Part of my academic research is dedicated to looking at Tarot as a cultural text. What does this mean? This means that I look at how the visual language of Tarot intersects with cultural precepts about a given phenomenon, a type, an archetype, a relation (of class, gender, race, sex), reality, magic, and the physical and metaphysical world. This is already more than what most people associate with Tarot: a fortunetelling device that the gypsies, neo-pagan witches, and other such devils employ in their charlatan endeavor to cheat venerable people out of their money.
To me, I don’t really see what the difference is between such tricksters and the ones working on Wall Street, but then again, such is the working of language. Some names are more respectful than others, and people are entitled to their opinion. I’m happy to report, however, that most of the serious Tarot readers wouldn’t be caught dead trying to defend the workings of Tarot, explain endlessly on what we can use it for, nor why we should upgrade the condition for its existence from crap to crown. For the interested folks, there are enough clever books out there they can consult.
TO FOLLOW OR NOT TO FOLLOW TRADITION
The thing about tarot worth knowing is that there are 2 main traditions: before occultism and after. The occult tarot was started by the French in around 1781. Some of them were into illuminism and masonism (Antoine Court de Gebelin and later Comte de Mellet) when they started claiming that there is a relation between tarot and the ancient Egyptians. This is a good story, but there isn’t any real historical evidence to support it.
In around 1900, and in spite of the lack of sources, The Golden Dawn order in Britain revived the research into Tarot’s links with Thoth, and particularly Aleister Crowley proved to be influential. His own Thoth Tarot, designed with Lady Frieda Harris as the illustrator, is still very popular. Edward Waite’s contribution to Tarot made an even more brilliant impact, as the deck that he designed in tandem with illustrator Pamela Colman Smith has gone on to become the most copied Tarot, and the standard Tarot now used throughout most of the Western, Anglo-American world. Many artists still use Colman Smith’s insights for the illustration of the minor Arcana cards.
The other tradition is the ‘French’ tradition based on the Visconti-Sforza pack (the first Tarot we know of from 1450) and the Tarot de Marseille pack. The Marseille cards, although originating in the north of Italy and then Paris, are a stylized derivation of the Visconti-Sforza cards. Unlike the occultists, the ones working with the historical decks – and which do not have picture representations on the minor Arcana cards but stick to the geometrical patterns – are simply not interested in finding correspondences all over the place between this and that spread position, Kabbalah, numbers, and some other complex system of symbolization.
I myself work with Tarot de Marseille and the Visconti-Sforza cards. I never do ‘spreads’ – cards locked in a certain position whose meaning is assigned beforehand. I do 3 cards at the time, and no more than 9. No reversals – some prefer to shuffle the deck with reversed cards. Also, I never see the individual cards as having any inherent meaning. In conjunction, a synthetic message emerges all by itself, out of the direct, simple, and beautiful images that these cards represent.
In a card-reading context for divination purposes, as people come to you with a question, my philosophy is that it should be possible to give them one straightforward answer in 10 seconds flat without losing yourself in irrelevant details and redundant information. If, however, there’s another agenda, and people come to you for something else rather than an answer – to be reassured, to be comforted, to find peace, to confess – then there is the option of going the therapy way, and perhaps even conduct masterclasses in esoteric studies. Thus, depending on how you frame the question, you can follow either the ‘keep it simple’ types or the psychology consultant types. Both groups can work magic in terms of helping people with their issues.
TAROT AS CULTURAL TEXT
From a cultural point of view, the most fascinating thing to consider is that there is no other art form that has been reproduced to such an extent as the Tarot cards. Especially the 22 Major Arcana cards, the cards dealing with archetypal forces, have undergone fantastic transformations. No other art form can boast such a history of engaging generation after generation in rethinking ways of understanding such popular cards as the Death card, the Devil, The Emperor, the Tower, or The Lovers. It is, for instance, fascinating to see how a feminist deck puts a spin on these types, by telling the same story of an archetype as does a fantasy deck, a queer deck, a cats’ deck, or a housewives’ deck.
As I have emphasized elsewhere in my reflections on Tarot, we can appreciate Tarot for its art, for its cultural significance, for its philosophy, for its secrets, for its poetry, for its psychology, for its shamanic qualities, for its prophetic powers, for its letting us know where we are in the present, for its derailing of our reality, for its presenting us with an alternative view of the choices at hand, the love that kills us, or the kindness of strangers.
Thus, in my writings on Tarot I emphasize both the divinatory aspect of the cards and modes of reading the cards that enhance our interpretative skills. While divination relies on the kind of reading that takes us beyond rationally understanding a situation, and which does not necessarily lead to action, hermeneutics, knowing what to make of 3 pictures on the table, enables us to perceive how we can ‘understand’ things with our emotional faculties.
This is actually a crucial distinction, as, say, if someone understands at the cognitive level that he or she is not happy, if such understanding leads to action, the action more often than not turns out to be ‘wrong’, in the sense of its being off-beat with ‘what is really going on’. Conversely, if one ‘feels’ that one is not happy, the action following the desire to change that often leads to the right course of action. We have countless scientific reports, from neuro-psychology to its cognitive counterpart, that claim veracity for this state of affairs. Our best actions are not the ones that ‘make sense’ but the ones that ‘feel right’.
As an example of what we can see in cards that cut across history, art, hermetic philosophy, and cultural text, I want to give an example of what reading with unusual decks can do for us. These decks are Elisabetta Cassari’s Solleone cards (1983), and the Swiss philosopher, Charles Frey’s Der Akron Tarot (2004) (now both out of print and difficult to find collector’s items). So, let me plunge right into it.
A woman comes to me with a question about her relationship with a man, whom she presents as being inflexible, and ‘not very quick at relating to matters of the soul,’ as she puts it. Three cards fall on the table, and I deliver the first 10-second ‘sentence.’
A powerful man (Il Re di Denari, The King of Pentacles) is intent on banishing you in the desert (L’Eremita, The Hermit) for having sacrificed his material goal for an ideal that he is clueless about (L’Apesso, The Hanged Man). The woman poses an additional question: ‘how can I go against such a man?’ And the cards answer: ‘poison the bastard with your wit.’ (Tre di Spade, 3 swords; Due di Coppe, 2 cups). In Cassari the 2 of cups has an unambiguous message: give him more poison.
What I like about Cassari’s deck is the fact that it dares to go against the tyranny of dogmatism. In her critique of the Catholic Church, she denounces the stupidity related to men formulating rigid rules and then innocently asking: Is there anything else other than the Inquisition? The innocence stops at the stake, where the powerful cardinals, moralists, and other clergy assume the role of spectators, yet passing the final Judgment: ‘burn the defying witch.’
The subtle message in Cassari’s whole deck is to pose mirror questions à la: is there anything else to do to these men than bewitch them, poison them, or stab them? If one looks at her High Priestess, one can clearly see that the woman there is leading other women into the temptation.
Seeing Tarot as a cultural text is not even a small task, nor a frivolous one. In the feminist context, or the ‘against status-quo’ context, one must honor the intercourse between women and wit, for it formulates a poetics of the visual text as it is written in the image of the iconoclast.
Where more humble pursuits are concerned, such as helping people, decks such as Cassari’s leave us, the self-proclaimed diviners, with the choice of getting it out of our special drawer where we hide it just at the moment when the woman in front of you is spilling her guts over her disappointment: her man manifested again his passion for her by informing her that he will now do the dishes as he can see that she is kind of tired, thereby not only assuming that such a task ‘obviously’ belongs to her, but also that he rules not only over the favors that he graciously decides to bestow on her, but also over maintaining the house-order.
I often ask these women: ‘are you happy with what this man gives you?’ They often say no, and then they point out that it is pointless to tell such men what they want as they would never get it. It’s a sad, sad situation, I always conclude, intoning to Ray Charles.
DER AKRON TAROT
This brings me to another example, this time from a reading with Der Akron Tarot.
3 cards fall on the table: Der Mond (The Moon), König der Scheiben (The King of Pentacles) and Das dunkle Kind (The Dark Child).
The same powerful man as the above Cardinal with money is depicted in Der Akron Tarot almost as a Dickensian fat frog who has had too much to drink, eat, and who is now even tired of ordering servants around to serve him. His dull mind is incapable of paying attention to the quiet, intuitive signals from the moon.
One can only speculate that in this conjunction, as the moon remains a distant and incomprehensible thing, succumbing to its fascinating shadow will only bring out the inner psychopath in the king. The Dark Child is a terrible card, and one of Akron’s original contributions to Tarot, along with devising 2 cards for the Devil (in Der Akron Tarot we have a total of 80 cards, rather than the traditional 78).
Women are no better than men here. The mature Königin der Kelche (The Queen of Cups) is vain and superficial in spite of her cunning ability to function as a mirror for the soul, while the Prinzessin der Stäbe (The Princess of Wands) is daddy’s insufferable girl. Die Hohepriesterin (The High Priestess) pops out of a magic box with electrifying hair, and Die scharlachrote Anima (The Scarlet Woman), who is also something else beneath, a black goddess, is Akron’s second Devil. Der Herrscher (The Emperor) may attempt to organize and ‘educate’ these beings, but he is useless in his function. All big uniform – here comes the general – and very little brains. The cattle underneath him pull in different directions, but he is too busy with his own size to notice anything. Laugh, laugh, laugh – at him. Again, this Tarot is a wonderful work of deconstructing the grand myth behind power figures.
FEEL THE SWORD AND BE HAPPY
There are a thousand modern decks around, and most of them do not have such bleak visions of the reality of man (and you are welcome to take ‘man’ literally). Most decks are happy to follow the old suit and accept the legacy men left throughout the ages: wars, battles, possessiveness, and falseness. In these decks, kings are benevolent, even the King of Swords, cups are always about love, wands about virile and erect passion, coins about magic, and swords about intellectual acuity. The Emperor is a responsible father who makes his Empress happy, and together they manage their wonderfully functioning kinds.
While I try not to take any positions beyond the fact, or beyond the claim that I merely look at how language constitutes us differently, I must admit that I don’t like these decks very much. In people’s ordinary reality, Cassari’s rendition of the 10 of cups, with the woman doing the dishes, tired and consummated by child-rearing, is much closer than the rosy, rainbowy image that we find in most of the other contemporary decks, where all people are just beautiful, happy, and unaware.
WHAT’S YOUR PREFERENCE?
I must confess that I’m a purist. I read with Visconti-Sforza and Jean Noblet, my 1450 and 1650 decks which are free of imposed on symbolism, and for special occasions, I read with what others have now called ‘disturbing’ decks. Or I cast a 36 Lenormand cards Grand Tableau in good old fashion cartomantic style.
But for their cultural significance, I look at as many tarot decks as I can possibly get my hands on. There’s enough Tarot genius around to keep us entertained until the day we die, provided that we give it a chance, and see it for what it is: the work of people trying to understand themselves in the simplest of ways, which is the way that’s free of prejudice, free of cultural preconditioning, and free of judgmental eyes.
With the holidays around the corner, I hope you’re all lucky to get a pack of cards. Have a joyful Tarot Christmas.
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