So, I got this book for my birthday last year, and although I skimmed through it then, I really wanted to pause and take my time to read it without rush. Tarot has such a rich and extensive tradition that one will take years to grasp all the symbology embedded in it. I believe the main reason for this is that it has served several purposes through the almost seven centuries of existence, with each generation adding another layer of meanings to it. It started as a cards game, that is certain. Around the 18th century some mystics found use for it for fortune-telling. By the beginning of the 20th century Carl Jung was aware of it and we can see some overlap in psychoanalysis with his theories of archetypes and the collective unconscious. Nowadays it is used for meditation, divination, self-knowledge and decision-making.
Being one of the most distinctive characteristics of the Tarot, its storytelling is something unique and captivating. The Major Arcana, or the Trump Cards, normally are 22 cards numbered from 1 to 21 with the Fool either being left unnumbered or receiving the number 0. One of the things that most impressed me is that you can find a logic behind the sequence of these cards. And when you play the game, or do a reading asking for direction on a decision, or try to know yourself better, the shuffled cards also have a story to tell.
An innocent leaves hearth and home and sets out on the open road, unaware of both the wonders and the danger ahead. Along the way he begins to realize his own power, discovers the deep dimensionality of his inner self, and faces his weaknesses and fears, revealing a strength he did not know he had. He loves. He suffers. He makes grave mistakes and rises again to joyfully celebrate his victories. He meditates. He dances. He weeps. And as he moves forward along the winding, rocky path, he evolves, ultimately embracing all aspects of himself: body, mind, and finally, spirit.Tarot – The Library of Esoterica, Edited and Written by Jessica Hundley
Some Cards and their Meanings
One of the most popular decks of all time is the one known as Rider-Waite-Smith, a collaboration between the Tarot scholar Arthur Edward Waite and the illustrator Pamela Colman Smith, both members of the secret society Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Just to illustrate it, I have picked some of my preferred cards with a little interpretation of their meaning.
A young man is precipitously walking at the edge of an abyss, apparently unaware of the dangers surrounding him. He has colourful and extravagant clothes characteristic of youth, on the left hand a white rose symbolizing purity and innocence, on the right hand a travel bag hanging on the end of a staff indicating that he has embarked on a voyage. By his side a small dog showing loyalty and companionship. On the background ice capped mountains signifying the immutability of the world on face of his personal adventures. The Sun is shining bright on the sky, a mystic goal preferably to be pursued on or irresponsibly to be wandered off.
Will he be successful on his journey? That is for us to discover.
That is how every person comes to this world: pure, innocent, unaware of the dangers, willing or not embarking on a self-knowledge journey. But it can also be the last step this person is taking. That is why this is the unnumbered card, or the card 0. The Major Arcana may well start with it, or end with it.
This is one of the cards with more mystical and esoteric symbols, drawing from Egyptian, Kabbalah, Christian, Alchemical and Astrological traditions.
On the wheel itself we have the letters A, O, R, T, which, depending on the direction and starting point one reads, can spell TAROT, ROTA (wheel in Latin), or TORA(H) (the book of the Law for the Hebrews). We have also the Tetragrammaton, the unpronounceable name of God, and the Alchemical symbols for mercury, sulfur, water and salt.
Spinning on the wheel are a Sphinx on top, representing knowledge and strength; Anubis, the guardian of the underworld, on the bottom but in an ascending motion; and the serpent in a descending direction, representing life force plunging into the material world. Where it will stop depends purely on chance.
On the four corners we have the animals of the vision of Ezequiel: an Angel, an Eagle, a Bull, and a Lion. These same animals also represent the four Evangelists: Matthew, John, Mark, and Luke. They each are reading (or writing) on a book–the Torah or the Gospels. They can also represent the signs of the Zodiac: Aquarius, Scorpio, Taurus, Leo. It all depends on the interpretation.
This card represents the ever constant flux of the world and the eternal return that have been heralded by the philosophers. If there is one thing that is certain, is that there will be change.
It is very common in the Tarot for you to pick up a card that at first look means something bad, like the Devil, Death, the Tower, or the Hanged Man.
This one shows a man hanging by his right foot, with his left leg dangling loose and forming an inverted and mirrored number 4 or the symbol of the cross and also a triangle. He is tied to some trunks of a tree in the form of a T with live leaves on it, indicating interaction with the forces of nature. The colours on him are also suggestive: the red on his pants represents the passions of the body, the blue on the shirt, calmness, and the yellow on shoes and hair, the intellect. His hands are hidden behind his back. His head is surrounded by a halo-like shining light, and surprisingly his face shows a calm and serene disposition. When you consider all of this, you realize that he is there by his own volition. He has chosen to be in that position. He is making a self-sacrifice for the greater good. He is meditating.
So, the bad aspect of the card is only apparent. It invites you to change your perspective, to look things from the upside down, to take a pause and meditate, to think before acting.
Tarot in Popular Culture
There are a myriad of Tarot decks available for all tastes and purposes. Many of them were created specifically for promotional stunts, for example, the High as Hope Tarot was distributed with the album of the same name by Florence + The Machine. Another example is the limited deck Magie Noire published in May 1979 in the women’s magazine Annabella to promote the perfume Magie Noire by Lancôme. Each card was scented with the fragrance. Decks like these make the dreams of collectors.
I loved the art on the limited series below, created by a Brazilian artist, Erike Miranda. “He explores traditional archetypes in a contemporary manner, drawing on influences ranging from graphic novels to fantasy art.” Browse on the Instagram link below to see the cards representing Death, the Fool, the Hermit, and the Magician.
There is a curious story about two of the decks presented in the book. Salvador Dalí, the famous surrealist painter, had been commissioned in the early 70s to prepare a custom deck to be propped in the James Bond movie Live and Let Die, but the deal fell through (tell me about the frustration the fans experience in situations like these… I am still waiting for a song by Amy Winehouse for a James Bond opening title sequence, sadly knowing it will never happen). Another artist was engaged: Fergus Hall who then created the Tarot of the Witches, which became instantaneously famous. You can find below the resulting scene. But at least in this case there was a happy ending. Dalí continued working in his deck which was eventually released in 1984, and the public was presented with one more cherished deck.
Tarot is ultimately a visual art. Of course I wouldn’t be able to cover so much information on this single post. If you want to have just a glimpse of the variety and depth of the material covered in the book, watch the clip below from TASCHEN: