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First, I need to be forthcoming and let you know that despite my 1,000+ collection of tarot decks, the Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS) Tarot is my all-time favorite (not that I don’t like and use many others). I’ll talk about the reasons another time. Now I just want to offer up this tidbit of publishing history.

This deck, first published in December 1909 simply as “Tarot Cards,” was available more-or-less continually from 1910 until 1939 when Rider appears to have ceased publication. This may have been because of the WWII bombings when paper was scarce and the printing plates destroyed. French and Italian decks had never been easily available in England as such imports were heavily taxed. The Waite-Smith Tarot Cards were not officially republished until 1971 when the publisher/importer Waddington Playing Card Co Ltd. and U.S. Games, under a license from Rider & Co., jointly began publishing a version printed by A. G. Mueller in Switzerland.

I was always curious why such a popular deck was out-of-print for so long, until I came across this autobiography by one-time London bookseller Albert Meltzer called I Couldn’t Paint Golden Angels (Oakland CA: AK Press, 1996) and online here. As Meltzer tells it:

One of the minor curiosities I found when bookselling [he owned a bookstore on Gray’s Inn Rd.] was that one was constantly asked for tarot cards. For years these had been illegal — the ‘devil’s bible’ — and imports were banned. Any pretext that it was ‘only a game’ was dismissed by Customs. Tarot readers lined up at Bow Street every Monday, to be fined with the prostitutes, palm readers and graphologists (the latter have since blossomed out as forensic scientists).

Then the post-war Labour Government abolished the Witchcraft Act in 1946 [the actual year was 1951]. It was a favour to the journalist Hannen Swaffer* who had campaigned in the mainstream press for the Labour Party for years but refused an offer of the Lords. He merely asked for political relief to be given to the spiritualists. They were banned under the Witchcraft Act, and it was such medieval nonsense one could not amend it so it was abolished and so incidentally dream interpreters, psychics, tarot readers and soothsayers were legalised. Thus Britain emerged officially from the Dark Ages. . . .

It was in order, therefore, to import Tarot cards but they were taxed ‘as a game’. For years it had been insisted they were not a game. If they were religious appurtenances even of witchcraft, now legal, or at least not illegal, they could not incur tax. I tried fighting the Customs on this, but with no success. I could never afford to sue them, but tried to persuade the main importers, John Waddington, to do so. They, however, preferred paying tax and having it kept as a ‘game’. It is curious how this nonsense upset the police. The bookshop was actually raided to see if I had imported Tarot cards and not paid tax on them. The police were quite apologetic. When I explained about the Witchcraft Act they were not sure if I was being sarcastic or not. Neither was I.

So, from 1939 until 1951 (the year Pixie Smith died) it appears that fortune-telling cards were considered, in England, to be illegal under the Witchcraft Act, and no one was willing to take this issue to court. After 1951 and until the late sixties they were probably simply thought strange and old fashioned. The gap was filled for a while by Rolla Nordic who issued her own version of a Marseille tarot. Then, some old works on tarot were republished, and new works began to appear in the United States.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., University Books began publishing its own version of the deck in the early sixties (followed by Merrimack and Frankie Albano’s Tarot Productions), ceasing when U.S. Games started enforcing a copyright in 1971. Read my discussion of the 1969 Tarot Renaissance here.

*Slightly off-topic but to fill in some gaps in the quote above: In Great Britain, in 1951 the Fraudulent Mediums Act replaced the 1735 Witchcraft Act, which had increasingly been applied to Spiritualists and mediums. The last person to be convicted under the Witchcraft Act was Helen Duncan who in 1943, during a séance in Portsmouth, channeled a young man who told the gathering, which included his mother, that his ship had been sunk. The mother contacted the War Office asking for details. An investigation was launched into Duncan’s activities prompted by this revelation of top-secret information during war time. Supposedly the authorities became concerned that the medium might make pronouncements about the D-Day plans. Helen Duncan was tried and convicted in 1944, serving nine months in prison. The journalist and ghost-hunter Harry Price had investigated Helen Duncan’s ectoplasmic mediumship years before, and he claimed to have proven her a fraud. The British Society of Paranormal Studies and Duncan’s granddaughter recently have been petitioning the government for a pardon.

As a result of his own interests in Spiritualism and spurred on by the conviction of Helen Duncan, the popular journalist Hannen Swaffer (who was influential in and for the Labour Party), asked for restrictions on Spiritualism to be lifted as a reward for his services. To do so, the Government had to abolish the medieval Witchcraft Act. Three years later Spiritualism was officially recognized as a religion.

“I heard a distemperate dicer solemnly sweare that he faithfully beleeved, that dice were first made of the bones of a witch, and the cards of her skin, in which there hath ever sithence remained an enchantment that whosoever once taketh delight in either, he shall never have power utterly to leave them.”
—George Whetstone, The Enemie to Unthriftinesse, 1586.

In a 1519 Milanese edition of a 14th century Spanish romance poem called La Spagna Istoriata, the hero Roland tries to discover the enemies of Charlemagne via magic by making a circle and casting or “throwing” the cards (fece un cerchio e poscia gittò le carte). Ross Caldwell tracked down the evidence and discovered that this phrase appears in only that one edition. All others say: fece un gran cerchio e poi gettava l’arte (“he made a big circle and then cast the art”). Upon comparing several versions Ross came to the conclusion that Roland is using a grimoire. He has a book in hand, he makes the circle, “throws the art,” and in the next verse he starts reading (leggendo il libro). Whereupon thousands of demons, big and small, enter the circle. Ross thinks that the best reading for “gettava” is “threw OPEN” the book (of art), and that the 1519 reference to le carte probably signifies throwing open the “pages” of the grimoire. I mention this possibility here since the reference appears in several books as evidence of an early use of playing cards in magic, which may not be the case. However, in the 17th century painting below we do see playing cards being used in a magic circle—so it is not completely beyond the range of possibility.

Ruth Martin in Witchcraft and the Inquisition in Venice, 1550-1650 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989) tells of one Isabella Bellochio who in January of 1589 was “found guilty of being apostate from God.” It seems she so desperately wanted a faithless lover to return to her that she called on the Devil for assistance. Her housemaid testified that Isabella had burned a candle continuously in the kitchen “in front of a devil and the tarots.” Later the same year in another trial, a witch named Angela was accused of telling a client “‘you need to adore the devil if you want to get help,’ and she suggested getting hold of a tarot card.”

Marisa Milani, professor of the literature of folklore at the University of Padua, who did the original research in the Venetian Sant-Uffizio archive, claims this was a regular part of Venetian “martelli” (love magic): “One such ritual made use of the tarot cards, especially the one that portrayed the devil, which they would place next to a light until a certain time of day when prayers were addressed to it and formulas were recited.” Quoted in Margaret F. Rosenthal in The Honest Courtesan: Veronica Franco, Citizen and Writer in Sixteenth Century Venice (U of Chicago Press, 1992). Marisa Milani, wrote about these practices in Antiche Pratiche di medicina popolare nei processi del S. Uffizio (Venezia, 1527-1591) (Padova, 1986).

In 1622 Pierre de l’Ancre published in L’incredulité et mescréance du sortilege plainement convaincue (Paris) that one Jean Jordain made a pact with the Devil that was sealed by two playing cards: the 2 and 4 of Hearts. We are told that the Devil chose the two of hearts “to mark that he would not have two hearts to serve two masters.” The Two of Hearts was later destroyed, rendering the pact null and void. Del’Ancre defined cartomancy as “a type of divination certain people practice who take the images and place them in the presence of certain demons or spirits, which they have summoned, so that those images will instruct them on the things that they want to know.” (Thanks to Ross Caldwell for additional details.)

But the evidence is not just from court room records in Venice. Two 17th century works of art attest to the use of playing cards in witchcraft. “Depart pour le Sabat” by David Teniers the Younger (1610-1690) shows playing cards as part of a magical circle (see picture at top and to the right.)

Slightly more ambiguous is the 1626 engraving by Jan van de Velde in which a sorceress conjures demons while playing cards lay at her feet.

An accompanying text reads: “What evils Desire commands, in the small secluded place; who, by sweet incantation, overcomes the minds of the purest mortals, induces frenzy in everyone! But how quickly it slips by; Death overtakes brief life, brief delights. Laughing for a moment, in eternity suffering regret.” (Translation by Ross Caldwell.)

Before you condemn these women you might want to read “Marriage or a Career?: witchcraft as an alternative in seventeenth century Venice” by Sally Scully (Journal of Social History, Summer 1995). Scully postulates that “witchcraft was a role available to women for managing their lives, operating as individual players on the social stage. To call it a career option may not be anachronistic.”

It should be noted that Isabella Bellochio was a staunch Christian who, in calling on the Devil to obtain her desires was merely “giving the Devil his due”—she knew she was doing something wrong in trying to coerce another to fulfill her own desires and so recognized this as the Devil’s work in his role as the lord of base, material desires. As Guido Ruggiero explained in Binding Passions: Tales of Magic, Marriage and Power at the End of the Renaissance (Oxford University Press, 1993), it did not signify for Isabella that she  rejected Christ for the Devil. “I never understood”, she claimed, “that one had to pray to or honor the Devil but only that one must light a lamp to him in order to have that which one desired, that is in this case my lover. Thus I did not light it with the intention of worshiping or praying to him, but with the intention that my lover be made to come.” In a sense it was an honest acknowledgement that, in the context of Christianity, whenever you try to achieve your own desires at the expense of another you are doing the Devil’s work.

See also this report by Ross Caldwell on Spanish cartomancy and witchcraft from at least the 16th century – here.

Mrs.Sarah McBride “only told fortunes by cards for pastime.”



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Mary K. Greer has made tarot her life work. Check here for reports of goings-on in the world of tarot and cartomancy, articles on the history and practice of tarot, and materials on other cartomancy decks. Sorry, I no longer write reviews. Contact me HERE.

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