Saturday, January 16, 2021

History of the Tarot

The origin of the Tarot cards is something of a mystery. Aleister Crowley believed their roots stretched back to the ancient Egyptians. The earliest definitive date of the cards' existence, however, is the year 1392.

The cards were originally used for gambling and as instructional tools for young people. No one knows with any certainty when or how they came to be used for divination purposes, but they have been used in this manner for over 100 years.

There are innumerable Tarot decks available. One of the most popular is the Rider-Waite deck. This deck was conceived by Golden Dawn mystic Arthur Edward Waite, and illustrated under his direction by artist Pamela Colman Smith in 1910. If you are new to the Tarot, this is an excellent deck to begin with, as its artwork and symbology are relatively clear and easy to understand.

Other decks that could be recommended for a beginner include the Aquarian deck, the Hanson-Roberts Tarot, and the Robin Wood deck, all of which are nicely illustrated and easy to read. There are also many "specialty" decks, usually based around a particular theme or topic. There's a Native American Tarot, a Witches' Tarot, and an Herbal Tarot, among others. Most Tarot decks contain 22 Major Arcana cards, and 14 cards each of four suits: Wands, Cups, Swords and Pentacles. These are known as the Minor Arcana, and contain Ace through 10, along with four court cards: Page, Knight, Queen and King. Some decks do vary from this setup, however. I can't really speak to decks I have not used, so the following brief reviews of Tarot decks are based only on those decks I have personally used.

    The Rider-Waite deck mentioned above is one I highly recommend. It reads easily, clearly, and although there is a great deal of mystical symbolism contained within it, you do not have to know it, or understand Golden Dawn precepts, in order to use the deck.

    The Herbal Tarot, by Michael Tierra and Candis Cantin, is very similar graphically to the Waite deck, but uses illustrations of herbs on each card. Each card is associated with a specific herb. Although I'm not sure I agree with all the associations, it is a very nice deck, also easy to read, and is especially useful for health questions; the properties of the herbs on the cards which show up (or the herbs themselves) usually will tell you what you need in terms of a health issue. Variations to the standard cards include replacing The Hanged Man with the Suspended Person; the Wheel of Fortune with the Medicine Wheel; and The Devil with Pan.

    The Motherpeace Round Tarot Deck, by Karen Vogel and Vicki Noble, brings a feminist perspective to the Tarot. The cards are very unusual, in that they are, indeed, round. They also contain many images of strong women, although there are some males represented as well. The Motherpeace cards substitute Discs for Pentacles, and use the following as Court cards: Son, Daughter, Priestess and Shaman. This is also a very rare deck in that women of color are represented here. Many of the figures represented are nude, so this may not be an appropriate deck for children. I have found this deck to be particularly useful for questions of a deep spiritual nature, and, of course, for readings for feminists.

    The Thoth Tarot Cards, also known as the Crowley deck, was invented by Aleister Crowley and illustrated by Frieda Harris. These cards have a great deal of symbolism, including Qabbalistic and astrological symbolism. Crowley uses Disks rather than Pentacles, and has substituted "Art" for "Temperance". He has also substituted Princesses for the Page cards. Numbered cards of the Minor Arcana contain keywords on the cards, i.e., The 10 of Disks is labeled "Wealth". Those familiar with Crowley would do well with this deck, as would those who understand the Qabballah. Others may find this deck difficult to read.

    The Voyager Tarot, by James Wanless and Ken Knutson, is a fabulously artistic deck. Made up of collages, it contains ancient and modern images and symbology. Keywords printed on the numbered cards help with interpretation, but this deck is also very attuned to the subconscious. Deviations from the "standard" in this deck include replacing Swords with Crystals and Pentacles with Worlds; replacing the standard Court cards with Man, Woman, Child and Sage; replacing The Fool with the Fool-Child, Wheel of Fortune with Fortune, Judgment with Time-Space, The Devil with Devil's Play, The World with Universe, Temperance with Art, and Strength with Balance. This is a very modern deck, and those with a strong unconscious and/or who appreciate art might do well with The Voyager Tarot. It is very heavy with many symbols, however, so it may be difficult to read for those who prefer simplicity.

    If you are an "Arthurian nut" as I am, I can't say enough about Legend: The Arthurian Tarot, by Anna-Marie Ferguson. The illustrations are quite beautiful, and if you know the Arthurian legends already, you can almost read the cards based on that knowledge alone. Each card is related to a character or story within the Arthurian landscape. For instance, The Magician is, of course, Merlin. The Moon is represented by Morgan le Fay. The Seven of Swords is associated with the story of "The Sword in the Stone". Changes in this deck include replacing The Devil with The Horned One (Cernunnos); The World with The Universe; the suit of Wands with Spears and the suit of Pentacles with Shields. If you know the old tales, this deck is for you.

    A very unusual deck is the Tarot of the Cat People, by Karen Kuykendall. The deck is set in a fantasy world known as The Outer Regions, within which are The Five Kingdoms (representing the Major Arcana and the four suits of Swords, Wands, Cups and Pentacles). All the inhabitants are cat lovers, and cats or their representation appear on every card. This deck also portrays people of color. This deck is pretty standard, with the exception of replacing Judgment with Rejuvenation. If you are into cats, or into a sci-fi sort of mindset, this deck could work well for you. I use it primarily for readings on cats, and it is excellent for that purpose.

    My current favorite deck is The Witches Tarot, by Ellen Cannon Reed and Martin Cannon. This should not be confused with another deck called "The Tarot of the Witches" (an ugly little deck, in my opinion). Although The Witches' Tarot is very steeped in The Qabballah (about which I know little), I find it to be a very literal, easy to read deck. However, I have known many people who have tried to read it and simply cannot. Men in particular seem to find it difficult to read. I have found it delightfully funny, straightforward, and accurate. Variations in this deck include replacing Pages with Princesses; The Hermit with The Seeker; The Devil with The Horned One; The Star with The Stars; and The World with The Universe. It's a beautifully illustrated deck (with one exception -- the Six of Swords does not seem to belong in this deck), but because there is a fair amount of nudity, it may not be appropriate for children.

In addition to Tarot decks, there are other card decks on the market which are not strictly speaking Tarot cards, but which may be of interest. There are the Phoenix Cards, which help you discover past lives; the Medicine Cards, which depict animal totems in a Native American tradition; the Sacred Path Cards, dealing with Native American traditions; and the Inner Child cards, which are modeled on the Tarot, but deal mostly with inner child issues (although they can be read like any Tarot deck).

Bear in mind that the above are my opinions and experiences, and you may have completely different experiences. This is just a brief review of a handful of decks I own and have used; there are many more out there, and the point is to find a deck that fits your experience, your knowledge, your feeling. Some decks may leap out at you; you may buy a deck, not connect with it, and find a couple of years down the road that, out of nowhere, you can read it. This has certainly happened with myself and others I know. Seek out what seems to resonate within you, the deck that speaks to you immediately. That will probably be the right deck for you to begin reading Tarot.

How to Read the Tarot

It is extremely difficult to explain to someone else how to read the Tarot. If you are just beginning, my best advice would be to do two things. First, read the booklet that comes with the cards to familiarize yourself with the basic meanings of the cards. Second, meditate on the cards, and see what each card says to you personally. I began by studying the booklets (and a book I bought), and looking up the meanings each time I did a Tarot spread (laid out the cards). Eventually, I knew the meanings well enough and did not need to look them up anymore. I then worked with my intuitive side to open up to the meanings in the cards, which sometimes gave me interpretations that were not in any book, but which were accurate.

You can, if you want, ignore the intended meanings and learn to read the Tarot based strictly on your intuition. If that is right for you, then go for it. However, I would strongly recommend learning the assigned meanings first; then you may ignore them later, when you have developed your reading skills sufficiently. I look at it as the same lesson I learned in Creative Writing class -- you have to know the basic rules of English before you can get creative and throw them out the window!

There are 78 cards in the Tarot, 22 Major Arcana, and the rest Minor Arcana. In general, the Major Arcana have to do with the major themes of life, and with outside influences. The High Priestess represents the spiritual, the intuitive, the magical. The Empress represents the Earth Mother, mothering in general, creativity. The Minor Arcana more often represent themes in daily life, i.e., the Six of Swords traditionally represents journeys by water, and the Ace of Pentacles a new beginning in a financial or other earthly matter.

Each suit is associated with different qualities. Usually, Wands are associated with the element of Fire (although some assign it to Air) and represent activity and energy. Swords are usually associated with Air (but some give Swords to the Fire element), and represent the mental plane, thought and communication. Cups represent Water, the feeling element, and intuition. Pentacles or Disks represent Earth and the physical plane.

If you are interested in numerology, the numbered cards have associations as well. I am not well-versed in numerology, but an example would be that fives represent stress and struggle, while twos deal with balance/imbalance issues.

When you do a Tarot spread, first look at the suits represented, and the Major Arcana. If a lot of Major Arcana cards show up, it's likely that the resolution of the question may not be in your hands, or that the issue is extremely major. If you get a lot of Wands, there is a great deal of energy and movement around the question. If you are reading for someone else and get a lot of Cups, you can bet it's an emotional and/or romantic question.

There are a lot of different ways to lay out the Tarot cards in a reading, but the most popular is known as the Celtic Cross. In this spread, the first card is laid down, the second card laid across the first, the third beneath the first, the fourth to the left of the first, the fifth card is placed above the first, and the sixth card is placed to the right of the first. To the right of this, a 7th card is placed in the lower right, the 8th above it, the 9th above it, ending with the 10th at the top of this straight vertical line. There are variations on what cards get laid down in which order, but this is the one I use.

Each position has a meaning, and which cards fall in which positions will have a bearing on the interpretation. Again, different readers associate different meanings with the positions, but I use the following:

1st: represents the immediate present, and sometimes the person being read for in general
2nd: represents what crosses you, forces that are against you or holding you back
3rd: represents the past, the foundation of the question being asked
4th: represents the recent past, what has just occurred or is just passing
5th: represents the near future, and one possible outcome
6th: represents the further future, and a likely outcome
7th: represents the Querent's (the person you are reading for) feelings about the matter
8th: represents the Querent's environment, influences or people who have an effect for good or ill
9th: represents the Querent's hopes and fears about the matter
10th: represents the final outcome

Most books will tell you to pull a card to represent the Querent and put this down first, underneath the first card. I did this for many years, and a newcomer would be advised to do so. However, while I was working for one of the 1-900 psychic lines, I found that there simply was not time to pull a card to represent the Querent, searching through the deck as the seconds (and their money) ticked away.

So I stopped using the Querent card, and have found that it is unnecessary, at least for me, to use it. As you are starting, the Querent card can help you connect with the energies of the person you are reading for, however, so I would use it for that purpose. Picking a Querent card is usually done one of three ways: you pick a card based on hair color, based on Sun-sign, or based on characteristics. Age is always a factor; Kings and Queens are used for those over 30, while Knights, Pages, Princes and Princesses are used for those under 30. Traditionally, Pages are used for children. If the person you are reading for is a fire sign male under 30, then you would choose the Knight or Prince of Wands (unless your deck equates Swords with fire). If you are reading for a woman with blonde hair over 30, you would most likely choose the Queen of Cups. You don't have to be restricted to Court cards for the Querent card; some people use the Magician or High Priestess, some use The Fool. Since I like to see if and where these important cards may show up in a reading, I rarely chose these cards for the Querent.

Shuffling and cutting the cards can be done in many different ways. Some believe you should never do a violent shuffle of the cards (i.e., the Las Vegas stack sort of approach), but you should shuffle them gently. I have not seen that it makes a difference; if you respect the cards, how you shuffle them doesn't seem to matter. The cards are usually larger than normal playing cards, and can be difficult to shuffle, so shuffle them as best you can. If a card "jumps out" of the deck, look at it before you put it back in and continue shuffling.

I have found that often these "jumpers" are quite significant. As I tell clients, you should focus on your question while shuffling, and shuffle until it feels like it's time to stop. This may be a long while, it may be a very brief time. I can almost feel a hand pushing my hand down when it's time to stop. Just try to feel it out. I then cut the cards twice with my left hand, piling the first pile to the left of the deck, and the next pile to the left of that. I then pick them up from right to left, forming one pile, and turn over the top card. If you are reading for someone else, you can choose to let them shuffle the cards, while you cut, or let them do both. It depends on what feels right to you. Some readers do not believe in letting others touch their deck because of energy transference to the deck. I personally feel that this transference helps the reading, so my clients shuffle the deck while I cut it. On the phone, of course, I do both for obvious reasons!

Next, you lay the cards out in your preferred layout, and begin the interpretation.

As I said, look to the general themes first -- number of Major Arcana, repeating numbers, how many of each suit appears. Then you can start by interpreting the first card (in the first position) within that position. For instance, if Strength appears there, the person you're reading for is currently in a strong position of some sort, or is feeling self-confident. Should this be a reading about, say, whether or not s/he will be getting a promotion, Strength would suggest they are in an excellent position to do so currently. Next you look at what is crossing the person. In this example reading, say the King of Pentacles crossed. This could mean that the obstacle to overcome is another person up for that promotion, or (since Pentacles are money), it may mean that the company may decide not to promote because of financial considerations.

Continue going through the cards until the final outcome card. Should this card be positive -- say, the Ace of Pentacles in our example -- and if other cards in the reading agree, then a promotion would be extremely likely to occur (in spite of the King of Pentacles crossing).

The question of how to interpret reversed cards varies from reader to reader. I personally believe that the traditional interpretation of most reversed cards ("negative" as opposed to the "positive" of the upright cards) isn't necessary; rather, I think each card contains positive and negative qualities within it, and I choose to ignore reversed cards entirely and focus instead on the whole picture.

The most difficult part of interpretation is learning to synthesize the reading into a whole, rather than just reading each card in each position. I can glance at a layout and answer a question almost immediately without having to think about what cards are falling where and what they mean, but that took me many years to be able to do. When I read now, the cards flow into a coherent story with a beginning, middle and end.

If you become stuck on a particular card in a particular position, you can turn over other "helper" cards, one to the left and one to the right of that particular card. In fact, I always turn over two extra cards on the final outcome card; it seems to crystallize the reading. Pages can be difficult to interpret sometimes, so helper cards can be used with them to excellent result.

Play with the cards, open your mind, and enjoy learning this wonderful art.

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