The Fake History of Tarot

The Fake History of Tarot

Long time readers may have noticed that I’ve been stuck on my Blogging The Waste Land series for months and months now. (Actually, almost a year.)Part of the problem was being unable to sustain two long-term blog series simultaneously. The Creed series was eating too much of my time and energy, both of which were at a premium during pregnancy and the postpartum period. (And yes, I know I’ve been letting the Creed series go and I am going to get back to regular posting on that shortly.) But the other reason I’ve been struggling with the Waste Land posts was because I wasn’t quite sure how to get past Madame Sosostris and her wicked pack of cards.

Then today I found Thomas McDonald’s blog series on Tarot  and I begin to see that there is a way forward. Now I’m eager to jump back into the poem, using these posts as a reference point for navigating the tricky bits about the Tarot. But this post isn’t really about the Waste Land, it’s about Thomas McDonald’s truly wonderful series, which is worth reading in its own right and not just because I’m finding it useful for my own purposes.

Here’s a bit of what he says about the posts:

a series which looks at the real history of Tarot. I do not deny that Tarot has occult connections which are seriously problematic for Catholics. We will get to all of it in time, but for now please be aware that this series is not about fortune telling, but about cultural history and gaming. If we demystify the occult Tarot, it loses its hold on people.

I just love his project of Reclaiming Tarot. Please, before you jump all over how terrible Tarot is, do not just read the excerpts I’ve provided here. Click through and read the posts carefully and thoughtfully. This is a subject which demands care certainly.

The real history of the Tarot, however, begins in the early 15th century in Italy, and their story is an important part of gaming and cultural history that was lost for centuries. They were created to play games, not tell fortunes.

The Tarot deck introduced the concept of trumps to card play. “Trump” is related to the word “triumph,” meaning a card that beats every other card. Eventually, the dedicated trumps of the Tarot deck were dropped and one of the four suits of a standard 52-card deck took over this function, but without Tarot, we may never have had Whist, Spades, Bridge or the entire class of trump-based trick-taking games.

Catholics have been conditioned to avoid Tarot because of its New Age and occult connotations. That’s a mistake: Tarot is part of our heritage. It reflects Catholic culture, symbolism, history, and theology. Its images are useful not just for play, but for contemplation, as Catholic mystic Valentin Tomberg explores beautifully in Meditations on the Tarot.

Tarot belongs to us, not to the con artists. This post is the first of a series on the both the real and imagined history and use of the Tarot. They are adapted from a feature I’m writing for my magazine, Games, with the focus shifted a bit to emphasize the Catholic elements of the story.

On Divination

Since the Tarot posts are drawing in some new readers, I thought I’d share the relevant passages on divination from the Catechism, just so we’re all in the same page.

Divination is gravely evil and strictly forbidden. I don’t support it, suggest it, take it lightly, or play around with it. Here’s why:


2115 God can reveal the future to his prophets or to other saints. Still, a sound Christian attitude consists in putting oneself confidently into the hands of Providence for whatever concerns the future, and giving up all unhealthy curiosity about it. Improvidence, however, can constitute a lack of responsibility.

  2116 All forms of divination are to be rejected: recourse to Satan or demons, conjuring up the dead or other practices falsely supposed to “unveil” the future. Consulting horoscopes, astrology, palm reading, interpretation of omens and lots, the phenomena of clairvoyance, and recourse to mediums all conceal a desire for power over time, history, and, in the last analysis, other human beings, as well as a wish to conciliate hidden powers. They contradict the honor, respect, and loving fear that we owe to God alone.

  2117 All practices of magic or sorcery, by which one attempts to tame occult powers, so as to place them at one’s service and have a supernatural power over others – even if this were for the sake of restoring their health – are gravely contrary to the virtue of religion. These practices are even more to be condemned when accompanied by the intention of harming someone, or when they have recourse to the intervention of demons. Wearing charms is also reprehensible. Spiritism often implies divination or magical practices; the Church for her part warns the faithful against it. Recourse to so-called traditional cures does not justify either the invocation of evil powers or the exploitation of another’s credulity.

Divination is one of two things: a fraud, or trafficking with dark forces. In any case, it is unbefitting a Christian and could be a gateway to a direct encounter with grave evil. This includes the use of Tarot cards for divination.

The Bishop’s Dice Game

Notions of playing cards (tarot or otherwise) as the “devil’s picture book” or dice as Satan’s teeth were not universal teachings, and, even when they were prohibited, it was not for abstract or theological reasons. The two main reasons some churchmen took a dim view of card playing and dicing were gambling and the profane use of sacred images.

Gambling in the Middle Ages, as today, could become a serious problem. A man who gambled away his money would leave his family destitute and hungry. The history of cards is entwined with the history of gambling, and it was reasonable to view compulsive gambling as a vice. This brought gaming under suspicion.

The Tarot eventually ran afoul of certain religious authorities in the Middle Ages not because it was being used for divination, but because the sacred images appearing on the cards were deemed too exalted for such a lowly use, and the Church takes its images and symbols seriously.

It wasn’t until the cards became more associated with divination (which is forbidden in Christianity) than with gaming that they fell afoul of Church authorities.

The Fake History of the Occult Tarot

Try to imagine it this way: Pokemon cards are created for a collectible game in 1996. A couple hundred years pass, and people forget about them. Then someone finds a deck, and is mystified by the strange words and images. These odd harbingers of lost wisdom! Ponyta! Charmander! Lickitung! Psyduck!

Psyduck is in position 7! I’m either going to meet a tall, dark stranger, or kick Team Rocket’s ass.

Someone writes a book speculating what they could mean. Someone else pretends this speculation is truth, and writes a second book. Ten years later, people are going into dim tents and praying that the Pokemon reader doesn’t draw Mareep.

In the process of being adapted by occultists, the true purpose of the cards started to be forgotten. Certain regions of Europe retained their interest in the game, but by and large, as the association with fortune telling increased, the use of the decks for play decreased.

Finally, by the 20th century, the real history of the tarot was lost, and tarot games—when they were played at all–became games played with cards “invented” by ancient Egyptians for fortune-telling. It wasn’t until Dummett began digging deeper in the 1970s that the real story emerged, but even then it was trapped in specialty publications.

The Meaning of the Cards

The images on the cards can tell us nothing of the future, but a great deal about the past. Their content emerges from a mixture of Greek philosophy (primarily neoplatonism) and Catholic theology, popular piety, culture, and the arts. The subjects could be quite varied, with anything from allegorical figures such as reason, faith, and labor, to pagan gods or historical figures.

Once you start looking into these images, and working through the history and faith of the time, the ideas and connections emerge. We may not know the “real and final meaning” of an image, but it’s all part of the rich symbolism of the age.

But symbols and their varied interpretations–as interesting as they are historically, psychologically, artistically, and even spiritually–are not a religion in and of themselves. They have no innate power, but are merely signposts pointing to the truth.  And they certainly don’t enable someone to foresee future events.

As you can see, the cards are overflowing with lore and dense with meaning. That’s how the world is, particularly the world of medieval Catholicism, in which the average person was part of a grand drama of life and death, with vast armies of angels and demons fighting over every soul. The immanence of the supernatural imbued everything from high art and the grand drama of worship down to songs and games and stories with a glittering sense of wonder. Every mass, simple bread and wine became the incarnate God. Glory and the miraculous were part of the fabric of everyday life: lives which often were hard, brutal, and brief.

No one would deny that images have meaning beyond mere illustration, and that this meaning may echo beliefs shared by all cultures stretching back to Egypt and ancient Israel. It’s important to recall, however, that Judaism was informed by its long contact with the culture of ancient Egypt, and Christianity emerged out of Judaism, and, at the time of the invention of Tarot deck, Europe was a Christian culture. Thus, it’s only natural to find some symbols that echo each other without being derived from some pool of lost ancient wisdom. It’s simply the common coin of a shared cultural experience. Or, if you like, what Carl Jung would call the collective unconscious.

[This entry in the series is of especial note for my Wasteland Series for he addresses a book, From Ritual to Romance, which was a primary source for Eliot]

Meditations on the Tarot

Flannery O’Connor famously called the South “Christ-haunted.” She only got it partly right: the entire world is Christ-haunted.

Because Christ is the ultimate Truth, all things trend toward Him. All things that were true before Him anticipate Him, and all things that are true after Him reflect His incarnation.  Truth is found everywhere and in almost all religious traditions, but the fullness of Truth is found in Christ alone. And the more people turn away from Him, the more they find Him.

The great punchline of this entire series and the whole history of Tarot is this: Occultists think they are fleeing as far from Christ and His Church as possible. They adopt absurd and exotic practices. They create idols of the self and of imaginary beings. They use tools, which they imagine to be ancient and thus “pre-Christian” (and therefore “pure”)  for these practices. One of these tools is the Tarot.

The cards never would have caught on without the appeal–which still lingers for the vast majority of Tarot users–that here was something authentically ancient, mysterious, and wholly outside of the dominant Christian culture. That was the entire allure of Tarot: that it was non-Christian.

And now, when they can no longer deny the false history they peddled for so long, they act like it never mattered and everyone knows it anyway.

The original cards reflect our faith. The pope and the Church, the virtues, the mysteries of life and death, and the idea of a divinely ordered cosmos are all embedded right there in images create by a wholly Christian culture.



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