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Person holding a deck of Tarot cards

The strange history of Tarot cards 

Image: Tarot cards |

The supposed connections with otherworldly ephemera have made pinpointing a credible starting point in the history of Tarot problematic. But we’re confident that by the 1430s Tarot cards were used to play a popular Italian game called Tarocchi.

The Tarot deck

We might recognise Tarot as a standard deck of four suits, plus an additional suit that comprises 22 numbered picture cards. The four suits, at a glance, may appear to have nothing in common with the standard deck, but look again. Using the ubiquitous Rider-Waite deck as control, the wands are clubs, the cups are hearts, the swords are spades and the pentacles are diamonds. And just like a standard deck, each suit has ten number cards, but there is an additional court card in each suit too. The King and Queen are instantly recognisable, but the Jack has been dropped in favour of the Page and the Knight.

Collectively these cards are known as the Minor Arcane in Tarot. But it’s the extra fifth suit of 22 ‘Triumphs’ (formally called Trionfi), now known as the Arcana Major, that puts us into new territory. These begin at zero with The Fool, then, in numerical order, we have The Magician, The High Priestess, The Empress, The Emperor, The Hierophant, The Lovers, The Chariot, Strength, The Hermit, Wheel of Fortune, Justice, The Hanged Man, Death, Temperance, The Devil, The Tower, The Star, The Moon, The Sun, Judgement and The World. This suit is, arguably, the source of Tarot's controversy because they are more important than the other four suits, yet their symbolism, literally at face value, is inconclusive.

Parlour game

In the 1440s, Tarot cards were luxury items created by skilled artists to be enjoyed as part of a parlour game that revolved around tricking your opponent, rather than as tools of divination. We know this as a fact, because many of the original cards have survived, such as those found in the Visconti Tarot, made before 1447 for Filippo Maria Visconti, aka The Last Duke of Milan. In this instance, the Trionfi feature prominent members of the family, but other versions see representations of allegorical figures lost to time.

If it wasn’t for the invention of the printing press in 1450, which helped to formalise the cards and make them more accessible to a wider audience, Tarot may well have remained as benign as Uno, but that didn’t happen.

Magical imagery

Unlike a standard pack of playing cards, the Tarot deck is heavy on imagery and light on definition, making them ideal for an illiterate population and ripe for alternative interpretations. The best way of making this point is to compare them to the simple information depicted on a standard deck of playing cards, where we take symbols and numbers at face value: the Ace of Spades is just that, we don’t question it. However, The Joker, often extravagantly depicted in comparison to the rest of the deck, has a more obscure, ominous presence. It can be both beneficial or harmful, depending on the game in hand, and may explain why some incorrectly believe the Joker is related to the Fool in a pack of Tarot cards. The Joker, for reference, wasn’t invented until the 19th century.

Ambiguous meaning

In Tarot, everything is obscure, even the Minor Arcane is made more esoteric with illustrations that appear allegorical though, at a glance, are devoid of meaning. But the so-called Arcana Major comes with descriptions and decorative depictions, yet it’s devoid of any obvious context, which is asking for trouble when you consider this strange combination of religious, astronomical and secular imagery with Justice, Judgment and Death included for good measure.

The occult

To suggest that one man, French occultist Jean-Baptiste Alliette, was the first person to regard the Tarot deck as something more than 78 pretty cards, would be naïve. But it was Alliette’s definitive guide to Tarot, published around 1780, that formally gave Tarot its occult sensibilities for the first time. It was Alliette, for example, who separated the pack into the Minor Arcane and Arcana Major, but we must be careful to not confuse occultism with malevolence. The basic premise behind Alliette Tarot was to use ancient knowledge as a tool for spiritual development, not as some arcane system for predicting the future, or worse.

Aleister Crowley

Perhaps the man responsible for making Tarot nefarious was English writer Aleister Crowley, who called himself ‘Beast 666’ and was famously dubbed as the ‘wickedest man in the world’ by the British press. After blowing the family fortune on his hedonistic lifestyle, Crowley’s final act of insurrection was to write The Book of Thoth (named after the Egyptian god of wisdom and magic) and, a few years before he died, produce a Tarot card deck called ‘The Thoth’, notable for its beautiful illustrations by his friend and follower, Lady Frieda Harris.

For those looking for answers in a deck of Tarot cards, consider that Crowley had originally intended The Thoth to be a ‘traditional’ Tarot deck, but it was Lady Frieda Harris who insisted that the illustrations had an occult theme.

Tarot’s enduring popularity

Therein lies Tarot’s power. You can project onto the cards anything you want, a parlour game, a means of fortune telling, even a doorway into another world. Whichever way you look at it, a deck of Tarot cards is more than just 78 pretty pictures in a box, and you’re free to interpret that any way you want.