The Tarot of Ideals

For centuries, the I Ching has been considered a book of wisdom and a Chinese literary classic.  But during the 20th century, new discoveries of bronze inscriptions and oracle bones dating back to the Shang and early Zhou dynasties (1000 BC and earlier) have revolutionized our understanding of the Zhouyi, the original divination manual that morphed into the document that later generations cherished.  Today, we know many things about it that had been lost by the time of Confucius.  The words formerly translated into English as “perseverance furthers,” for example, originally meant “favorable omen.”  And the encouraging word “success” actually meant “offer a sacrifice,” and there is a good chance that the intended sacrifice was human.

Today, the same kind of transformation is happening to our understanding of the Tarot.  Originally a card game, it may have been used for divination almost as long as it has existed.  But beginning in the mid-1700’s, a number of occultists began associating the Tarot with esoteric and largely fanciful ideas about ancient Egypt, the Kabbalah, and astrology.  These ideas culminated in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and the familiar Waite-Smith deck.  But since then, two things have happened.  First, Egyptian hieroglyphs were deciphered, revealing that the association between the Tarot and ancient Egyptian mythology was a fantasy.  Second, research into the real origin of the Tarot has shown that most of the imagery is firmly grounded in the mystery, miracle, and morality plays, allegorical literature, and social and religious institutions of the late middle ages.

People have different ways of interpreting the Tarot.  Some simply look up the meanings of the cards in a book.  Others look at the pictures on the cards, such as what the person is holding, the position of his or her limbs, the direction he or she is facing, the surrounding objects, and the colors used.  The choice of deck plays a large role in the latter method, and likely explains the large variety of decks available.

But another way of interpreting the Tarot is to focus on the underlying meanings of the cards, independently of what the book says, and without direct reference to the pictures.  This requires an understanding of the deep meanings of numbers, associations with the suits, and the historical background of the trump and court cards.  The latter is particularly relevant in light of the recent research above.  The idea of getting into the minds of the Tarot’s creators to learn how they actually understood it is more interesting to me than practicing divination based on the details of what is essentially a little cartoon.  The choice of deck in this method is simply one of personal preference, and in theory the deck need not have any pictures on it at all.

I have nothing against how anyone else uses or interprets the Tarot.  But I was personally never able to take the Waite-Smith deck and its associated esotericism seriously.  The idea of getting into the minds of the Tarot’s creators to understand how they actually understood it is much more interesting to me.  Furthermore, I have never been able to connect with the idea of practicing divination based on the details of what is essentially a little cartoon.  What I propose is using what the subject of each of the trump cards meant to its creators, the associations with each of the suits, the roles of the court card characters, and the deep meanings of numbers themselves to interpret each card of the Tarot without direct reference to any pictures at all.

This way of interpreting the Tarot is probably better suited to some types of reading than others.  For example, it may be a good way of looking within oneself to tap into the unconscious and gain self-awareness, or to grasp subtle connections with one’s physical and temporal environment.  An example of such an inquiry might be, “What is my role in my current situation, and what should my attitude be?”  On the other hand, if your goal is fortune-telling, figuring out things like whom you are going to marry and when, another method may work better for you.

Below, I have presented some ideas on how to interpret the Tarot based on the underlying ideas and archetypes that it contains, rather than a particular set of pictures.  The goal is that the subjects of the trump cards, the suit names, the court card characters, and the pip numbers become their own “keywords.”  If you have an understanding of the medieval concept of a Hanged Man, or the meaning of the swords suit, or what kind of person a Page was, or what the number three means, you will be able to make your own connections with your particular situation.  Note that the interpretation will be open-ended, and dependent on the here and now.  What do rods, and two, mean to you right now, for example?  Doing it this way may be more work; you may need to think harder, look closer.  But it is hoped that you will see deeper.

The Tarot Deck
The Suits
Earth, air, water, fire; above, below, inner, outer; heaven, earth, yin, yang.
The Numbers
What do a fulcrum and a star have in common?  What is special about the number seven?
The Court Cards
Meet the Page, Knight, Queen, and King.
The Trump Cards
Watch the pageant of the Dance of Death.
A Few Spreads and some notes on reading.
More Spreads and non-spreads.
A JavaScript Tarot
Two versions:  one that works for all devices, and a more advanced one that needs a mouse.
A Card Shuffler Script
How many shuffles does it take to randomize a deck?  See for yourself.
The Geography of the Tarot’s Origins
Milan, Marseille, Avignon, Albi . . . .
Bibliography and Links