A gnarled hand pulls the Death card as dramatic music blares in the background. This is usually what someone thinks of when they think of Tarot cards. Thanks to Hollywood the Tarot deck has been given the same bad rap as ghosts and witches. Let's change that.
At its heart, the Tarot is nothing more than pretty pictures on card stock. The deck is used to play the Italian card game Tarocchi and the French card game Tarot. These games usually involve four players and taking of tricks, very similar to Pinochle or Spades.
Divination and the Tarot
The divination aspect of the Tarot is said to have started around the mid 15th century with the Visconti-Sforza deck. Several of the gnostics (Christian mystics) believed that the Tarot was filled with ancient religious symbology and therefore held secret wisdom. This belief gained a foothold in the mid 18th century with the publication of "Le Monde Primitif” by Swiss clergyman and Freemason Antoine Court de Gebelin. In it, Gebelin speculated that Visconti did hide symbology in his deck that predated Christianity and went back to Egyptian times honoring Isis and Thoth. Gebelin went further stating that the word tarot came from the Egyptian words “tar” meaning royal and “ro” meaning road, and therefore represented a “royal road” to wisdom.
Gebelin surmised this before Jean-Francois Champollion deciphered hieroglyphics in the 1820s. Even though nothing was found in the ancient Egyptian language to support his claim the urban legend continues to this day and is the basis for the Thoth Tarot.
Claims of Secret Societies
Claims of secret knowledge and secret organizations were further developed by Eliphas Levi in his 1854 work Transcendental Magic. In it, Levi claimed that the Tarot was based upon Qabalah. Qabalah, or Kabballah, is the study of Jewish mysticism. Levi altered his Tarot deck to reflect Qabalah and the four elements of alchemy. This claim was brought to the English speaking world by the occult group, The Hermetic Order of The Golden Dawn.
Some of the more prominent members of the Order of The Golden Dawn used Levi’s claim and married it with their esoteric ideas to produce their Tarot decks. Aleister Crowley conceived and commissioned Lady Frieda Harris to render what would become the Thoth Tarot deck, and A.E. Waite conceived and commissioned Pamela Coleman Smith to render his deck, known now as the Rider-Waite-Coleman Smith or RWC deck. Both these decks represent the majority of Tarot decks used today.
Tarot and Psychology
Tarot may be used for introspection as psychology also plays a prominent role. Famed psychologist Carl Jung believed that the seventy-eight cards that make up the Minor and Major Arcana represent societal archetypes. More recently, Timothy Leary has suggested the twenty-two cards of the Major Arcana are a pictorial representation of the journey of human development. Leary believes Tarot may be a blueprint for humanity as it matures from infancy to adulthood and reaches the next level of existence.
Tarot is nothing to fear. Whether used for divination or introspection. Story-telling or therapy. Tarot can shed a lot of light on who you are and where you are going.