Tips And Treats
Tarot (Tar-oh) is a system of symbolic images on cards. Whatever their original significance, the cards have been used since they first surfaced as much for divinatory purposes as for trick-taking card games. Tarot is currently also used as tool for reflection on one's personal life, as well as an aid to meditation. Tarot is usually embodied in a deck of 78 cards, similar to a set of playing cards. In the English speaking world, tarot is widely regarded as a form of cartomancy. In France, the word tarot also describes a trick-taking card game. Tarot has long been regarded as taboo, due to obscure associations that predate its 19th-century occult associations. Roman Catholic sermons inveighing against the evil inherent in playing cards (though not necessarily tarot reading) can be traced to the 14th century.
The earliest extant examples of Tarot decks are of North Italian origin and date to the mid-15th century. These were called carte da trionfi or "cards of the triumphs". Soon afterward comparable decks were used in the game of Tarocchi. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the cards became a popular in occult studies, initiated by Etteilla and Antoine Court de Gebelin. The set of 78 images is considered by students of this form of Tarot (tarotism) to be independent of details of any particular representation.
Last Updated - 8th December 2005
The Tarot Deck
The conventional 78-card deck is structured into two distinct sets. The first, called the Major Arcana, consists of 22 cards without suits typically referred to as "trumps". The second, called the Minor Arcana, consists of 56 cards divided into four suits. The cards in each suit are numbered 2 through 10 with four court cards or face cards and an Ace (not dissimilar from the structure of playing cards). Arcana is the plural of the Latin word arcanum, meaning "hidden truth" or "secret knowledge". Alternate names are the Minor Trumps and Major Trumps, or simply the Minors and the Trumps. The traditional Italian suits are Swords, Batons, Coins and Cups, although in modern decks Batons are commonly called Wands or Staves, and Coins are often Pentacles or Discs.
Differences among decks
- Tarot cards serve many purposes, and this leads to a variety of Tarot deck styles. Some decks exist primarily as artwork; art decks often contain only the 22 cards of the Major Arcana. Esoteric decks are often used in conjunction with the study of the Hermetic Qabala; in these decks the Major Arcana are illustrated in accordance with Qabalistic principles while the numbered suit cards (2 through 10) typically bear only stylized renderings of the suit symbol. In contrast, decks used for divination usually bear illustrated scenes on all cards. The more simply illustrated "Marseilles" style decks are used esoterically, for divination, and for game play.
- An influential deck in English-speaking countries is the fully-illustrated Rider-Waite deck (sometimes called simply the Rider deck). The images were painted by artist Pamela Colman Smith, to the instructions of academic and mystic Arthur Waite, and originally published by the Rider Company circa 1910. While the images are deceptively, almost childishly simple, the details and backgrounds hold a wealth of symbolism. The subjects remain close to the earliest decks, but usually have added detail. An important difference from 'Marseille'-style decks is that Colman Smith drew pictorial scenes on the numeric minor arcana cards to depict divinatory meanings ("scenic pip cards"); those divinatory meanings derive, in great part, from traditional cartomantic divinatory meanings (e.g., Etteilla and other cartomancy meanings) and from divinatory meanings innovated by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, of which both Waite and Colman Smith were former members.
- The chief aesthetic objection (by some) to the Rider-Waite deck is the crude printing of colours in the original: several decks, such as the Universal Waite, simply copy the Smith line drawings, but with more sophisticated colouring. In Internet tarot discussion groups, the Rider-Waite deck and its close clones, e.g., the the Universal Waite, are sometimes referred to by the collective term "Rider-Waite-Smith", "RWS" or "Waite-Colman-Smith" (or variants of the latter expression). As noted further below, the Rider deck has spawned many variant decks in English-speaking countries in the 20th and 21st centuries, which vary the designs themselves, and not just the colours.
- A widely-used esoteric Tarot deck is Aleister Crowley's Thoth Tarot (pronounced "tote" or "thoth"). The artist engaged by Crowley to paint the cards for the deck is Lady Freida Harris. The Thoth deck is distinctly different from the Rider-Waite deck. And it has non-scenic pip cards. That said, many consider the Rider-Waite deck and the Tarot de Marseille also to be 'esoteric' decks.
- In contrast to the Thoth deck's colorfulness, the illustrations on Paul Foster Case's B.O.T.A. Tarot deck are black line drawings on white cards; this is an unlaminated deck intended to be colored by its owner. Other esoteric decks include the Golden Dawn Tarot which is based on a deck by SL MacGregor Mathers, the Tree of Life Tarot whose cards are stark symbolic catalogs, and the Cosmic Tarot, which is unusual for an esoteric deck because it is fully-illustrated.
- The Marseille style Tarot decks, used for playing the game of Tarot, generally feature suit cards which look very much like modern playing cards. The numbered cards sport an arrangement of non-scenic numeric minor arcana cards ('non-scenic pip cards') indicating the number and suit, while the court cards are often illustrated with two-dimensional drawings.
- Other modern decks created since the time of the first publishing of the Rider-Waite deck circa 1910 vary in their card imagery. The variety is almost endless, and grows yearly. For instance, cat-lovers may have the Tarot of the Cat People, a fairly standard deck complete with cats in every picture. The Tarot of the Witches and the Aquarian Tarot retain the conventional cards with varying designs. The Witches deck became famous/notorious in the 1970s for its use in the James Bond movie Live and Let Die. These modern decks change the cards partly or completely. For example, the Motherpeace Tarot is notable for its circular cards and feminist angle: the mainly male characters have been replaced by females. The Tarot of Baseball has suits of 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 a Thousand".
- Computing professionals might find the Silicon Valley Tarot most intelligible, which offers online readings. Major arcana cards include The Hacker, Flame War, The Layoff and The Garage; the suits are Networks, Cubicles, Disks and Hosts; the court cards CIO, Salesman, Marketeer and New Hire.
The Tarot has a confusing and rich symbolism because it has a confusing and rich history. Such a history is not impenetrable, however; much of the fog around the symbolism can be dispelled if one bothers to study sources other than occultists with a vested interest in the mystery of it all. The most important thing to note is that modern, occult readings of the cards often have little to do with their meaning in their original context -- and that, given the modern uses of the Tarot, this is actually a good thing.
Tarots are more interesting, expressive, and psychologically resonant today than their ancestors. Interpretations have evolved together with the cards over the centuries: later decks have "clarified" the pictures in accordance with their perceived meanings, the meanings in turn modified by the new pictures. Images and interpretations have been continually reshaped, partly at random and partly in conscious or unconscious efforts to help the Tarot live up to its mythic role as a powerful occult instrument.
See, for example, the Rider-Waite-Smith Strength card. We can know more about the symbolic intentions of the designer here, since he conveniently wrote many books on the subject. As with its Marseilles-deck ancestor, the card shows a woman holding the jaws of a lion, but this picture is far more elaborate. The strangely-shaped hat of the Marseilles card has traditionally been interpreted as a symbolic lemniscate: the sideways-figure-eight representation of infinity. In the newer card, this symbol appears explicitly. Other symbols are included: a chain of roses symbolizing desire or passion, against a white robe symbolizing purity. The mountains in the background demonstrate another kind of strength. Even here there is room for interpretation: the card is sometimes considered as showing intellect triumphing over desire, sometimes as the equal union of intellect and passion, sometimes just as a symbol of mental strength or endurance.
The twenty-two cards in the major arcana are:
- High Priestess [or La Papessa/Popess]
- Hierophant [or Pope]
- Wheel of Fortune
- Hanged Man
- World.Each card has its own large, complicated and disputed set of meanings. Altogether the major arcana is said to represent the Fool's journey: a symbolic journey through life in which the Fool overcomes obstacles and gains wisdom.
There is a vast body of writing on the significance of the Tarot. In many systems of interpretation, the four suits are associated with the four elements:
- Swords with air
- Wands with fire
- Cups with water
- Pentacles with earth.
The numerology is usually thought to be significant. The Tarot is often considered to correspond to various systems such as astrology, Pythagorean numerology, the Kabalah, the I Ching and others.
Carl Jung was the first psychologist to attach importance to the Tarot. He regarded the Tarot cards as representing archetypes: fundamental types of person or situation embedded in the subconscious 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. Some psychologists use Tarot cards to identify how a client views himself or herself, by asking the patient to select a card that he or she identifies with. Some try to get the client to clarify his ideas by imagining his situation or relationship in terms of Tarot images: Is someone rushing in heedlessly like the Knight of Swords perhaps, or blindly keeping the world at bay as in the Rider-Waite-Smith Two of Swords? The Tarot can be seen as a kind of algebra of the subconscious, allowing it to be analysed at the conscious level.
Interestingly, the older decks such as the Visconti-Sforza and Marseilles tend to have a cruder and less general "algebra" than the modern ones. This is not merely an illusion of the modern eye, it reflects the general direction of evolutionary change in Tarot art over the centuries, and especially since 1900. The Tarot symbolism has rather successfully universalized itself from parochial origins.
Divination, or fortune-telling, is by far the most popular and well-known use of the Tarot. This is sometimes seen as an extension of the psychological use mentioned above. It can be argued that we sometimes perceive the signs of future events subconsciously only. For instance you might be subconsciously aware that a relationship or job is in trouble, before you admit it to yourself. In that sense, it might be said that the Tarot can give you insights into the future without having any supernatural or occult aspect at all. Meaning may emerge even from purely random patterns, as chance selections force you to consider concepts that you'd normally ignore, and the density of meaning is great enough that meanings can emerge from almost any selection of cards.
That point of view is rare among those who practice Tarot. Tarot diviners generally believe that Tarot cards simply allow them to exercise an innate psychic ability to see the future. Its popularly 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, and only 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 the cards, then the diviner lays out the cards in a pattern called the spread. The most popular spread is the Celtic Cross. The cards are then analysed according to their positions, their relationships and whether the cards are upside-down. An inverted card has its own set of modified 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 achieve some end. This is much less common than simple divination, however.
In Tarot divination, results can be achieved with analysis of just one card, but for more thoroughness combinations of several cards in set patterns are usually used. These patterns are called spreads. There are many many spreads, although the Celtic Cross is by far the best known, and is often taught to beginners as their first spread. More experienced practioners will use their own spreads, assigning their own meanings to the relevant positions represented.
The Great Cross ("Celtic Cross") Layout
One of the best known of spreads, its most common version consists of ten or eleven cards. The first one representing the person or situation (this is sometimes considered optional, thus the spread can also consist of 10 cards), the next six are laid atop and around it in a cross shape, and the final four in a column to the right.
Disclaimer: The Tarot Tips / Information presented and opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of Tips And Treats . com and/or its partners.
© Tips And Treats. An Information Based Website (2005-2017)