Rethinking Tarot Origins
A short series . . .
Over the past few months, I have been revising and updating Part One of The Tarot: History, Mystery, and Lore. The four chapters of Part One trace the history of Tarot from before we have any material artifacts to around 1980. In this process, I’ve had a lot of opportunities to rethink what I wrote thirty years ago.
For one thing, there’s more information now about Tarot history, and of course it’s much easier to access. So part of the process has just been checking facts, making corrections where necessary, and in some cases, adding new information. I’ve also tried to reorganize some parts for greater clarity (and relax the writing a bit), now that I have more space to work with.
But another aspect of the process has been comparing my attitude now to my attitude then. And here are some things I’ve discovered:
I have more appreciation now for the figures who created and elaborated the idea of “esoteric Tarot.” I think I used to see most of them as sincere but misguided, and perhaps a little self-important. Now I see them as remarkably imaginative, and effortful. If you look at their lives beyond just whatever they thought about Tarot, you find they were intelligent, inventive characters, breaking what they believed to be new ground.
Along the same lines, I’m more in sympathy with the aspirants of the Golden Dawn period than I was before. I’d thought of the whole thing as mostly melodrama, mixing personal ambition with fanciful thinking. And there’s some truth to that! But I’ve spent a little time trying to imagine what it might have been like to participate in their activities, and I’m unexpectedly intrigued. I’ve also tried to consider their ideas not from a “modern” perspective, but in the context of what was going on in the world around them at the time.
As a consequence of trying to organize the original text to work better online, I’ve come to see both connective threads and philosophical shifts that weren’t visible to me before. In particular, I see how the Los Angeles group broke from European ways of thinking about Tarot, and combined esoteric ideas with new social developments--like early uses of mass media, and the emerging interest in cross-cultural mythologies and non-Western philosophies.
I’m still processing those reconsiderations, and I might add a sort of epilogue once the revisions are complete. But in the meantime, I want to open an exploration. It’s an outcome of the above, but it takes the form of a big question:
Why would 15th-century painters and courtiers (and/or the designers of print decks, if they already existed) have embellished gaming cards with images like death, the devil, religious figures, a vagabond, a lightning-struck tower?
To mention just some examples.
I never really considered that question before--but I’m wondering now if doesn’t need more attention.
It seems to me that we tend these days to focus on connections between Tarot imagery and other examples of late medieval/early Renaissance iconography—as if that explains everything.
But let’s say for the sake of making a point that the Hanged Man actually referenced the custom of hanging traitors upside down, or even the upside-down crucifixion of Christian martyrs. Why include either reference in a gaming deck?
Similarly—images depicting the ravages of time were widely used in an instructive way, as reminders that worldly pleasures are fleeting. These images often featured bent (hunchbacked) or crippled old men. And death was frequently shown as a skeleton, again to emphasize the grim outcome of our mortal state.
So it’s possible to see a subset of the Tarot trumps as a cautionary tale, like Everyman, an English morality play probably written about the same time Tarot cards were being painted for Italian nobles. (Enjoy a concise summary of Tarot/Everyman parallels from an unexpected source.)
But how, exactly, did any of that fit the idea of a fun evening?
I’m sure someone else has thought about this, and might be offering answers. But I haven’t looked far enough to find them yet--so if you have ideas or can suggest resources, please let me know! In the meantime, I’ll continue sharing my personal speculations about whether we’ve got the right slant on Tarot’s origins.
These were originally two posts—now, together at last!
For those who missed it, I raised a question about why people in the 15th century might have thought it made sense to adorn their gaming cards with (for example) reminders of death and decay.
I should have clarified that there is a generally accepted answer to this question. Specifically: that Christian iconography was a standard feature of life at the time, so might naturally have been incorporated into any set of images. Including a game or a deck of cards.
I think I might even have written something along those lines myself!
But in the years since History, Mystery, and Lore, I’ve had the opportunity to research and write many (many) introductory profiles of authors and works from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. I wrote about philosophers and theologians as well as poets, not only from our Western tradition, but also from Islamic and Chinese history.
So I have a substantially different, and in some ways deeper, understanding of the period than I had in 1990. Which doesn’t mean I have any new answers about Tarot history—it just means that my approach to the subject has evolved.
As a preliminary note: I’m not concerned with the original order(s) of the trumps, their iconographic and geographic variants, their literary and artistic analogues, the political and familial relationships of Italian nobility, the rules of suited games, or any of the other topics that animate a lot of discussion about the history of Tarot.
There’s much to be learned from those considerations—and they can be hypnotically fascinating!--but that’s not where my focus is.
I’m looking for a different line of inquiry. And in that spirit, I’ll offer . . .
Beginning with: The idea that Christian iconography was so typical (even obligatory) that it would naturally have found its way into the early Tarot. This doesn’t entirely make sense to me, for a couple of reasons.
First, we have no (zero!) written commentary concerning the “why” of the trump imagery. But we do have one item—the friar’s sermon—that certainly does not support a Christian interpretation, in the positive sense. In fact, it portrays the Tarot as anti-Christian.
Second, by the probable time of the first Tarot iterations, there were already plenty of carnival-type events, in which Christian norms were intentionally transgressed, and religious imagery was often mocked. For example, masking to conceal one’s identity during wanton festivities began in Venice around the same time as the early painted cards were produced. And even at the height of the Middle Ages (well before 1450), secular entertainments took place both at court and in public.
So it’s not as if there was no alternative to religious imagery available for use by 15th-century partiers. And it’s not as if there were ecclesiastical penalties for leaving religion out of social activities. On the contrary.
Another approach to the “why” of this matter suggests that incorporating reminders of moral and religious precepts might have been meant to soothe noble sensibilities, especially among the ladies. But again—I’m not convinced we really understand the social contexts of that time.
And beyond those considerations: By the middle of the 15th century, cultural energy had already begun to shift away from the kind of all-encompassing Christian worldview that’s generally associated with the high Middle Ages, and was moving instead toward the semi-secular humanist perspective. Petrarch (for example) lived and wrote quite a while before our earliest Tarots, and humanistic ideas were already well-established among the elites of Italian society by the 15th century.
I am absolutely not a deep authority on Tarot history, and I never (repeat, never) say anything on the subject without first looking at the Tarot History Forum! That’s the place to start if you want to dive into this subject area--just use search terms like “Petrarch,” “humanism,” “carnival,” “profane,” and whatever else comes to mind. There will be many discussion threads with relevant comments and illuminating facts, so plan for plenty of time. (Smiley face.)
But with that said, here are . . .
Brilliant as it is, the Tarot History Forum reflects another problem I’ve been thinking about: The general separation of research (and interpretation) into streams that rarely converge. One stream is based primarily on art history and iconography, another on the history of games, another on history of ideas, another on social history—and so on. The Forum’s amazingly knowledgeable contributors often divide along the same lines in their approaches.
And there’s one other thing to keep in mind. So much detailed information has surfaced in the past two decades that it would be an enormous undertaking to analyze and synthesize all the available material. I don’t know if such a thing could ever be done, but I think we need to remember that it hasn’t been done yet.
At least not in my opinion.
As an example: I admire the information assembled by Andrea Vitali, and his attempts (along with others in his circle) to create a coherent view of Tarot history. But I don’t agree with some aspects of their approach, and I question some of the conclusions.
However! Everyone should explore Vitali’s website, and form their own opinions. There are several links in a previous newsletter.
Just as a general matter--I’ve found that declarative statements about the history and character of Tarot often sound convincing, but if you take apart the underlying logic, it turns out there are confusions and gaps. Among other issues, I see a tendency to treat the 15th century as if it were the 13th/14th—i.e., “medieval”—while at the same time referencing decks and documents from the 16th century, as if those items provide insight into the earlier origins of Tarot.
Which is basically like looking for your car keys under the lamppost because that where the light is. Which I’ll elaborate below. But first I’ll loop back to my core point:
At some point some person, for some reason, selected a certain group of images to paint or draw, for some purpose. And we just have no idea who, why, or when.
Worth noting--many other paintings and drawings were produced during that period, often using the same iconography. But most have become forgotten relics, while a basic Tarot “set” has persisted across centuries. “Why” again.
The prevailing answer here usually has something to do with archetypes, journeys, and so forth. I’m not discounting those explanations—but how (explicitly) do they connect with the original decision, impulse, or inspiration that led to this specific set of images? Perhaps we can never know, but that shouldn’t stop us from wondering.
And Finally . . .
My other recent realization has been that there’s not only some separation among various disciplinary perspectives (as mentioned above), there’s also a rather large disconnect in the investigation and interpretation of two very different periods—which I think of as “historic Tarot” (1400 to 1700) and “esoteric Tarot” (1750 to 1950).
I won’t go further into that at the moment, but I do want to make the point that for quite a while now, esoteric speculations have been generally dismissed in relation to the historic Tarot. These two areas of investigation just do not cross, except in the sense that we acknowledge the influence of esoteric systems (alchemy, numerology, astrology, natural magic) in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance.
The disconnect is understandable, to an extent. Since there’s no evidence of a direct connection between esoteric systems and the origins of Tarot, there hasn’t been a foundation for combining both lines of inquiry. And so much about the esoteric approach to Tarot has been dismissed or discredited that the topic itself has receded into the background—at least in terms of serious inquiry.
But let’s look at the actual state of play. On one hand, we can be certain that the most famous Renaissance polymaths (e.g., Paracelsus, da Vinci, Giordano Bruno) were born too late to have influenced the creation of Tarot. But on the other hand—we cannot be certain that one or more of their unknown predecessors didn’t have a hand in it.
There are enormous gaps in what we know about life and ideas in the 15th century, given that most of the surviving material is comprised of biblical and devotional texts commissioned as illuminated manuscripts. Those objects were valuable enough to preserve. By contrast, relatively little remains from the vernacular or informal texts of that period, and what we do have is scattered through institutional libraries and private collections around the world.
A slight detour: The Getty Museum produced this short video, demonstrating the lengthy and elaborate process by which medieval manuscript books were produced. The video is fascinating all by itself, but it also conveys a sense of how truly different the late medieval world was from our own.
In addition to the problem of “too little” data, there’s also a problem of “too much.” Printing with movable type developed rapidly in the second half of the 15th century, and by 1500 there were actually millions of books in print. Only a fraction are extant today--but there are many, many more such texts than we could ever scour for traces of Tarot lore.
Which I’m only mentioning because it’s easy to forget that we don’t know what we don’t know.
For example: I am not sure the iterations we know about, in the form of early painted “cards,” were not based on a preceding source. I’m just sure we can’t currently prove that hypothesis—or any of several others.
So for me, the origin story of Tarot is not sufficiently explained by examples of similar iconography, the historical development of card games, or clues gleaned from later texts. I come back to the fact that twenty-two images from diverse sources coalesced into a single, persistent, seemingly meaningful set--and that was either a spectacular coincidence (in the reductive sense), or a so-far-unexplained mystery.
Since I can’t offer an immediate strategy for resolving all this, I’d better wrap up by saying I think we need an interdisciplinary, cross-conceptual line of inquiry that hasn’t developed yet, to my knowledge.
But then--I’ve only recently started thinking about all this, in the process of trying to strengthen and clarify the original history chapters from my book. So I’m currently on a mission to review theories developed in the last couple of decades. Since they post-date my original writing on the subject, I need to catch up.
So far, I have the impression that most commentators accumulate and interpret evidence to reinforce a particular viewpoint. Perhaps each of them has found a different piece, from a much bigger puzzle?
Last thought . . . . by connecting our contemporary experience with tangible relics from a distant part of human history, we expand and enrich our imaginative capabilities. That process may not produce definitive answers, but it might lead us to new levels of understanding.