“Tarot contains and expresses any doctrine to be found in our consciousness, and in this sense it has definiteness. It represents Nature in all the richness of its infinite possibilities, and there is in it as in Nature, not one but all potential meanings. And these meanings are fluent and ever-changing, so the Tarot cannot be specifically this or that, for it ever moves and yet is ever the same.” P. D. Ouspensky, Russian mathematician and occultist, author of ‘The Symbolism of the Tarot’ (1913)
Tarot is a system that holds archetypes, such as the Fool, the Magician and the High Priestess. These archetypes help us to find our own reflection within the cards. We all have these archetypes within us. In this way, Tarot is transformational, allowing us to see the alchemy of ourselves. Tarot allows us to get past all the barriers we put up that prevent us from seeing the path of least resistance. That’s what the cards are meant to do. The whole process of divination, in fact, is one that allows us to access the energy of who we are, without having ourselves get in the way. Tarot enables a direct connection to the spirit, to the divine, to whatever we want to call those forces that work both within and along with us. It’s a practice that lets us listen to our inner voice, the intuitive self.
“Centuries of visionary exploration and thousands of creative hands – by mystics and artists often working in collaboration – have continually transformed Tarot’s symbolic meanings. Through this near-constant transmutation, Tarot has remained relevant since the Renaissance, and possibly longer, adapting to the moods of culture and history. Today, Tarot is embraced not so much as a method of telling the future, but rather as a creative muse, supporting meditative, therapeutic, and artistic pursuits. It has evolved into both a tool for self-exploration and a guide for inner growth. Like all esoteric traditions, the Tarot is mutable and elastic, allowing each new generation to rediscover and, ultimately, rework its classic structure and iconography.” Tarot, the library of esoterica, p. 12-13
History of Tarot
The exact origins of Tarot are unknown. The oldest existing decks date back to the 1400s and were created in Italy. Some say that Tarot originated from card games played in the Middle East. Others point out that the symbolism in Tarot cards can be traced back to ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. As the Egyptian god of wisdom and the occult, Toth was believed to possess the power to measure time and tell fortunes. The Book of Toth, said to be written by the God himself, was thought to contain the secrets to all esoteric knowledge. French occultist Antoine Court de Gébelin, claimed that the Book of Toth “divided into 78 sheets or pictures, is in a word, the game of Tarot”. In Tarot we see symbolism from ancient Egypt, Greek and Roman mythology, narratives from the Middle East, Hebrew teachings and Christian mysticism. Most researchers on Tarot seem to agree that Tarot was used as a card playing game in Italy in the early 1400s. It soon became a storytelling game and later a practice of divination. In the 1700s Tarot established itself as an occult spiritual practice.
The Rider-Waite / Smith-Waite deck was published in 1910 and still heavily influences modern Tarot. Modern Tarot decks are often based on this deck. The deck was created by Pamela Colman Smith and Arthur Edward Waite. They were both members of The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a secret society devoted to the study of ceremonial magic, astrology, the occult and the paranormal (established in England in the late 1800s). Smith, a young black woman, did the artwork on the deck and channeled her visions in her art (The Golden Dawn was one of the first secret societies to allow women). The artwork was also greatly influenced by Waite’s interest in Christian symbolism, Waite was a scholar researching several esoteric traditions.
“Note the dress, the type of face; see if you can trace the character in the face; note the pose… First watch the simple forms of joy, of fear, of sorrow; look at the position taken by the whole body… After you have found how to tell a simple story, put in more details… Learn from everything, see everything, and above all feel everything! … Find eyes within, look for the door into the unknown country.” Pamela Colman Smith, 1908
One of the key elements in the translation of modern Tarot is the understanding of the cards as a mirror. How do you see the specific card and what are you seeing there? What is particularly resonant to you? Fortune-tellers and occultists of old believed that each Tarot card held a strictly defined meaning and that these definitions held true, no matter to whom the readings were directed. Often these interpretations offered only simplistic “good” and “bad” aspects assigned to each card. The Sun card, for example, was understood as a positive image, a depiction of happiness and contentment, while the Moon was considered a negative card connoting instability, hidden enemies and danger. These definitions gradually evolved in the early 20th century, changing most drastically with the 1910 publication of the Tarot cards of Waite and Smith.
The imagery and definitions of Waite and Smith’s Tarot are like picture puzzles, where each of us can find our own meaning and resonance. A mindful reading of Tarot imagery helps us to discover and understand the ways in which our personal point of view is specific, unique and important. In this way, Tarot is a wonderful tool for both personal awareness and creative inspiration. The imagery and symbology of Tarot may appear the same for everybody. Each of us, however, sees and recognizes them in a very personal way. The mindful perception of the Tarot pictures helps us to discover and to understand in which way the personal point of view is specific, different and important. The cards reflect personal meanings. The reader brings personal attributions to the cards. The cards also reflect your general point and style of view. Tarot becomes a mirror, allowing us to see and understand more about ourselves.
The cards on this page are from the Serpentfire Tarot Deck (The Devil), the Smith Waite Tarot deck (The World) and the Spolia Tarot deck (Death).