~* Wednesday, September 15, 2004 *~
Carl Jung was the first psychologist to attach importance to the Tarot. He regarded the Tarot cards as representing archetypes: fundamental types of person or situation embedded in the subconscious of all human beings. The Emperor, for instance, represents the ultimate patriarch or father figure.
The theory of archetypes gives rise to several psychological uses. Some psychologists use Tarot cards to identify how a client views himself or herself, by asking the patient to select a card that he or she identifies with. Some try to get the client to clarify his ideas by imagining his situation or relationship in terms of Tarot images: Is someone rushing in heedlessly like the Knight of Swords perhaps, or blindly keeping the world at bay as in the Rider-Waite-Smith Two of Swords? The Tarot can be seen as a kind of algebra of the subconscious, allowing it to be analysed at the conscious level.
It is instructive to note, however, that the older decks such as the Visconti-Sforza and Marseilles tend to have a cruder and less general "algebra" than the modern ones. This is not merely an illusion of the modern eye, it reflects the general direction of evolutionary change in Tarot art over the centuries, and especially since 1900. The Tarot symbolism has rather successfully universalized itself from parochial origins.
Story Telling and Art
The Tarot has been known to inspire writers as well as visual artists. Novelist Italo Calvino described the Tarot as a "machine for telling stories", writing The Castle of Crossed Destinies with plots and characters constructed through the Tarot. T. S. Eliot's poem The Waste Land uses only superficial descriptions of Tarot cards, a few of which are genuine. Random selections of Tarot cards have also been used to construct stories for writing exercises and writing games.
The Tarot has a confusing and rich symbolism because it has a confusing and rich history. Not impenetrable, however; much of the fog around the symbolism can be dispelled if one bothers to study sources other than occultists with a vested interest in the mystery of it all. We'll do some dispelling further on; in the meanwhile, the most important thing to note is that modern, occult readings of the cards often have little to do with their meaning in their original context -- and that, given the modern uses of the Tarot, this is actually a good thing.
Today's Tarots have become far more interesting, expressive, and psychologically resonant today than their ancestors were. Interpretations have co-evolved with the cards over the centuries: later decks have "clarified" the pictures in accordance with their perceived meanings, the meanings in turn modified by the new pictures. Both images and interpretations have been continually reshaped, partly at random and partly in conscious or unconscious efforts to help the Tarot live up to its mythic role as a powerful occult instrument.
VIII StrengthFor example, take a look at the Rider-Waite-Smith Strength card. We can know more about the symbolic intentions of the designer here, since he conveniently wrote many books on the subject. As with its Marseilles-deck ancestor, the card shows a woman holding the jaws of a lion, but this picture is far more elaborate. The strangely-shaped hat of the Marseilles card has traditionally been interpreted as a symbolic lemniscate: the sideways-figure-eight representation of infinity. In the newer card, this symbol appears explicitly. Other symbols are included: a chain of roses symbolizing desire or passion, against a white robe symbolizing purity. The mountains in the background demonstrate another kind of strength. Even here there is room for interpretation: the card is sometimes considered as showing intellect triumphing over desire, sometimes as the equal union of intellect and passion, sometimes just as a symbol of mental strength or endurance.
The twenty-two cards most often in the major arcana are: Fool, Magician, High Priestess [or La Papessa/Popess], Empress, Emperor, Hierophant [or Pope], Lovers, Chariot, Strength, Hermit, Wheel of Fortune, Justice, Hanged Man, Death, Temperance, Devil, Tower, Star, Moon, Sun, Judgement, World. Each card has its own large, complicated and disputed set of meanings. Altogether the major arcana is said to represent the Fool's journey (http://www.learntarot.com/journey.htm): a symbolic journey through life in which the Fool overcomes obstacles and gains wisdom.
There is a vast body of writing on the significance of the Tarot. The four suits are associated with the four elements: Swords with air, Wands with fire, Cups with water and Pentacles with earth. The numerology is usually thought to be significant. The Tarot is often considered to correspond to various systems such as astrology, the Kabalah, the I Ching and others.
The Tarot Decks
The conventional 78-card deck is structured into two distinct sets. The first called the Major Arcana consists of 22 cards without suits typically referred to as "trumps". The second called Minor Arcana consists of 56 cards divided into four suits. The cards in each suit are numbered 2 through 10 with four "face" cards. Arcana is the plural of the Latin word arcanum, meaning "hidden truth" or "secret knowledge". Alternate names are the Minor Trumps and Major Trumps, or simply the Minors and the Trumps. The most common suits in Tarot decks are cups, balls (or coins), swords and batons, the same as the traditional Italian suits.
Differences between decks
Tarot cards serve many purposes, and this leads to a variety of Tarot deck styles. Some decks exist primarily as artwork; art decks often contain only the 22 cards of the Major Arcana. Esoteric decks are often used in conjunction with the study of the Hermetic Qabala; in these decks the Major Arcana are illustrated in accordance with Qabalistic principles while the numbered suit cards (2 through 10) typically bear only stylized renderings of the suit symbol. In contrast, decks used for divination usually bear illustrated scenes on all cards. The more simply illustrated Marseilles style decks are used esoterically, for divination, and for game play.
The most popular deck today is probably the fully-illustrated deck confusingly known as the Rider-Waite-Smith, Waite-Smith, or simply the Rider deck. The images were painted by artist Pamela Colman Smith, to the instructions of academic and mystic Arthur Waite, and published by the Rider company. According to many accounts, Aleister Crowley also had substantial creative input. While the images are deceptively, almost childishly simple, the details and backgrounds hold a wealth of symbolism. The subjects remain close to the earliest decks, but usually have added detail. The chief aesthetic objection to this deck is the crude printing of colours in the original: several decks, such as the Universal Waite, simply copy the Smith line drawings, but with more sophisticated colouring.
Probably the most widely-used esoteric Tarot deck is Aleister Crowley's Thoth Tarot (pronounced tote). In contrast to the Thoth deck's colorful artistry, the illustrations on Paul Foster Case's B.O.T.A. Tarot deck are black line drawings on white cards; this is an unlaminated deck intended to be colored by its owner. Other esoteric decks include the Golden Dawn Tarot which is based on a deck by SL MacGregor Mathers, the Tree of Life Tarot whose cards are stark symbolic catalogs, and the Cosmic Tarot which is unusual for an esoteric deck because it is fully-illustrated.
The Marseilles style Tarot decks, used for playing the game of Tarot, generally feature suit cards which look very much like modern playing cards. The numbered cards sport an arrangement of pips indicating the number and suit, while the court cards are often illustrated with two-dimensional drawings.
Other decks vary in their conventionality. Cat-lovers have the Tarot of the Cat People, a fairly standard deck complete with cats in every picture. The Tarot of the witches and Aquarian Tarot retain the conventional cards with varying designs. The witches deck became famous/notorious in the 1970s for its use in the James Bond movie Live and Let Die.
Other decks change the cards partly or completely. The Motherpeace Tarot is notable for its circular cards and feminist angle: the mainly male characters have been replaced by females. The Tarot of Baseball has suits of bats, mitts, balls and bases; "coaches" and "MVPs" instead of Queens and Kings; and major arcana cards like "The Catcher", "The Rule Book" and "Batting a Thousand".
A very spiritual Tarot deck is the Isis Tarot also known as Tarot van Isis, Tarot d'Isis, etc., by Erna Droesbeke, using archetypical symbols.
Computing professionals might find the Silicon Valley Tarot most intelligible, which offers online readings. Major arcana cards include The Hacker, Flame War, The Layoff and The Garage; the suits are Networks, Cubicles, Disks and Hosts; the court cards CIO, Salesman, Marketeer and New Hire.
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