I admit to being something of a tarot card fundamentalist. There are tarot card fundamentals that define what the tarot is. Today there is any number of fun tarot decks, many quite whimsical. There are fairy decks, witch decks, angel decks, and cat decks, even a zombie deck. What next? A superhero tarot? Modern interpretations may be fun and attractive, but don’t think they are the real deal. They are NOT proper tarot cards. That is my fundamentalism rising.
I consider the Tarot of Marseilles to be the basis for authentic, traditional tarot cards based in the past. They have symbolism filled with alchemical and astrological influence. Unfortunately, the tarot of Marseilles is also an ugly, awkward appearing deck. It is no surprise some have wanted to pretty it up along with trying to make the symbolism more literal. That is what the Rider-Waite deck did, and lost something of the original meaning in the process.
Another older deck preceding the Rider-Waite deck is the Book of Thoth Etteilla Tarot (not the Crowley version). Here is another example of an altered version of the tarot, but from the pre-Waite past. Let us compare these different versions.
At the top of this page is a comparison of the first card of the tarot, the Magician, or also known as the Juggler. The Tarot of Marseilles shows a juggler doing common magic tricks. The Rider-Waite version reinterprets the simple juggler as a true magician, basing it on the genuine but obscure symbolism of the Marseilles card..
The Book of Thoth magician/juggler combines both aspects. The character is a stage magician, but on his table (instead of objects) is a doll facing backwards toward the audience. This doll is the magician himself (or you observing this card) in the material world (the square table representing materialism). It is a wonderful example of the concept of “as above, so below”. The mage is the doll’s higher self, or so that is how I interpret the card.
Here we have the different versions of the Lightning Struck Tower. The Marseilles card is stiff and awkward. The Rider-Waite card is a more dramatic interpretation of the Marseilles card. The Book of Thoth card shows an earthquake inspired by the sun collapsing a city in flames. I was once told that the tower actually represents the human body, and that if the crown (mind/spirit) is severed from the body, bad things follow. Notice the tower is flesh colored? That is lost in other interpretations. This card is not about earthquakes.
Looking at the Judgment card above, they all look similar. Not really. The card appears to be the biblical judgment day and the resurrection of the dead. It could also be interpreted as the angels (or our higher-self) calling for us to transcend the mundane world and attain spiritual enlightenment. In the Marseilles card, of interest is the man in the center with his back facing us. That suggests it represents the person looking at the card…you. The Rider-Waite turns the individuals into mother/father/child. You are no longer part of this picture.
The Book of Thoth card is interesting. It shows an individual noticing the angel with joy. The other individuals in the card are busy gossiping and are otherwise preoccupied. Only few attain spiritual enlightenment, the rest of us are too busy to notice.
Finally we will look at the Book of Thoth’s Death card. I liked this card. I thought it was striking, better then the other deck’s death cards. Something about it spoke to me, like I’ve seen it somewhere else before. Ah yes. This card was lifted from a famous wood cut, The Nuremberg Chronicle’s Dance of Death (1493). I suppose the cat tarot or the zombie tarot is not alone in borrowing ideas from other sources.