Monday, March 8, 2010

The Tarot: A Crash Course

Let's start with a brief history and origin of the Tarot cards. Just for the record, I'll be compiling my material from two sources. They are Wikipedia and Rachael Pollack, the esteemed author of "Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom-a Book of Tarot" which I think, hands down, is the best book on the subject. Her scholarship and readability make this book a must have for anyone interested in studying the Tarot.

Pollack explains that sometime in the middle of the fifteenth century, an Itallian artist named Bonifacio Bembo was commissioned by the Visconti family (yes, the renowned film director Luchino Visconti is a direct descendant) to design a deck of playing cards. Bemdo did not name them nor did he number them. The pictures he painted made up the classic deck for an Italian game call 'Tarocchi'. Bembo's deck was divided into two parts:  four suits of fourteen cards each and a set of twenty-two cards depicting different scenarios which later became known as the 'trumps'.  The two parts added up to seventy-eight cards.

So, originally, the Tarot was a deck of playing cards intended for recreation. It was not until the 18th and 19th centuries that occultists, mystics and secret societies developed an interest in the Tarot as a means by which to divine the future and reveal 'secret' knowledge. These esotericists adopted the Tarot for their own and gave names to its two existing parts.  The twenty two cards became the Major Arcana (greater secrets as 'arcana' means mysterious or secret) and the remaining fifty six cards the Minor Arcana (lesser secrets).

The Majar Arcana depicts the following images:  The Fool, The Magician, The High Priestess, The Empress, The Emperor, The Hierophant, The Lovers, The Chariot, Strength, The Hermit, Wheel of Fortune, Justice, The Hanged Man, Death ,Temperance, The Devil, The Tower, The Star, The Moon, The Sun, Judgment and The World. These images represent Man's virtues and vices as well as archetypical and iconic ones which in most cases are easily recognized by most people. However, not all the pictures are that straightforward and their meaning is ambiguous or just plain unclear to the unitiated. For example, what exactly  does The Tower or The Hanged Man mean? The mystics and occultists believed that they had the power to decode, if you like, the 'hidden' meaning of these cards.

The Minor Arcana of fifty six cards is divided into four suits of fourteen cards each; ten numbered cards and four court cards. The court cards are the familiar King, Queen, Knight and Jack which later evolved into the the Page. The suits include the wands, the cups, the swords and the pentacles. Each suit symbolizes a specific trait. Wands signify creativity and inspiration. Cups represent our emotional life. Swords reveal our intellectual and mental life. Pentacles deal with the non-spiritual, material world.

The Tarot has long been assoiciated with Jewish mysticism.  Pollack writes, "A brief look at the stunning correspondences between the Tarot and the body of Jewish mysticism and occult knowledge, called collectively the Kabbalah, will demonstate the way in which Bembo's cards seem almot to demand an esoteric interpretaion, despite the lack of hard evidence."   She goes on to explain that the heart of the Kabbalah lies within the symbolism of the Hebrew alphabet. Each letter is connected to the paths of the Hebrew Tree of Life and is assigned its own symbolic meaning. Coincidently, or not so coincidently, the Hebrew alphabet contains twenty-two letters, the same number of trump cards as in the Tarot's Major Arcana. And the Kabbalah delves deeply into the four letters of God's unpronounceable name, YHVH. Again, one may ask coincidence or not, but there happen to be four court cards in each of Bembo's four suits.

Pollack goes on to say that the Kabbalah works with the number ten which corresponds to the Ten Commandments and the ten Sephiroth (stages of emanations) on each of the four Trees of Life. And each of the four suits contain cards numbered from one to ten. So is it no wonder, she asks, that the Tarot has long been cited as the pictorial version of the Kabbalah whose meanings remain inaccessible to the masses and available only to the elite. Yet, despite these connections, the Tarot is not mentioned once in the annals of Kabbalastic literature. Hence, any legitimate connection between the two remains hypothetical.

Today, the Tarot is generally thought of as providing its devotees with a kind of road map for one's Life Path or Journey. Ideally, it helps us to challenge and question our  preceptions and premises about the world and about ourselves. When used correctly,  the Tarot's powerful images will resonate and shake things up so that when we eventually  readjust our sights we have acquired a new way of looking at and understanding Life's unforeseen events.  It is at that moment we are enlightened.

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