Although we know that the first Tarot cards were originated in early Renaissance Italy, it is the French who take credit for the way we work with the Tarot today; After all, it was the French occultist Jean-Baptiste Alliette (1738 – 1791) who – as far as is known at least – was the first to assign all kinds of occult correspondences to the Tarot and showed a broader audience how to use Tarot for divination. More Frenchies followed and for years the Marseille deck was THE Tarot deck to be used for divination purposes. The British also contributed a great deal when the members of the Golden Dawn started to delve into the occult writings on the Tarot at the end of the 19th century. The have ‘corrected’ the work of their French predecessors. It is not completely clear if these corrections are for the better, some argue they do and some argue they don’t.
Arthur Edward Waite (1857 – 1942) is probably the best known Golden Dawn member because he released the popular Raider-Waite-Smith deck in 1909, in cooperation with Pamela Colman Smith (also a Golden Dawn member). Previously, a separate tradition of divination cards had also arised in Germany and the surrounding areas: The Lenormand and the Kipper decks are both of German origin. These four systems (Marseille Tarot, RWS Tarot, Lenormand and Kipper) are the most commonly used decks to date. What about the Italians?
They have the Vera Sibilla!
Despite the fact that little has been ‘officially’ published, there is indeed a long tradition of ‘divination’ in Italy. However, ‘ordinary’ playing cards was the system that was widely used for divination and traditions have mostly been passed on orally. Perhaps this has to do with the great influence of the Catholic Church – which is still particularly large in Italy to this day. Anyway, Italians started to develop their own decks and systems locally. The system that was based on the 52 playing cards. In 1850 a deck appeared in Venice which was called ‘Vera Sibilla Italiana‘ which translates to REAL Italian Sybil (Sibilla = oracle or fortune teller). The images are modeled after the Austrian, Hungarian and German systems (Lenormand, Kipper, Biedermeier). But where the latter often use 32 or 36 cards, the Italian deck continued to hold 52 cards. Since then, several decks have been printed, although they never became hugely populair outside of Italy. In 1935, lottery numbers appeared on the decks for the first time. This is of course super handy! Since 1967 there are also keywords on the cards. The deck that most closely resembles the original 19th century edition, but with lottery numbers and keywords, is still published by Lo Scarabeo.
Why is the Vera Sibilla so much fun and how is it ‘different’ from the other decks? First of all, it is in the ‘suits’; As with other systems, the Vera Sibilla consists of 4 ‘suits’: Picche (Spades), Quadri (Diamonds), Cuori (Hearts) and Fiori (Clover). But 2 of them are ‘dominant’ (Spades and Hearts) i.e. cards of this kind have more ‘weight’ in a spread than the others. Carl Jung would have called these ‘the rational suits’ because in his theory about psychological functions these ‘elements’ are about the way you perceive the world around you and how you make decisions. Also, some individual cards specifically strengthen or weaken the meaning of other cards. For example “La Leggerezza” (the butterfly), diminshes the ‘impact’ of other cards; If the cards are slightly negative and the butterfly is next to them in a spread, then it’s not too bad. If the cards are positive and the butterfly is next to them, then it is something small, small happiness or fun (which does not make it any less fun because happiness is after all in small things 😉 )
Furthermore, in the Vera Sibilla it is advisable to work with reversed cards; In the Tarot I personally never work with reversed cards. I determine what ‘side’ of the card applies by looking at the context. There are many Tarot readers who do the same and with the Tarot that works pretty well. In the Lenormand, reverse cards are rarely or never used. But in the Vera Sibilla, the meaning of a card can be very different if it is reversed. If for instance a Person Card is reversed, you are able to say with certainity that the card indicates a third person (so does not relate to the querant). But the best thing is the descriptions of the Vera Sibilla. Although there is no real psychological/alchemical aspect to it – as it is the case with the Tarot – the Italians do have a sense of drama! A keyword is never just a keyword, there is not only a whole story but also a lot of emotion and passion behind it!
Take, for example, Spades 6: ‘Sospiri’. Sospiri means ‘to sigh’. But it’s not just sighing! It is a very DEEP sigh from someone who has already shed so many tears and who is desperately waiting for better times to come. He/she clings to a straw with the (unrealistic) hope of holding on until the day the agonizing uncertainty comes to an end while at the same time there is also fear of what is to come… Sigh….Or “Disperato per gelosia” what we would translate as “jealousy”. Jealousy is a bad trait but very human: everyone has been secretly jealous of someone at times. But of course that is not meant here! This is an all-consuming jealousy. This is someone who wastes his whole life desperately chasing things that are owned by other people. This results in completely losing sight of what he or she would like himself or herself, making him or her feeling miserable instead… You almost feel it in your soul…
I really enjoy working with the Vera Sibilla. I hope to complete a course on the Vera Siblla in the upcoming period. Untill then I will go and post more often about these beautiful cards.