(Left, the Tarot card Death taken by Ali Arief. Right: The Tarot card The Star taken by Ali Arief)
Words By: Ali Arief
The inherent mystique that shrouds many Occult phenomena is slowly being lifted as we move increasingly forward into the age of technology and science. Subjects such as Astrology, Magick and Divination are receiving their time of day in the sun, as in the UK we move into a post-religious society. This resurgence of interest in the Occult is nothing new. The intensity of interest many will be observing now is like the boom in the 90’s in which the post-war religion of Witchcraft, named ‘Wicca’, started gaining popularity and being a subject for inspiration in pop-culture, with films such as The Craft and Practical Magic basing their witchcraft on real-life Wiccan practices.
The acceptance and popularity of Wicca within the 90’s paved the way for other Occult practices to be explored, with the ever popular and well-loved divination system of The Tarot finding immense popularity within alternative spiritual spaces.
The Tarot deck is made up of seventy-two cards, with each card representing an aspect of the human experience. The deck is split up into categories, with a ‘Major Arcana’ and the ‘Minor Arcana’.
The Major Arcana functions as the decks trump cards, with each card representing an archetype or a persona, there are twenty-two cards within the Major Arcana and Tarot readers make keen observations detailing how each card of the Major Arcana tells a story, or perhaps each card of this specific arcana contributes to a greater story to make up a whole.
It would be remiss to not mention the work of the psychologist Carl Jung here, who theorised the concept of ‘The Hero’s Journey’ in which the individual is called to adventure to complete something larger than themselves. They meet various characters along the way who aid them in their quest, and complete specific milestones to reach a form of enlightenment.
Such examples of this include Frodo in the Lord of the Rings, Odysseus in The Odyssey, and Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. We see this emulated in the Tarot with the first card of the Major Arcana being the Fool, and we observe this naïve, childlike archetype weave their adventure through the Major Arcana, meeting various archetypes such as The High Priestess, The Emperor, Death and completing his resolution at The World, the final card of the Major Arcana. It is the Hero’s Journey manifest but serves to be applicable to the querents life and livelihood. You, in essence, are enacting the Hero’s Journey in your day-to-day life.
Whilst the Major Arcana is a psychological and archetypal Arcana, the Minor Arcana is something quite different. Split into four suits with each suit having court cards, this section of the deck is the most traditional and reminiscent of a pack of playing cards. Each suit is named Cups, Pentacles, Wands and Swords, and each suit has an elemental correspondence, those correspondences being Water, Earth, Fire and Air. Within each suit is a set of court cards, starting with the Page, Knight, Queen and King.
The Minor Arcana functions to help the querent look at all the elements of their life, with each card symbolising a human experience. The court cards are supposed to represent people in the querents life, symbolising day to day interactions with others. As these cards are elemental, many Tarot readers will attribute each element to a zodiac sign, which can help deepen a reading.
The history of Tarot is a long and complicated matter, with many Historians’ disagreeing about its origins, with some even turning to mythologizing the popular divination tool.
A popular mythology is that Tarot was conceived in ancient Egypt and was lost to time, however the majority of Occult Historians will agree that Tarot first saw its emergence in the European courts of Italy in the late fourteenth century. Tarot was originally played as a card game named Tarocchi and gained popularity within the French and Italian royal courts at the time. It was then revived in 1750, when an anonymous manuscript detailed how to use the cards for cartomancy, which is the practice of using divination with cards. The Tarot of Marseille was created to be used for these esoteric purposes and remains as one of the most popular Tarot decks used today.
It is vital here to mention the work of Aleister Crowley, Lady Frida Harris, Rider Waite, and Pamela Colman Smith when speaking about contemporary Tarot practice. All four of these people were initiated into a private Occult organisation named The Golden Dawn, who were inspired by the Tarot of Marseille and were eager to revive cartomancy during the eighteenth century, where Spiritualism was becoming a fascination of the elite.
Rider Waite and Pamela Colman Smith began work on the Rider-Waite Smith Tarot deck, which was released in 1909 and it is estimated that more than 100 million copies of the deck exist in over 20 countries. Its symbology is infamous, with references appearing in pop-culture ranging from film and television to anime and videogames. Examples here include the anime’s The Vision of Escaflowne and Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, the Persona Video Game series, and the television series Penny Dreadful. If you think of the Tarot, you’ll most likely first think of Pamela Colman Smith’s artwork for this popular and everlasting deck.
A while after, notable Occultist and author Aleister Crowley worked with artist and socialite Lady Frida Harris to release the popular Thoth Tarot deck, which was released in 1969, after both authors were deceased.
The Thoth Tarot has captured the imagination of many advanced Tarot readers, notably for its usage of Qabalah, a branch of Jewish Mysticism which details the Tree of Life, a spiritual structure of which the Thoth deck builds it’s foundations on. The deck also includes in depth references to astrology, and Hermetic philosophies.
Aleister Crowley is quoted from his book The Thoth Tarot, “The origin of this pack of cards is very obscure. Some authorities seek to put it back as far as the ancient Egyptian Mysteries; others try to bring it forward as late as the fifteenth or even the sixteenth century …The only theory of ultimate interest about the Tarot is that it is an admirable symbolic picture of the Universe, based on the data of the Holy Qabalah.”
Whilst the Tarot is drenched in mysticism and Occultism, you do not have to read Tarot to seek divinatory meaning. On the contrary, many secular Tarot readers enjoy reading Tarot for themselves as a tool for psychological development, choosing each card as a means of reflection or mindfulness. Many also use Tarot for creative writing, selecting a card to use a plot point, or a character trait.
Whilst these cards have a history with fortune telling, often the Tarot is used as a means for reflection, meditation and for Occult study. Its rich and fascinating history provides a wealth of knowledge to study from, and its archetypal nature can bring out hidden elements of the human subconscious.
All one needs to do is trust their instincts and pick a card.