Technically, all Tarot divination falls under the umbrella term “cartomancy,” which refers to divination or fortune-telling with playing cards. According to wikipedia, Tarot reading is actually the most common form of cartomancy today, at least in the English-speaking world. But throughout history, and in other parts of the world, it was/is as common or even more so to use regular playing cards for these purposes.
When I hear the word “cartomancy,” I picture regular playing cards with French suits (that is, Hearts, Diamonds, Clubs/Trefoils, and Spades). It’s kind of odd if you think about it, since Tarot is what I do. But long before I was aware of the existence of the Tarot cards, I was familiar with the concept of cartomancy, and so naturally the word is associated in my mind with the only sort of playing cards I knew about at the time. Not that I could perform any kind of cartomancy in those days. But the possibility of reading playing cards always intrigued me, and even as a youth I would sometimes flip through my deck of Bicycle cards, my imagination running wild while I wondered what secrets they would reveal to me, if only I knew how to decipher them.
The strange thing is, I almost never participate in card games. I know the basic rules to games like Blackjack and Poker, and I’m usually fairly quick to pick up on trick-taking games if I play along. I’ll play solitaire on the computer at work if I get bored enough, and I know a few card-based drinking games from my college days.
But when asked to play a card game, with our without alcohol, my initial instinct is to decline. I honestly don’t know why, aside from general social anxiety. I’ve always been fascinated with cards, yet never really cared to play games with them (not that I wouldn’t have fun when I did). Once I started learning to read Tarot, my inexplicable attraction to cards began to make a little more sense. They’re not a game at all, but a book to be read, and that’s what I liked about them.
So I learned to read the Tarot cards. It took me some time, but I think, all things considered, I learned fairly quickly. I learned first with the help of the illustrated pips from the RWS, but eventually I internalized enough of the essence of each card that I could read the simple TdM pips as well. I struck me one day that I could therefore read regular playing cards, too.
This was when I honestly felt like a “cartomancer” for the first time, even though I’d been practicing cartomancy all along. Because of my longtime association of the word with the French suits, I tend to consider “cartomancy” in narrower terms than it’s actually defined (hence my use of the word to designate “traditional” methods of fortune-telling, best suited for TdM-type decks, in this post).
There are many traditional methods of cartomancy with standard cards. I don’t know any of them. When I read playing cards, I’m pulling from the Tarot for my interpretations. Of course, reading from the 52-card deck isn’t exactly the same as reading from the 78-card Tarot. But I’ll discuss that next time.
I didn’t come up with the idea of Tarot patrons. It’s an idea that is significantly less widespread than significators (at least, as far as I can tell), although I think they go hand-in-hand when it comes to identifying on a more personal level with your cards. The first place I came across it was a on fellow Tarot blog. Since reading about it there, though, the patron has become an essential component of how I understand the cards and my relation to them, which is why I recommended my friends select their own patrons as a follow-up to the selection of their significators.
While the significator was an exercise aimed specifically at getting familiar with the court cards, the patron is all about the Major Arcana.* In many respects, the patron and the significator are very similar. If nothing else, you should identify with them both. But there is a difference. The difference between a significator and a patron is essentially that of the Courts versus the Majors: the former represents actual people, while the latter represents something altogether higher.
I like to think of it like this:
The Tarot, as I have stressed before, is akin to a book. More particularly, a book containing myths, such as Hesiod’s Theogony or Snorri’s Edda. If the Tarot is the story, the significator is the hero archetype, or the protagonist. His or her divine beneficiary would then be the Tarot patron. Thus we have gods and heroes, the characters of our very own personal myths and legends.
For example, during the seige of Troy, Menelaus at one point challenged Paris to a duel. Paris engaged and was ultimately bested. At the last moment, however, Paris was saved when he was shrouded in mist and teleported to safety by Aphrodite. If Paris chose for his significator the Page of Cups, Aphrodite would be his patron (or matron, as the case may be), and she’d probably be the Empress.**
You don’t have to believe in any god to participate in the patron exercise. In this case, consider “god” a metaphor to represent whatever it is you consider an ideal. The patron is a guiding voice, something you strive to emulate. In particular, the patron should express your relationship with the Tarot, although it certainly does not have to be limited to that.
So, how should you go about selecting the patron? If you know anything about the cards and their meanings, then you should be able to select the card or cards which best illustrate your worldview with little difficulty (or, perhaps, a lot of difficulty, depending on how sure of yourself you are). But these posts are aimed at the beginner, so I’ll suggest this approach: which one do you like the best? Which picture strikes you? Everyone has a favorite, and in my experience, a person’s favorite Major and their “patron” often turn out to be one and the same.
For example, my patron is the Hermit, which should come as no surprise to any regular reader of this blog. Not only did the Hermit introduce me to the Tarot, but he represents my approach to the cards, and indeed, much of my spiritual philosophy.
You should pick one card for your patron. Having made that decision, though, I think there is nothing wrong with going back and selecting others as you see fit. The Hermit is my patron, and would be my only patron if I were to select only one. But a more complete understanding of my relationship with the cards requires at least one more: the Magician. I can continue with more, but at the end of the day, it is these two figures that I think best defines my relationship with the Tarot.
Now, there is something to be said about the Major Arcana as a sequence. Regardless of which card is your patron, it is imperative to incorporate them all into your worldview. The patron serves only to introduce us to the pantheon. He or she may look upon us in favor, and so we would naturally be inclined towards that figure. But they are all an aspect of a greater whole, and that includes your patron as much as it does your least favorite card. In fact, your least favorite card can suggest as much about you as does your favorite, but that’s a subject for another time.
Perhaps the idea of the patron is not as well-known as the significator because the concept it represents is a bit more abstract. I hope I did a satisfactory job of explaining what a patron card should represent. Once you’ve selected both your significators and your patrons, you should begin to have a handle on how you personally connect with your cards. As I said in the previous post, these exercises are not meant for getting better at using the cards. In fact, while the significator can be used in divination, the patron has almost nothing to do with the actual practice. It’s an idea, something to hold in the back of your mind while you are divining. As Jack of Wands asks in his blog post I linked above: “Under whose auspices do you read Tarot?” It is a question worth asking of anyone who uses the cards, I think, and it is in that spirit that I pose this exercise.
*Technically, you could use a Major Arcana as your significator. I’ve done it before. But just for fun, let’s try and stay within the parameters I’ve set for these exercises, at least for now.
**Paul Huson’s DFW Tarot assigns famous names from antiquity to the court cards based on popular renaissance attributions. The Page of Cups is Paris, according to his sources, hence my assumption that he might select this card as his significator. The Empress-Aphrodite correlation needs no further explanation, I hope.
This post is, in a sense, a continuation of the series of posts for the Tarot beginner I’ve called the “Basics“, the most recent of which deals with getting started using the cards (it’s really just a dip of the toes in the shallow end, but you gotta start somewhere, and there’s only so much objective advice I can give; click here to read it).
Learning all 78 cards of the Tarot when you are a complete novice can seem a daunting task, and I believe that finding ways to personally relate with your cards will, if not alleviate the challenge, at least make it more immediately interesting.
When I succeeded in introducing my friends and fellow Council members to the Tarot, I devised two (not remotely original) exercises to help them identify personally with their cards (and to help me know who I’m looking at when they turn up in my own readings). These exercises are not necessarily designed to help anyone learn divinatory meanings or anything like that. They are designed rather to connect the reader with his or her cards while simultaneously allowing for the opportunity to see how that person views him or herself. I like to think of it as giving the deck an opportunity to “learn” about who you are while you learn about it. The first of these exercises is to select your significators.
Now, I’ve already written at least two posts that center around the idea of significators, so I don’t think I really need to go too in-depth here with explanations about what a significator is or how it might be used in a reading. If you are unfamiliar with the concept of a significator, click here for an introduction, and here for a little context on how I like to use them for divining.
This exercise deals only with Court cards, so separate these from your deck before continuing. Because the Court is often the most difficult part of the Tarot to understand, I think doing this exercise first out of the two has the added benefit of getting familiar with them early on.
The essence of the exercise is simple enough to explain: select any and all of the court cards that you feel you identify with.
It is, of course, a little more complex than that in practice, because there are many ways of choosing which cards you identify with. The simplest and most straightforward of these is simple intuition and aesthetics. What cards just strike you? Which ones look most appealing to you? You can pick significators in this fashion with absolutely zero other knowledge of the cards.
Another very popular method is selecting your significator based on its zodiacal attributions, and while I think this method is perfectly valid (and indeed, is how I came to choose the Knight of Cups as one of my own), it requires a bit of knowledge or study on the part of the chooser. There are also divergent ways of assigning astrological correspondences with the Tarot, which adds another layer of confusion to the mix. The methods of the Golden Dawn are probably the most prevalent, and they are the ones that I use.
Aside from astrology and aesthetics, there are many other ways to choose. I highly recommend Understanding the Tarot Court by Mary Greer and Tom Little as a starting point. Among other things, this book elaborates on MBTI personalities associated with each card, career types, elemental dignities, and the admittedly outdated physical characteristics traditionally attributed to them. The possibilities are virtually endless, and they’re all valid. Whatever makes most sense to you is what I’d recommend you go with.
However you feel compelled to continue, choose at least one card to represent yourself. I suggest considering what sorts of issues you can imagine approaching the Tarot with, and come up with a separate significator for each of them (work, relationships, spirituality, etc.).
Once you’ve selected as many significators as you feel is apt, take some time to consider why you picked these cards, what roles they fulfill, and how they might relate to each other; consider the ways in which you are these characters.
For example, when I choose a significator, I almost always choose a knight for rank and either pentacles or cups for suit.* Occasionally, I’ll choose wands or a page or king; it is very rare that I choose a queen, and rarer still that I choose from among the suit of swords. There are many conclusions that can be drawn about my character and my perceptions about both myself and the world around me based only on this information.
If you follow any Tarot forums or other Tarot blogs, there is a very good chance you’ve not heard many positive opinions on the significator. This drives me up a wall, because I consciously try not to totally trash ideas that I don’t agree with when it comes to the Tarot, and it bothers me (though it doesn’t surprise me) that so many people do not do the same. Tarot is an incredibly open-ended method of fortune-telling (or whatever else you might do with it), and no two people approach it in the same way – there is no wrong way. There are, however, a lot of people lurking out there in cyberspace who would like you to think they know everything there is to know, and that there is a wrong way – namely, any way that doesn’t match theirs. Don’t fall for it. Do it your own way, and the first suggestion I have for you in that vein is to try any suggestion you are offered while you are still learning what works for you.
It is true that the significator is not an essential component of divination – the success or failure of the spread should not depend on whether or not you’ve specified to the cards ahead of time which one of them represents you.** With that being said, though, many spreads exist that require or at least suggest the use of a significator, and I see no reason not to comply in those instances. What harm is there in that? (there are arguments that there are problems with it, but I’ve found these problems to be of negligible consequence to the validity of a reading)
But all this back and forth among the online Tarot community about the use of the significator in divination is missing the point, I think. If you don’t think it’s necessary to use a significator while reading a spread, by all means, don’t use one. But, if you are reading this post, and you are a complete Tarot newbie, I urge you to at least try this exercise. It is a very useful way to begin building a more personal relationship with your cards. Even if you’re not new to the Tarot, it’s a good way to get to know the court cards in a new deck, or even an old one if the courts give you trouble. This post is not necessarily an exercise to determine how you will read from now on; it’s rather an exercise in the theory of significators and how they might apply to your readings. Whether or not you continue to use them after choosing them is entirely up to you.
Given what I’ve written about the subject of significators in the past (linked above), this post might be a little redundant in places. However, I think the next post about Tarot familiarization exercises (the Tarot Patron) will make a bit more sense with this one to build on.
*I should say “at the time of this writing,” because my suit and rank affiliations are liable to change, as are anyone else’s. As a pentacles sort of man, though, I think it’s safe to say that any changes in this area are going to be a very long time in coming. The point of this footnote, though, is that you should not feel constrained to whatever significators you choose. Nothing is permanent, least of all in the fluid world of Tarot-reading.
**Or the querent, if you’re reading for someone else. Having the querent select a significator, even if he or she has no knowledge of Tarot, can be handy because it gives you a bit of insight into them before the reading has even really started.
Ask anybody in the online Tarot community, and they will undoubtedly extol the benefits of keeping a trusty Tarot Journal. In many cases, this is the very second thing to be recommended to the Tarot newbie, only after the Tarot deck itself.
If this isn’t your first rodeo, chances are you’ve already got a notebook (or several) set aside for your own Tarot musings, and if not, it’s probably because you just can’t seem to keep up the habit of a journal, and not because it just never occurred to you. Judging from the books and forum threads and blogs I’ve read, it’s a fairly widespread practice.
Is journaling really all it’s cracked up to be?
Well, I can’t deny that it helped me when I was learning what the cards mean. It makes sense. Writing helps to reinforce what you’ve learned, which is why we take notes during a class. It also gives you a hard copy of what you’ve learned, so you can go back over it later on and further reinforce your memory.
Writing in general is a helpful way to organize your thoughts, work them out, and put them into words, which is something many people actually struggle with more than they’d probably admit (or perhaps even realize). Again, you also have the added benefit of being able to go back over what you’ve written afterwards, allowing for editing and revision to make sure everything’s coherent. I am a huge proponent of the written word as means of communication.
Yes, the ability to write is something we can blissfully take for granted in this day and age, and when it comes to something as complex and abstract as the Tarot, writing your thoughts down can be all the difference between an ever-deepening understanding of the cards and a stagnant repertoire of cookie-cutter definitions.
I was content to just wing it for a while, but as I started to really begin to understand what I was doing, it dawned on me that it was going to be tough to keep things straight in my mind. I used a small Moleskine notebook a relative had given me, and began to copy down the meanings of each card. It really did not take long at all until this little notebook was filled up with meanings, thoughts, spreads, and various other little tidbits of personalized Tarot stuff; before I knew it, my collection of both books and cards had expanded and I needed a new place to write my thoughts down, preferably one a bit larger than the Moleskine.
So I started over with a much larger (and cheaper than Moleskine) notebook. That one remains largely empty, however, and it’s only occasionally that I’ll add to it.
So that’s it? All this in favor of journals, and I don’t even keep up with my own?
Yes, and no. For one thing, I must admit that I am horrible at keeping journals. I love writing, but my journals rarely seem to stick. I’ve got many more partially full notebooks than I’ve got totally full ones. But in this particular instance, I stopped regularly writing in the notebook in favor of writing here. This site is my Tarot journal now, and it has been for a year.
I get far fewer hand cramps this way.
But even though I no longer keep a physical notebook as a repository for my musings, I do keep a couple of Tarot notebooks on hand that serve different purposes.
The one I use the most regularly is very similar to a typical journal in that I date the entries, but instead of recording my nebulous thoughts, I record my readings. I write the spread name, deck used, question asked, and any other relevant preliminary information (such as a runecast or helpful ritual), and then proceed to copy down the cards as they appeared in the spread, as well as any particular insights I have at the time. This allows me to go back and revisit readings I’ve done in the past. If I’m traveling with a Tarot deck, this is the notebook that will accompany me.
I also keep a notebook in which I copy down spreads that I’ve come across in my studies and liked. Most come from books, but some come from Tarot forums or other blogs, and I’ve got a couple in there that were made up by myself or my friends. Spreads are the only things that are written in this journal, and it sits on my shelf as a personalized index for me to peruse when I want to do a reading, but am not sure exactly which spread I feel like using.
Finally, I also keep a Tarot calendar, upon which I expounded in a previous post. This notebook is specific to only a couple decks, and works more as a home-made reference tool than as a journal, but I keep it with the others and so figured I’d mention it here, too.
I do think a journal is a valuable tool to the Tarot-er, beginner or otherwise, and if I never started this blog, I’d surely have gone a long way in filling up that second notebook by now. I wrote this post because I think that this topic is an important component of my Tarot practice, right next to the books I read and the cards I use. It’s not a subject that warrants regular updates, but for the sake of completeness, I thought it wouldn’t be a bad idea to share a little about how I approach Tarot journaling.
Do you keep a Tarot journal? More than one? Is it really as widespread as books and blogs and forums would have the novice believe? Do you agree that it is a good habit to get into? Let me know with a comment, if you feel so inclined.
I think the possibilities for different methods of interpreting Tarot readings are virtually endless; as I contemplate the decks in my collection, I sometimes consider the method the creator of each would have had in mind for using his or her deck, or the method that elicits the best results from each.
While I marvel at all of the potential, I’ve given it some thought and I believe I’ve managed to narrow down the vast amount of possible methods to three distinct categories of interpretation.
Cartomancy. This is the most traditional way to read the Tarot, or indeed, any pack of playing cards. I am not particularly well-versed in these methods (yet), but my understanding is that cartomancy involves attaching a number of keywords to the upright and reversed positions of each card, and then laying the cards out to be read as if it were a sentence written on a page. This method of reading requires great skill to master, because the reader must be able to draw from an extensive store of keywords and string together a coherent sentence from those most appropriate to the situation on a moment’s notice. This seems to me to be the method most often associated with actual “fortune-telling”.
Because this method relies largely on rote memorization, it is most suitable for Tarots with unillustrated pip cards. These sorts of decks include Marseille packs especially, but also Etteilla decks and various historic decks, as well as normal packs of 52 or 32 playing cards. Etteilla in particular is responsible for the basic standardization of cartomantic definitions for the Tarot cards, and in fact his system is so well-ingrained that many other, non-cartomantic decks still draw from his meanings for inspiration for their own.
Etteilla’s isn’t the only version of this method, just probably the most prevalent in Tarot divination. Other methods may incorporate numerology or elemental dignities, but if they rely too heavily on these sorts of things, they begin to slide into the territory of the next method.
Occult. This relies on the correlation of Tarot cards with various occult theories and doctrines, most notably Astrology, Kabbalah, and Alchemy. Whereas cartomancy is essentially a self-contained system, occult methods require knowledge of esoteric subjects outside of the Tarot, and therefore usually can only be used with success after much study. Some degree of memorization is still necessary, although rather than keywords, readers must remember the significance of occult symbolism as it appears on the cards.
With the occult, as with cartomancy, there are several variable methods. Occult Tarots include any decks steeped in Astrology or Kabbalah or any number of other esoteric systems. Particularly relevant are packs such as the Thoth or any Golden Dawn-based decks. Oswald Wirth also created a pack of Major Arcana chock full of occultism, but neglected to provide the Minor Arcana. All the same, his influence is still widely felt in many subsequent occult decks, and he offers an alternative to the very popular and heavily influential methods of the Golden Dawn.
The small cards in occult decks are often reminiscent of regular pips, but will typically include occult symbols and glyphs, as well as intentionally symbolic color and geometric schemes. Illustrated small cards are not out of the question, though.
Intuitive. The widest range of possible reading methods falls within the intuitive category. All that is required for intuitive readings is that the reader trusts the images on the cards to stir the subconscious in order to relay the divinatory message. An understanding of the occult is unnecessary, as is a list of cartomantic definitions, although both can be incorporated into this sort of reading. Other ideas outside of the Tarot can have an influence, too, such as psychology or mythology (my personal favorite). Intuitive readings can be as self-contained within the cards or as all-inclusive of other ideas as the reader likes. The only requirement is that it is all inspired in the moment of reading by the images on the cards, and is not confined to a previously ordained system of correspondences. Really, this method is not a method in the same sense as cartomancy or the occult; rather, it’s almost like a lack of a method.
What does this picture remind you of? How do you react to seeing this one? Etc.
It is very difficult not to oversimplify this one (well, I’ve run that risk with all three of these methods, but I think it’s the worst here). There is an entire spectrum of possibilities, ranging from total formlessness (this is the type of reader who may be struck one day by the importance a certain flower or leaf, for example, and totally ignore it the next day – there is no consistency), to an almost cartomantic approach, by which I mean that a reader probably has a good idea formed in his or her mind ahead of time of the general meaning of each card, but will ultimately decide in the moment of the reading which aspect is important. The difference between this and cartomancy is that the meaning in this case is based on personal ideas and experience rather than an established tradition. Of course, more often than not, personal interpretations are at least partially influenced by cartomantic, or sometimes even occult, traditions.
Because of the role intuition plays in this method of reading, decks with illustrated small cards are the most effective, although it is not unheard of to use decks with Marseille pips or occult symbolism intuitively. The majority of these illustrated decks are based on the Rider-Waite Tarot.
The Rider Tarot itself, in my mind, works best as an intuitive deck, although I seriously doubt it was created for that purpose (was intuitive reading even a thing back then?), and the argument for its uses as an occult deck (because of veiled references to the teachings of the Golden Dawn in the Major Arcana) or a cartomantic deck (because of the inherent influence of Etteilla’s definitions in the design of the Minor Arcana illustrations) are strong. The pictures on the cards are vague enough on these points, however, and are evocative enough in general to be very conducive to intuitive readings.
Unlike cartomantic or occult methods of reading, no prior knowledge is needed to read intuitively, and a complete novice can read by this method with as much success as a seasoned Tarot veteran. With that being said, however, the constant addition of new knowledge that comes with time and use makes intuitive reading unique to each person who does it, and can become incredibly complex and insightful in ways that more traditional methods seem unlikely to achieve. On the flip side, though, intuitive readings are far more subjective than other methods, and they are easily prone to the projection of the reader’s biases.
As you can probably see, it is the style of the Minor Arcana of a Tarot that tends to define the method best suited for use, at least as I’ve presented them. I think that is interesting in itself, because we so often find ourselves focusing on the Major Arcana. In most Tarots, though, the Major Arcana is only subtly different from one to the next, while the style of the Minors can change quite drastically. And no matter how much stock we put into the Majors, I think it is the Minors that really add nuance to a reading.
I should probably say for the sake of completeness that I would add a fourth category called “uncategorizable,” which, obviously enough, doesn’t fit into any of the above. The first example that comes to my mind would be a pack like the Wildwood, which has an intended method of use that is fairly unique to it (not that you couldn’t read it intuitively or otherwise).
These are some broad generalizations that I’ve made in this post, and there is certainly plenty of overlap (I think the Medieval Scapini Tarot, for example, is a perfect example of a deck that can easily be used with any of these three methods). It’s just something I’ve been pondering, though, so I thought I’d share.
What methods do you use? Is there anything I’ve left out? Feel free to comment.
To wrap up my little bit about Tarot basics, I want to talk about how the cards can actually be used. Unlike the last posts about the Tarot basics, in which I covered the structure and history of the Tarot, my thoughts here are highly subject to my personal experiences. While some of the things I suggest may not be for everyone, and while I’m sure I’ve left out some possibilities which others may advocate, I hope that this post works well to conclude the basics by opening the door, so to speak, for the Tarot novice to actually get down and dirty with the cards.
Once you’ve obtained a Tarot deck, the first task is to begin to learn what each card is supposed to mean. 78 cards are quite a lot, and this process of learning them can seem overwhelming at first. A lot of people recommend doing a daily draw, where you pull one card each day and take the day to internalize its meaning. I think this is a great idea, even after you’re no longer a beginner, although I admittedly have difficulty in keeping with the habit myself.
Journals are another commonly recommending way of learning, and again, I totally agree. I kept a couple Tarot journals for a while, although that habit also fell to the wayside once I started up this blog (I still have them, though, and am often surprised by what I find when I go back through them).
I learned primarily by reading. I devoured Tarot book after Tarot book, and before I even realized it, I had a basic idea of what every card was supposed to mean. It actually happened much more quickly than I’d ever hoped it would at the beginning. Some people don’t care for books on the Tarot, possibly because they don’t want their practice to be restricted by someone else’s methods. I disagree with this. For one, reading a book does not mean you have to adhere to what it says. But more important, books contain the wisdom of those who came before us. In an age when oral tradition has been largely forgotten, books are the best we can do to learn. There’s no reason to reinvent the wheel. Every book I read, each with its own perspective, only adds to the big picture of my understanding of the cards. Now, with that being said, it can be easy to fall into the trap of using the information books provide as a crutch, preventing you from truly learning what the cards mean. If you find yourself thumbing through a book to get the meanings of every single card in a spread every single time you do a reading, and the book definitions are all you’re taking away from the cards, than you might do well to put the books away for a while and trust your intuition instead.
I also highly recommend new users to visit Aeclectic Tarot. This website was instrumental in helping me get familiar with the cards, and the forums contain many insightful discussions. It’s also a great place to find other resources on the Tarot.
Regardless of how you learn, if you keep at it and continue to practice, you will eventually understand each card as an individual, as well as how they can work together in groups. Then the possibilities of the Tarot will really open up for you.
So, once you’ve got the basics down, what’s next?
When it comes to the Tarot, the possibilities are virtually endless. Most people go to the cards for divination, and indeed they do work well for this purpose if you are so inclined. Given their history, they also are great for gaming, be it some trick-taking game with friends or solitaire (I’ve also toyed with the idea of making a drinking game). And if you admire artwork or are into collecting, the Tarot is a great hobby.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The Tarot is an amazing tool for meditation, path working, and developing metaphysical awareness. It can act as a spiritual guide no matter what your religious leanings may be. It’s also a great psychological tool that even the staunches of skeptics would have a hard time disputing.
Once you understand the archetypes, the Tarot can be used to aid in the understanding of great works of literature. It can also work as a creative tool for writing or artwork. And, if you are the sort of person to practice magic, the Tarot is an excellent tool for that, as well. In fact, if you are open to the occult (it’s ok if you’re not), the Tarot has also been made into a compendium of western esoteric doctrines. If the occult makes you uncomfortable, you can steer clear of it and still gain a fulfilling enjoyment from the cards.
There is so much potential in these cards that the user is only limited by his or her imagination. What I’ve suggested above are but mere glimpses of what the cards are capable of. An appetizer, if you will, to get you eager for your own journey with the Tarot.
Before I sign off here, I want to add my recommendations for beginner’s decks. Again, this is based entirely on my own experiences, and any other approach is equally valid.
I heartily recommend the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot to any first time user, especially those who have no idea how or where to begin. Besides being the most popular deck, as well as the basis of many themed decks, this pack’s illustrated Minor Arcana makes the learning process much easier. The interpretations of the Minors in this pack are by no means the only ones out there, but it is an excellent starting point. Furthermore, there are probably more books published with this deck in mind than any other.
The RWS was my first Tarot, and I hold it in very high esteem. From there, I branched out with a Marseille Tarot and the Thoth Tarot, both of which are also considered classics, although neither of which are quite as user-friendly as the RWS. For anyone looking to begin a serious collection, these three decks are the best place to start.
Anyway, that’s it for the Tarot basics, at least for now. I hope any readers who are unfamiliar with the cards can find these posts useful, and I hope any readers who are familiar with the cards can find these posts agreeable and perhaps even a bit interesting for what they are.
Contrary to popular belief,* a regular pack of 52 playing cards is not a simplified form of the Tarot; rather, the Tarot is a more complex form of the 52 card pack. The Tarot did not come first, and it really isn’t all that ancient, at least, not as ancient as is often claimed.
Playing cards with four suits have been around for ages, since at least 1000 AD, although it is true that they didn’t show up in Europe until a bit closer to the time of the first Tarots.** These (the Tarot, that is) inexplicably popped up in Italy midway through the 1400s. The oldest surviving cards from this period were specially commissioned by noble families and hand painted by skilled artists, and no two of them are the same. It wasn’t until the Tarot had spread to other parts of Europe over the course of a couple centuries that a more or less standard pattern began to emerge.
Today, this pattern is referred to as the Tarot de Marseille, after the French city in which they were originally made. Instead of unique hand painted cards, these packs were mass-produced with woodblock prints, making them accessible to the masses (we don’t know that the Tarot wasn’t available to common folk at the same time the nobles were commissioning their packs, but if they were, they didn’t survive).
There is no single version of the Marseille Tarot; it is a pattern, with several variations, and no one can say with even remote certainty who (if any sole individual) invented it. But, ever since this pattern emerged in France, there has been relatively little alteration in the basic structure of the pack. Even the most outrageously avant-garde decks published today can be traced back to these cards.
In other words, the Tarot de Marseille is the closest we can get to the original modern Tarot. For this reason, there are many, many folks out there who prefer this version of the cards over the multitudes of others currently available (especially in Europe – we’ll get to the preferred deck in America shortly).
The biggest difference between the Marseille Tarot and a typical 52 card pack is, not surprisingly, the 22 Major Arcana. These picture cards are an addition to the Minor Arcana, functioning as trumps for gaming purposes, although it’s difficult to believe these suggestive pictures aren’t meant to hold some deeper significance (even if we do know they aren’t “occult”). In Marseille packs, the Minor Arcana are nothing more than pip cards – cards that are illustrated only by the suit symbols – and while the suits are somewhat different than regular playing cards depending on the country of origin (for example, Wands are the Italian version of the suit, and the version which remained with the Tarot, as opposed to the French Diamonds or the German Acorns), they are still the same in essence. For example, the 10 of Wands shows only ten wands arranged on the card, and nothing else, except perhaps some decorative foliage.
The next big step in the evolution of the Tarot didn’t come until the late 1700s,with a French chap known to posterity as Etteilla. His actual name was Alliette (what a clever pseudonym, I know), and, believe it or not, he was the first person recorded to have used the Tarot exclusively for divination and the occult. He even designed his own pack of Tarot cards specifically for this purpose, with all new Major Arcana (which did not catch on), and a system of divinatory meanings for the Minor Arcana (which did catch on). Prior to him, the cards were only documented in the annals of history as devices for gaming and gambling (although fortune-telling with regular playing cards was not uncommon in his day, so it’s not unthinkable that the Tarot may also have been casually used for this as well, even before Etteilla). Regardless of what future Tarot masters would eventually say about him,*** his work represents a pivotal moment in the history of Tarot.
Within the next century after Etteilla, there emerged a whirlwind of occult theories attempting to connect the Tarot to various esoteric doctrines such as Kabbalah, alchemy, and astrology (it was during this time that the erroneous “history” which remains popular to Tarot users today was first established by another Frenchman and contemporary of Etteilla named Court de Gebelin – there are some who claim he actually beat Etteilla to the punch with the idea of occult Tarot). Despite the fact that everyone seemed, all of the sudden, to agree that the Tarot must be the direct descendant of a great and secret magical tradition, no one could seem to agree on the correct way to associate the cards with this secret tradition.****
And so there was de Gebelin, there was Papus, there was Levi, and there was Wirth, among others; but it wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that the English Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn‘s occult system of Tarot correspondences – which remains to this day the most widely accepted system – was established. Founded by S.L.M. MacGregor Mathers (another pseudonym, by the way – and his isn’t the only in this paragraph), this secret order was home to both of the next two integral characters in our drama of the history of Tarot.
The first of these two characters is Arthur Edward Waite. In 1910, he, with the help of artist and fellow Golden Dawn-er Pamela Coleman Smith, published a new and revolutionary Tarot deck, called the Rider deck, after the British company which first published it. The Rider-Waite pack was revolutionary primarily because Smith did not use typical pips for her Minor Arcana, but rather illustrated every single one of these 56 cards with a scene depicting either her or Waite’s (it’s not clear which) interpretation of the divinatory meaning of each card. The Major Arcana were re-designed, as well, although for the most part, these are still reminiscent of their Marseille counterparts. This pack of cards is easily the most prevalent in North America today, if not the world, and I would go so far as to say that maybe seven or eight out of ten decks now available are nothing more than elaborately themed Rider packs.
The second of these two Golden Dawn characters is Aleister Crowley (his first name wasn’t really Aleister – something about the Tarot seems to inspire its students to take on false monikers…). Aleister Crowley is probably the most infamous occultist of the 20th century, dubbed “the wickedest man alive” by the media of his time.***** There are certainly reasons for this, but that should not get in the way of an honest appreciation for his version of the Tarot.
Mr. Crowley designed his cards with the help of painter Lady Frieda Harris during the 1940s, but they were not published until 1969, after both of their deaths. The artwork is stunning, and Crowley incorporated a dizzying amount of esoteric knowledge into his Tarot. Unlike Waite, who did his best to disguise the Golden Dawn’s secret symbolism in his cards, Crowley had no reservations about creating a blatantly occult pack. What is perhaps most notable about it, though, is that it deviated somewhat from the Golden Dawn’s theories to match Crowley’s own, and was designed with this in mind to be the harbinger of a new age of spiritual enlightenment for humanity. The Thoth Tarot, as Crowley called his deck, has since become one of the most popular Tarot decks ever created – truly a new deck for a new era.
Sometime during the 1970s, the Tarot began to experience a popular revival that continues strong to this day. A simple google search will reveal that there are now many, many variations of the cards out there. Virtually anybody can find a pack with a theme that suits his or her tastes, and the amount of sources now available on the Tarot is unprecedented. While there are some new original packs (and old ones, too – Waite certainly wasn’t the first to publish his own cards, only the most popular), the vast majority of these new decks are essentially just re-drawn Rider packs. A few variations of the Marseille and Thoth decks are also out there, but the Rider is definitely the most popular version of the Tarot to be re-fitted with new themes (almost undoubtedly because of the illustrated pips, which so many people take for granted without realizing that, historically speaking, are an anomaly). And, thanks to modern research, we no longer have to rely entirely on the speculations of 18th and 19th century occultists about the history of these cards.
In some ways, the actual story is less interesting than the fabricated one. Wouldn’t it be cool if the Tarot really was handed down through the generations by ancient Egyptian mystics? Personally, I enjoy the flavor this false history adds to the aura of the Tarot, because it illustrates the power these cards have over the imagination, but I am a firm believer in the importance of real, researched history. After all, the fact that we now know that the cards were originally created for gaming rather than magic or fortune-telling has done absolutely nothing to diminish its allure. Nor should it.
So there you have it: my brief overview of the history of the Tarot. I have tried to keep my digressions to a minimum, which is difficult for me with a post like this one. Obviously, I’ve been less than thorough (this is just the basics, after all), and have resorted to some broad generalizations to get the main points across; and I admit to focusing more on certain things rather than some other, equally interesting things, namely the three versions of the cards that represent the cornerstones of my personal collection. I have consciously chosen these three patterns – the Marseille, Rider, and Thoth – as the cornerstones for my collection, however, precisely because they represent what are generally considered to be the “classics” among the Tarot community, and so I think the extra attention is justified.
For those of you interested in professional and detailed treatments of Tarot history, you can find the books which influenced this post here.
History is all well and good, but what does it mean if you can’t use the cards?
*Actually, there are several misconceptions that I want to address in this post that I don’t think are as prevalent now as they seemed to have been 50 years or so ago, but a Tarot novice can still find these misconceptions presented more or less as fact in an astonishing number of sources. Many of these sources are still valuable for their interpretations of the cards, which is why I believe they are still circulating, but what passes for “history” in them is sometimes laughable.
**Which, by the way, were not called “Tarot” at the time. The word Tarot was first used in France as a name for the game played with the cards. Before then, the name depended on where the cards were – for example, Tarocchi in Italy. Now of course, at least in the English-speaking world, Tarot is the universal term used regardless of where or when the specific cards originated. The etymology of words like Tarot and Tarocchi remains obscure, although theories abound.
***Wirth, Waite, and Crowley would all come to deride Etteilla as a misguided goof (at best), and not one of them would admit the undeniable influence he had on the evolution of the Tarot. Etteilla’s presumptions about the Major Arcana notwithstanding, not a single one of these “Tarot masters” could be remembered as such without his preliminary contributions.
****Despite remarkable (and I mean remarkable) coincidences, there is no actual evidence whatsoever that the Tarot is the result of anything other than the natural evolution of a Renaissance-era card game that just happened to catch on. But it can be argued that “coincidence” is only another term for what Jung dubbed “synchronicity”, a concept that is essential to the current understanding of the Tarot as a tool for divination and spiritual development. All’s well that ends well, right?
*****Yes, Mr. Crowley was in many ways an appalling character. However, it should be noted that for all his “wickedness”, he did put his occult energies to use during WWII antagonizing Hitler (who also reportedly believed in the occult). Whether his efforts were actually effective or not is irrelevant. The dude rooted against the Nazis, and that’s gotta count for something.