Different Versions of the Tarot

Most modern Tarots differ very little from those fifteenth century sets of cards. They still contain seventy-eight cards divided into the four suits, Wands, Cups, Swords, and Coins or Pentacles, called collectively the 'Minor Arcana', and the twenty-two trumps, known as the 'Major Arcana' (the word 'arcanum' means 'secret knowledge'). True, some of the pictures have changed considerably, but each version usually keeps the same basic concept. For example, there are several widely varying versions of the Emperor, but they all represent some idea of an Emperor. In general, the changes have tended towards the more symbolic and the more mystical.

This book uses as its primary source, the Tarot of Arthur Edward Waite, whose very popular Rider pack (named after its British publisher) appeared in 1910. Waite was criticized for changing some of the trump cards from their accepted version. For instance, the common picture of the Sun shows two children holding hands in a garden. Waite changed it to one child on a horse riding out of a garden. The critics claimed Waite was altering the card's meaning to his personal vision. This was probably the case, since Waite believed more strongly in his own ideas than those of anyone else. But few people stopped to consider that the earliest version of the Sun, that of Bembo, in no way resembles the supposed 'traditional' version. Indeed, it seems closer to Waite's; the picture shows a single miraculous child flying through the air, holding up a globe with an image of a city inside it.

The most striking change Waite and his artist, Pamela Colman Smith, made was to include a scene on all the cards, including the numbered cards of the Minor Arcana. Virtually all previous decks, as well as many later ones, have simple geometric patterns for the 'pip' cards. For example, the ten of Swords will show ten swords arranged in a pattern, much like its descendant, the ten of spades. The Rider pack is different. Pamela Smith's ten of Swords shows a man lying under a black cloud with ten swords stuck in his back and legs.

We do not really know who actually designed these cards. Did Waite himself conceive them (as he undoubtedly did the Major Arcana), or did he simply tell Smith the qualities and ideas he wanted and allow her to invent the scenes? Waite's own book on the Tarot, The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, makes little real use of the and recently even some scientists, impressed by the way events will occur in series (like a 'run of bad luck'), have begun to look seriously at it.

If we can use anything for fortune-telling why use the Tarot? The answer is, that any system will tell us something; the value of that something depends on the inherent wisdom of the system. Because the Tarot pictures carry deep significance all by themselves, the patterns they form in readings can teach us a great deal about ourselves, and life in general. Unfortunately, most diviners over the years have ignored these deeper meanings, preferring simple formulas ('a dark man, one disposed to help the querent'), easily interpreted and quickly digested by the client.

The formula meanings are often contradictory as well as blunt, with no indications of how to choose between them. This situation holds true especially for the Minor Arcana which is the bulk of the deck. Almost no works on the Tarot have treated this subject fully. Most serious studies, those which deal with the deep meanings of the Major Arcana, either do not mention the Minor cards at all, or simply throw in another set of formulas at the back, as a grudging addition for those readers who will insist on using the deck for fortune-telling. Even Waite, as mentioned, simply gives his own formulas to the remarkable pictures drawn by Pamela Smith.

While this book will deal extensively with the concepts embodied in the cards and their symbolism it will also look carefully at the application of these concepts to Tarot readings. Many writers, notably Waite, have denigrated divination as a degenerate use of the cards. But the proper use of readings can greatly increase our awareness of the cards' meanings. It is one thing to study the symbolism of a particular card, it is something else to see that card in combination with others. Many times I have seen specific readings open up important meanings that would not have emerged in any other way.

Readings teach us a general lesson as well, and a very important one. In a manner no explanation can possibly equal, they demonstrate that no card, no approach to life, is good or bad except in the context of the moment.

Finally, giving readings gives each person a chance to renew his or her instinctive feeling for the pictures themselves. All the symbolism, all the archetypes, all the explanations given in this book or any other can only prepare you to look at the pictures and say, 'This card tells me...'.

furthering of the archetype. The Tarot is both the total of all the different versions over the years, and an entity apart from any of them. In the cases where a version other than Waite's will deepen the meaning of a specific card we will look at both images. In some cases, Judgement for instance, or the Moon, the differences are subtle; in others, the Lovers, or the Fool, the difference is drastic. By looking at several versions of the same experience we heighten our awareness of that experience.

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