The “Academic Tarot”: 22 Major Arcana Cards Representing Life in the Academic Humanities Under COVID-19

“Spec­u­la­tions about the cre­ators of Tarot cards include the Sufis, the Cathars, the Egyp­tians, Kab­bal­ists, and more,” writes “expert car­tomancer” Joshua Hehe. All of these sup­po­si­tions are wrong, it seems. “The actu­al his­tor­i­cal evi­dence points to north­ern Italy some­time in the ear­ly part of the 1400s,” when the so-called “major arcana” came into being. “Con­trary to what many have claimed, there is absolute­ly no proof of the Tarot hav­ing orig­i­nat­ed in any oth­er time or place.”

A bold claim, yet there are prece­dents much old­er than tarot: “A few decades before the Tarot was born, ordi­nary play­ing cards came to Europe by way of Arabs, arriv­ing in many dif­fer­ent cities between 1375 and 1378. These cards were an adap­ta­tion of the Islam­ic Mam­luk cards,” with suits of cups, swords, coins, and polo sticks, “the lat­ter of which were seen by Euro­peans as staves.”

Whether the play­ing cards invent­ed by the Mam­luks were used for div­ina­tion may be a mat­ter of con­tro­ver­sy. The his­to­ry and art of the Mam­luk sul­tanate itself is a sub­ject wor­thy of study for the tarot his­to­ri­an. Orig­i­nal­ly a slave army (“mam­luk” means “slave” in Ara­bic) under the Ayyu­bid sul­tans in Egypt and Syr­ia, the Mam­luks over­threw their rulers and cre­at­ed “the great­est Islam­ic empire of the lat­er Mid­dle Ages.”

What does this have to do with tarot read­ing? These are aca­d­e­m­ic con­cerns, per­haps, of lit­tle inter­est to the aver­age tarot enthu­si­ast. But then, the aver­age tarot enthu­si­ast is not the audi­ence for the “Aca­d­e­m­ic Tarot,” a project of the Vision­ary Futures Col­lec­tive, or VFC, a group of 22 schol­ars “fight­ing for what high­er edu­ca­tion needs most,” Stephanie Malak writes at Hyper­al­ler­gic, “a bring­ing togeth­er of thinkers who ‘believe in the trans­for­ma­tion­al pow­er and vital impor­tance of the human­i­ties.’”

To that end, the Aca­d­e­m­ic Tarot fea­tures exact­ly the kinds of char­ac­ters who love to chase down abstruse his­tor­i­cal questions—characters like the low­ly, con­fused Grad Stu­dent, stand­ing in here for The Fool. It also fea­tures those who can make aca­d­e­m­ic life, with its end­less rounds of meet­ings and com­mit­tees, so dif­fi­cult: fig­ures like The Pres­i­dent (see here), doing duty here as the Magi­cian, and pic­tured shred­ding “cam­pus-wide COVID results.”

The VFC, found­ed in the time of COVID-19 pan­dem­ic and “in the midst of the long-over­due nation­al reck­on­ing led by the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment,” aims to “trace the con­tours of things that define our shared human con­di­tion,” says Col­lec­tive mem­ber Dr. Bri­an DeGrazia. In the case of the Aca­d­e­m­ic Tarot, the con­di­tions rep­re­sent­ed are shared by a spe­cif­ic sub­set of humans, many of whom respond­ed to “feel­ings sur­veys” put out by the VFC in a biweek­ly newslet­ter.

The sur­veys have been used to make art that reflects the expe­ri­ences of the grad stu­dents, pro­fes­sors, and pro­fes­sion­al staff work­ing the aca­d­e­m­ic human­i­ties at this time:

VFC artist-in-res­i­dence Claire Chenette, a Gram­my-nom­i­nat­ed Knoxville Sym­pho­ny Orches­tra musi­cian fur­loughed due to COVID-19, brought the tarot cards to life. What began as a three-card project to com­ple­ment the VFC newslet­ter grew in spir­it and in num­ber. 

“In tarot, the cards read us,” the VFC writes, “telling a sto­ry about our­selves that can pro­vide clar­i­ty, guid­ance and hope.” What sto­ry do the 22 Major Arcana cards in the Aca­d­e­m­ic Tarot tell? That depends on who’s ask­ing, as always, but one gets the sense that unless the quer­ent is famil­iar with life in a high­er-ed human­i­ties depart­ment, these cards may not reveal much. For those who have seen them­selves in the cards, how­ev­er, “the images made them laugh out loud,” says Chenette, or “they hit hard. Or… they even made them cry, but… it need­ed to hap­pen.”

Strug­gling through yet anoth­er pan­dem­ic semes­ter of attempt­ing to teach, research, write, and gen­er­al­ly stay afloat? The Aca­d­e­m­ic Tarot cards are cur­rent­ly sold out, but you can pre-order now for the sec­ond run.

via Hyper­al­ler­gic

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Divine Decks: A Visu­al His­to­ry of Tarot: The First Com­pre­hen­sive Sur­vey of Tarot Gets Pub­lished by Taschen

Behold the Sola-Bus­ca Tarot Deck, the Ear­li­est Com­plete Set of Tarot Cards (1490)

Sal­vador Dalí’s Tarot Cards Get Re-Issued: The Occult Meets Sur­re­al­ism in a Clas­sic Tarot Card Deck

Carl Jung: Tarot Cards Pro­vide Door­ways to the Uncon­scious, and Maybe a Way to Pre­dict the Future

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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