An Ancestral Call
When I was a young girl my Italian grandmother intrigued me with her use of Gypsy Witch Fortune Telling Cards
, the Ouija
board, and dream dictionaries. She showed me how to work some kitchen magic, though I don't remember her ever calling it by any specific title. She often spoke of il malocchio
(the evil eye, which she described as essentially just envy), ghosts and the spirit world, and believed strongly in premonitions. Whether or not this was typical fare for kids growing up in suburban Connecticut, it had a long-lasting effect on me personally, in that it helped to spark a (so far) life-long interest in the intuitive and magical arts. I often talked or wrote to her about particularly interesting dreams, though I myself never relied on dictionaries for interpretation; and over the years I did many tarot readings for her, on a variety of subjects, at her request. When I learned that my ancestors had come from an area in Italy that boasted a fantastical legend of witches gathering around a famous walnut tree, it made me wonder just what might have been passed down to me.
My heritage includes much more than the Mediterranean - Italian is only a quarter of who I am by blood - but I was raised mostly in this large part of my family, with cousins in the dozens, and always a great aunt to visit. The stories of these older female relatives, my grandmother's sisters and sisters-in-law, and their faith and superstitions, became a significant part of my own perception of life, death, and the mysteries of each.
My grandmother had nothing to do, in the mundane sense, with the acquisition of my first tarot deck. In fact, she may not have even known about my interest in tarot until years later, when I told her I was doing readings professionally. But it's difficult to think there wasn't an underlying ancestral cause to this ever-growing involvement with the cards. Though my ancestry also reaches back to the dark forests and farthest corners of Poland, the highlands of Scotland and the shores of Ireland, as well as to Germany and France, and though I certainly feel an ancestral pull from every branch of the tree that has affected my spirituality in other ways, there is a distinct and direct connection to Italy that is, importantly, still quite alive for me. And Italy, of course, is the most likely birthplace of the tarot, according to today's tarot historians. That fact doesn't have any specific significance, but it makes an interest in tarot a legitimate part of embracing my heritage.
Whenever I read for my grandmother, I used the Classical Tarots
, or Classic Tarot
, published by Lo Scarabeo. This is a modern reproduction of a deck designed in 1835 in Milan, which became popular throughout Italy at that time. With its lavish, colorful style and ornamentation, it speaks to me of the country from which some of my ancestors came. It reminds me of their aesthetic sensibilities, and of the decorations my grandmother often sentimentally appreciated.
I think it is important that in discovering who we are, we acknowledge these unseen influences that might arise in simple pursuits or pleasures. We can find meaning or perhaps even a special purpose in them. A lineage might be uncovered and carried on. Through our acts today, we can honor those who came before, and in truth, honor ourselves more deeply. I do not know if any of my ancestors actually used tarot themselves, and if they did, it may only have been as a card game. But, I sometimes hear tarot as a distant call from Italy, and it gets me in touch with my family history, and that family history sometimes makes me feel a closer, unique and very personal, resonance with tarot itself.
Photos: my grandmother Josephine, as a young woman; Il Noce di Benevento, by Giuseppe Pietro Bagetti; cards from the Classic Tarot by Lo Scarabeo
All writing and photography © N Levine - Illumination Tarot, unless otherwise noted. 1999-2020