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WHAT IS THE TAROT?
The Origin of the Tarot
The tarot is a card oracle that has existed in its current form since the 16th century. The deck consists of 78 cards, which are subdivided into two main groups: the major arcana, which consists of 22 consecutively numbered cards depicting individual motifs, such as the Fool, the Magus, the Sun and Moon, as well as Death and the Devil. The remaining 56 cards, the minor arcana, are arranged into a series of four suits. Each suit displays a common symbol (Wand, Sword, Disk, or Cup).
There are many differing opinions as to where this oracle came from and how it originally reached Europe. The earliest traces are lost in the 14th century. It is presumed that this is the time when the minor arcana came to the West from the Islamic world. On the other hand, the origin of the considerably more significant cards of the major arcana is uncertain. They only appeared around the end of the 16th century. It is not known whether the connection with the minor arcana first occurred at that time or whether all 78 cards had always belonged together.
Many people believe that these cards are nothing less than the ancient Egyptian priest caste's Book of Wisdom, which had blossomed in the dark for several thousands of years until they reached the light of public life about 400 years ago. However, others assume that the cards were created in the 14th century, which is undoubtedly the more plausible assumption.
As mysterious as the origin of the major arcana may be, its "disappearance" is also quite curious. Even though almost everyone is familiar with the minor arcana, because our current playing cards are based on it, only The Fool of the major arcana has "survived." He became the Joker. The other 21 cards disappeared from the card games that are commonly played today. Yet the four suits of the minor arcana, including their structure, are still found in our playing cards. The symbols—Wands, Swords, Cups, and Coins—which are widespread in card games from Roman-influenced countries even today, have now become Clubs, Spades, Hearts, and Diamonds.
Two Approaches to the Tarot
There are basically two different ways to approach the tarot. If we study the symbolism, the organization, and the structure of the cards, the images of the major arcana become a Book of Wisdom. They describe the human being's path of life and also permit meaningful insight into the reality behind reality. This deeply esoteric approach to the tarot is limited to the 22 cards of the major arcana, which form the actual philosophical background and contain the tarot's wisdom about life. Above all, important keys to this profound level are found in mythology, alchemy, and mystical numerology. In comparison, we do not know whether the cards of the minor arcana have ever been used for any other purpose than card-laying, which is the second, much more familiar way of approaching the tarot. And it is also the topic of this book. On this level, the differences between the major and minor arcana fade since they are treated almost the same when it comes to using the cards in a reading.
Coincidence and the Random Oracle
The relationship between an oracle and a game is not a phenomenon limited to the tarot cards. Other games we play, such as throwing dice, drawing lots, or Mikado, have also descended from ancient oracles. They are all based on the conviction that coincidence is something meaningful. Although the statement, "There are no coincidences," that we often hear today may mean the same thing, a closer look reveals its fallacy. We should actually say that there are no meaningless coincidences. That would correspond more closely with the original meaning of this word in the Middle Ages, which is based on the idea of "coinciding" or two things occurring at the same time. The philosophers of the European "Enlightenment" in the 18th century liked the approach that coincidences were purely arbitrary, depicting an absurd fate or the blind workings of life. This helped them through the embarrassing predicament of having to find explanations for inexplicable phenomena. However, our present-day willingness to presume a significant activity behind a coincidence or synchronicity has increased considerably. What does this mean?
When we translate our philosophy about our path to salvation (as described in a great variety of humanity's spiritual teachings) into the language of psychology, then our goal in life is to achieve wholeness. The force that urges each of us to strive for this goal is the "Self." C. G. Jung used this term to describe the greater whole that encompasses both conscious and unconscious aspects of a human being. Since our ego, as the center of consciousness, is only a part of the Self—and with great probability just a very small portion—it naturally cannot develop an extensive view of the greater whole. Neither can it speak with certainty about the nature of the Self.
However, we can pay attention to the messages it sends us via dream and inspiration. We can also observe its activity in the many coincidental phenomena of our lives. Similar to the situation of subtle quantum physics, the observer is naturally a part of the experiment as well. If we think that dreams are just nonsense, our dreams will hardly have anything meaningful to say to us. But if we pay friendly attention to the inspiration coming from the unconscious mind, as well as to coincidental occurrences, we will notice some unusual and memorable experiences.
From this perspective, we know that oracles make significant statements, especially because of their random patterns, even if making such an assumption is blatantly contrary to the scientific way of looking at things. And here is where we repeatedly hear judgments in relation to reading the tarot: "If the cards are laid out five times in a row, an answer is given through different cards each time." This is both true and false. Actually, in such a situation, different cards would actually turn up, but this doesn't prove anything. Only the rational presentation of evidence is based on the repeatability of an experiment. To do this, it is necessary to exclude coincidences with a vengeance, to carry out a planned test series without any disturbances in an appropriate room, a shielded laboratory, for instance. If the experiment succeeds as many times as desired, proof has been provided. However, random oracles, just like dreams, belong to the irrational world, and therefore cannot be measured with such rational means.
A dream doesn't first become meaningful when we have dreamed it five times. In the same way, a random oracle does not live from its repeatability. While coincidence is considered an unknown quantity and an undesired troublemaker that can confuse any experiment in the rational world, it proves to be the most important and expressive factor in the irrational world. This is why the pattern of an initial and single laying of the cards is meaningful. The fact that it cannot be repeated does not prove anything.
If we consider Jungian psychology and assume that forces found in the unconscious mind guide us, then the tarot can also symbolize a dialog between the conscious and the unconscious mind. Just like the other occurrences and experiences that are brought about by the unconscious mind so we can grow and mature, advice from the tarot also comes into our lives with messages from the unconscious mind. This background allows the oracle to appear in a completely different light and become a unique source of self-perception. So that it would be understood in this way, the philosopher Thales of Miletus had the famous inscription of "Know thyself," written on the Temple at Delphi at the beginning of the sixth century B.C. to explain the actual meaning of all oracles. People who comprehend these messages, and who allow themselves to be guided by them, will take their very own path, one that corresponds with their individuality, and they will find themselves as a result. On the other hand, those who consider the unconscious mind to be nothing more than an enchanted wonderland with magical powers that the ego may shamelessly exploit in order to satisfy its boundless craving for recognition and naive expectations of happiness, will at best be disappointed. People who want to learn their numbers to play the lottery, or who consider the tarot as spiritual insurance against the inconveniences of life, may not be very successful. "Every approach to the unconscious, or just wanting to make use of it," warns the Jungian Marie-Louise von Franz, "has destructive effects." And she compares this process to the ruthless exploitation of the forests, the ruinous exhaustion of natural resources, and the greedy plundering of our mineral resources—all of which only leads to a disturbance of the biological equilibrium. Moreover, missing the point is the original meaning of the word "sin." Perhaps it is this danger that, time and again, has discredited the tarot cards as the prayerbook of the Devil.
VARIOUS VERSIONS OF THE TAROT
The Traditional Cards
There are many variations of the tarot common today, but the Marseilles Tarot is considered to be the most classic version because it is most closely related to the card motifs of past centuries. Yet, we still cannot say that this is the original depiction, since the cards have always proved to have a great degree of variation between them, and no original tarot is known. A typical characteristic of older cards is that only the major arcana, the court cards (King, Queen, Knight, and Page) and sometimes also the four Aces have picture motifs. Apart from ornamental flourishes and garlands, the illustrations on the remaining cards are essentially limited to the numerical rendition of their symbol, similar to present-day playing cards. For example, the Five of Coins shows 5 coins, just like the Five of Diamonds shows 5 diamonds. It is understandably much more difficult to interpret these cards. We must either learn all their meanings by heart, or use another system to find the message of each card.
One way to increase our knowledge is to classify the four suits of the minor arcana according to the four elements: Wands = fire, Swords = air, Coins = earth, and Cups = water. If we also consider the knowledge of the meaning of the numbers 1 to 10, passed down by mystical numerology, the meaning of a card can be derived from these two components. Since, among other things, the number 3 represents healthy stability and living growth, and Cups are equivalent to the water element and the world of feelings, the following meaning results from the Three of Cups: feeling healthy and full of life. Without a doubt, such an approach to the cards is more difficult and less inspiring for most people than working with an expressive picture.
The Waite Tarot
At the beginning of the 20th century, Arthur Edward Waite (1857–1942) and Pamela Coleman Smith (1875–1951) created new cards. These were published in 1910 as the Waite Tarot, or the Rider-Waite Tarot, and became the best-known tarot cards in the world, and have the broadest distribution. Both creators of these cards were members of the Order of the Golden Dawn, an esoteric society that was London's most famous at the turn of the 19th century. This circle, which included many illustrious personalities as its members, was extremely interested in the Western tradition and tarot in particular. A. E. Waite, who was also the head of the order at times, was considered the "walking library" of the house. On the basis of his deep and extensive knowledge, he created the concept for the new cards. The artist Pamela Coleman Smith turned this concept into the pictures on the cards. While the depiction of the major arcana usually reflected the classical patterns, the minor arcana was given a completely new design. Each minor arcana card was illustrated, making it possible to derive the meaning of all 78 cards from the motifs. This change contained such an enormous enrichment for the cards that it has been the main reason for their great popularity.
The Crowley Tarot
Second today in terms of popularity—at least in English- and German-speaking areas—is a tarot deck created by the highly controversial Aleister Crowley (1875–1947), who many people denounce as a magician who practiced black magic, while others—including some very clever minds—see him as one of the great initiates. Crowley, who in his childhood suffered from the sectarian narrowness of his parental home and was not allowed to experience Christianity as a message of love, had passionately proclaimed the end of this world religion and claimed that he was the Anti-Christ, ultimately even the prophet of a new age. Since he fanned all the Christian fears that had been slumbering since the Middle Ages in the people of the Western world, and because he also rarely missed an opportunity to make himself unpopular, Crowley was not only stamped an arch villain but also fell lastingly into disrepute, far beyond his own age, so that even today some fainthearted souls flinch at the sound of his name. More than a few people fear that becoming interested in his work is a certain ticket to Hell. That is not true.
Crowley was neither a criminal nor did he propagandize evil. He was concerned with defeating a belief that, in his eyes, was outdated and hypocritical. However, for this purpose he had the audacity of besmirching the holy values of the Western world. He has never been forgiven for this insolence. Since his attempt to establish a new world religion has remained rather unsuccessful, and his magic only interests a relatively small circle of ardent insiders, the name Crowley would have long been forgotten except for one fact: toward the end of his life he developed a new tarot. This tarot was first published in 1944 as The Book of Thoth, named after the ancient Egyptian god of wisdom and magic spells. He let all his magical knowledge flow into these cards, which were painted by the artist Lady Frieda Harris (1887–1962). And since he was a highly educated, widely traveled man, and extraordinarily well-versed authority of esoteric tradition, it is no wonder that this tarot deck not only fascinates us but has also remained unsurpassed to this day in its symbolic content and complexity.
In contrast to the Waite Tarot, these exceedingly profound images present a problem. Although the pictures are fascinating, they are not simple and pleasing. Particularly because of the depth and abundance of their symbolism, it is not always easy to gain access to their meaning. A further factor is that in the design of the minor arcana, Crowley places himself between the simple but shallow depiction of the old cards and the easily understandable motifs of the Waite Tarot. We could say that he abstracted the respective idea in his cards. As a result, their meaning is expressed quite well, but only for those who are capable of reading the symbols. As if to balance out this complication a bit, each card of the Crowley Tarot has a name. For some, this may be a helpful bridge to interpretation. However, some people simply read the name without exploring the picture, which is known to say more than a thousand words. As a result, they only get a vague idea (or none at all) of what the card would truly like to express.
The Crowley Tarot is different in structure from the Waite deck. This difference has caused confusion for Crowley changed the names of the Court cards, which overlap with the old names in the following, easily misunderstood manner:
Traditional, names of the Corresponding Court cards
Court cards in the Crowley Tarot
Furthermore, some of the cards in the major arcana of the Crowley Tarot received new names. Justice became Adjustment (VIII); while the Wheel of Fortune was shortened to Fortune (X); Strength became Lust (XI); Temperance was transformed into Art (XIV); The World is called The Universe (XXI). But the most fundamental change occurred in the 20th card. It has been called Judgement and showed the wonder of resurrection on the Day of Judgment. According to Crowley's understanding, this theme belonged to the closing age of Osiris, the age of the sacrificed and self-sacrificing gods. But his newly designed card, The Aeon, is devoted to the approaching age of Horus, upon which Horus can be seen as the ruler of this new eon. This approach naturally also transforms the meaning of this card. It no longer represents redemption and the wonder of transformation, as in the older tarots, but the birth of the new and the vision of a broad future.
Excerpted from Keywords for the Crowley Tarot by Hajo Banzhaf, Brigitte Theler, Christine Grimm. Copyright © 1997 Hajo Banzhaf and Brigitte Theler. Excerpted by permission of Weiser Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What Is the Tarot?
The Origin of the Tarot
Two Approaches to the Tarot
Coincidence and the Random Oracle
Various Versions of the Tarot
The Traditional Cards
The Waite Tarot
The Crowley Tarot
Further Tarot Variations
Are There Right and Wrong Tarot Cards?
Frequently Asked Questions and Answers
From Asking the Question to Interpreting the Answer
Quick Access for People in a Hurry
How Should the Question Be Asked?
Shuffling, Drawing, and Laying the Cards
The Individual Cards
Summarizing the Message
Methods of Laying Out the Cards
Simple Card Layouts
Card for the Day
Card for the Year
The Astrological Tarot Reading
The Relationship Game
The Blind Spot
The Decision Game
The Secret of the High Priestess
The Celtic Cross
The Next Step
The Fool's Game
The Partner Game
The Plan Game
Keywords for Interpretation
The 22 Cards of the Major Arcana
The 56 Cards of the Minor Arcana
About the Authors
Posted November 22, 2010
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