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Tarot (Tar-oh) is a system of symbolism and philosophy consisting of a set of 78 images, normally embodied in a deck of cards similar to a regular set of game-playing cards (see playing card). It is most often encountered as a form of cartomancy.

The earliest extant examples of Tarot decks are of Italian origin and roughly date back to the 15th century, when they were used to play the game of Tarocchi. In the course of its development it became connected to cartomancy and thence to occult studies. The set of 78 images, rich with symbolic meaning, is considered by students of this "occult" or "esoteric" Tarot (tarotists practising tarotism) to be independent of the particular representation as a deck of cards; consequently they focus on the study of the images (and their symbolic meanings) as distinct from any particular instance.

In addition to its philosophical and divinatory uses, Tarot is also used as an aid to meditation.

Table of contents

The Tarot Deck

The conventional 78-card deck is structured into two distinct sets, called the Minor Arcana and Major Arcana (arcana is the plural of the Latin word arcanum[?], meaning "hidden truth" or "secret knowledge"). Alternate names are the Minor Trumps and Major Trumps, or simply the Minors and the Trumps.

Differences between decks

Tarot cards serve many purposes, and this leads to a variety of Tarot deck styles. Some decks exist primarily as artwork; art decks often contain only the 22 cards of the Major Arcana. Esoteric decks are often used in conjunction with the study of the Hermetic Qabala; in these decks the Major Arcana are illustrated in accordance with Qabalistic principles while the numbered suit cards (2 through 10) typically bear only stylized renderings of the suit symbol. In contrast, decks used for divination usually bear illustrated scenes on all cards. The more simply illustrated Marseilles style decks are used both esoterically and for divination.

The most popular deck today is probably the fully-illustrated deck confusingly known as the Rider-Waite-Smith, Waite-Smith, or simply the Rider deck. The images were painted by artist Pamela Colman Smith, to the instructions of academic and mystic Arthur Waite, and published by the Rider company. According to many accounts, Aleister Crowley also had substantial creative input. While the images are deceptively, almost childishly simple, the details and backgrounds hold a wealth of symbolism. The subjects remain close to the earliest decks, but usually have added detail. The chief aesthetic objection to this deck is the crude printing of colours in the original: several decks, such as the Universal Waite, simply copy the Smith line drawings, but with more sophisticated colouring.

Probably the most widely-used esoteric Tarot deck is Aleister Crowley's Thoth Tarot[?] (pronounced tote). In contrast to the Thoth deck's colorful artistry, the illustrations on Paul Foster Case[?]'s B.O.T.A. Tarot[?] deck are black line drawings on white cards; this is an unlaminated deck intended to be colored by its owner. Other esoteric decks include the Golden Dawn Tarot[?] which is based on a deck by SL MacGregor Mathers[?], the Tree of Life Tarot[?] whose cards are stark symbolic catalogs, and the Cosmic Tarot[?] which is unusual for an esoteric deck because it is fully-illustrated.

The Marseilles style Tarot decks generally feature suit cards which look very much like modern playing cards. The numbered cards sport an arrangement of pips indicating the number and suit, while the court cards are often illustrated with two-dimensional drawings.

Other decks vary in their conventionality. Cat-lovers have the Tarot of the Cat People[?], a fairly standard deck complete with cat in every picture. The Tarot of the witches and Aquarian Tarot[?] retain the conventional cards with varying designs. The witches deck became famous/notorious in the 1970s for its use in the James Bond movie Live and Let Die[?].

Other decks change the cards partly or completely. The Motherpeace Tarot[?] is notable for its circular cards and feminist angle: the mainly male characters have been replaced by females. The Tarot of Baseball[?] has suits of bats, mitts, balls and bases; "coaches" and "MVPs" instead of Queens and Kings; and major arcana cards like "The Catcher", "The Rule Book" and "Batting a Thousand".

A very spiritual Tarot deck is the Isis Tarot[?] also known as Tarot van Isis[?], Tarot d'Isis[?], etc., by Erna Droesbeke[?], using archetypical symbols[?].

Computing professionals might find the Silicon Valley Tarot[?] most intelligible, which offers online readings. Major arcana cards include The Hacker, Flame War, The Layoff and The Garage; the suits are Networks, Cubicles, Disks and Hosts; the court cards CIO, Salesman, Marketeer and New Hire.

Symbolism The significance of the cards is their most mysterious aspect. Even the early decks have complex imagery. Look at The World (Le Monde) or Strength (La Force) in this Marseilles deck. Strength shows a woman holding the jaws of a lion. This might just be interpreted as an image of physical strength: some modern decks just show a muscular man with a barbell. But look at The World: a dancer or posed figure, in a flowery wreath, with four creatures at the corners. All kinds of symbolic explanations can be, and have been, presented for this. But was this just a standard symbolic representation of the concept "the World" in Marseilles in 1450, or were there deep levels of meaning even then? If these cards were just for card-games, why were these peculiar symbols chosen for them? Was there a spiritual or magical significance to the cards, or was it just that the random whims of a dead artist found themselves incorporated into a standard? The answers are frustratingly lost, not just in the mists of time, but the fogs of contradictory analysis.

Regardless of what the cards meant originally, meanings are attached to them now. Interpretations have co-evolved with the cards over the centuries: later decks have "clarified" the pictures in accordance with their perceived meanings, the meanings in turn modified by the new pictures.

For example, take a look at the Rider-Waite-Smith Strength card. We can know more about the symbolic intentions of the designer here, since he conveniently wrote many books on the subject. As with its Marseilles-deck ancestor, the card shows a woman holding the jaws of a lion, but this picture is far more elaborate. The strangely-shaped hat of the Marseilles card has traditionally been interpreted as a symbolic lemniscate: the sideways-figure-eight representation of infinity. In the newer card, this symbol appears explicitly. Other symbols are included: a chain of roses symbolizing desire or passion, against a white robe symbolizing purity. The mountains in the background demonstrate another kind of strength. Even here there is room for interpretation: the card is sometimes considered as showing intellect triumphing over desire, sometimes as the equal union of intellect and passion, sometimes just as a symbol of mental strength or endurance.

The twenty-two cards most often in the major arcana are: Fool, Magician, High Priestess [or La Papessa/Popess], Empress, Emperor, Hierophant [or Pope], Lovers, Chariot, Strength, Hermit, Wheel of Fortune, Justice, Hanged Man, Death, Temperance, Devil, Tower, Star, Moon, Sun, Judgement, World. Each card has its own large, complicated and disputed set of meanings. Altogether the major arcana is said to represent the Fool's journey: a symbolic journey through life in which the Fool overcomes obstacles and gains wisdom.

There is a vast body of writing on the significance of the Tarot. The four suits are associated with the four elements: Swords with air, Wands with fire, Cups with water and Pentacles with earth. The numerology is usually thought to be significant. The Tarot is often considered to correspond to various systems such as astrology, the Kaballah, the I Ching and others.

Psychology Carl Jung was the first psychologist to attach importance to the Tarot. He regarded the Tarot cards as representing archetypes: fundamental types of person or situation embedded in the subconscious of all human beings. The Emperor, for instance, represents the ultimate patriarch or father figure.

The theory of archetypes gives rise to several psychological uses. Some psychologists use Tarot cards to identify how a patient views himself or herself, by asking the patient to select a card that he or she identifies with. Some try to get the patient to clarify his ideas by imagining his situation or relationship in terms of Tarot images: Is someone rushing in heedlessly like the Knight of Swords perhaps, or blindly keeping the world at bay as in the Rider-Waite-Smith Two of Swords. The Tarot can be seen as a kind of algebra of the subconscious, allowing it to be analysed at the conscious level.

Storytelling and Art The Tarot has been known to inspire writers as well as visual artists. Novelist Italo Calvino described the Tarot as a "machine for telling stories", writing The Castle of Crossed Destinies with plots and characters constructed through the Tarot. T. S. Eliot's poem The Waste Land uses only superficial descriptions of Tarot cards, a few of which are genuine. Random selections of Tarot cards have also been used to construct stories for writing exercises and writing games.

Divination Divination, or fortune-telling, is by far the most popular and well-known use of the Tarot. This is sometimes seen as an extension of the psychological use mentioned above. It can be argued that we sometimes perceive the signs of future events subconsciously only. For instance you might be subconsciously aware that a relationship or job is in trouble, before you admit it to yourself. In that sense, it might be said that the Tarot can give you insights into the future without having any supernatural or occult aspect at all. Meaning may emerge even from purely random patterns, as chance selections force you to consider concepts that you'd normally ignore, and the density of meaning is great enough that meanings can emerge from almost any selection of cards.

That point of view is rare. Tarot diviners generally believe that Tarot cards simply allow them to exercise an innate psychic ability to see the future. It's popularly believed that the cards take on the "aura" or "vibrations" of someone who touches them. The cards are therefore "insulated" by wrapping them in silk or enclosing them in a box, and only touched by the diviner and person for whom the reading is done: the "querent".

There are many variations, but in a typical reading the querent shuffles the cards, then the diviner lays out the cards in a pattern called the spread. The most popular spread is the Celtic Cross. The cards are then analysed according to their positions, their relationships and whether the cards are upside-down. An inverted card has its own set of modified meanings; sometimes opposite, sometimes weakened, sometimes twisted.

Divination may be seen as magical in itself, but the word "magic" usually refers to the use of Tarot cards in a magical ritual designed to achieve some end. This is much less common than simple divination, however.


The Great Cross ("Celtic Cross") Layout

Origin and History The first physical evidence of the Tarot dates from the 15th century. An elaborate, hand-made deck called the Visconti deck survives from Italy in 1440. More simply-drawn decks survive from Marseilles, France, in the same period. An Italian sermon describes the major arcana cards in detail, criticizes them as blasphemous, warns against gambling with them.

It is believed by many that the Tarot is far older than this. Based on similarities of the imagery and numbering, some associate the Tarot with ancient Egypt, or the Hebrew mystic tradition of the Kabbalah, or a wide variety of other origins. However, if you rely on physical evidence alone, it must be said that the Tarot began in Europe in the Renaissance.

In the Anglo-Saxon world today, the Tarot is usually seen as a means of fortune-telling. However, early references such as the sermon refer only to the use of the cards for game-playing and gambling; and in some European countries such as France, Italy, Switzerland, Austria and Germany; this is still seen as the primary purpose of the Tarot today. The rules of the French version of this game, bearing little or no relation to the fortune-telling purpose of the cards and still very popular in France, can be found here (http://www.pagat.com/tarot/frtarot).

The relationship between Tarot cards and playing cards is unclear, since for centuries there was no standard for playing cards, just a variety of different decks. Some maintain that playing cards are the descendant of Tarot cards, with all the major arcana cards but the Fool/Joker stripped out. There is also an opposing view that the major arcana cards (trumps) were added to playing cards as a novelty.

Whatever their origins, Tarot cards eventually came to be associated with mysticism and magic. The Tarot was widely used by mystics, occultists and secret societies during the [[18th century|18th] and [[19th century].

The breakthrough into mass popularity began in 1910, with the publication of the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot, which took the step of including symbolic images in the minor as well the major arcana. In the twentieth century, a huge number of different decks were created, some traditional, some wildly different



New Age

Additional Resources

Out of print, but worth tracking down, The Game of Tarot by Michael Dummett ISBN 0-71-561014-7 is a history of the Tarot, and a compilation of Tarot card games.

An excellent, broad book on the Tarot is Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom by Rachel Pollack[?]. It's comprehensive, covering and the minor as well as the major arcana; and taking several angles on the Tarot. It's also well-written and intelligible: the author is also well known as a fantasy and SF writer.

A classic text is Eden Grey's Complete Guide to the Tarot, which concentrates on classical divination, but has some information on the more spiritual aspects.

Arthur Waite's The Key to the Tarot, while highly influential, is confusing and incomplete; and is also hampered by a lack of illustrations. Even though he invented the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, it's best avoided by newcomers. Interestingly, Waite's habit of describing the picture of each cards in words seems to have been widely carried over even into illustrated books; many of which are padded-out versions of this one.

Robert Wang's Qabalistic Tarot is a comprehensive and highly regarded, but frequently challenging, reference to the esoteric aspects of Tarot.

Tarot decks display the archetypes of spiritual life, see iconography.

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