The Tarot is a divinatory system with a standard deck of 78 cards composed of 22 major arcana or trump cards, and 56 minor arcana or suit / pip cards. Divination is performed by shuffling the cards, then laying them in one of a set of patterns or folds, each of which is designed to answer a different type of question. Probably the most popular fold is the Celtic Cross, which is a general purpose spread used for examining the influences surrounding an issue or situation in both space and time. Another popular method of use is to draw a single card from the deck and contemplate its synchronicity with a given issue.
Many people who consult the Tarot use it to "tell the future." That is, they look for a static outcome to a given situation, or they use it to answer a question of the form: "should I _?" Within the context of magickal operations, this is not particularly useful. A magician consults the tarot to examine the causal influences surrounding a situation or action which might not otherwise be consciously available to him/her. For instance, it is customary to perform a divination before a working in order to be sure that one fully understands the effects of the ritual. It is also useful to draw and contemplate single cards from a deck to attune oneself to environmental influences which otherwise might remain hidden.
Although many claims have been made to its great antiquity, ancient Egyptian origin, etc.. the earliest known mention of the Tarot was in 1332 when King Alfonse XI of Leon and Castile prohibited its use. The earliest known deck still in existence is the Visconti-Sforza deck, one version of which holds 74 cards. None of the trumps or court cards are numbered. The cards may have evolved initially as a corruption of similar cards which existed in China and Korea around the 10th and 11th centuries. In the process of migrating to Europe, they mixed with other influences in the Near East, and the Tarot was born. This is not a definitive factual history. The truth is no one really knows for certain where the Tarot came from. The name Tarot itself most probably derives from the game "Tarocchi" which the cards were initially used to play. It was not originally an oracle.
The cards were more and more commonly seen as more divinatory tools than gaming pieces in the following centuries, however, perhaps the next great leap in the evolution of the Tarot was with Eliphas Levi, who was the first to not only determine the correspondences between the major arcana and the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, but also with the paths on the Tree of Life. (See section on major arcana).
The modern Tarot, however, was more or less solidified by the work of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. The decks developed by the Golden Dawn served to further codify the Kabbalistic correspondences of the cards, as well as the alchemical symbolism of the decks. The Rider-Waite deck developed by G:.D:. member A.E. Waite and artist Pamela Coleman-Smith is still the standard deck, and is usually recommended for beginners to Tarot divination. The Wang deck, also based on the G:.D:. system is also a good standard deck, although I prefer the artwork of other decks.
Perhaps the best known deck- or maybe just the most notorious deck, is the Crowley-Thoth deck, developed by Aleister Crowley and illustrated by Lady Freida Harris. As with much associated with Crowley, people tend to love this deck or hate it, and not much in between (I once met a man who warned me not to use the deck, as it was a "poisoned" system). It is fairly standard in most aspects, with a few modifications to the major arcana, and is notable in that it incorporates a significant amount of far Eastern symbolism which other decks do not.
The Major Arcana
The major arcana of the Tarot is a cycle of 22 cards beginning and ending with The Fool. It traces the evolution of the initiate from a state of pure innocence / ignorance (0 - The Fool) to a being fully realized of its divine nature (22 - The World) and the knowledge that the being was fully realized from the beginning (back to The Fool). Each card represents not only a step along this journey, but also an archetypal force within the human psyche (I use the word archetype in a general sense, not a Jungian sense). Below is a list of the major arcana of the Rider-Waite deck, along with correspondences and (very) brief summaries.
|Card Name||Hebrew Letter||Path on Tree of Life||Astrological Correspondence|
|0 - Fool||Aleph||Kether-Chokmah (11)||Uranus|
| ||Innocence, folly - Fool's luck. Beginning and end.|
|1 - Magician||Beth||Kether-Binah (12)||Mercury|
| ||Mastery, power - Animus archetype. fool having realized his True Will.|
|2 - High Priestess||Gimel||Kether-Tipheret (13)||Moon|
| ||Intuition, hidden knowledge. Anima archetype. Unconscious mind.|
|3 - Empress||Daleth||Binah-Chokmah (14)||Venus|
| ||Mother, fertility, nurturing aspect of femininity. Ties to earth and nature.|
|4 - Emperor||Heh||Chokmah-Tipheret (15)||Aries|
| ||Father, authority, control, discipline. Power and organization. Protection|
|5 - Hierophant||Vau||Chokmah-Chesed (16)||Taurus|
| ||Teacher, priest, ritual. Role of individual in society. Keeper of knowledge|
|6 - Lovers||Zayin||Binah-Tipheret (17)||Gemini|
| ||Love, sex, union, relationship, sometimes ethical or moral choices .|
|7 - Chariot||Chet||Binah-Geburah (18)||Cancer|
| ||Victory, control, confidence, ego, warrior, command.|
|8 - Strength||Teth||Chesed-Geburah (19)||Leo|
| ||Strength, endurance, also compassion - subtle and inner strength.|
|9 - Hermit||Yod||Chesed-Tipheret (20)||Virgo|
| ||Introspection, seeking internal answers, solitude.|
|10 - Wheel of Fortune||Kaph||Chesed-Netzach (21)||Jupiter|
| ||Fate, good or bad - apparently based on vision of Ezekiel|
|11 - Justice||Lamed||Geburah-Tipheret (22)||Libra|
| ||Justice, karma, causality - reaping what is sewn.|
|12 - Hanged Man||Mem||Geburah-Hod (23)||Neptune|
| ||Crystallization, stagnation, total perspective from rock bottom.|
|13 - Death||Nun||Tipheret-Netzach (24)||Scorpio|
| ||Non-physical death. End of a phase / era. Transition, renewal.|
|14 - Temperance||Samekh||Tipheret-Yesod (25)||Sagittarius|
| ||Balance, calm, unity, moderation. Rendered as "Art" (alchemy) in Thoth deck|
|15 - Devil||Ayin||Tipheret-Hod (26)||Capricorn|
| ||Traditionally: Materialism, slavery, ignorance, violence, darkness|
|16 - Tower||Peh||Netzach-Hod (27)||Mars|
| ||Sudden and often violent change. Reversal of fortune. fall of existing order.|
|17 - Star||Tzadi||Netzach-Yesod (28)||Aquarius|
| ||Hope, inspiration, faith, guidance. A bridge between heaven and earth.|
|18 - Moon||Qoph||Netzach-Malkuth (29)||Pisces|
| ||Test, transition, gateway, initiation, terror, confusion, insanity.|
|19 - Sun||Resh||Hod-Yesod (30)||Sun|
| ||Happiness, enlightenment, joy, confidence, light.|
|20 - Judgement||Shin||Hod-Malkuth (31)||Pluto|
| ||Judgement, adjustment, purgation, renewal.|
|21 - World||Tau||Yesod-Malkuth (32)||Saturn|
| ||Happiness, completion, fully realized being, unity with world.|
While the major arcana represent the more driving and general forces in a spread, the minor arcana correspond more to specifics: individual things and people. They are divided into four suits each corresponding to an alchemical element: wands or staves representing fire, swords representing air, cups representing water and pentacles, coins or disks representing earth. The cards of each suit are labeled ace through ten, then some variation on page, knight, queen, king. As you have probably realized at this point, modern playing cards evolved from the minor arcana, with wands, swords, cups, disks becoming clubs, spades, hearts and diamonds respectively.
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