Tarot: An Evolutionary History

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This thesis will constitute a cultural history of tarot, tracing the changing patterns of use and the symbolism displayed on tarot cards from the deck’s first appearance in Early Modern Italy until the present day. It begins with a description of the structure and the origins of tarot and the ordinary playing card deck from which it evolved. Some popular theories of tarot’s origin are briefly examined, including the hypothesis that grants tarot an Egyptian provenance. An investigation of the documentary sources detailing tarot’s first appearances follows, pinpointing its beginnings to Milan in the first quarter of the fifteenth century. An accurate time and place of origin, and a knowledge of the prevailing attitudes and beliefs current in Early Modern Italy, help to determine the significance of the symbolism at that time. The imagery of the three Visconti-Sforza decks which constitute the oldest extant tarot cards is examined. The trump sequence and the symbolism displayed on the trump cards come under particular scrutiny. The symbolism displayed elsewhere in Italian Renaissance art is considered in order to determine the significance if any, of that symbolism. Many scholars have ascribed an esoteric significance to tarot imagery but such conclusions are unjustified and in fact, the symbolism on the cards was common in Renaissance art and can be readily explained without referencing esoteric currents operating in Early Modern Europe. I will show that during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, people were primarily concerned with natural divination as a means of knowing the mind of God; hence the popularity of astrology, chiromancy and oneiromancy. Tarot was not considered a suitable tool for divination. It was not until the end of the eighteenth century in France that tarot was used as an esoteric and fortune-telling device. The factors surrounding the change of function of the deck and how this change influenced tarot symbolism will be outlined. Antoine Court de Gébelin, Etteilla, Éliphas Lévi and Papus were significant authors in the development of occult tarot. Their theories of tarot origin and interpretation of its symbolism will be considered. Significant influences included the French fascination with all things Egyptian and the rejection of traditional Christianity. Éliphas Lévi was the first to ascribe correspondences to tarot, linking the deck with other occult systems particularly those of astrology and kabbalah. Tarot was no longer known as a game and the modifications of the deck by esotericists made it unsuitable for such a purpose. The next significant development of esoteric tarot occurred in England under the influence of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn which counted among its members William Butler Yeats, Aleister Crowley and Arthur Edward Waite. Waite’s deck became the most popular deck ever in the history of tarot. Noteworthy contributions added by the English authors included revised lists of correspondences which remain in use today and the association of the deck with the Grail legends erroneously ascribed a Celtic provenance. Under the influence of the Golden Dawn, the positions of trump VIII and trump XI were exchanged in order to better facilitate the trump correspondences with the kabbalah. Also, Waite was responsible for illustrating the minor arcana cards in order to facilitate divination; the first time this had ever been attempted. The final part of this thesis will look at the uses and depictions of tarot in the New Age. The New Age is syncretistic and eclectic; its thought derived from several different streams of religion and culture. Again, tarot reflects this syncretism in its symbolism with decks utilising imagery of a diverse range of cultures and esoteric streams. In the true nature of the New Age, tarot also combines several different ideas so that astrological tarot packs or feng shui tarot packs are common. Tarot divination has shifted in nature from simple fortune-telling and use in ritual magic to divination facilitating self-development through healing and transformation.

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