A Long Way from Home

Or maybe I’m just waxing nostalgic? (Curmudgeon alert: incoming attitude!) At any rate, I’m no fan of what is apparently being touted as the emergence of a “New Tarot,” a description I’d never heard until last week. (It’s not a deck, it sounds more like a “cultural movement.”) The gist of it seems to be for deck creators to embrace a radical decoupling of the images and in some cases the meanings from their historical roots and just go with whatever “speaks” to them. Actually, I have no problem at all with this when the results are offered as “oracle” decks. Hijacking the term “tarot” for something that has no visible connection whatsoever to anything else called “tarot,” past or present (except maybe the card titles), is at worst a transparent deception and at best a delusional whim. (Hmm, let’s make a squiggle on the paper and call it “The Fool.” Hey, that squirrel looks rather “Fool-ish!”)

It seems to be as much a marketing ploy as anything; those who don’t have the patience or stamina to come to grips with the traditional knowledge base will hopefully fall all over themselves jumping on something “new and improved” that promises to be less effort to master. (“Symbolism? We don’t need no stinkin’ symbolism.”) After all, consumer-technology companies like Apple tell us that all the time – it’s called “planned obsolescence” –  and we never fail to bite. I lay the blame for this disturbing trend squarely on the crowd-funded self-publishing phenomenon, where any piece of half-baked dreck can see the light of day with enough promotion behind it. The sad thing is that there are people who will buy it, convinced that creative innovation for its own sake is a goal worthy of funding. I’m inclined to agree with David Hannon: “There’s a sucker born every minute.” (Full disclosure: I bought a little of that “dreck” myself when first starting out, but I learned from it; I still regret buying the Yaeger Tarot of Meditation.)

In this alternate universe, simply putting together a “Learn Tarot in a Day” book with a “New Tarot” deck and a couple of YouTube videos means that you never have to bother learning anything more substantial. Tarot authors and artists may assure themselves and their customers that something is true but that doesn’t necessarily make it so, especially if there is no compelling precedent or other credible basis for it. I even encountered the opinion of a seasoned practitioner (who obviously hadn’t thought it through) that we should just “let the kids play, there’s no harm in it.” Maybe not, at least until we can no longer buy a standard RWS deck because the “New Tarot” market has made them obsolete. The nail in the coffin will come when U.S. Games and Lo Scarabeo climb on the revisionist bandwagon and abandon the rest of us.

I recently came across the perfect antidote for this unhappy situation: tarot history. I set myself the task of exploring where what we call the traditional tarot actually came from. To that end, I joined a couple of Facebook pages that have been eye-opening for the wealth of knowledge available there. As scholars and historians, the long-time residents are obviously suspicious (but, to their credit, not entirely dismissive) of diviners. I’ve had to mind my manners and stay on-script, but that classical outlook is why I went there in the first place. Most importantly, it’s led me to seek out and read books on the Renaissance origins of the tarot. I read them on my Kindle while riding my exercise bike, and the two meld seamlessly. After all, one good slog deserves another.

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