The History & Symbolism of The Tarot

The mythical history of the Tarot in Western occultism

Western occultism is a broad area, attracting many weird and wonderful theories and beliefs from around the world. Theories around the history the Tarot, however, can all be tracked back to a French pastor named Antoine Court de Gébelin. As well as being a pastor and a freemason, he was also heavily into studying the occult. Most of de Gébelin’s theories were debunked due to his loose interpretations of myth and history, often altering facts to complement his theories. Nevertheless, two short essays on the Tarot, one by de Gébelin himself and the other by a subscriber named Comte de Mellet, were the only parts of his works that were not forgotten.

At first, de Gébelin thought the name Tarot derived from the ancient Egyptian language, we now know its origin is Italian and comes from the word Tarocchi. Although many of de Gébelin’s theories of the Tarot revolve, somewhat misleadingly, around its origin being of Egyptian decent, his comparison of the Minor Arcana suits to that of the Egyptian class system, does have some truth to it.  However, these classes are more plausible if you associate them with European society during the Renaissance period. In his attempt to further the Tarot from any Christian connotations, de Gébelin altered the names of some of the Major Arcana: the Papesse became the High Priestess, and the Pope became the High Priest or the Hierophant, as they are seen in modern decks such as the Waite-Smith or Gilded Tarot.

Both de Gébelin and de Mellet were insistent on their belief in the number seven having significant meaning within the Tarot. De Mellet’s perception was that there were 21 trump cards, which could be split into three groups of seven, where he assigned the three different ages of the history of man. He stipulated that trumps XXI-XV depicted the creation of man in the golden age, while trumps XIV-VIII are the age of silver and relates to facets of time, and the trumps VII-I represent the iron age and the devolution of man into its primal state – the Fool. However, when read in chronological order, this process of descending reverses into ascension towards the highest state of human spiritual evolution – true enlightenment. Thus, the Major Arcana, when used as a spiritual divining tool, can decipher our next step towards this enlightened state of being.

Although de Gébelin and de Mellet were the keystones from which all historical knowledge surrounding the Tarot is based, the occultist Jean-Baptiste Alliette (1738-1791) from Paris was responsible for the direction of the Tarot that transformed it into its popular modern state. Alliette, who wrote under the pseudonym Etteilla, coined the term cartomancy and was the first official Tarot teacher. The Grand Etteilla, the first modern Tarot, was the first Tarot deck produced primarily for divination and which encompassed modern occult beliefs. However, still driven by the belief that the Tarot’s origin is Egyptian, the Grand Etteilla is centred around Egyptian imagery, such as obelisks and pyramids.

The representation of Neoplatonic themes in the Tarot

Plato (428-347 B.C.E), misunderstood by many, had two main philosophical areas of insight: that of the rational and that of the mystical. Neoplatonism, a label used by scholars, is a term used to describe the followers of his mystical beliefs and teachings. As with most philosophy and religion, Plato wanted to unearth the answer to life’s eternal question: how does one conquer death and find eternal life? Two of the six Hermetic qualities are encompassed within Neoplatonism, the two elements most applicable to his teachings are: the world is alive, and the purpose of life is to transmute or progress to a higher spiritual state through the experience of enlightenment or gnosis. In order to truly understand the concept of eternal life, he turned to the Soul, the only part of our impermanent earthly existence that is permanent. Plato perceived the stories that we re-enacted in our human bodies, and the various characters we became, was what allowed us to reincarnate, thus continuously recreating similar scenarios and patterns life after life. This can be seen in the evolution of the archetypes in the Major Arcana. It is only when we reach true enlightenment, and complete Soul evolution, that we can break through these patterns and endless cycles of rebirth, and return to the source, the Soul, where we are inevitably immortal. In order to describe this concept further, Plato refers to it as being trapped in the underworld, living out illusion after illusion, waiting to see the light, the sun, a true symbol for enlightenment and spiritual truth, hence the Star, the Moon and the Sun all being present among the highest-ranking trump cards, representing a more evolved and truly enlightened Soul.

Light and truth are deemed as one in the same throughout some of Plato’s teachings. He talks about the ultimate truth being that of desire, a desire for the Good and the Beautiful: either sexual/sensual desire, or spiritual/godly desire for wisdom and virtue. This splitting of desire is depicted perfectly on the Lovers trump card from the Tarot of Marseilles deck: a man is presented with a choice between a sensual woman or a virtuous one. The Chariot card follows on from this as a representation of triumphing over love and pursuing wisdom and virtue. Given that most influential people of the time were men, eternal beauty was depicted as a beautiful woman, usually of a higher rank and thus out of reach. Many songs and poets of the time took on a general theme of love and beauty, in particularly, that of noble knights pledging themselves to women of high status, i.e. ladies and queens. This can be seen in the Tarot through the ranking of the Court Cards: the page/knave is of service to the knight, while he pledges himself to the Queen as she serves the King.  

The ‘trump’ cards

The Tarot “trump” cards refer to the Major Arcana, an additional suit added to the traditional four suit playing cards. However, not all historians consider the trumps as a suit due to their lack of a consistent symbol, such as wands. The trumps were originally added in the 15th century, but are a far cry from the modern trumps we see today, and are believed to be the origin to the modern game bridge. Today, the trumps consist of twenty-one cards plus the Fool – the Fool was named a wild card, and not officially considered a trump until the late 17th century. However, over the centuries this number has varied to as large as forty trumps plus a Fool in the 16th century. The earliest examples available typically have no numbers or labels, and cards are often missing. Therefore, obtaining a full deck to analyse or use as a ‘standard’ was near impossible, hence the variation and inconsistencies of reports. It wasn’t until 1507, when the standardised Marseilles deck consistently numbered and ordered their cards, which paved way for the modern Waite-Smith deck. However, it is the year 1781 that marks the pivotal point between historical and modern Tarot decks when Court de Gébelin, a French occultist, published the first standardised interpretations on the Tarot.

The History and Symbolism of the Tarot by Bella Luna - Spiritual Life Coach and Healer

Over the centuries, many philosophers, scholars and historians have tried to project different concepts and theories onto the trump cards: many of which have been disproven. For example, some theorised that twenty-one trumps and the Fool (twenty-two in total) encompassed a mysterious code associating each of the trump images somehow to the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The theory extends further as the letters of the Hebrew alphabet are subsequently aligned with the planets, the signs of the zodiac and the four elements. Over time, the correlations between the Hebrew alphabet were debunked, but the correspondence with the celestial symbols took root.

The trump cards received their name directly and appropriately from their purpose in the deck – to trump or triumph (over the card before it). The order of the cards can be viewed as an evolution of the virtues of man, a procession of mystical imagery where the virtues of each card trumps the vices owing to its predecessor. Thus, the final card, the World, represents the highest of universal truth and triumphs over all other trump cards. The titles and order of the trump cards have been depicted in a variety of ways. The main difference between the Tarot of Marseille and the Waite-Smith deck is the reversal of the positions of Justice and Strength. It would be apparent that they had differing opinions of which virtue triumphed over the other. Further historical references indicate another use for the trump cards to be for representing the personalities of participants in Renaissance parlour games. Literary evidence would suggest that the Tarot began to be used for divinatory practices from at least the early sixteenth century and continues to do so in the 21st century.

Symbolism of the Number 4

The number four holds much symbolism throughout the Tarot, and indeed, most divinatory practices. Naturally the most obvious symbolism seen with the number four is in the number of minor suits: hearts/cups, swords/spades, diamonds/coins and clubs/staffs. These four minor suits can also be associated with the four elements, the four directions, and the four evangelists which are all visible in the corners of the final trump card, the World. These associations are labelled the fourfold divisions of the world and take many forms. The initial interpretation of the number four in the Tarot is physical manifestation. It therefore makes sense that the symbolisms of this number are all manifestations of the physical world.  

Further fourfold divisions symbolised within the Minor Arcana are the four aspects of life as a nobleman. Given that the Minor Arcana have origin in the Islamic Mamluk deck created for Mamluk nobles in the 13th and 14th centuries, it is apparent that coins, swords, staffs and cups represent wealth, martial arts, polo sticks and sensuality, respectively. Similarly in Europe, the four suits represented the four social classes of medieval and renaissance society: cups for clergymen, spades for nobles, clubs for merchants, and diamonds (floor tiles) for peasants. To further explore the social class connections, the four virtues can also be assigned to a suit, and thus a social class. Each class is owed to the virtue one must acquire in order to rise in social status. For example, peasants must gain temperance to become merchants; merchants must be strong to become noblemen; nobles must achieve a sense of justice to rise to the priesthood; and clergymen must learn prudence to ascend to sainthood.

Renaissance medicine relates the four suits to the four liquid systems of the body, which in turn, can be related to the four temperaments of the psyche, and of course the four elements. Water represents phlegm which causes sluggishness; air signifies blood and is associated with cheerfulness; earth relates to black bile which denotes sadness; and fire symbolizes yellow bile and vindictiveness. Since these interpretations were made, the field of medicine, in particular, psychology has developed a long way. Pioneering psychologist Carl Jung explored these fourfold systems and deemed them archaic and ineffective. After further investigation he developed his own fourfold division, naming them the four functions of consciousness – intuition, thinking, sensation and feeling. Jung explains them to be attributes possessed by people in varying degrees; most people are innately good at some and not others. Presumably this is where the phrase ‘strong suit’ came from, referring to someone’s talents as their strong suit. The theory extends to suggest that as a person matures, so can their abilities in these fields. Naturally, each of the functions relates back to an element, therefore when all four elements are balanced, access to the fifth element is reached – the higher Self. In addition, one can use the applicable virtue to help attain balance in each function allowing one to develop further towards enlightenment. 

Symbolism of the Number 4

The History and Symbolism of the Tarot by Bella Luna - Spiritual Life Coach and Healer

Examples of Symbolism in The Tarot

II The High Priestess

The High Priestess follows on from the Magician, often paired together to represent the anima and animus. As the ultimate symbol of femininity, she sits before a background of pomegranates and dates, perfect symbols of fertility, as is the crescent moon at her feet. Her robes and adornments give a religious air to the card. Her crown in particular is akin to the triple goddess symbol in paganism, embodying the three life stages of a woman: the maiden, the mother, and the crone. The letters on the pillars, B and J, are the Hebrew words Boaz – meaning “in his strength” – and Jakin – meaning “he establishes”. As the B faces North, and is hidden in the shadows, the J faces South, and is illuminated by the sun. These pillars can be seen to signify many opposing pairs, light and dark, masculine and feminine. Coupled with the Hebrew meaning, it would suggest that one can establish their strength from embracing both sides of the coin – light/dark, masculine/feminine – and that herein lays the answers of life’s mysteries.

IX The Hermit

The Hermit is a simple card with profound meaning. His basic robes and staff indicate he is on a journey of humility, his head is tilted downwards and his hood is over his head, suggesting his journey is an inward one of thought and reflection. He holds the lamp for guidance and inspiration on his quest for wisdom. This card could be encouraging the querent to look inside for answers, to seek solitude, or perhaps to carve their own path. The lantern could also be interpreted as guiding the way for others to follow. Some interpretations of The Hermit are that of prudence, leading one to conclude that it could be a representation of the fourth virtue, alongside Strength, Justice and Temperance.

XVI The Tower

The Tower, much like Death, is often misinterpreted. Although the real life manifestations from such a card can be distressing, the overall effect of this card can be beautifully transformative. The Tower likes to unbalance the status quo and frequently shakes the foundations of everything we believe to be right and true. One minute we are set in our beliefs and the next, the world has turned on its axis and everything has shifted in perspective. The crown atop the tower symbolizes authority – religion, government, popular belief – and is purified and rebirthed as it falls through the fire, the wind and the rain, towards the earth for a natural, yet somewhat tumultuous, rebirth. It is from here that we can begin to pick up our shattered illusions and distant beliefs, and start to rebuild ourselves in the wake of the storm. It is unusual to come out the other side of The Tower the same person as before it appeared in your life. The Tower can represent the smallest of grievances, to the mightiest of catastrophes. The changes are habitually abrupt and unexpected; however, the end results are likely to be that of strength and courage.

8 of Wands

The 8 of Wands is quite a simplistic card, although there are still several interpretations as to its meaning. Generally speaking, wands represents inspirations, projects and careers, while eights are often interpreted as representing movement, action, change and power. A common interpretation of this card is that of a fast moving situation. The Waite-Smith cards show the wands in motion, yet falling towards the ground, where other decks illustrate the wands ascending. The Waite-Smith version could therefore be understood as bringing the querent back down to earth, or the slowing of a fast-moving situation that surrounds them. Whatever the situation, it cannot last long as they are already descending. This is a card of transition nonetheless, a card of new possibilities, perhaps a new inspired project that has taken off or that is heading towards its final stages. .

9 of Pentacles

The 9 of Pentacles has quite an elaborate illustration: dressed in fine robes and surrounded by fruit and coins, this card is a clear representation of wealth, prosperity and abundance. Nines are often associated with attainment/achievement and fruition, and given that it is the number before ten (which indicates completion), it is safe to say this card is approaching the end of something. Pentacles relate to the earth element and thus, the physical world. They can often refer to literal monetary wealth; however, they can also indicate a wealth of assets or resources, which can be just as useful. The woman in the image is clearly very comfortable in her wealth and is thereby able to appreciate and enjoy it. She stands confidently holding a hawk. These birds of prey, with their keen eyesight and visionary powers, could be why she is so sure of herself, knowing she has further assets than clearly visible. 

10 of Cups

The illustration on the 10 of Cups can be compared to that of a scene at the end of a play or movie. There is no doubt it symbolises the end of a cycle, the completion of something. Given that hearts are a clear representative of emotions, relationships and creativity, it can be that this card indicates the end of a particular emotional cycle or a ‘happily ever after’ moment. The 10 of Cups could also be given to indicate the completion of a creative project, or some sort of creative collaboration. The people in the image appear to be celebrating, while the adults look like they are perhaps honouring or appreciating all they have or all they have achieved. They are full of joy and contentment as to their current situation in life and are ready to begin the next challenge.

How the Tarot is used to convey messages from the Higher Self

At the beginning of the 15th century, an author named Horapollo began recording the symbols and meaning of the Egyptian hieroglyphs as interpreted by the Greeks. These recordings soon made their way to Florence in 1422, where Renaissance artists promptly became enchanted by the imagery and symbolism. Inspired by these Hieroglyphica, artists everywhere began to create their own symbols or hieroglyphs. After some time, these symbols became standardised and a tradition was born in Renaissance art using these allegorical images to portray a ‘secret language’ amidst the artwork that would speak to people’s Higher Selves. The creation of the Tarot was a resulting factor of this artistic evolution. Even from its pre-conception, the Tarot has always been meant as an artistic display of symbology that is designed to aid communication between the unconscious and conscious mind.

As with much occultism, the intended purpose of the Tarot as a divination tool has been misinterpreted through the centuries. It is not, as many people believe in the modern age, a method of predicting the future. Instead, it is a method of communicating with something intangible and more profound, often referred to as, God or the Higher Self. The Tarot is often used as a communication tool between our conscious minds and our intuition, a bridge between two worlds. Readings from the Tarot should be taken as advice is from a good friend: their wisdom should be used as guidelines, and never taken as gospel truths. If they are accepted as such, the messages received allow us to find clarity, guidance and healing in any aspect of our lives: from careers and prosperity, to love and relationships. Spreads can use anything from a single card reading to an elaborate 30-card spread. Sometimes it is easier to interpret the messages with fewer cards; however, adding cards can often provide deeper meaning.

Every aspect of the Tarot’s construction, whether consciously or unconsciously, appears to be purposeful and full of deeper meaning that it would appear on the surface. For example, the structure of the Major Arcana, when looked at in chronological order, appears to tell a story of spiritual evolution – “the archetypal story of a hero’s journey towards enlightenment”. Each Major Arcana card depicts an evolved state of being to the one that precedes it, trumping its predecessor in a multitude of ways. The Major Arcana suit therefore offers us a way of using this archetypal imagery to convey messages, or to add further meaning, to our readings in order to speak to our Higher Self, thus gaining insight to our inner wisdom, and leading us to make more intuitive decisions. Many statements from oracles, such as the Oracle of Delphi, were not predictions of the future; they were used for revealing the will of the gods and guidance on how to create an improved future, thus keeping their favour and receiving their blessings.  

The History and Symbolism of the Tarot by Bella Luna - Spiritual Life Coach and Healer

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