CLOSE
ThinkStock
ThinkStock

The History (and FlimFlam) of Tarot

ThinkStock
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.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Cell Free Technology
arrow
technology
This Pixel Kit Will Let You Play Tetris With Jellyfish DNA
Cell Free Technology
Cell Free Technology

Forget playing Tetris on your phone. Now you can play it with jellyfish DNA. Bixels is a DIY game kit that lets you code your own games using synthetic biology, lighting up a digital display with the help of DNA.

Its 8-by-8 pixel grid is programmed to turn on with the help of the same protein that makes jellyfish glow, called green fluorescent protein (GFP). But you can program it to do more than just passively shine. You can use your phone and the associated app to excite Bixels' fluorescent proteins and make them glow at different frequencies, producing red, blue, and green colors. Essentially, you can program it like you would any computer, but instead of electronics powering the system, it's DNA.

Two blue boxes hold Bixel pixel grids.

Researchers use green fluorescent protein all the time in lab experiments as an imaging agent to illuminate biological processes for study. With Bixels, all you need is a little programming to turn the colorful lights (tubes filled with GFP) into custom images or interactive games like Tetris or Snake. You can also use it to develop your own scientific experiments. (For experiment ideas, Bixels' creator, the Irish company Cell-Free Technology, suggests the curricula from BioBuilder.)

A screenshot shows a user assembling a Bixel kit on video.

A pixel kit is housed in a cardboard box that looks like a Game Boy.

Bixels is designed to be used by people with all levels of scientific knowledge, helping make the world of biotechnology more accessible to the public. Eventually, Cell-Free Technology wants to create a bio-computer even more advanced than Bixels. "Our ultimate goal is to build a personal bio-computer which, unlike current wearable devices, truly interacts with our bodies," co-founder Helene Steiner said in a press release.

Bixels - Play tetris with DNA from Cell-Free Technology on Vimeo.

You can buy your own Bixel kit on Kickstarter for roughly $118. It's expected to ship in May 2018.

All images courtesy Cell-Free Technology

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Habibou Kouyate, Stringer, Getty Images
arrow
science
Play a Game to Help Scientists Defeat a Cancer-Causing Toxin
Habibou Kouyate, Stringer, Getty Images
Habibou Kouyate, Stringer, Getty Images

If you're used to fighting virtual zombies or flying spaceships on your computer, a new series of games available on Foldit may sound a little unconventional. The object of the Aflatoxin Challenge is to rearrange protein structures and create new enzymes. But its impact on the real world could make it the most important game you've ever played: The scientists behind it hope it will lead to a new way to fight one of the most ruthless causes of liver cancer.

As Fast Company reports, the citizen science project is a collaboration between Mars, Inc. and U.C. Davis, the University of Washington, the Partnership for Aflatoxin Control in Africa, and Thermo Fisher Scientific. The team's online puzzles, which debuted on Foldit earlier this month, invite the public to create a new enzyme capable of finding and destroying carcinogens known as aflatoxins.

Aflatoxins form when certain fungi grow on crops like corn, nuts, and grains. Developing countries often don't have the resources to detect it in food, leaving around 4.5 billion people vulnerable to it. When people do eat food with high aflatoxin levels unknowingly, they can contract liver cancer. Roughly a quarter of all liver cancer cases around the world can be traced back to aflatoxin exposure.

The toxin's connection to agriculture is why the food giant Mars is so interested in fighting it. By working on a way to stop aflatoxins on a molecular level, the company could prevent its spread more efficiently than they would with less direct methods like planting drought-resistant crops or removing mold by hand.

The easiest way for scientists to eradicate an aflatoxin before it causes real harm is by making an enzyme that does the work for them. With the Aflatoxin Challenge, the hope is that by manipulating protein structures, online players will come up with an enzyme that attacks aflatoxins at a susceptible portion of their molecular structure called a lactone ring. Destroying the lactone ring makes aflatoxin much less toxic and essentially safe to eat.

The University of Washington launched Foldit in 2008. Since then, the online puzzle platform has been used to study a wide range of diseases including AIDS and Chikungunya. Everyone is welcome to contribute to the Foldit's new aflatoxin project for the next several weeks or so, after which scientists will synthesize genes based on the most impressive results to be used in future studies.

[h/t Fast Company]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios