High Art 2020 Inspo: The Magic and Art of the Tarot
Magic is, according to its definition, “the power of apparently influencing the course of events by using mysterious or supernatural forces.” One way humans have sought to influence events throughout history is through divination, “the practice of seeking knowledge of the future or the unknown by supernatural means.” The past is rife with prophets, fortune-tellers, and oracles who have helped everyone from kings to commoners make choices based on visions, dreams, and trips taken on hallucinogenic substances.
Seers had varying means of foretelling the future, from scrying mirrors to tarot cards. The origins of tarot cards are as mysterious as the cards themselves, with one theory in 1781 that they derived from an ancient Egyptian book, The Book of Thoth. Thoth, a king, was a said to be the inventor of writing and hieroglyphics and thus a scholar on symbolism. It’s thought that Egyptian and Turkish or Indian travelers brought knowledge of the tarot to Europe, where a German monk described them in 1377. The only thing that historians seem to agree on when it comes to tarot cards is that they were originally designed for card games and not fortune telling. Tarot games range from something akin to bridge, to sort of “choose your own adventure” games using the imagery of the cards to conjure up a story.
Once the printing press came to be, the popular cards were mass produced and available to anyone who could afford a pack. Today’s playing cards derived from the tarot deck, as both feature four suits and royalty cards. In divination, tarot cards used for cartomancy (fortune telling with cards) carry the suits of pentacles or coins (diamonds), cups (hearts), wands (clubs), and swords (spades), as well as kings, queens, knights and pages. Today’s playing cards no longer feature a page or many of the 22 major arcana cards, except The Fool, who has been cast as the Joker.
In America, tarot cards are primarily used for divination, a practice that seemed to originate in the 18th century. Although there are many different decks of fortune telling cards and tarot specifically, if you live in the United States, you’re probably most familiar with the Rider-Waite deck of cards. Dr. Edward Waite was a scholar of occultism and author of The Key to the Tarot (1910). Waite produced his own deck of cards with the help of illustrator Miss Pamela Colman Smith, an Englishwoman who is best known for her work on this popular deck. Miss Smith, also known as “Pixie,” had an illustrious history in the arts and bohemian London. Illustrious as in “cover of magazines” which was a pretty big deal in 1912. Although nothing is said specifically about Pixie’s sexuality, she never married but lived with her lifetime companion of 40 years, Mrs. Nora Lake until she passed away penniless in Cornwall, England.
Under the supervision of Waite, Smith developed colorful and symbolic cards filled with imagery made for divination. The Rider-Waite deck resurged in popularity during the 1970s when a guide to reading the tarot for fun and fortune was published and people caught the cartomancy bug once more. Today you can receive tarot readings at parties, at psychic fairs or even pick up a deck and book and read them for yourself and your friends. Regardless of what you use them for, you’ll surely appreciate the beauty of these ancient, magical cards. They are truly a study of symbolism in art!
Feeling inspired by the art of the tarot? Channel that magic into some prize-winning art! Remember, High Art 2020 begins on February 20th and ends March 20th. Winners will be announced on April 20th during our annual 420 celebration. The contest is 100% free to enter! See the High Art page for contest rules.