An Introduction to Tarot: What Even Is It?
Despite many people still considering Tarot as a somewhat ridiculous or shady fortune telling practice, there is in fact a growing awareness and acceptance of tarot as a kind of psychological art-form.
Personally although I do find that there is undeniably an element of prediction involved, it does seem more dignified for us to subscribe (at least initially) to the contemporary idea that systems of divination such as tarot are an attempt to reflect the human experience symbolically.
With this perspective we may then begin to move towards the idea that there are ways in which to engage artfully with these models that induces psychological holism.
The type of self-reflection that encourages the integration and healing of our experiences.
With this in mind, I feel like it would be a good idea to provide a bit of an outline of what tarot is; introduce an archetype that provides a kind of initiatory gateway into it; and provide some food for thought about how we can consider Tarot if we are to elevate it above its mainstream brand identity issues.
This article is not intended to be a comprehensive history or overview – more of a dipping of our metaphorical toes into the archetypal waters.
Introduction to the Arcana; historical tidbits; considering suits and numbers symbolically.
There are now many versions of the tarot, but I guess within what we could call the “traditional” tarot there are two systems within one 78 card deck.
These two systems are referred to as the Minor Arcana and Major Arcana.
In terms of interpretation, the Minor Arcana is considered to offer insights in relation to mundane ordinary life and relationships as expressed through 4 suits which symbolically represent emotion, thought, sensation and intuition; whereas the Major Arcana is a representation of a journey of experiential development and reflects more profound life lessons.
The Minor Arcana is similar enough to a deck of playing cards that it would seem obvious there some kind of historical relationship there (although there aren’t enough facts to know for sure what that relationship is exactly).
Within the Tarot there is however an additional court member for each of the four suits, bringing the card count to 56, and in most modern decks the “pip cards” (Ace to 10) are illustrated figuratively.
The oldest tarot decks we know of originate from Italy around the 14-15th century and do have pip cards.
The four suits of the Minor Arcana are a representation of the four elements (Fire, Water, Air and Earth), also used by Carl Jung to symbolise the four psychological forces mentioned above.
The suits are interpreted like so:
Wands – Fire – Intuition
Cups – Water – Emotion
Swords – Air – Intellect
Pentacles/Coins – Earth – Sensation/the Worldly realm.
These initially broad brushstrokes become demarcated as we move from the Aces through to 10 and then meet the Court Cards.
As we work through the suits, we work through an energetic progression of each element.
The Aces are the element in a pure unpotentiated form and as the first card in the suit represents new beginnings.
Two represents a division of the initial force into a duality – here we may have choices to make between one thing or another or a need to balance opposition.
The interpretations require some imagination or prior knowledge for qualitative associations that have developed over time for numbers.
But the imagery of the tarot deck should also provide major clues.
Let me say here that Numerology as a standalone discipline (adding up birthdays, life path numbers, etc) isn’t something I have ever had much of an affinity with.
It just doesn’t fire up my imagination as much as other systems.
That being said, for the Minor Arcana an understanding of the four elemental forces with at least a basic understanding of the symbolic associations of numbers is very helpful to start getting to grips with the meanings and to deepen your comprehension of the implied narratives of each suit.
This also applies to the Major Arcana as each card is assigned it’s own number from 0 to 21.
Easing into the Major Arcana and a Lesson from The Fool
The Major Arcana consists of a 22 card pictorial representation of a path of transformation from one awakening individual consciousness (Number 0 – The Fool) to a fully realised human being (usually represented by The World).The Fool represents an ideal attitude towards the unmanifest potential of the present moment. Click To Tweet
They are eager, innately curious and open.
They have “shoshin” or “beginners mind”.
These qualities will put them in good stead to face the various lessons that will be presented to them on their journey.
In one of its most widely recognised depictions from the Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS) deck, The Fool is depicted as a carefree androgynous figure dancing along the edge of a cliff.
They aren’t without experience: the sack slung over their shoulders may be the sum of their trials and learnings so far.There’s a hint of recklessness or naivety here as they are not looking where they are going, but also this serves as an invitation to be bold – to let go of any sense of trepidation and take a risk.
In case it’s not clear, The Fool represents an aspect of your own consciousness.
It is potentially you at many times in life as you are confronted with each opportunity to experience and learn and re-learn (if you don’t the first or second or tenth time!).
In some versions there is some kind of animal helper. In the card above it is a white dog. Dogs are equipped with sensory perception beyond our own and are both feared for their wildness and loved for their faithfulness – acting as guardians and companions for millions of us.
One suggestion for this canine symbol is that we would be wise to aim to remember, trust and eventually integrate our own animal instincts (including playfulness).
There are a number of ways to interpret even this detail of The Fool card, and in different decks there are different symbols that provide the opportunity for additional understandings of each of the 78 cards.
One of the reasons that tarot is so compelling for so many is that the richness of the imagery and layers of meaning within even one complete deck provide the opportunity for a lifetime of revelation as we build our own catalogues of associations.
Each card in the sequence of the Major Arcana from the Fool to the World represents significant leaps forward in development.
With the next two cards – The Magician and The High Priestess – we discover profound standalone lessons but through their connection we are offered one introduction to the theme of the dual nature of consciousness.
The active and receptive.
Masculine and Feminine.
Yin and Yang.
Incredibly juicy areas of exploration and contemplation that deserve more discussion than I can provide space for in this article.
Ways to consider Tarot in terms of personal engagement and cultural significance
The Tarot as I see it is an attempt at a kind of Grand Narrative of human experience and therefore has much to offer, especially with the right questions.
As we progress through the lessons illustrated by the Major and Minor Arcana we are confronted with opportunities for learning and growth as each card poses its own challenges, points to some potential answers and offers the gifts that come with awareness and understanding .
We are provided with lessons around themes of love, will-power, freedom, creativity, communication, life, death and more.
I feel it’s important to mention that although the themes of each card and terms like “spiritual journey” can be very abstract, what is really being talked about is not outside of ordinary life.
When we work with both the Major and Minor Arcana together we are being asked to develop some cognitive flexibility and recognise that ultimately it is in the mundane where we meet the sacred.
In the everyday that we experience and negotiate most physical, emotional, mental and spiritual territory (via relationship with our own psyches and the world at large).
And that it’s the artful negotiation of that territory which allows us to grow and develop into our greatest potential.
With so many insights on offer, the Fool’s approach makes sense.
Without that openness, curiosity and the willingness to take a risk into the unknown we may not be able maximise our learning as we move through each stage of development in life.
There are a number of ways in which you can engage with this technology, including the traditional but still popular methods of prediction.
Another way to work with the cards is more of a kind of reflective personal process.
Perhaps working linearly through the system.
Considering the themes.
Meditating on the images.
Journalling and investigating the many layers of narrative it contains.
It can be an intimidating system to work with initially, but given time and attention it does reveal its treasures.
I personally feel that this is the approach that helps to loosen the culturally inherited shackle of an idea that the Tarot, astrology and so on are merely leftover gypsy gimmicks that offer nothing of value to the modern individual or society.
Considering that the history of tarot that we can confirm stretches back into the Italian Renaissance (perhaps further); not to mention the potential it offers for a creative thinker – it would be a continuing tragedy for this psychological art to remain in a kind of kitchey exile.
My belief it would be celebrated as a significant piece of Western cultural heritage along with other debased systems of thought, but I am an impassioned idealist!
At least it certainly seems that divination is gaining more and more genuine interest which I do appreciate.
Maybe ultimately it’s where it belongs and it’s about getting more people out onto the fringe!