As I continue to explore the sketchy written history of the early tarot, I frequently encounter the observation that the tarot cards, prior to the appearance of Jean-Baptiste Alliette (aka “Etteilla”) as their original occult proponent in mid-18th-Century France, were not used in the practice of fortune-telling (presently dignified with the term “divination”); instead, they were primarily meant for gaming as well as gambling. Some frequenters of the Tarot History Facebook page pointedly refrain from using decks in the Tarot de Marseille style and the earlier Italian lineage for prognostication, preferring an academic approach to their studies with no particular practical application in mind. Those who do attempt this departure from tradition wind up having to create much of their expository vocabulary from whole cloth since trying to bring to bear the divinatory conventions of the late-19th-Century “Occult Revival” (still in widespread use today) is awkward at best, not least because the bulk of the cards (the small or minor cards) are almost devoid of anecdotal “hooks” upon which to hang an interpretive framework. (That is, with the notable exception of the Sola Busca tarot, they include no ready-made narrative vignettes in their imagery to suggest a story arc.) This thinly-substantiated overlay is often based solely on suit and number theory, with occasionally a little color symbolism thrown in. It is almost certain that the designers of those Medieval and Renaissance decks had no such fanciful connotations in mind, although it could be argued that the allegorical nature of the 22 major – or “trump” – cards shows that they were not originally intended strictly as an adjunct to the standard 52-card deck of playing cards in order to expand game-play options. I read somewhere along the way that they may even have been used to teach moral lessons to French school-children.
Divination as we know it today is frequently seen as more than a little atavistic (if not downright benighted) because so many modern practitioners deem it too rigidly deterministic to be worthwhile. Thus, fortune-telling is too easily dismissed as an affront to humanism and free will. This attitude seems to have arisen during the burgeoning of psychological navel-gazing in the mid-1970s, in which a culture of personal self-awareness and self-improvement evolved on the heels of the seminal work on individuation by analytical psychologist Carl Gustav Jung. Both astrology and tarot (although mainly the former at the beginning of that movement) were pressed into service in a “New Age” flurry of counter-cultural enthusiasm. Decks like the 1909 Waite-Smith (RWS) Tarot and the 1948 Thoth Tarot (first published in 1969) with their evocative illustrations played perfectly into this surging expansion of self-centered consciousness. Much was (and still is) made of the prosaic scenes in the RWS deck as revealing the psychological dimensions of a situation and the mental/emotional propensities of the people involved rather than the purely pragmatic implications that would have been paramount for earlier fortune-tellers. For their part, Aleister Crowley and Freida Harris kept such potential overreach to a minimum in the Thoth deck by creating what I call “glorified pip cards” that don’t lead the reader down any entrenched oracular path but still inspire vivid narration of a highly creative kind. This places the reader somewhere in the middle, between the more verbose (but often circuitous) modern decks and the relatively taciturn historical decks; only the brilliance of Harris’s artwork and Crowley’s unique genius prevent the Thoth from being “TdM redux.”
Those of us who continue to perform tarot divination do so in a flexible, non-prescriptive way that makes it clear to the querent that the cards typically reveal future possibilities, trends or tendencies that may only come to pass if he or she takes positive action to assure a desirable outcome, or fails to take compensatory or remedial action to mitigate the consequences of a less-fortunate forecast. It reminds me of what used to be said about astrology: “The stars impel, they don’t compel,” meaning that the future isn’t “on rails” plunging headlong toward an inescapable denouement. Individual action is always available to redirect the progress of circumstances into a more salutary (or at least more constructive) channel, and the testimony in a tarot reading is aimed at providing foreknowledge of any hidden opportunities and risks that may lie in the path. The aphorism “Forewarned is forearmed” is a perfect mission statement in this regard.
On the other hand, those who self-righteously deny the efficacy of divination usually point to the spiritual or psychological aspects of tarot as being somehow more noble or exalted, and don’t want to “dirty their hands” with common prediction, which they see as faintly disreputable or at best irrelevant. To be fair, some diviners of the “fortune-telling” ilk have given the practice a bad name by cynically taking any and all requests, even those frivolous questions that are an insult to the reader’s skill and professional self-image. But money talks, and income can be scarce enough for the average prognosticator. Then there are the scammers, who deliberately deceive the naive or unwary; State laws are justifiably harsh toward those scoundrels. The danger lies in tarring the honest practitioner with the same brush as the unscrupulous operator, and condemning the garden-variety diviner (I once called myself a “hedge mystic”) out-of-hand as a delusional charlatan is a cheap shot. We as a community are better than that.