Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Counting Down to Hallowe'en: Tarot Cards and the Art of Divination

The High Priestess of the Tarot Illuminati deck (2013). Image Source: The Tarot Review.

Welcome to this year's Hallowe'en Countdown! Be sure to check other blogs participating in this October-long blogathon, here. This year, countdown posts will appear every Monday, Wednesday and Friday until the frightful holiday.

Today's post looks at how the tarot deck started with Renaissance social commentary and became a modern occult game which tells your future. During the Renaissance, tarot became less a card game about late medieval life and more a divinatory tool with alchemical symbols. Posing a question to cards is known as cartomancy, a partly rational, partly irrational exploration of the subconscious in relation to objectively- and subjectively-experienced time:
The divinatory meanings of the cards commonly used today are derived mostly from cartomancer Jean-Baptiste Alliette ([1738-1791] also known as Etteilla) and Mlle Marie-Anne Adelaide Lenormand (1776-1843). The belief in the divinatory meaning of the cards is closely associated with a belief in their occult, divine, and mystical properties: a belief constructed in the 18th century by prominent Protestant clerics and freemasons.
With this merger of social, historic and mystical ideas, tarot card games became associated with how an individual life can mesh with the world's larger destiny.

An example of how pre-Masonic alchemical knowledge from the Renaissance was embedded in the earliest tarot decks; this moment of illumination on the left is from the Rosary of the Philosophers (1550), but actually derives from earlier sources and was reproduced in the Sola Busca tarot in 1491 (the Three of Wands, or Clubs, on the right). Image Source: Sola Busca Tarot 1998. 

Illuminatio: the alchemical winged sun (an Egyptian symbol, later represented as variants of the Christian cross, see below) from the Rosary of the Philosophers (1550). "Some of the woodcut images have precedents in earlier (15th century) German alchemical literature, especially in the Buch der heiligen Dreifaltigkeit ([The Book of the Holy Trinity] ca. 1410)." Image Source: Wiki.

"The winged sun is a symbol associated with divinity, royalty and power in the Ancient Near East." 'Winged Sun of Thebes' (from Egyptian Mythology and Egyptian Christianity by Samuel Sharpe, 1863). Image Source: Wiki.

Rosicrucian Christian play on the same symbol. Image Source: pinterest.

Comments on the 1912 Cagliostro deck reveal the nuances between famous tarot decks and their different origins and influences: "The deck is based upon the works of Papus (Gérard Anaclet-Vincent Encausse) who was a proponent of the works of Lévi. Qabalistic attributions are also based on Lévi, and the majors are numbered in the continental style. The keywords follow Etteilla. So how to read it? Like a[n occult] Wirth deck." This is the Hermit trump card, one of the major arcana, from the Cagliostro deck. Notice how the wicked are defeated when knowledge is inverted. Image Source: pinterest.

As far as we know, playing cards were likely invented in China in the 9th century; but they are not artifacts which would long survive and probably have an earlier history. Playing cards arrived in Europe, probably from India, in the 14th century. For cards from other regions of the world, such as Indian ganjifa cards, go here, here and here.

When it comes to tarot decks, you can look at the classics or neo-classics: there is the oldest known surviving whole deck, the alchemical Renaissance Sola Busca (circa 1491); reprinted by Wolfgang Mayer in an impressive limited edition in 1998); the Visconti-Sforza (15th century); the Scapini (15th century); the Minchiate (16th century - a larger deck which includes slightly different trumps, the signs of the zodiac, the four elements and four virtues); the Marseilles (16th century); the occult Etteilla (1791); the Classic (1835); the Soprafino (1835); the Rider-Waite (1910); the Cagliostro (1912); the Knapp (1929); the Thoth (1943); or the faux-antique Deck of the Bastard (2013), which reproduces many elements from earlier versions in a deck amateurs can actually use. Or you can look at the latest decks, which I do below the jump.

A history of ganjifa cards; while the video claims genuine, traditional ganjifa cards are scarce, reproductions of ganjifa cards are very popular on eBay. Video Source: Youtube.

RAI5 report on the oldest surviving entire tarot deck, the Sola Busca (1491): Part I (originally broadcast August 2013). Video Source: RAI5 via Youtube.

RAI5 report on the oldest surviving entire tarot deck: Part II. Video Source: RAI5 via Youtube.

There are five traditional suits, plus the joker, or fool. He is the zeroth card, who stands alone. The suits are the 22 major arcana trump cards plus the 56 minor arcana, comprising four suits. The use of tarot cards is explained here, here and here; one of the best introductory historical books on the subject is The Tarot: History, Mystery and Lore (1994) by Cynthia Giles.

Le Fou (The Fool) (2010). Image Source © Skia at deviantART.

The tarot is really two decks in one. The major arcana originally conveyed religious, moral and political messages. For example, the earliest complete Sola Busca deck from 1491 has trumps (or 'triumphs') which are Roman emperors, contemporary Italian politicians and wealthy citizens, and Christian figures. This was Renaissance Italy, looking back on the 5th century fall of the Roman empire. The major arcana constituted an advanced social and historical commentary, played by the nobility.

Death (XIII) card from the Tarot of the Thousand and One Nights (2005). Image Source: pinterest.

Imagine a New York Times editorial or BBC report in the form of a card game. Or, if you want better to understand how Renaissance Italians might have looked at the major arcana, think of a Millennial card game in which the cards include Jesus Christ, Mohammed, Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin, Queen Elizabeth II, Christine Lagarde, Ban Ki-moon, Winston Churchill, Adolf Hitler, and some well known historic figures like Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. There was a card game called Illuminati: New World Order published by Steve Jackson Games in 1995, with several sequels, which included contemporary politicians like the Clintons, and images of a bombed Pentagon and exploding World Trade Center long before 9/11. Conspiracy theorists speculate (here and here) that the 1995 game predicted much of our current political and economic scene. For examples of the cards' remarkable symbolic 90s' representations of what actually came to pass in the 2000s, see here, here and all the cards here.

Later, the major arcana cards veered away from politics. As the age of faith gave way to the age of reason, they were associated with ideals, archetypes, alchemy and esoteric spells. Today, the major arcana combine science and magic to produce divination.

Meanwhile, the worldly minor arcana were more social and economic. They were adapted for use in today's French decks, giving rise to the number play and hierarchies associated with bridge and poker. The minor arcana are famous for their four suits or social classes: the wands (clubs - the suit of the peasantry), swords (spades - the suit of the military and nobility), coins (disks, pentacles, diamonds - the suit of merchants), cups (hearts - the suit of the clergy and intelligentsia). Cards of the minor arcana are numbered 1 (ace) through 10, followed by four royal cards or courts: pages, knights (pages and knights are compressed in modern card decks into jacks), kings (princes) and queens. The minor arcana are a game about rising and falling stations, almost a proto-Monopoly, in which you can gamble over your place in society. In the French Revolution, that symbolism altered to reflect revolutionary ideals. It was also typical to change the faces of the jacks, kings and queens to those of famous or contemporary royals. In tarot decks, the minor arcana take on additional occult roles, just like the major arcana. Wiki:
In the popular mind tarot is indelibly associated with divination, fortune telling, or cartomancy. Tarot was not invented as a mystical or magical tool of divination. The association of the tarot with cartomantic practice is coincident with its uptake by Freemasons as a fountain of eternal, divine wisdom. ... [T]here is a distinct line of development of the cartomantic tarot that occurs in parallel with the imposition of hermetic mysteries on the formally mundane pack of cards.
The meanings now invested in the major and minor arcana are broad and complex. Each card also has a reversed meaning. One card can influence another through proximity. The major arcana are often taken to indicate major people or threads in the querent's life, while the minor arcana might be secondary influences. For an example of a how to read a Celtic Cross spread, go here.

An example of a Destiny Square in a cartomancy spread with 52 regular playing cards. Image Source: Taroflexions.

Tarot decks recycle old symbols in new ways; early tarot researchers attempted to argue that the tarot carried with it the secret knowledge of ancient and pre-ancient histories. For example, in 1781 Antoine Court de Gébelin tried to link the mysteries of Isis and Thoth to the symbols used in the Tarot of Marseilles. He even suggested that the tarot was a codified Book of Thoth. Although this link has never been proven, since the French Revolutionary period, the tarot has been heavily flavoured with Egyptian mythological and Jewish Kabbalistic lore.

The 1912 Cagliostro deck recalls Egyptian archaeology, fashionably mingled with western occult; this east-west combination reappeared from the 1870s to the mid 20th century and continues to today's western pop cultural obsession with pre-Islamic religions. As I said in this post, "America is the world's biggest exporter of early Near Eastern and Arabian neo-mythologies." Tarot decks could be considered a modern, repeating fake history of the ancient history and prehistory of the world. If they symbolize anything, it is that we yearn know our earliest history, which is forever lost to us. The tarot's medieval alchemical symbols more genuinely reflect the tarot's historic origins. While it seems certain that the tarot embodies a link between east and west, originating at some point through trade or travel in the late middle ages, the exact origin cannot be determined.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, the tarot acquired an added layer of magic, eastern mysticism and paganism. There are new decks devoted to wicca, metaphysics, reincarnation, other dimensions of reality or consciousness, dreams, yoga, angels, gnostic ascension, and just about any New Age theme you can imagine. Other new-fangled decks, like the ones shown below, are essentially conservative in their spiritual outlook. They do not add expand the tarot's spiritual messages, tend to follow the Rider-Waite deck, and change the way that core symbolism is presented to reflect fleeting new fashions, such as steampunk, zombies or the Illuminati.

Brassai, La Cartomancienne (The Fortune Teller), 1933. Image Source: pinterest.

The tarot deck, with its powerful symbols, marries fake prehistory to religious, psychological and scientific archetypes. In the eyes of the tarot, each individual is an amalgam of eternal spiritual and worldly truths (the 78 cards of the deck) which find new forms of calculus as the cards relate to each other through thousands of different placements and interrelationships. But these variations occur within limits. Cartomancy assumes - like astrology, palm-reading and even modern psychology - that all people also fall into a limited number of personality types. Their types repeat endlessly, which is why everyone has more than one doppelganger. Cartomancy further assumes that people's life patterns follow broad commonalities, such that their past, present and future can be mapped onto a Square of Destiny. In most tarot spreads (although not always - see the spreads explained here), one section represents the past, another indicates the present self, and another part of the spread reveals the querent's future.

The ritual splitting of a person's destiny into past, present and future in the tarot spread creates a metaphor, implying that different people inhabit the life of one individual. An individual becomes a different person several times over the course of one life. People who believe in reincarnation take that metaphor literally and assume they are asking about actual past, present and future lives. Regardless of how that idea is interpreted - a succession of lives within one lifetime, or previous and future lives - an individual's many lives are presumed to influence the present as nagging undercurrents.

Nevertheless, the tarot's particular attraction is that it permits breakthroughs, a gnostic glimpse of objective time. This is a tremendous moment of epiphany and reconciliation, when all time frames are united and all personalities from all time periods are reunited in one person.  The symbolism is akin to healing a kind of metaphysical, multidimensional and cross-generational schizophrenia. In a successful rejuvenation of consciousness, a scattered individual, pressured by the known world or by larger unknown dimensions, can discover his or her true personality from the perspective of Newton's absolute time.

Streampunk Tarot (2011).

Streampunk Tarot (2011). Images Source: Janet Boyer.

The Zombie Tarot (2012). Images Source: The Dieline, Janet Boyer.

Tarot Illuminati (2013).

Tarot Illuminati (2013) by Erik C. Dunne and Kim Huggens, is not really about secret societies - says this reviewer, but it does show Millennial themes, reminisces about the 2008 economic crash, the Asian economy, and globalization. This is the Rider-Waite deck with LOTR and Game of Thrones style and some racist themes. Images Sources: Aeclectic Tarot, pinterest, Lo Scarabeo, Janet Boyer, The Tarot Review.

The Samhain Treat Deck (2013) by Seven Stars plays on turn of the 19th-20th century Hallowe'en cards with a touch of steampunk. Image Source: Tarot by Seven.

For other Millennial-themed tarot decks, see:
As noted above, one of the major publishers of tarot cards is Lo Scarabeo. Another is US Game Systems.

See all my posts on the Tarot.
See all my posts on Ghosts.
See all my posts on Horror Themes.
See all my Countdowns.

Check out other blogs observing the Countdown to Hallowe'en!
 Image: Spirit Halloween (2011) © Julia Cosmos / Angel-Thanatos at deviantART.

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