What is the enduring appeal of tarot cards?

BY Katy Hays

23rd Feb 2023 Life

What is the enduring appeal of tarot cards?

Tarot cards date back to the 15th century, but they remain popular today. Author Katy Hays explores the history of tarot cards and their enduring appeal

It started as a card game—played like bridge between wealthy, erudite aristocrats in 15th century Italy—and blossomed into one of the most prolific and accessible divination practices the world has ever known: tarot.

"Almost 600 years since its invention, tarot remains remarkably elastic and adaptable"

Today, tarot decks are ubiquitous. Easy to pick up at your local bookstore or trendy boutique, contemporary tarot spans from the whimsical (Pasta Tarot, anyone?) to the outright legendary (rumor has it that Salvador Dalí created this deck at the behest of James Bond producer, Albert Broccoli). Almost 600 years since its invention, tarot remains remarkably elastic and adaptable. 

Tarot cards and fortune-telling

Although early users of tarot cards did not use their decks to tell the future (a claim which The Cloisters contests in fiction), by the 18th century, usage of the cards had begun to shift. A burgeoning interest in amateur Egyptology and occultist practices at the French courts of Louis XV and Louis XVI paved the way for the emergence of tarot as a divinatory practice.

Courtiers like Antoine Court de Gébelin gave the deck of cards an illustrious (if apocryphal) history, claiming that tarot’s origins were not Italian, but Egyptian. (Gébelin was wrong, but the rumour had legs.) A century later, British spiritualists took the work of Gébelin and further wove tarot into their occult practices—séances, mesmerism, and the paranormal all seemed to find something in the deck of cards they could use.

Antoine Court de Gébelin © André Pujos, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Antoine Court de Gébelin © Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Why has the appeal of tarot remained so enduring? And for such diverse groups, across centuries? 

It might be easy to lean a little too hard into the occultism of tarot, to claim that the cards have a mystical, inescapable appeal, an appeal that is innate, magical, even. And surely, there might be some of that here, too. But the appeal, I think, the very adaptability of tarot, lies in its imagery. 

"The iconography and subjects of the 22 trump cards are shockingly universal"

Every deck of tarot cards contains 78 cards, of which, 22 are considered the Major Arcana (these are what you think of when you think of tarot: The Moon, The Fool, Death) and the remaining cards, the Minor Arcana, represent traditional suits.

The iconography and subjects of the 22 trump cards are shockingly universal. The Star card, for example, with its roots in Ancient Greek and Roman astrology, still maintains immediate contemporary resonance. Similarly, subjects like The Magician, The Empress, and The Chariot can be put to use in countless ways, transformed by new practitioners and artists, while still maintaining their original meaning.

Why are we still drawn to tarot cards today?

It’s this fusion of old and new that makes tarot so unique, so appealing. And, in a world where traditional religious practices have seemed unable to keep pace with contemporary mores, tarot offers its users something of a respite. Proscriptive enough to have a solid, ideological backbone, but broad enough to be able to evolve as needed. 

The fact that tarot now appeals to so many users is likely due more to its adaptability than its inherent occultism. The tarot deck has already, in its 600 years, managed to be so many things—a card game, a divination practice, a way of communing with the dead, a new age spiritual phenomenon, a collectible. Rarely have other artistic objects or magical practices proved so mutable!

Tarot cards

Tarot cards can be used for many purposes, from card games to fortune-telling

Tarot, in that sense, is a mirror—showing every user a different image. It can answer specific questions or offer creative inspiration. It can be an aesthetic object to be enjoyed or a party trick. It can be all of these things at once, and that, perhaps more than its ability to tell the future, is its true magic.   

"Tarot asks us to acknowledge that some things might remain (delightfully!) beyond our comprehension"

There is also, perhaps, something to the idea that our contemporary world is all too often devoid of magic. Imagery deployed on the earliest tarot decks—the wheel of fortune, for example—was used as a way to make sense of what was then, a largely unknowable world. In a world where information is at our fingertips, where developments in AI are able to accurately imitate creative endeavors, where every mystery can be solved if the internet connection is fast enough, tarot offers us a respite from all that.

Tarot, rather, asks us to slow down, to acknowledge that some things might remain (delightfully!) beyond our comprehension, beyond the logic of the scientific and the rational. The contemporary appeal of tarot is that it proposes magic does, still, exist. And perhaps, in that way, the persistence of tarot, and its current surging popularity is one small act of much needed rebellion.

The Cloisters by Katy Hays

The Cloisters by Katy Hays is out now (Bantam, £14.99).

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