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 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

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.

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.

  • victor

    Wow. This is fascinating and I’m ashamed to admit I never had any idea of the true history behind these cards. I can’t wait for the next installment in this series!

  • Christiana Gaudet

    I am a certified tarot grandmaster, and the author of two books on tarot reading. I mourned the passing of Michael Dummett along with the rest of my community.
    You are absolutely right, tarot descends to us from the Catholic Church, with cards like the Hierophant (The Pope) and Judgment (The Judgment Day).
    It is also true that there are many con artists who use the cards to defraud people. No one has more ire for those people than we in the legitimate tarot community.
    You are also right that tarot emerged as a game and nothing more.
    The part you missed is that tarot divination is not just about prophesy. It is about inspiration, spirituality and self-discovery. The wisdom of the tarot is accessible to people of any faith. In fact, many of my students and clients are Catholic.
    Predicting the future is in many ways a futile pastime, depending on how and why you do it. Communicating with your higher consciousness is not.

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    I will get to the meditative elements of the cards later in the series, when I talk more about Tomberg’s Meditations on the Tarot. I have added a note to explain where this series is going.

  • Gail Finke

    I do think they can be dangerous because of the Golden Dawn folks having appropriated them, but this is a very good reminder that tarot cards really don’t date from ancient Egypt, they are just playing cards originally used for games.

  • bethdonovan

    I had no idea whatsoever!

  • Roki

    Wait… so you’re saying that Last Call should have been about a Bridge tournament rather than a Poker game?

  • Rebecca Fuentes

    I’m following this with interest. I’ve often seen tarot decks with beautiful artwork on them, but avoided them because I’d only ever heard of the occult associations.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    When I was in my period away from the Church, it started with Robert Asprin’s comedy Myth Adventures series, and an exploration of the occult, at much the same time.

    Sure enough, by the time I had rejected the occult, I was organizing Dragon Poker nights in the dorm using an Alister Crowley deck, probably the only good thing I can still say about that idiot.

  • Jim Wickson

    As one of the few American Tarot game players, I would have to give these articles a thousand thumbs up! Although written primarily from a Catholic perspective these Tarot articles are well researched and I highly recommend them not only for Catholics but for those of other faiths as well as those of no faith. The Tarot is a fascinating artifact and the games for which it was created are also compelling so it saddens me when the popular media mislead the public into believing the common occult myths about these cards. Good Job, Thomas L. McDonald. I can’t wait for further installments in this series.

  • Jim Wickson

    It would have been more accurate. Tarot games are trick taking games more similar to Bridge than to Poker. Last Call is a work of fiction, a fantasy, so I can’t be too critical of it. However, the more one knows about playing cards and of Tarot in particular it sort of takes one out of this book as it is based on American perceptions of these cards.

  • Martha O’Keeffe

    I dabble in collecting a few Tarot decks of various kinds, mainly because I like the different art and how individual artists interpret the symbolism. I like the Tarot as a jumping-off point for thinking about archetypes and symbols, but I agree that (a) they started as game cards and (b) a huge amount of the ‘history’ was invented out of whole cloth during the 18th century occultism craze.

    Have you ever read Charles William’s novel The Greater Trumps? It takes the Tarot seriously as encoding metaphysical knowledge (at least for the purposes of the novel) and entwines it with Christian spirituality. At the least, as a fantasy novel, it’s a cut above the general fare of Tolkien knock-offs, even if you don’t (as I wouldn’t myself) put great stock in the Tarot as anything more than what it appears to be.

  • seba

    Dude, in Poland catholics are doing exactly opposite, mystifying everything, from harry potter books, through music straight to kung-fu. Everything is demonic, everything is evil, everything shoulb be banned because “look at this guy, he went under 324235 years of exorcisms because he bow down once to aikido teacher!11″. I guess it’s only poland?

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    Thank you! The entire series–sans the religious commentary–will appear as the lead feature in the November issue of Games Magazine.

  • Dave G.

    This looks interesting. I’ll look forward to the rest of the posts.