Thanet Writers Research Tarot Cards

Writer and poet Kirsty Louise Farley researches tarot cards on behalf of Thanet Writers.

Image Credit: 
Albert Anker / Public Domain

The Tarot is a pack of playing cards, first used in the mid-15th century in various parts of Europe, most likely coming from Egypt, with suits of Polo sticks (known as Wands in modern day tarot), Coins (Pentacles), Swords, and Cups. These suits were very similar to modern day divination packs and are still used throughout Europe today. However, during the 15th century people played games such as Italian tarocchini, French tarot and Austrian Könugrufen. These are simple card games that are also still played today.

Tarocchini are point trick-taking tarot games (the players follow rules to score points/win rounds), originating from the 17th century. They have derived from tarocchi (plural for tarocco), referring to the reduction of the pack from 78 to 62 cards (early 16th century). Ottocento is a variation of this game, restricted to four players. This tarot game is still popular in the Bologna region of Italy.

This version of the tarot game is a four player trick-taking game with four players. It is most played in Austria and Southern Tyrol. Players usually refer to this game as Tarock. It is played over most of Austria and was recorded as the most popular game for Austrians in 2001.

French Tarot
The French tarot (Jeu de tarot), is a trick-taking strategy game played by 3-5 players, using a traditional 78 card tarot deck. This game is also known in French-speaking Canada and is still very popular in France itself. Other than Switzerland, France was one of the first countries to start playing tarot card games outside of Italy. Traditionally the tarot card game was played with an Italian suited deck (Tarot of Marseilles), which lacked certain cards and resulted in a deck called Tarot Nouveau or ‘Bourgeois Tarot.’ This deck began to appear around the late 19th century, it used French suits and replaces the traditional Renaissance allegorical imagines of French life and leisure.

These variations of the tarot are pretty much just card games, they have no affiliation with the type of tarot Western culture seems more familiar with, which is using the tarot for divination. Using the tarot in this way can be dated back to the late 18th century, as well as specialist packs developed for Occult purposes.

Divination and the Occult

In English-speaking countries, where traditional tarot games are played less frequently, tarot cards are primarily used for divination purposes, also known as esoteric Tarot. Divination means seeking knowledge of the future, or of the unknown, through spiritual means.

The cards have been supposedly traced back to ancient Egypt or the Kabbalah, but there is no documented evidence of these origins, as well as no evidence to suggest that the tarot was used for divination before the 18th century. The earliest recording comes from an anonymous manuscript, which dates from 1750, and documents divinatory meanings for the cards of the Tarocco Bolognese (a tarot deck from Bologna). Esoteric Tarot first became popular in the 1780s with a deck known as the Tarot of Marseilles, mostly referred to in the French; a standard tarot deck of which many decks have derived its patterns from.

One of the first people to popularise the esoteric tarot was Antoine Court (who referred to himself as Antoine Court de Gébelin) and was born in Nîmes. Court de Gébelin, who adopted the surname of his grandmother, was known as a literary man of recognised rank and was great at what he did for a living. His first demonstration of his skill was as his father’s amanuensis (personal writer) and assistant, and then as a scholar in the city.

His later work stated that the primitive worldwide civilisation had been enlightened; he spent his time studying the evocation of the Classical and Renaissance evocation of the Golden Age. However his centre of focus was on the theory of symbolism and he also became known as an intellectual grandfather of occultism. A former pastor, in 1781 he initiated the belief that the tarot was a mysterious repository of timeless esoteric wisdom and wrote ‘The Primeval World Analysed and Compared to the Modern World,’ an essay where he declared his and other mystical interpretations of the tarot. After the suggestion of cartomancy (fortune-telling) was made, it took Etteilla two years to emerge as the first professional tarot occultist.

Jean-Baptiste Alliette (Etteilla), a French Occultist, stands alongside Court in the popularisation of esoteric tarot. However, aside from a birth certificate, very little is documented about Etteila’s youth. It is known that his father was a caterer, his mother was a seed merchant and he married a woman named Jean Vattier (a marriage that lasted five years). During his marriage he worked as a seed merchant before publishing his first book, Ways to Entertain Yourself with a Deck of Cards, in 1770. He distributed it to a wide audience and was the first person to become a professional tarot card reader who successfully made a living from the trade. He also published ideas in essays regarding the tarot, as well as astrology, the four classical elements and the four humours (air, water, earth and fire) and was the first person to publish a tarot deck specifically designed for use of occult purposes.

The Decks

Occult tarot decks consist of the Major Arcana (greater secrets) and the Minor Arcana (lesser secrets), each deck consists of a different number of cards and only the Minor Arcana is divided into suits.

The Major Arcana
This deck consists of 22 and is not divided into suits. It includes 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, The World and The Fool. The cards are numbered in Roman numerals from The Magician to The World (I–XXI), with The Fool being left unnumbered (or sometimes numbered as 0 or XXII).

The Minor Arcana
This deck consists of 56 cards and is divided into four suits of fourteen cards each. The decks are organised into ten numbered cards and four court cards, which are the King, Queen, Knight and Page/Jack. The traditional Italian tarot suits represent swords, batons (called wands, rods or staves in modern decks), coins (often called pentacles or disks in modern decks) and cups.

In a modern day ‘starter pack’ version of the tarot, The Truth-Seekers Tarot, these decks are used. This edition comes with a book that explains what each card means and how to use them for divination purposes. It presents three layouts: The Seven-Card Horseshoe, The Celtic Cross, and The Tree of Life. The seven-card horseshoe is usually used to help people to consider specific problems. The Celtic Cross is a more elaborate layout and is more useful for universal questions concerned with the overall meaning and purpose of one’s life. The Tree of Life uses eleven cards and only refers to the Major Arcana, whose symbolism helps one to reflect not only on personal strengths but also on possible weaknesses.

Supernatural or Psychological

Some researchers suggest that people should disregard the tarot and that it is something to align with that such as Ouija boards, crystal balls, astrology and tea leaves. Others believe that the tarot can be evil or dangerous. Award-winning tarot reader Lisa Boswell says that an educated guess as to why someone would presume the tarot to be evil is that they “were raised in a religious background or have seen something in the media to raise paranoia.” Other researchers have also declared that tarot can be used as a guide to develop and enhance holistic problem solving. Dr Herman S Jr supports this idea and argues the legitimacy of the tarot:

Touching upon the “paranormal” categorization of tarot cards, as well as many other phenomena under that category (e.g. premonitions, remote viewing, psychokinesis/telekinesis, etc.), this categorization itself is a misnomer. This is because many things under this “paranormal” category are actually normal as they occur across space and time, and across cultures and languages with a tremendous amount of normalcy with the majority of society. What’s more, these phenomena are actually founded in multiple sciences. Some sciences and scientific principles include psycholinguistics, neuroscience, linguistic framing, resonance, metaphysics, fluid dynamics, and many more.

Dr Herman S Jr

Herman advocates how the tarot can be used as a pathway to psychological health, higher levels of consciousness and highly developed skills in dealing with the turmoil of life.

Considering the professions of researchers who support the tarot, the way the tarot is presented in modern day, and having personally used the tarot, it is clear that the art itself is quite valid. Whether it is supernatural or can be explained through psychology is a different argument, and one that can be explored or decided definitively within fiction. It does teach users how to face interpersonal problems, a skill that some would argue society at large lacks. The traditional games played with the tarot are still very much alive in some countries across Europe, after centuries of existence, which is quite extraordinary considering how technology-based our society has become. Overall, the tarot is something that still possesses a mysterious history with a powerful presence.

Kirsty-Louise is a published author and poet with a BA hons in English Literature. Working as a Secondary English Teacher, dog walks on the coast, and reading books pass her time in Ramsgate & Margate.

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