Edited Transcripts

Tarot! with Merry Chase

Merry Chase: Welcome! Thanks for coming, at this busy time of year. This talk is on Tarot, which I think is a super sweet piece of serendipity because this happens to be the 78th of these talks, and guess how many cards are in a Tarot deck? 78. Cool, huh? We didn’t plan that, either. I’m a pinch-hitter, ‘cause the scheduled speaker had to cancel. I’ve been researching tarot’s evolution, so that’s what we’ll talk about mostly, but if we have time we can go into prohibition and theory a little. The history of tarot basically combines the history of two things: divination and playing cards.

The beginnings of divination are lost in the mists of Avalon, or more likely in the Clan of the Cave Bear. Anyhow, so far back I’m not going to try to trace that. Pretty much for as long as we’ve been human, we’ve been seeking signs and auguries. A dream, cloud shapes, the toss of yarrow sticks or bone dice, the appearance of sheep entrails, you name it, we’ll see meaning in it.

Maybe that’s wrong, to try to see the future, but to err is human, and to divine is human, too.

(Groans and laughter)

Merry Chase: Thank you, thank you. But yeah, we seem to compulsively seek signs. So, we had bones, dice, dreams, various oracles. And when paper came along, it seems like it was natural for us to find a way pretty soon to use that for divination, somehow. Fond as we are of oracles, we’re also fond of games. It’s impossible to say which we did first with cards — play games or tell fortunes.

Now, for cards, you need writing, printing, and paper. We invented writing about five thousand years ago, in Sumer, a little after we invented cities and started needing to keep written records. Sumerians also invented the first printing process, about 3000BCE, with the cylindar seals that were rolled to make an impression on clay tablets. It’s a while before we get around to paper. Of course, we used papyrus in Egypt also around the third millenium BCE, and heiroglyphic writing, but we don’t seem to have got around to making cards until we came up with pulped paper.

We started making paper in China around 100 CE, and by 200 CE we had wood block printing—also a Chinese invention and also very useful for creating cards–but it’s another 700 years after block printing, before cards show up. By the early 9th century we are at last playing card games. We have lots of RPGs in Second Life, so it might be interesting to hear that the first card game was evidently a roleplaying game. It was called Game of Leaves, and it involved a book as well as cards. The history of games is a whole ‘nother fascinating avenue down which we could wander. Every time I check a fact I find myself tempted by intriguing side tracks. But sticking with the idea of the cards, it wasn’t long before another important element evolved, and that was suits.

Card suits that is. I don’t know when and where humans invented three-piece suits.

Ahem… where were we?

Ah yes, China. China is to credit, again, for suits. There were cards with suits by the 12th century but they were sort of like an outgrowth of dominoes or play money. Like money, the suits were ranked by denomination, as if you were playing with ones, fives, tens, twenties, and hundred-dollar bills.


There’s a little blurbage behind me, to your left, showing an early Chinese card and telling more about those suits. The forebears of our four modern suits, were Mamluk decks. Nobody seems certain whether cards traveled first to India and Persia and then to Arabia, or vice versa, but in one direction or another, the Silk Road carried, along with other treasures, the early decks of playing cards.

And in the Arabian Mamluk dynasty, we get not only 4 suits, but also, although the number of cards wasn’t standardized for a while, we begin to see decks of 52 just like modern playing cards. (Although unlike most modern decks, these were hand-crafted with silver and gilt paint.) You can see examples of those Mamluk suits up in the air above the Chinese card. And in the Arabian Mamluk dynasty, we get not only 4 suits, but also, although the number of cards wasn’t standardized for a while, we begin to see decks of 52 just like modern playing cards. (Although unlike most modern decks, these were hand-crafted with silver and gilt paint.)

Grr, um, let me try to move forward with my thoughts once more!

Suits, yes. And divination. You wanted to hear about tarot, not just cards. So….

Also, by now, we know for sure that cards are being used to tell fortunes. Some of the Mamluk cards have fortunes on them in calligraphy — “I will, as pearls on a string, be lifted in the hands of kings.” “May God give thee prosperity; then thou will already have achieved thy aim.” “With the sword of happiness I shall redeem a beloved who will afterwards take my life.“

And speaking of swords, Swords was one of the early suits, and is one of the modern tarot suits, too. The Mamluk suits were Swords, Polo Sticks, Cups and Coins, and these evolved into our tarot suits and our poker suits, with some interesting variations according to region once they hit Europe.

Up in the air on the right, you can see the evolution of European suits. There are some fun variations on our familiar four. From Arabia cards entered Spain and thence the rest of Europe. A 1371 Catalan rhyming dictionary defines “naip” as playing card, possibly from the Arabic na-ib, the word for a court card in the Mamluk decks. At that time, Andalusia was still under Muslim rule, so in spreading “into Europe” the cards really only had a few hundred kilometers to travel.

Then we see the nobles of Italian city-states commissioning decks of cards, with family members portrayed as the various images on the court cards. Now, by the end of the 15th century, from the deck of 52, we expand to that serendipitous 78 by adding 22 special cards with allegorical themes, called “trionfi” or “triumphs.”

Trionfi, or triumphs, is also the name of a game played with the cards, and another game is called tarocco, and from there, we get Tarot. In modern fortune-telling decks, those triumphs are called the Major Arcana, while the other 52 cards are referred to as the minor arcana.

So, now here we are in Renaissance Italy with gilt-and-silver cards all the rage among the nobility, but cards require one more thing before they can become widely popular, and that’s affordability. The Tarot of Marseilles brings a new standardization and simplicity to card design, and then, enter the printing press.

In the poster at center behind me you can see seven cards, from various eras, and see that evolution from ornate portraiture to simplicity, paint to woodcut to printing press.

The inquiring minds of the Enlightenment studied spiritualism and the occult with as much seriousness as they gave to areas that we still think of as science today, though of course there was plenty of quackery and charlatanism as well. A history of tarot was invented from whole cloth, whence we get a fabricated ancient Egyptian origin for the word “tarot.”

Tarot catches the popular imagination. It appears in stories and poems. Decks of cards can be produced cheaply in assembly-line fashion, from printing to cutting to sorting and packaging, and fortune telling decks are advertised in the London news sheets of the 18th century. Soon, everyone from Napoleon Bonaparte to Wolfgang von Goethe to Lisa Simpson is getting tarot card readings. And it is on The Simpsons that a 79th card is added to the deck. The Happy Squirrel.

On the course of this journey, there have been reawakenings in interest in spiritualism in general, and tarot specifically. During one of these, in 1910, the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deck was published, and it has remained one of the most popular decks of all time. Its imagery was drawn the 15th century Sola Busca deck, from the Italian noble era of tarot. You can also see the influence of the Marseilles tarot. And in turn, the Rider-Waite-Smith imagery has continued to be the basis for hundreds of variations of tarot decks.

I couldn’t find any statistics on the current popularity of tarot, or sales of tarot decks, in a quick last-minute search. It’d be interesting to know.

But in a nutshell, that’s the evolution of tarot cards.

We see on that 7-card poster, the more modern decks, starting with the 4th card, the iconic Rider-Waite-Smith deck.

On the bottom row are more recent decks but there are so many… do a web search for almost anything plus the word tarot and it seems like you’ll find a deck.

Goddess Tarot, Heavy Metal Tarot, whatever.

Now, one important aspect of history has been Prohibition.

Both divination and simple game play with cards, as well as gambling, have been prohibited at various times and places.

1294, China: Not only gamblers, and the owner of the premises, but the block printer who printed the cards, are arrested, whipped, and fined, under laws against gambling.

1376, Florence: A decree outlaws the recently-introduced practice of playing ‘naibbe,’ or card games.

1377, Paris: Card play is forbidden on working days. Through the remainder of the 14th century, card play is prohibited in various municipalities and states of Europe.

1614, Spain: The Inquisition tortures Margarita de Borja until she confesses to cartomancy. Margarita de Borja confessed to the Spanish Inquisition:

“She would lay five rows of cards on the table, each row containing four cards face up. Then she picked them up and shuffled them while saying: ‘Lady Saint Martha, you are in the church, you listen to the dead and inspire the living: so tell me through these cards what I am asking you about.’ Having the cards coming up in pairs; kings near kings, pages near pages and so on; was a good omen, but having the cards came up in any other configuration indicated a bad omen.”

(And I would ask, was that witchcraft, or prayer and meditation? )

1966 – 1976, China: The Cultural Revolution bans playing and printing of cards. When cards return, court cards are replaced by numbers 11, 12 and 13.

Card Play Today: Playing cards is forbidden by Islam as it may distract from thoughts of Allah and also lead to gambling, which is forbidden.

Tarot Today: Check your local laws before reading tarot for pay. Professional cartomancy remains banned in many places and though the laws are rarely enforced, most “fortune tellers” safeguard themselves with disclaimers: “For entertainment purposes only.” Reading cards has sometimes been defended as a practice of religious or speech freedom.

Whew. That’s a lot of history. I’ve thrown up a ton of words. But if you’d like, I can throw a few more up about theory and science of tarot.

Baron Klaus Wulfenbach: You have time, I believe.

Merry Chase: Okay! Good!

Does tarot work, and, if so, why, or how?

In my own practice I’ve found it unsettling that I can read for someone and they will respond to me that my insight was uncanny – although I have absolutely no knowledge of their situation, before or after the reading!

I issue a sort of disclaimer that I have no psychic ability, and that tarot is just a form of meditation. But why do the most relevant cards, for meditating on, seem to turn up time and time again? Out of 78 cards, we choose ten, and I tell you their story. Every ten-card story is different, depending on each card and its position and the relationship between the ten. Somehow, out of the random shuffle of archtypal images, the right story comes up for almost every querant. Not 100%, but nearly every reading, my clients tell me I’m spot on. And I have no idea of the particulars of their lives, and how the tarot story I told them has answered their questions.

This experience clearly isn’t limited to me and my clients. For centuries, tarot decks continue to sell. More new designs are created, and scores of existing designs remain best-sellers.

Famous tarot author Mary K Greer cites Jung and Hawking on her website, in her discussion of this question. Certainly the imagery of tarot is rooted in archetypes that speak to common human experience. There are cards about love, and cards about night terrors, and cards about delusion. Everyone has experienced those things.

Maybe tarot, dream, and other methods of divination, tap into the collective subconscious and circumvent our linear perception of time. We know intellectually that our concept of time as a line or stream is only subjective, so maybe insights into past and future events are delivered because in consulting oracles we step for a moment out of the subjective time stream.

Professional tarot readings go for about $50 to several hundred dollars, US. They’re comparable to psychotherapy sessions, not only in price but in the kind of benefit people derive from them. And another parallel might be that they’re both imprecise sciences, soft sciences, and modalities that work for some people and not for others.

We know so little really, about the human mind, about consciousness and about time. But for more about the directions in which science might pursue this question, including trippy graphs about quantums and stuff, check out Greer’s blog, here:


I will take questions in a moment.

Thanks for coming to my talk on the history of tarot. It only skimmed the surface of the subject. If you’d like to delve deeper, I can highly recommend a couple of my research resources:

For the history of playing cards http://www.wopc.co.uk/history/earlyrefs.html

For tarot history https://marygreer.wordpress.com/

I’m sorry I couldn’t credit all sources of information and images but I did my best. If there’s material included I ought to have credited, please let me know and I will correct that. And please forgive me, remembering this is a presentation given for love and not for profit, to benefit a good cause.

And if you’d like to get a reading from me…

https://merrychase.org/tarot-reading/, merrytricks@gmail.com, or drop me a notecard inworld.

I’m sorry I didn’t have time to create a whole Experience for you to walk into, here, today, but I am working on something with Cara Cali at Botanica, where there will be 22 Experiences to walk into. So I hope you’ll all come to that. Stay tuned.

And please, if you are able, help my severely disabled daughter, here:


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