A Spiritually Enlightening Online Magazine. November Theme: "Unique Perspective"
Volume 2 Issue 1 ISSN# 1708-3265
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with Jeannette Roth
An Expansionist's View of Tarot
In this issue, Timeless Spirit magazine celebrates different and diverse viewpoints, which would challenge us to think in new ways - and perhaps even to lead us to review and question our own opinions and beliefs. In regard to the subject of tarot, this theme opens the door to a fresh examination of the role these 78 intriguing cards can play in our lives.
My goal is to present a framework that will attempt to address some of the criticisms levelled against trends in tarot over the last 40 years. I refer to this framework as an expansionist view, and although it may not truly represent a "unique perspective," I believe it embodies a point of view, which has not been thoroughly examined or well articulated in the infrequent instances when an author has deliberately touched on the subject. I present it here in contrast to what I would term the traditionalist view - a view which, while having been updated somewhat over time, still retains a large number of the basic tenets as set forth by the noteworthy esotericists from 100 to as much as 250 years ago. It is not my intent to entirely discredit the traditionalist view (to be defined momentarily), but rather, to present arguments to establish the expansionist view as an alternative of equal merit.
Weighing the "Facts"
Ever since Court de Gèbelin published his assertions regarding the Egyptian origin of the tarot (Monde primitif, vol. VIII, 1781), tarot has become increasingly associated with esoteric studies and the occult. Indeed, today - except in certain regions of Europe - tarot's original employment, as an amusement for playing card games, seems to have been largely forgotten. Over the centuries, self-proclaimed scholars and magi have built up a body of work, which has replaced tricks and trumps with Sephiroth and significances. Though their research was often shoddy, and their historical claims frequently bordered on the outrageous, it was through their efforts tarot was transformed from a mere "toy" into a tool of profound psychological and spiritual value. (NOTE: for more information on the development of the occult tarot, see A Wicked Pack of Cards by Decker, Depaulis, and Dummett.)
Odd as it may be to say it, the fact that the best-known historical treatises on the subject of tarot presented a great deal of erroneous and even bogus information should be of little concern to the modern practicing tarotist. While it is important to be able to separate fact from fiction when discussing what tarot is and is not, arguments over the historical and scholarly details neither enhance nor detract from tarot's utility at a personal level. For with tarot, we are not operating in a realm of facts, but of ideas. Tarot has become a magnet for the study and expression of the collective unconscious. As we delve deeper into the psychological and metaphysical worlds described by its imagery, our focus is on the larger nature of the cosmos, and our relationship to it. Against this backdrop, mundane facts regarding origins, sequences, and the like become irrelevant.
However, for tarot-based studies to bear real spiritual fruit, it cannot be denied that a disciplined approach is best. While the esotericists of the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries may not have had their facts straight concerning tarot's origins, they certainly had a great deal of interest to say on the subject of its application and symbolism. Their writings provide the foundation for contemporary students and practitioners. They supply a solid "jumping off" point, without which new seekers would find themselves floundering in an overwhelming sea of seemingly random images and concepts.
The Value of Tradition
While the early writers on the subject of occult tarot may have felt it necessary to invent stories of secrecy and antiquity in order to imbue their work with a measure of legitimacy, we of the 21st century require no such fabricated justifications. We can drop the pretence of a millennia-old tradition, because the preceding 250 years of study and work have now provided a respectable history for us.
(NOTE: This is not to say tarot's origins do not substantially predate the documented evidence of its existence. My point is merely that we cannot know for sure - neither did Court de Gèbelin nor any of the other noteworthy writers who followed. Whether or not tarot's history reaches far beyond 15th century Italy is, however, no longer a matter of any importance. Measuring tarot's worth by its antiquity has become a moot point.)
When approaching the study and application of tarot, then, it would be wise to heed the advice of those who have gone before. Papus, Waite, Crowley, Wirth, Case, and many others have left behind a tremendous amount of solid information for putting tarot to good use in a variety of ways - from addressing the small (but sometimes extremely perplexing) issues of our daily lives to the practice of high magick. If we devote at least a portion of our time to reviewing and understanding what one or more of these acknowledged authorities have to say, we can perhaps avoid a certain amount of "reinventing the wheel" as we struggle to refine our own understanding of the cards.
The "tarot traditionalist" understands and embraces this fact. He or she strives to achieve a well-rounded, even precise, grasp of tarot's historical symbolism. When performing a reading or engaging in meditative exercises, the traditionalist's method is grounded in a solid and extended study of time-tested systems and meanings. This is not meant to imply the traditionalist employs a "canned" approach to interpreting the cards. Rather, it is to say his or her intuition has been developed through disciplined study and practice, until important concepts are internalized to the point where they can be applied in ways which defy verbalized explanation.
That which I have termed the traditionalist view, then, could be described as follows:
Tarot is a body of tradition, which seeks to describe the divine nature of the universe, and our place within it. It allows the student or practitioner to explore and understand essential concepts through a system of precise symbols (and/or procedures). These symbols are valid and useful because they are rooted in an established history of correspondence and metaphor. Deviations from the standard symbologies are not recommended, as they pose a risk of leading the viewer to adopt false conclusions.
In my opinion, it is important for any serious student of tarot to develop an understanding and appreciation for this traditionalist view. Indeed, up until about 20 years ago, most writings on the subject seem to express this attitude in one fashion or another. And if the level of success achieved by its application measures the validity of a viewpoint, then the traditionalist view is a very valid one indeed.
But while there is much in the traditionalist perspective worthy of respect, can we say with complete confidence it is the only valid approach to tarot? Perhaps. Certainly such time-honoured and successful methodologies should not be tampered with or discarded lightly. And yet
Critiquing the Critics
If we assume human psychology is continually evolving, then can we not expect tarot, as a reflection of that psychology, to evolve as well? The traditionalist would appear to answer this question with a resounding "no." The following is a partial list of criticisms which have been levelled against some of the more recent developments in the field:
These criticisms would be justifiable if we could positively assert that the traditionalist position is the be-all and end-all of tarot. In contrast, however, we have what I referred to earlier as the expansionist view, which sees tarot as rooted in tradition; yet, by its very definition, moving beyond it. While it does not completely invalidate the traditionalist perspective, it does deliberately add to it. Thus, the expansionist might be inclined to define tarot in the following manner:
Tarot is an evolving body of work which seeks to describe the divine nature of the universe, and our place within it. It allows the student or practitioner to explore and understand essential concepts through an adaptable system of symbol and image. While the truths that tarot expresses are absolute, the metaphors used to convey those truths are not. In practice, the writer or artist retains the burden of remaining true to tradition; however, he or she is not always bound to present the subject in a strictly traditional manner.
Thus, from the expansionist's point of view, the traditionalist's approach to tarot is just one of many paths to unlocking the cards' mysteries. It is the approach that has provided the framework for modern tarot, and perhaps remains the best approach for students of a certain temperament. But it is not the only approach.
Okay, So Why Are There So Many Tarots?
The difficulty in espousing a universal application for the traditionalist view lies in the fact that tarot has now "gone worldwide." People from all manner of cultures and backgrounds have been introduced to the tarot since the days of Court de Gèbelin, Waite, and their ilk, and have found within themselves a connection to it. Yet their ability to truly understand its messages and, if desired, apply them in useful ways is often hampered by differences of time and space. Is it realistic, for example, to expect a contemporary North American pagan to fully relate to decks produced in 18th century France, with their highly Christianized images? Or for a 21st century Asian student of the cards to effectively draw meaning from writings and tarots so heavily influenced by the customs and mores of Victorian-era England?
Like it or not, life has already shaped us a certain way by the time we are first introduced to tarot. Our past experiences bend our perspective and mold our expectations for the future. While it is tarot's job to reshape those perspectives and expectations, it is not necessarily efficient or essential to ask students to "throw it all out the window" and "start from scratch." A competent teacher - taking the form of creator, writer, and/or artist - who has studied diligently and put his or her knowledge successfully to the test, can perhaps reframe tarot's lessons to reach a particular audience in ways the more traditional tarots cannot.
Thus, we have "modernized" tarots and pagan tarots and Native American tarots and Greek myth tarots and feminist tarots and astrological tarots and tarots for children and all manner of original interpretations and executions of the subject matter. Not all of these diverse decks are worthy of study, of course. The mere fact that a tarot book or deck manages to make its way into publication is no guarantee it has anything worthwhile to say. But the expansionist does not make the mistake of dismissing such works out of hand. She recognizes that while a particular book or deck may not be of use to her, it may be the perfect doorway into the world of tarot for someone of a different background or disposition. One may argue for or against the merits of a particular approach to tarot, but historical considerations should not provide the sole basis for any such discussion.
The expansionist thus replies to the criticisms of the strict traditionalist as follows:
In brief: the expansionist gladly gives tradition its due, but at the same time, he acknowledges that not everyone wishes to use tarot in the same way. From reader to path-worker to ritualist to art lover, each of us brings our own unique perspectives to tarot, and should likewise be expected to come away with something uniquely different from it.
Modern esoteric tarot unquestionably owes its very existence to the dedicated and inspiring work of those who studied and related the cards' potential and significance over the past two-and-a-half centuries. A tarot that cannot trace back its influences to something so firmly rooted in this tradition can scarcely be described as a tarot at all. But by the same token, to be completely bound by tradition is to deny the very essence of what tarot is, or can be. It is a living tradition, enhanced by each new generation of students and practitioners. The dedicated seeker aspires to acquire something of value from it and, having successfully managed to achieve this end, to leave something of value behind for those who follow. To assert that there is nothing to be gained from the books or decks published after the time of Waite, Crowley, Wirth, and/or Case is somewhat akin to saying that since Shakespeare's works are the epitome of English literature, there is subsequently no merit in reading Dickens or Tolkien. If we, as tarot practitioners, truly wish to expand our minds and open our souls to the myriad of metaphysical possibilities, then we have nothing to fear from the plethora of paths now laid before us. The only problem that remains is: which one do we choose? The answer to that question is, however, fodder for another column
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