This essay is aimed at three groups of people. The first are those who have become
interested in either tarot or scepticism in general, for whatever reason, and would
like to learn more about them. The second is those who would class themselves as
sceptics but who don’t know a great deal about tarot. The third are those tarot readers
who wish to understand the position of sceptics, what their arguments are, and why
they feel that they should target tarot reading. I will end with a conclusion that
is aimed squarely at the sceptic, proposing a course of action for those so inclined.
So, let’s begin with what it is that tarot cards are usually thought to be or at
least presented as being. Most of us have seen them at some time, a pack of cards
in two parts: the first, often called the minor arcana, which bears some similarity
to our playing cards – indeed, tarot is often cited as their origin – but featuring
cups, swords, pentacles, and wands as the suit signs and with an extra court card
featuring a knight. The second and altogether more notorious part, often known as
the major arcana, consists of a sequence of 22 pictures numbered from 0-21. These
picture cards feature such figures as The Fool, The Magician, The Devil, and The
Hanged Man. They are said to be laden with esoteric wisdom codified within their
The origin of tarot cards is usually described as mysterious or uncertain, with various
popular theories seeing print and broadcast, with such suggestions that they come
from Ancient Egypt, or the Far East, and frequently claiming that they represent
the Hebrew Kabbalah. A more recent trend, popularised by Dan Browne’s The Da Vinci
Code, is the belief that the cards somehow represent the Grail myth of Christ’s bloodline.
Tarot cards are used in a number of ways. The first is to represent various occult
and spiritual beliefs. It is this use, together with the stories of an occult origin
that for most people gives the cards a greater credibility in other uses. The most
widely recognised use for tarot cards is what is called tarot reading. Typically,
the cards will be shuffled and/or cut and cards taken from the top of the pack and
being placed in a pattern on the table. The pattern is called a spread and each position
in the spread is taken to govern some element of the query – such as past events
and people of influence. Each tarot card has attributed to it a variety of possible
meanings. The reader will then use these meanings together with the cards’ positions
in the spread, to construct a narrative in answer to the query. It is worth noting
that the possible narratives that can be constructed from any spread of cards is
incalculable, both because of the range of possible meanings for each card but also
because they are open to broad interpretation by the reader as to how they apply
to the query.
In recent years, tarot reading has increasingly encompassed non-supernatural application,
using the cards to meditate or reflect upon personal matters, even using them in
a similar fashion to Ink Blot tests. However, these applications, while novel, are
not very controversial and are not of great interest to the sceptic. Though most
sceptics would probably consider it wiser to consult an accredited professional for
psychological problems and accept their judgement on the usefulness of tarot for
such treatment. I mention this use because it is sometimes given by people defending
tarot reading against sceptics but as it is clearly so distinct from those claims
that are the subject of sceptical enquiry, it is irrelevant and constitutes no defence
The most common form of tarot reading and that is most recognised by the public and
the popular media is divination. Divination, popularly known as fortune telling,
has been practiced using many things, from knuckle bones, to dominoes, and amounts
to the attempt to acquire knowledge of the past, present, and the future by supernatural
means – or at least by means not yet known to science or, strictly, by the diviner.
The subjects of scepticism then are the extraordinary claims of tarot having an ancient
occult origin and its application for divination. However, before we begin to address
them, we should first address the question as to why sceptics should concern themselves
with these claims and why they should pursue them rather than just leave people to
believe what they freely choose to believe. There are broadly two reasons for the
sceptic’s interest. The first is purely academic – many sceptics are of an academic
bent and so when an extraordinary claim is made, they will want to know if there
is any truth in it. The second is ethical. People who believe the claims of diviners
will naturally, to greater or lesser extent, govern their actions according the readings
they receive – often for payment. This can have a dramatic effect on their lives,
through their relationships with friends, families, lovers, their career choices,
the direction of their education, and even their health where medical advice is given.
Just as there is a moral imperative to scrutinize the claims for psychiatric, psychological,
surgical, and medical treatments, so there is an equal imperative to scrutinize the
claims of diviners. Scrutiny of the history can also be seen as an ethical requirement,
though more for the school of virtue ethics, in particular, that virtue of integrity.
Of course, we should not forget that an occult history of tarot may reinforce people’s
belief in divination. So, not only do sceptics have a right to challenge the claims
made – after all, a claim that is made publically can only be expected to fall under
public scrutiny – but they have both a personal interest and a moral imperative to
Introduction to Knowledge
Our first task will be to look at our understanding of knowledge, we need to make
clear just what we mean by knowing if we are to properly judge the demands made by
the sceptic and to answer some of the defences made for the occult tarot.
In the past there have been two schools of thought with regards to how we may have
knowledge: rationalism and empiricism. These days there seems to be rather less partisan
thinking about them, with philosophers accepting that there is something to be said
for both schools. So let’s look at what they are and what they claim.
Knowledge that is a priori is obtained by reason alone and is the product of what
we call deductive reasoning, where the conclusion of an argument is necessarily true
if and only if it is entailed by the premises of the argument (which we call validity),
and if the premises are actually true (which we call soundness). Probably the best
example of this is mathematics. Of course, in the spirit of all great detectives,
we might employ deductive reasoning on premises that are empirical observations and
which, as we shall see, can never be certain. We may wish to think of this as an
overlap between the two kinds of knowledge.
Deductive arguments are scrutinised by applying the laws of logic and it is worth
saying something about them. The laws of logic are absolute, they are not “our logic”
as opposed to someone else’s, nor are they in any way arbitrary. The laws of logic
are laws presupposed by the existence of language – any language. At its most basic,
the study of logic is the study of what can be meaningfully said and its laws apply
to all languages. Without these laws languages cannot carry meaning and serve communication.
Knowledge that is empirical is obtained through observation. Empirical claims, not
just in science but also your knowledge of where you live and even what you look
like, are based on what is called inductive reasoning. A very simple example if this
might be that:
I observe all the swans I can and find that all of them are white. I therefore conclude
that all swans are white. Of course, then you discover Australia and find black swans!
The problem with inductive arguments is that they are not valid, by which we mean
that their conclusions are not entailed by their premises.
When we talk of empirical knowledge, we are using the term very differently from
rationalism. Empirical knowledge is open to revision and what we mean by knowing
is what we have overwhelming reason to believe. While we can never prove an empirical
proposition, we can try to falsify it with observation and we can apply statistics
to our observations to determine the probability that they occurred by chance. We
actually do this to some degree on an everyday level but in science, these principles
are applied with a strict methodology and precision.
What both types of knowledge have in common, that which qualifies them to be called
knowledge, is that they can both be tested. In the case of a priori knowledge, we
examine the arguments for soundness and validity, while for empirical theories we
try to test them against observation. But what if a proposition cannot be tested?
In such a case, we describe the proposition as unscientific and the importance of
this is that if we cannot test it, then we cannot form any positive reason to think
Various responses to this account of knowledge have been made by advocates of occultism
and while they are by no means representative of all - or only - occultists and diviners,
four in particular are worth a brief mention.
Kinds of Knowledge
I’ll begin with the claim that there are other kinds of knowledge by which we may
know occult or spiritual truths. As a response against scepticism, the advocate of
this position must say exactly what that kind of knowledge is – divine revelation
is a popular example - and importantly, just what qualifies it as knowledge, that
is, how can it test a proposition against the claim that it is false? If they cannot
supply these answers, then we have to conclude that they are using the world ‘knowledge’
in a different way to the rest of us. It is all too easy to dismiss the claim of
other kinds of knowledge in this way but we must not be too hasty to do so, as there
can be a coherent notion behind it. There are broadly two interpretations of spiritual
belief, the first is objective and the second is subjective. The objectivist interpretation
understands spiritual beliefs in the same way that we understand other beliefs, as
being about how the world is and as such they may be true or false. The subjectivist
interpretation treats the word belief in this context as metaphor and thus spiritual
beliefs are not about the world but are ways of experiencing it, bringing to it meaning
and value. Subjectivist language can also use the word truth in a similar way, so
that a spiritual truth is not true as opposed to false or with reference to any facts
but rather a fact about some individuals and how they engage with the world. Where
the words belief, truth and knowledge are used in a subjectivist manner, they are
not subjects of scepticism. However, many people, perhaps most, who have such spiritual
beliefs, do hold them in the objectivist sense. Certainly, most people who seek tarot
readings hold and are led to hold objective beliefs about what those readings mean.
The irrationalist rejects the application of rationality to all things, claiming
that some things simply aren’t governed or understood by the rational. The rationalist
cannot accept this, taking the position that rationality is either opt in or opt
out because a middle ground is not rationally defensible. Consider a dictator who
has decided to exterminate a portion of the population, challenged on this he gives
no rational justification for the decision but claims to be willing to listening
to the case against it. Now, you have two options: offer a rational case or an irrational
one. If you offer an irrational one, it will be as irrational has his own and carry
no weight against it. If you offer a rational case he can say “Ah, but this is an
instance where rationality does not apply and so my decision stands – but if you
disagree with me on this, by all means make your case.” Now you can challenge his
position that rationality does not apply in two ways, rationally or irrationally
and face the same problem again. There is no middle ground and any person who takes
an irrationalist position may believe whatever they wish and cannot be debated.
Relativism is very old and has been countered since at least Plato, nearly two and
a half thousand years ago. The relativist claims that truth claims are relative as
opposed to absolute. If this claim is only about some truth claims, then it is trivial,
either evoking the difference between “this is sweet for me” and “this contains sugar”
or creating the same problem for a middle ground as we found for irrationalism. So
it must be a claim about all truth claims but this means that the relativist is claiming
that it is absolutely true that there are no absolute truths. It is a self refuting
position. I must admit, I am very sceptical as to just how earnestly relativists
take their own claims. They certainly seem very earnest in debate but in everyday
life we find that things are very different. How many relativists have marched to
their child’s school to reprimand a teacher for giving their child a bad mark: “how
dare you impose your truths on my child, if it is true for him that 2+2 make 5, then
it is true for him”? And when we reflect, we can find the fiction of relativism in
our every day experience. I recall a local newspaper article from some years ago
which told of a toddler who had eaten black current tarts for his desert and then,
in the garden afterwards, eaten some more black currents – at least that is what
he believed them to be, that was his truth, according to the relativist. However,
irrespective of what he believed or how earnestly he believed it, the berries were
really Deadly Nightshade and that little boy is now very really dead. Believe what
you wish in life, but reality bites.
The Concept of Truth
The fourth response I would like to mention is really just a variation on relativism
but is common enough to warrant individual mention. The claim is that other cultures
have a different concept of truth and so we cannot evaluate their truth claims with
our concept. The claim is by no means limited to the New Age but is sometimes, sadly,
found in some areas of academia, such as sociology and anthropology. The two key
words to keep in mind are “different concept”. Imagine that you meet a man who asks
you if you have a concept of a circle and when you reply that you do, he asks you
to describe it. He then looks a little surprised, saying that that is very different
from his concept of a circle, which has four equal sides and four right angles. His
concept of circle refers to something completely different from yours, he is conceiving
of something else that he just happens to give the same name. If we try to talk of
cultures having a different concept of truth then what we mean is not that what constitutes
truth varies but that the application of the word varies, perhaps because they do
not even have a concept of truth. If the word truth is being applied in two different
ways then we must take care not to conflate them – else we could call chickens tables
and conclude that tables lay eggs.
When occultists began to appropriate tarot, there was very little known about the
history and this vacuum in our knowledge endured until 1980, when the first really
comprehensive and dedicated study on the history of the cards and games was published.
Sadly, in the intervening couple of centuries, the occultists ‘mysteries’ so established
themselves in the media and public awareness that, nearly 30 years after the myths
should have been forgotten, the actual history remains largely unknown while the
myths continue. So, let’s take a look at the account of tarot’s past based upon evidence
and then we can take a good look at how the occultist’s account came about and just
what it is based upon.
Playing cards are first seen in Europe in the mid 14th century. They are thought
to have originated in the Far East, ultimately from Chinese money games. Coming to
us from the Malmuks, our earliest cards are distinctly Islamic in appearance and
feature, as our modern packs, 52 cards made up from 4 suits, each with 10 pip cards
and 3 court cards. The suit symbols were Cups, Coins, Scimitars, and Polo Sticks.
Islam (by most interpretations) does not allow the depiction of living things, so
the court cards were represented by abstract designs and calligraphy. Polo was not
played in Europe at that time, so Polo Sticks became Batons. The court cards were
then represented with the figures of a King, a Rider, and a Footman. These changes
created what we now call the Latin suits. Cards like these are still used today in
countries such as Italy and Spain.
The Queen appears to have been independently invented
on more than one occasion and may even have existed in non-Islamic predecessors to
our cards. In Italy there was an early pack that featured 6 court cards in each suit,
being a male and a female of each rank. Most of these extra cards were dropped but
retaining the Queen in a 56 card pack, that for a time may have been a regional standard.
It was to this pack that in the early to mid 15th century, a fifth suit of picture
cards was added. These picture cards would appear to have taken as their theme a
Christian triumph procession, hence their early name of trionfi, meaning triumphs
and from which we get our word trump. It was the invention of tarot that marked the
wider introduction of trumps in card games, although again, trumps seem to have been
invented independently on more than one occasion. And this is what they were invented
for, card games, games that have grown into a large and varied family, spread throughout
much of continental Europe and that continues to be played to this day.
As I’ve mentioned,
the original name for tarot was trionfi but this was soon changed to tarocchi, probably
to save confusion with another game of triumphs that was becoming popular. Perhaps
the most plausible origin of this new name is the term tarochus, meaning ‘to play
the fool’, The Fool having an important and unique role in the games. As the cards
spread through Europe, this was name often truncated to Tarock, while the French
gave us the name that we have inherited, Tarot.
Given the modern perception of tarot
cards, it may seem hard to accept this. You are very likely to have read about the
church suppressing tarot cards, and that they had to be used in secret because of
their heretical images. However, this is not the case. Tarot games spread across
the continent, being played openly, without opposition by the church all through
the counter-reformation. The only real exception to this is in Spain, where it is
important to note that the opposition was not from a perception that the images were
somehow un-Christian, but precisely because they were Christian. The authorities
there felt that it was inappropriate to use such images in a card game. We have good
reason then, to go back and question our initial thoughts. It might help to take
a closer look at two cards that have been widely misunderstood.
The Female Pope, often
renamed The High Priestess by modern occultists, is an excellent example. This must
surely be heretical. But no, we are looking at the cards through modern eyes, with
a vision coloured by popular myth. If we are to understand what the images represent,
then we must look at them in the context of their origin – Renaissance Italy. If
we look at the religious art of that time and place, we find that The Female Pope
was an established figure in Christian art, being used to symbolize such things as
The New Covenant and the Virtue of Faith. There was no heresy, which explains why
there was no opposition.
Another card that is often cited as having esoteric meaning
is The Hanged Man, perhaps because it is difficult to see just what overt and obvious
meaning it could ever have had. What are we to make of a man suspended by one foot,
often holding money bags? Some have suggested it to be Judas, though he would have
hung himself by the neck, others have suggested it to be the Virtue of Prudence,
indeed, the list of offerings is long and varied. However if we again look at the
card in context we find a different story and no mystery at all. The title of Hanged
man was given to the card by French card makers but we know from written sources
that in Italy it was called The Traitor – and little wonder, as this is how Italians
used to execute traitors, suspended by one foot and left to die rather slowly and
publicly. As for the money bags, we can find an explanation from another practice
of the time, that of Shame Pictures. It was the practice to shame those who betrayed
a trust by employing an artist to draw that person’s likeness hung as a traitor,
this would then be publicly displayed – often this was done in the case of bad debtors,
hence we can suppose the money bags.
The beginning of the 18th century saw a big change
in tarot in many countries. At this time, German card makers began to produce French
suited tarot cards that also gave up the traditional trumps in favour of a number
of themes, such as animals or local scenes. This offered two advantages. The first
was economic. Regular French suited playing cards had existed since the 15th century
and had quickly become the dominant pattern in Europe. While the Latin suits required
costly wood blocks and hand colouring, which was labour intensive, the French suits
required only a simple stencil to reproduce the pips, making production much cheaper.
Additionally, by dropping the traditional trumps, the card makers could do more to
show off their skills, as well as create cards with themes that might appeal more
to their regional customers. This new pattern of Tarot cards has now become the dominant
form for game play.
All of this is a far cry from anything that we see in the popular media and I’m happy
to report that the games continue to be played throughout much of continental Europe
To be fair, we should note that in internet communities there are a large number
of tarot readers who do, to at least some extent, accept this account of Tarot’s
origin. However, their acceptance has done nothing to impact on public perception
and a great many more still promote the myths.
The Occult History
The obvious question now is that if tarot has no occult origin, how on earth did
it become so heavily associated with occultism and fortune telling? This story begins
toward the end of the 18th century with a Parisian occultist, Antoine Court de Gebelin.
There are three major factors to consider: First of all, the game of tarot, while
once very popular in France, had fallen out of favour, and was being played only
in some rural areas – in the cities, a generation or more had probably never seen
a game of tarot. Secondly, there was egyptomania, a fad for all things Egyptian.
And thirdly, Gebelin had been publishing an encyclopaedia expounding his theory that
all cultures ultimately had a common origin in an ancient and advanced civilisation.
He had by this time published several volumes already and it was heavily subscribed,
driving his need to find new material. This is when he found the tarot pack. He tells
a story of a country visit where he saw a game of tarot being played, tarot being
new and exotic to his eyes, he claims to have immediately recognised them to be the
wisdom of Egypt’s ancient priests, codified in a game to preserve it from the book
burning hoards and brought to Europe by the Gypsies. He made no effort to support
his fairy tale with evidence but goes on to explain that the name tarot is derived
from two ancient Egyptian words: Tar and Ro, meaning “Royal Road”. If this were not
enough, he published a simple method for using the cards in divination.
Of course, not only is there no evidence of the tarot’s imagery in Ancient Egypt,
but the story contradicts the evidence that we have for their origins. We have known
for a long time now that the Gypsies did not come from Egypt but from the Indian
sub-continent. And finally, if we needed confirmation of Gebelin’s dishonesty, he
was writing before the Rosetta Stone was decoded, so at the time, no one knew any
Ancient Egyptian and we can now confirm that the ‘words’ Tar and Ro do not exist
in the Ancient Egyptian lexicon. But he was not the first, nor the last occultist
to invent his own erudition.
Our next key figure in this story was a 19th century fortune teller who worked under
the name Etteilla. He is attributed with having first coined the term cartomancy
for fortune telling with playing cards – something he made a living from both practicing
and teaching. He saw in Gebelin’s work an excellent business opportunity and developed
a more detailed system of meanings and occult correspondences, which he published
along with some heavily re-designed tarot cards.
Rejecting Etteilla’s fortune telling another occultist, calling himself Eliphas Levi,
decided that tarot cards represented Hebrew Cabbala, specifically the Tree of Life.
His claim is based on a co-incidence of numbers, if you take the Fool to be part
of the trump sequence (which it wasn’t), then you have 22 cards and there are 22
paths in the Tree of Life. Remember the story of a man caught playing with a pack
of cards in church? And that is as substantial as he gets.
A contemporary of Levi, calling himself Paul Christian, is also worth noting. He
claimed to have read the works of Iamblichus, a neo-platonist philosopher, at the
British Library and on his return to France published a translation of part of it.
This told of an initiation ritual for the Egyptian priesthood and described a series
of stone tablets that reflected the images of the tarot trumps. This claim is often
repeated or alluded to even today – it is found in the literature supplied as standard
with all Fournier tarots. However, when he was writing, his readership would have
little if any chance of checking his translation, only two copies of the text existed
in Latin, one in the British Library and the other in Rome. Today however, Iamblichus
is widely studied in philosophy courses and his work is freely available in a number
of translations, any one of which will confirm that Paul Christian was a liar.
So, for about one hundred years the idea of an occult tarot was limited only to France.
But at the end of the 19th century, a group of British occultists began to translate
the writings of Eliphas Levi and Paul Christian and import tarot cards. These people
were the founders of the magical Order of the Golden Dawn, who invented a magic system
based around the tarot and in doing so, changed some of the suit signs and trump
names to those that we are familiar with. Batons were changed to wands and in a comical
move, Coins became pentacles. Eliphas Levi had decided that coins should be talismans,
as he called them, pantacles. The Golden Dawn members then mistranslated this to
The English speaking world had no remembered history of tarot cards and so people’s
first experience of them was as occult objects and the claim of an occult origin,
or at least an origin at the hands of occultists, seems to have been accepted without
question. While France returned to playing the game of tarot, Britain and the United
States saw an explosion of popular myths in books, magazines, television programmes,
and movies. Gradually, the occult tarot then began to be exported back into continental
Europe, a very different animal to the one that left it. Because tarot is known by
other names in Europe, such as Tarock or Tarocchi, and because the designs used for
game play are now dramatically different, the traditional cards had become novel
and exotic. It is often pointed out that propaganda does not require a conspiracy,
only market forces. While many of the occultists behind the promotion of tarot have
probably believed their stories in some way, the media machine that continues to
push them is driven by profit. Today, most people when asked about tarot will think
of them as essentially occult object and the tools for fortune tellers. Even on forums
dedicated to scepticism, they are perceived this way and dismissed as such.
For a long time, occultists and fortune tellers were allowed something of a monopoly
on the use and origins of tarot – at least in the English speaking world. While work
had been done previously by Gertrude Moakley, it was not until the 1980 publication
of Michael Dummett’s “Game of Tarot” that an academic challenge was made against
the dominant myths. This book presented a researched and referenced account of the
history of tarot’s origins, of the games played with them, and of the occultist appropriation.
While it only had a single printing, having sold badly it still existed as a damning
and embarrassing attack on the myths that had been peddled for so long. Gradually,
thanks to the internet, Dummett’s account of tarot’s origins began to reach greater
and greater numbers until it became difficult for some occultists to ignore or disregard
without some answer. The need to make some response became ever more pressing with
further publications giving greater detail on the development of the occult tarot,
which served to highlight the absurdity of it all.
1. Complete acceptance. Those who accept that tarot has no occult origin maintain
their use in divination and the occult by different means. Some will say that the
cards are now used by occultists to represent their spiritual beliefs and so, in
that context, they do represent them. This is perfectly correct but at a sacrifice,
as it robs the cards of any intrinsic meaning that is often desired. With regards
to divination, it may be said that the power of divination does not lie with the
cards but with the diviner, the cards only provide a focus, so it doesn’t matter
where they come from.
2. A partial acceptance. This usually means that the facts are accepted but are augmented
with more spurious assertions to force a more fantastical conclusion.
3. One of many theories. Of course, there are many theories (in the common use of
the term) but not all theories are equal – however, people like to suggest that they
are, quickly brushing over the supported theory to present whatever spurious one
they happen to prefer.
4. Denial of all but the bare minimum. The dates of the oldest packs (often incorrect)
and a mention that they were once used for card games.
Complete acceptance is not all that common in my experience. Responses 2-4 are what
you will ordinarily see, essentially a different number of facts used to dress a
fantasy with a little more credibility that it deserves. Looking at many web sites
and books, the knowledge of tarot’s history, whatever the response to it, is often
very poor, with numerous dates pulled from nowhere, the lies of Court de Gebelin
and Paul Christian continue to be quoted as facts, and spurious links to various
ancient beliefs defended by the like of “experts think”, or “the majority opinion
is” (as if knowledge were a democracy).
Why are things this way? The financial concerns of those who make a living from the
occult tarot and the fact that so many people have invested so much of themselves,
even of their very identities in the occult tarot that it could be devastating for
them to give it up.
Before we move on, I shall make a little mention regarding the modern myth of the
Grail Heresy and the claims that tarot cards somehow represent Arthurian legends
– or, according to some, truths, connected to it. This notion had relatively little
following until the publication of The Da Vinci Code and there are two principle
sources for the myth that I know of. The first of these is Margaret Starbird, who
was cited by Dan Browne – frankly, I have little patience with this source, as Starbird
herself admits in her Google Gnol article that she has not read any of the recognised
works of history on the subject. By her own admission, this is not a person in a
position to be writing a work of history.
Another source of note is the British author Graham Phillips, a man who claims to
have located the Holy Grail cup, the last resting place of Mary, and the remains
of the Ark of the Covenant – all conveniently in the United Kingdom, saving him a
fortune in plane fares. In two of his books, he cites a forgotten poem, called the
Folly of Percival, even giving the BN number of the folio that holds it. The poem
tells the story of the Fisher King and the characters listed all seem to fit the
figures of the tarot trumps. If true, then it would be quite a find, however, while
the cited folio does exist, there is no record of this poem ever having been a part
of it and although Phillips makes claims about what ‘scholars’ have to say about
the piece, he doesn’t cite any of them and the only other references that I have
been able to find to it are referencing Phillips. Given his poor knowledge of the
history of playing cards, (in particular with regards to the origins of the Queen
and the Joker) this should be cause for some concern. I am not the only person to
have attempted to contact him both via his web-site and via his publisher but he
has yet to answer and I consider his silence to be damning.
At last we can turn our attention to divination, though this might disappoint you.
The truth is that this, perhaps the part of our discussion of most interest to people,
is going to be short. There really is very little to say.
First of all, I should elaborate on the matter of the burden of proof and extraordinary
claims. Some tarot readers feel picked upon when sceptics place the burden of proof
with them, sometimes calling it arrogant. When we talk of people making extraordinary
claims we mean claims that would contradict the established body of academic knowledge
and understanding (in our case in science and philosophy). By this of course, we
mean that there is good reason already to reject the claim and it is against this
that we expect the claimant to accept burden of proof and show how either that the
existing body of understanding is wrong or how their claim is consistent with it.
extraordinary claims made under any discipline must meet this requirement. Well known
examples that come to mind include from physics, Cold Fusion (found false), and from
biology, the claim that most stomach ulcers are caused by bacteria (found correct
and won a Nobel!). It is not arrogant presumption that leads the sceptic to place
the burden of proof on the tarot reader but just good and standard academic practice.
Tarot readers are being given equal treatment with all others in this – if they want
special treatment, then they need to make a very special case for it.
Claims to divine the past and present are often clouded with controversy regarding
what is called cold reading, where the sitter provides the ‘diviner’ with the information,
other details are guessed or deduced, and are again, confirmed by the sitter. Of
course, it should be possible to record such a reading and examine it for information
revealed by means that can have no other explanation – yet still, this has not been
achieved. However, divination of the future should not subject to the same debate,
and this makes it the main focus for sceptical enquiry. Readers who divine the future
fall into three groups.
The first makes forecasts that are specific enough to be testable.
These claims can be called scientific but the sceptic will point out that Mr Randi
still has that million dollars.
The second makes forecasts that are just too vague
to be given an interpretation before the facts and so while perhaps in principle
testable, they are not testable in practice.
The third claims only to make forecasts
of the possible future that is subject to change if known. This claim can account
for any test result, positive or negative and therefore is in principle un-testable.
the last two groups cannot be tested against the opposing position, they are described
as being unscientific. The sceptic will then turn back to the burden of proof – those
who make claims that are testable, can at least hope to meet that challenge – though
after all the years that these claims have been the subject of study, they have yet
to do so - but for those who make unscientific claims it is a challenge that CANNOT
be met, as such, they cannot provide any reason to believe their claims!
So, where do we find ourselves? We find first of all that there is no reason to believe
tarot cards to have been created any earlier than the mid 15th century, nor for any
purpose other than playing card games, nor do we have reason to believe that any
ancient belief system is codified within the images. As for divination, we find that
in practice, much is code reading, while the claims of divining the future either
fail to prove true or are simply vacuous!
We must now ask ourselves if there is anything that we can and should do with these
conclusions. Many people are persuaded that divination with tarot works and seek
its ‘aid’, thus these beliefs can have an adverse affect on their lives. As such,
there is a clear moral imperative to counter those beliefs. I suspect that after
astrology, tarot may be the most popular form of divination in the English speaking
world today. But it is far more. It has become one of the great icons of the New
Age movement, and one of the cornerstones of some popular systems of magic. The occult
tarot represents a huge target, supported by a whole industry, as well as by the
popular media. However, because tarot is so iconic and has become so embedded in
New Age and magical beliefs, a successful assault against its position would be a
major victory against the irrational influences that seem to endure in modern society.
Of course, sceptics have been trying to assault other bastions of nonsense, such
as astrology, for many years and sadly, with only modest success. But tarot is different.
Its origin provides us with an instrument that could serve as an unexpected and quietly
effective weapon. Tarot is a card game.
So many things having been used for divination, such as tea leaves, coffee grounds,
dominoes (really), and chicken entrails, but these and many others have not endured
well into the modern age. People will take astrology seriously today but why not
chicken bones? If we look at those superstitions that most people no longer entertain,
we find that they tend to have been based upon something relatively mundane or ordinary
and which, while once enough to inspire awe, just look like fairground hokum to today’s
audience. When we look at those superstitions that endure, such as tarot and astrology,
we find that they involve something a little more exotic, out of the ordinary – and
if that doesn’t come from it being imported from an unfamiliar culture, then it will
be something attractive that was, or is believed to have been, devised for the purpose.
Fighting against that success of myth cannot be an easy matter but it can be done
and tarot’s now well documented history and enduring appeal as a card game can be
made to work for this end. The strategy that I would propose is that the occult tarot’s
opponents take the cards back, reclaim them and transform them in the eyes of the
public into that which they always were – tools for play. It is not a strategy that
can be won overnight. It is the long game towards the goal of a generation that grows
up seeing tarot as no more mysterious or magical than any pack of Happy Families
We must first be clear about the cards we are talking about. Tarot cards fall into
roughly three types: the traditional designs with Latin suits, the French suited
packs, and those occult packs that have been redesigned to actually represent occult
beliefs. We have no concern regarding the French suited packs, those that concern
us are only the traditional and the occult packs. The occult packs cannot be directly
targeted by our strategy as we have to accept that their images really do represent
the occult philosophies that they were intended to. But we can make an indirect attack
as they are created and sold with the belief that tarot cards do have some occult
origin and philosophy that they can ‘tap’ into.
To achieve our end, the games must be introduced into English speaking society, they
must be introduced using the traditional Italian designs, and they must be promoted
to popularity. There is no money to promote them with advertising but that isn’t
necessary to start with. All that is necessary is that everyone who wishes to oppose
the occult tarot takes part. We must play the games, play them without preaching
– the games can stand on their own merit – and we must be seen to play them and every
opportunity, be that at the pub, the student bar, a common room, or at a party. This
is no great chore and requires no great investment. Thanks to the internet, suitable
cards are easily obtained for a reasonable price and the rules are freely available
on a number of web sites. The games themselves are thankfully very, very good – which
is why they have endured and continued to be popular for nearly six centuries. Everyone
can do this much, though some can do more, particularly if they work in the media.
The more active among you may wish to keep an eye on the media for any uncritical
presentation of tarot as occult or just for fortune telling, writing letters to the
programme makers or the local papers correcting their history. Blogs, free articles,
You Tube videos, and web pages presenting the history and rules are all useful. But
everyone can play the games – and that just might be enough, for if enough of us
play them, then we might introduce more people to them, who in turn, will introduce
others. And if it doesn’t work, well, at least you will have enjoyed yourself trying.
But if we are lucky, then the games might just catch the eye of commercial players,
presenting an opportunity for good business – and if that happens, money will be
spent on promotion.
If you would like to join in this effort, then you will need to purchase a pack of
cards and familiarise yourself with a few of the games. Make sure that you know how
to play at least one beginners’ game. Make sure that you always use a pack of Latin
suited cards with the Italian trumps – they are our target. Make sure that you know
the web address for at least one store for people to buy the cards and one site with
the rules. That way, if you do introduce someone new to the games, you can jot down
these details for them, so that they might get some cards themselves and continue