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Tarot and fortune telling

Today, most people see the Tarot as a means of fortune-telling, or ‘divination’. Strangely, we know less historically about this aspect of the cards than any other. Judging by the comparatively few historical references to divination as opposed to gambling, the practice did not become common until some time after the introduction of the cards themselves. Possibly the Romany, or ‘gypsies’, came across the game of Tarocchi on their travels in Europe and decided to use the cards for fortune-telling. Or individuals developed the concept (the earliest written references are individual interpretations, though they might have derived from some earlier system, not written down but in general use) and the Romany took it from them. People used to believe that the Romany themselves brought the cards from Egypt. The fact is, the Romany probably came from India, and they arrived in Spain a good hundred years after Tarot cards were introduced in Italy and France.

In the section on readings we will consider just what divination does, and how such an outrageous practice could possibly work. Here we can simply observe that people can and have told fortunes with anything - the smoky innards of slaughtered beasts, bird patterns across the sky, coloured stones, tossed coins, anything. The practice stems from the simple desire to know, in advance, what is going to happen, and more subtly, from the inner conviction that everything is connected, everything has meaning and that nothing occurs at random.

The very idea of randomness is really very modern. It developed out of the dogma that cause and effect is the only valid connection between two events. Events without this logical joining are random, that is, meaningless. Previously, however, people thought in terms of ‘correspondences’. Events or patterns in one area of existence corresponded to patterns in other areas. The pattern of the zodiac corresponds to the pattern of a person’s life. The pattern of tea leaves in the bottom of a cup corresponds to the outcome of a battle. Everything is connected. The idea has always claimed its adherents, 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.