The Fool, The Magician, The Hermit, The Devil, the Wheel of Fortune, and the Universe are just a few of the Tarot’s most well-recognized cards whose archetypal significance has refracted exponentially across space and time. A card set of just 78 cards, built from a Major Arcana of 22 cards and Minor Arcana of 56 cards, the tarot is a philosophic system whose aim is to represent and expand upon the basic elemental, human, and divine intelligences that give life its substance and meaning. This sample essay on the historical and cultural applications of Tarot sheds light on this sometimes misunderstood art form.
An overview of the Tarot
The significance of the tarot is incredibly far-reaching and intricate. Nevertheless, learning about Tarot may yield many extremely helpful insights regarding both the Universe and one’s self. The Book of THOTH, a guide to the Tarot states:
“The Great Wheel of Samsara. The Wheel of the Law, The Wheel of the Taro. The Wheel of the Heavens. The Wheel of Life. All the Wheels be one; yet of all these the wheels, TARO alone avails thee consciously. Meditate long and broad and deep, O man, upon this wheel, revolving it in they mind! Then, when thou knows’st the Wheel of Destiny complete, may’st thou perceive THAT Will which moved it first. And lo! Thou art past through the Abyss” (Crowley 1).
As such, the Tarot may be understood as a circular system whose rotation moves from and through primal or archaic experiences all the way unto the most exalted pinnacles of human achievement, the realization of self as an entity not separated from the activity and intelligence of the Cosmos. This is achieved through every card’s combination of images, numerology, astrology, and even kabbalistic revelation.
Order of the Major Arcana
The Order of the Major Arcana, also known as the Trump Cards of the Tarot, are as follows (Crowley 222):
0 The Fool
I. The Magician
II. The High Priestess
III. The Empress
IV. The Emperor
V. The Hierophant
VI. The Lovers
VII. The Chariot
VIII. Strength (and/or Adjustment)
IX. The Hermit
X. Fortune (the Wheel)
XI. Justice (or Lust)
XII. The Hanged Man
XIV. Art (or Temperance)
XV. The Devil
XVI. The Tower
XVII. The Star
XVIII. The Moon
IXX. The Sun
XX. Judgement (or the Aeon)
XXI. The Universe (and/or World)
These cards in their proper order describe a series of eclectic principles in human development whose order and placement reveal many intriguing things regarding psychic, material, and spiritual reality.
The Minor Arcana
The Minor Arcana is also quite significant as well although these cards are not quite as well recognized as the Major arcana. Nevertheless, the suits and their numbers are a formative part of the wheel of Taro, sometimes spelled as such thanks to the cyclical properties of the system, for reference repeat the name Tarot (Tarotarot). The suits of the Tarot each represent elemental properties and implements, which the magician, that is the tarot’s practitioner, uses to achieve a desired objective outcome. Magick, especially when spelled with a “K” refers to the “Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will” (Chappell 1). As such, each suit of the tarot, Wands, Cups, Daggers (and/or Swords), and Coins plays a critical role in making a complete and dynamic system of personal interface with cosmic creative principles.
These minor arcana are frequently shewed into elemental principles with Fire corresponding to Wands, Water to cups, Swords to Air, and Coins to Earth. The suits of the minor Arcana are almost identically similar to that of the playing card set with the exception of an additional court card to the King, Queen, Jack combination which varies on the deck. This makes total of fourteen cards for each suit with the Aces being one of the most recognizable of forms. These aces are commonly found in Tarot Decks not only as the initiators of the minor Arcana but also in the Major Arcana as well, especially on the table of the magician. It is said of the Magician and his tools that “With the Wand createth He. With the Cup preserveth He. With the Dagger destroyeth He. With the Coin redeemeth He” (Crowley 71). Thus, with the minor arcana there is a special set of activities and images which, when consciously grasped, can help in the realization of dreams and desires.
History and origins
Now that a preliminary overview of the Tarot has been illustrated, there may be an effective report upon the history of the Tarot which is a blend of both medieval and ancient sciences. The first direct inference to Tarot came in the mid-15th century when a Franciscan friar obliquely referred to the subject of gaming with the observation that “there are three kinds of games of chance, namely the dice, the cards, and the trumps” (Giles 7). Thus, the origin of Tarot places it to be several centuries old and initially a sort of game. In these dark ages, Tarot was seen as an instrument of the Devil whose presence was a soul-corrupting force which was to be shunned by good Christians (13). Today, such interpretations are decidedly medieval as the Tarot is clearly more of an instrument of learning and enlightenment than it is of ignorance and deception.
Nevertheless, the exact origin of the Tarot is still quite unknown. The universality of the cards and the principles expressed therein suggest a heritage that extends beyond any one author. Indeed, the Deck of THOTH, one of the most popular Tarot decks to date, makes explicit references to the ancient Egyptians’ culture and spiritual traditions. This is a matter though of some controversy as Waite, Golden Dawn magician and the creator of the alternate major Tarot Deck, the Rider-Waite, has adamantly denied any creation prior to the 14th century (Place 5). Speculators have been able to surmise from the Tarot that it likely was built by those who were exceedingly familiar with the Hebrew culture and alphabet as each card has been labeled with a Hebrew letter that directly corresponds to the atmosphere, personality, and activity of the card at hand (6). It is also held by Historians that the primary progenitors and disseminators of the Tarot were Gypsies, Europe’s nomadic and pagan residents ( 7).
Understanding the Tarot
Interpreting the Fool card
As an instrument of revelation, mystery is at the heart of the Tarot. Nevertheless, there are some functions and principles in the Tarot that may serve novices in their inquiry. For instance, the order of the cards, both in the Major and Minor arcana have a specific meaning that is both exoteric, meaning for uninitiated, and esoteric, meaning hidden. (Click here to learn more about mysticism.) Starting with the Fool, for example, one may see a young man who is off on a cliff with a sack of goodies, in a strangely colored robe, a flower, and a small white dog on his side. This card is labeled as 0 in the series and indicates a state of being the precedes and runs parallel to time, that of eternity (Moore 15). The Fool is thus the mad person who has no attachments except for the ground beneath his feet. Being such a total idiot, the Fool truly blazes forth along his journey and is thus compared and usually illustrated alongside the sun which also gives itself away unconditionally. In the Hebrew Alphabet, this card has taken the mother letter, Aleph, the symbol for the element of air (11). This ties the fool together then with the concept of air, or spirit again, which is something fools are full of, usually in its hotter variety. Also, notice how Aleph sounds similar to Alpha, as in the primary, initiator, etc. and thus is an apt starting symbol for the beginning of the Tarot.
Interpreting the Magician card
From the Fool springs the Magician, card I. This combination may be taken to represent how a magician, may depend upon fools for his magic, in the tricky sense, to have meaning. As an art-form, magic is a beloved art form that has been fooling people for millennia. Furthermore, the magician is commonly identified with the Ego, the identity structure, at both the divine and personal levels, whose basic structure is dependent upon the concept of unity or wholeness. This again matches the number, 1, very nicely into its place in the Tarot series. Furthermore, Beth, the Hebrew letter for House (Daphna 27), is used here as well. This yields the insight that Houses, like the personality, should be unified. Finally, there is the finding that when combined, Aleph and Beth form Aleph-Beth, a word combination that is akin to the English word Alphabet. Hence, the Tarot, is an insightful compendium for gaining an appreciation for the various ways letters, Hebrew and Germanic, may take their root and have their application.
Numerology in the Tarot
One of the simplest and most basic applications of the Tarot is its numerological components. The two cards discussed thus far, for instance, yield an intriguing insight once combined for when one combines the magician, I, with the Fool, 0, the result is 10, the wheel of fortune. In Michael Tsarion’s lecture on the wheel, from his Path of the Fool series, this maverick Tarot researcher offers the main point that the wheel is an especially binary system whose principle function is the expression of emptiness, that is nothing, or 0, as a something, or in an other term: 1 (Tsarion A). This revelation is a found through contemplation of the wheel’s center, that is the infinitesimally small point whose existence is free of movement and thus is perfectly still and all encompassing. By moving to and fro from the center to the whirl of the outer perimeter, the illusion of movement and form is thus created. This same effect is what modern digital technology is also based upon, that of sequential combinations of 1s, and 0s, to generate code programming.
The remaining mysteries of the Tarot can and shall be revealed to those who use their wits, scrutiny, and passion to deliberately disassemble and reconstruct the Tarot in their own minds. Rabbi Moore writes that while the Tarot system may be used for divination, the true service of the tarot is actually the structure it offers for spiritual and psychic understandings (Moore 4). Card 12 in the series, the Hanged Man, is a central figure in the Tarot whose alignment in the Tarot as a figure suspended from a tree, or ankh, an Egyptian crucifix, is a helpful place to begin one’s study of the Tarot’s over arching analysis of human existence. At a glance, one may quickly surmise the proximity of the figure to that of many cultural spiritual icons including Christ and Odin, both of whom are known to have been hung from a tree (Tsarion B). In the series, this card is an illustration for the way that all serious of spirituality must seriously take the yolk of their inquiry and allow it to turn the world on its head in order that true advancement might be meaningfully achieved. Furthermore, its numbering, 12, indicates it as a card pivotal for the realization of unity, 1, with duality, 2.
Related Reading: Learn more about the history of numerology.
Exploring the Tarot
The intricacies of the Tarot are amazing. Whether it is the realization of the sacred nature of the Fool, the benefit of disguise in the Magician, the importance of numerology, seen in cards like Fortune, 10, and Death, 13, there is much to be gained from the Tarot. Chiefly, the tarot is effective when comprehended in its cyclical totality. Tarot study can be begun through many simple methods including Michael Tsarion’s Path of the Fool’ series on Youtube, the acquisition of a deck, and/or the purchase of a book on the material. Indeed, in its exploration, students will see the way cards these 78 combine with astrology, numerology, image, and the worlds many religious traditions to create a rich and penetrating outlook on life which is most likely a key aim of the Tarot, to help its students to feel life and themselves more fully.
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Chappell, Vere. “The Science and Art of Magick.” Thelema 101.com, n.d. Web. http://www.thelema101.com/magick.
Giles, Cynthia. The Tarot: History, Mystery, and Lore. Simon and Schuster, 1994. Print.
Moore, Daphna. The Rabbi’s Tarot: Spiritual Secrets of the Tarot. Lewellyn, 1995. Print.
Place, Robert Michaels. The Tarot: History, Symbolism, and Divination. Penguin, 2005. Print.
Tsarion, Michael. “Wheel of Fortune.” Online video clip. YouTube. Unslaved Films, 2 Feb. 2006. Web. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u9q79ohx1Ic.
—. “The Hanged Man.” Online video clip. YouTube. Unslaved Films, 2 Mar. 2006. Web. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kEGPOX-at84.
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