It appears from the on-line conversations I’ve been following that there are two distinct chains of archetypal descent in the tarot. One of them – the older one – is culturally-specific, symbolizing conventions that were widely understood and accepted during the pre-Enlightenment era when they were first captured in the trump cards. Their appeal to the common sensibilities of the time seems obvious. These included the Juggler (a sleight-of-hand stage magician and mountebank, not an occult master); the “holy alliance” of Empress, Emperor and Pope (no explanation needed); the victorious Charioteer/Warrior-Knight; the four Platonic Virtues: Prudence/Wisdom (arguably pictured in the ascetic Hermit), Justice, Courage/Fortitude and Temperance; the concept of an intractable Fate (the Wheel of Fortune; the Tower; the nameless Trump XIII); the Devil; the Angel of Judgment; the mystical as well as observable Sun, Moon and Star; the Fool as an exemplar of misfortune. Others are more metaphysically inscrutable than prosaic and therefore more problematic in their interpretation: the heretical Female Pope; the ambiguous Lover(s); the Traitor hung by his heels (a moral lesson as well as a form of lowbrow entertainment for the masses?); the exalted epiphany of the World (a celebratory post-Apocalyptic pirouette?). Before there were tarot cards, many of these archetypes were kept in the public eye during Medieval festivals as “floats” in triumphal parades.
The Occult Revival in Great Britain at the end of the 19th Century turned this iconography on its head. Suddenly the Fool, heading the procession as “Zero,” was a paragon of innocence and everything that followed was just an initiatory chapter in his spiritual development. This was fertile ground for Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Quest” allegory, and for Carl Jung to pick up the ball with his psychological ramifications (although to be fair, Jung wrote very little about the tarot, it was his New Age acolytes who ran with his ideas, first with astrology and later with the archetypal “Fool’s Journey” of the tarot). The original Medieval motifs were largely lost in the shuffle. This isn’t a problem for those who work only with 20th-Century and newer decks (although the entire philosophical edifice seems a bit shaky if one isn’t interested in psychological profiling or mind-reading with the cards). But attempting to divine with historical decks like the Tarot de Marseille and its Italian forebears can produce a severe case of “culture shock.”
While it’s certainly possible to patch modern esoteric and psychological principles onto the antique trumps, it feels more than a little dishonest. Why would an inevitable turn of Fate necessarily be the purview of the “Greater Benefic,” Jupiter? Why would the scoundrel on the gibbet implausibly sacrifice himself for a nobler purpose? How did the Empress become a pregnant stand-in for Mother Nature? Would even the Emperor’s children call him “Daddy?” Shouldn’t that Woman be primly closing the Lion’s mouth instead of opening it, as Mr. Waite assures us is correct? Although I’ve been working with the esoteric tarot for almost 50 years, in trying to comprehend the social milieu in which the cards were created I’ve set myself the task of matching speeds with the cultural zeitgeist of the Renaissance period that produced it. It won’t be easy but I’m committed to getting more practical use out of my classical decks and I fully intend to read the cards according to their prefatory spirit (even if divination was never their intended purpose).