Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, December 1, 2023

It's not in the cards

When I was in college I went through a period of messing around with Tarot cards.  They were cool-looking, and the book I got that explained their meanings was steeped with arcane and mystical terminology.  The whole thing seemed ancient and magical and terribly attractive.  The fact that I was still living at home, in a staunchly religious Roman Catholic family which disapproved of anything smacking of witchcraft, only gave it that much more of a frisson.

So yes, True Confessions time: at one point in my life, I experimented with woo-woo-ism.  But don't worry, I didn't inhale.

What eventually pulled the plug on all of it was that when I talked about it with my friends, I started sounding ridiculous to myself.  I had to explain (when I was doing a Tarot reading for someone) that I was selecting a card to represent them based on their gender and appearance, and that this would establish a psychic connection between them and seventy-eight pieces of glossy card stock with weird designs that I'd bought for ten bucks in a local bookstore.  And in the back of my mind was this constant mantra of, "How the fuck could that actually work?"  I was able to shout the voice down for a while, but sooner or later, I had to admit that Tarot cards were nothing more than a pretty fiction, and any accurate readings I did could be attributed to a combination of chance, my prior knowledge of the person being "read," and dart-thrower's bias.

I still, however, own six Tarot card decks, including the one I got when I was in college.  The coolest is an Art Nouveau deck that is actually quite beautiful, with designs that remind me of one of my favorite artists, Maxfield Parrish.  I also have "The Original Dog Tarot" in which -- I shit you not -- the four suits are Bowls, Biscuits, Leashes, and Bones, and the Major Arcana include The Hydrant, The Dogcatcher, The Cat, and The Couch.

Purists would probably be pissed off about a Tarot deck that is clearly made up, but let's face it; it's all made up.  The infamous "wickedest man on Earth" Aleister Crowley claimed that the Tarot traces its origins back to an ancient Egyptian text called The Book of Thoth, but there's one awkward problem with this, which is that The Book of Thoth appears not to exist.  Undeterred, Crowley wrote his own Book of Thoth, because after all, as long as we're making shit up, we may as well do the job ourselves and not waste our time learning how to read actual Ancient Egyptian texts that might not even say what we were hoping they'd say.

Actually, the earliest Tarot cards come from some time around the fifteenth century, but at the time they seem to have mostly been used for playing games.  The first use of the cards for divination -- what's been called cartomancy -- isn't until around 1750, which seems awfully late for a practice that claims to be Esoteric Secrets From Antiquity.  The surge in popularity the practice had in the late eighteenth century was largely due to one man, Jean-Baptiste Alliette, who went by the extremely subtle and creative pseudonym Etteilla.  Alliette was an occultist who had a huge following amongst the nobility, and wrote a manual called Manière de se récréer avec le jeu de cartes nommées tarots (A Method for Recreating Yourself Using the Cards Called Tarots) which is the basis of all the "Tarot cards interpreted" books you see today.  Modern card decks, including the famous Rider-Waite deck, all derive from the standardization of the cards and suits by Alliette.

Lately, though, things have gone a bit off the rails, and I don't just mean obvious spoofs like my Original Dog Tarot.  If you search on Amazon for "Tarot cards" you'll find dozens (probably hundreds) of different decks, and a great many of them don't have the traditional suits, with fifty-six Minor and twenty-two Major Arcana.  There are divine feminine and divine masculine decks (some of which are highly NSFW), decks that are allegedly Norse or Celtic or Native American or Chinese or Japanese, decks centered around plants or animals or crystals or astronomical objects, queer decks and warrior decks and steampunk decks.

And -- if I haven't already made a strenuous enough point about this -- all of these were made up, most of them in the last fifty years or so.  None of them have the least thing to do with actual ancient wisdom passed down through the ages.

So there you are.  It hardly bears mention that I think divination simply doesn't work; much as it's a beguiling idea, there's nothing mysterious going on with Tarot card readers except how they manage to persuade so many people to fork over twenty bucks for a session.  Be that as it may, I'm gonna keep my decks.  For one thing, they're cool to look at.  For another, maybe I can do a reading for my dogs.  If the Ten of Bones turns up, they'll be thrilled.  That's a lot of bones.


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