Tarot is a subject that has only interested me mildly. I enjoy the symbolism of the cards, but that is about it. At some point I bought myself a ‘Crowley tarot’, mostly because the cards that are drawn by Frieda Harris (1877-1962). See the card on the right above.
Some time ago I was reading something and the author kept referring to symbols on the Rider/Waite tarot (second from the right above) but without images. The images for this deck are drawn by Pamele Colman Smith (1878-1951) and designed by the (in)famous Arthur Edward Waite (1857-1942). Rider was the company that first published the deck.
I do not have the deck myself, so I grabbed my Crowley tarot and I remembered just how great these cards look. They were not all that helpful for the text that I was reading though.
So I figured I should read up a bit on the symbolism of the cards. I supposed that there was some sort of ‘source deck’ that the ‘serious’ ones are based on. Nowadays there are literally thousands of different sets (decks), but my guess was that the ‘better’ decks would have similar symbolism.
Where to start? I could of course just buy a couple of decks and compare the cards. Or maybe there are books that have already done this and/or have images (preferably in color) of different decks. Well… no…
When I was looking around I ran into a book called A Cultural History Of Tarot by Helen Farley from 2009. “Helen Farley is lecturer in studies in religion and esotericism at the University of Queensland, Australia”. Aha, a serious book about Tarot!
Farley’s book does not -as I hoped- contain many card from many different decks, but the author does investigate the original symbolism. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is not all that much esoteric about it.
Farley tried to figure out where the Tarot originated. There are all kinds of fancy theories about it coming from Egypt or the far East, even Cathars are credited with the invention. Farley’s conclusion is a bit more down to earth. Early on there were different kind of card playing games and the Tarot developed from these in Renaissance Italy. The oldest decks in existence (and incomplete) are from the Visconti court of Italy and are from the middle of the 15th century. Interestingly, Farley interprets the symbols placed in that particular environment.
Originally ‘just’ a card game, though relatively popular, it only became an esoteric system during the occult revival of the 19th century.
As interesting as Farley’s book is, I still could not compare different sets until a friendly redditor drew my attention to Rozamira Tarot.ru. A Russian website (that translates to your own language if needed) that has all the cards of over 1000 decks! The most awful sets you can find there, from soft erotic to cats and you need to know what you are looking for. I took it upon myself to put the cards of four different decks in the same order.
In the images that you see here, the Visconti deck from around 1445 is on the left, followed by the Marseille tarot of 1761. Then comes Rider/Waite (1910) and the Thoth Tarot of Harris and Crowley (1944). Perhaps not a perfectly representative set, but as I said, Visconti is the oldest we have, Marseille seems to the the basis for many of the later sets; Rider/Waite is the best known deck and Harris/Crowley is the best looking one.
When looking at the cards (I will link to a PDF below) a few things are noticeable. The Marseille deck has a Pope and a Popess! In the restored deck that can be found on Rozamira, the English translation for “Papesse” is “high priestess”, which is not quite the same as a female Pope, is it? The Pope himself is still a Pope, but later became the hierophant.
Another interesting row makes the one above. Rider/Waite have quite strictly followed Marseille in many cards and Harris/Crowley in many cases made their variation on the Rider/Waite cards, but in this case we almost have four varieties. Interesting, the lion is gone with Rider/Waite, but returns in Harris/Crowley, so they may have used the Marseille deck for inspiration too. The names never differ as much as here, force, justice and lust.
There are also remarkably consistent sets. Crowley may have changed the name of “Judgement” and took the people out of the grave, but the trumpeting figure and nude people can be found on every card.
In many cases, Marseille deviates from Visconti, but later decks usually remain close to the Marseille deck.
I thought it happened earlier, but it seems to be Crowley who has added extra information to the cards. In Crowley’s deck every card has a name. In the older sets, only the so-called “trump” cards have names and the “court” cards. “Trump” cards (the name suggests the game origin of the cards) are the “Major Arcana” are a set of 22 cards (a “fool” numbered 0″ and XXI more).
The other 56 card (“Minor Arcana”) are divided into four “suits” with each 10 cards and four “court” cards like in the regular card game (also starting with “ace”). The names of the four suits differ. Farley speaks of “Cups”, “Batons”, “Coins” and “Swords” which are sometimes “Hearts”, “Clubs”, “Diamonds” and “Spades” or even “Hearts”, “Acorns”, “Bells” and “Leaves”.
When we look at Visconti it is easy to recognise the modern division of Rider/Waite in “Cups”, “Pentacles” (which is a Waite novelty, in Marseille it is “Derniers” or “Money”, Visconti also seems to refer to money, Crowley speaks of “Discs”); “Swords” and “Wands” (or “Baton”/”Clubs” in Marseille).
The ‘normal’ suit-cards are quite similar to our modern playing cards. Four of swords is a card with four swords. Nine of money is a card with nine coins. With Rider/Waite these cards became more visual and Crowley ascribed a name to each card. I think this forces an interpretation on the user, maybe even a bit too much. Nine of cups just has nine cups in the Visconti and Marseille decks. Rider and Waite added a man and even though Harris and Crowley only depict nine cups, the card gets the name “happiness”.
Similar additions Crowley makes to court and trump cards. In all decks card XVII “The Star” shows a woman with a cup at a water and looking up to a star. Crowley assigns the constellation of Aquarius to the card and the Hebrew character “Heh” which is not explained in my book about the Thoth Tarot.
I am not much for the laying of cards, so I cannot say if these Crowley additions are helpful or quite the opposite, but I will leave that for the practitioners to decide.
Another thing that I also only note now is that Crowley changed the court cards. The “page” became a “princess”, the “knight” a “prince” and the “king” a “knight” (which usually look quite like the “knight” cards of the predecessors). I do not yet know what was the reason for this.
And what does it all mean? Maybe I will make a follow up article to this one when I finish Farley’s book.
For a PDF with all 78 cards in rows, you can open this 6 MB PDF.
About the development of the tarot as an esoteric instrument you should read „A wicked pack of cards“ and „A history of the occult tarot” by Dummet & Decker. A very sie work in two bands, even if somewhat very critical of esotericism.