Tarot cards are becoming increasingly well known in popular culture, and common myths about the cards are starting to be dispelled. For example, most people now realise that Tarot cards aren’t designed to read the future, though they may be a tool used by psychics and clairvoyants to channel their skill. Most people now realise that Tarot cards are a tool for accessing intuition to better understand what is going on in the here and now so that we can make better decisions.
While people know more about Tarot today than they did even ten years ago, a lot of mystery still surrounds the Tarot cards.
Let’s have a look at some interesting facts that you probably didn’t know about Tarot cards.
Tarot cards were originally Islamic playing cards
While playing cards have a strong association with European culture, they were actually only brought to Europe in the 15th century by Islamic soldiers that invaded Northern Italy, Sicily and Spain. The cards they brought were highly elaborate painted cards, which bear more of a resemblance to modern Tarot cards than playing cards, but they were used to play a game called Malmuk.
The Italians adopted these cards for their own games. In particular they developed a storytelling game called tarocchi appropriate in which cards were randomly laid on the table, and players needed to make up silly poems about one another based on the different cards.
The cards were also used for games in France, but in the 18th century were adapted by French occultists for the practice of Tarot. Later occultists made modifications to the deck in order to tone down many of the Christian themes that had been incorporated into the cards over the years, and add occultist themes. The most famous occultists to work on the cards were A.E. Waite, responsible for the Rider-Waite deck, and the Aleister Crowley, responsible for the Thoth deck. Both men were members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, an English occult group that was active in the late 19th and early 20th century.
Occult Tarot practices can be traced to the Golden Dawn
Many of the occult rituals that are associated with Tarot today only date back to the late 19th and early 20th century, when the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn were actively teaching Tarot to their members. For example, the idea that your first deck of Tarot cards needs to be a gift is a result of their teaching. They probably said this to reinforce the idea that you need to join the order, with its associated initiation rituals and fees, in order to read Tarot.
Not all Tarot decks are the same
While you are probably aware that there are a variety of different Tarot decks out there, produced by occultists working with different artists, you might not know that the differences between the decks goes far beyond imagery.
There are three main families of decks on which most other decks are based, though there are some outliers. These are the Marseilles deck produced in Paris in the 18th century, the Rider-Waite deck produced by occultist A.E. Waite and printed by Rider publishing in 1909 (they have not been out of print since), and the Thoth deck, which Aleister Crowley started to design in the 1930s, but were only eventually published in 1969.
The names, and interpretation, of the Major Arcana cards and the court cards in the Minor Arcana differ depending on which deck family they belong to, as does the order of the cards. For example, in the Thoth deck Crowley renamed Strength as Lust, Temperance as Art and Judgement as The Aeon.
The process of reading the cards is also different depending on the type of deck that you have. For example, if you have a Rider-Waite deck you decide whether the card is positively or ill defined depending on whether the card is drawn upright or reversed. With the Thoth deck the reader needs to decide whether the card is ill or positive based on where it sits in relation to the other cards. If it is adjacent to cards in suits of the opposite element, it is usually read as ill, if the same element, positive.
Tarot cards reflect Astrology
Many of the occultists that adapted Tarot cards for their current use were also students of astrology, and thus incorporated astrological information into the cards.
Mirroring astrology, each of the cards in a Tarot deck has an elemental link (Earth, Air, Fire or Water) and a ruling planet (Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter or Saturn). Each suit in the deck also has an elemental link: Wands with Earth, Cups with Water, Swords with Fire and Pentacles with Air.
Moreover, each of the astrological signs is said to have a card in the Major Arcana, and the attributes of that card are thought to reflect the archetypal attributes of people born under that sign. For example, Gemini is linked with the Lovers, a card which suggests duality and changeability, Leo is connected with Strength, which is linked with fearlessness and leadership, and Aries is connected with The Emperor, which is a symbol of temperance and discipline.
There are no bad Tarot cards
While pop culture would have us believe that the appearance of the Death or The Devil card in a Tarot reading is a sure sign of imminent disaster, there are in fact no purely ‘negative’ Tarot cards.
First of all, each Tarot card can be read in a positive or ill light depending on how they are dealt, for example, if they are dealt upright or reversed. This means that even cards with the most challenging meanings, such as The Tower, can be read in a positive light, depending on how they are dealt.
Secondly, Tarot readings focus on helping us better understand a situation so that we can make better decision in response to what is happening, and therefore make our lives better. As such, the warning that some cards bring are not negative, but help us to prepare for an opportunity, even though the experience itself might be difficult.
For the record, the Death card is rarely a sign of physical death, but rather represents transition. It suggests that something important is coming to an end, but that its closing will make space for other opportunities. Meanwhile The Devil card does not suggest that we will pay for our sins, but rather that we will have to live with the consequences of our actions, and to make sure that we learn from them, so that we are not similarly ensnared in the future.
By Christine Hirlehey