Over the next few months I will be looking at the Tarot, its origins, the meaning of the cards and how to interpret them intuitively.
My first sight of the Tarot was on a programme called ‘Tales of the Unexpected’ in the 70’s. Each week there was a different macabre tale told, and at the beginning of the show a kind of lantern twirled around in the centre of the screen. The outside of the Lantern was covered in Tarot cards, and Death stared out in a menacing way! I was hooked! I searched high and low for a deck (no internet back then) and eventually found a second hand pack in a bookshop in Birmingham in 1977. I found I had a bit of a talent for reading them – 33 years later I am still reading (and still learning about) these amazing and fascinating cards.
No-one really knows the true origin of the Tarot, but in the middle of the fifteenth century, an artist called Bonifacio Bembo was asked to create a deck of un-named, un-numbered cards for the aristocratic Visconti family of Milan. He called his deck of cards ‘Tarocchi’; four suits of 15 cards each plus 22 cards which he called the ‘Trumps’
Many of the Trumps or “Major Arcana” (meaning the ‘greater secrets’) can be described as Archetypes of medieval life. Some show virtues such as “temperance” or “strength”. Others depict almost biblical scenes such as the “judgment” and “the Pope” with a few heretical cards thrown in for good measure – the “female pope’ for example. It has been said that every single aspect of human life, in every single combination, can be found within these cards. Can we really believe that Bembo was merely inventing a game for a rich family?
There are many significant parallels between the Tarot and the Qablah (the body of Jewish mysticism and occult knowledge) – for example, there are 22 numbers in the Jewish Alphabet and each one has its own symbolic interpretation – just like the Major Arcana. There are four letters in God’s name – YHVH which represent the four worlds of creation. 4 is a very sacred number – 4 seasons, 4 elements and 4 suits in the Tarot! The Qabalah also works with the number 10 – 10 commandments, 10 sephiroth – the minor Arcana are numbered 1 – 10.
Was the Tarot a sophisticated means of communication of the deeper secrets of life? Meaningless to the masses but of great significance to the few who were in ‘the know’? Was it a way to pictorially pass on these secrets without the risk of the written word?
For years, Tarot was seen as a gambling game (the fortune telling aspect was not their main focus). Then in the 18th Century, an occultist by the name of Antoine Court de Gebelin declared the Tarot to be derived from the Book of Thoth (the Egyptian God of Magic), which was created to convey his knowledge to his disciples – this wasn’t taken too seriously and then another Frenchman, (and occultist) Eliphas Levi, linked the cards to the Qabalah. Since then people seem to have read deeper and deeper into these fascinating cards. They pass on not only wisdom but through study these cards can lead to life-changing enlightenment.
The Tarot hasn’t changed much since Bembo’s day – there are still 4 suits (56 cards) of the Minor Arcana (cups, swords, coins or pentacles and clubs) and 22 Major Arcana. My first deck was the Swiss 1JJ deck. It was very hard to read – for example, the 6 of cups was simply depicted as 6 cups! All decks were like this until Waite decided to make things a bit easier in 1910.
He made all the Minor (or ‘pip’ cards) Pictorial. This made them much much easier to learn to read. He chose Pamela Coleman Smith as his artist. She produced the Iconic imagery shown on the cards today. Pamela makes use of the Qabalah connection in her beautiful imagery.
This deck caused a huge revolution in intuitive reading. Previously, once the meaning of, for example, the 4 of swords was memorised, there was not really much more you could add to it (I was lucky in that my guide would whisper deeper meanings but not everyone has that clear connection). By making the pip cards pictorial, Waite opened up the tarot to a much wider audience. By simply looking at the pictures and following a particular intuition, it was almost possible to throw the book away – and that’s how I am proposing to teach you how to read !!
Join me next month when we will be looking at the ‘journey’ of the Majors, and the intuitive interpretation of numbers 0 – 15.
© Sue Treanor 2011