19 December 2006

On Tarot Cards

Quite a lot of people have been blogging about Tarot cards recently, and there was a quiz on Which of the Greater Trumps are you?.

Some of the other blog posts that mention Tarot cards are Sally on "Why Tarot?", and Matt Stone on "Incarnating into occulture".

One thing that struck me about all of these was the horrible images in all of them. The "Which of the Greater Trumps are you?" quiz offered several styles of "Tarot" card to illustrate it, but not one of them was authentic. I chose the least repellant, but it still looks like an insipid Victorian "fairy at the bottom of the garden".

Matt Stone and Sally both used the Waite pack, which loses the original symbolism of the cards. I then did a Google image search for Tarot cards, and was amazed at the huge variety, but the impossibility of finding a single authentic image.

Or am I just being a modernist old curmudgeon or control freak, and not keeping up with the postmodern spirit of "one man, one Tarot", and even "one man, one religion"? Am I falling into the trap of saying "This must mean to you what it means to me?"

I first became interested in the Tarot by reading two novels: The sandcastle by Iris Murdoch, and The greater trumps by Charles Williams. Before reading The sandcastle I'd never heard of Tarot cards, so I went and bought a pack at the Mystic Bookshop in Johannesburg, which was a pretty esoteric place, and the only place one could get such things back then.

In The sandcastle the character who uses the Tarots gives them her own meanings, but I was impressed by the imagery of the cards themselves. They spoke of archetypal human experiences, the things that shape our lives. I then read Charles Williams's The greater trumps and he extended the meaning of the imagery further. I won't add spoilers here, but just recommend that people read it.

In trying to find what others made of the symbolism, I looked for books on the Tarot, and found that most of them were by cartomancers, and were banal and boring. The cartomancers' trade relied on human desires for health, wealth, popularity and success, and interpreted them in the light of that. They were no different from the advertising industry, reflecting the values of capitalist materialist society. I went back to Charles Williams for my understanding and interpretation.

Consider the greatest of the Greater Trumps, the Fool. Matt Stone uses the Waite pack, in which the symbolism of the original card is completely lost. I was going to say "original" symbolism, but then I'm not sure that anyone is qualified to say what the original symbolism was. So let me say what it signifies for me.

Waite's version of the card seems to depict a self-absorbed Victorian fop, careless rather than carefree. The fact that his pilgrim's staff has turned into a rose might lead us to think that he is a sort of hippie flower child. Perhaps that is what the hippie flower children, or some of them, eventually became, but that is a far cry from the original vision.

Unlike the original card, in Waite's card the fool's journey has no purpose, no destination. He is careless of where he is going, because he is so self-absorbed that his surroundings mean nothing to him. His journey is pointless, and the dog seems to be just as pointless.

In the original cards, however, the Fool is the "fool for Christ", the holy fool who has turned his back on the world, yet looks back inviting us to follow him, if we dare. He is being attacked by an animal, a dog perhaps, or a lynx, but it does not seem to be very much bothered by it. So those on the Christian pilgrimage may be attacked by the devil or his demons or the cares of the world, but are not much bothered by them. The response of the Fool is dispassion rather than unawareness.

He is following a road that few choose. His dress suggests a court jester, but also a pilgrim. He is a silly fool, and the English word "silly" is derived from the Greek sali, blessed, and which is also the Greek term for the saints who are holy fools, the yurodivi. And "blessed" suggests the Beatitudes, where the blessings experienced by the saints are so different from the blessings sought by the world that to the world they seem like curses rather than blessings. Little or nothing of this is suggested by the Waite image.

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Anonymous said...

I never really got into Tarot cards, even when I was a pagan. I do the occasional online quiz ("Which Tarot Card Are You?"), but I don't take any stock in them. However, I did not realize there were ties to Christianity within them (like the Fool For Christ). Do all of the cards have such associations?

Steve Hayes said...

Most of the Greater Trumps, at least, represent some askpect of the universal human experience, the factors that shape our lives: the natural world -- the world, the sun, the moon, the star. Human society -- the emperor, the empress, justice. Values and virtues -- strength, temperance. Circumstances, abstract and spiritual powwers -- the wheel of fortune, the house of God, the devil, death. And so it goes.

These are the things that go to make up our lives, whether we are Christian or not, and they are powerful images, because they are so close to us. Ones with obvious Christian symbolism are the Pope, the Lady Pope and the Judgement.

Ginny Clayton said...

Hi Steve, thanks for visiting my blog and leaving your link. I enjoyed reading this. You may or may not also have read this post of mine: http://78notes.blogspot.com/2006/10/strange-bedfellows.html
about the Christian roots of tarot. As to "original meanings" of cards, those are lost to us. Tarot historians have uncovered some significant links and ideas and theories, but it's one of those mysteries. Taking a historical/iconographical/sociological view, attempting to see the images in say, the Visconti-Sforza and Marseille decks as they who originally designed and played tarocchi with them might have is how I try to approach it. Indeed Europe was highly Christianized then and yet Christianity too held and projected a mix of Christian/pagan symbolism in their pageantries. One could easily see The Fool, for example, as representative of the Fool for Christ as well as the court jester, a more political pundit than actual fool, or the town idiot as some early decks portray him. Of course, the Fool for Christ can be all of these, symbolically. Then, as now, I am unconvinced there were ever any ONE original meaning. Tarot seems to be so intriguing mainly because of the multi-layered meanings.

Steve Hayes said...

Thanks very much for the link. Some interesting points there.

It might be interesting to look at the links between games of chance and divination, or at least the use of such games or their equipment to help in making difficult decisions. I'll put the link on the Coinherence discussion forum, where people discuss the links between Charles Williams and Dante.

Sally said...

Thanks for this Steve, isn't it interesting when you start digging how many Christians do use/ are interested in Tarot!

Btw I don't exclusively use the Rider Waite Deck, might post on that later!

Peace and blessings


Steve Hayes said...

A thing that struck me as very strange was that while there are lots of Tarot images that come up in a Google search, almost none are authentic, and the only way I could get authentic ones was to scan them in myself.

Sally said...

Interesting Steve, I find many of the really contemporary decks like the New Zealand inspired Songs for the Journey Home very inspiring!!!

Steve Hayes said...

I finally, after a long search, found a site with authentic Tarot images.

This one is not one I have seen before, and there are many variants of the authentic Tarot pack, but in spite of the differences between them, the basic symbolism is retained.

But when I've searched Google images for "Tarot fool" or "Tarot juggler" or "Tarot chariot" it is hard to find an authentic image, or anything even approaching one, on the first three pages.

Anonymous said...


You may be interested to know that I did actually buy a Marseilles deck some weeks ago.

Having been stimulated by the classic "Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey Into Christian Hermeticism" over the past few months I have been drawn into giving the Marseilles more consideration, though I still maintain a preference for the Waite deck I must confess.

My preference is fourfold. The Waite deck was the first I came across back in my old occult days, it has deeper Christian symbolism which I find most helpful for opening up discussions about Christian spirituality, it is the most popular deck by far in my neck of the woods, and the symbolic interlinkings between the cards are stronger (minor arcana especially).

In short, many of my reasons are pragmatic. Yes, the imagery has strayed somewhat from the older Marseilles decks, but since when has historical accuracy bothered occultists that much anyhow and like many I find it just as achetypally powerful. I still find the Fool evokes Jesus the fool but I take on board your foppish comment, yes it does look a bit that way.

Be cheered however, in comparing the two decks it has shifted my focus somewhat: to place more emphasis on those elements most in common between the two.

PS. Tried to post this the other night but it failed. Seems there are electronic hitches both ways between South Africa and Oz!

Steve Hayes said...

I think the electronic glitches are in Blogger and Typepad -- I couldn't get in to read your comment for some time, and several times found difficulty in posting comments on your blog.

I'm not sure that I have the Marseille pack, as there seem top be considerable variations between different packs -- see my other blog article on the Sun card, where some packs have two children, and some have one child on a pony (mine has the latter). But the other illustration has no children at all, and so many of the elements of the symbolism are simply missing.

I'm not familiar enough with the Waite pack to know what they all are, though I have a book that illustrates some of them, mainly to comment on how much of the symbolism they have lost. That doesn't count for much, though, because I don't agree with a lot of what the book says about the symbolism anyway!

The book also has illustrations of some of Aleister Crowley's versions of the cards, which are even further removed.

I suppose what I found most strange was that when I Googled for images for comparison, it was so very hard to find images of the originals or anything approaching them, for comparison.

The ones where the Waite pack strikes me as straying farthest are the Juggler, the Wheel of Fortune and the Fool.

Waite's version of the Moon and I think the Star at least retain some of the major symbolic elements, without adding or subtracting too many.

Sally said...

Steve I'd be interested to hear your thinking on some of the more contemporary versions- one I find fascinating is the Songs for the Journey home deck from a couple of New Zealanders- surely there is room for other interpretations?

Steve Hayes said...


Yes, there is room for different interpretations. Iris Murdoch's The sandcastle has a character who has a set of interpretations that are unique to her.

Charles Williams, in The greater trumps, numbers them differently -- I suspect that may have been because he didn't want people using what he said about them for occult or divinatory purposes. He did that in some of his other books because he knew enough about magicians to know that they set great store by rite words in rote order.

But as I see it, these are not merely different interpretyations, but the replacement of one set of symbols by another. The Qur'an is not merely a different interpretation of the Bible, it is a different book.

One could also write a completely different Bible, using the same structure of books labelled "Genesis", "Exodus" etc. But as I see it, that would not be just a different interpretation, but a different book.

Anonymous said...

I think I should point out that Tarot in its pure form is a kind of card game having nothing at all to do with fortune telling! The fortune telling activities, which some have called a perversion of Tarot's proper use, are based purely on myths concerning the deck's origins. The Tarot card game is very popular in France and Canada

Unknown said...

"Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism" is a fascinating book -- I can't recommend it highly enough! It is made up of 22 Letters each of which constitutes a sustained meditation on one of the 22 "Major Arcana" of the Tarot of Marseille.

I'm also enjoying Robert Place's "The Tarot: History, Symbolism, and Divination" which helps to fill in the gap between the older Tarot cards (the earliest record of which seems to date back to about 1400) to the (Rider) Waite-Smith deck (which came out in 1909 or thereabouts).

Finally, if anyone is looking for a lighter approach to tarot in a more popular vein, the best one that I have found is available for free online: "Learning Tarot", by Joan Bunning (she also uses the RWS deck).




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