Although often considered just a divination device, Tarot cards are actually part of a much larger, centuries-old spiritual movement dedicated to discovering the Higher Self. This movement, called the Western Mystery Tradition, embraces and explores the many deep spiritual paths that lie outside of established Western religious institutions; the treasure sought is an ever deeper insight into our own humanity and relationship with the Divine, achieved through the process of understanding and transforming ourselves. Because of this approach, the Western Mystery Tradition is inclusive, rather than exclusive; he sees all religious systems, including the Tarot, as symbols and metaphors for the same Truth. His wisdom is taught primarily through books and private meditation, and in small mystery schools around the world.
As with most esoteric spiritual systems, the goal of the Western Mystery Tradition is to take us to higher levels of consciousness, culminating in awakening or enlightenment or, to use the Western Mystery Tradition term, “Initiation.” The Tarot, therefore, as part of the Western Mystery Tradition, is more than a divination device: it is a legitimate spiritual path to Initiation.
The early history of Tarot cards is not well documented, which has given rise to many interesting but erroneous Tarot myths. One of those myths states that the deck was created by a group of followers who met periodically in some undisclosed place to discuss philosophy, magic, natural sciences, etc. Hindered by the lack of a common language, they created the Tarot deck to serve as a means of communication. Other myths place the origin of the letters in Egypt, India, China, Morocco or Mount Sinai. The word “Tarot” is believed to be Egyptian, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, or best of all, a mysterious anagram whose meaning has yet to be discovered.
The unromantic truth is that Tarot probably began as a simple card game played in northern Italy in the early 15th century. The oldest surviving Tarot cards are lavishly hand-painted decks employing familiar imagery from medieval and Renaissance European court life: kings, knights, fools, jugglers, etc. The word “Tarot” probably comes from the Italian Carte da Trionfi (Triumph Cards), later called Tarocchi. The German form of the word is Tarock and the French form is Tarot.
The role of the Tarot in spirituality began in the 18th century, when the Comte de Mellet linked the 22 Major Arcana of the Tarot cards with the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Hebrew letters play an important role in the ancient Jewish mystical system called Kabbalah, which uses the Tree of Life as its main symbol. The Tree of Life is a metaphorical diagram that maps everything from the maturation of the self, our journeys from birth to death, and our souls’ progress toward Godhood. The Tree of Life has been studied for centuries; the oldest known reference is in the Sefer Yetzirah, an ancient Kabbalistic text that may be nearly two thousand years old.
This connection between the Tarot, the Hebrew letters and the Tree of Life was pursued by other mystery scholars such as Eliphas Lévi in the 19th century. In 1909, Arthur Edward Waite and Pamela Coleman-Smith, both members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and practicing Kabbalists, published the now classic Rider-Waite Tarot deck, which remains the most popular Tarot deck in the world. Eventually, each Tarot card in the deck was assigned a place on the Tree of Life.
As a result of classical education, research, study, and the devotion of esoteric scholars such as Levi, Waite, and Coleman-Smith, the Tarot deck evolved from a simple toy to a highly condensed symbolic learning device. Synthesizing a variety of traditions such as Kabbalah, astrology, alchemy, and mythology, the Tarot images express spiritual truths that underlie much of Western culture. These spiritual truths, expressed through iconic images and symbols, help build bridges between our conscious, subconscious, and higher selves. The secret to the Tarot’s enduring popularity over the past few centuries is the way in which these simple archetypal images communicate deep truths and meanings to all aspects of the self so directly.
The Tarot spiritual path involves taking steps to incorporate the deeply felt meaning of each card into our everyday lives. Reading books about the cards is a good first step to understanding these meanings more consciously. You can also select a card to be your companion for a week and take it with you as you go about your daily routine. Meditating on images is also important. If this card could talk, what would it tell you? What aspect of yourself is reflected in the image? What events in your daily life could be understood differently with the card’s message in mind? It’s a good idea to keep a journal of your thoughts, insights, and personal issues as they arise throughout the week.
In addition to studying the cards themselves, understanding the sequence of the cards teaches us a lot about the joys and sorrows of the spiritual path. For example, the Major Arcana chart a path beginning with The Fool, which represents the beginning of the Divine’s descent into physical reality. The following cards teach us about the process by which man creates his world. Surprisingly, The Devil is the beginning of the path to Initiation, because he helps us to see through the mask that the physical world wears. Next up is The Tower, which graphically demonstrates the pain and fear we experience when relinquishing strongly held opinions and worldviews. The cards that follow symbolize later stages on the path to full enlightenment or Initiation, symbolized by The World.
The Tarot Court Cards represent aspects of our own personality that help and hinder us in our ways. The Minor Arcana represent aspects of the Tree of Life, oscillating between positive and negative, masculine and feminine.
The depth and relevance of the wisdom and personal insights available through the Tarot are astounding. Once the symbolic bridge has been built, these cards really seem to speak to us; the more we study them, the more they reveal. Because the hidden symbols in these cards are derived from the history, myths, meaning, and structure of Western culture, the Tarot is a powerful and appropriate practice for anyone on a Western spiritual path.