Andrea Vitali's Essays

The History of the Tarot

From its origin to the present day

 

Translation revised by Michael S. Howard, Feb. 2012


This essay by Andrea Vitali, divided into a preface and six sextions, followed six historical sections on exhibition Tarot: History, Art, Magic prepared by the Association “Le Tarot”



HISTORICAL INTRODUCTION


During the whole of the Renaissance, the “Images of the Ancient Gods” reminded the observer of the classical myths, which were considered of great ethical and moral value. In this period the game of tarot was born, one of the most extraordinary achievements of Italian Humanism. It gathered the most august representatives of the Greek pantheon together with the Christian virtues, allegorical images of the human condition, and symbols of the most important heavenly bodies.


Tarot was a game of memory which included the marvels of the visible and invisible world and gave the players physical, moral and mystical instruction. In fact, the series of cardinal virtues - Strength, Prudence, Justice and Temperance - recalled important ethical precepts; the series of human conditions, including the Emperor, the Empress, the Pope, the Fool and the Juggler, recalled the hierarchy to which human beings were subject; and the series of planets (Stars, Moon, Sun) suggested the celestial forces that subjugated human beings - above which the Universe was conceived to be held by God.

But tarot soon lost this didactic and moral aspect, which already at the beginning of the 16th  century was little understood. They were then considered no more than a game. Consequently the iconography of the figures changed according to the popular tastes of the regions where Tarot was used. Only at the end of the 18th century was the philosophical meaning of tarot rediscovered. Basing themselves on totally esoteric premises, however, the new interpreters gave birth to a new use of the game: magical and divinatory.


A famous article published in 1781 by the freemason and archaeologist A. Court de Gebelin states that “The book of Thoth exists, and its pages are the pictures of the tarots”. A few years later, Etteilla, undertook the great project of restoring some of these pictures, claiming that he knew the structure of the game in use among the ancient Egyptians. According to Etteilla, the first tarot contained the mystery of the origin of the Universe, the formulas of various magic rites and the secret of the physical and spiritual evolution of man.

 
Ever since, the game of tarot has been indissolubly linked to the world of magic. And with the promise that these cards offered more than mere knowledge of the future, the new era of the Occultist Tarot began.



CELESTIAL HARMONY

 

The game of Tarot [Tarocchi, in Italian], which was created in Italy at the beginning of the 15th century, is comprised of 56 numeral cards, said to be "Italian suits" (cups, coins, staves, swords)  - coming from the Arab world  - which in turn derived the symbols of the suits from the ancient Roman coinage of the Aes  (see our essay The Origin of Aces), which arrived in Italy in the 14th century, and of 22 allegorical cards known as Triumphs of the 15th century.

 

This game refers to Petrarca’s Triumphi (hence “triumphs” from Italian “trionfi”), in which the fourteenth century poet described six principal forces which govern men and assigned a hierarchical value to each. Romanesque numerology saw in the number Six "the superhuman one,  the power", as the number related to the days of biblical creation.

 

First comes Love (Instinctual), which corresponds to a juvenile phase, vanquished by Shame [Pudicizia] (Chastity, Reason), a subsequent phase of mature calmness, after which follows Death, signifying the transitoriness of terrestrial things. It is in turn, vanquished nevertheless by Fame, victorious over death in posterity’s memory, but over it Time triumphs, which is overcome finally by the Triumph of Eternity, which frees humans from the flow of the becoming. and sets them in the kingdom of eternity.


The number of the Triumphal cards, the conception for which is probably due to Prince Francesco Antelminelli Castracane Fibbia (see our essay The Prince), at the beginning was perhaps composed of 8 allegories, later by 14 and 16, then was finally stabilized at 22, the number that in its Christian mystical meaning represents the introduction to the wisdom and the divine teachings engraved in humanity. Such a path, that conveys a progressive adaptation of these "playing cards" to a numerology of a religious character, was probably adopted to avoid the condemnation of the Church that was continually hurled against card games that were considered gambling.

About the number 22 of the Triumphs, here is how Origen  considers this number: “In the order of numbers, each single number contains a certain force and power over things. Of this power and force the Creator of universe made use, in some instances for the constitution of the universe itself, in others to express the nature of each thing as it appears to us. It follows, then, based on the Scriptures, that one must observe and derive those aspects that belong to the numbers themselves. And in truth itought not to be ignored that the books of the Bible itself, as the Jews transmitted them, are twenty-two, also equal to the number of Hebrew letters, and this not without reason. As in fact, twenty-two letters seem to be the introduction to the wisdom and doctrine engraved iwith these figures in human beings, so these twenty two books of Scripture also constitute the foundation and the introduction to the wisdom of God and the knowledge of the world” (Select in Ps I - PG 12, 1084). In other words, Origen, referring to these 22 inspired books of the Bible, perceives in the twenty-two letters that comprise the Hebrew alphabet an introduction to the wisdom and divine teachings imprinted in humanity (A. Quacquarelli, s.v. Numeri, in DPAC, pages 2447-2448).

 
Medieval theology assigns to the universe a precise order, formed by a symbolic staircase rising from the earth to the sky: from the top of the stairs God, the First Cause, governs the world, without getting directly involved, but operating “ex gradibus” i.e. through an uninterrupted series of intermediaries. In this way his divine power is transmitted down to the lower creatures, even to the humblest mendicant. Read from below upwards, the staircase teaches that humans can gradually rise in the spiritual order, climbing slowly toward the summits of the bonum, verum and nobile, and by science and virtue advance nearer to God.


From the first known list of Triumphs of the beginning of the 16th century, it is evident that it was a game. with an ethical background The Magician shows a sinful man (see our essay El Bagatella which is the symbol of sin) who has been provided with both temporal guides, the Emperor and Empress, and spiritual guides, the Pope and Popess (i.e. Faith). Human instincts themselves must be mitigated by the virtues: Love by Temperance, and the desire for power, or rather the Chariot, by Strength (the Christian virtue Fortitude). The Wheel of Fortune teaches us that success is ephemeral and that even powerful persons are destined to become dust. The Hermit who follows the Wheel represents Time, to which all beings are subject, and the necessity for each person to meditate on the real value of existence, while the Hanged Man (The Traitor) depicts the danger of falling into temptation and sin before the arrival of physical Death.


Even the afterlife is represented according to the typical medieval idea: Hell, and thus the Devil, stands at the centre of the earth, while the celestial spheres are above the earth. According to the Aristotelian vision of the cosmos, the terrestrial sphere is surrounded by celestial fires which in the tarots are represented as lightning striking a Tower. The planetary spheres are synthesized in three main planets: Venus (the pre-eminent Star), the Moon, and the Sun. The highest sphere is the Empyrean, the seat of the angels who will be summoned to awaken the dead from their tombs at the Last Judgement - when divine Justice will triumph in weighing the souls and dividing the good from the evil. Highest of all is the World, or "the Holy Father", as an anonymous Dominican commentator on the tarots wrote at the end of the 15th century.The same author places the Fool after the World, as if to illustrate his complete alienation from all rules and teachings, since,because lacking reason, he was not able to understand the revealed truths.

The thought of Scholasticism, which aimed to confirm the truths of faith through the use of reason, united in this category all those people who didn’t believe in God, even if able to reason. In the tarot the presence of the Fool has therefore a further and deeper sense: the Fool, in its meaning of unbeliever in God but possessing reason, had to become, through the teachings expressed by the Mystical Staircase, the "Fool of God", as the most popular saint became, that is, St. Francis, who was called “The Saint Minstrel of God” or “the Saint Fool of God" ("None was more beautiful, / More joyful, or greater, / Than he who, by zeal and love, / Became the fool of Jesus": dance song by Girolamo Benivieni, 1453-1542). (For more on ths subject, see the iconological essay The Fool)

During the 15th century the game was called "Ludus Tiumphorum". Only at the beginning of the 16th century did the term Tarocco appear, probably attributed to these cards at the moment when in which their ethical content was forgotten, retaining only the game [ludico] aspect, even if some good jurist affirmed to perceive in them “something virtuous".


The first known document in which the term Tarochi appears in relation to card games, is an accounts register of the Este Court of the second semester 1505, in a note dated June 30th. Then it appears again in the same register on December 26th.

 

In Giovan Giorgio Alione's Frotula de le dòne (Frottola of women), which we have identified, dated "toward 1494", which in the context of Charles VIII's descent into Italy, means the end of 1494 or a little later, the word Taroch appears with the meaning of "Foolish":

 

Marì ne san dè au recioch
Secundum el Melchisedech
Lour fan hic. Preve hic et hec
Ma i frà, hic et hec et hoc
Ancôr gli è – d'i taroch
Chi dan zù da Ferragù 

 

To understand the word taroch in this work we have made use of  the translation that Enzo Bottasso made of many words of the Frotula in the work edited by him, Giovan Giorgio Alione, L'Opera Piacevole (Giovanni Giorgio Alione, The Pleasant Work), where for taroch he gave "sciocchi" (foolish). So the verse with the word taroch, "Ancôr gli è - d'i taroch", must be translated as "there are still some fools" (probably in reference to  betrayed husbands).

 

Ross Caldwell has pointed out that the word tarochus, even if not referring to card games, was already used in the XVth century, as he discovered in the Maccheronea (dedicated to Gaspare Visconti, d. 1499), by the poet Bassano Mantovano, in which the term is used:

 

Erat mecum mea socrus unde putana
Quod foret una sibi pensebat ille tarochus
Et cito ni solvam mihi menazare comenzat.

 

(Ross’s translation: My mother-in-law was with me, and this idiot thought he could get some money out of her, so he started threatening me). Here “idiot” is a generic term meaning “stupid or slow-witted person”, “madman”, “fool”, etc.

 

After years of research we are therefore able to state that the word Tarocco is to be derived from the card of the Fool. (In one of our essays, we have further shown that the sirocco wind, the wind believed to induce insanity, was called in the Renaissance Theroco Wind, and, in another essay, how the term Tharocus should also be connected to Bacchus, in reference to the madness that characterized the orgiastic rites held in his honor. See Tharocus Bacchus est). The assignment is thus inspired by a card of the deck, not an unusual situation, in that the Tarocco in Liguria, Tuscany, and Sicily was called by the  term Ganellino or Gallerino - that is, the Bagatto [Magician]. But it is not only necessary to go back to this meaning: based on historic variants of 'tarrocco' or 'tarroco', it is also necessary to assess the term under its ludic [i.e. game-playing] aspect, attributing in this case the meaning of attack with cards stronger than those played by opponents, as with the expression 'ti arrocco, t'arrocco, ti arroco' = ‘I castle you’ [i.e. I force you to castle]. It was intended to remind the adversary that one had played a winning card that put him on the defensive (see in this regard the essay Rochi and Tarochi). It is thus a term understood with polysemic meanings, that is, expressing several meanings, according to a widespread practice in the Renaissance period.



ALLEGORICAL ICONOGRAPHY


The allegories which appear on the trump cards belong to the  iconographical tradition common to most of Europe from the 13th century. They may be found in the decorations of the Gothic cathedrals, in the frescoes of public buildings, and in encyclopaedic and astrological manuscripts. In practice, the figures represented on the cards of the Triumphs are a real Biblia Pauperum, that is, “Pauper's Bible”. Playing the cards, people directly drew from these a knowledge of the Christian mysticism and its contents, concepts that were continually recalled in their minds, according to the method of the Ars Memoriae of the time.  

They may be readily interpreted by reference to the cultural context of the courts of northern Italy, and their taste for moralizing images derived both from religious tradition and classical mythology. For the ancient gods continued to play a role in medieval Christian culture, even though their characters were different from those of the original divinities.

On the one hand, they were held to be civilizing heroes who taught men many arts, like Minerva, the first weaver, or Apollo, the medical god. On the other hand, they were interpreted as allegories of virtue and vice, and it is in this sense that they appear on some of the Tarot cards.

Obvious examples include Strength, represented by the mythical Hercules as he destroys the Nemean Lion - the symbol of animal instinct; Love, in its meaning of instinctual passion, represented as Cupid ready to launch his arrows against incautious lovers; the Sun (in its meaning as "Truth") is personified by Apollo, who illuminates the earth with his disc.


Many tarot figures clearly employ Christian iconography. For example, the World is sometimes represented by the Celestial Jerusalem placed inside a sphere supported by angels or dominated by Celestial Glory. The card bearing the Popess, similar to that in Giotto's frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, derives from the image of Faith. Amongst many other possible examples, representations of virtues such as Temperance, Justice and Fortitude echo the classical iconography to be found in the sculpture of Gothic cathedrals or the miniatures of the sacred books.

Other sources of inspiration include ancient astrological treatises of the time. The figure of the Bagatto, or Juggler, appears among the Children of the Moon - that is to say, the trades which are influenced by the moon. The Misero, or Fool, is found among the Children of Saturn, the Lovers among the Children of Venus, the Pope among the Children of Jupiter, and the Emperor among the Children of the Sun. Moreover, astrologers appear in several packs of triumphs as representations of the Moon or the Stars.

Lastly, there are images drawn from everyday life. An extremely interesting example is the figure of the Hanged Man, which refers to the punishment inflicted upon traitors. In the Bolognini Chapel of the church of Saint Petronius in Bologna an identical figure is represented in a fresco by Giovanni da Modena as the retaliation punishment for idolaters, since idolatry was considered the most awful kind of betrayal because addressed to the disownment of the Creator. Although the punishment of hanging by a leg has been represented in other works, the Saint Petronius fresco is the only known example which coincides perfectly with the Tarot card.


THE DIVINE HERMES

Hermes, who was associated with the Egyptian god Thoth, was considered in the ancient world to be the inventor of writing and the author of several magical and religious treatises. At the time of the Roman Empire, these  Hermetic texts were re-interpreted in the School of Alexandria in the light of  Greek philosophy, especially Pythagoras and Plato. The Fathers of the Church also viewed Hermes with great respect as a result of analogies between some of the texts attributed to him and and passages in the gospels.

In 1460, a manuscript found in Macedonia and wrongly attributed to Hermes Trismegistus was brought to Cosimo de Medici in Florence. The translation of this work in 1463, by the priest and philosopher Marsilio Ficino, was followed by the translation of Platonic works that revealed a fascinating conception of  the Cosmos. This philosophy held that the Universe converged on the Divine Unity, ordered according to various degrees of perfection and represented by the concentric circles of the planetary and celestial spheres, while man himself possessed a divine part - the soul - that during his earthly existence could lead him to contemplation of the Supreme Good through the practice of virtue and through the mediation of the various angelical beings.

Another important aspect of this philosophy was the idea that the Universe was reflected in all things. Man was conceived as a little world, a Microcosmos which in structure and content was identical to the Macrocosmos. Beginning with Ficino, Renaissance philosophers devised elaborate systems of correspondence between the stars of the firmament and the various parts of the human body. One consequence of this was the  revaluation of magic, astrology  and alchemy - the prime example of a Hermetic art. These sciences were thought capable of enabling man to understand the secret links which held the universe together and influenced human behaviour.

Thus the ancient planetary divinities - Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Venus, Mercury, the Sun and the Moon - reassumed their role as powerful and feared spirits who could be invoked and questioned for knowledge of the fates of human beings. Indeed, human beings, through the creation of amulets, the performance of special rites, and the carrying out of specific operations, would be able to defend themselves from the power of the stars - which was even hidden in stone and metals - and by capturing that power employ it for their own spiritual elevation.

This philosophy inspired such authors as the poet Ludovico Lazzarelli (1450-1500), whose De Gentilium imaginibus deorum was illustrated with figures from the so-called Mantegna Tarot, and the anonymous author of the Sola-Busca Tarot (approx. 1490) with its references to alchemy.


During the same period, several of the tarot images, such as the Moon and the Sun, were modified on the basis of the iconological treatises of the time, and while the image of the Tower was enriched with biblical contents (the destruction of the house of Job. See about the iconological essay The Tower), others were modified to conform with the Hermetic iconography. The astral origin of the soul, in fact, is represented in the Star card, and the Anima Mundi, which Ficino believed to represent the mediating influence between man and God, appears in the World card.



THE GAME OF TAROT

Around the first decade of the fifteenth century, it was probably the Tuscan Prince Francesco Antelminelli Castracane Fibbia, who conceived, in Bologna where he lived, the beginnings of this card game that spread through Italy around the 40s of the same century, and in the sixteenth century to all of Europe (see our essay The Prince). The Tarot was originally used in games with rules near to those of the chess and for this ingenious character, the "Ludus Triomphorum" was expressly omitted in the ordinances against gambling (d'azzardo) games promulgated during the 15th century.

 

Besides, thanks to numerous Renaissance documents, it is known that in aristocratic courts the game of tarot was at the centre of sophisticated entertainments, for example the invention of courtly sonnets and answering questions of various kinds concerning cards taken from the pack. Another common practice which lasted until 19th century, was that of associating the tarot figures to famous people, composing sonnets or simple mottoes on them which might be praising, comic, or decidedly satirical in tone.


In the 18th century there was a rich production of tarots developed with fantastic scenes,  inspired by the animal world, by history, by mythology, by the customs of the various people.  

 

But since it was a gambling game [gioco d'azzardo, game of risk], with all the consequences that this involved, starting at the end of the 15th  century the Church intervened to repress it. Little more than a hundred years from their creation, the Christian meaning of the Mystical Staircase, on which their order was structured, had been already forgotten.

 
As early as the end of the 15th century an anonymous friar preacher denounced the Tarot as the work of devils, and supported his claim by arguing that in order to draw men into vice the inventor of the game had deliberately employed solemn figures such as the Pope, the Emperor, the Christian virtues, and even God.

The good monk writes besides that “If the player thought about the meaning of the cards, he would run away. In fact in the cards there is a fourfold difference. Here in fact is the money flowing from players’ hands. And this means the instability of the money in the game, because you must consider, when you enter in the game, to whom in adversity the money of those who lose will go.The Cups are also there, to show what poverty will come, because the poor player lacking food will use a cup for drinking. The Staves are also there. The wood is dry to suggest the drought of divine grace in the player. There are also the Swords that mean the brevity of the life of the player, since he will be killed by it etc. In fact no kind of sinner is as desperate as that of a gambler. When he loses and cannot have the desired point, card, or triumph, he strikes the cross on the money, cursing God or the saints, and he throws away the dice with anger, telling himself, 'Would that I had my hand cut off' etc. He becomes very easily angry at his adversary, who derides him and continually insults him, and they beat each other, etc. The anonymous preacher then ends with the canonical sentence “Player, open your eyes or you’ll get a bad end”.

Despite the sentence of the Church the tarots kept on spreading, so much that beginning in the 18th century, tarot packs were imported into Italy from France and in particular from Marseilles; their design was imitated by producers in Lombardy and Piedmont to renovate their own production.

 

Then, under the pressure of more modern games, the game of tarot gradually disappeared, so that today it is played only in a few places in Sicily, Emilia, Lombardy, Piedmont and southeastern France. But in the meantime the tarot images had been become objects of manipulation and esoteric interpretations which led them to be considered as “magical icons”.



THE BOOK OF THOT

The birth of the tarot as a magical tool came at the height of the Enlightenment, towards the end of the 18th century, with the then famous French archaeologist and freemason Antoine Court de Gebelin: “If we were to announce that, in our days, there survives a Work which contains the purest doctrines of the Egyptians, and which has escaped the flames of their libraries... who would not be impatient to consult such a precious and extraordinary Book... This Book exists and its pages are the figures of the Tarot”.

In order to justify his assertions, Court de Gebelin explains that the word tarot derives from the Egyptian Ta-Rosh, meaning the “Science of Mercury” (in Greek Hermes; in Egyptian Thoth). Then, aided by an unknown collaborator, he listed the numerous magical properties of the Book which he had just discovered.

These theories were taken up by Etteilla, whose real name was Jean-François Alliette: “The Tarot is an ancient Egyptian book, whose pages contain the secret of a universal medicine, the creation of the world, and the future of the human race. It was conceived in the year 2170 BC, during a conference of 17 magicians presided over by Hermes Trismegistus. It was then engraved on gold sheets which were placed around the central fire of the Temple of Memphis. Then, after various vicissitudes, it was reproduced by common medieval engravers in such imprecise fashion that the meaning was completely distorted”.

Thus Etteilla restored to the tarots what he believed to have been their original form: he refashioned the iconography and called it the Book of Thot. The legacy of Neoplatonism and Renaissance Hermeticism is evident in Etteilla’s re-elaborations. Indeed, he reproduced the stages of Creation in the first eight triumphs, emphasized the role of Virtue leading men's souls towards God in the next four, and in the last ten triumphs represented the negative conditioning to which human beings are subjected. The fifty-six numeral cards were intepreted as the divinatory sentences written for mortals.

The fashion for cartomancy took off as a result of these revelations. It was not many years later that the mystical element of the tarots received revaluation at the hands of Eliphas Levi. He denounced  Etteilla's mistakes and asserted that the 22 triumphs corresponded to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

He also explained the relationship to magic, Masonic symbolism and above all to the 22 paths of the “Cabbalistic Tree of Life” - which in turn reflected the identical structure of man and the universe. By following the “22 Channels of Supreme Knowledge”, man's soul could achieve contemplation of the Divine Light.

Eliphas Levi’s theories were taken up by numerous occult brotherhoods, and each one devised a new tarot pack which followed its own philosophical concepts. For some, initiates were to work towards the creation of a great "Humanitarian Temple" whose aim was the creation of the Kingdom of the Holy Spirit which would be based on an esoteric form common to all cults; for others, the Tarots represented the stages in an individual path towards mystical elevation or psychic exaltation which derived from magical powers.


TAROT AND CARTOMANCY


Ross G. R. Caldwell writes «Writing from the Spanish court around the year 1450, Fernando de la Torre described how, with a special form of the common naïpes that he had designed, players could “tell fortunes with them to know who each one loves most and who is most desired and by many other and diverse ways”(puédense echar suertes en ellos á quién más ama cada uno, e á quién quiere más et por otras muchas et diversas maneras). Echar suertes means “to cast lots”, and is the common Spanish term for “telling fortunes”; this is the earliest time in history the term is used in connection with playing cards».


«There are no clear accounts of how fortune-telling with cards was done until about a century and a half later, but in the meantime cards were sometimes listed with dice and other methods as kinds of “sortilege”, a term sometimes meaning “witchcraft” in general, but specifically meaning “divination”. In 1506, an Italian, Giovanni Francesco Pico della Mirandola, in a chapter against divination, included “images depicted in a card game” as being among the different kinds of sortilege. Later, in 1554, the Spanish priest Martin de Azpilcueta listed cards (cartas) as one of the means of divination, all of them sinful. In his 1632 encyclopedic miscellany Para todos exemplos morales, humanos, y divinos, Juan Perez de Montalvàn (sometimes spelled Montalbàn), like Mirandola and Azpilicueta, lists naipes as one of the methods of sortilege, or fortune-telling: “Sortilege, which is done with dice, playing cards, and lots ”» .


The use of cards for magic was a practice so widespread in the 16th and 17th centuries that the inquisitional courts intervened more frequently in otder to condemn it. In Venice in 1586 the inquisition took measures after the use of tarot cards in a ritual developed on an altar and likewise in Toledo in 1615.

An indirect relationship between cards and divination is found in some Italian and German fortune-telling books in which playing cards exclusively served as an instrument for obtaining scores and combinations of numbers and figures, the cards' symbolic and cartomantic value remaining completely extraneous. The work Le Ingegnose Sorti by Marcolino of Forlì, appearing in Venice in 1540, is an example.


From different documentation written at that time, we know that cartomancy was widespread. Merlin Cocai (pseudonym of Teofilo Folengo) in his work, the Chaos del Tri per uno of 1527, writes in literary form a sort of divinatory reading with tarot similar to the one currently used, while from Spain of 1538 (as tarot historian Ross G.R. Caldwell has underlined) comes to us a document compiled by a certain Pedro Ciruelo in which he, near dice and following pages, inserts the reading of cards (in this case done with naipes, which is to say numeral and court cards) as an instrument of divinaton (A divina por las suertes).

We know that in 17th centurySpain the use of cartomancy was very widespread, but it is in 18th century Bologna that the first document known appears, in which is found a list of cards with corresponding divinatory meanings. However it was only beginning in the 19th century that the number of fortune-tellers increased so dramatically - thanks to the astonishing revelations of Court de Gebelin, Etteilla and the occultist brotherhoods. It is generally accepted that between the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century the times were propitious for prophets and fortune-tellers, both in France and elsewhere, as the result of political uncertainty and economic crisis.


One of the most celebrated fortune-tellers of the time was Mademoiselle Le Normand, who built up a considerable fortune by paying careful attention to her public image. In her books she affirms that she became the confidant of Empress Josephine and did readings for Marat, Danton, Robespiere, Madame de Stael, and Talleyrand.
The “Sibylle des Salons”, as she was known, was imitated by scores of fortune-tellers who sought to make a living from their art by declaring themselves to be disciples or heirs of the illustrious sibyl. Others created new cartomancy packs based on the Egyptian Tarot of Etteilla or ordinary French playing-cards.

By around 1850, divination with tarot and other kinds of playing cards had become an extremely popular divinatory technique throughout Europe, and in the same period an increased interest in esoteric philosophies provided fresh impetus for the magical arts in general and cartomancy in particular.

Over the course of the XIXth century were printed, especially in France, Italy and Germany, at least hundred original divination packs; in the majority of cases, they didn't have anything to do with the tarot, but rather with books of dream interpretation or with the so-called "Cabala del Lotto" (System for foretelling lottery numbers).


It might be said that this fashion has never declined, except in times of war. Today, sociologists investigate the causes of what they perceive as a return to the irrationality of the past, while it would be more pertinent to read  this apparent “irrationality” as an expression of the constant desire in Western history for "higher" certainties.


Moreover, there is an important artistic element to be taken into consideration. Highly skilled painters and graphic artists have devoted their attention to designing packs for divination: their work is not only  witness to their personal creativity, but also to the collective sensibility and taste of the period in which they lived.

 

 Copyright  by Andrea Vitali  © All rights reserved 2004 -2016