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The Tarot – An Introduction


The tarot is a deck of 78 cards, many or all of which feature allegorical illustrations. The illustrations portray various characters and messages, and may be interpreted in various ways. These cards are divided into two sections, called the major arcana and the minor arcana.

The major arcana consists of 21 trump cards and the Fool card.

The minor arcana has 56 cards, which are divided into four suits of 16 cards each. The four suits are traditionally called Swords, Coins, Cups and Batons. Today, the Batons are sometimes known as Wands, and the Coins are often called Pentacles or Disks.

Each suit has 10 cards numbered from 1-10, an Ace, and four court cards (the Page, Knight, Queen and King).

Origin of the Tarot

Some people believe that the similarity between tarot imagery and that of ancient cultures and traditions such as the Egyptians, the mystical Hebrew Kabbalah, and various others, suggests that the tarot cards have an ancient and exotic origin. However, the surviving physical evidence suggests that they originated in Renaissance Italy.

Playing cards seem to have appeared in Europe by the late 14th century, and tarot decks came along a few decades later. Tarot decks include the trump cards in addition to the usual numerical cards, and the oldest surviving decks were made for the ruling Milanese Visconti family in the early-mid 15th century. Tarot cards remained restricted mostly to the upper classes for some time after this, in part due to the fact that early decks were hand painted, and they did not become widely available until after the invention of the printing press.

Tarot cards seem to have originated as part of a card game known as ‘trifoni’ (meaning ‘trumps’ or ‘triumph’), although the name later mutated to ‘tarrochi’, from which the 16th century French word ‘tarot’ is derived.

Because they were originally used as a type of playing card, tarot cards have often been condemned by religious organisations for their associations with the ‘sinful’ activities of gambling and (later) fortune telling, and as early as the 14th century, there were sermons preaching against the use of cards, including the tarot. Despite this however, tarot cards seem to have been tolerated reasonably well in their early history, and were even exempt from some laws that prohibited the use of other types of playing cards.

Later Developments

So, the tarot seems to have been used primarily for gambling and other types of card games in its early history. It was not until the 18th century that the cards became associated with the occult and mystical activities for which they are known today. This development began in 1781, when the freemason Antoine Court de Gebelin made the claim in his work ‘Le Monde Primatif’ that tarot cards contained hidden meanings (which he associated – without evidence – with the ancient Egyptians) that could be used for divinatory purposes.

Since then, other mystic and magical traditions, such as the Order of the Golden Dawn, have claimed that the tarot has ancient roots, and that is has hidden wisdom to impart to those seeking enlightenment. There is little hard evidence for such claims however, although this lack of evidence does not necessarily mean that such interpretations are invalid. It should be noted though, that much of the seemingly mysterious imagery of early tarot decks of the middle ages and Renaissance can be linked to the popular and Christian symbolism of the times.

Mass Popularity

tarot cardsThroughout the 19th century the tarot was often associated with secret societies, but that was to change in 1910 with the publication fo the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot. Arthur Edwards Waite was a Golden Dawn member, and in this new deck, drawn by the artist Pamela Colman Smith, images with occult symbolism were included on the numeric cards for the first time, as well as the trump cards. This deck was very successful (and remains highly popular today), and since then, hundreds if not thousands of diverse new decks have been published, with many enthusiasts creating their own.

Uses of the Tarot

The tarot has several distinct uses, including the following:

1. Playing Games

This was its original use, and the tarot is still used for gaming purposes in some European countries such as France, Italy, Switzerland, Austria and Germany.

2. Psychology

Carl Jung was the first mainstream psychologist to attach meaning to the tarot cards, when he associated them with the fundamental archetypes that he believed to reside in the collective human unconscious. Several therapeutic techniques involving the tarot have developed from this insight.

3. Inspiration

The cards have been and continue to provide a rich source of inspiraton for visual artists, authors and other artists.

4. Divination

Divination is perhaps the most common use associated with the tarot. On a prosaic level, the symbolism of the cards is rich in potential meaning, so it is easy to read personal meanings into it – perhaps assisted by the subconscious mind, which is already aware of impending events that are being created by current patterns of thought. Others believe that the cards themselves hold some kind of inherent divinatory knowledge, which may be deciphered by a skilled person. For this reason, handling another person’s cards is generally frowned upon in occult circles, as their energy could become contaminated, and their power compromised.

Doing a Reading

There is no single method for performing a divinatory tarot reading. However there are several popular layouts or ‘spreads’, with perhaps the most well known being the Celtic cross. This is usually the first method taught to beginners, although it is by no means the most simple. Others include the Five Card Spread, the Romany Draw and the Opening of the Keys (a Golden Dawn method). Aleister Crowley’s Thoth deck also comes with its own instructions, although these originated with the publisher, rather than with Crowley himself. Experienced tarot readers will often invent their own spreads, together with their own means of interpretation.

Once the cards are selected by the person receiving the reading, the reader lays them out in a spread, and analyses them, taking into account their positions relative to each other, the symbolism of the individual cards, and whether or not they are upside down (such a reversal modifies the meaning of a card).
Meaning of the Cards

There is no generally agreed upon interpretation of the tarot cards. They all have imagery of varying degrees of compexity, and the wide range of decks available makes the situation even more difficult. Nevertheless there is a huge amount of writings available on the symbology of the tarot.

On the most basic level, the 22 major arcana cards feature the Fool, Magician, High Priestess, Empress, Emperor, Hierophant, Chariot, Hermit, Wheel of Fortune, Strength, Hanged Man, Death, Temperance, Devil, Tower, Lovers, Star, Moon, Sun, Judgement, and World. These trump cards represent the journey of the Fool from ignorance to enlightenment.

In addition, the minor arcana cards have their own symbolism. The numbers are most obviously associated with numerology, and the suits are linked to the four elements (Swords=Air; Cups=Water; Wands=Fire; Pentacles= Earth). The tarot has also been linked with other mystical and occult systems such as the I Ching, astrology, and the Kabbalah.
Choosing a Tarot Deck

There is a huge and bewildering array of tarot decks to choose from. The symbolism-rich Rider Waite deck (and its variants such as the Universal Waite deck) remains extremely popular, as does Crowley’s Thoth deck. The early Marseille deck (used by Gebelin to illustrate ‘Le Monde Primitif’) is another important deck, and some artists, such as Salvador Dali, have produced their own decks. In addition to such ‘old favourites’, people with just about any special interest can find a deck to match.

For example, feminists might like the Motherpeace Tarot with its round cards and exclusively female imagery, whereas the Witches deck and the DruidCraft tarot might appeal to some of a pagan bent. Cat lovers should check out Karen Kuykendall’s stunning ‘Tarot of the Cat People’, which features – unsurprisingly – a cat on each card, together with their otherworldly human companions. Tarot decks can be found representing other types of animals too, as well as various sports, natural imagery and other common activities. In fact, there’s a tarot pack available to suit every taste, and most can be found online as well as from bookstores, new age shops etc.

Where to Start?

If you’re interested in learning more about tarot, I recommend checking out some of the numerous excellent tarot-related sites on the net. http://www.aeclectic.net/tarot/ is a good place to start, especially if you haven’t yet bought your first deck, as it features lots of information about the huge range available, as well as articles on various aspects of the tarot.

You can also buy a wide range of tarot decks and reference books through Amazon, as well as other online retailers. Two good books to start with are Learning the Tarot by Joan Bunning and The Complete Guide to the Tarot by Eden Gray.

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