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Posts Tagged ‘diabolism’

mooncard

Tarot cards have an interesting history, most of it the invention of nineteenth century occultists, thus lending them the darker tones of diabolism, at least in popular culture – all of which makes them even more interesting of course. Still, today, the merest sight of the Tarot is enough to cause palpitations in the breast of any God fearing Christian, so deeply scarred is the ancestral memory, and that’s also interesting because the origin of the cards is quite innocent. Fake news, fake narrative has a lot to answer for.

Pictorially intriguing and often very beautiful, the earliest reliable records place the Tarot in Italy in the fifteenth century where it was simply a popular card game. Predating the printing press, each deck of cards was hand made, hand-painted, so each deck was an original, making them rare and powerful symbols of the status of their owners.

Unlike a modern deck of 52, the Tarot has 78 cards, split into the major (22 cards) and minor (56 cards) arcana – arcana meaning secrets. The minor arcana are split into four “suits” of 14 cards each which comprise the number (or pip) cards from ace to ten, and four royal cards of King, Queen, Knight and Page. The major arcana are also known as the “trumps”. This structure is roughly familiar and suggests somewhere along the line card games simply evolved away from using a full deck, requiring instead only the minor arcana, so the rest were ditched.

The early cards had no associations with occult practices. This was an invention of mostly Victorian mystics and ceremonial magicians who adopted them for their own purposes, and it’s easy to understand why when you look at the images of the major arcana. These can be interpreted in an allegorical or an archetypal sense, that to draw certain cards might have a deeper meaning for the individual, or be suggestive of a future fate. But occult writings on the subject go further, attempting a complete revisioning of history, tracing the origins of the Tarot to the mythical, alchemical and hermetic traditions of ancient Egypt. It’s an evocative thesis, and one that’s often picked up by uncritical scholarly writings, but there doesn’t seem to be any actual historical evidence to back it up, which means most of what you think you know is probably wrong.

Most of the earliest Tarot decks, restricted their pictorial artistry to the major arcana with the exception of the Sola Busca Deck, dated around 1500. This was prpbably use as the basis for a later popular deck, the so called Rider-Waite-Smith version, which came out around 1910. Brainchild of the occult writer A E Waite, it was created by the illustrator and mystic Pamela Coleman Smith, and is very much in the esoteric, mystical tradition. Indeed if you’re into alchemy, cartomancy, dark or light path magical traditions, you’ll most likely be familiar with this deck.

The anxiety caused by the Tarot arises from its use as a fortune telling device, also its association with occult magic, with occasional diabolism, and with controversial figures like Aleister Crowley, also an over-literal interpretation of the meaning of the Death card. I’m open minded about the paranormal in general but personally sceptical regarding anyone’s ability to foretell future events with any great accuracy, and suspect our futures are more probabilistic than fixed anyway. It would therefore be unnecessarily dangerous to assume a too literal interpretation of one’s future in the cards, especially if that future did not seem fortuitous, and we did not feel able to avoid it.

Where I have found cartomancy and other forms of divination useful is in understanding the complexities of the present moment. But I’m of the opinion this knowledge comes out of the personal unconscious. We already possess the information we need for understanding a particular situation, but it’s jumbled up and we just can’t get at it. But by judicious use of archetypal imagery, and thinking metaphorically, we invite projection from the unconscious and a corresponding “aha!” moment, a moment of insight.

In this way the Tarot might yield some practical wisdom on an issue we’re facing, a bit of lateral thinking, an angle we’ve not considered, but it’s not the cards themselves that wield the power, nor some omnipotent diabolic entity that’s called down upon their shuffling. You can believe that if you want, and many do, but it’s not necessary in order to read wisdom in the cards themselves. There is mystery enough in the phenomenon of unconscious projection without inventing devils and angels as facilitators.

Sadly, popular media hasn’t helped. All too often in film and fiction the death card is drawn and strikes fear into the heart of the receiver – or even strikes them dead on the spot. Interpreted metaphorically however, the death card can mean change and renewal, sweeping away the old to make way for the new, abandoning old ideas when they are no longer useful, all of which is quite different to being actually struck dead. There’s also the “Live and Let Die” James Bond outing in which the Tarot touting Jane Seymour draws “The Lovers” for a swivel eyed Roger Moore. The only likely outcome of that of course being their future coupling, and one that’s far from metaphorical.

I’d probably spend some time writing more on a common sense approach to the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot, but that’s a big job, and it’s already been done here. I’m not sure what use or what answer the cards have for me, if any, nor if the question is one I’ve already posed, or has yet to crop up, but I’m glad at least to have blown the dust away and brought the cards out, if only from the shadows of my own mind.

They get a bit of a raw deal in popular culture, one that’s not entirely deserved.

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