The universe shuffled in a deck of cards

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Thoughts on Tarot

    By Neither

    Published June 30, 2006 in Magick & Sorcery

    I have been fascinated by the Tarot most of my adult life, because of its mythology, symbolism, and aesthetic. The mythology surrounding the Tarot as a prophetic device having origins in pre-Egyptian history of course has a great allure. The symbolism encoded into the images of the older Tarot decks (and some carefully designed modern decks) provides a profound glimpse into the ancient understanding of human psychology which can at times be disconcerting. The images themselves, and their many variations, of course draw me in as an artist and lover of art.

    The long road I have taken in my study of Tarot has been an interesting one. Like many things, I began not with practice but with research, purchasing a number of modern texts on the subject and comparing and contrasting the varying sources I found. A great deal of debate surrounds the Tarot’s origins. The oldest know deck existed in the late 13th century, although when it does make its appearance in the writing of the day, it appears to have been around and in use as we know it for some time. Of course, the Tarot is the precursor to the modern playing cards, but how the transition was made is difficult to say. It is possible that the Major Arcana existed initially alone, and that in modern times cards based more on numerology and elements where added to the Tarot, or that the Tarot has existed as is for much of its existence, and that playing cards were derived from the Minor Arcana. Some claim that the Tarot was derived from ancient Egypt, though there is no real evidence of this being the case.

    The most compelling version of the Tarot origin I have come across suggests that the Tarot was designed during the conversion of the Roman Empire from Paganism to Christianity. The Christian Cult, under the Roman state, was for a time illegal, and therefore had to be practiced underground. In order to hide their practices, many symbols were borrowed from other religions to stand in for the Christian icons. Thus, Apollo was often used in place of Jesus, and many modern Christian holidays were directly from Pagan origins. When the Christians came into power, the Pagans did as the Christians before them, turning to the use of symbolism. The Tarot was one tool for this purpose, meant to relate a story or series of stories from ancient Pagan beliefs. Thus, when a keeper of the old ways was caught giving a lesson, they could simply say that they were “playing cards”. Looking at the cards themselves, we can see a number of ancient myths and fables represented. In fact, one could go as far as to suggest that, just as Christians have the Bible and the Muslims have the Koran, Pagans have the Tarot. The cards, placed in order, describe the cyclic evolution of the human spirit in the individual; from inception in to a fully aware and realized being.

    How the cards came to be used for divination is also rooted in the above theory. Much of Paganism has to do with the balance between opposing forces working in tandem. Thus, if a tool can tell stories of the past, then it can also suggest stories of the future.

    Personally, I do not see the Tarot as a divinatory tool. Instead, I see it as a means of unlocking information within our subconscious. The symbols represent psychological cues, from which a “reader” could pick up on themes to help discover this information. The mind, in my opinion, is like a computer, and, as demonstrated in some autistics, can comprehend and interpret patterns that our conscious awareness misses. Thus, the process of shuffling the cards can be influenced by the need and will of the person shuffling the cards. In the case of the Tarot; images that act as psychological triggers will appear at the top of the shuffle, perhaps even ordered in a discernable pattern.

    Most people know the answers to the questions they ask, and they only seek some verification. Thus “will my lover cheat” or “will I get that raise” has already been determined in the questioners mind, and they will place the cards in an order that will bring the relevant data to the attention of the reader.

    As for reading the cards; meanings should be based on intuitive understanding and experience, not just the “traditional” interpretations. While those interpretations may have some relevance; they are as effective as a newspaper horoscope (only loosely based on the art of astrology as they are). Tarot interpretations should be made on a case by case basis, and should largely come from the reaction to the image when it is presented. Thus, while the “Fool” will most often relate an impression of recklessness (its traditional meaning), it could also come to represent an actual person, or suggest a dream.

    Now, in reference to being prophetic, I see this property of the Tarot the same way I see all prophetic tools. In the science of Meteorology; the weather is predicted based upon a series of patterns; and provides a forecast based on the event with the highest probability of occurring. This is the same case with the Tarot; the questioner, as I have established, places the symbols in an order that will have some relevance to them. Based on that relevance, the “facts” of the issue will lead to a conclusion with the highest probability.

    Learning the Tarot need not be a long and arduous process. The method I have found most effective is to simply study one card at a time and to form your own book of meanings. I began with the cards in order, and, starting with the “Fool”, started a journal. I included the traditional meanings I had found most frequent in the books I read, and then simply added my impressions as I considered the card at my leisure for a 24 hour period. The entire Major Arcana should be approached this way. The Minor Arcana is based more on numerology and elemental realms of perspective, and thus a route memorization of the significance of the suit and the number has sufficed.

    Once I had a grasp of the individual cards, I began looking for groups to understand the patterns present; such as the duality of the soul presented in the “Lovers” which finally sees resolution after several transformations in “Judgment”. You will recognize shifts in figure position, the evolutions of the atouts from the Minor Arcana, and the reoccurrence of themes as you progress, all which influence the meaning of the cards. Understanding these connections between cards and the shifts of related symbols will allow you to see such patterns existent in formal readings.

    A variety of reading techniques are existent, with the most popular being the variant of the ten card “Celtic Wheel” lay-out. I have found that five, three, or even one card lay-outs have been just as effective as a full blown ten card lay-out, given the complexity or simplicity of the question or conflict. Reading takes practice, and should be approached in a scientific manner. Keep track of as many variables as possible; the time of day, the weather, the state of the person you are reading for, the presence of any other people, ect. Record the cards and the lay-out, as well as the impressions you and the questioner have. These notes will not only allow you to re-analyze the session at your leisure, but also allows you to see patterns between sessions that may reveal interpretations of the symbols unique to you.

    My study of the Tarot has lead me to collect a variety of books on the subject, which is something I suggest. In researching the Tarot, read from as many sources on the topic as possible, and continuously look into new suggestions and theories. Your working theory should never be finished or set, be continuously evolving. I also collect the Tarot sets themselves, based on either their value as historic reproductions, or their aesthetic appeal. By studying different interpretations of the symbols themselves, a great deal can be learned and added to your understanding.

    The Tarot is a therapeutic and meditative tool that has fascinated our society for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Each person brings to the Tarot a new and unique interpretation, and this is as it should be. The study of the Tarot can add a dimension of confidence and understanding to the experience of the occult for those who choose to take it up, and while its origins may be elusive, its influence and value cannot be denied.