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Visconti-Sforza image of Death 1451

About the Tarot - A Short Introduction

Most concur that the Tarot was originally made as a game of cards. Many games are still played with the four decks of 14 cards (the Minor Arcana) and the set of trumps, which varied in number and illustration. They were not used as diviniation cards until 1540, although some argue that they date back to Egypt and Babylon. The varieties of the cards were many in minor ways. I am much more interested in the particulars of the images, and the reason of the four suits.

The Four-Fold Way

"'O Fintan,' said he, 'and Ireland, how has it been partitioned, where have things been therein?'
"'Easy to say, said Fintan: 'knowledge in the west, battle in the north, prosperity in the east, music in the south, kingship in the center.'"

- The Settling of the Manor of Tara

If you study mythology, you keep coming across a Mystery which is called "four into five" or "twelve and thirteen". The Babylonians were obsessed with the numeral 4, the Celts with the numeral 13. A wonderful book on magic by Alwyn and Brinley Rees called, Celtic Heritage: Ancient Tradition in Ireland and Wales goes to great lengths on this Mystery, tying it to similar myths in India, confirming that the Aryan tradition was absorbed by this mystery. It is common from India to Ireland. What makes the study of Irish and Indian myths so interesting is that this numerical riddle is tied to almost everything. 4/5 and 12/13 predominate Western folkore: cardinal directions, the twelve winds of Greece, the suits of cards, the four and five fold magical systems, Harry Potter (fantasy) and others too numerous to count.

The Four-fold Map

This is a map of correspondences and the four-fold way. This is just to familiarize you with the mythic structure. It is interesting to note that the Indian map is tilted so that Air is in the East and Earth to the South, Water to the West and Fire to the North.

It would seem logical to draw conclusions from these ancient myths, that the Western maps of the four humors and the four suits in the various card decks are one in the same. This four-fold map extends from Ireland to Tibet in the north. It becomes a three-fold map in the south in India, and in much of the Christian imagery and three-fold goddess symbolism. In the Celtic countries and in Tibet, the four becomes five by virture of being four directions around a center. The 13 was three of four around a central king, excluding the slave caste in the "page, squire, knight" around the king. It was accounted in myths as "farmer, sage and warrior" around the king. Women, slaves, children and other dependents were lumped into the "slave" caste.

One of the best books of the Tarot is Tarot Dictionary and Compendium by Jana Riley. This is an image of her map showing the basic Tarot authors and their interpretations of the minor cards:



There are several correspondences, some logical, many just derivative. The aces are the root or beginning; the twos balance; the threes are understanding and growth; the fours are stability and solidification; the fives struggle and movement; the sixes balancing again; the sevens more struggle of an interior nature; the eights alignment again and order; the nines completion and integration, the tens fulfillment. The even cards tend to be balance, the odd cards struggle or change.

The royal cards are often used to represent people rather than states. Crowley assigns elements to the suits and elements to the classes so the princess of cups is earth of water and the princess of wands is earth of fire, etc. Others assign racial features to the suits, as in the cups suit being blond.

The Major Arcana

Most of the work that artists put into decks is in the design of the trump cards. These cards orginally were supposed to be merely allegorical, and came to have a deeper meaning to the Freemasons, and only numbered sixteen. The Fool evolved in the jester card or the wild card and was originally a beggar. The Magus was always a mountebank, juggler or entertainer. The High Priestes was originally the Papess or the Holy Church (which is seen by the Catholics to be female.) The Empress and Emperor have not changed but represented current rulers. The Hierophant was originally the Pope. The Lovers was originally Love. The Chariot has survived unchanged as has the Wheel of Fortune. Strength, Temperance and Justice were the three cardinal virtues, but Justice was not in the original decks. The Hermit card was originally a Monk but does not show in the first decks. Death and the Devil showed up in the first decks as their own images, unchanged by time. The Hanged Man was always a gallows, but the Tower does not show in the original decks. The first depiction of the Tower card was of lightning striking a tree. The Sun was in the original decks, but the Moon and Star not. A card called Time was in the original decks. The Last Judgement was also in the original decks.

Almost all the meanings attached to the modern cards were elaborated and explored by divinators and schools of magic within the Masons and later occult groups. Crowley tied the trumps to the Kaballah and gave them deeper meanings tied to his studies of that esoteric body of knowledge. In most interpretations, the trumps are deeper forces and not related to specific people or to states, but world forces or psychological mindsets.

© 2017, A.R. Stone