When people think of a tarot reading, it often conjures up an image of a gypsy in colourful garb, laying out cards with gnarled hands, telling a future of forbidding elements.
In actuality, tarot has a complex and meaningful history, and can be a helpful means to gaining personal insight into the unconscious mind. Tarot is divided into two categories; the Major Arcana, which consists of 22 cards, and the Minor Arcana, which has 56 cards, creating a full set of 78 cards.
History of the tarot
The first tarot card decks can be traced as far back as the sixth century B.C in Persia. According to a study written by Helen Farley, a lecturer in Studies in Religion and Estoricism at the University of Queenland, tarot was “incorporated into Islamic heraldry and also among those Shi’ah Muslims that came to be known as Sufis.” Farley explains that Arifi of Heart, a fifteenth century Sufi poet, described the practice of tarot in his poetry, even so far as passionately exclaiming: “He knows about it all – He knows – HE knows!”.
Tarot cards steadily made their way north into Europe through trade routes and were popularized in Italy in the fifteenth century. The earliest well-known tarot deck from this era is called the Visconti-Sforza and was created for Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan in 1450. The 22 Major Arcana was created at this time and, with slight variations, has subsisted throughout the ages.
In the eighteenth century, France experienced the French Occult Revival due to increasing doubt in standard Christian practices. Interestingly, most tarot decks have elements of Christian mysticism. The tarot de Marseilles was created by Pierre Madenie of Dihon in 1709 and became immensely popular in France.
In 1909, A.E Waite and Pamela Colman Smith created the Rider-Waite-Smith Deck in Britain, arguably the most significant deck of tarot cards in the world today. Both were members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a popular Christian cult at the time. Many of their decks are used worldwide today, but the number of Major and Minor arcana remain consistent across geographical boundaries.
The true meaning of tarot
Tarot is often mislabeled as a hoax because it is misused as a way of telling the future. Tarot is not a tool of foretelling what is to come, but is instead a method of understanding the unconscious realities of the present moment.
Psychologist, film maker and artist, Alejandro Jodorowsky is the creator of a modern doctrine called psychomagic that helps people use creative methods to access their subconscious mind as a source of healing. Tarot is an essential part of psychomagic, because it allows people to understand themselves and their present lives through the context of esoteric symbols.
“You must not talk about the future, the future is a con,” Jodorowsky says in one of his films. “The tarot is a language that talks about the present. If you use it to read the future, you become a conman”.
Edusemiotics is the intersection of educational philosophy and the science of signs. Tarot is a popular example of edusemiotics because it uses an encyclopedia of symbols to understand life. It is an objective method of discovering your subconscious because the cards within the deck are universal; however, the unique combination of cards create an individual subjective experience.
Arcana is a derivative of “Arcane meaning “mysterious or secret, understood by few” and compliments the major and minor arcana in the tarot. The cards collectively help people to understand their lives in context, but the symbols in the cards are often rejected because of their multiplicity in meaning.
“The symbolic journey through Arcana includes multiple life-lessons that need to be learned so that the traveler – a learner – can achieve individuation,” writes Inna Semetsky, author of The Edusemiotics of Images Essays on the Art-Science of Tarot. “The images denote archetypes of the universal memory pool shared by humankind, their messages would have the same significance cross-culturally, at different times and in different places.”
The major arcana begins with the Fool, a childlike figure who naively ventures into the world. The deck concludes with the World as the final card. Each of the elements in-between are characteristics of life itself, ranging from Strength, to the Lovers, to Temperance, and Justice. We all collectively experience the same emotions, challenges, and trials, though they present themselves in different forms. Tarot allows our stories to be told and shared with ourselves. Even more so, it allows people to collectively see their experiences as communal, while understanding the personalized elements that arises from the card they face in that moment. Ultimately, tarot is a map of human experience, standing the test of time.
“When the Fool spontaneously “decides” to jump into the abyss, he is bound to create novelty and become the other by virtue of embodied experiences,” Semetsky says. “Where the human mind comes in contact with the world … When the new is created, the far and strange become the most natural inevitable things in the world.”