I'm the first person to suggest learning the historic context in which tarot was born in an effort to bring greater insight and clarity to a card's meaning. But at times I wonder, are we overthinking tarot's history?
When I read various tarot threads on forum pages and one mentions RWS vs Marseille, or even just which Marseille deck is 'the most pure,' the thread turns into a pissing contest.
Is there one pure mother deck, or a Holy Grail of tarot decks? It's a futile pursuit even if there is one.
Naturally, my opinion may also be taken with a grain of salt. Although I've probably read at least a hundred books and hundreds of articles on tarot, I am not an authority. I can only comment on my own comprehension of what I've read and what I remember. I have probably forgotten more than some people have learned on the subject, but that still does not make me an authority because after all, what I've read was other peoples' opinions and not necessarily fact. One thing is for certain, the more I read, the more questions I have.
Tarot deck makers apply their preferred references and sensibilities onto their cards based on their best understanding of them. Throughout history, most deck creators have made changes to suit their own agenda or understanding. Sure, they've all had a prototype in mind; a particulalry structured deck with seventy-eight cards. By now we have solidified its standard structure and have multiple esoteric options that may be applied to the cards: Qabalah, Alchemy, Astrology, Numerology, and even Cats. How many decks are available now? Countless. Every Tom, Dick, and Harry has created a tarot deck or recreated a historic one. Can only one of them have tapped into the original, one pure intent for the tarot? Of course not. Variety is the spice of our modern tarot lives, and though we can't expect that ordinary medieval society had as many options, is it not possible that they had aesthetic or even political options in choosing a deck of playing cards from a particular regional publisher whose style or agenda appealed to them? Is it not possible that wherever they traveled they would be able to purchase a deck native to the region as a souvenir? After all, the city of Marseille alone had a minimum of forty card manufacturers between the1500 and 1900s.
Look at the few ancient decks we have as reference. Obviously, the allegorical and somewhat hermetic images that appeared in the cards that complete the Visconti-Sforza trumps were commonly understood and recognized by at least the upper classes of Italian medieval society. (It is worth noting that the V-S deck is itself a compilation of a few V-S decks of tarocchi and therefore does not even represent the first single known intact deck of tarot.) Admittedly, the content of the trump cards came from somewhere, and probably not from one exact source, but from across the human playing field. The 15th century was an age of discovery and enlightenment, a time when foreign travel and exchange made the world go 'round. New ideas were the rage! We know from the evidence that fortune telling methods were in place in eastern countries and predated the deck of tarocchi by about one thousand years. How do we know for sure that the concept of fortune telling, at least for fun, didn't cross the minds of some at a medieval Italian parlor gathering?
Even the rules for play of 15th century tarocchi vary. Obviously the allegorical cards communicated stories, virties, and moralities. Were the trumps merely counted in play as identifying high ranking points, or like the modern game of Mansion, did the young and fashionable play a variety of card games with a single deck of cards? Surely using cards for fortune telling is only a stones throw away from a fashionable medieval card game of 'Mansion.'
When the highly decorative playing (gaming) cards became the fad of the upper classes in 15th century Italy, arisocrats commissioned artists to hand paint their own decks and probably to depict their particular family's specifications. Case in point, the depiction of the 'Popess' of the Visconti-Sforza deck is a distant relative of that family. Despite whatever the aristocrat had in mind, we have to also consider that the artist may have added some stylistic flourishes of his own. How would we know the difference?
This lesson was demonstrated in relatively recent years by Arthur Waite when he specified his intent and by what Pamela Coleman Smith actually delivered in 1909. Crowley and Harris had similar conflicts of vision between 1938 and 1943 while creating the Thoth deck. Harris devoted many more years of her life to Crowley's project than did Smith for Waite, and some of Harris' contributions were redone multiple times before the creator and designer could agree, if in fact they ever did. (Neither Crowley or Harris lived to see the deck released to the public.) Based on their writings, we know that both men (Waite and Crowley) merged several disparate esoteric traditions into their respective decks.
Since it is speculated that there was no occult interest in the cards at the point of their inception in 15th century Italy, would subtle variations in cards really have mattered? I mean, the Visconti-Sforza clan and every aristocratic family who commissioned their own decks would have had their own aesthetic or poetic agendas wouldn't they have? Could this explain the existence of the Mantegna and Sola Busca decks being so different from what we see as the norm of their times? The general consensus is that the Mantegna tarot was not a deck for gaming, but that it was rather a collection of cards intended to educate children on the virtues and other moral and historic lessons. But there is no evidence for this consensus, so how can we know for sure? The Sola Busca had scenic pips, unlike any other tarocchi decks surviving from that time. Was that also a request of the family who originaly commissioned them?
Why is the Waite-Smith collaboration that illustrated each pip almost vilified by some camps as a corruption when the Sola Busca deck, which Coleman referenced in her work, predates the Marseille decks by hundreds of years with illustrated pips of its own? And so about Waite's reassignments of the meanings of each card. Hadn't Etteilla, Oswald Wirth and S. L. MacGregor Mathers already done the same thing? And didn't Etteilla basically make it up as he went along to suit his own agenda?
In five hundred years from now will historians try to determine whether or not the RWS was the first of its kind? Will it be determined to be the prototype by which all subsequent styled decks of the next several hundred years were based? Will they even know about the Sola Busca? And even if they know about the SB, how do WE even know that IT wasn't inspired by an earlier deck of fully illustrated pips? How will the Marseille styled decks be further watered down? Although clearly there are Hermetic references to the trumps, the Marseille pips don't suggest esoteric meaning and seem to merely suggest a regular deck of gaming cards with a 5th suit of trumps. Will all tarot styles eventually merge into a somewhat homogenous deck that includes fragments from the multiple varieties and disciplines now in practice? Will the sensibilities of old Tarocchi, Marseille, Etteilla, and the decks represented by the various branches of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn be merged so that no one particular influence dominates? Isn't that already happening now? And is that really a bad thing? A language that doesn't evolve becomes obsolete. A language that incorporates foreign expressions into its own parlance is a language that endures. And for this very reason, isn't that why tarot endures? As it gets passed down every generation adds its two cents.
By the time we get to the TdM, whose original source is undeniably the Italian trumps, did the artists or card makers take liberties in order to spread a political agenda as some have suggested? Was it a roadmap for surviving gnostic ascendants to find sympathetic territory hidden in an ordinary deck of gaming cards? It reminds me of the clever quilt making designs of American slaves of African descent. A house design was a house design, but that little anomaly in its execution, could it reference a clue on the road to freedom via the underground railroad? If that's the case then some of the imagery in the Marseille could have been landmarks on the road to freedom in sympathetic religious regions. No one knows for sure, but it does seem to suggest something along those lines.
Could the Noblet's exposed genitals of The Fool, and the sticking out tongue of the Hanged Man be more the work of a cheeky artist working for a publisher catering to a particular market? Was the Noblet a deck that would have been used by polite society meeting every Thursday night for a weekly game of cards, or did it have a specific audience? Has every Marseille deck since been a copy of the Noblet, or were there earlier cards that no longer survive? If copied, how did the artisans decide what to copy and what to leave out? Is an untrained eye the primary reason details got lost in the shuffle, or were there other reasons less noble, like cranking out a cheap deck of gaming cards for profit?
Are these the ramblings of a mad woman? My husband thinks so.