Authentic Tarot: Thomas Saunders and Divination
Thomas Saunders asks what is an authentic Tarot deck?..
The orthodox Tarot ‘book’ of 78 Major and Minor Arcana cards is one of several allegorical teachings that perpetuate profound esoteric precepts. The ‘book’ is written in a coded language of symbolic numbers and archetypes that are the fundamental characteristics embedded in our DNA.
The Tarot is the perennial story of our archetypal Hero or Heroine’s quest to become a self-realised human being. This psycho/spiritual transformational journey charts the milestones we will encounter and the pitfalls to overcome to progress along our life’s path to Gnosis or self- knowledge. The word Arcana indicates the esoteric knowledge of the physical and spiritual worlds hidden in the cards but available and openly revealed through spiritual exercises to all those who are moved to follow the path from naivety to fulfillment and wisdom.
There are many speculations that the Tarot was imported from the ancient Mystery Schools of Egypt, India and Greece or by the Knights Templar with links to the teachings of Hermes Trismagistus, the Bible, the Upanishads, the Cabbala (Kabbalah) and the great philosophers from Plato onwards. Whatever its history, esoteric precepts are universal and the production of Tarot decks and card games is believed to be a purely Medieval concept that coincided with the advent of wood block, copper plate and printing press technology in Western Europe.
Distortion of Tarot’s Meaning
The Tarot’s provenance in Europe can be dated to 1392 by the incomplete deck kept in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. The 1769 edition of the Ancien Tarot de Marseilles deck available today in its current incarnation indicates its likely wood block origins of 13th and 14th Century clothing and armoury. Another early complete deck, the Sola Busca is dated 1491. These decks may be considered to be authentic but not necessarily of undisputed origin.
The mid Nineteenth Century’s development of chromolithography printing spawned a number of Tarot card versions such as the Perrin deck. Twentieth Century printing technology and computer graphics has led to an abundance of highly personalised designs of ‘Angel’ and other so called ‘Tarot’ cards. Designing one’s own cards for private contemplation can serve to more readily summon up innate insights to deal with day-to-day issues. These cards may have strong, personalised validity but they are not authentic Tarot decks.
The modern deck published in 1909, known as the Rider Waite, was designed by A E Waite and painted by Pamela Coleman Smith according to his version of the Tarot. (Both had been members of Alistair Crowley’s Golden Dawn ‘sect’.) Two years earlier, he saw the Fifteenth Century’s Sola Busca’s deck when first shown at the British Museum in 1907
The Tarot historian. Giordano Berti has compared the Sola Busca and Rider Waite decks. He highlighted the several Rider Waite cards which copied several designs but attributed them to different card suits and numbers. Waite also swapped the 8th card Justice with the 11th card Force which significantly changes the sequence of the Tarot’s initiation processes. The uncoordinated ‘Edwardian chocolate box’ decoration, style of dress, embellishments and benign facial expressions might be said to confuse or even distort the arcane meaning that is intrinsic to the Tarot’s language. Similarly, Hollywood’s trivialisation of classic myths and fairy tales often completely ignores or changes the fundamental essence of the stories.
Triggers of Wisdom
It continues to be the most popular modern deck used by the majority of Tarot teachers because it is easy to teach and learn the interpretations of the cards by rote. Several years ago, I was taught to learn by rote the narrow, singular Rider Waite interpretations of the cards. Later, when studying sacred symbolism in music and architecture, I came across the Marseilles deck where I began to discover the common bond and cohesive vocabulary that unified the cards into one, coordinated symbolic system to continually reveal its layers of meaning.
The Rider Waite and other ‘Tarot’ and ‘Angel’ cards may be no more useful as a ‘prompt’ for psychic divination to predict a future event than using a crystal ball or reading tea leaves in the bottom of a cup. Fortune-telling relinquishes our responsibility to a stranger to predict whatever they foresee as some predestined future events or circumstances we will encounter. Such predictions feed our hopes and fears and often result in unrealistic expectations and disappointment.
Whatever the immediate issues or dilemmas those seeking answers might face, in the right hands, a Tarot Reader can act as a facilitator to raise intuition and insight to a conscious level. The purpose is to trigger one’s innate portentous wisdom rather than give instructions or direct a course of action. I believe Tarot reading is about taking responsibility for ourselves by dealing with the here and now – where we are in the present and the next positive step forward along our life’s path to self-discovery.
If the purpose of the Tarot is to serve as practical psycho/spiritual exercises to provide sacred insights to reach our life’s quest then the fundamental principles and orthodox coded esoteric teachings are of paramount importance.
The Ancien Tarot de Marseilles’ symbolic language is comprehensible, meaningful and understood because the pictograms, suits and numbers follow linguistic discipline and conventions. Every design detail – the colours of clothing, the types of crowns and hats, which way they are facing, whether they are standing or sitting and so on and the specifically sequential numbering – has profound significance. In other words, there are no superfluous, art for art’s sake embellishments that corrupts the esoteric wisdom in translation. In that regard, I suggest this deck is authentic.