The Tarot
  1. Origins
  2. The Cards

THE HERMIT from the Marseilles TarotThe Tarot is a system of divining the future and revealing occult (hidden) truth. It is the Witch's most frequently used method of divination.

The exact origin of the Tarot is mysterious, shrouded in antiquity, although conjectures abound. Some believe that Tarot cards have their roots in an ancient Egyptian book, "The Book of Thoth". Thoth was the moon god of ancient Egypt and was believed to have created the world by the sound of his voice alone. Possessed of complete wisdom and knowledge, Thoth was credited with giving birth to all the arts and sciences and with inventing the hieroglyphs. He was the first magician and was later called Hermes Trismegistus by the ancient Greeks. Thoth worshippers claimed to have access to his great books of infinitely powerful magic "these formulas which commanded all the forces of nature and subdued the very gods themselves", which they undertook to decipher and learn. Could the Tarot have its roots in this work by the worshippers of Thoth? Quite possibly.

Detail from THE GYPSIES by Jacques Callot, 1621The Tarot was almost certainly introduced to the West by The Gypsies (Romanies) who began a mass exodus of their homeland around 1000 AD. Gypsies, contrary to popular belief, originated in Northern India rather than Egypt although they are known to have travelled through Egypt on their way to Europe where they arrived circa 1350 AD.

Their dark looks, mysterious air and colourful clothing led to the mistaken belief that they were from Egypt, hence the name "gypsy", an abbreviated form of Egyptian. Tarot reading and other occult arts were a major part of gypsy culture and it is through these nomads that the Tarot was dispersed through Europe. It is probably no coincidence that the earliest extant Tarot cards, now residing at the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, have been dated to around 1400, just 50 years after Gypsies arrived in Europe.

During the Renaissance, there was increasing interest in the occult arts such as Alchemy and the Cabbala of popularity. There were some however who feared the Tarot, believing it to be the spawn of the devil and that its use would endanger one's soul.

In 1781, Antoine Court de Gebelin wrote a treatise on the Tarot which suggested that it originated in ancient Egypt and that the major arcana were encoded keys through which it might be possible to unlock the magical books of Thoth and his followers. Later in the 1800's, Eliphas Levi, a renowned mystic suggested a connection between Tarot and the Kabbala. Levi theorized that the Tarot was Hebrew in origin and that all 78 cards were encoded with the mystical knowledge of the Tree of Life.

Over the following years, many occult societies and religions took a keen interest in the Tarot: The Rosicrucians, the Theosophists, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Aleister Crowley and his followers, to name but a few.

Today, the Tarot is more popular than ever. With hundreds of different decks available, offering variations of symbolism and style, it is possible for the Tarot aficionado to find a deck that speaks to him in a language of symbol and meaning that is personal and endlessly rich.

The Tarot deck is composed of 78 cards which are divided into major and minor arcana. The 22 cards of the major arcana (also referred to as "trumps") are archetypal images, symbolizing potent events and/or themes the individual encounters on The River of Life. The 56 minor arcana consist of 16 court cards (King, Queen, Knight, Page) and 40 number cards also known as pips which are numbered from Ace to Ten. The minor arcana are divided into four suits: Wands, Swords, Cups and Pentacles. The modern deck of playing cards descends from the minor arcana of medieval playing decks. The suit of Wands becomes Clubs; Cups, Hearts; Pentacles, Diamonds and Swords; Spades. These four suits correspond to four divisions of activity and each also has a corresponding element.

Swords—associated with the masculine element of air and related to mental activity, intellect and all forms of communication. Swords can also indicate conflict (quarrels, law suits, confusion, anxiety, separations).
Pentacles—associated with the feminine element Earth and related to the fruits of the earth ie. material concerns, worldly status, tangible achievement, cold, hard cash and matters related to the body. In a reading, Pentacles can suggest a realistic, sensible approach to a problem or concern. They are often telling you that in order to fulfill your dreams, you are going to have to log in plenty of solid work. The suit of Pentacles can also indicate people who are "earthy," common-sense types, who work with their hands and/or offer solid support.
Cups—associated with the feminine element of water, they relate to emotions, imagination, inspiration, creativity and intuition. In a reading, Cups describe relationships of all kinds—friendship, parenthood, love affairs etc—and emotions, also of all kinds—from the heights of ecstatic joy to the depths of despair. On a more worldly level, Cups can represent creative enterprises.
Wands—associated with masculine element of fire, Wands are related to energy, creativity and action. In a reading, wands often signify matters pertaining to career, social activity and passion and can indicate increased activity and change.

A Tarot card reading, particularly an in-depth one, is a very healing, consciousness expanding experience. The Tarot doesn't merely divine the possibilities in your future, it helps you get in touch with your own dreams, talents and potential. I have been reading Tarot cards since I was 14 years old when my Manx grandmother, herself a gifted reader, gave me my first deck. Over the ensuing years, they have been enormously enlightening to me. Not only have they alerted me to future events, but they have helped me see more deeply into myself and others.


Treat yourself to an in-depth personal reading with Sheila O'Sullivan, The Electric Witch


Text © 2000 Sheila O'Sullivan/The Electric Witch
Layout & Graphics © 2000 Kevin Andrew Murphy/Alphyn Press.
Permission granted to reproduce these texts and graphics
for inclusion in personal Books of Shadows
or for use in personal rituals only.
All other rights reserved.

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