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The History (and FlimFlam) of Tarot

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Even for those of us with no use for fortune-telling, there’s something different about Tarot cards. Those peculiar pictures. That association with ancient, mystical knowledge. The way in which the fortune-telling unfolds. But rejoice! Everything you think you know about Tarot is, basically, nonsense. 

Aren’t the cards thousands of years old?

Not at all. The best serious history of the deck, by English philosopher, logician, and playing-card buff Michael Dummett, established that the cards originated in Italy in the early 1400s.

But I thought they were invented by ancient Egyptians!

No evidence of that exists. We have the Frenchman Antoine Court de Gébelin to thank for that particular connection. After seeing the cards in the 1770s—about 350 years after the deck was created, mind—he had the blinding revelation that they came from ancient Egypt.

Court de Gébelin wrote about Tarot’s fabulized past in his nine-volume epic, “Monde primitif, analysé et comparé avec le monde moderne” (“The Primitive World, Analyzed and Compared to the Modern World”). The year was 1781, and nothing would ever be the same for Tarot again. 

But tarot cards were still meant to tell fortunes, right?

Nope. The 78-card deck was actually used for playing trick-taking games, along the general lines of Spades or Bridge. A popular variant, French Tarot, is still played widely, especially in (as one might expect) France.

But what about the cards’ subject matter? The Hermit, the hanged man, the star—what do they all mean?

Tarot devotees have tried to insert meaning into the deck by focusing on the 21 Tarot trump cards. (The deck also has 56 cards that roughly correspond to regular playing cards). Those trumps, which became known as the “Major Arcana” and include all your foreboding favorites, are meant to have some sort of great significance.

Dummett pummeled that theory into the ground. In his view—and it’s hard to see otherwise—the subjects chosen were simply ones familiar to Italians of the 1400s, and ones that looked the most different from card to card. There could have been deeper meanings, he admitted, but it was more likely the cards simply reflected common religious and moral allegories of the day.

So when did people start using them for fortune-telling, then?

Four years after Court de Gébelin’s nonsensical essay, a mystic named Etteilla (born Jean-Baptiste Alliette) basically founded Tarot as we know it today. He wrote the first book instructing would-be readers on how to interpret the cards. He also published the first deck of Tarot cards designed for fortune-telling. And he started doing it himself professionally.

Etteilla’s interpretations have been surprisingly resilient, given that he was the first Tarot reader to introduce elements of Astrology and the Elements in his interpretations. Several of his ideas survive in contemporary Tarot lore. 

What about that creepy artwork? It must go way back though, right?

You’re probably thinking of the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, which isn’t that old. Created by mystic A.E. Waite and artist Pamela Coleman Smith (Rider was the publisher), the deck was first published in 1909, and has become the standard divinatory deck. It has even shown up as back projections in a recent Madonna tour!

The deck also marked an important milestone. Tarot includes a whole batch of simple numbered cards (again, like our standard deck of playing cards). Smith helpfully created—out of whole cloth—whimsical illustrations for each of the numbered cards. Suddenly the entire deck was full of evocative imagery. How lucky for those fortune tellers!

This all sounds like something secret societies were involved in.

How right you are, questioner who is definitely not me! Virtually everyone involved in the great Tarot self-delusion was a member of some occult or secret society. Court de Gébelin was a Freemason. Waite and Smith were members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

And fellow Golden Dawn member Aleister Crowley—a famed mystic also called “the wickedest man in the world”—helped create another famed deck of Tarot cards in 1943. Called the Thoth deck, its elaborate, near-psychedelic cards were created in collaboration with artist Frieda Harris. 

Can you tell me my fortune?

Time’s up for now, I’m afraid.

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