Friday, February 24, 2012

World of Symbols: Tarot

Michelle Snyder: The Symbologist

The Ancient Roots of Tarot Imagery

The symbol system of the Tarot can elicit curiosity, wonder, fear, intrigue, superstition, etc. Attitudes about these images range from reverence to hatred. Sometimes referred to as the Devil’s Picturebook, one common opinion is that the images carry esoteric knowledge, forbidden or suppressed information, or hidden history. There have always been those who consider playing cards sinful, devilish, and evil, tempting the users with immoral behavior, and beliefs that Tarot games also impart heretical philosophies. Other names for the Tarot were the Bible of the Gypsies, the Encyclopedia of the Dead, and the Perpetual Almanac - names that imply information. What is written about the history of these cards varies, and it is generally agreed that ancient roots, if any, are speculative.
Are there ancient roots? If so, are they forgotten? Or just ignored? If we believe “out of sight, out of mind,” then perhaps forgotten is correct. To explore this we can start with the history of playing cards. There are a few theories as to where gaming cards came from, and when they were introduced to European culture. One theory is that the “evil objects” came by way of the gypsies. Another unlikely theory is that they were brought to Europe by crusaders; neither timeline works. Literary evidence does suggest that “domino cards” existed in China before 1000 A D, and another early Chinese type called “money cards” (so named because the suit signs are coins). Both are teaching cards also used for games.

When looking at the history of the Tarot, The Book of Thoth, ca 3000 BC, is mentioned as a source; historian Duncan-Enzmann contends that this esoteric tome derives from megalith navigators working at Lixus, Nabata, and Byblos, ca 4200 BC – with knowledge dating back to 6000 BC during warm Atlantic centuries.  

The symbolism on cards has a long history, and an interesting role in terms of information. Modern flash cards cover a great variety of subjects. These teaching tools are designed for everyone from prodigy infants to struggling adults, all sorted and categorized into subject matter. There are computer programs designed to simulate this very effective learning method. One could compare teaching cards of today with the inscriptions and images that accompany oral traditions from antiquity.

Most people associate cards with games. Cards were first mentioned as a game in Europe in the 1370’s. A card game called Tarocchi, said to have begun as a parlor game, had illustrations of court nobles on them. The most likely prototype of the imagery on the Tarot trump cards would be on medieval teaching cards, used as visual aids for memorization. Teachers used this system of colorful symbols when illiteracy made books impractical. These cards depicted Saints, biblical and mythological characters, personifications of sins and virtues, the seven disciplines of knowledge, the seven known planets, and the signs of the zodiac. They enabled transfer of information easily using visual symbolism, even to those who could not read.

Tarot cards have a special place in symbolic language. There are stories of the Tarot cards being carried by troubadours during the Middle Ages; many believe these cards carried secrets, or hidden knowledge that was protected from the Roman Catholic Church by preserving it in a series of symbolic images. Many of the images are of the sun, moon, and stars. Many more also have astronomical significance, perhaps not as readily recognizable. One example is the major arcane card Strength. Imaged correctly as a female and a lion, this card carries the same information as the Sphinx: that of the Great Year at Equinox. Another symbol that is part of many cards is the “infinity” symbol, representing the Analemma (a symbol relating to the position of the sun and the equation of time), which appears above the female’s head on Strength, above the magician’s head on The Magician, and also, in the Two of Pentacles, which decodes as a solar, lunar, and stellar year.

Astronomy, both as an exact science, and an art, encompasses a wealth of information. Transmitting mathematical precision and interesting descriptions of the multitude of fascinating events demands accurate recording. How was this done, then, before written records? Even with words we have a hard time maintaining accuracy and consistency; images are critical for this type of information.

Let us consider how astronomy was taught Once Upon a Time, long, long before written records. In these long ago classrooms most teachers were women and most students were girls. Lessons were likely recited, rhymes chanted and sung. Over centuries, imagine how these songs would be elaborated, celebrated. Visual aids were used: pictures, symbols, numberings, signs, patterns. All on stone, bone, ivory, ceramics, bast (bark), etc. – small, and easily re-ordered, like flash-cards. Or playing cards.
For thousands of years these lessons were taught, handed down with oral tradition using stories, songs, and pictures. The Grand Stories of the Zodiac were taught, pictures created, and astronomy developed. The ancient mariners of ca 4000 BC had skilled navigators called Gorgons. These women were masters of astronomy, wind, and current.  Knowing time to the second is necessary on the high seas – the Ace of Pentacles symbolizes the ability to do this using the Venus Clock (used to set Earth’s clocks until the 1970’s). The association of wealth to pentacles is logical, considering that being able to calculate time and location with Venus allowed trade and defense – both necessary for successful commerce.

Over thousands of years megalithic observatories were constructed; a great continental utility built to support women and children, facilitating agriculture and navigation (today we have air traffic control, marine rules, and electric production – all to support human life). The construction of these observatories required that measurement be transmitted over great distances with accuracy, and also a method of teaching how to measure the heavens and divide circles. We can see some of these lessons in the symbolism of the Tarot. The suit of wands or scepters represents ashera poles, a tool the ancients used to measure movement of the heavens and survey the ground for construction of an observatory. The Three of Wands represents the Triple Tau, or Triple Pillar, a symbol of measurement of a star’s height from the horizon.  The Five of Wands depicts dividing an angle by five. Perhaps the card with the most ancient roots is the Two of Swords, a depiction of a solar azimuth V – an image found in Blombos, S. Africa, dating to 77,000 BC.
This is all well and good you might be saying. But what of divination and the power of the cards? There is power there, the power archetypal imagery has to reach our thinking, our subconscious, our genetic memories. The images used on the Tarot are representations of situations, animate and inanimate, common to humankind, recurring over millennia. An example would be the Wheel of Fortune communicates to us about universal life cycles, connecting them to something greater than the human realm. It depicts elements of astrology and the zodiac, symbolizing the natural cycles which affect all life.
Cards can be arranged in almost infinite configurations, creating a vast variety of associations between archetypes. These patterns create significant triggers in our brains, enabling us to think in otherwise dormant ways about a situation. Yogi Barra said “prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.”  This does not devalue any method of looking at possible futures, something the archetypes on the Tarot are a very good catalyst for.

Over time knowledge can be lost, hidden, suppressed, and destroyed. All of these things are constant challenges in the process of preserving and passing on knowledge to succeeding generations. The same fate befalls the artifacts on which knowledge is recorded; there are Tarot images that have faded into dust. Historian cryptographer Duncan-Enzmann postures that there are at least twelve lost Major Arcana images. These would complete the set of images now called the Tarot, which depict environmental conditions as a function of time, the geometry of dividing circles, and situational cycles of life.

Symbols are powerful. They move us. They compel us. They come from the very biology of which we are made. It is no surprise then, that this ancient visual language engages our imaginations, provokes fear, or feeds superstitions. But, like any other form of communication, it only has the power with which we infuse it. 


  1. I've worked with Tarot for 16 years now. It's fascinating stuff. My favorite decks are The Tarot of the Cat People and one done by a German painter - I can't remember his name now - that are chock-full of symbolism. Those include not only the standard Tarot symbolism, but also runes and Kaballah symbols. I was recently given another deck that I think I'm going to quite like, once I have the time to spend some time with them - the Tarot of the Crow People. Anyway, if you are interested in Tarot, the best advice I can give you is to NOT read the little booklets that come with the deck until AFTER you become acquainted with them. IN fact, don't read ANY books on Tarot. Instead, learn what the symbols and numbers mean, and then let each card tell you it's story. Once you know the cards' stories, THEN you can read the info that comes with them, but if you do it before, it can taint your intuitive interpretation. If you're read them by rote, you're not allowing your inner consciousness to connect to the Allsoul, and that is how to get a good reading.

    Anyway, great article! Thanks for spreading the love about one of my favorite things!

  2. Thanks for commenting Katy. I'm sure Michelle will be stopping by later to comment as well.

  3. Thanks Debra for giving me a place to share. Symbols and images have stories to tell, and my passion is discovering what those are. Katy is correct, always look at an image and "see" deeply into it before reading what anyone's words say about it. Sometimes I see something a writer has not seen. Most symbols have origins deep in prehistory, so first I look, then place it in context of history, then read. Do this and a new world will open up to you. Thanks again. - M