Tarot: A Conclusion, A Warning, A Game

The Pope design, from various editions of the Tarot de Marseille

Last in a Series

Tarot cards were not created as tools of divination. That’s been the point of this series, and I hope by now you’ve been amply convinced.

This was never just about playing cards. This was a tiny sliver of European Catholic cultural history, and by reclaiming it we begin to feel some of the life of our ancestors in the faith. That’s what cultural history should do. By looking at a small or seemingly insignificant subject in detail, it brings people back to life.

I feel the pulse of medieval Catholics and their uniquely beautiful and challenging world in the cards. When you know how people dressed, sang, danced, and, yes, played, you know that people a little bit better. What it reveals is a people who let faith and wonder imbue even humble pieces of paper used to play games. That should inspire us.

When I first published a version of this series on Patheos five years ago, there were many objections to my even writing about tarot. Some of these were made early in the series and were reasonable expressions of concern that the link to the occult was too strong to overcome.

Others were of the “Tarot cards are playthings of the devil and no good can come of them, and don’t bother me with the facts” variety. I think many of the latter comments came from people who didn’t read past the word “Tarot.”

Honestly, I’d like to be polite and say how much I respect their opinions and sympathize with their perspectives … but I don’t.

In fact, that kind of reactionary anti-intellectualism is what’s driven Catholic culture into the ground, leaving us with a pietistic, Precious Moments-style faith with all the marrow sucked from it. It refuses to ask hard questions and make challenging inquiries because “intrigue is one of the enemy’s tools,” and Satan might … I dunno, jump out of the cards and strangle them. I’m fuzzy on the details.

My point was always this: The cards were not innately wicked. They only become so by misuse.

I believe in Satan. I believe he prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking souls to devour. That’s why we must be innocent as lambs, but also cunning as serpents.

It was the devil who took a plaything created by Catholics and reflecting their faith, and turned it into a tool of evil.

“Cunning” means taking it back. It then becomes one less tool of the devil.

Tarot is shrouded in a history of lies, but that history was trapped in specialty publications and only rarely acknowledged by occultists. My goal was to tear that shroud away for a wider audience. The initial posts, subsequent articles, interviews, and now this republication have reached several hundred thousand people, hundreds of whom told me they had no idea about the real history. I’d call that a win.

No one says you need to be interested in this. I doubt most readers of this series will ever pursue the cards as objects of entertainment. If you don’t like the cards, or if you were wrapped up in the occult and can’t trust yourself, then by all means, please avoid them.

But making the truth known in a detailed, thorough way serves to demystify something wrapped in a gauze of arcane mumbo jumbo. See also John 8:32.

To New Agers and Other Occult Dabblers: I was one of you once, and I don’t really know how better to say it than this: you’re on the wrong path. You’re following a road of spiritual emptiness and destruction. There is one God, and he has one Son, Jesus Christ.

St. Paul addresses the pagans

Paganism, the occult, and witchcraft are all on the rise. These are empty practices in which people draw gods from their imaginations and worship them; which is in fact worship of the self. Some truth can be found on this path. The Fathers–and even St. Paul–acknowledged that which was true in paganism, and kept it. That process of Hellenization–the very thing stripped from Christianity by the Protestant Reformation–was part of the true genius of the early faith. It took the idol To A God Unknown and said, “I will make Him known.”

Now people are trying to make Him unknown again.

Much of this is purely reactionary: people who grow up with a defective religious experience or a poor religious example fleeing their own heritage in search of some new truth of their choosing and their own invention. It’s rebellion. I get it People are wounded and searching, and react against the dominant religious culture. Christianity can often be unappealing, largely because it’s filled with Christians: the wounded and broken. Scandal after scandal erodes our credibility, and the hierarchy lose all ability to speak with authority.

That was me. I didn’t want any part of this Catholic thing, so I concocted my own belief system from scraps found in books and the culture. Oddly enough, it reaffirmed all my thoughts and wishes and biases! That’s because it came not from without–a truth to be sought, found, learned, understood, and ultimately possessed–but from within.

I didn’t find a Truth: I manufactured one to my liking. My ego was my idol. I invented a “truth” and decided I agreed with myself. I made a god and worshipped it.

You can’t rebuild a broken soul using broken materials. The patient needs a doctor with a clear eye. Only a healthy spirituality can fix a broken spirit.

As The Prophet said, “We do not really want a religion that is right where we are right. What we want is a religion that is right where we are wrong.”

If you use tarot for divination, you are doing two things: deluding yourself, and trafficking with evil forces. There is no option three. There are no gods and goddesses, and the only spirits who would allow themselves to be manipulated by you are fallen spirits with evil intent.

Just turn away from it.

Valentin Tomberg

One man turned sharply away from just such an occult path and embraced Christ and his Church. His name was Valentin Tomberg, and he was one of the leading intellects of Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophical Society. He abandoned the occult and became a Christian mystic, writing several books, including his most important, Meditations on the Tarot, for anonymous posthumous publication.

This weighty book on the meaning of the symbols is considered one of the classics of modern Christian mysticism, albeit one with some serious problems which are the result of Tomberg’s long immersion in anthroposophy prior to his conversation. He uses the images of the tarot to analyse different aspects of the Christian’s inner life, drawing on a vast well of knowledge, both Catholic and pagan.

von Balthasar

Meditations shouldn’t be approached by someone without a firm understanding of theology and the literature and imagery common to Christian mysticism. It requires grounding in the work of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (who uses a unique terminology) and Hermetic Christianity, but will reward the judicious, cautious reader with profound insights. Tomberg’s mad erudition zips from St. John of the Cross to Eliphias Levi (!), from the Gospel of John to the Buddha, taking worthwhile images and ideas wherever he finds them and molding them into an almost-orthodox vision of deep Christian wisdom.

Some of the gnostic still clings to Tomberg and mars the work in places, and the bizarre juxtaposition of occultists and saints is hard to swallow at times, but there’s no question that it’s an important and challenging work by a writer who considered himself a devout and faithful Catholic.

An edited version of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s essay on the the book is included as an Afterword, and you can read more about his impressions of the work here. Von Balthasar greatly admired the work, with reservations. (Von Balthasar’s measured appraisal of the work is one of the sins trotted out to condemn him–and Bl. John Paul and Benedict XVI by extension.)

Flannery O’Connor famously called the South “Christ-haunted.” She only got it partly right: the entire world is Christ-haunted.

Because Christ is the ultimate Truth, all things trend toward Him. All things that were true before Him anticipate Him, and all things that are true after Him reflect His incarnation.  Truth is found everywhere and in almost all religious traditions, but the fullness of Truth is found in Christ alone. And the more people turn away from Him, the more they find Him.

The great punchline of this entire series and the whole history of Tarot is this: Occultists think they are fleeing as far from Christ and His Church as possible. They adopt absurd and exotic practices. They create idols of the self and of imaginary beings. They use tools, which they imagine to be ancient and thus “pre-Christian” (and therefore “pure”)  for these practices. One of these tools is the Tarot.

The cards never would have caught on without the appeal–which still lingers for the vast majority of Tarot users–that here was something authentically ancient, mysterious, and wholly outside of the dominant Christian culture. That was the entire allure of Tarot: that it was non-Christian.

The original cards reflect our faith. The pope and the Church, the virtues, the mysteries of life and death, and the idea of a divinely ordered cosmos are all embedded right there in images create by a wholly Christian culture.

It’s hard to see in this picture, but the two books on the bottom of the pile on St. John Paul II’s desk have been identified as “Meditations on the Tarot”: a gift from Von Balthasar

I know I repeat these words of T.S. Eliot endlessly, but that’s because they contain the entire story of my life in four short lines: “We shall not cease from exploration, / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.”

People “explored” the tarot so deeply they got lost, and only now can we really know these things for what they truly are, not for what charlatans and dupes imagine them to be.

You can’t escape God. Even when you wander far afield and into error, He is there. He holds Fr. Brown‘s unseen hook and invisible line, which is long enough to let you wander to the ends of the world, and still bring you back with a twitch upon the thread.

I couldn’t escape Him for trying. Even when I’m writing about playing cards, it all comes back to Christ. Even if you’re deep in the occult, Christ is seeking you–you personally–the one lost sheep of the ninety-nine.

God finds a way.

Epilogue: Playing Tarot

French Tarot (Ducale)

Since Tarot games spring from a common source, they share certain rules that make them a distinct family of card games despite myriad differences. If you count variants, there are hundreds of ways to play games with tarot cards. (The key work on the subject is almost 1,000 pages long.) Some of them are almost comically complicated. Once we look at the scoring for a sample tarot game, you’ll have a nice illustration of the source of most card game rules: taverns full of drunk men.

For starters, like many European games, “eldest” (the player who receives cards first in the deal) is to the dealer’s right, not his left as in American games. Thus, dealing is counter-clockwise, with all cards dealt out. This—along with large size of the tarot cards—means hands are larger and more cumbersome to hold. Play may be solo or in partnership, and cards may have odd or unique values. A higher trump beats a lower trump. The lowest trump is the I, as is called the Pagat or Bagotto.

In numbered suits, there is a quirk of play in some games that has Swords and Batons ranked in typical descending order (K, Q, C, J, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, A) but Cups and Coins ranked the opposite direction (K, Q, C, J, A, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10). Thus, a 3 of Cups beats a 10 of Cups, but a 3 of Batons loses to a 10 of Batons.

Why, yes: that is spectacularly confusing, but you’ll get used to it.

Games from France and Sicily don’t tend to follow this bizarre tradition.

The rules of trick-taking card games apply. Cards are played in tricks, with one player leading and the other following. The lead plays a card face up the center of the table, and the player to the right follows with a card of the same suit if possible. If the lead card is trump, trump suit should follow. If a player cannot follow suit and has a trump, he must follow with the trump, even if it’s a losing trump. If he can’t follow, he can play anything at all.

In many games, the player holding The Fool can play this card as an “excuse.” This rescues the player from having to play a bad card. The Fool incurs no penalty. It stands in for a regular play, and is then returned to the player’s hand, where it will be scored at the end of the game. In other games, the Fool is the highest Trump.

The player with the highest suit or highest trump wins the trick. The player who takes the trick leads the next trick, and so on until all the cards are exhausted. The usual pace of trick-taking games is followed, with cards scored, gathered, and shuffled; deal passing to the right; and various rounds comprising a complete game. The word “rubber” is not traditional to Tarot rules, but it expresses the pace of play nonetheless.

Detail, Ducale Tarot

Scoring can be extraordinary complex and subtle, and is where much of the variation among Tarot games is found. Players may compete singly or in teams, and the number of players varies from game to game. Winning points are determined not just by number of tricks buy by the value of the trumps won. In some counts, each trick counts for a point and then value cards are added to the total. Court cards may have a fixed value—King: 4, Queen: 3, Cavalier: 2, and Jack: 1. Number cards usually have no value.

The Fool, Trump I (the pagat), and Trump 21 may have the highest values, and are the standard trump honors in many games. Dummett expresses it this way:

“Suppose that all 78 cards are used, and that there are three players, so that there are three cards in each trick and hence 26 tricks in all. To the 26 points for tricks will be added 12 for the Trump 21, Trump I, and The Fool, 16 for the Kings, 12 for the Queens, 8 for the Cavaliers, and 4 for the Jacks, making 78 points in all divided between the players.”

These are the very basics of rules that you’ll find in Tarot games, with additional conventions for bidding, talon, discarding, shortening (or lengthening) decks, as so on.

How to Play Scarto

This simple game contains the basics of Tarot play and can be played with either a French or Italian deck.

Players: 3 people, playing singly

Deck: 78-card French or Italian.

Notes on the Cards: The game originated with the Tarocco Piemontese, a deck in which Trump XX (The Angel: l’Angelo) is the highest honor, and Trump XXI (The World, Mond) is next in order. In other words, just swap XXI and XX.

Card Ranking: The ranking is irrational with the order reversed on the “red” suits:

  • “Black” Suits: Swords/Staves (or Spades/Clubs):
    K, Q, C, V, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1
  • “Red” Suits: Cups/Coins (Hearts/Diamonds):
    K, Q, C, V, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10
  • Honors: Pagat (Trump I), l’Angel (Trump XX), The Fool

Card Values:

  • Honors–5 points
  • King—5 points
  • Queen–4 points
  • Cavalier (Knight)–3 points
  • Fante (Jack)–2 points

Deal: Deal and play moves to the right. Deal in packets of 5. Dealer takes the final 3 cards, then discards them into a pile (the scart). These will be counted for the dealer at the end. Neither Kings nor Honors may be discarded

Play: Eldest (remember: to the right) leads the first trick. Players must follow suit. If they cannot, they must trump if possible, even if it is not an advantageous trump. If they can neither follow nor trump, they may play anything.

Highest card in suit or highest trump wins the trick.

The person holding The Fool may play this as an “excuse” for not playing a card he is obliged to play. The Fool neither wins nor loses. At the end of the trick, it is returned to the person who played it, and placed in that person’s trick pile. In exchange, the person who played The Fool gives the person who won the trick any card from his trick pile. (Obviously, this will be a low-value card.)

Cavalier and king (Ducale Tarot)

The count may seem confusing, but this is how it works:

1. Sort cards into piles of three, with at least one a high card (Honor, King, etc) in each pile.
2. The Fool is counted separately.
3. If there is one high card, the value of the pile is equal to that card. For example, a batch with 1 Queen, a 4, and an 8 is worth 4 points.
4. If there are two high cards in the pile, add their points and subtract 1. (King, Pagat, and a 4 is worth 9 points.)
5. If there are three face cards in the pile, add their points and subtract 2. (King, l’Angel,and Cavalier is worth 11 points.)
6. If there are only non-honor trumps and numbers cards in the pile, the batch is worth one point.
7. One player will have two cards in one pile. These should be counted as if there are three cards.
8. Add everything together.
9. Subtract 26.
10. This is your score, either positive or negative.
11. Deal passes to the right. A rubber is three rounds.

Where to Get Playable Tarot Cards

Tarot cards are common in bookstores and new age shops, but you don’t want to mess with these. They’re designed not for play but for divination, and most are saturated in occult images that we’re better off avoiding. Not only does this betray the roots of tarot in gaming, but it creates an unpleasant experience for the game. In addition, some of these “designer decks” only include the trumps, and they’re too large to hold as you would a normal hand of cards. (Tarot games already have large hands which can be difficult to hold.)

The Fool (Ducale)

For those who want to avoid any links with the Italian images which inspired the occult tarot, you can go for the French decks. This section is illustrated with cards from the Ducale tarot, which can be bought at TaroBear’s Lair. There’s also a Fournier set on Amazon.

Further Reading

The Truth About Tarot
The Real History of Tarot
The Fake History of Tarot
The Meaning of the Cards

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