Tarot Mysteries: Rediscovering the Real Meaning of the Cards

Tarot Mysteries: Rediscovering the Real Meaning of the Cards

by Jonathan Dee


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Tarot Mysteries: Rediscovering the Real Meaning of the Cards by Jonathan Dee

This is a practical and accessible guide to one of the most popular divination systems. What makes this book different from the others is that it:

  • Provides instruction on reading both the Major and Minor Arcana
  • Explains why the cards are the cards, why each picture forms part of a sequence, and why they occupy a mystical place in our consciousness
  • Gives a balanced and informative perspective on each of the cards, as well as an overview of the entire deck
  • Provides a history of the tarot
  • Connects the tarot to the Qabalah

Dee is a life-long tarot reader and historian. He traces the spiritual origins of the cards from Celtic mythology and Hebrew mysticism to Renaissance theatrical productions and the stars and planets of astrology. He also examines how past scholars thought about the tarot and how that thinking has changed to make the cards meaningful for today's readers. This wide-ranging primer provides readers with everything they need to know about the tarot and provides fresh insights into the cards.

An illustrated edition of this title was published by Sterling in 2003.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781571747501
Publisher: Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc.
Publication date: 07/01/2016
Edition description: Reissue
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 1,209,112
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Jonathan Dee (deceased 2010) wrote a vast number of books, covering Egyptology, mythology, astrology, tarot, and history. Published internationally, his books have sold over 5 million copies to date.

Read an Excerpt

Tarot Mysteries

Rediscovering the Real Meaning of the Cards

By Jonathan Dee

Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc.

Copyright © 2016 Estate of Jonathan Dee
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61283-362-0


What Are Tarot Cards?

This book is about Tarot cards, as indeed are many others. What makes this one different it that it does not just give instructions on how to read the cards, or concentrate solely on the 22 picture cards that are regarded as being particularly special. On the contrary, I hope to have given a balanced and informative perspective on each of the cards, as well as an overview of the entire deck.

This not just a book about reading the cards, but about why the cards are the cards, why each picture forms part of a particular sequence and why the Tarot occupies the mystical place that it does in our consciousness. The biggest question is yet to come, and that is "Why do the individual cards have their own particular meanings?" The answers to these questions will lead us down some strange and obscure byways into areas as diverse as Celtic mythology, Hebrew mysticism, Renaissance theatrical productions, and the stars and planets of astrology.

First, let us tackle what a deck of Tarot cards actually is. There are 78 cards in a classical Tarot deck, but the first complication arises because the Tarot is not one deck, but two. These two parts are called the Major Arcana, comprising 22 cards, and the Minor Arcana of 56 cards. The word arcana is Latin in origin and means "secret," so if you were pedantic, you could describe each individual card as an "Arcanum."

The 22 Major cards each have a symbolic picture on them, and are also described as "Trumps" or "Atu." Atu is a word that is said to be Ancient Egyptian for "key," but in fact is more likely to have derived from the French à tout — literally, "to all." This also means "a key," in the sense that it opens the door to the whole of the subject — or even to everything in heaven and earth. To clinch matters, the French word atout means "trumps," which is apt as this also refers to the Major Arcana cards.

The 56 cards of the Minor Arcana are more familiar. They are divided into four suits that are usually called Wands, Coins, Cups, and Swords. These have evolved into the modern pack of playing cards with Wands becoming Clubs, Coins becoming Diamonds, Cups becoming Hearts, and Swords becoming Spades. Like the modern deck, the Minor cards have kings, queens, and knaves (pages), but they also possess four extra cards, which are the knights of each suit.

These enigmatic cards have been used for the purposes of divination since at least AD 1500. The reason for their survival is that they work. After all, we abandoned other practices such as gazing into the entrails of chickens because they did not work — and because such tools were less portable and convenient than a deck of cards. The act of shuffling and dealing the cards is a potent symbol of the workings of fate. The hand of cards you receive isn't yours to choose, but how you play them. ... Well, that's up to you.

When I began the research for this book, I did so with the confidence of having written two previous guides on how to read and interpret the cards. However, as I carried on, I quickly became amazed at how little I actually knew. I shouldn't have been; after all, Tarot cards have been a feature of Western culture for at least six hundred years. A lot can change in that time — and does! What is accepted truth in one era is arrant falsehood in the next. Fashions in all things change like the wind when looked at in hindsight.

Of course, not everyone will agree with every aspect of this book and some might be inclined to quibble over this or that historical snippet. Others will have a different view of the more mystical or astrological interpretations, but even so, if this book leads to a realization that there is more to the Tarot than one suspects, then it will have done its job.

Researching and writing this book has been a revelation to me; I hope that reading it will be a revelation to you.

— Jonathan Dee January, 2003


The History of the Tarot

At the outset, I have to say that writing a complete and definitive history of the Tarot cards is impossible to achieve. For a start, we do not know who invented the cards, who devised their intricate symbolism, or indeed, who popularized them as a form of entertainment, either for card games or for the purposes of fortune telling. However, it is wrong to assume that nothing whatsoever can be revealed about the cards' origins or the uses to which they were put, even if there is no convenient documentary evidence. In short, the history of Tarot cards is not a matter of studying precise, coherent records, but of putting small snippets of information together to try to arrive at a solution to the puzzle.

Many previous writers have come up with their own theories, and indeed some wild speculations about the cards and what they mean. For example, one of the earliest theorists, Antoine Court de Gébelin (1719–1784) had no hesitation in firmly avowing that the Tarot was undoubtedly of Ancient Egyptian origin. In his time no one had yet deciphered hieroglyphics, and furthermore it was very fashionable to ascribe anything that was in any way mysterious to the land of the Nile. A further elaboration of his claims was that the Gypsies had introduced the Tarot to Europe and that they were a pictorial form of a branch of Jewish mysticism based on the Hebrew alphabet known as the Qabalah. (The spelling varies, and this word also occurs as Kabbalah, Cabala, Cabballah, and so on).

De Gébelin's ideas were taken up with enthusiasm by early 19th century French occultists, most notably a Parisian wig maker called Alliette (1738–1791), who also made a side living as a fortune-teller. Alliette (he later reversed his name to become Etteilla) claimed to have been educated by the great Count St. Germain himself. Apart from being an occult adept and an accomplished tanner by trade, the stylish and plausible St. Germain also implied that he was an immortal and that he had known Cleopatra and Christ intimately.

By far the most intellectually profound of the French mystics was Alphonse Louis Constant (1810–1875), who, after translating his name into Hebrew, became known as Eliphas Levi. Levi created a method of incorporating both the Qabalah and astrology into the symbolism of the Tarot cards. Indeed it is his methodology that is still followed by the Tarot readers of France and southern Europe.

Occultists of Northern Europe took a different route, a path that was begun by yet another extraordinary eccentric named Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers (1854–1918). After years of research into alchemy, astrology, and other related subjects in the library of the British Museum, Mathers became convinced that although Levi had been on the right track, he had nevertheless got it wrong. To prove the point, Mathers created his own system of attributions combining numerology, Qabalah, and astrology. It was this system he taught to his followers in an upper-class mystical society that he jointly founded, which rejoiced in the high-flown title of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Consequently, Mathers' theories are now known as the Golden Dawn system of attributions, and in the main, these attributions have been followed throughout this book.

There were two further significant Tarot developments, both of which were instigated by Golden Dawn members. The first was the creation of a fully illustrated Tarot deck by Arthur Edward Waite (1857–1942) with the assistance of Pamela Coleman Smith (d. 1951). This deck was published in 1909. The second development was an elaboration of the Mathers method that culminated in the creation of the Thoth Tarot deck, illustrated by Lady Frieda Harris (1877–1962). This latter deck was the brainchild of a former pupil of Mathers, who, with characteristic modesty, regarded himself as superior to all other occult thinkers living or dead. This was, of course, the man who relished describing himself as "The Great Beast," Aleister Crowley (1875–1947).

Without being judgmental in any way, I have endeavored to include the views of de Gébelin, Levi, Mathers, Waite, and Crowley, in addition to those of more modern commentators, without too much unnecessary comment as to their relative merits.

The Known Facts

When all is said and done, all the ideas and speculations (worthy or otherwise) put forward by the notable occult intellectuals since the 18th century add nothing to our knowledge of the true origin of the cards. What we do know is that, at some time during the first half of the 15th century (between AD 1420 and 1440), probably in Northern Italy, somebody devised the first recognizable set of 78 cards that we would call Tarot. There is no evidence whatsoever that the 22 cards of the Major Arcana originated in any other time or in any other place.

It was long believed that a certain alchemist named Jacques Gringonneur invented the cards to amuse his king, the mad Charles VI of France, in 1392; it was recorded that Gringonneur was paid to paint three decks by the royal accountant. Sixteen of the surviving Major Arcana cards and one Minor card are kept in the Bibliothèque National in Paris. These are called the "Charles VI" deck. However, the style of these cards suggests that they actually come from Northern Italy and were painted about a century after Gringonneur completed his commission. It is therefore likely that the cards that Jacques Gringonneur presented to his monarch were a set of Minor Arcana cards.

The 56 "small" cards apparently already existed, and they were familiar to gamblers and probably to fortune-tellers as well. The Minor Arcana cards had existed for at least a century and had a mystery and symbolism all of their own (see chapter 5 in this book, "The Four Grail Hallows"). The Minor cards with their four suits are still in daily use, having evolved into the familiar modern playing card deck.

The addition of 22 "special" cards then known as "Trionfi" or Triumphs, which did not belong to any suit, mark the Tarot as being unusual to say the least. These Triumphs, which we now know as "Trumps," were used in a game similar to Bridge, where they outranked all other cards. This was the game of Triumphs, which caught on among the upper classes, initially in Italy and France, later spreading to Sicily, Austria, and the German states as far north as the Netherlands. The lower classes may also have used the cards, but the pastimes of the ordinary folk were not regarded as being important and therefore tended to go unrecorded. What we are left with are various vague, incomplete references, usually from monkish sources.

The very first reference to cards of any sort was, unsurprisingly, written by a monk named Johannes of Brefeld in the middle of the 1300s. Johannes said that the game of cards had images of kings and knights, and was played far too often for the piety of the people. However, in 1377, Johannes Von Rheinfelden of Switzerland wrote that playing cards describe the state of the world and are valuable tools for the education of morals.

In 1450, the Duke of Milan, Francesco Sforza, wrote a letter in which he specifically mentions both triumph cards and playing cards, clearly distinguishing between them. Duke Francesco purchased one of the surviving early Tarot decks that had been painted by Bonifacio Bembo. This is significant, because the Sforza family figures in a compelling theory of the origins of the cards that is given at the end of this chapter.

During the Congress of Mantua in 1459, a strange deck of cards was made for no less a personage than Pope Pius II and two cardinals, for a pastime called "The Game of the Governance of the World." These cards have been ascribed to the Renaissance artist Andrea Mantegna. However, although these are regarded as a Tarot deck, they are not the deck with which we are familiar. They comprised 50 symbolic cards that were divided into ranks; many of the images are very similar to those found in the classic Tarot deck.

The first of these ranks is called the "Estates of Man." The lowest card is the Beggar, which is very similar to the Fool, there follows the Servant, the Artisan (the Magician), the Merchant, the Gentleman, the Knight, the Duke, the King, the Emperor, and the Pope. The latter two are indistinguishable from conventional Tarot designs of the period, while the Servant and the King resemble their equivalents in the Minor Arcana. The Knight, however, bears no similarity to other Tarot knights.

The rank above humanity consists of classical images of the nine Muses, goddesses of inspiration, and Apollo, who was the god of poetry and prophecy. Above them are images representing the liberal arts and sciences. These are Grammar, Logic, Rhetoric, Geometry, Arithmetic, Music, Astrology, Poetry, Philosophy, and Theology. There follow the Christian Virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity, and the so-called Classical Virtues of Strength, Justice, Temperance, and Prudence, together with the spirits of the Sun, the Cosmos, and Time. Some of these images are also found in the conventional Tarot deck. The final and highest rank is that of the Celestial Spheres, with the seven planets, the Stars, the Prime Mover (or moment of creation), and the First Cause, God himself.

Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa wrote of the Mantegna cards "This game is not played in a childish way, but as the Holy Wisdom played it for God at the beginning of the World." By 1482, attitudes to the cards were somewhat less spiritual, because the less than aptly named Lorenzo Spirito wrote a book on fortune telling based on 20 questions arranged around a wheel of fortune. Lorenzo refers to 20 "kings" or major cards and the use of a dice, which can give 56 answers. It may be significant that 56 is the number of cards in the Minor Arcana.

Other books on fortune telling appeared in Mainz and Basle in 1510, while the poet Pietro Aretino (1492–1556) in his "Dialogues" (1525) makes many references to the Tarot. One special reference is that "They reveal the secrets of nature, the reason for things, and explain the causes why day is driven out by night and night by day."

The Cards and the Cosmos

Both Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa and Pietro Aretino were of the opinion that the cards explained things. It is certain that Nicholas of Cusa thought of the Mantegna cards as a kind of map of the universe and of man's place within it, and this manner of symbolic logic can be applied to the Tarot.

It has been pointed out that each of the Major cards when taken in turn can symbolically "trump" or triumph over the card that precedes it. So if we begin with the Fool, then folly is trumped by knowledge symbolized by the Magician or Juggler. In turn, knowledge is trumped by wisdom (the Priestess), however her cold virginity is no match for the fertility of the Empress. The female power of the Empress is defeated by the (admittedly a sexist view) masculinity of the Emperor, whose worldly power must bow before the spiritual authority of the Pope or Hierophant. Even his faith cannot stand in the way of love (the Lovers), but war, symbolized by the Chariot, can part even the most devoted couple. The conquering hero of the Chariot can likewise be overcome by Strength, and even Strength may fade with time at the onset of old age shown as the Hermit. Yet young or old, strong or weak, wise or foolish, all on this earth are under the sway of the Wheel of Fortune. This sequence of cards completes the "earthly" part of the Tarot.

All of the above might have been found in the pious Mantegna Tarot, which would have earned the approval of Nicholas of Cusa. However, now the cards take a darker turn and instead of ascending ever upward to the divine, the next "rank" lead us firstly into the depths of hell, only then to rise into the celestial regions of heaven.

The story is taken up again with the divine Justice, which is above the vagaries of Fortune. However, Justice has a harsh side and can condemn to punishment for crimes, as shown by the Hanged Man. The result of his predicament is usually Death, but even Death can be overcome by divine mercy, as shown by Temperance. However, even Temperance can be lured into temptation by the wiles of the Devil. But the Devil himself once fell from Heaven, even as Nimrod did from his Tower, so he is no longer among the Stars. The brilliance of the Stars is outshone by that of the Moon, which in turn is outshone by the glory of the Sun. Yet even the Sun's splendor is nothing as compared to the wonder of the glorious day of resurrection shown by Judgement or the Angel.

Now we arrive at the problem with this way of looking at the Trump cards. If this sequence is correct, then what trumps the Angel? Does the World card represent God? After all God is at the very top of the tree, so to speak, so does the highest card represent the All Highest? If so, then this is neither the God of Abraham nor the wise old man seated on a cloud in glory that is such a common image. Instead, a naked young woman dances within a victory wreath, surrounded by symbolic images representing the four directions, the four fixed signs of the zodiac, the four elements, the four seasons, and endless other symbolic fours. However, in a sermon delivered at some time toward the end of the 15th century, this view seems to be endorsed by a certain Reverend Steele, who referred to the card as "The World, that is, God the Father."


Excerpted from Tarot Mysteries by Jonathan Dee. Copyright © 2016 Estate of Jonathan Dee. Excerpted by permission of Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Part 1 The Mystery of the Tarot Cards

1 What Are Tarot Cards? 3

2 The History of the Tarot 5

3 The Holy Qabalah 19

4 The Major Arcana and the Zodiac 45

5 The Four Grail Hallows 53

Part 2 The Minor Arcana of the Tarot

6 About the Minor Arcana 71

7 The Suit of Wands 81

8 The Suit of Coins 103

9 The Suit of Swords 125

10 The Suit of Cups 147

11 The Court Cards-The Suit of Wands 169

12 The Court Cards-The Suit of Coins 181

13 The Court Cards-The Suit of Swords 191

14 The Court Cards-The Suit of Cups 201

Part 3 The Major Arcana

15 About the Major Arcana 213

0 The Tool 215

I The Magician 219

II The High Priestess 223

III The Empress 227

IV The Emperor 231

V The Hierophant 235

VI The Lovers 239

VII The Chariot 243

VIII Strength 247

IX The Hermit 251

X The Wheel of Fortune 255

XI Justice 259

XII The Hanged Man 263

XIII Death 267

XIV Temperance 271

XV The Devil 275

XVI The Tower 279

XVII The Star 283

XVIII The Moon 287

XIX The Sun 291

XX Judgement 295

XXI The World 299

Part 4 The Art of Reading the Tarot

16 Reading the Cards 305

17 Basic Tarot Spreads 309

18 Answering Questions 319

Conclusion 323

About the Author 325

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