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The Tarot is an old medieval system of divination using symbolism. A complete Tarot pack consists of four suits - Coins, Wands, Cups and Swords. Each suit has numbers one to ten and four picture cards - Page, Knight, Queen and King. Additionally there are 22 trumps (or major arcana) - so a full pack consists of 78 cards. There are traditionally a number of different spreads (the layout in which the cards are dealt) that tarot diviners may use - Dynion Mwyn uses the 11 card Celtic Spread to provide help and advice on specific questions.
Tarot cards first appeared about 1376 in Italy, not many years after
the introduction of playing cards. Most of the cards of a typical tarot pack, the 56
known as the minor arcana, are nothing but a set of playing cards, with two cards (a
knight and page) replacing the Jack in each suit. The suits themselves are the traditional
Italian suits of wands, cups, swords, and coins, rather than the French equivalents of
clubs, hearts, spades, and diamonds.
What distinguishes the tarot deck is an additional 22 cards bearing various allegorical images. These are the major arcana. For most of its history, tarot cards were used to play a trick-taking game similar to bridge, in which the major arcana cards were played if one could not follow suit, and would "triumph" (Italian trionfi is the origin of the term "trumps") over the suit cards and win the trick. During the 17th and 18th centuries, most tarot decks closely followed a classic (if somewhat crude) set of woodblock designs known as the Tarot of Marseilles. These designs are still commonplace, outside the US.
The Major Arcana are a motley collection of images, ranging from rather ordinary human figures (The Fool, The Magician), through powerful figures of the medieval world (The Emperor, The Pope), to allegorical images of virtues (Fortitude, Justice, and Temperance) and the great forces of life (The Wheel of Fortune, Death, and The Devil), finally reaching rather cosmological imagery in such cards as The Sun, The Moon, and the final Judgment.
The modern interest in the tarot as a metaphysical tool stems from the 18th century occult movement in France. Antoine Court de Gebelin noticed a deck of tarot cards and decided that the trumps must surely carry lost religious secrets from ancient times. His speculation spawned a great interest in "uncovering" the mystical meanings of the cards.
Two members of the Golden Dawn had a great influence on the
development of modern tarot. A. E. Waite, a Christian mystic, published his own deck in
1909. The deck was drawn by artist Pamela Coleman Smith. The major arcana, naturally, are
rich with occult symbolism. The most innovative aspect of the deck, however, is the minor
arcana, which (instead of resembling playing cards) show various scenes that seem to
suggest stories. With this change, every card in the deck makes an immediate psychological
suggestion in the mind of the viewer. In a sense, all the cards now resemble the trumps.
This deck became the most popular deck in the English-speaking world. It is still widely
available, and most books that teach tarot reading use the Waite-Smith deck as the
starting point. (It is often called the Rider-Waite deck, because Rider was the original
publisher. It seems more appropriate to honor the artist Smith, who apparently created all
the innovative minor arcana cards without much
specific direction from Waite.)
The other influential Golden Dawn member was the infamous Aleister Crowley. His Thoth Tarot (named for the Egyptian god of magic) was painted by Lady Frieda Harris in the 1940s, but was not published until 1966. This deck is very intense psychologically (almost to the point of psychedelia), and the artwork is very abstract and visceral. Crowley's interpretations of the cards differ somewhat from Waite's, but they are both derived from a common framework that draws heavily on Hermetic
qabala, a mystical doctrine of the stages through which the divine force of creation descends into matter.
In the 1970s, the blossoming interest in alternative religious and spiritual practices launched a burst of popularity for the tarot, which continues to the present day without any sign of receding. Many new decks were published, most adaptations of the Waite-Smith (or sometimes Crowley-Harris) deck, redrawn to reflect the artist's esthetic sensibilities or personal philosophy. Hence there are now Wiccan decks, feminist decks, Native American decks, and so on. There are even such curiosities as
Tarot for Cats and a deck where each card shows a different style of shoe. The tarot has proved itself to be a facile vehicle for the expression of new-age creativity.
We've left one question unanswered, though. Why were the tarot trump cards created in the first place? Was it simply, as the external evidence seems to suggest, a clever card game created by an unknown Italian artist early in the 15th century? Or, as the occultists suspected, a set of images deliberately conceived to depict a philosophical, religious, or mystical system? The earliest surviving cards were lavishly hand-painted collection pieces made for the court of the Duke of Milan around the middle of the 15th century. If they were modeled on a more mundanely produced set of playing cards, the physical evidence is gone. Robert O'Neill, in his book Tarot Symbolism, argues persuasively that the tarot were designed to depict the mystical ideas of neoplatonism and perhaps Jewish qabala that were becoming known in Italy at the time. An especially interesting piece in this puzzle is the so-called Tarocchi of Mantegna (which are neither tarot cards nor the work of renaissance artist Andreas Mantegna). This set of 50 pictures depicts the various ranks of medieval society, the academic sciences, the muses, the virtues, and the cosmos. Many of the pictures resemble the tarot trumps, but the "Tarocchi of Mantegna" were clearly intended for philosophical edification rather than game playing.
The history of the tarot is a window on one of the philosophical/religious strands in the story of European culture. That strand reaches back in time to ancient gnosticism, through the medieval practices of alchemy and astrology, through the fascination with the occult in recent centuries, and on into the modern "new age" movement. It is a cultural strand that is not always easy to follow, with the suppression, secrecy, and obscurity under which many of these ideas lived for centuries.
Because the tarot has passed through so many different circumstances and subcultures, it is a feast for the curious, whether your interest is religion, art, magic, games, or philosophy. Perhaps the tarot is a kind of cultural flypaper, catching everything that happens to bump into it.
Here is a Tarot reading list which contains some of the most important books on Tarot and Divination topics. These are the best introductory texts available. Many of these books can be found in different editions. The copyright dates shown here are for specific editions that I own or have read.
There are many tarot books available, each with its own style. Here are a few that are considered essential to any tarot library.
for Your Self, by Mary Greer. If you are interested in using the cards for purposes of
meditation or personal growth, this is the place to start. It is a workbook, rather than a
text. Greer provides a wonderful set of exercises that help you experience the imagery of
the cards in your own deck (whichever one you may have) and discover what the cards mean
Renaissance Tarot, by Brian Williams. Most books that are written to
accompany decks do little but rehash commonplace interpretations and explain the
idiosynchrasies of the particular deck. This one is different. Williams examines the
artistic and allegorical history of the tarot as it was developed in the 15th and 16th
centuries. The result is a book that really adds something new to one's understanding of
the cards. It includes hundreds of illustrations based on renaissance art, placing the
tarot images in their true cultural context.
ADVANCED THEORY OF THE TAROT
Tarot: History, Mystery, and Lore, by Cynthia Giles. This book does not explain how to read the cards, but does provide the best accessible overview of their development and their relationship to psychological and metaphysical ideas. Giles summarizes the essentials of more serious books, like O'Neill and Kaplan, and also gives readable accounts of various esoteric theories explaining tarot divination. This is the best book to start with, if you are curious about the tarot, rather than seeking instruction on how to use them.
The Book of Thoth, by Aleister Crowley. Crowley presented himself as the greatest magician of his time, and there is certainly an atmosphere of occultism and ego that pervades this book, but his understanding of symbolism, numerology, qabala, and astrology is conveyed effectively and makes this book a good "one-stop shop" for learning the occultist perspective on the tarot (which is not necessarily historically sound, but has nevertheless been the dominant influence in understanding the tarot). His descriptions of the individual cards carry a lot of weight, especially in conjunction with the deck he designed.
There are a multitude of sites related to Tarot with many more coming online all the time. Some sites maintain excellent links to the best Tarot web pages.
Quietsound's Psychic Page - Psychic Tarot Readings & New Age products.
Learn Tarot - This site contains a complete Tarot course and is Excellent!!!
Complete List of Tarot Decks. - You HAVE to see this to believe it. I think that every Tarot deck that has ever been printed is listed here. And you can purchase it!
Click on the banner below for an excellent three card Tarot reading
Crowley Thoth Deck - The Fourth Dimension offers a full celtic cross reading using this most fascinating deck of cards.
Osho Zen Tarot - A most unusual and inspiring interactive Tarot site. The single card option offers a meditative reading.
The Raven's Eye - An absolutely wonderful reading by The Raven. It reveals your immediate future in four cards.
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