The Book of Tarot


A manual for the use of the Major Arcana
in psychological analysis


"As a poet I work in symbols – figures of speech, evocative images, metaphors and similes which allow the meanings I wish to communicate to unfold at a level much deeper than mere prose. From 40 years of writing poetry, and teaching it in schools, I have learned what Jung proposed when he spoke of universal archetypes and the universal unconscious - that symbols have extraordinary power, and that we can reach far deeper into the human mind if we employ symbols than by any other means. Perhaps this explains the continuing success of religion.

"That statement probably sounds like mystical quackery at first reading, but pause, and consider what a symbol is: a word, or set of words, that summarizes an abstract idea, which the human mind understands even if it can’t explain it. God is such a symbol. E=MC2 is too. Musical notation and mathematical numbers. Language itself, the alphabet. Don Quixote’s Windmill and the ladder of Bethel. To pronounce the word Allah is to evoke a thousand years of theology, history, war, prayer, human civilization. To give your child the name Alice is to guarantee repeated jokes by friends and relatives about Wonderlands and Mad Hatter’s Tea Parties and whether or not she lives here any more. Words evoke associations and responses, and those associations and responses are culturally and intellectually, but also psychologically, immensely powerful. The question that all poets ask is: how can I deploy my symbols to evoke the deepest and most powerful of responses in my reader?

"What has all this to do with the Tarot? The card deck is likewise is a set of symbols; and the original card deck, the Tarot, was also a symbolic system. It may be used as a party game; or it may be used as an intellectual paradigm, to take the questioner along a path of enquiry towards a self-generated outcome. We all need such structures when we have questions we can't answer; and we all create them. We ask our friends and family for advice. We consult self-help manuals or Google the question on the Internet. We go to professional counselors or psychotherapists or priests. The goal of each form of enquiry is the same: to obtain reliable and structured help in answering our question. But we also want to formulate our own answer. We don’t really want to be told what to do; we want to be guided towards making up our own minds. In truth, any rational structure will do, because it's the asking and the finding of our own answer that really counts; in truth, all rational structures are mystical quackery, because the psychotherapist cannot actually locate the psyche any more than the theologian can locate God or the scientist the source of the Big Bang. All use symbols, all use metaphors. All are more or less successful in constructing and deconstructing the semiotics of those symbols, to explain the universe to themselves in a way they can accept and comprehend; and to explain their place in that symbolically constructed universe, in a way that leaves them less bewildered, less confounded, less confused.

"In those terms, the Tarot is no different. All explanations of the universe are speculative, hypothetical and unproveable. What matters is asking the questions, and having a rational structure and a clear set of symbols, to help you find your answers. If God, or Science, or Poetry, or Mathematics work for you, go for it.

"What then are the symbols? This book will present a brief history of the Tarot later, to show how different interpretations of the cards emerged in different points of culture; but in explaining the symbols I have also scraped away the surface meanings in order to seek the archetypal sources. Thus, for example, the card known as ‘The Pope’ can only be a Pope for a Catholic; in Greco-Egyptian circles he was ‘The Hierophant’, in Jewish and other sacrificial cults ‘The High Priest’; and in some modern American Tarot packs I have seen him re-labeled ‘The Spiritual Advisor’. This last is actually the most accurate, for that is the consistent virtue of the role this figure has played in every society since troglodytic man first made his cave paintings. In my pack, to reach down to the archetype, I have given him the universal appellation: ‘The Shaman’.

"The same is true of all the cards. The ancient myths all appear to be different, because each culture ascribes its own names, and retells the myth in its own cultural dialect. But really they're all One and the same. So Brahma became Abraham became Zeus became Wodin (or it may even be that Wodin became Zeus by means of the Greeks and then the Romans incorporating earlier European gods). So the Great Goddess became Inanna or Eve or Sarah or Mother Mary or Diana. So ‘The Fool’ on his journey is also Siddhartha setting out in search of the Bodhi tree, and Moses embarking on the forty-year journey through the wilderness, and Jason setting off to find the Golden Fleece, and Galahad pursuing the Holy Grail. On each occasion, I have tried to find a universal appellation, so that all forms of the myth may be inferred, and the archetype revealed.

"A final word on the subject of divination. The root word in Latin is 'deus', meaning god (the Roman alphabet had no letter 'v', and the letter 'u' was pronounced 'w' when it functioned as a consonant, such as Yulius Kaysar’s famous 'Weni, widi, wichi', the country house that was a 'willa nowa' and the goddess 'Waynus'), all now mispronounced by us moderns. Latin gave us two very similar words, 'divinus', and 'divinare' (pronounced 'diwinus' and 'diwinare'). The former now means 'god-like', but this wasn't its original intention; it was used as a sobriquet for any soothsayer, fortune-teller, scientist or theologian – anyone, that is, who attempted to answer questions or reveal truths about the cosmos, which was the realm of the gods. The latter means 'to guess', and is in fact the source of the French verb 'deviner'. Both words rooted in 'deus', god; but the bifurcation of meaning is fascinating: clearly the Romans understood that science was speculative, that science was a branch of theology, or wee-kay worser (vice versa, but pronounced correctly), that however erudite and sophisticated we might become, our attempts to explain the cosmos and the gods who made it will always remain guesswork. Creation or the Big Bang – both forms of divination, in the strictest sense.

"A reading of the Tarot is in truth another guessing game, just like physics or paleontology. It doesn't pretend to read the future, as commercial horoscopes do; rather it attempts to decode the symbols, in precisely the same way that a literary critic attempts to decode the symbols of a poem. It's a useful exercise in semiotics, designed to assist the questioner in plumbing the depths of the psyche, in order to know what answer they are truly seeking, and the options and the obstacles that lie between the act of asking and the achievement of Da’at - Knowledge. No more than that. It is, in short, a complex way of throwing a coin; but instead of calling 'heads' or 'tails', the process of divination allows you to freeze the coin in flight, and learn which way you want the coin to fall before it does so. If the process works, there's no need to look at the coin once it's fallen, because it no longer matters whether it falls 'heads' or 'tails'. You already know the way you want it to fall, and that's the answer you'll take with you on your journey.

"The goal, then, is not to predict the future, but to obtain self-knowledge. If you believe in Fate, or Intelligent Design, or Genetic Predetermination, or any of the many other 'Other Forces' who 'control' the universe and have made your Destiny 'beshert' - predetermined - before you ever thought of being independent and autonomous, then the Tarot will be useless to you. But if you believe in chance, if you accept that the world is random, arbitrary, haphazard, and therefore open to an infinitude of possibilities, accidents and coincidences; that, in short, all outcomes and eventualities are feasible; if you believe that you as an individual are simply who you are, through genetic inheritance, upbringing, experience, physical appearance, intellectual capacity, musical talent and so forth, that you are the person you have become, nature combined with nurture, and have the freedom to determine who you will become tomorrow, dependent on your will to make it happen and your capacity to take control of chance, then the Tarot can assist you. Using the symbols to open up your consciousness to a heightened level of self-knowledge, the Tarot can help you understand your future options in the face of past experience and present strengths and obstacles."

David Prashker

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