The Occult Archetypes Of Tarot In The Fifteenth-Century

The Occult Archetypes Of Tarot In The Fifteenth-Century
© Credit: Shots Studio - Licence: CC BY-SA 3.0

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.

Do you have a particular subject you are passionate about you would enjoy seeing covered by one of our staff writers? We would like to reach out to our readers and take your suggestions into account for future articles. We invite you to leave a message for us in the comment section below stating what subjects you would be thrilled to read in future articles. If you also have some constructive criticism about this article we would be happy to read your feedback in the comment section.


Click here to post a comment

Leave a Reply

Bulletin Insider

Subscribe to the mailing list and get interesting updates through the inbox.

Thank you for subscribing.

Something went wrong.

Privacy Preference Center


These cookies are necessary for the website to function and cannot be switched off in our systems. They are usually only set in response to actions made by you which amount to a request for services, such as setting your privacy preferences, logging in or filling in forms. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the website will not then work. These cookies do not store any personally identifiable information.

_ga, _gat, _gid, __qca
_ga, _gat, _gid


These cookies may be set through our website by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other websites. They do not store directly personal information but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

_gat, __gads


These cookies allow us to count visits and traffic sources so we can measure and improve the performance of our site. They help us to know which pages are the most and least popular and see how visitors move around the site. All information these cookies collect is aggregated and therefore anonymous. If you do not allow these cookies we will not know when you have visited our site, and will not be able to monitor its performance.



These cookies enable the website to provide enhanced functionality and personalisation. They may be set by us or by third-party providers whose services we have added to our pages. If you do not allow these cookies then some or all of these services may not function properly.


Close your account?

Your account will be closed and all data will be permanently deleted and cannot be recovered. Are you sure?

Get the Bulletin Insider delivered to your inbox

Subscribe to our bulletin and get exceptional updates and brainstorm promotions

Thank you for subscribing.

Something went wrong.