Academics have long displayed an interest in psychical research, parapsychology, occult practices, and another phenomenon on the boundaries of science. This multidisciplinary interest is traceable even to the founders of specific disciplines, although we might be surprised to find that thinkers like Sigmund Freud (May 6th, 1856 – September 23rd, 1939), Sándor Ferenczi (July 7th, 1873 – May 22nd, 1933), William James (born January 11h, 1842 – Died August 26th, 1920) and other disciplinary luminaries took the investigation of “boundary phenomenon” seriously. Sociologists have also expressed some interest in boundary phenomenon, the occult, secret societies, and such, but it has been far from all consuming. Georg Simmel (born March 1st, 1858 – died September 28th, 1918) attempted to establish a sociology of secret societies and professor emeritus of sociology Edward A. Tiryakian attempts to move us “toward a sociology of esoteric culture.” Some work has been done in the Sociology of Science, and Hess (2007) has examined spiritism in some detail, but by and large, sociologists have been silent, both empirically and theoretically, on issues of the occult.
This lack of sociological interest and almost dismissive orientation can perhaps be traced to the dominant assumption that secularisation and scientific rationality would eventually kill such practices outright. It could also be partly due to their disenchantment with natural forces, partly to the David Émile Durkheim view of religion as a basic expression of the underlying social order, partly to an anti-occult narrative that dismisses such interest as “heresy” or “superstition,” and partly to Marxian skepticism of religion and spirituality. As a result, sociology has paid little research attention to boundary subjects like, for example, the Tarot.
The Tarot is a deck of cards used for occult and mystical practice with a history of socio-political intrigue dating back to the fifteenth-century, but which hardly registers on the sociological radar at all. There is some interest in a scholarly study of Tarot outside of sociology, but even there the “paucity of material” requires a multidisciplinary approach John E. Farley attributes the lack of interest in the Tarot to its association with “shoddy soothsayers and confidence tricksters,” and that is certainly part of it. Whatever the reason, the lack of sociological interest in the Tarot represents a significant theoretical and empirical lacuna because, as this paper will attempt to demonstrate, there are reasons to believe that the Tarot has far more sociological significance than first attributed to it. In this paper, we see that the Western Tarot became a weapon used in an esoteric (i.e., secret) class war by ruling elites to regain the power they lost as Church authority, and elite authority in general, was dismantled during the eighteenth and nineteenth-centuries as a result of the English, French, and scientific revolutions.
The characteristics of a Tarot deck are peculiar. A Tarot deck is a set of cards in two parts — a set of fifty-six minor cards, minor arcana, or suit cards, and a set of twenty-two additional “major” cards. In the “minor” part of the deck, there are four suits (Swords, Batons, Cups, and Coins), each of which contains the cards ace through ten as well as a King, Queen, Knight, and Jack. The major cards contain a Fool card, traditionally labelled as “0,” and twenty-one other major arcana or trump cards numbered from I to XXI.
According to Michael Dummett, it is the presence of the twenty-two “triumphs” that always “distinguishes the Tarot pack from every other kind of playing-card pack.” In a Tarot deck, the minor arcana may or may not be painted with images; however, the major arcana are almost always illustrated with fanciful, mythological, spiritual, and cultural imagery.
When the Tarot first came into existence the deck was little more than a picture book, a system for gaming, possibly a device for gambling and held no mystical, magical, or divinatory significance. The Tarot did, arguably, have allegorical significance and John E. Farley provides a convincing argument that the Tarot, originating within the cultural milieu of the Egyptian Mamlūk caste, was reinvented as an allegory for the life of the Viscontis, rulers of Milan, but beyond that there is no evidence (despite protestations of authors like Robert M. Place (2005) who erroneously assert the Tarot’s mystical credentials based on its association with the mystical secular art of the Renaissance, to suggest it was anything other than a simple game of cards. According to John E. Farley, “It began its life as a game with no purpose beyond providing mental stimulation. It contained no esoteric wisdom, could provide no spiritual advice and gave no clue as to how to conduct one’s life.” These days, however, the tarot has become much more. At its most sinister, the Tarot is an indicator of, and perhaps a gateway to, satanic worship.
Some traditional Christians, in particular, those of an evangelical bent, have a powerful belief that the Tarot is a book of the devil. This belief is so powerful that even to mention the word “Tarot” causes a visceral, fear-based reaction. However, the Tarot is not primarily seen in this way. Much more common is a belief that the Tarot was designed for, and can be used as, a tool for cartomancy. In the early days of Tarot mysticism, it was thought that the Tarot could provide a gateway or a channel that would facilitate communion with jinn, angels, and other exalted heavenly hosts. More recently, the superstition has been tempered, but the belief in gateways and channels remains, and in some surprising places. These days, the most respectable way to present the art of divination would be an attempt to explain the world where science seems unable to work, as a tool for developing the “inner eye,” or perhaps a way to tap into the knowledge contained in the unconscious. The Tarot also holds a respected place in Jungian psychology as a way to connect with “that level of nature that lies behind stars and cards and psyche and is expressed in all of them.” For Art Spiegelman “that level of nature” is the level of “archetypes.” According to Art Spiegelman “archetypes” represent grand cosmic templates and patterns all of which can, when suitably connected with, yield prescient and prophetic content.
However, as noted above, while the twenty-two trump cards that distinguish a Tarot deck from a “normal” pack may have been developed with allegory in mind, there are no established references to the use of the Tarot as a fortune-telling tool until the middle of the eighteenth-century. The first association of the Tarot with mystical or divinatory proclivities emerge specifically with the work of Antoine Court de Gébelin, and Jean-Baptiste Alliette. Both can be traced to the publication, in 1781, of Court de Gébelin’s nine-volume “Le Monde Primitif,” more precisely, to two seminal essays, one by Court de Gébelin, and the other by M. le C. de M. Prior to this publication, the Tarot was seen as nothing more than a vehicle for a game of cards, and an outlet for the vice of gambling. Afterwards, however, the Tarot gradually became a divinatory masterpiece and key to all life’s mysteries. Before we address the question of why the Tarot changed, and what is significant about the dates, it will be worthwhile to highlight just what the Tarot has become since Court de Gébelin first set the ball rolling.