The Ryder Waite Deck

 The Crowley Thoth Deck

What is Tarot? What are Tarot cards?

  The Tarot is most commonly viewed as a tool for divination. A traditional tarot reading involves a seeker - someone who is looking for answers to personal questions - and a reader - someone who knows how to interpret the cards. After the seeker has shuffled and cut the deck, the reader lays out the chosen cards in a pattern called a spread. Each position in the spread has a meaning, and each card has a meaning as well. The reader combines these two meanings to shed light on the seeker's question.

  This aura of darkness clings to the tarot cards, even now. Some religions shun the cards, and the scientific establishment condemns them as symbols of unreason, a holdover from an unenlightened past. Let us set aside these shadowy images for now and consider the tarot simply for what it is - a deck of picture cards.


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. A hundred years prior to this, 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.

Speculation about the Egyptian origins of the Tarot springs almost exclusively from the conclusions and assertions of one person - Antoine Court de Gebelin, a Protestant pastor born in 1695. Caught up in a period of wide-spread fervor over the mystery of all things Egyptian, Court de Gebelin's essay in his work "Monde primitif" says that he discovered this mysterious work while visiting a Lady acquaintance occupied in playing with the game of "Tarots." Within a short time (15 minutes, the essay declares) he prounouced them to be a mysterious book of knowledge of Egyptian origins which had survived the ravages of time. Similar conclusions were drawn in another essay by Court de Gebelin's peer Comte de Mellet. The belief that the Tarot originated with the Gypsies sprung from the same fount of speculation based on the mistaken idea that the Gypsies originally came from Egypt.


Despite the lack of hard evidence as to the "mystical" origins of the Tarot, the symbology of the tarot can be traced to the ancient Greeks as well as to the myths and legends of other ancient cultures. From these convergent and divergent points, a school of thought developed that compared the cards to the intricate Judaic system of Qabalah and the Tree of Life, an important component of the early development of modern hermetic magickal systems, developing further into the founding of the Order of the Golden Dawn and Freemasonry. Early hermetic Tarot scholars, including Papus, MacGregor Mathers, Eliphas Levi, Aleister Crowley, and Arthur E. Waite contributed vastly to the body of mystical knowledge which comprises the basis of modern Tarot - Crowley and Waite being the creators of the two most popular systems extant today - the "Thoth" and "Rider-Waite" decks (respectively).

While Crowley's Thoth deck developed to incorporate Qabalistic theory along the lines of the developing OTO ("Ordo Templi Orientis") and Golden Dawn systems, A.E. Waite's interpretation of the Tarot stands today virtually as the standard by which all Tarot decks are judged. Prior to this, the minor arcana (or "pip" cards) of the Tarot were illustrated with various geometric arrangements of the four suit symbols - Cups, Swords, Batons and Coins. With the aid of artist Pamela Coleman-Smith, Waite incorporated scenes, symbols and imagery into the pip cards, which, although continuing to be of hermetic/qabalistic interpretation, assigned a more graphic meaning to the cards, bringing them within a more accessible reach to the general public, or at least those with an interest in the occult. In the process, he also changed the suits of Batons to Wands and Coins to Pentacles to realign them with his ideas about their connection to the magickal disciplines. Crowley's deck, oriented more toward the hermetic tradition, continued with the geometric suit design of the pips. However, his "Book of Thoth" written as an explanatory text for the deck, is considered basic required reading by Tarot authorities.


The creation of the Waite deck began a veritable avalanche of new decks into the marketplace. Many artists saw the medium as a way to present variations of artistic genre, creating decks which were veritable galleries of miniature artwork. The occultists saw it as a way to broaden and further the study of other magickal/spiritual traditions, and began to assert a universal connection between Waite's assigned meanings and their own traditions. Thus, 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 combinations thereof into a single deck.

However, despite the variations in presentation, the basic structure of the standard or archetypal tarot deck consists of two groups of cards known as the "Major Arcana" and the "Minor Arcana" ("arcana" meaning "secret" or "hidden"). Briefly, 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 have their own over-arching associations, and the cards within each suit have a their own meaning.

The standard method for "reading" the cards involves the use of a "spread," which means the card or cards chosen from the deck are placed in a certain position that has a designated meaning and interpreted from there. Methods of choosing the cards vary widely from reader to reader. Some allow the querant full range to shuffle and choose the cards and place them where they please, relying heavily on the random aspect of chaos to reveal the issue at hand. Some never allow anyone to touch their cards, and insist on placing the cards in a certain design in specific ways, feeling more comfortable in a highly structured reading environment. Readings can fall anywhere between the two extremes depending on the card reader.  


 The tarot cards can also be used for meditation. It is evident that there are archetypes in the cards: the Magician, the Lovers, the Tower, the Hermit. Studying each card in a certain deck or in different decks is enlightening. One definition of the tarot is:

A symbolic representation of Archetypal Forces and/or Beings which have always existed and have been identified and passed on to us by ancient initiates and which provide a focus for us to use in self-initiation, spiritual development, and the perception of hidden wisdom.

Crowley says of the Tarot:

"Each card is, in a sense, a living being." "It is for the student to build these living stones into his living Temple."

"...the cards of the Tarot are living individuals..."

"How is he to blend their life with his? The ideal way is that of contemplation. But this involves initiation of such high degree that it is impossible to describe the method in this place. Nor is it attractive or suitable to most people. The practical everyday commonplace way is divination."

"...the Tarot itself as a whole is an universal Pantacle...Each card, especially this is true of the Trumps, is a Talisman;...It is evidently an Idea far too vast for any human mind to comprehend in its entirety. For it is 'the Wisdom whereby He (God) created the worlds.' "

"Divination is in one sense an art entirely separate from that of Magick; yet it interpenetrates Magick at every point. The fundamental laws of both are identical. The right use of divination has already been explained: but it must be added that proficiency therein, tremendous as is its importance in furnishing the Magician with the information necessary to his strategic and tactical plans, in no wise enables him to accomplish the impossible. It is not within the scope of divination to predict the future with the certainty of an astronomer in calculating the return of a comet. There is always much virtue in divination."

  If one opens the mind and spirit, the Tarot is much more than painted cards.

Tarot Link: Pentacles by Dorian B


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