Tarot is a deck of cards, a number of games played with the deck, and a number of metaphysical beliefs and practices attached to the non-gaming use and contemplation of the deck. Tarot was invented as a card game in the early-mid 15th century, most likely by the nobility of north Italian city states. In 1781, two small essays written by a Swiss-born French philosophe and a French cavalry officer provided the basis for all future development of what has come to be known as occult Tarot. Prior to this time, little public discussion had occurred concerning the use of Tarot for divination, although much had been written (both for and against the practice) for almost three centuries prior to 1781 about the use of playing cards in (and as) divination. The extension of this tradition to Tarot was a natural one, and the main question is when precisely it took place. The occultist myths of Tarot's origin, and meaning, gathered large followings in the midst of several occult revivals over the last 200 years or so. In the 1960s, these myths, and Tarot, were seized upon and transformed by counter-culturalists and, fueled by the commercial zeal of a former coal and copper peddler, Tarot was catapulted into pop consciousness. Whereas Tarot began its life as a refined amusement for the elite, it has now become one of several psychic salves (or opiates) for the masses and a very different kind of game altogether. You can read more about this recent history of Tarot here.
Beyond those bare essentials, the easiest answer to the question "What is Tarot?" is to describe the basic structure of a Tarot deck.
There are 78 total cards in a standard Tarot deck.
These cards are divided in the following way:
4 sets (called "suits") of 14 cards each=56 cards (called by occultists the "Minor Arcana"—or "Minor Mysteries"). It should be noted here that the suits of the Minor Arcana originated in the standard, 15th-century, playing-card deck, and that these cards were first imported into Europe (most likely through Venice or Spain) from Mamluk Egypt in the 14th century. Tarot is simply the addition of a fifth suit of 21 trumps (plus a Fool card) to the European version of these Mamluk playing-card decks. The names of the small suits have varied from pack to pack over time but generally suits adhere to some form of the following naming scheme:
Batons/Wands—Originally Mamluk Egyptian "Polo Sticks" (which basically looked like modern hockey sticks), these heraldic devices were straightened by non-polo-playing Europeans into Bastoni or Bâtons (staffs, sticks, or clubs), and eventually into the suit of Clubs in the standard playing-card deck of 52 cards. The suit name "Wands" is simply the occultist version of Bâton, which itself can refer to the baguette ("wand") of magicians. Always symbols of physical power (the stick was definitely a weapon in polo—a war game) and political authority, the occultist view of Wands is as a sort of first, creating principle, projecting its power as a tubular conveyor of divine, creative joyjuice—divine semen. Really, that's what occultists think. The occult Tarot generally associates Wands with elemental Fire and the universal masculine, although there are Wiccan/Feminist variations, mostly based on either symbolic confusion, or antipathy towards the primacy of penile instruments of power.
Cups—This suit was taken directly from the Mamluk suit of Cups, again a Mamluk heraldic device, without much embellishment, except a tendency developed over time for Europeans to Christianize the display and meaning of the symbol. Obviously, the cup form has yielded well to comparisons with the Holy Grail, and to the cup of the Eucharist. It is the correspondent receptacle to the Wand conveyor, accepting and forming the joyjuice into particular (frozen) delights and deliquescences. The occult Tarot version of the Cup associates it with elemental Water, and with the universal feminine. The union of the Wand and the Cup is one of the most fundamental symbolic ideas in Tarot. Eventually, Cups would become the suit of Hearts in standard playing-card decks.
Swords—The Mamluk heraldic device of the "Scimitar", the curved sword, was again gradually straightened and Europeanized into the long, double-edged blade now found in most Tarot decks. The divisive aspect of the symbolism has always been obvious. The blade cuts things open, either physically, or, as a symbol for the mind's tendency to divide unity with analytical jabs and slices. The occultists saw here a sign of punishment and salvation, for this suit, symbolized by a weapon of war, has usually been associated with pain and suffering, even in the old fortune-telling traditions. And this maleficent aspect of Swords transferred to its corresponding suit in the modern playing-card deck: Spades. The occult idea is that the reward for putting distance between ourselves and God by being created as a distinct and independent being (the result of the joyjuice finding its particular form in the Cup) is the pain of mental reflection on and analysis of our separate condition, which breaks illusory unity down into elemental pieces. The saving power implicit in this affliction is of course that through mind and analysis, perhaps aided by a little divine (Promethean or Christian) sacrifice, we can come to know and to apply the pieces towards an apprehension of Truth. Often though, one just ends up with another of Dr. Frankenstein's experiments animating corpses. The occult Tarot generally associates Swords with elemental Air. Again, there are variations on that idea, with the Wiccan/Feminist view that Fire should be associated with Swords.
Coins/Pentacles/Disks—The road to Pentacles and Disks is the weirdest evolution of a suit. Initially, nothing more than a Mamluk heraldic device designating the office of treasurer, thus the coins, it became occultized into a magickal object by Eliphas Lévi in the 19th century, with A. E. Waite, who saw the suits as grail hallows, adding the now well-known star or pentagram symbol in his famous 1909 Tarot, illustrated by his Golden Dawn colleague, Pamela Colman-Smith. Aleister Crowley iconized this further with the simplification to Disks, a sort of super-frisbee. Following the original impulse, here the joyjuice descent finds a home in the matrix of Earth, takes the knowledge of the broken pieces and the solutions of synthesis, and builds living material things. But, the catch (you knew there had to be one), these living things are so far removed from the original creative impulse (or archetype), they are naturally blind to their divine origin or content. Aleister Crowley viewed this suit as the home of the grave of all creative impulse. Here spurts of creativity go to die—that is cease vitally vibrating, because either they are killed by a better idea or they fade out as they are forgotten and buried by time. Crowley argued that even in the darkest, densest matter (or person) there still was a possibility of redemption—via the intervention of the pure mind, one that is spiritually aligned to the service of the Great Work. In other words, a magician can turn lead into gold. Coins would eventually become Diamonds in the standard playing-card deck.
Each suit has ten numbered cards, Ace through Ten, plus four court cards [note: the term court card possibly comes from a corruption of "coat card", coat having once been used to refer to something, such as one's apparel, which would distinguish one's class or profession].
The court cards also go by various naming conventions but—
—is a fairly standard description. One notices that this sequence is identical to that encountered in the 52-card pack of standard playing cards (the Page being the Jack), with the addition of the Knight in Tarot.
Originally, the Mamluk Egyptian deck used three or four male court-cards (experts dispute the exact number), and none of them displayed human figures but rather the suit-signs (or heraldic symbols) representing them. When the Mamluk decks were first introduced into Europe they initially retained the males-only arrangement, although the Europeans immediately began illustrating the cards with human figures, and shortly variations began to occur, including the introduction of female court figures into the mix. Eventually the standard Tarot sequence (noted above) was established, but variations continued for some time and court-card deconstructions are of course a major part of the postmodern attempt to redefine the deck in less sexist and less class-oriented terms. While that may seem an admirable goal, one should consider whether other cultural artifacts, such as Shakespearean literature, really need to be sanitized of all PC-less content. Often people, whose knowledge of Tarot is minimal to say the least, feel they should be empowered by the winnowing of what they view as offensive and disturbing elements of the old book. This is nothing new—Tarot has always been easily if not very intelligently demonized by censors.
In addition to the 56 small cards, there is a fifth suit of special cards called "trumps", an Anglicization of "triumphs", or in Italian, trionfi. OK, so once upon a time in ancient Rome, they had these things called "triumphs". These were ceremonial parades, which began as far back as the time of the Etruscans, and were adopted and adapted by the Romans over many centuries. By the time of the late Republic and the Empire, the triumph was essentially a celebration of military victory over an enemy. In the parade, the conquering general would ride in a glorious chariot, and following him came a train of captured booty, and defeated enemy leaders and soldiers, now slaves of the Empire. Flash forward 1,000 years and Italian nobility, who were interested in resurrecting the glory of the Roman Empire with themselves as its elite members, began again the tradition of the Roman triumph. However, it was not just for military victories that the triumphal parade was used. There were triumphs for religious celebrations, for the establishment of a new leader in a city, and for marriages between noble families. The 14th-century poem by Petrarch, The Triumphs, further inspired Renaissance Italians to construct magnificent pageants, featuring themselves as gods and heroes in a mobile theater mixing ancient (pagan) and Christian symbolism.
It is believed by playing-card historians that the symbolism of the triumphal parades provided at least some basis for the fifth suit. In addition, symbolic analysis of the early trump cards, from the Visconti-Sforza decks, shows at least some adherence to a symbolic correspondence of trumps to the book of Revelation in the New Testament. The use of religious themes in packs of cards used for gambling games might strike us as strange in the 21st century, but in 15th-century Italy, where religion was much more central to the daily lives of the people, these religious themes would have provided familiar motifs, and thus an easy way to build a mnemonic system to help players of the game of Triumphs remember the order of the (initially) unnumbered trumps.
As Tarot was adopted for play outside its North Italian home, many of the symbols on the early Tarots were unfamiliar to card makers in new areas. This eventually led to a confusion over the correct representation of some of the trump cards, and later would open the door to occultists being able to apply an inventive, but often inaccurate template of interpretations to the Tarot trumps, mainly based in the alleged correspondence between the trumps and the symbolism associated with Hebrew letters in the mystical systems of the Jewish Kabballah.
The 21 trump cards plus the Fool card are called by occultists "The Major Arcana"—"Major Mysteries", or "Majors", to distinguish their presumed greater significance as symbolic indicators from their 56 mundane companions.
The trump cards or Majors are numbered from 0-Fool to 21-World as follows:
0. Fool—NOTE: the Fool will sometimes be found stuck between 20 & 21, this is yet another occultist innovation or conceit, depending on one's view of things. Technically, the Fool is a special card in the game of Tarot, and as noted above is in addition to the 21 trump cards, but The Fool is combined with the trump cards by occultists as the lead card of 22 Atouts in the Greater Mysteries. In the game of Tarot, the Fool has a kind of redemptive function, being able to stand for other cards and save them from being taken in play, so it is not surprising that this function, combined with the tendency to see in destitute or eccentric characters an expression of spirituality, has been transformed by occultists into a symbol for Jesus Christ SuperFool, the most redeeming savior since sliced Dionysus. The Fool has, in the post-Christian downsizing of Tarot, become lately the jester of the whole deck, and a symbol for a kind of spiritual journey (The Fool's Journey) one is said to take on their path through or about the rest of the trumps. Playing card historians tell us that the Fool card of the Tarot is not, as one might suspect, the precursor for the Jokers in our modern 52-card packs.
I. Magician (or Magus)—This card is often paired with the Fool, as the completion of a kind of Dionysian-Hermetic dyad. In this view, the Magician is the calculating achiever (the one who has mastered all the other cards), and the Fool is the innocent beginner. Both are supposedly symbolic of high spiritual residence (so, close to the creative Light) but going in different directions. In its older form the Magician was a Bateleur, which could apply to a street magician or a cups-and-ball performer or to any person who did tricks, such as a juggler or a tightrope walker. As the deck has taken on an Hermetic veneer, Hermes (Mercury) has found a home particularly in this card, and it is well to recall that Hermes began his career as a thief, and as Thoth-Hermes represented the charming aspect of words—that is their ability to do tricks and especially to manipulate and deceive. One of the interesting developments of this card over the centuries has been the transformation of the presentation and meaning of the tools of the Magician's trade. As these signs became associated with the lower or minor suit indicators (Wands, Cups, Swords, Pentacles), the tools were displayed usually upon a flat plane, typically a table, to show they had been lifted up from mundane matrices to serve the microcosmic employment of the Magus. Finally, Aleister Crowley, in his Thoth Tarot, carried this through to a logical conclusion, making the Magus himself the wand, and showing the tools floating about him, spatially free to mix and match magical solutions.
II. High Priestess—The girl every man wants to defile, but of course can't unless he's got the secret word, which she often partially displays in the book or scroll in her lap. It's that last letter that's the trick, and most never get it. While she's not deflating inquisitive egos, she's supposedly reflecting a whole bunch of true things from some hidden light bulb that hangs out "up there, somewhere". In the first Tarots, this lady was portrayed as the Popess (La Papessa), the Pope's wife, and is generally thought to have been included as a "Ghibelline gibe at the corruption of the papacy", as Gertrude Moakley put it, although the true political and social nuances of the early Tarot trump illustrations are not always to this day well understood. For example, Moakley, in her groundbreaking book on the Visconti-Sforza deck, "The Tarot Cards Painted by Bonifacio Bembo for the Visconti-Sforza Family: An Iconographic and Historical Study", offered a compelling argument that the Popess was really an illustration of a member of the Catholic Umiliata order of nuns, Sister Manfreda (Maifreda da Pirovano), who was in fact elected Pope by her sect (the Guglielmites) in 1300. The Inquisition wasted little time in burning Popess Manfreda at the stake. The Viscontis, nobles and eventual rulers of Milan, were relatives of this first female pope, and suffered a temporary threat from the Inquisition as a consequence of her trial and execution. Supposedly, the later Viscontis (and their Sforza successors) celebrated her martyrdom by placing her image in the deck. It has been suggested she replaced a Virtue, Prudence, and the presence of her book is evidence this may have been a symbolic remnant of that earlier card. However, there are also images of Popes carrying a book as well, so this is not convincing evidence. Eventually, the very specific correspondence to Manfreda could not be maintained as the deck came to be produced outside of northern Italy, and the card was absorbed into the more general Pope Joan mythology. Finally, in the late 18th century, when Antoine Court de Gébelin got his Egytomaniacal hands on the lady, and her husband, she became High Priestess to his Hierophant.
III. Empress—The girl every man wants to defile, AND she'll let you, but you better be ready to ante up for child support. She gets pregnant in a heartbeat. Otherwise she's got a green thumb for just about every living thing you could possibly imagine. The Empress and Emperor cards (note, the worldly couple who separate the High Priestess from the Hierophant) were presumably representations of their 15th-century human counterparts, the Hapsburg rulers of the Holy Roman Empire, which it has been pointed out was neither holy, Roman, nor much of an empire. It is not known precisely which Empress and Emperor were first indicated in early Trionfi, although if the creation date of the V-Sforza decks is correct (c. 1450), then these figures could be, as Gertrude Moakley has suggested, Eleanora of Aragon and Frederick III. However, as noted below, there are some problems in this identification, and at any rate, the people depicted became symbolic of the offices, and eventually the occult ideas of secular worldly power, as projected via the two genders. Since the Empress was a representation of worldly feminine power, she was naturally merged with occultist dogma concerning the role of the feminine in procreative dynamics and, blending ideas of Persephone with Mary, she becomes the physical matrix by which the Holy Spirit (contained within High Priestess), transmits divine essence into matter. Consequently she becomes as well the Kabbalistic Daleth, the doorway through which life enters from the Abyss into material existence.
IV. Emperor—The man every pomo* girl wants to—castrate!! Gertrude Moakley believed this card represented the figure of Frederick III, Holy Roman Emperor from 1440-1493. The problem with that view, if the date of the early Visconti-Sforza decks is as believed, c. 1450, the figure shown as the Emperor is an old man, with wispy white hair, whereas Frederick would have been 35 in 1450, a mature but not elderly man. As noted above, the Emperor is a vestige of a once important political dynasty, the male counterpart of the Empress, and as with most men these days he is suffering greatly from femi-revisioning. On the one hand, he used to be a great, conquering hero (John Wayne playing Genghis Khan for example). On the other, his unrepentant penetrative tendencies, when deconstructed, reduce to pokey-man, and so he sits around now contemplating the burden of his unruly conquests, and wondering why his harem is not more attentively appreciative—kind of like Arnold playing old Conan. Aleister Crowley, in The Book of Thoth, complained that "...nothing is left [of the 'wild and courageous' ram] but the docile, cowardly, gregarious, and succulent beast." While Crowley is partly bemoaning what he viewed as the terminal effect of Christianity on good European barbarism (something his Aeon of Horus was meant to correct), he notes this is the "theory of government", which is to say the natural outcome of the impulse to conquer being tamed and ruined by the impulse to rule.
*"pomo" (short for "postmodern") was a relatively new word in Tarot when I wrote the first draft of this article, back in the 1990s. I will explain its significance to people new to the game. Postmodernism is actually a late modernist movement, and whatever it really means in any particular venue, it generally applies to the notion of deconstructing the basic assumptions and biases of some system of aesthetic expression, and recombining the analyzed (broken) parts in ways that are both (allegedly) liberating from the biases, and reflective of potentially deeper or anyway additional insights regarding the nature and applicability of the deconstructed elements. And it's OK if you have no idea what that means. In Tarot, postmodernism was dumbed down and watered down considerably, although the pomo movement in Tarot—which was basically an attempt to strip Tarot of its occult mystification and replace it with mundane, consumer-oriented, icons, and insights—did fit nicely with the designs of the Cartofeminist conspiracy. The pomos and the cartofems sought to overthrow the occultist domination of Tarot, and both did it ultimately to expand commercial opportunity to those whose understanding of Tarot was often non-existent. People motivated by the desire to understand and reveal true things about Tarot and its traditional symbolism, were often counted by pomos as some form of "enemy" to be marginalized and demonized. I say "were", because at this point, the "pomo" deconstruction and demolition of occult Tarot as been so successful, the ideological premise or basis for dumbing down the occult traditions and meanings of Tarot symbolism is no longer required. The war has been won. Darkness prevailed—as it always does.
V. Hierophant—This is every dogmatist you've ever encountered in your life, backed up by the power to excommunicate you if you don't like it. In fact, he's really just a conveyor of truth for those who lack the secret word and know they'll never get it. If you can't handle the truth, you get dogma. Most people can't handle the truth, so they get this guy. As noted above, in 1781 this card and the High Priestess were given these new, Egyptian, titles, whereas originally they were called Pope and Popess respectively. The effect of this has been to remove these cards, and so the whole sequence of trumps or Major Arcana cards, from a particularly Christian context. The Egyptianizing of the deck opened the door to more non-Christian cultural modifications in the 20th century, but this pomo effect, again largely a countercultural (meaning counter-dominant-cultural) movement, misses an important point: the return to ancient roots which occultists loved to do, or to pretend to do, was always done within a Christian context. The Egyptians, in other words, are made by occultists to affirm the later Christian doctrine, and do so by being closer, as the Fool, to the beginning than the middle or the end. Their pure doctrine, unadulterated, and uncorrupted by pagan superstitions, initially didn't require a savior figure to set matters right. But, at some point the world lost its way, and the Christian Church was set up to both replace and to appropriate the best aspects of the ancient pagan religion and its mysteries and to promise a salvation to return us to the Golden Age. Court de Gébelin believed that he had rediscovered the teachings and principles of the ancient religion, and that in this way, while not intending to reject the Christian doctrine, he would be able to demonstrate what a more natural, purer, relationship of humans to God looked like. And so, it was appropriate for him to reveal the ancient symbols hidden behind their Christian (or, because of the ignorance of the people conveying the symbols, pseudo-Christian) masks. Whereas the Pope would have told you how to behave if you want to get into heaven, the Hierophant can tell you how to live as if heaven were not a place but a time once and future—a legacy forgotten but also a memory stored for a new post-Apocalyptic era.
VI. Lovers—This card has always been about the idea of providing a union of opposites, even in the oldest forms it symbolized literally a political marriage (between the noble houses of Visconti and Sforza), sealed by the figure of Cupid providing a fixing shaft of conjunction between the beautiful Venus (Bianca Visconti) and her Martial condottiere (Francesco Sforza, newly chosen Duke of Milan). Over time, following the pattern of generalizing Tarotic symbolism as the decks moved away from Italy, Lovers evolved into another kind of union or synthesis, that which the mind or reason provides between the pull of spiritual Love versus the worldly kind—that is the choice between the twin Venuses, Geminae Veneres (for this idea, see Panofsky's Studies in Iconology, page 152). Again, Cupid provides his sanction, although his arrow here, in later versions of the card, suggest a marking of the lower sexual impulse, or an identification of Cupid with the worldly Venus, also personified as Eve. From this comes another form of the card as the literal Garden of Eden, with again the notion of a synthesis being represented here not by Cupid, but by way of the divisive effect of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Later interpretations, by Crowley particularly, add layers of alchemical dogma returning the twins to their parents in a sense, the Greek Geminians being compared to the very bloody Biblical brothers, Cain and Abel.
VII. Chariot—This is another Tarot card that has always basically been about the same thing: celebrating a triumph. In fact, The Chariot began Tarot life as the very chariot used as parade floats in the old Roman and later Renaissance Italian triumphal processions. While, in the beginning, this card was fairly simple, depicting a woman dressed like a queen, and enthroned on top of a high structure meant to elevate her above the surrounding street and its common rabble (i.e., her subjects), as time went on, the ceremonial display of queenly authority became a figure of a conquering king or general. Antoine Court de Gébelin believed the Charioteer was Osiris, returning as the resurrected Sun, after defeating the enemies of the Light in winter. As the card evolved, there were aspects of previous trumps added—for example the tug of opposites implied by VI. Lovers is seen in the development of black and white horses, and eventually sphinxes in the Egyptianized Tarot. The job of the Charioteer is to navigate a path by mitigating the natural opposition in his team. Further, the Chariot suggests to us a younger, more dynamic, figure of the seated, sedentary IV. Emperor. Despite the move to masculinize this card, The Chariot never fully lost its feminine foundation. Because of occultist interpretations of the symbolism of the Charioteer in old Marseilles-style Tarots, the attribution of the Crab, Cancer, to this card, became traditional. And so, when Crowley interpreted the old conqueror for his Thoth Tarot, he saw at its nexus the Holy Grail, the womb of the Universe.
VIII. And here our peaceful little perusal of the trumps rolls right off the tracks! We should get used to this. It's going to happen a lot. The problem with "VIII" is that no one can decide, with ultimate authority, what it's supposed to be. Some people say trump VIII should be entitled "Strength", while others say it should be "Justice" (and thus these two cards are locked in a struggle over the number attributions "VIII" and "XI"). At the same time, and to muddy things more, there is the whole problem introduced by Aleister Crowley, in his influential "Thoth" deck, who exchanged the attributions (the correspondences between Tarot trumps and paths on the Kabbalistic Tree of Life) of IV-Emperor (yes, we skipped that problem) and XVII-Star. Most people, who are not strict adherents to Crowley's Thelemic system, have not followed nor much concerned themselves with the latter change, but many still fight over the VIII-XI controversy. Based on purely astrological considerations, the better choice seems to be Strength in "VIII" and Justice in "XI". But there is more to it than that—there almost always is in Tarot.
So, let's continue—
VIII. Strength (or Justice)—(note: also, in Thoth-influenced decks these cards will be titled "Lust" or "Adjustment" respectively.) Both the motifs of Strength and Justice deal in some way with acquiring a "virtuous" load of balance: knowing how to shut the Lion's trap without losing your arm, or how to indulge Justice without getting nailed for bribery. In the old days, you just killed the Lion, symbolized by Hercules whacking the Nemean Lion with his club. But that was seen as not particularly transcendent spiritually, since one was behaving like the beast in order to tame it. In other words, you weren't learning anything other than how to kill, and the lion is already pretty good at that. Then, someone decided to make Strength a circus act, with a lady lion-tamer who coaxes the beast to cloak his fangs—this achieved with good Christian Love, and a t-bone steak (this not usually shown on the card—OK, that's a joke, relax). The problem is the Lion still sometimes gets loose, and gets Lustful, in which case trying to close his mouth becomes more contraceptive than anything, and if this happens, the Empress can't get rightly Lionized. Yes, the Empress, way up there running the Holy Roman Empire. It's all connected you know. Anyway, "balance" is a funny thing. No matter how you measure it, it doesn't work (lively) unless it is off a bit, allowing for a creative disturbance in the Force, or in Tiamat's belly.
IX. Hermit—Another veiled gadget, so you know it's REALLY about sex (what isn't?). But on the surface (and never be afraid to start there), it's really about conveying and nurturing a seed. Whether this is a seed of faith, which is nurtured by guiding it along a path to a certain revelation of its true home and true destiny, or a seed of life, which implies the same by a kind of mirroring of divine creation, is subject to sometimes secret interpretation. On a purely pop-cultural note, if you are paying any attention whatsoever, you will have noticed that this is in fact the fellow who graced the inside cover of Led Zeppelin IV (that image based on Pamela Smith's version of the Hermit for A. E. Waite's deck)*—now you're impressed with Tarot, aren't you? More seriously, one of the interesting debates about the true meaning of this figure is whether he shines a light on a path (or two) you may go by, or instead represents an allegory of what kind of life—i.e., hermetic—is required to obtain the heights of spiritual understanding. In other words, is he illuminating a method or a madness? Again, this is a card that began its life as something else—a depiction of Time, with the lamp being originally an hourglass to mark off the lost moments (or chances—see next card).
*Now, go here and read the way they explain this image on the inside of the album cover. Rolling Stone, seeking to dispel the rumor the image is supposed to be Gandalf (or something) from Lord of the Rings, informs readers that the Led Zeppelin hermit "was merely inspired by a figure from a Tarot card". Get that? Merely. So, Lord the Rings allusion, good, Tarot allusion, mere (as in "small and insignificant").
X. Wheel of Fortune—No, there is no Vanna White turning letters. But there is an acknowledgment of an ancient awareness in people that "shit happens", and it happens because it changes, and in the macrocosmic view the changes seem to add up to cycles and seasons—so a rotation or a Wheel of changing Fortune. What we see we once saw and shall see again. Who is up will be down, who is down will be up. The catch is that it may not happen soon enough to do you any individual good or harm. So, spin the Wheel and hope for some good luck, for a change, for another chance. Now, Fortuna, the goddess of fortune, has been identified with a wheel for thousands of years, but the form we see in most versions of this Tarot card, depicting the stages of foolishness in lives cast and canoned upon the Wheel, came into expression and being in the Middle Ages. This expression has seldom varied from a seemingly simple and clear message—as Philosophy here explains to Boethius (in her Consolation)—
"You have given yourself over to Fortune's rule, and you must bow yourself to your mistress's ways. Are you trying to stay the force of her turning wheel? Ah! dull-witted mortal, if Fortune begin to stay still, she is no longer Fortune."
The Kabbalistic layer the card enjoyed (or suffered) added some dogma concerning the palm of a hand, one that might turn the Wheel, or one that might shuffle the deck, for here as well is supposedly the basis of divination, Fortuna in fact having hosted a temple where card-like tiles were shuffled and read thousands of years ago. While the trump Fortune slowly was recast with Egyptian figures on its rim instead of the more traditional ascending ass, culminating ape, and descending man, the meaning and in a way the terror, of this card has remained intact and constant. Finally, Fortune is one of the "blind" cards, the others being Lovers (or Love), Death and the Moon (Justice is blind in a good way), and so speaks to the sense we all have that the darkness (of love, luck, death and night) is our natural and inevitable home, no matter how we may strive, for our brief human time, to reach for the light. In the end, all our experiences are mainly about Fortune, which is about change, without the moral judgments humans make concerning its value.
XI. Justice (or Strength)—[again, in Thoth 'Justice' is called 'Adjustment'.] Noting what we have just said about trump X, a lot of the trumps are about the nature and process of change, particularly Fortune and Justice. Sometimes, change appears to be chaotic and random. Sometimes, it appears to be intelligently guided. In Justice, the scale is very sensitive, and the slightest disequilibrium will be detected and will have its effect. It is disturbing to realize you can do all the right things and still come up a milligram short in the weighing, and that this tiny difference is all the difference that matters. Justice, as a Virtue, is about determining what it is we all deserve. Christians claim, along with William Munny, that "deserve's got nothing to do with it", in other words that a just and righteous God is nothing special, since all gods are essentially just because they're the ones determining the "good", and the violations of it, in the first and last place. Something else must be added to the concept of Justice, and to the balance of the scales, and this is Mercy, which is the act of delivering an outcome to someone that is much better than what they deserve. As noted above, there is a kind of natural connection between Fortune and Justice, so much of merit being an accident or the good fortune of being able (and not merely willing) to do the right thing at the right time. Aleister Crowley, who was as self-justified a soul as the occult has ever produced, finally saw in this card, and this Virtue, "the phantom show of Space and Time", where all possibilities were allowed and required, so that in the end all hands would be played, all money won from and lost back to the cosmic bank, the Adjustment being "scrupulously just" for each individual and for a collective processing of Universal righteousness—or the Way of things.
XII. Hanged Man—This card is one of the most distinctive in the deck, one which ties the original decks to a particular place and time, since it illustrates a form of punishment used in southern Europe, and which had significance in the political artwork of the Italian Renaissance. And yes, they had political artwork in the Italian Renaissance. The Hanged Man generally indicated that the person so punished (or so depicted in a piece of artwork for the purpose of shaming) was a traitor. Subsequently, the card came to be seen as that greatest of traitors, Judas Iscariot, complete with his 30 pieces of silver held in two bags. Once again, as Tarot moved further away from its Italian home, the interpretation of the symbolism became more and more aberrant, reflecting a general tendency for the cards to be adapted to regional uses and interpretations. The occultists decided that whatever was happening to the Hanged Man, it had to be allegorical, not literal, and so typically this card is seen as symbolic of sacrifice or "suspension" of some sort, but usually not a sign of literal hanging or death. Antoine Court de Gébelin, believing he was looking at one of the mistakes of "ignorant cardmakers", said that the Hanged Man was incorrectly identified, and that it should be inverted to be upright and renamed or rediscovered as "Prudence". Generally, people have not accepted this interpretation, perhaps because the allegorical interpretation is rather anti-dramatic compared to somebody being justly punished or unjustly sacrificed. Nevertheless, the idea that there is some secret interpretation to be found in inverting the Hanged Man continues to find advocates.
XIII. Death—The one Tarot card almost everyone has seen, and the one which, along with the almost equally threatening Devil (see XV below), is the reason why Tarot has a kind of spooky reputation amongst non-initiates (it also has a spooky reputation amongst initiates, but that's another story). The Death card has changed very little over the centuries, but how people view death has changed a great deal. The esoteric meaning of this card is a helpful exercise in creating a layer of not-so-comforting euphemistical frosting on a fact and a process people viscerally dread. It does not take long to discover that the fear naturally generated by the surface features of this card is so disagreeable to those who make a living peddling advice with Tarot cards, that it's been thought well and wise by some of them to change the name of this card altogether. And so in some pomo decks, you'll find XIII-Death changed to Transition, and the image altered to some fluffy-bunny growing to Peter Rabbit or some such idiocy. Death is death. It is not supposed to be necessarily cheery or frightening. And while occult Tarot dogma teaches a respect for the process of change, and its inevitable terminations, the process is seen as ongoing, not discretely horrifying (or liberating), but ever-readily so. Modern Tarot's darkest, and most troubling, moment came in 2002, when this Tarot trump starred in one of the nation's most lurid melodramas of the past 15 years (and that's saying something), the DC Sniper killings. You can read much more about that here.
XIV. Temperance—Given the bad name this word, "Temperance", has gotten in some places, you would not be surprised to know that it also has been pomoized of late, being turned into the insipid "Just right" of Goldilocks (well, OK, not yet, but no doubt soon). People, even those whose grasp of history barely extends to the memory of last week, are vaguely aware that Temperance has something to do with restricting their right to destructively self-indulge, and so are pretty much convinced it is a bad idea. What Temperance, the Virtue and the Tarot Card, is really about is one of those innumerable nasty things in Tarot requiring that you stop using the Force (or the Farce) to go with your personal feelings, and that you go read a book—or many books. Tarot is densely textual. One must temper their visual experience of it with much ideological indoctrination. And therein buds a clue about the real meaning of Temperance, which is really about proper mixtures, not repressive prohibitions. The idea is that an active ingredient is too powerful in its full, unmixed, expression of itself to be sustained by a human agent without the risk of some serious harm being done. We thus water down the wine, or we blend a pigment with another, to obtain the correct balance and the desired hue. And in any particular situation, the balance may demand a different mixture. Being "temperate" in that respect is being sensitive to what is required.
XV. Devil—Yes, he's big, he's bad, he'll kick your ass and take you to Hell in a heartbeat. Since the Devil personifies virtually every redeeming feature of modern life: greed, lust, power, obsessive self-interest and self-promotion (after all, how do you figure he got to be a fallen angel in the first place?), it is difficult for most people, having read the unfine print, to figure out what the problem is. Well, there isn't one, if you're happy with greed, lust, power and obsessive self-interest and self-promotion. And of course we live in a paradise as a result, shorn free of corruption, pollution, prejudice, poverty, disease, hunger or injustice—right? Hmmm... As with many things in Tarot, the correct answer to this question depends on prior training and political leaning. But, while recalling that the Devil is really himself just a Christian spin on the role and value of Great Pan (the terrifying but liberating goat-man of ancient Greece), it is well to recall also that traversing thresholds of any sort bears a high price and usually comes with a lovely set of chains. The Devil was the focus of some of the earliest magickal use of Tarot, as the Inquisition records tell us in the latter part of the 16th century, people were using the Devil card in Italy in a kind of invocation to exact malevolent outcomes on one's enemies.
XVI. Tower—On September 11th, 2001, the entire world learned, again, all about the surface meaning of the Tower symbolism. Interestingly, the Koran warns us of the hopelessness of seeking refuge in towers when death comes calling. The Tower is a card so integral to our experience of modern millennial existence, which is primed to explode so often and so entertainingly that if we can't get life to cooperate and provide us with our own daily fix of catastrophe (preferably that of a neighbor or co-worker), we depend on entertainment providers to supply us with its Toweresque casino. There, scripted but unexpected ruin is guaranteed for someone (and often everyone) at every gaming table. The downside of this card (as with that of the Devil and Fortune and really ALL cards), that physical structures all eventually shatter against the inevitable and irresistible force of Nature's changing ways, is something most people readily acknowledge as a possibility. But graveyards aside, they really suspect the illness is just more reality television, and the suggested remedy, that they look beyond the supposed security of physical comfort and stability to a deeper cure for what ails us, is obviously only of pre-industrial relevance—or at least it was before September 11th, 2001. The Tower reminds us that we had better learn to surf the thunderbolts of chaos, because if we instead try to build castles out of apparently solid and reliable materials—stones are after all just a lot of empty space giving the comforting illusion of solidity—time will eventually teach us the intense folly of that evasion from reality.
XVII. Star—No, not the kind on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, nor the kind up in the sky (exactly). In the older decks, this was a woman holding aloft a star in her left hand, and was paired with a similar figure of a woman holding up a crescent moon in Trump XVIII. As the Bible commands: Praise ye him, sun and moon: praise him, all ye stars of light. It is well to recognize how much the Bible has played a part in the foundational symbolism of Tarot. This often creates an unfortunate tension and obstacle for those who are looking to Tarot to fill an essentially religious role for them. Neo-pagans often react away and against the root symbolism of Tarot, which is clearly Christian, seeing it as a representation of the dominant (and presumably domineering) faith, and by this prejudice they miss a great deal of useful information. While The Star is the most seminal sort of Christian sign, and is an appropriate metaphor for all heavenly signs, in occultist hands it becomes Egyptianized into the sign of the yearly Nile flood, the Dog Star, Canicula, which signals the division between the chaos and evil of the dark waters and the orderliness and goodness of the cultivated land. In this mythology, the land is saved from oblivion by the rays of the live-giving Sun, just as later Christ, as the radiant Son, would save lost souls from the abyss of damnation and death. So, The Star, however you cut it, is about a sign of hope for a better, redeemed, future.
XVIII. Moon—At some point in the evolution of this card from its early symbolism, which depicted a simple image of a woman (probably Diana) holding aloft a crescent moon, with a bridle (or broken bow, both Dianic symbols) in her other hand, the designers got really weird, and moved to one of the more uniquely Tarotic presentations in the Trumps. The image of some sort of crustacean, emerging from dark waters to crawl forth between two towers (note: in the early depiction there is also a tower on a hill so this is not a new element) guarded by competing aspects of the canine nature, wolven and domesticated, is ripe for psychological deconstructions of all sorts, and that has been the fate of this card. The imagery seems rooted in some depiction of Easter, a lunar festival, and the elements of emergence (or resurrection), but also of the threat of doom confronting all pathwalkers as they navigate their way into conscious being, resonate the idea of a Messianic sacrifice. This fits the trinity of Star, Moon, Sun, as birth, death, and rebirth before the last two cards depict the victory of Christ, his analysis and judgment upon the old world, and his remaking of the cosmos into a literally new world. The Moon, in its dreamlike depiction, reminds us of the Bible declaration: "Behold, I have dreamed a dream more; and, behold, the sun and the moon and the eleven stars made obeisance to me." The occultists viewed the Moon as the very pit of nightmare horrors, madness, and of course the home of feminine power—or witchcraft.
XIX. Sun—The simplicity of this card, and its obviously life-affirming qualities, sometimes lead people to overlook its importance. It is the completion of the Trinity—Star-Moon-Sun—and The Sun both affirms a present victory, the resurrection of the sun and the Son, and presages (or prophesies) the final acts of the drama. In the older decks, it was again a simple depiction: a child (a putto, or cherub) holds a blazing sun-mask with its face tilted towards the heavens. The child has been represented over and over again, sometimes mounted on a white horse waving a red war-flag, mirroring the astrological correspondence of the Sun's "house" to children, but also reflecting the 19th chapter of Revelation, where God's war general (Christ) rides a white horse, and the angel of God stands in the Sun, calling carrion birds to the "supper of the great God" where they will feast upon "the flesh of kings, and the flesh of captains, and the flesh of mighty men." The sun in the Bible is a remnant of the Egyptian solar deity, who was the dying and resurrecting god, the one who brought life and presaged death. One hoped to see his own fate reflect the path of the Sun, and finally in Christianity this motif is adopted to represent Christ and his victory over death. By the time of A. E. Waite's happy Sun card, the idea of feeding on the flesh of enemies is muted (pretty much to silence) and the victory of baby Jesus, militant in his saving love, is the message.
XX. Judg(e)ment—In the last two cards, we see a definite link to Apocalyptic motifs presented in Revelation. Indeed, the links here are striking because the narrative of a final resurrection of the dead and a calling to judgment occurs in chapter 20 of the final book of the New Testament, the creation of the new world or Universe occurs in chapter 21, exactly matching the numbers of the cards depicting these events in Tarot. It is worth noting that there are 22 chapters in Revelation, as there as 22 trumps in Tarot. It is also worth noting that the depiction of religious themes and motifs in Renaissance artwork, even on playing cards, is hardly anything mysterious or occult. However, occultists have been particularly drawn to the notion of hidden meanings (even spelling Judgment with an added "e" is supposedly meaningful)—which obviously empowers the initiated to act as teachers to paying clientèle of all sorts through the centuries—and so the mere fact that Tarot depends for its illustrations at least in part on a mining of Apocalyptic images has fueled the subsequent Tarot industry in mystery. The card is pretty self-explanatory. We are told that after the victory of Jesus over the powers of death and darkness, eventually a time comes when the graves of the dead are opened, and they rise up to be judged and are given their respective rewards and punishments. This dogma is a little strange, since it implies those who did not accept Christ as Lord and Savior, would have the chance to be saved by "acts" alone. In any case, the ideas of a certain accountability and a certain fatalism have always attached to this card. Crowley, in his Thelemic interpretation, thought of Judgment in the following way:
"These are the Judex and Testes of Final Judgment; the Testes, in particular, are symbolic of the secret course of judgment whereby all current experience is absorbed, transmuted, and ultimately passed on, by virtue of the operation of the Sword, to further manifestation."
XXI. World/or Universe—As noted for the previous card, this image completes the Apocalyptic narrative, in the early cards, this showed the descent of New Jerusalem, the reborn World, and the elements of that simple motif, puttos holding up the city in a circle or bubble, were to be recast by cardmakers over the centuries until the final product we have today, while bearing a symbolic resemblance to the original, certainly looks superficially to be a completely different card and idea. And the evolution of this card is one of the best ways of illustrating the problem faced by the largely ignorant public when they first encounter Tarot. For, not only do they have to try and decipher a pictorial code, which is by the nature of the business of card-making, a random and often corrupted production (that is, cardmakers often made copying errors when trying to transcribe unfamiliar images from an old deck to a new one), but people's profound ignorance of the Bible, of philosophy, of—pretty much everything that makes up Tarot symbolism—makes the process of learning the subject (or even understanding what that means) a challenging proposition. What The World eventually became is not apparent in Waite's claim that his version "is unchanged—and indeed unchangeable" compared to what had come before. Waite gets a little clearer when he says: "It represents also the perfection and end of Cosmos, the secret which is within it, the rapture of the universe when it understands itself in God." And Crowley says, noting the completion of a finite process expressing an infinite design: "In the card itself there is consequently a glyph of the completion of the Great Work in its highest sense, exactly as the Atu of the Fool symbolizes its beginning. The Fool is the negative issuing into manifestation; the Universe is that manifestation, its purpose accomplished, ready to return.” So, in a sense, Waite is correct. In spite of considerable symbolic evolution for this card, the nature of The World, as a celebration of a perfected spiritualization of the material Universe, seems unchangeable.