Divinatory, esoteric and occult tarot

Divinatory, esoteric and occult tarot

Tarot reading revolves around the belief that the cards can be used to gain insight into the past, current and possible future situations of the subject (or querent), i.e. cartomancy. Some believe they are guided by a spiritual force, while others believe the cards help them tap into a collective unconscious or their own creative, brainstorming subconscious. The divinatory meanings of the cards commonly used today are derived mostly from cartomancer Jean-Baptiste Alliette who was also known as Etteilla.[1][2][3]



The original purpose of tarot cards was for playing games, with the first basic rules appearing in the manuscript of Martiano da Tortona before 1425.[4] Tarot cards would later become associated with mysticism and magic.[5] Tarot was not known to be adopted by mystics, occultists and secret societies until the 18th and 19th centuries. The earliest known use of tarot cards for divination was in Bologna Italy, around 1750, using a set of divinatory meanings entirely different from modern divinatory tarot.[6]

Antoine Court de Gébelin

Modern occult tarot begins in 1781, when Antoine Court de Gébelin, a Swiss clergyman and Freemason, published Le Monde Primitif, a speculative study which included religious symbolism and its survivals in the modern world. De Gébelin first asserted that symbolism of the Tarot de Marseille represented the mysteries of Isis and Thoth. Gébelin further claimed that the name "tarot" came from the Egyptian words tar, meaning "royal", and ro, meaning "road", and that the Tarot therefore represented a "royal road" to wisdom. De Gébelin also asserted that the Romani people (Gypsies), who were among the first to use cards for divination, were descendants of the ancient Egyptians and had introduced the cards to Europe. De Gébelin wrote this treatise before Jean-François Champollion had deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphs, or indeed before the Rosetta Stone had been discovered, and later Egyptologists found nothing in the Egyptian language to support de Gébelin's fanciful etymologies. Despite this, the identification of the Tarot cards with the Egyptian "Book of Thoth" was already firmly established in occult practice and continues in modern urban legend to the present day.

The idea of the cards as a mystical key was further developed by Eliphas Lévi and passed to the English-speaking world by The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Lévi, not Etteilla, is considered by some to be the true founder of most contemporary schools of Tarot; his 1854 Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie (English title: Transcendental Magic) introduced an interpretation of the cards which related them to Hermetic Qabalah. While Lévi accepted Court de Gébelin's claims about an Egyptian origin of the deck symbols, he rejected Etteilla's innovations and his altered deck, and devised instead a system which related the Tarot, especially the Tarot de Marseille, to the Hermetic Qabalah and the four elements of alchemy.

Tarot divination became increasingly popular in the New World from 1910, with the publication of the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot in December 1909, (designed and executed by two members of the Golden Dawn), which replaced the traditionally simple pip cards with images of symbolic scenes. This deck also further obscured the Christian allegories of the Tarot de Marseilles and of Eliphas Levi's decks by changing some attributions (for instance changing "The Pope" to "The Hierophant" and "The Popess" to "The High Priestess". The Rider-Waite-Smith deck still remains extremely popular in the English-speaking world.

Esoteric tarot decks

In English-speaking parts of the world, where there is little or no tradition of using tarots as playing cards, tarot decks only became known through the efforts of occultists influenced by French tarotists such as Etteilla, and later, Eliphas Lévi. These occultists later produced esoteric decks that reflected their own ideas, and these decks were widely circulated in the anglophone world. Various esoteric decks such as the Rider-Waite-Colman Smith deck (conceived by A. E. Waite and rendered by Pamela Colman Smith), and the Thoth Tarot deck (conceived by Aleister Crowley and rendered by Lady Frieda Harris) -- and tarot decks inspired by those two decks—are most typically used. Waite, Colman Smith, Crowley and Harris were all former members of the influential, Victorian-era Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn at different respective points in time; and the Golden Dawn, in turn, was influenced by Lévi and other French occult revivalists. Although there were various other respective influences (e.g., Etteilla's pip card meanings in the case of Waite/Colman Smith), Waite/Colman Smith's and Crowley/Harris' decks were greatly inspired by the Golden Dawn's member-use tarot deck and the Golden Dawn's tarot curriculum.

Tarot de Marseille

Le Bateleur from the Tarot of Marseilles

Francophone occultists such as Court de Gebelin, Etteilla, Eliphas Lévi, Oswald Wirth and Papus were influential in fashioning esoteric tarot in the French-speaking world. The influence of these Francophone occultists has come to bear even on interpretation of the Tarot de Marseille cards themselves. Even though the Tarot de Marseille decks are not 'occult' per se, the imagery of the Tarot de Marseille decks arguably shows Hermetic influences (e.g., alchemy, astronomy, etc.). Referring to the Tarot of the Bohemians, Eliphas Levi stated that "this book, which may be older than that of Enoch, has never been translated, but is still preserved unmutilated in primeval characters, on detached leaves, like the tablets of the ancients... It is, in truth, a monumental and extraordinary work, strong and simple as the architecture of the pyramids, and consequently enduring like those - a book which is the summary of all sciences, which can resolve all problems by its infinite combinations, which speaks by evoking thought, is the inspirer and moderator of all possible conceptions, and the masterpiece perhaps of the human mind. It is to be counted unquestionably among the very great gifts bequeathed to us by antiquity..."[7]

In the French-speaking world, users of the tarot for divination and other esoteric purposes such as Alexandro Jodorowsky, Kris Hadar, and many others, continue to use the Tarot de Marseille, although Oswald Wirth's Atouts-only (major-arcana) tarot deck has enjoyed such popularity in the 20th century (albeit less so than the Tarot de Marseille). Tarot decks from the English-speaking tradition (such as Rider-Waite-Colman Smith and decks based on it) are also gaining some popularity in French-speaking countries.

Paul Marteau pioneered the number-plus-suit-plus-design approach to interpreting the numbered minor arcana cards ["pip cards"] of the Tarot de Marseille. Prior to Marteau's book Le Tarot de Marseille (which was first published circa 1930s), cartomantic meanings (such as Etteilla's) were generally the only ones published for interpreting Marseille pip cards. Many French tarotists employ only the major arcana cards for divination. In fact, in recognition of this, many French-language Tarot de Marseille tarot books discuss the symbolism and interpretation of only the major arcana. Many fortune-tellers in France who use the Tarot de Marseille for readings will use only the major arcana and will use an Etteilla deck if they are to use all 78 cards (four suits of 14 cards each) for the reading.[8]

Occult tarot decks

Etteilla was the first to issue a revised tarot deck specifically designed for occult purposes rather than game playing. In keeping with the belief that tarot cards are derived from the Book of Thoth, Etteilla's tarot contained themes related to ancient Egypt. The seventy eight card tarot deck used by esotericists has two distinct parts:

Latin English Name 1 English Name 2 Description Cards
Major Arcana Greater Secrets Trump Cards Consists of twenty two cards without suits. The Fool
The Magician
The High Priestess
The Empress
The Emperor
The Hierophant
The Lovers
The Chariot
The Hermit
Wheel of Fortune
The Hanged Man
The Devil
The Tower
The Star
The Moon
The Sun
The World
Minor Arcana Lesser Secrets Consists of fifty six cards, divided into four suits of fourteen cards each; ten numbered cards and four court cards. The court cards are the King, Queen, Knight and Jack, in each of the four tarot suits. The traditional Italian tarot suits are swords, batons, coins and cups; in modern tarot decks, however, the batons suit is often called wands, rods or staves, while the coins suit is often called pentacles or disks.

Minor Arcana

The Minor Arcana closely match Anglo-American playing cards, having Ace-through-Ten and four face cards. The face cards are Page, Knight, Queen, and King. Each suit of the Minors corresponds to one of the four Alchemical elements. Pentagrams corresponds with Earth, Swords with air, Wands with fire, and Cups with water. (Some variations exist depending on artist, Pentagrams are sometimes depicted as Coins, Wands with Staves, and so forth.)

The Face cards also correspond to the Elements. The Page is Earth, the Knight is Air, the Queen is Water, and the King is Fire. This makes the Page of Pentagrams (or Earth of Earth), the Knight of Swords (or Air of Air), the Queen of Cups (or Water of Water) and the King of Wands (or Fire of Fire) very strong cards.[9]

Major Arcana

The Major Arcana are a set of twenty-two cards in the tarot deck, with no suit. They serve as permanent trumps in games played with the tarot deck, and are distinguished from the four standard suits collectively known as the Minor Arcana. The terms "Major" and "Minor Arcana" are used in the occult and divinatory applications of the deck, and originate with Paul Christian. [10]

Each Major Arcanum depicts a scene, mostly featuring a person or several people, with many symbolic elements. In many decks, each has a number (usually in Roman numerals) and a name, though not all decks have both, and some have only a picture. These cards are often interpreted as describing the normal progression of a truly holy life (or the path to enlightenment of the Initiate through the Mysteries), and often tell where a person is along their journey, or if they have strayed. Such an interpretation is called the "Fool's Journey" and it originated with Eden Gray.[citation needed]

Rider Waite Smith Tarot

Many of the images of the Rider-Waite-Colman Smith (RWS or WCS) deck are derived from the Tarot de Marseille. However, the influence of other decks is also apparent in the RWCS deck, e.g., the 17th century Jacques Viéville deck for the Sun card and the 16th century Sola Busca deck for certain pip cards, notably the 3 of Swords and 7 of Swords. The 19th century deck of Swiss-French occultist Oswald Wirth was also influential for certain of the iconographic features of the Atouts or major arcana cards of the RWCS deck. The Rider-Waite-tarot deck has been extremely influential in the development of later divinatory tarot decks to the extent that many are called "Rider-Waite clones" to indicate that they are easily read by those familiar with Rider-Waite.[citation needed]

As a mnemonic device

Some schools of occult thought or symbolic study, such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, consider the tarot to function as a textbook and mnemonic device for their teachings[11]. This may be one cause of the word arcana being used to describe the two sections of the tarot deck: arcana is the plural form of the Latin word arcanum, meaning "closed" or "secret."

Tarot is often used in conjunction with the study of the Hermetic Qabalah.[12] In these decks all the cards are illustrated in accordance with Qabalistic principles, most being under the influence of the Rider-Waite-Smith deck and bearing illustrated scenes on all the suit cards. The images on the 'Rider-Waite' deck were drawn by artist Pamela Colman-Smith, to the instructions of Christian mystic and occultist Arthur Edward Waite, and were originally published by the Rider Company in December 1909. This deck is considered a simple, user friendly one but nevertheless its imagery, especially in the Major Arcana, is complex and replete with esoteric symbolism. The subjects of the Major Arcana are based on those of the earliest decks, but have been significantly modified to reflect Waite and Smith's view of Tarot. An important difference from Marseilles style decks is that Smith drew scenes with esoteric meanings on the suit cards. However the Rider-Waite wasn't the first deck to include completely illustrated suit cards. The first to do so was the 15th century Sola-Busca deck.[citation needed]

Tarot reading

Tarot reading revolves around the belief that the cards can be used to gain insight into the current and possible future situations of the subject (or querent), i.e. cartomancy. Some believe they are guided by a spiritual force, such as Gaia, while others believe the cards help them tap into a collective unconscious or their own creative, brainstorming subconscious. Though certain core themes persist seemingly unchanged, the divinatory meanings of the cards are derived from many sources and can vary significantly based on the time period and culture which produced the deck. It is generally accepted that the Reader is required to develop their own personal understanding of the meanings of the cards, using the commonly recognized meanings as a rough guide.

Common card interpretations

Though core themes and general meanings have remained unchanged for some cards, the tone and specific depiction of each card can vary wildly depending on the time period, culture, and personal interpretations of the Author/Artist. As a result and similar to most other systems of symbolism, the common meanings are intended to be a general guide to assist the individual in working out their own understanding.

Each card has several meanings, and the reader determines which meaning to apply based on the card's location in the spread and which cards are turned up around it. Common sense is also used to discard meanings which have no relevance to the question asked.


To perform a Tarot reading, the Tarot deck is typically shuffled by either the subject or a third-party reader, and is laid out in one of a variety of patterns, often called "spreads". They are then interpreted by the reader or a third-party performing the reading for the subject. These might include the subject's thoughts and desires (known or unknown) or past, present, and future events. Generally, each position in the spread is assigned a number, and the cards are turned over in that sequence, with each card being contemplated/interpreted before moving to the next. Each position is also associated with an interpretation, which indicates what aspect of the question the card in that position is referring to.

Sometimes, rather than being dealt randomly, the initial card in a spread is intentionally chosen to represent the querent or the question being asked. This card is called the significator.

Some common spreads include:[citation needed]

Name Description Spread
Celtic Cross This is probably the most common spread. Ten[13] cards are used, with five arranged in a cross and four placed vertically beside the cross. Another card is placed horizontally across the central cards of the cross to make a total of 10. The first central card of the cross is frequently the significator and the second card which is placed over the first represents the conditions surrounding the question; or the crossing card often represents an obstacle they must face, an aspect of the question they have not yet considered. The third card which is placed above the first represents what the person hopes for in relation to the question being asked. The fourth card which is placed below the first is what the subject has already experienced in relation to the whole spread. The fifth card is placed to the left of the first card and shows what was in the past. The sixth card is placed to the right of the first card and shows the influence that will come in the future. Then on the right of these cards are the remaining 4 cards, which are placed from bottom to top. So the seventh card represents the attitude of the question being asked. The eighth card is how family or friends will influence the question. The ninth card shows the hopes and fears in relation to the question and the final card, the tenth card, is the Culmination Card which shows the end result of all of the previous nine cards.
Horse-shoe Another very common question asking spread. Seven cards are arranged in a semicircle or 'V' shape. The cards, from left to right, represent the past, present, influences, obstacles, expectations (or hopes/fears), best course of action and likely outcomes. Some variations of this spread swap the expectations and inspiration cards around.
3-card spread Three cards are used, with the first representing the past, the second the present, the third the future.
Astrological spread Twelve cards are spread in a circle, to represent the twelve signs of the zodiac. A thirteenth card is placed in the middle; often the significator.
1-card spread It should be noted that a single card can constitute a spread.
Tetractys Ten cards arranged in a four-rowed pyramid. Each row represents earth, air, fire or water and each card within the row has a very specific meaning. The single card in the top row is the significator.
Star spread starts in the lower left part and follows the star pattern. The first being what you see. The second, what you can't see. The third what you can change. The fourth what you cannot change, and the fifth, what you can expect
Mirror Spread This Spread works primarily on existing relationships, but can assess anything from a budding love affair to an established partnership. It will often reveal inconsistencies between viewpoints—for example, if the cards at 2 and 3 contradict one another, there is need to reassess and readjust points of view, or take into account the input of the other person. Obstacles will sometimes produce very positive cards. The Probable result card is drawn with circumstances as they currently are—but if changes recommended by the reading are effected, then this final card can change.

Reversed cards

Some methods of interpreting the tarot consider cards to have different meanings depending on whether they appear upright or reversed.[14] A reversed card is often interpreted to mean the opposite of its upright meaning. For instance, the Sun card upright may be associated with satisfaction, gratitude, health, happiness, strength, inspiration, and liberation; while in reverse, it may be interpreted to mean a lack of confidence and mild unhappiness. However, not all methods of card reading prescribe an opposite meaning to reversed cards. Some card readers will interpret a reversed card as either a more intense variation of the upright card, an undeveloped trait or an issue that requires greater attention. Other interpreters point out that card reversal is dependent on the order of the cards before shuffling, so is of little bearing in the scope of a reading.

Virtual Tarot Readings

Many software applications have been developed which generate automated tarot card readings-- so-called 'virtual tarot' readings. Both desktop and online software applications are available for doing virtual tarot readings.

Automated tarot readings typically invite the Reader to type a question into the software application, and usually, to choose a tarot card spread. The software application assigns a tarot card to each position in the spread. Many applications offer interpretations for the cards selected during the reading, as well as a summary of what a given position in the tarot spread means.

Traditional tarot readings done with a physical deck rely on the idea that the tarot card reader is able to gain insight into the past, present or future through a personal connection to the tarot cards. Similarly, virtual tarot software allow various levels of interaction between the human seeking answers and the software program generating the tarot reading. Some applications only allow the seeker to type in a question, and launch the automated reading by clicking a button. Other applications additionally allow the user to click on each card in the spread generated, at which time that card is revealed-- mimicking the more traditional process of revealing the tarot card by turning it over.

There are currently hundreds of virtual tarot reading software applications available.[15][16]


  1. ^ Ronald Decker and Michael Dummett, History of the Occult Tarot, London: Duckworth, 2002
  2. ^ Paul Huson Mystical Origins of the Tarot: From Ancient Roots to Modern Usage, Vermont: Destiny Books, 2004
  3. ^ Robert Place, The Tarot: History, Symbolism, and Divination, New York: Tarcher/Penguin, 2005
  4. ^ Description of the Michelino deck - translated text
  5. ^ Paul Huson Mystical Origins of the Tarot: From Ancient Roots to Modern Usage. Vermont: Destiny Books, 2004
  6. ^ http://i-p-c-s.org/history.html
  7. ^ Eliphas Levi Transcendental Magic, pp. 3-4, Samuel Weiser Inc., 1995 ISBN 0-87728-079-7; 1st English edition 1896
  8. ^ "What is Divination?". Spirit Reader. http://www.spiritreader.co.uk/what_is_divination.php. Retrieved 17 October 2011. 
  9. ^ Pollack, Rachael. The Complete Illustrated Guide to Tarot. Italy: Element Books, Ltd., 1999.
  10. ^ Place, Robert (2005). The Tarot: History, Symbolism, and Divination. 
  11. ^ Paul Huson The Devil's Picturebook, pp 62-95, New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1971
  12. ^ Israel Regardie, "The Tree of Life", (London, Rider, 1932)
  13. ^ Arthur Edward White, "Pictorial Guide to the Tarot", (New York, Causeway, ndp)
  14. ^ Paul Huson, Mystical Origins of the Tarot, p. 59
  15. ^ "Automated Tarot Readings". DMoz: Automated Tarot Readings. http://www.dmoz.org/Society/Religion_and_Spirituality/Divination/Cartomancy/Tarot/Readings/Automated/. 
  16. ^ "Free Tarot Reading Directory". Free Tarot Reading Directory. Tarot School. http://www.tarotschool.com/FreeReadings.html. 

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