Friday, March 1, 2013

Fun Friday Facts #66: Tarot Cards Edition

I’ve always been fascinated by Tarot, so much so that I once had my cards read by a scraggly-haired hippie in exchange for a tam I made myself. The tam was lopsided, I was traveling the country and the cards said I should travel north. I didn’t want to, so I drove north for an hour and then turned around.

Hey, those occult forces could've been more specific. Don't judge.

1) The first tarot cards were made in Italy sometime between 1430 and 1450. That’s right – not nearly as mysteriously ancient as you probably thought. They were based on playing cards made in Egypt. Even today, cards similar to tarot cards are used to play card games in non-English speaking countries. I have a deck that my Bavarian friend gave me when I visited him a few years ago, but I can no longer remember the name of the game he taught me or how to play it.

The word tarot derives from the Italian word tarocchi, which totally proves that the game is Italian in origin. Right? Right. Theories about the origin of the Italian word tarocchi abound; some believe it comes from the name of the Taro River in Parma, which makes sense because tarot-style European playing cards originated in northern Italy. Others believe that tarocchi comes from an Arabic word; some candidates include turuq, taraka, and tarh. That makes sense too, because Egypt. What is known is that the first tarot cards produced in Italy were known as carte de trionfi, or “triumph cards.” The oldest extant tarot cards come from 15 decks created for the ruling family of Milan, the Visconti-Sforza, in about 1450. Their original purpose was for playing card games. These games were held exempt from medieval laws forbidding the playing of most card games, probably because early tarot decks had to be handmade at considerable cost, making them a luxury of the wealthy.

Let's not fuck with the wealthy.

2) Playing cards of various other types were used to tell fortunes as early as 1540, but tarot cards weren’t adapted to this purpose until at least the 18th century. The ancient mystic tradition of the occult tarot goes all the way back to 1781, making it younger than my native country. It began with the publication of Le Monde Primitif (The Primitive World) by Swiss Antoine Court de Gébelin. He was a Freemason so that explains it.

Antoine Court de Gébelin, seen here looking misérable.

By that time, the Tarot de Marseille, as it would later come to be called, was becoming quite popular. It’s still popular among Francophones today (who happen to also be fortune tellers), and much of its imagery has found its way into tarot decks used by the English-speaking world. De Gébelin believed that the symbolism used in this tarot deck came from ancient Egyptian mythology, that the name “tarot” itself was Egyptian for “royal road,” and that the Romani, famous divinators, had brought the cards and the divination practice from Egypt. Later, Egyptologists would learn to read Egyptian hieroglyphs and would find no evidence to support De Gébelin’s theories, but back in 1781, nobody knew anything about anything yet. Of course, mere facts never stopped anyone, so legends about the Egyptian origins of occult tarot persisted and were blended with elements of the Hermetic Qabalah and alchemy.

Alchemy: Poisoning scientists since forever.

3) The Tarot de Marseille has been the center of controversy since its origins during the Renaissance, due to certain “unconventional” cards in its deck. One of these is La Papesse, or the Female Pope. This card has been renamed “The High Priestess” in most modern English decks, to avoid scandal (and The Pope has been renamed The Hierophant, because Catholicism frowns on divination). You don’t have to be Catholic to understand why an image depicting a female Pope would have people in the Middle Ages, and some even today, clutching their proverbial pearls. The appearance of a female Pope figure in the Tarot de Marseille may go back to myth of Pope Joan, which has been circulating since the 13th century. There was never such a pope, but she was a popular figure of legend throughout the Middle Ages and now has her own movie.


4) The first professional tarot card reader was Jean-Baptiste Alliette, who called himself Etteilla, which, you’ll notice, is his last name reversed. He must have been a vampire.

Etteilla worked as a seed merchant for most of his life, before publishing his first book on tarot card games in 1770. While the game he developed used a deck meant for piquet, a different type of card game, it incorporated some elements that are still central to tarot divination to this very day. They include fixed meanings for each card in normal and reverse positions, as well as the use of predetermined “spreads” or patterns into which they should be dealt. In the book, Etteilla reveals that he learned the games from an Italian; no one knows how much of the games he made up himself. The venture appears to have been a quick success; a second edition of the book was printed in 1771, and Etteilla gave up his day job to become a full-time teacher, author and, with the publication of his second book in 1785, a teller of fortunes.

If only it were so easy today.