When it comes to the historical meaning of tarot and the tarot images, there is a lot of opinion… There is a large percentage of contemporary tarot users, professionals, and enthusiasts (the vast majority) who attribute a rather esoteric meaning compendium to the card images based on individuals who recorded and assigned occult interpretations to the deck images in the late 19th-century and early 20th century. In a manner no different than today—where tarot enthusiasts promulgate the theory that the tarot comes from a secret-society-type mythological-forgotten secrets-of-the-lost-ancient-civilizations history—the turn-of-the-century promulgators were trying no less to impress a sensationalist and mystery-hungry audience. Frankly, it makes for a much better story to the ears of those desperate for understanding the meaning of life.
But let’s get something straight: tarot—or tarroccho, or tarrocchi—was a card game that people played in the Renaissance, and was conscripted by 19th and 20th-century occultist-fad showboaters. I’m not saying that those people—who literally changed the course of image-laden playing cards—were not trying to find meaning in their world and their universe. I’m sure that they were; that’s what images do—provide a feast for our imaginations (and it’s what still feeds our minds with entertainment, which is why video gaming and movies with CGI-inspired fantasmagoric creatures and images are still popular…put another way, it’s why you’re going to see that new Star Wars movie this month). We create stories and affiliations and comparisons in our minds (because the human mind is a fascinating, story-telling, vision-imagining organ). The mind, in fact, is more mystical and mysterious and fascinating and creative than the tarot cards that inspire the mind—from a scientific curiosity standpoint.
So, really, we’ve let ourselves be molded by the imaginative stories of turn-of-the-century occultist theatrics.
Let’s get something else straight… I don’t see anything wrong with that.
I think it’s immensely fascinating! The turn-of-the-century occultists weren’t doing anything so much differently than the original creators of the tarot—they were simply telling stories. That’s what humans have always done; it’s how we transfer information from one generation to another; it’s how we remember our progenitors; it’s how we have invented our creation stories; it’s how we imaginatively create the possibilities of our future…
We can’t really help being influenced by pervasive contemporary prejudices and socially promulgated philosophies. (Most of the public is still of the reserved prejudice that tarot cards are “evil” and an occult taboo, because protestant and evangelical cultural pervasive thought has influenced peripheral opinion about them. And, even within the tarot enthusiasts community there is still a reserved prejudice that tarot cards are connected to some still-undiscovered lost-world secrets containing the “meaning of life” that would save-the-world-if-only-we-could-hear-the-ancestors-in-our-crystal-vibrations-and-discover-it rhetoric…or that perhaps the elfin faeries will transport back in time to Atlantis and then come back and whisper answers into our ears-type fantasies… in other words, “new age” schlock.)
But we can look to the reasons why people have fallen into certain prejudices, follow the history of how and why such prejudices and fantasies took hold of mass public imagination, and were subsequently concretized into legendary belief. This kind of history can be a fascinating and entertaining story unto itself. So here’s something to chew on—a lot of the traceable history of belief mutation—a lot of urban legend and legendary belief systems—can be (and must) be attributed to human psychology, crowd mentality trends, and…our fascination with stories. If you have doubts about the power of belief mutation, just look at some of the urban myths created within our own nation’s political world and people’s vehement obstinacy and persistence in creating (even demanding) their veracity—whether fact-checking tells another story or not. Mass media and social media seem only to promulgate and increase the temporal speed of the phenomenon.
My own perspective on how the tarot works—outside of its traditional game parameters, and on an intentional self-introspection pedagogical one—is summed-up rather well by James Warlock on his somewhat indelicately-named website “Weird Shit not bullshit,” whereby he describes tarot reading as a form of “game theory”:
“[T]his explanation says that there is nothing in the least supernatural or mysterious about performing a Tarot reading, but it is, none the less, valuable. The basic idea is that the cards are randomly dealt and appear in a totally random order. However, the action of interpreting them is still useful. Most people tend to analyse (sic) situations in a very logical fashion, based on a set of unconscious assumptions and on a very limited set of expectations – and therefore tend to only come to a very standard set of conclusions, which may limit their understanding of the situations they find themselves in. However, the effort required to fit the ‘random’ cards into a ‘meaningful’ pattern forces a reader to think outside of their normal limited mindset, and can lead to fresh ideas, insights, and may force their intuition to begin solving problems in new and interesting ways. Thus although there is nothing ‘meaningful’ about the layout of the Tarot cards, the effort of trying to find meaning helps us gain better and more original insight into our problems. (Using randomly chosen cards with key words written on them to solve problems has, in fact, become a standard management training exercise.)”
This undoubtedly puts me at odds with history-enthusiasts like Michael J. Hurst, who, I think, would plant me firmly among the camp that “use Tarot as projective inkblots for free association.” And while that description is likely meant as a pejorative disparagement, an attempt to enervate the populism of the tarot-enthusiasts community, or perhaps even an indication of jadedness or distrust, I sort of embrace the moniker. So I have no bones to pick with the developed stories that have been ascribed to the images in the tarot deck, or even how the images when combined in a tarot spread create undulating and new visions and stories. It’s what we do… tell stories, create imaginative scenarios in our minds. It means that we are doing what humans do; it makes us human.
That said, a lot of my interest in the tarot stems from a desire to investigate earlier, more precise, more accurate references to the original inspirations for the tarot images. In this respect, Mr. Hurst and I fall into better agreement. But I think that there’s a gradient, a scale of being able to recognize the usefulness of game-playing. The scale runs from solely black-and-white historical recognition of the existence of games—and specifically, in this case, of playing cards, and a timeline for when they appeared in a European context—to a more colorful spectrum that investigates how and why such games became popular at precisely the 14th century and onward (most likely as a result of the invention of the printing press and the capacity for mass printing). At this more technicolor-end of the spectrum one has to allow social hermeneutics to interpret a social impact. We like to project a lot of color in our historical imaginings, and sometimes it takes a sepia-minded contingent to pull us back to more realistic probabilities.
I love the malleability and development of the stories that have occurred (and sometimes snowballed) about the images, and I’m fascinated with the stories and interpretations that people reference and create today—because I am fascinated with the capabilities of the human mind. But, I also believe that those turn-of-the-century enthusiasts did not have a proper historical reference with which to inject their creative attributions.
It seems ironic that—as it often is with history research or archeological research (because of the development of new technologies, or more creative methods of investigation)—that we sometimes know more about history than people who lived closer to that history. Shamans and priests used to use their creative storytelling abilities to ascribe how the world came into creation. But science has taught us more precisely how the universe came into existence. The scientific version is no less mind-boggling, and no less holy, but it’s a more accurate assessment than our forefathers would have believed.
So let’s repeat: People entertained themselves differently in Medieval times and in the Renaissance. There was no television in front of which to make one’s self comatose (ceaselessly overloading our minds with the stories of others in the form of movies and sitcoms and “media”). If people weren’t working in order to survive, they were engaging in human interactions and what we would call “pastimes” (pass-the-times), or hobbies. Often these could be useful things like sewing, or needlework, or carving. But sometimes people did what we do when we’re bored—they played games; they amused themselves with “play,” and engaged in creative table sports that were sometimes billed as “strategic,” and often were based on chance, and quite often turned into gambling (a progression that, ironically, can sometimes be attributed to the choices and chances that a human individual makes in real life).
And because we are so enthralled with the stories that encompass our lives, these table sports were often ascribed with the reflections and facets of people’s real lives, and societies—or imagined reflections and facets of what one’s life could be like. (Think of the board games of your childhood: the game of Life, Monopoly, etc.)
And it is no wonder, then, that chess was such an important game for the upper echelons of society, and that in illuminations and descriptions it was almost exclusively portrayed as a game between two opposing factions, or two different empires, or two rivalrous classes.
“Chess was the great game of 14th century. In the 20ies it seems that chess still was the recommended game for noble men, playing cards seem to have been something for noble women. It was natural to transport chess ideas and figures to the playing card deck—already Johannes of Rheinfelden reports that.”
And playing cards, in one of its facets, appears no differently, demarcating different classes or professions of a society, and sometimes signifying rivalries, mocking the divisions between two opposing empires.
Chess included various divisions of class in the depictions of its gamepieces (Nobility: King and Queen, “Chivalry” and class of military officers: Knights; clerical class: Bishop; the court: Rooks; the realm or “nationality” represented by the fortifications of the city-state: the Tower; and feudal masses: Pawns).
The divisions pictured in the tarot deck were no different, although the difference in timeline provided a developing variance of classes in society (Swords: Nobility; Cups: Clerical class; Coins: Merchant class; and Wands: Peasantry).
Chess seemed to be the model for a lot of the gaming world in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. And the virtuousness of playing the game was believed and proselytized by many people, as can be seen in the excerpts below from Jacobus de Cessolis’s book Game and Playe of the Chesse (originally published by the printer Caxton in 1474) 1 :
“And a mon that lyvyth in thys world without vertues lyveth not as a man but as a beste.”
(Translated: “And a man that lives in this world without virtues lives not as a man but as a beast.”)
“And therefore my right redoubted Lord I pray almighty god to save the Kyng our soverain lord to gyve him grace to yssue as a Kynge tabounde in all vertues/ to be assisted with all other his lordes in such wyse yn his noble royame of England may prospere/ habounde in vertues and yn synne may be eschewid justice kepte/ the royame defended good men rewarded malefactours punyshid the ydle peple to be put to laboure that he wyth the nobles of the royame may regne gloriously.
In conquerynge his rightfull inheritaunce / that verraypeas and charitie may endure in both his royames and that marchandise may have his cours in suche wise that every man eschewe synne/ and encrese in vertuous occupacions / Praynge your good grace to resseyve this lityll and symple book made under the hope and shadow of your noble protection by hym that is your most humble servant in gree and thanke. And I shall praye almighty god for your long lyf & welfare / which he preserve And sende now thaccomplishment of your hye noble joyous and vertuous desirs Amen.”
(Translated: “ And therefore my right and redoubted Lord I pray almighty God to save the King our sovereign lord to give him grace to issue as a King abounding in all virtues, to be assisted with all his other lords in such wise as his noble realm of England may prosper [and] abound in virtues, and in sin may be eschewed [and] justice kept, the realm defended, good men rewarded, malefactors punished, the idle people to be put to labor that he with the nobles of the realm may reign gloriously.
“In conquering his rightful inheritance that verities and charity may endure in both his realms and that merchandise may have his course in such wise that every man eschew sin and increase in virtuous occupations. Praying your good grace to receive this little and simple book made under the hope and shadow of your noble protection by him that is your most humble servant ingress and thanks. And I shall pray almighty God for your long life and welfare which He preserve. And send now the accomplishment of your high and noble joyous and virtuous desires. Amen.
“Finished the last day of March the year of our Lord God One-thousand-four-hundred-and-seventy-four.”)
Although the book is printed with the dated 1475-6, the reason seems to be caused by those pesky calendar disagreements between various locations in Europe, and the printing of the volume was in “the Low Countries” where the beginning of the year was still enumerated as occurring on Easter:
“The date, 1475-6, has been affixed, because in the Low Countries at that time the year commenced on Easter-day; this in 1474 fell on April 10th, thus giving, as the day of the conclusion of the translation, 31 March 1475, the same year being the earliest possible period of its appearance as a printed book.”
In the Introduction of the 1883 reprint of Caxton’s Game and Playe of the Chesse, William E.A. Axon wrote, “It was a popular diversion, and in the moralizing spirit of the age he saw in it an allegory of the various components of the commonwealth. The men who were merely killing time were perhaps flattered at the thought that they were at the same time learning the modes of statecraft. Then, as now, the teachers of morality felt that a song might reach him who a sermon flies, and they did not scruple to use in the pulpit whatever aids came handy. The popular stories, wise saws, and modern instances, were common enough on the lips of the preachers, and such collections as the ‘Gesta Romanorum’ show what a pitch of ingenuity in unnatural interpretation they had reached.”
We could go one step further—as Johan Huizinga does—and infer that “playing” is the primary formative element in human social culture…not just human, but animalistic social culture. According to Huizinga, one could say that anything that involves ritual exhibits the basic traits of play. He points out that if something contains elements of “wit, contests, performances, exhibitions, challenges, preenings, struttings…showing-off, pretences, [or] binding rules,” then a connection has been made between culture (recognizable actions) and social play (for dominance). 2
Huizinga goes on to equate virtue as a competition, as in a game. One has to think about that for a minute or two. We normally think of virtues as something selfless to which we commit in order to maintain a certain equilibrium in our social order. But Huizinga claims that the chivalric code of the early Medieval period derived from a competition in virility (the cultural sense of virility and manliness during the time period—thus hermeneutically virile). Huizinga claims that the ideal of chivalry or chivalrous conduct encompassed “the whole semantic complex of strength, valour, wealth, right, good management, urbanity, fine manners, magnanimity, liberality, and moral perfection.” Nobility was implicitly based on (and assumed to be based) on virtue, and it was only through an evolution of the meaning of “virtue” through changing civilization and class systems that virtue acquired a different meaning—eventually settling within the ethical and religious realm. (Huizinga, p. 64-65)
This isn’t surprising when one considers the inimitable and universal strivings of the lower classes to attain some sort of recognition, some sort of equitability, some sort of economic relief, or at a minimum some sort of promise of salvation. This has been the basis of countless revolutions, as well as theological diversification. (Think of Liberation Theology, and Feminist Theology both of which strive to create a sense of redeemable theological significance for minority groups—economic and gender—which have been suppressed by traditional theological doctrine).
It’s also not surprising that Huizinga makes the connection between Capitalism and the idea of virtue as competition. He sees the Stock Market as nothing more than a gambling endeavor, with players who delude themselves with “the fancy that [they] can calculate the future trends of the market.” The Insurance Industry is no better in Huizinga’s mind, as people place wagers “on future eventualities of a non-economic nature,” ultimately economizing bad or good luck in the weather or natural disasters. (Huizinga, 52-53) From this context, one realizes that our modern society is indeed more and more based on competition, superiority, and “success,” although a small percentage of people—just like in feudal times—have an advantage to begin with because of economics or status: their starting line is yards, or miles, ahead of where everyone else gets to start the competition. (Bernie Sanders starts to sound better and better while reading Huizinga…)
As contemporaries, we are not the only ones to lay attributions upon inanimate game playing cards or pieces. As Huck Meyer humbly expresses in the “Very Early References” history section of the [amazing] trionfi.com website (with appropriately re-phrased or para-phrased passages in some sections where Meyer’s translation into English has left questionable linguistic meaning):
“Johannes [of Rheinfelden] in 1377 reports about a deck, in which [a] number [of] cards are associated with professions. The same idea is displayed about 80 years later, contemporary to the great Trionfi time in Ferrara, in the so-called Hofämterspiel [deck], which [wa]s said to have been produced for the young king of Bohemia, Ladislaus Posthumus. The heraldic devices used in the game relate to Germany, France, Bohemia and Hungary, …[indicating the region from which each suit was attributed (and ‘snubbing’ other demesnes, such as England)].
spade = “An eagle displayed” (Holy Empire)
heart = “A lion rampant, double queld gold crowned.” (Bohemia)
diamond = “Azurre, three gold fleurs-de-lys.” (France)
club = “Barry [bars] of eight, azure and gules” (Hungary)
“From contemporary book production [theories on the subject], we do know that chess was a very hot theme in [the] 14th century. The citizens of the cities learnt the game, which before was a domain of the nobility. It is said, that [the game of chess] was a bestselling [topic] in book production [publication] around that time. In fact it was [Jacobus de] Cessolis, a Lombard [monk], started probably [who commenced] a development [literary vogue of chess-related book production] in [the] first half [of] 14th century[,] around 50 years before [any historical evidence of an] official playing card industry [can be noted], in which the pawns of chess were connected to professions, probably after [imitating] an astrological [designation or attribution] system, in which special professions were attributed to ‘children of the planets,’ still in use in [through the] 15th century, for instance in ‘De Sphaera,’ a manuscript, which was produced for the Sforza [family]. Naturally these profession-figures were painted to give them expressions [similar to those] already [found] in
the earlier texts.
“The game of Johannes of Rheinfelden—who compares the playing card figures with chess figures in his text—is a natural continuation to these earlier chess-piece personalisations [personifications] regarding the pawns.”
—Via the [humble] opinion of Huck Meyer in the “Very Early References”
history section of the [amazing] trionfi.com website.
Psychologically, attribution and designation are what our human minds do in almost every situation presented to us. We naturally try to interpret everything in our environments as reflecting previous experiences or visual cues, so that we can formulate a way to relate to it and possibly communicate with it. Whenever we meet a stranger, our brains immediately try to interpret everything about that person’s appearance so that we can react and/or interact appropriately with that person. Sometimes our previous experiences color our interpretative schema, so that we are prejudiced in certain ways, until we have spent enough quality time with the new person to be able to apply a different attribute, and a new relational quality (which goes back to Mr. James Warlock’s description of game theory above). 3
So—moving into our current-day interests regarding tarot reading—when a tarot card shows up that doesn’t seem to fit with the quality or with the expectations of the topic of the querent’s question… our brains go into story-telling mode in order to find or create relational qualities that we can apply to the situation. Sometimes this “unlocks” subconscious levels of rethinking a situation through, or seeing a different perspective that gives the querent further insight to their problem. But it can also be detrimental, when the tarot reader takes the storytelling facet too far and literally fabricates particulars that may confuse or influence the querent’s objectivity.
Now we are getting into tarot reading ethics. It should be the responsibility of any ethical tarot reader to keep themselves in check, to make sure that the line between offering prospective possibilities viewed through alternative archetypes found in the cards—and—making shit up to tell a cool-sounding story with no basis in reality…to make sure that such a demarcation into the latter is never broached. The purpose of a tarot reading is not so much to instigate a new storyline to which the querent should aspire; but rather, to jog the querent’s own problem solving creativity to find solutions within the boundaries of his or her own initiative capacity.
(Example: It is entirely unethical to tell a querent that you “see” a tall dark stranger coming into their lives and that romance is on the horizon. Um… barf. Rather, if a querent’s question has to do with being lonely or with isolation or with feelings of failure because all of her friends have partners and she hasn’t met “Mr. Right” yet, it would be appropriate, using the prompts from the tarot images in a drawn tarot spread, to try to discover from where those feelings of loneliness or isolation or failure originate, why those feelings dominate the querent’s emotional state, and whether the querent can conceive of alternative options that alleviate those irrational feelings and empower the querent to envision a different or active response to those feelings.)
It’s a game. It’s meant to be fun. When our defenses are lowered because we’re relaxed and having fun, when we throw ourselves into new experiences that challenge our relationally-geared brains, when we allow our minds to “play,” sometimes we can have amazing insights. The idea is that we learn virtues and skills along the way that help us participate more fully in human existence, and ultimately greater personal happiness.
 “Chess is like life. Whether the game and pieces represent war, court society, or the world at large, in a general way and simply seen, the game has come to symbolize the world and human activity. This metaphor comes down from the thirteenth century when Jacob de Cessolis, a Dominican friar in the Lombard region of Italy, delivered a sermon based on the game. The sermon was so well received that his fellow friars insisted he write it out. His “Liber de moribus hominum et officiis nobelium” (“Book of the Manners of Men and the Offices of the Nobility”), now simply called “The Book of Chess,” was famous throughout Europe. It was translated into numerous languages and presents readers with a primer on the game and a look into a contemporary’s view of the structure and ways of medieval society. From kings and queens, to farmers and gamblers, Jacob outlined the virtues and vices, obligations and inclinations of various members of medieval society: those who governed, those who fought and those who worked, playing out their qualities on the chess board. This edition offers the first English translation of this famous work since Caxton’s printing of 1474. “(from the book description)
de Cessolis, Jacobus. (Hester L. Williams, trans. ed.) The Book of Chess. (New York: Italica Press, 2008). Pbk 148 pp. (Includes 16 woodcuts from Caxton’s 1474 edition.)
 Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. (Mansfield Centre, CT: Martino Publishing, 2014 [a facsimile printing of the 1950 Roy Publishing print edition]).
 Society for Personality and Social Psychology. “Even fact will not change first impressions.” ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/02/140214111207.htm (last accessed December 13, 2015).