Tarot readers have been cast as swindlers and diviners of the future. The history of the cards suggests they are much more. Photology1971/Shutterstock
Faced with the uncertainties of life under lockdown, is it any surprise that many people are turning to methods of fortune telling such as tarot cards? Journalists are often tempted to ask whether this is a resurgence of “pseudoscience”. The history of tarot suggests not.
Tarot cards are decks that include four suits, much like standard playing cards, but with an additional set of trump cards, known as the Major Arcana, which depict mythological figures or archetypes such as Death or The Magician. Different tarot decks, such as the Tarot de Marseille or the Eteilla Tarot, contain different numbers of cards, Major Arcana and different illustrations.
These different forms of tarot have been many things for many people: a system of occult meaning or a dangerous fraud, but also a form of therapy, a source of practical advice and even of entertainment.
The history of tarot is overshadowed by two mythologies. The first, and more positive, was popularised by occultists in the 18th and 19th centuries in France. Men such as the pastor Antoine Court de Gébelin and the occultists Jean-Baptiste Alliette and Éliphas Lévi believed the cards were of ancient Egyptian or Jewish magical traditions.
Such theories are groundless. The earliest Tarot decks date from 15th-century Italy. Yet these myths inspired occultists to argue the cards encoded hidden ancient mysteries, and that understanding these complex meanings would give cartomancers – card readers – powers to tell the future.
At the same time, a negative myth of tarot was developed by the authorities in countries such as France. After the revolution of 1789, new provisions against fortune telling were introduced. The press, police and politicians agreed that the very use of tarot cards was evidence that an individual was defrauding people.
These twin myths of ancient wisdom and modern fraud still play a large role in how people respond to the cards. But they are not the only stories we can tell about the history of tarot.
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The other sides
Rather than the writings of occultists or the judgements of the authorities, historians can turn to what cartomancers and their customers said. As part of my research into witchcraft in France from 1790-1940, I have come across several hundred cases of cartomancy that reveal different sides to the cards.
For a start, tarot never dominated cartomancy. Fortune tellers were as likely to use standard decks of cards that lacked the Major Arcana. Clients often preferred these plainer methods of fortune telling, not least since they were cheaper.
Even when they did use full tarot decks, fortune tellers were unlikely to embrace the complex systems of symbolic meaning proposed by occultists. Instead, they stuck to simpler schemes. Two of the four suits were normally positive, and two were negative.
Fortune tellers might write quick reminders on the cards about their significance. The cards pictured below are from a set said to have been annotated by the famous cartomancer Mademoiselle Lenormand. The Wheel of Fortune signified “a marriage will bring wealth”, while the Tower of Destruction symbolised “too much generosity”.
Fortune tellers also developed their own interpretations of the images from the cards. In a case from Fougères, north-west France from 1889, for instance, the fortune teller pointed to two cards she had drawn and declared to her client:
Well now, the Queen of Spades is your wife, and the Ace of Clubs is money… so your wife is stealing from you.
Other interpretations are harder to make sense of. In Besançon, eastern France in 1834, a fortune teller interpreted a card that looked like a monkey as evidence that the client was bewitched. Was it the monstrous, almost-human associations of the monkey image that connected it to sorcery? Some forms of historic symbolism are impossible to fully recover.
Entertainment and therapy
Although most of these examples are drawn from cases where the authorities actively tried to suppress scams, the fraud cases did not always go as the police hoped. Many clients proved reluctant witnesses in court. While the authorities saw them as naive victims, many demonstrated a more flexible understanding of what they were paying for. For instance, a young woman in Rouen in 1888 told a court:
I don’t believe in all that nonsense. I went to the fortune teller just to please my friend.
Above all, clients thought of fortune telling less as a method of predicting the future and more as a way to address problems in their present.
In some ways, tarot could work as a form of psychoanalysis. In 1990, the writer Josée Contreras and the ethnologist Jeanne Favret-Saada drew on experiences with a cartomancer to argue that these methods of divining worked in the same way as modern therapy.
Many of the problems that tarot was used to address remain familiar today. Clients sought stolen and lost objects, the causes of mystery illnesses, news on employment prospects, and reassurances on romantic relationships.
There has been no shortage of scammers in tarot’s history who have used fortune telling to dupe clients. However, the cartomancers’ customers are not as naive as the critics of fortune telling have sometimes assumed, and the act of reading the cards has been more practical than mystical.
For the great majority, the cards have never been a misguided attempt to predict the future. They are a creative means of re-interpreting and coming to terms with an uncertain present.
About The Author
William G Pooley, Lecturer in Modern European History, University of Bristol