If the ‘Whence come you?’ can be said to often be asked of tarot, its complementary question seems often overlooked.
Painting upon a broad canvas the development of tarot, we find its genesis in the region that is now Northern Italy, amidst influences from neo-platonism and neo-aristotelean thought. During the 19th century, its adaptation and redesign by Etteilla brought about a renewed interest and local esoteric re-evaluation and appreciation to not only Francophones, but also eastward into deep European lands, so that not only Hungary and Poland, but also Russia had its share of Etteilla ‘clones’. A similar situation arose a century later in England and, by association, Anglophonic countries with, again, its redesign by A. Waite and P. Coleman Smith, bringing the deck not only into popular culture across the English speaking world, but also again likewise re-igniting interest in tarot in general, and esoteric re-evaluation and appreciation.
In each of these two cases, the model upon which the respective decks were based was what is commonly referred to as the Marseille – a deck that has not ceased to be produced and designed with various modifications throughout its 300+ years of recorded existence (and likely itself being from circa 1500 in some closely linked form).
In the European world and those countries that have developed their population and political structures directly in consequence of European expansions, such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the USA (at the same time recognising their respective significant local indigenous traditions), tarot forms part and parcel of its culture – however marginalised it may remain in some pockets.
In Continental Europe, the prevalence of the Etteilla has slowly given way, after a century of dominance and ‘clone’ variants, to a return to a Marseille-type deck. In the English speaking world, we are beginning to see the tides also turn. Certainly myriad new decks based or derived (‘clones’) of the Waite-Smith are still being produced, yet at the same time a return to their antecedent is similarly making its entry. It now is not only easier to find a Marseille-type deck in stores both local and online, but even distinctions between various Marseille-types are more generally understood – a situation that even only five years ago was simply not the case.
In European nations and their western world cognates, then, it seems that tarot is heading in a return to its impulse or archetypal form. Whether it is something like the Grimaud, or Conver (on which the Grimaud is closely based), or some more modern rendition like the Canadian Hadar (again mainly based on the Conver), or the refreshed TdM-I style Noblet from J-C Flornoy, or something yet to be released, only time will tell.
This does not mean that currently alternative designs will suddenly cease to be used or written about. After all, the Etteilla is still available, and groups working in specific ways continue to view it as holding a central ‘key’ to their way of understanding tarot. Similarly, this will continue to be the case for the Waite-Smith, the Crowley-Harris, and the Falconnier-Wegener – all important variants that have their own advocates.
In ‘our neck of the woods’, then (for those reading this in parts of the world I earlier referred to), I strongly suspect that tarot’s course will continue to be an ongoing diversity around a central Marseille core, with the core becoming increasingly well known and appreciated.
Heading towards the Far-East
In Japan, numerous tarot decks have already appeared. Some, such as the ‘Angel’ tarot, closely resembling the Marseille-style. Many, however, taking as their base the general artistic image-type and allowing a total make-over in Manga (and similar) styles. Such decks, already in their hundreds, have already began to form a ‘tradition’ of their own.
Yet, it seems to me that no matter how transiently popular they may be, they generally lack that other aspect that the Etteilla and the Waite-Smith did for, respectively, the Francophonic and Anglophonic worlds: ignite interest in esoteric lore and tie tarot to its local initiatic culture. And that is an element that I suspect is still in the making… and yet close to being achievable in the coming few years. And it is this aspect that I will now briefly look at in the brief space I have in this Newsletter.
One of the dominant features of a renewed China is that its population will inevitably strive to reach and understand afresh the many areas that had previously been despotically hindered. Of this will include, I surmise, its long cultural heritage and its religious and spiritual wealth. Yet it is not insensitive to the developments that are also in the rest of the world. One of these is the divinatory usage of tarot – something that can be added to and, I suggest, incorporated with the I Ching (or Yi-King). How it may do so I will suggest in some detail in a forthcoming Newsletter. With the trumps, I suggest that, as did Etteilla and Waite-Smith in different ways, altering the ordering of the sequence may provide a better ‘local’ flavour and ‘natural’ understanding. So let’s briefly go through some of these possibilities.
Ordering the sequence
I’m frankly unsure as to which other cards are likely to be altered, but would suggest that Death will be re-ordered as fourth card. As there is for the more traditional European understanding direct correlations between eight and Justice (from Ancient Pythagorean Greek considerations) and thirteen and Death (from various sources, but especially the demise of the Knights Templar on Friday the thirteenth of October 1307), there is similarly, there due to word similarity, a close proximity between Death and Four.
Judgement, as simply an imagery of many who have died, may be renumbered 14 for similar reasons; whereas nine and an old Hermit seems entirely apt.
The Lovers may be renumbered seven – with an entirely different mythical saga attached. And, with similarly different connotations, the Wheel of Fortune re-positioned as eighth.
Perhaps, following some of these thoughts that have their basis on Chinese understanding of number-meaning, the flow of the Star would better be numbered six.
In the same manner that it required a local person immersed in the culture to make alterations that seem near natural in the Etteilla or the Waite-Smith, it will very much depend on someone having the ability to capture the imagination and tradition of the place to make appropriate alterations. It may be, for example, that the Emperor is deemed absolutely fine in position four given the political climate! and that Death moved one across to 14 captures that other aspect.
Whatever, if any (and I suspect that will be some) alterations, it is also how it is weaved into both mythic reflection and progression as a whole that will enable the deck to be adopted as a local artefact – though ‘local’ in perhaps a broader sense than perhaps we are accustomed.
Some obvious ones are perhaps the Empress and Emperor. Many others, however, are easily considered if we broaden the image resource from some neighbouring influences, such as India and Durga for the image that we currently call Strength. I say currently for, again as did both Etteilla and Waite-Smith (with, as examples amongst others, the Hanged Man and the Tower respectively), renaming cards in manners that may be deemed more apt in the local (written form of the) language may suggest alterations that we may find, to say the least, odd or misguided.
This overall task is quite distinct to the various decks that have been produced over the last fifteen or so years that begin to make such alterations – with possibly the best known example being Robert Place’s Buddha Tarot. Yet though the deck is a wonderful appropriation and understanding aspects of Buddhism applied to tarot’s frame of reference, what it ‘lacks’ in terms of this discussion is precisely the ‘natural’ orientation from the East seeking to make tarot in its own image.
The I-Ching and the pips
I mentioned earlier that there are ways that make sense of correlating the I-Ching and the pips. In fact, there are a number of ways of doing so, and some undoubtedly better than others – and hope my suggestion in another Newsletter will be ranked amongst the ‘better’. Basically, however, the I-Ching is composed of 64 hexagrammes, some of which form a different form when inversed, and others not (being symmetrical). If an hexagramme and its reversal are taken to be two forms of the same general ideagramme, there are precisely 36 ‘archetypal’ forms. Given there are 40 pip cards of which four are Aces and best left as is, there are manners in which the 36 remaining pips and the 36 ‘archetypal ideagrammatic’ hexagrammes can co-exist. The correlated form I will present is one I have used on and off since the late 1980s or early 90s.
So… Whither directing your course? Its Chinese intrusion demands a renewed understanding for each of its cards, determined by those who have a depth of regional myths and its philosophical fondations.
Zi Lu – the Fool as filial piety
(adapted from www.pureinsight.org)
Zi Lu was born during the Zhou Dynasty. He was a most respectful and devoted son. His family was poor, so the boy had to dig wild greens and roots from the fields in order to feed himself. Because he wanted to make sure his parents get adequate, suitable food, he often traveled a long way looking for wage-paying jobs.
Zi Lu would get up long before dawn and make a lengthy, dangerous trip into the neighboring states, earning what money he could, in order to buy rice and staples for his household. Then shouldering the sack of provisions, he would run back the long distance in time to cook a meal for his parents. When the bag was empty, he would tie on his leggings and set off once again looking for work. Everyone considered him a good example of true filial service.
After his parents died, the young man left his native land for the country of Zhou in the south. The king of Chu was impressed with Zi Lu’s learning and his moral character, so he offered him a post in the civil service. Zi Lu accepted, and rose to become a high-ranking official. He was given a handsome salary and rich side-benefits for his able leadership in state affairs.
Despite the life of affluent comfort, Zi Lu in his heart constantly pined for the days of his youth, when he was able to serve his mother and father. He would often sigh, “This wealth and honor is flavorless and depressing. How I wish I could return to the old days, when I ate field greens and carried rice on my back for mother and father. How happy I was in those days!”
Perhaps this may not be the story chosen… it is more that a wealth of possibilities are there for the picking by those who have the skill to so do, and I very much look forward to what is to emerge!