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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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Learn All About Fonts by Playing With These Poker Cards
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Courtesy Ben Barrett-Forrest

Want to learn about fonts? Try playing poker with the Font Deck, a pack of cards designed to help users learn the finer points of typography and font design.

The deck is the work of Canadian designer Ben Barrett-Forrest, who runs a graphic design studio based out of Ontario and the Yukon. In 2014, Barrett-Forrest designed the precursor to the Font Deck, a product called the Design Deck that aimed to teach users about the ins and outs of graphic design. Some of the Design Deck cards feature typography lessons, but the Font Deck—available for $17 a deck on Barrett-Forrest’s website or on Kickstarter—gives the topic a deeper dive.

A male hand holds fanned-out cards next to a Font Deck box and a stack of playing cards.
Courtesy Ben Barrett-Forrest

The deck includes topics like letter anatomy, old style typefaces, the difference between a font and a typeface, and profiles of specific typefaces, like Helvetica. The cards themselves are printed by the same company that makes popular playing cards like Bicycle and Bee, so they’re gambling ready, if you feel like betting your fortune on that slab serif card.

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Dungeons & Dragons Gets a Digital Makeover
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Since the 1970s, players have been constructing elaborate campaigns in Dungeons & Dragons using nothing but paper, pencils, rule books, and 20-sided dice. That simple formula has made D&D the quintessential role-playing game, but the game's publisher thinks it can be improved with a few 21st-century updates. As The Verge reports, Wizards of the Coast is launching a digital toolset meant to enhance the gaming experience.

The tool, called D&D Beyond, isn’t meant to be a replacement for face-to-face gameplay. Rather, it’s designed to save players time and energy that could be better spent developing characters or battling orcs. The resource includes a fifth-edition rule book users can search by keyword. At the start of a new campaign, they can build monsters and characters within the program. And players don’t need to worry about forgetting to bring their notes to a quest—D&D Beyond keeps track of information like items and spells in one convenient location.

"D&D Beyond speaks to the way gamers are able to blend digital tools with the fun of storytelling around the table with your friends,” Nathan Stewart, senior director of Dungeons & Dragons, said in a statement when the concept was first announced. "These tools represent a way forward for D&D.”

This isn’t the first attempt to bring D&D into the digital age; videogames inspired by the fictional world have been produced since the 1980s. Unlike those titles, though, D&D Beyond will still highlight the imagination-fueled role-playing aspect of the game when it launches August 15.

[h/t The Verge]

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