What is the Tarot?
Put simply, the Tarot is any one of several decks of playing cards designed for the purpose of divination. Divination is not just an attempt at interpreting the future, however. Modern practitioners of the art also use the Tarot cards to look inside themselves or to answer questions about the meanings of dreams, among other reasons. A full Tarot spread is believed to be a mirror for those who work with the cards, a way of opening up the mind by using symbols with personal meaning to discover answers to questions that may be too difficult to say aloud.
In the US and Europe, there are currently more than ninety uniquely themed tarot decks available for enthusiasts to purchase. Pack themes range from Classic, Art Noveau, and Medicine Woman, to Old English, Dreams, and Vampires. Regardless of its theme, a typical Tarot deck consists of 78 cards divided into two sections known as “Arcana.”
The Major Arcana is often referred to as “The Tarot” on television shows and in movies because the artwork is as mysterious as it is dramatic. These twenty-two cards depict particular characters, vices, virtues or elemental forces.
The Major Arcana cards are often artistically designed to match the chosen theme of the deck. These designs date back to the earliest origins of the Tarot. They may be grey-scale, black and white, or full color. Cards in the Major Arcana generally depict their subject in the center of the card; the subject may be The Fool, The Tower, the Lovers, or even The Devil, for example. Surrounding the subject may be a border or other symbols. Alternatively, the card itself may look like a painting with other characters or even a landscape in the background. What is most notable is that regardless of the subject, everything about the cards of the Major Arcana is universally symbolic.
Different aspects may present themselves to readers in a variety of ways. In other words, no two people will take exactly the same meaning from a Tarot reading.
The second section of a Tarot deck is the Minor Arcana. These fifty-six cards will be more readily identifiable to most people even if they have only ever played ‘Go Fish.’ They are numbered from Ace through ten with symbols corresponding to their number. The Minor Arcana can be explained as the practical section of the Tarot, as the cards represent the more realistic, emotional, and active parts of life.
There are four suits within the Minor Arcana, but instead of the more familiar clubs, hearts, diamonds, and spades, the Tarot deck suits are swords, cups, wands and pentacles or coins. Each suit is symbolic: wands stand for adventure and creativity, swords stand for thought and reason, cups stand for spiritual experiences and emotion, and pentacles or coins stand for security and material concerns. Coins literally stand for money. The numerical cards and the Aces are used to explore how a person’s life is being impacted by outside forces at any time.
History of the Tarot
The Tarot is believed by most occult historians to have its origins in an Italian card game called “Triumph.” Triumph was a game similar to Bridge that was played by the Nobles in the 1400s and it was so popular that it spread from Italy to France and Germany, then to Spain. By 1590 it was known all over Europe as the Tarot. The term “tarot” comes from the French translation of the Italian word for the original game: tarok or tarocchi, words that stem from the Arabic turuq or “four ways,” referring to the four suits.
There are some historians, however, that believe the Tarot cards did not come from a Middle Age game but were designed from a scroll left over from the great Library of Alexandria. This idea came to light in the book Le Monde Primitif (The Primitive World) written in 1781 by Antoine Court de Gébelin. He used the presence of the Romany people in France as an inspiration for his theory as they were believed to be of ancient Egyptian origin themselves, hence the name ‘Gypsies.’
Antoine believed that at one time there existed only a single culture with one religion and one language. This culture was ruled by Thoth, the Egyptian god of written knowledge. According to Antoine, this ancient unnamed culture collapsed and gave rise to the worldwide variety of belief systems, languages and cultures known today. Antoine de Gébelin is also thought to have been one of the first people to ascribe deeper symbolic meanings to the picture cards of the Major Arcana.
Regardless of its origin, the Tarot became widespread for divination with the rise of secret societies after The Church attempted to wipe out the older traditions throughout Europe. These subversive societies often hid their symbolism in the art of the time, including the Major Arcana cards which were then known as the ‘Visconti Trumps.’
At least one religious official gave sermons directly against the Tarot in the Middle Ages. The name of this Italian Franciscan Friar has been lost to time, yet his written sermons that date between 1450 and 1470 still exist. According to the Friar, the Devil wins souls anytime someone uses the Tarot. It is quite interesting to note that when the Friar was preaching it is most likely that the Tarot was not yet in use for anything other than playing games.
The first recorded use of cartomancy using the Tarot, however, was not until 1770. Jean-Baptiste Alliette, also known as Etteilla, published several volumes detailing the divinatory symbolism of the Major Arcana. Etteilla’s specially designed Tarot deck was the first to be mass marketed to the public for the express purpose of divination.
While studying de Gébelin’s theory that the Tarot was based on ancient Egyptian knowledge, a famous mystic named Eliphas Lévi came up with his own origin for the cards. Lévi felt that the Tarot was based on the Kabbalah, or the Hebrew Mysteries. However, just as the Rosetta Stone did not support the ancient Egyptian theory, nothing in Jewish teachings supported the ancient Hebrew origin for the Tarot either.
Since there has so far been very little factual evidence pointing to any ancient origin for the Tarot, it is defined as boundary crossing symbolism for any and all who seek to learn its mysteries. Every card in the deck, from the Empress that was originally designed as the Popess to the joy in the Ace of Cups has an unwritten history to be discovered.