Distilling the Essence of Tarot

This is the article I had published in Tarosophist International issue 12 under the title ‘The Tarot Machine’, and I’ve been wanting to repost it here for quite some time. I originally wished to make it longer, so I hope to create a second part to it soon.

The issue has many great articles from great authors, so pick up a copy if you’re wanting something to add to your Tarot library!

If there was a machine named Tarot, what would be at the heart of it? Inside its engine belts and gears would spin ceaselessly in response to our curiosity, moving through fantastic patterns and dizzying algorithms, making undreamt connections to answer all our questions. But what would give wisdom to this mechanical oracle, how would it know the deck when it can neither see the cards or know the words?

Crawling inside you might get lost looking at all the unlikely relationships between element and number, shades of meaning being generated and forgotten as quickly as the questions that inspired them. But seeing the extravagant logic of the gears and switches you might get a question that you may as well ask whenever you buy a new deck off the shelf: What makes Tarot what it is, if it isn’t just a pack of cards?

To get to the essence of anything, it is helpful to strip away all our variables. In our machine, this would be to remove the decorations, any superfluous functions. For our deck of cards, this means taking away all the names and elaborate pictures we are so fond of and familiar with, leaving us with an essential deck. Several questions arise: What do we call the Suits, if we can’t name or draw them? Also, how do we tell apart our court cards if we can’t see or read which member of the court they are meant to be? Finally, what about the Fool in decks where he isn’t given a number?

The suits are simply four categories, so any quaternity may be used to distinguish them. I think the most cross-cultural one might be the four elements water, earth, air, and fire, so they are a safe start. The court cards have a similar solution. Allowing the four roles in the court to be a quaternity mirroring the suits you get 16 cards, every one having a primary element from the suit, and a secondary element in from their role. You may’ve heard language like ‘The Queen of Wands is the Water of Fire’ before, that is using the same basic principle: Assigning each role in the court an Element.

In decks which don’t number the fool you would reduce it to a blank card with this method. Using pips on the cards to describe numbers on all the cards, this would become zero, which would group it with the trumps.

Now that we have invented a very boring, reductionist Tarot, we are ready to begin examining its essential structure. The Tarot machine has had every scrap of decoration removed, every mechanism simplified to its basic function. Despite the lack of flavor, our seventy eight cards are still with us and have access to all the meaning they had before, but how?

Looking at the deck, it is made of three principle parts: The Trumps are pure number, the court cards are pure element, and the minor arcana are exactly a combination of the two. Twenty two number cards, sixteen element cards, and forty cards which are both – that is all.

Comfort with numerology and the elements would be a must for using this deck, but as far as principles go, we have found the heart of our Tarot machine. The magic is in the connections among and between element and number, alchemical processes combining and quantifying elements and ratios according to basic universal principles. Beyond being a neat perspective, this essential view of the deck can be a vital tool for finding new meaning in the cards, getting a stuck reading flowing, understanding other perspectives, and making extremely creative connections between cards.

Decoupling the concept of a particular card from any of the specialized images, names, or meanings associated with it, the Tarot emerges as a basic natural mystery, governed by universal laws. Each card becomes an elusive and extensible truth unto itself, with every version of that card in every deck around the world unfolding the possible ways to experience and describe that truth a little bit more.

One thought on “Distilling the Essence of Tarot

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