Stories from History: Divination from the Cards

Throughout history, humanity has always struggled to look beyond. There are goals to glimpse at what lies just over the next hill, or beyond the latest veil of the dark.

Writers are a group that tends to really get into the occult and divination. Ranging back to the era of John Dee and all the way to Alan Moore and others, it has been a common occurrence.

Some of the more devout practitioners of the tarot have suggested that it reaches all the way back into ancient Egyptian history. Researchers who are far more talented than I have been unable to find any link to the ongoing use for divination purposes. That being said, the deck of cards that it was based upon does come from Egypt. It came to Europe in the 1400s and 1500s, where it was primarily used for gambling. It wasn’t until the 1800s that it was adapted to the use for divination.

The great Yeats was one such user of the tarot. From his membership in the Golden Dawn in his youth and onward into his life, it appears to have shaped him. Not only are many of his writings replete with themes and imagery from the tarot, particularly the Major Arcana, but observers from the 1880s noted that a well-worn tarot deck was among his most treasured possessions.

In particular, Yeats leaned into the non-spatial and non-temporal nature of the tarot, the tendency to imagine that it transcended things. The tarot pushes beyond the need for the rational to something else, with that very factor being something that Yeats has pushed into and tried to work with.

There are many aspects of imagery that Yeats grapples with, though perhaps one of the most interesting is his work with the Moon. To Yeats, it is both a symbol of the mystical, but also the sign of the journey itself (from Esoteric Symbols: The Tarot in Yeats, Eliot, and Kafka by June Leavitt).

No matter your view on it, many have relied upon the tarot as some way to peer into the other. Whether they believe that it is an actual tool for seeing the future or merely a meditative aid, it has had a greater impact on society than I think many realize.

Some have argued that the tarot’s divinatory background reaches back to ancient Viking practices of using the runes.

Politicians around the world have fallen prey to hucksters of various backgrounds. Whether they are listening to self-proclaiming magicians, or hucksters masquerading as hucksters, they have a long tradition of falling prey to these ne’er-do-wells in society, just as we all do. In light of this, it is certainly probably that the cards have shaped our society before, and will do so again.

Perhaps it is comforting to you, thinking that behind everything there is the shuffling of cards before they are dealt out, laid out across some table in the hopes of determining the future. Others may see it for just another lie atop the chaos of our reality, an attempt to use stories and holistic interpretations to see something more.

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