September 18, 2015
One small yet interesting part of the collections in the CFI Libraries is a collection of tarot cards. According to some, tarot card reading is supposed to tell the future, “divination” if you will. However, according to practitioners of tarot card reading, the tarot cards are only channeling your subconscious mind to determine what you already think you should do or know.
The tarot deck was not created for readings; it was created for playing card games, essentially a variation on other regional decks of cards. The Game of Triumphs was a forerunner of Bridge, and the earliest cards that evolved into tarot cards were created to play this game.
The decks of common playing cards we see today are derived from Egyptian cards from the 1300s, and they are thought to have evolved from Italy and the surrounding area. There are similarities such as the suits, picture cards, and number of cards. Many tarot cards follow the Marseille version of seventy-eight cards; however, there are some with sixty-two and others with ninety-seven cards.
These early cards were hand-painted, and many of the earliest examples were created by artists to the specifications of their patrons. This means that the cards were often not very common until the creation of the printing press and mass production could begin. But because the decks were handmade in their earliest incarnations, there are a wide number of variants.
There are typically seventy-eight cards, which include four regular suits and a “trump” suit that evolves into the Major Arcana in tarot cards. Variants of the regular suits include clubs, swords, lances, air, fire, water, cups, pentacles, etc.; the theme of the deck determines the name and look of the suit.
Tarot cards as occult objects become more prominent after the creation of the Rider-Waite deck in the early twentieth century. Pamela Colman Smith illustrated the cards under the direction of Arthur Edward Waite, both members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, an occult organization with ties to Freemasonry. The object was to teach the Hermetic Qabalah, and the cards were drawn with this goal in mind. This deck is the best known of all tarot decks. There are many others derived from this style, each having their own look, number of cards, and way to have a “reading.”
The CFI Libraries has many different decks, some based on this design, others slightly or completely different than the others. Some of these (all are based on the seventy-eight card deck) include the DruidCraft Tarot (based on Druids), The Elemental Tarot (based on earth, air, fire, water, and spirit for the trump), Wildwood Tarot, Golden Tarot, and the Tarot of Paris (Scenery of Paris). We also have The Baseball Tarot, which uses baseball symbolism rather than the Rider-Waite images.