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Tarot as Cultural Text

By Camelia

Part of my academic research is dedicated to looking at Tarot as a cultural text. What does this mean? This means that I look at how the visual language of Tarot intersects with cultural precepts about a given phenomenon, a type, an archetype, a relation (of class, gender, race, sex), reality, magic, and the physical and metaphysical world. This is already more than what most people associate with Tarot: a fortunetelling device that the gypsies, neo-pagan witches, and other such devils employ in their charlatan endeavor to cheat venerable people out of their money. To me, I don’t really see what the difference is between such tricksters and the ones working on Wall Street, but then again, such is the working of language. Some names are more respectful than others, and people are entitled to their opinion. I’m happy to report, however, that most of the serious Tarot readers wouldn’t be caught dead trying to defend the workings of Tarot, explain endlessly on what we can use it for, nor why we should upgrade the condition for its existence from crap to crown. For the interested folks, there are enough clever books out there they can consult.


The thing about tarot worth knowing is that there are 2 main traditions: before occultism and after. The occult tarot was started by the French in around 1781. Some of them were into illuminism and masonism (Antoine Court de Gebelin and later Comte de Mellet) when they started claiming that there is a relation between tarot and the ancient Egyptians. This is a good story, but there isn’t any real historical evidence to support it. In around 1900, and in spite of the lack of sources, The Golden Dawn order in Britain revived the research into Tarot’s links with Thoth, and particularly Aleister Crowley proved to be influential. His own Thoth Tarot, designed with Lady Frieda Harris as the illustrator, is still very popular. Edward Waite’s contribution to Tarot made an even more brilliant impact, as the deck that he designed in tandem with illustrator Pamela Colman Smith has gone on to become the most copied Tarot, and the standard Tarot now used throughout most of the Western, Anglo-American world. Many artists still use Colman Smith’s insights for the illustration of the minor Arcana cards.

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