The traditional Tarot is a deck of 78 cards which are divided into two main sections: a major arcana and a minor arcana. The major arcana is a set of 22 picture cards which are also called the greater arcana, trumps, atouts (from the Egyptian atennu (Wallis Budge, 1920) meaning a book or part of a book), or triumphs. These cards are pictorial representations of various cosmic forces such as Death, Justice, Strength, and so on, and contain archetypal symbolism. Fifty-six cards of the minor arcana are divided into court and suit cards. The sixteen court cards are comprised of a King, a Queen, a Knight, and a Knave (or Page) for each of the four suits of the deck. The remaining forty cards are divided into the four suits called: Pentacles (also known as deniers, coins, or disks), Cups (coupes), Swords (epees), and Wands (batons or scepters). The French terminology stems from the famous Marseilles deck which originated in the late fifteenth century (Giles, 1992). The suit cards are numbered from 1 (ace) to 10 for each of the four suits. The suit cards represent specific opportunities and lessons (Wanless, 1986). The minor arcana cards are used to represent people, relationships, finances, action, energies, and forces (Schueler & Schueler, 1987).
The Tarot has been called the oldest book known to man (Papus, 1970). According to legend, (Schueler & Schueler, 1994) the original cards comprised "chapters" in a book known as The Book of Thoth. Thoth was the ibis-headed god of wisdom and knowledge of the ancient Egyptians. At the founding of Egypt, unknown centuries ago, he is said to have given man the knowledge of medicine, astrology, language, art, and various sciences such as mathematics and engineering. The original chapters of The Book of the Dead are said to have been written by Thoth.
After several thousands of years, the Egyptian empire began to crumble. As things began to fall apart, the god Thoth again intervened. He desired to keep alive the knowledge and wisdom that he had provided his people. To save his contribution to mankind, he summarized all of the accumulated wisdom of the Egyptian empire onto a series of 22 tablets. He did this by using symbols and pictures instead of words. These tablets became known as The Book of Thoth. As the empire decayed into ignorance, the tablets found their way into a band of roving people later known as gypsies. The gypsies copied the symbols of the tablets onto cards which became the major arcana of the Tarot deck (Crowley, 1944; Papus, 1970; Schueler & Schueler, 1989).
Although several colorful theories exist today, there is no historical evidence to support any of them, and the true history of the Tarot is largely unknown. Whatever the actual origin of the Tarot deck may be, it is known that a deck of fortune telling cards were mentioned by a Swiss monk in 1377 AD (Giles, 1992). It is also known that Girilamo Gargagli wrote in 1572 about tarochhi cards being used to designate psychological types (Giles, 1992).
The Tarot later found its way into the Hebrew Kabbalah, probably because the 22 cards of the major arcana could be shown to correspond with the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. During the nineteenth century, many occultists tried to demonstrate a higher use for the cards than divination (Papus, 1970; Levi, 1896). Eliphas Levi (1896) tried to show that the cards of the major arcana were connected to the Qabalistic Tree of Life. This idea was further carried out by a secret occult group in England known as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (Wang, 1978; Crowley, 1944; Regardie, 1937).
Aleister Crowley was initiated as a member of the Golden Dawn in 1898. He left it in 1907 to form his own magical organization. In 1944 his Tarot deck, illustrated by Frieda Harris, together with his explanatory book titled The Book of Thoth were published.
According to Wanless, (1986) a well-known expert on the Tarot deck, "The Thoth Deck by Aleister Crowley is a classic tarot symbology ... Its symbolism is Egyptian, Greek, Christian, and Eastern. It is more useful than many contemporary decks which represent a particular cultural or philosophical point of view" (p. 1). He also points out the multi-dimensionality of the deck's symbolism, which has associations with the Hebrew Kabbalah as well as astrology, and credits the 22 major arcana or trump cards as representing "universal principles of life and 'archetypal' personality types" (p. 2). Giles (1994) says that the Thoth deck has "swirling backgrounds and haunting images" which "create a unique impression; those drawn to the deck find it a very powerful reading instrument" (p. 191). She points out that while many decks exist, with a myriad of minor variations, the Tarot has "core images" that are part of a "mental structure" that is fairly consistent across the different deck designs. Wanless (1986) notes that "The strength of tarot is that its symbolism is subject to constant redefinition and evolution" (p. 1). In short, the Tarot images can change or evolve over time, but otherwise they are quite consistent. This is in agreement with Jung's (1959/1990) concept of the archetypes of the collective unconscious which are consistent across humanity while slowly evolving with the body over time. ...
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