Discover more from Tarot | An Exploration Project
September 1, 2023
A Labor Day essay + an update on EP 2.0 . . .
Hello to new subscribers—and for everyone, welcome to the first post of September.
In the “new” EP plan, regular newsletters will usually consist of an essay and a deck or book review. But today’s post blends the two parts, and adds a touch of ”Tarot Everywhere” for good measure.
An update on the EP 2.0 timetable at the end of this post. But first, here’s a long-ish essay, in honor of a long weekend!
Tarot and the Social Order
Labor Day is one of several U.S. holidays that once had a deeper meaning, but now serve mostly as expanded shopping opportunities. (I’ve tried and failed to figure out why mattress sales are a particular feature.)
But growing up in a politically progressive family, I came to think of the Labor Movement as an extraordinary force in the evolution of modern democracy.
I still do—but the topic is Tarot, so I’ll stay off my soapbox. And fortunately, the Tarot itself will take us right into a discussion of social order.
It’s fairly common practice to relate the four suits of the Minor Arcana to the four social classes of medieval life.
Cups = Clergy (the religious class)
Swords = Nobility (the aristocratic class)
Coins = Merchants (the “middle” class)
Wands = Laborers (the “working” class)
For most of Tarot history, there were no illustrations on the suited cards, so we can’t really see what (if anything) 15th-century Tarocchi players thought about their game in relation to feudal society.
But we can see that Pamela Colman Smith’s designs for the Minor Arcana don’t make any class distinctions. When you look over all of them at once (easily done on the Wikipedia page), there seem to be three “classes” of people, scattered around in all the suits. There are happy people, unhappy people, and inscrutable people.
Here’s an example of each group:
As Tolstoy famously observed: "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." And the same can be said of Pixie’s Tarot “classes”! The happy folk (mostly in Cups) are all doing generically pleasant things, in generically pleasant surroundings.
But the unhappy folk have a wide variety of problems: they are under attack, over-burdened, embroiled in conflict, imprisoned, impoverished, wracked with despair—or dead.
Meanwhile, the inscrutable folk are mostly just staring at something.
So I’m thinking that our impressions of the Minor Arcana are now based on states of experience rather than anything to do with social class. The pictorial world of the Smith-Waite suits is reflective of democratic, egalitarian ideas, not the feudal worldview that shaped “original” Tarot.
But what about the trumps?
At one point (can’t remember exactly when) I was apparently pondering that question, and came up with a conceptual overview of the deck as a whole:
Classes of Society
Structures of Society
Church: Pope (Hierophant)
Commerce: Batteleur (Magician)
Structures of Human Experience
Life Cycle: Fool, Lovers, Hermit, Death
Events: Wheel of Fortune, Tower
Unconsciousness: Hanged Man
Intuition/Imagination: High Priestess
Good and Evil: Judgement, Devil
Structures of the Cosmos:
Star, Sun, Moon, World
I originally titled this “A Social/Philosophical View of the Tarot,” and looking over it now, I think it does accomplish something useful—at least in terms of offering an extra insight into structures of the deck.
From this perspective, the number cards together represent what we could now call the “working class.” And that actually seems to fit comfortably with Colman Smith’s visualized Minor Arcana. To my eye, only three of her number cards might depict members of the nobility: Six of Wands, Nine of Pentacles, Four of Swords. (Possibly the charitable fellow in the Six of of Pentacles, but I think he’s more likely a merchant.)
So far this essay has focused on how social classes might be reflected in the traditional Tarot. But now I want to take a wild leap.
Enter The Workers Tarot Deck.
According to its creators:
The deck is meant as a critical tool to help designers understand the implications of their designs (of services, platforms, products, systems) have on workers. The cards allow for zooming out into larger ethical and political implications of service design to help practitioners define a more consequential practice for themselves. Ultimately the deck aims at creating empathy and establishing solidarity between designers and workers and delineating a worker-centered design framework.
As you can see from the examples above, The Workers Tarot uses the trump archetypes to represent types of employment that have either emerged or changed over the recent past. The Minor Arcana (which uses playing card suits rather than traditional Tarot suits) explores four different aspects of the design project:
THINGS (Diamonds/Coins) are artifacts used by service workers, the most visible design levers in relation to workers conditions, where designers can affect the most.
THEORIES (Spades/Swords) are about theories and concepts from philosophers, sociologists and designer theorists offering useful frameworks to understand work.
HISTORY (Hearts/Cups) gathers far or recent historical facts, both successful and not so successful, wins and losses for workers and worker movements along time.
TRENDS (Clubs/Wands) features trends affecting the present and future of work, both threatening and empowering.
Here’s a sampling:
I think there will be many opinions about this application of the Tarot archetypes—so I’ll just make two observations.
First: This is truly convincing proof that Tarot is everywhere.
Second: By using Tarot as a metaphorical reference point, the creators of this project have called attention to themes, trends, and issues that most of us don’t stop to think about.
The Workers Tarot is a project of the Parsons Design for Social Innovation and Sustainability Lab (DESIS) at The New School in New York City. The deck has been envisioned as an ongoing, global project, with new cards to be added by future users. And there’s already an online “Play Canvas” where designers can create their own spreads.
If you’d like to reconnect with the spirit of Labor Day—one rewarding way is through music. Some of our most stirring protest songs have come from the Labor Movement, so this is a great time to revisit classic performers like Pete Seeger, The Weavers, Woody Guthrie, and Joan Baez. Or if you have time, watch the PBS “American Masters” special Holly Near: Singing for Our Lives.
As for me . . . . I’ll be spending some of the long weekend finishing up the EP reset. I’ve been running a little behind—so the transition date has moved to September 5. Watch your Inbox!
Thanks so much for reading. C