Interview with Tarot Historian, Paul Huson

Paul Huson from the back of my copy of Mastering Witchcraft, 1970

Paul Huson from the back of my copy of Mastering Witchcraft, 1970

Paul Huson

Paul Huson is one the most interesting writers on the occult. His approach to witchcraft has inspired many magical people since the publication of  his classic Mastering Witchcraft in 1970.  He is a proponent of ‘Traditional Witchcraft’ , rather than Wicca. The most apparent difference between these two approaches is that, while Wicca is a highly structured religion that mixes Masonic Lodge Magic with fertility rites aligned with the cycles of nature, Traditional Witchcraft is a way of life filled with magical spells and charms based on folk traditions in harmony with the land.  A lot of readers feel that, in Mastering Witchcraft, Paul Huson cuts to the chase and provides instruction and guidance in how to begin life as a Traditional Witch.

Since reading Mastering Witchcraft and The Devil’s Picture Book long ago, I have been burning with curiosity about this man and wonder at his deep authority on the ancient practices, spells, charms, regalia of witchcraft.

Huson’s originality and dramatic writing stlye contribute a great to the enjoyment of reading his books, as he creates an aura of mystery around his subjects. He is also an artist, and his books are full of many delightful line drawings. His new Tarot Deck Dame Fortuna’s Wheel displays his talent for elegant, evocative images that read like a charm. Many of the concepts he discusses in Mystical Origins of the Tarot, for instance the use of the figures of the Nine Worthies for the Tarot Courts, have made their way into his Tarot deck to great effect.

He is delightful man and shares a lot of wonderful bits of information on tarot and magic in the interview.

Tiny Biography

Paul Huson was born on September 19, 1942 in London, England, the son of the author Edward Richard Carl Huson and painter and motion picture costume designer Olga Lehmann. “He claims that one of his Scottish ancestors, Alice Huson, was hanged as a witch in the seventeenth century. While he works in motion pictures and T.V., he has had a lifelong interest in the occult.” –(from the cover  flap on Mastering Witchcraft.)

Huson currently lives in Los Angeles. His partner and frequent collaborator is William Bast


Mastering Witchcraft

Mastering Witchcraft


Arlene: Hi Paul! I would like to thank you in advance for sharing your thoughts and ideas with my readers and myself. Why don’t we begin with a little background about you. What brought you into magic and witchcraft?

Paul: I discovered I could scry at a very early age, when I was still a tot – something I suspect a lot of children can do; later I found I also often seemed to be able affect the course of simple events by the power of concentrated thought. To try to explain these things I read whatever occult or magical books I could lay my hands on, and in the early ‘fifties wrote to G.B.Gardner to describe my experiences after I read his book “Witchcraft Today”.  He put me in touch with the Society of the Inner Light, although he doubted they would accept me for magical tutoring at such an early age. In fact I waited a couple of years until I had entered college, and then the SIL accepted me as a student.

Arlene: Whenever I read Mastering Witchcraft, I imagine you must have come from a long line of witches. Is this true?

Paul: Alas, no.  At least, not as far as I know.  An Alice Huson was prosecuted for witchcraft in seventeenth century England, but I have no proof I’m her descendant. In fact I do happen to be directly descended from one of Oliver Cromwell’s extremely Puritan generals, and I’m quite sure he had no connection with Alice H. However, back in the sixties, if you shared a name with anyone accused of witchcraft in the historical record, it gave you status in the witchy circles I attended.  When Putnams heard about this conceit of mine, it appeared in the advertising blurb on the book flap with a lot of other gothic stuff; along the way Alice also somehow acquired a Scottish provenance.
Arlene: How were you able to master witchcraft at such a young age?

Paul: I would never have claimed to be a master of the craft.  However, again, the title of the book resulted from a compromise with the editorial dept.  The manuscript I submitted had originally been entitled “So You Want to be a Witch?”  However, they wanted to call it by what I considered the rather stodgy “Witches, Warlocks & Covens” – in fact,  they already had the graphic of this title designed and ready to print.  I thought the teaching element was missing, so suggested “Mastering Witchcraft: a Practical Guide for Witches, Warlocks and Covens” as a compromise, which allowed Putnams to use their graphic.

Arlene: What is the difference between Traditional Witchcraft and Wicca? Can you elaborate so readers understand?

Paul: Traditional witchcraft is what Margaret Murray — a British historian who during the twenties advanced the notion that Witchcraft was originally a clandestine pagan religion that had continued to exist alongside Christianity — referred to as “Operative Witchcraft”, to distinguish it from what she called “Ritual Witchcraft”.  Operative Witchcraft, to use her words, encompassed all charms and spells, whether used by a professed witch or by a professed Christian, whether intended for good or for evil, for killing or for curing.  Ritual Witchcraft on the other hand, embraced the religious beliefs and ritual of those who practiced what Murray referred to as the Dianic Cult, the worship of a deity that was incarnate in a man, a woman, or an animal, traces of which she believed were to be found in Italy, in Southern France, and in the English Midlands.  The god was named Janus or Dianus, the goddess Diana. “Wicca” or “Wica” was arguably G.B. Gardner’s own personal take on the Dianic cult. “Mastering Witchcraft” for the most part dealt with processes of Operative Witchcraft that I had learned over the years, but it also gave a nod to the cult aspect in the final chapter. It was not basically a Wiccan tract, although it drew on a lot of the same material that Gardner did.

Arlene: Where did you see your first Tarot deck?  Was it one you were drawn to, or was it a gift?

Paul: During the 1950s I used to read articles about tarot written by one Madeline Montalban in a UK magazine named “Prediction”.  They featured illustrations of the RWS (Rider Waite Smith)  deck, and I used to faithfully copy them onto file cards and arrange them around my bedroom for meditation purposes.  I acquired my first deck, an Insight Institute one designed by Frank Lind, by mail order from “Prediction” magazine, sometime soon after I wrote to Gardner.

Arlene: What is it about cards that hooked you in so that you spend a lifetime exploring this subject?

Paul: I was attracted to the standard deck of cards when I was still a very small child, and used to lay them out on the pattern of the living room carpet to contemplate them. Something about those strange little people featured on the Court cards magnetized me.  Who were they?  What powers did they possess?  How did they relate to one another?  Maybe I psychically intuited their history, even that early.

Arlene: Do you practice cartomancy?

Paul: Yes, to a limited extent.  I don’t really fancy precognitive divination, although my friends tell me I’m accurate in my tarot forecasting. Actually I’m more interested in tarot history and the varied forms of the cards themselves.

Arlene: In The Devil’s Picture Book, you suggest that the Fool and Magician are a duality — twins in a sense.
Fool comes out of a childhood dream, and the first person he meets is a  — thimble rigger?
Most Tarot creators, influenced I think, by Christianity –like  Waite–   created the myth that the Fool goes on the spiritual path expecting a gentle awakening  The first person he meets is a lofty practitioner of Magic, an Initiate.  Before this interpretation, you suggest the Magician was more of con artist.
Can you explore the interpretation of the Magician as Mage vs. the Carnival trickster of the older decks, and how that skews the Fool’s journey?

Paul: I believe interpreting the Juggler (as I prefer to call him) as a mage puts undue emphasis on this lowly card.  It’s not for nothing that he comes at the very beginning of the deck among the Lesser Trumps, right after the Fool.  In the oldest decks the Juggler is a quite obviously a mercurial Mountebank, a Tregatour, a Street Huckster, who is bamboozling the crowd with the oldest trick in the book, the Cups and Ball trick or Find the Lady.  He was elevated to mage status by Éliphas Lévi during the nineteenth century as part of Lévi’s transformation of tarot into an instrument of Transcendental Magic  – not even the earliest commentators on the cards, Court de Gébelin, de Mellet or Etteilla himself, made that mistake.  I feel that making the Juggler into an all-wise wizard is just plain wrong.  Real magic, per se, is not actually represented in the historical tarot.

Arlene: It puts a different spin on the Major Arcana as a whole as well, don’t you think? It seems much more earthbound in the Magician is a con.

Paul: Precisely.  The Lesser Trumps are supposed to be earthbound.  That’s exactly their point.  The tarot trump parade describes an arc beginning with the lowest of the low, the homeless Fool, climbs through all the ranks of society, through betrayal and death and hell, and finally ends up in the celestial regions with sun moon and stars and finally eternity, as shown in the so-called Greater Trumps. As I say in my most recent book “Mystical Origins of the Tarot”, basically they tell of the soul’s journey through life into the afterlife, an archetypal and perennial story recounted in Christian imagery typical of the late medieval period.

Arlene: How do the Fool and the Magician mirror each other?

Paul: I would say as victim and victimizer.  The person who is ruled by the Moon, taken in by the person who is ruled by Mercury.

Fool & Juggler

Fool & Juggler

Arlene: Where does this idea of the Fool’s Journey come from? Do you agree with it?

Paul: I think A. E. Waite first introduced it in his book “A Handbook of Cartomancy, Fortune Telling and Occult Divination” that was published under his pseudonym “Grand Orient” in 1889.  I do agree with it to some extent, although I don’t think the historical trumps had the exact connotation Waite placed on them.  Allow me to quote him:  “As regards the Fool … signifies the consummation of everything, when that which began his initiation at zero attains the term of all numeration and existence.  The card which bears no number passes through all the numbered cards and is changed in each, as the natural man passes through worlds of lesser experience, worlds of devotion, worlds of successive attainment, and receives the everlasting wisdom as the gift of perseverance.”  This is basically a neoplatonic idea, and there are wise folk who believe the tarot originally had this kind of deep philosophical underpinning, although I have yet to be convinced of that.  I think it can be read into the cards, but I don’t think they were originally conceived with this in mind.

Arlene: Do you think the trumps were always arranged in the order we have them in now?

Paul: Pretty much, with only minor exceptions of a card here or there.   In some decks the Justice trump figured among the Greater Trumps at the end of the sequence, but I suspect this only happened because it was similar to, and therefore linked thematically with, the Last Judgment.  The Fool, being without number, can theoretically be placed anywhere, but generally he is placed at the beginning, sometimes at the end.  The Florentine Minchiate on the other hand have an entire zodiac, four more Virtues and the four Aristotelian elements shoehorned in between the Lesser and Greater Trumps, but this was a later innovation made for the sake of complicating the game and  probably introduced by folk who knew little and cared less about the original meanings of the trumps.

Arlene: Was there any perception that they needed to be in any order?

Paul: We have documentations of the various marginally divergent orders; these can be found in Kaplan’s tarot encyclopedias.

Arlene: Do the numbers on the cards have relevance to the images on the trumps, and what are they?

Paul: Some tarot historians believe they do, but they’re in the minority.  Personally I don’t think there are any numerological connotations, except maybe for the Fool’s lack of number, and the fairly consistent placing of Death in the thirteenth position.

Arlene: Does Tarot belong to the Qabbalistic Tree of Life, or this a conceit?

Paul: A conceit is putting it mildly! The Society of the Inner Light, having inherited the notion from the Golden Dawn, presented me with the idea as a factoid, but try as I might I couldn’t really fit the tarot onto the tree however I arranged it.  Something always didn’t quite fit and had to be fudged, and calling it a blind for the uninitiated didn’t do anything repair the damage.  When you analyzed the god names of the Sephiroth, for instance, they had nothing intrinsically to do with the planets.

If you wanted a Gnostic planetary ladder, you really didn’t need to tie it to the Sephiroth at all.  Then when you add up the signs of the zodiac, the seven planets and the four elements, they result in 23, not 22.  Furthermore none of the verses of the Sepher Yetzirah really made any sense paired with the trumps, either.  I finally came to the conclusion that the Qabalistic theory was an utterly mistaken concoction of Lévi’s.

Arlene:I love the idea that Tarot trumps were influenced by Mystery plays. I have seen many Italian paintings of Gods and Goddesses on floats with all their icons around them, that look  just like Tarot cards. Do you have any new thoughts that you could share about this history, maybe ideas that didn’t get into the book?

Paul: Nope.

Arlene: How do you imagine card games were played that included the Major Arcana?

Paul: Rather like Bridge without bidding, or Whist.  You had to follow suit.  The object was to win tricks, and every trick contributed to the point-count total, which included extra points for the courts and trumps.  The Fool could be played sacrificially if trumps were led and you had a high trump you wanted to protect.

Arlene: If they weren’t used for play, what was the intention in creating them and adding them to the playing cards that you know of or can guess?  Were they always meant to spiritual tools for meditation and divination?

Paul: No sequence of trumps, either in cut or uncut sheet-form, has yet been discovered unattached to the pip and court cards of the Minor Arcana.  This leads one to suspect they never had an independent existence.  However, a negative like this is very difficult to prove.  Just because we haven’t found a solo trump sequence doesn’t prove that one never existed.  It’s tempting to believe the sequence originated in some other work, possibly didactic or devotional, maybe even divinatory, like one of the many sortilege wheels of images that were consulted in medieval times.

Arlene: Do you know the history of the use of Tarot for divination? What about playing cards?

Paul: In 2005 tarot historian Ross Caldwell discovered a paragraph in De Rerum Praenotione, a text proscribing various types of divination published in 1507 by one of Savonarola’s disciples, one Gianfranceso Pico della Mirandola, that includes divination by the images depicted on playing cards, so we have documented evidence that card divination existed in the sixteenth century.  I’m sure the practice goes much further back however.  If you think about it, card reading is basically a type of sortilege, a divinatory practice dating back to the time of ancient Greece at least.

Arlene:The Pope Joan angle so interesting. Why do you think she was replaced by the High Priestess?

Paul: I think Court de Gébelin was the first to call her this.  Undoubtedly his Ancient Egyptian take on the cards was the cause.

Arlene: Does their symbolism match? How is Pope Joan like and unlike the High Priestess?

Paul: Well, again, like the Juggler, elevating the Female Pope to the rank of a High Priestess works against the basic meaning of all the Lesser Trumps.  She follows the Juggler in the sequence at the beginning because she’s low in virtuous ranking, a heretic, something bold and scandalous and outrageous, not because she’s the mysterious and mystical wisdom figure Lévi and all his followers turned her into.  Interestingly de Mellet had the right idea, I think, when he deciphered her (only negatively) as Pride and Idolatry, taking his cue from her Besançon incarnation as Juno with her peacock.  But maybe the substitutions of Juno for the FP and Jupiter for the Pope were not so far off the mark, after all?

Arlene: Besides the presence of 2 Popes, and one being a woman, why did the Church dislike Tarot and playing cards in general?

Paul: As far as the Catholic church was concerned, chiefly because they were used for gambling.  I think the fact that cards were used for unsanctioned sortilege too could also hardly have endeared them.  We do have a seventeenth century English Puritan rant against playing cards as actually being pagan gods disguised as legendary heroes such as Charlemagne and Lancelot, which indicates the Protestant church’s attitude at its most extreme.

(See the former post What is Tarot and Where does it Come From? to read Paul Huson’s excerpt of this rant)

Arlene: The Church didn’t like the Tarot, but it still survives. Like the Grail legends, Tarot is stronger than its persecutors. You even mention a connection between Tarot and the Holy Grail when you discuss the emblems of the suits. What is it about these subjects that makes them so powerful they have never been driven underground and lost?

Paul: I think it’s that mysterious something Jung was striving after when he coined his theory of archetypes, certain compelling patterns in nature that also find expression throughout humanity as complex recurring symbols in dream and vision.

Arlene: I painted a Grail tarot in the 1990′s. They seem to be naturally connected.

Paul: The arrival of playing cards in Europe and the popularity of Grail stories appear to be roughly contemporaneous.  Historians also believe the cup suit came in with Mamluk cards, from the middle east.  Maybe the Grail legend is also a middle eastern import?  The connection seems tenuous to me at best, however.  But I do feel that any literate person playing with a cup suit in the late middle ages or early Renaissance would have been bound to note the Cup/Grail similarity, whether or not there were a connection of provenance.

Ace of Cups

Ace of Cups by Paul Huson

Arlene: If Tarot was a Teaching tool, what was it meant to teach? What were these images meant to represent to illiterate people? They certainly are not very Biblical. Any thoughts on that?

Paul: Not Biblical, but religious and philosophical in the way that Morality plays were.

Arlene:You have a side that is little known, I think. A screenwriter! Have you written any screenplays about the colorful characters you discuss in Mystical Origins of the Tarot. I thought Etteilla had an exciting story, as does Levi. Can you share anything about your film work as related to occult subjects?

Paul: I’m working on a script dealing with what you might call the occult at present, but would rather not talk about it.

Arlene: Fair enough. Your Dame Fortune’s Wheel Tarot is really lovely. It reads clearly and precisely. No clutter. It speaks. Non-traditional decks, though artistically beautiful, are sometimes unreadable, I find. Can you address the issue of how the correct images carry divinatory power, where more innovative Tarots may not?

Paul: Power lies in the baldness and simplicity of the original images.   They work together as a thematic unit, and add up to more than the sum of their parts.  I think we should also remember that the trumps were originally drawn from what one would have to call the world of medieval pop entertainment, the imagery of medieval drama, mystery and morality plays, chansons de geste and works of historical romance, Arthur and Charlemagne.  They are, to fall back on the cliché, quite literally archetypal.

Dame Fortune's Wheel

Dame Fortune's Wheel

Arlene: What is next for you? Do you practice magic? Do you give seminars, or talks?
Is there anything else you would like to share?

Paul: I shall be concentrating on my screenplay and my next book.  I only very occasionally practice the Art these days.  And no, I don’t give seminars or talks.

I think I’ve probably shared too much already…

Thanks Paul!
I hope this isn’t all too daunting!
Take care,

Thank you again Paul Huson. That was totally fascinating and enjoyable!

Please hit ” comments” at the top of the post  and let me know what you think. There is so much food for thought in here!

If you would like to read Paul Huson’s works click on the Amazon link below. His Dame Fortune’s Wheel tarot can  also be purchased from

Llewelyn’s or at Part of own Tarot of the Holy Grail, now Grail Keepers’ Tarot can be found on page 95 in the volume 4 of the Encyclopedia of the Tarot.

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