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“Tarot Cards Ancient and Modern”

July 15, 2011

Tarot Cards Ancient and Modern

Which are the Authentic Designs?

William Butler reviews old and new “Tarot Packs” and points out errors that have crept in.

For centuries past the Tarot has been accepted, in all countries, as the simplest and most reliable method of fore­telling the future, easily mastered by people of ordinary intelligence. Doubtless, as the Tarot cards became better known and were distributed more widely, they were in the first place used for a game. Blocks of hard wood began to be employed for their reproduction on a large scale, and various editions were published in haste to meet the demand, by those who knew little of the real meaning of the symbolism of these cards.

A great deal has been packed into these three sentences. When it is all unpacked a scenario is revealed that, though consistent, is based largely on conjecture. Firstly, the Tarot is “the simplest and most reliable method of fore­telling the future, easily mastered by people of ordinary intelligence”. In the Prediction Annual of 1949, Butler expands on this pronouncement: “There is, as has been proved conclusively, during many centuries past, no better instrument of divination than the Tarot. Anybody, without being able to lay claim to seership in the real sense of the word, but just by the exercise of commonsense and ordinary powers of deduction, can employ the Tarot cards for this purpose, with the certainty of no small degree of success.” The “proved conclusively” is open to challenge, and the question of how many centuries Butler has in mind might profitably be aired. However, it was certainly believed by many occultists of the era that anyone could read the Tarot with some degree of success simply through “the exercise of commonsense and [the] ordinary powers of deduction”. What they meant by this and what modern exponents of the cartomantic art mean by it tend, sadly, to be two different things.

Secondly, as tarot decks “were distributed more widely, they were . . . used for a game”. Thirdly, when advances in printing permitted cards to be mass produced “various editions were published in haste . . . by those who knew little of the real meaning of the symbolism of these cards”.  We are meant to understand that, in consequence, the original ‘perfect’ symbolism of the cards, which accurately conveyed the profound mystic knowledge of the great adepts whose brainchild the Tarot was, became contaminated and debased. Butler dilates further on this theme in his second paragraph.

It happens, therefore, that collectors of Tarot packs will frequently notice disparities between one set of cards and another. Occasionally there appear flat contradictions; which must be expected, however, since it is only natural that some artists, particularly in the designs of the Major Arcana, let their imagination have free play; adding fresh details to the cards, which still others copied and perhaps further transformed.

As far as can be ascertained, there was no ‘perfect’ original deck either of exoteric or esoteric design. The earliest surviving examples of Tarot cards date from the second or third quarter of the fifteenth-century. At that time, the minor arcana resembled in their design a modern playing card deck, with suits of rods (or wands), cups, swords and deniers (or pence) rather than clubs, hearts, spades and diamonds. The illustrations on the twenty-two Trump cards were conventional, even prosaic, representations of subjects well known to a medieval European audience: the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope, not as individuals but as types, along with other typical figures like Justice and Strength at one level, the Devil and the Last Judgment at another.

In those days there were different ways of depicting these types. Strength, for example, could be represented as a woman taming a lion, the image we are used to finding on cards from packs following the Waite-Smith and Tarot de Marseilles traditions. But Strength could also be represented by a woman holding together a shattered pillar, as can be seen from the so-called Gringonneur Tarot (an early hand-painted deck dated to the mid-fifteenth-century). The medieval mind would have as readily accepted a picture of Hercules or Sampson subduing a lion or of Sampson breaking in two a pillar of the Temple of Dagon as valid icons of Strength. There was no special virtue in the image being of a woman and a lion; nor was there any debate in those days, as there has been since, about whether the woman was holding the lion’s jaws open or forcing them shut. Such details were irrelevant to the medieval mind; the woman had overcome the lion, thus demonstrating strength, and that was all there was to it.

The same applies to the way the Devil, the Sun and the Last Judgment were depicted; other Trumps too.

Originally (that is to say, before such wooden blocks were introduced), the cards had been designed and painted either upon delicate parchment or thin sheets of ivory, silver, or even gold, which made their price prohibitive for any but the well-to-do.

While early tarots were painted on card, hence the term ‘pack of cards’, there is no evidence they were painted onto materials such as ivory, sliver and gold.

Somewhat later they were reproduced by means of thin plates of wood or inexpensive metal. All the work had to be executed most skilfully, each card being designed separately for every pack and, after an imprint had been taken of it, coloured by hand; a tedious task, especially as ex­treme care had to be taken not to cut through the fine sheet of wood or metal during the pro­cess in question. This difficulty was obviated, of course, when harder and thicker blocks of wood came to be employed.

Hand-painting gave way to printing, until finally all packs were printed, no hand-painting at all featuring in their manufacture.

From the above it will be realised, that a really authentic set of Tarot cards is bound to look to us a trifle “quaint”; the draftmanship should be rather primitive, the outlines broken and indistinct in places; the colouring in soft tints, not in bright and aggressive hues. In fact, the whole pack should resemble as nearly as possible the original hand-reproductions, and the cards should radiate an atmosphere of antiquity.

Butler’s ideal deck would look very like the Insight Institute cards that had recently come on the market. As Prediction promoted these cards in a low-key but consistent fashion between the years 1948 and 1960, and as Butler shows all the signs of having taken Frank Lind’s Tarot course, students of which were supplied with a set of Insight Institute cards, his championing of decks of this kind is hardly surprising. He nails his colors firmly to the mast in the following paragraph.

Unfortunately, most modern reproductions of the Tarot have failed on all these counts. Enterprising publishers have had the designs redrawn in sharp outline, and “brought up to date” – thereby destroying altogether not only the neutral aspect of the cards but their individual symbolism. Harsh modern colouring has not improved matters. It is evident that the purpose has been to attract the eye rather than appeal to the intelligence. An exception is the set sponsored by the Insight Institute, as this faithfully reproduces authentic 15th Century designs in the soft pastel colours in which they were originally hand-coloured.

It is hard to tell which decks exactly Butler is censuring here. The Waite-Smith cards would probably be known to him; it is less likely that he had seen the Thomson-Leng Tarot Fortune Cards, with illustrations similar to those of the Waite-Smith deck, given away free with a woman’s magazine in the ’30s shortly before the outbreak of World War Two. But it is as likely he may simply have had in mind the many continental tarots with which the game of tarot continued to be played.

The reader will recall that a complete pack of the Tarot should consist of 78 cards. These in turn are divided into 22, which comprise the Major Arcana, and 56 constituting the Minor; the latter consisting of four series of 14 cards each: Wands, Cups, Swords, and Pentacles (or Coins).

The opening gambit may be rhetorical: Butler wants to ensure that readers of his article understand what a Tarot deck is and takes this opportunity to insert the information in as concise a form as possible.

Grillot de Givry has advanced the theory, contrary to the accepted opinion of all other authorities, that the cards of the Minor Arcana are the older of the two series, though he provides not a single argument in support of this strange view. As Gerard van Rijnberk remarks, in his exhaustive and enlightening work Le Tarot, it does not seem at all reasonable to suppose, if cards of such simple designs as those of the Minor Arcana were indeed in use prior to those of the Major Arcana, that anyone should want to introduce other cards with meanings far less easy to grasp.

De Givry appears to have been right, though he may only have intuited the fact that the minor arcana existed in its own right before having the major arcana added to it to create the Tarot as we know it today. As to van Rijnberk’s views, while it is true that the designs of the minor arcana are simple and those of the major arcana more elaborate, interpretations of the latter are hardly ever in dispute, whereas, until the wide acceptance of the Golden Dawn meanings for the former, the significance of the cards of the minor arcana were a matter of heated debate. A perusal of the diverse meanings Waite suggests for each spot card in his Key to the Tarot illustrates this point. The Trump Justice signifies Justice, The Fool indicates Folly; but to some cartomancers the 5 of Cups forecast an Inheritance while to others it predicted Marriage, with the Golden Dawn meaning being Loss – three very different ways of interpreting the card.

Had the true originals of the Tarot – that is to say the twenty-one cards, along with the unnumbered one (the Fool), of the Major Arcana – been invented at a later date, then it is pretty certain they would soon have vanished out of all living memory, whereas, just because they are so much more ancient than the rest, they have per­sisted right up to the present time. That they should have remained, and in every part of the world, after the passing of one knows not how many centuries, is not the least astonishing fact to this intriguing and fascinating subject.

Butler manages to be wrong on two counts. Although the major arcana was invented at a later date than the minor, they have both continued to exist in combined form as the Tarot deck. Prior to the creation of the Tarot, the minor arcana was differently configured. Arab playing cards have suits of coins, swords, polo-sticks and tûmân, a word meaning ‘myriad’ but represented by a shape like a cup, and the ‘court’ cards are the king, viceroy and second viceroy. When the Tarot was created, the suit names were changed to those we are familiar with today and the court cards, now four in number, were named King, Queen, Knight and Page and drawn as such; the Arab deck, emanating from an Islamic culture where images of human beings were forbidden, had only symbolic, almost geometric, representations of its ‘court’ figures.

Nor have the Trumps remained “in every part of the world” through the passage of untold centuries. There is no evidence of their existence before 1425 at the earliest, meaning that they endured through only six centuries, less time than chess or ordinary playing cards have been around, before coming to Mr Butler’s notice.

It is true that most of the symbolism of the cards of the Major Arcana – which Count [sic] de Gebelin thought to be Egyptian, and many have traced also to India as well as other Oriental sources – was common knowledge in the Middle Ages; so it is not easy to decide on what is essential and basic, or as to how far, and precisely when, fresh imagery was incor­porated in the designs. All the same, it is possible to discover with a fair degree of accuracy what was the essential symbolism of each card, by comparing a number of Tarot sets of different periods, to find out how far the designs are in agreement, which they all are invariably, in some respects. Let us examine a few of the cards by way of proof.

It is possible to recast the medieval symbolism of the Major Arcana in an Egyptian form, so that the Pope becomes the High Priest, the Devil Typhon, the Tower the Shattered Pyramid and so forth. That is what de Gébelin did. It will similarly be possible to transpose the symbolism into a Hindu form (or Mayan, as has been done with a Tarot deck currently on sale), but it proves nothing; except perhaps that one civilization is much like another once its cultural trappings have been stripped away.

It is difficult to see how Butler’s proposal that one may discover the essential symbolism of each card by comparing a number of European tarots of different periods can bear fruit when the cards are assumed to have originated outside Europe at an epoch far distant from that of the Middle Ages, the period that supplies us with the oldest examples of Tarot cards.

The Juggler. [The Magician of the Waite-Smith deck.] (Card 1.) represents a young man standing behind a table, upon which are various articles; these are sometimes in the form of tools like those of a cobbler, at other times they are small symbols of the four Tarot suits. His left arm is raised, and in its hand a wand points towards heaven, while his right hand is in the reverse position, towards earth. The angles formed by his arm make the shape of Aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. This would seem to be a primitive part of the symbolism, as also his wide­-brimmed hat, which resembles the sign of Eternal Life, i.e., the figure 8 lying on its side.

In some of the earliest surviving tarots (mid-fifteenth-century), the Juggler wears an elaborate piece of headgear, but it does not resemble the figure 8 lying on its side. This feature appears later; it is not “a primitive part of the symbolism” of the card. Nor is the position of the arms and body: in most early tarots the Juggler has both hands on, or reaching out over, his table. Nevertheless, many who based their investigation of the Tarot on the designs of the Marseilles Tarot, presuming them to be largely unadulterated reproductions of older originals, made much of the fact that a Hebrew letter Aleph can be discerned in the configuration of the Juggler’s arms in relation to his torso.

The Lovers. (Card 6.) Sometimes this arcanum shows a youthful figure of the male sex between two females, who are the embodi­ments of Vice and Virtue; one wishes to lead him to the right, the other to the left. He hesitates as to which direction he shall take. At other times, a couple of lovers are pictured as being united in matrimony by a third party. The former is most probably the older symbolism. At the top of this card is always a being with a bent bow, shooting an arrow at the central figure, or figures, below. Undoubtedly this item, the only constant one, is the key to the situation.

Butler means that Cupid, firing an arrow at one or more of the figures below, as the one constant in the various designs he has encountered, must represent the prime significance of the card – and that significance will be Love. Taroists of Butler’s era were much exercised as to whether Trump 6 should denote Love or Choice with a fair proportion attempting to accommodate both meanings. Frank Lind is in the latter camp, assigning the card the meanings Rival Interests, Choice, and Affection. Butler himself, a student of Lind’s method, in Tarot readings he made for Prediction Annual, interpreted the card variously, according to circumstance, as choice or love.

The Wheel of Fortune. (Card 10.) It has been referred to that of Ixion, the circle of the Zodiac and the restless round of man’s innumerable lives; the ups-and-downs of earthly existence, resulting from the working out of Karmic consequences. The same thread of ideas runs throughout. Only the creatures on the Wheel – one at each side of its rim, and a third perched upon its summit – change their form in different Tarot sets. This emblem has its analogy, so it would seem, in the wheels of Ezekiel (Chapter 1, Verses X-XX). The celestial sphere was regarded, by astronomers of old, as revolving like a wheel. It is interesting to note that St. Donatus bears a wheel set round with lights.

When interpreted from an esoteric perspective, the Wheel of Fortune is regularly associated with the zodiac (see the Arthurian Tarot, Caitíln & John Matthews, Aquarian Press, 1990) and with the doctrine of reincarnation. In divinatory terms it is also linked with “the ups-and-downs of earthly existence” seen as the results of an out-working out of a person’s karma.

The Enchantress. [Strength in the Waite-Smith deck.] (Card 11.) She is the equivalent of Una and the Lion, St. George and the Dragon, and St. Michael in his combat with the same. (St. Michael, in Christian art, is sometimes shown with scales, in which he weighs the souls of those who have risen for final judgment; here one can trace a further relation to the Tarot, in respect to Card 8, the Balance.) In some cases the woman is gripping the jaws of a lion, as depicted in the Marseilles Tarot (1753-1793); in others breaking a stone column in half, as in the Tarot of Charles VI. Although this supposed Gringonneur Tarot is of an earlier date, the symbolism of the former is beyond question the more authentic. The Egyptians, as far back as B.C. 312, represented their Sun-god in the act of spearing the serpent Apep (the Evil One). Therefore no further comment as to the antiquity of the symbolism is necessary.

One must be on one’s guard so as not to assume that antiquity of symbolism confirms that Egyptians “as far back as B.C. 312” possessed Tarot cards in some form or other.

I have already dealt with the fact that tarots contemporaneous with the so-called Gringonneur deck depict the figure on the Trump Strength (which is not always female) at times overcoming a lion and at times breaking or holding together a stone column, though I want to make it clear that Butler here makes honest deductions based on the data available to him in his day.

His preferred name for this Trump is The Enchantress, which is also the nomenclature favored by Frank Lind.

Gerard van Eijnberk singles out a modern Swiss Tarot of which the cards are artistically and beautifully designed, but other­wise of very little value. A few examples of these Cards are given with this article. It will be noticed that the Juggler has turned into a pretty girl, apparently performing tricks of sleight-of-hand to an audience, though none is in view; his (or one should more correctly say her) hat has lost its original significant shape of an 8 in horizontal position. The High Priestess (or Female Pope) has been transformed into Juno, with a peacock; she is elegantly if somewhat scantily attired, and looks as if she had just stepped on the stage in a ballet. The Pope – who might be a champion weight-lifter, and the upper part of whose muscular body is naked – has in turn become Jupiter; evidently depicted after the god was forsaken by Juno, for he rests his head on his hand with a comically mournful expression of countenance. The loving couple on Card VI are being watched by a diminutive old man, cloaked and leaning on a stick; while a plump Cupid, framed in a billowy cloud, shoots an arrow at and a few inches from the head of the damsel. Lastly, the Emperor and Empress are undeniably modern. The lady, whose crown is some sizes too small, has one of her fingers pointing upward as if to draw attention to the fact. By the left side of the Emperor, who is seated in a lounging posture facing one, is a mammoth shield upon which is the inscription “Fabrique de cartes.”

The cards described are those of the Swiss IJJ deck first published in 1860. Confusingly for Butler’s readers, cards from another pack were used to illustrate the article – see illustrations.

As for the cards of the Minor Arcana, some publishers (accentuating early French designs, 1748-1930) have made the Wands look like thin laths of wood bound together; the Swords similar in design, save that they are curved, have with a few exceptions neither points nor shafts. Consequently, in the case of cards of a high number it is almost impossible to tell one from the other, without pausing to count the emblems; this is a tiresome pro­cedure, which might well cause a cartomancer to lose patience after awhile, and throw the cards away.

This is indeed a difficulty for anyone trying to read the cards. The spot cards of the Insight Institute pack, which Butler mentions in the next paragraph, use an alternative method of representation, similar to that found on ordinary playing cards. It was a method routinely commended to readers of Prediction in this period. Although this way of laying out the suit-signs does make card recognition easier, above and beyond that fact, for a number of years Prediction seemed keen to promote the Insight Institute pack, Frank Lind’s way of interpreting the minor arcana and Lind himself as an outstanding authority on the Tarot.

Anybody wishing to use the Tarot for divinatory purposes should, before all else, choose cards of genuinely antique origin­ – those published by the Insight Institute, for example. In the case of the Minor Arcana the distinctive emblems of the four suits, along with the number of items on a particular card, should be such that they will be distinguishable at a glance. How can a cartomancer hope to read any spread satisfactorily if the mind has constantly to be concentrated on identifying one card from another? There is no object or sense in making things more difficult. Gaudily-coloured cards, with sharp outlines, and modern designs are quite meaningless, and deliberately designed ad captandum vulgus.

The Waite-Smith pack appears to be the target for Butler’s parting shot since at the time of writing it alone could be considered as of modern design. If that surmise is correct then in Butler’s eyes its illustrations are “quite meaningless”, and deliberately designed to attract or please the rabble. How times have changed.

[Prediction (UK), September, 1948]

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From → tarot history

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