If I have any vision for Tarot practice in the coming decades, it’s that it become as quotidian as Astrology, that it be as pervasive as a Sun sign horoscope and with the same degree of seriousness: light, fun, but with a dash of dead-on. Basically, I want Tarot to go pop. Why? Because the forecast provides a fascinating cultural function, allowing for a public space to consider private matters which affect many. For me, each time that I check my horoscope, I’m fervently hoping to identify with it, while keeping in mind that it applies to such a large swath of the public that it may well be simple hokum. It’s a ritualized consideration of the self, if only for a few moments, that holds the self in suspension. To put this another way, at the very moment that one clears a space for self-reflection, one also allows for error, while acknowledging a possible kinship with others of one’s zodiac sign or “type.” That’s cool. Plus, checking a horoscope acknowledges that the reader is not in full control of his/her destiny, which in an age of seemingly limitless technological prowess and rabid banter about intent and the power of positive thought, might be a good idea. Man sometimes forgets that he is still very much at mercy.
If you have yet to experience this dash of dead-on, then I’d recommend Brezsny, Cainer, or Kristin Fontana. These three astrologers are always in the back of my mind when I give professional Tarot readings as I want to be as helpful as they are, but with live Tarot, which should tell you something about why I’m so fond of them. They help.
A friend of mine who is downright devout in his refusal to “believe” in Astrology was letting me use his internet one day when mine was on the fritz. As he watched me check my Cainer (which is exactly how I phrase it) he said: “Oh, that’s not Astrology, that’s self-help!” I responded, “I know! You should check yours. Belief has nothing to do with it.”
All three astrologers have a very unique voice and most certainly know their art, however they only ever give advice that it is most probably wise to follow regardless. You don’t have to believe in Astrology or Tarot any more than you have to believe in a hammer. It’s a tool. It either works for you or it doesn’t. And when it does work, it could just as easily be attributed to the finesse of the person using it, though I’d be quick to point out – that’s really only half of the story.
I think of both divination techniques as psychic meteorology, and since the weather and astrology started as much the same thing, let’s start there. Astrology precedes Tarot by so many centuries that one would be hard pressed to calculate it. Suffice it to say that it’s no exaggeration to say that Astrology is as old as time. The etymology of the word “planet” is Old French “to wander,” and was meant to indicate moving celestial lights, which obviously included the Moon and the Sun. It wasn’t until the 1630s that the word “planet” took on its modern scientific sense as an orbiting world/body, which seems a bit late by our standards, but time was infinitely slower back then, and so too the exchange of information. This is also around the time that nobility across Europe were playing the Tarot de Marseilles as a game, but we’ll get to that in a few.
The traditional story dictates that with the advent of the Heliocentric model, Astrology was done for. It no longer had any scientific basis because its central premise was geocentrism. Bummer, dude! Man’s not so important. However, that doesn’t explain, to my mind, the scientific decision that the movement of wandering celestial lights has no bearing whatsoever on man’s subjective experience. We know that weather impacts mood in a variety of ways, as does the moon and the tides, exposure to various lights upon the skin, and the time of year and location of birth (again, weather) upon personality. Plus, there are indeed those eras in history, or even days and weeks, where everything just seems to go wrong and everyone behaves somewhat maniacally.
People who especially despise Astrology like to point out that retrograde planets only appear retrograde… Duh! Is the argument here that human subjectivity is irrelevant? Because I’m afraid, if that’s the case, we’d all have to cease communicating. ‘Well, we don’t gaze at the stars so much, what with fires, and then TVs, and then laptops.’ O.K. So we really are preferencing sight, then, among the traditional five senses as the only one that matters. But, then, we can’t really preference sight because it is only ever subjective, right? Seriously, where’s Descartes in all of this!?
From a phenomenological perspective, all sense boils down to touch. Light touches, sound touches, taste touches, and that which touches may often times be invisible. Further, the human body en toto, is nothing more than a holistic pickup. Our bodies are literally assaulted by information, the overwhelming majority of which has no language at all. Even that which does have a name is generalized and, more often than not, unconscious. As a consequence, it doesn’t seem quite a stretch to posit that the movement of our solar system has a direct bearing on terrestrial affairs and human thought, be it gravitationally, photic, etc. The light waves from planets actually alter when they’re retrograde due to the change in speed, pending you’re a resident of planet Earth. As such, Astrology takes our location into account as a necessary subjectivity even with the Heliocentric model. I really can’t see why it should be considered total rot. That just doesn’t seem very rational to me.
Finally, I consider the polytheistic aspect of Astrology philosophically prudent. I like the idea of many “gods” who ally, conjoin, or enter into conflict… but not forever, and that these “gods” are, in fact, the celestial bodies within our solar system. They precede our existence and they will go on rotating long after we die out. Where else should we turn for a reflection of our human circumstance? This leads me to the Tarot.
As I mentioned above, the modern Tarot deck was used as a card game by European nobility around the 1630s and on. Of course, this game had its predecessors, but somewhere between the 1500s and the 1600s the 78 card modern Tarot deck, with its 22 Trumps, 16 Court Cards, and 40 Minor Arcana, came into existence. As there was still no printing press at the time, the decks were hand-painted, expensive, and rather rare. But as the modern public sphere was born, these decks proliferated and gained in popularity. To this day, Tarot is still played as a game, albeit one that no French child has yet had the patience to teach me.
There are many origin stories concerning the Tarot as a divination tool, and I’m merely telling the more recent, boring one concerning the decks that Tarot readers divine with today. I will, however, say the following:
1) There’s reason to believe that playing cards were generally considered devilish within Europe from the 1500s on due to the simple fact that your strength/weakness is dealt you. I suppose this must be linked to more contemporary notions concerning the sinfulness of gambling. It is luck, fate, destiny, and the player must simply do his/her best. To this end, Cartomancy is not, and has never been, reliant upon any sort of Taro, Tarot, or Tarocchi deck, but is still practiced to this day using regular playing cards.
2) Structurally, what sets the modern Tarot deck apart from the modern playing card deck is an added Court Card for each suit and 22 Trumps. The 22 Trumps are almost always fully illustrated and rich in cross-cultural, interreligious, alchemical, and astrological symbolism. For this reason, the modern Tarot deck seems to divine whether you ask it to or not. It speaks in many tongues and in many traditions all at once.
3) It is widely believed that the 22 Trumps correspond to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, giving the Trumps an especial Qabbalistic significance which lends itself to the entire deck. The 22 Trumps correspond to the 22 paths of the Tree of Life (these are ways of knowing God, represented by the paths connecting the circles in the image below; the number on each path corresponds to the Tarot Trump) whereas the Ace to Ten of each suit correspond to the Sephiroth (the circles themselves, which are thought to represent one distinct nature of God), and the Court Cards are elemental (each King is Fire of his suit, the Queens are water, the Knights are Air, and the Pages/Princesses are Earth). The astrological significance of this is rather obvious, I hope, from the image.
Additionally, for a rough and tumble Trump in tandem rundown, I really appreciate Bill Heidrick. And for those of you who are a bit rusty on your Book of Genesis, the Islamo-Judeo-Christian legend is that Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden after having eaten from the Tree of Knowledge because God feared that they would then eat from the Tree of Life and become as Gods like “Us.” The Tree of Life is then widely thought to be man’s path to godhood.
4) There’s further talk of the Tarot dating back to Ancient Eqypt, with the Tarot being all that was left when the library at Alexandria was burned to the ground.
5) Others believe that the Tarot is a product of Islamic cultures, while still others say that such an assertion is nothing more than anti-Islamic propaganda perpetrated by Catholics.
I have a tendency to see all of the above as true, and that the Tarot, as a genuine phenomenon, is not dissimilar to fairy tales, fables, or texts like the Pañcatantra, a text whose very characteristic is its fluidity, change, fragmentation, variation, and genuine internationality. To this end, Cinderella stories have been found in Ancient Japan, Aesop’s fables are read to children in the U.S., whereas La Fontaine gets credit in France, etc.
The truth about the Tarot, like popular fables, is that there most probably is no origin, and that’s what makes it all so powerful and moving. The Tarot is everywhere and nowhere. It’s a game and it’s a path to God. It’s light and fun, but it’s also dead-on. And as a divination tool, I like at once its contrast and complement to Astrology, as well as its utter reliance upon chance and dependence upon visual art.
My closest friends who disapprove of Tarot, echo what I believe many say to themselves concerning the art. They tell me: “I’m too rational and it creeps me out. I don’t want to know.” I always point out that the one statement negates the other, and that in reality, they’re probably far more superstitious than I. Further, in a world where History crashes upon our heads on a daily basis and nothing can be considered certain, might it not be wiser to simply welcome the intercession of chance instead of fearing it?
**If you have any question about a topic that I’ve mentioned in this article, ask. I may or may not have answers, but I’ll do my best.