Not so long ago, the discovery of esoteric knowledge was a rite unto itself, requiring research and travel, as many dead ends as discoveries. Today, these quests are as simple as a Google search, a glance at an astrology app or a scroll through Instagram, where the hashtag #witchesofinstagram will lead you to nearly 6 million posts.
The democratization of the arcane is a welcome development, but the mystery of the occult will never lose its allure. The Library of Esoterica, a new series from the art book publisher Taschen, acts as a bridge between the dark halls of history and the vast data at our fingertips. Created by a team based in Los Angeles, the series debuted in August with “Tarot”; volume two, “Astrology,”just landed in bookstores. “Witchcraft” is slated for September.
Edited by author, journalist and filmmaker Jessica Hundley, the series speaks the universal language of symbolism. “The idea,” says Hundley, “was to create a super introductory, very inclusive and seductive way into these practices, which is through the art.” Taschen, with its lavish art production, made the ideal partner “because that’s what they do best.”
When Taschen founder Benedikt Taschen suggested to managing editor Nina Wiener that the topic of “secret knowledge” was worth exploring more deeply, “Jessica was one of the first people I thought of to go to,” says Wiener.
Metaphysics and the counterculture are a through line of Hundley’s work, including a number of Taschen collaborations — most notably an overview of Dennis Hopper’s photography enriched by hours of interviews with the actor.
Hundley has been fascinated by alternative spiritualities and the occult since she was a goth-punk teenager on the East Coast, “listening to Siouxsie Sioux and reading tarot cards.” She moved to Los Angeles in 1998, drawn to the city’s legacy of esoteric exploration and its renown as a place where dreams are made manifest and identity is mutable. “The freedom to define your own identity also means defining your own spirituality,” Hundley says,“and that’s built into so much of the ethos of Los Angeles.”
L.A.’s homegrown institutions helped get the Library off the ground. The Philosophical Research Society in Los Feliz, a library and research center founded in the 1930s by scholar, mystic and collector Manly P. Hall, has been the team’s primary research partner. The Getty, with its collection of alchemical art and texts, was another important local resource. But contributors ranged far and wide, from the Met and the British Museum to artists in Tokyo and Kenya.
For the series’ designer, Nic Taylor, one “formative moment” was a visit to New York City’s Morgan Library, which houses J.P. Morgan’s collection of occult art and books — including the oldest existing tarot cards, the gold-leafed Visconti-Sforza deck from 14th century Italy.
In conceiving an overarching series design, Taylor, co-founder of L.A.-based Thunderwing Studios, incorporated elements common to antiquarian books, aiming to “take the gestures that are historic to bookmaking and update them and make them feel fresh.” Every detail, from the series logo — a key formed by the letters T, L, O, E — to the sacred geometric gold foil designs along the spines, feeds into the reader’s experience of these books as objects of beauty and, yes, magic.
Cards on the Table
“Tarot,” written by Hundley, sets the tone for the series. “I wanted to come at it from a journalistic, academic viewpoint and not get mired in the dogma,” she says. This meant consulting with numerous specialists and quoting foundational texts while still allowing her passion to shine through. The book is organized by card, not chronology, inviting us to consider personal journeys. The first in the 78-card deck is the Fool, “full of blissful ignorance and blind optimism,” Hundley writes, “as he takes his first step into the abyss.”
This archetypal character then encounters different aspects of himself in the form of the High Priestess, the Hermit, the Devil. He meets the world with innocent joy (the Sun) and explores his subconscious (the Moon); he confronts destiny (the Wheel of Fortune), destruction (the Tower) and, finally, liberation (the World). Is it any wonder that artists are consistently drawn to these symbols?
There are about 20 historical examples of each “major arcana” card in “Tarot,” creating a tapestry of interpretations. More than 100 featured decks include work by fine artists such as Salvador Dali, Francesco Clemente, Pedro Friedeberg, Niki de Saint Phalle and Penny Slinger, the feminist-surrealist who wrote the book’s foreword. The best-known deck, from which most modern tarot evolved, is the 1909 Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot, created by Pamela Colman Smith and Arthur Edward Waite, who met in England as members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. (“It was essentially an artist collective,” says Hundley of the secret society, which included William Butler Yeats.)
Tarot evolves alongside art and culture, Hundley says: “You had a surge of decks made in the 1960s and ‘70s that were aligned with the counterculture … and then with the New Age movement of the ‘80s you had another surge … I think with each movement, the circle comes back around.” As with “Tarot,” one comes away with an understanding of astrology’s place in history, pop culture, art, mythology and psychology. Included are 15th century frescoes, 18th century etchings, Mucha posters, cigarette ads, assemblage work by Betye Saar in the 1960s, a 1970s psychedelic calendar, ’80s fantasy art, scientific charts and telescopic space photographs. Each chapter is anchored by the words of respected scholars and younger stars like Chani Nicholas and Jessica Lanyadoo.