Original Tarot vs. Modern Tarot

Why are there such different Tarot decks?

Knight of Coins in the TarotTarot was originally no more than a simple card game, and in no sense a tool to predict the future.

During the nineteenth century, however, the conviction arose that the Tarot was actually something more, something much older, and much more important: the Tarot was the synthesis of ancient knowledge thought to have been lost.

It was therefore with occultism and with the esotericism associated with the Tarot that the need gradually arose to make the esoteric symbolism in the cards more evident.

Here are the main differences, one card at a time

  • The Magician. In the first decks of cards he is more like a juggler, an acrobat who goes around village fairs, a magician performing tricks of skill. With the advent of esotericism, the depiction does not change much, but it is moving towards the image of a true Magician. The symbol of infinity appears on his head, and the objects on the table become increasingly similar to the suits of the Minor Arcana of the Tarot.
  • The Popess. The name of this card changes depending on the deck and is often called The High Priestess. In more recent cards, several occult symbols have been added, such as the columns at her sides, her headgear, which has changed, and sometimes even a crescent moon on which she rests one foot.
  • The Empress. The type of representation has remained more or less constant. The images differ only in some details, such as the presence or absence of stars on her headdress or around her head, and the presence of a crescent moon on which she rests one of her feet.
  • The Emperor. We can notice some changes in specific decks, but the basic symbolism is nearly always present. The presence or absence of the eagle is perhaps the element that varies most.
  • The Pope. Sometimes we find him referred to as The High Priest or The Hierophant. This is one of the cards that varies least in its basic composition. Sometimes the two kneeling figures may be missing, and sometimes the columns may disappear, but in most decks they are clearly present and evident.
  • The Lovers. There is nearly always one or more Cupids hovering in the sky. However, over the centuries we have seen a variation, sometimes significant, in the number of figures on which the card is based, and their changing roles. In the most recent decks a couple united in love appears, often accompanied by an earthly minister who sanctions their union.
  • The Chariot. The stars on the canopy of the Chariot were not present before the arrival of esotericism in the Tarot, while they have an important significance for more modern interpretations. Other symbols appear over time on the Chariot, and in some cases the horses become sphinxes.
  • Justice. This is one of the cards that has changed the least in the history of the Tarot. The image is basically the same in the vast majority of Tarot decks.
  • The Hermit. The only major difference is the presence of an hourglass in some older Tarot decks. Over time, however, it has been abandoned in the more standard Tarot images.
  • Wheel of Fortune. The depictions all seem very different, but the elements underlying its meaning have endured, such as the figures going up and down according to the favors of Fortune, and the figure at the top of the wheel, at which Fortune is smiling. The woman moving the wheel with a crank is often missing from the most recent decks.
  • Strength. In older decks, the image was more likely to be Hercules defeating the Nemean lion, but the depiction soon became standardized as we know it today. In “occultist” decks, the symbol of infinity appears on the head of the woman who is opening the jaws of the lion.
  • The Hanged Man. In the oldest decks, there are often coins dropping from the hanging figure, suggesting a thief being punished. In some cases the money is contained in two bags, which the Hanged Man will not let go. Some have seen it as the figure of Judas. In more recent decks, however, the figure has been standardized and the coins are nearly always absent.
  • Death. On foot, or on horseback, the figure most often retains its ominous features. The exception is the depiction in the Rider-Waite Tarot (perhaps the best-known Tarot deck), which introduces important variations not found elsewhere, and a figure overall much less disturbing.
  • Temperance. The only significant difference is the presence of the wings in more recent depictions, and their absence in the older decks.
  • The Devil. The layout of the figures on the card has remained almost unchanged throughout the long history of the Tarot. Just a few esoteric symbols have been added in the most recent decks. On the other hand, the face depicted on the Devil’s abdomen, symbolizing that he is driven by the basest instincts, has been lost over time.
  • The Tower. Often called The House of God in older decks. The depictions change, but the meaning of the image and its substance are always the same.
  • The Star. The number of stars in the sky varies in older decks, but soon becomes standard in almost all newer decks.
  • The Moon. If we exclude the earliest prototypes of the Tarot, variations in the composition of the card are very rare.
  • The Sun. The children illuminated by the Sun can in some cases become angels. In addition, there may or may not be a fortified wall protecting them. Apart from these variations, there are no major differences in most Tarot decks.
  • Judgement. There are a few small differences in the older decks, such as the fact that they often show more than one angel, but the image has remained more or less unchanged over the centuries.
  • The World. In the first Tarot cards, the female figure was depicted standing above the globe, but just a while later she starts to appear enclosed in a garland. The same is true for the symbols of the four evangelists at the corners, which were not present in the earliest cards.
  • The Fool. In the earliest Tarot cards, the item the Fool was carrying was a club, while there was no dog or any other animals. In some of the oldest images we can find little men or children, hanging onto the Fool’s leg and making fun of him. This was probably the subsequent inspiration, when they were replaced with a dog biting the Fool’s clothes.
Rob Sánchez

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