Tarot: A picture says more than a thousand words

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A picture says more than a thousand words.
An article by Serena Brink

The tarot is a visual system of knowledge and every picture within the tarot is symbolic and contains very complex information if you know how to decode it. The tarot is also a metaphysical system that is designed for self-knowledge, and is regarded as a key to the inner universe. But the tarot is best known for its use in divination.

Most people know of the tarot as a ‘fortune-telling’ tool. So when people want advice or information that they cannot get through conventional means they sometimes turn to divination. The tarot has been used to gain information or clarity on a wide range of problems or issues such as work, relationships, spiritual direction, finances, legal matters or life purpose.

We all face a range of these difficulties at some time in our lives. The Tarot helps us make decisions or see things a bit differently because it gives us a visual image of the issue, problem, event or person. The visual image we receive when we do a reading can invoke our intuitive powers and give us a different perspective on the question. Weighing up the pros and cons of a situation can sometimes lead us in circles, whereas a picture can give us a definite focus. When I do a reading I act as a guide during this process so that the person can come to a much clearer understanding of what their choices are and what they want to do. I am more of a tarot counsellor than a fortune-teller.

Of course, there are those tarot readers who use tarot cards as a psychic trigger and they often know very little about the symbolism of the cards or their metaphysical significance. Often, an inquirer doesn’t care about whether the reader is knowledgeable about tarot, as his or her only concern is whether the information given is true or useful. When tarot cards are used as a psychic trigger the information given to the inquirer may not have anything to do with the traditional range of meanings associated with the card, rather the cards evoke psychic impressions which the reader then relays to the client.
The reliability of the information you receive will depend on the ability and integrity of the reader. The value of the information you receive will depend not only on the psychic or intuitive ability of the reader, but also on her or his degree of wisdom and her skill in communicating her knowledge to you.

Historical background

The earliest historical accounts of the tarot occur in the fifteenth century in Europe. Tarot historians have been unable to discover the origins of the tarot and as a result there has been much speculation. Some say the tarot came from ancient Greece or Egypt, others are convinced that the gypsies invented them, and some believe that the tarot is a symbolic visual encoding of ancient knowledge and wisdom that was put together to resemble a game. The legend recounts that a group of sages (in the aftermath of the burning of the libraries of Alexandria) decided that a game might be overlooked by book burning enthusiasts.

Although there is no evidence to support these views, esoteric tarot packs such as the Rider/Waite Tarot, depict the symbols of ancient Egypt and Greece, thereby pointing the way to the ancient mystery religions and the hermetic philosophy that has influenced the Western Magical Tradition.

Playing cards and the Tarot

The four suits of modern playing cards are similar to the minor arcana in the Tarot. Spades for instance are the equivalent of Swords in tarot cards, and Hearts of Cups. The Joker is the equivalent of the Fool in the Tarot, and is the only major arcana card found in modern playing cards.

The main difference between an ordinary pack of cards and the tarot are the twenty-two major arcana cards. The major arcana depict roles people played in medieval society e.g. Emperor, Empress, Fool and the Pope; events e.g. Death, the Hanged Man, and the Tower; qualities or virtues e.g. Temperance, Strength, and Justice; as well as the religious beliefs and legends of the time e.g. The Papess (based on the story of Pope Joan), Judgement Day, and the Devil. Astral bodies were represented as well – the Sun, Moon and Stars.

Modern Tarot

The Rider/Waite tarot pack that was painted by Pamela Coleman Smith and directed by Arthur Waite was published by Rider in 1910, and introduced an additional difference between an ordinary pack of cards and the tarot by interpreting the pip cards as scenes e.g. the 6 of pentacles (diamonds) now depicted the scene of a man acting as a benefactor to the poor, instead of a geometric pattern of six pentacles. This revolutionised tarot and made it more accessible and popular, as it is easier to interpret pictures than pips.

Modern approaches to the tarot

During the early twentieth century the metaphysical approach to the tarot was primarily informed by a magical view of the universe in which everything was interconnected and coincidences were therefore meaningful. The tarot was a powerful way of tapping into the influences affecting an inquirer’s life at the moment of the reading.

Carl Jung’s theory of the psyche and the archetypes provided a different perspective of tarot symbolism and has become a more modern approach to the tarot than the magical perspective. Although, that might change given the influence and popularity of Harry Potter!

The more psychological approach to tarot cards resulted in tarot counselling rather than psychic readings. The tarot could function as a kind of Rorschach test and the reader facilitated the interactions between the client and the tarot cards so that the client’s unconscious conflicts and beliefs could emerge and be integrated. As a result the client could develop an awareness of how unconscious beliefs and conflicts were influencing their present problems and issues. Once the client was conscious of these influences then he or she could make different choices and not compulsively repeat old destructive patterns.

Eastern religions have also influenced the interpretation of tarot through concepts such as karma, re-incarnation, spiritual lessons and using the tarot as a meditation device. Those who interpret the tarot according to the Hermetic Kabbalah will also use the tarot for meditation and pathworking.

The tarot has many creative and exciting applications that have nothing to do with fortune-telling and everything to do with self-knowledge, creativity and self-transformation. Jung once attended a talk on the tarot and commented that they seemed distantly related to the symbols of transformation. The purpose of symbols of transformation is to bring unconscious material into the light of consciousness so that it can be integrated, thus contributing to our search for wholeness and individuation. When I first started working with the tarot in 1985, this was the approach I used - together with divination.

Creative methods of using the tarot include story telling, poetry, collage, and journaling. I find that the tarot can be a very stimulating addition to a journaling process as the cards stimulate reflection and a reading can provide a commentary on your journaling process.
The tarot also provides a dynamic method of learning about the Western Magical Tradition which is hidden within fairytales, legends, myths and of course the tarot. The tarot is a springboard that can catapult the curious into learning about astrology, numerology, alchemy, cabala and magic.

The tarot is a very accessible divinatory tool - it is easy to get going, a few lessons on how to do a tarot spread and some basic guidelines to interpretation and you can start reading for yourself and others (friends, acquaintances and family, not professionally). But as I am sure you have realized after reading this article, the tarot is also a lifetime study. It can take years to truly understand the symbolism of the tarot. It is therefore a very rewarding divinatory system to use as it doesn’t take years of study to reach basic proficiency.

An article by Serena Brink
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Author - Serena Brink

Published - 2013-05-07