09 July 2011

Tarot twaddle

One of the things that I find vaguely annoying is the kind of nonsense one often hears spoken about Tarot cards. On the one hand you hear some Christians saying that Tarot cards are of the devil, and on the other you hear occultists talking about their deep hidden meaning that only those really in the know can discern (and when those in the know do reveal, in conspiratorial whispers, what they have discerned, it usually turns out to be quite trivial).

So I was quite pleased to discover (hat-tip to A Conservative Blog for Peace) this article 7 'Ancient' Forms of Mysticism That Are Recent Inventions | Cracked.com:
Tarot's new fortunetelling function was quickly seized upon by 19th-century fans of occultism, which was what bored white people used to do in the 19th century before backpacking around India was invented. The occultists 'discovered' tarot's long history and renamed the two parts of the deck 'Arcana' to replace the slightly less spooky trumps and pits.

In 1909, two occultists published a new version of the cards, the Rider-Waite deck, which is what most Americans visualize today when they hear the word "tarot." The new deck switched out the traditional Christian imagery on the cards with pagan symbols to make it look like they predated the New Testament, replacing the Pope and Popess with a Hierophant and High Priestess, presumably so that fortunetellers could say more exotic things than "I see a Pope in your future."

I first heard of Tarot cards in Iris Murdoch's novel The sandcastle in which a schoolgirl used the cards to interpret things that were going on in her life. The descriptions meant nothing to me, so I went out and bought a pack of Tarot cards. The only place in Johannesburg that sold them, I discovered, in the Johannesburg of 1962, was "The Mystic Bookshop", which was on the second floor of a rather seedy looking building in Eloff Street (which probably looks a lot seedier today). The shop was full of spooky paraphernalia, like crystal balls, candlesticks in the shape of snakes and other such things. They had only two packs of Tarot cards in stock, retrieved from a dusty shelf in a rarely-opened cupboard, so I gathered that there wasn't a big demand for them.

I took the cards home, and looking at them disovered what references to The Hanged Man and the Falling Tower in the book actually meant. I was also struck by the Christian imagery of the cards, especially in the greater trumps. The people were all dressed in medieval clothes, and one felt transported back into an age of faith, in which Christian imagery and symbolism came naturally to people and were a part of everyday life.

In The sandcastle the girl, Rain, assigns the cards her own meanings, and relates them to the people and events in her life. I became quite curious about them, and mentioned this to Brother Roger, an Anglican monk of the Community of the Resurrection, who had lent me the Iris Murdoch book. His response was to lend me another book, The Greater Trumps by Charles Williams.

Central to the Williams book is the role and character of The Fool, shown on the left. Williams's dealing with the Tarot in his novel is quite different from that of Iris Murdoch, though there is one common feature. Like Rain, Williams interprets the cards in his own way; he takes some of the occultists' interpretations, but reworks them and weaves them in with others, and in a sense restores the Christian symbolism that the occultists removed.

The Cracked article debunks some of the 19th-century occult hogwash about the cards, and points out that they were, like ordinary playing cards, originally intended to be used in a game. But the designers and manufacturers of the cards incorporated symbolism of the world around them. There are French packs that are clearly influenced by the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, but the oldes ones seem to have been designed in a Medieval setting, real or imagined.

Charles Williams had some associations with occultists, including A.E. Waite, who was one of the originators of the Rider-Waite pack referred to in the Cracked article. I was rather saddened to discover that that was the pack that Williams was probably most familiar with, in which the Fool has been debased into the image of a late-Victorian fop.

But the main point remains: Tarot cards have whatever symbolism we want to give them. As a Christian, I suppose I prefer the older Marseilles pack, with its Christian symbolism, into which, like Rain in the novel, I can read whatever symbolism I wish. I find the Rider-Waite pack rather repulsive, and I can't think of them as "real" Tarot cards.

I suppose one of the things that appeals to me about the "real" Tarot cards is that in the figure of the Fool there are echoes of the figure of the "fool for Christ", a kind of saint who was more common in medieval times than in more recent ones. And that is one of the reasons I have adopted the Tarot Fool as my "Gravatar" for blog comments and the like. Not that I am a real fool for Christ, but rather a wannabe. The Rider-Waite version doesn't cut it. Yet when I did a Google image search for the Fool of the Tarot, the real Fool didn't come up at all on the first three pages. And perhaps that is because in our age, the real Fool is hidden.

Howbeit we speak wisdom among them that are perfect: yet not the wisdom of this world, nor of the princes of this world, that come to nought: But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory: Which none of the princes of this world knew: for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory (I Cor 2:6-8).

And "occult", of course, means "hidden".

And this came up in another context earlier this week. There was a synchroblog on the Wild Goose Festival, a kind of vaguely Christian wayzgoose held in the USA last month. We were told that the wild goose was an ancient Celtic Christian metaphor for the Holy Spirit.

I couldn't attend the festival, and had never heard of the ancient Celtic metaphor, so I decided to write about it once I had found out more about it. I found it stretched back over the years to the dim and misty 1960s, which makes me feel really ancient. And I think that makes an eighth that could be added to the Cracked seven.


Aquila ka Hecate said...

Hah! Good one Steve!

Well, we all know that cardboard is not very bright, so I've almost exhausted myself telling people who I read Tarot for (two or three folks) that they should learn to read the cards for themselves.
Because it's more like a two-person mystical experience, reading cards for another- with the cardboard as interface.

Terri in Joburg

Yewtree said...

I think the Rider-Waite Tarot retains more of the Christian symbolism than some other modern decks, which have gone even more Pagan-y.

According to Robertson Davies (one of my most favourite authors), the fact that the dog has bitten a hole in the Fool's breeches is really important, because the Fool's behind symbolises the need to get in touch with the unconscious.

I love Tarot cards, but I don't use them for divination because to me, they are pictures and not windows.

I suppose you could create a deck based on Orthodox icons... that would probably offend too many people though.

I'd like to see a deck consisting of really good woodcuts.

I am rather fond of the Aleister Crowley deck, actually, which was painted by Frieda Harris.

T S Eliot's poem The wasteland has a Tarot deck in it with invented cards - rather intriguing.


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