I am no longer Wiccan, or religious at all, but having believed for so long (or perhaps more aptly, having wished I believed for so long) a lot of things are still ingrained in me. One thing that remains is my love of tarot cards. Even though I don’t believe there is any mystical force that controls what card I will flip next, I still enjoy looking at the stunning imagery (I’ve collected several decks) and even doing readings for myself. I find that even if I don’t believe the results of the readings are mystical or magical or divine, I still sometimes draw comfort in the conclusions I come to from reading them. It is, in a sense, a way to work through my thoughts in a different way, and look at problems from different angles.
The origins of the tarot cards are especially interesting. It is believed that the first documented tarot decks are from around 1430 in Milan. They began as just four suits of cards from 1 to 14, and derived from what most people know as the common deck of cards (hearts, clubs, diamonds, spades of numbers one to 10, followed by jack, king, and queen). The Tarot has the Swords, Wands, Cups and Coins (though sometimes the various suits go by other names, such as batons, staves, etc for wands, and pentacles, or disks for coins).
The difference arrives in the tump cards, the 22 cards without suits but with names. The Magician, High Priestess, Empress, Hermit, Hanged Man, Death, etc.
The oldest existing tarot cards are a few decks that were hand crafted and hand painted for the ruling family of Milan. Much of the symbolism on the cards has survived to later editions. There have been many different takes on the cards over the years, with naming the different trump cards under different names or changing the theme, but much of the symbolism and meaning stays the same.
However it is more than likely that the original tarot decks were held in no different regard than standard playing cards, and they were used for various games (none of which I know). It is likely that the mystical uses of tarot cards came later.
Using the cards as divination tools however is documented as early as 1540. Even the famed Casanova mentions tarot cards in his manuscripts, and how his mistress used to use them.
In the early to mid 1800s a woman named Marie Anne Lenormand became one of the most famous card readers. The cards she used, different from the tarot, are still used today and are known as Lenormand decks. They are both more simple and more complex than the tarot. They have fewer cards, but larger spreads, one of which is called the Grand Tableau where you lay each card out in a large square.
Unlike the tarot, where each card has a specific meaning, in the Lenormand the meanings come from combinations of cards. The ship card next to the garden card could mean a vacation for example, whereas a ship card next to the coffin card could mean a trip for a funeral. In the readings of Lenormand cards you don’t just read pairs, but entire rows, entire columns, diagonals, even smaller squares within the larger.
Just by looking at the above picture you can get a sense of how daunting it can be. At the same time however, these readings are exceptionally easy, because you can derive almost any meaning you want by focusing on specific cards. In this sense, and with Tarot as well, you can turn almost any reading into whatever meaning you want.
Regardless, the history of these cards, and the imagery on them, the different takes that different artists have on them, is fascinating. I especially love the story of the tarot, known as “The Fools Journey.”
One of my favorite necklaces in fact is a silver necklace shaped like the Fool card, and represents this journey. In the beginning the Fool (card 0 in the tarot) represents someone just starting out, perhaps someone naive, certainly a bit foolhardy, but also hopeful. What the fool lacks in wisdom, he makes up for in optimism. The Tarot follows the Fool on his journey of self discovery, and along the way he encounters the various figures of the tarot, and the life experiences and challenges and lessons they represent. It is a story of personal growth, a story of learning from life, from your mistakes, and being molded by your experiences.
That, and the art is very pretty.