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November 29, 2001

Tarot - Part 1

History of the Tarot


The actual history of the origin of the Tarot cards has truly been lost to the ravages of time. The earliest date attributed to the Tarot cards seen in European museums is 1390, though the actual origin of the cards is said to go back to the twelfth century.

There is also the school of thought that believes the Tarot to be of Egyptian and Babylonian origin. This idea was first put forth by a French archeologist, Count de Gebelin, during the years 1773-1782. Some say that even the name "Tarot" is derived from two Egyptian words: Tar, which means a path; and Ro or Ros, which means royal. The invention of the Tarot is sometimes attributed to Thoth, counselor to Osiris. He was the scribe of the Egyptian gods, measurer of time, inventor of numbers, and the god of wisdom and magic, who is often depicted having the head of the ibis. There are some very striking similarities between the initiation ceremonies for the Egyptian priesthood (from the Egyptian Book of the Dead) and the 22 cards of the Major Arcana.

The Gypsies say that the hidden knowledgeof the Tarot was originally brought by their people from Chaldea and Egypt into Israel and thence to Greece. It seems incontrovertable that there is some link between the Tarot and the Gypsies in their worldwide wanderings. The Gypsies did indeed roam through Europe at about the same time that the Tarot cards began to be used around the shores of the Mediterranean. It is also interesting to note that the Hungarian Gypsy's word for a pack of cards is "tar."

A study of the cards also discloses a close relationship to the Kabalistic lore of the ancient Hebrews. Sometime during 1856-1861, Eliphas Levi wrote a book entitled The Doctrine and Ritual of Transcendental Magic. In this book Levi associated he twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet to the twenty-two cards of the Major Arcana. The Tree of Life is composed of ten pillars of Sepiroth, which are connected by 22 paths. Each pillar has a number, title, cosmic sound, symbol, and much more lore associated with it. This is the one to ten that each card (Major and Minor Arcana) can be reduced to, in accordance with traditional numerology. The 22 paths, with their Hebrew alphabet correspondences, refer to the 22 Major Arcana.


Tarot Decks


The most common deck today is the Rider-Waite deck. This deck was created by an English member of the Golden Dawn, Arthur Edward Waite, and drawn by artist Pamela Colman Smith. If you look in the bottom right corner of the cards, you will see the initials "PCS," which is the signature of the artist. This deck was issued in 1911 and is now published by Rider - hence the name "Rider-Waite."

Another deck which is rich in symbolism, and a favorite of mine, is the Crowley Deck. Aliester Crowley was also a member of the Golden Dawn, who eventually broke from them to head the British section of the Ordo Templi Orientis, more commonly known as the O.T.O. The biographies of Crowley are somewhat mixed. The biographies are polarized into either pro-Crowley or anti-Crowley camps, and tout him as either a Supreme Prophet of The New Order or The Beast (a name bestowed on him by his own mother!). He was infamous for scandalizing society and led a very flamboyant and fabled life (1875-1947). The Tarot deck he created used the Tree of Life as a sort of Dewey Decimal System for the cataloging of his vast knowledge of a number of occult systems. From rough sketches and verbal descriptions made by Crowley, Lady Frieda Harris painstakingly painted each card numerous times until Crowley was satisfied. Although The Book of Thoth was published in 1944, the deck that the book explained was not published until 1969. By then, both Crowley and Harris were both deceased. This deck is much more detailed and complicated than the Rider-Waite deck - which is why I prefer to use the Crowley deck.

There are schools of thought that believe that students should learn to read one of the Classic decks first, since they are so simplistic in their design. The Major Arcana are derived from "ancient woodcuts" that closely resemble the Marseille (French) and Varallo (Italian) packs. The Minor Arcana are simply representations of the number and suit. Some believe that the added symbolism on subsequent decks is distracting and misleading. I think that the added symbolism is a helpful mnemonic for the beginning student.

There are a number of "Tarot" decks available today. I have collected a number of decks and sometimes use multiple decks during a reading. Most of the decks are composed of 78 cards. The cards consist of 22 Major Arcana cards (The Emperor, The Wheel of Fortune, etc) and 56 Minor Arcana cards (Ace to Ten and "Court" cards - like a regular playing deck). One of the more unusual decks I have is the Poet's Tarot - which has unique art on the front and a small poem on the back. Beginners can present the image to the querent while reading the poem on the back. The combination of visual image and auditory image combines to give the meaning of the card to the querent.

In the more traditional decks, the 22 Major Arcana represent major life events and issues (lessons we want to learn in this incarnation) and the Minor Arcana point to more mundane issues and day-to-day challenges present in our lives. The Rider-Waite court cards are King, Queen, Prince and Page - which often represent the people in our lives. The Crowley court cards are Knight, Queen, Prince and Princess (also "people" cards). Crowley believed that the Queen should be matched up with the Knight (earned place) rather than the King (birthright). I find that the Crowley court cards are easier to correlate with people than the Rider-Waite court cards. (One of many reasons why I prefer the Crowley deck.)

Posted by BlueWolf on November 29, 2001 11:50 AM