Reclaiming Tarot

Note: This is the first of a series which looks at the real history of Tarot. I do not deny that Tarot has occult connections which are seriously problematic for Catholics. We will get to all of it in time, but for now please be aware that this series is not about fortune telling, but about cultural history and gaming. If we demystify the occult Tarot, it loses its hold on people.

Let’s begin with the obvious: unless you plan to hit on 20 or bid a blind nil, there’s no way to tell your future using cards. That quirky character reading Tarot cards down at the midway knows no more about your future than the hot dog vendor. The divinatory powers of Tarot are, simply, a grand and ongoing hoax.

This hasn’t stopped two centuries of occultists, New Age gurus, and hucksters from claiming otherwise, weaving elaborate fictions about the origins of the unusual “Major Arcana” of the Tarot deck and the powers of cartomancy. The cards go back, some claim, all the way to ancient Egypt (a civilization that didn’t have paper and didn’t use cards at all, but never mind) and are informed by the mystical symbolism of Kabbalism, and perhaps even encode the wisdom of an ancient lost civilization!

They’re nothing of the sort.

The fake history of the Tarot began in the 18th century, when Antoine Court de Gebelin found the cards and speculated on their ancient origins.

The real history of the Tarot, however, begins in the early 15th century in Italy, and their story is an important part of gaming and cultural history that was lost for centuries. They were created to play games, not tell fortunes.

The Tarot deck introduced the concept of trumps to card play. “Trump” is related to the word “triumph,” meaning a card that beats every other card. Eventually, the dedicated trumps of the Tarot deck were dropped and one of the four suits of a standard 52-card deck took over this function, but without Tarot, we may never have had Whist, Spades, Bridge or the entire class of trump-based trick-taking games. (Karnoffel, developed in Germany at the same time, has similar mechanics, but it was Tarot that spread and influenced other games.)

Beginning in the 1980s, the fiction began to dissolve thanks to the work of philosopher Sir Michael Dummett, Wykeham Professor of Logic at the University of Oxford. One of the most important philosophers of the 20th century, Dummett’s work focused on language, particularly the way it conveys truth. He was also a convert who wrote frequently about Catholic issues, particularly for New Blackfriars, where he criticized certain liberalizing trends in in the post-conciliar era such as revisionist scripture scholars. (Though he defended tradition, he also questioned the logic underlying Humanae Vitae.) His knighthood was not only for his intellectual achievements, which also included developing the Quota Borda system of proportional voting, but for his work as an advocate for immigrants.

Sir Michael Dummett

Tarot lore and play was one of Dummett’s hobbies, and he collected a vast amount of original material trapped in old documents or acquired via field work and interviews with players. He was fascinated with the cards, and recognized their origins in medieval European Catholic culture rather than ancient Egypt. His first book was The Game of Tarot: From Ferrara to Salt Lake City (Duckworth, 1980) and his last was A History of Games Played with the Tarot Pack (E. Mellen Press, 2004), a two-volume, 900-page magnum opus written in collaboration with John McLeod (founder of Pagat.com). Dummett and McLeod also published a 75-page supplement to their History adding new research and correcting various errors. (This is available as a free download at TarotGame.org.)

Dummett passed away in 2011, but other historians and collectors of playing cards continue adding to our knowledge of the real history of these fascinating game devices, with new material appearing on the internet and in The Playing Card, the journal of the International Playing-Card Society. Due to their work and the ability of people to connect with other card enthusiasts on the internet, Tarot games are beginning to make a comeback.

Catholics have been conditioned to avoid Tarot because of its New Age and occult connotations. That’s a mistake: Tarot is part of our heritage. It reflects Catholic culture, symbolism, history, and theology. Its images are useful not just for play, but for contemplation, as Catholic mystic Valentin Tomberg explores beautifully in Meditations on the Tarot.

Tarot belongs to us, not to the con artists. This post is the first of a series on the both the real and imagined history and use of the Tarot. They are adapted from a feature I’m writing for my magazine, Games, with the focus shifted a bit to emphasize the Catholic elements of the story.

Tomorrow: The Real History of Tarot

NOTE: I would urge people who are inclined to be irritated by this piece–both Catholics who think Tarot are nothing but evil and Tarot users who find pleasure in the cards–to wait until the end of the series before rendering any judgement. We have a long way to go through the following posts:

  • Reclaiming Tarot
  • The Real History of Tarot
  • The Fake History of Tarot
  • The Bishop’s Dice Game
  • The Meaning of the Cards
  • Playing Tarot

This is neither a “Tarot is awesome!” nor a “Tarot is meaningless!” series. The images do indeed have meaning and symbolic resonance, and they can indeed be used improperly to the spiritual detriment of some.

What they don’t have is mystical powers above and beyond what the user brings to them.

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About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.


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