What is Tarot?
by Jean-Michel David
The ways in which this question has been answered takes somewhat for granted that we are referring to a deck of 78 cards, of which 22 are images, and 56 reflect, with the addition of Knights, our 'standard' pack of fifty-two playing cards. I am reminded of reading an ethnographic study, in which the native, responding to a question as to the origin of new-borns, indicated the Dreaming or the Stars: the study concluded that the native was ignorant of the relation between sex and pregnancy. Rather, some knowledge, in context, is taken as given, and a student new to a subject may at times want far more straightforward answers to a question which has material, psychological, historical, social and spiritual ways in which responses are possible. Below are some of the many possible answers... reflecting on these, with a deck by one's side, may certainly deepen our own understanding.
I would like to extend a special thankyou to the many at the Aeclectic Tarot Forum who have provided the various responses here included and intersperced with extracted quotes from various books - these latter of course taken totally out of their peculiar contexts, and may therefore not reflect respective authors' central views.
... What is Tarot? ...
The Tarot is of intense interest to the occult student because it contains an outline of Initiation; and as some form of Initiation has formed the heart of every world religion, the truths contained in the Tarot symbolism are universal and belong to no one race, creed or culture, but constitute a textbook for every serious aspirant on the Path of Light.
Corinne Heline in The Bible & the Tarot, pp129-130.
Tarot is a living picture book that changes every time we read it!
skytwig on Aeclectic.net
The Tarot pack of cards [...] is the primitive book of ancient initiation.
Papus in The Tarot of the Bohemians, pvii.
Tarot is art. Tarot is a focus on what it is to be human. Tarot is a guide through our conscious allowing us to view the options and chose better paths. Tarot is an ancient gift from our ancestors, and even though we modernize it or view it in different fashions, the basic truth of the human reality is there to be learned from.
mercenary30 on Aeclectic.net
[...] one must hope that a new tarot will actually talk to others - and not merely artistically, or as a visual novelty, but as a vehicle for usable insights, ideas, and feelings.
Brian Williams in Book of Fools, pxiii.
A book of seventy-eight detachable pages which may be read in any order or manner one wishes, to which any system of philosophy may be applied, no matter how contrived.
firemaiden on Aeclectic.net
Is it possible that there is some connection between the Tarot cards and the great encyclopedia of the Rosicrucians? They announced their book containing the entire knowledge of the world as a kind of symbolic work, through the study of which all scientific and philosophical speculations were integrated into one mathematical pattern.
Manly P. Hall in The Tarot: an Essay, p15.
Tarot is a friend you can talk to; a friend who tells you not only the good things in life but also the bad...
jog1118 on Aeclectic.net
[...] tarot images offer a framework, guides and mileposts on an otherwise uncharted and therefore frightening journey.
Irene Gad in Tarot and Individuation, pxxiii
[The structure of the Tarot] is necessitated [...] by the structure of the universe, and in particular of the Solar System, as symbolized by the Holy Qabalah.
Aleister Crowley in The Book of Thoth, p3
Tarot cards are only pieces of paper with images on it. Images that Tarot readers interpret and relate the symbols into meanings. Tarot readings can provide information about what is known and what is unknown. [...]. Some people believe that Tarot readings work due to spirit guides telling us what the meanings are, other people believe it to be a tool to contact the higher spiritual self (or soul), others who are skeptic believe it be too vague, therefore, any tarot reading would fit anyone. [...]
sagitarian on Aeclectic.net
Tarot cards were unquestionably invented to play a particular type of game [...]
Michael Dummett in The Visconti-Sforza Tarot Cards, p3
[...] tarot cards work [...] by providing a channel for the reader's intuitive responses to impressions coming from his or her unconscious mind [...]
Rowenna Stuart in Tarot, pp9-10
The Tarot was designed to play a game. [...Their] symbols have a meaning and significance that goes beyond mere card game.
Robert O'Neill in Tarot Symbolism, p5
For me, modern tarot provides a wonderful structure and expressive means where pictures can be used with symbols in an imaginative way. I find its evolution from beautiful historical miniatures to different card games and then 'magical' allegories quite fascinating. There's even historical poems and literary figures associated with it.
Mari_Hoshizaki on Aeclectic.net
There are many methods for developing the 'sense of symbols' in those who are striving to understand the hidden forces of Nature and Man, and for teaching the fundamental principles as well as the elements of the esoteric language. The most synthetic [...] is the Tarot.
P. D. Ouspensky in The Symbolism of the Tarot, p3
The Tarot is like a mirror that we can hold up to help us see into our blind spots - it takes what lies in our subconscious minds and lays it out in front of us where we can see it more clearly.
Pat Martian, Conference Presenter
[...] it's an aid to tapping into the Universal Consciousness that we all have an ability for but that many are afraid to use. I'm so glad I overcame that fear.
mzmystic on Aeclectic.net
Tarot is a wise being with a divine intelligence and universal proportions.
Its symbols are like beautiful multifaceted gems. The discovery and contemplation of each one may reflect parts of our being previously hidden or lying dormant. So too, our life and world may be reflected back to us in richly woven symbols for our deeper consideration or action.
perseph on Aeclectic.net
[...] the Tarot stands of falls by its own merits. Admittedly the Tarot does correlate with the Kabala at certain points, but this correlation is also patently evident with other metaphysical systems, with none so strongly as with Sankara's Vedanta.
Carlyle A. Pushong in The Tarot of the Magi, p12
Tarot could easily have been a highly sophisticated pictorial memory system, tapping deep levels of consciousness, and is still used as a focus for contemplation today.
Jane Lyle in Tarot, p13
No collection of symbols is comparable to it, revealing as it does, wisdom of a completely unarbitrary kind, for each of us discerns it freely, without being prey to any other suggestion but that of silent pictures.
Oswald Wirth in The Tarot of the Magicians, p11
[...] there is plenty of evidence to show that the 22 Tarot trumps are the remnants of a late-medieval instructive card game. [...] it is perhaps no coincidence that the first card games employing memory images appeared almost coincidentally with the invention of printing in Europe.
Brian Innes in The Tarot, p10
The Tarot is a truly philosophical machine, which keeps the mind from wandering, while leaving its initiative in liberty; it is mathematics applied to the Absolute.
Eliphas Levi in Transcendental Magic
The Tarot are keys. Keys that allow us passage through the doorway of the mind, and entry into the territory of the spirit - the province of the divine.
Umbrae on Aeclectic.net
Tarot is the instrument of our wisdom.
Tarot is a navigation tool for the soul.
... and my favorite,
Tarot is 78 images that are gateways to the imageless.
Rachel Pollack, Conference Presenter
In traditional Western occultism, the Tarot is recognized as the keystone of the whole philosophical system called Hermeticism.
Mouni Sadhu in The Tarot, p11
Tarot is a tool & a teacher. Tools are used to fix and build things, the tarot helps to fix and build our lives. Tarot teaches us about ourselves and life around us. Tarot gives advise and encouragement, and can warn us of dangers. Tarot can be a connection to the mystical plane like spirits & such. Some hear the voice of the Divine through tarot, for without tarot, there would be no other way.
lunalafey on Aeclectic.net
As a technique for looking into the future, the Tarot set offers possibilities not contained in other predictive methods.
Fred Gettings in Tarot, p7
Tarot shows you the doors to Possibility, and gives you the golden keys to open them.
Diana on Aeclectic.net
[Tarot cards] are increasingly capturing the attention of serious students, who view the cards as a repository of a very complex system for the development of inner knowledge.
Robert Wang in The Qabalistic Tarot, pxv
Through choice or chance, depending upon one's viewpoint, the twenty-two Major Arcana cards from the seventy-eight card tarot deck are clearly interwoven into our daily lives.
Stuart Kaplan in Tarot Classic, p2
Tarot is much like a layer-cake, built up from historical substrata which were laid down up to three thousand years before the cards were printed. [...] Tarot is the continuation of a long and rich cross-cultural conversation, carried on through the generations between mystics of the western tradition.
Christine Payne-Towler in The Underground Stream, pvi
Tarot is an iconographic-spiritual, soul-psychological and mathematical book permitting the Imaginative faculty divined insights.
Jean-Michel David, Conference Presenter
The Tarot is an ensemble of figures which symbolically express man's striving for the accomplishment of his evolution, in other words for arriving at destiny's inscribed ends, an evolution which will demand of him struggles, efforts, joys and sufferings accordingly as he aligns himself or not with universal laws.
Paul Marteau in Le Tarot de Marseille (trans. rather literally by jmd)
Tarot is a complete education!
jewel-ry on Aeclectic.net
[...] it seems likely that [Tarot cards] were devised to represent grades or stages in a system of initiation.
Alfred Douglas in The Tarot, p39
Tarot is a set of images in which, through grace, I see what truly is and what may be.
Moongold on Aeclectic.net
[...] it is the Arcana which stimulate us and at the same time guide us in the art of learning. In this sense, the Major Arcana of the Tarot are a complete, entire, invaluable school of meditation, study, and spiritual effort - a mastery school in the art of learning.
UA in Meditations on the Tarot, p5
Tarot is a book without words whose story is rewritten each time we use it. It is a tool for self-growth and self-exploration. Tarot enhances our creativity, our intuition, and our self esteem, each time we use it.
Mimers on Aeclectic.net
[...] the Tarot provides the key to a whole new range of human ability that is not limited by the perceptions of the five physical senses. [...] It is a way of cultivating the intuition.
Gareth Knight in The Magical World of the Tarot, p2
... how wonderful is Tarot! ...
First published in the Newsletter of the Melbourne International Tarot Conference 2005. All quotes are copyrighted to their respective authors.
© Jean-Michel David