…a certain game called the game of cards has come to us in the year of our Lord 1377. In which game the state of the world as it is now is most excellently described and figured. But at what time it was invented, where, and by whom I am entirely ignorant… – Brother John, a monk from Brefeld, Switzerland, describing a pack of fifty-two cards in four suits.
I guess most readers of The Angel of Secrets will be familiar with tarot cards as a divinatory technology. You shuffle your deck, ask a question, meditate on the question, then turn up one or more cards from the deck of seventy-eight cards. The answer to your question is revealed by the symbolism in the images that appear when you turn the cards. This process allows your unconscious mind to call on the array of images and symbols and call the best options towards you. This is a kind of day-dreaming. It’s very intriguing that someone drawing from a pack of cards for the very first time, having no prior knowledge of what images might be available to them, still turns up appropriate cards that offer an answer to the question in hand.
The larger deck of Tarot cards, named after the Taro River in France, is descended from an Italian pack known as the Venetian or Piedmontese Tarot. This is almost identical with the French Marseilles Tarot. Both were generally accepted by about 1500. Over the centuries, the Tarot has been denounced by preachers as the work of the Devil – in the 18th century, John Wesley called them “the Devil’s pops” and in 19th-century Scotland they were called “the Devil’s books”. Modern sceptics will denounce them as New Age trivia, however, one of the fathers of modern psychoanalysis, Carl Jung, understood the value of tools that can unlock the secrets of the unconscious.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, European intellectuals were researching occult ideas and new Tarot decks were created by members of secret societies, such as the Order of the Golden Dawn. The best-known modern Tarot pack was designed by Arthur E. Waite (1857–1942), a member of the Golden Dawn fraternity, and illustrated by Pamela Coleman Smith (1878–1951).
Eliphas Levi, (1810–1875), a French occultist, had previously suggested links between the Tarot and the kabbalah, although there is no independent evidence for any such connection. Nor is there any scholarly reason to suggest the Tarot cards had Jewish origins. Nonetheless, the twenty–two cards of the Major Arcana (the ‘Great Secrets’) are now generally associated with the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet.
The Minor Arcana – the ‘Lesser Secrets’ – consists of fifty-six cards, divided into four suits of 14 cards each; ten numbered cards and four court cards. The court cards are the King, Queen, Knight and Page/Jack, in each of the four Tarot suits: swords, batons (or wands) coins (or pentacles) and cups (or vessels).
Nowadays, there is a vast range of options if you feel called to use Tarot as an oracle or wise guide. Some of the decks on sale seem to me to be very flighty – the illustrations are weak and the concepts inappropriate. (See The Alchemical Tarot for one of my favourites).
Here is the Major Arcana, usually numbered with Roman numerals: