Monday, November 21, 2011

Magical Mondays #8: The Cards Don't Quite Tell All: The History of the Tarot

Welcome to my eighth Magical Monday. In these segments, I'll be briefly examining various magical traditions, creatures, and elements that people have been believed in (or continue to believed in) throughout history. Eventually, I may also move onto depictions that appear only in novels, but there's plenty of historical material to keep me busy for a while.


Ah, the ancient mystical arts. Proud magical traditions refined over the ages and kept preserved until the present day. Well, not always. Such is the case with Tarot cards.

How old do you think they are? I asked a few people this question recently and they thought Tarot cards had been around and used for fortune telling for around a thousand years.

If you said 500 or so years, you're right. The thing is, 500 or so years ago, they weren't use for anything approaching magic. I'll discuss the general mechanics of the Tarot itself in more detail in a future entry, but for now it's enough to know that Tarot cards are still commonly used as a method of divination and self-analysis. 

Playing cards first appeared in Europe around the 14th century for rather mundane use in games. These original cards were the descendants of cards from the Mamluk Sultanate (which covered parts of Turkey, North Africa, and the Middle East). Those cards, in turn, likely were descendants of Chinese playing cards. 

As early as the beginning of the 14th century, the cards that were in Europe weren't all that radically different from the modern card decks. They were 52-card decks of four suits and ten "pip" cards along with three "court cards". There were variations of both courts and suits depending on location. A modern person dropped back in time, though, could very quickly familiarize themselves with the deck even if some of the symbol were different. How that's for historical continuity?

Moving into the 15th century, Tarot decks arose. These were defined by the additional of allegorical and symbolic  imagery in addition to the standard suits and court cards. Though some of the symbolism may seem a bit obscure today, at the time they were all very well-known images and ideas often expressed in Medieval art. These Tarot cards were used to play games throughout Europe. There was no hint of them being associated with magic. In some areas they were banned, but that was more out of their association with gambling--the fine mystical art of taking money from suckers.

There have been 16th-century documents found discussing the use of cards as part of a divination process, but these records do not seem to suggest that Tarot cards in particular were involved. Even in these non-Tarot cases, the cards seemed to be used as a randomizing device for certain aspects of  ritual, but they were not ascribed power in and of themselves. Extant anti-Tarot statements by religious authorities in this period again focused on Tarot cards as a gambling tool.

The 17th century brought additional game variants. Though there was some expansion of normal cards with basic fortune telling (so your 52-card deck might be as good as the Tarot),  it isn't until the end of the 18th century that French occultists laid the ground work for the use of Tarot as an independent symbolic divination method. The world's first professional cartomancer, Jean-Baptiste Alliette, published material associating the Tarot with  astrology. He also produced a dedicated occult divination deck. Many of the specific elements still associated with the occult Tarot in some form were mostly defined by Alliette. He, along with several other writers, also further clouded the true history of the Tarot. They proposed various ideas with no historical basis, such as a link between the Tarot and various forms of ancient Egyptian, Jewish, and Gypsy magic.

The expansion of the idea of the Tarot as a deep, mystical occult tool was heavily promoted in the 19th century. The 20th century saw a bit of a push-back against the various "ancient mystical" aspects of the Tarot. Instead, various mystics, including Arthur Edward Waite, would try to correlate Tarot with a more universal symbols and correspondences. Note this isn't really a rejection of Tarot as a mystical tool, but rather just a rejection of an explicit link between Tarot and specific ancient mystical traditions.

Later 20th-century and early 21st-century interpretations of the Tarot are often influenced by Waite's ideas. The infiltration of Jungian ideas into the mainstream of thought somewhat mirror Waite's thoughts and have allowed many modern practioners a way to distance themselves from the more purely mystical, though relatively recent, Tarot tradition.

So, despite their heavy association with the occult in many cultures today, if you went back in time even during some of the periods of religious persecution, you'd be more likely to get a lecture about gambling then accused of sinister magic. 


Adriana said...

Really! That's so interesting, considering how steeped in the occult tarot is today. I have a middle grade WIP that has a character who reads tarot cards, so this was pretty cool to read. Thanks for the factoid! :)


J.A. Beard said...

I was a bit surprised myself when I started doing the research. I assumed the Tarot was both a lot earlier and always more associated with the more magical aspects.