T arot is a rich cultural tradition with a complex history. In recent years, it has begun to be visibly reinvented by an ever-widening range of people and perspectives. Among those involved are a number of queer artists who have taken up tarot as a new tool of representation, through which they have actively sought to use the imagery of the cards to celebrate human diversity and sexual freedom.
Unraveling the true history of Tarot is like engaging in a centuries-long game of broken-telephone: it is confusing and difficult to trace back, but is, in many other ways, also entirely predictable. As with all histories, the ability and accuracy with which one is able to delineate its origins is shaky at best, because the task relies heavily on what information gets preserved, what meaning is imbued within it and by whom, and, most importantly, which people and perspectives are left out. Although for centuries, these factors have resulted in a history of Tarot that is overwhelmingly coloured by a very narrow set of heteronormative European experiences and values, in the last several years these understandings have noticeably begun to change. Through this process, additional evidence and voices that serve to nuance accepted narratives have (re)emerged, thereby opening Tarot up to more accurate and inclusive representation.
There is much speculation and disagreement among experts over the true origins of Tarot. As religion scholar Helen Farley notes in A Cultural History of Tarot (2009), many point to the East as the original birthplace of the cards. Some argue that the roots of the deck can be traced back to India, most notably through the Indian card game Ganjifa. Alternately, other scholars maintain that China was its original homeland, pointing instead to the i-Chang as the Tarot deck’s true precursor. A third theory links Tarot’s origin to a fifty-two card deck tied to the Mamluk Empire in Egypt, while others posit still different Middle Eastern origins. Regardless of the specifics, most experts who promote these theories generally credit gypsies, merchants and/or other travelers with bringing these antecedents of Tarot to Western Europe. However, in all cases, these non-European origins are often forgotten.
Evidence of Tarot decks in Western Europe began to surface in the late fourteenth century, and are generally tied to Northern Italy. These early decks belonged to wealthy aristocrats who used Tarot as a card game, which rose in popularity across Western Europe during the Renaissance, as a growing number of people were exposed to it. However, it was not until the eighteenth century that Tarot cards were imbued with occult meaning, which initially took place in France, and was later embraced elsewhere in Europe as well as in the United States.
During this period, as magic and mysticism continued to rise in popularity throughout the Western world, this occult approach to Tarot was increasingly embraced, especially in cities where practitioners could most easily form groups. Notably, these groups were usually comprised of educated, middle class people, thereby largely restricting the ability to define Tarot to this small segment of the population going forward.
The effects of this restriction are perhaps most clearly revealed through the Rider-Waite-Smith (RSW) deck, which was largely responsible for further popularizing Tarot cards in the West. This deck, the iconic imagery of which has become practically synonymous with contemporary understandings of Tarot, was the result of a collaboration between Arthur Edward Waite, William Rider, and Pamela Coleman Smith at the turn of the twentieth century, who were all members of a group in Britain known as the “Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.” According to the explanation accompanying recent copies of the deck, Waite approached Smith to produce these now iconic seventy-eight images, which she did in exchange for a small sum. He then enlisted Rider to publish the deck through his publishing company, William Rider and Son.
Not surprisingly, given the time period during which these paintings were produced, the imagery on the RWS deck depicts heteronormative European experiences and values exclusively, despite the fact that Smith herself was biracial (of White American and Black Jamaican descent) and quite possibly queer. Sadly, Smith not only died broke and unknown for her work, but is today still often uncredited for her essential contribution to this iconic deck, her name frequently dropped from the name altogether, leaving it instead to be referred to as simply the “Rider-Waite” deck.
Thankfully, however, these restrictive practices have begun to soften. In the last several years there has been an explosion of energy amongst queer artists, activists and practitioners working to carry Smith’s work forward. Picking up where she left off, many folks who were initially drawn to the RWS deck have been moved to help it evolve into the twenty-first century by expanding its representation of human diversity and celebration of sexual freedom. As one such artist, Alejandra León (creator of The Lioness Oracle) put it, “Although the [RWS] deck is Anglo-centric and heteronormative, I have respect for it because it is the deck that gave way to the decks of the 20th century. Pamela Colman Smith was the first artist to paint pictorial scenes in the minor arcana, and now we take that aspect of Tarot for granted.”
To further these efforts, many other artists have joined in this celebration of diversity and sexual freedom through Tarot. Political activists, for example, are featured prominently in the Next World Tarot deck created by queer Cuban-American illustrator and feminist Cristy Road, who reimagined the RWS deck to better reflect her own community. As she explained when raising money for the project on kickstarter, “We want to find ourselves in our decks, and we want them to tell our story.” In creating these images, she thereby successfully contributes to this new narrative by opening up Tarot to better reflect racial and sexual diversity, rather than reinforcing the old false narrative, that one specific experience could or should be the default.
The Slutist deck is another example of this expanded inclusivity, which uniquely centers on the diverse representation of sex workers. Images included here also depict a broad range of races, genders, sexual orientations and even various physical disabilities. The 7 of Cups, for example, is a card that represents opportunity, choice, and the sometimes overwhelming feeling that comes with possibilities. In the RWS deck, it shows a man with his back turned, arms outstretched toward seven cups of different opportunities; however, in the Slutist deck, we instead see a woman with brown skin seated in a wheelchair, her eyes directed off canvas hinting at the opportunities before her.
Taking this approach to representation in yet a different direction, the Spirit Speak deck by Mary Evans leaves room for viewers to project themselves onto its cards. The lovers card, for example, is a far cry from the Adam and Eve imagery of the RWS lovers card. Instead, in the Spirit Speak deck, the card is a trippy illustration of disembodied entwined hands surrounded by various natural elements and hearts, allowing the art to be powerful, while still remaining ambivalent to gender, sexuality, or any other stereotype.
Regardless of their specific approach to expanding representation, at the heart of each of these Tarot decks is a desire to bring people closer together, and to make these cards accessible. Notably, this emphasis on community is also evident through the creation of the decks themselves, many of which are primarily the result of community efforts. Slutist and Spirit Speak, for example, were funded either on Kickstarter or self-published. The power of self-publishing especially, has enabled more people to take control of their own representation, which has happily resulted in better expressions of diversity and sexual freedom. It is hard not to wonder what the original RWS deck would look like if Pamela Colman Smith had created a deck on her own today, rather than being limited by the repressive social norms and expectations of the time that resulted in her producing a deck that reflected Waite’s particular reality. Today, community support helps get these decks off the ground, and directly into the hands of those who connect with them most.
As far as representation goes, there will never be one deck that encapsulates everyone’s experience or taste, and that is not the point. The point is to create options and let folks find something that they connect to. So, if you find yourself holding a Tarot deck that truly feels right to you, take a moment to thank everyone who worked so hard to make sure that it landed in your hands. That’s where the real magic lies.