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How Italian Cops Cemented Tarot History

--Kirsten Weiss

Image of Marseilles Tarot cards.

Photo by Jackie Hope on Unsplash

Tarot cards have a dodgy reputation.

When the photographer shooting my new headshot shied away from the cards I'd brought as props, I was bemused. She was nice about it, and I didn’t push. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, it’s no one’s business but your own. But she equated Tarot cards with Ouija boards, capable of sucking in entities from alternate dimensions. That… was a new one for me.

But like I said, I didn’t argue, and we parted friends. I’m still scratching my head over it though.

As I’m finishing up “Hyperion’s” book on Tarot, I find myself digger deeper and deeper into the philosophical underpinnings of these cards. The first recorded mention of Tarot cards are in a Renaissance Italy police report of a gambling den where Tarocchi was being played. We can thank some conscientious cop for noting the details of the bust.

More interesting (to me) than the dates and places are the symbols on the cards. Tarot decks have five suits. First comes the Major Arcana (with Death, the Lovers, the Magician, and all those groovy cards you see on TV and the movies). The next four suits are the Minor Arcana: Pentacles, Swords, Wands, and Cups. In the oldest decks, the minors looked much like today’s playing cards. Four swords on the four of swords. Five wands on the five of wands, etc., etc.

The really juicy symbolism was relegated to the 22 Major Arcana cards, or the Trumps. These seem to be a blend of Christian allegory and Greco-Roman philosophy. And though those might not seem as obvious a combo as chocolate and peanut butter, if you were a Renaissance artist, melding the two was logical.

We tend to think of the Renaissance as an explosion of new thought in the arts. But it was really more of a rebirth, with Renaissance artists and thinkers looking back to the ancient Greeks and Romans and bringing that wisdom into the present. They weren’t kicking everything over. Christianity was still a Pretty Big Deal in Renaissance Italy and elsewhere in Western Europe. And it’s believed that many of the images on the Trumps came from the Italian religious Trionfi processions (imagine the Rose Parade minus quite so many flowers and with Father Time and the Pope facing off against the Devil).

But most of the Major Arcana cards are not grounded in Christianity. The Wheel of Fortune. Strength. Temperance. These are themes from practical Stoic philosophy filtered through Neoplatonism. Hyperion’s going to elaborate on that more in his upcoming book, The Mysteries of Tarot, so I won’t get into it too deeply here.

But the more I look at Tarot and where it came from, the more benign its origins appear. The cards seem like reminders or signposts on how to live a good life. But maybe I’m biased, since that’s how Hyperion treats them when he reads for his clients.

Tarot can certainly go wildly wrong. There are charlatans out there taking advantage of people. I’ve encountered more than one. And don’t get me started on the Sola Busca Tarot, also created during the Renaissance and which may well be based in black magic. Now that’s a deck I wouldn’t want to have in my house. And I’m sure there are Tarotistas out there who’d laugh at me for my resistance.

Some would probably be at the Tarot conference Hyperion and Abigail are going to this February. But when a woman is murdered with a prop from Hyperion’s Tarot maze, the hunt for a killer is on. The good news? The weight of evidence points away from Hyperion. The bad news? It’s aimed at their friend, Brik, and an unsolved murder connected to his past. Can this trio stay out of hot water and crack open a cold case?

Book cover: The Sword in the Scone by Kirsten Weiss. A Tea and Tarot Mystery. Image of a sword stabbing two scones with jam spilling from the scones.

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