A Cultural Influence on Tarot: Tarot of the Moors

by Gina G. Thies, author of Tarot of the Moors and Tarot Coupling: Resources and Resolutions for Relationship Readings.

When I was introduced to tarot cards over 25 years ago in a reading at a UFO conference in New Orleans, I could not have imagined the odyssey it would be as I celebrate my first published tarot deck.

When tarot is mentioned or referenced, many times for those who have never had the opportunity to encounter tarot or tarot readers, the typical association is with a neon-signed storefront advertising psychic readings. It is generally to be avoided as many associate the idea of divination as fraudulent or perhaps something to be considered during Halloween.

Unless one has taken up a more than casual interest in tarot and other oracular tools, it would never be known that many who are tarot enthusiasts are serious about this game and its use as an introspective resource.

I began studying tarot because I was fascinated with the imagery my tarot reader and now mentor used. In a reading, she told me that I was a very gifted psychic and would one day read for others.

I must say I was skeptical but as it turns out, she was right!

I searched online wondering if there was a school for learning tarot and to my delight landed on a link to The Tarot School in New York owned by two grandmasters of tarot reading, teaching, and study, Wald and Ruth Ann Amberstone. I signed up for the Correspondence Course they offered to deepen my knowledge of tarot. Within a few lessons, I knew and recognized my own talents in being able to assist people with the insights offered through the tarot images. Thus began my professional journey as a tarot reader.

Through many books, decks, and attending conferences with like-minded enthusiasts, I began to see that tarot was not just about telling fortunes or doing predictive readings, it also appealed to researchers, scholars, tarot historians, and users with psychotherapy backgrounds.

My interest in the origins of tarot was particularly piqued due to the mystery that surrounds its origin in its present format. My mild research would turn up dead ends because many tarot authors do not care to go beyond the border of accepting what we think we know about the origins at all.

The creation of Tarot of the Moors came into being sparked by a curiosity to know about three things: the mention of the cards being brought into Southern Europe most likely through Sicily by the Saracens as recorded by a 13th Century document; a desire to know about the Saracens and other Middle Eastern cultures before, during, and after this introduction of cards into Europe; and the possibility of an integral connection to the mysterious origins of the tarot deck. I also wished to look at the esoteric and occult interests of a people that sparked the flame of the Renaissance, as history tends to ignore or hide the roots of their contributions to art, science, architecture, astronomy, medicine, mathematics, engineering, cartography, and other fields, particularly of Arabic-speaking contributors.

As I looked further into the “Saracens” and wondered about their culture, art, and the possible contribution not only to playing cards but also tarot decks we have inherited, I was also deeply interested in why much of Medieval and Renaissance history overlooked the contributions to art and scientific advancements of Dar al-Islam, the Muslim World. I constantly came across references to two very important groups that were breadcrumbs of possibility that piqued my interest in relation to Medieval and Renaissance Europe: The Mamluks and The Moors.

I became inspired to paint original illustrations in oil to create a tarot deck through the imagined culture of The Moors. This urge to create an original deck is a bug that often bites unsuspecting tarot enthusiasts, and some have come to create decks because of their artistic talents, knowing little about the history of tarot.

The late Stuart Kaplan of U.S. Games. Inc., a well-known figure in tarot publishing, boasted a significant collection of tarot decks and has produced 4 volumes titled, The Encyclopedia of Tarot. In these works and others on tarot, I found references to what is probably one of the earliest most complete tarot packs, the Pierpont Morgan-Bergamo tarocchi deck whose originals are divided between the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York, the Academia Carrara, and the Colleoni family of Bergamo, Italy.

My interest and research led to a tarot history tour to Milan, Italy where the most extant tarot pack was found at the Sforza castle, and later a visit in May 2013 to the Alhambra Palace located in Granada, Spain to research any possible connections of tarot and any Islamic influence.

During a visit to New York for the largest tarot conference on the East coast in April 2014, I decided to spend time doing research in the Reading Room at the Morgan Library. There I was afforded a close-up review of the Visconti-Sforza deck located there. I also had the opportunity to view a book on the Mamluk playing cards that, because they show a strong likeness in style, may possibly be the “missing link” in how cards came to Europe.

Since the history of the Moorish conquest of Spain spans over 800 years, there was certainly a lot to investigate and discover. A rare find that surprised me was the original signed document between Ferdinand V, King of Spain, Fray Sancho de Raja, and Fray Martin de Manzanares dated April 15, 1492 having something to do with Granada or having taken place in Granada, Spain.

This was relevant to my project as one of my tarot cards, Key XVI — The Tower in traditional decks I entitled, The Fall of Granada. This was a nod to expulsion of Jews, Moors, and converts by the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella from Spain in 1492. On January 2, 1492, Muhammad XII, also called Boabdil, the last Nasrid ruler of Granada surrendered to Ferdinand and Isabella. The expulsion from Spain is historically overshadowed by the discoveries of Christopher Columbus that same year.

Key XVI from Tarot of the Moors © 2018, Gina G. Thies

I was also able to see and photograph what I believe is a first edition of The Alhambra: a series of tales and sketches of the Moors and Spainards written by Washington Irving while he was residing at the palace and published in the U.S. in 1832 and concurrently in England by Henry Colburn, and attributed to “Geoffrey Crayon”. It was later revised and titled Tales from the Alhambra.

I found inspiring Moorish art that influenced the design of Tarot of the Moors that the designers at REDFeather — the Mind, Body, Spirit imprint of Schiffer Publishing, Inc. — utilized to fully capture and convey the grandeur and opulence of the Moors.

About the Author:

Gina G. Thies

Gina Thies is a writer, top-rated psychic advisor, and artist. Her artwork has been featured in two collaborative decks, Tarot for Pink and Triumph of Life Tarot dedicated to cancer research. Her first book, Tarot Coupling: Resources and Resolutions for Relationship Readings, has been called “essential” for the tarot enthusiast’s library.

Gina is the editor and columnist for Tarot Tips – the long running newsletter of The Tarot School. She has presented workshops on tarot card reading methods at BATS, Readers Studio, NWTS, and TarotCon conferences. She is a member of The American Tarot Association and COVR (Coalition of Visionary Resources). She is the co-host of Oracle Soup podcast with Katrina Wynne.

She holds an Associate of Applied Arts Degree in Fashion Illustration from the Art Institute of Houston, Texas.

To learn more about her professional tarot reading services, mentorship, webinars, and other events, visit http://www.TarotAdvisor.com.