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The Tarot as originally created stemmed from life as it was experienced during a certain historical period - the Rennaisance. Since that time, the distance between the original purpose of the Tarot as it was created, and what it has evolved into today, continues to diverge. During the course of this short article, I will attempt to bridge that span so as to give the reader a comprehensive view of this fascinating card game.
Much speculation exists as to the origins of the Tarot. Popular myths and rumors abound of their beginnings in ancient Egypt or with the Romanian Gypsies. However, actual history shows a somewhat different story.
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.
Spreads, of which there are hundreds, vary widely as well. The most widely used spread is called the "Celtic Cross" (the origins of which are a topic for another dissertation) consisting of ten positions for the cards which are generally labeled as follows:
Readers have come to rely on this spread as an all-encompassing containment of information that provides the querant with answers to most of the details surrounding the central issue of the reading. If questions remain after reading this set of cards, additional clarification cards are sometimes pulled from the pack and read as a part of the session. Most all Tarot readings follow this same simple structure, with little variation.
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. Anyone can learn how to do it. 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 symbo9logy of the system before branching out to other interpretations of the Tarot.
There are literally hundreds of decks on the market, with new ones being developed and published almost daily. Although definitely confusing for the new student of the Tarot, it is a collector's paradise for those who are interested in the historical origins and further development of this fascinating activity. The study of the symbology of the cards alone has caught the interest of many scholars who have written reams on the subject. A suggested list of books, from beginner to authoritative commentary, is listed at the end of this article.
Harking back to the ancient symbology of the cards, another important influence on the understanding and interpretation of Tarot was the work of Carl G. Jung and his study of archetypal imagery arising from the human collective unconscious. In an introductory statement to Sally Nichols' book "Jung and Tarot" Laurens van der Post stated that "He (Jung) recognized at once, as he did in so many other games and primordial attempts at divination of the unseen and the future, that Tarot had its origin and anticipation in profound patterns of the collective unconscious with access to potentials of increased awareness uniquely at the disposal of these patterns." Nichols herself states early on that "It seems apparent that these old cards were conceived deep in the guts of human experience, at the most profound level of the human psyche. It is to this level in ourselves that they will speak."
Many believe it is this view of the cards that explains the development of the cards for "fortune telling." Waite himself despised this aspect of the cards, and took every opportunity to denigrate this idea. Yet for this topic, Jung's system of archetypal psychology suggests that we reevaluate our definition of the term "fortune telling."
Most people who hear the word instantly think of the rag-headed Gypsy with the crystal ball and smoking incense in the dark tent with a name preceded by "Madam." However, modern uses for the cards has elevated this image from the darkened tent into the light of developmental self awareness, plumbing the depths of psychology and spiritual enlightenment. Today, "fortune telling" with practiced readers can more often be a participatory session with an active and dynamic interplay between reader and querant, with the reader helping the questioner divine their own sources of problems and solutions through the story presented in the images.
Given today's rash of less-than-honest psychic pretenders, a good Tarot reader is a rare find. Anyone can learn the Tarot card meanings by mere rote memorization. However, the skill of a good reader becomes obvious when they can tune in to that numinous interface between the energies of the cards in the spread and the energies of the querant and the issues that need to be discussed. You'll notice the word "need" is used, because inevitably the cards will most often speak to the issue of what the querant needs to know instead of, or in addition to, what the querant wants to know.
In a good Tarot session, the reader will develop a rapport with the querant and involve them in the reading, rather than listening to a "talking head." According to Mary Greer, a good reader will be able to pull all the cards in the spread together to interpret not only the message of each individual card, but the spread as a cohesive whole, so that the querant can see the entire story.
The best Tarot readers today will often set up a dialog about the cards in the reading, asking the reader's ideas about what "they" see in the cards, which almost inevitably acts as a "Rorschach" test of sorts that helps the querant reveal issues that might have been deeply buried within their unconscious. Many who seek the services of a Tarot reader or psychic are concerned with a "surface" problem that has manifested in their life, but refuse to deal with the underlying issues that cause the problem. Often, Tarot cards can reveal these issues and provide a forum where the querant can bring them out to discuss in an atmosphere of comfort and safety, much as in a professional counseling session.
The good reader will also be able to recognize when a problem surfaces that is far beyond their scope of practice, and suggest the querant seek additional counseling when the issue warrants this step.
If the querant does take the advice of the reader about seeking further counseling, they might just find themselves (if they're lucky) with a professional who uses the Tarot as a basis for understanding their clients problems. In a foreword to Mary Greer's book "Tarot Mirrors," tarot author Rachal Pollack comments that a growing number of people "_.have realized that readings can serve as a primary means of penetrating into the layers of a person's life - a way of exposing desires and fears, the conditioning of past experiences, the future developments that exist now in the immediate reality."
A growing number of 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. 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.
A good example is Dr. Art Rosengarten, who presented a fascinating workshop at a 1996 symposium in Anaheim, California entitled - "Using Tarot as a Mirror into Domestic Discord" in which he discussed the results of his pilot study on Tarot Research Into Domestic Violence. In this study he was given permission to present "...a brief discussion of Tarot to five court-ordered treatment groups for Male Offenders of Domestic Violence and seek volunteers to receive Tarot Readings which would be focused on issues related to their personal domestic and marital problems."
Among the many fascinating results of the study was the universal ability of the test subjects to look at the cards and spreads, and see their own stories - their own personal myths. The images enabled them to reach within to see and identify with the personality characteristics present or missing within themselves - to identify and name their own reality. The cards helped them make sense of what they could not heretofore explain or put into words - to take the clothes off the Emperor so they could see their situation as it really was.
Author Cynthia Giles speaks on this subject quite well in her book "The Tarot - Methods, Mastery, and More" when she says "Another important wellness aspect of Tarot is the reading process itself. The reading event offers an opportunity for profound connection between two people, and there is substantial evidence that this person-to-person connection is vital for wellness as well as for healing."
We can see in these examples that the Tarot is not limited to the application of "Fortune Telling," but has gone beyond into the realm of being used as a "healing tool." As a channel into the world of internal archetypal images, it can be, and indeed is beginning to be, used more and more as a bridge between mind and body to aid in healing the sicknesses of modern society.
As in any field of study, one can choose to assimilate a cursory overview of the subject, and then either abandon it for other paths, or choose to delve deeper. In the field of Tarot, Giles makes the statement that "_Tarot brings with it its own invitations and its own initiations. Tarot can be pursued in many ways, at many levels. Beyond a certain point, however, one either chooses to enter the path of mastery or determines to remain a dabbler. Entering the path surely does not mean you must devote your life to Tarot _ but it does mean a change of attitude. On the path, Tarot becomes less an activity than a point of view."
The Tarot's unique development from its origins as a simple parlor game, to its evolution as a divinatory tool, to its more modern development as a means for self-development and awareness, provides a tempting, elaborate, and many-faceted subject that can engage the interest of historians, mystics and occultists alike.
"A Wicked Pack of Cards" by Decker, Depaulis and Dummett
"78 Degrees of Wisdom" Volumes I and II by Rachel Pollack
"Dictionary of the Tarot" by Bill Butler
"Tarot: A Handbook for the *" by Eileen Connolly
"The Book of Thoth" by Aleister Crowley
"Complete Guide to the Tarot" by Eden Gray
"Tarot for Your Self", "Tarot Constellations", "Tarot Mirrors" by Mary K. Greer
"Encyclopedia of Tarot"volumes I-III by Stuart Kaplan
"The Game of Tarot" by Michael Dummett
"Pictorial Key to the Tarot" by A.E. Waite
For those savvy to cruising the World Wide Web, two of the best sites for Tarot study and reference are:
"Michele's Tarot Home Page" at http://www.infi.net/~jacksn
Mary K. Greer's web site - Tools and Rites of Transformation (T.A.R.O.T.) at http://www.nccn.net/~tarot
Both contain vast amounts of information and resources, as well as links to other tarot sites around the web.
For those in remote areas who might not have access to either books or decks, Wolf Distributing is considered to be the largest distributor of tarot-related products. They can be found on the WWW at http://www.icanect.net/wolf/wtarot.htm or by calling their Order Desk at 1-800-377-6650 USA and Canada.
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