All About the Tarot
There are many theories about the origin of the Tarot, but no one knows for certain where and how the cards were first developed. This article is an attempt to capture at least a piece of what we know, think, and feel about the complicated divinatory device called the Tarot.
Briefly, we do know that the first playing cards may have originated in China and Korea around the 10th or 11th centuries, but whether they possessed Tarot-like pictures is anyone's guess. In the 14th century, packs of 52 playing cards bearing the suit symbols of Cups, Coins, Swords, and Polo-Sticks could be found in Islamic countries, from whence they migrated into Europe via the British. It was only with the addition of the 22 trump cards sometime after the 18th Century that the pack came to resemble what we now recognize as the modern Tarot deck.
With the creation of A.E. Waite's deck in ** a veritable avalanche of new decks came into the marketplace. Artists saw the medium as a way to present variations of artistic genre, creating decks that were veritable galleries of miniature artwork. Occultists saw it as a way to broaden and further the study of other magickal/spiritual traditions. Today we see decks containing images from many spiritual paths and historical time periods, including Native American, mythological, Celtic, Arthurian, pagan, aboriginal, Renaissance, and even collections with no basis outside of the creator’s perspective.
Amazingly, despite the variations in presentation the basic structure of the standard tarot deck consists of two groups of cards -- the major and minor arcana (arcana meaning "secret" or "hidden"). Essentially, the Major Arcana deal with images that represent the broader, universal, often spiritually-oriented issues, ideas, beliefs and experiences of life. The Minor Arcana deal with the more mundane themes of everyday living. The Majors contain 22 cards numbered from 0 to 22. The Minors contain 56 cards divided among four "suits" - Cups, Wands, Swords and Pentacles. Each of the suits has its own over-arching associations, and each card within each suit has its own meaning.
The divinatory system of Tarot, at face value, is quite simple. It's a deck of cards with pictures, placed in positions that have their own meanings. The card reader interprets the relationship of the card meanings to the positions. The new student of the system should, however, realize that their study of this subject can quickly deepen and broaden, given the history of the cards and the symbology they contain. Given the potential breadth of the subject, experienced readers often urge beginners to choose the Rider-Waite deck to learn the basic meaning and symbology of the system before branching out to other interpretations of the Tarot.
The standard method for "reading" the cards involves the use of a "spread" in which cards chosen from the deck are placed in a certain position that has a designated meaning and interpreted from there. Increasingly, professionals in the fields of science and psychology are using divinatory tools such as the Tarot to help augment their attempts to define and explain what we heretofore have considered the "Unknown" and the supposedly unknowable. This can be an especially valuable technique when used in psychological therapy. The symbols seem to make contact with something deep within which causes an opening up of areas of the unconscious which may have only been reachable in the dream state before.
Some authorities claim the Tarot evolved from the yarrow sticks used with the Chinese divination system called the I Ching; others say that it was adapted from the legendary Book of Thoth. Still others place its origin as recently as fourteenth or fifteenth century Europe, since the earliest known complete deck dates from that time. The most popular theory is that the Tarot was invented in ancient Egypt, and brought to Europe around the fourteenth century by wandering tribes of Romani. According to these scholars, the allegorical illustrations shown on the cards of the Major Arcana were derived from the teachings of the secret schools of Egypt. Papus, in Key to Occult Science, explains that the kingdom was in danger of being overthrown, so the priests of ancient Egypt designed the Tarot as one way of preserving their secrets for initiates of future ages. The Major Arcana portrayed the stages of personal development required of initiates as they progressed toward the status of adept. By recording their teachings in a symbolic manner, it would be available to serious students of the occult arts, yet the Tarot deck itself would appear to be only an amusing game to the uninitiated.
Other schools of thought also theorize that the Major Arcana is a record of the secret teachings of various underground religious groups. One such group to whom the origin of the Tarot is attributed is the Gnostics, early Christian sects often considered heretical for their spiritual beliefs, who were indeed forced to take their faith underground to escape persecution.
Another theory suggests that the Tarot philosophy was derived from that of the Cabala (Qabala) and that the order of the Major Arcana is connected to the Hebrew system of letters and numbers. The Cabala is a mystical Jewish tradition which teaches that it is possible, through symbolic interpretation of ancient texts, to raise your consciousness above the level of mundane knowledge and lead you to an understanding of and union with the Divine. In this teaching, letters and numbers are not merely a way of writing down thoughts and events, but rather reservoirs of divine power which contain volumes of information and enlightenment accessible to the adept. (It is interesting to note that the Greek neo-Pythagorean school also taught that letters and numbers were divine beings which possessed their own supernatural powers.) Many of the teachings of the Cabalists were never written down; they were passed from teacher to student by word of mouth and kept secret from outsiders. The kind of symbolism used in the Major Arcana is a way of preserving those secrets without making them readily available to the uninitiated. In this theory, then, the Tarot is an allegorical representation of the path to enlightenment, which again would be understandable only to those who were trained in this symbolic method of study.
The earliest record of a deck of cards carrying tarot symbology can be traced back to Northern Italy, where for the first few centuries they were used as a parlor diversion called "Cartes de Trionfi". According to tarot historians Ronald Decker, Thierry Depaulis and Michael Dummett ("A Wicked Pack of Cards"), the earliest surviving set of tarot cards is the few remaining hand-painted cards created in approximately 1441 for the court of Filippo Maria Visconti, Duke of Milan. It may have been crafted as a gift commemorating the politically expedient marriage of Bianca Maria Visconti, daughter of the ruthless Filippo Maria Visconti, Duke of Milan, to the condottieri (professional soldier) Francesco Sforza in 1441. Eleven incomplete versions of the deck exist; the largest, the reprinted Pierpont Morgan-Bergamo version, contains 74 cards. The trumps and court cards bear neither numbers nor titles and no one knows for certain which version is the oldest.
The Tarot de Marseilles is another early deck, and it is probably based on woodblock prints. Unlike many modern decks, its Minor Arcana, with the exception of the court (from "coate," referring to royal robes) cards, possess no scenes or figures. This was true for many early decks: only Major Arcana cards featured detailed illustrations. The Minor Arcana of many early sets depict curved Sword blades and thick Wands, gold Coins and massive Cups, but no landscapes. A 15th century manuscript of a priest's sermon against gambling discusses triumphi (a Latin term) and four-suited playing cards. It also speaks of trumps and minor arcana as separate entities. This is one piece of evidence supporting the popular theory that major and minor arcana evolved independently.
By the end of the 15th century, Tarot packs existed throughout Europe. An author named Covelluzo wrote in 1480 that playing cards came to Italy in 1379 from North Africa, perhaps brought by Arabs, but no one knows if these included the Tarot.
Prior to 1750, most, if not all, known Tarot packs bore Italian labels, suggesting an Italian origin. French names with Italian suit-marks followed. German woodblock printing and the 18th century French occult revival helped spread the Tarot far and wide. Western Mystery esoteric interest in the occult further increased its popularity. Tarot packs are sold today in most of the largest cities in the world.
The origin of the Minor Arcana is also in question. Some researchers believe they were part of the original Egyptian deck; others say they were added around the fourteenth century from an Italian card game known as tarrochi.
In fact, even the origin of the name "Tarot" is in doubt. One simple explanation is that the name was derived from the crossed lines which appear on the back of the cards, a design called tarotee. Others say the name comes from the tarrochi, which supplied the cards of the Minor Arcana. Other explanations include:
• The Taro river in Northern Italy.
• Orat (Latin), "it speaks, argues."
• Rota (Latin), "a wheel."
• Taru (Hindu), "cards."
• Tarosh (Egyptian), "the royal way."
• Torah (Hebrew), "the Law."
• Thoth, an Egyptian god.
• Ator, from the Egyptian goddess Hathor.
• Troa (Hebrew), "gate."
• Tares, meaning the dot border on old cards.
• Tarotee, meaning a pattern on the backs.
Etteilla, a great scholar of the Tarot, believed that the name derives from the Egyptian words tar, "a path," and ro or ros, "royal," meaning together "the royal path of life."
Eliphas Levi (real name: Alphonse Louis Constant, author of History of Magicœ), 1810-1875, was a French priest and Rosicruician who thought the Tarot the key to the Bible, the Jewish Qabbalah, and all other ancient spiritual writings. He attempted to link the 22 cards of the Major Arcana to the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. He drew parallels between Tarot suits and the four letters of the Tetragrammaton, YHVH ("Yahweh"). Late nineteenth-century Parisian author Paul Christian (Jean Baptiste Pitois) was a follower of Levi's who believed that Major Arcana cards represent heiroglyphic paintings found on columns in ancient Eyptian galleries. He also sought parallels between the Tarot and Qabbalistic astrology. Papus (Gerard Encausse, 1865-1916), a French doctor, philosopher, and Theosophist, was another believer in the Tarot's Egyptian sources. Known for the book The Tarot of the Bohemians, he believed the Tarot a bearer of ancient designs inscribed in secret chambers below the Pyramids. The designs represented initiation tests. When the temples were at risk, the priests transferred the mystical designs to materials which later became a pack of cards. Papus, too, described a link between Tarot and the Tetragrammaton. He also dealt with numerology and the Tree of Life.
A. E. Waite (1857-1942), the English Christian occult philosopher, broke from the Order of the Golden Dawn and founded his own school of mystical thought. Working with the artist Pamela Coleman Smith, he created a "rectified" deck featuring images and scenery on all the cards, Minor as well as Major Arcana. It grew enormously popular, and many consider it the standard deck. His accompanying book The Pictorial Key to the Tarot is informative, if remarkably arrogant ("I wish therefore to say, within the reserves of courtesy and "la haute convenance" belonging to the fellowship of research, that I care nothing utterly for any view [but mine] that may find expression"), and contains insightful comments about the deck and its uses.
Aleister Crowley, too, founded his own occult school, the Ordo Templi Orientis, which had to do, among other things, sex magic. Working with Freida Harris, he created the colorful Book of Thoth Tarot. He considered identifying with each card more important than trying to guess about origins.
Paul Foster Case, who formed the Builders Adytum, thought the Tarot from Morocco. According to him, 11th century philosophers designed it to both to preserve knowledge after the Alexandrian libraries were burned down and to furnish a universal language. He, too, designed a deck, a black and white one. It strongly resembles Waite's.
Another complication is that much of the symbolism has changed through the centuries due to iconographic transformation, the process by which symbols are subtly altered and reinterpreted by a series of artists. For example, the Hermit trump card was once Time, an old man with an hourglass. Strength used to depict a man swinging a club at a crouching lion. The Star once featured a woman near a precipice clutching with her left hand at an eight-pointed star. No doubt these early images evolved from still earlier ones. Studying the Tarot's current symbolism may offer clues about its original form, but the form itself is probably lost to us.
Whatever the origin of the Tarot, it is clear that the symbolism on the cards is somehow universal, despite the diversity of images used. It speaks to many different cultures and philosophies. People of all religious, ethnic, or national backgrounds have used the Tarot, and developed their own versions of the deck. And the one point on which many authorities agree is that the Tarot, especially the Major Arcana, contains a complete book of occult knowledge which can lead dedicated students to an understanding of both themselves and the mysteries of creation--if only you can learn to decipher their true meaning.
What is the Tarot?
At its most basic, the Tarot is a deck of 78 cards, divided into 22 Major Arcana and 56 Minor Arcana. The word "Arcana" (singular: Arcanum) comes from the Latin arcanus, meaning closed or secret. In the context of the Tarot, it means a secret or a mystery, and is usually used in the plural form.
In the Major Arcana, or trump suit, each card has a different picture which illustrates an action, behavior and/or event. Each card also has a label, which is a name, a title, or a description of the picture on the card. The cards are numbered, from One to Twenty-One, except the Fool, which is generally considered to be number Zero. In a reading, the Major Arcana represents states of being--your mental, emotional, and/or spiritual condition at the time of the reading, or in terms of the situation being described.
The Minor Arcana are divided into four suits: Swords, Cups, Coins, and Wands, or some variant thereof (i.e., pentacles instead of coins, or staves instead of wands). In general, Swords describe your mental or intellectual state, and Cups your emotional life. Coins correspond to your physical or material status, and Wands to career, abilities, or potentials. There are fourteen cards in each suit: ten numbered (or pip) cards, from Ace to Ten, and four face (or court) cards, usually a Page, Knight, Queen, and King. In the reading, the Minor Arcana describes events or situations and each suit focuses on a different area of your life. The court cards sometimes represent actual people in your life, or they may have the same kind of interpretation as the pip cards.
It is the cards of the Minor Arcana which correspond to today's modern deck of playing cards. In the modern deck, the Knight was eliminated, and the Page became the Jack, leaving only three court cards to each suit. The Tarot's Swords have become Spades; Cups became Hearts; Coins are called Diamonds; and Wands are Clubs. The only card from the Major Arcana that has made the transition from the Tarot to the playing deck is The Fool, which has become The Joker.
Using the Tarot to Access the Divine Within…
Tarot cards have been used for divination pretty much throughout their known history, and this is still their main application today. They also have psychological applications and are a valuable tool in the important search for self-knowledge. This perspective relies on the belief that the Tarot works because we all create our own realities and hence our own destinies. In a traditional Tarot spread, the final outcome card is believed to be mystically determined by all the preceding cards, which represent attitudes, emotions, thoughts, or circumstances surrounding an issue, and already known by the client, at some level of awareness. Therefore, doing a reading is somewhat like feeding all known information into a computer (the subconscious mind) and tabulating or processing the most likely outcome, relative to that information. Modern psychologists often use specific tests to facilitate unconscious uncovering (generally involving the use of pictures or abstract images) to elicit expression of unconscious material. A familiar example is the Rorschach Ink Blot test, or the Thematic Apperception Test, in which the subject is required to interpret a picture by telling a story about it; and the House-Tree-Person, in which the subject draws, then answers questions about each of these.
The images found on Tarot cards can be utilized in a similar manner. Sallie Nichols describes Tarot cards as "projection holders, meaning simply that they are hooks to catch the imagination." In the science of psychology, projection is an unconscious defense mechanism whereby we see our own characteristics and tendencies not in ourselves, but rather in the people and events in our environment. Sallie Nichols suggests that "by viewing the images that we cast onto outer reality as mirror reflections of inner reality, we come to know ourselves...by confronting the archetypes and freeing oneself somewhat from their compulsion, one becomes increasingly able to respond to life in an individual way..." or in terms of Jung's "individuation process."
Tarot card images then become an effective means to eliciting conscious intuitions that effect changes in our inner images, which then serve to facilitate changes in overt behavior. The Tarot used in this particular way does not attempt to predict the future, but rather allows the individual to take an active role in the creation of a new and transformed future.
The fact remains, though, that most people are interested in the Tarot for the purpose of divination, of seeing what the future has to hold. This raises a number of important questions.
Do the cards really show the future?
Some believe the cards reveal a future set in stone, others that they show likely future trends and problems that can be worked with or avoided, and still others that the cards fall by chance and that reading any meaning into this is empty superstition. The truth is that we don't really know for absolute certainty. Subjectively, the cards often do seem to mirror reality surprisingly well, but the human mind does tend to hold on to the hits and mitigate the misses in its search for meaning.
One thing that is undoubtedly true is that serious use of the Tarot enables a person to consider their life, actions, problems and opportunities with an approach that is both systematic and insightful: a very powerful combination. The cards allow a greater appreciation of the past and how it has molded the present in any given circumstance, as well as showing the possibilities and alternatives of the future. Even if the cards speak in a merely random way of the future, the value and effect of serious Tarot use is still immense because of the perceptive exploratory processes involved in the interpretation of a reading.
Do the cards tell us what must happen?
If you choose to believe that the cards do foretell future events, the obvious follow-up question is whether events suggested by the cards are set in stone, or whether they can be avoided. This applies equally to positive predictions as to negative ones, because if it were possible to avoid some foretold disaster, then it may be equally possible to miss out on some predicted windfall or opportunity.
If the cards mapped out a fixed future then there would be little value in consulting them. The most positive approach to a reading is that the cards show trends and potentials: what will happen if you do nothing consciously to change the course of events. Most readings deal with the current situation and events leading up to it precisely so that the cards can suggest how the questioner has got where they are, and how best they can go forward. If the cards suggest future problems, they will also suggest the causes of these difficulties and how they can be avoided. If they suggest pleasurable future events, then they will also suggest how to make sure that these come to pass, and how to avoid wasting the positive phase approaching.
How does the Tarot work?
If you are of the school of thought that there is nothing mystical or presaging about the seemingly random selection of cards, then the Tarot works by providing a framework for the reader to analyze a given problem or situation and explore future options by reconsidering the past that has created the present. Applying the meaning of a card in a given position to the question in hand means that the mind has to look for meanings and links that it would not ordinarily consider, and in this way fresh insights are found.
Those who believe that cards specifically foreshadow future events need to look beyond present-day science for an explanation. The mechanism by which the cards work may be looked at as an instance of the ancient mystical maxim, "As above, so below", where the seemingly trivial fall of cards somehow mirrors the greater machinations of the heavens, and the future is glimpsed. Others may turn to theories such as synchronicity, theorized by Carl Gustav Jung. Synchronicity is the coincidence of events that appear to be meaningfully related but cannot be explained by accepted mechanisms of cause and effect. The random selection of cards detailing future events would be a very good example of this.
In the end, the Tarot is a rich source of conscious and unconscious knowledge, delight, and exploration. Whether you see it as a tool for self-exploration or a literal predictor of future events, the value is literal and clear.
May your journeys be fruitful.
~© Lisa Mc Sherry 2005, 2016
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