Tarot Heritage: 600 Year Old Tradition

If you feel a special connection to tarot, you share a 600-year tradition with tarot lovers worldwide. Tarot’s history takes us from medieval Italian castles to French secret societies; with side-trips to visit English magicians, California hippies, and contemporary digital artists. Let’s explore the highlights of our shared tarot heritage.

The story begins when playing cards migrated down the Silk Road from China to Arabia. In the 1370s, Arab sailors landing in Italian and Spanish ports introduced playing cards to Europe. Their decks had four suits (Cups, Coins, Swords, and Batons) numbered ace through ten, plus three court cards.

Within a decade, these Arabic card games spread throughout Europe. Then in the 1430s, someone in northern Italy added a fifth suit illustrated with popular images like an empress, a pope, and lovers. This expanded deck was used to play a game called Tarocchi in Italy, and Tarot in France.

The inexpensive paper cards ordinary people used have all disappeared. But decks made for Italian aristocrats using gold leaf, crushed lapis lazuli, and other precious materials are housed in museums throughout Europe and the United States. We can even hold a piece of tarot history in our hands, thanks to reprints of the Duke of Milan’s 1450 Visconti-Sforza deck.

Everything changed in 1500 when political and economic power shifted from Italy to France. French print shops dominated the playing card industry. Printers kept up with demand by inventing ways to print cards faster and cheaper. They simplified suit symbols to the easily stenciled hearts, diamonds, spades and clubs; while the older suit symbols (coins, cups, swords and batons) were only used in tarot decks. This older card style was standardized into the Tarot de Marseille pattern. The French still prefer this deck for readings.

In the mid-1700’s, a Parisian astrologer and fortune teller named Etteilla revolutionized tarot reading. Etteilla operated a school for tarot and astrology, published a tarot magazine, designed his own deck, and wrote books on how to read cards. His biggest innovation was teaching his students to lay out spreads and tell a story, and to use reversals.

During the 1700s, people gradually abandoned tarot for trendier games.While the game was fading in popularity, occultists were discovering tarot’s mystical properties.Esoteric lodges and secret societies spread throughout Europe teaching Qabalah, astrology, alchemy and ceremonial magic.When an unknown occultist made a connection between the 22 tarot trump cards and the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, he reinvented tarot as the transmitter of secret cabalistic correspondences.

Students of the occult believed Tarot and Qabalah were essentially the same, and that both originated in ancient Egypt.Occultists like the influential French author Oswald Wirth designed Egyptian decks labelled with Hebrew letters to bring tarot closer to its supposed origins. Meanwhile, English occultists translated French magical treatises and dreamed of improving on them.

In the 1880s, two English occultists devised an alternate to the French system. They created correspondences between tarot cards and colors, musical notes, Hebrew letters, the Tree of Life, and astrology. A British secret society, The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, used this system for its rituals and teachings. In the early twentieth century, Golden Dawn lodges in the United States imported this system, along with tarot, across the Atlantic.

In 1909, A. E. Waite, a Christian mystic and former member of the Golden Dawn, teamed up with the artist Pamela Colman Smith to create a revolutionary new deck. He added Christian and Egyptian details to the major arcana, like Adam and Eve as the Lovers, and sphinxes pulling the Chariot. Smith, who was a set designer, drew a scene on each minor arcana card. The resulting Rider Waite deck (now called Waite Smith) sent tarot down an exciting new path.

Eden Gray’s tarot books for beginners, published in the 1960s and still in print, were illustrated with the Waite Smith deck and used Waite’s card meanings. These immensely popular books created a huge demand for Waite’s deck, and sparked an industry of Waite Smith spin-offs inspired by anything from goddesses to gummy bears. Gray taught an accessible, story-telling method of card reading that took tarot out of esoteric lodges and into the mainstream.

By 1970, Waite’s deck, his card interpretations, the Celtic Cross spread, and Golden Dawn symbolism appeared in nearly every English-language tarot book. This created a unique Anglo-American tarot style that’s very different from European practices based on the Tarot de Marseille.

In the late 1960s, the counter culture’s “anything goes” spirit transformed a segment of the tarot scene.Tarot readers threw away their books to read in a loose, free-association style. Deck artists transcended the Waite Smith model and poured their visions into the 78-card framework.Tarot fragmented into hundreds of decks appealing to a diverse range of interests. The 1969 Xultun Tarot was the first of many decks rooted in a wide range of subcultures and world mythologies.

The internet has given a huge boost to creativity and individualism. Self-publishing and print-on-demand frees authors and deck creators from domination by conservative, profit-driven publishing houses. A supportive global community provides instant encouragement and feedback.

Tarot has experienced many changes in 600 years, yet the deck has remained essentially the same. Over 500 years ago, an Italian priest made a list of tarot cards in the margin of a sermon. The names and the order of his cards are identical to today’s tarot. When you hold a tarot deck in your hands, you’re holding centuries of tradition and history.

Do you own a reprint of a historic deck? Have you tried reading with it? We’d love to hear about your connection to tarot history.

Learn How to Make and Use Corn Dollies

Corn dollies bring health, wealth and general prosperity to the land or property owner according to old witches. Learn how to make and use corn dollies!

One activity for Lughnasadh that is thousands of years old is the making of the “Corn Dollies”. This is a custom that originates with the people that once grew corn before the invention of farming machinery. They believed that the grain crops were home to a spirit. When they harvested the crop, it would make the spirit homeless.  This Spirit was called the “Corn Maiden”, “Corn-Mother” or the “Corn Spirit”.

Corn Dollies were made from the last sheaf of corn that was cut and would be kept until spring to ensure the harvest would be a good one. The Corn Spirit would be made homeless at the harvest, and by creating a “Dolly” from the sheaves, or plaited straw they would be rehomed within and reborn in the following year’s crop.

During Harvest Festivals and Feasts, a Corn Dolly would sit on the table at a place of honor to bless the banquet. The Harvest feast was often held in honor of the farmers, and not only was there a grand meal, but games were often played, music too.

With the advent of the Industrial Revolution and the invention of farming machines, the traditions of creating a Corn Dolly from the last sheaf all but died out, however, the custom survives still in the art of crafting things from straw as a hobby.

Traditional Uses

  • The last sheaf of the harvest, dressed in a woman’s dress or woven into an intricate shape and decked with ribbons, is regarded as the embodiment of the spirit of the crop, the spirit of the growing grain itself. The safe-keeping of this corn dolly over the winter ensures fertility for the following harvest, provided that some portion of it is given to cattle and horses to eat, and some portion of it strewn in the field or mixed with the seeds for the next crop.
  • This practice of saving the spirit of the harvest is extensive throughout Europe.
  • In Northumberland, the corn dolly is attached to a long pole and carried home to be set up in the barn. In some communities, it goes home with the last load. Sometimes it is fairly small. In parts of Germany, the heavier it is, the better.
  • On the Isle of Lewis in Scotland, the corn dolly’s apron is filled with bread, cheese, and a sickle. In other parts of Scotland, the reapers hold races. The man who finishes reaping first designates his last sheaf the corn maiden; the one who finishes last makes his last sheaf into a hag.
  • In some localities, the corn dolly is made by the first farmer who finishes his harvest and then passed from farm to farm as each farmer finishes his harvest, ending up with the farmer who finishes last. In this case, no one wants the dolly as it is a sign of procrastination.
  • In Wales, others try to snatch the dolly from the reaper who carries it from the field. If he gets home safe, he gets to keep it on his farm for the rest of the year.
  • French, Slavonic, and some Germanic regions use the last sheaf to create a Kornwolf, believed to hold a wolf-like spirit that resides in the last sheaf and provides the same life force for the next season. This is a fiercer version of the corn dolly and is sometimes used to scare children.
  • Today, corn dollies are seen as emblems of abundance.

Why corn?

  • Historically the word corn was applied to the small hard grain or fruit of a plant. It was used generically to refer to the leading crop of the district. In England, corn was wheat; in Scotland, oats; in the U.S., maize.

CREATING A CORN DOLLY

Corn dollies bring health, wealth and general prosperity to the land or property owner according to old Witches. A simple ritual could include writing a special wish with a marker onto the dolly (good health for a friend?) and burn the dolly.

Items you will need:

  • Corn husks
  • Large bowl of water
  • Twine or string
  • Scissors
  • Old pieces of fabric
  • Watercolors or markers
  • Glue

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  1. Soak the corn husks in warm water for an hour, until they become pliable.
  2. Gather several of the damp husks and then tie them together with a piece of twine about ½ inch from one end.
  3. To make the head, hold the knotted end in one fist, then fold the husks down (as though you were peeling a banana) so that they cover the knotted end.
  4. Smooth out the husks to make a face, then secure them with a piece of twine around the doll’s neck.
  5. To make the arms, roll up a single husk and tie it off at both ends. Position the arms up between the husks, under the doll’s neck. Smooth the husks over the arms to form the chest and back then cinch in the waist with twine.
  6. For a skirt or legs, arrange several husks, inverted (like a skirt that has blown up over the doll’s head) around the waist. Secure with twine, then fold the skirt down. For legs, divide the husks into two parts, tying each bunch at the knees and ankles
  7. To make clothes, hair, hats or other headpieces, glue on little pieces of fabric. You can use markers and watercolors to give the illusion of facial features.
  8. You can add Glitter as well as any other decorations to the Corn Husk Doll.

Get into the swing of harvest by trying out this age-old tradition!