Tarot card reading

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  (Redirected from Esoteric Tarot)
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Tarot card reading is the practice of using tarot cards to gain insight into the past, present or future by formulating a question, then drawing and interpreting cards. Reading tarot cards is a type of cartomancy.


Antoine Court de Gébelin

One of the earliest reference to tarot triumphs, and probably the first reference to tarot as the devil's picture book, is given by a Dominican preacher in a fiery sermon against the evils of the devil's instrument.[1] References to the tarot as a social plague continue throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, but there are no indications that the cards were used for anything but games anywhere other than in Bologna.[2] As philosopher and tarot historian Michael Dummett noted, "...it was only in the 1780s, when the practice of fortune-telling with regular playing cards had been well established for at least two decades, that anyone began to use the tarot pack for cartomancy."[3]

The belief in the divinatory meaning of the cards is closely associated with a belief in their occult properties: a commonly held belief in the 18th century propagated by prominent Protestant clerics and freemasons.[4] One of them was Court de Gébelin (see below).

From its humble uptake as an instrument of prophecy in France, the tarot went on to become a thing of hermeneutic, magical, mystical,[5] semiotic,[6] and even psychological properties. It was used by Romani people when telling fortunes,[7] as a Jungian psychological apparatus capable of tapping into "absolute knowledge in the unconscious",[8] a tool for archetypal analysis,[9] and even a tool for facilitating the Jungian process of Individuation.[10][11]

Court de Gébelin[edit]

Many involved in occult and divinatory practices attempt to trace the tarot to ancient Egypt, divine hermetic wisdom,[12] and the mysteries of Isis.

Possibly the first of those was Antoine Court de Gébelin, a French clergyman, who wrote that after seeing a group of women playing cards he had the idea that tarot was not merely a game of cards but was in fact of ancient Egyptian origin, of mystical cabbalistic import, and of deep divine significance. Court de Gébelin published a dissertation on the origins of the symbolism in the tarot in volume VIII of work Le Monde primitif in 1781. He thought the tarot represented ancient Egyptian Theology, including Isis, Osiris and Typhon. For example, he thought the card he knew as the Papesse and known today as the High Priestess represented Isis.[13] He also related four tarot cards to the four Christian Cardinal virtues: Temperance, Justice, Strength and Prudence.[14] He relates The Tower to a Greek fable about avarice.[15]

Although the ancient Egyptian language had not yet been deciphered, Court de Gébelin asserted the name "Tarot" came from the Egyptian words Tar, "path" or "road", and the word Ro, Ros or Rog, meaning "King" or "royal", and that the tarot literally translated to the Royal Road of Life.[16] Later Egyptologists found nothing in the Egyptian language to support Court de Gébelin's etymologies.[citation needed] Despite this lack of any evidence, the belief that the tarot cards are linked to the Egyptian Book of Thoth continues to the present day.

The actual source of the occult tarot can be traced to two articles in volume eight, one written by himself, and one written by M. le C. de M.***.[17] The second has been noted to have been even more influential than Court de Gébelin's.[2] The author takes Court de Gébelin's speculations even further, agreeing with him about the mystical origins of the tarot in ancient Egypt, but making several additional, and influential, statements that continue to influence mass understanding of the occult tarot even to this day.[18] He made the first statements proposing that the tarot is, in fact, The Book of Thoth and made the first association of tarot with cartomancy.


The first to assign divinatory meanings to the tarot cards was cartomancer Jean-Baptiste Alliette (also known as Etteilla) in 1783.[12][19]

According to Dummett, Etteilla:[2]

  • devised a method of tarot divination in 1783,
  • wrote a cartomantic treatise of tarot as the Book of Thoth,
  • created the first society for tarot cartomancy, the Société littéraire des associés libres des interprètes du livre de Thot.
  • created the first corrected tarot (supposedly fixing errors that resulted from misinterpretation and corruption through the mists of antiquity), The Grand Etteilla deck
  • created the first Egyptian tarot to be used exclusively for tarot cartomancy
  • published, under the imprint of his society, the Dictionnaire synonimique du Livre de Thot, a book that "systematically tabulated all the possible meanings which each card could bear, when upright and reversed."[20]

Etteilla also:[21]

  • suggested that tarot was repository of the wisdom of Hermes Trismegistus
  • was a book of eternal medicine
  • was an account of the creation of the world
  • argued that the first copy of the tarot was imprinted on leaves of gold

In his 1980 book, The Game of Tarot, Michael Dummett suggested that Etteilla was attempting to supplant Court de Gébelin as the author of the occult tarot.[citation needed] Etteilla in fact claimed to have been involved with tarot longer than Court de Gébelin.[2]

Marie Anne Lenormand[edit]

Mlle Marie-Anne Adelaide Lenormand outshone even Etteilla and was the first cartomancer to people in high places, through her claims to be the personal confidant of Empress Josephine, Napoleon and other notables.[2] Lenormand used both regular playing cards, in particular the Piquet pack, as well as tarot cards likely derived from the Tarot de Marseille.[22] Following her death in 1843, several different cartomantic decks were published in her name, including the Grand Jeu de Mlle Lenormand, based on the standard 52-card deck, first published in 1845, and the Petit Lenormand, a 36-card deck derived from the German game Das Spiel der Hofnung, first published around 1850.[23]

Éliphas Lévi[edit]

The concept of the cards as a mystical key was extended by Éliphas Lévi. Lévi (whose actual name was Alphonse-Louis Constant) was educated in the seminary of Saint-Sulpice, was ordained as a deacon, but never became a priest. Michael Dummett noted that it is from Lévi's book Dogme et rituel that the "whole of the modern occultist movement stems."[24] Lévi's magical theory was based on a concept he called the Astral Light[25] and according to Dummett, he claimed to be the first to

"have discovered intact and still unknown this key of all doctrines and all philosophies of the old world... without the tarot", he tells us, "the Magic of the ancients is a closed book...."[26]

Lévi accepted Court de Gébelin's claims that the deck had an Egyptian origin, but rejected Etteilla's interpretation and rectification of the cards in favor of a reinterpretation of the Tarot de Marseille.[27]. He called it The Book of Hermes and claimed that the tarot was antique, existed before Moses, and was in fact a universal key of erudition, philosophy, and magic that could unlock Hermetic and Qabalistic concepts.[citation needed] According to Lévi, "An imprisoned person with no other book than the Tarot, if he knew how to use it, could in a few years acquire universal knowledge, and would be able to speak on all subjects with unequaled learning and inexhaustible eloquence."[28]

According to Dummett, Lévi's notable contributions include:[29]

  • Lévi was the first to suggest that the Magus (Bagatto) was to be depicted in conjunction with the symbols of the four suits.
  • Inspired by de Gébelin, Lévi associated the Hebrew alphabet with the tarot trumps and attributed an "onomantic astrology" system to the "ancient Hebrew Qabalists."[30]
  • Lévi linked the ten numbered cards in each suit to the ten sefiroth.
  • Claimed the court cards represented stages of human life.
  • Claimed the four suites represented the Tetragrammaton.

French Tarot after Lévi[edit]

Occultists, magicians, and magi all the way down to the 21st century have cited Lévi as a defining influence.[31] Among the first to seemingly adopt Lévi's ideas was Jean-Baptiste Pitois. Pitois wrote two books under the name Paul Christian that referenced the tarot, L'Homme rouge (1863), and later Histoire de la magie, du monde surnaturel et de la fatalité à travers les temps et les peuples (1870). In them, Pitois repeated and extended the mythology of the tarot and changed the names for the trumps and the suits (see table below for a list of Pitois's modifications to the trumps).[32] Batons (wands) become Scepters, Swords become Blades, and Coins become Shekels.[33]

However, it wasn't until the late 1880s that Lévi's vision of the occult tarot truly began to bear fruit, as his ideas on the occult began to be propounded by various French and English occultists. In France, secret societies such as the French Theosophical Society (1884) and the Kabbalistic Order of the Rose-Cross (1888) served as the seeds for further developments in the occult tarot in France.[34].

The French occultist Papus was one of the most prominent members of these societies, joining the Isis lodge of the French Theosophical Society in 1887 and becoming a founding member of the Kabbalistic Order of the Rose-Cross the next year.[34] Among his 260 publications are two treatises on the use of tarot cards, Le Tarot des Bohémiens (1889), which attempted to formalize the method of using tarot cards in ceremonial magic first proposed by Lévi in his Clef des grands mysteries (1861)[35], and Le Tarot divinatoire (1909), which focused on simpler divinatory uses of the cards.[36]

Another founding member of the Kabbalistic Order of the Rose-Cross, the Marquis Stanislas de Guaita, met the amateur artist Oswald Wirth in 1887 and subsequently sponsored a production of Lévi's intended deck. Guided entirely by de Guaita, Wirth designed the first neo-occultist cartomantic deck (and first cartomantic deck not derived from Etteilla's Egyptian deck).[37] Known as Les 22 Arcanes du Tarot kabbalistique, it consisted of only the twenty-two major arcana and was revised under the title of Le Tarot des imagers du moyen âge in 1926.[38]

Outside of the Kabbalistic Order, in 1888, French magus Ély Star published Les mystères de l'horoscope which mostly repeats Christian's modifications.[39] Its primary contribution was the introduction of the terms 'Major arcana' and 'Minor arcana,' and the numbering of the Crocodile (the Fool) XXII instead of 0.[40]


Tarot is often used in conjunction with the study of the Hermetic Qabalah.[41] In these decks all the cards are illustrated in accordance with Qabalistic principles, most being influenced by the Rider-Waite deck. Its images were drawn by artist Pamela Colman Smith, to the instructions of Christian mystic and occultist Arthur Edward Waite and published in 1911.[42] A difference from Marseilles style decks is that Waite and Smith use scenes with esoteric meanings on the suit cards. These esoteric, or divinatory meanings were derived in great part from the writings of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn group, of which Waite had been a member. The meanings[43] and many of the illustrations[44] showed the influence of astrology as well as Qabalistic principles.

Tarot cards have become extremely popular in Japan, where hundreds of new decks have been designed in recent years. [45]


The following is a comparison of the order of the Major Trumps up to and including the A. E. Waite deck. This table is based on Dummett (1980) and actual inspection of the relevant decks.[original research?]

Tarot de Marseille[46] Court de Gébelin[47] Etteilla's Egyptian tarot[48] Paul Christian's Egyptian tarot
(divinatory meaning in bold)
Oswald Wirth Golden Dawn A. E. Waite Book of Thoth (Crowley)
1 – The Bateleur ( the Mountebank ) Bateleur Ideal/Wisdom the Magus / Will Magician 1 – The Magician I – The Magician I – The Magus
2 – The Popess High Priestess Enlightenment/Passion Gate of the (occult) Sanctuary / Knowledge Priestess 2 – The High Priestess II – The High Priestess II – The Priestess
3 – The Empress Empress Discussion/Instability Isis – Urania / Action Empress 3 – The Empress III – The Empress III – The Empress
4 – The Emperor Emperor Revelation/Behaviour Cubic Stone / Realisation Emperor 4 – The Emperor IV – The Emperor IV – The Emperor
5 – The Pope Chief Hierophant Travel/Country Property Master of the Mysteries/Arcana / Occult Inspiration Hierophant 5 – The Hierophant V – The Hierophant V – The Hierophant
6 – The Lover Marriage Secrets/Truths Two Roads / Ordeal Lovers 6 – The Lovers VI – The Lovers VI – The Lovers
7 – The Chariot Osiris Triumphant Support/Protection Chariot of Osiris / Victory Chariot 7 – The Chariot VII – The Chariot VII – The Chariot
8 – The Justice Justice Tenacity/Progress Themis (Scales and Blade) / Equilibrium Justice 11 – Justice XI – Justice VIII – Adjustment
9 – The Hermit Wise Man Justice/Law-Maker the Veiled Lamp / Wisdom Hermit 9 – The Hermit IX – The Hermit IX – The Hermit
10 – The Wheel of Fortune Wheel of Fortune Temperance/Convictions the Sphinx / Fortune Fortune 10 – The Wheel of Fortune X – Wheel of Fortune X – Fortune
11 – The Strength Fortitude Strength/Power the Muzzled(tamed) Lion / Strength Strength 8 – Strength VIII – Strength XI – Lust
12 – The Hanged Man Prudence Prudence/Popularity The Sacrifice / Sacrifice Hanged Man 12 – The Hanged Man XII – The Hanged Man XII – The Hanged Man
13 – The Nameless Arcane ( the Death ) Death Marriage/Love Affair The Skeleton Reaper / Transformation Death 13 – Death XIII – Death XIII – Death
14 – Temperance Temperance Violence/Weakness the Two Urns (the genius of the sun) / Initiative Temperance 14 – Temperance XIV – Temperance XIV – Art
15 – The Devil Typhon Chagrins/Illness Typhon / Fate Devil 15 – The Devil XV – The Devil XV – The Devil
16 – The House-God the Castle or Plutus Opinion/Arbitration the Beheaded Tower (Lightning Struck) / Ruin Tower 16 – The Tower XVI – The Tower XVI – The Tower
17 – The Star Sirius or the Dog Star Death/Incapacity Star of the Magi / Hope Star 17 – The Star XVII – The Star XVII – The Star
18 – The Moon Moon Betrayal/Falsehood the Twilight / Deception Moon 18 – The Moon XVIII – The Moon XVIII – The Moon
19 – The Sun Sun Poverty/Prison the Blazing Light / (earthly) Happiness Sun 19 – The Sun XIX – The Sun XIX – The Sun
20 – The Judgment the Creation Fortune/Augmentation the Awakening of the Dead / Renewal Judgement 20 – Judgement XX – Judgement XX – The Aeon
21 – The World Time Law Suit/Legal Dispute the Crown of the Magi / Reward World 21 – The Universe XXI – The World XXI – The Universe
0/22 - The Mat ( the Fool ) Fool Madness/Bewilderment 0 the Crocodile (between 20 and 21) / Expiation Fool 0 – The Fool 0 – The Fool 0 – The Fool

Personal use[edit]

Next to the usage of tarot cards to divine for others, usually for a fee, tarot is also used widely as a device for seeking personal advice and spiritual growth. Practitioners believe the simple-looking tarot card layouts can help the individual explore the depths and nodes of one’s spiritual path and discover a new realm of possibility for enrichment in regard to the inner self; whereas, professional tarot is often seen as charlatanism.

People who use the tarot for personal divination seek insight on topics ranging widely from health or economic issues to what they believe would be best for them spiritually.[49] Thus, the way practitioners use the cards in regard to such personal inquiries is subject to a variety of personal beliefs. For example, some tarot users may believe the cards themselves are magically providing answers, while others may believe a supernatural force or a mystical energy is guiding the cards into a layout.

Alternatively, some practitioners believe tarot cards may be a utilized as a psychology tool based on their archetypal imagery, an idea often attributed to Carl Jung. Jung wrote, "It also seems as if the set of pictures in the tarot cards were distantly descended from the archetypes of transformation, a view that has been confirmed for me in a very enlightening lecture by Professor Bernoulli."[citation needed] During a 1933 seminar on active imagination, Jung described the symbolism he saw in the imagery:

"The original cards of the Tarot consist of the ordinary cards, the king, the queen, the knight, the ace, etc., only the figures are somewhat different, and besides, there are twenty-one [additional] cards upon which are symbols, or pictures of symbolical situations. For example, the symbol of the sun, or the symbol of the man hung up by the feet, or the tower struck by lightning, or the wheel of fortune, and so on. Those are sort of archetypal ideas, of a differentiated nature, which mingle with the ordinary constituents of the flow of the unconscious, and therefore it is applicable for an intuitive method that has the purpose of understanding the flow of life, possibly even predicting future events, at all events lending itself to the reading of the conditions of the present moment."[50]


Quoting the skeptic James Randi, "For use as a divinatory device, the tarot deck is dealt out in various patterns and interpreted by a gifted 'reader.' The fact that the deck is not dealt out into the same pattern fifteen minutes later is rationalized by the occultists by claiming that in that short span of time, a person's fortune can change, too. That would seem to call for rather frequent readings if the system is to be of any use whatsoever."[51]

In popular culture[edit]

  • In JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders, a vast majority of the Stands – personified fighting spirits – featured in the part are named after the 22 Major Arcana. Esoteric tarot divination also plays a part in the naming of a Stand in the part, and many of the characters' defining personality traits are connected to their card's upright and reversed meanings.
  • Esoteric tarot features thematically in all iterations of the Persona series of video games, with various characters representing the 22 Major Arcana. The games draw loosely upon the Jungian interpretation of tarot, as they deal extensively with the "shadows", and the collective unconscious.
  • The French-American artist Niki de Saint Phalle spent over two decades building her Tarot Garden in Italy. The 22 major sculptures of the garden were based on and named after the Major Arcana of the Tarot.[52]
  • The Fool's Errand, a 1987 computer game by Cliff Johnson, features several tarot card-themed puzzles.[53]
  • Character Tara in Brawl Stars attacks by throwing tarot cards.
  • In the 1992 novel Last Call by American writer Tim Powers, a game based on Poker and played with a tarot deck is an important part of the plot, along with esoteric tarot attributes.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Steele, Robert (1900). "A notice of the Ludus Triumphorum and Some Early Italian Card Games: With Some Remarks on the Origin of the Game of Cards". Archaeologia. LVII: 85–200. doi:10.1017/S0261340900027636.
  2. ^ a b c d e Dummett, Michael (1980). The Game of Tarot. London: Duckworth. ISBN 0715631225.
  3. ^ Dummett 1980, p. 96
  4. ^ Dummett 1980, p. 96
  5. ^ Ouspensky, P.D. (1976). The Symbolism of the Tarot: philosophy of occultism in pictures and numbers. Dover Publications.
  6. ^ Semetsky, Inna (2011). "Tarot images and spiritual education: the three I's model". International Journal of Children's Spirituality. 16 (3): 249–260. doi:10.1080/1364436X.2011.613069.
  7. ^ Lévi, Éliphas (2002). The Key of the Mysteries. Translated by Crowley, Aleister. Red Wheel/Weiser. ISBN 0877280789.
  8. ^ Beeb, John (1985). "A Tarot Reading on the Possibility of Nuclear War". Psychological Perspectives: A Quarterly Journal of Jungian Thought. 16 (1): 97. doi:10.1080/00322928508407948.
  9. ^ Nichols, Sallie (1974). "The Wisdom of the Fool". Psychological Perspective: A Quarterly Journal of Jungian Thought. 5 (2): 97–116. doi:10.1080/00332927408409418.
  10. ^ Nichols, Sallie. Jung and Tarot: An Archetypal Journey. San Francisco: Weiser Books.
  11. ^ Semetsky, Inna (2010). "When Cathy was a Little Girl: The Healing Praxis of Tarot Images". International Journal of Children's Spirituality. 15 (1): 59. doi:10.1080/13644360903565623.
  12. ^ a b Decker, Ronald; Dummett, Michael (2002). A History of the Occult Tarot, 1870–1970. London: Duckworth. ISBN 0715610147.
  13. ^ Court de Gébelin, Antoine (1781). Le monde primitif. VIII. p. 370.
  14. ^ Court de Gébelin 1781, p. 371
  15. ^ Court de Gébelin 1781, p. 376
  16. ^ Court de Gébelin 1781, p. 380
  17. ^ The asterix and the abbreviations are the actual way Court de Gébelin refers to the second essay. As Dummett (1980) notes, Mr Robin Briggs identifies the contributor as Louis-Raphael-Lucrece de Fayolle, Comte de Mellet. Louis was a brigadier, governor, and "unremarkable court noble."
  18. ^ Decker, Ronald; Depaulis, Thierry; Dummett, Michael (1996). A Wicked Pack of Cards: The Origins of the Occult Tarot. New York: St. Martin’s Press. pp. 68–73.
  19. ^ Place, Robert (2005). The Tarot: History, Symbolism, and Divination. New York: Tarcher/Penguin. ISBN 9781585423491.
  20. ^ Dummett 1980, pp. 110
  21. ^ Decker, Depaulis & Dummett 1996, pp. 84–85
  22. ^ Decker, Depaulis & Dummett 1996, pp. 137–139
  23. ^ Decker, Depaulis & Dummett 1996, pp. 139–141
  24. ^ Dummett 1980, p. 114
  25. ^ Decker, Depaulis & Dummett 1996, p. 184
  26. ^ Dummett 1980, p. 118
  27. ^ Decker, Depaulis & Dummett 1996, pp. 170–172, 185
  28. ^ Lévi, Éliphas (1896). Transcendental Magic: Its Doctrine and Ritual. Translated by Waite, Arthur Edward. London: George Redway. p. 103.
  29. ^ Decker, Depaulis & Dummett 1996, pp. 185–191
  30. ^ Lévi, Éliphas (1886). The Mysteries of Magic. p. 240.
  31. ^ Waite, Arthur Edward (1911). The Pictorial Key to the Tarot. London: W. Rider. Retrieved 4 September 2018. Waite made 34 references to Lévi in all including references to five of Lévi's books in the bibliography.
  32. ^ Decker, Depaulis & Dummett 1996, pp. 199–200
  33. ^ Dummett (1980) singles out Pitois's writing as one of the worst examples of what he calls false ascription to be found in the occult literature.
  34. ^ a b Decker, Depaulis & Dummett 1996, pp. 234–237
  35. ^ Decker, Depaulis & Dummett 1996, pp. 243–252
  36. ^ Decker, Depaulis & Dummett 1996, pp. 256–260
  37. ^ Decker, Depaulis & Dummett 1996, pp. 238–239
  38. ^ Decker, Depaulis & Dummett 1996, pp. 241–242
  39. ^ Greer, Mary K. (2008-05-08). "Arcana in the Adytum". Mary K. Greer's Tarot Blog. Retrieved 2019-09-17.
  40. ^ Decker, Depaulis & Dummett 1996, pp. 242–243
  41. ^ Regardie, Isabel (1932). The Tree of Life. London: Rider.
  42. ^ Waite 1911
  43. ^ Greer, Mary K. (2008-02-01). "Golden Dawn Correspondences for Astrology and Tarot". Mary K. Greer's Tarot Blog. Retrieved 2019-09-17.
  44. ^ Heidrick, Bill (1976). "Tarot Correspondence Tables". Retrieved 2019-09-17.
  45. ^ Miller, Laura (2011). "Tantalizing tarot and cute cartomancy in Japan". Japanese Studies. 31 (1): 73–91. doi:10.1080/10371397.2011.560659.
  46. ^ "Marseilles Pattern Tarot Deck". Queen of Tarot. Archived from the original on 2019-08-09. Retrieved 2019-09-17.
  47. ^ "Court de Gebelin Trumps". Queen of Tarot. Archived from the original on 2019-08-09. Retrieved 2019-09-17. Court de Gébelin is the first to attempt to provide the correct order and nomenclature for the tarot trumps. See Dummett 1980.
  48. ^ "Grand Etteilla Cartomancy Tarot Deck". Queen of Tarot. Archived from the original on 2019-08-09. Retrieved 2019-09-17. Etteilla's tarot is the first cartomantic tarot, thus the broken nomenclature that bears little resemblance to that which comes before! The imagery of Etteilla's Egyptian Tarot is similar to Tarot de Marseille, but he breaks the ordering significantly putting, for example, the imagery of the Sun (traditionally triumph 19) as triumph 1.
  49. ^ van Rijn, Bastiaan Benjamin (September 2017). "The Mind Behind the Cards". Retrieved 31 July 2017.
  50. ^ Douglas, Claire, ed. (1997). Visions: Notes of the Seminar given in 1930–1934 by C. G. Jung, vol. 2. Bollingen Series. XCIX. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. p. 923.
  51. ^ Randi, James. "Tarot cards". James Randi Educational Foundation. Archived from the original on 2013-05-14. Retrieved 2019-07-03.
  52. ^ Levy, Ariel (18 April 2016). "Beautiful Monsters". The New Yorker. Retrieved 2017-03-28.
  53. ^ "Fool's Gold: Cliff Johnson Puts His Money Where His Mouth Is". Wired. 2012-10-29. Retrieved 24 January 2018.

External links[edit]