What would Antoine Court de Gébelin think of the Happy Squirrel?
De Gébelin was a Protestant minister born in the 18th century. He authored the multi-volume tome Le Monde primitif, which insisted that the tarot deck contained secrets of the ancient Egyptians, whose priests had distilled their occult wisdom into the cards’ illustrations, imbuing them with great mystical power. Before that point, tarot was primarily a card game—meant for fun, not prophecy.
It was a bold and somewhat absurd assertion, given that de Gébelin could not read Egyptian hieroglyphics (no one could at the time, since they weren’t deciphered until the 19th century). Despite a total lack of historical evidence to back his claim, the theory stuck: Tarot decks, once a novelty, became popular tools for divination after the publication of de Gébelin’s book.
Which brings us back to the Happy Squirrel, a relatively recent addition to the tarot’s Major Arcana, and one whose provenance is less hazy: it originated on season six of The Simpsons. Lisa visits a fortune teller who is unconcerned when Lisa picks Death, but gasps in horror when the next card she draws is the Happy Squirrel. (When Lisa asks if the fuzzy rodent is a bad sign, the fortune teller demurs, saying that “the cards are vague and mysterious.”) Although it began as a cartoon joke, the Happy Squirrel card has made its way into over a dozen commercially available tarot decks.
So what would de Gébelin’s reaction be? The answer depends on whether tarot is a collection of timeless, mystical wisdom—or a flexible framework that has endured by changing with the times. Although tarot imagery employs supposedly universal archetypes, new decks are constantly being invented, and old decks altered. The art of tarot cards can never fully transcend its milieu. Which begs a second question: How do the cards’ art and design relate to the social changes, technological advances, and aesthetic sensibilities of their particular eras?
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