The Many Faces of Tarot

One of the reasons I hate reading in the media about the ‘resurgence’ of interest in occultism and modern witchcrafts is the way that coverage revisits the same old tired stereotypes.

People who consult fortune-tellers are deluded! They buy in to complex pseudo-scientific theories of mystical causation! Their practices can be explained through the social functions that supernatural beliefs fulfil!

Based on my work on witchcraft in France 1790-1940, I’m not convinced. It strikes me that the ordinary people involved in manipulating and analysing possibly supernatural forces often have strikingly flexible understandings of what they are doing. They recognise their actions as perhaps magical, perhaps healing, perhaps entertainment, and perhaps even something akin to what we might call therapy.

They aren’t necessarily always victims of fraudsters, nor are they puppets manipulated by broader social forces.

So when the Conversation reached out for a piece on the history of tarot, in response to reports of increased interest in fortunet-telling, I thought: this is it. This is my chance to make that point.

Well, it turns out to be hard to make that point in 800 words, especially when you have to explain what tarot are, and deal with the other pervasive mythology of the history of tarot: the theory of ancient origins and occult significance.

But I’ve given it a go.

Now someone pay me to write a history of how cards were actually used?

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