From the Mind of Humankind: An Essay on the Evolution of Tarot

From the Mind of Humankind: An Essay on the Evolution of Tarot

Posted by Jeannette Roth on May 30th 2018

Preface: I composed the following essay back in 2004, for the now (sadly) defunct Timeless Spirit Magazine. At that time -- 14 years ago, as I write this -- it felt to me as if there were a lot of resistance to the direction tarot was evolving. Indeed, during this time, when the Internet was truly beginning to come into its own as the new forum for the open exchange of ideas, it seemed there were many who argued that tarot was moving too far afield of its intent and purpose.

While there are still some who would support that argument -- and that argument is not without merit in some aspects -- the inevitable phenomenon of hindsight would suggest that now, in 2018, the thesis of this essay is less contentious than it was a decade-and-a-half ago. But again, perhaps not. Even if 100% of the readers of this piece share my point of view today, I can't help but contemplate a "Wheel" moment, in which those who presently harbor a forward-thinking perspective become the hidebound curmudgeons of tomorrow. In another 14 years, perhaps this essay would need to be updated for a new generation...

...But again, perhaps not.

In any event, in re-reading it, I believe it still provides, at the least, a little food for thought.

Tarot: From the Mind of Humankind...

With interest in tarot continuing to grow in popularity, the number of decks being published has likewise increased. Worldwide, the number of new tarots released each year – both from major publishing houses and independent sources -- now appears to number in the hundreds. All manner of theme and perspective can currently be found within this “simple” pack of 22 or 78 cards – from carefully-considered corrections of noteworthy historical decks, to derivations adapted to particular cultures or belief systems, to novelty items devoted to various favorite hobbies or collectibles.

When considered as a tool for divination or personal growth and enlightenment, tarot offers an entirely unique approach when compared to other systems, such as astrology, palmistry, or runes. For although it strives, as do all systems of divination, to “tap into” universal experiences and truths, it does so by employing elements which, almost paradoxically, provide both a definite structure and yet allow an almost limitless degree of variation within that structure without losing their value or integrity. With other forms of divination, the practitioner must largely adapt his or her thinking process to the system in order to achieve valid results. With tarot, it is possible for the system to be adapted to the thinking process of the practitioner without sacrificing its validity.

As a result, it should come as no surprise that tarot, more so than other systems, has undergone numerous changes since the beginnings of its documented history in the mid-fifteenth century. But, while much has been written regarding where tarot has been, very little seems to have been written as yet regarding where it is going. Purists who ascribe to a particular rendition of the tarot – whether it be the Marseille, Waite/Smith, Crowley/Harris, Wirth, Case, or any one of a number of well-regarded others – may view any variations from their preferred execution to simply be bastardizations of a system that needs no updating or improvement. But as tarot's reach continues to expand globally, and as it finds new acceptance even among individuals who would not classify themselves as pagans, “esotericists,” or adherents of new-age approaches to spirituality, there may be those for whom the popular classics seem too Eurocentric, or too chronologically static – in other words, that such decks are unnecessarily limited in their perspective by the time and place in which they were created.

Unquestionably, the Rider-Waite deck revolutionized tarot when it was first published in 1909. But that was nearly 100 years ago; the world and our knowledge of it has progressed much in that time. The time seems ripe for another ground-breaking stage in tarot's evolution. Indeed, the process has already begun...

The Shape of Evolution

Not every deck created for divination or personal growth can be called a tarot. Variations may occur, but the overall basis for the deck must be clearly rooted in tradition. How far one may deviate from those roots is a matter of debate, but there is no question that some of the decks available now that loudly proclaim TAROT on their boxes are nothing of the sort. A sixty-two card deck with three suits, two special “archetype” cards, and little-to-no symbolic overlap with recognized standards can only have sprung solely from the mind of its creator. The resulting work may be valid, but it most certainly is not tarot.

There are many other decks, however, that can legitimately claim to be natural variants of or progressions from historical tarot. For those who have taken up the challenge and sought to explore tarot's contemporary relevance, there are generally two characteristics which differentiate their work from that which has come before: image (including symbolism) and structure. And within these two general aspects exists wide range of more subtle interpretation...

A Thousand Words in a Picture

In the traditional model of tarot, much of the deeper meaning is imparted through specific symbolic elements embedded within the general image tableau. Crossed keys at the feet of the Hierophant represent the solar and lunar forces which together unlock the path to higher consciousness... the Chariot's starry canopy denotes the celestial forces that surround us, descending into the physical realm through the four elements... the loose chains about the necks of the Devil's victims are easily thrown off, demonstrating that they are, in fact, prisoners by choice... and the list continues...

Once the domain of the academically-minded, many modern tarots seek to re-envision their symbolism in order to reach a wider contemporary audience. In addition to mythological, qabbalistic, and astrological elements, today's new decks are just as likely to include depictions of famous entertainers or scientists. We see Albert Einstein as the Fool (Folchi's Millennium Tarot), Jim Morrison as the Knight of Wands (Ananda Tarot), and Rita Hayworth as the Nine of Pentacles (Loesche's Cosmic Tarot). Televisions and computers appear alongside Alphas and Omegas. Multicultural imagery replaces an exclusive reliance on the Western European “standard.”

But a rephrased pictorial vocabulary is not necessarily an evolved vocabulary. Style and composition have come to play an increasingly important role in the expression of tarot's deeper meanings. In some decks, such as the Margarete Petersen Tarot, the artist may sacrifice highly distinct, specific symbol elements, and instead present a more abstract and free-flowing environment in which intuition is stimulated through a more direct appeal to mood and emotion. In others, such as Ghiuselev's Tarot of the III Millennium, a much more complex layering of symbols attempts to reach the viewer on multiple levels through a highly intellectual process. In Ghiuselev's deck in particular, the reader is invited to explore a myriad of worlds within the minor arcana, which combines traditional Marseilles images with original fragments that can be joined into a larger picture. Each scene is ultimately "topped off" with superimposed computer circuit diagrams that bring the overall result into the 21stcentury.

Yet another interesting trend in tarot illustration is the appearance of what, for lack of a better term, might be referred to as “character-driven” decks. Often pooh-poohed by “serious” tarot students as “empty” due to their almost complete lackof concrete symbolism, it is this very lack that is the basis of their strength when executed by capable hands. This approach seems to appear more commonly in Eastern releases – the Taiwanese Pandora's Tarot being a prime example – but also surfaces in some noteworthy Western publications, such as the Londa Tarot. In these decks, people – not objects – are the focus. In contrast to the static figures of many traditional tarots, where entities stand stiffly among a plethora of mystical icons, these characters seem intriguingly human. The cards' deeper meanings are reflected in the clothing they wear, in their posture and general demeanor, and in the emotion on their faces. We yearn to “step into” the cards so that we may get to know these people better. If, at some level, we can initiate a conversation with them, then we can perhaps directly access the mysteries they represent.

Function Defined by Form

In his book The Tarot, Richard Cavendish writes: “Most of the leading modern interpreters of the Tarot have redesigned the cards to fit their own explanations of them, a process called 'rectifying' the pack if you agree with it, and obsfucating it if you do not.” But “adjusting” the structure of tarot is hardly a contemporary phenomenon. Case “corrects” Waite, who “corrects” Mathers, who “corrected” the work of those before him. At times, the situation seems to descend into a major debate over minor details. Many current students of tarot are still unaware, for example, that it was Waite who switched the order of the Strength and Justice cards from the Marseille standard. It is this reversal which once prompted a staff member from the Italian publishing firm of Lo Scarabeo to confess that he was tired of receiving complaints from customers, who would demand replacement cards for their decks in which the Strength and Justice were numbered “correctly.”

Nonetheless, one may legitimately raise the question as to whether 78 cards of 22 majors and 56 four-suited minors is the structure best-suited to expressing the universal ideas of tarot in the 21stcentury. For those who endeavor to probe the alternatives, one of the more common structural adjustments to be the addition of one or more minor arcana suits. Based largely on Crowley and Harris' Thoth tarot, Drnec and Lanphere's Deva Tarot proposes, for example, that a fifth suit called “Triax” be added to the deck. The Triax suit represents Spirit – the next stage beyond those symbolized by the four elements of Fire, Water, Air, and Earth of the traditional tarot minors. Another example is the McKies' Healing Earth Tarot, which includes two additional minor arcana suits, representing Wood and Ether.

Of course, it is natural to explore the possibility of expanding the major arcana as well. The popular Osho Zen Tarot adopts a common alternative: viewing the standard 22 majors as a repeating upward spiral of experience, the deck adds a 23rdcard called “The Master” that represents the doorway out of the cycle, leading to the final union with the divine to which all things (consciously or unconsciously) aspire.

Less common but still worth mentioning is the addition of court cards to the minors. The Parrott Tarot proposes one approach: the insertion of a “Mentor” card in the middle of the court sequence, which encapsulates the general lessons of the suit as a whole.

A final possibility that would seem ideal for further investigation is the inclusion of “alternative cards,” so that the user may build the deck that best suits his or her own unique personality and psychology. In the Cosmic Tribe Tarot, for example, creators Postman and Ganther include three variations of the Lovers cards – one depicting a heterosexual couple, the other two featuring a gay and lesbian couple respectively. There are other decks that present multiple versions of the same card, but usually no more than two or three cards are explored in this manner. Plenty of opportunity remains for tarot creators to delve into the further potential of this approach.


If human psychology evolves, then it is only natural that tarot, as a reflection of that psychology, should evolve as well. There is much to be gained from the study and application of those decks created by the trailblazers of the 18th, 19th, and early 20thcenturies. Nonetheless, we have a right – and possibly even a responsibility – to incorporate our own knowledge and experience into tarot's legacy, and to naturally expect that future generations will do the same. It is this evolutionary process that will likely be the key to preserving tarot's relevance long after many other systems of divination and spiritual pathwork have been relegated to the history books.