It was just a game

One of the human species’ greatest strengths is our ability to see order and patterns everywhere we look. One of our greatest deficiencies is in our discernment to tell the difference between repeatable, predictive patterns and complete balderdash. My explanations for this is that balderdash has the most attractive narratives.

This is one of the reasons I’m so interested in Medieval history and art. There are countless threads to follow from ancient times to modern that reveal how astonishingly little our cosmologies have changed despite the wealth of provable explanations for natural phenomena. Perhaps this is because as we learn more details about the universe, the scientific narrative gets harder to tell while the occult narratives are endlessly adaptable to whatever we choose to believe on any given day. For example, an average person can not contribute in a meaningful way to the search for the Higgs boson but anyone can cultivate their connection to the cosmos reading by the daily astrology column or flipping over a few playing cards.

The practice of cartomancy is a particularly easy thread to follow from Medieval narrative to modern occult “woo woo.” The tarot now associated with fortune telling was for 350 years just a game. Then in 1770 the world first professional cartomancer, Etteilla, published a book on the subject. Similar publications followed and heaped on additional narratives involving ancient Egyptians, Jews, and Gypsies. Perhaps the fact that this occurred during the Age of Enlightenment is a coincidence but it often seems that as rational thought gains strength in one part of society a resurgence of completely irrational balderdash coincides in another. But again, the balderdash is always a better story.

(Read about the Visconti-Sforza deck and tarot history. See the entire deck at From Old Books and zoom in on details of the exquisite embossed gilt surfaces at the Morgan Library and Museum.)

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