A Who-What-How, of this common divination system.
| Humans have been trying to predict the future for centuries past. Over time, these ancient methods evolved into the divination practices we know today, such as palmistry, the I Ching, astrology, and the tarot. However, people question the accuracy of these techniques. How can a deck of cards tell a persons future? In order to fully understand whether tarot cards work one must know what they are, how the originated, and what the cards mean.
The major and minor arcane divide the 78 cards of a traditional tarot deck into two sets (Herzer 1). Arcana, is the plural form of the Latin word Arcanum, which means, “closed” or “secret” (“Tarot” N.P.) The first 22 cards make up the major arcane. The Fools number is zero, and the remaining cards are I to XXI. “Each [major] card has a name, number and symbol which can be traced back over hundreds of years” (“Tarot” N.P.) The minor arcane makes up the last 56 cards. It contains four suits, each having an ace, numbered cards 2-10, and 4 court cards. The court cards are a king, a queen, a knight, and a page. The traditional Italian suits were swords, batons, coins, and cups. In most modern decks, batons are wands, rods, or staffs, and coins are pentacles (“Tarot” N.P.)
The tarot originated in Italy during the late Middle Ages (Herzer 3). The oldest tarot deck still in existence dates back to 1392. “These were supposedly specially painted by Jacquemin Gringoneur for King Charles VI of France” (Fronteras 12 & 13). The aristocracy used them primarily and they depicted virtues such as temperance, and strength. Trionfi was the name first given to the cards. More specifically, carte da trionfi, meaning, cards with trumps (Herzer 3). The modern game trumps, originated with trionfi, played with tarot (Fronteras 13). At the turn of the 16th century, Italians began calling the deck Tarocchi, which means “discards” (Karlin 2). “The word Tarot was first used in 1442 in the Court of Trionfi, which was the Italian word for Tarot” (Fronteras 13).
Trumps were a European invention that first appeared in the German game Karnöffel in the 1420s. However, the first reference to a deck of cards with 22 trumps was a tarocchi poem written in the late 15th century by Count Matteo Maria Boiardo. In addition, 1470 is the most likely date for the Sermoes do Ludo Cum Aliis. This is the earliest known document listing all standard tarot majors (Le Pendu N.P.) In 1540, Francesco Marcolii da Forli published a work that used playing cards for fortunetelling (Fronteras 13). By the late 16th century, there was mass production of tarot decks by wood block printing. The greatest output of cards came from Marseilles, France. This caused the Marseilles Tarot to become the model for most decks (Fronteras 12). “With the advent of the occult revival in the late 1700s, came the development of the Tarot as a divination aid rather than just as a means of attempting to predict the future” (Fronteras 13). In addition, around 1785, Etteilla published the first divination book to include tarot (Le Pendu N.P.) Etteilla was also the first known writer to have reversed meanings for the cards (Fronteras 14).
Tarot cards were originally a way of recording the true history of the Celtic Church and bloodlines of Jesus. Secrecy was important because those who opposed the teachings of the Church were tortured and burned to death. Botticelli and Leonardo de Vinci painted hidden meanings in their paintings recording the truth of the bloodlines of Jesus (Fronteras 9). The earliest cards in a European Museum date back to 1390 (“Tarot” N.P.) The earliest surviving tarot decks are the Visconti-Sforza. The earliest known playing cards, however, come from 9th century China (Fronteras 8). Except for the money suit, there is little similarity to Chinese and European decks (Fronteras 9).
The cards of the major arcane are the most influential cards in the deck (Fronteras 27). However, only in esoteric practice do we see the term, “major arcane” used. In playing decks, these cards are Trumps (Samuella N.P.) They are attributed to archetypal forces, powers, and elements in nature. They also can identify with the signs of the zodiac, planets, and the elements (Peach 104). The major cards are also categorized by a Roman numeral, which can be used for interpreting the cards numerological significance (Fronteras 27). The Fool, numbered 0, can be recognized as the pagan fool of the Mummer Plays, Morris Dancing, the Sannyasin of Buddhist belief, and Dionysus of Greek culture (Fronteras 19). The most feared card in the tarot is Death. However, it does not necessarily mean physical death. Rather, it could represent sweeping away the past to make a fresh start (Fronteras 20).
The minor arcane is closely related to the 52-card playing deck. It has four suits, which usually are pentacles, wands, swords, and cups (Samuella N.P.) One theory states the Tarot emblems were connected with the four sacred objects found in the Grail castle of the Arthurian legend. The Grail Hollows seemed to have descended from the four treasures of Ireland, and the magic emblems of Celtic myth (Sharmun-Burke 13 & 14). Before 1910, with only a handful of exceptions, the numbered cards showed only a geometric arrangement of suit symbols. Modern decks, however, often have a symbolic scene pictured on the numbered minors, which are usually based off the Rider-Waite deck (Samuella N.P.) The tribulations to swords and wands are often disputed. To fit their magical properties, the Golden Dawn linked wands with fire, and swords with air. However, other authorities say swords should be associated with fire and action, and wands with air and intellect.
The suit of pentacles represents the material aspect of daily life (Peach 83). This suit is sometimes called coins or diamonds, and is liked with the element earth (Fronteras 29). The associated zodiac signs are Taurus, Capricorn, and Virgo. It is the suit of money and material things (Peach 85).
The suit of wands represents the career aspect of daily life (Peach 27). This suit is sometimes called batons, rods, or clubs (Fronteras 28). “The Wands, like the trees which they are made, are affected by the [element] air but are adaptable and independent” (Fronteras 29). Trees represent knowledge and are more powerful than force (Fronteras 29). The associated zodiac signs are Leo, Aries, and Sagittarius. The majority of the time wands will predict great energy and force. Along with hectic time and the possibility of many new projects (Peach 27).
The suit of swords represents the mental aspect of daily life. “Tarot cards very often reveal the surface of the Querents mind primarily, and reality only obliquely” (Peach 63). The associated zodiac signs are Gemini, Libra, and Aquarius (Peach 63). The sword in magic represents fire. This suit is often wrongly associated with air. Fire often represents a test of strength or courage, and smiths create swords in the fire of a forge. The Sword in the Stone was a test of strength and represented the initiation of King Arthur (Fronteras 28).
The suit of cups represents the emotional aspect of daily life. The element water and the zodiac signs Pisces, Cancer, and Scorpio represent it. “It does not relate to facts, which are tangible and material, but to feelings, which are not” (Peach 46).
After analyzing what the tarot is, its origins, and the meaning of the cards, one can understand the mystery surrounding this seemingly magical set of cards. Today people see the tarot as means for divination, or a psychological tool for accessing the unconscious. One may think them to be a set of cards displaying symbolic representations. Likewise, some believe them to show thoughts, desires, and events past, present, and future (Samuella N.P.). “The Tarot images act like mirrors, reflecting things that the unconscious mind already knows, and feeding this information through to the conscious mind” (Sharman-Burke 17). Using the images, the reader can gain a special insight to the cards and their meanings (Sharman-Burke 17).
Fronteras, Adam. The Tarot. New York: Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 1996.
Herzer, Carol. “Tarot FAQ.” Soul-Guidance: Tarot Decks. 2004. 11 October 2006
Karlin, J. “Frequently Asked Questions about Tarot.” jk’s Tarot FAQ. amozon.com. 2004. 11 October 2006 <http://jktarot.com/faq.html>.
Le Pendu, Robert. “Tarot History.” Taropedia. Wikipedia. 2006. 15 October 2006
Peach, Emily. The Tarot Workbook. Wellingborough: Thomas Publishing Group, 1984.
Samuella. “Tarot.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. 2002. 15 October 2006.
Sharman-Burke, Juliet. The Complete Book of Tarot. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1985.
“Tarot Cards.” Paralumen: New Age Village. Passion.com. 11 October 2006