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That would seem self-evident. Cards are made of a stiff paper, printed with ink (most in color, some in black and white), and then lightly coated to make them a bit more resistant to dirt and moisture. That's all. They need to be handled with reasonable care, for instance don't leave them outside. Don't let your teething baby play with them. That sort of thing.

However, they are not cards printed with the blood of unicorns and basilisks on parchment made from the wings of Luna moths.

It makes me sad and puzzled to see so many superstitions going around about tarot cards and how to treat them. Newcomers to the practice are especially concerned. Thanks to communities here on LJ and other locations, at least they have somewhere to come and ask about their fears, but not all new readers are on LJ. So, some folks still believe:

1. I cannot buy my own deck of cards. If I do, I _________________________________. (Fill in with one of the following: will have bad luck, will not be able to read with the cards, will damage my chakra/intuitive ability/mojo whatever.)
2. The cards should not ever be ___________________________________________. (Fill in with perfectly reasonable activity taken out of context, such as: touched by someone else, or used without a silk/velvet/magical/whatever cloth under them, used when user is tired or ill, used for more than one reading/one querent without being cleansed through some lengthy and arcane process, put away without being painstakingly reordered as though new from factory, etc.)

Good heavens. It is a wonder that anyone these days ever gets a deck, let alone reads it! Tarot decks are cards. They are a tool, used for arcane but ideally practical purpose. Like any useful object, it is best to treat them with reasonable respect so as not to impair their usefulness.

Like any object through which someone works with (energy, mojo, magick, I don't care what you call it), the intent and belief of the one doing the working comes heavily into play. That to me is the saddest part of all of these limiting beliefs. If you are convinced that a deck you purchased yourself will never read true for you, then it won't. If you believe that you can't read with insight and accuracy unless you meditate, clear yourself of any angry or upset emotions, and take a ritual bath before touching the cards, you likely can't.

Why would anyone choose to limit themselves in this manner?

Some proscriptions are born of practicality and manners. Currently a discussion on one of the tarot forums here on LJ is delineating whether anyone other than the reader should touch a deck, and under what circumstances. The idea that "no one" should touch cards, it seems to be agreed, comes out of the understanding that it is just plain bad form to rifle through a user's tools without permission. The whole grabby "oooh, shiny!" reaction, where a nonuser grabs a deck and fans them out to see the pretty pictures, is a bit weird and leaves some readers feeling uncomfy. But does this somehow damage the cards? Newp! Just do what you feel you need to do to get comfortable with the cards again, and you are good to go.

I also wonder if there isn't a proscription against touching cards and other such tools because of the unfortunate history of persecution linked to arcane and misunderstood practices. Tarot has been around a loooong time, long enough that if the wrong person pulled out a cloth-wrapped bundle that belonged to you and saw that it had fortune-telling witchery cards in it, then (gasp!) a WITCH! Predictably unfortunate results for you, my friend. If this is the case, the warning against allowing anyone to touch cards would serve handily as a way to make sure that cards were kept hidden, and that anyone who might come for a consult would not actually have had the cards in hand, possibly (hopefully?) preventing them from being able to testify with detail and certainty to their content. This is just my curiosity speaking here, of course. If anyone knows of historical references on tarot that explain modern superstitions, I would love it if you would post links or citations below. ETA: The discussion in comments is leading me to believe that I am probably misguided on this last para. The history doesn't suggest this strongly, although I still wonder. Chime in folks! Why fear of or for cards, then?



( 30 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 11th, 2008 03:18 pm (UTC)
"Tarot has been around a loooong time, long enough that if the wrong person pulled out a cloth-wrapped bundle that belonged to you and saw that it had fortune-telling witchery cards in it, then (gasp!) a WITCH! Predictably unfortunate results for you, my friend. If this is the case, the warning against allowing anyone to touch cards would serve handily as a way to make sure that cards were kept hidden, and that anyone who might come for a consult would not actually have had the cards in hand, possibly (hopefully?) preventing them from being able to testify with detail and certainty to their content."

I seriously doubt this. The height of the witchcraft persecutions in England was early Modern Europe (rather than medieval era actually, which generally surprises people on yahoo groups lol). The idea of Tarot being really old isn't necessarily untrue, but the idea of it being associated with witchcraft in the persecution era or even later is a bit of romance, I'm afraid. The earliest fortune telling happened with plain old playing cards. If you were found with a Tarot deck in Italy, it meant you were upper crust, not a witch. Cards were expensive (they had to be hand painted pre printing press, and even after they were a luxury); fooling around with them was a pasttime of the wealthy. By the time anybody who could be accused of anything had his or her hands on a deck, the witch scare was over. And in some places, cards in general were illegal or restricted, not because of fortune telling, but because the Church disapproved -- gambling and games led to bad character. The idea that someone caught with a deck of Tarot cards would have been persecuted for possessing them because of a stigma of witchcraft strikes me as highly unlikely. An owner would have been much more likely to be "persecuted" for gambling.

The modern association of the Tarot and the occult is probably the fault of the Golden Dawn. Tarot was a card game, the earliest owners were rich, and the earliest fortune telling with cards was done with simple playing cards anyway. Some insist on all these links to Egypt and such, and all this romantic nonsense about witch cult survivals, and they're welcome to believe it, but there's not a shred of evidence. I think the proscription comes from a new-age tendency to overly mystify and complicate shit for the woo-woo effect, myself. There's probably also a strong line of thinking here derived from a ceremonial magick tradition that considers cards a magickal weapon, part of the magickian's magickal arsenal like cup, wand, pentacle, and therefore to be treated specially. We probably have the Golden Dawn to thank for this as well.
Jan. 11th, 2008 03:29 pm (UTC)
And by "old" in "The idea of Tarot being really old isn't necessarily untrue," I mean early modern Europe (aka Renaissance).
Jan. 11th, 2008 04:22 pm (UTC)
I do agree with a lot of this, don't dispute that tarocci was the original intent of the cards, or that the beginnings of such persecution predates when tarot as a system of divination was likely. But, in the midst of some of the craziness that went on when Church officials were trying to root out witches, and when civil courts were making grabhands and folks' land and holdings, an object that was not inherently evil but could be used for evil purpose, along with completely benign conditions like birthmarks, lefthandedness, etc. were enough to designate one as being suspicious. And there is some overlap of tarot-as-divination and persecution for occult practice, by several hundred years. Even if the cards were designed as a game primarily, and used for (and decried as) gambling, I don't doubt that if you had money or were inconvenient or had pissed off the wrong person, any potentially "questionable" behavior could be seen as grounds. Especially since most actual witch trials were brought by the civil courts, rather than the church (although with church blessing and encouragement).

The way that the designation of "Witch" was declared in practice depended upon where you were. In areas where the Church could seize the property and holdings of people persecuted as witches, you find that those arrested and executed were moneyed, often older widows who had inhereted property. In areas where forfeiture and seizure was not the law, those designated as witches were much more likely to be impoverished, especially spinster women or widows without means who were a drain on the resources of the community. Being upper-crust did not necessarily protect one from the accusation that one practiced witchcraft. In some areas, it put you at greater risk.

Mostly I am wondering whether superstitions about staying private and protecting cards come out of a tradition where practitioners had reason to be paranoid and afraid. I find the idea interesting, since tarot as divination really took off in France and England (as opposed to tarot-as-game, beginning in Italy), and those two locations are also the two areas in Europe where the insanity of witchfinding was most pronounced -- although from what I have read, the popular modern accounts of "millions" killed through witchfinding efforts is vastly overstated. But again, just playing with ideas, and could be totally off base here.

I think though that part of our disagreement is that you and I have a different definition of old. To me, something that has been around since the 1400s is really old, but then I am not a historian and I do realize that for some, that would make this system merely adolescent.
Jan. 11th, 2008 06:57 pm (UTC)
I'm on board with the distinctions between witchcraft persecution varying widely depending on where and when you're talking about, and the fact that having money didn't guarantee safety in such matters, particularly since accusations of witchcraft were officially/"legally" accusations of heresy. I'd be ignoring a great deal of evidence linking the development of the witchcraft trials in e.m. Europe to medieval trials for heresy/devil worship (particularly leveled at Jews). But I guess my overarching point which I didn't do a good job of making is that there is not a shred of evidence linking divination with tarot cards to any persecution; in fact, there is a lot of evidence of tarot cards existing in drawing rooms and parlors, of possession of the cards by priests, other religious officials, and scholars, and of early modern treatises on how the symbolism of the cards was allegorical and could be used to promote morality. There is more evidence to suggest that they were not affiliated with the demonic and occult in any serious way than there is to suggest that they were. I'm also not arguing that cartomancy didn't exist prior to the Victorian era surge of interest in hermetic societies and ceremonial magick stuff, nor am I arguing that highly placed court advisers in medieval Europe didn't sometimes engage in sorcery, astrology, and even demon summoning (cartomancy would have been too "low" for them, I suspect. Angelic communication and astrology was more like it). But I *am* arguing that the there isn't a scrap of evidence to support the idea that the secrecy or taboos surrounding the care and feeding of tarot cards dates back to any era in which people were seriously leveling accusations of witchcraft at one another in any way that was taken seriously by any officials with any power to do anything about it.

I'd be excited to be proven wrong; if there's any real association of Tarot with persecution for witchcraft or heresy I'd love to see it.
Jan. 11th, 2008 07:35 pm (UTC)
See, this is fun. I too have NO evidence of this. As a matter of fact, the more you tell me? The more inclined I am to agree with you. But I am wondering since divination was sometimes taken as indicative of heresy, whether there might not be something there, or at least a climate that suggests caution would be warranted. I undoubtedly will be unable to provide a hard-and-fast link between proscriptions and superstitions, but I am finding the idea to be tasty maybe because I really want some kind of common-sense, rational basis for these beliefs. (and because it is fun to do some digging).
Jan. 11th, 2008 07:14 pm (UTC)
"those two locations are also the two areas in Europe where the insanity of witchfinding was most pronounced"

I think you might find Germany beats them both, possibly combined.
Jan. 11th, 2008 07:31 pm (UTC)
Re: also...
Damn, I will check that, that I did not know. I think in all of it my favorite statistic is that there was (on record) one witch put to death in Iceland. What does one guy (I believe it was a he) have to do to be designated as the ONLY witch problem in an entire country? I only saw that statistic in one place though and haven't verified the source.
Jan. 11th, 2008 09:46 pm (UTC)
Re: also...
I seem to recall having read something similar, or something to the effect of Iceland being largely free of the hysteria. I wonder if it could have anything to do with the relatively late conversion to Xianity in that country (11th century, I think, but I would need to double check that). Iceland would make a fascinating case... especially for an Anglo-Saxonist I know.

this is fun :-)
Jan. 12th, 2008 12:11 am (UTC)
Re: also...
I wonder now also about the pattern of majority victims being male versus female. I know there is a strong pattern although I don't remember where was overwhelmingly male and where was overwhelmingly female. But now I'm wondering why.
Jan. 11th, 2008 04:28 pm (UTC)
Agree with you wholeheartedly on the romanticism for woo-woo effect, btw. I am sure there is a lot of that in beliefs now, since it is much more romantic to be gifted a deck, to treat it specially, etc. I find the fear about tarot cards to be puzzling now though. So many people are "out of the broom closet," claim to be proud and unafraid, etc. but seem so downright paranoid of their cards. Even afraid of the cards themselves. I have not heard of anyone afraid of their chalice, or their wand. Just.....weird to me. But maybe folks are and are just less public. I do not practice ceremonial magick and so am ignorant of potential complications there.
Jan. 11th, 2008 07:09 pm (UTC)
Now *I'm* speculating, but I wonder if it doesn't have something to do with a shift from the cards as I"m arguing as having been perceived, even when used for divination, as more of a parlor game than a tool of the devil, towards the Christian-infused occultism of the Victorian era. I can't speak to areas other than England with this, which makes it even thinner than it already is a theory, but there certainly was a "hocus pocus" aura around the initiatory hermetic systems; I can see the upper crust Victorians wanting to do whatever it took to show that they were engaged in Serious Spiritual Work rather than parlor games, you know? I'll have to bust out some books (if I can ever figure out where they are). But I bet you'll find most of the woo woo stuff coming from the 60s era resurgence in more "popular" occultism (ie the witchcraft stuff rather than the fancy schmancy ceremonial stuff that requires learning the Hebrew alphabet and the leisure time to devote long periods of study to massive tables full of occult correspondences).
Jan. 11th, 2008 07:45 pm (UTC)
Oh now this is yummy. I bet that following this line of reasoning, it would be possible to suggest a sort of "professionalism" of the "occult arts," that might even parallel the professionalization of other lines of study and practice around this same time, since the Victorians were credential-nuts and quite fond of control and rule. Now, I know nothing about arcane study in the Victorian era. But I do know some about the development of leisure during this time, and also about the professionalism of medicine (which used to have roughly the same cachet as 'barber') through a series of testing, licensing, professional associations, etc. Making things "official" and controlled and serious was a popular pastime of the age, that is for sure.

I have to be careful not to offend folks with this next part. Now I studied "wicca" for YEARS. Back in the day I was in a coven, served as high priestess, etc etc. I came away from that largely because it felt like a system that was do-it-yourself yet which tried to claim ancient lineage and the way things are done. You know, you have to use the BLUE candle and burn sage picked at MIDNIGHT and say the following poem made up by author xyz and published in a Llewelyn manual. So. I decided I felt just plain foolish and would just do my own workings and serve in my own way, and I have been much more comfortable serving the lwa. But I know many folk who are wiccan, or feri, or ecclectic, and they are quite effective since it resonates with them.

I wonder if part of putting proscriptions and "thou shalt not"s, onto the practice is an attempt to establish dogma and a sense of tradition (drawing upon what supposedly "everybody knows" from "way back.")*

*I am not hating on witches here, or mages, or whatever folk want to call themselves these days. No witches were harmed in the making of this post.
Jan. 11th, 2008 09:43 pm (UTC)
I suspect you might be onto something here. This is really interesting. While I'm not sure the term "professionalization" would quite work (it's from these ceremonial traditions that a lot of that "you may not take money for your work" stuff comes, and you're dealing largely with a leisure class), I suspect the spirit might be similar, esp. when you get into the "credential nuttiness" of the groups who said stuff like, "Look, the Secret Chiefs directed me to this cave in the Alps and I found this charter dating from the 12th century and that authorizes me to found this temple in London and charge you 200 pounds for your initiation to Magister Templi" or whatever. It was all about the lineage.

I've met plenty of Wiccans who aren't idiots and fluffy bunnies. I don't mean to imply an equation. (I started out my training in herbalism and spellcraft under a Wiccan, and this woman knew her shit). But the difference I'm speaking to is possibly sort of class-based, really. At the end of the day, the upsurge in stuff in the 50s and 60s, as "proper" and even "rule-bound" as it may have been, was a lot more accessible to the general public than the "high brow" occult stuff; these Victorian occultists often didn't have jobs. They had the education and the leisure time to translate works from other languages, to go on months-long magical retreats, and to afford to make the ritual tools *just so.*
Jan. 12th, 2008 12:01 am (UTC)
Oh absolutely. I know non-fluffy (love the term fluffy!) Wiccans as well. I should definitely state right now that I did not mean that equation either! And to be completely fair, some of my best friends are eclectic, and I have no problem with that either. I'm even good with the buffet-style "pick your favorite deity." It is only when the other side of the coin becomes "but do it ONLY THIS WAY," or "but you can't choose your path because it doesn't belong to you" that it is irksome to me.

Whew, thanks for pointing out the fluffy error. I hadn't realized that it had come out that stridently or seemingly-unidimensionally, it was unintentional.

& it is very interesting here that we are back to class too, who has "access" to the occult is so odd and fascinating to trace....in Victorian times only the very wealthy lived the "good" Victorian life (as opposed to coughing up your lungs in a workhouse, pissing into a gutter, etc.) and they had the access to lengthy study as you pointed out. But in other areas, it is the poor who seem (largely) to be most involved in the occult (thinking Haiti here, where the poor are at least much more likely to be public, although I suspect plenty of the rich and powerful are active in voudon as well just less likely to practice openly).

To some extent, perhaps even the current proscriptions about tarot are linked to privilege relative to other cultures? They assume that you can expect a gift fairly easily, else you would have to wait indefinitely for a deck, and that you can reject or replace tools easily enough if they somehow get sullied.
Jan. 12th, 2008 12:07 am (UTC)
Oh and the "may not take money for your work" IMMEDIATELY makes me think of the difference between Wiccan traditions and voudon. Almost always folks in voudon charge, and it is seen as the right thing to do but there is a sense of responsibility for the larger community too. Doing spells or workings for money is frowned on in some of the western occult traditions, if I'm not wrong. That's a privilege, to be able to afford tools, candles, incense, etc., and time, and not have to charge for it or make money at it. And maybe accordingly -- and I *totally* could be wrong here, correct me if I am -- it seems to me that there is more of a professionalism a la "official-ness" in the sense of bureaucracy and business to the workings, initiatory structure, and worship ceremonies of voudon than of most neopagan religions. Could it be that if you aren't going to charge, it becomes harder to encourage people to put in the time and investment to go through lengthy training and make working a long-term lifestyle choice?

I am chatty today. Plz ignore me if I am starting to bug you. It's been a long time since I got to really geek on this stuff at length.
Jan. 11th, 2008 05:34 pm (UTC)
I'm not learned in the history of tarot or the "arcane" arts, but I do remember my Catholic upbringing. We were told not to associate with some occult influences. We were given basic, often distorted and simplistic information about them, usually with the goal of scaring us or making them seem distasteful. (Imagine how well that worked out!) They were always presented as wrong and dangerous, less often as tools of the devil. It was more a matter of, our way is the right way, why follow the wrong path or even be tempted?

Looking back, I think that's the important distinction, at least for modern times. The emphasis is not on expelling evil so much as preserving one's purity. Catholics are "right" - they have the truth and the way. All others, even the well-meaning ones, are wrong. We can get good ideas and learn from them, but it has to be seen through the Catholic paradigm. Tarot cards imply a separate paradigm, one that does not require the foundations of Jesus, the holy trinity, salvation through deeds and faith, etc. Even if the cards aren't incompatible with official dogma, why risk the chance that one would come to a different conclusion than the official line?

You can replace "Catholic" with just about any other major religious or social group. The stigmas and superstitions may in part come from an overzealous desire for purity within a larger group.
Jan. 11th, 2008 06:41 pm (UTC)
I think you're onto something here, in that a lot of new-agers come from Xian backgrounds and have managed to hang onto a lot of Xian ideas about morality, ethics, and evil.
Jan. 11th, 2008 06:55 pm (UTC)
Yep, they have. I have noticed that some new-agers approach their traditions with the same puritanical zealousness that many Xians approach theirs.
Jan. 11th, 2008 07:16 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I'm especially amazed at how hostile people get to non-European new age trads like voodoo and santeria. And how many neopagans I've heard try to tell me that karma and the three-fold law are essentially the same "ancient principle of the universe."
Jan. 11th, 2008 07:52 pm (UTC)
I've been surprised to see how many people take a buffet approach to it all, choosing a few of their favorite lwa, some orishas, maybe some Greek gods, and say Cerridwen, and stir. Oddly some of these same folks who are ecclectic in choosing dieties are letter-of-the-law when it comes to dealing with said concepts. As in, you have to do xyz for so-and-so or he/she/it will not listen to you and so on.

But you know what? If it works for them, and they believe that it will work? Hell. I believe in the strength of their conviction and intent and fully expect it will be effective as a result.

I haven't had anyone be overtly hostile to me for voodoo at this point, but I have gotten some of the "you aren't black" or "you aren't from Haiti" and "what are you doing, shouldn't you be in teh Celtic Christianity room" (ostensibly since that is what my genes give me entry for) instead. Not much of this though thank heavens.
Jan. 11th, 2008 08:31 pm (UTC)
Hehehe! It's funny, they're trying so hard to rebel that they're becoming the same ignorant, hostile people they're imagining themselves to be against. Same behavior, different city. :)

Jan. 11th, 2008 09:30 pm (UTC)
Oh, this wasn't even English. My English isn't working today. read: "how hostile people get to non-European non-Christian trads." I'm not calling voodoo and santeria new age. Sheesh.
Jan. 12th, 2008 12:09 am (UTC)
I read it as "non-mainstream," in the sense that it is not considered mainstream here (tho it is ubiquitous in many places worldwide). No worries.
Jan. 12th, 2008 06:25 pm (UTC)
I don't think I have anything to contribute that hasn't already been said, but thanks so much for the add!

Huzzah for frequent entries that actually interest me :].
Jan. 12th, 2008 06:31 pm (UTC)
Oh, just remembered, my life is rather relevent to this entry :x.
I should say, however, that I live in a house with two career psychics (which I am, also), and we even trade off on certain decks from time to time.

Kim uses my Universal Waite deck, I gank her Herbal Tarot, Gus and I switch off between the Guilded and Thoth decks, etc.

Having other people whom I love and trust touching my cards has never presented any problems for me. When I receive them back, I simply shuffle them a few times, feel them out as one would do with any divination tool, and if everything's normal (and it always is), we're back to business as usual.
Jan. 13th, 2008 02:15 am (UTC)
Re: Oh, just remembered, my life is rather relevent to this entry :x.
Agreed. I think the "love and trust" part is the key there. It doesn't feel off when trusted folks touch my tools either, and I feel no serious need to do anything unusual by way of clearing. But then, there are people who I feel like I need to fumigate my house energy-wise if they have even been over. It has taken me a long time to be willing to trust that gut instinct for something as nonspecific as that, but I have leared that those are associations best left to dwindle. If someone like that touched my cards I would probably be a bit more concerned, thankfully this has not happened as yet.
Jan. 13th, 2008 02:12 am (UTC)
Yay! Thanks for adding me back and coming on over. I look forward to talking about all sort of interesting things with you in the future!
Jan. 13th, 2008 06:41 am (UTC)
Knowing very little about tarot, I'm instead going to make you laugh. :p

From bookofratings.com, on fortune-telling methods:

Tarot: The wonderful thing about tarot is that people have pasted nearly every theme you can imagine onto the archetypes, ranging from Arthurian mythos to anthropomorphic ducks, and covering all the popular religions and many trademarked characters in the process. Tarot decks are like lunchboxes for new-agers. I was sincerely surprised to find out there's no Dukes of Hazzard Tarot.

Also, a few more, cause they're damned hilarious and somewhat relevant to the topic at hand:

Bibliomancy: This is telling your fortune by opening a book and reading a line at random. The key here is choosing the right book. I tried it with Hop on Pop and my fortune is apparently "Eat a snack." Eerily accurate, if not precisely earth-shaking. Bad books for bibliomancy include Carrie, Left Behind, and the collected works of Hunter S. Thompson. Good books include The Sweet Potato Queens' Book of Love, most Nancy Drew mysteries, and any cookbook. ("There are two cups of cake flour in my future!") Pat the Bunny is also nice if you like soothing augury.

Crystallography: This is your classic crystal-ball-into-looking. My copy of The Little Giant Encyclopedia of Fortune Telling lays down a bunch of rules for crystal ball care: "Only you should handle your crystal ball." "Do not allow direct sunlight to fall on the crystal ball." "Wash the crystal ball using vinegar and water." Is it just me or are these just transcribed instructions for vaginal hygiene circa 1953?
Jan. 13th, 2008 04:39 pm (UTC)
Ok this has me laughing really hard. I'm going to go check out the site where you found these, I love them.

And, if I am completely honest, I covet the Ferret Tarot. Which is utterly ridiculous, yet wonderful. It is every bit as stupid as it sounds. It is a tarot with ink drawings of black and white ferrets.
Jan. 15th, 2008 03:17 am (UTC)
Ferrets, lol! And yeah, Lore Sjoberg is a comic genius. I love his stuff - the Book of Ratings will keep you busy for days. There's also the Gallery of Regrettable Food online if you like recipe comedy. :D
( 30 comments — Leave a comment )