Just what is the Tarot? Is it some vestige of the Occult that should have died out – a bogus type of fortune telling? If so, how do we account for its popularity among serious students of magic and psychology? Could it be more like a sublime archetypal system of Divination in pictorial form? A kind of Western I Ching? The Tarot (whose recognisable form dates back to the late Middle Ages) is a set of symbolic images drawn from a rich tradition of ancient magical and religious lore. Since universal truths never change, what such symbols have to say to us is true in any age. The 78 Tarot cards are arranged into two arcana (a Latin word meaning ‘mysteries’), major and minor.
As for its history, The Tarot as we know it surfaced in late medieval Europe, in northern Italy, at a time when there was a revival of interest in what we would now call New Age subjects: magic, alchemy and astrology. Trade routes from Italy, especially sea routes, had opened up as early as the eleventh century, and in time various exotic beliefs were also part of the cargo brought back from countries east of Europe. Travellers would return with teachings from Greek myth and philosophy, from Hermetic thought or from the heresies of Egyptian gnosticism. This thirst for new and extraordinary ideas has become known as the Italian Renaissance, and reached its apotheosis in the mid-fifteenth century, by which time the nascent Tarot deck had become established.
It is somewhat ironic that the cards were not initially used as divinatory or fortune-telling devices; it would seem that, apart from their function as mnemonic aids, their chief use was in gambling. Their ornate designs were often the indulgent conceits of rich aristocrats; indeed, some decks were so designed as to indicate the family that had commissioned their creation. For example, the Visconti pack of the early fifteenth century depicts the Visconti coat of arms somewhere on each card.
It is only really in the middle of the eighteenth century, by which time the Tarot was used exclusively for divination, that we see more obvious resemblances to modern packs. The first example of this type is the French Tarot de Marseilles. It is this deck, rather than its earlier forebears, from which the more standardised imagery is drawn.
What do the Tarot cards mean?
The Tarot’s images are symbolic ones drawn from a rich tradition of ancient magical and religious lore, and since universal truths never change, what such symbols have to say to us is true in any age.
The 78 cards are arranged into two arcana (a Latin word meaning ‘mysteries’), major and minor and the 22-card Major Arcana (or ‘Greater Mysteries’) is representative of the prime archetypal journey undertaken by the soul through life; that is, the kind of major events and experiences that so often turn out be important crossroads and turning points, whether natural rites of passage or apparently fated significant events. We should always pay attention to the message when we find Major Arcana cards in our readings. Sometimes the unconscious mind is trying to communicate something that the ego may not be able to see (or perhaps just refuses to). At other times, in moments of crisis perhaps, what is happening in our life will be all too obvious and the Major Arcana cards will simply reflect what is there; however, the cards may show us how to best handle the situation.
The 56 minor cards (40 numbered and 16 court cards) are descendants of the game-playing packs of late medieval Europe, usually used for gambling. The suits of the Minor Arcana – Wands (or Batons), Cups (Chalices), Swords and Pentacles (Coins or Disks) – are recognisably the originators of the more familiar Clubs, Hearts, Spades and Diamonds of the modern playing pack. The four suits are also representations of the Four Greek Elements – Wands correspond to Fire; Cups to Water; Swords to Air and Pentacles to Earth.
Can Tarot Predict The Future?
Though we live in an ostensibly scientific and rational age, and ‘fortune-telling’ is pretty much a degraded term nowadays, the fact remains that our curiosity about our future – what lies ahead in the uncharted months, or even years, to come – remains as powerful as ever. The old attitude to fortune-telling (and one that some still maintain) was that the future could be ‘told’ as if it were some detailed story forming the next few chapters in our lives. In truth, however, the Tarot is not really (and arguably never has been) designed for such a purpose.
It is clear that the Tarot contains a panorama of ancient and beguiling symbols. These symbols cover the entire spectrum of human affairs, but they focus particularly on the journey of the soul and its quest for awareness and fulfilment. The human psyche (in which the conscious and the unconscious are united) possesses a greater intention of its own – the spontaneous instinct to seek the light and unfold (like a flower) towards yet greater consciousness and growth.
However, this process involves painful experience, for it is nothing less than the life-death-rebirth cycle we find everywhere in nature – the growth of the new can only occur with the death of the old. This is also psychologically true: as we grow out of and discard old attitudes, values, emotions and opinions, we turn to something new. Inner change is a precursor for changes in our outer lives, and the connection between the two is usually not difficult to see.
Sometimes the desire for inner change comes in the form of a vague spiritual hunger – we sense that there is more to life than our material existence, something that cannot be readily encapsulated in words. This is the beginning of the ‘journey within’, often a difficult process, in which we work towards reconciling both the spiritual and the material aspects of life. It’s a journey that we all undertake in one form or another. Again, the Tarot reflects this journey and certain cards ‘mysteriously’ appear in a spread when our Unconscious is calling out to us.
How not to use the Tarot
Many of the readings I have done for clients have entailed relationship matters, quite often involving people who are not fully satisfied with their lot, sometimes even considering extra-marital affairs. These people wanted the cards to tell them that something new and wonderful was going to come along to relieve their boredom. But it became plain to me that such an individual was going to be dissatisfied with whoever they encountered. Their whole attitude to life was ‘What will I get out of it?’ and it had never occurred to them that perhaps they ought to put something into life first. In other words, they remained blind to their own failings. Remember, the ultimate message of symbolic divinatory systems like the Tarot is the same as that found in ancient Delphi: ‘know thyself’.
That means not only get to know your own real needs, values and limitations but also get to know the effect you are having on those around you. What are your real strengths and innate talents? What is your capacity to form meaningful and happy relationships? What are your natural gifts? On the other side of the coin, what requires great effort on your part that some people seem to find easy? All in all, why do events manifest in your life the way they do? We might also remember the saying from Shakespeare: ‘to thine own self be true’. Such a requirement is never more urgent than when reading the Tarot. Get into the habit of asking just why each card has appeared in your spread at any one time – and remember, sincere pondering on the question is always more valuable than a quick answer.
I hope that this introductory guide to Tarot divination will inspire you to use the Tarot as a means to understanding yourself and your friends, and to help you make everyday decisions. You may even want to pursue your studies further. Of course, each individual will make his or her own relationship to the cards over a period of time, and each person tends to interpret them slightly differently. Indeed, the Tarot is quite democratic in this way, and this is just as it should be. As long as we arrive at the correct destination – a place where we are perhaps a little wiser, where we are better for having understood, then the route we take is largely unimportant.
This is an edited excerpt from Everyday Tarot by James Lynn Page, W. Foulsham 2003