The precise origins of the deck of cards known as the Tarot are lost to the ages, but most Tarot scholars point to the hand-painted color decks commissioned by the Duke of Milan, Filippo Maria Visconti, and his successor, Francesco Sforza, in the first half of the 15th century as being the first completely realized version of tarocchi, as the cards were known. Comprising the numbered “pip” and “court” cards of the conventional deck of playing cards, along with the so-called trionfi, or “trump” cards depicting various mythological archetypes (the Fool, the Magician, the Devil) or stages of spiritual development (Strength, Death, Judgement), this was the first known deck that would be readily recognizable to those of us who study Tarot today. However, the idea of using the cards as “divinatory” or analytical devices was not propagated for many years afterward, and for the next three centuries, the cards were used either for simple gaming or, possibly, to instill certain ethical values into the youth of the landed gentry (cards being a luxury that the common peasant had neither the time nor the money to afford).
In 1781 the French pastor and esotericist Louis Court de Gebelin advanced the idea in his multivolume The Primitive World that the images on the 78 cards of the Tarot deck were based on illustrations from a book of ancient Egyptian origin that had somehow managed to escape the fire of Alexandria in 391 C.E. unscathed. The fact that he had absolutely no evidence of this, and probably couldn’t have explained it even if he did (the Rosetta Stone had not yet been deciphered) did not deter him in the least from making the claim.
More intriguing, though, was the potential correspondence between the 22 cards of the so-called Trumps Major—the aforementioned trionfi cards—and the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. This theory was first posited in an accompanying essay in The Primitive World and was most masterfully revived and popularized in the mid-19th Century by the French Abbé Alphonse Louis Constant, who wrote under the name of Eliphas Levi, and whose seminal work, Transcendental Magic: Its Doctrine and Ritual was translated into English in the 1890s by the English occultist Arthur Waite. In this book, Levi establishes a coherent and workable system of attributions and connotations, not only to the Hebrew alphabet but to the various works of Jewish mysticism known collectively as the Kabbala, and most modern-day interpretations of the Tarot trace their roots back to Levi, though few have been as eloquent and insightful. Classical Judaica scholars may disavow any link between kabbalistic texts such as the Sefer Yetzirah—an essential tract that explains the archetypal significance of each of the 22 Hebrew letters—and the Tarot, but the more one studies both systems, the more compatible and complimentary they appear to be, as we will discover in the coming weeks.
While hundreds of new Tarot designs have been published over the past half-century, the most popular are based on designs that have been around for much longer than that: The Marseilles Deck, which dates to the 16th Century, and possibly earlier; the Waite-Rider deck, directed by Arthur Waite, rendered by English illustrator Pamela Colman Smith, and published in 1910; and the Thoth Tarot of English occultist Aleister Crowley and English artist Frieda Harris, which was completed during the Second World War but which was held up in publisher’s limbo for another quarter century. For the purposes of this Website, we will focus primarily on the Waite-Rider deck, in part because it is the most familiar of the Tarot designs, and also because it is among the richest in symbolism and meaning, for reasons we’ll be discussing in subsequent posts.
As people have been “consulting the cards” for more than 200 years (the first written guide to divination was published in 1785), the meanings of many of the cards have changed over time, like windblown grains of sand in an ever-shifting dune complex, reflecting the constant evolution of human consciousness. Early card readers relied heavily on Kabbala texts, astrology and principles of ceremonial magic to divine the cards. Subsequent generations incorporated alchemy and elements of classical mythology and paganism; and latter-day readers have brought Eastern philosophy, Christian symbology, and within the last generation, elements of feminist literary theory and Jungian depth psychology. As we will learn in the coming pages, Tarot—like the Kabbala—is founded on principles of fluidity and motion; many of the old verities the cards communicate to us are timeless (think “love thy neighbor”), but many of the cards are cryptic by design, hence they require us to think creatively to divine their meaning to us in our time—and the ability to think creatively requires a freshness of mind and the willingness to unburden ourselves of old and outmoded ways of thinking.
It has been a good 20 years since the last great wave of contemporary Tarot scholarship graced our bookshelves. The aim of this blog is to view the cards anew in light of how our consciousness—the way we perceive ourselves, and our world—has changed since then. Twenty years is but a split second in the history of the universe, but think of the many things in our lives that have changed—in many ways, radically—within the span of a single generation. Start with our language—the most elemental extension and reflection of human thought—and think of words and phrases we communicate to each other every day that would have been gibberish to us in the 1980s and ‘90s: “Social media,” “Powerpoint,” “Google it,” “tweeting,” “smartphone,” “hashtag,” “take a selfie,” “crowdsourcing.” There are professions such as “bloggers,” “drone operators” and “Web developers” at which thousands of people currently labor, but which we would have been utterly unable to explain in the recent past. Spambots? Emoticons? WTF are those?
More soberly, how do we interpret the cards as we increasingly come to view our own identities, and our world, as extensions of our technologies, or when so-called “artificial intelligence” threatens to supplant our own as a governing paradigm of consciousness? How do we read a card such as “Death” or “Judgement” when we are now confronted for the first time in the history of humankind by the reality of mass extinctions—including, potentially, our own—that is posited by anthropogenic global warming? Human consciousness has changed in a great many ways—some for the better, others less so—since Pamela Smith painted the images of the Waite-Ride deck over a hundred years ago. This blog, then, will attempt to shine some new light on the venerated old deck of cards, to learn what they can reveal about the consciousness of man in the post-millennial age that is unfolding at nanosecond speed before us.
Finally, a disclosure: In my own experience, the so-called “divinatory,” i.e., predictive, aspect of Tarot is highly overrated—if not a complete fiction—and has been used by many unsophisticated, and perhaps unethical, readers over the years at the expense of their clients. An old saying goes, “The cards impel, but cannot compel,” and this is how the cards, and the interpretations offered here, should be viewed—as suggestions of what might or could happen in the life of the seeker, given a confluence of certain actions, thoughts and events. The cards, to my mind, are put to much more creative use as a spiritual “reference guide” and as a psychoanalytical teaching tool, and that will be the emphasis of this survey.