A Cultural History of Tarot: From Entertainment to Esotericism
By Helen Farley. 2009. London: I. B. Tauris. 304 pages. ISBN: 1-84885-053-0 (hard cover).
Reviewed by William Hansen, Indiana University
[Review length: 1090 words • Review posted on October 27, 2010]
Playing cards were introduced into Italy in the fourteenth century by the Arabs. The decks had the basic structure that ordinary decks of cards have today: four suits, each featuring ten numbered cards and three court cards, making a pack of fifty-two cards altogether. In Italy these suits were called cups, batons (replacing the Arab suit of polo-sticks), coins, and swords. In France they metamorphosed respectively into the hearts, clubs, diamonds, and spades that for Americans and many Europeans characterize a standard pack of playing cards.
Tarot cards appear to have arisen in Italy as a modification of playing cards. A tarot deck typically has four suits consisting of ten numbered cards and four (rather than three) court cards, plus twenty-one trump cards and one wild card, for a total of seventy-eight cards. The basic novelty of the tarot deck was the addition of the twenty-one trump cards, each displaying a distinctive image. The term “trump cards” derives from “triumph cards” (Italian carte da trionfi), so called because the cards are ordered hierarchically so that in play a higher card triumphs over a lower-ranked card. Tarot cards were used to play the game of tarocco (the Italian word is of uncertain etymology); the French at the time called it taraux, and from the French we have our English word “tarot” with its silent final letter. By the seventeenth century the game of tarok, or tarot, was being played in most of Europe.
Although tarot continues to be played in some regions of Europe, most persons today think of tarot cards not as playing cards at all but as fortune-telling cards or as a device for the acquisition of self-knowledge. The fascinating story of this transformation is the subject of Helen Farley’s A Cultural History of Tarot, wherein the author traces the history of tarot decks, the uses to which they have been put, and the ideas that have arisen about them. The novelty of her approach, she declares, lies in her pulling together the work of researchers who do not usually converse with one another: scholars of Western esotericism, historians of games, and art historians. She rightly points out that a major challenge faced by historians of tarot is that much of the literature on the subject is popular scholarship in which conjectures about tarot are transmitted uncritically as facts.
Farley parses the cultural history of tarot into four major periods, beginning with fifteenth-century Italy, when the evidence suggests that the tarot deck was devised as a modification of the familiar playing-card deck. The earliest surviving packs consist of hand-painted cards crafted for members of prominent Italian families, the most nearly complete set being the so-called “Visconti-Sforza” deck, which has served as the basic model for most subsequent tarot decks. In my view Farley makes a persuasive argument that the imagery and symbolism of the trump cards in this deck were devised specifically to reflect the world and worldview of the powerful Visconti and Sforza families of Renaissance Milan. Thus the four trumps known as Emperor, Empress, Pope, and Popess can be seen as representing temporal and spiritual power in northern Italy in late medieval and early modern times, and the Popess card may have been inspired specifically by a particular nun connected with the Visconti family who was called La Papessa by her admirers. Other cards represented virtues (e.g., Fortitude, Justice), luminaries (e.g., Sun, Moon), metaphysical ideas (e.g., Old Man = time, Wheel of Fortune = chance), and so on. The deck was, Farley argues, a sort of allegory of life, with its mix of chance and skill, the trumps loosely reflecting the history and worldview of particular aristocratic families in a fifteenth-century Milanese context.
The second period is late-eighteenth and nineteenth century France. The symbolism of the trump cards was no longer readily understood, and tarot was drawn into the occult movements and the Egyptomania of the day. Influential French occultists interpreted the tarot cards as remnants of a lost Egyptian book, The Book of Thoth; Egyptian priests had encoded their ancient wisdom in the cards and entrusted them to gypsies, who brought them to Europe. Tarot cards were also associated with the kabbala. Other occultists developed the idea that the cards were divinatory; accordingly, the game of tarot was merely a disguise that one could dispense with. In short, French occultists transformed tarot from a game into an instrument of esotericism.
The next significant period was nineteenth-century England, when the secret fraternal society called the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn focused upon the tarot as an important device of divination, ritual magic, and meditation. Most modern methods of tarot divination derive in fact from the system of esoteric correspondences devised by members of the Golden Dawn, whose approach to the tarot was a complex syncretism of Egyptian, Hebrew/Jewish, and Celtic lore and fantasy. The British occultists, like the French occultists before them, modified and published tarot decks that reflected their own view of the true nature of tarot. For example, after tarot cards ceased to be playing cards, occultists added The Fool, which originally was a wild card, to the trump cards, raising the number of trumps to twenty-two. Of the occult decks the most popular and influential has been that designed by Arthur Edward Waite.
In Farley’s fourth period the tarot has been redefined by twentieth- and twenty-first-century New Agers as a device for self-knowledge and self-healing. No longer do tarotists seek to reconstitute the original tarot deck and grasp its ancient, hidden meanings, and no longer is tarot an esoteric device for the few. Instead, the deck has become unabashedly fluid and popular. New-Age designers feel free to re-imagine its structure and symbols, drawing their imagery eclectically from astrological, Jungian, feminist, classical, Old Scandinavian, Celtic, alchemical, pagan, Taoist, Amerindian, African, and other sources.
The shortcomings of the book are few. Although the author stumbles occasionally in her handling of foreign languages, the only error that may mislead the reader has to do with the secret fraternal name that Arthur Edward Waite bore as a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn: Frater Sacramentum Regis Abscondere Bonum est. She renders the motto as “It is good to keep the sacrament of the king” (144), but “abscondere” means “to conceal, keep secret,” not merely “to keep.” For the uneven copy-editing and the rather low quality of the illustrations the publisher is presumably responsible.
Overall, Helen Farley has given us a sound, clearly written, and richly documented book that makes an informative and enjoyable read.