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Classic Decks

What is a "classic" tarot deck? For me, it is not a matter of chronology, but of intention. Classic decks are produced in Europe to this day. The essence of a classic deck is that it is made without much thought to possible uses in fortune-telling, occult ritual, or the like. A classic deck is intended to be used for playing the game of tarocchi, or at the very least as a collectible art object following the pattern of the playing cards. During most of the history of the tarot, this is what the cards were for.

Does this mean classic decks contain no symbolism? That they have no psychological or spiritual value? Hardly. In fact, I find them a very rich resource of symbolism and meaning. How can that be?

The answer is that the tarot was invented in the Italian renaissance, a time totally permeated with intellect, art, allegory, and the magic of the human spirit. Everything the renaissance touched came to life with creativity and beauty. The time was alive with the beginnings of the great unfolding of humanism, science, and political and religious reformation. Yet it was still surrounded by the mystery and poetry of a mythological worldview. The two faces of the renaissance Janus come together in the genre of allegorical art, of which the tarot is a fascinating and subtle example.

There were no psychologist-philosophers in the fifteenth century to lecture about "archetypes" or "semiotics". But there was an active tradition of seeking the expression of abstract concepts in the most beautiful, communicative forms achievable. The church thrived on living symbols: the crucifixion, the nativity, the Madonna and child, the ascension; even the twelve apostles were depicted each with his own characteristic motifs, so that they could be recognized instantly by the illiterate and erudite alike, and evoke the proper religious awe.

More secular concepts, too, were rendered allegorically. For Americans, the statue of Liberty is one of the few survivors of the age of allegorical art to still function in the dual role of art object and symbolic message. In the renaissance, Liberty's kindred were ubiquitous. It may seem strange to us now, but a child of the renaissance could see two statues of draped maidens and identify one as Patriotism and the other as Audacity, without captions or guidebook.

Is it any wonder then, that within a generation or so of being introduced to the concept of playing cards, the renaissance artists modified them by appending a collection of 22 allegorical images? It seems an almost inevitable development, given the creative energy of the time. We may never know exactly why these particular images were chosen, or why they were arranged in precisely this order. But I am utterly convinced that in the fifteenth century, tarot cards were both a game and a visual feast for the spirit, rich in allegory and meaning.

Think how much we have lost, that many today cannot imagine how this could be.

This is why I love the classic decks, particularly the Italian ones. They presume that I'm ready to feast on their meaning, that I don't have to be lured in with promises of occult secrets or psychological melodrama. They remind me of an era before sense and soul became estranged (to borrow a metaphor from Ken Wilber). The angels, monsters, and stories of antiquity have passed from being literally true to be literally false. And for a brief, beautiful time, they were poised between truth and falsehood, unashamedly nonliteral, in the land of dreams and art.

I confess these are my favorite decks (what, you didn't guess?). But there is a learning curve that the modern tarot user must scale to reap their rewards. The suit cards, although often lovely and sometimes evocative, are not decorated with scenes, so the reader must do a little brainwork to develop an interpretive system for them. Understanding the meaning the trumps might have had for the early artists is also challenging. A little "scholarly" interest in contemporary "tarot relations" such as the Tarocchi of Mantegna, Petrarch, astrological illustrations, and illuminated prayer books, will reap rich rewards. Modern tarot commentary must be read with through a "filter" to distinguish the enduring elements of tarot symbolism from occultist or modern overlays. And, after embarking on such a train of study, one is almost inevitably enticed to speculate on the precise circumstances surrounding the invention of the tarot, and what, if anything, the original designers intended to convey with this intriguing sequence of images.

Even if your own tarot purposes draw you back to modern decks, it is important to have a look at the old ones from time to time. They do speak.

Copyright © 1998-2008 Tom Waters