read all the way through or even consult the book all that much. Paperback Book 1 (Major Arcana) 2 Stars
Book 2 (Minor Arcana) 3 Stars
Overall rating 2.5 Stars

I really disliked the first half of this book. Sex and gender and binaries were mentioned constantly. The justifications for many connections and conclusions drawn felt almost laughably tenuous. And we even get some low key offensive mental illness references and racial slurs… just no.

I tried to appreciate this book for what it was and it’s place in the history of tarot, but I really struggled with the first half.

It was somewhat redeemed by the second half. Although I still didn’t enjoy it all that much, I could appreciate what Pollack contributed to tarot a lot more in her exploration of the minor arcana.

I don’t think this is a must read tarot book in the 2020s, and it certainly wouldn’t be one I’d recommend to someone getting interested in tarot. I think we have many better options now. But I can still appreciate the incredibly impactful contribution Pollack made to the world of Tarot with 78 Degrees of Wisdom. Paperback

The bestselling tarot classic in a new edition with a new preface by the author.

When it was first published nearly 40-years-ago, Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom was an instant classic and inspired generations of tarot students. Often referred to as the bible of tarot books it has now helped to launch the tarot renaissance we're seeing today. Drawing on mythology and esoteric traditions and delving deeply into the symbolism and ideas of each card, the book offers a modern psychological interpretation of the tarot archetypes rather than a system of esoteric symbolism.

This book provides:

A concise history of tarot
An introduction to common tarot spreads
A clear and endlessly useful reference for both beginning and advanced tarot students Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom: A Tarot Journey to Self-Awareness (A New Edition of the Tarot Classic)

These days most anybody can do a tarot reading. There are literally hundreds of different decks all complete with canned readings for each card. In a way, it's rather like reading your daily horoscope as the results are rather generalized to match virtually anyone.

Definitely, not every tarot reader is equal in quality. The best readers go beyond simplistic generalizations. They not only tailor their layouts and reading results to match the individual but also look to the deeper meanings of the cards. These unique abilities are both invaluable skills and amazing talents.

Seventy Eight Degrees of Wisdom is a must have resource for anyone wanting to do real tarot readings. The author has an inherent ability to see depth within the cards that many need to be taught to notice. Within this book, she shares her valuable insights and urges the reader to follow suit. Originally this book was two books separating out the major and minor arcane. This new format brings these important references into one easier to access resource. Paperback Rachel Pollack's tarot book Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom epitomizes the errors of New Age thought.

Writing clearly is thinking clearly. Clarity is non-existent in Pollack's book. Her constant fudging of consensus reality is typical of New Age thought.

If one wanted to use tarot for divination, it would be necessary to assign clear meanings to each card. Pollack doesn't provide that. She provides rambling stream of consciousness. An example: her explanation of the Chariot card. Here's a paraphrase: The Chariot could be about death, because, after all, in India people associate horses with death and funerals. And John F. Kennedy was assassinated while traveling in a limo! So maybe this card is really all about the soul's triumph over mortality! The Chariot might signify destruction because Shiva destroys the world while conducting a chariot. The Chariot could signify lingams, or yonis. But you know Freud relates horses to the libido. So maybe this card is all about sex! But forget Freud. What would Jung say? Maybe the Chariot is about the Jungian persona. Or maybe not. Maybe it's all about human speech. Only humans possess language – although we have taught chimps to communicate! (pages 64-9).

Pollack's attempt to assign numeric values to cards is equally risible. If she doesn't like the number a card has, she divides the number, multiplies it, adds to it or subtracts from it, or places it in the context of an alternative numbering system, for example that used in ancient Sumer, thus coming up with a new number (page 120). This card takes any number I assign to it becomes It's true because I say it's true. It's true because it feels true to me, Pollack's narcissistic measure of truth. An image of salamanders with their tails in their mouths means one thing on one card (164) and a completely different thing on another card (169).

At every turn, Pollack tosses out random, undeveloped references to material conventionally assumed to be deep and profound: allusions to Greek and Hindu mythology, Kabbalah, Shakespeare, and televised science specials starring Carl Sagan (really). Here's the thing – Pollack exhibits no engaged understanding of any of the systems to which she alludes – it was Alexander Oparin, not Carl Sagan, who developed the theory Pollack credits to Sagan. Pollack repeats urban legends, for example the widely believed but false notion that full moons increase criminal activity (126). Michelangelo's famous painting shows a spark leaping from God's finger to Adam's (161). No, it does not.

Pollack's misrepresentations, in several cases, are not random. Rather, they are part of the received dogma of New Age thought. These are:

1.) Christianity is an oppressive, totalitarian, violent, misogynist, destructive system.

2.) Before the evil Christians showed up, people around the world enjoyed peaceful goddess worship (46)

3.) All over the world, once a year, priestesses representing the goddess would kill and dismember the male leader of the tribe (50, 84-5).

4.) All religions have at their core the same truth: people must transcend ego and join with the one.

None of the above postulates are true. In spite of their falsity, Many New Agers uphold them as dogma.

The Goddess belief was thoroughly debunked by Cynthia Eller in her book The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Won't Give Women a Future.

James Frazer's Golden Bough, the source of the dying and rising God belief, has also been debunked.

Pollack has a problem with masculinity and patriarchal society. She provides negative interpretations for tarot cards depicting male characters, even cards usually perceived as positive. The Emperor card represents the best in essential masculinity. Pollack reads it as a negative card referencing force, aggression and war an old, stiff, rigid, lifeless, barren scene, society and its laws, people who have never realized that their father is just a human being, people who surrender control of their lives to their lovers. Compare this to her reading of the Queen of Cups, depicting an emotional and spiritual woman. Most interpretations acknowledge that this woman has her failings; she can be overcome by her heart. Pollack, though, reads this feminine card as almost all positive, while reading the male Knight of Cups and King of Cups as almost all negative.

Again and again, Pollack insists that the pinnacle of the Tarot is to become a hermaphrodite. This is not true – tarot is a powerfully and traditionally gendered system depicting nurturing, maternal females and active, horse-riding and sword-wielding males. But Pollack herself identifies as a transsexual. The message: I am transsexual; therefore, everyone else should aspire to be a hermaphrodite.

Forget the church; rather, read comic books for your spiritual guidance (26). Pollack is a comic book author. Schizophrenics are misunderstood by rigid, Christian society. Schizophrenics are really shamans (34-5). The Christian church crushed women (36). Pollack has never heard of, or doesn't want you to know about, 2,000 years of Christian women from Mary Magdalene to Junia to Hildegard to Teresa to Dorothy Day.

Pollack's hostility to, falsification of, and envious, power-hungry insistence on supplanting Christianity with the High Church of Rachel Pollack renders her incompetent to explain tarot to anyone. Tarot cards are rife with Christian symbols. One example on a card Pollack mentions frequently: the World. This card represents the pinnacle of success and satisfaction. It depicts a central figure surrounded by a victory wreath and four animals: an angel, a lion, an ox, and an eagle.

The World card is based on a very common Christian motif: Christ in Majesty. The four animals in the corners of the image symbolize Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the authors of the four Gospels. You would think that a book that purports to explain tarot would mention the very close relationship between the World card and the Christ in Majesty motif. It doesn't suit Pollack's purposes to do so, so she does not mention it. Like a Soviet-era photographer, she merely airbrushes out of her revisionist history anything that does not suit her purpose.

Pollack tells us that all religions have as their goal each person transcending himself through his own effort, and uniting with an impersonal New Age super-soul. Differences between religions can be fudged in order to create the new Rachel Pollack church. Hinduism justifies suffering with the concept of reincarnation. You do a bad thing in your past life; you are reincarnated as an untouchable, and you are treated badly. That's okay, because you did bad things in your past life, and you deserve to suffer. This is just like the Christian concept of the Holy Spirit, Pollack insists, bizarrely (86). Paul meeting Christ on the road to Damascus is just like Buddha achieving enlightenment (119). No, these events and concepts from three different belief systems are not equivalent, and attempting to hijack and misrepresent them for Pollack's new church insults these traditions and misleads naïve readers.

Pollack says that the tarot's Death card rides a white horse because white symbolizes purity (103). One of the most well-recognized lines from the New Testament states, Behold a pale horse…his name that sat on him was Death. Pollack appears to be unaware of some of the most famous scriptural lines and artistic motifs, cultural material that is essential to understanding how tarot cards come to appear the way they do.

Tarot has undeniable value: artists create their own decks; users dialogue with their inner selves; decks provide cultural data for anthropologist and ethnographers. There are fun, thought-provoking books out there that reflect on tarot. One of the best is Joan Bunning's Learning the Tarot.
Paperback I bought this book based on positive reviews and an observation I thought I'd read somewhere about Harold Bloom having said that it was essential to understanding the tarot. (I have since looked and been unable to find mention of this anywhere.) I was rather optimistic about it, thinking I’d at last found a book that could elucidate the symbology of the (Rider-Waite-Smith) tarot for me.

Less than a hundred pages later I was grinding my teeth, doing my best to dig out any interesting bits from all the flower-scented beautiful spiritual light.

Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom is not a book of analysis proper, but of interpretation. Rachel Pollack thinks the tarot carries not only the symbolism of the individual cards and perhaps an overall structure of some kind, but a very specific and organized set of teachings about life and the world: “The Tarot ... is not impartial. On the contrary, it attempts to push us in certain directions: optimism, spirituality, a belief in the necessity and value of change.” This stance distills much of the tarot’s putative divinatory powers into rather anodyne New Age advice, although by itself it is not contradictory if we’re parting from a hermeneutical blank slate.

She divides the Major Arcana in three lines of seven, leaving the Fool out (she suggests he can fit in between any of several pairs of cards). The first one, which ranges from the Magician to the Chariot, she calls “the outer concerns of life in society”; the second one, from Strength to Temperance, “the search inwards to find out who we really are”; and the third, from the Devil to the World, “the development of a spiritual awareness and a release of archetypal energy”. These represent three stages in a linear path towards some kind of rapture, “a unity with the great forces of life itself”, each step being represented by one of the Major Arcana.

Even if we’re to give her the benefit of the doubt, we can at best countenance these interpretations as being inherent to the Waite tarot and not the primordial 15th century decks, since there are central concerns with the distinction between conscious and unconscious, “the materialist conception of the universe” and so on — notions that were just not around at the time when the tarot was originated. And even then it takes a lot of generosity to accept many of her analyses, for three main reasons:

One, she finds symbolism everywhere to support her desired meanings — a sword facing upright means “both resolve and the idea that wisdom is like a sword piercing through the illusion of events to find the inner meaning”, and a yellow road is “yellow for mental action”. Even if we accept the plausibility of these images carrying such meanings, still the sword has to point somewhere, the road has to be some color. Without recurring to authority, it’s hard to know what is relevant and what is not; and the ultimate authority on the RWS tarot, Arthur Waite’s own Pictorial Key to the Tarot, is known to be deliberately misleading when regarding certain topics that the Golden Dawn held secretive. Pollack is, therefore, justified in adopting his descriptions and divinatory meanings at times and ignoring them at others — but she does this without much criterion, saying that “to a great extent, the material in this book does not derive from teachers on Tarot (I never studied with anyone or took any classes) but just from working with the cards”. This leaves an opening for her to use only what she likes from the Pictorial Key, later filling the empty spaces with her own New Age preconceptions, without arguing for it.

Two, her interpretations are often implausible. For instance, she says that a child with his back to us means that, in the context of the card being considered (Judgment), “the new existence is a mystery, with no way for us to know what it will be like until we experience it ... [and] that we do not really know ourselves, and that we cannot until we hear and respond to the call”. That seems a bit more elaborate than this humble symbol can support, assuming it’s meant to symbolize anything at all. This kind of symbological overburdening is much too frequent in the book.

Three, her extremely systematic understanding of the Major Arcana involves certain relationships that are so elaborate that they could not possibly have been intended by the devisers of the Tarot, either Waite (who notoriously swapped two of the major arcana around) or whoever came before him. She draws not only all sorts of silly numerological relationships within and between the cards but also argues that cards on the same “column” in her three-line division are related — so the Moon relates to the Emperor, which is “above” it, as well as to Strength, because the Moon is card number 18 and Strength is card number 8; just as the Sun relates to the Hermit (19 and 9), as well as to the Magician (because “the other half [to 20] of 19 is 1”) and to the Wheel of Fortune (“1 plus 9 equals 10”). The claimed significance of these relations is often subtle, but it’s easy to see how quickly they get out of hand. I find it highly implausible that someone could have built a system that univocally represents some external truth, as Pollack argues the Major Arcana does when considered sequentially, all the while carrying a scheme as elaborate as that. The way out would be to dare and say that the tarot actually reflects some transcendental blueprint of human psychology, but she doesn’t go that far.

I cannot, therefore, accept Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom as a book about the RWS tarot. It is an esoteric system built upon its images, vaguely buttressed on A. E. Waite’s own occult notions, but ultimately independent and, to me, unsatisfactory. If your interest in the Tarot is exegetical and distanced, as is mine, look elsewhere.

The book is not without its merits: the section on the Celtic cross spread was helpful, and in her analyses of the cards Pollack often notes the presence of interesting symbols that could easily be missed: the water behind the veil in the High Priestess, the similarity between Death and the Knight of Cups, the scales on the wall behind the old man in the Ten of Pentacles, so on. And some of her interpretations are persuasive, or at least good material for coming up with your own understanding of the cards, which seems more productive if we’re to play the game of arbitrariness anyway.

I don’t regret having read this, but I could probably have gotten the same information from somewhere else, along with much this book doesn’t offer, and without having lost my time reading about all the sparkly pseudo-Jungian esotericism. Two books I think may be closer to what I was looking for are The Tarot: History, Symbolism, and Divination and Mystical Origins of the Tarot: From Ancient Roots to Modern Usage. I haven't read them and won't read them any time soon, but if you can relate to the concerns exposed above, you may want to try starting your studies there instead.

2013/06/03: I also recommend Danusha Goska's review for a more informed analysis of some of Pollack's interpretations. Paperback This is one book that I can't recommend strongly enough, and one that I feel belongs on the shelf of every Tarot enthusiast. Using the popular Rider-Waite deck for illustration, it contains essays on each card, covering aspects of the symbolism as well as origins, history, mythology, and sociological, psychological, esoteric and religious implications. It's rare to say that a book on Tarot is a “can't put down page-turner”, but this one is it!

Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom is very well written and easy to understand, no matter what your level of expertise. Ms. Pollack has obviously done massive amounts of research and manages to convey a true love for the art of Tarot on each and every page, speaking to the reader as a patient, knowledgeable and wise teacher with years of experience. She also includes tutorials in the back of the book, covering such subjects as layouts, the Tree of Life, making a Mandala, and Meditations. On the whole, this is a wonderful, wonderful book and in my opinion, a true classic.
Paperback I first read Rachel Pollack's tarot classic Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom: a Tarot Journey to Self-Awareness sometime in the late 2000s, and reread it this past week in celebration of her 75th birthday. It remains a foundational text for modern interpretation of the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, and of the tarot broadly. That Rachel is a veteran of the Stonewall Rebellion, a founding member of Gay Liberation Front UK's trans group in 1971, a contributor to TransSisters: the Journal of Transsexual Feminism in the early 1990s, creator of the first trans superhero Coagula in DC's Doom Patrol, and continues to be an absolute delight of a person, makes me appreciate her tarot wisdom all the more! Paperback


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