Darkling accounts on social media reveal an obsession with divination. Ouija and Astrology remain popular, but Tarot has become high art and increasingly significant. Oracle decks and tarot cards have roots in the early modern world. Why have they returned to our immediate focus? What is it about the world we live in which makes it a prime period for divining cards? We know Tarot has returned, but why?
Tarot has an interesting and complicated past with roots in both entertainment and divination. Researchers such as Farley and Giles report that Tarot began as a medieval strategy game. By the eighteenth century, Tarot cards were associated with astronomy and the manipulation of elements. Linked with magic, they became a tool of divination. With the publication of simplified instructions for using the cards, Tarot reading was opened up to a larger audience. What began as a strategy game for men became a divination tool for women who, over the centuries, turned to Tarot cards in times of personal and cultural stress.
While Tarot is always of interest to darklings and diviners, it surges in popularity during times of cultural turmoil. The Seventies, for example, were a tumultuous period. At Kent State University, the National Guard opened fire on students protesting the invasion of Cambodia, injuring 9 and killing 4. In Munich, Palestinian radicals terrorized the Munich Olympics. The decade also featured the Watergate Scandal, the resignation of President Nixon, and subsequent assassination attempts on President Ford. A ruinous economic recession, gas shortages, urban blight, and the failed promises of a counterculture that promised Love—the Seventies were scary.
In 1971, Stuart Kaplan published Tarot Cards for Fun and Fortune Telling. In this book, he shared the instructions for the different uses for tarot decks which appealed to the mystical and recreational functions of Tarot. One year later, Paul Huson published The Devil’s Picture Book, which linked tarot to Wiccan and Pagan beliefs. Authored by men, these books were a testament to Tarot’s popularity among a more general readership. Meanwhile, women were producing a multitude of Tarot decks with feminist themes, including A New Woman’s Tarot by Billie Potts (1978) and The Amazon Tarot by Billie Potts, River Lightwomoon, and Susun Weed (1979).
The Eighties were equally perilous, marked by increasing tensions surrounding the Middle East Peace Crisis, an unstable economy, and the beginnings of the AIDS epidemic. Tarot continued to be a popular topic of conversation and activity until the mid-Nineties when the internet allowed practitioners around the world to share their knowledge and love of tarot. Many new decks came to be during this period by both men and women who sought answers and distraction from current events.
In very recent American history, the popularity of Tarot has surged once again. In the midst of a culture war that has been going on for decades, faced with an oppressive government, people beyond the mainstream—including femme witches and darkling anarchists—are using Tarot to make sense of the world and their roles in it. In these uncertain times, people are exposed to social media and “disaster-focused” news channels that insist our world is on the brink of utter destruction. This time of political turmoil mimics the troubles faced by citizens in the late twentieth century—and perhaps always. People were afraid then and they are afraid now.
People fear uncertainty and lack of control. Beyond the events themselves, being unsure is its own frightening phenomenon. People like knowing what is on the horizon. Tarot offers not only an escape but a possible glance into the future. Whether the person wielding the deck is playing with friends and is offering life advice thinly veiled under the guise of doing a reading or is conducting a serious session for themselves or another person, the result is the same. An issue is presented, and the cards offer a way to resolve or better understand the issue.
In the current sociopolitical climate, the return of anything which claims to offer answers or simple distraction is unsurprising. Tarot is a tool which can be used to help make decisions and help plan for an unknown or fuzzy future. Not sure where your love life is headed? Break out the tarot cards. Not sure whether you should take that promotion at work? Consult the cards for guidance. Of course, these divining purposes are in addition to tarot being a trendy thing millennials can break out at social events or get tattoos of.
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