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Tall Tales of tarot


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Voodoo. ghosts, witchcraft, and tarot. Every ancient practice or belief comes with old folk tales and skepticism, and the practice of tarot card reading is perhaps one of the most controversial. Often confused with mediums and clairvoyant individuals, those who practice tarot are often labeled as phonies trying to see into the future. However, that is a misconstrued and overly commercialized interpretation of tarot. Tarot is the practice of divining wisdom or enlightenment through interpretation of a set of cards, a set of cards that are influenced not by a casino or blackjack dealer but by the universe. While I understand that trying to understand the world based on a set of cards influenced by the universe may sound just as crazy as believing that stepping on a crack in the sidewalk will break my mother’s back, I promise there is a lot more that goes into it.

Despite tarot’s modern-day association with the occult, its origins actually date back to 1430s Italy where it was a common pass time for the extremely wealthy. Using the basic four-suit card deck, a fifth suit called the Triumph was added with an extra 21 specially illustrated cards and a singular The Fool card. While the exact creator of tarot is just as mysterious as the practice itself, the credit is typically given to the Italian artists who hand-painted the elaborate cards. The rich Visconti family of Milan, which included many barons and dukes, had several sets made for them during this time. Because this was prior to the invention of the printing press tarot was not widely available to the public.

Visconti Family of Milan Tarot Deck

Although tarot was a popular past-time for several centuries, it wasn’t until the 1700s that certain divine meanings were assigned to the cards. In 1781 Frenchman Antoine Court de Gebelin published an essay explaining how he believed that tarot had come from ancient Egyptian priests and its spiritual symbolism had been revealed to the catholic church in Rome and immediately buried and disregarded. While there is no more evidence to support this than there is to support the claim that your parent had to walk uphill both ways to school, the theory was taken on by the European public quite quickly. Antoine Court de Gebelin’s work leads to the popularization of seances and frequent tarot card readings amount upper-class societies.

Rider-Waite Tarot Card Deck

This led to the creation of modern-day tarot and the introduction of the Rider-Waite Tarot card deck, which is the most common tarot deck used in the US. Arthur Waite was a British occultist and member of Golden Dawn, a secret society that was dedicated to the observation of paranormal, occult, and metaphysics. In partnership with artist Pamela Coleman Smith, the Rider-Waite Tarot card deck was created in 1909. This would be the first tarot card deck created specifically for divination and the beginning of an entire culture surrounding tarot cards. Today tarot cards are used by everyone from teenagers to practiced mediums and occultists. While many simply practice tarot for fun and a little bit of life direction, many find solace in the answers they receive from the ‘universe’ through tarot. Whether it is real or a bunch of hocus pocus we may never know, but it is no doubt an interesting topic.

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