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The History (and FlimFlam) of Tarot

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ThinkStock

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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Kena Betancur, AFP/Getty Images
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Health
Want to Live as Long as an Olympian? Become a Chess Grandmaster
Kena Betancur, AFP/Getty Images
Kena Betancur, AFP/Getty Images

It’s well known that physical fitness can help prolong your life, so it’s not surprising that elite athletes, like Olympians, tend to have longer lifespans than your average couch potato. But it seems that “mind sports” can help keep you alive longer, too. According to BPS Research Digest, a recent study suggests that international chess grandmasters have lifespans comparable to Olympic athletes.

The study, published in PLOS ONE, examined the survival rates of 1208 mostly male chess grandmasters and 15,157 Olympic medalists from 28 countries, and analyzed their life expectancy at 30 years and 60 years after they attained their grandmaster titles. They found that both grandmasters and Olympic medalists exhibited significant lifespan advantages over the general population. In fact, there was no statistical difference between the relative survival rates of chess champions and athletic champions.

There are several variables that the study couldn’t take into account that may be linked to chess players’ long lifespans, though. Grandmasters often employ nutritionists and physical trainers to keep them at their best, according to the researchers, and exercise regularly. Economic and social status can also influence lifespans, and becoming a world-champion chess player likely results in a boost in both areas.

Some research has shown that keeping your mind sharp can help you in old age. Certain kinds of brain training might lower the risk of developing dementia, and one study found that board game players in particular have slightly lower rates of dementia.

If keeping the mind sharp with chess really does extend lifespans, the same effect might apply as well to elite players of other “mind sports,” like Go, poker, or competitive video games. We’ll need more research to find out.

[h/t BPS Research Digest]

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David Franzen, Library of Congress
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architecture
You Can Thank 1950s Suburban Architecture for ‘The Floor Is Lava’
David Franzen, Library of Congress
David Franzen, Library of Congress

No one knows who, exactly, was the first kid to play "The Floor Is Lava," the simple childhood game that has only one rule: You can’t touch the floor. But as Quartz reports, a new paper contends that the game wouldn't have come about if it weren’t for the rise of American suburbs.

Published in the Social Science Research Network, the analysis by Tim Hwang of the MIT Media Laboratory argues that architecture was a vital factor in the spread of the folk game.

In the new suburban housing developments of postwar America, builders began to market the relatively new idea of the family room, an informal room designed for the social needs of the whole family. This room was separate from the formal living room and dining room, both of which were more likely to contain the inhabitants’ good furniture and fancy china. In building plans popular in the 1950s and 1960s, they were also set apart from the kitchen. One 1965 poll found that seven of 10 new houses built that year contained a family room.

And these factors, Hwang argues, are integral to playing The Floor is Lava. Family rooms provide big couches, coffee tables, and other furniture that kids can move around, climb on, and use as props for the game. Bedrooms would be too small, and formal living and dining rooms too full of potentially fragile items that Mom and Dad would be livid to find disturbed. And kitchens were seen as a mother’s domain, meaning that she would likely be there to put a stop to any shenanigans.

"What is unique about the family room space is both the quantity of space and permission that it affords to the play of The Floor is Lava,” Hwang writes.

However, this is just a hypothesis, and no one can really identify who started playing the game first. Kids in urban apartments can also theoretically jump all over their parents’ living room furniture, if allowed. During my childhood, the game typically took place on a playground rather than inside, requiring players to avoid the ground rather than the family room floor. There are games that originated elsewhere in the world that also revolve around avoiding the floor—Hwang notes examples from Kenya and the UK. But given how the spread of suburbs in the U.S. during the postwar period affected home design, it makes sense that a game might arise from the new spaces children lived in. We may never truly know how The Floor Is Lava was invented, but architecture seems like a good clue.

[h/t Quartz]

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