Alternative Facts in Tarot History

christian influences in tarot history
Mystery Play – Chester 16th Century

There has been a lot of talk about ‘alternative facts’ in the media recently… but alternative facts are nothing new. Alternative facts in the form of forged letters supposedly written by Mary Stuart are 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. So today, I thought it would be fun to look at some of the most common alternative facts in Tarot History.

The Supposed Pagan Origins

Tarot writers popularly often present the Tarot as the product of an amalgamation of ancient Greco-Roman/Egyptian pagan symbology and Neoplatonic thought. Then these same writers like to jump ahead to the French occultists in the 1700s. No mention of any links with Christianity.

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

  • The times and culture in which the Tarot was created were 100% Christian/Christocentric. There was no viable alternative. Only if you had access to higher education would you even know about the links to Pagan times. Even then, you had to watch out because as a heretic you could lose more than your job. You risked losing your life.
  • 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 recognizable all over Europe, not because of pagan celebrations and victory parades as claimed by many writers. People had forgotten those traditions. However, Christian Morality and Mystery plays were very much in vogue.

Yes, but what about the blatantly pagan iconography? Oh, for sure, it was present. But most people did not recognise it as Pagan or other than Christian.

The reason we see Mystery and Morality play characters in the card images is perhaps that people felt a need to ‘justify’ using playing cards. That way, it could fit with their belief system and popular moral consensus of the times. Card playing was not a virtuous past-time. So, in the 1400s, the Milanese lord Francesco Sforza justified his own use of playing cards by saying that the Trumps inspire virtue.


Everyman/The Fool and Death

All religions are syncretic, for the simple fact that religion is the creation of individual humans like you and me. Yeshua himself didn’t create a religion. Those who came after him did. Humans see things in part and easily miss the bigger picture.

As soon as we move away from our pure spiritual inspiration and a mystical understanding of the message in any faith, as soon as we try putting the message into an exoteric theological system, 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.

Inherently Christian

However, by the mid-1400s 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.

Original Card Meanings

To highlight how the original meanings of the cards have been bastardized 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 you can’t trust the Magician with the little things, he received the lowest number among the Trumps.

XIII Death, which clearly relates to the ‘Dabse Macabre’ iconography. This Trump serves as a memento mori but has become synonymous with any kind of change except physical death. We have been impoverished by the belief that XIII Death is only about change/transformation. Yet this 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 life to make sense.

Go Medieval to Make it Make Sense

I firmly believe that every Tarotist needs to own a Medieval Tarot deck to even begin making sense of the Tarot. The message of the early Christians is so clear that you might view the Tarot as 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 Sophia inside the Vesica Piscis (symbol of Christ/Ichthys), surrounded by the four evangelists. This, my friends, is the ultimate Trump. This is the Trump to beat all other Trumps. Now tell me again how the Tarot is Pagan in origin.


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

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