When I randomly chose a card to help me illustrate the evolution of tarot images, the Wheel of Fortune was the card I pulled. In the uncanny way tarot is always relevant to a question, it appeared to say that life goes on and that change is the only constant we can bank on.
In my other writings, I've already established my agreement with the historians who state that tarot was born in 1400's Northern Italy. Playing Cards themselves may have originated from elsewhere, but that 78 card deck that we've come to recognize as Tarot, was undoubtedly born in Northern Italy. Admittedly it was born almost overnight, and the original inspiration and basis for its imagery remains the Holy Grail of esoteric knowledge. It's a blog topic for another day.
The first deck we have to consider is the Visconti-Sforza (V-S) Tarot. The best that we can do is piece together an extant deck from a variety of decks commissioned by these families of Milan. These cards show glimpses of the lives and lifestyles of these very affluent noble families. The cards were hand painted and intended for card play for a limited audience, namely the family, and not intended for a public audience. The most obvious associations of the higher trump cards, (the Major Arcana) appear to be based on religious imagery, even if it may be of a heretic nature. The church would not be inclined to condone religious symbolism in a game of cards which usually meant gambling and an excellent example supporting a fringe religious agenda is the Pappess card as depicted on the V-S deck. This card, now known as the High Priestess, is a portrait of a 14th century Visconti relative, Maifreda da Pirovano, who was actually elected Papessa (female Pope) by the Umiliati movement in Milan which was decidedly anti-papal in nature. We all know how the established church feels about female priests. In the example of the featured card of this blog, the Wheel of Fortune, may have intended to describe a belief in reincarnation, a belief that the Church distanced itself from and made a point to denounce has heretical. It might alternately be argued that The Wheel might have been more recognizable as a torture device, well known and utilized since antiquity. The public undoubtedly would have seen The Wheel was a reminder of the penalty for not living right and behaving in defiance of the law.
The Sola Busca(SB) tarot is an extant deck from the late 15th century and very possibly commissioned for a marriage between the aforementioned V-S families, though this is not known for certain. Although the SB deck is a 78 card deck, it is notably different from other decks of Trionfi from the time. The imagery of this deck is less religious and based more on classical antiquity, with particular focus on alchemy. The late 15th century was a period of enlightenment, leaving darkness to the middle ages in favor of science and learning. The SB doesn't even have a Wheel of Fortune per se, but rather a card titled Venturio which appears to be the Wheel's equivalent. The SB deck seems to be the first deck that directly associates tarot with occultism. Though the deck may not have be used as a form of divination, it seems to be the grand daddy for the cause. It should be noted that every card in the SB deck is fully illustrated with pictorial meaning given to even the pip cards, which makes it very different from other tarot decks of its time.
(I am ashamed to say that although I do own a deck of the 1995 out-of-print SB it remains in its factory seal because I have yet to open it, which is why I do not have a picture of Venturio among the other cards in this photo. My heart says yes open the deck, but my head says no. I'm guessing my heart will eventually win, but for now, they remain in conflict.)
The Tarot of Marseilles and Milan style decks, (TdM) notably the Conver's rendition, seems to continue to echo and elaborate the heretical tradition created by Northern Italy. In northern Italy, Milan among the cities, papal heretics were offered refuge during the Albigensian Inquisition. Though the Cathars were annihilated centuries before the first incarnations of the TdM, it is possible that the imagery of the twenty-two trump cards preserve to some degree in pictorial form, the story telling legacy of the Cathars and does it in plain view within a deck of cards. The fact that this deck was massed produced, says that this deck was intended for the masses. The Wheel of Fortune of the TdM, also echoes a karmic tradition which like the V-S, suggests reincarnation. I highly encourage anyone interested in the TdM as a possible link to Catharism, to read the research by O'Neill and Swiryn and others who have written on that topic. It's fascinating and will offer a perspective we don't often consider, resulting in greater understanding of the Fool's Journey which will in turn give greater insight to the meanings of each of those cards. It at least offers food for thought.
The deck of Etteilla, which today is known as the Grand Etteilla Egyptian Gypsy Tarot, was created by a Frenchman (Alliette, who reversed the spelling of his name) and created a deck for divination based on the belief that the Gypsies (Romani People) were originally from Egypt and they spread the secrets of divine wisdom with them throughout Europe. Regrettably, much of Etteilla's work and the work of his contemporaries was dismissed once the Romani were determined not to be from Egypt at all, and the premise of a Romani Egyptian connection had been proven to be incorrect. But using the cards as a form of divination had by then captured the collective imagination and became a very fashionable thing to do especially among the rich and famous. The work of Etteilla and others of his time focused on the symbolism of the ancient imagery, with an intent focus on learning their significance in the application of cartomancy. Eventually, cult groups such as the Order of the Golden Dawn birthed their own decks, such as the Hermetic Tarot (which I forgot to include in this photo) and the Rider Waite Smith (RWS) deck and the Thoth deck of Aleister Crowley (which I regrettably put in reverse order of creation in my photo). These cards retain to some degree, the same notion of cause and effect, karmic justice and uncontrollable events that every living soul has to deal with.
It should be noted that the RWS deck shares similarity with the SB deck in that every pip card is depicted with a full descriptive pictorial scene, and some of the SB images were directly lifted by Pamela Colman Smith (the RWS deck's artist) after she saw photographs of some of its cards which was on display in London around the same time.
All the cards on the lower tier of my photograph were chosen for the one thing they each have in common, and that is using a story, myth, or parable to illustrate the meaning of the card as it was understood by its artist. From bottom left to right: The African American Tarot, the Russian Tarot of St Petersburg, the Bruegel Tarot, the Mythic Tarot, and the Old English Tarot.
Most, but certainly not all modern decks, owe an homage to the RDS tradition of meaning which to this author seems to be a mix with religious, astrological and alchemy references.
Our modern day tarot interpretations are generally no longer focused on passing on religious traditions.
I hope you have enjoyed this article and I welcome your comments below.
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