Tarot Mythology The Surprising Origins of the Worlds Most Misunderstood Cards

One of Matthews favorite decks is the Lenormand published by Bernd A. Mertz in 2004 based on a design circa 1840. Photo courtesy Caitln Matthews.

But ask Davis today how he felt when he was creating these ghastly cartoons, and he reveals a side of himself that may disappoint hardcore gore groupies. Oh, I didnt particularly care for it, the 88-year-old artist says. My wife didnt agree with it; she didnt like the horror bit at all. But I had to do it, so I did it. I got paid for it, and the editors liked it. Evidently, it had a lot of fans.

Even if you arent familiar with tarot-card reading, youve likely seen one of the common decks, like the famous Rider-Waite, which has been continually printed since 1909. Named for publisher William Rider and popular mystic A.E. Waite, who commissioned Pamela Colman Smith to illustrate the deck, the Rider-Waite helped bring about the rise of 20th-century occult tarot used by mystical readers.

Even the earliest known tarot decks werent designed with mysticism in mind; they were actually meant for playing a game similar to modern-day bridge. Wealthy families in Italy commissioned expensive, artist-made decks known as carte da trionfi or cards of triumph. These cards were marked with suits of cups, swords, coins, and polo sticks (eventually changed to staves or wands), and courts consisting of a king and two male underlings.Tarot cardslater incorporated queens, trumps (the wild cards unique to tarot), and the Fool to this system, for a complete deck that usually totaled 78 cards. Today, the suit cards are commonly called the Minor Arcana, while trump cards are known as the Major Arcana.

Mad, in fact, was a wild success, and of all ECs horror artists, despite being singled out by Wertham, Davis came out the most unscathed by the Comics Code. His expressive faces and big-headed caricatures served comedy well at Mad, Panic, and later at EC competitor Cracked. Thanks to his talent and speed, he also found work doing advertising art for the likes of Parker Brothers,Pepsi, Procter & Gamble, Purina, and theU.S. Postal Service. In the 1960s and 70s, he contributed 22 covers for TV Guide, 36 covers for Time magazine, and well-knownpublicity postersfor movies like Its a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and Woody Allens Bananas. Jack Davis was the go-to cartoonist of the 1970s.

You either have these very shallow ones or these rampantly esoteric ones with so many signs and symbols on them you can barely make them out, says Matthews. I bought my first tarot pack, which was the Tarot de Marseille published by Grimaud in 1969, and I recently came right around back to it after not using it for a while. Presumably originating in the 17th century, the Tarot de Marseille is one of the most common types of tarot deck ever produced. Marseille decks were generally printed with woodblocks and later colored by hand using basic stencils.

Graphic designer and artist Bill Wolf, whose interest in tarot illustration dates to his art-school days at Cooper Union in New York, has his own theories about the tarots beginning. Wolf, who doesnt use cards for divination, believes that originally, the meaning of the imagery was parallel to the mechanics of the play of the game. The random draw of the cards created a new, unique narrative each and every time the game was played, and the decisions players made influenced the unfolding of that narrative. Imagine a choose-your-own-adventure style card game.

But Davis is humble about his influence. I love to draw cartoons, thats all, he says. And I had a good rep who got me good work. But Im retired now.

While Davis didnt relish drawing hideous and frightful images, he was a fan of spooky tales. I loved Frankenstein and the old horrormovies, he says. Id always loved ghost stories, too. When I was growing up, they had a show on theradiocalled Lights Out. We used to have a gang of kids whod get together to listen to it at night. It was great; itd frighten you, and it probably influenced me.

The Crypt-Keeper, a living, long-haired humanoid fiend, told The Crypt of Terror stories, which were illustrated by Davis and were featured in all three comic titles. Davis made his Ghoul-Lunatic more scabrous and decrepit than EC editor Al Feldsteins original, a shadowy figure whose stringy locks covered his face. Starting in 1952 with issue 29, Davis drew all of the covers for Tales From the Crypt until the comic book met its end in 1955 with issue 46.

The Rider-Waite deck was designed for divination and included a book written by Waite in which he explained much of the esoteric meaning behind the imagery, says Wolf. People say its revolutionary point of genius is that the pip cards are illustrated, meaning that Colman Smith incorporated the number of suit signs into little scenes, and when taken together, they tell a story in pictures. This strong narrative element gives readers something to latch onto, in that it is relatively intuitive to look at a combination of cards and derive your own story from them.

The Empress. The Hanged Man. The Chariot. Judgment. With their centuries-old iconography blending a mix of ancient symbols, religious allegories, and historic events, tarot cards can seem purposefully opaque. To outsiders and skeptics, occult practices like card reading have little relevance in our modern world. But a closer look at these miniature masterpieces reveals that the power of these cards isnt endowed from some mystical sourceit comes from the ability of their small, static images to illuminate our most complex dilemmas and desires.

On the Geografia deck, the symbolic imagery is reduced to a small colored segment at the top of each card; the rest is related to global geography. Via eBay.

Australian rock poster artist Ken Taylor designed this Mondo poster for the Tales From the Crypt TV series, which ran from June 1989 to July 1996 on HBO. In the TV show, the Crypt-Keeper was an animated corpse, as opposed to the living Ghoul-Lunatic from the comic. (Courtesy of Mondo)

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When iconic Mad Magazine illustrator Jack Davis launched his career in the early 1950s, he made a name for himself drawing nightmarish images for EC Comics titles such as Tales From the Crypt. Horror fans today still marvel at his towering and intricately detailed fiendscorrupt men with shadowy, crevassed faces; feral werewolves with saliva dripping from their fangs; hordes of slimy skeletal corpses that seem to reach out at you; and, of course, all those dismembered body parts strewn about the pages.

But not all of them. I saw acomic bookone day and went down to the offices of Entertaining Comics, where I met the publisher, Bill Gaines. My work was bad, and they liked it, he says, laughing. They gave me some stuff to work on right away, and I was very excited about that.

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In contrast to most oracle decks, which dont include suited pip cards, Lenormand cards feature a unique combination of numbered playing-card imagery on top of illustrated scenes used for fortune-telling. One of the earliest versions, called the Game of Hope, was made by a German named J.K. Hechtel and was prepared like a board game, says Matthews. You laid out cards 1 to 36, and the object of the game was to throw the dice and move your tokens along it. If you got to card 35, which was the anchor card, then youre home, safe and dry. But if you went beyond that, it was the cross, which was not so good. It was like the game Snakes and Ladders. In this way, the Game of Hope fell into the Victorian-era tradition ofboard gamesthat determined a players life story based on luck.

The games original instructions said it could be used for divining because the illustration on each card included both a symbolic image, like the anchor, and a specific playing card, like the nine of spades. Hechtel must have seen that there were overlaps between divining with playing cards, which, of course, everyone did, and his game, says Matthews. Many other oracle decks appeared around the same time at the end of the 18th century and into the early 19th century. They became really popular after the Napoleonic Wars when everyone settled down and became terribly bourgeois.

However, using cards for playful divination probably goes back even further, to the 14th century, likely originating with Mamluk game cards brought to Western Europe from Turkey. By the 1500s, the Italian aristocracy was enjoying a game known as tarocchi appropriati, in which players were dealt random cards and used thematic associations with these cards to write poetic verses about one anothersomewhat like the popular childhood game MASH. These predictive cards were referred to as sortes, meaning destinies or lots.

Les Amusements des Allemands, circa 1796, has many overlaps with Lenormand decks. Via the British Museum.

While the tarot is the most widely known, its just one type of deck used for divination; others include commonplaying cardsand so-called oracle decks, a term encompassing all the other fortune-telling decks distinct from the traditional tarot. Etteilla eventually switched to using a traditional tarot deck, which he claimed held secret wisdom passed down from ancient Egypt. Etteillas premise echoed the writings of Court de Gbelin, who allegedly recognized Egyptian symbols in tarot-card illustrations. Though hieroglyphics had not yet been deciphered (the Rosetta Stone was rediscovered in 1799), many European intellectuals in the late 18th century believed the religion and writings of ancient Egypt held major insights into human existence. By linking tarot imagery to Egyptian mysticism, they gave the cards greater credibility.

At EC Comics, Davis was assigned the Crypt-Keeper, one of three Ghoul-Lunatic hosts in the EC horror comics line. The Crypt-Keeper headlined Tales From the Crypt while his rivals, the Vault-Keeper and the Old Witch, had top billing in the The Vault of Horror and The Haunt of Fear titles respectively. However, all three narrated stories in each of the three bimonthly comics, which were virtually indistinguishable except for their names.

It was Bill Gaines who gave Davisrecently honored in a 2011 Fantagraphics retrospective book calledJack Davis: Drawing American Pop Culturehis first break. The young artist, whod been drawing since kindergarten, had published comic strips in middle school and high school, in the Navy, and at the University of Georgia. When he graduated in 1950, he hoped to land his dream job working on thenewspaperfunny pages so he could afford to marry his college sweetheart, Dena Roquemore.

A few of the cards from Etteillas esoteric deck, reproduced by Grimaud in 1890.

This Lenormand-style oracle deck shows a mixture of playing card and fortune-telling illustrations, circa 1870. Photo courtesy Bill Wolf.

I hoped that Mad would catch on, and it did. says Davis, who had two young children when the magazine launched. A lot of parents probably didnt like Mad. The stories were satire, and sometimes they were good, but sometimes they were kind of bad. I dont particularly like the way its going now, he adds. Its stuff I dont cotton with. Im pretty conservative now. I love the guys that are down there, theyre good people, but I just dont work for Mad anymore.

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The deck really took off in popularity when Stuart Kaplan obtained the publishing rights and developed an audience for it in the early 70s, says Wolf. Kaplan helped renew interest in card reading with his 1977 book,Tarot Cards for Fun and Fortune Telling, and has since written several volumes on tarot.

Whats been largely lost to history is how remarkably influential wom

Top: A selection of trump cards (top row) and pip cards (bottom row) from the first edition of the Rider-Waite deck, circa 1909. Via the World of Playing Cards. Above: Cards from a Tarot de Marseille deck made by François Gassmann, circa 1870. Photo courtesy Bill Wolf.

After 150 years, America is still haunted by the ghosts of its Civil War, whose story has been romanticized for so long its hard to keep the facts straight. In our collective memory of the war, men are the giants, the heroes remembered as fighting nobly for their beliefs. Confederate General Robert E. Lees surrender to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at the Appomattox Court House in Virginia on April 9, 1865, has achieved the status of legend, the moment a broken country started to reunite, even though thatsnot exactly true.

This woodblock version of the classic Tarot de Marseille was published around 1751 by Claude Burdel. Photo courtesy Bill Wolf.

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The final panels of Foul Play!, a ghoulish Jack Davis-drawn revenge story from The Haunt of Fear, which was cited in Frederic Werthems The Seduction of the Innocent as a tale that could corrupt young minds. (Via )

When we used to send telegrams, each word costs money, Matthews explains, so youd have to send very few words like, Big baby. Mother well. Come to hospital. And youd get the gist of it. I read cards in a very similar waystarting from a few general keywords and making sense of them by filling in the words that are missing. This isnt the tarot style of reading where you project things, like, I can see that youve recently had a great disappointment. Mercury is in retrograde and da da da. A cartomantic reading is much more straightforward and pragmatic, for example, Your wife will eat tomatoes and fall off the roof and die horribly. Its a direct way of reading, a pre-New Age way of reading.

Even though I wasnt around when it was originally published, the HBO Tales From the Crypt was an amazing intro into a demented world of darkly comedic horror stories and vivid artwork, says Mondo CEO Justin Ishmael. EC Comics editor Bill Gaines is one of my heroes, and its so incredibly exciting to combine his creations with thirty something artists that are also fans of that era.

I also enjoy reading with the Lenormand deck made by Daveluy, which has been beautifully reworked byLauren Forestell, who specializes in restoring facsimile deckscleaning up 200 years worth of card shuffling and human grief. The coloring on the Daveluy is very beautiful. Chromolithography gave an incredibly clear color to everything, and I think it was probably as revolutionary as Technicolor was in the days of the movies.

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According to Davis, Gaines was a generous boss, taking his artists and writers such as Al Feldstein, Harvey Kurtzman, and Sergio Aragons on trips to places like Japan, Mexico, and Russia, to have adventures and enjoy good food. At first, I was afraid of Bill Gaines, but then I began to like him, Davis recalls. He was a great publisher, and he was very giving. He took us on trips we wouldnt have been able to afford. I was very blessed and lucky to be in his stable.

A lot of fans, indeed. Tales From the Crypt and other EC horror titles, all of which folded in 1955 due to public outrage, have had a lasting impact on the horror genre. The comic not only inspired the late 1980s HBO show of the same name, it also influenced the look of countless movies and television shows, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer and A Nightmare on Elm Street.

By the mid-18th century, the mystical applications for cards had spread from Italy to other parts of Europe. In France, writer Antoine Court de Gbelin asserted that the tarot was based on a holy book written by Egyptian priests and brought to Europe by Gypsies from Africa. In reality, tarot cards predated the presence of Gypsies in Europe, who actually came from Asia rather than Africa. Regardless of its inaccuracies, Court de Gbelins nine-volume history of the world was highly influential.

The comics were pretty bad, pretty gruesome, Davis admits. The Senate had an investigation, which they probably should have had. But when Tales of the Crypt ended, I was very disappointed, because I needed the work.

Florian Bertmer, a modern-day German illustrator from the hardcore punk and metal scene, gives his take on The Vault of Horror in a piece featured in Mondos art show. (Courtesy of Mondo)

Contrary to what the uninitiated might think, the meaning of divination cards changes over time, shaped by each eras culture and the needs of individual users. This is partly why these decks can be so puzzling to outsiders, as most of them reference allegories or events familiar to people many centuries ago.Caitln Matthews, who teachescourseson cartomancy, or divination with cards, says that before the 18th century, the imagery on these cards was accessible to a much broader population. But in contrast to these historic decks, Matthews finds most modern decks harder to engage with.

Trump cards from the Tarrocchini Bolognese designed by Giuseppe Maria Mitelli, circa 1664.

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Teacher and publisher Jean-Baptiste Alliette wrote his first book on the tarot in 1791, called Etteilla, ou Lart de lire dans les cartes, meaning Etteilla, or the Art of Reading Cards. (Alliette created this mystical pseudonym Etteilla simply by reversing his surname.) According to Etteillas writings, he first learned divination with a deck of 32 cards designed for a game called Piquet, along with the addition of his special Etteilla card. This type of card is known as the significator and typically stands in for the individual having their fortune read.

In 2013, Mondo Gallery in Austin hosted an exhibition featuring work that pays tribute to Tales From the Crypt, both the comics and the TV show. Among the pieces in the show is a new illustration by Jack Davis of his former boss, EC Comics publisher and editor Bill Gaines, posing with the infamous Crypt-Keeper.

Though historians like Kaplan and Matthews publish new information on divination decks every year, there are still many holes in the larger story of fortune-telling cards. Wolf points out that those who use cards for divination are often at odds with academics researching their past. Theres a lot of friction between tarot historians and card readers about the origins and purpose of tarot cards, Wolf says. The evidence suggests they were invented for gaming and evolved for use in divination at a much later date. Personally, I believe they were designed for game play, but that the design is a bit more sophisticated than many tarot historians seem to believe.

Tarot Mythology: The Surprising Origins of the Worlds Most Misunderstood Cards

By comparing various decks from different time periods, tarot-card enthusiasts can identify the evolution of certain illustrations. For example, says Matthews, the modern version of the hermit with the lantern, youll find that that was an hourglass and he was Saturn or Chronos, the keeper of time. You can see how that translates with the Tarot Bolognese meaning of delay or blockage. It was about time moving slowly, though thats not used as a modern meaning much now.

Top: Even though hes retired, Jack Davis drew this image for Mondo of EC editor Bill Gaines holding a favorite treat, plantains, with his arm around the Crypt-Keeper. Above: Italian comic-book artist Francesco Francavilla pays tribute to Tales From the Crypt. (Images courtesy of Mondo.)

For the first issue of Mad, for OctoberNovember 1952, started with Hoohah!, a lighthearted spoof by Jack Davis mocking the horror genre, which was his bread-and-butter. (Via )

A version of the popular Rider-Waite deck from 1920. Photo courtesy Bill Wolf.

Etteilla was one of the people who actually made divination so esoteric, says Matthews. He created a deck that incorporated all the things from Court de Gbelin and his book Le Monde Primitif [The Primitive World], which suggested an Egyptian origin for the tarot and all sorts of arcane things. Matthews makes a distinction between the tarots abstract interpretations and the straightforward cartomantic reading style that thrived during the 16th and 17th centuries, prior to Etteilla.

But to balance such arcane decks, there are divinatory cards that offer little room for interpretation, like Le Scarabe dOr or The Golden Beetle Oracle, one of Wolfs most prized decks. Its just fantastically bizarre. Theres a little window in the lid of the card box, and when you shake it, the beetle appears, and points to a number, he explains. Then you find the corresponding number on a set of round cards, with beautiful script text on them, and read your fortune. Can you not imagine standing in a Victorian parlor in France, consulting the Golden Beetle? It was like performance art.

Matthews has authored several books on divinatory cards, and her latest is. This 36-card deck was named after the celebrity card-reader Mademoiselle Marie Anne Lenormand, who was popular around the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, though the decks bearing her name werent actually produced until after her death. The oldest packs in Matthews collection are two Lenormand-style decks, the French Daveluy of the 1860s and the Viennese Zauberkarten deck from 1864, which were some of the first decks to be illustrated using the technique of chromolithography.

The illustration on some decks did double duty, providing divinatory tools and scientific knowledge, like the Geografia Tarocchi deck from around 1725. The Geografia are extraordinary cards, almost like a little encyclopedia of the world with the oracle imagery peeking out at the top, Matthews says. The actual bit that you read from is just a cigarette-card length. So for example, the hanged man just shows his legs at the top of the card, while the rest of the card has information about Africa or Asia or other places on it.

Quite recently, it was discovered byMary Greerthat there was a prior source to the Lenormand cards, she continues. Theres a deck in the British Museum called Les Amusements des Allemands (The German Entertainment). Basically, a British firm put together a pack of cards that has images and little epigrams on the bottom, which say things like, Be aware, dont spend your money unwisely, and that sort of thing. Its quite trite. But it came with a book of text thats almost identical to the instructions for later packs of Lenormand cards.

Most card readers recognize that the associations and preconceptions of the person being read for are just as important as the actual drawings on the cards: Divination cards offer a way to project certain ideas, whether subconscious or not, and to toy with potential outcomes for important decisions. Thus, like scenes from a picture book, the best illustrations typically offer clear visions of their subjects with an open-ended quality, as though the action is unfolding before you.

The stories in these comics are often morality tales, relying on tropes as old as time, in which people doing evil meet some horrendous end. Others were simple eye-for-eye type revenge stories, and still others were as silly as they were gross (a rotting mummy and a preserved two-headed corpse fall in love, for example). Some of them were attributed to contemporary author Ray Bradbury, and others were clearly influenced by macabre Victorian writers like Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, and W.W. Jacobs. And then there were the Tales that were simply the wild inventions of EC editors like Feldstein, who gave Davis stories to draw.

Thanks to Werthams book, which claimed that comics encouraged juvenile delinquency, concerned parents, teachers, and ministers put pressure on politicians to intervene, leading to the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency in April and June of 1954. This hand-slapping by the U.S. government prompted publishers to form the Comics Code Authority, which banned words like horror and terror from titles, as well as monster characters like zombies and werewolves. That spelled the end for the horror comics of the era and their explicit imagery. Feeling that EC was being targeted specifically, Gaines published his last horror comic dated for February-March 1955.

I wanted to be a cartoonist and get syndicated, says Davis, who worked as an assistant to Ed Dodd, creator of the syndicated Mark Trail comic strip, while he was in college. I figured I had to go to New York City because that was where everything in publishing was, including the comics syndicates. I took a year at the Art Students League in New York, and Id look for work. Id go up and down Madison Avenue, where I was rejected at the syndicates and at a lot of the publishers.

In contrast, the meanings in other decks are particularly difficult to decipher, like the infamous Thoth tarot developed by Aleister Crowley, notorious for his involvement with various cults and experimentation with recreational drugs and so-called sex magick. Completed in 1943, the Thoth deck was illustrated by Lady Frieda Harris and incorporated a range of occult and scientific symbols, inspiring many modern decks. As Wolf explains, with the rise of the divination market in the 20th century, more liberties were taken, and the imagery evolved into increasingly personal artistic statements, both in content and style of execution.

Oracle decks like the Lenormand tend to rely on more direct visual language than traditional tarot cards. The tarot can often speak in broad, timeless, universal statements about our place in the world, says Wolf. The imagery of fortune-telling decks is more illustrational and less archetypal. The images are generally more specific, simpler, and less universal, keeping the conversation more straightforward.

Two hand-painted Mamluk cards from Turkey (left) and two cards from the Visconti family deck (right), both circa 15th century.

When psychologist Frederic Wertham published his comic-damning book The Seduction of the Innocent in 1954, he pointed to Foul Play!, a Jack Davis-drawn story from the May-June 1953 issue of The Haunt of Fear, as an example of a comic that perverted childrens minds. In it, a star baseball player uses his shoe spikes to poison the opposing teams best hitter. When the opposing team realizes what has happened, they plot a grisly revenge, shown in graphic detail.

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Soon, Davis, who was sick of being a starving artist, developed a reputation for speed, as an artist who could sketch and ink sometimes three pages in a day. Id have to be fast, because when you turned them in, thats when youd get your money, Davis says. The faster you drew, the faster the money came in.

The imagery was designed to reflect important aspects of the real world that the players lived in, and the prominent Christian symbolism in the cards is an obvious reflection of the Christian world in which they lived, he adds. As divinatory usage became more popular, illustrations evolved to reflect a specific designers intention. The subjects took on more and more esoteric meaning, says Wolf, but they generally maintained the traditional tarot structure of four suits of pip cards [similar to the numbered cards in a normal playing-card deck], corresponding court cards, and the additional trump cards, with a Fool.

The Jack Davis-drawn story Lower Berth!, appearing in the December 1952-January 1953 issue of Tale From the Crypt, explains the origins of the Crypt-Keeper, who came about after two sideshow corpses fell in love. (Via )

Fortunately, Davis already had his foot in the door at new satire publication called Mad, started by EC writer and cartoonist Harvey Kurtzman. The first issue of Mad in 1952 began with a Davis story called, Hoohah! a humorous spoof on all the cliched horror tropes he routinely depicted for EC Comics.

A hand-colored set of tarot cards produced by F. Gumppenberg, circa 1810. Photo courtesy Bill Wolf.

Building on Court de Gbelins Egyptian connection, Etteilla claimed that tarot cards originated with the legendary Book of Thoth, which supposedly belonged to the Egyptian god of wisdom. According to Etteilla, the book was engraved by Thoths priests into gold plates, providing the imagery for the first tarot deck. Drawing on these theories, Etteilla published his own deck in 1789one of the first designed explicitly as a divination tool and eventually referred to as the Egyptian tarot.

Matthews favorite decks are those with straightforward illustrations, like the Tarocchino Bolognese by Giuseppe Maria Mitelli, an Italian deck created sometime around the 1660s. Matthews owns a facsimile of the Mitelli deck, rather than an original, which means she can use them without fear of damaging a priceless antique. The deck that I enjoy most is the Mertz Lenormand deck because of its clarity, she says. The background on each card is a creamy, vellum color, so when you lay them out in tableau, you can see the illustrations very clearly. I frankly get so tired of all the new Photoshopped tarots and the slick art, with their complete lack of any framework or substance.

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