In a nutshell, tarot is…
There are three prevailing tarot systems used today: the Marseille (circa 1440, give or take, since the fact is no one really knows when the Marseille was conceived), the Rider-Waite-Smith (circa 1909), and the Thoth (circa 1969). I’ve adopted the Rider-Waite-Smith and tend to adhere closely to the Golden Dawn interpretive method. The Rider-Waite-Smith system is influenced heavily by numerology, Judeo-Christian symbology, Greco-Roman mythos, Egyptian mythology, Hermeticism, Hermetic Kabbalah, Western astrology, alchemy, and Neo-Platonism. Some knowledge of all of the above is indispensable in reading tarot.
The Marseille system will call on Roman Catholicism and Judeo-Christian symbology. A historical understanding of the European Renaissance is also helpful. The Thoth will incorporate geometry, Thelema, and even Eastern philosophies like Taoism, along with the other -ologies and -isms for the Rider-Waite-Smith.
Some may try to tell you that you don’t need to know anything about anything to read tarot, just your “psychic intuition” or what not. I respectfully disagree. My approach to Tarot is definitely more academic and inter-disciplinary. Critical theory is crucial to truly acquire a holistic understanding of tarot.
Anatomy of a Tarot Deck
A traditional tarot deck consists of 78 cards. The 78 cards are subdivided into the Major Arcana, which consists of 22 fully illustrated cards that are numbered Key 0 to Key 21, and the Minor Arcana, which consists of 56 pip (numbered) and court cards. Some tarot deck versions do not contain illustrations on the pip cards; they look similar to the deck of playing cards we use today for games like poker: Ace through Ten. The court cards of the tarot are the Page, Knight, Queen, and King, though there may be different names for the court cards, such as Princess, Prince, etc. The Minor Arcana are divided into four suits, generally named Wands (Clubs), Cups (Hearts), Swords (Spades), and Pentacles (Diamonds). Like the court cards, other names may be used depending on the tarot deck.
The Major Arcana represent universal archetypal forces that govern life. When Major Arcana cards dominate a reading, it suggests that great natural forces are at play. The Minor Arcana represent the many facets of the human condition. Within the Minor Arcana, the four suits generally correspond to the following:
The prevailing interpretive method for the four suits is based on the Golden Dawn system. (The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn is a secret society that brought into prominence the use of tarot for divinatory and other esoteric or occult purposes.) Note, however, that there are debates over the elemental correspondences. Not all tarot practitioners agree with the aforementioned correspondences.
How does it work?
Tarot is a tool. In a way, it is like a calculator. Based on the variables you input, it will generate a most probable outcome. That outcome, however, is never fixed. No one can predict the future with certainty because you have the willpower to change those variables any time you want. If you do not like the output, then change the input. Change your variables, which are your actions, your attitudes, your words, and even your thoughts. The tarot can serve as a guide for what variables need to be changed to yield the output you want, but the actual effort to make that change rests with you.
I compare it to calculating square roots. Some folks can do it in their heads. Most of us cannot. We need a gadget. Likewise, some folks have an intuitive, empathic panoramic view of life; they can see the past and present and then calculate the future based on those factors. Most of us, however, will find the tarot useful as our gadget, our calculator.
60-Second Historical Overview:
Playing cards date back to the Tang Dynasty in China, 618 A.D. to 907 A.D, where cultural or mythical references are illustrated on the cards and used for games. However, it is said (and this is legend only) that the emperor’s concubines would use these playing cards to tell fortunes. That was their way of dealing with the mind-numbing boredom when the emperor wasn’t, ahem, in their bedchambers. Through trade, these cards were taken to the Middle East in 1370. Through more trade, they ended up in Europe. In the 1440s, a deck of 78 cards with illustrations steeped in Judeo-Christian mythos surfaced. Tarot was a card game, mostly among the wealthy. The Church banned playing cards under anti-gambling laws, but in many instances carved out exceptions for tarot because tarot was a game played by the powerful aristocrats of the time.
The earliest record we have of the tarot being used for divination is 1780 in France and England using a tarot deck now known as the Tarot de Marseille, solidifying the earliest tarot divination system. Now for a listing of key occultist players who rose to prominence as tarot scholars: Eteilla in the 1790s; Eliphas Levi in the 1850s; Encausse, otherwise known by his pen name Papus in the 1890s; members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and well through the 1900s. Then came A. E. Waite in 1909 with the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot system (Rider for the deck’s first publisher, Waite for A. E. Waite, and Smith for Pamela Colman Smith, the artist). That is the system I am most comfortable with. Waite and this other fellow, Aleister Crowley, didn’t much get along. So Crowley created his own deck in the 1940s, which was published posthumously in 1969 and is now known as the Thoth tarot system. There are just as many similarities as there are differences between the three tarot systems.
Whoa, sorry if I misrepresented. That probably took more than 60 seconds to read…
Today there are countless versions of tarot on the market, most of them based loosely on the Tarot de Marseille, Rider-Waite-Smith, or Thoth system. Some of the contemporary decks I like are the Robin Wood, the Goddess Tarot, the Hermetic Tarot, and the Golden Tarot. Most of the time, though, I still read with my trusty 1971 Rider-Waite (a.k.a. Rider-Waite-Smith), the deck pictured above.
So Cat, what is your theory for why Taroy works?
I believe in a life force called “Qi,” pronounced “chee.” At least that’s what Chinese people call it. There are other names for the same concept. Kundalini, a yogic belief. The ancient Egyptian concept of “Ka” is remarkably similar to “Qi.” The collective unconscious, if you like Carl Jung.
Qi is the life force that flows through all living beings and cosmically connects us with one another. Traditional Chinese medicine, martial arts, Daoism (or Taoism) and the practice of feng shui base their efficacy on the theory of Qi. Your personal Qi is kind of like the concept of spirit. It is what makes you alive. It connects your physical functions to one another. It connects your physical functions to your mental, and your mental to your spiritual. That’s personal Qi. Your personal Qi is connected to every other individual personal Qi out there. That unity is called universal Qi.
Tarot works when you manage to connect the tarot reader’s personal Qi with the querent or seeker’s personal Qi with the universal Qi. Some kind of really cool trinity goes on and by something some people call synchronicity, certain cards from the tarot are drawn that will best answer the question at hand.
We understand two given related events through cause and effect, or the causality principle. In 1930 Carl Gustav Jung proposed a second theory for related events, in particular when two events occur contemporaneously, synchronized, though there appears to be no plausible relation between the two events. Cause and effect cannot explain the coincedence. A principle called synchronicity, however, can.
Synchronicity was used by Jung to explain the unusual accuracy of I Ching divination. I Ching, if an oversimplified explanation may be offered, is a book of 64 hexagrams that dates as far back in recorded history as 475–221 B.C. China. Each hexagram suggests certain keywords and is interpreted to represent an aspect of the human condition, not unlike the tarot. Like the tarot, a random generation method is used to draw out a hexagram or series of hexagrams and the spread is interpreted by a knowledgeable practitioner who will then help provide insight into a Seeker’s life. According to Jung, synchronicity explained the attuning of a psychic state with external events. I believe that synchronicity is a plausible explanation for why we seem to draw out the most relevant cards from a tarot deck that best apply to our present state of affairs.
Is tarot against my religion?
Most mainstream faiths, both in the Western and Eastern hemispheres, warn against fortunetelling. Yet keep in mind that the tarot is just an object. It is neither good nor evil, neither godly nor demonic. Sacramental wine is still drinking alcohol. Drowning your liver with vodka is also drinking alcohol. Alcohol is alcohol, with neither innate virtue nor innate sin. It’s what you do with it. You need a knife to cut loose the ropes that bind a captive. A knife can also take a life. Guns murder, but guns also protect. There is nothing inherently wrong with rolling dice, but give the dice to a gambling addict and you will have problems.
What I’m trying to say here is that whether tarot is against your religion depends on how you use the tarot. I doubt Thematic Apperception Tests (TATs), a projective psychological tool that many employers use to better understand the personalities of their employees, is against religion. When you use tarot as a psychological tool in the same vein as TATs, I find it incredibly difficult to argue that it could run against the teachings of your god.
For example, the Christian Bible warns against seeking out soothsayers for divination. The way divination is used in the Bible differs from the way I use the word here, just as when I say “yeah, I know him” offhandedly to you today, I am not using “know” in the Biblical sense. Divination as used in the Bible refers to fortunetelling, speaking with certainty about a person’s future, speaking with certainty about the will of the higher powers, and making the presumption that one human could know what the higher powers know. By that definition, I am against divination, too.
My definition of divination is to see and know yourself with clarity, not see or know the future or fate. Tarot is used to help you make sense of you and only you. It doesn’t tell you your future per se. It tells you what the most likely outcome is based on your current actions and attitudes. It doesn’t tell you what you’re destined to do. It points out what your strengths and weaknesses are. If you seem to have a knack for anatomy, are detail-oriented, a natural in academics, and possess an incredible amount of focus and drive, you could do well in the field of medicine. That doesn’t mean you’re fated to become a doctor. In my application of tarot as a psychological diagnostics tool, I don’t see how any of the mainstream religions that are generally seen as being against tarot could logically or spiritually be against it.
That said, I do understand why many religions warn against fortunetelling. It has nothing to do with the purported qualities inherent in fortunetelling, but rather how people react and their subsequent behavior after having their fortunes told. Though I generally loathe quoting Confucius, I second his opinion that I Ching divination should not be practiced by individuals under a certain age because their intellectual faculties are not yet fully developed. A person should attain a certain level of maturity and life experience before attempting to learn the esoteric. Giving absolute credence to a prediction runs the risk of disabling your willpower, especially when you’re young or naive. When you’re older, you hold a wiser, more panoramic view of the world and can better give context to so-called predictions.
There are also many irresponsible tarot readers who misuse the tarot and in turn, send you faulty information. If you rely on that faulty information, harm is bound to come your way. It really is like practicing medicine or law without the intense schooling, experience, and licensure that these fields require. What’s more, the vast majority of people seeking tarot readers are those who are in a vulnerable state of grief, loss, or confusion. Pairing such a person with a quack tarot reader is going to bring about a great deal of harm to that person. That, though, isn’t any more or less sinful than a quack doctor who is practicing medicine without a license, a scum-sucking lawyer, or an accountant who has a propensity to skim a little off the top.
The continuing ignorance of our society toward tarot and other divinatory tools infuriates me, because that ignorance is what holds back legitimization of tarot in a way that can finally prevent fortunetelling quacks from manipulating people. I guess maybe that’s where religion comes into play. Shielding people from falling into such traps is the only rationale that makes sense to me for being against the tarot.