Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Today's Card

5 Staffs

Today will be a struggle, but you are well prepared and ready for the challenge.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Yet another new beginning

To begin, I would like to dispense with two of the most prevalent myths about the Tarot, one on either side of the credibility divide:

Myth #1: The Tarot was invented in ancient Egypt and passed down through secret societies like the Templars and the Masons until emerging in Renaissance Europe. Alternatively, the pictures on the 22 so-called "Major Arcana" refer to secrets discovered by the Crusaders, or some other tale. Essentially, the basic notion here is that the Major Arcana existed, as a complete set of symbols, long before the appearance of the cards in Europe, and the cards were used for centuries to pass along and teach esoteric wisdom hidden under the guise of a card game.

Truth: All the way back in 1909, A.E. Waite, who at the very least commissioned and to some extent helped design the cards drawn by Pamela Coleman Smith that have become the dominant images by which the Tarot is known today, completely demolished the claims by Court de Gebelin that the cards have their origin in ancient Egypt. Waite went point by point through de Gebelin's "proofs," showing each one of them to be unfounded, and proving that one of them, at least, was a complete fraud. There is, in fact, no Egyptian word "Tar" meaning "road," no Egyptian word "Ro" meaning "king or royal," and Tarot does not mean "The Royal Road to Wisdom" in Egyptian or any other language. He simply made it up to bolster his claim to have discovered the Egyptian nature of the cards, knowing that no one could contradict him since no one knew anything about the ancient Egyptian language. The Rosetta Stone would not be discovered for another 18 years, and by the time anyone knew enough to prove de Gebelin wrong, the myth was so firmly entrenched that it still persists today.

Waite also dismissed other claims to ancient origins, summing up the history of the Tarot as follows: "We shall see in due course that the history of Tarot cards is largely of a negative kind, and that . . . there is in fact no history prior to the fourteenth century." Nearly a century of scholarship has largely confirmed this, and narrowed it a bit: there is in fact no history prior to the fifteenth century.

This offends some Tarotists, who feel deeply the need to believe that the symbols are ancient -- and indeed some of them are. But the Tarot as an oracle, as an intact set of symbols with esoteric and occult meanings, used in divination or contemplation toward spiritual advancement or for focusing magical intent, cannot possibly be more than half a millennium old, and has developed significantly, changed and grown and altered in character over time, and continues to do so. The oracle is a living tradition of fairly recent origin, rather than a static revelation passed down from the ancients.

Myth #2: There is nothing to the Tarot that is at all oracular or of occult significance. The cards were invented in the 1400s to play a game, and was never anything else until the occultists discovered it and attributed all sorts of ridiculous things to it.

Truth: This one is frankly harder to dismiss, but I think it's wrong. For the most part, those who have not had personal experience with phenomena that can't be easily explained by current scientific theories of the nature of the universe would do well to listen to the skeptics, because there are far more delusional and fraudulent messengers among the supposed cognoscenti then there are conduits of worthwhile and useful information.

On the other hand, those of use who have had such experiences know that there are things that are not explainable by our modern scientific theories of the universe. And the skeptics are too often insistent on disbelief, instead of truly having open minds.

The skeptics are right to say that the Tarot was not invented to pass on secret information. They go too far in insisting the cards were without symbolic meaning in their earliest days, and the symbols often included things we would today think of as "esoteric" or "occult," though the game players didn't think of them that way.

What I mean by that is that many things we associate with the "occult" today (although little is really "hidden" in our Internetted world) were once part of everyday life. The Popes of the period that saw the birth of the Tarot regularly consulted the stars, either for themselves or through astrologers. To suppose that the more educated and affluent players, at least, would be unaware of fairly obvious references to such things is absurd, although it's also absurd to say that they used a card game to cover up their interest in such things for fear of being burned as witches.

The Tarot developed from a card game rich with symbolism into an occult tradition gradually over time. We really don't know when people started using the cards for fortune telling, but it seems pretty clear that the Marseilles traditions reflect to some extent occult sensibilities, and they were established by the middle of the 1600s. Certainly there is no reason to doubt Etteilla or de Gebelin on the existence of an ongoing tradition of fortune-telling with the cards at the time they were writing, in the late 18th century.

The traditions of the Tarot developed gradually, with no clear beginning and no end in sight, but with a few solid reference points. That the cards began as a game with undoubted but fairly superficial symbolic content can no longer be doubted. It is also now apparent that for the first century of their existence the suit of trumps varied from deck to deck more than previously acknowledged. However, many of the eventual settled order of trumps were present fairly early on, and certainly by 1500 a set of trumps existed that would be passed down more-or-less intact, although the order would be changed and some of the pictures altered. Alongside this stable tradition, however, there existed also a tradition of playing the game with trump suit that bore no relation to the familiar Tarot trumps, with decks that are usually now referred to as "Tarock" decks to differentiate them from the more familiar symbolic cards. And this tradition turns out not to be a later degradation, but present from the very beginning -- indeed, it now appears that the very first deck of cards, the very first version of the new game from which Tarot evolved, contained not symbols like Death and Fortune but Greek gods. And there were only 16 of them.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The point is that there are no ancient and absolute meanings behind the symbols in the Tarot, and while this doesn't quite mean that the cards mean whatever you want them to mean, it does mean that anyone who tells you they have the absolute truth about them is either a liar or a fool.

If the Tarot cards, and in particular the 22 so-called Major Arcana don't represent ancient wisdom passed down intact from the ages, if the cards don't symbolize specific things that we can point to and learn absolutely and rely on, what's the point? How can they be meaningful to our lives, or have any answers for us when we consult them?

There are two answers. The first is that any set of cards, representing any number of ideas either in words or pictures, shuffled up and dealt out together, could be used as an oracle, because the power of the oracle is not in the cards themselves, but in yourself or at least in the connection between yourself and whatever you believe oracles such as the Tarot help you connect with.

The second answer is more subtle, and more specific to the Tarot: although the symbols are neither ancient nor unchangeable, they are also neither wholly arbitrary nor without tradition. After several hundred years of intense concentration by those who at least thought of themselves as adepts, in one fashion or another, the cards have accumulated a real power not easy to explain to the skeptical but not available to the reader using non-Tarot oracle cards or ordinary playing cards -- although both of these can, in fact, provide useful answers in readings. The fact that various authorities have imputed differing and even contrasting meanings to the cards does not vitiate the real psychic energy accumulated by the fact that so many highly attuned individuals were paying attention to the cards, which alone would boost their profile on the cosmic scale.

There will be those for whom the last paragraph seems completely nonsensical, either because they do not understand it or because they understand it but do not believe such things to be possible. If you are among them, you are welcome to strike it out and go on as if I had not written it, as it is not necessary to my thesis. I do ask that you not hold it against me, the way I seek to allow myself to be open to the wisdom of even those writers who open with the absurdities of de Gebelin's Egyptian fantasies. Not everyone who says foolish things is a fool, and even the fool may speak wisdom.

I may also say that wisdom can come disguised as apparent foolishness, and advise the reader to be open-minded even to things that may sound strange at first, but most of my readers will already be aware of that.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Still more on Tarot origins

In addition to the far-too-many Tarotists who blithely pass on completely discredited misinformation about the history of the Tarot, either from ignorance or chicanery, there is a slightly smaller group that does at least recognize the value of historical scholarship, but is so heavily invested in the belief that the Tarot represents "ancient wisdom" that they endeavor to keep as much as possible of the traditional mythology of Tarotic origins without violating known facts. Their tortured theories, however, regularly violate Occam's dictum that the simplest explanation is usually the best.

Personally, I have no problem realizing that the Tarot is a relatively modern invention, and that to the extent that it contains traditions and symbols that have been around for centuries before the cards were first invented, for the most part those things have been put into the cards gradually over time. They were not invented as a means of passing that knowledge and those symbols on surreptitiously under cover of a card game. They were invented as a card game and developed into something much more. To me, this does not make the Tarot any less useful, any less important, or any less real.

On the other hand, some Historians tend to discount the very real importance of the symbolic content of the Trumps, at least, among the players of the game in 15th Century Italy. And while the cards and those meanings were never "secret" or "occult" in the usual sense of those terms, it's also true that many ideas that were abroad at the time, including some related directly to the game of trumps and the symbols it used, were what we would today label "esoteric" or "occult" (although the original meanings of those terms is pretty ludicrous when applied to things available to anyone on the Internet!).

Both sides in this debate would do well to remember that the late Middle Ages, segueing into the early Renaissance -- the period that produced the first trionfi cards that eventually became the Tarot -- was a period of intellectual ferment, philosophical debate, heretical religious exploration and deep superstition. Many things now identified with the "occult" were ordinary knowledge then, and not hidden at all.

The most obvious example here is Astrology. As late as the 16th Century -- long after the Tarot cards were in existence -- a newly elected Pope put off his formal investiture by three weeks to make sure that it took place on an astrologically auspicious day. It's true that the Church formally frowned on astrology, as well as most other forms of divination, but belief in them was widespread, among educated and intelligent folks as well as the masses, and the Church did little to fight it. It wasn't hidden. It wasn't secret knowledge known only to a few -- although obviously some knew more than others, and to some extent the ability to cast horoscopes and plot the movements of the stars and planets could be said to be "esoteric."

Much more than just the obvious symbolic content of having a skeleton with a scythe represent the concept of death was at work from the earliest beginnings of the game of trumps, and that the oracle we have today is in many ways a natural, perhaps even an inevitable, extension of that.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

More on Tarot origins

That many Tarotists still quote de Gebelin's version of where the word "Tarot" comes from (see last post) is unfortunate, not only because it reveals those individuals to be ignorant of a subject they presume to lecture others about, but because it gives the Historians ammunition to paint all Tarotists as careless about facts. Indeed, far too many Tarotists dismiss the importance of historical evidence altogether, blithely making all sorts of wild claims that cannot be supported, and either completely ignoring the record or arguing that since the "secret doctrine" was passed down through secret societies, no record of it can be expected.

In fact, most of the "secret wisdom" of the Order of the Golden Dawn was gathered by MacGregor Mathers from the rare books collection at the British Museum. Nearly all of it was written down, and nearly everything that isn't traceable through a chain of documents is, in fact, highly suspect. Not necessarily false, all of it, but highly suspect. And much of it is false, like de Gebelin's Egyptian fantasies.

On the other hand, the contention of the Historians that there is nothing to the Tarot is demonstrably false, though not all witnesses will perceive the evidence the same way. Those of us who have had experiences -- with Tarot or otherwise -- that are not explainable by reference to mundane explanation know that there is more to our lives than current science allows for. Those who have not, or who willfully ignore such happenings, can never be convinced that we are not all either liars or delusional. They cannot be reproduced on demand in a laboratory setting because they are more akin to the inspiration that causes a painter or composer to create than to combining chemicals in a test-tube.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Another take on defining Tarot

The Tarot is an oracle, which means it is a tool for getting in touch with something or someone outside our ordinary human consciousness. Some believe they are communing with God, others that they are merely dredging up things from deep in their own subconscious. Still others theorize that the Tarot puts us in touch with pagan gods, or mysterious but natural forces we don't yet understand. In any case, if the Tarot works for you, it is because you are making contact with something or someone that is separate from the "you" that thinks and asks and makes decisions.

On the other hand, there are those who say that the cards are nothing more than a game, invented in 15th Century Italy, upon which occult figures, beginning in the 18th Century, imposed esoteric meanings, passed along and expanded by deluded followers and deliberate tricksters. There is no such thing as an "oracle," or if there is such things are not to be found in a pack of cards.

These two diametrically opposed points of view -- let's call them "Tarotists" and "Historians" -- have battled each other fiercely in print and online for the last two decades or so.

The Historians point out that there is no evidence to support the assertion that the 22 so-called Major Arcana existed, as an intact group of related symbols, at any time prior to the 15th Century. Indeed, there are some indications that they weren't even all present in the earliest decks of trionfi cards (Italian for "triumphs," the original name for the decks, the Trumps, and the game played with them). No one mentioned the possibility that the cards were of Egyptian origin until Court de Gebelin published Le Monde Primitif (a large work of several volumes and many hundreds of pages remembered now only for those portions dealing with the Tarot), and his theories are not only unsupported, at least one of his most famous assertions is demonstratably false. Not only that, but the strong likelihood exists that he was not duped into believing it, but invented it himself, passing it along as "secret knowledge" he was privy to, which casts doubt on everything he wrote.

I'm speaking of the oft-quoted etymology of the word "Tarot" as consisting of the ancient Egyptian word "tar," meaning road, and "ro," meaning king or royal, thus revealing the Tarot to be the "royal road to wisdom."

It's utter nonsense.

There are no Egyptian words matching that description. And de Gebelin almost certainly knew it, although there remains the (very) slight possibility that he was told this and believed it. Probably, he wanted to bolster his "insight" that the cards were ultimately of Egyptian origin by some real evidence, so he manufactured it. Writing years before the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, when no one had any knowledge of ancient Egyptian, he could say anything, claim to be the inheritor of a "secret tradition," and no one could prove him wrong.

That many Tarotists still quote his version of where the word "Tarot" comes from is unfortunate.

Monday, October 10, 2005

What is the Tarot?

Here are two definitions of Tarot:

1) The Tarot is an oracle -- that is, a tool for getting in touch with something or someone outside our conscious minds -- consisting of 78 cards, 22 of which have symbolic pictures that are rich with symbolic meanings and reference ideas, entities, and/or forces that have been known to at least the intellectual and spiritual elites of all ages and places. Most people who use this definition believe the pictures and symbols to have been handed down by secret societies like the Knights Templar and the Rosicrucians from some ancient time far earlier than the first historical appearance of the cards,

2) Tarot cards developed in northern Italy in the 15th Century to play a game originally called trionfi, or "trumps," referring to the innovation of the addition of a fifth suit that could "triumph" over the other cards and which was the forerunner of all modern games involving trumps, such as bridge or pinochle. The first historical mentions of the cards in an occult or esoteric context are from the second half of the 18th Century. Most people who use this definition firmly believe that the cards have no esoteric or symbolic meaning (other than the obvious symbolic connotations of "The Pope" or "Death") prior to the injection (some would even say "infection") of occultism into the cards by Court de Gebelin, Etteilla, and other 18th and 19th Century Occultists.

Although these two definitions point to world views so dissimilar as to be antithetical, the fact is that they can be reconciled, especially if you leave off the last sentence (the one starting "Most people") of each of them.

For many Tarotists, believing in the ancient origin and secret transmission of the Tarot, or at least of the truths contained in the Tarot, is an important part of their belief in the cards as a whole. They simply cannot accept the idea that the cards they love began as a card game to amuse nobles in 15th Century Milan, because that calls into question the fundamental basis for how and why Tarot works, as they understand it. This is unfortunate, because these people pollute the waters with false claims -- claims known to be patently false and rejected by the most esteemed occultist writers, much less the historians -- and worse, dismiss the whole notion of historical research as having any value, since these things were supposedly handed down in secret, so of course the historians can't find evidence of it.

It's true that evidence of absence is not necessarily absence of evidence, but it's also true that there is, in fact, no ancient Egyptian word "Tar" meaning "way or road" and "Ro" meaning "royal" or "king," and Court de Gebelin's famous etymology of "Tarot" as meaning the "Royal Road to Wisdom" in Ancient Egypt is completely and entirely bogus, invented to bolster his claim to have found Egyptian imagery in the cards, and published at a time when no one had any knowledge of Ancient Egyptian (the Rosetta Stone had not yet been found and deciphered) and therefore no one could gainsay his supposed "secret" knowledge of it. That's just one example, and you'll find it not just in the anti-occultist books of Michael Dummet and the like, but in "The Pictorial Key to the Tarot," by Alfred Edward Waite, published in 1910 and written by one of the foremost occult scholars of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, whose designs for what was then a new deck, brought to life by Pamela Coleman Smith, have become the standard, familiar Tarot that everyone thinks of when they think of "Tarot cards" today.

There is no better example of the state of Tarot "scholarship" among the majority of those who "believe in" the cards and use them for purposes other than simply playing the game of Tarock (and it has become known to disassociate itself from it's less respectable cousin, the oracle), than the fact that I have in my possession a 1971 copy of Waite's book, in the introduction of which you will find the Egyptian origin of the cards and even de Gebelin's bogus etymology quoted approvingly! Either the introduction was written by someone who had never actually read Waite's book, or he was counting on the reader not to do so!

In between those who wholeheartedly reject all pretense of historical accuracy, either in denial or oblivious to its findings, or possibly even fraudulently attempting to hoodwink their audience, and those who reject out of hand all notion of oracles and spirit guides and fortune telling or advice from cards, lies a middle ground, occupied by two different groups that are both, I think, more reasonable than either of the more radical positions.

The first moderate group basically tries to hold on to as much as possible of Tarot tradition, wanting to believe that that tradition is, in fact, more than 200-250 years old, that there is some truth to the idea that secret societies passed knowledge down secretly. Working within what is absolutely known historically, but pointing out huge gaps in the historical record, they seek to rehabilitate as much as they can of the tradition.

I understand that point of view, but I do not share it. It is not necessary for me to believe that the cards are ancient, or that the symbols and pictures were passed down intact as some kind of secret wisdom. What matters to me is that the cards work. I can use them to see patterns in my life, and in the lives of others, that can assist us in making better decisions. I also know that the cards can be used to focus magical energies.

I like studying the history of the cards because I think that it makes my appreciation of the symbols richer. Realizing that the meanings of the cards are something that developed over time, and are to some extent arbitrary, frees you to use your own insights to adjust your reading of them. You might even say that the cards mean whatever you want them to mean.

Well, that's not quite right. The cards mean whatever they mean to you. But you can't just decide that in your conscious mind and impose it onto the cards, which are primarily hooking into parts of you that you're not fully in control of. One of my biggest pet peeves is with people who try to deny the reality of the Death card. It's true that it seldom -- possibly even never -- means directly the Death of the person the reading is being done for, and seldom even means an actual physical death of a human being close to them (though occasionally it does). But even if it "only" means a change as many modern Tarotists like to teach, it will be a change that will be traumatic, and it will mean the loss of something or someone that will be mourned. It really is a "bad" card, in the sense that it almost always indicates something painful, even if the final result is positive. The most positive possible spin on the Death card is that it might come up with someone who is trying to kick a habit -- to quit smoking, for example. In that context, it would seem to indicate success -- the habit will be broken, that former way of life will be put aside. But no matter how much you may desire that change, it will still be painful, and you will miss cigarettes for a long, long time (it took me years to quit wanting cigarettes, and I still occasionally dream that I'm smoking and liking it).

So I fully embrace both definitions that we started out with. The cards have no history prior to the 15th Century, and were invented to play a game. The symbols may be ancient, but many of them could have been imposed on the cards as they changed and developed over time. Only the basic, obvious symbolic meanings were there from the beginning -- and they weren't always the same, and we don't know how many of them there were, and the whole notion of today's 22 "Major Arcana" being passed down intact seems ludicrous in the face of the differences between different packs just in the 15th Century. But that doesn't make the "esoteric" or "occult" meanings (odd words to use about something as freely available as information about Tarot) any less real.

The High Priestess card, formerly The Popess and generally referred to here simply as "The Priestess," is a case in point. There is no evidence that she represented, or was thought of as representing, the Goddess, or an aspect of the Goddess, or a priestess of the Goddess, or almost any of the things she is usually said today to represent. Originally, the card was The Popess. She may have represented the Church, the "Bride of Christ" (although she does seem paired with the Pope, rather than with Jesus). She may have been an anti-Catholic slam aimed at the legends of Pope Joan. She may have been a heretical reference to Manfreda Visconti, who was elected Pope of a small sect referred to in obscure histories as the Guglielmites and burned at the stake in Milan in 1300. She may simply be the consort to the Pope as the Empress is consort to the Emperor, in an age that celebrated love and winked at the pretense of priestly chastity.

Or maybe she stands for Sophia, Wisdom, specifically the Wisdom of God, depicted in ancient and medieval thought as female. That's one other possible meaning she may actually have had at the time the card game began -- because it's clear that the game itself was one that involved symbolic meanings of the cards, and the fact that they "trumped" each other in sequence was based on the concepts the pictures symbolized.

That even the Pope, the highest temporal authority on Earth, was trumped by Love in early orderings of the cards is one reason why I think the Popess started out as nothing more than a ribald and mildly blasphemous joke. But Sophia is also a real possibility defendable within the limits of what we know about that time and place.

She was not, in any direct way, an esoteric symbol of Hidden Knowledge.

Yet, that is what she is to me today. She is the Priestess who guards the hidden knowledge, which is the wellspring of the unconscious mind and the soul-connection of the world. Now, that has some connection to the concept of Sophia, the Wisdom of God, but it's not quite the same thing.

Sophia, Mother Church, the Goddess, the Unconscious, these are all symbols that can be found in this card, depending on your philosophical bent. All of them can be useful. I believe that the best card reader is a lifelong student who will eventually make these and other historical connections part of his or her repertoire of associations and connotations to call upon during readings. But none of them is the "real" meaning of the card, in the sense that there was some secret meaning the card had in 1420 that was handed down in secret through the various occult writers to be available to us today. It just doesn't work that way.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

The Tarot Trumps

Here are a list of statements "by" each of the Tarot trumps, with some possible alternates:

I - The Magician - I shape (I work, I manipulate, I assert, I make, I will)

II - The Priestess - I know (I comprehend, I perceive, I understand, I believe, I intuit, I feel, I conceal)

III - The Empress - I give (I bestow, I nurture, I cultivate, I develop, I support)

IV - The Emperor - I rule (I order, I command, I regulate, I organize, I administer)

V - The Pontiff - I teach (I initiate, I indoctrinate, I induct, I accept, I permit, I civilize, I refine)

VI - The Lovers - I love (I choose, I value, I believe, I cherish, I communicate, I embrace)

VII - The Chariot - I control (I triumph, I discipline, I guide, I manage, I achieve)

VIII - Justice - I judge (I distinguish, I discern, I assess, I decide, I evaluate, I weigh)

IX - The Hermit - I enlighten - (I reveal, I advise, I wait, I report, I retire)

X - The Wheel of Fortune - I revolve (I raise up but also I cast down, I rotate, I spin)

XI - Strength - I persevere (I endure, I persist, I overcome, I maintain, I prevail)

XII - The Hanged Man - I overturn (I swing, I hang, I sacrifice, I transpose, I transfigure, I undo, I redeem)

XIII - Death - I terminate (I complete, I conclude, I eliminate, replace, I regenerate)

XIV - Temperance - I moderate (I combine, I balance, I adjust, I blend, I temper)

XV - The Devil - I pervert (I corrupt, I distort, I acquire, I amass, I keep, I enslave, I obscure)

XVI - The Tower - I transform (I fall, I upset, I change, I liberate, I reverse)

XVII - The Star - I inspire (I influence, I stimulate, I encourage, I sustain, I assure)

XVIII - The Moon - I mystify (I enchant, I bewilder, I unnerve, I conjure, I invent, I dream)

XIX - The Sun - I exult (I delight, I rejoice, I glory, I exalt, I ennoble, I glorify, I anoint)

XX - Judgment - I renew (I absolve, I release, I rejuvenate, I acquit, I excuse)

XXI - The World - I am (everything) (I accomplish, I achieve, I am whole)