Although playing cards and card games are popular across the globe, few people know that they originated from the Egyptian Tarot (‘’le Tarot’’), which the Spanish gypsies (gitans) are still using for divination, and which has been preserved in Austria as a game called tarocchi.
The Tarot set contains twenty-two Major Arcana or figures and fifty-six Minor Arcana, similar to our playing cards. The symbolic nature of Tarot and especially Major Arcana is undeniable.
According to a legend, ancient Egyptian priests saw the danger of losing the secret knowledge due to the invasion of conquerors, who were destroying the sanctuaries of Egypt. To preserve their heritage, the priests decided to express the foundations of their teachings in hieroglyphs of the Tarot, which were given to the uninitiated people with the belief that these secrets would be better saved under the guise of a profane game. As you might know, by the end of the Middle Ages, unknown nomads appeared in France, who were called bohémiens (because they came from the direction of Bohemia), but were actually considered to be immigrants from Egypt. These bohémiens, or gypsies, brought with them the art of Tarot fortune telling to France, which for a long time remained their exclusive skill.
During the revolution, the barber Aliette devoted many years to the study of Tarot and became famous as a fortuneteller, who published a book on Tarot divination under the name Etteila.
Among the occultists, Eliphas Levi studied the Tarot diligently, and summarized his research in the hieroglyphic composition ‘’Les clavicules de Solomon’’. After that Papus published the now extremely rare composition, ‘’Le Tarot des Bohémiens’’, which also contains a small but informative article titled ‘’Barlet’’. The “Le Tarot des Bohémiens’’ should not be confused with Papus’ later work, ‘’Le Tarot divinatoire’’, where he speaks only about divination. However, the most insightful and poetic description of the Tarot Arcana was made by the late Stanislaw de Guaita in his ‘’La clef de la magie noire’’, although there he speaks only about the Major Arcana.
Tarot drawings show the influence of Christian beliefs. These drawings vary only slightly in different Tarot sets. The most famous Tarot sets are Marseille, Besancon and Italian. At the end of the last century, Oscar Wirth published drawings of the Tarot Major Arcana, which he personally restored, guided by Guyth's advice, and which are distinguished by grace and attention to the symbolism of the drawings.
According to Papus, the Tarot contains the greatest secrets of philosophy and, in addition, represents the expression of ideas in numbers so that by comparing the Arcana of the Tarot, one can think, so to speak, mechanically.
If, following the method of Fabre d'Olivet in his “La langue hébraique restituée”, we will try to study of the hieroglyphs of the word ‘’Tarot’’ itself, then we will find four signs in it: t — a — r — o.
In the foundation of the word will be the sign ‘’a”, expressing the principle, spirit and idea. After that comes the sign ‘’r’’, symbolizing an independent or initial movement. The combination of these signs gives the root ‘’ar’’, meaning the principle of the initial movement, and the elements or foundations of the world. Before this root is the sign “o”, meaning intellectual or spiritual light or mind. So, "aro’’ will mean: ‘’the elements of the world, illuminated by the mind’’, or ‘’knowledge of the foundations of the world’’. But this knowledge is protected by the “t” sign, which means shelter or refuge, and therefore, the word “Tarot” will mean “hidden knowledge of the foundations of the world’’, or simply ‘’the secrets of the world’’.
We will begin the study of Tarot with the Minor Arcana that correspond to our simple playing cards.
56 Minor Arcana are divided into four groups (or suits) with 14 cards each. The order of each group will be as follows: King, Queen, Knight (there is no such figure in the cards), Page or servant, one (Ace in the cards), two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine and ten.
And the four groups of Arcana are called: Wands or Sticks, Cups, Swords and Coins or Pentacles, and correspond to: Wands for Clubs, Cups for Hearts, Swords for Spades and Pentacles for Diamonds.
The fourth division of the Minor Arcana of the Tarot symbolizes the four basic principles or the law of the quaternary. Kabbalistically speaking, these four principles are expressed through the Tetragrammaton, that is, through the word YHVH.
The first letter of the word, ‘’Y’’, signifies the active principle. The second letter, ‘‘H’’ is the passive principle, the third, ‘’V’’, is their unity, and the fourth ‘’H’’ is the fruit of this unity, which opens a new quaternary series and is already the first letter in it.
Similarly, these letters correspond to the following concepts:
1st letter — God, father, spirit, principle, creation (Brahma).
2nd letter — Man, mother, soul, energy, conservation (Vishnu).
The 3rd letter is a combination of the first two letters, as well as transformation or destruction (for death lies at the heart of recreation).
4th letter — Physical world, child, body, matter, birth.
So, the Wands correspond to Y, Cups — H, Swords — V, and Pentacles — H.
Also, each of the suits represent in their figures a new quaternary, namely: King will be Y, Queen-H, Knight-V, and Page-H.
Thus, the King of the Cups will be Y from H, the Queen of Swords— H from V, etc.
Then, in each suit, we have ten numbers, which are also subject to the quaternary law. The first numbers 1-2-3-4 obviously correspond to the Y - H - V - H, but since Y corresponds in the next series to H, so the second series will have the following form: 4-5-6-7, and the third series then it will be 7-8-9-10.
Thus, we get the table:
Y H V H
Wands Cups Swords Pentacles
King Queen Knight Page
1 2 3 4
4 5 6 7
7 8 9 10
Since the numbers of the fourth column correspond to the first column, in the fourth column you can leave only a Page and 10 which will then have the meaning of moving to the next group or communication with it: so the Page serves as a transition from figures to numbers, and 10 - a transition from Minor Arcana to the Major.
Now let’s discuss the Major Arcana. As we already said, they are 22 in total, but the 21st Arcana does not have a number and is indicated by the number 0, as a result of which the 22nd Arcana receives the 21st number.
The I Arcana is called The Magician (le bateleur). The drawing depicts a standing young man in a short dress. One hand is stretched to the sky, and the other to the earth, symbolizing the rule of Hermes ‘’quod superius sicut quod inferius’’. The whole figure of the young man graphically resembles the first Hebrew letter Aleph. On his head he has a hat in the form of an infinity sign. In his hand he holds a wand, and on the table in front of him are a chalice, a sword and a coin.
This Arcana denotes a principle, spirit, active principle.
II Arcana is The Papess (la papesse from ‘’le pape’’). It represents a woman who, in contrast to the young man in the I Arcana, does not stand, but sits, which emphasizes her passive character. She sits on a throne with two columns that signify ‘’iakin’’ and ‘’bohaz’’ (columns in the temple of Solomon), that is, the dual principle or binary. On the woman’s head is a crescent moon. On her lap she holds a book that is half-closed by her cloak and symbolizes secret knowledge hidden from the eyes of the uninitiated.
This Arcana means a passive or feminine principle and the law of binary.
The III Arcana is The Empress (l'Impératrice), which depicts a seated woman in a crown of 12 stars, marking the signs of the zodiac. There is a scepter in one woman’s hand and a shield with an eagle in the other. This woman symbolizes nature.
IV Arcana is The Emperor (l'Empereur), which represents a man in a crown and with a scepter in his hands, who sits on a cube, crossing one leg on the other. In the lower right corner is an eagle.
This man symbolizes the masculine principle, but already in the material world. Being a derivative, not a primal, beginning, he sits, and does not stand as a young man in the I Arcana.
The cross formed by his feet indicates the law of the quaternary. The number of the Arcana is 4, as well as the cube, which denotes matter and also symbolizes reactions in the physical world.
If one makes straight lines, the hands and head of the Emperor give the shape of a triangle and thus the graphic design represents a triangle over a square which means the dominance of the spirit over matter, or a triangle over the cross, which in alchemy means alchemical sulfur.
V Arcana is The Hierophant (le Pape). The drawing depicts a seated hierophant, in whose hand there is a cross with three transverse stripes (a symbol of three worlds — spiritual, astral and material). Two people kneel before him and listen to his explanations.
The II Arcana of the Tarot symbolizes, as we have said before, the secret initiation, and the V Arcana means the revelation brought to all mankind. It’s interesting to note that the number five means God in Kabbalah who brings light to people.
VI Arcana is The Lovers (l'Amoureux). The drawing depicts a young man between two women. One of them in the crown represents virtue, and the other is decorated with flowers and depicts vice. Both of them carry the young man to their side. Above their heads is cupid or genius pulling a bow. This key symbolizes free will and temptation.
VII Arcana is The Chariot (le Chariot). The drawing depicts a man in a cuirass with a rod in his hand and in a crown with three pentagrams. He stands on a chariot driven by two sphinxes and above which stands a canopy on four columns.
These columns depict the four elements or matter in its four forms, and the two sphinxes symbolize the active and passive principle, or good and evil. This Arcana means the dominance of man over passions and over the elements, that is, over the astral and material worlds.
VIII Arcana is The Justice (la Justice). The goddess of justice sits on a throne between two columns. In one hand, she has scales, and in the other, the sword which points up. This Arcana symbolizes the law of equilibrium.
IX Arcana is Hermit (l'ermite). The figure depicts an old man wrapped in a cloak; with one hand he rests on a stick, and in the other he holds a lamp, covering it under a cloak. This Arcana symbolizes solitude, wisdom, and experience acquired through austerity.
X Arcana is The Wheel of Fortune (la roue de fortune). The drawing shows a wheel between two columns. In the middle of the wheel are six spokes, and sometimes the hexagonal star of Solomon. At the top of the wheel is a sphinx with a sword in his hand. A serpent or dragon descends on the left side of the wheel, and Hermanubis rises on the right side of the wheel. The first marks a human-animal, and the second - a spiritualized person. This Arcana symbolizes the immutable law of involution (materialization of the spirit) and evolution (spiritualization of matter).
XI Arcana is Strength (la Force). A young girl in a long toga and with a hat in the shape of an infinity sign, without visible effort, closes the mouth of a lion with her bare hands. The lion symbolizes the astral, and the whole Arcana means the dominance of spiritual purity (virgo) over the astral and over passions - elements of the astral world.
XII Arcana is The Hanged (le pendu). A young man hangs head down on a crossbar between two trees. With one foot he is tied to the crossbar, and the other leg is bent crosswise with the first. The young man's hands are folded behind his back and form a triangle with his head. He has two bags under his arms, from which gold is strewed to the ground.
The trees are actually just the bare trunks, and on each of them there are six knots from the cut branches, which mean twelve astrological houses in the horoscope, covering a whole circle of human life.
This Arcana symbolizes sacrifice either for the atonement of a sin, or for the good of others, and the gold falling to the ground indicates that the sacrifice never remains barren.
In a deeper sense, this self-sacrifice also marks the embodiment of the spirit or its immersion in matter (involution). Therefore, man and his head is turned to the earth. This is also indicated by the graphic form of the hanged man, giving the figure of a cross over a triangle.
XIII Arcana is The Death (la mort). A skeleton with a scythe in hands mows human heads, but at the same time, legs and arms grow everywhere from the earth. This Arcana symbolizes death and birth, or the constant change of all living things. Thus, death is here in the form of transformation serving as the basis for further evolution.
XI Arcana is The Moderation (la tempérance). The picture shows a girl pouring water from one urn to another. This Arcana symbolizes the constant flow of vital forces in nature and the mixture of elements of nature necessary for the life of the world. Guaita put this Arcana at the beginning of the chapter on alchemy.
XV Arcana is The Devil (le Diable). The drawing depicts a devil or genius of evil, at whose feet a man and a woman are chained. This Arcana symbolizes sexual passion.
XVI Arcana is The Tower, or The Lightning bolt (la tour foudroyée). The figure shows a tower that collapses under a lightning strike. Two people fall from the wreckage, one of whom is in the crown. This Arcana symbolizes rock, subverting earthly power.
XVII Arcana is The Star (l'étoile). A naked girl, bending to one knee, pours a stream of living water from the vase onto the ground. A star with eight rays sparkles above her head, and around it are seven smaller stars.
This Arcana symbolizes the rebirth and life-giving forces of nature. The number of stars, eight, being on the one hand the first cubic number, and on the other a double number from four, marks the reproduction of matter, and hence the productive forces of nature.
Next to the girl on the bush sits a butterfly, symbolizing hope, as well as the soul of a person after death (the soul leaves the body like a butterfly from a caterpillar).
XVIII Arcana is The Moon (la Lune). There is an empty field on the drawing, bounded by two towers at the horizon. The crescent sheds faint light on the picture. On the field, a wolf and a dog howl for a month. Cancer crawls out of the water behind them.
This Arcana symbolizes unspiritualized matter. This is the only drawing in which we do not see any traces of man. However, animals (dog, wolf and cancer) mark the manifestation of the spirit, but still at the lower stages of its evolution.
The whole picture is breathless. The barren field and its closing towers indicate the limited scope of purely material life, and the longing of animals signifies the desire of the spirit for light and life.
Cancer also indicates the sign of Cancer in the zodiac, which in Astrology is considered under the dominance of the moon.
XIX Arcana is The Sun (La Soleil). The drawing depicts two children holding hands amid a field covered with flowers. In the background is a wall. From above, the sun pours the whole field with its rays.
This Arcana symbolizes the spiritualization of matter with the advent of man on earth. The sun also marks spiritual light.
XX Arcana is The Judgment (le Jugement). In heaven, an angel with a trumpet awakens the dead. Below - a man, woman and child rise from the grave. This Arcana depicts the resurrected dead, and also means the spiritual rebirth of man.
0 Arcana, The Madman (le mat). On the road there is a man in rags with a knapsack on his back. A dog grabs him from behind, and a crocodile with an open mouth awaits him in front. This Arcana symbolizes evil. Its name itself shows that the evil is nothing but disharmony, disorder, mistake and, that’s why, madness.
The absence of a number in this Arcana means that being only a deviation from the norm, evil does not have an independent existence, but is temporary and relative.
XXII Arcana is The World (In Couronne).
A naked girl stands in the middle of a wreath of three rows of leaves. Her one leg is crossed with the other, and the hands with the head give the shape of a triangle. In the four corners are drawn the heads of a man, an eagle, a lion and a bull.
This Arcana is the completion or essence of Tarot and symbolizes the whole world. Three rows in a wreath indicate the worlds: spiritual, astral and material. Graphically, the figure of the girl represents a triangle above the cross (the cycle of connection of active and passive principles).
Man, eagle, lion and bull mean four elements: air, water, fire and earth. Astrologically, these four figures correspond to the signs of the zodiac: Aquarius, Scorpio, Leo and Taurus.
To associate the Major Arcana with the Minor Arcana and enter them in the above four columns, one must refer to the law on the correspondence of numbers.
According to the so-called theosophical reduction, if we add up the digits of a multi-digit number, we get the corresponding primitive number.
Thus, 10 corresponds to 1, 13 to 4, 16 to 7, 19 to10 or again to 1, 11 to 12, 12 to 3, etc.
Guided by this rule, we can also set the following table for the Major Arcana:
Y H V H
I II III
IV V VI
VII VIII IX
X XI XII XXII
XIII XIV XV
XVI XVII XVIII
XIX XX XXI
(to be continued)
Article by S. Tuholka
Translated into English from Russian by © Viktoria Polikarpova & Ankit Sinha, February 2020