The Truth About Tarot
By James McConnachie
Whether divining ancient wisdoms or elevating the art of cold reading, tarot is a form of therapy, much like psychoanalysis
There are clues that this is no ordinary suburban living room. For one, we’re in Glastonbury. Then there’s the perfumed candle, the Buddha figure, the cloth draped over the television and, not least, the worn little wooden box that sits atop an occasional table hung with black silk. Inside it are 78 tarot cards. I have come to Glastonbury as a ‘querent’ – which is what tarot practitioners call a customer. A querent, traditionally, comes with a question. I have several. Assuming that tarot cards do not work as a method of reading the future, why does tarot persist? How has tarot survived as an object, a practice, a text, and a peculiarly velvety strand in European popular culture? Where did something so strange, dream-like and overburdened with symbolism come from?
In Glastonbury’s bookshops, alongside sections on stone circles, crystals and Kabbalah, I find whole shelves devoted to tarotology. Most books are by practitioners, repeating versions of the same origin myth. Tarot cards encode ancient wisdom, chiefly ancient Egyptian (but incorporating influences from Kabbalah to Celtic). Some tarotologists identify Romany fortunetellers as the custodians of that wisdom, drawing on the old European belief that ‘gypsies’ are of Egyptian origin.
The notion that tarot cards somehow survived the cultural wreck of ancient Egypt has a surprisingly specific origin: Paris, 1781, when France seethed with secret societies and private clubs. Some were radically political, as would soon bear fruit. Many more had pretensions to having privileged access to occult traditions.
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