Deal of Fortune
Archaeologists have yet to find a tarot deck, or anything resembling one, in a pyramid. Nor do gypsies take tarot seriously. Fortune-telling is used to make money off gadje, non-gypsies, and it seems that gypsies did not use the tarot at all until the 20th Century. Before that time, palm and tea leaf reading were the methods of choice.
The oldest existing tarot deck dates from around 1450, Milan. It’s a hand-painted, gold-leaf deck, with childlike figures in Renaissance clothes. The existance of the Milanese deck and some of the symbolism of the cards indicates that tarot probably originated in Italy. Renaissance Italians and French played tarot like Mom and Dad played bridge, except the ladies shaved their foreheads and the gents wore stockings. Besides the argument over who made up the tarot deck there is the debate as to why it was invented. The cards may have been educational tools to teach aristocratic children principles of society and the cosmos. They could have been an esoteric code of secret societies, alchemists or Italian witches, or illustrations of carnival or triumphal parades (triumphs— trumps, get it ?). Some say they are remnants of the creed of the goddess cults. They may have been illustrated tales of the Round Table tradition (the artist of the Milanese deck also illustrated a story of Lancelot du Lac.) They may have been “fan mags” of actors in pageants and plays.
An 18th Century Frenchman, Court de Gebelin, started the rumor that the tarot was Egyptian. Dozens of books have been based on his ideas, which were based on “inspiration" rather than boring old facts. There are now hundreds of occult tarot decks, many based on the popular Rider-Waite deck, painted by Pamela Colman Smith under the direction of Arthur Edward Waite, first published in 1910. Though predicting with the tarot is ridiculed, even the most hardened cynic will sit for a reading. He may slouch back with arms crossed—but he wants to know. Cynics can be good to read for, since they won’t bother you with a lot of explanations and suggestions. They tend to a maintain a rocky silence.
How are the cards interpreted ? Even after a decade of study, I’m not sure. I don’t remember when I stopped looking up the meanings in the instruction booklet. Basically it comes down to — hey, you must be psychic! — intuition. You don’t have to be “psychic" or “gifted.” Just let your imagination go; make associations. Check out the querent’s shoes, clothes, hairstyle...
A tarot deck has 78 cards, in two groups, the Major and Minor Arcana, the Major Arcana has 22 allegorical cards, numbered 1-21. The Minor Arcana comprises 56 cards in four suits: swords, staves or batons or wands, cups, and coins or pentacles. (These suits correspond to spades, clubs, hearts and diamonds in the standard 52 card playing deck.) Each suit has court cards King, Queen, Knight and Page, and numbered cards 1 (Ace) through 10. If your deck has pictures on all 78 cards, it’s easier. The pictures can be interpreted in terms of emotions, events or people. A scene of someone sitting on a boat might mean travel, or a change of some kind. For decks with suit signs arranged on the numbered cards, you might use a suit/numerological system. The suit of cups, for example, means romance, so a two of cups is a couple. Ten means completion, so a 10 of cups might mean a happy family. Swords, on the other hand, often indicate trouble: 10 of swords is beaucoup trouble — complete disaster.
Symbols and Sequences
An important note: A totally negative reading is out of place. The idea of reading tarot is to offer a form of knowledge, not to breed feelings of gloom and doom. When there is strong negativity, you may feel obliged to issue a warning. However, all events foretold are only possibilities, not actualities. Also remember that the cards are allegorical, not literal, and do not always express physical events.
The frightening Death card has never turned out to mean physical death in the readings I’ve done. It means the total end of a situation, a big change for better or worse. A reader has the responsibility to illuminate the positive side of the situation, and to offer useful insights to lead the querent to a solution of the problem.
All the cards in a reading work together. That is, you must see in them a story, a continuum. A configuration of, say, 10 of swords, The Empress (the motherly figure) and two of cups might mean that a motherly figure will alleviate a personal disaster by getting the querent together with a partner, a lover, a friend. Or it could be that this motherly person is causing trouble in a relationship.
The same card can have contradictory meanings. You have to decide which meanings are most appropriate to the question, to the context in which the cards are placed. As you do more and more readings, your interpretive ability expands. In this respect, tarot readings can be exercises for various areas of life: your art, your ability to see into other people’s situations, your ability to project the results of certain actions.
A “good” reading isn’t one that goes by the book. Simply, it’s an accurate one. Studying books helps, but in the end, you have to look at the cards and try to get a sense of what they’re trying to say. Everyone has to flip back and forth in the booklet at first. It’s like using a foreign language dictionary when you’re starting on a language. But there comes a time when you must put the books aside, along with preconceptions and worries about whether or not you’re “psychic,” and understand the cards through context.
You consider the question asked, or the situation. You look at the images on the cards, you close your eyes, you try to clear your mind of distraction. You might guess. Indeed, guessing can be a true exercise of the intuition.
If predictions seem too hocus-pocus, you can use the tarot to put your life situation in images, in the same way that you use a journal to put your feelings into words. In this kind of reading, the Emperor card could represent a helpful, older man; or he could be an aggravating employer/husband/father/ friend. If you’re a mature man, he might be you. Then again, if you’re a mature powerful, “masculine” woman, he might be you. What fits with the other cards ? With your question ? With your story ?
Many people also use tarot cards for meditation, or to focus their energy toward a certain end. A writer or painter may pin up the Empress card, since she is fertile and creative. Someone physically ill can contemplate The Sun card. For weird, sometimes scary, dreams, The Moon card is used. The moon is also traditionally a power card for many women.
The tarot is what you want it to be. It can absorb and reflect any system. That’s why there’s a Native American Tarot. No one claims that Native Americans invented tarot cards way back when. But the archetypal concepts expressed in the tarot lent Joe and Magda Week Gonzalez, a framework on which to construct a palm-sized encyclopedia of Native American lore.
That’s how people could say the Egyptians invented tarot — after all, Thoth was a Magician, and Isis was a Popess. That’s why the tarot is really an alchemical work—on Temperance, an angel mixes fluids. That’s why astrologers love it: Libra is Justice, and there’s Aquarius on The Star card. There are dozens of published and unpublished feminist decks around: Strength is us, women, the Popess is the Goddess and the Empress is the Matriarch. That’s why Jungians ... well, ... It goes without saying.
A mystique has grown up around the tarot, whether its author was Thoth or Hermes, or a minor artist of the Renaissance painting cards for the Sunday bridge game at the palazzo. The tarot is, indeed, a magical book. Magical in that it can change into all different forms. A book in that each image tells its story.
A magical book in that it is written even as you read it.
ThroTTle Magazine, 1 April 1988