The Tarot has always been very close to my heart. I recognized it as a tool when I was a teenager and purchased my first Tarot deck. There were very few Tarot cards available back then, but I did manage to obtain a Marseilles Tarot deck and a Rider Waite deck. The Rider Waite deck has remained my favourite even though I now own and read from numerous other decks.
There seems to be some mystery as to the origin of the Tarot among those who do not understand its significance. According to one of the Masters of Wisdom under whom I studied, the Tarot of 78 cards that we have today was originally known as the tabula smaragdina or Hermestablet from which comes the saying, “That which is above is also that which is below,” and serves to prove the macrocosmic and microcosmic laws of analogy. These teachings are termed Hermetic Science by those who have studied them and have been initiated into them.
The Hermestablet was attributed to the god Thoth, otherwise known as Hermes Trismegistos. Most of the Hermestablet has been lost. In its original form it gave the correspondences for the modern Tarot deck, which in reality can be used as a tool of initiation.
Universal truths always survive, as there are beings who make sure they do, and so too, the cards managed to survive in the East and were reintroduced into Europe during the Crusades. In the fourteenth century when the Tarot first made its appearance in Europe, Christianity reigned supreme, and the earliest references to the cards in Europe were prohibitions against their use by the church, which later referred to them collectively as the Devil’s Picture Book.
How then did the Tarot survive in the face of the considerable effort made on the part of the church to stamp it out? Universal truths can never be stamped out and will always resurface at the appropriate time. The esoteric principle behind the deck of Tarot cards may owe a lot to the ascetic measures placed upon the mystics during the medieval period. Forced to rely on memory, the medieval mystic would have retained the pictures in the mind by the process of visualization and association, a practice that we are once more utilizing today.
The idea of an adventurous and perilous journey through unknown territory was also typical of medieval literature. To travel in the middle ages was as hazardous and uncertain as travelling the paths of inner knowledge. Also, throughout the middle ages there existed various metaphysical orders and secret societies that kept the knowledge of the Tarot intact but hidden and preserved for future generations.
During the 1700’s Court de Gébelin, who was a member of a secret occult society, saw a game being played with the Tarot cards and became interested to the point of obsession with the cards and immediately understood their inner or secret meaning. He believed that the symbolism on the cards came from Egyptian lore. Court de Gébelin developed a reconstruction of Tarot history, believing that Egyptian priests had distilled the ancient Book of Thoth into images to assist those wishing to know and understand universal truths. An essay included in Court de Gébelin ‘s Monde Primitif is responsible for the mystical meanings of the Tarot. The use of the Tarot cards for divination has spread ever since.
By the 19th century Eliphas Levi, who was a famous mystic during that time was able to connect the Tarot with the Hebrew mysticism known as the Kabbalah, which in fact, had it roots in ancient Egypt, and saw that the Tarot was a tool that man could use in order to develop himself by following the journey of the Fool back to God.
The Major Arcana of the Tarot shares a lot of symbolism with the metaphysical teachings associated with Buddhism, whose founder, Gautama, is thought to have been born some 500 years or so before Christ. The Fool might well be said to represent the wandering monk himself. The Emperor and Empress, Buddha’s parents; the chariot, the triumphal vehicle of Vishnu; the Pope, the Hermit, the Hanged Man and Death, the Man of Religion, the Ancient One, the Cripple and Corpse are said to have been encountered by Buddha prior to his enlightenment. The Lovers represents the raising of the Kundalini through the correct use of sacred sex, the maithuna ritual; the Wheel of Fortune, obviously the Wheel of Rebirth and Karma and so on were of course well known. Undoubtedly the Tarot represents the same concepts, but simply filtered through the Western Mystery tradition.
The Tarot represents an allegorical journey, each card being the experience of universal archetypal energy, rather like the episodes in Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” The idea of an adventurous and perilous quest through unknown territory has also been handed down through the legends of Merlin and King Arthur. These are all symbolical of inner journeys to find the Holy Grail.
The ancient wisdom as revealed in the Modern Tarot Deck remains basically hidden even today, but we have been given enough clues to be able to open the doorways and enter into the ancient mysteries. The forward journey through the Tarot from the Fool onwards, is showing initially the Path of Projection; the journey spirit makes as it moves onto the earth plane. Moving through the images backwards, from the World, shows the Return Path to the Source or God. It shows in symbolic form, the blessings and pitfalls along the way. It is a complete mirror image of the Path of Projection. The meaning behind these Tarot cards became corrupted over time and although they were used in card games, what better way of keeping the ancient wisdom before the public eye?
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