Tarot 101, My Way – An Overview

Some of my followers have encouraged me to offer online tarot lessons. While I have no interest in getting into an interactive training arrangement, I don’t mind mentoring to the best of my ability. Last year I created some beginner’s instructional material for a face-to-face course that never happened. I’m going to present that material here in a series of posts, broken into chunks of reasonable size, and will be happy to answer any questions regarding it. Recognize that my early learning experience was heavily influenced by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Aleister Crowley and A.E. Waite by way of Eden Gray, so my heart is more in the esoteric tarot than in its mundane fortune-telling counterpart. While that focus has been toned down for neophytes, there are some core principles that I believe are central to the way tarot should be taught, so I have retained them. Today I’m going to cover background material. I’ve only read a couple of scholarly histories of the tarot (by Robert Place and Richard Cavendish) so my command of the pertinent facts is somewhat rudimentary, but it should be serviceable for the purpose.

What is the Tarot?

The 78-card tarot deck is best known as a system of cartomancy (fortune-telling or divination with cards). It is also recognized as an effective method for raising self-awareness through serious contemplation of the card images and meanings. Its most popular modern form has taken on the overtones of Jungian psychology, but we will treat it as a practical tool for developing situational awareness and developmental insights about life’s more mundane circumstances.

The deck consists of 22 “Major Arcana” or “trump” cards depicting archetypes and icons that were commonplace in medieval society; 16 “Court” cards portraying members of royalty from the same era; and 40 “Minor Arcana” cards numbered Ace through Ten, usually seen as reflecting the experiences of everyday life.

The tarot first appeared in its present form in Italy in the early 14th Century, stemming from a card game that merged standard playing cards with the social, moral and religious principles embodied in the “trumps.” It migrated to France in the late 14th Century, where it flourished under the patronage of French royalty (and later French occultists) well into the 18th Century, and was eventually picked up as a subject of metaphysical study by British esoteric groups in the 19th Century. At the end of the 1960s  it experienced a resurgence of interest in the United States and elsewhere as the New Age dawned. Earlier assumptions that it originated in ancient Egypt have been discredited.

Several major deck designs are in use today. The Rider-Waite-Smith (or “RWS”) deck was developed in the early 1900s by British occultist Arthur Edward Waite and artist Pamela Colman Smith; it is the single most popular and most instantly recognizable deck in the world. Almost as influential is the Thoth deck completed in 1948 (but not published as cards until 1969) by another British occultist, Aleister Crowley, and the artist Frieda Harris. A much earlier French version known as the Tarot de Marseille (TdM) follows the Italian model and is favored by many traditional readers, while a fourth important variant – the Etteilla deck with its own unique style and system of interpretation – bridges the gap between the TdM and the RWS.

How does it work?

Many people think the message in the cards has a spiritual origin (guides, angels, or divine intervention). For some it is purely a product of the reader’s intuition. Still others use the cards to open a channel for psychic communication. We will approach it as an expression of the seeker’s subconscious or “inner” knowledge of the situations and circumstances that are the subject of the inquiry. The governing principle is assumed to be communion between the seeker and the cards, a form of “subconscious induction” that arranges the deck in a meaningful way via the acts of shuffling and cutting. In other words, the subconscious serves as a “conduit” delivering insights from a higher order of consciousness that take the form of a coherent narrative revealed in the series of cards.

The Structure of the Tarot: Suits and Elements

The 16 cards that comprise the tarot “Court” and the 40 “Minor Arcana” are organized in four suits that are reminiscent of playing cards. These suits are further enhanced by the assignment of the four “elements” of classical philosophy: Fire, Water, Air and Earth. The major structural differences between the two systems are that the tarot has four court cards in each suit compared to the three in standard playing card decks, and there is no Joker.

The tarot suit of Wands (also called Batons in older decks) is customarily assigned to the element of Fire and is related to the playing card suit of Clubs by most traditional writers. It represents action, initiative and enterprise.

The suit of Cups corresponds to the element of Water and the playing card suit of Hearts. It represents emotional matters and affairs of the heart.

The suit of Swords embodies the playing card suit of Spades and the element of Air. It often represents intellectual pursuits, decisions and difficulties.

The suit of Pentacles (also called Coins or Disks) is associated with the playing card suit of Diamonds and the element of Earth. It represents practical matters like money, material possessions and physical security.

When placed together in a spread, Fire and Air cards are mutually strengthened (“well-dignified”); Fire and Earth are neutral but mutually supportive; Fire and Water are mutually weakened (“ill-dignified”); Water and Earth are jointly strengthened, Water and Air are neutral but supportive; and Air and Earth are weakened when adjacent to one another. These are the basic precepts of an advanced technique known as Elemental Dignities; the important thing to remember at this point is that the cards interact with and modify one another in a fundamental way.

There have been attempts by numerous writers to reconfigure these suit assignments to fit their own vision of the tarot. You will no doubt encounter them as you continue your studies. The most common realignment puts Fire with Swords and Air with Wands, but an understanding of the intrinsic nature of the classical elements will make it clear that the usual arrangement is the most satisfying.

The four court cards of each suit are the King, Queen, Knight and Page in the typical “RWS” design. You will find the King, Knight and Page replaced by the Knight, Prince and Princess, respectively, in decks based on the Thoth system, while in older decks like the TdM the Page is titled Valet or Knave. The Queens are the one constant in all of the more popular deck hierarchies. The lowest (or least evolved but also least compromised) among the numbered cards is the Ace, corresponding to One, and the highest (or most developed but also most materially constrained) exponent of the suit is the Ten.

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