Encounters with the Tarot…

The Beginning…


This is the first part of an occasional series concerning my encounters with, and the learning of, the Tarot.

Almost everyone knows that the Tarot is a method for foretelling the future, but they’re wrong – you can’t know the future, for to know it is to change it. If someone tells you you’re going to die on the 42 bus next Wednesday, you’ll make damned sure you get the train. Or a taxi. A fairly crude example, but you get the point.

I prefer to think of the Tarot as a mechanism for exploring the potentialities of the future – what can happen, not what will happen – which, I believe, is rather more accurate as a description.

Incidentally, the Death card doesn’t, as is popularly thought, mean Death…

The Tarot is not, as many ignorant people believe, a force for evil, nor is it, especially, a force for good – it’s essentially neutral. Good or evil reside in the heart of the card reader, not in the cards.

Those of you who’ve read Books #2 will know that I’ve developed an interest in the Tarot. This was triggered by the Kidd series of books by John Sandford. Kidd is an artist-criminal-hacker with an addiction (which he denies), to the Tarot.

By the way, based on the little knowledge I have to date, Sandford got it wrong quite often in his depiction of the Tarot (not least in calling Kidd’s deck the Ryder-Waite – something he corrected in the final book). You’d think, given that, like many writers, he filters his work through a coterie of friends, relatives and editors to ensure its accuracy. This is usually acknowledged on a page headed Thanks to the following people, without whose help this book would have been a complete shambles. Or something. The question is, why didn’t he run the Tarot references by someone familiar with it?

As many of you will know, I’m not remotely religious, nor am I superstitious, but there’s something about the Tarot, as depicted by Sandford, that has struck a chord. So much so that I’ve just ordered my first cards, and the bits and bobs deemed essential to accompany them (Tarot cards are always “decks”, by the way, not “packs”). Of the seemingly limitless variations on the Tarot theme, the Rider Waite deck is the most well known.

Arthur Edward Waite joined the The Hermetic Order of The Golden Dawn in 1891 (scroll way down for the index – as websites go, it sucks). He was a prolific occult writer, publishing books on subjects as diverse as ceremonial magic, freemasonry and tarot. Pamela Colman-Smith joined the Golden Dawn in 1903. When she met Waite he was fascinated to learn that she had already illustrated several books, and hooked up with her to fulfil a long held aspiration – create a unique Tarot deck which would improve on all decks that had gone before. Prior to Waite and Colman-Smith, only Major Arcana cards had images, the Minor Arcana having pips like playing-cards. Waite devised images for the Minor Arcana as well, which not only unified the appearance, it made them easier to read.

The colours of the Rider Waite are a little harsh, and as a result there have been a few attempts to improve on the colour scheme – see a selection here – and some are rather more successful than others. The version I finally settled on is the Universal Waite (why Universal I’ve no idea). While more or less true to the original colour scheme, the colours are rather muted, almost pastel on some cards – much more subtle than the original and, I think, an improvement. The Fool, above, is from the Rider Waite deck.

For an easy comparison of the Universal Waite and the Rider Waite decks, go here to see the former and here to see the latter.

You will, if you read much about the Rider Waite deck, see that Colman-Smith is occasionally referred to as “Lady Pamela”, which is completely erroneous – she was born a commoner and she was never ennobled, either in her own right or by marriage.

There are 78 cards in a Tarot deck, divided into the Major Arcana (22 cards – Fool, Magician, High Priestess, Empress, Emperor, Hierophant, Lovers, Chariot, Strength, Hermit, Wheel of Fortune, Justice, Hanged Man, Death, Temperance, Devil, Tower, Star, Moon, Sun, Judgment and World), and the Minor Arcana, 56 cards in 4 suits – Wands (or Staves), Cups, Swords and Pentacles). Note – in some decks Pentacles are called, and shown as, Discs; other than that the pentacles are frequently depicted on discs, I can’t account for this. Not until I know more, anyway. They are sometimes called Coins too – buggered if I know why…

By the way, Rider Waite is often rendered as Ryder-Waite or Rider-Waite – both are wrong – the packaging of the deck clearly says Rider Waite.

In addition, tradition requires a “reading cloth”, usually black silk (other colours are available, but I prefer to stick with tradition), on which the cards are laid out for a reading – the cloth isolates the cards from “earthly influences”. The cloth can also be used to wrap the cards when not in use, and they are then stored in a wooden box, which provides both psychic and physical protection. A silk pouch is often used when transporting the cards – the box is cumbersome; it takes the cards and the folded silk cloth. The black cloth also emphasises the cards’ colours, whereas other colours of cloth may clash.

The wooden Tarot boxes, for me, are a tad problematic. They come either adorned with the word Tarot, with or without carvings, or with mystic symbols carved, or inlaid in brass – I want just a plain, wooden box, but I can’t get one anywhere, so I got one with an inlaid brass pentacle. The search for a plain box continues. I’ve nothing against decorated boxes, I just want a plain one!

I did find a very nice, almost plain box – just a band of carving around the lid – but the online store added a non-refundable surcharge of 20% to every order as a “cleansing and blessing” fee, which is a bit bloody high-handed of them – hey, charge me 20% less, I’ll take my chances! Rather unavoidably, the word “scam” springs to mind – after all, how can anyone possibly tell if the cleansing and blessing took place or not, and would it make the slightest difference either way? Anyway, 20% is far too much to charge – 10%, if the service is genuine, would be OK with me (though it’s a service I really can live without); 20%, though, just screams rip-off!

Oh yes – almost forgot – I bought a book, too, a sort of Tarot 101 (actually it’s called Step by Step Tarot). Well, it helps to have an idea of what I’m doing! It’s very basic, and I’ll need a more advanced book before long, but as I’m looking at a very steep learning curve, books are essential; even though masses of info is available online I find books are better for study. That and/or printed-out online material.

Note: I neither believe nor disbelieve anything about the Tarot at this stage – I have an open mind. Here’s something to think about, though. After I’d finished the final Kidd book, I got another book to read – from a selection of 8 as yet unread, I picked, entirely by chance, the only one which also features the Tarot… Go figure.

Here are a few Tarot-related links:-

The Holistic Shop is where I bought almost all my kit – a good selection and well-priced, too. In the Library section there’s a mine of info on many mystical/spiritual subjects, including a section on the Tarot for beginners.

Autumn Moon sold me my box. An excellent online store for most things mystical or spiritual. Hey, release your inner witch!

Angel Paths has a decent Tarot section, too, but the site as a whole really sucks – it’s a disgraceful morass of broken links, as you’ll find out if you venture outside the Tarot section.

Go here for a very comprehensive list of Tarot decks – click the links to see the images.

For those who want to learn more, The Aeclectic Tarot is a fine place to start.

A word of advice – if you want to buy your own deck, stick to the Rider Waite or one of its derivatives, where the cards’ identities are clear – you don’t want a deck where you have to figure out what the card is, before you can work out what it means! Nor do you really want cards where the name is in four or more languages (it makes it look as if you don’t know what they are!). There’s a very good reason why the Rider Waite deck is so popular, especially with beginners – the cards are easy to identify. Except one – The Chariot – if it wasn’t titled (all the Major Arcana are named), you’d never figure out that it was any mode of transport at all.

One thing I have discovered, this week, is that many people in this sort of business have really, deeply, crap websites – the those here being conspicuous exceptions – and a lot of them can’t spell. Few things anger me more than people who want my money, but are too lazy to hit the spell-check button. I also stumbled upon a wiccan website where I could, if I so wished, buy a simple, unadorned wand for – you’ll love this – £24. That’s £24, for a stick!

Mystic Familiar I was rather scathing about this online store, at the time of writing this page, as it had simply disappeared, leaving in it’s wake a Closed sign. Not helpful. I eventually emailed the people behind the store, and was told that the proprietor, as a result of a family crisis, and flu, had simply forgotten to reopen the store. I have re-written this segment as the result of a complaint about the original, but with the best will in the world, I can only report what I see at the time. I could, arguably, have updated this post when I got the explanation but, unfortunately, remembering what I’ve posted is difficult. It’s a challenge, much of the time, remembering what day it is.

The Lavender Pillow is an immensely entertaining Pagan/Goth site that’s worth an hour of your time. Your browser may give you a “Plugins are needed for this site” message – ignore it. You can’t order stuff online, but it’s fun – find the Menu at the foot of the page.

That’s it for now – more as and when…

February 10 2009 Actually, there may be no more – while I do have some talent with the cards, my short-term memory problems (ME/CFS related), mean that I just can’t remember the meanings of the cards without having a stack of books on hand.