Wednesday, September 7, 2011

What is Tarot ? Part One

The short answer : Tarot is a visual medium that illustrates universal laws, using archetypal images infused with alchemical symbolism. 

Most of us think of Tarot as a method for necromancy. But people have employed all kinds of mediums for predicting the future - sheep's guts, twigs, playing cards among them - for thousands of years. There were Tarocchi and other playing card decks before Tarot and certainly plenty of gypsy fortune tellers using them (though they were more into palmistry, back in those days). The first Trionfe (trumps) decks were commissioned in the mid 15th c by the wealthy Milanese Visconti and Sforza  families, who were no doubt dabbling in pagan mysteries. These elaborately painted miniatures became a prototype for Tarot as we know it. 'Designer knock-offs'  were  printed for the masses, with dozens of  variations - mostly  from Italy. But in Marseille, France, during the 16th-17th c, a new genre of deck came about that was well-honed, with a very deliberate design that seemed to finally encapsulated the spirit of the medium  (more on that later). 

Prior to and during the Renaissance, Europe was opening up to ancient knowledge from the east, via Moorish Spain, the Jews and knights that had returned from the crusades. Arab numerals were introduced into educated circles, as well as the Hindu concept of 0 (though it would still be a while before they were in popular use). The Roman numeric system which had been in place for so long, had no means with which to express the concept of emptiness. 
Alchemy was a major part of that ancient, eastern knowledge, which came from Egypt (Al Khemia = "the black land," hence "the black art"). The early alchemists of Europe, however, would require a long process of experimentation before they came to a deeper level of understanding, that the idea of turning base metals into gold was actually about the evolution of the soul. Along the way, they made some marvellous chemical discoveries, but it was through their creative art (and possibly some psychedelic chemical derivatives) that they began to explore what we call the unconscious. As the 'Age of Reason' approached, alchemists became a fringe group, dropping out and turning on to mysticism -  or worse,  facing persecution - while science took the other road, concentrating only on physical properties of the material world. The church, in turn, handled everything relating to the soul, especially after it left the material world. Astronomy and astrology also became separated; the former for the scientifically enlightened, the latter for the reality-impared. 

"Until you make the unconscious conscious it will direct your life and 
you will call it fate."    -  Carl Jung

It wasn't until Carl Jung came along that the unconscious was again explored in alchemical, symbolic terms, within the nouveau context of psychoanalysis. His theories on the process of individuation and unification of the opposites within were nothing new to the ancients (and could be explored through Tarot, if anyone knew where to look), but were still uncharted territory in western psychology. We have much to thank him for - in one lifetime, he single-handedly completed centuries of neglected work, bringing it up to the present. 
The next wave came in the 1960s - people navigated their own unconscious with psychedelic drugs, tuning out and turning on, just like the alchemists had - albeit more for recreational purposes. They also began looking once again to eastern mysticism. Music was the collective alchemy vessel for the sixties generation.


During this time, a modern rendition of Tarot from England, the Rider-Waite deck (publ. 1909) gained huge popularity in the US. Waite had radically altered the Marseille - mixing in biblical, English romantic and orientalist imagery and even rearranging the order to 'correct' it, adding 0 to the Fool - it was barely recognizable (though very refined and tastefully rendered by Pamela Coleman Smith). Modern in appearance (fin-de-ciecle new age) compared to the many other Tarot/fortune telling decks then circulating in Europe, it also provided illustrated scenarios for all the previously benign number cardsFor years, Rider-Waite was the only readily available deck in North America, so people naturally assumed it was the "original" Tarot. (At age ten, it was the first deck I ever picked up).  I guess it was necessary for the cards to take this incarnation, so as to appeal to a whole new audience. 

                              Visconti-Sforza card #6,  Marseille 'The Lover' and Waite's 'The Lovers'  

So - why, after the artistic 'advances' of the Renaissance, did Tarot de Marseille retain a crude, medieval, folk style (and Roman numerals) ? Maybe as a way of disguising it's true identity - that of a vehicle for personal gnosis - during a time of religious oppression ? Or perhaps it was simply easiest for mass-production. Another reason may be that art had a very different purpose before the onslaught of Renaissance humanism, which knowledgeable occultists were likely aware of. Mireille Mentre explains the role and function of Spanish medieval manuscripts:

"This single governing principle is the essentially functional nature of artistic production. As the outlook of the period dictated, such works were seen as a means of explicating their context - as a communication and clarification of it's structure. ...
...This kind of art therefore exists essentially as a function of something other than itself, and has value only in so far as it corresponds to the realities which it expresses and the physical medium of which it forms a part. This is true of most Christian painting in the High Middle Ages. In reality, of course, these principals are sometimes less obvious, but the constraint of functionalism is the primary and most fundamental justification and purpose of this painting."

(That's pretty much always been my philosophy as an illustrator, too).

Next... some of the alchemical imagery and universal laws expressed in Tarot de Marseille !

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1 comment:

  1. thanks for the illuminating and informative posts—a lively blog thus far.
    looking forward to the next installment