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Monday, 9 April 2012

Let's see if I can get this straight

I've been trying to get some things straight in my head for the last few days because I think it's 
important. Why do we read cards a certain way and who were the first people to do things the way we do? Why did they make those choices? Who says we have to keep doing it that way? Stuff like that. 
I'm no tarot historian and most likely never will be. My eyes glaze over when I try to read theories about the Astro-Alpha-Numeric correspondences of pre-de Gebelin cartomancy...and stuff like that. But several comments read in rapid succession at Aeclectic Tarot which made a strong implication that the Thoth Tarot was somehow superior to the Rider Waite Smith deck made me start to squint and wonder. And it's so rare lately that my cerebral gears try to kick into motion, I had to follow up on it. 

Okay, I know both Uncle Al and dear old Arthur were Golden Dawn. The thinking is, if I've got it right, that Waite illustrated Golden Dawn meanings, but did so in an obscure way because of his vows of secrecy, whereas Crowley put it all out there on the deck, trusting that we were all big boys and girls enough to learn the system and could handle it. Right, okay, I'm fine with that. But where, I suddenly began to wonder, did these Golden Dawn meanings come from? It sounded to me like they'd 'always' been the tarot meanings, and that only a few people knew them, that the meanings were closely guarded esoteric secrets that had only been released to us, the great unwashed, sometime near the turn of the 19th century. Could that be right? I had a few questions that needed answering. 

I found all the answers to these questions in the book, 'Mystical Origins of the Tarot' by Paul Huson, and I highly recommend it for your collection. 

1. When were tarot cards first used, not for gaming but for divination? The earliest evidence is around the 1750s. (That doesn't mean they weren't used earlier!) A manuscript from that time has been found that lists meanings for 35 tarrochi cards and gives advice for laying them out. Card reading was mostly a matter of drawing single cards and interpreting the meaning.

2. Who was the first person to make a name for himself as a card reader? Etteilla (real name Jean-Baptise Alliette, a Parisian algebra teacher and the world's first --as far as we know--professional tarot card reader). He literally did make a name for himself, turning his name around backwards! :) 

3. Who first claimed that a tarot deck contained some form of 'ancient wisdom'? Antoine Court de Gebelin, a French-Swiss Protestant pastor in 1781. He claimed they were Egyptian in origin.  

4. Where did card meanings come from, in the sense that we think of card meanings today? Eteilla and his students were the most important in laying the groundwork for modern tarot card interpretation. And that was in the late 1700s. 

5. Where did the idea of reading multiple cards come from? Eteilla again. He and his students used large spreads of card which they linked and read in 'sentences' and complex ideas. Again, late 1700s. 

6. So who was it who first linked tarot card majors to the Kabbalah? A Roman Catholic ex-deacon turned writer and illustrator, who used the pen name Eliphas Levi, writing in 1855. He linked the 22 majors to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Why?? Twenty-two of each, maybe he thought it looked plausible. He certainly worked very hard to make a connection, and obviously convinced a lot of people. 

7. And where did elemental correspondences come from? Also Eliphas Levi! He gives no clear explanation for how he arrived at this, but he took the idea from Agrippa (16th century chronicler of Renaissance magic) that the four letters making up the name of Jehovah (JHVH) correspond to the four Pythagorean elements (fire, water, air, and earth) and by some leap of...whatever...assigned them to the four minor suits of the tarot deck. Why would he do that? And why do we keep repeating it? (See what I mean?)

8. Right, then. So who came up with the notion that the minor cards all have an astrological correspondence? Three main sources: Jean-Alexandre Vaillant (1857), Paul Christian (1870), and the Golden Dawn (ca 1888). All linked pip cards 2-10 to astrological decans. 

It was the Golden Dawn in particular that linked the tarot deck with occult meanings, the suit cards with the astrological decans and the trump cards with the kabbalistic Tree of Life. Dear old Arthur (in 1910) worked with Pamela Coleman-Smith to create his deck, and later Uncle Al (in the 1930s) worked with Frieda Harris to create his deck. These are the Golden Dawn decks that prompted me to revisit this tarot history timeline. 

Of the Thoth deck, Huson writes, 'Though of great occult interest, the Thoth cards bear very little similarity to historical tarot decks, although many cartomancers enjoy using them. They reflect Crowley's own personal philosophy, which some consider an advantage.' That made me chuckle. 

Of the Rider-Waite Smith deck, he says even less, noting only that they are the most well-known and widely available deck today. 

I'm not a deck snob, I'm not a purist. I do love the RWS decks. I do not like the Thoth decks and have no interest in Crowley's Thelema. Lately my favourite deck is the pips-only Davis Celtic Tarot, and working with it probably prompted all this questioning to begin with. Lack of illustrations makes you begin to wonder where the ideas for certain illustrations came from. 

But anyway. I got my questions answered, and I remain pretty firm in my original idea that you don't need to know astrological or elemental correspondences in order to use a tarot deck. Occult meanings, however useful and sensible to many, really do seem to be a late addition to the cards. To me, they seem quite optional. And there's nothing superior about Thoth, when it comes to tarot. In the occult world, yeah maybe. If you expect your deck to reflect to occult themes, yes I'm pretty sure it's tops. But for plain old tarot divination (which neither Crowley nor Waite seemed to rate very highly), nah. 

I've felt kind of embarrassed for not knowing astrology and being uninterested in it, and for using the RWS. For not being that adept at elemental dignities, and for not knowing anything about the Tree of Life. (Just looking at the diagram makes me feel like I'm back in driving lessons or something). But now I know, that's not needed. It's just extra.


  1. I as a fairly new reader, (9 months or so) I don't think it's necessary. I've been learning without all the extras and my deck is a RWS commerative deck. However I've been using the Old Style conjure card kit from Mama Starr and it is based on a plain old regular deck of cards and I love them! It's more personal opinion in my eyes. I'm sure loads would disagree but that's fine with me, what suits one doesn't always fit another!!

  2. Oooh, what are old style conjure cards? I am interested in conjure, being originally from Arkansas myself. Some of our family practices are sort of conjure-y. :)

  3. Its a type of folk magic of the south, where you being from a Arkansas may have heard it referred to as Ozark mountain magic or granny magic which us what I'm really interested in growing up in Missouri but haven't had much luck finding info on it. Its like a collection of old remedies assume of it. I would look up Mama Starr onthe internet, I'm sure some of what she says does may sound familiar to you :) She has a blog that's very interesting!

  4. I know about conjure, I am curious about the cards. I went and looked at her site. How many cards are in the deck?

  5. Sorry lol. Misinterpreted you're question. Its the same as a regular deck of cards with only one joker instead of two. That's actually what I wanted to learn first was from a regular deck. But couldn't quite get the hang of it so I went with a Tarot deck since her cards weren't out yet. The deck is made with quality card stock, the handkerchief type white cloth, I wrap mine in it. Plus the booklet, a candle and oil. For me personally it would make it very easy to move to a regular deck of cards if you so wanted to, but I really mesh with her deck as it is.

  6. I know nothing about Kabbalah... I don't even know how to spell it properly. And honestly, I never missed it in my practice. I feel no connection to the Jewish mysticism. I feel no connection to any esoteric orders that teach Kabbalah. I don't see the point of forcing myself to learn something that, for the time being, I do not need. Perhaps in the future the interest will manifest spontaneously within me -- and then it will be the right time for me to explore this field.

    Tarot is tarot. You don't need astrology/kabbalah/Golden Dawn/paganism/numerology to use it. It's a tool that is complete in itself. IF you like such things, they'll enhance your practice - but only because they make sense to you, because their fit your practice, because they add to your way of understanding life.

    As for the Thoth being better than the RWS, it's a load of croc is you ask me. Honestly, I think that many people who use the Thoth feel 'superior' because for a long time its language was considered more 'esoteric' (read, mysterious) than the good ol' easily-accessible RWS. But the Thoth is just a tool and a tool is only good in the hand of someone who knows how to use it. The reading is in the reader.

  7. Thanks for the interesting post, Carla :) I agree with Marina, a reading is only as good as the reader, the deck is very much secondary (though delightful)! I can't get my head around astrology, and trying to do so during a reading would distract me from being with and for my client. For those who use it well, great, but that doesn't make it necessary, imo.