Like many of the details on historic tarot decks, it is not always evident which details were deliberate or which resulted from inaccurate printing techniques or the slip of the artist's hand; and it remains unclear whether the Fool and Death cards of a tarot deck were ever intended to have the opportunity to face one another either as they appeared in a hand for play, or in a spread for interpretation.
However, I argue that it doesn't really matter and the fact that some decks do allow for a face off, even if it is a happy accident, is the ideal. It's not a deal breaker for me if the Fool and Death cards of a particular deck don't share this configuration, but I do appreciate a deck that does.
In historic decks which have not been labeled for modern readers, both of these characters are essentially outsiders. The Fool is a card with a name and no number, and Death is a card with a number(#13) and no name.
Although The Fool is among the living, he is decidedly unfit for polite society. (I'm strictly speaking TdM here, not the carefree youth of privilege created by the Hermetic order of the Golden Dawn and the Waite Smith Traditions). And while Death is not among the living, he likewise, is probably not preferred dinner talk in gentile settings. They each share a type of disconnect from the other cast of characters in the deck and in a sense, from we who peer into their world for clarity.
The Fool is a risk taker, and there is no one as dangerous or as free as a person who has nothing to lose, except perhaps the Grim Reaper himself. Death represents and presents the ultimate freedom that many of us dread paying the price for and reminds us that choices and behaviors have consequences, and in the end, no matter how carefully or carelessly we live our lives, eternity will claim us.
Who knows if it was intended, and that is part of the mystery and intrigue that is tarot. I know of no other rabbit hole that has led me to such profound thinking. Except maybe the universe and the stars themselves, and there's a card for that!
When people learn that I have amassed over two hundred tarot decks in my sixty years on this planet, their first inclination is to want to see my collection. Someone said my tarot parlor was like a tarot museum, and that's how I've come to view my passion for collecting the cards. I'm not a deck hoarder, I'm a serious art collector and my collection spans nearly 600 years of tarot art.
In my very first tarot blog, I wrote that as an artist, I had been drawn to the cards for their beauty and mystery. They represent history and human experience. Of course, once I began to learn about the cards, I began reading them and for want of a better description, I became a tarot reader. I've been reading and collecting tarot for forty-three or forty-four years. I'm not exactly sure if it all began in 1975 or '76.
The first deck I ever owned was the first deck that ever appeared on US television in 1968, and that was the 1JJ Swiss Tarot deck as it was featured on an episode of the Gothic, after-school soap opera, Dark Shadows. I was only ten years old when it might be said that I was seduced by their mystery and beauty. (You can read more about that Dark Shadows episode here, and here, but I digress...)
It wasn't until 1975 or '76 however, that I was able to track down a deck for purchase at a Spain's novelty gift shop at our local mall. I remember picking it up and holding it in my hands for the first time. Omg, it was thrilling! Of course in those days, there was no online library to peruse the cards before purchase, but based on my memory of the cards I had seen on Dark Shadows, and the box art, I was all in. I also purchased the accompanying book that came with it and I knew it would be a lifelong interest. Even all these years later, whenever I use my first deck, I am always drawn back into those original feelings of awe.
One of my high school girl friends had either been been given or bought a deck of tarot cards too, but hers were different than mine. Her deck was a Rider Waite Smith deck. Perusing her deck, I soon came to realize that not all tarot cards were the same. In fact, our two decks were strikingly dissimilar in several ways. For one, all the cards in her deck were illustrated and not just decorative, and in the trump cards, a few cards were renamed, most notably the Juno and Jupiter cards from my deck were replaced by the High Priestess and Hierophant in her deck. (I later learned that Juno and Jupiter were themselves replacements for the Pappess and Pope, and you can read about the history of that here. When I finally found a copy of the Waite Smith collaboration, it was actually a print of Albano Waite Smith, not a Rider Waite Smith, and so I further realized that there were many variations on the tarot theme.
These discoveries might seem obvious looking through today's lens, but back in the 70s, at least in the states, tarot decks were anything but main stream. In fact, I had kept it from my own family that I had even bought a tarot deck. But slowly, after Dark Shadows aired its appearance in 1968, they aired another episode in 1971 this time with with the RWS deck, and then in 1973 a tarot deck appeared in a James Bond Film, Live and Let Die. That deck was altogether different, created exclusively for the film by artist Fergus Hall.
When I entered art school in 1976, I took art history courses every semester for four years, hoping that a deck of tarot cards would surface in the curriculum, but they never had. From my earliest experience, tarot and art history went hand in hand. My fantasy job would be to teach an art history course through the art pictured on a tarot deck, but alas, I only have a BFA degree and not enough scholastic credentials to be a college professor. Still, my studio art and art history backgrounds have prompted me to be a passionate and lifelong learner of the subject despite my lack of interest in accruing further college tuition debt. My interest in art history branched off in an unusual direction, keenly fine-tuned to experience history, human nature, and psychology through the lens of the art on a tarot deck.
One glorious day in NY, in the early 1980s after graduating from art school, I spotted a few ancient cards from a deck called Visconti Sforza, and I was determined to own a copy. It wasn't until 1995 I think, that Lo Scarabeo finally published it, and it was a pretty wonderful day when I found it in a book store. OMG! It was embellished with gold, and was the prettiest deck I had ever seen. I was in absolute awe of it, for giving me a glimpse into the oldest tarot deck known to exist, and a glimpse into the world of Medieval and Renaissance Italian and European politics. Understanding tarot history has made me a much better reader. When I read, I see hundreds of years of human experience appear before my eyes.
Most of the few decks I had accumulated up to 1995 were pip styled decks, without illustrated scenes on the numbered suit cards, but slowly and surely more and more tarot decks were available every time I went to the book store, and I went all the time, mainly to see what new decks were available. It wasn't that I was looking for my perfect deck, it's that I loved to see how each deck interpreted the tarot entourage.
As we approached the year 2000, tarot decks were becoming commonplace in bookstores, and then the year 2000, like a magic number, was a lottery year for millennium decks. In the early 1990s I told myself that I would create a tarot deck by the year 2000, and although that never happened, I did create three children instead.
I don't think the tarot world misses my contribution though, the tarot market is if anything, over saturated with people like me who had the same idea to create a tarot deck and I'm glad I hadn't created one because I believe my tarot contribution has yet to come.
I have narrowed my scope of interest as any art collector would, to focus on the art that appeals to me most. I currently limit my purchase of modern decks, though I have dozens, and dozens, and dozens of them. In recent years, an appreciation for historic decks has lead to more of them being printed, and my tastes and interests have been fine-tuned to focus on the historic recreations.
The historic decks, in my opinion, are the best decks to hit the tarot market, because aside from their genuinity, (is that a word?) and astounding beauty, they allow us to witness just how widespread the game of Tarocchi was and how each region interpreted, reinterpreted, and adjusted their understanding of the prototypes established by the Italians. These early decks fascinate me the most, especially the Italian decks, but the Flemish and 16th and 17th century Tarot de Marseille tarot decks also bear witness to a fascinating history and lead one down yet another rabbit hole. Heck, even the twist and turns that Etteilla and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn took us down, show fascinating aspects of the human experience and need for understanding the secrets of the universe.
Since the 1995 Lo Scarabeo publication, the Visconti decks have been incarnated a number of times, the most recent and I believe best, being the Visconti Modrone deck by Lo Scarabeo in 2019, which is a magnificent effort, bringing to life what those earliest cards may have looked like. The way I gazed upon the 1JJ Swiss deck in awe back in 1968 and then in '75 or '76 when I finally tracked it down, most certainly pales in comparison to the awe that the hand-painted Visconti decks must have struck in their owners.
In addition to the Visconti decks, there are so many gorgeous Italian decks, like the pictured Estensi, the Sola Busca (which had its own agenda and departed greatly from the established tarot milieu of its day), the Vergnano Tarot, the Perrin Tarot, The Tarocchi Dalla Torre, and Giacomo Zoni, all the Minchiate decks, the Vacchetta, Soprafino, and others. There are other gorgeous historic decks outside of Italy, like the Vandenborre and Besancon decks, all of which lead us down another historic path.
When people on tarot forums poo-poo people like me, as just another hoarder who collect out of an illness, or don't see the point of owning more than one deck to read tarot, they miss the point entirely. I collect art and the history of at least the western world, and the secrets of humanity.
Ostara has brought the best out in me this fine opening day of Spring. I feel motivated enough to jump right into the next article on this popular topic.
The lovely cards that I'll be using for this article are from the Ancient Tarots of Bologna created by Giacomo Zoni in 1780. My copy was published by Lo Scarabeo in 1995.
Let's take a look at our first pair, The Lover card and Judgment.
Most often, the order of two cards matters, but in this case, it seems like it might be splitting hairs. In either case the message seems to be very similar.
Again, the most important point in interpreting the message in the cards is to interpret them in relation to the question. If the question was to give insight to how a love match is going, based on just these two cards, it will be tempting to suggest that a wedding announcement will be forthcoming; but do take note of the next card(s) in the sequence. Might a secret be revealed instead? Ask yourself which card(s) might reveal a secret. If one is only using the suit of Trumps, then look for the Moon or Popess cards, either of these cards following Judgment might be an indicator that a secret is about to be revealed.
Speaking of the Moon, lets pair it with the Bateleur. Modern tarots have elevated the Bateleur to Magus status, but in understanding his origins, he is the lowest ranked of the trump cards. He is a common street performer, a con man. Think of the fellows who set up on a street corner and entice you to guess which cup the ball is under. News flash, you aren't likely to win because odds are excellent there's a slight of hand at play. As he appears side-by-side with the moon, we have reinforced the suggestion of a of covert activity taking place. If the question is about whether or not someone, such as a partner might be trusted, this combination might verify that there is an underhandedness about the partner.
Naturally, the Moon as a time of day might be taken literally. Someone might present themselves one way by day, and yet another by night. This might make sense for an entertainer who hasn't quit his or her day job yet. By day they might have an altogether different identity, but by night, they perform at some capacity. This shifts the meaning of the Bateleur from con man to entertainer, and the shift in meaning makes sense if the querent wants to take a chance on working an evening shift especially if they are some type of performer. Working at night clubs or evening hours might be what this combination would be suggesting for a would-be entertainer or night club performer. Heck, it could really suggest any work activity happening at night.
Now let's take a look at The Moon as meaning repression. When I was learning about The Moon's keywords, there were a few which suggested being thwarted and this never made sense to me until one day, on a whim, I decided to look up the nocturnal habits of crayfish and that's when it hit me and made sense in this context. Crayfish come out at night to feed. They are easy targets for predators and with the dogs present above ground, the crayfish are not safe to surface. They are being thwarted in their attempts to fulfill their need. Keeping this in mind, when The Moon appears with the Bateleur, the combination might suggest the querent's efforts to get ahead are being thwarted by an underhanded individual. I hope it's beginning to make sense why it is important to understand the meanings of what the cards represent. Research goes well beyond just clinging onto keywords from a book. Doing our own research gives us real understanding, and makes it easier to know which application of meaning is at play. I can't stress enough, always interpret the cards in relation to the question being asked. You have to find the connection between the message of the card and the question being asked. There's always a connection.
Let's look at the Hanged Man in its Medieval and Renaissance context. My research leads me to believe that the most likely reference to the Hanged Man would have been to Judas Iscariot and not to Jesus Christ as many modern tarotists adhere. I do not identify the Hanged man as someone who has sacrified himself for the greater good as Christ had. Their deaths are not the same. The hanged Man bears the number 12. Judas was referenced as Christ's 12th apostle in multiple biblical sources. There is no ignoring that connection. The sacrificial references do not gel in my mind. In many early decks including the Visconti-Modrone deck, the Hanged man is weighted down by bags presumably filled with coins. This is another clue of his Judas identity. Judas presumably betrayed Christ for coinage. He then hanged himself. And so the image to me, clearly communicates betrayal or treason. Coupled with The Chariot, who communicates victory or advancement, we have a few possible interpretations. It may communicate that someone is able to overcome less than desirable crimes of his past, or it may communicate that he or she is still at large, has left the scene of the crime and has moved on to escape consequence. This interpretation makes sense if we consider that during this time in Italian history, placards depicting hanged individuals were hung in much the same way that a police station might hang 'Wanted' posters. Since the individual was alive it meant he was still at large. He was a 'wanted' man.
And yet again, never overlook the literal possibilities. In example, if someone asks about a love relationship that is taking forever to gel or go to the next level, it might literally be a suggestion that the querent will be left hanging, suspended, and it's time to move on from that relationship.
With time and experience, connecting the cards to the questions becomes easier, and the relevant meaning of the card becomes evident. Because every card has multiple possible meanings, I cannot stress enough the importance of interpreting the cards to the question being asked. The question is key to understanding which meaning is relevant.
OK, I will do more of these entries, but not in quick succession. I have a few videos to tend to on my YouTube playlist, and that will consume my energies for the next few weeks. For those of you interested, here is the link to my Youtube Channel.