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Press and Pop Culture

Tarot, then, now, and tomorrow?

Tarot cards do not have a particularly long history. With some effort people trace their origins back to 15th-century Italy. But those origins seem to be more like playing cards than some form of divination. Tarot cards as a form of divination seem to be an 18th-century trend that exploded in the 19th and early 20th centuries, along with the fascination for all things occult. Their popularity continues today in, among other ways, the many people offering tarot card readings (often combined with other forms of divination and spiritual consultation). Locally a number of people offer such services.

One of many local advisors offering tarot card readings.

Tarot readings and tarot decks come in a wide variety. For example, SuperDuperSpaceWitch offers a NSFW tarot reading starting at a paltry €6.87. The 37 reviews are mostly positive.

SuperDuperSpaceWitch offers a NSFW tarot reading on Etsy, using a version of the erotic tarot deck from a century ago (perhaps an original).

Tarot decks come a remarkable number of variations, e.g., different types and number of major arcana. Decks also come in an astounding array of styles, from plain, work-a-day decks to more ornate, luxurious decks with evocative titles.

Two different tarot decks. “Tarot Cards” from 1970. “Ethereal Visions” from 2017.

These two decks reflect different visions of what tarot cards are and can be. “Swiss 1JJ Tarot Cards” is a deck from 1970, made by AG Müller in Neuhausen am Rheinfall, Switzerland, and distributed by U.S. Games Systems, then in NYC. “Ethereal Visions Illuminated Tarot Deck” is Matt Hughes’s recently produced deck, also distributed by U.S. Games Systems. Yes, it seems U.S. Games Systems is the go-to source for all things tarot.

The emperor and empress from two different tarot decks.

In some ways I am not surprised to see the deck from Switzerland adopts a less adorned and more functional approach to a tarot deck that Matt Hughes’s art nouveau inspired creation. The functionalist approach did not detract from the deck’s popularity. According to U.S. Games Systems, they started selling it in 1968 and it remained a classic for decades. Apparently, the instruction booklet, which they started selling in 1970, has sold more than 800,000 copies.

The Empress from the “Tarot Cards” deck.

Even the instructions that came with the deck are more streamlined. We read about the Empress: Action, development, progress, fruitfulness, fertility.

The Empress, from Matt Hughes’s Ethereal Visions tarot deck.

The instructions with Matt Hughes’s deck give us considerably more information about the empress: Astrological correspondence: Venus. The Empress is the manifestation of creation, the mother. She invites you to reconnect with the natural world and nourish what we have created. Upright: Creation, abundance, luxury, nature, pleasure. Reversed: Neglect, indecisiveness, disconnection, resistance.

I wonder how these characteristics and descriptions of the cards changed over time? And who has the expertise and authority to change them? And what mechanisms are invoked and by whom in the process of changing them? Do they resemble changes in other domains, e.g., astrology, astronomy, chemistry, alchemy, physics?