A Brief Introduction to the Tarot

Tarot for the Solitary Soul Petrarch’s Triumphs on Cassone: Follower of Mantegna; Italian, c.1460s.My introduction to the Tarot came about quite unexpectedly through Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey Into Christian Hermeticism (hereafter “MOTT“–reputed to be among “100 best spiritual books” of the 20th century).  Prior to reading MOTT, my evaluation of the Tarot was little different to that of most of my friends and colleagues in academia–or, for that matter, to my friends and family in the Bible belt.  Indeed, my typical reaction to any mention of the Tarot  would generally be comprised of about 2 parts of ridicule and 1 part of fear–with little or no energy left for open, honest engagement (much less meditation).

Over the past couple of years, however, however, I have become increasingly fascinated by this 600 year old text which comes down to us from 15th century Italy in the form of 78 cards (more on this below).  Moreover, I have also discovered (through both observation and experience) that if they are approached in the right spirit, these cards can constitute a profoundly effective teaching tool.  Indeed, when the circumstances are right, they can contribute substantially to the opening of hearts and minds to a deeper, more intimate relationship to Reality — i.e. to God, to other human beings, and to creation as a whole.

seven-pillars-of-wisdom-tarot2
No doubt their “occult” reputation (together with the air of “mystery” and “the forbidden” that continues to cling to them) contributes a great deal to the level of energy which we tend to experience as we interact with them–an energy which may frighten us at first, while at the same time enhancing their effectiveness (both as a teaching tool and as a facilitator of self-inquiry and self-knowledge) once we break though that initial, culturally conditioned barrier.

Be that as it may, in addition to the sheer energy and sense of mystery associated with them, their general structure and history are also extraordinarily fascinating. The 78 cards can be divided into 3 groups:

  • 22 Trumps (or “Major Arcana”)
  • 40 Pips (Aces through Tens, four of each suit)
  • 16 Court Cards (Pages, Knights, Queens, & Kings, four of each suit)

The four Knights + the 22 Trumps make up the difference between the 78 card Tarot deck and our regular set of 52 playing cards (assuming that the Pages correspond to the Jacks in a regular poker deck). However, it should be noted that the 78 card Tarot decks are still in popular use as playing cards in France and perhaps elsewhere, as well (see French Tarot).

With regard to the 78 Tarot cards, P.D. Ouspensky writes:

ouspensky-triangle-fool

A chart showing standard suit symbols for playing cards in Western Europe (see page 15 of The 56 “pip” and “court” cards, together– aka the minor arcana —are sometimes referred to as “suit cards” with the four suits being very similar those of conventional playing cards:

  • Pentacles (aka “coins” — cf. “diamonds”)
  • Swords (aka “blades”– cf. “spades”)
  • Cups (aka “chalices” — cf. “hearts”)
  • Wands (aka “batons” — cf. “clubs”)

Occasionally, the 22 Trumps are referred to as the fifth suit.

The chart above (and to the right) shows the standard suit symbols for playing cards in Western Europe (see page 15 of “The Tarot: History, Symbolism, Divination”, by Robert M. Place).  The top row of the image below (and to the left) is typical of Tarot decks.

tarot-suits-200While the history of playing cards is much older than that of the Tarot proper, it seems to be generally accepted that the 22 trumps were added (primarily for gaming purposes) in the early 15th century (Renaissance) Italy–and that they probably reflect the influence of a cultural form known as “Triumphs” which were featured both in Renaissance parades and in subsequent Renaissance literature (e.g. Petrarch’s “I Trionfi” — see page 111 of “The Tarot: History, Symbolism, Divination”, by Robert Place).

Older decks– and various collections of Renaissance artwork and emblems that came to bear on this history –include, but are not limited to:

Visconti-Sforza Hermit - 7 cups - Devil.jpg

Examples of cards from a reproduction of the Visconti-Sforza Tarot
(“The Golden Tarot”, by Mary Packard and Race Point Publishing)

These influences converged in what is arguably the most influential Tarot of all– The Tarot of Marseille –which evolved over a period of 2 or 3 centuries in southern France (1499 to 1760?). But the story doesn’t end there–not the story of the Marseille Tarot and much less the story of the Tarot, in general.

Much of this I have only recently learned–from the aforementioned book by Robert Place (for example); and (among other places) from several of my friends in the Facebook group, Tarot for the Solitary Soul (including but not limited to Bryan Matthew Mary Reynolds and Gregory Jensen van Etten).

pamela-colman-smithThe Tarot of Marseille, together with The Tarot of the Master (from the late 19th Century) — along with many other esoteric influences — converged in the early 20th century in the famous Rider-Waite-Smith deck which has since spawned hundreds of variations on the same basic theme (the main innovation of RWS being the illustrations on the pip cards which were very rare prior to its advent in 1910).

RWS by the way –refers, respectively, to the original publisher, “William Rider & Son” (London); to the author, designer, and project originator, “Arthur Waite“; and to the artist and collaborator, “Pamela Coleman Smith“(pictured above and to the right).  Below is a comparison of three cards from two (relatively new) editions the Tarot of Marseille and the Rider-Waite-Smith design–they are, from left to right, The Hermit, the Seven of Cups, and The Devil:

Hermit - 7 Seven of Cups - Devil2.jpg

How we respond to temptation/wishful thinking often makes the difference between a life of freedom and one of bondage; wisdom or self-distruction. The top row is from Fournier’s Tarot of Marseille; the bottom row is from the Universal Waite deck.

This is a lot to take in, to be sure, but even this is just the tip (of the tip of the tip) of an incredibly massive iceberg. Historically and aesthetically, the depth and breadth of the Tarot tradition is extensive, to say the least, and never ceases to fascinate. Psychologically and Spiritually, as well, these cards offer a context in which millions of people are able to delve ever deeper into their own hearts and minds–often releasing heretofore unrealized springs of life and creativity. Evangelistar von Speyer - um 1220.jpgAre there any risks involved? To be sure–but so it goes with any human activity (cf. politics, religion, sports, or commerce). Nevertheless, those who are honest with themselves and sincere in their relationship with others usually find that as they meditate on these cards, previously unimagined doors begin to open which constitute an initiation, of sorts–an initiation into an ever more intimate relationship with the One Life, Divine — the mystery which binds us all together in this vast community of Spirit in which we live and move and have our being. This community, of course, is that which Christians designate as the body of Christ–our collective point of entry into that which we also know, by way of the cross, as the kingdom of heaven…

tarot-sermon-silent

The Major Arcana of the Tarot from a Christian Point of View

ace-cups star temperance.jpg

Whosoever will may come and drink of the water of life freely…

If you, like me, are intrigued by all you’ve learned in such a relatively short time, you are invited to participate in Tarot for the Solitary Soul–everyone is welcome!

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–>  Tarot for the Solitary Soul

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Note: Scroll down for some closing observations from Yoav Ben-dov on the Tarot of Marseille.
cbd force magic 4.0

Closing observations on The Tarot of Marseille, by Yoav Ben-dov, the creator of the CBD Tarot:

“From [Alejandro Jodorowsky] I got the idea of how powerful, how mysterious, how wonderful are the Tarot de Marseille…

These are the real cards…

They evolved over centuries…

It’s not the creation of a single person…

It is not limited by the vision of one person…

It is something which evolves…

I don’t attach too much importance to the original version of the cards…

Because this is 14th century–we don’t know what people did; you don’t know what people had in mind –but this was a starting point…

And something in the images– something in the symbols –something in this crazy collection of pictures caught the imagination of people…

So for 400 years they propagate them…

And there is some force in it which means that people continue to develop them even though there is no explanation… They don’t understand…

Why do they need them for playing games? When you play games in cards you don’t look at the pictures…

There’s absolutely no meaning to the pictures…

And still the images remain…

And develop…

And catch the imagination…

Are not replaced…

And there are some really strange things about them…

And they are really subversive…

And even politically and religiously dangerous in a certain period…

Still they keep…  So there is something about hundred years of evolution which is going into these strange symbols…

In the Tarot de Marseille there is a lot of power in the details…

In the small quirks… In the strange things–the anomalies.

You don’t really understand what you are looking at– it’s ambiguous –it can send your mind to many different places. So, in a way, I think it’s magic…

And the magic is in the Tarot of Marseille…”

~ Yoav Ben-Dov (excerpted from the “Old School Tarot” interview)

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