The Ancient Art of the Tarot

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The History of the Tarot: General Background

The Magus, from the Thoth Deck
(Aleister Crowley & Lady Frieda Harris, courtesy O.T.O.)

The Tarot is a deck of 78 cards consisting of two parts, the Greater or Major Arcana and the Lesser or Minor Arcana. The word arcanum means a secret; what is hidden. It was first applied to the Tarot by the 19th century French occultist Paul Christian, but it was only in 1888 that the astrologer Ély Star used the terms Major Arcana and Minor Arcana to differentiate the two main sections of the Tarot. Papus also employed these terms, and it was through the works of Papus that they gained their current popularity.

The Greater Arcana, also known as the trumps or atouts or keys, are 22 picture cards. Each trump is a full-length scene that usually contains a human figure, or figures. In popular modern versions of the Tarot, which are based either directly or indirectly on the Tarot of Marseilles, two of the trumps, the Moon and the Wheel of Fortune, do not depict human figures, and some of the figures, such as those on the trumps Death and the Devil, are humanoid rather than human. However, in general it may be observed that the Greater Arcana shows humanity functioning on the stage of the universe.

Each trump bears a name and a number. The exceptions in the Marseilles Tarot, which is the standard traditional Tarot, are the trump the Fool, which has no number, and the trump Death, which has no name. In more modern versions of the Tarot, the Fool has been given the number zero, and the title "Death" has been added to the Death trump.
The images of the trumps are laden with significant symbolism. The figures depicted are archetypal. Each trump carries an entire set of complex, subtle interpretations and esoteric correspondences.

The Lesser Arcana are 56 cards in four suits that resemble the suits of ordinary playing cards. Each suit of 14 minor or small cards has number cards from one to ten, and four court cards instead of the three found in playing card decks. Playing cards contain the court cards King, Queen and Knave (Jack) in each suit -- Tarot cards contain the court cards King, Queen, Knight and Page in each suit. The Page is equivalent to the Knave.
How the fourth court figure of the Knight found its way into the common pack of early Italian playing cards that constitutes the Minor Arcana of the Tarot is not known with certainty. In the early stages of the evolution of the Tarot, a form was developed that had six court cards in each suit - three male figures and three equivalent female figures, the King and Queen, Knight and Dame, Page and Maid. It has been conjectured that the present four court figures in each suit represent, not the addition of a single court card to each suit, but the elimination of two court cards from this expanded version of the Tarot, which never gained in popularity.

The six court figures in each suit are to be found in the Cary-Yale Visconti Tarocchi Deck published by US Games. This 15th century Italian deck is one of the hand-painted Visconti-Sforza Tarot decks that may well mark the very origins of the Tarot.
The suit names of the Minor Arcana are Rods or Wands, Cups or Chalices, Swords or Daggers, and Disks or Pentacles. The suit symbol for Rods is a wooden staff, which is of various shapes and lengths in different decks. The symbol for Cups is a goblet of various shapes. The symbol for Swords is a sword, usually but not always short with a triangular blade. The symbol for Disks is a coin, or a circular disk with a design of some sort, such as a pentagram, marked upon it. These suit symbols confirm that the Lesser Arcana of the Tarot had its beginnings in ordinary playing cards, because early packs of Italian playing cards contain the same suit symbols.

In the Marseilles Tarot, neither a name nor a number appears on the number cards, which are distinguished by multiples of the suit emblem -- for example, the Ten of Swords shows ten swords with their blades woven together. Later Tarots have added the name and number to the number cards.

The court cards of each suit are distinguished both by a name, and by the emblem for the suit which is either held by the court figure on the card, or appears near the court figure. The Kings and Queens are depicted seating on thrones, the Knights are mounted upon horseback, and the Pages stand. Unlike the court figures of ordinary playing cards, which are shown from the waist up, and are reflected on the bottom halves of the cards, the figures on the Tarot are almost always full-length.

Various exotic and distant origins have been postulated for the Tarot. One popular theory during the early 20th century, which is still widely accepted today, is that the prototypes for the Tarot designs were carried out of India by the ancestors of the European Gypsies, and used by them for fortune-telling during their travels. Another very popular notion among occultists of the 19th century, such as Paul Christian, Eliphas Levi, Papus, and Oswald Wirth, is that the Tarot designs originated in ancient Egypt, and were carried out of Egypt by Gypsies as they traveled through the Nile valley.

Neither of these opinions has any evidence to support it. The earliest true Tarot decks were first observed in northern Italy around the middle of the 15th century, and there can be little doubt that the images on the trumps of the Tarot were invented by Italian artists working under the influence of the medieval emblem tradition during the Italian Renaissance. The medieval practice of symbolically representing ideas with images was fused with the symbolic images of gods, mythical beasts, virtues, graces, fates, and so on derived from the revival of classical Greek and Roman art and writing.

Ordinary European playing cards are half a century older than the Tarot, and took their inspiration from Saracen card decks carried into Europe from the East during the Crusades. The earliest conjectured date for the passage of playing cards into Europe from the Islamic world is 1360. The beginnings of the Tarot have been fixed at no earlier than 1410, and more probably should be dated around 1425.

The Tarot did not spring to life in its mature form, like the goddess Athene from the forehead of Zeus. It evolved over time, although its evolution was surprisingly rapid. One early version, called the Minchiatte Tarot, contains 97 cards instead of 78. A Minchiatte deck has the cards of the regular Tarot (some in a greatly modified form), with the addition of trumps to represent the four virtues (Justice, Fortitude, Temperance and Prudence), the four elements (Fire, Water, Air and Earth), and the twelve zodiac signs. The trump The Pope has been removed from the atouts to avoid irritating the Catholic Church. Other Tarocchi decks contain less than 78 cards -- this reduction is usually achieved by removing some of the number cards from each suit. Even some older decks that have the usual number of cards have different images for some of the trumps, or arrange the trumps in an unconventional order.

Given this variety in the early evolution of the Tarot, it is surprising that the form we know and use today was fully realized in northern Italy by the middle of the fifteenth century. The deck that demonstrates this perfection of the structure of the Tarot has been republished under the title Visconti-Sforza Tarocchi Deck by US Games. The date of this Italian deck cannot be fixed with absolute certainty, but it was created for the wealthy Visconti family, perhaps as a celebration of the ascent in 1450 of Francesco Sforza to the ducal crown of Milan.

What is usually considered by occultists to be the correct form of the traditional Tarot is the French version commonly called the Tarot of Marseilles. The city of Marseilles was renowned for the large number of card makers who worked within its boundaries, and around the year 1930 the name of the city became attached to the traditional Tarot. The French Tarot was the first to fix the order of the trumps by printing the numbers of the trumps directly on the cards. The earliest surviving Tarot that shows numbered trumps was published by Catelin Geofroy in 1557. Prior to this innovation, the trumps contained only pictures. Their numbering and order was a matter of oral tradition. In the Marseilles deck the Fool, which as I mentioned above is not numbered, is located between trumps XX and XXI. Roman numerals were always used to number the older decks. Below are the names and numbers of the trumps in the Marseilles Tarot:

I - Le Bateleur (The Juggler)
II - La Papesse (The Female Pope)
III - L'Imperatrice (The Empress)
IV - L'Empereur (The Emperor)
V - Le Pape (The Pope)
VI - L'Amoureux (The Lovers)
VII - Le Chariot (The Chariot)
VIII - La Justice (Justice)
IX - L'Hermite (The Hermit)
X - La Roue de Fortune (The Wheel of Fortune)
XI - La Force (Strength)
XII - Le Pendu (The Hanged Man)
XIII - unnamed; in later decks La Mort (Death)
XIV - Temperance (Temperance)
XV - Le Diable (The Devil)
XVI - La Maison Dieu (The House of God)
XVII - L'Etoile (The Star)
XVIII - La Lune (The Moon)
XIX - Le Soleil (The Sun)
XX - Le Jugement (Judgement)
-- Le Mat (The Fool)
XXI - Le Monde (The World)

Why the Fool was placed second-last in the sequence of the trumps, or who first put it there, is unknown, but this location for the Fool was described by Eliphas Levi, Paul Christian, and other French and English occultists of the 19th century, and it became the traditional location for this card, even though no one pretended to know why this should be. Aleister Crowley and A. E. Waite both considered this location of the Fool absurd.

It is my own belief that it stems from a mistaken interpretation of the numbering of the Tarot cards that was employed by Etteilla, a seed merchant and cartomancer who real name was Jean-Baptiste Alliette (1738-91). Etteilla designed his own Tarot deck, first published in 1789 (though dated 1788), and numbered all of its cards in order, beginning with the trumps and proceeding to the suit cards. However, since his Fool bore no number at all, and did not even occupy a numbered place in the sequence, the cards were numbered from one to seventy-seven, not seventy-eight. Etteilla placed his Fool at the end of the trumps - that is to say, between card 21, the final trump before the Fool, and card 22, the first of the suit cards. My guess is that somehow or other, when the Fool acquired a numbered position in the sequence of trumps in later Tarot decks, though still without bearing a number itself, or bearing the non-number zero, it was placed, after the practice of Etteilla, just before the 22nd card, which due to the numbered position occupied by the Fool became the final trump.

The French occultists who were centered around the teachings of Eliphas Levi experimented with placing the Fool both at the beginning and at the end of the sequence of trumps, as well as in its traditional position, so that for some of them, such as Papus (Gerard Encausse) the Fool had three simultaneous positions! The English Rosicrucian society known as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, founded in 1887, assigned the Fool the numerical value of zero and firmly located it at the beginning of the trumps.
The leader of the Golden Dawn, George Samuel Liddell "MacGregor" Mathers, adopted the practice of Levi of assigning the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet in order to the 22 Tarot trumps, but because the Fool was moved from the end of the trumps (its usual place when this assignment of Hebrew letters was made by the French occultists) to the beginning, the association between the trumps and letters was displaced by one letter. For example, under Levi the trump Le Bateleur (The Juggler) received the first Hebrew letter, Aleph. Under Mathers the Fool received the first letter, Aleph, and the Juggler received the second Hebrew letter, Beth. And so on.

The link between the Hebrew letters and the trumps did not originate with Levi,
but was suggested in 1781 in the eighth volume of the work Le Monde Primitif by Court de Gébelin (1728-84). Court de Gébelin was also the source for the myth of the Egyptian origins of the Tarot, and of their supposed connection with the Gypsies.

Under the influence of the Golden Dawn several of the names for the Marseilles trumps were modified slightly. The Golden Dawn sequence and names for the trumps, below, is as close to a modern standard as presently exists.

Trump Name
Planet &/or
Zodiac Sign
The Fool
The Magician
The High Priestess
The Moon
The Empress
The Emperor
the Ram
The Hierophant
the Bull
The Lovers
the Twins
The Chariot
the Crab

(Crowley's Thoth Deck).

*All other decks call this card,

the Balance
The Hermit
the Virgin

(Crowley's Thoth Deck).

*All other decks call this card,
"The Wheel of Fortune."


(Crowley's Thoth Deck).

*All other decks call this card,

the Lion
The Hanged Man
the Scorpion

(Crowley's Thoth Deck).

*All other decks call this card,

the Archer
The Devil
the Goat
The Tower
The Star
the Water Bearer
The Moon
the Fish
The Sun
The Sun
The Aeon*

(Crowley's Thoth Deck).

*All other decks call this card,
"The World."

Spirit / Fire
The Universe*

(Crowley's Thoth Deck).

*All other decks call this card,

Saturn - Earth

Apart from the placement and numbering of the Fool, the most significant change made by Mathers to the trumps was the counterchange in the numbers and locations of the trumps Justice and Strength. Traditionally, Justice is numbered eight and Strength eleven. Mathers numbered Justice eleven and Strength eight, and exchanged the places of these cards in the sequence of the Major Arcana.

This change was adopted by many modern Tarot designers, some of whom probably did not even know why the change was made. The rationale for the counterchange of these trumps lies in the zodiac signs assigned to each in the system of occult associations used by the Golden Dawn. In that system, which is too complex to explain here, the trump numbered eight is linked with the sign Leo and the trump numbered eleven is linked with the sign Libra. Obviously Leo is a more appropriate sign for the trump Strength, which illustrates a woman holding in her hands the jaws of a lion, and Libra is a more appropriate sign for the trump Justice, which shows a woman holding a set of scales (the symbol of Leo is the lion, the symbol of Libra is the scales).

Most modern Tarot decks use the Golden Dawn arrangement for the trumps, or aspects of it. This is because several of the most important Tarot designers, such as Aleister Crowley, Arthur Edward Waite, and Paul Foster Case, were intimately connected with the Golden Dawn. Even though the original Golden Dawn cards, painted by Mathers' wife, have been lost (or lie hidden in some unknown private collection), and are known only in the form of textual descriptions and modern re-creations, the deck exerted a profound influence thanks to the decks based upon its principles that were created by former Golden Dawn members.

The most popular modern Tarot deck is the 1910 Rider pack, sometimes known as the Waite Tarot or the Rider-Waite Tarot. It was designed by former Golden Dawn member A. E. Waite (1857-1940) and illustrated by the artist Pamela Colman Smith (1878-1951), who was one of Waite's followers after he left the Golden Dawn to create his own occult society. It is called the Rider pack because it was first published by Rider and Company, Waite's book publisher.

Waite adhered to the Golden Dawn practice of numbering the Fool zero, although for some inexplicable reason he did not place the Fool at the beginning of the trumps, but in its traditional position between Judgement and the World. Waite also numbered Justice eleven and Strength eight, in imitation of the Golden Dawn practice, but in his explanatory book The Key to the Tarot he refused to give his readers any justification for this change. As a result of these and other peculiarities, Waite's Tarot is a curiously awkward amalgam of tradition and the Golden Dawn system.

What made Waite's deck so popular was his practice of placing on each of the forty number cards a picture that portrays a scene expressing the meaning of the card. Before Waite's Tarot, the number cards almost always contained multiples of the suit symbol. For example, the Three of Swords shows three swords on the Marseilles card, but Waite's card shows a heart pierced by three swords, with storm clouds raining in the background. A small number of older Tarots put pictures on the number cards, but this practice was quite uncommon.

The Tarot has for centuries been used both for gaming and for divination. There is no question that it was originally designed in the 15th century for purposes of gaming. Those who played the game of Tarot attached no explicit esoteric significance to the cards. However, it is difficult to believe that they could have avoided speculation about the meanings of the enigmatic images on the trumps. The Tarot cards first begin to be used for telling the future at the end of the 18th century. Divination is certainly the more fascinating use for the Tarot, even if it is not the oldest. When Tarot cards are placed in groups and patterns, the complexity of their meaning is multiplied and takes on specific interpretations that can be applied to situations in life.

Tarot divination is done by laying out a certain number of randomly selected cards in a pre-established pattern. The pattern of cards formed during a divination is known as a spread. Numerous popular spreads are used in divination. Each individual card has an entire set of base meanings. Which of these applies is determined by the nature of the question. Groups of cards also have traditional meanings when they occur in divination.
Prior to the Golden Dawn, the meanings for each Tarot card sometimes seemed arbitrary or contradictory. These meanings were derived from tradition and seldom questioned by Tarot diviners. The Golden Dawn applied an entire esoteric structure to the Tarot, with the result that the interpretations for the cards became much more consistent and rational. Under the Golden Dawn system there is a justification for asserting that a particular card carries a particular meaning.

The meanings for the trumps in the Golden Dawn system are largely based upon their correspondences with the 22 Hebrew letters, and the esoteric meanings for the letters; with the 12 zodiac signs, 7 traditional astrological planets and 3 active elemental principles that are associated with the Hebrew letters; and with the 22 paths or channels on a complex Kabbalistic symbol known as the Tree of the Sephiroth or the Tree of Life. The paths on the Tree connect ten spheres representing the numbers from one to ten -- each path is assigned a Hebrew letter and a Tarot trump in the Golden Dawn system.

At first consideration, the Tarot appears to be a plaything for children. It is only when we examine it at length with a receptive mind that its incredible richness of meaning begins to reveal itself. To truly understand the Tarot requires many years of intense study. No one can ever claim to have completely mastered it. In some respects, the Tarot is like the game of chess, which has only a simple board of 64 squares, and a limited number of pieces that move in very circumscribed ways, yet is so incredibly complex that the human mind is incapable of containing all its intricacies.

The Tarot enables a human being to sound the depths of his or her psyche. Every conception and impulse and emotion that can be held in the conscious or subconscious may be formulated by combinations of Tarot cards. The Tarot acts as a kind of mirror for the mind. It allows hidden psychic currents to express themselves to our awareness. Its potential for psychoanalysis has not yet even begun to be explored. Jung, who was so fascinated by dream archetypes and alchemical symbolism, largely overlooked the Tarot.

In addition to opening a window on our psyches, and revealing through divination secret and future matters, the Tarot can be used in practical ritual magic as a set of doorways for astral travel, and as the basis for the creation of telesmatic images and talismans. As I suggested in my book New Millennium Magic, and elsewhere in my writings, it is even possible to construct from the Tarot itself an entire working ritual temple and complete set of ceremonial instruments.

The twelve trumps assigned to the twelve signs of the zodiac, when laid out on the floor of the ritual chamber, define the ritual circle. The four Aces represent the four elemental instruments used on top of the altar during ritual magic, and can be employed to project those elemental forces. The three trumps linked to the active elements, the Fool (Air), the Hanged Man (Water) and the Last Judgement (Fire) serve to cleanse the ritual circle by the higher potentials of these three elements. Using the Last Judgement to stand for the fifth element of Spirit or Light, this trump in conjunction with the Aces can define the points of the pentagram, by which the powers of the elements are invoked. Similarly, the seven trumps associated with the seven planets can be used to define the points and center of the hexagram, through which the planetary powers are invoked. The number cards may be used to call upon the powers of the Sephiroth and their angels, and the court cards may be employed to represent the permutations of Tetragrammaton. In a similar manner, all of the forms and objects of ritual magic are embodied in symbolic form in these seventy-eight cards.

The Tarot is the central tool of modern Western magic, and has no rival in importance with the possible exception of astrology.

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