Decoding Tarot

By Jo Phillips

Tarot cards hold a mysterious place in many people’s hearts, some love some fear, yet the esoteric background is not quite what we think it is. These cards, used to tell fortunes and futures decoding our journeys, have their roots not in fortune telling but in games and were adopted only later in their history as ways to ‘read into the future’. Find out more here in Decoding Tarot.

Image on left Lorenzo Belenguer

The tarot was first known in Italy as Trionfi and later as Tarocchi or Tarocks are cards that make up a pack, used from at least the mid-15th century and used across Europe initially to play card games. 

The earliest evidence of a tarot deck used for fortune-telling comes from an unsigned manuscript from around 1750 which documents rudimentary information on foretelling future events or discovering hidden knowledge, usually with the aid of supernatural powers.  

The popularisation of esoteric tarot started with Antoine Court a former Protestant pastor, born in Nîmes France, who initiated the interpretation of the Tarot as cards that were understood by few, mysterious or secret full of timeless esoteric wisdom.  In the 1780s that both he and Jean-Baptiste Alliette popularized tarot “readings” in Paris.

The early French occultists claimed that tarot cards had esoteric links to ancient spiritual texts from different schools of thought including Egypt writings, the Kabbalah, Indic Tantra, or the I Ching. 

However, research highlights that tarot cards were invented in northern Italy in the mid-15th century and confirmed that there is no evidence of tarot cards for divination until the late 18th century.

While there are many variations of the tarot, the most commercially popular is that of the Rider-Waite-Smith. Brought to life by artist Pamela Colman Smith, the tarot deck is the basis for most modern decks and was initially published in 1909.

Both were members of a secret occult society which is how they meet. The cult and both of them were obsessed with Jewish mysticism and introduced a Christianised version of the mystic path of the Jewish religion known as kabbalah which they referred to as cabala, looking to try to convert Jewish people to Christianity. It was however very difficult to study Kabbalah so it’s hugely unlike their knowledge would have been truly learnt.

A set of modern-day cards is made up of 78 cards divided into two groups major arcana, which has 22 cards, and minor arcana, which has 56 cards. The major arcana have pictures representing various forces, characters, virtues, and vices. The 56 minor arcana cards are divided into four suits of 14 cards each, not unlike regular playing cards they are made up of wands, cups, swords and pentacles. Each of the four suits represents different meanings:- money, emotions, work and willpower.

The major picture cards show archetypes within society from the Emporer via the fool, but what if we re-represented these cards for the modern-day world?

Queer Tarot: A gender-fluid journey of discovery and self-love is a project that the nonbinary artist Lorenzo Belenguer started in the Autumn of 2022. The first work of the series will be exhibited at the group show Behind the Lens, which will take place at the St Pancras Hospital Conference Centre Gallery, 4 St Pancras Way, NW1 0PE. 

Starting with the Major Arcanes, Belenguer will exhibit the first card: N. 0 The Fool, renamed as Foolishness, to remove the gender and create a liberated version free of stereotypes. The second work, titled: N. 1 Wizardry,  will be exhibited at another venue to be confirmed.

The Tarot cards are powerful tools for initiating a beautiful journey of self-love and acceptance by discovering the feminine and masculine in all of us in a non-judgmental manner.

Belenguer’s reinterpretation of the Tarot cards moves away from the rigid binary system and continues non-binary and gender-fluid. Gender-neutral nouns such as Foolishness or wizardry are used to facilitate the liberation from gender roles and conformity. A variety of symbols from different traditions in this journey of self-discovery and self-love.

I became quite knowledgable on playing the Tarot cards when I was a teenager. People in my village will come to me for Tarot reading and they found it helpful especially when discussing a dilemma. The majority of the discussions, their instinct was already telling them which way to go, but they needed an bit of clarity. Then, I moved to Paris and London, where I’m based, and lost practice. Now, in my 50s, I feel settled and the knowledge and need to practise Tarot is back. My main intention initiating the Queer Tarot is to create a tangible collection of drawings; anybody is invited to start this personal journey. Be brave; be you.”

Lorenzo Belenguer

There is little information as to where the initial characters came from or who assigned the personality type to each. This makes it all the more freeing to explore new ways to decode this magical system.

Behind the Camera Lens A group show of 43 artists exploring their individual interpretations of the theme Behind the Camera Lens. St Pancras Hospital Conference Centre Gallery 4 St Pancras Way, NW1 0PE. Monday 6 February until Friday 12 May 2023. Monday to Saturday from 10 am to 5pm. Curated by Peter Herbert

Lorenzo Belenguer is a nonbinary visual artist based in London, born in Valencia (Spain), and strongly influenced by Minimalism and Arte Povera.

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