Why the secret symbols of magic and witchcraft fascinate us

The Tarot book features over 500 decks, spanning six centuries – and shows how different artists have made their own unique imprint on tarot. The Strength card, symbolizing bravery in the face of adversity, can usually depict a woman with a lion, but depending on the artist, that woman can be an Aztec warrior, an Egyptian queen, or – in the 2015 Black Power Tarot – Tina Turner. She could stroke the lion, ride on its back, or hold its jaw open. It might not be a lion at all, but a grizzly bear or an alligator. Yet all of them will impart a sense of inner strength to overcome obstacles. “It’s really exciting to see how people interpreted it and then completely changed it, but there’s still that unifying archetype,” Hundley said.

The oldest known tarot cards, the Visconti-Sforza deck, date back to 15th century Italy. Created for aristocrats, the cards are intricate hand-painted works of art, featuring characters who will become key tarot archetypes. Tarot was originally a board game and it was not until the 18th century that 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 referred to simply as the Rider-Waite) – still the most widely used in the world today. Both Colman and Waite were members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn secret society dedicated to the study of the occult (other members included Bram Stoker and WB Yeats). Their game of tarot reimagined and modernized, reinterpreting imagery to create a deck meant to reflect the reader who uses it. “Pictures are like doors that open unexpected chambers, or like a bend in the road with a broad perspective beyond,” Waite writes in the accompanying book, The Pictorial Key to Tarot.

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