16 July 2021

CARDS ON THE TABLE

Patrick Maille. The Cards: The Evolution and Power of Tarot. University Press of Mississippi, 2021.


This book provides a history, not so much of the tarot cards themselves as a social history of the way in which they have been used, and the people who have used them for purposes other than their original purpose – a card game.
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Maille makes the, to me, rather odd claim that the twenty or so ‘trump’ cards – the so-called major arcana – originated in northern Italy as a separate game in their own right, and only later became combined with the suit cards comprising the number and court or ‘face’ cards, to form the full tarot deck. This is not the usual historical view, which holds that the full set of cards, suits and trumps, were used together in card games – many of which survive in Europe today – from the beginning.

However, once over this Maille gives a good brief history of the divinatory and occult use of the cards, and the people using them for such purposes. He explains the way in which the designs of the cards have developed and changed over centuries. In some cases this has simply been due to a misunderstanding of the card imagery, perhaps due to poor printing, as the game spread across different regions and cultures. He cites the manner in which the original Milanese ‘Time’ card, a man holding an hour-glass, became ‘The Hermit’ in later French and Italian decks, the printers of which assumed the figure to represent a man holding a lamp.

The move to an occult interpretation of the tarot began in the late eighteenth century, starting with a brief mention of the tarot in Antoine Court de Gebelin’s Le Monde Primitif, where almost as an aside he described the cards as being illustrative of a Hermetic tradition dating back to ancient Egypt.

This provided a stimulus to Jean-Baptist Alliete (‘Eteilla’) who had already written a book about using a conventional 52-card deck for fortune telling, who then rapidly incorporated the additional ‘trump’ cards into his system of divination, designing his own tarot deck, the Grand Etialla, still in production today. In doing so, he and numerous successors, began incorporating more esoteric elements into the designs.

The growth of occult societies in the nineteenth century meant that through the ideas of figures such as Elipas Levy, and individuals associated with groups like the Theosophical Society and the Order of the Golden Dawn, the tarot became integral to occult and mystical thought. New decks were designed to incorporate imagery reflecting the ideas and principles of occult groups and individual mystics and practitioners.

Although at first the ‘mystical’ tarot, along with alternative card systems such as the Normand cards, were used for fortune-telling, thus beginning their spurious connection to Gypsies, they gradually became more and more a part of magical practice and meditation, often being used in a ritualistic way by the nineteenth-century magical and mystical ‘elite’. But through the twentieth century, particularly after the publication of A. E. Waite’s Pictorial Key to the Tarot, interest in, and use of the cards for both divination and personal enlightenment, began to spread more widely.

In perhaps the most interesting part of the book Maille discusses a number of present day tarot practitioners in the USA, who explain how they came to the tarot, how they use it, and what it reveals about themselves and others. The author notes the predominant role played by women in the development of the tarot as a tool of meditation and self-revelation, and as a means of expression through the design and development of tarot decks relating to specific topics and themes.

 


The second part of the book looks at the way tarot and tarot imagery has been used in art and mass media. In many cases this has simply been to introduce a ‘wooh factor’ into the plot of a soap opera, but he highlights instances where the use of the cards is integral to the development of the plot, or revealing something about the nature or motivations of the characters.

In an episode of the TV series Mad Men, set in 1950s Madison Avenue adland, a character’s interpretation of the cards he is reading for a colleague is used to reveal his own motivation and his attitude to his colleague, driving the plot and the characterisations. Mad Man’s creator Matthew Weiner is himself a tarot user, saying, “I use the tarot cards as a kind of Rorschach test for my life”, which seems an apt metaphor for the way the tarot stimulates the mind and imagination, opening it up to ideas and insights that can take off in unexpected, but often creative, directions.

As Maille says in his introduction: “The symbols on the cards have meaning that are psychologically and statistically likely to trigger thought and contemplation.” As both a compact history of the occult tarot (apart from my one initial reservation) and as an introduction to the world of contemporary tarot users, this is an interesting exploration of the way that tarot works. And any practitioner will tell you it does. – John Rimmer.

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