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The Tarot

Examining The Magick Of Tarot

By James Donahue

The origin of tarot cards is perhaps as mysterious as the cabalistic symbols said to be found in the art.

The first recorded evidence of the tarot appeared in Italy about 700 years ago when a “Tarocco” deck was made for the Vicsconzi-Sforza family in Milan. They appear to have been used as playing cards, much like modern decks of playing cards are used. But some believe the tarot dates to ancient Egypt or earlier, and others say the Gypsies may have been heavily involved in the design and secret magical effect they are said to offer.

In the late 1700s, Antoine Court, a member of a secret society of occultists observed the game of tarocchi being played. As the story is told, Court was struck by the art to be found on each of the cards and believed the images to be filled with occult symbolism linked to ancient Egyptian mythology. His nine-volume treatise “Le Monde Primitif” was the first written work dealing with the secrets of the images found on tarot cards. He argued that the Tarot was an ancient Egyptian book of arcane wisdom.

Two years later, another French occultist, Jean-Baptiste Alliette, published Etteilla (his name spelled backwards) in which he presented the ideas of tarot divination through astrology, the four classical elements and the four humors. The book was the first to popularize the concept of tarot divination because it described methods of using the cards for divination.

By 1790, Alliette was interpreting the hermetic wisdom of the Egyptian Book of Thoth that including his reworkings of what would eventually be known as the Major and Minor Arcana. He founded the first Tarot society and by 1791 published the first deck of tarot cards to be used for occult purposes.

In about 1800 occultist Eliphas Livi designed yet another tarot deck. S  Liddel Mahers/McGregor, an eccentric occult author and founder of the Golden Dawn, later linked the cards to the Cabalah in his writings..

Before Mahers’ death in 1918, his successor as a leader in the Golden Dawn, Arthur E. Waite, also an occult writer and mystic, created the Rider-Waite Tarot deck. The art work was done by Pamela Colman Smith. The deck was first published in 1909 by the Ryder Company, thus explaining its name. Although it is sold amid stacks of many other tarot designs by a long list of artists, the Rider-Waite deck remains among the most popular decks still in use today.

Also during this time, the late Aleister Crowley, yet another dynamic force in occult circles, was creating his own version of the tarot. The Crowley and Rider-Waite decks are uniquely different in art form, symbols, images, colors and themes, yet both cards are used by psychics and experienced readers for divination. That is, with careful placement under certain conditions, the cards are believed to foretell of probabilities of future events.

Because of their occult symbolism, many Christians maintain the cards are evil or that they hold some kind of evil power. Readers and people in the occult who deal with tarot say the cards merely reflect the subconscious and conscious mind of the individual. They are a good way of learning about oneself, sometimes giving advice or warnings as to what may be in the future, and helping us prepare for or even avoid these events.

This is what is known as divination. Using the cards is comparable to “witching” water in the ground by holding a willow stick until it bends. The willow technique works for some people, and not for others. Tarot reading appears to be something that anybody can learn, although some adepts seem to become natural readers in a very short time.

Since we will be studying from the Ryder-Waite deck, we want to offer some information about the art work.

The images by Smith at first appear deceptively simple. Yet when they are studied carefully, each picture includes a wealth of symbolism. Note that Waite removed or toned down all of the Christian imagery of the old Livi decks. Thus the Pope card became the Hierophant, and the Popess became the High Priestess. Waite also published The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, which explained his interpretation of their symbols, and included 78 black and white plates of each card in the deck.

The Tarot was introduced to the Western culture in the early 1900's, and became extremely popular during World War I. Since then more and more people have been opening up to the idea of Tarot readers, Astrologers, and Psychics.

The decks usually contain 78 cards structured into two parts. The first, the Trump cards, or Major Arcana, are 21 cards without suits plus a twenty-second card, the Fool. This card is given the value of zero, or sometimes it is numbered 22. In the occult, the number 22 represents the circle, which also is seen as the figure zero.

The second deck, or Minor Arcana, consists of 56 cards divided into four suits of 14 cards. They are the Swords, Staffs, Disks and Cups. The word Arcana is the plural form of the Latin word Arcanum, which means “secret.”

As we slowly work our way through the secrets of the Tarot, you may be surprised at the symbolism we find in the Smith artwork. The art on the Crowley decks are so mystical, books might be written about each card.

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The Mind of James Donahue