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tarot

The SkepticThe tarot is a set of cards used in fortune-telling. A few years ago, tarot cards would have conjured up images of Gypsies, who didn't begin using tarot cards until the 20th century. Today, the cards are popular among occultists and New Agers in all walks of life. According to Grillot de Givry (1971):

The tarot is one of the most wonderful of human inventions. Despite all the outcries of philosophers, this pack of pictures, in which destiny is reflected as in a mirror with multiple facets, remains so vital and exercises so irresistible an attraction on imaginative minds that it is hardly possible that austere critics who speak in the name of an exact but uninteresting logic should ever succeed in abolishing its employment.

The modern tarot deck has been traced back to 15th-century Italy and a trick-taking game called "triumphs" (tarots in French; Decker 1996). The traditional tarot deck consists of two sets of cards, one having 22 pictures (the major arcana), such as the Fool, the Devil, Temperance, the Hermit, the Sun, the Lovers, the Hanged Man, and Death. The other set (the minor arcana) has 56 cards with kings (or lords), queens (or ladies),  knights, and knaves (pages or servants) of sticks (or wands, cudgels or batons) , swords,  cups and coins.

There are many different tarot decks used in cartomancy.  The meanings of the figures and numbers on tarot cards vary greatly among tarot readers and advocates, many of  whom find connections between tarot and cabala, astrology, I Ching, ancient Egypt, and various other occult and mystical notions.

The oldest playing cards date back to 10th-century China, but the four suits of tarot and modern playing cards probably originated with a 14th-century Muslim deck (Decker). According to de Givry, in the modern 52-card deck of ordinary playing cards, sticks or wands = clubs (and announce news); swords = spades (and presage unhappiness and death); cups = hearts (and presage happiness); coins = diamonds (and presage money). According to Ronald Decker, the Muslim sticks represented polo sticks. As Europeans were not yet familiar with polo, they changed the suit of sticks to that of wands, cudgels, or batons.

Tarot cards are usually read by a fortune-teller, though in these days of New Age Enterprise, anyone can buy a deck with instructions on how to discover your real self and actualize your true potential. Why anyone's fate would be mysteriously contained in playing cards is a mystery; although, sympathetic magic seems to play a role. 

There is a romantic irresistibility to the notion of shuffling the cards and casting one's fate, to putting one's cards on the table for all to see, to drawing into the unknown, to having one's life laid out and explained by strangers who have the gift of clairvoyance, to gamble on the future, and so on. The idea of staring at a picture card and letting it reveal the future or mirror the soul is not one that austere critics are likely to find tantalizing, but the thought of such visionary mysticism obviously has its attraction. Centuries of scientific advancement and learning have not diminished the popularity of occult guidance systems such as the tarot, Ouija boards, astrology, I Ching, palmistry, iridology, reflexology, ink blots, graphology, enneagrams, crystal balls, tea leaves, and the like.


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reader comments

further reading

books and articles

Decker, Ronald. "Tarot," in The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal edited by Gordon Stein (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1996), pp. 752-759.

Decker, Ronald and Michael Dummett and Thierry Depaulis. A Wicked Pack of Cards: The Origins of the Occult Tarot (St. Martin's Press, 1996).

de Givry, Grillot. Witchcraft, Magic & Alchemy (New York: Dover Books, 1971), republication of the 1931 Houghton Mifflin Company edition.

websites

How F.B.I. profiles resemble tarot card readings

Nothing But Trouble in Miss Cleo's Tarot Cards - psychic hotline sued for false advertising

Aeclectic Tarot - reviews 250 Tarot decks

Last updated December 23, 2013

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