The Tarot is a deck of cards. Inanimate card stock with pretty pictures, and nothing more. But is it, really?
I’ve already discussed how the Tarot is more than just a simple deck of cards. Even so, that doesn’t make it alive.
Well, I never said the Tarot was alive. I said the Tarot was living. Surely, they mean the same thing? Well, nine times out of ten, yeah, I’d give you that. But consider phrases like “living languages”. A language is not alive. But a living language is a language that is still actively spoken by living people, and therefore continues to evolve as the culture in which it is spoken does. New words are added, old words get new definitions or are forgotten, and the rules of grammar shift ever so slightly over time (a dead language like Latin, by contrast, is a language no longer spoken, and will therefore never again change). After enough time, you may not even recognize a language anymore. Take English, for example. Old English is closer in grammatical structure to German than what we would call English today. The words are almost unrecognizable. Many native English speakers today need a translation of texts like Beowulf to understand it, even though Beowulf is written in English.
The Tarot is living in a similar sense. Since the TdM, it has changed relatively little in structure, but it has undoubtedly evolved (give it time; when the Tarot has been around as long as Beowulf has, it will certainly look different). Every deck available today is as much a true Tarot as the Marseille variety, no matter how radical the differences may seem on the surface. And this is appropriate: after all, would we really be able to consider the Tarot a viable model of the Universe (from the human perspective) if it didn’t have the capacity to reflect the changes of humanity over time?
But the Tarot can be considered living in another sense. Every deck has a “personality,” as does every card within the deck. Many Tarot readers recognize this and respect their cards as if they were another being.
It is generally true that people in ancient times felt much more connected on a spiritual level to the world around them. Nature-based religions were common for much of our species’ history. Each rock and each tree and each stream was believed to be the house of a spirit. Then there were greater spirits or deities that ruled over all trees or rocks or bodies of water. Every object, no matter how small or insignificant, could potentially house a spirit and was therefore once considered as living as you and me (some still hold onto this belief).
It is true that the cards themselves are inanimate. But what about the archetypes and ideas represented by the pictures on these cards? While they don’t exist in the physical realm (the exception being people represented by significators), I believe that these archetypes are personifications of very real energies in the spiritual realm. These are like the human equivalents of the nature spirits that were once believed to inhabit the objects mentioned above. People have personified and given names to these energies throughout the ages, because that is the only way our feeble minds can comprehend their existence. Some of these archetypes exist within our own souls; others are greater than any individual. In many cases, an archetype exists in both forms. Take for example the Devil. Each and every one of us, no matter how virtuous, has a devil, or a dark side, that we hide from the world. In a grander sense, the Devil represents the general forces of temptation, and the enslavement (or liberation) of mankind at the hands of our shared animal desires.
Many of us who read and work with the Tarot feel as though the cards are really just a tool for communicating with these metaphysical energies. Each card houses or is able to tap into a specific energy that is really just one aspect of a Greater Whole. This means that while a specific deck may not be considered living, the Tarot as a concept is alive indeed. The connection one feels with the spiritual energies behind the Tarot is incredibly personal; no two people are likely to feel the same thing when they contact this “higher power” through a reading.
I for one feel a personal connection with three specific cards from the Major Arcana when I use the Tarot. The first two, the Magician and the Hermit, are both aspects of Mercury/Thoth, the deity of Wisdom. Because the Tarot is a Book of Wisdom, I feel that these two figures are invoked every time I hold it. I am using a tool symbolically handed down to me by them; as a student of the Tarot, I am channeling their energies each time I use it.
The other card represents the spirit with whom I believe to be communicating when I use Mercury’s cards; she knows the unknowable, fully comprehending that Greater Whole mentioned above, though she can’t divulge it, because doing so would destroy us. But she can give me hints and guidance towards that knowledge through the cards. It’s like the cards are a barrier between dimensions; I’m on one side, and she’s on the other (or rather, I’m on one side, she’s on the other, and the Magician-Hermit lives in the cards, acting as a go-between, which of course is fitting considering Mercury’s role as messenger). I’m talking about the High Priestess, and I will surely compose a post exploring this card more in-depth soon (either she or Death is next on my list – I haven’t decided yet).
As I said, these are very personal connections, and while I’m sure they are fairly common given each of their personalities, I don’t expect everyone to share my feelings about them. But the spiritual among you will undoubtedly perceive these energies of which I speak, regardless of which ones you identify personally with.
At the end of the day, perhaps the Tarot really is nothing more than a deck of cards. It can be argued that all of this business about archetypes and metaphysical energies are just human creations, and therefore don’t really exist at all. But just because something does not exist here on Earth as a tangible object, does that make its existence a lie? Regardless of so-called ‘reality’, don’t all of these things still exist in our minds? Is our perception our reality? What does it really mean to exist? I think the answer lies in the difference between fact and truth. What that means is entirely up to you.