The Tarot is a deck of 78 cards used for divination and gaming which developed in Europe since the mid 14th century. Yes. Gaming. You read that correctly. The Cards (or cards, if you prefer) are still used to play games. I don’t know the rules for those games. When it comes to card games I prefer Uno.
When it comes to divination, though, I prefer the Tarot. We can’t be really sure when the Tarot was first used for divination. I figure that didn’t happen widely until after the development of printing in Europe during the 15th century. Prior to the ability to mass produce cards, decks were all one-offs, each hand painted, expensive and works of art. Mary K. Greer has a good article on her blog regarding divination with cards. (https://marykgreer.com/2008/04/01/origins-of-divination-with-playing-cards/)
The idea of divining with cards may have come into Europe with the first card games which were introduced by the Mamluk culture as early as the 12th century. There are some simply beautiful examples of these cards, many of which have Arabic inscriptions which might be taken to be divinatory. The World of Playing Cards has a nice article. (https://www.wopc.co.uk/egypt/mamluk)
Divination, it seems, is a human tendency. Some people like surprises. But when your life might depend on a successful hunt or crop, one might just like to have some “inside knowledge” of your potential success.
Wait..what is this divination thing anyway? Well, that depends on who you ask. It also depends on when you’re asking the question. If I were to ask one of my European ancestors from several thousand years ago what divination was they’d likely just look at me funny. Mostly because they didn’t speak modern English.
Divination several thousand years ago was likely an integral part of an overall spiritual and religious approach to moving about in the world…also known as survival. We have cave paintings which attest to ancient ritual practices (or, at the very least, really determined artists…many of these paintings are in places that are really hard to get to). Were these ancient holy people relating events which had already happened or events which they divined would happen? Beats me.
Fortune-telling is often equated with divination. The determination, through some mystical means, of future events. Divination can be seen as a predictive tool. It can be like that to one degree or another.
However, the idea of divination as a method of interfacing with the Divine (whatever that means), especially as it applies to the Tarot, is a bit newer than cave paintings. The Western Occult Tradition didn’t really get around to applying its philosophy to the Tarot until the late 18th century, Court de Gebelin, Ettiella, Eliphas Levi, Papus and others applied occult philosophy to the Tarot as it developed into the tool we’re familiar with today.
For Tarot nerds such as myself, all this history stuff is nifty. When it comes to my use of the Cards, however, it’s largely irrelevant. The concepts of the Qabalah, astrology, numerology, alchemy and the classical elements do help to inform my use of the Cards but there is so much more to it.
The Tarot is a tool, plain and simple. Yep. A tool. There’s no magik in those lovely printed pieces of card-stock. Nope. Any magik is in the diviner…not the tool. However, the Tarot can be a powerful tool in the right hands.
“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”attributed to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, 1881-1955
I’ll joke with folks and tell them I read Tarot because I’m not very bright….I need books with pictures. And, to a degree, I’m not joking. For me the Cards tell a story. They tell me a story (or, at least part of one) about the subject of the reading. And aren’t picture books more fun?
Each image is a window and let’s me see into the story of another soul (and even my own).
Around the world there are lots of words which people use to identify that singular, sublime and ineffable thing which is us. Soul, Spirit, Atman, Psyche, Nephesh, Ruh, Jiva… This list could go on…a lot. And even the simple words people have used are kinda, well, fuzzy. What is this thing which animates the meat suits we wander through life within? Beats me. I need pictures, after all.
It helps me be less confused when I look at it like this. This thing we aren’t sure what it is is made up of three equally confusing parts. (Why be only a little confused when the waters can be muddied further?)
We’re made up of three parts. This isn’t the more familiar mind/body/spirit idea. I’m leaving the meat suit out of it for now. Our souls are kinda like a committee of the Divine Self, the Unconscious Self and the Conscious Self. And for anyone who’s ever sat in a committee meeting you’ll understand why I liken it that way. And for those who haven’t…count your blessings.
The Divine Self is that part of us which is connected to the Divine (whatever that looks like to you). It’s rarefied and ephemeral and beautiful and sometimes an arrogant git what with the “I know what’s best for you” attitude. (Of course, that could just be my Divine self…yours may be quite pleasant.)
Then there’s the Unconscious Self, sometimes called the Child Self. That’s the part of us that speaks in art, metaphors, dreams, and neurosis. This is the part that likes to play with crayons and sanity. This is my favorite self, I think. It’s playful, confusing, wise, and seemingly nuttier than a fruit cake. Very much like every kid I’ve ever encountered.
And there’s the Conscious Self, a.k.a. The Talking Self. This self is the one that does things like talk about the soul, goes to work, pays the bills and gets lost in a parking deck when thinking about work and bills. Now, this self is the arrogant git we present to the world and it thinks it knows what’s best too.
You see, these three selves don’t always speak the same language. The Divine self and the Conscious self frequently have communication issues. That’s where the Unconscious self comes in…as a bridge or interpreter (if it’ll just put down the Play-Doh for a little while).
When these three selves are in concert…oh! The harmony. But when not they are an orchestra not only playing different tunes but different keys as well.
That’s where I think the Cards can be a useful tool. As a bridge. The images allow us to see what’s in the middle of the cacophony and transpose all that noise into the beginnings of harmony. Beginnings…the Cards are not the end of the story. That is written by us and by what we choose to do with what we’re given.
I don’t feel the Cards are the best way to make decisions. But I’m an arrogant git sometimes and feel like I know what’s best. However, the Cards can help me make sense of all the noise. They can allow me to make more informed decisions.
Your mileage may vary.