by Mari Powers
The word Tarot came from an Italian card game called “Tarocco”. The word Tarot is a French adaptation of the Italian word, which is why the final “t” is silent. Tarot first became popular among aristocrats in Italy and France during the fourteenth century, however, many believe the origin of some or all of the early decks to be older, originating in Egypt or India, from clay tablets. Many people believe there is a correspondence with the 22 Major Arcana cards and the Judaic Tree of Life, referred to as the Cabbala.
Arcana means “secret”, and traditional Tarot decks are divided into 22 Major Arcana cards, 40 Minor Arcana cards, and 16 “Pip”, or Court Cards in 4 suits. The Major Arcana, have also been called Trump, Triumph, and Greater Arcana cards. In today’s common divinatory language, they are often called “Destiny” or “Spirit” cards, indicating a greater strength or meaning in a divination spread.
Our modern 52 card playing deck is descended from the Minor Arcana and their four suits, plus three of the original court cards.
They break down in this way, numbered 1 through 10:
|Tarot Suit||Cartomancy Suit||Element||Realm|
|Swords or Epees||Spades||Air||Mind|
|Batons, Scepters, or Wands||Clubs||Fire||Energy|
|Cups or Coupes||Hearts||Water||Emotion|
|Coins, Deniers, or Pentacles||Diamonds||Earth||Physical|
King, Queen, Cavalier and Page became King, Queen, Knight and Page, and then the Knight and Page merged, and became the Jacks, making the 52 regular cards used in play today. These court cards are also divided by their elemental suits. The Joker is the only remnant of the Major Arcana, and was once the 0 numbered Fool card. The Major Arcana has only survived in Tarot decks, and originally and traditionally contains 22 cards, numbered 0-21.
There are many books today which outline history, possible history and legends associated with the Tarot Deck, however, at the root, the origins are shrouded in mystery. At this point we only know what we know from the 14th century on, and can only guess at true origins.
With the rise of the Golden Dawn and other ceremonial and “occult” groups, interest in the Tarot became more pronounced. The Arthur Waite deck painted by Pamela Smith was widely published. That was many people’s first deck. Aleister Crowley had Frieda Harris paint full sized portraits of the beautiful and controversial deck they created, adding astrological symbols, and they were printed when printing presses could handle all the colors in this custom deck. The Aquarian deck followed the Waite deck fairly closely and was widely printed as well. W. B. Yeats and other members of the Gold Dawn created their own decks, though many were never published and are only recoded in books. Waite, Crowley and Yeats were all members of the Golden Dawn. The Waite deck (1910) shows mystical Christian influence, Yeats deck was more “Pagan”, and combined Eastern and Western mysticism, and Crowley’s deck was boldly “Pagan”, drawing influences from Egyptian, East Indian and astrological symbols. Another member of the Golden Dawn named John Q. Dequier, created a Major Arcana only deck that used an Egyptian motif.
Today we have thousands of decks printed, including some of the oldest ones, like the Marseille deck from the end of the 15th century, and a deck created by Antoine Court de Gebelin who used also Egyptian symbols on his cards. He was a French archeologist from the late 1700’s who believed the cards originated from there. For further historical reading, see your local library.
My belief about the Tarot, is that the major arcana depicts a person’s spiritual journey through life, and many lessons repeat themselves throughout our life. The minor arcana cards depict sign posts and tell a pictorial story of life incidents ruled by the four elements of earth, air, fire and water. The court cards generally represent people, or archetypes (personas) in a reading.
For me, Tarot reading is not a game, but a combination of art and science, with a healthy dose of the channeling information from the invisible universe triggered by imagery, numerology, astrology, traditional, and sometimes not so traditional meanings of the cards. I got the Waite deck when I was 15, and it is long gone, though I now read between 9 and 12 decks on a regular basis. I don’t keep cards I don’t use, so from time to time I will pass on a deck to someone else.
Each deck has its own flavor for each card, and some do not conform strictly with the 72 card system. Names of cards have changed, art forms have evolved, artists have channeled additional and unique meanings for the cars in some decks. It seems that the suits, some of the most basic symbols, and numerology are the only elements that my cards share. However, additional cards and new names for traditional cards just adds spice to my readings, and allows for more messages and choices for those for whom I read. When a deck uses astrological symbols or runes, it is a bonus for those of us who know astrology or runes.
Much of how I read is based on a lifetime of study, however, I only got really good at reading when I learned to “channel”. In my case, this means listening to my inner voices and dropping my ego in order to “hear”, “sense”, and “see” what the cards mean in specific placements. Sometimes a particular symbol will jump out in importance. Also, looking at the “big picture” is critical, i.e., the number of Trump cards, or an abundance of a certain element or a repeated number in a spread.
I have also learned to never have a person tell me the question they have until after the reading, so I am not biased in what I see or say. I allow the person I am reading for select the layout best suited to their question or concern, and the deck that most calls to them. Therefore, my Tarot reading is an art, a science, and a mystery revealed for both of us. I have reflected this philosophy in the name of my Tarot reading business, which is “Messages from the Invisible Universe”.
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Mari offers classes, too, including a series about the tarot. Find out more here.