We tend to think of the tarot as a timeless icon, passed down to us unaltered through the ages, but historical research shows us that the tarot is fluid, changing with time as human culture changes.
We may think of the Fool as a young traveler, fresh-faced, carefree, a friendly dog springing alongside. But early cards show a Fool who is sometimes a miserable wretch, and more often a jester. The dog is no boon companion, as it sinks its teeth into the Fool's backside. And for most of history the Magician was mountebank rather than sorcerer, and the objects on his table are balls, cups, knives, and other oddments.
The High Priestess, hieratic and pagan, was preceded by a female Pope. The Empress has not changed much from the earlier versions, though she was once dressed more formally, with conventional scepter and orb. The Emperor, too, is essentially the same, though his symbols may have been given Egyptian or Norse details. The Hierophant has undergone a change similar to that of his counterpart Popess, for he was originally portrayed like the Supreme Pontiff, and called simply il Papa, the Pope.
The Lovers card was a straightforward emblem in the early tarot, with a courting pair and Cupid flying overhead. The earliest Chariot cards, though, often had a serene nude female figure on a pretty chariot: a completely different idea of triumph from the stern male of today, yet triumph still.
Justice's unmistakable attributes have endured essentially unaltered, despite being moved to the eleventh position. Justice always carries her sword of punishment and scales of balanced judgment. But the early versions of card IX, the Hermit, are not of a figure like Diogenes, searching for truth, but of a personified Time. This figure does not carry a lantern, but an hourglass.
The oldest card images of the Wheel of Fortune coincide perfectly with a thousand European illustrations, as human figures are thrown up and then down the rim of Dame Fortune's wheel. But Strength, rather than a calm female taming or fighting a lion, appears as Hercules clubbing a miniature lion: another example of how opposite images can portray the same idea.
The Hanged Man, the long-suffering saint of the tarot, began history as a Traitor, with Judas-like money bags held in both hands. But Death has changed very little over time. Whether striding with scythe or shooting fatal arrows on horseback, Death is always Death. Temperance too has remained much herself, always an angelic figure pouring the liquid of one vessel gracefully into another. The Devil, standing or enthroned, alone or flanked by chained minions, also remains much as he has always been—except that we barely know a Devil card from the tarot's first century of life.
Early records of the Tower call this trump variously the Arrow, Fire, the House of God, or the House of the Devil. Early Star cards vary widely, from a standing star-maiden to gesturing astrologers to one or more Magi. The Moon too gets her fair share of astrologers on her card, but the greatest change is that the card has lost the overwhelmingly negative interpretation (changeability, hidden dangers) of ages past. The Sun shares the same uncertainty as his celestial sisters. A woman with a spindle, Alexander meeting Diogenes, a shining angel: these are early Sun card images.
Judgment has been essentially unchanged since the beginning. The World card has remained the same as well: a disk or globe with a small figure of celebration.
It is the symbolic flexibility of the tarot that makes it such a powerful tool. Awareness of the added dimensions of its changes through time can greatly strengthen and focus your tarot readings.
Past Life Spread
As we examine the history of the tarot, so too can we look at our own history, using a past life spread. Each card represents a karmic component in our lifetimes. The left column signifies concepts we have learned in a past life, while the right column represents concepts we are to learn in this life.
The first card serves as a focus for the spread. Then we move to the top and progress downward. The four levels of the spread stand for the awareness of body, mind, and spirit, with the lowest level representing the major lesson of each lifetime. These levels, read from past to present and added to the central focus card, combine to form a spread that can put us better in tune with the karmic ideals we are here to carry out.
From Llewellyn's 2001 Tarot Calendar. For more of Llewellyn's tarot decks and books, click here.