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Robert Todd Carroll

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tarot cards

"The tarot is one of the most wonderful of human inventions. Despite all the outcries of philosophers, this pack of pictures, in which destiny is reflected as in a mirror with multiple facets, remains so vital and exercises so irresistible an attraction on imaginative minds that it is hardly possible that austere critics who speak in the name of an exact but uninteresting logic should ever succeed in abolishing its employment." --Grillot de Givry

The SkepticTarot cards are used today mainly in fortune-telling. A few years ago, tarot cards would have conjured up images of Gypsies, but today the cards are popular among occultists and New Agers in all walks of life.

The modern tarot deck has been traced back to fifteenth century Italy and a trick-taking game called triumphs (tarots in French).[Decker] The traditional tarot deck consists of two sets of cards, one (the major arcana) having 22 pictures, such as the Fool, the Devil, Temperance, the Hermit, the Sun, the Lovers, the Juggler, the Hanged Man and Death. The other set has 56 cards (the minor arcana) with kings (or lords), queens (or ladies),  knights, and knaves (pages or servants) of sticks (or wands, cudgels or batons) , swords,  cups and coins. Gypsies didn't begin using tarot cards until the twentieth century. Today, there are many different tarot decks used in cartomancy.  The meanings of the figures and numbers on tarot cards vary greatly among tarot readers and advocates, many of  whom find connections between tarot and the cabala, astrology, the I Ching, ancient Egypt, and various other occult and mystical notions.

The oldest playing cards date back to tenth century China, but the four suits of tarot and modern playing cards probably originated with a fourteenth century Muslim deck .[Decker] According to de Givry, in the modern 52-card deck of ordinary playing cards, sticks or wands = clubs (and announce news); swords = spades (and presage unhappiness and death); cups = hearts (and presage happiness); coins = diamonds (and presage money). According to Decker, the Muslim sticks represented polo sticks, and as Europeans were not yet familiar with polo, they changed the suit of sticks to that of wands, cudgels or batons.

Tarot cards are usually read by a fortune-teller, though in these days of New Age Enterprise, anyone can buy a deck with instructions on how to discover your real self and actualize your true potential. The fortune-teller seems always to be a woman. There is nothing sexist in this: women can't help it if they're more psychic than men. I don't think there is any evidence that women have more intuition than men, though that is a common prejudice. Nor do I think that there is any evidence that women can tell the future any better than men can. Be that as it may, there has been a strong belief for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, that one's future is contained in the cards and that the fortune-teller can see what that future is. Why anyone's fate would be mysteriously contained in playing cards is a mystery indeed. But as the occult sciences are essentially mysterious, we need not trouble ourselves with questions of origin, causality or uninteresting logic.

There is a romantic irresistibility to the notion of shuffling the cards and casting one's fate, to putting one's cards on the table for all to see, to drawing into the unknown, to having one's life laid out and explained by strangers who have the gift of clairvoyance, to gambling on the future, etc. The idea of staring at a picture card and letting it reveal the future or mirror the soul is not one that austere critics are likely to find tantalizing, but the thought of such visionary mysticism obviously has its attraction. Centuries of scientific advancement and learning have not diminished the popularity of occult guidance systems such as the tarot, ouija boards, astrology, the I Ching, palmistry, iridology, reflexology, ink blots, graphology, enneagrams, crystal balls, tea leaves, etc. The need to be guided, to have assistance in making decisions, to be reassured, may have their roots in unfulfilled childhoods. For, it is in childhood that one needs guidance, assistance and direction. It is in childhood that one needs to be comforted and reassured that it is acceptable to be master of your own destiny. Perhaps the many adults seeking occult guidance represent generations of children not guided and directed but tyrannically commanded, not reassured but demeaned, not taught to be masters of their own destiny but taught to be insecure and dependent. There is a kind of romantic irresistibility to these notions but they are probably just gibberish to exact but uninteresting occult logic. Still, some of the cards are very pretty and many of those who use them swear that they have come to a deeper and greater understanding of themselves by letting the cards stimulate their imagination.


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further reading

Decker, Ronald. "Tarot," in The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal edited by Gordon Stein (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1996). $104.95 , pp. 752-759.

de Givry, Grillot. Witchcraft, Magic & Alchemy (New York: Dover Books, 1971), republication of the 1931 Houghton Mifflin Company edition.

ęcopyright 1998
Robert Todd Carroll

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Last updated 11/23/98

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