A Cultural History Of Tarot – Helen Farley (2009)

Suddenly I felt the need to look at the symbolism of the Tarot. I wondered if I should just buy different decks or a book with images of different decks. Well, I have found no book of the latter type, but there is an excellent website. Farley’s book seemed to be the closest to what I was looking for, so I got myself a copy.

Farley “is lecturer in Studies in Religion and Esotericism at the University of Queensland, Australia”, so it at least is a serious / academic work. As the title suggests, it is a history.

The author investigates several histories of Tarot, mostly mystical and comes to the conclusion that it developed from common card games in Renaissance Italy, more specifically the Visconti court. The card games of before did not have the trump cards that Tarot decks have, but there are three different sets from roughly the same time that do. The designs Farley traces back to the history of the Visconti family. For example, the card “tower” was called “La Torre”. Also on old decks this tower is destroyed by lightning. The Torre family was a family that the Visconti’s had problems with.

For many years Tarot was in fact but an extended card game. There is symbolism on the cards, but the esoteric interpretation of the cards, and thus, the use for divination, came many, many years later.

In her interesting book Farley not only gives the history of the game, but also puts the symbolism in a context. As the popularity of the game rose, new interpretations followed especially when the cards landed outside Italy. Farley describes the symbolism and the development of Tarot into an esoteric system.

The latter gives some history of esoteric currents that many readers may already be aware of. Eliphas Levi, the Golden Dawn, Westcott, Matters, Crowley and of course Waite are dealt with. Of course there is some highlight to their connections to Tarot, but there was little new here for me.

Farley does not shun treating modern Tarots and names many, many New Age type decks.

Not a book if you want to learn how to lay cards and interpret them. Farley’s book does offer a wonderful and sometimes fascinating history and shows that there are many variations in decks with different names for cards, different cards altogether, different numbering, different order, etc. What I was after myself, I also learned a bit about the development of the symbols of the cards too.

The book is fairly thin (270 pages) and about a third is notes, bibliography and the like, so do not expect a massive reference work. There are images from different decks, but only a handful and only in grey.

2019 Bloomsbury, isn 1788314913

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