The Case for the Traditional Tarot
We live in a period which has seen an explosive growth of interest in and usage of tarot cards. This increased interest in tarot precisely coincides with the decline of organized religion in the Western world. People are looking for a participatory form of spirituality that is personal and self determined. The old religious formulations simply aren’t working for a vast swath of the population, the “spiritual but not religious.” Tarot, paganism, Wicca and other forms of alternative spirituality have all benefited from the precipitous decline of organized religion, particularly in Christianity.
Along with the explosion of interest in tarot, there has been a proliferation of card decks. Today the choices among decks are bewildering. Some are enormously creative and others are just bizarre. In addition to tarot, there are “oracle” decks, Lenormand decks, rune decks and more. While I applaud the creative freedom that has been brought to bear on the tarot, it must be troublesome for those just coming to tarot for the first time. Even those of us who have been doing tarot for some time can benefit by a return to the roots occasionally. Some seem to have drifted far from the original intent of those who designed the cards. I do believe that to know where we are going, we must first know where we have been.
Before I go further, I will not tell you what deck is right or wrong or which one you should be using. That is your business. If you finish this article, I think you will have a good idea of my preferences without stating them like a sales pitch. “It’s your thing. Do what you want to do.” What I would like to do is give you a quick history, the structure of the tarot and the rationale behind it, plus some quick thoughts on usage. If I can accomplish that, I’ve done my job.
Some form of tarot has been around since the mid-15th Century. While no one knows for sure, it is most likely that the tarot was invented in Italy, although many hold to the legend that they migrated from Egypt. There is a legend that tarot came to Europe with the Romani (Gypsy) people. Neither legend is supported by archeological evidence. In the 15th Century, the cards were used simply as a parlor game. It wasn’t until the 18th Century that serious discussion can be found about tarot as an instrument of divination. The “golden age” of tarot was the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and it all came down to four remarkable people, the team of Arthur Edward Waite with illustrator Pamela Coleman Smith and the team of Aleister Crowley and illustrator Frieda Harris. Each team produced a deck that is still widely used today. If there is a “canonical” deck, most would agree that it is the Waite-Harris deck (often referred to as the RWS deck for “Rider-Waite-Harris”). It is the one used most widely in the manuals. The Thoth deck from Crowley and Harris has much to commend it as well. The RWS deck was revolutionary in that never before did the minor cards have illustrations that told stories. Previously they used pips like regular playing cards. The Crowley deck is a mix of the two styles, using pip-like devices but in a way that turns them into symbolic illustrations.
There were other remarkable characteristics about these two decks which made them the global phenomena that they are now. All four of these people were at some time members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (which is still the coolest name for a club that I’ve ever heard). They practiced a highly ritualized form of ceremonial magick. They practiced alchemy, hermetic magick, qabalah and astrology. Waite and Crowley were both brilliant occultists, and while working separately, they were both on the same track. What they accomplished was amazing: they managed to harmonize and synchronize all of these esoteric traditions – alchemy, hermetic magick, qabalah and astrology – into their decks. So what does this mean to the cards?
It means that every symbol, number, form and color is there due to a magical correspondence which is rooted in the Western esoteric mystical system that evolved over centuries. Using this system, the cards are designed to stimulate the reader’s intuition and imagination in a particular way. There are no accidents in traditional tarot. Think of it like a fish net: if you pull on it here, it tugs on it over there.
The structure of the tarot is pure qabalah. There are 22 Major cards because there are 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet. Each major arcana card is keyed to a letter of the Hebrew alphabet and they run in order. There are 10 minor arcana cards per suite because there are 10 sephiroth (levels of reality) in the qabalistic “Tree of Life.” There are four suites and four court cards per suite because there are four letters in the mystical name of God in the Torah, and four qabalistic worlds.
In terms of astrology, Kings, Queens and Knights each rule three decans of the zodiac. Pages don’t rule signs. Each card has an astrological correspondence. Each major arcana card has a correspondence with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and most of the letters have an astrological, numerical and linguistic correspondence. For example, Lamed, the “L” has a numeric value of 30, a linguistic meaning of “ox goad,” a correspondence to Libra and is represented by the major card, Justice. Pretty slick, huh?
The alchemical and Hermetic traditions are represented all through the deck, especially in the colors and forms. We see this connection in cards like The Lovers, Death, the 2 of Cups, The Star, The Chariot, Temperance, The Magician and others. It should be noted that even the colors on the cards are there due to the magickal correspondences understood by the Golden Dawn.
Herein lies one of my concerns about some of the new decks. If you’re using “The Pink Kitten Tarot” and all of the cards are pink and all of the devices are kittens doing cute things, this whole esoteric magical system is lost. Now, if these kinds of things don’t really matter to you and you’re getting good readings with the kittens, by all means use them. The ultimate goal is to get good readings, but it does seem like a loss to me when we toss out the traditional system entirely. There is so much depth and nuance which is in the traditional system that I would be hard pressed to read cards today without the underpinning of the Golden Dawn system. My dedication to history will not allow me to ignore it altogether. My old jazz theory teacher used to say, “Yes, by all means, break all of the rules, but you must know them before you can break them.”
There is a “third way” between hard traditional and the iconoclastic decks that seem to completely discard the traditional framework. I have seen some wonderful decks that are hybrid in that the art and conceptualization of the cards is completely different but they follow the RWS structure to a T. I am thinking of the wonderful Shadowscapes Tarot deck by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law. Her art is gorgeous and totally original (as is her accompanying manual). It uses fairies and elves, swans and ravens, mermaids and mermen, angels, fish and humming birds. At the same time she follows closely the color scales of the HOGD system of correspondences and the underlying RWS structure. I find this deck a delight to use, and I am sure there are others that follow this path.
Most of us who are reading cards these days are doing divination – somehow extrapolating something in the future from something in the present – fortune telling. Waite, Smith, Crowley and Harris viewed the cards differently. This is an important thing to know: these folks didn’t dismiss divination, but they understood that it was not the primary purpose of the cards. The primary purpose of the cards is psychic and spiritual development for the reader. Tarot is a path, a spiritual journey from The Fool to the The World and back again. It runs like a Swiss watch.
The closest that most of us get to a Golden Dawn tarot usage is the “Card of the Day” where we draw one card early in the day and meditate on it for the rest of the day. A favorite Golden Dawn practice was to select one card and meditate on it until the practitioner can completely reconstruct the card in the imagination down to the finest detail. This is an important piece of context, but it does not bind us today. The salient point here is that there is great depth and power in the traditional system. There are many ways to use it and approach it. We can do divination with almost anything – dice, a coin, tea leaves – but only tarot contains that detailed road map of psychic development. It is an archetypal map of the human psyche.The tarot can be a tool through which the unconscious can speak to us. It can be an instrument of personal growth and healing.
Do I do divination with my cards? Absolutely. Who doesn’t want that rare glimpse of the future? On the other hand, I find that I am generally more interested in how the tarot describes my current situation and inner states of being. I do use light trance techniques to open up my channels. I avoid using the books unless I am completely drawing a blank on a card which sometimes happens. I prefer to let my intuition go to work on what the cards are saying to me today, and I let the pictures, colors and numbers work their magick.
I tend to use the classic spreads like the Celtic Cross and the 3-Card, but some of the best readers I know simply start talking as they do the overhand shuffle and draw a card as the spirit moves them. Others cross reference the magickal correspondences of the day and let that lead them to a card for meditation. I will often do the numerology on the date until I get a number that is 22 or less and then find the major arcana card that corresponds to the number. And, of course, I do “The Card for the Day” and then post it to Twitter. That’s my morning ritual.
The upshot of this is that there are many ways to work with tarot cards, and that work is helped by a grasp of the underlying magical system in them. Any method works as long as it is done with integrity; any method is toxic if done falsely. To the young practitioner who may say, “I don’t have time for all of this study.” My answer would be, “Life is long. When the time is right, the interest, time and energy for the study will be there. I could be writing my own biography here. That is exactly what I did in the beginning. I owned a couple of books, but mostly I read intuitively because I really had not had the time for extensive study. The only thing I knew about Aleister Crowley was that Jimmy Page thought he was cool and bought his house. I got some very good readings, and I got some total bullshit, and I couldn’t really tell one from the other. That’s where my study began with a remarkable book by Rachel Pollack called Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom. (If you do buy this book, get the second edition with the purple cover.) If the tarot police came in and told me I could only keep one tarot book, it would be this one.
I believe that the best approach to the traditional system is that of open-mindedness, neither intimidated by the complexity nor a slave to the theory. I know good card readers who learned the Golden Dawn system, but later decided that they wanted to go a different direction with the cards. Most of these folks still use decks with the RWS system, but they don’t follow the “fool’s journey” theology of the HOGD. You know what? That’s just fine. We’d never get anywhere without some dissenters.
I hope I have struck an inclusive and affirming tone, because that was my intent. I really don’t care how anyone uses tarot cards or which decks they choose. There are things which give me sleepless nights but this is not one of them. As with everything else, when you tune yourself to Spirit, the cards will speak to you. I hope I have painted a picture of the great wealth of knowledge there is in the lore and tradition of tarot. I think it is important to know that it exists regardless of whether you appropriate it as your own or not, and it is a wonderful resource when you face a difficult reading. I want you to know why it is important to me.