Tarot Cards and Cycles

In class on Monday, we viewed tarot cards made after Hurricane Maria by artist Jo Cosme. Because this class is so much about origins, I, of course, had to look up the history of tarot cards, and what I found was very different than what I thought I would find. Tarot cards are much beloved by people like one of my high school friends, who genuinely believes in astrology and aspires to be a Wiccan. As such, I thought that tarot cards would have their origins in some sort of religious or occult context.

Instead, what I found was that tarot cards originated in Italy as a game for the upper class. At first, tarot cards were simply like a fancy card deck, commissioned by the upper class to play games like bridge. Later versions emerging in the 14th or 15th century were not unlike M*A*S*H*,  the game kids used to play to “predict” their fortune in elementary and middle school. It was a fun way to spend an afternoon. This same article cites artist Bill Wolf, who designed a very popular limited edition tarot deck. Wolf speculates that tarot cards were a sort of “choose-your-own-adventure style card game.”

In essence, early tarot decks, pictured above, had nothing of the occult connotation they do today. In fact, they generally had Christian and royal symbols and characters on them, It wasn’t until the late 18th century that tarot cards were used in the context we are used to seeing them- as a more serious form of fortune telling.

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One man is the direct catalyst for this happening: Jean-Baptiste Alliette, better known as the professional fortune-teller Etteilla (information found on pages 320-322 of the linked text). Of course, he had help- his inspiration was Antoine Court de Gebelin, the first person to claim that tarot cards had Egyptian symbols in them. However, Etteilla was the first to commercialize this and sell “Egyptian” tarot cards as a way to truly read one’s future. He claimed that they came from the “Book of Thoth.” This is likely the reason that in the modern-day, people assume that tarot cards have their origin in the occult. From there, tarot cards became popular in the way that they are today. They truly exploded when the founder of the modern occult movement Éliphas Lévi Zahed, born Alphonse Louis Constant, began to use tarot cards for fortune telling and continued the tradition of “Thoth decks,” pictured above, a tarot variation that remains popular to this day.

Cycling back to the Romani people, of whom I wrote about previously, tarot cards became associated with them in both Europe and the United States, possibly because of the association of the Romani people with “occult” activities such as fortune telling. However, tarot cards came to Europe before the Romani, so yet again the Romani have been conscripted into a performance that isn’t theirs. I could write about this subject in numerous blog posts, but I’m going to just leave it at the one for now and move on with tarot cards.

Above are some of the cards from Cosme’s tarot deck. As the artist herself said, the deck is not playable in the fortune-telling sense– but in a way, the deck cycles back around to the original use of tarot cards, that of the choose-your-own-adventure card game cited by Bill Wolf. This article talks about the use of her tarot deck as a way to narrate the disaster of Hurricane Maria. Instead of choosing your fortune, like the originals, Cosme’s deck allows you to “choose” (or be conscripted into) your disaster and what you experience in the aftermath- a much darker and preferably avoidable version of the lighthearted game. Thus, in a way, Cosme fuses her tarot cards with the dark feeling of the occult and the narrative game of the original use.

Because all things come back to Roach, I’d like to bring in the idea that “Echoes in the bone refer not only to a history of forgetting but to a strategy of empowering the living through the performance of memory.” Hurricane Maria was not unique in cities and countries being unprepared for a hurricane of that level of magnitude, nor was it unique in FEMA’s failure to deliver supplies and alleviate the suffering of survivors. Cosme’s tarot deck is so compelling because it is universal- the cards can be applied to any major hurricane and the narrative they tell is one that I am sure other survivors of natural disasters recognize.

Cosme’s cards are an act of remembrance in the face of “a history of forgetting” the mistakes of the past- our discussion of Hurricane Katrina is enough to make me want to personally rebuild the levees properly and restructure FEMA, but the country and even the world has already forgotten the travesty caused by fixable mistakes. The sheer level of destruction caused by Hurricane Maria was in a large part due to the already-failing infrastructure, analogous to the already-weak levees that caused so much flooding in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, an indication of how we already have forgotten the real reasons why Katrina was so devastating.

The tarot cards are a performance of memory. Survivors who viewed Cosme’s cards said that they recognized certain cards as part of their experience, and the recognition of shared experience is a form of empowerment. In fact, the black Puerto Rican flag on the back of the cards is a symbol of resistance and resilience.

However, Cosme’s tarot cards will continue to be universal unless everyone participates in remembrance, not just forgetting. This is the real impact of Cosme’s cards- they are a reminder that storms like Hurricane Maria will happen again and unless we acknowledge the mistakes of the past, Cosme’s cards will be able to predict the next disaster, and the next, and the next until we finally learn.

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