Why the secret symbols of magic and witchcraft fascinate us

The Book of Tarot contains over 500 decks spanning six centuries – showing how different artists have put their own unique stamp on tarot. The Strength card, which symbolizes courage in adversity, can usually feature a woman holding a lion, but depending on the artist, that woman could be an Aztec warrior, Egyptian queen, or — in the 2015 Black Power Tarot — Tina Turner. She may be stroking the lion, riding on his back, or holding his jaws open. It may not be a lion at all, but a grizzly bear or an alligator. Yet they will all convey a sense of inner strength to overcome obstacles. “It’s really exciting to see how people have interpreted it and then completely changed it, but there’s still that unifying archetype,” Hundley says.

The oldest known extant tarot cards, the Visconti-Sforza deck, date back to 15th-century Italy. Created for aristocrats, the cards are hand-painted, intricate works of art, depicting figures that would become the major tarot archetypes. Tarot originated as a parlor game, and it wasn’t until the 18th century that the cards became a tool for divination.

The most famous – and influential – tarot was created in 1909 when occultist Arthur Edward Waite commissioned artist Pamela Colman Smith to design a deck of cards. If you’ve only seen one tarot deck, it’s probably this one, the Rider-Waite-Smith (often just referred to as the Rider-Waite) – still the most widely used in the world today. Both Colman and Waite were members of the secret society the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, devoted to the study of the occult (other members were Bram Stoker and WB Yeats). Their deck of cards redesigned and modernized tarot, reinterpreting the images to create a deck intended to represent the reader using it. “The pictures are like doors opening unexpected rooms, or like a bend in the road with a wide view beyond,” Waite wrote in the companion book, The Pictorial Key to Tarot.

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