The History and Philosophy of the Tarot
As we stated in the introduction, it may seem odd that a symbolic spiritual tool such as a Tarot can be created incorporating the vampire theme—a theme that is more at home in horror literature and movies than in the self-help or New Age section of the bookstore. It is the view of this deck and book, however, that the vampire of literature, which reached the height of development in Stoker's masterpiece, Dracula, incorporates a mythological theme that is related to the allegory expressed in the Tarot. The reason that this may not be self-evident is that the mystical allegorical aspect of Stoker's book has been lost in many of its reinterpretations in .lm, which is how most people are familiar with the story today. Likewise, the mystical allegory incorporated in the Tarot's symbolic images has been distorted by the occult reinterpretations of the deck that emerged four or five centuries after it was created. In this chapter, we will take a brief look at the actual history of the Tarot and at the symbolism that was likely to have been intended by its creators. We will save the discussion of the vampire theme in literature for the next chapter. The information in this chapter is based on The Tarot: History, Symbolism, and Divination by the same author as The Vampire Tarot, and for a more detailed study it is recommended that one also reads that book.
Defining the Tarot
For those who are not familiar with the Tarot we will start by describing the deck. The standard Tarot is a set of playing cards, much like a regular poker deck, but instead of having just four suits, the Tarot also has a fifth, more powerful suit, composed of a procession of twenty-two enigmatic images. The Tarot also differs in that its four minor suits, which relate to the poker deck, feature the antique Spanish and Italian suit symbols—swords, cups, staffs, and coins—instead of spades, hearts, clubs, and diamonds. Like the poker deck, each suit has ten pip cards, from ace to ten. Traditionally, these are illustrated with a repetition of the suit symbol like the pips in a modern poker deck. The four minor suits in the Tarot also have four royal cards—the knave or squire (often mistakenly called a page in English decks), the knight, the queen, and the king—instead of three in each suit like a poker deck. This makes a total of seventy-eight cards in a Tarot. Today, the Tarot is primarily used for divination or spiritual exercises, particularly in English-speaking countries. Originally, however, its primary use was for gaming, and divination was secondary. Also, in the fifteenth century, the first century of its existence, the number of cards in the deck varied.
It is essentially the addition of the fifth suit with its mysterious figures that makes a deck a Tarot and transforms it into a spiritual tool. This fifth suit includes the unnumbered Fool and twenty-one numbered trumps arranged in a hierarchical order from the lowest to the highest. Some of the trumps depict humans, such as the Magician and the Pope, and other allegorical or religious figures, such as the Wheel of Fortune and the Last Judgement. The trumps have captured the modern imagination and account for the Tarot's popularity, and it is through the trumps that the Tarot expresses a timeless mystical quest, the hero's quest for immortality.
Here is a list of the twenty-two cards in the fifth suit based on the number and order of the French pattern known as the Tarot of Marseilles, which is considered the modern standard. It also contains a brief description of the image on the card.
The Fool—a jester wearing motley, with a pole over his shoulder with a bag on the end, walks to our right while a dog rips his pants.
I. The Bateleur, or The Magician—a street performer holding a wand stands behind a table.
II. The Papesse, or High Priestess—a woman on a throne wearing a triple tiara sits between two pillars.
III. The Empress—the Holy Roman Empress sits on a throne and has an eagle emblem on her shield.
IV. The Emperor—the Holy Roman Emperor sits on a throne and has an eagle emblem on his shield.
V. The Pope, or Hierophant—the pope on a throne, wearing a triple tiara, sits between two pillars, with two priests before him with their backs to the viewer.
VI. The Lovers—a man standing between two women, with Cupid above.
VII. The Chariot—an armored warrior stands in a chariot facing the viewer.
VIII. Justice—a crowned woman sitting on a throne holds scales and a sword.
IX. The Hermit—a man in profile and in a hooded robe holds a lantern before him.
X. The Wheel of Fortune—a wheel has three foolish monkeys ascending, surmounting, and descending it.
XI. Force, or Strength—a standing woman, wearing a wide brimmed hat, controls the mouth of a lion.
XII. The Hanged Man—a man hangs head-down by one foot from a scaffold.
XIII. Death—a skeleton with a scythe stands in a field with severed heads and limbs.
XIV. Temperance—a standing winged woman pours water from one cup to another.
XV. The Devil—a beast stands on a pillar with two minions chained below; he has a human body but bat's wings, eagle's talons, and antlers.
XVI. The Tower—a tower is struck by lightning as two figures fall from it.
XVII. The Star—a large star in the sky is surrounded by seven smaller ones; below, a nude woman pours water from two pitchers, one on the land and one on the sea.
XVIII. The Moon—the moon, with a face in profile, hangs in the sky between two towers; below, two dogs howl and a crayfish emerges from a pond.
XIX. The Sun—the sun, with a face, hangs in the sky; below, two youths stand in a walled enclosure.
XX. Judgement—an angel blows a trumpet in the sky; below, two nude men and one woman emerge from graves.
XXI. The World—a beautiful nude woman dances in the center of an oval wreath; outside the wreath in the four corners are placed the symbols of the four evangelists: an angel, an eagle, a lion, and a bull.
Early Tarot History
Since the late eighteenth century, occultists have been drawn to the Tarot and have considered it an indispensable part of their magical equipment. To provide it with, what they considered, a suitable ancient pedigree, occultists have made up numerous spurious histories and associations for the deck. Most commonly, it was given an origin in ancient Egypt and said to be the creation of ancient Kabalists or of Egyptian priests under the guidance of the mythical sage Hermes Trismegistus, a Hellenized version of the Egyptian god Thoth. The twenty-two cards in the fifth suit were said to derive from Egyptian hieroglyphs but, strangely, also represent the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet as well as celestial and elemental symbols associated with each letter. Not all the insights of the occultists were wrong, but these assertions are false. At their worst, the occultists' associations have become a wall of confusion that blocks one from appreciating the mystical heritage that is preserved in the deck. The first step in understanding the symbolism and allegory presented in the Tarot, therefore, is to become familiar with the facts of its history.
THE ORIGIN OF THE TAROT
Historic evidence indicates that the Tarot began in Renaissance Italy some time between 1410 and 1442 when a set of trumps was added to the four-suit deck that had existed in Western Europe since the late fourteenth century. The birthplace of the Tarot is most likely Milan but possibly Ferrara or Bologna. The trumps or trionfi, as they were called in Italian, were added to the deck to play a trick-taking game that is the ancestor of bridge. Unlike modern bridge, played with a four-suit deck, the Tarot has a natural trump suit that outranks the other minor suits. Game-playing was the Tarot's main purpose, but, as stated previously, there is evidence that it was also used for divination. Because the Tarot was created primarily to play a game, we may think that the allegory told in its pictures is trivial or meaningless and not worth all the attention that it has been given, but, in the Renaissance, it was expected that works of art should have an intended symbolic meaning and even a game was considered a suitable place to express a profound mystical allegory.
In a letter he had written in 1449 to Queen Isabelle of Lorraine, her agent described two decks that he was acquiring for the queen but were originally created for Filippo Maria Visconti, Duke of Milan (1392-1447). Here we find a description of what may be the oldest Tarot deck. We also find that the question of profundity in a game was addressed. Of the ...