1. The Tarot as We Know It

A variety of tarot cards…

There are certainly hundreds—perhaps even thousands! –of very different Tarot decks with many new ones being introduced every year!  Moreover, it is undeniable that the Tarot means many different things to many different people:  For some, it is an object of superstitious fear—the Devil’s playthings; a wicked pack of cards…  For others, it is the object of ridicule and disdain.  Some find in the Tarot an oracle— or at least a refuge —in a world that seems out of control.  And for others still, it provides a mode of artistic expression or a means to enhanced self-knowledge.

All things considered, perhaps none of these attitudes toward the Tarot are entirely without warrant—and some of them are very justified, indeed!  But there is one additional possibility that should also be considered:  Let us consider the possibility that when we examine a seemingly ordinary deck of Tarot cards, we hold in our hands an integral, sacred text emerging out of the Christian middle ages—a sacred text which, for many, has been a point of entry or initiation into an extraordinary way of truth and life.  To repeat, for many people, the Tarot is not merely a product of individual creativity— and not only a historically and psychologically significant work of art —it is also a way of initiation; an integral, sacred text pointing beyond the world as it is ordinarily imagined to the vibrant living reality of a world that is literally beyond belief, here and now.

So it is with all of these possibilities in mind that we will approach our subject matter and, as such, will focus our attention on two especially influential designs:

  1. The Tarot of Marseille
    (Especially the Nicholas Conver design originating in 1760)
  2. The Waite-Smith Tarot  [1]
    (Designed by Arthur Edward Waite and Pamela Colman Smith, 1909/1910)

While The Tarot of Marseille is arguably the definitive incarnation [2] of the Tarot as sacred text, the Waite-Smith Tarot (which retains much of the same imagery) seems to appeal to a wider audience.  Indeed, since its initial publication in the United States in 1971 by U.S. Games Systems, Inc., the Waite-Smith Tarot appears to have provided the primary point of entry into the Tarot tradition for the majority of people in the United States and it continues to have a broad appeal.  And even if its popularity has waned somewhat over the last generation, that is only because of the stiff competition which has arisen from the hundreds of new decks which it has served to inspire.  So while there are many other significant Tarot designs— a few of which we will refer to in passing —by becoming fairly familiar with these two, students are in a good position to learn about the others on their own as they have the time and inclination.

Briefly put, then, the Tarot as we know it is a 600 year old text which comes down to us from 15th century Italy in the form of 78 cards.  Not only is the history and aesthetic appeal of this text quite remarkable, it seems also to facilitate extraordinary creativity and profound psychological insights in those who are exposed to it.  But above and beyond all that, it seems also to be the case that, approached in the right spirit, these cards can contribute substantially to the opening of hearts and minds to a deeper, more intimate relationship to Realityto God, per chance, to other human beings, and to the “undivided turning” that is our universe. [3]

—>  2.  Two Watershed Moments in Tarot History


[1] The Waite-Smith Tarot is often referred to as the Rider-Waite ® Tarot in honor of the original publisher, William Rider & Sons, London, and the project supervisor, A.E. Waite. But that designation has become less common since it fails to give appropriate credit to the artist, Pamela Colman Smith.

[2] Quoting Meditations on the Tarot, “…the Tarot is not inherited, it has reincarnated. It has “reincarnated” in conformity with the experience of modern depth psychology of the school of Jung, who ascertained the upsurge of ancient and even archaic mysteries and cults from the depths of the unconscious of people in the twentieth century. The Tarot is the “Sacred Book of Thoth”— not inherited or transmitted — but reborn. . . . Because in the depths of the unconscious — which knocks at the door and wants to become conscious — there is present the “sanctuary of the everlasting zones”, where the “Sacred Book of Thoth” remains deposited, from whence symbolic and Hermetic works are born, or reincarnate. The Tarot is such a work” (Letter X, “The Wheel of Fortune”, pages 261,263).

[3] “undivided turning”    I came across this expression at http://www.darrylbailey.net/awakening/
Etymonline.Com confirms its validity, at least to some degree, as follows:
universe (n.) 1580s, “the whole world, cosmos, the totality of existing things,” from Old French univers (12c.), from Latin universum “all things, everybody, all people, the whole world,” noun use of neuter of adjective universus “all together, all in one, whole, entire, relating to all,” literally “turned into one,” from unus “one” (from PIE root *oi-no- “one, unique”) + versus, past participle of vertere “to turn, turn back, be turned; convert, transform, translate; be changed” (from PIE root *wer- (2) “to turn, bend”).