Alternative Facts in Tarot History

Mystery Play – Chester 16th Century

There has been a lot of talk about ‘alternative facts’ in media recently… but alternative facts are nothing new. Alternative facts in the form of forged letters supposedly written by Mary Stuart is what made Queen Elisabeth I put the pen to Queen Mary’s death sentence. Alternative facts have been around for as long as the Prince of Lies. 

Today, I thought it would be fun to look at some of the most common alternative facts in Tarot History.

The Tarot is popularly often presented as the product of an amalgamation of ancient Greco-Roman/Egyptian pagan symbology and Neoplatonic thought, before the Tarot writer jumps quickly ahead to the French occultists in the 1700’s.

There are a couple of main problems with this popular version:

  • The times and culture in which the Tarot was created was 100% Christian/Christocentric. There simply was no alternative.
  • The iconography is a clear expression of the Christian faith of the time, borrowing heavily from the hugely popular mystery, morality and plays of the day.

The characters in the Tarot were easily recognisable all over Europe, not because of pagan celebrations and victory parades as claimed by many writers… Those traditions were long forgotten – the Christocentric morality/mystery plays were not.

Yes, but what about the blatantly pagan references? Oh, for sure, they are there but that doesn’t change the fact that they were long since incorporated into Christian teachings by the time the first Tarot decks were produced.

The reason we see these morality play characters in card format was  that people felt a need to ‘justify’ card playing so that it would fit with their belief system and moral consensus of the times, where card playing would otherwise have been seen as… well, shall we say less than virtuous… Allegedly, in the 1400’s, the Milanese lord Francesco Sforza stated the argument that the Trumps inspired virtue when confronted with his penchant for playing Tarocchi.

Everyman/The Fool and Death

All religions are syncretic, for the simple fact that religion is a man-made thing. Humans see things in part and easily miss the bigger picture. As soon as we move away from pure spiritual inspiration and a mystical understanding of the message in any faith… as soon as we try putting the message into a theological system (and especially when this system is married to the State), we begin the process of borrowing from here and there to make things fit with where we are. I’m in no way denying obvious syncretic influences such as the borrowing of Pagan feast days and Pagan iconography, or the influence of Neoplatonic thought on the church fathers.

However, by the mid 1400’s when the Visconti-Sforza deck was created, people looked at these influences as something intrinsic to Christianity. If we wish to truly understand the Tarot and its iconography, we must not allow ourselves to be deluded by the wishful thinking of the French occultists and the New Age tarot writers, but seek to understand the mindset of the time. These people, the Tarot artists of the Renaissance and the people fortunate enough to be in possession of a Tarot deck, all agreed: Jesus Christ was the Son of the triune God and redemption was not possible without him. There simply was no viable alternative belief system in existence at this point in time.

To highlight how the original meanings of the cards have been bastardised by the French and British occultists shifting things around, I would like to highlight a couple of cards…

The Magician (Il Bagatello) used to carry the trickster energy to a much stronger degree in the original Tarot. ‘Un bagatello’ is ‘a little sin’ and because the Magician could not be trusted with the little things, he received the lowest number among the Trumps.

XIII Death, which so clearly relates to the ‘danse macabre’ iconography and was meant to serve as a ‘memento mori’ became synonymous with anything but physical death. We have erroneously been lead to believe that Death is only about change/transformation. Yet this impoverished view of the Death cards makes it impossible to work with the Tarot as a complete system for spiritual growth and transformation. We need Death* to mean death for anything at all to make sense.

I’m a firm believer that every Tarotist needs to own a Medieval Tarot deck to even begin making sense of the Tarot. The redemption story is so clearly spelled out to the point where I would claim that the Tarot is the Bible of the Christian Mystic or Hermeticist. In the Visconti-Sforza Tarot we have the New Jerusalem (Paradise) as the World card and in the Marseille Tarot, we have the redeemed human inside the vesica piscis (symbol of Christ/Ichtys), surrounded by the four evangelists. This, my friends, is the final trump – the Trump that beats all the trumps. Now tell me again how the Tarot is Pagan in origin?

Love and Blessings,

Lisa Frideborg

*You can access my talk about Death from the 13th UK Tarot Conference HERE.