Tarot 101 “Whys and Wherefores”

I’ve noticed a considerable increase in traffic on this blog lately, much of it coming from those new to tarot who are seeking beginner material. They are immediately confronted with a puzzle: why do I call my newbie stuff “Tarot 101, My Way” when what I’ve done is round up and judiciously condense the keywords and phrases from the primary esoteric source material of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries? In doing so I’ve largely ignored the lightweight, populist fluff that has emerged in the intervening years under titles like “The Best Way to Learn the Tarot,” “The Only Way to Learn the Tarot (yikes, I wouldn’t want to have to defend that one!) and my all-time favorite book-selling scam, “Learn the Tarot in a Day.” Those few modern works of value that I’ve encountered have invariably drawn from the same historical well that I do, although not always with the same objectives. The “My Way” part comes in with the personal commentary I’ve appended to each card-by-card compendium of traditional lore based on my 50 years of study and practice. Not all of this is free from controversial (not to mention curmudgeonly) opinion, but it’s all honestly derived from long experience with the original masterworks. Hopefully I’ve bestowed a worthwhile boon by winnowing and grooming the source material for general consumption and then elucidating it in my own terms.

It could be argued that the esoteric knowledge base is not the best place for a tarot neophyte to start, and many modern books have attempted to deconstruct and demystify it to suit the modern “instant-gratification” mentality. Personally, back in 1972 I jumped right in at the deep end with Aleister Crowley’s Book of Thoth, but of course I already had a background in Qabalistic studies; this is not a developmental path I would recommend to the casual aspirant although – as we shall see – there are systematic ways to “crack” it.

The original document that underlies nearly all present-day tarot practice with traditional roots (apart from Eliphas Levi’s earlier work with ceremonial magic that motivated the Qabalistic scholar S.L. “Macgregor” Mathers, and Etteilla’s seminal but since superseded divination material) is the late-19th-Century “tarot curriculum” of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn that is comprised of a group of “knowledge papers” largely prepared by Mathers and assembled in “Liber (or Book) T.” This pioneering work was the inspiration for subsequent tarot publications by Arthur Edward Waite (The Pictorial Key to the Tarot) and Aleister Crowley (The Book of Thoth). Although it suffers from a bit of confusion due to its “composite” nature, Liber T is well worth any time and effort one cares to invest in its exploration. (If you want a more Thoth-based version, Jim Eshelman’s Liber Theta is available from the College of Thelema, and it was free when I downloaded it some years ago.)

Waite’s 1910 Pictorial Key to the Tarot is also not recommended by many tarot experts as the best place to start, and I can vouch for the fact that the Victorian stuffiness and academic bombast of its language can be off-putting for the 21st-Century reader. But I finally went back and re-read it after many years and found much of value in it despite Waite’s diligent effort to withhold from it a large measure of the esoteric instruction that he was solemnly sworn to keep away from the proletariat. Incidentally, I would be especially wary of the commingling of Waite’s keywords and Smith’s prosaic images in the 40 Minor Arcana cards since I believe they suffer from Smith’s theatrical and folkloric presumptions, many of which have since passed into common usage among the esoterically uninformed and/or disinterested. I would argue that a much better way to approach Waite’s wisdom is through Eden Gray’s 1960 book, The Tarot Revealed, which is essentially “PKT Lite.”

Now we come to the “800-pound gorilla” of the bunch, Crowley’s Book of Thoth (BoT). This work from 1948 was preceded by Crowley’s “unauthorized” 1912 release of the Golden Dawn tarot material in his Equinox periodical. (If you can get your hands on that before approaching the BoT– it is available in a more user-friendly format – it’s a convenient place to begin absorbing Crowley’s unique vision, although it is for the most part a verbatim regurgitation of the core ideas from Liber T.) Regarding the BoT itself, after reading the introductory essays (challenging in their own right but very well-organized and well-written), I would move on to Part IV, The Small Cards which is where much of its practical usefulness lies. In doing so, it would be a good idea to gain a working knowledge of astrological sign and planet meanings at the same time since those form the backbone of much of Crowley’s interpretation. (For a quick read on that subject, see my post “Foreground, Middle-ground and Background Cards.”) After that, the material on the court cards in Part Three is some of the best available in print, primarily due to the psychological slant Crowley gives them in his “moral characteristics;” I use the Minor Arcana and court card stuff all the time in my own work. The trump card material in Part Two, The Atu (Keys or Trumps) gets extremely arcane and intellectually demanding very quickly and is not for the faint-of-heart (I’ve now read it four times over the years and am still slowly and laboriously getting a handle on some of it, while a small percentage of it I may never fully grasp). If what you’re after is a practical comprehension of the meaning of the Major Arcana in divination, the section in the back of the book titled “General Characters of the Trumps As They Appear In Use” is of far greater value. Lon Milo DuQuette did a monumental service to the less-committed (and much less anal) members of the tarot community by recasting the Book of Thoth in more intelligible terms in his book Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot, although I personally found it to be “BoT Lite” and not nearly as memorable as the original.

If I were to recommend a single modern book (well, two books) to accompany the beginner on this journey, it (they) would be Tarot Plain and Simple and Tarot Beyond the Basics by Anthony Louis. Bon voyage!

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