As Christian culture declines, interest in alternative spiritualities rises. More people are seeking out the occult, and there has been a surging interest in Tarot cards in recent years. This is deeply troubling, for Tarot, when used for occult purposes, is spiritually poisonous. It’s not to be trifled with, and the charlatans who pretend to be able to read cards are doing the devil’s work.
Several years ago, I wrote a long series of posts on Tarot’s real and fake history. The posts were controversial with occultists who cherish their lies. It was controversial with Catholics who thought even talking about the subject would summon evil.
I came at the subject from two distinct but intertwining perspectives: first, as a Catholic historian and catechist, looking to reclaim a distinctly Catholic cultural artifact; second, as the former Editor-at-Large of Games Magazine (RIP), where I frequently wrote about gaming history, which I believe is a vital and under-examined part of folklore and culture akin to story, song, dance, and art.
Reactions to the original series broke down along interesting lines. Some occultists claimed no one believed the false history anyway. This is absurd because I’ve read books and posts recounting this pseudo-history in detail, often with ludicrous embellishments. Less well-read occultists argued the lies told about Tarot were all really true, and some even made elaborate cases for a conspiracy to hide the facts. The pietistic said I shouldn’t even be writing about them.
The posts are no longer easy to find, and several people have written to ask that I republish them. As Tarot use rises, this seems as good a time and place as any.
I do not deny that Tarot has occult connections which are seriously problematic for Catholics. We will get to all of it in time, but for now please be aware that this series is not about fortune telling, but about cultural history and gaming.
If we demystify the occult Tarot, it loses its hold on people.
Let’s begin with the obvious: unless you plan to hit on 20 or bid a blind nil, there’s no way to tell your future using cards. That quirky character reading Tarot cards down at the midway knows no more about your future than the hot dog vendor. The divinatory powers of Tarot are, simply, a grand and ongoing hoax.
This hasn’t stopped two centuries of occultists, New Age gurus, and hucksters from claiming otherwise, weaving elaborate fictions about the origins of the unusual “Major Arcana” of the Tarot deck and the powers of cartomancy (divination by cards). The cards go back, some claim, all the way to ancient Egypt and are informed by the mystical symbolism of Kabbalism, and perhaps even encode the wisdom of an ancient lost civilization!
They’re nothing of the sort.
The fake history of the Tarot began in the 18th century, when Antoine Court de Gebelin found the cards and speculated on their ancient origins.
The real history of the Tarot, however, begins in the early 15th century in Italy, and their story is an important part of gaming, cultural, and Catholic history that was lost for centuries.
They were created to play games, not tell fortunes.
The Tarot deck introduced the concept of trumps to card play. “Trump” is related to the word “triumph,” meaning a card that beats every other card. Eventually, the dedicated trumps of the Tarot deck were dropped and one of the four suits of a standard 52-card deck took over this function, but without Tarot, we may never have had Whist, Spades, Bridge or the entire class of trump-based trick-taking games. (Karnoffel, developed in Germany at the same time, has some similar mechanics, but it was Tarot that spread and influenced other games.)
Beginning in the 1980s, the fiction began to dissolve thanks to the work of philosopher Sir Michael Dummett, Wykeham Professor of Logic at the University of Oxford. One of the most important philosophers of the 20th century, Dummett’s work focused on language, particularly the way it conveys truth. He was also a convert who wrote frequently about Catholic issues, particularly for New Blackfriars, where he criticized certain liberalizing trends in in the post-conciliar era such as revisionist scripture scholars. (Though he defended tradition, he also questioned the logic underlying Humanae Vitae.) His knighthood was not only for his intellectual achievements, which also included developing the Quota Borda system of proportional voting, but for his work as an advocate for immigrants.
Tarot lore and play was one of Dummett’s hobbies, and he collected a vast amount of original material trapped in old documents or acquired via field work and interviews with players. He was fascinated with the cards, and recognized their origins in medieval European Catholic culture rather than ancient Egypt. His first book was The Game of Tarot: From Ferrara to Salt Lake City (Duckworth, 1980) and his last was A History of Games Played with the Tarot Pack (E. Mellen Press, 2004), a two-volume, 900-page magnum opus written in collaboration with John McLeod (founder of Pagat.com). Dummett and McLeod also published a 75-page supplement to their History adding new research and correcting various errors. (This is available as a free download at TarotGame.org.)
Dummett passed away in 2011, but other historians and collectors of playing cards continue adding to our knowledge of the real history of these fascinating game devices, with new material appearing on the internet and in The Playing Card, the journal of the International Playing-Card Society. Due to their work and the ability of people to connect with other card enthusiasts on the internet, Tarot games are beginning to make a comeback.
Catholics have been conditioned to avoid Tarot because of its New Age and occult connotations. That’s a mistake: Tarot is part of our heritage. It reflects Catholic culture, symbolism, history, and theology. Its images are useful not just for play, but for contemplation, as Catholic mystic Valentin Tomberg explores in Meditations on the Tarot.
Tarot belongs to us, not to the con artists. This is neither a “Tarot is awesome!” nor a “Tarot is meaningless!” series. The images do indeed have meaning and symbolic resonance, and they can indeed be used improperly to the spiritual detriment of some.
What they don’t have is mystical powers.
Divination is gravely evil and strictly forbidden. I don’t support it, suggest it, take it lightly, or play around with it. Here’s why:
2115 God can reveal the future to his prophets or to other saints. Still, a sound Christian attitude consists in putting oneself confidently into the hands of Providence for whatever concerns the future, and giving up all unhealthy curiosity about it. Improvidence, however, can constitute a lack of responsibility.
2116 All forms of divination are to be rejected: recourse to Satan or demons, conjuring up the dead or other practices falsely supposed to “unveil” the future. Consulting horoscopes, astrology, palm reading, interpretation of omens and lots, the phenomena of clairvoyance, and recourse to mediums all conceal a desire for power over time, history, and, in the last analysis, other human beings, as well as a wish to conciliate hidden powers. They contradict the honor, respect, and loving fear that we owe to God alone.
2117 All practices of magic or sorcery, by which one attempts to tame occult powers, so as to place them at one’s service and have a supernatural power over others – even if this were for the sake of restoring their health – are gravely contrary to the virtue of religion. These practices are even more to be condemned when accompanied by the intention of harming someone, or when they have recourse to the intervention of demons. Wearing charms is also reprehensible. Spiritism often implies divination or magical practices; the Church for her part warns the faithful against it. Recourse to so-called traditional cures does not justify either the invocation of evil powers or the exploitation of another’s credulity.
Divination is one of two things: a fraud, or trafficking with dark forces. In any case, it is unbefitting a Christian and could be a gateway to a direct encounter with grave evil. This includes the use of Tarot cards for divination.