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The Tarot: Traditional Meanings for the Cards

March 20, 2013

My associate, Tony Willis, received an enquiry about the ‘traditional’ meanings on the tarot cards. He has kindly agreed to have his answer to the query published here.

Dear X,

What interested me mainly in your email was the question, ‘What is tradition?’ The context indicates that you meant: What is tradition in relation to the divinatory meanings of Tarot cards?

5 Pentacles_like RWIn the case of the minor arcana, we can speak of ‘the modern tradition’ – the tradition of ‘reading the pictures on the spot cards’, so that the 5 of Pentacles indicates poverty or want of money because the illustration shows two poor unfortunates out in the snow, presumably homeless. This was not a ‘tradition’ in my childhood. The Waite-Smith deck became popular in the sixties when it was just about the only deck one could lay one’s hands on. There was a disconnect because of the war. In the U.K., shortages were often greater in the immediate post-war years than during the war. Bread was rationed in 1946, though the war had ended the previous year. The paper shortage in Britain meant that British publishers couldn’t print tarot decks. Nor were any brought in from the continent in any quantity in the post-war period, there being many more essential things Britain required. Not until the sixties did Rider republish the Waite-Smith cards, and in the opening years of the sixties an enterprising agent had imported some De Laurence packs from America. (In the U.K., the De Laurence decks are usually referred to as pirated copies of the Waite-Smith cards: they are the Waite-Smith designs printed by – or for – De Laurence without paying any copyright fee to Rider.)

Another ‘tradition’ with strands in common with ‘the modern tradition’ is that of the Golden Dawn. It came into public consciousness later than the modern tradition. Even though the G.D.’s Book T was written long before the nineteen sixties, the G.D. system didn’t gain a wide audience until the republication in the early seventies by Llewellyn (USA) of Israel Regardie’s four volume work on the Golden Dawn. The two ‘traditions’ fit together fairly well because Book T’s meanings lie behind so many of the Waite-Smith card illustrations. (Not an exact fit, but that would be the subject of another email.)

However, prior to the rise and rise in popularity of the Waite-Smith deck, there were in Britain any number of ‘traditions’ attached to the minor arcana. I’m still putting tradition in inverted commas because none of these ‘traditions’ go back very far. I see no sign of the Tarot being taken up in Britain until the publication of the Waite-Smith deck. Occultists, such as the members of the Golden Dawn, knew of it and used it but occultists were at that time thin on the ground. In the Victorian age, members of the G.D. who traveled to the continent would bring back packs for other members. (Very few initiates appear to have made their own decks.) The Church of Light meanings were known but, again, not widely. They seem to have affected the meanings adopted by Frank Lind, author of How to Understand the Tarot and the harder to find How to Read the Tarot. I don’t know where the Church of Light minor arcana meanings come from; perhaps they originate with C.C. Zain (founder of the Church of Light) himself.

Sepharial’s career straddled the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. His meanings are similar to those found in Mathers’ exoteric tract The Tarot (1888). These meanings in turn derive mainly from Etteilla. Sepharial’s minor arcana meanings had some influence in their day but, like all other ‘traditions’ of that era, they have been eclipsed by the ‘modern tradition’. Papus’s meanings for the minor arcana (to be found in The Tarot of the Bohemians) never caught on in the U.K. There was also a method of interpreting the spot cards based on ‘Pythagorean numbers’. Briefly, this made all even cards ‘negative’ in their implications and all odd cards ‘positive’. Thus 2s were associated with oppositions, such as that of Good and Evil, 4s with restriction, symbolized by the Square, and so on. Threes represented fertility or growth, 7 is universally a lucky number, 9 as three times three is abundantly expansive. There will also have been other sets of meanings, private ones handed down within a family. But, as already observed, they all died out.

The French ‘tradition’ is longer. I have mentioned Papus’s contribution and I have touched on Etteilla’s influence, which was oblique but substantial in respect of the minor arcana. There is no significant ‘tradition’ beyond Etteilla. The publication of an article by de Gébelin in the eighteenth century sparked what is called ‘the French Revival’ of interest in the Tarot, but his influence had shriveled by the time of Papus. De Gébelin interpreted the Hanged Man as Prudence, redrawing it the other way up. It is a meaning one hardly ever rubs up against these days – certainly that is how it is in the U.K. His one rectification of the tarot Trumps did not meet with acceptance. He is remembered for initiating the French Revival, and one or two of his misapprehensions about the Tarot still find their way into print; in areas other than these he has had no lasting effect on mainstream Tarot development.

The Major Arcana have a tradition stretching back to de Gébelin and possibly beyond. Apart from the occasional blip, such as the Hanged Man being interpreted as Prudence that I just mentioned, their meanings remain remarkably stable. The only one we have today that Papus, Paul Christian and Sepharial would look askance at is that given to the Hierophant. The Golden Dawn’s astrological attribution for Trump 5 is Taurus. So far as I can tell, it is this attribution that has led to the interpretation of the Hierophant as hidebound conservatism especially in the area of religion. Papus, Christian and Sepharial associated the card with Inspiration from Above and with Goodness, not with a conservative outlook. Otherwise, however, the meanings of the Trumps alter little over the decades.

This is because the meanings of the Trumps are extracted from the image on the card and the card’s title. Thus, the Wheel of Fortune represents a change in the querent’s life and only a fool would have it indicate something like stability or stasis. The Trump Justice represents legal matters and good judgment; Strength represents Courage and Endurance as manifestations at different levels of the main attribute strength; the Chariot, with its image of someone riding in triumph, represents Victory; the Tower struck by Lightning represents Ruin or Disruption of plans. And so on.

Where changes have occurred to Trump meanings, they have generally followed alterations to a card’s design. When Trump 1 was known as the Juggler, its meanings were in line with that title. The card represented dexterity, since a juggler needs to be dexterous; it represented competency because a juggler must be competent (especially when juggling with knives!). As occultists almost universally associate the Trump with the planet Mercury, ‘dexterity’ was extended to ‘mental dexterity’. The Waite-Smith deck depicts a Magician (as the ‘Egyptian’ decks previously had named the card the Magus). The renaming and redrawing of Trump 1 has altered slightly the meanings assigned to it. There is, for instance, a drift toward ‘mastery of natural forces’ and ‘ability to manifest’ and away from older ways of saying the same thing, such as ‘the conquest and use of circumstance by innate faculty’ and ‘success by effort’.

Early Fool Card

The Fool

The Fool has changed its meaning in the past fifty years not because it was given a new title but because the design was altered. Before publication of the Waite-Smith deck, the Fool was represented most often as a man with a bundle or pack at the end of a stick carried over his shoulder, a dog biting a hole in the seat of his pants. The Waite-Smith Fool is a romantic figure by comparison, neat and tidy and dressed in an attractive costume; the dog capering by his side is his companion, not his adversary. This manner of depicting the Fool has transferred the emphasis from ‘folly, stupidity, eccentricity, and even mania … [the card] is too ideal and unstable to be gen­erally good in material things’ to ‘idea, thought, spirituality, that which endeavours to rise above the material’. Both quotes are from the Golden Dawn’s Book T, but in that system the second meaning was only used if the question was purely spiritual with no reference to material concerns at all. In his book The Tarot, Paul Foster Case, a G.D. initiate, gives the card the meanings ‘originality, audacity, venturesome quest’. Although Case, like a good Golden-Dawner, makes a point of saying that these meanings are applicable to spiritual matters only, they are the meanings that have captivated the public’s heart almost to the exclusion of all others. Nowadays, they are seen as the primary meanings of the card. I quote a few keywords taken from books published in the 21st century: ‘adventure’, ‘new experiences’, ‘going on a personal quest’.

Trump 6, the Lovers, has a checkered history where its divinatory meaning is concerned. In the Visconti-Sforza tarots, Trump 6 shows lovers, sometimes a pair, sometimes multiple pairs. A document discovered in the Library of the University of Bologna dating to circa 1740 and dealing with tarot divination gives the Lovers a simple, single word meaning: Love. There is evidence of this system being used in the Bologna area through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. There are four instances covering three centuries and on all four occasions Trump 6 is designated as Love. The Tarot de Marseilles card shows a man between two women. It is usually said that he stands in hesitation, not knowing which to choose. From this interpretation of the image comes these meanings for the card: ‘Choice, Indecision, Temptation, Two “loves” or rival interests.’ (From Frank Lind’s How to Read the Tarot.) The design on the Waite-Smith Lovers is of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden before the Fall; their union is blessed by God, represented by an angel in the card’s upper register. In this design, the meaning returns once more to Love. Paul Foster Case, in The Tarot again, gives Trump 6 these meanings: ‘Attraction, beauty, love; harmony of inner and outer life.’ That these are the meanings Waite had in mind when he instructed the Trump to be drawn to represent Adam and Eve is evident from his comments on the card when writing under the pseudonym Grand Orient in A Manual of Cartomancy (1909). He says the Lovers means ‘material union, affection, desire, natural love, passion, the harmony of things’.

But this is the point. Without the alteration of design there would have been no significant change in the card’s meaning.

The basic meanings of the Trumps – that the Wheel represents Change, Death an Ending of some kind, the Tower Catastrophe or Unhappy Accident, etc. – have been attached to them since the eighteenth century. If one wishes to talk of ‘tradition’ regarding the Trumps, this will be it.

The Bologna system of card-reading I mentioned hardly counts as a tradition. It never spread far beyond Bologna and appears to have died out in the mid-twentieth century. It never influenced main-stream continental traditions such as those associated with Paul Christian, Papus and the so-called ‘Egyptian Tarots’. These last named traditions can be found to this day, albeit in a mangled form, in the booklets accompanying the Cagliostro Tarot and the Tarocco Egiziano. For some, these traditions, which largely agree, are to be treated as the ur-tradition because they have the longest history and they are alive and well currently in certain parts of the world. I can’t speak for France but to my knowledge they are in use in South America and by a group in Australia. At least, this is true of the Major Arcana; the situation may be different for the Minor Arcana.

An appeal to tradition is largely an appeal to the way the Tarot de Marseilles cards were interpreted by French occultists during the ‘French Revival’. Not everyone wants to accept that tradition as valid. The Golden Dawn view is that their French counterparts lacked the secret knowledge needed to unlock the tarot’s mystery: they did not know that the Fool is the first Trump, equivalent to the Hebrew Aleph; they did not know that the cards Justice and Strength should be transposed; they did not know how the Elements related to the suits. If you are won over by that point of view, the longer-standing French tradition can be dismissed as being based on false assumptions. Contrariwise, if you reject the Golden Dawn paradigm as clever but essentially inconsequential mumbo-jumbo, you have the teachings of the French school to fall back on. They are both considered ‘traditions’ by those who embrace them. I know of no tradition prior to the French Revival apart from the localized Bologna method which predates de Gebelin’s article on the tarot by two or three decades. But the Bolognese way of reading the tarot never fed into the musings of the French occultists, or of any other tarot expert, and so must be discounted. That leaves today’s tarot student with two choices of ‘tradition’: the long-standing (but currently neglected) French tradition and the more recent (and immensely popular) modern tradition allied to the Waite-Smith card designs.

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2 Comments
  1. Re: Cagliostro Tarot

    do you think this in anyway resembles Cagliostro’s acrane tradition, Egyptian Rite etc.

    Or is it tarot marketing name?

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