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An Overview of the Tarot

By TheophileEscargot
Mon Aug 19th, 2002 at 11:30:58 AM EST
Tarot cards: what they are, where they come from, what they mean and whatthey’re used for.

Pick up a Tarot deck. In general, you’ll have a large, thick deck of 78 cards, bigger than playing cards, somewhat clumsy to shuffle. Twenty-two of these willbe the Trumps, or major arcana; each with a picture, a name and a number. Theremainder are the minor arcana, and are more like playing cards. These aredivided into four suits, often named Swords, Cups, Wands and Pentacles. Eachsuit has number cards one to ten, and court cards named Page, Knight, Queen andKing.

Or you may find something different entirely. The cards may be small, theymay be circular, they may be home-made, they may have completely differentsuits, they may have pictures of film stars or sporting heroes. You may alsofind someone shouting furiously at you: it’s considered a very bad thing tohandle someone else’s cards without their permission.

History. The firstphysical evidence of the Tarot dates from the fifteenth century. An elaborate, hand-made deck called the Viscontideck survives from Italy in 1440. More simply-drawndecks survive from Marseilles, France, in the same period. An Italian sermondescribes the major arcana cards in detail, criticizes them as blasphemous, warns against gambling with them.

It is believed by many that the Tarot is far older than this. Based onsimilarities of the imagery and numbering, some associate the Tarot with ancientEgypt, or the Hebrew mystic tradition of the Kabbalah, or a wide variety ofother origins. However, if you rely on physical evidence alone, it must be saidthat the Tarot began in Europe in the Renaissance.

In the Anglo-Saxon world today, the Tarot is usually seen as a means offortune-telling. However, early references such as the sermon refer only to theuse of the cards for game-playing and gambling; and in some European countriessuch as France, Italy, Switzerland, Austria and Germany; this is still seen asthe primary purpose of the Tarot today. The relationship between Tarot cards andplaying cards is unclear, since for centuries there was no standard for playingcards, just a variety of different decks. Some maintain that playing cards arethe descendent of Tarot cards, with the entire major arcana cards but theFool/Joker stripped out. There is also an opposingview that the major arcana cards (trumps) were added to playing cards as anovelty.

Whatever their origins, Tarot cards eventually came to be associated withmysticism and magic. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries mystics, occultists and secret societies used the Tarot.

The breakthrough into mass popularity began in 1910, with the publication ofthe Rider-Waite-SmithTarot, which took the step of including symbolic images in the minor as well themajor arcana. In the twentieth century, a huge number of different decks werecreated, some traditional, some wildly different.

Varieties and Artwork
Tarot artwork is a fascinating subject in itself, in several different ways.from an art-history point of view, it’s intriguing to watch the images evolveover five centuries, and to judge how artists have attempted to convey the sameconcepts to generations apart. From a folk-art point of view, you can compareand contrast hundreds or thousands of amateur decks. In recent years, hand-making your own deck has been popular. Notably, Salvador Dali used collagesto create his own DaliUniversal Tarot. Aleister Crowley’s ThothTarot has an interesting art-deco feel.

The most popular deck today is probably what is confusingly known as theRider-Waite-Smith, Waite-Smith, or simply the Riderdeck. The images were drawn by artist Pamela Colman Smith, to theinstructions of academic and mystic Arthur Waite, and published by the Ridercompany. While the images are deceptively simple, almost child-like, the detailsand backgrounds hold a wealth of symbolism. The subjects remain close to theearliest decks, but usually have added detail. The chief aesthetic objection tothis deck is the crude printing of colours in the original: several decks, suchas the UniversalWaite, simply copy the Smith line drawings, but with more sophisticatedcolouring.

Other decks vary in their conventionality. Cat-lovers have the Tarotof the Cat People, a fairly standard deck complete with cat in everypicture. The Tarotof the witches and AquarianTarot retain the conventional cards with varying designs. The witches deckbecame famous/notorious in the 1970’s for its use in the James Bond movie Liveand Let Die.

Other decks change the cards partly or completely. The MotherpeaceTarot is notable for its circular cards and feminist angle: the mainly malecharacters have been replaced by females. The Tarotof Baseball has suits bats, mitts, balls and bases; “coaches” and”MVPs” instead of Queens and Kings; and major arcana cards like”The Catcher”, “The Rule Book” and “Batting aThousand”.

Geeks might find the Silicon ValleyTarot most intelligible, which offers onlinereadings. Major arcana cards include TheHacker, Flame War, TheLayoff and The Garage; the suits are Networks, Cubicles, Disks and Hosts; the court cards CIO, Salesman, Marketeer and New Hire.

The significance of the cards is their most mysterious aspect. Even the earlydecks have complex imagery. Look at The World (Le Monde) or Strength (La Force) in thisMarseilles deck. Strength shows a woman holding the jaws of a lion. Thismight just be interpreted as an image of physical strength: some modern decksjust show a muscular man with a barbell. But look at The World: a dancer orposed figure, in a flowery wreath, with four creatures at the corners. All kindsof symbolic explanations can be, and have been, presented for this. But was thisjust a standard symbolic representation of the concept “the World” inMarseilles in 1450, or were there deep levels of meaning even then? If thesecards were just for card-games, why were these peculiar symbols chosen for them? Was there a spiritual or magical significance to the cards, or was it just thatthe random whims of a dead artist found themselves incorporated into a standard?The answers are frustratingly lost, not just in the mists of time, but the fogsof contradictory analysis.

Regardless of what the cards meant originally, meanings are attached to themnow. Interpretations have co-evolved with the cards over the centuries: laterdecks have “clarified” the pictures in accordance with their perceivedmeanings, the meanings in turn modified by the new pictures.

For example, take a look at the Rider-Waite-Smith Strengthcard. We can know more about the symbolic intentions of the designer here, sincehe conveniently wrote manybooks on the subject. As with its Marseilles-deck ancestor, the card shows awoman holding the jaws of a lion, but this picture is far more elaborate. Thestrangely-shaped hat of the Marseilles card has traditionally been interpretedas a symbolic lemniscate: the sideways-figure-eight representation ofinfinity. In the newer card, this symbol appears explicitly. Other symbols areincluded: a chain of roses symbolizing desire or passion, against a white robesymbolizing purity. The mountains in the background demonstrate another kind ofstrength. Even here there is room for interpretation: the card is sometimesconsidered as showing intellect triumphing over desire, sometimes as the equalunion of intellect and passion, sometimes just as a symbol of mental strength orendurance.

The twenty-two cards most often in the major arcana are: Fool, Magician, HighPriestess [or La Papessa/Popess], Empress, Emperor, Hierophant [or Pope],Lovers, Chariot, Strength, Hermit, Wheel of Fortune, Justice, Hanged Man, Death,Temperance, Devil, Tower, Star, Moon, Sun, Judgement, World. Each card has itsown large, complicated and disputed set of meanings. Altogether the major arcanais said to represent the Fool’sjourney: a symbolic journey through life in which the Fool overcomesobstacles and gains wisdom.

There is a vast body of writing on the significance of the Tarot. The foursuits are associated with the four elements: Swords with air, Wands with fire, Cups with water and Pentacles with earth. The numerology is usually thought tobe significant. The Tarot is often considered to correspond to various systemssuch as astrology, the Kaballah, the I Ching and others.

Uses of the Tarot
Jung was the first psychologist to attachimportance to the Tarot. He regarded the Tarot cards as representingarchetypes: fundamental types of person or situation embedded in thesubconscious of all human beings. The Emperor, for instance, represents the ultimate patriarch or father figure.

The theory of archetypes gives rise to several psychological uses. Somepsychologists use Tarot cards to identify how a patient views himself orherself, by asking the patient to select a card that he or she identifies with. Some try to get the patient to clarify his ideas by imagining his situation orrelationship in terms of Tarot images: Is someone rushing in heedlessly like theKnight of Swords perhaps, or blindlykeeping the world at bay. The Tarot can be seen as a kind of algebra of thesubconscious, allowing it to be analysed at the conscious level.

Storytelling and Art
The Tarot has been known to inspire writers as well as visual artists. NovelistItalo Calvino described the Tarot as a “machine for telling stories”,writing TheCastle of Crossed Destinies with plots and characters constructed throughthe Tarot. T.S. Eliot’s poem TheWaste Land uses only superficial descriptions of Tarot cards, a few of whichare genuine. Random selections of Tarot cards have also been used to constructstories for writing exercises and writing games.

Divination and Magic
Divination, or fortune-telling, is by far the most popular and well-known use ofthe Tarot. This is sometimes seen as an extension of the psychological usementioned above. It can be argued that we sometimes perceive the signs of futureevents subconsciously only. For instance you might be subconsciously aware thata relationship or job is in trouble, before you admit it to yourself. In thatsense, it might be said that the Tarot can give you insights into the futurewithout having any supernatural or occult aspect at all. Meaning may emerge evenfrom purely random patterns, as chance selections force you to consider conceptsthat you’d normally ignore, and the density of meaning is great enough thatmeanings can emerge from almost any selection of cards.

That point of view is rare. Tarot diviners generally believe that Tarot cardssimply allow them to exercise an innate psychic ability to see the future. It’spopularly believed that the cards take on the “aura” or”vibrations” of someone who touches them. The cards are therefore”insulated” by wrapping them in silk or enclosing them in a box, andonly touched by the diviner and person for whom the reading is done: the “querent”.

There are many variations, but in a typical reading the querent shuffles thecards, then the diviner lays out the cards in a pattern called the spread.The most popular spread is the CelticCross.The cards are then analysed according to their positions, their relationshipsand whether the cards are upside-down. An inverted card has its own set ofmodified meanings; sometimes opposite, sometimes weakened, sometimes twisted.

Divination may be seen as magical in itself, but the word “magic”usually refers to the use of Tarot cards in a magical ritual designed to achievesome end. This is much less common than simple divination, however.

Spiritual growth
The symbolism of the Tarot in general, and the Fool’s Journey in particular, isseen as describing spiritual progress and growth. Contemplation of the Tarot isbelieved by some to aid this. It is also common to meditate using a particularcard as a focus.

Believers in this approach, who include Christian mystics as well as assortedNew Agers, sometimes regard divination as a somewhat immature use of the Tarot.

Christianity and the Tarot
The relationship between Christianity and the Tarot has been ambiguous from thebeginning. Neither gambling nor fortune-telling are encouraged by Christianchurches: a device that does both was never going to be popular. In addition, the religious imagery of the early decks was regarded as blasphemous. Not onlywas the Pope himself present, on the card often known now as the Hierophant; butthe card now often called the High Priestess was originally known as La Papessa:the female Pope. Together with cards like the Deviland Judgement; the Tarot hasoften been seen as positively Satanic by many Christians.

There is of course no evidence that the earliest Tarot decks were created byor for Satanists: there’s precious little evidence of any kind. However, there’slittle evidence even for later associations between Satanism and the Tarot. Asingle book pageon The Church of Satan websiteclaims to have found a single, out-of-print deck called “Satan’sTarot”, but there is little supporting information. The Salemwitches Tarot FAQ strongly denies a link with Satanism.

In fact, the Tarot is more closely associated with Christian mysticism. Thenineteenth-century Golden Dawn group, since splintered into a variety ofsub-groups, incorporated the Tarot into a specifically Christian mysticalframework, as did other contemporary groups.

In the present day, the rejection works both ways. The Tarot has been adoptedby the Pagan and Wiccan movements, who dispute a Christian origin to the Tarot.To them, Christian symbols in the Tarot are considered either coincidental; universal symbols that cross the different traditions; or just Christiancorruptions of originally Pagan symbols.

The best book I’ve read on the Tarot is Seventy-EightDegrees of Wisdom by Rachel Pollack. It’s comprehensive, covering and theminor as well as the major arcana; and taking several angles on the Tarot. It’salso well-written and intelligible: the author is also well known as a fantasyand SF writer.

A classic text is Eden Grey’s CompleteGuide to the Tarot, which concentrates on classical divination, but has someinformation on the more spiritual aspects.

Arthur Waite’s TheKey to the Tarot, while highly influential, is confusing and incomplete; andis also hampered by a lack of illustrations. Even though he invented theRider-Waite-Smith deck, it’s best avoided by newcomers. Interestingly, Waite’shabit of describing the picture of each cards in words seems to have been widelycarried over even into illustrated books; many of which are padded-out versionsof this one.

Every library or bookshop will have a selection of Tarot books, mostly aimedat divination for beginners.

There is an interesting online guide to divination using the tarot, which discusses each card, and has several examples of actual readings.

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