Brief Notes on the Tarot
Ma Prem Shya
Inspired by lectures given at various occasions by Swami Anand Nisarg

  1. History and Purpose

    The Tarot is believed to have originated in Spain in the 14th century and to be a synthesis of the teachings of the mystical traditions of the three religions:

    • Sufism (Islam)
    • Kabbalah (Jewish)
    • Alchemy (Christian)

    The word comes from the Arabic, Turuq, the way or the path. That became Taroc in Spanish, Tarocco in Italian, and finally Tarot in French. Tarīqa means the Sufi Path or Way.

    The cards are a key to uncovering spiritual truth. They provide a road map to self knowledge and to the Divine.

  2. Reading a Spread

    Although each of the cards has an absolute meaning, they must be read in relation to one another. This relationship will alter the meaning of the card. What a card means in one reading will be different from another reading depending on the surrounding cards or how it is dignified. In one reading, the card may indicated that the glass is half full; in another, it might mean the glass is half empty. The cards in a reading must be read as a whole. They tell a story. The idea of reversals is an incorrect substitute for dignities – ignore them.

  3. The Cards (Based on the Thoth Deck)

    1. Summary
      There are 78 cards in a Tarot deck:

      • 40 Minor Arcana
      • 22 Major Arcana
      • 16 Court cards

    2. Minor Arcana
      The Minor Arcana give information about the balance of the elements of earth, air, fire, and water within you. Achieving a balance is essential before you can move into the fifth element of spirit represented by the Major Arcana. The four elements can be envisioned as a container for spirit.

      • About everyday experiences
      • Where you are stuck
      • Where you can move in your life
      • About being natural in The Flow
      • Could have a negative or positive meaning depending on the dignities

      1. Four Suits – 4 Elements
        The order of the elements is significant with Earth being the densest and Fire the most volatile.

        1. Disks (Pentacles): Earth (North)
          The realm of the physical, body, health, job, home, groundedness
        2. Swords: Air (East)
          The realm of the mind, ego, intellect
        3. Cups: Water (West)
          The realm of the emotions, love, intuition
        4. Wands: Fire (South)
          The realm of energy, will, creativity
      2. The Tree of Life Mandala
        Place these cards on the Kabbalist Tree of Life Remember that in actuality there are four Trees of Life, one for each element.

        1. Ace: Kether – The Crown
          • The root of each element
          • Pure being, potential without manifestation or form
          • Original source, idea, the beginning – e.g., if Ace of Disks, this refers to the physical realm
        2. Two: Chokmah – Wisdom
          • The beginning of manifestation, how the potential of the Ace might manifest
          • Be aware – pay attention to the opportunity presented by the Ace – e.g., 2 wands – pay attention to your energy
          • Look and observe rather than jump in
        3. Three: Binah Understanding
          • Becoming unnatural, hesitation
          • Action is required – you better act on this or you will miss the opportunity presented by the Ace
          • do something – e.g., 3 of cups – act on emotions

          Lesson of Twos and Threes: action required – converting the raw force into momentum. If the direction is determined correctly in 2, then 3 will lead to 6, but if not 3 could mean missed opportunity. 2 & 3 may represent not acting naturally. Two and three are opposite, two is watch a

        4. Four: Chesed – Mercy
          • Stability without movement
          • Stagnation, stuck, hard to get out of
          • However may be good for short-term
          • Will require great effort to move from this position
          • Six minus two
        5. Five: Geburah – Strength, Severity
          • Destroyer, breaks down form
          • Missing something that prevents you from acting naturally
          • Holding back, hesitating, not opening up your self
          • State of fear, failing to trust
          • Not enough momentum
          • Six minus one
        6. Six: Tiphareth – Beauty
          • The Central Illumination/Consciousness
          • Balanced merging of all energies
          • Midpoint between human and the Divine
          • Moving in The Flow of Divine Will
          • Stability and motion
        7. Seven: Netzach – Victory
          • Excess
          • Trying too hard to make it happen
          • Unbalanced, degeneration of the element
          • Struggle, idea of doing too much of the wrong stuff
          • Rushing for resolution e.g. 7 Swords – have idea and forcing it on others
          • Six plus one
        8. Eight: Hod – Glory
          • Could be a consequence of 7
          • Absolute chaos
          • Motion with no stability
          • Out of control, frantic, totally disrupted, going in too many directions
          • Six plus two
          Lessons of 4, 5, 7, 8 – represent imbalance
          4:8 has to do with levels of stability. The four is stability without motion. The eight is motion without stability.
          5:7 – has to do with levels of momentum. The loop of holding back or hesitating in 5 and then trying too hard and doing too much of the wrong stuff in 7 and then again falling to 5. Only way to break out is to stop and let the natural course, without effort, reassert itself.

        9. Nine: Yesod – Foundation
          • Seat of crystallization of energy
          • Resolution of the potential of the Ace
          • In harmony
          • Fullest development of the potential of the Ace
          • Natural conclusion
          • – you've got it, you're done so move on.
        10. Ten: Malkuth – The Kingdom
          • Lingering too long
          • The beginning of the next element
          • The ace but you haven't seen it yet

        The Middle Pillar of the Tree of Life is the path of consciousness, the natural path, the path that moves with the flow of Divine Consciousness. It is represented by the Ace, 6, 9, 10/Ace. The right and left pillars of the Tree of Life represent attachments, doing too little or too much.

    3. Major Arcana: The Circle Mandala
      Place the cards in a circle with the Fool in the middle. Start at 6 o'clock and move clockwise around the circle.

      • road map – journey to the connection with the Divine/Mystery
      • the big picture
      • the spiritual realm, cosmic/divine/universal forces
      • the challenges or lessons on the path to enlightenment /consciousness/awareness
      • the 4 suits of the Minor Arcana plus the fifth (spirit) guides conduct – they give you the map to the "kingdom"
      • the "Flow"
      • could express negative or positive aspects depending on the dignities
      1. O – Fool
        • the beginning of the real work
        • change – about to start a journey, taking a jump into the unknown
        • the one who makes the journey around the Major Arcana
        • to be human
      2. I – Magus (Magician)
        • knows how to use the elements
        • mastery of the elements, using them and not attached to them
        • skilful in the external world
        • expanding your horizons
        • new information
      3. II – Priestess
        • about inner knowledge
        • intuition, from thinking to sensing
        • sensing something behind the veil, the Mystery
        • trusting yourself – listening to your inner voice
      4. III – Empress
        • about internal power
        • accepting yourself
        • being comfortable with and aware of self, at peace
        • control of inner
      5. IV – Emperor
        • control of external power
        • mastery of outer self
        • using your power in an authentic way – acting on true self
        • could be improper use of power
      6. V – Hierophant
        • state of spiritual awakening, awareness of higher self, a channel for spirit
        • not holding back spirit, expressing your spirituality
        • can only express true spirituality if you have accepted self
        • could be a hypocritical expression of spirituality
      7. VI – Lovers
        • loving yourself in all your parts, the equilibrium necessary to continue the journey
        • bringing together shadow and light
        • until you know yourself, it's difficult to know anything else
        • about self-love
        • pay attention to yourself
        • feeling union with everything around you

        Cards I-VI
        About developing your own individuality and power – self love and acceptance, and then ability to access spirit. After this it is about connecting to the Mystery.

      8. VII – Chariot
        • acknowledging the divinity
        • linking/connection with the divinity
        • unstoppable force – divine (chariot)
        • effortless, letting the Divine carry you, joining your energy with the energy of the Divine
      9. VII – Adjustment (Justice)
        • Scales, about balance
        • like the 6, about not going back and forth, but instead moving forward in a straight line
        • detach – need to let go of the outcome and remain open to all possibilities; then you are moving in balance
        • if out of balance, create negative Karma
      10. IX – Hermit
        • on the Chariot, moving in balance – NOW need for quiet
        • about waiting and being in the silence, receptive
        • about aloneness – being comfortable with the self
        • being authentic self in the silence
        • listening to self
      11. X – Wheel of Fortune
        • on the outside
        • habit of repeating the same things on the Wheel
        • keep repeating mistakes and patterns
        • "get off the wheel of habits and jump into the centre"
        • break the patterns – change – surrender and break the patterns
      12. XI – Lust (Strength)
        • surrendering the habits of everyday life releases energy
        • joy, vigour and strength appears
        • here is life!
        • courage
        • action
        • don't fight your desires – can be aware of it – don't necessarily have to act on it
      13. XII – Hanged Man
        • after action and release
        • NOW the need for total surrender and acceptance of lack of control
        • surrender and accept whatever happens
        • letting go of attachments and trusting life, letting go of how you see something so you can see differently
        • seeing you are one with the Web of Existence
        • being willing to sacrifice what you think you "can't live without" because it is what Life demands
      14. XIII – Death
        • result of surrender
        • death of the ego, artificiality
        • death of old patterns, dissolution
        • clearing away for re-birth
        • shedding of the skin of the snake
        • resolving issues around accepting mortality and the inevitability of change
      15. XIV – Art (Temperance)
        • being put back together in a new and more pure way, something new happens; i.e., alchemy leads to gold
        • transformation
        • essence of who you are
        • the authentic self can come forward
        • the union of opposites
      16. XV – Devil
        • our conditioning, patterns, losing our true self
        • confronting the conditioning and buying into how others see you
        • the "shoulds", what other people have told you to do or be
        • repeating patterns that are "false"
        • restricting your true nature
        • represents your conditioning that prevents you from being your true self
        • represents the need to break all taboos in order to become free of conditionings
      17. XVI – Tower
        • total destruction of anything remotely resembling what you think of as your self
        • result of the shattering influence of glimpsing your true inner being
        • for all intents and purposes, the total destruction of self
        • as Death signifies the mortality of the body, the Tower is the mortality of the mind
        • chaos
      18. XVII – Star
        • new beginnings free of old conditionings, purity
        • final purification, cleansing before the most difficult stage
        • clearness of vision
        • resting point before the final journey of awakening
        • hope – realization of potential
        • rest and prepare because there's more to come
      19. XVIII – Moon
        • struggle
        • deepest dark – the dark before the light
        • stick to the narrow path
        • being challenged, a test
        • task is to stay on the path while being challenged
        • "Can I use what I've learned on my journey to stay on the path?"
        • accepting the difficulty of being alive
      20. XIX – Sun
        • enlightenment, transformation, awakening
        • achieved goal
        • connection with the Mystery
        • the light
        • the beginning of the Awakened experience
        • the luckiest and simplest of the Major Arcana
      21. XX – Aeon (Judgment)
        • New Era
        • about being your authentic transformed self
        • vibrating your truth transforms the world
        • responsibility of living your life according to your new consciousness
        • changing the world by living and being your true, transformed self
        • transformed or not it signifies the ability to change the world only by struggling to practice Truth
      22. XXI – Universe
        • the end of one phase and beginning of a New Phase
        • movement
        • connection of self to the divinity
        • awakening to "oneness"
        • celebration
        • a card of options and choices
      23. O – Fool

        At the beginning the Fool is the fool because s/he is ignorant, unaware. At the end, the Fool is the master because s/he has gone through the path of the mystic, achieved awareness . . . and chooses to be the Fool.

    4. Court Cards – The Square Mandala

      In other decks, Princess could be Page, Prince could be Knight, Knight could be King

      • Top row, left to right: Princess of Wands, Prince of Wands, Queen of Wands, Knight of Wands
      • Next row down: Cups in same order
      • Then Swords
      • Bottom row Disks
      Can also be placed on the Tree of Life: Kings with Chokmah, Queens with Binah, Princes with Tiphareth, Princesses with Malkuth

      • Represent people – self and/or others.
      • Represent the balance of the elements within you.
      • Are the elements complementing each other or in conflict? Depends on dignities.
      • Represent process from spirit to material realization.
      • Each card has two elements. The suit determines which element is dominant. However, the non-dominant element represents the deeper and perhaps truer element.
      • The greater intangible and the lesser tangible are generally good complements.

      1. Knight (Fire): Greater Intangible or Masculine, active

        • represents the initial action or appearance of an element
        • about being a catalyst – bringing idea forward
        • on a horse moving
        • swift, abrupt
        • since fire, quick moving energy

          1. Fire of Fire (Knight of Wands)
            lightening – impulsive, unpredictable*
          2. Fire of Water (Knight of Cups)
            rains and springs
          3. Fire of Air (Knight of Swords)
            wind, storm, inspiration without reflection, clever
          4. Fire of Earth (Knight of Disks)
            mountains, violent pressure
      2. Queen (Water): Greater Tangible or Feminine, passive

        • sits on a throne – receives and transmits energy from the Knight but not the final product
        • power of transmission
        • takes action through others
        • intuition, sends it to the Prince
          1. Water of Fire
            rainbow, fluid, calm authority, persistent energy
          2. Water of Water
            deep pool, powers of reception and reflection, patience
          3. Water of Air
            stern vibrations
          4. Water of Earth
            nurturing fields, quiet passivity

      3. The Prince and Princess are born from the union of the Queen and the Knight
      4. Prince (Air): Lesser Intangible or Masculine, active

        • in a chariot going forth to carry out combined energy of parents, active results of the union
        • manifestation, "middle management"
        • gets things done
          1. Air of Fire
            sun, steady but ephemeral force of energy
          2. Air of Water
            storm, rain, beautiful and volatile
          3. Air of Air
            clouds, power of mind without definite purpose
          4. Air of Earth
            plains, steady bearing of life, meditative, great energy brought to bear on most solid of practical matters, the spirit of enterprise
      5. Princess (Earth): Lesser Tangible or Feminine, passive

        • Final action – ultimate issue of the original energy in its completion It exists only to be acted upon. Dense.
          1. Earth of Fire
            bright but powerless flame
          2. Earth of Water
            like the water below the earth, asleep and full of dreams
          3. Earth of Air
            fixation of the volatile materialization of idea, the storm on the earth, destructive
          4. Earth of Earth
            the force of nature, strong but dangerous and undifferentiating

    The Knight represents the initial action or appearance of the element. The Queen takes the action and gets others to carry it out. The Prince bridges the gap between the thinkers and the doers, and the Princess is the final product of the initial action. Think of the characters as a stage in the action from initial appearance to completion – as active and providing impulse, or passive and doing something with the action or impulse to make it happen.

*Inspiration for the nature metaphors used in describing the court cards comes from Aleister Crowley's Book of Thoth.

Crowley, Aleister; The Book of Thoth
Regardie, Israel; The Golden Dawn
Shah, Idries; The Sufis