About the Tarot

Originally the Trumps were not numbered at all.  The true and absolute numbering of the Tarot is one of the great unsolved questions …

The Tarot trumps are extraordinary symbols that encompass an enormous range of meanings, both individually and as a set.  Playing cards were common in Medieval Europe, but the exact origin of the Tarot trumps—the twenty-two or so cards of the Major Arcana–is unknown  The Tarot was introduced into Europe around 1379, likely by the Sufis through Moorish Spain.  Since then, they have gone through many versions and many artists, who may or may not have known the original components that each card was meant to symbolize, so we may or may not understand the original intent and significance of the trumps, either as a set of twenty-two images, or as individual archetypal symbols.

If we wish to recover their original meanings, we must attempt to trace modern decks back to the originals.  Unfortunately, many of the earliest decks were lost or destroyed; some are undoubtedly completely unknown.  The earliest known decks were painted for King Charles VI of France (died 1422) by Jacquemin Gringonneur.  One version is the Marseilles deck; a similar deck was probably painted by Andrea Mantegna around 1450, of which several trumps are missing from the full twenty-two.  But there is no guarantee these were the earliest decks, or even that they convey the original meaning of the twenty-two cards we today call “trumps,” a name which came from the word “triumph ”

The Italian “Triumph”

In ancient Rome, a triumph was a parade of ancient origin.  In ancient Rome, when a conquering general would return to the city, a triumph would be arranged down Appian Way.  The parade was organized from the lowest to the highest, starting with the captives and ending with the general himself.  The organizing principle in this heroic triumph was that each participant trumped the one who came before, until all of the participants are trumped by the hero in his chariot. (Robert M. Place, The Tarot: History, Symbolism, and Divination , Tarcher/Penguin, 2005, p. 109.

In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the triumph was revived in Italy and spread across Europe to celebrate both religions and secular events such as weddings.  It is argued by some Tarot researchers that the cards were developed to portray certain aspects of the triumph.  The Fool came first with the lowest rank.  The Magician triumphed over or trumped the Fool, and so on through the traditionally last card, the World.  Even so, various decks had different numbers of trumps in differing orders.

But was the original purpose of the Tarot to portray a moral, religious or social parade?  Might it be that assigning this meaning to the Tarot is a case of post hoc, ergo propter hoc—after it, therefore because of it?  In other words, perhaps the Tarot trumps were ordered and assigned meanings based on popular sentiments and practices that were not the original intent of the cards.  Some authors speculate that the Tarot developed in Italy, in which case these assignments might make sense.  We will see next, though, that they originated elsewhere, so the idea of a triumph was grafted onto the original trumps, which may have had quite different meanings.  Eventually, the cards were made into popular Renaissance card games.  Much later they were used for divination, but again this might not have been their original intent

The Real Sufi Origins

We get further insight into the origins of the Tarot, and its form today from Idries Shah:

The Tarot cards … were introduced into the West in 1379 … the game of cards, which comes from Saracinia and is called … Naib.  Naib is an Arabic word meaning “deputy,” and the material from which the Tarot cards were copied is still extant.  It is “deputy” or substitute material, forming an allegory of the teachings of a Sufi master about certain cosmic influences upon humanity.  This [material] is divided into four sections, called the turuq (four Ways), the word from which “Tarot” is undoubtedly derived … The Tarot now known in the West had been influenced by a Cabalistic and Judaizing process, designed to bring it into line with certain doctrines not implicit in the original.  Superficial attempts to link these cards with those in use in Persia or China have not succeeded because the essential cipher element contained in the meanings of the suits and the trumps is still a Sufi property. (Idries Shah, The Sufis, p. 449.)

It is amazing that few modern Tarot authors mention this.  Instead they get swept up in associations with the Hebrew alphabet, the Jewish Kabala and other “recent” flotsam and jetsam that have been hooked on to the original Tarot images.  Here, we are going to ignore all this and seek the original meanings the original archetypes were intended to convey.

The original Tarot decks

If the trumps were not numbered originally, we cannot be certain their modern ordering is correct, or even if there might be more than one “correct” ordering.  Robert Place tells us that most of the early Tarot decks were not only unnumbered but unlabeled as well.  Only in the early sixteenth century did the manufacturer of the Marseilles trumps establish a numbering and add French titles to the cards.  So all that is certain is that each trump contains an image (or different images in different decks) that is symbolic of something.  The twenty-two cards may represent a process, or as it has turned out, many different processes, and even stories, depending on the use of the cards at a certain time, or the orientation of the interpreter.

Being archetypal symbols, though, each Tarot image will admit of different interpretations, that being the nature of symbols.  It is easy for Place, for example, to see a moral interpretation of the Marseilles sequence, where each card beginning with the lowly Fool “trumps” the next card in line.  In this view, the standard sequence represents the triumph of virtue over vice.  Another author, Margaret Starbird in The Woman with the Alabaster Jar, using the same early decks, sees a sequence of heretical symbols that encode the abuses of the Medieval Church, and an inner, hidden tradition of the Lost Bride and the Holy Grail.  Later, by the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Tarot was integrated into the Kabala, Jewish mysticism.  The cards were linked with the Hebrew alphabet, giving us the milieu, albeit a confused and contradictory one, we find in most Tarot commentators since then.  The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, for example, links the trumps not only with the Hebrew letters, but also with the paths on their version of the Tree of Life.

Which interpretation is the correct one?  They all are partially correct.  Such are the nature of universal symbols.  But they all follow the order established for the early Marseilles deck, which as we have seen, was arbitrary.  Since no author seems to know where the Tarot trumps originated (other than perhaps Idries Shah), no one can say the Marseilles order was the preferred or even intended order.  What I am suggesting is that if we abandon the assumption of one “correct” order we might see if other orderings suggest or support other uses and interpretations for the trumps.  As we will see shortly, there is indeed another interpretation, one which may be much closer to the original intent of the Sufis who introduced the cards into Europe in the first place.

The hidden card sequence

It is certain that some of the trumps concealed hidden meanings so as not to give away too many secrets to the Inquisitorial Church at the time they were introduced into Europe; certainly the meaning of many of the cards has been veiled or altered during most of their existence.  This may, in fact, be one reason the trumps were ordered as in the Marseilles and all subsequent decks: to conceal precisely these meanings.  In addition, the symbols and meanings now commonly attributed to each of the cards may be misleading or even incorrect.  Idries Shah adds:

The pack, as it stands today, is only partially correct, because there have been transpositions of the significances of some of the atouts, the trumps or emblematic figures of the pack.  This error has been caused by a mistranslation from Arabic of certain words, due to literal conversion into a different culture system.  Another factor may be substitution of one picture for another one.  This is not a subject upon which I may be much more explicit.  Temperance is incorrectly portrayed and interpreted; so is the fifteenth trump [The Devil]; the meaning of the sixteenth trump [The Tower] is a classic case of misunderstanding of a word; the twentieth [Judgment] is wrongly emphasized.  Many of the attributions, however, are still in use among the Sufis, though in the West the essential associations with Sufi texts have been lost. (Shah, The Sufis, p. 449)

So here we are going to feel free to discard the usual sequence of trumps, and even some of their more misleading names. What you will find is a new understanding of each card that is close to its original meaning. The sequence is internally consistent and conveys a new meaning that is really a very old one, for it fits amazingly well with the most ancient spiritual traditions on our planet.

But could there be any kind of check on our new sequence and interpretation of it? It turns out that there is. It is the association of the twelve signs of the Zodiac with the twelve Tarot cards that mark the Fool’s Journey. You can take a peek at the map of this journey for a little more detail. For now, though, here’s a little about how the Zodiac and the Tarot fit together. More fun facts!

About the Zodiac

It took many tries to arrive at the arrangement of the Tarot as presented on this site. Some of the cards seemed to fit a coherent sequence, but several didn’t fit at all without some kind of trimming one can do with scissors to jigsaw puzzles that you can’t make fit: snip off bits and glue on other bits. But this was completely unsatisfactory. I was after a picture of the real journey. It was at this point I noticed the Zodiac.

Several of the cards (specifically the twelve cards around the perimeter of the “eye” in the diagram) For example, Strength had a lion on it, so Strength corresponded to Leo. Justice holds a balance scale; Libra is a balance scale. The Moon card (which I have renamed The Moon Pool, which gives a much more accurate description of it) shows a crayfish or crab; Cancer is known as the Crab.

But several other cards in my early arrangements didn’t fit if the Zodiac was taken in sequence. What would happen, I wondered, if the cards around the perimeter were rearranged to match the Zodiac? So I moved them around. This was better, and eventually I had a good semantic match with eleven of the twelve cards. The problem was the Empress. What was she doing with Scorpio? This didn’t seem to fit at all. Would I be forced to start all over with some different method of correspondence? Was the whole diagram just nonsense?

When I finally saw the exquisite fit between The Empress and Scorpio, I knew I had actually created something real, and recreated something really ancient. The diagram as it is presented here neatly fit concepts from the Sufi tradition, the Western Hermetic tradition, Medieval alchemy, and – most of all, and oldest of all – the original tantric traditions, which are older than the Egyptians, far older than the Greeks, and even older than the Sumerian civilization in Mesopotamia.

I wasn’t expecting anything more.

I thought I was done.

Then I discovered how the Galaxy fit in, our own Milky Way.

I was amazed to find … Well, here’s a brief description.

Galactic alignment and the Fool’s Journey

fj-map-14-smOn the left of the map is The Sun, which is associated with Gemini. On the right is The Magician, associated with Sagittarius. If you look in the sky you will see a dim but dense band of stars across the sky. This is the Milky Way – the galaxy of stars of which we are a part. There is another band, called the ecliptic, which is invisible. It is notable, though, because as the Earth circles the Sun, the Sun seems to travel along this circle throughout the year. For most of August, for example, the Sun appears to be in the constellation of Leo. After one year, the Sun passes through the twelve major constellations in the Zodiac and is back in Leo the next August.

Now the plane of the Milky Way and the plane of the Ecliptic are tilted with respect to one another. They intersect one another, of course, in two places. One place is in the constellation of Gemini. The other place is in the constellation of Sagittarius. Hmmmm. These are the starting and ending points of our journey.sagittarius

What’s more, the center of the Galaxy is in Sagittarius. If you look at a sky map of Sagittarius, you will find that, in fact, Sagittarius the Centaur is shooting his arrow directly at the galactic center. Double hmmmm.scorpio

Also, Scorpio’s stinger points in the exact same place. Does the Fool’s journey have something to do with our galaxy?

At the opposite point in the sky, in Gemini, is the galactic anti-center – the direction directly away from the galaxy center. Gosh dang!, this is our starting point – The Sun and Gemini. Is the Fool’s Journey – in some metaphorical (or real?) sense a journey to the center of the galaxy? What might that mean?

Pish and tosh, I hear you saying. Don’t mean a thing. ‘Jes a coincidence. okay. But then I found this. Everybody doing serious research in the origin of star names or constellation names cites Richard Allen’s book Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning , so I’ll cite him too. In the section about Sagittarius (page 353) he cites an ancient illustrated manuscript.

It is in this same manuscript that is illustrated a sky group Joculator, usually rendered the “Jester,” ald representing the Court Fool of mediaeval days; but I find no trace of this elsewhere.

In a footnote he explains that the word “Joculator” is the equivalent of the early French Jougleur. The Court Fool. Gentle readers, this is exactly our Tarot Fool. Not only does the Fool’s Journey end in Sagittarius on our map, it also ends in an area of the sky once known as the Fool!

This couldn’t be a coincidence. This was all the proof I needed that the Fool’s Journey is not only real, but that it corresponds in some non-obvoius way to the entire galaxy. Therefore, I take it that the center of the galaxy is in some metaphorical way equivalent to the highest spiritual principles to which we can aspire. In some way it is “God.” More properly, it is “Goddess,” since there is something on our map beyond Sagittarius and The Magician.

the-world-orig-300hThat is The World card, which shows a female. This is properly an androgyne (both male and female), so nobody get upset. This is a mystery. The end of the Fool’s Journey is a mystery. No amount of Internet words or workshop words can explain it. One can only experience it.

Which brings us to the crux of the Journey. It is something that has to be experienced before it can become fully real.

The Fool – each of us who dares – must actually make the journey. therefore, the Tarot -Zodiac combination described on this site have a purely operational character. That’s why there are no horoscopes, divinations, fortune tellings, or any other passive nonsense on this site.

The Fool must take action. And due to the nature of the journey, one must become a warrior to get very far along it.

Becoming a warrior, embarking on this journey … This is the business of this site.

The Operational Tarot-Zodiac

The journey has seven stages. Each stage is comprised of one or more archetypal images which are accurately illustrated by the Tarot trumps and zodical signs.See the Fool’s School pages for more details.

If you are new to these ideas and are initially confused, persevere. Read the summaries on that and the other pages. After you have the big picture, go on to read the details about each card. You will probably have an easier time than the next group:

If you are accustomed to the old, stuffy and confusing associations of these signs and images from elsewhere, brace yourselves! If you are expecting Hebrew letters, Golden Dawn stuff, astrology, horoscopes, numerology, divinations, forget it. If you’ve just read the latest Tarot or astrology books and expect to find something similar here, you’re going to be disappointed. You have a lot to unlearn.