It was my custom at the beginning of each new class in learning to read the Tarot to ask each person, as they came in to join the group, to tell us about how they first came across the cards.
Many people, myself included, were first introduced to the Tarot by someone who had a pack and tried them out at a party, or perhaps after a dinner party; we became intrigued, tried it out ourselves and ended up by buying a pack.
Other people were given a pack by a friend or a relative for Christmas or their birthday - something nice to have round the house. A third group of people wander into a shop, perhaps a little bored or perhaps with money to burn in their pockets; they notice a pack on a shelf, and suddenly remember vaguely that this is something they've heard about. So they buy a pack and take it home to try it out.
We open the pack, and out come the shiny plastic-finished new cards, with their quaint drawings and curious names. Some packs come with a big, beautifully illustrated coffee-table book, but most come with a little slip of paper which attempts to tell you in 500 words or so exactly what it is all about. They will give a meaning to all the cards, perhaps one or two spreads, and now it is up to us.
After each card, the little slip of paper will list a number of meanings, such as:
EMPRESS: Action, plan, undertaking, abundance, growth, beauty, success, creation, motherhood, a benefactress.
PRIESTESS: Intuition, supportive female force, wisdom, understanding, passion, the woman of one's life, helpfulness.
If you are faced with such a choice of ideas about each card, and moreover, if some of the meanings given to one card don't look all that different from the meanings mentioned under another card, then there's bound to be some confusion.
At this point, a lot of people give up; they would prefer to wait till they come across a book, or a person, who does know. But other people try using the cards, and picking one of the meanings given to the card they are talking about. It seems to work quite well, and so they carry on. But all the time they feel a little unsure, and they are looking for some way of finding a more authoritative version; after all, no one can expect a miracle from a little slip of paper written by some hack working for a pittance doled out by a commercial printer of playing cards.
One day or another, the novice comes across a book on the subject. These days, most public libraries have at least one book on the subject, and many have several. Suburban book shops offer several to the interested public - some are beautifully illustrated books with many pictures and photographs, but expensive. Others are cheap paperbacks, with cruder line drawings, but with more words. If you really start looking, then you will find anything up to thirty or forty books currently in print.
All of them will give you a history of the cards - we have seen in the first section of this book how accurate and how relevant that is. They then start to give the meanings of the cards, usually going into great detail about the Major Arcana, less so for the Minor. Finally, they finish up with some typical spreads. When these books talk about the meanings of the cards, they will liberally sprinkle the text with words like 'usually', 'generally', 'traditionally' and 'customarily'. The more heavy-weight types will devote a chapter or so to each card of the Major Arcana, with lots of ideas drawn from Roman, Greek, Babylonian and other mythologies; they will talk about witchcraft, matriarchy or alchemy. At the end of five or so pages about, say, the Empress, the reader is now thoroughly confused. The light-weight books generally solve that particular problem by providing a little resume of the principal ideas associated with each card; now we are back to our little list given with the pack of cards.
But there is one significant difference - the meanings given don't look anything like the first list. What is worse, each book will differ from every other one. Some of the ideas match, but too many differ.
The novice gets more and more uncertain, and eventually puts down the book with the idea of taking it up later on in life. Life's too short to spend it on following up some complicated and ambiguous book.
There are specialist books on the subject which try to collect all the various ideas on the meanings. They either describe, or show pictures of, all the different packs in existence; they also set down all the different meanings given by different authorities. As a piece of historical research, this shows that a lot of effort has been made. But it does not leave the reader any the wiser. If the purpose of making this collection (or of any collection) is to show how persistent the scholar or collector has been, how patient he has been over the years, then we can admire that patience, that persistence. But that still doesn't help us to understand the purpose of the cards.
Confusion still reigns. The number of books grows steadily year by year, and each book adds to the confusion. Some are considered more accurate or better researched; these will become standard reference works, and perhaps the hope is that if enough people spend enough time then eventually the result will be that the original esoteric knowledge is very closely approximated. It is just a matter of working on it.
I think the amount of work and the number of words devoted to the subject is magnificent; but I don't think it is relevant. It is rather as if we started to study literature by spending more and more time putting together dictionaries and writing textbooks on grammar. Yet if we look at any of the big names in literature, we notice that in fact they are the ones who decided the spelling and the grammar (of which more later). While there are schools of creative writing, real down-to-earth full-time writers will usually tell you that they learned to write by doing, by practising ways of setting down words and sending them in to editors till one day some kind person bought the piece. At times the ideas of the writers are so interesting, that the grammar and the spelling don't matter too much.
To quote the standard expression:
'Larst week I coodn't spell orther, now I are one'
As more and more teachers are beginning to realize, and to put into practice, writing (and for that matter painting or any other art form) is about the expression of ideas that are fresh and real, and not the setting out correctly of approved standard forms.
When applied to the Tarot, this means that in my opinion the cards are to be used to convey some of the feelings and ideas, arising out of our unconscious and subconscious, to another person. In order to do this, we will have to understand that using the cards is a way of doing things rather like riding a bicycle - something that can be learned but not taught.
To take the analogy further, what I suspect has happened is that as each person learned to ride his bicycle, he described the way that he himself learned as the standard method applicable to everyone. Yet it is the bicycle riding that is important, not the way to learn to ride a bicycle.
It was precisely the bewildering number of 'standard' definitions and the conflicts, ambiguities and vague ideas which set me on the whole trail of learning to understand the Tarot. In a sense the material in the section of the book that follows is a recapitulation of my own progress in learning. So here follows some background material which I hope you will have the tenacity to follow; if it proves difficult, remember I couldn't even find another person to follow.